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Chapter Fourteen

Striker and Greyhound had gone to see The Gadget Man once they were clear of the fire.  They didn't want to go to the hospital for treatment for their smoke inhalation as the police would surely have questioned them about who they were and what they were doing there.  The Gadget Man had a variety of medical gizmos in his tower though and he made both of them go through a horrific process which essentially vacuumed their lungs; it hurt like crazy and Striker felt like she was dying when she had it done.  It was better that than going to the hospital though and when she saw the black gunk that had come out of her lungs she was glad she had gone through it.

"I don't think this was coincidence." said The Gadget Man when Striker and Greyhound were resting up after their horrific lung suction.
"What?" said Greyhound.
"It's linked?" asked Striker.
"Yes." replied The Gadget Man.  "I believe it is certainly linked.  I don't think it is a coincidence that the cinema where you both were on Wednesday was attacked and for a building next to where you were tonight and where another member of our team has taken residence seems quite beyond coincidence to me."
"Well, when you put it like that." said Striker, who was just exhausted from it all to be able to see it from the broad view The Gadget Man had.
"Someone who knows the team must be responsible." said The Gadget Man.  "My prime suspect is [Hans xxx] of course."
"Who?" asked Greyhound and Striker in chorus.
"The man you had the pleasure of meeting at the docks of course." said The Gadget Man as though they should have known what this man's name was.  "But I can't rule out it being someone within the team." he said thoughtfully.
"It's not us!" said Striker quickly.  She had always hated being accused of things she hadn't done and still fervently remembered when she had been blamed for eating a chocolate christmas tree decoration when it had actually been a mouse, the false accusation stung to this day.
"Oh I know it isn't either of you." said The Gadget Man dismissively.  "You're being targeted, you're not responsible."
"It can't be Whiskers either." said Greyhound firmly.  "She would never put any of those animals in danger, they're like her family."
Striker looked at Greyhound surprised, it seems that he knew quite a lot about Whiskers and she had to force herself to quell her jealousy of the curvaceous cat lady.
"I will continue my investigations." said The Gadget Man.
"Oh!" exclaimed Striker.  "That reminds me!"  She then pushed back her hooded mask, which was strange to do in front of Greyhound even though he obviously already knew who she really was, she felt so much like a different person when she was in costume as Striker that it was difficult to align that with the meek nerdy girl Laura.  She put that to the back of her mind though as she shoved her hand down the front of her costume and groped around inside.
"It's no good" she said.  "Is it alright if I go change?"
"What are you doing?" Greyhound, giggling at her strange behaviour.
"I didn't have any pockets," said Striker, "so I had to shove what I found down my costume.  Any chance you could put a utility belt on this thing Gadget?"
"I did consider it," said The Gadget Man, "but as it would create bulk in the costume around the waist area, I thought this would make it more conspicuous if you were wearing it underneath your normal clothes, which I believe you do now do."
"Yeah, that's a good point." said Striker disappointedly.  "Anyway, back in a jiffy."  She grabbed the clothes she had retrieved from the back of the restaurant and trotted up the spiral staircase to the floor above where she knew there was a curtained area where she had first tried on her costume.

When Striker had extricated herself from the costume she was amazed at how far the papers had spread inside of it.  Unfortunately some of them had been torn as well but it looked as though it would be easy to match up the pieces.  She got dressed and scooped up the costume and papers and made her way back downstairs.
"Here you are." she said, juggling her costume and the papers so that she actually shoved the bunch of papers into The Gadget Man's face.
"Here, let me." said Greyhound, taking her costume off her hands so that she could sort things out properly, for which Striker mumbled her thanks.

"I found these in the pet store." said Striker, organising the papers a little better with both hands before giving them to The Gadget Man again, to his hands this time rather than his face.  "They might just be completely irrelevant but I thought there might be something useful in there and they certainly wouldn't have survived the fire."
"Interesting." said The Gadget Man, leafing through the papers.  "And have the fire fighters determined the cause of the fire yet?"
Striker and Greyhound looked at each other and shrugged.
"How would we know?" said Greyhound.  "Even if they did tell random members of the public, we got away before they even knew we were there."
"Ah, yes, of course." said The Gadget Man thoughtfully.  "Well, you never know, the local paper might find out the details, I'm sure they'll be wanting to dedicate a couple of pages to this dramatic event and maybe a couple more in speculating if this incident and the one at the cinema are linked, which of course we already know."
The Gadget Man took the papers over to the large computer console at the far end of the room.  He opened a slot in the machine and put the whole pile of papers into it.
"Hey!" exclaimed Striker.  "You shouldn't throw them away, we haven't had a chance to go through them yet!"
"Of course." said The Gadget Man smugly.  "Which is why I have fed them into my computer to convert to digital files which I can then use to cross reference my databases and so forth."
"Oh, right." said Striker, slightly embarrassed that she hadn't realised that was what he was doing despite working in IT, but then this was a computer unlike any she had ever seen.

"So, maybe we should leave you to your analysis then." said Greyhound.  "You don't need us here for that do you?"
"Oh no." said The Gadget Man.  "You must be very tired after your eventful evening, you should both go home and get some proper rest, you especially Miss Striker."
"Yeah." said Striker, knowing full well that her escapades in the burning building would be paid back to her in the form of a migraine, likely to hit her overnight but it might just wait until it was part way through her weekend.  "At least it's Saturday tomorrow."
"Speaking of which, we ought to call the team together tomorrow." said The Gadget Man.
"Not early!" said Striker, knowing she would be needing her sleep and that if she got up earlier than normal that the migraine would surely hit her before she even made it to the clock tower.
"Can't we make it Sunday?" asked Greyhound yawning.
"Very well." said The Gadget Man.  "I will assemble the team on Sunday instead.  I will contact the others to let them know.  Be here at oh seven hundred hours on Sunday."
"Roger!" said Greyhound, doing a little salute which The Gadget Man didn't seem to realise was being done in jest and saluted back.
As Greyhound and Striker were leaving the clock tower, sneaking out into the square and hoping they weren't spotted, Greyhound seemed a little nervous to Striker.
"So," said Greyhound uncertainly.  "Do you live far?"
"Not that far, no." said Striker.
"Can I walk you home?" he asked.  Striker found this quite adorable but couldn't help pointing out quite how silly he was being.
"We both drove," she said, "so I think we'd be a bit daft if we both walked all the way to my flat and left our cars behind in town.  She smiled at him and he just burst out laughing.
*****

Laura couldn't concentrate the following day, she was playing through the events of Wednesday and Friday in her head, trying to work out if she saw anyone or anything suspicious, something which might confirm who it was.  She felt quite violated at the thought that someone else knew that she is also Striker and that someone was targeting her in her personal time because of it.  She didn't want to feel that she was putting her friends or family in any danger because of what she was doing in her free time.

It was because of this that when her doorbell rang and she answered the door to her mum that she almost slammed the door in her face.  The fact was though, that she knew she had pushed herself a lot with the extraordinary events of the last few days and she was at great risk of getting a migraine now because of it and if that happened, she just wanted her mum there to look after her; getting a migraine when she was alone in her flat was the loneliest thing she had ever experienced and was without doubt the worst thing about no longer living at home.

Her mum knew she had been at the cinema when it was attacked on Wednesday evening as you could see her in some photographs the local newspaper had taken at the scene, but she hadn't told her she was anywhere near the fire the previous night and so her mum proceeded to tell her everything she'd read on the website of the local paper about it.

"They still don't know who started it." her mum told her.  "And the police haven't said so but everyone's saying it's linked to the cinema bomb.  They think there must be some nutter on the loose with a vendetta against the town."
Laura just nodded in response, it was better if she didn't try to offer her own opinion or correct anything about the stories she was reading, she wasn't a good liar and this was so close to the bone for her she was worried she'd give herself away.

Her mum fussed over her all the day and Laura was very happy to let her.  When the aura started, her mum had already laid out the pills for her to take along with her favourite fizzy pop to drink to swallow them, with ice cubes and a straw just how she always loved it.
She was resting and took the pills at the right time and she had her mum to thank for the migraine aborting at that point, she probably would have been asleep or something if her mum hadn't been there and got to it too late.

The tablets knocked her out and she woke up again when it was completely dark.  She was lying on the sofa and had been covered with a blanket but thankfully this time it was her mum who had made her comfortable and not The Gadget Man; the thought of him coming into her flat and seeing her so vulnerable still made her feel very uncomfortable.

She set an alarm before she went back to sleep in her bed and woke up to the sound of it on Sunday morning.  She had enough time to get a shower so that she felt human again, something which always helped get rid of the grogginess she experienced after the migraine medication and she wolfed down a bowl of stodgy porridge before she put her Striker costume on and headed off to the clock tower.
*****

Striker was the last one of the team to arrive, even though she was only a minute late; they must all be pretty eager after what had happened in the last few days.  When she climbed the spiral staircase to the first floor, she saw Whiskers chatting to Greyhound, practically pinning him in the corner and standing so that she accentuating all of her curves, something Striker could never do and she crossed her arms in front of herself, feeling very self-conscious about her own figure.  It was only when Greyhound spotted her and his face lit up as he pushed passed Whiskers to come over to her that she started to feel a bit more confident.  She then spotted that Whiskers had turned around and where she had expected her face to be as perfect as always, instead her eyes were red and puffy and it was obvious that she had been crying.

"Whiskers." said Striker, taking a few steps towards her.
"She lost a lot of animals in the fire." said Greyhound softly.
"My family." said Whiskers sadly.  Even though she was obviously upset and distressed, she still moved with grace and seduction and Striker realised that she probably didn't realise that she even did it half of the time and this realisation made her warm to Whiskers more, although she feared she would always feel inferior as a woman next to her.
"But I saved them, didn't I?" asked Striker, who thought she had got all of the animals out of the room, she had looked all over it and she'd even rescued the snake for goodness sake.
"Downstairs," said Greyhound, "in the store."
"Oh." said Striker with realisation and regret.  "I never even thought..."  She trailed off as she went through her thoughts in the fire.  The flames were raging so strongly on the bottom floor, it never occurred to her to even try and look to see if she could do anything there to help/
"There's nothing you could have done." said Whiskers, giving Striker a sad smile.  "You did so much more than I did as it was, you saved so many of my darlings."
"I couldn't leave them." said Striker, it hadn't really occurred to her not to try and save them, she knew how much she loved her own dog, who wouldn't try and save the helpless animals?
"You were great!" said Greyhound, smiling broadly at her.  "I still can't believe you managed to make that gizmo to get them down!"
"I think I watched too much MacGuyver when I was young." Striker confessed.
"Oh yeah!" said Greyhound, "MacGuyver would have done the same thing, you're a genius!"
Striker was very glad she was wearing a mask at that moment as she felt her cheeks get hot and she knew she was blushing furiously underneath it.
"And I owe you my heart," said Whiskers, "as it would have broken if they had been lost to me too."  She put her arms around Striker and gave her a warm and strong embrace.  Striker felt quite awkward and she wasn't really a tactile person anyway but after the last time she'd seen Whiskers had been when she'd kissed her, she didn't want to give the wrong signals or anything.
"No problem." said Striker, breaking free of the hug as soon as Whiskers allowed her to.

"What's this?" asked Everest who had appeared next to them.  "You're having hugs without me?"  With that, he reached his enormous arms around all three of them and squeezed them to his chest.
"Too hard!" squeaked Greyhound.
"Sorry!" said Everest, dropping them all at once. "I forget sometimes."
"I know big guy." said Greyhound grinning at him.

"We should get down to business." said The General authoritatively, briskly walking over to the far end of the room where The Gadget Man was concentrating hard on his computer.  He turned to face the room and said "We all know that there have been some nefarious activities this week."
Chainsaw at the back of the room burst out laughing, which Striker thought was particularly harsh when Whiskers was so upset about the animals she lost in the fire.

"Nefarious?" he asked, still guffawing.  "Are you out of the nineteen thirties or something?"
Everyone in the room was silently frowning at Chainsaw but this didn't seem to bother him and he chuckled away until he seemed to have finished finding it funny.
"It has been a very grave week." said The Gadget Man, getting off his little chair at the computer console.  "And a very enlightening weekend."
"I now hand you over to The Gadget Man for further information about the week's events." said The General, who seemed to need to feel like he was in control at all times and this was particularly grating at Striker today for some reason, why couldn't he just turn up and listen to instructions.  She wondered if he even listened at all when anyone else was speaking or whether he was always just thinking about what the next thing he was going to say was.  It was then that she heard her name and realised she wasn't listening to The Gadget Man and sheepishly started to pay attention to what he was saying.

"Striker discovered various paperwork at the pet store when the fire broke out." he said.  "I've spoken to Whiskers to see if she can shed any further light on these but she shares the running of the store with a business partner and the office these papers were found in seem to have been the office of her partner."
Everyone in the room was looking at Whiskers but she didn't seem to mind the attention as she looked a lot more like her usual self now and Striker thought that perhaps she'd seen a little of the person underneath the Whiskers mask and she shouldn't judge her by her facade.
"I have been analysing what was on these papers since they were brought to me on Friday evening," continued The Gadget Man, "and I have found some interesting results."
"Mrrow?" said Whiskers, making a sound like an inquisitive cat.
"It seems that your business partner had some things to hide I'm afraid Ms Whiskers." said The Gadget Man somberly.  "Am I right in assuming that he left the premises earlier than usual that day?"
Whiskers looked thoughtful for a few seconds before she nodded.
"Yes, I thought so." said The Gadget Man.  His tone then became softer and he addressed Whiskers alone.  "I'm afraid he was responsible for the fire, I'm very sorry to be the one to tell you."
"No!" said Whiskers defiantly, but Striker sensed that this wasn't entirely unexpected news to her.
The Gadget Man didn't respond, he just allowed her to process the information in her own time.
"How do you know?" she asked, now sounded resigned to the fact that this was the truth.  "I need to know how you know, then I'll believe you."
"Very well." said The Gadget Man, and Striker thought she detected a slight twinkle in his eye as he then brought up a picture on the screen of the computer; he probably wanted to show off she thought, and was waiting for someone to ask him this.

The screen showed a scan of a delivery note which Striker assumed was one of the papers which she had rescued from the fire on Friday night.
"This is one of the papers which Striker rescued from the fire on Friday night." said The Gadget Man.  "This was the ultimate piece of a trail which I traced back to your associate Whiskers."
The delivery note looked pretty standard, it was for some butane gas which seemed a little odd for a pet store but there could be reasonable reasons for having gas delivered, perhaps for the heating system.  Since this was the ultimate piece in the trail though, Striker had to assume that the gas hadn't been delivered for innocent reasons and was actually in some way responsible for the fire.
"In discovering this delivery, the penultimate piece of the trail, which was made on the morning of the fire, it gave a lot more meaning to this delivery."  The screen changed to now show a scanned picture of another delivery note, this time from the previous week, from a different supplier and the product being delivered this time was a box of spark plugs, obviously not an item which should be delivered to a pet store.
The team read the delivery note on the screen and Chainsaw, at the back of the room, simply said "Ah."
"I don't believe this was in any way a coincidence," said The Gadget Man, "and so I went through the invoices which Striker had also managed to rescue from the flames, and I found the antepenultimate piece of the trail."  He changed the screen again to show two invoices, both from the same company called Total Solutions, one showing the butane gas which had been delivered and the other showing the spark plugs.  Both invoices were addressed to Mr James Henson.  "As you can see, Mr James Henson was responsible for both of these deliveries.  Whiskers, can you please confirm whether you knew anything about these?"
"No." said Whiskers quietly.  It was strange to hear the confidence gone from Whiskers' voice, Striker found herself feeling very sorry for her with the loss she had suffered and the betrayal she was feeling now and felt as though she should go and hug her, but she didn't want to give her the wrong impression and after the kiss she felt quite awkward, so she just stood there and felt bad for not doing anything for Whiskers.  Greyhound put his arm around Whiskers then, and Striker actually didn't feel jealous for once and was glad someone was able to comfort her.
"So the preantepenultimate piece of the trail," continued the Gadget Man, "came when I investigated Total Solutions."
"What the hell does preantepenultimate mean?" asked Chainsaw, sounding annoyed and Striker was actually glad he'd asked since she didn't know either but didn't want to let on that she didn't know.
"It means the fourth from last" said The General.  "Continue Gadget Man."
"Quite." said The Gadget Man before he then continued.  "As I was saying, I investigated Total Solutions and I found that all of their banking is carried out in offshore accounts, which I managed to trace to Columbia."  The picture on the screen changed to a screenshot of a Columbian bank system showing Total Solutions listed as an account.  It seems that The Gadget Man has resources which extended beyond the reach of the police thought Striker.
"How did you manage to find that out?" asked Greyhound, obviously thinking in terms of what the police are capable of accessing as well since that was in both of their professional interests.
"I have access to many things which others do not." deflected The Gadget Man.
"So where is all this going?" asked Whiskers, her voice sounding harder now.  Striker tried to imagine how she would feel if this had happened to her and she realised that she would probably want revenge and she would probably be the one to personally dish out the retribution and when she looked at Whiskers' eyes, she saw that was exactly how Whiskers was feeling now.
"Full circle I'm afraid." said The Gadget Man.  "For the propreantepenultimate piece of the trail is essentially also the ultimate piece of the trail."  The screen changed again and this time it showed a screen shot from a the Columbian Companies House register, and the owner of Total Solutions was listed as Mr James Maury Henson.

"I believe," continued The Gadget Man, "that this man is also in charge of the drugs import we tried to disrupt at the docks."  The picture on the screen then changed to one of a man with a moustache in a suit which Striker didn't recognise, walking alongside the man who had been in charge of the gunmen at the docks.
"I'll kill him." said Whiskers coldly.
"No Whiskers," said The General with no compassion, "we must see that he faces the full force of the justice system."  Striker couldn't argue with this, she didn't want anyone here to be responsible for someone's death, but she understood why Whiskers felt like that and she hoped that when the time came, Whiskers would be able to withhold her anger and stop short of killing him.

There was some argument amongst the team then about the right way to punish him, Striker stayed silent throughout, not wanting to upset anyone but she knew she was firmly on the side of the law in that respect.  Only Chainsaw seemed to also have the bloodlust to want to kill him and that wasn't from any emotion like Whiskers, it was just his desire to hurt which slightly terrified Striker and made her wary never to get onto the wrong side of Chainsaw.  Greyhound and The General argued fervently in favour of capture and punishment by the justice system whilst Everest seemed to want to please everyone and went back and forth between the sides but when he thought through the full consequences, it was clear that he would never intentionally want someone to be killed.

Striker noticed through all of this that she wasn't the only one remaining silent on the subject, The Gadget Man was simply watching the group and not participating at all and Striker got the feeling that he was studying the results of an experiment and she felt a little unnerved about the way they had all put their faith into someone they didn't know at all.
Eventually the arguing settled down as Greyhound managed to persuade Whiskers that she wouldn't kill when it came to it, though she didn't sound completely convinced when she conceded this.

"We need to formulate a plan!" said The General, trying to take control of the group as he usually did but a little cough came from behind him and The Gadget man found his voice again.
"I have already done this for you." said The Gadget Man.  "Once I had identified who was responsible for the attacks this week, and that he is also the target we were wanting to discover with respect to the drugs import as well, I concentrated on locating him."
Striker was impressed at how much The Gadget Man had managed to achieve in just a day and she wished she could be that productive, when her day had just been wasted waiting for the inevitable migraine to arrive and recovering from the medications she had taken when it had.

