Conflict Resolution

Part Nineteen: Shifting the Lens

by Scalar7th

Tags: #another_day_at_the_office #any/all #multiple_partners #romance #superhero #urban_fantasy #bondage #comic_book #D/s #enchanting_voice #exhibitionism #scifi #socialism #villainy

Crystal, Marie, Chelsea, Thomas, Jim, Tanya... So many people find that, on this particular Thursday, their view of the world changes, thanks to the people around them.

Port City, USA

A plain bedroom, almost completely undecorated

A young woman lies on the bed in her underwear, basking in the morning sun

10:25 AM Thursday morning

Tanya had left just before five, when the war between exhaustion and arousal had finally been decided and Crystal had fallen asleep with her head on her date's lap. Both of them had been in their underwear, there had been a great deal of kissing and caressing, and Crystal noticed that the advice Sharon had given her was absolutely true.

Fortunately, Crystal had found it easy to follow instruction, and had given as good as she got. It was actually exhilarating, being able to speak in plain language about what she wanted, about what felt good and what didn't. It was something she had never been able to do, until Tanya had modeled it so readily, and Crystal had followed along quite naturally.

It wasn't going to proceed further than it had, even so; Crystal wasn't comfortable enough to walk into sex without being bright and cheerful and, above all, fully awake. Tanya, in typical blunt fashion, had told her in no uncertain terms that she didn't care how Crystal felt about what was between her legs, which had forced Crystal to tell her that the issue wasn't... that, but that she was falling asleep. Tanya had jokingly offered to buy copious quantities of coffee. Crystal had politely but firmly refused, and Tanya had dressed and left with a lot of affection and a mutual promise to meet Friday after their shifts.

Crystal had collapsed into bed immediately after and fallen asleep, and woke up about five hours later. For a while, there had been nothing on her mind but her happiness. Now, almost unbidden, the thoughts she had put aside for her date and for her sleep start to come back. She reaches for her phone, and sends a quick message to Liana.

She's surprised when a moment later, the phone rings. She checks the slightly-cracked screen, and sure enough, it's her sister that's calling. She answers quickly.

"Hey Liana, everything okay?"

"Heya Crys!" Liana sounds cheerful. She always had been an early riser. "Yeah, things are fine, Mom and Dad are out at the hospital so I have time to actually call before I have to get ready for school and shit."

"Hospital?" Crystal asks, shocked. "Everything alright?"

There's a pause on the line. "Yeah, it's just Dad's rehab, right?"

Crystal's mind works quickly, trying to figure out what Liana was talking about.

"From the stroke?" Liana continues, seemingly aware of Crystal's challenge.

"Oh! Right! The stroke." Crystal replies, still not knowing what Liana was talking about. She had always been good at covering up surprise.

"Honestly, Crys, sometimes I wonder which of you has the brain damage."

What is going on? Crystal asks herself. She closes her eyes, the light from the window is making her head hurt.

"They go down to the hospital three times a week for Dad's physical therapy. They've been doing it since February. How many times do we have to go over this?"

"Right, sorry. It's just... I had a hell of a night," Crystal replies.

"What, are you on drugs again?"

"No, it's not that, it's... you know, I'll talk about it later."

"Right, you said you had something else to discuss or something."

Crystal bites her lip nervously. "Yeah, sis. I... I think I've got enough money for you to finally get here."

Liana lets out a whoop. "Kick ass! The big city! That's awesome, how long a visit? Two weeks? I think Mom'll let me go, so long as we don't tell Dad about it, and she can probably use the time to help him get a little better or..."

Liana was still talking, but Crystal wasn't able to process the words. A visit? Had they... hadn't they...

Crystal remembers talking about it a dozen times since she'd started working for the PCDCC. It isn't possible that Liana doesn't know what she's referring to. Unless—

"... and hey, you know any good places to shop around there?"

"Huh?"

"Crys, come on, you must know where a—"

"I've met someone." The conversation is getting out of hand, and Crystal needs to get a moment to breathe.

It is a short lived moment. Liana's shriek of joy was loud enough to send a buzz of distortion along the line. "Ohmigod, ohmigod, I need the details, everything. His name. Oh shit, sorry, I mean, is it even a—"

"Liana, Liana, calm down," Crystal laughs. The laugh is artificial, but Liana can't tell the difference. Her family has never been able to tell. "She. Tanya. It's very new, but I think it's going to be fun." How many times have we discussed her moving here? Crystal's head is humming oddly. She remembers pizza.

