Palladian (palladian23) wrote in superwebnovel,

Chapter 43: Ruminations

Author's Notes/Warnings: Clues and breakthroughs!

Hi, everyone! Finally, some breakthroughs in the case Lex and company have been working on! Enjoy...

As always, big thanks to my awesome editor-in-chief, gwoman for her help in polishing my work.

Back to Chapter 42

In the middle of the following week, Lex raised her head from her fruitless police database search when she heard Rolf begin to speak. It jarred her, because she’d forgotten the room had another occupant.

“I think I've finally found something,” he said, and Lex couldn't help but give a grin at the suppressed excitement in his voice and his gaze. She felt something in her gut stir as she walked closer, still the focus of that intense look.

She pulled up a chair and sat beside him, and he continued talking as he searched through some files. “When I first started looking at these clips, I began with the footage taken starting about an hour after the video feeds in the bank went dead to about an hour after that. When I looked through all of them and came up with nothing, I knew I must be on the wrong track. So I went back to the beginning and started looking at all of them again, but this time I began from the time the video feed went dead to a couple of hours afterwards. This time, after going through 15 out of the 22 that we located, I found this.”

Rolf enlarged the video file to cover the screen and pressed the play button. “Watch here,” he said, bringing the cursor arrow to one particular part of the picture. “This was taken from a skyscraper-height building that's not far from the metro exit, one of the few feeds that could see over a fence on subway property that we thought might block the view of them leaving.”

As she watched, Lex's eyes widened when she saw the shadows of a number of indistinct people emerge single file from what she assumed must be the metro access tunnel exit, regroup, and then make their way out through a break in the fence and disappear from view of the camera. She turned to Rolf, her eyebrows raised. He grinned in response and pulled another file up. “I didn't want to get excited over nothing, so I asked Art to help me, to see if we could get the pictures of the people any clearer. Obviously with the night footage we could do only so much, but we did manage to get some more detail.”

Lex studied the screen as the video clip started. The footage appeared grainy, but she could still see the people emerging from the metro access tunnel exit. She examined each one as they emerged—two people probably about her size with light builds, one person a few inches taller but with a broad chest, a person almost a foot taller than the first group with a slim physique, and one who towered over the rest with a weightlifter's body. Lex thought about that for a moment, cataloging them in her mind. She turned to Rolf, surprised. “Five people?”

He nodded in return. “That's what it looks like. Also, there's another thing.”

Lex just looked at him, willing him to continue. “I picked them up in this picture about forty minutes after the video feeds in the bank went dead,” Rolf concluded, returning Lex's glance. They both stared at each other for a minute, Lex shaking her head in her disbelief, wondering why they would have left so soon after the burglary started.

“Anyway,” Rolf asked a few moments later, “do you want me to keep watching the rest of the tapes? Something is telling me that these are the people we're looking for.”

Lost in thought, Lex's chin sunk to her chest as she stared at the screen. When she came back to herself several seconds later, she nodded. “Please look at the rest of them, just to be sure there's nothing else that could be another candidate or give us more information. But I know what you mean---something in my gut is telling me that these are the people we're looking for, too.”

The both of them glanced back at the screen for a moment, and Lex added, “Is there any way we could get a picture of that? Right where they're all standing in a group and back lit like that? I'd like to have a copy for the wall; we can put it alongside Annette's picture.”

“Sure, no problem,” Rolf replied with a grin.

Lex looked into his eyes then, trying to breathe as she appreciated all of Rolf's talent and intelligence, as well as the way he took her breath away. “You know, I really love working with you,” she blurted out.

If anything, Rolf smiled harder as he pulled her close for a kiss. “Same here.”

The following day, Tamara showed up in the team room in the afternoon. She sat down in the chair Lex had normally noticed her in, and as she looked over at the other woman, Lex couldn't help but spot her coworker's downcast eyes and frown. After a moment, Tamara appeared to notice that both Lex and Rolf had stopped working to glance her way. She smiled then, but Lex thought the gesture looked more like a grimace.

“How's it going, Tamara?” Lex asked, tilting her head to study her teammate.

Tamara sighed before replying. “I've had better days. I came to find you two because I had something I wanted to show you, but now I'm not sure if it's too soon.”

“What is it?” Rolf asked, his eyebrows raised.

“Come downstairs and see,” Tamara said, her expression appearing as if she'd come to some sort of decision. “Maybe one of you can see something I don't.”

Lex followed Rolf and Tamara down to the basement, ending up in the room where the teams had done their initial battle when the American expatriate group came on board. “I set it up in here because there's a sprinkler system, so if anything gets out of hand, at least it's fixable.”

Lex tilted her head as she looked at the small structure in the center of the room. It seemed to be a person-sized booth made out of plexiglas with one end left open. As she watched, Tamara picked up a sheet of styrofoam a couple inches thick and fitted it on the open end of the booth, then locked it in place using a device on an adjoining side of the booth.

“It took me a while to put this design together and find someone to make it, which is why it's taken me so long to get back to you about this,” Tamara explained, backing up and facing the piece of styrofoam. “Anyway, what happened at the burglary we looked into in Germany is something that I figure went something like this.”

Tamara backed up a couple of steps and opened her mouth. Lex took a step back when she saw the woman breathing fire. As she and Rolf watched, the gout of flame moved away from Tamara and its color changed, burning more white and blue and less orange and red. After pausing for a moment, Tamara then again approached the block of styrofoam. After a short blast of flame and a small cloud of ill-smelling smoke dissipated, Lex looked to see that the styrofoam block now had a huge hole in it, and few remains could be found.

