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Sapphire Angel – Beginnings (Chapters 14-17)

Written by CJS :: [Wednesday, 05 June 2019 21:40] Last updated by :: [Wednesday, 05 June 2019 23:17]

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Chapter 14

The shimmering costume stared up at Beth from its place on the bed. Instead of serving as a reminder of the great powers she now possessed, it only reminded her of what had happened the first time she had worn it. With a growl, she grabbed the blue and white outfit and stuffed it into one of the hotel dresser drawers. She covered the costume with some of her other clothes, slammed the drawer shut, and rushed from the hotel room.

Ten minutes later she was taking tentative steps into Johns’ hospital room. Tears welled up as she looked at him. She hardly recognized him. Bandages and a respirator mask covered his face, and the bedsheets hid his body, except for where tubes disappeared into his arms.

Beth composed herself before moving forward. He might be unconscious, but she still had to be strong near him. She stepped forward and reached out her hand, touching his arm through the sheets.

“John, sweetie, it’s me,” she said. She kept her voice even despite the tears flowing down her face.

She stared at him, as if expecting him to open his eyes, smile, and speak to her. He lay motionless. After a few moments, she spoke again.

“I’m sorry. This is all my fault. I should have listened to you. I just thought…we could help. Stupid.”

Beth looked down at him, hoping for some sign he heard her. But he lay unmoving. If not for the slight rise and fall of his chest, she would have thought him dead.

She didn’t know what else to say, so she sang to him softly. For 30 minutes she sang, from hopeful church songs, to some of John’s favorite pop and rock tunes. Her voice was gentle and melodic, filling the room despite its low volume.

When she finished, she eyed the chair in the corner. She could pull it to his bedside and maintain a vigil over him. But her assurances to Stanley sounded in her head. She had promised to be brief.

She gave John’s hand a soft squeeze, wiped away a tear, and headed out the door. Her surroundings were a blur as she walked down the hall toward the elevator. Faces passed her by, but they meant nothing. She got to the elevator, pressed a button, and took one step in. That’s when she remembered.

A face she had passed in the hall. It was familiar. From where? A sinking feeling hit her as it came to her. It was one of the men from the Fizzure building. He wore a baseball cap now, but he had worn a black skullcap during their earlier encounters. She had tossed him around in the Fizzure building when he had been trying to kill her and John. She had been in costume then, which meant he wouldn’t have recognized her. He could only be here for one reason.

Beth stuck out a hand to stop the elevator door from closing. It started to open again, and she squeezed through and broke into a sprint. Doctors, nurses, and visitors looked at her with shock and raised eyebrows as she ran down the hall. She contemplated stopping as she ran by the nurses desk, to tell them to get someone to John’s room. But she could get there faster.

She saw the door to John’s room ahead. It was closed. She had left it open. Without a thought for her own safety, she threw the door open and burst into the room.

The man, stocky and of medium height, looked up in shock. He leaned over John, holding a syringe to a tube going into John’s body.

“Stop!” she yelled. He lurched from the bed, darting for the door. She stepped in front of him and assumed a defensive posture, but he swatted her aside with a beefy forearm. Her petite body sailed through the air and she crashed into the wall. He disappeared out the door.

Beth groaned and jumped to her feet.

“Help! Help!” she screamed as she ran to John’s side. His body started to convulse. Nobody came. She slammed the nurse call button with her palm.

“John! John!” she yelled. A feeling of helplessness descended on her. She didn’t know what to do. His body thrashed about on the bed, and some tubes pulled free.

“I need a doctor!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.

Finally help arrived. A doctor hurried in, with two nurses behind her.

The middle-aged woman took one look at John and ran to his side. She barked commands to the nurses. Beth was in such a daze she didn’t hear them. She felt a nurse, a slender man with dark hair, guiding her to the door. At the door, she realized he was holding her by the shoulders, talking to her. She looked into his eyes and focused.

“What happened?” he asked.

“Someone who wants to hurt him snuck in and injected something into one of his tubes. He just ran away.”