"Okay, okay, sorry, it's just it's been since before you left that... Oh! hey, Mom keeps looking up stuff about Port City, I think she's worried about you or something, so do you think there's a chance we could see the Arctic Angel? She looks awesome!"

I hope not. Crystal thinks back to seeing her friends and coworkers frozen in the street. "It's not like I know her or met her or anything."

"I saw some of the pictures from the riots, and all the people just standing there. That was just amazing."

"Right. It's not like the powers just hang out at work with me, you know?" She hides her anger from the growing, obvious conclusion. "Did you ever think about moving here?"

"What? I mean, maybe someday. Y'know after high school? Maybe I should go to college out there?"

The conversation crashes down around her. They had been over this. They had to have been over this. Liana's talking, but Crystal isn't able to listen. Her head is pounding. She's grinding her teeth. She inhales deeply through her nose.

"Liana?" Crystal interrupts. Her sister has been talking non-stop.

"Huh? Oh sorry, I was just babbling, right?"

"Liana, I have to go." Her voice is measured, coldly calm.

"Wha? Oh, do you have work?"

"Sorry. I have to go." She can't think of anything else to say.

"Okay, Crys, nice to hear your voice, keep in touch! Love y—"

Crystal doesn't say anything more, just hangs up. She says nothing, because she's saving her words for what comes next. Two text messages. Only one that she'll remember sending, but both basically say the same thing: she is absolutely done with the manipulative fucker who's been paying her for information.


It must be morning

Marie, half-asleep, runs her hands over the side of the supervillain lying next to her.

Or maybe it's afternoon. Time is losing its meaning.

She thinks it might be Friday. She works at half past seven, if it is. But it's probably not been that long.

She has decisions to make.

She doesn't want to make them. She wants to lie here, enjoying the warm body beside her.

The very, very human body, she realizes.

She always knew, really. Sterling's always been human, and it's wonderful. The supervillain part of him was always a fantasy. Until it wasn't. And now it isn't.

Like the mind-controlled victim part of her was always a fantasy, until it wasn't.

But here's Silver Tongue, lying beside her, sleeping. Snoring lightly. Doughy, soft, vulnerable. It had never occurred to her that a supervillain would sleep. It seems silly, most heroes were normal people with exceptional powers, but somehow in her mind she'd built up her dream to be more than human, devoid of the usual frailties of people. Silver Tongue, in her mind, doesn't sleep, doesn't need to eat, doesn't tire or ache or lose focus.

Sterling Grey, meanwhile, pees in the shower.

It was such an undignified moment, so outside her conception of the supervillain, that she couldn't help but laugh, to see him standing there in the spray, holding himself, angling his aim so the stream went down the drain.

It was refreshing to see him being so... normal.

Refreshing, but...

It wouldn't be difficult for him, she assumes, to "reset" her fantasy, to restore her sense of awe and wonder, to remove those moments of humanity, to leave her in total adulation of the mysterious, mythical figure. Maybe that's what she wants, to be enthralled to a faceless demigod.

A faceless demigod who doesn't pee in the shower.

She giggles softly as she kisses the back of his neck. He doesn't react, he's very much asleep.

What would it be like? she wonders as she kisses him again. There's another thing she wouldn't have expected. Sweat. A dumb thing not to expect—she'd experienced his sweat many times before.

She is surprised at just what is surprising her. A lot of this should have been obvious, or at least practiced. She thinks about that for a while.

Just who is this man lying next to her? Does she really know who he is? Can she?

Does it matter?

When he can control her mind, does it really matter if she doesn't really know him?

She knows herself, through and through, and this is something she's always wanted.

And even with Silver Tongue right here, right beside her, as naked as she is, she's still having the same argument with herself that she's had since she's been isolated from the world. No closer to a decision.

It feels like it's been less than a day. Even so, she has to make a decision. A choice.

Later.


The home of one Reginald Bright

The training room, in the basement

Noon, Thursday

The Arctic Angel runs through an exercise regimen in the training room, at full height, wings exposed, while Flamehammer watches from a folding chair and occasionally looks down at his laptop on the table beside him. She's naked, Flamehammer wears only a light t-shirt and a headset, but she thinks nothing of this. Out of the range of the camera, he strokes himself lightly, idly, halfway to an erection.

