The Cat and the Mouse
rating: +12+x

In the next instant, all hell broke loose. The crack of rifles filled the air. Foundation operatives poured into the room amidst a hail of bullets.

The city was a bright beacon, set amidst a gloomy backdrop of rural fields. A black van followed a lonely two-lane road toward the distant lights. Moonlight spilled through the front windshield, and cast a ghostly glow on the van's silent occupants.

Agent Grayson was behind the wheel, focused on driving. This left Agent Bouchard free to gaze out the window and let his thoughts drift through each element of tonight's operation.

It was December 24th — Christmas Eve. Businesses had closed early; people were home with their families. If not for this mission, Bouchard would be home with his. But they had an objective:

Alex Petrikov. Ex-military; an anomalous bomb-maker disavowed by the Russian government, implicated in several anoterror events. Considered an influential and active threat, a priority target for all the relevant authorities. Last night, the Foundation intercepted a message that Petrikov had been sighted. MTF Omega-20 was here to seize the opportunity.

Towards the rear of the van, Miguel Barrientos occupied himself with checking and re-checking his equipment. Really, he was avoiding staring too much at the man seated across from him: Bill Adams was uneasy around "psychic mind-reader crap". Of course Miguel didn't literally hear other people's thoughts, but Adams' wariness was palpable nonetheless.

Agent Barrientos represented one of his squad's "extra-normal assets" (or a WOLF, if one cared to use the coded designations), operatives with psychic abilities that could be applied in missions. His involved a receptiveness to the people in his surroundings - he could pick up on their moods, their dispositions, the essence of their reactions. This was how he'd first been recruited by the Foundation, trained and transferred to Psionics Division, and ultimately assigned to Omega-20.

Agent Adams was once a New York City patrol cop whose investigation into a string of vandalism led to an encounter with the anart community. His actions in that case impressed the Foundation's responding agents enough that he was considered and hired. In the years since that time he had patrolled the control rooms and corridors of many Sites, participated in numerous missions, and earned a reputation as a reliable field operative. A prime example of Omega-20's LANCE operatives: combat-trained and hardened by experience, willing and capable of executing any orders to further the Foundation's goals.

Agent Bouchard descended a stairwell, exited into an alley, and returned to the van. In a vacant unit on the opposite side of the building, a local Foundation agent had pointed out the derelict two-storey redbrick building across the street. She verified that the target had been followed here, and that nobody had left the building since then. There was very little civilian presence in this neighbourhood to be concerned with. Bouchard expected as much, given the absence of festive decorations on any building in sight.

Back in his seat, Bouchard addressed his men. "We'll play SWAT team, in and out quick and hot. Our objective, we take alive; any other hostiles are expendable." He paired Grayson with Adams and two other LANCEs; Barrientos with himself. Grayson kept the headlights off as he eased the van out of the alley, around the block, and parked up just short of the house.

Swift and silent, each operative filed out of the van and stacked up at the corner of the redbrick building. Following an exchange of hand signals, Adams and Grayson's team swept around the rear of the building. One by one the operatives shuffled into place, allowing the next team member to bound to position, until the last man was around the corner and out of view.

As the two stood alone for a minute, Barrientos' focus wandered: this equipment was much more high-tech than anything he'd gotten to use in the Philippine Marine Corps. How would the action compare to his experience? Barrientos was the newest addition to this team, and younger than any of his teammates. Bouchard's thoughts suddenly overshadowed his own. The other team was in position; time to breach the door.

Barrientos sensed the presence of men inside. He stood ready to fire once the entrance was opened. Bouchard positioned himself and heaved his boot forward. Extra telekinetic force behind the kick put the whole door off it's hinges, knocking down the terrorist directly behind.

In the next instant, all hell broke loose. The crack of rifles filled the air. Foundation operatives poured into the room amidst a hail of bullets that seemed miraculously (in truth, at Grayson's will) to land everywhere but their intended targets. Terrorists dropped until only the members of Omega-20 were left standing.

"Room clear," Adams declared as he led his fireteam across the dilapidated living room, their new focus a doorway into to a kitchen and dining area.

Barrientos picked up on the presence of a hostile coming from the top of the stairs. He was already poised when the man with the Kalashnikov's head dropped into view, and a few 7.52 mm rounds reduced it to a gory pulp.

"Lances, sweep the rest of this floor," ordered Bouchard. "Grayson, hold here. Barrientos, with me." He indicated the way up to the next floor. Barrientos nodded and took point.

Climbing the stairs placed the men at the end of a dark hallway with two doors on either side. Bouchard pointed his barrel down the length of the hall, covering his squadmate while they cleared each bedroom. Barrientos swept through them all, only to confirm his initial read: there was nobody else upstairs.

