PART THIRTY

Alex heard the quick, soft knock on the apartment's front door and knew it was Annie and Grace. She raised her right hand and aimed at the doorknob with her pointer finger, sending a mild zap into the pass-card activated electronic lock. The door clicked open and Annie and Grace stepped in.

"Nobody saw you come in did they?" she asked her older sister as Annie closed the door behind her, making sure it locked. "No, I don't think so" she replied. "Where's Gino's computer?". Annie wasn't wasting any time, and wanted to get at Gino's computer immediately.

"C'mon, this way" said Alex, waiving to her sister and Grace to follow her into the apartment's main living room where the computer was. Grace placed her hand on Alex's shoulder. "Good work Alex" she said with a proud grin. "You might have the makings of an FBI agent one day". Alex couldn't help but be impressed by Grace's compliment.

Once in the room, Annie plopped down on the chair in front of the computer, and turned the monitor on. Then she turned towards Alex and looked at her expectantly. Alex knew exactly what Annie was waiting for, the password to access Gino's main files. "'Lunchmeat'" Alex said hesitantly. Annie look at her with disbelief.

"You're kidding, ...right?" she asked her younger sister. "Nope... it's 'lunchmeat', really..." Alex answered. "What?!" asked Grace, puzzled. "It's a long story..." Annie said as she typed in the password. Gino's main files came up on the screen.

Little did Grace know that 'lunchmeat' was a password Annie once used to encrypt the discs she kept all of her GC-161 data on. Less than a year ago, scientist Lars Frederickson stole a disc labeled 'CG-161 Info: Confidential' off of Annie's computer desk at home and gave it to Danielle Atron. Ms. Atron finally made Annie give her the password, which was 'lunchmeat'. By some miracle, Annie had encrypted a computer game Alex's friend Louis Driscoll had left there earlier in the day, and in a sleepy daze later that night, mixed the floppies up and labeled the wrong one. When Ms. Atron opened the disc, it was Louis' game!

Ms. Atron and Lars were foiled once more and Alex's secret world narrowly escaped discovery again, but that was story they'd have to share with Grace later. Still, the irony spooked Annie a little.

"Well? Do you see anything important?" Grace asked Annie, peering over her shoulder from behind the chair. "Nothing important yet" Annie reported vaguely as she scanned the information in front of her. "I'm looking at Gino's main files but they are pretty normal stuff from what I can tell. Itineraries , notes, inventories, and other stuff on the evidence-gathering operation at the plant, but nothing that tells us about our mysterious FBI Director. I'm looking for his access to the FBI's main data files now. Maybe we can find something there".

After Alex and Grace waited several hectic minutes while Annie searched Gino's computer files, a window finally appeared on the screen which read 'Federal Bureau of Investigation Department Archives'. Grace noticed it immediately.

"That's the entry window to the main computer bank at the Sacramento Office" Grace said. "We can get a good look at what's been going the last few days by getting into the archives, and we can take a better look at Director Walsh too". Grace turned to Alex. "How about it Alex? You got that password too, didn't you?".

Alex grinned and nodded. "I haven't let you guys down yet, have I?" she said with a snicker. She reached down and typed out an eight digit code on the numbers pad on the computer keyboard, and in big red letters, the words 'Access Granted' appeared.

"Wow" Annie whispered loudly as the main FBI page came up, showing hundreds of departments and links. "Well Grace, I guess this is more your territory now. Any suggestions?".

Grace watched the screen. "Try 'Operations' first" she instructed, and Annie obediently clicked onto the link. Grace pointed at the screen over Annie's shoulder. "There! Click onto 'Office of the Regional Director: Profiles Archives'".

Annie did, and another window with the picture of a hard-faced man with short dark hair and cold eyes appeared. Next to the picture of Director Walsh, was a long service history profile. Annie and Grace greedily soaked up the historical text on the Director, but became more dejected as they found nothing of importance.

"The guy seems to be a straight shooter according to this profile Grace" Annie noted. "He's been a model agent the entire time he's worked for the Bureau. We may have done all of this for nothing". Annie tossed her hands up in front of her with futile gesture.

"Maybe" said Grace, not quite ready to accept defeat yet. "Click onto his personal history and let's see what it says". Annie obeyed, and seconds after the file came up, Grace's eyes instantly brightened.

