Jeff gets a shock

"How? Where?" Jeff sputtered. He turned his face to Lucinda, looking for answers.

"This is an identikit sketch of Virgil made from eyewitness accounts. So is this one." She opened another file.

"Scott." Jeff shook his head slowly. "Damn."

"Those are the best of the sketches, but this is more worrisome to my mind," Lou said, manipulating the mouse. Another file came up. "This fingerprint doesn't belong to Scott, Gordon, or John. It was run through the military and criminal databases and no match was found." She opened another window. "Here's a sketch of Thunderbird One; he also got them of Thunderbirds Two and Four, but just a bare description of a Thunderbird Three. There are also sketches and descriptions of, let's see... Mole, Firefly, and some odd vehicle with plungers on the sides? You'd know what they are better than I would. He got photos taken by a camera with a zoom lens, vid taken the same way, eyewitness accounts, names, times, details on practically every one of International Rescue's operations. You should go through them carefully."

Jeff did so, his concern mounting with every new piece of information. "So much data! Where did he get it all? How did this get past us?"

"Simple. A nice 'reporter' asks a rescued person some questions while working on a 'story' about International Rescue. A nice 'artist' does a sketch of one of the operatives or a machine that saved a person's life. Someone does some ambulance chasing, gets some long range footage, and is offered top dollar for it. All very innocent-looking, but little by little the bits and pieces fall into place." She sipped some more water. "He had been working at least six months on it, maybe longer."

"But... why?" Jeff asked his confusion and disbelief plain on his face.

Lucinda stood quietly for a moment. Then she sighed. "That is the question. I've done some discreet checking on my own, talking to some of my old informants. The rumors I've heard from my friends in the Bahamas say that there's a movement in the World Government to create a rescue organization like International Rescue. An organization that would be used as a carrot-and-stick to keep recalcitrant nations in line. You don't play ball, you don't get the services, or something like that. But for this to be effective, you can't have altruistic, non-partisan International Rescue running around, can you? So, how do you get rid of the competition?" She paused, then put down her glass again. "You out them. Strip away their anonymity. Or, conversely, you blackmail them into working for you by threatening to out them. That way, you have their tech and personnel and you don't have to underwrite the start-up costs of your own unit. Either way, it's a win-win situation. Whoever's behind this figured that Interpol could best do the dirty work of collecting the blackmail data."

Jeff shook his head slowly, then stopped, his face creased in a thoughtful frown. He turned his frown to her. "Lou, you said you were given this two months ago. Surely you had figured out who was behind IR then. Why didn't you come to me when you first looked at the file?"

Lucinda avoided his glance. "I wasn't sure. I mean, I thought that those were pictures of Scott and Virgil, but I wasn't sure. Identikit sketches aren't always the most accurate, especially when made from a variety of eyewitnesses. Plus, I hadn't seen any of your boys for years. It wasn't like I'd been getting school pictures every Christmas like Lucille sent out when they were young." At last she met his gaze. "And I certainly couldn't go to you if they weren't pictures of Scott and Virgil. It would be like handing you the secrets of IR when you had no right to them. It was only when karma intervened that I saw your boys again, close up. Only then did I know for certain who was backing International Rescue."

"So, did you fake the plane crash?" Jeff asked softly.

"No, Jeff. I didn't," Lucinda answered testily. "What makes you think I did?"

"Gordon went out to find the remains of your plane. We had managed to pinpoint the location using a GPS satellite." Even now, Jeff refused to give her any more information than what she already had. "He found it and noticed that the fuel gauge was on 'full' when it should have been lower. And there was no black box. Someone had either taken it already or it had been removed before you left. A salvage buoy was attached."

Lucinda scratched the back of her neck. "Well, that explains a lot. I'm pretty sure I was given a falsified weather report before I took off. And yeah, now that I remember it, the engine did sound like it was stalling. I didn't understand why. Now I do. And it explains why, when I reported the accident, I was given a brush off. They were already dealing with it."

Jeff frowned at her again. "You mean... Interpol tried to... kill you?"

