Chapter 1

The day had finally arrived.  And about time, Sean mused to himself as he walked to the garage, which belonged to Ryan and Tyler Spencer's parents, that they used as Checkwolf headquarters.  I've been away from a state-of-the-art facility for too long.  The night before, Sean had received a phone call shortly before he left for the day.  It had been the mayor himself, telling him that their new headquarters had finally been finished.  They were to be there at ten the next morning to be shown around.  Sean was still impressed that they could have taken a building and converted it into a base for them in just over a month.  But it was done, and Sean couldn't have been happier.

As Sean waited for the pedestrian light to flash to "walk," he looked around at his surroundings: the early morning traffic, both on the streets and on the sidewalks, the towering buildings that served as places of employment for hundreds of people, and everything else that made Kewanee the bustling city that it was.  As Sean glanced around, he caught sight of his reflection in a store window.  He contemplated himself. 

He was a well-muscled, tall man, with wavy, light brown hair, a confident stature, and a noticeably piercing, hardened, brown-eyed gaze, the gaze that had been the memento from his excursion into New York.  He was also a man nearing thirty years of age.  Sean rarely had doubts about his life-course choice and, despite the fact that he was more alone now than he had ever been, at twenty-eight and a half years was satisfied so far with how well everything was going for him. 

Sean crossed the street and walked the remainder of the way to the headquarters.  He arrived at a quarter to nine, and was the first member there.  He moved to the back of the garage, sat in his chair, and propped his feet up on his oaken desk.  He laced his fingers together behind his head, resting his head on them and waited for the others to arrive.  He hadn't told anyone else about the call yet. 

Everyone's supposed to be here today, Sean thought to himself.  This was his final week of vacation from work, and all of the rest of the organization had this week off as well, or had at least taken off this day.  If they even had to return to their secular jobs.  Hopefully, after today, they could get right to their new work, namely, fighting crime.

Finally, at a quarter past nine, the four Spencers entered the garage, talking amongst themselves.  As they were taking their seats, Jay Wayne and Jesse Ince entered.  Sporadically over the next fifteen minutes, the others trickled in.

At the bottom of the nine o'clock hour, Sean straightened up in his chair and crossed his forearms on his desk.  "Attention, please," he said in a fairly quiet, but commanding, voice.  All of the chatter instantly ceased and eleven sets of eyes gazed in his direction.  "I have some good news," Sean began.  "Last night, at about ten-thirty, I received a call from the mayor.  The new headquarters has been completed."  Sean paused as a whoop of joy went up from all of the members.  After a few moments, Sean held his hand up.  Silence reigned once again.  "We are supposed to meet a representative at ten o'clock sharp, this morning."  Sean glanced at his watch.  "We should probably head over there," he said. 

Most of the group piled into the van; the others went in either Scott's car or James' motorcycle.  The van led the procession over to the base site, several blocks over at 501 Southwest Seventh Avenue.  They made the drive in under fifteen minutes through the light mid-morning traffic flow.  When they approached the address, they were all taken by surprise.

Sean had only been told the address of the building the night before.  He hadn't taken the time then to go check it out, wanting to be with his men when they all got their first look.  So he was as shocked as everybody else when they saw the sheer size of the building.  Sean was beginning to wonder if he had made a mistake.  He pulled out the slip of note paper that on which he had written the address the previous evening.  501 SW 7th Ave, it said.  He looked out the passenger window of the van at the front door of the edifice, on the south side of the building.  In plain black letters it read: 501.

The building, the new Checkwolf headquarters, was huge; large simply wasn't the right word for it.  It took up almost the entire block.  And blocks throughout Kewanee were uniform in size - eight blocks to a mile - which meant that this building was likely six hundred feet to a side.  But as it only rose two stories upward, it was also somewhat squat-looking.  Sean heard more than one Checkwolf member utter a soft oath.

"How do we get in?" Ruben, who was driving, asked.

"Uh, around back," Sean said, recalling the conversation from the night before.  He was trying not to sound as shaken as he felt.

Ruben nodded and made a right turn, going along the western side of the building.  When he came to Sixth Avenue, he turned right again.  There was a short driveway leading up to the rear of the building, where the garage evidently was.  The garage door was open.  Ruben pulled up the driveway and into the garage, with Scott and James right behind him. 

As they got out of the vehicles, they looked at the immensity of the room they were in.  This garage was easily twice the size of their old garage, their old headquarters, and it took up just one corner of the building.  Also, evident on the far south side of the garage were what seemed to be an elevator and stairwell, side by side.

Standing near the elevator was a smiling man, apparently in his mid-to-late thirties, dressed in a conservative pinstripe suit.  "Good morning!" he greeted.

Sean nodded as he walked over.  "Morning," he said, shaking the man's hand.  "I assume you're the one that's to show us the building?"

The man paused momentarily.  "That I am," he finally said with a slight British accent, inclining his head as he did so.  "Call me Jenkins."

"Very well, Jenkins," Sean said.  "Lead on."

The elevator came to a stop and they filed out.  As they all exited the elevator and turned to their left, they saw a wall that looked to be as long as a house.  "This is the final stage of the tour," Jenkins said.  "The living accomodations."

"These look pretty large," Sean said.  

"They are.  All are approximately sixty-four hundred square feet."

Sean's eyes bugged.  "How many are supposed to stay in each?"

"You all still have the nameplates that I gave you downstairs?" Jenkins asked.  The Checkwolf members fished in their pockets and pulled out the strips of metal that bore their own names.  "Follow me," Jenkins invited, leading the group north to the first door they reached.  He reached for the member nearest him, Ryan, and took his nameplate, sliding it into a slot on the door made especially for it..

"My room?" Ryan asked.

Jenkins nodded.

"We all have individual rooms?" Sean asked.

Jenkins nodded.  "And they are already all stocked with basic furniture items."

The Checkwolf members scrambled, each looking for a room to call his own.

"How many rooms?" Sean asked, walking with Jenkins back toward the elevator.


"There are only twelve of us," Sean half-protested.

Jenkins smiled.  "As I mentioned downstairs in the conference room, the backer has evidently planned this building with expansion in mind."  

Sean nodded.  "Right.  But how much must this building have cost?"

Jenkins shrugged.  "Since it was a preexisting structure, the cost was only a fraction of what it would have been if new."

"But probably in the millions," Sean said, more a statement than a question.


"That's a lot of money."

"Not for a billionaire," Jenkins said.  "Let's say you're worth ten billion dollars, just as an example.  You want to sink, say, fifty million dollars into a structure."

"Well, that seems a bit high."

"This is just an example," Jenkins reminded Sean.

Sean nodded.

"Fifty million is only five percent of ten billion."  He paused.  "Let's say you're worth a hundred thousand dollars."

Sean heard one of the members call particularly loudly.  He turned, looked north, and saw Jay and Ruben bolt past the edge of Ryan's "room" at top speed.  He smiled as he looked back.  "That seems a bit high, too."

Jenkins smiled as well.  "Don't I know it."

"But I see where you're going," Sean replied.  "Five percent of a hundred grand is only five thousand; a lot of money but not a backbreaking amount."

"Money just isn't the same to these richer people," Jenkins observed.  "It was probably a tax write-off."

Sean frowned.  "Don't you work for our 'anonymous backer'?"

"Oh, no," Jenkins said.

"Then, may I ask what capacity you serve in?  Why are you here?"

"Nobody's told you?"

Sean indicated that he didn't know what Jenkins was talking about.

"Ah, I see.  Well, in simple terms, I'm to be your probation officer."

