A Team Guardian Adventure;Superhero romance
Rachel Connolly, the heroine of Sweet Mercy has a brother, David Connolly, Coordinator of Team Guardian, an organization of people gifted with special abilities - or Talents - created as an after-effect of the Probability Bomb that shook the foundations of reality ten years ago, transforming the world as we knew it.
Beth Talbot's psychometry Talent is a curse as well as a blessing, making Time for her less a smoothly-flowing river than a storm-tossed ocean. She sees David Connolly as a rock of stability in that maelstrom, with his Talent for neutralizing other Talents like hers. But how can she even try to turn his attention her way when everyone on Team Guardian needs him, especially with a mad Talent out to take control of the entire world's computing - and banking - systems. READ AN EXCERPT
When a probability bomb exploded in the heartlands of the US, no one could have predicted the results. Spreading chaos was the point of using a probability bomb. Everything and anything occurred that day, from rains of frogs to Red Sea-partings of local swimming pools to animals speaking in human tongues and some people turning to pillars of salt or fudge while others were gifted with strange powers. Thousands died. Scientists later speculated that, in keeping with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, the observers influenced the effects. Ten years later the world had become a different place.
A few loose bills and packets of twenties littered the vault's floor. As far as David Connolly could tell from behind the line the police had established five feet outside the gaping steel door, nothing else had been disturbed. Safety deposit boxes remained closed. Only one shelf of stacked bills had been disturbed.
David gave only passing attention to his survey of the scene, primarily concerned with reassuring Inspector Donaldson. “Yes. The delay is worth it. Our psychometrist can tell you things about the perpetrator that you can't get from even the best forensics team.”
“Forensics sure didn't find much at the other scenes.” Donaldson spoke through clenched teeth. Graying and stocky, he gave the impression of a grizzled veteran who'd survived the cops-and-robbers wars.
“You sure this is connected to the other robberies?” David pressed. He hated to waste his team's time on a job ordinary police work could handle.
“Like our call said, these break-ins all look like inside jobs -- no signs of forced entry to either the bank buildings or vaults. Except there've been five now, and no two jobs hit the same bank. This time it's Midwest Federal, last time was City Bank. USBank, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America were hit before that. Nobody's on the inside at all those places.”
“Right.” It smacked of extraordinary powers brought to bear by some rogue Talent. Something the inspector had been diplomatic enough not to mention. “That's why I'm here.”
A slender figure in a fawn-colored coat paused near a couple police officers stationed to keep unauthorized parties from entering the secured area. David's pulse slipped into a higher gear. Just eager to get down to business, he told himself.
“There's our psychometrist now.” He pitched his voice to reach her and gestured her forward. “Beth! Over here.” The guards stepped aside to let her pass.
Beth Talbot approached with her usual a look of grim determination, moving like a lonely frigate on choppy seas, beset by hard winds. From what he knew of her Talent, she had to steer through currents of past events invisible to everyone else. Something in him pressed toward her. Beth possessed the delicate features and slim figure to qualify as a beauty, but she held her shoulders slightly hunched against those invisible currents, and her brows drawn in as if it took intense concentration simply to cross the room to join him at the roped off area near the vault.
Every time he saw Beth, he wanted to put an arm around her, to do whatever he could to steady her against the world. But he doubted someone so intent on finding her own way would appreciate it, and it would hardly be appropriate behavior for the Coordinator of Team Guardian's Minneapolis offices. He had a position of authority and had better keep his mind on the business at hand.
“Hey, there.” The inspector held out a large hand to her.
“You must be the little lady we've been waiting for.”
Beth flinched, a barely visible flicker across her features David only noticed because he knew what to look for. He checked the urge to step in and intercede. She extended her -- gloved -- hand to the inspector.
“Bethany Talbot,” she said, giving a very brief shake to the inspector's proffered hand. “Regional Psychometry Lead for Team Guardian.”
“Inspector Ralph Donaldson, Minneapolis PD.” The man stepped aside, making room for Beth to approach the vault. “None of our people have been in there yet. That's what you need, right?”
