“Huh.” Lilly looked at the caller ID on her cell phone.
“Who is that?” Stal sat up a little straighter from where she’d been lounging.
“Just a member of my team. Cool your jets.” Lilly shot back.
“Our employer does not want us to take outside calls.” Nightingale was removing her plastic apron splattered with blood.
“It’s a good thing that I’m a rebel then.” Lilly shot the other woman a smile before hitting the accept button.
“It’s me.” Mika maintained operational security by not saying his name. “I’ve got an interesting bit of information for you.”
“Shoot.” Lilly took a seat and relaxed. The rest of the mercenary team saw her body language and relaxed as well.
“Your old cell is getting pinged left and right.”
“So,” she shrugged, not understanding why this was worthy news. “We knew the DVA would do that after my…mistake.” She didn’t know what to call it, but Armsman had been pretty opinionated about what it was.
“True, but they stopped pulling on that thread days ago. Sure, they could be trying it again to bait you, but it’s not really their playbook.”
“Don’t let the suits get in your head and make you complacent. The Heroes and them might need to play by a set of rules, but they can be pretty creative. I’ll take a look at the call data. It’s probably nothing, but better to be informed and prepared then get caught with our pants down.”
“Ok. Are you coming back or should I send it to you?”
There was really only one option to ensure no one tracked the information back to her or Mika.
“I’ll be right there.”
“The Boss does not want us going anywhere.” Stal informed, but it didn’t sound like she cared much.
“Again,” Lilly pointed at herself, “I don’t give a shit.” With that she exploded in a wave of darkness and disappeared.
She made several jumps all over the world before teleporting back to Armsman’s private island. She never appeared inside the structure, always outside on the beach. In the off chance someone did follow her it was better to have them targeted by the island’s defenses than to be able to emerge right in the heart of their lair.
<His Fortress of debauchery.> Lilly saw a boat pulled up onto the sandy beach.
It was the weekly supply boat that brought food, fresh water, and willing women right to her uncle’s doorstep. <Now that’s what I call service.>
Just to be safe she stayed away from where their guests would be. If they recognized her then Armsman would have to kill them all, stage a boating accident, and it would just be a whole lot of hassle. She took the long way around and entered the cool server room where Mika spent all of his time. Hot pocket wrappers and empty energy drinks littered the floor around his work station where he stared unblinkingly at the screens surrounding him.
“Shit, Wraith.” He jumped in his chair and knocked over a full can. Thankfully, it fell on the floor and not the computers. “Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“I walked right in the door, Nano. You’d be so dead if anyone ever raided this place.”
That made the teenage technopath blush, but he’d come a long way from where he’d been a year ago. She wasn’t able to make him uncomfortable like that for long.
“Here is what I’ve got?” He pulled up the call data after closing a few windows.
“What’s the number?”
“It’s a burner phone, so I can’t trace whose it is.”
“Footage of the purchase?”
“No. It purchased from some bodega down in Orlando, but they don’t have surveillance cameras.”
“Who doesn’t have surveillance cameras now-a-days?” Lilly sighed with frustration while Mika just shrugged. “So we’ve got nothing.”
“I’ve got the locations of the calls, but none of the footage I have has good angles. Whoever is making the calls is being pretty clandestine about the whole thing.” It was Mika’s turn to sigh with frustration.
“That’s not exactly the DVA’s style.” Lilly frowned. “Could you put those on a map?”
Mika did his techno-magic and dots appeared around the city. Time and date stamps appeared next to the dots, and a line of the caller’s probable travel connected them all. Lilly stared at the map for a minute and knew she was missing something. There was a tingle at the base of her mind that she just couldn’t put her finger on.
“And we’ve got no footage at all?”
“Nope.” Mika frowned at his screens. “There’s footage of who I think the person is getting in a cab, so you could go ask the driver.”
“It could still be a trap.” Lilly dug for that hidden clue she was missing, but came up with nothing. “We aren’t going to fall for one of Hunter or Seraphim’s little tricks.”
