One of my Dad’s most overused sayings, which I’ve noticed Paris repeating since she was promoted to homicide: “It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up.”
Watching the Kowalczyks following their encounter with Refraxx, I understood just what they meant. Big Joe hunched over the distinctive blue motorcycle as he drove it away from the warehouse. The kid and Buzz worked on the apartment with bleach and scrub brushes, quickly eliminating any traces of blood. Old Joe slung the bagged up body into the trunk of a green SUV parked behind the warehouse, carefully moving around the sparse lamps to stay in the shadows.
I had seen enough. Dropping my View, I dialed through my VoIP line. Use of the Delphic synth had taken too much time the last time, so I brought up a different program.
“Nine, one, one. What’s your emergency?” a man’s voice drawled.
“A man with a gun. I heard shots.” The voice was female, and a far more convincing speech synthesizer than my Delphic program. To mask any imperfections, it was sent through a filter to replicate the noise of a poor-quality cell phone mic.
“Stay calm, ma’am. Are you in a safe place?”
“I think so. It looks like. I see a hole in the building.”
“Please give your location, ma’am.”
“A warehouse on Shore, past Thirty-Third. Superior Shipping Solutions.”
“Superior…” keys cracked loudly. “Eight nine nine one four Shore Boulevard?”
That was the address. “I don’t know, maybe. I didn’t see the numbers,” the woman’s voice said.
“I’ve dispatched police to that location. Please stay on the-”
I disconnected the signal. There was no reason to say anything else and risk countermanding the dispatch. Logging into the NYST system, I saw that two heroes were inbound with an ETA of 21 minutes: Bronze Scarab and Flawless Form, both heavies. They needed to know the full parameters of the situation they were flying into. However, informing Whisper and the other partygoers was a more immediate concern, as I knew they were panicked about Refraxx’s status.
I accessed the drone again, but was not provided any movement controls this time. The video feed was pointing upwards at Harmony, showing the walls and ceiling of a second story room rather than the parlor area that the drone was previously in.
“Delphic, thank you for calling me back,” she began. “I could really use your help with what I’m doing now.” From her posture, arm positions, and the focus of her gaze off-screen, I concluded that she was working at a desk computer.
“I have an important update on the situation,” I sent. Harmony nodded, but didn’t turn to face the device. “Refraxx attacked the warehouse and was killed. I’m sorry.” It seemed so abrupt even as I sent it, but time was limited. I hoped that someone else would take on the task of sharing this information with Whisper; I had no doubt how devastated she would be.
Harmony’s reaction was not what I expected. Her hands came into view as she crossed them under her arms, hugging herself. She pushed back and looked squarely at me… or at least the camera… for the first time. “You’re sure?” she said. “It’s not a comatose state, or a seemingly lethal wound? He’s actually dead?”
“His neck was deliberately crushed by super strength. He is unambiguously dead at the hands of the Kowalczyk brothers.”
“At the hand of Old Joe, right?” Harmony asked quietly. “He’s the enforcer with super strength. He deliberately broke Zee’s neck to kill him.”
I didn’t see any reason to ameliorate this. “That’s correct. There were four men in the warehouse apartment, and they are now working to dispose of Refraxx’s vehicle and body.”
She nodded, her hands reaching out of frame again as she turned back to the desk. “That makes this even more important. Here I’ll flag these.” My NYST system dashboard lit up with links to particular records as she continued explaining. “Refraxx was sent on a solo recon mission near the warehouse. He heard gunshots and screams inside and had to investigate.”
This didn’t make sense. “You sent him on a mission without readily available backup, at a time when much of the rest of the team would be out of reach?” I typed and sent before I could stop myself.
She nodded. “Unfortunately, that’s what we’re going with. If Refraxx went off on a tear, then the Kowalczyks were just defending themselves. If he was on an authorized mission, then they shot a law enforcement officer on duty.” She shook her head. “I’m backdating the edits, but I don’t have the skills to cover my own tracks. Just getting the description to something believable is hard enough. Can you help?”
None of this smelled right to me. Liberty didn’t seem nearly as shocked by her friend’s death as I expected, and her response was thought out well, as though it were planned.
But then, Refraxx wasn’t exactly a ‘friend’. He had sided with Whisper in the ongoing argument over interrogation techniques. He had openly questioned Liberty’s leadership. In the short time I had seen him in action, he had come off as reckless and violent… and not in a way that someone like Liberty could expect to control.
Combined with her current reaction, and her recent attempt to capture Delphic, Liberty’s motives were highly suspect. But even so, her actions made perfect sense. She was salvaging what little of the situation she could, by at least making sure Zee’s killers went to jail. I agreed with that, even if nothing else made sense.
