Wiseguy:

Author's notes:

This is the first full-length story in an arc that spans a three year period in one possible future for our heroes. My thanks to my Beta reader, Dawnwind, for her encouragement and commentary, as well as her medical expertise. You are encouraged to join her in the feedback loop. My thanks for any critiques you may wish to give. Please note this and the rest of the stories in this arc are in chronological order, from late 1997 to 2001

Rating: R for language, violence. If you find content of this nature offensive, DO NOT READ THIS!

Spoilers: Well, essentially the entire three year run of the series, prior to Ken Wahl's disappearance from the show. This arc disregards the entire 4th season and the 1996 film, sticking strictly to the original cannon.

Disclaimer: Roger Lococco, Vince Terranova, Frank McPike and the Lifeguard, as well as assorted mobsters, are the property of Steven J. Cannell Productions. I took the liberty of dusting them off and taking them down off their shelf to play with them, since their creators weren't using them at the moment. No disrespect is intended, nor is any profit being made.

Summary: With the passing of Vince's mother, he finds himself rootless and dissatisfied with his job. He considers resigning until his stepfather makes a startling proposal. Events conspire to turn it into an offer he can't refuse, and he finds himself in over his head when an old enemy returns to threaten his cover – and his life. With Roger Lococco's help, he settles an old score and together, they embark on the most dangerous undercover operation of their lives.

Wiseguy:

End Game Arc IV - Jan. 21st-Feb. 14th 1998

The Proposal

McPike closed the report cover slowly, not at all happy with what it said. He had been praying for a reason — any reason — to let this die a quiet death. The mental and physical exams had shown a man fit and in his prime, perhaps understandably depressed over the death of his last remaining family member, but otherwise stable. Despite every instinct that shouted of the risk, McPike had no choice but to take it up the ladder. He picked up his phone. "Melody, get me Director Beckstead," he requested.

The call was put through and Beckstead answered with gratifying speed. "Frank, what's up?"

"We have a situation, Paul. An agent has been approached about ranking placement with the Brooklyn mob."

"Which agent? Who's recruiting?" came the terse inquiry.

McPike pursed his lips, hesitating long enough to generate a prompt from Beckstead.

"Frank?"

"Terranova." McPike said at last. "His stepfather has offered to put him into Brod and Castellano's territory as a... Trojan Horse."

Beckstead didn't miss the implication. "You mean Aiuppo knows Vince is an agent?"

Frank could hear the flatness in Beckstead's voice, knowing it portended an explosion of massive proportions. "Yes, sir. He has apparently known for over eight years."

"Jesus Christ!" came the epithet. "Is there anyone who doesn't know who Vince is?"

"As far as I know, the only ones who do are you, me, Vinnie's lifeguard and the old don." Frank was grimly matter-of-fact. "And if the old man has kept it quiet this long, I don't think he's likely to start spreading it around. I've had Vince set a meet with the old geezer. I think we'd both better be there to hear what he has to say."

"When and where?" was the brusque response.

***************************************

Christmas, and then New Year's, had long since come and gone before the battery of physical and psychological tests had been competed to McPike's satisfaction. Now, finally, he had agreed to the meeting with Aiuppo. The last of Vinnie's bridges was burning behind him, and he felt nothing except a dull sort of relief that something was actually happening at last.

Vince had not seen Tracy since the night he had spent with her, nor had he spoken with her. His only contact with her had been a bare handful of e-mails The memory of her was a sharp ache under his sternum, a pain that wouldn't ease. He could not bring himself to tell McPike that yet another person was privy to the secret of his identity. The arguments it would generate were more than he could face. He had persuaded Lifeguard that Tracy was no threat, that no one was aware they had even met. He prayed that that would end the matter.

He held the door of the Lincoln open for Rudy, helping the old man into the limo. Getting Aiuppo's regular driver to relinquish the wheel for the afternoon had taken considerable persuasion on Rudy's part. Only the argument that a private family conference was in order between Vince and Aiuppo had made any impact on the burly muscle. Vince admired the personal loyalty Aiuppo seemed able to generate in his retainers. He had watched the old don's careful politicking, the family meals that included the most lowly of hirelings, the familiarity with which Rudy spoke to them, the small gestures that reinforced his leadership. If things went as he expected, these were skills he would need himself.

Rudy leaned back into the leather upholstery. "What is wrong, Vincenzo?" he asked into the silence.

"Nothing," Vince said shortly.

"So that is why you have hardly said two words to me in a month," Aiuppo observed with a hint of cynicism.

"It doesn't matter, Rudy."

"Hmm. It does to me. I don't like to see you miserable."

"I'll get over it," Terranova answered.

"I certainly hope so. You are acting like a love-sick teenager."

The old man's perception startled Vince enough to make him laugh involuntarily.

"I thought it must be a woman," Aiuppo said, satisfaction at the success of his guess clear in his voice. "Who is she?"

"Let's not get into that, okay? She has family obligations that don't include me. And the last thing I need right now is to get involved with someone I won't be able to see if this little plan of yours pans out."

"If she had been free to choose, would she have picked you?" Aiuppo pressed the issue.

"Yeah. If she'd been free, we'd've been fighting over who takes out the trash in a nice anonymous suburb somewhere by now."

The don watched the rigid set of Terranova's shoulders as he drove. "I'm sorry, Vinnie." He looked out the windows at the signs of civilization that were gradually giving way to fields and stands of woodland. "I have pushed you into this despite your wish to leave the life. If you truly do not wish for the chance to change things, to try to undo the damage I have caused, I will understand."

"Oh, you played me like a violin, Rudy. You know me well enough to be able to push all the right buttons to get me to do what you want. The problem is, it's not just the guilt trip. It's the only thing that makes sense."

Aiuppo nodded to himself. "Yes it is."

A half-hour later, Vince pulled the big Lincoln onto the dirt road that led to an abandoned airstrip. McPike and Beckstead were waiting, pacing the icy ground impatiently.

"Sorry, Frank. Traffic was heavier than I figured." Vince said as he got out of the car and opened the back door for Aiuppo. Helping the old man out, he made the introductions. "Rudy Aiuppo — my boss, Frank McPike, and the Director of the OCB, Paul Beckstead.

McPike eyed the diminutive old don, vaguely amazed that it was an eye-to-eye experience. Somehow, they always seemed larger through the telephoto lenses he had been accustomed to seeing them through.

"Mr. McPike," Rudy extended a gloved hand, "It is... interesting to meet you in person. Your reputation is formidable. I thought you would be taller."

McPike stifled the irritation he felt at having his own thought aimed back at him by the elderly mobster.

Rudy turned to Beckstead. "You, Mr. Director, I know very little about."

"Good." Beckstead snapped. "That means someone in my department's internal security division is doing their job. Now explain to me how it is that a Mafia don finds himself with an agent of the FBI as a stepson — and why I should believe anything you tell me." He caught Terranova's frown of disapproval, and turned to Vince. "And you can stay the hell out of the conversation."

Aiuppo met the Director's anger calmly. "I married his mother, Mr. Beckstead. She would only have me on the condition that I attempt to make right some of the harm I have caused in my life."

"You'll excuse me if I'm skeptical," Beckstead said cynically.

"Of course. I would be in your position," Aiuppo conceded gracefully. "I have known of Vincenzo's involvement in the OCB from the night of my wedding. I know he was in some way responsible for bringing down Patrice, Mahoney and Steelgrave, though I have not asked him for details. I know he was involved with Mel Profitt, and that he had something to do with the garment trade, as well as bootleg music, all presumably under your auspices. His more recent work I do not know as much about. It has happened outside my sphere of influence. The exception to this would be your work to bring down the Commission after the attempt was made on my life, eight years ago. I have taken my retirement seriously, as I did the promise I made to Vinnie's mother that I would not involve myself in that life. But there is no longer any choice."

Vince stared at the old man in surprise. "You been checking up on me," he said darkly.

"The fact that you are aware of as much of his activity as you are is not exactly improving my mood," Beckstead snapped. "What I want to know is, what is your motive? You've offered Vince a position in your organization that is going to pin a target on his chest, and your lieutenants, among a multitude of others, are going to be spending a lot of energy trying to hit him. If he comes in at a level to actually be able to have any influence over trying to bring all the independents out there into line, he is going to be at considerable risk. Frankly, I doubt the OCB's ability to keep him alive under those conditions. And my primary goal here is to make sure that Vince is not going to come out of this in a coffin."

"There would be great risk," Aiuppo agreed. "But the rewards would also be great. I can offer him some protection, though it is his own wits he will have to rely on. He will not know a moment when he can be sure he is not under observation. It will be hard, dangerous work and you are right. He may not survive. But it is the right thing to do. And I am to old too do it alone."

Beckstead shook his head forcefully. "No. There's something else on your agenda. You may think that every one in civil service has an I.Q. that fits in a shoebox, Mr. Aiuppo. The fact that you're my best field agent's stepfather does absolutely nothing for your argument. You've been mixed up in criminal activity since you got off the goddamned boat! So don't expect me to take your word for the purity of your motives. Until I know exactly what they are, I am not putting one of the best agents I've ever had in that kind of jeopardy." He turned to face Terranova. "This isn't going to fly, Vince. If I can't talk you into the Pacific R.D. position, I'm going to have Frank process your resignation and you are outta here. You'll be relocated somewhere were they've never heard of a Vince Terranova."

Terranova stood, arms crossed defensively, expressionless through all this. "No. Process the resignation, but I'm not letting you drop me down any rabbit holes. Not yet. I have some unfinished business to take care of first."

McPike glared at Vince, then turned to Beckstead. "Paul, are you sure? Because this is an opportunity you're not going to get again. If we can stabilize the situation in New York"

Beckstead was resolute. "Frank, I can't take this any farther with what we've got, and I'm not interested in adding another name to the memorial for fallen agents."

"And you! What unfinished business?" McPike turned back to Vinnie, jabbing a forefinger into his chest.

Vince considered his reply. If he said nothing, it would undoubtedly come back to haunt him, but he wasn't looking forward to the eruption he was about to precipitate. "I met someone, Frank."

"Oh Christ, don't tell me your hormones are kicking in again. This isn't a good time to start thinking with other portions of your anatomy, Vince."

Beckstead was clearly confused. "What are we talking about, here?" he asked in a bid for clarification.

McPike closed his eyes for a split second. "Vinnie's love life."

"More like the lack of it," Vince said with unconcealed bitterness.

"All right, you met someone," McPike repeated. "Who is this paragon? Where did you meet her? And why the hell am I hearing about it now for the first time?!"

"Because I wasn't sure there was any future in it, Frank." Vince went for the last question, knowing he was simply delaying the inevitable. "Until I had a decision from Paul, I didn't know if I had a future. Since it looks like the OCB won't back Rudy's offer, I think I can consider myself free to pursue other things."

"Why am I so sure there's more to this?" McPike eyed him suspiciously. "How long have you been seeing her?"

Vince wasn't quite sure how to answer this. "Strictly speaking, I haven't been. I wasn't going to risk involving her in this. She walked away from it all ten years ago and the last thing I want is to drag her back in. But if I've got my walking papers, who and what she is doesn't matter. Not to the OCB"

"Whoa, there. Nice try, buckaroo. Now I know there's more to this. I want the whole story, Vince. I want it now."

"Is it really any of your business?"

"As long as you're a field agent, it is," Beckstead spoke up, backing McPike. "Vince, your love life is your own business. But when you imply the relationship has mob connections, it becomes my business."

"I ran into her outside the Justice Department seven weeks ago, just before Christmas. I hadn't seen her in ten years." Vince let his arms drop to his sides and began a slow pacing through the slush on the gravel road beside the car. "She recognized me."

"And?" McPike pushed, impatiently, "who is this mystery woman?"

The silence was long, the attention of all three of the older men fixed on Terranova as he paced.

Finally, he paused, looking McPike in the face. His focus was intent, and excluded the other two men completely. "Have you ever had a feeling about someone — a feeling they were meant to be in your life somehow?"

McPike waited. Then realized an answer was required. "Yes. Though not generally the minute I lay eyes on them. You'd better not be talking love at first sight, Vince. Look where it got me and my first wife."

"No, or not exactly. I mean there's the physical thing, sure. But it's more than that. I can imagine a life with her. Something that doesn't involve guns, or badges or visits from the goon squad."

"Her name, Vincent." Beckstead had not lost track of the unanswered question.

Vince sighed and resigned himself to the reaction he was about to get. "Tracy. Tracy Steelgrave."

McPike stood rooted to the spot in utter shock. He was stunned to his nerve endings. He could do nothing but gape at his friend as though Vince had suddenly grown a second head.

"Dave Steelgrave's daughter?" Beckstead inquired, more to refresh his memory than in doubt what the answer would be.

Terranova nodded once.

"She would be a good match for you, Vinnie," Aiuppo commented. "She has the intelligence to keep you interested. And the looks or she did ten years ago."

"Steelgrave?" McPike half choked. "STEELGRAVE?" his hands clenched into fists as he faced down Terranova. "You don't need to be relocated — you need to be COMMITTED!"

Beckstead quickly grasped the fact that McPike was beyond any cogent argument. "All right, Vince, I think you'd better start at the beginning. You said you ran into her outside the D.O.J.?"

Terranova nodded and began his pacing again. "She stopped me on the street. She knew who I was."

"And?" Beckstead prompted.

"I bought her a cup of coffee — "

"And from this, you decide you have a future with the woman?" McPike interjected, white with rage.

"Frank." Beckstead's warning was sharp. "What was she doing at the D.O.J.?" he asked Vinnie.

"Interviewing for a job," Vince said to Beckstead, then continued, his focus on McPike. "She's been working for the Seattle office of the Washington State Attorney General for the past five years. As a prosecutor. Check the records, Frank. She's one of us."

"She's a Steelgrave, Vince!" McPike roared. "She's nothing like us!"

Vince could not stop the step forward he took, nor the reflexive clenching of his fist. Only Aiuppo's hand on his arm stopped him from slugging McPike. "You arrogant little bastard, for you the world is so cut and dried she's poison simply by virtue of her name. She was born with it, Frank. She didn't choose it! What she chose is the law. Like you. Like me. Check her convictions, Frank. She's put away a half dozen high-level connected guys, among others. You are wrong about her. Totally and completely wrong. But you? Question your knee-jerk preconceptions? Not you. Frank McPike is never wrong." Terranova twisted away from Rudy's grasp, his pacing resumed. "You've never even met the woman, Frank. You have no right to judge her."

Beckstead rubbed the back of his neck, trying to relieve the tension there. Do you think she'll go with you?"

"Not yet," Vince admitted reluctantly. "Her mother is dying. She can't leave."

"So in the mean time, while you hang around in the slender hope of making a life with her, you are still being seen in close proximity to a ranking mob boss, whose heirs are going to start to get anxious about the time you spend with him." Beckstead's voice betrayed his concern. "Vince, every day you remain in your stepfather's vicinity, the more likely someone in the city is going to start feeling threatened by you. There's already a bad enough case of nerves in Brooklyn."

McPike, with the certainty of long friendship, knew what Vinnie had yet to confess. "You blew your cover to her. Didn't you?" he could hear the resignation in his voice as he met Terranova's angry blue gaze. "You'd never get involved with a civilian who didn't know who you really were. You can't live with the lie."

"No. I can't. And neither could she. I couldn't ask a woman who'd walked away from everything in her life in order to start over again to walk back into the mob." Vince took a deep breath. "She'd never accept me as a wiseguy. As a cop, she might."

Aiuppo nodded to himself. "You are a wise man, Vinnie. Family love, these are more important to you than power. I was too foolish to make that choice when I was young. It cost me forty years I could have spent with the woman I loved. Your Director is right. You can't be seen with me any longer."

Beckstead narrowed his eyes, reassessing the old don.

"We must appear to have argued again. If you can't help me, you must leave New York before my men take matters into their own hands." Aiuppo's tone left no room for argument. "Either you must accept the role of my chosen heir and face them, or you must flee. Since your FBI will not let you face them, you must flee."

Vinnie looked at him askance. This was new, and warning bells were being tripped all over his nervous system. They were all the more urgent because he could see the weakening of Beckstead's distrust of the old man. Aiuppo's game was deeper than he had even begun to suspect. Very suddenly he found himself cut off from the tentative affection for Rudy that had begun to grow again, so badly damaged in their last conflict, coming face to face with the cunning and sheer skill of his stepfather's brinkmanship.

Beckstead nodded reluctantly. "He's right, Vince," he agreed. "You have to distance yourself from the situation if you're going to stop ramping up the blood pressure of every hood left in the city. Especially if you aren't going to walk away."

"You're not leaving the life if you aren't leaving, Vinnie." McPike's voice was unutterably weary. "You can resign from the Bureau, but the only way out of the mob is either dead, or in witness protection. And make no mistake, my friend, you are in the mob."

"Thank you for the news flash, Frank," Vinnie's reply dripped sarcasm.

"Look," McPike said dully, "as long as you refuse witness protection, I'm not putting through your resignation. You are not going to be running around in my territory without whatever protection the OCB can give you. And I can't use Bureau resources to cover you if you aren't on the payroll."

Vince cast a long look at McPike. Slowly, some of the stiffness in his bearing softened. "Thanks, Frank," he said.

Beckstead shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Vincent, I want you out of New York, at least. We can always hope that out of sight means out of mind with these people."

Aiuppo's snort of disagreement focused attention on him. "I am afraid the opposite is more likely, Mr. Beckstead. If Vinnie disappears suddenly, it will raise more questions than it will provide answers. You must let us handle this. We will begin to disagree publicly and within a matter of a few weeks, Vinnie will be able to leave the city without raising an eyebrow."

"Alright, we'll give this little soap opera of yours two weeks, tops. I want you out of New York by then, Vince. Period. End of discussion." Beckstead spoke with the air of a man who had made a decision that didn't particularly agree with him. "And I want the particulars on Ms. Steelgrave on my desk by tonight, Frank," he added to McPike.

Frank's shoulders rose toward his ears with a shiver. "They'll be there."

Vinnie watched the old man in the rearview mirror. "Beckstead was right," he said at last. "You've got something on your plate that you aren't sharing with the rest of us."

Aiuppo met his stepson's eyes in the rearview mirror for a long moment. "I have gained credibility in Beckstead's eyes only to lose it in yours?" he asked with irony.

"Talk to me, Rudy," Vince's impatience was unmistakable.

"My reasons are as I have told you. I betrayed one family to save another, and now an entire city stands at the edge of chaos I sworn oaths that I have broken. I must do what I can before I die to make it right, Vinnie."

"That's not the only thing on your agenda, or you'd have done something about it before now," Vince shook his head slightly in negation.

"I made a promise to your mother, Vincenzo, to protect you. To help you in your work. And I did that. I should have known that nothing is ever simple that an action always has consequences you cannot foresee. And now, in some ways, the problems are worse than they were before I betrayed the Commission. This was the only way I could see to try to keep my promise to her, and to redeem my oath to la famiglia." The old man leaned wearily back against the seat, glancing out of the darkened window at the approaching city. "And I am too old to keep either of those promises by myself, Vinnie. I need your help."

Vinnie's reply was skeptical. "Maybe so, Rudy, but whatever it is you're not telling me is something you're not sure she would have let you get away with."

Aiuppo's grin was wry. "You are every bit as bright as your mother," he replied, looking out the window at the passing scenery without seeing any of it. "Carlotta believed that a family was among the most important things in life, Vincenzo. So do I. But my family was once larger than just you"

Vinnie's eyes narrowed speculatively. "You mean the mob."

"Yes. I don't expect you to understand this, Vince, it wasn't the way you were brought up. But these men, all of them, are like brothers to me. Sons. It was my hope that by helping you, I could find a way to help them. Rebuild what has been eroded by greed and shortsightedness and lack of leadership. You are a man with enough vision — and enough strength — to return them to what we originally stood for. It was never simply about the money. It was about protecting our families. When we immigrated here, we were treated as second class citizens. I see it happening with the new immigrants, too, Vinnie. The Hispanics, the Asians, the Russians, all are falling into the same trap we did. We chose the way of the knife because it was fast. Easy. It ensured that our families would be left in peace."

"Yeah, and you've all spent the last sixty or seventy years killing each other, you and your so-called brothers, over who gets the biggest place at the table." Vince retorted. "What the hell sort of vision does that take? How does that help your families?"

"It doesn't." Aiuppo agreed, then continued. "We are both pragmatists, Vinnie. The presence of wolves is a given. There will always be those who prey on the weak. The trick is, finding someone stronger than them to keep them in check. To limit the damage they can do. That is the role I hoped to place you in. You don't see it. You haven't yet been tested. But you could lead these men, Vincenzo. I am as certain of this as I have ever been of anything."

"What exactly did you think I'd be doing? Giving them the keys to the city?"

"No. It was my hope that you would choose from among the ones who would come to you a cadre of new blood. That you would teach them that limits have their place. That you would leash the worst of our violent impulses."

Vince's laugh was cynical. "A messiah for a kinder, gentler Mafia," he mocked.

"You would have to accept that by leaving them in place part of your work as a policeman would be left undone. But the greater work, that of protecting the people from the real wolves, would be done. And with the FBI placed throughout the mob, it would protect us from the wolves within our own organization."

Vinnie felt a cold shiver trickle down his back. "It sounds like standard U.S. foreign policy to me. Set up a petty dictator we can control so that someone else's resources fall into our laps," he remarked, the cynicism still coloring his voice. He had never expected to encounter a situation that reminded him so strongly of the one he had found himself on the fringes of during the collapse of a coup on a small island nation in the Caribbean basin. This, he realized, must have been akin to what Roger Lococco felt when he realized his skills as a soldier would have been used not to win freedom for an oppressed populace, but to win them greater exploitation. "Thanks but no thanks, Rudy. I'm not your man."

"No, not now. Not yet. But I suspect you would have become him. There are things you would have discovered about yourself: sometimes, a small sin prevents a greater one."

Vince lay on his back staring at the ceiling at the wind-whipped shadows cast by the street lamp outside his bedroom window. He felt claustrophobic, trapped in a city and a life that had become suddenly burdensome. He ached for the feel of Tracy's body against his own, longed for a life unencumbered by his own past. He had never thought he would get to the point that walking away from his life would be his only option. Yet in hind-sight, he was at a loss to see any other end to his career. He had been too deeply involved with the East Coast crime families to have any other choice. He needed to get away, both to distance himself from Rudy, and to try to piece together some sort of plan for the future.

Thoughts of Lococco rose unbidden in his mind. It had been months since he'd spoken to Roger and longer since he'd seen him. He hoped the fragile peace Lococco seemed to have found was still in place. The life he had made for himself in the northern California wine country was not one Vince would have predicted for his temperamental friend, but it appeared to suit Lococco like a second skin.

The last time he had seen Roger, it had been during the pursuit of the case he'd worked in Silicon Valley. Lococco had willingly let Vinnie avail himself of the high-powered connections he, Roger, had made in the San Francisco Bay Area to insert himself into the thieves' universe.

Vince had not included Roger in his reports, knowing that while McPike might tolerate the presence of active civilian help, Beckstead would not. The fact that Roger had had more training in covert ops — not to mention the use of deadly force — than any FBI agent ever received would not have factored into Beckstead's refusal to permit an independent into the game. There was also the concern that if any of the C.I.A.'s paid assassins were still gunning for Lococco, having his name turn up in a Federal database would lead them straight to him.

Terranova quelled the urge to pick up the phone. It would be nearly two a.m. in California, and his desire to talk to a friend could wait, however much he needed a dose of Lococco's cynical pragmatism. McPike, Lifeguard and Beckstead each had personal agendas regarding his future. What he wanted was input from someone who had no vested interest in his choice other than that it make him happy.

***************************************

"So tell Uncle Roger what sort of mess you're in, this time," came the laconic drawl on the other end of the line.

Vince tried unsuccessfully to squelch a flash of irritation. "Why do you always assume I'm in trouble?" he asked sharply.

"Because I only hear from you when you're in a jam, Buckwheat," was the equally sharp retort.

"I'm leaving the OCB," Vinnie confessed, "but it's taking a while to wrap up the loose ends. I need to clear out of New York in the next week — ten days to let things cool down."

"What? — you angling for an invitation? My door is always open, Vince." The statement was unequivocal. "I'll send the Lear for you next week. Friday work for you?"

"Yeah," Vince replied, feeling as if some weight he hadn't known he was carrying had just been lifted from his shoulders, "Friday is great." He paused. "Thanks, Rog," he added quietly. "I could use a reality check about now."

Lococco chuckled. "In that case, you may be paying a visit to the wrong guy. See you Friday."

Vince put the receiver down thoughtfully. He had slightly over a week to publicly break with Aiuppo and the old man's plans for him. He had a feeling it was going to be a very long eight days.

***************************************

The Federal Grand Jury filed back into the stuffy New York courtroom, it's too-brief lunch recess over.

The Judge, untangling the long robes from around her ankles as she sat, banged her gavel peremptorily on its' block. "This court will return to the question before us as it concerns the activities of certain members of the criminal underworld over the last ten years." She peered out into the courtroom at the Federal prosecutor, who stood at her acknowledgement.

"Your honor, we wish to present evidence concerning the false imprisonment of a number of criminal witness whose testimony in exchange for immunity and protection was sought by Federal Law Enforcement Officials. These people provided key evidence in a range of Federal prosecutions and were manipulated into doing so with promises of protection that were not kept."

The testimonies dragged on, a parade of expert witnesses on subjects ranging from legal jurisprudence, to forensics, to psychology, testifying on various fine points of law as it applied to soliciting testimony from convicted felons.

It was not until some hours later that the first of the three criminal witnesses entered the courtroom.

The grand jurors shifted restlessly, hoping for something more entertaining than the dry legalese that had occupied the past several weeks of the investigation.

The first man's testimony was a woeful tale of his duping by some lazy prosecutor into giving up an assortment of associates in the drug trade. Having done his best for law enforcement by testifying in open court, he was supposed to have disappeared into witness protection to begin his life over. Instead, he had found himself in Attica serving a four-year stint on conspiracy charges after the prosecutor failed to convict one of the men he had testified against. It was clearly a case of prosecutorial take what you've got' — and he had been well and truly taken. It was nearly time to adjourn for the week when the second criminal witness of the day was called.

Time had not been kind to Tony Grecco. Bald and carrying an extra twenty pounds or so, the only thing that hadn't changed was the meanness in his eyes.

He was sworn in and duly settled in the witness box. The Federal Attorney began his questioning.

"Mr. Grecco, please state the charges on which you were convicted."

"Two counts of extortion and a murder rap." Grecco replied succinctly.

"Can you relate to the jury the circumstances that led to your arrest, please."

"It was about ten years or so ago. I was working for Sonny and Dave Steelgrave, running their dock operations in Atlantic City. They found out that some extra curricular weapons deal was going down and shut it down. Sonny and Dave had us confiscate the weapons and hold em for a little grease from the buyers. Then one'a Sonny's new wiseguys got himself a case of ambition and tracked down the manufacturer. Sonny set me and him to work him over." He paused.

"Continue, Mr. Grecco,"

Grecco shifted restlessly. "How was I supposed to know the guy had a heart condition?" his shoulders tightened defensively, then he began speaking again. "So I questioned' him -"

"That would be Norman Winfield, the gun manufacturer?" the attorney inquired for clarification.

"Yeah. He croaked before Dave and Sonny could talk to him, so I made it look like the new wise guy did it. I figured it was the perfect way to get rid of what was looking to turn into a major pain in my ass. The kid was way too smart for his own good — makin' the rest of us look like we were standin' around holdin' our dicks -"

"The buyers and the Steelgraves had arranged a meet to make a deal for the return of the weapons -" the federal attorney interrupted.

"Uh, yeah. Only it went bad. Real bad. Dave got killed and everyone else cept the new guy wound up full'a holes. He went out to check on somethin' in the next room about twenty seconds before it hit the fan." Grecco shifted restlessly, then continued.

"So anyway, Terranova is lookin' mighty dirty to Sonny when he wakes up in the hospital with a dead brother and a deal gone south. Only the bastard ratted me out to Sonny, told him that I was skimmin' from the dock takes. Sonny didn't believe him till he told Sonny to check my bank -"

"Had you in fact been stealing from the Steelgraves?" The attorney asked.

Grecco shifted uncomfortably. "What — do I look stupid to you? You

didn't mess with the Steelgraves and stay alive long."

"So your bank records were examined. What did they show?"

"They found out a hundred thousand had been deposited into the account by some Spanish broad the weapons dealer had workin' for him. Only I never saw a dime of it! I was set up!" Even ten years had not cooled Grecco's outrage.

"Who would have had the resources to plant false deposit records with your bank on such short notice?" The attorney asked.

Grecco laughed. "It had t'be one'a you guys — a Fed. It was Sonny's pet wiseguy, his kid the driver. He was a fucking FBI agent. I made him but the OCB busted me before I could roll him over to Sonny or anyone else. So I looked dirty, Sonny got phony evidence to prove it, and Vinnie was in tight with the big boys."

"Vinnie?" The attorney prompted.

"Vince Terranova. Sonny's driver. The Fed." Grecco's reply was calculated for maximum impact.

The stir of interest was unmistakable. The rustle of movement and the murmur of voices made it obvious the implication had not been lost on everyone present.

"I spent six months in stir and Vinnie got close to the big boys. The deal I made was that I would testify on Sonny's operation, and walk with time served and a new life. Only they never got it to court cause Sonny got dead."

The judge's gavel banged sharply. "Bailiff, I want the courtroom cleared immediately!" She turned to the Federal Attorney, her displeasure vividly clear. "And you — in my chambers this instant."

***************************************

Paul Beckstead disconnected the call and dialed a new number without hanging up, urgency in every move. "Frank?" he queried hurriedly, "I need you in my office. Now."

He got up and began to pace.

McPike burst through the door, very aware that all hell must be breaking lose somewhere in the department, and braced for anything. Except what came.

"Frank, I just got off the phone with Judge Martins. She's presiding over a Grand Jury investigation into possible misuse of the witness protection program in conjunction with plea bargains." He paused, facing McPike, outraged disbelief clear on his face. "Tony Grecco just testified that Vince Terranova was — is — an FBI agent, formerly undercover in the Steelgrave organization."

"Grecco? Where the hell did they find him? We've had him in maximum security for ten years for the Winfield murder. He's lucky he didn't get lethal injection!" McPike snarled, his blood pressure skyrocketing.

"I didn't ask, Frank. But we've got to get Vince off the street within hours or he's a dead man. I've got his Lifeguard onboard, and my assistant is trying every number we have for him. I've even warned Aiuppo to get him to come in. There are units on the way to Ms. Steelgrave's apartment and to her mother's home. They should be there inside an hour. Where else would he go?"

Dazed, McPike considered the question. "I don't know, Paul. You've covered every connection I know about." He sank into a chair and buried his face in his hands, fingers pressed hard into his eyes. "God dammit, the timing is un-fucking-believable!" He looked up to meet Beckstead's gaze, distress in every syllable. "He was on short time, dammit! He just pried himself lose from Aiuppo this week! I talked to him last night. He said he was going to leave town. I assumed he was going to see the Steelgrave woman!"

"We'll find him, Frank." Beckstead said grimly, knowing the alternative did not bear thinking about.

"God, I hope so," McPike whispered. "And preferably not in a very large number of very small pieces." He rose, pacing. "I promised Vince that Grecco wouldn't pop up while he was still under," the guilt clear in his voice.

"Frank, it wasn't your fault. You couldn't have known Vince would have held his cover almost twice as long as any other agent ever has," Beckstead said. "I will find out how the hell they got to Grecco and the loophole will close. On somebody's neck. You have my promise, Frank."

They stared at each other, knowing it would be cold comfort indeed if Terranova turned up dead.

***************************************

Vince clambered down the little jets' stairway to the tarmac, gritting his teeth against the pins and needles that stabbed at his shins. Six hours on a plane, regardless of how well appointed, was basically nothing but uncomfortable.

Roger Lococco, in grubby jeans and a leather jacket even rattier than Terranova's, sauntered towards him with a grin that reached the jade-gray eyes.

"Nice to see you, Buckwheat," Lococco greeted him with a light punch on the shoulder.

Vince swept him into a bear hug. "Nice to be here," he grinned back. His friendship with Lococco, unlikely though it had been, had evolved into one of those comfortable certainties, resumable in its' entirety even after the passage of years. They knew each other with the intimacy common among those who had shared some sort of trauma, and trusted each other completely.

Lococco took one of Terranova's bags and heaved it into the bed of a dusty and scratched newish pickup that looked worse for wear than it should have for it's age. Vince tossed the other one in after it and circled the hood, climbing into the passenger seat.

"So what've you been doing?" he asked as Lococco swung the one ton in a tight arc and aimed it at the frontage road that bordered the municipal airfield.

"You mean since the last time you graced me with your presence?" Roger shot him a glance out of the corner of his eye. "We opened the third highest ranked restaurant in the City two months ago. Other than that, not much."

Terranova grinned at the capitals he heard in the local shorthand for San Francisco. To northern Californians, San Francisco was the City. The only City. "You going native on me?" he teased. "Who's we'?"

"The development group I bankroll. I fund the projects, they let me come in and play with all the shiny toys." Lococco was self-deprecating, but Vince had eaten at his table.

"Rog, you cook better than my mother did. I'd ask you to marry me if I thought you'd say yes," Vince grinned.

"Careful what you wish for, Buckwheat. I've been dreamin' of those baby blues of yours," Roger half laughed, then sobered, picking up on the past tense. "How long ago'd she die?"

"First week of December," Vince answered, voice flat, merely reciting the facts of his mother's death.

Lococco glanced at his passenger, whose gaze had focused on the rolling green hills of the passing countryside. "I'm sorry, Vince. I know she meant a lot to you. How's Rudy taking it?"

"We do not want to go there," Vince's laugh was humorless. To Roger's arched eyebrow, he retorted defensively, "It's a long story, Roger," hoping that would end the discussion.

"Nothing's that long a story," Lococco said cynically. "So what's happening with the old man? He puttin' the moves on you?" he was rewarded by the quickly masked surprise on Terranova's face that signaled a direct hit.

"It's complicated, Rog."

"So what about your life — or mine — has ever been simple, Buckwheat?" Lococco grinned, this time the ice in his eyes unreached by humor.

Vince had no answer for that, and turned his attention back to the scrubby woods that passed by anonymously.

Lococco let the silence continue all the way up the ten miles of unpaved road that led to the vaguely Mission-style house that he'd built in the middle of nearly a thousand acres of some of the premiere wine growing land in the world. The money he had sunk into the construction was in no way obvious to the untrained eye, something he'd done deliberately. The fact that the place was off the grid and a virtually self-sustaining, self contained little island was easily lost amid the elegant and understated architecture.

Vince got out of the truck, stretching, and looked over the house and its' grounds. "Looks a lot better than when I was here last," he commented.

"Nothing like seeing the place as a hole in the ground to make you appreciate the final results," Roger agreed. "Come on in. I'll give you the grand tour." He allowed the idle small talk, knowing that pushing too hard too fast would shut Terranova up tighter than a clam. He would talk when he was good and ready. Not before.

The only other time Vince had seen the house, it had indeed been a hole in the ground, as the multi-million dollar base-isolated foundation had gone in. He had seen the bare bones of Lococco's vision and knew the hi-tech infrastructure that underlay the more conventional skin of the building. With it's stone, timber and glass façade, it resembled nothing so much as one of the W.P.A. lodges that had gone up all over the National Park system in the thirties. It had a rustic elegance that spoke uncharacteristically, for Lococco, of permanence, sited as it was on the crest of a hill overlooking beautiful, if pastoral, views. It already seemed a part of the landscape, as though it had in fact been built seventy years before.

In most respects, the site was quintessential Roger, large, empty and vaguely lonely. In key ways, however, it revealed the depth of the changes in the man. It was the first place that Vince had seen Roger in that looked as though he had put down roots. Every small detail revealed far more of Lococco's character than he likely had any idea of, Vince suspected.

This would not be a place he would willingly walk away from, Terranova mused as he followed his host through the ground floor of the house out into the grounds at the back. A small stone and glass outbuilding that stood at the far end of a long lap pool, its' wide French doors open to the February sunshine, housed Roger's studio. Therapy, for Lococco, consisted of steel and arc welders rather than long hours of introspective psychoanalysis. He exorcised the demons of his past by giving them form and letting the twisted, dark and perverse figures carry his burdens of guilt and remorse. They were his Mea Culpa.

Lococco led the way past the studio without stopping, making his way toward a barn-like structure several hundred feet down slope. This, it seemed, was the guts of the place. Lococco walked him through the building with matter-of-fact satisfaction. It was roofed with photo-voltaic collectors and filled with storage batteries, controls for wind turbines, satellite uplinks, diesel generators, all of it designed to keep Roger as independent as possible of the demands and restrictions of the conventional life. Vince, impressed, admired the results of nearly thirty years of paranoia. The place was likely to withstand anything man or nature could throw at it. "So when's the siege?" he teased as they made their way back up the hill.

