I remembered taking one last look at the others, thinking that we’d assembled an interesting little group. The full roster of the Philly Five, plus Uplink, Heavyweight, Menagerie and Feral, and myself and Leon. Mary wasn’t with us, but she was ready to do her part.
We’d taken the time to stop and plan things out, to the best of our ability. Feral and I had done a little stalking, too, and Mary had risked exposure to get us the information we needed to finally find the boss himself, and bring him out into the open where we could get him. After weeks of alternating crises and sneaking around, it was time to make our move at last, and hopefully end this whole mess.
I had a few misgivings about the team and the plan. We’d debated going to the FBI, the cops, or both, but ultimately decided against it; Mary’s warning that past attempts to seek official help had failed, and the fact that we didn’t know why, seemed like a bigger problem than the risk of going in without sufficient backup. We’d also turned down possible assistance from Meteor. Comet had considered calling her, but given us veto power over whether to ask for her help, and Menagerie had used it. Leon and I weren’t certain it was the right call, but Heavyweight had sided with her immediately, and I’d decided that it was better to go in with a cohesive team and one less person rather than bring in a super who the rest of us still felt a bit skittish about, despite her powers and apparent skill in using them. No one else had argued, either.
All told, there were ten of us (or twelve, depending on whether you counted spirits), up against the boss and everyone working for him. In terms of supers, we had a numerical edge, but he had plenty of normal people working for him too, and we had the handicap of not wanting anyone to die. On top of that, it was still unclear what powers the boss himself possessed. Assuming we still had the element of surprise, the odds were far more even than any of us were comfortable with.
On the bright side, we had reason to believe that some of the supers on the other side weren’t in town right now. Mason Walker, the captured-and-coerced golf course owner, and at least one other were supposed to be away. That removed one very tough customer and one unknown from the equation, at least in the short-term. If things went badly, we were expecting to face the boss himself, Tuggey, Michaels, the three newest additions who were working under Mary, and whatever guards they could gather on short notice.
“We’re in good shape,” Leon evaluated. “Our advantages are sufficient to overcome our disadvantages, I think. The Philly Five should be strong enough allies to tip the scales in our favor.”
“I think you’re probably right,” I said. “It’s the ‘probably’ that I’m not wild about. But we’re as ready as we can be. We’ve got our team, we’ve got our window, and it’s past time to end this.”
Our private conversation had been interrupted when Bloodhound answered Comet’s question. “Ready,” he said, apparently calm.
“Ready,” Stalker agreed with a nod.
“I’m set,” Newton said, standing straighter.
“Ready,” Tin Man said quietly.
“Yeah, I’m ready,” Uplink agreed.
We were standing in a circle, and I recalled eyes turning to me.
“We’re ready,” I’d said. “Have to include you, right? Who else would watch our backs.”
“Much appreciated,” Leon said.
“Ready,” Menagerie said with a nod. Feral, large enough to ride, rose to stand at her side.
“Yeah, okay,” Heavyweight said. “I think I’m ready.”
Tin Man clapped him on the shoulder. “You’ll be fine. We’ll watch your back.”
Heavyweight seemed to take some confidence from the gesture, and gave Tin Man a grateful nod.
“All right,” Comet had said at last. She looked at us all again, taking a deep breath. “In that case…places, everybody. It’s almost showtime.”
Then we’d gone our separate ways.
Our plan wasn’t all that complicated. Basically, it amounted to “surprise the bad guys and disable them as quickly as possible, especially Michaels and the boss.” If we grabbed the two of them, it should effectively destroy the organization. There would be a lot of mopping up to do, but it could be done in a more leisurely fashion if need be. Tuggey and most of the other supers were just muscle, as far as we could tell. The boss was running the whole show, and Michaels was a linchpin, letting him maintain control of a lot of people. With all of that in mind, we’d decided to try to avoid fighting altogether, if we could. Mary was staying undercover, in the hopes that she could get us the boss’s location if he slipped away from us, but she would be leading Alena, Doug, and Lindsay in a search for Heavyweight, who would be driving around the city aimlessly, staying in public, and generally doing nothing. Some of the Philly Five would be nearby, providing backup in case the boss ordered Mary to attack. The rest of them, along with Menagerie, Feral, Leon, and myself, would be launching our actual surprise attack.
