Hey, everyone! Laying in wait for something to happen can sometimes yield to results, if you're patient...
As always, many thanks to my editor-in-chief, gwoman for her help in improving this chapter.
Back to Chapter 44
Lex slumped as she leaned on the counter in the tiny bathroom at the beginning of their fourth evening in the bank, looking at herself in the mirror in front of her and thinking that her hair looked greasy and stringy. She sighed and began doing her best to wash it in the minuscule sink, wondering why in the world any of this had seemed like a good idea in the first place.
She remembered the first night they'd been there had seemed quite cloak and dagger. The cleaning people had been kind and had been able to find uniforms for Lex and Rolf, but they had to make do with a smock for Lou, which he'd thrown over his special forces jumpsuit. Only the bottom half had remained visible, but it had just looked like some black pants, Lex had thought at the time.
The branch manager had been there to speak to them the night they'd arrived. He'd brought them into a storage room where they'd pushed the supply shelves up against the walls to make space for them to stay. The room had been devoid of cameras, so he'd asked them for their IDs there. Lex had felt odd then, since she'd never had to show it to anyone before, but she’d pulled hers out and the rest of the team had followed suit.
“I'm sorry, but with everything that's been going on, I've been over-checking and over-thinking everything lately. I'm so glad you're here.” He’d breathed out a sigh as he had handed Lou back his ID, the last one he'd checked.
Lex had smiled then, feeling happy that they’d gone to all the trouble they had. “Thanks for agreeing to cooperate with us on this. We’re glad to be here.”
“So what can you do?” the man had asked, turning to look at the three of them with a raised eyebrow.
She had tried to keep her face expressionless, but Lex had felt her eyes widen at the question. Once in a while, when she’d been out at recruiting events, she’d had that question aimed at her, but it had mostly been asked by curious children. Right then with the branch manager, she had tried not to show her dismay at being asked to perform like a magician doing parlor tricks and had said, “My colleagues and I all specialize in several things, and we’re prepared to do all we can to protect the bank and its property, and to try to catch these burglars.”
After the man had left a few minutes later, Rolf had elbowed her as Lou had turned to her with a solemn expression and had said, “You sounded very professional, you know.” Lou hadn’t cracked a grin until after she'd shot him an annoyed look. They’d all found it humorous then, but at the time, Lex had been happy that she’d been able to avoid answering his question and still keep his confidence, since he’d turned keys to the vault over to them as well. They'd managed to avoid having the manager take them down to the vault, Lex making an excuse about how they hadn’t wanted to tip off anyone currently in the bank as to what they had planned, and to her relief, he'd left not long afterwards.
When she'd called over to Riss, she'd been happy to reach her friend on the phone. “Did Art tell you about what's going on?” Lex had asked.
She had almost been able to hear Riss' little smile over the line. “Yes, he did. I'm emailing you the plans for the bank right now. It looks like the vault downstairs has the safety deposit boxes on one side and the money on the other.”
Lex had found herself nodding in return. “Yes, they told us they'd leave the metal connecting gates open so that we could get to one side or the other right away. We think the robbers might come here for the money vault side, though, because right now there's a big shipment of cash here that's supposed to be picked up in the next few days.”
Riss had made a sound that Lex translated as her friend considering the matter. “Can you see inside the vault?” Lex had asked her a few moments later.
“Give me a minute,” Riss had replied, then continued after a pause. “Yes, now I can. What's with the heaps of bankers bags?”
“I think that's supposed to be our cover,” Lex had said. “Lou is supposed to use the pillar across the room. Can you see behind it?”
Riss had fallen silent for a moment, then replied, “No, not as long as he sticks to the right-hand side as you face it. I think you and Rolf should be fine, though, because that heap of bags is huge.”
“Thanks,” Lex had said. “Oh, have you heard from Tamara yet?”
“Not long ago. Their problem is simpler, though. Only the money vault is downstairs, plus there aren't any cameras back in the former workroom they'll be staying in.”
“That reminds me...I think I saw a camera at the head of the hall that looks in this direction. I think we'll be OK to move around back here as long as that one's out of commission. Can you have a look and take care of it?” Lex had asked as she looked at the bank blueprints on her laptop.
Riss had made a noise of agreement. “Just wait a minute.” After a few moments more, she’d continued, “I see it. There are three doors in the hall that I see: two each to the right and left and one at the end of the hall. Are you behind one?”
“Yeah, we're in the storeroom, which is behind the first door to the left. The bathrooms and kitchen are along this hall, too, which should be the only places we'd be going during the day. Art must have told you about how we're going to call you to loop the cameras along the route we'll take to the vault every day, unless you want to make it a set time and just let us know what it is,” Lex had finished, unsure of what her friend would prefer.
“Just calling in is fine; Art let me know your suggestion about that, and he can handle it if I'm busy. The only thing you should know is that Lily's back, but I've been called in to testify starting tomorrow, so you may be dealing with Art more than me for the next week or so.” Riss' voice had sounded more or less normal, but Lex had thought she’d been able to detect a slight note of nervousness in it.
“They treated me just fine when I went over,” Lex had replied, trying to sound reassuring. “All of that reminds me, though: how's it going with the document-leaking people you contacted over the internet?”
Lex had almost heard her friend's shrug over the line. “They have the information but they're going through it with a fine-toothed comb to redact anything they think is too private to release. They also said that they'd need to contact MSI to let them know about the plan to leak the info and to give them an opportunity to review it.”
