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THE BROOKS CAFE
FALLS CHURCH, VA
1215HRS (EST)



They were shown to a table in the small patio area that surrounded the restaurant, and after ordering they sat quietly in a comfortable silence. Trish Burnett watched Mac ordering and though her smiles were genuine, but there was something in her eyes that she did not recognize. No more than she had recognized the fleeting look in her son's eyes less than an hour ago.

Their food arrived and they talked about JAG, about the Gallery, about Frank, and about the weather, but neither mentioned Harm, Mic or Renee Peterson. It was as though they were forbidden topics, until Trish noticed the missing ring . . . both ring fingers now bare. She had seen the glances between them, she had felt the raw tension around them and she had witnessed the electricity that passed between them, and when the conversation turned to family, to children, to love. Something had gone very wrong between her son and the woman who sat across from her, but Trish Burnett was sure it was no more than the folly of two fools.

"Mac, where is your ring, dear?"

"Oh . . . I must have . . . Trish, the truth is . . . that Mic is reconsidering his . . . that we both have decided to . . . well, to put some distance between us for a while." Mac was uncomfortable with discussing the events that had finally pushed her to remove the ring. Even though she trusted Trish Burnett implicitly, she was still Harm's mother, and she did not want to discuss her relationship with Mic with the mother of the man she couldn't forget.

"I'm sorry, Mac. Give yourself some time, I'm sure things will work out."

"I hope so, though . . . I just wish . . . Sometimes I think I will never find that one . . . that someone who will, well, love me unconditionally."

"Sarah Mackenzie, that is absolutely ridiculous! You are a beautiful, intelligent, strong, and caring woman. Any man would be proud to have you. Any man would be lucky to share your love."

"Sometimes, I just wish that . . ."

"What, Mac?" Trish noticed that Mac's thoughts seemed to have left the crowded restaurant, and she was drifting, wrapped in a shroud of a past, painful memory . . . More and more, Trish Burnett was becoming convinced it had something to do with her son.

"That I could stop loving to love. Sometimes, I wish I could just 'let go.'"

"Sarah, you should let go of what you're unsure of, but you should never let go of what you know, in your heart, is the truth. You should never let go of what you want, of what you need. Have you talked to Harm about any of this? You're very special to him, and I know my son would want to help."

"Thank you, Trish, but this is not something I'd feel comfortable discussing with Harm."

"Why? After all you two have been through together? You were there beside him through Russia, a time that helped him finally come to terms with the pain that had been in his heart for most of his life, and you don't feel comfortable with discussing a life changing decision of yours with him? Darling, what's happened?"

"Believe me, I've asked myself that same question." Mac passed Trish a weak smile, knowing that she was saying too much, but knowing she was not saying enough. She trusted Trish Burnett, and she had longed for a mother's shoulder for as long as she could remember, so she continued cautiously. "Harm has never cared for Mic, and well, our choices in personal partners seems to have caused us to grow apart since his return."

"I see. So then, you have reservations about Harm's relationship with Irene?"

"You mean Renee?" Mac had to smile at Trish Burnett's use of the wrong name when referring to Renee Peterson, wondering if perhaps the trait was genetic. How many times in the past had she caught Harm use the incorrect name when addressing or discussing Mic Brumby or Dalton Lowne?

"Yes, yes, of course, Renee." Trish refocused on Mac with a slight shudder, trying to push the vision of the woman who wore clothes like an unmade bed out of her mind. The woman who appeared to be looking for a generous man . . . a man Renee Peterson could take to and take from. And Trish Burnett swore she would be damned if she was going to allow it to be her son!

"Renee, well, she's just Renee."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

As the limousine pulled out from the restaurant parking lot, Trish Burnett still noticed the longing in Sarah Mackenzie's eyes, a longing that was fueled by the needs in her heart. She tenderly took the strong Marine's hand in hers and turned toward her.

"Don't ever let go of the love that's in your heart. Love rooted in a special friendship is the strongest and rarest of all love. You don't need to stop loving to love. Just don't 'let go' . . ."

Mac stiffened when she heard the words. She appreciated Trish's concern, she appreciated having her shoulder to lean on, and she admired the strong, elegant woman that sat next to her. But she also knew she might have somehow just said too much . . .

 

HARM'S APARTMENT
NORTH OF UNION STATION
1915HRS (EST)

 

"Right on time, Mom."

"Did you have any doubt I would be, darling?"

"No, but I know how preoccupied you can become with your starving artists. Can I get you something?"

"Wine would be nice, dear. Actually, Mac and I had a long, leisurely lunch and after that I just did some shopping. She really is an amazing woman."

"Here you go. Relax, I'm just going to check on dinner." After handing his mother her drink, he quickly turned his back afraid, that she would see in his eyes how amazing he thought his Marine really was. Afraid for his mother to see and understand what he didn't and what was tearing him apart.