“Right.” Beth faced the velvet ropes, strung between brass stanchions that had probably been borrowed from the customer service area out front. She pulled back her shoulders, shrugged aside hair like a sheet of caramel-hued silk. “It's best if you don't tell me anything about what happened. Let me gather my own impressions. I'm ready to start.”
~ * ~
David's presence exerted a steadying influence on Beth, like finding a large, dry, flat boulder on which to pause while crossing a river on the backs of slippery moss-grown stones. She paused only long enough to enjoy the sensation while he unclipped a section of red velvet rope and held it aside for her, like an usher at the theater. Maybe it was just the effect of his talent, nullifying hers, but passing near him, the whole world seemed to stand still on its axis, the swirling impressions of times past retreated and the moment played out clear and strong, unblurred by the overlay of other people and events. She sighed, passing beyond David's nice solid sphere of influence to approach the vault's gaping maw.
She paused to pull the cotton glove from her right hand, and then the latex glove worn beneath the cotton one. With the gloves she could handle most ordinary contact -- even shaking hands with a stranger -- but they'd only get in the way now. Thank God she faced only a case of robbery -- not the scene of any more violent crime. She drew a deep breath. Where to start?
The intruder must have touched the packets of money scattered on the floor, but money made for poor impressions. Too many people touched it with too many and various emotions, from avarice and calculation, to gratitude and relief.
No. In cases where people projected strong feelings she could often get a reading by touching the walls of a room. But she sensed no such strong emotion here.
Whoever entered last would have had to touch the handle to pull the door open, even if wearing gloves. Gloves didn't interfere with people leaving impressions as much as they did with her picking the impressions up later. Beth found this a mixed blessing. She reached for the handle of the vault door.
Cold steel met her hand, but all other sensation fell apart in the flood of impressions dragging her under.
~ * ~
“Beth!” David shouted when she crumpled to her knees. He made it to her side in the same second. Forgetting his own protocols for psychometrists, he clasped her shoulders, keeping her from falling forward against the vault door. Inspector Donaldson arrived on his heels.
“Are you all right?” David asked.
She leaned against him and let him help her stand. Even after she'd regained her feet she kept a tight grip on his forearm. He might regret it later, if she left bruises, but just now it felt good to give her his support.
“That was new.” Beth spoke in bemused tones. “I usually just get impressions. Like feelings, images, a sense of the events touching an object. This time…” She straightened, standing taller, shaking her head as if to clear it, her grip on David's arm loosening by a fraction.
“This time it seemed as if I became the door and became part of the whole computer system the door connects to. And it -- or I -- possessed all the awareness of a person. A machine person, a machine woman. I knew her thoughts, what she wanted… ” Beth shook her head again, her look of frustration plain to read.
“The money, this money anyhow,” Beth gestured with her free hand at the stacks of fallen bills. “This money hardly mattered to her plans.”
“Hardly mattered?” Donaldson broke in. He'd left Beth in
David's arms and stood now in the vault's doorway, leaning in, obviously taking
stock. “They had nearly a hundred thousand dollars cash on that shelf at
last night's closing.”
“She, the machine woman, had what she wanted by the time she got this far.” Beth went on as if she hadn't heard the older man. “She had the system. She'd already made it part of herself.”
Beth swayed then, leaning against David. He gathered her close into his arms, a warm, pliant bundle, surprisingly solid for her aura of frailty. Her hair brushed his cheek, as silken as it looked. Her scent reminded him of apples in autumn. He'd hate to admit it, but holding Bethany Talbot felt altogether too good to qualify as an act of mercy.
In the next few minutes David settled Beth into a padded chair facing the substantial walnut desk in the bank manager's office.
“Will you be okay if I leave you here for a few minutes?” Duty pulled in two directions. He should stay on top of things near the vault, make his recommendations to Donaldson.