Unable to help shaking her head in dismay, Lex had said, “That's terrible. I hope they don't do anything.”
“I don't think it matters, though,” Riss had continued. “I think they'll release the information anyway.”
“Good, good,” Lex had replied, feeling relieved. “I'm glad to hear it. Thanks for all of your help with this, Riss.”
Her friend hadn’t replied, but Lex had almost been able to feel another of Riss' small smiles coming across the connection before she’d broken it.
The initial trip down to the vaults had felt secretive and dangerous to Lex. Later that night, the three of them had made their way out of the bank’s back rooms and into the open lobby. The room had been dark by midnight, but even in the emergency lighting Lex had been able to pick out the shine of the marble floors. The customer counters ran most of the length of the front of the room and she had been able to see a number of small offices off to one side, but the three of them had headed for a door along the opposite wall. Using the plainest key on the ring she'd been handed, Lex had unlocked the door and opened it. Lou had shut it behind the three of them as they’d headed down. Once they had reached the basement, Lex had paused to look at the giant vault in front of them, the door open with a number of bank bags piled all around. Lex had unlocked the iron gates separating them from the vault, and the three of them had stepped inside, pulling the gate shut behind them with a clang.
They’d surveyed their surroundings, locating the pillar Lou had been told to take position behind to the right of the vault door and checking to see that the gate between the main vault and the safety deposit box area had been left open. Lex and Rolf had then located the safe area that had been constructed for them behind the wall of bank bags, and Lex had felt happy to see that whoever had done the work had done a good job of leaving enough room and space to move fast when they needed to.
Lex had checked her cell phone to make sure they had had enough time before the loop they'd requested would have gone back to being a live feed, and had been relieved to see that they had still had about ten minutes. “All right,” she’d said to her teammates, “I think we should start getting into position. Try to stay awake, and we should probably limit any conversation to what's necessary, just so we're not talking when they show up.” She had then paused for a moment to shut off her cell phone. “Don't forget: turn off anything electronic on you or it may end up getting destroyed when the burglars show up.”
She had watched Lou nod and shut off his phone as he had headed for the corner behind the support pillar, and then she and Rolf had headed for their cave of bags. The first few hours seemed vivid in Lex's memory. She’d felt restless and nervous, identifying any noise as their quarry showing up and replaying what to do in her mind over and over. After a while, however, she had begun to get tired from the long day. She’d realized she'd been starting to nod off when she had felt Rolf's nose poking her in the ribs, and she had smiled when she’d looked down into his golden eyes, even though she had known he couldn't see her behind her visor.
More time passed, and the only thing that had seemed to keep her from despair had been the feel of Rolf's thick fur, and she had found her fingers twining themselves into it as she’d waited, checking her watch every five minutes, waiting for 8:00 a.m., and biting her lip when she had felt like she'd drop off into sleep. She could barely remember stumbling back upstairs and packing herself into her sleeping bag before falling asleep. To her annoyance, she'd only been able to sleep until about one o’clock until she had awoken, feeling out of sorts and fuzzy. She hadn’t wanted to disturb her roommates, so she’d checked her email and sent an update to the captain before tiring again and sleeping on and off for another couple of hours. When she had awoken later, both Rolf and Lou had gotten up already, and the three of them had spent the next hour and a half talking and telling stories before the people from the bank left.
As she thought back over the past few days, the only good things about them had been spending time with Lou and Rolf. Each night in the vault had gotten worse, the initial nervousness and excitement wearing off into a depressed dullness lived under a stifling helmet that she hadn’t dared take off. It seemed that only her contact with Rolf had been able to keep her alert as they had waited, her hand buried into his thick fur, and his occasional glances up at her, his head in her lap and his ears flicking now and again at the indignity of being forced to wear a plastic head protector.
Lex looked at herself in the mirror for a moment, her eyes obscured by her dripping bangs, before she grabbed her nearby towel and began drying her hair. She forced herself to stop dreading tonight in the vault and to think about something else.
In order to counter the feeling of craziness from not being able to go outside, during the evenings after the bank people had left. she and her friends would push the tables and chairs to the side in the small break room and Lou would practice his forms. The first time they'd done this, Lex had found out that Rolf had never had any martial arts training, so she had decided to try to show him some of the basics of the forms Mr. Chen had taught her. She would move between teaching Rolf and trying to help Lou if he had a question about something Mr. Chen had taught him.
When it came time to eat, they'd dig into the food the captain had sent along in the care package he'd made sure arrived the first morning they'd been in the bank. Lex sighed now as she took the rest of her clothes off and tried to wash up in the sink as well as she could. She hadn't eaten anything fresh for days and she felt like it showed. All the same, Rolf and Lou had managed to make their meals together interesting, talking about any news they'd managed to catch up on (since they'd all brought their laptops and cell phones) or swapping work stories, but the times Lex found she liked best were when they finished their guard duty for the night but couldn't yet fall asleep.
For some reason—maybe due to the way they'd arranged their sleeping bags, their heads not far from one another near the center of the room—the first night when they couldn't sleep, someone had started the tradition of telling stories of their childhoods. Lex had listened with great interest to Lou's stories of growing up with his brother at his grandmother’s house on a reservation in upstate New York. Lex found the tales of the three of them fascinating, but she loved it most when Lou retold the old stories his grandmother had told her grandsons.
“Do you want to hear the one that's Casey's favorite?” Lou had asked.
