Like most Super Team facilities, the New York Super Team headquarters building was furnished for the twenty-first century. Every space assumed the use of connected technology and the inclusion of members not present. Most rooms were modular and broadly configurable, with furniture that could be collected to form a more structured space or dispersed to allow for relaxed collaboration.
When my call was answered, the video feed showed costumed superheroes perched in various degrees of recline on colorful, rounded stools and chairs strewn haphazardly about the room. Despite having Viewed and taken calls from NYST HQ on several occasions, I realized I had no idea where in the building this room was, or how to distinguish it by name or description from any of two dozen others.
“Delphic. Hello!” Lady Liberty was standing off to one side, her voice patched into the system so that she was able to speak normally into her helmet.
“Good morning. This is a larger group than I had expected.” I counted fifteen heroes in the room altogether, and only recognized half of them. GigaGiant was notably absent, as was Orange Nimbus, although High-Cap shared a modernist loveseat with Whisper. The older hero seemed on edge, perched forward and looking intently around the room. Whisper’s arms were demurely in her lap; she was only barely resisting the urge to wrap her arms around herself.
Refraxx lounged on a colorful padded stool wide enough to be an ottoman, explicitly keeping a respectful distance from Whisper. Despite his behavior in her hospital room, the two of them weren’t a couple in costume; having your heroic and civilian identities both dating was one of the fastest ways to be publicly recognized and outed.
The other heroes whose names I immediately placed were Enki, Fleetfoot, Kodiak Minor, and Petiolule. The speedster and heavy hitter were well-known NYST members, but I only recognized ‘Pet,’ as she was usually called, because I had looked her up after the bank robbery incident. That day, she called the shots from HQ – officially, it was her decision to first deploy the team to the bank and then to send them in. Her skintight costume was in shades of green and white, done in an intricate leaflet pattern; she wore nothing over her short brown hair. Despite her code name and overt plant theme, her listed powers were enhanced senses and strength.
“A lot of us are concerned about the kidnapping,” Liberty responded. “There is quite a bit of interest in who was behind it.”
“Acknowledged.” I brought up my presentation. The first slide showed a photograph with two men standing in front of a sedan. The man on the left appeared to be in his early forties, with the height and size of a linebacker. The man on the right, in his sixties, was of regular height and build but looked small when next to his companion. The slide labeled them as ‘Big Joe’ and ‘Old Joe.’
“The Kowalczyk brothers,” a hero I didn’t recognize in blue and gold exclaimed. “They’re behind it?”
“They are.” I moved to the next slide, showing a map of Newark flanked by water. “The Kowalczyks run a crime organization that includes stakes in many trucking, shipping, and logistics companies. Approximately thirty percent of the industry serving New York state from New Jersey has direct or indirect ties to the family.”
“This isn’t news,” Lady Liberty pointed out. “The Feds have been after the Kowalczyks for years, and can’t get anything on them.” She turned more directly face the other supers. “We’ve not been able to touch them because they stay on the other side of the river. Half a dozen lawsuits brought against them in New York have been thrown back over to Jersey to die.”
“Why is that still possible in the twenty-first century?” Fleetfoot said. Her speech sounded deliberate and over-annunciated. “To have organized crime, I mean. It just… seems like something we should have grown past.”
Liberty raised her arms in that pantomime that substituted for a shrug. “Some diseases mutate rather than dying. Probably nine out of ten transactions the Kowalczyks are involved in are perfectly legitimate. But then somebody plays hardball on a negotiation, and gets paid a visit. Next day they sign the contract with no further problems… using their left hand, because the right one’s in a cast.”
I added, “Big Joe and Old Joe were enforcers for their uncle, Buzz Kowalczyk, when he ran the business.” I went back to the picture slide. “Both have known powers, in the speed and strength categories respectively. Old Joe is confirmed bulletproof, while Big Joe has been reported to dodge gunfire, but I was unable to confirm this.” A spot check over the last six months revealed no one interested in even trying to pull a gun on the pair.
“What happened to Buzz?” The blue and gold hero asked.
“Cancer,” Lady Liberty answered. “Almost fifteen years ago now. Neither of the Joes were ever known for their brains. FBI figured the operation would fall apart, revert to legitimate business. But these two have managed to keep it going somehow.”
“I believe I can explain why,” I sent. “These brothers still aren’t running the operation.” I felt a thrill when Liberty jerked around in surprise towards the screen.
I switched to another slide, this one showing a man the same build as Old Joe, slightly younger, and with fewer wrinkles and a fiercer expression. “Buzz Kowalczyk, Junior.”