"I think you gave up a little too early Annie" Grace said, still reading the screen. Annie glanced back at Grace with a puzzled look. "One thing about being a good field agent is to make sure you get 'all' the facts before making a deduction". Grace suddenly reached over Annie's shoulder again and placed her finger on the screen.

"There..." she said as both Alex and Annie leaned in to see what she was pointing at. "Oh man..." Annie gasped. "He used to live in Paradise Valley fifteen years ago!".

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Barbara Mack was at her part time job at Dobbs' Incorporated, the public relations firm she worked at before returning to college. One reason she returned to work was because she wanted to help with the bills after Danielle Atron fired her husband George from PV Chemical, but when she returned, she had forgotten how much she enjoyed it. Barbara loved going to college again, but being back at work at Dobbs' Inc. was another way to funnel and focus her seemingly endless energies.

The phone on her desk suddenly rang as she was busily scanning a work schedule. Picking it up, she cupped the receiver on her shoulder and casually held it to her ear. "Good morning, this is Barbara Mack..." she said cheerily. "Oh, hello Natalie, what can I do for you today?". Barbara recognized the caller, Natalie Cook, who worked in the Student Affairs Office at Paradise Valley High School. As Barbara listened, she stopped what she was doing and took hold of the receiver with her hand.

"What?" she asked with a sharp tone. "I saw Alex leave for school this morning. She was with her friend Ray". Barbara listen to Mrs. Cook another moment. "None of her friends showed up at school either?!". Mrs. Mack was aghast. "Thank you Natalie. I'll check into it immediately".

After all that's happened over the last two weeks; finding out Alex had been doused by GC-161 and had super powers, being kidnapped by Danielle Atron, and then the following media circus, Barbara's protective instinct kicked in. On the other hand, she didn't want to jump to conclusions either. She knew Alex had still been acting strangely since taking the antidote George made, but he also realized that Alex was coping with a lot of changes and pressure in her life right now. The break up with Hunter occurred to her.

But this was totally unlike Alex; she couldn't have possibly skipped school with her friends today, could she have? Barbara picked up the phone again, but this time to call her husband at Sedgewick Chemical in Pittsville Gardens.

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Annie scrolled down the files for further information but there was nothing more than some insignificant personal histories and then blank screen after that. "That's odd..." noticed Annie. "That's all it says about him".

"That isn't standard department procedure. Everyone's personal histories should be a lot more detailed than that, especially the Director's. Quick, click back and go to his employment history" urged Grace. Annie clicked back and brought up Director Walsh's former employment file. To both of their surprise, it was encoded. Annie tried to access several other personal files, but they were all encoded.

"Dead end ...everything about him is encoded" Annie said helplessly.

"This is ridiculous" Grace said with a sigh. "This is against protocol to encode files like this, even for the Director".

"It looks like we aren't going to find out anything else we need to know unless we can look directly into his personal files" moaned Annie. "The only clue we have is that he used to live in Paradise Valley, but that doesn't help us any. There's a connection here somewhere, but that isn't enough. This was all a waste of time; damnit!".

"Maybe not. I sure hope you're the hacker that I think you are Annie" Grace responded with a confident tone. An incredulous look formed on Annie's face. "Grace, even with access to the main FBI data banks, I would never be able to get by the safeguards the Bureau has, and even if I did by some fluke, it could take me days, or even weeks to break his code. We're stumped". Grace reached into her pocket and pulled out a silver, shiny computer disc and waved it in front of Annie's face. "Even with this?".

Alex cocked her head. "What's that?".

"A little 'something' field agent Torres gave me when she came to re-possess my agency vehicle the other day. I went through the training academy with Torres, and she snuck this out of Investigations for me for just this occasion. It's a 'hacking disc' we use to break codes on encoded files; very useful in investigating industrial espionage and embezzlement cases".

"And..." Grace paused for effect. "...Agent Torres was nice enough to include a complete set of Bureau department access codes on it".

"Isn't that illegal?" asked Annie, appalled that the FBI would have such technology. "Maybe a little, but all's fair in the war against crime" Grace replied with a half-chuckle, slipping the disc into the CPU's slot. A separate screen came up on the monitors. Annie didn't bother arguing the moral implications when she saw the incredibly complex computer program pop up on the screen. She was instantly mesmerized by it's sophistication.

"Hey!" she said with an enthusiastic smile, easily understanding how the program worked. "I think we just might be able to do this after all. This will allow me to quickly access the encoded passwords in all the personal files. Just give me a few minutes...". Alex rolled her eyes.

