Track 10: In the Den

I had gotten my hands in front of me when I suddenly realized Mayu wasn’t taking the opportunity to kill me. Instead, she seemed to be sobbing. I paused, unsure what to do. The table seriously blocked my view. I couldn’t tell if Hicks was fine or if he was dead. I also couldn’t tell if Mayu really was this unstable or if she was trying to lure me out from behind the table.

By the time I had realized that it was probably that Mayu might actually be too emotionally incapacitated to kill me, she had staggered zombie-like into my field of view, the Glock hanging loosely at her side. She raised it to her head and I could see that the grip was slick with blood. My breath caught in my throat. Before I could figure out how I felt about that, she adjusted the gun to aim directly at my heart. Then she shifted back to her head.

This process repeated several times, ending with the gun pointed at my chest. “Well,” she said, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. I thought you wanted this. I thought you wanted to help people.”

“Mayu,” I said, “I do. But there’s something wrong with you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me,” she said.

“Really?” I asked. “Then why aren’t I dead?”

At this, Mayu’s eyes widened and her hands began to shake. I had her. If I could just find the right words, maybe nobody would have to die today.

Then the door burst open. I turned just in time to see two men in suits open fire. One fell, a bullet in his head. The other advanced into the room. “Target has left the area,” he said. I noticed that he had a Visitor tag and a US Marshal’s badge on a chain around his neck. Also of note was that he wore cowboy boots that probably added a few inches to his height. “We have survivors.”

“Shit!” a man said, running into the room, this one without a badge. “What the hell happened?”

“Someone tried to kill the person we’re trying to take into custody,” the marshal said as he grabbed me by the arm, lifting me up. “You do have a mole, and we need to get our suspect out of here.”

As he lifted me, Hicks suddenly said, “Hey.” I turned to look at him. His face was extremely bloody and his eyes were slightly unfocused. As the most recent arrival tried to bandage him, Hicks stared at the US Marshall for a moment, taking him in from head to toe. Then he looked at the dead Marshal. He then turned to me and said, “Be careful, kid.”

I nodded, a little confused. Why was Hicks wishing me luck? I’d severely screwed him over, and here were a bunch of US Marshals coming in to whisk me away to a place where he probably couldn’t arrest me. Maybe the concussion was talking.

“Please accompany me,” the marshal said, still grabbing arm. He didn’t have to pull very hard. I was actually very curious as to what was going on.

Out in the hallway, I immediately noticed six men. When I turned around, there was a seventh. Of them, only one wasn’t wearing a visitor tag and a US Marshal badge. Except for the person I assumed to be the FBI escort, there seemed to be something similar about them. Not their height, they were all the same size. Their faces and hair colors were all different as well.

“We need to get him out of here,” a Marshal said. “This building is not secure.”

“We’ve got time,” the FBI agent said. “Nakashima’s a lone wolf. We should go to the security station on this level and-”

“We need to leave,” the Marshal said. “If her information is open-source, we might have more incoming.”

“Like what?” the FBI agent asked.

“We have reason to believe that the Dragon’s Teeth wants to apprehend him.” Once I heard this, it made sense. After all, they had made a serious attempt to take me alive at the NIU airfield. Then, I instantly began to wonder why they wanted me and how the US Marshals knew that and the FBI didn’t.

“Well,” the agent said, “can we compromise and stop off at the people in the National Security Branch? Maybe tell them how you know?”

“Affirmative,” a Marshal said. “But all we can really do is put them in contact with those who do.”

“Ok,” the FBI agent said. “I’ll lead the way.” He began to walk off. When we finally got to an elevator and all crowded into it,  the FBI agent commented, “Never worked with marshals before. You guys are really formal.”

The one who had been leading me by the arm suddenly clenched it. “We are just-” four started at once. Then they cast a few looks around and one said, “We’re just a little new with working with our counterparts as well. We are being a little extra professional to make a good impression.”

“Ok,” the FBI agent said. Then his phone beeped, indicating a text message. “Wait, I gotta take…”

The FBI agent was by the door controls and I was in the corner at the opposite end. He was mostly blocked by the six Marshals so I couldn’t see what the text said. I could, however, see that everyone had adopted “oh shit” expressions. The FBI agent even managed to say it partly before one of the Marshals pulled out a strange pistol and executed him with a shot to the back of the head. There was no exit wound, and I couldn’t see the entry wound. I could, however, smell something sweet and spicy, as well as burning hair and flesh.

I recognized the pistol instantly. The immediate giveaway was the lack of noise. The thing that movies don’t really tell you about guns is how loud they are, even with silencers. Even a nine millimeter pistol with a good silencer would probably alert everyone within fifty meters that a gun had been fired. A rifle like an AK or an AR might have deafened everyone in such cramped conditions, even with a silencer. They just might think it had been from a lot further away.

This pistol, known as a Sgian, was so quiet I could barely hear it, even in these cramped spaces. It was very rare. So rare that there was only one group that I or anyone else to my knowledge had seen use it. They were called the Picts, and they were an elite group of Dragon’s Teeth soldiers. That, combined with the dead FBI agent, meant that these weren’t US Marshals.

This was confirmed a few seconds later when they began pulling off their faces and hands. Underneath were the same neutral faces, red hair and green eyes… but wildly different tattoos.

I had never personally seen under a Dragon’s Teeth helmet, but I had managed to get some documents that, among other things, analyzed the tattoos the Deets decorated themselves with. I was still surprised. Several had Mexican Day of the Dead-style skulls tattooed over their faces. Some had Celtic trees of life on their cheeks or back of their neck with the lines made out of a mix of Japanese and Chinese characters, Gaelic writing, and Latin. Those words appeared other places as well, often seeming like a translation. All the work was done in either white or black ink, with the white ink reserved for the skulls.

There were exceptions to how the body art was only in white and black ink. I noticed that some had raised scars that seemed to be names or numbers. There was also a color portrait of a naked skeletal woman with dark hair on the back of one of their necks. Unlike many pictures of naked women, these seemed to have more in common with pictures of Jesus. It was very Day of the Dead, but there were also some elements of old Japanese paintings before they had started using perspective.

I was suddenly slammed against the wall, a pocket gas mask of some sort forced over my face. A Pict suddenly loomed into my face, his face tattooed with a skull mask. On the center of his forehead, in the center of a yellow circle, was another Japanese/Day of the Dead-style image of the woman, except this time she was clothed in a dark robe, had six arms, and was comforting a severely injured Pict. Once he had made sure my mask was on, he moved back.

From my position, I couldn’t really see the person pinning me, but I could kind of see the elevator door and a few other Picts if I strained. They had all gotten their gas masks on. That could only mean they were planning on using a chemical weapon, and I had a pretty good idea on what that was. They also had drawn what either were captured Glocks or Dragon’s Teeth weapons designed to look like Glocks. One Pict, shielded from view from those outside the elevator, even had a small black spherical object.

Suddenly, the elevator doors opened with a ding. Outside, I could see at least two FBI agents crouching behind desks, Glocks aimed at us. They weren’t wearing gas masks. The Pict operator body slammed me further into the elevator wall, both controlling my movements and shielding me from any incoming fire.

At the same time, I heard agents call out things like “Drop your guns!” “Hands on your heads” or “Release the hostage or we will open fire!”

“Shoot them!” I yelled. “Shoot them now!”

Then somebody, I’m not sure who, complied with my request and everything went to hell.

 

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Track 9: Losing Her Conviction

“There’s supposed to be an anti-jumpfield here,” Hicks said.

He was very calm, considering that Mayu Nakashima had stolen his service weapon and jamming it into his neck. They actually made an interesting contrast, with Hicks’ greying hair and age-weathered face compared to Mayu’s unnaturally pale skin and pure white hair. Mayu’s mask-like smile was plastered on her face, and Hicks’ face was sour and unreadable as always. I noticed that both Hicks’ gray eyes and Mayu’s near white ones were both bloodshot, like they hadn’t been sleeping well.

“They don’t work on her,” I said.

“Really?” Hicks said.

