|By Shona Katt|
unsure of what his emotions were at this point. The last few
had been a horrifying replay of that forty-eight hours two years ago
Mickey Kostmayer went missing. The phone call, the number
message had been identical to the last time. Only the telephone
had been changed, indicating a different phone-booth, for such things
changed from time to time and none was ever used twice.
When the car finally came he was surprised. Control had been on the move last time, for the company limousine was designed for safety, not speed. It was the last thing he would expect Control to use.
The limousine pulled up silently, a reminder of just how much the bullet proof car cost, but when the door opened Robert hesitated. Something didn't seem right about this, and his gun was up ready to fire.
"Get in, Robert," said Mickey quietly, scooting back to the other side of the limousine to let him enter. Robert hesitated. Where the hell was Control? Before he could do anything, Gage wound down the driver's window.
"Move it, McCall, the longer you stand there the more of a sitting duck we become. This may be a tank, but it's a bitch to manoeuvre from a standing start."
McCall got into the car, only then noticing that Gage had Stock riding shotgun up front. This didn't look good at all.
The limousine had continued as soon as Robert was seated. They were half way down the block before Robert managed to get the door completely closed. McCall turned warily back to Kostmayer, who looked exhausted, which was to be expected if a shut-down was in progress. Control could depend on few people in this type of situation, and the most trustworthy of those were in this limousine.
McCall decided to act annoyed.
"Control's been snatched," cut in Kostmayer tightly, raising the privacy screen, suddenly glad he had that option. This confrontation was going to be hard enough without an audience.
Robert blinked, his tirade cut short. "That is just lovely, and where pray tell were his security detail when this happened?" demanded McCall sarcastically. "No, don't tell me, Mickey, let me guess. Control didn't want the committee to find out about something he was planning and as usual he gave them the slip. He's starting to get predictable in his old age."
"His security squad are all dead, McCall," Kostmayer told him softly. "A full security lock-down is in force, and Control's back-up has been activated."
"I haven't been back-up Control for almost five years. When will the Company get it through their armour-plated skulls I have retired? Do you hear me, Mickey? I have retired. Control swore he had found a suitable replacement three years ago. His training should have been completed by now. Get him," he ordered.
"Relax, Robert, that's not why I'm here. Control's back-up has already been activated. We need your help, Robert."
"Well, at least Control finally found someone he trusted enough to fill that position. Do you have any idea of the problems that would have eventuated if this had happened without a back-up in place?" Kostmayer remained quiet, waiting for McCall to calm down. The question was rhetorical. Control had been missing for twenty-eight hours and during that time the lives of three agents had been saved because he knew the codes.
"The Committee doesn't think it can be done. A sanction team is being assembled - it leaves in twelve hours." Mickey was very conscious of the fact that he was talking too fast. If only Robert didn't know him so well. "This is everything we have on who has him and where he's being kept."
"Typical," commented Robert dryly. "The Committee always did prefer to eliminate problems rather than rescue them." And he accepted the file to Kostmayer's obvious relief.
"What the devil does Control's back-up think I can do about it?" snapped Robert, scanning the file grumpily, acutely aware that Mickey had learnt the trick of waiting his temper tantrums out from Control. Which brought all the worry for his friend back again. The file was very detailed despite its hurried look; in his hands McCall had a complete mission briefing, more detailed than the Company usually gave and a lot more workable. If this was an example of Control's back-up, Robert wasn't surprised Control made him his second-in-command.
"I want you to get Control out of there," said Mickey softly, so softly McCall wasn't sure he had heard the young man correctly.
"That's impossible, Mickey. The committee can easily ensure I stay out of this. I don't work for the Company anymore so they can stop me leaving the country, let alone hiring the help I'll need. If this report is accurate, he's being held in a bloody fortress."
"Just tell me, do you think the plan will work?"
"Of course it will work, this is one of the best planned operations I have ever seen. Every conceivable contingency seems to have been considered, although the odds would be greatly improved if you were on this mission list," frowned Robert. It was an oversight that rang warning bells to McCall. Kostmayer was the best there was in this type of situation and if his name was missing from the mission brief it meant something was drastically wrong.
