Jeff knew the
day had been going too well. He'd actually been able to leave work early
for once. Neither public nor private sides of N-Tek had any crises requiring
his attention. Most of his agents were training or on very routine missions.
And Team Steel, who could turn even a routine mission into a global threat,
was on two-week light duty following its last assignment. He'd thought
it was a perfect opportunity to have dinner with his son, whom he rarely
saw outside of work anymore. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, he'd found the answer to that. Or more specifically, JOSH had found it-- Jeff's college yearbook. Currently the younger man was flipping through the pages, occasionally laughing or making some comment about the state of the world in 1972.
Suddenly Josh's eyebrows shot up. "Wow, Dad... I can't believe it. You had HAIR!" Flipping the book around, he indicated a picture of Jeff with a full Afro. Jeff buried his face in his hands.
"Yes, well, just remember where the stress that resulted in LOSING it came from," he shot back, a small smile playing around his lips. Josh just laughed and continued to page through the book. Then he stopped, frowning slightly.
"You and Jim were roommates in college?" he asked, looking up. "I never knew that."
For a moment, Jeff was speechless. Dear Lord... have I really told him so little about his father? With an internal wince, Jeff saw that was the case. He'd never liked talking about Jim... even now, sixteen years later, the wounds hurt too much. Josh had been perceptive even as a child, and Jeff realized now that his son had never asked.
Everything he knows about Jim, he learned from Marshak. Jeff shook his head. Josh deserved better than that, especially from him. Taking the yearbook from Josh, Jeff paged through it, eyes far away. Then, shutting the book, he sat back in his chair.
"I first met Jim McGrath in September of 1971. It was my freshman year of college, at Del Oro University..."
pushed open the door to his dorm room and stopped dead. His roommate had
obviously moved in before him, that much was certain. Fully one half of
the room was covered in sports equipment and memorabilia, from football
pads to baseball gear. There was a basketball peeking out from under one
of the desks, roller skates hanging from a bedpost, and Jeff was pretty
certain he could see a tennis racket leaning in one of the corners. For
a long moment, Jeff simply stared at the scene before him.
Great. I'm rooming with a jock. This is going to be a very long year. With a sigh, Jeff began to unpack.
It didn't take very long for Jeff to get all his possessions stored, and he noted with some amusement that his still-absent roommate had claimed exactly half of the room with his own possessions. The precision surprised him. Not that his roommate seemed sloppy, though. All of the sports gear seemed fairly organized. There was simply so much of it that it took up all the available space. The delineation between the two sides was obvious, and Jeff hoped that wasn't an omen.
A commotion in the hall caught Jeff's attention, and he looked up just in time to see a stranger enter the room. He was white, though it was hard to tell under all the mud and grime coating him. About six feet tall, he was somewhat lanky, though he had a fair amount of muscle. Jeff could well believe this man played all the sports indicated by the equipment in his room. From beneath the layer of dirt, intelligent dark eyes sized up Jeff, his clothing, and the small second-hand library on his desk.
"Name's Jim McGrath," the newcomer announced. "I'm assuming you're my new roommate? I'd shake your hand, but..." Jim indicated his state of cleanliness with a grimace.
Jeff nodded. "That's fine. Yeah, if this is your room, I'm your roommate. Jefferson Smith."
"Nice to meet you," Jim replied, crossing to pick up the football pads that rested on the bed. Suddenly a much larger, but equally filthy, man stuck his head in the door.
"Come on, McGrath, get your pads and let's go! The Coach is gonna have our asses if we're late!"
"Yeah, yeah, keep your shirt on, I'm coming." Tipping a salute at Jeff, he dashed out the door. Jeff watched him go, shaking his head.
Yeah, this is DEFINITELY going to be a long year, Jeff sighed. Picking up a book, he collapsed onto his bed.
The book in front
of him was suddenly slammed shut, causing Jeff's head to snap up as he
blinked in startlement. "What the hell did you do that for?" he demanded,
glaring at his roommate.
