Interlude: Too Close, Part 1

I’m on vacation and will be posting a story that a few of you may have seen in one of The Good Fight anthologies. It’s about one of the ways that the Heroes’ Leagues’ secret identities remain concealed.

Ben walked down the hall to the front lobby. It was his last day, and he wouldn’t miss the place. It felt too happy. He passed posters on leadership, inspiration, and teamwork before stepping into the room.

The receptionist, a woman with peroxide blond hair and blindingly white teeth gave him a smile as fake as the rest of her. “Leaving early for lunch, Mick?”

He offered her a fake smile of his own. “I’m meeting a vendor. We’re going to run some numbers on servers.”

He’d made that part of his character here. He was the guy who was always looking for deals on equipment, a bean counter of the first order.

“That’s you,” she said, “saving the world one dollar at a time.”

He smiled, pulled a silver pen out of his blue suit coat, and signed out for the last time. “Mick” would never come back from lunch, and by the time they realized it, he’d be long gone.

As he turned around, he brushed the front pocket of his pants, reassuring himself that the thumb drive that contained the biggest score of his life (both financial and personal) had not been forgotten.
It hadn’t.

Without any further hesitation, he walked out of the lobby. No one waited in any of the chairs. Why would they? Certainly they had legitimate clients, but it was a front. The receptionist had to know it as well as he did.

He didn’t look back as he walked out the door and into winter, pulling his iPhone out of his pants pocket, and checking his email.

Only his peripheral vision kept him aware of when he moved in front of the next building leaving Lister Data Management’s glass front behind him. He had a little more than a block to go before ducking into the hotel room he’d rented last night, and shaving his hair and mustache.

Walking down the sidewalk with hundreds of Chicago’s professionals, he tried to blend in while keeping enough space around himself that anyone who wanted to grab him would be obvious.

It wasn’t as if he had any reason to be afraid, but it had saved his life before–more than once. Better to be cautious than not. If the real owners of Lister Data Management found the real Mick Jones’ body, Ben would need all the help he could get.

He began to hurry a little. It wasn’t far, and hurrying wasn’t out of character. He’d be fine.

Between hurrying and stepping into deep slush, the kind that went over the sides of his shoes, he let someone enter his space.

As he looked up, he recognized the man–one of the techs from Lister. Round faced, and wearing a black trench coat, the man had multiple ear-piercings and hair that was short on one side and long on the other, covering a quarter of his face.

Ben remembered the tech’s name–Seth. The guy hated him–as Mick at least. They might have gotten along if weren’t in character.

Ben stepped out of the slush, wondering if Seth would say anything.
He didn’t, giving him a glance, but then turned toward the window of the nearest storefront. It advertised “Segway Tours of Chicago.”

Ben was suddenly relieved that he was already hurrying because something about Seth felt wrong. Seth would have said something even if it had been accompanied by a smirk.

Calming himself, Ben took a breath even if he didn’t slow down. He wasn’t being rational. That might have been Seth, but simply not in a mood to play games. Even if it wasn’t Seth and it was some kind of shapeshifter, illusion generator, or a hallucination, it might not be after him.

But it might.

He turned on his camera, switched the view so that saw himself, and angled it to get a good view of the crowd behind him.

Seth walked toward Lister. Whatever was going on, Ben was in the right place–outside the building.

He’d had to avoid using his powers for the last month–too easy to be identified. Now it was over, but he’d still have to be subtle. He reached out with his mind, feeling cellphone networks, business wifi, and mobile hotspots, followed by a connection to all the devices with a command line interface.

He ignored most of them, centering his attention on systems with security cameras pointing at the street. He gained control of the nearest in seconds, copying the stream of information, redirecting it to his own server and from there to the display inside his sunglasses.
Sending one command after another, he flipped between pictures of the street, still walking forward. No one was coming after him. The route between here and the hotel was clear.

Using a back door he’d put in place, he took over the hotel’s system, checking his room and the halls, finding no police or obvious hitmen.
Reminding himself that it wasn’t over until you’d gotten away and gotten the money, he ignored the relief he felt.

It wasn’t until he reached the front door of the hotel that he noticed the body. It lay in an alley between the hotel and Lister. It lay on its side, curled up as if sleeping, but he recognized the hair cut–Seth’s hair cut, the long side covering his face.

As his heart started beating faster, he pulled up recent pictures from in front of Lister. To judge from the time stamps, no one had left the building since he had.

He walked out of the lobby and up the stairs to his room, deciding to check Lister’s internal network. He’d left himself a back door in case he needed one.

He couldn’t connect. Nothing responded. He requested a picture from the security system of the building across the street. Lister had no lights on.

He considered abandoning his plan, running to his getaway car and leaving. Then he dismissed it.

Taking a breath, he pulled out the key card, and put it into the slot. The light turned green, and he walked in.

In the bathroom, he shaved his beard and his head. Taking off his suit, and put on jeans, an AC/DC t-shirt, and leather jacket.

Then he picked up the cowboy hat he’d planned to wear with it. Was it too much? It probably was, but it changed his profile, and he hated being outside with an entirely bald head in the winter.

Screw it, he told himself, and he put it on.

Then he packed up the suit in his luggage, and left, putting on a different pair of sunglasses before he walked out the door.

The new ones had small lenses and a metal frame.

He spent his walk to the car watching security cameras, barely noticing the hotel he’d stayed in with its red carpet and ornate gold colored decorations.

He found the car in the car garage under the hotel. Though he half expected an ambush to come from the other side of every car he passed, none did. He made it to his car without being attacked.
Throwing his suitcases into the back of his small Toyota, he took the car and drove toward the suburbs.

He listened to Chicago’s all news radio station on the way out. Their need to fill every second of the day with information had saved him more than once.

Chicago’s midday traffic wasn’t easy to deal with, but it could have been worse. He took regular streets instead of highways. That way if traffic slowed down, he could turn onto a side street in a block instead of being immobile on the Dan Ryan.

Overall, he knew he’d be slower, but he liked his chances better.
The streets were mostly clear of snow at this point. It was late enough in the winter that not much new snow was falling, and if it did, it seemed to melt and turn into slush or ice. That was worse when you were walking than driving in his experience.

He checked the rear view and side mirrors to see if any vehicles were following him, made a few turns onto barely used side streets to see if anyone followed. No one did.

He didn’t see anyone pick up the tail when he came out the other side either. That meant that it was possible that no one was following him. He didn’t stop looking, but he did relax enough to actually listen to the radio.

Half an hour into his drive, and after the obligatory news about car crashes and politics, the announcer said, “Chicago police officers were called out to local business Lister Data Management where more than thirty people were found dead. The receptionist, Nancy Papadopoulos, called the police after finding the first body. When asked, she stated that she didn’t know there were more. She’d left the building, fearing that the murderer might still be on the premises. Police have not released any more details, but eyewitnesses claim that the bodies’ limbs had been severed and even decapitated. According to the police, there were no survivors of the attack. The police are following up on several leads they claim to have discovered.”

Ben nearly crashed into the back of a delivery truck.

This was bad. It wasn’t a question of if this would come to the attention of the police. It had. It wasn’t that he hadn’t considered the possibility, but he knew better. Lister had been owned by Syndicate L. Even though they had been a legitimate business, they’d mainly been a front for Syndicate L’s data center.

That’s why he’d been there. They knew the Rocket’s secret identity, and he knew what a superhero’s real name was worth to the right buyer.

6 thoughts on “Interlude: Too Close, Part 1”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *