Chapter Three

Bill signed several pieces of paper at the FBI lab to be allocated a part of the bomb mechanism found at Perkins mansion which had already been studied and catalogued—a little bit of scrap metal with the remnant of a blue wire sticking out of it.

"Get anything helpful from it? Fingerprints? M.O. of some previous bomber?" he asked the white-coated lab assistant as he looked at the clue lying on a counter.

"Not a thing. It appears that all four bombs used high level plastic explosive, which is exactly what was stolen from Malmstrom. They seemed to have been constructed the same way. We found similar remnants and wires at all four bomb sites."

"Any particular style of bomb?"

"A little bit. There are a couple of unique adaptations made, and the components do show some very high level explosive skills."

"So, the creep has taken Bomb Building 101?"

"I'd say this creep has a PhD in explosions."

"Any other clues?"

"Nope."

Bill sighed. "Great. That narrows things down to the size of the Grand Canyon." He'd have to go back to the computers and run a general search of all known professional bombers. Well, at least his gut feeling that a professional was involved seemed right.

The lab assistant shrugged. "Sorry." He held up the plastic bag holding the bomb remnant. "Listen, this is important government property. Don't set it on fire." He glanced at the two other lab workers fiddling at their microscopes, but obviously listening in. "We've heard of your reputation with cars." The folks at the microscopes snorted in amusement.

Maxwell's track record for destroying his government issue cars was a delight to everyone but Maxwell and the government bean counters who now had to pay extra car insurance for all FBI agents.

"Gimme that," Maxwell said, grabbing the plastic bag and putting it in his jacket pocket. "Go back to breathing in beaker fumes."

"Beaker fumes. Good one, Bill. Hey, listen, do me a favor. Neville in accounting started a Fantasy Maxwell Car Wreckage Lottery six months ago. I signed up and have this month as the next month you're going to wreck a car. I'll split the pot with you 50:50 if you set your car of fire, either, you know, in some bizarre accident out in the desert, or trying to avoid hitting a dog. Whatever. Should be worth a thousand dollars for each of us."

The Wreckage Lottery was news to Bill. As all three of the lab folks stared at him, he murmured, "Lab rat geeks," and left, ignoring the laughter that burst out behind him.

"Gee whiz," he mumbled, heading outside to his Dodge Diplomat, granted, the seventh or eighth, or ninth, one he'd been assigned in the last three years. "They haven't all burned up." Which was true, many of them had been totaled in crashes without catching on fire. People should get those sorts of details correct.

As it was after five o'clock, Bill knew Ralph would be at home, the school day ending early. Pulling up at the curb in front of Ralph's ranch home, he saw the old wood-sided station wagon in the driveway. Bill wondered why Ralph kept driving that old heap, when he no longer had a family to drive. His ex-wife Alicia had gained custody of his son Kevin, which, however much it rankled Ralph, everyone knew was the right thing to do. With Ralph coming and going all the time with suit important business at hand, having a child about was too hard to coordinate. It was bad enough the grumbling the Counselor did at times regarding Ralph being gone so much, let alone how it would affect a child.

Ah, perhaps the kid had sentimental value attached to the wagon. Ralph was known to fill his mind with that sort of junk.

Bill strode quickly up the walk to the front door and barged into the house, as if it was his own. As long as Ralph wasn't in the midst of train-bonking amnesia, or getting intimate with his wife, Pam, "the Counselor", he didn't mind Bill's forthright entrances. It was just another aspect of Bill that if one didn't get upset about, one could actually be amused by.

"Ralph! Where are you?" Bill called out, looking right to the living room and left to the dining room, both being empty.

"In here, Bill!" came the reply, from the kitchen around the corner from the dining room. "We're preparing dinner."

Dinner. Food. Always words which struck Bill favorably. Being a relatively active, sometimes hyperactive individual, rarely at rest except during sleep, Bill's metabolism and appetite were still high for a man his age. He had gained a few extra pounds from nervous eating after initially seeing the ship and being paired with Ralph, but over time, as things with his partner settled into a routine, and he hadn't been taken up dead into the….spaceship….like John Mackie, he had lost the weight and was lean again. Still, it was the rare piece of food he turned down.