"Put the book up, Smith," Jim drawled, leaning against Jeff's desk. "We're going out."
"Look, I don't care what you do, but I have a test tomorrow, which means I have to STUDY. Some of us are here on MERIT scholarships, which means we have to keep our grades."
Jim made a hurt face. "First of all, I do have to keep my grades up, even with a football scholarship. Second of all, you're not studying. You've been staring at the same page for almost an hour now. You've been studying all week, and you're not going to do yourself any more good by cramming until you can't see straight. Trust me, I know."
Sighing, Jeff regarded the book lying in front of him. The words WERE all starting to blur together, he had to admit... and relaxing sounded pretty good right about now. He cocked his head to one side as he regarded his roommate. "What do you have in mind?"
"There's this bar I know," Jim replied. "Lot of the guys on the team go there. They do check for ID, so we'll have to get pop, but it's a good place to go, relax, listen to music. Sound good?"
"Sounds great." Without giving himself time to think further, Jeff pushed the book across his desk and stood up, snagging his wallet as he did so. He needed some time to relax if he was going to be able to think straight for the test tomorrow. And it was a weeknight, so the bar should be pretty quiet. What could go wrong?
"I am never going
anywhere with you again," Jeff grumbled, fumbling for his room keys. From
his current position, leaning heavily against the hallway wall, Jim McGrath
"Admit it, you had fun," the smaller man teased.
Jeff shook his head, pushing the door open. "I did, up until the bar fight. What on earth possessed you to pick a fight with THREE men twice your size?"
With a shrug, Jim pushed himself away from the wall, threading an arm around Jeff's neck for support as he limped into the room. "I don't like bigots," he said simply. "Never have."
That remark left Jeff silent as he gently set Jim down on his bed, careful not to jar the other man's sore ribs. Stepping back, he regarded his roommate critically, then shook his head.
"You're gonna look like a sunset, McGrath. Hold on." Opening one of his desk drawers, Jeff rummaged around for a few minutes, finally pulling out a bottle of dark liquid and a washcloth.
Jim cast a sideways glance at the liquid, which Jeff was pouring onto the washcloth. "WHAT is that?" he demanded, edging away.
Shaking his head, Jeff chuckled. "Trust me, you don't want to know. It's my grandmother's secret concoction. She's been using it for years on all the scrapes and bruises that her children and grandchildren get into. If twenty-some Smiths swear by it, I figure it should work for you. It'll make the bruises feel better, trust me."
"Aw, why not?" Jim decided, carefully shucking off his shirt as he accepted the washcloth gingerly. He rubbed himself down with the cloth, wincing as the liquid burned in some of the open scratches. When he had finished, however, he was noticeably less hunched over.
"Hey, that stuff really works," he commented, handing Jeff the washcloth back. Jeff grinned.
"Smith family recipe works every time." Tossing the washcloth back in its drawer, Jeff regarded his book, then shook his head and flopped down on his bed. Jim lay back as well, flipping off the light.
In the darkness, Jeff's voice was unusually soft. "Hey, Jim... thanks."
Jim grinned, a flash of white in the dim room. "Don't mention it. You've got a pretty good right hook yourself, Smith... not to mention being handy with a beer bottle."
"Don't remind me... if my mother ever finds out I broke a beer bottle over that man's head..."
That got a laugh from Jim. "Go to sleep," he ordered. "You've got a test tomorrow." And with that, he was out cold, oblivious to Jeff's good-natured grumbling from the other side of the room.
"You would think,
after three years rooming with you, I'd have built up some type of defense
against those damn eyes of yours," Jeff grumbled, following Jim to the
auditorium. His roommate laughed.
"No one escapes the McGrath Puppy Eyes, Smith. They're genetic. My dad used to use them to get out of trouble. You never had a chance."
Jeff shook his head. "God help us all if you ever breed."
"Come on, Jeff. It's one little speech, extra credit for my business course. I just want some company; these things can get SO boring."
"Even if you did choose something by the CEO of the local sports equipment company," Jeff teased.
