Naomi Stone

 

Three Wishes / More Wishes / Wonder Guy / Spirited! / Clockwork Whalers / Love in the Land of Lakes
Team Guardian / Sweet Mercy / Safe Haven / Shining Hope

from Champagne Books

Shining Hope

Shining Hope
The third Team Guardian Adventure, Superhero Romance

Tom Stanton is content in his usual role teleporting others on Team Guardian missions, but while the official Team Coordinator is away honeymooning, Tom takes on the authority and responsibilities of leading the Team – in time to join the FBI in tracking down a rogue Talent behind a string of killings they believe the work of a vigilante Talent bent on destroying sexual predators.

Maybe Tom could have called on another Illusionist to help in the hunt, but Sophia Alvarez is the best, and she’s been on his mind since the last mission they worked together. But after the disappointment of a broken engagement with his former fiancé, he’s slow to risk his heart again. Sophia enjoys working with Tom and is drawn to his mild-mannered urbane style, but her past has left her with mixed feelings about the vigilante’s justice, and about commitment in general. Working this case forces both Tom and Sophia to confront the issues standing in the way of their own happy ending.

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EXCERPT:

Prologue

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.

One

Tom Stanton leaned back in the unaccustomed luxury of the chair behind the Team Guardian Coordinator’s desk and signaled his secretary via his virtual reality specs. Why had he let David talk him into this? Him, with a secretary. A little too perky, a little too young. Lydia must have been in grade school when he’d already been out of college and the Probability bomb had changed the world.

“Yeah, boss?” Lydia’s voice came clearly through the specs’ connection.

“Chief Richards tells me he’s getting reports of expensive merchandise disappearing. Diamonds, furs and designer boots, vanishing before the eyes of witnesses. I’m thinking rogue telekinetic. What would David do in a case like this?”
“You must have been on a hundred teke jobs, boss. He’d call in a psychometrist or a clairvoyant to ID the perp.”

“Yeah, but who? Talbot’s our best psychometrist and she’s on honeymoon with David. Who’s our second string?”

 “Here’s a list by talent and availability status.” She shot him a file that opened in the spec’s view mode.

He scanned the list. He’d worked with most of these people at one time or another.

“See if you can get Sam Crowe for me. He’s got a talent for tracking. Guy’s like a psychic bloodhound.”

“What do I tell him?”

“Connect him up with Chief Richards for details. Gordy can teleport him to the most recent scene.” He gave an inward sigh at being stuck in the leadership role and not being free to do it himself.

“Crowe likes to drive himself to jobs. He says it helps his tracking.”

“Fine. Thanks, Lydia. I don’t know how I’d do this job without you.”

“You need to give yourself more credit,” she told him. “But, thanks.”

Tom broke the connection and stood, stretched, then paced the patch of carpet fronting the floor-to-ceiling windows. He wanted to be where the action was, but he still had a stack of documents requiring the Coordinator’s signature. Or, in his case, the Coordinator Pro-tem. What had he been thinking, to let David talk him into filling-in while he honeymooned with his new bride in some wilderness retreat?

For one thing, Tom hadn’t realized how much desk time he’d let himself in for. He’d worked with David so often in the field that the team leader’s presence there made the coordinator’s role seem more exciting than this desk-bound reality. For another thing, Tom’s mother had been at him again, chiding him for not doing more with his life than ‘playing glorified pack mule’ to Team Guardian.

He knew how valuable his abilities as a teleporter were to the Team. He shouldn’t have let his mother’s barb get to him, adding to the pressure to take on a leadership role he’d never sought. Since his broken engagement with Jessie she seemed to think he needed her guidance more than ever. She wanted him taking on a leadership role in the family business. She always had. He’d gotten his degree in Business Administration at her urging, despite being more interested in his literature and theater courses.

Beyond the fortieth floor windows, the panorama of Minneapolis spread below him like a 3D map topped with a dome of blue sky draped with silvered veils of cloud.Glorified pack mule. He snorted. He could travel from place to place as free as any bird – or nearly. He just needed an entry to that open sky: an open door, an open window and he’d be in Timbuktu in an instant, or just across town. Anyplace he’d ever been or could find coordinates for on a map.

He didn’t belong behind a desk. He had a talent, and by sharing it he could help Team Guardian keep the world safe for all law-abiding Talents. He’d seen what happened during the Freak Hunts. He’d be more than glad to play pack mule to prove the value and good will of free citizen Talents, and keep the nightmare from happening again.

Lydia’s ping sounded via the specs. “Can you take a call from a Clinton Thackery of the FBI?”