“I think he could control enough heat that he vaporized that wall,” Tamara said, grabbing a bottle of water and downing a few swallows after she spoke. “There didn't seem to be any big pile of rubble anywhere, from what you reported, which means that it had to go somewhere. There's just one thing that's been bothering me ever since I started these tests, though.”

She broke off and moved forward to take the remainder of the styrofoam block off the plexiglas structure. “Come here; you'll see what I mean.”

Rolf and Lex both moved forward to flank Tamara. “Look,” Tamara said as she ran her fingers along the top piece of plexiglas, coming away with black grime. “There's smoke and residue on the walls here. If they were white, like the walls at the bank, leftovers like this would be clearly visible, but I didn't notice any there. And look at this.” She pointed to debris on the floor, consisting of ash and soot. “I didn't see anything like that there, either.”

Sighing, Tamara stepped back. “It just doesn't make sense. If they burned the hole through from the outside, something like this ash and the smoke residue should be there, but there didn't seem to be any. Maybe I should spend some time studying the pictures of the other scenes, but it seems inescapable; when the room is opened with a force like someone vaporizing one of the walls, it seems to blow the ash and smoke back inside the room.”

Lex just stood beside Tamara for a few moments, looking at the plexiglas structure and feeling she was missing something that should be obvious to her. After a while, she couldn't help but smile since they'd made some progress, even if they hadn't put all the pieces together yet.

“Good work, Tamara. You're not the only one who got an unexpected answer, though. We knew you were focusing on this, so we didn't want to disturb you by sharing what Rolf found until you wanted to meet with us. Come back upstairs and we'll show you.”

Several minutes later they all stood in front of the blown-up picture of five shadows leaving the subway access tunnel exit.

“Five?” Tamara asked. Her expression looked incredulous.

“We think so. Rolf is continuing to go through the remainder of the video footage to be sure nothing else comes up, but he's almost to the end and hasn't found anything different so far.”

“Five,” Tamara repeated, her voice sounding resigned now. “All right. So how's it going, trying to find out if these two have a criminal record?” She pointed at the portrait that Annette had drawn for them of the two women she'd sensed in the bank vault.

Lex shook her head. “No luck at all so far. I'll show you the list of the databases I've looked at, if you're interested.”

“Yeah. Maybe it's time to switch up for a while so that I can come back later with some new ideas.”

Smiling at Tamara, Lex replied, “Let's switch places for the next couple of days and see what we come up with.”

Late the following morning, Lex looked up with a sigh. She'd spent part of the previous afternoon down in the basement, looking at the apparatus that Tamara had set up and trying to reason through what her coworker had recorded in the notebook she'd used to document what had happened with each trial. After that, Lex had dedicated herself to studies of all the information she could find on the internet about areas of differential air pressure and how they interacted. From everything she found, it seemed what Tamara had kept experiencing, where the debris and smoke flowed into the room, was the likeliest scenario.

Lex looked over at Tamara, still working on her review of law enforcement databases. She seemed like she'd found a couple of possible leads, but Lex thought her teammate didn't appear satisfied with what she'd found so far. Lex knew it was possible to use a large number of dimensions to search the databases, so she figured Tamara must be working on the tedious task of sorting through a number of likely combinations of descriptors and reviewing the faces and dossiers that came up as results. Tamara's expression seemed bored and frustrated at the same time.

Rolf, on the other hand, appeared hypnotized, watching the last of the videos they'd captured with the help of Riss and Art. Lex sighed before she spoke up. “Hey, you two. How about we go have a long lunch? I think we all need to get out of here for a while.”

Glancing in her direction, Rolf smiled at her without saying anything. Tamara appeared surprised, then grinned. “I think I know just the place.”

Rolf and Lex followed their teammate onto the metro, which they rode to one of the suburbs of Brussels, and then they all walked several blocks to arrive at what looked like a cottage to Lex. “If I'd known what you'd say, I'd have called ahead and had them make us some of the pastries they specialize in here, but I'm sure you'll like their usual fare anyway,” Tamara said as she opened the door to the restaurant.

When Lex stepped inside, she realized the building had been added onto in the rear and so had been made larger than it appeared from the street. She also noticed a number of small tables scattered around the dining room, many of them full, but the man at the front desk found them somewhere to sit right away. As they made themselves comfortable at the table, Lex found herself staring out the window. She saw a small but well cultivated garden outside, and although they'd been sprinkled in red and gold leaves from the trees overhead, she could see that a number of herbs still appeared to be doing well.

Lex felt Tamara's elbow at her own and turned to face her teammate. “That's only one of the nice things about eating here,” she said, gesturing towards the window. “Most of the herbs that they use in the dishes at this restaurant are grown here.”

When the waiter came to get their orders, Tamara suggested some of her favorites to Lex and Rolf, and ordered a few things for the table that she insisted they needed to try. Lex found the meal itself excellent; she enjoyed her plate of pasta with a simple red sauce more than she had expected, and the soup before and bread accompanying the meal tasted fresh and delicious.

Somehow, Lex didn't feel surprised when the head chef came out and grabbed Tamara, kissing her on both cheeks and speaking to her in rapid-fire Italian. Lex couldn't help but smile at Tamara's look of embarrassment as she introduced the man to her teammates as a distant cousin.

“I have a large family, and all the families of all our relatives are big, too,” Tamara explained as they left the restaurant later that afternoon. “When the European Union came into being, a lot of us took advantage of that and spread all over, so I now have relatives in most of the big cities throughout Europe.”

The three of them fell into silence as they began the walk back to the metro, and as Lex glanced at her teammates’ faces, she could see some of the frustration she felt there as well. As something occurred to her, Lex stopped at a bench under a beech tree that had grown near the station and asked her team members to wait for a minute. She dialed Captain Shapiro's number and waited.

