Masks 18: Part 14

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Masks XVIII

by

Rodford Edmiston

Part Fourteen

"So that was a demon," said Vic, stunned. She shook her head.

"Surely you suspected this," said Sharma, puzzled.

"Well, yeah. Suspecting is different from knowing!"

The two of them were sitting in the conference room of the Bureau of Special Resources facility closest to the Ramsey Technical College. In this specific case, BSR personnel shared a building with the FBI and a couple of other federal acronyms, all of them affected - or afflicted - by the budget cuts. This was the only room in the building with video conferencing capability. Getting it reserved had taken both perseverance and patience. That, however, had allowed the Bureau time to call in a specialist - Sharma, from the Assembly - to examine both the scene at the mall and Billy Bang. Several days after the fight, Doro had finally notified Vic that the conference to discuss the results of the investigation was on for that evening. Once again, Vic was out late on a school night, for the Bureau.

Participating by video were Brade and Doro. The huge super had asked the mystic - who was on retainer to several government agencies, federal, state and local - to travel to the scene of the attack and check it out, as well as the federal prison hospital where Billy Bang was being held. He claimed no knowledge of his actions, and insisted that he didn't have powers. He was of about average IQ with somewhat subpar language skills and a slightly belligerent attitude, though that last could be due simply to the situation. He did have a record, of several misdemeanor and two felony convictions for various offenses, including assault.

"The traces are clear," said Sharma. "He was possessed. Most likely by something which didn't bother asking permission, but simply empowered a weak-willed host desirous of being more potent. Why Cyanide was targeted is currently unknown. He has been retired for years, and was never much more than a super celebrity."

"Naturally, he survived," said Brade, her tone irritated. "Sorry. Had a couple of unpleasant encounters with that glory hog late in my career as a crime fighter."

Sharma turned from the monitor to Vic, giving her the same sort of long, penetrating look Dr. Freysdottir had on more than one occasion. It was just as unpleasant and unnerving from her.

"You were fortunate that you thought to use your ki techniques against it. It was non-corporeal."

She began to stand, as if intending to leave. Vic, Brade and Doro all began asking questions.

Sharma hesitated, and sat again, looking puzzled.

"You have more questions? I thought I had adequately described the situation."

"Do you have any information on where, when or how this man was possessed?" said Brade.

"No."

"How about some way to protect him in the future?" said Vic.

"No."

That caused consternation.

"I don't..." Vic began.

Sharma sighed.

"As long as men desire, there are things which will take advantage of that." Her tone was slow and patient, as if explaining something to a not particularly bright child.

After a few more questions were likewise given - at most -vague and unsatisfactory answers, Brade reluctantly let her go.

"That is why I hate dealing with mystics," she muttered, after Sharma left. She shook her head, then straightened. "Well, at least it's good to know that you have something which works against demons. Or whatever that was."

"I really don't want to fight any more... things like that," said Vic, with feeling.

"Unless something some of the magical types are working on succeeds, you may have to." She shook her head again, more slowly, looking tired. "We all may. Because this massacre will only be a start."

* * *

Oscar Congreve frowned - then scowled - at the report as he read it. He reached the end, then went back and searched for several things. Even when he found what he was looking for, the information did nothing to help his mood.

He couldn't understand how his operative had been betrayed. Somehow, one of the greatest enemies of freedom and order had intercepted Middleton during what should have been a routine operation. One which was already going wrong even before Tiger had shown up. Or, at least, that was the official account. Unless he could speak to someone who was actually there - Middleton would be ideal, but he had been disarmed of his "suicide injector" and was in a high-security federal prison - he'd have to extrapolate from obviously biased reports.

Well, both he and Middleton were patient. That was one of the things Congreve looked for in his men. They would both wait. Wait for an opportunity to act. Eventually, Congreve would find a way to free the man. Meanwhile...

Congreve sighed, put the papers back into the folder and put it in his FILE basket. Let that wait. He had plenty of things which wouldn't already on his plate. Like figuring out how his organization would compensate for the loss of the Big Man powered armor. They had cannibalized the only two other suits to keep that one running. There weren't enough parts left to put either of the other two into service. He'd been counting on that armor!

Well, no help for it now. If only he could get information on exactly how it had been defeated! Accounts were fragmentary and conflicting, and the suit was currently at the Bay Area Guardians base, while he and the majority of his assets were in an isolated government-owned area in Arizona. However, the official version of the battle was obvious nonsense. Congreve had personally supervised the covert acquisition of those pieces of equipment because he knew their potential, while those blind bean counters at the Pentagon had dismissed the suits as not worth the minor and eventually correctable flaws. He had personally insisted their one working suit be used for that mission because the city was heavy with active masks and Tiger was known to live in the same area as the target. He had not expected any of them to interfere - this was supposed to be a quick, in-and-out operation, with plans to contact the subject later if they were successful in activating him - but was prepared if they did. Only... Congreve sighed and shook his head. Again, there was no sense dwelling on this until he had more data.

