Chapter 103

                Romance was out. They’d seen Sally Daniels on several dates with the tall man who no one could seem to find an identity on, which was worrisome enough on its own, but it meant that Randolph couldn’t use his normal methods of information gathering. Shame, too. Divorced women with empty nests were something he considered to be a specialty. But coming in from that route was too risky; it depended entirely on her being of low moral fiber and cut off a half dozen other potential avenues of approach.

                Friendship then, was his best way in, however it needed to be carefully crafted. Sally was an observant woman, one who took few chances with her safety. That meant she would be on guard for any sort of approach that rang out as suspicious. Randolph, considering the situation, had therefore decided not to be the one to approach her. When people did things themselves, they imagined it had been their own idea all along. The only question then became how to put himself in a position where she would approach, and that was a surprisingly easy one to solve.

                Sally Daniels, caring soul that she was, volunteered on Saturdays at Shelby’s House, the charity for Powereds. While this did indeed seem like a strike in the favor of her boys being in the experimental group, it was also possible she was simply bored and trying to connect with her community. Sherman didn’t pay for half-answers; he wanted confirmation or nothing at all.

                That was why, early Saturday morning, Randolph was lined up with the other new volunteers, half earnest do-gooders and half people working through some sort of probation or punishment, as their tasks were explained. He smiled as the organizer talked, a perfectly honed grin meant to be sincere and approachable. It certainly helped that he was attractive, though not so handsome as to be intimidating, and fit without being an obvious gym rat. Randolph considered it his duty to fill any role that was needed, and by shifting a few ounces of attitude in any direction he could accomplish that task. Seducer, confidant, best friend, harmless peon, or today’s special: hapless volunteer.

                Before noon, Randolph had made it a point to trip over three different objects, dropping boxes twice. Never anything breakable, of course, he wanted to seem clumsy and inept, not like a genuine annoyance. Every time he was quick to apologize, always with that same grin in place, staying just on the right side of loveable. On the third time Randolph went tumbling, he saw Sally take notice. Now it was just a matter of time. She was a matriarch, through and through. Soon she’d make time to show him the ropes, won over by his sincerity even as he lacked effectiveness. Maybe it wouldn’t be this Saturday, but if he kept at it the meeting was inevitable.

                By the time his shift ended, Randolph had successfully befriended most of his fellow new workers and a few of the more experienced ones. Tempting as it was to stick around and keep trying to catch his target’s eye, playing it aloof was the smart choice. Haste only led to wasted opportunities. Better to be safe, smart, and certain as things moved forward.

                He left the building feeling quite pleased with himself and his first day’s work. Randolph made it precisely six steps before the thick black bag slammed down atop his head, plunging him into darkness.

*             *             *

                “I want to thank you all for coming. I know our numbers aren’t quite what they were at the year’s beginning, but I’m certain that once this semester’s finals are over we’ll see a resurgence in spring, so we need to be ready with events and protests to welcome everyone back with.”

                Kennedy Dawson was either optimistic or lying. Will didn’t detect any signs of insincerity in her words, but that might simply mean the person she was lying to was herself. Take Back Lander was fading, and while the approaching finals certainly weren’t helping; it was the peace on campus that was really chopping away at their ranks. After May, Will had no doubt people were scared, and angry, and looking for people to blame. Their complaints even had some grains of truth in them; he was objective enough to admit that. But with every passing week of normalcy, that horrible night grew further and further away from their thoughts. Meanwhile, Heroes were all over the news, even more so than usual, busting criminals and hunting down the Sons of Progress. This sort of movement thrived on events; it needed reasons to keep going as kindling for the fire of their passion, otherwise it would simply burn away to nothing.

                That was why Will had chanced coming to a meeting in person, something he and Camille had both eased back on in recent months. As the numbers dipped, being a regular was somewhat too conspicuous. While he always kept a digital eye on the events, Will felt like being seen too often was an unnecessary risk. Still, he did need to keep coming for at least a bit longer. As things seemed so close to ending, he knew the diehard believers might get desperate. When victory was close at hand was when one needed to be most prepared for defeat.

                Although he didn’t regret the caution, it seemed to be for naught. Kennedy was up there, assuring everyone that the movement would regain its lost steam soon, but she seemed to be the only one buying what she was selling. Around the room, eyes were darting down to phones or glazing over entirely. They’d lost momentum, and that was hard to regain without a call-to-action. Judging from the rest of the room, Will guessed that there were perhaps a few more meetings left for Take Back Lander before it just became Kennedy and a few friends sitting around a dorm. If it survived Winter Break, he’d be shocked.

                The meeting came to an end, and Will slowly gathered himself to make for the door. He never dallied, and at the same time never rushed. The image he wanted to present was a man who felt comfortable in this environment, yet still had other things to do. By the time he made it to the door, Kennedy had circled around, shaking hands and saying goodbye to everyone who’d shown up. It was a nice, personal touch, probably meant to keep the faces of her remaining supporters fresh in her mind while building a personal connection to them. Harder to bail on something when one felt emotionally invested in the ringleader, after all.

                His turn at the door came, and Kennedy gave his hand a brief, firm shake while pairing it with her artificially-white smile. As soon as their hands touched, Will felt it, but gave no indication. He simply returned her warm farewell, finished the handshake, and left the building.

                It wasn’t until he was off campus that Will pulled out the small piece of paper she’d slipped in his hands. There wasn’t much written, only an address, time, and the date, which was two nights away. Will committed it to memory instantly, and then briefly wondered if he should reach out to Camille. Obviously she couldn’t come; this event couldn’t have been more clearly identified as invite only. But it felt wrong to cut her out of the investigation after all the work she’d put in with him. Besides, it was probably prudent to have someone know where he was and with whom, just in case. It might be overly cautious to arrange backup, but he’d just been thinking that he might have assumed too much about Take Back Lander when Kennedy slipped him the note.

                For a Subtlety Hero, overly cautious was the bare minimum.