Moreen Lee stared down the security camera as it watched her. Then she punched in the code that she’d gotten from the client. A light on the keypad blinked green, and the ornate, iron security gate across the client’s driveway swung slowly open.
Satisfied, Moreen leaned back into her car and closed the window, cutting off the scent of salty sea air. The client’s mansion was right across the street from the beach, a narrow strip of white sand that charged fifteen dollars an hour for parking. The house was three stories tall, with balconies on both the second and third floors. A kitchenette and bar were visible on the second balcony, bringing to mind extravagant parties and guests laughing over champagne. The white railing bore decorations of seahorses and starfish, and the walls were a cheery, pastel yellow that gave it a definite South Florida feel. Moreen could see two garages and guessed the place had twenty rooms at minimum.
But as she drove closer, the perfect illusion faded. Patches of shingles were missing from the roof, and water stains marred the yellow walls near the ground. The fountain that the driveway wrapped around had been turned off, and the stagnant water had gone moldy green.
Moreen killed the ignition and drummed her fingers against the steering wheel. Either the client didn’t care how the place looked—which was unlikely given the millions it must have cost—or money was too tight to fix it.
I’d better get a deposit up front, she thought. Then she got out, strode up the front steps, and rang the doorbell.
Another security camera watched her from the top left corner of the entryway, and she wondered if anyone was monitoring the feed, assessing her. Moreen was almost fifty, her brown hair streaked with gray and cropped at chin-length so she didn’t have to spend much time fixing it. In a perfect world, she’d be wearing jeans and a T-shirt right now, but all those years running the DSA had taught her the importance of appearances. She’d made an effort on her first impression: khaki slacks, a white blouse, and a checkered brown blazer. The purse clutched in her left hand held all the essentials: a pair of binoculars, handcuffs, her trusty taser—that sort of thing.
Less than a minute passed before her client opened the door.
“Ms. Lee! Thank you so much for coming.”
“No problem,” she replied, stepping inside. “And please, call me Moreen.”
Moreen wasn’t trying to be nice. It’s just that “Ms. Lee” sounded wrong somehow. Agent Lee? Perfect. Director Lee? Just fine. But “Ms. Lee” was like a shirt that had shrunk in the wash and didn’t quite fit anymore.
“Then you must call me Adela.”
Adela led her to a living room with sliding glass doors overlooking a pool and gestured for her to sit on a plush couch. She offered refreshments, and Moreen accepted a water, letting her client play hostess if that made her feel more comfortable. Eventually, the woman settled into an armchair across from Moreen, nervously sipping from a cup of tea she’d prepared herself.
“Why don’t you explain what brought you to contact my office,” Moreen said. “And how I can help.”
Adela took one last swallow of tea and then set the cup on the coffee table. She was an attractive woman around Moreen’s age, extra pounds sitting on her frame in a way most people would describe as voluptuous rather than chubby. Her brown hair had blonde highlights and was pulled back into a clip on the back of her head, and she wore a bright blue dress that ended just above her knees.
Her full name was Dr. Adela Ruiz Yates, and she was a plastic surgeon. No criminal records or other red flags had popped up when Moreen had done a quick background check. She’d been divorced once and had married her current husband, Dalton Yates, about five years ago, and from what Moreen could gather from their brief email exchange, he was the reason for the case.
“Like I said, my husband has been…disappearing. It’s not unusual for him to spend the day at the beach or hit the gym in the evening, but it’s been happening a lot more lately. The last straw was right before I contacted you.” Adela smoothed back her hair, though not a strand was out of place. “The house was empty when I got home from work. He hadn’t said anything about going anywhere, and we had a dinner reservation. I called his phone, but it went straight to voicemail. I figured I’d call the gym, see if the people at the front desk could find him, but they said he wasn’t there.”
She picked up her teacup, breathing heavily as she took another sip. “I was worried—you can imagine all the things going through my head, but he turned up an hour later, saying he’d just forgotten about our dinner date. When I asked him where he’d been, he said the gym.”
She set the cup down hard, and a few drops sloshed onto the coffee table. “Maybe it seems silly to accuse him of having an affair based on one little lie—but it’s more than that. There’s a thousand little ways he’s been acting strange and distant over the past few weeks.”
“I believe in trusting your instincts,” Moreen said simply.
Adela nodded. “He’s… I know what people think. He’s ten years younger than me and very handsome—he was almost a superhero, you know.”
“Was he?” Moreen hadn’t known that, which meant she should’ve spent more time looking into him.
“He dropped out of the Academy, but yes. He can walk up walls and cling to the ceiling—it’s pretty neat. And he’s definitely good-looking enough for the job. He wouldn’t have any trouble attracting another woman. I—” She looked down at her hands, twisting her wedding ring. “We’ve had to make some lifestyle changes over the last half a year—bad investments—and I can’t help but think he’s traded me in for someone with a fatter wallet. Maybe it’s just as well. Our relationship has definitely cooled down a lot over the past couple years, but…”
She took a deep breath, straightening up and looking surer of herself. “But I want to know for sure if he’s cheating. We have a prenup. If you can get me evidence that he’s having an affair, then he won’t get one cent of my money when we divorce.”
“Got it,” Moreen said. “I can run surveillance on him for a few days. If photos are what you need, I’ll get them.”
She kept her tone professional and positive, trying not to let any disappointment show. When setting up her PI business, she’d known that infidelity cases would keep the lights on, but that wasn’t what had drawn her to the job. She’d dreamed of tracking down missing persons and finding evidence to convict criminals, of building a reputation for solving difficult problems that fell through the cracks of the law. Eventually, she wanted offices in multiple states, to grow her business into security consulting as well as investigations, to rake in enough money that she could take cases pro bono and help those who had nowhere else to turn.
But she had to start somewhere, and this was it.
She walked Adela through what she could and couldn’t expect from a private investigator and then went over her husband’s routines, hobbies, and hangouts in detail. When Moreen explained her hourly rates, she watched Adela carefully, but the woman showed no signs of worry that she couldn’t afford it, and her credit card cleared when Moreen swiped it through her mobile reader.