Lococco clipped him playfully on the ear. "Smart-ass," he responded grumpily. "See if I invite you over to play any more." He stalked toward the house, fishing in a pocket for something. Vince saw the gleam of steel as Roger rolled the ball bearing in his fingers. With the trademark flick of his wrist, he let it fly at a window. The steel bounced off with a whine, leaving the window unbroken. "It's been about three years since some C.I.A. freelancer last tracked me down. I don't see any need to tempt fate, Buckwheat. If and when they find me again, I wanna be holding the aces."

Vince stared at him, reminded once again of the enormity of Roger's transgressions that still had shoot-on-sight orders attached to his name years after Admiral Walter Strichen's death. The C.I.A. and Strichen's boss, General Leland Masters, now currently inhabiting a cell in a maximum security military stockade, were very, very unhappy with Lococco. "What happened?" he asked, not quite sure he wanted to know.

"He trapped me on a mountain-side outside Vancouver and made my life very unpleasant for about thirty six hours. As far as I know, he's still there. I planted him under a Lodgepole pine fifteen miles from the nearest road." Roger shrugged. He entered the house, heading for the large open-plan kitchen. "Hey Lucy, I'm home," he called mockingly.

A tiny Hispanic woman of some indeterminate age between thirty five and forty five strolled out of the butler's pantry, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. "Hóla, Roger. Who's your friend?" she inquired with a smile at Vince.

Lococco made the introductions. "Vince Terranova, meet Lucia Hernandez, my vineyard manager's wife. Luce, this is Vinnie. Watch that temper of yours with him, sweet thing, or he may sic the mob on you."

Lucia Hernadez' arch look at her employer spoke volumes, Vince realized. In typical Lococco fashion, he was obviously playing off his bad boy persona. Atypically, though, his housekeeper wasn't buying any of it. Moreover, Lococco knew it — and apparently enjoyed teasing her.

"Roger, you are not the bad-ass you think you are," Lucia said snidely, brushing past him, then aimed a flick of her towel at his flank with pinpoint accuracy.

Vince watched Lococco's silent laughter, surprised at Roger's willingness to accept the rebuke, much less find it funny.

"You just can't find good help these days," was Roger's observation as he turned to follow his housekeeper back into the kitchen.

Lucia had left them with supper and a bottle of unlabeled red wine. Roger poured a generous measure into a soap bubble-thin wineglass and handed it to Vince. "House wine," he explained. "It's the first vintage from the new vines."

"What happened to the old ones?" Vince inquired. Lococco had owned the vineyards around his home site for well over five years, and they had been producing when he'd bought the place.

"Phyloxera. We've spent years replacing the rootstock all over the vineyards, and this year, the Ag-alert starts going on about Pierce's disease and the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter." Lococco chuckled at the glazed look on Vinnie's face. "The life of a gentleman farmer," he said with irony.

Vince took a tentative sip from his glass, then stared at it in appreciation. "Not bad, Rog," he said, surprised.

"Thanks. We just found out it's been accepted at one of the international wine competitions."

Terranova's speculative look prompted a retort from Lococco. "What? It's not worth doing something if you're not going to do it well, Buckwheat. You should know that about me by now."

Vince nodded after a moment. "You're different, Rog. If I didn't know you were immune, I'd say you're as happy as I've ever seen you."

Roger leaned back in his chair, eyeing the glass in his hand. "You'd be right. If I weren't immune." He smiled faintly and put down his glass. "Lucia's right, you know."

"Huh?" Vince felt as if he had lost track of the conversation suddenly.

"Lucy. She's right."

"About what?" Vince asked, sipping his wine and meeting Roger's contemplative eyes over the rim of the glass.

"I'm not the bad-ass I once was"

Vince struggled to suppress the unbidden grin. "Rog, you've got one of the baddest asses I know," he said with a futile attempt to keep a straight face.

"Nice of you to notice, sweetheart," Lococco said cynically, knowing when he was being tweaked.

Vince sobered, eyeing his friend. Lococco, at forty seven, still had the taught-muscled body of his youth. Only his face showed the passage of time, the razor-edged jaw and cheek bones had blurred and become craggy, softened with time and gravity, and the lines in his face were etched deeper. Though it wasn't there as often, when the ice froze in his gray-green eyes, his past lay over him like a cloak.

"So tell me why you're here, Buckwheat," Roger said breaking the long silence between them.

Vince sighed. "You ever wonder what your life would have been like if things hadn't happened exactly the way they did?"

"All the time," Roger admitted wryly. "So tell me about it. What's the old man up to?"

"It doesn't matter, Rog. I'm not going to play his game."

"Oh, it matters, Vince, you just haven't figured out why," Lococco contradicted.

Vince made no response, sighing into his wineglass. He looked out of the fifteen-foot mullioned windows at the false twilight outside. A storm system was moving in from the west, blocking the last of the evening sunshine.

Roger waited.

"He's gotten it into his head that he can clean up the mess in New York by putting me into his old organization as some kind of point man." Vince began, then faltered again.

Roger continued to wait.

"He promised my mother when he married her that he would help me in my work if I ever asked him to. Only, I never asked — he volunteered. He set up the mob ruling council for McPike and me to take down about eight years ago, though I didn't know he was behind it until afterwards I just couldn't forgive him for meddling in my work, not when it meant he was betraying everything he'd lived his life by for sixty years. After Mom died, I finally realized he'd done it to protect me and my mother, but he's been living with the guilt ever since. So when he came to me with this insane idea of putting me into the operation at the top so that I could help him stabilize the mob from inside, I took it to McPike -"

Lococco's grin was wolf-like. "Oh, I can see it now."

Vince nodded. "It was ugly. Only, the thing is, it might have worked."

"Frank didn't go for it, I take it."

"He finally kicked it up to the director. Beckstead is no fool. He knew there was something Rudy wasn't saying. Something he was hoping to get out of the deal. I didn't even see it coming, Rog."

"So what was behind door number three?"

Vince shook his head. "He's decided that I could be some kind of kingpin to rally the troops. He wants to make things right for rigging the takedown of the Commission, but he doesn't want the mob to get pulled apart into any smaller factions in the process. He wants the mob to run the streets — and he wants the FBI to run the mob. Me, specifically."

Roger's grin showed every tooth. "Beware the sword of Damocles,'" he quoted, voice ironic.

"It's not funny, Roger." Vince rubbed his aching eyes.

"You are so wrong, Buckwheat. Welcome to Isle Pavot." Roger said, deeply amused. "You ever read Machiavelli?"

"Yeah, in college."

"You remember anything about it?"

"Not much Basically, that a government will always evolve away from it's stated intentions. That reasons of state will always take precedence over law or ethics."

"Yeah, but that's only the first course, Buckwheat. Niccolo didn't show up on my dance card until a few years ago. Probably just as well. I'd have missed the point if I'd read him sooner."

Vinnie's eyes narrowed. "I know I'm going to regret this. What point?"

"The Prince' is a blueprint for revolution, Buckwheat. The general interpretation is that it's a statesman's guide to the exploitation of the masses. But it's a warning, Vince. It's a step-by-step description of the road to revolt. A population will take only so much before it rises up and overthrows the current asshole in charge. Eventually, the governed will figure out that Reasons of State' are not reason enough. Not for the commission of illegal — and just plain evil — acts against citizens or other nations."

"Okay, professor, and how does that apply to me?"

"If you wind up as the asshole in charge', be sure of your reasons. Personal convenience is not reason enough."

Terranova snorted. "Being made king of New York is not convenient!"

Lococco did not miss the subtext. "Alright, what's the rest of the story?"

"I want a life, not a kingdom. I want a wife, a family, a house payment, a life, Roger." Exhaustion was evident in Vince's voice.

This was old baggage, Lococco realized. "You gave up the right to a normal life when you put on the badge, Vince. So why are you beating your head against it now?"

Vince turned and met Lococco's eyes. He saw Roger's instant alert. Watched the brilliant mind weigh possibilities, saw his eyes widen as the obvious one came clear.

"Who is she?" Lococco asked, voice soft with alarm.

Vinnie licked dry lips. "Tracy Steelgrave."

"Steelgrave." The word was spoken quietly, yet conveyed more outrage than any of McPike's hysterics had. "As in the former boss of Atlantic City. As in the family you brought down."

"Yeah."

Roger shut his eyes for a long moment, marshaling his temper. "Are you just stupid, or are you suicidal?" he spat, rising in a fluid movement from his chair at the table and pacing the length of the room and back like an angry cat. "Because, either way, I am not letting you out of my sight until you tell me exactly what the hell you think you are doing, messing with a mob princess!"

Vince slumped against the ladder back of his chair and closed his eyes. "I'm tired, Roger. I want out of the game. McPike is set to process my resignation as soon as we can get mob attention off me. Witness protection is ready to disappear' me. But I'm not leaving until I can take Tracy with me, if she'll come."

Lococco sagged back into his chair and leaned elbows on the table, resting his brow against the heels of his hands, pressing hard on the bone. "Start at the beginning," he said simply.

It was well after midnight before Roger was satisfied he'd pried all the details from Terranova's exhaustion-fogged brain. Vince, still on East Coast time, was reeling, hardly able to keep his eyes open. "Get some sleep, Buckwheat," Lococco relented. "Take the room at the top of the stairs on the right. Bathroom's en suite."

Weary to death, Vince barely managed to stagger up the stairs and fall into the bed without even bothering to undress. He was asleep almost before his head hit the pillow, the relief of having Roger onboard allowing him to relax completely for the first time in weeks.

Roger, on the other hand, was facing a sleepless night. Insomnia had haunted him most of his adult life. Though it had been several years since the last serious bout, he was reasonably certain he was in for another one. He took the rest of the bottle of wine with him to his ground floor office and booted up his computer. There were a multitude of details to iron out before he could walk away from his business, and there was no doubt in his mind that he was not going to send Terranova back home without all the backup he could put together.

***************************************

Tracy huddled in the back of the limousine, swallowing convulsively, trying to ease the dryness in her mouth. They had been driving for hours, the interstate from D.C. to New York unwinding in a steady stream outside the windows. The two men in the front seat, aside from the occasional inquiry as to her physical comfort, ignored her completely.

When they had pulled up along the curb beside her and hustled her inside, she had felt a degree of fear unknown since her adolescence. It was clear that she had come to the attention of one of her family's former associates. What they wanted with her, she had no idea. She prayed Vince was at the other end of this journey waiting for her, and knew it was a virtual impossibility. He had been as good as his word. She had seen and heard nothing from him since the single night they had shared, barring three or four carefully worded e-mails. The obvious conclusion was that someone else had discovered that Vinnie had reentered her life, and wanted to know what exactly he was doing there.

No explanation had been given, no information of any sort had been forthcoming. She had been left to speculate on the who and the why of her abduction and the most benign conclusion she had arrived at was that don Aiuppo was behind it. Why remained a mystery. The possibility that it was someone other than the old don was the source of the steady beat of adrenaline through her bloodstream.

They entered the city of New York at close to midnight, but it was nearly another hour before the big car pulled to a stop in a pleasant old neighborhood in front of a large Craftsman house. Her escorts handed her out of the car and walked her up the path to the front door, one of them retaining a polite but firm grip on her elbow, discouraging any attempt to bolt. She took a deep breath and stiffened her spine, determined to gift her abductor with a tongue-lashing.

One of the men opened the front door and spoke softly to the bodyguard in the foyer. She was unable to hear more than the low murmur of their voices, but the door opened wider and she was taken inside.

They brought her to a dimly lit library. The old man who sat in one of the leather wingbacks before the fading fire looked up at their entrance.

"We brought her, Rudy," one of them supplied needlessly.

Aiuppo nodded. "Thank you, Luigi. Please wait outside."

Tracy remained standing where she was as the wiseguys backed out of the room, shutting the door behind them. As it clicked shut, she turned to face the old don. "What the hell is going on?" she demanded in a hiss.

Rudolpho rose and moved toward a tray of decanters that occupied one corner of a massive desk without replying. He poured a generous two-finger measure of something colorless into a tumbler and brought it to her. "Here. You probably need this." He handed her the glass. "Please, sit." He waved her into the second wingback and returned to his own, picking up the glass on the small table between the two chairs.

Reluctantly, she did as she was told, slowly sinking into the burnished leather. "I don't know what the hell this is all about, but your goons scared me half to death this afternoon. And God knows what the students thought!" She had been removed from the sidewalk in front of Georgetown University law school in D.C. where she had begun teaching part time at the beginning of the winter quarter in full view of a startled student body.

"There was no time for pleasantries," Aiuppo replied. "Do you remember one of Sonny's wiseguys — one by the name Tony Grecco?"

Tracy suppressed a shudder. "I remember him."

"He testified in front of a Federal Grand Jury this afternoon. He has blown Vince's cover."

Reflexively, Tracy took a deep draught of the contents of her glass, half choking on the burn of its' passage down her throat.

"Vinnie's superiors at the OCB told me as soon as they'd heard. They asked me to find him. To tell him to come in." He turned his head to look at the woman next to him. "I hoped you would know where he was."

She gripped her glass in both hands and rested her forehead on its' cold edge, unable to think clearly. The magnitude of the disaster was simply incomprehensible. "I haven't seen him in almost eight weeks," she told him, then turned to face him. "Who else knows about this?"

"I do not know. But by Monday morning, it will likely be common knowledge. Vincenzo will be a dead man," Aiuppo answered. "Unless we can find a way to discredit Grecco." He met her eyes. "Do you love my stepson?"

Tracy didn't hesitate. "Yes."

"Will you marry him?"

"When I'm free to. And if he asks me again."

"Are you willing to marry him, even if he remains undercover?"

She stared at him, unable to gain traction on the conversation.

Aiuppo continued. "As don, I can grant him time. Not much, but perhaps enough to allow him to prove Grecco was stealing Sonny blind. My men will fight me on this, Tracy. They have been laying the groundwork for a break from me, thinking I no longer have the teeth to stop them from destroying everything I have built."

"How does my willingness to marry Vince fit into anything?" she asked, dazed.

"You are a Steelgrave. If you choose to stand with him, you may be able to help convince the families that it is Grecco, not Vinnie, who is the true enemy."

"Any influence the Steelgrave name had died with my Uncle," she exclaimed, strangled by sudden tears.

"No. There are many who honor your name. Your family was greatly respected."

"Greatly feared, you mean." A lifetime of bitterness filled her voice.

"Fear and respect are like this," he replied impatiently, crossing the first two fingers of his left hand. "They cannot be separated." He leaned forward in his chair. "Help me to help Vincenzo, Tracy. Together, we may be able to buy him the time to clear his name."

"No. I don't know what your game is, Rudy, but Vince is likely to be much safer in witness protection than he is taking his chances with you. I don't know what you want from him, but whatever it is may very well kill him." Her instincts as a trial attorney were shouting of deception, treachery.

"You would choose this for him, knowing that you would never see him again?" Aiuppo asked, voice tinged with sadness and something else she could not identify.

"His life is more important to me than what I want or don't want," she stated. "Enough people have died."

The old man sipped contemplatively from his glass. "You are very much like his mother," he observed. The wistfulness was clear to her, even in her current state of mind. "He told you I had offered to help him in his work."

"A gift horse if I ever saw one," she retorted, welcoming the anger that began a steady glow in the pit of her stomach. "It's not his work you wanted to help, is it? You wanted to find a way to bring him into your world. Make him your man. Make him protect your empire." Intuition had given it to her in one guess. She knew she was right, seeing it in the sudden veiling of his expression. "You are very much mistaken if you think I will stand by and watch — or worse, aid and abet — your attempt to corrupt an honorable man!"

He was silent for a long time. "You have so little faith in the strength of his convictions that you think anything I could offer him would tempt him? Then you do not know him very well. It is the strength of his convictions I want, Tracy. I want him to return those convictions to us, as family. He has something we have lost through greed and lack of vision. He has the vision. And the strength to make it others' vision as well."

He glanced at her. "He has worked undercover for ten years. In all that time do you not think he has been tempted by what we offer? Yet his private life remains simple. He has taken no bribes, stolen nothing, compromised nothing."

"What you want him to do is against the law, Rudy! To pull off what you have in mind will mean that he will have to compromise the very vision you say you value!"

Aiuppo sighed. "You say you love him. Yet you know nothing about him. Do you think he will walk into witness protection without you? He has chosen you, my dear. He will not leave without you. And you will not be free to go with him until your mother has passed. This means you have two choices. Would you rather see him dead, or with us? If he stays to be with you, then he must maintain his cover. To do that he will have to face — and defeat — my lieutenants. If he fails in this, they will kill him. If he succeeds, he will control my territory. And he will have the chance to end the degeneration of years." His gaze was pitiless. "Your willingness to stand beside him may be all that stands between him and a bullet in the brain."

She stared back at him, head aching with the certainty he was right. "You bastard, you don't care who gets hurt, as long as you get what you want."

"You are wrong, my dear. I care. But I cannot let it stop me from doing what I must. I am don. My family is larger than just my blood. Men have sworn oaths to me. And I to them. I betrayed those vows once. I will not do it again. And keeping Vincenzo alive and in place is the best, and perhaps only way of honoring those oaths."

"Even if it means selling his soul to the devil?"

He reached out and placed a hand on her arm. "Stand with him, Tracy. Keep the devil at bay."

Aiuppo had Luigi escort her upstairs and lock her into one of the several bedrooms. He had every confidence in the young man's ability to prevent her unscheduled departure without having her presence pose any temptation to him. Even if his tastes had run to women, he had been well-raised enough not to grope the female guests of a Mafia don.

He brooded on the hand the fates had dealt him. Tracy Steelgrave had surprised him. Her intelligence he had already factored in, but her insight, spirit and morality had been unknowns. She was indeed a good match for Vince. Together, their strengths reinforced each other. He had no doubt that together they could hold anything they chose to grasp.

Unlike most men of his generation, Rudy Aiuppo had never been prone to underestimating the strength and intelligence of women. When he had married his first wife, it had been for those traits. He had wanted a partner, not merely an ornament. And he had remained faithful to her all her life despite her inability to bear him more than a single son, something nearly unheard of in his world. But she had been more than half the brains of the marriage. He had learned from her the subtle use of power to sway, to influence without appearing to exert any pressure. It had also been at her suggestion that he had begun to place himself in a paternal role among his closest hirelings, benefiting from the personal loyalty that tended to flow from this strategy.

Tracy Steelgrave had her intelligence and Carlotta's will. She would be more than decorative in Vince's life. She was a queen on Aiuppo's gameboard. One he held in check until the moment came to unleash her on the rest of the players. He was willing to bet everything he had created in his life that she and Vince would be able to beat anything they came up against. If she could be made to see reason. His reason

"You would have liked her, Carlotta," he told his dead second wife fondly, sure in his heart she heard him. "She is very much like you. She will bear him strong sons and beautiful daughters." He smiled suddenly, the impishness in his eyes lending him youth. "Or perhaps beautiful sons and strong daughters."

***************************************

Lifeguard swung his wheelchair around and headed back the way he had just come. His version of pacing was considerably higher energy than most, giving him an upperbody work out that did more to relieve stress than the type of pacing the two-legs did. And he was in dire need of stress relief. The news just kept getting worse. Not only had Vince completely disappeared, but Tracy Steelgrave had been hustled into a dark-windowed limo in front of Georgetown University in broad daylight less than three hours after news of Grecco's testimony had reached the OCB. Despite the presence of dozens of students, no one had managed to get a license plate number, or even a description of the men who'd made the snatch.

He had done everything he could think of to try and contact Terranova. All he could do now was wait and pray that Vince would check in on his regular schedule. He had half a dozen escape hatches open for the boy, should Vince need them, though Dan had little faith that he would be willing to avail himself of them. He would never agree to vanish with Tracy's whereabouts unknown. The kid had a stubborn streak a mile wide and after ten years of intimate acquaintance, the Lifeguard had become very good at predicting how Terranova would react in most circumstances. He knew Vince was in love, or thought he was. Objectivity would not be his long suit right now. No, hot-headed impulsiveness was a far greater likelihood than rational action. He prayed Vince would hear about Grecco's testimony before some mob goon squad came gunning for him.

"Come on, kid, reach out and touch someone," he prayed aloud, turning to begin another circuit.

***************************************

Lococco was still at the computer when Vince stumbled back downstairs at daybreak, looking slightly — though only slightly — less haggard than when he'd gone up them six hours previously.

"Rog?"

"In here, Vince," Lococco answered the query.

Vince poked his head in the door. "You been here all night?"

Roger didn't deign to reply.

Vince entered the office, eyeballing the sparsely furnished room curiously. It was vintage Lococco. Computer esoterica occupied the scant available surfaces, wires and cables conspicuously absent. It was higher than hi-tech.

He peered over Roger's shoulder at the biggest thin screen monitor he'd ever seen. It was some sort of internet banking site, he realized quickly. Then the size of the numbers he was seeing began to register. "Roger?"

Lococco raised a hand from his keyboarding peremptorily, discouraging interruption.

Vince watched the numbers, none of them smaller than six digits, scrolling down the screen.

"Welcome to the Lococco empire, Vince." Roger said, catching Terranova's shocked expression.

"I thought you walked away with a hundred million of Mel's money. There's a hellova lot more here than that."

"The rudiments of high finance seem to have escaped you, my friend. When you start out with a hundred million, you have to be a complete moron — or make a concerted effort — to lose it all. All those dead presidents breed in the dark."

The minus signs in front of many of the numbers began to impinge on Terranova's brain. "So what's with all the negative numbers?" he asked.

"I'm liquidating a few assets," Lococco replied flippantly.

The numbers accumulating on the screen were unreal to Vince. "How much are you worth?" he asked, not believing what he was seeing.

"Last time I bothered to check, just shy of a cool billion. And that was just the liquid assets. Add the hard ones and it's probably closer to two."

"Two billion?" Vince's consternation was evident in his voice, and Lococco shot him a look, unable to restrain his grin at the expression on Terranova's face.

"Why do you think I've been e-mailing you account numbers every coupla years?" he asked. "There's more here than I could spend in six lifetimes, Buckwheat." He grew serious, then. "Stay here, Vince. They won't find you. And if they do, they'll be up against a whole lot more than some paunchy ex-wiseguy."

He got a rise out of Vince, as he'd intended. "Whaddaya mean paunchy, you washed-up C.I.A. has-been -"

"God, you're easy," Lococco teased.

Vince raised a fist, half serious about landing it. "I don't want your money, Rog."

"Too bad. Just so we're all on the same page, here, if I fall off the planet tomorrow, you'll be getting a call from a guy named McCormick with the bad news that you've just become one very rich son of a bitch."

Terranova stared at Lococco, at a loss.

"Hey, what you do with it is up to you. Give it to Frank." Roger grinned. "I'd like to see him explain it to Beckstead."

Vince couldn't quite keep the grin off his face. "That'd bring on a coronary for sure." He dragged a second chair to the desk. "So what's with the ready cash?"

Lococco didn't reply immediately. "I'm not letting you go back without backup."

"No. You're not coming with me. There are still people out there trying to kill you, Roger!"

Lococco cocked a sardonic eyebrow at his friend. "I'm not the only one sitting here with that particular problem, Buckwheat."

"No one's gunning for me, Roger. Not yet, anyway." Vince argued. "I'm not letting you get involved in this."

"I'd like to see you stop me," Lococco was uncompromising. "Have you filed an itinerary with McPike yet?"

"No. I don't exactly like to advertise your whereabouts, Spanky." Vince massaged the back of his neck. "I should probably let the Lifeguard know I'm okay, though. Can you connect this thing up with the D.O.J. e-mail drop?"

"What's wrong with the phone?" Lococco asked.

"I don't want to hear the lecture," Vince admitted.

Lococco grinned. "You didn't even give them a clue where you are, did you." It was a statement, not a question.

"Nope."

Lococco set about bringing up the classified and highly secure Department of Justice mail server, something he should not, by rights, have been able to do. That Vince had simply assumed it was possible spoke to how well Terranova knew him and his capabilities. Having waded through multiple layers of encryption, he was rewarded by the D.O.J. seal and the flashing of the password field. "It's all yours," he said, rolling his Aeron desk chair out of the way to let Vince access the keyboard. "Knock yourself out."

Vince typed in his password. Then confirmed it, and was dropped neatly into the secure mail host.

"I'm going for a swim," Roger told him, rising and heading out the office door, leaving Vinnie to compose his missive in peace.

Vince pondered just how little he could actually get away with revealing about where he was and who he was with, then began typing. A terse paragraph later, he clicked send' and it was on its' electronic way to the Lifeguard. He considered checking his own address for messages then decided he wasn't any happier about the prospect of being lectured in print than he had been about a verbal chewing out. Without a second thought, he logged off and shut down the computer, amused that Lococco, contrary to the core, had chosen a Mac O.S. rather than the ubiquitous P.C. platform. He left the office and headed toward the back of the house. Various items of Lococco's clothing had simply been discarded along a path leading to the French doors that opened to the pool. Obviously, Roger had not bothered with trunks.

Vince watched Roger's rapid progress up and down the pool as he bent to collect the scattered clothing. Lococco had clearly been a bachelor all his life, Vince thought, wryly. The blithe disregard for the mess he left in his wake implied the assumption that it would be taken care of by someone else. It was the attitude of a man with a maid, not a wife or lover. It was the only area of Roger's life that was not subject to the careful attention to detail that characterized everything else about him.

He draped Roger's clothes over the back of a big leather club chair near the French doors and added a towel from the nearest bathroom for good measure. Satisfied, he went in search of coffee. It took several minutes to discover where the appliances were hidden in the butler's pantry and several more before he found the coffee beans.

Lococco swam hard, pushing muscles stiff with fatigue. The rain, threatening all night, now began in earnest, a chilly contrast to the 76° pool. He had always liked swimming in the rain and six hours in front of the computer had him feeling every one of his forty seven years. He worked his tired body hard enough to feel a sweat break, then cooled down. By the time he climbed out of the water and returned to the house to claim the towel Vince had left for him, he could smell the coffee. He wandered into the kitchen, dripping all over the hardwood floors, towel-drying his hair. "Thanks," he acknowledged as he wrapped the towel around his waist and took the steaming mug Vince handed him.

"Lucy must have taken you on as a mission of mercy," Terranova observed, eyeing the trail of puddles. "You've obviously never lived with a woman."

"Not since my folks sent me to boarding school when I was six," Roger agreed with a certain asperity. "My life doesn't lend itself to permanent attachments, Buckwheat."

"Not many of them, anyway," Vince replied.

"Yeah, well, there are always exceptions," Lococco smiled ironically, sipping his coffee.

Vince hooked an ankle around a chair leg and dragged it out from under the table, sitting down and resting his elbows on the pine planks, mug held in both hands. "You ever thought about marriage?"

Lococco laughed. "Are you kidding? I sleep with them. I don't have relationships with them. Besides, what woman in her right mind would take on a paranoid ex-special forces — ex-C.I.A. assassin?"

Vince raised his eyebrows. "How do you know if you never ask?"

"I don't need to ask, Buckwheat. This neck of the woods is crawling with rich, bored, married women looking for love in all the wrong places. I just show up in those places when I'm in the mood and everybody goes home happy."

Vince shook his head, smiling. "Someday someone is going to get past that asshole attitude of yours. I just hope I'm there to see it."

"Not in this lifetime," Lococco assured him emphatically.

Vince smiled into his mug. "Never say never, Rog. It usually comes back to bite you in the butt."

***************************************

Lifeguard cursed as his e-mail alert sounded, and brought up the mail host on his screen. "Sonovabitch!" he swore, seeing Terranova's name on the flagged message. He opened it, reading the four sentence note as he picked up the phone and dialed McPike's direct number.

McPike answered on the second ring. "Frank, I just got an e-mail from Vince. He says he's with a friend and is planning on staying awhile." He heard McPike's exhalation of relief.

"Where is he?"

"He's real careful not to say, Frank. And from the sound of it, he hasn't checked his messages. He would have been on the first plane back if he had any idea that Tracy is missing."

"Can you figure out where the message was sent from?" McPike asked.

"Already on it," the Lifeguard said as he finished activating the trace programs. He hit a brick wall after the third server address. "Shit. Wherever he is, it's got some bad-ass firewalls. This is gonna take some time, Frank."

"We haven't got time, Uncle!" Frank said, struggling not to shout his frustration.

"Then get off the line and let me work on this," Dan snapped back. "I'll find him."

***************************************

Roger, having showered, shaved and otherwise done what he could to make himself feel semi-human, returned to the office and turned the computer back on. Out of habit, he checked the system's electronic security measures, not expecting to find anything. And was unpleasantly surprised to discover that Vinnie's Lifeguard had managed to route a message to Lococco's heavily secured mail address. He opened it, read it, then swore softly. "Vince! Vinnie, get in here!" he shouted over his shoulder as he hit the print' button. He heard Terranova clattering across the hardwood at a run.

"What?" Vince asked, slowing his headlong rush with a grab at the door jamb.

Lococco snatched the printout from the maw of the printer and thrust it towards Terranova. "You have got some big time shit hitting the fan," he warned. "Your Lifeguard got this to me through pretty heavy security. He shouldn't have been able to trace the source of the message."

"You don't know Uncle Mike," Vince said distractedly, grabbing the paper from Lococco. The message was brief. Vince read it once, then again as he reached for the phone on Roger's desk. "Shit," he swore under his breath, waiting for the call to go through. "Mike?" he demanded when the line connected.

Lifeguard's reply was rife with relief. "Vince, thank god! Where the hell are you? McPike has been outta his mind. We've been calling everyone we could think of, trying to locate you."

"California," came the angry reply. "What the hell is going on out there? Who blew my cover? And where the hell is Tracy?"

"Tony Grecco testified in front of a Federal Grand Jury yesterday afternoon about the money we planted in his bank to discredit him with the Steelgraves. We're working on finding the girl, but no one's been able to I.D. the guys who took her."

"She was snatched? From where?" Vince's rage was palpable even across three thousand miles.

"In front of Georgetown University. She started teaching there part time this quarter."

"You're telling me that a woman was yanked off the street in front of a campus full of kids and no one can make a fucking I.D.? I'm on the first flight outta here, Mike."

There's nothing you can do to help that isn't going to put you in jeopardy. I need you to stay clear. Find some hole to hide in and don't even breathe loud till we can find a way to clean up this mess."

"I'm on my way back, Mike," came Terranova's reply. "I'm not laying low with an innocent woman's life on the line."

"We don't know that she's in any danger, Vinnie, but we sure as hell know you are!" Dan knew he was fighting a losing battle but was determined to go on record with his opposition. "Stay clear of this!"

"Like hell! I am not going to assume that she's not at risk just because you don't know who took her or where the hell she is!"

"Vinnie, it's Saturday afternoon. By tomorrow night there's going to be a price on your head and every mobster on the east coast is going to be gunning for you. You can't do anything except get yourself killed!"

"It's not open to discussion. I'm on my way."

Lifeguard swore as the phone hit the cradle on the other end of the line, effectively ending the argument. He dialed McPike.

Lococco had collected his cell phone and was occupied with locating his pilot when Vince slammed down the phone and, cursing, loped out of the office and up the stairs.

Roger found him cramming his shaving kit and clothing into his bags and wrenching the zippers shut. "Rog, get me to the nearest airport."

Lococco grabbed Vince hard by the bicep, halting the agent's frenetic motion. "I've been on the phone with the airlines. The next flight to New York or D.C. leaves in two hours. We'll never make it to SFO or Oakland in that amount of time. My pilot can meet us at the airfield in three with the jet fueled up and ready to go. You'll get to D.C. an hour earlier than any commercial flight, with no hold-up at the other end. So calm down and tell me what the hell is going on."

Terranova met Roger's eyes, knowing that argument was pointless. Lococco had chosen to involve himself in the mess Vince's life had become, and the knowledge that he would not be completely on his own was disconcertingly reassuring. If anyone could help him find Tracy, it would be Lococco. "You heard most of it."

Roger had seen the realization of the inevitable in Vinnie's face. Help had been accepted, however unwillingly, and help was what Roger intended to give. "The princess has been kidnapped and someone's blown your cover in a big way. That's about all I got out of the shouting match with the Lifeguard."

"They took her in front of Georgetown University in broad daylight with an army of eyewitnesses and no one can I.D. the bastards!" Terranova's distress was unmistakable, and for the first time, Lococco began to believe that the man was really as far gone for this woman as he said he was.

"Who rolled over on you?" he asked.

"Tony Grecco. He was one of Sonny's main wiseguys and a major asshole. He was skimming from the dock operations and when I figured it out, he tried to frame me for icing a weapons dealer that he'd let use the piers to smuggle guns. The whole thing went to hell and Dave Steelgrave wound up dead in this dive motel room and Sonny ended up in the hospital with that snake, Grecco, telling him I was the one who'd blown the deal. I fingered Grecco for stealing from Sonny, then had the OCB plant money in his accounts to back it up. He just testified to it in front of a Grand Jury."

Lococco's brows rose. "When your cover springs a leak, it's a big one, Buckwheat. So what's the plan?"

"Find Tracy. Take her back," was the bitter response. "And hopefully kill the bastards who took her."

"Some plan." Roger seized one of Vinnie's bags and headed for the top of the stairs. "You're gonna have to do better then that if you expect to stay alive long enough to profess your undying devotion to the woman."

Vince grabbed the other one and followed Lococco downstairs. "Alright, genius, let's hear your version," he called after Roger's departing back.

Lococco dumped the bag at the front door and took the second one from Terranova, dropping it next to the first. "First of all, start by asking yourself who knew you were seeing the Steelgrave babe. Then ask yourself what they have to gain by taking her." Roger suggested, heading for the kitchen. Vince followed him, considering the questions.

"No one should have known I'd even run into her, much less that she was important to me."

"Wrong. Someone knows or she wouldn't be missing. I know, you know, she knows — and that's just for starters. I figure it's safe to rule myself out, since she disappeared before you ever told me about her. So who did she tell? Who did you tell?"

Roger headed for the wet bar at one end of the diningroom and poured several ounces of whiskey into each of a pair of highball glasses, handing one to Vince.

"Lifeguard. McPike. Beckstead" he sipped from the glass and then looked up at Lococco. "Rudy. He was there when I told Frank and Beckstead," he said softly, the color draining from his face as he set down the glass.

"Bingo. So we've got the who'. Now what about the why'?"

Vince rose and began to pace the length of the diningroom, drink forgotten on the table. "We don't know for sure he's the one who's behind this."

Lococco snorted derisively. "Yeah, right. It's a river in Egypt."

"Huh?" Vince rounded on him, bewildered.

"Denial. Wake up and smell the coffee, Vinnie! Rudy Aiuppo has got you by the short hairs. He is playing you like a fucking orchestra! He tried being nice and the OCB wouldn't bite. So now he's putting you in a position where he can manipulate you into doing what he wants by threatening the love of your life. He's making you an offer he knows you can't refuse."

Vince felt his stomach rebel against the scotch he's just swallowed, nausea making his mouth water. Lococco was right. He knew it on an intuitive level. The sense of betrayal opened in his belly like the gates of Hell, and the affection and trust he'd had for his stepfather withered in the face of it. Light-headed, he sat down slowly in one of the chairs at the table.

Lococco did not like the ashy pallor of Vince's skin. This was hitting him hard. "So. How does this change things? Will he hurt her?"

Vince didn't reply, and Roger wasn't sure if he'd even heard the question. He pushed the scotch toward Vinnie's elbow. "You'd better drink this. You don't look so hot."

Ignoring the glass, Vince shook his head. "I don't know. Five minutes ago, I would have bet my life on the answer being no. But now" He stared into Lococco's face as if seeking the answer there. "Do you think he had something to do with Grecco showing up in front of the Grand Jury?"

Lococco began pacing where Vince had left off. "Not likely. But I'm willing to bet he was bright enough to take advantage of the opportunity it presented. The question is, how did he find out, and who else in the mob knows about it? How much time do we have to find Cinderella and get out without getting turned into pumpkins?"

Terranova tried to focus on the questions, his mind spiraling around Rudy's betrayal like a planet in orbit around a black hole. "Lifeguard said they'd tried reaching me every place they knew I go. I'd be willing to bet they contacted him to get him to tell me to come in if he saw me. So if that's how he found out, we may have a little time."

"We won't know till we get there. So how do you want to handle it?"

Vince dropped his head onto arms folded on the table. "Geezus, Rog. He loved my mother. Why would he do this to me?" he asked rhetorically. He felt the brief warmth of Roger's hand at the back of his neck, a physical gesture of comfort that surprised Vince to the depths of his soul.

"I don't think this is about you, Vinnie," Roger said, resuming his pacing. I think he's jammed up and he sees you as being the best shot he has at solving the problem."

"What problem?" Vince asked into the planks of the table.

