“Thanks,” the Atoner’s voice faded for a moment, but then became louder. “Don’t worry about it. I can understand that you want to do something. This is just one of those times that you have to trust your teammates, okay?”
“Understood. I’ll look forward to seeing you this evening,” Vladislav looked over at the other labs through the transparent wall. No one was in them. He’d be able to finish what little was left.
“You bet,” the Atoner said, closing the connection.
Walking over to one of the grey-painted metal cabinets, Vladislav placed his hand on the palm reader and opened the door. Then he pulled out a stained wooden case and carried it over to his desk. Once there, he pulled out the crystal ball and placed it on its round stand.
As much of a stereotype as it was, it was the best way to find Spitz’ location so that he could tell Boss Scree where to lead his rats. After that, he’d check out the Nine’s typical mental triggers in his records.
Two hours later, he sat with the rest of the team in the conference room, nursing a Chai Latte. Morgan sat next to Lindsay. Both of them were still out of costume—Lindsay in her black shirt and ripped blue jeans. Morgan, her blond hair tied back in a ponytail, wore a dark blue jumpsuit dotted with cubes of grey plastic on her chest and limbs.
Obviously the final protective layer underneath her suit, Vladislav didn’t doubt that it could keep her safe against bullets and hand-to-hand combat. It didn’t surprise her that she thought that way.
The fact that she appeared to be entertaining herself with her phone impressed him less. To be fair, they were safe and Lindsay was doing the same, but still, danger was everywhere.
He sat on the other side of the table along with Ape Nasty who was using his own phone, but only as cover as he whispered, “Anything I should know, boss?”
“Everything is fine,” he said under his breath. “Be ready to improvise.”
Ape Nasty chuckled, “I’m always ready.”
Then he sipped from his own paper cup. Vladislav wondered how Starbucks’ cups worked for a giant ape, but he didn’t bother to ask. If it were hard, Ape Nasty would have already complained.
Whether or not Vladislav would have followed up on the thought became a moot point when Agent Phil Spitz entered the room. In a blue suit that was bulked up by what had to be armor underneath, Phil walked to the front of the room. His thin, curly blond hair looked no better than it had over the online call that morning.
As he stood at the lectern at the far end of the table, he said, “Where is the Atoner? He’s never late.”
Amazed as ever by the agent’s lack of manners, Vladislav shook his head, thinking that it would have been so easy to greet everyone and ask about their health before complaining about the Atoner’s lateness. A leader needed to make sure that his followers knew that he cared about them.
If he ever did turn supervillain again, Spitz would die as soon as it was practical. He’d set up some sort of trust for the agent’s children if it came to that. They didn’t deserve to grow up in poverty because of their father’s boorishness.
Looking up at Agent Spitz, Vladislav let himself smile, “I’m confident that the Atoner has his reasons for being late. He’s a consistently responsible and respectful man.”
Agent Spitz glanced over at Vladislav before saying, “He’d better have a good reason. There’s no one on this team that the government won’t kill if they go rogue.”
Lindsay looked up from her phone, “Come on, Spitz. The Atoner didn’t ‘go rogue.’ He’s maybe a minute late for a meeting. You’re later than that half the time and he’s always here waiting for you. Also, he never says that you should be shot for it.”
Agent Spitz reddened as Ape Nasty turned toward Vladislav, “Didn’t you have someone killed for being late once?”
With a nod, Vladislav said, “It was before your time with me—back in the late 1800s—and it wasn’t simply lateness. The lateness was merely a symptom of a larger issue, his disrespect for his fellow man. I gave him more than one warning and when he didn’t change, I had him flayed. Flaying didn’t itself kill him, but you don’t live long without your skin.”
Ape Nasty laughed as Agent Spitz worked through different expressions, showing fear, horror, disgust, and finally stopping with his mouth open as if he’d started to say something and then thought better of it.
The Atoner walked through the door at the back of the room then, the only one of them in full costume—white accented with red, the red of his friends’ blood, Vladislav assumed. The Atoner’s belt of gadgets was missing a few. Vladislav noted that it was the slots that Colin routinely swapped out. What had he been doing?
Even with the mask covering half of his face, Colin’s smile managed to convey warmth, “I’m so sorry I’m late. It won’t happen again. Did I miss anything?”
As Colin pulled out a chair at the far end of the table, Ape Nasty said, “Doc was telling stories.”
The Atoner shook his head, “I’ve heard a few of those. They’re always educational.”