Congreve continued his work. His office was soundproofed, including the windows, which also had heavy drapes drawn. He didn't like interruptions. Which is why he was annoyed when his office door opened. There was no call ahead of time asking for permission. Not even a knock. He whipped his gaze up towards the door, mouth open, prepared to ream whoever had dared to disturb him when he was working. Only the rant died in his throat as Tiger stepped into his office.

"You're a hard man to find." said Tiger, mildly, smiling. "Almost as hard to get the attention of, too."

Behind him came a large, muscular man in a costume of muted browns and reds. He looked a bit like one of those Olmec ball player statues. Some small part of Congreve's brain identified him as Mesa. Congreve reached under his desk and pushed the alert button. Carefully showing nothing.

"What... How..."

"Like he said," rumbled Mesa. "It wasn't easy. But it was worth it."

"We got our break when someone thought to check if any of Donner's cohorts from his pre-political days had ever been involved in projects connected to the equipment used in these attacks," said Tiger, calmly moving up to Congreve's desk. Mesa remained at the door, very effectively blocking it. "At first that gave us bupkis. Only, someone remembered a guy named Frederick Nunnally asking a lot of questions about that power armor project. Then the armor went missing. Very suspicious. They looked for Nunnally, only he turned up inconveniently dead. Investigation of him found that a bunch of other stuff he had some connection with was also missing, including nearly a hundred million in funds. Someone managed to track some of those funds, and found they were part of what was paying for this place."

"Yeah, there was some pretty creative financing going on there," said Mesa, scowling. "Fortunately, the good guys also have some folks who are good at tracking stuff like that. Though, really, you couldn't have gotten better facilities for a hundred million?"

"Of course," said Tiger, "that was mostly circumstantial, and while folks were investigating they weren't acting, yet. What changed that was the tetrodotoxin your guy had in that autoinjector. It's the same stuff used on Justice Dagger, or whatever he's calling himself this week. Investigators - super and norm - were already closing in on the source of that. Once we spread word the same stuff had been used somewhere else, they moved on the supplier and captured his records. Which led us directly to this charming place. Hence, the raid."

Tiger leaned over the desk, grinning, causing the man seated behind it to reflexively pull back.

"Nearly all of that was accomplished by non-super, ordinary federal investigators, trying to figure out what happened to a bunch of equipment and money, and despite severe budget cuts. Coincidence? I think not!"

Congreve was baffled by that odd non sequitur. However, if these idiots wanted to waste time talking nonsense while his security forces mobilized to stop two powerful supers, that was fine with him. He stalled, waiting on his rescue.

"You have nothing on me or the feds would be here. Somehow you sneaked into my office without alerting anyone, but that won't last. You'll be under arrest for trespassing on federal land in a few minutes."

"The feds are here, handling the roundup of the other personnel and securing the property," said Tiger, casually. "The whole base has been seized. They asked several of us supers along in case you had any more super-class surprises. When they realized what was here they realized they were short handed for actually taking a military base, even one last officially used in World War II. Mesa and I volunteered to handle you."

"Yeah," said Mesa, grinning nastily. "We can't actually arrest you for a federal crime, but we can keep you here if you try anything. So, please... try something."

Congreve didn't believe him but by now knew something was wrong with Security. He suddenly drew a portable neutralizer from the holster attached inside his desk's footwell and shone its sickly green light on Tiger and Mesa. His triumphant snarl vanished when Tiger quickly took the bulky weapon from him and tore it to pieces.

"Idiot..."

Tiger quickly and deftly yanked the man out of his seat, laid him over his desk and zip-tied him. The supernatural creature turned in time to help the drooping Mesa into a chair, then used his com to tell the federal law enforcement officers conducting the operation that he'd had to restrain Congreve for assault. They said they'd send someone as soon as they could.

Moments later a pair of Deputy Marshals hurried in.

"That's him," the senior of the pair said, nodding, as he lifted Congreve's head and looked carefully at his face. "He had a neutralizer?"

"That's what's left of it," said Tiger, casually, from where he was checking Mesa. The big super was by now groggily insisting he was all right.

"Next time try to leave the evidence intact."

"I'm a federal employee, the man in charge of this installation!" yelled Congreve, finally regaining his voice. "You are all here illegally! This is a secure installation, and you must have authorization from the Secretary of Defense to even enter these grounds!"

"That's funny," said one of the Deputy Marshals. "Our boss checked with the SoD this morning, and he'd never heard of you or your facility. This is supposed to be a nature preserve."

The two men hauled the protesting Congreve away, leaving the supers.