His friend shrugged. "Hey, had to do SOMETHING to make it interesting. N-Tek Sports donates huge amounts of money to the college, and in return they let Nathanson ramble on at the students. Sounds fair to me."
As the two men entered the auditorium, Jim's gaze suddenly fell on a man dressed in maintenance clothes, carrying a black leather tool case. He didn't look any different from the hundred maintenance workers who generally haunted the campus, but something about the way he moved rang false. He seemed a touch too smooth, a bit too nonchalant. As the man ducked up the stairs that led to the balcony, Jim's eyebrows shot up.
"Hey, Jeff? Isn't the balcony closed for renovations?"
"So, what's a maintenance man doing going up there alone, during a speech? Nobody in their right mind would be doing renovation work when somebody's trying to talk."
Jeff sighed. "I dunno, maybe he's just seeing what needs to be done. Jim, where are you going?" This last was demanded as his friend headed for the stairs.
"I'm going to check this out. Something's not right here."
Casting a look at the ceiling, Jeff silently demanded to know WHAT he had done to deserve the headache known as Jim McGrath. Then he sighed once more.
"Hold on, I'm coming with you."
The two men slipped up the stairs like wraiths, almost unconsciously trying to hide any sign of their approach. Jeff found that he had caught Jim's unease, and he didn't want whoever was up there to have any warning they were coming. The logical part of his brain was scoffing at his "cops and robbers" fantasies, but something stronger in the back of his mind was insisting that something very dangerous was going on.
Pausing at the edge of the darkened balcony, Jim had to squint to make out any shapes in the gloom. Once he had, however, he saw the maintenance man kneeling at the front of the balcony, busily screwing together something from the black canvas bag. Beside him, Jim heard Jeff's indrawn breath.
"Bet that's not a vacuum cleaner," Smith whispered.
"You'd win that bet." Jim's father had been a Green Beret, and even after settling down to farm had never completely left the Army behind. As a result, he knew a sniper rifle when he saw one. A quick check confirmed that the balcony offered a perfect shot at the podium where Nathanson would be delivering his speech momentarily.
Pulling Jeff back into the stairwell, Jim addressed his friend in low, urgent tones. "Look, you need to get down there and warn security that they've got a nut in the balcony. Get Nathanson out of the line of fire if you can."
Jeff regarded him in astonishment. "And what are YOU going to do?"
"What I do best." Jim flashed him a brilliant white smile. "Improvise."
"You..." Jeff sighed. "Just get yourself back in one piece, okay?"
Jim's smile widened. "Hey, trust me."
After that, Jeff wanted to leave even less, but he reluctantly turned and headed down the stairs.
Left alone, Jim took a deep breath to clear his head, sizing up the situation. He needed some sort of weapon, not to mention an advantage. His gaze fell on a fire extinguisher attached to the nearby wall and he smiled. Reaching out, he hefted it, pleased to find it nearly full and very heavy. Then he tiptoed towards the man who was still busily assembling his rifle.
"Excuse me." At the sudden voice, no more than a foot from his own ear, the sniper jerked and reflexively turned to face the speaker. Instead, he got a face-full of fire-suppressant foam, quickly followed up with a blow from the canister itself. Dropping the rifle, he staggered backwards, clawing at his eyes.
He managed to clear his vision just in time to see Jim's next punch headed directly at his face. Deftly, he deflected the blow and followed up with one of his own. Jim knocked the sniper's fist aside, following up with a knee strike to the man's gut. Twisting with the blow, the other man managed to avoid the worst of it, using the time to snatch a Bowie knife from a leg sheath.
The blade flickered in the lights from the stage, all the warning Jim had before it darted like lightning for his throat. But his dad hadn't neglected this aspect of his education, either, and Jim faded back out of reach of the strike. The two men circled each other warily, hampered by the lack of open space in the balcony. It was only a matter of time before somebody moved in the wrong direction, and then the fight would be over.
Meanwhile, Jeff was running into his own problems; namely, Chief Sturges, the extremely skeptical head of the Campus Police. "A nut in the balcony with a gun," Sturges echoed. "Okay, Smith, what kind of prank is McGrath playing, and how'd he talk you into it?"