Mary had suggested the basic outline of the plan. Comet and Leon had contributed some specifics, while the rest of us mostly listened. Menagerie, Heavyweight, and I had been content to let Comet slide into the leadership role.
With the last face-to-face meeting officially over, it was time.
I had peeled off from the larger group, along with Comet. Heavyweight left separately, followed by Newton, Tin Man and Stalker. Bloodhound and Uplink formed a third group with Menagerie and Feral. We were spreading ourselves a bit thin, but it was the best plan we’d been able to come up with. Comet and I were only expected to face Michaels, Tuggey, and a few gunmen. Menagerie’s group would be dealing with the boss, with our support if possible, while Heavyweight’s group led Mary on a wild goose chase.
“We’ve got it memorized,” Leon said soothingly. “Relax. We’re not going to forget our part.”
“It’s damn hard to relax,” I admitted. My heart was already pounding just from anticipating what was going to happen, and I found it hard not to start considering increasingly unlikely bad scenarios, even though I actually felt pretty confident.
I’d felt real fear a few times, now; this was more like stage fright. I felt acutely aware of what people meant when they referred to feeling ‘butterflies in their stomach’, or any of the other idioms for nervousness and anxiety; I definitely had that feeling. It was very similar to how my stomach had felt when I’d been on a roller coaster, years earlier, and I was barely aware of my surroundings until Comet and I arrived at our destination. It felt almost like falling, experiencing the brief moment between losing your footing and hitting the ground.
Maybe it was just the anticipation that made it feel like that.
We set up briefly on a roof near the house where Michaels was staying, getting the lay of the land. It was another nice home, like the one we’d found him at before; apparently he was house-sitting for someone under a fake name at the moment. We weren’t sure if he’d been in the other home under a similar arrangement.
The two of us waited until we heard from the other groups – communicating through Uplink and Stalker telepathically for security and speed – and then I went in while Comet hung back and waited for my signal.
It was more than a little intimidating to think about the fact that I was in charge of starting things off. My anxiety only grew as I dropped down from the roof, crossed to the house, and searched for Michaels and Tuggey. Mary had gotten a key for me to use, but I walked around the outside first, trying to figure out which part of the house they were in; it was pretty big. I was particularly nervous due to walking around the house in broad daylight, depending on my camouflage to hide me. Part of the reason we were moving during the day was so that the ambient noise of the city could mask the sounds I made walking around, hopefully preventing Tuggey from detecting us too soon, the way we had during Dustin’s rescue, but knowing that didn’t keep me from feeling exposed.
The house was big enough that I estimated it had more than four bedrooms, so there was plenty of space to concern myself with. I went up to the front, first, and peeked in through the windows where I could. Most of them weren’t covered, but I only spotted a pair of guards, not the people I was actually looking for. Around the sides, it was more of the same. In the back, the windows were covered. Unsurprisingly, given the time of year, the pool was empty and no one was in the backyard.
I reported all of that to Comet, then went around again, starting to look in through the windows on the second floor. Most of those weren’t covered, and I was about two-thirds of the way done when I found Michaels and Tuggey, sitting next to each other on a sofa and playing video games. Michaels had a beer next to him, while Tuggey was drinking soda.
I left as quietly as I could, mentally reporting back to Comet again. The sensation of telepathy, relayed through Uplink, was surprisingly different from what it felt like to talk to Leon. I wasn’t sure if Uplink was just being polite and avoiding unnecessary details, but I didn’t get any sense of anyone’s emotions or thoughts the way Leon and I did when we spoke to each other; it was a lot more like sending mental text messages.
“Found them,” I told her. “No guards in the room. At least four in the house. I think I can get in unnoticed through the back door; it didn’t look like anyone was watching it.”
“You sure?” Comet asked.
“Call it ninety-plus percent,” I said. “Tell everyone we’re starting as soon as they acknowledge.”