"I don't know, but we'd better find out," Roger downed the rest of the liquor in his glass in a single swallow, "because he's making it ours."

***************************************

Rudolpho Aiuppo finished the wine in his glass and pushed away from the diningroom table, replete. He had secured Tracy in a hotel suite downtown under a false name and set Luigi to ensuring that she stayed there. Now, he waited. He wasn't sure whether the first call would come from one of his cohorts or from Terranova, though it would be easier if he heard from Vince first. In either event, it would precipitate the next level of the game. He contemplated the damage he had done to his newly reestablished relationship with his stepson unhappily. It was unlikely that Vince would ever trust him as he had. He regretted that casualty even as he acknowledged its' necessity. He needed Vince as autonomous as possible. A man with too great an allegiance to someone else's vision could not pursue his own.

It was nearly nine in the evening when the imperative pounding on his front door rang through the house. He waited in the library, knowing his bodyguard would bring whoever it was to him there. He was unprepared, however, for the door to his sanctuary to be slammed into the wall with enough force to drive the door knob into the plaster. He looked up, masking his surprise, as Vince stormed into the room, another man on his heels. "Vincenzo. What is wrong?" he asked calmly.

"Where is she, Rudy? What have you done with her?" The ice in his voice matched that in his eyes.

Aiuppo tented his fingers, eyeing the fury in Vince's face, unruffled, stalling. He had not anticipated that Terranova would have puzzled out his connection to Tracy's disappearance quite so quickly. "She is perfectly safe. I intend to make sure she remains that way. And that she remains here. You will not vanish into your witness protection program without her. As long as I need you, she will be my guarantee that you will remain." Rudy knew that the time for equivocation was past. The truth would serve him better, now.

Rudy would not have thought it possible for Vince's expression to convey any greater anger that it had, but the rage that crackled there now was incandescent. His voice was steady. Even. "When this is over, I may just kill you."

"And if he doesn't, I will."

The interjection brought Aiuppo's attention to Vinnie's companion. There was something familiar about the man, Aiuppo realized, rummaging in his memory for a name.

"You worked for Mel Profitt," he said, placing the grim, gray-eyed man, knowing he looked into the face of a killer. "Mr. Lococco?"

The sandy head dipped in acknowledgement, eye-contact never wavering. Rudy was under no misapprehension that he was anything less than serious in his threat. "We will leave that discussion until the more immediate problem of restoring Vincenzo's cover has been dealt with. I do not know in what capacity you are here, but I assume it is similar to your function in Mr. Profitt's organization. You intend to keep my stepson alive?"

"I intend to slit you open from balls to brains if you don't give him back the girl," Lococco replied. "Now."

Aiuppo suppressed a smile. "He will get her back. When it is safe for them to be together. Not before. In the mean time, I suggest you spend your energy in keeping Vincenzo alive long enough to prove that Tony Grecco did, in fact, skim from Sonny Steelgrave's dock revenues."

Vince's eyes narrowed. "What's that supposed to accomplish?"

"Grecco apparently has yet to admit his theft. In my opinion, he testified in the hopes of gaining some sort of early release. Once out of prison, he can disappear with the money he stole, and you are left with no way to prove he took it." Aiuppo speculated.

"It doesn't matter a goddamn whether Grecco took the money or not. As soon as the dons hear he blew me in, I'm dead." Vince answered icily.

"As far as I know, they do not yet know Grecco has resurfaced. There is a meeting scheduled for tomorrow morning. Come with me. Stand before them and tell them what you know about Grecco, about his accusations regarding your identity. I can buy you perhaps three days grace to prove he took the money. If you can salvage your cover, you can remain in New York until Ms. Steelgrave is free to go with you."

Lococco snorted in cynical amusement. "Come with you and get himself shot, you mean."

"If he comes in on his own, they will listen to him. They will give him a chance to prove Grecco is a liar and a thief. If not, when they learn of Tony's testimony, they will bring in out-of-town talent to kill Vinnie," Aiuppo said to Lococco.

"They'll try," Lococco corrected. "I wouldn't bet on them succeeding."

"If you intercede for me with them, you're going to tip Brod and Castellano that you're not happy with the current management," Vinnie pointed out.

"Yes. I expect they will fight me on this, Vincenzo. I wish to discover who among the dons supports them, and how far they are willing to go."

"You want to use me as a stalking horse," Terranova realized, a piece of the puzzle falling into place.

Aiuppo did not deny it. "Will you come?"

Terranova fixed icy blue eyes on the old man. "You haven't left me a lot of choices, Rudy."

"I did not intend to leave you any."

"You're walking right into this like a lamb to the slaughter," Lococco pointed out, not for the first time. "At least take me with you."

"I can't. They'd kill you before you got to the front door. No one who isn't a made man is welcome anywhere near a full council of war. And that's what this'll be. If they believe Grecco and think I'm a cop, the only thing left to fight over is who'll get to gut me where I stand," Vinnie answered tiredly.

"You're not making a compelling argument for walking in there," Roger said worriedly. "Does the old man still have enough juice to get you your hearing? To buy you a grace? Cause if not, you're basically a suicide waiting to happen."

"That's the risk I'm gonna have to take." Vince ran fingers through his hair, massaging the back of his neck. "Rudy has been out of the eye of the council since he married my mother, but he's kept a pretty close watch on who the players are and where the alliances are. They all know who he is. Even the new blood has heard of Rudy. In some ways, maybe it's a good thing he's been out of the spotlight for eight years. No one else will have any clear idea just how much control he still has. They're gonna be real careful around him until they can get a feel for his power base. Killing me on the spot is not gonna go down well with him, so odds are, they'll give him what he asks for. His cappos are gonna be the biggest problem."

"Yeah, I gathered that from what the old man said. The question is, Buckwheat, just how big a problem?" Lococco mused, pulling off his boots. "Get some sleep, Vince. This may be the last chance you have."

"Yeah," was Terranova's weary reply. "G'night, Rog." He rose from the guest bed he'd been sitting on and made for the door. "In case I forget to say it later, thanks. You shouldn't be here, but I appreciate the help. Just do me a favor, and try not to get yourself killed?"

"I'm not the one the mob is about to put out a contract on, Vince," Roger observed dryly.

"Yeah, you're the one the C.I.A. has been trying to kill for ten years." Vinnie's response was grim.

"Trying' being the operative word," Roger snapped. "I'm not at risk here, pal. You are. I don't have so many friends left that I can afford to lose one. Besides, the C.I.A. is not going to be looking for me in New York, so stop worrying about it."

Vince paused in the doorway, considering a reply, then thought better of it, shaking his head. "Thanks, Rog," he reiterated finally and left the room, closing the door behind him.

Lococco pulled his black T-shirt over his head and lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling moodily. "You're welcome, Buckwheat."

***************************************

Vinnie left Lococco waiting with the limo a block from Capuzi's huge house, looking every inch the expensive hired muscle. He walked Aiuppo toward the front door of the mansion wordlessly, letting Rudy make the introductions to the bodyguard at the massive oak portal.

Rudy took Vince's arm, the prerogative of an old man, making his affection for his stepson clear to everyone in the room as they entered the diningroom. He nodded pleasantly at the half-dozen of his contemporaries in attendance, exchanging small talk, ignoring the buzz of speculation that hovered in the air like a swarm of insects. He steered Vince toward the host of the gathering where he held court at the head of the massive walnut dining table. "Chero," he greeted the don. "I believe you have met my stepson?"

Chero Capuzi eyed Terranova coolly before responding. "It has been a long time, Vincenzo," he said at last.

"Don Capuzi," Vince inclined his head with the correct degree of respect. This was one of the most powerful of the remaining old guard dons, the man having stepped back out of retirement with the arrest of the Commission. He was also the don who had presided over the ceremony that had indoctrinated Vinnie into the mob a decade ago. Vince had had very few encounters with the man outside family' gatherings, but the don's reputation was for a degree of ruthless self-interest. He had been running territories for longer than Vince had been alive. This was the man he had to convince of his veracity.

Aiuppo led Vince to a pair of chairs four or five down on Capuzi's left and sat, having chosen a carefully neutral location that said nothing of his alliances or grievances with anyone else at the table. Imperiously, he sent Vince to procure a couple of cups of coffee from the sideboard. Vinnie brought them back to the table and sat down beside Aiuppo. He sipped from his own, using the action to inconspicuously survey the room. Brod and Castellano had not yet put in appearance. He suspected that when they did, all pretense at politeness would disappear. It would be then that the currents of power in the room would become plain.

There was a brief flurry of activity while a few late-comers helped themselves to refreshments and found seats at the table. When the hubbub had died down, Capuzi addressed them, commencing the meeting, then yielded the floor to open discussion. The principle area of concern was the increasing unruliness of the street gangs that rampaged through the city. There wasn't a single don who had not lost men to them. It was shaping up to a major turf war as the gangs pushed at the confines of what the mob allowed them.

Some ten minutes into what was looking to become a protracted argument over a border dispute, Aiuppo stood. The silence that fell was that of surprise, all ears turned to him. "Gentlemen, we have a bigger problem than territories. I received word last night that Tony Grecco appeared before a Federal Grand Jury here in New York on Friday afternoon."

This was met with equal parts anger and confusion as the older dons brought the newest members of the fraternity into the picture

Aiuppo allowed the conversation to continue for a moment longer, then banged his coffee cup into the saucer in a sharp staccato. "The accusations he has made are serious. He claims that my stepson is an undercover Federal agent -" The uproar was instantaneous. Capuzi's imperative signal trained the full attention — and weaponry — of his household guard on the back of Vinnie's head.

Terranova affected obliviousness, nothing of his racing pulse visible in his actions. This was it. The next few minutes would decide whether he left on his feet, or in a box.

Aiuppo, rising to stand beside Vinnie, shoved the closest gun barrel up at the ceiling. "Enough! Do you think I would bring him here if I thought there was any truth in the accusation?" The old man glared at Capuzi, then met the eye of everyone in the room in turn. "Vincenzo is famiglia, one of us! And Anthony Grecco was imprisoned ten years ago, after David Steelgrave was killed. Who do you think is the liar?"

"Why would Grecco lie?" came the inquiry from the doorway as Michael Brod and Brandon Castellano strode into the room.

"Why wouldn't he?" Vince spoke up, voice laced with contempt. "He hated my guts and was lookin' for an excuse to whack me from the minute Sonny offered me a job. The fact that he was skimming Sonny's dock operations gives him a pretty clear motive. He testifies that I'm a cop, gets himself a get-out-of-jail-free' card from the Justice department and gets payback all in one shot. Pretty slick. And I'm screwed, any way you look at it. If I coulda proved he took the money ten years ago, I wouldn't have had to rig his accounts to make him look dirty in the first place."

"You admit framing him? You have got to have some of the biggest, hairiest, cahónes on the planet," Castellano remarked in amazed outrage.

"What — are you deaf?" Vince glared at him, "Didn't I just finish saying I put the money in his bank? It was him or me, and I made sure I was the last one standing when the lights came up."

"How did you plant the money?" Capuzi asked coldly, not willing to accept such a thing on faith. "Getting access to bank records doesn't come easy — or cheap."

"You're telling me? I held paper on the bank manager. He fixed the records in exchange for the debt. It cost me over a hundred and fifty grand to set it up, but I figure it was one of the best investments I ever made. It proved my loyalty to Sonny, and fucked the Judas who got Dave killed at the same time."

"This is all very touching, but Dave and Sonny are ten years in the grave. Trusting you got them killed. Trusting you may get everyone in this room killed!" Castellano snarled at Vince, then turned to meet Capuzi's eyes. "I say we scrag the bastard where he stands."

Aiuppo faced his lieutenants. "What you say is without meaning. This is a council decision, not one for a stronzagegginetti who cares more for the filling of his pockets than for his own blood." He turned to Capuzi. "My stepson is no fool, Chero. If he were what Grecco says, would he be here? Give him time to prove what he says is the truth. If he can produce Grecco, or the proof that Tony took the money, then the matter rests."

"Like hell it does!" Brod interjected. "Even if Grecco did rob Sonny blind, proving it doesn't mean squat. Terranova could still be a cop!"

"Yeah, and I could also be the second coming. It's about as likely," Vince retorted. "With respect, don Capuzi," he began, turning to the head of the table, "let's stop wasting everyone's time, here. If you're going to kill me, then do it here. Now. At least have the guts to look in my face when you do it."

It was a dare Castellano couldn't refuse. Lightning fast, he drew the sleekly lethal automatic from under his suit coat, thumbing off the safety as he did so. The room erupted in chaos as mobsters scrambled out of the way and Capuzi's bodyguards threw themselves at Castellano.

Terranova never stirred, never flinched. He maintained eye contact with Capuzi, not blinking, waiting, completely still.

Capuzi ignored the tumult around them, all his attention focused on the dark-haired man before him. He weighed his decision, musing on Terranova's unperturbed calm. The man clearly knew his life hung in the balance and yet he betrayed no anxiety. It was an acceptance of whatever came that spoke of either great courage or greater stupidity — and Capuzi knew it wasn't stupidity. "Convince me that Grecco was a thief," the don said to Vince, then raised his eyes to the room, fixing Castellano — now pinioned by the bodyguards — with a gaze that burned with anger. "And you. If you ever draw a weapon in my presence again, I will kill you where you stand." He turned to his bodyguard. "Take him outside."

Castellano was hauled unceremoniously out of the room by the hired muscle, looking death at Terranova all the way. Aiuppo released his hold on the gun barrel he had held, returning to his seat. Vince stood quietly as the room settled.

"How do you know Grecco betrayed the Steelgraves?" came the question from one of the mobsters on Capuzi's right, directly opposite Vince.

Vince held eye contact with Capuzi a split second longer, then turned to face his questioner. "Grecco staged a little torture scene for my benefit when we were supposed to be questioning Winfield. I was supposed to hear the questions, but not Winfield's answers. He kept banging on the poor jerk about the hundred grand. Winfield kept sayin' he'd given Grecco the grease. So why hadn't Sonny ever seen his cut? Maybe I'm not a rocket scientist, but I'm not a total idiot, either."

"Are you going to listen to this bullshit?" Michael Brod interrupted. "He planted phony bank records and set up Sonny's main man. It takes more than some nickel-and-dime bank employee to pull off that kind of frame. Something more like a Federal badge!"

"What Sonny needed, I made it my business to get — whether it was women or information. I bought notes on anyone I figured to be a decent source from any of Sonny's wiseguys who wanted a return on dead paper. The bank manager was in to me for damn near fifty thousand. That'll buy a hellova frame."

Capuzi's interest sharpened. It was standard practice among wiseguys who loan sharked to hold delinquent accounts on customers who might be able to trade information for credit, but it was the first time he was aware of one of them going out of his way to collect deadbeats in order to assemble an information network. This illustrated a level of intelligence and resourcefulness that intrigued him.

"Very well," he began, "you have seventy two hours to get to Grecco and to prove he stole the money." There was a stir in the room as this clemency was digested. Vince waited for the other shoe to drop. "But if you are not standing before me within that time with the proof, you will be hunted down like an animal."

Vince acknowledged the grace with the slight inclination of his head. "I'll be here, one way or the other." He returned to his seat, feeling Aiuppo's approval like a haze in the air around him. He met Brod's furious gaze across the table, knowing he had made a serious enemy. Aiuppo had just publicly supported him against his lieutenants. There would be little doubt in Brod and Castellano's minds that the balance of power was on the verge of shifting, and that when it did, it would not be in their favor.

Brod, not willing to let the matter die, turned to Capuzi. "You trust that bastard and you're likely to end up as dead as the Steelgraves," he pointed out, voice surly. "Steelgrave's pretty-boy managed to walk away from the Feds without so much as an indictment when they busted the wedding. Sonny may have been stupid enough to trust him, but I'm not gonna make the same mistake."

Terranova rose from his chair again slowly, putting his hands flat on the table and leaning over the glossy wood toward Brod. "You pop off about Sonny one more time and mine is not the only body that's gonna be washing up on the Jersey shore in the next few days."

Brod took a step forward, only to be brought up short against the stiff arm of Capuzi's guard. "Did you push him into that transformer?" he snarled "Did he know you were his Iscariot when he died?"

Terranova straightened, hands clenched in reflexive fists. Aiuppo's hand on his sleeve was the only thing that stopped him from launching himself at Brod. "When the Feds told him they had him on Patrice's murder, he walked into that transformer before I could stop him," he said through clenched teeth. "They had the murder on video tape! It was a capital crime. He was gonna get lethal injection." He shook off Aiuppo's hand and straightened slowly. He let the old, and still deep, pain of Sonny's death show in his face. "I killed for him. I woulda died for him. But I couldn't take the rap for him. No, he hadda do Patrice himself, god dammit. It was fucking stupid!" he slammed the flat of his palm against the polished walnut, causing several at the table to start.

"If he'd let me deal with Patrice, he'd be here now. I was the crown prince of Atlantic City. You think I had anything to gain by watching him smoke? Look at me now I'm just some wiseguy with no protection, no future, no family'. None of you would touch me after Sonny." He met eyes around the table, calling them on nearly a decade of snubs and freeze-outs. "I got independent action, now. Legitimate businesses to run. None of you have anything I need. Or want. I'll get you Grecco. Then I'm getting the hell outta New York. If you'll excuse me, I got a rat to catch." He squared his shoulders and tugged at the sleeves of his jacket, then stalked toward the door with all the menace he could muster, sparing a contemptuous glance at Brod as he passed. Brod moved as though to strike him, halted again by Capuzi's guard. Vince felt Aiuppo's stare between his shoulder blades like the point of a knife. He knew he had caught the old man by surprise, declaring his independence as he had. But he was damned if he was going to let Aiuppo have his way without a fight. And it was just barely possible that his expression of disinterest in his mob connections would serve to allay the fears of Brod and Castellano that he was after their action.

"I doubt it," was Roger's assessment of that theory as he drove the BMW aggressively through the Brooklyn traffic. "They are not the forgiving type. While Rudy backs you, you're a major threat to them. And Rudy isn't likely to step away from you till he's got what he wants."

Vinnie sighed. "Yeah, but it was the only thing I could think of at the time."

"Hey, for whatever it's worth, it may buy you some breathing room once we've got Grecco," Lococco conceded. "If Aiuppo manages to persuade them that you are the one to run Brooklyn, you're already on record as an independent." Roger shifted the BMW Z3 into a lower gear as he rounded a corner at speed. "In the meantime, Buckwheat, we need to find out where they're holding Grecco. Without him, you are toast."

Vinnie directed Roger to the tiny single story house that had been his mother's, that was now his. "I'd better check in with the Lifeguard," he said as they walked up the front steps.

"Think McPike will help us locate the weasel?" Roger asked as Vince unlocked the front door. They stepped over the threshold — into wholesale destruction. Wordlessly, they drew their guns. Roger motioned Vince to the side and took point, creeping room by room through the little house, Terranova on his heels, ensuring that whoever had turned the place over was long gone.

"Shit," Vinnie muttered under his breath as he kicked his way through drifts of furniture and papers. "They went through here with a fine tooth comb."

"What's missing?" Lococco asked, surveying the damage.

"Not much. I'm not dumb enough to keep anything here that'd connect me to the OCB. The only thing I'm sure they took is my laptop," Vinnie replied.

"That gonna be a problem?" Roger wanted to know. "They'll be able to pick its' brain like a cheap lock if they've got anyone under twenty with a halfway decent I.Q. on the payroll."

"Everything was password-protected, and I didn't store anything on it anyway. I accessed the DOJ mail drop through a front account on AOL There's no way they can trace my activity past the ISP. I'm not real worried about it. I wipe my received messages as soon as I've read them and I never keep copies of the sent mail," Vinnie said. "I guess if they really want to, they can reconstruct the last couple of messages, but it won't tell them much. They were to Trace, and she's not at risk from whoever did this, not as long as Rudy has her."

"Maybe not, but you'd still better give the old man a heads-up that an unfriendly may be able to link you to the Steelgrave woman."

"Her name is Tracy," Vinnie made no effort to conceal his annoyance at the dismissal in Lococco's voice.

"Yeah. So you've said," Roger's cynical opinion of love was crystal clear.

Vince debated the merits of arguing about it and elected to let it drop with a final shot. "You haven't even met her."

"Let's just say I don't have a lotta confidence in your choice of lovers. You have dangerous tastes," Roger pointed out. "Grab some clothes. We're getting outta here."

Vince rummaged through the debris of his bedroom and collected a change of clothes, sparing the time to change out of his suit and into faded black jeans and a T-shirt. "Where we going?" he asked Lococco.

"To buy ourselves some artillery, then to a hotel. There's no point in letting yourself be a sitting duck for a repeat visit from your decorators," he swept a hand through the air, indicating the mess. "Bring your cell phone. You can call Lifeguard from the car."

Vince finished cramming a scant handful of personal possessions into a gym bag and followed Lococco out to the car. He tossed the bag into the back of the convertible and climbed into the passenger seat. "What kind of hardware are you looking for?" he asked as Roger pulled away from the curb.

"Something with a little more range than my H&K," Lococco informed him. "If I need to do a little hunting, I'm gonna need more firepower."

"We need Grecco alive, Rog. He's no use to me in a body bag."

"If he's in lockup, we'll need to be able to get at him. A long range sniper shot to some extremity will get him outta jail and into the secure wing of the county hospital. Breaking into a hospital is a lot easier than breaking into jail," Roger pointed out.

"As long as he doesn't wind up in the county morgue instead of the hospital," Vinnie muttered under his breath.

"I heard that," Roger said. "You're forgetting who you're talking to, Buckwheat. You never lose the eye. Not when you've spent ten years perfecting it. It's kinda like riding a bike."

Vinnie's expression was skeptical as he pulled his cell phone off his belt and dialed Lifeguard. Dan answered on the second ring.

"Mike Terranova, that you, Vince?"

"Good guess," Vinnie answered, smiling faintly.

"Where the hell are you?" came the imperative question.

"Brooklyn," Vince said flatly. "I need to know where they've got Grecco stashed."

"McPike is working on it, but getting the information on a weekend is a major hassle. We still haven't found Tracy," Lifeguard added reluctantly.

"Rudy's got her stashed somewhere," Vince informed him shortly. "He's using her as leverage to get me to play ball."

"What?!" The disbelief was unmistakable. "What's he up to?"

"He brought me to a council meeting this morning. Capuzi's given me three days to find out where Grecco hid the money he skimmed from Sonny before he sends the hitters after me."

"Geezus, Vince! You walked into a council meeting and you're still standing? Rudy must have been outta his fucking mind! You coulda been killed! You stupid sonovabitch, why the hell did you go along with him?"

"Rudy's got Tracy. I don't have a lotta choices, here, Uncle Mike. If he decides to connect her name with mine to the rest of the outfit, she's dead unless I maintain my cover."

"The old guy loves you like a son, Vinnie. Why the hell would he put you — or her — in that kind of jeopardy?" Lifeguard's consternation was eloquent.

"He's playing hardball. He wants to put me into his operation as cappo. He'll do whatever he has to to get his way, Mike."

"Shit! You know how to pick 'em, kid. You couldn't fall for some nice neighborhood girl, no. You have to pick a Steelgrave. McPike is gonna freak. What's your twenty?"

"We're mobile. I don't know where we'll hole up yet."

"We?" Dan demanded.

"I brought help," Vince admitted, glancing at Roger's profile as the older man drove.

"It had better be an army," Lifeguard snapped, completely serious.

"Almost." Terranova paused, then came clean. "Tell Frank Roger's with me."

"Lococco? He's supposed to be dead!"

"Yeah, well the rumors were greatly exaggerated," Vince said cynically. "I've been in touch with him since he disappeared."

"Frank's gonna flip."

"He knows. Roger shortstopped him in Lynchboro seven years ago, when I went section eight."

"And neither of you told me? You assholes." Anger, mingled with discernable hurt crackled over the phone.

"It was Roger's call, Mike. The C.I.A. still has assassins after him. He's not exactly hiding out, but he's not broadcasting his whereabouts, either. The deal Lococco made with Frank when I called him in was that he couldn't tell anyone who was helping him. He couldn't lie about it if they asked, either. Rog won't disappear for anyone again, not ever. Not for any reason. He's outta the shadows." Vince attempted to soften the blow.

There was momentary silence as this was digested. "Okay. So where do I tell McPike to find you?"

"You don't. We'll contact him when we can. But I gotta get to Grecco. I need proof. A half hour frame job isn't gonna fool them — they are going to pull it apart this time. I told Capuzi that I held notes on the bank manager, so you'd better put together a paper trail to back me up. And I want transcripts of Grecco's testimony. I need to know exactly what he told the Grand Jury."

"Will do. I'll e-mail em to you."

"My place got turned over today. Probably by one of Castellano's guys. They got word before the council today about Tony's solo performance in court and they're looking for anything they can find to corroborate his story. They took my laptop."

"Okay." Lifeguard took a deep breath. "I'll get a replacement and the transcripts to Frank. When you have a location, he can bring it to you."

"Thanks, man." Vinnie let his genuine gratitude show in his voice.

"You're welcome. And Vince," Dan hesitated a moment, "tell Lococco I'm glad they didn't get him ten years ago."

"I'll tell him." Vince disconnected and folded the mouthpiece back against the little phone's body, hanging it back on his belt. "Uncle Mike says welcome back to the land of the living," he told Roger.

Lococco grinned and shot a humor-laden glance at his passenger.

The passage of a short fifteen minutes found them in a dingy neighborhood, parking in front of a watering hole with the unlikely name of Gabriel's Horn.

"A gunrunner I know keeps informal office hours upstairs. He doesn't put too fine a point on the waiting period for handguns," Lococco announced to the skepticism on Terranova's face.

Vince, holding the locked metal suitcase that held Roger's ready cash, followed him into the bar, waiting as Lococco bribed a down-on-his-luck patron to keep an eye on the convertible outside, then climbed the greasy stairwell on his heels.

Roger conducted his purchases with rapid professionalism, refusing to be tempted by the glittering array of the newest and deadliest paramilitary weaponry the dealer insisted on showing him. He selected a silenced sniper's rifle and the latest in night-vision, laser-targeted telescopic sights to go with it, followed in short order by two machine pistols, a semiautomatic rifle that looked like Vietnam era surplus ordinance, another Heckler & Koche automatic, a .357 Magnum revolver, a wrist mounted knife sheath with a four inch blade, an ankle holster and the four-shot snub-nosed revolver that went with it, and a pair of switchblades. He followed this with ammunition for all the weapons and a ten thousand dollar bonus to get it delivered. "The Waldorf Astoria," he told the man with a feral grin.

"You joking me? I can't bring this stuff to a hotel!"

"For this kind of bread, you can bring it anywhere I want it," Lococco corrected him. There was no mistaking the unyielding will in his pack-ice eyes as he met and held the man's gaze.

Terranova eyed the heaped weapons warily. "Don't you think this is overkill, Rog? If you were planning re-staging Escape From New York', you're gonna need an army. If you're just gunning for Grecco, you don't need all this stuff."

"I like having options, Buckwheat. You never know what opportunity will present itself. And chance favors the prepared mind', or in this case, triggerman." Lococco removed his suit coat and strapped on the knife sheath, then stooped to fasten the ankle holster on before he re-donned his jacket. "We're outta here. I expect this stuff at the hotel before midnight," he added to the dealer.

They exited through the bar, Roger snagging a newly opened long necked beer bottle from in front of one of the patrons and flicking a twenty onto the wet bar top on his way past. He handed the beer and a hundred dollar bill to the battered looking young man who had been leaning on the hood of the BMW "Thanks, man," Lococco dismissed him.

"Any time, brother," came the reply as the hundred disappeared into a pocket in his denim jacket and the beer disappeared down his throat.

The desk clerk at the Waldorf Astoria didn't so much as bat an eye at the oddly matched pair who stood before him as he checked them into a twelve-hundred-dollar-a-night back corner suite near the top floor. As far as he was concerned, anyone wearing a three thousand dollar suit and paying for a week's lodgings — in cash — in advance, was entitled to as many thugs in his entourage as he cared to have.

Both Vince and Roger struggled to suppress grins at the desk clerk's studious efforts to ignore Terranova's scruffy attire and the canvas bag slung over one shoulder. "I'm going to be having some things delivered to the hotel some time this evening," Roger informed him. "Make sure it gets to me without any hitches." He tucked another hundred into the clerks' breast pocket. Taking their key cards and picking up the metal suitcase he had been schlepping all afternoon, he and Vince headed for the elevators. "Heel," Roger deadpanned.

In typical paranoid fashion, Lococco inspected all three rooms of the suite carefully, checking windows and doors for security. Satisfied, he picked up the phone and dialed the front desk. "Yeah, this is suite Twenty seven-forty two. I need someone in your men's shop to bring up a couple of suits, shirts, shoes, the whole nine yards. Forty four long and size eleven. The best you got." He listened for a moment. "Twenty minutes is fine," he said and hung up.

"What's with the clothes?" Vince asked warily.

"I know you swore off custom tailoring, Vinnie, and I hate to be the one to break it to you, but clothes make the man. At least in the places you're likely to wind up in the next few days. If you're gonna walk away from a potential mob business partnership with the excuse that you've got your own interests to look after, then it had better be damn clear that those interests are more lucrative than any carrot they're holding up." He met Vinnie's reluctant look firmly. "And it's not like I can't afford it."

Forty five minutes later, Vince stood in sartorial splendor as Lococco shelled out for the wardrobe upgrade. "It's is a little steep, Rog," he observed as the wad of hundreds changed hands.

"Now is not the time to be going cheap, Vince." He turned to the shop clerk. "I want the other two ready by tomorrow, noon," he added.

"Certainly, sir. I don't imagine that it should be any later than ten a.m." He took the three rejected suits and the two that had been fitted for alteration, four pairs of shoes and the various remaining miscellany back to the bell cart, loading it up. "It's been a pleasure, sir."

Roger opened the door for him, then closed it after him. "I love New York," he grinned at Vince. "You can get virtually anything you want, any time of the day or night, any day of the week. Delivered." He returned to the sitting area, walking around Terranova, evaluating the suit he wore. "Not bad. Beats the off-the-rack look, anyway." The midnight blue Italian wool single breasted jacket fell from Vinnie's broad shoulders as though it had been fitted for him. The trousers, with their knife-edged creases, broke over the instep of the seven-hundred dollar kidskin loafers two inches above the hem. The whole thing could not have fit better if it had been made for him.

He recognized the discomfort in the way Vince shifted restlessly under his scrutiny. "So what's the problem?" he inquired, able to guess.

"You shouldn't be bankrolling this, Roger." Vince tugged at the knot of the striped silk tie, loosening it and unbuttoning the suit coat.

"So who else is gonna? The OCB? I don't seem to remember you having a problem with Susan stocking your closet."

"That was different," Terranova retorted.

"How?" Lococco crossed his arms over his chest, cocking his head, feeling his temper rising. "Cause I'm not asking you to sleep with me?" he asked, feigning calm.

Vince caught the edge in his voice and met it with anger of his own. "Fuck you, Roger."

"Is that what the difference is? You can accept gifts from someone you sleep with but not a friend? There's a word for that, Buckwheat." Roger didn't pull the punch.

Vinnie was brought up short by the observation. He looked at Lococco for a long moment, then took a deep breath.

Roger saw him hesitate, watched the anger fade out of the remarkable blue eyes. "Stop being a jerk, Vince." He straightened, slapping Terranova on the arm. "And get used to it. I'm not leaving until you're clear of both the outfit and the OCB If that means I bankroll the takeover of New York, then I bankroll the takeover of New York."

"You are a nut case," Vince said with a ghost of a smile.

"If you think I won't spend every dime I've got keeping you alive, you're wrong," Lococco told him, perfectly serious. He didn't break eye contact with Vince until the younger man looked away, embarrassed. "Call McPike," he told Vince.

McPike cursed Terranova's choice of meeting places. The aquatic park was far too public for comfort, much less safety. He surveyed the late afternoon inhabitants foolish enough to brave the sleety drizzle of an early February Sunday in New York for an outing, wishing he were not among them. Vinnie was nowhere in sight as Frank wandered along an asphalt path toward a lone — and clearly freezing — hotdog vendor and purchased a carton of stale popcorn, juggling his briefcase and umbrella to try to hold all three.

Taking his snack, he headed toward the broad path along the waterfront. Resting his elbows on the wet railing and standing the case on the pavement between his feet, he looked out across the misty harbor at the statue of Liberty, eating the popcorn. He amused himself by tossing a few kernels at the time into the air and watching the aerial acrobatics of the gulls as they dove, squawking, for them, snatching the food out of midair.

"Waste of good popcorn," came the wry observation from McPike's left some five minutes later. Without a word, Frank offered the popcorn to Vinnie, who took a handful, sampled it, then frowned and joined McPike in tossing it into the smudgy sky, where it disappeared into the maws of the hungry birds.

"I don't suppose it matters, but I've spent the last forty eight hours wondering how many pieces we'd find your body in," the OCB Regional Director stated resignedly. "Instead, I see you standing here looking like an ad for G.Q. in your spiffy new clothes. Uncle told me Lococco's in town babysitting you while you try and get yourself killed."

"I'm not trying to get myself killed, Frank. I'm trying to prop up my cover story long enough to ask a girl to marry me." Vince's voice was weary. "For the record, I tried to keep Roger out of this."

"Well I'm glad, for once, that you ran into someone even more mule-headed than you are. I may not like him much, but if anyone can keep you alive, it's gonna be him."

Vince glanced at McPike, surprised by the comment.

"So tell me how the council meeting went down." Frank changed the subject.

"Let's just say it wasn't an experience I'd care to repeat," Vince said dryly. "I'm definitely getting too old for the adrenaline rush."

"I know that feeling," McPike agreed, "Working with you for the last ten years has cured any addiction to it I may once have had."

Vinnie grinned. "You blaming me for your gray hairs?"

"What's left of em," Frank confirmed. "Do me favor and actually quit this gig so I can enjoy my old age."

"As soon as I can, Frank. As soon as I can." Terranova was suddenly serious again. "You know where they're keeping Grecco yet?"

"County lock-up," McPike informed him. "You know you're on your own with this. I can't get you in to him, not without blowing your cover completely."

"Yeah. Don't worry about it, Frank. Rog has an angle." Vince's tone was grim. "Just don't plan on letting Tony make any deals for witness protection when we're through with him."

"You'd better keep the rest of that thought to yourself, Vinnie. I do not need to know what that crazy bastard, Lococco, has in mind for our friend Tony." McPike stated, throwing up a cautionary hand.

"It's Grecco, or it's me. I don't have to tell you which one I'm more partial to," Vince replied.

"Yeah, well, you're not alone. But last I checked, I was still supposed to be reporting assassination plots to the police. So just let's keep this under your hat, will you?"

Terranova stuffed his hands into the pockets of the black wool greatcoat Roger had added to his wardrobe on the way out of the hotel an hour before. "I wish I knew what the hell Rudy was planing," he mused. "I threw as much of a monkey wrench into it as I could at the council this morning, but my gut tells me I'm gonna be playing his game whether I want to or not."

McPike nodded. "Provided you live through the next three days, I don't see much in the way of alternatives. Not as long as you refuse witness protection, anyway."

"And I'm not disappearing without at least talking to Tracy, first. I can't do that as long as Rudy has her. And he's not gonna let her go till he's got me where he wants me."

McPike sighed. "You're sure you know what you're doing, setting your cap for her? You don't even know her, Vince."

"I can't even explain it to myself, Frank. But I've never been as sure of anything in my life. I want her. If she'll have me. There are no lies between us, Frank, and I can't even start to tell you how good that feels."

McPike dribbled a handful of popcorn over the water without responding immediately. "Just be careful, will you?" he upended the last of the popcorn into the oily waves. "What did you mean when you said you'd monkey-wrenched things this morning?" he changed the subject.

Vince went with it, relieved. "Basically, I told the council I'd give them Grecco, but that I didn't need or want their action. I kinda implied that I had business of my own to handle. I don't think Brod and Castellano are gonna let it go, though. Rudy made it pretty clear they were pissing him off."

"You steer clear of those two, Vince. They are bad to the bone and if they can find a way to screw you — or even kill you — they will. Just deal with the Grecco problem and get Capuzi to clear you so you can get the hell out of New York."

Vinnie nodded. "That's the plan," he agreed. "Let's just hope it comes together the way we want it to."

McPike nodded and bent to hand the briefcase at his feet to Terranova. "Uncle Mike told me to tell you he up-graded your laptop and cleared out all the front accounts that the old one had access to. There won't be any way they'll be able to do more than reconstruct what was on the drive when they took it. If they're lucky. He left your passwords the same and just switched ISP fronts. He said to call him when you're ready and he'll walk you through the new security protocol."

"The transcripts in here, too?" Vince asked.

"Yup. All three hundred and forty pages," McPike said smugly. "It makes for great bed-time reading At least till you get to Grecco's testimony. That's on page two eighty three."

