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Sometimes The Dragons Are Real

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And so, we begin...

“There he is again, Mom,” Rene whispered to me. I turned to Rene and saw him nodding toward an old blue pickup truck across the street. “This is the third time that I have seen him. The first time was at my school and then he was in the parking lot of the supermarket when we went to get groceries. It’s the same man, Mom!”

The urgency in his voice made me take special note of the man in the truck. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with sandy hair and an old gimme cap on his head. He seemed like just another non-descript citizen in the small city where Rene and I live. “I got his license number, Mom, and I wrote down the make and model of the pickup. The next time Daddy comes for a visit, he can find out who the man is. What do you think, Mom?”

“That’s a good idea Rene,” I told my handsome, dark-haired, green-eyed seven-year-old. I had no doubt in my own mind that this man was probably keeping an eye on Rene and I for Madeline.

She had done this before, to keep us safe, she said. But I often wondered if that was the real reason or if she had a more sinister reason. Was she really trying to find out if Michael knew about Rene and was covertly visiting us. She didn’t want us to be distractions to Michael. She wanted his undivided attention on what she determined was important. Rene and I did not fit into what she considered important. She had given Rene to me to raise while requiring of me the promise that I would move far away from Michael and take his son with me. I had agreed to her proposal because I thought it the only way to keep both Michael and his son safe from her.

The proposal had worked, except that Michael had found out that Rene was alive, and I had been so fearful that he would hate me for what I had done. I needn’t have worried. Michael had come to us late one night under the cover of darkness, quieting the nightmares that Rene sometimes had and quieting my own fears of his, Michael’s, anger at what I had done. He told me that he knew he couldn’t be with Rene and that I was the only person that he would want to raise his son. He knew how much I loved that little bundle of energy that was Rene. And so, Michael secretly visited us whenever he could get away from Madeline and her prying eyes. It wasn’t often, but it would have to be enough. Michael would not jeopardize our safety. Quality of time spent with his son would have to do because quantity was just not possible.

It was a quiet Friday afternoon and Rene and I were running errands in our routine life. We had been treated to a long weekend because a teacher’s meeting had freed Rene from school for this Friday. We planned to buy groceries, fill the car with gasoline and take a short trip to the countryside for a picnic on Saturday. It was at the gas station that Rene had brought my attention to the man in the blue truck.

“Don’t worry about him, Rene,” I said, “if he continues to follow us, I will take care of him. He won’t bother us again.” Madeline had given me a number to call in case of trouble and I just might have to ask her if good employees were hard to find if a seven-year-old could spot her watchdogs.

“Mom, do you think he is a dragon?” Rene asked quietly. I looked at Rene with a question in my eyes. “You know, a bad guy, like the ones Daddy fights. Remember the story you told me?” And I nodded. I did remember the story. It was how I had explained to Rene about what Michael did while he was away from us. And I remembered that I had told Rene that sometimes the dragons were real, that sometimes people were bad and tried to hurt other people and that Michael fought and tried to destroy the bad guys, the dragons.

“Rene, I don’t know if he is a dragon, but like I said, don’t worry about him. Okay, the gas tank is full and we are ready to go. Buckle up, we need to finish our errands.” Rene did as I asked and soon, we were off to the bank. I needed to pick up some cash for our Saturday road trip. Little did I know that the errand to the bank would place our lives, as well as Michael’s in jeopardy.

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

I had intended to use the drive-thru window to get the cash I needed for our weekend trip, but when I started to turn in to the drive-thru, I found it barricaded. Apparently, the drive was being resurfaced with new asphalt and the entire area was closed. So that meant parking and going insided the bank to complete the transaction. This would actually work out better, because I could talk to David, my loan officer, about a home loan to build the sunroom that Rene and I had talked about earlier today. My writing career was doing very well and I was sure that I could handle the extra payments. Yes, I told myself, going inside the bank would not be an imposition at all.

Rene and I settled in front of David’s desk and I told David about our plans for a sunroom to be added to the back of our house. Rene listened attentively for a few minutes as David and I discussed the terms and amount of the prospective loan.

After a few minutes, I could sense that Rene had lost interest because he was starting to fidget and shift around in his chair. I looked over at him and he was looking around at the people in the bank lobby. He enjoyed watching people and trying to determine what kind of people they were. He would often entertain me with the backgrounds that he had developed for the people he observed. I had discovered in time that he was very perceptive in his observations and was often right on target in his observations of people.

After about ten minutes, I felt him tug on my sleeve. “Mom”, he whispered, “there are dragons at the front door!” Puzzled by what he had said, I looked over at him.

“What did you say, Rene?” I asked.

“Dragons, Mom, you know, bad guys!” he said urgently.

I looked over to where he indicated. Ever the wary child, he didn’t point, but nodded his head in the direction of the front door. Three men in long dark coats had just entered the front doors and were making their way to three different tellers. Each carried a black canvas bag and their eyes were quickly scanning the bank lobby.

“David,” I said, “do those men look suspicious to you?” Using Rene’s technique, I nodded toward the men.

“Suspicious?” he asked and then, when he looked over at the teller’s cages at the three men, I saw his eyes go wide and he said,”Oh, my God!” I watched as his hand dipped underneath his desk. I wondered if he was punching a silent alarm.

Rene and I looked at each other and together we looked over at the three men again. We watched as if transfixed as the three men drew guns from their coats to point at the tellers. The tellers, two women and a man looked at the men with horror on their faces and started stuffing cash into the bags that had been thrust at them.

David rose from his desk and very calmly told Rene and I to come with him. We got up and followed him as he led us to a glass-enclosed office at the back of the bank. Rene, ever the curious one, kept glancing back watching the three men. One of the men noticed the movement and stared straight at us. I grabbed Rene’s hand and hurried into the office. David closed the door behind us at about the same time that we could hear the screeching of sirens quickly approaching the bank.

The man who had turned and looked at us shouted something to his partners. What he shouted, I could not hear through the glass, but I had no problem hearing the gunshots as one of the men turned and shot the bank guard who had run forward when the shouting started. He was knocked off his feet and landed hard on the marble floor with three gunshot wounds in his chest.

Neither did the glass shut out the screams of terror that erupted at the sounds of the gunfire. I grabbed Rene and pulled him to me as I attempted to shield him from the sight of the violence playing out in front of us as well as any stray bullets that these men might decide to send our way. And so, this was how our quiet Friday afternoon was ruined. Ruined big time.

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

Little did I know that mere seconds after the gunfire erupted, the situation that Rene and I found ourselves in was being relayed to old Cold-Eyes herself, or as she had told me her name, Madeline.

The man in the blue pickup, whose name was Cooper, was speaking urgently into his cell phone outside the bank. He decided that the gunfire he had heard and the arrival of several police cars in the street outside the bank merited the call to Madeline, seeing as how the woman and the kid he was supposed to be shadowing were still inside the bank when all hell broke loose.

“No, you get her on the phone now!! I don’t care what kind of meeting she is in. Get her NOW!!” he shouted into the phone as he fervently hoped that there was not a white room with his name on it back at Section One.

Madeline’s voice came on the line. “This had better be important, Cooper!” she said in her always-cool tone. “What is it that you have to report?”

Cooper quickly related to Madeline that he had been watching the woman, Grace King, and her son, Rene, just as he had been ordered. “They went into a bank and I waited for them to come out. As I was waiting, I saw three men in long coats go into the bank. They looked suspicious, but that wasn’t my job, to watch for possible bank robbers, now was it.”