"God! Robert, do you think I haven't tried! I've argued with them until I'm hoarse but they won't let me leave New York, let alone the country. What do you think this damn limousine is all about? They have me under security so tight I can't even go to the head without an escort," said Mickey angrily, the words coming so fast they almost ran together as his frustration at the situation escaped for a moment.
He continued more calmly by conscious effort, the slow deliberate wording an even greater give away of his emotional state to someone who knew him as well as McCall. "Everything is arranged, Robert. The plane is fuelled and the equipment has been loaded. I can get the squad there in an hour, and you'll be on your way before the committee even knows you're missing."
From the beginning McCall had sensed something wrong, but only now did he have an inkling of the truth. If his suspicions were right, he would kill Control himself once he had him safe. He had no right to do this to Kostmayer.
"What Code designation does the new Control go by, Mickey?" The dangerous undertone made Mickey tremble.
"McCall," he whispered.
"Just tell me, Mickey," he demanded.
"Associate, his code designation is Associate." He almost cringed as he said it.
"I'm not about to forgive this, Mickey," he said icily.
Mickey winced. He hated it when Robert got like this, "McCall, be angry with me later," he begged. "Just tell me if you will get him out of there?"
"Oh yes, I'll get him out. He's gone way too far this time," McCall fumed, incensed that Control had taken advantage of Mickey yet again, even more incensed when he realised just how easily Control had snookered him three years ago.
He had been played by a master, the basement apartment under Control's Brownstone, had always been Security's pet hobbyhorse. McCall could see he should have been more suspicious when Security suddenly demanded the potential security breech filled. The casual rearrangement of Mickey's private life three years ago had infuriated McCall. It had been so typical of Control at his most selfish, McCall had been taken in completely.
Damn the man, how long had Control planned that little confrontation. Hindsight was wonderful, when you knew all the facts.
It had all been one of Control's elaborate diversions, Mickey had been moved into the apartment for one reason only; as Back-up Control Mickey's home had to have round the clock security. That very security would have made Mickey a target. In that one brilliant move three years ago Control had put 'Associate' under his own Security net, and not even McCall had suspected the truth.
"Robert, please, it was necessary. You know he couldn't trust anyone else. You left a hell of a mess when you retired," snapped Mickey, defending Control for the first and only time in his life. "I should know - I'm the one who has been untangling all those Gordian knots you left behind."
"They were designed to protect lives. Every one of those Gordian knots as you call them, has an information source or agent hidden somewhere. I certainly wasn't going to let the Committee destroy them," snapped McCall annoyed.
"That was obvious once I cracked the codes. They're safe, McCall. Once I sorted out that tangle you left, I put them under tighter security," he reassured. "It needed to be done, Robert, it was getting dangerous." The accusation in Kostmayer's voice put Robert on the defence.
"How on earth did you let him talk you into this?" snapped McCall, changing the subject. "The Committee must have had fits when he suggested it." McCall had a very good idea of what their reaction had been.
"He didn't give them much choice," said Mickey calmly, ignoring the other question entirely.
"Oh yes! He's very good at that, it's one of his most annoying traits." Robert could well imagine Control presenting the Committee with a fait accompli. He had lost count of the times Control had forced him to acquiesce to some intricate stratagem by the same method.
Mickey sighed, sometimes he wished McCall wasn't so tempramental, they didn't have time for this. By his estimations the Committee would start their take over bid within the next few hours, and he had to be there when they made that first move. Control would never forgive him if he let the Committee gain authority over the network. Unfortunately Mickey knew just how stubborn Robert could be when he was annoyed.
"Before I agree to this rescue plan of yours," McCall stated, "I want to know more about how they kidnapped Control. How long has it been since he was taken?"
