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Sapphire Angel – Beginnings (Chapters 9-13)

Written by CJS :: [Thursday, 30 May 2019 16:15] Last updated by :: [Thursday, 30 May 2019 21:43]

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Chapter 9

Stanley’s lock pick device worked as planned at the rear door of the Fizzure building. Seconds after holding the device to the pad at the door, Beth heard a click. She pulled the door open and slipped inside.

As the door closed behind her and darkness surrounded her, the reality of the situation hit home. Beth was here, on her own, facing unknown danger. She was equipped with amazing powers and clad in a costume straight out of a comic book. Two days earlier this would have seemed like a dream. Or a nightmare.

With a resigned shake of the head, she pressed the button on Stanley’s device, shooting a beam of light down the stairs. The place was silent and still. She crept down the steps, unsure if someone lurked in the basement. Every footfall sounded like a deafening boom to her.

Beth continued to the bottom of the steps and pointed the flashlight down the hall. She remembered shivering in the cold basement air during her last visit. Now she felt as comfortable as if she were outside on a warm spring day, even in her skimpy outfit.

Three doors lined one side of the hall and two doors lined the other. She had ignored the side doors on her visit with John, but not now. Beth moved to the first one, pulling her blond hair over her ear and listening for any sounds inside, before testing the handle. It was unlocked. She pushed the door open and peered into a small room with concrete walls. The room was empty except for a computer on a metal desk along the left wall.

This seemed as good a place as any for Stanley’s USB drive. Beth entered the room, closed the door behind her, and hurried to the machine. It only took a moment for her to find the USB ports behind the machine. She inserted the USB drive and waited. Nothing happened. Perhaps nothing was supposed to happen.

With a shrug, she left the USB drive in the computer and slinked to the room across the hall. There she found a group of computer towers on the floor, with display monitors on the tables above them. The sterile room was otherwise empty and uncluttered, with no papers or cabinets. Upon testing the monitors, she found that the computers were powered down. Dare she turn one on?

Beth shook her head. It certainly would require a password of some sort. Stanley had given her a device to unlock doors, but not computers. She also wanted to leave as small a trace of her intrusion as possible. She had already planted Stanley’s USB device on the computer in the other room, anyway. If it worked, he would be on the network soon.

Beth stepped back into the hall, crossing to the middle door on the opposite side. Yet again the door was unlocked. She opened it and shined her light in. Three clothing racks sat in the middle of the room, extending to the rear wall. White jumpsuits hung from the racks, and eye goggles sat on top.

Intrigued, Beth stepped forward for a closer look. Her jaw dropped. The white garments weren’t jumpsuits at all. They were hazmat suits. And what she had thought to be goggles were actually respirators and full face masks.

Beth reached up a gloved handed and played with a strand of her smooth hair and bit her lip. Was the air here safe? She and John hadn’t seen any dangerous chemicals, but she still had two more rooms to examine. John had certainly felt the effects of something.

Was it possible his illness and her strength were a reaction to something in the air? John’s comic books, and her disdain for their clichés, seemed to be taunting her. The possibility her life was mirroring those books was too ironic to contemplate. No, not ironic. Tragic.

The slender woman eyed the hazmat suits and considered wearing one, but decided it would take too long to suit up. The greater risk would be if she encountered anyone. She needed to keep moving, and hope that either the air was clean, or her necklace would protect her from any contaminants. Or that the air in this place had already done to her what it was going to do.

Beth moved out of the room and opened the second door on the opposite side. The room was dark, and she had to fumble for the light switch near the door. Before she found the switch, a smell came to her nose, reminding her of the biology lab in high school. Thoughts of dead frogs, stretched out and cut open, intruded into her brain. Beth gritted her teeth and turned on the switch, afraid of what she might see.

Instead of a room full of laboratory animals, she was greeted with shelves. Rows and rows of wooden shelves. The sleeves were stacked high with boxes and bottles of all shapes and sizes. Beth walked to the nearest shelf and studied its contents. Most of the boxes and bottles were filled with powders, crystals, or colored liquids. They were all labeled, but the text meant nothing to her. The letters seemed to be chemical abbreviations, but she had barely paid attention during Chemistry class in high school so she couldn't be sure.

Remembering the camera on her device, she moved back and forth between the rows, taking several photographs. Maybe Stanley could make sense of this. Some boxes contained metal gears and pieces. Again, they meant nothing to the young woman, so she took more photographs.

After several minutes wandering up and down the rows of shelves and snapping photographs, Beth decided it was time to explore the last room. That door was also unlocked, and she found it sparked the least interest or curiosity of all the rooms – just a long table, surrounded by eight padded chairs. In the interest of thoroughness, she crept around the table, peering under it, and examined each chair. In the end, though, it was just a table and chairs.

It was time to see the part of the facility that really interested her – the room where she had obtained her powers. The police had found nothing, but she knew what she and John had seen.

