Authors: Sheryl Nantus
For my husband, who never complained when I asked him how to fly, my mother, who let me read comic books at the dinner table and SK, for giving me justification at last for doing both.
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.”