Back to Work
Special Agent Marcus Hughes’ felt his jaw drop open in shock for about half a second, before his teeth clenched tightly back together in anger. Nearly all activity in the small field office stopped as the other agents turned to see what had grabbed the boss’s attention so completely, and most of them offered similar reactions. Two heavily built men in dark blue ‘FBI’ jackets dragging a shackled man between them, barely recognizable with an oversized cold-pack taped to his face with medical gauze.
“Jesus Christ, they caught him already.” The whispered exclamation seemed to come from a dozen points around the room as the escorting agents strode quickly through towards the interrogation cells, the battered Clarence Dane pulled along with a great deal more force than his stature and lack of apparent resistance would normally warrant.
Marcus forced himself to wait patiently at his desk, glancing briefly down at the packet of special orders that had arrived only a few hours before, until the arresting agents returned from their drop off to stand across from him.
“Reporting back from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, sir.” The hulking form of the FBI CRT agent leaned slightly back from the senior agent’s desk as he spoke, the faintest trace of a grin playing across his lips. “We have successfully apprehended the fugitive who claimed credit for the bombing at Overton University, though he was lightly injured while resisting arrest.”
“Clarence Dane resisted arrest?” Agent Hughes found this scenario extremely unlikely, though he had no doubt that every agent involved in the arrest would offer the exact same accounting of the event.
“How did your team locate him, Smythe?”
“He was flagged at the ticket counter sir. No disguise other than a new hat and a fake passport. Ticket agent recognized him while he was still in line and hit the silent alarm.”
Marcus sighed at the not unexpected answer. “And this is somehow the man who came within a hair of orchestrating a high casualty terrorist attack against one of the most heavily fortified institutions in the country.”
“You’re thinking Mr Dane might have had some help, sir?” The response to Hughes’ rhetorical mumbling was laced with enough sarcasm to earn a sharp glance from the agent in charge.
“Go get your report written up, and make sure ALL your men do the same, Agent Smythe. I’m going to go have a conversation with our prisoner.”
“Not a word out of him that hasn’t been asking for his lawyer or bitching about his face, sir.”
The older agent responded with a grim smile as he stood. “I expect he’ll probably have a few things to say to me before he becomes someone else’s problem.” The small stack of papers with the FBI Director’s seal on the top sheet was waved to ward off the inevitable question. “Make sure those reports are ACCURATE, Agent Smythe.” Marcus didn’t wait for an answer before turning to head towards interrogation, pausing for just a second to snatch a tablet off his desk as he left.
Hughes abrupt entrance into the small room with a massive one way mirror across the back wall was met with a startled shriek followed by an immediate demand, “You’ll get my lawyer in here and me to a hospital so I can press charges against those brutes IMMEDIATELY or el-…”
“Sit. Down.” The special agent barely raised his voice above a whisper as he interrupted, but the level of menace carried in those two words caused the injured brown-haired prisoner’s mouth to snap shut in alarm. “SIT.” The second command was followed immediately.
Marcus moved to take the other seat at the table, placing the packet of papers down and taking the tablet in both hands as he seemed to be looking for something on it. The silence stretched out for several long seconds before Clarence spoke again.
“I won’t say anything until I speak to my lawyer.”
“I’m not asking you to say anything, Mr Dane. I’m here to inform you about your situation. If you don’t feel like saying a word, that’s fine with me.” Having apparently finished fiddling with the small computer, Hughes propped it up on the table where the screen was visible to both men and played a video clip.
The clip was of one Clarence Dane, sent to every major media outlet in the country, claiming responsibility for a ‘telling blow’ struck against the ‘so called Hero Certification Program,’ and went on a long-winded rant about how others would rise up to join Rights of Humanity and other ‘real heroes’ around the country.
“You recorded this and sent it before the explosion, right?”
“You can’t prove that’s me. With technology available these days, anyo-…”
“Just an observation, Mr Dane, that whomever did record this message and sent it to the media,” Marcus’ voice practically dripped with scorn in response to the RoH president’s protestation of innocence, “should probably have waited to see how well their little bomb worked before claiming credit. Though good news for your little band of hate mongers, only one person actually died so you’re all just at the top of the wanted lists, as opposed to the… alternatives.”
Dane paled slightly at the emphasis placed on the word ‘alternatives,’ I guess the asshole has more imagination that I gave him credit for, but he remained silent.
