“I apologize,” Damon continued, “I didn’t think this form of arrival would create such tension. Perhaps it would help if I introduce myself? My name is Agent Dennis Murphy. I believe you already know my associate Agent Kent.”
“The hell you are,” Zero growled as he began glowing a dark shade of purple. Buddy placed his hand on Zero’s shoulder, causing the large uniformed man to turn his glare on Buddy.
“Quite an interesting response,” Murphy mused. “Perhaps it would be easiest if I lay everything out on the table. We are in need of your assistance and will, unfortunately, be required to utilize whatever means necessary to gain it. I’d be quite happy if you would choose to come along willingly. I’m not big on violence.”
“What sorts of terrible things do you have planned for us, Damon?” Zero asked.
“Actually, it’s Dennis. Although, I’d really prefer it if you would refer to me as Agent Murphy. It’s rather formal, I know, but seeing as I’m the new head of the Meta-Human Defense Team, I feel I should probably retain some form of formality.”
“But–” Zero began.
Buddy, placing his hand on Zero’s chest to silence him, asked, “What’s this all about?”
“Unfortunately, the topics which we need to discuss with you are highly classified. As such, we would be required to discuss them in a much more secure location.”
“Look, dude, I don’t know what sort of crazy agenda you’ve got going on here, but if you think we’re going anywhere with you, you’re sorely mistaken.” Ryan stepped forward and raised a metallic device to Agent Murphy’s face.
“Oh, such rage,” Agent Murphy smiled, turning to his companion. “We’ll need to mark that in their files. These four have such amazing spunk. I would have never guessed it from the debriefing on the Barber Street Incident.”
Alexa stepped forward as well. “Spunk ain’t the thing you need to worry yourself about, bub.”
“Please,” Agent Murphy said as he shook in delight. “This is too much.”
“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Bumblebee spoke as he placed himself between Murphy and Alexa.
Agent Murphy’s smile turned into a frown as he looked in question at Agent Kent. “I don’t believe he was in the file you provided me with. Who is this?”
Kent shook his head without a word.
“Who am I? I’m the goddamned Bumblebee, that’s who!”
“The who?” Murphy asked glancing down at the plastic gadgets lining the yellow man’s belt. “Nevermind. You’re of no importance to our cause.” He looked to Kent who then touched Bumblebee’s shoulder and disappeared in a loud pop.
“Alright, Murphy,” Zero began, “what’s your game this time? Where’s the fire and brimstone you love so much?”
“Oh, Zero Hamilton,” Murphy giggled. “The note in your file concerning your rather interesting way of turning a phrase truly does it no justice.”
Kent returned, again accompanied by a pop. “Have we cleared this up yet, Murphy?”
“You are right, Mr. Kent. I had not intended to be out in the open for nearly this long. I would greatly appreciate it if you would be so kind as to deposit these folks in the meeting room.”
“Not a problem,” Agent Kent said as he touched Buddy’s shoulder and they disappeared in another pop.
Buddy and Kent appeared in a small room filled with only a table and chairs. The room was drab with yellowing-white walls sporting a couple of forgetful pieces of art and one large mirror. The mirror, Buddy quickly recognized from every cop drama he had ever watched as being a one-way, probably with a whole host of men in suits sitting on the opposite side.
“Take a seat,” Agent Kent said gruffly and just as quickly disappeared. He reappeared only a moment later with Zero. Before Buddy was even able to move to grab a seat, Alexa, Ryan, and Agent Murphy were brought into the room as well.
“Please, please, take a seat,” Agent Murphy said happily. “I just have to sign you all in with the front desk. Bureaucracy, you know. I’ll be just a minute.”
Kent and Murphy left the room.
“What’s going on with Damon?” Ryan asked. “I mean, isn’t he supposed–”
“Not here,” Buddy muttered through gritted teeth. He glanced at the mirror.
Alexa, not noticing Buddy’s glance, “Yeah, and where’s Parker? I thought he and-”
“Dearest Alexa,” Zero interrupted. “I believe Buddy is attempting to state that we could be overheard in this location.”
“Oh,” Alexa blushed.
