Masks 18: Part 4

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Masks XVIII

by

Rodford Edmiston

Part Four

"There was a robbery last night, while we were on watch, right under our noses," said Blue Impact, angrily, as she came into the kitchen for breakfast. She had, as was her custom, checked for messages and alerts immediately after coming downstairs. "Perhaps literally."

"I swear, my sensors were working properly!" said Gadgetive, for once eating with the others.

"So were mine," said Energia, meaning her inherent super senses.

"Again, there were no alarms, no sign of how whoever is doing this got in."

"You sure it's not something supernatural?" said Gadgetive. "That's getting more common."

"The cops actually called in Sharma a few days ago - which I only just learned about - and she checked several of the scenes. She says there's no sign of magical intrusion. Don't ask me how she can tell."

"So it's obviously either a super, or someone with super gadgets," said Energia. She tipped her head a bit to one side. "Teleporter? Perhaps someone who can go desolid?"

"Maybe a probability manipulator," said Gadgetive, seeming eager. "I always wanted to see one of those in action, but they're so rare..."

"I had a run-in with one, when I was with the Young Guardians," said Energia, making a face. "Not fun. Fortunately, they are rare."

"So are phasers," said Blue Impact. "The only one I can think of offhand who is still active is..."

"The Prince of Speed!" Energia and Gadgetive chorused, grinning.

Blue Impact rolled her eyes.

"I'm glad you two are going to different colleges next week. You're spending much too much time together."

* * *

The mandate of the Bureau of Special Resources was deliberately vague. Mainly because any attempt to strictly define and closely constrain the job of an organization intended to handle super problems would have been folly. Which didn't mean that many politicians hadn't tried... The independence and willingness to operate outside the normal bounds of government bureaucracy which was exhibited by the Bureau's employees was typified by the fact that nearly half of those attending this routine meeting wore flashy costumes, most with accompanying masks and a few with capes. Even their giantess boss wore a costume. The central topic in this weekly briefing was the weather. However, there was nothing mundane about the particular weather being discussed.

Originally, the Bureau had two branches. However, with the post-war budget cuts those had been combined into one. Brade was now in charge of the whole thing, instead of just the law enforcement branch. She very definitely would have traded the additional authority for the lower workload of the previous arrangement.

Much of the reason for the Bureau's funding cutbacks was due to critics claiming they hadn't actually done anything to defend the Earth during the Shilmek War. Of course, it was Bureau training and resources which had made so many of those who were praised for their effective role in the war so effective. Brade suspected that enemies of the Bureau were deliberately distorting things, and their followers blindly repeating the misinformation until those too busy or uncaring to check simply believed it.

"We think we've discovered the source of these unusual weather problems," said the meteorologist. Like the others in the meeting room he was a federal employee, but unlike the others he was a guest here. He seemed a bit intimidated, especially by Brade. "They were localized enough that we tracked them to one fairly small area. We at first thought it might be a research lab or perhaps a gadgeteer or even something supernatural, but ruled all those out through various means. The focus kept moving around, making the actual source difficult to determine. We now think it's one person. Who probably doesn't even know what they're doing."

Brade scowled, tiredly. Given the losses in facilities and personnel they frequently had to turn down requests for help, even from other agencies. However, this seemed too significant to ignore. Also, she thought she could get help from non-Bureau personnel on this.

"All right." She turned to her own people. "Get together with Dr. Timberlake and his team. See if you can identify the specific person, and make contact. If they can, explain the problem and offer training. If they can't find this person let me know and I'll talk to some people who might be able to help with that."

There was one more matter to deal with for this meeting. Brade leafed through her notes.

"Okay, what's the story with the opening of the Pine Island Super Medical Center being delayed?"

"Sabotage," said Doro, sourly. Thanks to keeping busy and Brade's insistence on her getting therapy, she was almost normal, these days. Though there were times when Brade realized that the way Doro was now might be the new normal, for the foreseeable future. "A lot of it boils down to some people seeing 'Super' in the name and having a knee-jerk rejection. Funding bills have been delayed or killed outright; certification of both facilities and personnel have been delayed without valid cause; even private donations have been interfered with, in some cases even being diverted to the wrong project. Ike Kenniman has been investigated three times because of his equipment and patent donations. Folks are accusing him of violating security protocols for the equipment and information he's providing, saying he wasn't cleared for access to some of it. Which is crazy! He invented most of what they're complaining about, himself! The man has security clearances for things most members of Congress aren't even allowed to know about!"