Stanley's device unlocked the large door at the end of the hall. Beth held her breath and waited in anticipation as she pushed the door open. The room beyond was much as she remembered it. Dimly lit. A door on the opposite wall. Sterile walls. And a large, glass cylinder in the center of the room.

She clenched her fists in vindication. Either the police had given Stanley incorrect information, which wasn't likely, or the cylinder had somehow been moved, and returned after the investigation had ended. The device was much as she remembered it, except now the lights in the base weren't illuminated.

This time she would get evidence. Beth held up Stanley's device and moved around the device, capturing images from all angles. Within two minutes, she figured she had at least twenty photos.

She started taking more photographs when she heard the creaking of a door opening. It was the door opposite the one through which she had entered. Beth‘s head whipped around, looking for an escape, but the entrance door was too far. The base of the cylinder was closed, eliminating her previous hiding spot. The costumed woman backed up toward the door, getting as close to an escape route as possible.

Five men entered the room across from her. The three men in front wore the grey uniforms and badges of the guards she and John had encountered the previous night. Their eyes wandering over the breathtaking woman before them, taking in her supermodel legs, her slender body in a shimmering costume, and her innocent face. A mix of curiosity and awe was evident in their eyes.

The three guards recovered from their stupor, fanning out in an arc. They pulled handguns from their holsters but didn‘t raise them. The man behind them wore a similar uniform, but his was fancier, with trim adorning the shoulders. The fifth man was strangest of all, wearing a long black robe. His head was bald and his skin pale, but that wasn't what stood out to her. Silver eyes. Beth noticed them immediately. They were dull and lifeless, but at the same time they filled the room with their presence. She would never forget those eyes.

“So you do exist,” the man with the fancy uniform said.

Beth gave a forced smile. “In the flesh.”

“Surrender now. We have a few questions, and then you can go.”

Beth surprised herself with a snort. They had shot at her and John. They weren‘t going to let her go.

“Not a chance,” she replied. She spoke to the man in uniform, but her eyes were drawn to the man with the silver eyes. He stood in the rear, his gaze narrow as he appraised her. She felt the eyes going right through her, stripping her bare. She shivered.

The man in uniform frowned and shook his head. “You're outnumbered,” he said.

“I was outnumbered the last time,” she answered. “And look how that turned out.”

Beth's voice was even and calm, but inside she was shaking. She was just a college girl, still learning how to fight, and yet here she stood, ready to take on five men.

The man studied her for a few moments before nodding. “So be it,” he said. “Kill her.”

The three guards raised their weapons. Beth took a tentative step back and stifled a cry just as they fired. A split second later bullets jingled to the hard floor around her.

Beth was surprised, but since this had happened to her once before, the guards were more surprised. That meant they reacted slower than she did. The agile woman leapt across the distance to them. Two punches, and two of the three guards were flying backward, crashing into the cylinder and dropping to the floor. The robed man stood in place, but the remaining two men swung wildly at the graceful woman in their midst. Beth ducked under their blows, coming up with a kick to the jaw of the one man, and a backhand to the face of the other.

The eyes of the first man went blank on impact. As he crumpled, the other man staggered back. She whirled, leading with a foot, and drilled him in the chest. He flew through the air, hit the wall, and collapsed to the floor.

Beth turned to face the silver-eyed man, but didn’t see him. She whipped her head back and forth, but there was no sign of him. He must have exited through the opposite door, but she hadn't even seen it open. She ran to it and tugged at the handle. Locked. She thought about trying to rip it off its hinges, but instead held Stanley's device to the lock pad. She heard the click of the door unlocking and pulled it open.

The long hall beyond was empty, with several doors on each side. He could be behind any of the doors, but she didn't have time to look. He could be calling for reinforcements. She was confident in her newfound abilities, but she didn't want to press her luck. It was time to leave.

Chapter 10

Two minutes after exiting the Fizzure building, Beth walked the alley toward her car. Her heart thumped in her chest. She was no longer a simple college student, hoping to enjoy her final months of school. She was a super-powered woman, able to defeat multiple attackers in combat. Her legs trembled with excitement.

With the excitement, though, came guilt. Beth was using fantastic powers like the heroes in John‘s books – to save a loved one. Just like she had mocked. It was as if life’s events were mocking her in return. Mocking her for enjoying this. Mocking her for feeling excitement.

She was making a difference, though, just like John’s heroes. Or so she hoped. She needed to get the photographs back to Stanley and see if they made sense to him. She needed to find out if he had hacked the Fizzure network.

“There you are!” an urgent voice pulled her from her contemplation.

Beth looked up to see Rita, the girl from her earlier encounter in the alley, running toward her. Rita wore a frantic look on her face.

“What's wrong?” Beth asked, standing with her hands on her hips. She narrowed her eyes as Rita stopped in front of her.

“It's Ray and Malcolm – the guys you beat up earlier,” Rita began, breathing hard. “They're causing trouble again.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“It's the news crew. One here for the festival. The reporter and his camera lady, and some old guy they were talking to. They're in the alley, in trouble with Ray and Malcolm. Help them!”

