I woke up with a start, confused. I was in a bed, not at the kitchen table. It seemed to be my bed.
Calm. Don’t want to shift.
Daylight. Same day?
A young boy’s voice. “I hope the nap was good. Anne said you would probably wake in just a few hours. She was right.”
Ali. My new partner.
I shook my head, briefly, trying to get the last bits of sleep to leave. “How did I get here, Ali? Last thing I remember I was at the kitchen table in the Enclave apartment.”
“Anne asked me to bring you back here and watch over you while you slept. Letting you sleep in the apartment was one of the things the Enclave asked her to not let you do, for fear of your transforming due to a bad dream or being startled into wakefulness. She asked me to hand you this when you were awake and seeming lucid.”
“You carried me here without waking me?” I was normally a light sleeper, and nobody had carried me anywhere for probably thirty years.
“I did not carry you like luggage. I levitated you. Like this.”
I looked at Ali. His feet were a few inches off the ground, and he wasn’t moving. Then he slowly settled to the ground.
“I hope that you do not mind that I did use a little mental suggestion to keep you asleep so you wouldn’t wake up and be startled. Anne said you would not object to my having done so, provided I told you I did it, and why.”
More mental shenanigans.
Stop. Anne and Ali did it to protect others from me.
“Anne is right. Mostly. Entirely. I’m not happy with it but I agree with it. There are a lot of people in the building where Anna and Danny are staying. I’m surprised they let me have access at all.”
Ali nodded at that, and stepped closer to me, holding out a piece of notebook paper. “Anne asked me to give you this.”
Was he just standing there the whole time I was asleep?
That could get creepy.
I accepted the paper, looked at it, and groaned. Right beside the line where I had written that Miss Perfect was the daughter of Gorgon, there was a little note in Anne’s handwriting. “Noted. Sorry to pry. Will not tell Danny.”
“Dammit.” I muttered to myself. I had outed Miss Perfect’s relationship with Gorgon before I said I would. Due to carelessness.
What if Danny had found the note? What if he found one of the pages I had used for scratch paper while creating my list?
Trust and verify.
I looked up from staring at the note. “Ali, did Anne look at the other pages I had written on, and make sure they were hidden or destroyed?”
“Yes. She gave them to me and asked me to give them to you if you asked about them, and destroy them tomorrow if you didn’t.” He handed me the other pages I had used. I didn’t see where they came from. Definitely not from his pocket.
“Thank you, Ali.”
He called her Anne and not Mrs. Collins.
“Ali, you just called my wife Anne, not Mrs. Collins. I hope that means that you two had a good conversation when I was asleep?”
“We did, all three of us.” He paused, clearly thinking about what he was about to say. “They aren’t entirely happy with my presence, but that could be said about you too. My presence was forced on you. With good intentions, but you don’t fully understand it, because none of you are practitioners.”
I nodded. “Yes. Right on several levels. I’m glad Anne was willing to allow you to be less formal. You can also call me Zeke.”
“How long did I sleep? I see it’s four PM. I didn’t sleep some crazy amount of time did I?”
“Four hours, Zeke.”
“OK. Still business hours then. Need to check my business email and see what’s falling apart.”
No phone calls woke me?
I checked my phone. It was turned off.
“Anne turned off my phone?”
“Yes.” Ali replied, simply.
I considered asking Ali to listen to the thirty-seven messages and write them down while I was in the shower, but then realized I only showered a few hours ago, with Anne. I remembered the moment fondly, shook my head, and pulled on my running clothes. I would run after handling emails and messages.
I started the encryption software, physically connected the Ethernet cable to the router, and then logged into my corporate email.
As I was typing in my passwords to activate the encryption and email access, I paused.
My hands paused halfway through typing my email password.
Biometrics. Need biometrics for corporate security.
I scribbled a note on a pad of paper next to my desk. Ask Ben to talk to his peers to see how they handle security from mentalists on the banking side of things.
If anyone has a solid anti-mentalist IT security method, banks will.
While the connection was establishing, I opened a new text document onscreen and prepared to start listening to voice mails on my phone. The first message was from my father.
Damn. I was not looking forward to this.
I played the message. “Zeke, I heard on the radio that you killed a man, a psychopathic killer super. Your mother and I aren’t happy with that, but we think we understand, based on what we’re picking up in the news. If you need to talk about it, let us know. If you don’t need to talk about it, let us know.”
I do need to talk about it.
But not right now.
I sent a reply voicemail. “Thanks Dad! I will need to talk about it soon, I think, but right now there are too many things I’m juggling right now. The secret identity going away, the killing, the effect on my business, and a whole lot of other things happening behind the scenes that you don’t know about yet. Some of them I’ll be able to talk about soon. Right now, I’m in damage control mode, and for the time being I think I did right to kill Arson. I am staying at the house still, but Danny and Anne have been relocated for their safety. Please do not come to the house unannounced. I’ve already had several supers visit, two of which fought me here. I will be in touch soon. Give Mom a kiss for me and tell her I love her.”