Upon regrouping with Grayson the team was beckoned into the adjoining kitchen by Adams. The LANCE Team had uncovered hidden access to a basement level. A narrow stairway descended into a cramped space, dominated by a long workbench in the centre. The surface of the bench seemed divided into several workstations, all of them cluttered with tools and materials, and partially assembled explosive devices. All but one, a corner of the bench which was bare.

A hole in the wall gave way to a low-ceilinged tunnel. The man who had investigated it reported that the other side came out into some sort of utility tunnel - from there a person could pop up at any number of surface access points… Barrientos slammed a fist into the wall and cursed that their target got away.

"Not quite cleanly, though." Grayson was analysing a piece of cardboard affixed to another wall, riddled with thumbtacks holding up handwritten notes, photographs, and maps. "Looks like they had a handful of targets in mind; likely for some coordinated series of hits." Gesturing to the incomplete bombs left on the bench, "And now they don't have the means to make that happen."

"So," Barrientos followed. "We have to figure out which of these targets he'll still go after…"

Six days later

A tense silence filled the black van, which tonight was parked near the front of a fashionable boutique hotel. The van was inconspicuous among the other vehicles in the lot, but from inside offered a wide view of the driveway to the entrance and, through floor-to-ceiling windows, into the lobby itself.

Bouchard sat still as a stone in his seat up front. Only his eyes scanned back and forth, taking in the details of the scene. This was a familiar part of the process: The team would arrive on scene, their leader would read the situation, and then come up with a plan. But they had been sitting quietly for hours now, and boredom was turning into unease.

Bouchard, Psionics Division veteran that he was, seemed to be perpetually unreadable. So Barrientos tried his companions in the backseats for insight. "Is something wrong," he whispered. "We got the right place here, right?" Adams regarded the question with a side-eyed glance, but said nothing.

"For sure we do." Agent Louise Galena was present for tonight's mission. She was a petite woman with an inversely proportional attitude; skilled at turning on the charms when an attractive feminine lure might pull a quarry into vulnerable position, but otherwise had no tolerance for being mistreated. "That Tracking MTF came in and analysed all the evidence, started staking out the potential spots…"

"Yeah yeah, and again the man himself falls right into their laps." Barrientos knew this much already. A New Year's Eve gala was to be hosted in the hotel ballroom, the reason it was among the slated targets. An undercover agent following a lead finds Petrikov staying as a guest, likely to plant the bomb in advance of the party.

"Sounds a lot like a certain night about a week ago," Adams muttered. It was a concern shared by Barrientos, that this could end like last time. And if that happened, there wouldn't be a next time.

"That wasn't anyone's fault," Louisa countered. "The tunnel was an unknown factor. And this time we've got him where there's no way out unseen."

"Is that the problem for us too, then?" Barrientos guessed. "That we'll be seen dragging the guy out?"

Grayson twisted so he could fix a stern gaze on all three in the backseat at once. It didn't take any special ability to read 'Cut it out' in his expression. Silence once again filled the space.

"Barrientos," Bouchard spoke at last. "Get a load of this guy."

Leaning up forward, he could see the guy in question. Strolling from the elevators, across the lobby to the exit. An aura of satisfaction radiated off of him; more than satisfied, the man was euphoric. "He really likes staying at this hotel." Realization came a second after, and he immediately substituted the correct answer: "He's high on drugs."

Bouchard gave a nod of approval. "He only just went in an hour ago. At least the third guy I've seen follow the same pattern."

"I'll bet prostitutes are involved," Adams spoke up. "Some pimp pusher setting these johns up with a gram and a girl, and charge even more for being in a nice joint like this as if-"

"Alright," Galena interrupted before Adams' rant got out hand. "What does it mean for us?"

"Put a call in to the nearest Site with a motor pool, get their best approximation of an ambulance. Uniforms to match, stretcher essential." Bouchard went on to explain what each of them would be doing when it was time to act.

Eric Burns, the hotel's overnight concierge, glanced around the lobby: no one in sight. He returned his attention to his iPhone.

He was about to beat his high score in Angry Birds when he heard the chirp of a siren. His head snapped up. Police lights washed through the glass entrance, bathing the lobby in a spinning red glow. Two paramedics and three officers stepped inside.

Eric fumbled to hide his phone under the counter and rushed out to meet them. "Excuse me! Excuse me, can I help you?"

