Masks 13: Chapter Twenty-Five
Vic wasn't surprised to be called out of her first class the next morning. Physically, she was feeling fine. All her injuries from the fight were healed, and she had actually slept well. Until the call, though, she had heard nothing from the school administration. Both the delay and the call - when it finally came - gave her some cause for anxiety.
Her first thought upon being ushered into the Dean's office was to wonder where the school's attorney was. Her second was surprise that once Dr. Baker's receptionist - Mrs. Gareth - left, there was no-one there but her and the Dean.
"I apologize for waiting until you were in class to call you here," he said, face a mask. "I did not hear about the attack on you until this morning."
"That doesn't sound right," said Vic.
"It isn't. Now, I have one very simple question, the answer to which has some potentially serious implications."
"I want to know why you were out there alone," said the Dean. "Didn't you get the notice that from now on all escorts should work in at least pairs?"
"Uh, no?" said Vic, startled. "I remember some of the kids talking about pairing up or even going five at a time. There weren't enough volunteers for that, though."
Dr. Baker stared at her for a moment. Then he turned to his computer. He worked for a bit, and his office printer started printing. Vic rose to fetch the document, but had to awkwardly back off, because the Dean was already on his feet, heading for the machine.
"You didn't see this?" said the Dean, handing her the printout.
Vic skimmed through the pages with an increasing sense of alarm.
The document stated that additional security guards would be on night duty as of the next Monday. Until then, any volunteer escorts among the students and staff would work in pairs at least. It also gave a minimum of recommended equipment, as well as stating that the college would accept no liability for any volunteers who failed to meet these standards. Once the new security guards were on duty all volunteer work was prohibited.
"No," she said, shaking her head. "I never saw that."
"Damn," said Dr. Baker, tiredly, as he sat back down. "I don't know what's going on around here. I love this school but sometimes I wonder if I'm the one who should be in charge. I just can't seem to keep on top of things. The emergency notification system persistently fails to reach off campus, even to my own home. Documents keep going missing. Orders are never received, and others are given which didn't come from me."
Vic felt uncomfortable and vaguely embarrassed at this seeming non sequitur.
He looked Vic in the eye.
"I'm telling you all this for a reason. Those supers who were here gave you a contact number, right?"
"Please, use it. Tell them there's something going on here, something I suspect is illegal."
"I will do that," said Vic, who had been harboring similar suspicions.
"Do it quickly."
* * *
"Damn!" said Dr. Cargraves, as he checked his smartphone a few minutes later.
"Something wrong, Coach?" said his assistant.
"Sorry. Personal emergency. Taking the rest of the day off."
He typed rapidly on his computer for a moment, then stood, gathered some items and left.
His assistant waved him off, not realizing that the text message to his phone was from an AI monitoring various bugs strategically placed around campus. Nor that his boss' computer was now executing a series of programs which would delay all attempts to contact law enforcement and notify all of Rokuro's operatives on campus to take appropriate action, before quietly but thoroughly destroying itself. Or that this was the last time he'd see Dr. Vince Cargraves. Though it certainly wouldn't be the last time he heard that name.
* * *
Vic dialed her cell phone as she exited the administration building. She got an out of service notice. Frowning, she tried again, with the same result.
Starting to worry, Vic went to the nearest pay phone. She didn't even bother dialing; the line was dead. She hung up hard enough to rattle the change in the phone.
Vic wheeled and hurried towards the dorm. She didn't bother going inside, but went straight to her car. She started the Corolla and drove away rather more quickly than was prudent. She half expected to find the exits blocked, but everything appeared normal with the roads and security gates.
Several minutes later she pulled into the parking lot of a gas station and tried her cell phone again. To her relief, she got a strong signal. Vic quickly dialed.
* * *
"Another attack on Vic?!" said Brade, startled.
"It gets worse," said Ray. "It appears to have been a revenge attack, due to her 'interference' in the intrusion a few days back. Both the guys who committed the attack and the people who organized it but didn't participate think this was their idea. So does the college. So do the police. However, we had Scuppers - our tame mastermind - go over everything. He says there are clear signs of outside influence in this second attack. Nothing in the first; it was most likely just what it appeared to be. The second, however, was too well organized, too large and too - What was the phrase he used? - too many standard norms from the deviants to have been put together on such short notice by the people who think they were actually in charge of it. In plain English, such anti-social, inept, suspicious people - many of whom see each other as rivals - shouldn't have been able to organize such a large and smooth operation with members from so many groups and areas, especially so quickly. More suspiciously, we didn't hear about this attack from the school, but from the local police. The people being officially blamed certainly shouldn't have been able to keep the school - or Vic - from contacting us without on-campus help."
"Banpresto," said Brade, nodding.