"Thanks." Vinnie took a firmer grip on the wet briefcase. "I'm gonna get outta here. Give me a few minutes, just in case."

McPike nodded. "Take care of yourself. And make your call-in schedule!"

"You got it."

McPike watched Terranova walk away into the drizzle, and saw a raincoated figure detach itself from the lee of a notice kiosk, falling into step with the agent. Lococco, he surmised, relieved that Vince was not on his own.

"You get Grecco's location?" Roger inquired, unlocking the BMW with the remote as they approached.

"Yeah. You were right. He's in county lock-up. We aren't going to get a chance at him until they trot him out for the Grand Jury on Monday morning. In the meantime, I want to hit the neighborhood, shake a few trees, see what sort of rumors are floating around. I have some contacts that may know something useful." He got into the passenger seat of the convertible, slamming the door shut after him, Lococco sliding into the driver's seat a second behind him.

"We should see what we can dig up on the Junior Achievers," Roger suggested. "I have a feeling we are gonna be locking horns with those bastards any time, now.

"You mean Brod and Castellano?" Vince said with a nod, "Count on it. They're gonna be looking for any opening we give them."

At this confirmation, a contemplative look came over Roger's face. "There must be a way to control the situation. Make them come to us, on our terms, when we're ready."

"I'm open to suggestions," Vince agreed.

Lococco considered this as he put the car into gear and pulled into traffic, heading for Brooklyn.

Roger pulled up to the curb in front of a run-down laundromat half a mile from Vinnie's house. "You want me in there with you?" he asked as Vince opened the car door.

"Nah, Manny is an old friend. He kept an eye on my mom while I was in the slam. He's gonna take one look at you and think I've come gunning for him. He'll rabbit."

Roger grinned, his maniac smile sparking in his eyes for the barest moment. "Okay," he said. "Yell if you want me to break any legs," he added sarcastically as Vinnie climbed out of the car. Vince raised a cynical eyebrow by way of rejoinder, and walked into the laundry.

Manny was arguing with an elderly woman who ranted in mingled Italian and English that the dryer was broken and had eaten her coins without drying her clothes. Manny, grayer, paunchier and wearier then ever, finally relented, as he had every Sunday afternoon for thirteen years, and fed his own quarters into the dryer. He didn't notice Terranova standing by the door until he was half way to the little office in the back. His double-take was comic. The fear on his face wasn't.

"Vinnie!" he approached Vince, anxiety writ large on his features. "What are you doing here?"

Vinnie's internal alarm system went off with a vengeance. "I live here, Manny. What the hell is wrong?"

"Come on in back, Vinnie. We can talk there." With a furtive and clearly frightened glance out the front windows of his business, he caught Terranova by the arm and hustled him into the dingy little office. "There's a bounty on you, Vinnie. Brod and Castellano are willing to pay ten large to anyone who can tell them where to find you — a hundred large to anyone who drills you."

"What?! Why?" he exclaimed, astounded at the temerity of Aiuppo's lieutenants to flout a grace given by one of the ranking mobsters in the city.

Manny sank into the rickety wooden chair at his desk. "They say you're a cop," he said, face gray. "They say that one of Sonny Steelgrave's wiseguys testified in front of a Grand Jury that you're a Federal agent, Vince."

Vince let his anger show, snarling. "Tony Grecco. The weasel was skimming from Sonny's dock operations in Atlantic City. I fingered him and he headed straight for witness protection. Only when the Feds found out he'd iced some guy on the docks, they threw him in the slammer, instead. So now he's found a way to get some payback and maybe finally make it into witness protection with the cash he stole from Sonny. Brod and Castellano want me outta the way cause Rudy is considering putting me into his old territory to ride herd on the bastards. He thinks they've been bleeding him like Grecco bled Sonny. Capuzi's given me till noon on Tuesday to get him proof that Grecco was a thief. They're risking a war if they break his grace!"

"The hit is on, Vince. And I don't think that you're the only one on the list. I think they're gonna go gunning for don Aiuppo as soon as they've whacked you. They want the whole ball of wax, and they don't want to wait any longer for it. They been taking twenty, thirty percent outta the neighborhood for years, now. The old don, he don't see so good no more, so they been getting' away with skimmin' the cream right off the top."

Vince began pacing the confines of the narrow room, thinking hard. "You got any proof? Any way to back up your story?"

"I'm strictly small time, Vinnie," Manny protested. "What I know is street gossip. There's no way of proving anything! And the guys who complained are all renting space at the cemetery. There's no way I'm gonna go up against those two. I've got a family!"

Vince nodded sharply. "Okay, Manny, I'll see if I can get this to Rudy. If they're looking to kill him, I've gotta let him know."

"Just don't tell him where you got it," Manny pleaded. "If Brod and Castellano win this one, I don't wanna be on record as a squealer."

"Okay," Vince agreed reluctantly, and headed for the door into the laundry.

"Vinnie -", Manny said sharply. "Use the back way, man. If they're watching the place, they may hit you on your way out the front door."

Terranova nodded. "Thanks," he said gravely as he let himself out into the grubby alley behind the laundromat.

Lococco had watched Vince enter the laundromat and then began a scan of the neighborhood, watching as the local inhabitants went about the mundane business of their lives. He spotted the hardware store across from his parking spot and considered a moment, then got out of the car and jogged across the wet street to the opposite sidewalk, entering the shabby little storefront. It took him less than five minutes to find what he was looking for and make his purchases, tucking the two fist-sized boxes and a plastic pouch about a foot long into the large pockets of his cashmere overcoat as he exited the shop and headed back toward the car. To his surprise, he saw Terranova approaching from the end of the block and he started the car and pulled out to meet him, ignoring the liberal use of car horns as he blocked traffic for the ten seconds that it took Vince to climb into the vehicle. "What's up?" he asked, alerted by the grim expression on Vince's face.

"Brod and Castellano are defying Capuzi's orders. They've got a hit out on me and probably on Rudy, too. According to Manny, they're about to stage a palace revolt. If they kill Rudy and me, they've got clear title to Brooklyn. I guess they figure they'd better move now, before Aiuppo can come outta retirement again and cement an alliance with Capuzi and his boys."

"I knew we'd be having to deal with those two sooner rather than later," Lococco said. "You'd better let your stepfather know what's going on. His security is gonna have to double-time it. And we wouldn't want anyone capping him till you've got the princess back, now would we?"

In answer, Vinnie was already dialing Aiuppo's private line. He got Rudy on the second ring. Vince told him, briefly, about the break-in at his house and the missing lap-top, and then related the news that Aiuppo's lieutenants were about to go independent, by way of an assassination attempt. His parting words made his priority in relaying this news unmistakably clear to Aiuppo. "And you'd better make damn sure that those bastards can't get anywhere near Tracy. Because if they track her to you and your guys let them hurt so much as a hair on her head, I'll kill you myself." He hung up and tucked the phone into the pocket of his greatcoat. "Shit," he muttered to himself, frustrated anger radiating from him.

Lococco glanced at him, waiting for the rest of the imminent outburst.

"God damn him," Vince spat. "I swear, I'll kill him for this."

"All in good time, Buckwheat." Lococco said laconically. "Let's deal with Popeye and Bluto, first, okay? What did your contact say, exactly?"

Vince rubbed the back of his neck, working his shoulders to relieve the tension there. "It looks like they've been planning this for a while," he began. "They've been pulling an extra ten, fifteen percent out of the neighborhoods for the last few years, probably to finance their little coup. I guess that's what Rudy suspected and why he's been trying to drag me into this whole thing for the last two months."

Lococco mused on this. "So what's the likely reaction when Capuzi and the other honchos find out they've iced Aiuppo?"

"Depends," Vince said. "If the boys handle it smooth enough, the rest of the dons will pretty much accept it as a done deal — as long as none of their territories or deals get cut into. If they make a mess, though, they're looking at a war."

"Define mess'," Roger requested, tersely.

"Anything that means getting Federal heat turned on. If they're quiet about this and can make it look like a simple hit, they're off the hook, especially considering what Tony's been blabbing about me. And I guarantee no one is gonna be celebrating if Rudy decides to take back control.... Too many new deals will get scrapped if that happens. But if it turns into a shooting war, the dons are gonna shoot back."

Roger pondered this for a moment. "So, what would happen, theoretically, if you show up Tuesday with not only proof that Grecco was a thief, but that the wünderkind are, too?"

"They're looking at screwing up every alliance they've got. If they break faith with Aiuppo — and get caught with their hands in the cookie jar before they can waste him — what's to say they won't try the same thing with their business associates?" Vinnie explained. "Theoretically, why do you want to know?"

"Can we make a deal with them? Get the heat off you in exchange for our silence?" Lococco asked, with the tone in his voice that signaled a plan in formation.

"Silence about what, Rog? We don't have a thing on them except rumor and hearsay. They've been real careful to discourage' vocal opposition. No one from the neighborhoods is gonna risk getting killed to help us outta a jam."

Lococco considered this as he drove, heading back downtown toward their hotel. "How bout McPike? He got any guys under in the Hardy boys' organization?"

"Not that he's ever let slip to me," Vince said, suspiciously. "Why?"

"Cause we gonna up the ante on those boys, my friend," Roger assumed his ironic drawl. "Get in touch with Frank and see if he can dig anything up for us."

"Roger, he's not gonna give up another agent just so we can pull Brod and Castellano's tails!" Vince protested.

"Not even to keep you alive? Besides, I'm not suggesting that he blow an agent's cover, just see if there's any solid proof you can go to Capuzi with. Or that can be used as leverage with the girls'," Roger said. "It's worth a shot, unless you're real fond of the idea of getting blown away before we can get to Grecco," he added.

"I thought that's what you were here to prevent," Vince muttered, sotto voce.

Lococco wrenched the steering wheel hard over and swung the little sports car to the side of the road in a smoking arc and turned to glare at Terranova. "Exactly, Buckwheat, but if you think I'm just gonna stand by and let you play the target, you've got a seriously over-inflated idea of what I can do. I can't keep you alive if you really don't care about staying that way! I can't do this alone, Vince! I'm not the suicide prevention hot line!" Lococco's grip on the steering wheel was white-knuckled, barely controlled rage blazing in his eyes.

"I'm not suicidal, Roger," Vinnie said quietly.

"That's not what it looks like from where I'm sitting, Vince," Lococco retorted, bitingly. "From here, it looks like you got shit for brains, falling for some mob diva and making an heroic stand for love, honor and famiglia'. Gonna go out with all your guns blazing? If that's the way you want it, go for it. But don't expect me to like it!"

Terranova stared at Lococco, dumbfounded at this tirade. Slowly, it began to dawn on him that there was more here than just frustration at their current circumstances. Lococco was jealous, though of what exactly, Vince was at a loss to say. That realization stunned him momentarily speechless as he stared into Roger's January gaze. "I love her, Rog," he said finally. "I don't expect you to understand why, or even care. She sees me the way I am, Roger. No apologies, no excuses. I like the man I see in her eyes when she looks at me I'm not walking away from this situation, any more than I walked away from you ten years ago, just because I'm being manipulated by a master con-man. It's not just my life on the line anymore, don't you get it?"

"No, it's mine, too," Lococco snapped.

Vinnie didn't break eye contact. "That was your choice, Roger. You can walk away any time you want and I wouldn't blame you. This is not the way a member of the Billionaire Boy's Club should be spending his vacation," Vinnie told him, gently. "You have no reason to stay, except to help a friend outta a big-time mess. And because I'm asking you to."

Lococco froze, then closed his eyes. Vinnie saw the fight drain out of him as he shook his head self-mockingly. "Stop me if I'm wrong, Buckwheat, but I think we just had our first lover's quarrel." He turned to meet Vinnie's gaze. "She'd better be worth it, cause I wouldn't do this for anyone but you."

It was nearly midnight before Vince finally got through to McPike in person. "Frank, we got trouble." There would be no breaking it gently.

"What — something else has gone to hell? Cut to the chase, kid. What now?" McPike's voice was colored with exhaustion. Vince could hear it in every slurred syllable.

"Brod and Castellano have a contract out on me'n Rudy," he stated simply.

"Wait-a-minute, wait a minute! I thought you told me that Capuzi's given you till Tuesday, noon, to get Grecco? Are they crazy?" McPike's frustrated outrage was unmistakable.

"No, but they're starting to get a little desperate. I was out on the streets looking for information this afternoon, and that interesting little item came my way. Seems like Brod and Castellano are planning on taking over Aiuppo's territory. And they're plannin' on nailing us to do it. If they can keep it quiet, they step into Brooklyn as top dogs and the other dons'll stand back and let them."

"Not on my watch, they won't!" McPike snarled. "They're gonna have a war on their hands, even if I have to call in the National Guard!"

"Frank, that's not the way to play this!" Vince hastily replied, not liking the ragged quality in Frank's voice. "If you can get me any kind of proof that they've been skimming from Rudy, I can go to them and get them to back down."

"Wrong, Vince, you can go to them and get yourself killed!" Frank roared. "Even if I could find something, all it would do is confirm you as a threat to them!"

"They're already pretty clear on that, Frank," Vince said, unable to restrain his cynicism. "But if I can bring Capuzi proof that they have every intention of hitting Rudy and taking over the party, I can make their lives the same shade of hell they've made mine in the last coupla days!"

McPike's sigh was eloquent. "Vinnie, I've got maybe three agents in their organization. Only one of them is in any position to corroborate any of this. I can't ask an agent to blow his own cover!"

"He doesn't have to blow his cover, Frank, all he has to do is come up with hard evidence that the kids are plannin' a hostile take-over," Vince wheedled.

"That's the problem, Vince, there is no hard evidence! All we've got are vague suspicions and some very creative bookkeeping in Brooklyn, none of which gets us anywhere." McPike was grim. "I've been reviewing his reports for the last six months, trying to piece together what the hell was going on, and there's nothing! Those two jackals have covered their tracks very carefully."

Vince sighed. "Frank, I've gotta find something. Anything. And it's gotta be legit. No one is gonna be takin' anything I say on Tuesday on faith."

"Well I can't do anything about it now, Vince. Let me talk to his field supervisor tomorrow and see if anything new is shaking loose with your parading around the city," McPike agreed reluctantly. "Maybe we'll get lucky. We're sure as hell about due!"

Lococco sat sprawled in the sittingroom of the suite in a large wingback chair, feet on the ottoman, nursing a scotch and waiting for Terranova to finish his phone call to McPike. From Vinnie's half of the conversation, the possibility of hard evidence of plots to overthrow on the part of Aiuppo's lieutenants was not looking very good. Roger mused on this, considering various scenarios and their relative workability, as well as their likelihood of producing the desired results. He also braced himself for the likely argument he was going to get from Vinnie when he announced his intention of doing a solo recon of the area around the county lock-up, as well as the Federal Circuit Court buildings where the Grand Jury was to meet on Monday morning. He would be much happier working alone, given the fact that Vince had a sign saying hit me' stuck to his back.

Vince finished his conversation and collapsed onto the couch across the coffee table from Roger. "Frank's going to check with the field supervisors who have agents in place inside Brod and Castellano's business tomorrow and see what he can find out. But that doesn't leave us much time to do anything with it, if he finds it."

"Well, we could try a little poker," Roger proposed. "Are you up for a bluff?"

"Roger, you don't walk into their office in broad daylight, tell them you know they've got their fingers in Aiuppo's till and expect to walk out again without provoking a reaction!" Vince sat upright, leaning forward slightly, his doubts clear on his face.

"On the contrary, Buckwheat, A reaction is exactly what I hope to provoke," Roger smiled, the expression feral. "If they make a move on the spot, there's gonna be a whole office-full of eyewitnesses. That means they'll come after us outside, in short order. If we make ourselves look like targets, we may be able to expose them to Capuzi. He should be able to rein them in long enough for us to deal with Grecco and get you out of town."

Vince considered this, clearly not liking the idea, but not seeing an alternative. "Don't underestimate them, Rog. They are smart, and they are mean, and if we aren't real, real careful, we'll wind up dead in their lobby on our way out of the building."

Roger shrugged. "It's one way of pulling their fangs," he said.

"Yeah, but to do it, we gotta stick our heads in their damn mouths! The odds are real good that they'll bite 'em off for us!"

Roger didn't reply, staring into his glass as he swirled the contents absently. "I'm going out in a couple of hours to get the lay of the land along the route they'll be taking Grecco tomorrow," he changed the subject.

"I'm coming with you," Vince stated, as Lococco had expected he would.

"No, my friend, you are not." He put the glass down on the coffee table and met Terranova's angry look. "You are a target. They know you're going after Grecco. They undoubtedly know where Grecco is. Therefore, it's safe to assume that they'll have their guys looking for an easy kill shot in his vicinity. You show up there, and there's a high probability you won't make it to breakfast."

"And what about you, huh? They're not gonna ask you for an I.D. before they open fire on you, Roger. They'll gun you down and then figure out they got the wrong guy. You are not going out there without back-up!"

"Vinnie, Vinnie, give me credit for a few brain cells!" his smile was cynical. "Taking them out is part of my objective, here. I have no objection to thinning the ranks of the Mafia goons waiting in the wings for a shot at you on my way to getting Grecco outta jail."

Vince stared at Roger, abruptly — and uneasily — reminded how dangerous Lococco truly was. "You're not an assassin any more, Rog. Murder is a capital offence, in case it slipped your mind."

"Self defense isn't," Roger replied without heat.

Vinnie's eyes widened as comprehension dawned. "You're gonna draw their fire? Deliberately? Rog, I'm not the one with the death wish here, you are! You cannot go out there without back-up!"

All humor, all light, fled from Lococco's face. "I was doing' whole squads of V.C., solo, in the Nam while you were in grade school, Vince. Believe me, I know what I'm doing. I know exactly what I'm doing. They won't know what hit them. Literally."

"This isn't the jungle, Roger," Vince exclaimed, truly horrified by the turn the conversation had taken.

"You're wrong, Vince. It's just made outta concrete." Lococco said with finality as he picked up his glass. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil — cause I'm the meanest sonovabitch in the place,'" he quipped.

"It's not funny, Roger." Vinnie's voice was strangled.

"It wasn't meant to be, Buckwheat." Lococco stared over the rim of his glass across the coffee table at his friend, letting the killer show in his eyes. "I did this for almost fifteen years. This is why I came along. I don't have the burden of scruples to deal with, Vince. I have one goal, and one goal only. That is to keep you alive. Anyway I can. So you are going to sit here, like a good little Federal Agent, and come up with some way to get those rat-bastards off your ass tomorrow. Because we're gonna need a clear field to get at Grecco and get any information outta him. I'd rather not be doing a re-enactment of the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral in a hospital corridor tomorrow night. A whole lot of civilians stand to get hurt if we play it that way." He watched Terranova swallow hard, and handed him the glass of scotch. "Drink this. Drink a lot of this. You'll feel like hell in the morning either way, but at least you'll get some sleep," he told the haggard man on the couch.

Any reply Vince was about to make was interrupted by the polite knock on the door. "Ah," Roger sighed, as he rose to open it. "The toys have arrived. I hope Delaney put the extra goodies in the box.

"What goodies?" Vinnie asked, dazedly.

Roger held up a hand to forestall further questions as he opened the door to the suite. The bell captain stood outside with a heavily laden baggage cart, and Roger moved out of his way, allowing him entrance.

The cart was quickly unloaded and the bellman left with a hefty tip in his uniform pocket. Roger pulled open the first of the boxes and began emptying it onto the floor and Vince took the weapons as he unpacked them, laying them on an Edwardian settee to get them out of the way.

"Ah, good. He got the message," Roger said to himself as he pulled a set of binoculars from the packing material, followed by a pair of night-vision goggles. "This should make any hidden agendas pretty visible," he added, and noted the slight lessening of the worry in Vinnie's face. He finished opening all the boxes, pleased that the rifles had all come disassembled, in well padded carrying cases. They would be considerably less conspicuous that way. No sense in terrorizing the hapless hotel housekeepers.

Vince had taken possession of the .357 and turned the heavy pistol over in his hands, admiring the finish of the polished stainless steel. Roger joined him beside the settee and glanced at the gun in Vince's hands. "I never have understood why you would rather lug around a six pound hunk of iron than a little baby like this," he said, snagging the H&K automatic for himself. "Must be remnants of your cowboy days. Me, I grew outta six-shooters when I figured out I'd be humping that iron all over the Nam — on foot."

Vince shrugged. "Most of the automatics are a little small for my taste. Someone points a revolver at you, and you're gonna notice. Real fast."

"A taste for the flamboyant," Lococco grinned. They stowed all but the sniper rifle under the beds quietly, Roger ignoring the brooding nature of the silence. "Get some sleep, Vince. I'll be back before noon."

"I don't like this, Roger. At least let me get McPike to send out some troops," Vince pleaded, knowing it was futile.

"I don't work by committee, Vinnie," Roger said dismissively. "And besides, it'd be a cold day in hell before McPike would sanction the kind of job I'm planning on doing tonight."

Vince couldn't argue with this, knowing Frank was none too happy with what he had been told. "Just watch your back, man. I don't want to be hearing about your dead body being found on a rooftop across from the county jail."

"Stop worrying, Buckwheat. It won't be my body you'll be seeing on the morning news. I'm gonna grab a few zees before I hit the dance floor."

Vince watched Roger disappear into his room, nudging the door shut behind himself, and returned to the sofa and the scotch that stood on the coffee table in front of it. It was well over half an hour later before he picked up the glass and began working on emptying the bottle.

Lococco woke at two forty, within five minutes of the time he set his internal alarm for, rising and donning black jeans, black T-shirt, shoes and raincoat. Light was leaking in around the doorframe, signaling Vinnie's presence in the sittingroom. He hoped the agent had drunk enough to put him to sleep, but he wasn't counting on it. Picking up the case that held the broken-down sniper rifle, as well as the binoculars and the infrared goggles, he stepped out of his room.

Vince was sprawled on the couch, glass balanced on his chest, unfocused blue eyes fixed on some unseen thing. He had made a sizable dent in the contents of the bottle, Roger noted. Wordlessly, he found Vinnie's now empty canvas gym bag and put the goggles and binoculars inside. He could feel the weight of Terrranova's gaze as it settled on him. He ignored it. Ready, he straightened and met cerulean eyes. "Get some sleep, Vince," he said again, knowing it was probably pointless. Vince was a brooder, and the burden of a Catholic guilt complex provided ample fodder for worrying. He paused long enough to cap the scotch bottle and return it to the bar area across the room. "I think you've had about enough," he said wryly. "I need you on the vertical tomorrow, Buckwheat." He headed for the door with his equipment and let himself out into the corridor without a backward glance.

Vince watched him go, hating the uselessness he felt at having someone else fight his battles for him. With what little rational thought remained to him in his current drunken state, he knew Lococco could handle himself in most situations. But he had also seen the tendency Roger had to underestimate the mob. It was a tendency that could easily get him killed. "Be careful, Rog," he said softly to the closing door.

***************************************

Lococco stashed the binoculars and his rifle case in the Z3's trunk, electing to reconnoiter the area near the county jail with only his H&K in its' shoulder holster under his arm, and its' silencer in a coat pocket. He began by walking the length of the block in front of the jail, scanning the buildings on either side of the street, gauging their suitability as vantage points. He stood in the main doorway of the lock-up and considered the line-of-sight from the three buildings directly across from the jail. The center one of the three was a good eight stories taller than either of the others, which put it out of the running. While he was perfectly capable of hitting a target from as much as a mile away, after a hiatus as long as his, his accuracy wasn't pinpoint enough to guarantee that he wouldn't wind up killing Grecco rather than merely wounding him. He wanted the benefit of being within three or four hundred yards of his target. Ultimately, he settled on the one to the left of the tallest one. It was an older office building, run-down and grimy. Its' inhabitants would most likely not even notice him if he were seen leaving the building after the work day had started.

Having chosen his vantage, he then circled the block, entering the alley behind the buildings opposite the jail. It was a minor hurdle to pick the locks on the service entrance of the tallest building and let himself in. While he had chosen its' neighbor as his blind, he was not about to let the higher ground go unexplored. It was from there that he expected to be able to spot any of Brod and Castellano's hitters, should they be lurking in the underbrush'. He found the security panel and activated the freight elevator, riding it up to the floor second from the top, fitting the silencer to his pistol. He located the stairs to the roof and crept up them silently, putting on the infrared goggles as he let himself out onto the gravel and tar paper. He stood silently, letting his senses acclimatize to the sounds, the smells, the gestalt of this dreary urban space. His hunter's patience was rewarded by the sibilant whisper of disturbed gravel under someone's foot.

Without a sound, he swiveled his head, tracking the direction from which it had come, waiting to see if he could pinpoint it. It came again, and he stepped forward, making for the front of the building as silently as a cat on the prowl, moving like a shadow, keeping to areas of cover. The eerie green cast the goggles gave everything threw a surreal quality over the stealthy advance across the roof. Roger scanned his field of vision, knowing that the heat signatures of any living creature would glow like phosphorus. He spotted the first man, leaning against the parapet, dragging on a cigarette. A shot would send him careening over the edge to land on the sidewalk below. He considered this, watching the man for several minutes, knowing that a falling body would not go unnoticed, even at four a.m. on a blustery February morning. It would also serve as a warning to any others present that they were not alone here. He weighed his options, and safetied his pistol, tucking it into his raincoat pocket and letting a few of its' other contents roll into his gloved hand. The ball bearings were cold, gleaming in the faint light. The figure straightened away from the building's false front, dropping the cigarette butt on the gravel and grinding it out with a toe-tip. It was this sound that had drawn Roger to him.

Lococco flicked a bearing underhand at his head, hearing it thwack into bone. The man went down as though pole-axed, without a cry, only the dull thud of his body hitting the tar paper audible. Roger approached the crumpled form warily, drawing his gun. He prodded the man ungently with his foot, getting no response. Satisfied, he pulled a cable tie out of his pocket and bound the man's hands behind his back, snugging the plastic down tight to the flesh. A second tie, looped through the first, was secured to the ring bolt that was meant to hold a window washing rig. Roger improvised a gag from the man's own shirt, cutting it off him with a switchblade and fastening it hard through his mouth and around his head. One down, an unknown quantity to go, he thought, and began a careful circuit of the roof's perimeter.

He spotted the second one at virtually the same moment the man saw him. Only the fact that he held his pistol at the ready allowed him to fire first as the man's rifle was arcing to cover him. The silenced H&K recoiled in his hand and the second assassin went down.

A quick examination showed that this one, at least, had ceased to be a threat. It had been three years since he had shot at another human being. It was nice to see that the reflexes hadn't deteriorated in that time. Fifteen years in the C.I.A. had rewired his nervous system to a hair trigger and ten years of relatively peaceable retirement had done nothing to change that. It bore out his assertion to Vince that once trained, always trained. He began to entertain hopes of surviving the next few days.

He spared another hour to check the rooftops on either side of the taller building, finding a third hired gun on the roof he had intended as his own perch. Discretion was the better part of valor, he conceded, and he had begun to seriously wonder if the area around the Court Building was as heavily populated with vermin. Perhaps some further pest control was in order. Doing the deed from the Court building also had the advantage of reducing the number of probable police officers, making a clean escape less tricky.

He returned to street level, carefully locking up behind himself. The three hoods could be collected by the authorities later in the morning, leaving nothing but a mystery. He got into his car and headed the thirty blocks to the Federal Court Building. The scenario replayed itself, a near carbon of his activities at the jail. The two additional hitters were rendered unconscious and cable tied to some sturdy architecture to await the later mercies of the police. Roger collected his rifle case and binoculars from the trunk of his car and returned to the roof, assembled the rifle, attaching its' silencer, and settled himself to wait.

It was a quarter to nine on a gray New York morning when Tony Grecco made his appearance in the back of a cruiser, handcuffed to a police officer. Roger said a thank you to McPike for having included the most current photo on file of the man in the briefcase with the transcripts as he sighted down the rifle barrel. "Man," he muttered, "Vinnie, you must be the only good-looking guy in the organization."

Grecco, his back to the street, was being led unprotestingly up the stairs. Lococco took a deep breath, timing his shot to the pause between heartbeats, and fired, twice. Through the scope, he saw the fountaining of blood from the wounds in each thigh, just below the buttocks. The rifle fired low, he noted with professional interest, lowering the gun and retreating behind the building's façade. Hurriedly, he dismantled the weapon, fitting the pieces back into the case. He made his way rapidly into the building, this one a transient hotel, meeting no one on his way down the stairs. He left the building from the rear, hearing the telltale thunder of flatfoots on their way in the front. He crossed the alley behind the hotel, heading for the Z3, and unlocking his car, he climbed in. All in all, a successful bit of work, and with only one fatality. He had not lost his touch, he thought with a certain amount of satisfaction.

He returned to the Waldorf near ten a.m. in excellent spirits and roused a predictably hung-over Terranova from a restless sleep. "Well, we've got five less goons to worry about," he told Vince, grinning at the groggy unease in his face. "Only one of them permanently, I'm sure your conscience will rejoice in knowing," he added for good measure. "Better call McPike and have him arrange to send some trash collectors to the jail and the court house. I left a few parcels scattered on various rooftops in the area."

Vinnie blinked. "How many did you shoot?" he asked unhappily.

"You mean, besides Grecco? Only the one who got as far as pointing a gun in my direction. I told you it would be self defense." Roger pulled off his gloves, slipping them into his coat pocket before he began shedding clothing on his way to the bathroom.

"So what did you do to the other four? Whisper sweet nothings in their ears?" Vinnie replied sharply.

Roger shuddered melodramatically. "Not hardly, Buckwheat," he answered. "None of em were my type. Besides the low-tech solution worked better." He flicked a ball bearing at the empty scotch glass on Vinnie's night stand and it exploded into powder, the noise making Vince flinch.

Terranova watched Roger leave his bedroom, disappearing into the bathroom, and he rubbed his palms over his face as though trying to scrub off the night's growth of beard. The relief that washed over him left him feeling wobbly. Lococco had survived, in tact, and had exercised considerably more restraint in his dealings with Castellano's gangsters than he had feared. He dialed McPike on his cell phone with a conscience clearer than he'd hoped, and told him where to find the trussed up goons Roger had left littering the scene, garnering a rather vivid description of the condition in which Grecco had arrived at the hospital in return.

"Your buddy has a mean sense of humor," McPike concluded.

"Keep it in mind before you jerk him around, Frank. It's dangerous to piss him off," Vince laughed.

"I'll take it under advisement, Buckwheat'," Frank retorted. "I have a meeting in New York in a coupla hours to talk to my agent inside Brod's organization. Where'll you be?"

"I don't know. We haven't discussed an itinerary for the day. I'll leave the cell on, though," Vince assured him.

"See that you do. If there's anything concrete, I'm gonna want to lay it on you as soon as possible."

"No problem," Vince said. "I want anything you get." He disconnected, folding up the little phone and tossing it to the foot of his bed as he untangled himself from the sheets and got up, wandering into the sittingroom. His head ached and his mouth felt like the bottom of a gym locker, but it was not the worst hangover he'd ever had, for which he considered himself lucky. He perused the bar's refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of mineral water, downing the whole quart without stopping.

"Don't choke," Lococco told him, entering the room in nothing but a towel and a grin. "Your turn," he gestured in the direction of the bathroom. "You talk to McPike?"

Vince nodded as he finished the water. "You are a sadistic bastard," he grinned back at Roger. "Frank said to tell you nice shooting'."

Lococco's grin flashed brighter, then he sobered. "So, you come up with any way to de-fang the brothers Sicilian at the bottom of that bottle you hit last night?"

"Nothing new," Vince confessed ruefully. "The only wrinkle I think we should add is to have Rudy contact Capuzi, if he hasn't already, and let the don in on the fact that they're defying his grace. Course, Capuzi's gonna want proof," he pointed out.

"Which is exactly what we are trying to provide. Without getting dead, preferably." Roger returned.

"It's the getting dead' part I think you need to reevaluate, Rog. It's gonna be bordering on suicidal to walk in there."

"Hey, I gave you all night and most of a hundred dollar bottle of scotch to come up with something better, so get Rudy to let the goomba know what's going on," Roger reminded him. "Go get cleaned up. We have a social call to make."

ÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅÅ

"Well, it has the element of surprise, anyway," Vince observed as Lococco parked the BMW in a garage a couple of blocks from Brod and Castellano's offices. "Who was it that said the best defense is a good offense'?"

"Knute Rockney and James T. Kirk, among others," Roger replied, laughing. "Where do they hold court?"

"The top third of the Reynolds building," Vince said, turning up the collar of his greatcoat as he got out of the car.

"Pretty pricey real estate," Lococco said, impressed.

"Paid for by the pisans in Brooklyn," Vince could not keep the bitterness out of his voice.

"Yeah, well it's a case of Darwinism in action," Roger agreed, not liking it any better than Vince did.

"And us on the endangered species list, too." Terranova's quip was cynical.

"We'll have to see what we can do about that," Lococco answered. "Whadda ya say, Buckwheat, shall we go be offensive?" he grinned as Vinnie laughed in spite of himself.

"We got the latest numbers delivery from Shipley. He's a full five points short on this one," Michael Brod informed his cousin with barely controlled anger. He ran a hand through prematurely graying hair and pinched the bridge of his nose to regain control of his temper.

"This is the second time this year. Do I detect the beginnings of a trend here?" Brandon Castellano leaned back in his leather desk chair and laid down the platinum fountain pen he'd held.

"You want me to send Joe and Costanzo over to pay him a visit?" Michael suggested.

Brandon nodded. "And while they're at it, have them explain our little arrangement to him again. And have them break his legs, in case he still isn't perfectly clear on what's involved."

Brod grinned wolfishly and reached for the phone on Castellano's desk. Before he could place the call, the distinct sounds of an altercation could be heard from the reception area outside the office. He was on his feet, heading for the door to investigate when the mahogany door gave way before the onslaught. He had not expected to see Vincent Terranova, vertical, again. In fact, it had been his intention to see that this particular headache was confined to a body bag as soon as possible. He reached for the pistol in his shoulder holster instinctively, the opportunity too good to miss.

"I wouldn't," came the simple command as a lean, sandy-haired man entered the office on Terranova's heels. Brod didn't recognize the hired muscle, but he certainly recognized the business end of the Heckler & Koche automatic that hung two feet from his chest. And he recognized the eyes of a stone killer when he saw them. He froze where he stood, letting Terranova, a big pistol coming into his hand, advance on Castellano's desk.

"Sorry for interrupting this little business meeting, boys, but I have a small problem. Rumor on the street is that you're looking to hit me'n Rudy. Now, you know how I feel about family. Your guys go anywhere near the old man, and I'll send whoever it is home in a bodybag. And a friendly reminder? Capuzi gave me till noon on Tuesday to bring him Grecco. You jump the gun on this, I turn up in a ditch before then, and there's a real interesting little package that'll be delivered to Capuzi, with CC's to the boys in Philadelphia, Atlantic City and Miami. I'd like to see how long you last when they find out you've been stiffing Rudy for the last few years. We clear on this?"

"Crystal," Castellano said through gritted teeth, the venom in his voice unmistakable. "You have just made yourself a couple of very bad enemies."

"You've never exactly been in my corner, Brandon, so I don't consider it much of a loss," Vince replied. "Oh, and the guys you had staking out Grecco are in serious need of some legal triage — cept for the guy in the morgue," he added as an after-thought. "Stay away from me and mine, or things will get very, very messy for you." Meeting Castellano's frigid gaze for a long moment, Vince backed out of the office, finger still on the trigger of the .357.

Lococco covered his retreat, relieving both Brod and Castellano of their weapons before departing himself. He caught up with Vinnie at the elevators, gun still in hand, with a feral grin at the rapidly advancing wiseguys who had either heard the ruckus or been summoned. The elevator doors closed between them and the scrambling muscle before Roger reholstered his automatic.

"You enjoyed that, didn't you?" Vince asked, glancing at him.

"Who, me?" Lococco asked innocently, belying the glitter in his eyes.

"We missed em, boss," one wiseguy, braver — or more foolish — than the others confessed upon their return to Castellano's office.

"Shit," Brandon slammed a hand onto his desk in a fury. "What the hell are we paying you for? You all standin' around in the stairwell doin' a circle jerk while that asshole and his ape roust us?!" he shouted at his hapless employee. "Get Pauli to go after them. Let them get outta the building, then carve our friend Terranova a new bellybutton!" With a nod, the hireling pelted out of the office.

Brod turned to face his cousin. "What if he can do like he says?"

"Who, Terranova? Are you nuts? He's a cop. He's got nothin' on us. And as for Rudy, the break just comes a little earlier than we'd planned. It doesn't matter, Mike. We're ready."

"What if he's not a cop, though? What if he spills whatever he's got to the other families before we've got everything wrapped up nice and tight? We're gonna get bloody if they think we scammed the old man, then hit him," Brod argued.

"He's got nothing, Michael! We are clean!" Castellano shouted. "He's bluffing!"