"I traced all of the holdings belonging to Total Solutions," said The Gadget Man and overhead photographs of buildings started to cycle through on the screen, "and after studying up-to-date satellite imagery of each of these locations, I don't believe we will find our man at any of those."  The disappointment felt by the team was palpable.
"So we don't have a plan then?" asked Chainsaw.
"I have yet to conclude." said The Gadget Man.  "When I looked into the personal holdings of Mr Henson, I found that his family farm was left to him and appears to have been disused since then."  A satellite image of a house with a large barn next to it and fields all around except for a track leading to the farm came up on the screen.  "It is here where I believe we will find Mr Henson and we can put a stop to his illegal activities."
"Right team," said The General, standing in front of The Gadget Man and Striker actually put her head in one hand as she thought not again, "we have our mission.  Now this is what we'll do."
"I don't think The Gadget Man was finished General." said Everest tentatively.
The General turned around to look at The Gadget Man along with the rest of the room.
"Actually I just about had finished" said The Gadget Man much to Striker's surprise.  "I only managed to finish gathering all of this information at about four o'clock this morning so I haven't had a chance to formulate a plan of attack yet."
Striker couldn't feel all that surprised by this since she had been amazed at how much information he had gathered in such little time simply based on some paperwork she had swiped at the fire on Friday night; she felt trepidus about The General being in charge of all of the planning for this mission though after their experience at the docks.

"So, we'll head to this farm.." said The General before Striker cut him off.
"How?" she asked.
"What?" said The General who seemed aghast that someone had interrupted him.
"How are we getting to the farm?" asked Striker.  "Do you even know where it is?"
The General turned around to look at The Gadget man expectantly.
"The farm is in the North York Moors" said The Gadget Man.  He zoomed the satellite image out and they could see where the farm was positioned in relation to the area they were familiar with.
"We need a van, like in Scooby Doo!" said Everest excitedly.  "The Mystery Machine!"
"I have a van," said Whiskers, "but you're not calling it The Mystery Machine."
"Can it fit all of us in it?" asked The General.
"It's a Transit so I would say so," said Whiskers, "although not necessarily very comfortably."

"So we will travel to the farm in the van." said The General.  "We will then close in to the farm in a pincer movement."
"Do you even know what you're talking about yourself?" asked Striker, who had let her upset and frustration about the whole week's events bubble up and was taking them out on The General, which in hindsight was probably unfair but she didn't want this operation to get botched up like the last one had.
"Well," said The General, slightly flustered, "we'll split up into two teams and approach the farm from both sides."
"Do we even know what to expect there?" asked Striker, looking to The Gadget Man for her answers.  "Will Henson be alone or are there going to be more of his goons shooting at us?  Are the drugs stored there or is that just his hideaway?  Will the fields be covered in landmines?  Will he have artillery?  We need to know a bit more before we can decide how we're approaching this."
"I don't believe he has any heavy duty weaponry at the location," said The Gadget Man, "but I don't think he will be alone."  The screen zoomed back in to the farm and The Gadget Man drew a red circle around a blob next to the house.  "This appears to be someone standing guard," he elaborated, "and here," the picture changed and he circled a different blob, "there seems to be another man patrolling.  This leads me to believe that there is something worth guarding here and that they're ready for anyone coming to take it."
"I say we stick together." said Everest.  "We don't want to find someone captured by them like at the docks." he said looking at Greyhound who looked down at the floor and was obviously embarrassed about getting caught in that way.
"I say we split up." said Chainsaw.  "I've got some firepower I want to lay down and it's better if you lot don't get in my way."
"That sounds like all the more reason to stay together to me." said Striker.  "I don't want to be on the receiving end of your firepower because you didn't know where I was."
"We will stay together." said The General and Striker was surprised that he had gone back on his earlier pincer movement plan.  "We don't know the lay of the land and we don't want anyone hurt by friendly fire."
"That's settled then." said Whiskers.  "And I'm driving."

They arranged to meet in a quiet car park just outside the town centre where Whiskers would pick them up in her van and they left the clock tower.  Striker had a sinking feeling about this plan but she wanted to stop these monsters before they ended up killing one of them, they had made this personal and Striker had to make sure they didn't end up wiping them out.
 

Chapter Thirteen

Striker called down the stairwell immediately "Where are you?"
"I'm trapped!" called back the voice "Help me!"
"Trapped where?" shouted Striker, starting to walk slowly down the stairs towards the fire.  "Where are you?"
"I'm here!" called the voice, they were obviously panicked. "I'm here!"
As Striker walked further and further down the stairs, closer and closer to the fire, the voice grew louder.
"Are you on the first floor?" shouted Striker.
"Yes!" cried the voice.  "Help me!" and Striker realised it was Whiskers' voice she was hearing, it sounded so different when it wasn't oozing confidence and sex appeal.

The flames had just reached the first floor but Striker had to trust to the costume The Gadget Man had made for her.  She was just about to make a run through the flames, when a blur of colour zoomed past her and went through the flames too.  When Striker made the run through the flames herself she saw Greyhound on the other side of them.
"I thought it was you!" he said.  "I heard you yelling."
Striker saw that parts of the corridor on this level were aflame already but they would have to brave it.
"It's Whiskers." said Striker.  "She's trapped on this floor somewhere."
Greyhound didn't waste a moment and he ran through the flames.  Striker wished she were able to be that brave but she realised she probably would be if she could move so fast the flames couldn't touch her like Greyhound could.
Striker moved down the corridor and ran through the first set of flames.  She saw Greyhound then trying to shoulder-barge a door and not getting very far.
"Stand back." said Striker, gesturing for Greyhound to move to one side which he did.
She gave it a quick kick and the door went flying off its hinges inside the room.

Flames burst out of the room when the door flew into it, knocking Striker backwards who fell back onto Greyhound and landed on top of him in a heap on the floor.  Before she had managed to recover though, she was suddenly standing upright and she released Greyhound and picked her back up at his incredible speed.  He wasn't next to her anymore so she figured he had already gone into the room so she ran in through the flames after him.
"Help me!" yelled Whiskers who was in a corner of the room with fish tanks surrounding her like a fortified barricade.  With the flames covering most of the room, and the door seemingly locked, she was trapped.  The flames were pouring out of the window already so there was no escape through that route.

Greyhound was trying to move the fish tanks by himself but they were obviously too heavy for him so Striker went and moved them for him, enough for there to be a gap for Whiskers to squeeze through, it was a good job she's so slim thought Striker.  Once there was the gap, Striker could see Whiskers properly.  She was curled up in the corner like her dog Alfie was on bonfire night when all the fireworks were going off.  She couldn't help but think that Whiskers was perhaps a little too much into the mindset of a feline but this wasn't the time to start asking things like that.  She help out her hand to Whiskers through the gap and said "Come on, we've got you."  Whiskers looked absolutely terrified, her face had soot stains on it and her hair looked like it had been singed by the fire; Striker had never expected to see someone who always looked so perfect in such a state now.

Whiskers reached forward and took Strikers hand and slid herself through the gap, not letting go of her hand.  As soon as she had squeezed through, Greyhound picked her up and ran through the flames and out of the room with her.  Striker scowled after them, once again leaving her to sort herself out whilst Greyhound runs off carrying Whiskers she thought.  If he wasn't her type before, she felt pretty sure the saving-her-life type would be her type so it was probably best if she forgot all about Greyhound.  For now though, she needed to try and save those animals.  She ran back through the flames into the corridor.  The fire had spread whilst they had been in the room with Whiskers and a part of the ceiling looked like it had collapsed into the corridor, now leaving a burning pile of wood in the middle of it which Striker didn't want to try and cross, she didn't trust the costume that much.

She looked behind her and the door of the next room over was standing open.  She ran down the corridor and into that room; the flames hadn't broken into it yet so she closed the door behind her to delay the fire reaching it.  She looked around and it seemed to be an office, where all of the pet store records were kept.  She went to the window and found it was unlocked so she pushed it open.  She had a look outside and it looked like she would be able to climb the wall up a floor, but her curiosity got the best of her first and she found herself over at the desk, leafing through the papers before she even realised what she was doing.

It looked like it was just a pile of boring invoices but something about them struck her as odd; she couldn't put her finger on what it was which seemed strange but her instinct was saying there was something about these which she should be looking into.  She grabbed the stack of papers, folded them in half and stuffed them down inside her costume.  It wasn't exactly comfortable as the papers didn't sit slightly away from her skin like the costumer did and they kept moving around as she moved but at least she could look at them later this way.

Striker turned her attention back to the window and she perched on the windowsill with her back to the open window and without looking down so that she wouldn't fear the height, she started to pull herself up the wall in much the same way she had climbed it in the first place.  She had been glad when that was over when she had climbed it the first time and here she was doing the same thing again for what she hoped was finally the last time.

She was most of the way up to the next window when she heard her name being called from below her.
"Striker!" she heard the voice yelling again.  "Striker!"
She couldn't look down, she needed to focus on getting to that next window.  She ignored the voice, which was joined by a second one, until she finally found purchase on the windowsill above her and she pulled herself up.  She looked down below her then and she could see the fire lapping out of the ground floor windows below her and she felt the heat on her face as she looked, the costume seemed to have been completely blocking the heat from the rest of her though or she might have started to cook above that much fire.  She squinted through the brightness of the flames in the dark, something she knew she shouldn't be looking at if she didn't want a migraine to come and this would be a really bad time for a migraine.  She could see two figures down there but no fire fighters yet, they must be working on the front of the building first she thought and memories of playing a board game she loves about fighting fire came to mind and she was thinking she would have moved the fire engine round to this side of the building to use the water cannon on it if this scenario was in her game.  Her eyes adjusted to the light and she saw it was Greyhound and Whiskers down on the ground calling her name.  At least it wasn't the police she thought.

"Come down!" yelled Greyhound.  "Striker! Come down! It's not safe!"
"There's animals up here!" yelled Striker but she wasn't sure how well her voice was carrying over the noise of the fire.  Striker hadn't realised before how noisy a fire actually was.
Striker could see that Whiskers was staring up at her but she had stopped calling her name.
"Save them!" shouted Whiskers and Striker knew she was doing the right thing.  She ignored Greyhound's further calls for her to come down to safety whilst she checked the window.  Happily, this one had been left unlocked and she managed to push the window up easily and climb inside.  This room seemed to be another office and Striker wondered why there were two separate offices here, surely the store would only need one office.  She grabbed the pile of papers she saw on the desk, pushed them down into her costume to join the earlier ones and moved on.  As she scooped up the papers she noticed a ring of keys but they didn't look like building keys, they looked like they were for much smaller locks.  She thought it might be handy so she grabbed the ring and jammed her hand through it so that she was wearing it like a very tight and uncomfortable bracelet.

The door felt warm when she put her hand to it which wasn't a good sign, the fire must be nearby if it wasn't already on the other side of the door.  She decided it wasn't worth the risk unless there was no other way and she decided she would try and make her own doorway to the next room over instead.  She looked at the ceiling and there was a florescent tube light fitting hanging from it, perfect she thought.  She moved to the opposite wall, ran across the room, jumped up to grab the light fitting and smashed her feet into the middle of the wall.  She heard the wall cracking when she did this but she hadn't made a hole in it.  She did the same thing again and this time one of her feet when through the plasterboard and she felt it hit a cage on the other side of the wall, she heard a crash as the cage hit the ground and a whining of a dog as it did.  She repeated the attack on the wall a third time, this time the light fitting pulled away from the ceiling, the hole in the wall became much larger and Striker found herself flying through into the room with her momentum.

She landed on a cage before falling over passed it in the least gracious tumble she imagined she would ever do.  A glass tank which had a large snake inside it wobbled and then toppled over landing on Striker's sprawled out legs.  The plastic lid fell off in the impact and the snake tumbled out onto Striker's chest.  Snakes, she thought, why did it have to be snakes?  The snake seemed scared and panicked and Striker was pretty sure that wasn't the best emotional state for the snake to be in if she was to avoid being bitten by it.  She had no idea was kind it was as her knowledge of snakes was extremely limited but it wasn't a rattlesnake and it didn't have a hood around the head.  The body seemed quite thick and Striker just hoped that this was one of the constrictor types rather than the biting types, she'd have a much better chance against one trying to squeeze her to death.  The snake slithered quickly over to the corner of the room to Striker's relief and she looked around the room to take in the situation.

The cages where she had come through the wall were scattered onto the floor of the room but the animals in them looked to be alright as they were moving around.  There was a much larger variety of animals here than she had expected, she thought there would just be a few dogs and perhaps some cats but instead there were dogs, at least one snake as she had found the hard way, one cage looked to have a monkey in it, there were a few birds in the same larger cage, one looked like it housed a badger and it was a much larger creature than Striker had realised before, there were even some hedgehogs and squirrels and various rodents.  She looked at the window which seemed to be the only feasible exit to the room.  There was broken glass all around the floor next to it from when Striker had entered the building the first time; there was no way she could get the larger of the cages out of the window, and that was without considering how she could get them safely to the ground even if she did manage to get them through the window.  She looked back at the hole she had made into the adjoining room and decided it was best to check all possibilities.  She climbed back through the hole in the plasterboard to that room, widening the hole as she did.  The window in this room was no larger but at least it wasn't surrounded by broken glass.  She pulled open the cupboards in the room to look for anything she might find useful.  A large ball of string was in a cupboard filled with stationery so she grabbed that and put it on the desk.  There was a big metal disc in one cupboard which Striker recognised from school as being a very long tape measure, that might come in handy too she thought and put it on the desk as well.  She pulled the shelves out of the cupboards and she had herself three planks of wood on the desk then as well.  She looked around on the desk itself and found what must be an office toy which seemed to be made up of lots of plastic sticks in a compact ball but when you pulled it apart it expanded to a really large ball; Striker's mind saw that and thought grappling hook and put it next to her other collected items.  She couldn't find anything else she thought might be useful so she turned her attention to the window once more.

Striker gave the wall surrounding the window a few hard kicks but this wasn't the weak plasterboard of the internal wall, this was good, solid brick and it wasn't budging for her.  She felt a little reassured that the walls didn't fall apart that easily, it gave her a little more faith that the building around her wouldn't collapse and kill her, although that didn't help her with getting the animals out.  She stuck her head outside the window and looked up above her.  There was guttering at the top of the building, and with only one floor above her then it looked like a good option.  She snapped the office toy so that she was left with about a third of the original size and what she reckoned was a pretty good grappling hook shape for the circumstance.  She tied the end of the tape measure to it and pulled the tape measure out of the disc reel as far as it would go.  She leant out of the window and threw the hook up towards the guttering.

The hook latched on to the guttering and Striker gave it a quick tug, it fell straight back down again.  She pulled it back in, she acknowledged to herself that she would have been very lucky if it had worked on the first attempt.
She did the same thing again and it fell straight back down again.  On the third attempt, she gave it a tug and it didn't fall.  Finally she thought, she put a little more weight on it and the hook part of her grappling hook snapped, leaving a spidery mess of plastic at the end of her tape measure when she reeled it in.  She thought managing to make a grappling hook from an office toy was MacGyvering it a bit too much but she couldn't help but feel disappointed that it hadn't worked.  There was only one thing for it as far as she could tell and it wasn't her favourite option.

She felt around her costume for somewhere to hook the tape measure on to but didn't find anything, she made a note to ask The Gadget Man to give her a utility belt for this thing.  She tied it tightly around her waist instead, trusting to her hips to hold it up which would have been much easier on someone with an curvier figure as Whiskers but on Striker's boyish figure she just had to hope.  She hoisted herself out of the window and climbed up the wall; she reached the windowsill of the floor above but she wasn't quite tall enough when she was stood on it.  She climbed a little higher, desperately not looking down, so that she was standing on the lintel above the window.  She positioned herself as securely and balanced as she possibly could and she untied the tape measure from her waist.

Striker managed to use just one hand to feed the tape measure over the guttering and down the other side of it.  She tied the loose end and the disc back around her waist again and started to climb back down.  It was a lot harder to climb down than it had been to climb up and a few times Striker lost her footing a little and came close to falling.  When her foot touched the top of the window she was trying to reach, she squatted down, grabbed the lintel with both hands whilst simultaneously dropping her feet from it and she swung herself back into the room.

Striker landed gracefully in the middle of the floor and then felt bitterly disappointed that she hadn't had an audience for that move, not even the animals in the other room.  She untied the tape measure from her waist and used the string to tie the three shelves together to make a platform.  She then tied one end of the tape measure to the platform and she took it out to the window.  She reeled in the tape measure on the disc so that all of the slack was taken up and she let go of the platform.  She held her breath for a moment but it didn't fall, it held fast.  She wound the tape measure in and out of the disc and the platform moved up and down, her cobbled together pulley system was working.  She wound the disc around the desk leg a couple of times to hold the platform level whilst she went to fetch the first animal.

Striker decided that it would be best to start with the small animals on the platform, firstly because she wasn't all the confident on how much weight it could handle but also because she remembered something from one of those Royal Institute Christmas Lectures one year that the smaller the animal was, the less likely it was that they could reach terminal velocity, so if any animal was going to fall, she would rather it was a little one.  She had a look round the room and decided she'd start with the cage which just had two rodents in it; she wasn't sure what kind they were but she reckoned on them being hamsters or gerbils.  She carried the cage through to the office room and placed it carefully in the centre of the platform; she held onto the cage very lightly as she allowed the full weight to rest on the wooden shelves, poised to grab it again if the platform gave way but it showed no signs of failing.  Striker carefully moved her hands away and the cage sat on the platform without any problem.

Striker took the tape measure disc back from the desk, winding in the extra length as she walked back to the window.  Once she was right next to the window and could easily lean over to see the whole outside, she started to slowly unwind the tape measure.  The platform started to move down the building but it was so close to the wall it kept bashing into it and Striker was scared the cage was going to get knocked right off the platform.  As the platform lowered, it was getting close to a window which flames were licking out of and Striker cursed herself for not realising this sooner.  What she hadn't seen as she was making her pulley system was that Greyhound and Whiskers had been doing what they could from the ground as well.  They had managed to find a couple of metal poles from somewhere and together they were holding them up and using them to steer the platform away from the building, keeping the little fuzzy rodents in their cage well away from the flames.

When the platform touched down on the ground, Striker could hear the cheer from Greyhound and Whiskers.  They took the cage off the platform and Greyhound gave a sharp tug on the end of the tape measure which Striker took as a signal that it was safe to reel it in again.  Greyhound used his pole to try and keep the platform away from the flames whilst Whiskers was cooing over the cage with the rodents in; it was trickier with only the one pole as he needed to keep the pole right in the centre of the platform for it to work but he managed it and the platform reached Striker's window again.

Striker could barely believe that this had worked but she wasn't going to hang about whilst she contemplated it and she hurriedly loaded another cage.  The three of them repeated the same process for all of the small to medium sized cages.  Once they were all done, Striker was faced with the bigger challenge of the cages which wouldn't fit through the window.

On closer examination of the cages, Striker saw that they were secured with little padlocks.  She pulled the ring of keys off from her wrist and started to go through every key until she found one which worked.  The cage she had opened contained a Labrador dog which jumped up on her putting its front feet onto her hips.  She petted the dog and it seemed happy and friendly; she led the dog through to the other room and tried to get him to get onto the platform.  The dog wasn't having any of it though and in fairness Striker couldn't really blame it, she wouldn't have wanted to step on that thing if she was a dog either.  It was the only way down though so she scooped the dog up and put it onto the platform.

The dog was too scared to move once it was on the platform luckily but Striker didn't want to take any more chances than she needed to, so she wrapped the string a few times around the platform and dog together and tied it off in the hope that it would stop the dog from moving around too much and falling from the platform; she was pretty confident that the dog was big enough to have a terminal velocity that would kill or at least seriously injure it.  She tried to calm the dog as much as she could before she then started to lower the platform once again.  The dog panicked a little when the platform started to lower but it stayed on the platform much to Striker's relief.  Whiskers and Greyhound used the poles as before to steer the dog away from the flames and it got to the ground safely.  Striker shook her head in disbelief and was only brought back to herself again when she felt the sharp tug on the tape measure from Greyhound.

