I leapt through Chicago, even though running would have been faster (collateral damage would have been a major issue, though), towards the lawyer’s office. I’d gotten the address out of my would-be assassins, after I’d threatened them with some rather creative uses of my power, and before I stripped them naked and sent them off. The lawyer who worked there doubled as an agent for supervillains, which wasn’t as rare as one might think – as a lawyer, she could simply funnel her agent work through her practice, claiming confidentiality and such to keep both her clients and herself protected. And if someone she worked with was captured, she could double as a reliable lawyer. And that didn’t even take into account the fact that good, reliable agents were even rarer than good, reliable lawyers, and according to the leader of the assassins, this one was one of the most well-regarded ones in Chicago, in both respects.
Quite the cozy setup, really. I wondered how she’d gotten past the initial issues of setting up both a law practice and making the necessary contacts in the underworld to act as an agent. She might have just inherited one or both sides, though. I put those thoughts out of my mind, then, and sped up a bit – I’d rather be back in bed sooner rather than later.
Strangely enough, the address led me to one of the finer residential areas of Chicago. White picket fences, large front- and backyards and expensive cars dominated the scenery. What kind of agent sets up shop in a place like this? I was getting a sneaking suspicion here…
When I landed in front of the address, said suspicion was sadly confirmed. She set up her practice in her own home!? It was quite… incongruous. She had a cheery mailbox, apparently made by a child, with a tall, blonde stick figure in green clothes holding the hand of a shorter blonde stick figure. The words ‘The Saltstons‘ were written in bright, cheery letters on the box.
Well, fuck. I had planned to break into her practice, go through her files. Maybe question her, if she was still there at this time of night (agents often led a nocturnal life). But I wasn’t just going to break into a family’s home. Much less one with a child living in it.
A boy and his mother, huh? I thought, looking closer at the mailbox. The thought made me feel… old. Tired. I wondered why the boy’s father wasn’t on the box. The monkey twitched, half in murderous anger and half in… less comfortable feelings. It took me a few moments to pull myself back together, and I punctuated them by running my fingers through my hair, returning it to some semblance of order (being clean and orderly made it easier to resist the monkey, all things considered).
I had a difficult decision to make. If I didn’t investigate this quickly, I risked the lawyer being tipped off and destroying her files, perhaps even leaving the city… though her having a child meant that she was less likely to go for that option. Maybe. She might be a horrid mother, who knew?
It does look rather cheerful, though, I thought as I looked at the painting on the mailbox, which was illuminated by one of the streetlights. The woman and the boy had both smiles painted on their faces, the boy even a wide grin. Those weren’t the pictures made by an unhappy child.
There wasn’t really a choice here, was there? I wasn’t going to harm a mother in front of her son. I turned away to leave, determined to follow this lead during the day, when she was more likely to be alone, the boy at school or at a friend’s place.
“It is a good thing, to have a conscience,” the words of my father spoke, old memories rising up unbidden. “Most everyone has one, and it is exceedingly hard to manipulate something you do not comprehend. A true master of the human mind is never a psychopath, for they do not understand many of the basic impulses that control humans.”
I shivered, frozen in midstep. I remembered that lesson. One of the earliest ones he’d given me, after my world broke down.
“But one must also master their conscience. It is good to let it guide you. It is never good to let it control you. Never let it make you hesitate – hesitation is always easy, rarely useful. Don’t let it make you neglect a beneficial course of action.”
“Fuck you, dad.” I spat the words, but there was no real venom in my voice. Perhaps because I knew he was right. Hell, I could imagine what he would say if he saw me now, including his precise tone of voice. “This woman is responsible for an attempt on your life. She deserves no more mercy than she showed you when she set a hit squad on you.” The monkey growled deep inside me, agreeing strongly with that line of thought. I could feel its need to lash out at those who threatened me, its need to hurt, to kill.
Perhaps she didn’t know the details of the orders she passed along, I thought, trying to sway myself.
“She knew she was passing on orders from her client to a group of mercenary assassins. Even if she didn’t know who the specific target was, she still gave implicit approval. And besides, she is your only link to whoever is behind this; unless you find them and neutralise the threat, there will be more attmepts,” my father’s voice in my head cut through my feeble arguments.
Maybe they lied. Maybe she’s not connected to this at all.
“I taught you better than that. You read them. You know they said the truth.”
I took a deep breath, calming myself. What did it say about me, that I had mental arguments with the memory of my father?
Worse, what did it say about me that he usually won?
Squaring my shoulders, I approached the house to break in and take a look around.
“Step one, son, is to know your mark.”
Time to bust out some of the old protocols.
* * *
I approached the house carefully, keeping an eye out for its security systems. I didn’t have any equipment with me, so I tapped the monkey’s night vision. It revealed some high quality security, but nothing I couldn’t deal with.
It also revealed the sign that advertised Mrs Saltson’s practice. Sara J. Saltson, Attorney At Law, followed by a phone number.
Soon enough, I was inside – she had some good security, modern, expensive stuff, but I’d spent more than a dozen years breaking into and out of high-security government facilities – and I snuck through the house, taking everything in.
The hallway beyond the front door was rather short. To the right was the door to her law office. I assumed the door on the left led to her actual home. Her office, first. Quickly, but thoroughly.
The office was big. A converted living room, probably. A large window span the entire length of the wall opposing the door, though it was currently darkened by the shutters being closed. There were was a huge, antique bookshelf on the righthand wall, reaching from one corner to the next, and it was filled to the brim in neatly arranged books. A quick look over it revealed that they were all used books – she’d read all of them, I was certain. Or at least skimmed through most and read some others.