Sean smiled, but he felt as if the wind had been knocked from him.  It made sense, of course.  The city wasn't about to let them run free, without any oversight.  "I see."

"I won't get in your way, Mr. Matts," Jenkins said.  Sean noticed that he left unsaid an important part of the question: As long as you don't give me any reason to.

"How long is the probationary period?"

"That depends on you," Jenkins responded.  "But I don't anticipate it to be long."  He checked his watch.  "If that will be all . . . ?"

Sean nodded and Jenkins half-bowed, then stepped back into the elevator.

This is all simply amazing, Sean thought as the elevator door closed.  He looked over at the two nearest rooms, opposite Ryan's.  As he stood there, Jay ran up and slid a nameplate bearing his name into the door closest to the elevator and stairwell.  He waved and bolted off again.  Sean smiled and shook his head.  He pulled out his own nameplate and slid it into the door of the room south of the elevator.  He opened the door to his room.  Even with the probation, it seems almost too good to be true.

Chapter 2

"In your face!" Jesse exclaimed over his shoulder as he sprinted the last leg of the mile.  Jay tried to catch up, but failed in the end.  Jesse threw his arms high above his head in victory.  "Taken down by the undefeated master!" he panted as he and Jay walked over to the locker room, just east of the large indoor track. 

"Yeah, yeah," Jay said, waving the jibe off with his hand.  "Big deal."

They went to their separate lockers, then headed to the shower stalls.  "I wonder when we're ever gonna get another case," Jay called over the streams of running water.

"Soon, I hope," Jesse called back.  

Jay nodded to himself.  "Yeah."  Two minutes later, Jesse and Jay simultaneously reached out for towels.  They went back to their respective lockers and finished dressing in silence, both considering the same thing: how a case would liven things up. 

The intercom light flashed.  Jay pressed the receive button.  "Wayne here," he said formally, grinning at Ruben.

"Jay?  This is Wil, in the security room."


"Patch into the front door camera," he requested.

Jay motioned for Ruben to do so.  "Why?" Jay asked as Ruben set about doing it.

"You'll see," Wil said.  Jay could practically hear him grinning.

"Got it," Ruben said.  On the screen, a low aerial image registered of an extremely attractive woman, holding a suitcase.  Ruben let out a low whistle.  "Wow," he muttered.

"No kidding," came Wil's filtered voice over the intercom.  "She just rang the bell.  You want me to go and see what she wants?"

Ruben and Jay looked at each other as if to say, Yeah, right, Wil.  "Find Sean.  And Jenx.  Tell them to meet me in the foyer," Jay instructed Wil.

Wil sighed.  "All right."

Jay pressed another button, activating the intercom near the front door.  The woman gave a small start when it came on.  "We will be with you momentarily," Jay said.  He watched her nod, then swiveled in his seat and rose.  "See ya," he said to Ruben.


Jay opened the south door and walked briskly down the hall.  He met with Sean as Sean came out of the stairwell.  Sean fell into step next to him.  Jay found himself having to quicken his pace.  "There's a really good-looking woman outside."

Sean nodded, his face impassive.  "So Wil said."

They went to the dead-end corridor to the only entrance to the press room.  As the hidden door panel slid open, Jenkins came around the corner from the south elevator.  Jay followed Sean through, Jenkins following.  They walked between two rows of chairs to the foyer door, which Sean opened.  He walked across to the front door.

Jay followed him and was at his side when he opened the door.  Jenkins lurked several yards behind.  Standing there was the woman, looking even more impressive in person.  "What can we do for you?" Sean asked.

She smiled.  "I was interested in joining your organization."

"Oh?" Sean said with a slight smile, obviously somewhat surprised.

"Yes."  She smiled again, this time revealing two rows of perfect white teeth.  

"Well," Sean said smiling more widely, regaining his composure, "maybe we can accomodate you."  Jay saw Sean make a small, nearly unnoticeable motion with his hand, nodded, then backed away.  Sean had signaled for him to do a background check on this woman.  Smart thinking.  As he reached the far end of the foyer, he heard Sean continuing his conversation.  "I'm Sean Matts.  What's your name?" was the last thing that Jay heard before the door shut.

"Michele Jones," the woman said.

"Well, Michele," Sean said, "why don't we have a seat?"  He shot a look at Jenkins, who nodded, smiled, and excused himself.

Michele nodded and stepped inside.  They went over near the wall and sat on a couple of chairs there provided for that express purpose.  Sean crossed his legs.  "So, why do you want to join Checkwolf?" he asked with a smile.

Jay burst through the communications room door, startling Ruben.  He ran straight for the main computer data base access terminal.  He tapped a few keys to activate it, then sat down and caught his breath.

"What did she want?" Ruben asked.

"To join us," Jay said.  He hit the intercom switch and asked Wil to surreptitiously check her and her suitcase to see if she had any concealed weapons.

"Should you really have asked Wil to do that?" Ruben asked.  Jay shrugged.  Wil called back seconds later to say that she had no concealed weapons whatsoever. 

Jay turned his attention back to the computer, sensing Ruben looking over his shoulder to see what was going on.  A door opened on the far side of the comm room.  A quick glance revealed it to be Jenkins, who had become silently ubiquitous in the preceding weeks.  Jay shrugged.

The screen read: Name?  

Jay typed in Michele Jones.

Instantly an information screen popped up.  In the uppermost lefthand corner of the screen, a facial portrait of the woman appeared.  Along the side and bottom, various information was cited.

Jay read off the information.  "Name: Michele Jones.  Age: 25.  Birthplace: Kewanee, Illinois.  Occupation: blah, blah, blah.  Well, here's what we want.  History.  'Accomplished acrobat.  Martial arts master with numerous commendations.  Recently detached from Chicago Police Department.'"  The only other information listed on the screen was height, weight, other measurements, and a listing of her commendations and status with the CPD.  There wasn't a large amount of information known about Ms. Jones.  But what they did know was pretty impressive.  And at least she didn't have any convictions on her record.

"Sounds good to me," Ruben said.

Jay nodded and looked over to Jenkins.  He raised an eyebrow.

Jenkins nodded.

Jay pressed the button for the intercom.  "Sean?"

"Yes?" came Sean's voice after a moment.  

"Clear skies today."

"Terrific," Sean said.  "Out."

"Uh, Jay, I hate to be the one to tell you this . . . " Ruben started.

Jay put up his hands to ward off the oncoming statement.  "Don't say it!  Don't say it!"

" . . . but it's overcast today," Ruben said, shrugging.

Jay swiveled in his seat.  "It means 'all clear.'"

"No kidding.  Pretty transparent code."

Sean nodded to the attractive young woman sitting next to him.  "If you'll follow me?"

Michele nodded.  

Sean picked up her suitcase, at which she smiled, then led her out of the foyer and through the press room.  He paused at a nondescript section of the west wall and pressed in a certain location.  A small portion of the wall recessed, revealing a keypad.  Sean punched in the code, 1-9-3-4.  A section of wall simply moved aside, leaving behind an exit.  After passing into the corridor, Sean tapped the button to close the door. It slid shut. Michele gazed at the door. "Seamless on both sides," she said admiringly.

Sean nodded.

"Amazing," she breathed.  

Sean nodded.  Motioning with his head, he said, "This way."  At the end of the narrow corridor, they came to the elevator.  Sean and Michele stepped into it and the door slid shut.  They stood for a few moments in companionable silence.  Then the elevator came to a stop and the door slid open, revealing the second floor.

"What are we doing now?" Michele asked, curiously looking around.  

"Well, a background check has already been done on you---"

"Without my authorization?" Michele asked, raising an eyebrow.  

