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393

The shower and change of clothes made Marlena feel immeasurably refreshed, and the simple meal that followed renewed her spirits even more. She smiled at Kim's inquiry after her health, and nodded gratefully.

"Thank you. I feel much better. Ready to tackle anything."

"I feel just about ready to tackle bed," joked Abe, and promptly checked his watch. "Speaking of which, I need to go downstairs and check with the front desk. They said they'd have those rooms ready for us."

"Any idea which floor?" asked Shane. Abe shook his head.

"We couldn't really ask for one that was assassin-proof, but we were promised three together. That'll help." He toasted Marlena with his styrofoam cup of coffee. "You're in the middle one."

"Somehow I'd already guessed that." She smiled across at him, appreciating his security measures even if she didn't especially like them. "You on one side and our Mr Lester on the other. If I felt at all like sleeping, I'd certainly be sleeping safe."

"You must get some rest," insisted Kim, and Marlena nodded.

"I know. I don't need to tell you how hard it is, though. Not knowing where John is, or what he's going. Sleep is the last thing on my mind."

"Yes, I sympathise." Kim looked across at her husband, her expression suggesting at a rebuke, if only a light-hearted one. "When he hasn't been in touch, and I can't sleep, I wind up cleaning things. If you ever visit and the taps are really shiny, then you'll know the reason why."

"It really annoys the housekeeper," joked Shane, but his eyes were serious. "At least we've got Lester watching out for him over at the museum. Feels better having an ISA man on site, somehow."

"You know him well?" asked Abe. Shane shook his head.

"No, but he comes highly recommended. Not much field experience as far as I know, but he has a lot of distinctions in his record. Somebody somewhere likes him." He toyed with the remains of his take-out. "Why? Issues?"

"No, not at all. Seemed almost too good to be true several times." Abe shrugged. "Call it natural suspicion. I just like to be able to check on somebody personally, and it's not easy to do that with an ISA agent."

"Being a cop dies hard, you mean?" Shane nodded in understanding. "Don't worry, I know how you feel. I can more or less vouch for him, though. He's been over for drinks a couple of times, when he was doing some work near our place. Seemed to like the kids, and seemed to like the dogs. That's usually a pretty good indication that somebody isn't going to slit your throat while you sleep."

"My husband, the psychologist," joked Kim. He raised his fork, as though to flick some food in her direction, but was interrupted by the ringing of his phone.

"Consider this a temporary reprieve only," he told her, before excusing himself and leaving the company. The others tuned their conversation to other things, his voice a faint noise in the background, until he came back to join them. He looked serious, the moment of play before the call clearly forgotten.

"Trouble?" asked Kim. Shane frowned, sitting back down again slowly.

"Sort of. Not entirely sure. That was my contact in the local police. There was some kind of shoot-out a little while ago - barely an hour back from what I gather. Some people were arrested, and are at the local hospital right now. One is Roman. The others are refusing to talk."

"Nothing about John?" asked Marlena immediately, her voice quiet. Shane shook his head.

"Not that they can tell." He hesitated before continuing. "There were some bodies at the scene. All men. That was all that they could tell me. Still, there's no reason to suppose that Roman and John would have been together, so that's not necessarily an issue. I said we'd go on over."

"All of us?" asked Kim. He nodded.

"I don't see why not. Even if we're not all allowed to see him at once, I'm sure he'd be glad to see all of us. One call from the ISA office, and he won't be in custody anymore anyway. There's sure to be somebody on our staff with connections high up locally. That way we'll only have the hospital staff to deal with, rather than the police as well."

"Is there any news on how badly he's hurt?" The worry showed clearly in Marlena's voice. Shane shook his head.

"Not exactly. He was obviously able to identify himself though, so I don't think it can be anything too serious."

"We'd better get moving, then." Abe got to his feet. "We probably shouldn't all go down together, though. How about if I go first, and sort out our rooms at the front desk? Then you can walk out while I'm doing that."

"Sounds fine by me." Shane glanced from Abe to Marlena and back again. "You'd best stick with Abe, Marlena. You're already known to be together, so that won't be a problem, and I'd rather you weren't moving around too much on your own."

"All right." She stood up, turning towards Abe. "Ready when you are."

"Then let's go." He checked his watch. "Meet you two out front in five minutes?"

"It's a date," Shane told him, and Abe and Marlena left quickly, hurriedly checking the corridor and the elevator before making their way downstairs. The news had made them both eager to be at the hospital, and it was frustrating to have to deal with mundane business first, especially since there was a short queue at reception. By the time they were able to leave, heading out to join Shane and Kim out of sight of the main doors, they were both twitchy. Abe rubbed at his injured eye as he looked around for their friends, and Marlena chided him gently.