Beth glanced down the alley and saw the men near a dumpster, half way to the next intersection. They stood over two men and a woman, who lay on the ground looking up at their attackers. A large video camera sat on the ground next to the woman. Beth gritted her teeth and balled her fists at her side as anger shot through her.

Ever fiber of ever being screamed at her to run down the alley and help them. But she thought of John's words. You don’t always need to butt in when you see someone being victimized.

And this wasn't part of her plan. She had one goal tonight, and it didn't involve being an avenging hero for strangers. Trying to be a hero and not listening to John had gotten her in this mess. But she couldn’t peel her eyes away from the scene in the alley. Ray had just thrown a punch at one man, who dropped to the ground.

Beth turned from Rita and sprinted down the alley. Ray and Malcolm never saw her coming. Beth led with her feet as she leapt through the air, smashing into Ray’s back and driving him to the ground. As her feet touched down, she swung a fist that smashed into Malcolm’s face. He launched through the air, landing in a heap fifteen feet away.

The graceful woman looked back at Ray. He turned from his stomach onto his back, and looked up at her with fear in his eyes.

“Oh shit, it’s you,” he muttered.

“That’s right,” Beth said as she reached down. She grabbed him by the arms and hauled him to his feet. Still holding his arms at his side, she hoisted him off the ground. He looked down at her, eyes wide, as his feet dangled in the air.

“I could throw you further than I threw your friend, and break you against the building,” she said. Her voice was terse and crisp, but still carried a girlish quality.

“Please, no,” he pleaded. “I’m sorry. We won’t hurt nobody.”

“I’m supposed to believe that?”

“I promise! Never again!” he said, his voice rising in pitch and volume.

Beth glared at him with her blue eyes, setting her jaw.

“Get out of here,” she said. “If I ever learn of you messing with anybody again, you’ll have to answer to me. Got it?”

“Yes! Yes! I got it.”

Beth released her hold, and he dropped to his feet.

“Now beat it!” she snapped.

He turned and sprinted away, helping Malcolm to his feet before they disappeared from sight around the corner at the end of the alley.

Beth turned to the TV reporter, his camerawoman, and the old man with them.  They remained on the ground, looking up at her with awe written across their faces. She noticed Rita creeping up closer to watch.

“Like an angel,” the old man murmured, gaping at her with wide eyes. “A sapphire angel.”

“Are you okay?” she asked, ignoring his comment.

They nodded.

“Thanks to you,” the reporter said, his voice barely a croak.

Beth smiled, before turning and sprinting away. From behind her, she heard Rita’s voice call.

“You go, girl!”

Chapter 11

Stanley was waiting for her when she returned to the hotel with her purse in her hands, and her costume safely hidden under her comfortable grey sweatsuit. He didn’t look up at her when she entered. Instead, his gaze focused on the television.

“I see you’ve been busy,” he said, nodding at the screen.

Beth scrunched her face in confusion and walked further into the room so she could see the television. She groaned. The reporter she had saved was on screen, talking into the camera and motioning with exaggerated gestures. He stood in the same alley Beth had just left. Ryan Addington was his name, according to words on the bottom of the screen. A woman stood next to him. It was Rita, the woman who had made Beth aware of the trouble in the alley.

“Yes, Matt,” Addington said, addressing the news anchor back in the newsroom. “It sounds far-fetched, and we wouldn’t have believed it if we hadn’t seen it ourselves. But tonight the scene was straight out of a comic book.”

Beth rolled her eyes, but said nothing.

“Any word on the man you were interviewing at the time of the attack?” the anchor asked.

“Paramedics took him to the hospital as a precaution, but he seemed to be doing well when he left. We’ll be sure to check on him as soon as we can.”

“You said there was one other eyewitness of this costumed woman in action, Ryan?” the news anchor asked.

“Yes there was. We don’t like to be part of the news, as you know, so for that I will turn to Rita Mitchell, a local woman who witnessed our rescue. Ms. Mitchell, can you tell us what you saw?”

“Yes, yes I can, Ryan,” Rita jabbered, speaking so fast she was hard to understand. “I saw y’all in trouble, so I sent her to help you.”

“You sent her?”

“Yes I did, Ryan. I knew she was in the area since I met her early tonight, and knew what she could do.”

“How do you know her, Rita?”

Rita smiled. “I’m a good luck charm. I was just in the right place at the right time.”

Beth rolled her eyes again.

“Tell us what you saw happen.”

“After I told her you needed help, she went a runnin’,” Rita continued. “She leapt through the air almost like she was flying. It happened fast – kicks, punches, throws. Those guys never stood a chance. Once she took ‘em down, she let ‘em go so she could check on you.”

“Can you describe her for us?”

“She was wearing a stretchy, kinda shiny outfit. Blue on the top, with a short white skirt. Like what those Olympic ice skaters wear, but simpler and not as frilly. Just blue and white. And she is a small thing. No more than five foot five, but you would have never guessed it by the way she threw those two muggers around.”