“I also wanted to show you this.” A few more taps on the tablet and a picture appeared on screen. The entire outer border was blurred, and based on the lighting it was pretty obviously a computer-generated composite, but the center of the image showed what appeared to be an athletically built blonde woman, her face obscured by the combination of an oversized bag carried in front of her and her wildly whipping hair. “Do you know who this is?”
“That’s the monster who got herself killed, right?”
Marcus’ fist crashed down into the table with a deafening slam, the handcuffed prisoner across from him almost falling out of his chair at the sudden display of rage. “This is what a REAL Hero looks like, Mr Dane. When monsters like you try to blow up a stadium full of innocent kids, people like her step in and stop it.”
The brown-haired man returned to a proper seated position and tried to muster a disdainful glare, but his eyes couldn’t quite leave the dent left in the steel table by the Special Agent in Charge’s fist. “You don’t scare me, FBI Agent Hughes.” A slight quaver showed the man’s lack of conviction in his statement.
“I’m sure I don’t, Mr Dane. Fortunately, thanks to this,” a wave indicated the stack of papers that had been blown off the table by Marcus’ outburst, “you won’t be dealing with the FBI for much longer. As a high threat domestic terrorist, you’re to be immediately passed on to a VERY special branch of DHS, I just wanted a couple minutes with you before the transfer. Now I can say that I’ll be handing you off to these gentlemen without the slightest twinge of conscience, and full assurance that they will learn any USEFUL information you possess in short order.”
Dane looked confused for a moment, then his expression shifted to one of abject terror. Clearly visible in the mirror, just behind the president of Rights of Humanity, stood two men in neatly tailored suits. Men who hadn’t been there a moment ago. “Wait, please, I’ll tell you anything just don’t le-…”
Marcus looked up at the taller of the two men as soon as Clarence’s babble began, and gave a short nod. The desperate speech cut off, and Agent Hughes sat alone in the interrogation room.
The Domestic Terrorism Response’s Special Agent in Charge spent several long minutes staring at the image on the tablet still in front of him. We should have done better, it never should have come to this, and I can never even apologize to you for failing.
With a brief flick of his sleeve to wipe the moisture beading at the corner of his eyes away, Marcus Hughes strode out of the interrogation room with a determined look on his face. All I can do now is find all of the people responsible. One down, who knows how many to go.
“What the hell did we miss, Hank?”
The quiet question that greeted the enormous man as he entered what should have been his empty hotel room was met with a quiet sigh.
“Exactly what we were supposed to miss.” A small flash drive landed on the end table next to the silhouetted female as Henry moved into the room and closed the door. “We focused on all the unusual local traffic, because we were sure it was going to cover up someone’s arrival. Problem is the arrival happened halfway across the state.”
The lamp near his guest switched on, and Henry found himself staring in surprise. “You’re back in uniform?”
The Hero Motionless looked back at him from behind her red and white face mask. “It’s practically a requirement for non-Subtlety Heroes if we’re pursuing things in an official capacity.”
“I just thought… You haven’t been active in a while.”
“They killed one of our kids.” Any of professor Nguyen’ students would likely have been shocked to hear so much barely controlled rage in the voice of the normally monotone woman. “They tried to kill a whole lot more than that. You know why I went inactive?”
The large black man nodded as he sat in the room’s only chair that could hold his bulk. “First time you had to use lethal force in the field, you just dropped out of sight after that.” Henry looked for a moment like he was going to ask a question, but couldn’t manage it under the intense gaze of the Hero across from him.
“The guy we’re looking for is a ghost, of the Super variety. Everything was easy to find after the fact, and I’m pretty sure it’s because he doesn’t care at this point. Hotel he checked into, charter flight he came into Andrews County on, rental car he drove. All registered to the same false identity, and not a single image of him on a camera or person he interacted with that can even remember talking to him. I called in some favors to get the should-have-been witnesses interviewed by some cops I know personally. Even watching security footage of themselves talking to what looks like open air on the other side of the counter, nothing.” Henry found himself having to consciously lock his mouth down before he started babbling, and hoped that the information would be enough to get the suddenly too intense Hero on her way. Dammit Hank, calm the hell down.
“You were going to ask why I dropped off after my first lethal force case, weren’t you?” The large man started again at the unexpected question. “Yes, it was that obvious, but mostly because everyone wants to ask me that whenever the subject comes up.
“I went inactive after that case because killing someone with my power means seeing a truly horrific way to die. Having to confront it three times in one day, and knowing that in the same situation I’d have done it again, I really didn’t want to ever kill anyone like that again.”
The Hero stood as she finished speaking and tucked the thumb drive into a concealed pocket along her waist, and began moving towards the door.
