“Good morning, Ms. Meyers,” a tall man in a plain black suit walked into the interrogation room at the headquarters of the Orlando Protectorate. “Pleasure to see you again.”
“Agent Clark,” Daisy inclined her head toward the DVA representative. “Master of all things pain in my ass,” she added, giving the expressionless suit a wicked grin.
The man’s veneer didn’t even crack as he took his seat across the metal table from Daisy. Nothing about the man had changed since the last time they’d sat in these chairs. His suit was still standard issue DVA, with the slight wrinkling, wear and tear that spoke of him constantly being on the move. He still had his government issued sunglasses on, like her seeing his eyes was some sort of security violation, and lastly there was the paperwork. So much paperwork.
“I just have to ask,” Daisy was already resolved to make this experience as unpleasant for the DVA as it was going to be for her. “Do they just roll you guys off of an assembly line, or grow you in vats in some top secret lab somewhere. Or do they just teach douchebag at whatever academy you all go to.”
Despite her efforts, all Daisy got was a frown. It was all she’d gotten out of the man last time, so it didn’t feel like the victory it had been. The agent didn’t engage in any other conversation until he had the mountain of paperwork arranged just how he wanted it. Lastly, he removed the electronic tape recorder from his suit pocket and placed it on the table. Daisy didn’t even feel bad that he’d probably recorded their whole exchange.
“This conversation is between Agent Clark of the DVA, and Daisy Meyers, the former Hero, Reaper,” the man stated clearly.
“Again with the former Hero bit,” despite Daisy’s attempt to reign it in, her temper flared. “It’s like you’re trying to get me to punch you in the face.”
“Is that a threat, Ms. Meyers,” the man’s attitude changed like someone had flicked on the lights.
<Shit, he’s one of those,> Daisy mentally groaned.
In all of Daisy’s time working with the DVA, she’d dealt with two different types of people. First, there was the DVA agent who respected Heroes. They respected what the Super’s represented, all the hard work and training they’d put into getting to be a Hero, and most importantly, the ultimate sacrifices that were all too common. These were the agents Daisy loved to work with. They varied on how they interpreted the rules and regulations, and took into account the exigent circumstances.
Agent Clark wasn’t this type of person. The man sitting across the table from Daisy fell into the second, more problematic group. This group of DVA employees usually had a vendetta against Heroes or Supers in general. Sometimes it stemmed from themselves, or someone they knew, being negatively affected by a Hero’s actions. Sometimes it was simply jealousy. They hadn’t won the genetic lottery, so they sought to control those who did. Daisy knew there was psychobabble out there to better explain the personalities, but that was how she saw it.
“No, Agent Clark,” Daisy rolled her eyes. “It is just an indication of my overall mood. I did get partially barbequed under twelve hours ago.” The excitement drained from the agent’s face like Daisy had popped his favorite balloon.
“This conversation is between Agent Clark of the DVA, and Daisy Meyers, the former Hero, Reaper,” he started again, purposefully trying to get another rise out of her. “Would you like me to start with the good news or the bad news, Ms. Meyers?”
<Is this seriously how this is going to go?> Daisy closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose between her thumb and index finger. <Is this how John feels every time he has to deal with me?> the sudden moment of enlightenment caused a stream of chuckles that probably made her look like a crazy person.
“Shit, Clark; why don’t we just start with the good news,” Daisy managed after regaining control.
Despite Daisy making light of the situation, Agent Clark’s expression didn’t change. “The good news, Ms. Meyers, is that after a full investigation you have been cleared of all charges pertaining to the events of last month.”
“Whoopty do, about fucking time,” Daisy twirled her finger in the air. “You guys move slower than molasses when it comes to these investigations.” She knew the hammer was about to come down, so she might as well have fun with the DVA agent while she could.
“On to the bad news,” his expression didn’t change, but Daisy got the impression he was smiling on the inside. “Due to last night’s events, and the pattern of noncompliance you’ve displayed in regard to your using your abilities without a certification, a formal review of you is being initiated to determine your aptitude as an instructor at this school.”
