The cipher had actually been three different codes, each buried more deeply in the pattern. Will had spent an extra day combing through for any others that he might have missed, but after that he reasoned it was either not present or too complex for him to crack. Translating the codes had led him to three separate websites, each tucked away in a near-forgotten server. The sites had been filled with riddles, hints, and codes. From these Will had been led to various spots around the town, having to solve geometric and logic problems corresponding to his surroundings along each step of the way.
At the end of the first code’s path, Will had found himself in a seedy gym near the outskirts of town. For possibly the first time, he was thankful that the HCP had forced such constant conditioning on its students. In high school, he’d have felt impossibly out of place walking into the locker room of an establishment dedicated to personal fitness. Two and a half years of training had gifted him with a body that, while lacking in comparison to some of his classmates, would easily pass unnoticed in such a location.
His quick eyes skimmed the room, locating the locker number his last clue had directed him to. As he approached it, Will noticed a silver combination lock resting on the handle. He smiled a touch, feeling the tumblers in his brain click into place. He’d wondered what that last sequence of numbers had been for, and now he had his answer. Like a desperate man assembling pre-made furniture, he’d discovered where the last piece fit.
The numbers danced along the dial as Will put in the combination. With the final “click” he pulled the lock free and opened the door. Inside was an empty locker, save only for a single word scratched into the cheap metal backing. Will examined it closely, making meticulous note of every nuance there was, then took a photo with his phone to be safe. This gave him no direction as to what the test entailed, but unless he’d made a mistake along the way it definitely marked the end of the first code’s path.
Perhaps clarity would come as he unraveled the others, or perhaps it would remain inscrutable. Subtlety was not a discipline in which one grew accustomed to having everything spelled out for them. Often it was akin to assembling a scenic puzzle with half the pieces missing, as well as a few scattered about from entirely different pictures. It was frustrating, time consuming, and endlessly challenging. Will could easily see why so few Heroes undertook it when they had the option of punching their problems away.
He did not have that option. What he did have, however, were two more clues to run down. There was only so much time before the exam, and Will intended to come out on top, no matter what it entailed.
* * *
“Well?” Eliza stared at him from across the room, her soft shoes wearing down his carpet as she flitted about. Jerome, at least, was more composed, sitting at the kitchen table. They’d just completed the most recent sweep, which meant now was the opportune time to discuss Eliza’s findings.
“I don’t think much of this will surprise you,” Nicholas said. In his hands he held Eliza’s copies of Smitt’s files. They would dissipate soon, so Nicholas had reviewed them thoroughly while also transcribing more traditional copies. The digital files, thankfully, were easy to duplicate. “From what I can tell, Smitt has been keeping tabs on Vince for some time now, watching him as much as he can above-ground. Thankfully, he’s been limited in how close he can get.”
“Limited how?” Jerome asked.
“Melbrook may look like any normal dorm, but keep in mind it was built to house five people with unpredictable and potentially dangerous super-human abilities. The security there is nearly as good as getting into the HCP, and our-… sorry, their, suited overseers are quite capable. Add in the extra attention that surfaced after Globe reappeared and it makes the place pretty much impenetrable by anyone short of a trained Super.”
“That’s something, but why is this guy looking into Vince in the first place? He can’t have done anything wrong; he’s as decent as they come.”
Nicholas stared at Eliza and considered her words. She was flushed, concerned, and emotionally involved beyond what was prudent. From Nick’s files, it had been apparent that Vince had similar effects on those around him, eventually even beguiling Nick himself. Such a curious ability made part of Nicholas interested in meeting this young man. Of course, it also made another part of him adamant to stay as far away as possible.
“We can safely surmise that the investigation is related to his outing as Globe’s son last year. This is exactly the sort of thing my previous incarnation was hoping to avoid entangling us in. Unfortunately, it seems we are in it now, so we may as well press on. That said, the most interesting part is not the why of Smitt’s involvement, but the who.”
Nicholas closed the envelope and set it on the table. “While Smitt was careful enough to never directly mention the name of his employer, I was able to find some financial information from his computer. After having our techs do some tracing, they found encoded e-mails dating back several months. We couldn’t crack them, they are vastly too sophisticated, but it does tell us who Smitt is working for. That sort of encryption is only used by one government agency: The Department of Variant-Human Affairs.”
“The guys who oversee all the Heroes? Why would they employ a nobody like Smitt?” Eliza asked.
“They wouldn’t, not officially. Like all government agencies, they have their own people and protocols for such things,” Nicholas said. “Even if they had, we’d have found financial transactions in his accounts or a paper-trail. The DVA has stricter transparency regulations than many other agencies, given the nature of their work. Which means whoever is paying Smitt is doing it under the table. They’re using non-approved resources in secret to investigate Vince.”
“That means they don’t trust their current channels,” Eliza surmised. “They think they’re getting the run-around and wanted to go outside the system.”
“Precisely. Which means they have, to some extent, left the safety of the organization that watches over them,” Nicholas agreed. “And that, my dear friends, means they have wandered into the wild, where we hold domain.”
“What do you want us to do?” Jerome asked. He’d known Nicholas for many years, and the wicked glint in his eye made it clear that the time for action was looming.
“I want to find out who this backer is, and I want to see what about Vince he finds so fascinating. It’s possible he’s trying to prove what a decent guy our friend is. Possible, but highly unlikely. Still, it’s the sort of thing I’d like to ask in person.”
“Too bad we don’t have his number,” Eliza said, her own face impassive even as the miasma of worry and rage whipped about inside her. “I guess our friend Smitt will have to tell us what it is.”
“Yes, I think he will,” Nicholas agreed.