Jeff growled. "This is NOT a joke! There is a man in that balcony with a sniper rifle, with a lovely shot at your guest speaker. Send somebody up there to check it out!"
Before Sturges could make another comment and possibly have Jeff rearrange his teeth, however, a mild, lightly accented voice broke into the conversation.
"Now, now, what seems to be the problem here?" The speaker was a tall man in an expensive suit, with dark brown hair and a light, possibly British accent. He regarded Jeff and Sturges both with inquisitive eyes.
"Nothing to worry about, Mr. Nathanson," Sturges replied, shooting a warning glance at Jeff. "Just a college prank, that's all."
"The hell it is," Jeff snarled, but before he could say more, there was a scream. All three men turned to see the sniper leap from the low balcony down into the aisle. Even as he landed, he was pulling a handgun from behind his back. Grabbing Nathanson, Jeff pulled the man to the ground even as Sturges fumbled for the sidearm he wore.
Suddenly a red fire extinguisher canister bounced off the sniper's head, stunning him and causing him to drop the gun. Instantly, the Campus Police swarmed the would-be assassin.
Looking up into the balcony, Jeff saw Jim leaning against the balcony giving him a weary thumbs-up.
"Good heavens," Nathanson remarked, sitting up gingerly. "Your friend has phenomenal aim."
"He plays a lot of football," Jeff explained, too relieved to care how inane that sounded.
Nathanson nodded. "Ah. In any case, it seems I owe the two of you my life. Tell me- do you have any student loans?"
With a sigh,
Jeff flopped onto the couch. "I don't believe it. We finally graduated."
The clinking of glass heralded Jim's emergence from the kitchen of their small apartment, carrying two bottles of beer. "Four years is not exactly 'finally,' Jeff," the other man replied, handing his friend a bottle. "And I don't know how glad I am about it. Now that we're out of college, we have to get JOBS."
"Don't remind me," the older man groaned. "At least we're starting off with a clean slate." In gratitude for saving his life, Marco Nathanson had paid off all of Jim and Jeff's student loans, plus taking care of their tuition for the remainder of their stay in college. The cushion was a godsend for both men, neither of whom came from wealthy families.
"Speaking of our benefactor, he called while you were out. He says he has jobs to offer both of us... interested?"
Jeff peered out from under the arm he had flung over his face. "Not like we've got any other prospects... but I wonder what we could do at a sports equipment manufacturer?"
Jim shrugged. "Don't know until we ask... meeting's at ten o'clock tomorrow. Better iron your suit." He ducked as Jeff hurled a pillow at his head.
"Can you believe
this place has its own ISLAND?" Jim whispered, as he and Jeff entered the
N-Tek Corporate Headquarters. "They must really be raking in the dough."
Jeff's only response was an absent nod. He was a bit more preoccupied with the unobtrusive security he could see all around them. It was a ridiculous amount of security for a sports equipment manufacturer, even a highly successful one. His spine was itching; something was a bit off here. One glance at Jim told him that his friend sensed it as well.
The receptionist quickly checked their names in her book, then smiled and waved them towards the elevators, telling them that Nathanson's office was on the seventh floor. As the two men boarded the elevators, they caught a glimpse of lobby security. From the way they stood, Jeff would have bet money they were carrying weapons.
"Last chance to go back down, leave, and never look back," Jeff remarked, once the door slid closed. "I think we may be getting in over our heads here."
"Are you kidding? I want to know what's going on here," Jim replied. "We can't leave yet."
Jeff sighed. "I was afraid you'd say that. Your curiosity is going to get us both killed someday."
His friend's only response was a wide smile.
Nathanson's office was large, well-furnished, and to Jeff's relief, held a noticeable absence of armed men. As the secretary showed the two young men in, the CEO looked up from the report he was reading and smiled.
"Ah, Mr. McGrath, Mr. Smith, thank you for coming. Miss Colson, would you bring our guests some coffee?" Nathanson asked, standing.