"Is that a problem?" Sean asked, raising both eyebrows.  

Michele relaxed.  "If it's not a problem for you, it's not a problem for me," she said, smiling reassuringly.

"Next, though," Sean continued, "we must see if you're physically fit enough for the strict regimen that we have around here, so we'll run you through a few tests."

"Such as?"

"Our training room, to test combat situations; the track, to check speed; the shooting range, to test accuracy.  That's basically it for the preliminary training."

"Sounds tough."

"It is.  But not overly so," Sean said.  "The final step is an actual case.  If you get your preliminary training done quickly, you may get to go with us on our next case.  We're long overdue for one."

Michele nodded.  "Sounds fine."

Sean glanced down at the suitcase he was holding.  He hefted it.  "What's in here?" he asked.

Michele looked down as well.  "Oh.  Those are some clothes.  I was pretty sure I'd get accepted, so I came prepared."

Sean smiled.  "All right."  He motioned to the door they were standing next to.  "See this room here?"

Michele nodded.

"These will be your temporary quarters; permanent, if you're accepted."

Michele opened the door and looked inside.  "Wow.  This should be more than adequate."

"It definitely is," Sean agreed.  Michele took her suitcase.  "One more question, Michele.  Will it bother you, there being so many men here and you being the only woman?"

"Not particularly.  The CPD was much the same."

"Good."  Sean paused.  "Okay.  Any other questions?"

"When can I start?"

Sean glanced at his watch.  "Well, be ready in an hour to go to the training room."

"All right," Michele said.  She walked through the door and shut it.  Sean heard a thud, then quiet.  He stepped to the elevator and hit the intercom switch.  


"Yeah, Sean."

"Keep an eye on this room."

"No prob."

Sean peeked his head into the security room fifty-eight minutes later.  "Anything?"

Wil looked up from the screen.  He shook his head, looking disappointed.  "Nothing."

Sean nodded, then left the room and returned to the second floor.  He rapped on Michele's door.

"Yes?" a female voice said from within.

"Michele?" Sean said.  "Ready to go?"

The door swung open.  Michele stood there for a moment and Sean looked her over quickly.  Michele stood at just over five and a half feet, according to the file, though she looked slightly taller in person.  She had long, black hair which nicely complimented her skin.  She was dressed in an off-purple workout outfit, which conformed tightly to the generous curves of her body. 

Michele nodded.  "Ready when you are."

Sean indicated for Michele to follow him.  He walked to the elevator in the eastern part of the base.  They stepped inside and were whisked down to the basement.  Sean headed east, over to the observation room.  When they came to the door, Sean opened the door for Michele and ushered her in, then followed, shutting the door behind him. 

Jesse was already inside, preparing the program.  He looked up when they entered.  His eyes lingered on Michele, who smiled at him.  He pulled his eyes off of her and returned to his work. 

Jenkins was there, too.  He extended a hand in greeting.  "Hello, Ms. Jones.  I saw you earlier but didn't have a chance to introduce myself."

Michele accepted the hand.  "Good to meet you, Mr. . . ?"


Michele nodded, then looked around at the equipment.  Sean sat in a chair on one side of the door leading into the training room; Jesse was on the other side.  "This is a highly-advanced tactical simulator, based on solid-state holography," Jesse explained.  "We'll throw a variety of combat situations at you to test your reflexes and fighting ability.  The test will increase in difficulty as you go along.  And a reminder: don't worry about falling from a tall height; the computer will automatically create a cushioning device to protect you."

Michele nodded her understanding.  Sean had already explained the basic concepts of the training room to her. 

Sean flipped a few switches.  "Ready?"

Michele nodded.  She strode through the door.

Chapter 3

Michele stepped through the door, turned, and walked down the short flight of stairs to the main level of the training room.  She looked around at the immense room.  The ceiling was probably forty or fifty feet above her, ringed with windows near the top.  It was a long rectangle in shape, the length of it north to south probably almost as long as a football field.  But it was mostly barren, the only structure near the center and extending to the northeast corner of the room, a complex network of interlocking ladders, bars, and platforms stood.  She smiled.  An acrobat's paradise.  She strode to the center of the room, near the base of the improbable-looking structure, determined to make a good showing for herself.  She placed herself in a standby attack posture and waited for what the test might include, alert for any motion.

Twenty feet in front of her, a man of medium build in a powder blue karate outfit with white belt appeared out of nowhere, startling Michele momentarily, before she remembered the technology they possessed here.  Michele realized from the white belt that the "man" was an amateur.  Simple, she thought.  The man moved in slowly, until they were within reach of each other.  He directed an incredibly slow standing kick toward her head.  Michele easily sidestepped it and returned with one of her own, albeit significantly quicker.  Her foot connected with the man's temple.  His head whipped backward; his body soon followed. 

Immediately after he fell, another man of similar build in an identical outfit appeared.  Michele stepped away from the "unconscious" construct.  If the last one was any indication, this man would be nearly as easy.  He whipped out a pair of nunchaku, two foot-long cylindrical pieces of wood connected by a chain.  Michele crept forward slowly, circling.  She wasn't about to make the first move.  Suddenly, without warning, the white-belt rushed her, swinging the nunchaku.

Michele rooted herself, thinking forward.  The white-belt ran at her.  At the last second before the swinging nunchaku would have hit her, Michele moved her torso to the side, forced the man's arm with the nunchaku in it away from her, tripped him, chopped his forearm with her free hand, grabbed the swinging nunchaku with the other, then grabbed the man by the front of his robe before he fell to the ground.  Her breath had barely quickened.  She delivered a blow to the side of his neck, carefully made so as to render him unconscious.  The man slumped.  Michele released her hold on him, marvelling at how lifelike the simulation felt, how real the weight of the man had been pressing against her.  Finally, she tossed the nunchaku on his still chest, momentarily taken aback until she remembered that he wasn't dead; he'd never even been alive.  Inanimate objects have no need for breathing.  There was a limit to the simulation.

Another man appeared thirty feet to her right, as did a woman fifteen feet to her left.  Both were small and lithe, and, unlike the first two, wore black belts on their sparse outfits.  The test begins, Michele thought as she glanced up at the overhanging structure.  Out of the corner of her eye, Michele noticed the woman rush her.  When the woman was three feet away, Michele lashed out with a kick to the head, which the woman ducked easily as she dove for Michele.  Quickly Michele jumped to the side, avoiding the diving woman.  Michele hit the ground rolling, instantly sprang to her feet, and sprinted toward the structure, weighing in her mind whether to use the ladder or swing to the next platform, fifteen feet off the ground, using the bar.

The man had started on an intercept course.  Michele opted for the bar, which was situated eight feet off the ground.  She leapt for it, grasped it in her hands, and used her momentum to swing around the bar once.  She let go at the peak of her spin, easily landing on the platform.  The woman attempted the same maneuver while the man started up the ladder. 

Michele readied herself for the woman.  When she landed on the platform, before the woman could quite get her balance, Michele lashed out with a vicious kick, catching the woman under the chin and lifting her three feet into the air before gravity won the battle and the illusory woman plummeted to the ground.  Michele glanced down and watched, without emotion, as the woman impacted against the floor fifteen feet below and lay still.

Michele glanced around.  The platform on which she was standing was approximately ten feet by twenty feet.  The man was swiftly scaling the ladder, and nearing the top.  Michele recognized that she had to either go back to the ground or go up.  As soon as the thought of returning to the ground occured to her, four wellbuilt men appeared around the platform, beneath her.  Up it is, then.