They had arrived around half past four. Flamehammer was talking throughout. The Angel heard him and understood. He was angry. Furious. He wanted violence, wanted to do violence.

She was cold, to the core, and wanted the same thing.

They had sparred, then, and fucked, and slept, and showered, and eaten breakfast, sparred again, fucked again. And now, Flamehammer is coordinating the response to his father's death, consolidating his control over the disoriented Society. The Angel had offered her backing and support which, as one of the most visible Society members in recent times, went a long way to bolster Flamehammer's claims.

"No," he says into the headset mic, sounding weary of the discussion. "My father often met with heroes at his personal residence, and so he had no cameras, no sound recording. It was part of the agreement." He listens for a moment. "Yes, yes, I know that that community has a private security feed, but Gerald kept his offline and disabled. No cameras in the house."

There's a pause. The Angel changes her position to work on her leg strength.

"I'm aware that it's damned inconvenient, Charity. But... well, put yourself in the shoes of any hero in disguise, meeting with the civilian authority. You want to arrive unrecognized, you don't need the media or gawkers following you around, and you want your discussions to be confidential, that's just a bit im-fucking-possible if there's a camera on you all the time, right? That's why Dad frequently held important meetings there, instead of in the office, and not just meetings with heroes."

Chelsea had been to a Bright Society get-together at Gerald's house. The lack of surveillance there had been assured. Which was good and useful for a few reasons; while she hadn't transformed there, she had shown off some of the Angel's icy power, and some of the other members who'd felt comfortable had demonstrated their abilities as well.

Dimly, the Angel recalls that being the first time that Chelsea met Flamehammer.

"It was the one place that Society members could be safe, and now it's gone." The Angel can tell that Flamehammer's anger is mostly affected, not real, but it sounds convincing enough. The subtext underlying his upset is that it's about the loss of Gerald, not of the house. The Angel wonders for a moment why he would have to affect that anger, then dismisses it as a curiosity of human grief.

She drops to do push ups on the padded floor.

"Well of course we'll relocate or rebuild, Arthur. That's not even in question. The point is—the points are, one, that we don't have a sanctuary like that at the moment, and two, there's not going to be any A/V evidence of whatever happened."

Nine... ten... the Angel counts to herself.

She isn't concerned about the loss of the sanctuary, or even of Gerald Bright. The Arctic Angel exists to serve the Bright Society, and at the moment that means to serve Flamehammer in any way he needs or chooses.

Fifteen... sixteen...

"Well, who else would have done it?" Flamehammer asks, exasperated. "You saw the card. 'The confederation is under my protection.' If it isn't someone from the docks, then—"

Twenty-two... twenty-three... This is Flamehammer's business. Reggie's business, really. The Angel understands this. She pays little regard to what's being said.

"Well, if it is Silver Tongue," he practically spits the name, "then that's all the more reason to round them all up and get that monster under control!"

The Angel stands and stretches, spreading her wings to their fullest span. Flamehammer looks over appreciatively, his hand still working lazily between his legs. He looks back at the screen.

"Have they found that asshole Grey yet? I'm sure he's involved in this."

The Angel wonders briefly if Chelsea would have any insight as to where Sterling Grey might have gone. The inability of the police to bring him in, or even to find any evidence of wrongdoing despite a warrant for his home and his office on the docks, is definitely a point of frustration for Flamehammer. When they do find him, they will arrest him, and he can be questioned like the others.

Chelsea still thinks warmly of Sterling.

But if he is involved, if he must be brought in, he will be.

"Alright, then. Let's take a day to shore things up, then shut the dockworks down on the weekend. I expect it'll be a fight. Bring in everyone who can get here in twenty-four hours or less."

The Angel starts walking across the room as Flamehammer removes the headset and closes the computer. Before he says anything, she's on her knees, her hands taking over for his.

Flamehammer's hot fingers trail through her long black hair, caressing and admiring, before guiding her head to his crotch.

She keeps her powers sequestered from her breath as she begins to coldly lick and suck at his solid cock.


The apartment of Thomas Holfers and Jim Taylor

1:30 PM

"It's not a steel-gray suit, I'm afraid," Jim says.

Sterling Grey, outfitted in casual khakis and a short-sleeved pastel-green shirt, both of which are two sizes too big for him, nods. "It really doesn't have to be. I'm grateful for anything. Besides which, the police are probably looking for a man in a steel-gray suit."

"Tom's got a good line on police movements in the docks," Thomas says, "and if you keep a low profile in the car..."