Lex had smiled, flipping over in her sleeping bag to face Lou, and had felt Rolf doing the same not far away. “Definitely! Tell us.”
A moment of silence had passed in the near dark, and Lex had heard Lou shifting in his own sleeping bag. “Well, I can never remember them exactly right, and I can't tell the stories as well as my grandmother could...” he had said, trailing off.
Rolf had broken the silence next. “Come on, now we're both dying to hear the story.”
Lou had chuckled then, a low, rich sound. “All right, I'll do the best I can.” After another pause, he had begun, “In the days of the ancients, it came to pass that the animals became angry with humans, who used to be their siblings. The animals got angry because the humans had become too numerous and killed too many of them, and not always out of real need. At first, they plotted to use the humans' weapons against them, but they found it difficult to construct bows, arrows, and spears. Then, they found they couldn't use them with their paws, claws, and wings.”
After hearing another shift, Lex had seen in the sliver of light coming in from under the door that Lou had turned in their direction now. “Finally, the chief of the deer had an idea. He went to see the humans and told them that they couldn't just indiscriminately kill his people anymore, and that if they killed any deer without offering prayers of thanks and without real need, that the humans who did so would be visited by a terrible disease. Sure enough, the ungrateful humans found themselves struck down with severe rheumatism. The snakes and fish agreed with what the deer had done, and they doomed anyone killing their kind with no care to be cursed with constant nightmares of being constricted by hundreds of snakes.
“While the animals talked and each decided how their kind would punish human beings, the plants listened. As they heard the animals plot disease and ruin upon humans, the plants began feeling sorry for them, and so they began to talk once the animals grew tired and slept. They determined that, since the animals had planned horrible diseases for the humans, each one of them would harbor a different cure for these diseases inside them. And as it was then, so it is today that the plants provide medicine to cure all ills for us.”
Lex had found her eyes drooping, since the rhythm Lou had told the story with had sounded deep, calm, and relaxed, but she’d forced them open again to see the fond smile on his face as he had finished. “Casey always says that's one of the reasons she cooks vegetarian food,” Lou had concluded with a chuckle.
Returning his smile, Lex had rolled back over in her sleeping bag so that she had lain on her back again. “That's Casey,” she’d said with a grin and a yawn. “She's pretty smart, you know.” She had closed her eyes then and fallen asleep to the sound of Lou and Rolf's quiet voices.
The following evening, it had just seemed to happen that Rolf began talking about his experiences growing up with his grandmother in a small cottage in the Black Forest. “My earliest memories are of walking through the forest with her while she gathered medicinal plants and wild food. By the time I turned ten, I had the area memorized for kilometers around our house. A couple of times a year we'd go to the mountains as well, usually in the spring and fall to collect the medicinal plants there.”
“It sounds like she followed the old ways,” Lou had said, and Lex had seen Rolf nod in response.
“She was the last person in the family who did,” he had expanded. “I wish I remembered more of what she taught me, because I think she tried to pass on as much of her knowledge to me as she could, but I was so young then that I didn't pay attention like I should have. She knew so many things and had a lot of power, though. People from some of the nearby towns would come to see her, especially when the regular doctors gave up on them, and she'd always try to help. Even though I don't remember it all, I did learn a lot from her.”
“Did you go to school near there?” Lex had asked, wondering what it would have been like to grow up in a friendly forest with your grandmother.
“My grandmother taught me at home. She did a pretty good job of teaching me all the basics, but I think I majored in identifying wild food and medicine,” Rolf had replied, and Lex had been able to even see him grin in the dim light.
“It sounds wonderful,” Lex had said. A quiet sound behind her then had caused her to look over at Lou, and as she had, she’d realized that he'd fallen asleep.
She had looked back at Rolf in the murky light coming from the gap at the bottom of the door, trying to read his expression. It hadn't been lost on her in the past several months that they'd been together that Rolf had talked about his family like she talked about her own—with few words and in passing. He'd never mentioned his grandmother before tonight, and Lex had found herself burning up with curiosity about the woman. “So how long did you live with your grandmother?” she had asked then, watching his face as best she could in the half-light.
“Until I reached ten years old,” he had said, and Lex had noticed a definite tension run through his body as he’d responded. She had glanced over and noticed that he had one hand outside his sleeping bag, so she had reached out for it. His hand had clasped hers right away.
“What happened after that?” she had asked in a soft voice. “It's all right if you don't want to talk about it or anything; I'm just wondering.”
He had sighed. “Well, I think I knew for a while that she hadn't been doing well, so I tried to do what I could to take on the chores around the house so she could rest. But then one day, I woke up and she didn't. So, using the instructions she left for me, I got to meet my immediate family for the first time I could remember.”
She had been able to feel that Rolf's hand had tightened around hers, and Lex had squeezed his hand back. Lex had looked at his profile—what she could see of it in the dim light—to try to gauge his mood. Somehow, even though she hadn’t been able to see much, she had felt as if he’d wanted to talk more, so she had asked in a murmur, “I'm so sorry to hear about your grandmother. How did it go with the rest of your family?”
“Well, I found out right away that the rest of my family was nothing like my grandmother, and I began to understand why I'd been sent to live with her. They sent me off to boarding school a couple of weeks later.” He had reported what had happened with no emotion in his voice, but Lex had been able to feel the old pain behind his statement.
“That's terrible!” she had exclaimed, the words having slipped out of her mouth before she thought about it.