“Do you mind if I poke around the house?” Moreen asked. “He probably wouldn’t leave anything incriminating lying around, but you never know.”
“Of course.” Adela twisted her ring nervously again, but that didn’t mean she had anything to hide. Moreen would be nervous about a stranger rummaging around her house too.
She started in a room Adela claimed was Dalton’s office, though it was dusty with disuse. The computer was top of the line, and Moreen went through his browser history, but nothing suspicious popped out at her. He’d left himself logged into all his social media accounts, which was lucky. Moreen scrolled through his profile, which showed photo after photo of him shirtless: shirtless selfie at the beach, shirtless while lifting weights, flexing his muscles in front of the mirror while shirtless—oh, there was one with the shirt half on, him pulling it up to point at his abs.
Moreen went into his messages, opening the ones with women’s names. If she could find some dirty talk or plans for a rendezvous, her job was done—anticlimactic and too easy, but hey, a paycheck was a paycheck.
Sadly, it wasn’t that simple. The messages were completely innocuous: one from Adela’s sister asking advice on a birthday present for her; another from a former classmate making sure he knew the date of their school reunion; and a third from a gym friend trying to convince him to join a marathon next month.
Did that mean there was nothing to find, or was Yates just too savvy to leave evidence online?
Moreen checked her assumptions and read through the messages from men too, but she found nothing again. Leaving the computer, she began searching the rest of the house. She looked through filing cabinets and in closets, under beds and inside dresser drawers. It was tedious and time-consuming—but worth it. She was going through the master bathroom when she found it: a small plastic baggie of silver powder hidden inside a contact lens box.
Moreen brought it downstairs to where Adela waited in the living room. “Recognize this?”
Adela’s smooth forehead scrunched up as she squinted at it. “No. What is it? Is it— Is it drugs?”
“Not sure,” Moreen said, though she had a strong suspicion. It would be irresponsible to tell her client until she was certain, though. “I’ll take a sample to a lab I work with and have it analyzed, if that’s alright with you.”
Adela nodded mutely, and Moreen poured a small amount of the powder into one of the plastic bags she carried in her purse, careful not to let any touch her skin. The silvery dust glittered in the light, and Moreen replaced the original baggie inside the contact lens box where she’d found it. Hopefully, Yates wouldn’t notice anything awry.
Adela hovered behind her until she was finished. “Do you think I should ask him about it?”
Moreen worded her response carefully. “In the end, it’s your decision. But I recommend you keep quiet until I can uncover more. We don’t want to tip him off that you’re suspicious of him.”
“Right.” Adela’s eyes went distant for a second, but then she focused on Moreen. “Of course. I won’t say anything for now.”
Moreen promised to update her as soon as she found something, and Adela walked her to the door. As Moreen climbed back into her car, conscious of what was most likely illegal drugs in her purse, she wondered just what Mr. Dalton Yates had gotten himself into.
It was a long drive, and traffic was horrible, but that was par the course for South Florida. Then again, the only other place Moreen had lived was DC, so she honestly didn’t know what good traffic looked like. It took her over an hour to reach the big office building that held the lab. Ten stories tall and covered in mirrored glass, it contained a maze of doctors’ offices and medical businesses. Moreen knew her way around by now and made her way briskly to Hargrave’s office.
Tonia, the receptionist, waved cheerfully when she walked into the lobby, then picked up a phone and told Hargrave she was there. Moreen sat in the waiting area, glad she’d managed to get there before everyone left at five. She pulled out her phone, thinking she might study Yates’s social media some more, but Hargrave came out before she could even pull up his profile.
Dr. Lawrence Hargrave was a former DSA researcher who gave Moreen feelings she had no business having. A handsome Black man, he was a few inches taller than her and a few years younger, with salt and pepper hair and a short, matching beard. Beneath his white lab coat, he wore a matching navy vest and slacks with a striped tie, and he pulled off the look with style.
He’d worked for the DSA for years, having been instrumental in developing some of the drugs the organization used to suppress the powers of supervillains in prison, until his jerkass boss had given him shit one too many times and driven him off. Now Hargrave owned his own business and took fat government contracts to do practically the same work he’d done before. Moreen respected the hell out of him, and she hoped she could recover from her own tumultuous departure from the DSA just as skillfully.
“Come on back,” he said.
She stepped past him as he held the door open for her, catching the scent of his earthy cologne. Butterflies filled her stomach, and if she could’ve taken a flamethrower to the stupid, fluttery things, she would have. She had a job to do; there was no time for things like that.
“What have you got for me?” Hargrave asked, leading her down the hall.
Moreen pulled the plastic bag out of her purse and handed it to him.
“Psyc?” he asked, taking one look at the silvery powder.
“That’s what it looks like, but I need confirmation.”
“That stuff has been turning up everywhere lately,” he grumbled, opening the door to a lab.
Moreen agreed, not liking it one bit. She knew the supervillain who produced the drug—a twisted scientist who’d orchestrated the attack on Moreen that had gotten her ousted from the DSA. Psyc gave people temporary telepathy, so she could see why it was tempting, but it tended to leave its users with seizures, brain hemorrhages, and all kinds of nasty side effects. Yates would get arrested if Moreen tipped off the police to his possession, and honestly, she’d be doing him a favor by getting him sent to jail and cut off from that stuff.
If it was really psyc. Moreen didn’t like to make assumptions.
Hargrave poured a small bit of the powder onto a microscope slide. “I’ll have a definite answer for you tomorrow.”
One side of his mouth curved upward. “I’m not sure what you think I do here, Lee, but it’s not waving a magic wand and getting immediate answers. The tests I need to do take time—and you’re not my only client, you know.”
“Fine,” she said, and she meant it. She didn’t like waiting, but she could be patient when there was no other choice.
But apparently, “fine” wasn’t enough for Hargrave.
