Alex, Annie, Ray, Louis, and Grace could only stare in stunned silence as Mrs. Mack positioned herself in front of them in the garage. She scanned Alex and Annie first, and Ray and Louis next. Then her gaze fell on Grace. She cocked her head at her daughters, as if expecting them to introduce her to the pretty oriental girl. Alex and Annie looked towards Grace as she locked eyes with them in return. Their minds raced.
"Don't say anything about my powers to her" rang Alex's telepathic voice in Grace's head. Only slightly surprised, she gave Alex a noticeable nod of acknowledgement. She was a little shocked Alex was hiding her powers from her parents again, but she didn't question the teenager's request.
"So ..." started Mrs. Mack, beaming her patented, beauty contestant smile and eyeing them closely. "What's this about a 'jackpot'? And who's your new friend?". Ray decided to cut in as quickly as possible. "Oh! That!" he laughed dismissively. "Louis and I won the uh ..... big 'jackpot' at Bell's Pizza Palace Mrs. Mack! All the pizza we can eat on our next visit". Louis nodded and played along. "Yeah! We just thought we'd come by to let Alex know".
"And who is this?" Mrs. Mack pressed, motioning to Grace. Grace wasted no time in stepping forward and offering the Mack sisters' mother her own fetching smile. "It's a pleasure to meet you Mrs. Mack. I'm Grace Lasky, and old school friend of Alex's and Ray's, but I moved out of town about a year ago. I uh, met Ray and Louis at the Pizza Palace and came with them here to ...catch up on 'old times' with Alex".
Annie had to admit, Grace was calm under pressure. She deduced what the situation was and didn't give anything away to their mother. Luckily, Grace looked several years younger than her twenty-five years, and did not arouse any suspicion in Mrs. Mack. If she knew how old Grace really was, she would be asking too many questions because of it.
"Oh!" Mrs. Mack realized. "Well, it's nice to meet you too Grace". She turned towards the group as a whole. "How would you kids like something to eat? Mr. Mack and I got a craving for tacos on the way home".
"Uh, sure mom. That sounds great!" answered Annie. "Just let us know when they're ready". Mrs. Mack nodded and walked back into the kitchen, giving the group one more curious look. Everyone let out a collective sigh when she closed the door behind her. "I guess we're going to have to start locking the garage door again Annie" suggested Alex, referring to when Annie used to run tests on her former powers in the garage. Her sister nodded in agreement as she turned to face Ray, Louis, and Grace. "So, what do you guys have for us?".
"It seems we finally have Lady Luck on our side Annie" Grace began. "When we visited the last hardware store on Louis' list, I showed a picture of Vince to the sales clerk and he identified him as one of the customers who bought one of the Smoke Fighter smoke detectors late last Saturday. Said he showed up just before the store closed".
"Yeah. The guy said he remembered Vince because of his 'charming' personality" added Louis, nudging Ray with his elbow and giving him a wink. Ray made a face and scowled like Vince right at his friend. Louis recoiled in fake terror. Alex couldn't help but start laughing. "Anyway ..." continued Grace, also half-chuckling at Ray's and Louis' display, "...That gives us a positive link to Vince, but the only problem now is explaining 'how' we knew about that link. We can't expose how we knew that without exposing Alex".
Annie began pacing as Ray and Louis alit on stools by her lab bench, still poking fun at each other, proud of their Vince joke. "You're correct of course" Annie said to Grace, smiling at the antics of the two cut-ups. "We only knew to look for the smoke detector receipt in the clearing behind the trailer park because of Alex's premonitions, and her powers are the same way we were able to positively identify it as the belonging to the bomber. If we tried to recruit help from law enforcement we would wind up having to tell the entire world Alex has her powers back stronger than ever".
"It looks like we're going to have to get Vince ourselves then" Alex said solemnly. Ray and Louis instantly went quiet at her comment, staring at her. Annie stopped pacing and turned to face everyone. "If we want to keep your powers a secret, we'll 'have' to do this ourselves Alex. According to Grace, we aren't going to get help from anyone else unless we expose you, and that certainly isn't an option. Of course, Vince is a pro, and it's not going to be easy".
"Well, we know Vince probably arranged the crash that took out Agent Black so he wouldn't be followed to the chemical plant to burn down the evidence storage facility, but there's still one major problem guys; we still don't have any actual proof that he did all of this, only speculation on our part" surmised Grace, leaning against the lab bench with a frustrated sigh.
