Chapter 1

"Fifteen ball in the corner pocket."

"You're kidding, right?" Brent asked Clayton, who was in the process of taking a shot.

Scott and Jay looked on in amusement.

"No," Clayton said as he set his mind to the task.  He applied the correct amount of pressure to the cue ball and sent it rolling down the pool table at a quick speed.  It rebounded off a side rail and came around behind the fifteen ball, which was sitting in the middle of one end of the table.  The white cue ball slammed into the unsuspecting fifteen, transferred its kinetic energy, and sent it careening off of two opposite sides of the table and dead straight into the corner pocket that Clayton had indicated.

"Nice shot," Brent muttered as he chalked the end of his cue.  "As if I ever get a chance."

"That leaves the eight, doesn't it?" Clayton asked rhetorically.  The cue ball was situated directly behind the eight ball, which was right in front of one of the pockets.

"I don't know, Clayton," Scott said, speaking up.  "Can you make that shot?"  He and Jay had momentarily stopped their game to watch Clayton make mush of Brent.

"Of course," Clayton said indignantly.  With that, he faced the opposite direction and sent the cue ball off.  It bounced off the nearest rail, crossed the table, bounced to the other side, rebounded again off the near side, recrossed the table, and ended up heading straight for the eight ball with a minimum of speed.  Just as it seemed that the ball would stop, it did, lightly touching the black ball.  Then the eight ball inched forward and dropped in the pocket.

Scott's mouth was wide open.

Clayton smiled.

Jay was astounded.

Clayton smiled.

"Show off," Brent muttered.

"Ready?" Jesse asked.

James nodded.  He had done very poorly the previous day.  He had barely cleared the level six plateau.  Most would say that was fine, since he had been slightly ill that day.  But James never allowed himself to feel the same way; he wouldn't accept from himself anything less than his best.  That's why he didn't accept his performance against the Ravine Warriors.  That had been his best chance to really show what he was made of, and he had come up short.  Most would say that was understandable, since he had only been dropped when outnumbered and taken down from behind.  But James didn't allow himself to rationalize; he wouldn't accept from himself anything less than his best.  So he had redoubled his efforts in the training room.

James walked down the short flight of stairs to the main training floor.  He looked around the familiar area and readied himself for the first obstacle.  James was so familiar with the training simulator that he could even tell when it moved up a notch to the next difficulty level, a skill that was very useful here.  And even though he hadn't been feeling very well the day before, James was feeling great today.

He heard a loud sound behind him.  Whirling, he confronted a figure robed completely in white.  It advanced on him in a poor offensive strategy.  Clearly a level one opponent.  James bent down slightly and grabbed the figure around the waist.  He lifted it through the air, laid down on his back, placed his right foot against the figure's abdominal cavity, and pushed it through the air.  The figure slammed into one of the nearby ladders, and winked out of existence. 

The training simulator was able to analyze your every move, judge your technique, and then target your weak areas.  It advanced levels based on your technique, as well.  So if one took out an opponent more quickly, that one was generally moved through the levels faster.  One of James' secondary objectives was to skip as many levels as possible.

He got back to his feet, cautiously.  He looked around, waiting for his next opponent to appear.  The time difference between opponents indicated that the computer had leapt up two levels.  Suddenly, there was a tight grip around his throat.  Stupid, he chided himself.  He'd fallen for this little trick last week.  And now that he'd fallen for it again, he would be sure to get another chance at some point in the future. 

James was just preparing to break the choke hold when he saw a womanlike figure just eight or nine feet from his current position.  James altered his strategy, first locking his fingers around the man's forearm and pulling it away from his throat so that he wasn't being choked any longer.  The woman rushed him.  Without compunction, James used his captor as leverage and propelled both feet into the oncoming woman's head, flipping her head backward sharply.  But her forward momentum continued carrying her legs directly toward James and his captor.  James again lifted his lower body, and felt the collision as the "unconscious" image crashed into his captor.

James immediately felt a lessening of the grip from the man, which made it easy enough to break the grip.  James dropped to the ground alongside the "man" and quickly leapt back to his feet.  The "woman" had disappeared, but the man was just now getting up.  Without giving him a chance, James brought the toe of his foot into the underside of the man's chin.  He followed through and watched as the man's torso lifted up under the power of James' kick.  Finally, he fell back to the ground and shimmered away, as if he had never existed.  Which, of course, he hadn't.

James took a deep breath and looked around, preparing for the next obstacle.

"Get real, Clayton," Jay said.  "No one's going to be stupid enough to face you again."

Clayton shrugged.  He then stifled a yawn.  "Well, I guess I'll turn in, then.  See you guys later."

The other three mumbled their assent as they returned to their separate games.  Clayton shrugged again and left the game room.  He walked down the hall between the weight room and the shooting range.  As he got to the end of the corridor, Clayton could hear someone in the weight room.  Stepping down to look in the open door, he saw Ryan working out.  Clayton then turned and resumed his course to the training room.

He opened the door to the lower observation and entered.  He looked at the displays, giving various readouts on the status of the occupant's health, vital signs, and so forth, the difficulty level the computer was currently operating at, the kind of damage that the occupant would have wreaked on the opponents had they been real, and so forth.  Jesse was working the controls for the current occupant.  Clayton looked out the viewing windows.  As usual, James was running through the battle simulation.

Clayton looked over Jesse's shoulder.  "How's he doing?"

Jesse shrugged as he tapped a button, looking at the display it brought up.  "About normal, so far.  He just jumped up to level five."

Clayton nodded.  Suddenly, the lights flickered on and off three or four times.  Clayton instinctively looked to the ceiling.  The lights stopped flickering.  Clayton looked back down again when he heard Jesse working frantically at the controls.  He cursed. 

"What's wrong?" Clayton asked.

"I just lost control over the training room," Jesse said, his voice quiet in his version of frustration.  He looked up and through the window.  He punched the intercom into life.  "James, you have to get out of there.  Now."  Judging from James' reaction to the statement, or, rather, lack of reaction, he evidently hadn't heard Jesse's warning.  "James!" Jesse exclaimed again.

"It doesn't seem to be working," Clayton commented.  He was preparing to ask what the big deal was when he saw at least two dozen figures appear in the immense room, along with several different structures.  All of the figures headed in James' direction, in a kind of attack formation.

Jesse swore.  "What in the world is going on?"

"What?" Clayton asked, unable to interpret the information on the monitors that had upset Jesse so much.

"If I'm reading this right, the normal limiters on these constructs aren't in place any longer.  And the auxiliary failsafe has been switched off," Jesse said by way of explanation.

"English, Jess," Clayton said.