“Sure.” Anything to avoid the paperwork still scattered across his/David’s desk.

“Tom Stanton?” The image appearing in view mode showed a coffee-skinned man with a salting of gray in his close-cropped hair and stern lines around a grim-set mouth.

Tom returned the man’s nod of greeting. “How can I help you?”

“We’ve been tracking a serial killer who may also be a rogue Talent.” Thackery’s words hit Tom like a knock on the head. “It’s taken us a while to put it together, but we’ve got more than a dozen deaths throughout the Midwest that look to be related.”

“Look to be?” Tom questioned. “You’re not sure? What makes you think a Talent is involved?”

~ * ~

Sophia Alvarez set the trash bag at her feet while she locked her apartment door behind her. Preoccupied with the color scheme for Act Three, she considered a couple variations she could try once she got to rehearsals.

“Mornin,’ Ms. Sophia!” Silver-haired Mrs. Schneider emerged from the apartment across the hall, clad in a sky blue sweat suit. “I just met your young man earlier. He was leaving when I took out my own trash.”

“Did you?” Sophia asked. She didn’t ask which young man. Only Don had left this morning, though he wasn’t the only guy she called a ‘friend with benefits.’ She wouldn’t call any of them hers. Not that she owed Mrs. S. any explanations. A girl had needs, and her life with the theater counted more to her than any romance. If she hooked up with a cast or crew member here and there, it kept life interesting and hurt no one.

“Yes. He seemed very nice,” her neighbor went on. “We had a little chat while I walked him out. He works with you, doesn’t he?”

“Sometimes.” Sophia pocketed her keys and reclaimed the trash bag, turning toward the stairs, “He does lights for some of the shows where I help with special effects.”

“Do you think you’ll be seeing much more of him?”

Sophia headed down the hall, but Mrs. Schneider kept pace with her. Easily. The septuagenarian could probably run rings around her.

“I don’t know,” Sophia confessed. Don was fun. She enjoyed his company, but he worked in San Francisco more often than Minneapolis. “I just like to see how things go.”

“No offense, honey.” They took the half flight down to the building’s back door near parking and the dumpster. “But things don’t seem to go anywhere for you that way.”

Sophia made a non-committal noise.

“I mean, that’s what you said about that handsome actor who was over here all the time this past winter, and the musician who was in and out all spring.”

“That’s okay, Mrs. S.” Sophia held the outer door for the older woman. “I’m not looking for a husband or anything permanent. I’m happy with my love life the way it is.”

“I’m sorry, dear. I know it’s none of my business. But you don’t seem that happy. You need to let somebody love you – you’ll see what a difference it makes.”

“You have a good run, Mrs. S. Don’t worry about me.” Sophia hefted her trash bag and headed for the dumpsters while Mrs. S. set off at a trot in the direction of the nearest park.

Sophia disposed of her bag with a loud sigh. Mrs. S. meant well, but honestly. How could the woman think she wasn’t happy? She loved her work with the theater, loved creating illusions to rival the special effects of big budget movies, loved working with other creative types, actors, musicians, costumers, set designers. It was exciting and glamorous and she wouldn’t trade it for anything.

She had her gigs with Team Guardian, too, but that was more an occasional thing, like being with a volunteer fire department. The occasional brush with danger made life even more exciting than being with the theater. Though sometimes it could also disrupt her real work with the theater. She’d had to duck out on a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when she helped with the raid on the old Brauer Brewing plant. That would have to stop if she decided to take her career to the next level and move to Hollywood or New York City.

~ * ~

“This has been going on for the last few years.” Clint Thackery now sat across from Tom at the coordinator’s desk, flanked by a man and woman he’d introduced as members of his analytic team.

“We missed the link between victims at first.” The slightly built young man with the earnest face – but they all had earnest faces – spoke. Davis? “We may still be missing some. They present as ordinary homicides. Drunken altercations, a jealous spouse, business rivals, etc.”

The sleek blonde – Nelson? – chimed in. “Different methods were used in different cases, and witnesses all report descriptions of different perpetrators. Local police forces didn’t call on us to look deeper until their cases started falling apart.” She peered over her dark glasses’ frames. Nobody wore ordinary glasses in these days of corrective nano-surgery for impaired vision. Had to be the FBI’s own version of specs.

“Too many of the suspects could prove they were somewhere else at the time,” she said. “Many cases had multiple witnesses attest to that. Sometimes they had video recorded evidence showing a suspect in two different places at once. And none of the suspects were Talents who might be able to pull that off.”

