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Sapphire Angel – Beginnings (Chapters 5-8)

Written by CJS :: [Wednesday, 22 May 2019 19:11] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 26 May 2019 00:54]

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Chapter 5

As the ambulance sped through the city streets, Beth looked down at John. He had awakened, if only barely, and met her gaze with fearful, tired eyes. Tubes ran from machines into his arms, and a breathing mask covered his mouth.

Competing odors assailed Beth’s nostrils. Most prominent was an antiseptic smell, like from a bleached and sanitized shower stall. But combatting it was a putrid stench, like that of meat left out on a hot summer day until an army of flies buzzed around it. The further they drove, the more the putrid smell seemed to win out.

Tears welled up in her eyes, and the exhilaration of power from just an hour earlier was gone. In its place, anchors of impotence and guilt weighed on her psyche. As strong as she had become, she could do nothing to help John. And she had put him in this spot. If she hadn’t insisted on sneaking into the Fizzure building, none of this would have happened.

When the ambulance arrived at the hospital, nurses whisked John away, leaving Beth to wander the crowded emergency room to find a seat. As she stood staring at the wall across from her, her head snapped back with the realization she hadn’t contacted John’s parents. It had been a crazy night, but there was no excuse for the oversight. They lived nearby and would want to see him.

As she dialed his parents, she shook her head in disgust at her forgetfulness. When John’s father answered with his booming voice, she held a hand over one ear to block out the noise in the room. She spoke in monotone, telling them John was very ill. Stanley and Betsy Devor arrived less than thirty minutes later, rushing into the waiting area, their faces tight with stress. They both gave Beth tight hugs.

Stanley Devor looked older than his years, with wiry grey hair sticking out in odd directions. Mrs. Devor was slender, with her brown and grey hair tied neatly in a bun on her head. Mr. Devor went to the front desk while Mrs. Devor sat in the chair next to Beth and took her hand.

“What is it?” the older woman asked, keeping her voice quiet.

Beth glanced over at Stanley, who stood talking to an older man wearing a name badge. Beth wondered if Stanley’ decision to go to the desk showed he had passed judgment on her. She shook her head as she stared at the floor.

“I don’t know, Mrs. Devor,” she answered, the words spilling from her in a hurried, clipped tone. “He was in pain, then got better, then got really sick. I shouldn’t have left him alone. I thought he was fine. He said he was fine. I should have known better. He didn’t want to come to the hospital. I should have made him. We should have been here an hour ago. Maybe that would have helped.”

Beth realized she was babbling, nearly incoherently, so she stopped. Mrs. Devor squeezed her hand, but said nothing. Mr. Devor returned a few moments later, moved to a quiet corner of the room, and motioned Beth and Mrs. Devor to his side.

“The doctors are with him now,” he began after they reached him. His voice, deep and authoritative, didn’t match his frazzled, unkempt look. As he spoke, his wiry hair bobbed along on top of his head, as if riding waves in tune with his words. His hand wandered to his hair, patted it as if to remind it to stay in place, and returned to his side. “Nobody has anything to tell me yet, and they won’t let me see him. Beth, can you tell me everything that happened?”

Beth took a deep breath. His presence calmed her. “Sure, Stanley,” she said. She had always called him by his first name, for a reason she couldn’t even remember. “This was all my fault.”

After glancing around to make sure nobody was within earshot, she discussed the events of the evening. She left nothing out. Beth talked about sneaking into the facility, hiding in the cylinder, and running for their lives. She even mentioned the strange abilities she had displayed during their escape, and how the necklace seemed to be the source of her fantastic powers.

“I’m so sorry,” she said, her voice cracking. “I should have listened to him. We shouldn’t have gone there.” She looked down as she spoke. When she looked up, she saw Mrs. Devor staring at Stanley with what almost looked like an accusation in her eyes. Not an accusation directed toward Beth, but an accusation directed toward her husband. A palpable tension hung in the air between the married couple.

Stanley turned back to Beth.

“Beth, this isn’t your fault,” he said. “What do you think happened to give you these powers?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she asked. “That cylinder was part of some experiment, like in one of John’s comic books. It made our fantasy become reality. I was the superheroine, and now have the powers of one. John was a zombie, and now . . .”

She couldn’t say the words, and her voice trailed off. Beth noticed Stanley watching her closely, as if studying her and accessing something. She wasn’t sure why, but she got the sense there was something he wasn’t telling her.

“Stanley?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Sorry, just thinking.”

“We need to tell the doctors what happened,” Beth said, pushing her thoughts aside. “It might help. And we need to call the police.”

Stanley pursed his lips, looking pensive.

“First, Beth, I need to repeat that this is not your fault,” he said. His deep voice sounded more like a command than an observation. “This is the fault of those bad people. We need to keep you out of this. I’ll talk to the doctors. They can know what happened to John without bringing you into it. That will be dangerous enough.”

