As Daubert made introductions, which appeared to be primarily for Peregrine’s benefit as everyone else knew each other, I opened up a text file and listed the meeting participants:
- FBI Agents Daubert, Lewis, Jeffries, and Keeley. Keeley was introduced as a deputy, which I thought made him senior to Daubert even though the latter was still calling the shots in the meeting.
- Effitech contractors Michaels and Cordon. It was clear from the earlier exchange that Michaels’ role was a mouthpiece for Effitech while Cordon would manage the actual work.
- Peregrine, USST. The only other super in the room. One of the more powerful members of any US Super Team.
- Delphic, independent contractor with both the FBI and USST. Peregrine’s involvement was a curveball that might make my own status ambiguous; I needed to confirm who I was reporting to and who was paying me.
The setup concerned me for a few reasons, but the biggest reason was that no one had actually asked me to get involved. I’m sure the Feds at least saw this as an emergency; I could understand why they hadn’t thought to ask me. But it meant I didn’t know what exactly I was being asked to do. Three years ago I would have said this was obvious – identify the bad guy, track down his current location. But as many interactions had taught me, today’s discussion on Vivi being just one example, there’s often more regarding what they want and how they want it.
I had occasionally entertained making a formal application for Super Team status. There were plenty that would have me; I was one of the most regularly called upon non-member supers in the States. But my independence afforded me a lot of slack about how I reported and what I left out – not to mention any presumed illegalities in how I acquired my intelligence – that would be steadily eroded if I were on a team. I would be expected to divulge my methods, to give regular reports on my actions, and even submit to records requests. Not something I could allow.
One of the major drawbacks of my current approach was the perception of Delphic by both the public and team-affiliated supers. There was substantial ambivalence about the use of superheroes in the US to begin with, and many of the efforts to assuage people’s concerns were predicated on the controls exercised on the Super Teams – the very controls I was seeking to avoid. So, although the majority of press and coverage was still favorable, there were sizable veins of suspicion that had to be acknowledged and handled.
Peregrine’s position on the question was not a secret, and he wasted little time in sharing it with the room. He had let his cape billow over the back of his leather conference chair, and he sat ramrod straight and ill at ease as though he’d rather be in motion. “Wouldn’t it make more sense,” he began, “to rely on Team resources for this?” His eyes took in the whole room but he stayed facing the conference screen and my avatar. “I have assurances from dozens of supers that their groups are entirely at our disposal. I’m flying to New York after this to discuss with Liberty… it doesn’t seem like a situation where we need to outsource manpower.”
Daubert shook his head. “You’re thinking about this the wrong way. This isn’t a pitched battle, or even a manhunt. It’s a murder investigation.” He met the eyes of each of his own agents in turn. “An investigation being run by an allied government within their territory, not ours. We don’t need a hundred heavies trying to cross the border into Ontario.” He let himself scowl briefly at this mental image. “Which is why Jeffries is handling this case. He has a good track record working with the RCMP. He should be able to keep our foot firmly wedged in the door on this.”
Jeffries nodded. During the introductions, he’d shut down the presentation and was skimming a half dozen printed pages. He kept them in his eyeline as he addressed the room. “That’s the key to this process. We don’t want to get locked out of the investigation, which means we need to provide good intelligence and solid support. We want the Canadians to value our usefulness on this more than they fear our meddling.”
The note of frustration in Peregrine’s voice carried well; it was unnecessarily loud for the space. “It’s our teammate that died. How can bringing the killer to justice be meddling?”
Jeffries didn’t raise his voice; he didn’t attempt to match Peregrine’s level of anguished energy. His tone stayed smooth and professional. “It’s the perception that we need to manage here.” He shuffled his papers once again. “The US side of this investigation is classified sensitive but not secret. We’ve been instructed to share freely with the Canadian side, and we’ve been assured by the RCMP that everyone they are including has what we would consider basic security clearance.”
At this point, Jeffries did pull himself up a bit as though to put on an air of command, but it was undermined when he glanced at Daubert for approval. Still, his voice was stern. “When speaking with Inspector Heathcote or any of her personnel, present yourself as at their service and, to the extent practicable, under their authority. However, internally, we consider our investigation to be separate from theirs and our personnel as well. Report what they ask you to do and, whenever possible, wait for confirmation from us. Share information directly related to the investigation only. Please remember,” he was considerably louder now, “your Canadian counterparts are not clear for either sensitive or secret information outside the narrow scope of this investigation.”