When he answered, Lex got right to the point. “Captain, Rolf, Tamara, and I have been working hard on this burglary case, and I think we've found some important leads, but we've run into some brick walls, too. I hoped it would be OK with you if we took off early today since it's Friday. I think we all need some time away from work to rest and think, and hopefully we'll have some more answers for you next week.”

She listened to the silence for a long moment before the captain spoke. “So, you think you can solve this case?”

Lex answered right away, surprised that she felt so certain of what she said. “Yes, I'm sure we can. We just need some more information and some time to figure out what we've already discovered.”

“All right, I'm glad to hear it. Go ahead and take the rest of the afternoon off, but make sure you get some time on my calendar early next week so that you and I can go through everything you've found so far. I want to hear what leads you have and what you're stumped on so that maybe I can help.”

“Thanks, captain, I'm looking forward to it,” Lex replied, glad that he might be able to help them out.

She looked to either side of her, smiling at Rolf and Tamara as she did. “Well, I know you heard part of that, but you probably didn't hear him agreeing to us leaving early today. I don't know how things work for you guys, but I know for me that I'm going to try to focus on other things over the weekend. That always seems to help when I have a problem like this where I feel like something's right in my face but I'm not understanding what it means. Usually, the solution just comes to me after I haven't been pushing my brain to figure it out for a while.”

Tamara smiled as she stood up from the bench. “Sounds like a good plan. In that case, my train home is the opposite from the one you two will be taking, so I'll see you Monday!”

Lex smiled and waved at her teammate and then looked back at Rolf. He smiled back at her. “So, would you like to come over for a while?”

“I thought you'd never ask,” she replied, smiling in return.

A few hours later, Lex raised her head with a gasp, something having disturbed her enough to wake her. She looked over to see Rolf still sleeping with a peaceful expression on his face, and the light that came into the room told her that the sun hadn't quite set yet. Frowning and rubbing her forehead, Lex tried to remember what she'd been dreaming that pushed her into wakefulness, but she could only come up with a vision of Serena appearing on the roof of one of the twin towers, an addition to some news footage she remembered the day of the airplane attacks on New York City, and then a moment later, countless papers flying out of the windows as a dull explosion sounded from below where she could see.

After turning it over in her mind for a few minutes, Lex could make no real sense of the image and so she relaxed back into bed. She snuggled further under the covers and curled up next to Rolf, her eyes falling shut again.

Unfortunately, Lex hadn't come up with any ideas about the leads they'd uncovered by Monday, and neither had anyone else on the team. Rolf's expression seemed stoic, which Lex knew meant that he felt upset about his own lack of progress, and Tamara looked annoyed to the point of distraction.

She'd spent almost two hours going over what they'd uncovered with Captain Shapiro. When she reached the end of her explanations, the captain said, “It seems like the three of you are stuck.”

Lex shrugged with her own irritation. “We are trying to figure out what it all means, but we haven't come up with anything new over the past couple of days.”

“All right then. A lot of times, the best way for you to start getting new ideas is to start doing different things. Also, I can't afford to lose the three of you if you aren't actively working on any leads. I want you, Rolf, and Tamara to go back into the normal rotation here until you figure out your next direction for this investigation.” Captain Shapiro stared at her after he finished speaking, as if daring her to challenge him.

“But sir!” she cried. “We're right on the verge of a breakthrough; I can almost taste it. If you'll just give us some more time, I'm sure we'll figure things out.”

All of the things she said to him didn't seem to matter, however, and Lex came to the conclusion after a while that the captain had already made up his mind. After she left his office sometime later, Lex trudged upstairs to tell her teammates what she'd been told.

That afternoon, while watching the communications room, Lex found she couldn't get her mind off the burglary case. No calls or emails had arrived all afternoon, so it had allowed her plenty of time to brood. After a while, she began to think about the silhouette picture of their suspects that Rolf had captured from the security camera. Lex wondered if Annette might be able to help them again, so after checking everything once more to verify that no new emails or calls had come in, she dialed the woman's number.

Annette sounded happy to hear from her, once Lex introduced herself again. “Can I help you with anything?” she asked in a cheerful tone.

“Actually, I was wondering about something. If you're going to try to get some specific information from a place, something that you knew happened there, how soon would you need to arrive in the location in order to get an impression, do you think?” She held her breath, wondering if there might be a way to get Annette back to Berlin to find out more about the five silhouettes.

“Hmmm...well, the sooner, the better if we're talking about somewhere in a city. The reason is that unless we're talking about something especially memorable happening in a location—like someone being killed, for example—each subsequent impression almost covers over the last. If it's been as long as a week since the incident, it's unlikely that a psychic will be able to find the information you're looking for.”

Lex sighed, feeling discouraged due to the amount of time that had passed since the last burglary. Almost before she realized it, however, Lex spoke up once more. “There is another thing I wanted to ask you, Annette. I seem to remember that, when you described seeing those two women that you picked up on at the bank, you said they just appeared. I wanted to ask you, is it normal to get an impression like that?”

The line stayed quiet for long enough that Lex began wondering if she'd been disconnected. “Annette? Are you still there?”

“Yes, yes, I'm here. I was just're right, it's not normal to get a mental impression like that. Usually what happens is that it's like tuning in to a radio station. The picture I get is faded or fuzzy but comes into sharper focus as I concentrate. I can't think of another time that someone just appeared in an image like that. Maybe an after-effect of the psychic bomb?” Annette sounded confused, as if thinking hard to figure out what had occurred.