“Get on with it,” Madeline snapped, a vague feeling of unrest starting to seep into her mind.

“Well, in a few minutes, someone inside started shooting and I saw a body hit the floor inside the lobby close to the front door. The woman and kid never came out. They are trapped inside with the other hostages. What do you want me to do?” Cooper asked nervously.

Madeline closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead and eyes with her left hand while still holding the phone in her right hand. “Hold your position. I’ll need your intel later.” She swiftly disconnected from Cooper and punched a button on her intercom, “Birkoff, tell Walter I need to see him now. Oh, and Birkoff, Michael is on his way back from South America, isn’t he? Find out his position right now and find out what his ETA would be if his plane was diverted to the military base in Fort Worth, Texas. Get back to ASAP with that information, please.” Madeline punched the button to disconnect and leaned back in her chair to think. The good news was that Operations was in Brussels and was not expected back for four days, everything else was bad news.

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

The door to Madeline’s office whooshed open to reveal an impatient Walter, dressed as usual in bandanna, tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans.

“Okay, Madeline, I’m here. What do you want? You sure have got Birkoff rattled with the way you told him you wanted to see me and why do you want to reroute Michael’s plane to Texas?”

“Sit down, Walter.” She glared at him until he took a seat in front of her desk. “You know a woman named Grace King, don’t you?

His eyes narrowed. “Sure, I know Gracie.....” He took a deep breath, preparing himself for the bad news he saw in Madeline’s brown eyes. “What has happened to Gracie?” he asked quietly.

“Grace has been taken hostage in a bank robbery along with her son and several others.” she began.

“Wait just a minute! Gracie doesn’t have a son....!” he sputtered. “Where is she?!”

“Settle down, Walter,” Madeline said trying to calm Walter. “She has an adopted son. After the last time you saw her, I approached her with a proposition to get her out of Michael’s life. I arranged for her to adopt Rene and move to Texas.” Madeline watched as Walter dropped back into the chair from which he had risen as she had delivered this astonishing information. She even smiled one of her snide little smiles as Walter’s jaw also dropped open in shock and disgust at this news.

“Madeline,” he said when he had regained his composure, “ I didn’t think even you could sink so low. You know how much that little boy meant to Michael. How could you do that to him and Simone, to let them believe Rene was dead!” Madeline watched Walter’s face as the pieces suddenly started to drop into place and the look of shock on his face deepened.

But, but...Simone saw the car hit him...She wouldn’t do that to Michael, she couldn’t.” Walter slumped into the chair with a defeated droop to his shoulders, and listened as Madeline explained the rest of the story to him.

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

“You know Michael is going to find out about this. There is no way that you can keep it from him. Hell, a hostage situation in Texas, it’s probably all over CNN as we speak,” Walter shouted at Madeline, still upset with her because of what she had do to Michael and Simone in taking Rene away from them.

“Walter, Michael already knows that Rene is alive. He followed me to the airport when I took Rene to Grace, just before they left for Texas and their new home.” Madeline told Walter. “But all of that is not important now. We have to figure out how to handle this situation. Michael will not stay out of this, so we have to formulate a profile that will remedy this mess. I have decided to divert Michael and his team to an air base in Fort Worth. That is not far from the town in which Grace and Rene live. What I want you to do is to be on a plane in 30 minutes with whatever equipment you and Michael will need to go in and rescue the hostages. In the meantime, I will call in a few favors at the Justice Department and Michael’s team will go into the situation as members of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. You work up the profile for this scenario and meet Michael at the air base. If he has any suggestions or modifications, the two of you can work that out between you. Under no circumstances are you to let Michael take Rene away from the bank after the rescue. Little Rene is going to be terrified and will expect his father to rescue him and Grace, so I will work on a cover story in case, Rene blurts out that Michael is his father. I will download this information to Michael while he is enroute and he can decide how to brief Grace and Rene.”

Madeline looked up at Walter and smiled.

“You know, Maddy, sometimes you surprise even me,” Walter admitted, while shaking his head from side to side. “I have heard a nasty rumor about you....that you actually have a heart somewhere deep inside you.” He laughed at she glared back at him.

“Rumors are often proved false, Walter,” she said. “Michael is very important to Section One and I don’t intend to lose him because of some sentimental attachment. Now get out of here. I have work to do and so do you.”

***********

The three men who had taken over the bank split up and corralled everyone they could find and made us sit on the floor in front of the marble teller’s cages as far away from the front doors as they could get us. In all, there were about 15 of us, bank employees and customers, more women than men. I was too frightened to count accurately, and at the moment, that just didn’t seem important to me. Rene snuggled into my side, trembling in fear, but also anger. I could feel it emanating from him.

“When do you think Daddy will get here, Mom? he whispered, “How long do we have to stay here with these jerks?”

“Rene,” I said quietly, “I don’t know the answers to your questions, but listen to me carefully. These men are in control here, not us, so we will do what they say and we will not antagonize them. Do not say anything to them, or draw attention to yourself. If they look at you, do not look them in the eye. They might hurt you and I just could not handle that. Do you understand me?” I looked him straight in his green eyes and saw understanding and the steel of his father. “Being brave is important, but Rene, in this situation, being smart is even more important.”

He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I understand Mom, but these dragons will be real sorry when Daddy gets here.”

I sighed and leaned back against the marble counter. Even if Michael finds out about this, would his employers let him come to rescue his son, I thought. I laughed to myself. Of course he would come, nothing could keep him from saving Rene. I looked at my watch. We had been here for almost two hours and the three men were getting more nervous by the minute.

The phone rang and everyone jumped. The tallest of the three ran over to the ringing phone. He ran his fingers through his hair and then put his hand over his mouth, as if trying to think. He visibly calmed himself, took a deep breath and answered the phone.

“Yeah,” he said after listening to whoever was speaking on the other end of the phone and said harshly, “ Well, this is what I want!! And you have 1 hour to deliver or someone gets dead and CNN gets to film a body hitting the pavement in front of the bank. What do you say to that?”

A terrified murmur arose from the people around me and I thought fervently, Michael, where are you? I hugged Rene closer and he looked up at me and said, “Don’t worry, Mom. Daddy is on the way. I can feel him getting closer.

I smiled down at Rene, and said, “I hope so, Rene, I hope so.

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

Nikita felt the plane start to bank to the left and heard the pilot on the intercom tell Michael that Section had just diverted them to the military airbase in Fort Worth, Texas.

Nikita frowned and looked over at the other operatives to see their reactions. Without exception, each one of the six men sighed heavily and then settled back in their seats at the news. The diversion to an airbase could only mean one thing: another mission. And so, they all settled in for to get some much needed sleep. All were exhausted from the mission in Chile and if they had to perform on another right on the heels of this last one, they would need all the rest that they could get. A couple of hours sleep was better than no sleep at all.

Not following their example, Nikita instead stood and started to move toward Michael who had seated himself at the communications table on the far side of the military transport. Apparently he was receiving incoming intel on the new mission.

As Nikita moved toward Michael, she saw him listening intently. He raised his hand to his face to pinch the bridge of his nose and then rub his fingers across his mouth and chin as she had seen him do before. This gesture of Michael’s meant only one thing. He was hearing bad news, news that he obviously didn’t want to hear.

“Michael, what is it?” Nikita said urgently. “What is going on?”

Michael’s next gesture surprised and alarmed her at the same time. He reached out and took her hand and squeezed it as he looked into her eyes. She saw terror in the green depths. and something rarely seen in Michael’s eyes...fear.

