The postcard wasn't anything special. A picture of a forest on one side with the trees digging down into the dirt, large tentacle-like roots reaching off the image. It was like a thousand others anywhere in the world, stuffed in a rack in a corner store waiting for a tourist to grab it and scrawl in the To and From area, slap on a stamp and send off into the system.
Jo Tanis, care of The Top Row Hotel, Las Vegas. Address was simple enough. Inked in with fat, broad strokes, reminding me of a child's scrawls. Dated a week ago, a fine example of the post office at work.
What made the card interesting wasn't just the message written into the open area reserved for writing about your vacation and how much you missed something, someone.
It was that the words were etched into the card with a fiery touch, the charred letters staring up at me and demanding a response.
Jo--Come visit me ASAP. Solo, please. H.L.
The card was from Kensington Grove, Oregon.
I turned it over and over in my hands. We'd received plenty of fan mail during our stay in Vegas but this one...this one was different.
It was from a friend.
Okay, friend might be too strong a word for my relationship with Harris Limox. Someone who'd reluctantly helped me save the world once upon a time--that was more accurate.
More than two weeks of mandatory bedrest after my most recent near-murder experience had me restless, chomping at the bit to get back to hunting down the self-titled "Controller". We'd been waiting for the Agency to come up with the information needed on our first official supervillain.
A postcard from Limox, a villain in his past super life, might be called a coincidence.
I didn't believe in coincidences.
I tapped my jaw out of habit and peered skyward, towards the Agency satellites linking me back to our Lair in Toronto. "Jessie, are you there?"
"I'm here." The disembodied voice mumbled through my link. "What's up?"
"I need you to tell me about a town. Kensington Grove, Oregon."
"Sure. One second."
I faced the Las Vegas Strip. It seemed impossible, but I was tired of the city. Loved it to death, almost literally, but I was tired. Tired of the bright lights and rich food and loud noises running day and night.
Tired of fighting to try to figure out who I was.
And who I wanted to be.
"Right. It's a small town not too far from Portland. Tourist-trap area, plenty of hunting and fishing 'round there." His tone changed. "Hold on. Got someone on the other line. Outrager."
I scowled automatically. I'd first met Outrager when he was an Agency bastard attempting to put us back under his thumb, and things hadn't gotten much better since then. If I could have one wish, any wish, it'd be to toss Outrager and every member of the Agency into orbit and out of our lives forever.
Unfortunately, we needed them as much as they needed us to keep our official story going. Villains fought heroes, heroes always won and no one ever died.
I suppressed a shiver. Vacation time was most definitely over.
The link clicked again. "He says he's got the info on our mysterious Controller and is ready to deliver a briefing. He's on his way over here."
I lifted my face to the burning Las Vegas sun, enjoying the heat on my way-too-pale skin. "Tell him we'll be ready within the hour. I just need to gather the kids together, and you can pipe it into the suite." I couldn't hold back a chuckle. "Don't make him too comfortable."
Jessie snorted. "David's already taking the toilet paper out of the bathroom. Punk's not staying any longer than he needs to. Talk to you in a half hour." He cut the connection.
I stuffed the postcard into a pocket and stepped off the edge of the building, feeling a blast of heat race up under me. It took a second to push myself into flight mode, dropping at a respectable rate down towards the street.
I could have called the rest of the team over the link, but we'd gotten star treatment from our hotel hosts in Vegas, free and clear while we destroyed their buffet and molested their table games. It only seemed fair to put myself on display again for a few minutes.
The sole shot anyone had gotten during my forced vacation had been in a tabloid, hazy images of a silhouette against the suite windows, the sparking from my fingers supplying a free firework show.
Good thing they hadn't seen Hunter behind me.
I winced as my running shoes hit the driveway just a little too hard. Mike would be annoyed at me for flubbing such an easy landing. I'd been relaxing too long, and it was beginning to show.
I walked around a stretch Hummer larger than the Lair back in Toronto. A dozen cell phones flew up, grabbing images during my short stroll through the front door.
I opened the link as the sounds and smells of the casino crashed over me, drowning me in a multimedia show aimed at pulling the pennies from my pockets. "Time to get back to work, boys. And girls."