Jesse took a deep breath and huffed it out.  "The guys in there are superstrong and won't hold back.  At all."

"Could they hurt him?"

"I don't think so.  The training room doesn't work that way," Jesse said quickly.  "But they could send him flying and hurt him that way.  Against a wall, across the room, off a ledge . . . ."

"And let me guess," Clayton said, dread creeping up inside of him.  "The 'auxiliary failsafe' is what keeps us from getting killed when we fall a long way."


"So the whole room has been turned into a kill zone."

"Yeah," Jesse said, his attention mostly turned back to the controls, looking for other options.

"Why is that even an option?"

"It's not."

Clayton headed to the door leading into the room itself.  He palmed the panel that opened the door.  There was no response.  He tried again, with the same result.  He then rammed his shoulder against it, trying to bodily break through the door, and though he knew that there was no chance of being able to open it that way, it was better than doing nothing.  As he gazed hopelessly through the small window on the door, he asked Jesse, "Isn't there some kind of backup that will let you stop the program altogether?"

"Yes," Jesse said, distractedly as he worked the controls.  "Sort of.  But I'm having trouble getting to it.  We have a computer hacker of a superior caliber here that upset our system.  I doubt I'll be able to do it."

"Could Ruben, or Jay?" Clayton asked.  He gestured at the entrance to the observation room.  "Jay's probably still in the game room."

Jesse abruptly stopped working.  He shrugged.  "I don't know.  Maybe he could.  But I sure can't."  Reaching for the intercom, Jesse punched up the game room.  "Jay, get . . . "  His voice trailed off as he punched more buttons, then slammed his fist against the console in frustration, very unlike him.  "The intercom's not working, either," he said through gritted teeth.

Clayton instantly turned and ran toward the game room.  "Jay!" he yelled as he ran in.

Jay, startled, messed up his shot, accidentally knocking in the eight ball instead of the three.  He slammed his palm against the table and turned toward Clayton, irritation building.  When he saw the look on Clayton's face, though, that feeling dissipated.

"We need your help."

Jay nodded, dropped the cue, and followed Clayton.  "What is it?  Where are we going?"

"Observation room," Clayton called over his shoulder as he ran ahead of Jay.

"What's the problem?" Jay asked Clayton as they neared the observation room.  Instead of answering, Clayton simply burst through the door.  Following, Jay looked into the training room as he entered.  He frowned.  "What's going on?"

"The computer's in kill mode," Jesse said as Jay walked over.

"That's not possible."

Jesse nodded.  "I agree.  Now tell the computer that."

Jay sat down.  "Someone else is running this?"

Jesse nodded again.  "Can you break through the encryption?"

Jay cast a worried glance at James, who was trying to fend off the horde around him.  "I can try."

Chapter 2

James put his elbow into the face of the man behind him while bringing his knee into the fore man's stomach.  They both fell back.  James had noticed that he had made another two level jump, to level five.  He backed up cautiously.  The man that had received the elbow recovered first.  He assumed a defensive position.  James did the same.  They circled each other.  When James' back was to the second man, he heard him rise.  James waited to the count of three, then lashed out with a roundhouse right kick to the man in front and felt a solid connection with the man's head.  The man realistically groaned, and fell to the floor.

As James had predicted, at that instant the other man rushed him.  James let his momentum carry his foot around and grazed the man's jaw.  He then brought his left fist into the man's gut as the man made a feeble attempt to block it.  He started to follow through with a right uppercut when the lights suddenly flickered.  James fist passed through thin air where the man had been standing, throwing James off balance.  He stumbled several steps before catching his balance, noting that his opponent had disappeared.  Good one, Jesse, he complimented.  Inventive.  What's next?

When the lights came steady on again, the whole room was filled with several different platforms, and on the floor were at least twenty attackers.  The most James had ever seen was five, all the way up on level nine, the one time he had made it that far.  So what in the world is this, Jesse? 

He readied himself to face his first two attackers.  One brandished a knife and the other, a club.  The knifeman swung his knife with incredible speed and nicked James' arm.  Expecting the familiar numbness, James was surprised to feel pain.  He looked down and saw that his arm was bleeding from the cut.

James looked at the emotion-filled face of his attacker, with a look of horror on his own face.  He realized that he was in deep trouble.  The knifeman grinned maliciously, something that James had never seen one of these creations do.  Without hesitating, James unleashed his pent-up energy, downing both of the attackers in less than three seconds.  He grabbed the club from the clubman, which, of course, should have disappeared, and rushed headlong for the exit.  This has to be some sort of computer malfunction, James thought as several attackers got in his way to the door.  For each one, he swiped his club at them, viciously.  Each one fell extremely realistically, one's head even spewing blood as James' cracked his skull, all at a level of sophistication that he had never seen the highly-advanced program demonstrate before.

Finally, James reached the stairway that led to the exit.  He ran up it and grabbed the doorknob.  Unsurprisingly, it was locked.  He started pounding on the door.  In the observation room, Jay sat at a console, furiously typing, Jesse watching.  Clayton stood above them.  He looked up at James and shook his head, clearly indicating that there was no help from this quarter.  He yelled something; through the door James couldn't hear what, but it looked like he said "Run."  James looked back.  The whole throng was joining the party, and it looked as if there were more and more.  One woman climbed the vertical drop-off on the back of the stairs.  When she started trying to climb over the railing, he slammed the club into her face.  She emitted a weak scream.  James watched, horrified, as he saw the results of what would really have happened, had she been a real person.  Her face became a smashed and bloodied mess, then she fell off backward, landing on her head.  James' stomach turned as he heard the wet sound of her neck snapping. 

The whole group was indeed heading for his precarious perch.  He looked frantically at the unmovable door, again saw Clayton's frantic urging to run.  He looked at the oncoming hordes, then looked back at the ten-foot drop behind him.  He vaulted the railing.

Jay slammed his hands on the console in frustration.  "I can't break in!" he exclaimed as the eighth most widely used codebreaker failed against the immensity of the viral program.

"Keep trying," Clayton urged, quietly, intensely.

Jay nodded as he kept it up, with grim determination, trying to keep a level head.

James regained his balance, grabbing the club that he had dropped.  He cast one glance at the sickening sight of the dead "woman" on the floor, then sprinted toward one of the towering projections. 

Upon reaching one of the ladders, on the west side of the room, he tucked the club under his arm and proceeded to climb.  He met with no opposition on the way up, but there was one man on the ladder below him, and two climbing one twenty feet over, already higher than he was.  James risked a glance at the floor and saw that the rest of the illusionary people were heading for the same structure.  He groaned, then continued climbing as fast as possible.