“Okay,” Comet said. “One sec.”
I ‘heard’ her conferring briefly with Uplink. I wasn’t speaking to him directly because it was apparently hard to multitask, even for a telepath. He could help me talk to Comet and have her talk to him directly, along with the other team leaders, but just linking everyone in the whole group together was apparently too much for Uplink and Stalker to manage, even combining their efforts.
I didn’t really understand the explanation they’d tried to give us about why, but I didn’t need to. As long as I knew what they were doing, the how wasn’t really important to me at the moment.
“They’re in place,” Comet said. “Call me if you need me, and I’ll provide some shock and awe.”
“I won’t let them make any calls,” I promised.
Then I walked up to the back door, unlocked it, and entered the house.
The security system was on, but Mary had provided me with the key to that, too. It had been another risk for her to learn the information, but none of our plans involved her staying undercover for very long, and we wanted to preserve the advantage of surprise as long as we could. I entered the number quickly, praying that none of the guards happened to be looking at the keypads when I came in; they flashed a light when the door opened, even if the alarm was canceled by my entering the code. Judging by the lack of shouting, it seemed like my prayer was answered. I managed to enter the code correctly, although there was a half-second after putting in the last digit when I blanked out, unable to remember what the last number I’d just hit was, or even what it was supposed to be. When the alarm failed to go off, I felt like my heart was starting up again.
I felt my stomach settle a bit. That was the moment I’d dreaded the most, for some reason that even I couldn’t fathom, but now I was in the building, invisible, and the bad guys didn’t know it. This was the riskiest part, in many ways, since both Tuggey and Michaels had a chance to notice me approaching, but it had been agreed by everyone that I had the best chance to sneak up on them except, perhaps, for Feral. We’d considered having me try to surprise the boss, instead, but without knowing his powers that had seemed chancier, and she’d volunteered for that risk. Her lack of a physical body meant that nothing the boss could do should be able to hurt her, as far as we knew. As for Tuggey and Michaels…well, if they saw me coming I had my regeneration to fall back on, and Comet was only a thought away. Judging by what I’d seen, she could easily cross the distance between her current position and mine in less than five seconds.
After giving my heart and breathing a minute to slow, I started moving, walking into the house and looking for the stairs. Fortunately, it didn’t remind me of the place where we’d found Dustin; that had been a very middle-class sort of home, whereas this one clearly belonged to someone wealthy. The furnishings were all expensive, and the decorations leaned more towards ‘expensive art’ and less towards ‘family photos’.
Besides, when I walked in I’d felt a sudden urge to wipe my shoes so I wouldn’t track dirt around. That might have just stemmed from a desire not to get caught, but unfortunately I hadn’t thought of that ramification of invisibility until afterward, so I knew the instinct came from something more mundane.
In retrospect, I realized that a dirty mat just inside the door could give me away as easily as dirty carpets, but fortunately the mat had been dirty before I arrived. I was thankful for the minor stroke of luck, and took a mental note about the lessons I was learning when it came to sneaking around.
I passed through three rooms, including a very nice library, and finally reached the stairs in the foyer. I could see two of the guards I’d noticed earlier, sitting around. One was smoking and pacing, while the other read a book; apparently they weren’t taking their jobs very seriously at the moment. I felt entirely okay with that attitude.
I crept past them, slowly, walking as quietly as I could and praying that the stairs didn’t creak. I would hate to get shot because of creaky stairs.
“You and me both,” Leon agreed. “Come on.”
At least they were carpeted, so my shoes weren’t particularly loud when I set each foot down. I kept glancing back at the two guards, but they didn’t seem to notice me at all. When I got to the landing between the first and second floors and let go of the bannister, I realized my hand was shaking.
“It’s all right, David,” Leon said. “We’re almost there, now.”
I took another breath – not too deep, I didn’t want to be heard – and then went up the second flight of stairs, reaching the second floor. I was taking a moment to get my bearings when I heard a man laughing to my left; following the noise, I soon found myself looking into the room where Michaels and Tuggey were.