"We've also discovered that several other staff members - all added since the new owner took over - are known minor super criminals," said Doro. "So, besides Banpresto - and we're sure by now that is him - there's Reiter, Blasteroid, Gotik, Doodlebug, and Chasma."
"All either retired or officially missing," said Brade, scowling. "Have you contacted Vic?"
"Phones are out for that area," said Ray. "All communications for the school, in fact. We've already arranged a flight..."
His phone rang. He pulled it out, glanced at the caller ID, did a double-take and answered.
"It's Vic," he said, after a brief greeting. "There's something weird going on at the school. I mean above and beyond that attack."
He spoke with Vic a few moments, told her they were on the way and to meet them at the airport, then hung up.
"We okay to go?" he said, grinning at Brade.
"Oh, Hell, yes," said his boss. "I want to find out what's going on at that school!"
* * *
The situation in Rokuro's office was tense that afternoon. The boss was in his "getting serious" costume, as opposed to his usual expensive, custom-tailored business suit. Besides all the operatives from the school, Sam was there, standing slightly apart. More worrying, there were several of the boss' highly-trained goons standing alertly along the walls. Not his cannon fodder; the elite professional troops. Guys trained and equipped to take out high-level supers.
"Gotik," said Rokuro, with deceptive quietness. "Why did the Dean not know about the attack on Vic Peltior last night?"
"You gave me specific orders that when he was off campus he was to be out of the loop on security matters," said Gotik, flatly. "That he should hear about things from the head of security at that man's initiative, instead of getting the automatic notifications he gets at school. It was explained as a persistent glitch in the new school security system."
"Except the head of security is on paternity leave," said Rokuro, carefully. "So, the task was left to his assistant. Who assumed Dean Baker had already been informed, not knowing about the 'problem' with the automatic notifications not reaching off campus."
"I didn't know about that. I didn't have any reason to. I work - worked - in maintenance. My job was to install and monitor the communications and spy gear we piggybacked on the regular systems."
"Very well," said Rokuro, his tone slightly less ominous. "The problem seems to be an unusual confluence of events, which happened just as we arranged for something blatant and abnormal to occur. Normally, this lapse would not have caused a problem. The fact that it did... I am starting to suspect Peltior's probability manipulation isn't as latent as we were led to believe. Our operation there had years of potential profit left, hadn't even begun to really pay off yet! I am... frustrated."
"We can salvage this," said Banpresto, quickly but calmly. "We have decoys set up to direct attention away from our group. You - through your Maxwell Dorton mouthpiece - should immediately denounce the illegal activities and offer to open your records for examination. We'll make sure they're clean. After a few months, we start sneaking another set of agents into place, and resume operations."
"It won't be that easy," said Rokuro, thoughtfully, his employees relaxing as he began pacing. "It would work, though, wouldn't it? They wouldn't find anything contraband connected to Dorton Industries, and they'd never suspect we'd simply come back with different people. I like it."
Several of the others gave Banpresto subtle looks of gratitude.
"Told you I was almost a mastermind," said Banpresto, smirking.
"Just for bragging, you're in charge of the operation," said Rokuro, dryly. "It better work."
"There is one other thing," said Sam, pointedly. "Was this just an unusual confluence of events? Or the result of probability manipulation?"
"That is something we will definitely find out," said Rokuro, tone quiet but ominous.
Vic wondered why the feds weren't flying into the local National Guard base. There was a sizable military airport there, which was occasionally used for both state and federal government flights. Well, the commercial airport was fine with her; it was much closer to the school. Which, come to think of it, was probably why they wanted to go the civilian facility. If the plan was to have Vic to take them back to the school to avoid attention - which was definitely the impression she got - then the closer airport definitely made sense.
Doro and Cosmic Ray weren't due for several hours, so Vic took her time getting to the airport, filling her tank at that same gas station where she made the call. She still arrived with a lot of time to kill. However, Vic she decided to head for the airport early.
Once they were on their flight, the two feds called her again and had a much longer discussion. Vic paced in the unsecured area of the airport as she spoke with them, occasionally drawing odd looks from both travelers and security.
"I don't understand why you didn't want me to call the police," said Vic, quietly, conscious of the uniformed guard who was giving her the eye.
"You don't need to. Several calls to various authorities - including the local police - have already been placed, now that communications at the school are back to normal," said Doro. "We want to keep a low profile for as long as possible, so we can work on it without inteference. That's why we want you to pick us up and take us to the school. It's a long shot, but we might be able to take some of the bad guys by surprise if they don't know we're coming."
Vic doubted there was any chance of that, but kept quiet. She had the definite feeling her contacts were making this up as they went. Not just because this was a breaking situation, but because they and their organization were still new to the business.
"Listen, can you folks contact the airport management and let them know I'm waiting for you? I feel awkward just hanging around for three or four hours."
