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Devious Origins

Devious Origins

 

By Thad Phetteplace

 

Copyright 2016 Thad Phetteplace

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

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Table of Contents

Start of Book

About the Author

Connect with Thad Phetteplace

CHAPTER 1

“I’m a superhero,” she declared in between bites of her chicken salad sandwich. The words were delivered as casually as one might comment on the weather.

“A superhero…” I repeated, an unspoken question hanging in the silence that followed.

“Yeah. You asked what classes I’m in, but I’m not actually a student here. I tried the college thing for a while, but it just wasn’t me. Did retail for a bit but couldn’t stick with it… pimping overpriced plastic crap to the consumer masses… it was damaging my soul. I quit and just drifted for a while. Then I really took a hard look at myself, what I wanted out of life, the mark I wanted to make. One day it all just snapped into focus. Superhero.”

“There are openings for that kind of work?” I asked, my amusement clearly showing. I was more than willing to play along with the gag.

“Oh it’s definitely an under-served market, but you won’t find any posting for it on craigslist. This is totally a freelance sort of gig.” She finished the last of her sandwich and turned her attention to her papaya and wheat grass smoothie. She took a long slurp and continued. “I actually made a list. All the things my dream job would have. Excitement. Adventure. The chance to do something big. Important. The chance to help people. I thought about all sorts of possibilities, but only one really seemed to fit. Superhero.”

I chased the last of my three bean salad around my plate, finally getting it onto the plastic fork. I gazed across the table at her while I finished eating. She showed no sign she was joking. She either believed what she was saying or was one hell of an actress.

My eyes wandered around the Student Union, taking in the varied patrons. Some were obviously studying. Others were having lunch. Some appeared to be socializing, just chatting and laughing. A typical collection of university students engaged in the usual activities. No one really standing out. Everything normal.

My eyes found their way back to my companion.

She seemed normal enough as well, at least at first glance. The right age to be in college. Dressed with an individualistic flare that made me assume she was an art student, maybe a theater major. Her short dark hair had a few purple streaks dyed into it and some small feathers woven into it near her left ear. She wore tennis shoes, a motorcycle jacket, and cut-off jeans over black tights. On her hands she wore leather gloves with the fingers cut off. She carried a small backpack with a much larger skateboard strapped to it. She was the most interesting person in the room, though not so unusual that she didn’t fit in to the wide spectrum of college persona.

I admit I was surprised when she asked to sit at my table, me being rather the opposite of the flamboyant art student I imagined her to be, but then the Union was close to full at the moment, so it was probably just the three empty seats at my table that drew her here. Making smalltalk with strangers has never been a great skill of mine, but she seemed surprisingly easy to talk to. Nevertheless, I now found myself at a loss for words. What do you say to someone who has just claimed to be a superhero?

My companion noisily slurped the last of her smoothie and finally broke the verbal deadlock.

“Well, I have to get going,” she said, “thanks for letting me sit here.”

“No problem,” I replied, then realized the one and only female who had shown any interest in talking to me since I started college was about to walk out of my life as quickly as she had entered it. “Um… I would love hear more about this whole superhero thing… do you… like… have a phone number?”

She smiled. It was not one of those ‘Oh I am so glad he asked for my number’ sort of smiles, more like an ‘Oh god he is so clumsy at this sort of thing I think I might burst into laughter’ sort of smile.

“Must we really fall into such tired gender roles?” she answered. “What if I want to ask for your number instead?”

My brain seemed to freeze up. No words came. Instead I simply opened up one of my notebooks, tore off a section of paper, and wrote my name and number on it. She smiled as I handed it to her. It was a less amused smile, more genuinely warm.

“Thanks… and welcome to the team,” she exclaimed, then slung her backpack on her back, turned, and headed for the door. I sat looking at the door for several minutes after she left.

It finally occurred to me that I had never learned her name.

 

 

  • * *

 

 

It was three days later when I next heard from her. I was walking to my Theory of Computing lecture when my phone rang. I answered without even looking at the number.

“Hey, do you own a suit?” a woman’s voice asked.

“Um… Yes?” I answered, so surprised by the unusual question that I stopped walking. Was this some sort of telemarketing call? Was I about to get a sales pitch from Men’s Warehouse?

“Cool. Meet me at 4:30 PM tomorrow at the Clerk of Courts office in City Hall. Wear a suit. Oh, and bring that blue three ring binder you had at lunch the other day.”

“Uh, what exactly…” but then my question was interrupted by a loud crashing noise coming over the phone.

“Sorry, gotta go,” she insisted, “got a thing to deal with. See you tomorrow.” Then she hung up.

I stood there for another full minute as my brain chewed through the conversation, piecing together who the caller must be and what it might mean. Did I just agree to a date at City Hall? With a crazy woman who thinks she is a superhero no less? I resumed walking to my lecture, nearly overshooting the lecture hall as my mind replayed the phone call, trying to make sense of it. Taking a seat in the back row of the hall, I tried to concentrate on the lecture, but Professor Perdowski’s words receded into a meaningless droning as my thoughts kept returning to the phone call and tomorrow’s potential meeting.

“Barry. Hey, Barry… Earth to Barry.” My mind snapped back to my actual surroundings as I realized my classmate Jake Meyer was talking to me.

“Jake. Yeah… Sorry, I was just… thinking about something.” I finally noticed class was over. Everyone was packing up to leave.

“I’ve been trying to ask if you are coming to the study session tomorrow. Tony says he has copies of last year’s mid-term. Should be a big help.”

“Study session. Yes. I remember. I’ll be there.” Then I remembered that the study session started at 4PM. “Oh crap. I think I’ve got something else going on then. I’ve got to be downtown by four thirty tomorrow.”

“Dude, whatever it is, blow it off,” Jake insisted, “We’re all going out for one dollar tappers at the Brass Rail after.”

“No really, I’ve got this thing. Maybe I’ll catch up with you later at the Rail.” I thought about it for a moment. I really didn’t know where tomorrow’s activities would lead. “I might even bring a friend along.”

“Oh I get it now,” Jake answered mirthfully, “you are blowing us off for a woman. Officially, I condemn this frivolous disregard of your academic responsibilities. Unofficially…. way to go dude! I was beginning to think you were some sort of monk. By all means, bring her around. The Rail could stand to have its babe to bro ratio improved.”

 

I was about to argue that it wasn’t like that, but then I realized I didn’t actually know much of anything. I wasn’t actually sure this meeting tomorrow was really a date. Heck, I still didn’t even know her name. After saying my goodbyes to Jake, I packed up and headed back to my dorm room.

I needed to see what sort of shape my suit was in.

 

 

  • * *

 

 

My two Wednesday classes passed in a blur. I managed to pay attention most of the time, but my attention kept wandering. I kept thinking about the coming mystery meeting. As my Applied Computer Architecture class drew to a close, I nearly flew from my seat and ran back to the dorms. I cleaned up and put on my suit, one I normally only wore to weddings and funerals, then headed out the door with plenty of time to catch the 4:10 bus toward downtown. I was down four flights of stairs and heading for the main exit when I remembered her instructions to bring my blue binder. Did I have time to go back and get it? Would it be better to show up on time but without the binder, or was the binder more important than punctuality? I froze for a moment at the base of the stairs before making my decision. Not wanting to wait on the dorm’s ancient and painfully slow elevator, I bolted back up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Grabbing the folder from my desk, I frantically relocked my dorm and ran for the stairs again, nearly knocking over another student as I rounded the corner to the stairwell. I shouted an apology but didn’t look back as I took the stairs so quickly that I nearly fell.

I ran to the bus stop, slowing down only as I approached and saw several other people sitting there. The bus had not arrived yet. I checked the time on my phone. 4:05. I still had at least five more minutes to wait. Those minutes seemed to stretch on forever, as did the twelve minute ride on the bus after it arrived two minutes late.

I walked up to the massive concrete steps of City Hall to the granite and glass facade of the building’s entrance. I took a moment to check my reflection in the glass door, ran my fingers through my hair and straighten my tie a bit, then I walked in. It was 4:28PM when I found the Clerk of Courts office. A scattering of lawyers were milling about, talking, occasionally approaching the clerk’s window to engage in some bureaucratic paper shuffling.

She wasn’t there.

I felt like an idiot. What was I thinking? One cryptic phone call and I’m pulling out all the stops to meet up with some girl I don’t even know. She was probably right now off with her friends having a big laugh about the whole thing.

“Barry, thank goodness you made it.” I looked up to see a smartly dressed woman gesturing at me to join her. Even then I did not immediately recognize her.

Gone was the jeans, tennis shoes, and motorcycle jacket. Instead she now wore a conservative business outfit… skirt with matching jacket, uncomfortable shoes, even a tie. The blue streaks and feathers were missing from her hair, and she now wore thick rimmed but stylish glasses. Under her arm was tucked the type of leather satchel popular with the lawyers that scurried about the court house. The biggest difference, however, was how she carried herself. She exuded a supreme confidence… an almost haughty superiority. She seemed ten years older. She looked like a lawyer. Like a high priced corporate attorney or a rock-star federal prosecutor from some late night crime drama.

I realized I was standing there with my mouth open. I closed it and walked over. She pointed at my blue binder as I approached.

“Ah good, you brought the environmental inspection report,” she exclaimed, “I was afraid it wouldn’t be ready in time.” She snatched the binder from my hands and began flipping through my Theory of Computing lecture notes. “Hmm… not good. Not good at all.” Her brow furrowed as she turned the pages. “It’s a good thing you got this to me when you did,” she continued, “The property is a literal cesspool of toxic chemicals, and we never would have caught it without this phase two survey. It would be stupid to buy that building at any price. Whoever ends up with that old textile plant is going to be stuck with a hellacious environmental remediation bill. Good work, Barry. Thanks to you we dodged a bullet on this one.”

Before she had even finished speaking, one of the lawyerish looking guys sitting at a nearby bench seemed to react. He jumped to his feet, jammed some papers back into his leather satchel, and began stabbing at his cell phone even as he started running down the hall. My companion watched with a growing grin as he grew more distant.

She turned back to me, winked, and said, “Yatzee!”

“What the hell just happened,” I replied.

“You were great, Barry,” she answered, “but the mission isn’t over yet.” She turned and walked to the Clerk’s window.

“Is this where I drop off a sealed bid for a tax delinquent Brownfield property?” she asked the woman behind the counter.

“Yes,” was all the woman replied. My companion pulled a large envelope from her leather satchel and handed it over. The clerk took out an immense date stamp, stabbed it down on the envelop, then flung the envelop into a plastic bin behind her. “Anything else?” the clerk asked.

“Nope. That’s it. Thanks.” Then my superhero/lawyer friend spun around, grabbed my arm, and started us walking toward the exit. “OK, Barry, go ahead and ask your questions.”

A thousand different questions immediately charged from the cognitive areas of my brain toward the speech center, temporarily log-jamming and leaving me mute. Then the one thing I really needed to ask finally broke through and found voice.

 

“So… um… what is your name?”

 

CHAPTER 2

She seemed to consider my question as we made our way outside to the sidewalk.

“What sort of superhero would I be if I immediately let you in on my secret identity?” she playfully answered.

“OK, so what is your hero name then?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?” I responded, “How can you be a superhero and not know your own hero name?”

“Haven’t you ever read any comic books?” she asked in mock incredulity, “The hero never comes up with their own name. It is always someone else. Someone they rescued. A reporter. Someone like that. The hero has to earn a name. Society bestows it on them.”

“So you haven’t earned yours yet?”

“Not yet I guess. But that’s OK. It isn’t about making a name for yourself. It’s not about getting recognition. It has to be all about the mission, or you are not a true hero.” She seemed to be totally sincere. “So here we are.”

We had arrived at a classic yellow Vespa scooter parked only a block from the court house. My companion plucked a shiny black helmet from the seat. It was small, form fitting, and lacked any sort of eye protection.

“Here, wear this,” she said as she handed it to me.

“Shouldn’t you wear it?” I answered.

“What sort of hero would I be if I let my passenger go unprotected,” she insisted, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep the stunt driving to a minimum.” She then proceeded to take a pair of tennis shoes and a set of aviator goggles out the storage compartment of the Vespa. She changed shoes, put on the goggles, and climbed on the scooter. “Well don’t just stand there, get on.”

I climbed on and cautiously put my hands on her waist to steady myself.

“Don’t be shy,” she insisted, “make sure you’ve got a good grip. I don’t want to be scooping you off the pavement.” I put my arms around her and laced my fingers together. Suddenly the Vespa roared to life and nearly shot out from under us. We rocketed into traffic, flew down the street, then screeched to a stop at a red light.

“I didn’t realize these could go that fast,” I commented once the motor had quieted to a idling purr. Somehow I managed to keep the edge of hysteria out of my voice.

“They don’t normally,” she answered, “I’ve been doing a bit of tinkering on him.”

This got the engineering student in me rather curious, and I was about to ask what sort of modifications she had made, but then the light changed. I was reduced to silence and hanging on for dear life as we again careened down the road. I survived several more minutes of that before we finally screeched to a stop at our destination.

She hopped off the scooter, pulled down the goggles and let them dangle around her neck. I took off the helmet and set it on the seat. She was already walking up to the door of the enormous brick building we had parked in front of. I hurried to catch up.

“So this is it, Barry,” she stated, “This is what it was all about.”

I took a good look at the building. It appeared to be abandoned. The main door was chained shut. Many of the windows were boarded up. A faded sign over the door declared it to be Chamberlain Textiles, The Home of American Quality. Given the building’s dilapidated state, that was not lacking in irony.

“An abandoned factory?”

“My secret lair,” she countered, “Every hero needs one. You want to look inside?”

I looked at the No Trespassing sign affixed to the door. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“Oh its fine. I’ve been inside a bunch of times. Beside, it is basically mine now… or at least it will be when the gears of bureaucracy finish grinding.”

Before I could answer, she was slipping out of her skirt and suit jacket. What I had assumed was black nylons was actually just the legs of a black and gray spandex body stocking, the sort of thing a dancer might wear. She handed me the garments, slipped her goggles back over her eyes, and then proceeded to climb up the side of the building.

Now I’m not saying she went up that wall like Spiderman. She grabbed hold of a rain gutter and used part of a windowsill and basically obeyed the laws of physics… but she still got up the side of that building faster than I would have believed possible. And here is the thing… She really did look a bit like a superhero doing it.

Maybe it was just the combination of that spandex outfit and the mask-like goggles. Maybe it was the way her muscles and tendons stood out so clearly as she worked her way up that wall, so much like a scene a comic book artist might depict. Maybe it was just the power of suggestion… her constant claims to superheroism… but for a moment I almost believed. Then she disappeared onto the roof, and I snapped back to reality.

I was being pulled along in the wake of a crazy woman. Beautiful. Exciting. But definitely crazy. If I was smart I would cut my losses and slip away fast. Find a cab, get back to my dorm, and turn off my cell phone.

I wasn’t feeling particularly smart at that moment.

While I stood there considering who I might call for bail money after the night wound down to its inevitable conclusion, a side door popped open and my companion poked her head out.

“Hey, over here,” she called. I trotted over to where she held the door open.

“How did you…” I began to ask.

“Fire code… doors in commercial properties are not allowed to lock from the inside. They always have to open easily to let people out in an emergency. The main doors are chained only because the lock was busted, probably by someone trying to rob the place of scrap metal.” Her response answered only one of a dozen questions I had, but I just nodded as if it explained everything.

I stepped inside and let the door shut behind me.

With many of the windows boarded up, it was dim inside, but enough light made it in to at least judge the scale of the place. It was cavernous. The interior of the building was mostly one big empty space occasionally interrupted by large steel columns. The ceiling was at least 20 feet above us. The south end of the building consisted mainly of garage doors and loading bays. The north end of the building was built out with two floors of office space, the second floor including a balcony that overlooked the factory floor. Scars on the concrete floor revealed where massive equipment had once stood. Only a few bolts and twisted bits of wiring conduit still remained.

“It’s perfect,” she enthused as she hugged one of the steel support columns.

“It’s huge,” I responded, “How much did it cost you?”

“Exactly one dollar.”

“Impossible,” I blurted out.

“No really. I was the only bidder, and I bid exactly one dollar.”

“I don’t believe it. I mean, I’ve seen late night infomercials about buying real estate for almost nothing, but I always figured that was just a scam.”

“Oh those probably are,” she answered, “but this was something different.” She walked over and plucked her skirt and jacket from my arm and began to put them back on over her spandex outfit. “It was only possible in this case because of local political corruption. Basically I figured out how the system was rigged.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, I got it in my head a while ago to buy a tax delinquent property. You know… some foreclosed on fixer upper that I could buy cheap and dump some sweat equity into. I combed through the public auction listings, and stuff would come on the market, but most of it was in really bad shape. Then there was that retail store that went under on the south side of town. I waited for it to hit the auction block. And I waited. Then suddenly one day it was being renovated by new owners. At first I thought maybe it had been purchased directly before going through foreclosure, but then I checked the public records, and there it was. It supposedly WAS auctioned off by the city, but I had somehow missed the public notice.

“So then I dug through the conveyance list… all the properties over the last few years that the city had supposedly sold off for back taxes. There was a bunch of them that had never been publicly listed before being auctioned. I dug through more records, started sniffing around city hall and asking some careful questions, and eventually I pieced it all together.

“Basically all the best properties… the tax delinquent foreclosures that are in really good shape and worth quite a bit… were being held back from the usual process and parceled out to a select group of insiders. They do it by designating them as Brownfield properties. That means they might have some environmental clean up that needs to be done, and the foreclosure is basically held in limbo until an environmental assessment is done. Brownfield foreclosures can work a little different than the usual in that the city sometimes sells them for far less than the tax bill, basically to make up for the high clean-up costs that the new owner is stuck with. It is still a good deal for the city because the property at least gets back on the tax rolls.

“Of course the trick in this case was that none of these properties were actually contaminated. There was no expensive environmental clean-up needed, yet the buyers were getting them at rock bottom prices because of their supposed Brownfield status. They also could be sure nobody else was bidding on them because the Brownfields were not announced in advance in the usual way.

Instead of a listing in the newspaper, they were only posted on a bulletin board in the back of the records office at the Court House, and only hours before the ‘auction’. On top of that, the time period for receiving sealed bids was restricted to a 15 minute window. The game was essentially rigged so there was only one bidder per auction… someone who had learned about the property long before it was publicly ‘announced’.”

“So that guy you sent running from the Clerk of Courts office?” I interjected.

“Was the one bidder lined up to get this place, yes.”

“So how did you get clued in to the scheme?”

“Elementary my dear Barry,” she replied, “I used my superpower.”

“Your superpower… and what might that be? Invisibility? Mind Reading?”

“I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yet,” she answered, “You should really pay better attention.”

That sent my mind off into a frenzy of speculation. What exactly did she imagine her super power to be? Finally, I cracked a smile and responded with, “I’ve got it. You possess the power of being frustratingly obtuse.”

She shook her head no, but I could see the suppressed laughter.

We continued wandering through the deserted factory, poking around vacant offices spaces and peering into empty closets. Aside from one area where all the electrical wiring and fixtures had been torn from the walls, the building was in relatively good shape. We chatted as we explored, and despite my attempts to draw her out and learn more about this mysterious woman, we instead talked mostly about me. She expressed real interest in the classes I was taking, my reasons for studying computer science and electrical engineering, even all my varied hobbies and projects.

“We should probably get going,” she finally stated, “It’s only going to get darker in here as the sun goes down.”

“Sure, I’ve got someplace to be anyway,” I answered, remembering the study session I had skipped. Actually, they would probably all be at the bar by now. “Hey, you could come with. I’m just meeting friends at the Brass Rail.”

She seemed to consider my offer for a moment, then finally answered, “Sure, why not.”

We made our way out the same fire exit I had entered through, letting it lock behind us, then walked back to the Vespa and climbed on. As I put on the helmet and she donned her goggles, I finally thought to ask, “So, ah, how exactly should I introduce you to my friends?”

“My name is Diana,” she answered, “but call me Dee.”

 

CHAPTER 3

When the Vespa screeched to a halt in front of the Brass Rail, I resisted the urge to leap off and kiss the ground. Instead I calmly dismounted, removed the helmet, then used one of the scooter’s mirrors to check my hair and straighten my tie again. Dee jumped off and stashed her goggles in the Vespa’s storage bin, then turned to me and said, “You look fine, Barry. Heck, you look too good for this place.”

“We might actually be a bit overdressed,” I replied.

“No helping it now. Lead on MacDuff.”

“You know that play doesn’t end well, right?”

“Don’t be such a buzz-kill. I just scored myself a kickin’ lair. I feel like celebrating.”

We walked up to the entrance of the Brass Rail, its dignified oak door belying the raucous atmosphere that lied beyond. Loud music and numerous voices leaked through as an indistinguishable droning.

“You ever been here before?” I asked before opening the door.

“Nope. Never went out much when I was actually a student here. Pretty much a study-o-holic the whole time.”

I tried to picture her sitting quietly with a stack of books, studying. No… my brain couldn’t form the image.

“Its not too late,” I suggested, “We could go someplace quieter.”

“You can’t chicken out on me now, Barry. You’ve got to introduce me to your friends. Let’s go. The only way out is through.”

“Robert Frost. Well… almost.”

“Yes, I know. He really said ‘the best way out is always through’… and Shakespeare actually said ‘Lay on, MacDuff’, not ‘lead on’… but nobody actually talks like that. It is irresistible how literate you are, but I’ll like it even more with a drink in my hand.”

She was right. I was procrastinating. And being obnoxiously pedantic besides. It was just that the idea of her and my classmates actually interacting was somehow frighting… like throwing a bobcat into a box full kittens. They didn’t know what they were in for.

She pulled the door open. The sound hit us like a physical wave. We stepped in, and the bouncer asked us for ID. I was temped to steal a glance at Dee’s license as she flashed it just to see if her name really was Diana, but I didn’t think I could do it without being obvious. We waded into the crowd.

It wasn’t as packed as a Friday night, but it was a respectable crowd. Dollar Tapper Wednesdays was a decent draw. I scanned the crowd for my friends, finally spotting them at a table against the far wall.

“I see them,” I yelled to Dee, pointing in the direction we needed to head. Jake was the first to react when we showed up.

“Barry, you made it!” he exclaimed, then looking my suit, “and from a funeral no less.”

“Real funny, Jake,” I answered, “This is my friend, Dee. Dee this is Jake. Don’t believe anything he says about me. The big guy next to him is Tony. Next to him is Sara, then Kelly, Robert… don’t call him Bob… and Michael. I’ve known Jake since freshman year. Sara, Kelly, and Michael almost as long. We’ve had a lot of classes together. Tony and Robert joined us only this year, switched over to comp sci from the business management program, but we’re trying not to hold that against them.”

Hellos were exchanged all around. The music was a notch lower than deafening in this corner of the place, so we could actually talk without yelling ourselves hoarse. Jake poked me with an elbow, then gave me a smart-ass smile and covert thumbs up when he thought Dee wasn’t looking.

Tony downed the last of his beer and then declared, “You are just in time to buy a round. It’s your penalty for being late.”

I hadn’t planned on drinking much, in part because of a low tolerance for alcohol but mostly because of even lower funds. Buying a round would pretty much wipe me out, even on dollar tapper night. Fortunately, Dee came to my rescue like the hero she claimed to be.

“Oh let me get this one,” she declared, “I totally owe Barry big time. He really helped me out of a jam today.”

“OK, spill it,” Sara insisted, “What did mister knight in shining polyester do?” She leaned back and sipped her beer as they all waited for an answer.

“It’s really not that exciting,” Dee responded, “and I would be embarrassed to tell you the whole story. I’ll just say he stepped up and stood by me at the courthouse when I really needed a friend.”

Tony donned a sympathetic look, nodded his head, and answered, “I hear ya, sister. I’ve been there myself.”

“Yeah, but I doubt she was there for streaking through the quad wearing nothing but a football helmet and a number painted on her chest,” Kelly shot back with suppressed laughter.

“Oh my god, that was you?” Dee asked, “I remember seeing that on the local news.” Tony turned several shades of red in quick succession. “Oh don’t worry,” she quickly assured him, “they blurred your junk out.” That just sent everyone into outright laughter. Even Tony couldn’t help but join in.

“I wasn’t supposed to be the only one,” he insisted after a moment, “but everyone else wussed out on me.”

“Dude, you got punked,” Kelly stated, “They were never going to join you.”

“Yeah, well I found myself a better class of friends.” With that, Tony raised his glass, and the others raised theirs in response.

“To new friends,” Jake toasted, nodding toward Dee. Dee smiled and nodded back.

“Now is probably a good time for us to get the next round,” she answered, “Barry, would you help me?” We headed for the bar.

“Your friends seem nice enough,” she stated as we dodged our way through the crowd.

“Yeah, they’re a stand up bunch,” I agreed.

All thought of normal conversation faded as we we wound our way past the speaker stacks near the dance floor. We reached the bar, and I signaled to the bartender by holding up eight fingers. She pulled back the tap and passed glasses under it in rapid succession, never turning it off until all eight were filled with the house special. Dee slid ten dollars over to the bartender. I prepared to grab four of the glasses by wedging them against each other in a two handed grip, but then Dee stopped me and said, “Slow down, cowboy, I got this.”

She sauntered over to the waitress station at the end of the bar and casually plucked a plastic tray from a stack of them. After loading our beers onto the tray, she hoisted it over her head with one hand, and proceeded to weave her way back through the boisterous crowd with the finesse and grace of a ballet dancer. I followed behind and wondered why she had even asked me along.

We arrived back at the table and distributed the beverages. Dee collected up the empties, preparing to take them and the tray back to the bar. As she stepped away from the table, a well dressed man walked up and said something to her that I couldn’t quite hear. He pointed to the another table closer to the dance floor as he said it. Dee nodded to him, turned to me, winked, then walked off. I watched her cross back to the bar, unload the tray, then go back to the other table and load up with even more empties. She talked to the people at the table, returned to the bar and fetched several more beers back to their table. I saw her do this with two more tables before ditching the tray and heading back to us. My friends were so engrossed in their own conversations I don’t think they noticed any of this.

“Have you figured it out yet, Barry?” she asked me as she drew near.

“I don’t understand,” I answered.

“That guy was the bar manager. He thought I was one of the staff.”

“OK, I think I got that much…”

“You asked me a question earlier. Keep your eyes open and you might learn the answer.” Her smile was mischievous. Finally, she turned and joined a conversation that Robert and Kelly were having about the transformative effect of social networking on the business / consumer relationship. She slid so smoothly into their conversation, it was if she had been part of it right from the beginning. Over the course of the evening, she would repeat this pattern several more times with the rest of my friends.

At some point I stopped thinking about it or even noticing. We were all just one big group of friends having an enjoyable evening. We stayed probably later than we should have, drank more beer than was wise, but we eventually gave in to the reality that Thursday would arrive all too soon, and we had classes to attend. Sara and Kelly were the first to leave, followed not long after by Robert and Micheal, then Tony and Jake.

The reality was setting in for others as well. The crowd had thinned quite a bit since happy hour had concluded. No doubt some would stay till closing, probably regretting it tomorrow when they tried to drag themselves to class. A few were already quite intoxicated despite the night actually being rather young. At one point it looked like a fight might break out, but then the two young men were slapping each other on the back and laughing… false alarm. A young woman had evidently drunk so much she was finding it difficult to walk. The guy with her had to nearly carry her as they left. Dee watched all this, scanning the room and absorbing all the details even as we continued chatting.

Finally Dee said, “Well, I should probably get going too, I’ve got some things to do.”

“Me too,” I replied, “I’ve got a class at 9 AM tomorrow and some studying to do tonight.”

We made our way outside. The sun was only just beginning to set. That always seemed unnatural to me; leaving a bar while the sun was still up. We stopped at the Vespa.

“Should I drop you somewhere?” She asked. I appreciated the offer, but somehow I sensed her heart wasn’t really in it. Her gaze drifted away as she talked. Her mind seemed elsewhere.

“No, my dorm isn’t far from here, I can walk.”

She just nodded, donned her goggles and helmet, and climbed onto the scooter. She seemed about to start it, then stopped, and turned her attention fully back to me.

“I’m really glad you asked me along, Barry. I’m glad I got the chance to meet your friends.”

“You seemed to really hit it off with them,” I replied.

“Yeah, I get along with people well enough. I do fine at dinner parties. I mean, I know what fork to use and how to make polite conversation… but real connections. Real friendships. Believe it or not, I’ve never been so good with that. I… I have a hard time showing people the real me.”

“And what have I seen?” I asked, “Have I seen the real you?”

“Barry, I promise you’re getting the real deal, as much as I can share with anyone. And I hope I am getting the real you. That’s what tonight was really about for me. I wanted to meet your friends so I could better understand you. We don’t stop at our own skins. We are the people we connect with. We are the choices we make. I can’t really know you unless I meet the people you spend your time with.”

“And that is important to you? Really knowing me?”

“It’s absolutely critical, Barry. I can’t have a stranger with me… not where I’m going.” And then before I could answer, she started the Vespa and rocketed off. I watched her shrink into the distance until she turned a corner and disappeared. I began walking home.

I was halfway back to my dorm when it struck me. At some point during the day’s adventure, I had lost my blue binder.

 

CHAPTER 4

The next morning, I slept through my alarm and barely made it to my morning Software System Design class on time. I must have looked like a maniac running across campus. Taking notes during class was an exercise in futility. I found my attention snapping back to the present while the professor was halfway through explaining some intricate point. My notes were reduced to a handful of cryptic scribbles that I hoped would make more sense after reviewing the related section of the textbook. But despite my repeated efforts to concentrate on class, my mind kept returning to the events of the previous day.

Dee. She was a force of nature, and not in a gentle rain and warm breezes sort of way. At first I assumed the whole superhero thing was just a joke, but the more time I spent with her, the more invested she seemed in a dangerous delusion. Maybe it was harmless. Maybe she was a superhero in the way some people put on costumes and then visit sick children in the hospital… but I really didn’t think so. There was a seriousness underlying her casual banter. I was worried about how far she might take things. She could get herself into a lot of trouble. Trouble that might engulf anyone close to her. The next time Dee called, if she called, I was tempted to just let it go to voice mail.

I was still chewing on these worries as I walked back from class, so much so that I nearly ran into a petite redheaded woman that had stopped in front of me. She looked at me with a curious and very tired expression. I looked back with what was no doubt an equally perplexed gaze. Finally she spoke.

“You were at the Brass Rail last night, right?”

“Um, yeah. For a while anyway,” I responded.

“I came in right after you I think,” she continued, “You rode in on a yellow scooter?”

I just nodded. She looked familiar. Then it came rushing back. The really drunk woman. The one that had to be nearly carried out.

“So, how are you doing this morning?” I asked cautiously even though the answer was already clearly written on her face. The Dollar Tapper Hangover. More than a few students have fallen victim to it. I was no exception.

“I didn’t think I had that much to drink,” she replied. She was silent for a moment, then said, “in fact, I’m sure I didn’t.”

The significance of that statement began to drive a disturbing train of thought, but before it got up to speed, she continued.

“I just wanted to thank your friend, the one you showed up with. I don’t remember much about how that night ended… but I remember her. I remember that yellow scooter.”

No answer formed. This whole encounter was so unexpected, I was still trying to get my head around what it meant. We just stood there, silent. Her hands were shaking. She seemed to realize it as well and self consciously stuffed them into her pockets. A scrap of memory drifted to the surface. A volunteer group visiting the campus earlier in the semester, warning about an increase in sexual assaults on campus. They had even handed out special drinking straws that changed color in the presence of date rape drugs.

“I… Is there anything I can do,” I asked. She shook her head.

“No, I’m fine,” she insisted. “Just… tell your friend thanks. If she hadn’t shown up when she did last night…” She shuddered. We stood there silently again for another long moment. I searched for something to say. Something supportive. Comforting. Anything. Finally, she broke the silence again. “I’m sorry, I’m probably making you late for something”

I watched as she hurried off toward the Brenner Art Center. In my mind I replayed the previous night, picturing the scene as Dee said goodbye to me at the Rail and then drove off on her Vespa. On the screen of my imagination, I watched Dee recede into the distance and disappear around the corner again, this time wishing my imagination could trail behind her and see all the hidden events that followed.

I don’t think she was visiting sick children at the hospital.

 

 

  • * *

 

 

I spent the next hour resisting the urge to call up Dee and ask what exactly had happened after we parted ways the night before. My curiosity was considerable, but so was my conviction that I should not feed her superhero delusion. She had obviously done a really good thing last night, but what sort of danger had she put herself in? Had she engaged in some sort of risky vigilante-ism when a simple call to 911 might have sufficed?

As I sat down next to Jake in our Theory of Computing class, these questions were still running dizzying laps around the inside of my skull.

“Hey dude,” Jake greeted me, “how’d things go last night after I left? Did you and your babe close the place?”

“No, we didn’t actually stay much after that.”

“Oh, I see,” he answered with a wise-ass grin, “Relocated someplace more private. I got ya. Nudge nudge say no more.”

I rolled my eyes. “It wasn’t like that,” I insisted, “I barely know her.”

Jake shook his head in mock disappointment and said, “Barry my boy, do you and I have to have a little talk about the birds and the bees and what grownups do when they really really like each other?”

I didn’t answer. He was just trying to get a rise out of me. Jake grew up with older brothers, and this sort of teasing seemed to be a twisted sign of affection in his family. Or maybe it was some sort of dominance ritual, like dogs tussling to assert their position in the pack. God only knows, but I had learned it was best to just ignore his verbal jabs. I really didn’t have his skill or experience at it.

Still, he was a good friend. I considered giving him the whole story. Unload every bizarre detail and get his opinion. Was I right to be worried about Dee, or was I taking the situation too seriously? I started to form the words… but they wouldn’t come.

It felt like it would be a betrayal.

This made no sense. Dee hadn’t sworn me to any sort of secrecy that I could remember. But somehow it didn’t seem right, sharing the whole superhero thing with someone else. I mean, there is an implied confidence to be kept, right? Superhero. Secret identity. Heck, its got secret right in the name.

My quandary receded into the background with the arrival of Professor Perdowski. The next hour flew past in a flurry of note taking. As the class wrapped up, Jake made me promise to attend the Friday study session, then he left for his next class before I was even done packing up. If I was going to talk to him about all this, it would have to wait.

I was barely out the classroom door when I ran into The Mook.

OK, I realize that might be an insulting thing to call someone… but that really was the first impression that slammed into my brain as I set eyes on this guy. The term Mook has a few different definitions. It can mean a slow witted ruffian. It might refer to an organized crime enforcer. To me, it mostly means a particular card in the hilarious role playing game Munchkin, and I’ll admit the graphics on that card shaped my perception in this case. This guy was huge. He had military buzz cut hair, tinted glasses, and an ill-fitting suit that barely contained his over-muscled frame. I couldn’t really know, but I imagined his suit jacket concealed some sort of hand gun. Something black and shiny, chosen as much for its intimidating aesthetics as its efficiency at dealing death. What really frightened me, however, was what he held in his hand.

It was my blue Theory of Computing binder.

 

CHAPTER 5

I froze. He was looking at something in his hand, a picture perhaps. A picture of me probably. If I had my wits about me, I might have taken that opportunity to duck out of there before he looked up, but instead I was caught in a moment of indecision and panic. He looked up. He saw me, and there was an unmistakable moment of recognition. He tucked the picture into a pocket and walked over.

“Barry Buetrero?” he asked as he approached. His voice was nothing like the Brooklyn mobster stereotype I was expecting.

I nodded yes without thinking.

“You were at the courthouse yesterday, yes?” It was more a statement than a question. He continued, “You bid on a particular property, a property my employer is quite interested in.”

“I… ah… didn’t actually bid on that,” I answered, “I was just sort of there.”

“Well then, my employer would very much like to discuss this matter with your employer,” the Mook continued. He reached into his jacket. My heart froze. His hand emerged holding a business card. My heart started beating again.

“Call the main switchboard any time to schedule an appointment,” he instructed, “I think you will find my employer’s offer very fair. This will be the best for everyone, really. I think you will find owning such a property to be very… challenging. These old buildings, they can be dangerous even. Better to take a fast profit and not risk injury, yes?”

Did he just make a veiled threat? I swallowed and took the offered card. It read Hillsburrow Capital Investments. The logo was reminiscent of a hotel game piece from the board game Monopoly. “Well, um, thanks… I should really get going now.” I turned to leave, but felt his massive hand clamp down on my shoulder. I turned back.

“I think you will be wanting this, yes?” He handed me my blue binder. I took it, muttered a thanks, and hurried away without looking back.

 

 

  • * *

 

 

I had barely rounded the corner in the hallway when my phone rang. I answered, and Dee was talking before I could say a word. “Barry, watch your back. I think we kicked a hornets nest yesterday.”

“You don’t say,” I answered.

“Yeah, we should talk. Lunch at one o-clock work for you?”

“Sure, but…”

“OK, cool, pick you up in the quad. Bye.” She hung up before I could tell her about my encounter with The Mook.

Sparing a quick glance behind me to make sure I was not being followed, I dashed outside and ran across campus to a little used study lounge in the Health Sciences building. I didn’t have any classes in that building, so it was very unlikely anyone would think to find me there. A small group of students sat in one corner quietly bemoaning their struggle with organic chemistry, but otherwise the place was mostly empty.

My heartbeat gradually slowed. I began to feel a bit more calm. Thinking it over, I began to wonder if I was really in any danger. I mean, the guy hadn’t really threatened me. Not explicitly anyway. Probably not at all. He couldn’t help how he looked. OK, well, maybe he could… I doubt anyone was forcing him to spend twelve hours a day at the gym… but that was still no reason to judge the man unfairly. Well, whatever his intentions, this was really Dee’s problem, wasn’t it? All I could really do was give her the business card and the whole story and let her figure out what she was going to do. Maybe she would be fine with selling the building for a quick profit and be done with it.

Somehow I doubted that, but hey, a guy can dream.