Daisy had expected as much, but that didn’t stop the stab of sadness in her heart. She’d been here less than two months, but she’d grown fond of the people. She honestly didn’t have a clue what she would do if she couldn’t be a Hero, and she couldn’t train Heroes.
<I could always join ForceOps,> even as she thought about it, it didn’t feel right. If she enlisted she’d have to go back to being old Reaper, and that was something she didn’t want to do.
“Do you have anything to say, Ms. Meyers?” the DVA agent was fishing for another outburst, something he could use against her.
“I’m cool,” Daisy leaned back casually in her chair despite the inner conflict. “Do you have anything else you want to say?”
“Just that I look forward to working with you on a more continuous basis,” Agent Clark actually cracked a smile, and Daisy came dangerously close to following through with the face punching she’d half joked about earlier. “I would also ask that you make any of your acquaintances aware of the review, and available for questioning.”
“Well lucky for you everyone I know is basically the HCP students and instructors,” Daisy shot back her own fake smile.
<I need to play nice,> Daisy didn’t like the idea, but she needed to do it if she wanted to keep her job.
“What about an Officer Christopher Phillips?” the DVA agent pulled a sheet of paper from the top of the tall stack next to him. “Witnesses put you with him in the coffee shop during the attempted robbery.”
Daisy couldn’t control her emotions before shooting a glare at the agent. “Officer Phillips and I were having a cup of coffee when the shop was attacked.”
“What were you discussing?” the thing Daisy hated about the electronic recorders was that the interviewing agent didn’t have to take time to take notes. He could just fire away question after question in the hopes of tripping you up.
“Pizza mostly,” it wasn’t a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth.
“Pizza?” the agent let a look of surprise slip past his defenses.
“Yeah,” Daisy adopted her own roguish grin. “You know the thing where they put sauce, cheese, and an assortment of delicious meats on top of baked dough.”
“I am aware of what pizza is, Ms. Meyers,” exasperation leaked into Agent Clark’s tone. “But I don’t think that was the entire extent of your conversation.”
“That’s true, we also talked about colors. Officer Phillips is a fan of the color green while I’m more partial to red myself,” Daisy made sure to show off her blood red pupils. “Officer Phillips is also a fan of bacon cheeseburgers, but he likes an egg on top of it,” Daisy frowned at the thought. “Now who wants an egg on a bacon cheeseburger?”
“Anything else?” Agent Clark was short with her, which got him a not so innocent smile from Daisy.
“Not really,” she shrugged innocently. “I didn’t get to see if he was a Pepsi or Coke kinda guy; you know, with the whole armed mercenaries attacking the shop and everything.”
“Yes,” Agent Clark looked happy to be getting back on topic. “Let’s talk about the armed robbery.”
“First,” Daisy put up a finger to stop him. “If you think this was a simple armed robbery then you are even stupider than you look,” Daisy was dead serious when she said it, which she hoped lent a little more gravity to the statement. “The ten humans were professionals, and they were led by fucking Hellgate himself. Hellgate doesn’t come out of hiding to do a simple smash and grab of a college coffee shop, where the take would be about a hundred bucks a person.”
“Witnesses have confirmed that the man you say was Hellgate took phones, wallets, jewelry, and the money from the cash register. Doesn’t that sound like a robbery?”
<And he can’t think past his ulterior motives,> Daisy didn’t bother hiding the contemptuous glare she shot at the DVA agent.
“It sounds like a robbery covering for something else,” Daisy replied, trying to keep calm.
“And what might that something else be?”
This was the crux of the issue. Daisy knew more about the situation than she had the legal right to, and she doubted Agent Clark was cleared to know about Anika. That Hellgate would show up to a random coffee shop, to steal a thousand bucks, and then haphazardly pick Anika to be a hostage was so outside the realm of probability, that Daisy couldn’t believe some people were even considering alternatives. But of course Daisy couldn’t say anything about it. Having knowledge of classified information was all Clark needed to nail her ass to the wall, and depending on how much of a breach it was, he could screw over John too. It all boiled down to Daisy taking the heat now, and hoping John had the contacts to save her ass.