"Too bad neither of us has super speed," said Tiger, when Mesa had recovered a bit more. He sighed and grimaced. "I am sincerely sorry about that. It never occurred to me that he'd have a neutralizer right at hand. I saw him reaching for something, but figured it'd be a handgun, which wouldn't do more than inconvenience either of us."

"So did you mean him or you when you said 'Idiot'?"

"Me," said Tiger, with another sigh. He gave his friend a sloppy smile. "Well, both. I do get too cocky sometimes."

"Talk about cocky, did he not know that wouldn't work on supernaturals?!" said Mesa, already almost back to normal, thanks to the very brief exposure. "Or did he not know you're one?"

"I think part of the reason - maybe even the main part - is that people like that don't want to believe neutralizers aren't the complete super-stopper they want to have."

* * *

Several days after the arrest of Congreve there was a major conference between the Bureau of Special Resources and several supers not employed by them. Normally it would have been considered improper for a federal agency to share information in this way with those outside government employment. However, given that they were already asking reputable super teams and even a few individual supers to help make up for the shortfall from the budget cuts, Brade felt this sharing of information was only fair. Therefore, once a preliminary analysis of the material recovered from Congreve's organization had been performed she sent copies of the files to those groups and individuals via secure Internet connection. A few days after that, she organized this virtual meeting.

"I hope you've all had time to review the information," Brade said as she opened the conference.

At each location in the conference someone confirmed this.

"Our own people have already begun a review of what the Marshals Service recovered. I believe Doro would like to make a preliminary statement on the matter."

"The super activation program was only about a quarter of what they were doing, and nearly all of it was illegal," said Doro, obviously outraged. "However, that was the most blatantly harmful part of it. They, themselves, documented multiple incidents where they assaulted people just to try and stimulate their powers! None of those attempts were successful, several people were injured, and three died, with over five million dollars in property damage! Yet their records - including comments and observations - show no sign of remorse of even a reconsideration of their actions, and they kept complete records! I can't believe this guy thought he was helping the US with his actions!"

"We all need to keep in mind that many fringe groups see the post-war situation - especially with all the budget cuts - as an opportunity to further their goals," said Brade. "I've seen it before. They'll make use of the lower degree of monitoring by various government agencies due to distractions in the post-war environment and lower funding more recently to make off with dangerous equipment, to train more openly, to act more openly. They know they're right, so they have no qualms about breaking laws or hurting people. It's all justified in their minds. I'm just sorry it took us so long to connect what were previously seen as isolated anti-super attacks."

"I have seen this phenomenon, as well," said the Black Mask, over the video conference rig. He swept his gaze around all the holographically represented faces in the Intrepids' new council room. "Be on your guard!"

"I just wish the Super Liaison office hadn't been one of the casualties of the budget cuts," said Converse, with a sigh. "This would be so much easier if someone close to him could get the President's attention!"

"Definitely," said Brade. "Anyway, here's what we've learned which isn't in that report."

* * *

"It's confirmed that Oscar Congreve really is Frederick Nunnally," said Steel Lace, at a briefing of the Bay Area Guardians the day after the video conference. Her green-colored, flexible power armor had been through many changes over the past thirty years, but the reason for her nome de guerre was still obvious. "Officially deceased for several years. Besides what we already knew about, we now know he also improperly attacked several valid special interest groups while accusing them of being extremists, and improperly supported some actual extremist groups. Yet Donner - who presumably was aware of all this - persuaded some friends of his in Homeland Security to put Nunnally in charge of several black projects, several years before the recent election. Then, after Nunnally had been revealed as a criminal, his death was faked and he was set up with a new identity, presumably also with Donner's help. Whether all this was intended to support some illegal effort Donner planned for later or was just him helping a friend is unknown."

"Donner is looking more and more like the power behind the throne," said Cumulous, scowling.

"Maybe," said NightMist, frowning. She leaned forward a bit, resting her forearms on the table. "Or maybe his true goal is to manipulate things so that public opinion turns so strongly against Gibbons that he resigns, and Donner takes over legally. Or - perhaps - he is counting on generating enough outrage to cause someone to assassinate the President, or Donner will have him killed in a way which is presented as an assassination."

"That would still be an assassination," said Tiger. "As well as a coup."

"Whatever is going on at the White House these days, it's going to take a lot more than what we currently have to bring either the President or Vice-President down," said the Collator.

"Agreed," said Steel Lace, after a moment. "Our information connecting Donner to these acts is mostly circumstantial. I don't recommend any individual super or super team actively try to gather evidence against Donner, but we should keep his apparent role in mind and share anything suspicious we uncover."

"That would be two traitorous Veeps in a row," said Aura, scowling.

"Gibbons could still be the actual brain in this," said the Collator.

"All the more reason to keep what we know as secret as we can," said Steel Lace, sternly. "In all likelihood, whoever is behind these events will lay low for a while, after the recent scandals. We need to be patient."



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