Brod bit back an equally sharp rejoinder. "You'd better be right, Bran, or we are digging ourselves a very deep hole, and that bastard may just plant us in it."

Vince and Roger brazened their way out of the building as though they owned it, encountering no resistance whatsoever. "I'd say we caught them by surprise," Lococco observed, satisfied with the encounter.

"Yeah, maybe for about thirty seconds or so. Whatever they're planning just got its' timetable pushed up, and if you think we're home free, you are wrong, Spanky. They'll be looking to burn us as soon as possible."

"Your constant cries of doom are starting to depress me," Roger frowned at him.

"These guys may not be on your intellectual level, but they make up for it in plain meanness." Vinnie knew this was an argument that was unresolvable except by bitter personal experience on Roger's part.

"Meanness I can handle," Lococco said, no lessening in his aura of satisfaction.

Vince rolled his eyes and Roger laughed.

They moved down the sidewalk with the prevailing pedestrian stream towards the garage in which they had left the car. They came to a corner, halted by the street light and the dense Manhattan motor traffic. Vinnie tried unsuccessfully to suppress the shiver that traveled down his spine. The crowd gathering at the corner around him made him unaccountably uneasy. He felt exposed. Vulnerable.

Roger, on the other hand, had settled into his element — chaos. He detoured for a soft pretzel vendor just as the light turned green. "Wait a sec, Vince," he said, reaching into his pockets for change. "I'm hungry."

Vince shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "Common, Rog. We're behind enemy lines, here. Can't it wait?"

Lococco raised a mocking eyebrow. "Unlike someone I could name, I didn't get a liquid breakfast," he commented acidly.

Terranova's jitters made waiting impossible. "I'll meet you at the car," he offered, touching Lococco on the sleeve.

Roger handed the keys to him, along with the parking stub, just as the vendor handed him his pretzel. In the awkward moment of juggling food, money and surrendering the keys, Vince stepped into the street just as the Don't Walk' sign began to flash and loped across the street.

"Dammit, Vince! Wait for me," he shouted, knowing that he would never be heard over the din of traffic. He stepped off the curb, prepared to make a run for it, and was nearly flattened by a checker cab that came careening around the corner. He leaped back onto the curb, swearing. "Shit!" He watched Vinnie's retreating back as Terranova disappeared into the sea of hurrying humanity. He didn't waste any more breath in trying to get his attention, knowing it was futile. He hovered, waiting for an opening in the steady stream of vehicles. Somewhere, a jam-up created a slow down, and he dodged his way among the creeping cars, ignoring the outraged honking of horns. Reaching the opposite side of the street, he scanned the lunch-time crowds, searching for some sign of Terranova. He had vanished, and Roger began jogging toward the garage, his pace increasing as anxiety threaded it's way along his nerves, pushing his way through the crowds of slower New Yorkers. He made it to the garage lobby as the doors of one of the elevators closed, and he swore violently, slamming a fist against the stainless steel doors as he hit the call button, his heart beginning to race.

He lingered a split second in the hope that the car could be recalled, then headed for the stairwell. Half way there, he heard the chime of the second elevator, and turned and ran into it even as the doors were still opening, punching his floor and the Close' button with urgency.

Vinnie played with the car keys in his greatcoat pocket as he walked down the rows of parked cars gleaming in the florescent lights of the garage, scanning them for the little gunmetal gray BMW Z3. His footsteps reverberated hollowly in the cavernous space and he did a little mental trigonometry, calculating the distances from the bounce-back of the echo. It was the faint blurring of that echo that gave him his only warning that he was no longer alone. It was just enough time to let the keys drop back into his pocket and start to reach for the .357, before he felt a hand grip the back of his collar and the familiar press of honed steel against his kidneys.

"Hand it over, asshole," came the command. "Real slow-like."

Doing as he was told, Vince carefully reached into his coat and drew his gun, handing it to his stalker, butt-first.

"Alright, big-shot, Mr. Castellano has a message for you -"

Vince rammed his elbow back into the man's abdomen and wrenched free, whirling to face his attacker. The .357 went spinning out of the man's hands, sliding across the oil-stained concrete like a hockey puck. Vince started to run after it as the knifeman recovered and threw himself at Terranova like a predator after prey. Vince made a grab for his knife hand and caught it by a jacket cuff, deflecting it enough to dodge the first slash. His grip was not good enough to survive the man's other fist smashing into his mouth and he lost it, staggering. The knife flashed upward toward his belly and he sprang back, only to be brought to bay against the back of a minivan.

Strangely, there was no pain. Just a moment of intense, almost unbearable pressure under his ribs and abruptly, he couldn't breathe. The pain began as the hitter withdrew the seven inch blade and slammed it upward under his ribs again, aiming for his heart. He had just enough presence of mind to jerk sideways, throwing off the thrust.

"You sonovabitch, you get the point? You don't party-crash Castellano!" came the hissed warning as the knife was once again wrenched free and Vinnie bent forward over the fire that lashed through his chest, praying for the idiot to finish the job cleanly. Blackness roared over him and the solid concrete rippled underfoot as he began to pass out. The last thing he knew before the ground rushed up to meet him was the excruciatingly loud explosion of gunfire in the enclosed space. Roger

The elevator doors parted. It might have been in slow motion, for all Lococco could tell, and it was far, far too late as he launched himself through an opening barely big enough to accommodate him. He fired into the air, anything to distract the assassin from his target, and sprinted towards the two figures locked in lethal embrace. "Vincent!" he bellowed as rage and adrenaline hit his bloodstream like a burst of amphetamines.

He fired wide again, not daring to aim at the assassin for fear of hitting Terranova. This time, it achieved something of the results he'd wanted. The man dove down the narrow space between the van and the car beside it, vanishing into the dimly lit garage and its' sea of automobiles. Lococco sprinted towards Vince as he watched him slide slowly down the back panel of the van, a hand pressed against his side. The hand fell away as Terranova slumped to the oily cement floor, his head lolling.

Roger skidded to a stop, catching hold of the back quarter panel of the car beside the van to kill his momentum, every sense straining for some clue as to the location of the hitman. There was nothing. No sound, no flicker of movement. Cursing himself for a fool, he holstered his gun and crouched beside Vince, feeling for a carotid pulse. It was there, and he released the breath he hadn't known he held, flipping open the greatcoat. The deep prussian blue of Vince's Italian suit was stained an odd violet with the blood that soaked his left side. Carefully, Lococco unbuttoned the suit jacket, opening it, then repeated the process with the silk shirt. The knife wounds were deep, expert thrusts up under the rib cage. It was clear that Vinnie had put up a struggle, from the looks of the split lip and the location of the wounds. They were to the left of where he would have expected them, left of the sternum, as if Vince had managed to move enough to prevent the fatal thrust to the heart. An inch closer to the center of his chest, and he would have been dead instantly. There were fair odds that he might still wind up that way, judging from the whistling rasp of Terranova's breathing and the bloody froth that foamed at the wounds, he had clearly sustained a punctured lung. He felt Vince move under his hands and heard the low moan.

The agent opened eyes dark with shock. "Roger" came the barely audible whisper.

"Shhh. Can you move?" Lococco asked, fearing the answer.

Vince fought to focus on the question through the fire in his chest. "Yeah," he muttered and struggled to do so. Roger helped him to sit up and held him when the effort nearly cost him his hold on consciousness. He panted, short, shallow gasps that couldn't satisfy the instinct to breathe. Each breath seemed to penetrate no further than the bottom of his throat before the vice that gripped his chest clenched its' hold and forced him to start again.

Roger propped him against the rear bumper of the van. "Where are the keys?" he asked with gentle urgency.

"Overcoat pocket," Vince managed.

Lococco dug through both of them before coming up with the keys and the parking stub. "I'll be right back," he assured Terranova, and sprang to his feet in a dead run, heading for the little convertible a dozen cars away. The speed with which he backed the car out of its' space and reversed it to where Vinnie sat slumped against the van left the stench of burned rubber in the air. Roger scrambled back out of the car and crouched beside Terranova. "We've got to get the hell out of here," he said needlessly. "Stay with me, Vince. I can't do this by myself. You out-weigh me by thirty pounds."

"T's solid muscle," Vince murmured, the faintest hint of a smile ghosting around his mouth.

"Yeah, including all that space between your ears, goddammit! Why the hell didn't you wait for me?" Roger retorted with a sharpness that Vince could detect through the haze of pain.

"Stupid," Vince whispered, then braced himself with his feet to assist Roger's attempt to get him upright as Lococco pulled Vinnie's right arm over his shoulder. Pain lanced through Vince with fresh vengeance, forcing what little air he could get back out between clenched teeth. More of his weight than he'd meant was supported by Roger's shoulders and the arm at his back. It took all the strength Vinnie had to keep from stumbling as he made his way around the hood of the car, and the pain of getting into the low-slung sports car caught him full force. He felt as though his lungs were being shredded in his chest, and he prayed brokenly for unconsciousness that didn't come. Dimly, he was aware of Lococco putting the car in gear and gunning it toward the exit. The effort of keeping from falling into Roger's lap occupied the whole of his awareness.

Lococco defied every instinct that screamed hurry', coasting up to the electronic pay station slowly enough to twitch the greatcoat closed over the bloody mess of Vinnie's chest. He fed the parking stub into the correct slot and made the sports car leap through the gate before it had opened completely, virtually no room to spare. The effort of will that it took to maintain any semblance of self control frightened him. He fought back the berserker rage that shrieked through him, focusing desperately on the complexities of Manhattan traffic. He glanced frequently across at Terranova, who had toppled against the car door, eyes glazed, breath coming in sharp pants that sent more tendrils of fear through Roger's bloodstream. He gritted his teeth against it, forcing himself to conduct an inventory of the situation. Vince was hurt badly. Potentially even fatally. He needed help, and it had to be quiet help. Vince was as good as dead if he sought conventional medical assistance. Brod and Castellano would no doubt be watching both the hospitals and the morgue to ensure that Terranova was out of the picture.

"Vince," he began, "we need to get you some help. Can you raise McPike? Is he programmed into your cell phone?"

"No. It's an eight hundred number," Vince said raggedly, reciting it from memory. "I don't program numbers on a secure phone," he pointed out. "Too easy to blow my own cover if it gets stolen."

"Stop talking and start breathing," he admonished at the gray cast that had fallen over Terranova's features, fumbling his own cell phone out of a pocket and dialing the number Vinnie had rattled off. He cursed as the voicemail system picked up on the third ring and he left a minimal and edgy message, with his own cell number. "Looks like he's incommunicado, Buckwheat. What about the Lifeguard?"

Vinnie managed to mumble that number as Roger dialed it, standing on the brakes sharply to avoid hitting the car in front of him. The call was answered midway through the second ring. He gave his name to the gravely-voiced man on the other end of the line and related the bare minimum of information. "He needs a doctor," Roger concluded. "And I can't take him to a hospital. I'm bringing him back to the hotel, now."

"Shit," was the emphatic epithet that met this news. "I'll get someone there ASAP. Which one you staying at?"

"The Waldorf Astoria, suite twenty seven-forty two. You got a twenty on a pharmaceutical source? If there's gonna be a wait, he's gonna need pain-killers."

"Okay, where are you now?" came the Lifeguard's grim response. The rattle of a computer keyboard was audible over the line.

"Corner of East Twenty Fifth and Madison Avenue." Roger told him, glancing at the nearest street sign.

There was a long pause, accompanied by more keyboarding, then Lifeguard spoke up. "I've got a call in to a hospital pharmacy about three miles from you." He quoted an address. "What do you need?"

"Demerol, injectable morphine, speed, needles, bandaging. And Pentathol." Lococco cataloged his requirements.

"What do you need with the speed? And Sodium Pentathol, for god sake!?" Lifeguard demanded.

"I'm operating on about four hours sleep out of the last forty-eight," Roger snapped back, "and it's not looking good for a nice little nap anytime in the near future! I have a partner with holes in him and a cockroach to interrogate tonight. So back off and get me the damned stuff!"

"Your wish is my command, asshole!" Lifeguard retorted with equal heat. "You were supposed to be keeping my nephew healthy! Maybe you aren't the hot shit you think you are. If you're asking for scheduled drugs like the poppy juice, Vince needs a hospital, not a house-call!"

"No argument there, man. You are talking to one washed-up C.I.A. hitman. But Vince was stupid. He slipped me and got himself a knife in the ribs for his efforts!" Roger took a deep breath, trying to rally his temper. "I'm all he's got, and I'll do what I can to keep him alive. If they nail him again, it'll be over my dead body. But I can't keep him safe if he's in a hospital, and neither can the cops. Brod and Castellano are gonna know that their guy cut him, and they're gonna want to know how bad," he finished with barely maintained calm.

There was a pause before Lifeguard replied. The anger had drained from his voice. "Just take better care of him from now on, man," he requested. "I don't want to lose him. We been through too much together."

"You and me both," Roger muttered. "I promise I'll take better care of my toys, Uncle Mike'," was his sarcastic response as he disconnected. He spared a glance at Vince, who leaned against the car door, eyes closed, panting shallowly.

"Mike give you a hard time?" Terranova asked in a bare whisper, without opening his eyes.

"Yeah, you could say that," Roger agreed softly. "You're the only Fed I know with a cheering section."

Vinnie forced himself to breathe as regularly as he could manage, short sharp gasps that dried his mouth and did nothing to quench his craving for oxygen. Roger had been gone for an eternity of subjective time, time that had nothing to do with clocks.

When the driver's door opened and Lococco slid behind the wheel, Terranova looked more dead than alive. "You still with me?" he asked, digging into the bag that held his acquisitions. He found the Demerol bottle and shook out a pill. "Swallow this," he commanded, popping the pill into Vince's mouth between pants. "I'm starting you on fifty milligrams with another fifty as a chaser in twenty minutes and fifty more an hour after that, unless the Doc has seen you by then. You'll either be sick as a dog, or you'll feel like Superman."

"I'd settle for Clark Kent," Vinnie answered, swallowing painfully.

"Right now, so would I, Buckwheat," Roger agreed, starting the car. "You gonna make it as far as the hotel?"

"I got any choice?" Vince asked rhetorically.

"The hospital. You've got to be straight with me, Vince. You probably have at least one collapsed lung, and if you're bleeding inside, you could drown in your own blood. If it feels like it's bad, we're going to have to take a chance on a hospital. But it's your call. I don't have enough experience with battlefield medicine to be able to tell unless it's too late to do much about it. Try to stay awake, and try to let me know if anything's getting worse. You pass out on me and we're going in."

"Deal," Vince whispered, closing his eyes. "Keep talking to me, Rog," he added.

Not generally given to loquacity, Roger rambled on the rest of the way to the Waldorf, some forty minutes away through heavy traffic. He had given Vince a second pill, and it's effects were beginning to compound that of the first. There was definitely more color in his face, and some of the drawn look had faded. The test would be the walk through the Waldorf's grand lobby. He got out and fished the hospital gear out of the back, hanging the bag over one arm as he walked around the car to Vinnie's side.

Vinnie's next comment was on the same wavelength. "I don't think the management is gonna like me bleeding all over their hotel room," he said with an attempt at a grin, as Roger helped him out of the passenger seat, gripping him hard by the arms until he was sure that Vince was going to remain vertical.

"For twelve hundred bucks a night, you can bleed anywhere you want," Lococco remarked, tossing the car keys to the valet. He took Vince firmly by the elbow and marched with slow deliberation into the hotel.

For Vince, it assumed the character of a nightmare. The effort it took to walk unbent with only Lococco's hand under his elbow through the luxurious lobby and past guests and hotel employees was as close to hell as he cared to get. Even with the bizarre distancing effect of the painkillers, every step made a cold sweat stand on his skin. The world retreated to the few feet of carpet directly under his feet and the strength of Roger's grip on him. Only a few of the people they passed noticed the ashen pallor of his face and the bloody lip with it's accompanying darkening bruise on his left cheek.

Roger maneuvered him onto the elevator, propping him against the side wall and braced him with his own body, ignoring the curious glances from various fellow passengers. The attempt to force their way out of the elevator through the small crowd at the twenty seventh floor was very nearly the end of Vince's endurance. A careless elbow in the kidney forced a nearly voiceless moan of purest agony out between the agent's clenched teeth, eliciting stares from the passengers as Roger hustled Vinnie off and got him moving down the deserted hall.

Vince kept his feet by sheer force of will alone, the last hundred feet to their suite door Roger taking more of his weight with every step. Roger held him with one arm around his waist, as he struggled with the keycard. Finally he got the door open and dragged a rapidly fading Terranova inside, kicking the door shut after them.

It was not until then that the dark-haired man's stamina gave out completely and his eyes rolled back in his head as he crumpled into Roger's arms. Roger grunted under the impact of two hundred and twenty pounds of solid bone and muscle, managing to get him onto the Edwardian settee. With deliberate haste, he unbuttoned the black wool greatcoat, his hands coming away bloody from the fabric. He thanked the gods the coat was black and the gore had not shown. He pushed the heavy fabric off Vinnie's shoulders, realizing then that blood stained Terranova's left side from pectorals to nearly his knees. He felt fear grip his chest, constricting his own breathing. He fought to focus on some kind of constructive action. Any action.

He headed first for the room's thermostat and set it for a tropical eighty degrees, then stripped Vinnie's bed of its' blanket and its' egyptian cotton top sheet. A detour through the bathroom for wet towels brought him back to the sittingroom. Rolling Vinnie's limp body onto his uninjured side, he removed the greatcoat, suit coat and shirt then slipped the roughly folded sheet under him to offer at least some protection to the hotel's furniture, laying him down again. He needed to get the man's clothing off, and Vince's state of unconsciousness precluded his being of any help. Lococco unfastened the trousers, tugging them and the briefs down Vinnie's legs and dropping them onto the heap of other blood-soaked clothing. Blood, drying now, smeared the whole left side of his body. The flow from the wounds had slowed to a trickle, though the blood there still had a foamy quality that Lococco didn't like in the least. He threw the blanket over Terranova's naked body and found the bag with the hospital supplies, selecting a syringe, needle and an ampoule of morphine and slid Vinnie's belt free of the pants. Perching on the edge of the settee, he fastened the belt around Vince's right arm at the arm pit and tightened it down, tourniquet-like. He uncapped and filled the syringe with the morphine dose and found a sizeable vein in the crook of Terranova's elbow, sliding the needle in, drawing back on the plunger to ensure he had hit the vein, and then injected the drug into Vinnie's bloodstream. Recapping the syringe, he tossed it and the empty ampoule into an ashtray and picked up the wet towels. Carefully, he flipped back the blanket and began wiping the worst of the blood from Vince's extremities, returning to the bathroom to rinse the towels clean and wring them out repeatedly. The scars that marred Vince's skin spoke of years of dangerous work. He recognized the now-pale twin shoulder wounds Vince had sustained in Mel Profitt's employ. There was an array of other trace violence, but it was the long-healed knife-wound that tore up through the heavy muscle at the inside of his right thigh, slashing through the dark pubic hair at his groin, that made Roger shudder, mentally.

There was a clamminess to Vince's skin that signaled incipient shock by the time he had finished, and he taped a thick gauze pad in place over the wounds and tossed the blanket back over Vince's body, going in search of additional covers. A soft moan from the settee brought him loping back into the sittingroom. Lococco pried open one of Terranova's eyes and was rewarded by the agent's attempt to free himself from the hold Roger had on his chin. "Come on, sleeping beauty, snap out of it. Help Dr. Lococco out, here, " he muttered to himself.

"Some Prince Charming," came Vinnie's whispered sarcasm. "Your bedside manner stinks, Rog."

"Yeah, well, you aren't exactly Miss Congeniality', yourself, Buckwheat," was Roger's response. "You scared the hell outta me!"

"Oh, god, I think I'm gonna be sick," Vince groaned, sweat prickling on his skin.

"That's the morphine I just pumped you full of," Roger told him. "You're going to be airborne in about five minutes."
"You tryin' to turn me into a hype?" Was Vinnie's hoarse accusation.

"You might be more fun at parties if I did," Lococco replied snidely. "What the hell is taking the damn doctor so long?" he added to himself, rubbing the heels of his hands into his aching eye sockets. He was brought up short as his cell phone began a muffled ringing from his overcoat pocket where it lay on the floor. He rose and retrieved it, answering it on the fourth ring. It was McPike. He held the phone away from his ear as a vitriolic diatribe burned the line. Into a pause, Roger made his reply. "Nice to hear from you, too, Frank. Ask him yourself," he offered and handed the phone to Vince.

"Frank, shut up," Terranova whispered hoarsely. "I got stupid, and I got hurt," he stated bluntly, panting at the exertion of speaking. There was a long silence on Vince's part as McPike made some reply to this, then he sighed shallowly. "Just come, and bring a doctor with you." He handed the phone back to Lococco, teeth beginning to chatter with the chill of shock, even that small effort taxing him to the limits of his strength. The morphine was taking hold, its' potency making Vince groggy with a strange weightless sensation that did nothing to ease his nausea. The feeling of free-fall too closely mirrored the direction his life had taken in the past two months.

Lococco took the phone and resumed the conversation with Frank. "Look, he's hurt bad enough that under any other circumstances, I'd have hauled him straight into a hospital. But with Brod and Castellano looking to plant him, it was too big a risk. How long till you can get here with help?" The answer was not long in coming. "Good. We're not going anywhere." He disconnected the call and tossed the phone to the floor on top of his coat. He stalked to the room phone and dialed the concierge's desk. "Yeah, I need someone to bring up a bunch of heating pads or hot water bottles — whatever you've got. About six." He replaced the receiver in the cradle none too gently, and returned to the bag of hospital supplies, fishing out a prescription bottle and shaking out a pill. He swallowed the amphetamine dry, grimacing at the bitterness it left in his mouth. "McPike and some Army field surgeon are on the way. They should be here inside twenty minutes."

Vince closed his eyes, fists gripping handfuls of blanket against the morphine-induced vertigo. "Good," he managed.

At three fifteen, McPike and Captain Jórge DeSilva stood at the door of Lococco's suite waiting for a response to their importunate pounding. McPike had just raised a fist for a second attempt when the door opened and Roger Lococco, automatic aimed straight at them, faced them. He looked like hell, Frank noted, as he brushed past the former C.I.A. assassin. DeSilva stepped in after him, hauling his equipment, and Lococco shut the door behind them, holstering his weapon.

DeSilva made straight for the patient on the settee, turning back the blanket, approving of the hot water bottles packed around the man's body. He removed the now-bloody gauze pad that covered the knife wounds and bent, rummaging in his larger-than-usual medical bag, finding his stethoscope and placing it on Terranova's broad chest, listening intently as he moved it from spot to spot. "What do you have him on?" he asked, glancing up at Lococco.

"Morphine and Demerol," Roger supplied. "A hundred milligrams of Demerol orally over a half hour, around one thirty, and about fifteen milligrams of morphine an hour ago."

"He's just a tad overmedicated," was the physician's dry response, his attention returning to his patient as he hung the stethoscope around his neck and began a visual examination of the wounds. "I guess I won't be needing any anesthesia. Well the puncture sights are nice and clean, no excessive laceration of the muscle tissue. No breath sounds from his left lung to speak of. Doesn't sound like there's much fluid in there, though. Your friend is a lucky bastard. An inch over and he'd be dead."

"Oh, yeah, real lucky," muttered McPike who stood at the foot of the settee observing the examination. "Dr. DeSilva, can you get him on his feet?" he asked reluctantly.

"By rights, he should be in a hospital," DeSilva remarked disapprovingly.

"Putting him in one right now means a quick trip to the morgue, Doc," Lococco informed him acerbically. "In case this hadn't dawned on you, there are people trying to kill him. Get him on his feet and moving for twenty four hours and I promise you, after that, he'll either be in the hospital, or on a slab. The odds on which it's likely to be are pretty close to even, right now," Roger snapped irritably.

DeSilva looked unhappily between Lococco and McPike, then frowned. "I should be getting a chest tube into him, but I'll try reinflating the lung," he told them, at last. "As long as he stays relatively quiet, he should be alright for about a day. It's a sure bet that he's developing pneumonia and we need to see if there's any damage to his stomach or other internal organs." As he spoke, he fitted a seven inch, large gauge needle to a three hundred milliliter syringe and uncapped it, pushing the plunger down to force the air from the body of the syringe. With careful deliberation, he maneuvered the wicked-looking needle into Terranova's chest and drew back on the syringe, sucking the trapped air out of the thoracic cavity.

Roger paled at the blood and nameless fluids that were drawn out along with the air. "What are you doing?"

"His chest cavity is full of air from the punctured lung," DeSilva answered. "The pressure is keeping the lung from reinflating, so, reestablish negative pressure and, hey — presto, the lung reinflates. One of the miracles of modern medicine."

"Just so it works," Roger said, suppressing a shudder.

"It generally does, as long as the lung or the wound doesn't leak more air into his chest," DeSilva informed them, removing the syringe body and leaving the needle in place in Vince's chest, rewarded with the sudden, deep, shuddering breath that wracked Terranova. "See?" he told them. "Now let's take a look at the wounds," he added, taking out another syringe, this one far less frightening in size. "A little novocaine, a few stitches, and a hellovalot of antibiotics, and he might just make it through the next few hours in reasonable shape." He methodically made his way through the various procedures, ignoring his audience. He taped a heavy, Vaseline-smeared gauze dressing in place over the knife wounds and prepared a second, smaller one. Finally, he took a portable pulse oxymeter from his bag and clipped it to the injured man's forefinger, waiting for a reading. "Could one of you give me a hand? I need one of you to slap this gauze over the hole when I take the needle out of his chest."

Roger went white as he approached Vince's body and picked up the dressing, holding it poised over the needle site.

"Ready?" DeSilva asked, holding the needle fitting.

Lococco nodded, swallowing.

The doctor eased the needle out of Terranova's chest quickly and Roger slipped the gauze into place, holding it while DeSilva taped it down firmly. "We've got to maintain a negative pressure in the chest cavity," he told Roger.

"What do you mean, We', pale-face?" Lococco snarled, clearly shaken. "You're the doctor, Buckwheat."

"I mean that if he moves around too much, the puncture in his lung could bleed air back into his chest and the lung'll collapse again. I'm going to leave a few of the 16 gauge needles and a syringe with you. If he starts complaining of pain and his breathing gets worse, stick one of those in him near the wound like you just saw me do. Take the syringe off and just let the air bleed back out of his chest. Don't worry, you won't hit anything important as long as you keep the needle to the right of the wound and parallel to his sternum. If he's gonna stay quiet, take the needle out and get the puncture site covered fast. If not, leave the needle in, it'll allow any air that gets in there to escape before it causes him too much trouble."

Lococco stepped back and closed his eyes for a split second before nodding.

DeSilva turned his attention to the PulseOx. "Hmmm. Mr. McPike, could you hand me the canister in the bottom of my bag? The mask, too."

McPike did as he was directed, and DeSilva fastened an oxygen mask over Terranova's nose and mouth, hooking the line to the miniature oxygen tank Frank had handed him. "About ten minutes of O2 and his saturation levels should be back to normal."

By the time he had finished, Vince was beginning to come out of it, the morphine wearing off enough for him to open his eyes. The near-cessation of pain made it through to his drugged awareness, and even the aching sting in his right flank as DeSilva injected him with a heavy dose of antibiotics was minor by comparison to the overwhelming relief of being able to draw a normal breath. He blinked, trying to focus on the voices in the room, to identify them.

Lococco's irritable drawl he knew immediately. Identifying McPike's sarcastic tones took a moment longer. They were clearly in the midst of a dispute, however quietly they conducted the argument. Vince ignored the sting of another needle, this one an I.V. in his right arm, trying to hear what was being said.

"Welcome back, Mr. Terranova," came a strange voice beside him.

Vince turned his head to try to see the speaker, his question in his eyes. "Who?" he asked through the oxygen mask.

"Dr Jórge DeSilva, U.S. Army. You gave your friends a scare," he added, with a jerk of his head toward the two men arguing in the corner of the sittingroom.

Vince nodded. "Didn't do much for my peace of mind, either," he replied, hoarsely. "I'm gonna live, I take it?"

DeSilva grinned, liking the agent's pragmatic attitude. Judging by the scars on his body, this was far from his first brush with violence. "As long as you try to refrain from doing anything too monumentally stupid, yeah. But get yourself to a hospital ASAP. You need more treatment than I can give you. And if you start coughing, especially if you start bringing up blood, drop everything and get help." He waited for a nod of understanding. "You feel up to moving to a more comfortable location?" he asked when he was sure Terranova was clear on the seriousness of his injury.

Vince nodded, letting the little doctor help him to sit upright. It was a slow and painful process, and getting to his feet was worse, but nothing when compared to the agony it had been to get to the hotel suite in the first place. His attention was so narrowly focused that he wasn't aware of Lococco's proximity until he found himself with an arm draped over Roger's shoulders as he was helped haltingly across the sittingroom to his bedroom, DeSilva following with the I.V. bag held high over his head. McPike moved into the bedroom ahead of them, carrying the blankets and DeSilva's gear, hovering anxiously.

"Mr. McPike, find some way to hang the I.V. fluids in the vicinity of the bed, please," DeSilva directed him.

Frank scanned the bed, assessing the two wall-mounted ornamental plaster corbels on either side of it, surmounted by tasteful objects d'art. There was no protrusion small enough on which to hang the fluids, so he went in search of a way to suspend them, returning with a stray wire coat hanger which he promptly bent into a loop that fitted over the top of one of the brackets, the hook hanging down. "That work?" he asked DeSilva.

In answer, the doctor hung the fluids from the hanger, which shifted, then stabilized. "Looks like it," he said cheerfully. He helped Lococco get Terranova onto the bed and wedged all the pillows under Vinnie's knees while McPike tossed the blankets over the naked agent. "Mr. Lococco, I've got him on Ringers at the moment and I'm going to leave you with a second bag of fluids. That one will be dextrose with a potassium piggyback. I need you to switch bags when you see this one getting low. And a word of warning, here. If this bag runs dry, you'll be sucking air straight into his veins. It will kill him. I'll set the bag up so all you have to do is open up the venoset between the old one and the new one. Just don't get any air into the line! If you wind up with an air bubble any bigger than an inch long, just remove the whole I.V. and tape him up. It's safer than guessing."

Roger nodded, clearly unhappy in his role as nurse. He watched as DeSilva removed a second bag of fluids from its' plastic wrappings, filled a syringe with some clear liquid, and injected it into the bag, rocking it to mix the two. Efficiently, the doctor inserted a new line into the bag, filled it with fluids and linked it to the first one after ensuring that the sliding crimp was tight and there would be no premature leakage. "See this thing, here?" the doctor asked Lococco, fingering the crimp wheel as he hung the bag beside the first one.

Roger nodded again, grimly.

"Just roll this little wheel up the line until the drops are coming out of the bag at a rate of about twenty to twenty five per minute, then leave well enough alone. Check the flow rate every hour or so. If it slows down dramatically, the line has probably infiltrated. Just check with the patient. If there's swelling or tenderness at the I.V. site, remove the whole thing."

Lococco sighed softly. "Anything else I should know?"

"Yes," the doctor grinned at him, no sympathy for Roger's squeamishness to be seen, "You'll need to change the dressings in about twelve hours. Use the coated gauze pads. The ointment acts like a patch on a leaky tire — it'll keep the negative chest pressure intact. And he'll need more painkillers in about three hours. Stick with the morphine as long as the I.V. holds up. You can inject it straight into the line and save yourself the trouble of trying to hit a vein. Just kink the line above the injection port -" DeSilva pointed at the little v'-shaped insert in the line near the end connected to Vinnie's arm and bent the line over on itself like a cheap garden hose "- like this, and let it go when the drug is in. You can do the same with the antibiotics. Morphine every four hours or so, and antibiotics every six," he added, then looked at Lococco more closely. "What about you? You alright?"

"Nothing wrong with me that about eighteen hours sleep wouldn't fix," was the caustic reply.

"Well that won't be happening, not with you taking on nursing duty. What are you on?"

Lococco retrieved the bottle of amphetamines and tossed it underhand to DeSilva, who took one look and shook his head. "Nasty stuff. No wonder you're in such a foul mood. I've got some stuff that'll work better, without the irritability. It's a lot stronger, so don't double the dose!" he warned. "And don't take it for more than two days. When you crash, it'll be hard," he cautioned. "Plan on spending some down-time working it out of your system."

"If we make it through the next twenty four hours, I'll consider a trip to the Bahamas," Roger retorted sarcastically.

"Love you, too," was DeSilva's laughing reply, as he gathered his possessions. Leaving a vial of morphine on Vince's night stand, as well as one of liquid antibiotics, he tossed the replacement amphetamines to Lococco along with a packet of antibiotic capsules. "Start him on the orals when you pull the I.V.," he directed. "The first bag should finish up in about six hours or so. The second one will take about eight. He should be encumbrance-free by six tomorrow morning, if you don't count the morphine hangover." He hefted his equipment and headed back out into the sittingroom, McPike on his heels.

"Doc, I'm sending you back alone. I think I'd better stay here and spell Lococco. He has a commitment tonight," Frank told him quietly as he walked him to the door.

"Just don't pick a fight with him," DeSilva warned. "He's gonna be ornery as all hell until the crap he took wears off."

"So what else is new?" McPike mumbled long-sufferingly. "I'm not seeing much difference from his usual charming personality."

DeSilva grinned as he let himself out of the suite. "Have a pleasant evening," was his parting witticism.

Frank sighed, squared his shoulders, and returned to the sittingroom to find Lococco slouched in the wingback chair, head back, eyes closed. He looked truly drained, McPike realized, worriedly. "You alright?" he asked, knowing he should probably just keep his mouth shut. He watched Roger's jaw clench and unclench, some smart remark being choked back. It was more courtesy than Frank had expected. He could see the nervous energy in Lococco's involuntary muscle twitches, and began to walk away, heading for Vinnie's room.

"Frank." Roger's voice was as weary as his face.

McPike turned to face him. "Yeah?" he inquired warily.

"Thanks for getting the Doc here. Our boy scared me half to death this afternoon."

"Welcome to the club," McPike sighed, returning to the sitting area and taking a seat on the couch across from Lococco's chair. "He has a real knack for that," Frank agreed. "You mind if I ask you why you came back with him?"

Lococco sighed, then laughed without humor. "Some bright idea about keeping him alive," he stated. "So far, I've done a bang-up job." He opened eyes more gray than green and met McPike's worried frown, waiting expectantly for some sharp rejoinder. None was forthcoming. "What?" he asked, "I really look that bad?"

"Yeah," came the affirmative. "And for the record? I'm glad you're here." McPike watched as the surprise in Lococco's face was quickly masked. "It wasn't your fault he got cut," Frank added.

"You're wrong, there, Buckwheat," Roger corrected, eyes closing again, face settling into lines of exhaustion and guilt. "I got cocky. Vince keeps trying to tell me the mob isn't a joke, only I can't seem to get past the clichés"

"They're definitely no joke, Roger," McPike said grimly. "I've lost a lot of friends to them in the last twenty years" he paused, then continued. "I don't want to lose any more. I don't want to end up burying either of you tomorrow night."

Lococco opened his eyes to stare at McPike, deeply startled. An olive branch was the last thing he'd expected from McPike. He knew that Vince and his former field supervisor were close. That closeness had not extended to Vinnie's friends, however. Frank had always made it clear that Terranova's association with Lococco mystified him and that he disapproved of Roger on general principal.

McPike met Roger's gaze for a long moment, making sure Lococco knew that peace had been declared, then rose. "I'll take the next watch," he said. "You look like hell. Try and get some rest." He turned and headed for Vinnie's bedroom.

Lococco watched him walk away in bemusement, wondering at the sudden lightening of the tension that knotted muscles and made his head throb. He was exhausted, but the amphetamines in his system would prevent anything even remotely resembling

sleep. He needed to work off the drugs, he knew, and forced himself to get to his feet. He stuck his head in the door of Vince's room. "I'm jumping out of my skin," he told McPike softly. "I'm going down to the gym. You okay alone with him for an hour?"

McPike nodded, silently.

"You need me, have the concierge page me," he added and went to change into sweats and a T-shirt, adding his bloody clothes to the pile on the sittingroom floor and collecting the lot in an untidy arm-load, taking them and the bloody sheet with him.

He returned an hour later, sweaty, tired, but with the wretched twitching in his muscles gone. A vigorous pick-up game of basketball with a handful of dot-com executives barely half his age had sweated the worst of it off. He had held his own among the younger men, but he was sure having to work harder at it than he once had.

McPike was on the couch in the sittingroom, idly channel-surfing. He looked up as Lococco entered. "You look better," he observed, vaguely surprised.

Roger nodded an acknowledgement. "How's Vince?"

"Asleep," Frank informed him. "Which is what you should be. Are you still going after Grecco tonight?"

"It's now or never, Frank. Since our love-sick friend won't let this drop, it'll have to be now."

