Brian and I are barely back in his car before my phone rings. Peterson’s name is displayed on the screen, and I eye it with trepidation before answering.
“Mr. Everton.” His voice is tightly controlled, which is usually a sign that he’s mad. “I want you to tell me, as clearly and as quickly as you can, what just happened.”
“The chief of police sent me your email. I need to know who has it, why they have it and what happens from here. In short, as I said yesterday, I need to be in the loop.”
“And I would love to know, as a point of personal interest, what you were thinking.”
“I’ll tell you, but you’ve got to let me talk!” I burst out. Brian looks at me, concerned. I flap my hand at him.
“Go ahead,” says Peterson.
“Okay. Super-short version: hang on, is anyone listening?”
“You can talk freely.”
“Yes, about superpowers. Just tell me.”
“Okay. So like I said yesterday, Tanger was coming after me. You saw his vandalism fliers, yeah? Every one of them was loaded with nanos carrying negative impressions of me. He salted the whole city with them. So how do you win a psy-ops campaign? Better messaging.
“So I got in there, got him to show his true colors, and sent it to — well, everyone in his contacts list. It’s no city-wide pamphleting, but it’s the best I could do.
“Oh. And I, um. Ran down all of the fences at the construction site of the new police station with a bulldozer. To get Tanger off-center.”
There’s silence on the other end of the phone, so I keep talking. “Good news is, it totally worked! He can’t get into people’s minds anymore. Plus his mayoral bid is probably not happening now. So. It’s all good, right?”
Peterson sighs. “You have an interesting definition of that word, Dan.”
A brief awkward silence follows, and I say, “Well. Anything you need me to do?”
“Nothing. Do nothing. Keep your head down while we clean up what we can. Oh, and don’t go home.”
“You’re not very popular right now, Mr. Everton. I’m going to try to fix that; I intend to send a press release to the local news explaining that the posters were some sort of prank, which will hopefully defuse much of that situation. But I sent a car to your house when the posters first appeared, and it’s already been vandalized.”
“Aw, man! How badly?”
“Broken windows, knocked-over mailbox. Someone spray-painted ‘HOW DO YOU LIKE IT’ across most of the front. You’ll want to call your insurance company.”
“Judging by the video I just saw, it could have been a lot worse.”
“Hey, speaking of — Tanger’s still pretty ticked at me. Like, usually this stuff wears off when the powers do, but I feel like he’s maybe going to hold a grudge over this one. Do I need to do something about that? Like a restraining order or something?”
“Mr. Tanger is going to be the subject of some fairly intense scrutiny. He’s currently our best link to whoever’s behind this, so we’ll be watching him fairly closely for some time. I don’t think you have anything to worry about on that front.”
“Huh. You guys are investigating this?”
“Of course we are. What did you think?” Peterson sounds affronted.
“I don’t know. I thought you were trying to sweep it under the rug.”
“There’s no point in sweeping everything under the rug if someone’s still tracking more dirt in,” says Peterson.
“Hey, that’s good. You can be a wise old guru someday with lines like that,” I tell him.
Peterson sighs again. “Stay out of trouble, Dan. And let me know when you’re not going to.” He ends the call.
I turn to Brian and say, “So — can I crash at your place for another night or two?”
“Dude, obviously. I can’t be running around getting my own food and stuff with these stomach bruises. I could have internal bleeding.”
“Whoa, I didn’t sign on to be a nursemaid!”
“I didn’t sign on to be a punching bag, either, but here we are!” Brian retorts. I throw up my hands in surrender.
“Fine, fine. Nursemaid Dan it is.”
“Hey, can you keep that security guard suit on? I like the uniform.”
“Dude, no way. I’m getting out of this thing as soon as humanly possible. There is no ventilation at all in these things. I’m swimming in sweat right now.”
“Better complain to the manufacturer!” Brian laughs.
“Trust me, man. I intend to.”
It’s not that I ignore Peterson’s request to lie low, exactly. It’s just that I’ve got something I need to do. And yeah, I could probably handle it by phone, but I did steal the guy’s face and trash his worksite. The least I can do is give him the chance to fire me in person.
So the next morning finds me catching a bus downtown to go present myself to Mr. Steele. I’m not totally reckless; I’m wearing the security guard mask from yesterday, since I doubt that Peterson’s message of “Dan’s okay” has made its way to everyone yet. Even so, my eyes keep flicking nervously to each new person who gets on the bus, checking to see if they’ve seen through my mask. It’s a long and jittery ride for me.
On the way, I scan the telephone poles and bus stops we pass, searching for any flyers with my face on them. They all seem to be clean, though. Clearly a team’s been mobilized to take the flyers down overnight. I briefly consider what those people must think of me after handling stacks of those infected flyers, and I shudder. I don’t think I’d care to meet them any time soon.