"More like two and a half, from right now," said Doro. "We're not in a regular transport, but a high-subsonic executive plane used for getting important people around quickly. Though, yeah, we'll call and see if they can put you in a VIP lounge or something. I doubt whoever was spying on the school will have contacts at the airport."
Doro kept talking while that was arranged by someone else. She seemed to think Vic needed the company. Well, it was good to talk to someone she knew while waiting. Fortunately, she wasn't left hanging around the lobby much longer. Ray called the airport management, got transferred to security and within a few more minutes a plainclothes security supervisor arrived. This wasn't TSA, but a member of the actual airport staff.
"Excuse me, Miss," he said quietly. "What is your name?"
"If you'll come with me, I'll take you someplace more comfortable to wait for your, uhm, friends."
This turned out to be the employee lounge for airport security personnel. The manager - thinking he was out of Vic's hearing - told a small group of security personnel that Vic was there to meet some arriving federal agents from the new super LEO organization. They all eyed her with something like awe. Vic smiled innocently at them, pretending she didn't know what they'd just been told.
They were courteous to Vic, and even provided free soft drinks and snacks, but kept their distance. They knew better than to try and pump her about her "mission." Unfortunately, her supposed status also made them reluctant to engage in small talk.
Vic wasn't sure whether this was an improvement over waiting in the atrium, but at least she was less likely to get bored. Since Doro kept losing signal for minutes at a time that was actually a consideration. Finally, the super LEO told Vic they were approaching the airport and had to shut off their phones.
As Vic put her own phone away she looked around.
"Excuse me," she said, to one of the security people in the break room. "The plane should be landing soon. Where do I go to meet them?"
"This way, Ma'am," said one of the uniformed guards.
Wow, this is great, thought Vic, moments later, as she rode down employee-only halls on one of the electric security vehicles. I think I like getting the VIP treatment.
The plane was not coming to the commercial area, but the general aviation section of the airport. The guard drove out of the airport personnel only section through automatic doors. He wheeled the cart around the end of the general aviation building, finally parking near some hangars.
The aircraft carrying Doro and Cosmic Ray landed just moments later, and quickly taxied to the assigned part of the apron. Because this was a federal flight, the plane was directed to a parking space well away from the civilian aircraft. Vic was rather impressed with the plane, a high-performance business jet modified for federal use but carrying only standard markings for a low profile. She couldn't help but notice that her escort's already high opinion of his charge increased substantially when he saw that plane.
Vic and the guard waited, standing beside their own transport, as ground handlers guided the plane to a stop, chocked the wheels and rolled a short set of steps up to the now open door. Doro and Ray - in their colorful costumes - seemed to take everyone on the ground but Vic by surprise. Her escort gave Vic a long, evaluating look.
"Yeah, I'm a super," she said, with a smug grin.
The grin faded as he unconsciously moved a bit away from her.
Fortunately, by that time her guests were approaching. Vic eagerly shook hands with both.
"Sorry to rush you," said Ray, "but we need to get going."
"Uhm, can you take us to my car?" said Vic, to the guard.
"Certainly," said the security guard, all business. "This way, please."
The four of them rode in the electric cart through a security gate and into the parking lot. Vic realized she had been in a secure part of the airport without going through a security examination. Yet another perk of the current situation.
"How do I sign up with you folks?" she murmured to Doro, half joking, as they approached her car.
"We're actually thinking of recruiting you," said the other female super, smiling. "Even paying for the necessary training."
"Whoah..." said Vic, eyes going wide.
Moments later they were at Vic's car. Monstro may have undone the boost the plane gave Vic's status in the eyes of the guard, but she didn't really care. She was more concerned about what the costumed pair would think about her car. To her relief they treated is as, well, a car, getting in without comment after she unlocked the doors.
"So, what's going on?" said Vic, once they were finally underway.
"Hold on," said Doro, as she pulled a gadget out of her belt and scanned the car. "Okay, no bugs.
"We think - this is only a suspicion so far - that some criminal organization infiltrated the school to keep tabs on young supers and perhaps recruit them. All this fuss is them covering their tracks after something panicked them into abandoning their posts."
"That doesn't make any sense," said Vic, startled. "I mean, yeah, I can see them wanting people like Rex, as leg breakers and such, but..."
"Actually, someone that much of a loose cannon would be low on their list," said Ray. "They'd want dependable employees. Not necessarily for illegal purposes, either. That Don guy, for example, would be a big asset to a legitimate business once educated and matured a bit."
"They're still committing crimes!" said Vic, outraged.
"Slow down," said Doro, meaning it literally. "If it's not an emergency we won't fix your ticket."
"Sorry," said Vic, backing off on the throttle a bit.
