Chapter 1

"Good afternoon."

Leah smiled.  "Hello.  How are you today?"

Marie shrugged.  "Fine, I suppose.  And yourself?"

"A little tired," Leah admitted as she stifled a yawn.  "But I just woke up and you just came off of duty; aren't you tired, too?"

"A little," Marie said, smiling as she continued stretching.

Leah shook her head in wonder as she stepped through the open door to her apartment and shut it behind her.  Marie, along with the rest of Beta Squad, had just finished her shift a little more than an hour before.  But now she was joining Leah for a session in the training room, their first in more than two weeks.  She had astounding fortitude.  Leah had never been able to stay so active consistently, as Marie seemed to be able to do, packing so much activity into a single day.  Of course, Marie had been in training for most of her life, which explained her prowess at the martial arts and acrobatics as well as her mastery of the English language.  This Checkwolf schedule is probably cake to her.  "Ready?" Leah asked.

"Yes," Marie replied.

"Well, let's go, then," Leah suggested.

Marie nodded and headed for the elevator.  As they walked around a corner, the door of one of the apartments opened.  Out stepped an impressive figure.  He was approximately six feet three inches with a phenomenal physique and a helmet that totally shielded his face.

Cop gazed down on the two women that were gazing up at him.  He inclined his head slightly.  "Ladies," he said in his quiet, bass voice.  "Excuse me," he said as he stepped past them.

Leah and Marie turned and watched him go.  "Who is he, anyway?" Leah asked.

Marie shrugged as she watched Cop turn a corner.  "I don't know."

"I get the impression that everybody else knows," Leah said, continuing toward the elevator.

"Except for Nai, you mean."

"Well, yeah, obviously."

"Yes, I had gathered that, as well," Marie responded.  "Do you have any ideas as to why he wears his mask?"

"Why he wears it in general, I don't know," Leah admitted.  "All I've been able to turn up are dead ends.  As to why he wears it even around us, his teammates . . . well, he'll probably reveal who he is when he's ready.  Maybe he doesn't know us well enough to be able to trust us yet," Leah said. 

"We've been here for nearly two months."

"True.  But I hear through the grapevine that he wore it around the rest of the guys for a lot longer than that," Leah said as they stepped into the elevator.  She reached over and pressed "B."  The elevator smoothly began descending.  "Oh!" Leah said suddenly.

Marie turned.  "Yes?"

"Did you remember to ask Jesse to run it for us?"

Marie paused briefly.  "Well, actually, Jay is coming."


"He's trying to automate the system.  So he'll monitor us to ensure that everything works correctly," Marie explained.

"Okay," Leah said, nodding as she looked up at the indicator.  She shrugged.  "I guess automation is good, right?"  Several seconds passed.  Leah faced Marie again.  Marie was staring off into space.  "Right?" she asked again.

Startled, Marie turned to Leah.  "Oh, excuse me," she apologized.  "What did you ask?"

"Never mind," Leah said, eyeing the woman.  "What were you just thinking about?"

Marie blushed.  "Nothing."

Leah grinned.  "Doesn't look like nothing."

"No," Marie said more firmly.  "It's nothing."

"All right," Leah relented, shrugging.

The elevator doors opened and the two women stepped out.  They traversed the short distance to the training room and entered the observation room.  Jay was already there and was running what seemed to be a few pre-exercise checks on the system.  He looked up as they entered.  He smiled.  "Hello, Leah.  Marie."

Leah nodded.  "Hello."

"Hello," Marie said.

Jay turned back to his console.  "Gimme one more minute," he said, raising an index finger.

"All right," Leah said.  Next to her, Marie expelled a breath.  Leah glanced over at Marie in time to catch her roll her eyes; she then looked out into the empty training room.  "It's him, isn't it?" she whispered.

Marie's head whipped back so quickly that Leah wondered if she had given herself whiplash.  "What?  No!" she hissed, almost angrily.

Leah was taken aback for a moment.  Then she smiled.  "Ah.  It's Jesse."

A hint of pink appeared on Marie's cheekbones, followed by a wry smile.  "Je suis regrette.  Je ne parle pas anglais."

Leah grinned back.  "Whatever."

"Ready?" Jay asked.