"Of course, Mr. Nathanson," the secretary smiled. "How do you gentlemen prefer your coffee?"
"Sugar and cream, please," Jeff replied.
"Black, thank you," was Jim's response. The dark-haired woman made a face, but left.
A few minutes later, she returned with three steaming mugs of coffee. Handing one to her boss, she passed the other two to Jim and Jeff, then excused herself. Jim took a sip of the contents of his mug, and his eyes closed as he let out a pleased rumble.
"THAT is good coffee," he declared. Nathanson looked gratified.
"A rare Brazilian blend that a friend sent to me. Are you a connoisseur of coffee, Mr. McGrath?"
Jeff snorted, leading Jim to elbow him in the side. "Not a connoisseur, exactly, but I know a good cup of coffee when I drink it."
"Mainly because he's had so many BAD ones from the school cafeteria," Jeff replied, taking a sip of his own. Jim was right, it WAS good, though he wasn't so much of an addict as his friend.
Nathanson smiled. "A man who can appreciate a good cup of coffee is a jewel beyond price," the older man mused. "However, I think perhaps it's time we discussed the reason I asked you both to come today. A year and a half ago, the two of you saved my life from a would-be assassin. I am, of course, grateful, but more to the point, I realized you were both intelligent, courageous, and capable of thinking on your feet. In short, you are exactly the type of men I need here at N-Tek."
"At a sports equipment company?" Jeff's tone was wary.
"Not... exactly. The sports equipment is only a façade, though of course, it is a fully functional business. The true purpose of N-Tek is somewhat different."
The older man looked grave. "You remember, of course, the situation at the Olympic games three years ago?"
Jim made a face. "I think everybody remembers that. Terrorists taking athletes hostage-- probably one of the biggest tragedies of our time."
"Exactly." Nathanson's nod was sharp. "The world is changing, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse. Terrorism, rather than war, is rapidly becoming the preferred means of securing power, wealth, and territory. Technological advances are making it a much more efficient choice. If our society is to survive this period, we must rise to meet the terrorist threat, with a specially tailored force to combat it. For this reason, I founded N-Tek.
"We are chartered by the United Nations, rather than any particular government. This eliminates any political elements to what we do. We stop terrorists-- no more complicated than that. And I think both of you would be excellent N-Tek operatives.
"Of course, N-Tek operates in secret-- no one knows exactly what we do. Should you accept, both of you will be given cover jobs with N-Tek's public side. Mr. McGrath, we'd probably have you in product testing, and I think something in marketing for Mr. Smith. Those would, of course, simply be cover jobs... though you might be asked to actually fill in occasionally. If you decide you don't wish to join N-Tek as agents, the jobs in the public sector ARE still open. And if you choose to walk away completely, I only ask that you not breathe a word of what you have learned here today." Nathanson fell silent then, regarding Jim and Jeff expectantly.
Jeff couldn't believe what he was hearing. Secret agents, terrorists; it was ridiculous, like something out of a kid's cartoon. Even if it WAS real, and he had to admit it looked like it was, it would be an insane risk. There was no way he was going to do this. Then he looked over at Jim.
His friend was sitting on the edge of his seat, vibrating with a barely suppressed energy. Jim's dark eyes sparkled, and he wore a half-smile, the same damn smile he'd worn just before going mud-sledding down the largest hill on campus on a tray stolen from the cafeteria. Jeff sighed.
"All right, Mr. Nathanson," Smith agreed, "it looks like you've got a deal."
"And so Jim and
I became field agents, partners. We worked together for four years. Then
I got promoted and Jim got married... five years after that was--"
"The explosion," Josh finished. That much of the past, at least, he knew.
Jeff settled back in his chair, gaze thoughtful. "You know, I haven't thought about any of this in years. Never wanted to push at the wounds and find out they hadn't healed after all."
"I know this wasn't easy for you, Dad. But... thanks."
"Any time, son. Any time."
Be on the lookout for the conclusion to Bookends, coming soon.