A very-frustrated Gumball was pacing the floor of his Osprey. "What is with you?" he said to the communications array, in response to the static that continued to grease the air. "For two full days I've been trying to get through to dad, and you --" He pointed accusingly at the array. "-- haven't let me get through. Now, let's try it one ... more ... time."
He entered commands and sent it again.
There was silence for a few moments. Then: "Clark! Clark! Is that you, son?"
"My God, it worked!" He looked up at the ceiling. "Thanks!"
Adjusting a couple of controls, he improved the strength of the signal. "Yes, dad! Can you hear me?"
There was a whoop. "My God, boy, am I glad to hear from you! Is everybody okay?"
"Yes, dad, we're fine. We're all fine." He paused. "Mission accomplished. The gold flow is restored."
"Thank God. Who was behind it all?"
"Just like you figured ... it was Pat."
There was an unusual pause. "It couldn't be."
"Son, there was a story on the news. Pat was kidnaped by that Apex group. She's being held for ransom -- right now!"
Gumball gambled. "Did they mention anything about a Jillian Woodward?"
"Yeah -- they said she's the mastermind." He paused, and his voice was low. "Son, how'd you know her name? It was only in the news yesterday."
He grinned. "Are you sitting down, dad?"
"Yeah," he replied dubiously.
"Well, they're all here. Pat's here, Woodward's here, and Apex is here. Everyone."
"Son, I know you're not one to lie to me. You remember the last time you did."
"Dad, I'm not joking. If I understand things correctly, Pat came here first, to cut off the gold and bring us here -- just like we figured. Then while we were in Florida, Woodward and Apex came sweeping in and took over the place. We got here after that. But now it's all over."
"Amazing, son! So is everybody okay?"
"Amy got bruised up from a grenade blast; she's sore but doing great. But there were casualties before we got done."
Monk paused, then asked in a low voice, "Who?"
"Queen Monja. It looks like Pat gave her some of that youth-stuff, and it aggravated an existing heart problem, like Long Tom's. She's gone, dad."
Monk groaned. "Oh, God! How's Doc taking things?"
"Better, now. I'll explain it more to you later. Right now, it looks like Pat's turned over a whole new leaf, and she's made peace with Apex. Since yesterday, we've all been working together to repair the damage to the village. It's amazing, dad! Really amazing!"
"Okay!" There was a pause. "Son, I need to talk to Doc as soon as possible! We've got a situation brewing on the homefront that he needs to know about!"
"Sure, dad! Hold on!"
In his Oklahoma home, Monk Mayfair took a deep breath and uttered a private profanity. Then he reached for the cordless phone and his address book. A minute later he had his connection.
"Karleen speaking," answered a young female voice.
"Karli? Monk Mayfair."
"Hiya Monk! How's tricks?"
"Not bad. I've been kinda on the mend lately. Busted my ankle inna freak salsa accident."
"Only you, Mayfair. So what can I do for ya?"
"You're quick, Karli. Remember that story you did about the Savage kidnaping?"
"Yeah. Got picked up by CNN."
"Terrific! I'm prouda'ya!" He braced himself, then played his hand. "I need access to it, and quick!"
"I got a friend that might be able to help."
"Who?" she asked curiously.
"Woah there, ducky! You're the one always spoutin' about 'confidential sources', right? Well, this one might be a dead end, but they missed the headlines when they first came out. That's why I thought of you. Your story was first rate."
"Yeah ... but I don't know ..."
"Karli, who got'cha that exclusive footage of the demolition of the College, huh? That piece's been seen all over the place, from what I hear. So I figure you may owe me one, kid."
There was silence on the other end. "You're a dog, Monk."
"Yeah, but ya love me anyhow. So how soon can you get your hands on it?"
"It's in the library. I could zip you off a copy and overnight it to you ..."
"Actually," interrupted Monk. "I was thinking of something a little sooner. Can you rig up a direct computer feed, like, within an hour?"
She thought. "It's that important?"
Monk's voice lowered. "Karleen. If this is as important as I think, you have my word that you'll get a BIG piece of the action. Now, can you do it?"
She paused. "I can give it a try. Let me check a few things and get back to you."
"Deal." His ear detected a voice from the cell phone. He quickly picked it up and said, "Yeah, I'm here -- hang on a second!"
Returning to the cordless, he said, "I'll keep the phone close. I really appreciate this."
"Save it, Monk. You haven't gotten your feed yet. Later."
She hung up the phone. Monk set it down and picked up the cell.
Clark and Gumball stood next to the communications array. "Monk, are you there?"
"Yeah, I'm here -- hang on a second!"