“Do you know I’ve come across three variants of psyc that I think were made by Dr. Sweet?” he asked. “And at least two attempts at copycat versions? You’re lucky I can identify it, let alone analyze it.”
“All right, already. I get it.” Moreen kept her tone light and teasing. “You’re a genius and a very busy man, and I’m oh so grateful you deign to help me out with my little problems. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“No, but it does sound nice.” He folded his arms and leaned against the table. “Go on. Tell me more about how brilliant I am.”
“Pfft. Just call me as soon as you know something, all right?”
The smile fell from his face. “Is it urgent? If someone’s in danger, I can see about speeding things up.”
“No,” Moreen admitted. “Though if it is psyc, I need to let my client know that her husband probably read her mind and knows she hired a private investigator.” She held in a sigh, not relishing the idea of breaking the bad news to Adela. “But you should still speed things up because we’re friends.”
His voice turned low, his gaze weighty. “Is that what we are?”
Goosebumps ran up Moreen’s arms—thank goodness the sleeves of her blazer hid them. Her face had better not be blushing, or she was going to slap herself. “Are you saying we’re not?”
“I’m saying that friends usually talk outside of work. You only call me when you need something.”
Ouch. So that hadn’t been a flirty insinuation about becoming more than friends. He was completely serious.
“I guess I won’t be getting a friendship bracelet from you anytime soon, huh?” She was happy with how unphased her voice sounded, because the accusation stung.
“I could stand to hear from you more often,” he said with a shrug.
Moreen wasn’t antisocial. She had work friends—or she used to. Back when she’d been a DSA agent, she’d go out for drinks or lunch with colleagues. But then she’d become the director, and she hadn’t had colleagues anymore. Being the boss put distance between her and everyone else in the department, and she’d been so busy with national security concerns and politics that she hadn’t had time for a social life anyway. It hadn’t really bothered her that much.
Okay, maybe she was a little antisocial.
“Right,” she said. “I guess this is an awkward moment to say that I’m heading out.”
“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable—”
“Yeah, you hurt my feelings. I’m going straight home to drown my sorrows in a pint of ice cream.” She smacked him lightly on the arm. “Seriously, I’ve got work to do. You have a good night, Hargrave. And call me—”
“—as soon as I know anything,” he finished with a smile. “I will. Take care of yourself out there, Lee.”
Moreen left, feeling oddly regretful. Part of her had wanted that conversation with Hargrave to go differently, while the rest of her felt nice and comfortable with the status quo. She didn’t know what she wanted, so she pushed the problem to the back of her mind and focused on the case.
Traffic update: the roads were still horrible, and it took her another hour to get home. As she fixed herself some dinner, she called an old friend at the Academy. (See? She hadn’t been lying when she’d said she had friends.)
“Moreen Lee,” a male voice greeted. “How’s it going?”
“Hey, Attwater. I need a favor.”
He chuckled. “Of course you do.”
Kirk Attwater had been a good agent and had taken up a teaching post at the Academy when an injury took him out of the field. He and Moreen had worked together a number of times over the years.
“I’m looking for information on a former student, Dalton Yates. Can you tell me why he didn’t graduate?”
“Sure. I mean, I technically shouldn’t, but I can. Give me a second to get to my computer.”
It still irked Moreen that she hadn’t known Yates had special abilities until Adela had brought it up. It didn’t necessarily mean he was a threat. People dropped out of the Academy for all sorts of reasons, but there were always some who got expelled because they had violent tempers, or it became clear that they only wanted to become a superhero so they could legally beat the living tar out of people. With the possibly that Yates knew his wife was thinking about a divorce, Moreen wanted reassurance that Adela wasn’t in any danger.
“Here we are,” Attwater said. “Dalton Yates. Can walk on walls, huh? That would’ve been useful.”
Moreen waited as he scanned the file, stirring a pot of pasta she had cooking on the stove.
“Looks like he couldn’t keep his head under pressure,” Attwater said. “The notes from his instructors say he panicked during one too many simulations. And his scores on the paper tests were pretty mediocre. Does that help?”
“It does. Thanks, Attwater.” Moreen could worry a little less, at least. Then, mindful of Hargrave’s accusations that she only called when she needed something, she asked, “So how’s life at the Academy?”
They chatted for about fifteen more minutes, Moreen grinning as Attwater griped about how pathetic this year’s batch of recruits were. (He said that every year.) Then they said their goodbyes, and Moreen sat down to dinner.
She always watched the news as she ate, and tonight, the top story was a big diamond heist that Freezefire had helped stop. Moreen liked Freezefire: an earnest, intense young man who’d never let the hero lifestyle swell his head. It was about time he got his due as his own superhero, rather than the kid who used to be White Knight’s sidekick.
As the news anchor reported the DSA was still tracking down the mastermind behind the attempted robbery, Moreen felt a mix of yearning and regret. She wanted to be in on the action, interrogating the robbers they’d arrested and searching their hideout. She missed the DSA—but at the same time, she didn’t. She’d stopped seeing any action there once she’d taken the position of director. After that, she’d spent her time trying to stretch an inch-long budget a mile and brownnosing pompous dingbats in Congress so they’d let the department be effective. It was a crucial job, but not one Moreen had enjoyed.
But she couldn’t have it back even if she wanted. Not after Dr. Sweet’s telepathic minion had psychically attacked her, putting her in the hospital. Moreen had been deemed a liability after that. Who knew what telepathic commands could be lying dormant in her brain? She could have been turned into a sleeper agent, and it would be irresponsible to leave her in a position of power with access to national secrets.
Or at least, that’s what her political rivals had said, and it must have sounded convincing, because Moreen had been forced into retirement soon after.
But she wasn’t going to cry about it. Though she hated how it had come about, she had what she wanted now: an escape from the tedium of a desk job, and freedom from politics that had forced her to smile and talk nice when she wanted to call someone a brainless buffoon. She had her own PI license, and someday she’d be the best in the business.
If she had to follow around a few cheating husbands to get there, then so be it.
