Wilbur exhaled when he found the USB on the floor of Creative Sciences. He didn’t want to imagine the fallout of one of his employees getting their hands on it. He had no intention of going through the data – he’d leave that for the authorities. That plan only made him feel slightly less sick, however, given how many of the SWAT officers lost their lunch at the chemical factory.
Heading back up to his penthouse, he dropped the USB onto his desk and took a long, long shower. The hot water did wonders for his aching muscles, so he tried to relax. But each time he closed his eyes, he could see those bulbous masses of flesh lying on stretchers. This was not what he envisioned when he went out that first night, looking for a quick thrill.
His phone buzzed on the sink. He’d almost forgotten his meeting with Adam, head of Scholz Chemicals. Rushing out the shower, he got dressed, texted Nisa where to meet him when he was finished, and headed down to his car.
The meeting took a good two hours, the two of them discussing quarter reports, financial plans and other such things that would bore most people. He had to force himself to focus. He’d been so lost in his thoughts earlier he’d forgotten to actually call Jeff and schedule a pick-up. But as long as he got that USB safe into his hands, Skinnyman’s reign of terror would finally be over, wouldn’t it?
After those two hours had flown by, Wilbur made his way to the front entrance. Nisa was leaning against the wall, frowning, looking down at her phone.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
She sighed. “Jessica’s going through my apartment. It’s going to take weeks to replace everything.” She tucked her phone into her jacket. “Don’t worry about us, we’ll be fine.”
Well, he couldn’t do that, but he wouldn’t say anything.
“So how’d you get here? Public transportation or…?”
“Eck, God, no. Tried that, got tired of drunkards and people who can’t keep their hands to themselves. No.” She pulled out a Ford Mustang key and pointed it at a white 2019 model in the lot.
“Huh. Not bad.” He wasn’t a fan of muscle cars himself – too brash and noisy for his taste – but he could appreciate a good one nonetheless.
Wilbur’s little detour to the abandoned chemical factory got noticing how much architecture had progressed in the past half century. The layout of the new factory was much more linear, the floors flat and sleek with windows overlooking the refinery floor. He gestured downward, where massive pumps and vats were processing the base elements. It made him feel positively tiny.
“So this is where the magic happens. Acetylene, ethylene, metalloids – we manufacture specific solutions, sometimes for our own use but mostly to sell them to other companies and research labs. We also distill water by the hundreds of thousands of gallons.”
Nisa’s eyes lit up like a Christmas tree’s. “I’ve seen stuff like this on documentaries, but it really hits you when you see it in person.”
“You watch documentaries about chemistry? Pfft, nerd.” She shot him a look. He laughed. “So what got you into this stuff anyways? Your powers steer you here?”
She shrugged. “I guess you could say that. When it’s all you know how to do, you learn to like it.”
“Yeah, I know that feeling.” He led her through a small corridor to the laboratory area. They didn’t advance too far as to not disrupt the legion of white coats and their work. “This is where we research new compounds for commercial use.” An old thought jumped back into his mind. “I know I was joking when I mentioned it, but can you really create non-newtonian fluids-” he snapped his fingers. “Like that?”
“I’m pretty sure you were hammered, but yes, I can.” She put up a finger and closed her mouth. Half a minute later she spat out a knuckle-sized chunk of shiny, deep yellow metal. Gold, he realized, and he was pretty sure it was twenty-four karats at that.
“Hot damn, I was just joking, hammered, whatever.”
“The more complex the compound, the longer it takes me. Same thing for molar mass for pure elements.” She handed him the gold. “Not that you need much pure gold to get by.”
He looked at the nugget, then to her, then back to the nugget, then to her again. “I don’t know what kinda freelance work you’re doing, but it can’t pay better than here. Have you ever thought about working for us?”
Nisa looked quite surprised. “Work for a big corporation? I – no, can’t say the thought’s ever crossed my mind.”
“You can create all sorts of things in a fraction of the time it would take us normal folks. We could have put Ryan’s armor into production by now if we had you on board, cutting a chunk out R&D time. Could you at least consider it?”
For some reason, Nisa looked a little uncomfortable at the notion. “Hmm… I suppose I will.” They ventured back out into the hallway, where she stopped in front of the window again. “It seems like a lot of responsibility Wilbur. Your grandfather built all this up from nothing, but it’s what he wanted. You were born into this. Did you even have a choice?”
