PART TWENTYTHREE

Alex, Annie, and Ray sat around the kitchen table listening in complete awe as FBI agent Grace Lasky related to them the previous night's events. Annie buried her head in her hands as Grace told them of the hit and run on Agent Black's car which put him in the hospital with a broken collarbone, fractured arm, and a concussion.

But it was the other news Grace had that was the unbelievable part. Not long after the wreck which hospitalized Agent Black, a pair of Gino Lawless' FDA employees keeping watch over the evidence storage facility on the PV Chemical Plant grounds were overpowered and rendered unconscious by an intruder, and the storage facility burned to the ground! According to Gino who Grace spoke to by cell phone, very valuable information implicating Danielle Atron and her involvement with GC-161 was destroyed, and the FDA's and FBI's cases against her had been seriously undermined.

That was when Alex crossed her arms on the kitchen table and dropped her head on them in worried exasperation. Ray felt a cold flush go crawl up his spine. He had come over when Alex called him right after Grace arrived at her house. Alex, Annie, and Ray knew full well how powerful Danielle was, and that she had many influential friends who could help her. When she ordered Lars Frederickson to destroy the plant with explosives over a week ago, she had already eliminated a lot of evidence of her illegal activities.

Now, what little, yet valuable remaining evidence that Gino Lawless' investigators had salvaged from the crime scene, was now destroyed and gone as well. That made things even worse. Ray suddenly stood and looked at Grace. "So what you're saying is that Ms. Atron might avoid going to prison for everything she's done?!".

Grace tossed her hands up in the air. "I didn't say that was an absolute Ray, just that with all the evidence at the storage facility gone now, the FBI's and FDA's cases against her are in serious jeopardy. There are still several charges we can probably still make stick, but with this happening, I just don't know how many".

Annie lifted her head and stood, walking over to the counter to pour herself a glass of water from the sink. "A lot of the former plant people who were willing to turn evidence against Danielle may change their testimonies now this has happened" she pointed out with a nervous edge to her voice, watching the glass fill to it's rim. "That witch could find a way to snake her way out of this yet". Alex looked up, but said nothing, hoping somebody had something positive to offer. Ray slumped back down in his chair.

"Unfortunately, Annie has a good point" Grace admitted with a loud sigh, realizing the extent of what happened. "From the case file I read of this assignment, there were a lot of the plant's security and scientific personnel who were involved in Danielle's plans and were willing to testify against her for reduced sentences. They may be intimidated by this event and it could frighten them into not turning evidence against her. Not to mention that a lot of the evidence against those very people has been lost as well. We've lost a lot of leverage. Whoever did this has greatly hurt the FBI's case against Ms. Atron if we can't get cooperation from those witnesses".

"Geez ..." Alex moaned aloud, messaging her temples. Ray's eyes widened as Annie sat back down at the table with her glass of water. "What about Vince?! This had to be Vince's doing!".

Grace finally sat down in the fourth chair at the table. "Yeah, I agree that he had to be the one behind this, and he wasn't home when I checked his house after we got Agent Black loaded into the ambulance. His garage door was open and his jeep was gone. When I inspected Agent Black's car, the ignition key was turned on and the gear shifter was in the drive position too, which indicates to me he was probably in the act of following somebody. I wouldn't be surprised if it was Vince".

"And Vince was probably the one who torched the evidence facility too...." Alex included with a frustrated tone.

"Probably, but we can't prove it" agreed Grace. "He covers his tracks like a pro. The problem is, that this was all expertly done to look like a hit and run drunk driver, and even my Field Director in Sacramento was unwilling to believe anything else. It was just so .... so weird of him to respond the way he did to all of this".

"What do you mean by 'weird'?" asked Annie, paying close attention to Grace. "Like he acted as if it was some sort of negligence on Agent Black's behalf" replied the FBI agent with a frustrated sigh. "When I phoned him after the accident, he seemed so eager to assume it was just coincidence and incompetence by Agent Black, and put me, a rookie, in charge of the Bureau's presence here. He also informed me that since the FDA had jurisdiction on this case, that it won't be long until he re-assigns us".

"But what about FBI protection?!" asked Alex, alarmed. "I don't know Alex" Grace admitted, her dark, oriental eyes scanning the super-powered teenager honestly. "I just don't know. My Field Director has my hands tied, and as soon as Gino Lawless wraps up his ends at PV Chemical, I think we'll be pulled out of Paradise Valley".