After she spoke, the nurse turned, entered the room, and closed the door. Beth stood in the hall, frozen, staring off into nothing.

 

Chapter 15

The hospital became a bustle of activity moments after the nurse escorted Beth from John’s room. Security personnel arrived just as doctors and nurses wheeled John’s bed from the room. Beth tried to catch a glimpse of John before a man whisked her to the elevator. He wore a hospital badge containing the words, “Security Director.” As she moved next to the wiry man, she heard a few people mention the words “lock down.”

The officer took her down one floor, and into a meeting room off the main hall.

“What’s your name, ma’am?” he asked, as he guided her to a seat.

“Beth Harper,” she replied, looking at him blankly.

“A nurse said you were the one who called for help?”

Beth nodded. “He was trying to kill John.”

“Who is ‘he’, ma’am?”

Beth pondered the question as she gathered her wits. She remembered Stanley’s admonishment not to reveal too much.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I just saw him sticking a needle into one of John’s feeding tubes. He sure didn’t look like a doctor. John started convulsing. The man threw me out of the way and ran. I called for help.”

The man studied her for several moments before nodding.

“Wait here,” he said as he rose from his seat. He left the room, and she could hear him lock the door from the outside.

Beth remembered she had her purse. She fished out her phone and keyed in a message for Stanley.

At the hospital. Caught a man sticking needle in John’s feeding tube. Man ran. John being treated now. Security has me locked in a room here.

A few moments later, her phone vibrated as Stanley returned her message.

On our way to the hospital. Sit tight.

Beth frowned. Sit tight. It wasn’t like she had a choice in the matter. She slumped over the table and buried her face in her hands. What a crazy weekend it had been.

-----

No words were spoken for several minutes as Stanley and Betsy Devor rushed to the hospital. As the hospital loomed ahead of them, Mrs. Devor finally spoke.

“It was unfair of you to ask Beth to do what she did. She’s just a kid, Stanley. She shouldn’t need to put her life on the line.”

Stanley focused on the road ahead, speaking but not meeting her eyes.

“She’s not a kid, Betsy. She’s 21. And it was the only way. If we want to save John, we need to take some chances. And Beth is more capable than you think, even without her powers.”

“Beth is an impressive young woman, but she has no training for this. I love our son as much as you do, but there’s no guarantee there’s anything that can save him. And we could lose both of them if you put her into harm’s way.”

“Do you think I want to send her out there?” Stanley snapped. Betsy straightened, but said nothing.

“I’m sorry,” he continued in a gentler tone. “I shouldn’t talk to you like that. Just sometimes I have to make tough decisions. But they’re not reckless decisions. Knowing her abilities, I liked her chances of not getting hurt. So that made it a risk worth taking, given the stakes.”

“Oh, Stanley,” Betsy Devor said with a long sigh. “You have a young woman running around in a costume, like straight out of a movie or comic book. This is so crazy.”

“Maybe it’s not me making her do it, Betsy. Maybe this is her destiny.” Stanley immediately regretted his words. He had said too much. He was happy to have their conversation cut short as they pulled into the hospital parking garage. Stanley took the first spot he could find, wedging his sedan in a narrow space between two minivans. They exchanged glances, and Betsy Devor shook her head before they exited the vehicle. They rushed for the hospital entrance, not knowing what they would find.

-----

Beth looked up when the door opened and she saw Stanley enter. Finally a friendly face. After the security director had left the room, a police detective had questioned her. When finished, he had left her cooped up in the hospital meeting room.

The young woman met Stanley’s eyes and fought back tears. She rose and went to him, nestling her head against his chest and grabbing his shoulders in a hug.

“How is he?” she said, afraid to hear Stanley’s response.

“I just finished with the doctors. The immediate threat has passed. Thanks to you getting there just in time, and the quick work of the medical team, they managed stabilize his vitals. But his underlying condition hasn‘t improved.”

Beth took Stanley’s hand and squeezed it. She couldn’t imagine what he must be going through.

“I’m so sorry, Stanley.”