“SHUT UP!” Mayu screamed, her face contorting into a mask of rage. Hicks made a choking sound as the muzzle of his Glock was drove further into his neck. A few drops of Mayu’s spittle hit me in the face. She saw the wetness on my extremely terrified face, then a look of confusion passed over hers. She blinked, then just as quickly relaxed. “I am sorry,” she said, bowing her head slightly. “That was uncalled for.”

“I apologize, too,” I said mimicking her head bob, “We shouldn’t have ignored you. Right, Agent?”

“Yeah,” Hicks said. He was terrified and out of breath, but he seemed to have a plan. I wondered if he realized I was trying to talk her down. “Any reason you’re visiting us?”

“Why,” Mayu said, “I said it already. I am here to lead you to the Messiah!”

“I was hoping,” Hicks said, giving me a meaningful look, “that someone could elaborate.”

“Mayu’s been a bit unwell,” I said. “She’s been in isolation for over a while and has some…”

“LIAR!” Mayu screamed, her face contorting with rage. Shit. What the hell had I been thinking? Hicks could tell she was crazy, she’d killed fourty-four people on his watch, five having been tortured to death. “I’M NOT CRAZY! I’M NOT CRAZY, YOU’RE LYING! YOU’VE SEEN HIM WITH YOUR OWN EYES! YOU KNOW HIS-” She halted mid-paranoid rant, her face lighting up with realization. Then she began to laugh hysterically. When she was done, she asked, “You haven’t told him, have you? You haven’t told Agent Hicks about Mubarak-kami, have you?”

“No, he hasn’t,” Hicks said, shooting me a rightfully annoyed glare. “Mind filling in?”

“Did he tell you about Mubarak-kami?” Mayu asked. “I bet he told you he was just a turncoat and a spy, nothing really special. Just some lowly, dishonorable coward.”

“He didn’t say anything like that,” Hicks said. “He only told me his name, that he was under the protection of the CIA and you were after him.”

“Look,” I said, “I’m not trying to throw Mubashir-”

“Show some respect,” Mayu snarled. I suddenly realized that the honorific that Mayu was using on Moob’s name was extremely strange. I had heard kami, the Japanese word for spirit or god before, but had never heard it used in that way. I wondered if it a sign that Mayu’s mind was fraying even more.

“Mubarak… kami?” I said making sure I had gotten it right. “Listen, the guy’s my friend and I’m just trying to protect him. If I tell Hicks he’s with the CIA, he doesn’t ask questions, and neither does the CIA.”

“So,” Mayu said, her face in its normal smile, “for you, protecting him means lying?” I hesitated, my mouth opened. She obviously was with it enough to trap me. “Well,” she said, her smile becoming so wide for a moment her eyes temporarily closed, “I think that says how much we can trust Jacobs-san, doesn’t it, Hicks-san?”

“Yeah,” Hicks said noncommittally.

“What you need to know about Mubarak-kami,” Mayu said, “is that he is God. He’ll fix everything.” That last word was said with such an intensity that Hicks and I flinched, even though it wasn’t angry. Then, she added so quietly I could barely hear it, “He’ll fix me.” She then reverted back to her normal smiling self. “That’s why I need you two. Jacobs-san, you know him. You can help convince him to use his power. Hicks-san, you helped the CIA with its informant extraction and relocation program.” At this, Hicks suddenly looked like the floor had fallen out from under him. “If you help, if you join me, we won’t have to kill anyone else.”

“Mayu,” I said, “There are a few reasons I’ve been uncooperative with you and Hicks.”

“Like he’s not really God?” Hicks said. “I figured that one out.”

There was a long silence. Finally I said, “The evidence,” I said, “actually indicates him being a God being a possibility.”

“What do you mean?” Hicks asked.

“You’ve seen it, haven’t you?” Mayu asked excitedly. “You’ve seen his power?” Suddenly, she got suspicious. “Why aren’t you worshipping him right now?”

“Can we talk about the things we’ll all agree on first?” I asked. Mayu nodded.

“Yeah,” Hicks said, glancing at where Mayu was pressing a gun into his neck. “That’d probably be safer.”

“This is a person,” I said, “who, in what appears to be a limited range,” or what I genuinely spent some nights praying was a limited range, “can make the laws of nature his bitch. If he… wants to, he can choose not to die if you put a three-round burst in his skull. If he wants to, he can turn someone into a fountain. If he wants to turn the immediate area into a cross between an Escher painting and one of those Scooby-Doo chase scenes where the doors lead into the hallway, he can. I mean, wants to is a strong word, but-”

“He can turn people into a fountain.” Hicks’ tone of flat disbelief was frankly expected.

“He can,” I said. “And I really don’t want the CIA doing their MK ULTRA crap on him. And don’t tell me that it’s stopped, or it doesn’t exist, or that they won’t try to do it to him. This is way too much of an opportunity for some of the people there not to take.”

“So,” Mayu said, “why aren’t you helping me?”

This was going to get me shot. I knew that as soon as I realized I had to say it. “Mayu,” I said, “Mu-Mubarak-kami isn’t who you think he is.”

“Yes he is,” Mayu said. “He’s the Architect, isn’t he?”

“Mayu,” I said, “the Architect isn’t some all-loving person. The Architect is a scared, traumatized kid with a split personality that controls his power.”

“What… what do you mean?” Mayu asked.

“Mayu,” I said, trying desperately to connect with her on some level, “ever since he was taken by Al-Qaeda, Mubarak-kami has been trying to kill himself. He told me this after saving my life for the third time, when I realized he’s the Architect. He’s not Mubarak-kami, here to usher in some golden age. He’s Moob, a kid from some Middle Eastern village trying to leave the past behind him. He’s Moob, a guy who has this power he literally believes is a curse from his God for thinking he could do a better job.” I took a deep breath and said, “Mayu, Mubashir’s not the person you want him to be.”

Mayu had been becoming more and more panicked as I spoke. Finally, she whispered, “Liar.”

“Mayu,” I said, “why would I lie to you?”

“LIAR!” Mayu screamed. She then aimed her gun at me again. This time Hicks grabbed the gun. I didn’t see because I had launched myself sideways. The gun went off, but thanks to my dodge and Hicks’ grab, the shot went wild and hit the mirror.

I heard something smash into the table. Hicks grunted in pain. Meanwhile, I tried to step through the handcuffs. As I tried, I heard what sounded like Mayu pistol-whipping Hicks and yelling. “You moron! I was trying to do this right! I was trying to save you! I was trying to save the world! Why do hate me? WHY DO YOU HATE ME? WHY DO YOU HATE MEEEEE?!”

This, I thought to myself, actually might be going better than I expected.

 

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The Observer

Agent Patrick Jones of the United Nations Investigations, eXtranormal was sitting in the cafeteria of the FBI’s headquarters in Quantico when everything went to hell. The croissant he was chewing was terrible by American standards, the coffee was swill, but the training sessions that week had been mutually beneficial.

As he sipped the coffee, he suddenly saw various people in the cafeteria pull out cell phones and quickly file out. Agent Jones soon realized that the only people in the room were the various foreign intelligence agents attending the conference.  Turning to Andre Beaucoup, a French Interpol agent, he asked, “Do you know what’s going on?”

Beaucoup shrugged. “None. Maybe they’ve gone off to find better coffee.” It was a joke, Jones knew. But the coffee the FBI served to its men was truly terrible. Not only was the taste horrid, but even a sip could cause the heart to race uncomfortably. Until they discovered the existence energy drinks, they had believed that it was the moonshine of caffeinated drinks. “In all seriousness, though, we can most likely discover it ourselves.”

“I suppose,” Jones said. “Your phone or mine?”

“Yours,” Beaucoup said. “Mine has no internet.”

Slightly shocked at a phone with no internet connection, Jones took out his own. He then went to Google News. “Oh bloody hell.”

“What is it?” Beaucoup asked.

“Well,” Jones said, “the first picture on the Google News international section is a picture of two Washington police officers dead on the steps of the capitol building.”

“Well,” Beaucoup said, “I guess the rest of the summit is canceled.” He sighed. “We are also going to be here for the rest of the year.”