“Don't worry about it,” Lex replied, still not sure why she asked in the first place. “I was just curious.”

“It's no problem at all. I've always wanted to be accepted to the special forces once I get out of college, so I'm glad I could do something to help.”

“Really?” Lex asked with a grin. “Just let me know if you need a recommendation when you apply and I'll be glad to give you one.”

“Thanks, Lex. And, if it's not too much trouble, once you're no longer sworn to secrecy, if you could let me know how this all turns out, I'd appreciate it.”

Lex couldn't help but smile wider at the excitement in Annette's voice. “I'll do that. Also, I'll try my best to make sure you get the credit you deserve if we do figure this all out.”

After signing off with Annette, Lex looked back at the inbox and the phones, but to her displeasure they all remained stubbornly silent. She looked up at the ceiling then and began to count the tiles.

That night, Lex still felt cranky and restless by the time she usually wound down to get ready for bed. Since she couldn't stop thinking of the case and couldn't seem to calm herself either, Lex headed for the gym upstairs to try to work her frustration and annoyance out. She'd been working on the heavy bag for about half an hour by the time Mr. Chen walked into the gym. Lex paused to greet him, and he looked at her and shook his head.

“You're working yourself too hard again, Lex,” he said, and she heard the calm authority in his voice. “Come over here and let's go through some of the tai chi forms we started awhile back.”

“It seems like a lifetime ago at this point,” Lex said, trying to remember back to the time she and Mr. Chen worked together at the M Agency.

He gave her a smile in the mirror as he moved into a beginning stance, and Lex followed his lead, smiling back at him. She felt stiff and clumsy at first, but followed her teacher's movements as well as she could, after a while feeling her body loosening up and moving with grace again. Lex felt much calmer as they neared the end of the first form.

Lex continued following her teacher as he began the second form, but found that a lot of her energy had begun to leave with her frustration. When she gave in to a wide yawn at one point, she found Mr. Chen giving her a lifted eyebrow as she looked back at him.

“Perhaps it's time to get ready for sleep now?” he suggested. “It seems you've worked out at least some of what brought you up here.”

Thinking about it for a moment, Lex couldn't help but smile as she realized a lot of her despair and worry from earlier had begun to turn into a confidence that she and her team would be able to figure out the case. “I think you're right,” she said, putting a hand up to hide another yawn. “Thank you, Mr. Chen.” She bowed just before she turned to leave the room.

She tried to wipe the case out of her mind as she let the water run for a bath and put her workout gear aside. As Lex got into the bath and lay back in the hot water, she closed her eyes and began some of the meditation techniques she'd learned over the years. Feeling some of the tension around her shoulders relax, she let go a little more, but found her thoughts forever turning back to the case. Lex considered trying to guide them to something else, but felt so warm and sleepy by then that she found she didn't want to.

Lex stood near the gathered red curtain at one end of the stage. She could see nothing as she looked out to where the audience or chairs should be, nothing but darkness. As she turned to glance behind her, she noticed a line of light shining down on the center of the stage, going from about a foot or two away from where she stood all the way to the other end of the stage. At the opposite end of the lighted area, Lex spotted a large, rectangular object, maybe a trash can. She would have taken a moment to try to figure out why it was there, but a sudden appearance by Serena at Lex's end of the light captured her attention. Her friend had on a black latex mini-dress with tank top straps and a sweetheart neckline that showed off her cleavage. Serena had styled her hair with a number of random tiny braids and then put it all up with gold combs. She waved as she repeatedly appeared and vanished, further and further down the line of light until she stood right next to the trash can. As Lex watched, Serena dropped something into it and then disappeared.

Trying to make sense of what she'd seen, Lex took one step towards the trash can when suddenly a muffled thump sounded and she realized she'd jumped behind a thick column of curtain. Peering around the curtains, Lex blinked as she saw the metal at the top of the trash can now twisted outwards and also spotted the rough circle of garbage around the can.

that is how it's done.”

Lex sat up in the bathtub, gasping with surprise and splashing water on the floor. It took her a moment to recognize her surroundings, her mind still stuck on the final image of Serena, who'd appeared near her shoulder, a pleased grin splitting the woman's face. In the next few seconds, Lex groaned as she realized that she'd been sleeping in the bathtub long enough for the water to get cold. She shivered as she jumped out and got ready for bed, but even the chill didn't seem to deter her once she got under the covers, because she couldn't remember her head hitting the pillow before she fell asleep again.

The next morning, Lex awoke feeling electrified. She opened her eyes, instantly awake as if she hadn't been sleeping, as opposed to the lingering sleepiness she often experienced in the morning. Lex sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the sunlight that had sneaked through the blinds on her feet and the floor, and just thought. The whole puzzle seemed to have snapped into place in her mind, and she didn't move for a good while as she ran through the possibilities in her brain, trying to see if she'd missed any details. Her heart picked up its pace as she realized it seemed as if her sleeping mind hadn't left anything out, and she needed to tell someone right away. She made herself wait for a few minutes as she paced the carpet beside her bed, trying to work out in her mind how she wanted to explain what she understood to her team, and then picked up her cell phone.

Lex called Rolf first and tapped her foot as the phone rang a few times. She'd begun to wonder if she should hang up when he answered, but felt something stir in her guts due to the deep roughness of his voice. A moment later she felt a pang of guilt, realizing that she'd just woken him up at an early hour even for a work day.

“Rolf!” Lex replied, trying and failing to keep the excitement out of her voice. “I'm sorry I woke you up, but I've figured it out! Could you meet me downstairs as soon as you get to work today?”