I decided to set aside these worries until our lunch date and get some studying done until then. I cracked open my Theory of Computing text and dove in. My eyes kept scanning the same paragraph over and over, but it just wasn’t sinking in. Too many thoughts crowding to utilize the same neurons. Nevertheless, I kept slogging away at it.

Eventually, 1:00 arrived. I packed up, slung my back pack over my shoulder, and ran outside to the quad. Dee pulled up just as I got there.

“Jump on,” she instructed even before she had completely stopped.

“You don’t want to just eat at the student union?” I asked.

“No, I’ve got something better planned. Here wear this,” she said as she handed me a spare helmet. It was dark blue and included a built in eye shield. It was also covered with Hello Kitty stickers. She saw me looking at the stickers and said, “It was a phase I went through. Just put it on, its not infectious.” I strapped on the helmet, climbed on the Vespa, and we were off.

We zipped along, eventually winding our away along streets unfamiliar to me. We finally stopped in an alley behind a strip mall. Dee jumped off and knocked on the back door of a Vietnamese restaurant. When the door opened, she greeted the diminutive oriental woman who appeared, speaking rapidly in what I assume was the woman’s own language. The woman just nodded in answer, disappeared back inside, then returned a moment later with a large paper bag with the top stapled shut. The two women shared a brief conversation, none of which I followed, then Dee turned and handed the bag to me.

“Hang on to it tightly,” she said as we climbed back on the scooter, “I’ve been looking forward to the Kapiek Sen Soup for a while now.”

We continued on, eventually finding our way back toward familiar areas of town, and came to a stop in front of the textile factory.

“We are going to eat here?” I asked.

“Sure. I mean, the courts might say I own the place now, but it won’t really feel like home until I’ve had lunch in it.” We climbed off the scooter and walked to the main door. “It’s always been that way for me,” she continued, “We moved around a lot when I was growing up, and this was sort of a tradition. We would show up someplace new, get carry-out, then sit and have our first meal in the place even before any of the boxes were unpacked. That was always how I knew I was home.”

As she talked, she fumbled with an assortment of keys hooked to a carabiner clip attached to her belt. She eventually found one that fit the padlock that held the chain on the door.

“Yatzee,” she declared, “No climbing the walls today.”

The chain fell away and the doors opened. I followed her in, still carefully carrying the warm bag of Vietnamese food. She picked a sunlit spot near one of the windows for us to lay out our banquet. Dee tore the paper bag into two large rectangles that we used as place-mats. There was an impressive variety of dishes to choose from. Fried rice, some sort of dumplings, stir fried vegetables, noodles, and two different soups.

“Wait, we need the right ambiance to fully appreciate this,” she said as she began digging in her backpack. She came out with a small battery powered iPhone dock with speakers built in. She plugged her phone into it and tapped at the screen until a soulfully instrumental oriental tune was summoned. Finally, Dee grabbed one of the soups and a plastic spoon and dove in. I grabbed a container of fried rice and started eating also.

“It’s really good,” I said around a mouthful of rice.

“Yup,” she agreed, “Best stir fry you can get without using your passport. And their noodles are amazing. They make them fresh daily.”

“You order from them often?” I asked.

“Well, I don’t order exactly. I helped the owners out of a jam a while back, and they were super grateful, so now I get free leftovers from their lunch buffet.”

“So, that’s one of the benefits of being a superhero then.” I regretting it almost as soon as I said it. I was charging into a conversation I was not sure I was ready to have.

Dee laughed. “I’m sensing you aren’t sold on the whole superhero claim.”

“Well, it is a pretty wild thing to take in,” I cautiously admitted. I didn’t say crazy. I most definitely did not use the word crazy.

“The world is full of heroes, Barry. People are just not always willing to recognize them as such.”

“Sure, but there’s a difference between a hero and a superhero, isn’t there? I mean the super part sort of implies some sort of superpower.”

“Not necessarily,” she countered, “Look at Batman. No laser vision. No freaky mind powers. Nothing but a lifetime of training and a can-do attitude.”

“Well, that and a few billion dollars.”

“Yes, there is that,” she laughed, “My budget is a bit more modest. Still the bat cave has nothing on this place. Here, try some of the noodles.”

“Wow that really is good,” I declared after a mouthful.

“Yeah, I think the secret ingredient is crack, because I’m totally addicted to this stuff.”

I took another helping of noodles and said, “so, about your bat cave… I had a run-in with someone on campus today.” I told her about The Mook.

“Yeah, I had a similar experience after signing the conveyance papers,” she admitted, “Right after signing and getting the keys, a couple of suits pounced on me just outside the courthouse. Don’t worry… I fought them off with my ninja-like wit.”

“It’s not a laughing matter, Dee. These people seem really serious. And if they are as corrupt as you say, who knows how far they might go… what they might do.”

“The corruption does run pretty deep,” she answered, “I mean, the conveyance happened only 24 hours after the bidding closed. The wheels of bureaucracy never turn that quickly unless greased with plenty of corruption. It seems the crooks rigged the rules for maximum speed. I thought I’d be waiting another week for the keys, but here we are.”

“And you’re not worried about getting mixed up with people like that?”

“Don’t worry, Barry, I can take care of myself.”

“You are not a superhero, Dee!” I nearly shouted it. Then more quietly, “I’m just worried about you is all.” I was also worried about myself, but I didn’t say it.

Dee was very quiet for a while, then said, “You don’t get to tell me who I am, Barry. I’ve spent a lifetime becoming me. Only I get to decide.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to say. The truth was, I had only known Dee a few days, and yet I already cared and worried about her. Unfortunately, she was crazy, and I wasn’t qualified to deal with that.

My introspection was interrupted by a sudden noise. Someone was coming in through the main doors. Dee looked up at the same time I did. I saw her stiffen as the three men entered.

“I think the hornets’ nest has come home to roost,” she said.

I decided to not comment on her mixed metaphor.

 

CHAPTER 6

“Well what have we got here,” the first of the men declared, “trespassers, is what it looks like.” The guy was tall, wiry. Muscular but thin. His hair was dark and greasy. His face lined with creases that seemed born of long buried anger. He was dressed in jeans and a faded green t-shirt, the large logo emblazoned on the shirt faded beyond recognition. His companions were equally intimidating. One was shorter but solidly built. Heavy but not overweight. Dressed in a similar casual attire, but his gray t-shirt had no logo on it. He carried a crowbar. The third guy was of average build, with short brown hair and matching mustache. He was the only one of the three wearing a jacket, a red leather thing with an abundance of pockets and zippers. I noticed tattoos peeking out from the jacket at his hands and neck. I couldn’t tell what they depicted.

“Oh I think you might be a bit confused on that point,” Dee said without getting up, “I took ownership just today. I can even show you the paperwork if you like.” Her demeanor was cheerful and innocent, as if she was totally unaware of their intimidating nature.

“We don’t care about no paperwork,” replied the one in the gray shirt. “We run this neighborhood, and we don’t know you. That makes you a trespasser.” They continued approaching us, putting themselves between us and the door. Gray shirt raised his crowbar menacingly.

Dee continued to act as if none of this was at all disturbing. “Oh I am sure we can talk this out,” she replied, “Here, have some noodles. We’ve got plenty.” She slid the carton toward them. The guy in the red jacket looked at it, then took a step and kicked it like he was trying for a field goal. Noodles sprayed out in a blizzard of pasta, some hitting me and Dee. He laughed at the result.

At about this point, the pace of events picks up, so from here on I think I will just refer to each of the miscreants by the color of their shirt or jacket.

Dee calmly wiped a stray noodle from her face. “Well, if it’s going to be that sort of party, we’ll need different music,” she declared. She reached down to her phone and tapped it a few times. The oriental ballad was replaced with a thumping techno dance mix. She cranked the volume up as loud as the tiny speakers could handle, then stood.

Without thinking, I stood as well and stepped between Dee and Red.

“Hey, we were just leaving,” I started to say, just in time to see Red’s fist flying toward my face. I flinched, knowing I would not be able to stop it… but it wooshed past my face without hitting, and I suddenly found myself sprawled backwards and sitting on the concrete floor again. Dee was in motion, one hand coming away from my shoulder even as the other was grabbing Red’s wrist and dragging him off balance.

Red stumbled but stayed on his feet and spun around to face Dee again. Meanwhile, Gray was swinging his crowbar at her… but he met only air. Dee danced away from him, dropped to the ground, swung a leg out and caught Red right behind his knees. Red toppled over backwards, flailing his arms and yelling as he fell.

Now Green was getting in on the action. He seemed to know some martial arts, and he came at Dee with a furious series of punches and kicks, but none landed. Dee was constantly moving, dancing really, her movements seemingly choreographed to the thumping bass of the music. Green’s charge ended with Dee flipping him over her shoulder, his feet flying up as he crashed down on the concrete. He just laid there moaning.

Dee turned back toward Gray and Red. Gray raised his crowbar, but seemed uncertain about what to do. Red was just getting back on his feet.

“Enough of this bullshit,” Red yelled as he began reaching into his jacket.

My gut twisted as I realized what he must be reaching for. I was so fixated on Red that I almost missed what happened next.

Dee leaped into motion, only she didn’t run at Red, she ran instead straight toward Gray. Gray lifted his crowbar to fend her off, but Dee actually leaped past him, grabbing the crowbar and twisting it from his grip as she did. She tucked her shoulder down and rolled, kicked Gray’s feet out from under him, and threw that crowbar, all in one motion. The metal bar spun through the air, hitting Red’s hand just as he started to raise his gun. I could hear bones snap as it hit. Red howled, and the gun went flying and then skidding across the floor well away from the fight. Dee popped back up, did a series of gymnastic flips to cross the distance between herself and Red, stopping only when her feet landed on Red’s chest to drive him to the ground. He lay there gasping, the wind knocked out of him.

Dee stood. On the ground lay three thugs in various states of pain and gasping. I still sat on the floor where she had shoved me to safety.

She turned to me, winked, and stated, “Like I was saying, Barry… I’m a superhero.”

 

CHAPTER 7

I sat there for a moment, too stunned to move or even speak. Finally I came to my senses and said, “We should really get out of here.”

“Soon enough,” Dee replied, “but I’m not leaving these jokers alone in my lair.” She leaned down and started going through Red’s pockets. He was too busy holding his broken right hand and gasping for breath to put up any struggle. Dee came up with a black leather wallet. She fished out a drivers license, then plucked her iPhone from the docking station and used it to snap a picture of the license. The dance music had dropped considerably in volume as soon as the phone was free of the dock. Dee silenced it completely and slid her phone back into her pocket. She continued looking through the wallet.

“Well look at this,” she exclaimed. She held up a business card with a familiar red hotel-like logo on it. Hillsburrow Capital Investments. “Not very smart of you, Lefty,” she said to Red, “This is what we call a clue. It links you to your employer.” She held the business card by its edges as she carefully dropped it into a pocket of her motorcycle jacket. Red just moaned and cradled his right hand in response. Dee quickly checked the pockets of the other two thugs, then turned to me and said, “Hey Barry, there’s a flashlight in my backpack. Toss it here.”

I got up and fetched the flashlight. It was a small black cylinder with a cluster of LED lights on one end and a yellow smiley face sticker stuck to the opposite end. A pair of screws had been driven into the eyes of the smiley face. The recessed screwdriver slot in each screw head was angled in such a way that it gave the face a sleepy expression. I pressed the button on its side and verified that the light worked, then tossed it to Dee. She caught it, gave part of the cylinder a twist, then held the flashlight backwards and pressed the button again. Rather than the LEDs lighting up, now a tiny arc of electricity crackled between the eye screws.

“I call him Mister Zappy,” she said as she tossed it back to me, “Use him on these jokers if they give you any trouble. I need to find that gun.”

Dee pulled a couple of light blue latex gloves from one of her jacket pockets and put them on, then walked deeper into the shadows of the factory. I stood over Gray with the stunner/flashlight in my hand. Gray moaned and acted like he meant to get up. I held Mister Zappy in front of his face and pressed the button. Gray got a good look at the tiny lightning bolts jumping between the eyes and decided to stay were he was. Green was climbing to his feet, but I was too far away to do anything about that.

Dee came back from the shadows. In her hand was a sleek, black, semi-automatic hand gun. Green turned from me to Dee, saw the gun, and took a step back. He held his hands up and open in front of himself as if to say, look how harmless and non-threatening I am.

“I think it’s time for you and your friends to leave,” Dee suggested to Green, “and I wouldn’t drag my feet if I were you. I’ve got friends on the way.”

“This isn’t over,” Green responded, but he helped Red to his feet and started limping toward the door. I stepped away from Gray and let him follow. Dee walked over to a window and watched them leave. I could hear a car start and drive away. She seemed to uncoil, like a spring with a long held tension finally released.

“OK… well… that was exciting,” she said.

“Exciting. I can think of a few other words I might use.” I didn’t elucidate.

“Oh come on, Barry, those guys were total amateur hour. We were never in much danger.”

“That gun in your hand says otherwise,” I countered. She looked down at the handgun as if she had forgotten she was holding it.

“Oh yeah, this. Don’t worry, its harmless now. I took the magazine out and emptied the chamber as soon as I found it.”

“It’s empty…” My brain chewed on the fact that she had chased the thugs out with an empty gun. “So do you really have friends coming?”

“No, that was a lie,” she answered, “I figured they were less likely to come back with more firepower if they thought we had reinforcements on the way. Let’s pack up and get out of here. I need to score some caffeine before my adrenaline high completely crashes. Fighting bad guys always leaves me sleepy otherwise.”

“What should we do with the gun?” I asked as I began collecting up leftover Vietnamese food.

“There’s a big metal drop box behind the police station where you can turn in unwanted guns, no questions asked. I’ll leave it there.” She looked around, found and old newspaper lying near one of the windows, and used it to wrap up the gun before stowing it in her backpack.

“Speaking of the police,” I interjected, “shouldn’t we call them?”

“We don’t know how far the corruption in City Hall extends,” Dee replied, “I’m not sure the cops would really be on our side in this.”

Dee, what the hell have you gotten me into, I thought.

 

CHAPTER 8

We finished collecting our leftovers, then reattached the chain and padlock to the front door and walked to the Vespa. It was lying on its side, evidently knocked over by the thugs before they had entered the factory. It looked like Gray might have even taken a few swings at it with his crowbar.

“Those bastards!” Dee exclaimed, “Now I wish I hadn’t gone so easy on them.” She levered the scooter back upright and brushed it off as she peered at the scratches and dings. “It’s OK Martin, we’ll get you all fixed up,” she whispered to the scuffed machine.

After she finished examining the damage, we climbed on and rode away. When we reached the police station, Dee jumped off and dug the newspaper wrapped gun from her backpack. We had parked next to a large metal bin emblazoned with signs that read ‘The Safe Streets Project’ and ‘Please remove all ammunition from weapons before depositing’. Dee chucked the gun and ammo magazine in, but hung onto the newspaper it had been wrapped in. We could hear the gun slide and clunk its way through a series of barriers no doubt intended to deter theft. She wadded up the paper and stuffed it back into her backpack.

“OK, one more stop and then coffee,” she declared as she climbed back onto the scooter.

We zoomed off, zigzagged down a few back streets, and eventually found our way to the parkway that ran through Veterans Memorial Park. Dee pulled up to a memorial statue, some old timey soldier astride a rearing horse.

“Put the food up there,” Dee instructed, waving toward the pedestal the horse stood on. I dug the boxes out of my backpack and lined them up on the concrete platform. She saw my puzzled expression and explained, “don’t worry, the people who need it will know to find it here. This has become a sort of dead drop every since the city made it illegal to feed homeless people.”

“They did what?” I asked.

“Yeah, some stupid law they passed last year. Supposedly it’s to encourage the homeless to enroll with social services, but then they also cut funding to the shelters and the food bank, so that sounds like bullshit to me. Maybe they just want to starve the problem out of existence. Anyway, doing it this way, we are not technically feeding anyone, just littering perhaps, and the penalty for that is a lot less.”

We rode on, eventually arriving at our destination. It was a converted house on the edge of the business district. Over the front entrance was a colorful sign saying, ‘The Intergalactic, an out of this world cafe!’ The stylized lettering was contained inside the billowous flames and smoke coming from a Flash Gordon style rocket ship.

“You’ll love this place,” Dee assured me as she led the way in.

She was right. As soon as I walked in, I wondered how I had not stumbled across the place before. Every wall was covered with science fiction themed murals or classic sci-fi movie posters. Even the ceiling was painted with a detailed night sky studded with various little space ships and aliens. A person could spend hours just lying on their back drinking in the details.

Dee didn’t bother looking at the menu board. She simply strode up to the counter and said, “We’ll have two double dark cold brews, hot.”

The barista tapped a dark fluid from a complicated glass and copper contraption while Dee dug in her jacket for several crumpled bills. After receiving the steaming cups, she carried them over to a table containing various packets of sweetener and little pitchers of cream and such.

“Fair warning,” she said to me as she handed me a mug, “this stuff is rocket fuel. You’ll want to cut it with plenty of milk.”

I watched Dee pour milk into her over-sized mug, then I poured a similar amount into my own. We wandered about looking for an open table or sofa, eventually finding a barely occupied room full of bean bag chairs. We plunked ourselves down in two of the bags. I leaned back and looked at the ceiling. It was covered in a large mural in the style of the Sistine Chapel, only instead of Adam and God, a spacesuited figure was reaching toward a tentacled alien. I took a sip of coffee. I immediately took a larger sip.

“This is really good,” I commented.

“That’s the cold brewing process. They steep it overnight in cold water. It brings out all the flavor without the acidity. Go slow. The mild flavor hides how strong it really is.”

“I’m not really much of a coffee drinker,” I admitted even as I took another greedy sip.

“Me neither, actually,” Dee replied, “I usually drink tea, but when I need a serious caffeine infusion, this is the only stuff I’ll drink.”

We drank our coffee in silence for a while. As my caffeine levels increased, so did my apprehension regarding the day’s events. My worries spun in dizzying circles, like particles in some mad accelerator, eventually spinning free only to have new ones pop into existence. Dee finally broke the silence.

“It was very brave of you, Barry, the way you stepped between me and that jerk.”

“Uh… yeah. Thanks,” I replied.

“Don’t ever do it again.”

“I give you my solemn vow,” I immediately responded. We each took another long sip of coffee. “So, what now?” I asked.

“Me, I’m going to dig into this Hillsburrow company,” she answered. “You… you will go back to school. Go to class. Study. I’ll call you if something develops.”

“So just pretend none of this happened? What if those maniacs come after us again?”

“Unlikely,” she insisted, “this was just a negotiating tactic. They were trying to create an incentive for me to sell the building… convince me that the neighborhood isn’t safe. Make it seem like there was some gang problem in the area or something. Problem was, they hired a bunch of paste eating slack jawed idiots to do the job.”

“So you don’t think the neighborhood is dangerous?” I tried to rationalize that with the events that had just transpired.

“No more so than any other part of town. There’s some gang activity, but that’s Hermanos del Fuego territory, and they keep a low profile… they mostly just tag buildings and sell pot. I scanned those jokers right off as not being Hermanos.”

“Your lair is in gang territory…” I couldn’t believe that she was so completely unconcerned by that. She saw the worried look on my face.

“Barry, the entire college is in Hermanos territory. They run the campus drug trade.”

“And that’s supposed to make me feel better?”

“My point is that you really shouldn’t worry,” she explained, “not all gangs are as overtly violent as TV would have us believe. I’m not saying they are boy scouts mind you, only that they are more concerned with making a profit than bashing heads and drawing police attention.”

“So you really think there is nothing to worry about, from those three thugs I mean, or that investment group that hired them.”

“There shouldn’t be, not after I give in to there demands,” she said with a coy smile.

I nearly spit out my coffee. “But I thought you… I mean… you seemed so…”

“Oh I’m not really going to sell, but I’ll open negotiations. It’ll buy us some time and give me a chance to learn more about them. Like I said, you sit tight. I’ll call when things get interesting.”

I thought about telling her to leave me out of it, that this all had nothing to do with me. For some unfathomable reason I stayed silent. I continued sipping my coffee, pushing my caffeine levels to dangerously high levels. I found myself fidgeting and playing with my phone, turning it over and over in my hand. I glanced at the time displayed on it.

“Holy crap,” I exclaimed as I jumped up, “I’m going to be late for my afternoon class!” I tried to down the last of my coffee but discovered the mug was empty.

“Reign it in there, Tonto,” Dee laughed, “I think you’re overcaffeinated. Don’t worry, I’ll get you there on time.”

We headed for the door, leaving our mugs in a plastic bin held by a full size Robby the Robot mock-up. Once outside, we strapped on our helmets, jumped on the Vespa, and launched ourselves toward campus. Dee drove even faster and more erratically than usual.

It must have been the caffeine… but I found the ride exhilarating.

 

CHAPTER 9

I was in my Survey of World Geography class when my caffeine buzz finally peaked. By the time the class was ending, I was beginning to crash. I decided to grab another coffee at the Student Union on the way back to my dorm just to ease myself down gently. I sipped the bitter swill slowly while absentmindedly perusing the What’s Happening board. It was covered with a assortment of official university announcements along side hand made fliers for student sponsored events. One such flier jumped out at me. It read TAKE ACTION Against Sexual Assault’. The event was taking place in the large art center lecture hall, and it was scheduled to begin in only a few minutes.

I thought about the young woman from the Brass Rail. I thought about how Dee had helped her. At some level I knew that sexual assault was a real and growing problem on campus, there had even been an article about it in the student paper recently, but it hadn’t really hit home for me until meeting a potential victim.

I found myself walking to the art center without even consciously deciding to go. The place was packed when I got there. Mostly women, but I noticed a few guys. I took a place standing in the back with the other late arrivals. A speaker was at the podium. She tapped on the microphone to make sure it was on, and the room began to settle down in anticipation of the event kicking off.

“Hello everyone, thank you for attending,” the speaker began, “for those who don’t know me, my name is Samantha Adams. I’m the current chair of the student activities council, the sponsor of this event. Seated at my right is Rebecka Holten of Women Empowered Against Violence. Next to her is Judith, a student here at the university, and finally we have Mark Sanderson representing the Office of the Dean of Students. So with introductions out of the way, I would like to turns things over to Miss Holten.”

People clapped politely. Rebecka Holten took the stage and waited for the applause to stop, then began speaking.

“Penbrooke is a college in crisis. Reported sexual violence is nearly twice the national average given the size of our student population, and the numbers are trending upward. It is past time for the University to implement a comprehensive education and prevention program. To that end, I would like to outline the goals for such a program, describe what has been done at other campuses, and urge everyone to sign our petition instructing the Dean’s office to implement a program here. But first, let’s examine the magnitude of the problem.”

Rebecka brought out graphs showing national trends, with university numbers plotted next to it. She discussed the staggering statistic of nearly one if five women becoming a victim of sexual violence at some point in her life. She pointed out how the 18 to 24 year old demographic seemed to be particularly at risk. She showed bar graphs depicting Penbrooke ranked against other schools. It wasn’t pretty. She started to go into a case study from some nameless east coast college and what they did to combat the problem but was interrupted by the guy from the Dean’s office.

“If I could just interject for a moment,” Sanderson said as he climbed to his feet. Miss Holten seemed a bit surprised by his interruption, but after a moment simply stepped back and motioned for him to take the microphone.

“I would like to point out,” he began, “that these numbers so helpfully supplied by Rebecka show reported cases of alleged sexual violence. If our numbers seem higher than other institutions, it is only because we have worked hard to foster a supportive environment where victims feel more able to come forward. I want to assure everyone here that Penbrooke College is a safe place to live and learn. Nobody’s interests are served by creating a panic about a crisis that doesn’t really exist.”

An unhappy murmuring grew in reaction to Sanderson’s words. He quickly sat back down. Rebecka Holten stepped back up to the podium and continued her presentation. After describing the outreach and education program successfully implemented by another college, she began to wrap up.

“So as you can see, to be truly successful, our campaign can’t focus our message to only one gender. We need to stress the importance of real communication, and we need to empower individuals, male and female, people of all orientations, to speak up when they think they see something wrong. We need to say more than just ‘No means No’. We need to make it clear that in the absence of ‘Yes’, the default is ‘No’. Now I would like to turn things over to Judith, who has bravely agreed to talk from her own experience about some of the resources available to those of you who might need them.”

Judith stepped up to the microphone and quietly waited for the applause to die down. The silence hung for several long seconds after that before she spoke.

“Hello. My name is Judith, and I am a rape survivor.” Judith stared out across the silent audience for a long moment, then continued. “I look out across this audience, and I know that more than a few of you have been down the same road as me. Many of you have born the burden in silence. You don’t have to. I would like to personally thank Rebecka and the other members of WEAV for all the help and support they’ve provided me. I encourage you to pick up some of their literature from one of the tables near the door. They can help. They can put you in touch with all sorts of help.

“I would also like to thank the college administration for their help. I would like to… but I can’t. They. Did. NOTHING. In fact the Dean’s office in particular treated me like the enemy. I was belittled and humiliated. They discouraged me from going to the police, and their arbitration process was a joke. My attacker is still enrolled here on campus, and they’ve threatened me with expulsion if I speak out about it. But I can’t stay silent. I WON’T stay silent. Signing petitions to the Dean won’t do a damn bit of good because THE DEAN DOESN’T CARE.”

She nearly yelled the last bit to be heard over the growing din in the lecture hall. People were riled up. Mark Sanderson seemed to be trying to argue in rebuttal, but Judith refused to give up the microphone, and he was drowned out by the crowd noise. Judith continued.

“The administration is more concerned about keeping the alumni donors happy and the enrollment numbers up than actually fixing the problem. They want to just sweep you all under the rug. They only care about…”

The microphone cut out. Sanderson had left the stage, and I wondered if he had cut her mic. Judith continued talking, but I couldn’t hear much of it over the crowd noise, not from all the way in the back. The event began to break up. Some people formed into small groups and held impromptu discussions. Others filed out, some picking up WEAV literature on their way out. I began to leave, but someone tugged on my shirt before I reached the door. I turned to see the redheaded woman from the Brass Rail.

“Hey, thanks for showing up,” she said to me, “I wish more guys took this sort of thing seriously. Did your friend come with?”

“No, I don’t think she’s here,” I answered.

“Too bad. I would’ve liked to thank her in person. Hey, do you have a second? My friends and I were just discussing something… something you might be interested in.” She led me over to a group of four women and began introductions. “OK, so this is Cloe, Nikki, Jennifer, and Jean… and I just realized I don’t know your name.” It took me a moment to realize she was aiming that at me.

“Barry, I’m Barry Buetrero.”

“And I’m Tilly. It’s short for Matilda, but nobody calls me that. I was just telling them about how your friend came my rescue, so it was lucky timing bumping into you here.”

“I only just saw the notice at the Union,” I admitted, “so I almost didn’t attend.”

“Your friend helping me out… it got us thinking. We really do need to look after each other like that. It’s gotten dangerous out there. Public awareness campaigns and stacks of brochures aren’t going to cut it. We’ve decided to form a buddy system.”

“A buddy system,” I repeated, “like swimming at summer camp.”

“Exactly,” Tilly continued, “we pair up and look out for each other, keep tabs, make sure you have a ride home if you need it… that sort of thing. Of course that only helps the people who decide to participate, and there are far too many who don’t realize the danger or just don’t take it seriously. We need to do something for those women too. We need to step in when we see strangers in trouble, like your friend did.”

“We’re forming a volunteer group,” Nikki jumped in to explain, “a sort of neighborhood watch. We go to the bars and the house parties and watch for anything suspicious, then we call in the reinforcements if someone is in trouble.”

“So, you mean call campus security?” I asked.

“Oh God no,” Jennifer responded, “They won’t do anything until after the fact, except maybe bust the victim for drinking. We need to stop things before they go bad. Surround the person with enough other people that the creep just gives up and leaves.”

Tilly turned back to me and said, “this is why I was really hoping your friend would show up tonight. We could really use her help with this. Her and anyone else we can get.” Tilly looked at me expectantly.

“I’ll ask her,” I promised, “and if I can do anything…”

“Oh definitely,” she answered and began scribbling something on the back of a WEAV flier. She handed it to me and said, “That’s a private channel I’ve set up on the university chat server. We’re using it to coordinate things. I’ll post a schedule of patrols and ask for volunteers in the next couple of days. We can definitely use your help.” She smiled and gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Thanks Barry, we need more guys like you in this world.”

I wasn’t sure how I would manage it, not with all the Dee craziness piled on top of my hectic class load… but she seemed so genuinely grateful. How could I say no?

 

CHAPTER 10

The next two days were remarkably quiet and uneventful, all things considered. There was productive discussion on Tilly’s private chat channel, but the plan was still coming together, so it had not demanded a huge time commitment yet. I sent a text message to Dee asking how things were going, and she replied only with, ‘deep into it. be in touch.’ She finally called on Sunday.

“Hey Barry, can you meet me at the lair? I’d pick you up, but Martin is indisposed.”

It took me a moment to remember that Martin was her scooter. “Sure, I can be there within the hour,” I answered, “What’s up?”

“Just need your help with something. Details when you get here. Bye.”

Cryptic as always.

I set aside the software project I was working on and headed out the door. The 67 bus had a stop only two blocks from the factory, and would be able to catch the next one if I hurried.

Lost in my own thoughts while I walked from the bus stop, I didn’t notice the truck until I was practically at the entrance of the factory. It was a small, black, Chevy S-10 pick-up truck with a fiberglass cap on the back. The tailgate was open, and a long haired bearded fellow was unloading boxes from it. We both froze as we saw each other, stood staring at each other for a long moment, then the stranger spoke.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“Barry,” I replied, “and you?”

“Joe,” was all he answered. We stood there for another few seconds until he asked, “So why you here?”

“Dee asked me. Said she needed help with something.”

“Oh, OK then.” He nodded his head, then looked down at the box he was holding as if seeing it for the first time. He set it down next to the building with the other boxes he had already unloaded. He then walked up and offered his hand. “Hi, I’m Joe,” he said.

“Um, yeah… Barry… nice to meet you.”

“Watch out for the demons, Barry…. the demons with dead eyes will drag under.” He said it with the unconcerned casualness that one might warn against a high salt diet. Then he asked, “Do you know Dee?”

“Yes, for a few days now,” I answered. I felt like I was trapped in some sort of time loop.

“I’ve known her for years,” Joe shared, “She’s good people. Not like the demons. They’ll drag you under.”

“Um, so I’ve heard.” I looked desperately for a verbal exit. “Um, well, Dee is expecting me, so I’m going to head inside.” Joe just nodded and went back to unloading his truck. I made my escape and entered the factory.

The first thing I noticed was that the lights were on. The second thing I noticed was that it was no longer completely empty. An assortment of old sofas and chairs was arranged in one corner. Pieces of scrap lumber and in one case an entire door had been laid over cinder blocks to create ad hoc coffee tables. Two young children, a boy and girl no older than eight, were playing on one of the sofas. A woman with braided hair, probably in her late twenties to early thirties, sat in a chair near them. She appeared to be clipping coupons from an advertising circular. Given the resemblance, I assumed she was the mother.

Another sofa held a young man with long white blond hair. He was dressed mostly in denim with a lot of patches on both his jeans and jacket. He was stretched out on the sofa with his feet on one end and his long hair draped off the other. A young woman wearing a purple head scarf was sitting on the floor at that end of the sofa, braiding his hair. She was wearing ragged jeans and a black t-shirt with the words ‘Abby Normal’ emblazoned across it. Both looked to be in their late teens to early twenties. Two skateboards and a pair of backpacks leaned against the sofa.

A grease smudged Dee could be found nearby, working on her Vespa. The cover was removed from the engine compartment, and various components were arrayed on the floor around her. She looked up as I entered.

“Barry, you made it,” she happily announced.

“Of course,” I answered, “I said I would. Looks like you’re getting settled in.”

“Yeah, with a little help from my friends.” She got up and wiped her hands on her already grease stained t-shirt as she walk over. “Over there we have Ruth and her rug rats, Milo and Penny. I’m letting Ruth and the kids crash in one of the offices for a bit while she works through some, um, domestic challenges.” Ruth looked up, smiled, and waved to acknowledge the introduction, then went back to her coupon clipping. “The other two are Sebastian and Katie. I know them from way back. Practically the first people I met when Mom moved us here. I was just a total poser hanging at the skate park before they made me their skater padawan.”

“Don’t believe her,” Sebastian spoke up, “She had sick moves from day one.”

“I assume you met Joe on the way in,” Dee continued.

“Um, yeah, he’s… interesting,” I answered.

“Joe is a character all right. He’s sort of a local institution actually. Most people call him Homeless Joe, but he is just Joe as far as I’m concerned. I think he used to be an investment banker or something like that before having some sort of breakdown. He basically lives in his truck and spends his days in the park. The city has been really clamping down on overnight parking lately, so I told him he can park here. They won’t ticket or tow on private property. I asked him to come in and hang for a while, but he seems to have a phobia about buildings.”

“That’s nice of you,” I said, “letting him park here I mean.”

“Well, its not like it costs me anything, and he helped us haul the sofas, so it was only fair. Oh I should show you this.”

Dee led me over to another area of the factory. Four large exercise mats had been laid out on the floor. Each mat was about six foot by eight foot and had the name Health Adventures Fitness and Spa printed across them in gigantic letters. They were worn and faded and even patched with duct tape in a few spots. Someone had sown them together with a course hand stitch, effectively joining them into a single 12 by 16 foot mat.

Along the outer edges of the mats, someone had lined up a variety of random objects, some on the ground, others on top of cinder blocks or wooden crates. Odd bits of machinery, pieces of brick, a length of rebar… there seemed to be no pattern or sense to it. Then I noticed other objects arranged even farther away from the mats. An old retail store manikin missing one arm. A hat stand with a paper target attached to it. A full size cardboard figure of some almost recognizable celebrity holding a beer, only the beer had been drawn over with magic marker to instead be a gun.

“You like it?” she asked, “It’s my danger room.”

Before I could ask what she meant, she began a series of cartwheels and flips, picking up various small objects from the edge of the mat and tossing them as she spun through the air. A metal gear struck the remaining arm from the manikin. The paper target was shredded by a piece of brick. The cardboard cut-out wobbled as a piece of rebar perfectly clipped the the hand with the beer/gun. I could hear applause from the other side of the factory.

Dee made a bow toward the sofas, then said, “What I really need, though, is something that fights back. I was thinking bags of sand suspended from ropes that randomly swing in from the perimeter… or maybe rig something up with a tennis ball machine. I can’t keep asking Sebastian and Katie to just throw stuff at me.”

“Hey, it’s fine, we like throwing stuff at you,” I heard Katie yell from across the room.

Dee just laughed and shook her head. “We should probably get going actually,” she said to me. I expected her to walk to the scooter, but she headed outside instead. I followed along as she approached Homeless Joe and asked, “Hey Joe, can I borrow your truck now?” Joe tossed his keys to Dee without even looking up from the paper he was reading. “I’ll gas it up,” she promised.

I climbed into the passenger seat as Dee started up the S-10.

“Your friends seem nice,” I said as we pulled away.

“Actually, Sab and Kat are the only ones I’ve known for very long, and even then we’ve mostly only connected on the whole skater thing. I don’t think they really get what I’m trying to do right now. They probably think this is all just a big game, the hero thing, like grinding at the park. They think its cool and all… me making a dojo and going all kung fu theater… but they don’t really understand why I’m doing it.”

“And you think I do?”

“Yeah Barry, I think you do. You think I’m crazy for trying, but you get why I’m doing it. I scanned that about you right off, otherwise I would’ve never taken your phone number.”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Give it time. You just need to listen to yourself more.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I changed topics. “So, Ruth, her kids, Joe… what’s the story there?”

“Ruth is quite the saga. She was basically made homeless by her stalker psycho ex husband. He kept tracking her down and and causing chaos until she would get kicked out by the landlord or just leave so her ex wouldn’t know where to find her. He’s gotten her fired from jobs, screwed up her credit. She was living in a shelter, her kids too, when I met her. I used to spend a lot of time hanging in the park and got to know them there. Same with Joe. I got to know him at the park. He can seem a bit out there, but he’s OK.”

“Still, not everyone would do what you’ve done.” I meant it as a compliment.

“Yeah, a lot of people have this irrational fear of poor people, as if they must all be immoral or criminals or something. They act as if you could actually catch it from them… like reach out to a homeless person and you might become homeless yourself. It makes no freaking sense. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to let just anyone into my lair. Some people hit bottom because of really stupid and destructive behavior, and you just don’t want to get too close to that. It’s the lifeguard rule… you got to look after yourself before you can help someone else.”

“That doesn’t seem to fit with the whole superhero thing,” I answered without really thinking.

“Oh it’s not really a contradiction,” Dee assured me, “It’s not like I haven’t thought about the risks, Barry. I mean, all sorts of people have risky jobs… police, fire fighters, soldiers… but they do it anyway because they know how important it is.”

“And you really think you understand the dangers you are facing?” My thoughts drifted back to the altercation in the factory. To Red and his gun.

“Yes, Barry, I’ve really given this a lot of thought.” She sat quietly for a moment before continuing. “I know how high the stakes are. My jacket for example. Looks normal enough, doesn’t it? But its made from a carbon Kevlar composite, lighter and stronger than regular Kevlar. It’s actually designed to provide maximum protection in a motorcycle accident, but it effectively doubles as a bullet proof vest, especially after I sewed some extra layers into the lining. My riding goggles… they are industrial safety goggles from a specialty supplier in Denmark. The lenses are extremely impact resistant, and they are mounted in a nearly indestructible titanium alloy housing. Combine that with the layered carbon fiber crash helmet, and I’m actually better protected than the typical cop or soldier.”

“It seems you’ve thought this through,” I said with more conviction than I felt.

“Sure, but that is all just worst case planning. If I’m doing my job right, I should never need this stuff. I mean, look at the classic early comic heroes. The Shadow, The Green Hornet, even Batman… they grew out of the detective pulps. The heroes of those stories mostly solved things using their wits, not their fists. Case in point, our current mission… a bullet proof vest won’t help us much here.”