“At least I’ve been transferred,” Jones said. “I’m supposed to be in the Boston office now.”

“Ah, a promotion! Congratulations, my friend. Our last case…”

“Ah yes,” Jones said, “What an honor… I get to work with Takeda and Brosnan.”

“Dear God!” Beaucoup said, horrified. Jones did not blame him. “Those… those… Did you know the reason they don’t work in France any more is because Takeda assaulted my partner? There were also some… questions about Brosnan.”

“Oh, I heard about that,” Jones said sagely. “That was after I had worked with you, correct? There’s been far worse from those two. Judging by their steady rise in pay grade, they’ve been rewarded for it, though.” Jones frown became a look of determination. “But I will get something on them, you mark my words. They will leave my organization in disgrace, if I have any say in the matter.”

“Well, good luck, mon ami,” Beaucoup said. “In the meantime, I will be looking to confirm the rest of the seminar is canceled.”

After the French detective left, Jones’ phone rang. It was UNIX’s American director, Director Sodhi. “Agent Jones,” the man began in his heavy Indian accent, “for some reason, Director Harris wants us to get identification on the people attacking the US capitol. Fingerprints, DNA, origination, equipment, everything. How he knew about it, I have no idea…”

“It’s all over the news…”

Suddenly, Jones had the sense that Director Sodhi wanted to tell him something. There was a long pause. “Sir?” Jones asked.

“Get it done,” Sodhi said distractedly. “Director Harris is…” There was another long pause. “Goodbye.”

 

The first thing to do, Jones decided, was to contact the FBI’s director of the Critical Incident Response Group. He knew that he would not be seen by the director that day (or even that month, if he knew crises,) but he could wait. After all, Sodhi hadn’t given him a time limit.

Needless to say, he was surprised that he got a call from the FBI that very same day as soon as he got back to his hotel room. “Agent Jones, UNIX,” Jones said, “Who am I speaking to?”

“Agent Hicks.” The voice speaking was an older man’s. He sounded pissed. “I’m just calling to tell you that the FBI is not going to be cooperating with you.”

“I’m sorry,” Jones said, “but wouldn’t it be in global interests to…”

“Share information, right?” Hicks said sarcastically. “Like how you gave us everything about the attempts on Director Harris’ life that have been happening every few months? Or how you gave us a heads-up on your Parahuman-slaving bust in New Mexico?”

Jones was speechless. First off, he had no idea that there had ever been an attempt on the life of a UNIX director, ever, let alone in the past few months. Second, he thought the New Dawn Laboratories Bust had been sanctioned. Agent Brosnan had… Oh. I took Brosnan’s word on something. That’s where I went wrong.

“You realize,” Hicks said, his calm voice hiding barely controlled rage, “that because of that last one, we were forced to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to extradite people who butcher children for a living?”

A dozen arguments from how hypocritical it was for an American agency to say that to pointing out that they didn’t have to do it jumped into Jones’ mind. Every single one, however, would probably  significantly lower the chances of getting a look at the body. Instead, Jones said, “I will refer the information to my superiors as requested. Shall I tell him to start packing?”

“Coincidentally,” Hicks said, “We’d need an act of Congress to make you leave. That particular bill was being discussed when the attack happened.  Ask your boss if he believes in coincidence, ok?” From his tone of voice it was painfully clear that Hicks, like any good investigator, did not. With that, he hung up.

Jones sat on his bed for a while, considering his options. Then he had flash of inspiration.

 

Two weeks later, Beaucoup met him at an American chain restaurant that, for some reason, had a decidedly Australian theme. They carried matching briefcases.

Beaucoup, sitting down, said without preamble, “Well, this has been nightmarish. I’ve been running around trying to get information from twenty different agencies, both in-town and out. Why this has anything to do with me, I don’t know.”

Actually, it had nothing to do with him, and they both knew it. Beaucoup was just doing it as a favor for Jones. As a result, Jones was buying.

“In fact,” Beaucoup said, “the whole incident reminds me of an incident that occurred at Petain’s this summer. It was a much smaller scale, and it was right around the time those Dragon’s Teeth bastards made their little announcement, so even the local media ignored it.”

“Oh, really?” Jones said.

“Yes,” Beaucoup said. “There’s this little bar in Vichy called Clouseau’s. Have you heard of it?”

“No,” Jones said. “But Vichy’s where UNIX’s headquarters is!”

“And Clouseau’s is where it’s rumored that Director Harris takes his evening drinks,” Beaucoup said. “Of course, it would be bad security if someone of my caliber knew his schedule.”

“Of course.”

“Anyway, some red-haired gentlemen with some peculiar weapons assaulted the building. They had a very distinctive gas. It made everyone for a block or two go completely mad. Luckily, a UNIX Quick Response Team was nearby and had the presence of mind to get their gas masks on.”

Beaucoup paused for a bit. “Now… these men… I think this is the first time I have ever encountered identical treisprezlets.” Upon seeing Jones’ blank expression, Beaucoup said, “They are like identical twins, except there are thirteen instead of two.”

“Are… are you sure they were identical?” Jones asked.

“We ran the DNA,” Beaucoup said. “Thirteen times, just to be safe. Twins actually have greater genetic differences. Mutations happen in the womb, you see.”

“Then… what were these guys?” Jones asked.

“Sorry,” Beaucoup said, “can’t tell you any more.”

The rest of the meal was more casual. When Jones left, he took Beaucoup’s briefcase. It was not a mistake. As he left, Jones desperately hoped this was the last time he’d need to do something like this.

 

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Know When To Fold ‘Em

“And you will give me a percentage of the proceeds if I lose?” The girl in the white Noh mask asked in a low, cold voice. The painted features and glowing blue eyes contrasted very well with her red and black samurai-inspired armor. The rest of her team, all wearing the same red and black colors and Japanese-inspired costumes, stood in a semi-circle formation around her.

Moe Green smiled at the girl on his computer screen. “Trust me, babe,” he said, “I do this all the time, plus I’ve worked with Minuteman before.” This girl, Hinomoto Oniko, was pretty good talent. Her body language was virtually unreadable through the grainy internet feed, which was quite a feat.

“And the security?” Hinomoto Oniko asked. “I’m not convinced that Skype is really the most secure method of communication.”

“So?” Moe asked. “Who’s gonna be watching, babe? The NSA and CIA don’t give a shit as long as we don’t consort with terrorists, and the FBI and local police need a fucking warrant. We’re good.” And even then, Moe was confident in his ability to bribe even the feds. After all, that’s how he made his living. And as much as they hated to admit it, prize fighters, superheroes, supervillains and cops were so easy to bribe.

The leader of the Boston-area superhuman team considered this for a minute. “You understand,” she said finally, “that if you stiff me, I will find you.”

“I understand,” Moe said, making sure to at least sound intimidated. In his head, he was laughing. He had been stiffing people much scarier than a jumped-up jumper almost three thousand miles away. Besides, the money they were getting would be more than enough for them to stop asking questions. The Minutemen and the Kagemotos had been fixing fights for years, but this would be the first time the Kagemotos would monetize it. “The bitcoins will be delivered to you by the first of July.”

“They better.” The girl, and from what Moe knew, she really was a girl, barely out of highschool, turned off the camera.

Moe shrugged off the rudeness. In a way, Hinomoto Oniko had done him a favor. With the last superhero/supervillain of the month fight fixed, Moe could now deal with the real moneymaker: milking his stupid investors. They were mostly mob bosses, and they were all so boring. Whether they were flashy like certain high-up Bloods and Crips, or no-nonsense West Coast guys like the MacGuyvers or the Castellans, they still were so boring. They had no panache, but they all seemed to be drawn to the glitz and glam of Hollywood showbusiness.

But his favorite was a young businesswoman named Mai Lau, the young chairwoman of Life, Liberty, Happiness and Prosperity Property Solutions. She had only recently begun investing, but it was already quite lucrative. The poor girl even believed him about opening a casino! She had even gone in and made plans, including altering it to have several stages for Broadway shows, Shakesperean plays, Chinese and European opera, Noh theater, and several types of traditional African theater. Her cute little plans made the scam even more satisfying. Originally, he’d made up a story about wanting to open a casino resort as a way to get out of some pretty serious debts after a bad month. He hadn’t expected anyone to fall for that, least of all a seventeen-year-old trust fund genius.