The line fell silent, and Lex almost said something else before she heard Rolf's reply. “What are you thinking?” he asked, and even through the tiredness in his voice, Lex could hear the thread of interest.

“I'd rather show you than just try to explain. Can we meet downstairs, by the demo booth that Tamara set up? I'm going to try to get a hold of her, too.”

She found herself pacing as she anticipated Rolf's answer. “All right,” he said, and Lex blew out a sigh at the affection and acceptance she heard in his voice. “I'll see you as soon as I can get there.”

Lex forced herself to take a shower and dress before calling Tamara's number, but she got the woman's answering machine anyway. After leaving a message that she knew sounded over-excited but hopefully clear, Lex hurried downstairs even though it was an hour or so earlier than she normally had breakfast and got ready to go.

Once at headquarters, she ran all over the building to gather everything she needed and then waited downstairs for what felt like forever. When Rolf finally arrived, he entered the basement team room with Lex in mid-pace, several yards away. She grinned at him and hugged him once he got within range. He smiled back at her. “So,” he asked, “are you sure you don't want to tell me what you figured out?”

“I do, I do, I just want to wait until Tamara gets here,” she said, glancing at the door and willing it to open again. “I think it'll make more sense with a demo.”

To Lex's pleasure, Tamara showed up not long after Rolf, and Lex caught her shooting the two of them a curious look as she entered the room. Lex continued to grin in return and tried not to dance in place as Tamara came over to join them. “Sorry to sound so mysterious, but I think I may have connected a number of the dots we've been trying to figure out over the past few weeks. It might sound strange, but I'd like to start off with a demo before I explain. Do you mind, Tamara?”

The woman shook her head in the negative, so Lex instructed her to build up her energy. As she did, Lex grabbed another piece of styrofoam. “OK, now get inside,” she told Tamara. The other woman gave her a strange look, but did as she'd been asked and entered the booth from their previous experiment.

Lex locked the piece in place. “All right, now Tamara!” Lex cried out as she took a step back to get clear. After a few moments, she ducked back further as a column of fire emerged from the booth Tamara stood in.

Tamara stepped through the large hole she'd made in the styrofoam and looked around in bemusement as ashes sifted through the air. Lex bent to the floor and swept her hand along the surface nearest to the mostly demolished styrofoam block and showed the sooty spot on her hand to her two companions.

Sighing, Tamara spoke up. “I thought about that, but it doesn't explain how they got in there in the first place.”

“Exactly,” Lex replied, going over to a small pile of papers that she'd brought from their team room. “I think I've been looking at this the wrong way the whole time. Let me explain.”

She gestured for the other two to sit with her on the floor. With Tamara on her left side and Rolf on her right, Lex continued. “Somehow, when I woke up this morning, I had this big picture in my mind about what I think has been happening. I'll explain to you what I figured out and how I think I figured it out, and afterwards, please let me know if you think I've missed anything or if you think anything doesn't sound right.”

Tamara and Rolf both nodded, so Lex first brought out the portrait that Annette had drawn for them. “I think this is the sequence of events when this group knocks off a bank. These two show up first,” Lex said, pointing to the portrait. “I started on that track when I remembered what Annette said about how she first saw these two, how they just appeared. When I talked to her about it, she confirmed that wasn't normal for a vision; it's usually more like focusing on a blurry picture—the basics are there, just not resolved. So, that got me thinking about my friend Serena. Rolf, you've met her, but since you haven't,” she said, looking over at Tamara, “she can go anywhere she wants, as long as she can see it from where she's at or she's been there before. She just thinks about being there, and she appears.”

Lex watched her teammates for a moment, nothing that Rolf looked thoughtful and Tamara seemed dubious but didn't pitch in a comment. “Anyway, these two show up first for two reasons. One, our mystery woman here,” Lex said, pointing at the blonde in the picture, “needs to bring the psychic. Second, the psychic needs to set her psychic bomb. After that's done, the blonde goes to pick up the other three members of the team.”

She'd pulled out the grainy silhouette picture of five people and laid it out so that all three of them could see it. “Once they're all there, four of them start packing the loot they picked out into the backpacks they're wearing--the bulk into this person's, I guess,” Lex said while pointing at the huge backpack the biggest person in the group wore. “I bet the hacker monitors as well, to make sure nothing comes back up while they're in there, and the psychic probably keeps an eye out, too. The last person is the one who creates their escape route. If I had to guess, I think they all pack things up while the last person burns the hole in the wall, and then they leave more or less when that's done. It definitely would be the thing to do to avoid any curious people investigating noises, if they heard them coming through the wall. Then they just put their backpacks on and walk away.”

Everyone fell silent for a moment, and Lex tried to gauge her teammates' reactions while Tamara stared at the picture and Rolf returned Lex's glance with a thoughtful look, to her mind. After several seconds, Tamara asked, “Well, if this person,” she pointed at the blonde in the portrait, “can just come and go at will, why doesn't she just take everyone back out? Why cut a hole in the wall at all?”

Lex frowned. “That's a good question, one I've wondered about, too. The only good explanation I can come up with is that I don't think she can do it.” She looked over at Tamara, who raised her eyebrows. “My reasoning is this. I know each of us has different capabilities. My friend Serena who can do this can go large distances and can take a number of people along with her. But she has a massive amount of personal vitality. Maybe this woman just doesn't have as much energy as my friend, or maybe this is just where people's talents differ. For the times they stole gold, it may just have been too heavy. Pushing all of that aside, though, the other reason that I think that this group has a different way out than how they got in is this: Rolf spotted this group on the tape about forty minutes after the security cameras stopped in the bank. That means they must have been in and out of that bank in a half-hour or so. The walls between the bank basement and the subway access tunnel must have been a couple feet thick. I don't know what you think, but I'm figuring a significant portion of that half hour would need to be spent cutting the hole in the wall.”

