Chapter 1

"Run that by me again."

Ruben sighed.  "All right.  The training room is wired only for combat situations and training, right?"

"Yes," Jay answered.

"And you can't do anything else in there, right?"

"Well, right, that's what that means."

"Well, here's the idea.  Again.  Since we can do that in the training room, is there anything to keep us from creating another room where we could use that technology, but for fun?"

Jay rubbed his chin.  "I guess not."

Ruben rolled his eyes.  "Why couldn't you have answered that the first time I asked?"

Jay shrugged.  "I wasn't listening."  He paused, considering Ruben's idea.  "Since I don't really understand the whole basis behind the training room simulations in the first place, I wouldn't be able to construct it.  We'd need outside help."  He shrugged.  "It'd probably work."  He looked at Ruben suspiciously.  "What made you think of this idea?"

"Well," Ruben said hesitatingly as he shifted in his seat, "I've been thinking about this for awhile, trying to work it out in my head, you know, before presenting the idea to someone else."

Jay nodded sagely.  "You liar."

Ruben looked hurt.  "Me?" he asked melodramatically as he placed his fingertips on his chest and opened his eyes wide.  "A liar?"

Jay grinned.  "Yeah.  You."

Ruben shrugged, looking to his side as he rested his head on his hand.  "Ah, well.  It was worth a shot."  He looked back at Jay, the entire right side of his face resting on the palm of his hand.  "Some reps from Infinity Construction called-"

"The people that remodeled this palace," Jay interjected.

"The very same," Ruben agreed dryly.  "Anyway, they called up while you were in the can and proposed this idea."

A confused expression crossed Jay's face.  "Why?"

Ruben shrugged.  "Hey, you got me.  Something about this being a new technology and the mayor, or something."

Jay shrugged.  "Whatever.  Since you didn't think of it, it's an even better idea."

"Look at me.  I'm laughing."

"Would they install the system for us?"

Ruben nodded.  "That's what I got from the conversation."

Jay nodded in return.  "Good."

"I detect a 'but'."

"You mean other than the one you're sitting on?" Jay asked, pointing.

Ruben spread his arms wide.  "Watch as I continue to laugh uproariously."

"But," Jay continued, "we'll definitely need to clear this with Sean first."

"No kidding?  Really?"

"Shut up, Rube."  Jay kicked his feet up on the console.  "Hey, shouldn't you be working on that locator addition instead of worrying about new technology that we know nothing about?"

Ruben shrugged and waved his hand dismissively.  "I'll worry about that later."

Jay shrugged in return.  "It's your butt on the line, not mine."

After several seconds, Ruben spoke up again.  "Why not go now?  And ask Sean, I mean."

Jay raised his eyebrows.  "Why not?"  He walked over to the corner of the communications room where Sean's office was located.  After a perfunctory knock, Jay opened the door.  Inside, Sean was speaking with someone.  Jay could only see the back of the other man's head, and wondered who it was . . . until he saw the helmet in the man's lap. 

"I'm busy," Sean said, looking up.

"Sorry," Jay said, slightly embarrassed.  He quickly shut the door and turned away, face flushed.

"That's a mighty unnatural shade of red, there, Jay," Ruben commented as Jay returned to the main console.  "What happened?"

"Sean was talking to Cop, I think," Jay responded as the blood in his face slowly returned to its proper place.  "Cop had his helmet off and was talking to Sean."

"Oh."  Ruben paused.  "So you didn't ask, then?"

"Yeah, I figured, 'Hey.  I might as well come back a little later.'"


Sean downed the last of his lunch, then picked up his tray and took it back into the kitchen.  The prototype for the cooking robots, named, with great originality, "A", stood docilely in one corner of the kitchen, awaiting any instructions.  The robot stood about five and a half feet high, the control panel located on the front, near the top.  There was no head, since it obviously had no need for one.  The thing was shaped like a box, other than the two highly flexible arms that it used to prepare the food.  Jon Stollen had constructed the robot for them, and Jay, with the help of Ruben and Jesse, had constructed two more.  Then on a suggestion from Brent of all people, Sean had contracted Stollen to build a prototype for a cleaning robot.  The former Bishops had set aside another several hours of off-time to build four robots based on it.  They prowled the corridors of the base several times a day.

Sean half-smiled, half-grimaced as he thought about the Bishops and their "off-time."  On several occasions, each of them had worked off the clock, whether it be running the training room for another member or working on an extra project for Sean.  They were starting to complain, or at least Jay and Ruben were.  And rather vocally, too.  Sean supposed something should be done about that.

Sean watched as, with great efficiency, the robot took the tray that had been placed in the cavity in the center of its body and placed it in the dishwasher.  No problems with this one.  Evidently there had been problems with one of the robots, though:  cleaning robot D.  Another name from the great minds at Checkwolf, Sean thought.  It had been ramming into one of the walls, causing damage, not only to itself, but also to the wall.  Jesse had corrected the problem a week before and the robot now seemed to be operating fine.

