Tada! (That's short for "Dut dada dut da da tada!") Another chapter. And it hasn't even been a full twenty four hours. In fact the chapter was WRITTEN within about 14 hours of posting the last one (and I had an eight to ten hour over night sleep in there too!) This is the chapter I've been waiting a month to write. I couldn't sit still the entire time. And my proofreader giggle pretty much the entire way through. Take a stab at it. -{-

Chapter 20

This must be how international spies feel, crawling through air ducts on secret missions. I had two paintball guns slung across my back and two mounts shoved into the back of my jeans. I was wearing a special pair of glasses that allowed Hank to see everything I saw and in my ear was an audio transmitter so we could communicate. As I crawled along, I couldn't help but be excited by the prospects of the plan Hank had set forth. It was flawless. I just hoped I could follow his instructions well enough to set up the remote trigger. He'd have done it himself, but he couldn't fit in the air ducts. Apparently, he's been working on the plan for years, waiting for the right sized person to come along.

"You're sure this is going to work?" I whispered, knowing that he would hear me. I couldn't risk being too loud and drawing the attention of the people in the room below. "He's definitely going to be here?"

"Eight o'clock on the dot, every morning," he replied in my ear. "Without fail." There was a short silence before he spoke again. "There should be a vent coming up on the right. Set the gun up pointing back towards me at a forty-five degree angle."

I rolled my eyes. "Right, just let me grab out my protractor,"

"It's halfway between zero and ninety," he explained. I'm pretty sure he was being condescending now. I mean, who doesn't know that forty-five degrees is half way to ninety? That's like, the first thing they teach you in math, right?

"I know that," I said, exasperated. "What I meant was, how close to perfect does this angle have to be?"

"Not all that important. Try lining the sight up with the corner of the line on the mat," he suggested.

I did as he suggested and surveyed the resulting angle. It was pretty much forty-five. Close enough for jazz as far as I'm concerned. I set up the next gun so that its target was about a foot and a half to the right of the first, did the necessary rigging that Hank had described and made my way back toward the hole I'd climbed in through where Hank was waiting with another couple of guns for me. This went on for another hour, setting up all the paintball guns so that they would, I suppose, form what looked like a giant game of boxes ready to be played (you know, where you have all the dots and you take turns joining them up to make boxes?) when they all fired.

As I climbed down from the duct Hank informed me that there was enough time for me to get cleaned up and change clothes before it would be show time. He escorted me to my apartment, ensuring that we didn't run into Lester on the way (because that would be a little suspicious) and left me to do my thing, saying that he needed to double check something on the comm. floor. Ten minutes later, I met him in the elevator and we made our way down to the gym once more. As he stepped on at the comm. floor he handed me a mug of hot chocolate and informed me that I should smudge my eyeliner a bit to make it look like I'd just woken up.

Our cover story was, that I'd woken up and gone to the break room, at which point Hank had offered to escort me down to where Lester would be working out in the gym – apparently he's supposed to be keeping a vigilant eye on me during my waking hours.

"So you're doing this to make Lester jealous of the awesome time I'm having with you, right?" I asked as the elevator made its slow descent. I was pretty sure they had some kind of bet going over who could befriend me first – why else would Lester be obsessed by finding out who my favourite was?

Hank looked like he was considering his options for a moment. "What other reason is there?" he asked.

I shrugged, sipping my hot chocolate. "IDK, just thought that maybe you wanted to be my fave."

I watched, satisfied as his eyes widened and he glanced at me quickly, before schooling his expression into the blank mask that was becoming more familiar the more time I spent with these guys. "Is it working to that end?" he asked casually.

"Might be," I commented. "We'll have to wait and find out." He didn't reply to that. Probably didn't want to push his luck. In fact, we spent the rest of the ride down in silence.

Lester was right where we wanted him when we entered the gym. He was on the mats, stretching. As was a BBM I didn't recognise – not that that's saying much, there's a heap of BBMs and I'd only really met three of them. I called a good morning to him while Hank ushered me to the bench seating that ran around the perimeter of the room.

"Mab!" he exclaimed, sounding surprised. "I wasn't expecting you up for another hour at least."

"I'm up," I announced, deliberately stating the obvious. "I'll just sit here while you do your thing. No hurry."

He shrugged and turned back to his companion taking up a combat stance. They engaged in some idle smack talk, circling around each other and I let an inadvertent yawn. I wanted them to get on with the fighting already. Actually, they call is sparring, don't they. Whatever. Fight. Fake fight. I wanted to see someone (preferably Lester) pinned to the ground.