“Dangerous enough? What do you mean?”

“These Fizzure people are dangerous, Beth.”

“Obviously. They shot at us.”

“More than that. If they figure out who was on their premises tonight, you could be in danger.” He nodded his head with emphasis as he spoke, causing his hair to bob about wildly.

“It would serve me right,” Beth muttered. “But that’s why we need to go to the police.”

Stanley shook his head and shot Beth a stern look. “Beth, you need to listen to me on this. If they shot at you that means they have something they would kill to keep secret.”

“How do you know all this about them?”

His slight smirk in reply told her all she needed to know.

“Your job?” she asked.

Stanley had his own private investigation company, but it wasn’t a normal private investigation company. His clientele was usually very rich, very well connected, or both. And he always seemed to be in the middle of big, important matters.

He nodded. “I’ve been investigating them. I can’t get into everything, and I have no evidence, but they seem like they’re up to no good.”

“That’s what John said,” she replied, wondering how much of John’s opinion was his own, and how much had been formed by his father. “All the more reason we need to go to the police.”

Stanley pursed his lips once again.

“Let me talk to the police,” he said. “I have contacts in the right places, who will keep their mouths shut. They don’t need to know you were there tonight. And I can convey how important it is that they don’t reveal to anyone that John was there.”

“I…” Beth began, before stopping and giving a nod. “Okay, Stanley. You usually know best.”

“Was John exhibiting any signs of sickness in front of the people who were shooting at you?” he asked.

Beth thought back to their escape, replaying the events in her head.

“Nothing too obvious, aside from being a little slower than normal. Why?”

“Even if they don’t know who they were chasing, they might stake out this hospital if they know somebody was really sick.”

“Why would someone being sick raise red flags for them?” she asked.

Approaching footsteps interrupted their conversation. Beth looked up to see a doctor walking toward them. He was a skinny middle-aged man with thinning hair, and a tired look to his eyes.

“Are you John’s parents?” he asked when he approached. Mrs. Devor and Stanley nodded.

“I’m Dr. Montgomery. Please come with me to the side room over here to talk,” he said, gesturing to a door to his right.

“Beth, you come, too,” Mrs. Devor said. “You’re family.”

These weren’t just words by Mrs. Devor to make Beth feel better. From almost the beginning of her relationship with John, which started three years earlier, Stanley and Mrs. Devor had treated her like their own. Perhaps this was because they had no other family. Neither of them had any siblings, John was their only child, and their parents were deceased. Even their parents had been only children, so they had no aunts, uncles, or cousins.

The three of them walked ahead of the doctor to the side room. He closed the door and gestured for them to sit on a sofa along the far wall. They did as instructed, and he pulled a chair up across from them. He sat, and his grim face told all.

“It’s bad, isn’t it?” Mrs. Devor asked.

“Yes, it’s bad. Folks, my style is to be a straight shooter. Some of this will be difficult to hear.”

“We’d rather you just tell us, and not worry about how we’ll take it,” Stanley said.

“Very well. Your son is in bad shape, and he’s gotten worse since he arrived.”

“Worse?” Beth asked, her voice cracking. “How?”

“There’s no way to sugarcoat this, so I’ll just say this. His skin is rotting. Most of his symptoms resemble that of necrotizing fasciitis, also known as flesh-eating disease. Red and purple skin, severe pain, fever, and vomiting.”

“Most of his symptoms?” Stanley asked.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. He also has symptoms of a couple other things. First, he’s got a fever and the chills, along with a heart murmur and pain in his chest when he breathes. The differential diagnosis suggests infective endocarditis.”

“Infecta- what?” Beth asked, wrinkling her nose.

“An infection of the lining of the heart's chambers. But we won’t know for a bit longer. We’ve been drawing blood regularly. We’ll be putting it in special culture bottles that allow bacteria to grow, so we can test the bacteria to see which antibiotics will kill them.”

“What is his prognosis?” Stanley asked.

“Unfortunately, there’s more. I’m not done going through his symptoms and diagnoses yet. He also has symptoms resembling bacterial meningitis. He’s got all the symptoms I’ve already mentioned, plus while he was here he got a headache and stiff neck. He’s also confused. It could just be a head or neck injury, but I’m worried. The blood tests will help pin it down. I should have more news in a few hours.”

“Is it contagious? Can we see him?” Mrs. Devor asked.

“Despite what you see in the movies, necrotizing fasciitis isn’t contagious, and it’s hard to catch bacterial meningitis. Still, until we get a handle on exactly what is going on, you should wait here.”

The doctor answered a few more questions from Stanley and Mrs. Devor before leaving. When they were alone, Beth and the Devors said nothing for a few minutes. Beth spoke first.

“This is my fault,” she said again.

