I considered asking him if visiting my house would help him. In my “brilliant kid who’s starting his own engineering firm” identity, it made sense. Why would he come to visit me in the first place? I couldn’t help him.
That would have led to questions that I didn’t want to answer over the phone, especially if he’d known that my grandpa, his father, was the Rocket.
“Sure,” I said, “most of us are home tonight. So at least you won’t be alone.”
I walked out of the kitchen, through the dining room, and into the living room with its television, wooden floor, and mismatched chairs. Vaughn followed me.
It wasn’t dark, but the sun was setting. In Michigan in the fall, the sun set closer to six than you’d hope. From the window, I could see a figure walking down the street toward the house. There weren’t a lot of people walking down our block at night, so it almost had to be him.
I wasn’t wrong.
The figure walked up to our front door and knocked. I opened it to find Uncle Steve on the front porch wearing a black leather jacket over a Fantastic Four t-shirt. At least four inches taller than me, Uncle Steve had a round face, a brown and white streaked beard, and thinning hair. The leather jacket didn’t quite make him either cool or tough looking. It made him look like a geek with money.
Stepping off to the side to let him in, I shut the door as he passed me.
Noticing Vaughn, he held out his hand and said, “I’m Nick’s Uncle Steve.”
Looking at the two of them made an interesting contrast. Uncle Steve looked like a middle-aged engineer who sat at his desk and thought a lot. Since Dr. Nation’s experimental program to activate minor powers at Stapledon, Vaughn had changed from being slightly on the pudgy side to subtly ripped. Vaughn was still shorter than Uncle Steve and had his long hair in a ponytail, but the t-shirt he wore made the lines of his muscles obvious.
Shaking Uncle Steve’s hand, Vaughn said, “I’m Nick’s friend Vaughn Hardwick-Jones. I live here too.”
Uncle Steve goggled, “Hardwick? That’s a surprise. Did you know that Giles Hardwick and Nick’s grandfather were best friends?”
Vaughn smiled, “I’ve heard that.”
Nothing in his face even hinted that his grandfather’s betrayal of the original Heroes’ League had been a weight over his first years on the team.
Uncle Steve paused and I guessed that he might be trying to figure out how to get Vaughn to leave in order to talk about the threat to his life privately. I wanted Vaughn here for that, preferably without outing him and the rest of us for what we were.
Not having any good ideas for how to do that, I decided to be oblivious, “You said that you think someone might be after you because you worked for Armory. Why do you think so?”
Uncle Steve turned to me and said, “It’s a long story. Do you mind if we sit down?”
“Sure,” I walked over to one of the chairs and sat down while Uncle Steve sat down on the couch and Vaughn sat down on a brown recliner that showed bits of stuffing at the seams.
Uncle Steve looked around the room, “It’s weird to be here like this. I know you’ve owned the house for a while now, but I don’t think I’ve been in here since we cleaned it out. There should be family pictures on the wall—in my memory, anyway. Dad got it into his head to make a grandfather clock once. He wasn’t much of a woodworker though and didn’t want to learn. He made the casing out of metal and some kind of ceramic. I think my mom helped design the outside. That’s the only reason it looked good at all. Dad was a great engineer, but he wasn’t an artist. I think your Uncle Joe has it now.”
Then he said, “I’m a freelance engineer, but some of my contracting is for the government. It’s not standard engineering work either. It borders on spying.”
“Whoa,” Vaughn sat up in his chair.
Uncle Steve nodded, “I know. It’s not as exciting as it sounds. Mostly I just do my job as an engineer and pass on what I’m doing to my handler. They put me into places where a regular agent won’t have a clue what’s going on. Maybe there’s a genius inventor supervillain or someone working with alien tech? That kind of thing.”
That sounded familiar. It sounded exactly like what Isaac Lim had done with me when he’d found that I’d made it to whatever list the government had of potential mad scientists.
Vaughn looked over at me. I ignored it.
Uncle Steve continued, “You know what my last job was. I don’t try to keep up with my co-workers after that for obvious reasons, but one of them texted me. He told me that he was nervous because two of the other engineers are dead. I googled them and he’s right. They are. I texted him back and he didn’t answer. He’s dead too.”
“Huh. Did you contact your handler? It seems like whoever that is would want to know.”
“Nick, I think it’s the Nine. Even if my handler’s clean, someone around her might not be.”
I thought about that, “Then why are you asking me for help? I want to, but the Nine are… kind of big.”