“Do you know her name?”

“Yes. Just like the old guy said when she left. She’s Sapphire Angel.”

Beth shook her head hard, back and forth. No, no, no! The man had said she was like a sapphire angel, not that she was Sapphire Angel. Rita either heard wrong, or was taking artistic license. Whatever the reason, the genie was out of the bottle now. She could almost hear John’s comic books laughing at her with a full belly laugh now. She had a superhero name.

The screen cut away from the reporter and back to the news desk. The anchor, Matt Miller, sat with a news graphic over his shoulder showing a stylized word: Sapphire Angel.

“That’s Ryan Addington, News 6’s Harrisburg correspondent. Tune in for more about Sapphire Angel on News 6 This Morning, tomorrow at 6 a.m.”

As the anchor moved on to other stories, Stanley picked up the remote and turned off the television.

“Sapphire Angel?” Stanley asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No, no, no. There was a guy there, and he… oh, never mind,” Beth shook her head and waved her hand. “It doesn’t matter.”

Beth sighed and plopped onto the bed, setting her purse next to her.

“How did it go?” Stanley asked.

Beth told him everything, starting with parking her car. As she walked Stanley through the night’s events, excitement built within her again. She felt guilt creep up once more, battling the excitement. She couldn’t really be enjoying this, could she? Not with her boyfriend dying in the hospital.

She forced herself to continue her telling of the night’s events. When she described the man with the silver eyes, Beth shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.

“What is it?” Stanley asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Those eyes. It was like they saw right into my soul. And they were evil. Pure evil.”

Stanley showed no reaction, only nodding with closed lips.

“Does he run that place?” she asked.

“No,” Stanley shook his head. “The CEO and founder of Fizzure is a man called Demarco Dominick. He doesn‘t match your description of the man with silver eyes. Dominick is a massive black man.”

“Hmmm. Nobody there tonight like that. Maybe this is happening without his knowledge?”

“Doubtful. Dominick is a driven man, and a control freak, from what I could dig up on him. He built that company from nothing. And in his divorce, he paid dearly to keep his wife from having anything to do with the company. He is the company, in a way. There’s no way this would happen right under his nose.”

Beth shrugged. “Probably not, but everybody gets distracted from time to time. Look at us now. Somebody could burn down my apartment back at school, and I’d never know.”

Stanley paused, wrinkling his forehead in thought. He nodded.

“It’s possible,” he said. “His daughter has been sick, so he might be focused on that.”

“What kind of sick?”

“Drug related. Just an accumulation of issues from abusing her body. She’s barely hanging on right now.”

Beth didn’t know the girl, yet pangs of empathy tugged at her heart. Perhaps it was because of the similarity to her situation. She, too, was watching a loved one waste away.

“Poor girl,” Beth murmured. “How old is she?”

“Seventeen,” Stanley said with a deep breath. “She had her whole life in front of her.”

“Addiction is a nasty thing,” Beth said, shaking her head. “It seems like it can take anyone.”

“Yes, it can. Let’s get back to our problem, though.”

Beth continued her story, ending with saving the news team in the alley. When she finished, she looked up at Stanley with a shrug.

“Show me the photos you took in the building,” Stanley asked.

She rummaged around in her purse, retrieved the cylinder device, and handed it over to Stanley.

“I got photos of the big tube in the basement. The thing the police couldn‘t find. Now Fizzure can’t deny its existence.”

He took it and rushed over to his laptop on the desk. As he loaded it, he asked her a few more questions about her findings at the Fizzure building. He seemed most interested when she described the room with the chemicals and other materials. He jumped to that group of photographs on his screen and scrolled through them.

“Very interesting,” he murmured. “Perhaps if I spend time with this, I can learn more. I want to keep all this close to the vest, but I’ll run this by people I trust. Experts in their field. Maybe I can figure out what this stuff could do.”

“You think it could help with John’s condition?”

“Perhaps,” he said, closing his laptop lid as he stood. “I need to get back to my office and crunch some of this. You should get some rest.”

“How about that USB thingy I put on the computer? Did it help you get onto their network?”

“Not yet. Their firewall is pretty sophisticated. But give me some time.”

“I hope we have time. Is John awake yet? Can I go see him?”

“No and… no,” Stanley answered, his voice wavering for the first time. He took a moment to compose himself. “He’s still unconscious. And I think it will be too dangerous for you at the hospital. You should stay out of sight. Right here.”

“I think I showed tonight I can take care of myself.”

“Are you going to go to the hospital wearing your costume? As Sapphire Angel?”

“I’m not Sapph—” she began, but stopped. She couldn’t argue with him, with the emotions he must be feeling now. “Fine. But please call me if anything changes. And let me know how it goes with the police.”

“Call Ethan,” Stanley said, changing the topic. “He’s wants to talk to you. He’s upset like the rest of us. He could use an ear.”