It looked like a rich kid’s shrine to pop culture. There were rows of movies in DVD and Blu-ray cases, and video games alongside them, all arranged haphazardly on a large set of shelves. There were multiple consoles on the ground, a DVR, and other devices under and around a flat screen TV that would have made me drool with jealousy if I weren’t otherwise occupied.
I noted all of that absently as I glanced around the room, making sure that it still had only two occupants, which it did. Michaels appeared to be the one laughing.
“Oh come on man, just try!” he said, looking sideways at Tuggey. My heart stopped for a second; if I wasn’t invisible, he would have seen me over the other man’s shoulder.
Tuggey sighed. “Look, you’re kicking my ass, okay? Now will you quit drinking? We’re supposed to be on call in case they catch Heavyweight.”
“Whatever,” Michaels said, waving a hand. “I’ve barely had any, and it’s just beer. I can handle his brain just fine, man. Now will you please make this interesting?”
Juvenile bickering wasn’t what I’d expected, but on the bright side it was pretty loud. So was the game, which meant that I might just be able to get close enough to hit them both before they noticed me.
I wanted to warn Comet that I was about to strike, but we thought Michaels might sense telepathy if it was this close to him. Of course, we had also thought he might notice me anyway, since people like Raquel and I, who were sharing our bodies with spirits, seemed to register differently to him than normal people.
Apparently he wasn’t paying much attention, like the guards downstairs.
So far, so good. I readied my weapon – a taser I’d stolen from one of the bad guys on a night that had gone a lot like this, in some ways – and started to move closer. If I could, I would get right behind the sofa unnoticed and strike them from within arm’s reach. If not, I’d attack as soon as they reacted to my presence.
I tried to time my steps to coincide with the noise of their game, and it seemed to work. Soon, I was only five steps away. I tried to breathe as quietly as I could, and kept my attention split between the two of them, giving slightly more to Tuggey; I thought he was probably more likely to notice me at the moment.
They were playing a racing game. One car hit an obstacle and spun out, and I advanced a step, then a second as it smashed into a building. Michaels took a sharp turn and lightly bumped another car, and I took a third step. A moment later he cut the vehicle off at the next turn. Simulated tires squealed, and I stepped closer again; I was almost near enough to touch them.
All of a sudden, there was a burst of noise; it took me a moment to realize that the race was over, and in my surprise I took a sharp breath in. My eyes had automatically gone to the screen, and now I looked back at Tuggey.
I held my breath, and saw him turn to look at Michaels; his expression a bit confused.
“Did you-” Tuggey started to ask a question.
I didn’t wait for him to finish. I took one last step and my right arm snapped out, pressing the taser against his exposed arm and activating it.
Tuggey spasmed, shocked in more than one way, and started to fall to the ground. By the time he hit, I was already turning to get Michaels. He didn’t put up a fight, either; he was still reacting to what had happened to Tuggey, it seemed, and hadn’t yet started to look for the person responsible when I zapped him, too. In moments, they were both on the ground. I pulled out two sets of plastic wrist cuffs – provided by the Philly Five, who were far better prepared than I was – and quickly tied their arms behind their backs the way I had been shown, then tied gags around their mouths. When Tuggey started to struggle, I shocked him a second time, finished gagging him, then stood up and poked my head out the door to make sure no one had noticed.
It was fortunate for me that the game’s volume was turned up so high, and that it kept making noise even on the menu screen that had popped up after the race ended.
“Smooth,” Leon commented, pleased.
“Comet, the two main threats are restrained,” I reported. “I’m going to move on to the guards now.”
“Understood,” she said. “I’ll pass it on. Remember, I’m here if you need me.”
I took a quick peek at the guys in the foyer, but they hadn’t noticed anything. With my mind at ease, I went through the rest of the second floor, checking each room, then doubled back to look in on Michaels and Tuggey again. Tuggey was out cold, but Michaels glared at me when he saw me walk in. I hesitated, considering whether to try to knock him out, but I didn’t feel right using the taser unnecessarily, and I wasn’t confident in my ability to safely choke someone unconscious.