“It’s not my job to speculate about an ongoing investigation,” Daisy reply sounded stiff, even to her ears. “But if you look at the circumstances it doesn’t pass the smell test. Maybe try asking Officer Phillips about it.”
“I will when I interview him later,” Agent Clark looked like he knew that Daisy was hiding something, and she assumed people would be getting phone calls later so he could find out what it was.
“How about we move on to your account of the events that transpired last night,” it was Clark’s turn to lean back casually. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Daisy went through the evening exactly like she remembered it. She’d been out to coffee with Officer Phillips, and there had been several HCP students who were present as well. Suddenly the lights went out, Hellgate appeared, and ten mercenaries had stormed the shop. Hellgate made his threats, rounded up the valuables, took the money from the cash register, and prepared to take two hostages.
“Why did you intervene, and in such an inappropriate way,” it seemed the last memories of several of the victims was of a busty blond flashing the man who was making all the demands.
“Ms. Kemps is an HCP student and I felt it was my duty as her instructor to try and keep her from being captured by a known supervillain…”
“So you say,” Clark interrupted, and earned a glare from Daisy.
“Plus there’s the whole security breach thing to worry about,” Daisy had put together a plausible story for trying to save Anika without revealing her classified past. “As an HCP student, Miss Kemp has access to the inner workings of the HCP, its security measures, and the identities of retired, active, and potential Heroes. The security of the entire program was in jeopardy if Hellgate was able to kidnap Miss Kemps. I’m sure the DVA would agree that having such a large security breach would not be in the best interests of the agency,” Daisy knew she had a good counter argument when Clark wasn’t able to hide his first glare.
“So you decided to attempt an EMP, something you’re on record only attempting three times, and then electrocuted everyone in the room,” the DVA agent moved onto the next point, and the one most likely to get her fired.
“It was a tactical risk I had to take,” Daisy proceeded cautiously. “It was regrettable that I had to shock so many people, but the benefits of taking out the bombs, removing the civilians as potential hostages, and maintaining the identities of the Supers and Heroes in the room was worth the risk.”
“The review board will determine if it was worth the risk, or not, Ms. Meyers,” Clark replied sternly.
<Definitely has something against Heroes,> Daisy thought, waiting for the next question.
“Let’s move on to the destruction of property and recruitment of unauthorized Supers to use their powers,” Clark placed his elbows on the table and leaned towards Daisy.
“Once I engaged Hellgate,” Daisy began, making sure she made it clear she knew who the enemy truly was. “He teleported away, and left his trademark circle of fire. I’m sure witness statements will confirm this, and should that leave little doubt to who the leader of this attack really was.” Daisy drove the point home.
“Concerning the destruction of property, the resulting fire was responsible for a lot of it, and the rest was a licensed Hero’s rescue attempt.” They might be able to get Daisy on using her abilities without a certification, but they couldn’t do the same to John.
“Iron Giant made a tactical egress through a wall to avoid civilian casualties when time was of the essence. Going through the wall ensured the element of surprise, and turned the armed mercenaries’ attention away from the civilians, so they could be rescued.”
“And how were they rescued?” Clark leaned in even more.
“I instructed Miss Rebecca Whitfield to begin carrying civilians to safety,” Daisy admitted. “Miss Whitfield has super speed, and like any other good Samaritan, or well-intentioned human being, she assisted those in need when they were about to be burned alive.”
“But only because you left them incapacitated with your electrical shock, Ms. Meyers,” the DVA agent had a triumphant smile on his face.
“I weighted the tactical risks of innocent civilians being shot or blown up, versus the possibility of them being caught in the fire,” Daisy replied a bit heatedly. “But I was also aware that I had the resources at my disposal to evacuate the civilians as quickly as possible should the situation come to that.”
“By enlisting uncertified Supers to use their abilities against a Super created fire, and armed criminals,” Clark shot back passionately.