Finally, James reached the top.  He was nearly even with the ground floor, atop the towering forty-foot structure.  The bottoms of the first floor viewing windows were two feet up and nearly seven feet away.  The two attackers, both women, that had been climbing the other ladder were already running toward him, quickly eating up ground.  The man that had been following James up also reached the top.  James whacked him with the club, sending him pinwheeling over the edge.  An unearthly, desperate scream escaped from his mouth as he fell, terminated by the loud thud of his body smashing against the floor.  James shuddered, resisting the impulse to look down.

The women were nearly on top of him.  James realized that if he didn't act now, he probably wouldn't get another chance.  He threw the club at the nearest woman, catching her full in the face and propelling her, tumbling, over the edge.  She shrieked "No!" as she fell to the floor, bouncing between the wall and the structure a couple of times first. 

James then backed up two steps and ran for the edge of the structure facing the windows, narrowly avoiding the second woman, who was clearly enraged that her companion was dead.  James shuddered internally.  Too realistic.  He jumped at the edge and cleared the seven-foot space, hoping that the window wasn't as strong as it looked.  If it was, he was going to meet the same fate that he had bestowed on nearly a dozen others.  He covered his head with his forearms, crashing into the window, and then through it.  The glass shattered into thousands of shards as James landed roughly on the tile of the outside corridor.  He looked up and saw the computer-generated images trying to make the jump, but disappearing as soon as they got to the window, at the limits of the projection range, looks of horror crossing all of their faces before they shimmered out of existence.  James was mildly surprised that had stopped them.  He smiled, breathed a sigh of relief, and laid down on his back on the floor in a space free of glass.

"He's gone."

"What?" Jay said, still concentrating on trying to end the program.

"He's gone," Jesse repeated.  "James isn't in the training room anymore.  He just broke through the ground floor observation window."

Jay looked up from his task and saw that, in fact, James was gone.  The computer-generated images were attempting to leap through the window, in effect, committing suicide en masse.  He looked back down at his computer console.  For some reason, the computer was completely back to normal, as if nothing had ever happened.  "I don't understand," Jay said uncomprehendingly.

"At least James is all right," Clayton pointed out.

Jay nodded wearily.  "I just wish I knew what happened here, in case it happens again."

"Well, here.  Take a look at the logs," Jesse said.  "Maybe we can figure something out."

Chapter 3

Sean was disturbed.

He would have liked to think that no computer hacker could break into the Checkwolf mainframe.  Evidently, he was mistaken.  Jay, Jesse, and Clayton had just left the office after telling Sean everything that had transpired down in the training room.

Sean had been preparing to turn in for the day when he had heard a loud crashing sound in the corridor just outside of his office.  He had run out of his office, Ruben trailing him from the communications room.  Ten feet down the corridor, James had been getting up off the floor, after evidently smashing through the window.  He hadn't broken anything (other than the window, of course), although he had numerous cuts and scrapes. 

Sean had glanced down into the training room and had seen it empty.  There had been no people or structures in the room, which begged the question of how, exactly, James had gotten himself up to the ground floor, forty feet from the bottom of the training room floor.  After ensuring that James was all right, he had sent Ruben to get him fixed up, bandage up any wounds, or whatever.

Three minutes later, Jay, Jesse, and Clayton had come up and given their account of what had happened.  Some virus program or computer hacker, had broken into the Checkwolf computer system and completely disrupted the training room program, sending it into a "kill" mode.  Jay had dismissed the virus idea, since it had suddenly stopped after James had escaped, hadn't disrupted any other systems, and had been specifically targeted to their system.

Which brought Sean full circle.  A foe that could disrupt their basic systems could be a major threat to their continued existence as an organization.  Sean retraced through his mind the major persons that they had been involved with or brought down since they had been in the public eye.  From Belsky to Bounty to Rudy Jacob, everybody was either in police custody or had never demonstrated these sorts of abilities.  Sean effectively eliminated any former enemies of Checkwolf as a whole.  So that left three possibilities: a prankster, someone gunning for Sean again, or a major new foe.  Sean didn't like the prospect of any of those.

Sean sat at the main control console in the cavernous communications room.  Jesse had left about ten minutes before, and Sean would be working alone for another four hours or so, when Jay would come on duty.  Alpha Squad was currently on patrol.

It had been three days since the incident with James in the training room.  Since then, there had been no other indication that they were up against another major foe.  Sean had begun to dismiss what had happened as a prank from a very sick practical joker who was trying to prove something.

Suddenly every alarm in the base went off simultaneously.  Sean scrambled to get them all silenced.  As he did that, he started checking to see what the problem was.  Scott and Clayton rushed into the communications room, stun pistols at the ready.  Seconds behind them were Tyler and Cop, filling out the only four that were currently awake, although more may have awoken from the alarms.

"What's the problem?" Tyler asked.  He was the only one of the new four that had entered minus a weapon.

Sean shrugged, still quickly checking the systems.  "I don't know."  At that instant, they all heard a loud sound of metal grating on metal.

"What's that sound?" Scott asked as he panned his weapon around the room.

Sean thought, trying to place the sound.  Then it clicked.  "Those are the blast doors," he said.  The next second, all four exits from the room were sealed with a loud clang as twelve-inch-thick reinforced steel doors crashed into place.  "I don't like this," Sean said as the room got ominously quiet.  He quickly did a check of the basement with the cameras.  Everything there looked normal.  The ground floor, though, was different.  In place of the regular doors on every room were the foot-thick blast doors.  Even the elevators and staircases were blocked, cutting off any hope of help from the second floor, where everything remained normal, as well.

"We're blocked in here," Sean stated, rather unnecessarily.

"What do we need blast doors for, anyway?" Clayton asked.

"This place is supposed to be able to withstand some rather heavy weaponry," Sean said.  "I guess this is all part of it."

"Isn't there a way out?" Cop asked as he leveled his gun arm.

Sean shook his head as he tapped the proper access codes.  "The computer's been overridden again."

"Can we contact Alpha?" Clayton asked.

"I hadn't thought of that," Sean said, snapping his fingers.  "Try that, Clayton.  I'm trying to get at this hack."

Clayton toggled the intercom switch.  "Alpha Squad.  Alpha.  This is HQ.  Do you read?  Brent?"  The only answer he received was dead air.  Clayton switched off the nonfunctional intercom.  "Transmissions must have been jammed."

Sean nodded.  He had been trying to access the program that had installed itself into the Checkwolf computer and had just run up against a password screen.  He slammed his hand into the console in frustration.  "I don't know enough about computers to get past this.  Do any of you?" he asked, looking around at the other three.  They all shook their heads.