"But we gave you evidence that links Vince to the bombing of Dave's trailer! Doesn't that mean anything?" Ray demanded angrily. "Not unless you want to expose Alex's super powers to the entire world again Ray" she answered steadily. "Anyway, your evidence is almost paranormal in nature. This isn't the X-Files. Hell, I didn't even have any idea how I was going to explain to Agent Black about the evidence against Vince without exposing Alex".

"Grace is right ......" Annie interjected. "We can't afford to expose Alex again. She's ten times more powerful than she was before and that makes her ten times the target for every 'Danielle Atron' out there. We're going to have to solve this while we still have Grace here to help us".

Alex felt a strange, cold twinge flow through her head and was suddenly compelled to look across the table at Grace. When she did, the agent had a sad, but concerned look on her face. The young FBI agent returned Alex's glance, cocking her head in confusion. In such close proximity to Grace, her thoughts began to flood Alex's mind uncontrollably. Alex had inadvertently let her guard down and allowed her telepathic abilities to zero in on the girl's mind. Her worry was almost that of acute anxiety, and it was a magnet to Alex's mental power.

Sensing the intrusion, Grace stood up in her chair, staring at Alex with a bemused expression. "What, what are you doing?" she asked aghast. Grace felt the probe instantly stop as Alex stood as well, embarrassed that she accidentally intruded on the girl's thoughts. "I'm, I'm sorry Grace. I didn't mean to ......" she apologized. "You can read minds too?!". Annie stood and intervened. "Grace, she didn't mean to. It was an accident. Alex's powers have grown so strong that she lets them get away from her sometimes". Alex was stunned at how quickly Annie came to her defense.

Grace looked at Annie uncertainly for a moment, then at Alex's sincere but sad, puppy dog gaze. She quickly regained her composure and slowly sat back down. "You're worried about meeting Vince......." Alex said quietly to Grace, sitting back down too. "Yeah, I am" Grace conceded with a sigh, dismissing what happened just now. "I don't know what's going to happen when he finds out I'm back in Paradise Valley after having helped him ... well, after helping him try to expose you to Danielle. If my superiors found out I had any dealings with him before, my career with the FBI could be over before it even gets started".

"Then we'll just make sure that no one finds that out" Alex said with a quick smile. "I mean, you know my secret, and now, we know your's. If Vince tries to implicate you in any way, well, we'll figure something out". Grace was sincerely impressed by Alex's offer. "Yeah" Ray included. "Vince already has a reputation in Paradise Valley as something of a crackpot. Don't sweat it". Alex and Annie were amazed at Ray's reassuring gesture and realized he was finally warming up to Grace. Grace noticed it too. "Thanks guys. I really do appreciate that". She seemed genuinely relieved.

"So, what do we do next?" Alex inquired of everyone. Annie and Grace exchanged glances with each other. Alex and Ray knew the FBI agent and the 'super-brain' were plotting strategy. "C'mon guys" Alex quipped, noticing the silent recognition on their faces. "I'm supposed to be the only one here who can read minds, not you two".

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"I can't believe you sent everyone else to check the hardware stores and kept me here to run tests on" Alex complained, perched atop a stool in the middle of the Mack garage. "It was the only way I could have a chance to examine you after all of the new abilities you exhibited yesterday Alex. Anyway, the hardware stores we need to check will only be open for a short time on Sunday, and I wanted this private time to get this done before mom and dad got home this afternoon. Now sit still ...." Annie replied, trying to sound patient while examining Alex's inner ear with a magnifying light.

Alex' winced and moved her head away as Annie circled her and pressed the light into her other ear. "Stop squirming Alex .........". Annie leaned back after finishing her inspection. "What do my ears have to do with my powers?" Alex protested hopelessly. "Just sit back and do what I ask Alex, and we'll get done with this a lot faster, o.k.?".

"O.k., o.k. ..." she surrendered quietly. After Annie and Grace had decided on a plan of action for the day, Alex called Louis over to help Grace and Ray scour the three hardware stores on Louis' list which sold the suspect SD-1552 'Smoke-Fighter' smoke detector. They all agreed that only Ray and Louis should go with Grace and not to include Robyn and Nicole. Alex still called them and told them what they were doing but explained it was safer to let just the boys go with Grace.