“Are you suggesting I should have let Hellgate take Miss Kemps; that I should have allowed a breach in DVA and HCP security? Are you saying, Agent Clark, that I should have not recruited Miss Whitfield, Miss Kemps, or Mr. Abney’s services in stopping the gunmen and fires; that I should have let all those innocent people die just because I don’t have a certification!” Daisy didn’t even realize she was on her feet, yelling, and thoroughly intimidating the hurriedly backpedaling DVA agent.
<Deep breaths,> Daisy hadn’t even realized the anger that had rapidly bubbled up in her gut, and exploded. Thankfully, she hadn’t lost control of her ability during her rant.
“You are missing the big picture, Agent Clark,” Daisy spoke calmly now, and retook her seat. “Those students acted like Heroes. They stepped in when they needed to stop innocent people from dying. Were the circumstances perfect, no,” Daisy admitted. “And they never are. But it is my job, to make sure we get the best possible outcome when the shit hits the fan. And I am damn proud of how those students conducted themselves. We don’t have a morgue full of body bags, or a major security breach because of the actions that were taken last night.”
Daisy took a deep breath while the DVA agent tried to look like he hadn’t almost shit his pants. “I appreciate your passion for helping people, Ms. Meyers,” Daisy recognized the politically patronizing tone, and waiting for the big “but”. “But, this shouldn’t have been your call, and those innocent people shouldn’t have found themselves in the middle of a Super brawl because of your actions.”
“A super brawl is a bit of an overstatement,” Daisy replied, giving the DVA agent a level stare.
“Regardless,” Clark waved aside her statement. “You got lucky, Ms. Meyers. This whole situation could have turned out very ugly.”
“And I could have won the lottery and bought my own island in the South Pacific,” Daisy replied curtly. “It’s never good to deal with “what ifs”, Agent Clark. Focus on the facts and the real outcomes.”
Agent Clark’s expression looked like he’d eaten tree bark. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Meyers. Please make yourself available in the near future. We are going to have several more meetings before this review is closed. Also,” Clark’s smile immediately put Daisy on the defensive. “It has been decided that you should keep your extracurricular activities to a minimum during the review. The DVA formally orders you to be either in your home or down in the HCP. No other travel is authorized unless is approved by me.”
Daisy couldn’t keep herself from crushing the arms of the cheap plastic chair she was sitting in. “So you’re putting me under house arrest for successful foiling an armed robbery, stopping the attempted kidnapping of an HCP student, and saving the lives of dozens of civilians?” Daisy asked through gridded teeth.
“That is correct.” Daisy had to work very hard to not slap the smug look of Clark’s face.
Clark didn’t move to leave, but he did reach to turn off the electronic recording device. “If it was up to me Meyers,” all traces of civility were gone from the man’s tone now that the device was off. “I would have tossed your ass in the cells over there, and let you rot until this long, drawn out, review ends with you tossed out on the street to drink yourself to death.” Daisy didn’t like that Clark knew about her addiction, but wasn’t too surprised. The DVA agent seemed like the type of person to do his homework. “Lucky for you, you have friends in high places; but you’re on a short leash, so be a good girl and behave.”
Like the coward he revealed himself to be, Clark quickly reengaged the recording device before Daisy could tear him a new asshole.
Daisy settled for, “I’ll see you soon, Agent Clark.” What she meant was she wanted to see him alone, in a dark alley, so she could break his kneecaps.
The pleasant thought was still on her mind when Topher stopped her in the main section of the police station. “Is everything ok?” He looked worried, which was normal for someone who saw his date deep fried not too long ago.
“Standard DVA bullshit,” Daisy replied with a genuine smile. “I’m on house arrest while they review me, so if you wanted to ask me out on a second date then it’s going to have to be takeout food at my place.”
Topher’s smile showed he didn’t mind that one bit.
“Officer Phillips,” Agent Clark’s voice made Daisy ball her hands into fists, and look for something to hit. “May I have a few moments of your time?”