He gave what was clearly a forced smile.

“We’ll get through this,” he said.

“Who are these people? Why do they want to hurt John?”

Stanley released her hand, stepped back, and looked up at the ceiling.

“These are bad people, Beth. The Hazmat suits and chemicals you found in the basement tell us something. They tell us this was dangerous work. And the way they reacted to you stumbling upon their work tells me they want nobody to know what they were doing. What could the motivation be for that kind of secrecy around a dangerous project? Nothing good, I’m sure.”

“Companies try to keep secrets all the time, though," she said, although the words sounded hollow to her ears.

“They don‘t go to these lengths to kill people.”

“I know you‘re right, Stanley. But that still doesn’t tell us what they‘re doing.”

Stanley grimaced. “I wish I knew, Beth,” he said. She felt the pain in his voice and could see the guilt on his face. She realized he blamed himself for not being able to figure this out.

“I’m ready, Stanley.”

“Ready?”

“To put on the costume. To be Sapphire Angel. Or whatever I am when I wear it. Not as a full time thing, but to stop these people. To save John. Seeing that man standing over his hospital bed made it clear. I have to help.”

As she spoke the words, she thought of her words to John. The average Joe gains powers but is reluctant to use them, until his loved one dies because of his inaction. He then embraces his destiny, and goes on to vanquish evil. John wasn’t dead yet, but she couldn’t wait to embrace her powers. Maybe clichés were clichés for a reason – because they spoke eternal truths. Maybe she needed to stop fighting those truths. Or at least stop fighting until she saw this to an end.

Stanley pursed his lips, paused, and nodded.

“Are you sure? This may be more dangerous than we thought. My investigator was headed to the house of that Fizzure scientist, Philip Gruden, to see what he could dig up. That was several hours ago, in the dead of the night. He hasn’t reported back in, and I can’t reach him on his mobile. I tracked his car, and it’s located at a rural park along the Susquehanna River, about fifteen minutes from here. I was headed there when I got your call. I worry something might have happened to him.”

“Let’s not beat around the bush, Stanley. You worry that the Fizzure people got their hands on him, and he’s dead.”

Stanley sighed. “Yes. But maybe not. Maybe they captured him instead. They might want to find out who he’s working for, and what he knows. So maybe he’s still alive. Or maybe they don’t even have him. Maybe there’s another explanation for this.”

Beth shook her head. “There’s no other explanation Stanley. We both know it. This needs Sapphire Angel.”

As Beth said the words, she stopped herself from snorting. She was calling herself Sapphire Angel. Not only had she accepted the name, but she referred to herself as if she was two different people. In a way she was. The Beth Harper from two days ago would never have thought about running headlong into danger. But much had changed in two days, including her. Seeing a loved one dying, and nearly being murdered, did that to a person.

“Okay, then,” Stanley replied. “Let’s get to work. The police detective said he‘s done with you. So let’s go get your costume. Then off to check out my guy’s car, and Gruden’s house.”

 

Chapter 16

The sun sat high in the sky as Stanley dropped Beth off at the hotel. She ran inside and made a quick change into her formfitting costume. The blond beauty didn’t don her gloves, necklace, or boots, though, instead opting to place them inside a backpack. She concealed the rest of her outfit under a long coat before returning to Stanley’s car.

Once back in the passenger seat, she removed her running shoes and slipped into her boots. She pulled her gloves into place under the sleeves of her coat. As Stanley drove toward the GPS location of his investigator’s car, the alluring woman loosened her coat enough to fasten the necklace. A tingle of excitement coursed through her body, as if she sensed the power within her. She was ready for whatever they might encounter.

“What’s your investigator’s name?” Beth asked as the road weaved along the Susquehanna River.

“Dirk O’Shea,” Stanley replied. “My best investigator. He’s very resourceful. And conscientious, too. It’s unusual for him not to report in. I emailed you a couple of photos, so you might recognize him.”