“Yeah, thanks for keeping it subtle,” Buddy scowled.
“I only aim to assist, chum.”
“Okay, but what do you think they want?” Ryan whispered, leaning forward.
“I don’t know,” Buddy replied.
“I’m not sure what should concern us more,” Alexa began, “that Damon’s back, that he’s working with Kent, or, that he seems so happy to see us.”
“Those are most definitely some worthwhile things to ponder,” Zero responded.
“I’ve got the answer to at least one of those questions,” Buddy offered. “But I’ll have to tell you about it later. For now, let’s just enjoy the fact that Murphy is a heckuva lot nicer than Memphis ever was.”
“Nicer, perhaps,” Zero chimed in. “But nowhere near as interesting.”
“I don’t like him,” Ryan added. “I refuse to trust anyone who smiles that much.”
Agent Murphy burst back into the room. His ever-present smile definitely went a long way toward changing his appearance from the evil man they had faced off against just a few months prior, as did the dirty and wrinkled brown suit he wore. He also now walked with a bounce in his step, instead of flames on his fingers. It was hard to believe this was the man who called himself the Angel of Death.
He sat down at the head of the table, placed a file in front of him, looked at the group, and his smile actually managed to grow larger. After a moment, he spoke.
“I honestly can’t tell you how excited I am to have you all here. I’ve read all your files. I mean, the battle you folks had a few months ago with that Damon Memphis fellow, just brilliant.”
“We have no clue what you’re talking about, Murphy,” Alexa responded. The rest of the group nodded.
“Oh, right, don’t want to incriminate yourselves. I get it,” he replied as he placed his feet up on the table. “But, you see, it’s a whole new world nowadays. We’re operating under an entirely new set of rules. In fact, we’re actually here today to discuss how we would like to subsidize your vigilante efforts.”
“What vigilante efforts?” Ryan asked.
“Oh please,” the smile weakened only slightly. “I am well enough aware of how my predecessor ran things around here, as I believe you are. If things were not different, you can be certain that just stepping foot into our offices would have sentenced you to living out the rest of your lives in some dark hole.”
“Go ahead and try it,” Zero said through gritted teeth. “It’s your funeral.”
“But that’s precisely my point, Mr. Hamilton. I have no intention of bringing about any harm to the four of you. If anything, I’d like to try to do something good.”
“Look, Murphy,” Buddy said as he stood. “I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing here, but we’re not interested, okay?”
“Buddy Jackson, the de facto leader of this band of heroes. I love that you’ve taken on this role even amid this new world. I understand how you may distrust me, or anyone in my role. However, since you’re already here, why don’t you hear me out? If you don’t like what I’m saying, you can just go along on your merry way pretending we never crossed paths.”
“Yeah, like that’s possible,” Ryan spoke. Agent Murphy gave him a hurt look before continuing.
“How about we start fresh? Would any of you care for some doughnuts? You know us law enforcement types. Never too far from a circle of sugar.” Murphy made a gesture to the mirror. Seven seconds later a young lady wearing a suit jacket and skirt walked in and placed a platter of doughnuts on the table. She exited without speaking a word.
“Please, please. Dig in.”
The heroes did not move.
“As you wish,” Murphy said, nabbing a chocolate-covered pastry for himself. “They’re there if any of you change your minds. Before we begin, it might help to give you all a little background on the current state of the MHDT. As I’m guessing you’re all aware, the Meta-Human Defense Team was initially created in connection with the Super-Pact to seek out and eliminate all people who exhibited extra-human abilities, as well as those who were known collaborators.
“However, what you’re probably not aware of is how things have changed recently with the new administration in the White House. I hope you’ll understand this information is highly classified.
“You see, our new Commander-in-Chief feels this Super-Pact, the international agreement to rid the world of those with extra-ordinary abilities, does not actually exist, since it occurred prior to The Great Redaction. As such, he’s come up with a plan. This plan, to put it simply, is that he wishes to leverage superhuman abilities in the aid of the defense of our nation. It’s a scary world out there and he aims to use every item within our possible arsenal to keep our borders safe.”