She pulled the truck to a stop in front of an understated brick house. It was a modest size but well kept and in a decent middle to upper class neighborhood. Dee set the parking brake as the engine chugged to a halt. She rested her hands back on the steering wheel and took a few deep breaths. Finally she turned to me and said, “OK, you ready?”

“I’m not so sure I…” but she was already climbing out of the truck and walking around to the front steps. I reluctantly followed.

“OK, so this is the mission and our cover story…” She bit her lip. “We are meeting my mother. You’re my boyfriend. OK, let’s go.”

She started up the steps to the door. I just stood there.

“I’m your what?”

 

CHAPTER 11

Dee was unlocking the door as I stood a few steps behind still processing her words. Her boyfriend? She couldn’t mean that in any literal sense. I mean, so far our relationship had been the definition of platonic if somewhat exhausting. I began to ask for clarification, but Dee was already on her way into the house. I hurried after.

“Mom, I’m home,” Dee shouted as she threw her jacket onto a nearby window seat.

I looked around. The house was as understated and well kept inside as it was outside. It was furnished in dark wood grains and richly patterned fabrics. The various surfaces and shelves were covered in vases, figurines, wood carvings… all nicely made but not overly ostentatious. The walls were covered in framed art work and photographs, the arrangement following no discernible pattern yet somehow still working together. As I scanned the room, a middle-aged woman entered. This could only be Dee’s mother. The resemblance was unmistakable.

“Ah, Diana, I wasn’t expecting you,” she said, “I thought you were moving into your new apartment today. If you had given me some warning, I could have prepared some lunch for you and your friend.”

“Oh Mom, stop with the mothering, you know I can feed myself,” Dee replied. Dee’s mother did not immediately answer but gave Dee an expectant look, then tilted her head slightly toward me. Dee got the clue. “Oh yeah. Mom, this is Barry. Barry… Mom.” Suddenly Dee was grabbing my arm and pulling me next to her. “He’s my boyfriend.”

“I’m so very pleased to meet you, Barry,” Dee’s mother proclaimed as she offered me her hand.

“Um, yes, hello,” I answered, “It’s really nice meeting you too Mrs…”

I suddenly realized I did not know Dee’s last name. What sort of boyfriend doesn’t know his girlfriend’s last name?

“It’s Mrs. Newell,” she volunteered, “I kept my married name. But feel free to call me Helen.”

We shook hands, Helen clasping both her hands around mine and giving it a gentle squeeze. It was like the handshake equivalent of a hug… warm, accepting, but not overly familiar. I felt myself smile despite my nervousness. For a moment I almost forgot the strangeness of the situation. Then Dee spoke.

“Barry is just helping me get a few things from my room. We won’t be long.” She was already on her way deeper into the house.

“You are welcome to stay as long as you like,” her mother replied. She then noticed Dee’s jacket on the window seat and gave a gentle sigh before scooping it up and hanging it on a peg by the door.

I hesitated a moment, unsure If I should continue talking to Dee’s mother or follow Dee to her room. Following Dee seemed the less stressful option, so I turned to catch up with her. That was when I really saw The Wall.

It was covered in award ribbons, and plaques, and pictures. Many, many pictures.

A very young Dee riding a horse.

Teenage Dee at an academic competition.

Dee in rock climbing gear, clinging to a cliff face.

Adolescent Dee at a science fair, standing in front of a large chart and several glass containers.

Dee with a bow and arrow, an intense look of concentration as she draws the arrow back.

A pre-teen Dee dancing in a ballet recital.

An even younger Dee fighting in some sort of martial arts competition.

Dee on a balance beam, doing gymnastics.

There was also a glass walled case filled with trophies. The awards denoted an astonishing number of first place wins and only the occasional second or third place. I found myself trying to match every picture to a related ribbon or plaque or trophy.

“She was always good at everything she tried,” Helen said from behind me, “she just never seems able to stick with any one thing for very long.” There was an odd mix of pride and concern in her voice.

“Oh wonderful,” an exasperated Dee declared as she reemerged from her room, “you’ve discovered The Great Wall of Embarrassment.” In her arms she carried a box nearly filled to overflowing with paperback books.

“Oh Diana, stop,” Helen insisted, “a mother has a right to be proud of her daughter.”

“But do you have to pick the most god awful pictures of me?” she countered, “I mean, look at that hideous one from my ballerina phase.” She turned to me and in an exaggerated stage whisper said, “I think it’s really just blackmail material. This is how she’ll keep me from sticking her in a rest home when she gets all old and decrepit.”

I barely stifled a laugh. Helen gave an exaggerated sigh and answered by saying, “After all I’ve done for her over the years, this is the thanks I get.” Her serious tone was betrayed by the amusement in her eyes. It felt like they were treading in well worn verbal paths. There was definite affection in their wordplay, but also a note of tension.

“She would just toss all her trophies in the rubbish bin if I let her,” Dee’s mother continued, “If she finds herself one more hobby, I’ll have to add an extension to the house.”

“Oh here it comes,” Dee replied, “the whole ‘you never stick with anything’ speech.”

“That’s not true, I wasn’t going to say that,” her mother insisted, “I just wish you had more direction is all. You seem so restless.”

“You just can’t get over me dropping out of college, can you.”

Helen sighed again, this time with less amusement. “Let’s not have this argument again just now,” she insisted, “We have a guest after all.”

Dee started to say something, then seemed to reconsider. Finally she said, “this box is getting heavy,” and headed for the door, deftly opening it with one hand even as she cradled the box in her arms. She was outside before I realized I should probably be helping her.

“I just don’t know how to talk to her anymore,” Helen said, more to herself than to me.

“It’s not always easy,” I stammered, “talking to the people you love, I mean.” I wasn’t sure how helpful that was, but it was all I could think to say.

“And do you love my daughter, Barry?”

“She’s amazing,” I responded. It was an honest statement, though not strictly answering the question.

“I’m glad you see it,” she replied, “She seems determined to hide it from most people.”

Our conversation was interrupted by Dee reentering the house. “OK, enough slacking off,” she announced, “let’s get to it, Barry.” I followed her to her room.

If The Wall was a glimpse into Dee through her mother’s eyes, then the bedroom was a dive directly into Dee’s psyche. Where The Wall was an orderly display of her accomplishments, her room was a chaotic mish-mash of her passions. It took several moments before the sensory overload died down enough that I could begin processing it.

The first thing I noticed was the posters. And the magazine clippings. And drawings. And sheet music. And countless other items covering every square inch of the walls. There seemed to be no unifying theme. A giant picture of Einstein shared a wall with a map of Antarctica and a classic ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ movie poster. A periodic table of the elements was overlapped with a pictures of an outdoor concert interspersed with circuit diagrams.

The contents of the shelves was equally varied. A copy of ‘Godel, Escher, Bach’ was sandwiched in between an anthology of classic science fiction stories and a compendium of European rock stars. A book on police forensic procedures leaned against a complete works of William Shakespeare. A menagerie of bizarre clay sculptures perched atop a haphazard stack of comic books. An assortment of tea mugs sat on a toolbox. A soldering iron dangled from its power cord where it was wrapped around the neck of a stuffed penguin. My eyes came to rest on the only picture of Dee in the room. It was a framed snapshot of her as a teenage girl giving a hug to an enormous man in army fatigues.

“My dad,” she said when she saw where my gaze had landed. “I miss him a lot, sometimes.” She plopped down onto her bed, pulled her knees up to her chin, and stared at the picture. I couldn’t help but wondered if he had died in some military conflict, but I didn’t know how to ask such a question. As if reading my thoughts, she said, “My parents divorced a few years ago.”

“That’s rough,” was all I could think to answer as I sat next to her.

“Would have been worse if I’d been younger, I suppose. I mean, I get that it wasn’t about me. I’m not even sure it was about Mom really. Something was changed in him when he came back from the Gulf. Something was broken.” She was silent for a while, then said, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

“Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms,” I spoke without thinking. Then I remembered the rest of the quote. But those that will not break it kills.

“Iraq broke my father,” she continued, “but he wasn’t stronger for it. It killed something inside of him. He stayed broken.”

Silence lingered as I searched for something to say. “Healing can take a long time,” I finally said, “but people do heal, eventually. We don’t stay broken forever.” I tried to fill the words with conviction, even though I wasn’t sure I really believed it myself.

“I hope so,” Dee answered, “I really do hope you’re right. He deserves so much better. He was always so strong. Strong and brave and full of hope. He came back from that damn war all… hollowed out.” Her voice trembled with suppressed emotion.

It effected me more than I expected. My vision grew blurry, then snapped back to clarity as a tear broke loose from my eye and fled down my cheek. I tried to pretend it hadn’t happened and hoped Dee didn’t notice, but she smiled and reached up, wiping it from my face with her thumb.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, “It’s just empathy, Barry. It’s your superpower.”

 

CHAPTER 12

“My superpower…” I repeated, a note of derision in my voice.

“Yes Barry, your superpower,” she asserted, “We all have them, to some extent. Most people just choose not to develop them is all. Like I said before, its not all laser vision and flying and stuff like that. Its about taking our normal abilities to their maximum potential. It takes a lot of dedication, but more than that, it takes belief. That’s the part most people have a problem with. Believing.”

“You don’t seem to have that problem.”

“It wasn’t always like that. It took me a while to recognize the truth. My mom says I lack direction, but that really isn’t true anymore. I spent years going through my ‘phases’… becoming obsessed with some activity and getting as good as I could, then getting bored with it and moving on. For a long time I didn’t know why. I thought it was a flaw, like Attention Deficit Disorder or something. Then I realized, I was in training. My whole life I’ve been in training for this job, I just didn’t know it.”

“So that is your superpower, then… learning things quickly.”

“That’s part of it. It runs deeper though. You saw it in action that night at the bar.”

My memory drifted back to that night. “The, manager. He thought you were staff.”

“Yup. That sort of thing happens to me all the time. It started when I was a teenager. I would be in the hardware store and some stranger would walk up to me and start asking me where stuff was, like I was working there. Same thing in the grocery store. My Dad was the first to really put it together. He joked that my superhero name would be I-Work-Here Girl.”

“And you really consider that a superpower?” I asked.

“Hey, it’s more powerful than you might expect,” she assured me, “It got me the lair after all. I mean, I basically just walked into the courthouse and started asking questions. Oh I made some effort to look the part, but still, it should not have been that easy to unravel the conspiracy. People just accepted me. They talked to me like I was just some new employee. Heck, they nearly talked my ear off, and I didn’t even use a magic lasso.”

“But is that really a superpower?” I asked, “It could just be how you carry yourself… you know, confident, like you’re supposed to be there.”

“How does that make it not a superpower?” she answered. “I never said there was anything supernatural about it. I suspect many undercover cops and government spies have the same ability. Most people don’t call it a superpower, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t one.”

I didn’t know quite how to respond to that. There was a sort of logic to it, though it was definitely stretching the definition of superpower. It left a very blurry line between a superpower and just being good at something. My thoughts raced in circles until coming back around to an earlier point of our conversation.

“So… empathy… that is a superpower?” I asked.

“It can be,” she answered confidently, “if you allow it to be. It’s no small thing, being able to empathize. You might be surprised at how many people aren’t good at it. But when you really empathize, really put yourself into someone else’s shoes, it can give you deep insight into their motivations… into the truth of a situation. That can be extremely powerful.”

“And you think I have that.”

“More than most, yes,” she assured me, “and I think you can develop it. It’s why I need you on the team, Barry. I’m really good at being accepted by people but not really at connecting with them. I have empathy in an abstract sense but not always in a really individual sense.”

“I have a hard time believing that,” I answered.

“Oh I’m no sociopath, but it is a weak spot for me. I tend to hold myself at a distance from people, even the ones I consider friends.”

“You don’t feel so distant to me.”

“I’m making an effort with you, Barry, because I need to. I need someone I trust. Someone like you. I’ve found purpose, but I don’t think that always translates into direction. I need a compass. I need someone with empathy.”

“And evidently today you needed a boyfriend,” I quipped.

“Yeah, sorry about that,” Dee apologized, “My mom has been all over me about coming out of my shell and having a real social life. I’ve been worried she plans to fix me up with the son of a friend of hers. Thanks for helping me stop that in its tracks.”

“Um, anytime, I guess.” Strangely, I felt both a bit relieved and mildly disappointed at the explanation. “So if I’m not your boyfriend, what am I exactly? Your sidekick?”

Dee smiled. “Maybe you’re my Alfred,” she answered.

“What, you mean Batman’s butler? I’m not sure I like the sound of that.”

“Alfred was much more than Bruce Wayne’s butler. He was a confidant, a mentor, a moral compass… Well, at least if you read the right stories. Maybe you prefer Jarvis.”

“I don’t see being compared to Iron Man’s robot as much better,” I responded.

“He wasn’t a robot in the original comics,” she said as she rolled her eyes, “I really need to lend you my collection. It’s obvious your literary knowledge has some major gaps in it.”

“How about I just be your friend, and we leave it at that.”

Dee reached over and squeezed my hand. “It’s a good start,” she said, “and speaking of starts, we should probably get started on this room. I want to get back to the lair before Katie and Sebastian turn it into a skate park.”

 

 

  • * *

 

 

We spent the next hour packing up most of Dee’s room. We didn’t take any of the furniture, but pretty much everything else that wasn’t nailed down found its way into the truck. Mrs Newell served us tea and cookies and little sandwiches despite Dee’s insistence that it was not necessary. Every time I came close to finishing my tea, she refilled the cup and asked me another question. The conversation was all polite and friendly enough, but I began to suspect this was a parental interrogation. Dee’s mother was trying to find out all she could about the guy supposedly dating her daughter. I answered truthfully about who I was, what I was doing in college, but was more circumspect about my relationship with Dee. It seemed clear that Dee had not shared her new superhero occupation with her mother, and even the lair had been reduced to an ‘apartment’ when she spoke of moving. I didn’t actually ever lie to Mrs Newell, but I definitely left out lots of details of my time with her daughter.

Finally we finished up, said our goodbyes, and got back on the road. We rode together in silence for a while, then I remembered something I had been meaning to bring up.

“So I went to this thing on campus the other day,” I began, “It was about sexual assault, about creating an awareness program and… stuff like that.”

“Yeah, I think I heard about that,” Dee replied.

“I ran into someone there. That woman from the Rail. The one you helped.”

“Interesting,” was all she said.

“She’s putting together a group. Sort of a roaming neighborhood watch,” I explained, “She asked that I extend an invitation. They would really like your help.”

“I’m not much of joiner, Barry. I prefer doing things my own way.”

“So I’ve learned,” I replied, “but I promised I’d mention it.”

“OK, message received.” Dee sat silently for a moment, then asked, “So are you going to help with this neighborhood watch thing?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. I’m not sure about the whole going on patrol thing, but I feel like I should help somehow.”

“Well, just be careful. Remember, you’re not a superhero.”

I turned, prepared to comment on the irony of that statement, but then noticed the tightness of her lips as she attempted to suppress a smile. “OK, now you’re just stealing my lines,” I said.

Dee did not answer, but her smile grew slightly. We rode on in silence. Visiting her mother had left Dee in a different mood than usual. Contemplative? Wistful? I couldn’t tell, and my supposed empathic superpower was no help.

We finally arrived back at the factory. Dee returned the truck keys to Homeless Joe, and all three of us began unloading the truck. Joe, still unwilling to enter the building, took his load only as far as the front door.

We entered to find Sebastian and Katie riding their skateboards around the far end of the factory. Katie was slaloming around support columns at a dizzying speed. Sebastian raced toward a tower of cardboard boxes. He crouched on his board while holding one of the manikin arms out like a medieval jousting lance, fishtailing to a stop and waving the manikin arm over his head in victory after knocking over the box tower. He noticed us at the door, waved the manikin arm at us, then skated in our direction, followed quickly by Katie.

“How’d it go?” Sebastian asked as he slid to a stop in front of us.

“Mission accomplished,” Dee assured them, “all objectives met.”

“Ruth and the rugrats went out for while,” Katie informed us, then she scooped up one of the boxes that Joe had left near the door. “Where should we go with this?” she asked.

“The far office,” Dee answered, “I’m going to set up in there.”

Katie set the box on her skateboard and gave it a shove in the direction of the office, then walked next to it and guided it to its destination.

“Isn’t she the clever one,” Sebastian commented, then grabbed a box and did the same.

“You’re welcome to stay a while,” Dee said to me as we each carried a load toward the office.

“For a while,” I answered, “but I’ll have to get back soon. I’ve got a project I really need to finish.”

“Understood. School comes first. Just know that you are always welcome here, for as long as you want.”

“Thanks,” was all I could think to say.

With all of us working together, we made short work of unpacking the truck. I hung around for a while after that, probably a little longer than I meant to actually. We all lounged on the sofas, and I mostly listened while Katie, Sebastian, and Dee reminisced. Eventually I caught the 67 bus back home then dove immediately back into coding. Dee had insisted that school should come first, and in all honestly I did have plenty of school projects I should be focusing on.

This project wasn’t one of them.

 

CHAPTER 13

I stayed up late working on my software project, then overslept and missed my morning class. I stumbled through the rest of my day, then rushed back to my dorm room to put some finishing touches on the software. Tilly’s neighborhood watch was scheduled to begin patrolling that night, and I wanted to have my code done before that. Caught up in a fevered cycle of tweaking and testing, I ran out the door later than I intended. Afternoon was giving way to evening by the time I knocked on Tilly’s dorm room door.

“Barry, I’m glad you could make it,” Tilly exclaimed as she let me in.

“Sorry I’m late,” I apologized, “I got really wrapped up in something.” I looked around and realized Cloe was the only other person there.

“Everyone else is already out on patrol,” she explained, “We stayed behind to take calls and coordinate. There’s a couple of zones not covered yet, so you’re not too late to help.”

“Oh good,” I answered, though in truth the idea of going out on patrol did not fill me with enthusiasm. “I really wanted to get here sooner,” I said, “I’ve got something for the whole group.” I pulled out my phone and brought up the application I had just developed. Tilly and Cloe looked on with curiosity. “It’s a specialized geo-tracking app,” I explained, “It uses GPS to keep track of your location and report it to a server, then other people using the same app can see where you are. It can show the location on a map, or you can tap this button and use it like a compass that always points toward the person you are trying to locate.”

“Way cool,” Cloe exclaimed. “May I?” she asked as she reached tentatively toward the phone. I nodded and handed it over. “What’s this button do?” She tapped several times at the large red button labeled ‘Panic’.

“That sends a call for help to all the other watch members. It sends out a text message, and your dot will show up red on the map. Not much to see until we get the app installed on a few more phones.”

“OK, let’s do that,” Tilly suggested as she pulled out her phone. It looked like a newer Samsung.

“I’ve got a free Android version already in the app store, just search for GeoWatcher. I’ll also have an iPhone version soon, but their app store takes forever to accept new apps.”

Tilly tapped at her phone for a bit. “OK, I’ve got it installed, but now its prompting me for a user name and password.”

“Should be the same as your account on the university chat server,” I explained, “The phones will sign into it and then send messages to each other over a private channel.”

“Yeah, that’s it,” she confirmed after tapping at her phone some more. “Look, there you are.” She held up her phone. It was displaying a map of the campus. A red dot with the label ‘Barry’ hovering over it, blinked insistently. Cloe toggled the panic button off, and the dot stopped blinking and turned blue. The ‘Barry’ label was now nearly unreadable as it was superimposed with another label saying ‘Tilly’.

“It’s still beta software,” I cautioned, “so don’t be surprised if it’s a bit buggy.”

“No, this is great,” Tilly assured me, “I’ll blast a message out to the rest of the team and tell them to download it right away.”

“While she’s doing that, how about I get you your patrol route,” Cloe suggested. She dug through the papers on Tilly’s desk and handed me two pages. “You have your choice of two. Either Drunkard’s Walk or The River Path.”

I looked at the two printed maps and thought about it. The River Path was a winding paved strip that followed the river just north of campus. It wasn’t well lit and thus not much used late at night. Drunkard’s Walk, on the other hand, was the unofficial name for a route many students followed between campus and a cluster of bars to the east. It followed city streets, but with a higher number of intoxicated students on it, the likelihood of someone being victimized might actually be higher. I decided that was the one to pick.

“OK, cool,” Cloe said as I handed the other map back, “I’m afraid we don’t have anyone to buddy you with. Are you OK with walking this one alone?”

“Um, yeah sure,” I answered, hoping my hesitation was not obvious. Why was I even nervous? I had walked the Drunkard’s Walk by myself before and never considered it dangerous. I said my goodbyes and then headed out.

 

 

  • * *

 

 

The Drunkard’s Walk wound mostly through residential areas, tracing a zigzagging path between the campus and a cluster of bars east and a bit north. It wasn’t really a single path, offering multiple step-shaped routes through a grid of city streets, but people tended to follow Tulliver Avenue for most of the east/west portion of the route, so that is where I invested most of my time.

It was on my third time heading east on Tulliver that I saw them. They were walking west on the opposite side of the street, two guys and a young woman, all seeming a bit intoxicated, but the woman especially so. She clung to one of her companions like a drowning person clutching a life preserver. I couldn’t be certain there was anything really bad about the situation, but then again I couldn’t be sure there wasn’t either, so I decided to keep an eye on them for a little while. I waited until they had gone a ways past me, then casually crossed the street and circled around to follow them from a discrete distance.

They continued west for a couple more blocks before turning south onto a cross street. I reached the corner and turned south also just as they were turning west again. They walked a couple more blocks then turned north again.

Were they lost?

I decided to turn north a block early so it wouldn’t be obvious I was following them. I got back to Tulliver and looked west, expecting to see them appear at the next intersection.

Nothing.

I waited a minute. Still nothing. I started walking west, picking up the pace as I worried I might lose them. Had they gone into a house? Cut down an alley maybe? I was almost to the end of the block when I got my answer. They stepped out from behind a van and blocked my path.

“Hey, why the hell you following us?” one of the guys demanded.

Had I really been that obvious? “I wasn’t… I swear,” I stammered.

“Bullshit,” the other guy insisted, “You looking for trouble or something? ‘cuz you definitely found it.”

“No really, I’m just on my way home.” I started to feel a bit strange. Lightheaded. My skin tingled. I felt like there wasn’t enough oxygen in the air I was breathing. Is this what a panic attack feels like? Why did I suddenly feel so detached?

“Guys, this is really boring,” the woman declared, “Just leave the geek alone. I want to get home.” She teetered, then grabbed the side mirror of the van to keep from falling over.

I looked at the three of them. They were about my age or perhaps a bit older. The woman had dark hair. Her skin and bone structure hinted at a middle eastern ethnicity, but her voice had a slightly Hispanic accent. One of the guys had curly dark hair and the other flat brown, but otherwise they looked like your basic frat-boy jocks. Well, except for their eyes. There was something more intense about their eyes.

They wore matching jackets. Yeah, definitely a fraternity. It was odd though… the jackets had English letters on them instead of Greek. Flaming letters. HdF.

 

Hermanos del Fuego.

 

Oh crap.

Oh crap oh crap oh crap. I had managed to follow and piss off gang members. Honest to god drug dealing gang members. I am such an idiot.

But they don’t look Hispanic. I almost started giggling hysterically at the absurdity of that observation. So they were an equal opportunity gang… a regular melting pot for the criminal element. Shame on me for letting their Spanish name and my own ethnic bias color my expectations. I should apologize for that. How did Dee describe them? More interested in making a profit that busting heads, or something like that.

I don’t think these guys got that memo.

I had to say something. Make them understand. “Hey I’m really sorry. This is all just a big misunderstanding, really.”

They weren’t buying it. Curly Hair stepped up and gave me a shove. I caught my foot on part of the pavement and went down. My cell phone flew from my coat pocket and slid a few feet down the sidewalk. I looked up to see Curly shaking his head and grinning, as if he couldn’t believe how pathetic I was. I looked back at my phone and saw my geo-tracker app on the screen. I saw the panic button.

Panic.

Yes, that about summed up the state of things. I reached out to press the button, but Curly jumped forward and brought his foot down on my phone. I winced as I heard the display crack. He stepped back and chuckled at the results.

“You really picked the wrong people to mess with, you know that?” He didn’t sound angry. More like concerned. Maybe a bit amused. But there was still violence in his words. An inevitability about the what was to come, like it was a duty he had to perform. I began to realize there was no talking my way out of this.

As I picked up my phone and climbed to my feet, I realized what I had to do. The only thing I could do.

 

I turned and ran.

 

CHAPTER 14

I heard laughing and yelling behind me as they gave chase. My feet seemed to barely touch the pavement as I flew east. If I could just get clear of these sleepy residential streets and into the bustle of bars and restaurants at the other end of Drunkard’s Walk, I would be safe. And I was doing it. I could hear them falling farther behind.

And then I fell.

My foot hit some loose gravel, the remains of a poorly patched pothole, and my legs shot out from under me. My pursuers quickly reached my prone form. One of them grabbed my jacket by the shoulder and yanked me to my feet.

“Stand up and take it like a man you fucking coward,” he shouted. It was the one with flat, brown hair. Curly was a few paces behind him.

Take it like man. That never made sense to me. Why should I be required to measure my worth based on my capacity to take or dish out violence? Isn’t it long past time that we evolve beyond such primitive instincts? I briefly imagined engaging these two in a conversation regarding contemporary gender roles within our current social context. I didn’t expect that would go well, and I nearly laughed at the prospect.

“Oh look, jackrabbit here thinks this is funny,” Curly observed. He punched me in the gut to show his disapproval.

“This really is a misunderstanding,” I managed to gasp. Curly prepared to hit me again but was shoved aside by BrownHair. Brown cracked his knuckles theatrically. His fist seemed to raise in slow motion. A strange roaring noise filled my ears.

Suddenly, Brown was sprawled on the grass. The roaring noise was gone, and Curly was staring past me in stunned silence. I turned and looked.

 

It was Dee.

She was wearing her full Superhero ensemble. The motorcycle jacket, goggles, helmet, fingerless gloves, even her gray and black body stocking. She stood with one foot on the ground and one on her skateboard. I now realized the roaring noise had been the sound of her skateboard approaching. The overhead street lights reflected off her goggles as she nodded a greeting. She then turned to Curly and said, “Pick on someone your own species.”

Curly seemed uncertain how to respond at first, then countered with, “keep your nose out a’ our business, bitch.”

Brown groaned as he got up, rubbing the side of his head. “What the hell hit me?” he asked. I didn’t have an answer for him, though it must have been something thrown by Dee. Thrown with impossible accuracy while she was hurtling toward us on her skateboard. Unbelievable.

Brown looked at Dee and began to realize what had happened. His confusion gave way to cold rage, and he immediately went on the attack. “You fucking bitch,” he shouted as he hurtled toward her.

Dee just stood there impassively as he closed the distance. He threw his weight behind a punch aimed squarely at her face. Dee’s foot stabbed down, catching the end of her skateboard. It flipped into the air, and she deftly caught it then thrust it forward as a shield. Brown’s fist cracked into underside of the board. Dee had planted her feet and leaned into the punch, so it was like striking a solid wall. Brown leaped back with a howl. He stared at his bleeding knuckles with an almost comical look of surprise.

“Cut your losses,” Dee advised, “I can do this all night.”

That seemed to just enrage Brown even more. He came at Dee again, swinging away with both fists despite his obvious injury. Dee parried and dodged, sometimes blocking with her board, sometimes using an arm, steadily giving ground as she did. Suddenly she jumped back, did a back-flip, kicking Brown in the chin as she did. As Brown staggered back, she wound up and threw the skateboard in my direction. It spun through the air like Captain America’s shield, missing me and thudding into a target behind me. I turned to see Curly on the ground, clutching his stomach and gasping for breath. The skateboard landed on its wheels and rolled a few feet into the street.

I’m not sure what Curly had been about to do to warrant Dee’s attention, but I suspect I had just been rescued yet again. I put some distance between me and Curly.

I looked back toward Dee just in time to see Brown charge right at her. Dee ducked under it and flipped him over her shoulder. He sprawled into the road. Now Curly was up and again and rejoining the fight. He ran toward Dee only to jump back, barely avoiding a snap-kick to the head. Brown got back to his feet, and now Dee was being attacked from two sides. They kept coming at her, trying to hit her at the same time.

And yet she was holding her own. She took a couple hits to her helmet and the back of her jacket, but mostly she avoided or blocked everything they threw at her. It was like in the factory. She danced. There was no music this time, but it was the same frenetic, bouncing style as before. Like break dancing mixed with karate. It was amazing.

She grabbed Curly by the wrist as he tried to hit her, and suddenly he was flying past her and smashing into Brown. Now she was facing both of them at the same time. They probably should have circled and tried to attack from different directions again, but rage had evidently replaced any thought of tactics. Dee blocked everything they threw at her.

“Like I said, guys, I can do this all night.” She grinned as she said it. They seemed to take her unconcerned attitude as an insult and redoubled their efforts. Dee gave a bit of ground but still they couldn’t lay a hand on her.

Then disaster struck. I saw it a moment before it happened but couldn’t warn her fast enough. She stepped backwards but lost her balance when her foot landed on her skateboard instead of the pavement. Curly seized the opportunity and plowed into her. He pinned her to the ground, using all of his weight to hold her arms in place. He grunted as she got a knee into his groin, but he held on. Dee tried to force him off, but she couldn’t seem to get the leverage she needed. Brown stepped up and made like he meant to kick her in the head.

I needed to do something. I didn’t know what, but I definitely couldn’t just stand there and do nothing. A dozen different thoughts ricocheted around my brain. I should try to tackle Brown. Or maybe punch him. Or call the police. No, my phone was broken, and that would take too long anyway. She just needed an opening… a moment to get free.

Then I had it. In the lowest, loudest voice I could summon, I shouted, “This is the police. GET ON THE GROUND NOW!”

Brown looked up, saw it was me, and just started laughing, but at least it delayed his kick. The real payoff, however, was with Curly. He turned to see who had shouted and in doing so released the pressure from Dee’s right arm. Her hand disappeared into a jacket pocket. Seeing no cop, Curly turned back to Dee and tried to pin her arm back down, but the damage was done. A moment later he screamed and sprawled onto the pavement, twitching. A second later, Dee kicked her legs into the air, converting their momentum into a flip that landed her back onto her feet. She then calmly put Mister Zappy back in her pocket. She turned to Brown.

Rage contorted his face. “Let’s finish this,” he hissed.

“If you insist,” Dee replied. Her foot snapped out and caught him in stomach. He doubled over, and the flat of her hand caught him on the nose as he fell forward. He collapsed to the ground, his hands held to his face and his knees pulled up to chest. “I really didn’t want to hurt you,” she said, “Why couldn’t you just get a clue and give up?” She actually sounded… apologetic.

Curly rolled to his side and saw the state of his companion. He started to get up, then looked up at Dee and laid back on the ground. He had a confused look on his face.

Dee turned to me. “Let’s get out of here. I told them I could do this all night, but frankly I’m not in the mood.” She walked over to her skateboard, flipped it into the air with her foot, then grabbed it and tucked it under her arm.

“Time for coffee?” I asked her.

“Definitely,” she replied.

 

CHAPTER 15

We started walking east. A route 45 bus stop was only a few blocks away, and then it would be just a short ride to the Intergalactic. “I really need to put Martin back together,” she mused.

“Want any help with that?” I asked. I spared a glance over my shoulder to see if Brown or Curly were pursuing. They weren’t.

“Sure. You any good with a socket wrench?”

“I know which end to hold,” I assured her. I looked back again. Both gang members were on their feet but were heading the other way. “They were never any real threat to you, were they,” I stated.

“Not really. Well.. they wouldn’t have been if I wasn’t tripping over my own damn board. I was holding back most of the time. Probably not a good idea I suppose, but I really don’t want to start a feud with the Hermanos.”

A siren began to sound in the distance, and I worried that our activities might have attracted police attention. “Maybe we should pick up the pace,” I suggested. Dee nodded, and we hurried to the bus stop, then decided to play it safe and headed north to the next stop. The gods of mass transit smiled on us, and a bus pulled up a minute later. Twenty minutes after that we were sitting in the bean bag room of the Intergalactic, sipping steaming mugs of cold brewed coffee.

“I was lucky you showed up when you did,” I admitted to Dee, “things could have gone… really badly.”

“Yeah, well it wasn’t all luck,” she replied, “I got your location from your friend Tilly. That phone app of yours is really cool by the way.”

“So you saw Tilly tonight?”

“Yes. I thought I’d give this neighborhood watch thing a try.”

“You didn’t seem very enthusiastic about it when I first mentioned it. You shot it down pretty quick, actually. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember mentioning Tilly’s name.”

“She wasn’t difficult to track down.” Dee grinned at me over her coffee. “In case you hadn’t noticed, Barry, I have skills.”

“I’ve noticed.” My mind replayed the the fight. Dee taking on and defeating two enraged brutes nearly twice her size. “That fighting style of yours. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“It’s sort of my own thing. A mish-mash of several styles really. Mostly Capoeira but with some Judo, Karate, and Tae Kwon Do mixed in.”

“I don’t think I know that first one,” I admitted, “What did you call it? Cap-ware-ah?”

“It’s a martial art developed centuries ago by Brazilian slaves. The slaves on the sugarcane plantations weren’t allowed to practice fighting, so they disguised their practice as dancing. It developed into a kick ass fighting style and helped the slaves win their freedom.”

“That’s wild. I can’t believe I’ve never heard of that.”

“It’s been in some movies, and if you’ve ever played any of the Street Fighter video games, you’ve seen it.”

“I’ve never been much in to fighting games,” I admitted.

“It was the first style I learned. My Dad was stationed in Germany for a while, and I saw this guy practicing near the base housing. Turns out he was a friend of my Dad, so I pestered him endlessly until he agreed to teach me. I didn’t even realize it was about fighting until I was three lessons in. I was only eight years old I think.”

“So you’re some sort of black belt?”

“It’s not measured that way… but I’m pretty good I think. I’m sure my Mom has hung a ribbon or plaque or something on The Wall. I’ve learned a few other fighting styles, but I keep coming back to Capoeira. I just love the rhythm of it.”

“It was wild, that’s for certain,” I said.

“Yeah, well, I’m glad I got there when I did, but I’m a bit surprised really. You haven’t exactly been the biggest advocate of the hero lifestyle, and yet here I find you taking on drug dealers. What’s that about?”

“That wasn’t my plan,” I insisted, “I was just observing, but then it sort of went off the rails.”

“It can be difficult,” she suggested, “observing something without influencing it.” She seemed thoughtful for a moment. “I wonder if Heisenberg was ever in a neighborhood watch.”

“Wow… from martial arts to quantum mechanics. You’re giving me mental whiplash.” I quipped.

“Yeah, well hang on, the ride’s not over. You into table top gaming?”

“Uh, yeah… some. Card games mostly, but some board games too.” This really was a sudden turn in the conversation.

“Cool. Meet me back here tomorrow for game night.”

“Yeah… I think I can do that,” The words were out before I really thought about it. I began mentally reviewing my homework list and considered a retraction. The geo-tracker app had consumed more time than expected, leaving me something of a homework backlog.

“OK, see you here around seven. The Intergalactic lets us bring in snacks, but you still need to pay for beverages.”

“Seven… got it… I think I can make that.” Yes, I could make it, if I blew off my Computer Architecture homework. “I’m not sure how late I can stay, though.”

“Don’t worry, we’ll start with something short, and you can eject after the first game. Mostly we just need to meet someone.” She leaned in close. “It’s mission related,” she whispered.

“I’ll be there,” I promised.

My memory rewound through the events of the evening, and I wondered why I kept agreeing to be drawn deeper into Dee’s strange hero delusion. But tonight’s fiasco wasn’t Dee’s fault… Tilly’s neighborhood watch was its own thing, and I’d made my own decisions in agreeing to help out. I made my own mistakes.

But would I have agreed to help Tilly before I met Dee? Was some part of me actually trying to live up to her hero ideal? I don’t know. I like to think I’m a good person, that I would do the right thing regardless, but looking back, I have to admit I’ve spent a lot of my life just keeping my head down and trying to not get noticed. That seems to have changed lately.

These thoughts meandered through my mind as I sat there, sipping coffee and chatting with Dee. Our cups gradually emptied and the evening wound down. Finally we left. Dee sped off on her skateboard, and I caught a bus back to campus.

I laid awake for another couple hours while my caffeine buzz slowly dissipated. Eventually I drifted off into fitful dreams of being chased. Something dark and frightening was behind me. I ran, but again I stumbled. The shadowy creature loomed. I held up my hands as if to ward off a blow, and suddenly light exploded between us. Shadow melted from the creature, leaving a slender human figure in its place.

It was Dee.

I looked at my hands. A strange bluish-white fire seemed to burn in the palms of my hands. I looked from my hands to Dee. She smiled.

“It’s just empathy, Barry. It’s your superpower.”

 

CHAPTER 16

The persistent droning of my alarm eventually roused me from my troubled sleep. I punished it with a few smacks to its snooze button but eventually got up. I managed to drag myself to my first class on time, but paying attention to the lecture proved to be a considerable challenge. I drifted between nearly falling asleep and thinking about the previous night. When the class finally ended, I dragged myself to the Student Union and grabbed a late breakfast including a large mug of hot black tea. It was no Intergalactic cold brew, but it seemed to help get my neurons firing.

Jake walked up to my table just as I was finishing my breakfast.

“Hey, Barry, haven’t seen you around the dorm lately. Is that hotty of yours keeping you out past your bedtime?” He punched my shoulder playfully.

“It’s not like that, Jake. Well… OK, yes, I’ve been spending time with Dee, but she’s not just some ‘hotty’.” Jake’s juvenile banter was annoying me more than usual today.

“Hey, no need to get so serious, dude,” he replied as he pulled up a chair, “If you’ve got, like, a real thing going with this chick, I’m happy for you and all.”