"Kill me? No, not exactly. It was a calculated risk, making my plane go down, but they must have had a back up plan to pluck me from the plane if I didn't get out on my own. And it probably wasn't Interpol proper, but a rogue element in it. Interpol is a police organization, not some secret CIA-type outfit. They have rules to follow, laws to obey. I bet my co-worker just thought he was doing some routine fact gathering at first. But not knowing just where in the World Government this idea about IR comes from..." She glanced over at Jeff, whose frown was dissolving into incredulity, and she gave him a rueful smile. "Jeff, if they had wanted to kill me, my plane wouldn't have gone down. It would have blown up." She let this sink in, then continued. "They just wanted to get me out of the way so they could search this place and, when they didn't find what they were looking for, bug it without my interference. Which means that they think I have the file." Her face saddened. "It also means that my co-worker and his wife were killed for that information."

"And they... whoever they are... will be back for it, won't they?" Jeff said, his anger doused by sudden concern for her.

Lucinda shrugged. "Probably. But I can handle that. The good thing is that something happened they didn't expect. Serendipity. I survived by washing up on your beach. And my suspicions were confirmed about International Rescue's operatives. Finally, I had a direction. I could make a plan to get this information to the people who needed it most. To get this information to you before I destroyed it. Because that's what I'm going to do. That's the only thing I can do. I can't leave this around for my watchers to find." Sighing, she said, "That's probably why my coworker gave the file to me. He must have suspected or deduced who was behind IR and realized that I had a connection there from my investigation so long ago. He also probably figured that what was going on wasn't quite kosher and that's why he made his comment. He knew I'd do what was right."

Jeff blew out a puff of air, then he took her hand. "Lou... I'm sorry for having doubted you. It just seemed like such an... engineered coincidence. Especially after I've seen all... this." He waved his free hand toward the plasma screen, where a sketch of Thunderbird Four, sitting half out of the water, dominated the area.

She squeezed his hand and smiled. "I know. And I forgive you. It's funny how karma works sometimes. But this time it has definitely worked in your favor. Now we have to figure out how to get this information to a safe place so that you can refer to it later as you plug the holes in your security. Any ideas?"

"No. Not at the moment. I think I'm still in shock over this whole thing," he admitted.

She sighed. "There's something else you should know."

"What's that?" Jeff asked, his face again a concerned frown.

"Kyrano. When I got back, I did background checks on him, Tin-Tin, and Brains." She shook her head, and said wryly, "That man's name! No wonder he prefers the nickname. In any case, he and Tin-Tin came up clean. But Kyrano has a connection to a very nasty character." She leaned over and took control of the mouse, clicking the cursor on a file name. A police record, complete with picture, came up. "He was hard to find; seems he's only been arrested once, but he's got dealings in the underworld everywhere. He's known as the Hood. His real name is Belah Gaat. His specialty is stealing new tech to sell on the black market. He's a master of disguise and is reported to have some kind of power over people's minds." She turned her gaze to Jeff. "He's also Kyrano's half brother."

Jeff nodded, his eyes narrowing. "Good to finally see his true face." He looked up at Lou. "We've had brushes with him, more than once, though it took some time to put all the pieces together. Penelope got us the information on who he was and what he wanted, though she didn't have any pictures." He glanced back at the screen. "He had some kind of hold over Kyrano's mind, and would force him to tell our secrets, what few he actually knew. Then he'd try to create some disaster to lure us out so he could get pictures of our craft. His attacks on Kyrano looked like neural seizures and puzzled us for a good long time." Jeff took in a deep breath, and let it out. "Once we knew about him, Kyrano went into seclusion for a month and when he came out, he declared he had defeated his brother's mind control. He hasn't had a seizure since. Nor have we encountered the Hood again."

"Do you trust him?" Lou asked frankly.

"Kyrano? With my life. And the lives of my sons," Jeff said immediately.

Lou stood silent for a few seconds, then nodded. "If you trust him, that's good enough for me. I just wanted you to know..."

"I understand." Jeff squeezed her hand once more. He let go to cover a yawn. "This is so much to take in, but that wine is having a decided effect on me."

Lou smiled. "Well, then. Let's shut this down and get some sleep. My watchers might be getting suspicious that they haven't heard much of anything out of us lately."

"Do they know that their devices aren't working?" Jeff asked, as she began to turn off her computer.

"I hope not. I know they're using audio; that's a foregone conclusion. Whether or not they're using vid is a little more dicey. The audio devices will play the music and since they hear that, they should assume things are still working. The vid, which is on a different bandwidth, is fed a pre-recorded loop of me 'puttering' in whatever room I happen to be in. Especially the workshop. In fact, since you were with me, we had to record something that included you. The loop should be long enough to fool them... I hope." Her smile became a wry one. "Sorry if I was boring you with my 'puttering' while I let their cameras record a suitable amount."