“HA!” The noise took me by surprise. I realized belatedly that it came from Liberty, and that it was a sort of involuntary exclamation at my reveal. The other supers turned and looked at her, but she made no move to explain it. “Buzz’s son went to school as an accountant. He wasn’t ever involved with the business; we thought he was clean.”
I played a video of a three-dimensional graphic of Newark, zooming in and pointing to a particular building. “I was able to trace the email to this warehouse. Junior lives on the second floor and hosts one or both of his cousins when conducting family business.”
“Awesome,” Refraxx exclaimed. The lanky super in his blue spandex stood up, stretching. “We have a positive ID and a location. We can have this guy in custody within the hour.”
From the removed vantage of a video call, I could still tell that the tension increased dramatically when he said this. Lady Liberty faced him squarely, turning fully away from the camera so that all I could see was the bronze green of her suit’s back. “In custody for what, exactly, Refraxx?” She emphasized the name. “Under whose authority?”
The man straightened up his posture, squaring off across the length of the room. “For kidnapping. That’s a federal crime, right? We’re feds, that’s what the courses they made us take said.”
Liberty turned her helmeted head in a slow shake. “Nothing Delphic has said today fixes the problems we talked about before. We need an arrest warrant from a federal judge in New Jersey. And we need the evidence to get it.”
Refraxx gave a long look over to Whisper, who was trying to look anywhere other than back at him. His already nasal voice raised to a higher pitch. “We have evidence. Delphic has-”
“Absolutely nothing we can give to a judge,” Liberty raised her voice in volume if not pitch to shut him up. “Unless our friend here changed his MO overnight.” Her rhetorical question echoed sardonically. “Delphic, do you have any files that were obtained legally, from public records? Or perhaps you secured a search warrant after a probable cause hearing? No?”
I resented Liberty’s tone, but she was right. “Your assumptions are correct. I am sorry, but I do not yet have enough that can be verified through legitimate means.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” Refraxx muttered. He didn’t return to his seat, but his shift in posture made it seem like he’d lost half his height. He stole sharp, momentary glances at Whisper. She stolidly refused to look back.
“Let’s not whine about the fact that this hasn’t been gift-wrapped,” Liberty insisted. “Delphic didn’t come here today with a mission ready for us to complete – a villain madly cackling as he destroys buildings downtown. He came with information. Solid intel on a much more sinister sort of threat.”
“We may not have the smoking gun to arrest the Kowalczyks tonight,” I added, “but we now know where to look. Who is calling the shots, and how.”
“What were they going to do with her?” asked the black-clad Enki. Her tone was bland and even, as though she were asking where in the yard they were planning to plant flowers. “What happened to the others?”
“They were shipped overseas. Buzz has at least three international brokers that he works with to acquire particular personnel to meet specific requests.” The mood of the room grew even darker as I continued. “Age, build, and body type. Particular occupation or special skills. There’s a bounty list with seventeen entries for individuals with various powers. Whisper’s power is on that list.”
“So,” Enki said, “who wrote the list?”
Lady Liberty had turned the masked face of her helmet back to the camera, and she continued to face that direction… to face ‘me’… as she said, “I can think of one person.”
There was no question that she meant the Doc. Admittedly, the thought had crossed my mind as well, but I genuinely didn’t think he had anything to do with this. Not because he was incapable of it – I would fully admit that he was – but I would have come across it in the time I had spent looking over Doc’s shoulder. The only reason I had missed Lamarck was that Doc didn’t end up working with him directly, instead leaving the work to personnel whom I didn’t spend as much time Viewing. Even so, I was pretty confident that given another week or two, I likely would have encountered Jacques Guillaume even if Doc hadn’t come to me for help.
“I can think of seventy-four,” I sent. It was a complete lie. Covert government programs were all that had occurred to me. But for whatever reason, I didn’t want Liberty zeroing in on the Doc. I told myself it wasn’t personal; he clearly wasn’t the culprit.
“Excellent. Add them to the record, please.” She made the request off-hand and immediately moved on. “This…. ha. Well, this isn’t either the best nor the worst possible news,” she offered to the room. “A couple of recommendations. First, many of you haven’t dealt with the Kowalczyk brothers before. If you have contacts on the New Jersey side – informants, old friends, business relations – consider reaching out to them to see what we can dig up.” Most of the heroes were nodding at her, although Refraxx had a deep scowl and didn’t seem to be paying the least bit attention.
