Chapter 6 – Painful Questions

I thought out my morning on the drive home. The meeting with Georgia and Matti Gardner, my prospective employees, was set for 9 am Pacific time, which meant I had four hours to invest. I wanted to focus on the polar bear case, but when I had laundry going and sat down at my computer, I turned my attention to the situation in New York instead.

The coordination involved in this attack made it a big deal. Among both normal criminals and super villains, the ability to work together to pull off a plan with more steps than just “get the guy and run” transforms the nature of the threat. Run-of-the-mill criminals, even supers, are momentary emergencies. They either cause harm on the spot or they are stopped.

But organized crime – villain teams, masterminds, cults, and the like – can cause ongoing harm that is hard to even identify. To be stopped, they have to be rooted out. I recognized the broader strategic danger there, even if I don’t always agree with which groups receive which labels (e.g. Doc).

NYST’s system showed five rooms at HQ booked by Lady Liberty for “questioning suspects,” followed by the numbers 1-4 and, for the last room, “Soin.” The system showed all of last night’s supers as active at HQ, other than Refraxx, but none had camera feeds available. I was surprised to see High-Cap on the list as well.

Spinner was shown as tied into the system, so I dialed him through it. His visor feed came up, showing him in a lit hallway with Liberty and GigaGiant. The heroine wore her bronze costume, but her hulking companion was in bone slacks and a red shirt. The business casual outfit looked odd with his pale blue skin. “G’morning, Delphic. Get enough sleep?” Spinner greeted.

Liberty pressed buttons on her left wrist, and the system informed me that she and GigaGiant had been added to the channel.

“Yes, thank you,” I typed and sent. “I apologize for my absence, but reintegrating myself after intense data analysis takes time.”

“Huh. I didn’t actually know that,” Spinner replied.

“I take it, then, that you don’t have any more leads for us on who is ultimately responsible?” asked Lady Liberty.

“Not yet,” I repeated from last night. “I wanted to review the recordings of the suspect interviews from last night, but they have not been made available.

“There aren’t any,” Liberty explained. “Last night’s sessions weren’t recorded.”

I noticed as she said this that GigaGiant, who had to look significantly below his own eye level to see the faces of his colleagues, briefly raised his gaze to eye level and turned his mouth down in a frown. He shook it off after a minute.

“That’s unfortunate,” I had Delphic say. “May I ask why not?”

“Power-assisted interrogation,” GigaGiant’s voice rumbled, “isn’t admissible in New York.”

“And we’ve found that the most effective methods for questioning… make for poor PR,” the Lady added.

“That’s because it’s sick,” Spinner said. “Torture isn’t a reliable way to get information.”

“Not by itself,” the larger super replied.

By unspoken agreement the three of them headed down the hall. Liberty said, “We’re not sure to make of what we’ve found out. Apparently Whisper wasn’t the first. Some unexplained disappearances of suspects and witnesses over the past two years can be chalked up to these guys and a half dozen of their friends.”

This was a difficult claim to take seriously. A covert abduction ring operating in New York City? But if it were true, the consequences went far beyond NYST.

“That seems like a matter for the police department,” I typed.

“That’s what I said,” Spinner interjected. “If we had uncovered somethin’ like this in Boston, it woulda been dumped on the city’s finest by now.”

“We’ll turn the perps and the intel over to them when we’re done,” Liberty replied, “but NYPD doesn’t share with us. Half the time they don’t even let us interview their suspects. We have to get what we can while they’re in our custody.” The three arrived at a large steel door.

“The mystery is this Doctor Soin. He’s admitted to organizing the pickup, but he won’t tell us who hired him. Or what motivated him to try to kill Whisper when she was found.”

Another set of button presses on Liberty’s forearm resulted in an audible click, as well as an alert on the NYST dashboard that “questioning suspects – Soin” was unlocked. Spinner entered first, followed by Liberty; GigaGiant remained in the hallway.