“Beth, stop,” Mrs. Devor said. “You had no way to know.” As Mrs. Devor spoke, Beth saw her cast another glance at Stanley.

“This is crazy,” Beth said. “It’s like whatever went on in that room brought our costumes to life.”

“Beth, there’s a hotel next to the hospital,” Stanley said. “Go home, get some things, and check yourself in for a few nights.”

“I’m not leaving here. And even if I did, my apartment isn’t that far from the hospital.”

“Beth, I want you away from your apartment and from John. I doubt these people even know you exist, but it’s better to be safe.”

Beth thought about the gunshots and saw the seriousness in Stanley’s eyes. She knew the people from the facility would kill her if they found her.

“You’ll tell me right away if there are any developments here?” she asked. “Or if I can see John?”

“I will. Now get some rest.”

Chapter 6

The ventilator mask covered the face of the sleeping girl. Demarco Dominick’s lips trembled as he held her hand and looked down at her face. Three tubes ran from the machines around the bed, disappearing into her body. Even when she had been healthy, his massive hand had dwarfed the hand of his seventeen-year-old daughter, Ashley. Now she was frail, her physique a victim of all the pills and other drugs she had abused.

His jaw tightened. The scumbag addicts who had pulled her into their world had caused this. Before drowning in that world, she had been his sweet, innocent baby.

She looked like a tiny skeleton next to his gigantic frame. Dominick, a tall black man, was large in other ways beyond just his height. His belt could have fit around the waist of two men, and his arms and legs were the size of tree trunks. His size was that of an obese man, not an athlete. He had been an athlete, decades earlier, but many years behind a desk had robbed him of that physique.

He wasn’t sure how long he had sat here, starting at her while she slept. She was all he had left. His wife and her mother had died two years earlier, just before Ashley first slipped away, into this coma. The doctors had told him Ashley was brain dead and wouldn’t awaken, but he had refused to believe it. It had taken the best lawyers in the country to win the fight to bring her home. Now she lay here, day and night, hooked up to a machine to keep her alive.

His friends assumed he had brought her home to die. But Dominick wouldn’t accept death for his daughter. Dominick hadn’t built Fizzure Technologies into a powerhouse by quitting. He had grown from humble beginnings into one of the city’s richest men through force of will, to go along with his intelligence and ingenuity.

Dominick turned and crouched before a small safe to the right of the bed. He keyed in a combination and opened the door. A dull, black rectangular piece of rock, about the size of a brick and with smooth edges, sat nearly invisible inside. The brick was so dark it blended in with the black fabric lining of the container.

Dominick took it in both hands and held it up in front of his face, marveling at its lightness. The rock was solid and smooth on all sides, but was nearly weightless in his grasp.

He placed it inside a device resembling a microwave oven, on a shelf next to Ashley’s bed. A tube ran from the device toward the bed, before splitting into three smaller tubes. Each of those tubes ran to separate intravenous bags hanging above her.

He closed a door on the front of the device and pressed a button. He stood back and waited, turning his attention to his daughter.

Moments later his daughter’s eyes flickered, color returned to her face, and her breathing became more consistent. He slid the breathing mask off her face as her eyes open. Her lips formed into a smile as she looked up at her father.

“Hey, Daddy,” she said, her voice clear and strong.

“Hey sweetheart,” he said, running his hand through her hair.

“How are you holding up?” she asked him.

“Me?” he asked, looking at her and shaking his head. “Honey, don’t worry about me.”

“I worry you’ll be alone, Daddy, when I’m gone.”

“Don’t talk like that,” he said. “We will figure this out. You will get better.”

“It’s been how long, Dad? Two months? And they still can‘t make this last more than a minute or two. You need to prepare yourself.”

“No,” Dominick said firmly, setting his jaw. He took Ashley’s hand. “We are making progress. My men achieved a breakthrough. A way to lend power to this. Power that could make it last.”

“Oh, Daddy,” Ashely said, and looked away. When she looked back, tears filled her eyes.

“Honey…” Dominick started to speak, but his voice cracked and trailed off.

“Daddy…” Ashley’s eyes fluttered. “Please live a happy life without me.”

Dominick leaned in, about to tell her she would not leave him, but her eyes closed. Moments later her labored breathing resumed. He returned the breathing mask to its place over her face.

He stood motionless for several minutes, before retrieving the rectangular block from its place and returning it to the safe. The large man knew it would be days, or longer, before he could use it again. He locked the safe, rose, and took a deep breath.

Fighting back tears, Dominick walked from the room, stealing one last look at his daughter. He moved down the hall to his home office and picked up the phone. He punched a button.

“Any news on the intruders?” he snapped when a male voice answered. His words came out as more of a sneer than a question. He needed good news to counter the rage and frustration building within him.

“Not yet. We know they used Crawford’s access card to get into the building. They either stole it from him, or, more likely, the idiot dropped it somewhere.”