"Sounds good."

"Hold on," Jim says, heading back towards his bedroom. "I'm coming with you."

Thomas looks down the hall. "You sure?"

"You bet. I'm signing up for the security team," Jim shouts back. "You all need another pair of strong arms."

"Can't deny he's got those," Sterling says, adjusting his belt.

"Sure, but I want him here, safe, out of the way," Thomas replies softly. "Since when are you signing up?" he calls out.

"Since my 'cousin' and I helped Sterling get in here last night." Jim emerges in khakis that match the ones he loaned to Sterling and a dark blue button-up shirt. "It was fun and exciting and I gotta say, I want more."

"Can you do something about this?" Thomas mutters.

Sterling nods. "I can, but..."

"Ready to go?"

"Jim, pause for us."

Jim nods and stands still in the middle of the hallway. He's breathing slowly, looking past the two men in the living room.

Sterling turns to Thomas. "Are you sure you don't want him along?"

"Sterling, he's been basically kept in the house for years," Thomas explains. "Both by his own issues and mine."

Sterling smiles. "Is it maybe time to let him loose?"

Thomas gasps and gawks. "Let him loose? Sterling, you know what he was like."

"That was years ago, Thomas." Sterling holds up a hand to forestall his friend's objections. "Has he had a single violent outburst since—"

"No," Thomas admits. "He's a changed man, Sterling."

"Then maybe it's time to let that changed man see what he can do."

Thomas sighs. "I hope this hasn't been your plan from the start."

Sterling laughs. "Thomas, I've never had a plan, let alone one spanning, what, fifteen years?"

Thomas shakes his head and chuckles. "Okay, okay, that's fair." There's a pause, a silence. Thomas is clearly thinking. "Fuck it. Fine. Restart him, let's get this farce on the road. Just... make sure he doesn't get himself killed, alright?"

"It will be a priority." Sterling nods. "Jim, you can wake up now, we should get going."

Jim blinks and his gaze focuses on Sterling. "We should," he says, resuming his movement towards the apartment door, and the three of them headed into the hallway and out the front door.


It's her third orgasm of the... afternoon?

She assumes afternoon.

Silver Tongue had done her the courtesy of fucking her senseless before he left that m— before he left earlier, whatever earlier actually was. And she had been senseless, as much as she could be, thinking only about his touch, his hands, his lips, his...

After she fried up some eggs and cheese for breakfast, she went over the thought again, the fantasy, and—

That had been her second orgasm of the afternoon. Or at least of the day. Since she woke.

Then had come the thinking. Then lunch, a sandwich with all the pre-sliced vegetables in the fridge—cucumber, tomato, lettuce... There are no knives in the kitchen, and that makes some sense. Marie isn't suicidal, but she could imagine that someone in her situation might be, if they were more distressed. Or they might use any possible weapon against Silver Tongue or anyone else who might come through the door.

Then she remembers what he'd done with a knife, slicing away her shirt.

Then she remembers being his, and what it had meant, and what it could mean.

And how much she wants it.

She catches her breath, sitting in the big armchair, her hands still idly running over her belly and her slick thighs.

She could assume that it's the afternoon for the rest of her life. Another twenty-five, fifty years of this. But... but not just this, she would surely live a long, full life, it would just be the afternoon sometimes, when it was necessary. Or wanted.

Personal pizza chef to the supervillain. She giggles. It feels good to laugh. It always does.

But she knows that she's asked these questions to herself long enough, now. She knows her answer. Any more self-talk will just be going in circles, and winding up at the same answer over and over again.

She gets up with a sigh and walks slowly, tiredly, to the bathroom. She wants to get clean. Then she'll make a call, talk to whoever's on the other end of the line, get ahold of Silver Tongue.

For better or worse, her new life starts tomorrow.


The PCDCC communications center

5:15 PM

Tanya, Thomas, and Sterling sit in the War Room, each with a drink in their hands, chatting.

"So you're not going back to your apartment?" Tanya asks.

Sterling shakes his head. "Or my office. They have a legal warrant, they'll bring me in eventually, but there's no way I'm going to make it that easy for them."

"Elena tells me your office has been thoroughly tossed," Thomas says. "She took before, during, and after pics to do a piece of police overreach."

"I'm willing to lay money that my apartment is even more of a disaster." Sterling shrugs.

Tanya puts a hand to her temple. "How the fuck are you so fucking casual about all that?"