Sean exited the kitchen, turned left, then went around the corner to the right and entered his office from the corridor rather than from the communications room, shutting the door behind him.  He walked around his desk and sat, staring at the calendar on the wall.  He had forgotten to turn it to the next month, it having slipped his mind that it was another month.  New year, too, he thought as he took down the calendar for the year past, the new calendar already in place behind it; it was turned to January, showing a scene of the Horsehead Nebula.

Another new year.  Last January first, Sean wouldn't have even dreamt of being in the position he was now.  Well, he may have dreamed about it, but he wouldn't have ever thought that it would become reality.  Now, here he was in a state-of-the-art base from which to operate his organization of continually-improving operatives, an organization that was a force to be reckoned with in the city.

Sean still was bothered, though, by having let Awe slip through his grasp again six weeks before.  Any therapist would tell him to get over it.  Yet Awe always seemed to be able to produce that effect in him, the effect that made Sean want to grab Awe around the throat and strangle him.

Sean forcibly shifted his thoughts onto another track.  Jay, Ruben, and Jesse had been working pretty hard on finding more members for the organization.  Sean seemed to remember that Jay had off-handedly mentioned something about almost being done with the list.  Which, of course, was good.  They had found ten likely prospects in America, two in Canada, one in Brazil, three in the United Kingdom, one in France, two in Russia, one in Ukraine, one in Egypt, two in South Africa, three in China, three in Japan, and two in Australia, for a total of thirty-one.  If I remember correctly.

Not that there would be thirty-one new Checkwolf members.  These were just the finalists.  Out of these, five or six would be chosen to be personally contacted.  Sean had insisted on that point-personal contact.  Even if one happened to be as far away as China, or as close as right in Kewanee, he wanted each one individually to be contacted in person about the opportunity, to show that Checkwolf was really interested in each one.

Sean heard a light rap on his outer door, the door leading into the corridor.  "Come in," he said.  The door swung open and a large, hulking figure entered the office.  Cop.  "Have a seat, Cop," Sean invited.  Cop nodded and lowered his frame into a chair on the opposite side of Sean's desk.  He reached up and removed his helmet.  Beta had just gotten off duty ten minutes before.  "How'd it go this morning?" Sean asked.

Cop shrugged.  "Well.  I think that we're really making a difference out there."

"I'd like to think so, too," Sean agreed.  "But what did you want to see me about, Brent?"

Cop hesitated for just a moment.  "I'd prefer it if you continued to call me Cop."

"All right."

Cop took a deep breath.  Sean still was getting over the novelty of being able to see the facial gestures that accompanied Cop's oft-impassioned words.  "I've been thinking for the past couple of weeks, since I showed you who I am."  He paused.  "I think that I trust the team more than enough to reveal my identity to them, as well."

"That's a good idea," Sean said.  "I think it would help everyone else be able to trust you a little more, too."  Sean heard a rap on the inside door just as Cop was about to reply to his statement. 

Jay poked his head in.  Sean saw that Cop was intentionally keeping his back to Jay.

Sean just looked up and glared at Jay.  "I'm busy."

Jay blushed in evident embarrassment.  "Sorry," he muttered.  He ducked back out and shut the door.

Sean shook his head in apology.  "Sorry about that Cop."  He paused, regathering his thoughts.  "Now, when would you like to do this?"

Cop replaced his helmet.  "I'll let you know."  Abruptly, he stood and left the office, shutting the door quietly behind him.

Sean frowned at the incident.  Seconds later, as he was reaching for a folder, there was another rap from the inside door.  This time, Jay had the intelligence to wait.  "Come in."

Jay opened the door and looked around cautiously before stepping through.  "I heard the other door shut and figured that Cop left.  I didn't mean to interrupt whatever you were doing."

"I'm sure it'll be all right," Sean said, directing his attention to the matter in front of him.  "Now, what is it that you wanted, exactly?"  

Jay quickly outlined Infinity's idea, then stood and waited for several moments while Sean finished filling out a form.  "Well?  What do you think?" he finally asked.

Sean signed his name quickly, then glanced up at Jay.  "Yeah, that's fine."

Jay smiled.  "Great," he said, turning to leave.

Sean raised his forefinger.  "How much is this going to cost us?"


"Are you putting it in?  I didn't think you knew how the training room worked."

"Well, I don't.  That's the whole point behind Infinity doing the work."

"Ah," Sean said, comprehending now.  "You must have glossed over that point."


"So how is this costing us nothing?"

"Ruben said something about the mayor or the city or something."

Sean cocked one eyebrow.  "Or something?"

Jay shrugged.

Sean glanced back down at his paperwork.

"We were thinking of calling it 'recreation room'," Jay continued.

Sean smiled.  "Imaginative."

Jay shrugged.  "Or 'rec room', or whatever."

Sean nodded as he turned to the next form awaiting his attention.  "I'll leave the details up to you guys.  Just make sure I don't get stuck with the bill."