"Oui," Marie said, eyes wide open, innocent.

Jay frowned, realizing that he must have walked into the middle of a conversation.  Rather than try to figure out what was going on, he just shrugged, anxious to get his test underway.  "Okay."  He gestured toward the training room proper.  "Whenever you're ready."

Once Marie and Leah had taken their positions in the center of the room, Leah signaled to Jay.  He nodded and started the simulation.

Leah watched from afar.  She had already been eliminated from the simulation.  This was her sixth time in the simulator, and she still couldn't seem to get the hang of it.  Well, I've never been much of a "hands-on" type of girl, anyway, Leah thought.  I guess I'm just not cut out for fighting.  But that's okay.  I don't think they hired me for my combat skills.   She was now in a sort of cage, shut out from the action that was still going on outside of the cage.

Marie was like a whirlwind.  Leah watched in amazement as she propelled herself off of one of the illusion's chest and did an artful midair backflip, landing gracefully on her feet behind her second attacker.  She may not be a world-class acrobat anymore, but she's till far above average, Leah mused as Marie spun her second attacker around and brought her leg straight up, directly into the underside of his chin.  He flew backwards, directly into the attacker from which Marie had just propelled herself.  They both tumbled to the ground and disappeared.

Marie was then blindsided by two illusionary women from either side and a man from the front.  The man kicked her in the gut and the women used Marie's jaw as the middle of a fist sandwich.  Leah winced with each hit.  She knew that they weren't physically harming Marie; they were just hitting her with low-intensity stun beams, or so Jay and the gang assured her.  But that didn't make it look any better; it still looked quite painful.

As Leah watched, Marie tried to defend herself against the incessant onslaught.  She swung one useless arm against the woman on her left, connecting and sending her back into nonexistence.  With her good arm, she punched the man three times in quick succession.  Marie then lashed out to her side with her right leg, catching the second woman in the stomach and lifting her into the air.  The construct fell heavily to the ground and dissipated.

But Marie had used her numb leg to support herself.  She fell to the ground as well, evidently winded.  The man staggered back to his feet and pulled Marie to her feet, as well.  She weakly tried to defend herself, but, blankfaced, the man punched her directly in the face twice, then released her.  She fell backward, still conscious but with the portion of her brain that controlled motor functions effectively nullified.  Unable to break her fall, an invisible hard light beam caught her and lowered her gently to the floor.  At that moment, Leah's cage disappeared.

Leah trotted over to Marie.  "Hello, Marie."

Marie's eyes focused on Leah.  "Hello," she murmured through half-numb lips.  She kept working her jaw, trying to get the numbness out.  "Can you please remind me as to the reason that I keep putting myself through this torture?"

Leah chuckled.  "So you can be better than all the guys."

Marie smiled.  The paralysis was starting to wear off.  She sat up and rotated her neck.  Leah offered her a hand.  Marie accepted it and stood, at first a little shakily, but quickly regaining even footing.

"You did your best, I think," Leah said.

Marie shrugged.  "We'll see," she said as they headed back across the training room floor.

"What's your previous best?" Leah asked as they walked up the stairs exiting into the observation room.

"Seven point nine two, I believe."

"You did better than that, surely," Leah said, opening the door at the top of the stairs.  Marie went through first and Leah followed directly behind her.  "How'd we do?" Leah asked Jay after she had shut the door behind herself.

"You did a little better than your average, Leah," Jay said from his seated position, reading off the screen.  "Six point three."

"Not exactly my best."

"Not exactly your worst, either," Jay reminded her.  He then glanced at Marie.  "You had your best run yet, Marie," he said, obviously impressed.  "You got eight point five six, which is actually the fifth best score we've seen."

"Out of twelve, right?"

Jay looked momentarily confused.  "Right.  Eight point five six out of twelve.  Good job," he said with a smile.

"So how did the automated system work?" Leah asked.

"Pretty well overall," Jay said as he regarded the console before him.  "There were a couple of little glitches that I still have to iron out.  But by the end of next month, we'll all be able to do this solo, with no help from the Bishops."

"Good," Leah said with a smile as she glanced over at Marie, who was clearly anxious to leave.  She turned back to Jay, who was again working the console.  "Thanks for coming down here, Jay."