“Of course,” Topher gave Daisy’s shoulder a comforting squeeze as he left her for his own interview.
<Now what do I do?> Daisy thought as she left the police headquarters. <It’s a warm, sunny, beautiful Saturday, and I have to sit inside or underground,> the thought immediately soured her mood. <I might as well start getting back in shape,> Daisy had a feeling she’d be doing a lot of working out to release her frustration over the next few months.
“Seriously, Dad. SERIOUSLY!” Lilly berated her father, the infamous Hellgate, for the hundredth time. “A woman flashes you her tits, and you ignore all of the training you drilled into me,” her voice echoed through their underground mansion. It was a good thing there was a hundred feet of solid earth between them and nosy neighbors, because someone would have called the cops. “Never take your eye off the ball, remember the mission, fulfill the contract!” she recited phrases she’d heard since she was a child.
“I know, Daughter,” Altair snapped back, his anger getting the best of him. It had been a long time since he’d failed so spectacularly, and never in front of his daughter. “I was careless, and I let my emotions get the best of me.” He looked across the kitchen at Lilly, who was scrambling some eggs while she fumed. “Let this be a lesson to you. Even the best of us make mistakes, and in our business, those mistakes can get you killed.”
Altair’s hands moved to his recently healed chest. Lilly had brought the healer they kept on retainer the moment they got home, but the side effect of the pricey woman’s ability left a phantom sensation of the injury lingering for a full day; sometimes longer depending on the severity. This left Hellgate with the sensation of things being out of place inside his own body.
“Stop touching yourself,” Lilly chided, earning her a glare. “It’s your own fault you were so stupid.”
“It was,” Altair admitted. “But I am more concerned about what you were doing there.”
Lilly had been waiting for the question, and had a plausible response locked and loaded.
“I told you I had a date,” she placed one hand on her hip, and held the pan with the other like she was going to smack him with it. “We decided to get coffee at this popular little coffee shop, only for you to rudely interrupt us,” she scooped the contents of the pan onto a plate, and pushed it across the granite countertop to her father.
“Will I ever get to meet this boyfriend,” Altair could only remember the basics of the boy; tall, tanned skin, dark hair, handsome.
“I was about to ask him to have dinner with us, when one of your thugs burst in and tried to bash my skull in with a shotgun,” she dropped the pan back on the stove to move both hands to her hips.
Altair tensed, and immediately ran through the list of the hired muscle, and their weapons of choice. It took him half a second to figure out the man who’d made the fatal mistake, and another second to recall where he liked to hang out when not pulling jobs. He was halfway out of his seat before Lilly stopped him.
“Don’t worry about it. The guy looked like extra extra well done sirloin. Plus, my boyfriend…” she enunciated the word. “Took the hit for me.”
If there was anything that could get someone into Hellgate’s good graces, it was protecting his princess. And Lilly knew this better than anyone. <You’ve got him on the hook, now reel him in.>
Lilly had a lot of time to think about how to play the whole situation to her advantage, and she was pretty sure she had a kick ass plan that would catapult her into the big names of super villainy.
“So, what the hell were you doing robbing a coffee shop in Orlando, Florida,” Lilly asked casually. “The coffee there isn’t even that good.”
“I had a contract to fulfill, and as you’ve pointed out numerous times, I failed,” Altair scooped a forkful of eggs into his mouth. “I don’t believe I will have another opportunity, and this client is not one anyone wants to displease.” Lilly actually saw her father shiver at the thought of his employer. Very few people in this world could make the notorious Hellgate shiver.
<Here we go.>
“You were after Anika Kemps,” her father tried very hard to hide his surprise, but Lilly saw the tells. “She was the tan Super, with the silver tattoos; that you tried to take “hostage” along with me,” Lilly continued, ignoring her father’s stern glare. “Do you still need to get to her?”
“Lilly Ariadne Thermopolis,” he said her full name slowly, with barely contained anger; but she wasn’t afraid. “This is none of your business.”