"Twenty-eight hours," whispered Mickey resigning himself to the delay. McCall couldn't be hurried. "They took out the guards at the brownstone about 10.00 pm Sunday night - they set it up so he wouldn't be missed until he was due at the office."
"You said the guards were dead. How did that happen? The brownstone security stations were designed to cover each other, with hourly check-ins as added security. How did they by-pass that?" questioned Robert.
Mickey sighed. "It was an inside job, one of the guards had to be in on it. He must have taped each guard on the roster over several weeks, for we found timed recordings hooked into each station, and the rest of them were at station three, in case of a last minute roster switch."
"So they had nine, ten hours head start," mused Robert, appalled at the slack security.
"No," whispered Mickey. "I reported him missing at eleven. They didn't take any chances, they gassed the place. I could smell it when I unlocked the connecting door." Mickey found it hard to continue. The emotional impact of that memory was still fresh. From the files on the coffee table Control appeared to have been working at home, although there must have been some warning for the more sensitive files were hidden under the couch and the manual alarm had been tripped. "The guards had been dead about an hour, they didn't have a mark on them. The autopsies found poison, we narrowed it down to the coffee."
Robert froze, a simple explanation of why Mickey would have the key to the upper brownstone that was Control's home came to mind. With Mickey as back-up Control it would be a very convenient arrangement for them both. Unfortunately, convenience would never be a convincing explanation for someone who knew Control as well as McCall.
They had been partners for thirty years, and in many ways Robert knew Control better than he knew himself. He certainly knew him better than he had ever known his ex-wife, which when he thought of it wasn't a very good epitaph to put on a marriage.
Oh yes! If thirty years had taught him anything about his very manipulative partner, it was that Control guarded his privacy with a tenacity that would put a bulldog to shame. This type of intrusion into Control's private life could have only one explanation, and Robert's first reaction was disbelief. Control wouldn't dare make that type of move on Mickey. Then disbelief turned to shock at the unguarded confirmation he found in Kostmayer's hazel eyes. The emotional devastation reflected there before Mickey turned away from the intense scrutiny told its own story.
"Mickey?" He breathed, and even Robert didn't know if that one word was question, shock or accusation.
Kostmayer knew he had given himself away, but wasn't ready to face McCall about his private life. Control had always left the final decision up to Mickey, who had always found it simply easier not to take the chance. He needed Robert's friendship as much as he needed Control's love.
"We have to
was the inside man." Mickey turned the conversation back to the
issue, he couldn't deal with Robert's disapproval now. "We found
him in the trash bin yesterday morning. If it was him, he
a bullet in the head as payment. This must have been planned for
months, Robert. I should have been out of the country, and I
have been if the mission hadn't been scrubbed due to engine
I wanted to surprise him, so I didn't ring ahead."
Robert took a deep breath. It was one thing to suspect a homosexual affair between his oldest friend and the young agent who had become a second son. To have it confirmed was another matter entirely. The rage that had been building flamed white hot, this betrayal was beyond redemption. At least he had understood Control's promise to Manon never to tell him he had a daughter. My God! How long had this been going on? Mickey had been little more than a child when they first became partners.
"How long, Mickey?" He demanded.
Mickey, aware of just how much he had betrayed to Robert, shrank into the leather upholstery. His emotional need for Robert's approval had always left him defenceless before Robert's anger, but this time he couldn't run away, as he needed Robert to rescue Control.
"Robert I..." He began to explain, only to be silenced by the angry glare McCall turned on him. Helpless he capitulated and gave him the bare facts, knowing he would take it the wrong way. "Not long after they tried that brain-washing on me. I wasn't coping very well." Mickey took a deep breath. "Let's just say he supplied some emotional stability I desperately needed at the time."
"Emotional stability!" Robert seethed. "The truth is, he took advantage of your vulnerability."
"He did not!" objected Kostmayer straightening indignantly, defending Control where he couldn't defend himself.
"Control," corrected McCall savagely, "is an expert at manipulation." A vivid memory returned of the battered young agent clutching Control's hand as a lifeline while the brain-washing drugs worked their way out of his system. How dare Control take advantage of that trust? "You didn't stand a chance."