The video from Spinner’s stream was bent around the edges due to the wide-angle lens he employed in his visor. Often this wasn’t noticeable, but in the enclosed space of the room it added to the claustrophobic feel.

The room was oppressively lit by ceiling fluorescents. The intended centerpiece of the space was a sturdy wooden table that was currently pushed to one corner. Doctor Soin, stripped of his medical jacket but otherwise dressed the same as last night, was tightly bound to a heavy padded chair.

Against one wall, in a matching padded chair, sat a dark-skinned woman with a long billowing mane of bright orange hair. She wore a thin black shirt and slacks with black flats and gloves; the only color on her was a small cloud logo on her shirt the same color as her hair.

Orange Nimbus looked exhausted. Her eyes were forced open too wide and her mouth was slightly open in a panting frown. But I could tell by her defiant look toward Spinner and Liberty that asking her to stop and get sleep would be wasted breath.

In a folding chair sitting right next to the doctor was Enki, an unnaturally pale goth girl in a stylized indigo costume laced up like a corset. She looked up at the newcomers with a polite smile. “Something wrong?” she asked sweetly. If Orange Nimbus was exhausted, Enki looked the opposite: well-rested and vigorous.

“Don’t mind us.” Liberty moved to the side of the room opposite Nimbus; Spinner leaned back against the re-locked door.

Enki nodded and returned her attention to the bound man in front of her. She lightly touched him near his elbow, and his whole body shaked as he tried and failed to flinch away. She ran a single teasing fingertip up and down his arm. The man let out a faint whimpering noise.

“Okay, Pathik, I think that’s long enough. Have you remembered anything else?” She spoke close to his ear, loud enough to be heard clearly in the small room but quiet enough to seem strangely intimate. The tone reminded me of a nurse coaxing a sick patient.

The doctor cleared his throat. “No, nothing else.”

“Lie.” This one word from Orange Nimbus had an immediate effect on the doctor.

“No! It… there’s… I can’t! Please!” He pulled at his bonds, yelling plaintively.

He didn’t stop yelling as Enki placed one hand around his throat and the other resting lightly on his shoulder. The look on his face was terrified, and then he wasn’t moving at all other than fast shallow breaths.

“We’ll give him a couple of minutes,” she smiled.

“What is happening to him?” I asked, realizing that Enki and Orange probably couldn’t hear me.

“She’s paralyzed him and made him feel pain,” Spinner said. “He can’t even scream.”

“It focuses the pain better,” the girl explained. “Oh, hey, somebody’s on channel?” She reached into a small pouch and pulled out an earpiece; Liberty patched her in. “Is it Delphic? Please tell me it’s Delphic.”

“This is Delphic.”

“Sweet! Hi. Love your work.” She flashed a smile at Spinner’s visor, intuiting correctly that I was seeing his feed. She turned back to Liberty. “Soin has been managing the pickups for a few months now. He doesn’t know who takes them; his contact is a guy named Joe Thick.”

Liberty inclined her helmet slightly in a nod. “That fits; he’s a local fixer. Usually keeps his hands clean but passes money and messages around.”

“Did you find out why he tried to kill Whisper?” I asked.

“He got an email just before he was called in. It said if Whisper made it out alive, they’d kill him.”

“That… is a bit much for Thick and his crowd,” Liberty admitted. “Anything else?”

“We’ve gotten a bunch of names,” Enki bragged. “Eleven abductors, including all four of the people we already have, and five past victims.” She grinned. “He’s remembering more.”

“I… think that’s enough,” Liberty decided. “The police can do the rest. We have the info relevant to us.”

Enki shrugged. “Okay.” She laid a hand across the bound man’s forehead and he started screaming a second later, but it ran out into desperate panting shortly after.

The pale super stood up and moved in front of Doctor Soin, staring into his eyes as she reached out and cradled his face in her hands. “Pathik, you gave us what we needed. We’re all done!” He made a repeating sound; I realized he was laughing in relief. “Now, are you going to make me come see you again?”

His laughing turned to choking and he recaptured his breath. “No, no. I’m done. I am done with all of this. I’m sorry! I’m sorry.”