"Anyway, it's likely that the campus is currently crawling with police," said Ray. "The last we heard, several students and staff members panicked after finding they couldn't call off campus or access the Internet, and left the school to call 911. They made the not unreasonable assumption this was part of another attack by fanatics. We wanted to perform a covert investigation, but that's out of the question, now. However, we do want to speak with the Dean. If you can bring us in a back way..."
"Sure," said Vic. "There's one that's actually closer to the admin building than the main entrance."
"We know we can't exactly sneak around in these costumes," said Doro. "We also don't have a warrant. If we can get into the Dean's office or have him meet us somewhere, quietly, that would be great."
"I think I can arrange that," said Vic. She winced as her stomach growled. "Sorry. Can we stop for lunch? All I've had since breakfast is some snacks they gave me at the airport."
"That's actually a good idea," said Ray, nodding. "I mean, if you don't mind eating in the car."
"Actually, I have a better idea."
* * *
They picked up some takeout at a drive through near the school, Vic placing a call to Alex as they waited for the food. She would get the message to the Dean, hopefully without attracting attention. Vic was a bit amused when Doro ordered even more than she did. The clerk at the window barely looked at them, perhaps assuming the wagon was full of hungry people. They then drove to and onto the school grounds by a back way and parked at a small picnic area near the former athletic field. Doro checked for bugs again, and again found none. They ate their lunch in the shade and the cool Fall air, well away from the furball of attention at the center of campus. The picnic table was weathered and rusty, but still sound and reasonably clean.
"You're really thinking of recruiting me, huh?" said Vic, as they cleaned their mess.
"Can we wait and talk about this later?" said Doro. "I think I see the Dean approaching."
Indeed, he was walking quickly towards them, having come by a circuitous route. Oddly, he was carrying a case with a shoulder strap.
"I hope this is important. I had to make some serious excuses to a very irritated police captain."
"Please, sit down," said Ray, gesturing to the bench space beside Vic.
Once Dean Baker was settled and scanned for bugs, Ray and Doro explained their suspicions, supplying additional information over and above that which they had discussed with Vic.
"So, you see that there's considerable justification for federal involvement," said Ray. "Our plan - approved by Brade, our boss - is to let the local cops handle the obvious investigation while we try to maintain a low profile and check on the inobvious things."
"I definitely will cooperate with your organization," said the Dean. "The local police think the communication problems are either part of a DOS attack by fanatics connected with those who attacked before, or a prank by students to take advantage of our concerns over those maniacs. I think you know I don't agree with either assessment."
"If you can arrange for us to have access to your records, quietly, that would be a big help."
"That's why I brought this," said the Dean, unzipping his case. Inside was a laptop and several sheets of hand-written notes. "My personal computer, with my passwords. I use this for managing school affairs - accessing all the campus office functions - when I'm not here or at home."
"Whoah!" said Doro, eyes going wide. "Okay, it's clear you're serious about cooperating."
"I love this school," said the Dean, flatly. "I have invested a large chunk of my life into making it a good school. I was a little surprised when the new owners wanted to add super-specific courses, but embraced that eagerly. I want this school to succeed. I want the people who are causing this trouble caught and put away."
Vic was impressed, even a bit surprised at his passion.
"I have to get back," said the Dean, rising. "That Captain was already eying me suspiciously, as if I might be part of this. I don't want to leave him with his suspicions."
"So, uhm, do I get excused for missing my afternoon classes?" said Vic, tentatively.
"What afternoon classes? Even without the confusion the police are causing, with the Internet and phone service unavailable so many students and even instructors were in a tizzy that I doubt more than half a dozen classes were even started after you left campus."
"All right," said Ray, rising and shaking the Dean's hand. "Thank you for your help. Here's our card. If you think that you might be under observation, give any news or messages to Vic. She'll know how to contact us. I want to emphasize, though, that she holds no official status in this investigation. She's simply our contact among the students."
"Understood," said the Dean, seriously. He might have wanted to give Ray a knowing wink, but manfully refrained. "Goodbye. Good luck, too."
* * *
Once more, Vic gave the two super feds a ride.
"I meant what I told the Dean," said Ray, sternly, as they rode along. "Officially, you're a contact, and a victim. That's all. We know you're good in a fight, but we can't officially ask you to do anything risky."
"Can't you deputize me?"
"We could. We're not going to. Vic, you're already a target, but right now they are busy covering their tracks. We don't expect any more attacks from either the anti-super bigots or whoever is behind this latest episode."
"Wait... You think those are separate?"
"We have very good reasons to think so, yes," said Doro. "We can't tell you what that reason is."
"Because I'm a victim and not a part of your team," said Vic, a bit hotly.
"Exactly," said Ray. "Listen, we're serious about recruiting you. Right now, though, you're still a civilian and our job is to protect you."
"Understood," said Vic, with a tired sigh. "Okay, where to?"
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