“Crawford is a damn fool,” Dominick answered, venom dripping from his words. “He has to pay a price for his carelessness, regardless of how they got his card.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“And you’re trying to tell me you still don’t know who the boy and the girl were?”

“Since you turned off the video surveillance in the basement, we’re limited with what we have to go on.”

“But you have the outside footage and saw their faces.”

“The footage was at a distance. In that zombie outfit we couldn’t make out his face. And the girl with him matched none of the faces in the databases we have access to. Maybe a closer shot would have yielded better results.”

Dominick squeezed the handset tighter and balled his other fist. He didn’t need this man questioning his procedures. Dominick always turned off the basement cameras when they were conducting business. He needed to.

“Think about it,” Dominick said. “She’s got to be an athlete, based on what the men said she did. And she’s young. Maybe from a local school. Try to get into their systems. See if you get a match there. With her looks, it shouldn’t be hard to find a match. Even with bad security footage.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t need to tell you that this better not become a bigger problem,” Dominick said. His voice trembled as he tried to contain his anger. The project’s slow progress was bad enough without it being run off the rails by a couple of trespassers.

“It won’t, sir. We’ll contain this.”

“You’d better!” Dominick said and slammed the phone back into its cradle.

He moved to the window and looked out over his palatial swimming pool and ten acre property. Dominick would trade all of this to save his daughter. He would trade anything. Or anyone. It didn’t matter how crazy his plan sounded.

And his current plan did sound crazy, even to his own ears. He was doing all of this because of the words of a bizarre stranger, a hooded man with silver eyes. The man had first approached him months earlier, promising almost limitless power. Dominick had thought him mad.

But the man had offered him the rectangular block as a token of good faith. He had used it to show Dominick what might be possible. The block had given Dominick a brief but incredible increase in strength. It had provided enough power to light his house, at least for a few moments. And now it invigorated his daughter, but only for a minute or two.

That had been enough for Dominick. The science behind it all – if it could be called science – sounded ludicrous. Dominick didn’t care. The potential drove him forward. The large man needed to believe he could harness even greater power. For Ashley.

His reasons were just. Any father would do what he was doing, he reasoned. Any man would bend rules to save his child. Even if it meant harming others.

——

Sunlight glistened on the ocean as Majid Azari looked out massive window from his spot on the 42nd floor of the high rise. His eyes traveled across the shimmering water and rested on the point of the horizon where the ocean met the sky. A stranger might think he found something funny. A slight smile turn up the corners of his mouth, and a gleam shone in his eyes.

Those who worked for him knew better. He wore a look of perpetual amusement on his face, as if something, or life in general, humored him. But those working with him had seen him explode with that same expression on his face. His outward appearance meant nothing, and told nothing of his thoughts and feelings.

“He’s on line two, sir,” the man standing in the room’s doorway said. Azari glanced at the expensive paintings on the walls of his office before looking up at the man. Azari nodded and picked up the telephone on his desk.

“You have news?” Azari asked, skipping a greeting.

“Some,” the voice on the other end of the line replied. Even in that one word, the soft voice exuded a quiet confidence.

This response caused Azari to smile. This time his smile was genuine. The man on the phone was a kindred spirit in some ways. The man was a mystery, but Azari had sensed from their first meeting that he got results.

“Would you care to enlighten me?” Azari asked with a chuckle, and not a hint of impatience in his voice.

“Dominick says the data from last night’s test is promising. He is using it to recalibrate the machine, but that will take time.”

“Did he say how long?”

“He was unsure, but after the last test it was four days until they were ready to try again.”

“This goes slow,” Azari said. “But it will be worth the wait. Dominick does not know who I am?”

“He does not. That is why I am the one dealing with him. He only knows a silent benefactor is involved.”

“Good. Let’s keep it that way. While I know you have sympathy to our cause, he might not. Even his desire to heal his daughter might not be enough for him to accept my financial assistance with this project, if he were to learn who was funding it. Keep me updated.”

Azari hung up the phone and returned his gaze to the ocean. He didn’t like to run all communications through this strange man with the silver eyes, but the man was capable. The man had initiated the contact, actually. Without him, Azari wouldn’t have known of Dominick’s efforts. Without him, Azari wouldn’t be closing in on what he needed for his upcoming war with the United States and her allies.

Chapter 7

Beth was more tired than she thought. After packing a change of clothes from her home, including the costume and necklace she had worn to the facility earlier in the night, she collapsed into bed at the hotel across the street from the hospital. Even with – or perhaps because of – all the stress and worry, she fell asleep within seconds.

The sound of her iPhone chirping awoke her. She looked at the screen. It was Stanley. It was 9 a.m. She had slept for seven hours.

“Hi Stanley,” she answered.

“We need to talk,” he said. “Where are you?”

“Room 426 at the Hilton.”