“I don’t like him being awake,” Leon said. “But I think we need to prioritize the guards. They could still come up here, or get a call or something.”
“Right,” I said. I shook off my hesitation, double-checked that Michaels and Tuggey were both tied securely, and then went back downstairs to deal with the guards.
It seemed like the four guards I’d spotted before were the only ones present. Two were in the foyer, and the other pair was in the garage. It seemed like they were checking over the two cars that were parked there.
I decided to deal with the pair in the foyer first. They were less busy and more alert, so it seemed wiser to take them out of the equation. Leon agreed.
When I got back, I had a stroke of luck; the guy with the book got up and went to the bathroom. As soon as I heard the door close behind him, I went for the smoker, leading off with a kick to his gut that knocked the wind out of him. He dropped his cigarette and gasped for air, and I got him while he was still recovering. I just barely managed to catch him before his body hit the tile floor headfirst, and then I positioned my arms under his shoulders to drag him into the next room and around the corner. There, I shoved him onto his stomach and tied his hands behind his back. He started to struggle, and I shoved his face into a pillow to muffle him now that he had his breath back, then quickly gagged him, just as I had the two upstairs. I could hear the guy’s partner washing his hands as I finished, and I quickly left the room and turned invisible again, moving to wait just outside the bathroom.
The guard who liked reading went down more easily; whatever he had been ready for, it certainly hadn’t included getting tased as he stepped out of the bathroom, and he joined his partner in about a minute.
“Good so far,” Leon said. “You’re doing well, David. Just keep your cool like you have been, and this should go off without a hitch.”
When I walked into the garage, invisible again, I cursed his word choice. The two guys there were having an argument.
“We have to go, man!” the first said. He had a round belly and was on the tall side, and the look of fear on his face made him look like a caricature. I was grateful for the fact that they’d left the door between the kitchen and the garage open, because there was no chance he would have missed the sound of me opening the door to enter, given the way his eyes were darting around. He looked like a rabbit that had smelled a wolf. Somehow, he’d been pushed to ‘fight or flight’ and gone firmly to ‘flight’.
“What the hell are you talking about?” the other guy asked. He didn’t look remotely afraid, just confused, irritated, and a bit nervous. He was equally tall, but had an odd build; his neck was a bit long, and his legs looked short, as some of the length normally apportioned to the limbs had been transferred up his body.
“Comet, I’m down to the last two guards. They haven’t spotted me, but one of them seems to be freaking out for some reason,” I reported. “I’m going to take them down as soon as I can, though.”
“Got it,” Comet reported. “What’s he freaking out about?”
I was about to tell her that I didn’t know when Leon got my attention.
“Michaels!” Leon realized. “He can’t talk; he’s trying to use his power to warn them!”
I blinked as I followed the train of thought; it made sense. Apparently I should have made sure that Michaels was unconscious, because the bastard was smarter than I’d realized if Leon was right.
In front of me, the panicky guy started to calm down, and his buddy looked like he was about to put two and two together correctly. Fortunately, I’d been sparing in how I used my powers.
I stepped across the entire room with a single stride, moving past the car they had been looking at before, then pivoted and took a second step to close with them now that I was past the car, all while invisible. When the calmer of the two started to turn towards me, I closed in, covered my eyes, and let off a quick flash of light right ahead of me, blinding them. When I opened my eyes afterward, the fat guy was stumbling sideways and bracing himself against the car with one hand, while the other one fumbled for the gun at his belt. I stepped past the fat guy and then kicked him in the stomach, driving him backward and off balance and pushing myself forward toward his partner as he fell to the floor. The long-necked guy was just pulling his gun free when I grabbed his wrist with one rubber-gloved hand and then tased him. I let him fall to the floor and spun to do the same to his partner, only to find that he’d apparently fallen unconscious from hitting his head on the garage floor when he went down. I prodded him with my toe to make sure he wasn’t faking, then returned to the long-necked guy.