Beth detected worry in Stanley’s voice, but it was barely perceptible. She didn’t know how he remained calm. His son was on his deathbed, and his top investigator was missing and might be dead. She was glad she had decided to help. It was time for her to kick the angst-filled schoolgirl to the curb.

She fished her iPhone out of her backpack and checked her email for Stanley’s message, finding two photographs of Dirk O’Shea. Stanley’s missing investigator was a good-looking guy, in a rugged sort of way, with a five o’clock shadow, wide nose, and a strong jaw. He was maybe ten years older than she was. The man had eyes almost as blue as hers, and thick, wavy brown hair. O’Shea had a stern look to him, but almost like it was forced, with a mouth ready to break into a grin at any time. She committed his face to memory, in case they found him.

Ten minutes later they reached the river park and pulled down a gravel lane. Evergreen trees loomed above them, with the wide boughs weaving gently in the breeze. The sunlight splintered as it peaked through the canopy, creating scattered patterns of light on the ground and making it feel later than mid afternoon.

Ahead of them, at the edge of a gravel lot, sat a nondescript Ford Taurus overlooking the river 100 feet below. Stanley pulled his SUV to a stop thirty yards from the vehicle.

“That’s his car,” Stanley remarked.

“Wait here,” Beth said, throwing off her coat. She opened her door and jumped out before Stanley could argue.

As she moved toward the front of Stanley's car, it was as if an aura surrounded the slender woman. Her angelic face, with its prominent cheekbones and piercing blue eyes, radiated a palpable beauty. Her shimmering blond hair added to the effect. The sheen of her costume’s vibrant blue fabric, as it hugged the contours of her breasts and flat stomach, drew the sunlight to it. The light emphasized the pure white of her gloves and her short skirt. Even her taut calf and thigh muscles gleamed in the dim sunlight. Her appearance screamed sexuality, strength, and innocence, all at once.

Her aura wasn’t entirely physical. Gone was the shaken, unsure girl, full of guilt about using her new powers. In its place stood a woman who exuded certainty and purpose. Perhaps it was self-confidence. Or perhaps it was her powers, taking tangible form. She was barely Beth now. At least not in her own mind. She was Sapphire Angel.

Sapphire Angel jogged around the front of the car and approached the investigator’s car. Her heart was beating as she crept forward, but not from fear. She was excited. Whatever trepidation she had felt before putting on the costume was gone, replaced by the thrill of taking action.

The stunning super lady swiveled her head as she approached the vehicle, looking for signs of others. She glanced back at Stanley, suddenly worried about leaving him alone. She shouldn’t have brought him with her.

With a resigned shake of the head, she continued forward, putting one shapely leg in front of the other. She came up alongside the car, afraid she might see a dead body inside. But the car was empty.

After pausing again to listen to her surroundings, Sapphire Angel reached a gloved hand to the door handle and tested it. It was locked. Perhaps her newfound strength would be enough to rip the door open, but she had a better idea.

The heroine pulled Stanley’s lock pick device from her boot and held the end up to the lock. While she waited for the device to do its thing, she glanced back again through the trees toward Stanley. He remained in the car, watching her. She gave a slight nod and turned back to the car, just as the door lock clicked open.

After returning the device to her boot, she opened the door. Sapphire Angel peered in and gazed around the interior of the Taurus. There were no signs of a struggle. The interior of the car was immaculate, with no trash, loose change, or similar odds and ends scattered about.

After looking back to Stanley once more she slipped into the driver’s seat. She opened the center console and the glove box, and found only the owner’s manual and a box of tissues. Stanley’s investigator was nothing if not neat. Either that, or someone had ransacked the car, picked it clean, and then neatly rearranged it.

She bent down and reached around on the floor. Under the driver’s seat, through the satin of her glove, she felt a small object on the floor. Taking it in her fingers, she held it up and saw it was a lens cap to a camera. She bent over and checked under the passenger seat, finding nothing.

Sapphire Angel used her small figure to slip between the front seats and climb in the back. She found nothing there, either, and opened the driver’s passenger door from the inside.