“He tried calling earlier tonight, just before I entered the Fizzure building. I didn’t answer. I’ll call him.”

“Beth, I think it would be best if you didn’t tell him everything.”

“Such as?”

“I’d prefer you not tell him anything, actually. Until we know more, we don’t know if you could be putting him in danger. These people have secrets they don't want revealed. Enough that they shot at you and Ethan. So we must assume that anyone who knows anything is in danger.”

“Like you and Mrs. Devor?” Beth asked.

“We can keep our mouths shut. Nobody has to know we know. I don’t think Ethan is a blabbermouth, but all he has to do is tell one person, who could then tell another, and so on. We can’t risk it, for his sake and yours.”

“And yours,” Beth reminded him. “Fine. I won’t say anything. But you can’t shut me out, too. Let me know what the police say about the photos.”

Mr. Devor nodded, his mouth closed in a line, but said nothing. And then she realized.

“You don’t plan to show those photos to the police, do you? You’re worried about Fizzure learning something, and connecting me, or you, or Ethan.”

“I have to figure that out,” Mr. Devor said. “I‘ll feel things out with my contact at the police department. Learn whether I can present this evidence as a confidential informant. I’m worried about leaks. About the Fizzure people learning something. But you’re safe and so is Ethan. Let’s keep it that way.”

Beth frowned. She knew better than to argue the point with Stanley. “So what am I supposed to say to Ethan? What does he think happened to John?”

“He thinks he got sick while you guys were on your way to your party, so you returned home. Everything you saw, including all the symptoms, you can reveal. Just not where they first started.”

“I don’t know if I can lie to him, Stanley.”

“Don’t look at it as lying. Look at as protecting him.”

Beth closed her eyes, groaned, and laid back on the bed with her eyes clenched shut.

“I’ll do my best,” she said without opening her eyes.

——-

Beth paced the hotel room as she waited for the knock at the door. She had decided to talk to Ethan face to face. Keeping the truth from him would be bad enough. Doing it over the phone would be worse. He was hurting and needed someone to lean on. She couldn’t push him away.

Ethan had been at the hospital when she had sent him a text message, so he would arrive soon. She fought back tears as she imagined what he must be feeling. He and John had been friends since grade school, so they were more like brothers than best friends. During her few years of dating John, she had gotten to know Ethan well, too.

She heard the knock, and popped up and headed to the door. She let Ethan in, and they embraced for several moments before moving into the room.

“How are you holding up?” she asked him as they sat next to one another on the bed. Beth held one of his hands in hers, covering it with her other hand. She blinked back more tears as she saw the anguish on Ethan’s face.

“Me?” he asked. “Good grief, Beth. How are you holding up?”

“I’m okay,” she answered, giving his hand a squeeze. “The worst part is the uncertainty. I wish they could figure this thing out.”

“So he just started puking?”

“He said he was sick first, but yeah. I left him alone for a few minutes, and when I came back to the living room…” Her voice cracked and she couldn’t finish the sentence. Ethan wrapped his arms around her in a tight hug. The tears flowed, for both of them. Beth’s came out as sobs, while Ethan’s were sniffles mixed in with an occasional heave of his shoulders. She knew he was trying to keep it together.

“Was it something he ate?” Ethan said. “Mrs. Devor said the doctors ruled out food poisoning, but it has to be something.” The desperation was clear in his voice.

“I don’t know what it is, Ethan,” Beth murmured into his chest. That was partially true. She knew, or at least suspected, that John’s symptoms came from what had happened with the large cylinder in the Fizzure building. But she truly didn’t know what was ailing her boyfriend.

“What are we going to do?” he asked.

“What can we do?” she replied. “We can hope the doctors figure this out.” She again felt as if she were lying to Ethan, by not telling him of her efforts with Stanley.

The best tonic was to remember happier times, so they changed the topic, telling some of their favorite stories of John. They even managed a few laughs. After several minutes the conversation moved from old stories to the present.

“Did you see what’s all over one of the local news stations, about the costumed woman who came to rescue of the reporter and his camera lady?” Ethan asked. “Sapphire Angel, they’re calling her.”

Beth subconsciously tugged the hem of her sweatshirt down, making sure it covered her costume. She wondered if Ethan could sense her discomfort at the question. She looked down and nodded. “Uh, yeah. Pretty amazing, huh?”

“I’ll say,” Ethan replied. “I wonder if it’s true. But would a reporter jeopardize his career by fabricating something?”

Beth shrugged. “Hard to say in today’s world.”

“I guess so. And they had a witness. Something tells me if this is real, we’ll be hearing more of her.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” she answered. “Maybe this was just a one-time thing, where she saw someone in trouble and felt she had to help.”

“Why the costume, then?” Ethan asked. “The way the reporter described it, it was fantastic. Someone doesn’t get dressed up like that if she isn’t trying to make a statement. You wear something like that so people, including the bad guys, instantly recognize you the next time. There’s no way this is a one-time thing.”