Bright and early the next morning, Moreen parked her car along the beach across the street from the Yates’ mansion. Sunshades across the windshield hid her from prying eyes, and she slouched in her seat to avoid being seen through the side windows. Back in the day, she would have turned off the engine and suffered in the heat to give the impression of an empty vehicle. But she’d bought herself an electric car after retirement, which was as silent as the dead.
She watched through binoculars as Adela left for work a little before seven. The front driveway was the only way on and off the property, which was fenced in and bordered by other massive mansions on the remaining sides. If Dalton Yates left the house, he’d have to pass by Moreen—unless he climbed the fence in the back and snuck off on foot. Which he might do if he knew he was being watched, but Moreen had no hard evidence of that yet. She could always adjust her strategy later if he slipped past her.
The first two hours passed in a kind of comfortable boredom, but by the third, Moreen felt restless. By the fourth, she was deliberating bathroom options, but that’s when Yates left the house. He wasn’t in a car though. He strolled out the gate, waited half a minute for a break in traffic, and jogged across the street to the beach.
Moreen grabbed her hat and purse and followed him.
Enough people filled the beach to give her some cover, and she knew how to tail someone without getting noticed. Her hat was a floral nightmare that, combined with her sunglasses, would hide her features. And frankly, she just wasn’t that suspicious looking. When people thought PI, they pictured a man with a five o’clock shadow, maybe a trench coat. Most everyone overlooked women of a certain age—which was an advantage Moreen would take.
Yates’s hands were stuffed into his pockets, and he glanced over his shoulder every now and then. Nervous? That was promising. It could mean he was on his way to meet his new lady friend.
He approached a little bar just off the beach. It was a small building, bright green and yellow paint faded by the ceaseless assault of sun and saltwater. Most of the seating was outside under brightly colored umbrellas. Yates walked up to the counter, paid for a beer, and then joined a woman already sitting at one of the tables.
Moreen stopped and raised her camera. She started with a shot of the ocean, pretending to be a tourist just interested in the view. Gradually, she kept turning, snapping the beach and finally the bar. Satisfied that she had something to show Adela, she took a few more picture of the beach to obscure her intentions. Then she lowered the camera and strode leisurely towards the bar.
If Moreen had to bet, she’d say Yates had met his companion at the gym. The woman was built, a tattoo with a circuit board design running down one of her muscular arms. Her short, dark hair had an asymmetrical, stylish cut, and she wore a plain tank top and torn jeans. She sneered in response to whatever Yates was saying.
Something about her seemed familiar.
Moreen searched her memory as she bought a bottled water at the bar. Had she met the woman before? That didn’t feel right. Maybe she just looked like a celebrity.
That didn’t feel right either, and the woman’s identity irritated Moreen like an itch she couldn’t scratch. She took a seat two tables away from them and tried not to frown. The crashing waves made eavesdropping tricky, but she caught a few phrases.
“—don’t wuss out,” the woman said.
A gust of wind flapping the umbrellas drowned out Yates’s response, but he looked peeved. The woman smirked at him.
“If you say so.” She chugged the rest of her beer, stood, and winked at him. “See you tonight, then.”
She sauntered off, a swing in her hips, but Yates didn’t seem to appreciate the view. He glowered at her back and took a swig of beer. Moreen watched him, but he didn’t seem eager to go anywhere, so she took the chance to dash to the small bathroom beside the bar. When she came back out, Yates was still there, staring darkly at the ocean.
He stayed there for so long that Moreen went back to the bar and ordered nachos to explain why she was still hanging around. She probably shouldn’t have bothered, since Yates looked lost in his own head—she doubted he’d notice if she stood on the table and started dancing the can-can. She nibbled on the nachos, which were decadently cheesy and had a nice kick of spice, until Yates heaved himself up and trudged back the way he’d come.
Her phone buzzed inside her purse. She pulled it out, saw Lawrence’s name, and accepted the call.
“Hey,” she said.
It was good to hear his voice. She really should call him more often.
“What have you got for me?” she asked, tracking Yates’s progress across the beach.
“No surprises,” he replied. “It’s psyc like we thought. It matches one of the earlier versions Sweet put out before he upped the potency, so your guy may have had it for a while. That’s all I can give you.”
“That’s a big help.” Moreen stood. She couldn’t bear to trash the rest of the nachos, so she carried the paper tray with her as she started after Yates. “Thanks, Lawrence. I’ll talk to you later.”
She repressed the guilty twinge in her stomach at his sigh.
“Sure,” he said. “Later.”
Moreen stuffed the phone back into her purse and picked up her pace, Yates having gotten too far ahead of her. She weaved around sunbathers and dodged running, shrieking children, slowly closing the distance between herself and her target.
Yates kicked a plastic bottle that lay in his path, sending it bouncing and rolling across the sand, and Moreen thought back on the rendezvous she’d witnessed. He and the woman hadn’t acted like giddy new lovers. Was Yates having second thoughts? If he’d taken psyc and found out his wife had hired a private investigator, it might have cooled his passions. But he hadn’t been looking over his shoulder nearly enough for someone who knew they had a PI on their tail. And wouldn’t he have recognized Moreen? Sunglasses and a hat weren’t exactly a foolproof disguise.
Maybe he didn’t know for sure. Psyc gave people telepathic abilities but not the skill and experience to use them properly. Moreen knew of plenty of telepaths who’d had breakdowns or drugged themselves to oblivion because of their powers. She’d heard it described as losing yourself, not knowing which voices in your head were yours or other people’s. Out of all the superpowers in the world, it was one of the most difficult to handle.
So Yates might not know for sure that Adela had hired a PI. He might just have picked up her feelings of suspicion, which evidently wasn’t enough to stop him from arranging to meet the woman again that evening. Although, as Moreen thought back to their less-than-affectionate interaction, she wondered if he really wanted to. Was the woman blackmailing him somehow?