The sound of a twig breaking came from her left. Sapphire Angel leapt out of the car, spinning and ready for a fight. Stanley stood a few feet away and held up his hands.

“Woah, just me,” he said.

“Don’t do that!” she said. “I could have hurt you.”

“Sorry. I’ll keep that in mind the next time.”

There wasn’t going to be a next time. Stanley’s place wasn’t in the field. He would just slow her down and be a distraction and worry to her. She didn’t mention it to him, though. They would have time to discuss it later.

“Is O’Shea a neat freak, or something?” she asked.

“Actually, he is.” Stanley said.

“This was all I found,” she said, extending the lens cap to Stanley.

He looked at it only momentarily before letting out a short breath.

“This is the cap to his zoom lens for a night scope,” Stanley explained. “That means he was probably doing surveillance. Did you find a case? The case would contain the scope and a few lenses, and a kit holding a shotgun surveillance microphone and a dish.”

She shook her head.

“Not good,” Stanley muttered as he walked around to the back of the trunk. Sapphire Angel followed and stood by him, hands on her hips, as he used a key to pop the trunk. She frowned and shook her head. Of course he had a key.

She moved up next to Stanley as he looked inside the trunk. The trunk looked to be empty, but Stanley pulled aside a section of the fabric on the floor, and lifted open a small compartment.

“What’s that?” Sapphire Angel asked as he pulled a metal box out of the compartment.

“These are his tools of the trade,” Stanley explained. “He would have used this to get into Gruden’s house, and to gather evidence once inside.”

“Why keep it back here?”

“The surveillance kit fits under his seat. This doesn’t. He’s not one to leave something sitting loose in the car.”

Stanley spun a combination lock on the front of the box and lifted the lid. The inside was filled with tools, vials, a small camera, tape, string, a USB thumb drive, and some smaller boxes and containers.

Stanley picked up the camera and examined it. As he turned on the power and thumbed through on-screen menu options, a frown crossed his face. He opened two of the smaller containers and shook his head.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“The camera should have photos from inside the house on it. And this container here,” he said as he held up one of the small ones, “is a fingerprint kit. It’s unused. I suspect this USB drive is empty, too.”

Sapphire Angel put two and two together. “So you think he never made it into Gruden’s house?”

“Exactly.”

“Maybe he just aborted the assignment, Stanley,” she said, putting a reassuring hand on Stanley’s arm.

Stanley shook his head. “So he came here for no reason and parked his car in the middle of nowhere? At a spot know for suicide jumpers? No. He’s in trouble. Somebody left his car here to cast doubt on his disappearance. They wanted to get the authorities to spend time dredging the river for his body.”

“I assume he wasn’t suicidal?”

“Not in the least. Something happened to him, and it happened before he even set foot in the house. He would have taken his gear before going in the house. I doubt someone would have located this container to put it back just right. Somebody got to him before he even popped his trunk.”

“You can’t be sure of that, Stanley,” Sapphire Angel said. She didn’t believe it herself, but she had to reassure Stanley.

“No, I can’t. But I have a sense for this sort of thing. Somebody approached him when he was surveilling the house from his car. I’m guessing they just knocked on his window. He probably thought it was a concerned neighbor, and put the window down. They overpowered him or gassed him, or something. During the scuffle, the lens cap ended up on the floor. They cleaned up by taking the rest of the stuff, but missed the cap, and never found the gear in the trunk.”

Beth didn’t suggest another possibility this time. Stanley had seen too much during his life, and her words would just come across as patronizing.

“To Gruden’s house, then?” she asked. Now they had two purposes for going there – to learn what Gruden knew about the Fizzure plans, and to discover what had happened to Dirk O’Shea.

Stanley nodded. “To Gruden’s house.”

 

Chapter 17

Fizzure Laboratories paid its scientists well. Or at least it paid its lead scientist well. As Stanley drove through Philip Gruden’s neighborhood, Sapphire Angel marveled at the beautiful homes on large, perfectly manicured plots of land. All the homes sat on one side of the road, across from a heavily wooded area.

