The shrill ring of the phone cut through the dark, silent hotel room. Before the second ring the light beside the bed was on, and before the third a hand had already grabbed the handle.
“Yes.” Hunter yawned as he wiped the last bit of sleep from his eyes. He didn’t use his name because this was an unsecure line.
Like most Heroes he could go from asleep to awake in the snap of his fingers, or in this case, three rings of a phone.
“Uh…hello, Mr. Hunter, Sir.”
Hunter couldn’t stop a groan from escaping his throat. <I’m going to have to talk to Morningstar about operational security.>
“No names,” Hunter reminded the young Hero on the other end of the line.
“Shit, yeah…sorry. Well the boss wanted me to give you a heads up that we bagged the guy that took a shot at us on that day we were working together.” Hunter could hear the excitement in Galavant’s voice.
“I’ll be right in.” Hunter didn’t wait for a response before hanging up.
He went straight for the shower, rinsed off, quickly shaved, and got into his costume. For the millionth time in his career, he was thankful that his costume was basic; shorts, t-shirt, a hunting jacket (all in the same theme), his mask, and his rifle. It was nothing fancy, and it was nothing that would get in his way went shit hit the fan; because shit always hit the fan in this line of work.
In less than ten minutes he was completely ready to go. He set the countermeasures for the hotel room, and vanished. He reappeared in the Protectorate’s headquarters, in a side hallway they’d set aside specifically for him. KaBoom was waiting for him.
“We grabbed him just a few hours ago,” the Protectorate’s number two quickly filled Hunter in.
The renowned teleporter had taken a few personal days over the holidays. It was always a good idea to take short breaks every once in a while, step back, and remember what you’re fighting for. That and the DVA mandated thirty days in an inactive status a year.
Hunter would have liked to take a legitimate break but he had to deal with Angela. Her second place finish in her first semester required some additional training. She’d performed well, but she still had a long way to go.
His time off meant that he was a little behind on the happenings in Orlando. So Hunter held out his hand and KaBoom handed him a thick file.
“His street-name is Dragon, real name Stanley Kursk.”
<Why is it the bad guys always have normal names?> Hunter frowned at the random thought, but quickly turned his attention back to KaBoom’s quick rundown.
“He’s got a rap sheet a half-mile long. We’re talking assault, battery, B&E, grand theft auto, possession with intent to sell, and after what he did at the bank attempted murder of a Hero.”
<So we’ve got room to bargain with.> Hunter knew the drill. Dragon as going to prison, but for how long depended on if he wanted to talk or not.
“Where is he?”
“In the cell room with Morningstar.” KaBoom pointed toward doors on the far side of the room.
Hunter cringed at the lack of security in the place, especially after all the attention the city had been receiving the last few months. <First the coffee shop, then the gang takeover, and that doesn’t even take into consideration that something big and bad might be headed this way in the near future. Plus, Wraith is still on the loose, and we’re all sitting here with less security than your average mall security office.> That wasn’t quite true, but when you were facing all the dangers that Heroes faced that was how it felt.
“Thanks for the heads up.” Hunter shook KaBoom’s hand and headed over to the interrogation.
“So you’re telling me that it was an accident?” Mr. Morningstar was lounging in a chair on the opposite side of the cell wall from the prisoner. “You didn’t mean to shoot all those police officers.”
Galavant was in the room, and he handed another piece of paper to Hunter. They didn’t want to interrupt the spell Morningstar had over Dragon, so Hunter played catch up based on Galavant’s notes.
So far they’d established that Dragon was senior in the Fist, a lieutenant just below the leader; a guy named Squid. The Protectorate had a file on him, but they didn’t know his real identity. Squid was smarter than Dragon. They’d also established that Dragon was at the police raid that turned into a shit-show. All the officers had been injured and one was still clinging to life a few weeks after the fact.
“They just kicked down the door to our house, what was I supposed to do?” There was another attempted murder charge they could add to the list.
A lawyer might fight Mr. Morningstar’s interrogation technique via his ability, but the Hero had been around long enough to have precedent on his side. Plus, on the surface level, Dragon didn’t even look like an upstanding citizen. In fact, right now, he looked like he’d gotten in a fight with a Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robot and lost badly.
Galavant caught him looking. “KaBoom took him down like that.” Galavant snapped his fingers. “It looked like a man fighting a baby.
Hunter just nodded, glad his mask hid his exasperation toward the interning Hero.