Chapter 2

"How's it going today, ladies?"

The two cellmates looked toward the front of the cell, suspicion in the eyes of both, half-recognition in the eyes of one.  It was a prison guard.  Before either could reply to the question, the guard spoke up.  "Which one of you is Jones?"

The smaller of the two stood up.  "I am."

"With me, Jones."

Jones hid a smile as the guard slid the antiquated cell door in the second-rate women's prison aside.  Her cellmate was trying to look indifferent, but she was obviously very curious as to what was going on with her companion of nine months.  Jones walked out of the cell.

"Follow me," the guard said.  

Jones obeyed, still trying to place the face.  They came to the end of the hall, at a locked door.  The guard fooled around with his keys and then finally unlocked the door.  He opened it and motioned for Jones to enter before him.  Then he followed her through and guided her into a small room on the opposite side of the cellblock.

The guard shut the door behind them.  "Michele.  How are you?"

"Just fine, Robert."

"You still remember me?"

Jones just smiled.  "How could I forget?"

Robert returned the smile.

Michele Jones' smile quickly evaporated.  "Why are you here?"

Robert's smile faltered.  "I'm here to break you out."

A show of suspicion.  "Why?"

"Hey, I don't know.  I'm just following orders."

"Still working for the big man?"

Robert nodded.

"Why did he send you?"  Almost distaste.

"I volunteered."

Michele half nodded, half shrugged.  "How are you going to do this?"

"Well," Robert said as he nervously glanced out the window set in the door, "I was going to-"  

He slumped to the ground, unconscious.  

"Sorry, Robert," Michele told the unconscious form.  "I have my own plans."  She grabbed the ID badge from Robert's shirtfront.  She analyzed it quickly, holding it up to the light as she looked for the watermark she expected.  Seeing it, she pressed specific areas in the upper left corner, back center, and lower right corner, in rapid succession.  The hidden contacts analyzed her fingerprints and instantly changed the card.  The image of Robert's face was replaced by hers, as was all the other information on the card.  So far everything's going according to plan.

Michele methodically stripped Robert of his clothes, occasionally glancing out the window to make sure that no one caught her.  Within the space of a minute, Michele was wearing Robert's clothes and he hers.  She stepped out of the small room and shut and locked the door behind her.  They'd find him eventually.  She then turned on her heel and walked down the corridor, walking as if she belonged, nodding to other prison personnel as they passed, finding humor in the fact that they didn't recognize her.

The main entrance loomed ahead.  Michele's heart was pounding in her chest.  She willed it to slow, taking deep, calming breaths.  Nonchalantly, she pushed open the inside door and came to the guard station, her last obstacle before freedom.  Now was the time to see if the little trick with the ID badge would work.  She stepped up to the station to sign out.  The guard only glanced at her long enough to notice the badge and punch a button, then went back to his newspaper.  The outer lock indicator changed from red to green.  Michele held back a smile and stepped out the door.  When she came to the street, she hailed a taxi.  She knew exactly where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do.

"I'll be right there."

Jesse stood and briskly left the communications room.  He crossed the hall to the garage and entered it.  He walked over to the small outside door, unlocked it electronically, and turned the knob.  On the other side of the door were nine people.  A diminuitive man stood in the forefront.  "Hello."

Jesse looked down and offered his hand.  "Hello."

The man took his hand and shook it with a dead fish grip.  "We're here to work on the holographic simulator."

"Follow me," Jesse said, as he headed toward the elevator.  The man motioned for the rest of his crew to follow.  Six of them struggled to carry two huge cases of equipment.  Jesse held the door open as they all boarded the large cargo elevator in the back of the garage.  "The basement?" Jesse asked.

"Yes," the small man replied.  "There is an empty room above the game room.  We'll use that."

Jesse punched the button for the basement.  "You're the guys that did the work on the training room?"

"Yes," the small man replied.

Jesse shook his head in disbelief.  "That training room is absolutely incredible.  How'd you guys even come up with the concept, much less execute it?"

The smaller man shrugged.  "Just building on preestablished foundations."

"It must have been expensive."

"Eight digits, anyway."

And all for the benefit of a bunch of kids from the backwaters of Kewanee, Jesse thought to himself.  Incredible.  "And how long will this take?"

The man glanced around at his crew.  "Five hours."

"That's pretty fast."

"There is very little actual construction involved.  In fact, seventy percent of the time is programming."

"Amazing," Jesse said, shaking his head as they unloaded the equipment from the elevator.  "No wonder you people were able to remodel this base so fast."  

The small man glanced at him, then smiled, small and tight.  "Yes."

Jesse led them through the south door of the repair/storage room beneath the garage, turned left, then turned right at the next cross-corridor.  He led them to the game room and held the door open as the equipment was carried in.  "Anything you guys need?"

"Privacy while we work.  We don't want anyone getting hurt.  Some of this equipment can be dangerous if our full concentration is not directed toward it."

"I understand," Jesse said, nodding.  "Do you want me to seal you off?"