“Second, we’ve been exploring surveillance and stealth uses for various abilities, mostly just as open brainstorming sessions. I think this is a good reason to move from the hypothetical to the actual. Talk to your teammates, and think about how you might be able to apply yourself and your skills to determining what the Kowalczyks might do next and catching them at it.” She moved her hand up to press her opposite wrist. “I’m inviting everyone here to tomorrow’s meeting. Let’s move quickly.”
Her voice rose in pitch, announcer-style, as she addressed me. “This was excellent work, Delphic. I’ll put in for your payment and commendation. We appreciate your help in getting us what we need.” Voices briefly rose around the room – expressions of thanks, generic salutations. I had started to type a response when the call ended.
The abrupt disconnection took me by surprise. Liberty’s reaction was a deliberate dismissal, and I wondered what was motivating it. Clearly she felt that my role in the investigation was done, and inviting ‘everyone’ to tomorrow’s meeting wouldn’t include me.
They were clearly planning something resembling a stake out of the Kowalczyks, and were finding ways to use their powers to aid in surveillance. It was blatantly irrational not to include me; I was easily the best source of surveillance they had. So why the brush-off?
A few minutes later, I was still trying to wrap my head around it as I poured myself a bowl of hot soup. The remainder of the veggies from my downtown grocery run – what hadn’t made it into the frittatas – rendered into an excellent soup stock. I was planning to cook and flavor each serving separately in a small pot, just before eating, to practice some different mixes.
After just two spoonfuls (unfortunately over-salted), I pushed the bowl away and closed my eyes. Just as I had feared, I Viewed four empty rooms at the Headquarters before I found the one where Liberty was still chatting away. Most of the room had cleared out, but four people remained: Liberty, Refraxx, Whisper, and Enki. The couple had apparently dropped their aloofness when the crowd had left, because Whisper’s position clinging to Refraxx was as intimately close as what they had shown me on the phone in civilian garb.
From his expression, and also his broad gestures, Refraxx was still clearly chafing over the NYST not taking more direct action. Based on her body language, and the way she positioned her feet and turned herself more toward Liberty, it seemed that Enki felt the same. The two of them were taking turns expressing their displeasure to the suited super, who quite patiently waited to respond. Whisper didn’t say a word.
As I watched, Refraxx finally nodded, grabbed Whisper’s hand, and stalked toward the door. He gestured and it flew open with visible force before he reached it. Enki hung back to exchange another sentence or two, but soon left as well.
As soon as she was alone, Liberty turned back to what I could now see was a screen that took up the full length of one wall. She dialed a contact…
I dropped my View and ran for the stairs. I managed to unlock my system and answer her call before it was automatically declined. “This is Delphic,” I sent.
“You don’t have seventy-four names,” the woman said, amusement in her voice. As I watched, she hit two buttons on her wrist, and carefully lifted her helmet off of her suit.
Harmony Norberg’s face was flushed red from her time in the suit, but she was still pretty. A mass of straw hair was kept up with innumerable bindings, and she flashed me a wide smile that brought out the pronounced dimples in her cheeks. With Kelda Norberg such a visible celebrity and socialite, it was important to remember that when people called Harmony ‘plain,’ it was only in relation to her stunning older sister.
“You don’t,” she repeated herself, her voice no longer echoing through a helmet mic, “even have seven names, much less seventy-four.” She looked at the screen expectantly, as though a static avatar could ever give something away.
“Some of the names are, admittedly, more far-fetched than others,” I dissembled, “but the entire list is seventy-four individuals and entities.”
“No, it’s not.” She took a breath, seeming to be happy to taste air outside her suit. “You’re coming tonight?”
“A dinner party in the Hamptons with the Norberg sisters,” I sent. “I am honored to accept.”
She nodded. “If you can, dial in at six. I want to check out the teleconference drone, make sure you can control it and that the signal is clean.”
“I will speak with you at six, then,” I responded. I wanted to ask her more – about her motivation for cutting off my role in the kidnapping investigation – but I couldn’t think of what to type. After a moment, a brilliant and open grin still lighting up the shot, her head nodding just slightly, she ended the call yet again.
I wasn’t sure if it was good instinct or overwrought paranoia, but too much about Liberty’s actions wasn’t making sense. I couldn’t predict her, and that was a good sign that I was missing some important element of either her beliefs or her goals. While nowhere near as dangerous as the Doc, she certainly could make things more difficult for me in a number of ways if she so chose.
I had never intended to show up unprepared for the Norberg dinner, but my need for better intel had taken on further urgency. I was going to spend a lot of the afternoon Viewing, I realized.
I hoped the party was worth it.