“Can I come see you?”

“Sure.”

“I’ll be right there.”

Beth threw back the covers and climbed out of bed, wearing her light blue cotton pajama pants and a white T-shirt with a blue snowflake on the front. Her blond hair was tossed and unkempt, and her blue eyes dreary.

She rushed to the bathroom to get ready, but less than five minutes later there was a knock at her door. Beth smirked. It took longer than five minutes to get to the hotel from both the hospital, and from Stanley’s home. Stanley had known all along where she was staying, probably even the room number. His call had been a formality.

Still in her pajamas, but with her hair pulled up and clipped on top her head, she opened the door. Stanley entered the room carrying a small backpack. He sat on the desk chair, while Beth popped up onto the bed, curling her legs underneath her.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“I’m trying to find out if there is a cure for whatever has afflicted John.”

Beth squinted her eyes. “Stanley, I’ve never seen something you couldn’t do. But you’re not a doctor. What makes you think you can come up with a cure?”

“I didn’t say come up with a cure. I said find out if there is a cure. Whatever is affecting him – and affected you – came from that facility. From that cylinder. I need to know more about it. The answer may be there.”

“You’ve told the police the same thing, right?”

“Not in so many words, but yes. I told them John was there, was shot at, and that something happened with that cylinder.”

“And?”

“They talked to one of the managers of the place, who welcomed the police inside to look around. No sign of a cylinder anywhere. The big room in the basement was completely empty. And he showed them surveillance footage, of all the exits, that showed nothing around the time you were there.”

“But I saw—”

“I know what you saw, Beth. I’m sure these people moved it, or something. Whatever they did, they’re now denying the existence of the thing.”

“I don’t know how they could have moved it so quickly. It was huge, and looked like it was connected to the floor. And they would have had to take it out in pieces, to fit it out any of the exits of that room.”

“I know,” Stanley nodded. “Which is why the police think the device never existed.”

“Maybe if I came forward and confirm that I saw it?”

Stanley shook his head. “It would be two of you, against I’m sure any number of people from the facility claiming it never existed. And the police already searched the place, and reviewed the video footage. What more are they to do? They’d think you’re a couple of kids with wild imaginations.”

“So what are we going to do, then? There’s no way to get in there and check things out?”

“There is a way, Beth.”

“How?”

“You.”

“Me?” she asked, jerking her head back in surprise. “What do you mean?”

Stanley closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

“Beth, I've debated myself all night about asking this. But my son’s life hangs in the balance. You, more than anyone, have the ability to get in there, check things out, and get out.”

“Stanley . . ” she said, her voice trailing off. “Of course I’d do it in a heartbeat if I thought I could. But what makes you think I stand a chance?”

“Isn’t that obvious? You’re bulletproof, agile, and strong. At least when you wear the necklace. You can do things nobody else can. If you run into someone in there, you can handle it.”

Beth let out a soft whistle as she leaned back on the bed. Stanley remained silent.

“Is this because of something John said about me?” she asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“He says I get angry when I see someone being victimized. That I always butt in. He’d assume I’d jump at this. A chance to stand up for somebody. For him.”

““This has nothing to do with anything John said. But I think he’s right. I’ve seen that side of you, too.”

“This is bigger. It’s real. The thought of going in there alone….” Beth shook her head. “It’s terrifying.  I’m just a college girl. You’re making me out to be some sort of hero.”

“I didn’t ask because I think you want to be a hero. Or even butt in. I agonized over asking. I really did. But I don’t see another way. And I know you, Beth. Even without these powers, you're more capable than you realize. And John’s going to die if we don’t do something.”

Beth climbed off the bed and walked to the window. She pulled back the curtain and looked out upon the parking lot. A college-aged couple walked toward a car, holding hands. That should be her and John. Now she was here, with him dying across the street, and someone asking her to play hero.

Her words to John came back to her. Using a loved one’s misfortune as motivation to become a hero is the biggest cliche there is. Now confronted with reality, it didn't seem like such a cliche. It seemed horrifying.

“There has to be another way,” she said without turning away from the window. “You need someone who actually knows what they're doing. Someone who could do a better job than me. I can give them the necklace.”

“I wish there were,” Stanley replied. “I have some investigators I could call in from other jobs, but it would take some time for them to get here. We need someone who can go now. And I suspect the necklace will only work for you.”

Beth wrinkled her nose, before lifting her suitcase on the bed, opening it, and rummaging around inside it. She pulled out the necklace and extended it toward Stanley. She hesitated, feeling a strange pang of loss before it even left her hand.

“You try it,” she said, fighting back her hesitation.

Stanley raised an eyebrow. “Not really my style.”

“Just try it. Why do you think it only works for me?”

“Call it a hunch.”

“I need to know, Stanley. Please try it.”