"I take it he's talked to you about the Steelgrave woman," Frank said hesitantly.

"Only in general terms," Lococco replied. "What's in her jacket?"

McPike hesitated a long moment. "She's in D.C., teaching at Georgetown University Law School this semester. She's here because her mother is dying of pancreatic cancer. From what I've been able to determine, the doctors don't give her more than another five or six months at the outside."

"A few months too long, huh?" Roger observed, as he sank into the wingback. "A case of piss-poor timing. So what about the girl?"

"Graduated in the top three percent in her class from UCLA Law School in Eighty nine, worked for the L.A D.A.'s office for two years, then moved to Seattle. She worked for the Washington State Attorney General as a prosecutor until her leave of absence this fall. All the high-powered corporate law firms in Seattle have been trying to recruit her for three years. She has one hell of a conviction rate. Made quite a name for herself, according to her supervisors. She put away a lot of connected guys. It seems like she's making it her personal mission to wipe out the mob on the west coast."

Roger's eyes narrowed in interest. "Atonement."

"Or something," McPike agreed. "She's a white hat," he added reluctantly, "much as the thought pains me."

Roger flashed a grin at him. "Not much fun to have your preconceived ideas knocked to hell, huh?" he jibed, watching the wry twitch of McPike's mouth.

"Vince had a flirtation going with her ten years ago when he first went under in Steelgrave's organization. Needless to say, Sonny and her father were none too happy about it. When her father was killed, she took her mom with her to California. This is the first time she's been back east, even though her mother moved back almost six years ago. As far as I know, December was the first time she and Vince laid eyes on each other since she left."

"I'd say eyes were not the only things laid," Roger remarked.

McPike grimaced. "Well she's certainly pretty enough, but she's no Susan Profitt."

"Frank. Susan Profitt isn't even Susan Profitt anymore. There ain't nobody home in that pretty head of hers. I don't know about you, but I like to see the lights on when I look into a woman's eyes," Roger informed him.

McPike's interest sharpened. "You keeping track of her?"

Roger shrugged. "Loosely," he admitted. "I don't turn my back on an enemy. Even one in an orbit as far out as hers."

"I guess scoring a hundred million of the Profitt dollars isn't likely to endear you to her," McPike agreed. He didn't know what to make of the pain that suddenly haunted the edges of Lococco's celadon-gray eyes.

"Money is the least of what I stole from her, Frank," Roger said grimly. "There's plenty left in the Profitt coffers. Hell, it was less than what Mel would have paid for a coupla Sidewinders. The rest of what I took, she ain't never getting back."

Frank stared at Lococco. "You killed Mel" the answer to that question coming into focus after ten years.

Roger shook his head. "No. But I pushed him over the edge. And then I pushed her after him." He was silent, staring into space for a long while. "Not one of my finest moments, Frank." He met Frank's eyes bleakly.

McPike brooded on this a moment. "Maybe not, but they had to be stopped. Whatever planet Susan is on, it's probably better than prison."

"That's a palliative, Frank," Roger snapped. "Save it for someone whose soul isn't already damned to hell."

McPike rose and went to the bar, helping himself to a shot of what was left in Vince's whiskey bottle, sipping slowly, letting Lococco regroup. "If it weren't for her family', I'd say Tracy Steelgrave is the all-American girl of Vinnie's dreams," he said, changing the subject, and felt Lococco brush past him, reaching for a glass of his own.

"Sounds like," Roger agreed. "Too bad the course of true love never runs smooth." He splashed half of what remained in the bottle into his glass and returned to the chair. "You know this isn't over even if we pull it off and Vince walks out of that meeting tomorrow alive."

McPike reseated himself, running a hand over the crown of his bald head in barely concealed anxiety. "I wish I knew what the hell to do about it," he confessed into his glass.

"That makes two of us. He's not gonna leave without her. I know that look he gets in his eyes when you try and talk him into doing the smart thing. It's the same look he gave me when I tried to talk him out of testifying in front of the Senate hearings ten years ago. He shouldn't have wasted his breath. They were looking for blood, and Getzloff wasn't gonna be happy till she saw the color of mine."

"Was that why you staged your death?" McPike asked.

"Partly, but mostly it was to get the C.I.A. off my back for a while." Lococco shifted in his chair. "It bought me some time."

They sat quietly for several minutes, each thinking their private thoughts. It was Roger who broke the silence. "I already told Vince. Now I'm telling you. I'm not leaving him on his own until he's clear of both the OCB and the mob. Or until one or both of us is in box."

McPike put down his glass slowly, glaring at Lococco. "If he stays, it'll be undercover. He doesn't need anyone jogging his elbow!"

"Frank, you and I both know that if he stays, and keeps his cover, Aiuppo's gonna have him running Brooklyn inside six months. He goes under that deep, and you may never get him back out. And if you do, it may not be the Vince Terranova we both know and love," Roger said sharply. "Believe me. I know what it's like to be under so deep you forget how to breathe. So deep you lose yourself. If I'm there with him, he's gonna remember that every time he looks at me. Maybe it'll keep him out of the dark."

McPike leaned back in the sofa, staring at the man across from him as though he'd never laid eyes on him before.

"You think you have the lock on friendship, Frank? Vince gave me back something I didn't even know I'd lost. I owe it to him to keep him from making the same mistakes I did." Roger's voice was bitter with the memory of his total isolation as a covert operative under the aegis of his former Special Forces commander-turned spook, Herb Ketcher. That Ketcher had suicided at the conclusion of the Senate investigation into the Isle Pavot debacle did not ease the betrayal of a man who had once, briefly, been like a father to him. He took a swallow from his glass and set it on the armrest of his chair. "If he does this," Roger began, "Vince is gonna need heavy funding."

McPike's eyes narrowed speculatively. "Tell me about it. It's going to have to come out of a special Senate Appropriations budget. I just can't see how the OCB or even the FBI is going to be able to finance it otherwise."

Roger leaned back in his chair, resting his skull on the edge of the backrest and stared at the ceiling. "I put a hundred million in an escrow account three days ago, when Vince first told me the whole story. I figure, the C.I.A. was planning on using Mel's millions to overthrow the sovereign government of a foreign nation, so the FBI can use them to take back the government of the sovereign state of New York from the scum who've suborned it." He lifted his head to gauge McPike's response.

Frank's blank look revealed the level of his shock. "How many millions do you have?" he asked finally, dazed.

"Billions, Frank," Roger corrected. "Conservatively, over two, if you calculate my net worth. Over a billion of it is reasonably liquid, and the rest can become liquid in a pinch." He watched the diminutive Regional Director go white.

"How do you get from a hundred million to two billion?" Frank asked disbelievingly.

"It's a lot easier than it sounds," Roger said, humor crinkling his eyes. "Anyone with half a brain and enough seed capital can do the same. There's a fair amount of truth in the old adage, it takes money to make money'," he added.

McPike struggled to comprehend the sheer size of Lococco's fortune. The fact that the bulk of it had been amassed through Roger's own acumen impressed him deeply. He sipped his scotch slowly, considering the ramifications of this revelation.

"I have advisors I trust," Lococco said into the silence. "They can set up an off-shore corporation we can use to finance the operation."

"No. The only way the Department of Justice is likely to go for something like this is if we treat it as confiscated evidence left over from the Profitt investigation that finally turned up. I don't want it linked to you directly. It'll focus a spotlight on you we'd do better to avoid, especially if the Company is still looking to dephysicalize' you," McPike said. "It will look like one hell of a coincidence, but that's still better than a private citizen putting together the funding for an undercover operation of this magnitude." He met Lococco's gaze, seeing the surprise and the gratitude there. "The trick is going to be to get Beckstead onboard. He is not going to like this in the least."

"That's something I'll leave to you," Roger told him. "I don't tend to make a good first impression. Especially with authority figures," he pointed out dryly.

McPike snorted, nodding. "That's for sure," he agreed.

Lococco looked at his watch. "I'm gonna check on Vince," he said and rose to his feet.

McPike pondered the bizarre turn of events that had conspired to put Vince Terranova within a hairsbreadth of a dominant position in the New York Mob. Despite everything McPike and others had done to stave this off, the fates were conspiring against them. Now, suddenly, a guardian angel in the unlikely guise of Roger Lococco had materialized with handfuls of cash and enough of both common and uncommon sense to act as advisor, friend, protector and emotional touchstone to Terranova. Lococco's presence shifted the balance from the impossible to the possible. He was under no illusions concerning how intensely dangerous the operation would be if they went forward with it, but it was no longer a suicide mission. In some part of his mind, he acknowledged that Lococco was growing on him. Reflexive dislike, and even, initially, fear, had given way slowly over the years. First to tolerance, now to something close to friendship. If the mission went forward, Lococco would become the first line of communication with Vince. Terranova's profile would be far too high to risk a face to face meeting with anyone identifiable with law enforcement. Clearly, he would have to have a partner who had the freedom of movement to come and go without worrying about constant surveillance. The biggest unknown at this point was Tracy Steelgrave. How — or even if — she fit into the picture had yet to be determined.

Lococco checked Vinnie's pulse at the throat. He felt Terranova stir under his hand and checked the I.V. site at the inside of his right elbow for swelling. It looked completely normal, which was just as well, he thought. Medicine was emphatically not his field. He picked up one of the syringes DeSilva had left for him, uncapped it and drew up the next dosage of morphine.

"Don't give me any more of that stuff," Vince said hoarsely, awaked by Lococco's presence at his side. "It makes me sick."

"Doctors orders, Buckwheat," Roger told him. "There are junkies in alleyways all over New York who'd kill for a taste of this stuff. So take your medicine like a good boy."

"Next time, give it to them," Vince gritted his teeth against the sting of the drug as it entered his vein. It took less than ninety seconds before he could feel it's blurring effects on his thoughts, as well as on the dully throbbing pain under his ribs. He fought the vertigo that swept him, choking back the accompanying nausea. "What did McPike come up with on the funny-business in Brooklyn? Anything we can use?"

Roger paused in his examination of the I.V. bags to peer at Vince with an odd expression. "We've been a little preoccupied," he confessed. "I forgot to ask him, and he forgot to say."

Vince's forehead furrowed. "Well it's kind of important, Rog," he pointed out.

"Which should give you an idea how preoccupied we were. Don't sweat it, Vince. I'll talk to him in a minute," Roger reassured him, finishing up his quick examination of the I.V. hook-ups.

"He's still here?" Vince could not conceal his surprise.

"Yeah. Someone has to keep an eye on you while I go out tonight and try to bag our weasel," Roger reminded him. "Want me to send him in?"

Vince nodded woosily. "Yeah. I'll ask him myself."

"Well, alright, be that way," Roger grinned at him, as he turned on his heel.

"Frank, he's awake and wanting to know what you were able to dig up on Brod and Castellano today," Lococco announced as he walked into the sittingroom. He laughed at the look on McPike's face, so closely did it mirror the consternation he had felt himself at Vince's question.

McPike smacked his palm against his forehead in annoyed chagrin. "I have a mind like a sieve," he snapped. "Come on, you'd better hear this, too," he told Roger as he got up and headed for Vinnie's bedroom.

Lococco followed on his heels, curiosity fully aroused.

McPike advanced on the bed, hesitating as he realized that Terranova's eyes were closed.

"Hey, Frank," Vince said, hearing them enter. He opened dilated eyes to smile faintly at them. "So what did you come up with?"

"Well, there's good news and bad news," McPike began.

"Start with the bad," Lococco told him, impatiently, propping a hip against the night stand and crossing his arms over his chest.

"My field agent inside has no hard evidence. At least none that he can lay hands on."

"What's the good news?" Vince inquired, groggily.

"It's starting to look like there may be a paper trail. He's caught wind of a second set of books that Castellano's chief accountant has stashed somewhere," Frank told them.

"Rumors we've already got," Lococco reminded McPike, cynically. "This isn't going to be much help with Capuzi tomorrow."

"I'm not finished," McPike snapped back at him, and returned his attention to Vince. "Carlucci is willing to go into the meeting with you, as your informant inside Brooklyn. I've got Lifeguard setting up enough documentation of bad debt, held by you, to make it plausible. He's put together a nice little dossier on the bank manager you supposedly paid off to frame Grecco, too. It'll hold up even in court. He's been real careful to make it as seamless as possible."

"This guy, Carlucci, is willing to risk his cover to back me up?" Vince asked, startled. "You sure he knows how big a risk it is?"

"He knows. It was his suggestion. When he found out that the famous Vinnie Terranova, Sonny Steelgrave's former right hand, was actually an agent, he was falling all over himself to help."

"You blew my cover?" Vince asked incredulously.

"He'd already guessed," McPike defended himself. "Rumors about Grecco's testimony are pretty widespread. So when Beckstead told him he had the chance to help a ten-year veteran field agent maintain the OCB's most productive cover on record, he put the pieces together, and put your name on them."

Vince sighed. "Maybe I should just take out an ad in the Times," he said resignedly. "Vince Terranova, Federal Agent."

"Then there won't have been much point to having DeSilva patch you up," Lococco teased. "Your reputation apparently precedes you, Buckwheat."

***************************************

Roger had filled two spare syringes, one with morphine, the other with the Pentathol, and wrapped a piece of bandaging tape around the one with the morphine. He capped them and took them with him, leaving Frank to watch over the patient, and had gone to bed to get whatever sleep he could before he embarked on his attempt to reach Grecco. When he woke, it was to the sound of a soft knock on his door. "Yeah," he called.

McPike stuck his head in. "It's after midnight," he told Lococco. You wanted me to wake you up if you weren't up by now," he reminded the former assassin.

"Thanks," Roger replied, feeling as though he had been hit by a bus. He lay in the dark for several minutes before rising, then stripped and headed for the shower, ignoring McPike's worried frown as he left his room.

He stood under the scalding spray until some semblance of normality penetrated his fog of exhaustion. Much as he disliked admitting it, he was starting to feel his age. There had been a time when he had been known to go three days without sleep and then complete one of Mel's wet' assignments and go on to make love to the first convenient and willing female. At the moment, he doubted his ability to rise to any of those occasions. He was going to have to resort to one of DeSilva's feel-goodies, or he wasn't going to make it downstairs, much less across town.

Rinsing off the last of the soap, he got out and dried himself off, wrapping the towel around his waist, and returned to the sittingroom. McPike was nowhere to be seen, so he stuck his head into Vinnie's room.

McPike looked up as Roger appeared in the doorway. "You still look like hell," he said bluntly to the weariness that lined Lococco's face.

"Thanks. I still feel like it, too. Toss me the speed DeSilva left for me," he requested, and caught the little ziplock bag out of the air, opening it and swallowing one of the little tablets dry. "How's our patient?" he asked.

"Asleep again," McPike replied.

"You up to giving him his antibiotics?" Roger inquired. "He's gonna need more morphine in about an hour, too."

Frank nodded. "I was in the room when DeSilva showed you what to do," he answered, the usual cynicism clear in his voice.

"Glad to hear it," Roger shuddered. "I've never been big on needles." He turned and headed back to his room to dress in the jeans and T-shirt he'd worn the night previously. By the time he was ready to leave, the amphetamines were starting to kick in. DeSilva had been right. They were considerably stronger than the ones he'd taken the day before, though he wasn't sure he didn't prefer the irritability induced by old ones to the euphoria the new ones triggered. If he wasn't very careful, he would find himself cutting corners and taking risks without even being aware of it. He checked his weaponry, ensuring that the wrist sheath was working properly, then wrapped a garrote around the other arm, putting on his raincoat. The pistol stayed where it was, hung in its' holster over the back of a chair, and the two capped syringes went into a coat pocket. For this job, he would have to rely on cunning, not force of arms. He stuck his head back into Terranova's room. "See you around, Frank. Don't let him pull anything stupid."

"Watch yourself, Lococco," McPike replied. "You have my number?"

Roger nodded. "Yeah."

"Use it if you get into a jam," Frank told him.

Lococco nodded and headed for the door to the hallway, pondering the circumstances that had turned McPike from enemy to ally. Before tonight, he would never have imagined that the OCB Regional Director would have been doing anything but cheering on anyone who looked able to put Roger on ice permanently. No love had ever been lost between them. If he wasn't careful, Roger thought, he was at serious risk of developing a soft spot for the irascible little FBI agent.

***************************************

Roger eyed the sleeping mobster coldly. So this was what weasel' looked like, up close and personal. The sight was far from impressive. Tony Grecco lay on his back, upper legs swathed in heavy gauze dressings, the left one immobilized by a steel armature that appeared to be holding surgical steel pins in place along a six inch length of the upper thigh. Lococco could not muster much regret that his shot had shattered bone. It wouldn't matter in the long run. Or even the short one. Tony Grecco had reached the end of the line. Any hesitation he felt in killing the man was readily overcome at the memory of Terranova's bloody body in his arms that afternoon.

Roger found the injection port in Grecco's I.V. line and began injecting the Pentathol into it. Nice trick, he thought. He would have to thank DeSilva for that little tip. Grecco stirred as the drug hit his system, and Roger turned on the bedside lamp. The gangster's eyes opened and Lococco could already see the wooziness in them. "Evening, Mr. Grecco. I believe you have some information a friend of mine needs. Are you up to discussing it?"

"Fuck you," came the slurred response, and Roger eased a little more of the Pentathol into the I.V. line.

"Sorry you feel that way. You are going to discuss it, though. Tell me where you stashed the money from Steelgrave's dock operations." Roger's voice had gone cold.

"Fuck you," was the reiteration. "Tell Terranova he can go to hell."

"Well in that case, he'll be seeing you there, Buckwheat." Roger pushed another three cc's into the line and waited. He had used this drug before, in Mel's employ. It was generally reliable, though individual tolerance to it varied. Grecco appeared to have a greater than normal head for the stuff. "What's your name?" he asked.

He watched Grecco grit his teeth against the drugged loquacity that the Pentathol produced. A little more of the drug followed. "Your name."

"Grecco," was the reply. Lococco could see that he was still fighting it, but the drug was finally overcoming conscious will.

"Where is the money?"

"The Caymans." Grecco surrendered at last.

"Which bank?" It was obvious Roger was going to have to ask every question explicitly. Grecco was resisting the drug enough not to volunteer anything.

"Cayman National Bank."

"What's the account number?"

"Ring," came the obtuse response.

"What?" Roger muttered to himself. This was by far the most idiosyncratic reaction to Pentathol he'd encountered. "Ring? What does that mean?"

"In the ring. Account number's in the ring."
Lococco hesitated over this for a split second, brow furrowed. Then his amphetamine-spiked system caught the sound of a hand at the door of Grecco's room. With the speed of a striking snake, he had the light shut off, the syringe withdrawn and was wedged behind the open bathroom door in the darkness, listening to the stealthy opening of the door of the hospital room. The bedside light came on again and Roger peered through the crack between the doorjamb and the door, trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on.

He could see Grecco from the knees down, his torso obscured by the man who stood at his bedside. Grecco, drugged, was incapable of mounting an effective resistance as a pillow was placed over his nose and mouth, and held there through the wild thrashings of his death throes. It was during Grecco's last fitful movements that Lococco realized what the man had meant by ring'. The gold and diamond pinky ring on his right hand flashed in the light and Roger grinned.

Lococco bided his time while the assassin made sure he'd finished the job and finally crept back out of the room as quietly as he'd entered it. The fire Roger had set on the floor below had apparently provided an opportunity for more than just himself, he thought, removing the ring from the lifeless hand and slipping it onto his own finger, pausing just long enough to confirm the numbers engraved along the inside of the band. He peered cautiously through the door he'd cracked open and slipped out, hands sliding into the lab coat he'd appropriated from the hospital laundry, thankful that he'd swiped a set of scrubs while he was at it. The night staff, abuzz with the unaccustomed excitement, were returning to their posts, and he slipped among them, feeling a bit like a salmon swimming upriver as he moved counter to their flow up the stair well. The police officer he'd drugged with the morphine would undoubtedly be found within minutes and he increased his pace, exiting the stairwell three floors down and making for the elevator, his grin never wavering.

It was nearly three a.m. when he got back to the suite, wired out of his mind and not especially minding the amphetamine-induced euphoria, now that he had completed his mission. McPike was dozing in a chair beside Vinnie's bed. Lococco nudged him gently, pushing Grecco's ring off his pinky with his thumb. "Hey, Buckwheat, I've got something for you," he said softly as Frank stirred and sat up straight in the chair, rubbing his eyes blearily.

"What time is it?" McPike asked, peering up at Lococco.

"Three on a lovely Tuesday morning," Roger grinned at him, tossing the ring into the air. Reflexively, McPike caught it, turning it in his fingers as he gave it a cursory glance.

"Not exactly my style," he said sarcastically. "Does this mean we're engaged?"

"Look inside the band," Roger prompted.

McPike did as he'd been told, squinting at the engraving. Its' significance sank in and he looked up at Roger. "This what I think it is?" he asked, interest clearly piqued.

"Tony Grecco's account number at the Cayman National Bank, Grand Cayman Island," Roger confirmed.

"You really are as good as you think you are," Frank said, obviously impressed. "What about Grecco?"

"Dead," Roger replied, glancing at McPike to see how that piece of news went down. At the gathering thunder clouds on McPike's face, he held up his hands, placatingly. "Not my doing, Frank. One of Castellano's guys did the honors. The only bodily injury I committed was drugging the poor uniform outside Grecco's door and stashing him in a utility closet."

"You didn't stop them, either. That makes you an accessory, Lococco," McPike glowered.

"Stop with the crocodile tears, Frank. Grecco was a loose end that needed tying off. I'd have killed him if I'd had to. Vince might not have survived Tony's next performance in front of the Grand Jury. And given the choice between Vince and Grecco, I shouldn't have to tell you where my loyalties lie. Look me in the face and tell me you'd have stopped the guy who suffocated Grecco, knowing it could mean Vinnie's next family' get-together might be his last." Roger's edgy temper flared at the accusatory look in McPike's eyes.

McPike scowled and looked away, watching the slow rise and fall of Terranova's chest, knowing he would not have intervened in the murder of Tony Grecco under the circumstances, either. "The man was a scum-bag," he conceded.

"My point, exactly," Roger answered, the grin back, full force. "And you have some digging to do, my friend," he told McPike as he pulled Frank out of his chair and walked him out of Vince's room.

"Where am I going?" McPike asked irritably.

"To put together as much information as possible on that account. Bring anything you get with you when you and Carlucci connect up with us before the council meeting," was Lococco's imperious command. "And we'll need the ring back. It's a beautiful little piece of stage-dressing, don't you think?"

McPike glowered as Roger snatched up the raincoat Frank had arrived with and escorted him to the door.

"Sleep well, sweetheart," Lococco said, stroking the top of Frank's bald head familiarly.

Frank departed the hotel, annoyed enough at the bum's rush he'd just been given to be seriously reconsidering any slack he'd been inclined to cut Lococco, and knowing it had been the drugs in the man's system that had amplified the worst of his annoying habits, condescension. He twisted the gaudy pinky ring around the finger he'd put it on and closed his hand in a fist. Stepping out onto the Waldorf's portico, he hailed the cab that was parked there, getting in. "La Guardia airport," he said. "And make it snappy."

***************************************

Roger could feel the amphetamine rush fading as he returned to the sittingroom. It was too early for more painkillers for Vince, he knew, and far too early for the antibiotics. He felt his muscles beginning to tremble as the last of the drugs wore off, and knew he had to at least try to get some sleep, or he'd be useless to Terranova in the morning. He snatched the blanket from his own bed and took it with him into Vince's bedroom, seating himself in the wingback McPike had just vacated. He propped his feet on the foot of the bed and draped the blanket over his lap, switching off the bedside light and closing his eyes in the quiet darkness, knowing that he would hear any movement on Terranova's part. Withdrawal fought with exhaustion, and weariness won out at last. He slept.

Vinnie woke out of opium dreams, rising to consciousness as might a swimmer surfacing from a dive, with weary effort. The painkillers had worn off, he knew, from the aching stiffness in every muscle, and from the relative clarity of his thoughts. Breathing was distinctly uncomfortable, the drawing of a lung-full of air straining intercostal muscles as though his ribs had been bound. Out of nowhere, a deep, hacking cough rose from his diaphragm and he rolled onto his side, curling around the tearing pain of the knife wounds as the sutures were stretched.

The coughing subsided, leaving him sucking air through clenched teeth as he waited for the agony to ease. As his focus widened from the pain in his chest, he became aware of Lococco slumped in a chair beside the bed, deeply asleep. Even in the dim light from the sittingroom, Vince could see the exhaustion in Roger's face, lines and hollows more pronounced than before. The tousled hair and the dark sweep of lashes against his cheek gave him the look of a tired child. There was a disarming defenselessness in the limp sprawl of his body and in the astonishing innocence of his expression in relaxation that made Vince suddenly aware of the absence of the patina of long emotional pain Lococco wore in waking. He wondered what it would take to wipe that pain from his friend's features permanently, wondered if it were even possible.

Roger sighed softly and shifted, losing his blanket in the process. Vince watched him for a moment, but he showed no signs of waking. Vinnie sat up with painful slowness, stifling the cough that came with movement. Left arm pressed tightly against his side, he dropped his feet to the floor and reached down for the blanket. Retrieving it, he draped it back over Lococco one-handed, as gently as he could manage, knowing that Roger would never accept anything resembling tenderness in waking. The scars on his mind and heart were far too deep for the possibility of physical demonstrations of affection. Any attempt would simply trigger his reflexive homophobia. Vince respected those limitations on their friendship, even though it went against his own demonstrative nature. He had come to love this brilliant, irritating, damaged man as he had loved his brother. Unthinkingly. Unquestioningly. Without reservation, despite the horrors of his past deeds. Vince knew how fine the line separating them was. It would have taken very little for him to fall into the same darkness in which Roger had lost his way for so long.

Having discovered that breathing was easier in an upright position, he methodically stacked the pillows against the headboard and leaned against them, resting his head against the wall. He sat in the darkness, breathing carefully, simply watching Lococco sleep. Gradually, he relaxed into a light doze.

Roger could not have said what jarred him out of the state of total unconsciousness he had slipped into, but he came awake with every sense, every nerve engaged, sitting bolt upright in his chair with his heart pounding like a jackhammer. His abrupt movement woke Terranova and the two men stared at each other in the dimness.

"Rog?" Vince asked, "You okay?"

Lococco shivered, leaning back in the chair. "Night terrors," he replied, then straightened again. "You're sitting up."

"It's easier to breathe this way," Vince answered simply.

"So how come I didn't hear you moving?" Lococco's voice was edgy, stressed.

"You were asleep, Rog," Vince said, aware of Roger's distress but unable to understand the reason for it.

Roger rested his forehead on bunched fists. "Hellova bodyguard I turned out to be," he said, self-mockery dripping from every word. "Nothing should move in here that I don't know about!" his voice was fierce as he glared across at Vince.

Vince frowned, not liking Lococco's agitation. "You were sleeping, Roger. That's not a crime. You've been awake most of the past four days, ever since I dumped this load of crap in your lap."

"I wasn't just asleep, Vince, I was fucking unconscious!" Roger rose, pacing the length of Vinnie's bed like some wild animal in a trap. "Don't you get it? Anyone could have walked in here and finished what Castellano started and I wouldn't have noticed a thing until I woke up to find you in a pool of blood with your heart cut out!"

Vince stared at him in worried consternation. "Calm down, Roger. You were exhausted, you were in here with me, you trust me enough to shut your eyes on me and you fell asleep! I know you, Rog. If there was anything or anyone that didn't belong here, you'd have been on your feet with a gun in your hand faster than most people could even sit up."

Roger paused, staring down at Terranova, seeing the worry in his face. He took a deep breath and forced himself to relax. Forced the irrational rush of adrenaline back down, forced himself to think instead of react. "It's gotta be the speed," he muttered. "DeSilva said it would be rocky, coming off." He shivered involuntarily, resuming his pacing, though without it's previous agitation.

Vince watched Lococco make the Herculean effort to pull himself together, using the task of checking the I.V. line to focus himself. Cautiously, he put a light hand on Roger's forearm. "You okay, man?" he asked, feeling Lococco freeze under his fingers.

Roger exhaled, quelling the urge to jerk away from the touch on his skin. He held still a long moment, making it clear that it was a matter of trust over reflex that held him that way, then nodded sharply, moving away from the comfort of that touch, unable to help himself. He took up the vial of antibiotics and filled a syringe, injecting the medication into the I.V. port. The second bag was nearing empty, he noted, and checked his watch. 5:30 a.m.. Far too late for any morphine administered now to wear off in time for Vince to be at his limited best in time to meet with Capuzi. He swore softly under his breath, thankful that at least he hadn't slept long enough for the bag to empty, sucking a lethal air bubble into Vinnie's veins. "You're going to have to make do with Demerol from here on out. There's no way you'll be coherent in time if I use the morphine now."

Vince did not bother to conceal his relief. "Good. I hate the stuff. I'd rather hurt than feel like my stomach was trying to tie itself in knots around my throat." He shifted his position slightly, and began to cough. "Think I could get up?" he asked, ignoring the anxious furrow in Roger's brow. "I've been on my back for fifteen hours. I need to use the bathroom and I want something to drink."

"Okay, Buckwheat, then I'm going to take the I.V. out. Too much hassle trying to get you and it moving in the same direction at the same time." Roger let himself focus on the task at hand as he untaped the I.V. line from its' points of attachment along the inside of Vinnie's right elbow. He found a gauze pad and held it ready over the catheter site, and removed the I.V. cautiously. The single drop of blood was easily handled by the gauze and Roger taped the pad in place. "Put some pressure on that," he told Terranova as he disposed of the bags and lines.

Vince did as ordered, waiting for Roger to help him to his feet. He suspected he would need it. Roger heaved him upright.

He wasn't wrong, he thought, swaying as the blood drained out of his skull, leaving him lightheaded. He clutched at Lococco's shoulder, holding it hard, waiting for his vision to clear and the floor to stabilize under his feet.

"Just give it a minute," Lococco told him, waiting patiently for Vince to gather his strength. Another bout of coughing wracked Terranova and Roger swore quietly. "DeSilva said you'd be coming down with pneumonia," he said, concerned, pulling Vinnie's arm over his shoulder to better support him. "I guess he was right. Come on, let's get you to the john before you break potty training." The sting of his words was salved by the gentleness he used in guiding Vince across the room and into the bathroom.

Roger put Vince back to bed and brought him a glass of water and the Demerol, standing by and watching to ensure he took the drug. "You up to anything more solid than pain pills?" he asked.

"You mean food?" Vince inquired. "Yeah, I guess Now that the morphine is wearing off, I'm more hungry than queasy."

"Let's see what we can do about that," Roger replied and picked up the room phone. "Hello, Room Service?"

Twenty minutes later, a vaguely exotic assortment of selections from the Waldorf's kitchens was delivered to their rooms. Roger wheeled the cart into Vinnie's room. "So what'll it be? We have steak and eggs, we have a mushroom omelet, we have fruit salad, juice, coffee — we even have the ubiquitous donut or two."

"Whatever's sweet," was Vince's reply.

"Spoken like a true junkie," Roger ribbed him, then relented at the clouding of Vince's expression. "You're a long way from that," he reassured him.

"Sometimes, I wonder. It'd be real easy, you know, Rog?" Vince looked up at Roger, eyes dark with some old shadow. "To need what the pushers sell."

"Not you, my friend. You don't usually go looking for the easy way out. And I don't see you starting anytime soon." Lococco dismissed this worry out of hand. "Besides, who needs junk? Your current drug of choice is love, Buckwheat." His exaggerated drawl brought a smile flickering around Vince's mouth and Roger grinned. "They tell me it beats the pharmaceutical highs all to hell."

"I'd have to agree with that," Vince smiled, a full wattage grin that lightened his eyes. "Maybe you should give it a try sometime."

"Spoken like a true believer," Roger teased. "I don't think so. I've had enough complications for one lifetime."

Vince's quirked eyebrow spoke volumes as he took the fruit salad that Lococco handed him.

Roger had given Vince first choice from among the dishes he had ordered, and had then proceeded to polish off everything Terranova had rejected. Having gone without food since before Vince's stabbing, he had no qualms about making up for the meals he had missed. The metabolic jumpstart the amphetamines had given him would ensure the calories would be burned off.

"So how'd it go with Grecco last night," Vince inquired, having eaten as much as he could handle. He coughed, grimacing at the pull on his stitches.

"Like clockwork," Roger said, letting a certain smugness color his voice. "I got the account number and the name of the bank outta the little weasel and then let one of Castellano's guys fit him for wings. I'd say you've seen the last of Tony Grecco, Buckwheat." He stretched like a cat, with a feline aura of self-satisfaction. "I gave it to McPike and he's gonna pull together everything he can find out about it and bring it with, when he and Carlucci show up." He checked his watch. "Think you're up to calling Aiuppo and getting him to set up the meet with Capuzi?"

Vince nodded and swallowed the last mouthful of coffee in his cup. "Hand me the cell phone," he requested.

Rudolpho Aiuppo was lingering over a second cup of coffee when his private number rang. He answered immediately, expression lightening when he heard Vince's terse greeting. "Vincenzo, are you alright?" he asked, concerned. "There are rumors that Castellano's blade man got to you."

"Yeah, well for once the rumors are true. I've been holed up getting stitched back together. Capuzi wanted proof that your boys were going behind his back. I'd say a knife in the ribs qualifies." Vince's voice was rough, and Rudy did not like the sound of the cough that interrupted his statement halfway through. "I need you to contact him and set up a meet. Neutral territory. I'm not coming alone."

"Who are you bringing with you?" Rudy inquired warily.

"Lococco and one of Castellano's accountants. He's got a line on a second set of books that would put a whole different light on your current Brooklyn management," Vince replied. "I'm not walking into this without protection, this time. One shot at me is all I'm willing to give your guys, so clear it with Capuzi. And tell him I've got Grecco's off-shore account number. I'm still working on getting the details, though."

"I heard Tony ran out of luck last nightWas that your doing?"

"No. Castellano's guy did the honors. We just extracted the pertinent information." Vince denied.

"Very well, my boy. I will talk to Chero. Where do I reach you when I have his answer?"

"Use the cell number. I'll leave it on."

Vince tossed the cell phone to Roger. "Rudy'll call us when he knows when and where," he told Lococco, then coughed raggedly. He ran hands through his sweat-matted hair with a grimace. "If we're gonna be paying social calls, I'd better get cleaned up." Roger frowned. "You sure you're up to a shower?" he asked doubtfully.

"Get me on my feet. I'll be alright," Vince said, and proceeded to try to stand. Roger helped him to his feet, steadying him.

"So let's see you walk, Buckwheat," he said grimly.

Vince managed less than a dozen steps before his knees began to buckle. Roger caught him before he fell and slung Vinnie's arm over his shoulder once again. "Come on, let's get you hosed off. I can change your dressing when we're through," he said, helping Terranova into the bathroom. He sat him on the john while he turned on the water and stripped. He caught the odd look on Vince's face as he realized that Roger had every intention of getting into the shower with him. "There's too many opportunities for you to knock yourself silly on the plumbing," he said evenly.

"I was six and I had the chicken pox the last time somebody gave me a bath," Vince said unhappily.

"Come on, tough guy. I promise not to get soap in your eyes," Roger said, hauling him to his feet and steering him under the hot water. He leaned Terranova against the tile wall and moved the shower head to direct the flow over Vinnie's head and body.

"This is humiliating," Vince muttered, water dripping off his aquiline nose and slicking his heavy, dark hair to his head.

"Maybe so, Buckwheat, but think how humiliating it would be to show up smelling like you just went eight rounds with a water buffalo and covered in yesterday's dried blood," was Roger's reply as he soaped Vince down and rinsed him off. "You're gonna have to work on your sense of style. There are some things considered unacceptable in polite company."

"So fresh blood's okay?" Vince inquired archly, amused in spite of himself, letting Lococco work shampoo into his hair.

"Not with me, it's not," Roger retorted. "You're gonna run outta suits if you keep bleeding all over them. If I have to keep shelling out for clothes for you at this rate, I may just make a dent in my ready cash a whole lot faster than I'd planned."

"Cheapskate," Vince accused, and began coughing again. This time the spasm was longer and he let Lococco steady him as knifing pain lanced through his chest. It was several seconds before he could straighten. When he did, he saw the sharp worry that creased Roger's forehead.

"I'm alright," he said, harshly.

"Yeah, right," Roger snapped back, not buying it. "If we weren't holding a pat hand, I'd be seriously considering knocking you out, putting you on the Lear and heading for a nice little hospital somewhere Castellano's boys would never find you."

They stood, glaring at each other, for long seconds, neither of them willing to back down. Finally, Roger broke the stalemate, his smile reaching his eyes. "You are the stubbornnest damned bastard," he told Vince, and knocked the shower spray so that it fell full-force over Vinnie's head.

Vince sputtered and closed his eyes to keep the soap out of them.

