Chapter 20

                When Hexcellent emerged from her photo shoot, Owen was already waiting by the town car. Despite his best efforts at the internet cafe, he hadn’t been able to pull up much more than he’d learned from Dispatch. The civilian videos and pictures seemed to capture a few interesting moments of the robots fighting Heroes, but nothing that gave him information on their abilities beyond what he’d experienced personally. Of course, that didn’t mean such video didn’t exist, only that it wasn’t easily discoverable. Despite the advances in technology since he left the life, he suspected the DVA’s attitude on showing the public confidential information hadn’t changed.

                “Sorry we ran over,” Hexcellent said, sliding into her seat. “That photographer was a shitshow. Had me changing outfits every five minutes and getting into impossible positions. If she weren’t so damn good I’d have told her to fuck off like twenty times.”

                “Don’t worry about it, I found a way to kill time.”

                “Let me take a shot in the dark: you spent it trying to learn more about those bots you fought.” Hexcellent flashed him a cocky grin as the town car began to move, hauling them back to the Mordent Holdings office.

                “Am I that obvious?”

                “Obvious seems like a mean way to put it. How about we say dedicated?” Hexcellent pulled her phone out and began checking mail and messages. “You’ve been with us for a few days now, and I’ve only seen you really light up two times: when you were pulling that fire-girl from the building, and when you were tearing those scrapheaps new metal assholes. After you darted off as soon as we left the car, it didn’t take a lot to figure out what was up.”

                “You’re pretty observant,” Owen replied, glancing at her out of the side of his eye. Smart, determined, not shy about confrontation, and with an ability that showed strong potential. The more time he spent with Hexcellent, the more she seemed like a candidate for the HCP. It was certainly possible she’d rejected that sort of life, preferring the more pacifistic work of being on a PEERS team, but he had trouble buying such an idea. The girl had a streak of grit and violence running through her; a trait like that usually led to a job where it could be expressed.

                “Let’s not get heavy on the compliments; like I said, you didn’t really make it hard.” Hexcellent’s eyes widened a touch as she stared into the depths of her phone’s screen. “Say, when you were researching, did you notice anything interesting about the fight at the mall?”

                “I didn’t look it up,” Owen said. “Since I was there for all of it, there wasn’t anything I needed to know. I figured the time was better spent reading up on the first wave of attacks.”

                “Ahhh. That explains it.” Hexcellent put her phone away and tried to keep a straight face, though a defiant smirk keep worming its way across her mouth.

                “Going to tell me what’s so funny?”

                “Hell fucking no. You can wait until we get back to the penthouse. This is too good to spoil.”

                Owen considered pressing the subject, but thought better of it. Hexcellent was willful and stubborn; she’d demonstrated that since he first arrived. If she thought it was more fun to wait, then that is exactly what she would do. Besides, the day had gone pretty well. May as well let it end on whatever positive note she had in mind.

                Hours later, he would look back on that naivety with the clarity of hindsight and wonder when in his absence he’d allowed himself to get so stupid.

*              *              *

                Lenny popped an antacid as he watched Gale walk over to him. Though her costume wasn’t especially sexualized, the woman had a certain appeal that no amount of clothing could bury. In his younger years, when libido was able to fight with bottom-lines and ethics, Lenny had tried to woo a few female Heroes. He’d even pulled it off a couple of times, but it never ended well. He was as married to his job as any of them, and sooner or later the pressure got to be too much for a relationship to bear. Still, seeing Gale stride across the conference room in Elemental Fury’s headquarters made him wish, just a little, that he was still young and dumb enough to swing for the fences.

                “Gale, you look lovely at always.” Lenny rose from the serviceable chair he’d been sitting in, taking her hand and shaking it firmly. While some female Heroes like a warm welcome and perhaps a kiss to the cheek, Gale was all business.

                “Lenny, pleasure to see you.” Gale took her own seat, and Lenny followed suit. “I apologize for making you wait, the construct attack caused our whole team to be delayed.”

                Lenny waved a hand through the air like he was trying to smack an invisible fly. “Please, it’s nothing. When you work with Heroes, you learn to write your appointments in pencil. There are far more important things out there than me; I’m just thankful you were willing to take this meeting at all.”