Rolf nodded. “That's a good point. If I had to guess, based on the inventories of the vaults that police made from past crime scenes, they do seem to have some sort of hard cutoff point where they stop whatever they're doing and go, because there are always things they leave behind that would be worth stealing. It makes sense; doing something like cutting a big hole in the wall is risky. They may not have a way to know if anyone will be working on the other side, or if someone will hear something, so they cut the risk by leaving once the hole is done. That way, if someone does come along, they'll already be on their way out.”

Lex felt pleased to see Tamara nodding, but she also asked, “That sounds plausible, but what about the fumes in there? If the person who cuts the hole is vaporizing the concrete and rock, there's got to be some nasty fumes in the vault until they break through into the external tunnel.”

“You're right, it sounds like it would be oppressive,” Lex agreed. “Maybe they bring breathing masks and goggles so they can all work at the same time.”

The three of them talked for another half-hour, Lex encouraging her teammates to poke holes in what she'd presented, and Rolf and Tamara asking questions or proposing scenarios. “All right,” Tamara said after they'd exhausted the questions they could think of, “so we think we have something that more or less works. How does this get us any farther along with the case, though?”

Lex grinned in return. “I think this gives us a potential way to crack the case open. From what Annette told me about how things work for her, and what I mentioned about Serena, I'm thinking these two,” she said, pointing to the portrait Annette had drawn, “are the scouts for the group. They come to the banks first, the blonde to mark the place, so that she can travel back there, and the psychic so that she can determine if there's anything good to steal.”

She paused to glance at her teammates. Tamara looked thoughtful while Rolf returned Lex's grin. “I'm guessing there's a list of banks that have been identified as potential burglary candidates, so I think if we get it and distribute a copy of the portrait here and ask them to keep an eye out for these two, that we should be able to identify where they'll hit next. I don't know if we'll be able to catch them before their next one, but I think we should be able to get them after that, assuming that we've figured it out right. What do you think?”

Tamara answered first, still looking thoughtful. “If this is what they're doing, we could get them this way. What's your plan?”

Shrugging, Lex replied, “Well, I figured we could send the picture around, asking them to keep it secret, but also asking for any suspect footage to be sent to us. We could review it and determine if it's really them. For anything we're suspicious about, since we don't have any evidence that these people did anything, we could work with the banks and figure out a way to lie in wait for them. When they show up, we stop the burglary and arrest them.”

Nodding, Tamara looked at Rolf to see what he had to say. “I think that sounds reasonable. What should we do next?”

“Before we do anything more, I want to make sure we think it through,” Lex replied, looking at both of her teammates with concern. “When he assigned this task to me, I got the impression that the captain wanted to use this case as a way to show to the normal law enforcement agencies that the special forces can be more than just someone they come to if they need some serious muscle or psychic assistance. He seemed to want to prove to them that we can be their equals, so the last thing I want to do is come up with some crazy idea that ends up being a wild goose chase and makes us all look bad. So, before we do anything, I want the two of you to be comfortable that we've come up with a reasonable explanation here. My gut is telling me that this is what the burglars are doing, but that doesn't mean that's really the case. I want you both to be sure enough about this before we act that you feel confident that we aren't doing something that could potentially damage the reputation of the special forces.”

Rolf looked at Lex for a moment with a grave expression, then dropped his eyes. “There's one more thing I think we should consider,” he said, glancing over at Tamara as well. “I think that if we're pretty sure this is what's going on, we need to think about moving on it for the sake of preventing more innocent people from losing their hard-earned money. I agree that it's important to raise our credibility, because I've worked with the police more times than I could care to count and realized that many don't value our help, but I think it could be worked out so that this is done covertly. I know in financial circles that many people would be willing to work with us in a quiet way if they thought they could prevent more losses, even if it doesn't work out the first time around.”

Lex nodded and bit her lip, glad yet again that Rolf had agreed to be on the team. “You're right, Rolf, and thanks for bringing that up.” She looked at her teammates again as she continued. “Please think it over and let me know before the end of the day what you think. I'd like to be able to talk to the captain about this and move forward, but I want all of us to be pretty much convinced that this is the way to go.”

Collecting the papers she'd brought downstairs into a file folder, Lex tapped them into a neat stack before going back upstairs to the paperwork waiting for her at her regular desk on the main floor. She tried to throw herself into reviewing, filing, signing, and passing on all of the reports and forms that had piled up while the others had worked on a skeleton crew due to Rolf, Tamara, and Lex working on the burglaries, but her mind kept wandering back to the case. She pulled her mind back again and again from obsessing on details and staring out the window, wondering whether her teammates now thought she was crazy. Glancing over at Rolf’s empty desk, she thought of him upstairs in the communications center and resolved to take her lunch up there and eat it with him.

Casey and Lou had both left for a recruiting event that morning, but Lex found leftover chili that Casey had made in the refrigerator and heated some up for her and Rolf. She loaded everything onto a tray with some corn chips and made her way upstairs to the communications room, but stopped as she reached the threshold, surprised to see Tamara there as well.

“Oh, I didn't know you'd be here,” Lex said to Tamara as she sat the tray on an empty spot on the counter. “Would you like me to heat some up for you, too?”

“No, I'll get something in a while,” Tamara said, getting out of the chair she'd been sitting in and going to close the door. “I'm glad you're here, because I wanted to ask you a few things.”