“Hello, Miss Lau,” Moe said as soon as he saw the Asian girl in the green blouse. She was based in the US, not too far away from Hinimoto Oniko, actually, but whenever she spoke, you could hear that she was from somewhere else. Still, she had been in the country for quite a while, as evidenced by the highschool diploma hanging above her head. “I see you’ve graduated. Class of 2016, very nice.”

“Mr. Green,” Mai said, smiling wryly, “You’ve said that every time you’ve seen me for the past two calls. I think you may have some memory problems.”

“I’m sorry, little lady,” Moe said. “I’ve just been a bit busy with organizing the boxing matches and the hero fights.” At the part about the hero fights, he noticed Mai frown. He knew she thought it was risky, and she was right. That was the reason he’d needed her cash in the first place. She just didn’t know that Moe was fixing all the fights.

“Mr. Green,” she said, “the thing is, you haven’t just forgotten my graduation. You’ve forgotten some of the terms of our agreement.”

Crap. The hotel. “Listen, sugar,” Moe said, “these things take time. It isn’t like some game where you choose a spot and…”

“Mr. Green,” Mai said, still the picture of naïve youth, yet now with a dangerous edge to her voice, “My business is property. I know the amount of time it takes to buy property on the Vegas strip when properly motivated and financed. Thanks to me, you have been more than properly financed. Your motivation should be…” Suddenly, there was a buzzing sound. “Oh, excuse me,” Mai said, picking up a phone.

Moe couldn’t believe it. The bitch had just interrupted him! And now she was laughing! Calm down, he told himself, You’re the one taking advantage of her in the end. Let her ignore you a few times. You’ve already had so much revenge.

“Sorry about that,” Mai said. “A certain problem of mine has been taken care of. I’ll tell you in a few weeks.” She beamed. “Mr. Green’s Gambling Team is going to have all its problems solved.”

Moe knew a payday when he saw one. “So, can I have a hint?” he asked.

Mai shook her head in girlish delight. “I’m sorry, Mr. Green,” she said, “but that would be telling. Is there anything else we need to talk about?”

Moe shrugged. “Not really.” With that, he cut the feed. Whatever this mysterious good fortune entailed, he could wait to find out what it was. Those strippers were coming in to entertain him. He swiveled around in his chair to the office building right next to his.

Life is pretty good, he thought to himself.

 

***

 

Life is pretty good, Agent George Hicks thought to himself. For once, he was in a relatively comfortable place for a stakeout. Normally, he’d be sitting in a car eating take-out food with his partner, Greg Barton and their junior partners. The only problem was how much trouble it took to hack a Skype chat (they were so secure even Microsoft had no idea what people were saying on them.) That left them with bugs, telescopes and various other bits of surveillance equipment.

“Wonder what’s so funny?” Barton asked, referring to the one seemingly legitimate investor Moe Green had talked to. Barton was looking at his computer monitor, which was currently viewing Green’s office.

Making sure not to look at the man currently staring at him from the other building and instead keep talking to his partner, Hicks said, “Dunno. But I think we should dig a bit deeper into Lau’s interest.”

“You thinking her investment was a little too lucky for Mr. Green?” Barton asked. “Yeah. Me too. Let’s just say some of my friends at the Treasury department have a few questions about her company. As far as we can tell, it just teleported into existence one day.”

“Plus, Massachusetts is due,” Hicks said. “Hasn’t had a big crime wave in years.”

“You know,” Barton said, “the bottom might be dropping out of the cape market, so to speak.” In response to Hick’s stare, Barton said, “Your guy might be wrong, you know. Data suggests that violent crime’s going down the drain. If we’re lucky, there might not be a need for us homicide guys.”

“That’s what they all say,” Hicks said, “until the artillery strike hits.”

“Your Marine experience is showing,” Barton joked. He looked back the monitor. “Oh great. More strippers.”

Hicks just laughed. Barton just sighed. “Look, I’m straight…”

“Oh, I know,” Hicks said in amusement. Barton, despite being in his early fifties, balding, extremely dorky, and a little chubby for someone who vaulted over fences and chasing perps for a living, was quite the ladies’ man.

“…but I’m tired of watching this guy solicit prostitutes.” Barton continued, suppressing a sigh. He then took a deep breath. “I want to take him down.”

“Yeah?” Hicks asked.

“We got everything on him,” Barton said. “If we got him up on the stand, we could put him away for fraud, bribing police officers, fixing superhero fights, and god knows what else. We can also get him to turn state’s evidence on over a dozen organized crime figures. What more could we ask for?”

“Jennifer Kagemoto, Mai Lau, and Robert Castellan are going to walk if we do it now,” Hicks said. It was stated like an observation, but Barton knew his partner well enough to know that Hicks was about to dig in.

“Those three are going to walk no matter what we do,” Barton said. “I want those guys behind bars as much as you, but we can’t get at them from this angle.”

“Ok, ok,” Hicks said, “I’ll stop wasting taxpayer dollars. How are we going to do this? Just walk right in?”

Barton, noting Hicks’ sudden interest, said, “No. No way. That building is full of guns, his house is full of guns, and he travels with three cars worth of bodyguards. If we just have a conversation, he’ll either run as soon as we let him go or decide to shoot his way out. The best, cheapest way of getting him and avoiding a firefight is to get Captain Vargas’ unit and hit the building during lunch hour.”

Hicks considered this. LV SWAT was probably the most trustworthy branches of Las Vegas Police. Besides, Hicks had heard about some of Vargas’ work and wanted to work with him. If all went as planned, no one would get hurt.

 

***

 

The very next day, a plan had been drawn up. Three of the junior agents on Hicks and Barton’s team would attempt to do it the easy way. Basically, they’d walk in, ask for Mr. Green, then head up to his office, and drive away with him. They wouldn’t announce he was under arrest until he was back at the station. That was plan A.

Plan B involved two FBI agents and two plainclothes SWAT officers waiting in the parking lot behind the building, arriving a few minutes before the first group. If Mr. Green went for his car, either through bad luck or because he was running, the four officers would intercept him.

If Plan A or Plan B triggered some sort of fight, then Plan C would commence. The three remaining FBI agents and sixteen SWAT officers would be able to get to the building and provide backup in thirty seconds. They would then storm the building, detain anyone sensible enough to surrender, and shoot anyone who resisted arrest. Hopefully, even if they went to Plan C, no one would die.

Sitting in the back seat of the black Dodge Charger, laptop propped open, Hicks watched the grainy footage from the hidden body cameras of four of the five Plan A and B FBI agents. The car was a little ways away from Green’s office: close enough to be the cavalry, but far enough not arouse suspicion. The Charger was sandwiched in between the two SUVs containing SWAT officers.

“Hey, Hicks, Pablo,” Barton said from the passenger seat, “How long has that girl been sitting there?” He was referring to a young blond woman waiting for the bus, wearing a green Boston Celtics jersey. Her face was creased with worry, compounded by slight burn scarring on one side of her mouth, and she nervously checked her phone.

Agent Pablo, a young immigrant from Brazil in her late twenties, looked at the bus stop they had parked next to. “She was arriving just as we were,” she said. “That would be about… two minutes, thirty-eight seconds. The bus gets here in two minutes, twenty-two.” Pablo turned to Barton. “Is there a problem?”

“No.” Barton said, though Hicks knew his partner of over a decade better than that. “She’s not doing anything we can arrest her for.”

Hicks made one of his noncommittal grunts of acknowledgement, but he suddenly developed a bad feeling about the whole situation. As analytical as Barton could be, Hicks relied on the man’s gut as much as his own. If Barton thought something was suspicious…

“Anyway,” Barton said, making an obvious effort to distract himself, “how’s Team A doing?”

Hicks looked back at the laptop screen. “They’re entering the building,” he said, putting his headphones on.  “Putting headphones on now.”