She and Stanley had waited until sundown to set out for Gruden’s home, figuring she stood a better chance of success under the cover of darkness. The waiting had been hard, with both John and Dirk O’Shea’s fates hanging in the balance.

"It should be just ahead," Stanley said.

Sapphire Angel expected him to slow down before reaching the house, but he kept going at a normal speed as the home went by on their left. She took a moment to realize he was making a pass of the house to assess the situation. The heroine shook her head. She should have realized his intentions sooner.

After passing the far end of Gruden’s yard, they came upon another large home on their left, with a black SUV parked in the street out front. Stanley still did not slow.

"Did you notice that?" he asked.

"Notice what?"

"There are two men in that vehicle. They must have noticed our headlights, because they ducked down, but not before I saw them.”

Sapphire Angel flushed with embarrassment at not having noticed. Once again Stanley was one step ahead of her. His experience dwarfed hers.

“If they’re watching  Gruden's house," she said, “that will make my job harder."

“Yes, it will," Stanley said. “I’ll double back once we’re out of sight, so we can keep an eye on them.”

“Who do you think they are?”

“Could be anything, really. Fizzure could have a security detail assigned to this guy.”

“Great,” Sapphire Angel muttered.

After the road curved to the left, Stanley turned off his headlights and made a quick U-turn. The car crept forward, stopping once the SUV came into view.

The costumed beauty didn’t speak, fidgeting impatiently in her seat. She was eager to get to work. Stanley reached into the backseat and came up with a briefcase that was twice as thick as any briefcase she had seen.

She remained silent as the older man punched on the briefcase’s keypad. He opened the briefcase, pulled out what appeared to be a large microphone, and started screwing it into a funnel-shaped device.

“What’s that?” Sapphire Angel asked.

“If we’re lucky, this will let me hear any conversations in the SUV, and we’ll learn what those two men are doing here.”

The blonde beauty allowed her mind to wander as she waited for Stanley to finish assembling his contraption. His surveillance would be helpful, but once again she wished he weren't here. Stanley may have learned to take care of himself over the years, but he was older now.

A swath of light from the driveway interrupted her thoughts. They could only see the end of the driveway from their vantage point, but moments later the source of light came into view as a car backed down the driveway.

“Stanley!” she hissed. He had been focused on getting his equipment ready, and jerked his head up.

As he looked up, the car backed out of the driveway and onto the road. Once in the road, it paused before heading forward, away from them. Two seconds later, the SUV started forward behind it. The headlights on the SUV never illuminated. She and Stanley exchanged glances.

Stanley put the car into gear and started off in pursuit of the two vehicles. If the lead car hadn’t been using its headlights, the SUV would have been hard to see. Instead, the SUV made a dark silhouette in the moonlit night. Stanley kept his headlights off, making for an odd procession of dark vehicles.

“What’s going on?” Sapphire Angel asked.

“My guess is Gruden is in the lead, with somebody following him. Maybe we’ll find out why,” Stanley said as they navigated to the end of the neighborhood. He followed the cars from a distance as they pulled out onto a rural road, separated by several car lengths. She wasn’t good with directions but knew the lead car was headed toward the Carlisle Pike, a busy thoroughfare filled with strip malls and other businesses. From there the driver could go anywhere.

When the lead car reached the Carlisle Pike, the traffic signal controlling the intersection was green, and it turned right onto the busy road. The SUV’s headlights came on as it also turned right. Stanley turned on his headlights and made it through the light just as it changed to yellow.

Now they were on a busy road. It allowed Stanley to get closer to the trailing vehicle without raising suspicions. Less than 100 yards after turning onto Carlisle Pike, the lead vehicle turned right into the parking lot of a Lexus dealership.

It was a Sunday evening, so the business was closed. He wasn't there to buy a vehicle. The SUV also turned into the Lexus lot, but only after the lead car vanished around the back of the main building. The road sloped downward, so it afforded Stanley and Sapphire Angel a good view of the SUV leaving the road. Stanley made a quick turn into an adjacent Infiniti dealership.

