Vignette inspired by: When Presidents Are Accused of Crimes, The Daily Beast, April 11, 2017
That night I grabbed a car2go (harder for someone to gather intel on me in case I was being monitored) and followed the tracer signal to 4233 Erickson Lane, a commercial building called Penn Gardens Office Space.
“The city’s leading superteam is based next to a temp agency?” I’d brought along Macklin, an infil/exfil expert who could interface with most forms of technology. He rested an elbow on the SUV door and poked his head out to glance up at the glass-and-concrete construction. “Seems about right, though; I’m sensing an abundance of electrical activity, much more than you’d expect for a building this size.”
I pulled out my laptop and the small work surface that mounted to the steering wheel. “I just need you to hook me up to their wi-fi signal and any surveillance systems and phones they might have inside.” A pounding rapped hardened knuckles at the front door of my skull, begging to bust out from behind my eyeballs and leak out of my ears. I reached for the aspirin in the console, downed two with a swing from a water bottle.
Macklin talked while I clacked, swiped, and tapped away.
“You know, I realize now we’ve worked together three times, four if you count tonight, and I’ve never asked you how you got into all this.”
“How do you know I won’t just lie to you?” I told him, blinking eyes clung to the screen.
He shrugged. “I damn near expect you to lie to me. I just want to know what kind of lie you think will satisfy my curiosity.” He reminded me of shades of myself. My headache was too insistent to delve deeper into that great lake of implications.
I tapped out commands as I talked. “My parents were librarians, taught me how powerful knowledge is, how it could be used as a weapon. I took that lesson to heart, maybe a bit too much. After college when it came time for me to look for a job, I had a hard time finding anything that really resonated with me, so I become an information broker. Nothing you would call legal, but that’s where all the truly good jobs are.”
Macklin braced the side of his head on his knuckles, nodding. “I can relate to that.”
I waited as all the nearby wifi networks loaded onto the screen. HOME-A083D-2.4. Gnosh Bakery. ICBC-B31B-5. Renaissance Temp Agency. The Bedrock.
I tapped on The Bedrock. Macklin’s cheek twitched. “Mm. Think you just ran into some kind of honeypot. Do you need me to bypass?”
I shook my head as my fingers flew over the keys. “Nah, this is the easy part. I just need you to handle the data encryption and decryption, if you’d be so kind.”
“Got it.” He went still for a few seconds while he did his thing and I did my thing. “So you become an underground dark web freelance information broker. How’d you start specializing in cracking people with superpowers?”
Eyes scrolled and scanned. “By accident. Someone who was a henchwoman for The Cloaked Caper wanted to move up the ranks and knew someone who was familiar with my work. She reached out and asked me to dig up some dirt on Dragonlace. It was a challenge at first, with him concealing his identity and never using the same route in or out of the field. Instead of worrying about following him back to his base, I kept an eye on social media; people always upload posts and images whenever they spot a superhero or villain in their area.”
Macklin grunted out his approval. At least it sounded like approval.
“One of the many reasons I’m not on social media, at least not the real me: too easy for someone like me to hack your life. Eventually, someone posted a selfie they took with Dragonlace. I noticed he had a mark on his neck, something that looked like he’d had a mole removed.”
“How do you know what a removed mole looks like?”
I smirked. “You learn a lot on this kind of job.” I studied the screen and saw that at least four people using The Bedrock’s internet connection also used Project Tri as their phone service provider. That would made things a lot easier. “Anyway, I did some digging and found out someone fitting Dragonlace’s physical description had had five moles removed at a local clinic. One of them was cancerous.”
A low whistle from Macklin.
“Pretty much. I sold the information to The Cloaked Caper’s henchwoman after I’d dug up a bit more.”
Macklin readjusted himself in his seat. “Dragonlace suddenly disappeared a few years ago. Hasn’t been seen in action since.” He paused, waiting for me to fill in the blanks maybe.
I remained focused on the information streaming across the screen.
“Usually I can tell when a person is lying or smudging the truth by the electric signals flicking through their brain, even if they don’t say anything.”
I clacked out a few commands. “And with me?”
He shook his head from the corner of my eye. “Nothing but resolute focus.”
“Guess that means I’m telling the truth.”
He scoffed. “At least your version of it.”