“I made it my business over a month ago, Dad,” Lilly skipped around the table to stand next to him. “I’ve been searching for her just as long as you have.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Hellgate got to his feet and stomped away. “I don’t want you involved with these people.”
“I’m eighteen,” Lilly scowled, cutting him off before he could use the “you’re too young and inexperienced” speech. “I found her, I’ve tracked her, I’ve learned her routines, and I’ve got an in with her friends.”
Hellgate looked surprised for about a minute before the realization hit him. “You’re boyfriend…”
“Is roommates, and friends, with her girlfriend,” Lilly couldn’t help but explain smugly. “I’m close enough that they don’t see me as a stranger, but far enough away that I’m not a suspect.”
Her father’s mouth opened and closed several times as he tried to figure out what to say. Finally he settled on, “Brilliant.” Lilly beamed like someone had given her a gold star. “You’ve infiltrated their group enough that we might still be able to pull this off.” He abandoned his angry stance, and started pacing.
“We’re going to have to let things die down for a bit,” Lilly already had a rough plan worked up. “I’ll spend the next couple of months getting closer with Seth, and worming my way deeper into their group. Once enough time has passed, and their guards are lowered, we can make a proper extraction.”
“I’ll have to tell the client he’ll have to wait,” Altair didn’t look like that was a conversation he was looking forward too.
“It’s either that or he has to find someone else. Even if he did find someone stupid enough to challenge an HCP, that person will have to start from scratch, which would take even longer than what we’re asking for,” Lilly laid out the argument. “Plus, no one is better than us.” Despite the recent setback, that was still true.
It didn’t take long for Hellgate to admit his daughter had come up with a good plan. It would need some fine tuning, and the later stages still needed to be developed, but it was the best anyone could do right now.
“I’ll make the call,” Altair looked at his watch to calculate if it was an appropriate time to call the client.
Lilly waited alone in the kitchen, too excited to eat any of the food she’d prepared. <I’m finally in! Big leagues here I come,> she felt like dancing, and even did a little happy two-step before her father returned.
“He wasn’t happy, and we’ll be funding this portion ourselves; but he’s willing to wait for his merchandise,” Lilly didn’t like how they were talking about Anika as merchandise, but she quickly buried the thought.
“I’ve already paid for my room and board, tuition, and books,” Lilly replied proudly. “I just need to put in the time.”
“So you will be leaving me?” Lilly could feel the sorrow hanging in the air between them at the realization.
So far she’d just been popping back and forth between home and school, just doing the basics to see Seth. If she really wanted to make this work she would need to commit a hundred percent to the college life. She needed to be more than a digital footprint in the school’s systems. She needed to be going to classes, so teachers could put a face to her name. She needed to get to know people other than Seth and his HCP roommates. She needed to make sure no one thought there was a villain among the Heroes. She needed to be the biblical wolf in sheep’s clothing.
<Is this what going to college feels like,> she struggled with the confusing emotions of leaving home, her father, and everything she knew. It was different for her because she was a teleporter, but she knew she would have to keep the trips home to a minimum.
“I still want to meet him,” Hellgate stated. “It makes a more convincing cover if a father is concerned for his daughter,” it sounded cold, but Lilly knew he didn’t mean it that way. Her father loved her very much, and meeting Seth was as much about meeting Seth as it was building her cover.
“Of course, Daddy,” her innocent smile didn’t fool the seasoned supervillain for an instant. “I wouldn’t want to rob you of those precious father-boyfriend moments.”
Lilly couldn’t wait to see both their expressions. <This will be fun.> she teleported to her room to pack her bags.
John sat alone in his dimly lit office, staring at the bottle of scotch on his desk. The number of occasions John would drink could be counted on one hand. Usually it was to toast a fallen comrade, but he’d also allow himself a cup of eggnog at the staff Christmas party. Aside from that, John limited his drinking to special occasions. He wouldn’t call yesterday night a special occasion, but it was something special. It was the first time Iron Giant had been seen in action since he fought the legendary battle in New York City.