“Yes, I will help,” I finally sent. “Please continue working on the corrected narrative. I will modify the files.”
A very brief smile flashed as she nodded in response, then her focused expression returned. “Could you update the inbound team on the current status? You have more recent intel than anyone else.” A note of impatience underlay her otherwise cheerful tone; as polite as the request was, it was a dismissal. There was one issue to clear up first.
“You will inform Whisper,” I sent. It wasn’t phrased as a question.
She didn’t look up, but her shoulders and arms tensed. “Oh, you didn’t tell her first? I think she should hear it from you.” Her voice wavered only slightly, but I heard the plaintive note there.
I sighed to myself. “Acknowledged.” I disconnected.
With less than a quarter hour left until the inbound team arrived at the warehouse, their briefing was higher priority. I told myself that, as I was certainly not looking forward to speaking with Whisper. It had the advantage of most likely being true as well.
Bronze Scarab and Flawless Form were both listed as heavies in the NYST system, cleared for deployment as the front line of a team even in situations of anticipated violence. A minimum requirement for being a heavy is that you’re bulletproof: you can function unimpeded even when facing gunfire. The two heroes’ profiles showed ‘sustained construct armor’ and ‘physical resilience’ as the basis for their heavy designations, respectively.
Their channels were not open when I called in, but they answered immediately. I received a video feed from Bronze Scarab showing the nighttime lights of New Jersey ahead with the glimmering Hudson below. The image occasionally pulled upward rapidly as though the camera-holder were jumping.
“Bronze Scarab and Flawless Form, this is Delphic,” I sent over their channel. “I will brief you on the situation.”
“I can hear you fine,” a woman’s voice said. “FF?” The video briefly angled downward as Bronze Scarab looked toward her partner. I was surprised by what I saw; the tall super was held by the solid ice-blue claws of some impossibly large bird of prey. At first I was worried that the exposure to the high altitude winds had caused his exposed skin, including a completely bald head, to flush, but after a moment’s reflection I called up his profile image and realized that his skin was that lavender color all the time.
“I copy,” came the slightly hoarse reply from the male super. His costume appeared to be a lightweight grey gi, pressed awkwardly against his lanky body by the force of the wind. Flawless Form was safe but not comfortable.
“Refraxx was performing solo reconnaissance of the Kowalczyk warehouse on his motorcycle,” I began.
“Um, why?” Bronze Scarab asked. “He’s not cleared for that sort of mission.”
“We’ve both partnered with Refraxx before,” Flawless Form agreed. “He’s rather bad at avoiding attention. His powers don’t help with stealth either.”
The silence stretched as I found myself at a loss for a convincing reply. They were right; Refraxx was not a good candidate for that sort of mission, at least not solo…
“Delphic, are you still there?” Bronze Scarab asked.
“I am still on the line,” I sent. “Sorry for the delay; I was accessing Lady Liberty’s records on Refraxx’s mission parameters.” Time to make something up. “He had an underground contact that he claimed could provide surveillance support and he didn’t want to spook her with additional heroes.” I would have to fill Liberty in on my embellishments. “The mission was not supposed to involve direct engagement with the targets.”
I heard a high-pitch burst of rapid-fire laughter from Bronze Scarab. “Thank you for actually answering us! I was sure you were going to stonewall.”
“Has that happened before?”
“More often than not,” Flawless Form noted.
I immediately regretted my ad lib; a refusal to answer would apparently not have been unusual. I had opened myself up to an unnecessary risk. Still, the damage was done.
“Much of this is tentative, extrapolated after the fact,” I qualified. “It seems that Refraxx saw or heard something in the warehouse that compelled him to act. A local woman called reporting gunfire. He might have heard the shots.”
“He didn’t call for backup?” Flawless Form’s question dripped with disapproval.
“He was running silent for surveillance.” This part, at least, I had thought about. “He apparently identified the situation as an eminent emergency. He demolished both exterior and interior doorways in order to reach the scene.”
“Sure, if he thought someone’s life might be in danger.” Bronze Scarab’s tone was more agreeable than her partner’s, at least towards Refraxx.
“As far as I can tell, the ensuing incident was not recorded,” I sent. I took a deep breath and exhaled a long sigh as I typed out the next part. “Buzz Kowalczyk and his two powerful enforcers were there, along with a younger relative armed with a gun.”
“Oh no,” I heard Bronze Scarab mutter.
“Ten minutes later, one of the enforcers placed Refraxx’s body in the trunk of a dark green utility vehicle parked behind the warehouse. The body had two bullet wounds, and the neck was broken by super strength.”