All of a sudden, the intercom crackled to life.  An altered, modulated voice came over the speakers in the room.  "Doomed members of Checkwolf," it began melodramatically.  "Thanks to you, my operations in this city were halted for too long of a time.  I thought you had promise, but by dispensing with you, the world will be better off.  Well, my world anyway."  The voice paused for a moment.  "In two minutes, I will flood your communications room with a lethal gas.  All occupants will die a slow, painful death."  The transmission ceased suddenly, the speakers switching themselves off.

"Who was that?" Tyler asked.

"I don't know," Sean admitted.  I also don't know what we're going to do.  He looked around the room, detecting six vents in various places throughout the room.

"There has to be some way to stop that gas," Clayton said, frustrated.

"I'm sure there is," Sean told him.  "We just have to figure out how.  But in the meantime, we had better all put on gas masks."  He went over to a supply door in the wall marked Emergency Use Only.  He opened it.  It was empty.  "There should be something in here," Sean said, looking around.

"The construction crews could easily have overlooked something like that," Scott pointed out.

Sean shook his head.  "No.  They couldn't have."

"Maybe we should at least climb up to the vents and try to cover them," Cop suggested.  "Or maybe there isn't any gas."

"Probably shouldn't stake our lives on that one," Sean said.  "But we could try to cover the vents.  It's worth a shot anyway."

"Hey!" Tyler called out.  

Sean went over to the control console to see what Tyler had found while the other three went about finding things to cover the vents with.

"I took the archived recording of that message," Tyler explained, "and used this program to try to decode it.  It worked like a breeze.  The computer matched the voiceprint with a criminal database it has access to."

Sean motioned for Tyler to speed up his explanation.

"The voice is of one Robert MacKenzie," Tyler finished quickly.

"I don't know anyone by that name," Sean said, with a hint of impatience in his voice.

"Neither do I," Tyler answered.  "But the computer evidently does.  With a little cross-referencing I was able to find out that he's a small-time crook recruited about eight months ago by Mike Belsky."

"Belsky," Sean muttered with anger and hate in his voice.  There was evidently more about Belsky that Sean didn't know about.

"That's great to know," Clayton interrupted as he tried to cover the vent above one of the nearby consoles.  "But what good does it do us?"

"You don't get it," Sean told Clayton as he sat back down at his console and began rapidly typing.  "I was able to get at the program doing this, but it required a password."

"And since we know that it's Belsky. . . ." Tyler said, his voice trailing off.

"Then I know what password Belsky would use," Sean completed.  "Because he's so stuck in his ways."  He got to the password screen and proceeded to type in the name Sahara.  That was all he needed.  The program shifted to a welcome screen with a little timer in the corner reading twenty seconds.  Sean scanned the list of options and selected number three: End Program.

A message flashed on to the screen.  "Program discontinued."

They all breathed a sigh of relief.  Instantly, all the blast doors on the ground floor lifted into their rightful places.

"How did you know that would be the password?" Scott asked.

Sean relaxed in his chair to explain.  "Some years back, Belsky came into his fortune.  It's public knowledge that he was on an archaeological dig in Egypt, in the Sahara Desert.  What's not well known is that the other people involved in the dig didn't die of natural causes.  But since they were out of the way, that enabled Belsky to take the find, a treasure valued in the millions, for himself.  He then named his company 'Sahara'."  Sean shrugged.  "Idiosyncrasies."

"Nice that you knew that, Sean," Clayton said.  "You too, Tyler."

"And that Belsky was so stupid as to have done that," Tyler stated.

Sean nodded.  "At least now we know who we're up against.  And we're going to nail him to the floor this time."

Chapter 4

"I've finished the trace."

"Thanks, Tyler," Sean said.  Tyler had completed tracing the threat that Belsky had transmitted to them.  "When did you get so proficient at learning our systems?  I thought you weren't into computers."

Tyler shrugged.  "I've been taking some lessons from the Bishops in my off-time.  It's just one of those things I felt like I should know."

"Glad you do," Sean said as he stepped over to the console and called up the grid of Kewanee, pinpointing the source of the transmission.  It was a given, of course, that Belsky wouldn't be stupid enough to broadcast from his own location; he wasn't inept.  And they had already determined that he wasn't home or working late at his Sahara Complex, the center of his business, just north of the city limits.  So this was their only link to finding where he was.

A small blip appeared in the upper right-hand area of the map.  Sean seated himself and then zeroed in on that area.  The grid grew and clarified until the location of the transmission source was readily visible.  A small readout appeared in the lower right-hand corner of the screen.  It read: "Annawan District.  3200 185th Avenue."

Sean nodded to himself as he absorbed the information.  Then, on a subsidiary screen, Sean called up the current location of Alpha Squad.  They were currently traveling north along 113th Street and were passing through the rundown Bradford district, about fifteen miles from Annawan, the only thing separating them scattered, spread-out city.  Sean tapped the switch that would connect him to the van, which was working now.  "Alpha Squad, this is HQ.  Come in."

A voice came on.  "Alpha, Brent here."

Sean capsulized what had just happened at the base.  Then he concluded by transmitting the location of the source, saying, "We've localized the transmission site as being at the Carford Building, at the location you should now be reading on your screen."

"I've got it," Brent said.  "Alpha out."

Sean terminated the connection.

"I don't understand," Scott said.  "When you said that we were going to nail him, I thought you meant us," he said, indicating the five that were currently in the communications room.

"I did," Sean told him.  "But, knowing Mike Belsky, I'd be willing to bet that he would be as far away from the transmission source as is conceivably possible while still being in the city."

"I think I understand."

Sean nodded.  "So we wait for Alpha Squad to tell us what they found out, and then act on it."

"Here we are," James said quietly as they pulled up in front of the Carford Building, one of Belsky's companies.  He killed the engine and they all sat quietly.  "Now what?" James asked Ryan.

"Well," he said, "there's nothing like the straightforward approach.  So, James, you come with me and we'll do that.  Wil and Brent, you guys find a more roundabout way in and then look for the transmission source."  Wil and Brent both nodded and silently exited the van.  Ryan motioned for James to follow him.  They boldly walked right through the front door of the place. 

At the front desk, a receptionist sat, filing her nails.  Considering the time of night, that in itself caused Ryan and James to be suspicious.  When she saw them coming toward her, she flashed them a smile and then composed herself.  "How may I help you?"

"We were wondering if there was anyplace in this building were a message could be transmitted out," Ryan said.

The receptionist narrowed her eyes.  "Why?"

"Uh. . . ," Ryan said.  He blanked on a response.

