“Hold still,” S.S. chastised, their hollow voice conveying a worrisome amount of glee. “Stop squirming so much.”
I gritted my teeth, holding myself in place in the swivel chair mounted before a well-lit mirror in the back of our midtown safe house. “You keep telling us how dangerous it is for us to be seen together, yet one of the rare times you visit, it’s to do our makeup? Esto es ridículo.”
“Well, this is important,” S.S. explained, the facial prosthesis comically out of place in their massive metal hands as they applied it to my skin. “We can’t have anyone recognizing you or Textile tonight at the party. Also, this material has a special infrared shield that will make your face undetectable to security cameras.”
“Oh, really?” Textile asked, patiently waiting his turn in the chair next to mine. He absently scratched at an itch under the cast molded around his arm, which hung in a sling where Vampire King had shattered his collarbone. “Smart move, S.S.”
“That’s all bullshit, though,” Cylinder remarked from couch on the other side of the safe house. “We could’ve done this ourselves. S.S. just has a soft spot for dressing people up. Like playing with Barbie dolls.”
Sighing, S.S. turned their glowing red eyes towards the marksman. “I suppose I would have been a fashion consultant in another life.”
“A damn good one, too,” Cylinder added, wincing as he pressed an ice pack against his bruised neck where Avian had grabbed him.
S.S. returned their attention to me. “Textile is going to be with you as backup, but you’re leading tonight’s mission, Mr. Electric Eel. Tell me what you’re doing.”
I glanced at Textile, who nodded reassuringly, before speaking up.
“Well, in addition to the central Public Servants headquarters, most of the individual heroes have their own private living units in the city. Fortunately for us, The Living Mortar, our potential mole, is hosting a dinner party tonight at his suburban home on the Western edge of the city. You, our generous benefactor, have procured invitations and fake identities for Textile and myself, so that we may search for evidence and perhaps get some free food.”
S.S. stared blankly at me, clearly not amused by my joke.
“Oh, yeah. And your intel mentions a secret lair beneath the house. That’s where we’ll start, and that’s why I’m leading. I’m your best bet for locating and accessing the entrance to it.”
“That’s right,” S.S. finally said, turning to Textile. “Anything you want to add?”
Textile shrugged with his remaining arm. “The kid’s got it. I’m not worried.”
He turned to wink at me, and I tried to suppress a grin, with little success.
“I agree,” S.S. commented. “Still, I want you to be extremely careful. Any one of The Public Servants is dangerous on their own-”
“Avian wasn’t so bad,” Cylinder muttered, interrupting.
S.S.’s head swiveled in his direction. “I’m sorry, are you referring to the little girl who threw you out of a moving car and disarmed Piston with her pet bird?”
Cylinder blushed, looking at his feet.
“That’s what I thought,” S.S. continued, returning their attention to Textile and myself. “As I was saying, any one Public Servant is dangerous, but The Living Mortar is a special breed. He is, quite literally, indestructible, as long as he wants to be. Beyond that, the analyst you procured was unable to provide sufficient evidence to actually prove his complicity with Black Pharaoh, the Russians, or this Phantom character. Therefore, you are to make as little contact with him as possible. As far as he’s concerned, you won’t even be there tonight. Am I understood?”
Textile and I silently nodded.
“Good.” S.S. turned to a clothes rack resting nearby, plucking a suit from its hanger. “Now, stand up so we can find out what formal wear best fits your frame. I’m quite enjoying myself.”
Textile and I ogled as we pulled up to a massive red-brick home. A young valet stood outside the entrance, and as I parked the car, he approached, opening Textile’s passenger door. Textile wiggled out of his seat, and I followed suit, strangely uncomfortable with the idea of the valet opening my door for me. As we passed the man, I handed him my keys and a ten-dollar bill.
“Please take good care of it,” I said to him. “My other one is still in the shop.”
He smiled, nodding at me, and within seconds, he and the car vanished around the back of the house. We returned our attention to The Living Mortar’s mansion, approaching a tall, muscular man standing in the doorway with a list.
“Names?” he boomed.
Textile and I traded glances.
“Denzel Oceano,” I answered.
“Jimmy Stocks,” Textile added.
The man scowled, scouring the list. After an unbearably silent ten seconds, he finally glanced back up at us. “Go on in.”
We happily obliged, hurrying past the man. As we entered the foyer, I caught a glimpse of myself in a small wall mirror and almost performed a double-take, still shocked by how much S.S. had transformed me.
“Mi propia madre no me reconocería,” I murmured to myself.