"Thank you." Trish noticed the lack of the expected response and decided to drop the subject for the moment . . . just for the moment.

As she had done at JAG, she wandered around the apartment, taking inventory of what was around her. She sighed inwardly, as she noticed the picture of Harm, Sr., remembering the day it had been taken, holding it in her hands, and bringing back to her only the best of times. Setting it back on the bookcase, she carefully noticed the other pictures scattered and partially hidden discretely behind the others. Pictures of two smiling faces obviously placed so they wouldn't be noticed unless one was looking, and Trish Burnett was looking. Mac and Harm . . . at a christening. Mac and Harm . . . at a wedding. Mac and Harm . . . at an airfield. Mac and Harm . . . at a formal. Mac and Harm . . . at a softball game. Mac and Harm . . .

"Mom?"

"You have quite a collection here."

"Yeah, I do. Some very good memories. Dinner's ready. Hope you're hungry."

"Famished."

Trish Burnett watched as her son took the wedding picture from her hand and placed it back in it's place, but not before he paused a moment and traced the outline of the smiling woman with his fingertips. She shuddered when she saw again the fleeting spark in his eyes and she knew, without a doubt she knew. Like his office his home contained loving memories of a woman he had shared but had not shared the last five years of his life with. Like his office, and his home, her office contained loving memories of a man she had shared but had not shared the last five years of her life with. And she bet that if she visited Mac at home, she would find what was significantly lacking in both their homes, in both their offices . . . one single picture of each of their supposed significant others.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Over dinner they talked about JAG, about the Gallery, about Frank, about her trip to Pennsylvania the next day and his departure for Denver first thing in the morning, but neither mentioned Mac, Mic or Renee Peterson. It was as though they were forbidden topics, until Trish noticed him glance again over her shoulder at the picture he had held with visible emotion, less than an hour ago. She had seen the glances between them, she had felt the raw tension around them and she had witnessed the electricity that passed between them, when the conversation turned to family, to children, to love. Something had gone very wrong between Mac and the son who sat across from her, but Trish Burnett was sure it was no more than the folly of two fools.

"OK, Harm. What's going on?"

"What?"

"With you and Mac?"

"Mom, don't start."

"Harmon Rabb."

"There's nothing going on."

"Obviously and there hasn't been for quite sometime."

"There never was anything more than . . . well . . . a friendship between us. Nothing more."

"A very special one."

"Yea, Mom . . . a very . . . special one."

"Well, then?"

"'Well, then' what?"

Trish watched Harm as he suddenly caught the domesticity virus and started clearing the table, removing everything quickly, including himself, from his mother's steady gaze.

"Harmon Rabb, that's enough! Stop answering my questions with questions, and stop avoiding my questions like . . ."

"Who, Mom?"

" . . . like you were ten!" Trish had no intention of relaying any part of her conversation with Mac. She wasn't going to give either one of them an edge over the other. She was simply going to help them see the right road before they both ended up drinking from the wrong water fountain.

"Mac and I have drifted apart. We've both changed, and now . . ."

" . . . and now you don't care for one another? Don't want to be in each other's lives? What?"

"She now has Mic Brumby . . . she's made her choice."

"Did she have a choice?"

"I thought she understood she did."

"But did you tell her she did?"

"Not exactly. Look, Mom, it isn't as easy as right or wrong, black or white. There were things we had to deal with, there were things that had to be settled, before . . . before we could 'let go'."

"You mean before you could 'let go'."

"Yeah, before I could 'let go'."

"Son, I won't pretend to know what's brought you to this point in your life. But I can only tell you where you are now. My son, who once knew his own mind, knew what he wanted out of life, even against the darkest of moments, has now retreated into a self-spun cocoon of indecision. A cocoon of indecision that has broken his will, that has made him a man even his mother can't recognize."

"Mom . . .I . . . "

"Listen to me, Harmon Rabb, if you don't acknowledge what's in your heart and 'let go' of your insecurities, fear, and whatever else you've convinced yourself prevents you from going after what you want . . . she will . . . she will be the one to finally 'let go'."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Trish Burnett's head was pounding as the limousine left her son's apartment and turned down the darkened street. Her mind let the conversations of the day wind over and over again in her head. She had planted seeds, just seeds. But she knew, like a mother knows, that it would take a cataclysmic, explosive event to catapult those two stubborn and pigheaded children into each other's waiting arms.

 

JAG HEADQUARTERS
FALLS CHURCH, VA
1130HRS (EST)

 

Mac entered the JAG Bullpen from court, only to be greeted by his darkened office. Why hadn't she told him her decision before he left for Denver? What was she so afraid of? Would he have been happy . . . would he have . . . or would he have just taken the news with him into the arms of the video princess? She shuddered as she made her way to her office, reminding herself once again, that she didn't do this for him. She had returned the ring for her. She had returned the ring so she could find Sarah Mackenzie, again.