When Lococco was satisfied with his handiwork, he turned off the water and got Vince out of the shower, toweling him off as gently as he could before tackling his own dripping body and wrapping towels around both their waists.

He helped Terranova back into the bedroom and sat him on the edge of the bed, then went to retrieve the bandaging supplies DeSilva had left for him. He laid out what he would need, ensuring that the gauze pads were well-coated with ointment, and tore off lengths of bandage tape, sticking them to the footboard of the bed. Carefully, he removed the sodden bandages from Vince's chest, dumping the blood-stained gauze to the floor. He removed the pads covering the wounds and the needle aspiration site one at the time, quickly replacing them with the fresh dressings, then taped them into place.

"You'd better not lie back down," he told Vince. "You're gonna have to be mobile in a few hours." He collected briefs and Vinnie's sweats, handing them to him. "Let's see if you can handle getting some clothes on," he suggested. He watched, ready to intervene if necessary, letting Terranova discover for himself what range of motion was comfortable. Roger let him struggle with dressing, knowing his help was not likely to appreciated. Finally, Vince stood beside his bed, in sweats, bare-chested and barefoot, swaying slightly with the effort, but remaining upright. "You'll do," he nodded. "Com'mon, let's get you into the other room," he added, letting Vince take hold of his shoulder and walking him out to the sittingroom. "I'm gonna give you one of DeSilva's jump-starters," Roger told him. "You're gonna need the energy. Limping into that meeting is not gonna be the sort of entrance that's gonna gain you any respect."

Vince's wryly quirked eyebrow spoke of his agreement with Lococco's terse assessment of his unpromising condition. "Just make sure you time it so's I'm not coming down off the stuff till after we're done," he made Roger promise.

Roger nodded, glancing at the VCR clock. It was nearly eight a.m. He retrieved Vinnie's cell phone from the bedroom and handed it to him. "I'm gonna get cleaned up myself," he told Terranova. "You got everything you need?"

Vince nodded, waving the TV remote with a flourish. "Think I'll see if Grecco made the morning news," he said to Lococco's retreating back, and turned on the TV.

Roger, having finished his own grooming, opened Terranova's closet and considered the two suits hanging there. He decided on the conservatively elegant silk one. Its' price tag would be obvious to everyone at the meeting that morning, declaring Vince a man of independent means. He rounded up all the sundry accessories necessary to a successful businessman and lay them out on Vinnie's bed. He walked into the sittingroom with one of the amphetamines, the antibiotics and a glass of water, handing them to Vince. "If you react to this stuff like I did, it'll kick in in about twenty minutes, and you'll be flying till at least three this afternoon."

Vince swallowed the pills obediently, downing the entire glass of water. "Thanks. That should be long enough," he told Roger. "Rudy called. Capuzi's not too happy about the extra guests at his little party, but he went along when Aiuppo told him who was coming and why. The meet's set for one thirty, at this old packing plant Capuzi's got on the East side."

"Aiuppo's lieutenants gonna be there?" Roger asked, his tone making it clear that if they did make an appearance, they would not likely be leaving under their own power.

"Dunno," Vince's reply was unconcerned. "If they do show up, though, they're not gonna leave happy."

"Not if I have anything to say about it, anyway," Roger confirmed. "It's quarter after ten, now. Let me know when you start feeling the rush, and I'll help you get dressed."

Vince nodded.

"And let's try to keep the bleeding to a minimum, okay?" Roger said, as he snugged the burgundy silk tie around Terranova's neck. "Ready to go impress the riff-raff?" he asked, stepping back. Vince was definitely looking better. The drugs had returned something near normal color to his face and his eyes were clear, though pain was etched in the lines around them. He was even standing and moving on his own with more assurance than he had two hours before. It was clear that discomfort road the broad shoulders, but he did not have the look of a man incapacitated by his injuries. Considering the way he'd looked less than twenty hours ago, it was nothing short of miraculous.

"I'm gonna start wondering about your homophobic act if you don't stop looking at me like that," Vince teased him, flushing under Lococco's appraising gaze. He was rewarded, unexpectedly, by Roger's laugh.

"You're just not my type, sweetheart. Not enough X chromosomes." Roger replied.

Vince answered this with a laugh of his own. "Just so's you aren't suddenly confused by which end of the gene pool you're swimming in, Buckwheat," he told his friend, pleased that Roger could laugh at something that would have sent him into a surly retreat ten years before.

"Let's go meet McPike," Roger said, handing Vince a new dark silvery-gray camelhair greatcoat.

Vince nodded, and to Roger's satisfaction, took the coat and walked slowly but steadily for the door of the suite. He paused at the door, looking back at Lococco, who was checking the contents of his own coat pockets.

"Gimme a sec," Lococco said and disappeared into his room for a moment, returning, donning his gloves as he joined Vince at the door. He glanced back at the suite, shaking his head. "I think I'm gonna be hearing from the management about the mess," he told Vince, ruefully.

"Just leave a few hundreds in an ash tray, Rog. Housekeeping isn't gonna make trouble for a heavy tipper, no matter how big the mess is. I didn't work Sonny's hotel and casino for nothing. You got money — use it." Vince reminded him ironically.

Roger cocked an amused eyebrow and fished out his money clip, peeling off an uncounted wad of hundreds and returned to the sittingroom only long enough to place the cash under the ashtray on the coffee table. "I knew there was a reason I kept you around. You are showing signs of becoming very helpful'," Roger said, quoting himself from a point early in their acquaintance as Mel Profitt's toadies.

Vince caught the allusion and grinned. "Gee, thanks, Roger,'" he answered as he had ten years before, though humor colored the cynicism in his voice, now.

Companionably, they departed the hotel and headed for their first meeting of the morning, with Frank McPike and Mario Carlucci.

They met up with McPike an hour later, in a deserted office on the seventh floor of a condemned building. The man with him, a soft-bodied and prematurely balding number-cruncher of about thirty five, eyed the pair of expensively clad, dangerous-looking men who emerged from the dilapidated elevator with wary curiosity. So this is what the OCB's most successful operative looked like, he thought to himself.

Frank performed the introductions, his presentation of Lococco as Vinnie's partner raising an eyebrow. "I didn't know the Bureau assigned agents in pairs," Mario Carlucci said in surprise.

McPike grimaced. "Technically, they don't," he admitted. "But we have an unprecedented situation here. Aiuppo and Capuzi are looking to recruit Vince for a management role in Brooklyn, if he can give them enough on Brod and Castellano. If he's under that deep, I want a safety net in place. That's Roger's job."

Carlucci's eyes widened in shock. "No wonder you wanted to shore up his cover!" he swallowed hard, realizing that his dreary office and the paper trails he spent his days following were far, indeed, from the violence these men had — and would — face in their careers. "You know," he told Terranova, "they used the technique you developed to penetrate Steelgrave's operation as a training exercise when I was coming up."

Vince was startled. "I didn't develop anything. I used a mutual interest to give myself a point of contact cause I didn't want to do it the long way, working my way up from the bottom -" he jerked his head at Frank "- and my field supervisor made it pretty clear what he thought about that at the time," he stated bluntly. "I was in too big a hurry and only the fact that I was one lucky son of a bitch kept me from getting myself killed."

Carlucci grinned suddenly. It was clear Terranova had no idea that his anonymous exploits had become Bureau legend. Far be it for him to enlighten him, he resolved. In Terranova's position, he'd probably rather not know, either. "Have it your way," he replied, catching the amusement crinkling the corners of Lococco's eyes.

"Gentlemen," McPike interrupted impatiently. "We have an act to get together, and damned quick. You have an appointment to keep in slightly over an hour."

"Alright, alright, Frank. What did you get on Grecco's account?" Vince asked.

In answer, McPike handed over the sheaf of papers he held. "Looks like the Winfield deal was not the only one he cut himself in on," Frank said. "There's almost half a million in that account. I put all the stuff you could reasonably be expected to get access too in the folder on top. The rest of that you'd better keep to yourself. It has federal weight' stamped all over it."

Vince nodded, and handed the papers to Lococco. "What about the Brooklyn books?" he turned to Carlucci.

"No hard copy, but I was able to hack into Brandon's pet accountant's computer. He's definitely keeping an extra set of books. I couldn't access them without tripping alarms and blowing my cover. But I can show don Aiuppo's number-guy how to get to the records. That do you any good?"

"Maybe," Vince said slowly. "I won't know until I have a feel for how much Rudy and Capuzi already know, and how badly they want to rein the punks in."

Carlucci nodded. "Just so the guns stay holstered," he muttered to himself.

"You don't have to get involved," McPike told him, firmly.

"It's just been a while since I went through the weapons training course," he admitted. "About the most physical action I see in my cover is the percussive maintenance' I practice on the piece-of-shit computer I work on."

Terranova stifled a grin, glad that he had not let Frank talk him into the Pacific R.D. job. A desk job like Carlucci's job would likely have killed him far sooner than any weapon would, out of sheer boredom. "We'll try to keep it civilized," he assured the accountant. "You carrying?"

"Are you nuts? My cover is as a desk-jockey, not a soldier. I show up for a tete á tete with a coupla goombas who don't know me from the corner grocer carrying heat and I'll wind up as a paper-weight." Carlucci said emphatically.

Vince nodded, approvingly. "Leave the violence to the professionals," he said dryly. "If it gets ugly, find yourself some cover and stay there."

"Happily," Carlucci agreed.

The three men piled into the black Cadillac sedan Roger had rented for the expedition, Roger at the wheel. Carlucci noticed the stiffness with which Terranova got into the car, and cast a glance of inquiry at the dark-haired agent.

"Castellano got in a lucky shot twenty four hours ago. I took a knife in the ribs."

Carlucci blinked. "You've been stabbed? Why aren't you in a hospital?"

"Cause Brod and Castellano probably have them all staked out, waiting for me to turn up so they could move me from a room to the morgue," Vince replied, grimly. "It's thanks to Rog and some little white pills I'm on my feet at all," he elaborated, giving credit where credit was due.

"You play hardball, Terranova," Carlucci exhaled noisily.

"They don't call em the major leagues for nothing," Vinnie agreed, leaning slowly back against the leather upholstery, coughing as he pressed an arm hard against his ribs.

Roger slowed the Caddy to a crawl, doing a preliminary drive-by of the warehouse Vince had given him directions to. Three large sedans and a limousine were visible in and around the wide-open freight doors. Lococco circled the block and pulled into the loading dock, ensuring that the car was not likely to be blocked into its' parking space, should they need to leave in a hurry. He got out and opened the back door for Terranova, subtly assisting him out of the vehicle.

The three of them made their way to the freight doors, halted a step inside by two of Capuzi's personal guard.

"Where's don Capuzi?" Vince asked with cool disinterest, casting a glance around the warehouse. Meat hooks on their sliding track looped back and forth across the interior space, forming an odd sort of visual curtain. At least they were empty, Vince thought. The absence of carcasses lent a false sense of security, but the visual symbolism of the bloody remains of slaughtered animals was something he could do without.

"Waitin' on you, wiseguy," the hired muscle snapped. "Search em," he directed his assistant, and was instantly obeyed.

Roger had worn the H&K in its' shoulder holster, as unconcealed as a concealed weapon was likely to get. The stiletto in its' wrist sheath, the snub-nosed revolver in its' ankle holster and several handfuls of ball bearings distributed through various pockets he hoped would be overlooked in favor of the obvious. He was relieved of the pistol in short order, and the three-quarter inch bearings in his trouser pockets prompted a more familiar contact than he had counted on as the searcher thrust a hand into the pocket and seized a handful. Roger tensed at the touch, eyes flashing.

"What the hell?" The lackey muttered, examining the steel orbs in bemusement. "Ball bearings?" he shot a look at the muscle covering Vince.

Vince shrugged. "Once a mechanic, always a mechanic"

The man whose machine pistol hovered a bare two feet from Vinnie's chest snorted. "You can take the grease off the monkey but he's still an ape," he said disparagingly to Lococco's expressionless face.

"Your tailor must love you," the second thug commented, moving on to Carlucci.

"Who's he?" the gun-wielding one asked Vince of Carlucci.

"My accountant," Vince answered in the same surly tone in which the question had been asked.

"Your accountant. You just don't got any idea how deep the shit you're in is, do you, smart-mouth?"

Vince glared at him, unblinkingly, not bothering with a reply.

"Give the monkey back his balls," the man told his associate, dismissively.

Roger took the bearings, letting them roll in his palm before dropping them back into an overcoat pocket. He met Vinnie's eyes, saw Vince's quickly suppressed shiver at the expression he saw in Lococco's gaze. Roger fell into step on Vince's heels, both hands in his coat pockets as they followed the second thug into the plant through the maze of hooks and chains.

Capuzi and three of his household guard were waiting in a clear area near the meat lockers. The pair of rusting forklifts parked randomly at the edges of the space gave it a look of tired abandonment. The don looked up at Vince's entrance, glancing appraisingly at his companions. "Where is your stepfather?" he asked.

Vince frowned. "He's not here?"

"No," Capuzi answered. "I thought he would be coming with you."

Vince shook his head, negatively. "When I talked to him this morning, he said he'd see me here." He didn't bother to conceal his worry as he pulled his phone out of his greatcoat pocket and dialed Aiuppo's number. It rang, unanswered, for long minutes. Vinnie caught Roger's eye, seeing the furrowed brow and the narrowed eyes that signified Lococco's awareness of trouble. "I don't like this," he said, finally hanging up and shoving the phone back in a pocket. He turned to Capuzi. "With respect, don Capuzi, I think Rudy may be in trouble. Brod and Castellano have been planning a coup — that's what Carlucci is here to prove — and they may be gunning for him. I need to find him. Now. Before they can get to him, if it's not already too late."

Capuzi scowled. "You're sure of this?" he asked, anger coloring his voice.

"Oh, yeah," Vince assured him. "About as sure as a knife in the ribs can make me. They're gunning for both of us, and have been since Sunday when you gave me seventy two hours to get the goods on Grecco. Well, I've got what you wanted, and Grecco is in the morgue courtesy of Castellano's prima facci. I don't want Rudy to end up being his slab-mate."

Capuzi turned to his lieutenant. "Take Richie and Al and go with Vincenzo to don Aiuppo's. Find him. Bring him to me. And if you find Brandon or Michael, bring them, too." He faced Vince again. "You say you have proof Tony was a thief?"

Vince reached into his overcoat, slowly withdrawing the sheaf of papers McPike had given him. He handed it to the don's lieutenant, who reached for it, and eased the pinkie ring off his finger. "The account number is engraved on the inside of the band," he told them, tossing it to Capuzi, who caught it cleanly out of the air, eyeing Terranova speculatively. "There's over a half million in that account," he said. "The Winfield deal wasn't the first one he'd skimmed."

Capuzi slid the ring onto his own finger after checking it quickly for the number there. He nodded at Vince. "Go. Find Rudy. Join me at my home. It seems you, your stepfather and I have business to discuss."

Vince nodded sharply and turned to Carlucci. "Mario, stay with don Capuzi. Show his numbers man what you showed me," he ordered, ignoring the flash of panic in the man's eyes. Vinnie glanced at Capuzi, continuing. "Mario thinks he's tracked down a second set of books Castellano's guy's been keeping on the extra take they've been hauling outta Brooklyn. If you're planning on shutting them down, you're gonna want proof, or some of the other families may start screaming."

Capuzi nodded, beckoning to Carlucci, who swallowed and stepped to the don's side. Capuzi's lieutenant strode toward the front of the warehouse, Vince and Lococco right behind him. With a sharp command, the man called two more of Capuzi's men to heel, and the small group swept out of the packing plant, heading for the cars as Capuzi's man made cursory introductions. "I'm Cal McLean and these two bozos are Richie Donatello and Al Toscano." He handed Roger back his H&K.

"Vince Terranova, and my partner, Roger Lococco," Vince said, shaking the offered hands as they hurried toward the cars. "You know where Rudy's house is?"

McLean nodded, getting into the driver's seat of the Lincoln parked behind Roger's Cadillac. Vince got into the passenger seat as Roger climbed behind the wheel.

"You think the Bobbsey twins got to Rudy?" Roger asked grimly as he put the car in gear and roared out into traffic, heading for the main cross-town artery that would take them back to Brooklyn, McLean and the rest of Capuzi's boys on their bumper.

"If they did, and if they got into my laptop, they may know about Tracy. They make Rudy give her up and they've got leverage on me, and they'll know that. They aren't gonna be shy about using her, either," Vince replied, equally grimly.

Roger accelerated.

They screeched to a stop at the curb in front of Aiuppo's house and clambered out of the vehicles, drawing guns and stalking up to the front door. It stood ajar, that simple fact sending a frission of fear down Vinnie's spine as Roger took point, sticking his head rapidly inside the door and glancing around.

A body lay sprawled on the foyer floor, blood pooled around it on the parquet marble. Lococco, gun at the ready, slipped inside, peering sharply into the rooms that opened off the entry hall. Empty. He waved the rest of the men in behind him, and they entered, cautiously, slipping along walls, poised on the balls of their feet. He felt Vince at his back, the .357 held muzzle-up as Terranova scanned the front of the house for signs of life. Every instinct he had told Roger that whatever had happened, it was over, the perpetrators long since gone. Still, he was beginning to realize that it paid to play it safe when dealing with a pair of loose cannons like Castellano and Brod. Lococco waved Cal and his men up the stairs and he and Vince made their way toward Rudy's library.

The library seemed to be the epicenter of whatever had happened. The big wingbacks had been over-turned and the massive library desk had been swept clear of it's burdens, the crystal decanters splintered on the hardwood. It was Roger who saw him first. "Vince!" he said sharply, getting Terranova's attention. Vinnie joined him, kneeling beside the man who lay panting on the floor between the fallen chairs.

"Lou!" he exclaimed, recognizing Louis Falcone, his stepfather's favorite young wiseguy. "What the hell happened here?"

"Vinnie, they took the don" the voice was a bare whisper, and blood began a slow trickle from the corner of his mouth as he peered up at Vince. "They musta had a guy on me, cause I spotted the tail on my way here from the hotel," he continued haltingly. "I'm sorry, man, I led em right to her."

"Roger, get an ambulance," Vince ordered, eyes never leaving Lou's face. "You mean Brod and Castellano?" he asked, knowing the answer.

The younger man nodded feebly. "Some of their guys. They left me here to tell you where to find "

Vince fought the urge to shake the man. "Where the hell did you and the old man stash Tracy?" he demanded, biting back his fear. His pulse was beginning a dull roaring in his ears and he had to strain for Lou's reply.

"The Wessex Hotel, downtown," came the barely audible answer. Suite nineteen thirty two."

"Alright, hang in there, kid," he said, straightening the sprawled limbs and propping Falcone's head on the backrest of the chair that had fallen beside him. Vince tugged open Lou's suit coat and shirt, looking for the source of the blood that slicked his chest. The man had taken a round point-blank to the upper abdomen and Vince knew a bad wound when he saw it. "How long ago'd they hit you? How much of a lead do they have?"

"Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes," Falcone whispered. He stared up into Vince's eyes. "I'm sorry, Vince. She's a lady."

"That she is," Vince agreed. Behind him, he could hear Lococco's urgent tones as he spoke to the emergency operator. "I expect you to apologize to her when this is over."

"You got it, Vinnie," Falcone sighed, eyes drooping closed.

Vince felt for a pulse. It was there, though weak. He closed his own eyes for a split second, then rose to his feet painfully. "Roger, we've got a twenty minute lead to cut down," he told Lococco as Roger finished up his conversation with the emergency operator. "Rudy's been snatched and Castellano's guys are taking him downtown to the hotel where he's got Tracy."

Roger digested this unhappily. "Midday traffic is bad enough, but we're coming up on the beginning of rush hour," he observed, checking his watch. "We're never gonna catch them."

"Not with you driving," Vince agreed grimly. "You don't know the city well enough."

"You're not up to it, so don't even think about it," Roger rebuked him. "We can get one of Capuzi's guys to chauffeur us." Without waiting for Vinnie's response, Lococco headed back to the staircase, calling for McLean.

It was Donatello, by the ready consensus of his fellows, who drove them. Roger braced both himself and Terranova as they went rocketing through traffic at a breakneck pace, barely avoiding multiple collisions and pedestrians. McLean and Toscano, in the second car, clung, limpet-like to their bumper as they streaked across town. Even Donatello could not circumvent the increasingly heavy traffic of the heart of the city, however. Their progress was slowed to a crawl by the congestion.

Vince struggled to keep from fidgeting, from uttering aloud the stream of invective that ran through his brain. He felt Lococco watching him and it was all he could do not to take his mood out on him. Anxiety had given way to out-and-out fear by now, and the inability to take any sort of action only amplified it.

When they finally reached the Wessex, with its' view of Central Park, Vince was crawling out of his skin. There was no way of knowing whether any of Donatello's racetrack moves had bought them any time, he acknowledged as Richie roared into the basement parking garage of the hotel, radials screaming on the concrete of the ramps, all three of them scanning the floors for any movement.

Unbelievably, on the fourth level down, they spotted Brod, Castellano and the half-dozen or so wiseguys that clustered about the elevators, Rudy Aiuppo in their midst. Donatello wrenched the Cadillac out of the curving arc of the ramp and gunned the big car down the aisle straight at them, fishtailing the vehicle so that it swung broadside across the roadway thirty feet from the now madly scrambling hoods, driver's side facing away from the thugs. He and Lococco were out of the vehicle in nanoseconds, guns drawn, elbows steadied on the roof of the car. Behind them, they could hear the shriek of McLean's car as it followed them down the ramps.

Vince, more slowly, got out on the passenger side, not bothering to arm himself. He strode forward, locking eyes with Castellano, who stood calmly, his gun muzzle held firmly against Aiuppo's temple. Beside him, Brod, smiling, held his automatic aimed straight at Vince. "Let the old man go," Vinnie said flatly.

"In your dreams, Terranova," Brod laughed. "Look around you. You are definitely out-gunned." He waved his free hand casually at the six men flanking them, all with weapons in hand, all of them trained on Vince and his small party.

Vince began to speak and was silenced by the earsplitting squeal of McLean's car breaking to a smoking halt beside their Caddy. McLean and Toscano were out, guns in hand, before the air had cleared. "I wouldn't," Calvin McLean said, cocking his gun, the noise loud in the cavernous space. "Not unless you're looking for war with Capuzi," he informed them. "My orders were fairly explicit."

Brod and Castellano exchanged the briefest of glances. "This has nothing to do with Queens. It's an internal matter," Brod stated.

"Not any more," McLean replied. "When you start ripping off your own don, your business partners are gonna start wondering whether your hands are in their pockets, too. Cherry has some questions he'd like to ask the two of you."

Michael Brod's expression was carefully neutral "We have business to finish with Rudy and Terranova. If don Capuzi wants to see us, he can make an appointment."

McLean laughed. "You really want to play it this way?"

"It's over," Vince told the pair. "It's up to you whether you want to walk away — or get carried."

Castellano eyed Vince coldly. "Tell me, what's it like to fuck the Steelgraves? First you screwed Sonny and Dave, and now you've got Dave's daughter doin' a lap dance with you. I'd be real interested in knowing how good she is. She a screamer?"

Vince snarled, reaching for his pistol, faintly aware of Lococco's soft expletive behind him. The knowledge that he was being played did not slow him for even half a heartbeat, and he leveled his pistol at Castellano, finger tight on the trigger. The tension in the air, already high, went stratospheric. "The way I see it, you've got two choices. I can shoot you now, or I can let Capuzi do the honors. But either way, you are dead. Now let Rudy go."

"I don't think so," Castellano said as the elevator behind him chimed and the steel doors slid open. Together, he and Brod stepped backward into the car, taking Rudy with them, their respective guns never wavering from their targets. "Kill the bastard," he commanded his men as the doors closed between him and Vince.

Vince didn't hesitate, swinging his gun toward the nearest of Castellano's wiseguys and firing as he advanced on the elevators, slamming a hand into the call button in furious haste. He ignored Lococco's shouted command to hit the deck, instead, turning the gun on a new target, oblivious to the cement chips that whined off the wall behind him. The berserker rage that swept him left no thought for his own safety. The imperative to get to Tracy overwhelmed everything else.

Roger cursed, turning to Donatello. "Cover me!" he shouted, leaping out from behind the Cadillac, dodging gunfire as he sprinted the ten yards to the elevators. He caught Vince by one arm and hurled him to the ground, going down in front of him, shielding him, firing at the source of the shots that howled past them. Behind him, he heard Vinnie's hammer fall on empty chambers and he ejected his virtually empty clip, shoving a fresh one into place, and tossed the H&K to Terranova as he reached into his coat pockets for the ball bearings there. He surged to his knees, keeping himself between Vince and the shooters, and let fly, the bearings smashing through car windows and into their human targets, nearly as effective as his gun at short range. Almost inaudible in the din of gunfire, the elevators chimed again, and a pair of steel doors opened with majestic slowness behind him. "McLean — can you handle them?" he shouted to Capuzi's lieutenant, getting back an affirmative. "I'm going after Aiuppo," he told him, scrambling upright and making a grab for Vince, hauling him to his feet and thrusting him bodily into the elevator as the doors began to close. He slipped inside himself as three layers of steel shut out the gun battle.

He turned to face Terranova, who stood, leaning heavily against the wall, face gray and his breath coming in the shallow gasps that immediately told Lococco that his lung had collapsed again, probably as a result of being thrown none-too-gently to the ground. "What the hell did you think you were doing back there, you stupid shit?!" he demanded, advancing on Terranova with outrage in every muscle. He pulled open Vince's coat and suit with one hand as he fished in his pocket with the other. He ripped open the silk shirt, and without further preparation, uncapped the seven inch needle, flicking off the sterile end piece, and threaded it with barely restrained fury most of the way into Vince's chest from under the left side of the rib cage. He pulled the short length of bandaging tape off the cap, tossing the plastic to the floor, and fastened the needle down against the skin of Terranova's upper abdomen. Blood began a steady, frothy drip from the exposed end of the needle as the air trapped in Vinnie's chest slowly escaped. "That stunt could have gotten us both killed!" The elevator doors opened onto the main floor of the hotel, and Roger whirled to face the startled crowd that waited there, the little knife dropping from its' sheath into his hand, point weaving with the lethal grace of a snake about to strike. "Get the next one," he snarled, hitting the close' button.

Vince, breathing still labored, fought the pain that clenched his chest. "Roger, don't let them get to her. Kill them if you have to," he said harshly. His muscles were beginning to quiver as the last of the amphetamines were burned out of his system. He doubted his ability to keep his feet much longer and turned Roger's automatic in his grasp and handed it to Lococco butt-first. "Just don't let them get near her."

Roger took the gun, handing Vince the snub-nosed revolver from his ankle holster in dark silence. He could see Terranova's hold on strength and consciousness slipping and cursed the necessity that had caused him to knock Vince down hard enough to re-injure him. "I'll do my best, Buckwheat, but Rudy may get damaged some," he said as the elevator doors opened onto the nineteenth floor. He pulled the emergency stop button and stuck his head out of the elevator for a rapid glance down the hall in each direction, spotting Brod, Castellano and Aiuppo turning a corner at the far end of the corridor. Without another word, he sprinted down the hall after them, footfalls astonishingly silent on the plush carpeting. He reached the turn in the hall and took a quick look. The threesome had stopped at a suite door and were pounding on it.

"Tell them to open up, old man," Castellano told Aiuppo, finger tightening on the trigger of his gun as he pressed it harder against Rudy's temple.

Aiuppo shot him a contemptuous look and said something cutting in Italian, spitting in Castellano's face, and turning to the door, he shouted a warning to the occupants of the room, again in Italian.

Castellano, in a fit of temper, smashed the butt of his gun against the old man's temple, knocking him to the floor, dazed, and wiped the spittle from his face. He leveled the automatic at the fallen don, preparing to fire. "Say goodnight, Gracie," he hissed.

Lococco knew he wouldn't get a better opportunity, and he leveled the H&K at the gun in Castellano's hand, firing. The automatic went flying and Castellano collapsed, shrieking in agony as the next round hit him in the knee. Brod spun around and opened fire on Lococco's position.

Roger ducked back behind the corner as plaster dust exploded from the wall at face level. He knew he needed to make short work of the man. It would be only a matter of minutes before the police would be summoned, if they had not already been called. He was distracted from his quarry by Terranova's halting arrival.

Vince half-staggered into the open, presenting himself as a target to Brod, hoping to draw his fire, allowing Roger to finish him. He ignored Lococco's shouted epithets and aimed the snub-nosed revolver at Brod, pulling the trigger. His vision was tunneling and he doubted his ability to hit anything, but as a ruse, it worked admirably. Brod's attention — and his gun — were instantly fixed on Vince. In that instant, Roger fired, and Brod pitched over backward in a boneless sprawl and lay motionless on the burgundy carpeting. Vince, at the end of his strength, sagged heavily against the wall and slid slowly down to the floor, panting as Roger loped down the hall to check on the bodies.

Lococco checked Brod for a pulse and found none, moving on to Castellano who lay whimpering and clutching his knee. Roger kicked his gun down the hall in Vinnie's direction, seeing Vince stop it's slide with a quick grab. He moved on to Aiuppo, giving the old man a hand as he struggled to his feet, checking the rapidly swelling lump on the don's temple.

Aiuppo brushed him off. "I am fine," he snapped at Roger, raising a fist to rap sharply at the door in what was clearly a code. It opened instantly, an armed wiseguy peering through the slitted opening. The door opened the rest of the way as he confirmed it was Aiuppo on the other side. "Take the woman and get her to my home," he commanded. "Now!" he added when his man hesitated a split second in the doorway. This time he was obeyed immediately.

Lococco headed back down the hall to Vince, who sat limply propped against the wall, breathing shallowly. He knelt beside Terranova as he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, dialing 911. Behind him, he heard Aiuppo's man yank an unwilling Tracy Steelgrave into the hall.

"Get your hands off me, you ape," she demanded, her anger unmistakable.

"Tracy, you must leave, immediately," Aiuppo interrupted. "The police will be here any moment."

"So what? I'm not the one who's going to have a problem with them," she snapped at the old man.

Roger glanced back over his shoulder at the little scene as he spoke to the emergency operator for the second time in as many hours. He could see very little of the woman, Aiuppo and her two bodyguards blocking his vision. Her temper, however, was unmistakable. Disinterested, he returned his attention to Vince, watching what fading consciousness Terranova had focus on the woman's voice, a faint smile playing over his mouth as he caught the argument.

Vince watched her, what he could see of her, like a man presented with visions of eternal paradise, with an astonished joy at seeing her again after two months, even under these conditions. As though she could feel the weight of his gaze on her, she glanced his way. He saw the instant of horrified realization and heard her scream his name before Aiuppo's men seized her and hauled her spitting and fighting down the hall in the opposite direction toward the far elevators. He sighed and surrendered to the welcome oblivion of darkness.

***************************************

Tracy looked up at Aiuppo's entrance, her eyes cold. "How are they?"

The old don sank wearily into the now-righted leather chair, not replying immediately. He was relieved to see that someone had taken the time to straighten up the destruction Brod and Castellano's men had wrecked upon his home. He had been dreading returning to the ruins. He sighed. "Vincenzo is in Intensive Care," he told her, eventually. "Luigi is still in surgery. The doctors do not seem to think he will survive."

"What about Vince? When can I see him?" she asked flatly.

"Not until he regains consciousness," Rudy said tiredly, leaning his aching head against the backrest and closing his eyes. He saw no reason to tell her that Lococco had categorically refused to leave Vince's side, and was even now standing guard over Terranova. He had no doubt that if she knew, Tracy would insist on joining him in that vigil.

She looked away, staring unseeingly at the cold hearth. "Was it everything you hoped for?" she asked him bitterly. "Are you satisfied? Vince is hurt — I don't know how badly. You've manipulated Capuzi into supporting your bid to put him into Brooklyn, Brod is dead, Castellano is disgraced and under house arrest, and you've managed to link my name to Vinnie's, publicly, ending any chance we had to make a life together outside the mob and your little game." She turned to meet his rheumy eyes. "Tell me something, Rudy," she inquired. "Was it you who arranged for Tony Grecco to testify?"

Rudy met her anger calmly. "You over-estimate my abilities, my dear. No, I had nothing to do with Grecco appearing before the Grand Jury. But I was certainly capable of making use of the opportunity. I do not expect either you or Vince to forgive me for what I have done. But I do expect that, slowly, you may both come to understand why I did it. Will you remain here?"

She didn't reply right away. "I've arranged for a substitute instructor for my classes for the rest of this week. It'll be a miracle if Georgetown asks me back next semester," she said. "I'll stay through the weekend."

"I would prefer that you stay with me, in that case. I owe it to Vinnie to ensure your safety." Aiuppo closed his eyes, leaning his head back again.

"I've had just about enough of your hospitality'," she retorted, "but I get the feeling that that wasn't a request. Just another of your politely phrased orders."

Rudy smiled without opening his eyes. "Thank you for indulging an old man's whims," he said. He was more impressed than ever by this woman. He allowed himself to wonder what her and Vinnie's children would look like. He hoped they had her spirit. And he hoped he lived long enough to see them into the world. He sighed. "Have Leo show you to your room," he told her.

Tracy knew a dismissal when she heard it and rose, leaving the battered and suddenly frail-seeming old man alone in his library. Silently, she walked up the stairs to the room she had first tenanted upon her arrival, Leo, her assigned goon, following at a respectful distance. She shut the door on him and slowly got undressed, putting on the silk nightgown the don had had waiting at the Wessex for her, and had apparently arranged to have brought here, along with the rest of the small but complete wardrobe he had procured for her. Wrapping a throw blanket around her shoulders, she settled herself on the window seat of her room, resting her forehead against the cold glass and stared out into the night. It had begun to snow, and she let her breath slowly fog the view out of the window. Soundlessly, she began to cry.

***************************************

It was Saturday before Vinnie was free of the oxygen mask, finally able to breathe with only a nasal cannula to assist him, at last more conscious than unconscious. Lococco had stood guard the entire three and a half days, snatching sleep where he could and meals when McPike slipped into the hospital in the dead of night to relieve him for a few hours. He had finally taken time to return to the Waldorf for a shower and a shave, McPike having alerted him to Rudy's plans for a mob summit at Vince's bedside sometime Saturday afternoon.

He and McPike had had the opportunity for some strategizing during those long nights, and had slowly hammered out the nucleus of a course of action, one designed to ensure that if Vince was put into position as Aiuppo's cappo de tutti, it would be as a contractor. A freelancer, rather than Aiuppo's hand-picked successor. It was the only thing either of them could come up with that might insulate Terranova, even marginally, from the internecine power-struggles within the mob.

Roger had spent a great deal of time on the phone to the most trustworthy of his business advisors, setting up a series of corporations to hold the assets of the fictitious empire he was constructing as Terranova's power base. It would eventually be funded with the hundred million that Frank had triumphantly presented to Beckstead as the fruits of an on-going Federal search for the last of the evidence outstanding in the Mel Profitt case.

McPike had made it clear that it had turned up independently of Vinnie's current situation, and had begun planting the idea of using it to fund the apparently inevitable mob penetration by Terranova. He had also begun laying the groundwork for Lococco's inclusion as partner. That, he assured Roger, would be the true battle. Beckstead was vehemently opposed to civilian participation in Federal operations. Frank had proposed, and Roger had reluctantly agreed, that approaching the Attorney General might be the path of least resistance. McPike hoped to obtain special agent status for Lococco, and possibly Tracy, should her participation be as inevitable as they both suspected. He had scheduled a meeting with Attorney General Reno at her earliest convenience, which was some three weeks away, long enough, they hoped, for Vince to be back on his feet and able to play the role of super-mole convincingly for her.

McPike had also arranged to passively bug Vinnie's private hospital room Friday night, ensuring that the outcome of Aiuppo's master plan would be know in its' entirety. They had done what they could reasonably do without Vinnie's active participation, and could now only wait.

Roger sat in the chair he had dragged in from the waiting room three days before, feet propped on the undeployed railings of Vinnie's bed where they projected below the mattress, sunglasses on, dozing fitfully. Four days of minimal sleep and DeSilva's amphetamines had left him trembling, with nerves attenuated to the breaking point. He doubted his ability to hit the broadside of a barn with anything less than a tank by now, and had left his gun at the hotel, trusting that between them, Capuzi and Aiuppo's security would be sufficient to ensure the safety of the assembled mob notables. He couldn't bring himself to care much. The fact that McPike would have a small army of SWAT/HRT troops in the rooms on either side of Vinnie's, should they be needed, relieved him of any responsibility save that of getting Vince onto the floor and behind cover if things got ugly.