More guests entered behind us, including some actors I vaguely recognized and a woman who I quickly realized was a high-ranking judge. Textile and I mingled with the newcomers briefly, introducing ourselves as journalists covering the event. As more people flooded in, though, the politicians and celebrities began to recognize each other, leaving us alone.
“Now’s our chance,” I whispered to Textile. “I’m gonna poke around.”
I casually strolled around the house, weaving in and out of clumps of party-goers, scanning the floors and walls for unusual electrical activity that may indicate hidden doors or rooms. It didn’t take long before I picked up on a trail that led me away from the chatter and laughter. As I turned into a small hallway, following a focused current beneath the floorboards, I snagged a cocktail from a passing tray, sipping it to appear less suspicious.
I approached an opening on my left, almost colliding with a tall, white, muscular man sporting salt-and-pepper hair as he exited from the other direction. He stepped back, apologizing profusely, and reached up to straighten his suit’s bow tie. I opened my mouth to apologize as well, but my eyes drifted to a pair of aviator goggles hanging around his neck, and I froze.
The Living Mortar wears aviator goggles.
The superhero saw my expression and chuckled. “First time meeting a Public Servant?”
I willed myself to hide my anxiety, nodding and breaking into a sheepish smile. “That obvious, huh?”
The Living Mortar patted me on the shoulder, firmly guiding me away from the room he’d just left. “Are the other guests boring you already? There’s nothing back this way but my dusty book collection.”
I walked with him back the way I came, shrugging. “To be honest, I’ve never been to a party this nice before. I’m not really sure what to do with myself.”
“God, I definitely can relate to that,” he admitted as we migrated into the guest-filled living room. “But these blood-suckers expect nothing but the best- Oh hey, Margaret! How’s your mom doing?”
He stopped to address a silver-haired model wearing a tight red dress, and I quickly slipped away, wiping the sweat from my brow as I hunted for Textile. I found the man near the food table, flirting heavily with two young women who I didn’t recognize. Catching his eye, I gestured for him to come closer, and he excused himself.
“What did you find?” he asked, glancing back once more at the giggling women.
I pulled him towards the closest wall, away from the other guests. “Next time, you can make small talk with a potential bad guy and I’ll hit on the attractive celebrities.”
“There’s still time,” he said, smirking. “I’m pretty sure Senator Craig swings your way-”
“That’s very cute,” I interrupted, “but I think I know how to get into his . . . uh . . . ‘man cave.’”
Textile nodded. “We’ll wait until he’s distracted, then.”
An hour of mingling passed, then two, and The Living Mortar showed no signs of relieving his guests of his attention. Under any other circumstances, I would have been impressed, but as the clock ticked eternally onward, I felt my window of opportunity closing. Finally, I heard a gentle chime reverberate through the audience as someone tapped silverware against the side of their glass. I searched through the crowd until I discovered the source.
“Dios mío,” I whispered to Textile. “Isn’t that Treble Clef?”
Textile glanced in the direction I was looking. “Sure is. And he came in costume, the big nerd.”
Walking to the center of the room, Treble Clef stood tall in his black, metallic body armor and mirrored glass helmet. The helmet obscured his features, and neon rainbow lights shimmered across the front of the glass, weaving their way down the rest of his armor. If he wasn’t so well-known as a Public Servant, I’d have assumed he was a particularly theatrical DJ.
“I’ve known The Living Mortar since The Great War of 2022,” the superhero began, using his sonic manipulation abilities to project his voice effortlessly throughout the room. “As most of you are aware, he and I were two of the last people to join the Public Servants program, and we bonded quickly over our love for science. After the war, we helped establish New General City’s early infrastructure, ensuring every legal citizen had somewhere to call home.”
Everyone in the room lightly applauded, but he raised his hand to shush them. “I mean this not as a boast, but to make a point. We’re worth more than a body on the battlefield, or a presence in the streets. The Public Servants are here to make the world a better place, and I can’t think of anyone who embodies that ideal more than The Living Mortar.”
Treble Clef turned to the salt-and-pepper-haired host, raising a glass. “Here’s to a better world.”
“To a better world!” the crowd repeated, taking a drink.
I gestured to Textile, and we backed away from the others, slipping out of the living room and back into the hallway. Leading Textile back toward the room The Living Mortar had exited, I poked my head around the doorway, inspecting within. My eyes adjusted to the dim lighting quickly, revealing a small library. Turning to Textile, I nodded before slipping inside, and he closely followed.