As he did so, he heard Agent Weatherly and Agent Britt talk to the receptionist while Agent Murray scanned the room. The plan was that they’d identify themselves, then lead Green to their car. The arrest wouldn’t be official until he was back at the station. That way, they could decrease the risk.

Suddenly, one of the elevators from the lobby dinged. Agent Murray’s camera showed a thin, athletic-looking man in a battered suit got out, his eyes suddenly widening. Based on the fact that his eyes were slightly downward, Hicks guessed this newcomer had seen Murray’s gun.

“Who are you?” the man asked suspiciously. Looking closer, Hicks could see that this newcomer was shaking and his eyes were bloodshot.

Hicks pulled out his radio. “Stand by,” he said, “we could have a problem.”

In the building, Agent Murray, now as suspicious of the man as the strange man was of him, said, “I’m Agent Murray. Me and my team are here to…”

The strange man’s face contorted in a mixture of terror and rage. “I KNEW IT!” he shouted. “YOU KNOW!” As he shouted, fire began to form around his hands. He then stepped forwards, and a fireball flew forwards. Agent Murray’s feed suddenly displayed an error.

“Teams A and B!” Hicks shouted, “We have a rogue Parahuman, Fire Elemental. Move in NOW!”

“Roger that,” Captain Vargas said. The lead SUV began burning rubber instantly.  As the cars lurched forwards, Hicks noticed that Team B didn’t respond.

 

***

 

Moe had finally finished soothing Tomas Montana about his paranoia. Tomas, or Captain Fuego as he was known in the town, was a beloved superhero. He was also Moe’s first big moneymaker and his local persuader.

Tomas, however, had never liked fixing the fights. His grandmother was also always getting sick. Annoyingly, the strain had made him turn to drugs. Now, he kept hitting Moe up for money and annoying him with drug-induced paranoia. Today, it was about out-of-town people.

“Listen,” Tomas said, “whoever these guys are, I know they’re in the parking lot right now! They even… they’re even set up in the office across the street!”

Moe gestured behind him. “That office?” He asked, somewhat dismissively. “Those are just two old geezers working nine to five. They never once looked in here.”

“Not even once, huh?” Tomas asked. “Not even while you were partying?”

“Maybe they weren’t interested,” Moe said. “Maybe they knew enough to mind their own business, unlike some other people.”

“Fine.” Tomas said, getting to his feet. “I can tell when I’m not wanted.”

“You sure?” Moe asked sarcastically as Tomas walked to the door. “‘Cause I never wanted you in my office in the first place.”

“You’ll see, asshole,” Tomas said as he opened the door. “They’re after us, man. They’re watching us all.”

As the door slammed shut, Moe thought, Fucking junkie. He was shaking the entire time. Pretty soon he won’t be able to win fights unless I fix ‘em. He mentally consulted his calendar. Finances were in order, his investors had had their monthly appeasement, and his minions were the ones who did his actual fixing. He guessed that he could either have some prostitutes come over or he could boss around his minions.

He had just settled on prostitutes when a Skype text message from an unknown caller popped up. “Look in your AC unit.” There was another pop. “Middle vent.” Another pop. “Use your flashlight.”

“Who are you?” Moe asked.

“Someone with your best interests at heart.”

Moe was startled by the reply. He hadn’t typed in anything. “Ok…” he said. “I’ll look, but I’m not sure what you want…” He turned around while grabbing his flashlight. Moving in his swivel chair, he shone the light into the vent.

He gasped in shock. Inside was a tiny black box. He had no idea how long it had been in there and would never have noticed it without the light, but it was obviously a camera. The pop of a Skype message brought him out of his panic. He turned back around. Not only was the new message there, but there was also a feed from a security camera in the building. It showed the main reception desk. Talking to the receptionist was a group of two men, both of them flashing FBI badges.

“That camera isn’t mine,” the message said, “and it isn’t the only one. It gives a feed directly to the FBI. They have everything on you. If you don’t want to go to jail, go to the rear parking lot. Look for the green Bentley limo and the man in green. Start walking now and do not stop for anything.”

Moe stared at the screen. There was another pop. “Or stay and watch the FBI expose you to your investors,” the new message said. Instantly, Moe was reminded of every sick, violent thing most of his investors did to people who crossed them. He got up and started walking.

When he was just about to leave his office, his phone got a text. “Dump this in the trash,” it said. Moe, in a state of shock, did as he was told. As he moved through the halls, he began to hear the sounds of explosions and gunfire, and the sprinklers began to activate.

When he reached the parking lot, he instantly saw the dark green Bentley. It had obviously been extended to have a second bench seat, probably facing the original and its windows were completely blacked out. One of the four rear doors was open. Sitting on the hood were two men, one a middle-aged man with a large forehead, intense eyes and a black business suit, the other a young, wiry Asian guy wearing a Celtics jersey and a gold chain with a wolf’s head attached.

“Hey, man,” the Asian man said with a trace of an accent. “You made it.” Moe’s eyes darted over to the car parked next to the Bentley. One of its windows was shattered, and its blue paint and brown leather interior were splattered with red paint.

The older man with the suit, noticing Moe’s gaze, said, “Don’t worry about that. My partner and a few SWAT officers weren’t looking to make any extra money. We had to part ways.” He ended this sentence with a smile that was as arrogant as it was creepy. “Now get in the fucking car.”

Moe moved into the car like a robot. He barely noticed that the interior was lined with trash bags, or the girl on the seat facing him, probably the younger man’s twin until she pulled the bolt of her SPAS-12 back to check the chamber. She was dressed in a black skirt, green blouse, aviator glasses, and spike-heeled ankle boots. Moe noted with some disappointment that her legs were crossed. When she saw that Moe was checking her out, she returned the stare. Due to the glasses, her expression was completely unreadable.

For once in his life, Moe found it safer to look away from the beautiful woman. Instead, he stared out the front window. There, the two men who had greeted him were in conversation. “Yo, this shit should be real good,” a male voice from the front said.

Paying attention, Moe began to listen. “…concerned about my payment,” the man in the suit said. “I mean, I’m an FBI agent who’s just killed a fellow agent and two local cops. I need a getaway.”

“Yeah,” the man in green said, an odd note in his voice. “I know.”

At first, Moe thought the man in green had just punched the bent FBI agent. But then why had he twisted his arm and brought it out? And why was their so much blood? “Oh shit!” the driver said, laughing a bit. The FBI agent collapsed. After seemingly kicking the FBI agent (Moe couldn’t tell, his view was obscured by the car he was in,) the man in green reached into his waistband and pulled out a pistol and fired five rounds. “Damn!” the guy in the driver’s seat said, still laughing like he had just seen an awesome scene in an action movie.

The man in green was already moving. Quickly, he moved his gun back into his waistband and got into the bench seat opposite Moe. As the man in green closed the door, Moe noticed that three bone claws covered in the FBI agent’s blood protruded from his other hand. He was also paler than he had been a few seconds ago and shaking. Fuck, Moe thought, I’m being abducted by fucking Ferals.

“Jaime,” the Feral said as soon as the door was closed, “get us out of here.”

“I gotcha, Lang,” the man in the driver’s seat said. Instantly, the car began moving forwards. There was a series of sickening thump as the Bentley ran over the FBI agent’s corpse, but aside from that, there was nothing stopping them.

When they were down the street, Lang turned to the woman. “Biao,” he said, his breathing still heavy, “do it.”

Biao pressed a button on her phone. In the distance, Moe heard a thump. With a sickening certainty, he knew his office had just been destroyed.

 

***

 

It was all going so well, Hicks thought as they got to the area of the building that had housed Moe Green’s office. The Parahuman just had to screw everything up. Luckily, standard LAPD SWAT uniforms were relatively fire-retardant. Still, the sight of the SWAT officer on point getting engulfed by fire would haunt Hicks for the rest of his life, especially how the fire licked around his ballistic shield like it was a sentient being trying to find a weakness.

In response, two SWAT officers returned fire with HK-416Cs. Someone inside also screamed. The four SWAT officers on point continued in. Inside, several people returned fire, one with an SMG of some sort, the other with a Kalashnikov. The SWAT officers quickly silenced them, eliciting more screams from the civilians. After a second’s pause, there came a chorus of SWAT officers calling out, “Clear!”