Again, Moreen couldn’t stop thinking that she knew her from somewhere. And that somewhere was probably related to the DSA, given that Moreen’s job had always been her life. Had Yates met the woman during his Academy days? Moreen didn’t know every single superhero out there. Your New Yorks and Miamis got the famous heroes with flashy powers, but plenty of small towns across the states had their own local heroes with less impressive abilities, like the power to shoot bubbles from one’s hands.
Yates crossed the street and headed back inside his mansion, and Moreen slipped into her car and started it, ready to take off after him wherever he went next. But no car emerged from the driveway. Yates wasn’t on the move—maybe he wouldn’t be until his rendezvous that evening, though that didn’t make any sense. Wouldn’t he want to meet his paramour while his wife was at work? Why wait? Did they have a date at a show or a dinner reservation? Not exactly the smartest decision.
Munching on the nachos, Moreen opened the browser on her phone. She needed to know more about the woman Yates had met. If Moreen were still with the DSA, she could use their facial recognition software and huge database of persons of interest to find a match, but on her own, she had to be more resourceful.
Thank goodness for Superfan Central.
The website was a massive archive of superheroes and supervillains managed by fans. Filled with photos and superpower specs, it listed their recent appearances, known allies and enemies, most famous achievements, and just about any other information you could want. The pages were filled with links to interviews and individual fan sites, and fans could add their own updates to be approved by the moderators.
Moreen didn’t know a name, so she searched for the words “circuit board tattoo,” and a result came up:
Dana Reiter, AKA Kill Signal.
She was a supervillain.
Moreen’s eyes raced down the screen, devouring information as quickly as possible. On second thought, maybe calling Reiter a supervillain was a bit generous. That implied grand schemes, insidious powers, and control of the criminal underworld ala the Prophet King or the Black Valentine. Kill Signal was more like a minion for hire.
She had the power to disrupt electronics equipment, most notably security cameras. That’s why she seemed familiar. Moreen remembered when Kill Signal had been arrested and convicted. She should have served out her sentence in the Inferno, a super-max prison in the middle of the desert built to hold criminals with special abilities. But there had been concerns that, despite superpower-repressing drugs, she might screw with the security system—which held some extremely dangerous prisoners—so she’d been sent elsewhere. Moreen had heard the chatter around the office.
According to the website, Kill Signal had finished her four-year sentence around three months ago. Moreen opened another tab and searched for arrest warrants under Reiter’s name, finding none. So she hadn’t gotten into trouble since her release—yet. Did she have money stashed away from a job she’d pulled before her arrest? Is that why Yates was romancing her?
No. Moreen had been caught up in the cheating premise of this case, the narrative of a wife hiring a PI to investigate an adulterous husband, that she was missing the obvious. Yates and Kill Signal hadn’t acted like lovers at all. Their relationship was business, not pleasure.
So why was Yates meeting a superpowered criminal for drinks?
New theory. Using psyc, Yates found out Adela was considering a divorce. He knew about the prenup, and maybe he did cheat on Adela with someone else. Figuring that Adela’s dwindling fortune was better than no money at all, he planned to kill her so that he’d inherit everything, and hired Kill Signal to deal with the security cameras around the mansion and hide his tracks. That would explain why they were meeting tonight when Adela would be home.
Moreen was making a lot of assumptions based on little evidence, but she couldn’t deny the possibility that Adela was in danger. If nothing else, her husband had gotten mixed up with a shady criminal, and it was time Moreen gave her client an update.
She called her, and Adela picked up after the second ring. “Moreen. Just a second.”
Shuffling and the thump of a door closing came over the speaker. Then Adela said, “Okay. What did you find? Just—Just give it to me straight.”
“First off, the powder hidden in his bathroom is psyc,” Moreen said without preamble.
“Psyc? Isn’t that what lets people read minds?”
“Yes. You need to consider the possibility that he’s read yours and knows you hired me.”
Adela gasped, and Moreen wondered if giving it to her straight was really the best idea. She was used to dealing with field agents and intelligence analysts. She gave them bad news, and if they didn’t like it, she told them to suck it up and do their job. Adela might prefer someone who could break the news to her gently—but Moreen had never been one to sugarcoat things.
“Does the name Dana Reiter mean anything to you?” Moreen asked.
“No? Is that the other woman? I knew it! I knew he was going behind my back! I’m going to make him regret ever—”
“Dana Reiter is a supervillain known as Kill Signal,” Moreen said, cutting her off.
“They met at a bar on the beach near your house but only had a quick conversation. Do you know if Dalton has ever been involved in any criminal activity before?”
“No. Of course not!”
Moreen hadn’t found anything when she’d background checked him either, though she certainly could have missed something the way she’d missed him having gone to the Academy.
“And I hate to ask this, Adela, but do you think he would hurt you?”
The line was silent for several long seconds. “If you’d asked me that yesterday, I’d have said no way, but after learning about the psyc and this supervillain… I just don’t know. I don’t know what to think about any of this.”
“It’s all right,” Moreen said. “I’m going to figure it out. From the bits of their conversation I overheard, they’re planning on meeting tonight. I’ll follow Dalton and find out what they’re up to. In the meantime… I hope I’m being overcautious, but I don’t think you should go home tonight. Could you tell Dalton you had a work emergency and had to go out of town?”
“No,” she said slowly. “That wouldn’t make any sense. I have my own practice and make my own hours.”
“A family emergency, then?”
“That could work. I’ve had to babysit for my sister before when something came up.”
They worked out a few more details about the cover story, and Moreen hung up, promising to be in touch.
Then she settled in to wait.
* * *
Yates didn’t leave the house until after midnight, this time by car. Moreen followed, knowing she’d have to be extra careful. Fewer cars on the road meant more of a chance of him noticing her. Part of her almost welcomed the idea of him trying to shake her; at least a car chase would be some excitement after all that sitting and waiting. But the rest of her had no intention of jeopardizing all those hours of work.
Luckily, she didn’t have to follow him for long. He drove down the road parallel to the beach for maybe five minutes before turning onto a side street. Moreen turned too, but when he parked in front of a house, she kept driving to the end of the block. Then she made a U-turn, parked on the roadside in the first open space she found, and doubled back on foot.