Nikita gave Michael’s hand a squeeze back and sat down next to him to listen to Madeline continue the mission briefing.

“So Walter will meet you there with the mission profile. Make changes if you think they are necessary. And Michael, I am sorry about this. I hope everything works out for the best.” Madeline finished speaking and severed the connection with Michael.

Michael turned away from the communications console and buried his face in his hands. Nikita put her hands on his shoulders and whispered his name. He pulled away, but not before she felt him trembling.

“It’s Rene and Grace.” he said, pain apparent in his voice. He raised his head and looked at her. She tried to school her features to look puzzled at his statement. She wasn’t supposed to know who Rene and Grace were. “It’s okay, I know you know about them. Grace told me. They were in a bank today arranging a home improvement loan when three men decided to rob the bank. They are trapped inside with several others. The men are threatening to start throwing bodies out the door.”

“God, Michael, what can I do? Are we going in? I’ll do whatever it takes. The others will too. We will get them out safe and sound. What’s the plan?”

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

Nikita finally stopped stating all of the reassurances to Michael and he was glad to heard her take a breath. Still, he was somewhat heartened to hear her being supportive of him, but he felt terribly frightened for Rene and Grace. This was an explosive situation and he knew that anything could happen. All of the worst-case scenarios had already run through his mind and he felt exhausted. He knew himself well and he WAS exhausted, but how he was feeling was not important right now. Getting Rene and Grace out of that bank was what was important, and so Michael pushed the feelings of terror, exhaustion and hopelessness to the back of his brain as he started to think of every possible plan to get what he wanted: Rene and Grace.

Nikita gasped in pain, and Michael let go of her hand realizing that he was squeezing it almost to the point of breaking. “I’m sorry, Nikita,” he said apologetically, “I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

‘Don’t worry about it, Michael,” she said smiling and taking his hand in hers. “You are allowed an emotion or two.”

“No, I’m not. I can’t afford it now. I have to focus. We have two hours until we land in Fort Worth. We have a lot of work to do.” he said as he pulled his hand from hers and hunched over his computer. “Why don’t you get some rest. You look exhausted,” he told her before looking back to the computer and starting to read the information that had been downloaded.

“Michael, you have had the same amount of rest that I have had, so if I need the rest, then so do you. You can’t afford to go into this without any sleep. You owe it to Rene, Grace and all of those other people trapped in that bank.” Nikita had grabbed Michael’s chin and pulled him towards her as she looked straight into his eyes as she spoke. “Come on, sleep for an hour and then you can work on this. I’ll ask the pilot to call us in an hour. Until then, you sleep. Okay?”

She walked up to the cockpit and talked briefly with the pilots before turning and walking back to where Michael was sitting bent over with his face in his hands, elbows propped on his knees. She took one of his hands in hers and pulled him to his feet.

She led him over to the center section of five-across passenger seats and sat down. She told him to lay down and put his feet up. He complied and she pulled him down so that her lap became his pillow. He looked up at her and said in a quiet voice, “Thank you. Wake me in an hour,” and he closed his eyes. Nikita gazed down at Michael’s face and combed her fingers through his hair until she heard his breathing change and she knew he was asleep. Only then did she feel herself drift off.

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

He kept pacing back and forth, back and forth, in front of us pointing his automatic weapon at each one of us as he walked. This man was a sadist. He enjoyed the terror he saw in our faces, and sooner or later, he would choose someone to hurt or kill.

Each time as he passed us, I would gently cup my hand around Rene’s cheek and pull his face into my shoulder. I didn’t want his eyes on Rene and I also didn’t want the man to see the steely look in Rene’s eyes as he watched the man pacing up and down, up and down. The phrase “if looks could kill” came to mind and I knew that I would give anything to keep that look from Rene’s eyes. But just now, I didn’t know how to do that. I just wanted to keep Rene and I alive until Michael arrived. That is, if he did arrive. I had no guarantee that those who controlled Michael’s life would even allow him to come to our rescue.

The phone on David’s desk rang. The man went to answer it.

“No,” he shouted into the phone, “you are the one who is not listening! I want an armored car here in one hour, or do you want dead hostages littering the front lawn? You know I can arrange that.” He was quiet, listening to whoever was on the other end of the phone. Okay, one hour or I promise you, you won’t like what comes out the front door. Hey! how about some food? I’ve got some hungry people in here. Send in some food. I’ll give you 15 minutes and if you are on time, I’ll give you a hostage.”

He slammed the phone down and came toward us, resuming his pacing once more. The other two men stayed in their position, watching the front doors, occasionally pulling down a section of the blinds that covered the entire front glass of the bank to peered out at what was happening in front of the bank.

“Nick!” One of the men shouted over his shoulder, “it looks like the food is here.”

“Well, thanks, Brewer,” he said angrily, “ Now they know my name. Are you trying to be stupid or does it come naturally?”

Brewer realized his mistake just as he realized that Nick had also betrayed his name to us, but just as quickly let it go. Apparently, arguing with Nick was not something he chose to do right now. He grinned sheepishly, “So, who goes out to get the food?”

Nick took another few steps down the line of hostages and stopped in front of one of the tellers. “What’s your name, girlie?” She kept her eyes downcast, not wanting to look her fate in the eye. He kicked at her feet and said again, gruffly this time, “I said, what is your name?”

She finally looked up at him and said simply, “ Elaine, my name is Elaine.”

“Well, Elaine, how do you feel about going on an errand for me? And if you are a good little girl, you might just get a reward. How about that?” He extended a hand toward her and she slowly raised her hand to his. He pulled her up, finally letting his machine gun hang loose by the strap around his shoulder because he needed two hands to pull her to her feet. Elaine was heavily pregnant and looked supremely uncomfortable, not only because of our situation, but also because three hours sitting on a hard marble floor had not done her back and legs any good. She finally stood straight and limped along behind him.

Nick pulled her to the front door and signaled to Brewer to unlock the door. Brewer pulled the keys he had taken from the dead guard and unlocked the door.

“Please,” she begged, “don’t hurt me... my baby! Please!”

“Look, I’m not going to hurt you. All I want you to do is walk out there and bring the food back in here to me. If you do that, I might let you go. Okay?” he smiled at her and pushed her closer to the door. “Wait here. I’ll be right back.”

Nick left her and walked back to David’s desk and picked up the phone. “Ah,” he said into the phone. “I knew you would be there. Now listen carefully. Elaine, our little mother-to-be is going to come out and cross over to you. You give her the food and she brings it back. If she does exactly what she is told, I might let her go free. If she doesn’t or if you try anything cute, she’s a goner. You got me?” He smiled and said, “I knew you would see it my way. “Get ready, she’s coming out.”

He nodded to Brewer and Elaine walked out the door that he opened for her. “Come back soon, babe” he whispered in her ear as she passed him.

After a few minutes, Elaine came back carrying several paper bags from a nearby fast food store. “There’s more. I need to make another trip.” She told Brewer and Nick. “I’ll be right back.” She turned and crossed the no-man’s-land between the bank and the rows of police cars. Elaine again loaded her arms with white bags of food and came back to the bank. As she handed over the food, she asked hesitantly, “Can I go now. You said...”

“Yeah, I know what I said. Go, now, before I change my mind.” Nick said as he walked over to the door and watched as Elaine turned and ran, as quickly as she could run in her condition, to the police officers from whom she had just taken the food bags. It was not until she collapsed in their arms that Elaine felt safe...at last.