She looked for ways to reach the next platform.  One method would take her to the second platform, another eleven or twelve feet above and slightly to the right of her current position.  A more dangerous leap and gymnastic spin would place her on the uppermost level, about even with ground level, Michele judged. 

Michele saw the man's hands come over the edge of the platform.  She immediately ran to the edge of the platform and leapt to the bar, which was a good six feet away from the platform.  She grabbed it easily, swung around once, released it, somersaulted in midair, and grabbed the next one up.  Hanging there, she considered her options.  A good swing would place her on the projecting edge of the structure, where it supported the uppermost platform.  Ten feet beneath her was another narrow platform.  Thirty feet below was the floor. 

After pulling herself up to begin her momentum, Michele swung around the bar, picking up more and more speed.  On her third time around, she let go of the bar and executed a double somersault, bringing her near the understructure of the support.  She grasped ahold of it and pulled herself onto it.  Beneath her, the narrow platform she had noticed earlier came to a ladder, six feet to her right, which went up to the uppermost platform.  Michele cautiously made her way over to it by way of the beams of the understucture, then quickly and agilely climbed the ladder, finally reaching the uppermost platform.  The time that had elapsed from jumping off of the first platform to where she stood now was thirty-five seconds.  The lithe man was taking the safer, slower route and was only halfway up.

The uppermost platform covered an area equivalent to a quarter of the floor of the training room.  The ceiling was still another twelve feet above her; directly opposite her on the west side of the room was a row of windows.  There were various objects on this uppermost platform.  Michele hid behind the largest, a cratelike object, and awaited the man while catching her breath. 

Finally, a minute later, the illusory man appeared on the platform.  He looked around the platform and cautiously walked in Michele's direction, still glancing from side to side.  Michele was on the widest branch of the outstretching platform, which was ten feet wide.  Unknowingly, the man walked right past her.  Michele delivered a crushing blow to the back of the man's knees.  A real person would have cried out; but since this "man" was simply a construct, all he did was collapse, falling to his knees.

He turned and slowly got up.  Michele kicked him under the chin, flopping him backwards again.  She walked slowly toward him.  He reared back and effortlessly jumped to his feet.  Michele hoped that Matts knew what he was talking about.  After all, she didn't especially want to fall about forty feet if she made a mistake.  Of course, she thought to herself, I'm not going to make a mistake.

Then Michele felt her head snap sideways from the force of the small man's kick.  With a look of fury on her face, she spun back around.  Keeping herself from following through on her first impulse, kicking the man in the crotch, she instead delivered a left jab to the man's face, followed quickly by a right cross and left uppercut.  The man staggered back, imaginary blood trickling down his imaginary face. 

Michele decided to quickly finish this.  With a roundhouse kick, she sent him sprawling over the open air to the right, plummeting forty feet.  Michele leaned over the edge and watched him fall, being careful to keep from smiling as she caught her breath.  When he impacted the ground, Michele marveled at the realism in these creations; his body was disjointed just as it would have been if a normal human were to fall that far. 

Standing, she looked around, wondering what she had to do next.  She looked down and saw a small door on the floor, flashing.  She assumed her goal was to reach that door.  Michele kept alert, waiting for her next battle.  The four burly men still waited on the floor, one guarding each of her four possible routes to the floor.

A movement caught her eye.  She spun to the right and saw a small gun appear from the wall.  Michele realized too late what it was.  A beam of energy came from it.  Michele tried to leap out of the way, but the beam still hit her in her upper right arm.  Instantly, it went numb.  She instantly recognized it as a paralysis beam, a stun beam.

Another bolt erupted from it.  She flipped backwards, using her left, good arm to balance herself.  She landed expertly behind the structure that she had been hiding behind before.  The bolt struck the front of the boxlike structure, harming it not in the least.

Michele frantically looked around for something to use as a shield.  Her eyes alighted on a small piece of metal, about the size of her torso.  She waited for the next bolt to go by, and then grabbed the shield.  She placed it in front of her and backpedaled for the ladder to the ground.  Two more bolts struck the shield before she reached the ladder.  She noticed that the time between shots was gradually lessening.  She tossed the shield to the side and started descending the ladder.

She went down as quickly as possible, allowing for her still useless right arm.  Above her, the stun bolts had stopped.  She paused on the ladder, looking around suspiciously.  That can't be it, she thought.  That was too easy.  Directly in front of her, mounted on a small platform ten feet from her, another cannon appeared, this one with the ability to swivel.  Michele cursed and started moving downward again.  The gun shot.  She moved her right arm up to block it, numbing it once again.  The gun swiveled and aimed for her leg.  She slipped while trying to move out of the way and both of her feet fell off the rungs.  As she dangled by her left hand the beam grazed her left leg. 

Michele felt for a rung with her right foot, and finally found one, regaining her balance.  Her left leg was moving stiffly, but she could still feel it; it wasn't totally numb.  She put her left foot on the same rung.  She looked behind her and saw a bar about seven feet behind and a foot below her.  She moved her head as another beam blew past her.  Why am I doing this again? she asked herself as she pushed off of the rung, arcing backwards, flailing for the bar with her left arm.

She caught the bar around the crook of her left arm.  She let herself drop so that she was holding onto the bar with her left hand.  She glanced down, then, as another beam shot toward her, she let go of the bar and dropped as gracefully as possible twelve feet down, to the original platform that she had gotten on.  She shook her right arm, trying to restore circulation, as she looked up and realized that the gun had stopped firing.

Michele started going down the ladder leading to the floor, when she remembered the man still beneath her.  He was readying himself, as were the other three.  She started climbing down, anyway.  After climbing down about halfway, she leapt out to the side, grasping the side of the ladder with both hands.  Her right arm was finally almost back to normal.  She swung around the bar and landed easily on the ground, between two of the men.  The nearest one, the one that had been waiting at the bottom of the ladder, rushed her.  She steadied herself, and when he was close enough, dropped and kicked at his shins.  He dropped to the ground.  She punched him twice, fast and hard, in the face.  Now was not the time for style.  He slumped on the floor.

Michele stood up again and ran toward the other one.  He brandished a knife.  When she saw that, she came to a halt and began dodging from side to side.  He threw the knife.  With lightning quickness, Michele slid to the floor and snatched the knife out of the air as it sailed overhead.  The man then rushed her, showing no sign of surprise at that astounding maneuver.  Michele hadn't expected him to.  She simply threw the knife back at him, lodging it in his chest.  His legs flew out from underneath him and he landed on the floor next to Michele, who watched the whole thing with a clinical eye.

Satisfied, Michele looked up as she sat crouched next to the "dead" form.  There was one other man standing off in the distance a short way away.  Wasn't there another one? Michele thought.  Suddenly, she felt a crushing blow and an immense weight on her back.  She fell onto her stomach, the breath knocked from her lungs.  As hard as she could, she drove her right elbow into her attacker's gut, then positioned herself and drove her left fist into his face.  He rolled off of her. 

Michele rolled the other direction and pulled herself back up to her feet, starting to feel the effects of this intense workout.  She circled around the man.  He swung at her incredibly quickly; she barely ducked.  He then brought his fist into her stomach.  She fell to her knees, holding her stomach.  With some distant part of her conscious mind, she realized that the injury was not real; some device implanted the impression of pain in her mind.  But that knowledge didn't help things any.  As she brought her head back up, she saw a foot coming toward her.  She had no time to move, so she just watched helplessly as the foot caught her underneath her chin.  She was raised off of her knees and sent hurtling backward through the air, crunching into the still form of the last creation she had disposed of. 