Adams, being dressed as a police detective, spoke first. "Responding to an emergency call. Drug overdose," he said at uncomfortably high volume. Eric instinctively looked around, relieved there weren't any guests within earshot. Now, upon seeing a well-practiced flash of a fake badge, he would allow Adams to escort him back toward the desk where they could speak discreetly. The uniformed policeman Barrientos trailed behind.

As this went on, Bouchard and Galena, dressed as EMTs, pushed a stretcher toward the elevators. Telekinetically pressing the button from across the room maybe only saved seconds, but in this work seconds counted for a lot. Grayson, dressed as another beat cop, hovered behind until the elevator arrived, then joined Galena and Bouchard for the ride up.

Adams and Barrientos accomplished much of their purpose through tactful intimidation. Simply by choosing where they stood and their posture they had Eric away from the desk phone, where he could complicate things by calling someone. Adams asked Eric what he knew.

"I don't know anything!" was the response. Barrientos mused to himself how true that was.

"So you say the caller didn't notify the front desk?"

"N-no," Eric stammered. "Not that I know of."

"Other staff are working?" Adams followed up. Eric noted a couple of maintenance staff and custodians who were in the building. "Nobody else at the desk though?" There was not. "So if they had called, you would know." Even though he was intentionally stalling for time, Adams still found these circular conversations grating.

"We need him alive, to make him talk about the bomb. It could be planted already."

Bouchard nodded in agreement with Grayson. "Yes."

"Well. I mean, I can paralyze him temporarily. But if he dies… There's a chance it could kill him. If it's for too long; if he reacts bad…"

"It's temporary. Once we know it's him inside, do it. Just as long as it takes us to open the door." The matter-of-fact way Bouchard described it was reassuring. "Galena has the mundane sedative, once that's in him we're good to go."

Grayson nodded. "Good to go."

"Look," Adams glared down at the nametag. "Eric. These guys," he hooked a thumb toward Barrientos. "These guys are here, routine response. Me," gesturing now to his own suit and shoes. "I'm a guy with cases to work. I'll tell you this much: I know something's up around here."

He let that hang in the air, looking for a tell. "And either I'm looking at a guy who turns a blind eye to the comings and goings of certain individuals, maybe in exchange for a little pocket lining…"

On the cue of a chime, the elevator doors slid open. Grayson rested a hand on the grip of his Nighthawk T4 9mm pistol, ready to draw as he stepped out first. The corridor was deserted. He was about to wave out the others when the door to a nearby room pulled open.

Grayson tensed, but it was an elderly Asian lady who poked her head out. He raised a hand to wave her back inside. She returned a wave of her own, a hand signal which indicated she was part of the Tracking MTF. She'd probably done this 'curious hallway peep' every time she heard a door on this floor open and close all night, ensuring the target had never left his room.

Grayson returned the gesture. Omega-20 moved toward the room of their quarry. Grayson and Bouchard stood on opposite sides of the doorframe, letting Galena alone fill the view of the peephole. She knocked sharply and waited.

After a moment she knocked again and called out "Hello? Emergency medical response…" Everyone in the hall stayed hushed. Shuffling was heard behind Petrikov's door. A shadow darkened the peephole.

Eric looked stunned and confused, but it wasn't the face of a guilty party. Barrientos read the panic rising off the young hotel worker. If they truly believed they were in over their head, they would crack - beg the mercy of the hotel supervisor, come clean about every misdeed they'd ever performed on the job, and plead anything to avoid being arrested. For what the Foundation wanted - a low-profile affair that need never be mentioned again - this would be bad.

Barrientos cleared his throat, catching Adams' eye. He scratched an imaginary itch behind his ear, followed by an adjustment of his shirt collar. Felt like more signals than a third base coach would need had been discussed between them, but Barrientos was relieved he at least remembered the one for 'back off a bit'.

"Or maybe," Adams relented. "Maybe you're just so unobservant you truly didn't notice so many strangers coming and going through the joint you're meant to be overseeing." Eric bowed his head. "Look," Adams said in a friendlier voice. "If that's so, then it's your bosses' business and not mine."

A chime sounded from the back of the lobby and elevator doors slid open. All heads turned to see Bouchard and Galena at a quick but calm pace, pushing a stretcher with a white sheet draped up to the shoulders of a large stocky frame. Thinning gray hair and a plastic breathing mask obscured Petrikov's face. Barrientos moved to join them.

Adams hastily turned back to Eric. "Listen," handing over a card with a phone number for the local police's 'auxiliary detachment' - a line to ensure the Foundation would hear and filter anything he chose to report at a later date. "Let me know if you can tell me about anything else around here. Aside from that, just keep this incident to yourself, alright?"

Eric managed to nod wordlessly.

And just as suddenly as they had appeared, MTF Omega-20, and their target, were gone.

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