Annie held a pencil up in front of Alex's eyes and moved it to each side, and Alex knew the drill. She followed the pencil with her eyes, and afterwards, Annie wrote down the result on a notepad. Annie had already taken her temperature and blood pressure, examined her eyes and checked her throat with a tongue depressor. She also quizzed Alex extensively again on everything new that happened with her powers yesterday to her complete consternation, noting every detail on her notepad.

Annie walked over to her lab bench and placed the pencil down. "Well, that completes the preliminary examination, and everything about you seems to be normal, at least so far. So now, I suppose it's time we got down to the major tests". "About time ...." said Alex, who had been itching to use her powers ever since she had been refreshed by the big breakfast that Annie had cooked her.

She could almost feel her body's GC-161 enhanced cells tingling in anticipation to produce their own hybrid form of the chemical that gave her powers any other human being could only dream of having. "O.k. Alex, step over to the far wall for me" Annie instructed, and Alex obeyed. She walked to the back wall of the garage where several large shelves stuffed with boxes sat. She watched Annie quietly make her way across the garage to the far door, then turn and face her. They were separated by twenty feet. "O.k. Alex, read my mind". Alex obliged, and concentrated on her sister's thoughts, but nothing happened. "I'm not getting anything" Alex said.

Annie wrote something on her notepad. "O.k. then, take two steps forward". Alex stepped forward and Annie did the same. They were separated by fifteen feet this time. "Try it again" urged Annie. Alex squinted her eyes in concentration, but again, nothing happened.

"Nothing?" asked Annie, curious. "Nothing" Alex answered honestly. "Once more Alex, take a couple of steps forward". Alex did so and Annie did again too. Without having to be asked, Alex activated her power again, and this time she could sense her older sister's thoughts. She was thinking ... "Hydrochloric Acid?" Alex asked aloud.

Annie smiled and then pulled a tape measure from her pocket and stretched it out over the distance between them. She examined the tape when it finished sliding across the floor and touched the tip of Alex's shoe. "Ten feet" she announced, writing her on her notepad again.

Alex, not having yet turned her ability off, could hear Annie's thoughts as she explained her findings, apparently aware that Alex was listening. "That appears to be the range of your telepathic ability Alex .......", but Alex never heard the end of Annie's sentence as her sister stepped backwards and out of range. " ....at least for now" she finished out loud. Alex blinked her eyes in surprise. "Yep ..." Annie giggled in satisfaction, watching her little sister's reaction. "Ten feet ...".

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Grace Lasky pulled her car into the parking space in front of Kenworth's Hardware & Surplus, the last store on Louis' list. Ray was in the front seat while Louis rode in the back.

"Well, this is the last store on the list guys and the only one it could be" said Louis in an uncertain tone. "you don't sound very confident ..." noticed Grace, taking off her seatbelt. "Considering both of the other stores stopped selling the Smoke-Fighter brand over two months ago ..." Ray cut in, "I don't see how we could go wrong".

"That is unless other stores have started selling the SD-1552 since we bought them for my dad's warehouse" Louis pointed out. Ray rolled his eyes. "You're starting to sound like Robyn" he quipped.

"Let's just hope for the best guys. C'mon ..." added Grace as she got out, followed by the boys. The group walked in the store and made their way to the front cashier's counter. "May I help you?" said the young man behind the counter. He was in his early twenties, and was tall and slim.

"Yes" answered Grace very steadily, pulling out her FBI I.D. and presenting it the sales clerk. His eyes widened when he read 'Federal Bureau of Investigation'. Both Ray and Louis exchanged looks with each other, getting a real kick out of every time Grace presented her I.D. They thought it was so cool.

"I need some information about a possible purchase which may have been made here last weekend", Grace continued. "A smoke detector. The SD-1552 Smoke-Fighter? Do you sell it here?". The young man still had a worried look on his face as he lifted his arm and pointed past them down one of the aisles. As they turned to look, they eyed an entire display of Smoke-Fighter brand smoke detectors on a display shelf twenty feet away at the end of the aisle. Big red letters on a cardboard advertisement above the display read 'Buy The Smoke-Fighter Smoke Detector, On Sale for just Ten Ninety-Nine!'.

