Alea Iacta Est
Part Fifteen: Initial Foray
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
"So Coil's off the board now too," Lisa said with altogether unseemly satisfaction, drawing several vicious red lines through the name that had been written on the whiteboard. "Director Piggot knows who he is, so she won't give him even the slightest chance to wriggle out of it." She looked at the other names on the board, one of which had been crossed out rather more neatly.
"Did you seriously write all those names up just so you could cross out Coil like he owed you money?" asked Taylor from behind her, leaning back on Kayden's sofa. Her tone was amused rather than accusatory, so Lisa didn't even bother looking around. Lisa heard the ting of a coin being flipped, and the tiny thwap of it landing. Taylor snorted. "Sources say yes."
"Did you even need to flip the coin?" asked Theo, sharing the sofa. "I could tell that's what she was up to, and I don't even have powers."
"Yet," Annette reminded him, leaning over the back of the sofa and giving him a noogie. Even as he struggled and spluttered and tried to push her away, she continued unfazed. "We're both third generation, right? Getting powers should be like taking a walk down the block for us."
Dinah, sitting crossways on an armchair, made a rude noise between her lips. "I hope so, for your sakes. Getting them as a first generation is no fun at all." She chewed for a moment on the pen she was holding, then tapped it on the writing pad she had on her lap. "So here's my question. We've successfully removed the two gangs in Brockton Bay who had close and personal knowledge about any of our members. Even if it was mostly accidental in the case of the Empire. Do we go after the ABB next or the Merchants, or do we leave them alone and just target crime in general?"
"I vote Merchants, because they're assholes," Lisa said, circling that name on the board with the red marker. "Literally all they do is sell drugs. Sometimes to kids."
Kayden exited the kitchen with a tray of cookies and other snacks. "Don't forget, the ABB does exactly the same thing themselves. And of course, they've got the illegal brothels, the illegal gambling, and rumour has it that they're also involved in human trafficking." She looked at the dubious expressions around the room as she set the tray down on the coffee table. "No, this is legitimate. Not Empire propaganda. It's a thing."
"Well, this is Brockton Bay, so I'm not about to dismiss it out of hand," Lisa observed. She grabbed a cookie and took a bite out of it. "Mmm, nice. Your own recipe?"
"My mother's, actually." Kayden looked pleased at the compliment, but then she switched back to the serious topic. "Both the Merchants and the ABB will be expanding into the vacant territory. While the Merchants have more capes, Lung and Oni Lee are more aggressive. I'd strongly suggest not taking on Lung on a haphazard basis, and not without another heavy hitter, such as Glory Girl, on side."
"Oh, trust me," Dinah said, wriggling off the armchair to snag a cookie for herself. "If and when we take on Lung and Oni Lee, it'll only happen after Lisa and I have set up the battle plan and Taylor's nailed down every last variable. And of course we won't fight them both at once. Each one acts as a force multiplier for the other."
"Ooh, munchies!" Annette left off harassing Theo and dived over the sofa in what was apparently intended to be an acrobatic roll. However, the cushion buckled under her and she let out an undignified yelp as she landed on her butt on the floor. "I intended to do that," she claimed unconvincingly, pushing her hair out of her face and reaching out for a piece of home-made garlic bread.
"I'm not even going to bother testing that for truth," Taylor teased her, flicking the coin so it landed cleanly on its edge on the tray alongside the bread. "So Dinah, you're saying we should maybe put the smackdown on the Merchants first, as a trial run? And what's with all these big words, anyway?"
Dinah stuck her tongue out at Taylor, then took a bite out of the cookie. "I've been reading books on strategy," she said once she'd swallowed. "Cross-referencing that with the videos I've been able to find on cape battles in Brockton Bay and elsewhere, I've come to a very simple, very basic conclusion."
She put the rest of the cookie in her mouth and chewed on it while the others looked at her.
"Well?" asked Theo.
Lisa snorted. "Isn't it obvious? Capes suck at strategy."
"That can't be right." Kayden frowned. "Max always made a fuss about 'deploying his forces correctly'. Telling certain people to attack certain targets."
"And yet he held up a long sharp metal object over his head in a lightning storm," Lisa said, holding the whiteboard marker aloft in a dramatic fashion. "The man was not adept at thinking ahead."
"Anyway, just telling who to attack which opponent isn't exactly Art of War stuff," Dinah said. "That's tactics, not strategy. Strategy is making your opponent think you're doing one thing when you're really doing another. So when they react to what they think you're doing, they're in the perfect position for you to hit them out of nowhere."
"And of course, if you're really good," Lisa chimed in, "when they react to your surprise move, you've anticipated that and you've got another one ready to knock them sideways all over again."
Kayden nodded thoughtfully. "Making the other guy expend all his energy hitting shadows, while you get a proper strike in every time," she said. "It's easy to anticipate a single move, but to look several moves ahead and be able to correctly figure out which way someone will jump each and every time … that's a tall order."
Dinah and Lisa shared a look, then they both glanced over at Taylor. All three of them grinned. "So, you were saying?" Lisa asked.
Annette let out a sharp bark of laughter, making Theo jump. "You three. Holy shit. Put you together and you're a strategy engine. I love it."