Well, that last was probably a minor exaggeration, but Brade understood what Doro meant.

"In spite of all of that, they're only about four months behind schedule."

"I'll ask Template what she's doing about the holdups," said Brade, with a tired sigh. "Maybe have the Bureau check into some of the shadier occurrences. That's about all we can do. We can't support the construction of a private - and very specialized - hospital. However, we can try to find who is spreading the rumors. I can also personally contact some super-friendly politicians and business folks."

"What is causing this?!" said Converse, a super with communication abilities. "I'm supposed to be able to know when someone is lying, but I swear I'm hearing people tell me truthfully they support the hospital, then two days later someone in their office has - to use Doro's term - sabotaged it. I confront them over this and half the time they don't even know about it! When they do, half the time they don't see the contradiction!"

"For a few it's a case of their assistants doing something without their knowledge," said Brade, sighing again. "They do what they think their boss would want, or what they think is best for him to do. For some people it is - as Doro also said - a reflex action. I suspect that for a few people it suddenly comes home that this is an institution which will help supers only. They then get an odd twinge somewhere in their subconscious that this is a bad thing."

"As a general rule, the more mundane power someone has the more of an instinctive wariness they have in regard to someone with super power," said Doro, sourly. "Because anyone can be a super, even without the hard work of being born rich and managing their inheritance."

"I think that's enough for today," said Brade, dryly. "Unless someone has something in addition - something work related - we better adjourn before we get accused of plotting armed rebellion."

* * *

Blue Impact had finally managed to receive official police approval to inspect some of the crime scenes. They had simply not been able to figure out how the valuables targeted were being accessed and removed. She knew that if her team failed to stop the thief, that would let the cops point fingers at them. However, she felt confident that Tricorne would be able to uncover at least something important.

The looks of the customers and staff as the costumed trio walked into their first stop of the day was a bit unnerving. However, they were all three experienced with public reactions.

"Hey," said an older man, who hurried up to meet them. "I'm Herve Rodriguez, the owner. The safe's back here."

All eyes followed them as they walked into the back.

"Mind the store," Herve snapped at one of the employees, when he appeared about to follow them.

The customer part of the pawn shop was crowded with heavily stocked shelves, but clean and well-lit. In the back it was still well-lit, and even more crowded. The owner escorted them to the office, then fussed from where he stood with Blue Impact outside, watching through the door as the two younger members of Tricorne located the point of entry.

"Okay," said Gadgetive, as she finished scanning a wall in the office. "Definitely signs of hyperdimensional rupture. Very subtle, though; nothing altered which affects four dimensional integrity."

Blue Impact nodded and smiled, feeling vindicated.

Gadgetive next turned to her right and repeated the operation with the large, free-standing safe. It was an older model, but far from antique.

"Same here, though with differences which suggest the thief rummaged around inside for a bit before removing something, rather than just briefly passing through. The scent of the quark distortion shows prolonged contact."

"Did you understand any of that?" the pawn shop owner asked of Blue Impact.

"A few words," said the older super, mildly. "What's important is that she knows what she means."

"With this information I can consult with some folks who know more than I do about insubstantiality," said Gadgetive, absently, as she put her equipment away. "Once we know exactly what form of the ability he uses we should be able to create something which can hold him. Or her."

"What good does that do me?" said the store owner, almost whining. "He's already raided my safe!"

"If we find him, the cops can find what he stole," said Blue Impact. "Or who he sold it to. Then backtrack to the thief from there."

"Oh."

"If nothing else, if the police can learn what happened to your property the insurance company will pay more quickly."

"Yeah..." said the man, sighing. "I had to take a policy with a large deductible. Thought having a good safe would be enough. How was I supposed to know a thief could walk through walls?!"

"It's a very rare ability," said Blue Impact, as she watched Gadgetive finish and in her turn look expectantly at Energia. Who was staring at the same part of the wall, frowning in concentration. "Well, true intangibility is. There's lots of supers who can walk through walls; most just leave holes when they do it. Anyway, there is some good news, if a bit late to the party: We are working with Ike Kenniman to apply Shilmek technology to block people with insubstantial powers. That will be much more practical than mad inventor gadgets for the same purpose."