Stanley gave a slow nod before taking the necklace. A flash of panic came over her as Stanley grasped the necklace, but disappeared just as quickly.

He fastened it around his neck and looked around the room. As Beth returned to her spot on the bed, his eyes lowered to a spot below her.

“Move off the bed for a moment,” he said. “Actually, better yet, don’t.”

With Beth watching, Stanley crouched down and grabbed the corner of the bed. He groaned, lifting, but the bed didn’t move.

He held his back with a wince and straightened.

“Your turn,” he said, and unfastened the necklace. Beth popped off the bed and took the necklace from him. As she put it in place around her neck, Stanley sat on the bed. She moved to the spot he had vacated, and repeated his effort. The petite woman lifted the corner of the bed into the air with ease.

After she lowered the bed to the ground, she turned to stare at Stanley. She looked down, realizing her hands were shaking, but not from exertion. She chewed the inside of her cheek.

“Even if I do this, Stanley, how do I get in? I’m sure they’ve figured out which access card we used to open the door. By now they’ve deauthorized it. I may be strong, but I doubt I can knock down a steel door.”

“I’ve thought of that. I have a little device for you.”

Stanley rummaged in his bag and pulled out a small blue cylinder, about as long as three sticks of lipstick end to end, and twice as thick. When he held it up, she noticed that the blue color matched the color of her costume.

“What’s this?” she asked. “Some spaced-aged weapon? You know I won’t use a gun, right? A gun killed my cousin.”

“It’s not a gun. It’s an advanced lock pick. Hold it up to an electronic door, and it will open most of them. Stick the end against the keyhole of a regular lock, and it will pick it.”

“How is that even poss— wait, I don’t even want to know.”

“Good, because it would take too long to explain. I forgot to mention I have something else in my bag so you can clip it to the back of your boot, and you won’t even notice it.”

Her boots. He was assuming she would wear the necklace with her costume. It made sense, actually. She didn’t want to find out at the wrong time that her powers were in some way limited if she wasn’t wearing what she wore when she gained her powers.

“There’s more,” he continued. “The opposite end acts as a flashlight, so you don’t have to fumble around in the dark. And a camera, too. Flick this toggle, then just press the first button for the flashlight, and the second for the camera.”

“You’ve always have an answer for everything, don’t you?” she asked, and inhaled deeply.

Stanley said nothing as Beth paced back and forth in front of him. She stopped and turned to him.

“Okay, I’ll do this, but I'm not a hero. I'm scared out of my mind. I'm doing it for John, and because this whole thing is my fault. I want to get him healed, and get things back to normal.”

“Understood, you're not a hero,” Stanley said with a nod. “And it’s not your fault.”

He unzipped the backpack, rooted around in one of its inner compartments, and pulled out a tiny item he held in his hand. He extended it toward her.

“This is a USB thumb drive, with a transmitter and some other wizardry in it. If you come across any computers inside the facility, I want you to stick this in a USB port. That will allow me to access the computer as if I were sitting at it, and possibly break into it. That could give me access to their network.”

“If I happen to come across a computer? So what exactly do you need me to do in there?”

“It’s a weekend, Beth. Hopefully the place will be empty. I need you to  poke around a bit. I don’t know what we’re looking for, but the more you can find, the better.”

Beth took another deep breath.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this.”

“I can,” Stanley replied. “You’re destined to be more than just a college girl who likes to have fun.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just that I’ve learned there’s more to you than meets the eye. You’re the only college kid I know whose idea of fun is reading back issues of National Geographic.”

“Whatever,” she said with a wave of her hand. “I better get ready.”

She lifted her suitcase onto the bed, opened it, and took out the costume. She ran her fingers across the smooth fabric, before setting it down on the bed and pulling out the boots, necklace, tights, and gloves.

“As much as I’ll feel silly wearing this whole ensemble, I don’t want to assume the necklace is the only thing I need to wear, and find out my powers fade or something while I’m in there.”

“Good idea,” Stanley said.

Beth picked up the items, and moved to the bathroom and closed the door behind her. She stripped out of her pajamas and stood naked in front of the mirror. Beth was thankful for her slim and athletic body. She had curves, but they were the elegant and graceful curves of a skater, with modest, firm breasts. She also had muscle, but they were subtle muscles of an athlete, not a bodybuilder.

The blond woman turned her attention back to her items. She slipped on the tights, before stepping into the skating dress and pulling it up over her body. After she raised it up over her breasts, she slipped her arms into the arm holes. She reached behind her neck and grasped the smooth fabric of the collar, fastening the clasp sewn into it. Beth didn’t look at herself in the mirror, instead bending down to slip the boots onto her feet.

Beth took the necklace from the counter and fastened it into place. A strange sensation rushed through her. It wasn’t a physical feeling, but more of an innate sense and appreciation of the power coursing through her.