Vince lay on his back, staring at the ceiling groggily. The mind-numbing exhaustion of the past few days was finally beginning to lift, and he felt half-way normal, despite the thick cough that still shook him. He watched Roger doze restlessly, distantly amazed by the conspiratorial industry Lococco and McPike had shown while he had been unconscious. When Lococco had briefed him on the steps they had taken, he had been both impressed and irrationally angry that they had proceeded without his participation. Roger's response had been a dismissive shrug, and the observation that Vince could arrange matters to his own satisfaction when he bothered to wake up long enough to venture an opinion:

"So sue me," Roger shrugged. "You haven't exactly been the life of the party," he told Terranova, ignoring his obvious annoyance. "We can always change things, but neither McPike or I are wild about the idea of you winging it Saturday afternoon when Rudy has his little conclave. So this is the story, Buckwheat; you and I are partners in a holding company with interests all over the country. You've been handling, well, developing, the East Coast action, while I've been handling the West Coast. We've got our fingers in a whole lot of legitimate pies, and even a few dicey ones. Everything from restaurants to food service to fishing to wine to laundry to — pick your poison. We've even spiked it with a sizable dose of hi-tech."

Vince frowned. "It sounds like you've transferred just about all your business interests into it," he observed.

"Yeah. The way I figure it, we'll be tied up in this little exercise, maybe for years. I won't sit around on my hands hoping that my people can keep it together without me for that long without getting tempted to hack off a few chunks for themselves. So I've consolidated the whole package and cut you in for half the action. That way, anyone who checks is gonna have a real clear idea just how much you're worth and just how well you've been doing without the mob. It'll shore up your claim to be an independent, and besides, it finally gives me a way to hand off some of the cash to you. If you're planning on marrying the woman of your dreams, you're gonna have to be able to afford her. And don't tell me you can raise a family on the piddley salary the government pays you."

"People do it all the time, Rog." Vince snapped, acutely uncomfortably with the idea of sudden wealth. Yet even he could see the necessity for establishing a paper trail to support his claims of legitimate action. He supposed he was lucky in having a partner who had a ready-made fortune and no objection to using it on Vinnie's behalf. Partner. He considered the word, with all its' ramifications. In all his years as a cop, he'd never had the luxury of working with a partner on a day-to-day basis. McPike was probably as close as he could claim to have come to a partnership, though it had been a surreptitious one at best. His work with Lococco inside Mel Profitt's organization had approached a partnership, intermittently, when Roger's paranoid radar had not been hyperactive. But this would be the first time he would be working with the full knowledge and assistance of another agent. He hoped McPike would be able to convince the Attorney General of the need to legitimize Roger's presence. And Tracy's, for that matter. "So what are you calling this company of ours?" he asked Lococco at last.

Lococco's grin was manic, with more than simply the amphetamines. "Pangea," he informed Terranova. "I figured it was an appropriate name for a coupla guys on the way to world domination," he laughed.

"Wasn't that the name of some hypothetical prehistoric supercontinent?" Vince inquired, unsure of his geology.

Roger nodded. "The theory goes that in the pre-Triassic period, all the land mass on the planet was consolidated into a single supercontinent. Just think about it, Vince. One continent. No borders. No boundaries. Hell of an analogy to the global economy we've got going now, eh? Gondwanaland was the other one, and that one was only made up of the southern hemisphere continents. Besides, Pangea sounds better."

Vinnie could not suppress his smile, as much at the awareness of Lococco's pleasure in the pulling together of myriad details as at the ironic appropriateness of the name Roger had chosen. "I'll give you that," he agreed, laughing.

It was nearly three, by Roger's watch, when Aiuppo's security team arrived to sweep the room for electronics. Lococco tendered no particular objection, save to point out that neither he nor Vince had left the room in days, then had simply stayed out of the way, trusting that McPike's bug guys had known what they were about when they had set up the devices. Roger had dragged the chair to one wall, taking up his post silently there, watching as Capuzi's men duplicated Aiuppo's men's efforts twenty minutes later.

At quarter to four, the luminaries began to arrive and Roger assumed his position at the head of Vinnie's bed, leaning a hip on the nightstand, arms folded across his chest. Capuzi was first in the door, and he conversed quietly with Vince, inquiring after his health and making idle observations concerning the rest of the dons as they arrived.

"Marcus Maggioncalda, from Philadelphia," Capuzi pointed out the lean, roman-nosed, balding man of approximately fifty who entered the room, leaving his bodyguards outside. "He took over a few years after Mac Mahoney bit the end off his pistol. A good man, cautious, but a head for business." Capuzi smiled at the new arrival, shaking his hand and introducing him to Vince. "This is Rudy's stepson," he added, generating a nod and an expression of sudden comprehension.

"Your old man is quite the politician," Maggioncalda observed with a certain humor. "It takes a lot of acini to bring together the families with interests here — unless it's in a fire-fight," he said, smiling faintly at Vinnie's laugh. "Nice to meet you Vincenzo. I'll be interested in seeing whether we can do business together."

"Nice to meet you, don Maggioncalda," Vince replied, shaking the older man's hand.

A new arrival made his way across the floor, stopping to shake Maggioncalda's hand on the way toward the bed. "Carmine DeSouza from Miami," Capuzi supplied.

"Yeah, I recognize him," Vince said. "He came up to Jersey after Dave Steelgrave got whacked to help Sonny out. A good guy. Him and his brother, too." He shook De Souza's hand.

"Vince, it's been a long time." DeSouza said, turning to Capuzi. "Cherry, good to see you," the skinny, ferret-like mobster greeted his host with a warm handshake.

"It's been too long, Carmine," Capuzi agreed, smiling as he turned to the short, paunchy man who had plowed single-mindedly through the gathering to the bedside. The smile became forced. "Cyrus," he acknowledged. "This is Vincenzo Terranova. Rudy Aiuppo's stepson. Vince, this is Cyrus Weinstien, from Detroit."

Vince took his cue from Capuzi, nodding politely, and extending a hand. It was shaken, Weinstien's palm clammy. He resisted the urge to wipe his hand on the sheets as the Detroit don marched over to DeSouza and proceeded to pick an argument.

Capuzi shook his head, clearly annoyed. His expression lightened as yet another man made his entrance. "Ah, Robbie," he greeted the younger man. "This is Vince Terranova, Rudy's stepson." He turned to Vince. "Vinnie, this is Robbie Castaluccio. I placed him into Jersey a few years ago. He has done very well for himself."

Castaluccio's gaze was frankly appraising, as brown eyes swept over Terranova. "I hear Jersey is your old stomping ground," he commented.

"Atlantic City, with Sonny Steelgrave's crew," Vince agreed. "He brought me up."

"Come on over some time. Maybe you got a few old haunts you wanna visit. At least I can buy you a drink at the casino." Castaluccio flashed Vince a mouthful of expensive teeth and gave Capuzi a rough hug. "Nice to see you, Cherry. How come you don't come and visit me no more?"

"I figure, what's a young blood want with an old man breathing down his neck?" Capuzi grinned warmly. "So what do I tell Celia, when she asks me why you don't come to Sunday dinner?"

Castaluccio grinned back, model-perfect features reflecting a long-running argument. "Maybe when Rudy and Vince, here, get the city back under some kinda control, I'll risk it." He turned to Vinnie and offered his hand.

Vince shook it, then curled over onto his side, pressing the pillow there against his chest as the cough rattled in his lungs, thick and phlegmy, rasping out an apology when he could draw breath again .

"Hey, man, we're the ones invading your bedroom. This coulda waited a few more days." Castaluccio shrugged. He smiled again at Capuzi and joined the little group of dons a few feet away.

"Chicago and Milwaukee are late," Capuzi commented. "And where the hell is Rudy?"

"Hell if I know," Vince admitted. "Considering this was his bright idea, you'd think he'd make an effort to get here on time."

The last two stray dons arrived together. Arthur Zanetti, the mob's man in Milwaukee, a seventy-ish corporate type and Chicago's representative, Paul Torricelli, a short, stocky man in his late forties who looked like he had worked his way up from the docks, shook hands all around, greeting Capuzi with casual familiarity.

The group, now complete, continued speaking among themselves. Lococco, feigning invisibility, watched them, assessing them according to his estimation of the risk they posed. He new it was early to make this kind of judgement, without having any patterns of known past behavior to work from, still, it was instinctive, and he saw no reason to refrain. At the very least, it would let him compare his intuition against reality, when McPike presented him and Vince with the jackets on everyone in the room. He knew he still harbored the vestiges of the tendency to underestimate the mob, and the men who made it up. It was a mindset he was bent on correcting. He glanced at his watch, wondering what was keeping Aiuppo, beginning to be concerned by his lateness.

It was less than a minute later when Rudy made his appearance. The woman on his arm towered over him by a good four inches, pointing up his small stature. A heart-shaped face set with wide hazel eyes, a strong jaw and a chin that spoke of stubbornness, a mane of dark tawny hair twisted into a soft knot at the crown of her head, those were the impressions Roger had of her as she walked into the room with the old don. This, he realized, had to be Tracy Steelgrave. He recognized the poise of someone who had learned in the crucible of experience to betray nothing to an adversary.

He didn't move from his casual posture, hip propped on Vinnie's nightstand, watching the stir her arrival caused. Lococco knew enough about mob politics to know that women were most emphatically not welcome at gatherings of this nature. His quick glance at Vince confirmed the impression that Rudy had yet another surprise in store for them. The room was large enough that even straining an ear for his words, Roger could only guess at what Rudy said, though it was clear from the shuttered politeness on the faces of the mobsters that they were as startled by the breach of protocol as Vince was. His words were followed by quiet introductions, and Roger's only concession to curiosity was to hook a finger into the frame of his sunglasses and tug them down his nose, eyeing her expressionlessly as he watched her work the small crowd.

There was nothing affected in her easy, almost flirtatious, interaction with the half-dozen or so mobsters. Roger could not have said how he recognized the tension that underlay her manner, but it was as clear to him as his own. She liked this no better than he did. And she knew she had to play the hand the fates had determined for her, or risk the life of a man she cared for. As did he.

The surprising calm she displayed in the face of the assembled dons' consternated acknowledgement of her family name and their evident uncertainty as to why she had been brought into their presence impressed Lococco. Whatever it was that Rudy was up to, she was a knowing participant, though how willing, he had no idea. He watched as she played them, singling out each man in turn, bending all her attention on them. Watched them warm to her, the wariness in their faces lessening as she moved on to the next one. There would be no tearful histrionics, no wailing and beating of the breast at Vince's diminished capacity. As a lawyer, and the daughter of a mob boss, she knew precisely how to garner the respect of an opponent. Whatever her feelings were, they would not be subject to public display. Clearly, the assembled gangsters were as impressed at her self-possession as Roger was. He was beginning to understand what Vince saw in her.

When every mob player in the room had been favored with a moment of her undivided attention, she turned away from them, moving toward the bed and her lover. In the unguarded moment before her glance fell on him, Roger saw the depth of her distress in the hazel eyes and was forced to acknowledge that whatever lay between her and Terranova was greater, by far, than he had been willing to believe. That realization left him completely unprepared for the impact of her gaze as her eyes met his own.

It was as though every lie in his life, every justification, had been suddenly thrown into the harsh spotlight of public scrutiny. He felt naked, stripped of defenses he hadn't even known he had, the barriers he'd constructed over thirty years dissolving as though they'd never existed. It terrified him at a level that had never before known fear and he froze, meeting those green-flecked eyes helplessly, a deer in the headlights.

He had been seen, in his entirety. The good, the bad, the ugly and the unspeakable, all had been assimilated in that split second. Never in his life had every pretense been ripped from him, exposed as a fabric of lies and self-deceptions. He was known, beyond any possibility of denial. In those bare seconds, he saw her assessment of him, her recognition of his dangerous nature, and her visceral, physical response to it. Only the barest hesitation in her step betrayed her, that and the green that flared in her eyes as her pulse began to throb noticeably in the hollow of her throat. He saw the adrenaline hit her system, saw the flicker of fear in her eyes. Fear and something more. He blinked, unsure of what he had just seen, and in that moment her gaze moved on to Vince.

Roger released the breath he had not consciously held, the world returning to something far closer to normal than the preceding few seconds had been as he shoved the sunglasses back up his nose. Until he shot a look at Terranova and inadvertently caught his eye. He saw the awareness in Vince's blue gaze, a pain he could not name clouding them, and knew his unmasking had been witnessed, at least by Vince. Lococco knew his rattled nerves were evident, though only Vinnie would recognize them as such. The wariness in Terranova's eyes in the moment his attention lingered on Roger triggered an irrational wave of guilt, and Lococco moved away from his post at Vinnie's bedside, giving way before Tracy's advance, unsettled enough by the last few minutes to need the elbow room, under the guise of allowing the lovers some semblance of privacy. He moved across the room to the door, needing all the distance he could get as he fought to regain his equilibrium.

Vinnie felt as though the breath had been knocked out of him. The stunned shock he had just seen in Lococco's eyes and saw now in Tracy's, the instant before it was veiled, could not erase the memory of the energy that had crackled between the two. It had been like heat lightening — wild and unpredictable, and of such voltage that the hairs at the back of his neck still prickled with it. He could practically smell the ozone generated by the power of their meeting. The bitterness of the irony that it would be Tracy who unintentionally breached Roger's defenses hurt in ways he had never hurt before. The fact that, consciously or otherwise, Tracy had sensed — responded to — that vulnerability hurt in ways he had not known he could be hurt. He swallowed, his mouth dry. The deepest irony of all was that he doubted either Roger or Tracy knew what had transpired between them. The instantaneousness of that connection would first be disbelieved, then denied. Whether it would come to be more than a single, wrenching insight, he didn't know, and feared to guess at. And then he locked eyes with Tracy.

The pain she felt for him was clear in her face, eclipsing anything else. He caught her tentatively outstretched hand in his own, running his thumb over the fine bones of her fingers. "It's not as bad as it looks," he assured her, voice raspy, hoarse.

"What have they done to you?" she whispered, stroking the sweat-stiffened hair away from his forehead with her free hand.

Vince could see the glitter of tears. "I got sloppy and one of Castellano's guys put a knife in me," he admitted, a deep, phlegmy cough wracking him.

"Don't pull that macho crap on me, Vince. You sound every bit as awful as you look. I want to talk to your doctors myself." Her voice was uncompromising, despite the low pitch meant for him alone, insisting on absolute honesty.

"I have it on good authority that I'll survive," he smiled up at her, disarming the worst of her fear. "God, I'm glad to see you." The heart-felt truth of this cleared the last of her worry from her face and he saw her soften, felt the light brush of her fingers over the inside of his wrist in answer. He felt his body's instinctive response and knew that he would have to have been dead a week before that touch, in that spot, by this woman would cease to move him. He brought her hand to his mouth and brushed his lips over her knuckles in the lightest of kisses.

The illusion of privacy was shattered as Aiuppo cleared his throat. "I'm sorry my dear, I know it has been hard on you, not to have seen him before now, but we have business to discuss with Vincenzo. Perhaps you could continue this when we are finished?" he suggested gently.

Vince, his eyes fixed on Tracy, saw the depths of her anger as she stiffened, marshaling her temper.

She took a deep breath and schooled her features to betray none of what she felt as she turned to face the roomful of dons. "As it happens," she said calmly, I have an item of business to discuss with him myself. It won't take a minute," she assured them with a smile as she turned back to Vince. In the silence of the room, she took a deep breath and met his eyes. "Vincent Terranova, will you marry me?" she asked, ignoring the stir this caused among those gathered. Her eyes never left his, watching as fear for her warred with desire. She saw his question, knew that he wanted her to be certain of what she asked, here in this assembly. She waited, trying to make it clear to him that she asked this of him with full knowledge of what it meant, willingly assuming the risks. He was silent for so long that she began to despair of his answer. The tenderness in his eyes as he nodded made her heart leap with joy.

"Yes, Tracy Steelgrave, I'll marry you," he told her, ignoring the hubbub in the room as this was heard and it's implications digested. Tracy, eyes aglow, leaned over him and kissed him lightly on the mouth, the tip of her tongue brushing the inside of his upper lip. Vince fought the urge to seize her on the spot, to make love to her until neither of them could move, forced to content himself with that single kiss as she turned to face the mobsters in the room.

"Thank you for your indulgence, gentlemen. That question has been needing an answer for some time, now. I'll leave you to your meeting," she said, sliding her fingers free of Vinnie's, letting none of her reluctance show as she walked calmly to the door, ignoring the various reactions from the dons as she passed them on her way out. She met only Aiuppo's eyes, seeing his genuine pleasure for her — for them both — in his face.

Roger felt her brush past him as she left the room, thrown by her nearness and by the anger that radiated from her as she passed. That he could sense it despite the complete lack of physical cues from her startled him. It was as though he had stumbled onto an extra sense, one that was activated by this woman's proximity. It unnerved him, making him deeply uneasy. As Rudy motioned to Capuzi to begin, Lococco returned to Vinnie's bedside, resuming his post there.

"Congratulations, Vincenzo," Capuzi began, eyes sparkling as he looked to Vince.

"She's enough to make a man start questioning the wisdom of bachelorhood," Castaluccio grinned.

The nods of agreement were essentially unanimous, as the rest of the dons offered their congratulations.

Vaguely embarrassed by the public nature of his engagement, Vince smiled, a faint flush in his cheeks, acknowledging their good wishes. "Sorry about that, but Rudy hasn't let her visit before now. It was a merger' we'd been trying to hammer out for a while, now."

"No need to apologize, my boy," Aiuppo smiled. "And it is time we speak of the rest of the business before us. These gentlemen are all aware of what has taken place in the last week. Castellano has been questioned and his and Michael's plans have been exposed. Everyone here knows that they went after you in spite of Chero's grace. The money they have taken we are still trying to track down. Carlucci, the man you brought in, is a good accountant. He is working with Chero's man now to try to reconstruct the books that Brandon's man tried to destroy. I think I will keep him on as chief accountant, at least until you decide who you would prefer," Rudy told him.

Vince spared a thought for the mild-mannered accountant who would probably not thank him for suddenly having drawn the attention of ranking mobsters to him. He didn't strike Vince as comfortable in the spotlight. "He's a good man," Vinnie agreed. "He'll do fine for the moment."

Capuzi cleared his throat. "Vincenzo. Rudy has asked that we — those of us with sizable interests in New York — consider placing you into Brooklyn to try and clean up the mess there. You must know there is some lingering concern over what Tony Grecco had to say about you to the Grand Jury."

Vince laughed, irony evident in the sound. "I'm not surprised," he agreed. "But I don't see that it matters, because I'm not planning on staying on the East Coast much longer. My partner and I have a business to run and since most of our action is out west, that's where I'm heading. As soon as I can get Tracy to marry me," he finished.

Capuzi glanced at Aiuppo, brow furrowed. "Rudolpho, I was under the impression that you had spoken with Vince about this."

"I did, but only in broad terms. I saw no point in taking it further until the Grecco issue was resolved." Aiuppo met Terranova's eyes frostily, making his displeasure clear to Vince. "He is not convinced that staying here and assuming responsibility for the mess that has been left is a wise choice. Especially for a man about to start a family of his own. He has questioned how far his loyalty to us goes. Particularly when la famiglia' has not shown itself to be particularly loyal to him, in the wake of Sonny Steelgrave's death. And he is quite right when he says he has interests elsewhere. As I am sure some of you have discovered for yourselves. My stepson is quite truthful when he says he has no particular need to step into the position of cappo. But it is my hope that we can convince him that Brooklyn needs him."

"What about his partner?" Weinstien asked, shooting a belligerent look at Lococco. "We haven't even been introduced to this man. He stands here like the furniture!"

Roger straightened slowly, removing his sunglasses and fixing his arctic stare on the mobster as he hooked the earpiece into the breast pocket of his suit coat. No one in the room was left with any doubt about his willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to kill, if pressed. He let that pregnant silence continue for a moment, seeing the flicker of hesitation in Weinstien's eyes. "It's Vinnie's call. I'm along for the ride on this one, but if he decides to stay, I'll back his play. We've worked together too long now for me to want to break in a new business associate, so I plan on watching his back as long as he insists on keeping company with the mob. But just so we're all clear on this, he needs this like he needed that knife between the ribs."

"You're not even Mafia?" was Weinstien's appalled comment.

Roger smiled. The expression reached no further that the wry quirk of his mouth, eyes unlighted by any amusement "And no desire to be," he supplied. "I've seen what your kind of brotherly love gets a man, thanks anyway. It takes a hell of a lot to make Vinnie wonder whether his loyalty has been misplaced, but you people managed to accomplish it."

"Roger." Vince said simply. The single word was enough to silence Lococco. He made sure that every mobster in the room was aware of it. That it was Terranova who commanded here.

Aiuppo, eyes narrowed at Roger, performed the formal introductions at last. "Chero Capuzi, Queens. This is Roger Lococco, Vincenzo's partner of many years. Roger, these other gentlemen -"

"I caught their names while I was holding up the night stand," Roger interrupted. He turned to the gathered dons. "I can't say it's a pleasure meeting you," he said coldly.

"We could have you killed — like that," Weinstien glowered with a snap of his fingers.

Roger's smile didn't reach his eyes. "You could try. The C.I.A. has had assassins after me for ten years. I doubt your guys'll have any better luck than they have."

Vince watched this little tidbit hit its' target, seeing the sudden stillness of the dons as they reevaluated Lococco. His stock rose from hired muscle to player in that momentary pause.

Maggioncalda stepped forward, offering a gnarled hand. "We are not exactly known for our observance of the social niceties," he said. "Let's begin again, shall we? I'm Mark Maggioncalda, Philly."

Roger nodded once, shaking the man's hand.

Castaluccio followed him, grinning as he shook Lococco's hand in turn. "Rob Castaluccio, Atlantic City." He glanced at Vince. "Certo che, con un armadio così al tuo fianco, non hai più paura di nessuno," he said to Vinnie in Italian, catching the flush of color on Terranova's face at the words.

"I'm not the one in this room who needs protection," Vince replied sharply, forestalling any reaction on Roger's part with an up-held hand. "Big, strong or otherwise."

Roger's hackles rose and he glowered at the man who stood grinning back at him, only able to guess at what had been said, but the inference clear.

"Don't sweat it. I wouldn't mind a little protection like that myself," he told Vince, and flashed his smile at Roger again. "You get tired of New York, come see me. There's always room for an enterprising entrepreneur in Atlantic City."

Roger choked back the urge to bash in that perfect smile, not deigning to legitimize the innuendo by reacting. He let the impulse show only in his eyes and saw Castaluccio grin.

"Good dog," Castaluccio said as he tuned away, rejoining the group, passing DeSouza. "Watch out," he warned Miami's rail-thin don, "that one bites."

DeSouza scowled and approached Roger, hand outstretched. "Ignore him. He's like that with everyone till he gets to know em. Carmine DeSouza," he said. "Miami."

Roger shook the proffered hand, acknowledging the advice with a single nod. "Don DeSouza," he said.

Milwaukee and Chicago were next, Weinstien of Detroit bringing up the rear, his dislike of Lococco unmistakable.

"Alright, make your case, Chero," Maggioncalda told Capuzi, when the formalities had been concluded. "Why should we put a man who questions his loyalty to la famiglia' into a position of power in Brooklyn? What can he do for us that someone else can't?"

"Who among you have bothered to confirm that Vincenzo and his partner are, in fact, legitimate businessmen?" Capuzi challenged.

There were several nods, Castaluccio chief among them. "I don't know about the rest of you gentlemen, but I like to know who I'm getting into bed with, and whether it's safe to shut my eyes on them or not," he said. "Vince and his dangerous friend here, have managed to turn a hundred million into over two billion in less than ten years, and most of it legit, from what I can determine. We can't use that kind of leadership in New York? I say we dress it up and hand it over to the two of them and stand back and see what they can do." He met eyes as he surveyed his fellow dons. "If they'll take it. Vince is right. He doesn't need us. So it's up to us to convince him that there's some reason to stay and pull our bacon out of the fire."

Weinstien spat derisively. "We don't need some schmuck with a bank balance, we need someone who can castrate the damned immigrant mobs that are moving in on us from everywhere!"

Lococco snickered, contempt clear in his expression. "No wonder you've got problems," he observed. "War isn't profitable for anyone fighting it. The only ones who make any money are the ones who supply the raison d etre."

"You're kinda gutless for a tough-guy," was Weinstien's retort, as he eyed Lococco.

Roger grinned at the pugnacious little mobster. "Discretion is the better part of valor,'" he quoted. "There's a difference between being a tough-guy and being a smart one, and I haven't stayed alive the last ten years by being stupid." Roger leaned back against the night stand casually before continuing. "When Mel Profitt self-destructed, Vinnie and I hacked off as big a chunk of his business as we could walk away with. We ain't never looked back. Now, unless you can come up with a compelling reason for us to bail you out of what sounds like a major jam, we have don't appear to have much to discuss."

Vince had let Roger field the initial conversation, content to allow him to act as a lightning rod for the objections of the assembled dons. But it was something that Lococco said that sparked a suspicion and he watched the mobsters intently as he spoke. "It sounds to me like someone is profiting from the chaos in New York. Ask yourselves who has the most to gain by giving the new gangs a hotfoot and aiming em at the rest of you. Whoever they are, they are doin' a hell of a job keepin' you squabbling over the details while they change the big picture on you." He saw both Lococco's glance of keen interest and the abrupt change in focus among the gangsters as they considered this perspective. "It's one of the oldest techniques in the book. Divide and conquer'."

This produced a general murmur of worried speculation. Capuzi and Aiuppo exchanged looks, then met Vinnie's clear eyes. "You think one of us is deliberately stirring up trouble?" Rudy asked, clearly not having considered this.

"I think it's a distinct possibility," Vince said to Rudy, then turned his attention to the rest of the room. "I have a certain amount of loyalty to my stepfather, but the rest of you I have no particular reason to trust." He looked over Rudy's head and swept the rest of the assembly with cold appraisal. "If I get involved in this, it sure as hell won't be for you. There are people I grew up with in the neighborhoods who are getting killed because you can't — or won't — step in and do something. They're where my loyalty lies. And if I find out that someone here is behind the trouble, they are looking at a whole lot more than castration."

There was a stir among the dons as they discussed this among themselves. Vince ignored the worried furrow on Roger's forehead, shaking his head slightly to indicate that he knew he was treading a tightrope. Lococco had made it very clear that there was little inducement for them to enter into the arrangement that Aiuppo was hoping to orchestrate. Most of the dons had been willing to let them walk away. But Vinnie's instincts as a cop told him that there was something going on in New York that no one, mob, or law enforcement, had yet stumbled onto. And whatever it was, it was big. There would be no better way to find out what it was and who was behind it than by accepting the position as cappo. He caught Roger's eye, beckoning him closer.

Lococco bent to hear what Vince had to say, his features blankly immobile.

"I'm going in, Rog. Something's up, and I've got a real bad feeling about it." Vince met Lococco's stare of disbelief, not allowing himself to be swayed. "You can leave right now, no hard feelings. You've done what you said you would," he said softly, for Roger's ear alone.

Roger's laugh was mirthless. "Sorry, Buckwheat. You don't get rid of me that easily. If you're gonna jump outta the frying pan and into the fire, you're gonna need someone with a fire extinguisher at your back. Besides — what do you know about running a business? A legitimate one, anyway. You know there's gonna be a shit storm about this in the hallowed halls. We can walk away from this. Aiuppo's leverage is basically gone. You've got the girl, you've declared your independence, it's a loaded deck. Why stay?"

"I have friends on the streets who may not make it to their next birthday unless someone figures out what the hell is going on and stops it. It's my job, Rog. Until I can walk away feeling like I did it right, I can't walk away at all."

Lococco shook his head, a certain fondness glinting in his eyes. "Suit yourself, don Quixote," he said with a faint smile. "You are the king of lost causes, Vince."

"No, just the hopeless ones," Vince smiled back. "That's how I wound up in your corner ten years ago."

"Just call me Sancho," Roger sighed. "Okay, Buckwheat. I'll hold your sword while you go tilting at windmills."

Vince's laugh was genuine and laced with irony. "Just don't let Castaluccio hear you say that. I don't want him any where near my sword."

Lococco froze, then grinned. "Shall I tell him you said so, sweetheart?"

"I'll get back to you on that," Vince said, still smiling, turning his head to meet Capuzi's look as the mobster approached the bed.

"Vincenzo, we have decided that what is needed is a fresh perspective. You have made a point that none of us had even considered. It is clear that Brooklyn needs you. We need you. Find out what is going on, and put a stop to it. We will back your play with anyone who screams."

"That sounded like a request for help," Roger observed. "What's in it for us?"

"You mean besides job satisfaction?" Maggioncalda asked with irony. "How about a free rein to straighten up the mess. A six month grace while all the income gets plowed back into the territory and a clean twenty percent goes into your pockets without a fight. We take the loss until we have an idea what the hell is going on. If you pull it off, you succeed Aiuppo in Brooklyn and we think about making your partner don."

Roger cocked an eyebrow. "I'm not sure we're looking for a long term relationship," he said. "If we say yes, then we come in as contractors. Independents hired by you to solve a problem. When the problem gets identified, we solicit opinions, but the solution is up to us. The twenty percent is twenty five, and you eat the loss until we have a line on what's going on in Brooklyn, or until you bring us a vote of no confidence'."

Weinstien snorted. "Twenty five? That's extortion!"

Lococco grinned his most irritating grin at the man. "So take your offer to someone who cares," he said cheerfully.

"You gonna let him pop off like this every time we have a business proposal to discuss?" Weinstien demanded, looking to Vince.

Vinnie's face darkened, expression cold. "Anything that comes out of Roger's mouth you treat like it came outta mine. He's my partner. He speaks with my voice, when business is being discussed. You don't like it, then find someone else to fix your little problem. You want me, you get him. That's the deal."

"I wish," Castaluccio said softly, the impish glint in his brown eyes focused on the pair of men they courted. He had pitched it to carry to them, and he saw it hit home as Lococco stiffened and shot him a look that would have melted concrete. He was going to enjoy baiting this one, he thought to himself. He wondered if a seduction of either of them was within the realm of possibility, rather hoping so.

Zanetti frowned. "Weinstien is right. Twenty five is steep, when we don't have a time frame. I'm willing to make an investment in infrastructure, but not at the expense of long-term profitability. I want a closing date on this particular window of opportunity before Milwaukee signs off on the deal."

Capuzi nodded. "Twenty five percent, with a performance review' in six months. If we agree that progress is being made, we give it another six months. If we aren't happy, you walk away with your take, and we move on to plan B."

Vince considered this, glancing at Roger, who gave a slight shrug, handing the responsibility for the negotiations back to him. "And what if we're not happy? I want a personal guarantee from every one of you that Roger and I walk outta here with a clean bill of health the minute we start feeling unappreciated. No hard feelings, no hired killers. Period."

"Done," Maggioncalda agreed. There were nods from each of the dons, some more willing than others, but the consent was unanimous.

"Well, gentlemen, it looks like you've just hired yourselves a coupla designated hitters," Vince said with a pleasant smile, then spoiled the effect as a coughing fit hit him.

"Perhaps we should let Vincenzo get some rest," Rudy suggested when it showed no signs of letting up. We can finalize the details later."

"Fair enough," replied Torricelli, clearly restless and eager to be on his way. "I say we take this to Capuzi's and hammer out a deal we can all live with, then have the legal eagles check it over. When everybody's happy, we all go home."

Capuzi nodded, turning to Lococco. "Join us for dinner," he suggested. "We can draw up the paperwork then."

"Make it breakfast. I've got a lot of lose ends to tie up before we're gonna be able to give this our full attention, and I'd better get started before our people start getting wind of a deal with the mob. They are not gonna be real happy about it. We're pretty much legit across the board."

This was agreed to and at last, the assembly began to disband, dons trickling out of the room by ones and twos. Vinnie's cough had begun to die down and he was able to manage enough polite farewells to clear the room. Alone, he and Roger exchanged looks, wondering how long it would be before McPike came bursting through the doors in a state of apoplexy. To Vinnie's delight — and Roger's dismay — it was Tracy who was first through the door.

She stuck her head in. "The coast clear?"

Roger knew a cue when he heard it and headed for the door, careful to avoid eye contact as he brushed past her on his way out. He shut the door behind him, stiff-arming McPike, who attempted to force his way in. "I don't think you want to go in there. There are some private negotiations being concluded," he told the OCB Regional Director wryly.

McPike glowered at him. "What the hell was that all about? You and your silver tongue had just gotten him off the hook! Why did he turn around and step back onto it?!"

Roger took him by the elbow and led him into the room next door, ignoring the SWAT/HRT troops who were packing up their tents preparatory to leaving. Roger leaned past one officer's shoulder and shut off the reel-to-reel.

"What the hell do you think you are doing?!" McPike demanded, reaching to turn it back on.

Roger caught his wrist in a vice-like grip. "Unless you're into the peeping-tom thing, I'd leave it off. The sweet thing is in there with him, and I doubt they're doing much talking."

Frank shook him off, conceding the point. "Explain to me what just happened in there," he commanded sharply.

Roger gave him a sardonic smile and sighed. "You've raised yourself a right fine policeman, Frank," he said. "He made a deductive leap that everyone else in that room missed. There's an unnamed player out there messing up the works, hoping to clean up by supplying the mob and the newcomers with all the makings of a war. Vinnie's guess — and one I agree with — is that whoever it is, is gonna stand back and let them duke it out, sweep up the bodies, hang up their shingle and declare themselves open for business."

McPike blinked. "That's a hell of a leap," he said. "Nothing we've seen makes me think there's anyone making trouble on that scale just to take out the mob," he said cynically.

"Well, I suggest you start looking harder," Lococco said acerbically. "Vinnie's got a sense for trouble and this is trouble with a capital T'. Your best bet for finding out what's going on is to back us on this. It may save you a lotta bodies down the road."

McPike began pacing, dodging the departing police, thinking fast. "It would explain a lot," he said reluctantly. "How did it play with the goombas?"

"You shoulda seen the radar come up. There are gonna be a lotta sleepless soldiers out looking for conspiracies in dark allies," Roger told him.

"They took it seriously?"

"Deadly," Roger assured him. "They want Vinnie to smoke out whoever it is that's pulling the strings — and strangle em with them."

McPike sighed resignedly. "Well, this'll be easier to sell' to Beckstead, anyway. I guess I'm not gonna be retiring anytime soon," he added.

"Guess not," Roger agreed, tongue firmly in cheek, grinning at the glare McPike threw his way. "I have a breakfast date with the boys to hammer out the final agreement. When I know the details, I'll contact you. Then I'm gonna be spending some major quality time with my bed. I take any more uppers and I'm gonna be crossing orbits with Pluto."

McPike nodded. "I want hard copy on anything you get," he told Lococco. As of now, consider yourself on the Bureau payroll."

Roger nodded and stretched. "So when are we getting the low-down on the circus in Vinnie's room?"

"Uncle Mike is putting together the files. He'll be downloading them in half an hour or so. You up for a post mortem?"

"I was counting on one. I want to know everything there is to know on those sleezoids." Roger was emphatic.

McPike quirked an eyebrow. "Sounds like theirs isn't the only radar that got activated," he observed.

"Vinnie isn't the only one with a nose for trouble," Lococco told him. "And right now, I've got a snoot-full of something I don't much like."

"Let me guess. Castaluccio." McPike allowed a smile to flicker across his face.

"He's just the icing on the cake," Roger said.

"He'd fuck anything that moves, male, female or undecided," Frank told him. "He has a reputation for giving safe sex a bad name."

Roger nodded. "Yeah, I'd kinda picked up on that, thanks," was the sarcastic reply.

"I heard the moves he made on you and Vince. Don't expect them to be the last," McPike warned him.

"The next time he tries it on me, he'll be singing falsetto." Roger's expression was grim.

"Oh, he won't be that obvious about it, not always, anyway. DeSouza was right about that much, anyway. And you'd better keep an eye on Vinnie's girl. He'll use her to get to him."

"That's Vinnie's problem. He's perfectly capable of hanging up the no poaching' signs without any help from me." Roger dismissed this, ignoring the inexplicable uneasiness that sparked along his nerves. "You gonna include her in the briefing?"

"Since she's just made herself part of the equation, I guess I have to. Just keep it quiet. If Beckstead finds out I've got civilians participating in agent briefings, he'll hand me my head — on a platter."

Roger held up his hands, shaking his head wryly. "Hey, he won't get it from me, Frank. Till you clear it with him, I'm still persona non grata with the Justice Department."

McPike was silent for a moment, then hitched a shoulder in the direction of Vince's room. "So how long do we give them to play the balcony scene?"

Roger grinned. "It depends."

"On what?" McPike wanted to know.

"On whether or not she invites him in," Roger said.

This caught McPike by surprise. "In a hospital room? He can hardly move!"

Roger raised his eyebrows. "It wouldn't be stopping me," he grinned again at McPike's expression.

"Yeah, well, your reputation is almost as bad as Castaluccio's. Vince isn't that kinda guy."

Roger laughed. "Every guy is that kinda guy', with the right girl."

McPike glowered. "I can see it's gonna be a real pleasure working with you," he muttered. "Something tells me it's gonna be a long six months."