“And that’s where we come in, huh?” Buddy asked. “You want us to be the new nukes?”
“Well, not exactly. This movement is still in its infancy. We honestly have no direct plans on how to move forward at this point. I merely mention it to allow you to understand that there has been a paradigm shift in the oversight of my department and how we have been directed to interact with the likes of you.”
“I suppose that explains why we haven’t seen any sign of you guys ever since the whole Damon thing,” said Alexa.
“That is one of many reasons.”
“So, if you’re not here asking us to enlist, what do you want?” Zero asked.
“Information. Information on Arthur Flores to be precise.”
“Sorry, dude,” Ryan spoke. “We haven’t seen him. He went into hiding right after the events on Barber St.”
“Unfortunately, I know for a fact that this is not entirely true. Although you may not have seen much of the MHDT since the events at Barber Street six months ago, they’ve seen an awful lot of you. I have reports stating there has been at least one of you who has visited the man on more than one occasion since that fateful day.” Murphy looked accusingly at Alexa.
“You sure as hell better not be pointing any fingers at me,” Alexa scowled in return.
“I’d prefer to not have to play the role of a demon by calling you out like this, but you have been visiting with Mr. Flores at least once a week since he disappeared, haven’t you?”
“What is he talking about, Alexa?” Buddy asked.
“Nothing, Buddy. He’s just trying to pit us against each other.”
“Oh, but dear Alexa, I have it on good authority that you have been escaping off to some location weekly. Due to your special talents, I will admit we aren’t always able to track your final destination, but we have, on more than one occasion, been able to determine your arrival at the supposed entrance to The Defenders Bunker. Are you trying to say that it is not Arthur Flores with whom you have been secretly meeting?”
“That’s right; I haven’t seen Arthur for months.”
“You know, I had always wondered about that,” Buddy began. “I mean, you were his right hand woman right up until the end there. It didn’t make any sense to me that he would be–”
“I haven’t been meeting with Arthur!” Alexa yelled as she stood.
“This would probably go a lot easier if you just told everyone what you have been up to, sis,” Ryan spoke softly.
“Yes, Ms. Rose,” Murphy said with a dark grin on his face. “Please. Tell us.”
“Alright, fine. Look, I was meeting with Arthur for a couple weeks after the whole Barber Street thing, but that ended months ago. I swear.”
“Oh, come on, Ms. Rose. My men have spotted you running off at least once weekly for months now. Just earlier today, in fact.”
“I can’t believe we’re ignoring how you’re flat out admitting to spying on us,” Alexa yelled. “What do you think gives you the right to—”
“Now, now, Ms. Rose, you can hardly blame us for wanting to know more about the people who have been protecting our city.”
“Right,” Alexa huffed.
“If you have not been visiting Arthur Flores, perhaps you could enlighten us as to where you have been running off to by yourself so frequently.”
“Come on, Alexa,” Ryan again spoke softly.
“I don’t think you have much of a choice.”
“I’ll tell everyone when I’m good and ready.”
“Okay, fine,” Ryan conceded. “But you’re going to have to give them something, otherwise I think our new friend Dennis here is going to be hanging on to us for the foreseeable future.”
“Your brother is quite keen, Ms. Rose. If you have any information we may be able to utilize in locating Arthur Flores, we might be willing to ignore the discussion of your recent whereabouts. For now.”
“Fine,” Alexa gave in reluctantly. “Like I said, I had been meeting with Artie for a few weeks after we fought Damon. It wasn’t much, just little bits of chit chat. He told me how he felt he needed to hang low since the government did the whole Mind Wipe thingie again, especially since you were already investigating him.”
“We’re already aware he is in hiding, Ms. Rose. That’s why you’re here.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you. The last time I talked to him, he sounded like he was afraid for his life. Then, he locked me out of The Bunker because he was certain I would be, well, talking to you, I guess.”
“Are you aware that in the past three months there has been a dramatic increase in missing persons in the Sun City metropolitan area?”
“No,” Alexa answered.
“Would it interest you to know that each of these missing people were on our watch list for exhibiting apparent meta-human abilities?”
“Are you saying they were supers?” Buddy asked.