"Because," James cut in smoothly, "we need to make an inspection of all facilities that are capable of transmission, and we heard that yours was."

Ryan nodded in silent agreement.

"But why are you doing this at three o'clock in the morning?" the receptionist asked, still suspicious.

Ryan and James looked at each other.

"I don't think you have a good reason," the receptionist said as she circled her desk.  When she was out in front of the desk, she pulled a small, compact pistol out from behind her back.  "Do you?"

"Here we go," Brent called out quietly.  Wil came over and joined him.  Brent had found a narrow entrance into the basement of the office building.  He easily fit through.  But Wil had a little more difficulty getting his bulky frame through the opening.  With a little pulling from Brent on the other side, though, he did finally make it through.

The twosome looked around.  They were in a small, dimly lit room.  There was one door on the far side of the compact area.  They went over to it.  Brent turned the knob and pushed on it.  It didn't budge.  He pushed harder.  It still didn't move.

"Here, let me try," Wil said as Brent stepped around behind him.  Wil turned the knob and gave the door one hard shove.  It swung open and slammed into the wall on the other side with a loud clang.

"Good job," Brent said sarcastically.  "Don't make too much noise, or anything."

Wil shrugged and they then resumed their way.

"Exactly what are you doing with that gun?" Ryan asked.

"Don't play stupid with me," the receptionist said impatiently.  She motioned with her gun.  Ryan and James raised their hands.  "My boss told me to be watching for you guys.  And I was."

"Who's your boss?" James asked.

The receptionist casually trained her gun on James' chest.  "How badly do you want to know?"

James shrugged.  Then he brought his left foot straight up.  The toe of his boot connected with the woman's wrist.  Almost simultaneously, she yelled in pain and dropped the gun.  James swiftly chopped at the base of her neck and she fell instantly unconscious.

Ryan bent down and checked her wrist.  It didn't seem to be cracked or broken.  "Good job," he commended as they moved the woman behind her desk.  "Let's get moving before anyone starts getting too suspicious."

James nodded his agreement.

Brent pushed open the door and peered around cautiously.  No one was in sight in the darkened hall.  He and Wil then stepped out of the stairwell and entered the hallway, keeping to the sides.  Brent had deduced that if this was where the transmission had been coming from, then it would make sense that the broadcast booth would be on the top floor.  After that, it had been relatively easy.  All they had to do was find a staircase and go to the top.  Simple.

Brent then felt a sudden pain in his abdomen.

"Be careful," Wil cautioned.

Brent wondered what Wil was talking about.  Then he looked down and saw that he had walked into a doorknob.  "Oh," he muttered.  He looked at the door.  "I think we're here."

"What makes you say that?" Wil asked, making sure that no one else was around.

Brent pointed to the door.  

Wil looked and saw that it said "Broadcast Booth."  "That would do it, I guess."

Brent opened the door to the room and saw three men, reclining, in the room.  

"Hey!  What are you doing here?" one of them shouted.

"Just leaving," Brent said as he turned around to leave . . . and ran into Wil.  "Great," he muttered.  The three men advanced on them.

The smallest and weakest-looking of the three attacked first.  He headed directly for Brent, assuming that he would be easier to take down than the burly Wil.  He got in a quick jab to Brent's jaw.  Brent's head flipped back a few inches.  Then, with a look of hate in his eye, Brent returned the favor with a punch to his opponent's face.  And then another.

Wil centered his concentration on the task at hand as he saw Brent fell one of their opponents.  Which just made it that much easier, of course.  He targeted his first opponent and lashed out with a powerful left cross.  The man he was attacking was taken aback, recoiled, and then was sent hurling into a console.  He slumped to the floor, thoroughly unconscious.

The final attacker, sure of himself, attacked Wil.  His first attempt at hitting him was avoided, as was the second.  Just a second or two after the man's second miss, Wil caught him under his chin with an uppercut.  The man stumbled back and then crashed to the floor.

"Good job," Brent said.

"You, too."  Wil got set to tie up the three men while Brent went over to the console to see if he could find the tape, or any evidence pointing to Belsky's current base.  He pushed the first thug that Wil had taken down out of the way, and then sat down.  He searched the recent memory of the computer to see if there had been any transmissions.

Sure enough, at approximately a quarter to two that morning, a transmission had been sent.  Brent called up the number of the transmission tape.  Upon finding it, he set to looking for the tape itself.  Evidently these goons didn't have much foresight; Brent found it lying on the countertop.  He placed it into the player and played it back.  A distorted voice filled the room and the message played that Sean had heard an hour before at the base.

Sean had told them to look for a Robert MacKenzie, as well.  Brent went over to the three men and took the wallets out of their back pockets.  On his first try he found the man he was looking for.  It turned out to be the man he had knocked out.

"This guy here is Robert MacKenzie," Brent told Wil.


"So-ooo, this guy is the one that sent the message to headquarters."

"So he might know where Belsky's base is?"


At that moment, the door to the room began to open.

James pushed open the door and peered around.  The hall outside the stairwell was empty.  He and Ryan exited the staircase.  After ensuring that the studio wasn't in the basement, Ryan had decided that the transmission source would most likely come from the top floor of the building, as close as possible to the transmitter.  They walked down the hall and came to a door at the end of it marked "Broadcast Booth."  "This is the place," James whispered.  Ryan nodded and opened the door.  They both entered and both got knocked to the ground.  And then, as suddenly as the attack was begun, it ended. 

"Sorry, Ryan.  I didn't realize it was you," a familiar voice said.

Ryan opened his eyes and saw that it was Brent and Wil.  Then he saw three bound men behind them.  "So, you got here first," James said.

Brent nodded.  "And we found out who Robert MacKenzie is, and that this is the actual broadcast site."

"Good job," Ryan said.  "Which one is he?"  Brent pointed him out.  Ryan nodded and then went over to him, producing a small canister of smelling salts.  The man almost instantly awoke.  "Wh-what?"

"Mr. MacKenzie?" Ryan said.

"Who wants to know?" the groggy man asked.

"I'm Ryan Spencer.  From Checkwolf."

The man's eyes shot wide open.  "I was just doin' like I was told," he said quickly, desperately.

"I realize that," Ryan said.  "I just want to know where Belsky is right now," he continued in a mellow tone.

"You ain't gonna hurt me?"

Ryan shook his head.  "Of course not."

"All right," MacKenzie said shakily, struggling to sit up.  "Mr. Belsky's running this from his Sandblaster company, down in Knoxville."

"On the opposite side of town," Ryan muttered to himself.


"Nothing," Ryan assured the nervous criminal.  "Brent, call the cops."  He stood up.