She reached up and felt her mouth.  No blood, obviously.  Michele was starting to get angry with herself for getting beaten like this. She pulled herself to her feet, swaying slightly.  She rushed toward the man anyway, leaning over and ramming her shoulder into his stomach, pushing him backwards.  As they fell, Michele got behind him and grabbed ahold of him.  Then, when her butt hit the floor, she used her momentum and her leg to throw the man over her head.  He slammed into the floor behind her.  Quickly, she got to her hands and knees; but this time he was out for good. 

Breathing heavily, Michele started to stand.  As she crouched, a sword flashed in front of her.  Her fist shot upward like lightning as she stood with her punch, connecting with the man's chin.  He lifted slightly and slammed onto the floor, the sword clattering to the side. Michele rose and got out of range of a flailing kick directed toward her.  The man then grabbed his sword and stood, holding it in front of him, swinging it back and forth.  He swung it at her, slicing across Michele's right arm. 

Michele cried out.  She instantly put her left hand over the wound.  But, of course, there was no wound.  She looked down, expecting to see dark blood well up through her fingers; the fabric wasn't even torn.  Nice job.  Very realistic.  The pain exactly mimicked that of an actual deep cut like she had just been handed.  But Michele forced the pain out of her head.  She cocked back her left arm and brought it around with a left cross to the man's face, following the movement with a left roundhouse kick to his head.  Her momentum carried her back to the ground, but took the man out as well. 

Panting, Michele nearly lay on the ground, on her knees, left palm against the floor, right shoulder and right cheek laying flush against it.  She squeezed her eyes shut against the pain and weariness of the test.  Then she noticed the flashing wall panel again.  Groaning, she pulled herself to her knees, holding her right arm.  She hoped there were no other obstacles; she wasn't entirely sure how much longer she could go on. 

As she got to her feet once more, she heard a slight metallic sound, then another, another, and another.  She spun and saw four swivel guns trained on her, mounted on the structure twenty feet away from her.  She sprinted toward the goal, dodging the bolts as best she could.  They started out rather infrequently, but quickly picked up in frequency.  Only twenty more feet, Michele protested as she felt two bolts strike her right arm, then one more hit her left, leaving them useless.  Twice a bolt grazed her left leg, causing her to limp. 

When she was ten feet from the goal, another cannon appeared, directly in front of her.  She tried to move out of the way, but the bolt caught her full in the chest.  The force of the bolt knocked her torso backward, while her feet continued moving forward.  She slammed hard onto her back, the wind driven from her, and lay still. 

The test was over.

Michele heard footsteps approaching from her left.  She discovered that she could now move her limbs with ease and that all of the pain had dissipated, except for the dull throb of her protesting muscles.  Two feet came to a halt in front of her face and a hand appeared above it.  Michele reached up and grasped it, using it as leverage for getting back to her feet. 

"Excellent job!" Sean exclaimed, smiling.

"Thank you," Michele stated as they trudged back across the now-empty training room.

"According to our scoring computer, you achieved a score of nine point four three."

"Is that good?" Michele asked, wiping a trickle of sweat from her forehead.

"Very good," Sean said, raising an eyebrow.  "Expert level is eight.  I think the upper reaches of the scoring system is somewhere around twelve."

"What's your best?" Michele asked as they approached the flight of stairs taking them up to the observation room.  

"Eight point three five."

Michele reevaluated her standing.  "Wow."

Sean opened the door at the top of the staircase and followed Michele in.  "Here's the results if you'd like to take a look," Sean said, indicating the computer display. 

Michele leaned over the computer readout, looking at the statistics of her performance.  "Wow," she said again.  After one more glance, she straightened and faced Sean once again.  "What next?"

"Well," Sean said, glancing over at Jenkins, "you can wash up and rest a bit . . . "

"Or?" Michele asked, crossing her arms.

" . . . or, we can go right to the shooting range."

"After you," Michele said with a sweep of her arm.

Sean bowed slightly and exited the observation room.  Michele quickly glanced around the room.  Jenkins nodded to her, then looked at the screen.  Jesse waved.  Michele winked and walked out the door.  Sean led the way to the shooting range.  Inside, Ryan and Clayton were practicing.

"I don't think I'll ever get used to the size of the rooms in this place," Michele said as she looked up at the forty-foot ceiling.

"I think that makes two of us," Sean agreed, taking a seat.

Ryan and Clayton walked over to them.  

"We'll test you on firearms here," Ryan said.

Michele nodded.

"First," Ryan continued, "a manual projectile weapon."  He hefted a crossbow off of the weapons rack.  "Try this," he said.

Michele accepted the weapon.  She went to the first target.  Clayton operated the computer, setting the distance, first, at ten feet.  Michele raised the crossbow and aimed.  Don't patronize me, she thought as she shot and hit the direct middle of the target.

Silently, Clayton moved the target back another ten feet.  Again, Michele pegged the center.

Forty feet.  Michele raised the crossbow and fired.  Dead center.

Fifty feet.  Again, the center, right through the first arrow.

Clayton nodded, obviously impressed.  He moved it back again.  "That's the limit.  Seventy-five feet."

Michele nodded, pressed the firing mechanism.  And hit dead center again.  She put down the crossbow.

Clayton tapped a few keys and the results came up.  "One hundred percent.  Perfect!" he said, smiling, as he stepped away from the computer.  Ryan took his place.

Michele only smiled as she took the proffered stun rifle.  She noted that it was almost exactly the same as her own rifle.  "Ready," she said as she stepped to the second target.

Ryan set it at twenty-five feet to start.  Michele shot.  The backlash was greater that Michele had expected.  She hit just off-center.

Ryan nodded and moved the target back to the fifty-foot mark.

Michele, frustrated with herself, corrected, shot, and pegged the dead center of the target.

Ryan moved the target back.  "Seventy-five feet."

Michele took her eye away from the sight and raised the rifle with one hand.  She fired, smiling.

It looked as if she had missed.  Ryan raised his eyebrows.  "Ninety-five percent.  The last shot went right through the second hole!"

Sean applauded quietly as he stood.  "Good job!" he said, smiling.  "Just one more preliminary test."

"The track," Michele said, nodding.  "I'd rather be fresh for that.  Could I do it tomorrow?"

Sean nodded.  "No problem.  Nine o'clock I'll be there to get you."

"Is it all right if I go back to my room now?"

"Sure.  Ryan," he said motioning, "why don't you accompany her?"

Ryan nodded.

"Bye," Michele said, smiling.

Clayton sighed as the door shut.

Chapter 4

"Well, here we are," Clayton said, gesturing.

Michele looked around the game room in the basement of Checkwolf headquarters.  It was directly south of the shooting range, where she had completely impressed these guys just a few hours before.  "Nice," she said.  There were various game machines and tables spread throughout the large arcadelike room.  In one corner there was even a jukebox.  In another corner, oddly enough, was a vending machine.  "Who stocks that?" she asked, pointing at the machine with the bright Pepsi logo.

"Oh.  We do," Clayton answered.  He grinned half-sheepishly.  "When we remember."

Michele smiled back.

"You said you liked pool?" Clayton asked, stepping from the doorway.  He headed toward a table with a dark red felt.  As they passed into the pool area, Michele realized that all of the tables were nine-footers, except for the snooker table on one side.  Brushing her hand across the felt of one table, she noticed that it was high-quality, not like the type that you'd see in a bar.  "The cues are over there," Clayton said, gesturing with his head to a rack filled with them as he started pulling the billiard balls out of the pockets on his preferred table.  As Michele was looking them over, Clayton asked, "You want me to rack 'em for you?"