"Well, I must admit that hearing about the gutters was getting a mite tedious," Jeff admitted, returning the same smile.

Lou chuckled and picked up her glass of water. She stopped for a moment, then gave him a shrewd look. "Wait. You said Penelope got you the information on Gaat? Whatever happened to 'she's a good friend'?"

"Well, she is. She's also an agent for International Rescue," Jeff admitted.

"Hmm. An agent for IR. Guess she didn't find the life of the idle rich that rewarding after all. She left because she got a better offer," she said, winking at him as she turned off the player. Jeff finished his wine, and together they ducked out of the secret room. The door slid closed behind them. Lou guided Jeff over to the bench once again and reached up to turn off the music that had been playing, and with it, the jammer.

"C'mon. We'd better get some sleep," she said as she led him back upstairs.

He put his wine glass next to hers on the kitchen counter. There was an awkward silence between them.

"Uh, why don't you use the bathroom first?" she offered. "I'll get dressed while you do... whatever it is you have to."

"Sure. Thanks," he replied, looking down.

"Make sure you close your bedroom door," Lou reminded him. "If you don't, you'll have feline company sometime during the night and they tend to take over the bed."

"I'll be sure to shut it," Jeff said softly.

Lou reached up and kissed him on the cheek. "Goodnight, Jeff," she said. Then she turned and went into her room, shutting the door behind her.

"Goodnight, Lou," he murmured, as he headed for the guest room.

He was restless. The sounds, the smells, the very darkness of his borrowed room was so different from home that he found he couldn't sleep.

Are those really the reasons why? he asked himself as he sat up in bed. I've stayed in hotel after hotel and not been affected like this. I thought the wine had mellowed me out so I could sleep. I was wrong.

He lay back down again and put his hands behind his head. My mind keeps going over everything that Lou told me. The problem is, can I take what she says at face value? She's used to lying and disguising herself and her intentions. I saw that first hand when she was assigned to the case. We arranged for her to be hired on at Tracy Industries back when it was Tracy Aerospace. False background, false papers, false last name. She wormed her way into the good graces of the staff and snooped around. I had to give her a high level of security clearance so she could access emails, even my own! But... she was up front with me.

He rolled over onto his side and looked at the clock. When we were alone after hours, discussing the case, she let me know the progress of it, at least as much as she could... oh, damn it! I've got to stop second guessing her. I trusted her back then. Lucille learned to trust her, and she never betrayed that trust in all the years they were friends. I bet that there are secrets that Lucille left with her that I will never, ever hear. He sat up again and shook his head. Letting all this run around in my mind isn't working. I need to do something to help me sleep.

Exasperated, he got up to fix himself a glass of warm milk, hoping it would soothe him. Padding out to the kitchen, he had just reached in a cupboard for a glass when he heard a soft moan and a cry of "No!" coming from Lou's bedroom. Concerned, he quietly opened her door, calling, "Lou?"

Light from the kitchen spilled in, and in its glare, he saw her clearly. She had kicked off the covers and lay on her side, clad in smooth, satiny, dark pink pajamas that hugged her every curve. A shapely calf was visible where the pajama pant leg had pulled up. Her nightwear's top bared most of her shoulders except where they were covered by two thin straps. A "V" of lace trimmed the deep cut in the tank top's front, showing the swell of her breasts, full and pale and barely obscured by the silky fabric and lace. She cried out again, turning sharply, her knees jerking upward and her head moving back and forth.

"Lou? Lucinda?" he called again, louder this time. He approached the side of the bed and turned on her nightstand light. "Lucinda? Wake up, Lou! It's only a dream! Wake up!"

"NO!" she shouted as she sat bolt upright, her eyes unseeing, her chest heaving. He sat on the edge of the bed, taking hold of her upper arms and calling her name again. Suddenly, she took in a sharp breath and shook her head, then fixed her slightly glassy gaze on him.

"J-Jeff? What...?"

"You were having a dream, a nightmare," he said soothingly. He was surprised when she suddenly wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder, breathing heavily. Embracing her gently, he rubbed her back, whispering soothing words in her ear, her hair tickling his nose and chin. "Shh. It's okay. It was only a dream."

They sat like that for a few moments as Lou's panicked breathing gradually eased. She pulled away and gave him a wan, weary smile. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." He was suddenly truly aware of what she was wearing, and his cheeks flamed unaccountably.