“Definitely not.” Mika agreed. He was a hacker not a fighter. He wouldn’t last two seconds against the Heroes.
Lilly turned to leave, but looked over her shoulder at the dots on the screen one last time. “Can you pull those places up on Google Maps or something?” The tingle in her mind turned into an itch. Whatever it was she was getting closer.
“Yeah, sure.” Mika pulled up another window and quickly pulled up a photo of the location. “This looks like a place a bunch of bums would sleep.” To reinforce that point the view of the location showed several homeless people sitting under an overpass.
It might have meant nothing to Mika, but it meant everything to Lilly.
“Go to the next location.” She practically teleported back to his side.
“Ummm…ok.” He looked up at her with confusion, but he pulled up the next location.
Lilly couldn’t stop her eyes from watering as Mika flipped from location to location. Now she knew why she was getting a familiar twinge from the data. She’d been to all these locations. <With Seth.>
“What was that number that called me?” she already had her phone out and ready to dial.
“Whoa.” Mika waved his hands back and forth in front of him. “Slow your roll, Wraith.”
“Don’t tell me to slow my roll!” She didn’t even realize she was screaming and had a fistful of Mika’s t-shirt. “Sorry,” she let go, “I just need that number.”
“I don’t know…”
“Mika.” Lilly’s voice dropped an octave to low and dangerous levels. “Give me the phone number.”
Something must have perked up in Mika’s hindbrain because he quickly handed over the number.
“Thanks,” she replied as she took a deep breath. “Don’t worry. Everything is going to be just fine.” She wasn’t sure if she was talking to herself or Mika, but she quickly headed back outside before vanishing from the island.
She reappeared in an alley that smelled like piss several states away from Orlando. She quickly stripped out of her Wraith garb and became Lilly. She kept the guns and knives because she wasn’t a complete idiot, but she stuffed the rest of the clothing behind a dumpster. She might have to throw it out rather than wash it judging by the smell, but she needed a little unanimity for the call she was going to make.
She stepped out onto Bourbon Street in the French quarter of New Orleans. It wasn’t packed full of drunk people throwing beads and flashing cameras. This wasn’t spring break girls gone wild. This was the start of fall, and while it still got crowded at night, during the day it was just like any other street. She kept her head down as she headed away from the alley trying not to draw any attention. The police and several Hero teams patrolled the city, but they would be busy with other things at this time of day.
She walked several blocks until she came to a bar that was more of a café during the day. She found a seat in a corner booth with a good view of the entrance and only a few steps to an exit. She ordered a coffee and sat there watching everyone for twenty minutes. She kept an eye on everything outside and didn’t see anything suspicious. No cops drove by, no more people entered the café other than an elderly couple. If that couple worked for the DVA then she would happily return to jail because they were some of the best undercover agents she’d ever seen. Once she was sure she wasn’t being followed or surveilled she pulled out her phone.
<You can do this. Don’t be a little chicken shit.> She wasn’t going to make the same mistake as last time.
Her fingers still trembled as she hit the buttons, and she took a couple of deep breaths before hitting the green call button.
The phone rang three times before he answered. “Hello?”
It wasn’t like last time when she’d called him out of the blue. This time she felt emotion in his voice, and that emotion resonated in her. He didn’t mention that other tramp. He wasn’t even thinking about her. She could tell his full attention was on the person he’d clandestinely sent this message to.
“S…Seth,” she whispered holding back tears.
She felt a tightening in her chest as he said her fake name. Even though she wasn’t Liz, she was. She’d lived an entire life – a fantastic life – as Liz Aretino. It was arguably the best time of her life. Liz was a part of her, but she needed to stop the lying. She couldn’t lie to him anymore. More lies would only drive him further away.
“I guess you should probably call me Lilly now.” Her tone got a small laugh from Seth.
“Ok, Lilly. God that feels weird.”
“Tell me about it.” Lilly could feel them falling back into a comfortable and familiar place, and she knew how dangerous that was.
“No…Lilly, I need to speak.” His voice was tense and she felt her chest tighten again.