"You've started doing that when you're wound up too tightly," she told him. "Keep it up, and you won't have an eye left by the time we get back home."

"I keep forgetting." He pushed his hands into his pocket, blinking away the couple of tears that the agitation had caused. "Blasted thing. These things do love to happen right when it's most inconvenient."

"You're a good bodyguard with one eye or two, Abe." She pointed over to a multihued hedge on the other side of the road. "Over there, look."

"I see them." He led the way over, one and a half eyes scanning the nearby roofs, as well as looking out for oncoming traffic. He could not really believe that a replacement assassin would be with them so soon, but it was impossible not to be wary. Shane looked similarly alert, although in his case it was as much about looking out for the spying eyes that had dogged him since his arrival in Rome, as it was keeping watch for possible threats. He ushered them over to a waiting car, and they climbed in quickly.

"I can't see anybody about," he said, as he started up the engine. Marlena looked around instinctively in reaction to his comment, and as he pulled out into the traffic, he elaborated. "That gang of thieves has had a tail on me pretty much since all of this started. I wonder where they are."

"Hopefully not at the museum," said Abe. Shane nodded.

"It'd certainly catch us by surprise if they tried to break in during business hours. I hope Lester's prepared for that, just in case."

"Given previous form, he's more than ready. I just hope that if they do make a move, he doesn't try to blow anything up this time." Abe was smiling faintly as he turned around to look out of the back window. There was no sign of anybody following, but he continued to keep watch anyway. Shane smirked slightly.

"Blowing up the opposition is a classic," he said. "You missed out, you know, being a policeman for all those years. Policemen are never allowed to deal with bad guys in the really fun ways."

"I wonder why," said Abe dryly. Shane shot him a grin in the rear view mirror.

"The hospital's not far away," he said a moment later. "There'll be quite a bit of security around, I should think. Presumably everybody connected with this shoot-out is in custody. Stick with me and it should be all right, provided nobody in there is too jumpy."

"Will the ISA have been in touch with them yet?" asked Kim. He glanced at his watch.

"Could be. He'll have called them himself, or passed his ID on to one of the arresting officers, so that they'd call. I'd be very surprised if head office didn't know about it yet. They're sure to be phoning around as we speak." He smiled. "If the local boys are polite to us when we arrive, then the message hasn't got through yet. If they've already been told to cut Roman loose, then we'll know by all the mutters and the glaring."

"Sounds about right." They lapsed into silence after that, all with their own thoughts and worries, until Shane turned the car in to the car park of the local hospital. There were a lot of police cars around, and two men in uniform at the front door. Shane showed them his ISA identification, and was rewarded with an eye-roll and some definite grumbling.

"Second floor," said one of the officers, not sounding particularly cheerful about it. Shane nodded, hiding a smile.

"Thank you," he told the two men, before heading off inside with his companions at his heels. They were all in a hurry, all worried about Roman, and it was an effort not to rush straight upstairs. They stopped off at the reception desk first, identifying themselves to a tall, dour-looking plainclothesman, who sighed at the very mention of the ISA. He nodded his head, however, and pointed them towards the elevator.

"He's not in our custody anymore," he said, as though this were a matter of great personal sorrow. "We can't stop you. Just stay in his room, and don't try to speak to anybody else."

"What condition are they all in?" asked Kim, but the plainclothesman was already wandering away, for all the world as though he had exhausted his English, and was unable to speak it any further.

"Never mind," said Shane, with a faint glower at the retreating man. "We'll find out for ourselves soon enough." Despite his attempts to relax everybody, they were a jumpy group in the elevator, and Marlena had to shoot Abe a sharp glare when he moved a hand up as though to rub his eye. He smiled faintly, and put his hands behind his back as the elevator car jolted to a halt.

Out in the corridor, the police presence was even more obvious. There were several men in the corridors, all with guns displayed prominently, and all of them turning to glare when the elevator doors opened. Shane ignored them, for through the open door of one of the nearest rooms, he had already spotted Roman. Nobody made any move to stop the foursome as they headed in, but a nurse who was adjusting the blinds over the window glared at them sharply.

"One visitor at a time," she admonished them, first in Italian, and then in English. Shane flashed her his ID.

"This man is an important witness," he said, in his best official voice. "All of these people need to be here. It could be a matter of global importance."