Hick’s team and the rest of the SWAT officers filed in. “Jesus…” Hicks said, instantly seeing what remained of Murray, Weatherly, and Britt. While the SWAT uniform was fireproof, the business casual suits Hick’s agents had been wearing weren’t. Weatherly was only slightly burned, but the explosion had knocked him out. Britt had been knocked through the secretary’s plate glass window. Murray, however, was completely charred. Hicks lowered his MP-5/10 in shock. For a second, he hoped Agent Murray was dead, or at least unconscious, it was that bad. His hopes were dashed when Murray moaned in feverish agony.

“I don’t suppose I can get you to stay here?” Captain Vargas asked as one of his men began to desperately radio a medevac.

“Yeah,” Barton said, also staring in shock, his shotgun gripped loosely. Agent Pablo was too busy checking on Agent Murray to respond.

“No.” Hicks said this at the same time Barton said yes.

Captain Vargas sighed. “Ok, Agent Hicks, you can come with us.” He turned to the rest of his men. “Zebras two, three, four, and five: you guys stay with the injured and secure the room and make sure the FBI guys don’t die. The rest of you, stick to the plan.”

The green-uniformed officers began to move. Hicks went with the main group up the stairs. Quickly, quietly, they approached the office suite that Green rented. Just as they were about to set up, a man with a TEC-9 pointing at the floor walked out the door. “Drop it!” the SWAT officer with the shield yelled.

The man froze. “Drop your weapon!” Captain Vargas called out as the SWAT team moved into the hallway. “You have three seconds to…”

He was interrupted when the man shot him with the TEC. Instantly, Vargas, Hicks, the shield and three other SWAT officers returned fire. The man slid slowly to the ground, staining the door behind him red with blood. More people screamed, but the SWAT officers ignored it. Instead, two officers moved the corpse away from the door while the others stacked up.

“Hey, Hicks,” Vargas asked as he slid a shell into his shotgun, “am I bleeding?”

“Nope,” Hicks said, checking his Glock, “the bullet bounced off your chest plate.”

“Clear!” an officer near the door yelled. There was a thump, and the door blew off its hinges. There was a burst of gunfire, then two more thumps. The gunfire from inside ceased temporarily and the SWAT officers began to storm the room.

What followed next were some of the most intense moments of Hicks’ life. Normally, no one had the presence of mind to shoot after flashbangs went off. Someone in that room did. Two SWAT officers went down. By that point, some of the others had recovered.

Still, by the time Hicks had actually entered the room it was mostly over. The SWAT officers had clear control of the room and were rounding up all the remaining goons and office workers. People who were completely healthy screamed and shouted, a few people who were dying moaned in pain. Hicks didn’t care. He was heading straight for Green’s office. That bastard’s coming home with me, Hicks thought. I am not going back to Quantico empty-handed. Not after that Para bastard.

He kicked open the door and crossed the threshold… and suddenly found himself outside Moe’s office, staring at the ceiling, Captain Vargas and several other SWAT officers staring down at him. Then he blacked out.

 

***

 

I can do this, Mai Lau thought to herself. I made a crime empire when I was in eighth grade. I escaped the Chinese government the year before. I can do this.

She continued to pace back and forth the office she had rented for LLHP Vegas. As she had specified, this main office was covered in tarps. No painting would ever commence. Before she left, Moe Green would suddenly sell her the property he had bought. LLHP would then build a hotel on that ideal chunk of land.

My hotel… Mai thought to herself. I honestly have no idea what to call it. Maybe I can still call it Green’s Casino. She laughed at the irony, then nearly vomited from how sick it was. That’s an incredibly strange sensation, she mused.

She was interrupted by a knock on the door. She quickly hurried over to the desk covered in tarp and made sure the two items were in their correct positions and the shades were drawn. Then she straightened her t-shirt and tried to do something about her frizzy hair. Then, she sat down in the executive chair. Across from her was a folding chair. She could have gotten something nicer, but the point was to make her guest feel powerless.

Satisfied, she pressed a button on a remote in one of the desk drawers. The button unlocked the door with a loud thunk. In walked Moe Green, flanked by Lang and Biao Xi. “Listen,” he said, “all I’m saying is this Jade Emperor is…” He suddenly turned to see Mai sitting behind the desk. “You…” he breathed. “But… but…”

Mai giggled girlishly. “I know, right?” She said. “I’m not even eighteen yet, but I’m already a real estate tycoon and a criminal mastermind. How cool is that?” Stop. She chided herself. Don’t start monologuing. She gestured to the cheap folding chair. “Please, sit down. We have things to discuss.”

“So,” Mr. Green said as he sat down, “is this where you ‘solve all my problems?’”

“No,” Mai said, making her voice change to be more threatening, “this is where I solve your company’s problems.” It was a very calculated act, drawing on all her acting experience.

“Are you seriously trying to intimidate me?” Mr. Green asked, a hint of a laugh in his voice. “Babe, I’ve seen fucking Chihuahuas with more juice than you.”

“I would recommend,” Biao Xi said, “that you show some respect.”

Mai regarded her two Lupine lieutenants. When she had escaped that reeducation camp, she had brought them with her. Now, for some reason she didn’t understand, the two were completely loyal to her.

She then turned her attention back to Mr. Green. He annoyed her. She could tolerate his sleazy philandering. After all, she tolerated Lang’s. She could also tolerate his constant condescension. That was something adults gave her all the time, and it had made her powerful. No, what she couldn’t tolerate was his sticky little fingers.

“Mr. Green,” she said, “your company’s only problem is its leadership. The fixing, in my opinion, was a necessary evil. When you claimed you were getting in on the casino business, I jumped at the chance because I thought you had been honest with your other investors.”

“Listen, babe,” Mr. Green said, slouching in his chair, “that’s life.”

“Hey, buddy,” Lang said, “show some respect.”

Mai, continuing like nothing was happening, said, “Instead, you were milking everyone. Cheating your customers, scamming your investors, underpaying your employees…” And then Mai actually got mad. “…and you delayed my hotel.”

“So?” Mr. Green asked, the cocky smile still on his face.

“After all this,” Mai said, “I’m still willing to let you leave. That is, if you are willing to sign this.” She reached into the desk and pulled out a piece of paper. “If you sign this, not only will you leave with your life and without any ill will from me, but I will personally escort you to Tiantang or Diyu, depending on circumstances. No one will ever find you in either place, I guarantee it.”

Mr. Green briefly scanned the paper. “Fuck you,” he said, throwing the paper back at Mai. “I ain’t signing my company to a bratty little whore and her mutie leg breakers. You don’t scare me, little girl, and you can’t make me sign this.”

Mai looked at her two bodyguards. They were literally shaking with rage. Lupines, like wolves, had a tendency to be very physically protective people they felt were in their “pack,” so to speak, and this man had just insulted their alpha. Mr. Green wasn’t used to taking beatings. Especially not beatings from enraged Lupines.

“Lang, Biao Xi,” Mai said calmly, “Mr. Green needs to sign this document. That means within the next…” she checked her watch for dramatic effect, “five minutes, he cannot lose consciousness or the use of his right hand. Apart from that, you may do with him what you wish.”

It was like she had fired a starting gun. One minute, Mr. Green was on the chair, the next he was on the floor, Lang and Biao delivering vicious, methodical blows at the speed of light. Mai had never seen a beating quite so bad. Even the guards at the camp had been gentler than this. Exactly one minute and fifty-eight seconds later, Mr. Green called out, “All right, all right… you win…”

Instantly, Lang and Biao hauled him back onto the chair. Lang wheeled a tub of water over, and the two began to wash and dry the fixer. When most of the blood had been cleared away, Mai carefully set the paper in front of Mr. Green and handed him a pen. Mr. Green wrote something down, then passed it back to Mai.

Instead of writing his name, Mr. Green had written Fuck you. “Real mature,” Mai said. In response, Mr. Green spit in her face. Mai felt some blood and a tooth hit her. “Lang,” she said, “towel, please.” Lang quickly came around and wiped her off. When he was done, Mai said, “Give him another round. Then waterboard him.”