Bill walked into the kitchen and came to a dead standstill, shock opening up his face into horror. "What-WHAT is that?"

Ralph smiled widely, ready to have fun with his more conservative partner. "Tofu," he said, pointing to the two square blocks of whiteness sitting on the cutting board. Pam took a knife and began cutting the blocks into smaller pieces.

"Tofu? Ralph, only the Japanese eat that, and they never grow over 5'4", and they have kamikaze tendencies. It's poisonous."

Ralph charted in his head the whole way this discussion would go. Bill's disgust and stereotypical comments; his own verbal annoyance at Bill's narrow-mindedness; Pam's annoyance; Bill's eventual tasting of the meal and his acceptance of it; ending with all of them enjoying the meal together. This pattern was pretty much as set in stone as were the Ten Commandments. Ralph had learned to enjoy almost every second of it.

"It's not poisonous, Bill. Give me a break. There hasn't been a kamikaze attack in forty years and Mr. Nashimura, who teaches math, is, isn't he around 5'6", honey?"

Pam looked at Ralph, and then at Bill, and without broaching a comment went back to cutting up the tofu.

"What exactly is it?" Bill asked, sinking his head down to almost touch his nose to the tofu, as he sniffed at it like a bloodhound.

"Do you mind? I'm preparing tofu, not nose-fu," Pam complained.

Bill stood back up. "Yech," he pronounced maturely.

Ralph went into teacher mode. "It's made from a bean. You eat beans; you love Mexican food. This is just another, Asian, bean. The soybean. Tofu is soybean, uh, curd." Even Ralph had to admit that the "curd" part didn't really sound that great, and he couldn't fault Bill for narrowing his eyes in suspicion and silently mimicking "curd?". In fact, Ralph wasn't wholly interested in eating tofu, either, but marriage is full of compromises. "Pam got a recipe from one of the other female lawyers in her office."

"That's right," Pam said, proudly, reading off the paper on the counter. "One dices it up, adds in vegetables, like bok choy and cabbage, and then a sauce for flavor. Melissa said she likes it curried, and wrote the recipe for that, too, so I thought I'd try it. I've got rice cooking in the rice cooker. It's going to be delicious, fellows."

"Bok choy and cabbage?" Bill repeated. "Lemme guess, next we'll be decked out in kimonos and wooden sandals while sleeping on mats on the floor. Oh, then we can start cutting up your bushes into elephants." Pam glared at him as Ralph closed his eyes and shook his head back and forth; boy, he sure was glad those plants had grown out again after they got the ray gun back.

Bill continued, "Hopefully, the CIA and Russians will barge in and we'll have to tilt the table sideways."

That was a sore topic for Pam-more so than poorly clipped landscaping-whose microwave chicken dinner a year or so ago turned into a Space Ranger food on the floor fiasco requiring a hundred dollars of carpet clean-up.

"Ralph, would you help me out here, please?" Pam exasperatingly pleaded to her husband, while Bill stared nervously at the force at which she was then cutting up the vegetables. "Woh, counselor, if you keep that up, we can use the cutting board for campfire kindling."

"Ralph!"

"Bill," Ralph said, gliding his partner out the kitchen, "why don't we let Pam prepare dinner alone? What brought you here anyway?"

Bill left the kitchen still staring at the Counselor and pneumatic hammer slicing she was causing to the vegetables. "Don't get bursitis," he warned, and the slicing increased even more in intensity.

As they wound up back in the narrow entrance hallway Bill whispered to Ralph, "Do you really want to eat that?"

Ralph whispered back, "Well…it's good to try new things."

"New scotch, yes; new curd, no."

Ralph sighed. He couldn't wholly disagree with his partner. He had come home from school thinking a nicely barbecued steak would hit the spot, only to find Pam happily taking tofu out of a couple of containers. It was hard, sometimes, how often he wound up caught between his wife and his best friend. A change of subject seemed best.

"What's going on? What's that file about?"

Bill came right back to the FBI case. "You've read about the businessmen bombings, haven't you? Well, the FBI has lost four agents investigating that, and it's now my case."

"You've lost four agents?"

"Yeah, they were blown up with the bombs. Four agents killed in a month. It's unprecedented. Everyone at the bureau is too chicken to work on the case, now. After the meeting they were like little mice scurrying back to their desks."