Rolf had turned towards her then, and when she had squinted Lex had been able to see the uneven grin on his face as he had looked at her. “Actually, I ended up preferring it to living with them. After the first few times, I decided I didn't even want to go home on the holidays.”
She had just shaken her head then, knowing the reason for all of that must be grim, and pulled their joined hands to her cheek, where she had brushed his hand against her skin. After a few moments, their hands had loosened and Lex had moved her sleeping bag closer to Rolf's and curled her body in his direction, resting her head on his chest and throwing her arm around him. He had moved his hand to stroke her hair. Sometime as she had slid into sleep Lex had heard his voice near her ear. “Thank you.”
Lex looked at her reflection as she finished washing up as well as she could. She dreaded the whole night ahead. Just the idea of another silent evening in an empty vault with a sweaty helmet on, waiting for someone who would never come, followed by the expectation that she'd talk about her childhood experiences with her friends afterwards seemed to be threatening to unhinge her. After what felt like an eternity, Lex gave her reflection a hard look and began some breathing exercises, drying off and pacing back and forth until the feelings that threatened to swamp her had receded. After dressing, she looked at herself in the mirror again. “You can do this. Remember, Lou and Rolf are counting on you, too.” Several long moments later Lex felt strong enough to get her things together and rejoin her team.
She'd done fine through their practice that evening and had even managed to put on her usual demeanor as they went down to the vault. Once they'd been there for several hours, however, Lex found her feelings threatening to overwhelm her again. After she'd checked her watch for what felt like the millionth time and found that it had only gotten to 2:37 in the morning, Lex felt ready to throw off her sweaty helmet and start to scream. She'd even lifted an arm, prepared to do just that, when a wolf's head nudged her side, hard. Lex froze as she looked Rolf in the eye. His glance looked intense and serious. His expression seemed to tell her that he'd heard something, and Lex put her arm back to rest on her leg as she watched his ears swivel, and then she heard some movement in the room in front of where they sat.
Lex leaned over with care, trying not to make a sound. She'd managed to rearrange the bags to create a small space, no bigger than something she could slip a flat hand through, where she could see the space in front of the vault door. Lex felt her eyes widen as she spotted two women. The smaller blonde looked uncertain, her posture hunched as she kept her hands together in front of her chest, her expression worried. The taller woman had black hair and she held her finger in the air as she listened hard and looked around the room. Finally, she shook her head, which dislodged enough of her hair that Lex spotted the woman's star tattoo. She glanced down to see Rolf watching and she nodded her head once, taking care not to let her helmet hit anything, to let him know that the two had arrived. The look in his eyes changed to certainty, but then a voice drew Lex's attention forward again.
“It's nothing, just electronics I guess,” the brunette said, her tone sure and brash, with a distinct British accent. “Hurry up and get everyone else so we can finish this job and get out of here. You know I've never liked basements.”
The other woman mumbled something in return that Lex couldn't hear, then disappeared. She watched, trying not to move a muscle, as the brunette paced the room, glancing around at everything and looking as if she knew something felt out of place. Once three people arrived a few moments later, however, the woman seemed to have forgotten.
Lex could see the blonde with two men now. The first one she noticed stood about her own height, maybe five and a half feet tall with close-cropped salt and pepper hair. He'd dressed for the occasion in a black suit with a white dress shirt but no tie. From the way he looked and how he moved, Lex didn't take him for a martial artist or a bodybuilder. The second man stood about six feet tall and had shaggy blonde hair and dark blue eyes. He’d dressed in some kind of sweat suit and looked pleased about something, Lex thought.
As the blonde disappeared again, the man in the black suit said, “Win, when your sister gets back, I want the three of you to start on the bags. Lucius, the wall you need to start on is this one over here,” the man continued, pointing to the wall on the opposite side of the room from where Lex and Rolf had hidden.
Win sighed as Lucius walked over to the opposite wall. “All right, Hardy. This is the most boring part, though.”
“Just try to think about how you're going to spend all of this money as you're packing it up,” Hardy replied, and the grin he gave as he spoke sent a chill down Lex's back.
The blonde woman arrived back just then, along with a woman around Lou's size. The new woman had reddish-brown hair that hung in long curls down her back, and she surveyed the room with a suspicious expression. Lex felt every nerve ending start to hum as she watched the small blonde woman. She'd reappeared not far at all from Lex's viewing window and seemed to be exhausted. As Lex watched, the woman slumped over, her hands on her knees as she panted. Win came over to put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right, Iris?”
The blonde woman looked up then and Lex could see her try to smile as she nodded. Win rubbed Iris' shoulder for a moment and then moved away, taking her own backpack off to lay it nearby. Lex could hear the calculations running through her mind, and she didn't feel too happy with the results. Lex had rearranged the fort of bags enough so that she and Rolf had two ways out: one to her right, past where Rolf lay, where the bags tapered away to nothing, and one to her left that would require her to push some of the bags over and jump over them. The problem with the exit to the left was trying not to make too much noise while she and Rolf rearranged themselves, and the problem with the one to the right was Win standing over there, and the large woman who'd arrived last had begun to make her way over there, too.