I spotted Rachael over by the gift shop using her wind powers to bounce a child in the air, the little girl's thrilled and terrified parents watching and filming. "Everyone back upstairs tout de suite."
"Aw." Peter Boyos came over the link. "I just won a hundred bucks on blackjack."
"Is Hunter with you?" I asked.
Hunter Dillon's low laugh said it all.
I shook my head. Having a man with the power to alter the odds in your favor might be a blessing in some areas, but in a city built on gambling, it could be disastrous. "Give it to the nearest waitress and shut it down, both of you. And you should know better, Hunter."
"So should you," he shot back. "If I can't keep my hands busy with you, then I'm going to be using them elsewhere."
"Outrager's got the info on our mystery man. Briefing within the hour," I replied.
The link went silent for a few seconds.
"On our way," Peter and Hunter said simultaneously.
"Me too." Rachael Hammond gently lowered the child to the ground with a nod to the happy parents.
"Steve?" I headed towards the sports bar where our resident strongman had spent most of his downtime. "Steve?"
"Just helping them take down a motorcycle from a display," he grunted. "I'll be up in a minute."
I headed for the private elevator at the back of the casino, smiling and stopping to sign autographs along the way. Hunter breezed by me and grabbed the empty elevator, holding the door open as I broke free of the growing crowd.
"No rest for the famous Surf."
I growled as the doors slid shut. "I hate that name. Where's Peter?"
"With Steve and Rachael, next elevator." He drew me in for a kiss. "I missed you."
"You've been gone for three hours."
I rolled my eyes as the doors opened. "We've got a meeting in half an hour."
"A half hour?" Hunter dragged me down the hallway and into our suite. He shut the door behind him, grinning. "That's not much time."
"For what?" I leaned against the wall, my arms crossed in front of me.
"For this." He pulled up my shirt with a familiar flick of his fingers.
"Hunter." I let out a gasp as his cool hands landed on the small of my back. "We're about to take on a killer. Is this really the right time to grab a quickie?"
His blue eyes locked with mine, a sudden sadness stopping me in my tracks. "If not now, when?"
My pulse stampeded as his fingers brushed over my newly healed ribs. I closed my eyes and surrendered to his irrefutable logic.
Forty-five minutes later I staggered down the hall towards the team's suite, straining to tug my light blue T-shirt down while struggling to do up the snap at the front of my jeans at the same time. Hunter swaggered along behind me.
"Stop that." I paused in front of the door.
"Stop what?" He tucked the edges of the white dress shirt into his jeans.
"Looking so damned smug. You look like the cat that ate the canary and then some."
He pushed me up against the door, moving in to nibble at the back of my neck. "And then some indeed."
The unlocked door flew open, dumping the pair of us in an untidy tangle on the carpeted floor. Rachael put one hand to her mouth and giggled as we worked on righting ourselves without losing too much dignity. Dressed in a long frilly white blouse and jeans, she looked more like the girl next door than a super.
"I thought I heard someone at the door."
"And you did." I scowled at Hunter as I scrambled to my feet. "The boys ready to go?"
"All ready to go, boss lady." Steve Nyre waved from his position on the couch. "Although I hafta remind you there's a game tonight."
"Who's playing?" Peter came out of the bathroom, brushing his fingers through his reddish-brown hair. His black T-shirt stretched tight across his chest, showing off the results of the exercise routine he'd begun with Steve's help.
"Who cares?" Steve chortled.
I opened up the link back to Toronto. "Jessie, we're all here. Let's get this game on the road before we all end up cheering on the Maple Leafs. I don't think my heart could take it."
Steve pouted as I settled myself in one of the two single chairs, letting Hunter occupy some of the sofa along with Peter and Steve. Rachael took the last chair, finishing out the semicircle.
The massive flat-screen television flickered once, dumping the current hotel feed of the downstairs attractions before going to an image of Jessie. He waved at us, his short red hair sticking up at all angles. I was never sure if he used hair gel or if the bedhead came naturally.
"Online and ready to go," he said. "See you guys just fine through this webcam."
"There's a webcam on the hotel television set?" Steve asked.