Michele smiled.  "How polite!"  She appraised Clayton briefly as he collected the colored balls into the rack.  He had arrived at her room just a short while ago with a social invitation.  It seemed like a good opportunity to get to know them a little better, so she agreed.  Besides, he was kinda cute.

She selected a suitably feminine cue and stepped back over to the table.  Clayton rolled the cue ball toward her and she accepted it with her right hand.  "My break?" Michele asked, checking once more.

"Absolutely," Clayton responded.

"And they say chivalry is dead," Michele said with a smile.

Clayton smiled in return, though his cheeks got a touch of color.

Michele grasped the cue in her left hand, formed a bridge with her right, and threw her weight into the break.  Four balls instantly found pockets to reside in.  Clayton's eyebrows raised in appreciation.  "Nice shot.  Are you that good at everything you do?"

Michele smiled very slightly and said, in a slightly more husky voice, "Absolutely."

Clayton nodded, then cleared his throat.  "So, your choice," he said.  "Stripes or solids?"

"Solids," Michele responded, moving around the table to target her next shot.  The four balls that had gone down were the one, two, ten, and thirteen.  Her next target was the purple four.  As her eye was on her shot, she wasn't really paying attention to where she was walking, or so it seemed.  She bumped into Clayton.  Seemingly startled, she looked up, "Oh, excuse me!" she exclaimed.

"Hey, I'm the one who's standing here in the way," Clayton said, backing up so she could make a shot.

Michele leaned over the table, lining up her shot.  While thinking about how she needed to play, she was also aware of Clayton's eyes on her.  She was used to it.  There was no sense getting worked up about it; all guys were the same.  Besides, sometimes that could be used to an advantage.  "Four ball, corner pocket," Michele called as she smoothly fired the cue ball into the four.  Off it went into its designated pocket.

"So, tell me a little about yourself," Michele said as she straightened once more and moved to a different spot on the table.

Clayton shrugged.  "What's to tell?"

"Well, how old are you?  Where are you from?  What do you do for a living?"  She paused, grinning crookedly.  "Or, what did you used to do for a living?"

"Well, I'm twenty-six, born and raised in Kewanee - not too far from here, actually - and I work for Checkwolf for a living," he said with a grin.

Michele nodded.  "Six ball, side pocket."  The statement had the force of prophecy.  Moments later the six had found a home in the side pocket.

Clayton shook his head.  "Am I gonna get a shot?"

"Probably not," Michele answered honestly.

Clayton nodded, a "that's fair" expression on his face.  "As for what I used to do . . . ."  He shook his head as his voice trailed off.  "I worked in an office downtown.  Pure drudgery.  But now I work here.  I get to put my skills to use far more and I'm doing something to give back to the community."  He shrugged and scratched the back of his head.  "I know it sounds corny.  But you have to feel the same way, at least a little bit.  Isn't that why you joined the CPD?"

Michele was in the process of making another shot, on the brown seven ball.  As she started moving the cue, Clayton posed his last question.  Her shot suddenly went wide.  The CPD? she thought to herself.  Oh.  Right.  "Yeah," she said aloud.  "Isn't that why all police do what they do?"

"Hey, you missed one," Clayton said.  "What happened to running the table?"

Michele held her cue in her right hand while flipping her hair with her left.  Clayton studiously kept his attention on the table.  "I thought it would only be fair to give you a chance."

"Thanks for the nice gesture," he said.  "Nine ball, corner pocket."  The ball thunked home.

"Now, as I understand it, you guys used to work out of a garage?" Michele asked.

Clayton nodded.  "Actually it's only been in the last couple of weeks that we've been here."

"I know you guys are good," Michele said as Clayton leaned over in front of her to make a shot.  She smiled to herself.  "That's why I want to join.  Your reputation has traveled pretty far, at least in certain circles.  But how did you manage a facility like this?"

Clayton shrugged.  "Twelve, corner."  Down went the ball with the purple stripe.  "I don't know," Clayton answered.  "It's not really what we were expecting."

"What were you expecting?"

"I don't know.  I mean, we've been doing our thing on weekends and vacations for awhile, a couple years now.  And we've always been working for something like this, some way for things to work out so that we could do this for real, full time.  And when it finally happened, I figured we'd get a little building somewhere to base out of."  Clayton gestured around him with the cue.  "Not like this.  I have no idea what we did to rate this.  But we're not gonna look a gift horse in the mouth, either.  Fifteen, corner."  Clayton had moved to set up his next shot as he talked.  After calling it, he banked the cue ball off a side cushion and kissed the brown-striped fifteen into the pocket.

"Nice shot," Michele complimented.  "Well, even if you don't know what you've done to rate this, I do.  You guys are good.  Especially considering your, pardon the expression, amateur status."

Clayton cocked an eyebrow.  "Amateur?"

Michele smiled.  "I said to pardon the expression.  Yes, amateur.  Were you paid before?  No.  Then you were amateurs.  Though certainly skilled amateurs."

Clayton nodded.  "Thank you."  He paused, his brow furrowed as he contemplated the table.  He didn't really have a good shot at anything, so he pushed the cue ball into a location that would make any shot for Michele a three-cushion wonder.  "Your turn," he said, smiling sweetly.

One side of Michele's mouth wrinkled in displeasure.  "Thanks a lot."  She casually stepped around the table, looking for a good angle on the red three ball.  Clayton had really put her in a tough spot.  "So what's the deal with this base?  I mean, who paid for it?"

Clayton shrugged.  "Don't know.  Some guy, I guess."

Michele's eyes narrowed in curiosity as she looked up at Clayton.  "'Some guy'?  Aren't you more interested than that?"

"Yeah," Clayton responded.  "But I'm not exactly worried about it.  I mean, Jay and Jesse and Ruben have looked into it some, but whoever it is really wanted to remain anonymous.  I guess we could have hacked into him somehow and found out more details, but . . . ."

"You don't want to look a gift horse in the mouth."

"Right.  And it's not like we can't trust whoever did this.  I mean, we don't know who it is, but the mayor or somebody on the city council does.  If they trust this guy, then who are we?"

"That's fair," Michele said, leaning over to take her shot.  To put the three where she wanted it would take a pretty precise three-cushion shot.  "Three ball, corner pocket."

"Good luck," Clayton said.

Michele nodded slightly, then fired.  After banking three times, the three ball tipped into the pocket.  "You make your own luck," Michele said.

"Yeah, I've heard that before."

"So you guys have a lot of neat toys here."

Clayton nodded, smiling.  "Yeah.  We've been spending most of the time that we've been here getting used to them.  The vans are pretty cool.  The weapons, too."

"Vans?" Michele asked dubiously.  "More like tanks, aren't they?"

Clayton grinned.  "Oh, yeah."

"And your weapons are all nonlethal?"

"Yeah, that's Sean's deal," Clayton said, almost dismissively.  "But that's just part of the safety mechanism.  It can be turned off so that they can deal a lot more damage.  But you need a passcode for it and, I'm sorry, Michele, but we just don't trust you yet."

Michele frowned and expelled breath in mock frustration.  "Well, why not?"

"Are you gonna keep talking or are you gonna make another shot?" Clayton asked, gesturing at the table.

"Don't rush me," Michele said as she redirected her attention to the table.  "So what's the deal with this training room?"

Clayton smiled.  "Pretty cool, huh?"

"Pretty amazing, I'd say."

"I'd say you're probably asking the wrong guy.  I only know what the Bishops tell me, and half of that I don't understand.  But they've said that it's cutting-edge, bleeding-edge holography.  Which I guess is like the picture that R2-D2 made of Princess Leia."