After a few moments of pondering, Lex came up with an idea that made her grin. She gestured to Rolf what she had in mind and to run to the right as she moved. Rolf shifted as Lex stood up, taking great care not to touch anything but still hidden by the pile of bags and backed up as much as their alcove would allow. Quickly, she jammed her hands in her former peep hole and lifted herself up, putting her foot in the hole she'd widened and then stepping up further. She climbed the unstable pile, compensating the best she could as it shifted, and then leaped down as she reached the top, landing right next to Iris with a minimum of stumbling. With the best speed she could manage, Lex snapped her hand out to grab Iris' as it hung near her side where she still crouched, catching her breath. Lex pulled both of their hands to her side, grabbing the plastic zip strap she'd brought out of a pocket with her other hand, and with the same movement yanked the end though the fastener to where it held their wrists together with just enough room not to dig in. Lex twisted Iris' arm behind her and pulled as she stood up straight, reaching into a nearby pocket with her free hand to grab the punch dagger she'd stashed there and settle it under the corner of the small blonde's jaw, not far from her ear.
“Don't move. Don't even think about going anywhere,” Lex said, her voice shaking with adrenaline as she leaned in near the blonde's ear. “As I think you can tell, we're connected now, so where you go, I go. And if you try to take us anywhere, I'm going to push this knife up. It'll puncture a big artery there and you'll bleed to death within minutes.”
Lex could tell from her quick look at the expression of dawning horror on Iris' face that she would be unlikely to have any trouble from the woman. As she darted glances around the room to see the rest of the groups’ actions, Lex realized she'd slipped into that odd state where she seemed to be moving at normal speed but everyone around her looked to be stuck in molasses. The tall brunette to her left stared at Lex with her mouth open, and Lex could see that Lou had come out to engage the woman near his size. He and the redhead had locked hands, but Lex could see him preparing to sweep her feet.
Rolf stood to her right, snarling and snapping at Lucius, who'd pulled back in fright. Lex breathed a sigh of relief as she took in the full expression of fear on his face. Maybe he's afraid of dogs, she thought, until he started moving again. She watched as Rolf lunged forward at Lucius, his teeth bared, before he turned to hit the man with his shoulder and knock him against the wall. At that moment, however, Lex spotted the man in the black suit moving again. He'd stuck his hand in the top of his suit jacket as if going for a weapon and said, “Do I have to do everything around here?”
Feeling her eyes going wide, Lex tried to move forward, only to remember her attachment to Iris, still hunched in the position where Lex had first encountered her. As Lex glanced over at Rolf she realized that his view of Hardy had been blocked by Lucius. Pushing the woman at her side forward, Lex knew she'd never make it to Hardy in time as she saw the man pull a gun out in slow motion. Her stomach sank as it began to clear his jacket, but then she had an idea.
“Hardy!” she bellowed as she flipped her visor up to expose her mouth. The man in the suit turned his head to look at her as she felt her power contract in her lungs. “Stop!”
For a moment, silence seemed to fall around her, and Lex assumed that she'd stopped everything in the area and that she'd need to snap her friends out of it, but then the noises of fighting and snarling continued as they had been. Hardy alone stood frozen with the gun still halfway out of his jacket, his face a mingled expression of surprise and rage.
Lex sighed out a shaky breath of air as she seemed to step back into the same speed as the rest of the world. A boom from the back wall of the vault showed Lou still grappling with the auburn-haired woman, now slammed against the wall, cracks radiating through the concrete from where he'd hit. Rolf still had Lucius against the wall, as well. He seemed to be trying to do something with his hands that Rolf kept interrupting. Win hadn't moved either, which left Lex free to move forwards to take possession of the gun.
“Walk with me,” she said to Iris, at her side.
When the woman remained hunched over, Lex leaned forward to see, to her horror, tears running down Iris' face. “I can't go anywhere,” the woman sobbed. “I'm too tired.”
“Can you walk?” Lex asked in a soft voice, feeling like a complete thug. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Iris replied, turning her tear-stained face to look at Lex. “I just mean that I'm too tired to travel anywhere right now...oh, never mind.”
Oh. She's too exhausted to use her special talent right now. “All, right, then, I'll just put this away,” Lex said, striving for a calm, even tone. “I apologize for threatening you like that; I thought you might disappear and take me with you. Can you walk along with me now?”
The blonde sniffled and nodded, her gaze turned towards the floor. When they arrived in front of Hardy, Lex breathed a sigh of relief as she pried the gun from his hand and slipped it into one of her uniform pockets. He looked to be straining against what she'd said to him, his eyes struggling to turn in her direction as she watched. Deciding to wait until Hardy had started moving again before handcuffing him, Lex turned to find Win coming towards her.
“Don't move, please,” she said, her voice ringing out over Rolf's continued snarling and the voice of the woman in the rear of the room yelling at Lou in annoyed German as the two of them fought, then another loud boom as one of them hit the wall or floor. “I'm sure I don't need to remind you that I'm still attached to your sister.”
Win's eyes narrowed with anger. “Don't you do anything to her! I'm cooperating with you assholes, even though I have no idea who you are, so don't take anything out on her!”
Lex could feel her heart hammering in her throat and the other familiar signals of her body ramping up for a fight, but she tried to keep her voice calm. “We don't want to harm anyone here. We're from the Special Forces and we're here to arrest you, that's all.”
Win's eyes widened in surprise and fear, but she followed Lex's directions and put her hands behind her back to be handcuffed. Once Lex finished that, Win said, “Just make sure nothing happens to Iris, or this won't be the end between the two of us.”