She kept her hand on his arm. “Just -- can you wait with me a minute first? This spot seems pretty impersonal, but I'd like to review my impressions from the vault before I have to cope with any new input.” Her eyes -- sky blue ringed with a band of darker, denim blue -- met his, a look brief as the shadow of a passing bird. “You keep things feeling almost normal, like they were before the Event, when the past knew its place.” A smile flitted past the windows of her eyes.
“Sure. How's this?” He pulled another chair up beside hers and sat, placed his free hand over the one with which she kept hold of his arm. “I'll just shut up. Do all the reviewing you need.” He caught her quick glance of gratitude, then her gaze lowered to some inward horizon.
He should use this interlude to good effect. Plan his report for the police, consider the implications of what Beth had already reported. But other thoughts escaped him. Proximity to the woman he'd only admired from afar for the past couple years when Team assignments had thrown them together, made him too cognizant of his position.
The whole Team knew Beth Talbot never let anyone touch her. Normal social contact constituted an ordeal for her -- if not actually painful, then unsettling and disorienting. She'd always seemed like some creature too rare for the ordinary world. He caught himself holding his breath, half afraid of alarming her with any sound or movement of his own.
The hand he held appeared surprisingly steady, strong and full of grace. She usually gave an impression of uncertainty. Did his Talent help her that much, nullifying the effect of hers? Working with her at a distance had seemed the reasonable approach, communicating by the sub-aetheric, virtual reality connections of the Team specs. Most often he worked from his office, acting as central hub for operations. When he went into the field, he acted as Team Liaison to local authorities. Beth called in to make her brief reports from the crime scenes.
How incredibly brave of her, to face the world on a daily basis while her Talent continually blurred the lines of past and present. He had to rein back the urge to reach out and gather her into his arms, build bulwarks to protect her from that world. But he needed her talent. They needed her talent -- his people, the family of Talents he'd gathered around himself -- the whole community of the city depended on all of them for a degree of safety and sanity in the midst of the strange seas the P-Bombs had unleashed on the world ten years ago.
Though it went against the heart now urging him to protect her from all of it, David needed Beth's Talent, her bravery, and her commitment. He needed it all for their cause.
~ * ~
Beth's awareness of David centered on the moment, with no intrusion of past echoes, no impressions of his most recent trauma, or the most recent strong feelings belonging rightfully to whoever had last sat in this spot, occupied this office. She'd probably get all that as soon as David left her side.
Although very conscious of the male presence beside her, the refreshing masculine warmth and strength, and a scent like pine needles and woodland smoke, something bordering on the incendiary, Beth returned her thoughts to what had happened in the vault.
She needed this opportunity to consult her memory before new impressions drove the rest into confusion.
For a moment, she'd been that strange amalgam of woman and computerized systems, spanning the globe, spiking out to satellite nodes -- encompassing far more than she could grasp. But she/it, whoever Beth had been for that moment, knew how to navigate, how to apply all those inner resources in a veritable dance.
What had that she-machine been about? The money constituted only part of it,
a diversion for her pursuers, but also, ultimately, money constituted the
energy and synapses of the machine’s system. But the state of unity
between woman and machine presented another diversion, a mask. A solitary
person stood beyond the machine-woman hybrid… A Talent such as Beth had
never encountered before. That odd state of unity with the system was
the woman's talent.
Beth stilled her breathing, stilled her thoughts, striving for the mirror stillness of a reflecting pond, a state allowing recent memories to percolate to the surface of her mind. She must have sensed something of the woman who'd actually touched the handle of the vault door, something beyond her determination, her excitement, the assumption of superiority to those who might stand in her way.
At last Beth loosed a deep sigh. No, that's all she had for now. Maybe she should ask Inspector Donaldson if she could have another go at the vault? But by now the police would be all over the scene. Reluctant to disturb this rare moment of clarity and stability, Beth turned at last to David, drawing her hand from beneath his. Holding what she couldn't keep, had no right to keep, only taunted her. She had to get back to facing the world on her own. She'd certainly been enough of an imposition on David -- that is, Mr. Connolly.