“What do you want me to do next?” Henry barely got the words out before the costumed woman could make her exit, but his voice was stronger and steadier when she turned back with a questioning glance.
“I was in on this too. I’m not going to pretend I’m as invested as any of you are, but I ain’t gonna feel right if I leave it like this.”
“Go home, Hank. Kiss your wife, and go back to the normal level of scum you deal with. Anyone willing and able to make a hit against the HCP wouldn’t even think twice about taking out a PI that’s poking around their business.”
“If that’s the case I’m already screwed for digging all this up. Now tell me what else you need.” Henry’s expression and tone both hardened as he spoke, leaving no evidence of doubt or hesitation in either his posture or his voice.
A long pause came before the Hero spoke again. “Work backwards then. You found a trail after the fact with not much effort, but I know that ‘not much effort’ for someone like you might still be a lot of connections missed by a normal criminal investigation. See if you can find anyone else our guy’s gone after. Anything that could get me a step closer to being in the same room as him.” After finishing her short speech, the costumed woman finished her exit before the large man could add anything else.
Henry had already produced a small netbook from somewhere on his person and began typing away before the door was even closed. There goes the scariest woman I have ever met. The huge PI leaned back in his chair as he waited for his first search results to compile. Now to find this son of a bitch so I can make sure I stay on her good side.
The observant man hadn’t missed the emphasis the petite Hero had placed on the past tense when she’d spoken about not wanting to kill again after all.
Tommy Hines leaned back on his stool at the entrance to the bar, and carefully masked his boredom with a default stony expression. Moreso than most could manage, seeing as Tommy was a Super of the so-called ‘freak’ variety, having literal granite skin to work with. Hardly a worthwhile tradeoff for his decidedly average-range Strongman abilities, but one that served as a bonus in his current line of work; lead bouncer at one of the most disreputable establishments in Tyler County.
Unfortunately tonight, at least in the doorman’s opinion, there was little hope of seeing the usual action that guaranteed a steady paycheck and violent entertainment. Middle of the month meant the club was closed to the public so that the owner and his closest business associates could have a private party. How can a room full of career criminals be so fuckin’ DULL. Even the girls these dumb bastards dragged along look bored outta their skulls. Wonder how many of them are pros and how many are just gold dig-…
Tommy’s train of thought was abruptly derailed when the, supposedly, locked door beside him swung quickly open and shut again faster than the bouncer could react. Though to his credit, it didn’t take the rocky skinned man more than an instant to locate the sudden intruder and launch himself at the tall figure with a gleeful battle cry.
Unfortunately the cry had barely made it past the violent man’s lips before a blur of red flashed across his vision and he found himself sailing in a completely new direction, and with much less control, to crash heavily into one of the tables near the party.
“Tommy! It’s so good to see you again. What’s it been, almost five years?” The feminine voice with its extremely cheerful tone met the bouncer as he pulled himself out of the debris that had once been a table and thee chairs.
The rest of the room sat stunned as the stone skinned bouncer collapsed back into the floor, panic written across every inch of his form.
“HEY!” The club owner, a rapidly balding and potbellied man whose name Tommy could never bother himself to remember was the next to speak. “This is a private party, and private property. I’ll have you arrested for assaulting my employee!” The bouncer actually heard himself whimper as he caught the wide smile on the face of his tall, feline assailant in response to the demand.
“Now that would be an interesting idea. Let’s call the po-po on down here and see how that plays out, Mr Hennese.” The red catwoman moved to the only surviving chair at the table Tommy had crashed into and seated herself with dainty grace. “I imagine I would receive a STERN talking to for operating outside normal procedures like this, but on the other hand…” The woman paused and began poking her finger rapidly towards the group around the club owner as if she were counting something. “From here I can see three outstanding warrants, one bail-jumper, and six ‘persons of interest’ in ongoing investigations. So yes! Let’s call the police!”
The mood amongst the party group shifted rapidly from shock to a mixture of outrage and fear. Tommy remained exactly where he lay in the remains of the broken table, and prayed that everything would be over soon.
“Well, seeing you put it like that, maybe we should just call this whole thing a wash and you go your way while we go ours?” The balding club owner’s expression was rapidly becoming more dominated by fear than outrage as he realized the most likely outcomes of the current scenario.
“Hmmmm, nope. Sorry, not what I’m looking for at all.” The catwoman grinned hugely at the nervously sweating man, then turned her attention to the bouncer still on the floor near her feet. “Tommy, there are PLENTY of chairs open. You don’t HAVE to sit on the floor you know.”