Striker repeated the process with the other larger cages as well, and she even started to recognise which key types were for which padlocks so she was managing to open them quicker.  The badger gave her the most difficultly, it really hadn't liked being in a cage and wasn't domesticated in the slightest, Striker wondered why it was even in there, it's not like people keep badgers as pets, but she wrestled it onto the platform and its own self-preservation instincts kept it on the platform.  Once she had lowered the last animal from a cage, the monkey who had hung around the tape measure rather than sit on the platform, Striker looked around the room once again and realised there was still one more animal which was left, the snake.

Striker could see small flames around the edges of the door now and she knew she didn't have much time.  She tentatively looked around the cages before she found the snake curled up in a corner.  The snake didn't move as Striker approached it and a first she thought it was already dead.  It twitched a little though, it was alive after all but it must be asleep; she realised then though that in the circumstance, it was more likely that it had been knocked unconscious by the smoke.  There was no time to lose, the door was alight now and the flames were starting to jump to other things in the room.  She mustered all of her courage, grabbed the snake and lifted it around her shoulders.  She ran through into the office room and found that the flames were consuming hat door too and had started on the desk where she had tied off of the tape measure.

Striker turned her face away from the flames and unhooked the tape measure as quickly as she could.  She took her chances with her makeshift lift then and stepped onto it with the snake still draped around her.  The pull on the tape measure was much greater than when the animals had been on it and she found it very difficult to control the unwinding of the tape measure whilst also trying to maintain her balanced on the small platform.  There were a few moments where she needed to use her arm to steady her and the tape measure extended by a metre or so in one go but she got it back under control each time and Greyhound and Whiskers were there to guide the platform away from the flames for the final time.

As soon as the platform touched down onto the ground, Striker got the snake from her shoulders and onto the ground next to her before taking a few cautious steps away from it.  She bumped into something behind her and turned around to find herself almost face-to-face with Whiskers, but as Whiskers was a fair bit taller than her, especially in her heels, it was more face-to-throat.
"You saved them!" said Whiskers and Striker saw that there were tears in her eyes.  Whiskers cupped her hands around Striker's face which made her feel quite uncomfortable but she thought it shouldn't have come to a surprise to her that Whiskers didn't respect personal boundaries.
"You wonderful thing!" said Whiskers, still cupping her hands around Striker's face and then suddenly her lips were planted full onto Striker's.  It felt like they were there for a whole minute but it must have only been a few seconds, but as soon as Whiskers broke the kiss she kissed her briefly one more time before then stroking Striker's costumed cheek with the back of her clawed hand.
"My own purrrrrfect hero." said Whiskers before she then went back over to tend to the animals which had been rescued.

Striker just stood there for a little while, too stunned to move, she really hadn't been expecting that reaction.  Greyhound appeared in front of her, grinning sheepishly.
"Do you believe me now that I'm not her type?" he asked.

Chapter Twelve

After that night, Laura resolved to wear her Striker costume underneath her day clothes no matter what she had planned, if something like that ever happened again, she wanted to have the protection the costume provided and she wanted to have the anonymity to be able to rescue people without question.  It was because of this that Striker was able to go straight from the office to go and see The Gadget Man without having to head home to change and so she arrived there without invitation the following evening.  She described what had happened at the cinema and she had explained that she was there with Greyhound but that he didn't know that he was there with Striker and asked him to keep that information to himself.  The Gadget Man typed everything she said into his computer system and asked her lots of questions which helped to get some more detail from her than she had initially given.
Just as she had finished being questioned by The Gadget Man, there were three sharp knocks at the door below them.
"Wait here" said The Gadget Man and he waddled over to the ladder and started to climb down them.
Striker could then hear the conversation below her, the sound travelling well through the stairwell in the middle of the floor.
"Greyhound," said The Gadget Man, "an unexpected visit."
"I'm sorry to come unannounced" said Greyhound.  "I need to tell you about what happened last night though."
"I see," said The Gadget Man.  "You had better come in then." and Striker heard the door close and footsteps on the staircase.

"Oh!" said Greyhound when he saw Striker.  "I'm sorry, I didn't know you were here."
"That's alright," replied Striker.  "I came unannounced too."  As soon as she finished speaking, she clutched her hands to her mouth realising what she had done.
"Laura?" he asked, sounding dumbfounded.  Striker shook her head, still clutching her hands to her mouth.  "It is, you're Laura!" he said sounding very certain this time.
Striker's shoulders fell and she dropped her hands from her mouth.  She felt so annoyed at herself, after she had tried so hard not to allow Greyhound to recognise her voice.  She silently chided herself for her silly error.
"Did you know who I am?" asked Greyhound suspiciously.
"I did." said Striker apologetically.  "As soon as I met you here, I knew where I knew you from.  I thought if I didn't speak to you ask Striker then you'd never know.  When I shouted at The General at the weekend I thought you were bound to recognise me but I guess you'd never heard me shout so why would you."  She sighed, at least it was in the open now so she didn't have to keep stopping herself from speaking all the time which was getting very frustrating at times.
"It's probably best that you know that anyway" said The Gadget Man, waddling over to the tiny seat next to the computer console.  "Especially as I believe someone else outside of this room knows at least one of your real identities, if not both of you."
"You think they were targeting the two of us then?" asked Striker.
"I think that is the most likely explanation, yes." replied The Gadget Man.
"So it's our fault all those people were killed." said Greyhound aghast.
"No, no." said The Gadget Man.  "The blame doesn't lie with either of you, only the person who set the bomb.  I just wish we knew who it was."
The Gadget Man started to frantically type things into the computer console then and various criminal profiles appeared on the screen in a format Laura was very familiar with as that was exactly what was used by the police.
"Do you think you can find out?" asked Striker, conscious that this was what he was working on at the moment.
The Gadget Man looked up at Striker and smiled.  "I believe I will be able to." he said with a grin.  Then a frozen CCTV image of the man Striker had seen at the docks, the one who was standing behind the line of gunmen.  "I believe I can indeed."

*****

When Laura was at work the next day, she just hoped and prayed that she wouldn't have to do any work which would require going anywhere near Gary's desk.  All of her colleagues seemed to have found out about the date though, and she knew she hadn't told then, but it meant that all day she had to put up with questions about the date.  She thought telling them that they were at the explosion site would be enough to stop them asking more about her and Gary but instead they just asked questions like whether he had carried her out or saved her in some heroic way.  They didn't seem at all interested that she had managed to save a badly hurt man and a little girl.  She was relieved when her boss showed more of an interest in the explosion itself than who she was there with.  The police had confirmed that it had been a homemade bomb which had caused the explosion but there were no fatalities.  Laura was particularly happy when they showed the guy she had saved who had the pipe impaled in his shoulder, he seemed to be doing well and it wasn't likely to lose any mobility of the arm.

It was about mid-morning when Laura was looking at her inbox and Gary Grayson's name appeared at the top of the list; the subject for the email was simply three dots.  She read all of the other new emails first, replying to any she was able to reply to straight away, but eventually she had read them all except for the one from Gary.  She clicked on the email, dreading what it might say.  She was surprised to find that it was only one line long, it simply read 'I think we should talk.'.  The worst thing was that she knew he was right, they did need to talk, even if it was to agree they wouldn't talk again.
After another thirty minutes, she finally replied, simply with 'Ok.'.  He replied again within the minute suggesting that they meet at the canteen for lunch at half past twelve and she reluctantly agreed.
The day had been going slowly until that point and now the time seemed to be hurtling towards twelve thirty at a speed so fast she nearly didn't realise what the time was until one of her colleagues said she was heading out for lunch and asked if she wanted anything.  It was twelve thirty and it was time to meet up with Gary.

She got to the canteen and he was waiting by the door for her.
"Hi." she said quietly when she reached him.
"Hi." Gary replied.  "Shall we?" and he gestured to the doors of the canteen.
"Yeah." said Laura.  This was just as awkward as she feared it would be and she could feel her cheeks getting hotter and the last thing she wanted was to be a silly, blushing girl.
They got their food in silence and Gary led them over to the farthest corner of the canteen where there wasn't anyone else around.  They set their trays down and Laura started eating, hoping maybe they could just eat and leave and they wouldn't have to have this conversation.
"So." said Gary, starting the conversation she didn't want to have.  "So I guess we know each other a little already then."
"Yeah." said Laura, wishing the earth would open up underneath her.
"Did you know?" he asked.
"Yeah." she replied.
"Since when?" he asked, he had obviously planned out these questions beforehand.
"The first time I met Greyhound." she replied.
"Yeah, we'd met at work before that hadn't we." he said, obviously having worked this out before the conversation.  "So you didn't want to tell me?"
"No." said Laura, her cheeks burning hot by this point.
"Why not?" he asked.  "Don't you think it was fair for me to know that someone knew who I really was?"
"I didn't think of it that way." said Laura, who really hadn't.  "I didn't want you to know who I was."
"But it was fine for you to know who I was without me knowing?" he asked sternly.
"I'm sorry." she said.  "I just didn't think of it like that.  I didn't want you to know who I was."
"Yeah." he said, softening.  "I get it, I'm just upset is all."
"Yeah, replied Laura, "I get that too."
"Maybe we should just start over," said Gary, "on a level footing."
"What?" asked Laura, expecting this to be the end of any ties between them at all.
"We should start over." repeated Gary.  "We both know a lot more about each other now, so we should just start from there."  He smiled weakly, uncertainly at her.
"Erm..." said Laura, she hadn't really thought this through, why hadn't she thought this through?
"Unless you don't want to that is." said Gary, already looking crestfallen.
"Well," said Laura, "I mean, Whiskers is, well..."
Gary laughed "You're kidding right?"
"What?" asked Laura, feeling like the butt of the joke.
"Whiskers is, well, I'm not her type put it that way." he said still laughing.
"She seems to be yours." said Laura, and she realised how silly and jealous she sounded.  "I mean it's fine and everything," she stammered, "you know, it's not like we were, well, anyway."
"I've known Whiskers for a long time," said Gary.  "She's more of a big sister than anything else, and she's completely irrelevant to this conversation."  He was grinning at her and she still felt like he was laughing at her.
"So what is relevant to this conversation?" asked Laura, still not sure what was really going on here.
"Well, you are," said Gary, "and I am.".  He smiled a warm smile which made Laura's tummy turn somersaults again in that way that she hated.  Her nose started to itch then and she had to scratch it but it just wouldn't stop itching and all she could think was how ridiculous she looked scratching her nose non-stop and that he must be thinking she's a complete idiot by now.
"Ok." Laura said through her hand.  She lowered her hand but the itching continued.  "So what does starting over involve?"
"Well Wednesday wasn't exactly a success." said Gary.  "So how about we try again this weekend?"
"I don't think the cinema will be open again by then." said Laura.  "I think it's going to take a while before they're back up and running again."
"So we won't go to the cinema then." said Gary.  "I'd seen it three times already anyway but I did want to enjoy it with a fellow comic book geek."
"So what then?" asked Laura, putting the ball entirely in Gary's court, she really wasn't sure where she stood or even what she wanted.  She wasn't looking to go on dates with anyone right now, her life was complicated enough with Striker and with migraines, adding dating to that mix just seemed to be asking for something to go wrong.
"Well, can I take you for pizza?" he asked.
Laura thought about this, the way he had phrased the question implied that he was going to be paying for her, which the feminist in her didn't want to happen but at the same time she appreciated that was what boys were told was the right thing to do.  Pizza at least isn't usually expensive so if he was going to pay for a meal then that seemed like a good option.  She was trying to think of a reason to say no and just wasn't finding one.
"Ok." she said.
"Tonight?" he asked.  "It's Friday after all, the start of the weekend."
"Can we go straight from work?" asked Laura, really wanting to avoid the whole 'getting ready' part of dating as she had no idea how to glam herself up to look presentable.
"Sure!" said Gary, lighting up.  "No problem!" he said excitedly.
"I finish at five thirty." said Laura.
"Ok, I'll come and meet you at your office." said Gary.
"No!" said Laura quickly and he looked crestfallen for a moment.  "Let's meet in the car park instead." she said.  "They're gossiping enough in my office as it is."
"Ok," he said, "that might be my fault, sorry."  He looked shifty.  "I might have told a couple of people in my office."
"Gary!" said Laura sternly.
"Sorry!" he said, "I was excited." he grinned and Laura couldn't help but smile back at him.

*****

They both drove into town and parked up in the same car park; they found the last two spaces in totally different parts of the car park.  They walked from there to Pizza Express and Laura had to keep her arms folded as she walked as when her arm was swinging by her side and Gary's was swinging next to his side, she got the feeling he was trying to catch her hand in his and that really made her feel uncomfortable at the moment, as if the date itself didn't feel weird enough.

They got to the restaurant and they were seated straight away to Laura's relief.  She managed to study the menu right up until they came to take the order so that she didn't have to make any small talk with him whilst they waited for the server to come.  Once their orders had been taken though, the menus were taken away and Laura found herself needing to try and make conversation.
"So, done any crime fighting lately?" asked Laura casually.
Gary looked around nervously but no-one was listening to their conversation, everyone around them seemed to be swept up in their own conversations and laughter.  "Not since Sunday." he said quietly.  "Why, have you?"
"No." said Laura.  "Wednesday night was excitement enough for me."  In truth, she had been trawling the files on the system at work to find someone else she could target like she had done Charlton but she hadn't turned up anything she could use yet; she was starting to feel for the officers who must feel that hopeless on so many cases so much of the time when there are no leads to go on.
"Yeah, that was pretty heavy wasn't it?" said Gary.  "Do you really think it was us being targeted?" he asked.
"It's a possibility."  said Laura.  "One we need to need to be careful of as well, maybe we shouldn't have come out tonight after all." she said, reaching for her handbag.
"No!" said Gary, putting his hand on her bag so quickly she didn't see him do it.  "Don't leave." he said.
"We might be putting all of these people in danger just by being here together." said Laura, looking around at the room, trying to see if anyone was watching them or looking suspicious but she wasn't even sure what looking suspicious would look like.
"We can't put our lives on hold because of some crazy person." said Gary.  "They win otherwise."
"Yeah" said Laura, reluctantly agreeing.
"So how long had you known, er, the short guy?" asked Laura, trying not to use any names which would draw attention.
"Oh, Gadget?" asked Gary.  "Yeah, I've known him for about five years now.  He approached me after he saw a race I was in just after I got my powers."
"How did you get them?" asked Laura, she hadn't even considered how he might have got them, it obviously wasn't a natural speed.
"I was bitten by a radioactive spider." he said with a wink.  Laura just looked at him with one eyebrow raised, waiting for the real answer.
"Ok," he said, "I wasn't bitten by a radioactive spider, or any other kind of spider.  Actually, I had leukaemia when I was about fifteen."
"What?" said Laura, she really wasn't expecting that and suddenly felt a maternal instinct in her kick in as she wanted to protect him from the nasty disease and she immediately felt ridiculous for feeling like that.
"Yeah, it was a pretty rough time." said Gary.  "I got a bone marrow transplant.  None of my family was a match but they found a match from a donor who had died in a car crash and I got the transplant."
"So, how did that have anything to do with your speed?" asked Laura, fascinated.
"Well I'm not sure to be honest." said Gary.  "I just know that I was normal, well, normal other than the leukaemia that is, before I got the transplant, and then afterwards I was completely healthy and I found I had this incredible speed.  Gadget contacted me pretty soon afterwards and we've been working together since then really.  It took him a long time to work out a fabric which could stand the friction from how fast I run but he got there in the end, after a couple of false attempts where I managed to set the suit on fire that is!"  Laura gasped at this but Gary just laughed and continued.  "He's had big plans for a while and he's so excited he's put the team together, it's like his dream come true!"
"I don't know what to say." said Laura, who didn't know what to say.  "I'm so sorry that you went through that."
"It turned out well in the end." he said grinning.  "I'd never be able to do what I do now if it hadn't happened and I wouldn't swap that for the world."  There was a twinkle in his eyes which Laura couldn't help but find attractive.  He had never seemed this relaxed or this confident when they were working together in the team or when they were chatting in the office and it was a really nice side of him to see.
"So what about you?" he asked.  "How did you get yours?"
"I'm not really sure." said Laura.  "I think maybe I always had them but I just didn't know, but I can't really know for sure either way."
"Well how did you find out you had them then?" asked Gary, he was genuinely interested and Laura found it so strange to tell someone about this part of her life.
"Well someone stole my car," she said, "and the police said they couldn't do anything about it, they just didn't have the man power to spend on hunting down stolen cars really."
"That was before you worked for them?" he asked.
"Yeah, that was kind of why I started working for them really." said Laura.  "Anyway, I managed to find them, and I was so angry and I just wasn't thinking, so I confronted them.  The next thing I knew, I'd knocked them both out, I really had no idea I had it in me."  It felt so great to be able to tell someone this, she had long wanted someone's opinion on it, someone without an ulterior motive, someone who wouldn't freak out and who could look at it all objectively, she didn't know how much she had wanted the ability to talk about this until she was now able to.
"Woah!" he said.  "And had you had any fighting training, martial art or anything?"
"Nothing at all." said Laura.  "And I barely even tried really."
"So, you're like super-strong or something then?" asked Gary.  "I mean, I never really understood your power."
"Neither do I!" said Laura, "And I'm the one who has it!"  They shared a laugh but Laura decided she should really elaborate a little.  "Ok, well I'm definitely stronger than I should be by rights," she explained, "and I seem to naturally just know what to do in a fight, which doesn't sound like a super power but it's really handy!  I think the most important thing, the thing that made me feel like I actually could go out there and catch some criminals, is that I can take a hit.  And I don't mean that I can roll with the punches or anything, it's that I seem to heal up really quickly.  I just with that would work with my m..."  Laura stopped there, she told Gary all about her power quite happily but something stopped her from telling him about her migraines.  Maybe it was not wanting to admit a weakness or maybe it was that he wouldn't be interested if he knew, but in any case, she couldn't tell him.
"Your what?" asked Gary.
"My mum." lied Laura.  "Yeah, she can always hit me where it hurts you know."  She gave a false chuckle but felt terrible for saying that about her mum when she had looked after her through so many migraines and always tried to help her as best she could.
"Oh yeah, mums can be like that." said Gary but Laura got the sense he didn't quite believe her cover then, she knew she wasn't a good liar but at least he wasn't pushing her.

Gary brought one of his hands up on to the table and he rested it on top of her hand.  That felt weird but Laura didn't pull her hand away, she just let him rest his on hers without saying a word.  He smiled at her but it was then that Laura noticed the smoke blowing past the window.
"Fire!" said Laura, standing up.
"What?" said Gary, who stood up and ran next to the window faster than Laura could see him move.  "It's at the pet store." said Gary and when he turned to Laura she saw that all the colour had drained from his face.  He ran back to the table and said "Whiskers."

That was all Laura needed to know.  "Are you wearing your costume?" she asked him, confident no-one was listening as the crowd was gathering by the windows now, looking at the fire outside.
Gary nodded.  "You?" he asked.  She nodded back, seems like both of them hadn't wanted to get caught without their costumes a second time then.  Laura nodded towards the toilets and they both headed in there to change.

Striker knew that Greyhound could run out of the restaurant faster than anyone would be able to see him but she didn't have that luxury.  There was a small, high window in the toilets though, so after taking her normal clothes off to reveal the costume underneath, she bundled them together using her cardigan sleeves to knot the bundle together and managed to squeeze herself through the tiny window.  She pulled the clothes through after her but one of her socks escaped the clothing prison and made a break for it.  Striker could see through the window, lying on the floor of the bathroom, one of her Wonder Woman socks that she loved.  No time for socks now though she thought and she hid the rest of her clothes behind the big wheelie bin at the back of the restaurant.

Striker ran round to the front of the buildings and she saw the pet store on the high street there was ablaze.  She looked around for Greyhound but couldn't see him, if he was there then she probably wouldn't see him anyway she realised, given the speed he runs at.  She could hear the sirens approaching of the fire engine but she knew there wouldn't be much they could do once they got here, they wouldn't be able to save the building so she needed to save anyone she could beforehand.