My heart sinks a bit as I consider the lasting implications of Tanger’s campaign against me. He’s essentially seeded the entire city with a predisposition to dislike me now, and I don’t think that’s going to fade just because he no longer has the power to distribute new thoughts. And since I’m on my way to get fired right now, that’s the sort of thing that’s likely to be problematic in the very near future.
And, of course, I’m going to have to hire people to fix the damage to my house, and if those people hate me, I’ll get shoddy work done. Maybe I can get the insurance company to suggest someone from out of town, or give them a fake name. Or I could just do the work myself, I suppose. I put up buildings now! I can definitely replace a few windows.
Plus the money I save on installation will help feed me for another couple of months while I’m looking for work in a hostile environment. There’s a sobering thought.
The bus drops me off and I walk to the construction site, where bent fences are being laboriously re-erected. I’m momentarily worried that someone here will recognize me even with the mask on, by my walk or clothes or something, but no one even looks twice as I stride across the lot to Steele’s trailer.
I knock on the door and he calls, “Come in!” I look around quickly, take a deep breath, pull off my mask and step inside, closing the door behind me.
Steele looks up from his desk, and his eyebrows raise when he sees me. “So,” he says. “Dan.”
“Mr. Steele,” I respond, trying to hide my nerves. “Um. I kind of figured we had some things to talk about.”
“Do we?” he says, standing. I measure the distance to the door with my eyes and try to figure out if I could make it out of the office before he got out from behind the desk to attack me.
He doesn’t make a move, though, but just leans on the desk, palms flat against the paperwork spread out there. “The way I heard it,” Steele says, “you had some personal business to attend to. Isn’t that what the message you left said?”
“Yeah, but I wan-”
He holds up a hand to stop me. “I don’t pry into a man’s personal business. My only concern is when something personal spills over into work. Now, as you might have noticed, we’ve got a bit of a mess here.”
I wince, but Steele continues in a surprisingly mild tone, “Seems someone left the keys in the bulldozer, and some kids took it joyriding. That’s the word I’m hearing from the police investigation, anyway. They promise they’ll look into it, but that’s not going to get the fences back up.
“Now, I’d be inclined to be much more irritated about this, except that they didn’t do any real damage. I was pretty worried at first when I came in and saw the ‘dozer right up against the big support column, thinking about how much we’d have to jack up or take down to replace that, but it turns out that it barely touched it at all. So isn’t that a stroke of luck?”
Steele’s staring me down, watching my face and waiting for me to answer, but I’m not sure what he wants. “It sure is,” I say after a moment. Whatever he reads in my face seems to satisfy him, as he smiles and straightens up.
“Regardless, there’s a lot to be done around here, so whenever your personal business is done, I’d like to get you back on the clock.”
It takes me a second to process this sentence. “What? Awesome! I mean, thank you!”
“Well, I’m hardly going to fire a guy just for taking a couple of days off, even if he didn’t clear it first. Not the first time he does it, anyway. You seem surprised.”
“I thought you’d be a lot more ticked about it, is all. I figured maybe that with the various…personality clashes around here, you’d take this as a good opportunity to get rid of me.”
Steele chuckles quietly. “Yeah, I thought about that. And if you’d come in yesterday, I suppose I might have canned you. But it occurred to me last night that maybe I wasn’t giving you an entirely fair shake. Saw a video that made me rethink a thing or two.”
Oh, man. Of course he was on Tanger’s contact list! I emailed Steele the video. Of me impersonating him. Or, well, Brian doing it, but on my behalf. That seems like the sort of thing that could tick a man off. Steele seems to be taking it in stride, though.
While I’m sorting out how to respond, Steele continues, “So it’s possible that Tanger’s not going to feel the same way I do about this, but unless I hear from him, I’m expecting you to be at work tomorrow. And frankly, I’m not expecting to hear from him. The boards of these companies operate like a school of sharks, and once there’s blood in the water, they’re merciless. He’s going to have more to worry about than looking over the employee roster.”
I smile with relief. “Thank you, Mr. Steele. I’ll be in tomorrow.”
Steele sits back down at his desk. As I open the door to leave, he says, “Incidentally, Dan, I seem to have lost my lanyard. If you happen to see it somewhere outside, bring it back here, would you?”
“If I see it, I will,” I say, closing the door. I take his lanyard and badge out of my pocket and hang it over the doorknob, then pull my mask back on and walk briskly back across the site and out into the city streets.
It’s a beautiful day, sunny and cold, and I attempt to whistle as I walk, which really doesn’t work through the mask. Still, though, the feeling’s there. I’ve beaten my nemesis without destroying a building, so that’s a first. I’m not in the hospital — another mark in the win column. Most of the city might have a vague negative impression of me, but I’ve got people solidly on my side, too. I have a physical description of the guy causing this, so there may be an end in sight. And to top it all off, I kept my job! This last one probably shouldn’t feel like quite so major an accomplishment, but it does.
I walk off into the early morning sun, still trying to whistle. Things have been worse! Things have been a lot worse.
END OF BOOK 3