"Doesn't do me any good to be otherwise." He shrugs again. "Learned a long time ago not to keep anything in the open that could be of use in convicting me. So my closets get rifled, my furniture broken up, I'm willing to bet that a bottle of fine scotch has gone missing from my liquor cabinet. If they didn't take an axe to the walls here, they're not getting anything of value from my office or pretty much anyone else's."

"What if they come for the computers?"

"Under what authority? I work for conflict resolution, not communications, and Dockworks Telecom is its own legal entity, and they've done nothing wrong."

Thomas smirks. "That the police know about, anyway."

"Hey there's a question," Tanya says, carefully putting her drink on the floor. "Why aren't you running the joint? Like from what I can tell you're just some nobody here, why don't—"

"Why don't I have over a thousand people worshiping the ground I walk on, building statues to my honour, literally singing my praises? Why am I a simple dockie and not the silver tongued God of the Harbor?" Sterling laughs.

"Somethin' like that, yeah."

Sterling and Thomas share a grin. "Can you imagine the paperwork?" Thomas asks.

"Getting everyone together for services would be a bitch," Sterling replies.

"Still, you must admit, there's the appeal—"

"Which lasts until I have to clean up."

"What you've stepped in," Thomas says, swiveling his chair to face Tanya, "is one of the older arguments among those of us who know Sterling's secret. Seems our friend here," he makes a sweeping gesture towards the supervillain, "lacks ambition."

"'Terminally lazy,' Letitia says."

"Yes, that exactly," Thomas continues. "Some of us, Elena especially, have been after Silver Tongue to take a more hands-on role in the expansion of this little socialist empire."

"They want Port City to be the shadow capital of a criminal—"

"If you're the law, nothing is criminal."

"Don't we know it. Not like Flamehammer's in jail for assault."

"So you could just take over and—"

"—gather all the attention from every other superpower the world knows," Sterling concludes. "We all saw what happened to Brother Libertine's private island. The superpowers police their own, and aren't about to let a villain, especially a villain with—the horror—left wing ideals, take center stage."

Tanya snorts. "So you're a lazy coward, then? Is that it?"

"One hundred percent on the nose." Sterling takes a long drink from his soda bottle. "But that," he continues, "implies that you would do something different with my power."

"Fuck yeah, I would!" Tanya says.

"Really? Gonna tell us what?"

"Oh man, Sterling, it starts with naked girls as far as the eye can fucking see and—"

"Who feeds them?"

Tanya blinks. "What?"

"Who's going to feed your harem?"

Thomas gives an infuriating little smile over his drink.

"I... guess they can feed themselves?"

"Where do they sleep?"

"Oh fuck off. Alright, I get the goddamn point."

"Don't try to argue with him," Thomas says. "He's done more thinking about this than the rest of us put together, and he has a ready answer for everything."

"What we've got here," Sterling waves carelessly around the room, "works. It's rough at the edges, it's got its bumps and bruises and difficult patches, but what we've built over the last dozen years, from the foundation of a worker's strike, holds itself together, and it grows. Maybe by the time I'm sixty you'll see me in the mayor's seat, presiding over a whole city that works like this, but that's really not my ambition."

"It's mine," Thomas chimes in. "Mine, and John's, and Letitia's, and... well, no, Elena wants you to rule the whole world."

"Nobody's got time for that," Sterling laughs. "But here's the thing, Tanya: this little rebellion is self-sustaining. What's happening now in the Bright Society, with Gerald gone?"

"Uh..." Tanya scratches her head. "I bet it's some kinda chaos or some shit."

"Succession wars." Sterling stands up and starts pacing slowly. "I expect that Reggie Bright is probably consolidating his power, likely dealing with internal attacks from the more grasping members of the board of directors. He'll make a quick move on us to try to show that he's in control and that he can accomplish what his father couldn't. If he's successful, he might hold the Society together. But it might fall apart anyway, splinter into factions. Gerald Bright, for all his many flaws, was a man who understood how to hold a coalition together, even if they didn't want to be held together. But a man like that always leaves a power vacuum, and that leads to infighting, sectarian conflict, and dissolution, if he's not replaced in due order. So," he concludes, spinning on his heel to face Tanya, "what do you think happens if this weekend some SWaT officer takes a shot at me and blows my brains out?"

Tanya just stares.