"Ma'am, some flowers were delivered for you, along with a package. I've put them in your office."

"Thanks, Gunny."

She entered her office and closed the door, the two dozen white roses and the gaily colored package taunting her from the center of her desk. Mic had told her he wouldn't let her go that easily . . . told her that she would always belong to him . . . told her that she didn't know her own mind . . . told her that Rabb would never want her . . . told her that Rabb would never love someone like her. It had been an ugly scene of shouted incriminations . . . it was almost as if the Mic Brumby she had known . . . was replaced by someone she didn't recognize . . . an enraged stranger . . . who shouted words from her past . . . who had shouted all the words her father had once used to destroy her will.

Absently, Mac grabbed the card that was attached to the brightly colored package, her heart telling her to trash both gifts, but her mind telling her to open the package. For some reason she couldn't explain, she found herself unwrapping the package with urgency. And when the contents of the package spilled on her desk . . . and when she read the words of chilling, menacing hate she collapsed in her chair, the blackness of her world now spinning uncontrollably around her accompanied by a heart wrenching fear.

Her gasped words echoed around her. "Oh my God . . .NO!"

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Housekeeping had gotten him out. Housekeeping had gotten him in. And the friendly exchanges with a lonely limousine driver, paid to wait, had gotten him what he ultimately needed. What he ultimately needed to shatter the life of Harmon Rabb Jr. The naval aviator would be finally left alone. Alone only with his tortured thoughts of what had been, alone with his tortured thoughts of what was, and alone with his tortured thoughts of what would never be.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

The ropes were tied in neat tight knots of readiness. The mirrors were placed in strategic positions of deception. Everything was ready . . . ready for the taking of the life and the soul of another. And this time, just this time, just when this life was taken, it would not be the hidden work of a forensic artist. This time, just this time, the pain would be obvious, the fear would be obvious, and the victim's last tortured hours would be obvious. Because this time Harmon Rabb Jr. would suffer by the taking of one of the things that meant the most to him . . . this time he would suffer like he had never suffered before. All he would be left with would be the distant past, the empty present and the desolate wondering about the future that would never be.


JAG HEADQUARTERS
FALLS CHURCH, VA
1215HRS (EST)

 

Sergeant Victor Galindez caught the blur of Marine Green that suddenly seemed to catapult through the JAG Bullpen towards the Admiral's Office. He stepped aside quickly, realizing he was in the immediate line of fire, but not before the Marine Colonel leveled her icy stare on him.

"Gunny, get Lt. Roberts and then find me the Commander!"

"Ma'am, the Lt. is at lunch, and the Commander is in Denver." Watching her stop abruptly and turn menacingly towards him, he found himself coming to attention almost subconsciously.

"Gunny, I am fully aware the Commander is in Denver, but I need you to locate him and get him back! As far as Lt. Roberts is concerned, I suggest you find him now! Do I make myself clear, Gunnery Sergeant?"

"Crystal clear, Ma'am." Noticing her stiffening significantly, if that was possible, as she exchanged brief words with Tiner, he watched her slip quickly into the Admiral's office. He had always known she was tough, tougher than any woman he had ever known, even his mother, but something was really wrong . . . something was very, very wrong.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"What is it, Colonel?"

"Sir, I . . . I . . . received these."

All military propriety a mere memory, Mac met the Admiral's perplexed stare, her eyes filled with an uneasy, fear-ridden apprehension. She let the scarf and the pin slip into the Admiral's open hands, and she was afraid. Afraid that if she let them go, she would be gone from them forever . . . afraid that if she let them go . . . she would be admitting that what was happening was real . . . afraid that if she didn't hang on to them tightly in her grasp . . . Trish Burnett wouldn't hang on . . . they would lose her forever to the self-absorbed fanatical ravings of a lunatic.

"Colonel, I'm not clear?"

"He's got her, Sir. He's got . . ."

The Admiral stared at the diamond-initialed brooch, first understanding, then disbelief, and finally anger distorting his normally stoic features. "Tiner, get me, Webb now!" Standing, he crossed to the window, still holding the items in his hand.

"Sir, we should have told him. We should have told the . . ."

"Told him what, Colonel?"

"Told him that Clark Palmer was out. We should have told the Commander that Palmer had escaped."

 

DELTA FLIGHT 1835
1125HRS (PST)

 

. . . The fog was dense and all consuming, swirling around him in thick, suffocating patterns, as he tried again to reach for her, to pull her to him. But the closer he got to her, the further she slipped into the whipped marshmallow-like fog, away from his reach. The fog, like an impenetrable wall, kept her from him . . . kept her from him, from all he was, from all she was and from all they would be together.