Beside me, Hank slipped the remote control out of his pocket and made it look like he was checking messages on his phone – that's the beauty of modern technology, a remote control detonator doesn't have to look like a box with a big red button. In fact, if I didn't know better, I would have thought Hank was just checking his phone for messages. I had to squelch down a wave of excitement that threatened to have me bouncing on the bench impatiently.

Finally, Lester and the other guy began their back and forth. Hank was keeping a running stream of commentary for my benefit, but I was barely listening. I was watching avidly, waiting for the other guy to pin him. I wanted them horizontal on the mat when we set the paintball guns off. That way they were more likely to get hit. Hank was leaning forward, elbows braced on knees, the remote held in both hands, looking just as intent as I felt. It took another five minutes of their dancing around before they hit the mats, but it wasn't Lester who was pinned. It was the other guy. Now that I thought about it, though, it was better that way; it meant Lester was on top and would cop the brunt of the blow.

"Go!" I whispered to Hank urgently. "Now!"

An instant later the matted area of the room exploded in a burst of colour and the startled cries of the two men. The guns fired for five seconds before stopping and allowing us to assess the damage. Two multi coloured men were crouched in the middle of the area, surrounded by splatters of paint and one less splattered area where they'd been lying just seconds ago.

"What the hell!" Lester had just enough time to screech, looking around wildly before Hank let rip the second round of fire. "FUCK!" he cried, diving for the edge of the mat in an attempt to get away from the line of fire. The other guy was running for the opposite edge, hands held over his head protectively.

Hank and I were cackling evilly, watching on as Lester scrambled to gain his footing at the edge of the mat. More men were crowding in from the adjacent room where all the exercise equipment was, creating a growing cacophony of laughter and amazed shouts. I saw a couple of men on the phone, obviously calling mates were not yet here to come and have a look. Others had their phones out as well, but seemed to be capturing the moment in photographic and video form. Why hadn't I thought of that?

Eventually, the laughter began to fade away and the crowd thinned out a little. Lester was standing directly in front of Hank and me, hands on hips, looking for all the world like an angry rhinoceros. As I stared up at him, still giggling at the purple paint drooling down his forehead, he stalked forward slowly, opening his arms as if to hug me. Uh oh.

"Hank!" I squealed, tugging on his arm. "Save me! These clothes are brand new!"

Hank, my own personal hero, instantly tackled Lester to the ground before he could come any closer. They were snarling at each other like rabid dogs, grunting occasionally, and generally sounding like the soundtrack for a wrestling match. After a few seconds of struggle, Hank rose victorious, sitting on Lester's chest. "That's her second change of clothes already today, man," he huffed, wiping sweat from his brow and in the process smearing paint across his forehead. "And they're brand new. Getting paint on them is like asking for her wrath."

Lester tried pushing Hank off him, but Hank was a formidable force – and probably a massive weight. "Why'd you do it?" he wheezed out, shoving again.

Hank shrugged nonchalantly. "Why not?" he countered. "I had the means. I had the know-how. I've been planning this for three years, just waiting for the right accomplice to come along."

"You're insane," Lester grit out, now attempting to rock Hank off him, by jerking his body left and right. "You know that? Ranger's gonna be pissed. And you're corrupting the kid!"

"Damn right I'm pissed," came a low even tone from the doorway. We all jerked our heads in that direction in surprise to find that the crowd had now disappeared and in its place stood one pretty irate looking Carlos Manoso. Okay, that's a lie. He didn't really look irate, per se, it was more like he exuded irateness in his demeanour. His whole body seemed to be wafting terror inducing pheromones in our direction. "On your feet, soldiers!" he barked, and out of the corner of my eye I saw the guys leap to their feet, assuming attentive stances – feet apart, hands clasped behind backs, shoulders straight. Personally, I decided the best thing for me to do was shrink back against the wall and hope to go unnoticed.

The moment I made the slightest move, he spun his gaze to me. I should have gone with Plan B: Stay very still and pretend I don't exist. "Upstairs," he commanded. "Now. Sit in the break room and don't touch anything. I'll deal with you later."