I started to object, explain that Dee and I were just friends, but stopped. ‘Friends’ didn’t fully capture the complexity of the situation. And Jake wouldn’t understand anyway. His views on male/female relationships never seemed to rise beyond the carnal. I decided to let it drop. Instead, I just said, “yeah, sorry. I’m just a bit wiped… been pretty busy lately.”

“No probs dude, just don’t forget we have study group again tomorrow night.”

“Sure, I’ll be there,” I assured him.

“Awesome. Bring your Theory notes. I need to copy yesterday’s lecture. Oh, and don’t be afraid to bring your squeeze around… she’s totally cool.”

“Yeah, I’ll tell her you said that.” I tried to imagine Dee’s reaction to being described as my ‘squeeze’.

“Cool. Say… does she have any friends? Like… hot single friends?”

With an extreme effort of will, I manage to not roll my eyes. “I haven’t met any of her single friends,” I insisted. OK, maybe that wasn’t technically true. Ruth was probably single, but I doubt she would have much interest in someone like Jake, and I wasn’t particularly in the mood to pimp Dee’s friends to him anyway.

“Well, never hurts to ask,” Jake replied, “It’s all about networking, you know what I mean? You have to be constantly expanding those social connections… opening up opportunities.”

I just nodded. This was not the first time Jake had share this philosophy. Heck, he had nearly declared as an art major just to expand his chances to meet women. I slurped down the last of my tea and stood up. “Well, I’ve got to get going. See you at study group,” I promised, and headed on to my next class.

The rest the school day seemed to fly past. I ended my last class a few hours before I was due to meet Dee at the Intergalactic, so I swung back to the dorms to clean up and change clothes. While there, I remembered Dee saying something about snacks. We could bring in snacks but not beverages. Did that mean I should bring snacks, or was it optional? Would it be rude to show up empty handed? I decided to take no chances and stop at the store on the way there.

Rupino’s Market is a great little grocery store. Big enough to have everything you might want, yet locally owned so it has more personality and charm than your typical chain store. It is within walking distance of the campus as well as one of the nicer residential neighborhoods. The owners really know their customers and have managed to stock a decent balance of specialty foods for their upper middle income shoppers while still offering low cost staples for the local college crowd. I drifted through the extensive snack aisle, looking at bags of vegan whole grain chips and gluten free crackers and two-for-one student saver specials on generic chips. I finally decided on an inexpensive bag of pretzels and a jar of mustard. Less greasy than chips and a better value by weight. Plus I love mustard. Honestly, the pretzel is just a vehicle for the mustard, so I went cheap on the pretzel and then spent a bit more for a decent brown mustard. Happy with my choice, I headed to the checkout.

Rupina’s has so far managed to avoid adding self checkout machines. As much as I love technology, I was actually rather happy about this. A lot of students have to work their way through college, and Rupina’s is one of the better local employers. They pay better than minimum wage and treat their people well, so the staff tends to stick around and are pretty good at their jobs. Of course there is still some turnover. This is a college town, so young workers often move on to bigger and better things.

That said, I was a bit surprised to see a new face working the checkout. Most of the turnover inevitably happens closer to graduation, and it was still around mid-semester. This young woman was definitely new to the job. She seemed to know her way around the cash register and scanning equipment, but there was a tentativeness about how she handled it. Still, she was scanning things through at a brisk enough pace, and always had a smile and friendly word for each customer. Her name tag identified her as ‘Winna’.

The line inched forward, and she began scanning the items of the guy just ahead of me. Several items in, the scanner gave a distressed beep. She scanned it again. Same beep. She peered at the the display on her register.

“I’m sorry, this might take a minute,” she said as she punched at the register’s membrane keypad. She scanned the item again. Same beep. The customer gave an exasperated sigh. She tried entering the UPC number manually. Same result. “I’m really sorry,” she apologized again, then reached behind the machine and power cycled it. I watched as it rebooted, curious if I could spot what operating system it was running. It flashed to a company logo before giving me any clue.

“I can’t believe this fucking bullshit,” the customer grumbled. I was a bit surprised by this burst of profanity, but said nothing. Everyone has a bad day now and again.

The machine finished booting, and she scanned the item again, but again the machine complained.

“Gawd almighty, can we just get someone who knows how to do her fucking job over here?” the guy complained. Winna was visibly upset by this, but managed to stay professional.

“I am very sorry, sir,” she insisted, then turned and called over to the customer service desk, “I need a price check on three.”

The store manager Gretchen came over from the service desk and looked at the offending item, a can with a smiling person made of pasta on its label. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of anthropomorphizing food. It’s just creepy. I mean, who wants to eat something that looks like a person? Gretchen was not disturbed by this cannibalistic imagery, however, and wandered off toward the canned goods aisle in search of a price.

“This is just ridiculous,” the guy continued complaining. I got a good look at him as he turned to watch Gretchen engaged in her price checking mission. He was middle aged, a stout build, slightly overweight. He had graying brown hair and a well trimmed beard and mustache. His clothing was casual and nondescript. He was the sort of person who might blend into any crowd, but right now he stood out. It was like he was painted in sharper colors than all the other figures on a painting. His agitated state seemed to radiate away from him in waves.

“I don’t know what the world’s coming to these day,” he grumbled, “people coming in fresh off the boat, not knowing how to do a lick of work. Nobody seeming to care about service or quality any more. My pap was right. The world is sliding to hell.”

I tried to make sense of his complaint, but there didn’t seem to be any. Did he think Winna was a recent immigrant? Granted, her complexion was a bit darker than average, and her features perhaps hinted at Polynesian ancestry, but her accent was strictly local. Besides, immigrant or not, she was doing just fine at her job as far as I could tell.

“It will just be a moment now,” she said as Gretchen returned. Gretchen circled around and joined Winna at the register and began poking at the membrane keyboard.

“I’ll need to enter a manager override,” she explained, “that error code means its not in the inventory, so you need to do a manual price but also add the UPC.” Winna nodded and watched as Gretchen finished punching in all the data.

“Is this going to take all fricken day?” the customer fumed.

Gretchen frowned briefly, but then forced a smile onto her face and said, “I’m all done here, sir. Winna can finish checking you out now. Sorry about the delay.”

The guy rolled his eyes and said, “You gonna leave her on my register? Can’t you finish it?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I’ve really got to get back to the service desk. But I am sure everything will be fine now.”

“Yeah, well it would be if you hired people who can do their damn jobs properly.”

I had been growing increasing annoyed with this guy, and this last bit must have sent me over the top. Suddenly I found myself saying, “Oh come on, she didn’t do anything wrong. It was the machine causing the problems.”

“Who asked you?” he said, as if my interjection was somehow shocking behavior and his extended tantrum was not. In all honestly, I was a bit surprised at myself, but I charged ahead anyway.

“I’m just saying it wasn’t her fault, these things just happen. How about you cut her some slack.”

“Gawd almighty, its people like you and your low standards that are bringing this country down. If I had done that sort of shoddy work in my pap’s shop, he would’ve tanned my hide.” He then paid and left without further comment.

Winna scanned my two items. I paid, and as she handed me change she quietly said, “Thank you.”

“No problem,” I answered, “It really wasn’t your fault.”

“I know I shouldn’t let it bother me. Difficult customers just comes with the job, right? But everyone’s been so nice until now, it sort of caught me off guard.”

“Well, hang in there. I think you are doing just fine,” I assured her. She nodded and smiled and moved on to the next customer.

I left the store and began heading toward the nearby bus stop. My path took me past someone loading groceries into the back of a station wagon. I noticed at the last moment that it was the difficult customer. Rather than suddenly change course, I looked off toward the bus stop and pretended to not see him. Unfortunately, he did not return the favor.

“Hey, you there. Nice of you to stick your nose in where it’s not needed.”

I stopped. I don’t know why, but I did. Maybe because it felt rude not to answer a person, and I had really had my fill of rude behavior. “It really wasn’t her fault, you know. I just didn’t want her getting into trouble just because you were in a bad mood.”

“Don’t you tell me about my own damn mood,” he yelled. His face was actually turning red.

“Hey, no need to get upset. I just mean… I’m sure you’re a nice person and all… I just meant…” What did I mean? I was beginning to suspect nothing I said was going to defuse this situation.

How had I managed this? Less than a day since pissing off drug dealers, and I was about to get in a fight at the grocery store of all places. It was very unlikely Dee would ride to my rescue this time. I felt a now familiar tingly sensation over my skin, a weird sense of being disconnected from events and my own body. I looked at the belligerent guy in front of me. He was ranting about something. Something about my generation and work ethic and how things were different when he was my age. He was at least twice my age. And yet, he looked… younger… somehow. I looked at his eyes. His face. It held anger that was edged with an incongruous hint of panic. He was like a child. An angry, afraid child. His tirade rolled on, but the individual words sailed over me, unheard. I suddenly realized I was speaking.

 

“He can’t hurt you anymore.”

 

“What did you say?” He seemed as surprised by my statement as I was.

Nevertheless, I repeated it. “He can’t hurt you anymore.”

The guy took a step back. A look of confusion, perhaps even shock, on his face. “Why… What do you…” then he fell silent. He reached up and rubbed at one of his eyes. He leaned against his car, looked into the distance, and seemed to hold his breath for a moment. He started to shake. He clamped his hand over his mouth, and the tremors grew stronger. I feared he was having a heart attack.

“Hey, are you OK?” I asked.

He nodded, but then his hand fell from his mouth, and an agonized sob slipped out. He slid to the ground, his back still against his station wagon, and began weeping. He buried his head in his hands and cried, and his pain was so raw and urgent, I nearly cried with him. I started to reach for him, wanting to offer to help somehow, but at the same time I was reluctant to intrude on his pain. He saw my hand, and waved me away. I didn’t know how to respond, so I just turned and hurried toward the bus stop. When I reached it, I looked back and saw him finally rise to his feet, close the back of the station wagon, and climb behind the wheel. He did not immediately start his car.

He was still sitting there when the bus finally came and carried me away.

 

CHAPTER 17

The bus was halfway to the Intergalactic when reality seemed to snap back into place. My strange disconnected feeling dissipated. Suddenly the sounds around me seemed to gain volume and clarity, as if I had previously been listening through a closed door that was now open.

What the hell just happened?

I mentally played back the events in the parking lot and tried to make sense of them. A panic attack… that might explain my disconnected feeling. And I just happened to encounter a guy on the edge of an emotional break down. And the strange thing I had said was… I have no idea where that came from.

I tried to remember what the guy had been saying at the time, what I was thinking, but it came up blank. Its not that I couldn’t remember. I think my mind was literally blank during that weird fugue state, just soaking up impressions and not trying to actively process them. At least that’s how I seem to remember it. I wondered if Zen meditation feels like that.

I kept thinking about it, trying to recall details, trying to make sense of it all, but getting nowhere. We finally pulled up to the stop near the Intergalactic, so I mentally shelved the topic and got off the bus. Walking into the café, I looked for Dee and eventually found her at a long table in the back. She was sitting with Katie, Sebastian, and a young man of Asian ancestry… probably Japanese if I had to guess.

“Barry. Perfect timing,” she greeted as I approached, “we were just trying to pick a game.” A pile of board games and card decks was arrayed in front of them.

“Cool. What do you have?” I set down the bag of pretzels and began looking over the games. A couple of D&D style dungeon crawlers, several card games including classic Magic and a couple of different Munchkin decks, some sort of tile game about a sinking island, and a Firefly themed Monopoly game.

“You know Kate and Sab already, but I don’t think you’ve met Pocky.” Dee nodded toward the young Japanese guy.

“Hi, nice to meet you,” he said as we shook hands, “It’s actually Tatsuya, but I’m cool with Pocky. We’ve all agreed we should start with something short with a simple rule system. Forbidden Island would be perfect, but it maxes out at four players.”

“Munchkin can have up to six,” I suggested, “more if we combine decks.”

“We might have two more joining us, so that’s probably the way to go,” Katie agreed.

After a bit of debate, we combined the Star Munchkin and Munchkin Fu decks for a sci-fi / kung fu mash-up of the hilarious card game. We ended up using some of my pretzels for scoring tokens, which worked fine until Sebastian absentmindedly ate half his tokens. It was decided by overwhelming vote that he could not replace those lost points, which immediately plunged him from first to last place. I was then briefly in the lead until Dee won a hand with a well timed Mook card. The artwork was so reminiscent of the muscle bound minion that had accosted me at school, I couldn’t help but start laughing. My reaction might have seemed incongruous if all of us weren’t already laughing so much. Munchkin is just like that.

Before we finished the game, two more people joined us, a young man and woman. Dee jumped up and introduced them.

“Barry, meet DualCore, the best hacking duo this side of, well… anywhere.”

“Hi Barry,” the young woman responded, “I’m Elizabeth… Elizabeth Claremont. This is my brother Brian.”

“Really, Liz?” Dee exclaimed, “you’re just going to open with your secret identities?”

Elizabeth rolled her eyes but smiled as she replied. “Dee, I had honestly forgotten about your silly name for us.”

“Don’t believe her,” Brian insisted, “I caught her using that handle on a DarkNet forum just last week.” Liz jabbed her brother with an elbow but did not deny the allegation.

We offered to deal them in to our Munchkin game and even spot them a few points, but they insisted we finish our game before they join in. As we played the remainder of our game, Elizabeth and Brian pulled out their tablet computers and arranged themselves at the end of the table. I caught myself watching them from the corner of my eye. Then I found myself staring outright. I began to understand why Dee had named them ‘DualCore’.

Liz and Brian each had their own computer, but a third tablet sat between them. They each tapped and swiped at their own screen with one hand while simultaneously manipulating the middle tablet with the other hand. It was like watching ballet. Their hands danced across the screens, seemingly coordinating their motions, somehow never colliding on the middle tablet. Brian made a swiping motion that seemed to slide an icon from his tablet, off the edge of the screen, and onto the middle tablet. Liz grabbed the icon before it stopped moving, expanded it into a window, then dragged something from her tablet and dropped it on that window. This went on for while, each perfectly synchronizing their motions with the other, neither saying a word. I only stopped watching because the card game demanded my attention.

Our game finally ended with a surprising come-from-behind victory by Pocky as he surged ahead to 10 points. We then all ceremoniously ate our point tokens and invited Liz and Brian to join us in a new game.

“Actually, we need to talk to Dee about something first,” Brian said, “Mind if we borrow her for a few minutes?” Dee pulled me along as we accompanied DualCore to a different table. Sebastian, Kate, and Pocky were already starting a game of Forbidden Island as we left.

“So, dig up any gold for me with your data mining?” Dee asked.

“Yeah, we’ve something for you,” Liz replied, “but I think we need to show you something else first.” Brian was tapping at his tablet and turning it toward Dee even before his sister finished speaking.

“Look like anyone you know?” he asked.

A full screen video was playing, obviously shot from a phone. I recognized the scene immediately. Dee using her skateboard like Captain America’s shield. Dee simultaneously fighting two thugs nearly twice her size. Dee finally defeating both ruffians with almost casual ease. The title of the video was ‘Real Life Superhero?’

“Holy. Crap.” I exclaimed, a bit more loudly than I intended.

“It’s got almost half a million views on Youtube already with no sign of slowing down,” Brian said, “and the comment section is going nuts. People speculating if it is real or not. People asking who it is. Nobody’s identified you, though some people have at least guessed the right city.”

“Oh look,” Liz interrupted, “hashtag RealLifeSuperhero is trending on twitter.” She turned her tablet to display a list of tweets.”

“And you’ve even got your own sub-reddit… who-is-goggles-girl,” Brian added.

“Goggles Girl?” Dee grabbed Brian’s tablet to look at the reddit forum. She scanned the page and then shoved it back in disgust. “My hero name is NOT Goggles Girl.”

“Um, who was it told me that society picks the hero’s name, not the hero?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I veto Goggles Girl,” Dee insisted, then turning back to Brian and Liz, “This is unacceptable. I want it stricken from the Internet. You can do that… I know how good you are.”

“Now Dee, that is not really practical,” Brian insisted.

“Oh I don’t know,” Liz countered, “I can think of several potential vectors into the reddit infrastructure. Heck, a social engineering approach aimed at…” She fell silent when she noticed her brother glaring at her.

“This is a disaster,” I moaned, “With everything going on with the factory and these Hillsburrow people, the last thing we need is this kind of attention.”

“Oh quit your worrying,” Dee responded, “nothing will come of it. The video was obviously shot through a window using a cheap phone. You can’t even really see our faces. By tomorrow it will be forgotten and cat videos will rule the Interweb once again.”

“I really hope you’re right,” was all I could think to reply.

“Trust me, Barry, it’s going to be fine.” Then she turned back to Brian and Liz and said, “OK, so now back to business. What have you got for me?”

Liz answered first. “Quite a lot actually. We started with that Hillsburrow outfit. Thin results at first. It’s a privately held investment group, so not much public paper trail. Few media hits, either in trad-med or on-line. Dug deeper… did a Lexis Nexis search, sifted court records, turned up some links to other companies including some obvious shell corporations and offshore tax dodges.”

“That’s when it got interesting,” Brian interjected. “We took the few links we could find and cross referenced them against a massive list of money transfers that was leaked to the Internet last year.”

“You might remember that from the news,” said Liz, “It inspired a big New York Times piece on corporate tax cheats.”

“Right. That’s what gave us the idea,” Brian continued, “We took court records from the resulting Justice Department probe, combined them with that big database of money transfers, mix in a bit of transaction pattern analysis, and we managed to reconstruct the corporate hierarchy.”

“And right at the center of the spider web… The Freedom Birthright Foundation.” Liz gestured theatrically as she recited it, as if pointing out the name etched on some grand edifice. “Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? I’ll be darned if I can tell what it actually does, though. Ostensibly it is a non-profit think tank intended to promote freedom and justice and hugs for cuddly puppies and whatever… but considering all the money it soaks up in donations from corporations and wealthy patrons, it does surprisingly little. Mostly it just puts out the occasional white paper or editorial.”

“The trail goes a bit cold after that”, Brian elaborated, “but one name finally emerged from the murk… Alexander Siegleshust. He seems to be the driving force behind the foundation. He’s a relatively reclusive billionaire industrialist. Energy, real estate, pharmaceuticals, even agro-business… He’s not the biggest name in any of those, but he’s got his hands in a lot of different pies. Hillsburrow Capital Investments is just one of them.”

“Our villain?” Dee asked, a gleam coming into her eye.

“Yeah, probably,” Brian answered, “though he’s managed to stay pretty clean as far as the law or the news media is concerned. An IRS audit. Some allegations of environmental violations. All resolved rather quickly. On paper this guy is nearly squeeky clean.”

“Sure, on paper…” Liz’s voice betrayed disdain. “Dig a bit, and you find he has his tentacles into all sorts of dark crevices. If it pillages the planet for profit, this guy is on board.”

Brian nodded his agreement. “The best example is from last year, and it’s the only substantial media piece we’ve got on him. It seems Siegleshust has majority ownership in an energy corporation planning to mine methane hydrates from the ocean floor. He was briefly in the news when some university professor published a paper suggesting the plan might have, shall we say, negative consequences.”

"That's an understatement," Liz insisted, "she said it might kick off global warming on steroids. You see, methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and there is huge amounts of it on the ocean floor, frozen by the extreme cold and pressure. This guy's plan is to pump warm water down onto the hydrate deposits, melt them, than capture the methane gas using big tent like things on the surface. The company published their own research showing a better than 99% capture rate, claiming it would add almost nothing to the greenhouse effect."

“But the research did not include any analysis of possible changes to ocean currents,” Brian continued, “So this professor Gwen Simonson from CalTech took a look at it. Using Siegleshust’s own research data as a starting point, she built a simulation. It showed warm surface water migrating to hydrate deposits outside the collection field, and worst of all, it was a self sustaining feedback loop. The problem would persist and grow over time even if hydrate mining was discontinued. The result was a climate change nightmare scenario.”

Liz again picked up the narration. “Her paper made a bit of a stir when it first came out, and there was even some talk of a ban on hydrate mining until there could be more research on the issue. But then a bunch of leaked emails came out, supposedly showing bias and possibly even fraud in Simonson’s work. The Freedom Birthright Foundation broke the story claiming they received it from an anonymous source. Professor Simonson insisted the emails were faked, that Siegleshust was trying to discredit her to protect his business. The university did a big investigation. There was a third party audit of the email system to try and verify the authenticity of the emails. Ultimately the results were inconclusive, but it pretty much destroyed the professor’s reputation anyway. She was eventually forced out of her research position and now teaches at a community college upstate. It didn’t help her case that she repeatedly accused Alexander Siegleshust of being behind the whole thing. The media played it like she was a conspiracy nut.”

“Yeah, they pretty much shredded her,” Brian agreed.

“Personally, I think she was probably right. Everything about the professor’s history shows her to be a totally by the book scientist. This Siegleshust character, on the other hand, smells fishy as hell. He’s a master of dodging blame and avoiding regulations… setting up shell corporations to take the fall for violations, letting them go bankrupt after all the profits have already been sucked out… that sort of thing. I don’t think a few fake emails would be out of character. Honestly, this guy is just one white cat and a monocle away from being a supervillain.”

As Liz spoke that last word, I could see a subtle change infuse Dee. She had been listening intently up to this point, but now I could sense the gears spinning furiously in her head. A new level of seriousness and purpose seemed to settle over her.

“This guy has to be stopped,” she finally spoke.

“All we have is allegations,” Brian reminded her, “just rumors, really.”

“Then I guess our next step is to dig up some real proof,” she countered. Brian and Elizabeth both nodded as if this made perfect sense to them.

I just sat there silently. The situation had inexplicably expanded into something much larger than a bit of local government corruption over back room real estate deals. I felt like I was on a runaway train, one in which all the other passengers were blissfully unaware of the danger they were in. I looked at Dee… the intensity with which she was now discussing things with DualCore. She actually seemed… happy.

Dee had found her Nemesis, and I feared there was now no hope of saving her from her superhero delusion.

 

CHAPTER 18

The rest of the night was comparatively uneventful. We eventually returned to the game table and dove into a seven player Munchkin marathon. It was fun, but I couldn’t seem to immerse myself as fully as before. My mind kept wandering to thoughts of global conspiracies and criminal masterminds and dangers that your average college student should have no part of. Dee seemed to notice my distracted behavior and cast a slightly concerned look my direction, silently asking what was wrong. I just smiled and shrugged, trying to indicate that everything was fine.

We wrapped up the last hand near midnight, said our goodbyes to each other, and headed our separate ways. Dee walked with me to the bus stop.

“Spill it, Barry… what’s bugging you?” she asked.

“Oh nothing really, just…” I wasn’t sure how to express my concerns… how totally in over our heads I feared we were. “It’s all a bit much, don’t you think?” I finally said.

“Well, yes, it is. But the really big problems don’t fix themselves. That’s why people like us have to step up.”

“People like us? Like what… superheroes? Dee, maybe you really are a superhero. Hell, the things you’ve done… I don’t know what to think. I just know I’m not a hero, super or otherwise. It’s just too much, I think.”

Dee was silent for a while. I sat there, looking at her, wishing my supposed empathic powers could tell me what she was thinking. But all I got from her was a feeling of concern, which was likely just body language, or maybe even just my imagination.

My thoughts spun back to the grocery store, to the events in the parking lot. I thought about telling Dee, but I hesitated. Maybe I feared it would just feed her superhero complex. Or maybe I just feared finding out what it really meant. Whatever the reason, I remained silent until Dee spoke again.

“I haven’t really been fair to you, have I Barry,” she stated. “I mean, I just dragged you into all this without ever asking if you were OK with it.”

“I’m an adult,” I assured her, “I made my own decisions. I could have left any time.”

“You still could,” she said quietly.

There it was. The exit. The escape hatch I had contemplated taking so many times. And Dee was holding the door open for me. I took a deep breath before answering.

“I’m not going anywhere,” I promised, and I realized I meant it. “I’m just not sure how much help I can really be.”

Dee took my hand, squeezed it, and smiled. “I wish you had half as much confidence in yourself as I have in you,” she said. I didn’t know how to respond to that. Dee seemed to collect her thoughts. She took a breath, and continued. “You know, it wasn’t just chance, us meeting at the Union,” she said. “There were other… candidates. None measured up. I chose you for a reason, and I haven’t regretted it.”

That admission stunned me. I had always assumed our first meeting in the student union was a chance encounter, that all the subsequent misadventures were just ripples spreading out from that first random stone in the pond. I began to wrestle with the ramifications, what it meant to the nature of Dee’s hero delusion and my place in it. I began groping for words, searching for a response. Searching for questions. Before I could find them, my bus rolled up.

“You should go,” she said, “the next bus is in half an hour.”

I just nodded and let my hand slip from hers, then climbed onto the bus. Lost in thought, I barely remembered to show the driver my student bus pass. I took a seat, and immediately turned to the window.

Dee was already on her skateboard, receding into the distance.

 

CHAPTER 19

The next few days passed in a blur of academic normality. It was something of a relief, actually. I was not accosted by drug dealers or corporate thugs. My mind was not occupied with local government corruption or mysterious global conspiracies. I dug into my backlog of homework and quickly found myself happily buried in matters more mundane.

That changed when the weekend arrived. Unsurprisingly, it started with a Friday afternoon call from Dee.

“Hey Barry, dust off the suit. We’ve got a mission.”

“I’m actually in the middle of something at the moment.” I looked at circuit diagram of my current project and realized I would actually welcome a break from it.

“Don’t worry, I don’t mean now. How does tomorrow look for you? Feel like a road trip?”

“Sure… I guess… um where?”

“Just a couple of hours north. Wear comfy traveling clothes, but bring your suit… maybe an extra casual outfit too. I’ll pick you up in the Quad around 9AM tomorrow.”

“Sure I can do that, but what exactly are…”

She cut me off and said, “Sorry, gotta run… talk to you tomorrow,” then hung up. A stared at the phone for a few more seconds before finally setting it down and returning to my circuit diagram.

I’d spent the last few days catching up on my homework, patching a few bugs in the geo-locater app, and even spending another night on patrol with Tilly’s neighborhood watch… which was thankfully much less eventful than my first attempt. Having caught up in areas both academic and altruistic, I was now working on a personal project, something for Dee actually. I thought briefly about trying to finish in time to show it to her tomorrow, but even if I had all the parts, It would take an all-nighter. I reluctantly set it aside and instead grabbed a late dinner from the cafeteria, then came home and read through my Theory of Computing notes before crashing for the night.

Dee showed up ten minutes after 9AM. She called to me from the passenger seat of Homeless Joe’s truck.

“Barry, jump in, we have to get moving.” She slid to the middle, making room for me. It was a bit cramped since she had to angle her legs to avoid the stick shift.

“Hi Joe,” I greeted our driver. He just nodded at me in reply. “So, um, a two hour road trip…” I said, letting a my unfinished sentence become a question.

“Yeah, don’t worry, it won’t all be this cramped,” Dee replied, “Joe’s just taking us as far as the train station. I was going to take us on Martin, but I only just got him put back together, and I didn’t want to leave him chained at the train station overnight.

“Overnight?” I responded, the surprise evident in my voice.

“Yeah the train to and from Evensville runs only twice a day, and we’ll have missed the last return train by the time we finish there. Don’t worry, we’ve got a place to stay lined up. Here, I thought you might need this.” She handed me a travel toothbrush still in its plastic retail packaging. It was orange and white, and the brush part could be folded neatly into the handle. I stared at it mutely for several long seconds before dropping it in my backpack.

“So what’s in Evensville?” I finally asked.

“Professor Simonson,” Dee answered, “she teaches at the Evensville Community College. I’ve lined up a meeting with her. We need to hear her side of the story from her own lips.”

“OK,” was all I said. I considered mentioning that she could have told me all this yesterday, but for some reason I held back.

The trip to the intra-city train station did not take long, giving us little time for further conversation. Dee and Joe made smalltalk. It was the most I had heard Joe speak since I met him. His usually guarded behavior was noticeably lessened when dealing with Dee.

Our train was already boarding when we arrived, but Dee already had our tickets, so all was good. We thanked Joe, grabbed our respective backpacks, and climbed aboard. The train was at best half full, so we easily found an empty pair of seats.

“Ahhh, leg room, how I’ve missed you,” Dee exclaimed as she stretched out in the over padded seat.”

“Yeah, this isn’t bad,” I said as I reclined the seat slightly, “not nearly as cramped as an airline seat at least.”

“The trains in Europe are better. Faster. On time. Go more places. Still, I really love riding a train, no matter what country I’m in.”

We chatted a while about trains, and she told me about trips she had taken when she was young, living in various countries around the world. I almost didn’t notice when the train started moving.

“I wasn’t expecting this,” I said at one point, “you mentioned a road trip, so I was thinking we would literally be on the road, not the rails.”

“Well that was the original plan,” she admitted, “and borrowing Joe’s truck for the entire trip would have got us home sooner, but I didn’t think that was fair to him. Besides, I couldn’t pass up the excuse for a train ride.” She really did seem happy about it. “Here, have some breakfast.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a pair of breakfast bars, handing me one.

“Thanks.” I tore into the bar without hesitation. I had woke up later than intended, leaving myself no time for breakfast at the cafeteria before meeting Dee.

“If we were riding in a sleeper, we would get free breakfast in the dining car,” she said around bites of her own bar, “lunch and dinner too. Its one of the best parts of riding the train, the dining car. The food is way better than airline gruel, not five star mind you, but decent. The best part, though, is the conversations. They fill every table, so you get to meet new people, talk about why you are traveling. I’ve always loved that part.” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a pair of apples. “If we weren’t on a such tight budget, I would have totally sprung for the dining car.”

“So, about that budget… how much does superheroing pay? Where should I submit my expense reports?” I was obviously joking, but I really was curious how she financed her activities.

“So far, it mostly pays in leftover Vietnamese food,” she answered, “I’m basically surviving on the remains of my college fund. My dad gave me a chunk of money when I graduated high school. He didn’t actually say I had to spend it all on college, but I think it was sort of understood. Mom’s actually the one that gives me the most grief over it though. I suppose I’ll have to get a second job at some point. Then at least maybe I can outfit the lair properly.”

“And you could buy a car,” I suggested, “your very own batmobile for road-tripping in style.”

Dee smiled. “Sure. With smoke screens and oil slicks and all sorts of James Bond goodies.”

“Oh, of course,” I agreed, “and the ejector seat option… and it has to double as a submarine.”

We both laughed, and the conversation devolved into a sort of game. We took turns describing what crazy gadgets we would invest in, how we might deck out the lair if we had unlimited funds. The minutes flew past, stretching into hours, and before we knew it we were pulling into the Evensville station. We joined the shambling mass of disembarking passengers, then found a quiet corner of the station lobby to discuss our next steps.

“Well, the college isn’t far from here,” Dee informed me, “I suggest we get changed in the station restrooms and then walk there. Meet you back here in five.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I replied, then shouldered my backpack and headed for the men’s room. Once there, I used an unoccupied stall as a changing room, then checked myself in the bathroom mirror. The suit had suffered a few wrinkles while riding in my backpack but otherwise looked good. I emerged from the restroom and was surprised to find Dee waiting for me.

It wasn’t just that she had gotten back first… it was that she had accomplished such an amazing transformation in even less time. She wore the same glasses as her lawyer persona, and the rest of the outfit was similarly conservative, but the skirt and uncomfortable shoes had been traded in for a pantsuit and flats. Her hair was pulled back into a bun. She again looked years older, but this time she looked less like a hotshot lawyer and more like a government bureaucrat.

“You look amazing,” I told her as I approached.

“You don’t look so bad yourself,” she replied, “though I think it needs one more thing.” She tossed me a leather billfold. I flipped it open. One half displayed an official looking federal government ID for a Harold Gardner. The other half held a badge emblazoned with ‘Department of Justice’ and ‘Special Agent’. The picture on the ID was my college yearbook head shot.

I stared at it, trying to wrap my brain around what I was looking at. I looked up.

 

Dee winked, and said, “OK, Agent Gardner… let’s get to work.”

 

CHAPTER 20

Before I could answer, Dee strode toward the exit. I tucked the badge in my pocket and hurried after. We were outside and heading down the sidewalk before I totally caught up.

“Um, so what’s with the badge?” I asked.

“Oh come on, Barry, you don’t really think the prof is just going to spill her guts to any random schmoes that walk in off the street, do you?”

“She might. Heck, she might welcome the chance to vent about it.”

“Or she might be very reluctant to talk considering everything she’s already gone through and what it cost her,” Dee countered.

“Still… impersonating a federal agent? Isn’t that a felony?”

Dee grinned as she looked sidelong at me. “Only if we get caught, and I’ve got contingencies planned if that happens. Everything is going to be fine.”

“I wish I had your confidence.”

Dee stopped walking and faced me. “Barry, don’t worry. This is what I do. You can keep your badge hidden away. Hell, don’t even speak if you don’t want to, let me do all the talking. Just nod and look stern. Glower. You can glower right?”

I didn’t answer, but my face must have shown my discomfort with the situation.

“Yes, exactly,” Dee exclaimed, “THAT is a glower.”

“Dee, if I don’t need to talk, why did you even bring me?”

“It’s more important that you listen. When the professor answers our questions, I need you to really listen to her. But if you do talk, don’t call me Dee. I’m Agent Jillian Marston. She pulled out and flipped open her own badge and ID.

“This just seems… risky,” I stated.

“Risk can’t be avoided,” she countered, “not in the hero business. We can reduce it, plan for it, but never completely eliminate it.” She continued walking as if this completely addressed my concerns and the matter was settled.

I walked with her, and we soon reached the campus. We entered the Applied Sciences and Technology building, climbed the stairs up to the third floor, and approached Professor Simonson’s office. The door was open.

“Just follow my lead,” Dee whispered to me as she walked up and rapped on door jamb.

A middle aged woman sat at a desk that occupied most of the small office. She appeared to be grading papers. She didn’t stop when Dee knocked but just said, “With you in a minute,” and continued marking up the page she was on. Dee and I waited silently until she finally looked up.

“Professor Simonson? I’m agent Marston,” Dee introduced herself, “We spoke on the phone last Thursday. This is my partner, Agent Gardner.” I nodded my head in greeting but said nothing. “I was hoping we could continue our conversation in person.”

A tired look settled over her, but the professor waved us into her office and motioned toward two threadbare chairs on the opposite side of her desk. As we settled down, she reached over and shoved her office door, letting it slam shut with surprising force. Then she sat silently for a moment, staring at the stack of papers on her desk. A muscle in her jaw twitched slightly. The silence stretched awkwardly, and I sensed that Dee was about to speak, but then the professor beat her to it.

“I would really rather just put all this behind me,” she said.

“I can certainly understand that,” Dee replied, “but as I mentioned on the phone, I think maybe you can help us with a related case.”

“On the phone you mentioned something about money laundering?”

“Yes. Of course I can’t provide any details regarding an ongoing investigation, but let’s just say new evidence has come up that lends credibility to some, um, allegations you made last year.”

“You mean about Siegleshust.” The professor’s expression darkened as she said the name.

“I can’t confirm that,” Dee said, though the corner of her mouth twitched up in a subtle smile that said otherwise. “I can tell you we are investigating a number of parties. Wealthy individuals involved in banking, international finance, and… the energy industry.”

Simonson nodded her head as if this confirmed her suspicions. “What do you need from me?”

“Background mostly. I’ve read the case file, but if you could walk me through the events of last year, tell us about your work at CalTech and the controversy surrounding it, that would be a big help.”

“I’m not so sure I can be much help. I mean, I was very vocal about this stuff at the time. I don’t really have anything new to add.”

“You never know. Sometimes details are lost when things get boiled down into a written report. Sometimes innocuous details have new meaning when seen in the light of new context. Just tell the tail. Tell it like it’s the first time. Like I don’t know anything about it.”

“Well, how much do you know about the work I did at CalTech?” the professor asked.

“Climatology… something about ocean currents, right?”

“Yes. Specifically, I was studying thermohaline circulation. I wasn’t directly studying anthropogenic climate change… global warming… but my research was often incorporated into larger models. I was cited on a fair number of papers that got more attention than my own. I laid the groundwork for some of the carbon feedback loop discoveries now making news.” There was a note of pride in her voice as she said this.

“Feedback loops… like from melting methane hydrates?” Dee prompted.

“Well, that’s a potential one, yes, though it wasn’t my initial focus. I was mainly examining how changing ocean currents might effect the larger climate… polar ice loss, albedo reduction, loss of permafrost. That sort of thing. It was an email from a colleague that got me onto the methane hydrate thing. He had been approached by this energy consortium to do a private study on the feasibility of hydrate mining but turned it down because of the NDA requirement… the Non-Disclosure Agreement. He offered it to me, but I rejected it for the same reason. I mean, its not really science if your have to keep the results secret, right?”

“Does that happen often,” Dee asked, “privately funded climate research?”

“No, not really. I mean, there are some supposed non-profits churning out the occasional privately funded paper, but their stuff usually doesn’t stand up to peer review. But this wasn’t a climate research study, not really. It was a feasibility study, more a cost benefit analysis that included an environmental impact assessment almost as an after-thought. That sort of thing isn’t so unusual. Say you want to sink an oil well into some pristine slice of nature somewhere. Maybe you have to get approval from the EPA or the Department of Interior before you get your oil lease, and they want an environmental impact statement. You just shop that sucker around to a bunch of different ‘scientists’ under NDA, then just use the one that says what you want. If none of them are favorable, throw them all out and try again. With non-disclosure agreements, it’s like those previous studies never happened. The government only ever sees what the company wants them to see.”

“That doesn’t seem like it should be legal.”

“You’re not alone in thinking that. There’s been some effort to improve the laws. Make it a requirement that ALL the relevant research be disclosed. There’s precedent in the pharmaceutical industry. Anyway, legal or not, I had to pass. I mean, it was tempting. The private sector pays way more that publicly funded research. But ultimately I couldn’t risk the hit to my reputation.”