For the final step of the transformation, she pulled the gloves onto her hands and up her arms. She extended her arms out in front of her, admiring the shimmering fabric.

Beth moved to the mirror to at least brush her hair, but paused when she saw herself. Not a hair was out of place. Her blonde mane hung straight and gleaming, as if she had just returned from one of the city’s best stylists. She shook her head in amazement.

She stood back and surveyed the length of her body in the mirror. She looked different now, in a way she couldn’t put her finger on. When she had first worn her costume earlier in the evening, she knew she had looked good. Now, though, it was as if an invisible aura surrounded her, amplifying her presence and looks. She was sometimes oblivious to her attractiveness, but even she could sense it now.

Beth turned sideways, satisfied with the way the shimmering blue fabric clung to her firm breasts and slim stomach. The short skirt arched over her hips, barely reaching her legs. The skirt and tights showed off the legs of a skater – slender and supple – but with enough hint of muscle to suggest strength. Her forearms were thin and similarly toned.

The pristine white of the skirt and the trim around the collar added to the radiance, projecting a purity that matched the innocence of Beth’s face. The innocence contrasted with the suggestive manner in which the short skirt both clung to her and swished around her when she moved.

As she studied herself in the mirror, a calm came over her. She could do this. The fear was still there, but now only gnawed at the edges of her consciousness instead of devouring her at the core.

With a shake of the head, she exited the bathroom. Stanley sat at the desk appraising her. He nodded.

“A real life superheroine,” he said.

Beth rolled her eyes. Definitely not that. Not a walking cliche. “This is a one-time thing, Stanley.”

He didn’t react.

“So are you driving me there?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I need to make sure I have a good network connection, and don’t get interrupted. I wish it could be another way, but you’re on your own.”

“Lovely.”

Chapter 8

Beth gritted her teeth as her Volvo crept through the streets of Harrisburg’s Midtown. The area had an old, almost Victorian feel, with quaint Queen Anne-style homes and storefronts, and tall trees hanging over the streets. Visitors packed the uneven brick sidewalks, hurrying under large eaves and past shops selling anything from clothing to handmade bars of soap.  Their frozen breath formed clouds above their heads, giving the air the look of a hazy industrial park. Cars clogged the narrow road in front of Beth as drivers slowed to search for open spaces closer to their destinations.

A fall festival was in full force at a park just two blocks away. Hundreds of people had braved the unseasonably cold temperatures, bundling up for the walk to the park. Local businesses were open, taking advantage of the influx of people. Television vans were out, their crews sending puff pieces over the airwaves.

Beth chastised herself for not researching the day’s events before leaving the hotel. The Fizzure Technology building sat at the very edge of the midtown area. She had planned to park her car in the same place John had parked a night earlier, and stay out of sight. The current crowds made that unlikely.

With a mutter of annoyance, the young woman pulled over by a fire hydrant and opened the maps app on her phone. After a few moments she found a spot far enough from the festival, but still offering a direct and discreet approach to the Fizzure building.

The young woman edged the Volvo back onto the street, navigated to the next stop sign, and turned right. After another right she found a parking spot. From it she spotted an alley that ran parallel to the street she and John had traversed the previous night. The street was quiet.

Beth didn’t exit the car, instead squeezing the steering wheel and staring straight ahead. This was surreal. On a normal Saturday she would be in her college town several hours away, sleeping in. Now she sat in her car with a shimmering costume hidden under her coat, getting ready to break into a building to help save her boyfriend’s life.

The costume. Beth looked down at herself, her blue eyes focusing on the coat instead of the gleaming blue material peaking through the front it. The coat couldn‘t get in the way again, and she couldn't afford to lose another one. She would leave it in the car and sprint to the building so she didn’t freeze.

As she removed her jacket, her cell phone rang. Beth picked it up and looked at the screen. Ethan Moore. John’s best friend, who had also become a close friend of hers. Beth gave her forehead a light smack. She should have called him, too, from the hospital. He and John were like brothers.

Ethan deserved to hear about John, but not now. With pangs of guilt tugging at her, Beth silenced the phone and reached to slide the device into her pocket. She stopped, realizing her tight costume had no pockets. She had nowhere else to carry the phone, either. The USB drive Stanley had given her barely fit into the back of her boot. Her phone would never fit, and her keys wouldn’t either.

Beth locked her phone in her glove box and gripped her keys in her gloved hands. After taking a deep breath, she made sure the way was clear and jumped out of the car. The scantily clad girl winced, waiting for the cold air to blast her through the thin material of her costume. It didn’t. She felt fine. As fine as sitting in her warm car.

It had to be the necklace. The temperature hadn’t suddenly shot up forty degrees. The necklace had given her strength, quickness, and invulnerability to bullets. Why not protection from the elements?