She could understand the position she’d put him in. She could understand how she’d hurt him, but she couldn’t understand or accept a life without him in it in some way. She knew things wouldn’t be the same – no matter how much she would give to have that – she’d already fucked up that chance.
“Lilly, was I just a pawn in your game? Did I ever mean anything to you?”
Lilly had been stabbed by a renowned Hero not that long ago, but these questions from Seth hurt so much more.
“Seth Abney, you have no idea how much you mean to me. I’m not going to lie and say things were always innocent between us, but I can say with absolute certainty that I’ve always been intrigued by you. From the moment I saw you stand up to those jackasses I knew there was something about you. I knew you were hot, and I knew I could use you to get what I want, but it became so much more than that. Please, if nothing else you need to believe that.”
“How?” His response felt like a bullet to the brain. “How can I believe any of this?”
Lilly was speechless. There was no way she could make him believe what she was saying. <Actions speak a shit ton louder than words,> her mind answered for her.
“What do you want me to do to prove it to you?” She asked. There wasn’t anything else she could do.
There was nothing but silence on the other end of the line.
“I’m thinking, because I can’t be unreasonable and ask you to turn yourself in, even if that would be the best thing you could do.”
“What can I do for you Seth? This is about us. What do you want?”
“Well…I want you to leave Izzy alone.”
Lilly gripped her phone so tight she thought she was going to break it. Just hearing that whore’s name was enough to get her blood boiling.
“I know you’re watching me,” Seth continued. “I know you’ve got me under a microscope, and I don’t want you to kill some misguided kid. She’s got her own issues in her life, and I think she sees me as some kind of project.”
“How could you be a project? You’re Seth fucking Abney.” She might be stroking his ego a little, but she genuinely thought he was a great man.
<I wouldn’t want to be with anything less.>
“I’m not exactly the man you left.”
<And that’s all my fault.> She knew his comment wasn’t a swipe at her. It was just the truth.
“Just tell me what I can do.” She said again. She could hear the desperation in her own voice.
There were a few more moments of silence. “Just…just don’t kill anyone. Please.”
To anyone else that would be seen as perfectly reasonable – even moral and ethical. For someone like Lilly, and her current situation, it was a bit of an issue.
<That might be the problem.> She thought before answering.
“I won’t kill anyone.” The idea didn’t bring a smile to her face, but the sense that she was making progress with the man she loved did.
“Thank you.” Seth sounded like he meant it.
“Can I see you sometime?” she asked timidly.
This time the silence didn’t feel right. “That might not be a good idea for a while. The DVA is on me like stank on shit. You’d be putting yourself in danger.”
“I can handle myself,” she answered confidently. “I still see what you’re saying, and I’ll be careful.”
“Thanks, Lilly.” The name still sounded strange on his tongue, but she knew she’d come to love it.
“I’ll call you soon from a different phone.” She went to end the call.
“Remember your promise….WAIT!” The sudden exclamation made her pause. “Did you send me a phone?”
“No.” She hadn’t, but now she wanted to know who had.
“Ok. Goodbye, Lilly.” He cut the line before she could ask any follow up questions.
She placed the phone next to her on the table and with minimal effort teleported it across the world to an active volcano. She sat at the table for another ten minutes sipping her coffee and keeping a look out. She paid her bill, left a good tip, and walked back to the alley she’d left her stuff in. She dressed back in her Wraith gear, even if it smelled faintly of stale piss, and teleported back to Orlando.
When the wave of darkness dissipated the rest of the team was moving around chaotically.
“Where the hell have you been?” Damascus stood with his arms crossed and a glare on his face.
“I’ve got other shit to do than just sit her with my thumb up my ass,” Lilly shot back.
“Well we’ve got something for you now, so suit up.” He pointed at a table where gear had appeared.
It wasn’t just any gear. It was gear that was nearly identical to the gear the DVA had seized from her. The only thing missing was her specialized rifle, but there was no shortage of other firearms available.
“Jesus, are we storming Fort Knox?”