She patted his cheeks and turned to Orange Nimbus, taking her hand to pull her up out of the chair and toward the door. “C’mon, O.N. We’re off for the rest of the day,” she announced. “Hey Delphic, do me a favor.”

“How can I help?” I responded. Lady Liberty paused in unfastening the ties holding Doctor Soin to the chair to unlock the door.

“If I show up in the papers over this, remember it’s Ehhhn-ki, E-N-K-I. Not ‘inky.’ The god, not the adverb.”

“Adjective,” the exhausted Orange Nimbus added.

“Right, not that.” She pocketed her earpiece again. Hand in hand, the two supers left the room.

“Thanks for your cooperation, doctor. We’ll be turning you over to NYPD shortly,” Liberty said as she bundled up the final tie. “I’ll send in breakfast for you.”

The man rubbed his wrists thoughtfully. “That’s it?” he said, a barely controlled shriek. “You lock me in here for… how many hours with that, that monster – the pain… and now you’re sending me to the police?” He inhaled, gathering his strength. “You can’t do that! You will go to jail, all of you…”

“I assure you, doctor, NYST has every right to hold a suspect for questioning. And to turn over a murderer to the police.” She turned to Spinner. “Shall we?”

After exiting, Liberty led Spinner and GigaGiant to another room with the same furniture. Only Spinner took a chair; they likely weren’t designed to bear the weight of the other two. “I had Spinner over to the station. There was a trail between Whisper’s room and High-Cap’s through the ventilation, but none leading away from the rooms.”

“I haven’t seen Whisper in action yet, but the trail would have to be hers,” Spinner explained. “High-Cap admitted that Whisper had come over to her room. So, that leaves no powers unaccounted for.”

“Time to bring in Thick, then?” GigaGiant asked. “He’s our open lead.”

“Not yet,” Liberty responded. “Delphic, can you see what you can get first? I think bringing him in might send everyone else too far underground.”

“I’m on it.”

“Thanks. I’ll make a couple of indirect queries too.” She sighed. “A lot of us were up for part or all of the night. Whisper and High-Cap are safe for now; let’s regroup tomorrow and see what we’ve come up with.”

The call ended just then, which surprised me. I was checking some of my office documents, making sure I was fully prepared for my noon meeting, when an audio call from Spinner came in – not on the NYST system this time.

“Hey, man,” Spinner said as soon as I answered. His speech was rushed and clearly not happy.

“Hi, Spinner. You wanted to discuss something privately?” I still hadn’t implemented anything in the synthetic voice resembling intonation; I just had to hope he read my meaning correctly.

“Yeah. I was talking to GG earlier, about Enki and the… questioning.” His breathing sounded heavy and slow, a forced regularity. “He says this is becoming routine for NYST. I wasn’t happy to hear that.”

“They are using Enki’s pain power to extract information from suspects?”

“Yeah, he says it’s happening every week or so. Pretty much whenever they round up somebody that they expect is working for somebody else.” He paused for a few seconds. “You’ve seen it now, too. Am I freaking out for no reason? What d’you think?”

I called to mind the look on Doctor Soin’s face when she touched him. It was a deep, nauseating terror – and yet, this was a man who had been willing to shoot an unconscious girl dead after kidnapping her, based on an anonymous threat.

“Does the power leave lingering pain or injury?” I asked.

“No. GG says the perps flinch from touch for a while, but that’s just remembering the pain.” Spinner didn’t sound like he thought that was a sufficient excuse.

“None of the New York supers have a problem with it?” The New York Super Team was unusually large, owing in part to the high frequency of super activity in the city. I would not expect three dozen supers to fall into lockstep on a matter this ethically grey.

“He didn’t come out and say it, but I got the impression a lot of heroes on the team haven’t been filled in on this. But those that have aren’t all good with it. A few have voiced objections – Whisper being one of the loudest. As backwards as that sounds.”