The internet and media were buzzing with rumors and speculation. Where had Iron Giant been all these years? What was he up to? And the always popular; who is Iron Giant? Most of the networks had put two and two together, and guessed he was working for the HCP.
<Miles’ students are going to love this,> John chuckled as he poured himself a small glass. <The seniors pretty much know who the rest of the instructors are; Daisy and I were the only real mysteries.> The Dean expected to have an appointment scheduled with Hannah Dixon sometime on Monday.
“Dean Ditmar,” the pleasant, if slightly automated tone of the HCP’s AI interrupted.
“Yes?” John took a sip, savoring the fiery burn in his throat.
“You have a call on line one.”
John glanced at the caller I.D. and laughed. “Put him through.”
“I thought you were finished running through walls, John?” the amused voice of another HCP Dean asked.
“I was, Blaine,” John replied. “But sometimes you don’t have a choice.”
“Understood,” no one had to tell a member of the Class of Legend about the ever present burden of a Hero’s duty. “Any casualties?”
“Just a few cuts and bruises,” John replied, the relief evident in his voice. “Daisy’s head might be on the chopping block though.”
“I heard you found Reaper and convinced her to teach,” the Lander HCP Dean sounded impressed. “My mentor knew her better than I ever did. But I met her once,” there was a slight pause in the conversation as the other dean thought back to that time decades ago. “Still gives me shivers,” Dean Blaine stated. “I’m glad I’m one of the few she can’t touch.”
“And she’s glad we had a first rate nullifier who’s on our side for once,” no one needed to mention Armsman to know what John was getting at.
“I hope she gets a fair review,” Blaine offered his sympathies. “I just wanted to call and see how you were holding up.”
“I’m good, Blaine. And I appreciate the call,” John reached for the button to disconnect the encrypted line.
“Oh, one more thing, John,” Blaine’s hurried voice stopped John short. “Can you please get the winter conference at West Private? We’re doing intermurals this year, so we can’t do the conference; and if I have the go to New York or Chicago in the winter again I’m going to lose it.” John laughed at his fellow Dean’s aversion to the cold.
“I’ll do what I can, but Dean Jackson is a stubborn SOB,” John smiled at Blaine’s chuckle.
“That he is. Take care of yourself, John.”
“You too, Blaine,” the line disconnected.
John didn’t even get a breath in before the door to his office opened. “I wondered when you’d be stopping by.” He gestured for the uniformed man to take a seat, pulled another glass from his desk, and filled it with the expensive scotch.
“I thought I’d give you a few hours to deal with everything here before I ruined your weekend,” Colonel Ford, the commander of ForceOps’ Counterterrorism Unit, took the offered glass and downed it in one shot.
“So I’m guessing your intelligence specialists have done a little more digging in light of yesterday’s incident,” John finished his own glass so they could get down to business.
“Yes,” the military officer admitted. “But first I wanted to get your assessment of what happened. Shit gets lost in all these written reports people have to fill out. You were one the ground, in the fight, felt the pulse of the battle; you can’t convey that on paper.”
“Well it wasn’t a simple robbery like the DVA seems determined to sell it as,” John began. “My report says as much, but it’ll probably just get filed away in the bottom of some analyst’s drawer.” It still amazed the retired Hero that the DVA could just choose to ignore an HCP Dean if they wanted to. “Second, despite the rhetoric being thrown around, it was definitely Hellgate in that shop,” Ford nodded, as if this was obvious. “I only got a split second look,” John admitted. “But he matched the description I remember, and I fully trust Reaper’s judgment.”
“The judgment of a sidelined Hero with PTSD and admitted substance abuse issues,” The Colonel replied, holding up his hands defensively when John glared at him. “I’m just saying what the higher ups at the DVA are going to say. Plus, you have to deal with her dropping all those civilians without a certification.”
“They’re discrediting her statement because their official line is that Hellgate was killed in a raid 12 years ago. No one believes it, but the current Associate Director of Operations was the team leader on that mission; so this is a classic example of someone looking out for their career over more important issues. But let’s table that for the moment though,” John made a brushing aside movement with his hand. “My primary concern is that Hellgate tried to take Anika Kemps hostage.”