We circled the room like sharks, examining the bookshelves that lined the walls. I saw mostly science fiction and fantasy stories, along with a few shelves dedicated to storing tabletop role-playing games. As I continued to scan the space, reaching out with my electrical sense, Textile rifled through a stack of notes on the game shelves.
“Ew, gross,” he commented, curling up his nose as he read one of the documents.
I took a step closer. “What is it?”
Textile looked up at me. “All his character sheets are Bards.”
I rolled my eyes, sticking my thumb over my shoulder. “There’s a focal point of electrical energy behind his Warhammer book collection.”
Textile joined me at my side as I reached out, running my fingertips along the novels’ spines. I stopped at Legacies of Betrayal, pulling at it to take a closer look. Instead, the book slid out about an inch before emitting a soft click, springing back into place as if connected to a spring.
The bookshelf creaked slightly as it drifted backwards, the movement so small that it was almost imperceptible. I leaned into it, and it swung back completely, revealing a hidden spiral staircase descending below the house. The Last Patriot vampires flashed into my mind, and I shivered.
“Let’s go,” I whispered, heading down the tight staircase.
We quickly reached the bottom, emerging into a stone-grey concrete room lit by harsh white fluorescents. The wall to our left housed racks of firearms and explosives. To our right, boxes of unidentifiable electronics laid out on a long table. Opposite us, shoved against the back wall, sat a wooden desk which supported a single computer and monitor.
Trading glances, we made our way to the desk, circling it to examine the contents of the monitor.
“It’s locked and encrypted,” I whispered.
Rather than respond, Textile reached into his pocket with his free arm, retrieving an ink pen. Using his teeth, he uncapped the rear half of the pen, revealing a flash drive. He quickly located a port on the side of the computer, attempted to insert the drive, but it rejected his advances. Frowning, he flipped the drive upside-down and tried again, with the same results. He raised one eyebrow, flipped the drive back to its original position, and this time, it slipped all the way into the computer.
“Every damn time,” he muttered under his breath.
The monitor flickered, and blacked-out text began to fill the password window. Within seconds, the lock screen disappeared, revealing a neatly-organized desktop. I felt my wrist buzz, and I looked down to see an anonymous caller ringing my watch. Textile’s watch lit up, too, and we both retrieved our earbuds, plugging them into our ears.
“Thanks for the remote access,” S.S.’s voice rang in my head. “Give me a second to scour the hard drive and I’ll see if my old friend has been keeping- oh. Oh, no.”
“What is it?” Textile asked. “What did you find?”
“I’ll show you,” they said.
The mouse pointer moved across the desktop, diving into a series of folders until it accessed an unnamed program. A series of windows popped on-screen, displaying what appeared to be security camera angles of the inside of a hospital. One of the windows, captioned “Project Nymph,” maximized its size, filling the monitor. Textile and I leaned closer, eyes widening.
I saw an operating room of some kind, the central table modified with thick restraints. As we watched, a group of black-clad men and women carried a screaming teenage girl into the room, throwing her unceremoniously onto the table and fastening her arms and legs down to the cold metal. She struggled, her long, black hair swishing back and forth off the side of the table as she pulled at her restraints, to no avail.
“Is this a recording?” I asked.
“No,” S.S. answered in my ear. “This is a live stream.”
A man in a lab coat entered the room, holding a large syringe filled with some kind of black liquid. He approached her, checking his watch, before jamming the needle into her neck, depressing the plunger. Her screams intensified, growing more shrill, and the man in the lab coat nodded to one of the black-clad people, who reached over to a wireless speaker next to the table and swiveled the dial. Music blasted into the room, drowning out the girl’s cries.
“Mr. Mystery, you must’ve missed me!
Mr. Mystery, you make me miserable lately.
Mr. Mystery, maybe we could make some
Magic, oh baby, sweet Mr. Mystery . . .”
The man in the lab coat backed away, and the girl writhed in pain for a few more seconds before collapsing on the table, exhausted. He lowered the volume of Erica Leroux’s music, checking his watch again.
“Allow another twenty minutes of gestation,” he instructed, “then put her back in her cell.”
I looked away from the monitor, squeezing my eyes shut. “Where is this?”
“If my trace is correct, this feed is streaming from St. Dymphna Hospital, in midtown,” S.S. responded. “Likely a hidden basement level.”
“I can’t believe this,” Textile growled. “Black Pharaoh is running human experiments out of a hospital? And The Living Mortar is helping him?”