Ali was sitting on the floor in a meditative pose, legs crossed.
His being here all the time is going to drive me crazy.
“Ali, no offense, but do you need to stay within sight of me? Every time I see you, it startles me a little bit.”
“We might be working together for centuries, Zeke, if you don’t die in a fight, and if you choose to live that long. It might be a good idea for you to get used to my presence, like a bodyguard if you need to think of it that way.” Ali smiled at me.
“Umm, yea, I’ll try to get used to it. We are going to have to arrange for times of privacy though, especially when I’m with my wife.”
“Understood. Just realize that I have an obligation to protect you from those you will have difficulty protecting yourself from. If I give you real privacy, it will allow opportunities for practitioners and magical beings to attack you.”
I sighed. “Understood. Any privacy will be an illusion.”
Ali cocked his head at me. “You recognize that your wealth was growing to a point where arrangements similar to this might be necessary. I know you do. I’ve been watching you for a while now, remember? I’ve heard some of your conversations with your wife, and I quote, ‘Even beyond the fact that I now have super powers, increasing wealth is eventually going to force us to give up some of our freedoms. Enhanced security around the house, bodyguards in public, people to drive us around in protective vehicles.’ Do you remember saying those things?”
He’s right. I did say those things.
I looked back at my phone. “Yeah, success is its own prison, if you are successful enough. Especially if it’s financial success. My family was becoming a potential hostage target for organized crime and super criminals.” I hit play for the next message. “I don’t have to like it though.”
The next several messages were from high ranking employees, department heads, and such wanting to know what was happening and whether or not the news reports were true about my identity, and what I had done in Korea. I made a note to send an email to all company leadership from tier one management and up, and then another message to the entire company. Both would need to be carefully written because they would undoubtedly be leaked to the media.
There was a message from Miss Perfect, indicating that she had been working with my lawyer, Ted, and her mother, and things were moving forward quickly. Ted hadn’t tried any shenanigans and written up a four page plain English contract that Miss Perfect’s mother had already agreed with. I just needed to find it in my email and authorize it with a digital signature. She had also arranged for provisional hosting in the Exactitude datacenter after talking with Phil and Ben. Since he was already in the know about my desires to create a tinker market, Phil had taken the initiative and asked Ben to set it up at her request. He would certainly have sent me email detailing what was happening and why, and asking for verification that everything was OK. I made a note to search for that email and reply to it rapidly. I needed that market up and running, and as safe as I could make it from outside interference.
There was a voicemail from Gorgon. As soon as I recognized the voice, I saved the message and skipped to the next message. I needed to at least get a sense of where things stood on business and personal things before I got all wrapped up in dealing with him again.
It took me nearly two hours to clear through all my voice messages. Part of that was due to having to find and read associated emails, and make sure the email I responded to was asking or saying the same thing as the messages on the phone. Requests from the public relations team were the worst. They were clearly unhappy, but afraid to be blunt and straightforward in their assessments. Then I had to send one email to company leadership, followed by another email to the whole company. Both emails clearly indicating that they were expected to handle business as usual, and refer any questions about my activities from customers, the government, or the media to the public relations team. That team would no doubt be unhappy in the short term with the influx of questions and concerns, but that was their job. They would then sort things out and figure out who needed to deal with each potential problem. Big problems would still find their way to me, but I didn’t have the luxury of time to deal with the little problems too. I tried to make that clear, and I hoped it didn’t sound bad.
I then shut down my computer and disconnected the Ethernet cable before taking a quick two mile jog around the property before it got too dark. Even if I could regenerate a broken leg by shifting, I really didn’t fancy dealing with the pain. Running was good thinking time anyway, and I needed it.
After showering to get the sweat off, I considered a beer, but decided against it. I’d probably want the beer after dealing with Gorgon again, and I might screw something up if I was even the slightest bit tipsy speaking with him.
Using alcohol as a crutch is not a good long-term plan.
Gotta watch myself.
I pulled up the stored voice mail from Gorgon.
“Zeke, it seems that you have upped the ante again. Quite a few of my people who I wanted to send to you are clearly afraid of you. I didn’t recognize that super that threw you the stop sign, but the media got really good video of you practicing your swing before decapitating Arson. No nonsense, like you were practicing with a new woodcutting axe before settling in to split some wood. Instant cold killer reputation. I couldn’t have done it better myself. You are probably inside the Enclave and not able to receive incoming calls. Call me. We need to talk.”
Gorgon’s matter-of-fact tone and approval delivered in a respectful tone set me back a bit.
What’s his game now?
Most of my important problems that didn’t have anything to do with Gorgon were problems I simply could not deal with immediately, either because I didn’t know enough, or because they were not really my decisions to make. Anne and Danny were both adults.
