Masks Thirteen: Chapter Thirty-One
"Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays!" Vic sang, as they walked towards the rear entrance to the mall.
"I swear, if you sing that the whole two weeks until Christmas - like you did when you were twelve - I will smother you in your sleep," said Joline, direly.
"Sorry. Forgot how much you hate that song."
"I don't hate that song. I hate hearing it over and over. So don't play it, either!"
"I'm just happy to be here," said Vic, with a contented sigh. She gave her sister a brief, one-arm hug. "I'm back home with my family for the holidays, I got good grades, and no-one has tried to kill me in most of a month!"
"Okay, okay. I am also pleasantly surprised there hasn't been any harassment from the local anthropoids since I got home."
"I doubt anyone who previously harbored you any ill will even knows you're back in town," said Joline, in a slightly mock-pompous tone. "In fact, I doubt they even think about you any more. In their minds, you're gone, problem solved. Mom and Dad say the calls stopped within a few days of you leaving for Ramsey."
"Why would they think I left for good?!" said Vic, astounded.
"Out of sight, out of mind. You left, they forgot about you. Just try not to do anything to bring yourself back to their attention, and they'll live out their lives in happy ignorance of your continued existence."
"I just don't understand humans," said Vic, shaking her head. "Oh! There's Linda!"
They came together under the roof extension over the entrance and greeted each other warmly, a small, still island in the milling humanity arriving and leaving, bundled against the Winter cold. Linda continued to hold Vic's hands for a while after they hugged.
"I hope you two came in Vic's wagon," said Linda, finally letting go, "and not that two-door Speck of Joline's."
"Hey! My Blitz Hybrid gets great mileage!"
"Yeah, but I'm planning to do a lot of shopping today!" said Linda, excitedly. "Remember, you said you would give me a ride home, so I took the bus here."
"Just how much shopping do you still have to do?" said Vic, suspiciously.
"All of it, of course! Now, come on!"
The three of them spent the rest of the morning shopping, dropped their acquisitions off at Vic's wagon, then had lunch in the food court before resuming their pursuit of swag. They chatted nearly non-stop the entire time. The worst of this - from Vic's point of view - was when the other two ganged up on her to expand her wardrobe.
"Still hate shopping," said Vic, tiredly, when they finally headed back to her car again. "Really glad I rarely have to do any."
"Well, I had a wonderful time," said Linda. "Not only did I get over half my gift shopping done, but we got caught up on each other! Oh, and you look darling in that chemise. Not to mention really sexy in the bikini."
"If I ever figure out how you talked me into buying those..."
Linda, it turned out, was also doing well at college. She was majoring in Business, though for the first semester she hadn't really taken any business-specific courses.
After dropping Linda - and her presents - at her parents' place, Vic and Joline started for home.
"I am exhausted," said Vic, as she wheeled the old wagon onto the local road running past Linda's subdivision.
"Well, I finished my shopping," said Joline, stretching and yawning. "You finished yours, too, right? We can spend the rest of the time until Christmas at home. Doing as little as Mom and Dad will let us get away with."
"I do plan to socialize some," said Vic, looking at her sister and raising an eyebrow. Then she yawned, too. "Though not tonight. I'm looking forward to a hot shower and catching up on my mail."
* * *
Vic reached out, grabbed her towel, and started drying in the tub. After dealing with most of the water in her hair - she still hadn't gotten it cut - and on her skin she stepped out onto the bathmat. Vic had a start, catching sight of a naked female in the fogged-over mirror, then grimaced as she realized that was her reflection.
Still occasionally surprising myself, she thought, with a wry grin.
She definitely felt more comfortable with her new body after nearly a year. There were times when the fact she was now a bit shorter had more impact than the gender change. Still...
Vic moved in front of the sink and wiped the fog from the mirror there. She stared at herself. Vaguely Asian features, though with Occidental eyes. Long hair, dark brown for most of the length but light at the tips. Skin a bit too brown for her Caucasian family but not dark enough for either type of Indian. Taut muscles. High, firm breasts. Slightly broad shoulders, tapering to a slightly narrowed waist, then flaring into very feminine hips.
Vic brought her hands up to her breasts; not in an erotic manner but to see the effect in the mirror. She turned profile, watching her reflection. She posed a bit, then shrugged and reached for her clothes. Then remembered she hadn't done a breast self-exam recently.
That finished, Vic dressed and left the bathroom.
"What were you doing in there for so long?" said Joline, sticking her head out of her bedroom door.