"Please.  Also disable the cameras."  He paused.  "We need to protect our trade secrets."

Jesse shrugged and walked around the room, turning off the three cameras in the game room manually.  "Anything else?"

The frail-looking engineer smiled.  "I don't believe so."

"Well, I'll leave you to your work, then."

"Thank you."

I'm glad my checking account wasn't closed in the past nine months, Michele thought as she looked at the small wardrobe she had purchased that day.  I was half-hoping for more to have been added, but I guess that would take away from the deniability.  She searched through the clothes and pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of comfortable jeans.  She turned and looked in the mirror.

Michele ran her hand disapprovingly through her hair.  She had worn it fairly long, past her shoulders, for as long as she could remember.  But the first thing they did when she got to prison was shear off the majority of it, leaving a boyish cut behind.  Michele could hardly wait until it grew back.

Bounty.  That was the name she had chosen for herself while she had been working, first in Texas, then in New York.  It was short for "bounty hunter", which she had been.  But she had found out from her lovable cellmate that evidently in Kewanee there had already been a "Bounty".  He had operated during the 80's and had died in 1990, but he was still well-remembered.  She didn't want to be associated with anybody else in people's minds.  She needed to change her name.

But of vastly greater importance was revenge.  She didn't take too kindly to being tossed in jail for nine months like some common criminal.  And then ol' Davy didn't even have the nerve to break her out.  She smiled.  He got what he deserved, being in jail now himself.

Michele wanted revenge on Checkwolf, on Sean Matts.  

And I'll get it.

Chapter 3

"Well, let's see this thing," Ruben said impatiently.

Jay looked at him, bemused.  Karl and Brent were also on hand for the unveiling of the new room in the base.  The electronic lock clicked off and the door swung open.  The engineers and construction personnel trudged out, carrying their equipment with them.  The only one left behind was a diminutively-sized man.  He motioned for the group to follow him.

They entered the game room.  To their left was a staircase.  They followed the man up.  At the top, he turned to his right and stepped toward a small alcove.  Where before there had been only a large empty space there was now a wall.  Set in it was a computer terminal.  He touched a button. 

A feminine voice intoned, "Ready."

Directing his attention back to the cluster of Checkwolf members, the engineer said, "Most of the time, all you need to do is speak your commands.  If, for some reason, the computer does not understand, you can also input your commands by means of the keyboard."  He paused.  "Understand that this is not designed for combat, or training of any sort.  It is solely for purposes of entertainment.  Of course, as with the training room, here, too, there is a safety catch so that you will not be able to actually die inside of the scenario."  The man turned to Jay.  "I understand that you're the ranking scientist here?"

Jay nodded.

"In order to achieve the level of realism that we have," the small man explained, "we had to take a sizable chunk out of your computer resources.  There will be a slight but noticeable drop in responsiveness from the system terminals when the program is running.  Also, the program itself uses approximately twenty-five percent of your available storage."

Jay's eyes widened.  All of the computers throughout the base were just terminals, networked together through the workstation in the communications room.  That workstation was attached to the computer core in the basement.  The computer core had an incredible memory capacity.   It wasn't just one hard drive, like a home computer; rather it consisted of smaller units working together, mainly to minimize cost while maximizing storage space, much like a server farm.  Each smaller, server-like unit had something like seven hundred gigabytes available; more than two-thirds of a terabyte.   And there were hundreds of those smaller units, mostly discounted or surplus equipment, Jay had surmised.  Altogether Jay had figured that they had over a petabyte of memory space in the computer core-more than one thousand terabytes.  In the past year, they had only managed to use about fifteen percent of that space, which included the huge program needed to run the training room.  "Is that necessary?" he asked the Infinity rep.

"It is."

Jay nodded.  He was now anticipating even more the level of realism which this "rec room" would be able to display.

"So this is kinda like the training room, right?" Ruben asked.

"Not exactly," the man replied.  "There have been some impressive leaps forward in technology since we first designed the hologrammatic system, used in your training room, about three years ago.  What powers this simulation," he continued, gesturing at the wall behind him, "is primarily a direct stimulation of certain areas of one's brain, though the computer also makes judicious use of holograms.  We are able to access these areas through the eyes and ears and convince the mind of senses other than sight and sound, such as smell, touch, and to a certain extent, taste."

"I thought you said they were using the same stuff as in the training room," Jay said to Ruben.

Ruben grinned sheepishly.  "Maybe I wasn't paying attention."

The diminuitive man gestured at the wall near the door, where there was a small closet.  Inside the closet were what looked like several bodysuits.  "These sensations can be amplified through the use of one of those suits," the man explained.  "They are made of a sensory mesh, which can also be made to be in direct contact with your nerve endings."

"So those would be to amplify the sense of touch, mainly," Jay stated.

The man simply nodded.

"Do you have to be naked to wear that thing?" Karl asked, pointing at the sensory meshes.


Ruben immediately started laughing.  "I hope they're washable!"