"He wouldn't do that!" Mickey was shocked. How could Robert think such a thing?
"Mickey, you were very vulnerable," excused Robert.
"Damn it, Robert, it wasn't like that. I knew exactly what I was doing. If you must know, I'm the one that started it. No, let me rephrase that, I'm the one who needed it, and I won't have you blaming Control," Mickey snapped angrily, he wasn't up to this type of confrontation. He'd been awake since Saturday morning and desperately needed to get some sleep.
"Mickey, are you all right?" Robert was worried about the young agent. Control had no right to do this to their young partner. Control of all people must know just how emotionally fragile Kostmayer was. Almost all of the people Mickey loved had died, from his parents to the woman he loved. Mickey's brother, Control, and himself, were the three mainstays he had left, and one by one this last year they had been shaken. His brother had been shot, Robert had almost died, and now Control had been kidnapped. If Control died it might just be the final straw, and if he broke, he would now take the entire North American network with him.
"Just get him back for me, Robert," ordered Kostmayer softly. "Associate can handle the job," and the ironic way he referred to his code designation in the third person was not lost on McCall, "he saw to that, but Mickey needs him back."
The limousine pulled up outside Robert's apartment building.
"I'll get him back, don't worry about that. I have a great deal to say to my old friend Control, then I may just kill him myself."
Mickey laughed in relief. "Just get him back first, Robert."
"Don't worry, that will be the easy part." His gaze fell on the mission brief he was holding, Mickey's work he now realised. "This really is an excellent piece of strategic planning. Good work, Mickey," he congratulated.
Mickey flushed. McCall didn't give out many compliments, and it was a relief to know he had done the job right.
"McCall, I'm a target now," he warned. "Full security lock-down is in force. Nick is already under protective surveillance - I'll never hear the end of it once he realises it's there." Mickey shrugged, he was well used to his brother's disapproval. "I won't be able to do any more work for you."
"Don't worry, Gage can fill in. He's almost as good as you are," reassured Robert, glancing involuntarily at the driver's section. He had got to know the agent these last few months. He was extremely competent, although still bitter over the way the Company framed him, but that was all to the good. It made him sympathise with the Equalizer's customers.
Kostmayer nodded, making a mental note to have a little word with Gage, just to make sure the agent understood that his main job was to keep McCall alive. If he ever forgot that, Mickey would personally take him apart and send the remains back to jail.
Mickey hesitated before continuing, "Tell Control I..." Mickey found he couldn't complete the sentence. It was too personal - his feelings for Control had always been confusing.
"I'll tell him." reassured Robert gently.
Mickey nodded, glad Robert understood without him actually having to say it aloud. One more thing remained to be done and it would be the hardest thing he had ever had to do. The ground work had started three years ago, and as the years went by it would be added to until the truth was lost in a sea of red herrings.
"I'm going to miss Mickey Kostmayer!" Six words to end a life; Robert would understand - he had been through this once before.
A steel vice squeezed McCall's heart, standard procedure for a Control level operative. Somewhere they would make it appear that the real Michael Kostmayer had died and a company agent had taken his place. Meanwhile a dozen more identities would be created, all as real as Mickey Kostmayer. In the end only Associate would really exist, just as only Control was all that remained of another friend.
Robert wanted to scream, 'I will not go through this again. It was too painful the first time,' but it was already too late, three years too late. It had already happened. Mickey Kostmayer was dead. Before him was a very powerful young man who now existed only as his Code designation.
"Mick..." he started, then a lifetime of ingrained security training took over, "I'll get him back, Associate."
"I know you will, Robert." Mickey smiled sadly as he closed the door. It was already too late to save Mickey Kostmayer. Three years ago it had been a joke, now it was reality.
Robert watched the limousine drive off in shock. Too many secrets thrown at him at once had left him reeling. Only then did he realise Stock was standing next to him.