The bouncer remained motionless for several long seconds after being addressed, before very slowly standing and moving backwards to the nearest empty seat and depositing himself in it.
“Now that everyone has had enough time to wonder what it is I AM looking for here, I’ll let you all know.” The redfurred female leaned forward in her chair and glanced around before continuing in a conspiratorial whisper. “Information.”
“You can’t possibly be serious.” The objection came from an extremely average man in the back of the group, his medium brown hair and unremarkable features being the kind that would have made it a nightmare to pick him out of a lineup. “No matter what legal troubles you might threaten us with, you can’t possibly be stupid enough to think that it would be worse than what our more unsavory acquaintances would do when it came out that we were dealing openly with a Hero.”
“Oh, I’m definitely not that kind of stupid.” A rush of air was the first warning the gathered group had as the large feline Hero seemed to simply appear in their midst, suddenly looming directly over the objector. “But you see, I was never all THAT interested in playing things completely legal. You can ask Tommy about that if you don’t believe little old me, he seems to remember.” The smile the woman now wore was far more predatory than her earlier grin.
“But fear not, because we aren’t asking for any information about your normal clients. And I’m sure a group as SMART as this one can figure out what kind of information we are looking for.”
Hennese let out a barking laugh that cut off abruptly when he saw the woman was now directly in front of him. “I guess Heroes ain’t as well informed as we always thought you were. You’re talking about that bombing that killed the baby Hero last week? Didn’t you hear they caught that dumb son of a bitch two days ago?”
No one in the bar saw where the knife came from, or even how it got into the table. The loud *thunk* that accompanied its sudden appearance was all they knew, and everyone stepped back quickly when they saw the blade quivering in the wood directly in front of the now-sweating-again club owner.
“Mr Hennese, your associate was so kind as to not ASSUME I’m an idiot. You should know I extend a similar kindness to ya’ll as I know none of YOU are that stupid either.”
“You want the person who planted the bomb.” It was the extremely average man who spoke again, though in a much more subdued tone and from several steps farther away than his last position.
“Got it in one! Gathered in this room are some of the best forgers and conmen in the state. And I know SOME of you have connections that branch well outside this room.” The catwoman let her gaze sweep across the assembled group again, making pointed eye contact with each person. “So this is very simple, if you never want to see me in person again, I just need an honest effort on your part to help the good guys track down one measly terrorist. A terrorist stupid enough to target Heroes and the HCP directly, with all the potential consequences THAT can bring down on everyone. I’m sure you’ve all heard stories though, so I won’t bore you with details.”
In another impossibly fast shift, the knife vanished as if it had never been and the tall Hero stood near the door again. “Any information you pick up, pass it to Tommy over there and he can drop it off with his parole officer to get to me.” A stern look passed over the woman’s face as she made eye contact with the bouncer again. “And Tommy, you missed your last check-in. Don’t make a habit of it.”
Tommy remained motionless for quite some time after the Hero left, not even responding to the many shouted questions from his employer and the table full of criminals that was rapidly descending into full fledged panic. Tommy wasn’t worried about any of that, he knew how it would sort out in the end. He was much more worried with important matters, like trying to dredge up the number for his PO so he could find out the date for his next check-in.
Riley Walker approached the door to the small HCP conference room with the look of a man seriously contemplating murder. As he reached his destination and raised his fist with every intent to hammer angrily against the closed door, it slid noiselessly open as if trying to avoid the assault against it.
“Mr Walker, won’t you join us?” The cultured tone and British accent that came from the room threw the University President a bit off balance, mentally. “Yes, I’m aware I’m not the telepath you were expecting. Dean Jilles is currently busy with other matters, you’ll have to settle for the two of us.”
As Riley followed the voice into the room he was further surprised to see that only the Focus, Close Combat, and Subtlety Instructors were present (and Professor Martinez appeared far more engrossed in something to do with her laptop than what was going on in the room around her) at the meeting he had requested, Demanded, I might as well be honest with the telepath in the room, and found his anger rising at the apparent slight.
Then James Rachd turned his head and the anger Riley Walker felt was completely banished by the barely controlled look of pure rage worn by the muscular bald man. “So I’m assuming you got the same surprise information from our ‘friends’ at the DVA this morning that we did?” The blond University President had to admire that Rachd could convey that much pure anger with his tone without the words becoming unintelligible.
Then the content of the question sank in and Riley felt himself almost physically deflate as he leaned back against the now-closed door. “You know, I can’t tell yet if it makes it better or worse that you guys were kept in the dark too.”