Thinking of Danny as an adult is still damn hard.
I bet mom and dad still think the same about me.
I grinned at the thought of my parents thinking about me as a child, but woolgathering wouldn’t solve problems. I called Gorgon at Anne’s phone.
“Why hello Zeke! I was expecting a call from you earlier. Your phone came back on the network over two hours ago, and my hourly info feed indicates that you were just jogging.” Gorgon’s voice hardened. “You either don’t understand the situation you are in, or you don’t feel that I am a threat to you or your family. You do not need to comment on that statement. I expect both from you at this point in our relationship, based on what you have been doing and your general cluelessness about being a super. Remember, I’ve done this before, a few times. My best lieutenants are the ones that fought me the hardest, and learned to fear me the most. The Enclave won’t protect all of your relatives. They can’t. They simply don’t have the resources for it. Your parents are both alive and currently in good health, for example.”
Despite my earlier confidence that I’d be able to deal with Gorgon, my mouth went dry with sudden fear and anger.
“Sir, are you in a position where other people can overhear you speaking to me?”
Gorgon’s voice changed tone and became very cold and clipped. “Zeke, nobody is overhearing my conversation on my end. You can threaten me with stop sign justice if I touch your parents. I expect no less. I’ll make this clear though. One act of killing, however coldly done, does not impress me. It does give me hope that you could actually survive within my organization though, and command respect from my people.”
I needed to project strength against his threats. I forced the fear out of my voice and responded in my coldest voice. “As long as you understand that my parents and family are off limits, you won’t have to worry about stop sign justice, sir.”
It was beyond my understanding that Gorgon actually thought that killing a super with a stop sign somehow might make me a better lieutenant for him. Threats and intimidation would never lead to good employees.
Gorgon chuckled. “Good. You’re learning. Careful threat and counter-threat. The bread and butter of supervillain interaction at the highest levels. We don’t trust each other enough to do it any other way. Fear and respect matter. Power and control drive us. You’re a natural.”
What the hell.
I am NOT saying “thank you” to that.
“Cat got your tongue, Zeke? That’s OK. At this point, I don’t plan on taking any action against your family. I have other targets that I can use against you if you resist too much, while keeping your family as a last-choice threat.”
Not thanking him for that either.
“Zeke, I need you to convince me you are listening. Respond. Now.”
“I am listening. I just haven’t heard anything that I can respond to, sir.”
“Good. I have been investigating your company more closely. Do you expect to maintain open control of your company despite your activities as an Enclave enforcer? The public won’t stand for it easily, you know. Some of your suppliers are already starting to dry up. The French and Korean governments are already deliberating sanctions and penalties against your company. The rest of Europe will probably follow closely behind them if they choose to punish your company. Other Asian countries probably won’t care at first, until you do something inside their borders.” Gorgon paused a moment, and in an amused sounding voice continued. “I suspect you would be surprised at how useful a few bribes here and there might be to make things happen, or not happen. I found no evidence that you have tried such things in the past.”
Is that just information, a threat, or an offer to help?
Where the hell is he going?
“Sir, this morning, you wanted my company, now you are either threatening to help hurt it, or help it. I’m not sure which.”
There was a pause on the other line. “I have discovered that there is an individual working for you that I owe a great deal to. She wants nothing to do with me. Has she panicked and contacted you yet?”
Seems like he’s human after all.
“Sir, I have spoken to Jane, my potential future daughter-in-law. She wanted me to make it clear to you that if you attempted to forcefully take over the company, she would fight a scorched earth electronic campaign against you. We both agree that burning the company to the ground would be better than letting you have it.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone. “Your son is eighteen. Jane is twenty-three.” Gorgon’s voice seemed accusing somehow.
“Five years at that age is a bit of a stretch, but Danny is mature for his age.”
I don’t think he knows she’s a super.
I’m damn sure not telling him.
“I had my people examine your company roster. There’s nobody named Jane with my surname working for you.”
“She uses a different name. Wouldn’t you do the same?”
He paused. “Yes. I suppose I did, and still do, in a way.” There was a note of concern in his voice. It was very strange to hear that. “What does she do for you?”
“I will not tell you that. It’ll only help you find her, and she was clear that she wants nothing to do with you. I have no doubt you can figure it out if you want to, but I’m damn sure not handing it to you. I already told you too much by telling you she was a potential future daughter-in-law.”
He growled into the phone. “I’ll give you one chance to tell me you manufactured this scenario to protect your company. If you lie to me and I find out later that this was contrived, I’m going to have you killed. I’ve already had my best planners working out ways to make it happen.” He paused. “Talk to me now, Zeke.”
“It’s not of my making. I didn’t find out about it until this morning. Apparently they have been sweet on each other for four years and serious for the last two years.”