“A lot of cases were thrown out of court before anyone figured it was more than a matter of mistaken identity.” Thackery nodded to Davis, who continued.

“It’s statistically improbable to have that high a proportion be cases of mistaken identity, so I took a closer look at some of the evidence dismissed in trial. A close analysis of the cases with conflicting video records showed it to be no mistake. Persons identical in appearance were present in different locations at the same time.”

Tom listened as the FBI reps laid out their case. No escaping it. “Sounds like a Chameleon Talent all right.” Damn. Just recognizing a chameleon presented a world of difficulties.

“We still don’t know how extensive the situation is.” Nelson leaned forward, brushing aside a lock of her sleekly styled hair. “We may have wrongly convicted people in cases that happened to have no conflicting witness testimony.”

“We’re still not sure what ties the victims together, but Nelson has a theory.” Thackery gestured for her to continue.

“Three of the twelve known victims were previously brought up on charges of rape,” she began. “Charges that never led to conviction, for lack of sufficient evidence or withdrawal of the complaint. Three other victims had received multiple visits from police on domestic violence calls.”

“You think they might all have been rapists or abusers?” Tom’s stomach went sour to think these were the people their work would protect.

“They were all males,” Davis pointed out. “We’re looking back at the histories of other victims for indications they may have been perpetrators of sexual violence. It may be they were never caught or their victims were too intimidated to go to the police. Between seventy-five and ninety-five percent of rapes do go unreported and too few cases of domestic violence make it onto any records.”

“The cases have been scattered across Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and most recently we found a case here in the Twin Cities.” Thackery straightened in his chair, pushing a hard-copy folder across the desk to Tom. “Yesterday. Recently enough we hope the perp is still operating in the vicinity.”

Tom opened the file to find a set of crime scene photos.

“We’ve got three witnesses who swear the victim was shot by this man.” Davis produced the photo of a jowly, stubbled, middle-aged man wearing a Twins sweatshirt and crew-cut dark blond hair. It gave Tom an excuse to look away from the photo of the victim, a man similar in appearance to the apparent shooter, but for being sprawled on a sidewalk, half his head missing.

“Dale Grunwald, the purported shooter, was the victim’s cousin.”

Tom glanced at a label ID-ing the victim as Walter Grunwald, forty-three, employed in construction, two kids living with an ex in Ohio.

“Three witnesses saw Dale gun Walter down right outside his house in Midway, St. Paul.” Thackery tapped the crime scene photos with the first two fingers of his right hand. “But half a dozen witnesses place him at a sports bar in Minneapolis at the same time.”

“No chance of mistaken identity?” Tom asked without expecting a positive answer.

“Two of the witnesses at the shooting were the victim’s live in girlfriend and her daughter, the other was Dale’s wife. Witnesses at the bar included a couple off-duty cops – and he shows up on the security cameras.”

“Dale’s fingerprints were all over the murder weapon,” Nelson interjected.

“Not many Chameleon Talents could pull that off.” A chill hit Tom though he sat nowhere near the air conditioning vents. How would they ever know an imposture? “Most do a strictly visual thing that wouldn’t leave a physical impression, like illusionists.”

“Will that make it harder to catch him?” Davis asked.

“Understatement.” The single word said it.

“Or her?” Nelson gave the men a pointed look. “If the victims are all sexually violent or predatory, there’s a good chance our perp is a woman.”

Tom entertained a brief flashback to the entertainment of his youth – long before the Probability Event. But no. He shook his head. The rogue Talent, even if female, wouldn’t look anything like a warrior princess on a quest of vengeance. She’d look like – or had looked like – a middle-aged stocky guy with a crew cut and stubbly jowls. No telling what she’d look like now.

Thackery sat in practiced stillness while Tom assessed the situation. Davis and Nelson flanked their boss, all clad in dark suits of conservative cut.

The FBI wouldn’t have the kind of resources needed to handle a rogue Talent. They needed the Team’s help. The Team had the resources, but Tom had never had to take charge of something this big before. He could hardly ask Lydia’s advice with the FBI right here, watching him. What would David do?

They could bring in a psychometrist, only to tell them what they already knew – someone who looked exactly like Dale Grunwald had shot Walter. They needed someone who could see through a Chameleon’s tricks. Since related Talents were often immune one another’s abilities, another Chameleon? If they weren’t so rare. The Team had yet to recruit any. Maybe a related Talent, like an Illusionist could do the job?

“I’ll need to bring in some consultants and visit the most recent crime scene.” Tom stood, extending his hand to Thackery. “Can we meet you there in, say, an hour?”