Dee raised an eyebrow. “Your reputation?”

“Yeah… take on too many of those privately funded ‘studies’, and your fellow scientists might begin to question your impartiality. For some, the money is too big a lure. They know what their clients want, and they know they’ll get even more work, more money, if they play ball. I’ve seen a few otherwise good scientists go that route. Twist the data to fit the outcome the client wants. Of course peer review is a cold hearted bitch, and it inevitably destroys their reputation. After a while, the only work they can get is corporate scraps. I mean, even if you do the science straight, others might suspect you’re on the take. Better to just avoid it totally.

“So yeah, I passed on it. But they found someone to do it, because a few months later I stumbled across their so called research. I normally might have ignored it, but I just had to read it. I’d had a shot at this thing myself, so I was curious what someone else had done with it. I was barely past the abstract when I realized the thing was a train wreck. I mean, they only used a geologist for goodness sake! There was no interdisciplinary collaboration. They didn’t even consider the hydrodynamics. They just assumed they could pump warm water onto the methane hydrate field without any effect on the larger ocean current system. I couldn’t just let it lie. In my spare time I started working the numbers. I already had a computer model of deep ocean currents. My thermohaline work is all about temperature gradients and current migration. It was a natural fit. Not long into it, I began to see some alarming results. Large thermal migration. A big feedback loop. It was all very preliminary, but the numbers seemed to indicate rapid warming… like compressing two centuries of climate change into only three decades.” She sighed. “And then I published.”

“That was the paper that…” Dee seemed to be reaching for a diplomatic turn of phrase.

“Got me fired? Destroyed my career? Yes,” said Professor Simonson. “Oh, not right away mind you. At first it was well received. It was doing well under peer review. Even the press was was treating me nicely. Then that think tank got involved.

“The Freedom Birthright Foundation?” Dee asked.

“Yes, that’s the one. Though actually, the harassment started before that. At first just angry emails from climate denier nut-jobs. Then a few articles on right wing web sites. Then I got a visit from this scary guy with no neck. Talked all polite but suggested I was letting my left wing tree hugging bias distort the science… said I was… what was the words he used? ‘choosing a career limiting path’. Suggested I retract my paper.”

I looked at Dee. She gave me a knowing glance. We were thinking the same thing I think. This sounded a lot like The Mook. The polite intimidation was certainly out of the same play book.

“I laughed it all off,” Simonson continued, “I mean, I had the evidence on my side. The science. There was some weak attempts to attack my methodology in peer review, but it held up. And then those emails came out.”

The professor dropped her heads into her hands. For a moment I thought she might begin to sob, but then she rubbed her eyes and looked back up. She took a breath and let it out slowly.

“They lied.” Anger distorted her words into a near hiss. “The Freedom Birthright Foundation. I had the truth on my side, so they defeated me the only way they could… with lies. They made it seem like I had an agenda, like I was the one with bias. They were smart about it. They dummied up some fake emails, but they mixed it in with a bunch of real ones. They obviously got into the university email system at some point. Most of what they released were unaltered, but they faked just enough. A few false messages here and there. A few words altered. The university investigated, but somehow the email archives were accidentally deleted. Right. The evidence that would have exonerated me just ‘accidentally’ gets deleted. Of course they made even that work to their advantage. They implied the university deleted the email themselves to avoid a scandal.”

“And you are absolutely sure someone altered the email?” Dee asked.

“Absolutely. I still had some of the original messages on my laptop. I could see that they were different than the leaked ones. I tried to show the authorities, the university… but ultimately it didn’t matter. Chain of custody and all that. I was the one under investigation, so they couldn’t trust something on my laptop. That was when the university decided they just needed to cut their losses… cut me loose.” She lowered her head again and just stared at the stack of papers on her desk.

“That must have been difficult,” Dee suggested. Her voice was gentle. Sympathetic.

“Sure. But you know what the worst of it is? Now the science isn’t getting done. It wasn’t just me they discredited, it was the research. The journal pulled my paper. Nobody bothered to give it proper peer review after that. They pretty much just ignored it. I suppose nobody wanted to get too close… get mixed up in the same scandal. I would have welcomed someone shredding my work on its own merits. I would have gladly taken my lumps and gone back to the lab to clean up my mistakes. This is important. It deserves follow-up research. But now… I might never know if I was right.”

Dee sat silently for a moment. “I’m not so sure about that,” she finally replied, “I expect we’ll all know… in about thirty years.”

 

CHAPTER 21

We wrapped up our conversation with the professor. As I rose to leave, she seemed to really look at me for the first time and gave me a curious look.

“Forgive me for saying this,” she said, “but aren’t you a bit young to be a DOJ field agent?”

I tried wear an exasperated expression as I answered, “Like I haven’t heard that before.”

Dee laughed. “Don’t get him started,” she insisted, “it’s bad enough I’m stuck with a rookie, but I end up with babyface here.”

“It’s bad enough the guys at the office call me that,” I replied. I tried to make my performance convincing. The professor seemed to buy it.

“I’m sorry I mentioned it,” said Simonson with a hint of laughter in her voice, “trust me, you’ll appreciate that youthful look a lot more a couple decades from now. I just nodded, shook her hand, and left. Dee followed shortly behind me. She remained silent as we wound our way down the stairs, but then finally let laughter slip loose as we exited the building.

“Babyface…” she snorted, then began laughing again.

“Sure, laugh now, but it could have blown the whole thing, her being suspicious like that. It seems your ‘I-Belong-Here’ field doesn’t extend to those around you.”

“You might be right. It was probably a good thing you didn’t say much.”

“So why did I even come along?” I asked.

Dee answered with a question of her own. “Do you think she was telling the truth?”

I thought about it for only a moment. “Yes.”

“That is why I brought you, Barry.”

I stopped walking. Dee walked another two steps before realizing I had stopped, then turned and faced me. “OK, explain,” I demanded.

“Empathy, Barry. Your superpower. We need to know if the professor can be trusted, if we should act on her accusations. That’s why I needed your read of her.”

“Wait… so you basically brought me along as some sort of human lie detector? I think you are making way too much of this empathy thing. I mean, just because I get a gut feeling on something doesn’t mean it has to be right. People make wrong choices based on their gut all the time.”

“Have you?” Dee asked, “I mean, think back. Tell me about a time you had a first impression of someone that turned out to be absolutely and completely wrong.”

“Sure… just give me a sec.” We began walking again. As we strolled in silence, I cast my mind back down the years.

And came up blank. Worse than blank… all the examples that came to mind argued the opposite. My sister brought a college boyfriend home to visit, and I immediately disliked and distrusted him. He ended up cheating on her, and they broke up a month later. The first moment I met my 8th grade English teacher, I knew there was something special about her. I then watched her go above and beyond for her students. She later won a community service award because of it. Truth be told, I’d always been a pretty good judge of character.

Dee took my silence as an answer. “See what I mean,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” I insisted, “you can’t use a lack of evidence to prove something. It could just be dumb luck. I mean, a planet of seven billion people… A few of them are going to luck out and have all their hunches fall the right direction.”

“I think you know it’s not that. You just need to trust yourself.”

“Sure. I’ll work on that.” We walked on. I realized I didn’t know where we were headed. As always, I was just blindly following Dee. Maybe there really was something to this superpower thing. How else could I explain her effect on me? I knew the situation was crazy… that she was crazy… and yet I kept avoiding the rational course and instead steered for the insanity. “So where are we going?” I finally asked.

“Youth hostel,” she answered, “We’re almost there, actually.”

Sure enough, we soon approached a dilapidated colonial revival building, almost a mansion, though its best days were definitely behind it. A faded sign declared it The Grendle House, International Youth Hostel. We entered into a foyer that had been converted into a passable rendition of a hotel reception area. Behind the desk was a college age guy dressed like a 80’s punk rocker, complete with moused hair spikes and numerous facial piercings. He confirmed our reservation with a soft-spoken Louisiana voice that was nothing like the loud British accent I felt would better suit the look. He seemed genuinely happy to see us, and spent considerable time telling us how to find our room, and where the shared bathroom on our floor was located, and about the various eccentricities of the building we should watch out for.

“The door to your room sticks sometimes, but it’ll open if you just give it a good yank,” he advised, “I can’t count the number of times people come back down here saying their key is not working when its just that old door swellin’ in the humidity.” He handed us our room key… an actual brass key attached to a large plastic oval with the hostel’s name on it. No electronic locks or keycards in this place. We thanked him and went in search of our room.

Room. Singular.

Suddenly I was very conscious of my own heartbeat. I knew going into this it was an overnight mission, but for some reason I hadn’t really thought about the sleeping arrangements. I mean, I knew I shouldn’t read anything into it. Dee was operating on a shoestring budget, so separate rooms would have been an expensive luxury. But she is an amazing, attractive woman, and I’m a young single guy, and there was that whole pretending to be her boyfriend thing… my head was a riot of conflicting thoughts as Dee unlocked the door and I briefly doubted the platonic nature of our relationship.

Then the door opened and I saw two twin beds.

Calm reclaimed my internal dialog, though admittedly some part of me remained conflicted. Dee, oblivious to my state, bounded over to one of the beds and claimed it by tossing her backpack onto it. I tossed my backpack onto the other and examined the room. Two twin beds, a futon sofa that could likely pull out into a third, a battered writing desk. The furniture was old but in decent shape. The walls were hung with a variety of artwork, probably from local artists. French doors led out to a balcony. Some of the window segments on the doors were cracked and even patched with tape in places, but it was all still very charming and nearly luxurious. Not what I expected from a ‘youth hostel’.

We took turns in the restroom down the hall, changed into comfortable clothes, then discussed what to do about dinner. Dee wandered back to the reception desk to ask for restaurant recommendations. She came back with the name and phone number for “the best pizza joint this side of the Mason Dixon line”, at least according to our punk rocker friend. We called Mamma Buchellie’s and had a medium veggie pizza delivered. It was as good as advertised. Hot, fast, and reasonably priced. The sauce was sweet and tangy and had chunks of garlic in it. We sat on our respective beds as we ate. I nearly inhaled my three slices and then had to enviously watch as Dee slowly finished her last piece.

Dee smiled at me as she popped the last of it in her mouth. “You really need to learn to savor. Eating is one of life’s great pleasures. Make it last.”

“Yes, I eat too fast,” I admitted, “it comes from having siblings I think. Growing up in our house, if you eat slowly, you miss out on seconds.”

“That must have been nice, having brothers and sisters, a big family.”

“Yeah, I guess. Not always… we fought sometimes, but mostly it was good. I don’t think I fully appreciated them until I moved away.”

“I was alone a lot growing up,” Dee admitted. Her tone was matter-of-fact, betraying no regret or negative feelings. “My dad was deployed a lot, and mom worked. Sometimes I had nannies, other times not. Mom found lots of activities for me to be involved in, so I hung out with other kids, but that’s not the same as having siblings I think.”

“Activities,” I said, “like all that stuff on The Wall?”

“Yes, that was the start of it I guess… my mother finding things to keep me busy and out of trouble. But there is one specific day that I think really lit that fire, the turning point that set me on my path to being a superhero.”

I raised an eyebrow in reply, silently asking her to explain.

“OK, well, this is going to sound weird and even a bit gross,” she cautioned, “I suppose its good that we are done eating.” She paused and appeared to consider her next words carefully. “When I was really young, I assumed gnats were just baby flies. Then one day I was wondering around in the woods near our off-base apartment. I came across a dead animal of some kind. Maybe a wood chuck or possum… hard to tell because it was in nasty shape. It was partially decomposed and had flies and maggots all over it. I remember it smelled horrible, but I was fascinated by it so I stayed upwind and got as close as I could. I’d never seen maggots before and didn’t know what they were. There was a bunch of them crawling about, all different sizes, as well as the pupa they form when they start changing into flies. And as luck would have it, I happened to be looking at one of those pupa at the exact moment a mostly grown fly emerged from it.

“It was an epiphany. The whole life cycle of the fly was instantly clear. A truth that I hadn’t even known existed suddenly snapped into being. And if this sort of thing, one creature transforming into another, could exist in the world… if something so common and humble as a fly could hide such mysteries… what else was the world hiding from me? I had to know.

“That’s what set me on the road. That’s what filled The Great Wall of Embarrassment with all those photos and trophies. A dead animal covered in flies and maggots.”

We were both silently for a while. “Wow,” I finally said.

“Yeah, like I said, weird and gross.”

“No, I get it,” I insisted. “It’s like like how I got into computer science and electrical engineering. I mean nobody starts out understanding electricity or electromagnetism or any of the stuff that allows microelectronics to work. We are surrounded by technology so sophisticated it might as well be magic. But the more I learned about it, the more it fascinated to me. And understanding how it worked made it no less magical. I use invisible forces and strange languages to make inanimate objects do my bidding. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.”

Dee laughed. “We really are a couple of nerds, aren’t we.”

I laughed and agreed, and the evening rolled on like that. We talked late into the night, and at some point in mid conversation I drifted off to sleep. I dreamed, and in my dream I was searching for Dee. Wandering an endless maze of corridors and doors, I called for her but could not find her. Then I heard her. She was calling for help. My searching became frantic, but I still couldn’t find her. I tried to follow her voice. I would charge through a door only to then hear her cries coming from another direction. I became more frantic.

And then I found her.

I charged into a cavernous room. Dee was lying at its center, strapped to a metal table. A giant spinning saw blade descended slowly toward her from one side of the room. An enormous laser etched a smoking line along the floor from the other direction, gradually creeping toward her. She struggled against the straps, eyes shut tight, her cries now softer.

“No, no, no,” she nearly whispered. I stood transfixed. Horrified. I rushed to her side to try and remove the straps. They wouldn’t budge.

“Help. Somebody please help me,” she implored. Flies and maggots crawled on her.

I ran around the room looking for some way to deactivate the deathtrap. Nothing. No big buttons or levers. No giant fuse panel.

“Help me,” she shouted. The blade and the laser crept closer. Desperately I spun round and round, looking at the walls. Looking for anything that might help.

A window.

It hadn’t been there a moment before. Beyond the glass, a dimly lit room. A shadowy figure watching us impassively.

Siegleshust.

In that strange way you just know things in a dream, I knew it was him.

“Stop this,” I shouted, “please stop.” He ignored me. “We’re not a threat to you,” I yelled, “you don’t have to do this.” Still the death machines converged toward Dee. They were now only inches away. “Please STOP,” I screamed.

I was awake.

My bed covers had been thrown to the floor. I was sitting up in bed, my sweat damp skin chilled by a slight breeze. I turned toward the other bed.

 

Dee was gone.

 

CHAPTER 22

Her bed was empty, the covers shoved toward the foot of the bed. The door to the balcony was open, letting in cool air. The room lights were off, but the street lights cast a few broken beams through French doors, enough that I could be sure I was alone. The brass key sat on the night table between the two beds. Dee was probably just down the hall in the bathroom. I walked to the door and was surprise to find it locked and deadbolted, not something she could have done from the outside without the key. I walked to the balcony. Dampness slicked the floor and railing. The air smelled mossy and electric. It had rained while I was sleeping. The streetlights glistened on the empty streets. Dee was not there either. I looked at the rain slick side of the building, its various window ledges and trellises and ornamental trims providing potential handholds for a skilled climber. Yes, Dee was probably crazy enough to do it.

I grabbed the key from the table, slipped my shoes on, unlocked the door, and headed out into the hallway. The bathroom door at the end of the hall gaped open proving that Dee was indeed not there. Locking the door behind me, I headed down the hall, downstairs, and out into the night.

I had no real plan and no reason to think Dee was in any trouble. Honestly, she was far more capable of protecting herself than I. But I knew going back to sleep was not really an option, so I picked a random direction and walked. I walked around the block that contained the hostel, then I went a block farther away and began a larger circuit that encompassed that block. My plan was to do an expanding spiral until I either ran into Dee or got tired. I was halfway around my second circuit when I saw the police lights in the distance.

Somehow I knew I would find Dee there. If she hadn’t caused the trouble, she would likely be attracted to it. I picked up the pace and headed for the lights. Four squad cars obstructed the street, blocking traffic from both directions. In between, a small crowd of people formed a ragged arc around the police. Two of the officers walked the edge of the crowd, urging them back. At the focal point of the arc, three police officers were converging on an obviously disturbed civilian.

He was older than me I think, but not by much. He was also taller, and heavier, with darker hair. He wore only shorts and a t-shirt, not even shoes. An agitated older woman kept approaching one of the police officers, pleading with him, but speaking Spanish, so I don’t know what she was saying. Neither did the officer I think; he kept answering in English, asking her to step back, guiding her back to the line of onlookers using hand motions and gentle shoves, only to have her wander closer again when his attention turned back to the disturbed man.

It was like watching some sort of dance. A police officer would approach the young man, shouting at him to get on the ground. The young man would turn the other direction only to be confronted by another shouting officer. He bounced back and forth between the officers like a ping pong ball as they gradually approached. Two of the police had their guns drawn. My gut clenched. I silently willed the guy to just comply and get on the ground before something horrible happened, but he just kept spinning around, becoming more scared, more confused it seemed.

Another squad car arrived, and a female police officer approached. Her attention turned to the older woman. She listened, then turned to her fellow officers. “She says he doesn’t understand you,” she shouted to the others. She approached the frightened young man and began talking to him in Spanish.

It didn’t seem to help. If anything he was only getting more upset. He clutched at the sides of his head, pulling at his hair and moaning. The female officer continued talking to him in a loud but calm voice. The older woman became even more agitated, repeating something in Spanish over and over. A third cop drew his gun.

Time slowed down. Everything went silent.

I felt detached. Like I had in the grocery store parking lot. Like when Dee rescued me from drug dealers. The world dimmed, as if the street lights were fading out, except two points remained lit. Two people. The police officer who had just drawn his gun. The frightened young man pulling at his hair. The world was a stage with only two actors. All the other people were merely extras. The officer raised his pistol as he edged closer. I saw his finger move from the edge of the gun to inside the trigger guard, preparing to shoot. It hovered there, not actually on the trigger, but only a breath away from it.

He was afraid. Not for himself, but his fellow officers. It was like an echo of the young man’s fear. Adrenaline pumped through his veins and amped up his emotions even more. He began breathing more rapidly. I sensed some sort of tipping point coming. I was shouting something, but I had no idea what. A scenario was playing through my head like some sort of dark fantasy. Like a premonition.

A gun shot. Multiple shots. Cell phone videos. Public recriminations. A family and a neighborhood devastated by grief. A police officer plagued by and guilt and doubt. A career ruined. A marriage strained. Countless negative consequences, rippling out from this one event. None of them certain, but all of them much too likely.

“Don’t do this,” I pleaded as I took a step closer. He looked young. Maybe only a few years on the force. But his eyes looked old. “Don’t do this to yourself,” I shouted.

His head turned slightly in my direction.

He pulled his finger away from the trigger and lowered the gun. He took a ragged breath and stepped backwards, then holstered his pistol. The police woman took a step toward the suspect as she continued talking to him in Spanish. He spun away from her, but tripped on the curb. Two officers were immediately on him, pinning him to the ground and handcuffing him before he got up. Tension drained from the air. The old woman continued shouting, pleading. The female officer turned back to her. Sudden understanding claimed her expression.

“He’s deaf,” she said, then turning back to the other officers, “He’s deaf. He can’t hear any of our commands.” She returned to the older woman and and began talking to her.

“You knew, didn’t you,” I heard a voice whisper behind me.

I turned. It was Dee. “What do you mean,” I asked.

“Before you shouted don’t do this, you kept saying I can’t hear you. Over and over again.”

“I… I don’t remember that.” I remembered shouting something, but not what. It was like it was a different language. Syllables without meaning.

I stood there, unsure of what to say, trying to make sense of it all. Dee stood with me, a faint smile and curious look on her face. She finally took my arm and started us walking back toward the youth hostel.

“Come on, let’s get some sleep,” she said, “we have to catch an early train tomorrow.” I nodded and followed along.

As we walked away, I looked back at the scene behind us. The crowd was dispersing. The frightened young man was now sitting up, still in hand cuffs, but less agitated. The police woman was talking to the older woman who was in turn directing sign language at the young man. All the guns were holstered. Some of the police had even returned to their squad cars. The crisis was obviously over, but an overwhelming question remained.

 

Had I just saved a man’s life?

 

CHAPTER 23

The morning sun crept through the French doors and dragged me reluctantly toward wakefulness. Dee was already up, showered, and packing by the time I was finally crawling out of bed. I grabbed a quick shower as well and then joined her downstairs to begin our hike to the train station. We chatted as we walked, mostly about inconsequential things. The events of the previous night did not enter our conversation until we were on the train and well on our way.

“You did a good thing last night,” Dee commented as she stared idly out the window.

“Sure,” I responded, though my tone betrayed my skepticism.

Dee turned to me. “No, really, you saved a life. You’re a hero.”

It surprised me. I wasn’t even sure she had noticed the young police officer’s behavior, that she had come away with the same interpretation. “I didn’t do anything,” I insisted, “We can’t be sure of anything.”

“I don’t think you really believe that.” She reached over and squeezed my arm. “I could tell just by looking at you that something was going to happen. Something bad. I think you stopped it.”

I looked down at her hand. I thought about the strange journey I now found myself on. “Some part of me wants to believe that. Maybe some part already does, deep down. But sometimes what we believe is wrong. Everything might have gone down exactly the same last night if I wasn’t there. I can’t be sure of anything. I’m an engineer. I believe in science. I believe in empirical evidence. I start believing I have freaky mind powers… well, that’s a journey into madness.”

There. I said it. Unspoken was the implication that Dee was already well down that path.

Dee was silent for a long moment, then said, “It took me a long time to believe in my power. It wasn’t so long ago I still had doubts like you. But stack up enough anecdotes, at some point it starts to look like evidence.”

“The plural of anecdote…” I began.

“is not data,” she finished, “Yes I know, Barry, but at some point you have to trust your own life experience.”

“Maybe I just need more time then,” I answered, more to avoid an argument than anything else.

“Let’s hope so,” she replied, and gave my arm another gentle squeeze before turning her attention back to the window. I dug out my Theory of Computing notes and started in on homework. It was a quiet ride home.

 

 

  • * *

 

 

After getting back to my dorm room, I continued working on homework another hour before switching to one of my personal electronics projects. The hours slipped past, and I was surprised to find it becoming dark outside when I finally stopped. I might have kept working late into the night if I hadn’t been interrupted by a phone call from Tilly.

“Hey Barry, are you free tonight?”

“I could be,” I answered, “I mean I’m tinkering on a project, but nothing I couldn’t set aside. What’s up?”

“I just found out that Omicron Epsilon Iota is having a house party tonight, We don’t normally run patrols on Sunday, but I thought maybe someone should swing through later and see if anyone needs an escort home or anything like that. Care to join me?”

“Sure. What time?”

“Meet me at my dorm a little before nine. We can walk over from there.”

“Sounds like a plan. See you then.” I hung up, turned off my soldering iron, put away my other electronics tools, and started to get ready. After showering and changing clothes, I still had time to stop at the cafeteria before going to Tilly’s. This was a good thing as I had worked right through lunch, and my stomach was now reminding me of it.

I knocked on Tilly’s door about ten minutes before nine. She answered almost immediately, and we engaged in only minimal small talk before heading toward the fraternity house. We continued talking as we walked.

“Thank you for doing this,” said Tilly, “I was going to go with Cloe, but she just didn’t have it in her to do a frat party tonight.”

“No problem, I’m happy to help,” I replied, “So how is Cloe?”

“Not good, actually. She was doing better after we started the watch. I think doing something constructive like that was really helping her deal with her own… you know… stuff, but hearing about Rebecka really took the wind out of her sails.”

“Rebecka? Is she part of the watch?”

“No, she’s that woman who spoke at the Take Action meeting last week, the student who talked about her own assault.”

“I remember now. I recall she was not happy with the Dean’s office.”

“Exactly. And it hasn’t gotten any better. The administration still hasn’t done anything, and now she’s getting harassed. Threatening phone calls, emails, notes on her door. It seems that asshole rapist has friends, and they are getting the signal loud and clear that they have nothing to fear from the college. It all got to be too much. Rebecka dropped out of school on Friday.”

“Damn.” I didn’t know what else to say. The situation well and truly sucked.

“Yeah, and it really sent Cloe into a tailspin. Rebecka was her hero. She was actually standing up and pushing back even though it made her a target for all sorts of gossip and rumors and crap. I’m worried that Cloe is thinking of dropping out too. She talked about it after her own assault.”

I didn’t know how to answer. I hadn’t known Cloe long, I didn’t really know Rebecka at all, but the thought of what they were going through filled me with a cold, quiet anger. It made me feel slightly sick. It left me voiceless. Fortunately, we arrived at the fraternity house just then, so I was saved from having to form a coherent response.

Nevertheless, even as we paid the cover charge and entered the party, my mind couldn’t let go of what Tilly had told me and how it made me feel. If this was empathy, I was ready to trade it in for a new superpower. Telekinesis. Invisibility. Anything else. Empathy seemed to just get me in trouble and make me feel awful.

The frat party had a respectable crowd for a Sunday night. No band, but the DJ was doing a good job of picking high energy music that kept the party atmosphere cranked. We jostled our way through the crowd, keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. Tilly talked to a variety people, making sure they knew they could get an escort home if they needed one. She handed out slips of paper with the phone number and web address of the Watch. We worked our way through the house, taking a break in the The Hallowed Hall of Alumni. The room was toward the back of the house, far enough away from the action that the music was reduced to a thumping base rhythm devoid of tune. Consequently, the room had far fewer people in it, unless you counted the many portraits of former fraternity members that adorned the walls.

“Hey Barry, what brings you out from the caves of perpetual study?”

I turned to discover my study friend Jake was one of the few occupants of the room. “Just blowing off some steam after a weekend of hitting the books,” I replied. I hadn’t told Jake about the neighborhood watch, and I didn’t feel like explaining it right then.

“There is hope for you yet, compadre. Same here, actually. Jenny and I came over with a group from the dorms.” Jake introduced us to Jenny, a young woman with brown hair, thin rimmed glasses, and a pained expression.

“We had to get away from the music for a while,” she explained, “it was giving me a headache.”

“They really are cranking it,” Tilly agreed. She introduced herself, and then leaned in close to Jenny and whispered, “Come find me if you need someone to walk home with.”

Jake frowned briefly as he witnessed this private exchange, then turned to me and said, “So Barry, where’s your main squeeze? Does Dee know you’re out with some other good looking gal?” He said it playfully, but I sensed an undercurrent in the words.

“Tilly and I are just friends,” I assured him, “it is possible, you know, to just be friends with a woman.”

Jake snorted, though whether in disbelief or humor, I couldn’t be sure. The four of us wandered the room, chatting and looking at the alumni pictures on the wall.

“Now that’s weird,” commented Jenny. She was looking at a large ax hanging on the wall among the many pictures. Below it was a metal plaque declaring it The Ax of Divine Justice.

“Oh I’ve heard of this,” Jake responded, “The rumor is that this ax was used to chop down some prized fruit tree on the dean’s property. It was retaliation for the dean cracking down on the fraternities for underage drinking. The dean was majorly pissed and ready to kick the frats off campus, but then he got push back from a bunch of the alumni and backed down. They keep the ax here as a way to sort of flip the ol’ bird at the dean. Nothing was ever proved, so there’s nothing he can do about it.”

“Wow, that is unbelievable,” Jenny said.

“I believe it,” Tilly responded, “the school’s endowment is funded mostly by alumni, so they have a lot of pull, and a lot of them belonged to fraternities or sororities.”

My thoughts returned to Rebecka and her allegations. The idea that the administration would sweep a scandal under the rug just to keep the alumni happy was troubling but all too believable. This was just more evidence. My eyes drifted from the ax to the many pictures on the wall. I had never really understood the attraction of joining a fraternity. It seemed like a formalization of the cliquishness and conformity that I hated in high school. I wasn’t exactly a loner in high school; I got along with just about everyone well enough, but there was never any one group that I identified with. Sure, a fraternity was a great way to make a lot of new friends quickly, plug into a support system to help one through the college experience, but those benefits also come with obligations… an expectation of being there for your fraternal brothers as much as they are there for you. I’ve never liked having other people depend on me.

“All these pictures are beginning to give me the creeps,” Tilly announced, “It’s like they’re staring at us.” She turned to me. “You ready to dive back into the action, Barry?”

“Once more into the breach, dear friend,” I answered. We said our goodbyes to Jake and Jenny and headed back toward the front of the house.

The party was still going strong. Sofas had been pushed back to form a dance floor, and the DJ was doing his part keep the place the jumping. Tilly and I worked the periphery of the crowd, handing out more slips of paper. This netted us a few text messages from people looking for an escort back to the dorms. Tilly organized people into groups leaving at similar times, making sure nobody had to walk back alone. We stayed until the party was sputtering to a halt, then headed out ourselves.

The night was cool and quiet. My ears buzzed, like some whisper of the endless dance music had taken root within them. Tilly and I walked silently for a while, enjoying the quiet.

“Thanks for the help,” she finally said,

“You’re welcome,” I answered, “but it was no trouble, really. I mean, I pretty much just went to a party. You did most of the work.”

“You helped a lot actually. If you hadn’t been with me, I would have spent half the night avoiding drunk guys hitting on me.”

I laughed. “Ah yes, boyfriend camouflage. It’s just one of my superpowers.”

Tilly shot me a curious look.

“Sorry… it’s a long story.” Tilly raised her eyebrow further, asking a question with her expression. “OK, long story short, my friend Dee needed some help with her mother, and, um, possible match-making from that quarter.”

“Ah, say no more. I have an older sister that’s always trying to fix me up.” We walked a few more paces before Tilly asked, “So you and Dee are just friends?”

“Yeah, just friends,” I answered, “Well, its a bit more complex than that. I don’t really know how to describe it.”

“Relationships often are. Complex, that is. We like to try put them in the neat little boxes with convenient labels, but every relationship is unique. Sometimes the labels don’t fit. She cares about you though. That much is obvious.”

“We barely know each other,” I admitted.

“That doesn’t really matter. The heart knows what it knows. I barely know you, but I know you’re a friend.”

“Thanks, I feel the same. About being a friend I mean. I’m not sure what I did to deserve it actually, all these friendships I’ve stumbled into recently.”

“Maybe its what you haven’t done.”

Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow.

“You don’t treat every conversation like some sort of sexual negotiation,” she explained. “It gets downright exhausting sometimes, dealing with guys that can’t think beyond that. That can’t see a woman as just a person first.”

Jake immediately came to mind. “I apologize on behalf of my gender,” I answered, trying to infuse the statement with as much humor as I could. Tilly rewarded me with a laugh.

“You really are a breath of fresh air, Barry. You’re… genuine. At least I think you are.” She turned and spoke with mock seriousness, “This isn’t all just an act, is it? Some long con to steal my affections?”

“I’m not that clever,” I assured her.

“We joke, but it happens. I almost prefer the guys that are up front and obvious about being on the make. At least I know what to expect from them. But then there’s that type of guy who seems all decent and respectful, until suddenly he’s complaining about being ‘friendzoned’… all pissed off and hurt that I’m not hooking up with him.”

“Yeah, I’ve known guys like that.” I was reminded of a conversation with Jake. He had complained about friendzoning. “Women are not vending machines that you put kindness coins in until sex falls out.”

“What? Oh wow that’s great. Mind if I steal it?”

“Go ahead, it’s not mine. I read it on the Internet somewhere. I was just remembering a conversation where I really wanted to say that to someone. I chickened out.”

We arrived at the dorms and said goodnight to each other. Tilly gave my hand a friendly squeeze as we parted, thanking me again for my help. I walked back to my own dorm room, my mind replaying the events and conversations of the night. I thought about friendship and romance and the challenges that both offer. I thought about Tilly and how uncomplicated our friendship felt and wondered why that was surprising to me. I thought about Dee.

Finally arriving at my dorm room, I quickly got ready for bed. As I set my phone on its charging stand, I noticed the voice mail indicator. At some point during the house party, I had missed a call from Dee. I stared at the icon for a full minute before finally playing the message.

 

“Barry, get to the lair as soon as you can tomorrow. We have another mission.”

 

CHAPTER 24

As usual, thoughts of my impending meeting with Dee proved to be a distraction as I attended my morning classes. I thought about blowing off my last class of the day, Philosophy 102, but class participation was a not insignificant part of the grade, so I decided against it. This left me a two hour break between my last morning class and Philosophy. I grabbed a sandwich from the cafeteria and spent most of those two hours trying to finish up the electronics project I had abandoned the previous night. I barely finished soldering the last connections when the alarm on my phone urged me to class. No time for a circuit test. I wrapped the components in bubble wrap, carefully slid them into my backpack, and ran out the door.

To be honest, Philosophy is not my favorite class. The unit on logic and reason was interesting, but otherwise I often found the topics too abstract, the arguments to fuzzy and impractical. It was so unlike math and engineering in that respect. Nevertheless, the discussions were often fun, and today was no exception. We discussed René Descartes’ evil demon thought experiment from his Meditations on First Philosophy and compared it to The Matrix movies. We discussed solipsism, the nature of reality, and the definition of knowledge. The hour flew past, and suddenly class was over. If I hurried, I could catch the 76 bus in time to make it to the factory by 2pm.

I ran to the bus stop, barely beating the bus there. It was 2:02 when I reached the door of Dee’s lair. The main door was locked, so I got out my phone to call Dee, but then the door opened before I finished dialing. Brian Claremont, one half of DualCore, greeted me.

“Hey Barry, thought that might be you at the door. Come in. We started without you, but you haven’t missed much.”

I followed Brian to the makeshift coffee tables where Liz Claremont and Dee were pouring over a variety of documents. They had arrayed various photographs and printouts over nearly every surface, the only exception being a space occupied by DualCore’s tablet computers.

Dee looked up as I approached. “Barry, you made it. You never let me down.” She nearly glowed with happiness. I thought for a moment she was just happy to see me, but then I recognized it for what it was. It was the joy of doing. Of problem solving. It was like the rush I get when solving a complex software problem or designing a clever hardware hack. I recognized it, and it was infectious. I wanted to be part of it. Some part of me wondered if this was her superpower at work. Maybe her I-Belong-Here field creates a general sense of inclusiveness.

Or maybe I’m just going crazy.

“The day is young,” I answered, “and my capacity to disappoint is limitless.”

Dee laughed and said, “self deprecating humor is a defense mechanism. You don’t need it here.” She turned back to Liz and pointed at one of the printouts. “I still think this is our best option. Anything else will take longer and has less chance of success.”

“I still say it’s too risky,” Liz countered, “let us work it from the outside. It’s what we do.”

Dee shook her head, “This is what I do, Elizabeth. You’ve got your skills. I’ve got mine. Trust that I can do this.”

“Is she still pushing for a frontal assault?” Brian asked. Liz nodded yes.

“Someone bring me up to speed, please,” I requested. The words frontal assault had warning bells going off in my brain.

“We’ve found ourselves a hard target,” Dee offered, “now we’re looking for a way to crack it.”

“It’s the Freedom Birthright Foundation,” Brian explained, “We’ve discovered they have an office right here in the city. Liz and I dug into that email hack that the professor talked about. Not many bread crumbs left to follow after all this time, but we found a few.” Brian looked very self satisfied as he said it.

“We couldn’t track it back to the Foundation directly,” Liz continued, “but we poked around some of the darker parts of the net on the hunch that the work had been farmed out, and we got a hit. Called in a few favors and got a list of IP addresses used to communicate with the black hat they hired for the actual hack. Most were anonymized, but they got sloppy. A couple of addresses traced back to the Foundation’s own network at an office building less than half a mile from here.”

“Our target,” Dee enthused.

Brian nodded in agreement. “Yes, and Dee’s right, it’s a hard target. We tried penetrating their network from the outside, and the security is surprisingly good. Nothing we can’t deal with eventually, but it might take some time. We might have to go social on it.”

“Sure,” Dee replied, “and social engineering is basically what I do. I’ll walk in there and punch a hole through their firewall from the inside. Then you two can go medieval on their servers and look for anything incriminating.”

Brian looked at his sister. “She makes a compelling argument,” he said.

Liz sighed. “I suppose we could send her in with the skeleton key.”

“Yes, send me in with that,” Dee replied. “Um, what is it?”

Liz reached into a pocket and came out with an innocuous looking USB thumb drive. It was connected to a short gold chain with a small plastic skull on the other end. She tossed it to Dee.

“Cool,” Dee exclaimed as she caught it, “super hacking tools. Just tell me what to run, what to type, where to click… I learn fast. We can do this.”

Liz snorted. “Please don’t insult me. I made that so it’s fire and forget. It uses a zero day exploit on the USB firmware to auto-run as soon as you plug it in. Installs a rootkit that works on Windows, Mac, Linux… even some network routers and hubs. Just plug it in and wait for the LED to stop blinking, unplug and walk away. Done. It will open a stealth VPN out through their firewall to one of our command and control servers. We take it from there.”

Dee’s eyes widened. She dangled the USB drive from its chain and stared at it. “Wow. I knew you were good, but that is some freaky James Bond level stuff.”

I had to agree. I consider myself a pretty sharp coder, but this was an epic hack. Using it would be criminal, however, so my gut was twisted in a mix of awe and worry. Dee was going to get herself arrested or worse. With some trepidation I asked, “So what’s my part in all this?”

“We need you to be the man in the van,” Dee responded.

I glanced around the factory, “We have a van?”

“It’s a figure of speech,” she assured me, “DualCore will be busy working the Internet side of things, so I need you working comms. I’ll wear a Bluetooth headset for my phone. You wait a couple blocks away with Martin. When I signal that I’m leaving, you swing round to pick me up.”

Well, at least she didn’t want me inside the building with her. I was basically just the getaway driver. Some part of me wondered why I had so thoroughly accepted my role in this madness, but I knew there was no turning back. Dee was going to do this with or without me, and I needed to make sure her chance of success was maximized.

“OK, got it,” I said.