There were no streetlamps, and none of the houses had their porch lights on at this hour, so the street was incredibly dark. Still, Moreen moved cautiously, keeping close to a line of bushes for cover. She could hear the hum of a house’s air-conditioning unit and the rumble of cars on the main road, the low roar of waves hitting the shore in the distance. These houses weren’t right across the street from the beach, but they were within walking distance and still must cost a fortune. Yates’s van was parked in front of the biggest one, and it sat there silently as Moreen drew closer. Had Yates already gotten out while Moreen had been parking?
Boots stomping against the pavement made Moreen freeze. Someone else was there—close by. Moreen crouched, taking cover behind a stone mailbox shaped like a dolphin, and searched the dark street.
There. A woman in a skintight suit approached the van. Kill Signal. Moreen raised her camera and set it to night mode. The same darkness that hid her would make it nearly impossible to take a good photo, but maybe she could get something.
Yates got out of the van, the bang of the door closing echoing through the quiet night.
He was wearing a costume, complete with a mask and cape.
“You ready, newbie?” Kill Signal asked.
“I’ve got this,” Yates said. “I read her mind. I know exactly where the safe is along with the combination, and I can get to the second floor easily. You just make sure you do your part.”
“You got it, boss.” Kill Signal’s voice carried just a hint of mockery.
Moreen couldn’t make out Yates’s face in the darkness, but she guessed he was glaring. Then he spun, cape billowing out behind him, and stalked toward the house. Moreen snapped a picture before retreating some distance away and dialing the cops.
She’d thought about contacting the authorities before, but what evidence did she have? Kill Signal had served out her sentence, and she’d only said something vague about meeting Yates tonight. If one of Moreen’s agents had brought her that and nothing else, she’d have kicked them out of her office. This, though? This was a whole different ball game.
“Nine-one-one. What’s your emergency?” asked the operator.
“Robbery in progress,” Moreen whispered. “On Hibiscus Street by—”
Her phone went dead.
“Well, well.” Kill Signal raised her voice, and it carried easily across the silent street. “A good Samaritan. How nice. Why don’t you come out, so I can thank you?”
Well, crap. Moreen had thought she’d been speaking quietly enough that Kill Signal couldn’t hear. Unless she hadn’t heard Moreen’s voice in the air but through the phone signal. Everyone thought Kill Signal could just interfere with electronics; she’d be smart to keep secret that she could monitor them too.
“What?” Yates called. His voice came from the direction of the house, but it was above them. He’d scaled the walls.
“Nothing,” Kill Signal yelled back. “I’ll deal with this. You get the money.”
Were they really shouting at each other in the middle of a burglary? They’d wake up the whole neighborhood at this rate.
Kill Signal scanned the dark street. Crouched on someone’s front lawn, Moreen stayed perfectly still, debating her next move. Had the operator gotten enough to send the police, or had Kill Signal cut off the call too soon?
Every porch light on the street lit up. Moreen flinched, blinded as the lights blazed brighter and brighter—until the bulbs burst left and right like firecrackers.
She hissed, rubbing the white spots from her eyes. She hadn’t known Kill Signal could do that either.
The sound of pounding boots rushed closer. Moreen shot up, still half blinded, and tried to—
Wham. The first punch slammed into her face. Moreen’s head snapped back—she felt like it had been knocked clear off her neck. Then a fist plunged into her stomach, followed by another. Moreen hunched over just as quickly as she’d been thrown back. She couldn’t breathe. Wheezing, she dropped to the grass.
“Should’ve minded your own business, lady,” Kill Signal said.
Moreen wanted to snap back with something biting and sarcastic, but her brain was too busy dealing with all the pain. She sucked in air and coughed, the movement jarring her already agonized body. Those strikes had hurt like hell. Had Moreen been out of the game for so long that she couldn’t take a punch anymore?
She squinted up at Kill Signal—just in time to see a boot coming for her face.
Moreen grabbed the foot, the impact stinging her hands. Kill Signal swore. She hopped on one foot, trying to keep her balance, and Moreen pulled.
Kill Signal fell. Moreen rolled away from her to avoid her limbs lashing out. Then she pushed herself to her feet. Her cheek throbbed, and she was sure it must be swelling to the size of a cantaloupe. Her gut hurt so much that she wanted to curl into a ball and cradle it, but Kill Signal was already scrambling up.
The woman brushed back a few strands of her short hair, and Moreen saw brass knuckles on her hands. No wonder those punches had hurt so much.
“You should run,” Kill Signal said, looking murderous.
Yeah, Moreen probably should. It wasn’t her job to stop supervillains anymore. She’d been hired to investigate Dalton Yates, and she’d already figured out what he was up to. Mission accomplished. Time to sprint to her car and let the police handle this.
But Kill Signal would follow, and Moreen knew better than to turn her back on a supervillain.
“I’m good, thanks.” She kept her tone light, though her swollen cheek protested the movement.
Kill Signal’s nostrils flared. “You stupid b—”
The nasty name hadn’t finished leaving her lips when she threw the punch. But Moreen wasn’t half blinded this time. She raised her arm in a block, knocking the fist off course, and counterattacked.
The feeling of her knuckles bashing into Kill Signal’s jaw was more than a little satisfying. The supervillain’s other fist lashed out, glancing off Moreen’s shoulder. Moreen feinted with her left hand and used a front kick, her foot striking Kill Signal’s unprotected stomach.
Kill Signal grunted and fell on her butt.
Moreen would have to keep hitting her if she wanted her to stay down. And she didn’t have time for that, not when Yates could reappear at any moment and attack her from behind. She reached for the taser in her purse—and realized she’d lost it during the fight.
She scanned the dark ground—there. Her purse lay on the grass a few feet away. She lunged for it.
Something struck her back, and she fell forward, squishing the purse beneath her chest.
“You are one crazy old lady,” Kill Signal said from behind her.