“Go ahead,” Lex said as she passed a bowl of chili over to Rolf, who smiled as he reached out for it.

“All right. Do you actually believe that what you told us this morning is what's happening?” Tamara asked, crossing her hands across her chest.

“Yes. I don't have any absolute proof or anything, but when an answer comes together like that for me and it checks out logically, that's enough for me.” Lex took a bite of her chili and then put the spoon down to wait longer because it still seemed too hot to eat.

“Why don't you just go ahead and go forward?” Tamara looked annoyed and puzzled, to which Lex shrugged in response.

“I'm not the only person on the team,” Lex pointed out. “I need to have the two of you with me when we take action on this, so I need to let you make up your minds about this, too.”

Tamara's eyes flashed as she replied, “So if something goes wrong you can put the blame on us?”

Lex lifted an eyebrow. “No, if anything goes wrong, the blame is mine. It was my wild idea, after all. If anyone asks, that's what you can tell them.”

The other woman stared at Lex and gave a frown of surprise. “I couldn't do that.”

Shrugging, Lex replied, “That's the way it is, though. No matter what goes wrong, since Captain Shapiro assigned this to me, it's my responsibility. It's OK to just put any blame at my feet, since that's where it belongs.”

“I'm not sure I understand,” Tamara said after a few seconds, and to Lex's mind she seemed to be trying hard to order her thoughts before she spoke. “But you're sure that what you went over with us today is what's happening?”

“As sure as I can be without having been there for one of the burglaries. Something we can remedy soon, I'm hoping.” Lex grinned, thinking about catching up with the criminals.

“All right, then, when you finish lunch, how about we go tell the captain what we've got planned?” Tamara asked, grinning at Lex and Rolf now.

“Agreed, but I'll have to leave you ladies to it,” Rolf replied between bites. “I need to stick here until someone is sent to relieve me.”

After Lex had finished eating, she headed downstairs with Tamara to talk to Captain Shapiro. He listened to Lex's summary of what they'd discovered and the theories they'd come up with, and smiled. “I thought it might help you figure it out with some changes to shake things up,” he said after a moment.

Lex frowned and rolled her eyes, which caused him to laugh. “All right, whatever. So, has anyone in any of the law enforcement agencies looking at this case compiled a list of banks that fit the profile to be this group’s targets?”

“I wondered when you'd ask about that,” he replied, and turned to his computer. After some rapid typing, he turned back to the two women. “OK, I've emailed it to you. I made a few notes on the spreadsheet as far as which banks have already been hit.”

Nodding in response, Lex asked, “Would it be possible to contact those that haven't been robbed yet to send them a copy of the portrait? If so, would we have to work through local law enforcement, or could we contact the banks ourselves?”

Captain Shapiro considered Lex's question for a moment, then shrugged. “I'm not sure, so let me look it up. Why don't you two write up a memo to go out along with the picture that explains the situation and how crucial secrecy is. I'll figure out what we're allowed to do, and hopefully we can have something out to the banks or on its way by the end of the day.”

“Speaking of the two of us, captain,” Lex said, looking back at him over the desk, “could you send someone up to relieve Rolf as soon as you can so that he can rejoin the team?”

“Sure. I'll let Kate know to take over on communications as soon as she gets back from her call.”

Tamara and Lex worked on the memo for the next hour, but Lex felt frustrated that they couldn't seem to come up with something the both of them liked. Lex had called for a break and stood looking out the window by the time Rolf arrived, then laughed as he saw Lex and Tamara's matching frowns. After Lex explained the problem, Rolf picked up his laptop and suggested, “First, why don't we just talk for a bit about what we want to say.”

Lex and Tamara talked about the elements they wanted to cover: to ask the banks to keep an eye out for the people in the picture, that they suspected the two women of having something to do with the burglaries, emphasis on the extreme need for secrecy, and a request to the banks to send any footage of the two along to the team so that it could be examined and further steps taken as necessary. Rolf spoke up once or twice with his own ideas, typed many notes on his laptop as they talked, and once everyone had stopped talking, asked Tamara and Lex to give him some time to draft the memo.

About a half-hour later, Rolf gathered them around his computer. “Take a look,” he said to the two of them. “Let me know if anything is missing or could be said better.”

Lex read it with care, nodding to herself as she did and feeling the smile growing on her face. Tamara snorted once she finished. “If it could be said better, I don't know how,” she replied, smiling at Rolf. “You have some hidden talents.”

“Well, I did study journalism in college,” he replied with an expression Lex pegged as wistful. “It didn't pan out as a career, though.”

“At least I know who to go to now when something delicate needs to be written,” Lex said with a grin. “Do you want to go ahead and present it to the captain?”

Rolf nodded, so Lex and Tamara followed him downstairs to speak with Captain Shapiro. The captain read the memo, then said, “This is just the kind of thing I was thinking of. Good job.”

Both of the women pointed at Rolf, who ducked his head and looked away. Captain Shapiro nodded and smiled. “Good job, Rolf. At any rate, when I looked into what we're allowed to do this afternoon, I found that we are authorized to pursue leads and contact people in our capacity as a law enforcement body. Since we're an EU entity, that means we can contact people across the various nations that the EU encompasses and work directly with them. So, we can send this memo and the picture of the two women to the banks on the list ourselves.”

The four of them took a look at the remaining banks on the danger list and identified how many different languages seemed to be represented in the group. After spending some time to do quick translations of the memo into French, Flemish, German, and Italian—during which Lex felt self-conscious about being able to add nothing—Captain Shapiro sent the memo in all five languages out to all of the banks.

“That way someone on staff should be able to read the warnings,” he explained as he hit the Send key. “Anything else today?”