Ralph had learned to mostly ignore Bill's mixed metaphors, like this one with chickens and mice. Just as Bill couldn't shoot everyone he wanted to, Ralph couldn't instruct all the time. Ralph was concerned though. "Well, maybe they have a point. Are you sure you should take the case? It sounds really dangerous."

Bill stared at his partner wordlessly for a moment, then waved his hand up and down in front of Ralph's face. "Hello? Are you the Ralph Hinkley with the magic jammies? Don't tell me you have amnesia again."

"Bill, the suit is funny with explosions. Remember when I was knocked out for three hours during the rock concert? I barely woke in time able to stop the bazooka."

Bill didn't like these sorts of conversations. He liked the suit to be wholly impervious to everything. He liked knowing that Ralph was never in any danger of being wounded or hurt in any permanent way. It was the only way Bill felt justified in bringing Ralph in on his cases.

"What are you talking about? That was a fluke. And nearly two years ago, to boot. You've got a better handle on the suit, now."

"And what about you? You're not impervious to bombs."

This was the way it went. Short, abrupt sentences used to share the concern each felt for the other. Nothing mushy, and no drivel allowed.

"But, I've got you watching out for me, Ralph. Just think how much the Maxwell stock will go up at the bureau when we solve this one. Plus, I really want to nail the creeps who killed the agents. One of them was a friend of mine."

It was funny how many friends Bill had. Ralph knew he didn't use the term lightly. For all his abrasive personality traits, and his occasional lack of social skills, he really did have friends everywhere, who were indeed loyal to him. Bill had friends at the Pentagon, the CIA, and other agencies, all who risked their jobs to relay needed information to him. He had friends at the bureau he bowled with, who helped him make ridiculous suit stabilizers. He had long-term friends like Harlan Blackford, his ex-partner, the unfortunately deceased Teddy McSherry, and Capt. Tracy Winslow, who Bill had put in jail, and yet visited several times a year. Ralph's mom adored Bill, and saw him whenever she came out to visit. So, apparently, Ralph wasn't the only one who realized the decency and goodness of Bill Maxwell, who appreciated his sense of humor and capacity to have fun. Ralph was warmed by knowing that. And he knew Bill's own fidelity to friendship meant that he needed to work this case, needed to make things right for the family of the dead agent who had been his friend.

"Alright. I've read a little about it, but fill me in."

Suddenly a voice hollered out from the kitchen. "Dinner in ten minutes!"

Bill and Ralph shared an anxious look. "Why don't we sneak out the door—", Bill started to say.

"—and head right to a divorce lawyer?" Ralph finished. "Been there. Done that."

Bill nodded his head. "Good point. I guess we'll have to be the Three Curdeteers—Tofu for all and all for tofu. If the Counselor makes it, we'll have to eat it."

However much he complained, which was generally substantially, Bill had always come through for Ralph on cases and in regular life. It meant a lot to Ralph. He put a hand on Bill's shoulder. "Thanks, Bill."

"Well, we've got ten minutes before we'll have to call in the paramedics for abdominal cramps. I'll fill you in on the case."

They sat down on the sofa in the living room and Bill told Ralph what he knew and had figured out. He took out the piece of metal and blue wire and handed it to Ralph. "This is what I want you to holograph in on. Even if the bombing was three days ago, if another bomb is being planted by the same guy, there's a chance you might pick up on it."

Ralph took the piece of metal out of the bag and held it in his hand. A chill ran through him. This had caused the death of three men. It had left widows and fatherless children; it was evil. The person who had set it off was evil. He would use his suit to stop it.

"Dinner! Come and get it!"

Both men stood with Bill wincing and Ralph putting on his happy and enthusiastic face.

"Can't wait to try it, honey," he called back, rubbing his hands together. "I bet it's dee-licious!"

"Don't overdo it," Bill mumbled out of the side of his mouth.

Pam set the table quickly and the three sat down at it, one of them staring at the white pieces of poison, while two of them picked up chopsticks and began nibbling away. Bill chose to use the normal American made fork utensil, and with deep regret speared some vegetable and tofu and put it in his mouth, knowing the Counselor was attempting to not stare at him, but was, anyway.