There was silence for a couple of minutes, then: "Doc, I think we got us a blockbuster!"
"Gumball started to tell me about it. What is it?"
He told him. Clark's expression didn't give away the thoughts inside. When Monk had finished, Clark said, "Very good, brother. We will assemble here in an hour. Will that give you enough time?"
"I hope so." He paused.
"There's more," sensed Clark.
"Yeah. Gumball said Patty's changed. Has she?" There was concern and compassion in his voice.
Clark smiled broadly. "Yes, Monk. Short of accepting Christ, she's a whole new person."
There was a sound on the other end. It almost sounded like a weary sob. Clark smiled again. A few moments later, Monk said, "Thanks. Let's keep this line open."
The passenger compartment of the Blue Thunder felt like a waiting lounge.
All of us were there, some standing, some seated. Since Amy was still on the mend, she took one of the chairs; Dot stood nearby. Gumball hung close to the communications array, as did Clark. I stayed offside but close enough to hear. Pat was standing near Clark, curious as to the reason for the gathering. Jill Woodward and King Mordecai were the last two to arrive, within a minute of each other. Clark greeted Mordecai and moved to the array.
"Monk, are you there?" he asked. "How is our reception?"
"Excellent," came the voice from several speakers in the Osprey. "I think our previous problems have cleared up."
"Everyone is here, and the sound system is working. You should be able to hear them clearly."
"Good," replied the simian chemist. "Patty -- you out there?"
Pat leaned in a bit. "Yes, Monk."
His tone softened. "It's good to hear your voice, Patty. You okay?"
She was hesitant. "Yes," she finally answered. "I'm -- I'm sorry, Monk. Can you forgive me?"
There was silence, but those of us who knew the man could picture him dabbing at moist eyes, his throat choked with joy. "Of course I do, Patty. Of course I do."
"Mayfair? What's goin' on?" spoke Woodward impatiently. "Clark said it included me and my group."
"You must be Doctor Jillian Woodward. Hiya, Doc!" He paused. "Okay, I'm gonna step aside and let this story speak for itself. Just so you'll know I'm on the level, the lady you'll see is a friend of mine in New York. She's straight, and this story made the networks. Everybody ready? I hope you're sittin' down, though. Beginning data feed in three ... two ..."
The video screen on the communications array came to life. Mordecai was fascinated with the technology, never having seen it before. Clark noticed his curiosity and lack of fear. On the screen, a professional-looking blonde anchorwoman looked out at the audience. "Today's top story -- cosmetics leader Penelope Savage has been kidnaped by terrorists. For more, we take you to Karleen Bush on Caroline Island."
They switched to the reporter, a dark-haired young woman with a hand-held microphone. Behind where she stood, Pat recognized familiar features of her island and felt homesick.
"I'm speaking from Caroline Island, home of cosmetics matriarch Patricia Savage. Earlier today, in a press briefing, Acting Director Daniel Franklin announced the shocking news."
"Acting Director?" exclaimed Pat, doing a double-take. She didn't notice Jillian Woodward's brows furrowing.
The scene switched to another location on the island. The immaculately-dressed Franklin had walked up to a row of microphones on a hastily-assembled podium, and raised his hands for silence. Reading from a printed statement, he said, "Two days ago, while on a flight from here to Central America, the private plane containing Penelope Savage, her pilot and co-pilot, and two passengers, vanished from radar screens. Yesterday, we received a communication from the group calling itself Apex, asking for one billion dollars ransom for the safe return of Ms. Penelope and her party."
"WHAT?" exclaimed Woodward, bolting closer to the screen until she was side-by-side with Pat.
Franklin paused as the crowd reacted with mumbled exchanges, then continued. "I regret to announce that Ms. Patricia has ... chosen not to pay the ransom for her daughter's return -"
"That little WEASEL!" exploded Pat. "He's pretending that I'm there!"
"Ms. Patricia has appointed me as Acting Director of Patricia, Inc. until such a time as Ms. Penelope returns, or another Director is appointed. She is presently in seclusion here, in her home, praying for the safe return of her only daughter."
Pat released an angry scream that most of us saw coming.
"As of yesterday morning, we have turned over all evidence to Interpol, including a piece of information tying the group Apex to Dr. Jillian Woodward, a disgruntled former employee of Patricia, Inc."
"WHAT!" Woodward's jaw went slack and her eyes grew as big as saucers. A moment later her anger detonated in a string of profanities of thermonuclear proportions.
He lowered the paper and faced the cameras. " That's the end of the official statement. I am personally grieved by this whole matter, and ask for your thoughts and prayers for Ms. Penelope's safe return. Thank you all for coming."