If possible, this next beating was even worse. Again, forty-five seconds into his beating, Mr. Green said, “I’ll sign! I’ll sign!”

Mai shook her head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Green,” she said. “I’ve been burned by you twice. You’ve literally spat in my face. You’ll take your five minutes, then you’ll go waterboarding.”

Thirteen minutes later, Mr. Green was toweled off and sitting in the folding chair. Mai took out a second copy of the contract and placed it in front of Mr. Green. Again, she held out a pen. This time when Mr. Green reached for it, Mai grabbed it away.

“Before you take this,” Mai said, “you should know that if you write anything other than your signature in your right hand, Lang and Biao Xi will do things to you that will make your sickest, most twisted investor sick to their stomach. It will be so gut-wrenching that when we parade you in front of every person you cheated, not even the most obsessive will want revenge on you. Do I make myself clear?”

Mr. Green nodded. “Good,” Mai said, letting go of the pen. Mr. Green, using his dominant hand, signed the document. After Mai checked the document, she said, “Congratulations, Mr. Green. You have finally made me happy.”

“Do… do I get to leave?” he asked, a note of hope seeping into his voice.

“Yes.” Mai said, the lie upsetting her stomach even more. “Please, leave the room for a bit while my people and I discuss your getaway.”

Miraculously, Mr. Green was able to get to his feet. Once his back was turned, Mai brought out her final prop. For a moment, she debated whether to use it. You’ve needed to do this ever since you got into this business, she told herself. Besides, he’s seen you. He can’t be allowed to live.

Without any more hesitation, Mai pulled the trigger of her “prop,” a .454 Raging Bull revolver. The bullet struck the base of Mr. Green’s spine, just as Mai had intended. He fell face first onto the floor, then began to struggle to get up.

Doing her best not to show how much she was shaking, Mai walked over to Mr. Green’s twitching form and crouched in front of it. “In case you didn’t know,” she said, looking into his desperate eyes, “Tiantang,” she waved her gun at the ceiling, “is heaven. Diyu,” she jabbed the barrel of the gun at the floor, “is hell.” She paused. Then, somehow managing to keep her voice casual, she asked, “Which one do you think you are going to?”

Mr. Green, ever since he had been shot through the spine, only seemed to be able to make these horrific wheezing noises. They became more and more shallow until he fell on his face. Eventually, he stopped making any sound.

Well, Mai thought to herself, that was particularly awful. Why, again, did you want to watch someone die? Before this moment, she had some notion of needing to know what it meant to take a life in order to run the less than legal areas of her business. Now, she couldn’t tell whether she should order a pizza, vomit, or blow her own brains out to balance out what had happened.

Eventually, she stood up and asked Lang and Biao Xi, “So, are any of you hungry? I’d like to order a pizza.”

 

***

 

It was two days before the doctors let Captain Vegas and Agent Barton in to see Hicks. However, those two days were enough for Hicks to get a decent amount of news from the TV. Apparently, the Para who had flipped out and burned most of his team was a cape named Captain Fuego. He had been a hero.

“Man,” Vargas said, walking into Hick’s room, “I can’t believe Fuego was on the fucking take. He was always good with kids, working in the soup kitchen… Hell, I stood face to face with him and didn’t know he was a fuckin’ junkie.”

“That’s what happens with vigilantes,” Hicks said. “Eventually, they realize there’s no rules for them. Anyway, how’s my team?”

Vargas and Barton looked at each other. “That,” Hicks said, “is just making me worry. The doctors say it’s bad for my health.”

Barton finally spoke up. “Britt and Weatherly are recovering. Murray’s still in the ICU, along with two SWAT officers… and Green escaped.”

“How did he get out?” Hicks asked. “Paxton…”

“Paxton,” Vargas said, frowning darkly, “according to ballistics, shot two of my men in the back with his service weapon while an accomplice blew your other agent’s face off with a shotgun.”

“Where’s Paxton now?” Hicks asked. He had always had a vibe about Paxton, but Barton had vouched for him.

“A Lupine,” Barton said, “ripped out his guts. Then someone, probably the Lupine, put five rounds in his face with nine millimeter semi-automatic pistol. Then someone ran over him with a car.”

“Three FBI agents injured, two dead, plus one SWAT officer in critical condition and two SWAT officers dead,” Vargas said, a note of helplessness in his voice. “That’s not including the number of perps shot, the explosion, the injured bystanders… That was the worst day in the history of the Vegas police.” He looked up, tears in his eyes. “I’m going to lose my job, man. And I think they’re right.”

Hicks glared at him. “They aren’t going to fire you.”

“They’re going to fire someone!” Vargas shouted and stood up. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it won’t be me. Maybe it’ll be the fuckers who vouched for the guy who shot two police officers.” With that, he stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

“Barton,” Hicks said. “What do we have?”

Barton shook his head. “We have nothing. A localized EMP in the security room after the bomb went off erased all the footage at the parking lot, and the body cameras of our agents in the back are missing.”

Hicks leaned back in the bed, considering this. “Listen,” Barton said, “I know I’ve stressed you out…”

“We do have one thing.”

“What?”

Hicks, exasperated, said, “We know that a damn Lupine was on the scene, don’t we? How about we start looking for that bastard?”

Barton smiled. “You’re right. The Bureau started recording Lupine claw marks. They’re almost as good as fingerprints.”

“Look for any unsolved murders those claws were involved in,” Hicks said. “Especially if they were in states where Green had investors. No matter how legit they seem.”

“I hear you,” Barton said, smiling as he got up. “We’re going to get these guys.”

As Barton left, Hicks nodded. They would get them. What had happened in Vegas would not stay in Vegas. Hicks would see to that.

 

More Reports

Track of the Day

Track 1: Lost in Suburbia

Have you ever been away from someone for so long that you’ve completely changed? That’s what it felt like coming back home for the summer. Last year, I had been Nathan Jacobs, that quiet kid in High School people seemed to like, or at least tolerate. Now, I was Nathan “Killer” Jacobs, an almost burned out shell of a human being who had killed more people than he could count.

The thing is, I could have avoided it all. All I needed to do was tell Agents Brosnan and Takashi from the United Nations Investigations, Extranormal (UNIX for short) to fuck off when they offered to pay me for spying on what they made out to seem like a hive of mad science and supervillainry. I specifically should have called bullshit on the idea that they would pay an out-of-shape eighteen-year-old with no investigative experience a hundred thousand a semester to search for region-destabilizing time bombs. It burned me even more because it turned out that I and another one of the people infiltrating had been set up to die so that the other two infiltrators could live. We also hadn’t been sent to find forgotten experiments that could end the world, but useful tech that UNIX needed but didn’t want to pay for. Hell, John and I had even been told that there were only three infiltrators.

In fairness to UNIX, the place they had sent us to was something that needed to be taken down. Nowhere Island University really is kind of a hive of mad science and supervillainy. There are plenty of good people and a ton of average people, but the system had been designed by President Anthony Carter Newton-Howell. That made it inherently evil.

I was unsure of the purpose of NIU, apart to benefit The President, but I did know that it could be quite deadly. For instance, two of the sub-schools, The Academy of Military Science and Shadowhaven, had a special first semester for its students. It was called Hell Semester and it was designed to kill forty to fifty percent of the students. In Hell Semester 2015, its final served a double purpose of purging an embarrassing contingent of students.

I noticed, from my limited interactions and observations, that The President could abide many things, but the things he couldn’t abide were punished harshly. For instance, when he had caught John and me, he had spared our lives and suggested we work for him. When the Grenzefrontier had invaded NIU, he had imprisoned them and offered to release them when they renounced National Socialism. A few minutes later, he had literally set some students who had spied for the Grenzefrontier on fire.

Speaking of the Grenzefrontier, the world had also changed while I was away. ISIS had taken more territory and committed several high-profile terrorist attacks. Despite this and their obsession with ancient prophecies, the Grenzefrontier had ISIS beat for craziest an most dangerous terrorist group by a) taking territory in Germany and South America, b) trying to take territory in the US and c) being actual Nazis who had colonized a planet using teleporter technology.