Hmm, it wasn't that bad, actually. The curry was nicely flavored, spicy but not too hot, the vegetables were crunchy, there were no tomatoes to be seen, and Bill liked rice. The tofu itself had an odd texture, but it wasn't slimy—Bill's worst texture—it was just kind of chewy. Like dissolvable, swallowable gum. Bill didn't mind chewing gum.

"Counselor, I gotta say, this isn't half bad," Bill stated, going for a second large forkful.

Ralph nodded, his mouth full of food, too. "Yeah, Pam, it's good. You should be proud of yourself."

Pam didn't say anything as she munched on her first bite, slowly, her face gradually transforming itself into one of deep loathing. As Bill and Ralph kept digging into the meal, Pam stood up, covered her mouth and ran into the kitchen, whereby her meal wound up in the kitchen sink and promptly washed down the disposal.

Standing up, she came back to the dining room and declared her opinion of the meal to two shocked men. "Yuck! Tofu is awful. Anyone want a burger?"

Bill and Ralph looked at each other. "Nope, I'm fine," Ralph said.

"Me, too," added in Bill. "Ralph, pass that bok choy stuff."

Later, after the meal was over and the dishes cleaned up, Ralph put on his suit and holographed the piece of metal. Nothing came through at first, until he put the piece on top of his head, and then an image came forth. Sitting down next to his patient partner, Ralph held Bill's shoulder, much to Bill's dismay, so Bill could see the holograph himself. Bill didn't really like being intimately involved in the suit; it kind of gave him the creeps. But, it did save a lot of yakking time, with Ralph not having to explain what he saw.

What came into view was an unusual symbol, a blue triangle, with black circles sitting on each corner point, and on top of each circle was a smaller blue triangle.

"What's that?" Bill asked.

Next, they saw the name "Fantago Art Gallery" in Century City. And then the image dissolved.

"Well, that was mysterious," Ralph said.

"You didn't get any names?"

"No. Just the odd mark. Like the mark on my suit." Ralph's mind opened up to a radical idea. "Hey, maybe there's another spaceship with different aliens handing out suits, and that's their symbol."

Bill's eyes became blank as his face paled to a snowy white. Ralph grew alarmed as he thought he saw Bill's head beginning to circle around as if he was close to fainting. He put his hand on the chest of his friend to steady him. "Joke, Bill. Joke. Just a joke. Don't pass out on me, here."

Bill shook himself, straightening out his whole back, and did a very long throat clearing, as the color slowly returned to his usually nicely tanned skin. "That is not funny, Ralph."

"Well, it was kind of funny…You should have seen your face-"

"NOT funny."

"Okay, okay. I suppose we should visit that art gallery. It's closed by now, so how about tomorrow after school?"

Bill had gotten used to working in Ralph's teaching duties with his FBI needs. "I'll pick you up at 3:30. That'll give me a little time to run the symbol through the computer and see if anything comes up." He glared at his partner. "Aside from brand new aliens."

"It was just a teensy bit funny," Ralph smiled. "You know, they could be blue, or pink. Maybe mauve. Yeah, little mauve guys."

"Don't make me shoot you, Ralph."

"Go ahead, I'm in my magic jammies," Ralph grinned, while covering half his face with his cape. "Bwah-hah-hah-hah!"

As Bill's eyes rolled up nearly into his forehead, and he groaned an "Oh, brother", a lovely female voice came out of the kitchen. "Dessert is almost ready! Sweet dumplings, azuki bean jello, and plum cakes!"

"Boy, she couldn't stand the tofu and still had to make weird desserts," Bill said softly to Ralph. Then, in a broader voice he announced to the whole house, "Well, look at the time," tapping his wrist watch as he stood up. "I gotta put gas in my car."

"Bill-!"

"Stay married, kid! Munch those dumplings!" he whispered to his partner. And with that, Bill opened the front door, yelled out, "See ya later, folks!" and zipped outside.

Ralph came "this close" to turning invisible, but then saw his beautiful wife with her beautiful grin and her beautiful eyes pleading for support. "Did Bill have to leave?" she asked, obviously disappointed. Ralph unhesitatingly grabbed two plum cakes off the tray and put one in his wife's mouth and one in his. A kiss on the lips brought out all the sweetness.