“I guess we’ll find out,” Beth said softly. “Listen, Ethan, I’m tired. I’m sure you are, too. Why don’t we call it a night, and we can talk again tomorrow?”

Ethan gave Beth a concerned look. “Certainly,” he said. “I hope I didn’t keep you up.”

She squeezed his hand. “No, not at all. Just feeling tired all of a sudden.”

Ethan rose and made his way to the door. They exchanged another hug, with Beth resting her head against his chest.

After Ethan left, Beth dead-bolted the door and wandered over to the window. She pulled back the curtain and moments later Ethan came into view, walking to his car. His shoulders sagged, as if the burden of John’s condition weighed him down. Sadness welled up in Beth at the sight. Sadness and anger.

For a moment, Beth wanted to fight. Fight for John. Fight for Ethan. Fight for Mr. and Mrs. Devor. Fight for herself. Because now she could. She had abilities that made it possible. But her urge to play hero is what had caused this mess. She couldn’t let those feelings surface again. She closed the curtain, climbed into bed, and started to cry.

Chapter 12

Demarco Dominick balled his fists as he slid into his office chair. As he sank into the seat, his large stomach prevented him from getting too close to the desk. Despite the extra distance, his eyes bored into the man sitting across from him. The head of his security detail, Joe Mathers, sat across the desk, his thick neck bowed and his eyes not meeting Dominick’s gaze. Although not as massive as Dominick, the man’s muscles stretched the arms and legs of his Fizzure uniform.

The Fizzure CEO knew why Mathers wouldn’t meet his gaze. Dominick’s security chief didn’t want to give a look that would cause his boss to fly into one of his fits of rage. Good. Fear in his men could be a good thing.

“So what, Joe, she’s like some kind of real-life superhero?” Dominick asked, his voice dripping with contempt. He ran a hand across the close-cropped afro on his head. The knuckles on his hand were rough, with the dark skin peeled and calloused. Those knuckles had struck too many walls and faces during Dominick’s frequent explosions of fury.

Joe Mathers nodded as his already pale skin drained of color, creating a juxtaposition with his dark, short-cropped hair. “More or less, sir. I saw it with my own eyes. Twice now.”

“Your story seemed far-fetched the first time. Stronger than any of our men, agile, bulletproof.”

Mathers looked down, but didn’t speak.

“But I believe you, Joe. It’s no more far-fetched and crazy sounding than what we’re doing. And I saw the video footage from the first encounter with her.”

Mathers looked up, his shock obvious on his face. Dominick never admitted he was wrong.

“Your doubts were understandable, sir. Nobody would have believed a tale of a tiny costumed girl doing what she did.”

Dominick nodded and rubbed his chin.

“Superpowered or not, we must decide what to do about Sapphire Angel. There are too many unknowns with her. What does she know? Why is she investigating us? Will she try something again?” Dominick paused, shaking his head, his jaw tight. “She’s gotten in here twice so far. Our benefactor might have second thoughts about supporting this project if these problems continue.”

Dominick rose from his chair and moved to the window as he looked down on the dark street, two stories below. They would lose their financing, and their ability to complete this project, if Sapphire Angel scared off the benefactor. Every test required rare components, and those components were expensive.

He wished he could trust the silver-eyed man to hold this deal together. He wished he could trust him, period. Hell, he didn‘t even know the guy’s name. The irony wasn‘t lost on Dominick. For a CEO who micromanaged ever aspect of his business, he was flying blind. But the large man would fly blind and deaf if it meant a chance to save his daughter. He just wished he could trust the stranger.

No, trust wasn‘t enough. Dominick wished he could bypass the silver-eyed man, and go straight to the benefactor. Then he wouldn’t need to trust the odd fellow, or rely on him at all. That wasn‘t the deal though. The deal was for Dominick to share the results of the project in exchange for money. Learning the source of the money wasn’t part of the arrangement.

Dominick didn‘t want to consider why the silver-eyed man kept him in the dark. Perhaps the benefactor wasn’t an individual at all, but a ruthless organization. Perhaps the organization planned to use Fizzure‘s work for terrible things. But it couldn’t be any worse than what Fizzure had done already.

More perplexing was figuring out what the silver-eyed man gained from this arrangement. Dominick had never been able to piece that together. The man didn‘t work directly for the benefactor, so why was he facilitating this deal?

Dominick decided it was best if he didn‘t know. Again, the irony was striking. The Fizzure CEO prided himself on knowing every detail of his company‘s operations, but he was letting this one slide. Perhaps the silver-eyed man was worried Dominick wouldn‘t continue the project, if he knew who was on the other end of the pipeline.  Dominick didn’t need yet another worry weighing on his conscience. His daughter was all that mattered.

“I don’t know how this Sapphire Angel woman has gotten a whiff of our plans,” Dominick continued. “But we can’t let her interfere. Any luck finding her?”

“None. We hacked into the servers of some local schools. We‘ve dug around on social media. We’ve looked on modeling sites at the profiles for every woman within a 100-mile radius of here. Girls with her looks don‘t grow on trees, so if she was local, we would have found her. But nothing.”
Dominick shook his head.