“I wouldn’t say ‘helping,’ per se,” a voice interrupted us. “Maybe ‘enabling’ is more appropriate.”
We looked up, startled, as The Living Mortar entered the room, loosening his bow tie. He smiled, shoving his hands in his pockets, his aviator goggles still dangling around his neck.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you two aren’t journalists,” he said, slowly approaching us. “Or, maybe you’re just very good journalists.”
“Get out of there,” S.S. said. “Now.”
Textile glared at the man, his free hand slowly drifting up toward the sling where his other arm rested. “Why? After all the good you’ve done for New General City, for the world, why are you doing this now?”
The Living Mortar shrugged. “Money? Power? Why do you care?”
Textile opened his mouth to speak again, but a new voice called out, stopping him.
“Rick? Rick! Where are- hm.”
A blur of neon rainbow lights burst into the room, decelerating near the center to reveal Treble Clef. He looked around for a second, absorbing his surroundings.
“Rick?” he finally said. “What is this place doing under your house?”
He turned to face The Living Mortar. “And who are these people?”
The Living Mortar sighed, and I felt a change sweep through the room, as if there was a shift in air pressure. Before anyone could react, he lashed out with one arm, backhanding Treble Clef across the helmet. The glass faceplate shattered as Treble Clef flew backwards into a gun rack, the display toppling over his body as he crumpled to the floor. The Living Mortar stretched his neck, returning his attention to us.
“I guess nuance is out of the question, now.”
I held up my hands. “We aren’t the only people investigating you. Other people outside of this room know about your treason. You can’t bury your secret with us.”
The Living Mortar clutched the edge of the desk with one hand, effortlessly lifting it into the air and tossing it aside. It smashed into the wall, exploding into splinters of wood and plastic, and The Living Mortar stepped closer, no longer impeded by the furniture.
“Yeah, you’ve pretty much fucked this operation,” he admitted, cracking his knuckles. “Doesn’t mean I have any reason to keep you-”
Textile flicked his arm forward, releasing a small grey sphere the size of golf ball. It struck The Living Mortar in the head, exploding into a semi-solid grey putty that plastered across his face. The traitor screamed, his voice muffled by the putty, and reached up, clutching at his face. He tried to pull the putty away, but he seemed unable to get a grip on the edges, and after a few seconds, he went limp, collapsing on the concrete with a heavy thud.
“Chloroform putty,” Textile explained to me. “If you can’t hit ‘em, put ‘em to sleep.”
“Good work, team,” S.S. said. “Get out of there so I can collect him.”
“Who are you going to bring with you?” I asked as we rushed up the stairs. “Spectral Man? Captain Arcturus?”
“No, this is going to stay below the radar,” S.S. said. “The mole has been identified and will be dealt with accordingly. Notifying the other Public Servants, or the people of New General City, would sow the seeds of distrust, both internally and externally.”
“So, you’re going to just lie?” I asked incredulously, lowering my voice as we entered the living room, still full of guests. “The people will never know about The Living Mortar and what he’s done?”
“We can’t compromise the good that The Public Servants bring to the world just to boast complete transparency,” S.S. said. “If anyone finds out one of us was secretly working for Black Pharaoh, we’ll get shut down. Our relationship with New General City is what allows us to protect it, along with the rest of the world.”
I wrinkled my nose in disgust as we exited The Living Mortar’s house, hurrying towards our car. “It sounds like you’re just scared of the consequences of your own ignorance.”
Textile glanced at me, eyes wide, and I heard nothing but silence in my ear for a moment. Finally, S.S. responded.
“I think it’s important to remove your feelings from-”
A massive explosion behind us rattled my eardrums, the shockwave lifting me off my feet and slamming me into the side of the car. As I slid to the ground, I turned to see The Living Mortar’s house in flames, most of the structure completely disintegrated. A shadow appeared, and I saw the valet stumble past us in a daze, blood leaking from his ears.
“Oh my God,” Textile said. “The people. The party guests. They were all still inside.”
A figure ascended from the burning home, their white hooded cloak fluttering in the wind. They turned to look at us, and I saw the light from the flames glimmer off of the lenses of their aviator goggles.
“The Living Mortar,” I growled.
Waving, he extended his arm, rocketing up into the clouds and out of sight.
“Emergency vehicles are en route,” S.S. said in my ear. “Your mission parameters have changed.”
“Oh yeah?” I spat angrily, ripping the prosthetic disguise from my face. “What now?”
S.S. sighed somberly before continuing.
“I need you to kill The Living Mortar.”
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