"Another piece of expensive, specialized equipment."

Blue Impact decided he was just in griping mode and stopped trying to lift his mood. Instead, she moved up beside Energia.

"Anything?"

"Huh?!" she said, actually starting a bit. She immediately looked a little embarrassed. "Uh, yeah. I talked to Zeep and he showed me some things to look for. Not anything as definite as what Gadgetive found, though."

"Well, between the two of you we should have a good start." She looked at Gadgetive. "Would it do any good to examine the outside of the wall?"

"Nope," said the middle member of the team.

"Then let's get to the next store on our list."

They walked outside, into the late Summer heat. In spite of the temperature and humidity, there was a crowd waiting for them. Some were simply curious locals, wondering what was going on. Though not all...

"Great," said Blue Impact. "The press is here."

"That TV crew still dogging you?" said Gadgetive, as she exited the shop behind the senior member of the team. "Whoah! That's a lot of cameras! Plenty more than just that one crew."

"That one crew is still bugging me as much as they can without violating the court order. The traffic tickets they got from chasing me helped with that." She frowned, as she examined the assembly of TV crews and onlookers.

"Smile and wave," said Energia, following her own instructions.

They did so, though Gadgetive muttered humorous, obscene descriptions of the news crews and their personal habits through her grin on the way to their apergy flyer. Many of them in Yiddish.

"Hey!" one of the reporters yelled out. "When do we mere mortals get one of those fancy, antigravity flying cars?!"

"It's not antigravity!" yelled Gadgetive, at this aggressive push of one of her buttons. "Don't you know antigravity is impossible?! Learn basic physics and then maybe you wouldn't make so many stupid mistakes!"

Blue Impact quickly stepped between her and the crowd.

"The FAA is still trying to figure out how to design certification tests for apergy - not antigravity - vehicles. We - as anyone can - fly ours as an experimental aircraft."

She quickly herded the others into the vehicle, hopped in herself and closed the hatch.

"Whoof," said Energia, once they were safely underway. "All we needed to make this worse was Mano Dura showing up."

"Oh, right," said Gadgetive, startled. "He patrols near here."

"Yeah. I hear people have been pressuring him to solve these crimes. Which is not his strong suit. He's been in a really bad mood over it."

"One more reason to move on to our next appointment," said Blue Impact, firmly.

* * *

Investigation of the next two robbery locations had further exposed the team to both onlookers and news crews. After the third stop Gadgetive announced that there was nothing more to be learned from further examinations. Blue Impact was actually glad to declare it was time for lunch and get back to base. After they ate Gadgetive locked herself in the ground floor lab until she finally emerged for supper. From her attitude the others could tell she had not made any breakthroughs. Though she did reveal that all her data had been sent to Ike Kenniman and a few others. The fact that she felt she had done all she could - at least for now - was confirmed when instead of returning to the lab she joined the others watching TV after their evening meal.

"I feel cheated," grumped Gadgetive, after the local news was over later that day. "They cut from his question to your reply, leaving out my correction!"

"Well, of course," said Energia, spreading her hands. "They won't show anything which implies one of their reporters might be wrong about something."

"That may be an exaggeration," said Blue Impact, managing to keep a straight face. "However, they do tend to omit anything which portrays one of their staff members in a bad light."

She looked at the TV, now showing a late-night monster movie program.

"When you were in the john you missed the news from the station which keeps harassing me. They showed us leaving the store then cut directly to the flyer lifting off. I'm going to choose to believe that they didn't want to show someone from another station."

* * *

Over the next five days there were two more robberies. All had the same modus operandi: Someone came in through a wall or ceiling or floor close to the target, moved straight to it, removed what was wanted and left the same way they came in. Sometimes the target was cash; most incidents involved valuable items which could not be traced easily. Silver bullion bars and coins were popular with this thief, as was older jewelry. This again demonstrated a knowledge of the material; much new jewelry had identifying serial numbers on both the settings and the gems.

"Obviously, they're casing the joint first," said Gadgetive, as she paced back and forth in the main room at the old bakery.

"I knew letting her binge watch all those Thin Man movies was a mistake," said Blue Impact, in a stage mutter, from where she and the third team member sat on the couch. They watched the hyperactive gadgeteer stride around, while their team mascot was attended by Energia.