Moreen groaned. She swore she could feel the welt rising on her back where she’d been hit.
“Afraid I’m going to steal your wallet?” Kill Signal asked. “Or do you have some pictures of your grandkids in there that you want to show me?”
Pushing herself up with one hand, Moreen shoved the other inside her purse and groped around until she felt the handle of the taser. Then she whipped it out.
Kill Signal froze. “No, wait—”
Moreen tazed her.
Kill Signal shrieked and keeled over. Moreen dropped the taser—it was one use only. Then she dug around in her purse until she found her handcuffs. Kill Signal was still twitching on the grass, so it was easy enough to wrench her arms behind her back and cuff her. Then Moreen retreated a few feet away and plopped down on the ground, exhausted. Finding her phone, she called the police again.
The call went through since Kill Signal was out of action. Moreen explained the situation to the operator, who said the police were on their way.
“Please stay on the line with me.”
“Sure.” Moreen winced as the phone touched her bruised cheek and moved it to the other ear. “I’d be happy to.”
Hopefully the police would arrive before Yates came out of the house. If not…
Heaving a sigh, Moreen pushed herself up and limped over to Yates’s van to let the air out of the tires. Her myriad of injuries didn’t appreciate the movement and let her know, but she didn’t want Yates to get away. Just a little bit of sabotage, and she could rest. She bent down, clutching her stomach as she fumbled for the tire’s cap, the smell of dirty rubber reaching her nose.
A scream pierced the night air.
Moreen’s heart pounded. That had come from the house Yates had broken into. He’d botched the burglary, and now he was probably going to panic and hurt whoever else was inside.
“Someone just screamed.” Moreen dashed toward the house. “I’m going inside to try and help.”
“Wait,” said the operator. “Stay—”
Moreen shoved the phone back into her purse and kept running.
Moreen reached the front door and tugged on the handle. Unsurprisingly, it was locked, but she’d had to check. Stepping back, she surveyed it. She could pick the lock, but that would take too much time.
She sprinted around the side of the house, hoping to find an easier way inside. There were a few windows wide enough to climb through, though they must be locked too. Please let there be a—yes!
A huge deck sat behind the house, sliding glass doors leading out to it. Moreen raced up the wooden steps and tried to see if the doors were made of impact glass. It was hard to tell in the dark, so she’d just have to hope for the best. She grabbed one of the deck chairs and hefted it up.
Her stomach burned, and her head pounded. She teetered dangerously for a second, nearly dropping the chair. Then she threw it into the glass door.
The glass shattered, and a security alarm wailed.
Moreen pulled out her phone again, hearing the small voice of the operator as she turned on the flashlight app. Pointing the light at the lethal shards of broken glass, she climbed slowly and carefully through the hole in the door.
Once she was safely inside, she ran through the dark rooms, trying to find the stairs. They were near the front of the house: a grand staircase with gleaming bannisters, a chandelier over it sparkling in the light of her flashlight app. Moreen charged up the steps. Reaching the top, she saw the lights on in two separate rooms and paused.
A thump came from her right, following by a muffled grunt. That one, then. Moreen dashed through the doorway and had a split-second to take in the scene.
It was a modern-looking study with sleek bookshelves, a safe under a desk having its door hanging open, giving a glimpse of jewelry and cash inside. Yates stood nearby, and with the lights on, it was easy to see the stitching on his homemade costume. He had a woman in silk pajamas shoved against the wall, his gloved hands wrapped around her neck as he squeezed.
Moreen didn’t have any more weapons on her. She snatched an animal statuette off the nearest shelf, ran for Yates, and swung it at his head.
He ducked away at the last second, dropping the woman. She fell to her knees, coughing and gasping. Moreen spared her a quick glance before trying to hit Yates again.
He scrambled back, avoiding the blow. Irritated, Moreen chucked the statuette at him, but he ducked almost before it left her grasp. She lunged forward, throwing a punch, but he was too fast. He backed into a wall—and then scrambled up it, crouching on the ceiling like a bug.
The woman in pajamas whimpered, and Moreen didn’t blame her. Yates’s abilities might be useful, but they were freaky to watch in action.
Most importantly, they put him out of Moreen’s reach.
“It’s over, Yates,” she said.
His eyes widened behind the mask he’d probably bought at a party store, and the woman in pajamas gasped.
“Yates?!” she screeched, her voice raw. “Dalton Yates? You bastard! I’m going to sue you for all you’re worth! Does Adela know about this?”
Yates glared at Moreen, his face red. “You’ve ruined everything.”
“You screwed it up nicely enough on your own,” she replied. “Now why don’t you get down from there?”
“You think I’m going to just give up?” he snarled.
“I think the police are on their way, and if you want to escape, you’d better start running now.”
He jerked in surprise, but then he peered at her. Unnervingly, he stayed silent for several seconds.
“You let the air out of my tires,” he said.
Moreen took a step back before she could stop herself. How had he—?
The psyc. He must have taken some before the job. No wonder he’d been able to avoid all her hits; he’d known they were coming.
“That’s right.” He sneered. “I can read your mind. There’s no way you can fight me. I know what you’re going to do the second you do.” He glanced from Moreen to the other woman, who cowered. “So here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to take everything out of that nice safe, and neither of you are going to try and stop me. Then maybe I’ll let you live.”
He looked down on them like a judge from on high. Hands and feet sticking unnaturally to the ceiling, he had a smirk on his face and a maniacal look in his eyes. He might be an amateur villain, but sometimes, amateurs were the most dangerous. They couldn’t keep their cool when something went wrong, and they’d take everyone they could down with them. At this point, Dalton Yates was a man with nothing to lose.
“You dipshit,” Moreen said.
His jaw clenched, but before he could open his mouth, Moreen barreled on.
“You don’t take something like psyc before a job.”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Spit flew from his mouth. “Thanks to it, I know exactly how my partner’s planning to betray me. I know everything!”
Moreen put her hands on her hips. “Then what am I thinking?”