Probably, I was digging myself in even deeper with my next action, but it just kind of happened. It was as if I'd lost control of my body for that brief moment in time. I stood and faced him, saluting him sarcastically and uttering in my fake Scottish accent, "Aye, aye, cap'n," before sauntering past him and through the doors to the rest of the gym. There were some guys waiting there, grinning like the fools they appeared to be and giving me the thumbs up. Some even came over and slapped me on the back affectionately, congratulating me on the prank, but I shushed them all by holding up both my hands and whispering, "I wanna hear this."

"Do you have any idea how much damage you could have done!" we heard Ranger practically bellow. "Not only the equipment, but the people! What if Stephanie had been in here? What if she had come in unknowingly and stepped into the line of fire just as the guns went off? She could have been hurt! She could have gotten hit! In the stomach! You could have injured the Babettes!"

Around me, the men began to whisper fervently to each other. "Babettes?" someone intoned. "Did he say Babettes? As in plural?" Someone else murmured, "What a ridiculous pet name!" But what interested me most was the crowd of men to my left. Their heads were together and they appeared to be examining an exercise book. "Who had twins?" one of them asked. "Did I put down for twins."

I shushed them all again as Ranger's voice began to carry through the door once more.

"I don't care if you 'made sure' she was definitely nowhere near the scene. We all know that Stephanie is drawn to these ridiculous situations like fire to a car explosion!"

I jumped as Steph's voice sounded from directly behind me. "Oh, come on!" she sighed. "It's not that bad." She brushed past me, muttering a distracted, excuse me and pushed her way into the room. "Like fire to a car explosion?" we heard her exclaim at the door swung shut behind her.

*o*

It's been almost an hour and Carlos still hasn't come looking for me. I know he said to stay in the break room, but I couldn't stand it. For one, I was all alone. And for another, I was pretty sure the guys were being punished down in the gym. My curiosity was eating at me and I'd just decided to make my way down there to see what kind of fresh hell Carlos was subjecting them to when Lester's sparring partner entered. He was dark skinned and sported a marine buzz cut and the same black-black-black clothing as every other inhabitant of the building – at least I fit in, in that respect. He'd obviously showered since I'd last seen him, since he was no longer multi-coloured. He walked straight past my position on the couch, making a beeline for the fridge.

"Want a water?" he called over his shoulder, reaching in. Assuming he was talking to some other colleague who had yet to enter the room, I remained silent. After a long pause, he pulled his head out of the fridge and looked directly at me. "Well?" he prompted.

Startled, I let out a small, "Oh," of surprise before muttering a "yes please".

"Heads up," he warned, tossing the bottle he'd retrieved for me in my direction. I was still flustered from not realising he was talking to me and managed to all but drop the bottle as it landed in my fumbling hands. "Bobby Brown," he informed me, extending a hand for me to shake as he approached the sitting area. "You're Amabel Hathwick." I took his hand briefly, nodding that he was correct. "We met at the fast food place the other day," he added – Oh, now I recognised him. "How's your head? Any lasting soreness? Dizziness? Disorientation?"

"Uh, no," I uttered, confused by this sudden onset interaction. Where was the preamble?

"Nausea?" he questioned, plopping down in the armchair nearby. "Loss of concentration?"

I didn't reply. This was weird. Why was he asking me all these questions? I stared at him, trying to work out his angle.

"Company medic," he explained, shooting me a smile. "Just trying to make sure you don't drop dead on us. That could be bad for business, ya know?"

"Right," I murmured.

"Nice prank earlier," he complimented, as if I'd been the brains behind the operation, instead of just the small person able to fit in the air ducts in order to achieve the desired results. "Set up the guns in the air ducts?"

"Yeah," I confirmed.

"Get 'em down yet?" he asked, setting his water on the coffee table.

To be honest, I hadn't even thought about them. I mean. First there was the wrath of Carlos, lying in wait for the moment when I was most vulnerable. Then there was my worry over the guys and their punishment. The thought of who was going to retrieve the guns hadn't even crossed my mind.

"Thought as much," he said, standing abruptly. "Come on, I'll give you a boost."

I looked around the room, as if expecting to see something, some sort of sign or whatever. "Carlos told me to wait here for him," I informed Bobby. "I'm not supposed to move until he's dealt with me."

Bobby waved my words away with a flick of the hand. "Ranger's too messed up at the moment to be trusted with discipline. Steph sent him to his office for a time out. Come on, we'll get the guns and then you can help me pack them away. That'll make up for any part you played in the event."

"Serious?"

"As a heart attack," he assured me, leading the way out of the room.


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