“Yes, Mr. Jackson, they all exhibited at least the early signs of abilities which would commonly be referred to as superpowers. It is because of this we were already keeping tabs on them. If we hadn’t been, we wouldn’t have even been aware of their disappearance. For some odd reason, we’ve found during our investigations that even their closest family members appear to have no knowledge of them ever existing.”
“And you think Flores is behind all of this?” Ryan asked.
“Yes, we do. We have very little reason to believe otherwise. However, we have nothing to solidify our assumptions. Would you have any information which might help us make our case, Ms. Rose?”
Alexa was silent.
“He didn’t say anything about it since the whole thing with Memphis, but. . .well–”
“Please continue, Ms. Rose.”
“Okay, fine. The whole snatching meta-humans thing and erasing the memories of those around them, that’s nothing new. That’s how he built up his army in the first place. He usually tried to snatch people who had no family to worry about, homeless folks, orphans, you know the idea. But, well, there was always this contingency plan in place, this crazy Hail Mary idea he had in the situation that anyone ever figured out what he was up to down in The Bunker.”
“And that plan was?”
“First, I just want to say that I was never crazy about this plan. I thought I had talked him out of it ages ago. But, I guess he must have been more afraid of what you guys might do than I thought he was.”
“The plan, Ms. Rose?”
“Okay, well, first, I want you to know that I’m not a rat, so when I say Artie’s got an inside guy within this department, I have no interest in selling him–”
“Oh, we are already fully aware of Agent Parker’s involvement with Arthur Flores, Ms. Rose. Please continue.”
“Oh, um. . . okay. Well, anyways, they knew you guys had a list of people with powers. So, the idea was that if it was ever necessary, they would go out and snatch up every last one of them, wipe their minds clean, and train them to be a part of his army. If what you’re saying is right, he’s preparing for war.”
“War?” Zero responded excitedly.
“Why would he be preparing for a war?” Buddy asked.
“I don’t know,” Alexa responded. “But if he’s activating his backup plan, he thinks something big is coming.”
“That doesn’t make any sense, sis. He had over a thousand people working for him already. Why would he need any more?”
“Probably depends on what he thinks he’s going to be fighting against,” Alexa answered. “How many people have gone missing?”
“From our records, which are nowhere near complete, we currently have over twenty thousand people unaccounted for within Sun City alone.”
“20,000 people!” Buddy exclaimed. “There are 20,000 people with superpowers in this world and we’re still forced to stay in hiding.”
“Actually, Mr. Jackson, I said there were 20,000 people missing within Sun City. There are over 50,000 people we believe to have been abducted by Arthur within the country.”
“Holy crap,” Ryan yelled. “Where the hell would he be keeping all of these people? The Bunker is huge, but not that huge.”
“That is but one of the many questions we have regarding all of this. We can easily assume he has many more people currently under his control than we can account for, considering the current moratorium on discussing meta-human affairs internationally. Unless there’s some reason to believe he would not wish to recruit from overseas.”
“I can’t think of any,” Alexa answered. “I did catch him once doing some research on locations for building additional Bunkers in Europe.”
“You’re going quite a long way toward verifying some of our greatest concerns, Ms. Rose.”
“Those concerns ain’t nothing,” Alexa continued. “If Artie’s preparing for war, which it certainly sounds like he is, he’s got it planned down to the finest details. Not only that, he’ll have backup plans for his backup plans. If there’s one thing you can be sure about with Artie, it’s that he’s prepared.”
“So,” Buddy asked, “is that all you need from us? Just looking for validation of your fears?”
“Oh, that can’t be all, chum,” Zero disagreed. “He’s looking to have The New Defenders act as the front line against this super-powered army. Right?”
“Unfortunately, I’ve already been far too open about our current situation,” Agent Murphy apologized. “Any further details about how we intend to move forward are listed as being on a need to know basis only.”
“So,” Zero responded dejectedly, “you’re done with us? No battles or anything?”
“This is, at the moment, nothing more than a fact-finding mission,” Murphy replied.
“Are we done here?” Buddy asked.