He focused—and Moreen smacked herself in the face.
She hit the swollen spot where Kill Signal had bashed her with the brass knuckles, sending a wave of fresh agony through her skull that made her vision flash white.
Yates, deep in her mind, felt the full force of it. He cried out in pain and dropped from the ceiling like a swatted fly.
Moreen didn’t trust him to stay down for long. She ran forward, kicking him like a football for the field goal that would win the game. Maybe he was still reading her thoughts, but he couldn’t react in time. Her kick landed, and he grunted, rolling closer to one of the bookshelves. Moreen grabbed it and heaved.
The shelf swayed and toppled, spilling books everywhere as it fell on Yates with an almighty thud, pinning him to the floor.
Moreen panted, her head aching and her cheek feeling like molten lava. The bookshelf had been dusty, and she tried not to sneeze from the cloud of it that had been thrown into the air. Yates moaned from the floor, and in the distance, she heard sirens.
“You all right?” she asked the woman.
Staring at Yates, the woman in pajamas nodded and rubbed her throat. After a second, she tore her gaze from the man and looked at Moreen. “Yes, sorry. Thank you. Um…” She blinked. “Who… are you?”
Moreen brushed her hands off on her pants and attempted a smile despite her bruised cheek. Her clothes had dirt and grass stains, and she was a beaten mess, but she kept her head high. Then she held out her right hand to shake.
“Moreen Lee. Private Investigator. Nice to meet you.”
* * *
Moreen spent the rest of the night sitting outside the house as the police sorted things out. Once they’d learned the perpetrators had superpowers, they’d called in the DSA. Moreen didn’t know the two agents who’d showed up personally, but they knew her by reputation, and an interesting conversation had followed.
She leaned against the side of an ambulance, having been looked over and pronounced to have no life-threatening injuries. The flashing red and blue lights of the patrol cars lit up the formerly dark street, and voices filled the early morning air. A small crowd of neighbors in flip flops and pajama pants had gathered, kept back from the scene by yellow police tape.
The woman whose house Yates had tried to rob approached her, holding steaming mugs in each hand. She’d put a silky robe on over her pajamas, and purple bruises were visible on her neck. Over the past few hours, Moreen had learned her name was Lori.
“Thanks.” Moreen accepted the cup, smelling something herbal. “Uh, sorry about your door. And your bookshelf.”
“Don’t be silly. You saved my life.” She took a dainty sip of tea. “I heard you telling the police that you work for Adela?”
“Yeah. I take it you know her?”
Lori nodded. “She’s a friend. And boy was she surprised when I told her what her trophy husband’s been up to.”
Moreen jerked, a splash of hot tea singeing her fingers. “What? When?”
“Called her just a few minutes ago. She was in shock.”
Lori’s gaze was on Yates where he stood handcuffed, being questioned by DSA agents. She smiled with satisfaction, and Moreen knew she’d told Adela just to hurt him.
It’s not like Moreen disapproved of hurting Yates—she’d thrown a bookshelf on him, after all, but using Adela was cruel.
Moreen shoved the mug back into Lori’s hands and pulled out her phone, dialing Adela. Her plan had been to contact her first thing in the morning, breaking the news gently in person and advising her on what would happen to her husband next.
So much for that plan. The phone rang and rang, and Moreen hoped Adela hadn’t done anything rash. She shot Lori a dirty look as she hung up the phone.
The results of the woman’s meddling came ten minutes later. A luxury sportscar raced down the street and parked unevenly on the roadside. Then Adela jumped out and ran towards the patrol cars.
Moreen tried to intercept her, but there were too many people in the way. Adela rushed toward her husband until two polices officers blocked her way. She gaped at Dalton, taking in his dark suit and cape, the mask having been pulled from his face. Yates had gone perfectly still, his shoulders tight as he bore her gaze.
“Why?” Adela choked out.
“Because you deserve the best of everything,” he said.
Huh. Moreen had just assumed he wanted the money for himself. She wondered if what he said was true or a load of bull.
Adela believed it. She pushed past the police in a stunning display of strength and threw her arms around Yates.
They kissed passionately, and it took a few more officers to finally pull them apart.
Not how Moreen would have reacted to finding out her husband had gone supervillain, but hey, everybody’s different.
Next to her, Lori fumed.
The police had questions for Adela after that, along with some for Moreen about her client, but eventually, they wrapped things up. Yates and Kill Signal were taken away in the back of a police van, and the other patrol cars packed up and left. The onlookers dispersed, and even Lori went back inside her house, grumbling. Moreen walked up to Adela.
“How are you holding up?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” Adela stared off into space. “I think I’m in shock.”
“You need me to drive you home?”
Adela shook her head, her eyes focusing on Moreen’s face. “No, I’ll be fine. And thank you, Moreen, for everything.” She reached out and grasped Moreen’s hands. “If it wasn’t for you, I’d still be suspecting Dalton of having an affair—and after everything he’s done for me! I’m so glad you helped me find out the truth.”
“Um, you’re welcome.” Moreen decided not to point out that she was the reason Dalton had been caught and arrested. If Adela didn’t blame her… Well, hopefully it would stay that way until after she paid Moreen’s final invoice.
She walked Adela to her car and then trudged back down the street to where she’d parked her own. She collapsed rather than climbed into the front seat, leaning back against the headrest with a sigh. Night had turned to morning while she’d been waiting around, and she watched a jogger pass her car in the early, golden light.
It made her think of Lawrence. She knew he got up at the crack of dawn to exercise before work.
She debated for a few seconds, more nervous now than she’d been talking to the cops or smashing through the door of Lori’s house. The feeling annoyed her, so she pulled out her phone and called him to spite herself. She didn’t strictly need to talk, but that was the point, right? To call when she didn’t need something.
“Good morning,” he greeted.
“Hey,” she said, settling into her seat. “You’re not going to believe what just happened.”
A little something for you White Knight & Black Valentine fans. Moreen was one of my favorite side characters in that series. Hope you enjoyed!