"There's a webcam everywhere these days," Hunter replied with a sigh. "That's how those sex tapes get out there, you know."
I shot him a warning look before turning back to the screen. "Okay, Jessie. Hook us up with Outrager."
It took a few seconds for the screen to shift again, this time showing off the pale ghost of the Agency's lapdog, who was assigned to take care of us, standing beside Jessie's desk. Outrager scowled at me as if I was the reason his long hair had already gone grey. He wore the standard Agency uniform, the black suit and white dress shirt giving him a professional look.
"Right," Outrager said.
The image changed to a scowling angry face staring at us, a classic mug shot. Short blond hair, strong features with blue eyes glaring out at us and daring anyone to disapprove. "This is Nicholas Dykovski."
Rachael gasped, curling her feet up under her on the chair. Peter jumped off the couch to stand behind her, his hands resting on her shoulders.
"It's all right," he murmured. "He's not going to be able to hurt you again. Promise."
I fought back tears, seeing the effect the picture had on our newest member. "The mysterious Controller, I presume."
"Yes. It took us a bit of time to go through the records and find the man Rachael described. Seems he was presumed dead in Atlanta along with his super, and no one thought anything different until now."
I looked at Rachael. "You said he approached you in a group of refugees fleeing Atlanta."
She reached up to touch Peter's hand. "I was stupid. So fucking stupid. After Rampage fell and his Guardian died, I ran. I couldn't stay there. I couldn't die like the others."
I didn't say anything. No one did.
"I just wanted to get home, get back to California. There was a group of people running away and he...he...he grabbed my arm and told me he was my new Guardian. Showed me his wristband and said we were going to a new location, regroup with other survivors and all that." She sighed. "How was I supposed to know he wasn't telling me the truth?"
"You didn't. You couldn't," Hunter said. "You did what you were trained to do."
"He took me to an underground bunker outside of the city and told me to behave myself." One hand went up to her right cheek. "A few days later Lamarr showed up, then a few weeks later Blockhead and, well," Rachael whispered, "you know the rest."
Outrager cleared his throat and continued. "Dykovski's assigned super was Kit Masters, flying and flame-throwing strongman. Code name Inferno."
"I remember Kit." A lump rose in my throat as I mentally went through the list of supers I'd known, most of them dead. "Nice guy. Alpha. Hero. Hell, he was my idol before I got..." I paused, trying to remember how it felt to not be a super. "Before."
"He was one of the original Alphas," Hunter offered. "Agency old-timer. Had one Guardian actually retire due to old age and was rotated to a second one." He nodded towards the screen. "Being Dykovski, I assume."
"Which is when the trouble started," Outrager replied. Another picture flashed up on the screen, this one of Kit.
I gasped. I remembered a blond, happy man who loved to do shows for the kids, juggling fireballs between posturing for the cameras and strutting his stuff. He'd done more public relations than fighting in the past few years, mostly because the Agency had run out of pairings to give the public a decent fight. Mike had referred to him many times as "The Old Man", pointing at him as an example of the best life you could have under the Agency's control.
The screen showed a mess of a face, the two black eyes and bloody nose obscuring his fine Grecian features.
"Seems Dykovski liked to keep control over his super with a little physical encouragement," Outrager added. "Records say that he beat the hell out of Kit twice, on the record. Warned twice to lay off. Had to reschedule two public shows due to his injuries. Nothing permanent, but enough to screw up the photo ops."
"What was his problem?" Steve snarled. His hands twisted into fists, curling up on the black leather. His nails scraped narrow trenches in the expensive covering.
"Dykovski disagreed with the Agency's choice of enforcement. Seems he wanted a bit more hands-on control than just the plugs."
"He's a bully. And a disgrace," Hunter said in a low voice.
"Okay." I exhaled, trying to push down the anger to manageable levels. "We know who the Controller is and where he found Rachael. I don't care where he met Lamarr. What we need to find out is how he captured Linda." And executed her, I added silently.
The room went quiet.
"She seemed like a very nice woman," Rachael offered.
I nodded. "She was. Tough old broad."