Striker raced around to the back of the pet store.  The fire didn't seem to be as bad on this side and there was a window on the second floor which didn't look like it had any fire in the room there.  Striker assessed the building and decided the drain pipes were the best way to go.  She got a leg up on the bins which were there and scaled the building the same way she had back at the docks, walking her way up the wall using the drain pipe to hang on to.  She was almost level with the second floor window when the piping, probably affected by the heat, started to come away from the wall.  She had to act now or she'd end up falling to the ground; she mustered what power she could and threw herself from the pipe towards the windowsill.  That last bit of force on the pipe caused it to break irreparably and the section she had been hanging on to fell to the ground with a great crash.

Striker had managed to get one hand onto the windowsill but the other was gripping the lip of a brick where the mortar was a little thin.  She shuddered when the pipe hit the ground, hoping that wouldn't be her in a moment.  Her feet managed to grip the tiny ledges caused by the brickwork as well and she managed to push herself up enough to get her other hand onto the windowsill as well.  Now all she needed was to hoist herself up there too.  She inched her feet up, little by little, finding any grip she could on the bricks until she had enough leverage to be able to hoist herself up onto the ledge.

Striker started to feel around the frame, trying to find if there was a way to open the window before she realised she was wasting precious time and instead used her elbow to smash the glass of the window into the room.  She did this with relative ease and noticed as she was knocking in the shards which remained that the window had been double-glazed and she casually thought to herself that she was under the impression that double-glazed windows were much harder to break than that.  Once the frame had been emptied of glass, she ducked through the opening into the darkened room.

The room wasn't full of smoke but there was some in there which must have seeped in.  The room was dark but Striker's eyes were adjusting and she slowly started to see the outlines of cages.  When she heard a bark behind her then it confirmed what she had feared, this room was filled with animals who couldn't escape and were sure to die if she didn't get them out, but how could she get them down from here?

Striker went over to the door of the room and she pressed her hand against the wood of the door.  She couldn't feel any heat so she took the risk and opened the door.  The smoke flooded into the room but Striker hoped that with the window completely open then it wouldn't fill with so much smoke that the animals would die, she didn't know how she would be able to live with that on her conscience.  She held her hand over her mouth to block the smoke as much as she could and stepped out of the door.

There was a corridor outside of the room with more doors leading from it; it looked like there was a stairwell at the end of the corridor but Striker realised the light she was able to see the stairwell by was light coming from the fire.  She cautiously headed down the corridor to the stairwell and when she leaned over the railings she could see the flames were lapping up the stairs below, that wasn't going to be a viable exit.  She was just turning back to where she had come from when she heard a voice cry out "Help!".

Chapter Eleven

When Laura's alarm went off on Monday morning, she awoke fully clothed on the sofa.  She had a blanket over her which she knew she hadn't covered herself with.
As her eyes became less bleary, she noticed an envelope on her coffee table which looked identical to the one The Gadget Man had left her previously.  She reached over and picked it up, the envelope was sealed with the same wax seal as the previous letter from The Gadget Man which confirmed who had left it for her.  She slid her finger under the flap and opened the letter.

Dear Striker,

I hope you can excuse my intrusion.

I have had mission reports from all of the other members of the team at various points over the day but your lack of contact was concerning me and so I paid you a visit.  I hope you are feeling much improved when you find and read this letter.

I believe the mission was not as successful as we had hoped and none of the narcotics were prevented from leaving the docks to be distributed.  There seems to be a number of reasons for this but I feel the lion's share of the blame rests with myself, for had I disseminated a comprehensive plan for the mission, or indeed simply given a little further guidance, I believe the mission would have been a great deal more successful.

I do hope this doesn't deter you from further missions and I hope you will join myself and the rest of the team at 7 o'clock on Saturday morning for the next step in our fight against crime.

Yours with well wishes,

The Gadget Man

P.S.  I have fed your lovely cocker spaniel with the dog food I found in your kitchen, I hope this was the right thing to do.


Laura set the letter down and let the memories of the events of the previous morning flood her mind.  Yes, it had been a truly disastrous first mission as a team.  Even on Striker's first outing where Charlton had ended up being released without charge and a report made about herself to the police, even that was more successful that their first team mission.

It was when Alfie whined at her that she realised that she still needed to feed him this morning as this letter was clearly left last night and it was then that she realised she was going to be late for work.  She flung herself into the shower and then rushed around her flat sorting herself out, and not even caring when she put on a crumpled blouse before she headed out the door to go to work.
*****

Laura found it difficult to get her mind into work when it was going over the events at the dockyard.  The sensation of the bullet hitting Striker's costume and the pressure from it being exerted over her whole body was something which still made her shudder.  She conceive of how much force was behind that one small bullet for her to feel it that strongly when it was so widely dispersed and the thought that if it wasn't for her costume, that force would have all be concentrated on that one bullet, tearing through her insides, perhaps ripping its way through vital organs.  She still didn't really know where it had struck her so she couldn't even imagine which vital organs it might have struck but she kept imagining that it would have been her heart.

She worked her way through the issues which had logged to her, occasionally needing to go to someone's desk to get them sorted.  She wasn't thinking when one of the names which came up on the system was Gary Grayson and she wandered off to his desk to go and fix the issue he was getting.  It was only when she was walking up to the desk that she remembered who she now knew that was, she was heading to Greyhound's desk.

It was too late to turn around then, he had already seen her coming and his face had lit up when he had seen her.  Probably how he looked whenever he saw Whiskers she thought.
"Hi, you've got a problem connecting to the drive?" she asked slightly stiffly when she got to the desk.
"Hi Laura!" said Gary enthusiastically.  "You remember me don't you?" he asked hesitantly as she hadn't greeted him with the same enthusiasm.
"Yeah, course." said Laura, forcing a smile, remembering that he didn't know that she was Striker like she knew that he is Greyhound.  "You're the comic geek." she said with a smile.
"That's me!" he said with a little chuckle.  "Have you read the new Hawkeye?"
Striker was thrown by this seemingly every day question when all she was thinking about when she looked at him was how her bum had been so close to his face when he had carried her to the docks and how embarrassing that was.
"Er... no." she said.  "I've been too busy to head down to the comic shop."
"You can borrow mine if you like?" he said, reaching for his bag where he then pulled the slightly dog-eared comic from.  "It's a great one!" he said, handing it to her.
"Oh, thanks!" said Laura, not expecting to get showered in comics.  "Your drive?" she said, indicating the computer.
"Oh yeah, I can't connect to it." he said.
"Yeah, you need to map it with a different domain." she said, going to grab the mouse and keyboard.  "Ok if I just drive?" she asked.
"Go ahead." he said, getting out of his chair so that she could sit comfortably.
"So, did you do anything fun this weekend?" he asked and Laura's head snapped round at him.
"What?" she asked.
"I just asked if you did anything fun at the weekend." he said uncertainly.
"Right," said Laura suspiciously, "no, not really.  Did you?"
"Oh you know," said Greyhound, "just the usual bit of crimefighting and heroine rescuing".  Laura just stared at him with her mouth hanging slightly open, did he really just tell her that he is Greyhound?  He winked at her and laughed then "I mean reading my comics of course." he said chuckling.
"Oh right" said Laura, forcing a chuckle out as well and trying to hold a smile.  "Of course you did." she said, hoping she was being convincing and hurrying up at sorting out his drive mapping so she could get away soon..
"So, have you seen the new Thor movie?" he asked her.
"What?" she asked.
"The new Thor movie." he repeated.  "Have you seen it yet?"
"Oh right, you mean Loki: The Dark World." she said with a wry smile, wondering if he liked the comic book villains too or if he was more Captain America-minded about things.
He laughed a big laugh right from his belly.  "Yeah, that one." he said.  "So have you seen it?"
"Yeah, I went to Leeds where they had it on a preview viewing before it came out." she said automatically, almost finished sorting out his drive now. "I'll probably go and see it a couple more times of course, it was great.  Now enter your username and password in here please." said she getting out of the chair and handing the control of the computer back to him.
"So do you fancy going to see it with me sometime?" he asked quietly.  Laura looked around embarrassed that other people in the office would have heard this but no-one seemed to be paying any attention.
"Er..." she stammered.  "Well, I don't really know you." she said.
"There's one way to fix that." he said with that beaming smile of his and her stomach did that lurching thing she hated again.
"Ok, sure." she said in automatic pilot, already walking away from his desk, trying to get away as quickly as she could.
"I'll email you!" he called after her and what she'd agreed to started to sink in.  If he hadn't realised who she was yet, he was bound to realise if they went for a date together.  How could she have been so stupid?

His promised email arrived only about fifteen minutes later, far faster than Laura had been expecting and she was still feeling flustered when she read it.
They exchanged a few brief emails, they were more like having an online chat than emails as she was used to and within a few emails they had agreed to go to the cinema on Wednesday when they could get the Orange two for one deal, Laura felt like that gave it a legitimate reason for them going together then at least.  They said they'd go straight from work on Laura's suggestion, so that it felt much more casual than if they were going home to get ready first.  Laura hadn't really gone on a formal date before and she didn't even know what she was meant to do to get ready for one; her only boyfriend had been someone she was friends with for a while and it happened without them really knowing it so they never had that dating phase.
*****

On the Wednesday before going to work, Laura found herself picking out a figure-hugging shift dress; it had a very high neckline and went down to her knees which suited Laura's modesty, but it followed her figure nicely and her mum had told her looked very nice on her so many times it had started to sink in.
She spent the whole day at work anxiously looking at the clock and wondering why the day was going so slowly.  It was when she had looked at the clock at 10:42, 10:45 and 10:49 and was so frustrated that it wasn't even lunchtime yet that she realised that she was actually pretty excited about the date.
When five o'clock finally came around, Laura's stomach started doing that lurching thing she hated again.  She packed up her things and walked out of her office.  Stood waiting for her right outside of her office door was Gary.
"Hi." she said, tucking her hair behind her ear and finding herself looking at the ground.
"Hi" he replied.  "You ready?"
"Yup." she said, trying to sound casual even if she didn't feel it.
"So shall I follow you?" he asked.
"What?" responded Laura confused.  "Don't you know the way out from here?"
"No, I mean in our cars to the cinema." said Gary with a chuckle.
"Oh, right." said Laura, going red.  She was already making a fool of herself, she felt like such an idiot.  "Yeah sure."
They walked in almost silence as they headed to the car park, only speaking to agree that they'll eat at the cinema.

When they arrived at the cinema, they parked right next to each other which a part of Laura thought was cute and another part thought it was lame.  When they got to the ticket counter, they both got their Orange Wednesdays codes out and then had a 'No, you use yours, 'No, no, you can use yours' moment which Laura felt herself going very red throughout and couldn't help but think that the cashier must have thought they ridiculous.  They used Laura's code but then argued over the payment.  Laura eventually conceded and let Gary pay for their tickets, allowing herself this on the justification that he was technically only paying for one ticket and her ticket was actually free.  He gave Laura the tickets to look after saying she was probably the more responsible of the two of them.

They went to separate counters at the food area which Laura was relieved about, she didn't want to have him trying to pay for her giant hot dog, nachos and slushie drink.  She balanced her hot dog on top of her nachos in her left hand and grabbed the slushie with her right then went to find Gary.  He had bought the same hot dog and nachos and looked to be trying to work out how he could carry them both along with his gigantic drink.
"Try this." said Laura, holding up her own pile of food.
"Oh perfect!" said Gary, grabbing a bite of his hotdog before plonking it on the top of his nachos.
They got to the to attendant who checks the tickets and realised that neither of them had a hand free to be able to get the tickets out.
"They're in my jeans pocket." said Laura to the attendant, who just raised one eyebrow at her.  "You could grab it?" she said hopefully.
"I don't think so." he said, looking at her like she he thought she was trying to sneak in without a ticket.
"Here." said Gary, putting his huge paper cup of coke on top of her slushie.  She nearly lost the balance of it as she hadn't been expecting that but she kept it all straight.  "Ok, which side?" he asked, looking down at her jeans.  She thrust her right hip towards him, something she really wasn't expecting she would be doing this evening.

That was when it happened.

The whole building shook, all the glass shattered and the sound was deafening.  Laura fell to the floor, the food and drinks going everywhere around her and over her, but she barely noticed that as everyone was falling around her too and a section of the ceiling over the ticket booth then collapsed.  She looked around and there were people running, panicking, more parts of the ceiling falling, it was chaos.
"A bomb!" yelled Gary, who was on his feet and holding out his hand to help Laura.  She grabbed it and got to her feet.
"We have to help people!" she yelled back once she had regained her balance.  "We need to get them out!"
"Yeah!" yelled back Gary, but he looked a little lost and Laura realised it was because he didn't know that she knew that he is Greyhound and for that matter he didn't know that she is Striker.
"Just run!" yelled Laura pushing him, hoping he understood and used his special ability to save people now.  She wished she had done what so many comic book heroes she had read had done and worn her costume underneath her normal clothes.  She might have even considered it if she thought she could have still fitted into her shift dress if she had done; of course she hadn't expected a bomb to go off when she was the cinema though.

"Everyone out!" yelled Laura, hoping that the people who were able to would get themselves out of the building before any more of it could fall down.  People were streaming past her now, fleeing from where they had been watching films in the different screens.  Most of the people must have used the fire exits in the screens though thought Laura, or there would be a stampede coming from the screens.
She looked around to see if there was anyone who needed help and before she knew what she was doing, she was running towards the ticket booth where the ceiling had first collapsed.
The booth was covered in tiny pieces of glass from the safety glass that had shattered when the bomb went off but it also had a large pipe, which must have come from the ceiling, buried in it.

Laura jumped up onto the countertop, as she did she felt the side seam of the dress rip as she forced it to stretch beyond the fabric's capability.  As she looked down to the other side of the counter, the chap they had bought their tickets from was lying on the floor, the wheeled chair he had been sat on was thrown to one side with the backrest now lying across his legs but the most disturbing sight was the pipe going straight through his shoulder.  He lay there motionless with his eyes closed and Striker was a little sick in her mouth as she realised that he was probably dead.

She couldn't take any chances though, she dropped down next to him and put a hand on his chest.  She could feel a heartbeat and his chest as rising and falling slowly, he was still alive.  Laura couldn't help but think that this could only be fleeting with the way the pipe was impaled right through him.  She looked at the amount of blood surrounding the shoulder but there was barely any and she realised that the pipe was actually holding back the blood, that if she removed it, he would start to bleed heavily and possibly lose too much blood to be able to continue living.

She put both of her hands underneath his back in a flat scoop shape and lifted him slightly with her head pressed to the floor, the pipe didn't continue on anywhere else then, if she could separate the pipe from the building then she could make sure he got to an ambulance.  She remembered seeing on numerous television shows that it was important to keep someone conscious after a blow to the head and he looked like he most likely had suffered a blow to the head.
"Can you hear me?" she asked the man.  She spotted a name badge pinned to his lapel.  "Andrew!" she yelled, "Can you hear me? Wake up Andrew!"
His eyes didn't open, but Laura could see that they were moving underneath the lids.
"Andrew!" she yelled again and he stirred a little more then.  His eyes slowly blinked open.  "Do you know where you are?" asked Laura who remembered this question being asked of people who had just woken up in hospital and she always thought it was a bit of a silly question when they'd been moved there whilst they were unconscious.  It seemed like a reasonable thing to ask in these circumstances though.
He looked up at Laura and then around a little at what was around him.  "Am I at work?" he asked confusedly.
"Yes." said Laura, "but you need an ambulance, you're hurt.".  She pointed to the shoulder where the pipe had gone right through it.
"Holy crap!" yelled Andrew when he saw it and he instinctively tried to move away from it causing it to move a little and he screamed out in agony.
"Sorry!" said Laura, feeling responsible for his pain.  "I need to get you out of here so that you can be treated." she told him.  He was still screaming though.  She decided it would be better to just get it over and done with.
She got back up, climbed back up onto the counter top and stood up on it.  She grabbed the pipe at a section where it had bent, figuring that was probably a week point and she tore it apart.  She knew she was stronger than she should be for her size and for the fact she never worked out, but whenever she did something using that strength it always amazed and delighted her.
As she tore at the pipe, it moved around in the wound of the cashier.  He screamed some more and then he fell silent, the pain must have caused him to pass out she realised, which was probably not a good thing.  She took advantage of it though, by bending the pipe around so that it no longer stuck straight out of him but instead curled around so that it went back and slightly behind his shoulder; he should be easier to move now.
She very gently and tentatively lifted him from the floor.  There was no new surge of blood from the wound where the pipe was sticking through him.  She tried to move him around as little as possible as she rolled over the counter top.  Another section of ceiling collapsed to her left as she found her footing again.  There were still people running from the screens area out into the lobby and they all seemed to be heading out of the main door rather than the fire exits but since all the doors had been made of glass and so they were all covered in the glass pellets whichever way she went, she followed the crowd through the main doors.
When she got outside, there was a mass of people who had just stopped when they had reached the street.
"Clear the perimeter!" yelled Laura.  "Get away from the building, you're still in danger!".  No-one seemed to hear her though, and any further cries would have been drowned out by the noise of the approaching emergency services vehicles which had just rounded the corner.
Laura got the impaled man over to the other side of the street which was the safest she could feasibly get him and still get back to help others.  A woman saw her carrying the man and rushed over to help.  Laura told her to stay with him and to try and get him to wake up again and she ran back inside the building.
The lobby seemed to be clear of people now.  Just as she was running over to the screens, she saw a streak of colour go past her and realised it must be Gary.  She wondered if he had had the foresight to wear his costume under his clothes but there was no way she could tell when he was running at the speed he could.
The blur of colour that had been Gary had headed to the screens on the left so Laura headed over to the ones on the right.  She opened the door to the first screen she came across and looked inside.  The room looked empty and still in tact and the fire exit doors were open, the people in here were probably fine and had already evacuated.  On to the next one and it was the same story in there.  She reached the next screen, screen ten, and she knew there was something wrong before she even opened the door, there was smoke coming out from underneath the door.  She looked around the corridor and grabbed the fire extinguisher she saw, braced herself and flung the door open.

The smoke penetrated her lungs in just a few seconds, then the heat hit her.  She started walking into the room but the smoke was stinging her eyes and it was stopping her seeing things.  She heard the sound of a little girl crying and she felt like her heart stopped for a moment.  She had to get to that little girl.
"Where are you?" she shouted out to the room but the girl just kept crying.  "I can help you!" she called out "Where are you?".  She was walking down the central aisle, feeling her way with her feet for each step.  The crying was coming from the left but further down.

As she went further forward, it became clearer where the fire was, the whole screen was ablaze.  She could see daylight coming from the right of the screen and hoped that was a fire exit most people had made it out of.  The crying was coming from directly from her left now and she started feeling her way down the row, calling out to the girl still.  The crying grew louder as she inched down the row, shuffling her feet so as not to step on the poor thing.  She saw the girl just before she would have bumped her foot into her and she crouched down next to her.
"What's your name?" she asked the girl, trying not to sound panicked.  The girl kept on crying but then she choked a word out.
"S-S-S-Sarah." she said before recommencing the crying.  She was curled up in the corner of the row and she was clutching a soft toy which looked to Laura like it was Sully from Monsters Inc.
"Ok Sarah," she said in her calmest voice she could manage, "I need to get you to your Mummy and Daddy."  The girl continued crying but now was managing to cry whilst saying the word "Mummy" over and over again.
"I can carry you to Mummy if you can carry Sully." said Laura.  Sarah's grip on Sully tightened as she continued crying for her Mummy.  Laura took this confirmation of her understanding and scooped the girl up into her arms.