“Focus on the guy in the zombie outfit then,” he said. “Perhaps we’ll have better luck finding him. I don’t know why she brought him with her, but he could lead us to her. Have you had any luck tracking him down?”

“Not yet, sir.”

“You said the man looked hurt. Did one of your bullets get him?”

“I can’t be sure. She was the one in the line of fire, and she wasn’t affected in the least.”

“Have some of our men check out the local hospitals. If they poke around, maybe we’ll get lucky.”

“I’ll get on it right away.”

“Go now. Our silver-eyed friend is being patient, but I don’t know for how much longer.” Or how long the people paying the bills will be patient, he thought. “We need to handle this Sapphire Angel problem, once and for all.”

Chapter 13

Beth nibbled at her room service meal and leveled an accusatory stare at the time displayed on her phone. She couldn‘t believe only 24 hours had passed since she and John had left for the Halloween party. In that time, John had gotten sick and she had discovered amazing powers. Lives weren‘t supposed to change that much in one day. But hers had.

Stanley hadn‘t called yet with news on John, or with news on the evidence she recovered from Fizzure. Her mind raced with the possible reasons. John was probably dead. Or her infiltration of the Fizzure facility hadn’t paid dividends. Or maybe Stanley had keeled over with a heart attack. The rational explanation was Stanley was still examining her findings, but the unknown raised too many dark spectres.

She unlocked her phone and stared at the mail icon. 13,287 unread messages. Those messages weren’t a recent phenomenon, but had accumulated over the last few years. Perhaps it was time to declare bankruptcy and get a new email account.

With a resigned sigh and nothing else to do, she tapped the mail icon and scanned the most recent messages. Ann Taylor, Amazon, White House Black Market, Target, Lou & Grey. On and on the messages went, all junk mail from various online merchants. Two messages jumped out at her, though. Beth had interviewed a week earlier with two news sites and blogs, hoping to get a writing position after graduation.

She opened the messages, almost afraid to look. The second sentence of each message began the same way. “We have selected another candidate…” Beth returned the phone to the desk and closed her eyes.

Before she could lament the rejections, the phone rang and her eyes flew open. Stanley.

“How’s Ethan?” she asked as soon as the phone reached her ear.

“He’s stable. Not improving, but not getting worse. And they’ve ruled out bacterial meningitis, which was the one possible contagious thing he had. So at least he’s out of the bubble they put him in.”

Beth bit the side of her cheek and shook her head. Her naturally optomistic side tried to rise up, but she had a bad feeling about this.

“Any luck with Fizzure?” she asked.

“Nothing so far with the chemicals and other parts you photographed. Certainly nothing that might cause John‘s symptoms. I’ll keep digging. And the USB drive you planted has only paid limited dividends so far.”

“I thought you said you could gain access to their entire network if I planted that?” She fought back the irritation in her voice as she spoke.

Stanley didn’t speak.

“I’m sorry, Stanley,” she said with a guilty sigh. “This whole thing with John has me stressed out. I can only imagine what you’re going through.”

“That’s okay. I understand, because I’m going through it, too. No need to apologize.” His voice took on a soothing, fatherly tone as he spoke. Beth continued to listen.

“That computer controls access within the building. It’s the nerve center for those swipe pads you saw at some of the doors. So the good news is that we can see who comes and goes, and where they go within the building. In theory we also should have unfettered access to move in and around the building.”

“In theory?”

“I can see the traffic patterns in the system, which suggests the building is much more heavily guarded now. The patterns suggest guard patrols.”

“If that’s the good news, what’s the bad news?”

“The computer’s sole job was to control the door locks. It’s segregated from the rest of their network. It’s got no more access to their network than the laptop in your apartment.”

“Lovely,” Beth muttered.

“It’s not all bad news,” Stanley said. “Thanks to the logs on the computer, I know the names of anybody who used a swipe card to move about the building both times you were there. The CEO himself, Demarco Dominick, was in the building, but you didn’t run into him.”

“How about the guy with the silver eyes?”

“I’ve run some of the names through my databases, and all the names are from Fizzure personnel, except for one. I put the Fizzure folks through the state’s DMV database, which keeps eye color, and there was no silver. And the non-employee was in the computer as ‘special guest,’ so there was no name to run.”

Beth twisted her mouth in consternation. Something about this mystery man resonated deep within her, as if she knew him somehow.

“Anything else?” she asked.

 “After your encounters, the company’s head of security, Joe Mathers, went right up to Dominick’s office. I’m sure he was reporting in, which means Dominick knows what is going on.”

“And this will help us how?”

“A third man was in that meeting. Philip Gruden. I looked him up, and he’s a talented guy for Fizzure. A chemist, geologist, and a mechanical engineer. Impressive stuff. If Gruden attended the meeting between Dominick and Mathers, then he must be in the loop. In fact, I suspect he might be a key to this whole thing, given his background and the items you found in the basement.”