Two sets of cuffs and one report later, I was letting Comet in through the back door. She lifted each of the bad guys with ease, and we quickly dragged them all into the same room. With more time on our hands, we tied them up thoroughly, making sure they couldn’t get loose, and searched them each to remove any weapons, phones, or anything else that might cause us a problem. One guy had a Swiss Army Knife in a pocket, where he might have been able to reach it. Fortunately, he hadn’t had a chance. With all of that done, we left the six of them there, tied up inside the house. Long-term it would be inhumane, but we were planning to come back by the end of the day. The worst thing that might happen to them would be crapping themselves, and while that would be gross, it was hardly life-threatening.
Besides, as Comet had commented wryly, it was a risk we would just have to take. We could only hope that if anyone was so unfortunate, it happened to a real scumbag like Michaels, rather than someone he was manipulating.
When it was over, we left, Comet checking in with the others as we moved to meet up with Menagerie’s group. We hopped into a rental car I’d sprung for, and I started driving, following Menagerie’s directions. If all was going as planned, they should have the boss in sight, while Heavyweight continued to draw Mary and her three little helpers away from him. It had been one of Leon’s refinements to our plan: the idea was that if the boss managed to call for help, no one would be able to answer in time, hopefully. With Michaels and Tuggey now out of play and Heavyweight giving Mary an excuse to get further away from where the action would be, the boss shouldn’t have any help beyond a few normal humans as guards. To bring him down and counter whatever powers he might have, we would be fielding Comet, me, Menagerie and Feral, Bloodhound, and Uplink. It gave us a mix of powers and options, with a little bit of stealth, a little bit of speed, and a little bit of brute force. Uplink would be with us in case the boss proved to have his own telepathic abilities, and could also help us locate him if he teleported. If he could fly, Comet would be there to chase him down. If he turned invisible, Feral might still be able to smell him.
We’d discussed a lot of possibilities, trying to cover every power we could. With the first step complete, though, our plan’s chances of success were looking pretty good.
“Uplink says the boss isn’t reacting to what we did, so it seems like he doesn’t know,” Comet told me out loud. “The guards aren’t reacting either. No alerts, no additional people. Heavyweight’s group says no bad news there, either. They’re still in the city, but they’re getting close to the edge, so it’s unlikely he’ll be able to get timely backup from them. What about Mary?”
I checked my phone. “No news is good news,” I said. “She hasn’t sent any messages, so things must be on track for her too.”
Comet looked at me. “Nice work inside, by the way.”
I shrugged uncomfortably. “Thanks. I’ll be happy when this is all over.”
“You and me both, but don’t let your guard down,” Comet said. “We knew what they could do. We had the edge against them. We might have the boss outnumbered, but remember he’ll know more about us than we do about him.”
“I know,” I said. “But until he actually sees one of you, he shouldn’t have any reason to expect the Philly Five. I think you guys rate pretty high on the surprise scale. You’re bad news for bad people.”
Comet chuckled. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said. We fell silent, until she glanced at me again. “Thank you, by the way. For trusting us. It means a lot.”
“I’m only giving the trust you’ve earned,” I replied. “And I’ll admit, we need the help today. I don’t think we could do this alone.”
“There’s nothing quite like having someone to keep an eye out for you,” Comet said. I couldn’t quite decipher her tone. “Anyway, it may sound silly to thank you for inviting us to fight supervillains, Flicker, but I do see it as a vote of confidence, not just a sign of desperation. I hope that’s not too proud of me.”
“You’ve got some things to be proud of, I think,” I said. “No need for excessive humility.”
A minute later, we turned a corner, and I found a parking space where I had been told to expect it.
The one inconvenience of operating during the day was that we risked sticking out like sore thumbs if we used our powers to get around. Comet had stayed in the back of the car and stayed low while I drove to avoid attracting attention, trusting me not to look at her face while it wasn’t covered by her helmet. Similarly, I was trusting her not to try to see mine through the rearview mirror. Once I parked, we got out of the car and out of public view as quickly as possible so that she could put her helmet back on and ditch the jacket that was obscuring her uniform. I didn’t have a uniform, still, but I did put my mask on.