She felt her way back along the row of seats to the central aisle and headed back up the way she had come; she knew the way she had come was clear but with the fire blazing down where the fire exit was, she didn't want to risk that route even though it was the closest exit.  When they got out of the screen they were able to breath again and Sarah stopped crying so hard and just grizzled instead, much to Laura's relief as the child's mouth was quite close to her ear.

When she got outside, she saw ambulances and police cars outside and a fire engine arrived just as she emerged.  The ambulances had various people on stretchers and she saw Gary over at one ambulance helping the paramedics get someone he had probably just carried out onto a stretcher.  She carried the girl over to the same ambulance.
"Please help her!" she said to the paramedics and one of them immediately broke away from what they were doing to tend to the girl.  "She's had bad smoke inhalation" she explained to them.
"What's your daughter's name?" asked the paramedic.
"She's called Sarah but she's not my daughter." replied Laura.  "I don't know where her parents are but I think she had her Mum with her as she's been crying for her."
"Right." said the paramedic and took the girl from her who was coughing more than grizzling now.  "And you wait over in this area please."
"What?" asked Laura.  "No, I have to go back and see if anyone else is in there!"
"They won't let you now." said Gary, who had finished helping the paramedic get the person on the stretcher.  "The police won't let anyone else inside other than the fire fighters now.".  He pointed to where the police were setting up a crude barricade using police tape around the building.
"Oh right." said Laura disappointedly.  She knew she could be more help if she was able to go back in there, that was really frustrating but it's not like she could go up to the police officers and say 'Excuse me, I'm Striker, you know, that vigilante you're after.  So if you could just let me through so I can be a hero please, be a love.'.
"You shouldn't have gone back in at all." said Gary, "You have to leave that to the professionals.".  Laura scowled at him, why did he think he could go in and save people but she couldn't.  But then she remembered that he doesn't know that she's Striker.
"And did you?" she asked, turning the tables.
"Well yes." said Gary, "But that's different."
"It is?" she asked, raising an eyebrow at him.  "How is it different?"
"Well..." said Gary, obviously struggling to give the reason without saying that he can run faster than the eye could see.  "Because it is."
Laura laughed and took that answer as her winning the point.
"Well we've done all we can for now." said Laura, looking around at the scene surrounding them.  "And the emergency services have certainly got their hands full now."
"Yeah, what I want to know though," said Gary, "is what caused this."
"Well it was either a bomb or some kind of explosion I reckon." said Laura.  "So is there any reason to want to bomb a cinema?"
"Well it doesn't look like they got that many casualties" said Gary.  "And if they wanted to cause casualties, surely they'd have done it later, when all the screens will be packed?"
"Unless they were going after someone in particular." said Laura thoughtfully.  She looked at Gary and wondered if there was anyone who could have known that the two of them would be there at the cinema tonight and if there was, if they could possibly know what their secret identities were.  It was a question which would haunt her for some time to come.

Chapter Ten

Striker didn't sleep well that night.  She was pretty terrified about the thought of taking on criminals of the level where they were shipping in drugs from overseas in what she could only assume were large quantities.  She had started this superhero thing with the aim of catching the criminals the police didn't have the resources to do anything about, not the ones who they were already probably planning elaborate operations for.  What if they got in the way of the police and they ended up ruining the plans that would have got these guys locked up?  This wasn't what she had wanted to sign up for at all.

But it seemed too late to back out now.  She finally let sleep overcome her at about half past two in the morning and her alarm was very unwelcome when it started beeping at her only three hours later.  It took her a few minutes to realise what it was as the noise had been encompassed into her dream in the form of a bomb beeping that she had to try and defuse before it went off.  When she roused herself to consciousness to turn the alarm off she found her heart was pounding, feeling the stress of the bomb diffusing and she realised this was probably and indicator of the stress she was feeling about the imminent operation.

The water on her face in the shower calmed her down and helped to wake her up so she felt pretty awake by the time she was putting on her new Striker costume.  She wished she hadn't had to give up coffee, she'd love a cup right now to help her feel more alert but she knew that the caffeine would most likely trigger a migraine and that was the last thing she needed today.

She put some food out for Alfie before she went out, promising him that she'd take him for a nice long walk when she got back later but she was more hoping that she'd be in a fit state to do that and not lying in a hospital with a gunshot wound.  That probably wasn't the right way to think about things though she decided, positive mental attitude and all that.  She took a deep breath and she headed out.

She arrived at the clock tower about ten minutes early, so she kicked herself for not having taken the time to have breakfast.  She was just walking up to the door when there was a streak of light in front of her and Greyhound appeared at the door before her.  Her stomach did somersaults immediately and she really wished it wouldn't, she didn't need distractions like that today.
"Wotcha Striker!" said Greyhound cheerfully.
Strike moved her fingers in a vague, embarrassed wave.  Why did she even feel embarrassed to wave at him? This was ridiculous she thought and gave a curt nod instead and sternly told her stomach to stop doing that somersault thing right now.
Greyhound knocked three times sharply on the door and it opened almost immediately.
"Ladies first?" he asked, gesturing for her to enter first.  She didn't want to argue with him so she nodded and walked inside.

On a large screen on the far side of the ground floor was an aerial map of the docks.  Striker walked over to the screen to get a closer look at the map and saw that Dock 27 was highlighted.  Close to it were what looked like some small buildings which were circled as well.
"Yes, I thought you would appreciate a map." said The Gadget Man who had come to stand next to her but his height had meant she hadn't noticed.  She didn't like people sneaking up on her but at least she hadn't jumped when he'd spoken.  She nodded, appreciating the information, she certainly needed all the intelligence she could get for this.

The Gadget Man extended a long pointer and used it to point at some parts of the map.  "Here is the entrance which I expect will be most heavily guarded." he said, pointing to the main entrance to the docks.  "So this is your best point of entry I believe." he said, pointing to a couple of buildings which were either side of the fenced off secure area of the docks as far as she could tell.
"Entrance?" she asked briefly.
"Well, no." said The Gadget Man as Greyhound came to stand with them as well.  "But with the buildings positioned as they are, I think you will be able to get from one to the other, perhaps over the roofs."
"How tall are they?" asked Greyhound, saying exactly what Striker was thinking.
"Well," said The Gadget Man slightly shiftily, "I don't actually know how tall they are, this isn't a very detailed map you see so I can only go by the information that I have."
"You have plenty of information about the shipment though." said Greyhound eyeing The Gadget Man suspiciously.
"Yes, well I have limited resources and I focus them where it's important." said The Gadget Man dismissively.  "Now, you need to get over to the docks as soon as you can, you don't want to be late for your rendezvous with the others." and with that he turned off the screen and started to climb the stairs to the floor above.
"Shall we then?" asked Greyhound, grinning at Striker and holding out his hand to her.
"Slow" she said, trying to tell him that she would be travelling a lot slower than him as briefly as she could.
"Not if I'm carrying you, you won't be." said Greyhound with a cheeky smile and a wink which made that somersault thing happen in her stomach again.
She shook her head vigorously, she didn't know him even a fraction well enough to be carried by him, but before she knew what was happening, he had put her in a fireman's lift and was racing across the city with her.

Within about 30 seconds they were at the docks; Greyhound set her down at the edge of what looked like a car park for lorries.  Once he had set her down safely, she pushed him in his shoulder to show her displeasure at having been carried like a sack of potatoes, but she shoved him a little harder than she had meant to and he went flying backwards and landed on his bottom on the hard tarmac before tumbling into a backwards roll.
"Woah!" he said, when he had come to a standstill.  "I got you here safely didn't I?"
Striker put her hand to her mouth gasping at having pushed him over.  "Sorry!" she squeaked quietly through her hand.
"That's some kind of thank you!" said Greyhound, winking at her.  That feeling in her stomach happened again and she found herself annoyed at him managing to do that to her when she was normally so confident.
"Right, I think I've managed to get us close to where those buildings that The Gadget Man had pointed out." said Greyhound looking around.
Striker saw the fence and what looked like a passport control booth at the other side of the car park and pointed towards it.  When Greyhound looked around at her, he followed the finger and saw the building too.
Striker started to walk behind some lorries to head over to the right-hand side of the car park so that she could try and get a look at the building on the other side of the fence.
"Where are you going?" asked Greyhound, appearing next to her.  "The building is over there, you spotted it!"
Striker didn't want to have to explain, he would surely recognise her voice with so many words so she just kept walking.  When they rounded a group of lorries, they had a good view of the side of the passport booth and the building on the other side which looked more like a shack or a car port or something to her, not a very sturdy structure.
"Ah right." said Greyhound.  "We're canvassing the area, good idea."  He was a blur of colour all of a sudden and then he was stood back at her side again.
"One bloke in the passport booth here, looks pretty bored and he's playing patience on his computer.  I reckon I can get us both past him in no time at all."
"He'd hear." whispered Striker, hoping the whisper would be enough to mask her voice.
"Nah." said Greyhound, speaking softly but not whispering.  "We'll be well out of sight before he could even realise we'd made a noise."
Striker reluctantly nodded, hoping this was the last time she would have to undergo this humiliation.
He hoiked her up on to his shoulder again and in a blink of her eye they were at the booth but he had put her down on the ground next where the fence and the building met.
She looked confused at him, wondering why had they stopped here and not gone onto the roof and over the fence as planned.
"I'm not strong enough to get you up there as well as fast as we need to." he whispered in explanation, looking really embarrassed as he said it.
"Oh." whispered Striker, very unimpressed by this explanation.  She had a slight figure, more athletic than curvy like Whiskers' but certainly not what she would consider heavy, but looking at Greyhound, there wasn't much to him either really.  His speed was his power, not his strength and running with someone is one thing but lifting them up onto the roof of a building at the same speed, yes, she could begrudgingly understand that.  "Fine." she whispered and got to her feet.

Striker could hear the sound of a radio or maybe a television, coming from inside the tiny building and she had to hope that the guard was at least a little distracted by whatever it was and certainly he wouldn't be able to hear quite as well.
There was some guttering coming down from the roof where they were stood and that seemed like the obvious way to get up there.  Striker cautiously grabbed the guttering and pulled it back and forth, not with all of her strength as she was confident that would pull it right off, but instead with what she expected to be the force needed to pull her body weight up it.  It moved a fraction but not enough to worry her.
She inclined her head towards the pipe and whispered "Gents first?"
Greyhound looked a little panicked and Striker thought that she had probably thrown his sense of chivalry off completely, should he accept as she had offered, go first to face any danger first, or allow her to go first as chivalry dictated and so that she wasn't the one left behind if they were heard or seen.
He shook his head certainly then and whispered back "After you."  Striker was relieved at this, although he couldn't carry her up at the speed he wanted to, he could surely be able to climb at an incredible speed if they spotted, something she wouldn't have been able to do anywhere near his speed.
She nodded and started to climb.  The piping held firm as she hung on whilst walking herself up the wall, a bit like a reverse abseil, the strength in her arms serving her well.  She reached the flat of the roof having made barely any noise at all.  She gave Greyhound the thumbs up and he started to climb himself.
It was obvious that his strength was in his legs rather than his arms as his climb was slow and pained; Striker was holding her breath with every slip he made and as soon as he was high enough, she grabbed his hands and pulled him up.  When he reached the top, she rolled onto her back but Greyhound fell on top of her.
She felt her face go bright red underneath her mask and she wriggled out as quickly as she possibly could.  He seemed equally flustered by his landing and stood up in less than a blink of the eye.
"Sorry!" he whispered, holding his hand out to help Striker to her feet.  She didn't get up though and instead held a finger to her lips and gestured for him to get down.

Once Greyhound had crouched low on the roof next to Striker they both looked out at the docks.
Striker was remembering the map they had studied back at the clock tower and trying to match up what she was seeing with the plan she had seen.
There were shipping containers and lorries all around the place, which made it a lot harder to try to see the things that would be marked on the map around them.  The docks were a hive of activity as well, with some ships looking to be loading containers on, others unloading them.  One looked to be a ferry with lots of lorries being driven onto it.
"Dock twenty-seven," whispered Striker to Greyhound, "can you see it?"
Greyhound started scanning the docks as she was.  They seemed to both see the numbers at the same time as Greyhound started to follow them along with his finger at the time Striker was following them with her eyes.
"Twenty-three is there." whispered Greyhound pointing off to their left.
"Yeah," whispered Striker, "and they're getting higher that way, I guess we head over there then."
Neither of them moved as they both were studying the area and trying to see what the best route there would be.  Just as Striker was looking at the area closest to them to work out where they could go from here without being seen, Greyhound nudged her quite hard with his arm and pointed frantically off to the left.
Striker scowled at him for pushing her before realising that he wouldn't be able to see that under her mask and looked at where he was pointing.
The General was charging across a section of open tarmac, making hand signals to indicate where he wanted people to go and Everest and Whiskers crossed the ground behind him.
Striker turned back to Greyhound, her eyes wide with shock.
"They didn't wait for us!" she exclaimed, trying to keep her voice still a whisper.
"And Chainsaw was the first guy across." whispered Greyhound worriedly.
"We need to catch up with them." whispered Striker, "And now."
Greyhound nodded and without waiting for any further cue, he had once again lifted her up onto his shoulder and she was lurched around as he jumped over the fence onto the roof of what seemed to be a vending machine cove, jumped from that to the ground and started racing across the tarmac to reach the others.

They arrived with a bang as Greyhound rounded a corner and ran straight into the solid mass of Everest.  Greyhound bounced back off the huge man and fell to the floor backwards, which meant that before Striker had any time to react she had landed on the floor headfirst with Greyhound in a pile on top of her.  What was most remarkable though, was how she barely felt it.  The costume had distributed the force of the landing across her whole body and it barely felt like a tap, though an odd tap that hit all of her skin at the same time.
"Trying to catch me little dog?" asked Whiskers seductively and she helped Greyhound to his feet.  Striker wondered if the woman was able to say anything in a way which didn't sound seductive.
Greyhound stammered in reply.
"Trying to stop you being idiots!" said Striker who was so annoyed with them for charging off without them that she completely forgot she was trying not to speak to them.
"She speaks!" exclaimed Whiskers, "And she has claws." and she ran her claws down Striker's arm which just annoyed her even more.  Well, she had spoken now so she may as well speak her mind.
"We have no idea of a plan, half the team wasn't even with you and you start charging off without us, what were you thinking?" she directed towards The General, as she knew he was likely the reason they handed waited, too keen to lead the troops into battle.
"You were late little kitten." said Whiskers, still stroking Strikers arm until Striker pushed her arm away.
"And you were planning on working out a plan with us how exactly?" demanded Striker.
"We saw the containers" said Everest softly and calmly.  "We had to act or they'd be gone if we'd waited."
"Oh." said Striker, embarrassed at her outburst when she hadn't thought of this possibility.
"And they'll be gone if we don't move now." said The General in his usual ordering tone.  "Now into formation and let's move out."
"What formation?" asked Greyhound and Striker had almost forgotten he was even there.  She looked at him to see if he showed any signs of having recognised her voice but he didn't look her and didn't give anything away.
"Just stay behind me." said The General impatiently.  Striker turned around to look at where they were and was greeted with a sight she really wasn't expecting.  A group of five men with what looked like uzis pointed directly at them.

A sixth man was stood behind them and smiled.  "I wondered how long it would take you to notice us." he said with a little chuckle.
The rest of Striker's team turned around when they heard this and they immediately broke into action.
Striker immediately ran to the left, hoping to get out of the line of fire and strike them from behind.  Mostly, she wanted to get the guy that looked like their boss.
"Charge!" yelled The General, prompting Everest to go barrelling forward like a steam roller whilst the men started to unleash their clips of bullets at him.
Whiskers backflipped away to the side opposite Striker whilst Chainsaw pulled a flame-thrower from around his back.
"Not the flames!" yelled The General at him as he went to use it.  "You'll hit Everest."  Chainsaw shrugged and grabbed a small object with looked like a grenade from his belt instead.  He had thrown it before The General could even realise he was doing it.
There was a big flash and Striker's vision went all white for a moment before it went dark.  She felt completely disorientated and she had a strong ringing sensation in her ears.  As she gathered herself together realised she was on the ground.  She looked up at where the men with the guns were and they were all down on the ground too.  Even Everest had fallen to his knees.  No-one seemed to be hurt though and Striker realised it hadn't been a grenade, it must have been a flash bang grenade.  She recovered quicker than she expected, partly because she hadn't been too close to it at the time but she had to attribute some of that recovery to the costume The Gadget Man had made for her as well.  According to him it stops bullets so it must stop all kinds of things she thought.
Everest got to his feet, picked up two of the fallen men who were starting to move again by the backs of their jackets and smashed them together before letting them fall to the ground, motionless again.
He then started to scoop up the guns they had been using and he bent the barrel of each one in turn before throwing them back at the men.
Striker realised as she watched Everest methodically bend each gun, that there were only five.  Five men down, the smiling man was gone.
She looked around feverously, she spotted Whiskers some distance away who was also frantically looking.  Neither of them could see him.

"Regroup!" yelled The General.  "Team, to me!"  Arrogant as ever, thought Striker.  Did he even realise there was someone missing?  That's when she realised there was someone else missing.  Where was Greyhound?  She hadn't seen him since she'd seen the gunmen.  He must disappeared so quickly she hadn't seen, but where could he have gone and why wasn't he back?
Whiskers and Striker reached The General at about the same time but there was still no sign of Greyhound.
"Where is he?" asked Striker, looking around desperately for Greyhound.
"Well he just left his men," said The General, "so he's a terrible leader.  A captain goes down with the.."
"Not him!" interrupted Striker.  "Greyhound!"
"Oh!" said The General, doing a visible headcount of the team.  "Yes, he's not here is he.  Right, who saw him last?"
"He arrived with me." said Striker.  "But I haven't seen him since the gunmen."
"Did anyone?" asked The General.  The team all shook their heads.
"You said charge, so I charged." said Everest matter of fact.
"I think the doggy ran away." said Whiskers in a voice resembling a meow.  Striker wondered if she practiced that voice or if she was just naturally cat-like.  "I don't think the doggy would want a kitten chasing him though." said Whiskers with a cheeky smile.
"This isn't a time for jokes." snapped Striker.  "He's missing, he's in danger and he needs our help."
"Right!" said The General.  "He might have stayed on mission.  Used us to distract the gunmen whilst he ran off to the storage containers we had identified."
"That might have been the case if you'd identified them to us as well" said Striker chidingly.  "But since you didn't wait for us or make any kind of plan with us before you started charging off without us, we didn't know where you had seen them."
They all looked at each other, hoping someone would say something which would tell them where he was.  They all ended up looking to The General for his guidance which he usually forced upon them whether they wanted it or not, but no-one spoke.
"He could be anywhere." said Striker quietly.

"OK team," said The General, taking charge once more.  "We split up until we find him then.."
"No." interrupted Everest, saying exactly what Striker had been about to.
"If we split up, we'll never find each other again." said Striker.  "We've lost one member of the team, let's make sure we'll all together when we find him."
"But that could take all day." said The General worriedly, losing his usual forceful tone.
"Not if we work to our strengths." said Striker, worried what The General's strengths were if he wasn't bossing people around.
"Whiskers." said The General.
"Yes?" said Whiskers, elongating the 'e' so that even this one syllable word became a seductive one.
"Go up to where we saw the containers from and see if you can see Greyhound anywhere."

She ran to where they had come from and gracefully climbed the stack of shipping containers at about the same speed she had run towards them.  Striker couldn't help but feel envious of her agility; as good as she was, she couldn't climb something like that so quickly and make it look that easy.
She crouched down on the top of the containers and looked all around the dockyards.  Suddenly, she stood up straight, looking towards the north of the docks and then she jumped from her position at the top of the shipping containers and landed on the ground in a motion which strongly reminded Striker of a cat, which shouldn't have surprised her when she thought about it but she hadn't been expecting her to jump from that height and certainly not to make the landing look so easy.
She ran back over to the group and when she was closer, Striker saw genuine concern on her face.