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

Nikita was awakened by the voice of the pilot announcing that they were one hour from their destination. She stretched and looked down at Michael’s face, so innocent and looking so much younger in sleep. Nikita smiled as she ran her fingers through his hair brushing it back from his face so that he looked more like her Michael than the young pre-Section Michael of fourteen years ago. Her touch in his hair must have struck a chord of memory in him because he smiled in his sleep and murmured softly, "Rene.”

She hated to do it, but knew he would be very unhappy with her if she didn’t, so she bent her head to his ear and whispered, “Michael, wake up. It’s almost time. Michael,” she said a bit more loudly this time. His eyes flew open to find Nikita staring into his eyes only inches away from his face. Without a second thought, she gave him a quick, friendly kiss and said, “Welcome back, sleepyhead! Ready to kick some butt?” She smiled just for him and was very surprised when he smiled back at her. She leaned back in her seat as he sat up quickly and rubbed his hands over his face.

“How long did I sleep? What time is it?” he asked as he swung his feet from the seat to the floor. He put his arms in the air and stretched, turning his shoulders from side to side to stretch tired muscles.

“We’re an hour to touchdown, Michael” Nikita told him. “how are you feeling?’ She stood up and put her hands on his shoulders and massaging the knots she found in his neck and back. He rolled his head from side to side and groaned as he accepted her touch.

“I feel better. Thanks, Nikita. I didn’t realize how tired I was.” He sighed and pulled away from Nikita’s touch. “I have a lot of work to do.” He moved back toward the table where his computer was setup.

“No, Michael,” Nikita said as she followed him over to the table. “WE have a lot of work to do.” She bent over his shoulder and watched as information updates scrolled down his screen.

“We will get them out, Michael, please don’t worry.”

“I know we will, Nikita, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking about all the things that could go wrong.” He looked up at her with green eyes that were filled with fear and concern for his son, and put his hand over the one she had placed on his shoulder.

As soon as he had read through the profile sent to him by Madeline, he rose from his chair and went to brief his team. He intended to tell them the truth. This was a personal mission and he was going to give them the option to stay with the plane. This mission would be difficult without a full-strength team, but he would not ask them to risk their lives for him and his.

“And that’s the profile. I think you may have realized that this is a somewhat personal mission for me. I will not ask you to risk yourselves for me. If you want to stay with the plane until I get back, you have that option. No one will think less of you for your decision.” Michael finished speaking and turned away to let the other operatives decide.

Each looked at the other and they all nodded. Carson, a big man with long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail, stepped toward Michael and reached out to put his hand on Michael’s shoulder. Michael turned and looked up into Carson’s startlingly blue eyes. “If one goes, we all go. We’re your team, Michael, we’re with you all the way.”

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

Michael looked down at the floor and then looked up at his team, meeting the eyes of each man before he said in a husky voice, “I want to thank each one of you. You don’t know what this means to me. As I have the mission planned, I will be the only only in the line of fire. Each of you will have the responsibility to get the hostages out of the bank as quickly as possible as well as to plant yourselves at the front door and keep everyone else out until everything is secured inside the bank. Two of the hostages will stay inside the bank after you take the others out. I will want some uninterrupted time with them, but it will not be very long. The pictures of the two who will remain are in your PDA’s. Please study their pictures and the rest of the information in the PDA’s. We will be landing and meeting Walter in less than an hour. And I want to thank you again being a part of the team.” Michael looked at each one of them again, then turned and walked back to where Nikita was sitting near his computer. She stood when she saw his that his eyes were shining with tears and drew him down to sit next to her. “You didn’t really think they would let you go in alone, did you?”

“I wasn’t sure. I’ve been pretty ruthless with some of them during missions. I know I should have known them better, but you know I don’t let anyone too close....except... for you.” He put his hand into her hair and pushed the strands back behind her ear, then allowed his fingers to caress her cheek, but he pulled his hand away quickly when he saw her close her eyes, heard her sigh and feel her tilt her head into his touch.

Focus, Michael, focus. This is why Rene is not with you, he told himself. This lack of focus is what caused Madeline to take him away in the first place. Nikita felt him stiffen and pull away. She opened her eyes to see his frosty green eyes and recognized that Section Michael was well and truly back. His steely mission composure had established itself and she knew that this was the only Michael she would know until Rene and Grace were safe.

She knew Michael would get them out, but that fact did not reassure her that Michael would come out with them. She also knew that if the mission demanded Michael’s life, then he would gladly give that life.....for Rene.

*********

They had arrived. Michael walked down the back ramp of the huge military transport following behind the big, black Chevy Suburban that they had used on the mission in Chile. It was dust-covered but in good condition otherwise. Walter was waiting at the bottom of the ramp with a truck full of equipment. He directed Carson, who was driving the Chevy to a water truck which had pulled up along side the cargo plane. Several enlisted men started to hose down the Suburban, giving it a thorough washing.

“Walter, we don’t have the time to do this...,” Michael said gruffly.

“Michael, since when does the FBI send in HRT teams in filthy vehicles?” Walter questioned. He walked up to Michael and, in a move that surprised everyone watching, put his arm around Michael’s shoulders and said to him quietly, “how are you holding up? I know how worried you are about Rene. I’m worried about him and Grace, too.”

Michael allowed Walter’s arm around his shoulders for a few seconds before he stepped away and started asking Walter about the profile for the mission. He talked quickly and Nikita watched Walter nod a few times, but then he started arguing about a point. Michael shook his head vigorously and apparently told Walter in no uncertain terms what he wanted. After a hard look to Michael, Walter sighed and nodded, shaking his head as if to say, I know you’re wrong, but I also know that I’m not going to change your mind. Walter glanced up at Nikita and met her eyes. He looked very worried.

Michael seemed to be in a hundred different places all at once. He was supervising every move in getting ready for the mission on the bank. The others were trying to be understanding, but his constant hovering and criticism was starting to grate on their nerves. Nikita could take it no longer and when Michael pulled Nikita’s gun out of her hand to field-strip it and clean it, she drew back her fist and punched him in the jaw. He sat down hard on the concrete of the runway behind the huge transport plane. Michael looked at Nikita as if she had gone mad and rubbed his jaw.

“What was that for,” he yelled, as he quickly scrambled to his feet. A smattering of applause greeted his return to eye level with Nikita. He looked around at the other operatives and saw grins on their faces, just before the grins disappeared from sight to be replaced by Nikita’s angry face.

“We are with you Michael and we know how to prepare for a mission. We do not need you in our faces telling or showing us how to do the job!” she yelled in his face. She almost faltered in her dressing down of Michael when she noticed how close she was to those wonderful jade green eyes of his, but she held firm her resolve to straighten Michael out. “NOW, I’m going to say a word and you are going to listen carefully and tell me if you understand this word. If you do understand it, we are going to climb into that vehicle over there and we are going to go get Rene and Grace. Okay?” she asked, still nose to nose with Michael.

“What’s the word?” he asked a self-deprecating smile growing on his face.

“FOCUS!!” Nikita shouted, “do you understand?”

“I understand,” Michael said, “let’s go.” With that said, Michael started for the black Suburban, which was now shining in the Texas sun, the doors gleaming with the newly painted letters, FBI, on each side. Several members of his team clapped him on the back as he climbed into the passenger side of the vehicle. They piled into the back. Walter drove toward the main gate of the airbase, his ponytail blowing in the wind. Carson followed behind in the truck that Walter had brought with him which was filled with enough supplies to carry out three missions. They were prepared for a small war.