"Huh," she answered succinctly, in a manner that heavily suggested she had only followed half of what he had said. She made no further objection though, and left with a meaningful nod at a sign informing them that there was indeed only supposed to be one visitor at once. Roman raised a hand in a slightly sleepy-looking greeting.

"Hi," he said, as they all approached the bed. "She's very sweet really. At least I think she is. My Italian and her English are about on the same level, so we can only understand half of what the other's saying."

"Knowing you, you're not listening to most of it anyway." Marlena went over to give him a hug. "I know all about you and failing to listen to medical advice."

"I always listen, Doc." He smiled at her. "You know, you really didn't have to fly all the way over from America just because I got a little bang on the head. I'm impressed at how fast you got here, though."

"I wasn't going to stay there when I'd heard about you being in hospital, was I." She smiled back, then headed over for a look at his chart. Most of it was decipherable enough, despite her somewhat rocky Italian. "Well, you'll live, anyway."

"So they tell me." His expression turned serious. "I'm sorry I can't give you any news on John. He was with me when the guns started up, but I got a knock on the head, and when I woke up he was gone."

"He wasn't one of the injured men brought in, then?" asked Shane. Roman shook his head, wincing slightly at the effort.

"No. No, there were three injured men that I saw. None of them were him. The others were all dead. Must have been pretty much the whole of that gang, Shane. I recognised a few faces, vaguely. It was all a bit of a mess, though."

"What happened?" asked Abe, going over to sit in a chair near to the bed. Roman threw him a fond look. His old friend's bearing was so much like that of a policeman preparing to take a statement that it was almost as though they were still together on the force.

"I don't know," he said, leaning back against his pillows. "Not for certain. I met up with John. He'd gone for a meeting with the gang. They wanted him to back off and leave the painting for him, and we came up with a plan to try to bluff things with them a little. Maybe find some stuff out. Van Dahl, the guy in charge, saw through us and went for a gun. After that things get a little hazy. It was all over when I woke up. Looked like they'd all shot each other up in their own crossfire. How the hell John got out of there, I don't know. He was pretty much right in the middle when it all started."

"Born lucky," said Shane, sitting down on the end of Roman's bed. "We all were."

"It's a strange sort of luck, but yeah, I guess you're right." Roman reached for the glass of water that stood beside his bed, sipping slowly. "Anyway, I suppose he took off somewhere. Van Dahl was missing as well, and so was Olivia. That's the woman, by the way. It's the only name I have for her, so it's not much of a help."

"So three of them made it out of there before the police arrived?" asked Abe. Roman nodded. His eyes went back to Marlena. "I'm sorry, Doc. I can't have been out for long. A few minutes at most. He was gone, though."

"Do you have any idea what frame of mind he was in?" asked Kim. He shook his head.

"Not really. He'd been fluctuating a little. He went all mercenary man, you know how he gets. Still, it's probably how he managed to get out of there the way he did, so I won't knock it." He frowned, clearly gathering his thoughts. "He was pretty mad with van Dahl, but he seemed pretty friendly with that lady thief. Not openly hostile, anyway. If he took van Dahl off somewhere, and she tagged along, that might be a good thing. I don't know."

"We'll just have to hope that the boffins get a fix on that beacon of his," said Shane, then smiled, and reached over to give Roman a friendly slap on the arm. "Anyway, it's good to see that you're well. It worried us, getting a call about a shoot-out."

"I was pretty worried myself for a while." Roman smiled as well, although it was clear that he was tired. "I'll get the okay from the doctor, and then we'll go track John down together."

"You'll do no such thing," Marlena told him, a split second before Kim launched into the exact same sentence. Abe laughed.

"I think that makes it official, partner. You stay there for the time being. We'll pick John up as soon as we get a fix on his location, and then Marlena can look after him while the rest of us look after the painting. You've been benched."

"And that's final," added Kim. Roman tried out his best appealing look.

"Time off for good behaviour?" he asked, but Marlena gestured towards his chart.

"You have concussion. It looks as though a bullet grazed your head, followed by blunt impact trauma. The floor, perhaps? What was it made out of?"

"Stone flags, I think." He groaned. "That explains a lot. I just wish it wasn't all so foggy. If I'd seen or heard anything definite, I might have a better idea of what happened to John."

"Let us worry about John." Marlena went over to take his hand, her eyes warm with concern for him. "You just rest."

"You heard the lady," said Shane. "Like Abe said, we'll get that location fix, and zoom right in. It'll all be over by this time tomorrow, you'll see."

"Yeah." Roman closed his eyes again, not looking especially relaxed. "It's what happens between now and then that worries me."