"Actually, they are," the man said.  "Are there any other questions?" he asked, a slight smile appearing briefly.

"Is there a limit to how many people can be in there at once?" Brent asked.


"Hey, if you're shooting some beam into our heads," Karl said, "doesn't that mean you could, like, hypnotize us?"

The man gave Karl a condescending smile, something that wasn't easy due to the fact that he was both shorter and smaller than Karl.  "No.  I don't think so."

"Yeah, Karl," Ruben said.  "What makes you think that?"  He raised the back of his hand to his mouth and began speaking to Karl out of the corner of his mouth.  "Ixnay on the ypnotizehay.  These guys are giving us this stuff for free.  Let's not make them mad."

Karl grinned and nodded.

"Anything else?" the man asked.

Each member of the group shook his head.

"Enjoy."  With a nod, he turned and went back down the stairs; Jay had left word with Jesse to watch them out.

"Let's try it out!" Ruben said enthusiastically as soon as the engineer disappeared.  He touched the contact to activate the system.


"The start of a baseball game, please."

"Specify stadium."

"Umm.  Comiskey.  Chicago."

"Specify date."

Ruben's eyes widened.  "Date?  Okay.  How about May 1965?  A home game."

"No kidding," Brent muttered.

"Enter when ready."

Ruben stepped toward the door.  The motion detector tucked away above the doorway sensed his presence and opened the door.  

The view was breathtaking.

Consciously, Ruben knew that the actual dimensions of the room were forty by twenty-seven yards (he'd looked it up).  But his mind was fooled into believing that he was actually standing in Comiskey Park.  He stepped through and looked around.  A game was starting: the White Sox versus the Athletics.  The stands were packed with White Sox fans, all dressed in sixties attire.  It was simply amazing.

"Hey, move it or lose it, buddy!" Ruben heard.  

He spun.  Beside him were the other three members.  The door shut and the visual experience was complete.  A gruff-looking man with two hot dogs in each hand was also standing next to them.  "Excuse me," Ruben said as he stepped out of the man's way.

"This is amazing!" Jay exclaimed.

"You know," Brent said.  "I've been meaning to ask you how the training room, and this place, are able to make such realistic-looking stuff."

"I'm not entirely sure," Jay confessed.  "All I know is what that engineer said, that it has to do with directly contacting the visual center of the brain and tricking it into thinking that it's seeing something that it's really not."

"It's just weird to think that none of this is actually here," Brent said.

Ruben turned and faced Brent, as well.  "The fact that none of this is here is why everything moves so . . . lifelike.  The computer that runs this thing can 'cheat' by not having to totally form all of the images; it just has to tight-beam them into our heads."  He looked around at the upper decks, shielding his eyes from the "sun."  "Sure does work, though."

The crack of a bat sounded and the crowd rose to its feet and started cheering.  "It sounds pretty realistic, too," Karl said.  He took a deep breath.  "And I'd swear I can smell the hot dogs and popcorn."

"You know," Jay said, "I'd bet that if one of us were to walk away, that person would seem to go off into the distance, and to him, the others would also seem to shrink."

"Well, it had better work that way," Ruben said.  "Or we got royally gypped.  Let's try it."  He ran down the stairs and, indeed, seemed to be going down, even though they were standing on the flat surface of the floor.  The illusion was complete in every way.  Ruben had reached the bottom of the stairs, nearest the field.  He looked like he was just that distance away, and although he couldn't conceivably have been further from them than forty yards, it looked like at least sixty, and maybe more.

"But how real is it all?" Karl asked with a mischievous gleam in his eye as he rubbed his hands together.  "Hey, there's a cute chick," he said, pointing.

"What are you going to do?" Brent asked.

Karl just grinned.  He walked over to the woman he had pointed out, leaned over, and kissed her full on the mouth.  She shrieked and pushed him away.  Then, outraged, she made a fist and punched him.  Hard.  He stumbled backwards.

Brent winced in sympathy.  "Seems pretty real to me."

Karl came back to him.  "Ouch.  I thought we couldn't get hurt in here."

"Oh, come on," Jay said.  "You're not hurt.  Admittedly, the pain center in your brain probably thinks you are, but that'll probably wear off as soon as you leave."

"That's different from the training room, too, then," Brent stated.

Jay gestured at Karl.  "Evidently so."

"So he's not hurt."

"Not really."

Karl gingerly felt his mouth, apparently wiping blood as he did so.  "Am I bleeding?"

"I've been with you all for months now.  You have been kind enough not to press the question of my identity, and for that I thank you, for trusting me.  And since I can now say that I trust you all-implicitly-I think the time has come for me to reveal to you my final secret."  Cop took off his helmet.  "My name . . . is Brent Slin."

Several sets of ears around the room picked up on the last name.

"Slin?" Ryan asked.  "As in Jessica Slin?"

Cop nodded and proceeded to explain the entire story that he had related to Sean nearly a month before.