"No problem, Leah," Jay said without looking up.

"Well, see you later."


"Bye, Jay," Marie said, already most of the way out the door.


Leah and Marie left the observation room, leaving Jay behind to shut down the systems.  They headed for the elevator, the one they had just left behind less than a half hour before.  Leah pressed "2" upon entering.  "You were in kind of a hurry to get out of there."

"Sometimes Jay can be a little . . . difficult to be around."

"Jesse's cut from the same cloth."

Marie frowned as the elevator doors opened.  "Who was talking about Jesse?"

"Come on.  The only reason you wanted to train was because Jesse was going to be there and you wanted him to see you shaking your thang," Leah said, emphasizing her statement by shaking her torso.  "And," she continued, "the only reason you wanted to leave so soon was because he wasn't."

Marie smiled slightly.  "I wouldn't say it was the only reason."

Leah grinned.  "Okay," she relented.  "You also didn't want Jay to see you shaking your thang."

Marie laughed out loud.

"Anyway, I thought you and Tyler were the item."

Marie turned to Leah.  "We are."

"Aren't you guys officially 'dating'?"

Marie nodded. "Yes."  Leah was about to ask whether or not Marie had managed to get one of these incredibly clean-cut Kewanee boys into bed when Marie spoke up again.  "Do you think that Jesse likes me?"

Leah smiled.  "Marie, I think that every guy likes you."

"No, that isn't what I mean," Marie said, slightly frustrated.  "I mean, do you think that Jesse has an interest in me beyond simple friendship?"

Leah paused for a moment as they stood outside the door to her apartment.  "I honestly don't know.  Of all these guys, Jesse is the one that seems least attached to the group.  You know, half the time he's not even in-house when he's off-duty.  And after Cop, and maybe James, Jesse is the most inscrutable of the whole bunch."  Leah opened her door and ushered Marie in.  Leah shrugged.  "I don't know for sure."

Marie nodded, slightly distracted.

"But what's wrong with Tyler?  You guys seem pretty serious.  Does he have some sort of disease?"

Marie smiled slightly.  "I like Tyler very much," she said.  "I find him very attractive.  We've had good times together."  She paused.  "But there is something about Jesse that I cannot quite articulate.  I suppose it's that he's so . . . smart?" Marie said, uncertain of her word choice.

"Yeah, that's the first thing I notice in a guy."

"No, no," Marie said.  "Don't misunderstand me.  I'm also attracted to Jesse; he is attractive as well.  Maybe it's because he has a rebellious streak in him.  Like you say, he doesn't seem to stay very close to the rest."

"If rebellious is what you're looking for, why not give Brent Spencer a try?" Leah asked with a grin.  "He's like Tyler's evil twin."

Marie shook her head, smiling.  "He spends too much time with his grandfather."

"What, you don't like money?"

Marie laughed.

"Well, whatever floats your boat, Marie, you know what I mean?"

"No, I don't," Marie said.  She paused and when Leah didn't clarify her previous statement, Marie shrugged and continued.  "You know how it is when you are attracted to two different men."

Leah nodded noncommittally.

"I suppose I just want to get to know Jesse better before getting any more serious with Tyler."  Marie stepped back outside, into the corridor.

Leah shrugged.

"What should I do, do you think?" Marie asked.

"I don't know," Leah said.  "Follow your heart, I guess.  That's the important thing."  Or so they say.

Marie nodded.

"Well, thanks for working out with me," Leah said.  "See you later."

"Yes," Marie said, distractedly.  "See you."  She started walking away.

Before she rounded the corner, Leah called out, "Oh, and Marie?"

Marie looked up.

"If it makes you feel any better, I think I saw Jay checking out your butt as we left."

"Wonderful," Marie said with a smile, continuing to walk away.

Leah simply grinned and shut the door.

Chapter 2

"Disturbance at O'Malley's Bar and Grill," an insistent voice said over the comm net.

Brent's fingers flew over the keyboard as he called up the appropriate information: the exact location of the disturbance, the exact nature of the disturbance, if Checkwolf was especially needed, and what police were in the area already.  After doing all of these things, he called up to James and Cop in the front of the van.  "We've got a situation."

