5/ The Secret Moves Up A Gear

            The body armour was a complete surprise.  We were all issued with these silver suits and told to put them on and wait for further instruction.  They were light but quite strong, a little like a tough wetsuit.  But once you were wearing one you could feel an odd tingling sensation in your joints.   Not unpleasant, just odd.

            Our instructor was another famous super-villain, White Lab Coat.  I know, it’s a bloody stupid name.  But stupid names are not at all uncommon in the circles in which I move.  White Lab Coat looked exactly like you would expect and at one time he’d been an active criminal himself, with his own gang.  But over time it had become clear that he was much better at making special kit for others, than planning heists himself.  Particularly after The Wolfpack had so brutally ended his Giant Robot Invasion escapade.  So he’d become a gadgeteer for hire, of sorts.

            “Your bodysuits have transistors which directly stimulate your musculature and your ball joints.  The effect is to give you a little enhanced strength, faster reactions and more durability in combat,” White Lab Coat lectured us.  “But there is a downside.  Your joints were not made for this sort of stress, but it will feel to you as if they are.  It will be incredibly easy to attempt things your body cannot handle.  Our training will be specifically to prevent you overdoing it.  The Secret, unlike some bosses, cares about her staff and does not wish any of you to spend the rest of your lives in a wheelchair with no functional joints in your limbs.”

            We spent a few days familiarising ourselves with the new suits.  It really was incredible.  I had the strength of two men, maybe three.  Almost as soon as I thought of taking an action I was doing it.  I could take a pretty hefty blow with a baseball bat and it would barely leave a mark.  We weren’t foolish enough to think this was like superpowers.  Those guys were as strong as ten men, or fifty, not two.  But in these suits we were a cut above normal folk.  We were special.

            “What do you think they cost?” Madcap asked.
“Who cares?” Big Sue grunted.  She was hungry so she wasn’t in a good mood.
“A lot,” Henry said.  “A million a piece, I bet.”
“Maybe more than that,” I agreed.  The Police, the army, they’d kill for the bodysuits we had.  Well, probably some special units of both did have something similar.  But even so, this wasn’t cheap technology.  Madcap flipped onto his hands and walked around the room upside down.  He’d always been fairly athletic, but the training and the suit gave him an impressive gymnastic grace.  “The Secret must be so loaded,” He declared.
“Half a year living on the best two floors of one of the city’s most expensive hotels would have been your first clue,” Big Sue snapped.
“Here,” Said Henry, “I don’t fancy this anyway.”  He handed her a Snickers, which she quickly peeled and devoured.

            “On your feet,” Came her voice.  The Secret materialised in the middle of the room.  I’d not seen her teleport before, so this was another surprise.  We all rose quickly.  There were thirteen of us.  “We need to be ready,” She said.  “We are about to be attacked.”
“We’re what?”  Madcap’s mouth dropped open.  “Here?”
“Yes, here,” The Secret said.  “Heroes are coming up the stairs even now.”
“Who?” Somebody asked.  “Which heroes?”
“Captain Carter and The Chaperone.”
Sure enough, seconds later the main door exploded inwards and the heroes made their extravagant entrance in precisely the sort of colourful style their long-time fans would expect.

            So, Captain Carter.  He’s an odd duck.  He dresses in a bad costume that looks a bit like the uniforms from the original Star Trek series.  He wears a space helmet, the classic fish bowl design of so many terrible B-Movies.  He has a jet pack and a laser gun.  But he’s been around forever and has taught plenty of villains the error of underestimating him.  He was with World Heroes United, for a while, until they pensioned him off in favour of some bright young thing.  The Chaperone is one of these dark knight vigilante types.  A bit like Halfmoon, but not as physically tough.  Alongside the combat skills and speed, he has some kind of hypnosis power too which nobody seems to know much about.

            We didn’t know where The Secret had gone.  But we made an impressive wall blocking the way further into our lair.  “Step aside,” Captain Carter said.  “We wish to speak with your master.”
“Our master?” Madcap snorted.  “What do you think we are?  Daleks?”
“Your boss then,” Replied The Chaperone coldly.  “Be a good evil minion and fetch her, before we decide to fetch her ourselves.”
“You can try,” Big Sue rumbled, rising to her full ponderous height.  We all bristled and stood firm against the heroes.
“There is no need for this,” Came a voice from behind us and The Secret walked through the middle of our barricade, gently pushing us aside with her mind.  She was wearing her alternative costume.  Instead of the black and white chessboard this one was black and red squares.  It looked more menacing.  More in-your-face.  I suspect she knew that.

            “Secret,” Captain Carter said.  “We have received a tip off that you are planning to rob the Imperial King Of Ketenka during his ceremonial visit to our country.”
“Have you?” The Secret said mildly.
“There is no point,” Captain Carter continued, “In pretending we are here for any other reason since you are a gifted telepath.  So we have come to talk to you straight.  A number of heroes have been hired to protect the venues the diplomatic mission will visit.  The Chaperone and I are among them.  So you should be warned…”
“Mercenaries, you mean,” The Secret interrupted.
“What?” Carter demanded angrily.
“Heroes are not hired.  Heroes volunteer.  If you are being paid, you are mercenaries.  I just wanted to use the correct definition.  I find that conversations are more likely to be useful if the facts are stated plainly.”