Michele paused from lining up her shot on the orange five ball to glance at Clayton.  "Did you just make a Star Trek reference?"

"No," Clayton said with a look of disgust.  "Star Wars."

"Oh, thank you for that clarification.  Five ball, side pocket."  Down the five ball went.  "I'm running out of targets here, Clayton."

"That's all right," Clayton responded.  "You can just pocket some of those striped balls.  I won't mind."

Michele simply grinned.  Then the smile faded some and she opened her mouth to speak again, her eyes unfocused.  "But there's a difference between a 3-D picture and what I was fighting in there."

"Right," Clayton acknowledged.  "So that's a hologram, which is different.  It's solid."

"And how did they do that?"

Clayton threw his hands to his sides.  "Like I said, you're asking the wrong guy."  He moved his line of sight from Michele to some point beyond her, by another doorway.  "Hey, Scott.  How's it going?"

Michele turned to see Scott Spencer enter the room.  This was another of the Checkwolf members that she had heard about but hadn't seen yet.  She knew that he was a big man, the biggest and strongest in the group, but she was still unprepared for his size.  He had to be six-four, six-five, and he seemed to be built of solid muscle.  I'd hate to go up against him in a fight.  He waved.

"Scott, this is Michele Jones.  A new recruit."

Scott glanced at Michele, looked her up and down briefly, then nodded, an upward jerk of the head.  He went to the vending machine, punched a button, took the can that appeared, and walked out of the room.

"Nice guy," Michele said.

"Ah, he's fine.  He's a good guy," Clayton said in defense.

Michele had noticed that his wide mouth looked prone to smiling, though nothing of the sort seemed to be close to appearing after he'd seen her.  "He looked sad," she observed.

Clayton nodded.  "I don't know if you knew this, but one of our friends was killed a couple of months ago, right before we were promised the base."

"I'd heard that," Michele remarked.

"His name was Brian Michaels.  He and Scott were best friends.  I think he's looking at you as a replacement for Brian."

"Well, he doesn't have to worry about that," Michele said, aiming for the seven ball she had missed before.

"No, that won't be a problem eventually, I think," Clayton responded, misunderstanding.

"Seven ball, corner pocket."  Michele banked the cue ball off the opposite rail and brought the seven into the pocket right next to her.  "That just leaves one," she said, smiling sweetly.  "Eight ball, corner pocket."  She banked the ball home.  "I win."

The elevator doors swished open.  Clayton and Michele stepped out.  Clayton was shaking his head.  "I still can't believe it," he said.

"Oh, your ego will get over it," Michele said with a laugh.  "Eventually."

"Thanks," Clayton said, grinning wryly.  "You're a big help.  You know, you could have let me at least win one."

"Sorry."  Michele stopped and smiled.

Clayton smiled back.  They gazed at each other for a moment or two before Clayton realized that they were back at Michele's apartment.  "Well," he said.  "Here we are."

Michele looked at the door.  "Yeah, I guess so.  I had a really nice time."

"Yeah, me too.  I'll see you tomorrow."

"Yeah, all right.  'Bye," Michele said as she opened her door.  She turned to step in.  Then she stopped, turned back around, and stepped back over to Clayton.  

"What is it?"

"Aren't you going to give me a good night kiss?" Michele asked, looking up into Clayton's eyes.

Clayton smiled as he leaned over and kissed her.  "Good night."

Clayton stepped into the security room.  "Hello, all."

Ryan, Wil, and Scott looked up from their conversation.  

"Well, you're certainly in a jovial mood," Ryan commented.

"I guess I am," Clayton said with a smile.  "After all, I just spent the evening with Michele," he said.

Wil looked glum.  "We know," he said, gesturing toward the screen.  It showed a view of the game room.

"Are you kidding?" Clayton said.  "You were watching us?"

Wil smiled.  "There are cameras all over this place."

"You should know that you can't trust Wil," Ryan observed.

"Did you have a nice time?" Scott asked quietly, trying not to let the idea of a "replacement" bother him.

"Actually, yeah," Clayton answered.  "I'd definitely like to see her again."

Wil turned toward the computer.  "Just a few keystrokes . . . ."

Clayton thumped Wil on the back of the head.  "Socially."

Wil grinned.  "Well, this may be the only chance I get to see her, thanks to you."

"Wil, I think your shift is over," Ryan stated.  "And I think it's time to make some adjustments to our policy about use of cameras in bedrooms."

Wil put on a show of pouting.  "Ryan, you take the fun out of everything."

Chapter 5

"Hey, Michele!  How's it going?"

Michele spun around.  She had shut the door to her room only to find Clayton standing there.  She put her hand to her heart.  "Oh, Clayton!  You startled me!"

"Sorry about that," he said.  "How you doin'?"

She nodded.  "Fine, thanks.  How about you?"

Clayton smiled.  "Good, now."

"What are you doing way over here?" she asked.  Clayton's room was on the northern side of the building; Michele's was on the southern side.

Clayton jerked his thumb in the direction of the nearby elevator.  "I was heading down to the game room."

"Oh," Michele said.  "Well, I'm headed to see Sean."

Clayton nodded.  "To see whether he's going to let you go out?"

Michele nodded.

"Want me to come with you?"

Michele smiled.  "Thanks, Clay, but I'd better do this on my own."

"Okay," Clayton responded.  "Let me know how it goes?"

Michele nodded.  She waved to Clayton as he got on the elevator, then headed through the corridors to the northeastern stairwell.  She trotted down the stairs to the ground floor, then rounded the corner to Sean's office.  She knocked.

"Come in."

Michele opened the door and entered.  "Can I talk to you for a minute, Sean?"

Sean set down the file he was holding.  "Sure thing.  What's on your mind?"

Michele sat down in the chair in front of Sean's desk.  "Well, I've been here for a week now."

"Yes," Sean prompted.

"Are we ever going to have a case?"


Michele sat silently.  "Is that it?  'Yes?'  Can you elaborate?"

"No," Sean said.  He spread his hands.  "As you know, we've been investigating various leads."

"Yes, I know," Michele said with a hint of annoyance.  "I haven't been along for any of that."

Sean nodded.  "Yes, well, none of them have panned out yet; we haven't put together anything that we can pursue."  He smiled apologetically.  "It's not like cases just drop into our laps."

Suddenly, the phone rang.  He deftly picked it up.  "Matts here."  He listened momentarily.  "We'll get right on it."  He set the phone back down and stood up, a flicker of annoyance crossing his face.

"What is it?" Michele asked, looking up.

"Looks as if you're about to have your final test."

"A case?"

"Yeah," Sean said as he got his jacket.  "I guess they do drop into our laps occasionally.  The police got an anonymous tip that there's an armed robbery going down right across the street."  He left his office with Michele in tow.

"So we get nominated to check it out?" Michele asked.

"Yeah," Sean said as they strode across the corner of the communications room.  "Jay!" he called.

Jay turned around in his seat.  "Yeah?"

"Get Wil, Clayton, and Tyler to the weapons room.  And then come there yourself."

"Aye, aye, sir," Jay said as he turned to the console to do Sean's bidding.

"Ruben, you'll be in charge here.  Get me a schematic on the Flute across the street."

"You got it, Sean."

Sean nodded.  "C'mon, Michele."  Michele followed Sean out of the room.  They ran down the corridor, headed straight for the armory in the opposite corner of the huge building.  Jay was right on their heels.  The other three arrived within the next minute.  The six Checkwolf members strapped on bulletproof vests and holsters for their weapons.

"What's going on, Sean?" Tyler asked.

"Apparently there's an armed robbery going down across the street."

Jay raised an eyebrow.  "Seriously?  In broad daylight?"