"He's over there." said Whiskers, pointing in the direction she had been looking in on top of the containers.  "But he's in trouble."
"No!" exclaimed Everest, seeming genuinely distraught at this, she hadn't realised he cared so much for Greyhound.
"What's the situation?" asked The General, trying to bring focus.
"He's been dogknapped." said Whiskers, and Striker rolled her eyes.  Why did this woman always have to make things into dog and cat terms.  She found herself wondering if it was some kind of OCD compulsion when she shook herself out of that train of thought and back to Greyhound.
"I need specifics." said The General, sounding like he was losing his patience with her a little.
"He's in a net." said Whiskers seriously.  "They've got him dangling over the water in a net."
"Let's go" said The General and he started running in the direction Whiskers had indicated.

They all followed him and once they got closer they could see the net with Greyhound inside it, hanging high up from a crane over the water.
"I can cut that rope." said Chainsaw, reaching behind him for what Striker could only assume was more weaponry.
"If he drops into the water inside the net, he'll drown." said Striker.  "We need to release him from the net."
"We need to get up there." said The General.
"Or bring the dog down." said Whiskers, pointing to the cab of the crane.
"On it." said Striker, running towards the crane.

She was climbing up the ladder to the cab before she really even realised what she was doing.  She heard some gunfire which sounded very close by, but all gunfire sounded close by to her, those things are so much louder than she had imagined.  Once she saw a couple of bullets hit the crane very close to her though, she knew just how close they must be, but they were thankfully far enough away to miss their aim.  She heard her team mates on the ground making a big racket and she hoped they were drawing their fire.
Just as she was about to reach the cab, her whole body went alight with pain in a short, sharp flash of agony on every inch of her body at once.  It didn't take long for the pain to subside and Striker realised that they must have hit her with a bullet but her suit had saved her; the bullet must be lying on the ground below her now, instead of buried in her body as it would have been without the special costume.  The flash of massive pressure on her head had meant that her head was still spinning though, and as she pulled the door of the crane cab open, she felt the pain start to grow in her left forehead.

The man inside the cab was startled when she opened the door, he must not have realised she was climbing up there.  She grabbed him and pulled him out. She considered just throwing him to the ground but she couldn't do that when the impact might kill him.  Instead she pulled him out of the cab and arced him round like a discus and threw him across the air for him to land on the top of some shipping containers nearly.  He'll be bruised, might have broken a bone, but he'll live and that was the important thing thought Striker.
She sat in the seat of the cab and looked at the controls.  She wasn't sure what any of them did so she pulled things and pressed things until she worked out how to move the crane.  The glass of the cab smashed as the gunmen firing at her as she had climbed continued to barrage her with bullets.  Striker hoped she didn't get hit by another bullet, her head was pounding from the last one and she really didn't want a migraine to start right now.  She focussed back on the task in hand and started to lower Greyhound towards the sea as her first priority, if she accidentally managed to drop him from the crane, she wanted to make sure he would live.
Once she had lowered him almost to the floor, she managed to move the crane around so that he was then close to the rest of the team.  She didn't want to take him any closer to him as she could see they were in a fire fight at the moment and that wasn't something she wanted to dump Greyhound into the middle of.
She pressed enough buttons and managed to release the mechanism holding the net and Greyhound fell to the ground with a thump.  It was hard to judge the distance from the ground this far away but it seemed he hadn't been as close to the tarmac as she had thought.  Once he was down on the ground though, he was wrestling with the net, trying to escape it.  She wondered what it must be like to be caught in a trap that way when he must love running free so much.  She wondered how she would feel caged up as well and shuddered.
Chainsaw and Everest ran over to him straight away, Everest pulling at the rope to try and pull it apart and Chainsaw grabbing a large curved knife from his belt and cutting at the rope.  In less than a minute, Greyhound was free.  Once she knew he was safe, Striker started to look around from her high viewpoint to spot the shipping containers they were looking for.

That's when she saw the lorries that were leaving the docks, with the container numbers they were looking for written on the sides, they were too late.  Striker burst out of the cab of the crane and moved down the ladder a few rungs at a time, bullets still flying towards her but she managed to evade them all.  When she got down on the ground, the others rushed over to her; Greyhound was the first one to reach her by a long way and she was glad to see he was back to his usual form.
"They're gone!" said Striker, pointing in the direction of the dock exit she had seen the lorries leaving by.  The others caught up with Greyhound and looked at where she was pointing. "We're too late." she said, lowering her arm.
"Right team." said The General, taking charge once more.  "We need to get out of here.  Our objective has left so we need to retreat before we take any casualties."
"Let's blow this place up!" yelled Chainsaw, reaching for something from his belt of weapons.
"No!" said The General firmly to him.  "The objective had left, there will be innocent workers here, along with all this cargo.  We are not going to cause unnecessary harm or damage! Do you read?"
"I can blow them up though can't I?" Chainsaw asked, pointing at some men with guns who were running along the top of a shipping container, presumably to get good shooting position to fire at them.
"We don't kill Chainsaw, remember that!" yelled The General.  "Now move out!" he yelled, indicating a direction and starting that way himself.
"Stick with the team" yelled Striker to Greyhound as he started to run.  She didn't know if he had heard her or not but he zoomed forward in a blur of colour.

By the time they caught up with him, he was waiting for them by the fence.
"Over here." he said, waving them over where there was a section of the fencing where the wires had been cut.  You couldn't tell at a glance but if you pushed the fence, it opened widely enough to be able to squeeze though.  Or rather, it opened widely enough for normal sized people to squeeze through, once Striker, Greyhound, Whiskers and The General had all gone through, there was no way it was big enough to fit Chainsaw through, let alone Everest.  "It's not big enough." said The General who seemed to have only just realised this also.  Everest just shrugged though, grabbed either side of the fence at the top of the cut section and tore it apart.  Striker had never seen metal get pulled apart like that and she certainly didn't think it was possible with a human's bare hands.
"It is now." said Everest, holding the fence up for Chainsaw as he passed under before heading under himself.
The subtle cutting of the fence making an almost invisible way through it had now been bent into an extremely distorted shape with a gaping hole left behind; Striker wondered who had cut the fence in the first place and hoped they wouldn't know who had wrecked it and come after them, the last thing they needed right now was more enemies.

Bullets started to rain down on them then as they all ran as quickly from the docks as they could.  Striker noticed that Greyhound had zoomed ahead carrying Whiskers in the same way he had carried herself towards the docks and she was surprised to find she felt a pang of jealousy about this.  An absurd feeling given how embarrassing and humiliating she had found the experience on the way there and she chided herself for the feeling.

When they reached the city again, they all went their separate ways and Striker's feet found her way back to her flat again.  She collapsed onto her comfy sofa with Alfie's chin resting on her legs, downed her medication and allowed her headache to swamp her brain into a full blown migraine.

Chapter Nine

Laura's alarm went off at half past four in the morning on Saturday morning.  As she sleepily hit the snooze button and her mind started to process what was going on, she remembered why it had gone off so early, she was due at the clock tower to see The Gadget Man in ninety minutes time.
She snoozed her alarm twice more before dragging herself out of bed; her mum had drilled into her the importance of a regular sleep pattern to reduce the risk of migraines but since she had become Striker, that didn't seem to be so easy to stick to.  She had a shower which helped to wake her up, and she put on her new Striker costume.  It just felt so comfortable as soon as she put it on, she was getting quite used to this new attire.  She felt brave enough, partly because of the changes of seeing anyone at this time in the morning on a Saturday was very slim, to out wearing just the new costume.  It was time she at least tried it out she decided, although she did pack her old costume in a bag to take with her, just in case.

She got to the deserted square a couple of minutes before six o'clock but decided to just go ahead and knock a little early.  She got to the door and gave it the three sharp knocks that she had been instructed to when she visited previously and the door opened almost as soon as she had given the third knock.
"Come in, quickly!" said The Gadget Man, scooping her inside.  He slammed the door shut behind her and Striker was faced with a sight she really hadn't been expecting, the new boy from her office, Gary, was stood at the other side of the room, also wearing what looked to be a special costume but without any mask to cover his face.  He was fiddling about with the shoes section of it when he looked up at her and smiled and her stomach did a few somersaults.
"Hi," he said to her "I'm Greyhound."
Striker put one hand up in a feeble wave back and realised that he couldn't possibly recognise her with her mask on, you couldn't see anything of her face in it.
"I guess you're Striker then" said Gary, or should she be thinking of him as Greyhound pondered Striker.  She nodded quickly and then remembered to lower her hand which she still had raised in a kind of stationary wave.  "Well, it's nice to meet you." said Greyhound.
"Oh I'm glad you two are getting to know each other." said The Gadget Man, watching them gleefully.  "Now, let's go and introduce you to the others as well" he said and Striker just stared, horrified at him.
"Ah, I didn't mention did I?" he said apologetically.  "Yes, we're hoping that you'll be part of a team now." he explained.  "Well, let's introduce you and we'll see what everyone thinks.  Come on." and he started to climb the metal spiral stairs in the middle of the room.
Once he was clear, Greyhound said "Ladies first." and gestured for Striker to go up the stairs next.  She did so, mostly because she didn't want to get into an argument about it and risk revealing who she was to him.
Once she got onto the next floor, Greyhound came up the stairs behind her in about half a second flat and Striker realised why he was called Greyhound.
"Wow!" she said quietly, hoping her voice wouldn't be recognisable but unable to let that happen without comment.  Then she turned to the others in the room and took in the sight of them.

The first one anyone would see in the room was a massive guy, it looked like he was just a solid mass of muscle with the necessary human bits, like a head, added on and very out of proportion with the rest of his hulking form.  His costume was all black and the name Everest was splashed across his massive chest in large, white, intimidating letters.  His expression was relaxed and smiling as he shared a joke with the man he was chatting to.  That man was dressed in green what looked like an army uniform with loads of medal badges attached to it, quite different to the other skin tight costumes the others had been wearing.  He had a green and brown peaked cap on his head and his face was covered in army camouflage paint which Striker supposed was his sort of a mask.  He looked at ease chatting to Everest and she wondered what his alias name was since it wasn't blazed across his chest like the rest of them.  She decided to nickname him Army Guy in her head, she never was very good at names.
So there were four of them now, as well as The Gadget Man and Striker couldn't even glance at Greyhound as she felt so self-conscious around him and desperately didn't want him to realise who she was.

"Striker," said The Gadget Man formally, "this is Everest and The General."
Striker nodded as a hello but The General, which she had to admit sounded better than Army Guy, saluted to her very formally and she didn't know quite how to react to that having never been saluted before.  She was about to raise her hand in an attempt of a salute back when Everest had picked her up in his enormous arms and was crushing her like a vice.  All the air went out from her lungs and she was sure all her bones were about to break and she probably owed it to the amazing costume she was wearing that they hadn't.
"Striker!" said the man mountain crushing her before he then dropped her to the floor where she her legs crumpled beneath her and she fell to the floor.
"Everest!" said The General sternly, "What have we said about hugging people?"
"Oh no, I'm sorry!" said Everest sounding mortified as he lifted Striker back to her feet and gave her a moment to get her balance standing again. "I forget." he said with a cheeky grin.  He held out his hand to shake Striker's hand but before she could try to work out if it was better to have her hand crushed and be polite or to risk offending this huge hulk of muscle, The Gadget Man stepped in.
"No, no," he said, "we don't want the girl's hand crushed either." and Everest ;lowered his hand and just smiled at Striker instead.
"Sorry." said Everest, "I tend to forget how strong I am when I get excited and I'm really excited to meet you!"
Striker smiled a genuine smile back, he seemed like a nice guy, even if he was incredibly intimidating from his size.  She hadn't signed up to be on a team but she'd rather this guy was on her side than against her.

"At ease soldier" said The General, setting his own feet apart and putting his hands behind his back in what Striker recognised as the 'at ease' stance she had seen in various films and on TV.  She simply looked at him in response, and saw that he was trying to stare her down now.  She looked away and didn't acknowledge his order to her at all.  He made a few grumbling noises at this and she knew straight away that this guy has control issues.

"This isn't everyone of course" said The Gadget Man, peering up the stairs to the floor above.  Striker raised her eyebrows in reply, surely this was a big enough team, any more people and they'd just spend their whole time tripping over one another.  "Chainsaw, Whiskers," The Gadget Man called up the stairs, "are you going to come down and meet our new recruit?"

The man who Striker assumed was called Chainsaw squeezed his way down the spiral staircase then.  He was wearing a black, studded leather jacket over a white vest, blue jeans and no mask at all but a huge cigar stuck in his mouth.  He had bandoliers of bullets crossing his body and various weapons hanging from the belt of his jeans.  Striker was quite terrified to see that one of those weapons was a morning star, something she considered brutal and medieval.  She took a step back away from him instinctively as he stepped onto the floor with them but found that she had backed into Everest.  She jumped back and held her hands out in apology to him but he hadn't even seemed to have noticed.

"Need a light?" came a gruff voice and when she turned back to Chainsaw, he was now puffing on his cigar, offering his lighter and filling the room with the smoke, a rope was thrown down behind him from the floor above.  Whiskers then made her appearance, lowering herself down the rope by contorting into various differing poses and wrapping the rope around herself like she was in Cirque de Soleil.  She was wearing an all black skin tight costume, which hugged her stereotypically perfect body.  There was a black tail protruding from just above her pert buttocks which moved around as she did like a real cat's tail might do.  She wasn't wearing a full head mask and her long, black hair was being swept around as she performed her acrobatics.  On top of her head she had a couple of cat ears perched and her face was covered from her hairline down to the bottom of her nose with a mask which made her face resemble that of a cat, but a cat wearing bright red lipstick which looked rather out of place to Striker.
Once she had reached the floor with her back to them, she arched herself backwards so that her hands reached the floor behind her and flipped her legs over her head before she then stood up straight and greeted the room with a catty "Meow!"

Striker could barely believe her eyes at this performance, just when she was thinking that she would give this team thing a go and this woman, this Whiskers, or she may as well have named herself Sex Kitten, had arrived to spoil the party.  Striker crossed her arms in front of herself defensively, feeling much more body conscious that she had done at any point in this costume before.  She glanced around at the group and with the exception of Chainsaw who looked like he wasn't interested in anything he couldn't hit, they were all staring at her in wonder, their mouths slightly open as they watched her drape herself over the spiral steps.

"Striker this is Whiskers and Chainsaw" said The General, who seemed to have managed to break the spell Whiskers had put on all of them enough to speak.
Striker nodded in greeting, Chainsaw blew a ring of smoke towards her and Whiskers stretched a clawed hand out in her direction before retracting it.  Striker had never imagined she would be in a room with such strange people and she wondered if she would have been better off to have packed in the whole Striker thing after the first time out.  It would certainly be difficult to travel round or hide in a group this large and with half of them unlikely to be light on their feet.

Before she could work out if she should just leave now and forget the whole thing though, The Gadget Man started talking again.  "Now I've got your first mission for you so I believe we need to have a briefing meeting."
"Right!" barked The General, "Into briefing formation everyone, come on, get yourselves in order!"
Everest manoeuvred himself to the far side of the room and Chainsaw lent of the far wall next to him.  Whiskers didn't move from her position wrapped around the metal, spiral staircase in the middle of the room and Striker hadn't even seen Greyhound move when he had appeared at Whisker's side and seemed to be quietly chatting to her.
The General stood at the front facing them all as though they were all his army recruits and he was giving them their orders which Striker didn't feel particularly happy about, but if he had some kind of a plan for catching a criminal then it was more than she had at the moment.

The Gadget Man fiddled about with some controls on the console behind The General and a screen flickered into life.
"OK," began The Gadget Man before he was immediately cut off by The General.
"Right then," he bellowed, "we've got a crook to catch and we need to work as a team to do it.  I want you all to play to your strengths and remember, we never leave a man behind!"
The Gadget Man made a deliberate cough and peered around The General's waist.
"Right, yes," said The General, "now Gadget will tell us all about it." and he stood to one side to allow a better view of the screen.
Whiskers gave a pantomime yawn and started to stroke her own head like she was a cat washing herself.  When Striker glanced behind her she could see that Everest and Chainsaw were quite distracted by this and she didn't even want to look at Greyhound to see if he was too.  She rolled her eyes and looked at the screen which now had a black and white CCTV image which had been zoomed into and was quite grainy.  The image showed the back of a man in what looked like a black suit but it could have been any dark colour.  His head was turned to the side offering a profile view of his face to the camera.  He had one of his hands raised to the other side of his head, presumably on a phone call and his eyes were looking straight up into the camera.
"This is Dominic Maloney." said The Gadget Man with a long pointer in his hand which he was using to point to the screen, presumably because his height precluded him from pointing at it in the usual way.
"Right, yes." interrupted The General, stepping back in front of The Gadget Man.  "Target acquired, this is our primary target.  Now we need to take him out..."
The Gadget Man gave another little cough, this time in a much more annoyed tone and The General muttered something about handing back to Gadget.
"As I was saying before I was interrupted," said The Gadget Man with a frowning look at The General who seemed oblivious to it, "this is Dominic Maloney, the city's biggest drug dealer.'
"I'll turn him into a bag of bones and meat." stated Chainsaw and Striker saw that he was stroking a large hammer which was hanging from his belt in a way which made her feel quite uncomfortable being in the same room as him.
"No." said The Gadget Man simply and Chainsaw didn't argue; Striker sensed that Chainsaw had a lot of respect for the little man in the way that he quieted down immediately and nodded at the dwarf.  This gesture felt even greater when The Gadget Man's small stature looked so much tinier in the same cramped quarters with Everest and Chainsaw.

The Gadget Man continued as though Chainsaw hadn't said anything.  "Of course we'd love to shut this guy down and cut off the supply to the low lives who are dealing to so many people, not least to kids at school."
"So we have our mission." said The General stepping back out at the front to face the rest of them once more.
"That isn't the mission." stated The Gadget Man, obviously too tired of the interruptions by Army Boy to keep up the polite cough method of stopping him when he started off on one again.
"Right, yes." said The General, stepping back to the side without a trace of embarrassment.  "Continue." he said to The Gadget Man who did.
"What we really want to do is cut off his supply at the root." said the dwarf, and a photograph of a poppy field appeared on the screen behind him.  Striker wondered if they were declaring war on poppies, an irony in itself given the association it has with remembering fallen soldiers from previous wars.
The Gadget Man looked behind him and up at the screen.  "Of course, we can't destroy all the poppies in the world, and every other plant that's grown to manufacture these narcotics.  But we can try and stop them from reaching our shores at least."  The picture on the screen changes to that of a cargo boat, loaded high with shipping crates.
"We get to blow up a boat?" asked Chainsaw excitedly, noticeably leaning forwards as he waiting for the answer.
"Not quite blow up." said The Gadget Man, and Chainsaw leaned back against the wall again disappointedly.  "But stop it from allowing certain of its cargo onto land."
Striker was intrigued, not least by why this was a plot by some reclusive dwarf rather than the narcotics division at work.  She didn't have access to see any information on planned sting operations so she couldn't be sure than the police weren't planning the same thing though of course, and that would be a bit of a problem for her if this little team of vigilantes messed up their operation.

"I have the details of the ship and of the particular containers which are being used to transport the illegal substances here." said The Gadget Man, as a series of codes appeared on the screen behind him.  Striker wasn't in any way familiar with the codes used to indicate ships and containers so it didn't mean much to her but The General seemed to understand it, or at least he gave the impression of understanding it which didn't completely convince Striker that he did of course.

The Gadget Man handed out folders which contained the information he had shown up on the screen since none of them had brought a pad of paper to write these things down.