"Her name was Linda Matheson, for the record. I've got a shot of her here." Jessie rotated another image onto the board. She beamed out at us, her silver jumpsuit all kinds of glitter and sparkle as she posed for the camera.
Steve chuckled. "Man, did they dress her up."
I smiled, thinking of some of the stranger costuming experiments Mike and I had gone through, courtesy of the Agency's PR geniuses.
"How'd she end up with a tag like Blockhead?" Rachael asked, her voice growing stronger.
"Came in after being a female wrestler for most of her life, if you can believe it. Kept her stage name." Hunter shook his head. "Don't think anyone really wanted to try and change it, lose her fan base. Took most of her fake moves and incorporated them into her performances."
"Wait," Peter interrupted. "Wrestling is fake?"
Rachael slapped his hand lightly and giggled.
I held in a smile. In the short time Rachael had been on the team, Peter'd become the older brother she never had, someone for her in her age range who she could bond with.
And share fashion tips.
I rolled my eyes and waved at the screen, gesturing for Jessie to continue.
"We've no idea of where she went after fighting with you guys in Toronto, but she somehow ended up as the Controller's prisoner." Outrager paused. A sheen of sweat covered his forehead. "And he executed her by setting off the explosive implanted at the back of her neck."
Hunter leaned forward, rubbing his hands together. "I thought the only way to activate the plugs was through our..." he grimaced, "...through a Guardian's wristband." He glanced at his own.
"But we took all the wristbands offline." The words sounded lame in my mouth. "We blew it up, the farm near Buffalo." I looked at Hunter. "You took us there. You said it was the main database for all the plugs."
"It was, as far as I know." Hunter nodded. "But the Agency probably had other options around. Those bastards planned for almost anything."
"Except for us." Steve thumped his chest, puffing up with pride.
"Except for us," I repeated.
Hunter smiled at me, adding in a mischievous wink. "I don't think anyone could ever plan for you, Jo. You're a freaking force of nature."
I blew him a kiss.
Outrager looked at Hunter, the start of a scowl on the Agency rep's face. "You understand there are some resources you didn't know about. That you can't know about."
I gritted my teeth. I suspected Outrager was pissed at Hunter for switching sides, but this wasn't the time or place for it.
I stood up and walked towards the monitor, hands on hips. "We saved the fucking world once already and took down a rogue super two weeks ago. So shut the hell up and listen to me."
The shocked look on Outrager's face said it all. It morphed into a sneer as he crossed his arms and waited.
"Go ahead, Surf." He dragged out my stage name like a child sucking taffy off his fingers.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Hunter wince. My postcoital bliss was definitely gone.
"Where did Dykovski get all these toys?" I asked. "He was able to capture Linda and activate her plug. He supplied Lamarr with a jet pack. He wasn't able to do all that with good wishes and chocolate kisses. What did he find or get?"
Outrager shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his gaze darting around the room.
Hunter looked at me then at Outrager and back to me, his right eyebrow lifting just a fraction of an inch. Considering Outrager had had no compunction about sending us to our probable death a few weeks earlier, this had to be something big to cause him such discomfort.
"He accessed a series of Agency caches," Outrager said, sounding like he was confessing a mortal sin.
"Caches? Agency caches?" Hunter stood up. "What are those? And why wasn't I briefed about this?"
"Because your super wasn't an Alpha. There was no need for you to know. The same with the rest of you. Including Surf, of course." The dismissive tone sent my blood pressure soaring.
Outrager continued on, his tone now a low drone as if he were reading a press release. "The Agency installed caches across the country in case an Alpha needed resupplying without having access to a fully supplied base. Usually used for multi-city battles where we couldn't have the super disappear for hours at a time." He sounded like he was describing a day spa. "Nothing too large, just a few rooms to repair and reload for those supers using ammo-based weapons. Some accessories were on hand for emergencies, of course."
I felt the rumblings of a headache behind my left eye. "What sort of stuff, perchance, would be there for 'emergencies'? And do you have a record of those he plundered?"
Outrager opened his mouth and closed it. A second later he repeated the motion, this time managing to speak. "He took some very...specialized equipment. Meant, you realize, for use only in extreme emergencies. Extreme."
"What did he take?" I snapped.