"Right ..." agreed Annie. " ...None of Alex's premonitions directly incriminate Vince as the culprit, so we have to find some sort of physical evidence that will link him to all of this or catch him in the act".
"But what if his next act is blowing one of us up?" asked Louis with a shaky voice. "Yeah ...." added Ray. "We're just a bunch of teenagers and a rookie FBI agent anyway. What are we supposed to be able to do against a guy with Vince's experience? No offense intended Grace". Grace just nodded and gave him an assuring grin. "None taken Ray. It's a good thing you're not underestimating Vince. It's one of the first things they taught us at the academy. Underestimating your opponent only results in failure".
Ray felt genuinely impressed with Grace's compliment. One of his pastimes was to change his mind almost weekly about what career he wanted to pursue in life. As Alex quietly examined him from about six feet away, she didn't need to read his mind to know he was now considering a career as an FBI agent. She quietly rolled her eyes.
But Alex was becoming frustrated. She knew they were only trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but all this talk was beginning was beginning to give her a headache. "I know it was Vince that did all of this" she assured them, trying to add something constructive to the conversation. "I can feel it".
"I think you're right Alex. I mean, Vince's past reputation speaks for itself. I still have to check on everyone who bought those smoke detectors out of normal procedure, but I have no doubt it was Vince who was behind the attempt on Dave's life. He's the only one with motive in this case. He knew Dave was ready to turn evidence on him for trying to eliminate Alex when he worked for the plant, but what's confusing is why he would burn down the evidence storage facility? That doesn't indicate anything to do with revenge on Dave".
"Not unless he's working for Danielle Atron again" said a girl's voice from behind everyone. They turned to see Nicole Wilson and Robyn Russo standing inside the rear garage door.
"George ...." Barbara Mack asked her husband as she shredded lettuce into a colander in the sink. He was dicing tomatoes onto a large glass plate beside her. "Do you think Alex is alright?". George Mack gave his wife a confused glance. "If she's 'alright'? What do you mean?". Barbara finished shredding the head of lettuce and began rinsing it off with water. "I mean do you think she's o.k. after all she's been through in the past week? Just a few minutes ago, when I walked into the garage to tell them about dinner, she and her friends acted as if ...as if they were hiding something from me".
"Now honey, I think maybe you're overreacting a little bit ......" he tried to explain. "Overreacting?!" she responded loudly, causing him to wince. "George, she's our daughter for God's sake! Aren't you afraid of everything she's been through the last week, or for that matter, the last four years? For all we know, she may have suffered some sort of emotional or psychological damage from everything she's been through". George stopped dicing his tomatoes, wiped his hands on a nearby dish towel, and placed his hand on her's which was resting on the edge of the sink.
"Barbara, just because the kids acted elusive a few minutes ago doesn't indicate there's something wrong with Alex. Admittedly, she's been through a lot, but she's a strong girl, and I think she's handled the adversity she's been through just fine".
Barbara began to fidget with the lettuce in the sink, tumbling it over and over and watching the water splash on her fingers. "I just don't like to think she'd be hiding anything from me, or us, again after the way she hid being drenched in GC-161. You'd think she'd be more open with us now".
"Honey, you don't even know what Alex and her friends were talking about. They're still teenagers, they have their secrets. They don't want to share every little thing they're talking about with grown-ups. But I don't think you have to worry about Alex. She's going to be alright".
Barbara turned off the water and dumped the lettuce in the colander into a large plastic bowl on the far edge of the sink. "It just worries me is all" she explained with a pained expression. "During the last week, Alex has broken up with Hunter, acted completely distracted every evening at dinner, and seems so distant from us. And what about physically George? How can we be sure she's completely healthy after that chemical bath she took?".
Her voice was beginning to tremble. George took her by both hands, turned her towards him, and looked assuringly into his wife's eyes. "Barbara, she took the GC-antidote I developed, her powers and all of the GC-161 in her system are gone now. Even Dr. Whiteside told us Alex's blood work came back negative. She's as healthy as a horse .....".