~ * ~
After he'd questioned her further, making sure he understood as well as
possible everything Beth could tell him, David insisted on walking her out,
back through the secured area to the main lobby of the bank. “Just in
case you think of anything else on the way,” he explained, not
questioning whether his motives went deeper.
“You went above and beyond today.” Memory served up another vision of the way her legs had folded under her when she'd touched the steel handle of that vault door.
“It wasn't that bad.” Beth made a sound she might have intended as dismissive laugh, but came closer to a snort. “I've faced worse -- the Skyway Slasher case comes to mind. This just caught me by surprise. It was so different… so intense. But not in the emotional way I usually get from human beings.”
“Human beings? Like she -- the perp -- isn't human?”
“Yes, like that -- but she is, underneath. It's the system she plugs into. She gives it a kind of life and awareness -- something so huge it swallowed me up like I'd fallen into a whole ocean of machine-mind.”
They'd reached the lobby and paused before parting. “You know,” she turned back to him, eyes widening with the sudden thought, “I didn't 'see' her -- the woman behind it, but I bet I'd still recognize her if I saw her in the flesh, or her image -- like on security footage from the lobby.”
“She must have cased the joint,” David picked up the thought. “Probably yesterday or not long before that. Do you mind,” he asked her, nodding back the way they'd come. “If you stick around, we can probably arrange for you to view the tapes here so you won't have to make another trip.”
“Oh no,” Beth said, stopping short. “It just hit me. What it means. Her Talent. She won't be on any tapes.” It seemed obvious now. “The bank's security is totally compromised. She can play their whole system like it's her violin.” The implications continued falling into place like pennies in a coin sorter. “Dang. I bank here.”
She looked around the wide lobby, scanning the corners of the high ceilings. “She could be using their cameras to monitor us right now. And not just this branch -- all of them, and all the branches of the other banking institutions she's hit. And who knows where else she's gotten access without having to break in?”
David stood stock still. Only one thing he knew for sure, and the prospect sucked the joy from his day. “I have to tell the bank's people how bad it is.” He turned, reluctant both to leave Beth and to face what looked like a bitch of a conversation.
~ * ~
Beth hesitated in the lobby before departing. At seven-thirty a.m. the bank hadn't yet opened for business. A couple tellers moved at their closed stations, probably setting up for the morning's business. The police presence stayed confined to the secured area beyond the managers' offices. Dim lighting, marble tiling, clean architectural lines, and a hushed atmosphere gave the large lobby an aura uncomfortably like some sleek modern church with its acolytes going quietly about their devotions.
The resemblance ended where her talent kicked in. The vibes given off by these walls spoke much more of mundane worries than of spiritual awareness or of any attention to anything beyond the moment's needs. Still, it seemed peaceful compared to the bustle and strife she knew waited her in the skyway.
Beth turned aside to the ATM just inside the exit doors. With the bank's systems compromised she'd feel better if she had more of her assets in cash just now. The way things looked, she and everybody else could soon be up the fiscal creek without a single metaphorical paddle, their bank accounts all hostage to a rogue Talent quietly taking command of the world's banking systems.
Her double-gloved fingers made it hard to grasp the thin edge of her ATM card from its slot in her leather billfold. Beth stripped both gloves from her right hand, and, making sure to touch nothing else, plucked it out and tucked it neatly into the ATM's waiting slot.
She quickly withdrew the two hundred dollars max allowed by the machine, carefully taking the bills with her still-gloved left hand, and with the same hand pressed the button to ask for a mini-statement, before indicating she had no further transactions.
In the instant when her card emerged from the machine and she touched it again, Beth caught another flash of connection to the machine/intelligence that had earlier taken her by surprise. This time she managed to brace herself. This time she looked into the eyes of the woman in the machine while that woman looked back into hers. Cool eyes. If they held any color at all it must be the palest possible blue. Fine-boned features surrounded those eyes, silvery hair framed the face.
On automatic pilot, Beth completed the motion of pulling her card from the machine, breaking the connection in the same instant. A chill slid through her like a blast of frigid winter wind. She reached out with her gloved hand and steadied herself against the marble-clad wall.
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