There was a momentary pause around the table before Daubert nodded to Keeley. The deputy dialed a number on the teleconference console. It was answered on the first ring.
“This is Heathcote,” a strong feminine voice echoed across the line.
Daubert spoke up, “Inspector Heathcote, thank you for waiting on our call.”
A short silence before she answered: “Ah, yes, the conference, good. Let me sign in here…” a second feed joined the first on my screens.
Brigitte Heathcote’s severe suit would not have looked out of place in the conference room, although her gender and brown skin would have at least broke the demographic monotony. Our viewpoint looked awkwardly up at her and in poor resolution, likely a laptop or mobile device. Although the angle put most of her surroundings out of view, a cloth barrier into a larger space implied she was in some sort of cubicle. A background murmur was picked up by her mic, which again indicated an open office environment. Her demeanor was stony but harshly alert.
Daubert took the lead again. “Good afternoon. This is DC: Agent Daubert, Keeley, Lewis, and Jeffries.” A perfunctory nod at each in turn. “Ben Michaels and mister Cordon from Effitech are here as well, and Peregrine. Delphic is on the call. And Inspector Heathcote in… sorry?”
“Ottawa field office,” she replied at once. “We appreciate your support. You were going to send us a roster? A mixed team?”
Jeffries cleared his throat. “Right, I wanted to discuss with you before finalizing the roster. Three agents and a contracting analyst on the norm – ah, Agency side,” a brief cough and headshake, “and some number of supers.”
Heathcote frowned. “How many?”
Peregrine shot, “How many do you want?” Attention turned to him, which seemed more to his liking. “I can have three full teams there within the hour. Just say the word.”
The RCMP officer tilted her head and studied the display, as though to make sure whatever she said next would not be construed as ‘the word.’ “Thank you, mister Peregrine, but we’ve already allocated what super support we need from Canadian assets.” She redirected to Jeffries. “I was told Spinner and Delphic had volunteered; I can secure border clearance for the two of them easily enough. And confirm active clearance for the Teams that already have it? NEST, New York, USST of course…”
Peregrine nodded, seemingly placated. Heathcote continued, “Although we won’t have official tasks for the supers… outside the two we specifically requested” (me and Spinner, apparently, although this was the first I had heard of it) “…I’ll make sure you’re known to have clearance for the extent of this operation. Codename Caduceus.” That drew an eyebrow-raise from several of us. I had decided after previous run-ins with government naming practices that there were no particularly good codenames, just less terrible ones.
Both Jeffries and Keeley were taking notes on their laptops and no one immediately spoke up, so I took the initiative. “Good afternoon, Inspector. Delphic speaking,” my synthesized voice came over the channel. “I don’t wish to derail the discussion, but I believe there may have been a slight miscommunication regarding my role in this.” I could see concern starting to manifest on the Feds’ faces, particularly Lewis’s, but I pressed on. “I’m happy to help, but I’d appreciate more specifics as to how, and under what terms. No one corresponded with me about this case prior to the present meeting; I have made no commitments.”
As I finished my comment, I saw Lewis’s posture crumple. Only in retrospect did I realize that, since Jeffries had begun the briefing on Lamarck, Lewis had been consciously keeping a blank expression. He looked both frustrated and worried now.
Daubert’s scowl turned on Lewis, who was covering the lower half of his face with one hand. Daubert’s next question was pointed at Lewis, even though nominally directed in me. “Are you not under contract with the Bureau, mister Delphic? I had understood we had you on a contractor basis.”
Lewis flinched and tried to keep his voice steady as he answered, “I tried to explain, sir, Delphic’s arrangement lets him choose which cases he pursues. He’s paid based on successful results, rather than which cases he takes on.”
“Disgusting mercenaries.” This was from Peregrine, said at a volume enough lower than his normal projected tone that it could charitably have been intended to be kept to his person, but nonetheless plenty loud enough for everyone to hear. The insult turned my stomach, but the meeting continued as if it hadn’t been said.
Daubert nodded, a sigh escaping his lips. “I apologize for misunderstanding the situation, Delphic. I take it we need to come up with a number so you can evaluate whether to support the case?”