Lex looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “I'm surprised that you didn't lecture us on maybe holding this information back for a while.”

“Why? Worried that this might leak out to the public?” The captain raised his own eyebrows, giving Lex a grin. “The way I figure it, it's your decision. I'd have warned you against it if I thought there'd be more of a risk of the picture becoming public than there was of us getting any leads using your approach, but from what I've seen of bankers, they don't have any problem keeping a secret when it benefits them. How long has it been since they hit last?”

“Over three weeks now,” Tamara responded right away.

“From what you've said, since they strike every month to a month and a half, hopefully we'll get lucky. If we don't get them this time, though, chances are that every other law enforcement agency in Europe is going to get ahold of this picture, and they're going to want to know everything you told me earlier.” The captain shook his head after that comment.

Sighing, Lex responded, “Yeah, that's kind of how I figured it, and they seem to be much worse at keeping a secret. I'm sure some of them would want to have it on every TV station across the continent, if they even believed what we told them.”

“Maybe, if it comes to that, we can convince them against it, since there's no proof whatsoever that these two are connected to any of the burglaries,” Captain Shapiro replied. “Anyway, no need to think about that now. I guess we just have to wait and see what comes back to us at this point.”

“If we need it, do you think we could get some more help from Annette in positively identifying these people?” Lex asked, looking at the captain with a hopeful expression.

He shrugged. “If you need it, yes, but since I think we're going over-budget on this particular investigation, try to keep it in reserve.”

Lex nodded, watching as her teammates did as well, and followed them out of the room moments later. They all made their way back up to the team room, and Tamara and Rolf began shutting down their laptops for the day, since the time they'd spent sending out the memo had kept all of them over their usual shift end. Lex had a thought as she shut down her own machine and turned to the other two to say, “I'm going to stay a few minutes longer; I want to talk to Riss and let her know what's going on, since I have a feeling we're going to need her help soon.”

Tamara nodded and collected her stuff, waving to Lex and Rolf as she left a few seconds later. Lex lingered at Rolf's side, wanting to reach out and hold his hand but thinking maybe she shouldn't, so Rolf took her by surprise as he turned towards her and slipped his arms around her. “I think we did some really good work today,” he said as he looked into her eyes.

“I agree. Feels pretty good, doesn't it?” She smiled at him, unable to contain either her good humor or the way her heart seemed to leap in her chest when Rolf pulled her this close.

She was shivering slightly as they kissed, but when she wasn’t able to hold back the noise in her throat as Rolf's hand slid lower down her back, he broke the connection between the two of them. Lex couldn't help but gasp at his bronze, dark eyes with pupils blown wide and his quick breath. He growled a moment later as she pulled closer again. “We'd better stop now or we're going to do something at work that we shouldn't.”

“You're right, of course,” Lex replied, shutting her eyes for a moment and trying to regulate her breathing and heart rate back to something approaching normal.

“Come by tonight?” Rolf asked, holding both of Lex's hands now, and when she looked up, her stomach fluttered at the desire she read in his eyes.

“I'll be there as soon as I can,” she replied, kissing him once more because she couldn't resist.

By the time Lex put her things into her backpack and got out to the communications room, Riss and Victor had already arrived and taken over. She waved at the two of them as she asked Riss to come speak with her. After finding a quiet spot, Lex gave her an overview of what had happened earlier that day. “I just wanted to let you know,” she concluded, “because I'm thinking we're going to need more help from you and Art, maybe with reviewing more footage and probably in wrapping this up if we find out where they're planning to hit next.”

Riss nodded, and Lex smiled to see the interest in her friend's eyes and her intense expression. “No problem,” Riss replied. “I'll talk to Art about it; just let us know what you need and we'll be ready.”

As the two of them walked back in the direction of the communications room, Lex asked Riss about the project to assemble Art's body, and her friend had been giving an update but fell silent as they neared the room itself. Lex understood why when she peered around the door frame and saw Derek and Victor sitting in the far corner of the room, their heads close together. Her eyes widened as she caught Derek's expression of open adoration, but as she watched for a few seconds, it seemed to her that Victor didn't appear to notice. Lex and Riss watched for a moment longer before she pulled Riss back into the nearby hallway.

“How long has this been going on?” Lex whispered.

Lifting an eyebrow, Riss replied, “Quite a while. Victor talked to the captain to find out if it he minded having Derek in here, because he'd expressed an interest in learning some nuts and bolts technical work. Shapiro agreed, and so Derek's been in here for hours every night since.”

Lex hesitated a moment, trying to think of the right way to ask, but finally sighed after a moment and said, “Is it just me, or–”

“Yes, he seems to have a crush on Victor a mile wide,” Riss said, and Lex could see a brief, tiny smile appear on her lips. “Victor seems clueless, though.”

“Did you tell him?”

Riss just stared at Lex for a moment. “It's none of my business, really.” Lex glared at her after that, and Riss sighed. “I didn't think it would make any difference,” she said after consideration. “Victor's a good man, but he seems stubborn about certain things. I didn't think me saying anything about it would make his mind up one way or another.”

Lex sighed as she thought about what she knew about Victor. Since he seemed to value his privacy, she didn't feel she knew enough to make a call. “We should talk to Kate about this.”

Riss raised an eyebrow and laughed. “You talk to Kate. Don't get me involved with your matchmaking schemes.”

“All right, all right,” Lex said with a chuckle. She peered into the communications room once more, seeing Victor and Derek's heads close together still. “See you later, Riss.” Lex noted the smile her friend gave, along with a wave, as she made her way downstairs and outside.

Forward to Chapter 44
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