“You ever drive a scooter?,” she thought to ask, “Martin is pretty forgiving. He’s got a really low center of gravity, so it’s even easier than a bike. Just go light on the throttle; he’s not the typical Vespa.”

I assured her I could handle it but resolved to take a few practice spins around the factory just to be sure.

“We’ll go in around 9am, height of the morning rush. I’ll blend in with all the office drones on their way to their cubicles.”

“They have key card access to the building,” Brian advised, “You can’t get past the reception area without an ID badge.”

“That’s why I cased the place earlier today,” Dee handed her iPhone to Brian, “I got a few decent pictures of people with their badges out, good enough that we should be able to dummy up a reasonable facsimile. No need for an RFID chip, I’ll just tailgate my way in behind someone else.”

“Oh give me that,” exclaimed Liz as she took the phone from her brother, “you know I’m the forger in the family.” She flipped through the pictures, expanding some of them with a two finger gesture. “Yeah, these will work. You got in real close. You didn’t make anyone suspicious, did you? Snapping all these pictures?”

“No, I was disguised as a courier, asked the guard at reception for an office number that wasn’t in the building. Then I pretended to look up the address on my phone while I was actually taking pictures.”

Seeing Dee’s phone reminded me of something. I dug in my backpack and brought out my recent electronics project and began carefully unwrapping it from its bubble wrap. “Um, Dee, can I see your riding goggles for a minute?”

“Sure, just a sec.” She dug in her own backpack and handed them over, then noticing the package I was unwrapping. “So what’s the gadget?”

“Upgrades,” was all I said. It would be easier to show them than try to explain. I adjusted one of the pico projectors in its plastic housing and then carefully slid it into the right eyepiece of the goggles.

Liz leaned over to Brian and said, “He brought toys.”

“Shush,” Brian answered, “we shouldn’t disturb him. That looks like delicate work.”

“But he’s not sharing,” she whispered back.

I became very conscious that I had derailed the planning session and become the center of attention. “Just give me a minute,” I said, “and all will become clear.” I positioned the second pico projector in the left eyepiece, finished attaching the wires to the processor block, then pinned the processor to the strap that holds the goggles in place.

“Here, try it,” I said to Dee as I handed the goggles back. I started the companion app on my phone and verified that it was synchronizing with the goggles via Bluetooth.

“I don’t see anything,” Dee said, “I mean, I can see a bit of wiring or something in my peripheral vision, but otherwise everything looks normal.”

“Give it a few seconds, it’s probably not done booting up.” I really hoped that was the case. I hadn’t really had time to properly test everything before bringing it over. Mostly I had just taken an earlier project and altered it to fit Dee’s goggles instead of a normal pair of glasses, so it should work, but it would be embarrassing if it didn’t.

“Whoa… I see something now. Its like there’s a big, wire frame cube spinning in the air in front of me.”

I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. “That’s the calibration test screen. How does it look? Blurry at all? Can you still see stuff beyond the cube?”

“I feel a little cross eyed when I’m looking at it,” she answered, “otherwise it looks good.”

I brought up the video settings screen and began tweaking the lateral fine tuning. “How’s that?” I asked.

“Better… better… yeah, that’s got it. Leave it there.”

“OK, lets try something else.” I hit a button on the companion app.

“Ah, there’s text now. Twas brillig, and the slithy toves Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe. Ooh… Lewis Carroll. Good choice.”

“You had no problem reading that?”

“No, it’s totally clear. It’s like it’s just hanging there in mid air, like I should be able to reach out and touch it.”

“Me me me I get to try it next,” Liz insisted. Dee peeled off the goggles and handed them over.

“We’ll need to recalibrate again after you’ve adjusted the goggles,” I said. I handed her my phone so she could make the adjustments herself.

Brian turned to me and said, “so I’m guessing dual near field projectors working with polarized overlays, is that right?”

“Yes, exactly,” I admitted, “it’s like Google Glass, but with two screens to create a stereoscopic 3D effect. I did an internship with a company that developed wearable computing. I ended up with some leftover parts when they went bankrupt. Turns out the principal owner was siphoning off most of the venture capital funding. I didn’t get my last paycheck. They let me keep some hardware instead.”

“Lucky for us,” Liz offered, “because this is way cool. I can think of all sorts of applications. Add a camera, and you could do augmented reality… overlay the world with all sorts of useful info.”

I carefully extracted the miniature cameras from the bubble wrap and held them up. “That is definitely the plan. Two cameras actually, to allow depth calculations based on parallax image comparison. I just have to figure out how best to mount them.”

“Can I see one those?” Dee asked.

I carefully handed her one of the tiny cylinders. It was no bigger than a pencil eraser.

“Wow, that really is small,” she remarked, “I’d love to use this on the mission tomorrow, record everything we see, but I don’t think my goggles will fit in with the typical office dress code.”

I thought about it for a moment. “Well, I haven’t mounted them yet. It would be easy enough just to clip one of these on your outfit somewhere, disguise it as a piece of jewelry maybe. Heck, the processor unit handles two video inputs. We could aim a second one backwards, make sure nobody sneaks up on you.”

This steered the conversation back in the direction of the impending mission, and we spent the rest of the afternoon planning the details, including how we would adapt my gadget to provide covert real time video. At some point we realized we were all hungry, and Brian volunteered to fetch carry out. He came back with more than food, however.

“I found something on the door,” he said as he deposited the pizza boxes, “someone must have posted it while we were talking.” He held up a large yellow sheet of paper with the words Notice of Condemnation emblazoned across the top.

“No!” Dee yelled as she jumped up and snatched the paper from his hand. She spent some time reading, then said, “those lying, corrupt BASTARDS. This has been backdated nearly 60 days. We’ve only got a week to remedy a huge list of supposed code violations, then they seize the building.”

We all sat silently for a minute while Dee continued reading the paperwork, her hands shaking.

“Maybe its not too late,” I finally said, “We have a week, maybe we can fix things. Maybe we can talk to an alderman, to the planning board, someone… get an extension to the deadline.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dee said, “I couldn’t afford to do all this crap even if they postponed until the heat death of the universe.”

I looked around the factory. Dee’s lair. We hadn’t yet had the opportunity to do much with the space. It was still mostly empty, and yet it was so full of potential. It was almost heartbreaking, realizing none of those dreams would be realized. I looked at Dee.

“I’m sorry,” was all I could think to say.

“This isn’t the end,” she said. Her hands stopped shaking. She let go of the yellow paper and let it drift to the ground. “They say they’re going to tear down this building?” She looked at me. Her eyes held a cold determination I hadn’t seen before. “I’m going to tear down their world.”

 

CHAPTER 25

 

 

 

The rest of the planning session was subdued and tense, but we hammered out a plan. We agreed to meet back at the lair at 8:30 the next morning, and then called it a night. I would have to blow off my morning Computer Architecture class to do it, but I assured them I would be there. There was no way I was going to let them down.

I slept fitfully, but I eventually did sleep. My dreams were turbulent and disjointed. I remembered running. Sometimes it seemed like I was chasing someone. Other times I was being chased. Dee with a cold look in her eyes. Tilly asking me a question I couldn’t quite hear. Homeless Joe warning me about demons. I woke feeling like there was something urgent I needed to do, something I needed to tell everyone, but I couldn’t think what. I rubbed the weariness from my eyes and looked at the clock. Only a half hour before my alarm would go off. Might as well get up.

My stomach was too unsettled for breakfast. I showered, grabbed some hot tea from the cafeteria, and caught an early bus to the factory. Dee was already there and dressed for the mission. Her outfit was similar to the lawyer disguise she had used at the courthouse, with subtle differences. She looked less glamorous, more… clerical. The bare concrete and brick of the lair begged to be filled with modular carpeting and cubicle walls to match her new look.

“I see DualCore isn’t here yet,” I observed.

“No, and they won’t be,” she answered, “They’re working their end from their own lair. Better equipment, they said. I’ve never been there, but I imagine it’s like something from the Matrix… all wires and tech and walls of displays. We’ll meet Liz on the way to pick up my ID badge, but then she’ll head back to help her brother.”

“Got it. Anything we need to do before we head out?”

“Yes, help me fit the cameras. I want to make sure they’re aimed correctly and that the processor box doesn’t show.”

We concealed the cameras in a costume jewelry hair pin, ran the wires down through her hair, and hid the battery and processor box inside her jacket collar. We paired the camera processor with her iPhone via Bluetooth and verified the video from both cameras. I then logged both our phones into a video streaming service that would allow her to share the video with my phone.

“How’s your data plan?” I asked, “this could burn through a couple of gigabytes before we’re done.”

“I’ll survive a few overcharges. Let’s get going.”

I set the video app to reduce the resolution to the shared video stream but made sure it would store a higher resolution copy locally. “OK, that should do it. I’m ready to go if you are.”

We rocketed away from the factory on Martin with me hanging on for dear life as always. The scooter had been reassembled, but it still showed some scars on its paint job. Mechanically, though, it seemed sound enough. If anything, it was faster.

We screeched to a halt in front of the Intergalactic. Dee sent a text message from her phone, and Liz emerged from the coffee house minutes later carrying two large coffees in travel mugs and a small manila envelope.

“I thought you might need some mission fuel,” she said as she handed them over.

“You are a saint,” Dee declared as she grabbed one of the mugs and took a big sip. “Oh yeah… that’s the stuff.”

“You want to be alone with that?” Liz joked. “How’s the ID look? It’s best I could do given the limited time.”

Dee tore open the envelop and pulled out the badge. “This is great,” she declared, “it looks just like the real thing.”

Liz beamed with pride. “Well OK then, I’m out of here. Good luck.”

We stowed our coffee in Martin’s cargo compartment and sped off. Dee stopped a couple of blocks away from the glass tower that was our target. She parked just around the corner behind a two story building housing a laundromat and a couple of nondescript retail stores. It completely concealed us from the office building containing the Freedom Birthright Foundation.

“OK, this should be good. You stay here until I’m coming out. I’ll let you know what door to meet me at.” She reached into a pocket then handed me a key ring with two keys on it. “You can keep those. One is for Martin and the other will get you into the Lair. You ready?”

“Ready,” I assured her. My heart was pounding as if I was the one about to trespass and engage in corporate espionage.

Dee positioned her Bluetooth headset, called me, and made sure we had a good connection. Her headset was tiny and white, designed to match her iPhone. Consequently, it was easily mistaken for a hearing aid. The microphone did not extend out as far as other models, which meant it had to be more sensitive and consequently picked up more background sounds. This was perfect for our purposes. I activated an app on my phone that would record all the audio. Later I could synchronize the audio to the video footage to create a complete record of the mission.

“Well then, let’s get to it,” Dee said. She checked her hair in one of the scooter’s mirrors, adjusted her jacket, then turned and strode away down the sidewalk. I watched her recede and disappear around the corner before I thought to check the video feed again and verify that the cameras were still working.

She walked briskly toward the glass tower, inserted herself into the tide of employees making their way inside. The forward camera showed the back of a gray haired man in a dark blue suit as they walked past the security desk and toward a large glass door. Mr. Blue Suit waved his ID badge at the RFID card reader as he approached the door. A small green LED on the reader lit up as the door slid open, and he walked through. Dee stayed close and waved her fake badge at the reader as she walked through before the door slid shut. Hopefully nobody noticed that the LED never lit.

The Freedom Birthright Foundation occupied most of the eighth floor of the building, sharing the rest of the twelve story tower with a variety of law firms, an insurance company, and other businesses. Consequently, nobody took any notice of a newcomer among the crowd of employees filing into the elevators. For the next couple of minutes, the video feed mostly showed the back of someone’s head on the front facing camera and imitation wood grain paneling on the rear camera. The elevator stopped at the eighth floor, and Dee followed two other people out into a hallway, around a corner, to another door with a card reader. She again successfully tailgated her way past the security door and into the belly of the beast.

The Foundation mostly looked like any corporate office in America. Drop ceiling, rows of desks, low cubicle walls. Dee strode purposefully into the sea of cubicles, looking for her first target. She found it in a larger than average cubicle on the end of a row. The name plaque read Shelly Perkins, Office Manager. Dee walked up and rapped on the edge of one of the cube walls to get Shelly’s attention. Shelly held up one finger in the universal ‘just a minute’ gesture and finished typing something into her computer before turning to face Dee.

“Can I help you with something?” Shelly asked.

“Oh, I hope so,” Dee replied, “I just started today, and I was told you could give copies of all the orientation documents.”

“You should have received links to them in your email.”

“Oh yes, I know, but I guess there was some problem setting up my network access, so I was told to just ask you. They even lent me a USB drive for you to copy them to.” Dee held out DualCore’s Skeleton Key. With the gold chain and skull removed, it looked like any other USB thumb drive.

Shelly sighed but took the drive and plugged it into her PC without hesitation. I held my breath as the tiny red LED blinked for about 20 seconds, half expecting some virus scanner or firewall software to pop up a warning screen, but nothing happened. The LED stopped blinking, and the PC did not even appear to recognize that it had been inserted.

“Typical,” Shelly complained, “they gave you a bad USB stick. Leave it to our IT services to screw up your network access and give you a bad USB drive.”

“Oh fudge,” Dee replied. I could almost image the pouting expression that accompanied her words. “Well, I’ll return it and let them know it’s broken.”

Shelly yanked the skeleton key from her computer and handed it back. “I’ll send these documents to a printer instead,” She stated, “it’s at the end of the next row over, the one marked HP-27.”

Dee thanked her and headed off in that direction.

“Nicely done,” I said into my phone.

“Oh good, you’re still there,” she quietly answered, “I was beginning to wonder.”

“I just didn’t want to distract you. OK, so that’s it, right? Time to head out?”

“I’m not so sure about that, I might want to infect a few more, just in case. What does DualCore say?”

“Give me a minute and I’ll check,” I opened a text chat app and shot a quick message to the predetermined address.

 

Package delivered. Hows it look?

good. getting traffic. analyzing now.

Need anything more from us?

just a sec…

low yield so far. can she get to server room?

 

“They want to know if you can get to the server room,” I told Dee. I winced as I said it, because I knew trying for the server room would put her at greater risk, and I knew Dee would do it anyway.

“Can do,” Dee replied. She walked up to another random office worker and asked, “excuse me, can you point me toward the server room?”

The guy looked up from the stack of documents on his desk and answered, “down that hall, turn left, big glass door with a sign on it. You can’t miss it.”

Dee thanked him and headed that direction. As she walked she spared a glance at the various offices and conference rooms along her route. The video image bounced and swayed as her attention swung from one thing to another. A young woman making photocopies. A pair of young men having an animated conversation. A conference room with a dozen or so people in it, two of them struggling with a video projector. She eventually came to a glass door labeled Information Services as well Help Desk and Server Room in smaller letters. The door also had an RFID scanner on it.

“Paranoid bunch, aren’t they,” Dee observed. She was looking squarely at the scanner.

“Maybe we should abort,” I suggested, “What you’ve done already might be enough.”

“Don’t worry, I got this.” She rapped on the door. Nobody came. She knocked again. When nobody answered the second time, she turned and strode further down the hall to another random cubicle. “Hi, sorry to bother, but can you help me?”

The middle aged man seemed annoyed at first, but when he finished turning and saw Dee, he smiled. “You must be new here,” he replied.

“Oh yes, it’s my first day,” she answered. I could hear the smile in her voice. “They just sent me from Conference Room 4 because the video projector isn’t working. I’m supposed to get someone from the help desk, but it seems my access card doesn’t work. Could you call them for me?”

“Well, I can’t very well say no to a damsel in distress,” he replied as he scooped up his phone.

“Oh thank you,” Dee gushed, “the big boss was really getting worked up about it.”

“Oh, you must mean Pearson. Yeah, he tends to be a bit… excitable.” He grinned as if sharing a private joke, and Dee rewarded him with a giggle. It was quite unlike any noise I had ever heard from her before, but its effect was undeniable. The guy smiled brightly, and when he got the help desk on the phone, he spared no effort in convincing them of the seriousness of the problem. He scribbled something on a post-it note, then handed it to Dee. “That’s the help desk ticket number they’ve assigned, and below that is my number if you need anything else.” He leaned over and said to her in a quieter voice, “I know how first days can be.”

“Thanks, you’re totally my hero,” she assured him, then turned and walked back in the direction of Information Services. As she approached the glass door, a young man flew out and bolted toward the conference room. Dee calmly caught the door before it swung completely shut and slid inside.

She strode past the help desk area without slowing down. Several people looked up as she walked past, but nobody stopped her as she headed straight for the server room. Inside, it was all white surfaces and racks of equipment and bundles of cables. Dee walked down an aisle in between two rows of server racks, then rounded the corner and walked between the equipment racks and one wall of the server room. This gave her access to the backs of all the equipment in that row. It was a riot of power and Ethernet cables. She approached a cabinet with a particularly large bundle of Ethernet cables running to it.

“This looks like a good place to start,” she whispered. She began methodically plugging the Skeleton Key into any available USB port, waiting for the LED to stop blinking before moving it to the next server.

My phone vibrated. My incoming text messages showed a smiley face emoticon from DualCore.

“Whatever you’re doing, DualCore approves,” I informed Dee. She just continued moving the Skeleton Key.

“Um, excuse me miss, what are you doing there?” Dee looked up to find a young man in a rumpled white shirt and a loosened tie glaring at her.

“Oh good,” she exclaimed, “maybe you can help me. I’m working on the depreciable asset audit for accounting, but some of these asset tag numbers aren’t on my list.” She got out her iPhone and pretended to consult something on it. “Could you tell me what this big server here does?”

“That’s the main storage array for the document archival system,” he answered, then shook his head and said, “You really can’t be here without approval. I’ll need you to come with me.”

“Oh didn’t you get the memo? This was all scheduled weeks ago. ”

“I don’t remember any memo.” Doubt crept into his expression. “I’m kind of behind on my email, though.” He seemed paralyzed in a moment of indecision, then said, “Come with me to my desk. I’ll just check for that memo quick, and then maybe I can help you.”

As Dee followed the IT guy, I frantically hammered out a text message to DualCore.

 

Dee caught. Trying to bluff way out.

police? private security?

IT staff. Need fake email for cover story.

good thing we own their mail server now.

 

I explained the details of the situation as briefly as possible. DualCore asked who the email should go to. I relayed the request to Dee.

“You’ve being ever so helpful,” Dee said cheerfully to her captor, “What did you say your name was again?”

“Bob. Bob Raynard.”

They approached Bob’s desk. He sat down and logged in to his PC. I frantically keyed Bob’s name into a text message to DualCore and suggested the email be from someone name Pearson.

“I’m not finding anything,” Bob said as he scrolled through his recent messages.

“They might have sent it a while ago,” Dee suggested.

 

got it. altering an existing message.

 

Bob keyed a series of search terms into his email program. Suddenly he said, “There it is. How did I miss that before?”

I let my breath out almost explosively. I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath. Bob and Dee ambled back into the server room and walked along the backs of the servers. Dee pretended to peer at asset tags and consulted her phone while Bob described what each piece of equipment did.

“I think I’ve got everything I need,” Dee finally said. She thanked Bob and headed out. “OK, Barry, pick me up at the west entrance in five minutes. I’m on my way down.”

I breathed a sigh of relief and started to answer, but then I felt a hand clamp down on my shoulder.

“I am thinking you need to come with us, yes?” My heart froze as recognition hit me. I knew that voice. I turned and confirmed my fear.

 

It was The Mook.

 

CHAPTER 26

Behind The Mook was Red and Gray, two of the thugs that had attacked us in the factory. Gray was smoking a cigarette and leaning against a dark blue sport utility vehicle parked less than half a block behind me. Red was marching purposefully in our direction. He wore the same red leather jacket as well as an angry scowl and a cast on his right hand.

“I told you it was the same scooter,” Red crowed as he approached.

“Nobody doubted you,” The Mook replied.

I swallowed and looked frantically around for help. The street was distressingly unoccupied except for us. Even the laundromat looked empty. A couple of people were walking away from us almost two blocks away. Maybe they would hear if I yelled. I drew a deep breath, then stopped as the grip on my shoulder tightened. The Mook raised an eyebrow and shook his head slightly. His meaning was clear. I kept my mouth shut.

“I owe you a serious beating,” Red told me as he came to a stop behind his fellow thug. He put his hands together as if to crack his knuckles but was stopped by his cast. He glanced down at it. When he looked back up, his expression was even darker.

“Now is not the time for beatings,” The Mook assured him, “Mr. Buetrero will be our guest, yes?” He looked at me expectantly.

“Um, yeah, sure. We’re all just friends here, right?” I tried to sound as harmless and agreeable as possible. Unfortunately, it seemed likely that the time for beatings would be as soon as they could get me away from this very public setting. My mind chased frantically after thoughts of escape, but it found no viable plan. My heart began to race. My hands grew sweaty. My phone almost slipped from my hands.

My phone.

I still had an open phone line to Dee. In fact, the phone was still streaming video of her leaving the building. If they saw that, if they recognized where she was… I couldn’t let that happen. I stabbed at the phone, attempting to close video app.

“No, now is also not the time for phone calls,” The Mook informed me as he plucked the phone from my hand. I squeezed the power button before it slipped from my grasp, managing to at least turn off the display. He would now need a four digit pin to unlock the screen.

This could actually work out. I hadn’t actually ended the phone call, so hopefully Dee could listen in on everything. Maybe DualCore could even trace the location of the phone. Just in case they couldn’t, I could give verbal clues. Make casual conversation with my captors with hidden messages for my rescuers. Hey, why not… I’d seen it done enough times on movies and television. These hopes were quickly dashed when The Mook slid the battery out of my phone, dropping the phone and the battery into separate pockets.

The grip on my shoulder tightened again as I was walked, almost carried one-handed, to the blue SUV.

“This is kidnapping,” I insisted.

“Nonsense,” The Mook responded, “You just agreed to be our guest. Really now, such hurtful accusations will strain our friendship.” The corner of his lip twisted up with the hint of a smile.

“Yeah, don’t be rude,” Red interjected as he gave me a shove. I stumbled and would likely have fallen if The Mook’s steel grip had not stopped me. The Mook shot Red an angry look but said nothing.

Gray crushed out his cigarette and open the door as we neared the car, and The Mook stuffed me into the back seat. I quickly slid over and began to grab the opposite door handle, thinking I might bolt out the other side and run for it, but Gray climbed in next to me and grabbed my arm in a vice like grip. He might be smaller than The Mook, but he seemed no less muscled.

“Don’t even think about it,” he advised me.

The Mook climbed into the drivers seat, and Red road shotgun in the front passenger seat. It occurred to me he might literally have a shotgun stowed somewhere. I was sure he was at least carrying another handgun somewhere within his jacket.

The SUV leapt away from the curb, barely avoiding Dee’s scooter as it sped past. We rounded the corner and approached the glass office tower but then continued past it.

“Where’re we headed?” Gray asked.

“The usual place,” Red answered. He turned and gave me an evil grin as he said it. I shuddered. My imagination was immediately occupied with all the varieties of nasty destinations where career criminals might dispose of their victims. My fear must have shown, because Red just grinned more widely, then laughed and turned forward again. I staring out the window, looking at the street signs as we passed them, trying to figure out where we might be heading.

“Quit your gawking,” Gray ordered. He grabbed the back of my head and tipped me forward till my face nearly touched my knees.

“This isn’t comfortable,” I complained.

“And how is that my problem?” he replied, “at least this way nobody will see your ugly face riding around with us.”

My heart sank. I thought at first he didn’t want me to see where I was being taken, which might mean they planned to eventually release me. I mean, if they planned to kill me anyway, it wouldn’t matter what I knew. Now it seemed more likely they just wanted to avoid any witnesses. If I disappeared, the last thing they wanted was some citizen saying they saw me in a blue SUV, and oh by the way officer, I just happened to remember the license plate.

We rode that way for minutes that stretched into an eternity, my back becoming more cramped with each bump and pothole. I tried to count the turns, to estimate approximately where we were headed, but I quickly lost track. Eventually we turned and drove downward and out of the sunlight. Gray finally let me sit up as we rolled to a stop. We were in an underground parking garage. It was mostly empty. The only other vehicle was a white pickup truck parked far enough away that I couldn’t read the business name printed on its side. I squinted at it, thinking maybe the text on that truck could provide a clue to my location, but it was no use.

Gray pulled me from the car and marched me toward an elevator. We all rode up to the third floor, the top floor of whatever building we were in, and exited into a dimly lit hallway. It looked like a hotel or perhaps an apartment complex, though it was still under construction. The carpeting had a layer of plastic over it, and the walls were unpainted. Smears of drywall joint compound hand been sanded smooth on the walls, leaving a coating of white dust across the plastic covered floor. Tracks in the dust revealed this path was well traveled. Light trickled in from a window at the end of the hall, but I couldn’t see anything of the outside world, just a cloud dappled sky. We stopped at room 307. The Mook unlocked the door and let us in.

The layout shouted luxury apartment or condo, not hotel room. It offered a spacious living room and attached kitchenette, floor to ceiling windows, and doors that likely led to bedrooms and such. The windows had been covered over with translucent white painters plastic, so daylight bled into the room, but the outside world was obscured. I still had no idea where I was. Like the hallway, the walls were unpainted and the floor was also covered in plastic. I thought about all the movies I had ever watched where murder victims were forced into a plastic covered room before their bloody execution.

“Sit there,” The Mook instructed. He pointed at a folding chair. Gray shoved me into the chair before I could even respond. The Mook pulled up another chair and sat opposite me. Gray and Red hovered on either side. Gray kept a hand on my shoulder, exerting a low, constant pressure.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” I tried to sound unafraid, but it came out as a breathy squeak. My eyes darted around the room, trying to drink in any detail that might help me. The place was sparsely furnished. Just a few folding chairs, a large wooden crate, and a folding table covered in fast food wrappers. The light through the windows was indirect, so the view was not east facing. Probably not south either.

“Don’t get comfortable, you wont be here long,” Red answered. His tone rendered it a threat.

“Hush now,” The Mook instructed, “you are frightening our guest. We are just having a friendly conversation, yes?”

“Sure… we’re all friends here.” I swallowed and glanced up at Red. He grinned evilly and rested a hand on my shoulder, mirroring Gray’s stance.

The Mook continued. “So as a friend, you will tell us who you and your lady friend are working for.”

“Working for?” My mind spun. I grappled with what he was implying. I didn’t know how to answer.

“Don’t play dumb,” Red growled. His fingers dug into my shoulder. The Mook shot him a dark look but did not stop him.

“Yes, your employer,” The Mook continued, “it is obviously someone with resources. The very fact that they have managed to stay unknown to us says as much.”

“No really, its not like that, its just…” I stopped. What was I going to tell him? Would my situation be helped if they believed it was just me and Dee? Or would I have a better chance at freedom if they thought I had some vast organization behind me? I didn’t know enough about the situation, about them, to really be sure.

I sat silently and wish for a real superpower. Super strength, teleportation, laser vision… anything. Instead all I had was empathy, and I wasn’t even convinced of that. Dee said empathy could be a superpower, that understanding the truth of someone could be extremely powerful. Right then, I desperately wanted to believe that.

I decided to start cautiously and keep things vague. Maybe I could draw them out and chart a path out of this. “You have to understand, I’m not very far up the food chain.”

The Mook nodded. “That much is obvious. Go on.”

“I only know what I’m told, and I’m only told what I need to know.” The Mook nodded again like this was to be expected. I glanced from him to Red to Gray. Red seemed the same as always. Angry. Gray looked… well, he look bored. So what could my empathy tell me about my captors? How did this work? Did I need to recreate that weird disconnected sensation I had felt before? This situation was no less panic inducing than any of those others, but that strange fugue sensation now eluded me. Dee said I should just trust my first impressions. That would have to be enough.

Gray. He seemed to be of moderate to low intelligence. Unimaginative. Morally flexible. Willing to use violence but not sadistic about it. No strong feelings about his coworkers. Just a guy doing a job.

Red. Smarter than Gray. Ambitious but cruel. Revels in using violence and proving his superiority to others. Basically a sociopath. Looks down on Gray. Fears and dislikes The Mook.

The Mook. Capable of violence, but taking no particular pleasure in it. Less morally flexible. Lives by a personal code, though obviously one that allows for law breaking. Dislikes Gray and Red and considers them unprofessional.

So assuming this was all true, how could I make it work for me? The Mook would not resort to violence unless necessary. I needed to stay on his good side. He could be a buffer between me and the other thugs. The friction between him and Red, if I could play on that, light a fire under it somehow, maybe I could get them so focused on each other I could make a break for it. They hadn’t tied me up. That was surprising, but I could use it to my advantage. If I convinced them I was totally compliant, happy to be here even, they might let their guard down. Gray was something of a wildcard, but he already seemed bored with the situation, so maybe he wouldn’t be a problem. The Mook was the key. A thread of a plan showed itself, and I grasped it.

I took a breath, and started. “You have to understand, I’m just doing what my superiors tell me.” Sure, that’s me. Just a good soldier following orders. The Mook would sympathize with that. “It was never about the factory. That was just an ice breaker, an invitation to start a conversation. It is possible our two organizations can be… beneficial… to each other.”

“What a crock shit,” Red declared, “just tell us who you work for before I…”

“Oh be quiet, the adults are talking,” I snapped. My interruption was so unexpected that Red was momentarily shocked into silence, but I could feel his inevitable violent response building. I looked at The Mook and donned an amused expression.

The Mook began to laugh. It was a low, rumbling sound that gradually gained momentum. I felt Red’s attention and anger shift away from me and toward him.

“That’s not funny,” Red insisted, “the little asshole is being disrespectful.”

“Respect must be earned,” The Mook replied. He looked to me. “We understand that, yes?” I simply smiled and gave a curt nod. This just made Red more angry.

“What total horse shit,” he nearly yelled, “Let me dangle the little cretin out the window. That’ll get him talking and teach him to show respect.”

I gave an exaggerated sigh. “I’m already talking. You’re the one filling the air with pointless babble.”

That did it. Red let go of my shoulder and swung at my head with the back of his hand. The Mook’s hand shot out and stopped the blow before it made contact. They stood there, The Mook squeezing Red’s one good hand inside his larger fist. It was actually working. They seemed poised on the precipice of real physical conflict.

And then Gray chose to join the conversation. “Guys, you know I hate it when you get like this.”

That seemed to break the spell. The Mook let go of Red. Red still seethed, but his hand went back to my shoulder. The two thugs stood there looking at each other for a moment, then The Mook turned his attention back to me.

“Let us continue our conversation,” he said.

“I’m going out for a smoke,” Gray announced, and headed for the door. The Mook spared him a disapproving glance, but then turned back to me.

“Your employer. Tell me more about them. How much do they know about my… employer?”

I chose my words carefully. “I’m not really sure. Like I said before, they only tell me what I need to know, but I get the impression they know a lot. And they have long reach. I think you know what that’s like.”

The Mook laughed again. “We are mushrooms, yes? Kept in the dark and fed bullshit.” My smile was nearly genuine. I was almost beginning to like this guy, and I felt slightly bad about lying to him.

“I work for an international organization with a long history.” My imagination raced ahead, making up the story barely ahead of my words. “It crosses many European and Asian boundaries, and goes by various names in different languages, but they all translate roughly as The Partnership.”

I kept it as vague as possible, but I spun an entertaining tale. I borrowed from DualCore’s descriptions of money laundering and offshore tax dodges as well as half remembered news stories of foreign mafias and random details from a few action adventure novels. It sounded crazy to my own ears, but The Mook seemed to buy it, and Red was at least intrigued. They both interrupted only occasionally with questions. I didn’t have an end-game anymore. At this point I was just playing for time and hoping an escape plan presented itself.

I was halfway into another elaborate lie when The Mook suddenly shushed me to silence. He stood and turned toward the door. That’s when I heard it too. Footsteps and voices in the hallway. They grew louder, then the door began to open. I recognized Gray’s voice.

“Thanks for the help,” he was saying, “I’ve got it from here.”

“Just tell me where to set them down,” said another voice. A small guy in baggy jeans and and an over-sized red windbreaker slipped past Gray. In his arms he cradled a stack of pizza boxes with a brown paper bag perched on top. The bag had the Piranha Pizza logo on it, a popular local chain.

“What is he doing here?” The Mook hissed.

Gray froze, then slowly answered. “He brought up our pizza.”

“But what is he doing here?” The Mook repeated.

The wheels turned in Gray’s head, and he seemed to realize his mistake. “It’s fine. Here, I’ll just take these and he can go.” Gray moved to take the pizza boxes, but the delivery boy was already setting them on the large crate in the middle of the room.

“OK, so that’s three large pizzas, one with double toppings, and a large bag of cheesy bread. That’ll be forty two fifty.” The delivery guy stood there with an expectant look. The thugs looked at each other. Nobody moved or said anything.

“Well, I suppose I could make this my treat,” I said as I began reaching in my pocket for my wallet. Red dug his fingers in my shoulder, silently warning me to sit still. The pizza guy was digging around in his change pouch, oblivious to the danger he was in.

“You also get a coupon for free jalapeño pizza toast with your next order,” he said as he scribbled something on his receipt book. Then he looked right at me and said, “that stuff is so hot, you’ll want to drop to the floor and cover your eyes.

 

I realized it was Dee an instant before the cheesy bread exploded.

 

CHAPTER 27

My eyes were burning and my mouth was filled with a bitter, ashy taste. I was on the floor, disoriented and briefly amnesic. Voices cut through the ringing in my ears, and with them came memory. I had to get out of here. I had to find Dee. Someone grabbed my shoulder, and I lashed out, thinking it was Red again.

“Barry, it’s me. Crawl this way. Stay low and keep your eyes shut.” I crawled toward Dee’s voice. It was barely more than a whisper. The thugs stumbled and yelled around me. There was a loud crash, and something hit me on the back. I crawled, and my hand squished down onto something hot and sticky. A slice of pizza. I drew a breath and immediately regretted it. My lungs burned, and I began coughing. Dee hooked an arm around me and heaved me out the door. We stumbled down the hallway and away from the apartment.

I opened my eyes and looked backwards as we fled. My eyes watered, but I could make out a blurry image of The Mook spilling into the hallway behind us. Orange smoke billowed around him like he was a demon freshly birthed from hell.

We ran. To the end of the hall and down a stairwell, we ran like our lives depended on it. We tore through a lobby littered with paint cans and scraps of drywall, out a set of double doors and toward the street. Parked there was an old Subaru station wagon. On top of it perched a fiberglass statue of the iconic Piranha Pizza logo, a large fanged fish devouring a pizza like some sort of aquatic pacman.

“Where did you…”

“You don’t want to know,” Dee interrupted, “I was improvising. An opportunity presented itself.” She opened the passenger door and dove across to the driver’s seat. I quickly jumped in after her. We were already pulling away when The Mook emerged from the building. My vision was still blurry, but his enormous frame was hard to mistake. I half expected him to pull out a gun and start shooting at us as we sped away, but he just stood there and watched us as we escaped.

“What the hell was that thing.”

“Tear gas bomb,” Dee answered, “well, near enough. It’s my own recipe actually. Had a bit more kick than I expected. Sorry about that. Here, pour this in your eyes.” She handed me a bottle of milky liquid. I did as she instructed, letting the excess liquid dribble down my face and onto my shirt. My eyes felt better, and my vision began to clear. I turned and looked at Dee.

She was wearing her goggles, which explained how she had escaped the worst effects of her bomb. She wasn’t wearing them when she entered the apartment, so she must of have slipped them on as the bomb was going off. Her hair was completely tucked inside a bandanna. She still wore the red windbreaker and oversized jeans. As disguises go, it was pretty thin, but somehow she had carried it off.

“I didn’t know it was you.”

“That was the idea,” she replied.

“You didn’t even sound like you.”

“Yeah, pretty cool, right?” She answered using the pizza guy voice. It was low and masculine and nothing like her normal voice. A chill ran down my back.

“That is just freaky,”

“It’s just a skill, one I picked up during my ventriloquism phase.” She said it using the same low voice.

“OK, you can stop that now.”

“Spoilsport,” she complained, but with her normal voice again.

I looked behind us and saw nobody pursuing. “I think we’re clear. Where to now?”

“First we need to ditch this pizza wagon, then I could really use some coffee.” Dee drove a few more blocks until finally pulling up behind her distinctive yellow scooter. We got out of the station wagon, and she immediately slipped out of the windbreaker and baggy jeans, leaving them on the front seat of the car. She was was now wearing just her superhero body stocking and goggles. She popped open Martin’s storage bin and pulled out the suit jacket she had worn earlier in the day, fished a wad of cash out of a pocket, and tucked the money under the jeans in the car.

“We never got paid for the pizza’s,” she explained, “I don’t want to get the guy in trouble.” Finally, we put on our helmets and rode Martin away toward The Intergalactic. As we gained speed I looked back and saw a young man wearing only a t-shirt and boxer shorts running toward the Subaru.

 

CHAPTER 28

DualCore arrived at the Intergalactic only minutes after us. Dee tossed the Skeleton Key as they approached our table, and Liz snatched it from the air.

“Mission accomplished,” Liz announced as she stuffed the USB dongle into her pocket, “We’ve shredded their firewall and downloaded a ton of docs. We’re running in depth data mining now.” She turned to me. “So how is our very own junior Jedi? I hear you had quite the adventure.”

Jedi? Dee must have told them about my supposed freaky mind powers. In my best Yoda voice I answered, “adventure… excitement… a Jedi craves not these things.”

“Well, he hasn’t lost his sense of humor,” Brian observed, “that’s a good sign.”

In truth, I was still a bit shaken up by the whole ordeal, but at the same time I felt fantastic. Giddy, even. It was like the rush I always felt after an acting performance in high school. I’d joined the drama club mostly to pad my academic resume and raise my chances of getting into a good college, but I found I really liked it. I always felt nervous and a little sick before the play, but that was washed away in the controlled chaos of the performance. Afterwards, only a warm glow of relief and happiness remained. I imagine it is a bit like a runner’s high; a prize one obtains only after supreme effort. This was like that.