After exiting the road, Stanley killed his headlights and drove around to the rear of the Infiniti building. The elevation was higher, and they looked down on the rear parking lot of the adjacent Lexus dealership. The lead car sat the rear of the lot, facing the building. A white SUV sat next to the car. The emblem of News 6, the news show of a local television station, adorned the side of the SUV.

What could he be doing? Sapphire Angel leaned forward, trying to get a better look. Stanley reached into the center console and handed her a pair of binoculars. He held another pair to his own eyes.

Sapphire Angel scanned the parking lot below. She inhaled sharply when she saw a man exit the TV station’s SUV. It was Ryan Addington, the reporter she had saved in the alley one night earlier. He held a video camera in one hand. Now things were really getting strange.

The driver of the lead car was out of his vehicle and walking toward the reporter. She recognized Philip Gruden immediately. He was of average build and height, with wavy brown hair. Wire-rimmed glasses sat atop his nose. He pointed to the camera, shook his head, and mouthed something inaudible. Sapphire Angel sensed movement to her left and pivoted the binoculars in that direction.

She had forgotten about the men in the SUV. Two figures made their way along the side of the building, toward Gruden and Addington. The lead man, stocky and wearing a skullcap, she recognized from the hospital. The other man was taller, with a thick brown beard. Their intentions were now clear, as they both held guns in their hands.

"Gotta go, Stanley," she said as she opened the door, springing from the vehicle.

She sprinted across the parking lot, closing the distance to the adjacent lot in seconds. The hum of traffic on the nearby road masked the sound of her footfalls on the pavement, but it also meant Gruden and Addington were oblivious to the two men approaching them. She had to reach them before the armed men.

As she closed the distance, she doubted she could make it in time. The men were creeping up to the edge of the back of the building, and could be in shooting distance. Should she yell and try to warn Gruden and Addington? No. The noise from traffic would drown out her voice, and she would only take away the element of surprise. The costumed heroine gritted her teeth, forcing her feet to move faster. The ground moved by in a blur.

Her eyes widened as the two men raised their weapons and took aim, pointing their firearms in Gruden’s direction. They were too far. She wasn’t going to make it in time.

But they didn’t fire, instead focusing their aim. But the shots could come at any moment. She had to act. Sapphire Angel launched herself through the air, surprising herself with the distance she covered, and the speed at which she covered it.

At the last moment she angled her body sideways. She collided with the two men, her torso striking the stocky man and her ankles striking the bearded man. It wasn't enough to do much damage, but it likely saved Gruden's life. Both men’s arms jerked upward just as their weapons fired.

After the impact, with the sound of their weapons still echoing through the air, Sapphire Angel careened off to the side and tumbled across the parking lot. As she rolled to a stop, she surveyed the effects of her attack. The stocky man with the skullcap was on the ground, climbing to his feet, while the bearded man had not even lost his footing. He leveled his gun at Sapphire Angel and pulled the trigger.

She winced, before feeling the slight tickle of the bullet bouncing off of her. The man looked down at his weapon in shock as Sapphire Angel charged. She swatted his gun arm away with one hand and drilled him in the face with a fist. Blood flew as bones shattered in his face. He crumbled. She spun and lashed out with a kick at the other man, who had regained his wits and was lunging for her.

His stomach met her foot, and he toppled over, wheezing. As the athletic woman prepared to finish him off, Gruden’s car flew by her, tires squealing. She gritted her teeth and swung an uppercut into her opponent’s jaw. More bones crunched as he flipped to the ground. The fight was over.

Sapphire Angel whirled and watched Gruden’s car disappear around the building. She balled her fists in frustration before glancing back into the parking lot. Ryan Addington stood near his car, holding his camera on his shoulder and pointing it at her.

She glanced back at the attackers’ prone forms to verify they were still down. Their faces were bloody messes, causing the blue and white clad woman to cringe. She had underestimated her newfound strength.

Decision time. She could stay and talk to Addington, which meant he’d get at least a few more seconds of video footage of her, or she could turn and leave, and learn nothing about the purpose of his meeting with Gruden.