“Something like that.” Damascus’ smile told Lilly she wasn’t going to like whatever was about to happen.
Her promise to Seth flashed through her head and she settled for some tech genius, fancy tasers from the armory on the table.
“Be ready to go in five.” The silver-haired pyrokinetic turned to leave.
“Wait. Where are we going?” Lilly called after him. “I need a destination jackass!”
“Don’t worry. You’ve been there before.” The terrorist jumped in a SUV and exited the warehouse leaving the three-person team to do whatever it was they were supposed to do.
<Don’t kill anyone…don’t kill anyone…> she chanted over and over as she strapped on her new vest and had Nightingale do her super-mojo and cover her with the thin layer of nullifier material.
Being armed and equipped like this, it was tough to think of a target that could stand in their way. Unfortunately, the universe had a cruel sense of humor. That, or Karma was a real bitch about payback.
Daisy kept her eyes peeled as she drove her truck into the underground parking garage of the Orlando Police Department headquarters. She circled twice before heading for the DVA only entrance to the bottom level. If a person looked hard enough they could see where the additional countermeasures had been added.
<All that anti-terrorism money going to good use,> she thought as she saw the slightly discolored patches of concrete.
In time they would fade and mesh a little better with the rest of the structure, but right now it was painfully obvious where the mines had been placed. Anyone trying to break into the DVA motorpool, or assault the station, was literally going to get their asses blown off. Then there were the patches on the walls, and the not-so-hidden grooves. Daisy was pretty sure some automated weaponry would pop out of those spots and engage targets from a centralized control room within the station.
She couldn’t speak for the whole building, but the police and Protectorate HQ was looking like a tougher nut to crack each day.
<That’s new.> She rolled down another ramp and had to stop at a check point. She’d already gone through a police one above, but now it looked like the DVA wanted to do their own.
“ID?” The guard still looked bored as he ran her credentials through a scanner. “What is your reason for visiting?”
“I have an appointment.” Daisy replied as she gave the guard a big smile.
He didn’t buy it. “What is the purpose of the appointment.”
“That’s a whole lot of none of your fucking business.” She kept the smile in place, but fixed the guard with dagger-eyes.
“Wha…um…” He clearly wasn’t expecting that answer.
“Let’s go. Move along. I don’t have all day, and I’d rather not be late.” Daisy made a hurry up motion with her hands.
Her ID came back good and it showed she did have an appointment scheduled, so the guard let her through. He probably called in the rude, six-three blonde but she didn’t care. Mr. Morningstar and the team knew she was coming.
<They even sent down the welcoming committee.>
The single elevator into the Protectorate HQ – which also had some new concrete patches surrounding it – opened up to reveal an armored Hero. He gave Daisy a big shit eating grin that she returned.
“Galavant, how’s the head? You’ve got shit for brains so taking that bullet to the dome couldn’t have hurt that much.”
“HA! It’s amazing Seif al-Din’s beat down didn’t knock that stick out of your ass,” he replied.
Both Daisy and Ronnie Fitzpatrick – aka Galavant – had been badly injured in the attack on the city. Galavant had taken a sniper’s bullet to the head while Daisy had been thoroughly beaten by the big man himself. They were able to bond over that, and the beat down she had given him at the beginning of the previous school year. She kept the information that she made him shit his pants pretty close to the vest.
“But seriously, why are you down here? Don’t get me wrong I appreciate it, but I can find the conference room myself.” Daisy stopped joking.
“New security protocols,” he shrugged and handed her the plain gray mask. “They want a Hero escorting a VIP like you.”
“I’m a VIP now?”
“That’s what they’re telling me.” They entered the elevator. It required a security code and biometric identification before it allowed him to select the button for the top floor.
The shared some more light ball-busting on the short ride before the elevator opened, and that’s when Daisy finally got her first surprise.
“Finally someone read my memo,” she smiled.
Instead of leading right into the bullpen of cubicles there was now an enclosed space with a heavy metal door.
“I thought you’d like that,” he smiled as he underwent a second security scan.