            While Carter blustered, The Chaperone stepped in:  “It doesn’t matter what you call us.  But you do need to know that there are seven heroes in our team and despite your well-known and well-documented powers, you and your bunch of enthusiastic henchmen are completely outclassed.  You will never get near His Imperial Majesty and if you try we will take you down really, really hard.”
“Fuck you,” Madcap told them, giving them the middle fingers of both hands.  “Fuck you both.”
“I’d like to thank you for your kind visit,” The Secret said without missing a beat.  “I do so enjoy it when famous heroes come and threaten me.  I wish I had some of your merchandise so I could get your autographs.  But the fact is we are breaking no laws here and you really have no cause to stay, do you?”
“Don’t make me laugh,” Captain Carter huffed and postured, pulling his comical ray gun from its holster.  The bloody thing was attached to some kind of power pack by a rubber cable.  If it was any more circa 1950’s Sci-Fi it’d be monochrome.  “You are wanted for numerous crimes.  We could take you in right now.”
“Am I?  Could you?” The Secret said.  “Do so then.”
But they didn’t.  Angrily, the pair whirled on the spot and marched back out of the room.
“I’ll send you the bill for the door,” The Secret called after them wryly.  In his response, The Chaperone used words you wouldn’t expect a hero to know. 

            “I don’t get it,” I said, later.  “Why didn’t they arrest her?”
“Scared,” Henry suggested.  “They could see how many of us there were and they know The Secret is no lightweight herself.  Two of them?  No chance.”
“Not true,” said The Secret, materialising between us in that way that was becoming less and less surprising.  “Captain Carter has beaten me before.  He is a very capable combatant, if a bit stuffy.  The Chaperone could probably have taken you all, even despite the suits.  He’s a reserve World Heroes United member.
“Then why?” I asked. 
“Because there really is no warrant out for my arrest.  They tried in vain to find one before paying us the visit.  They don’t know how I’ve erased them, but it’s prevented them from simply busting us now.”
“You’ve erased your criminal record?” I asked.
“Yes.  My psionic abilities are useful for things like that.  Get into the head of just the right bureaucrat.  Or politician.  Or record keeper.  Or I.T. guy.  It takes some time, but it can be done.”
“No wonder they were pissed,” Madcap laughed.  “When they broke down the door, it was them who were the criminals!”

            As we moved into the final month, things began to get really serious.  Our training was cranked up a notch again.  We lost a team member when Junior pushed himself too hard in his suit and popped both his knees.  We began to become aware we were being watched by a cadre of super-heroes.  Occasionally, Bird Of Paradise would do a fly-by of the hotel’s upper floors.  Henry swore he saw Alley Cat disappear into the shadows one night when he emerged from the elevator on the ground floor.  Captain Carter was always around; in the hotel restaurant, in the lobby, in the street.  Apparently, he’d booked a room on the third floor.  We sent him some pizza and a bottle of bubbly by Room Service just to yank his chain.  We asked one of the hotel staff what his reaction had been.  “Furious,” was her reply.  It made us all laugh.

            The Secret began drawing us into the Psi Space together, which we had also not known was possible, so that she could begin giving us details of the job that was to come.  We had no idea of the whole plan, but the general idea was gradually revealed.  We would indeed be ambushing the  Imperial King of Ketenka, who apparently had some kind of ancient relic that granted him super-powers.  If that sounds kind of unlikely then that’s because you don’t do my job.  This sort of shit doesn’t even make me bat an eyelid anymore.  It was the relic that The Secret wanted. 

            To make things more difficult we were going to perform this daring heist during a State dinner with the President of the United States and a roomful of important dignitaries, politicians and rich people.  Not to mention all the Secret Service guys, half the cops in the city and at least seven hired super-mercenaries including those we had seen trailing us.  We wondered, amongst ourselves, why The Secret was choosing such a high-profile and difficult scene for the job.  But we didn’t ask.  We’d all learnt that she wasn’t keen on being questioned.  She was the boss.  We’d do as she instructed.

            I had a day off before the big job which I spent with my family.  Dianne was excited as her birthday loomed ever closer and she peppered Tabby and I with transparent hints about the Junior Astronomer Kit she wanted.   Obviously, I could easily afford that.  But I had something even more special planned once I laid my hands on that big bonus.  No Junior Telescope for my girl.  I intended to buy her one of those big bastards that watch the skies for aliens and shit.  That was the plan.

            “Is everything okay?” Tabby asked me as we strolled through the city park holding hands and Dianne rushed ahead to feed the ducks on the pond.  “You seem tense.”
“It’s a big day tomorrow,” I said, honestly.  “We’ve been working towards a goal.  Tomorrow we’ll see if we’ve worked hard enough.”
Tabby never asked me about work.  She knows what I do, I’m sure.  After all, she knew why I did the time and she had nursed me when I was released from hospital after the Carnival incident.  But we seemed to have agreed never to state it.  “Just be careful,” She said.  Her eyes were full of tears.  “Please be careful.”
“Always am,” I confirmed, and hugged her tight.   Hah.  Sure.  Always careful, that’s me.  The words would turn sour in my mouth very, very soon.