“I suppose so,” Murphy said reluctantly. “However, if you do find yourselves coming across additional information, I would be willing to make it worth your while.” Agent Murphy stood and handed Buddy a business card. “You can call me any time, night or day, should you remember anything which might be useful. I’ll have Agent Kent deposit you back where we had found you.”
Murphy left the room, immediately followed by the return of Agent Kent. Without a word he touched Alexa’s shoulder and disappeared in a pop. He reappeared and continued the process until it was just him and Buddy left in the room. Kent paused and stared at Buddy for a moment.
“So, what’s the deal with Murphy? Does he really not know any–”
Kent touched Buddy’s arm and in a pop they were back on the street where they had found Bumblebee.
“–thing about what. . . Damn, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that.”
Kent paused again, looking at Buddy as if he wanted to say something, but then disappeared with another pop.
“Sheesh, that guy really doesn’t like to talk, does he?” Buddy asked.
“What the hell just happened in there?” Ryan asked. “I’m not crazy, right? That was Damon.”
“Of course that was Damon, Little Red. The question is, why does he not know that?”
“If that’s the only question you boys have, you’re doing a lot better than me.” Alexa looked to Buddy. “You seemed to have some clue of what’s going on. Care to clue us in?”
“Not here. I’m not even sure where, but definitely not here.”
“Oh, come on dude,” Ryan argued. “You can’t leave us in the dark like this. Have you been holding back on us?”
“Look, not here. Plus, I’m not the only one who’s been holding back information.” Buddy looked at Alexa. “You’ve been visiting Flores and haven’t told us? What the hell is that all about?”
“I’m being totally honest here; I haven’t seen him for months.”
“Ah, but sweet Alexa, the man who doesn’t seem to know he’s Damon Memphis stated you’ve been continuing to go off every week. If you haven’t been visiting Flores, whom have you been sneaking off to see?”
“Can’t a girl have a little bit of a personal life or do you want to read my diary, too?”
“Fine,” Buddy conceded. “But if I end up having to sit in that ugly conference room ag–”
“There you guys are!” a voice yelled from nearby. The group turned and saw Bumblebee approaching their location. “I’m not sure what happened. One second I was here with all of you, the next I was all the way across town. I thought I had lost you!”
“He’s back,” Zero muttered under his breath. “I think we should return to–”
“So, what are we up to next? Patrol?” Bumblebee asked excitedly.
“Look kid,” Buddy began slowly. “I can see your heart’s in the right place and all, but I just don’t think we’re operating on the same wavelength. You understand?”
“No,” Bumblebee said flatly.
“What he means,” Alexa continued, “is that we’re not quite what you think we are. It might be best if we just cut ties here and forget this ever happened.”
“Are you saying I’m not good enough for you guys?”
“That is precisely what we are saying,” Zero answered.
“Zero!” Alexa rebuked. “That’s not at all what we’re saying. It’s just that we’re involved in something much more dangerous than I think you’re ready to deal with.”
“Right, I get it. Don’t worry about it. I work better alone anyways.” Bumblebee walked away with his head low.
Alexa opened her mouth to speak as Zero placed his hand on her shoulder. “Don’t, Alexa. He’ll get over it.” Alexa glared at Zero, who stared right back. The two stood locked in optical combat until Ryan finally cut in.
“Alright kids,” Ryan said as he clapped his hands. “Where to?”
“Back to Maggie’s?” Buddy asked.
“Don’t you think we should start to do some digging on the whole deal with Flores?” Ryan responded.
“And why the hell would we want to do that?” Buddy asked.
“I don’t know,” Ryan responded. “Seemed like it would give us something to do.”
“Little Red’s right,” Zero agreed. “This is just the type of thing we’ve been looking for.”
“Right,” Alexa stated, “except it means getting into bed with Memphis, something I’m in no hurry to do.”
“Exactly,” Buddy joined in, considering the implications of this new version of his old nemesis. “I think we’d be better off at least getting a good night’s sleep before we decide to jump over onto Damon’s team.”
“Agreed, chum! First thing tomorrow morning, we decide on the fate of Dominion’s bed!”
Go to Chapter Three