Coco peered out around Joline's legs, looking curiously at Vic. She had mostly accepted Vic as a member of the family, but with the old Vic no longer available spent most of her doggy time with Joline when the kids were home from college.
"Breast exam," said Vic, flatly.
"Oh. Right. Need to do that myself."
Wearing a bathrobe, Joline exited her room and headed for the bathroom. Coco, realizing water was involved, decided to head downstairs and see what the adults were doing.
"At least the delay means there'll be plenty of hot water," Joline observed.
* * *
Despite Joline's declared intention to stay home until after Christmas, she and Vic found themselves repeatedly driving around town for various purposes. Many of these involved errands for their Mother.
This current one was to take some cookies to an elderly family friend. The two sisters were in Joline's hybrid, since there was no reason for the cargo hauling capability of Vic's wagon. However, they were barely started when Vic's cell phone rang. To her surprise, the caller was FBI Agent Abraham Gordon.
"Can you meet me somewhere, soon?"
"Uh, well, I'm with my sister running an errand right now.
There was a pause, as he thought things through.
"Okay, I guess I can brief her, too. I'd rather not face your parents with this. Not only because they aren't targeted, but because I couldn't answer their questions. You and your sister are both legally adults, so I'll leave it to you what to tell your parents."
"This sounds pretty bad," said Vic, concerned.
"What does?" said Joline.
"It may be nothing," said Gordon, responding to Vic. "Listen, I'm only in town for a few hours, so the sooner we can meet the better."
"Hang on," said Vic.
She told Joline what Gordon had said.
"Wow. Yeah, I guess we better talk with this guy. After we drop the cookies off, though."
They agreed on a place - Belle's, a coffee shop near the home of the woman they were taking the cookies to - and Vic hung up.
* * *
Vic recognized Gordon, of course. He was sitting in the back, nursing a large double latte. Vic introduced Gordon and Joline, and the sisters sat. They both ordered hot cocoa against the cold, and waited for Agent Gordon to start talking.
"There's a super bounty hunter in this area. He calls himself Mr. Truth. Real psycho."
"Ugh. Never heard of him. What does he have to do with me?"
"I've heard of him," said Joline, frowning. "I thought he was an unpleasant character but not a lawbreaker. Some even say he helps people on occasion."
"He claims to be a champion of the oppressed, bringing justice when the system won't," said Agent Gordon, scowling at his drink. "He's actually a bounty hunter, who uses the rewards he receives to fund his activities. He'll hunt anyone, but specializes in low-level supers who have skipped bail."
"How can someone like that not be in jail?!" said Joline.
"There's a bounty on me?!" said Vic.
Agent Gordon quickly shushed the two. Once they were quiet again, he resumed.
"First, he's wanted in several states and cities, but only for questioning. Remember, bounty hunting is legal in the US, at least in most states. Second, yes, but it's not a legal bounty. It's money put up anonymously to be paid to anyone who kills you. You better believe that's illegal in the US. You can only offer a bounty for the return of a fugitive wanted in connection to a crime, and those offers are almost always made by a bail bondsman. While Mr. Truth normally operates within the law - if just barely - since the end of the Thurlin Administration he's been doing poorly. Too much anti-anti-super backlash. He's been getting further and further into illegal activities. We just haven't been able to prove it, yet. Partly because he knows the system, and partly because we can't catch him to start the process."
"How much am I worth?" said Vic, with a sense of unreality.
"Half a million US dollars, in unmarked bills, being held by a mediator."
"That's... unbelievable!" said Vic, receiving a warning glare from Gordon. She continued more quietly, but still outraged. "So, anyone can just walk into a post office and put up a bounty poster?!"
"You're confusing two different things. Post offices, court houses and other places put up wanted posters from government agencies, with offers of reward for information. Anyone can get the reward by providing the information, if it pans out. Bail bondsmen hire bounty hunters to bring back people who skip on their bail. There are a few other ways bounty hunters can legally operate, but those are pretty rare."
"Oh," said Vic. She abruptly shook her head. "What are his powers?"
"General physical and mental augmentations, with decades of training and experience."
"So how do we stop this guy?"
"I don't know, Vic," said Agent Gordon, reluctantly. "We're not even sure he's after you. We know he's in the area, though, and this is a quiet place. Combine that with the bounty on your head and it makes sense you're the target. We informed local law enforcement - that's why I'm here - but they don't seem to be taking the situation seriously."
"Hell," said Joline, "I'm having trouble taking it seriously."
"Why isn't the Bureau of Special Resources on this?" said Vic, barely keeping her voice low. "This guy's a super, who's threatening another super!"