“Yo, who that?” Galavant’s snap had alerted Dragon to Hunter’s presence. “I remember you!” He cried out angrily. “You killed Billy-B and Marco. Yo, I shouldn’t be stuck in here. That big mutha killed them guys like it was nothin’.”
“Actually, one of your boys shot the other while I was holding him.” Hunter regretted the loss of life, but he’d seen a lot of death in his career. He didn’t shed a tear for a couple of gangbangers who decided to fight instead of surrendering. “And all of that would have been avoidable if you’d decided to not rob a bank.”
“Not my choice.” Dragon crossed his arms angrily. He literally had smoke coming out of his nostrils. “Squid tells us wat to do and we do it.”
“The ‘I was just following orders defense’ didn’t work for the Nazis and it won’t work for you; especially not for you,” Hunter shrugged, and took a seat next to Mr. Morningstar.
“The big question is why’d you do it?” Hunter and the Protectorate leader seamlessly transitioned the interrogation. “From what I can tell you guys had a pretty good thing going. You had your illegal fronts, your protection racket, you’d cornered the market in drugs and women.” Hunter shrugged as he tried to build up the criminal’s ego. “Why give all that up?”
“Like I said,” Dragon spat back. “I don’t make the calls. Squid tells me to bust heads and I bust heads.”
“Well I’m sure Squid isn’t happy that you’re here talking to us now.” Hunter moved into a standard interrogation technique.
“I ain’t saying shit.” Dragon fumed, literally.
“Squid doesn’t know that,” Hunter smiled. “The next time we bust up something to do with the Fist we’ll have the cops on the scene bragging about how we broke the guy in custody and he’s spilling his guts to the Heroes.”
There weren’t many ways to hurt a guy like Dragon. He was big and dumb. He was nothing more than muscle, and he just did what he was told. But the thing about muscle was they always prided themselves on not being snitches. Taking that away from Dragon would undermine his entire identity.
“Fuck you!” Dragon proved Hunter’s suspicion by lashing out. He smashed his fist into the barrier. He only succeeded in breaking is hand, and receiving one hell of a shock.
“Urg!” The criminal made a gurgling noise as he fell over, clutching his hand.
“I think we’re done here for a while.” Hunter got up and stretched so Dragon could mentally acknowledge his lack of freedom. “We’ll let you think about what you want to do while we spread the word that you’re talking.” Dragon couldn’t see the smile under Hunter’s expressionless mask.
“…fuck…bullshit…stupid bitch…wouldn’t be a problem…Squid’s a dumbass…” Hunter caught snippets of Dragon cursing under his breath.
“If you’ve got something to say, speak up.” Hunter stopped walking toward the door and returned to the cell’s barrier.
“Squid’s a dumbass.” Dragon carefully flexed his hand and winced. “He shoulda never taken that bitch’s money.”
“Who’s this bitch?” Hunter sat back down.
It was obvious she was an outsider, or Dragon wouldn’t have been talking about her.
“Some skank ass black bitch who payin’ Fist for shit.” Hunter let Dragon curse the mysterious woman for a few minutes before redirecting him.
“Can you give me anything else other than her race; hair color, eye color, height, any distinguishing features?” Galavant was scribbling furiously in the corner, while Hunter was committing it to memory.
“Naw, she ain’t like African; Bitch just wears all black.” Whoever this woman was, she was a sore point for Dragon.
Hunter kept his anticipation under control. Dragon might not be willing to spill on the Fist, but this woman had rubbed him the wrong way at some point in the past.
“She armed like she gonna take over the whole fuckin’ city; guns, knives, all that shit. She also got those extendable things like you cops like to beat hood rats with.”
<Batons.> Hunter’s breath caught. <Could it be?> He had to force himself to slowly reach in his pocket for the grainy picture he’d been carrying around with him for the past few months.
“Is this her?”
Dragon had to squint at the photo with his one good eye. He’d resisted arrest when they’d brought him in, and one of KaBoom’s kinetically powered punches had swelled up his other eye so much the criminal couldn’t open it.
“This picture’s shit,” Dragon scoffed at the Heroes. “Use an IPhone 6 next time.”
“Is this her or not?” Hunter couldn’t keep the hard, seriousness out of his tone.
“I can’t tell a hundred percent, but it looks like her. We call her Shadow. Bitch got shadows she disappears into.”
That was all Hunter needed.
<Wraith is in Orlando…Wraith is bankrolling the Fist…Why?>
“You said Squid is taking her money.” Hunter recalled earlier parts of the conversation.