"So we'll meet at oh seven hundred hours at Dock 27 tomorrow morning." said The General, not giving a chance for discussion.
"Sounds purrrrrrrfect" said Whiskers, rolling her 'r's seductively.
"May I escort you there Lady Whiskers?" asked Everest formally, brushing down his outfit self-consciously as he did so.
"I think I can manage to land on my feet there on my own." said Whiskers, stroking a hand around the side of Everest's face as she said it, leaving him looking somewhat dazed when she turned her back on him and strutted away.
"I think I'd rather meet here first." said Greyhound tentitively.  "I don't know my way around the docks and I'd rather not get lost of my own."
Striker nodded emphatically, not wanting to get lost at the docks herself either and The Gadget Man said "ok, anyone who would rather meet here to travel together can do.  Meet here at half past six."
"Oh six thirty hours." corrected The General but everyone ignored him.
"So should I bring the bazooka or the flame-thrower?" asked Chainsaw, he face looked perfectly serious and Striker wondered if she would end up getting killed from 'friendly fire', so to speak, tomorrow if the drug handlers or the police didn't get to her that was.

Greyhound offered to walk Whiskers home but she told him that she prefers to go at a slower speed than he is used to and he didn't try and persuade her any further.
No-one engaged in any chat with Striker before she too left, they were probably taking her silence as being unapproachable; they didn't know, they couldn't know, that if she spoke she risked revealing who she was to someone in the team other than The Gadget Man, someone who worked close to her, and she wasn't comfortable to tell anyone her secret. let alone someone she had only just met.



 

Chapter Eight

Laura spent the following week working longer hours so that she could spend time looking on the system for a crook she could apprehend, but the car thieves she had been looking into didn't seem to have struck again and there was no other lead she, or the officers investigating it, had to go on.  She dealt with the usual systems issues at work with a couple of new people to set up on the system too.  When she went to the desk of a new boy about her age called Gary who had just started, she found she had accidentally spent half an hour there just chatting to him.  It turned out Gary was a comic book fan himself and everything he mentioned, she loved too and before she knew it she'd spent ages talking about the different origin stories that The Joker had and which ones she liked the best so that his boss had had to ask her to leave so that they could get him trained up on the system now she had set him up.  She had turned bright red in embarrassment and disappeared as quickly as she could but she then found her mind preoccupied not only with thoughts of Striker, and her new costume, but also with this boy Gary and the way his eyes sparkled when he had talked about Professor Xavier's motivations and background.
Laura had no time for dating though, and even if she did have time and if he was in any way interested in her, knowing her luck she'd get a migraine when they were meant to be going out.  No, it was better that she forget about him and just focus on the task at hand, trying to catch criminals and trying out her new costume.

In lieu of an actual criminal to go after, Laura decided she should just try looking for one as she was so keen to try out her new costume and she particularly wanted to try it out before her next meeting with The Gadget Man on Saturday morning.  So on Thursday evening, she put the new costume on, mask and all, and then put her usual costume on over the top of it.  She felt pretty hot in all those layers in her flat but she knew the nights were getting colder so she'd be glad of them later.
On Thursday nights the clubs were open and the bars were packed with people, not as busy as on Friday and Saturday nights but they were still pretty busy and Striker knew that made for vulnerable targets to any criminals around so she headed to the part of the centre where most of the bars and clubs were.

She found herself skulking in side roads and any nooks or crannys she could find and wished she could leap around on the rooftops like Batman.  She didn't have a death wish though and she had what she considered a healthy fear of heights anyway; she was finding it so difficult to hide though.  She eventually manoeuvred herself around to the back of one of the clubs, out of the way of anyone spotting her but she hoped it was close enough that she might hear something happening or see if there was anyone she should keep a watch over on their way home emerged.  She didn't have too long to wait before something came up.

"Come on!" yelled an angry male voice over the sound of the music as the door of the club opened.  "Don't make me have to wait for you!"
"I'm sorry." responded a female voice, clearer to Striker as the door had then closed and the music disappeared.
"That's not good enough though is it?" shouted the man and Striker heard a sound of impact and the lady screamed.
"Shut up or you'll get another one!" he yelled, whilst Striker sprung into action.
"I'm sorry" sobbed the lady as Striker rounded the corner.
She took the man by surprise so that before he knew it, she'd pinned him face-down on the ground with one arm twisted up his back and her other hand holding his head against the flagstones.

"No, get off him" shrieked the lady, who's eye was already starting to swell where he had hit her.  Striker couldn't understand why she was trying to help him but then she didn't understand anyone being in an abusive relationship either.
"I'm only going to say this once," said the man, with the half of his mouth which wasn't being pushed against the ground, "get off me right now or you'll regret it."  Striker just smiled at this idle threat, he didn't scare her the way he scared his partner.  He struggled to break free of Striker's hold but could barely move a millimetre.  The lady grabbed Striker's shoulders and tried to pull her off him but she barely even felt it through her new costume.

Thankfully, Striker was saved from having to work out what to do next as she hadn't banked on the abused lady wanting to help him, when one of the club bouncers came outside, who must have been watching what had happened from inside.
"Right mate," said the bouncer to the man on the floor, "I've called the bill, they'll be here soon and you've been caught on camera too."  Striker started at this and looked around, the bouncer was pointing up at a CCTV camera mounted high on the side of the building and sure enough, it was pointed right at them.  Well that'll give the papers something to print she thought, although this is likely to make them realise that Charlton's description of her wasn't quite accurate; she hadn't planned on getting caught on camera this evening, she should have thought of things like that and she silently chastised herself for her oversight.
"You might want to scarper before they get here." the bouncer said to Striker with a wink and she was so grateful to him for thinking of her in that way, knowing who she was and supporting her.  He took over the hold on the man whilst the lady continued to cry and whine, feebly pulling at the bouncer now holding her abuser and pleading with him to let him go.  Striker assessed that the matter was in hand and ran off into the streets, being mindful of cameras on the way this time and leaving the camera-swamped centre in a direction different to the one she lived in case anyone tracked her on the footage.

By the time she got home she was exhausted but felt exhilarated; she hadn't even planned to catch this guy and it was all caught on camera and with an independent witness to boot.  Not only that but she didn't even break a sweat taking the guy down, if only it could go that smoothly every time.  Sadly the swift takedown hadn't allowed her to trial the costume much but it was really comfortable and she'd run all the way home by a long route in the footwear of it with no problems at all, it was like running on air.
She collapsed down onto her sofa with Alfie resting his head in her lap and she let all the anxiety and tension of the night flood out of her and as soon as she did, she opened the doors to a headache which started immediately.  This was something she sometimes got after a stressful week at work when the weekend came around and her mind relaxed, a migraine would set in.  She called it weekend migraine and it certainly wasn't welcome.  She took herself off to bed straight away in the hopes that getting a good night's rest might stop it in its tracks.

 

Chapter Seven

The door swung open suddenly, but it was all darkness inside, there was no-one stood there.  It would have felt like an old Hammer Horror film if the door has slowly creaked open but this was opened with deliberate purpose.
'Hello?' she asked uncertainly, conscious that she didn't want to be stood in full costume when she was so easy to see but not wanting to rush headlong into a trap.
'Come inside, quickly!' came a man's voice from inside the door but it had a slightly tinny resonance which Striker recognised as coming from a speaker.
'Show yourself first.' said Striker, trying to sound more confident than she felt.
'Oh for goodness sake' said the man's voice, sounding impatient.  'Just come inside and then we'll deal with the pleasantries.'
Striker cautiously placed one foot inside the door, keeping her weight on her back foot, imagining a trapdoor opening beneath and her feet and her falling inside to a pit trap.
Nothing happened.  She gingerly brought her other foot inside and stood completely inside the door.
'Well don't just stand there, we don't have all night' came a voice from behind the door and a smiling, chubby face peered around the door about three feet above the ground.  He started to close the door and Striker stepped out of the way.
He was overall quite portly and at such a small height he rather reminded Striker of a ball which felt like an awful thing to think about someone she hadn't even met yet and she silently scolded herself.
Once the door closed, Striker expected that the place would plunge into darkness as there seemed to be no lights on when she had stepped inside but the moment the door closed, light flooded the room.  She had to close her eyes for a few seconds and allow them to adjust to the brightness; sudden brightness like that wasn't good for her migraines and the last thing she needed was to trigger another attack.  She blinked a lot as she looked around at her surroundings, taking in the details.
The room was square, the size you would expect from seeing the clock tower from the outside; Striker was pleased there was nothing crazy like it being bigger on the inside going on.  The ceilings were low, only about a foot above the top of Strikers head and halogen lights were sunk into it all over making the light even and bright.  The walls were bare stone just like the outside of the tower but there was barely an inch of walls visible behind all the machines, screen, blinking light and mechanical devices which seemed to be whirring away of their own accord.  In the very centre of the room was a narrow, metal spiral staircase leading to the floor above.
'Oh yes.' said the small man, 'take a good look round.  I'm rather proud of this place I must say!'  Striker looked back at the ball of a man still standing next to the door; Striker wasn't entirely comfortable with him being between her and her exit but she figured she could deal with him with her eyes closed if she needed to get away in a hurry.
'Interesting' said Striker.  Although she knew that whoever had delivered her that letter was well aware of her identity, her instinct was still to speak as little as possible and protect her identity, she only hoped that he would prove more chatty than she was as he seemed to be holding all the cards.
'Well I really should show you around shouldn't I' said the little man, waddling across the room to the spiral staircase in the centre.
'Gadget Man?' asked Striker, not sure if this was the man himself or someone who perhaps worked for him.
'Oh yes, indeed!' exclaimed the man, turning quickly around.  He grabbed Striker by the hand with both of his own and started to vigorously shake it.  'I do forget that we haven't formally met of course, I just feel like I know you already.'
Striker reciprocated the handshake but then prised her hand away from both of his after the handshake continued longer than she was comfortable with.
'I'm The Gadget Man, as you should know, and I of course know who you are!  I do hope you didn't mind the manner in which I contacted you' he said smiling.  'I didn't want to risk our communication falling into the wrong hands and so delivering it in person seemed like the best way to be sure of this.'  He hushed his voice a lot when he then continued 'I do hope you were feeling better soon afterwards and that my little gesture was of help.  I've read all about your condition of course, the records your doctor has kept are quite comprehensive.'
Striker raised her eyebrows at him, he had been reading her medical records, how had he managed to access such private details about her so quickly and so easily?  She wasn't impressed at his lack of apology over breaking into her flat, invading her private home and at a time when she was so vulnerable as well.
'It was all necessary.' he said defensively, obviously understanding the meaning in Striker's facial expression.  'I had to know that you were suitable.  The condition does give rise to some problems of course but nothing we can't overcome.  Now come along.' he said, waddling back towards the staircase and gesturing for Striker to follow.
He grasped the metal handrails of the staircase firmly as he pulled himself up the narrow steps.  Striker bowed her head and followed him up the stairs to the room above.

This room had a higher ceiling than the one below and looked to have only one computer, which Gadget Man had headed straight over to.  The room felt smaller than the one below and all of the walls were covered in black panels with numbers painted in red on each one.  Gadget Man sat on a chair which then automatically raised him up to the computer console; he pushed a few buttons on the computer and the door painted with a number 6 started to slide open behind where Striker was stood.
'You'll like this!' said Gadget Man excitedly.  'Just you wait, you're going to love it!'  He was practically jumping up and down on his chair as he watched Striker and the door that was opening.

When the door had fully slid to one side and the opening was revealed, a light pinged to life inside the cupboard it revealed.
There inside this closet, was a mannequin which looked to have the same proportions as Striker, and on it was what looked like a black lycra bodysuit with Striker's name emblazoned across it.  The mannequin's head was covered in what looked like a black version of a luchador wrestling mask with a red lightning bolt across the face.
'What?' asked Striker astounded at what she was seeing.
'Your costume.' declared Gadget Man in a heraldic way.
'My...costume.' replied Striker cynically.
'Oh yes.' said Gadget Man who had lowered his chair and was waddling over to her now.  'It's state of the art, nothing like it you know.'
'Nothing like it.' repeated Striker nodding, believing that much at least.  Striker was an athletic girl but she had never had any confidence in her appearance and preferred to hide behind baggy clothes and geeky t-shirts; the thought of wearing a skin tight, lycra bodysuit was just ridiculous to her.  She knew the comics she'd always loved had characters drawn wearing clothes like this, although much more brightly coloured, but those people were impossibly beautiful and would probably have been very cold, in the north of England at least.
'So, you love it don't you?' asked The Gadget Man, but he didn't wait for an answer before continuing 'Wait until you try it on, you're going to be incredible!'  Then Striker practically saw a light bulb appear over the top of The Gadget Man's head as an idea struck him. 'That's what we'll call you!' he announced triumphantly.  'The Incredible Striker!'
Striker found no words came to her other than one simple, lone word which entirely summed up her feelings towards a name like The Incredible Striker.
'No.' she said definitively, leaving no room for discussion on the subject at all.  The Gadget Man's face fell momentarily before it lit up into a smile again as he approached the costume.
'Not to worry, it would have meant having to change the costume anyway.' he said cheerfully.  'Come on, come on!' he said gesturing for her to follow him over to the costume.
Striker reluctantly started to walk over to where The Gadget Man was stood and as she got closer to the costume she could see that it wasn't the smooth lycra bodysuit she had thought it was, in fact it was made up of thousands of tiny scales which merged together from a distance to look like a simple piece of fabric.
'You see?' asked The Gadget Man as he lifted a sleeve of the costume and held it out towards Striker.  'This hi-tech stuff, and the most incredible thing is how thin I've managed to make the material.  I've been working on this for years and I'm so happy to be able to have a local superhero to try it out!'
'What is it?' asked Striker, taking the fabric from him and looking at it closely.  It felt cold to the touch, something which didn't fill Striker with joy, she had always felt the cold and as much as she wouldn't notice whilst she was in the throes of a fight with someone, she had spent so much time waiting, stalking her prey, that standing round in something which would feel even colder than being in the buff, and leave her feeling like she may as well be for how figure-hugging it would be, didn't fill her with joy.  It slinked between her fingers like it was made of silk but it also felt hard, like it was silk made from metal.
'What is it?' repeated The Gadget Man.  'What isn't it more like!' and he let out a loud, guffawing laugh.  'This is everything you could possibly want!' he declared excitedly.
'Not warm' said Striker slightly sulkily, as though she was being made to wear it when of course she knew that she was under no such obligation.
'What?' replied The Gadget Man sounding quite confused. 'Oh! Oh no, no, it's not cold at all!'  He reached to the belt of the costume and instantly the fabric in Striker's hands didn't feel cold any longer; in fact, it didn't feel any temperature at all to her.   'How's that?' he asked her, grinning.
Striker nodded as her reply.  'That's a setting to make the temperature thirty-seven and a half degrees centigrade.  You won't even feel that it's there at all.
Striker let out a unimpressed laugh at that comment 'Huh.' Won't feel it's there at all was exactly what she didn't relish about wearing the costume.
'That's not what you want?' asked The Gadget Man sounding crestfallen.  'Well I can make some adjustments and change what temperature to set it to, that's not a problem.'  He looked up at her with big doe eyes, exactly like Alfie does when he wants something and she never could resist Alfie.
'No, that's fine.' she said, and The Gadget Man broke back into a grin.
'Ok, ok,' he said, 'you need to try it on.  You can't see everything about it until you put it on.'
She raised one eyebrow at him in reply.
'There's a changing room' he said in realisation.  'You'll have complete privacy!  It's upstairs, you go up and I'll bring this up for you in just a jiffy.' and with that she started to wrangle the costume from the mannequin and Striker could just envisage herself trying to wrangle the thing off her own body in just the same way.

She went up the metal, spiral staircase which continued through this room and up into the one above.  When she came out on the next floor, she realised this must be where he was living.  There was a camp bed in the corner with a disheveled sleeping bag strewn across it.  There was a camping stove and a couple of dirty, plastic plates on the floor next to it.  It looked so out of place with all of the hi-tech gadgetry of what she had already seen that she was taken aback by the almost normalcy of it.  She saw that there was a curtained off corner of the room forming a triangular changing room of sorts and she headed over to it.  Just as she was inspecting the wall and ceiling to see if there were any hidden cameras, The Gadget Man waddled up the stairs and into the room, holding the costume delicately across his arms as though it was a queen's wedding dress.
'That's right.' he said when he saw where she was stood.  'That's the spot.'  He lay the costume down carefully over a fold-up camping chair which stood next to the curtained off area and looked up to Striker beaming.
Striker stood there looking at him and not moving a muscle or saying a word.
'Oh right!' he said in realisation, 'I'll be downstairs, call me when you're ready.' and he waddled off back down the spiral staircase again.

Striker pulled the chair into the corner and drew the curtain behind her. She checked the walls and ceiling again for hidden cameras, then she checked the floor too, realising he's a short chap so that would probably be where he would hide one.  Nothing, camera-free as far as she could tell.
'Ok.' she muttered to herself, 'So how do I get into this thing?'  She picked up the costume and was surprised to find that it had a fair bit of weight to it; it had rippled like silk so much that she was expecting it to be as light as it too, but this felt more like it was made of chainmail.  She held it up by the shoulders and turned it around.  There was an opening down one side which didn't have a zip or any buttons that she could see, so that would mean that she would have a gaping hole in her costume down one said.  Maybe he was going to see what she would like to have or check it for size or something before he finished it she surmised, having never made any clothes herself she had no idea how these things worked.
'Here goes nothing' she said quietly to herself before removing her balaclava and then the rest of her costume.
Once she was stood there in just her girl boxers and her sports bra, she picked up the costume and sat down in the chair to ease her foot into the leg portion of the costume.
'I can't believe I'm putting on a catsuit.' she murmured to herself, thinking if she could see herself now what she would say.
The leg wasn't open at the bottom, there was a foot section attached, a bit like a baby's onesie.  There was a rubber-like soul on the underneath of the foot section so Striker guessed she wasn't meant to wear any shoes on top of it either which just made her feel even more weird about it.
She pushed the toes of her left foot right to the end of the costume and pulled it up her leg like tights.  The costume perfectly contoured her body but it felt like the costume wasn't actually touching her, like there was a layer of air all around her leg that was keeping the costume slightly away from her skin.  That was the strangest sensation she had ever experienced in her life.

She put her right leg into the other leg and the same thing happened.  She stood up and hoisted the body of the costume up around her torso.  The soles of the costume now that she was standing, felt like they were moulded to her feet; they were so comfortable and yet when she bent her foot, totally flexible.  She wriggled her arms into the long sleeves which had fingerless gloves at their end, it all fitted her absolutely perfectly and Striker felt it a little bit creepy that this man she had never met knew her proportions so precisely and she started to wonder if he had taken his measurements when she was unconscious on the floor of her flat; she shuddered at the thought.
She reach around to her side where the slit which had allowed her to get into the costume was gaping open.  She pulled the sides together to see if the fit was right when it would be fastened and jumped when the two sides of fabric knitted themselves together before her eyes.  It took about five seconds and afterwards she couldn't even see where the join was.  That was impossible surely she thought, but then she wondered how she was ever going to get out of this thing.

She twisted around in the costume, making punch and kick moves like she would do when fighting but in slow motion, feeling how the costume reacted to her movement, and it was like it wasn't even there.  She never felt the pull or stretch of the fabric, the whole thing was sat a millimetre or two away from her skin no matter how she moved.  She wondered if the soles of the shoes, and in particular, the toes of them, were heavy enough to pack the same kind of kick she was used to in her own costume but she'd have to have something to hit to try that out.  An image of her kicking The Gadget Man and him sailing across the room, still wearing that big grin of his, flicked across her mind but she quickly pushed that thought back; he might be a bit creepy but he hadn't done anything to deserve violence.  Then she imagined kicking Charlton in the face and that felt a lot better, though now he had been arrested, that wasn't going to happen again either.

