|The tygrenís low growl awakened him. He was fully alert a
second later. Searching the room for the corner where the immense beast liked to
rest, he had to wait for the animal to make a move before he could spot it.
The growl came again, and this time there was a definite shift in the shadows. Collin slid out from under his thin blanket. The moment his feet touched the floor, the tygren rose up from where it was resting and glided over to the man. Collin reached down to scratch the head to soothe the animal.
"What is it, Bud? Whatís bothering you?"
The animal gave a deep huff and headed for the door. Collin grabbed a pair of pants, quickly sliding them on, then silently followed the beast out of the bedroom. The tygrenís senses were extraordinarily acute. Hundreds of times more sensitive than his own. Something wasnít right, or the beast would not have tried to warn him.
Entering the living room, the Extinguisherís eyes went directly to the tiny set of lights above the television. A bright yellow glow was the only spot of color in the otherwise pitch black room. The equipment was on stand-by, as he always left it whenever he went to bed.
Somewhere in the middle of the room he could hear the tygrenís growl. This time it was a bit throatier, a bit deeper, and much more aggressive. The animal was sensing something that was causing it a lot of distress, and Collin could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising.
"Whatís going on, Bud? Come here," he ordered tersely.
Immediately he heard the beast shift in his direction. A warm, thickly furred shoulder brushed against him at thigh level.
He debated whether to turn on the lamp. The darkness was too absolute for him to gain any sort of night vision. That was one of the reasons why he kept the tygren, who had no problem penetrating the inky blackness.
Beneath his hand he could feel the animal tense. Either something dangerous was nearby, or something the animal flatly didnít trust was keeping it on edge. Either way, Collin knew he had to take action.
He turned to go back into the bedroom to retrieve his weapons pouch when a dinging sound erupted, breaking the silence and jarring the nerves. The yellow light turned to red, then to blue, and the screen on the television came to life. Around him Collin heard the rest of the equipment power up, but his eyes remained on the figure coming into focus on the screen. It was Marc, the Second Director.
"Collin! Still awake? Good!"
Collin kept his silence. If the man wanted to think he was still up, there was no sense correcting him. Didnít matter anyway. A quick glance at the clock on the wall above the television told him it was almost two in the morning.
"We have a Stage Three. Itís still in formation, but it looks like it could go to a Four within the next few minutes." On the screen the director looked off-camera. "Coordinates are in your box."
Behind him Collin could hear the chittering of the locator as it drew him a precise picture. "Iím on it," he replied, immediately turning his back on the man. Marc nodded, and the screen went dark.
Heading first to the kitchen, Collin grabbed the orange container from the refrigerator and gulped down several swallows of the tonic. The burning tingle coated his esophagus and lined his stomach, where it was absorbed almost instantly into his bloodstream and into the muscle tissues. All last vestiges of weariness left him as he rushed into the bedroom and hurried to dress. The weapons pouch hung from a hook inside the closet. He buckled on the wide belt which held his arsenal in the thin leather carrier before reaching for his specially designed boots. The tygren took that moment to butt the manís hands, hoping for another scratch.
"Gotta make it quick, Bud. You felt that Duct, didnít you, old boy? Thatís why you were restless." He gave the animal a brisk headshake. "Watch the place while Iím gone. Hopefully this wonít take long."
Back inside the living room he grabbed the palm-sized map and shoved it into the breast pocket of his t-shirt. Sprinting out the door, he paused long enough to wipe his hand down the side of the door jamb before running for the elevator. Behind him the apartment door hissed softly.
Inside the lift he bounced on the balls of his feet and took deep breaths, readying himself. Psyching himself for the confrontation. His hand went to the pouch lying to the right of his groin. Mentally he counted the little disks, knowing exactly how many and what kind his fingers riffled over. Before he was finished the door dinged and slid open. Collin glanced down the hallway in surprise, realizing he had hit the second floor button by mistake. Or maybe not by mistake. The woman in the wheelchair always seemed to be floating at the edge of his subconscious ever since he first encountered her and saw the thin, pale face with the enormous blue eyes. The face of a woman who had accepted her disability years ago, yet never really let herself fall victim to the helplessness she encountered every day.
Mouthing a curse word, he started to hit the lobby button when his eyes noticed the door to 2A wasnít closed. Pulled to, yes, but there remained a sliver of darkness between the door and frame. A flicker of concern brightened inside his chest. What if Bud hadnít been alarmed by the emerging Duct? What if he had sensed something unusual and potentially dangerous one floor below?
At that thought Collin caught the split-second glare of a flashlight. Almost instinctively an immobilization disk slipped into his fingers, ready to be launched. Cautiously, silently, he approached the door from the blind side. Every sense was poised on the brink as he assessed the situation. Thank the stars he knew the make-up of the apartment.
There was no way Randi would be up this time of night, much less using a flashlight to get around. Not at two oíclock in the morning.
Collin blinked in surprise as he realized he had started to think of the woman by her first name. At the beginning she had been "the woman in the wheelchair". Then she was Miss Sayers once he had met her. Now she was Randi.
Randi . . . with the helotus-colored hair and deep water blue eyes.
His ears could catch nothing. At first. He shifted slightly, and a soft scraping noise came from the interior. The living room area. Collin dropped to the floor and slithered into the apartment, careful to pull the door to behind him.
Again there was the thin beam of light he had spotted earlier. Behind it he could make out a small shadow. Whoever it was wasnít bulked up. That was good. It wouldnít take much to take the guy out. Besides, his time was limited. There was a Duct forming nearby, and that was his first priority. But only after he made sure Miss . . . Randi . . . was safe.
Dropping the disk back into the pouch, Collin wriggled his fingers. This one he could manage bare-handed. No problem.