I wondered how Whisper would have felt about questioning Doctor Soin. I doubted Refraxx would share her reluctance. “I understand the objections. On some level I share them.” I typed and deleted and retype four times before sending the next sentence: “But if it’s to help victims, and it’s the criminal who pays the cost, it’s probably worth it. Even with our discomfort.”

“Hmm.” The noise wasn’t agreement or contradiction, just acknowledgement. “You know about my dad.”

He said it as a statement, not a question. This wasn’t the first time he’d assumed I knew things about him. The truth was that I didn’t; I hadn’t uncovered his civilian identity or dug into his personal history.

“I don’t.” The words were too flat, coming from my synth. “I could find out, if that would make this easier.”

He sighed, a massive push of air. “Nah, I’ll tell you. But fill in any gaps later, huh? Name’s Ari, by the way.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. What I typed was, “Thank you for trusting me.”

“My Dad was a superhero. A good one,” he explained. “Blackbird. The original, not the late nineties extreme one, or the emo kid that uses the name now. Part of the old aerial super team from the seventies.”

I was familiar with the Birds, the US super team he was talking about, although I didn’t know any of the members specifically. Because of their high mobility, they were often the only team that could respond quickly enough to surprise attacks by villains. It was a high-profile team, but a very dangerous one.

“I was six when Dad went down. Collateral damage, really. Some crazy guy was trying to take down that giant Jesus statue, you know, the one in Brazil?”

“Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro.”

“Yeah, I think so. Dad and two other fliers carried heavies in to deal with the guy, who was sending out shock waves. They were knocked out of the sky. One was killed on the spot.” His breathing was heavy for a minute before he continued. “Dad was badly hurt, but they got him up to the Stevens Hospital in Los Alamos. Best care in the world, they said. I believed them – we got to visit Dad twice and there were always plenty of nurses around. All the equipment was chrome with flashing lights. Plenty futuristic for 1987.”

I had figured out how this story was going to go by now, and the cold was spreading out in my gut. I wasn’t going to cut him off; I would face this head-on.

“Mom and me, we were mad about the ashes. I mean, we never thought they were lying to us about him dying suddenly, about the cremation. We were just angry they did it before we could see the body. Before we could say goodbye.” Spinner’s… Ari’s tone was more wistful than angry. “I think mostly bein’ mad left us less room to go to pieces. Dad was always big on ‘standing against the storm,’ y’know, courage when things get bad. Hero stuff.”

He paused again, and this time I had something I could say. “You’re a hero now. He would be proud.”

His response to that was not anything I was expecting. His next words were shouted, louder than I had ever heard from him. “Don’t you try to tell me what he would be! You did NOT know him!” He panted over the line, his breathing almost a growl.

“Sorry,” was all I could think to send.

His breathing quieted, and his next words were back to his previous cadence, as though the outburst had never happened. “Dad wasn’t dead, not yet anyway. I was fifteen before I found out what had actually happened to him. I’ll… let you look up the specifics.” He was picturing it for himself, I could tell. “I’m grateful to Seraph for freeing him, even if it did kill him. She performed a mercy. But… well…

“My point, man, is that I’m not willing to ignore evil just ’cause somebody has some… greater good… in mind. Once you start makin’ those decisions? You’re one of the bad guys. And somebody needs to put you down.”

Spinner disconnected after thanking me for speaking with him. He was right to have assumed I would look into him; I really should have, once it was clear that we would continue to work together. With each of our unusual abilities, both so useful in finding others, that was very likely.

The other realization from our conversation was why Liberty had suggested the I talk to Spinner about Doc Stevens. Considering that his father was one of the Doc’s experimental victims, his predictable hostility would be entirely justified.

It was another snag in the tangled tapestry of Delphic’s interactions, a skein held together by tensions and separate arrangements that forced me to manage information as much as personalities.

One day, I’d fail in my elaborate juggling act and have to deal with the consequences. But for that day, I made notes on what to go after next in New York, then turned my attention to a small building in California.

It was time to meet the team that would run Delphic Incorporated.

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