“He was supposed to leave the adventuring to me.” Dee glared at me with mock seriousness.

“Next time, I’ll try to stick to the script, I promise.”

We grabbed a table in the back, and Dee fetched coffee. Liz and Brian arrayed their tablets before them and began performing their magic. I watched in awe as their hands slid across the touchscreens, anticipating each other, never colliding.

I finally had to ask, “how did you learn to do that?”

“Necessity,” Liz answered. She grabbed an icon on her tablet and slid it sideways. It traveled off the edge of the screen and reappeared on the center tablet.

Her brother deftly grabbed the icon and expanded it into a text window. “There was only the one computer in the foster home we grew up in. We had to share, but we didn’t like taking turns, so we devised our own system.”

“It started out as a hack to the Linux operating system,” Liz explained, “We added an extra USB keyboard and mouse, then wrote code so two windows could have focus simultaneously. They shared a clipboard, which made it easy to collaborate.”

“Eventually we were able to add a second monitor,” Brian continued, “and then eventually we could afford a second computer, but we still wanted to collaborate, so we evolved the system.” He finished doing something in the text window and slid it over to his sister.

Liz caught the window on her tablet and began making changes. “Our desktop system works pretty much like what you see here, just bigger screens and more of them.”

Dee leaned over to me. “Just like I said. Totally Matrix.”

Liz smiled. “We should have you over for a LAN party. It’ll rock your world.”

“Hey, I think I’ve got something here,” Brian slid something to the middle tablet and expanded it. “There’s been a systematic attempt to purge certain email addresses from their mail server. That’s worth digging into.”

“Think we can piece it together from external sources?” Liz grabbed the window and began scrolling through the data.

“It’s worth a shot.” Brian turned to me and Dee. “They deleted the actual messages, but the connection requests are still in the security logs. We can use that to trace back to the other email servers involved. It will take time though.”

We discussed it and decided to meet again tomorrow, this time at Dee’s lair. I had already missed more classes than I was comfortable with, so we scheduled the meeting for the three hour break between my morning and afternoon classes. We all downed the last of our coffee and began to head our separate ways.

As I headed out the door, I happened to glance at the television in the sofa lounge. It was tuned to the local news and showed a reporter standing in front of a familiar Subaru wagon with a giant piranha on top. The sound was off, but the caption read Piranha Employee Describes Brazen Pizza Piracy.

Dee stopped next to me and looked at the TV. “Piracy my ass. I paid for that pizza.”

 

CHAPTER 29

I arrived at the factory around 11 AM the next day, wishing it could have been sooner. My morning classes had to compete with contemplation of criminal conspiracies. I was physically in attendance, but my thoughts were elsewhere. Walking up to the lair, I could feel my body and mind finally synchronize.

Homeless Joe’s truck was parked back in its usual spot, and Joe was sitting on the tailgate reading a newspaper. He waved, and I waved back. I approached the main door, finding it locked again. I used the keys Dee had recently given me to let myself in. The team was again arranged around the makeshift coffee tables, printouts and computer tablets covering the surfaces.

“I see Joe is back,” I commented as I approached.

“Yeah, I told him it might not be safe here,” Dee replied, “but that just made him more determined to stay.”

“More determined?”

“He says he’s standing guard. I asked him to come inside, but he still has a thing about buildings.”

Dee really seems to inspire loyalty in people. “You really think its not safe here?” I asked.

“Well we did just kick the hornet’s nest in a big way. No telling how they might respond. That’s why we’re keeping the doors locked, and I’ve asked Ruth to keep the kids away.”

“Maybe we should have had this meeting at the Intergalactic,” I mused. “It’s a public setting, and they might not even know we go there.”

“I’m not letting them chase me out my lair just yet. We’ve a few more days before they can evict us.”

I dropped onto one of the sofas and gazed at the materials scattered across the coffee tables. “Any luck with the data mining?”

“Some,” Liz answered. “No smoking guns yet, but we’re definitely getting a sense of the scale of things.”

“It’s quite the tangled web,” Brian continued. “We couldn’t find a lot of specifics. We’ve mostly mapped out the dimensions by following the trail of deletions. The Freedom Birthright Foundation gets most of its funding through donations, and some of those are public, but most are not. We couldn’t get direct access to any of the financial data; it was all behind a firewall on a completely different network. We did manage to trace a lot of those deleted emails back to their sources. We mostly couldn’t reproduce the messages themselves, but we at least managed to put probable names to the IP addresses.”

Liz handed me a printout. “It’s like a who’s who of the rich and powerful. We’ve only dug into a few so far, but that includes a couple of multi-millionaires, a well known news anchor, and a federal appellate judge. The surprising thing is how their politics don’t always line up with those of the Foundation. In fact, we’re having a hard time finding much of a pattern at all. I’ve added additional external data sources into our analysis. Social media, public court records, credit reports… Cerebro will ping us if it finds something.”

“Cerebro?” I had to know what that was.

“It’s our compute cluster,” Brian explained, “I wanted to call it Colossus, but she wouldn’t go for it.”

“I never liked that movie,” Liz responded. “It’s depressing.”

“It’s prophetic,” Brian insisted. “Personally, I welcome our eventual cybernetic overlords. I think the computers will do a much better job of running things.”

Liz just rolled her eyes. “Anyway, like I was saying, we’re running more analysis and hoping to dig out some patterns.”

I flipped through the list of names Liz had handed me. A few seemed familiar, but I couldn’t place where I knew them. Rich and powerful. Undoubtedly some of these people were in the news on occasion. “We can see the pieces and where they sit on the board, but we still don’t know what their game is.” I handed the list to Dee.

“They play it well, that’s for sure.” Dee flipped through the list. No great revelations appeared to her either. “It’s frustrating as all hell, actually. We know they’re corrupt from the bottoms of their feet to their hundred dollar haircuts, but we can’t pin anything on them. They’ve been careful.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Liz declared confidently. “Brian will babysit Cerebro tonight, and I’ll pitch in again tomorrow.”

Brian leaned over and loudly whispered, “She’s got a hot date tonight.”

“Shut up, you.” Liz drove an elbow into her brother’s side.

“Ow! It’s not like it’s a secret. The two of you have been flirting with each other on social media for weeks now.”

“That’s not flirting, it’s socializing. You should try it some day.”

“Hey, I socialize,” Brian insisted.

“Playing Counterstrike with your on-line pals does not count as socializing. You need to have real conversations.”

“I want to hear more about this hot date,” Dee interjected.

“It’s not a date really,” Liz replied. “Well, I don’t think so. She’s just a friend really. I’ll tell you tomorrow if it was a date.”

Dee smiled. “I’m just happy to know you get away from the screen sometimes. It’s important to have some balance in your life.”

“And when was the last time you did something purely social?” I asked.

“Superheroism requires sacrifice,” Dee insisted. “I’ll party after we take the villain down.”

I was about to ask how that qualified as a balanced approach but was interrupted by a bell like tone from one of the tablets.

“Cerebro has something for us,” Brian explained as he scooped up the device. He spent a few seconds tapping at the screen. “It’s a first pass at profiles to go with our list of names.” He handed the tablet to Dee, and she began scrolling through the files. Liz brought open a copy on her tablet as well. I watched over her shoulder as she browsed the data.

Something caught my eye. “Wait a second… go back one screen.”

Liz scrolled backwards, then handed me the tablet. “This mean something to you?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe. This guy looks familiar, but I can’t place why.” I read through the profile. CEO of a pharmaceutical company. Married with four children. Graduated from… Penbrooke College, Louisiana. That had to be more than a coincidence. I scrolled to another profile. This one graduated from a west coast school. No connection there. The next one was from Harvard. I scrolled on, glancing at their pictures and details of their lives. Schools, careers, hometowns. I didn’t know what I was looking for. It seemed unlikely I would find a pattern that Cerebro had missed, but I kept looking. Then I came to another profile picture that looked familiar.

“Oh my god.” I exclaimed as I jumped up.

“What?” They all asked the question nearly simultaneously.

I held up my hand, quieting them as I read the details of the profile, then began pacing around the sofas as I tried to get my head around the ramifications of what I had discovered.

“What is it?” Dee asked again.

I didn’t answer, but instead headed for the door. The rest of the team followed. I flung the door open and headed straight for Homeless Joe’s truck. He seemed a bit wary as I approached, so I slowed my pace and tried to be unimposing as I showed him the tablet and spoke.

 

“Joe, I think it’s time you told us about the demons.”

 

CHAPTER 30

Joe stared at the picture on the tablet. The hair was darker, the area around the eyes less wrinkled, and this younger version of him had no beard or mustache, but there was now no doubt it was him. Joseph Hartwell, financial analyst from New York. Reported missing four years ago, current whereabouts still unknown.

Joe sighed. “That seems so long ago now.”

“You worked on Wall Street?” I made it a question, though the profile on the tablet already answered it. My goal was to get him talking.

“Yeah, for a while. Worked for one of the big investment banks. Did research, crunched numbers… basically gave the thumbs up or thumbs down on mega-investments and super-loans and all that. I used to bump elbows with hedge fund managers and CEOs. A real big shot, I was.” His gaze wandered to the sky, like he was looking at some memory projected against the clouds. “None of it meant a damn thing, really.”

“Was that where you met the demons?”

“No. Not there. People like to say Wall Street… bankers… stockbrokers… that they’re evil. But they’re just people doing a job. Some of them are egomaniacs and others full-on sociopaths. But evil? No, they’re amateurs compared to the Demons. The Demons were before that. The Demons are right here in Penbrooke.”

And then in some recess of my brain, the final pieces clicked together. “The fraternity. The Hallowed Hall of Alumni.”

“You’ve seen them then,” Joe confirmed. “The Demons with dead eyes.”

Brian began tapping furiously on his tablet. “We do have a slightly higher than expected number of Omicron Upsilon Iota members in the list, but still low enough to be random variation.”

“They won’t all be listed as fraternity members,” Joe explained, “not publicly. It started with the fraternity, but it’s bigger than that now. The evil seed that grows a wicked fruit. The Demons are everywhere now.” He began to fidget and glance around nervously, as if he expected a demon to show up at any moment. Whatever happened to Joe so many years ago, it was clear it had damaged him in some way.

Dee stepped up and gently took Joe’s hand. “Please Joe, we need to know about these Demons. We need to fight them, and to do that we need to know what we are up against.”

“They’ll hurt you,” he insisted, “it’s what they do. They hurt people like you.” He pulled away from Dee, but she held onto his hand even tighter.

“I won’t let them. I’m stronger than that. We are stronger than that. Together we can beat them, but you have to help us.”

Joe looked down at his feet, but nodded and began speaking again.

The story came out slowly at first. Joe would slip off track and begin dwelling on some unrelated subject. Other times he would just clam up completely and only start talking again after some gentle prodding from me or Dee. Gradually, he seemed to become more comfortable with the telling. Eventually his oratory even gained the character of eager confession. Some burden seemed to lift from him as he spoke, and the words came more quickly and freely. When Dee suggested we all go inside and continue the conversation, Joe surprised us by accepting. At some point during his unburdening, he had also shed his claustrophobia.

And Joe wasn’t exaggerating. These people, these demons of his, really were evil. The heart of the conspiracy was a web of blackmail. They targeted freshmen college students, sons of wealthy or connected families, academic scholarship students with bright futures, the next generation of leaders. They recruited them into the fraternity with promises of brotherhood and support, a social network that could be depended on to advance their career for the rest of their lives, and that was true to some extent, but it came at a terrible price. Little by little they corrupted them. Enticing them to more reckless and thoughtless behavior, whispering in their ears all the while that they were above the restrictive morals of their inferiors. Eventually they were led to some act so morally reprehensible and criminal that their was no way out of the trap. After being shown the video evidence, the choice was clear and stark. Pledge unfailing loyalty to the conspiracy and continue receiving its support, or betray it and be destroyed. Very few chose the latter, and those that did usually didn’t live long. An all too convenient suicide usually resolved the problem while serving as a warning to others.

Not all the fraternity members were ensnared by this trap, and not all those ensnared were fraternity members. The conspirators had grown skilled over the years at reading just how far a person could be pushed, how far some could be led down a dark path before bolting back toward the light. Only a select few made it into the inner circle. Once the trap was closed on them, they were quickly tasked with recruiting and grooming new candidates, both from within the fraternity and without.

The source of blackmail wasn’t alway the same, it depended heavily on the weaknesses and predilections of the individual, but Joe’s trap was all too common, or so he claimed. It involved drugs and ritualized sex. Consensual at first, but with an increasing dark overtone that included bondage and simulated violence. His confession degraded into sobbing. He blamed alcohol and drugs. He blamed the lies they told him. He swore the young woman was supposed to be a volunteer. That’s what he was told before the event. But it didn’t look like that on the video they showed him after.

Significantly higher than the national average. That is what the WEAV meeting had said about sexual assault cases on the Penbrooke campus. My head spun with the implications.

We sat there quietly for some time after Joe finished his story. His sobs had reduced to silent shuddering, his face buried in his hands. Dee reached for him as if to squeeze his shoulder, but stopped, her hand frozen in midair. Her face was a confused mix of sympathy, anger, and disgust. She looked at Joe like he had suddenly been replaced by a stranger.

Dee pulled her hand back, stood, and walked over to her exercise mats. Her danger room. She nudged a piece of scrap wood with her foot, then deftly flipped it into the air and snap kicked it with her other foot. It soared through the air and struck the cardboard celebrity cutout square in the chest. She stood there, her back to us, staring at that cutout, her hands clenched in fists at her side. Brian started to rise, but Liz shook her head.

“Just give her a minute,” she whispered.

Dee walked back and sat down, her usual composure restored.

Joe looked up, his eyes swollen and red. “It never goes away. The things you do. They come back. I’d thought I’d buried it. Locked it away forever. But then she said… she said she wanted to go to Penbrooke. My own daughter. She wanted to go to Penbrooke, and I said no. She didn’t understand why, and I couldn’t tell her. And I got mad and yelled and I couldn’t tell her. It all started to come apart then.” He buried his head back in his hands. “It never goes away.”

The quiet hung heavy in the air. It was Brian that finally broke the silence.

“So, what do we do now?” he asked.

“The mission hasn’t changed,” Dee responded, “now we just know what’s at stake. We take them down. No matter the cost.”

“Yes, but how? We don’t have any solid evidence of anything.” Brian threw his tablet onto the coffee table. “All we have is the crazy ravings of…” He looked over at Joe.

Joe raised his head from his hands. “The ravings of a crazy homeless man,” he supplied. “Don’t be afraid to say it. It’s true after all. And you’re right, it ain’t worth squat. Nobody will listen to what someone like me has to say. Not against the likes of them.”

“There must be something we can do.” Liz said. “If we could get access to where they… do this stuff. Maybe find the video tapes. What can you tell us about that?”

“I don’t know where it was. We were always taken there blindfolded. We went down a lot of stairs. No windows. Probably a basement. That’s all I know. As for the videos… I don’t know anything about them. I only ever saw the one they showed me, and I don’t know where they keep it. I suppose that’s standard operating procedure for blackmail.” He took a breath and let it out slowly. “We’ve got nothing.”

Dee stood, a glimmer of the earlier fire burning through her composure. “No, that’s not true. We do have something. We know how they operate now. We know what they do. We can use that against them. We have a window into their inner workings. I’m planning to jam a crowbar into that window and pry it open.”

“Yes, but how?” Brian asked.

“Simple, I’m going to give them a Trojan horse.”

We all stared at Dee while understanding slowly sank in.

I was on my feet now also. “No,” I shouted. “Just no. We will find another way. Something less… insane.”

“There’s that word again,” she responded. “I know you’ve never been totally on board with the whole superhero thing, but I really wish you would stop questioning my sanity, Barry.”

“You know I didn’t mean it like that.” I started to explain, but then saw the hint of amusement in her eyes.

“Is she really suggesting what I think she’s suggesting?” Liz asked.

“Yes,” I answered. “She really is planning to let a gang of serial sexual predators carry her off. She’s going to use herself as bait.”

“OK, I think I have to agree with Barry,” Brian chimed in, “that’s insane.”

“It’s risky, yes, but is it really any more insane than anything else we’ve done?” Dee began pacing as she spoke, and I couldn’t help but think of one of my professors giving a lecture. “This is really just another form of social engineering, and remember, that’s what I do. It’s my superpower. I’ll convince them I’m just another victim, but I have no intention of actually being one. They’ll fall right into our trap.”

“But first you’ll have to fall into theirs,” Liz countered, “and good grief, Dee, think what could happen.”

“I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “I’ll wear a wire, and a tracking device, and I’ll have my team watching my back. Besides, you know I’m not exactly harmless, right?”

Now Liz was standing too. “But you’ll be seriously outnumbered, and they drug their victims.” She turned to Joe, “That’s right, isn’t it? They use date rape drugs. It’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Joe nodded. “Yeah, I think you’re right. I never really learned the details. I didn’t want to.”

“Drugs slipped into a drink, most likely,” Dee countered, “and I’ll be on the lookout for that. That’s how we’ll identify them in fact. I’ll only pretend to be affected.” Now Dee turned to Joe as well. “Joe, I need as much detail as you can remember. Anything that might tell us how they select their victims, where they look for them, where they take them.”

Joe began pulling at his hair. “I don’t know. Don’t know don’t know don’t know. They tried to make some of us help, and some did. Some did gladly even. But I never did never did. I kept their secrets. I did favors. Approved loans and investments and anything they asked like that. But I stayed as far from the Demons as I could. I never went back. Not after that one time.”

“Anything you remember might help us,” Dee insisted. “Even the smallest detail might be a useful clue.”

It went on like this for a while. Dee prying details out of Joe. Joe teetering on the edge of relapse. They danced at the edge of a precipice. Joe would seem about to slip back into paranoia and psychosis, and then Dee would pull him back with a few calm words, only to resume prodding for details again.

A plan began to gradually form.

“I can’t believe we are actually considering this,” Brian said at one point. I just nodded in numb amazement.

“It’s going to work,” Dee assured us. “We have a plan. We have the skills. We can do this.” She turned to me. “You can do this, right Barry? You’re OK with your part?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I’m more worried about your part.”

“Don’t be. This is why I became a superhero. To defend the innocent. To defeat the guilty. To stand up for justice. I’m not worried. In fact, I think I’m going to sleep the best I’ve slept in years. Tonight, I’m going to sleep the sleep of the righteous, because tomorrow… tomorrow we hunt Demons.”

 

CHAPTER 31

Operation Trojan Horse got off to a slow start. Joe wasn’t able to provide much detail regarding his demons. Consequently, the early stages of our new mission were spent largely on investigative work, building up a profile of the villains and their victims. We started with public records, both from the city police and campus security, but that gave a very incomplete picture. It is an unfortunate truth of sexual assault that it goes unreported more often than not. This is even more the case when drugs are used and the assault victim can’t clearly recall all the details. Reporting a rape is never an easy thing. It involves the constant retelling and reliving of the event. Feelings of embarrassment and shame and fear. Accusations that they are lying or that they are somehow to blame. This is especially true if it goes to trial. The most common defense tactic is to attack the victim. Is it any wonder so many assaults go unreported?

We spent several days just tracking down these unreported cases, collecting data, and looking for patterns. Tilly was a big help with this. She reached out through the members of the neighborhood watch and via her contacts at WEAV. DualCore created an on-line questionnaire that allowed anonymous reporting, and the message went out by word of mouth and social media. We collected dates and places and demographic data, but no names, and we disguised the whole thing as a study run by a doctoral candidate in the Criminal Sciences Department. We had to strike a careful balance, gathering enough specific details to sift out the patterns, yet keeping the study looking academic and innocuous enough that our quarry would not recognize it for the detective work that it really was. The last thing we wanted was for the demons to realize we were actively hunting them.

The survey worked shockingly well. We collected thousands of responses covering many years. Most of the events did not fit the profile we were looking for, but many did. A pattern began to emerge, but it was a murky one at best. What we really needed was detailed testimony from some of the victims, a more interactive dialog. Something an anonymous survey just couldn’t supply. I knew of at least one person that could help provide us this sort of dialog, someone who might have some of the details we were looking for, but I wasn’t looking forward to the conversation.

Tilly waved to me as she approached. I waved back. We had agreed to meet next to the abstract sculpture in the quad, an enormous metal monstrosity of polished panels and twisted beams. I sat on the sculpture’s concrete base, leaving a space for Tilly to sit next to me.

“So Barry, what’s up? You sounded kind of serious on the phone.”

“Oh, well… it’s nothing all that… well, first I just wanted to thank you again for all your help recently, especially with the survey. My friend really appreciates it.”

“That friend being Dee, right?” She gave me a curious look as she said it.

“Um, well she is involved, yes.” I hadn’t told Tilly the entire story behind the survey. I hadn’t exactly lied to her, but I also hadn’t volunteered much in the way of details. As far as she knew, it really was the academic study it purported to be.

“That’s really interesting, because I don’t think she’s a student in the Criminal Sciences department.”

“Yeah, I think you’re probably right about that,” I admitted.

“In fact, I’ve got some friends in Criminal Sciences, and they don’t know anything about this survey.”

“Well, about that…” I tried to come up with a response, but nothing came. This was not the conversation I thought I would be having.

“Look, I know your friend Dee is doing more than just the typical neighborhood watch kind of thing. That was obvious the first time I met her. I know she’s trying to help in a very… proactive way. What I don’t know is how this survey fits in with that.”

I started to fashion a response but was distracted from it by the sight of Dee walking toward us from across the quad. I started to call to her, but then stopped again.

It wasn’t Dee.

The young woman wore black tights, and goggles, and carried a skateboard. She even had the same haircut. But it wasn’t Dee. I sat there, my mouth still slightly open, as the young woman approached then walked right past us on her way to some other part of campus.

“Did you just see that?” I asked Tilly.

Tilly gave a short laugh. “Yeah, and that too.” She pointed to another woman on the other side of the quad. She was farther away, and I might have missed her if Tilly hadn’t pointed her out, but now that I was looking, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Dark tights, goggles, similar haircut. She was taller than Dee, and her hair was lighter, but the attempt to mimic Dee’s look was unmistakable.

A chill went down my spine. “I don’t believe this.”

“Well, what did you expect?” Tilly replied. “You run around playing superhero and getting your image plastered all over the Internet, you start to collect a following.”

I sat, dumbfounded, while the world shifted around me and my brain adjusted to this new reality. “The YouTube video…” I finally said.

“Yes, YouTube, and Pinterest, and a variety of Facebook posts. After that first video went viral, other people started posting, describing their encounters with the mysterious hero. A few even posted pictures. If even half the accounts are accurate, our Dee has been a busy little vigilante.”

“This… is not good.”

“Oh I don’t know. From all the reports, it seems like she’s done a lot of good.”

I shook my head. “No, you don’t understand, there are these people…” But then I stopped again. Some part of me resisted explaining, and I didn’t really understand why. Was I still foolishly trying to protect Dee’s secret? Was I embarrassed to admit my part in all the craziness? Was I worried that dragging Tilly into things would just endanger her too? None of those reasons seem to have much merit, and yet I hesitated.

“There are these people…” Tilly prompted, waving her hand in the universal sign for ‘please go on’.

How would I explain? It all seemed so crazy when I thought about it, especially when you took any one part of it in isolation. Even stepping back and looking at the whole crazy jigsaw puzzle, it was hard to believe. Still, if I was going to tell her any of it, I would have to tell the whole thing.

I took a breath, and began. “When I first met Dee in the Student Union, she told me she was a superhero.”

And then the rest of the mad story came spilling out after.

 

CHAPTER 32

Tilly and I walked together on the sidewalk through the center of the quad while I finished relating my story.

“… and that is why we needed the survey. If we are going to lay a trap for these bastards, we need to know how they operate.” I ran out of words at that point. I still wasn’t sure how to broach the topic of her own possible encounter with the demons.

We walked a bit longer before Tilly answered. “So… you’re sure this isn’t something you should just leave to the police?”

“Believe me, I’ve had that same thought, but I think if the police were going to put this together, they would have done it already.”

“You could go to them with what you have.”

“Sure, and they won’t think we’re crazy at all.” I immediately regretted the amount of sarcasm I’d imbued that statement with. “But even if they do believe us, it could backfire. We already know they have people in city government. They could have people in the local police. If we go to the cops, it could just tip them off.”

“It just seems really dangerous.”

“Yes, I know. And trust me, I’ve tried to talk Dee out of this, but she is going to do it with or without us, so at this point all I can think to do is help her as much as I can. To do everything possible to reduce the risks. I think you can help with that, actually.”

“Me? What can I do.”

“You might be the most recent person to actually see these… psychopaths… doing their thing. The Brass Rail… that night you first met Dee…”

Tilly stopped walking. She shuddered. “I so don’t want to think about how that could have ended.”

“And I really didn’t want to have to ask you about it. But anything you might remember might be the thing that breaks this open. I remember seeing a guy carrying you out of the Rail, but it was the other side of the room, and I wasn’t looking all that close. I couldn’t tell you what he looked like. Do you remember?”

“I… I don’t remember leaving the Brass Rail. I remember being there. I remember talking to a few different people. I was supposed to meet a couple of friends there, but they didn’t show.”

“Did anyone buy you a drink? Anyone give you a weird vibe?”

“No, I bought my own, but I wasn’t always watching my drink all the time. Anyone could have slipped something in it.” She bit her lip. Her brow furrowed. “There was this one guy. Came over and chatted me up. Offered to buy me a drink, but I hadn’t finished the one I had. He did some silly magic trick using cocktail napkins and straws. It was actually pretty good. He did give me a bit of a weird vibe though, now that I think of it. Like he was doing this thing, but he didn’t really care if he impressed me or not.”

“Would you recognize him if you saw him again?”

“Maybe, but I don’t expect to. See him again, that is. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but he talked like he wasn’t from around here and wasn’t planning on staying. Something about passing through. Wanted me to show him the sights. It totally sounded like a line, and I wasn’t interested. I don’t even remember his name. Sorry… I wish I could be more help.”

“Don’t be sorry. I think you might have just given us a big clue.” The wheels in my head were turning. The pieces of the puzzle were in motion again, and I felt like something was about to click into place.

My contemplation was interrupted by the approach of another student. He waved as he bounded up to us, his other hand clutching the strap of a backpack that dangled at his side.

“Matilda,” he shouted as he approached, “I’m glad I ran into you.”

Tilly seemed to cringe a bit, but quickly suppressed it and forced a smile on her face. “Robert, its good to see you too. What’s up?”

“It looks like we’ll be shorthanded getting ready for Trivia Jam this Saturday, and so I thought maybe we should help out. You up for it? I think it’ll be fun.”

“Sorry, I don’t think I can, I’ve got a lot going on this weekend.”

“Oh no problem.” He seemed to deflate a bit. “But you are at least coming to the trivia party, right? I mean the honor of South Tower is at stake!”

“I’ll try to to make it for a while, I promise.”

“Oh good. So, who’s your friend?”

“Hi, I’m Barry.” I shook the hand he offered. “I think Tilly said your name was Robert. Is that right?”

“Yeah, me and Matilda go way back. We met at freshman orientation and joined the dorm activities committee together.”

“That’s nice. I haven’t known her nearly so long.” I looked over at Tilly. She wore a pained expression covered by a rigid smile. Her eyes seemed to say, ‘please save me from this’.

Dee was always telling me to trust my instincts. She wanted me to exercise my empathy, to try and improve my supposed superpower. This was in no small part because of the role it would play in our current mission. I decided this was as good a time as any to give it a workout.

So what did my spidey sense tell me about Robert? He was a nice enough guy, but a bit shy and socially awkward, also somewhat unsure of himself. I shouldn’t really throw stones; that could describe me as well. He was obviously fond of Tilly but too afraid of rejection to ask her out directly, so he was seeking social interactions that were less fraught. Tilly wasn’t blind to the situation, and this was likely a repeating pattern that she was becoming tired of. She kept trying to reject him politely, but he was completely missing the clues. He needed something a bit more definitive. That was something I could likely help with. Time to invoke my other superpower. Boyfriend Camouflage.

“Yeah, Tilly and I haven’t known each other that long,” I said, “but I’m still the luckiest guy alive. I mean, I never imagined a few weeks ago I’d have such a great girlfriend.” I took Tilly’s hand and spared her a quick wink, hoping she would pick up on my strategy. She did, squeezing my hand in response and falling right into the role.

“Isn’t he just adorable,” she said to Robert.

“Oh definitely,” he replied, “you two make a great couple.” His face didn’t change, but I could feel his hopes being crushed. I suddenly felt immensely sorry for the guy. It was like I was reliving every rejection or crushed dream I had ever experienced. “So… I better see both of you at Trivia Jam then,” Robert continued, “and it was really nice bumping into you. Well, I’ve got lots to do, so I’d better get going.” He slung his backpack over his shoulder and raced off.

“I feel like I just kicked a puppy,” I said after he had receded in to the distance.

“I know what you mean, but thanks anyway,” Tilly replied.

“I take it he wasn’t picking up on the clues.”

“He wouldn’t know a clue if you wrapped it around a clue hammer and bludgeoned him to death with it.”

“Ouch. Graphic.”

“He’s not really such a bad guy. If he wouldn’t get so… fixated… just go out and socialize more, he would find someone who likes him back just as much.”

“Easier said than done, sometimes.”

“You don’t seem to do so badly,” she observed.

“You didn’t know me during my introverted nerd stage. I was hopeless in high school.”

“Yeah, lucky for me I met you at the extroverted nerd stage. Still, I can’t imagine you were ever clueless. In fact, I bet you had plenty of girlfriends in high school.”

“One, actually. We started dating in our senior year. We swore we would stay together when we graduated , but then she went to college in Oregon and is dating someone on the rugby team last I heard.”

“Her loss.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, actually.”

“I’m just one those people. Easy to talk to. Maybe I should become a counselor of some kind.”

“No arguments here.”

“Wait until you get my bill.”

I laughed. “I’ll have to owe you. I’m the definition of destitute college student.”

We had resumed walking as we talked and now found ourselves at the Kirby Math and Science building where I had my next class. It was just then that I realized I was still holding Tilly’s hand. I started to let go, but she held on. We walked the last few steps to the entrance of the building.

“Well, I guess this is goodbye,” she said to me, “Say hi to Dee for me, and let me know if I can help in any other way.”

“Thanks, will do.” I gave her hand a final squeeze and she finally let go.

I looked at her, and she smiled. And then I looked again, this time with my Empathy, and the whole world seem to spin around us. Emotion hit me in a wave, and for a moment I was sure I was feeling what Tilly was feeling… and it was so much more than just friendship.

 

Sometimes, I really am clueless.

 

CHAPTER 33

I stumbled through my afternoon classes in a fog. How could I have missed this? OK, sure, there was that whole criminal conspiracy thing, and being kidnapped, and trying to figure out my relationship with Dee. I think it’s fair to say I’ve had a few distractions to deal with. But for a guy with the supposed superpower of empathy, this was a pretty big thing to miss.

Maybe I should have kissed her. There was that moment when we were saying goodbye… a pause when I totally could have kissed her, but I was so shocked by what I had just realized, it slipped past, and she walked away.

Or maybe kissing her would have been unfair. Is that really the sort of relationship I want with Tilly? Would I just be leading her on? I’m still trying to figure out what sort of relationship I’m building with Dee. I care about Dee, that is certain, but so far its not really romantic, so it’s not like I would be cheating on her. So why am I even hesitating with Tilly? I mean, she is amazing, and I really like her. But I’m not sure how I actually feel about her.

It’s like I can feel the emotions of everyone else around me without any problems, but I can’t figure out what I feel. How screwed up is that?

My fellow students began packing up. The class was over. I looked down at the empty page of my notebook and realized I hadn’t taken any notes all afternoon. I also couldn’t remember much about any of the lectures. There was nothing to be done about it now, so I tucked my notebook away and joined the crowd now shuffling its way outside. I needed to get to the Intergalactic for a mission planning session with the rest of the team.

My thoughts remained turbulent on the bus ride there. I arrived to find Dee and DualCore already in the bean bag room. Kate and Sebastian joined us with a tray of coffees and teas shortly after. Originally Dee was going to keep her two skateboarding friends out of the mission, but we quickly realized our plan needed more legwork that we had legs for, so she recruited them.

Dee greeted me even before I was fully settled into a bean bag chair. “Hey Barry, how’d things go with Tilly?”

“Um… good. It was good. She’s good. She says hi, by the way.”

Dee gave me a curious look. “OK… that’s good. But did she remember anything about that night at the bar?”

“Oh… oh yeah. That. Yes. She didn’t remember a lot, but there was some creepy guy that might be important. He tried to buy her a drink. It’s probably worth following up on.” I had almost forgotten the entire purpose of my meeting with Tilly. Now that I had been reminded, the puzzle pieces in my head were moving again.

“That’s great,” Brian said. “Do you think she would be willing to look at a photo line-up? We can compile a list from the local Omicron Upsilon Iota membership, the employees of the Freedom Birthright Foundation… maybe we’ll get lucky.” He was already tapping at his tablet.

I shook my head. “I’m not so sure that will get us anything. Tilly seemed to think Mr. Creepy wasn’t from around here. He talked like he was just visiting.”

“That doesn’t fit our profile,” Liz countered.

“Maybe our profile is wrong.” I felt like we were close to something. Like another puzzle piece was about to click into place. “We’ve been assuming this was all run locally, but what if it’s not. We know people disperse all over the country after they graduate. Maybe the people running the conspiracy have also.”

Suddenly Liz started tapping frantically at her tablet. She sent some data to her brother with a swiping motion, and he was soon tapping and swiping just as energetically.

“You have something?” Dee asked.

“Just a sec,” Liz mumbled, “almost done.”

Kate leaned over to Sebastian and said, “They always sort of freaks me out when they do that geek mind meld thing.” Sebastian nodded. DualCore ignored them and just continued working.

“OK, I think that’s it,” Liz finally said. She turned to her brother. “Do you want to explain.”

“No, you pieced it together, the glory should be yours.”

Liz grinned and held up her tablet like it was trophy. “Travel reimbursement,” she declared.

“That’s, like, the lamest band name ever,” Sebastian quipped.

“Maybe so,” Liz continued, “but it’s also our smoking gun. This shows a link between the Freedom Birthright Foundation and sexual assaults on the Penbrooke campus, at least the assaults that match our profile. We missed it in our early analysis because all we had was scans of the paper reimbursement forms. The actual financial data is on the firewalled system we’ve never been able to access. But we do have the archived scans of the original documents. We’ve been using optical character recognition and old fashion data entry to add the scanned documents into our data mining, but its been slow going. I only just got to the travel reimbursements.

“There is an almost 65 percent correlation between travel expenses submitted for trips to and from this city by someone on our profile list during the times an assault happened. I pulled in a separate data source with the travel itinerary of Alexander Siegleshust and found he was almost always in town during matching assaults. That’s not as significant as it sounds, one of his homes is here after all. But here is the thing… when I cross reference the two data sets, looked at times when Siegleshust is in town and someone from our list has traveled here, it matches up with an assault nearly 100 percent of the time.”

“So basically what you are saying,” Dee interjected, “is if the boss is in town, and one of the minions is traveling here, we can be sure something bad is going down.”

“Yes, that’s what it looks like. I’ll double check just to be sure. But here is the really interesting bit. Siegleshust is in town right now. He flew in just last week.”

Dee leaned forward. “And the minions?”

“None just yet, but I’ve already set up a bot to monitor for it. If it happens, the bot will ping us. We’ll know what flight they’re arriving on, what hotel they’re staying at. Everything.”

“Perfect,” Dee replied, “then we just tail them and close the trap.”

“Queue the Mission Impossible theme music,” joked Sebastian.

“Speaking of the trap,” said Brian, “I think you’ll find this useful.” He handed Dee a white plastic oval about the size of guitar pick, only thicker. “It’s a GPS locator, not quite military grade, but better than the typical civilian model. It can locate you to within a couple of feet.”

That piqued my interest. “Slick. How did you manage that?”

“Oh its really simple, actually,” Liz answered. “We use two off the shelf GPS units, one in a fixed location, one mobile. We use the fixed one to measure the errors in the signal, compute a differential, then subtract that from the mobile unit’s data. As long as they are within twenty miles of each other, it works really well. This unit here is actually designed to attach to a dog collar, so it’s perfect. It’s small, lightweight, with a really good battery, and sends out its location as a standard SMS text message. It should be easy to conceal.”

“That reminds me,” I said, “I also brought presents to the party.” I reached into my backpack and brought out the project I’d been working on for the last few days. I tossed it to Dee.

She caught it and dangled it in front of her. “They look like my skateboarding gloves.” She slid the right one on and flexed her fingers, then made a fist. “Those metal studs are wicked looking.”

“You don’t know the half of it.” I brought the battery packs out of my backpack and motioned for her to extend her arm. I then attached one of the thin batteries to her right arm using a Velcro strap, then I connected the charge wire to a snap on the wrist area of the glove. “OK, make a fist, but keep your thumb out to the side.” She did it, and I reached over and hit the safety switch on the battery pack. “Now touch your thumb against that spot there on your pointer finger.”

She closed her thumb against her fist, and suddenly lightning was jumping across the metal studs on the knuckles of the gloves.

“Whoa, I felt that,” Dee exclaimed. Her hand was open again.

“Yeah, I put as much insulation as I could in that part of the glove, but I still had to drop the voltage a bit compared to my first design, otherwise you would really be feeling it.”

“It barely tingled. More of a vibration, really.” She made a fist again, and the sparks danced.

“Ooh let me try!” Kate pleaded, and Dee handed her the left glove. I handed over the matching battery pack, and Kate wasted no time slipping everything in place. She raised her fist over her head and declared, “I am Katella, goddess of lightning!” as the sparks chased across her knuckles.

“Just be careful,” I cautioned, “They’re not quite as powerful as a commercial a stun gun, but they still have a kick. They can even be deadly in certain situations.”

“Well, so can I,” replied Dee, “so these are a perfect fit.”