"How do you know that for sure George?!" she pleaded, beginning to cry. "What if something happens to her like those test families rumored to have been involved in Danielle's GC-161 testing? What if Alex just disappears one day because ...because she dissolves into a puddle and washes away?". George Mack pulled his wife close to him and hugged her tightly. "Nothing like that is going to happen Barbara, I promise. All of it; the GC-161, the powers, all of it, are behind her now".
"I know George, I ...I believe you" she conceded after seeing her husband's confidence. "It's just that she's our little girl and I don't want anything else to happen to her. She deserves a normal life". George stepped back and stroked his wife's cheek, wiping away a tear. "When I start my new job at Sedgewick Chemical tomorrow morning, I intend to make sure that nothing like this ever happens to Alex, or anyone's little girl, again" he said softly but determinedly. Luckily, George was able to hide the tinge of guilt in his voice. With all his wife's concerns about Alex and her friends hiding secrets from her, he was hiding a major one of his own from his wife and family.
Little did his wife realize he was referring to his new Head of Scientific Research position at Sedgewick Chemical in Pittsville Gardens, thirty miles to the south of Paradise Valley. His first official assignment at Sedgewick Chemical was a top-secret, government funded research project on the potential hazards and effects of GC-161. Earlier in the week, Gino Lawless of the FDA contacted Mr. Mack by phone to meet him at a secret rendevous, and Gino offered him the chance at heading up this project in the intrest of public and national security.
Considering the affects long-term exposure of the chemical had on his daughter, George was only happy to accept working on a government-authorized project experimenting with the bizarre compound. For now though, he set those thoughts aside to comfort his wife's fears.
"Alex is going to be just fine Barbara. After all that's happened, she's just an average, healthy teenager again".
"Danielle Atron is in the Federal prison in Sacramento Nicole, how can Vince be working for her again?" asked Alex. "Elementary my dear Alexandra" quipped Nicole slyly. "After all, who has the most to benefit if Dave Watt is dead and can't testify against her and Vince, and after hearing on the news this morning about the evidence storage facility at the plant being burned down, who also benefits from that as well?".
"Good points" indicated Louis. "With Dave out of the way, and all of that evidence gone at the plant, it doesn't look good". He turned to face Grace and Annie. "I guess you two were right about that evidence at the plant being destroyed hurting the government's chances against Danielle". Grace sighed aloud, and leaned backwards against the lab bench, supporting herself with her hands. "What confuses me is that Vince has everything to lose if he involves himself with Danielle again, and it just seems to me that he's taking an awful chance of getting himself sent to prison along with her".
"It's reasonable to think Vince would want to distance himself as far as possible from any involvement with Danielle" Annie added. "...Not unless that's what he wants everyone to think" Nicole interjected coyly. "That's very possible Nicole" continued Annie. "But how do you think Danielle is able to control Vince from behind bars?"
Nicole wasn't discouraged. Alex could almost hear the gears spinning in her friend's head from all the way across the room. She envied Nicole's brilliant mind, which closely rivaled Annie's analytical abilities at times.
"We have to understand that Vince and Danielle were very close and worked together for over ten years" Nicole explained. " ...He's probably been involved in so many corrupt activities with her that he really doesn't have a choice but to do as she says". Alex finally caught onto Nicole's train of thought and spoke up. "You're saying Danielle could bury Vince if she spilled the beans on everything he's helped her to do, but she can't afford to betray him because she needs him on the outside to do her dirty work!". Nicole pointed her finger at Alex and smiled. "As I said, 'elementary' my dear Alexandra". Alex grinned at Nicole's compliment.
Then Annie chimed in. "I wouldn't be surprised if Ms. Atron and Vince already had some sort of arrangement for just this type of situation. Considering how thorough and sticklers for detail both of them are, they probably anticipated something like being discovered and arrested for their illegal testing of GC-161. All Danielle would have to do is get some sort of signal or password to Vince to do his thing". "Hey! I know what you're getting at!" exclaimed Ray, snapping his fingers. "Vince is sort of like that guy in that Brigette Fonda movie 'Point of No Return'! When her partner screwed up an assignment, a guy called a 'cleaner' came in to clean up their mess by getting rid of all the evidence!".
"A crude example Ray" admitted Annie. "But very accurate".