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

The Chief of Police of the small city in which Rene and Grace lived paced back and forth behind the line of police cars parked across from the bank. He was feeling seriously inadequate in his job. Things had always been quiet here in his city and he was at a loss as to how to “fix” this situation. An instructor in one of his many law enforcement classes had once told him that you never say no to a hostage taker. He was trying to remember what else that long ago class on hostage negotiation had taught him. He remembered only that he had a problem with knowledge retention.

“Hey, Chief!” one of his men shouted at him to get his attention. “The FBI guys are here!”

“Well, let them through, Jake!!” he yelled back. Mentally sighing in relief, Chief Cowan exhaled deeply and walked over to greet the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team. His first thought as he looked this team over was that he was very glad that he wasn’t a hostage taker. His second thought was that he didn’t know that the FBI allowed so much hair on any of its agents. Also, the old guy getting out from behind the wheel of that monster black Suburban looked too old to be on anybody’s team. He looked like a refugee from the sixties or seventies.

The leader was a tall man, about six feet, he thought, and had the long hair on the top of his head pulled back in a ponytail. Nope, he thought to himself, I have never seen any FBI guys like these. Or FBI girls, he corrected himself as he watched the tall blond climb out of the back seat. She, like the others, was dressed in black combat gear from head to foot, which included thigh holsters filled with .45 automatics as well as small, deadly-looking machine guns.

Somehow, he didn’t think negotiation was their thing.

The leader walked up to him, introduced himself as Special Agent Michaels and started asking questions, and Chief Cowan looked into Michael’s eyes and shuddered because all he saw in those blank green eyes was death. He decided that Michael would get every ounce of his cooperation. He would do anything to keep those eyes on his side.

“My men will provide backup and will bring the hostages out when it is all over,” Michael told the Chief. “Keep your people and everyone else strictly out of our way. I wouldn’t want anyone getting hurt when this goes down. Do you understand me?” He stared at the Chief and watched the man struggle for control. Michael thought that this man was probably good at his job normally, but he was no good in a hostage situation and he knew enough to stay out of it and let the specialists handle things.

“You have my complete cooperation, Agent Michaels.” For some reason, the Chief felt like he should salute, but instead he turned from Michael and started to give orders to his men. Michael’s hand on his shoulder stopped him.

“Yes?”

“I was told that they released someone earlier today. May I speak with this person?’ Michael asked.

“Yes, that would be Elaine,” Chief Cowan answered. “We tried to get her to go home, but she said she couldn’t leave until she knew everyone was safe and out of there. Come with me.” He led Michael over to an ambulance and opened the back door.

“Did they hurt her?” Michael asked quickly, a chill going through him.

“No, Elaine is in her eighth month of pregnancy and the EMTs thought it best if she laid down and rested. Those madmen in there made her sit on that hard marble floor for hours before she was released. She said her back was killing her.” He held the door open for Michael so he could climb in and talk to Elaine.

“Hi, Elaine,” Michael said quietly. “How are you feeling?” He looked at the swell of her belly and closed his eyes, remembering how Simone had looked in her eighth month. Then he remember Nikita’s blue eyes staring into his and he remembered to FOCUS.

“I’m feeling okay,” Elaine said as she watched this quiet man in black staring at her midsection. She moved her hands protectively over her stomach and felt her baby shift position. For a reason that she could not recall later, she took his hand and put in on her stomach so he could feel her baby kick. He smiled and blinked back a glistening in his eyes, before looking at her face and whispering, “Thank you.”

“You have children?” she asked, wondering why he seemed so very sad.

“Yes, a son. He’s seven.” Michael took a deep breath and started to ask a question, but it didn’t make it out of his mouth.

“Mrs. King is inside the bank with her son. He’s seven also. I was sitting near them and I kept noticing that she was holding him tightly to her. I think she was trying to hide his face from the leader, Nick. He kept pacing back and forth in front of us, as if he enjoyed pointing his gun at us. I think it was an Uzi. Little Rene kept watching the man, staring at him really, as if he wanted to kill him. Mrs. King seemed terrified for her son.” She stopped talking and looked into Michael’s eyes. What are you thinking? You look as if you were a thousand miles away.”

“I was just thinking of my son, of what I would do if he were in so much danger. And also what a brave little boy Mrs. King’s son is.” Michael smiled at her again and began asking Elaine the location of the hostages inside the bank. He had a floorplan of the bank and he began filling in details as she answered his questions. At last he was finished. He had as much information as he was going to get from Elaine. He squeezed her hand as he got up to leave and thanked her for her help. He started to step out of the ambulance when Elaine grabbed on to his hand.

“I know,” she said.

“What?” Michael stiffened in her grasp. What did she know?

“I know what you would do if it was your son in there. You would do just what you are about to do now. You would go in there and get him out,” she said simply. “Wait, what is your name?” He told her. “Michael, Michaela, Michel, Michelle. I haven’t decided on a name for my baby yet, but I think I like your name. I have always wanted a child of mine named after a hero. And here I have one standing beside me holding my hand. Do you mind if I name my baby after you? ”

Michael struggled to maintain his control. He coughed, but the huskiness remained in his voice as he replied. “It would be an honor, but you don’t have to do that. I’m no hero.”

“Well, get used to the title, because in my heart, I know that you are a hero, a knight in shining armor.” She looked at the combat gear he wore and laughed, “Well, at least you are, at the moment, my favorite man in black!”

They both laughed as he climbed out of the ambulance and went to prepare for battle.

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

Up and down, up and down, gun pointed at a face, click. Up and down, up and down, pointed at a heart, click. Laughing, Nick continued terrifying us. The last click came as he pointed his gun at me and pulled the trigger. As before, there was a click because he was tormenting us by pulling the trigger on his gun with the safety engaged. He was a very funny guy, at least he thought he was. He thought that he was enormously funny. One person sitting on that marble floor didn’t think he was funny at all and he launched himself from my arms and tried to tackle Nick. Rene hit Nick at knee-height, remembering his football moves and lowering his shoulder to dive into the hit. I screamed his name and grabbed for him too late. He had always been fast and graceful on the field whenever he played football or soccer.

“You leave my mom alone,” he yelled.

Nick staggered under Rene’s assault, but did not fall. He took a few steps back and swung his right knee in Rene’s direction and his knee cap caught Rene high on the cheekbone and knocked him backwards into my arms.

“You stupid little bastard,” Nick shouted, “What did you think you would accomplish with that little display?” He laughed derisively and brought his gun up and pointed it at Rene.

I swung Rene and my body around so that I was shielding Rene and turning my back to Nick at the same time. “Noooo, please” I begged, hoping against hope that he would not take his frustration out on Rene and me.

I looked over my shoulder to see what he intended to do. “Hey, Nick,” the third man called out from the front door. “It looks like they are going to come through with the armored car. It’s out front.”

Nick turned from us and walked toward the man. No one had mentioned his name yet. I looked at him with grateful eyes, smiled and mouthed ‘Thank you’ at him for distracting Nick and saving Rene’s life. His eyes remained a study in coldness, but he acknowledged my thanks with an almost imperceptible nod of his head.

I relaxed and turned Rene in my arms to see what damage had been done. The skin was not broken, but the bruise was already forming and the swelling had started. David pulled his the handkerchief from his pocket and poured into it the ice that was not melted from the drinks that Elaine had brought in with the food. Several of the others poured their ice into David’s handkerchief and soon I was holding the improvised icepack to Rene’s cheek.

David patted Rene’s shoulder and said, “Young man, I think you are going to have a beaut of a shiner as your mark of bravery. And that was a very brave thing to do, Rene, but please don’t try it again. These men are very tense and the next time, they might not stop with just hurting you.”