“She'll be fine as long as all of you remain calm,” Lex replied, turning to the rest of the group to try to determine what to tackle next. Lou remained near the back of the room. She could see him wrestling with the third woman, shifting his shoulder to try to get the advantage as they rolled on the ground. Hardy hadn't begun moving yet, so Lex approached Rolf and the man he'd pushed up against the wall and remained snarling and snapping at. She looked down at Rolf, who shot her a quick glance, still growling. “Please,” she said, directing herself to Lucius, who'd pressed himself as far against the wall as he could, fear in his eyes but still trying to do something with his hands, “turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
He glanced over at Lex when she added, “The wolf won't hurt you if you do as I say.” This seemed to have no effect on him, however, so she caught one of his wrists and pulled his arm back towards his back. Lucius tried to struggle but didn't manage to evade her when Lex reached out with martial-arts–worthy speed and caught his other arm, then cuffed his hands together. He just stood in place after she'd finished, staring at Rolf as he growled, then aimed a kick at the wolf, which Rolf dodged using little effort. Lex shrugged as she turned to face Hardy again.
“That's quite an unusual power you have there,” he said in a tone that sounded relaxed, but Lex could hear the edge of threat and power in it, as well. She shifted her stance since he'd moved closer to her.
“Please put both hands behind your back,” Lex replied, her stomach clenching as she hoped that he didn't have any other weapons on him. Rolf moved a few steps away from Lucius to where he could flank Hardy if needed, watching the man with unblinking attention.
“Really, that's most ungenerous of you,” Hardy replied, moving back a step. “I'm just curious about what you can do, after all.”
Lex sighed, noting the shakiness of her next breath in. “Please, just turn around and put your arms together. I’ll be glad to talk to you after that.”
“Now, now, young lady, you can't tell me that you came out here expecting us to give up without a fight.” He'd narrowed his eyes now, and Lex turned to protect Iris with her body as she tried to calculate what his next move would be.
“Goddamn it, Hardy! Do you think you can win here? They've gotten the best of us. You're up against a wolf and someone who can move so fast that I almost couldn’t see her. Just give up for now and we'll fight back in court,” Win said, her voice desperate.
“Just because you rolled over for these people doesn't mean I'm going to,” Hardy replied, moving into some sort of crouched stance. Iris whimpered beside her and Lex tried to keep the calm look on her face to reassure the other woman.
“Hey, you with the helmet on,” Win called. “Hardy isn't any kind of martial artist that I know of. I don't know of any other weapons he has, but then again I didn't know about the gun either, so I'd advise you to frisk him once you catch him, which you will soon, I’m sure.”
“Shut the fuck up, Win!” Hardy hissed, his expression furious.
“I will not, you stubborn idiot! You can't win this, and if you try and Iris gets hurt, I will track you down and end your life, even if I have to do it myself.”
Lex had continued to keep her eyes fastened to Hardy, but she could hear Win's heavy breathing to her left after that outburst. After a final glare in Win's direction, Hardy turned around and presented his back to Lex. Reaching out for his arms, she found that she had to exert some force to keep them together when he seemed as if he’d changed his mind at the last moment. Able to fasten the zip tie after a few seconds of struggle, Lex sighed with relief as she looked over to see Lou working on fastening his opponent’s wrists together as well from where she lay on her side on the floor.
At that moment, Lex became aware of the shaking in her arms and legs as the adrenaline started to subside, and she just took a moment to stand and rest, trying to calm her rapid breaths, runaway heartbeats, and queasy stomach. She saw Rolf looking up at her with concern, so she smiled down at him as she took another deep, calming breath. Looking over at Iris, she saw that the other woman regarding her with awe and fear, so Lex smiled at the other woman in a way she hoped looked calm and confident.
“All right,” she said once her breath had slowed down so that she could speak without panting, “I guess it’s time to call for pickup.” Lex sighed as her phone went dead and started to smoke the moment she turned it on. “Hardy,” she said, turning to the man in question, “if you prefer, I can stop you again.” When he just glared at her, Lex continued, “Well, I could always try something new. I’ve never told anyone to ‘stop everything,’ so I’m not sure what would happen.”
She gave him a glare, which he dropped his eyes from after a long moment. “All right, you’ve made your point,” Hardy replied, looking over at the wall. “I’ll behave.”
Lex glanced at him with a raised eyebrow, then looked over to Lou, who’d begun to come in her direction. “How's she doing?” Lex asked, looking at his former opponent lying on the ground. “Are you all right?”
“She'll just be out for a few more minutes, I’d guess. I needed to cut off her air in order to subdue her, but she's fine,” Lou replied. “I'm fine, too, but it made for a tough fight. I'm lucky I've been working with Mr. Chen.”
“Would you mind going upstairs and calling for a pickup for us? My cell phone is fried, and I figure it's safer to move as much out of range as we can to do that,” Lex said, casting an annoyed glance at Hardy.
“No problem,” Lou replied, accepting the keys from Lex and heading out of the room.
Lex found she'd brought a hand to her churning stomach to clutch at it, hoping it calmed. As she felt pressure on her leg, she looked down to see Rolf leaning his shoulder against her, looking up at her with concern. She smiled back down at him and let her arm hang down by her side again. Glancing around the room, she saw that Win had sat down on a pile of bank bags, and the woman in the back of the room remained quiet, as did Lucius, his head turned away from the group. Hardy faced Lex, however, and the look on his face told her that he still wanted to challenge her.
“You didn't answer my question from earlier,” Hardy said, looking Lex up and down. Lex remained at a wary distance.
“I didn't know you asked one,” she replied, keeping her eyes locked on his and watching out of the corner of her eye for unexpected movements from any of the rest of the crew.