He scratched the side of his face. “No, I guess not. I was an only child. My aunts and uncles either work in layman’s positions, or want nothing to do with the company. When mom and dad… when there was an opening at the top, someone had to step in.”
Nisa turned to him. “You said you’re twenty-seven right? You had to have been twenty-two at the time then.”
“Yeah, I guess I was a little young. But I was born and raised in it.”
The lines of her face softened. “Are you happy with it?”
He let out a long sigh through his nose. “I don’t know.” He wished he could say yes, or even no, because at least then he could walk away from it all. But he wasn’t sure what made him happy. Not the kind of superficial happiness you got from getting wasted with your friends, or a quick adrenaline high that eventually faded, but an existential happiness where you were secure in what you were. That had kept evading him.
Skrillex played faintly from his phone. Jeff was calling.
“Hey Jeff, can it wait? I’m with-”
“It absolutely cannot. I’m sorry, but I need you down here. There’s been an – incident.”
The image of himself in an orange jumpsuit and cuffs flashed into his mind. “Am I in trouble?”
“No. Well, I don’t think so.”
God, couldn’t he just spit it out? “Alright, alright, send me the address. I’ll be there shortly.”
He shook his head. “Sorry Nisa, I have to go.”
“Was that the Jeff?”
She nodded. “Then I guess I won’t hold you up any longer. Good luck.”
The text message came through a moment later. The address listed was that of the steel mill. That couldn’t have been any good.
Finding even a moderately safe parking place was a pain in the ass, but eventually Wilbur found one, fairly close to the police lines. The steel mill had been sealed off, with what felt like half the force patrolling. Jeff, in plainclothes, was waiting for him outside the tape. Looking past him, Wilbur could see a swarm of ambulances and over a dozen body bags. Good thing he stopped for a change of clothes.
“I guess you’re not on desk duty any more?” Wilbur asked, hesitantly approaching.
“Yeah, I’ll be cleared pretty damn soon after this.” Jeff looked back at the ambulances and shook his head.
“What the hell happened?”
“Witnesses reported gunfire coming from the steel mill a few hours ago. Seen fleeing the scene was a man in black head-to-toe armor. After securing the scene, responding officers found eight of Skinnyman’s men dead. Does any of this sound familiar to you, Wilbur?”
Wilbur gulped. “Higgins, I swear, I know what it sounds like, but it I wasn’t me. Ask everyone at the chemical plant, I have an alibi!”
“I believe that. But I also believe you know our killer.” He gestured towards the ambulances. “One of the bodies we recovered from the mill looked to have burned. That doesn’t fit the MO of our killer, who was using a firearm. Dental records IDed her as Lisa Wallace.”
“Wallace…” Wilbur repeated. Everything clicked. “Oh. Oh, Christ. Ryan Wallace.” Wilbur had to steady himself against a police car. “Oh God… Jeff, I was here this morning. I had raided the lab and gotten a USB full of data. When I went down to Creative Sciences, I think. I think I must have dropped it where Ryan could have found it. That would explain how he knew where to go…” He put a hand to his face. “Oh, fuck…”
“What we have is enough to bring Ryan in for questioning. If it really was him, he won’t be able to hide it for long. From there I’ll be able to get a search warrant without the info you just told me. But Wilbur, you’re really going to need to to register with the city soon. You can tell the hero liaison officer your real identity so we can stop playing these games. You’re lucky we can pin a motive on Ryan.”
Wilbur nodded. “Okay… And as for means, how did you figure Ryan could have access to the armor?”
“Your engineers reported several prototype suits missing. Fritz must have known it wasn’t you this time.”
“Yeah, I have him working on making me new gear.” Bless that little bastard.
Jeff nodded. “I’ll talk to the chief about establishing a connection between your hero team and the department when you’re ready.”
“Team? It’s just me, and I wouldn’t say I’m doing the best job of being a hero.”
Jeff shook his head. “Go look at other cities, Wilbur. It always starts with one. And you made a mistake, sure, but you didn’t kill anyone. Ryan did that. He would have done so as soon as he found Lisa, so think of it as you almost preventing this rather than causing it. You can do better from here.”
Wilbur got off the car, feeling somewhat better. “That was – oddly motivational coming from you, hard-boiled.”
Jeff shrugged. “It’s my job to keep you on the straight and narrow.”