She had done it again. She truly had planned to avoid this; taken steps to ensure that this wouldn’t happen. That morning, when her grandpa’s ancient alarm clock had begun its shrill cry, vibrating the worn wooden nightstand upon which it sat, she had reached out and firmly quieted its bells. She had lain beneath her duvet, breathing quietly with focused deliberation. Her legs had itched. Outside her bedroom window, the sparrow that lived in the beech tree had chirped obliviously, singing the same morning song that usually found her halfway through her morning routine. The urge to spring from the bed was devastating. But she had resisted. Through clenched teeth, she told herself, this is the plan. With herculean effort, she’d stayed in that bed for another twenty minutes, though she did not sleep a second more.
It was when she was finally in the bathroom (the sparrow by now having abandoned his song), dragging a brush over fractious black curls, that she’d heard her phone ding. Her hand on the brush clenched in symbiotic response. She reached for it with her free hand and saw one message:
Where are you
She felt a dull ache in her stomach that swung itself into a full-fledged pain when she swiped the message off the screen without responding. She ignored the throbbing as she finished getting dressed and headed out.
Outside, she turned on the engine and picked up her phone. Wincing with every character, she typed a reply.
So sorry!!! Running late. Leaving now.
She hit send, and quickly put her phone on silent before tucking it facedown in the middle console.
She drove a plodding 35 MPH through the rush hour traffic of Whistler, Pennsylvania, and was rewarded with being passed several times, last of all by a tiny old man who seemed like he might be shaking a fist or a finger at her, but was too short to be seen clearly behind his windows.
All of this, she had topped off with an audacious stop at the Four Corners cafe, where she ordered and waited patiently for two large coffees, one with cream and sugar and one with extra cream, no sugar.
And now, after all that, after each excruciating step of her plan, she had arrived.
And she was still early.
She sat behind the wheel of her car, still not quite able to believe the fact that the parking lot of Second Sovereign Bank was, apart from a small blue Ford Escort, entirely empty. She sat for a defeated moment, and then gathered herself and her coffees, before making her way up a steep flight of stairs to the door of the bank. She peered inside, but was unable to see any movement. Her hands full, she used her elbow to knock lightly on the glass of the door. Distantly, she saw blurry shapes moving, which grew into increasingly sharper focus until an owlish pair of glasses was peering her at intently through the two glass doors.
With difficulty, she pressed her badge against the glass. “Hi,” she called, unable to tell if the glasses could actually hear her, or if they were indeed attached to a person at all. “Special Agent Natalia Reyes? FBI? I’m here with SSA Dan Thomp- oh.” She took a step back as the glass door she’d been leaning on slid open abruptly. The coffees sloshed violently in her hands.
Her eyes adjusted to the dimness of the vestibule to reveal the glasses were attached to a portly middle-aged man in neatly pressed slacks and a sweater vest. His hands fluttered as he moved towards her.
“Sorry, I’m so sorry!” he cried. “You’re the third person in three days not to realize that door is automatic. Hello! I’m Harold Friedman, I’m the general manager for this location.” He extended a chubby hand, which he awkwardly withdrew as her realized Nat had no free hand.
She offered him an apologetic nod. “Special Agent Reyes. Is my supervisory agent here? I thought I saw his car outside.”
“Yes, of course. Please follow me.” He turned and headed into the bank. Over his shoulder he said, “We don’t open for another hour, which I thought would be best for you all.”
“Yes,” Nat agreed, taking in the quiet marble lobby around them as she followed him through a door beside the tellers’ booth, dark and empty now. The air smelled of staleness, coffee, and faintly, muffins. He led her down a short hallway and then into a small windowless room where, crouched on the bland beige carpet, Supervisory Special Agent Dan Thompson was examining a span of floor molding beneath a large built-in safe. He didn’t turn around.
Nat had planned to be apologetic, but her dismay over being the first to arrive was still smarting. “There’s no one here!”
Behind her, Harold Friedman made a sound not unlike a mouse squeaking. “I’ll just let you two…” He hurried from the room.
Dan Thompson rolled into a squat and rose gracelessly to his feet. He frowned. “Not like you, kid. I almost worried.”
She didn’t roll her eyes, but it was quite close. “Never that.”
“It’s not Harold’s.” She extended the sugarless coffee to him.
Dan sipped. “Funny little fellow. I scared him this morning when he started asking me stupid questions about working for the FBI, and I told him to read a supermarket novel and scram.”
“That was rude. He seems nice.”
“We don’t have time for nice.” Dan set his coffee down on the table. “It’s almost definitely the DC ring. What I can’t understand is why they’re so far north now, so soon after the last one down in Baltimore.”