A polite cough came from a distance away.  'Are you finished?' called The Gadget Man's voice.
'Yeah.' said Striker, reaching for the hood of the costume and bringing it over her face.  The fabric of the hood knitted together with the body of the costume when she pulled them together and Striker shook her head in disbelief at this magical fabric.
She drew back the curtain and The Gadget Man was stood next to the metal staircase.
'Marvellous!' he exclaimed when he saw her.  'It fits perfectly! Well, I knew it would of course, but it just marvellous to see it actually being worn.'
'How?' asked Striker, still concerned with how this stranger had obtained her measurements so precisely.
'How?' asked The Gadget Man questioningly.  'How what?  Oh I'm sure you probably have many questions about this costume, why don't I just tell you all about it instead.'
Striker didn't manage to clarify her question before The Gadget Man started to explain about the costume to her.
'I hope you find the fabric of it very flexible, it's designed to stretch as much as you need it to and be completely suited to you fighting needs.' said the dwarf excitedly, Striker nodded, having found this for herself already.  'Oh marvellous!  Well what I'm sure you haven't found out yet is that this fabric is also bullet-proof and stab-proof, much like the kinds of things police officers use but built into this thin and flexible fabric.  Would you like me to demonstrate?' he asked, as he stepped over to a drawer, opened it and pulled out a pistol.
'NO!' yelled Striker and she instinctively leapt towards him and kicked the gun from his hand, knocking him backwards in the process.  Well at least she knew she could kick it in now.
'Ouch!' said the dwarf angrily as he recovered from the blow.  'There was no need for that!'
'You were going to shoot me.' said Striker firmly.
'No, no.' said The Gadget Man, pushing himself to his feet and brushing the dust from his clothes.  'I was going to demonstrate with a spare costume, what kind of a madman do you think I am?'
Striker shrugged in response, not at all sorry for her actions, she had no way to know he wasn't about to shoot her after all.
'Well, yes.' he said begrudgingly, 'I suppose you don't actually know much about me yet do you.  Well, just know that I don't test my inventions on people.' he said firmly and Striker realised he was actually a little hurt that she had thought he was going to fire at her.
'Anyway.' he said as he opened a door which revealed an identical looking Striker costume over another mannequin. 'Here, let me show you.'  He held his hand over the gun on the floor and looked at her, she nodded and he then picked it up.  He aimed the gun, then screwed his whole face up before he then shot the gun, it was obvious that it wasn't something he was comfortable doing.
The bullet dropped down onto the floor in front of the mannequin.  Striker could see a slight indent in the chest where it had hit before the indent then smoothed out and the fabric looked exactly as it had done before.
'There's a cushioning layer between the fabric and the body it's covering.' The Gadget Man explained.  'This means that you won't ever feel any friction between you and the costume and that layer absorbs the force of the bullet and distributes it evenly across the entire fabric, so it would probably feel more like a mild electric shock, making you jump slightly but not hurting.  The same happens if you try and stab it with a knife.  The weave of the fabric itself prevents the blade from pushing through it unless it was as fine as a pin, well actually, it would have to be a very thin pin at that.  Anyway, you should find that this acts as pretty much impenetrable armour which may prove useful as word of you reaches the criminal element as they may come armed, expecting you.'
Striker nodded, but she was still trying to take in what she had seen when the gun was fired at the costume on the mannequin.  She looked down at the costume on herself and decided to give it a test with a prod of her finger.  She couldn't make even a slight impression on the fabric and she couldn't feel a thing, it was remarkable, it didn't seem real.
'I also didn't want there to be any weak points in the fabric,' The Gadget Man went on 'so I'm sure you will have noticed when you put it on that the fabric actually bonds with itself when the edges meet so that there is no join and therefore no vulnerable section of the costume for anyone to exploit like the joints in plate armour which I'm sure you understand.'
Striker didn't understand anything about plate armour but she nodded her understanding of what he was saying about her costume at least.
'How do I take it off?' she asked, concerned that she was in a full body costume which even covered her entire head and by the sounds of it, it was now bonded together and could never be removed.  She started to feel a little bit claustrophobic under the full face mask.
'Oh yes, I haven't mentioned that yet have I, I am sorry.' said The Gadget Man.  'It's one of the buttons on the belt, I'm sure you'll quickly get used to which buttons do what but, may I?' he asked, approaching her and reaching towards her waist.  Striker nodded and The Gadget Man swiped a finger across her hip and some buttons emerged from the fabric and Striker was even more taken aback, surely that was impossible but she was seeing it with her own eyes.  'It's this one right here, the pink one.' he said.  'Press it once to released the headpiece and a second time to release the opening at your side.'
Striker pressed the button once and the fabric separated between the mask and the body except for around the back, making it a hood once more.  She pushed it back off her face and down to her back once more.  The Gadget Man's whole expression filled with delight when he saw her and Striker realised she was grinning like a maniac herself, what an incredible costume this was.

'Would you like to try it out?' asked The Gadget Man, gleeful at seeing she was happy with the costume.  Striker nodded and the dwarf started to climb the metal spiral stairs to the floor above.  'Come on.' he said, motioning for her to follow him.
Striker climbed the steps after him up to what seemed to be the final floor; the steps didn't continue up through this room like they did the floor below and above her, Striker could see the clockwork for the clock and she realised they were quite far up the clock tower now.
Hanging from a long rope hanging from somewhere beyond the clock workings, was a punch bag, shaped to look like a man.
'Go ahead.' said The Gadget Man, gesturing towards the punch bag.  Although Striker had never used a punch bag or trained her skill in any way, she needed no further invitation and she unleashed a flurry of punches and kicks upon the effigy with the final kick to the head ripping the rest of the bag away from it and sending the head flying around the room.  The Gadget Man whooped and cheered in glee, which Striker was relieved about since she had just broken his punch bag but he didn't seem to mind that at all.
'Marvellous!' he exclaimed.  'Simply marvellous!'

Striker got changed back into her usual costume but at The Gadget Man's insistence, she took the new costume with her as well.  'Try it out' he had encouraged, 'See what you make of it in a real world situation.' and she was happy to do that, although she thought she might try it out first of all wearing it underneath her normal costume; she still wasn't comfortable about wearing something so revealing.
She promised The Gadget Man that she would return the following weekend, at 6am on Saturday morning, when he would have another surprise for her.  Striker didn't really relish surprises, she preferred to know where she stood with things, and liked to brace herself for what to expect rather than be completely unprepared.  She didn't press him for information though and left the clock tower by the door she entered through.  The square was quiet except for the sound of some drunken late-night revellers nearby, so Striker took off and sprinted home before she could be seen by anyone.  She ran over what she had experienced at The Gadget Man's tower and realised she didn't ask the most important question of all, why he was doing all of this for her.

Chapter Six

Laura had gone into work early on Monday morning, she was desperate to know what had happened to Charlton after she had left him tied up with the police being phoned on Friday night.  She logged on and brought up the incident logging system.  It didn't take her long to find the record relating to Striker from Friday.

As she had hoped, the police arrived before Charlton had regained consciousness though he came to whilst they were at the scene.  The girl had left a witness statement and she was deemed to be a credible witness as thankfully the row with her boyfriend had meant she had left the evening's revelries before she had drunk more than a bottle and a half of Smirnoff Ice.  Charlton had been taken into custody and he had been charged.  Laura hoped they would be able to tie him to the other muggings as well so that he could be punished for all of his crimes and not just the one in which he was caught.

Laura felt satisfaction for a job well done this time and she felt very proud of herself for managing to achieve it, albeit on the second attempt.  The witness had stated that Striker was responsible for the capture but didn't contradict the description which Charlton had previously given to the police which she had subsequently read in the Chronicle.  She also maintained that Striker had never spoken throughout the incident.  Laura knew this wasn't because she couldn't remember anything about her but rather that she wanted to protect Striker's identity, she wanted Striker to continue in what she was doing and catch more criminals if she could.  Laura knew then that this was what job satisfaction feels like, and it felt a hundred times better than her most satisfying moments at work of solving a particularly difficult and obscure problem.  She knew that this was her real calling.
*****

The week went by slowly as Laura spent her time at work trying to snatch moments to look into the files on the system and see who she should be targetting next and her evenings at home chatting to friends on phone and on line but in a hollow way as she couldn't tell them what was preoccupying her so much and her mind kept wandering back to The Gadget Man.  In a way she wished he hadn't left a letter but instead had come back when she was recovered and introduce himself then, and preferably without the breaking and entering part as well of course.  But then the excitement of knowing that something was coming, that someone had contacted her not being she is Laura Layton, systems support, but she is Striker, the masked superhero of the town.

The girl from Friday night who Laura read was called Sarah Hampton, had gone to the Chronicle to set the record straight with them after Charlton had been arrested and charged.  The paper was going crazy about this mysterious vigilante now and a few pages a day seemed to be dedicated to her (or rather to him as the paper hadn't been given a description by Sarah so they were still going by the account Charlton had given them).  There was analysis by some shrink on the psychology of someone who does such things along with analysis of what Striker had done, what they might do next and whether this was a good thing or not.  There were reports by members of the public of sightings of Striker, which Laura knew to be bogus except perhaps for one on or two on nights she had been out as Striker, and there was a lot of commentary over whether Striker was a new hero and just what the police needed to help them keep law and order or whether she was an out-of-control lawbreaker who needs to be locked up before they commit any more assaults on people with absolutely no right to do so.  The North Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner had finally been forced into a statement by mid-week and he simply stated that no law-breaking is tolerated by the police and they are making their own enquires.  Little did they know she was right under their noses so to speak thought Laura as she read it, though she couldn't help but feel a little nervous when she was at work that day because of it.

On Wednesday night she was finally completely recovered from her migraine and she decided she would venture a reconnaissance trip to the clocktower as Laura rather than Striker; perhaps she could pre-empt something about The Gadget Man or figure out an escape route in case things didn't go quite as she was hoping they would.

It was a cold and dark evening when Laura set out to the square which featured the clocktower standing dominatingly in the middle of it.  She hadn't ever really paid it much attention before; the square went all around it and the clock was so high up that it wasn't a useful thing to glance at for the time so it just blended in with the rest of the city centre.  The two steps which surrounded it were often used by people to meet their friends on or by teenagers to hang about on.  Laura herself had spent some evenings when she was younger chatting with her friends there whilst sharing a bottle of cheap cider between them.  Even then though, she hadn't really paid any attention to the clocktower itself, it was just the background landscape to the lives happening around it.

As she reached the edge of the square, there was a young couple crossing the square, pulling their coats up around themselves to keep the cold wind out.  Laura leaned against the corner of a building to survey the square more thoroughly, taking in details she had never before noticed.
There was a real mix of architectural styles to the buildings surrounding the square.  The city had suffered some bomb damage during World War Two and Laura wondered if the more bland, brick buildings had been built as a consequence of other being demolished by the attacks.  Some of the stonework on the older looking buildings was quite ornate but a lot of the details had been worn away by the weather over centuries making them seem a little sad and unloved.  The spare itself was covered in stone flagstones which had been worn by the footfalls of many shoppers so that the artificial light of the streetlamps picked out the slight grooves of lines going between the major entrances to the square.

The clocktower itself was also made of stone but a different colour stone to the buildings which surrounded it.  This must be a more hardwearing stone thought Laura, since there was a lot more detail carved into the tower which was still visible.  Higher up there were even a couple of what looked like gargoyles on each side, like you might find on cathedrals rather than on clocktowers.  Laura wonder how she hadn't noticed these before as they looked so strange in this setting now.
At the top of the clocktower was the large clockface, only displayed on one of the four sides of the square tower, with the other three having a flat circular indent in the stone as though they were expecting a clockface to be fitted to them.  The clockface was red and the numbers around it were written in gold roman numerals.

Laura sized up the tower from where she was stood and estimated it was probably about ten meters square, not very big for someone to be taking residence in as The Gadget Man's letter suggested to her.  She walked around the edge of the square slowly, trying to see if she could spot anything which might give her some advantage on Friday.  Other than nearly tripping over a homeless man, huddled under a piece of cloth in a doorway, and seeing the one solitary door which The Gadget Man had mentioned in his letter, she didn't see anything which was of any help to her at all.  She eventually decided she had better head home before she attracted any attention to herself, especially as everyone seemed to be on high alert of suspicious activity at the moment with all the newspaper reports about Striker.

The last couple of days of work went very slowly.  Laura was piecing together some information about a couple of car thieves, something which struck a chord with her, to see if she could put a stop to their nefarious activities but she hadn't got enough to go on to try and catch them yet.  When she finally walked out of work on Friday however, it was with a real bounce in her step.  She was feeling a lot more excited than she was nervous about meeting the mysterious Gadget Man despite the reservations she had about the person and about the location of the meeting, putting herself exactly where he wanted her and entirely at his mercy.

Although The Gadget Man obviously knew who she really way, since he'd left her a letter inside her own flat with her lying on the floor at the time, the letter was addressed to Striker and so Striker was who was going to turn up at the clocktower.  She didn't want anyone to see her in her costume in the middle of the city centre though, so she put on a long, black, woollen coat over the top of her costume and she kept the balaclava in her pocket.  It didn't look out of place since the weather had turned cold recently, in fact Striker thought she would probably have looked more conspicuous for not wearing a coat that for wearing one at the moment.

She arrived on Church Lane and approached the square a little early, she always did try and be punctual, something her mum had instilled in her.  She paused at the entrance to the square, looking around for anything suspicious.  There were a couple of kids sat on the steps at the front of the clocktower, one of them playing with a skateboard and both of them with hoods up on their hooded jumpers.  The homeless person Laura had nearly tripped over when she had surveyed the square two night previously seemed to have moved on and the occasional lone person or couple were strolling through the square on their ways to other places.

Striker waited until it was almost eight on the dot before she approached the clocktower itself.  The two boys on the steps glanced at her as she walked past them but they resumed their conversation quickly.  Striker rounded the corner to the side of the clocktower where the door stood, and she hunched over herself facing the wall of the tower and quickly put her balaclava on.  She then stepped over to the door and gave it the three sharp knocks as instructed.  She held her breath as she waited for her knocks to be answered.

Chapter Five

Laura woke to the sensation of Alfie licking at a portion of her face which wasn't covered by her hands.  She was lying on the floor of her lounge with packets of pill scattered next to her.  She thought around the parts of her head, giving it a once-over from the inside; she could feel the migraine still inside it but the pain of it was blocked and she was able to think clearly, if not well.  The medication had worked and she a silent thank you to the god of triptans.  As she moved her head the migraine pressed against her skull, trying to break out but not succeeding.  This was a feeling Laura knew she was going to have throughout the rest of the day and she had to be very careful now not to let a crack appear in her defences for the migraine to flood her brain with pain again.

Very slowly, she raised herself to her hands and knees and crawled back across the floor to the sofa.  She allowed herself a rest there, sat on the floor with her back leaning against the base of the sofa.  Alfie stayed by her side and she found his presence a comfort, even if she knew he couldn't help her and that she wasn't going to be able to fulfil the role of responsible pet owner very well today.

She sat there for some time before she realised how desperately she needed water, the feelings of thirst and dehydration wrapped up in amongst all of the other uncomfortable and out-of-sorts feelings the caged up migraine was giving her.  She noticed a bottle of water on the coffee table which she didn't recognise as one she would have bought, but it was there and she needed it now.  She leaned forwards and grabbed the bottle and drank almost the whole bottle in one go; she hadn't realised she was quite that thirsty.  She gasped for air when she finally stopped drinking and cradled her head in her hands as she let the life-bringing fluid make its way into her body to heal her.

When she finally looked up from her own lap, she noticed an envelope on the table where she had picked the water up from and it had something written on the front.  She reached forward and picked the envelope up and written in a beautiful cursive script was the word 'Striker'.

She dropped the envelope as soon as she saw it as though it contained a something deadly like a bomb.  It lay on the floor by her feet and Laura's heart was pounding as she stared disbelievingly at it.  She kept trying to think of any possible ways this could come to be in her flat and the only answer which seemed possible at all was terrifying to her, someone had broken into her flat whilst she had been laid on the floor in a migraine haze and left this letter for her.

She took some deep breaths, trying to calm herself.  She told herself it's only an envelope, it can't hurt you.  She started to believe herself when she thought about how vulnerable she had been through the night, lying there in agony whilst the deliverer of the letter stood over her.  That was where the water had come from too she realised.  The letter bearer had known that she needed water and they had left the bottle of water there for her.  She panicked suddenly then, what if the water had been poisoned?  No, she remembered she had broken the seal when she opened it, and if they'd wanted to poison her, they could have injected her with anything whilst they were there and she wouldn't have known anything about it.  She was certain that whoever had left the letter and the water had not to do her any harm, unless whatever was in the envelope contained something harmful, maybe it was even a blackmail letter as this person somehow knew that she is Striker, despite the fact that she in no way fitted the description which was published by the Chronicle.

They must have followed her she realised.  They followed her home after she caught Charlton and they broke in and left this letter for her.  Alfie seemed completely himself as he nuzzled at her knee but he was a friendly dog, the world's worst guard dog; he probably lolloped all over whoever it was and had the time of his life.
'Who was it?' she asked Alfie, realising she was still slurring her words ever so slightly, a side-effect of the triptan.  'Who left this for me?' she asked as she rubbed his ears just how he liked.  She knew she needed to go and feed him, she hadn't fed him when she'd got in last night and he was probably starving by now.  But she had to know what this letter was first and whether it spelt doom for her or her loved ones.

She picked the envelope up from the floor and turned it over.  It was sealed with a wax seal, something she'd only ever seen in historical dramas, she didn't know anyone ever actually did that these days.  The design on the seal looked like a cog and visions of a steampunk obsessed madman flashed through Laura's mind.  She ran her finger under the flap of the envelope and the seal popped away from it.  She opened the letter to find it was written in the same beautiful flowing hand in a black ink.

Dear Striker,

I hope this letter finds you well and that you haven't suffered any injuries in your adventures tonight.

I have been watching and admiring you in your exploits and I believe that I may be able to help you in your quest for justice.

If you would like to know more about how I can help you, and I strongly urge you to do so, please come to the following address at exactly 8 o'clock on Friday evening.  I think you will find this to be to your great advantage.

The Old Clocktower, Church Lane.  Go to the small back door to the side of the clocktower and knock three times sharply.

Yours with great reverence,

The Gadget Man


The name signed at the end was written with a great flourish and it had three tiny cogs drawn next to it.

Laura re-read the letter several times before she placed it down carefully on the coffee table, still trying to process what she had read through her foggy mind.  The thought she kept coming back to though, was who is The Gadget Man and what does he want with her.  And in some ways the hardest thing was that she was going to have to wait almost an entire week to find out.
*****

She took the rest of the weekend easy, looking after her delicate head so that she didn't set the migraine off again.  She lounged around on her sofa, cooked herself some simple meals and tried to watch some television whilst she repaired the few rips her costume had suffered from in her encounters with Charlton.

Time and again though she found that she didn't know what was happening in the programmes she was watching as her mind kept wandering, going back to the letter and the way it had been delivered.  She had checked the door straight after she had fed Alfie when she was well enough to stand again and it was locked up, just how she always left it; The Gadget Man had left the flat in exactly the same state as he had found it in.  And there was the matter of the water, had he come to deliver the letter and found her in that state and so gone away to buy water and come back again with it, or had he known when he was following her that she was experiencing aura and that migraine was sure to follow.  Perhaps he simply had the water with him already and thought it would be a nice gesture to leave it for her.  All of these thoughts felt creepy to Laura but they also felt strangely reassuring; he had known she was suffered and he had done something to help her in this small way.  She even started to wish that he had broken into her home earlier, when she was trying to reach her medication and when she was struggling to take the tablets without any drink to help her.  She also felt a little surprised that after seeing her in that state, he still thought that she was capable, he still wanted to meet Striker.

There was no doubt however, during any of these ponderings, about her intention to go to the location he had described on the time and day stated.  As the weekend rolled on though, she decided she would also pay a visit to these premises before Friday, she wanted to see if she could garner any information about this mysterious man for herself before she went onto his turf and put herself entirely in his hands.