"Hey!" exclaimed Louis. "We paid fourteen ninety-nine trade for those things!".

Ray ignored him as Grace whispered quietly to him in a hesitant, but assuring manner. "Keep your fingers crossed Ray. We may have just struck paydirt".

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"O.k. Alex, let's test your morphing power". Alex smiled. She loved to morph. When she first discovered the power on the day she was originally doused by an entire barrel of GC-161, morphing was a scary ordeal. In wasn't painful in any way, but to feel one's body dissolve into a silvery liquid ooze in a tingling, warm flush was unsettling to say the least. Now, it was a sensation that she had come to enjoy and even welcome. It was the most bizarre feeling to feel her body liquify and collapse into itself, and slide through cracks, crevices, pipes, and keyholes. The incredibly heightened state her senses enjoyed was an exhilarating feeling too.

Annie took Alex's hand and pulled her towards the lab bench. "O.k., stand right there ...." Annie said, picking up a tennis racket she had taken off a shelf when they first entered the garage. "What's that for?" Alex inquired as Annie held it up between them. "I want to try a small test of the way you morphed through that fence yesterday while you still possessed human appearance. Now, try liquifying your hand but keep it human-looking, and then pass it through the cords on this racket". "Uh ... o.k.". Alex held up her hand and slowly reached it toward the racket.

Upon contact, her fingers were still solid and did not pass through. She pulled her hand back. "C'mon Alex, concentrate ....".

"O.k.! O.k.!" she hissed impatiently. Taking a deep breath, Alex concentrated and held her hand up near the racket again. She imagined her hand as liquid but in human appearance. When the familiar tingling began, a watery, rippling effect flowed across the top of her hand as far up as her elbow. The effect included her long sleeve blue flannel shirt.

Alex pushed her hand forward. Wraith-like and still with complete human appearance, it flowed through and around the cords of the racket with effortless ease. She pushed through up to her forearm as Annie watched in amazement. "Fascinating ........." she said, watching in awe. "It feels so weird ... and you sound like Mr. Spock" Alex added. She withdrew her hand and Annie set the racket back down.

"Alright Alex, let's see if you can make your whole body like that. Concentrate now.....". Alex nodded and stood straight, took another breath, and imagined the same image of her body as liquid but in the solid appearance of a teenage girl. The watery rippling effect instantly flowed up and down her entire form.

Annie reached out and touched her younger sister's left shoulder with her pointer finger. It disappeared into Alex's shoulder as easily as placing it into a sink filled with warm water. She looked at Alex, and her sister just shrugged. She seemed to be enjoying this. Annie pushed her hand into Alex up to her wrist, then to her forearm until it emerged out the back of Alex's shoulder. "Wow..." she whispered. "Oh, that's real scientific Annie ....." commented Alex. "Are you o.k. Alex? No discomfort?" she asked. "Nope. I'm fine .....".

Annie pulled her hand back some, still leaving it inside Alex up to the wrist. She swept it straight across Alex's upper chest, then back to the center right under her throat, and then straight down to her belly button. Alex giggled loudly. "That tickles!".

"You feel like ... like water in the bathtub, but you still look human. This is an incredible development in your morphing power Alex" Annie analyzed in wonder as she extracted her hand. "Now stand perfectly still and let me try one more thing, and we'll call it a day, o.k.? Are you still morphed?". "Uh huh". Annie held out both her hands towards her sister and submerged them into Alex's chest. Then to Alex's wonderment, Annie stepped into and through her liquid form! She emerged behind Alex. "Whoa!" exclaimed Alex. "That felt so totally funky!".

"I can't believe this Alex. Your powers have mutated to such unbelievable levels and seem to be capable of almost ... almost anything. Go ahead and solidify. I'm done for now. I have a ton of data to compile and examine".

Thinking 'solid', Alex felt a final powerful, hot, tingling flush flow through her and suddenly stop. She held up her hand and squeezed into a fist, feeling her fingers rubbing against the human flesh of her inner hand. As she stepped beside Annie at the lab bench, the garage door swung open and Ray, Louis, and Grace entered the garage.

Alex and Annie turned to look at them. "Bingo!" said Ray. "We hit the jackpot!"

At the same time Mrs. Mack walked into the garage through the kitchen door.

"What jackpot?".

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