"What are you doing up?" she asked, realizing that he was uncomfortable and pulling the covers back over her, holding them to her chest.

"Couldn't sleep. I was going to get a glass of warm milk and I heard you moaning. Thought I'd better investigate."

Lou sighed. "I... I'm glad you did. It was a doozy of a nightmare."

"You want to talk about it?" Jeff offered.

She ran her tongue over her lips, then took in a deep breath, and letting it out slowly, she began to tell him about the dream.

"I dreamt I was going down in the plane again, only this time, I couldn't get out. The plane slowly submerged, and no matter what I tried, I couldn't get the doors or the windows open. I could feel my lungs filling with water as the plane went down and it got darker and darker. And all around were people, my fellow agents, all looking at me and watching, just watching. No one would help."

Jeff reached out and rubbed her arm. "That does sound frightening."

"It was. Thanks again for waking me," she said gratefully.

"Again, you're welcome." Jeff took a moment to look around her room. It revealed a different side of her, a nostalgic side, evidenced by the four poster bed and the quilts hanging over the quilt rack. There was a low book case along one wall, and a rocking chair with a crocheted afghan over the back, a reading lamp positioned just so behind it. The bed itself was covered with a quilt, done in pinks, mauves and dark blues. He didn't know much about quilt patterns or anything; his mother liked to sew, but quilting was not in her repertoire. Still, it gave the room a warm, old-fashioned feel, one that he found comforting. He also noticed the size of the bed he was sitting on.

"I see you sleep in a queen-sized bed," he remarked quietly.

Lucinda nodded. "Always have. I couldn't get used to anything smaller."

He said softly. "Neither could I. It's been seven years and I still sleep on one side of the bed." He dropped his eyes. "Sometimes, when I'm just waking up, I think I feel her in bed with me still. But... I know it's an illusion."

She reached out and cupped his cheek with her hand. "I understand. You loved her very, very much."

"Yes. I did. And I still miss her," he said, putting his hand over hers. He left them there for a moment before taking her hand away from his face.

"I'd better get that glass of milk. Are you going to be all right?" he asked.

"Yes, I should be," she replied. She laid down and slid further down under her covers, pulling them up to her shoulders.

Jeff got up and went to the door. He looked back for a moment. "Goodnight, again," he said as he closed the door behind him quickly, but not so quickly that he didn't hear the soft, "Goodnight," or see the extinguishing of the bedside light.

"Do we have an ID on her boyfriend yet?"

"Yeah, and you won't believe it. Jefferson Grant Tracy, billionaire recluse."

"Damn! How did she meet him?"

"She handled a case for him over twenty years ago."

A pause.

"Has she said anything?"

"No. And I'm sure she knows she's being watched."

"So, what do we do?"

"We wait."

Another pause.

"We can't wait much longer. The higher-ups are getting... impatient."

"I know."

Lou got out of bed a moment or two after Jeff closed the door. Slipping into her warm bathrobe, she waited until he was finished in the kitchen and had padded down the hall. The light over the sink greeted her as she left her room and headed for the basement. She turned on no lights, her memory of the dark recesses of her own home serving her well as she made her way to the workshop.

I just pray that if they have vid on me, it's not infrared, she thought as she covered the red light on the workshop's music player with one hand. It glowed red against her palm, then she reached back and switched on the jammer. The tiny bulb turned over to green, and she pulled off her bathrobe, draping it over the player to hide the light. She opened the secret door, and entered the room.

Booting up the computer, she checked to see if the disk she had shown to Jeff was still in the drive. It was. Sitting down at the keyboard, she connected with the Internet. Downloading each of the files she had shown to Jeff, she condensed them into attachments that were as small as possible and sent them shooting off into cyberspace to a secure destination: the same inbox she had used to pick up the email from her friend, Tony. Then she erased the information from her hard drive. She pulled up another document, one she had been preparing especially for International Rescue, condensed that, then sent it off to join the other files. She removed the disk, and stashed it in the same place as she had before.

"I'd better finish my other project," she murmured to herself, opening that secure part of her hard drive. "Tony's little present is ready to be tacked on to what I've already prepared. I hope I don't have to use it, but if I do, I pray it passes muster. Otherwise, all the work I've done will be for nothing." Stretching her arms and yawning, she set about completing what she had started when she came home from Tracy Island.