“Yeah, Squid’s being stupid and trustin’ this Shadow bitch. She told him to hit the power plant. Now he got all kinds of heat on him. Stupid!” Dragons started to curse up a storm again, but Hunter stopped paying attention.
<Wraith wanted the power down…why?”> The more Hunter learned about the villainous teleporter the more he realized she didn’t do anything without reason. <First the assassination, now this. Is she covering her tracks? Is this a whole separate operation? Where is she getting the cash? Why Orlando?> More questions ripped through his mind, and he didn’t have any answers.
Except maybe the last one. <This has to have something to do with Kemps and the coffee shop attack.> His mind was running a hundred miles an hour while Dragon complained in the cell. <Meyers said that it was Hellgate at the coffee shop. That would explain how she knows so much about teleporter counter-surveillance.> Pieces were falling into place, and Hunter did not like the picture it was putting together.
Another teleporter, trained by Hellgate himself, maybe working with the notorious villain, and setting up shot in Orlando. <Then there’s all the chatter and contingencies going around about an Armageddon level attack; which ForceOps is taking the lead on.> That meant international terrorism. The U.S. wasn’t loved internationally, but only a few Supers were powerful enough, or ballsy enough to attack America.
“I think we’re good for a while.” Hunter needed to get out of the room and think. “How about we get a healer in here and get you fixed up?” Dragon just grunted. “And maybe we’ll hold off on telling the Fist that your squealing.” Hunter’s good-will offering didn’t stop Dragon’s glare. “As long as you keep the information coming on this Shadow woman.”
“Bitch don’t mean nothin’ to me.” He shrugged. “All she cause is problems.”
Hunter nodded, and beckoned for Morningstar to follow him out of the cell room.
“Well, that was certainly interesting.” Mr. Morningstar was waiting expectantly for an explanation.
“I think the woman he’s talking about is a recent supervillain named Wraith.” Hunter gave him all the information he had on the up-and-comer.
“She certainly sounds like a terror, and you think she’s in my city?”
“At least part-time. We’ll get more information from Dragon, but I’m more interested in why Wraith wanted the power down.”
“That might shed more light on her motivations. I’ll get some officers to comb through the files of everything that happened that day.” Morningstar scratched his chin in thought.
“Look deeper than just what happened. She’s smarter than that. Look into false alarms, pay attention to anything around West Private’s campus, and look for anything out of the ordinary.” Hunter was pacing now, and it was getting attention.
“Any idea what we should be looking for?” Morningstar clearly didn’t like the lack of information.
“No idea, but we need to find something. If Wraith is already here, and she’s responsible for the blackout, then we need to know what she’s planning next.”
“Agreed.” KaBoom walked over. His face serious. He’d overheard part of the conversation. “There hasn’t been a supervillain active in Orlando for over a decade. Protocol states that we inform the HCP.”
“I’ll do it.” Hunter offered. “I spoke there not long ago, and I’ve built a relationship with the Dean.” Hunter knew the Protectorate had a relationship with the school too, but he also wanted to see how his daughter was progressing.
Her first week back was almost finished, and if she hadn’t challenged the number one ranked student yet, then she had some explaining to do.
“Uh…hello, Mr. Hunter, Sir.”
The voice was garbled with static coming out of the computer speaker, but Lilly got the gist of it. “Ok, you’re going to have to give me more to work with than that, Nano.” She lounged in the young villain’s office in the Willis Tower in Chicago.
Mika had phoned Lilly early in the morning nearly frantic with excitement. <I need to set more boundaries between us.> Now that she was with Seth, she needed to set barriers between her life with him and her life as an awesome villainess.
“Do you remember when you told me to keep an eye on things?” Mika asked.
It was the fidgeting that gave him away.
“No, Mika. I don’t believe I ever asked you to keep an eye on things.” A dangerous edge crept into her voice as she realized the teenage technopath was doing surveillance on her.
“Um…no… I mean yeah you did.” It was a feeble attempt to recover and it failed.
<What to do, what to do?> Her hand drifted absentmindedly to the knife on her back.
Lilly had come to this meeting without her usual ensemble. She wore a black half-mask that covered to top half of her face, tactical pants, and a black t-shirt underneath a grungy old bomber-jacket. She had one pistol strapped to her thigh and half a dozen knives strategically placed around her body. It was as casual as she was willing to go.