Gorgon’s voice became incredulous, and the loudness of his speaking reduced. I imagined him holding the phone away from his face and staring at it while he talked. “Four years? You only found out about it now? Your son was messing around with my daughter when he was fourteen? Do you have any control over him?”
I responded with a bit of unintentional heat. “Your daughter was a bit older than him four years ago too. The first couple of years were chaperoned by my wife though. I was only aware of it peripherally as one of his study groups. I’m not telling you more. You want more, you get it from her, if you can figure out who she is and get her to talk to you.”
Gorgon responded, sounding pleased. “Very Good. You tell Miss Perfect that I will leave Exactitude alone.”
“What?” I couldn’t keep the shock out of my voice.
“She called me on a phone registered to a special account type used by supers. I had the company records hacked and found the call origin coordinates. There are six female employees in their twenties at that facility, and Miss Perfect. I simply had each of them followed and their voices recorded. The six didn’t have her voice. I had my people dig hard to get a voice sample for Miss Perfect. They found something on the internet that she created to advertise her craft to other tinkers a few years back.”
He must have used tax records. Our personnel records were tight, and I trusted my security, especially Miss Perfect, especially now, considering that she had been protecting herself from her father. Even so, I really needed to have someone check up on all my people to make sure nobody had been compromised.
“So why pretend you didn’t know who she was?”
“To see if you would protect her.” He paused. “I didn’t know about your son before this call though. If everything works out, she’ll have what she wants. Danny is your only son and it’s clear that you’re grooming him to take over for you after college. If Jane and Danny are a couple, they will run your company together when you step down.”
He doesn’t know I’m effectively immortal now.
“So, by leaving my company alone, you give your daughter a gift? Is that the plan?”
“Yes, Zeke, that’s the plan, and I don’t mind if you tell her that. If our kids break up though, gloves are off. You’ve got a fine company there, and I want it. I just want a happy daughter more, and I cannot imagine a happier place for a noncombatant tinker than what she’s doing there.”
“I can understand that. Does that mean you are also going to leave me alone?”
“Hell no, Zeke. I am going to work behind the scenes to make sure your company isn’t hurt badly by your past and future actions. You’re going to have to relinquish control to your son, with a board of directors to help him until he gets some education and experience.”
“If I don’t?”
“My, we’ve gotten familiar in the last few minutes, haven’t we, Zeke. We were talking family though, so that’s fine. We’re talking business now, so I’d better start hearing ‘sir’ from you when you address me.” Gorgon stopped speaking.
“If I don’t, sir?”
“Better. If you don’t give the company to your son and do your best to help him learn to run it, I’ll pay a few lawyers and get it taken away from you legally, and given to your wife and son. Honestly, it would be easier to take it from you than protect it from the consequences of your actions, but I would prefer to give my daughter a gift tainted with as little negativity as possible.”
“He’s not ready, sir.”
“Make him ready. Assign a good board. You can even be a non-voting advisory member of the board. Talk to your public relations people and your lawyers about what’s going to be coming your way soon as governments start getting involved. Korea is not happy right now, and France really is going to act against you quickly, even without me pulling in favors to make it happen.”
“I get to choose the board, sir?”
“Correct. I’ve found my daughter, and I owe her a childhood. I can’t give her that, so I’m going to do my best to give her a happy life any way I can. I’ve worked with tinkers on a few occasions. She’s got a dream job there, for a tinker.” He paused. “It’s still difficult to imagine Jane as a tinker. She never was much interested in science in school.”
“If you plan on doing that, none of the actions you take to help my company can be illegal, sir.”
Gorgon laughed a belly laugh. “I’m a villain, Zeke, that doesn’t mean I’m required to do illegal and immoral things to accomplish all my goals. Sometimes it’s easier to do what I want within society’s rules. If you work with me, we’ll save your company, and do it legally. Resist me, and I’ll help the international community rip the company away from you and give it to your son. I can do either one, easily, with no illegal activity. If you try to sidestep me by doing an IPO or dissolving the company, I will come after you with no mercy, and if my daughter breaks up with your son, your family will no longer be safe.”
I don’t have a choice here.
Thinking back at the careful wording of some of the emails I had gotten from international top tier management, as well as the email from Ted’s international law specialist and the Public Relations team, it was pretty clear that they were expecting a lot of trouble to both keep me in charge, and keep the company functional. I had too many things on my plate as it was, and I could certainly retire on what I already had put away. Even considering the lump of money I had assigned to Miss Perfect for the suit.
“I agree. I will step down, but it will take at least a couple months, and I will have to at least pretend to fight it, or nobody that knows me at all will believe my stepping down is genuine. Especially if I design myself a position within the board that supports Danny, even if it’s non-voting. Sir.”
Did I really just buy my family’s safety with my company?
“Very good, Zeke. See, we work well together.” Gorgon chuckled as he hung up the phone.