"They're already on their way," Brent told Ryan.

Ryan nodded and turned to leave.

"Wait!" MacKenzie cried out.  "You said you wasn't gonna hurt me."

"I'm not," Ryan said.  "But I'm not going to speak for the police."  He then shut the door on the wails of the pathetic man.

"Thanks for the information, Ryan," Sean told his second-in-command.  "Is that all?"

Ryan nodded.  "That's it."

"Base out."  Ryan's visage winked out, to be replaced by the grid of Kewanee.  Sean turned to the other four Checkwolf members in the communications room.  Tyler was seated next to him, at the console.  Clayton and Scott lounged in chairs, with their feet placed on the large planning board on one side of the room.  Cop stood in a military at-ease posture.  "Tyler, wake Karl and get him down here."

Tyler nodded and tapped the appropriate buttons that would awaken the sleeping Checkwolf member.  Then he turned his attention back to Sean.

Sean rose from his seat and walked over to the planning board that Clayton and Scott were sitting at.  The two men moved their feet.  Sean called up a holographic projection of the Sandblaster Corporation, located at 14700 228th Avenue in the southwestern part of Kewanee, the Knoxville district.  "We're going to pay Belsky a little visit," Sean said, smiling humorlessly.  He pointed at the projection of the sixteen-story building.  "And here's how we're gonna do it."

Chapter 5

Tyler pulled the black Checkwolf van onto 149th Street.  They were smack dab in the middle of the Galesburg district.

The last time they had faced Belsky, they had had an absurdly easy time of it.  But Belsky had still managed to get away scot-free, without any reproach falling upon his name.  Even though it was a risk to himself, Sean wanted to make sure that this time Belsky was brought down, and that it was by his own hand.

Sean was lost in thought, until he noticed that Tyler had brought the van to a stop and had subsequently turned it off.  "Are we here?" Sean asked, looking out the window.

Tyler nodded.

Sean closed his eyes, readying himself for the upcoming events.  "All right," he began, reviewing the plan they had discussed back at the base one more time before putting it into action.  "Remember, Clayton, Tyler, you two go up the north side to the top; Cop and Scott, you two make a direct approach; and Karl and I will go up the east side.  Also remember that each of these employees is hand-picked by Belsky; this is, after all, his number two company.  They're in on all of his dealings; you have no need to spare them."

"They're not innocents," Scott said. 

"Right," Sean affirmed.  "One more thing.  Scott, Cop, since you're going in the front door and causing as much distraction as possible, you'd better wear some armor."

"Good idea," Cop complimented as they outfitted themselves with the laser- and bulletproof armor in the storage area on top of the van, beneath the roof.  They chose the more durable version of the Checkwolf armor, which compromised their mobility more than the flak jackets did but offered more protection, as well.  "Shouldn't you guys wear some, too?"

Sean shook his head as Clayton opened another hatch in the ceiling compartment and pulled out a stun rifle, stun pistol, and two grappling hook guns, and Karl also grabbed a rifle and pistol, as well as an alarm sensor, glass cutter, and two more grapple guns.  "The armor would weigh us down too much for what we have to do."

"I see."

"Wait until we're near the top," Sean said as a final admonition.  "Then go in and cause some ruckus."

"Will do," Scott said.  Cop nodded curtly.

Sean motioned for the other three to follow him.  They crossed the lightly-traveled street.  Sean and Clayton strapped their stun rifles to their backs as they ran; Tyler and Karl strapped their pistols in their holsters.  Sean and Karl broke off when they reached the east side of the Sandblaster building; Clayton and Tyler continued on around to the north side.

Sean looked up at the tall building and took out his grapple gun.  It easily had enough cable to reach the roof of the building.  He aimed and shot.  Karl did the same.  Their hooks disappeared over the edge of the roof.  Sean toggled a switch and the cable was reeled back in until it held against the edge.  He ran his hand through his hair, feeling a slight sheen of sweat starting to appear from the muggy October night.  "On the count of three," Sean told Karl.  Karl nodded.  They both held their arms above their heads, holding tightly onto the handle with both hands.  "One.  Two.  Three."  At that instant, they both hit the switch to reel the cable in.  Since it was anchored, it pulled them up as it did was reeled in, quickly.

Seconds later, they were each pulling themselves onto a windowsill on the sixteenth floor.  They carefully disengaged the guns and reattached them to their belts, leaving the hooks on the roof; if they could, they'd come back for them later.  Sean balanced himself on his precarious perch, then took out the diamond-tipped glass cutter and the alarm sensor, placing the sensor near the window.  It read negative.  He then panned across the window with his hand and found a spot near the latch that could be large enough for his forearm to fit through.  He cut a circle out with the cutter, punching the glass onto the carpeted floor on the other side.  He then reached around and down with his hand, releasing the latch on the window.  He pushed up on the window, far enough for them to fit through.  Sean glanced over at Karl who was stock still, huddling protectively against the window.  Sean raised his eyebrows.  He glanced down at the dizzying sixteen-story drop.  "Heights a problem for you?" Sean asked as he looked back at Karl.

"Not normally," Karl said through clenched teeth.  "Usually I'm inside."

Sean motioned.  "Then go inside."

Karl cautiously edged his way into the building.  Sean followed behind, landing softly on the floor beyond, and shutting the window after him silently.  "We're in," he whispered.

Clayton and Tyler pulled themselves over the edge of the roof and landed almost soundlessly on the cement.  They quickly reattached their grapple guns to their belts, looking all over the roof.  In moments, Tyler spotted the accessway to the roof.  "Over there!" he exclaimed in a whisper.  Clayton followed the direction of his pointed finger and saw the little shedlike structure himself.  "Let's go." 

They crept quietly across the roof.  Clayton tried the knob.  Predictably, it was locked.  Tyler held up his index finger.  He unstrapped his pistol and turned it to one of its lower settings.  He placed the barrel of the pistol a half-inch from the lock and shot one short burst.  The lock popped and spat electricity, but served the purpose.  The door was now unlocked, permanently.  Clayton pushed the door open and swung his penlight around the stairwell.  Empty.  They tiptoed down the stairs.  Clayton tried the door at the bottom.  It was unlocked.  He turned to Tyler.  "We're in," he whispered.

"They're in," Cop deduced.

Scott looked up to the side of the building and quickly discerned that Sean and Karl were indeed no longer there.  "Ready?" he asked Cop.  Cop nodded.  

They walked along the street and came to the front door of the Sandblaster Corporation.  "Let me go first," Scott suggested.  Cop nodded his approval.  Scott pushed open the door and walked through.