“If my Daddy was here, Nick over there would be dead meat. He doesn’t scare me!” Rene stared at the three men who were huddled at the front door looking out.

Suddenly, everyone tensed and drew closer together. Nick had turned and was headed back towards us. He unhesitantly stomped over to Rene and I and stopped. He glared down at us and swiftly bent down and grabbed a fist full of Rene’s T-shirt. Effortlessly, he pulled Rene out of my arms and held him up in the air. When I started to get up and pull Rene back from him, he shoved me back hard. David grabbed my arm and told me to cool down, that I would only suceed in getting myself hurt and that wouldn't help anyone. I sat back down and watched.

Rene’s feet dangled in the air as he brought his fists up and began banging away at Nick’s arms.

“Let me go, let me go!!” he screamed. Nick jerked Rene’s head close to his mouth and whispered something roughly to Rene. Whatever it was caused Rene to cease all movement. I watched in horror as Nick grinned at Rene as he talked back to Nick.

“I’ll be quiet, but it’s only because you said you would hurt my Mom. But it doesn’t matter because you are going to be dead soon.” Rene said quietly as his green eyes seemed to pierce into Nick’s own eyes.

Nick gave an exaggerated shiver, and said to Rene, “OOOOO, now I am really scared.”

All Rene did was smile at Nick.

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

“Michael, whatever you are doing, STOP, stop now!” Walter’s voice made Michael freeze. Nikita stopped also, waiting for Walter to continue.

“The targets have changed position. One of them is coming out to check out the armored car that we moved into place.” Walter debated whether or not to tell Michael everything, but decided Michael would want to know. Walter’s next sentence caused Nikita to move up beside Michael in the darkness of the three foot crawlspace they were moving through. She put her hand on Michael’s shoulder and squeezed. Offering whatever support she could, as well as to try and keep Michael focused, which was something that was becoming harder and harder to do, given the circumstances of this day.

“Walter, tell me the rest!” Michael urged, not really wanting to hear it.

“Only one is coming out. He has a shield, Michael. It’s Rene. I’m sorry, Michael.” Walter sounded worried.

“How does he look?” Michael asked, preparing himself for the answer.

“Michael, he has grown so much since I saw him last. He’s growing up. I ....”

“Walter!” Michael shouted through the com-link, “How does he look! Have they hurt him?!”

“Michael, he looks okay, but he has the beginnings of a huge shiner. Looks like somebody punched him recently. The guy is holding him tight against his chest. There is no way we can get a clear shot.” Walter replied.

“Nobody tries for a shot!! Is that clear? We stay with the profile. Let them go back inside. We will wait until everybody is back in the position that the mission profile calls for. Okay?” Michael instructed. “Everybody got that?”

“Affirmative,” came the replies of the team members. Nikita felt Michael’s intensity under her fingers as her hand glided from Michael’s shoulder to his upper arm.

“You okay?” she whispered. She knew what he must be feeling at this moment and wished that there was something more she could do for him.

“I’m fine,” he told her, while looking down at his hand-held infrared detector. The readout displayed for him an infrared image of the bodies down below them in the bank. There was a huddle of about 15 bodies huddled together and across the lobby, for more spots of body heat was detected. Two of the spots were very close together with two more on either side of the pair.

“Michael,” Walter was back on the com-link. “Rene saw me. I am pretty sure he recognized me. He smiled, Michael. The little guy is a real trooper. I don’t know that I would be smiling in his situation.”

Michael and Nikita could both hear the pride in Walter’s voice.

“See, Michael, he’s okay.” Nikita whispered to Michael, while wiping a tear from her cheek. “Like father, like son.”

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

Crying in relief, I watched as Nick lowered Rene to the floor as he came back inside the bank from checking out the armored car. As soon as Rene’s feet touched the floor, he bolted from Nick’s arms and sprinted across the bank lobby and buried himself in my arms.

“Mom,” he whispered desperately into my ears as I clutched at him.

“Mom, Daddy’s here!! He’s here!! I saw Uncle Walter outside, so Daddy must be here, right?” Hope flared in my heart, but I controlled my response to Rene’s words.

“Rene, if Uncle Walter is here, then perhaps your Daddy is here also. You didn’t see him outside?” He shook his head, but said again, “he’s here.”

“Then let’s keep it a big secret. We don’t want the dragons to know that the dragonslayer is here, do we?” Rene looked up at me with huge eyes and shook his head slowly from side to side. That calmed him and he snuggled closely into my grasp, and smiled Michael’s secret smile.

Things were definitely looking up.

Speaking of looking up, I raised my eyes to the ceiling above us. I thought I heard a brief shuffling there. I wondered......

*************** Unbeknownst to us, in the crawlspace above, Michael and Nikita were getting ready to move.

“Walter, we are in position and ready to go. Do you read?” Michael said, starting the sequence.

“Got you, Michael. I’ll set off the diversion on your mark.” Walter confirmed. Every team member tensed, in anticipation of their part in the mission. No one wanted to fail Michael. This was too important. Michael’s team was ready.

He checked the infrared sensor once more, seeing the cluster of hostages below and the three solitary glowing spots standing away from the hostages at the front of the bank. It was impossible to tell if they were watching the hostages or facing the front. For his and Nikita’s sakes, he hoped they were facing the front of the bank. It was Walter’s job to make sure that they watched the front windows for as long as possible.

Michael turned to Nikita and pulled a winch and automatic pulley from her backpack and started setting it up. She in turn, pulled Michael’s pack off of his back as he released the straps that held it to his body. From it, she took a coil of nylon rope and two harnesses, one for Michael and one child-sized for Rene. When Michael had the pulley attached to the steel beam above their heads, Nikita hooked the rope to it and finished assembling the winch that would lower Michael into the bank and which would also pull Rene up to Nikita and safety. Michael checked his weapons. He carried two .45 automatics, one in a thigh holster and another inside his jacket in a under-the-arm holster. He would carry a small machine gun secured to him by a leather strap around his back that would keep the gun ready for his hands when needed and would preclude his dropping it in a struggle. Michael hoped that it would not come to a struggle.

Nikita had the same armaments at Michael. Her job was to get Rene up to her position as fast as possible and make sure he was shielded from any gunfire should there be any. If they were lucky, there would be no gunfire aimed at them. If there was gunfire, Nikita was prepared to shield Rene with her body and the heavy tiles of the ceiling would help. Anything for Michael and Rene, she told herself.

Michael strapped himself into the harness and hooked his arm through Rene’s harness and he was ready. He looked at Nikita and nodded his readiness. She returned his gaze and ran the fingers of one hand over his lips and smiled. “Good luck.” she said and moved out of his way. Michael used his prybar as quietly as possible. Slowly, very slowly, he pried the ceiling tile out of its place in the metal framework. The tiles were recessed up into the ceiling, so one had to be almost directly under the panels to see the actual tiles. Michael counted on this design to aid in the rescue attempt.

He silently lifted the tile and laid it aside to give him access below. As he looked down through the opening, he saw something dear to his heart. He saw Rene staring up at him with wide-open eyes. He watched as Rene pulled on Grace’s jacket and in a tiny movement opened the fist that clutched at her jacket lapel, uncurled his index finger to point upwards. The three of them exchanged smiles. Michael put his index finger to his lips and Rene nodded. Grace nervously pulled her eyes from Michael and turned them to the front of the bank. She glanced back at Michael and nodded, assuring him that the three men were facing away from the hostages.