“I got the idea after we tangled with those drug dealers. I figured this way, you wouldn’t have to dig around in a pocket for Mr. Zappy. We can conceal the batteries almost anywhere in your jacket, and I can tie them both into a single safety switch.”

“They’re great, Barry. I’m not sure they go with the outfit I’ll be wearing while demon hunting, but I’ll definitely wear them when I’m on patrol. This was a really clever idea.”

“I can’t take all the credit. The basic design is from a project I found on the Internet. I think I improved on it a fair bit though.”

Kate returned the left glove, and Dee slipped it on. Dee then stood, assumed a boxer stance, and threw a few punches at the air. As each fist reached the end of its swing, she activated that glove, causing sparks to snap briefly in a steady rhythm. The sound synchronized with the punches made it seem like she was impacting an invisible foe. She stopped punching, and then just held her fists in front of her face with the sparks chasing over her knuckles.

“How long will the batteries last,” she asked.

“I’m not sure exactly,” I answered. “They’re lithium ion, so probably longer than Mr. Zappy. Five minutes of continuous use at least.”

Dee held her hands a bit closer to her face and stared at the sparks. A bit of ozone smell began to permeate the air, and her hair actually began to stand on end. It was at that moment that another coffee house patron walked into the bean bag room looking for a place to sit. He froze in the doorway. A bit of coffee sloshed from his cup as he stared at Dee. She stared back at him, sparks still playing across her hands, hair standing on end, and said, “I should have had decaf.”

 

The guy left in a hurry.

 

CHAPTER 34

It is said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Our plan was no exception. Even before our breakthrough with the travel expenses, a plan was coming together. Using the survey results, we would narrow the field of battle to several bars and dance clubs popular with the college crowd. Each night, we would spread out among those locations, looking for behavior that matched the profile we had compiled. My empathy ability would play a big role. More than any other team member, I would move from location to location, scanning any candidates my teammates had flagged for closer inspection. If I got an appropriately evil vibe, we would signal Dee to join us and spring her trap by throwing herself into the jaws of their trap. This basically meant using her superpower to become their ideal victim. The survey had supplied us with a profile of what they looked for, and Dee was armed with cocktail straws that change color in the presence of date rape drugs. Our plan didn’t really change much with the discovery of the travel reimbursement connection, but it did become a lot less dependent on chance. Now we just needed to wait for Liz’s bot to ping us when matching travel plans were filed at the Freedom Birthright Foundation. I would scan the travelers as they arrived at the airport or train station to verify our suspicions. Then we would keep them under surveillance until we tracked them to whatever night spot they were targeting so we could call in Dee.

Only four days after our meeting at the Intergalactic, the bot pinged us. In quick succession, three different conspirators filed travel plans. Two of them would arrive next Friday on the same flight. The third was arriving on Saturday. I skipped two of my Friday classes to hang out at the airport. I couldn’t get a clear read from them among all the other passengers, but I was able to confirm their identities using pictures provided by DualCore. Saturday I had more luck. I located my target at the baggage carousel and followed him to the cab stand. I stood behind him, pretending to wait for a cab. I still wasn’t getting much of a read, so in a moment of boldness bordering on insanity, I bumped into him.

“Oh I’m so sorry,” I blurted, “I’m such a klutz.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he mumbled, “no harm done.”

“What a day. My flight was late, and then they lost my luggage, and now I can’t even walk straight.”

The guy made an indistinct grunt in reply.

“Hey, do you have the time?” I asked.

He turned to me, and I got a good look at him. A middle aged guy with graying hair and a network of lines around his eyes. His eyes narrowed and he said, “No. I don’t have the time.” He turned back.

Yes, this was definitely one of our demons. To him, I was less than nothing. Most people were less than nothing. He was annoyed with traveling, but excited about what was ahead. He was intelligent. He could be charming, but mostly didn’t bother because most people didn’t deserve it.

OK, so either my empathy was supplying a lot of detail from an incredibly brief exchange, or I’ve got one heck of an imagination. I considered trying another read, but then he climbed into the next cab and was gone. I took out my phone and sent a text message to DualCore while I walked toward the bus stop.

 

Third minion confirmed. Just left airport. On my way back.

kate and seb at hotel. minions 1 & 2 still in the hotel bar.

dee casing possible target nightclub. c u soon.

 

I put my phone away and continued toward the bus stop, but then it vibrated with another text message.

 

dee says its going down NOW!

 

I started to type in a message asking what the hell that meant, but then got another message.

 

dee has gone radio silent.

 

I stopped in my tracks and immediately made a voice call. “What do you mean going down now? Why is Dee radio silent?” I nearly shouted it into the phone.

“She didn’t give much detail,” Liz answered, “she just said there was someone at Club Vashi and that it was happening now, then she hung up.”

“Why is she even at Club Vashi? What the hell is going on?” I was starting to feel a bit panicked. The plan was for most of the team to stay close to Dee when the trap was sprung, to keep visual contact if possible and follow the bad guys when they carried her off.

“Kate and Sebastian overheard minions one and two talking in the hotel bar. They mentioned Club Vashi, so Dee decided to go check it out and learn the layout before the big event.”

“How could this even happen? If minions one and two are still at the hotel, and number three just left the airport, who the hell is at the nightclub?”

“I don’t know, we must have missed something.” Now Liz was sounding a bit panicked also. “I’ve sent Kate and Sab to the club, and Brian is headed there too, but I think you’re closer. Get there as fast as you can, Barry. We have to get there before they start moving.”

I hung up without answering. The bus wouldn’t be fast enough. I ran back to the cab stand. Only one cab was left, and someone was already climbing into it.

“I really need this cab,” I shouted as I approached, “it’s an emergency, I swear.”

The occupant of the back seat leaned over to get a better look at me. “Son, I’ve learned over the years that not much in this life is ever really an emergency.”

I was struck with the sudden feeling that I knew him from somewhere. He was at least forty, maybe older, with long hair and a neatly trimmed beard. He wore wire rimmed glasses with a slight tint, and next to him was a battered guitar case. On the other side sat a teenage girl with an incredibly similar smile. I drank in every detail. I cranked up my empathy to its maximum. I needed them to listen. I needed them to believe me.

“I know this sounds crazy,” I began, “but you know that moment in an action movie when everything is going wrong and the whole world hangs in the balance and it all hinges on some random stranger taking a leap of faith, believing the hero and helping them when there’s no good reason to? This is one of those moments.”

They just stared at me, and for a moment I thought I’d lost them, but then the girl said, “Let’s do it, Dad.”

“Oh, what the hell,” her father replied, “climb in, we’ll share the cab.”

I started to reach for the front passenger door, but the driver waved me off, saying, “All passengers in back.” I squeezed in next to the guitar.

“Club Vashi,” I said to the cabby, “as fast as you can.” He pulled away from airport at a leisurely pace.

Dad pulled a large wad of cash from his jacket, peeled off a couple of twenties, and handed them to the driver. “Like the man said, fast as you can.” I scrambled for my seatbelt as our speed suddenly increased.

“I really appreciate this,” I said. He just gave a friendly nod in reply.

“So what sort of action movie emergency thing is it?” the daughter asked.

“I’m not sure you would believe me.”

“Oh I promise I will. Please tell me.”

“You might as well tell her,” Dad suggested, “she won’t let go of it if you don’t.”

I took a breath. “OK, well, an international cabal of blackmailing sociopaths is right now trying to drug and kidnap a good friend of mine.”

“Sounds serious,” replied Dad, “you think maybe you want to call the police?”

“Oh I do. I really really do. Have I mentioned that the local government is corrupt and the police might be part of it? Wow, that really does sound crazy when you say it out loud, doesn’t it.”

“Son, crazy is just another name for Saturday where I’m from.”

The daughter leaned over and said, “he has a song about that.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard one like that on the…” I stopped. I took a fresh look at my fellow passengers.

Dad grinned at me. Then my phone rang. The caller ID showed DualCore92.

“Liz, tell me what’s happening.”

“Kate and Sebastian are stuck in traffic. I can’t reach Brian, so that probably means he’s driving. Where are you?”

“I’m in a cab a couple minutes from the club, I think. What about Dee? Have you heard from her? Is her GPS active?”

“She’s still radio silent, but GPS has her in the club.”

“I would feel better if we were talking to her,” I said.

“Radio silence after contact was always part of the plan,” Liz countered.

“True, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

“Just get there, Barry. As fast as you can.”

“I’m there.” The cab rolled to a stop in front of Club Vashi. The building was an edifice of brushed metal, glass block, and neon. Thumping base and flashing colored lights filtered through the windows. “I’m muting the phone. Don’t hang up. I’ll check on Dee.” I opened the door and started to climb out, then turned back to my fellow passengers. “Thank you. I really mean that. Thank you.”

The daughter gave me an exasperated look and said, “Go save your friend!”

I rushed into the club, only to be stopped at the door by a large hand on my shoulder. For a terrified second I thought it was the The Mook, but it was only the bouncer. I showed my ID and proceeded inside at a slower pace. It was still early in the evening, so the place was not yet packed, but the lighting made it hard to pick out individuals. I didn’t see Dee anywhere. Then I felt my phone vibrate and remembered Liz was on the line. I lifted the phone to my ear but couldn’t hear what she was saying over the noise of the club.

“Liz, I don’t see her anywhere,” I shouted into the phone. I held a hand over my other ear and listened again.

“I said she’s moving. Back door. GPS shows her outside the back door.”

I ran toward the back of the club, finding a hallway leading to bathrooms. At the end was a door marked Employees Only. I pushed through and found myself in a storage room. On the far end was a door marked Exit. Without any thought of our plan, I ran to the door, shoved it open, and tumbled outside.

I was in the alley behind the club. A dark SUV was pulling away. It was then that I realized how ill-considered my actions were. I hoped nobody was looking back toward the nightclub exit, but in case they were, I leaned against the wall, cupped my hand near my face, and pretended to be lighting a cigarette. If I was lucky, they would think I was a bar employee taking a smoke break. When the vehicle reached the end of the alley, I grabbed my phone.

Liz was already speaking. “She’s on the move again, heading south.”

“I know, I can see them. It’s a dark SUV. Black, maybe dark blue, hard to tell in this light. The plate reads… damn it, I can’t read it from here.”

“Don’t worry, the GPS is still tracking. I’ll redirect the rest of the team to try and catch up with them.”

The SUV turned right onto the street and disappeared from site. I nearly threw my phone in frustration. I turned to go back into the nightclub but found the door had locked behind me. I started to run down the alley toward the street. If I could get another cab, maybe I could get back into the chase.

Halfway to the street, a familiar shade of yellow caught my eye. There, peeking from behind a dumpster, was Martin. I nearly cheered as I wrestled the Vespa out into the alley. Then I nearly cried as I realized I didn’t have keys. A moment later I remembered the spare keys Dee had given me when last I rode the scooter. A made a frantic search of my pockets, found the keys, and Martin purred to life.

“Liz, I’m in pursuit, but I need directions. Can you talk me in?”

“I can do better than that. I can route the GPS data to your geo-app.”

I opened up the app and signed on. Sure enough, a map with a blinking icon labeled ‘Dee’ showed up. The icon was moving gradually east on Washington Avenue. I switched to compass mode, and the screen was filled with an arrow pointing in the direction of Dee. “Thanks Liz, It’s working.” I clipped the phone to Martin’s steering column, and raced off.

 

The chase was on.

 

CHAPTER 35

I rocketed from the alley like a guided missile, my eyes darting between the phone and the road as I tried to aim the scooter toward Dee. I wove through traffic with uncharacteristic recklessness, zipping between cars and running yellow lights, taking every opportunity to reduce the gap between me and the SUV. Slowly, the distance displayed on the geo-app shrunk. A cargo van directly in front of me turned right, and suddenly I could see the SUV only three cars ahead of me. I hoped that nobody in that vehicle was looking back, or if they were that they would not recognize the Vespa. To be cautious, I slowed down and kept most of a city block between me and my quarry.

The chase carried us toward the college campus, and as we drew near, I began to suspect where they were leading me. My suspicions were confirmed when they pulled into the alley running behind ‘fraternity row’, the area where most of the fraternity and some of the sorority houses are located. I hesitated at the end of the alley only long enough to verify they were stopping at the Omicron Upsilon Iota house. As they pulled into a garage facing the alley, I parked Martin around the corner and a few houses down from the frat house.

I jumped off of Martin and began to run toward the fraternity house, realized I’d forgotten my phone, and ran back. Grabbing the phone, I then also thought to look in the scooter’s storage compartment. Under the crash helmet I had neglected wear was Dee’s backpack. I grabbed that and headed back toward the frat house, dialing Liz as I ran.

“They’re at the Omicron house,” I shouted into the phone.

“I see that,” she replied, “Brian is still a few minutes out. Sebastian and Kate will be even longer.”

I stopped in front of the fraternity house. “We should close the trap.”

“Not quite yet. They only just got there.”

“This is killing me, Liz.” I stared up at the impressive colonial revival mansion, feeling helpless.

“I understand,” Liz replied, “but, hang tight. It’s all… oh… oh crap.”

“What? Liz, what’s happening?” I was nearly shouting now.

“The GPS track just went dead. It… it could be nothing. The signal might be blocked by the building.”

“Why am I not comforted by that? What aren’t you saying?”

“We used really good hardware. A wood and plaster building shouldn’t block something on the SMS band.”

“I’m going in.” I started up the steps toward the front door.

“Barry, NO,” Liz shouted into the phone, “Wait for the rest of the team.”

“They found the GPS. It’s the only explanation. She’s in real danger now.” I reach the front door. “Hell, she was always in danger. This was an insane idea from the outset.” I muted the phone and flung the door open.

I was inside. There appeared to be another party going on, though more subdued than the massive bash that Tilly and I had attended. Several people looked my direction.

“Don’t mind me,” I said, “I’m just here to see John.” I didn’t actually know the names of any of the fraternity members, but the odds were in my favor that at least one of them was named John. I headed toward the back of the house before anyone could object to my presence.

I pulled out my phone and switched the geo-app back to map mode, then turned on the historical position trace. Dee’s path came in from the back of the house and headed toward the southeast corner. I cut through the Hallowed Hall of Alumni, into a hallway on the other side, a part of the house I had never been in before. My position now converged with her path. I followed the trace to a closed door. This had to be the southeast corner of the building. I hesitated only a moment, then threw the door open.

The room was empty.

Nice oak floors with expensive looking rugs. Leather chairs. An antique desk. Bookcases filled with leather bound books. But no Dee, and nobody else. Across the room was another door. Dee’s GPS trace led right to it. I flung the door open… and found an empty closet.

I stepped back from the closet and spun around, looking at every part of the room. No other way out, and the trace didn’t go anywhere else. I turned back to the closet. I stepped inside the closet and looked at my position on the map. Dee’s trace went a few feet more, to the other side of the wall.

I unmuted the phone. “Liz, how accurate is that GPS unit? Within a couple of feet, right?”

“Yes, why?”

“I’ll explain in a minute.” I looked closely at the back wall of the closet. It looked like run of the mill drywall, painted the same color as the rest of the walls. It was subtly different than the other walls, however. Smoother. The other walls were probably original lathe and plaster.

I stepped into the closet and looked closely at the wall, looking for seams, for any sort of catch or lever that might open a hidden door. Nothing. I pressed on the wall. It didn’t move. I leaned into it with all my weight, then I hauled of and kicked it. Then I hopped on one foot for a minute and cursed. The wall was much more sturdy than one would expect from drywall.

“Hey, you’re not supposed to be in here,” a voice called from behind me. I turned and was confronted by a college age guy dressed in khaki pants and a polo shirt.

“Oh, sorry,” I apologized, “I was just looking for the bathroom.”

“Well, it’s not in here. Down the hall, to your left. I’m John. Someone said you were looking for me.”

“Thanks, just give me a minute.” I strode past him and turned right.

“No, not that way,” I heard him shout from behind me.

Back in the Hallowed Hall of Alumni, I stopped and looked up at the wall. Yes, this was just what I needed.

I ran into John in the hallway. His eyes widened as he saw The Ax of Divine Justice in my hands. He got well out of my way as I ran past him and back into the room with the closet. I started heading across the room, then turned back. John was standing just outside the door.

“I’m going to need some privacy,” I said as I slammed the door shut and locked it. The door was decently heavy, but the lock was a simple interior model that could be jiggled open with a butter knife. I grabbed a bookend from one of the shelves. It was a finely tapered wedge, perfect for what I needed. Jamming it into the space between bottom of the door and the floor, I whacked it with the dull end of the ax, driving it firmly into place. For good measure, I also pushed one of the overstuffed leather chairs against the door. Hopefully that would slow them down enough.

I fell into that wall like a lumberjack. Drywall came way in large pieces, revealing rows of two-by-fours connected together with drywall screws. I could hear shouting and banging at the door to the room. I kept swinging until two of the boards had splintered, leaving a gap large enough to reach an arm into.

I stuck my head against the gap, but too little light filtered in to see much of anything. I reached an arm in, stretched, and could just touch another wall at the far reach of my arm. The noise from the other side of the room became louder. Something or someone heavy impacted the door, and I heard a splintering sound. Frantically, I began feeling around the back of the two-by-four barrier, looking for some sort of mechanism that might open. I nearly fell over when I finally tripped the latch and the hidden door swung inward.

I stood at the top of a narrow flight of stairs. The bottom was lost in darkness until I located a light switch. Florescent lights flickered on. Another impact hit the far door, splintering the door-frame and sliding the leather chair a few inches. I closed the closet door. I didn’t expect that to fool them for long, but any delay would help. I also closed the secret door before starting down the stairs.

It was like progressing through the geologic layers of an archeology dig. The wood and plaster construction of the ground floor gave way to the old stone blocks of the original foundation, then poured concrete of newer construction at the lowest level. The stairway ended, deeper than I expected, at a plain metal door. I held my breath, grabbed the doorknob, and went through.

I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this. It was a huge space, with a roof at least 12 feet overhead. The roof was constructed of thick wooden beams with what looked like gold leaf filigree hammered into them. The walls were paneled in dark wood divided into rectangular sections by borders that looked like picture frames. The floor was terrazzo, smooth polished marble assembled from different colored pieces, the pattern of the pieces forming a map of the world complete with a compass in one corner and sea serpents poking up from the oceans. More overstuffed leather chairs were scattered around the periphery, and a well stocked bar was tucked along one corner, rows and rows of expensive looking bottles arrayed against a mirrored wall. Again, this room was empty of people.

I ran around the room, looking for another door but not finding one. I walked to the center of the room and looked around. I felt a strange sense of déjà vu followed by a rising feeling of panic. I looked at my phone and saw that I had no signal. Taking slow breaths, I tried to remain calm and think things through. There had to be another hidden door. I just had to find. it. I began making a slower examination of the walls, listening the whole time for sounds from the stairwell.

A third of the way around the room I found it. One of the picture frame like borders on the wall had a recessed bit, a space you could slide a hand into. I grabbed it and pulled. The panel sprang open, revealing a hallway beyond. I quickly slipped through the door and closed the panel behind me.

The hallway was nothing like the grandeur of the previous room. It was all concrete and cinder blocks and pale florescent lights. The block walls were occasional interrupted by featureless metal doors, most with RFID card locks like those used at the Freedom Birthright Foundation. The first door I tried was unlocked, but it contained only a storage room with folding chairs and a few tables. The next few doors were locked, and then the hallway stretched on for some time without any doors at all. I finally reached another unlocked door at the very end of the hallway. This one led to a flight of stairs going up and a door like in the closet at the fraternity house. I popped the latch, and the door swung in. Unsurprisingly, this door also led through the back of another closet, this time containing a few cleaning supplies. I stepped into the closet and was about to close the hidden door but then realized it would probably lock behind me, so I instead left it open with a box of chlorine pellets in the way to make sure it wouldn’t swing shut accidentally. Finally, I let myself out into the room beyond.

I found myself in what must be a pool house. It had tile floors, wicker furniture, and large glass doors that led outside to an enormous in-ground pool illuminated dimly by underwater lights. Beyond the pool was an enormous house constructed of cream colored bricks and granite and terracotta roofs. The house was well lit, but the grounds were dark, hiding the scale of the estate. I crept closer to the glass doors, crouched behind a wicker lounge chair, and peered at the house, trying to decide what to do next.

Suddenly floodlights snapped on, illuminating the entire estate and briefly blinding me. An alarm began to sound in the distance, and then a well muscled guy in a dark windbreaker and carrying a hand gun ran past. I slid down farther behind the lounge chair even though he was looking toward the house and not in my direction.

Gunshots. Three in quick succession. Then a couple more. One of the floodlights snapped off. More gunshots. Another light went off. Then the light closest to the pool exploded.

And then I saw him. Light reflecting from the glass had hidden him only a moment before, but now I could see him standing at the mansion’s French doors, a silhouette against the lights still on within the house.

Siegleshust.

He stood there, peering out into the darkness, seemingly unworried by the chaos and gunshots around him. I just sat there, transfixed, peering back, until he turned and disappeared into the mansion. A let out a breath I didn’t know I had been holding, then stopped mid breath again when another figure holding a gun appeared outside the pool house. The person scurried over to the glass doors, slid them open, and slipped inside.

 

It was Dee.

 

CHAPTER 36

I let out a relieved gasp. Dee flattened herself to the ground and snap kicked the wicker lounge chair, sending it flying over my head.

“Dee, it’s me,” I whispered frantically.

“Barry? How the hell did you get here?”

“I was following you. Like we planned. What are you doing with a gun? I thought you hated those things.”

“Yes, I do,” she admitted, “but I never said I don’t know how to use them. I was improvising. I needed some way to knock out the lights.” She then ejected the clip, cleared the firing chamber, and threw the entire lot out the door and into the pool where they sank out of sight. “OK, let’s get out of here.”

We retreated back through the closet, down the stairs, and into the tunnel. When we reached the first of the locked doors, Dee stopped.

“Just a second, I want to try something,” she said. She reached into her blouse and pulled out a handful of plastic ID badges. This was when I finally noticed her appearance. She was barefoot but wearing black stockings, a short skirt, and a frilly blouse. She was also wearing makeup with bright red lipstick, and her hair was bleached blond. She noticed me staring and said, “What?” Then she looked at herself and said, “Oh yeah. This. It’s a disguise. Part of the plan, remember? I just wish I’d worn better shoes. I had to ditch those useless pumps.”

“Hey, I think I can help with that.” I unslung her backpack and handed it over.

“Barry, you are awesome.” She shed her shirt and blouse, revealing a black body stocking, then began putting on the items from her backpack. Tennis shoes, motorcycle jack, goggles, knee and elbow pads. The last was her new stun gloves. She clicked the power leads into place and sent an arc of test lightning across each fist. “OK, that’s better. Now let’s check out these rooms.” She handed me two of the ID cards.

“Where did you get these?” I asked.

“I improvised. Don’t worry, the previous owners won’t be needing them for a while.” She waved her cards at a door. It popped open, and she peeked inside, was evidently unimpressed by what she found, and moved on to the next one.

I waved my cards at a door on the opposite side of the hallway. The scanner buzzed, and the door popped open. I stepped inside and turned on the lights. The room was mostly occupied by the largest bed I had ever seen. Table’s and shelves around it were covered in sex toys and bondage implements and things that would probably make the Marquis de Sade blush. It was kinky, but nothing was obviously criminal, so I decided to move on. That was when I heard Dee yell. I couldn’t make out her words, but something in her tone sent a chill down my spine, and I ran out into the hallway and toward the next open door.

 

Dee once told me that this adventure we were on might be my origin story. I laughed it off at the time. I mean, if comic books have taught me anything it’s that superheros are born from tragedy. Spiderman loses his uncle. Batman loses his parents. Superman loses his entire world. Origin stories are never happy things. For all it’s danger and craziness, my life had gained far more than it had lost, so I just wasn’t seeing it. But some part of those words stuck with me, and they came back to mind when I entered that room.

Dee was facing away from me. In front of her was a bank of video monitors, and arrayed around them was shelf upon shelf of video tapes and DVDs, each with a different date written on it. On the desk in front of her was several tape and disk players with cables all running to a desktop computer. Dee was doing something on the computer, and a video was playing on one of the monitors. She didn’t notice The Mook stepping out of the shadows behind her, a gun in his hand. I looked at The Mook. He looked at me. I turned to Dee and drew a breath to warn her. And that’s when I saw it. That’s when her words about origin stories came back to me. Because she wasn’t looking at the video monitors. She was looking at the rows of tapes and DVDs.

 

And she seemed to be looking for a very specific date.

 

CHAPTER 37

So, here’s the thing. My Empathy power seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Dee. My theory is that her I-Belong-Here field interferes with it. Instead of reading Dee, maybe I’m reading the fake version of her that her power projects, the thing that shows you what you want or expect to see instead of what’s really there. That’s probably why I never before put together all the puzzle pieces that suddenly clicked into place in that room, and it’s also why I’m still not sure there is any truth to the picture they assembled.

I hadn’t before really thought about why Dee dropped out of college. I didn’t put much thought into what wakes a person up in the middle in the night. What might drive a person to search the night looking for wrongs to right. I was thinking about it now, and I didn’t like where it led.

We can only know as much of someone as they choose to share, and sometimes pain is bigger than words. It’s one thing to hear the statistics. It’s quite another to think about what they mean in the measure of real lives. One out of every six women in America will suffer a sexual assault at some point in her life. Now think about how many women you know. Almost certainly, some of them are carrying around secret wounds you know nothing about. Perhaps even someone very close to you. And you don’t know.

I still don’t know. Not for certain. How much can we ever really know another person’s origin story?

 

  • * *

 

The Mook raised his gun, and I drew my breath to speak. And then something in The Mook’s eyes changed. He was looking not at Dee but the video playing on the main display. I glanced at the monitor and quickly looked away. I looked back at The Mook. I reached into my Empathy, but I already had the words.

“This is who you work for,” I said to him.

He looked to me. He lowered his gun as if it had suddenly become too heavy. “I didn’t know,” he answered.

“We need to stop them,” I continued. He replied with a short nod.

Dee seemed oblivious of what was transpiring behind her. “This is it, Barry. This is the smoking gun. We have to take it with us.”

I looked at the overflowing shelves. “It’s too much to carry.” I turned my attention to the PC. “They’ve obviously been digitizing the older media, copying it to a hard drive.”

“I know. I’m trying to get into the file system, to copy the data, but this system is a dinosaur.” She pounded the desk in frustration.

The bang of Dee’s fist was immediately followed by the deafening bang of a handgun. The Mook stepped back into the room and said, “sorry, but it seems some of my former associates are attempting to join us from the estate.” He leaned out the door and fired another two shots. “I’m keeping them pinned down in the stairwell, but I have limited ammunition. I suggest you leave quickly.”

“Dee, he’s right. We need to leave.”

Dee turned to me. “It’s right here, Barry.”

“And we know where it is,” I said, “We can lead others to it.” I took her hand. “Let’s go.”

She spared a glance back at the shelves, then ran with me. The Mook covered our retreat with a steady rhythm of gunfire. We ran down the hallway, shoved open the door, and leaped into to the great map room.

 

It was not empty this time.

 

About thirty thugs were milling about the room, some of them familiar faces. Our old friends Gray, Green, and Red were there. I also recognized a few fraternity members. The rest seemed to be generic security goons like the ones at the Siegleshust estate. From the looks of surprise on their faces, I don’t think they knew there was a second secret door in the room.

Red looked at Dee, his face a sudden mask of recognition and fury. “You!” he shouted.

“What did you do with our Ax?” yelled one of the frat boys.

The entire group was focused on us, and I didn’t need my Empathy to know their intentions were less than kind. I thought about running back into the hallway, but the sound of continuing gunshots quickly erased that idea.

Dee turned to me, winked, and said, “Like I’ve said before, Barry, the only way out, is through.”

 

Up until that moment, I had maintained my doubts about Dee being a superhero. With the events that followed, those doubts died. Completely. Permanently.

She fell on them like some mythical goddess of vengeance. Like a cleansing storm. She danced and spun, kicking the feet out from under them, flipping them into one another. A few pulled guns, but she quickly disarmed them, sometimes throwing one gun as a projectile to knock another out of some thug’s hands. She used the stun gloves like she had trained with them for a lifetime, brushing her hands across several people in succession and throwing them each off balance as their bodies spasmed. It was like she was inventing a new martial art while we watched. When she was done, Dee and I were the only ones standing. She picked up her backpack, and we headed up the stairs to the fraternity house.

We emerged into controlled chaos. Red and blue flashing lights shown through the windows. Police in tactical gear wandered the house, rounding up the occupants one by one. It seemed the frat party had been raided, which meant DualCore had closed our trap.

With potential corruption in the local police force, we needed a way to call in outside reinforcements. Dee and DualCore manufactured rumors of an impending large scale drug deal. I’m not sure what sort of evidence they invented, but it definitely worked, because the place was swarming with authorities, a mix of state police and DEA agents.

Dee quickly removed her superhero implements and slipped her skirt back on, then we let ourselves be captured and processed with the rest of the party guests. We were searched, and finding nothing obviously illegal, they simply copied down our names and contact information and let us go. The cop searching Dee’s backpack did raise an eyebrow at her goggles, but her stun gloves evidently looked innocent enough with the batteries disconnected.

As we began to leave, one of the state police emerged and had an excited conversation with with several other officers. I heard something about a closet and needing backup, then he said something into his radio, and they all headed into the fraternity house.

A while later, the thugs from the map room began to emerge. Evidently they did not go quietly, because most were in handcuffs. Dee and I hung back with the crowd now forming outside the police perimeter and watched it all happen. At some point Brian joined us, as did Sebastian and Kate.

Red was one of the last people pulled out, and as they stuffed him into a police van, he looked over and saw Dee.

“It’s her!” he shouted. Dee grinned and waved. “She’s the one who broke both my hands. Somebody arrest her. Somebody arrest that devious…” He was cut off by the slamming of the van door.

Dee grabbed my arm. “Did you hear that Barry? He gave me a name. I have my hero name!”

 

CHAPTER 38

For the next several days, we sat in the Intergalactic and watched it all unfold on the cable news channels. We were initially excited by the reports of massive evidence of criminal activity. We watched the news footage as box after box with evidence tags were hauled from the fraternity house and the Siegleshust estate. We groaned in frustration with the announcement that a judge had disallowed all the evidence because it fell outside the original warrant. The judge ordered all of it be returned or destroyed.

Then some of the evidence leaked, and the judge was implicated in the conspiracy. Rumors circulated that someone in the DEA or state police, shocked by the nature of the evidence and refusing to let the investigation die, began leaking to the press to outrage and rally the public. It worked. Jurisdiction was shifted to the Justice Department and the FBI. The evidence was ruled clearly permissible under exigent circumstances. The judge committed suicide after evidence of his pedophilia was leaked.

More prominent members of the conspiracy were outed. Some fled the country. Some turned up dead. Others surrendered and made deals with the Justice department, and that’s when everything really unraveled. The whole spiderweb came apart, thread by thread, and we watched it all live on CNN.

The Freedom Birthright Foundation was eventually raided and all of its assets frozen. Siegleshust fled the country. Much of his wealth was seized, but more than eight hundred million dollars was transferred to offshore accounts and disappeared before that happened. I could tell this really bothered Dee.

We all sat in the Intergalactic’s TV lounge, watching yet another high profile arrest. Tilly sat next to me, and even The Mook had joined us. He had somehow escaped being shot or arrested and seemed very happy for someone recently unemployed. We learned his name was Michael, and I worked hard to remember that and not accidentally call him Mook instead. Dee gave him a cold brew coffee without asking him what he wanted. I think that means he’s a member of the team now.

“You did that,” Liz said to Dee. She was pointing at the television and the video of some corporate attorney being hauled off in handcuffs.

“Yes, and I am happy about it,” Dee replied, “but it all feels… anticlimactic, somehow. Siegleshust got away. We’re still losing the Lair. It’s not the ending I imagined.” She looked down at the new patch on her motorcycle jacket, a stylized letter D on her left shoulder. D for Devious.

“You still helped a lot of people. Probably more than we’ll every really know.”

Dee squeezed her friend’s hand and stood. “Thanks Liz. I’m not really as glum as I look. It’s just that this is my last day in the lair. I need to get over there and clear out my stuff before the deadline.”

We all shuffled out of the coffee house, agreeing to meet over at the factory and help with the move. Tilly and I road with Brian and Liz. We arrived at the same time as Dee. She leaped off her scooter and ran toward the workers and trucks arrayed near the factory’s entrance. We ran after her.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” Dee was yelling, “we have another entire day.”

“Dee, it’s not what you think,” Brian called after her.

Dee slid to a stop. She seemed to finally notice that the workers were carrying things into her lair, not out. She turned to us. “What’s going on?”

Brian and Liz looked at each other. Brian gave a slight nod, and Liz turned back to Dee. She pulled a USB stick out of her pocket. It dangled from a chain with a plastic skull on the end. “Recognize this?”

“Sure, it’s the Skeleton Key,” Dee answered.

“Yeah… not really. It’s just a regular USB thumb drive. You gave back the wrong thing after the we infiltrated the Freedom Birthright Foundation.”

Dee pulled a similar looking USB stick from her pocket and looked at it. Wheels turned. “Under the frat house. I tried to copy files from that computer with the videos.”

“Yup,” Brian responded, “and that punched a hole through their firewall, the same one guarding all the financial data.”

Dee ran into the factory, and we followed. Workers were installing new electrical conduit. Others were pulling the boards off windows and installing new glass. “All that money… the eight hundred million…”

“Siegleshust didn’t get a penny of it,” Liz confirmed. “When he thought he was transferring the money, all he was really doing was giving us his account numbers and passwords. He’s probably on the run with whatever he has in his pockets and nothing else.”

Dee smiled at that. Then she frowned. “You stole that money.”

“He stole it first,” Brian replied, “well, blackmailed it. Same thing. It was just going to get seized by the government if he didn’t get it. This way, we can do a lot of good with it.”

Dee looked uncertain. “That just sounds like a convenient rationalization to me.”

“We talked a lot about this,” I interjected, “and I think we’ve worked out a plan you’ll be OK with.”

“You’re part of this too?” She turned from me to Tilly. “What about you? Is everyone but me in on this?”

Tilly looked a bit embarrassed. “They did ask my advice on a few things,” she admitted.

“Well, they might as well,” Dee said, “you’re part of the team now.”

“I don’t know about that. I feel more like a groupie than a team member.”

Liz laughed. “Just roll with it. If Dee says you’re a member of the team, you are whether you like it or not.”

Dee looked back at all the renovation activity going on throughout the factory. “So this plan you’ve all cooked up. Tell me about.”

“It’s a non-profit foundation,” Tilly explained, “set up to help all the victims of the Siegleshust conspiracy. At least, that’s the first thing it will do. The charter is still being defined. Right now it amounts to ‘Be awesome and reduce world suck’. Your friends asked me to chair the foundation’s board.”

Dee pointed at the renovation. “And all this work? How is that being paid for?”

“The foundation needed office space,” Liz answered, “so it’s renting it from you. It’s also paying for the renovation. It’s pretty common in commercial leasing for the tenant to pay for office build-out.”

I also knew the foundation was paying Liz and Brian a decent consulting fee for technology services, and it had already extended a job offer for clerical support to Dee’s friend Ruth. We would explain all that soon enough.

Dee stood there silently for a while, then said, “it’s a good plan. I’m happy with it. I’m also a bit miffed. You should have talked to me about it.”

“We weren’t sure we could pull it off,” Liz replied. “We didn’t want to get your hopes up until we were sure it would all work. The last bit was getting the city to extend their deadline. They became real accommodating once we showed them all the signed work orders for getting things up to code.”

Brian further explained, “it helped that there’s been a house cleaning at City Hall. The staff responsible for the original condemnation order have all been arrested or sacked.”

 

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around the factory, discussing the non-profit foundation and the renovations and the changes we might make to the Lair. A week later we all got back together to see how the work was progressing. I joined Dee and the rest of the team up on the balcony of the office area. We all looked down at the factory floor where framing for new walls was just beginning to take shape. She now had a proper Danger Room with a fully outfitted martial arts dojo. I was already designing some interesting automated systems to add to it, something to properly test her skills. Her new superhero outfit would also push the limits of current technology.

The office space for the non-profit foundation was also coming along nicely, as was Dee’s office. The name Themyscira Security Services had just been etched on the glass of her door. Publicly, it’s a detective agency. Privately, Dee still considers herself a superhero. Don’t expect me to argue the point. I mean, look what she has accomplished. And now with the resources of the foundation, she can do so much more. We can all do so much more. The world still has big problems, and good people need to step up and do their part. I know I’ll be doing what I can. After all…

 

I’m a superhero.

 

 

###

 

 

Thank you for reading Devious Origins. Barry, Dee, and the rest of the team will return in Devious Alibis. If you enjoyed this book and would like to see more like it, please review it at your favorite on-line book retailers.

Thanks,

Thad Phetteplace

About the Author

Thad Phetteplace is a full time computer consultant and part time writer. He currently lacks the literary or financial success to be considered the ‘eccentric author’ he aspires to and is instead just considered ‘weird’ by most people who know him.

Connect With Thad Phetteplace

I love hearing from my readers. Your feedback is a vital part of the creative process and helps me become a better writer. The best way to reach me is at my personal blog:

http://ThadPhetteplace.com

 

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Devious Origins

It started with a chance encounter in the Student Union. She was definitely the most interesting woman Barry had met at Penbrooke College, but when she claimed to be a superhero, he realized she must be crazy. That was before he found himself being chased by drug dealers, kidnapped by gangsters, and caught in the tangled web of a global conspiracy. Maybe his new friend is crazy, or maybe she really is a superhero... Barry's not really sure anymore. He's just hoping he survives long enough to graduate.

  • ISBN: 9781370390946
  • Author: Thad Phetteplace
  • Published: 2016-10-27 05:20:19
  • Words: 67189
Devious Origins Devious Origins