The lefthand wall held a huge flatscreen television in its center, where it could easily be seen from both her desk and the seats in front of it. It was even mounted on a small contraption that allowed for it swing out towards the desk, for more comfortable viewing. There was also a liquor cabinet to the right of the screen, in easy reach of the desk. Stocked with an expensive but rarely tapped selection of alcohol.
The desk itself was antique, and looked massive enough to stop a charging brick. It was made of nearly black mahagoni wood, appearing to be a nearly solid block of wood from the front, with some subtle carvings of stylised roses that appealed to the eye but didn’t detract from its imposing design. The other side was covered in drawers.
I skimmed through them. Most were locked, most likely containing her confidential files, but the two topmost ones were not. The left one contained a small, unusual-looking handgun – something handcrafted, perhaps by a gadgeteer; a weapon to defend yourself against superpowered clients, perhaps, who got too aggressive.
The right one was empty save for a handmade good-luck-charm (several colourful ribbons tied in a four-leaf-clover shape) and a picture of a grinning boy with blonde hair and bright grey eyes. He couldn’t be more than nine years old. The photograph looked new, too.
Curious, that she wouldn’t have it framed and on her desk. I filed that thought away as I worked through the rest of the desk. It told me a few interesting things.
Now, the mark herself. I left the office after I made sure everything looked exactly how it had been before I’d entered, and broke into the house proper. I quickly took in the actual living room and the kitchen – all very neat, save for a lot of books that were lying everywhere in small, neat stacks. Lots of pictures everywhere, of the woman and her son. No father, no other family or friends.
Then I crept up the stairs. The second floor was not very interesting to me. The first room was just a closet, the second a bare-bones guest room that hadn’t seen any use in quite a while. Three more rooms, one on each side and one at the end of the hallway. I could hear soft breathing from behind the door at the end, so I tried the other two first.
One was an utterly decadent, huge bathroom. I mean, it looked like it belonged into a ritzy hotel, not a private home. The bath tub doubled as a hot tub, and it looked like it was used heavily, but kept rigorously clean.
The other room proved to be an (empty) boy’s bedroom. It was nicely furnished and brightly coloured, but it felt like it didn’t see much use. I wonder why…
I got my answer when I snuck into her bedroom. It was big, it was comfortable, and there were two people in the huge queen-sized bed. A woman and a boy, cuddled up beneath a thin blanket (the room was well-heated).
Ah crap. This would be so much easier if she was abusive, or neglectful, but from the way the two held onto each other, I could tell that there was a lot of adoration there.
A sigh escaped my lips. No use, man. You need this information. Your life might depend on it. And who knows whose else.
I studied the woman, briefly, then I left again, leaving the house without any evidence of my brief presence left behind.
It had taken me less than fifteen minutes to work through all of it.
* * *
I quickly returned to my house. I’d gotten enough out of my inspection, and now I had to prepare for the interrogation. I assuaged my conscience by telling it that the more thorough my preparations, the more expertly the actual dialogue, the less actual harm I would have to cause, be it physical (which, frankly, I wasn’t going to do) or mental (I’d rather avoid that, beyond the most basic stress and fear, if possible).
“Analyse your mark. Observe its home, its workplace, its appearance and behaviour”, my father’s voice whispered into my ear. “Do not look at the mask it wears. Its house will be different from its workplace because everyone wears a different mask to different occasions. But all masks are based on the same states of mind. Observe, analyse, compare. Determine the state of mind behind the mask.”
She was a strong woman. A single mother who blended her work and her taking care of her son, taking the risk of having her practice in her own house so she’d always be near her boy. On the way back, I’d ascertained that the nearest elementary school was just down the street, less than ten minutes at a comfortable pace. No husband, no family close enough to warrant a picture in her house. No friends on the photographs, either, save for a single shot of her and a few other women in very expensive clothing. Friends, judging by the expressions and stances, the way they’d stood together – but her boy was the center of her life, without question.
It would have been easy to use the boy, to pressure her through him. My father would have recommended that I do it, subtly, carefully. Never breaking the Code, of course, but still using him (he himself rarely, if ever, had need of such crude methods).
I felt like throwing up just considering the option, and quickly dismissed it.
Instead, I was going to use a different approach. And that necessitated that I look… professional. Respectable. First came a thorough shower, a shave and the use of various products my daughter had apparently picked out for me (or had others pick out, who knew?) on my face and hair.
Afterwards, I looked for the suit I’d worn until recently – it was mostly fine, but visibly worn… Perhaps Elouise thought to provide me with a fitting suit. It would beat having to track down one of the special tailors that most likely still made a living providing quick costumes for capes and cowls. I don’t have that much time, anyway. I should finish this before the sun comes up.
I checked, and ‘lo and behold, I actually had three suits. I picked a particularly expensive-looking one (a dark maroon-coloured pair of pants, jacket and vest, with a black shirt to be worn beneath) and tried it on. It didn’t fit perfectly, but well enough for my purposes (I’d have to take it to a tailor some time, if I intended to keep using it), so I put on a pair of black socks and took a polished pair of black leather shoes (it appears to me that my daughter was going for a theme when she picked out my clothes) that were in a plastic bag, and which fit quite nicely. I should ask her where she got my measurements, I thought to myself as I adjusted my tie.
Once I was done, I checked my hair over once more, moved about a bit to get used to the shoes and pants, and left the house again.
Calling up the monkey’s skin to keep my hair and suit safe from dirt, the wind and anything else that may spoil my looks, I made my way to the Saltston home.
Time to get this show started.