Nat hovered by the door. “Hmm. An aberration. Maybe they’ve gotten sloppier?”
Dan shook his head. “Doesn’t look like it. The usual. Got the report from forensics this morning. No sign of forced entry. No prints. Guard knocked out. Cameras caught two guys in masks. By the time officers responded, the place was quiet as a tomb.”
“How much this time?”
“About 40 grand. I just don’t understand how they’re getting in and out like this. It’s like we’re chasing ghosts.”
By the door, Nat laughed uncomfortably. “I’m not writing up that report: Chief, we have concluded we are chasing the dead. No further investigation recommended.”
Dan didn’t laugh. “This is the first one in our jurisdiction, and they want me on point. I don’t think I’m going to do any better than the others.” Dan sighed. “I’m going to talk to our little buddy again. Got another question about the cameras. While I’m gone, poke around. Maybe you’ll get one of your brain bursts. Sure could use one right now.
Nat forced another laugh, and Dan left. Tucking her hands into the pockets of her jacket, she drifted toward the large safe on the wall. A hundred thoughts tangled in her mind. In the quiet, it almost seemed like the safe had a heartbeat. She thought about how incredible it would be if their office was the one to blow this case open, where Maryland and Virginia and even headquarters had failed. She thought about her grandfather’s last warning, about the dangers of chasing personal gain. She thought about what Dan had said. Like we’re chasing ghosts…
She drew her hands from her pockets. She felt a familiar tingle. One last rueful glimpse of her grandfather’s face crossed her mind, and then without another thought she thrust her hands out and pressed them flat against the safe.
Her mind exploded into color. Closing her eyes, she concentrated and began to sift through the shapes and burst of light racing across her mind like a firestorm of memory. Willing the images to slow down (she was getting better at that), she saw a fairly nondescript face. Thirties, brown hair, brown eyes. He was in a small room, and he was picking up a ski mask. He handed another to the man behind him, also a sandy haired middle-aged man.
They fell into discussion, and she lost her grip on the thread of images. They began to race again, and the brick facade of the bank spun by her. She keyed in on the image, struggling as it fought to spin away again. It was nighttime, the bank illuminated by the parking lot lamps. The edges of the image quivered as the vision tried to push on. It looked like the same images captured by one of the parking lot cameras on the tapes she had reviewed. She focused harder. There were two masked figures at the door of the bank, the same door where Harold had greeted her that morning. As she watched, the figures approached the door, and then suddenly, were inside and out of view, just as they had on the tapes. She pressed harder against the safe, pulling for more images. She saw the safe now, not as it was before her, but as it had been two nights ago. The two masked men were standing right where she was standing now. The safe was closed tight. Then suddenly, the man standing closest reached an arm toward the safe, and Nat watched in astonishment as his arm disappeared right through the solid metal door of the safe. His arm returned with a wad of neatly banded bills. The image began to quiver, and exhausted, Nat let it go and dropped her hands from the safe.
She slid to the floor. We really are chasing ghosts. She sat very still, but her vision kept spinning. That always happened afterward, but now it was coupled with pure shock.
There were others like her? She had always wondered, but after 29 years she had started to accept her singularity. Besides Abuelito. Since he’d been gone, she hadn’t spoken to anyone about her powers. It was a lonely burden. A mind-reader himself, Abuelito had raised her carefully to respect three main tenants: Never use your powers to hurt someone. Never use your powers for personal gain. And never tell anyone.
This she had followed faithfully, never even telling her parents. When she was still too small to know better, she had chattered happily to her parents about the pretty pictures in her mind. They had half-listened; fondly called her, nuestro soñadora pequeña. Our little dreamer. She had been five when Abuelito had taken her for a walk to the park, and told her the truth about herself, about them both. They had already been close, but since then he had become her touchstone, her closest friend, and the only person with whom she could fully be herself. Through high school, college, Quantico, he was her constant.
She missed him with a pain like nothing she had known before.
Now she pulled herself slowly to her feet. She had a problem now that she’d had before in this job, one that she had been trying to avoid by not arriving early to the site this morning, by ensuring that she never had time alone in the crime scene. She had knowledge that there was no way to source, trace, or explain. She knew what their robbers looked, what entrance they had used, and most inexplicably, she knew that they were not professional safecrackers but humans with strange and terrifying abilities.
And there was no way any of that was going to be admissible evidence.
With a sigh, Nat headed to the hallway to find Dan and Harold. She could hear the rest of their team gathering in the lobby. She followed the sound of voices further down the hall to another small room, with windows overlooking the neatly manicured parking lot, several feet down below. Dan sat across from Harold, who sat at his desk nodding anxiously. “Yes, perfectly functional! You can see from the tapes I turned over to your team yesterday. But they wore masks the entire time.”