                “Birdsman and Granite hold you in high esteem,” Gale said. The barest traces of a smile crested her lips. “Though I must admit, my own agent cursed you from here to the heavens when I told him I was taking a meeting with you.”

                “Mick’s a solid guy, but he knows how to hold a grudge. Ever since a few of his A-listers decided to come over to my camp he’s been convinced I’m out to steal every client he’s got.”

                “And is that what brings you here today?” Gale asked.

                “If I thought I had a shot at pulling it off, you’d better believe I’d try and woo you,” Lenny admitted. “But I do my research, and that means I know you’re the loyal type. So long as Mick does right by you, you’re going to stay with him. Of course, if he ever fails in that regard, expect to get some very nice wine with my card attached.”

                “At least you’re honest about your intentions. Shall we get down to the business of why you’ve come here then?”

                “Gladly.” Lenny shifted slightly in his seat. The chairs were made for tall, powerful people and didn’t accommodate his small and round frame as adequately. “I’m here about you requesting to do an ability assessment with one of my clients.”

                “I haven’t asked any… wait, you rep Titan?” The shock on her face was easily visible even through her mask.

                “Always have, from the day he first stepped out of the Sizemore HCP. Even sent him birthday cards during what I’ve chosen to think of as his ‘hiatus.’ I’d tell you he’s a good man and is out here trying to make right by the world, but I doubt you’d really take my word for it.”

                “Agents aren’t exactly renowned for their truthfulness,” Gale said. “I take it you’re here to try and talk me out of the assessment; to tell me that I should just leave Titan alone and forget about him.”

                “Talk you out of it? Why in the nine hells would I want to talk you out of it?” Lenny reached for the briefcase at his side, pulling it up and slapping it on the table. “Elemental Fury, the current top team in Brewster, testing out Titan, a living legend come forth from the past. People would sell their kids to see that kind of show. And not the black sheep either, kids they really like.”

                Gale felt herself grow suddenly uncomfortable. Despite being bigger, stronger, and overall more powerful than the bald man sitting before her, Gale had the unmistakable sensation that he was trying to pull play for control of the situation.

                “Hero assessments are generally held in private,” she said.

                “Oh sure, when they’re real assessments that makes total sense. But this isn’t a real assessment, is it? This is a pissing match you set up so that you could try and intimidate Titan into toeing the line.”

                “I wouldn’t-”

                “You don’t need to deny it or defend yourself to me, honestly I love the idea. The only problem is that you didn’t think big enough. If we’re going to do this, we’re going to make it profitable.” Lenny pulled out a stack of papers and shoved them over to Gale. “Basic contracts regarding filming and distribution rights of the event. Show them to Mick, but even he’ll admit I gave you a damn fair shake. Once you’ve signed we’ll get the scheduling worked out.”

                Gale flipped through the pages, scanning paragraph after paragraph of small type and large words. Finally she set it down and looked the short man dead in the eyes.

                “Why are you doing this?”

                “Because you created an unfair situation,” Lenny replied, snapping his briefcase shut. “If the assessment is private and you make Titan look like shit then you get what you wanted; the old dog will feel like he’s not up to the life anymore. If it’s private and he stomps you all, however, nothing really bad happens to you. A little wound licking and maybe some humbled pride, but nothing horrid. To me, that seems like bullshit. Putting pride on the line is only a good way to gamble when both go in at equal stakes. So now, with an audience, if Titan handles that assessment like a pro, you get to look like start-ups who can’t hold a candle to the old guard. You can still call it off if you want, of course, but if you go forward with it then it will be under my terms.”

                “Don’t you mean Titan’s terms?” Gale asked.

                “That big lug has no idea I’m doing this. He’ll probably shit a chicken when he finds out. This is me, all me, doing my job and protecting my client’s interests.” Lenny hopped out of his chair, briefcase clutched firmly in hand. “Tell Mick to fax those over when they’re ready. He knows the number.”

                “You may be the most ruthless agent I’ve ever spoken to, let alone dealt with,” Gale said, still a bit dumbfounded by Lenny’s surprise strategy.

                “It’s also why I’m the best.” Lenny pulled out a business card and set it on the table. “Just in case you want to shop around for a new rep once this is over.”

                “I thought you said there’d be wine too.”

                “Give me a little credit here,” Lenny said. “It’s already been delivered to your room.”