The reactions I saw from others in the room were not positive; it seemed others shared Peregrine’s attitudes about ‘mercenary supers’ even if they were more tactful about sharing them. Heathcote, at least, seemed neutral if a little disinterested in the exchange. But the knot in my stomach was tightening – I didn’t like the way this made me look to people whose respect I genuinely wanted.
“That won’t be necessary,” I had Delphic reply. “As I said to the Inspector, I’ll commit to help right now. Agent Lewis and I can determine payment at another time.”
People had started to relax, but Peregrine wasn’t done. His eyes pierced me through the camera lens. “Five million,” he practically shouted. Everyone else looked perplexed. “How much of your processing power does that buy, Delphic? Five million dollars.” He swept his hand over the table like he was brushing away irrelevant chaffe.
I started to type a reply, but he continued quickly, “We all know you’re used to making a hundred thousand or more for a few hours’ work. Five million is still more than even you pull in a month.” He was growing even louder as he spit his words at me, and he rose with inhuman swiftness. He turned to Keeley. “I’ll have the money wired to you as soon as I get to New York. Make sure the merc gets it.” Between two frames of the streaming video, he moved from his seat to the door and opened it. “See you in Ottawa, Delphic.” The slam of the door against its frame was loud even through the room mic.
This reaction was not wholly out of character for Peregrine, but it was quite a bit more severe and dramatic than I had expected. I had worked with him on USST missions at least a half dozen times, and while he had always looked down his nose at my contributions and addressed himself to HQ rather than speaking with me directly, I had interpreted his feelings as mild annoyance rather than outright contempt. He’d certainly never thrown my payroll arrangements in my face before or anything similarly crass.
I briefly reviewed what I knew of the A-list super. 24-year-old Robert Smiles lived alone in a large estate within commuter distance of the Capitol, where he worked as an intern for the Representative from Ohio’s 9th Congressional District (the Congresswoman was herself a retired USST member). A little digging revealed that it was unlikely Robert Smiles existed even five years ago – it appeared that whomever Peregrine was before this, it was more convenient to the DoJ to give him a clean identity.
Peregrine’s reputation within the super community was as a powerful, dedicated hero with a hair trigger and no interest in self-reflection or nuance. His flight power was the third fastest on record at over 500 mph, and he had the most potent defensive feature that had yet been measured: upon colliding with an object while in flight, all of Peregrine’s momentum would transfer to the object, leaving Peregrine stationary and unharmed. This meant that Peregrine could repeatedly create and then impart a significant impulse to anything he could touch.
The issue was, diverting malfunctioning airplanes and dive-bombing criminals at high speeds seemed to be all that interested the guy. He consistently put in long hours with USST and, even when off-duty, seemed to spend more time in his suit surveilling the Eastern US from above than he spent fleshing out his civilian life. It would not have surprised me if the other Super Team members were the only people he would consider close friends.
I realized that, as personal as his outburst might have seemed, Peregrine was probably reacting more to the loss of Lamarck than to anything actually having to do with me. I made a note to try to put us on better footing when the opportunity presented.
“… can move ahead with that, today, if that fits your requirements, mister Delphic?” Heathcote looked expectantly at the camera as I moved out of my reverie, realizing I had missed a good three minutes of back-and-forth between the inspector and Daubert.
Panicking, I mentally flailed for some vague response I could use until I caught the thread of the discussion, but soon realized I’d have to own up to it. “Apologies inspector, I missed your query. Can you repeat please?”
No visible reaction but tension in her jaw. It was certain that Peregrine was not the only one who was strained to near breaking by this tragedy. “You can contact my sergeant as soon as we conclude here to walk you around the scene and review our forensic records, and you can let her know today what other acquisitions you will need, in terms of authorization or resources. Will this be acceptable?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“And we can expect you four gentlemen tomorrow afternoon?” she directed to the others. The men responded with sober nods. “Let me bring you quickly up to speed on what we currently know, then.”
The inspector relied heavily on her written notes as she provided us their most current findings and conclusions. I was expecting to have access to the file she was reading from, but I made my own notes anyway.