However, they both paled in comparison to the group I had been sent by The President to investigate. Calling themselves The Dragon’s Teeth (we had nicknamed them the Deets,) all we knew going in was that they were a clone army with advanced tech who might have come from the same planet as the Grenzefrontier. There was also someone who said that they might have worked for someone or something who was prophesized to end the world.

What we had learned was even more disturbing. Despite fighting against a respectable military force, they had been holding back. In fact, the Deets had slowly moved from a guerrilla war, to an actual war without airpower on their side, to debuting some kind of gunship/transport VTOL to try and stop us from leaving. A few days after that, they had made themselves known to the world in a dramatic fashion by dragging a kicking and screaming North Korean soldier back across the DMZ.

The real kicker was that I had no one to talk to. All my friends at NIU were pretty much unreachable, due to criminal pasts, distance, or security reasons. Everyone I knew from before NIU was deliberately kept in the dark about what exactly NIU was. They thought I was in mostly normal school, albeit one in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

That wasn’t to say no one suspected anything. My dad, as usual, had work to do, and my mom had been shanghaied into teaching an ESL camp at her school, but my sister was at home the vast majority of the summer.

I was writing down some vague allusions to my recent experiences in a diary sometime in July when Esther walked into the room where I was writing. “Hey,” she said, “we need to talk.”

“What is it?” I asked, closing my notebook. It was a jumble of words, basically, but I didn’t want to take chances.

“Look,” she said, her brown hair, ice blue eyes, and her round cheeks similar to my own face, “we both know that you’ve changed since you got back from college.” I was about to say something, but Esther plowed on. “Yeah, people change when they get back from college, but they don’t end up coming back with a limp. Also, that line about being used to going to sleep later at college? I don’t buy it.”

It was amazing how intelligent Esther was. I thought that I had hidden my nightmares and constant pain in my chest. Hell, even I hadn’t noticed that I still occasionally limped. The limp and the nightmares were from the Hell Semester final.

It took me a while to think up what I was going to say. “I won’t lie to you,” I said, “but I can’t tell you the truth.”

“Please don’t tell me you’ve been hanging out with supervillains or something,” Esther said. I opened my mouth, remembered my promise, then closed it again, remembering my promise not to lie to her. Esther sighed. “Just out of curiosity, Nate,” she asked, “how thoroughly did you think this through?”

I turned to look her in the eye again. “Listen, Esther,” I said, “What I’m doing is to keep you, mom, and dad safe. Plus a few more people.”

Esther threw up her hands. “Then tell the CIA! Tell UNIX! Even tell some local superhero organization like the Minutemen!”

“Look,” I said, trying to explain my position, “I admit, I’m not a Parahuman. I’m not a superhero.” I paused, trying to figure out why I was doing this, or what I could do that no one else could. “But,” I said, after less than a second, “I discovered at college that I can do things only a few other people can do. I wouldn’t call it a power… more like a set of skills. I’ll admit, NIU is pretty dangerous, but being there gives me an opportunity to change things.”

After a moment, Esther asked, “How many other people are in your program?”

“After the first semester,” I said, “under five hundred.”

“You do realize,” Esther said, “that only one of them is my brother.”

I got up and hugged her. She returned the hug, squeezing me tightly. “Hey,” I said, “I’m gonna be fine.” It was probably the cockiest thing I’ve ever said. I’d probably had as many near-death experiences as I had killed people, and as many enemies as I had friends.

Esther, being smarter than I was, responded with, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” We let go of each other. “I won’t tell mom and dad. Yet. Just don’t do anything too stupid.”

I considered assuring her, then I admitted sheepishly, “It’s a little too late for that. But I am getting smarter about this.” Just as I said this, my cellphone rang. I picked it up. “Hello,” I said. “Who is this?”

“We met at Providence,” a familiar voice said. “You might want to take a walk downtown. Maybe buy something at the CVS.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be there in a bit.”

“Who was that?” Esther asked.

“Something we were just talking about,” I said. “You want something from CVS?”

“If you live,” Esther said half-jokingly, “I’d like some chips.”

The person on the other end was a… well, I’d hesitate to call him a friend. He was an FBI agent who had investigated when I had been involved in an early Grenzefrontier attack. He had interrogated me, and somehow knew more about NIU and the UNIX infiltration than I did. Recently, I had found a way to sneak a copy of the report on the situation in Korea to him.

I went to leave, my chest twinging as I walked down the unevenly paved streets. It took me around twenty minutes to get to the CVS in downtown. Out in the parking lot was Agent Hicks in all his glory. Despite being somewhat old for an FBI agent (given away by his short, white hair) he was still very muscular and alert. His clothes were a happy medium between casual and formal.

“Jacobs,” he said, as I got there. Just my name, not anything else. From what I could tell, that was his way of being neutral. He did give me a polite nod, so that was nice.

“Mr. Hicks,” I said, nodding in acknowledgement. I didn’t mean the lack of title as a lack of disrespect. It was more a security concern. At some point, apparently when I was in high school, Maynard had been taken over by a group called The Jade Empire. I had discovered one of my old schoolmates had joined up with them. This was when he and some Jade Empire goons saved me from one of my former UNIX handlers.

You know, saying that makes me realize how weird my life was.

After our introductions, we began walking down the street towards the McDonald’s at the end of the street. “So,” I asked Agent Hicks, “Did you get my letter?” By letter, I meant a flash drive I had dropped on the tarmac of the airport when I got back for the summer. The laptop I had used to make the copy had suffered an unfortunate accident on the way back. Luckily, I had made enough money bartending last semester to replace it. Contacting Agent Hicks to let him know about the drop had involved going through an intermediary to deliver a vague message. If he had somehow screwed it up…

“There was some competition,” Agent Hicks said, “but we got it.”

“What kind of competition?” I asked.

“The kind that paid for your lawyer,” Agent Hicks said.

I groaned. After the incident which had introduced me to Agent Hicks, Jennifer Kagemoto, fellow student at NIU, supervillain, and daughter of the leader of the Boston/Worcester Yakuza, had somehow realized I was in custody and sent a lawyer.

“Listen,” I said, “I didn’t…”

“I know,” Agent Hicks said, right before we crossed the street, “but you’ve attracted too much attention. If I were you, I’d transfer out of school and forget all about this.”

I bristled a bit. I had just had this exact conversation with my sister. I swallowed my protest. Instead, when we were across the street, I asked, “So, was my information any good?”

Agent Hicks shook his head, “Listen, Jacobs, your heart’s in the right place, but the company that could actually use this information is not one you’d want to deal with.” He stopped, and turned to face me. “You do realize,” he said, “Everyone is using you for their own personal benefit. UNIX, NIU, Kagemoto, hell, I’m using you because I have a grudge against UNIX.”

“That’s ok,” I said. “I’m using all of you, too. Now get that information somewhere where…”

I was interrupted by a familiar roar. In an instant, I found myself lying flat on my face. Gunfire? I thought, barely able to hear myself due to the roar, shattering glass, and screaming. In Maynard? That isn’t possible…

Before I could come to terms with what happened, the shooting stopped. There was a stunned silence. This was the kind of thing that happened in Chicago or LA, not in a mostly middle and working class town of ten thousand. As I got up, making sure that the hood of my sweatshirt was over my head, I saw that Agent Hicks’ hand was gripping what looked like a Glock.

“Yeah!” a voice called out, “You better run! Fucking bitch-ass cowards!” I looked down the street to see one of my former classmates from Maynard High waving what looked to be a Broomhandle Mauser.

He was standing in front of a café that was just across the street from the CVS I had met Agent Hicks at. Lying in front of the café was a body slumped on the ground. Behind that, at an intersection, was a Maynard police SUV, its window sporting several bullet holes in the windscreen.

I looked at Agent Hicks. “I can’t be here,” I said.

“I know,” he said. “Get out of here. I’ll cover for you.”

“Thanks, man,” I said. As I hurried back home, I suddenly began to wonder if everything I was fighting for would be there when I was done… or if it had even existed in the first place.

 

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