"If we can prove he's actually here and after you, they will handle it," said Gordon. "The problem is that we can't do either right now. I'm just here to give you a heads up, and not even that officially. I'm doing this on my own in the time before my flight back, because I know you and I don't think the local cops are taking this seriously enough. Trust me, we - the FBI because this guy crosses state lines with his activities, as well as the BSR - are interested in stopping him. So far, there's just not much we can do."
"So you want me to do something," said Vic, sourly.
"We just want you to keep an eye out. If you see a strange man - I've got photos of him and his last known vehicle I'll give you - let us know. He sometimes hires locals, so if you notice anyone stalking you, anyone you don't know persistently in areas where you go, let us know."
After a little discussion on the way home, Vic and Joline decided there was no reason to worry their parents. According to what the FBI knew about Mr. Truth, he never involved innocents or bystanders. He wasn't the type to take hostages to bring his target into the open, and on at least two occasions broke off his operation when a child might have been endangered. He had his own code of honor, and seemed to stick with it. Therefore, he wasn't likely to go after Vic's family or friends.
As the pair entered the kitchen from the back porch Coco rose, tail wagging, to greet them. Their mother - busy with more cookies - looked up from her work and immediately seemed suspicious.
"You two certainly took your time," said Alissa.
"We stopped at Belle's for hot cocoa," said Joline.
"Besides, that car of Joline's is slow," said Vic, with what she thought was casual humor.
Their Mother eyed both of them.
"Out with it."
"What?" said Joline, in what she hoped was innocent confusion.
"Unless it's some Christmas surprise. Tell me. Now."
"Uh, it could be," said Vic, shifting uneasily.
"What is going on?"
They sighed, and told her.
"Well, it's nice to know at least one of my children is worth something," said Alissa, wryly, when they finished.
"Not funny, Mom," said Vic.
"Well, I think this whole thing is just making a big deal out of nothing. Don't tell your father; there's no reason to worry him about this."
"That's what we thought about both of you," muttered Vic.
* * *
A week passed, with no sign of anything threatening. Vic received occasional calls from Gordon, and even a couple from Doro. There were no sightings of Mr. Truth, or anyone else who might be after Vic.
They relaxed. In fact, Alissa told Arnold about the warning, after she felt the need for it was past. He was a bit offended they hadn't told him until he was finished with work at the pharmacy for the holidays.
Still, Vic and Joline agreed that neither of them would leave the house without the other in these last few days before Christmas. So, when Alissa needed some holiday cooking ingredients the afternoon of Christmas Eve, the sisters went together in Joline's car.
At first the trip was uneventful. The weather was cold and overcast, but the streets were clear. Traffic was light, and they made good time. However, as they approached the entrance of the shopping center where the closest Kroger's was, Vic frowned. Something was tickling her awareness, something from that sense of perception. She looked around, puzzled. Her range was better, now but still normally only extended a few meters. However, she sometimes got vague impressions from large or otherwise significant things from further away.
"There's something..." Vic turned and looked out the rear window. "That van is coming up behind us real fast!"
Joline floored the pedal, just before the van hit. That greatly reduced the force of the blow, but the little hybrid still fishtailed a bit before its driver could recover.
"Call 911!" said Joline, too focused on her driving to look away.
"I am!" said Vic.
The van was much faster than her hybrid, easily closing for another hit despite Joline having the pedal to the floor.
"Go left on Hopkins!"
Joline wondered why but didn't have the time to ask. She wheeled the tiny car onto the cross road, almost losing the van in the process.
The van is top heavy, Vic noted, as the vehicle behind them heeled over and went wide in the turn.
It straightened and began closing again, at a very high speed. At the 911 operator's direction they took another sharp turn. This time the van actually went onto the sidewalk before recovering. Despite the left front wheel now being obviously dented and wobbling, it again accelerated hard. Then the Blitz blew by a local police cruiser sitting in a speed trap. The cop car put on lights and siren and roared onto the road... right in front of the van.
The larger vehicle braked hard and swerved wildly, leaving smoking stripes of rubber on the pavement, and managed to turn a hard central impact into a glancing blow on the right rear of the unit. The cop car spun off violently to the right, bouncing over the sidewalk and into a shallow ditch, trunk lid flapping, totaled. The van had some minor damage to the front end. However, the vehicle broke off the chase of the Blitz and cut down a side road.
Joline braked to a stop in a cloud of tire smoke, then backed rapidly along the shoulder to the cop car. She and Vic jumped out and ran to the ruined vehicle. Vic handed her cell phone to her sister and started yanking on the driver's door. It didn't budge, being locked, but the activity caused the driver to stir.