Sean checked the charge on his stun pistol.  "So they say.  I agreed to check it out."

"I suppose they didn't realize that this huge building is basically a police station," Wil observed with a grin.

"Too bad for them," said Clayton.

"Are we set?" Sean asked, looking around at his team as he logged into the terminal in the armory.  They all had stun weapons: Tyler, Jay, and Sean had pistols; the other three had rifles.  "Here's the plan.  The Flutiger Brothers building across the street has three entrances: front, rear, and alley.  The tip from the police told us that the perps entered from the alley.  Tyler and Michele, I want you two going in there.  Clayton and Jay, move around to the rear of the building and cover that exit.  Wil, you're with me; we'll go in the front."

"Subtle," Wil said with a humorless smile.

"Let's go," Sean said.  He led his assault squad through the press room and out the front door.  Clayton and Jay sprinted for the corner of the building, heading around the west side toward the rear.  Tyler and Michele headed for the alley directly across the street from the Checkwolf front door.  Sean and Wil moved quickly for the front of the Flute.

Flutiger Brothers was a well-known Kewanee furniture store.  The Flute, a term coined by Ruben, was simply a warehouse.  What kind of armed robbery would be going on at a furniture store warehouse, Sean didn't know.  I smell a rat, he thought.

"There's no sign of forced entry," Tyler observed as he and Michele stood on opposite sides of the entrance on the alley.  He tried the latch.  It opened easily.  "Go on," he whispered to Michele.  "I'll cover you."

"I'm the one with the rifle, Tyler," she stated.

Tyler glanced at the weapon, then nodded.  "Right.  Good call."  He led the way into the dimly-lit structure, cautiously advancing toward the large room in the center.  A few moments after entering, Tyler and Michele stood on opposite sides of the doorway leading into the center room.  "I don't see anything," Tyler said, taking quick peeks.  "Something's not right here."

"No, it's not," Michele agreed, casually bringing her foot into Tyler's face.  He hadn't even seen the kick coming and was completely defenseless.  He crumpled to the floor.  Michele tried a quick look to her left, seeing Clayton and Jay coming from the rear entrance.  To her right she saw Sean and Wil.  She brought her rifle to her shoulder and peered through the sight, targeting Sean's head.  The red dot of the laser sight appeared on Sean's temple.  Michele squeezed the trigger.

Clayton and Jay found nothing strange about the warehouse, aside from the fact that there appeared to be nobody there.  "I suppose that makes sense," Jay muttered.  "They've probably got them all holed up somewhere."

Clayton nodded his agreement.  He motioned for Jay to lead the way toward the center of the building.  A few moments after entering, Jay stepped out into the center of the building, a large room with a tall ceiling, piled high everywhere with furniture and boxes.  He motioned for Clayton to come on out.  Clayton looked across the room and saw Sean and Wil, Sean on point.  Suddenly he saw a red point of light appear on Sean's head.  Instantly his heart started to race.  "Sean, look out!" he yelled.

Sean's instincts were the only thing that saved his life.  From the moment he heard Clayton start to yell, he dropped to his belly.  Before Clayton had finished his call, the clear report of a bullet was heard.  There was an instant response from Wil's rifle, who clearly had managed to see the shooter and fire a response.

"East!" Wil yelled as he started moving in that direction.

That's Tyler and Michele, Sean thought, a knot suddenly appearing in his gut.  If that shooter was where those two had come in, they might both be dead now.  Sean quickly got to his feet, following behind Wil, who was moving quickly along the merchandise, his rifle at eye level.

"There!" came Jay's call from the other side of the room, followed almost immediately by another high-pitched burst from one of the stun rifles.

"Michele!" Sean heard Clayton call.  "Are you all right?"

Sean came around the corner and saw Clayton and Jay near the east entrance to the room, where Tyler and Michele should have come in.  Wil was moving quickly in their direction, scanning the area for threats.  He caught Jay's eye.  With a couple of hand signals, they agreed to search the room together.

"Yeah," Michele said, her voice cool and calm, still sighting along her rifle for targets.

"What happened?" Sean asked as he approached at a jog, his pistol held down and to one side.  He saw Tyler slumped down opposite Michele.  "Tyler?" he said.  "Is he . . . ?"

"He's all right," Michele answered.  "Somebody ambushed us from behind then ran back out there," she said, indicating the workroom floor.  At that information, Clayton brought his rifle back up to the ready and started scanning out.

"How did that happen?" Sean asked, still looking at Michele.

She turned to answer him.  There was another sharp, sudden report of a rifle, this time clearly coming from her gun.  And for the second time Sean owed his life to Clayton, who had jammed the butt of his own rifle down on Michele's as soon as he realized what was happening.  That was some comfort to Sean as he collapsed from a shot to his stomach.  Pain shot throughout his body.

"Michele, what are you doing?" Clayton asked in disbelief.

"Fulfulling a contract," she said coldly as she brought her rifle butt into the side of Clayton's head.  He was spun around by the impact and sprawled on the floor.  "And it's Bounty to you," she finished as she brought her rifle back up, again looking for Sean.  He hadn't gone far.  He was doubled over, his arms across his abdomen, blood seeping from the wound, lying only twenty feet away.  She glanced quickly, looking for Jay and Wil.  Neither was in sight.  She again sighted for Sean and tried to pull the trigger for the third time, except that the weapon was suddenly knocked from her hands, clattering to the floor.  It shimmered, rippled, then changed shape, looking now like an actual rifle with a laser sight rather than the standard Checkwolf stun rifle.

Bounty turned toward the source of the attack, seeing Tyler, a trickle of blood coming from his mouth and his nose.  No words were exchanged.  Bounty simply attacked with a flurry of punches and kicks.  Tyler, only recently conscious, didn't have time to prepare an adequate defense.  He blocked a couple of blows, but they were simply coming too fast.  Even if he had been fully prepared, he likely couldn't have withstood the assault from Bounty.  As it was he was only half-conscious.  Five seconds after the fight started, it had finished.

Bounty stepped back out of her fighting stance as Tyler once more fell against the wall and fell unconscious.  But he had done his job.  Wil had finally returned to the scene.  Bounty turned her head to go for her rifle once more when she saw him appear from behind an armoir.  She started to move, but he didn't hesitate.  One shot from his rifle was all that was needed to render her completely unconscious.  He fired four times.

"The doctor said that it was a good thing that the bullet didn't hit anything important, though it was close," Ryan told Sean.

"Or else you'd be a goner," Ruben said, grinning.

"Tactful, as ever," Sean smiled. Everyone else laughed.  

Sean was most disturbed by the turn of events they had just witnessed.  They had tried to thoroughly vet Michele - Bounty - and thought they had.  But clearly they hadn't succeeded.  And so they'd let an assassin get up close and personal with them.  And she'd nearly succeeded.  But they'd survived, with a few scratches.

Except for Clayton.  It had been just a week that he and Michele had been dating, essentially, but Clayton had always been one to love fast.  He was only at the beginning of the hard road he had to travel.

The members of Checkwolf stood silent temporarily.  Clayton then spoke up.  "Mich--Bounty never said who she was working for, where she got the contract," Clayton observed, speaking in a monotone.  "Why she did it," he added softly.

"I'm sorry, Clayton," Sean said.

"Were we too trusting?" Jay asked.  "Should we not have let her in?"

"All of us fell for it," Jenkins reminded Jay.

Sean nodded, thankful for the subtle assurance from their guardian that this wouldn't be held against them.  Then he closed his eyes in thought.  But I know who she was working for, he thought.  Is this just the beginning?