"So what should we call you now?" Tyler asked.  "Mr. Slin?  Brent?"

"I would prefer for you to continue to call me Cop, unless I ask you otherwise."

Minutes later, all of the members, except Sean, had filed out of the conference room.  Cop strode over to Sean.  "You wanted to speak to me?"

"I know that all the other members have been, to varying degrees, discomfited with your secrecy in this matter.  I'm glad that you trust us enough to trust us all with your secret.  It is a trust I know we'll all keep."

"That's all I ask."

"Raven, huh?"

Sean nodded.  "Three times tonight, this Raven person has escaped us.  Alpha twice and now Beta."

"Busy little guy," Jay commented.

"We need to get some hard data on this person."

"What exactly has he gotten away with?"

"That's the puzzling part," Sean commented, his brow furrowing.  "Raven hasn't stolen anything of much value at all.  It's almost as if he's baiting us."

"So what do we do?"

"We watch.  And we wait."

Chapter 4

A tone from the clock near the bed indicated that it was four o'clock.  

Michele had been out of prison for about a week now.  She hadn't seen any reports on the news of her escape for several days.  Good.  She took her clothes from the closet and laid them on the bed, in preparation for the night's activities. 

Since she had been locked up, Checkwolf had changed its procedures.  From what she had gleaned from news coverage and personal experience, it seemed that there were two squads of members that evidently worked at separate times of the night.  Although she had deduced that Ryan and Tyler Spencer were the leaders of the two squads, she had no idea who the remaining members of each group were.  She had left the scenes of the crimes too quickly to determine that.  The other thing that she had discovered was that they had added a new member, someone named Cop.  Very mysterious, and very dangerous.

Michele pulled on her black sweatshirt.  She realized that it would be necessary to set up some sort of trap for Checkwolf.  Otherwise, she wouldn't have a prayer; twelve-to-one odds are a bit long.  She pulled up her lined black jeans, for protection against the January cold. 

She hoped that the group she met up with wasn't the one that had Clayton Lee in it.  Michele had allowed herself to become emotionally attached to Clayton during her brief stint as a Checkwolf member; it was never good to develop that kind of attraction for an enemy, that dreaded four-letter word.  She hadn't intended it, certainly.  In fact, it had been weeks before she realized that part of the funk she had been in was directly related to him.  But she now had nine months' distance between them, so she wasn't overly concerned that there would be a problem.  Still, she thought.  Better if I can avoid him for now.

Michele next pulled on socks and shoes, and then gloves that were lined to heat her hands.  She shrugged on her jacket, and finally looked in the mirror.  Well, I ought to blend well with the darkness.  She was outfitted totally in black. 

She grabbed her new rifle, then picked up a pair of sunglasses and put them on.  Everything in the room dimmed.  She then pressed a contact, and light seemingly returned, with greater than crystal clarity.  Infrared glasses were good, but ultravision glasses were infinitely superior, if a little hard on the eyes.  They utilized all wavelengths of energy and changed it into visible light, allowing the wearer to see in the dark as if it were a bright, sunny day.  She had owned the ultravision glasses ever since Davidson had given the prototype pair to her after hiring her a year and a half before.

Tonight was the night she would go in for the kill.  She had decided to do it while the second squad of Checkwolf, Beta, was on duty.  That was the one that Tyler led.  He didn't have Ryan's natural tactical ability, and so she figured that she had a better chance with his team, despite the possible balancing factor of Cop. 

It was time.

"It's Raven again," Karl voiced from his console.

"Where?" Tyler asked immediately.

"Right near the base.  Southwest 30th Avenue, near Puerco Park."

Tyler immediately responded and turned the van onto 16th Street, headed for 30th.  Raven had been evading them for four days now.  I'm personally getting sick of him.  He hoped they nailed him this time.

Cop spoke up next to him.  "What is the crime that Raven is committing?"

"I don't know," Karl replied.  "That information wasn't supplied."

Tyler thought he heard Cop utter a curse.  "I hate going into situations, like this, blind."

"So do I," Tyler muttered.

The first glimmers of the morning sun were peeking over the horizon, although it was still quite dark outside.  Tyler parked the van behind a structure used for picnics in the summer, winter generally being a little chilly for outdoor picnics.  "Scott, Cop, go see what the situation is."

Cop nodded briskly, opened his door, and got out.  Scott got out the back and followed him through the three-inch-deep snow.  They cautiously edged around the corner of the structure and promptly disappeared from sight.  Less than a minute later, they came back around the corner and got back in the van.

"What's up?"

Scott motioned for Cop to go ahead.  "From what we can discern from this distance, there was a group of early-rising ice skaters on the rink.  Raven decided to harass them for some unknown reason."

"Very early," Karl commented.

"One thing bothered me, though," Scott said.

"What?" Tyler asked.

"How any of the skaters could have contacted the police."

Tyler's eyes narrowed.  "So maybe it's a trap."

Clayton nodded.  "That'd give Raven a motive, all right."