They didn’t get a chance to talk after the door opened because there was a whirlwind of activity in the room. Dozens of DVA analysts moved around with a sense of urgency. A large central screen monitored events all over the city while keeping an eye on the larger picture of country-wide operations.
The biggest surprise was the number of Heroes in the room. It used to just be a few members of the Protectorate wandering around, but now there were half a dozen new Heroes and familiar faces. Daisy didn’t acknowledge any of them since she wasn’t in costume. Hunter was animatedly talking with Jetwash, and probably trying to impart some seasoned wisdom on the young Hero. From the look on Jetwash’s face, he wasn’t having any of it.
Whatever they were talking about would have to wait. A DVA agent called them both into an office for some sort of meeting.
“We’re in here.” Galavant led the way across the room to a large conference room filled with costumed Heroes.
He closed the door behind them and flipped a switch. Whatever newly-installed countermeasures were in the room were activated, but the men and women in the room didn’t relax.
“Please take a seat.” Mr. Morningstar was sitting at the center of a group of Heroes.
Daisy recognized KaBoom: the midrange kinetic absorber and team’s de-facto second in command. Also present was Grace in her Amped outfit, Jackhammer in his baggy red and gray costume, the big strongman Ox, and the nullifier Absence with her yellow starbursts on a royal blue skintight suit.
“Good morning.” She ignored the professional appearance of everyone sitting in front of her as she took her seat. She’d fought beside all of them, and been in the game longer than a couple of them combined.
“We are here today to evaluate the fitness of Daisy Lee Meyers, formerly known as the Hero Reaper, for return to active duty serving this city and nation as a Hero.” Mr. Morningstar stated formally as Galavant took his seat at one end of the table.
“Thank you for your consideration.” She kept her expression neutral.
“We see in your file that there is a one-year hold on any recertification. Why should we lift that restriction?”
“I see we aren’t pulling any punches.” Daisy was a little surprised that Grace had asked the question, but she was willing to roll with it. “I think the attack on the city and my contributions speak for themselves. We’re still under threat, a dangerous villain that was put in jail escaped, we have new threats emerging, and I think I can help.” She paused dramatically, “Then of course I’m the strongest person here and you might need that.”
“Thank you for that honest answer.” Grace didn’t ask any follow up questions, so Daisy took that as a good sign. She also caught the slight smile, which was another positive.
The look on Mr. Morningstar’s face wasn’t as comforting.
<Never a good thing when he doesn’t call you by your Hero name.>
“…please explain the series of events that resulted in your one-year hold on your file.”
“Sure.” Daisy organized the facts of the almost-mugging of her students and the professional kidnapping attempt at Sprout before continuing. “The first incident…”
The white florescent lighting of the conference room vanished and was replaced with a low-light red. At the same time, a shrill alarm sounded from the other room. There was no hesitation from any Hero in the room, including Daisy. They all jumped to their feet and headed to the central monitor.
“Emergency deployment!” Hunter was marching toward them with a grim look on his face.
“What’s the situation?” Mr. Morningstar took charge.
“We’ve got a break in at Florence ADMAX. Someone has smashed their way into the subterranean levels and is freeing the prisoners.”
“How the hell did that happen?” Daisy asked.
“We don’t know. The alarm was delayed going out. Just about everyone not on an active operation is being brought in for this. We’ve got a lot of bad people in there, and we need to make sure they stay there.”
“Sounds like a job for a Hero who can immobilize large groups of people with little risk.” Daisy stated while scratching her chin. “I wish we knew someone like that.”
“Dispatch?” Hunter rolled his eyes.
“Temporary Hero authorization is being given to Reaper for participation in this operation. Details will be dispensed in route.” The disembodied voice spoke through the other Hero’s earbuds loud enough for Daisy to hear.
“Great, let me get suited up and then we can cork this bad boy.”
“No time.” Hunter grabbed her and everyone else grabbed Hunter. “We’ll sort that out when we get there.”
One second the Heroes were standing as an island in the middle of the chaos and the next they were gone.