"Hey, those were fun," said Energia, defensively, as she stroked the cat. He rolled over and presented his belly for rubbing, purring madly.

"We need to show photos of the suspects to all the owners and employees and as many regular customers as we can," said Gadgetive, "to see if there's this one person they all recognize."

"We don't have any suspects," said Blue Impact, a bit tiredly. "Neither do the police."

She sighed and stretched.

"The perpetrator is very careful not to disturb anything except the specific contents of cabinets, safes or vaults he or she wants. No alarms trip. No fingerprints are found."

"Do any of those shops have security video running all night?" said Energia.

"No," said the senior member. "That's probably the reason they were chosen. The shops which were hit all turn off internal continuous video when they close for the day - a false economy, if you ask me - and rely on motion detectors and trip switches and such. None of which showed any intrusion."

"Could the culprit be someone already trained in security measures?" said Energia, looking thoughtful. "Maybe even someone working for a company which installs the equipment?"

"The police already checked that. Only a few the targeted businesses used the same security company."

"Phones," said Gadgetive, stopping and smacking right fist into left palm. She had modified her outfit's gloves specifically to make that act more impressive. Or at least louder. "Or maybe Internet connections. Someone who installs or repairs phone lines or Internet connections. They'd be in a position to learn about security measures. Maybe even work to hook them to the outside world for the business."

"That I don't know about," said Blue Impact, nodding slowly. "I'll ask my contacts."

* * *

The next shop hit was different from the previous ones. Before that the "Robbery Ghost" as the thief had been labelled had gone for items of intrinsic value. This latest theft, though...

"The insurance coverage was for $12,000," said the store owner, sounding tired. "That's what I had it priced for, too. I would have settled for nine grand, though, if I had to sell it now. The market's down. Just don't tell the insurance company that. Should be back up eventually, but no-one knows when."

He had photos of the comic book in question.

"I have a few others worth more than this, several of about the same value and many worth just a bit less. They were all together, too, in the fire safe. This is the only thing taken."

"So..." said Blue Impact, frowning. "The other robberies were likely for money. This was something the thief specifically wanted. That just might help us catch him."

"The police thought of that. Asked me if anyone had come in asking about that comic lately. Nope."

"Did you have that advertised online?" said Blue Impact.

"Yeah. I have a Web page with all the in-demand, rare and high-priced comics I have for sale. As well as a list of my own wants, both for the shop and personal. There were no inquiries on that specific comic for over a year. I also occasionally put adds in various periodicals. Nothing about that comic from those recently, either. That type of comic is in low demand right now."

"So, it's likely someone who wanted this for a long time, for their own use, and they won't sell it."

"Yeah," said the shop owner. He sighed and shook his head. "I've been in this business nearly thirty years and I still don't understand some collectors. I bet the guy won't even read it. Would probably be horrified if someone even suggested taking it out of the Mylar bag."

While they spoke, Energia looked around with more than casual curiosity. She had never been a comic book reader. Now, here she was, a super hero in a place which sold art and stories about super heroes. She found the experience both amusing and a bit unnerving. She wondered if the customers knew the members of Tricorne were real, or thought they were part of some sort of promotion.

Fortunately, Blue Impact was soon done talking to the owner. Unfortunately, the pair now realized that their third member was missing.

"Gadgetive!" said Blue Impact.

"Coming!" came a reply from deep in the crowded (though mostly with shelves full of comics and magazines and tables full of boxes of same) store.

"Just getting my monthly fix," she said, as she plopped a stack onto the counter. "You have a lot of stuff my usual sources don't!"

"Uh, thanks?" said the owner as he began ringing the items up.

"Do you ever come across any Young Atomic Engineers books?" said Gadgetive, as she handed over her money. Exact change, of course, calculated in her head.

"Sorry. Not my line. I carry a few paperbacks and a very few hardbacks, but not YA literature."

"Too bad. I've only got two more books to go. They're really obscure, though."

"Can we go, now?" said Blue Impact, after Gadgetive collected her purchase and turned to her teammates.

"Sure!" said the gadgeteer, grinning around her mask. "I'm happy!"

"At least we got out of there before the parking meter tripped," said Energia, as they walked to the large apergy pod.



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