Her curiosity won out. She strode purposely toward Addington, her heels sounding on the pavement. When she was a few feet away, she planted her hands on her hips and spoke.

"If you want to speak with me, you need to lower the camera.”

Addington pulled his eye from the viewfinder and looked at her, awe written across his face. He hesitated for a few seconds before pointing the camera at the ground. He had at least a minute of footage. She needed to hope the necklace continued to conceal her identity.

"So we meet again," Addington said. The look of fascination had not left his face. Sapphire Angel couldn't blame him. It was not everyday someone talked to a seemingly invincible girl in a shimmering, skimpy costume.

"Yes, we meet again,” she replied. “What was the meeting with Gruden all about?”

"I wish I knew. He was just about to tell me. But then those guys showed up,” he said, gesturing to the men on the ground. “And then you showed up and saved our asses.”

“You want me to believe you have no idea why Gruden was here?” she said, cocking her head and narrowing her eyes. “I’m sure you don’t agree to meet with everyone who asks.”

“He contacted me saying he had a big story for me, involving his employer. He said it would show corruption that would make national news. That's all he said. He wouldn’t tell me more over the phone."

Sapphire Angel studied him for a moment and decided he had no reason to lie to her. That meant, though, that he had no useful information for her. And as long as Addington was here, she couldn’t question the attackers. Perhaps if she left, he would leave too. She could then return and talk to the two men.

The young heroine gave Addington a nod, turned, and sprinted for the far side of the building, away from where Stanley had parked. She couldn’t let him see her head back to Stanley's vehicle. For all she knew, Stanley wasn't there, as he may have given chase to Gruden.

"Wait!" She heard Addington’s voice behind her. “It’s my turn to ask questions!"

She continued running. He might have questions, but she was not ready to answer them.

-----

Sapphire Angel watched from the darkness beyond the edge of the parking lot as Addington rushed back to his car, camera in hand. He glanced over his shoulder at the unconscious men on the ground before getting into his car and speeding back toward Carlisle Pike. She didn’t blame him for wanting to vacate the area before the men awoke.

The passing of his vehicle must have awoken the men. They stirred and stumbled to their feet, grabbing one another for support. As they started around the building, both men held hands to their broken faces. Sapphire Angel rushed toward them.

She heard sirens as she approached the building. Addington must have called the police. She hesitated a moment. The sirens sounded close, but she might have enough time to reach the two men. But she’d never have enough time to question them.

With a sigh of frustration, the costumed woman turned on her heel and sprinted toward the small hill separating the two car dealerships. She saw Stanley’s car parked there and hurried to it. After she reached the car and climbed in, Stanley immediately drove away. They were heading back down Carlisle Pike when three police cars went by, lights flashing, heading toward the Lexus dealership.

“Did you follow Gruden?” she asked.

“I tried. But by the time I got onto Carlisle Pike, he had too much of a head start, and I lost him. How did you make out? I got back in time to see you talking to the news guy.”

She told Stanley about her conversation with Addington, and how the attackers slipped away before she could question them.

“I don’t know if the police grabbed them, though,” she said.

“I can find that out pretty easily, all I need—”

The ringing of his phone interrupted Stanley. He tapped a button on his steering wheel to answer.

“Hi Betsy, what’s up?”

Angst filled Mrs. Devor’s voice as it came over the speakers.

“Stanley, you need to come to the hospital right away.”

Sapphire Angel saw Stanley grip the wheel tighter.

“What’s going on, Betsy?”

“Just get here, Stanley. John is not doing well.”

The young woman clenched her eyes shut. She had pushed John’s condition from her mind for the evening. Mrs. Devors’ call brought her back to reality.

“We’re on our way,” he said and ended the call.

He looked over at Sapphire Angel and their eyes met. She could see his pain, and wanted to reach over and hug him. But there was no time.

“I’ll change in the back seat,” she said, knowing she could trust Stanley not to watch.

After she climbed into the back seat and started her transformation, Stanley sped off into the night.

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