As if there’s any other kind of truth.
Over the next week I kept myself hunkered down on The Foundation’s internet and phone activity, piecing together information to determine what activity, emails, texts, and phone calls belonged to which member.
Research about the side effects of a drug called hectasoboclapin. A series of texts about a new katana saya. Phone calls between two women regarding the upcoming SpaceX shuttle launch. Online journaling about wanting to get back together with an ex-boyfriend. An internet search for reasons to not start a family. A series of sites related to starting a flying messenger business.
My burner phone buzzed.
The Wife of Wrath.
I tapped the green icon and lifted the phone to my ear as I reached over the for the reporter notebook and pen on my left, flipping through a few pages. “Betsy Broker speaking.”
“Mmm.” I could hear her grin over the airwaves, see it in my head. “Excellent codename. I surmise you’re fully aware of who this is?”
“I’d be God if I were any more aware.”
“Such charm you have, and a soothing phone voice as well. How’s my job coming along.”
I consulted the bullet points I’d written down just for this occasion when I knew her impatience would start to gnaw away at her. “I’m still untangling their online activity patterns and texting styles. I think I have their voices sussed out from their phone calls. I’m pretty sure The Void has become accidentally addicted to a drug prescribed for the effects of X-radiation poisoning.”
“Ah.” In my mind’s eye I could see her perfectly arched eyebrows lift. “That would make sense. He absorbed antimagnetic cosmic waves from a bomb planted by King Kaboom a few months ago.”
I inked a small dot next to the tidbit of information to let me know I’d fed it to her, tossing a dog a ball to keep itself entertained. “One of them is struggling with a breakup. So far I’ve narrowed it down to either The Givetaker or The Fencer.”
“Were you able to discern the gender of the ex?”
“It has been suspected The Fencer might be bisexual. Anything else?”
I flipped a few more pages, skipped over notes about The Vibe’s worsening arthritis and The Givetaker’s steadily deteriorating financial situation with the IRS. “The Suit’s family is coming into town for a three-day visit next week. Could be a good opportunity for a kidnapping situation, if that’s something you guys do.”
“The Suspense is an equal opportunity band of malefactors.” Her words resonated with ominous humor. “Very good, Miss Betsy Broker. I eagerly await your final report.”
“And I eagerly await my final pay.”
Just business as usual.
I was listening in on The Vibe’s phone conversation when I heard it:
“I know my next appointment is tomorrow, but I’m not sure I’m in a place right now where I can contain this.”
“It’s no problem at all, Nathan. This is the exact reason I gave you my personal number. What can I help you with tonight?”
I made sure I was recording, made note of The Vibe’s real first name, or at least an alias.
A world-weary sigh. “It’s gotten worse. Now I can’t even look at Ken without this–this punch of guilt to my stomach. I told myself I broke up him and Johnny so he could put his focus back on the team and the mission.”
Ken. The Fencer? I made a note.
“As we discussed previously, it’s beneficial you feel such guilt about your actions; it’s part of the process, helps brings you to a healthier space where we can better sort things out.”
“But the way I used my powers to alter Johnny’s brain chemistry, it drove him into a mild depression.” A choked sob cracked through his pause. “He broke up with Ken like I wanted him to, but lately I’ve been wondering what else he did because of me. I’m realizing I might have altered more of his personality than I realized.”
“The human brain is quite resilient to trauma, has a way of using cerebral partitions to protect itself. I highly doubt you altered Johnny’s personality, only manipulated his emotional state. Have you tried using that particular ability on anyone else?”
A beat passed. “Only a few times in the field to get information from criminals.”
“And did you monitor them afterward to see how long the effects lasted?”
Another pause. “No.” The word was eased out in a tone burdened renewed guilt.
“Then for all we know, the effects might not last very long.”
“But I–I dosed Johnny for two months straight!”
“Nathan, this is likely going to be one of the hardest things you’ve done in your life so far, but I need you to step outside of your thoughts for a moment and stop overanalyzing your actions and their repercussions, it’s a series of dead ends. What I want you to do instead is focus on what you can do to make amends, balance the scales.”
I knew the perfect way to balance the scales and help The Vibe/Nathan better deal with his guilt. Now to find The Fencer’s/Ken’s email address.
TO BE CONCLUDED IN PART THREE