"I don't think we really have a choice but to walk right into it," Cop stated.  "If we actually want to get him."

"I agree," Scott said.

Tyler nodded.  "All right, then.  Scott, you're with me, and Cop and Karl are together.  We'll try to use a two-pronged attack; we'll take the north side, Cop, you take the south."

"What about me?" Clayton asked.

"I want you to take the van around the back of the rink.  If we can't get Raven, then we'll try to flush him out your way," Tyler explained.

Clayton nodded.

"Let's move it, then," Tyler ordered.  "And remember: Be careful of the innocent bystanders."

Clayton waited until the other four had left the van before starting it up again and driving off.  He pulled out of the park, went around the double-block it was located on, and came around on the other side.  He waited.

Tyler and Scott used the trees for cover as they slowly crept toward the rink.  They could see Cop and Karl doing the same approximately two hundred yards away.  In the dull glow of the early morning light, their dark outfits didn't contrast much with the still-darkened snow.  But if they didn't do this quickly enough, the sun would rise and they could easily be spotted.

Suddenly, two bullets burned into the snow at their feet.  They both dove aside.  Tyler saw that Cop and Karl were subsequently shot at.

"We're still a few hundred feet away," Scott said.  "How powerful is that gun?"

"And how good is Raven's eyesight?" Tyler asked.  He squinted into the darkened western sky.  "I can't even see him, and I don't have the sun in my eyes."  As they started to rise again, more bullets were laid in their path.  They quickly dropped back to the cold snow.

"And if he can come that close to missing us, why doesn't he just hit us?" Scott asked.

Tyler shrugged.  "Contact Clayton.  Maybe he can distract Raven for us."

The dozen or so cowering people stayed to one side of the rink, shivering in the cold, so Michele could fire at the Checkwolf members.  So they weren't to blame for the fact that Tyler's crew was still alive.  For some reason, though, she hadn't hit any of the Checkwolf members yet.  And vision wasn't an issue, either, since she could see them even without the ultravision specs.  Must be the sun in my eyes.

Suddenly, she heard a sound behind her.  She spun and saw Clayton standing not fifty yards from her.  She gasped, her heart thudding, and bolted.  Just seeing him from that distance had stirred up the feelings again.  No, no, no! she thought.  This is not happening!  I don't feel anything for him!  And yet she could feel her emotions like a rollercoaster inside.  She realized that she had to scrap the plan for revenge, for now, and just stay away from him.  "Raven!" she heard him exclaim.

Michele knew she could outrun Clayton easily.  However not only was she hampered by the snow, but also by the thudding of her heart and shaky nervousness at the sight of him.  He evidently still didn't know who she was, though, and so was not hampered by the same restrictions.  If he would be anyway.  She knew that it was just a matter of time before he caught up to her unless she mentally willed herself under control.  Some professional.

Clayton made a leaping dive and got ahold of Raven by the legs, bringing her to the ground.  It was obvious to him from this range that Raven was a woman.  She tried to kick away from him.  "It's no use, Raven.  Consider yourself caught."  He released his grip slightly as she swiveled her torso and removed her sunglasses.  Clayton's heart skipped at least three beats.  "Michele?" he asked, his voice choking.

"Clayton," Michele responded, her voice trembling with emotion.

"What are you doing here?  When did you get out of jail?"

"A week ago.  Are you going to take me back?"

"I don't know.  I don't want to."  He paused.  "I haven't forgotten about you.  I still think of you every day."

All resolve crumbled within Michele.  "You do?" she asked as she leaned forward on her knees, not noticing the cold, wet snow melting through her jeans.  She knew she was succumbing again to her emotions, but didn't care one bit.  This explains missing the others.  Compassion?

"Wait," Clayton said, trying to catch his breath, realization dawning.  "You-you feel . . . ?"

Michele smiled shyly.  Some cold, rational part inside chided her for her schoolgirlish reactions, but that part wasn't in charge here.   She nodded.

"You didn't really want to kill Tyler and the others, did you?" Clayton asked.  "I could tell.  Or, I can tell now.  You wouldn't miss.  You're too good."  Michele nodded, reaching for Clayton's hands, longing for his acceptance, his . . . forgiveness.  Clayton grasped them in return.  "You don't have to continue being a criminal.  You can join us."

"I can't," Michele said, shaking her head.

"Why not?"

"I just . . . can't."

"Then I have to take you in," Clayton said, resigning himself.

Michele leaned forward.  "No.  Don't.  Just let me go.  Please."

Clayton looked at the plea in her eyes.  "How can I?"

"Please," she said again.  The plaintive longing in her eyes drew him closer to her.  Unbidden, the words came to her lips.  "I love you."

Clayton visibly melted.  "I love you, too," he said softly.  He moved even closer to her.  Their lips touched in a quick kiss.  Then Clayton moved away, dropping her hands.  "Go.  And, please, for the sake of both of us, don't ever come back."

Michele stood.  She wanted to say more, but couldn't make her mouth continue to work.  Instead, she quickly ran off.  