The harder he tried to reach her, the further she moved from him, the fog growing thicker and thicker between them. Why was she moving away? Why wouldn't she let him get close to her? He watched the fog lift around them for just a moment, and he realized he was the one that was moving away, he was the one moving away from her . . . he was the one moving back into the menacing blackness that was now surrounding them. He extended his hand for her one last time, but he lost sight of her . . . he lost sight of her in the swirling blackness and the suffocating whipped marshmallow-like fog. He had lost the vision in red . . .

"Sir. Sir. We're about to land in Denver, please fasten your seat belt. Sir?"

"Sorry." He watched as the stewardess moved on to another passenger, trying to prepare the cabin for landing.

Harmon Rabb tried to shake the fog from his sleep-laden mind and focus on the landscape that now spun towards him. His mind only allowed him fleeting memories of the dream that he had been aroused from. As the pilot started their final descent, Jeppesen Terminal came into view. . . and it looked like a mound of whipped marshmallows . . . like the whipped marshmallow-like fog in his dream . . . and he remembered . . . remembered how he had moved away from the vision in red . . . how he had lost sight of the vision in red in his whipped marshmallow-like fog.

 

JAG HEADQUARTERS
FALLS CHURCH, VA
1415HRS (EST)

 

The word from Webb was that they had simply lost him. Clark Palmer had once again eluded Webb's men, vanishing like the spook he was trained so well to be . . . and he was still out there somewhere . . . out there somewhere with Trish Burnett. Sarah Mackenzie had no doubts that he had her, she had no doubts that they would find her. Her only doubts were about when, about how and about what Clark Palmer had in store to further torment the man that she loved at the expense of his mother.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

"Enter"

"Ma'am, there's been no further word from Mr. Webb, and the Admiral has gone to Langley to, well, make his presence known and move things along as only he can."

"That'll definitely send Webb scurrying for cover. She's out there somewhere, alone and frightened. He's out there somewhere, alone and helpless."

"Ma'am?"

"Sorry, Bud."

"You were also thinking about the Commander. Weren't you?"

"Damn it, why didn't we just tell him the truth? Damn it!"

"With all due respect, Ma'am, it wouldn't have made a difference. Palmer would have still gotten her."

"Yeah, I guess you're right . . . but at least they both wouldn't be alone. What have you got for me, Bud?"

"Well, we checked with Conneley's Bed and Breakfast and Mrs. Burnett hasn't checked in or called as of yet. She was due at 1000, and Mrs. Conneley is quite concerned. Apparently, she spoke to her earlier this morning, and Mrs. Burnett confirmed she would be arriving no later than 1000. They had planned to have lunch and then visit some prospective artists for the gallery."

As the hours passed with no word, time started to pull at Mac's detached objectivity, and now as she noticed Bud's obvious hesitation, her ball of control started to unravel.

"What else?"

"Well . . . the . . ."

"Just spill it, Bud!"

"The State Police found Mrs. Burnett's car abandoned on a desolate strip just off Route 34, east of Carlisle Springs."

"I see . . . and?"

"There were no visible signs of them, of any type of a struggle and no personal belongings, other than the luggage in the trunk, of course. It is like they, just well . . . vanished. The car is being towed to the Police Garage at Harrisburg. And well, you know the drill, Colonel. No . . .

. . . no formal search for 48 hours. Don't they consider an abandoned limousine in the middle of nowhere suspicious enough to forego protocol?"

"Obviously not, Colonel. Apparently . . . the car had simply run out of gas and . . ."

"Out of gas, right . . . A professional limo driver just happens to forget to fill up before he takes a 250-mile road trip with a client? Give me a break, Bud!"

"Ma'am I'm just telling you what I . . ."

"Sorry. I stand corrected. Is there anything else?"

"No, Ma'am."

"And the Commander?"

"His plane should be landing anytime now in Denver. I've talked to the Airport Police, and they plan on meeting him at the gate on arrival with urgent word for him call the office. I've also booked him on an immediate return flight through Atlanta."

"Thanks, Bud. If you don't hear from him, keep trying his cell."

"Yes, Ma'am."

"Keep me informed. Thanks, Bud."

"We'll find her, Ma'am."

"I know Bud. That will be all."

"Colonel?"

"What is it, Bud?"

"I know how close you've . . . well, become to . . . Mrs. Burnett and I hope . . . well . . . I know she'll be all right. We'll find her and bring her back."

"I hope so, Bud. God, I hope so."

Mac let her head fall back trying, desperately to block out the nightmare of the last two hours. Time seemed to be standing still yet speeding ahead uncontrollably. Thoughts were thrashing around in her head as she tried to stop her spinning world and clear her mind that was quickly being consumed by insurmountable dread. She needed to have a clear head. She needed to keep it together for Trish's sake . . . she needed to keep it together for Harm.

She wasn't thinking of clients or cases or the man who had given up everything for her when she loved and would always love another. Her only thoughts were for Trish Burnett and how they would keep her safe and get her back at any cost. She had to concentrate, she had to stay focused, she had to stay sharp, and when the ringing of the phone interrupted her she answered it, hoping to temporarily quell her continued growing dread that was tearing at her reason and resolve.