"Where?" Cop asked without bothering to turn.

"O'Malley's Bar and Grill.  Ontario.  15204 35th Avenue."

Cop made a small gesture to James and James instantly headed in that direction.  They were already in the Woodhull district; right next door, as it were.  All they needed to do was cross the district boundary and travel one more block to be in the appropriate area.  "What is the exact nature of the disturbance?" Cop asked.

Brent consulted his computer.  "It seems that a pretty violent barroom brawl has broken out," he said, reading.  "At least two people have already been killed," he finished, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise.

Cop nodded as he thought this information over.  He was determining the procedure that they would follow when they arrived.

Less than five minutes later, they were parked across the street from O'Malley's.  "All right," Cop said.  "First, all of us that go in will need weapons.  James, you'll stay in the van this time around."  James nodded.  "Clayton and Brent, you'll go to the rear exit.  Make sure that you have your weapons and armor on; we don't want any of us being another casualty.  Leah, you'll come with me.  We're going in the front door."  Cop paused.  "All right?"

Nods of assent met his question all around.

"Let's get ready and go, then," Cop said.  The four operatives got into the laserproof armor.  They didn't wear the armor much because it had the tendency to slow down their movements in normal battle.  But when going into a definite, known danger situation, it was always best to sacrifice a little movement rather than sacrifice your life.  And the armor had been improved over the past couple of months, in anticipation of the Checkwolf renewal forthcoming in the next couple of weeks.  Plus, I've heard speculation that we may get some substantial upgrades to this armor once the royalties from Jay's center-of-gravity device start rolling in

Cop looked around the cab of the vehicle and determined that everyone was suited and ready to go.  They grabbed their weapons and headed out.

Cop and Leah quickly crossed the street.  "On three," Cop said.  "One, two, three!"  On three he kicked the front door open.  He leveled his right arm and Leah brought out her stun pistol.  They looked at the scene.  Most of the tables were overturned or were in the process of becoming so.  Several people were lying unconscious all over the bar, some in very uncomfortable-looking positions.  All of the rest of the conscious patrons were fighting each other.

Cop had no idea how the incident started and didn't much care; he was here to try to stop it.  He tensed a muscle in his right forearm in a certain way and a bolt of energy erupted from the cannon on the end of his arm, where his hand should have been, striking one of the brawlers in the chest and knocking him to the floor, unconscious.  Leah followed suit and did the same to another person, on the other side of the room.  Most of the fighters looked at them, stopping what they were doing.  After a couple more well-placed shots, the others did as well.  "What's going on here?" Cop asked in his powerful voice.

He didn't receive an answer.  Several people looked distinctly uncomfortable.

"No one leaves until I get an answer.  How did this all start?" Cop asked as ambulances and police cars pulled up outside.

One person stepped forward and cleared his throat, looking around a bit nervously before spitting out one word, very quietly.  "Bent."

"Excuse me?" Cop said, his impassive mask looking down on the man.

The man that had spoken didn't respond, just shook his head and backed away.  The others in the bar stayed quiet, as well.  Seconds later, several policemen and some personnel off of the rescue squad came into the bar.  Cop was deep in thought.

"Cop?" Leah asked.  "You okay?"

Cop was shaken out of his thoughts.  He nodded.  "Yes."

Leah turned and looked at the chaos around them.  "What do you think he meant by that?"

"I don't know," Cop admitted.  "Do you have any ideas?"

Leah shrugged.  "Aside from the fact that it's obviously somebody's name . . . ."  She shook her head.  "No."

"I intend to find out," Cop said.  He motioned that they should leave.  On his way out, he acknowledged the thanks from a policeman, continuing on his way.

Leah hurried after him.  She paused momentarily.  She thought she had seen some motion out of the corner of her eye.  She looked over, into the shadows, before deciding that she must have been mistaken.  She shrugged and hurried to catch up with Cop.

"They're not back yet?" Cop was asking when Leah caught up with him.

"No," James responded simply.  "They're not with you?"

Cop turned without answering and ran toward the back of the bar.  Leah followed him, matching his pace easily.  They arrived at the back door.  Always cautious, Cop pushed open the door and stepped back, so as not to be standing directly in front of the doorway.  Determining that no one was going to attack them, Cop stepped in and swung his arm cannon around the room.  No one was there, except for the two figures lying on the floor.