“I’m aware,” Ford concern matched John’s. “Our analysts have concluded that Anika’s father’s brief appearance in the country was most likely to meet with Hellgate and offer him a contract.”
John nodded. “And now they both know where she is.”
“But they also know that we know that they know where she is,” Ford countered, grinning at the confusing statement. “I don’t want you to worry, John,” the soldier added when John didn’t share his enthusiasm. “ForceOps is committed to protecting Miss Kemps, and determined to see that she is allowed to follow her dream of being a Hero.”
“I appreciate that, Tom,” John switched to his first name to show he really meant it. Everyone knew the ForceOps officer as Ford; only a select few as Tom. “So what do we do from here?”
“I’m deploying assets in town in case either of them makes a move to take her,” Ford sat back in his chair, exuding an air of confidence. “Between them, the Protectorate, West’s HCP, and the powerful Iron Giant, I think we can hold him back long enough to bring in enough people to take him down. Hell, Titan told me he’d be willing to jump in if that monster ever showed his face again.”
John felt the relief spread through him at everyone’s commitment to Anika’s safety. John was the expert on Anika’s father, and even with all the big names being pledged to the HCP’s defense, there was still one he knew he needed.
“Do you have any contacts with the DVA?” the two Super organizations were specifically designed to operate in different jurisdictions. John made that clear in his freshmen Ethics class. But just like any other government agency there was personnel crossover, backroom chatter, and favors that were owed.
“I know a few well-placed people,” Ford replied with a raised eyebrow. “Why?”
“You know Reaper is under review for the coffee shop incident, and that’s coming right off an investigation where she was cleared in a confrontation where she legally used self-defense. Things don’t look great, so could you put in a few calls and make sure she doesn’t get thrown to the wolves,” John’s voice was slightly pleading. “Like it or not; despite her attitude, mental issues, and substance abuse, Reaper is one of the strongest Heroes ever. If he really does come for Anika, we’re going to need her.”
John didn’t like nepotism. He abhorred the ability for a single person to make a call that gives responsibility to someone who is unworthy. John made sure that mindset didn’t exist in the HCP, and he knew his fellow Deans did the same. But John wasn’t naïve enough to see that he could use his own influence, and connections, to save someone who was a vital asset; even if she acted outside the letter of the law, but still in the spirit of it.
<I’ll keep a close eye on her,> John promised himself that long ago. <If she becomes a liability then I’ll be the first one to sideline her,> the fact that John knew he’d do it allowed him to ask Ford for this favor.
“I’ll put in the necessary calls,” Ford simply nodded. “I can’t promise she’ll get off free and clear, but I’ll do my best.”
“Thank you,” John truly meant it, and offered Ford another glass to show his appreciation.
They spent a moment in silence, nursing their drinks, while their minds raced with contingency plans, protocols, and imaging how a battle with Anika’s father would play out. None of it was reassuring.
“We need to double check everything,” John finally broke the silence with the thought that was nagging him. “Somehow they found out she was here, despite the extra precautions I’ve been taking with security.”
“If you send the code to my analysts I can put a fresh set of eyes on it,” John accepted Ford’s offer, and downloaded the records of the few dozen attempts to break HCP security in the last few months.
“I’ll have a more thorough analysis done on the university’s security breaches, and anything else I can think of,” John and Ford had just outlined months of work to be accomplished. That was enough for one meeting.
“Thanks for the drink,” Ford pocketed the data drive with all the sensitive information.
“You’re always welcome,” John got to his feet to shake his old friend’s hand. “But, Tom, please make an appointment from now on. I don’t want conspiracy rumors to start getting around. The subtlety students are already enough of a pain without them digging into rumored connections between the HCP and ForceOps.”
“I’ll have my people call your people,” John’s people being an AI.
Colonel Ford disappeared before he left John’s office. Leaving John to stew in what the next few months had in store for his program.