The reporters tried firing a few questions, but the black man ignored them and walked away from the podium.
There were a few final words from Karleen Bush on the story before the screen went dark, but none of us heard them. There was a greater show right where we were, as both Pat and Woodward proceeded to verbally -- yet individually -- crucify Daniel Franklin. It was obvious that there was more behind this than met the eye.
I leaned in and whispered to Clark, "I thought I'd heard it all, but they're using language that would put most biker gangs to shame." He nodded.
The stereophonic tirade continued for several seconds, until, without warning, the same phrase was spoken simultaneously by both women: "And to think, I slept with that horny toad!"
Everyone froze as if the compartment had suddenly been filled with liquid nitrogen. The silence was shocking.
Pat and Woodward looked at each other with expressions of horror and shock. Then as if they possessed one tongue, they blurted out, "YOU?"
Woodward started to say something more, but Pat held up a hand to still her. "I think you and I ought to have a little talk. Shall we?" She gestured for the exit. Woodward nodded and started out of the Osprey. Pat followed, stopping just long enough to look back at the communications array and say, "Monk? I owe you big time! I'll get back to you! Thanks!"
"Anytime, Patty," came the voice through the speakers.
Clark watched from the doorway while the rest of us recovered from the past few minutes' revelation. Then he returned to the array and announced, "Okay, Monk -- they're clear."
Monk let out a relieved whoosh of air and said, "Y'know, I don't know alla what went on with this Franklin bozo, but I sure hope he's got his life insurance paid up."
"Amen," echoed several voices.
King Mordecai was talking with Gumball, and Dot was talking with Amy. Clark was standing outside the aircraft, a pair of powerful binoculars to his eyes.
I walked over and looked in the direction he was facing. Then I said quietly, "You're reading their lips. What's the scoop?"
Without lowering the binoculars, he said, "Well, most of their conversation is predictably unrepeatable, but I believe I have the gist of the matter." He paused. "It appears that this Franklin fellow is -- was -- Pat's personal advisor."
"Emphasis on the 'personal,' I assume," I quipped.
"Indeed. He was also Woodward's ... paramour." He paused. "Apparently he manipulated both of them in order to gain the upper hand with Pat's company."
"And Franklin waited until they were both out of the country to make his public statement." I paused, and grinned. "Y'know, it may sound strange, but I praise God that Monk busted his ankle. If he hadn't, he'd be with us, here, and there'd be no one home to see the news broadcast, let alone have the connections to be able to send it to us."
"Yes." He lowered the binoculars. "They've put aside their differences in order to deal with their common foe, Daniel Franklin."
"God, help him," I voiced, seriously. "He'll need it."
Near the village, Woodward called her people together. Others gathered with varying suspicion to hear what the woman had to say.
"Ladies," she started. "Let me first say that I've never been more proud of you than I am now. We came here with a goal, and this day we have ACHIEVED that goal!"
There was a cheer among the camouflage-clad cadre.
"But now we must press on. We ... are ... needed, by no less than Patricia Savage herself." She paused. "She has given her word to me, as she has apologized for her actions to you, that changes will be made, that NO MORE ATROCITIES will be allowed by her company -- EVER!"
Another round of cheering.
"However, there is something that stands in our way -- another who has taken over the reins of control in her company. He is a slimy little weasel, and we're going to need to get him out of the way if we intend to truly succeed." She paused. "We need your help to deal with him, otherwise all that we have accomplished will have been done in vain ... including the deaths of our fellow sisters." She paused again, standing ramrod-straight, a fire in her eyes. The air around her was electrified. "I have fought a good fight against Patricia Savage. And now I choose to fight at her side."
She paused, then yelled, "WHO IS WITH ME?"
Bonnie Clayton stepped forward first, followed by the hooded Jodie Sims and several others. In moments, the entire crowd had shifted around Woodward.
We stood a short distance away, observing the display.
"She's certainly got style," commented Dot.
"Agreed. She is quite charismatic," added Clark.
"Doc?" asked Pat, standing next to her cousin. "Will you help me also?"
"Of course," he responded, meeting her gaze. "I am surprised that you doubted."
Then he gave her a large, tender hug. In his arms, she commented, "You never used to be a hugger. But I like this side of the new you."
"And I praise God for you," he whispered.
With the new goal before us, everyone got busy.
After a discussion among the pilots, it was decided that Gumball would coordinate the combined fleet of airplanes and helicopters, making sure everyone would get out of the Valley safely. He discovered that Alana was a Grade-A mechanic as well as a good pilot, and they had things running at optimum capacity in a short time.