Beth still wasn’t sure how this information helped, so she said nothing.

“Although the Fizzure facility seems to be pretty heavily guarded now, I suspect Gruden’s home won’t be as fortified. That gives us another shot at this. I’m sure someone like him has a home office or even a home lab. There’s got to be something there that could give us a clue.”

“And you want me to get into his house and poke around, I presume?”

“Not you. I want Sapphire Angel to poke around.”

Beth shook her head. “There is no Sapphire Angel, Stanley. Look at what‘s happened every time I’ve tried to play hero. The first time, I talked John into going into that place, and he got sick. The second time it led to useless information and caused me to have to lie to Ethan.”

“The information wasn’t useless, Beth.”

“Stanley, there’s more. Just last night, before all this started, I was mocking the kind of powers I have now. I made fun of John and his comic books,” she said, her voice trembling. “But I actually enjoyed using my powers tonight.” Disgust welled up in her. Disgust at herself.

“I’m not sure I understand, Beth.”

“I shouldn’t enjoy the sort of thing I mocked and he loved. And worse, those powers came from the same contraption that put John in a hospital bed. It made me stronger and nearly killed him. Can‘t you see how it feels wrong to use them? And wrong to enjoy it?”

“You don’t know exactly what happened in the Fizzure basement, Beth. Maybe your powers and John‘s sickness are unrelated. I understand what you’re feeling, but this is typical survivor’s guilt. You can’t blame yourself. You can make a difference.”

She raised an eyebrow. There was no way her powers were unrelated to John‘s sickness. That would be too much of a coincidence. She shook her head. It wasn‘t worth arguing the point.

“You have investigators for this kind of work, Stanley. I really want to help, and I would if I thought I could. But you need somebody who knows what he’s doing. I’m done playing hero. Let the professionals handle this. I’m sorry.”

Stanley was silent for a few moments.

“Very well,” he said finally. “I think you just need time to process this, to get through this stage of grieving, but I understand. I pulled my top guy off an assignment out west. He hopped on a plane this morning and should be here within the next couple of hours. I’ll get him on this.”

Beth’s stomach churned as a new type of guilt flooded over her – the guilt from quitting. From letting others down. From letting John down. But it was for the best. She wasn’t cut out for this. Stanley’s investigator could do a better job, and she could avoid the guilt of riding the euphoric high of her powers while John wasted away.

“I really am sorry, Stanley.”

“I shouldn’t have gotten you involved with this. You don’t need to apologize. I need to get to work now, to get things ready for my investigator.”

“I’m going to go see John in the morning,” she said.

“It’s not safe. We talked about this.”

“I understand. But we both know the future is uncertain. I need to see him.”

Stanley sighed. “Very well. Try to keep it brief.”

She planned to keep it brief. She just hoped it wouldn’t be her last time to see her boyfriend alive.

———

The morning sun streamed in through the row of windows in Demarco Dominick’s office as Joe Mathers entered. Mathers seemed much less apprehensive than during their last visit, Dominick noticed. He hoped it meant his security chief had good news to report.

“I greased some palms,” Mathers said to Dominick. “I got a list from the local hospitals of all patients admitted in the last 24 hours. I whittled it down to males under the age of 50. With all the zombie makeup the guy wore, that was the best guess I could make. But then I got lucky. One of the names stood out.”

“Stood out?” Dominick asked, fidgeting impatiently in his chair.

“It was the name of one our employees.”

“What?” Dominick asked, his face flashing red. “Who?”

“John Devor.”

“Who the hell is John Devor?”

“He’s pretty new. Fresh out of college. His admittance time at the downtown hospital matches up perfectly. Just an hour or two after the chaos in the basement. The guy is in a coma right now.”

“What’s his angle? Could he be working for someone?”

“I don’t know, sir. I did some digging on him, and there’s nothing that stands out. He grew up around here, went to college a couple of hours away, and came back here to take this job after graduation. He’s about as ordinary as they come.”

“No ties to any of our competitors?”

“None that I could see.”

Dominick leaned back in his chair and rested his hands on his ample stomach. He steepled his fingers under his chin.
“We have a decision to make. We could lie low and keep an eye on the Devor kid. The girl, Sapphire Angel, could show up to check on him. Then we take care of both of them.”

“I like that plan, Mr. Dominick.”

Dominick shook his head.

“I don’t. The risk is too great. What if Devor knows something, and that’s why he was in the basement in the first place? Maybe he stumbled on something in his job and was down there to learn even more. He could wake up and rat us out. Then we’re done.”

Dominick swung his chair and stared out his window for a few moments. He didn’t like what he was about to say, but his daughter’s life might depend on it. He returned his gaze to Mathers and continued, with a steel edge in his voice. “We can’t have him talking if he wakes up. Check his background for girls that meet the blonde babe’s description. He might still lead us to her. But we’re not going to wait for her to show up. I want you to get over to the hospital. I want you to kill him.”

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