Lamarck had been hit by a three-round burst of 5.56 caliber shells, almost certainly fired from a gas-powered rifle – illegal for civilian possession on either side of the border, but readily available to military operations and on the black market. The angle of impact implied a vantage from the roof of any of the four buildings closest to the intersection on the opposite block from the corner where the supers were standing.
Velo’s rescue actions were irrelevant as Lamarck was killed essentially instantly when the bullets atomized about half of his brain matter, although considering Lamarck’s known ability to quickly heal himself and others, it was not surprising that Velo might have thought otherwise.
The autopsy had to be delayed several hours, because the corpse’s tissues refused to stay separated and quickly healed over each incision that was made. At about the eight-hour mark, the effect had diminished enough to allow a full post mortem. The autopsy confirmed the documentary evidence and preliminary conclusions.
Initial canvassing recovered 73 videos of the area over the relevant period, but none included the roofs of any of the four buildings, or any suspicious egress from the area.
There were no plausible claims of responsibility from known criminal or terrorist organizations, although plenty of the latter were celebrating the “blow against American imperialism.” Monitored channels showed no traffic spikes leading up to the attack.
Heathcote sighed, “Every avenue we’ve pursued so far has come up dry. We’re running out of leads faster than we can generate new ones.” She made eye contact in turn with each of the four men assigned to the case, “We welcome the fresh eyes, but to be honest? I don’t expect we’re going to break this.”
It was clearly a hard admission for her to make, but from the way she said it I had the impression she was repeating a malediction she had already pronounced earlier in the day. I doubted it made it any easier.
And yet there was a decent chance that I could break this case within the next hour. So, rather than contact Sergeant Waterford immediately, I closed my eyes and rose above Detroit.
I didn’t View Canada much, and currently didn’t have any scenes kept close enough in memory that were a better starting point for Ottawa than right here in my home city. So I pulled out and up, up and out, until my View was at the edge of being obscured by haze in the wet atmosphere. I moved east over the Great Lakes, using obvious landmarks and occasionally zooming in enough to see major roads and cities, until I zeroed in directly on Canada’s capitol.
Finding Ottawa Hospital’s Civic campus was short work. The intersection in question was open to regular traffic now and suffered a steady trickle of pedestrians. By the time my rewind had reached mid-morning, there was an active crime scene with a taped outline on the concrete and several people with badges inside a cordoned area.
Other than a couple of black-and-whites roaming the area, little appeared to happen during the previous night. By the time I had hit and passed sundown, the scene was crawling with both uniformed and suited personnel… and a few costumed heroes. The latter appeared to be mostly talking among themselves and to the uniforms, while the suits took photographs and moved around a lot. At some point Inspector Heathcote herself came and went.
Finally the crowds collected in their uncanny reverse motions, and I saw the masked speedster in black and red deliver the warm corpse of Lamarck back to the intersection. His body lurched upright as large bloody craters disappeared from his face and skull.
I let the scene run until the instant when the first bullet hit his temple. With my attention fully on that one piece of metal, I slowly reversed the scene, tracing its trajectory to the source.
The bullet approached the roof second back from the corner building across the street. It was barely an arm’s length away from the building when it disappeared.
I crawled my View forward and back repeatedly to confirm it, and watched the bullet appear out of thin air each time. With some careful timing I managed to pause the scene with only half the bullet visible – circling around to directly behind it, the cross section where the back half was absent appeared completely black, as though none of the daylight otherwise reflecting off the projectile could reach it.
Soon I had identified the second and third shots that had been reported in the burst. The other bullets followed similar but non-identical trajectories to the first, and each appeared in midair at the same distance from the building roof. The spacing was consistent with a select-fire burst.
Moving my View to the roof itself, I saw significant movement in the gravel that covered the flat surface. Over the next hour, I shifted in space and time all around the roof, but other than smaller shifts in gravel both before and after the attack, I found nothing. The access hatch leading from the roof into the building never opened; no individuals suddenly appeared or disappeared in the vicinity.
My hope of a quick resolution to this case vanished as thoroughly as the signs of movement on the roof just minutes after the attack. But at least I could give the RCMP a real lead.
The assassin was a super with a flawless invisibility power. And even though that meant there was no quick way to identify the perpetrator, at least it left us with a defined list of suspects.
Returning to the present, I pulled up the number for Sergeant Waterford. No reason to leave her waiting any longer. We had work to do.