There was a short stunned silence before Flawless Form spoke. “He’s dead, is what you’re saying.”
“Refraxx is dead, yes. And his killers are hiding his corpse.”
Another pause, then Bronze Scarab: “Let’s take these guys down.”
I thrilled, resonating with her tone; I also very much wanted to see these guys taken down for what they had done. But I came back down to Earth when I heard Flawless Form speak again. The hoarseness was gone from his voice; despite his uncomfortable travelling position, his speech was smooth and even. “What abilities do these enforcers have? Enhanced strength and stamina?”
“One of them has super strength and invulnerability. The other has enhanced speed.”
“What sort of invulnerability? Physical resilience or force projection?” he asked.
I hadn’t heard the distinction characterized before, but the answer was clear to me. “Force projection. There’s evidence he resisted a telekinetic attack from Refraxx.”
Bronze Scarab cursed. “I may not be able to restrain him, then.”
“If they resist,” her partner continued, “the speedster is your primary target. I’ll deal with the other. Do we know names? How are they dressed?”
I continued to provide details of the scenario in response to Flawless Form’s questions over the next few minutes. The questions only stopped when the NYST client noted that the team was approaching its target, and headquarters joined the channel.
“Hey guys, Zephyr here.” The speech was just slightly too loud and fast to be easily understood. “Just a heads up, there may be cops on the scene.”
I heard another surprisingly loud curse from Bronze Scarab. “Are we still going in hot?”
There was silence over the channel for nearly a minute. “Yeah, go in swinging. This is a rescue mission, straight up. Take down the targets and get our boy out of there. We’ll deal with the fallout after.”
As the warehouse became visible within the video feed, I closed my eyes and returned to my View of the same scene. Standing in front of the hole that used to be the main entrance of the building, Buzz had a large smile on his face, entertaining two uniformed police officers who stood and laughed with him. Buzz noticed the oversized blue form first, and the cops followed his gaze, all jocularity fleeing their expressions.
The three stood gaping as the heroes landed, and I didn’t blame them. What approached was not a detailed glowing form of a bird, but more like a hastily brushed background bird in a watercolor painting. No head was evident, nor could feathers be made out on the form. Instead, the long smooth wings extended twenty feet from either side of the small woman whose arm movements matched their slow beating.
The oversized claws released Flawless Form ten feet above the ground, and he somersaulted through his landing, coming out of his forward roll to stand upright almost within arm’s reach of one of the uniformed police. Bronze Scarab’s bird’s wings and claws were shrinking into themselves at the same time, melding into a translucent shape that surrounded her like a watery aura. The decreased opacity of the form allowed the woman’s costume to be visible for the first time: a cloth ensemble in metallic brown, including a top and short skirt styled to suggest ancient hoplite armor. Stripes in the skirt matched the scarab emblem on her chest and sleeves done in midnight blue.
As her boots touched the concrete of the warehouse yard, the police took a step back away from her and towards Buzz telegraphing who they saw as the charge and who as the threat. Hands rested on buttoned holsters.
But even as they stepped back, Buzz took a step forward and raised a hand. “Hey there. You guys here about the emergency call? I think we’re already sorted out, aren’t we, officers?”
Bronze Scarab took another step forward to reply. “Are you Buzz Kowalczyk?” she asked.
While this staredown was happening, Flawless Form’s attention was on the gates and walkways surrounding the warehouse. Without saying a word, he took off at a run on a walkway that appeared to lead around the side of the building.
Buzz had just started to answer Scarab when he noticed her partner moving. “I don’t see how…. Hey! Get back here! This is private property!”
I panned my View up and swung it around to see both Buzz and Flawless Form as the latter turned the corner, immediately zeroing in on the correct SUV based on my earlier description.
“There was clearly an incident here,” Bronze Scarab explained. “He is checking around the building for any other,” she gestured at the missing door, “external damage.”
The super was halfway between the building corner and the vehicle when a loud boom was heard over the channel as Flawless Form abruptly stopped. Big Joe was now standing directly in front of him, close enough for their noses to nearly touch.
“What was that?” Zephyr exclaimed over the channel.
I pushed my View forward to watch as Big Joe locked eyes with Flawless Form, a determined frown on his face. The hero’s eyes flickered to his right, and the enforcer leaned slightly in that direction. A glance to the left received the same reaction. Without saying a word, Big Joe had made his intent clear: he wasn’t planning to let Flawless Form past him.
The tête-à-tête lasted only seconds before Flawless Form moved, and all Hell broke loose.