Dan shook his head. “Yes, I know. Look, I’m going to round up my team out there. We’ll be around working; if you have any questions, find me. Come on, Reyes.” Over his shoulder he called, “Grab a card, wouldja?”
Harold hastened to remove a business card on the holder from his desk. “I wish we could be more helpful, I truly do...this all reflects so terribly on me- oops!” As he passed the card across the desk, he knocked over a decorative silver picture frame.
Reflexively, Nat reached for it, stopping just before her fingers met the frame. Pictures were dangerous; sometimes the memory they held was too strong to block out. To cover, she stopped and pretended to admire the picture now laying flat before her. “Your family is lovely,” she said politely. In the image, a man stood with his arm around a blond woman, two small children in front of them.
“Thank you,” Harold said, “but they’re not mine. That’s my brother and his family.”
“Oh, I’m sorry!” Nat peered at the image. “I see now, that’s-” And she cut off. Because while the man in the photo was certainly not Harold, she had seen his face before- ten minutes ago, with her hands pressed against the safe.
Her mind reeled. She remembered something Harold had said to her earlier, about the front door. Now she did reach for the picture frame, and when her fingers closed around the cold metal, she was flooded with images. She saw the men she’d seen holding the masks, standing in this office, Harold beside them, all three in suits, the door closed, a blueprint flat on the desk between them. The image changed, and she saw Harold with the men again, in the room she’d seen earlier. They were surrounded now by piles of cash. Another image flew past her- Harold again, alone this time, in a kitchen pulling a tray of blueberry muffins from the oven. Harold at the bank again, arranging muffins on a tray and dropping a small dark bottle into the third drawer of his desk. And once again, the image of the two men entering the bank, vanishing inside. She realized now it wasn’t the automatic door or a trick of the film. They’d phased right through the door.
With a gasp, she let go of the picture frame. It clattered to the desk. She looked at Harold. It took her a moment to realize he was looking at her with just as much alarm. Before she could wonder how he could have any idea what she now knew, he breathed, apparently as shocked as she was herself, “You’re a Special, too.”
She stared at him, speechless.
The little man pointed to himself. “I’m a Reader. Minds only, though I’m working on Psychometry. I bet that’s pretty useful in your job, huh?”
Nat still could not find words.
“Well, this is incredible! I’ve never met one outside our family before. Of all the luck. Well, we always planned on my place being our last job anyway, which was why we saved it until now.”
He reached below the desk and pulled out a bag. “I have so many questions for you! But I don’t suppose you and I have time to chat. In fact, I really don’t want you saying much of anything at all.” And with that he swiftly pulled a .38 mm from the inside of his jacket.
Suddenly, Nat found herself as her training took over automatically. She dove quickly to Harold’s left, and before he could readjust, she was diving across the desk, picture frames shattering as her right hand closed on his wrist and her left around the barrel of the gun. With a hard shove, she pulled gun close to her chest and then twisted her grip until the gun was turned 180 degrees, pointed back at Harold. She used the grip to pull herself forward off the desk, grounding her left foot with a quick strike in the soft flesh of Harold’s abdomen. With a grunt, his grip on the gun relaxed, and she jerked it out of his hands. She tossed it clear of both of them, and drew her own weapon. She made sure Harold was on his knees, hands on his head before she shouted, “I need backup!”
She was sitting on the curb outside letting an EMT swab her cut-up legs with disinfectant when Dan found her.
“Well.” He sipped his coffee.
She didn’t look at him. “That’s gotta be cold by now.”
He shrugged. “A little. Anyway. Friedman’s singing like a sparrow. Confessed to all five of the jobs they did. They’re going to pick up his brothers now. They found carfentanil in his desk. Apparently he gave the guard a little snack before he left work last night.”
She sighed. “That’s great.”
Dan frowned. “Yeah. It is. There’re just still some things I don’t understand, you know? Like, he let them in, but those doors record every time they’re opened after hours. There’s no record. And two of those banks they hit in Virginia, we don’t even have them on camera going in through the door. It’s like they just appear at the safe.
Nat smiled at the EMT. “Thank you, I think I’m good now.” He nodded and bustled off.
She turned to her supervisor. “Dan, what’s that thing you always say to me about borrowing trouble?”
Dan shook her head. “Don’t parrot my words back at me, kid. Do as I say, not as I do.” He chuckled. “I gotta go talk to the Special Agent in Charge. We’re on assignment again tomorrow. Don’t be late this time.”
Nat shook her head as he sloped off. Privately, her mind was still reeling, one part adrenaline, and one part absolute wonder. She wasn’t alone? What could this mean? Where were they from?
And most importantly: how could she find them?
She had a feeling she needed to start an investigation of her own...