Michael closed his eyes for a few seconds, opened them again to fix them on the spot on the lobby floor where he wanted to land with this rubber soled shoes, signaled Walter to set off the diversion, waited for the sound of the resulting explosion and slipped through the hole in the ceiling.

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

Michael felt the winch brake a split-second before his feet touched the floor. He grabbed Rene in a tight hug as the little boy stood and jumped into his father’s embrace, but Michael quickly pulled Rene’s arms from around his neck and motioned for him to step into the harness he was holding. Rene did what his father showed him to do. Michael raised Rene into the air and Nikita worked the winch which swiftly and silently lifted Rene through the hole in the ceiling.

The hostages watched this scene in shock. It was as if Michael had just materialized in front of them in a blaze of glory because the flash of the armored car exploding out in front of the bank had startled and temporarily blinded them. When they opened their eyes, there stood Michael, guardian angel extraordinaire. Not one of them made a sound.

He motioned them all to lie down flat on the floor, then turned to confront the three would-be bank robbers. The explosion of the armored car out in front of the bank had greatly surprised and momentarily stunned the three men. They had been peppered with shards of safety glass from the glass front of the bank as the glass shattered inward. Before they could turn, Michael started firing at them, swinging his gun in a swathing motion from left to right. He quickly emptied the magazine in his gun, let go of it and reached to his thigh for that gun. Two men were down and would not get up again. The third man, Nick, dove behind a marble customer counter in the middle of the lobby.

Before Michael could bring his .45 up to target him, Nick stood quickly and emptied his own magazine at Michael. All of the bullets hit Michael squarely in the center of his chest. The impact of the bullets hitting him propelled him off of his feet and back into the hard marble counter. The hostages screamed and flattened themselves into the floor, as if seeking to melt into its shiny surface.

Grace watched in indescribable horror as Michael hit the marble counter, his head smashing into the hard marble with a sickening thud. He fell to the shiny floor and lay still, much too still.

***********

I saw Michael lying on the floor of the bank and I scrambled over to him on my knees. As I crawled to him and knelt by his still form, I became aware of a high-pitched keening wail coming from somewhere above my head.

“Oh, God,” I breathed, and looked up. I had a fleeting glance of Nikita’s anguished face in the hole in the ceiling. Her hand reached out to cover Rene’s mouth as she pulled my screaming son away from the sight before his eyes. I shut my eyes tightly and then forced them open. My son, Michael’s son, had just seen his father shot down in front of him.

Can’t think of Rene now, have to help Michael, if I can. I bent over him and ripped open his jacket unprepared for what I expected to see. What I actually saw surprised me. There was no blood, but embedded in the kevlar vest that Michael was wearing, I counted 8. 9, 10, 12 smashed bullets. Not reassured by the absence of blood, I found and pulled loose one of the Velcro fasteners that held the vest in place.

Carefully, I ran my hand up under the vest and found no sticky wetness between his sweater and his warm skin. What I did feel were ribs that bent where they should not bend, so the vest had stopped the bullets, but the impact of Nick’s bullets had broken and bruised Michael’s ribs. I thought that his sternum was also cracked, but his heart still beat a steady rhythm under my hand. I refastened the Velcro and noticed as I pulled his jacket back over his vest the grip of a very large gun. Its mate lay about six feet away where it had fallen when Michael had been shot.

A voice startled me and I looked to its source and saw Michael’s green eyes blinking rapidly as he struggled to focus on my face and keep from surrendering to the darkness hovering on the edges of his consciousness. He was saying something about Walter.

“Got to thank Walter. He....made....improvements to the....vest.” Michael spoke each word in pain, so I put my hand over his mouth.

“Be quiet. There will be time for thanks later.” I told him, watching as the pool of blood under Michael’s head grow outward like a red halo.

“I don’t....think so, Grace. Tell Rene.....tell Rene....that I will....always love him.” He closed his eyes to gain composure and a respite from the pain for a moment and then looked over my shoulder at something, at someone.

“Is he coming?” I asked.

Michael nodded weakly and put his hand out, but we both knew his gun was too far away, and the machine gun was empty, and in any case, it was laying half under Michael and was inaccessible. He slowly put his hand inside his jacket. A puzzled look crossed his face as he pushed his hand further inside his jacket, grimacing in pain as he put too much pressure on his chest as he searched for the other gun. When he looked back at me, his eyes widened in shock as he saw what I held tightly to my chest.

“Grace, no, please!” he begged as he also called out to Walter before losing the struggle with the darkness. “Diversion, Walter, another diversion now!” Then he closed his eyes and his face fell to the right into the pool of blood, staining his cheek red.

I heard Nick’s voice behind me. “Get out of my way, I’m going to finish this guy.”

As he said this, we both heard the roar of a truck engine and a screech of tires. Nick turned to see what was happening. I turned also, letting the noise of the big, black Suburban cover the noise created by the slide on the gun as I chambered a bullet and flicked off the safety.

When Nick glanced back at Michael and I on the floor, the last thing he ever saw was the .45 pointed at his head. I squeezed the trigger and held it until all I heard were the clicks that signified an empty clip.

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

I felt like I was in a daze. I heard a metallic clatter as the gun fell from my hand, and I turned back to look at Michael. Saw blurs of color as men in black ushered the hostages out of the bank. Felt warm stickiness on my hands and smelled the iron smell of the blood on Michael and now on me. I pulled David’s handkerchief out of my pocket and tried to stop the bleeding from the wound on the back of Michael’s head where he had hit the marble counter. Hugged Michael who I had somehow pulled into my arms and I felt myself rocking him back and forth, back and forth. Heard Rene’s muffled voice screaming from somewhere overhead, “I want my Daddy and my Mom. Let me go. LET ME GO!”

Looked up and saw him struggling with Nikita, trying to pull himself away from her, saw him falling...

No, no, not Rene too!! I thought, but then I saw that he wasn’t falling. He was coming down on a rope and Nikita was following him down. A big man with blond hair caught Rene and was talking to him as Rene squirmed around trying to jump out of the big man’s grasp. Rene finally started to listen to the man who said his name was Carson. Rene calmed down and held on to Carson as Carson carried Rene to a place across the room, away from the carnage and the blood.

I felt hands pulling at my hands which were holding onto Michael’s jacket, pulling at Michael, trying to take him from my arms. “Please,” I pleaded, “he’s hurt. Can you help him?” I looked up into two sets of blue eyes, one a faded blue and the other, ocean blue. I know those eyes, I thought. Slowly, I untangled my fingers from the jacket and let other hands take Michael away.

“Gracie, we will help Michael. Let’s let medical work on him,” an old familiar voice told me, as old familiar arms went around me and held me. “He’ll be okay, Gracie, Michael will be okay.”

Things finally started coming back into focus for me. I looked around and all of the hostages were gone. I saw the men in black combat gear like Michael’s standing guard across the ruined front of the bank.

Realized that the familiar arms holding me belonged to Walter. Finally, knowing that maybe things were going to be okay, I collapsed into those arms and cried in relief.

“Rene!” I sat up and pulled out of Walter’s arms and shouted, “Where is Rene?!

“Gracie,” Walter’s voice tried to calm me, “Rene is just fine. He’s with Carson, learning the finer points of how to field strip a .45 and put it back together. He says he likes puzzles. Gracie, if I didn’t know better, I could have sworn I taught you how to shoot. Where did you learn how to put all your shots within a six inch diameter?”