The Agency liaison looked down at a clipboard. "He procured three jet packs, as you know, a tracking/activation device and a special..." His speech trailed off at the end, his last few words indecipherable.
"Let's start at the beginning. We know about the jet packs. What's this tracking/activation device?" My voice trembled on the last sentence, my suspicions rising through the fear.
Outrager sighed. It seemed like the sigh of a child caught stealing cookies and trying to sound repentant. "We developed a special attachment to the Guardian wristband."
Hunter flinched and looked down at his own device again. It'd been dead since we took down the mainframe and destroyed the database holding all of our activation codes. The damned wristband wouldn't come off and had gotten in the way more than once during our entanglements, a very visible reminder of our past.
"We had a plan. If a Guardian died, we'd have to switch the owner..." He frowned, and I could see the wheels in his mind reconfiguring his speech. "We figured out a way to have more than one code on a Guardian's brace. All the Guardian needed to do was scan the super's plug, and the attachment would add the code to the activation brace."
"How would he keep them apart?" Hunter interrupted. "How would you know which code belonged to which super and so forth? And how many codes could one of these hold?" He looked at his own dead bracelet. "And how the hell is he powering it when mine's been dead since we took out the base?"
Outrager held up a picture. It showed a small black box, barely the size of a computer mouse. "This was only in emergencies, you understand. The idea was to put the super back under control until the Guardian could return to base and the super reassigned to a different Guardian. Purely as a last resort, you understand."
Steve let out something between a growl and a snort. I felt like joining him. The depth of the Agency's demand for total control over our lives seemed to have no limits.
Outrager scratched one ear. "So, ah, back to your question. It could hold up to twenty different codes until retrieved by the base computer and distributed to new Guardians. As to activation..." He flushed a deep red.
I felt a stab of panic in my belly. In all the time we'd been dealing with Outrager, I'd never seen him flustered. Now he looked like a virgin asking his first girl out on a date.
"He just taps in the code, as with all Guardians. Multiple supers, multiple codes, but they'll all still explode when he hits the button. As to the power, ah, well..." Again the pregnant pause.
"Spit it out already," Rachael snapped.
Outrager stared at the super for a second, taken aback by her attitude. Away from her captors and bullies, she'd blossomed into a pretty tough young woman.
Despite the circumstances, I smirked.
"The emergency power pack was built to not only keep the wristband going but to provide extra memory space for the codes." He let out a nervous cough. "It will detonate all the codes and thus all the plugs if it's removed from the Guardian's wristband or if the Guardian dies, unless properly hooked up to an Agency mainframe and a shutdown procedure followed. No pulse, automatic activation. Prevents the supers from taking out the Guardian in a mass rush." Outrager glanced over at me. "Or if the Guardian gets knocked out. Any major disruption of the Guardian's brain waves indicating unconsciousness and the device activates all the plugs at once."
My half smile died, replaced by a wave of nausea. "How does the scanning work?"
"That's where you got lucky, in a matter of speaking." He tapped the photograph, his short manicured nails denting the glossy surface with half-moons. "The super in question has to stand still and be within twenty feet to be properly scanned. One code at a time under very controlled circumstances. It's not meant to be done in a hit-and-run sort of situation."
The headache blossomed with a fury I hadn't felt in years. "So this is what the bastard was trying to do at Cherries 'n' Lemons? Lock onto us one by one and blow our heads off?"
Outrager appeared honestly sorry, his tongue flicking out to wet terminally dry lips. "We planned to have the special attachment only used in case of an accidental death of a Guardian in the field, something along those lines," he stammered. "It was never intended to be used like this, against supers who were behaving themselves."
I stared at the floor and wondered if I could shoot Outrager through the wires, reach out and touch him long-distance. It took a minute to get my temper under control, but I managed.
Hunter didn't even try.
"Get this fucking thing off me," he snarled as he bashed his inoperative Guardian brace against a very expensive black mahogany side table. "Get this thing off now."
He slammed his hand down again, knocking black wooden chips free. A third strike ripped his skin open, the blood flowing down towards his fingers as he continued to smash the brace against the rapidly deteriorating table.
A few steps had me at his side, kneeling down as another chunk of table dropped away. The rest of the team sat there, frozen in place.