The front desk receptionist turned toward the man who had just walked in.  He looked vaguely familiar.  She shrugged inwardly.  "How may I help you?" she inquired.  Another man entered the front lobby.  He was helmeted, bulky, and had spiked shoulder pads.  At that instant, the memory clicked.  Unobtrusively, she touched a button on the underside of her desk.  Then she opened a drawer and pulled out a revolver.

Scott quickly pulled his helmet on and ducked aside.  He heard several gunshots and felt the impact against his bulletproof armor.  Then the receptionist's gun clicked on an empty chamber.  Scott whirled around, bringing his large fist around as he did so.  He connected solidly with the receptionist's face.  She fell backward and tumbled to the floor.  "Sean said there were no innocents, right?" Scott asked, looking to Cop for confirmation.

Cop simply nodded.

Scott pulled his rifle from off his back.  "We're in," he said to Cop as the first security guards arrived.

Sean looked around at the office they had entered.  It seemed to be any typical desk jockey's office.  He looked through a few drawers and quickly realized that they weren't in Belsky's office.  Most likely Belsky would actually be in his office, anyway, making sure that nothing went awry.  Which, of course, is about to happen, if I have anything to say about it.

Sean motioned for Karl to follow him, and opened the door to the office.  He cautiously peered around outside.  The corridor outside the office was darkened.  Sean expected that Belsky would have heard about the debacle in Annawan an hour before, and would be expecting them.  But as they slowly walked down the hall, they met no resistance.

Until they rounded the second corner.  There, stationed in the hall, were approximately fifteen armed security personnel, all with their weapons aimed at Sean and Karl.  "Drop 'em," one of the men commanded.  Sean calculated odds, then decided that it wasn't worth the risk.  He pulled his rifle out and tossed it to the floor.  Karl unholstered his pistol and flung it at a man's face.  The man quickly raised the rifle sight to one eye.

The evident leader batted it down.  "Not now," he told the man, who proceeded to snarl at Karl.  "Mr. Belsky wants to see you," the leader said to Sean.  "Though I don't know why."

"I do," Sean said.  "Take me to him."

The leader leveled his gun.  "Don't order me around.  Unless you need an extra breathing hole."

Sean raised an eyebrow.  "I would think that Belsky would be very unhappy, were I to be killed."  Here, anyway, Sean added mentally.

The leader growled at him.  "Move it."

Sean and Karl were subsequently surrounded by Belsky's security personnel.  They led them to a door with light shining from beneath, into the darkened hallway.  The leader knocked on the door three times, two, then three.

"Come in," came Belsky's voice from inside.

The leader motioned for Sean and Karl to enter.  They did.  Inside, Mike Belsky was seated behind his desk.  Almost immediately Sean's eyes were drawn to the strange-looking pendant that Belsky was wearing around his neck.  It was made of silver, and crafted into the shape of a bird wing; considerably off-center was a small diamond.  The thing sent shivers up and down Sean's spine.  But he cleared the distraction from his mind and concentrated on his current situation.  "You look well-rested, Belsky," Sean commented.

"And it's so nice to see you again, too, Matts," Belsky said with a pasted smile on his face.

"Let's go," Clayton suggested.  Tyler nodded.  They crept out of the staircase and started down the corridor outside.  They both heard the shuffling of feet.  Clayton ducked into a room on the right side of the corridor while Tyler quickly found another unlocked door and got into that room.

Clayton listened as the group walked by.  He estimated at least twelve people, likely more.  When the last was past, he opened the door a crack and peered out.  He saw about fifteen security people in a circle around two other people.  They got Sean and Karl.

Down the corridor a few feet, Tyler poked his head out of the room he had entered.  Clayton could see that he had quickly come to the same conclusion.  After the troupe had turned a corner, Clayton and Tyler both came out of their rooms.

"That was Sean and Karl," Clayton pointed out.

Tyler nodded.  "I know.  Let's follow them.  Maybe we can free them."

Clayton unstrapped his rifle and readied it.  "I'm ready when you are."

"Just don't kill anybody, okay?" Scott told Cop as another bullet ricocheted off of his helmet.

Cop leveled his arm and shot another blast at one of the security guards that had gotten too close to the twosome.  "No need to tell me."

Scott shrugged as he took down three more men.  He checked his charge.  "We have to find a staircase, fast."

"Before they start bringing out more personnel and heavier weapons," Cop completed.  "Agreed."  Cop broke out into a full run, occasionally downing a guard or two that got in his way.  Scott followed him, catching up only when Cop stopped in front of an elevator.  The doors swished open and admitted seven more guards.  Before they could even move, Scott and Cop took them down.  "This one's empty," Scott said.

He and Cop threw out the unconscious bodies.  Then they stepped into the elevator car and pushed the button for the top floor.  Meanwhile, Scott recharged his rifle.  By the tenth floor, they still hadn't met any resistance.  Halfway between the eleventh and twelfth floors, Cop hit the emergency stop button. 

"What are you doing?" Scott asked.

"This is too good to last," Cop replied as he reached for the ceiling.  "We'll go the rest of the way to the top in the shaft itself."

"And hope that they don't get the car going and smash us?" Scott queried as he gave Cop a little boost.  Cop pulled himself on top of the car and lowered his left arm for Scott to grab.  "I don't know about this," Scott said as he grabbed Cop's arm and felt himself get pulled up.

"Always with the sense of humor," Sean said to Belsky.

"Of course," Belsky said as he circled his desk.

"What is that thing around your neck?" Sean asked.

"Oh, this?" Belsky asked, fingering the pendant.  "Just something I picked up over in Japan.  I use it as a good-luck charm."

"You're going to need some luck," Sean told him.

"Oh, shut up, Matts," Belsky said.  Then he continued, "I bet you didn't know that I could tap into your pathetic excuse for a computer system."

"Well, I do now."

"True," Belsky said with a contemplative look on his face.  "I suppose I'll have to kill you, then."

Karl looked around nervously as he saw more than a dozen rifles and pistols lowered menacingly toward him.  Sean gazed at Belsky, unaffected and unimpressed by the threat.

"Not here," Belsky said, irritatedly.  "I don't want to be connected with this."

Belsky's attention was distracted by someone else knocking at the door, first three knocks, then two, then three again.  Belsky smiled at Sean.  "One moment, please."  He looked toward the door.  "Come in."  The door swung open, admitting Clayton and Tyler, with six guns trained on them.  Half of the first contingent of security personnel trained their weapons on the newcomers, admitting them to the center of the semicircle, in front of Belsky's desk with Karl and Sean, in admirable, well-trained unison.  Belsky raised an eyebrow at the leader of the second group.

"We found these guys prowling around outside."

"Thank you," Belsky said.

Sean turned to his third-in-command and smiled.  "So nice to see you again, Tyler."

"Same here."

"I hate to interrupt this beautiful reunion," Belsky interrupted, "but I was just informing these two of their imminent death.  Since you appear to be with them," Belsky said, smiling menacingly, "I guess that puts your heads on the block, too."

"That's nice to hear," Tyler said drily.

Clayton, enraged, tried to attack Belsky.  Belsky backed up a few feet and bumped into his desk before three guards finally got Clayton under control.  "You're going down, Belsky!" Clayton yelled at him.

Belsky recomposed himself.  "I don't think so."  A light on Belsky's intercom flashed on.  "What is it?" Belsky asked after punching the button.

"Sir, there are two men with rifles and armor that have been attacking everyone in the lobby, and they just headed up in an elevator."  The frantic man paused for breath.  "They've just been shooting security guards left and right."


"I don't believe so."

"Thank you," Belsky said distractedly.  He broke the connection.  "If those two are with you . . . "

"I don't know what you're talking about," Sean said.

All of a sudden, the door was ripped off of its hinges.

Scott heard a whirring sound from behind him.  He turned his head and saw that the elevator cable was moving.  A quick look down confirmed that the elevator car was indeed moving upward.  Quickly.  "Cop!" he yelped.

Cop looked down and saw the predicament that they were in.  He then reached up with his left arm and grabbed onto the small ledge inside the elevator door, on the top floor.  Scott continued scrambling up below him.  The elevator car continued moving up; it was now only three floors below them.  Cop cautiously reached his right arm up to the door.  He jammed the knife part between the two halves of the door, and, with a Herculean effort, pulled one side toward him.  The door jarred open.  Cop swung himself up and reached his left arm down.

Scott grabbed the proffered arm and felt himself being pulled up.  As he scrambled through the door, the top of the elevator car pulled even with the floor.  Cop readied himself, as did Scott, and when enough of the car was open to the floor, they opened fire on the half-dozen men inside the car.

"Why didn't we do that before?" Scott asked.  Would have been a lot easier than climbing up an elevator shaft.

"This way," Cop said urgently.  They ran down the hallway, following the plans that had been demonstrated to them in their briefing back at the base.  Cop came to an abrupt halt next to one intersection.  He peered around the corner quickly and then flattened himself back against the wall while Scott watched their backs.  "Guards," he said.  "Six."

Scott nodded.  Cop dropped to his stomach, then gave a brief nod.  At that instant, both moved their guns around the corner.  With six well-placed shots, they quickly and quietly downed the six security guards.  Cop got back up to his feet and he and Scott ran down the hall to the door of the room that the guards had been standing in front of.  Cop grasped the doorknob in his hand and, with one yank, ripped the door off of its hinges.  He threw it aside and rushed into the room, Scott following. 

"Get them!" Belsky commanded.  Most of the guards in the room turned on the new intruders.

"Down!" Cop yelled to the Checkwolf members.  Instantly, they all hit the floor, using various tactics to disarm their captors while Scott and Cop fired precisely through the room, sparing only Belsky.  Several bullets pinged off of their armor, harming them not in the least.  In seconds, all of the guards in the room were motionless on the floor.  Cop and Scott then took up opposite sides of the door, guarding it from further entry.

Meanwhile, Sean got up.  Belsky had bolted as soon as the taser shots had started flying.  Sean ran after him, through a back exit, and made a flying tackle to take Belsky down in the corridor beyond.  With a concerted effort, Belsky kicked Sean in the chest and found that his legs were free.  He leapt back to his feet and continued running down the hall.  Sean got back up and ran after the fleeing Belsky, determined not to have a repeat of the Hilt incident.

Sean rounded a corner, following Belsky, and saw him heading for the stairs to the roof.  The same escape plan as before, Sean thought as Belsky neared the stairs.  Well, it worked once.  Sean put out another burst of speed and again tackled Belsky.  They hit hard against the stairs.  Sean got up quickly, then kicked Belsky down the stairs.  He tumbled down, hitting the floor, lying still.

Belsky opened his eyes and focused on the visage of Sean Matts.  Belsky bared his teeth.  He then looked around, seeing the other five members of Checkwolf with him in his office.  The next thing he noticed was that he was bound to a chair.  "What do you want, Matts?" Belsky asked.  "Money?"

"Actually, no," Sean said.  "This is a preface to taking you to prison."

"On what grounds?" Belsky demanded.

Sean produced a miniature voice recorder and smiled.

"Inadmissible," Belsky stated, an almost-bored look on his face.

Sean silently pressed "play".  "Have a listen to our earlier conversation," he said.

Several moments passed with no sound.

Belsky inclined one ear.  "I'm sorry.  Could you turn that up?  I can't hear anything."  He then laughed.  "Nice try, Matts.  There is all manner of electronic interference in here just to stop that type of thing from happening."  He paused and smiled.  "This was your plan, Matts?  Pretty poor, it seems to me."

Sean carefully put the recorder back in his pocket, visibly trying to control his rage.  "How did you break into our computer?"

"Why should I tell you?"

Sean put his hand in another pocket.  He brought out Belsky's "good-luck charm."

"Matts, give that back," said Belsky, his tone changing.  "That's extremely valuable."

"Tell me what I want to know."

Belsky glared at him sidelong, then took a deep breath and sighed.  "All right.  I got my hands on the program, and from there it was easy."

"Well, before tonight, I had no idea that you were such a computer genius," Sean admitted.  "But thanks for the information."  Sean leaned forward, putting his face just inches from Belsky's.  "If you make just one wrong move, I'll bring you down so hard and so fast that you won't be able to see straight for weeks."

"So you've said before.  Idle threats don't bother me, Matts."

Sean stood up.  "Just keep it in mind."  He turned to leave.


Sean turned back around.

Belsky raised an eyebrow.  "The charm?"

"Oh, this?" Sean said, looking at the silver wing.

Belsky nodded.

Sean smiled.  "It's mine now.  Consider it a downpayment on the future."

Belsky growled wordlessly.

Sean then motioned for the other members to follow him out.  Before Scott left, he kicked over Belsky's chair.

"Hey!" Belsky yelled.  "You can't leave me like this!"

"Watch me," Scott said with a grin.

Belsky continued yelling as Checkwolf quietly left the building, returned to the van, and went back to the base.

"Can I have it?" Ryan asked.

Sean turned the object over in his hand.  Then he shrugged.  "I don't see why not.  The thing gives me the willies."

Ryan smiled.  "Thanks."  He took the necklace of the silver wing with the diamond stud in it and put it around his neck.