Once King Mordecai spoke to the people of the Valley and enlisted their aid, the damages were repaired before the end of the day, as Mayan worked side-by-side with the women of Apex.
Clark, Pat, and Woodward mapped out their strategy for taking back the company. Monk, working with Mitch Drake, acted as liaison between the Valley and the outside world. While they were waiting for Monk, they pitched in with the repair work on the village.
It was still a couple of hours before the sun would set over the Valley, and Pat was carrying debris to a dump site outside of the village. Her clothes were torn and dirty, and she'd gotten scratched in several places not worth mentioning. But, somehow she couldn't understand, she felt cleaner inside. Alone at the site, she tossed the debris onto the pile, then suddenly heard an unfamiliar voice behind her.
She obeyed, then slowly turned to face the speaker. It was one of Woodward's people, pointing a small twin-shot pistol at her from about twenty feet away. It didn't take an expert to know that, at that range, the small weapon was a deadly one.
"What do you want?" she asked.
"Want? Oh, I want you. My name is Deuce Robinson. Sound familiar?" By the tone of her voice and the expressions crossing her face, it was obvious that she was not a stable person.
Pat ran the name through her memory. "You're Ace Robinson's sister."
The woman gave an odd lop-sided smile. "Very good. You and Ace used to be an item."
"I remember. How is he?"
Her voice went stone cold. "He's dead. After you ... threw him away like an empty beer bottle ... he committed suicide. And that's why I'm here, to even up the score."
Inside she groaned, wondering if she would ever get past all the people who apparently wanted her dead. Then she chose to bluff. "This is a small Valley. You'll never get away. Do you want that?"
Deuce coughed up a bitter laugh. "Do you think that matters to me? This gun has two shots. The first one is for you. The second is for me." Her smile was pure psycho. "I'm going to be with my brother."
Pat's eyes glanced around, but there was no place for cover. She could grab something from the debris pile for a shield or a weapon, but not before Deuce would fire.
"Oh, please do something stupid! I want you to be afraid, very afraid!"
Suddenly another voice broke in. "Fear is not an option."
From one side, Dot Liston casually walked into the clearing. Deuce's aim never wavered from Pat, but her eyes darted back and forth between the two women. Without hesitation, Dot stood in front of Pat, directly between the shooter and the intended target.
"Get out of my way!" warned Deuce. "I don't want you, I want her!"
"I won't let you," announced Dot defiantly.
"Get out of the way!"
"No," repeated Dot firmly. "Everybody deserves a second chance -- even her."
"No! This gun has two bullets! I can kill you both!"
Pat leaned closer to Dot. "Don't do this because of me, Dot!"
The brunette turned her head back, and whispered, "Go left on three!"
"Huh?" muttered Pat.
"Go left on three," she repeated, then faced forward. "Deuce. Doing this won't bring back your brother. Neither will killing yourself." She paused and shifted her weight. "Now I'm going to count to three, then I'm going to come over there and take your gun away." She paused again. "One."
Deuce's face mirrored confusion. "Are you crazy, lady? I've been practicing, and I'll kill you before you take two steps!"
Dot just grinned. "Take your best shot. Two."
Deuce took the pistol in both hands and leveled it at Dot's heart. At that distance, no one doubted its accuracy or effectiveness.
"Three!" exclaimed Dot, darting to the right as Pat darted to the left.
Deuce was momentarily distracted, moving her gun back and forth. Then she tracked on Pat and took aim. But before she could fire, a rock flew like a bullet from offside and smashed into her arm, causing the pistol to fly from her hands. Taking the cue from the yell of pain, Dot changed directions like a heat-seeking missile and plowed head-first into Deuce's midsection, causing them both to topple to the ground. A moment later, Dot straddled the other woman's torso, delivering a decisive punch to Deuce's jaw and defusing the threat.
Clark, Woodward, and I rushed into the clearing. As Clark went to assist Pat, I moved to my wife's side, helping her up and holding her close.
With a look of sadness and disgust at the actions of one of her own people, Woodward picked up the pistol, then walked over and handed it to Pat. "I am sorry," she said with heaviness and regret. "I had no idea."
"Nor did I," replied Pat. "But that was a long time ago, and I don't think she knew the full story of my relationship with her brother. The jerk used to get drunk all the time and trash whatever was within reach. It finally took a restraining order to get him off my back."
"So what do we do with her?"
"Let's put her on the Island and give her time to think things over. Then we'll both see if we can reason with her."
"Good idea. And just in case she decides that suicide is better than living, I'll post one of my troops with a tranquilizer gun."
Pat nodded. "Agreed. Thanks."