Agent Spitz frowned and said, “Let’s get to work.”
Standing behind the lectern, he began with, “As we discussed this morning, you did an excellent job assisting the Heroes’ League. Our people are checking the effects on the general public’s opinion of the team. Morgan? This is something that you should be caring about because it affects what you can do after your probation is over. If you’re generally popular with the public, it’s even possible that a Defenders unit or one of the other big teams might take you.”
Morgan smirked, “How about the Heroes’ League?”
Spitz rolled his eyes, “Do you really want to work with a bunch of kids? You don’t have to answer. I have no idea if they’d take you, but I’m pretty sure there’s not one of them over 25. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Shrugging, Morgan said, “We get along. So… About our popularity contest, who’s the most popular?”
Spitz’ mouth twitched. Lindsay and Ape Nasty laughed, “The current leader, as has been the case since he joined the team, is Dr. Transylvania. We believe it’s because he joined by betraying a group of supervillains the Nine had hired. That and because people like vampires.”
Grinning, Ape Nasty asked, “Where am I?”
Spitz’s expression grew sourer, “Last, as usual. I’m sure it’s the string of murders you committed. The only reason you haven’t been executed is that Dr. Transylvania insisted that he needed you. That and the bomb in your brain.”
Ape Nasty laughed, “Eh… It’s not the first time.”
Raising an eyebrow, Spitz fiddled with the tablet on the lectern, “Back to the topic, our metrics for assisting the Heroes’ League against the Nine have given you all a bump. From what I’m hearing though, they’re getting a lot of criticism for how they handled things today, including working with supervillains. We’re going to keep watching that because being associated with a team that’s going down could be bad for your image too. We’ll have to watch how this goes because as you’ll remember, merchandising is one of the three pillars that keep this team afloat.
“Too much of a popularity drop will translate into a drop in funding which will translate into a drop in how much you can help. That will then turn into a drop in popularity. Do you see my point?”
Vladislav found the manipulation interesting. The man understood that Vladislav had no intention of leaving the topic alone and had put together an argument that a group of former supervillains might find appealing.
Well, it wasn’t as if Vladislav planned to leave the man any free will to argue with him, “Merchandizing? That reminds me, are you looking into purple pandas?”
Scrunching up his face as he stared at Vladislav, Spitz said, “What?”
“I brought them up as something for the online store,” Vladislav kept on talking as if he actually had done that, but he shrugged inside. He was one trigger down. “Purple pandas” might have ended all of it, revealing Spitz as one of the Nine’s puppets and putting him into a mindset where he’d take any orders Vladislav chose to give him.
Well, he supposed that would have been too easy. Dammit. Now he’d have to try the others.
Thinking of something, he took a glance around the room, noting that no one else was muttering the response phrase, “I love the purple pandas!”
That was good news.
Still, as Vladislav looked, he saw that the Atoner wasn’t smiling even if he wasn’t outright frowning. Could he have recognized was Vladislav was doing? He had enough experience that he might. Vladislav hoped that he wouldn’t interfere.
Spitz’ face tightened, “We won’t be doing anything with purple pandas either now or in the future.”
Lindsay grinned, “Awww… I’d buy them.”
Ignoring her, Spitz said, “You need to take this seriously. This is your future we’re talking about, but enough of this. We need to talk about what your next focus will be. We’ve got several possible targets. None of them, as we discussed this morning, are the Nine.”
The man droned on, discussing the groups they might go after and the possible publicity wins that might happen if they did. Vladislav, meanwhile, went over the other triggers in his head, discarding the worst ones as he went.
Top on the list was “Magician’s Lighthouse” in which he’d have asked Spitz, “Have you seen the Magician’s Lighthouse?” Spitz would have replied, “No, but I’ve always wanted to turn on the light.” If Vladislav then said, “Go ahead,” Spitz would then shoot everyone in the room except for the person who asked the question.
Given the people in the room, Vladislav suspected the person most in danger would be Spitz, but since the Atoner was the only one in full armor, it wasn’t worth the chance. It was a pity. There wouldn’t be a clearer way to demonstrate that he was the Nine’s puppet.
Of course, if Boss Scree and his rats did their job, Spitz wouldn’t have a working gun, anti-voice buzzer, and if he were lucky, the cross. He didn’t hold his breath on the last one. The fey might not be hurt as much by holy relics, but they didn’t work well with them either.
Hearing Spitz’ voice in the background, Vladislav decided to go for a subtle one, using the Nine’s trigger for the same purpose they did. In a normal voice, as if he were replying to a question, he said, “nine” in Chinese.
Spitz replied with, “Lucky number nine,” and then continued to talk as if nothing had been said. Vladislav repeated the number again in Chinese and Spitz did precisely what he’d done before. The first time people barely reacted.
The second time Ape Nasty laughed. Morgan tensed, moving her hands under the table. Lindsay glanced around at the group, mouthing the words, “What was that?”
The Atoner locked eyes with Vladislav and nodded.