"What the devil are you here for?" snapped McCall, taking in Stock's combat outfit for the first time. "Your job is to protect him."
"Do you really think he needs protection?" Stock grinned. Personally he pitied anyone foolish enough to attack the new Control. Kostmayer liked that type of danger; the security squad assigned to him were already starting to complain about the risks he took.
"So what are you here for then?" groused McCall, making his way up to his apartment. Stock easily kept up.
"Orders!" grinned Stock - he was enjoying this.
"What orders?" McCall practically shouted, as they reached the door to his apartment.
"Associate said I'm to make sure you don't get killed getting Control out. He wants you both back!" laughed Stock.
"I'll kill him," snapped Robert, incensed. "You can tell Associate," and he practically ground his teeth as he said Kostmayer's Code designation, "that I do not need a baby-sitter, now or ever."
"My orders stand, McCall. You can take it up with Associate when we get back, but the plane leaves in fifty-five minutes," Stock reminded McCall calmly.
McCall glared at the younger agent. He could see that Stock found the situation hilarious.
"Very well, first I'll get Control out. Then I shall have a very long talk with that young man. He has forgotten who trained him," he promised savagely, as he made his way into his apartment.
Stock chuckled. He could see stirring times ahead. The next decade or so looked as if it would be very interesting. Now that Associate was no longer under cover, Stock was looking forward to the fireworks. Kostmayer may have become more stable these last few years, but he still had that disconcerting psychotic edge that had always made him so unpredictable in the field.
"Don't just stand there - make yourself useful," snapped McCall, handing the agent a bag and pointing him at the hidden armoury. "I have to change and ring my son."
"Don't take it out on me, McCall." Stock wasn't in the mood to be diplomatic. He had been up almost as long as Kostmayer, and despite what he had said earlier he should be with Gage guarding Associate, not baby-sitting McCall. "Who Associate sleeps with is none of my business, but frankly he's been a lot more stable these last few years."
"How many people know about this affair?" demanded Robert stunned.
"Hell, McCall, you of all people should know what type of security Control lives with daily. Yet nobody batted an eyebrow when Kostmayer moved into the apartment under the brownstone three years ago. The entire section had been expecting someone to be moved in there - you know that apartment has always been a sore point with Security." Stock grinned. McCall didn't need to know just how relieved the section had been when Kostmayer moved into the apartment. The reaction had been: at least Kostmayer didn't have a love life to get stomped on by security.
"Honestly, McCall, it was a complete surprise. There have been rumours about Control for years, but as most of them included you, they were always laughed at. As for Mickey..." Stock hesitated. "I'm afraid everyone just assumed he was celibate. Every time he lost someone he just closed down more of his private life. It is actually nice to know he does have someone."
"It can't be much of a secret after this," Robert said. "The Committee will have a field day."
"It's still a secret," warned Stock. "Gage and I were the ones who checked the bedrooms, and other than a few of Mickey's clothes in the closet, there wasn't anything to give them away." Stock wasn't about to tell McCall about the note Mickey had left on Control's pillow wrapped around a rose. That had been a revelation, he would never have taken Kostmayer for a romantic, let alone that he wrote poetry. It really was a pity Control hadn't been able to read it. Stock had used it as a template for the note he had left his fiancee - with luck it would work and he might still be engaged when he got back.
"McCall, the plane leaves in forty minutes. If we miss it Associate will kill us, and then he'll go after Control himself." Stock was still slightly numb at that revelation. Kostmayer and Control, if he hadn't read that letter, they would have been the last two he would have tagged as a couple. "You of all people should know, Mickey isn't sane in this type of situation." Stock took a deep breath. The last thing he expected to be doing was explaining Mickey Kostmayer to McCall. "He trusts you to get Control back safely, while he keeps everyone else safe, he knows everything will crash and burn if he takes off. Control would never forgive him if he does that, but if you force him he will do it." warned Stock.
Robert sighed he
old for this, "Bring everything you think we'll need, I still have to
my son." he said as he returned to the lounge room. It was going
to be a long night.
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