"Colonel Mackenzie."

"So, did you like my little gifts, Colonel? They were very special, don't you think?"

"Palmer, you bastard!"

"You didn't answer me, Sarah. I went to a lot of trouble to send you a little something, and I thought you would appreciate it."

"I swear, Palmer, if you have even . . . "

"Now, now, Sarah . . . give me more credit than that. I would never hurt Momma Rabb at least not yet. Perhaps you should come and see for yourself. I'll make a trade . . . you for her."

"What?"

"Would you like to see her for yourself?"

"I'm not playing your games, Palmer. Let me talk to Trish."

"I don't think so . . . but would you like to see her for yourself? You for her."

"How do I know you even really have her? How do I know you haven't hurt her already?"

"You wound me, Sarah Mackenzie. Have I not proven in the past that I am a man of my word? My buddy Harm wouldn't doubt me. Harm knows I am a man of my word. He knows what an artist I am."

"Palmer . . . "

"So tell me Colonel, do you want to see her alive . . . or do you want to see her dead? It's your choice, and the clock of her mortality is ticking. Tick . . . toc . . . tick . . . toc . . ."

"All right! What do you want me to do?"

"Perfect, my lady. I want you to come to 18856 Pierside Road in exactly two hours and 38 minutes. And Sarah, remember who you are dealing with. You come alone . . . don't think you can play me for a fool by having the cavalry tail you or by wearing a wire or any of the other antiquated tracking devices Webb might provide. Because if you do, I'll find out before you even reach the door . . . and Momma Rabb will be just a memory."

"You're crazy if you think . . ."

"Crazy, hardly. Oh, you'll come, and you will do exactly as I say. Because if you don't, you will single-handedly be responsible for sending Momma Rabb to the great beyond to join Pappa Rabb for eternity. You will single-handedly be responsible for getting my buddy Harm's mother killed. . .so I suggest your visit here be our little secret . . . or do you want her blood on your hands . . . forever . . . his grief a constant reminder of what you took from him? Tell me Sarah, what's your choice?"

"All right, Palmer. I'll be there."

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sarah Mackenzie knew what she was about to do was sheer insanity. All her Marine instincts told her it was the folly of a fool to trust Palmer, to think that he would let Trish go once he had her. But she knew Trish had a better chance with her there, and if he did let Trish go . . . she would have a better chance against Palmer.

Her internal clock told her she had enough time to get to her apartment and prepare. As she grabbed her cover and headed towards the elevators, she immediately ran into Bud.

"Ma'am, the weather in Pennsylvania has . . ."

"Not now, Bud!"

"Where are you going, Colonel? Colonel!"

"I'm going to find Palmer. I'm going to get Trish back."

"Ma'am, you can't be serious. You can't do this alone!"

"Stand down, Lieutenant."

"But Colonel . . ."

"Stand down!"

As the elevator doors closed, Bud stood in the deserted hallway alone, gripped with fear. He thought of another time, another place, when one angry Commander had left without help, without backup . . . a Navy Commander who had done the exact same thing as the angry Marine Colonel. The Admiral was at CIA Headquarters, the Gunny had gone to the Pentagon, the Commander was somewhere on his way back and Bud Roberts knew, he knew he was alone.

 

DELTA FLIGHT 799
SOMEWHERE OVER TEXAS
1530HRS (EST)

 

His shock had turned to disbelief. His disbelief had turned to fear. His fear had turned to dread. His dread had turned to panic, and now his panic had turned to a burning all-consuming hatred.

As he paced incessantly through the cabin, he could neither still his heart nor stop his mind from racing through the past, the present and the precarious future. A precarious future without the woman who gave birth to him, raised him . . . and who loved him like no other woman ever would. She was his mother, his friend, his confidant and the woman who had always loved him unconditionally . . . the woman who had given him what no other human being could give . . . a mother's love.

He was on the verge of losing the timeless love of a mother, just as he had permitted himself to push the woman he loved with all his heart into the arms of another man . . . because of his stupidity and his insurmountable fear of loving and being loved. He was on the verge of losing it all.

 

18856 PIERSIDE ROAD
WASHIHGTON, DC
1738HRS (EST)

 

Sarah Mackenzie arrived before the appointed time and drove around the deserted Warehouse, trying to get her bearings and familiarize herself with any potential avenues of escape. The windows were too high, the doors were all boarded securely and the loading dock bay doors were chained tightly.

Like all of the buildings in the area, 18856 Pierside Road stood like a behemoth of a forgotten time ready to engulf her and Trish Burnett. Ready to bury them in a tomb of the unexpected for now and forever if she didn't find a way to defeat the man who held them so precariously in his hands.

