Disclaimer: I don't own any characters except Irbis and several innocent short-lived bystanders; everything else is Marvel's only.

Chapter 1

The Walking "Get-Me" Sign

The clouds covered the entire sky, but they didn't seem to threaten any rain. They were just there, keeping the sun from warming up the atmosphere. However, Irbis had found a way to warm herself up. Running vigorously through her boss's backyard, she felt herself sweating under the sweater.

She had always enjoyed running, feeling the wind hit her face. She could almost forget about everything else. Of course she hadn't run for real for two years now, ever since finishing high-school. There were no gymnastics or physical education classes at the university, and she would not be caught dead seen running or jogging all on her own. Hell, she wouldn't be caught dead seen running with other people: it'd have looked so strange everyone would have pointed her out and talked about her. That was also why she was running under the cover of the trees, away from any prying eyes.

So she missed her high-school physical education classes where she excelled in the running: she was faster than any other girl, faster than even most boys in her class. Had she wanted it, her teacher had once said, she might have had a future as an athlete. Of course, she would never have chosen that path. She could hardly stand to have people watching her run, in the few inter-school races and games, and demanding a win from her. She liked to run, not to race; and people all around her didn't understand it.

Irbis reached the back of the house and glanced at her watch. Fifty-three minutes. She sighed. It was a pity she couldn't be running on a proper ground: there was no way she could truly develop her speed (and did she love running at full speed!) while running on forest ground. She had to be always careful not to trip, not to hurt herself; she couldn't go in a straight line either, always avoiding tree trunks and bushes. Still, she had managed to get more used to this 'track'. In three weeks, she had improved over half an hour.

She got back to the house and to a shower. September had come with a chill that reminded Irbis of the freezing winter months. In August, she would often get up at 6 am and go for a run straight away. Now, she still got up at 6, but first she did an overall dusting and vacuum-cleaning of some rooms, got everything ready for the day and only went out at 8. Of course, it was still cold at that time, but she quickly ran herself warm and then had a delightful hot water shower. By 10, she had all her chores done. She had this same routine every day except weekends. Saturdays were dedicated to a deeper cleaning, including windows and shutters and moving furniture out of its place; Sundays were chore-free.

Irbis locked the front door and got into her car. Her white mini-van, which Creed had given her. Boy, did she hate that car! It particularly annoyed her the bad performance when going up a hill, or the fact that she couldn't do the gear-shifting as it was all automatic, or that it didn't have much manoeuvrability. But, hey, it was better than no car at all. She sped down Lily Lane, taking advantage of the fact that the area was practically deserted at that hour. It took her fifteen minutes to get to the University's Library. It was there she spent most of her days.

She had started going to the University Library at the end of August, and already every librarian knew Maria Irbis. She always arrived around 10.30, very quiet and discreet; then she did her research, found the books on the shelves and sat in a solitary corner table, as much away from anyone else as possible. She always ate her home made lunch in the park, close to the building. Then she spent the rest of the afternoon in the same solitary corner. Exactly at 5, she always got up and left, sometimes borrowing a book. She was always very nice and polite: she smiled to everyone she talked to, she always said good-morning or good-afternoon to anyone she passed by, and often commented on the weather or other casual topic when she had to ask for the librarians's help.

Amidst the librarians she was seen as a nice nerd, although solitary and friendless; her nose always tucked in a book or computer screen; always walking decidedly when aiming at a specific place, always stuttering or hovering around insecurely whenever making a decision; her clothes neat and conservatively fashionable, very discreet.

That day wasn't any different. At five, as usual, she closed her books and left, saying goodbye to the security guard at the library's entrance with the usual polite smile. The man always responded warmly, as most people simply ignored him. He watched her leave for the car park at her usual fast pace, holding her notebooks with both arms. Ten minutes later, the security guard frowned. Usually, he saw her white van pass by on the road a couple of minutes after she left the building. He quickly reached for his radio.

"Hey, Tony. This is Matt; come in."

"Yeah, Matt. Go ahead."

"You're at the car park?"

"No. But I'm finishing the park round, so I'm just a few feet away. Something wrong?"

"Do me a favour. Look for a white van. The owner should be there: a Caucasoid woman, probably Hispanic; about 5 feet and 3 inches tall; around 18."

"Copy that."

Matt Hoatzin kept his eyes on the road ahead of him, still waiting to see the van speed by. Five minutes later, his colleague called him on the radio.

"Matt, Tony here."

"Go ahead."

"I'm with the van. Can't see your woman nowhere, but I found some notebooks on the ground, a couple of feet from the vehicle. You're thinking she's been kidnapped?"

"Looks that way to me. I'll contact the Wausau Police Department myself."


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