“I suppose I didn't actually phrase it as a question, did I?” he mused after a few seconds of silence. “Since that's the case, let me ask outright—would you tell me about that voice of yours?”
Lex shifted her feet and dropped her gaze. “Why do you want to know about it?”
“Why wouldn't I?” he asked. “Since you caught me using it, I'd like to know more about what it is that you can do. Also, I don't think I've heard of anyone with a talent quite like that before.”
Considering, Lex looked at Hardy and thought about what she should say. Ever since she'd started at the M Agency, she'd felt reticent about talking about what she could do. She didn't mind her teammates knowing about it, but the idea of discussing it with someone she might come up against on the battlefield again seemed suicidal. So, she chose another path. “There's a good reason for that. My speed, and my martial arts skills: these are things I've cultivated over the years. This is me. My voice abilities are new, and they didn't come to me the normal way.”
Frowning, Hardy asked, “What do you mean?”
Lex shrugged. “An American company wanted to do a large-scale trial of dangerous genetic modification drugs and performed experiments on lots of people, me included. I believe they're trying to get some sort of reproducible effect, something they can turn around and market, I guess.”
He stared at her for a moment, but Lou's arrival back downstairs pulled Lex's attention away. “Did you reach anyone?” she asked him.
Lou nodded, sitting on the floor next to the large woman in the back of the room. “They said we should have help here within a half-hour or less.”
“Hey, you,” Hardy said, glaring at Lex. “You can't just stop in the middle of the story like that! Did the company get any reproducible effect?”
Considering a moment, Lex nodded. “Yes. The biggest effect they seem to be able to produce is to kill the majority of the people they give the drugs to, men more than women. Those that live don't always appear to be human anymore, and often they get strange abilities.”
Hardy drew back in his dismay. “What? Why would you agree to be a part of an experiment like that?”
“That's the thing,” Lex replied, nodding. “I didn't consent to participate, and as far as I can tell, none of the rest of the people they experimented on did either.”
He paled as he looked at her. “Surely that's not legal, even in the country you're from.”
Lex scratched the back of her head as she returned his gaze. Even though she'd lived here for a while, everyone still seemed to know where she'd come from, just based on the way she spoke, Lex assumed. After a long pause, Lex replied, “As far as I know, that's correct; it isn't legal to perform medical experiments on people without their consent. But, the corporation experimenting on us, or someone, managed to create a loophole in the law that stripped people with extraordinary capabilities of our rights, in essence, allowing them to do as they wished.”
“And you still protect them,” he said in return, scowling at Lex.
Shaking her head, Lex said, “No, actually, I'm suing them through the ICC. You can follow the progress of the case in the papers, assuming it ever goes to trial, but I believe the whole thing is a matter of public record.”
Although his eyebrows shot up at her last statement, Hardy shook his head. “That's not what I mean. Why are you still protecting these ordinary people when they experimented on you like a lab rat?”
“The only people who experimented on me worked for the corporation that performed the experiments, and I later found out that some of them had been forced to do it. The people at fault are likely the ones at the top of the organization, and I hope at the end of the trial they'll be behind bars where they can't hurt anyone else.”
“So, you're under the impression that it'll be over then? That somehow you'll be accepted into society like anyone else?” he asked, looking disdainful.
“I am now; the lawsuit won't change anything about that,” Lex replied, feeling her brow furrowing. “Or are you under the impression that we're somehow singled out here any more than any other group of people?”
“Well,” Hardy said, his eyes narrowing, “how about the special forces, then? Why are they there, staffed only with people like us? Do you actually think we won't be the first ones in the front lines if anyone comes to attack any of the EU countries?”
Lex lifted an eyebrow as she considered Hardy's words, but turned towards Lou and Rolf as she began to hear sirens outside. “I think they've arrived early,” she said, turning to Lou. “Would you mind letting them in?”
He smiled and crossed through to the front of the room, leaving the vault cage open this time. “Keep an eye on the woman in the back,” he said as he passed Lex. “I think she's starting to wake up again.”
She smiled in return and walked towards the back of the room, careful not to pull against Iris' arm. The other woman matched her steps, her head bowed and her movements slow. Lex looked over at Iris, trying to catch the blonde's eye to make sure she seemed all right, but Iris wouldn't turn in her direction. Once they'd arrived, Lex could see that although the auburn-haired woman had begun to stir, she hadn’t quite awoken yet, so Lex stood by and awaited the arrival of their pickup team.
It didn't take long until the entire bank seemed filled with police from various agencies. Lex saw local police, some of the Interpol agents she'd spotted at the other crime scene, and federal police, as well. When questioned by them, she repeated the same thing time and again: “Let's get these people secured before we give our statement. We'd like to be able to give it once, and then anyone who has further questions can ask them at that time.”
Lou somehow managed to take care of everything that she and Rolf couldn't while they watched over the people they'd caught. He packed up all of their things, directed people downstairs, and even dealt with the branch manager, who arrived not long after the first wave of police. The mass of police remained and began the process of collecting evidence while the branch manager flitted from group to group, demanding to know what they were doing. As that unfolded, Lex and Rolf supervised the transfer of the prisoners.
Lex watched Rolf follow each prisoner as they escorted Win out first, then Hardy, and Lucius. Iris remained at Lex side until Lou rejoined them and they completed the transfer, bringing the large, auburn-haired woman out with them as well, walking at Lou's side and glaring at him. “I let the other team know they can head home,” he told Lex and Rolf, “and I called Riss to see if she could keep an eye on Hardy while we're getting him transferred.”