Noticing the one door that appeared to have been freed, she parked her vehicle and exited, releasing the safety on her weapon. She checked the other clips that she had secured in her jacket and cautiously approached the door, climbing the three garbage-covered steps apprehensively. Knowing Palmer's propensity for surprise, Mac checked the door frame for obvious booby-traps before gingerly turning the dirt-covered door knob. Regulating her breathing, she opened the door far enough to further check for any sudden surprises. Finding no evidence that he had intentions of ending her life right there and then, she entered the deserted dust-laden structure, the door jolting shut behind her.

Quickly she surveyed the darkened interior, even the sun unable to shed much light through the ceiling-high windows. The main warehouse area was dark, damp, dusty and vacant, except for the splintered pallets that lay scattered across the concrete floor. And then of course there were the rats that scurried in all directions at her intrusion. She flinched visibly as one she swore was the size of a small cat grazed the toe of her boot. God, she hated rats!

"I see you've met my army of soldiers, Colonel." Clark Palmer's voice suddenly reverberated through the still, empty, warehouse surrounding her with its sickening intonation as it came through the antiquated PA system.

"I've done what you asked and I'm here now. Let me see Trish!"

"Ah, not quite yet. We're going play a little game first. I know Harm's told you how much I love to play games. Find the real Clark Palmer and you win Colonel, you win the greatest prize of all. Find only the illusions and you will pay, you will pay with your life and the life of Momma Rabb."

"Palmer, cut the crap. Trish now or I walk!"

Just as she hissed the last words, the dim warehouse interior was bathed in an eerie light, as four images of Clark Palmer appeared . . . one real, the others just apparent illusions . . . but all eerie reminders of what she had to face at any cost to get Trish Burnett home and safe in the arms of her friends and family.

"You'll go nowhere, not until you play my little game . . . not until you know."

Mac tried to focus on the images before her, scanning one and then the other . . . remembering the last time he had used a ruse such as this. Trish Burnett could be positioned behind any one of the illusions shielding her and she was petrified, until she heard the shot, dropped to the cold concrete floor, rolled behind a pile of pallets, and felt the warm liquid flow from the bullet that grazed her right shoulder. Recovering and stepping from behind her cover, she fired at the direction her mind told her the shot had come from, gasping when she saw the mirror shatter into a million pieces, exposing nothing but the back of the dim warehouse.

"Atta, girl. I knew you wanted to play . . . only three more to go, Colonel, till you get your prize."

Her head was spinning as she tried to gauge her position, catalogue her surroundings, think of her next move and stop the bleeding flesh wound that throbbed in her shoulder.

"Come on, Sarah, make another move. It will get you closer to your prize. What elation Harm will feel knowing you saved his mom."

She stepped out of her cover, again, and aimed high shattering yet another illusion, just as Palmer's second bullet whipped past her left shoulder.

"Good shot, Sarah, but once again the wrong choice . . . two more to go. To kill or not to kill, that is the question. You have a fifty percent chance. What do you think Harm would feel if you shot his mother, remorse, anger, hate . . . certainly not love?"

"You bastard!"

Again aiming high without hesitation, she shattered the third mirror, and again the illusion broke into a million pieces, and scattered across the warehouse floor in a cloud of dust. And again another of Palmer's bullets grazed her leg. . . as blood started to seep and soak her jeans.

Suddenly, the realization of Palmer's game hit her with the blind fury of total understanding, as she stood and fired her weapon at the center of the last mirror, again shattering the glass into a million pieces and again revealing nothing. This time there was no return fire. There was no mocking laugh, no taunting words, only the immeasurable pain and fear she felt as the cold steel pipe connected with her rib cage when she turned, and when she watched her weapon go spiraling across the concrete floor, disappearing into the floor grate.

"You lost the game, Marine. You get no prize . . . and I win it all. It's not my normal style, all this gore and messy violence, but it will certainly remain in the mind of another for a lifetime. I get to watch the slow emotional death of one Harmon Rabb when he finds your bloodied, beaten body and realizes you gave your life for his mother . . . you gave it all for him."

Mac's stare met that of Clark Palmer as he loomed over her with a crazed look of mocking hate and satisfaction written all over his face. She saw the pipe descending towards her, she heard the gunshots as if in the distance and then there was nothing but the blackness, the pain, and the warm flood of blood that covered her . . . and her thoughts were only of one . . . as the blackness enveloped her finally . . . her thoughts were only of her sailor.

 

HARM'S APARTMENT
NORTH OF UNION STATION
WASHINGTON, DC
1945HRS (EST)

 

Entering his darkened apartment he was incensed with the lack of information he had gotten since he had arrived at Dulles. Nothing new, nothing known, no information yet available, meet them at Langley at 2100 was all that the Admiral had said, and the words now seemed to echo repeatedly in his head. And where the hell was Mac through all this? His supposed friend? His supposed partner? The woman he . . . Why hadn't she called, why wasn't she trying to help, if not for him why not then his mother . . . her friend? Or didn't she care about anything anymore except Mic Brumby and her life with him? Where the hell was Mac through all this?