Clayton watched her go, dejected, heartbroken again.  He sat that way until the rest of Beta Squad showed up.

"Clayton!" Tyler exclaimed.  "You let him go!"



Clayton looked at Tyler.  "Her.  I let her go.  It was Michele."

"Jones?  Bounty?"

Clayton nodded.

"Why did you let her go?"

"Don't you see?" Clayton said in a near monotone, lifelessly.  "I had to.  I love her.  I had to let her go.  I had to."

Although it was an expensive ride, Michele figured she needed to put as much distance between her and Clayton as possible.  She wiped the tears from her eyes as she looked at the white countryside speed by outside the window of the monorail car. 

Michele had thought that she was over Clayton, was sure of it, in fact.  Just one look at him, though, had been more than enough to send her falling head over heels.  But what Clayton had said about joining Checkwolf for real, perhaps . . . no.  No.  It's not my nature.  I can't change back, not now.  Not even for the man I love.

Chapter 5

Michele Jones is out of jail, and evidently out of the city as well, Sean mused to himself.  Which is probably just as well.  Sean certainly wasn't pleased that a convicted criminal was running free, especially since a Checkwolf member had facilitated the escape.  But he intended to keep that part quiet, for Clayton's sake.  Sean was really sorry for Clayton, losing someone he loved not once, but twice; Sean could relate to that.  Clayton had earned some off-time, to say the least.  And if it was unpaid, disciplinary leave . . . well, who says you can't kill two birds with one stone?


Sean looked up.  Standing in the doorway to his office was Jay, a sheaf of paper in his hand.  "Yes?"

"We finished the search."


"Here are the five best candidates for membership."

Sean held out his hand and accepted the papers from Jay.  He laid them out on his desk and began reading from them.  "Nai Hassan.  Egypt?" Sean asked, looking up.  Jay shrugged.  "Masters degree in communications technology.  Good."

He turned to the next one.  "Sang Li.  Japan."  He looked up at Jay again.  "I hope all of these people know English."

"They do.  That was one of the parameters."

Sean returned to his reading.  "Drug enforcement agent, member of the Tokyo Police Department, and martial arts expert.  Interesting."  He turned to the next sheet.  "You got all of these from the weighted system you set up?"

"Yeah, we actually set up a point system, awarding points to people on different areas of expertise," Jay explained.  "And gender, of course," he added with a grin.  "These five had the highest point totals, combined with the fact that they're most likely to accept membership, having few ties to the outside world."

"I see," Sean said, looking down.  "Marie Darnay.  Paris, France."

"Oui, oui."

Sean fixed Jay with an icy glare.  

Jay stopped smiling.

"A former gymnast and world-class acrobat, as well as an association with the Parisian police."

"Most of them are somehow associated with police work, that being the most like ours, coupled with the fact that police databases are some of the most comprehensive," Jay commented.

"Timothy Stoner.  Kewanee, no less."  Sean looked up.  "He'll be the first one we contact."

"I kind of assumed that much," Jay agreed.

"Former boxer, martial artist, and former officer in the KPD.  Good."  He glanced at the final sheet.  "And Leah Thomas.  New York."  Sean paused and looked up.  "Leah Thomas?"

Jay narrowed his eyes.  "Yeah.  Why?  You know her?"

"Not personally, no.  But I'd heard some good things before I left New York."

"Well," Jay said, smiling, "we heard good things, too."

"Excellent."  Sean looked back at the paper.  "And she's a former NYPD detective, on top of being a P.I."  Sean grinned.  "A fellow detective!"

"I thought you might like that."

Sean collected the sheets together.  "Good work.  These all look like excellent candidates.  The four out-of-town ones we'll head for in a few weeks, maybe by the end of the month.  But this Timothy Stoner we can contact immediately."

"Who do you want to do that?"

Sean looked again at Stoner's sheet.  "Let's see.  He lives in the Toulon district.  Well, since Karl lived there and has family there, he might as well do it."

Jay nodded.  "Will do."

Sean grinned.  "No, not Wil.  Karl."

"Timothy Stoner?"


"I'm Karl Dexter, a member of the organization Checkwolf."

"Ah, yes," Stoner said.  "I've heard of you."

"We were wondering if you'd be interested in joining our organization.  You would receive full benefits, as well as a place to live.  And with your former police experience-"

Stoner held up his hands.  "I'm really flattered that you would ask me, but I'm really not interested in joining right now.  Sorry."  He shut the door.

"Well, thanks anyway," Karl told the front door.

Sean propped his feet up on his desk.  Karl had just returned and told him that Timothy Stoner wasn't interested in joining.  First shot out of the barrel and we're denied, Sean thought.  He only hoped that the rest of the candidates didn't respond the same way.  After traveling all over the world, it would be nice to come up with some new members.

Well, that's a little ways in the future, Sean thought.  No point worrying about that now.  Besides, I've been wanting to try that rec room . . . .