"Oh wonderful, it's a 'super program' for the 'super brain'..." she sighed loudly.

Grace couldn't help but stifle a laugh at the two sisters and their peculiar relationship. Annie ignored Alex as she immediately began to apply the hacking program to the Field Director's encoded personal files.

"You'd make a great field agent Annie" Grace suggested, watching Annie's impressive computer skills at work. She looked at Alex and noticed she seemed slightly offended. "You too Alex" she added with a guilty grin, placing her hand on the younger Mack sister's shoulder. Alex smiled with satisfaction.

Several anxious minutes passed when suddenly, a small box appeared on the screen with the word 'Eisenhower' in it. Alex and Grace watched tensely as Annie clicked the access button below, and a host of files began filling the screen.

"We're in! We're in!" Annie squealed loudly as Alex and Grace shushed her for her outburst. They didn't want anyone else in the hotel to know anyone was in Gino's apartment, but Annie couldn't contain her excitement.

She clicked into Director Walsh's employment history to begin with, and the moment it appeared, Annie's and Grace's jaws dropped.

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"Where the heck is he going?" asked Nicole, as Louis deftly followed Vince's jeep from nearly a quarter mile behind. Vince had taken them on a course which led them into hilly and heavily wooded terrain north of town, and Louis was struggling to keep up. "I don't know, but he drives like a maniac" Louis answered in agitated fashion.

"You don't suppose he knows we're following him and he's just leading us on a wild goose chase, do you?" Nicole pressed, gripping the frame of the door over the open passenger window as Louis took a hard turn to the right. "I don't think so" Louis replied. "I mean, if he really wanted to lose us, I imagine he could".

Nicole nodded uncertainly, unsure if she agreed with Louis or not, because something just didn't feel right to her. They were already out of walkie-talkie range, and were being led several miles away from the safe confines of town. The realization of the pressure Alex had been under for years to hide her secret from Paradise Valley Chemical suddenly dawned on her.

As they cleared the curve, they spotted the tail lights of Vince's jeep glow as he suddenly slowed and turned onto a dirt trail on the roadside, his jeep instantly disappearing into the woods.

"Louis!" Nicole urged, grabbing his arm. "Pull over" she said. He pulled off onto the roadside one hundred feet short of the trail, and gazed at her with a puzzled look. "Why did you want me to pull over?".

"To think for a minute" she said. "Something just isn't right here". "Nicole, we have to follow Vince and keep an eye on him. That's what Grace said we had to do".

"I know..." she snapped impatiently. "But I recognize that trail. It's an old hunting trail that Alex, Ray, and I used to ride our bikes on last summer. They're all up and down this highway and lead up into the hillsides".

"Yeah? I've biked them before too. So what?" snorted Louis. Nicole rolled her eyes. "So, if we follow him up there in your car, he'll spot us for sure". Louis nodded. "Yeah, I suppose you're right. I guess we have to follow on our bikes then".

Louis was prepared for every contingency, and had his and Nicole's bikes on a rack on the back of his car, and it wasn't long before the two of them were biking up the old hunting trail after Vince.

Nicole listened intently for the motor of Vince's jeep, but only the sound of their heaving breathing from pedaling up the trail was audible to her. After several moments, Louis suddenly stopped and motioned to Nicole to stop as well. "What is it?" Nicole asked with a whisper. "Up ahead..." Louis motioned by pointing up the trail. Nicole was on the other side of the trail from Luis, so she walked her bike over beside him to look at what he was pointing at.

She noticed an old, dilapidated wooden shack half-hidden in the foliage about fifty yards ahead, and Vince's jeep was parked in front of it. "That shack..." Louis emphasized. "That's where Alex and Ray said they found this old hermit last year that used to live there. Vince must be inside".

As they cautiously moved several yards closer up the trail, they saw the tail end of a black, Ford Taurus sedan parked beside Vince's jeep. "Uh oh..." Nicole gulped. "...and he isn't alone up there either. What do you think we should do now?". "We have to get in close enough to see and hear what they're doing ...duh!" Louis replied sarcastically, rolling his eyes at Nicole. Nicole shrugged with an annoyed expression, but her friend's sometimes infuriating demeanor didn't prevent her keen mind from processing the situation quickly.

She grasped the mini-binoculars hanging on the strap around her neck and lifted them up to her eyes to spy on the car's license plate. "Oh my God Louis..." she gasped. "What?".

"That car has FBI plates on it".

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