Beth cast aside thoughts of the weather and sprinted up the sidewalk toward the alley. She reached it within seconds. It stretched toward the next intersecting street, with another alley intersecting it half way there. Several fire escapes were bolted to the buildings on either side, and a handful of dumpsters rested against the structures.

She hurried to a dumpster and moved behind it. Beth placed her key chain on the ground and extended a graceful leg to nudge it under a metal lip extending out from the bottom of the dumpster. It would have to do.

After again making sure the way was clear, she rounded the dumpster and sprinted down the alley. She slowed as she approached the intersecting street, before darting across the street and into the alley on the other side. One more block to go.

As Beth hurried down the alley, her eyes were drawn to movement at a dumpster ahead of her. She stopped as two men and a woman walked into view from behind it, laughing and oblivious to her presence. One man was tall and the other short, but both were scrawny with pasty white skin, and wore black ski caps on their heads. Their jeans were fastened by belts below their buttocks, and their short coats had seen better days. The woman wore tight yoga pants and a thin jacket, and her lips trembled in the cold. Her makeup was excessive and her features exaggerated.

The three strangers looked up, finally seeing the stunning woman before them. Their eyes widened, and the taller man let out a low whistle.

“Hot damn, what do we have here?” the shorter man said, his eyes traveling up and down Beth’s body. “Those are the best set of legs I’ve ever seen.”

“Ray, leave her alone,” the woman interjected as she put a hand to the man’s chest. He swatted it away, and both men stepped toward Beth.

Beth stood calmly in place. Her reaction surprised even herself.

“You fellas need to step aside,” she said.

The two men laughed.

“Who is gonna make us, little girl? I think you’re gonna be a little late to your Halloween party.”

“Ray!” their female companion yelled. They ignored her and advanced toward Beth.

“Come on, Rita, why else would this hottie be here if she weren’t here for us?” one man said over his shoulder.

As they raised their hands and reached for Beth, words from one of her self-defense instructors came to the petite woman. Hit hard and hit first. Beth whirled with a graceful kick at the shorter man, striking a glancing blow to his midsection and doubling him over. On her follow-through she backhanded the taller man, sending him sprawling to the ground.

A grin crossed her face as she moved toward the man. Putting punks in their place was fun. She reared back, ready to swing with a massive punch at the taller man. The punch never landed as the shorter man grabbed her arm from behind and pulled her to him.

She gasped in surprise, her blond hair and white skirt twirling about her. His fist stopped her momentum, crashing into her face. Her head snapped back, and she staggered into the arms of the taller man.

The goon seized her from behind in a chicken wing, hoisting her slim, lightweight frame off the ground. Her feet dangling, the costumed woman couldn’t get any leverage. The shorter man swung a fist into her trim stomach, and Beth grunted as air shot from her lungs. She sagged in the man’s grasp and let out an involuntary whimper.

“Let’s finish this bitch,” the man behind her said, as she felt his breath on her neck. She had been overconfident, she realized, and ignored the few techniques she remembered from her self-defense classes. But she also noted how quickly the pain in her stomach was fading. The necklace again.

The shorter man reared back again as the petite woman hung in the tall man’s grasp. Before the attacker could deliver his blow, Beth lashed up and out with her feet, slamming her heels into his chest and catapulting him backward. Her feet touched the ground on her follow-through, and she heaved the man holding her, flipping him over her head. He tumbled through the air, colliding with his partner. They both went down in a tangle of limbs.

The lissome woman rushed toward the men, her skirt swirling about her hips. Beth mashed her knee into the face of the tall man before he could climb to his feet, flipping him onto this back. She lunged toward the other man and landed a blow to his face. He crumpled to the ground.

Both men were down and made no move to get up. A smile crept across Beth’s face. She still needed to learn and practice, and avoid overconfidence, but this had gone well. Not that it mattered, of course, since this was a onetime thing.

The tall man had received the worst of her attack and lay writhing on the ground, holding his face. Beth’s smile melted into a cringe. She hadn’t meant to hurt him so badly. She glanced over at the other man, who was on his hands and knees a few feet away. He held up a palm.

“Okay, okay, girl! We’re sorry! Damn! Don’t hurt us no more!”

Beth glanced from one man to the other, and to the girl, Rita. Rita stood wide-eyed, her jaw hanging open. Beth turned her attention to her.

"You don't need to hang around with pigs like this."

Rita didn't speak for a moment.

"Who are you?" Rita asked, her words barely more than a breath, wonder in her eyes.

"That doesn't matter," Beth replied. "But guys like this will only drag you down."

Rita looked between the men on the ground and the beautiful woman in front on her. She finally nodded.

"You're right," she answered.

Beth didn't have time to continue the conversation, so she nodded at Rita before rushing down the alley. Before she got too far, she glanced over her shoulder and saw the girl slinking away from the two men, who remained on the ground. A thin smile crossed Beth's face. Perhaps she had made a difference in Rita’s life.

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