The Focus Instructor shrugged in response to the statement. “The HCP is almost constantly upgrading both the program and the security measures around the program. It shouldn’t have come as such a great shock that not all the campuses are at the exact same level at all times.”
“It is a BIT of an issue when they tell us that if we’d had the upgrades they already installed at Lander and Korman that god damned bomb would have been detected and probably fucking DEFUSED before it even made it all the way onto campus.” Judging from facial expression and how tightly the Combat Instructor’s fists were clenched, it was probably a good thing that no one involved in THAT particular round of decisions was in the room with the man.
“I’ve got to say, I’m surprised you seem to be taking this as well as you are Professor Vree.” Riley realized it was probably a bad idea to stay on subject with Rachd as riled as he was, but a part of him also felt it might be worth it to turn some of the Combat Instructor’s anger towards the foreign Focus Instructor.
“Yea, he’s REALLY on top of things today.” Rachd’s tone held notably less rage, and a great deal more sarcasm, than previously, and he responded to the questioning glance from Riley with a nod to the corner of the room.
Sitting there was an object that looked like it might have once been one of the conference chairs, but now most closely resembled a mangled ball of twisted scrap metal. “That happened to the chair next to him when he got the call this morning, I don’t even think he realized he was doing it until he broke the phone hanging it up.”
“A momentary lapse, and one whose price was fortunately shouldered by an unfortunate piece of office furniture.” Vree waved a hand dismissively at the chair, then turned a very intense look on the University President. “Don’t mistake my calm, Mr Walker, for anything other than self-control. It is entirely true that we should NOT be surprised that such advancements have been made in HCP security protocols. It is almost unfathomable that they would schedule upgrades for such advances along a schedule that takes more than four years to finish five campuses.”
“My apologies for the insinuation, Professor Vree.” Riley felt more than a little embarrassed of the thoughts he’d just recently entertained about the older professor. “Now if we could move onto a different matter though, where is everyone else?”
“Hunting.” The one word response from the muscular bald man was accompanied with a humorless grin that showed a lot of teeth.
“And before you ask the next question; we are still here because I do not have the credentials needed to operate in this country, James has already made contact with all of his old acquaintances with access to military intelligence, and Elena here is sifting through a truly staggering amount of data she has already collected.” Riley’s mouth snapped shut on the very question the Focus Instructor had predicted and answered.
“What can I do?” The quiet question actually drew the attention of the distracted Subtlety Instructor to the conversation, and shifted the Combat Instructor’s grin even further into the ‘predatory’ category.
“You and your wife have resources that I don’t. I need them.” Elena’s voice sounded exhausted as she made the simple request.
Riley was more than a little surprised, but recovered quickly. His mind automatically started sifting the pros and cons of such an arrangement, before he angrily twisted off that line of thought. “Come by the house when you’re free, Janette will get you access to whatever you need.”
Joyce Rothschild stared with a great deal of trepidation at the package sitting on the desk in front of her. She had been terrified when she’d woken up five days ago with gaping holes in her memory, all the more so since there was enough information left in her brain for her to know most of what she’d been working on. She couldn’t help but admit to herself, the plot still seemed a solid one. Destabilize the pillars of the Super community enough to make themselves an invaluable part of the process for the government, and rake in billions upon billions of dollars as a result. If I have to be honest with myself, the only thing I can’t believe I was stupid enough to believe in this conspiracy was that my ‘partners’ wouldn’t turn on me in a heartbeat.
Of course the package that had simply appeared on her desk a few minutes ago hinted that she might well NOT have been that idiotic. The address on the top was written in a very familiar hand to Joyce; her own. Sighing in disgust at her own hesitation, the dark haired woman reached into a drawer to produce a pair of scissors and quickly cut the packaging away.
Inside the small box was an old tablet PC, obviously modified as it was much bulkier than even its age would have allowed for. A tap on the screen brought up a prompt for a fingerprint – Now THAT isn’t a feature that was originally on these things – and a press of her thumb later Joyce found herself eye to eye with a recorded message from herself.
The message played for several minutes, and Joyce found herself smiling at her own care in setting up a plan so perfectly; actually having her own memories of the contingency removed so that her enemies, or allies, couldn’t possibly learn about it from her.
The smile faded quickly as the recording ended and a huge list of files populated the touchscreen. Her finger quickly jabbed into the one at the top left: ‘Partners.’ Whoever you are, I hope you have your own carefully crafted contingencies, because I am going to do everything in my power to fucking destroy you all.