"Hunter." I touched his shoulder, feeling the muscles flex under my touch. "Hunter, stop."
The brace came down once more on the table. I glared at Outrager. He stared out from the screen, his expression unreadable.
"Stop." I slid my hand down to Hunter's forearm, covering the brace. "Stop," I repeated in a whisper.
Hunter looked at me. I choked up, seeing the pain in his eyes, the tears about to break free.
"I want this off. I don't want to be one of them anymore," he said. "I don't want to be able to hurt anyone ever again."
I moved my hand down farther, covering and intertwining his bloody fingers with my own. "We'll fix it." I cleared my throat and glared at Outrager. "What's the range on this? How close does he have to be to set off a plug?"
"Within a mile." Outrager seemed relieved to be able to answer a straight question. "Beyond that it's not likely to work."
"It was never tested beyond that."
I snorted. "We're not done talking about this. Not by a fucking long shot."
Hunter took a ragged breath, blinking rapidly for a few seconds before eyeing the screen. "We will talk. And I will have answers."
Outrager didn't flinch under our combined attack. He stood still, waiting.
"I want every one of those special attachments accounted for. Every last one," I snapped at the Agency representative. "All of those caches as well."
"We have one already," Outrager answered. "We weren't prepared for this." The last few words came out in a whine.
I chewed on my bottom lip, knowing he defined "this" as being the alien invasion, the death of supers and Guardians, and the continued existence of an Agency working for us instead of the other way around.
"None of us were. Get used to it." I bit back a series of curses dying to break free. "Okay. So he's got this device. Why the hell is he gathering supers around him? Why not come back to the Agency? I'm sure you'd be able to find him a job sweeping floors or something."
Outrager looked even more contrite, sending my internal organs into spasms. "Nick had a very...basic disagreement with the way the Agency was run. Thought we were babying the supers too much, thought we should be tougher with you."
My mind raced back to the training I'd suffered through while learning how to use my powers and the part I'd been assigned in the Agency's ongoing charade. Military boot camp had nothing on the routines we'd run, the physical tricks and training we'd endured.
"You've got to be kidding me."
"He kept most of it to himself during orientation. A private security expert, we recruited him away from one of the best companies in America. A few grumblings and minor complaints in his file but not enough to send up alarm bells." Outrager glanced at the clipboard again. "He was due to be moved away from Kit in a few more months and reassigned to another job. One without contact with supers, a demotion of sorts."
"You couldn't get him away sooner? How long were you going to let him abuse Kit, among others?" I nodded towards Rachael, who was still curled up in her chair despite her previous brave words. "What were you thinking?"
"Using our resources to the best of their abilities," Outrager replied. "We couldn't just yank him off the front line and leave Kit out of the rotation. It would be too suspicious. We had another Guardian in the wings just clearing training and about to take over."
"Would have, should have." I pointed at Rachael. "She suffered for your incompetence. And God knows how many more will before we take this bastard down. So stop making excuses and start working for us, not against us."
Outrager stood up a little straighter, fumbling with his tie. "I've got a preliminary list here of what was taken, along with the known caches he raided. It goes without saying that we'll be very happy to see him taken off the market." He handed a piece of paper to Jessie.
"Taken off or killed?" Hunter asked. Blood coated his fingers. I didn't know if we had a first-aid kit in our suite.
Outrager shrugged. "Whatever works for you. And, of course, the Agency's resources are on call if you need us."
"Of course." I tried not to sound sarcastic. "As always."
"Dude, what's a 3S?" Jessie turned to Outrager, waving the paper in the air. "Got it here in large red letters like it's something important."
Outrager wiped his forehead before addressing me. "Yes, well, it's a special piece of equipment. Not all caches carried it, thankfully."
"Thankfully, as in 'oh, it's just some bells and whistles' or thankfully as in 'oh, shit, the apocalypse is upon us'?" I asked.
"It's technically known as a Super Suppression Suit. Three S, you see." He tugged on his tie again. "Specialized equipment," he repeated.
"And what does it do?"
"It's basically power armor," Outrager said. "Turns anyone into a super, in layman terms."