Lex let out a sigh as they entered the large van and settled themselves among all the others. “Thank you for taking care of all of that. You thought of everything.”
Lou's quiet smile and the strong feel of Rolf's furry body pressed against her leg warmed her thoughts the whole way to the police station. When Hardy spoke to her again, staring at her as he asked why they were all being transported in the same way, Lex smiled but didn't answer, knowing that he'd been close enough to hear her suggest to the police that she, Lou, and Rolf travel with the prisoners.
She felt happy when they arrived at the holding facility that the people there seemed to have appropriate cells for their prisoners, and accepted an offer of tea with many thank-yous. After that, however, everything became a firestorm of questions. They barely gave Rolf time to change back and get dressed before all three of them found themselves repeating the same story time and again, sometimes in different ways to different people. The Interpol detectives in particular seemed upset with them and asked them lots of questions, often asking the same question in different ways, perhaps in an attempt to get them to slip up. The three of them sat on the same side of the table as the police and officials questioned them, and Lex couldn't help but feel safe and protected between Rolf and Lou, even being in a room full of strangers, at least some of whom seemed hostile.
Morning light crept through the windows by the time Lex and her teammates found themselves in an empty office with enough time to make some calls. She could hear Lou talking to Casey as she reached Captain Shapiro, using Rolf's cell phone.
“Captain, I'm just calling to let you know that we ended up catching the burglars last night,” Lex said, her tone sounding cautious to her own ears.
“I'm reading something about it on the internet right now,” he replied in a flat voice.
Lex winced. “I'm really sorry about that, Captain. I would have called sooner but my phone's out of commission. Once we caught them, we had prisoners to deal with until they could be handed over to someone who could handle them, and then they wanted to grill us for hours–”
“Lex, the only thing I really want to know is if anyone got hurt,” the captain said, his voice serious.
“Thankfully, we caught all five people and no one got injured on either side,” Lex replied, sighing in her relief.
“Well done, Lex. Give my congratulations to the team. There's one more thing I wanted to talk about with you, however. I'm assuming that Lou will want to come home right away, but I was wondering if you and Rolf would mind staying there a couple more days to wrap up any loose ends. In case you could, I've booked a room for the two of you not far from there. If there's nothing for you to take care of, you can feel free to spend the time relaxing, all right?”
Lex found herself smiling. “It sounds pretty good about now. Let me confirm that with Rolf and call you back, OK?”
She rung off as Captain Shapiro agreed. Lex explained the offer to Rolf while she heard Lou finishing his conversation with Casey. “Sure,” he said in reply. “This is a beautiful town. I think you'll like it.”
“So, what did Casey say?” Lex asked, turning to Lou as he put his phone back into his pocket.
“They're only a couple hours from home,” Lou replied, and Lex couldn't help but smile at his grin.
“Why don't you head home, then?” she suggested. “Rolf and I are going to stay here for another couple of days to take care of any loose ends, so you can go now if you like.”
“Are you sure?” he asked, an eyebrow raised, but his expression relaxed as Lex and Rolf both nodded. “All right. I'll say hi to everyone for you.”
The captain had sent the address of the hotel to Rolf's email, which Rolf replied to in order to let the captain know that he and Lex would stay. The two of them took the quick walk to where they'd be staying, which turned out to be a bed and breakfast in one of the older sections of town. It had been built out of a number of row houses that the proprietors connected, and the room the captain had gotten them sat on the top floor overlooking the garden in back. They settled into the comfortable suite, which included the owner bringing up some food for them, and after a long shower, they'd drawn the blinds as best they could and cuddled together in bed, hoping they'd be able to sleep for at least a few hours.
“Rolf,” Lex asked after a few moments of silence, “do you think he was right?”
She turned to look at him, and he looked uncomfortable, then sighed. “Well, I don't know that there's any plan like he talked about, where we'd be on our own or sent in first or anything like that. It is true, from what I've seen, that everyone who has talents like we do is encouraged to sign up for the Special Forces, and I think everyone who does is included in the rolls as an auxiliary.”
They looked at each other, and Lex could feel her own frown of worry until Rolf continued. “You know, once we get back we can look into it. Until then...”
He trailed off as she looked into his eyes, which seemed somehow darker now. “Maybe we should take advantage of being in a bed again, you mean?”
Rolf smiled. “You know, it wasn't easy sleeping next to you every night for days and not being able to touch you like I wanted to.”
She leaned forward then and caught him up in a kiss, and somehow they didn't have any trouble sleeping later on that day.
At lunch on the second day after they'd checked into the bed and breakfast, Lex got a call from Captain Shapiro. She and Rolf had managed to sneak out of the police station to eat at a small cafe across the street when the call came in. After juggling her new phone out of her bag and remembering how to answer it, Lex listened with an odd feeling in her stomach once she'd identified her caller.
“I'm sorry to have to ask you cut your time in Bruges short, but we just heard that they’re planning to go forward with the trial against MSI. Both sides will be presenting their opening statements tomorrow, and the prosecution has requested that the people who submitted the complaint be there for it. Do you think you can have everything wrapped up there today?”
Lex looked over at Rolf, knowing that he'd probably heard since they'd sat at a tiny table. He shrugged and nodded as if to say that they'd manage it somehow. “Sure, we'll try to be home by tonight,” she replied, then ended the call.
“I guess this is it,” she said, looking over at Rolf, who moved over slightly to hold her hand under the table.
Forward to Chapter 46
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