<He knows too much about me, Seth, maybe all of Dad’s plans. If the DVA gets him we’re all fucked. On the other hand, the guys a damn genius and an irreplaceable asset. I need to come at this from a different angle.>
Lilly scrutinized Mika. He was defensive. His arms were curled around himself and he was staring anywhere but at her. He knew he’d screwed up. But there was determination on his face. His jaw was set in a stubborn frown, and there was a slight flush of embarrassment on his face. It all clicked into place.
<He’s jealous.>Lilly nearly laughed, but restrained herself. <What did you expect? You’ve been flirting with the kid of years. This is what you wanted to happen. You wanted loyalty and devotion from him as well as his hacking skills.>
Instead of driving the knife into Mika’s skull, Lilly took a deep, theatrical breath. “Oh, Mika.” She sighed, walked over to the shorter boy, and ran her hand down the side of his face. “You realize what you did was wrong. My private life is my private life.”
Mika nodded fervently after every statement, and raised his eyes to meet hers. “I’m sorry, Wraith. I just thought…”
“You thought you were losing me,” she finished the sentence for him. “You thought because I shacked up with a boy at school that I was going to forget about you and everything we’ve done together.”
“Well, you haven’t been calling or talking to me as much as you used to.”
Lilly had to admit he had a point there. She had been devoting a lot of her extra attention to Seth, and for good reason.
“I realize that now, and I’m sorry. But you also need to understand I have different jobs, different missions that I’m working on. Orlando is one of them. So I need you to stop running surveillance on me down there or it could ruin everything I’ve been working toward. Do you understand?”
“Yeah.” Mika deflated like she’d popped his imaginary balloon. Then he seemed to straighten up, buoyed by some unknown force, to face her. “Do you like him?”
Lilly played it cool. “Him who?”
“The kid you spend every night with.”
Lilly found it hilarious that the small, young technopath was calling anyone a kid.
“He’s a way for me to get what I want.” Lilly smiled at Mika in what she hoped was a predatory fashion.
That threw the technopath off balance. “Don’t worry about him, Nano.” Lilly walked closer and bent down so her face was right in front of his. “You’re still my big guy. My one and only techno-nerd.” She leaned in, Mika closed his eyes with fervent expectations, and at the last second she veered to the right and planted a kiss on his cheek.
<Not as paternal as a kiss on the forehead, but it will keep him thinking about where we stand.> It was important to keep him infatuated, but surprisingly, she didn’t want to do anything that compromised her growing relationship with Seth. <That could be a problem.> But she forced the thought to the back of her mind. She needed to get Mika back on track for the real reason he’d called her in.
“Yeah…um…ok then.” He blubbered when she gently prodded him for more information on the call. He was blushing as a red as a fire-hydrant and couldn’t seem to get the right words out.
<Good.> Lilly waited patiently for him to get it together.
“So while doing my well-intentioned surveillance.” Lilly kept her face neutral at Mika’s statement. “I’ve been monitoring communications coming out of the known Hero bases. Just standard procedure.” It was anything but standard, but she let him continue. “This is a brief phone conversation that happened early this morning.”
“Uh…hello, Mr. Hunter, Sir.”
“Shit, yeah…sorry. Well the boss wanted me to give you a heads up that we bagged the guy that took a shot at us on that day we were working together.”
“I’ll be right in.”
The conversation cut off and Mika grinned like an idiot. Lilly quickly realized why. She was grinning like an idiot too.
“Please tell me you have a location on all of this?”
“It was scrambled coming out of the base. They routed it through a few servers in three different states, but I was able to trace it to an unsecure motel phone line.”
“A motel.” From what Lilly knew about Hunter and Seraphim the Hero team wouldn’t be caught dead in anything less than the Four Seasons. “That sneaky fucker.”
It was a good counter-surveillance technique; be in the place no one would expect you to be. Plus, Hunter was a subtlety Hero. <I can’t believe I overlooked the possibility.> Lilly was pissed at herself, but she didn’t let it show. Partially because it would be bad form in front of Mika, and partially because she was too excited.
<I can do what dad never could.> She felt like she should be laughing maniacally, but instead she felt a calm focus falling over her. <Time to get to work.>
Working on it took a lot longer than Lilly thought it would.
For two weeks she plotted and schemed. Mika was heavily involved in the process; which helped his insecurity of being replaced by Seth. He ran constant surveillance on the target. That revealed the first problem.
Hunter didn’t always stay at the motel.