"Yes, but who would relay such a message to Vince? They would have to be able to directly communicate with Ms. Atron to pass along instructions to him" Robyn asked, surprising everyone with her attentiveness. No one in the room considered Robyn Russo as 'dumb', but they did tend to take her for granted because of her shy, quiet demeanor. The red-haired girl just stood silently waiting for an answer while Grace looked at Annie for one. Bemused, Annie looked pleadingly towards Nicole who seemed genuinely stumped. Ray and Louis did too.
"Her ...lawyer?" Alex asked sheepishly, worried she might have said something stupid. "Her lawyer ...!" Grace moaned, slapping her hip and motioning towards Alex. "Danielle's lawyer is a slime-ball named Samuel Cook, and ...he would have access to her in the prison".
"Then there's your go-between" Annie pointed out, giving Alex a wink of approval. "The only problem is that Vince has already apparently received his instructions through Cook. Our job ought to be to track Vince and hope we can stay one step ahead of him. For all we know, he could go after Dave again".
"Or us ..." Ray announced coldly. A cold shiver ran down everyone's spine and a host of memories flooded Alex's mind. When she was hiding from the plant before, she knew Vince was always a threat to her. That's why she never told Nicole or Robyn about her powers, because she was worried the more they knew the more danger they would be in. Vince was even dangerous after Danielle fired him as Head of Security of the plant, as he still tried to get back in Ms. Atron's graces by continuing his campaign to expose who 'the kid' was. But even though Vince had always been a threat, he had never been as serious a danger as he was now.
Grace stepped from the bench into the middle of the room and centered herself amidst everyone to get their attention, breaking Alex's revery. "In all honesty, I don't have any idea how much longer I'm going to be here to help guys. On my way back with Ray and Louis, I celled the main office and my Field Director wasn't very understanding even after I told him I might have a solid lead. When I asked if we could get a warrant for Vince's arrest he said 'no'. As a matter of fact, he seemed rather irritated with me".
Annie cupped her right elbow in her left hand, and then rested her chin on her knuckles. There was something about Grace's difficult Field Director that bothered her, but she decided to keep it to herself for now.
"So what are you going to do Grace?" Alex asked, sincerely concerned about her new friend. Grace tossed her arms up in the air in exasperated fashion. "I know from the messages on my cell that Gino Lawless has tried to get in contact with me several times, and I know what he's going to want to do; find Vince Carter and question him about everything that happened last night. So this is only going to get more complicated.....".
Grace's gaze temporarily caught both Alex's and Annie's, but she couldn't hide the concern on her face so she turned away and began walking towards the back door of the garage. She did not like the fact that she would have to expose her presence to Vince. "I have to go. If I don't get back with Mr. Lawless soon, he's going to get suspicious. I'll get in touch with you later and let you know what's going on".
As Grace placed her hand on the doorknob, Alex couldn't help but suddenly speak out. "Grace, wait!". Alex swiftly crossed the garage and stopped beside the FBI agent. She placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry Grace. We'll be there for you if you needs us. I promise". Grace returned a smile of acknowledgement, but it was a nervous, sad one. As Grace left, Mr. Mack gave a curt knock on the inner kitchen door, leaning into the garage and peering inside at the teens. "Dinner's ready kids. Come and get it".
It took only a second for Ray and Louis to jump down off their stools and briskly make their way into the kitchen, nearly running Robyn and Nicole over. With a disgusted glance between them at the boys' antics, Nicole and Robyn passed into the kitchen. Alex and Annie followed inside. Mrs. Mack was quietly placing food on the kitchen table and Alex couldn't help but notice her silence. She was surprised that she didn't even ask about the absence of Grace. Now that 'was' strange she thought. As the group gathered around the table to build their tacos and conversation started up, her mother slowly became more talkative. Alex took note of her odd behavior and filed it away.
Minutes later, as Mr. and Mrs. Mack ate in the kitchen, Alex, Annie, and their friends crowded into the den to settle down with their taco dinners. Just as Alex sat down on the end of the couch with her plate and glass of iced tea, the front doorbell rang.
She rolled her eyes in disgust then looked at Annie sitting beside her. "Never fails does it?" she asked her older sister with a defeated sigh. Annie guffawed at her comment. Alex set her plate down on the coffee table and got up to answer the door. Alex could feel her stomach grumbling and was quite irritated with whoever it was causing the postponement of her dinner. Swinging the front door open, she was instantly caught off guard by the visitor.
"Hey Alex........" he said.