Leah knelt next to Clayton.  He was clearly unconscious, his helmet lying a yard or so from his head.  "What happened here?" she asked Cop.  The sound of her voice awakened Clayton, and Brent as well, who was lying on the other side of Clayton.  Clayton tried to sit up, but Leah held him back.  "Stay still."

Cop knelt next to Clayton.  "What happened?" he asked in a soft voice, concerned.

"I don't really know," Clayton admitted.  "All I do know is that we came in the door and no one was in here.  Then that door, over there, opened," Clayton said, indicating the door on the other side of the storage room, the door leading to the main part of the bar, "and these guys came running out.  They all were holding something, like a two-by-four, or a bat, or something.  That was the last thing I remember.  I guess we must have been hit by them."

Cop nodded.  He looked over at Brent.  "Does that story correspond with yours?"

"Yeah, though I think one of 'em had a table leg, too," he said with a small smile.

"It's a good thing you had your helmets on, then," Leah pointed out. "If you got knocked out through the helmet, you would have been killed without it."

"I hadn't thought of that," Clayton said, a startled expression on his face.

Cop stood.  "We know another thing now, though."

"What would that be?" Leah asked, helping Clayton to stand.

"That whoever caused this has no respect for human life," Cop stated as he assisted Brent to his feet.  He hefted one of the helmets, the one that had been Clayton's.  It was cracked, nearly to the point of breaking.

"Since they tried to kill us for no reason," Clayton said, picking up on Cop's train of thought.

"Exactly," Cop said.  He headed for the door.  "Let's go.  I'm sure there's more work for us elsewhere."

The four Checkwolf members headed back around to the front of the building, to where the van was parked.  This time nobody noticed a movement in the shadows, which was just how the occupant of the shadows preferred it.  He gazed after the van long after it was gone, then proceeded about his business.

Chapter 3

Tyler strained as he tried to pull his chin above the bar one more time.  He achieved his goal and instantly let his body go slack, simply hanging from the bar.  He then dropped the two feet to the floor and grabbed a towel, wiping the sweat from his face.

Across the room, Marie was doing pushups, though she had added another layer of challenge to the exercise.  Tyler watched, entranced, as she did another.  She lowered her body nearly parallel to the floor, the necklace dangling from her throat resting easily on the floor.  She then pushed herself up with enough strength so that her hands could leave the floor.  Following this, at the height of her push, she briefly touched her hands together before placing them on the floor once again and lowering herself to it.

As Tyler watched, Marie finished her set, which consisted of at least the twenty that Tyler had seen her do.  When she had finished, Tyler clapped his hands in polite applause.  "Well done!" he commended with a smile.

Marie smiled, said a quick "thanks," and reached for a towel.

"You all done for today?" Tyler asked.

Marie nodded.  "Why do you ask?"

"I was just wondering if you'd be interested in having some breakfast with me before we head out," Tyler said as they exited the weight room together.

"I would be delighted to do so," Marie said with a smile.  "Will you wait until after I get cleaned up?"

Tyler inclined his head and watched her walk away.  She is so beautiful, he thought to himself.  I really hope I don't mess things up with her.  Then Tyler headed off for the showers.

Marie stepped into the elevator and pressed "2."  As it whisked her up to the second floor of the base, she began thinking about her conflicting feelings.  On the one hand, she had been attracted to Tyler ever since she had laid eyes on him in Paris, and they had a really excellent relationship, very serious and very promising.  But on the other hand, after being in the States for two months, she was starting to become attracted to Jesse, as well.  She sighed and smiled ruefully.  If there's one problem I have with men, it's staying true to only one of them.

The doors slid open and Marie stepped out of the elevator, headed for her room.  She put the matter out of her mind for the time being.  For now, Tyler seemed to be the only one interested in her, since it was nearly impossible to find Jesse "home".  She paused at her door, wondering if perhaps the rarity of this behavior, a man that wasn't interested in her, was what had sparked her interest in Jesse in the first place.  Well, either way-there's no point in shunning Tyler, since he is most definitely interested in me, and I in him.  Marie smiled again and stepped into her apartment.