“A man named Sam and lots of target practice. I thought that I might have to defend Rene and myself one day, so I wanted to be prepared.” I laughed, “Guess that was the best money I ever spent.” Walter and Nikita laughed with me. I was beginning to feel better. “how is Michael? I want to see him and Rene.” I tried to stand on my own, but was relieved when two sets of hands pulled me up. My clothes were a mess, I was covered in Michael’s blood. “Are you sure Michael is all right?”

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

“Grace, you can see for yourself in a few minutes. He’s not going to be feeling good for a while, but he will be okay,” Nikita assured me, “but first let’s find a restroom and get you cleaned up. She took my arm and led me away from Walter who had just handed her a plastic bag with something black inside.

As I walked through the restroom door, I came face to face with the horrors of my eventful Friday afternoon in the reflection of a full-length mirror. I would never wear my favorite jacket again, nor the blouse, nor the khaki pants. They were heavily stained and becoming stiff with what was now turning a rusty dark red color as the blood dried.

My hands, which had once been slick with Michael’s blood, were now dry and itchy. I rushed over to the marble sink and turned on the water full blast and began scrubbing my hands. Red water swirled down the drain. I was losing it again. My knees felt like they were going to buckle, and I wanted to cry. For me, for Rene and for Michael.

Nikita had dragged a chair over and gently pushed me into it. “Grace, I know it’s hard, the first time you....kill. I know what you are feeling. I’ve been there. In fact, we are a lot alike. The first time I killed was to save Michael’s life, just like you did. Don’t let it haunt you. It will only make you crazy. You have to move on, and get on with your life. Don’t make the mistakes I made.”

“Nikita, the problem is that I don’t feel anything about what I did. If I had to do it over again, I would shoot that bastard again.” Were these words coming out of my mouth? Me, the life-long pacifist, supporter of liberal causes, was this me saying these things? Yes, I thought, this was me. After all, hadn’t I made the decision to learn to use a gun? Hadn’t I spent hours during the day when Rene was in school practicing my shooting until Sam had come over to me to tell me I was using up too many of his paper targets? This was me, Grace King, and I was okay with who I was. Because I knew that if anyone hurt the people I loved, their lives would be worthless. I felt no guilt in what I had done. What I was feeling was gratitude that both Rene and his father were still among the living.

I smiled up at Nikita. “Would you happen to have something I could put on? I don’t want Rene to see me like this.” I watched as Nikita tore open the bag she had in her hand.

“Want to masquerade as a member of the Hostage Rescue Team? I think you have earned the honor.” She shook out the garment she held and I could see it was a black jumpsuit with the letters, HRT, in gold emblazoned across the back.

“Oh, Rene will love this, and will want a set of his own. But then, I don’t suppose the government would have his size, now would they?” We laughed and I started to pull off my blood-stiffened clothing.

When Nikita and I walked out of the restroom, I noticed that the bodies of the three failed bank robbers and the security guard had been zipped into black body bags and moved to the front of the bank. I could also see that outside, dusk was approaching and the bright lights of news crews were illuminating the crowd gathered in the front of the bank. They were pressing forward, many of them craning their necks to try for a better view inside.

‘Where’s Rene?” I asked of the men I could see gathered at the front of the black Suburban, “and where is Michael? First Rene and then Michael.”

The group of men stepped back and my little angel, Rene came running toward me, an oversized black cap on his head with the same letters as on the back of my jumpsuit. I swept him up in my arms and hugged him tightly, until he squeaked in a little voice that Moms across America recognize, the voice that somehow elongated the one syllable word, mom, into a three syllable word, “Mom....” My baby was growing up. Soon, I knew I would no longer be able to kiss him in public. But I did give him a final bear hug, and asked him how he felt.

“They won’t let me see Daddy. I know he was hurt. I saw it and now I want to see him. I have to!!” He demanded. I felt the same way. I also wanted to see Michael. I had to assure myself he would survive. I walked toward the van still holding Rene in my arms. Nikita followed behind me. Men began to step out of my way.

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

I walked through the gauntlet as the men parted to allow me access to the Suburban. At the end of the gauntlet, I found Walter. He stood in front of the door to the vehicle as if to bar my way. Does he really think he is going to stop me from seeing Michael, I thought.

“Get out of my way, Walter,” I told him. “I want to see Michael. Rene needs to see Michael, Walter. Get out of my way!”

“Gracie, you can see him, but he’s in a lot of pain. I don’t think Rene needs to see him like that. Leave him out here.” Walter said. I looked at Rene, and could see huge tears of fear welling in his green eyes. He was afraid that he would never see his father again. He had seen Michael hit by a madman’s bullets numerous times, had seen him smashed against the marble counter, and had seen him lying in a pool of his own blood. Whatever Michael’s condition, Rene needed to reassured that his father would live because after today, we just didn’t know how long it would be before his next visit. And I would not allow Rene to not know how his father was.

“Walter, you know as well as I do that Rene has to see Michael. The not knowing will terrify him and I just won’t have that for Rene. Now, get out of my way.” Walter stood his ground for a few long seconds and then stepped aside as he opened the door. I could see Michael and Rene could as well. He looked at his father and then he looked at me. I sat him down on the running board of the truck and knelt beside him.

“Rene, this is very important, so listen carefully. Your Daddy was hurt very badly, but he is going to be all right. You must remember this. He is going to look very sick to you, but that is because he is in a lot of pain. They have given him medicine to make him better and take away the pain, but it may not be working yet. There are lots of tubes and equipment on and around your Daddy, but these things are there to help him get better. I’m telling you this so that you won’t be so scared. Okay?” Rene nodded, his eyes huge in his handsome face. “I know you will want to hug him, but be very careful because he was hurt in his chest and on his head. Do you understand?” I asked and saw that he did. He was trying to hold back his tears, but they were threatening to explode from his eyes. He was such a brave little boy.

I took his hand and we stepped up into the Suburban. Michael was laying on a stretcher that had been commandeered from one of our local ambulances, judging from the logo on the side of the stretcher. There were IV lines taped to the back of his left hand that rested on his stomach. Bags of clear solution as well as a bag of what looked like blood hung from an improvised IV pole on the far side of the stretcher. A clean white sheet was pulled up to his waist and above it, the medic had wrapped tight bandages around his torso from his waist to just below his pectoral muscles. Dark bruising stood out on the skin of his chest as it rose and fell with each breath that he took.

Rene and I both looked at Michael’s face....and smiled. Michael was staring back at us, dark circles under his frosty green eyes. “I couldn’t leave the two of you just yet, could I. I’ll be fine.” I heard a sob from the door of the truck and looked over to see Nikita crying into Walter’s shoulder. He looked bewildered, but put his arm around her and held her close, patting her shoulder and murmuring to her.

Rene moved out of my arms and bent over Michael to kiss him on his cheek. His hand on Michael’s chest caused an involuntary gasp to erupt from Michael’s mouth and Rene jumped back.

“I’m sorry Daddy, I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry!!” The threatening tears spilled over his eyelids and fell down his cheeks.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Michael reached for Rene’s hand and pulled him closer.

“Rene, that was the sweetest pain I could have had, because it means that I am alive to feel it. Don’t ever be sorry for that. I love you so much Rene.” Michael gave Rene a one-armed hug and as I saw the pain shining from Michael’s eyes, he looked at me and said, “I love you, too, Grace. Thank you for loving Rene so much.” And the tears started falling down my cheeks as well.

What a picture we must have made! All of us overjoyed that Michael would heal and be well again, and all of us crying our eyes out. Ain’t life grand!