<If he’s smart he’s got a couple different places that he randomly rotates between.> It was a standard tactic. Lilly had safe houses all over the world that she could use if she wanted; all in nonextradition countries.
The problem wasn’t unsurmountable until you coupled it with other issues they discovered in their surveillance.
By hacking into the power grid, and isolating the motel room, Mika was able to determine that the room was drawing considerably more power than the rest of the motel; which meant countermeasures. And that was just the countermeasures that required an external power source. Lilly knew a dozen off the top of her head that were self-powered, and Hunter was likely to have a number of custom tech genius gadgets in use.
So at this point their setbacks were they wouldn’t be able to get into the room without spooking the Hero, and they couldn’t tell when he was even going to be home. A sniper shot like the one Lilly was able to pull off against the mafia scumbag wasn’t an option. She just didn’t have the time. There were multiple opportunities for a sniper’s nest, but with the increased surveillance in the city it was only a matter of time before someone spotted her.
<Damnit.> Lilly spent one too many nights massaging her brain. Stress relief activities with Seth only went so far, and he was growing concerned by her increased absences.
“Don’t worry.” She spoke sweet nothings into his ear post-coital one night. “It’s just the stress of the beginning of the semester.” It was partially true.
Lilly had to alternate assassination preparation with chemistry homework. It gave her the idea of poisoning her mark, but Hunter would never be that stupid.
They were running out of options.
Mika solved one problem. Social media could be a great tracking tool, and while Hunter didn’t use it, DVA employees and visitors to the police station did. Tweets and Facebook posts constantly put the famous Hero at the Protectorate HQ. So Mika hacked into accounts and created an algorithm that alerted them to Hunter’s whereabouts every five minutes if someone posted it. But that was only secondhand information. They needed to get eyes on their target as much as possible.
Mika fixed that problem too.
He couldn’t hack into to the actual Protectorate HQ security system, the DVA would catch him sooner rather than later; but he could get into the police station surrounding the HQ. Luckily, they had a camera pointed right through the entrance of the Hero HQ that offered a solid view of seventy-five percent of the small space. It wasn’t perfect, but it gave them eyes on the target while he was working.
The countermeasures were more difficult because there was no real way around them. Nothing could enter that room without Hunter knowing; especially by teleportation, and they couldn’t see inside. Every way of trying to see into the room was blocked by the countermeasures; everything from the good old mark one eyeball to advanced optics.
The solution they came up with was expensive and risked blowing the entire operation.
“The room isn’t sealed.” Mika’s sleep-deprived eyes bulged.
“It would look a little suspicious if a seedy motel had a room environmentally sealed. Hunter is trying to stay under the radar.” Lilly snapped back, a little more aggressively than she intended. She wasn’t sleeping well. And things were on the rocks with Seth.
He was busy too, and he found time to hang out. She even suspected he was growing suspicious that she might be cheating on him. <It’s true, I am cheating on him with this op.>
She pushed the hurt down and dove into solving the problem.
The solution was to get something inside the room that wouldn’t draw too much suspicion. To do that they had to bring in a third party.
Lilly let Mika handle all of that. She didn’t want to be anywhere near this freelancer who didn’t even know they were participating in a crime.
The third party was a healer of sorts, and together with Mika’s tech they were successfully able to surgically plant a micro-camera inside of a fly. If the military figured out the procedure, then they’d have a hell of a surveillance tool. The nature of the implantation of the camera meant that the fly’s biology should shield it from any countermeasures looking for intruding electronics. “Should” was the operative word there. Lilly really hoped it worked. It cost them six figures to get the third party healer to spend a day working with Mika.
So now they had eyes on their target and a way to get eyes into the room, because Lilly highly doubted that Hunter was just going to walk up and unlock the door like a normal person. He was going to teleport in and out.
What they needed to figure out next was how they were going to kill him.
That was easy.
“It has to be a bomb.” Lilly put her foot down. That’s the only thing that’s going to spread fast enough before he escapes.
<And I want to entire world to figure out their renowned subtlety Hero met his maker in a catastrophic explosion.> Lilly started to cackle and stopped herself. She really needed to get more sleep.
Making the bomb was easy. Any third grader from a war-ravaged country could make a bomb. Lilly just fine-tuned a simple design, with parts purchased from all over the world, to make sure it didn’t fail. They only had one chance at this.
Finally, after two long weeks of work, they were ready. Or as ready as they would ever be.
<Phase one, get our Frankenstein fly into the room.>