Sterling smiles. "Nothing at all. Oh, I die, of course, I'm not immortal, but the point is that the Confederation outlives me, and Thomas, and you, and everyone else, because everyone here can see what a good thing it is, and it's too big now to just flicker out. It might be snuffed, enough pressure from the outside will crush us, but my job isn't to rule. Conflict Resolution exists to create, to defend, and to expand these ideas of co-operation and togetherness and solidarity. We're the morale team. The people who work for the PCDCC are happy, Tanya."

"Sure, because you've mindfucked 'em all."

Sterling holds up his thumb and index finger a tiny distance apart. "Just a bit. I smooth over challenges and troubles, make sure people do their best to fit in, but mostly?" He shrugs. "They do it themselves. The Confederation provides good, fulfilling work with good hours, good conditions, and good pay, and the people here want to be here."

"Alright then, fucker, what about me, huh?" Tanya leaps to her feet and takes a step towards the mind controller, a finger pointed accusingly. "You gave me the choice of having my memories wiped or joining you here on the docks. I don't exactly want to be here."

"Don't you?" Sterling asks, an eyebrow raised quizzically. "We'll give you fulfilling work, access to anything you might want or need, a sense of community and camaraderie—"

"Don't try and sell me on this, you bastard. I already work for you, and I wasn't given the choice."

"But you were," Sterling replies. "You could have walked away."

"Not without you stealing my memories!"

"Not without me defending myself," Sterling corrects her. "What do you do with that information, once you've got it? Do you sell it to the police? Enter it surreptitiously into the Bright Society database? Blackmail me? My abilities are very precise, you wouldn't have missed a thing, but just having you out there knowing who I am, without having control ov—"

"You do not fucking control me." Tanya's voice was sharp, quiet, deadly as a knife.

"... over the information," Sterling continues as if he hadn't been interrupted, "would have been a massive security risk. Ask yourself, if you found out Flamehammer's identity, what would the Bright Society do to you?"

Tanya starts, as though a realization has just come to her. "Fuck me," she whispers. She sits down on the floor. "Fuck me sideways with a two-foot dildo."

Sterling offers her a hand, which she ignores. "Everything alright?"

"I have to get home," Tanya says.

"You're on the clock," Thomas points out as he stands.

"No, you don't fucking understand, I have to get home. I have to get my equipment out of there, I need to get to a safe place, I have to run."

"Tanya?" Sterling says. "What do you know?"

"The bastards did try to off me. Jesus fucking Christ. In the cafe. I know too much. I..." She looks up at the two men now gaping down at her worriedly. Her voice is small, her anger gone; in its place is tightly-controlled fear. "I used to work for the Bright Society, until the fire. Closely. I was deep in their fucking databases. I know what The Mechanician can build. The weapons, the technology, the mind-warping devices, the experimental... Never mind. I know where to find the names of Society members—their real fucking names, not their cape names, no one is stupid enough to put those two things in the same place, but even that is pretty fucking damning. I could get into accounting, into black ops, into policy and politics. I was kind of covert myself, a freelance hacker and info gatherer, off-the-record, deniable and apparently fucking disposable."

"Christ," Thomas swears, putting a hand over his mouth.

Sterling shakes his head. "You can't go home. Just like I can't. Thomas, can you check with the police and see if they're trying to pick her up again?"

"On it."

Tanya finally takes Sterling's hand and gets to her feet. "I started looking into you that night. When me'n Chels and Share were at the club. It fits too much. When I got home there was a note and... You have to understand, nobody knows where I live. I have a false address, some clever redirection happening... you don't need the details, but you gotta know that when someone slips a note meant for me under my door it was fuckin' freaky, you get it? Anyway, the note said that if I wanted more info about you, and I sure fuckin' did if you were taking my best friends home, especially Chelsea because... well, you know. Anyway, the note said to come to the cafe on the docks."

"And then nothing," Sterling says with a nod. "Because you were definitely drugged. We got traces of an anesthetic from Courier—who, by the way, delivered your note to you—"

"Who?"

"He's a... well, a courier we use. He has the power to make himself basically undetectable. He runs messages for the underworld, for us sometimes when we need something delivered, and apparently for the Brights, if that's who sent you to the cafe. If you need someone to get something to someone without there being any chance of it being detected, Courier can get it there, so long as it's still in Port City. He could be here in the room, right now, and none of us would know it."

Tanya frowned skeptically. "And he uses this power to be a fucking mailman?"

"Strict pacifist. Just wants the money, completely reliable and dependable."