"A what?" Wil exclaimed from his position in the gunner's chair.

Karl glared at him.

"Say that again, Karl," Tyler requested from his position in the passenger seat.

"I said, there's a barroom brawl goin' on."

"At eight thirty in the morning," Wil asked dubiously.

"Hey," Karl said with his hands raised innocently, "I don't write 'em, I just report 'em."

"Crime knows no closing time," Scott said quietly.

"That's deep," Karl said, facing Scott.  "Where'd you hear that?"

"Cop said it once."


"Where?" Tyler asked.

"I don't know," Karl responded.  "I wasn't there.  Ask Scott."

Tyler gritted his teeth.  "Where is this 'brawl'?"

"Oh, sorry."  Karl turned back to the board.  "Moline, on the corner of 94th Street and North 84th Avenue.  Name of the place is The Shadow."

Tyler nodded and gestured to Marie to head in that direction.  Marie immediately complied, having progressed to the point in her driving where she mostly didn't need the directions projected via the heads-up display.  Tyler then turned and looked to the back of the van again, where Wil, Scott, and Karl were seated.  "Isn't that almost directly underneath the Interdistrict Parkway?"

Karl nodded slowly.  "Hence the name."

"I see," Tyler said, nodding as he turned around again.  When Alpha had returned, he had heard Brent mention something offhandedly about having to stop a barroom brawl.  Maybe there's a connection.  Or maybe I'm just a little too suspicious.  He looked up and saw North 82nd whiz by.  "Okay, people.  Get ready," Tyler said.

Less than a minute later, Marie pulled the van into an empty parking space.  "What now?" she asked.

Tyler turned toward the back of the van again.  Scott and Wil were already prepared to do some fighting, and Karl nearly was.  Tyler gripped a helmet and armor himself and gave orders as he started to don it.  "Scott, Karl, you two cover the rear exit.  If anyone comes out there, take 'em down."

The two men nodded and leapt out of the van.

"Wil, you're with me.  We'll take the direct approach and see how that works."  

Wil nodded and gripped his stun rifle.

Tyler turned to Marie.  "Your turn to stay, Marie."

Marie nodded, checking the charge in a pistol, just in case.

"C'mon," Tyler said to Wil.

They both got out of the van and cautiously entered the establishment.  Wil leveled his rifle as soon as they stepped through the door.  Tyler held his pistol ready as he surveyed the scene.  Several people were unconscious, in various positions.  Nearly all of the remaining patrons were involved in the fight.  Tyler hadn't realized that so many people frequented a bar at this time of day.

He then craned his neck, trying to see if anyone was the center of the chaos surrounding him.  While doing so, he ducked a bottle that had been thrown uncomfortably near his head.  He looked to see who had thrown it and his eyes alighted on three burly men who were heading out the back door.  Tyler nudged Wil and took aim at them.  His shot went wide, but Wil's was right on the money, nailing the man in the back of the neck.  The man stiffened suddenly and then collapsed to the floor, unconscious.  His cohorts didn't even look back as they headed out the door.  Tyler saw that he had no hope of catching them; it would involve wading through too many people.  Instead, he directed his efforts toward putting an end to the disturbance and hoped that Karl and Scott could do something.

Scott positioned himself on the side of the door opposite the hinges.  Karl leaned against a wall of a building that sided on the alley.  They both waited, tensed.

Suddenly, the door flew open and two burly men came out at high speed.  They blew right past Scott, knocking him over and driving the wind from his lungs.  Karl took aim and fired at the nearest one, hitting him in the back.  The man convulsed and dropped to the ground, out of action.  The other man ducked behind a dumpster.

Karl rushed cautiously over to see what he was doing when he heard a motorcycle roar to life.  He dove out of the way as it barreled past.  The impact as he hit the ground drove his pistol from his hands, sending it skittering across the pavement.  He turned and saw Scott leap to his feet as the cyclist drove by.

Scott tracked the man and fired.  At the last second, the man executed a swerve that would have made a professional proud and dodged the blast.  Scott smacked his hand against the nearby wall. 

"Let's see if we can give any help inside," Karl said as he retrieved his pistol and headed for the door.

"Wait!" a voice demanded.