He showered and dressed quickly, thoughts of Palmer pounding in his head . . . thoughts of Mac's presumed disinterest in a life and death situation cutting through his heart like a knife . . . thoughts of his mother's condition choking him with fear.

 

~~~~~~~~~~

 

Harm stood paralyzed for a moment as he heard the key turn in the lock, heard the door open and heard the exasperated tone in the more than familiar distant voice.

"I can manage from here Louie and thank you, you've done quite enough for one day. I said I can manage, thank you!"

Somehow, he willed himself to move towards what his mind had convinced him was just an apparition created by the need to believe she wasn't lost to him.

" . . . Mom?"

"Last time I checked I was your mother, though after today I feel more like a drowned rat. What are you doing here, darling? I thought you were in . . ."

"Oh, my God. It is you! Thank, God!"

Before Trish Burnett could utter another word she found herself in her son's crushing embrace. Pulling back breathless and confused, she noticed the tears threatening to spill from his brilliant eyes, eyes that were misted with overwhelming emotion.

"Darling, what is it? Harm, what's wrong?"

"We thought . . . that . . . well we didn't . . . you didn't . . . we thought Palmer had you."

"Palmer, who's Palmer? I was with Louie all day, sorry to say I might add. Well, actually I was with Louie and the nicest farm family who happened to come along and . . . "

"Mom, slow down. Let me look at you." Harm stood back to take a look at his mother who was disheveled and filthy, but nonetheless a gift from God. He hugged her again, silent prayers escaping his lips for her safe re-appearance.

Pulling out of his embrace, she looked at him quizzically. "All these hugs and kisses from one's son are wonderful, and the welcome is much appreciated, but would you mind terribly if I showered and changed before we continue this conversation. I promise to tell you all that happened to me today if you promise to tell me who this Palmer character is and why on earth you would think I was with him. You should know me well enough to know that I don't go anywhere I don't want to . . . no matter how enticing the offer is."

"Sure, Mom. Clean up, and we can talk later."

"Just let me try to put myself back together and I'll be right back, dear."

As Harm watched his mother disappear from sight into the bedroom area, he collapsed on the couch, the events of the day suddenly finally taking their toll on his heart and his mind. He closed his eyes, trying to clear the jumble of emotions that sped through his consciousness. His mother was with him, and she was safe. Palmer was still out there somewhere and, therefore he was still caught in the wilderness of mirrors created by his nemesis. And Mac. What about Mac? Could she be so void of feeling for him not to call, not to care, not to wonder when they had thought his mother's life was hanging by a thin thread. Where the hell was Mac?

Focusing his attention on the void of emotions he now thought to be a part of Sarah Mackenzie, his bout of doubts was interrupted by the ringing of his cell.

"Rabb."

"Harm, we have some news."

"Admiral, I was just about to call you. Mom's safe, she's here with me now. Palmer never apparently had her, Sir. It was just a game . . ."

"We know that, but it was far from a game. We need you at 18856 Pierside Road."

"Sir, I'd like to get my mother settled and . . . "

"Harm! It's about the Colonel."

"What about the Co . . ."

"Just get here, son."

"I'm on my . . ."

He tried to say more . . . he tried to ask more, but before he had the opportunity, the line went dead. What about Mac? What was the Admiral talking about? As he grabbed his keys, he tried to explain as much as he could to his mother and left the apartment, the emotions that had turned from fear to elation now turned to sick apprehension, afraid of where he was going and afraid of what he would find once he got there.

 

18856 PIERSIDE ROAD
WASHIHGTON, DC
2130HRS (EST)

 

Emotions continued to wreak havoc with Harmon Rabb's mind as he raced through the late evening traffic to the address the Admiral had given him. But when he turned into the normally old, deserted Warehouse Complex and was greeted by a tangle of police, fire, government and medical vehicles, it took all his resolve to steady himself enough to maneuver the SUV to a safe stop without wiping out half of emergency vehicles that blocked his way.

Spotting the Admiral standing with Webb, he headed in their direction but froze when he saw Bud, sitting on a stack of pallets, his head in his hands . . . his uniform covered with blood.

"Bud are you . . ."

"I'm fine, Sir."

"Mac?"

"She's over there, Sir. She's . . ."

He couldn't wait for Bud to finish his sentence, he didn't stop when the Admiral and Webb shouted his name, he only ran like hell where Bud had indicated, towards the fire vehicle . . . that sheltered the Coroner's Wagon from sight. He stopped abruptly when he saw the gurney, when he saw the cold black body bag, and suddenly he wasn't able to move. His mind screamed at him to turn and go back, but his heart forced him to go forward.

He motioned for the coroner's team to stop, and with shaking hands and a breaking heart, he slowly tugged at the zipper, freeing it and causing the black shroud to open slowly. Suddenly, he found himself releasing the breathe he had been holding subconsciously as he stared into the cold face of Clark Palmer, and the wilderness of mirrors he had been living in for years shattered around him.