~ * ~

Sophia knew some Talents grew absolutely exhausted if they employed their special abilities for any length of time. She’d gotten lucky. She could generate her illusions for hours, no problem. Other than tedium. The director had insisted on running through the same scene in the third act of their production of Star Wars, the Musical so many times now she was tempted to start throwing nonsense artifacts into her illusory backdrop of deep space. Bugs Bunny could pop in and out of the craters of that asteroid, for instance. Or little fairies could dance among the stars of the distant galaxies…
The dance number in which R2D2, Luke and the Ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi sang the Death of the Death Star number while evading the enemy flyers shouldn’t really be that tough to get right. Anna Eccleston, the director, demanded perfection, though, and complained about everything from R2’s timing to the proper degree of translucency Sophia should give to Ghostly Obi Wan.

The emergency tone chimed in Sophia’s specs as the cast started on the chorus, ‘Use the force, Luke, you’ll strike true,’ for the umpteenth time. Only an emergency would’ve gotten through during a rehearsal. She answered in hushed tones, “Alvarez here.”

“It’s Tom Stanton. We’ve got a situation, need your help. Can you get to St. Paul within the hour on your own, or will you need a lift?”

“Lift.” Sophia kept half an eye on her illusion. It wasn’t hard to maintain once she’d set it up.

“Where are you?”

“Back stage at the Guthrie. Meet you out front, ten minutes?”

“Five.”

Pushy man. “I’ll need ten.”

“Fine. I can make a couple more calls before starting.”

Sophia joined Eccleston in the front rows. They had an understanding. Sophia could take off for Team Guardian emergencies and the production would fall back on technical FX backups of her illusions. The VR versions were pretty good, if not as totally immersive and convincing as Sophia’s illusions. Patrons who really wanted the full Illusion experience could get rain checks on the performances Sophia missed. She’d only missed a few over the past couple years with the company.  Missing a rehearsal was no problem, which didn’t keep Eccleston from grousing about it.
The director, an older woman, her thick gray hair pulled back in a braid, stood hands on hips. She halted the scene, projecting their conversation to the wings. “Can’t they call someone else?”

“They need the best they can get.” Sophia wasn’t shy about answering in the same projecting tones, or tooting her own horn. She’d had to learn to speak up for herself in a large family of competing voices and concerns.
“But we premiere next weekend!”

“Let’s hope I can help settle the case quickly.” Sophia spoke over her shoulder, already headed up the aisle to an exit. “Think of the publicity!” In return for the time off, the theater promoted the fact that their Illusionist was sometimes off fighting crime. It made for great publicity.

The door closed behind her. Whew. Anna made sure her productions were everything an audience could want, but Sophia wouldn’t call her company comfortable.

She made it out to the plaza fronting the theater with a couple minutes to spare. Now Stanton… if she wasn’t exactly comfortable with that guy, it wasn’t exactly what she’d call a problem. Something both warm and challenging in the looks he gave her awoke a teasing sensation in her, the way music with a strong beat awoke the urge to tap her toes in time. She had enjoyed her teleport rides with him a little too much when working on the Brauer Brewing case last year.

If only he weren’t still on the rebound after being jilted by his fiancé – a story known to the whole local team – she might have tried to hook up with him back then. But he was the marrying kind, the kind to take an affair too seriously. Any guy who wanted more than a bit of casual fun was the last thing she needed. She liked living her life her own way. No messy emotional entanglements. Still, it would be interesting to spend a little time with him again.

Oh! And speak of the devil. Sophia jumped when Tom appeared out of thin air a few feet away from her on the plaza. The city’s skyline stood blazoned above him and the river breeze at once picked up the wings of his summer-weight trench coat as he opened his arms to her. With the light behind him, he looked like some dark angel, wings spread for flight.

She paused only a moment, admiring the image, saving it up in her mind’s eye so that she could recreate it any time she wished, then moved into the warmth of his embrace.

“Where are we going?” she asked, putting her arms around his neck as he lifted her.

He took her off her feet, into a moment of disorientation in which his solid arms and warmth and cinnamon toast scent were the only points of stability, a place both exciting and serene. She’d have liked to stay longer, but he set her down the next moment on a sidewalk outside a comfortable-looking two-story stucco house on a quiet residential street.

“St. Paul,” he said. He kept an arm around her, turning them to face a trio in dark suits. “Meet Director Thackery, and agents Davis and Nelson, FBI.”

 She shook hands with each in turn.“So, why am I here?” She turned back to Tom.

~*~

Naomi Stone
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