"You're being a fucking salesman again. You got drugs off him?"

"Off his gloves, yes, that he thinks he disposed of but instead handed off to me. And..."

There was silence.

"Sterling?"

"Sorry, I just had an idea."

"Yeah I saw the fucking lightbulb go off."

"Courier handed me his gloves and his burner cell phone."

"And why the fuck haven't you given it to me with a connection cable?"

"I'll be back in twenty min—"

"Nope," Thomas says, standing up. "You and Tanya are staying right here, away from police eyes. I'll go see Callum and get that phone. You text him and let him know I'm coming. Tanya, if you want to sit in the big chair and work on tracking police movements, you go ahead."

Tanya moves over to the main desk. "Gives me somethin' to fuckin' do, so why not."

"If you want to get set up for when I come back, the cabinet in the corner's full of cables. All kinds. Never know when you need a spare."

"Whaddya buy 'em in bulk, straight off the cargo ships like fish on the dockside?"

Sterling grins, taking his seat again. "We have suppliers for anything we need, coming off the ships."

"Of course we do." Tanya sighs. "Somehow I keep forgetting this is a fucking criminal organization I'm working for." She glares at Sterling.

"A moral criminal organization is a step up from a monstrous legal one."

"Yeah, we'll fuckin' see."

Before he leaves, Thomas takes Sterling aside. "Did you... put any of that in her head?" he asks quietly.

Sterling thinks for a moment. "No, no, I wouldn't make someone paranoid on purpose. She has to have come to that conclusion on her own."

"Do you think it could be true?"

The villain nods. "I suspect it is. Anything we can use?"

"If she can get back into their servers?" Thomas lets out a breath. "I can only think of about a thousand useful things we could do in there."

"Start making a list."

"We might need it." Thomas opens the door and heads out.

Sterling pulls out his phone and looks at it. "Oh for..."

"What is it, shithead?" Tanya asks without looking up from her work.

"I haven't charged the damn thing, the battery's dead."

"Oh Christ, my first day on the job and I have to solve every fucking problem... Come here."

Sterling walks over. "I'm sure there's a charging cable in the—"

"I have one in my fucking purse if you want it but it's too damn slow." She slides the chair aside. "Type your phone number in there."

Sterling looks at the unfamiliar page on the computer screen. "What is this?" he asks, typing quickly.

"Your phone's on the dockworks' communication network, which means that your phone activity is held on the servers for a while. I have access to this stuff."

Sterling gives her a worried look. "Everything is—"

"Ease up, 'fraidy-cat." She pushes her way back to her place in front of the screen. "Your tech team aren't dumbfucks, everything's there but it's encrypted. And I'll bet... yep." Tanya hits a few keys and the screen was replaced with a wall of nonsense text, seemingly random letters, numbers, and symbols. "Any cop comes along and opens up the servers, that's all they're gonna get."

"So... what is that?"

"It's all the text messages you've sent and received since... Monday? And probably a bunch of data besides. I'll know when I've decrypted it, but probably Monday. I'm guessing you don't send or receive many messages?"

"Mostly I talk to people."

"Makes sense." Tanya gets her phone and a cable from her purse.

"I could just plug my—"

"You could, but my way's fuckin' awesome."

"It's taking a while though."

"You got somewhere to be?" Tanya connects her phone to the computer. "We were told to stay fuckin' put, right?"

"I just think it'd be faster to—"

"But a whole lot less satisfying."

"But if there's something—"

"Then the less you talk, the faster I'll get you the info. One sec." Tanya frowns. "One... sec?" She taps rapidly on the keyboard. "The fuck?"

Sterling, despite himself, leans in closer. "What's wrong?"

"My home server's not... Oh. That would be why." Tanya now has a news site open. "Looks like my apartment's on fire." She looks over at Sterling. "I think your casual bullshit's rubbing off on me."

"You get used to it."


A plain bedroom, almost completely undecorated

A young woman lies on the bed in her underwear, mostly in the dark, fidgeting nervously

6:25 AM Thursday evening

She's waiting for two replies to messages, although she only knows that she's waiting for one.

The one she's aware of waiting for arrives.

the boat tonight 11pm

She doesn't answer. She doesn't have to. He knows she'll be there.

What is Marie's decision? Will Crystal's anger find an appropriate outlet? Will Tanya be able to decrypt Sterling's phone information? What happens tomorrow?

Find out more in Part Twenty!

x7

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