"Are you all right?" Vic yelled, to the stunned officer.
He shook his head, turned and looked blankly at her. He shook his head again, and started to get out. He needed three tries to open the door, and Vic had to help him undo the seat belt and get out.
"The big, black van chasing us hit you!" said Vic.
Joline, still speaking rapidly into the cell phone, nodded.
* * *
Another cruiser arrived soon after, and an ambulance soon after that. Then came more cruisers. At first the police taking statements from Joline and Vic were very polite, even thanking them for helping the injured officer. That changed when they realized the vehicle which hit the damaged cruiser had been chasing them. They were subsequently told they would be taken to the courthouse downtown for additional questioning.
In the interrogation room, Joline kept demanding to call their parents and their attorney. She was repeatedly told that since they weren't under arrest, they didn't need to call anyone. Which Vic knew wasn't right, having been through similar situations before. However, she largely kept quiet while letting Joline do most of the talking. She had the distinct impression the position of the police was that if they'd just admit some culpability in the car wreck they'd be let go.
They started out speaking with a Detective. When he didn't get the answers - or submissive attitude - he wanted, he called in a Lieutenant. Who soon called his Captain. Who took an even harder line.
"If you hadn't been on phone to 911 we would be arresting you!" said the Captain, angrily. "Getting in a car chase in my town!"
"What, we were supposed to stop and wait for help to arrive while whoever was in the van walked up, broke out the window and carried us off?" said Joline.
"No! You were supposed to do what 911 said!"
"The operator told us to lead the van to the nearest police cruiser," said Joline, flatly. "Then told us where it was.
Gave us turn-by-turn directions."
"Not at a hundred and five miles an hour!"
"What idiot said we were going that fast?!" said Vic, outraged, speaking for the first time in several minutes. "Have you seen her car? It's a Blitz hybrid."
"Huh?!" said the Captain, turning to Joline. "Wait. That's your Blitz they just towed into the impound lot?"
"I have no idea, since I haven't seen the impound lot or been told what happened to my car."
"Hold on," said the Captain, rising. He gestured for the Lieutenant and Detective to come with him.
After they left Joline gave Vic a "Nice one." smirk.
"Grandpa would be proud."
That would be their hot rodder grandfather, the man who had "tuned" Vic's Corolla wagon. Rather than their farmer grandfather, who only reached the speed limit several minutes after pulling out into heavy traffic, complaining the whole time about the "tailgaters."
The Lieutenant returned a few moments later.
"I'm sorry," he said, looking embarrassed. "The speed on the radar gun must have been the van; not your car. You're free to go."
"You haven't even taken our actual statement yet!" said Joline, angrily.
"We have your account of events on record. We'll write up a statement and you can review and sign it later. We have your contact info. We won't keep you any longer."
He held the door open, giving the two women a weak smile as he ushered them out. He even wished them a falsely hearty Merry Christmas.
* * *
"That was weird," said Vic, as they headed for the car.
"Secondary problem," said Joline. "You need to call your friend, Gordon."
"Yeah. I'll do that at home, while you're explaining things to Mom and Dad."
"Me?! Why me?!"
"They'll be more tolerant with you. They consider you more responsible. So when you tell them it wasn't our fault, they'll be more likely to believe it."
"Well, we still need nutmeg."
"Long way back to Kroger's. Is there anything closer?"
"I think so. We'll head back home and stop at the first place we see on the way."
When they reached her car, however, Joline gave a low wail.
"Look at Betsy's bumper!"
"Betsy?" said Vic. "Oh, right. Your nickname for that thing."
Ordinarily, such teasing would have initiated an exchange of friendly insults. However, Joline was too distracted.
"Look at it! It's all bent and mashed in!"
"Looks like it's still drivable," said Vic, examining the rear wheels. "Didn't even break any tail lights."
"I hate to call our insurance agent on Christmas Eve," said Joline, actually wiping a tear away.
"Now you cry?" said Vic. "Not right after a violent car chase. Not when being interrogated by those brownshirts. Now?"
"Oh, hush. If you'd been born a woman you'd know."
"Look, call your agent. You've got a camera in your cell phone, right? Document this as well as you can. Message your agent, with the photos and a short account of what happened. Tell him we're all right and the car is drivable. If he wants to check it today he can stop by our home."
"Yeah, you're probably right," said Joline, sighing as she dug out her phone. "Meanwhile, you call your people! Now, before we leave here!"
"Yeah, guess I better."
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