Just as suddenly all the years of torment and torture at the hands of the man that now lay dead in front of him exploded within him causing him to grab the lifeless body and shake it violently with an unrecognized strength, a frightening fury, as his own words of pent-up hatred rose to the surface. "You bastard! You got what you finally deserved, but you robbed me of the satisfaction of killing you myself. You sorry son-of-a-bitch! I should have been the one to kill you!"

It seemed that even two of Webb's men and the stunned Coroner's team would not be able to dislodge the vise-like grip Harmon Rabb had on Clark Palmer, until suddenly he just let go . . . suddenly he just let go when he heard her voice raised in feisty indignation. "Hey, take it easy would you! Remember I'm not one of your cadavers that you're practicing on."

His heart was in his throat as he heard the familiar voice admonish the poor paramedic who was trying to administer to her injuries. Rounding the Coroner's vehicle, he thought his heart was going to burst at the sight of her . . . covered with blood, dirt and dust . . . bruises, scrapes and cuts . . . and two obvious bullet wounds . . . and still, to Harmon Rabb she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Shaking, he watched the exchange from a distance until he was no longer able to stand it. All he wanted to do was touch her . . . all he wanted to do was hold her.

"Hey. Easy, Florence Nightingale."

"Look lady, you have two bullet wounds that need treatment. You may have a concussion from that gash on your head, and you most likely have a couple of cracked or broken ribs from the impact from the pipe. You have more scrapes, bruises and cuts than I have antiseptic or bandages in my rig, so I suggest you sit still, let us connect the IV, and get you ready for transport to DC General."

Harmon Rabb knelt, gently took Mac's hand in his and tenderly traced the fresh cuts and scrapes on her beautiful face with his fingertips, his eyes betraying the pain that was in his heart. "Still don't know when to duck, huh, Marine."

His sudden presence and his touches softly caressing her face was the exact drug that Sarah Mackenzie needed to ease some of the pain that was starting to throb through her body. She saw the anguish in his incredible eyes and her heart ached to hold him. Hoping in each other's arms they could forget all the pain . . . forget the pain of the present . . . forget the pain of the past and forget the pain they seemed somehow to lately inflict on each other. Covering his hand with hers, the IV dangling precariously, she held his gaze. "I told you, Marines don't duck, we take cover. Ouch, hey easy!"

Harm watched as the paramedic tugged her hand back, with total exasperation, finally securing the IV in Mac's arm. He knew she needed to get to the hospital, but the strength of her hold on him when she pulled away from the paramedic indicated she needed some time . . . they needed some time. "Buddy, can you give us a minute?"

"Sure, why not. You seem to have a calming effect on Xena Warrior Princess, and to tell you the truth, I could use a break from her abuse."

"Well, maybe . . ." She didn't get a chance to finish the biting retort, as she felt Harm's fingers lightly on her lips, his eyes locked on hers.

"Hey, take it easy, Marine, he's just doing his job. Well, from the looks of you, you didn't duck or take cover very well. You know going after Palmer alone was probably the single most stupid thing you've . . ."

"That's what you think? That I was stupid . . ." Mac pulled away from him the flash of anger in her eyes and the shooting pain from her sudden movement making her grimace.

"Yeah, it was incredibly stupid . . . and one of the most incredibly brave things you've ever done." He leaned towards her to kiss her cheek, but his feelings overwhelmed him and he lightly brushed his lips against hers, lingering longer than he should have, the feelings of almost losing her too intense.

The sensation of his lips on hers and the need to draw on his strength pushed her suddenly into his arms, her hands clutching the collar of his shirt tightly, ignoring the pain, as the strong Marine finally just let the tears fall uncontrollably. All her emotions in turmoil, she sobbed against him. "I guess you're right . . . I was stupid . . . if it wasn't for Bud . . . if he hadn't disobeyed . . . if Palmer hadn't been distracted . . . oh, God . . . he wanted to kill me . . . me . . . and . . . if Bud hadn't come . . . I was so afraid for Trish . . . for you . . . I'm so sorry . . . I'm so sorry . . . I would have never had the chance . . . the chance to tell you . . . Oh, God I'm so sorry."

He held her tenuously, not wanting to hurt her but not wanting to let her go, as her wet, hot tears spilled on his neck, and his own eyes filled, his own heart breaking with every heart-wrenching sob that he felt come from her. He had almost lost her . . . they had almost lost each other . . . and he swore he would find some way to admit to her how he felt . . . what he wanted . . . what he needed. And if it was Brumby that she truly loved and if it was Brumby that truly made her happy . . . he would be happy for her . . . and he would spend the rest of his life loving the strong Marine and cursing his weaknesses, his insecurities and his inability to truly love and to be truly loved.

 

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