"I think we'll need you as well," Taylor said. "We might be a strategy engine, but you know how to visualise encounters and figure out what might happen."
Dinah looked at Annette in confusion for a moment, then her frown cleared. "Definitely," she agreed. "You'll be better at it than me, for sure."
Lisa didn't like not having all the information. "What are you talking about?" she asked. "Annette's not a Thinker like the rest of us. Where do you get the 'visualise encounters' thing?"
"I've been learning how to play Dungeons and Dragons with her and her friends," Taylor explained. "If she can keep a five-person encounter moving smoothly, she can figure out how to strategise a cape battle."
Annette blinked, then brightened up. "Cool! Do I get a costume when the rest of you do?"
Taylor shrugged. "Well, the public members already have them, and the rest of us won't be doing the public thing if we can help it, but sure, what the hell."
"Woo hoo!" Annette jumped to her feet and started an impromptu victory dance. "Gonna be a superhero, gonna be a superhero …"
"So what do I do?" asked Theo. "I haven't got any powers, and I barely know anything about strategy. It's not like I can read up on it and be an instant expert overnight."
"No …" Dinah said slowly. "But you do have a strong insight into the criminal cape mind. I'm guessing your father tried to educate you on the capes of Brockton Bay for when you took over from him in the family business?"
Theo scratched the back of his head. "Kinda, yeah? He was always talking about how I needed to be ready, like I was gonna get powers any second and have to take over from him at a moment's notice. He was always about knowing the motivations of all the villain capes, so if I ever had to deal with them in a business way, I'd know what to offer that they'd accept."
Taylor grinned at him. "So yeah, you'll be able to tell us why they're likely to jump this way or that. Awesome."
Theo frowned suspiciously. "Are you just telling me this so I feel better about myself and don't think I'm being left out?"
"Do I look like someone who might do that?" asked Dinah. "My power doesn't lie."
Yeah, but you might. Lisa didn't say it, and carefully didn't tap into her power.
Kayden was their host and their primary heavy hitter, and alienating her by marginalising her stepson from the other kids in the team was something nobody wanted to do. Besides, his lack of powers notwithstanding, Theo had been immersed in Brockton Bay's cape culture all his life. He had to have forgotten more about the city's heroes and villains than Lisa had learned since being drafted into the Undersiders.
The intercom chimed. "Ah, that'll be the others," Kayden said. Wiping her hands on her apron, she headed through to the front door. Pressing the button on the panel, she said, "Come on up."
"Thanks." That was Danny's voice. Lisa relaxed; even with the electronic filtering, he sounded calm and unthreatened. Not that anyone forcing their way into this apartment right now would be doing anything but setting foot in a lion's den. If she, Taylor and Dinah couldn't figure a way to screw with the heads of any intruder, she would lose faith in all teenagers everywhere.
A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door. As Kayden had gone back into the kitchen, Theo jumped up to get it. In came Danny, Andrea, Janet and Amy Dallon, with the surprise addition of her sister Victoria. It was no secret that Victoria was also the teen hero Glory Girl; neither was it hard for Lisa to figure out why she was there. She didn't say anything though; instead, she smoothly turned the whiteboard over so that it showed some kind of … city map? Oh, yeah. Taylor mentioned Dungeons and Dragons.
"Hey, Dad," Taylor offered from the sofa. "How was your day?"
"Only moderately stressful," he replied with a grin that told Lisa a great deal. He's happier now that Taylor has powers. She used her powers to solve one of her problems. Is glad that she's got friends to work with. Not so sure about me, but he's coming around. Mentally, she shrugged. Being an ex-villain meant there would be inevitable baggage to deal with.
"Amy!" Annette leaped to her feet. Lisa saw her gauging the chance of jumping over the coffee table, then meeting her mother's eyes and the quick headshake. Her mom's probably used to stuff like this happening.
"Hey, Annette." Amy came to meet the redhead and they hugged. Amy didn't seem to be put off by Annette's touchy-feely nature, which was interesting. There were undercurrents going on that the healer probably wasn't aware of quite yet, but which Lisa could see happening a mile away, though she had no idea how this was all going to turn out. Still, it was fascinating to watch.
"Oh, hi, Glory Girl!" Dinah jumped up from her chair, eyes wide in a well-simulated fangirl reaction. "Remember me? We met at the Weymouth Mall. I'm Dinah."
"Hello, Dinah." Victoria Dallon smiled indulgently, taken off-guard by the sudden burst of faux enthusiasm. "Yes, it's good to see you again too. So yeah, I heard my sis has a bunch of new friends, so I thought I'd come along and see what the fuss is all about."
Lisa didn't miss the tightening around Amy's eyes and mouth, though she was pretty sure nobody else picked it up. It probably wasn't even about the fact that Vicky was crashing a cape team meeting that she knew nothing about. More likely, Amy was irritated by the concept of Vicky deciding that her friends needed to be checked out, because Amy wasn't cool enough to make friends without her sister's help.
The fact that this supposition was (broadly speaking) true would merely serve to irritate the crap out of Amy. They all liked the snarky healer, not least because she'd healed Kayden in the hospital. Lisa was fairly certain that Annette's feelings for Amy went beyond merely 'liking' her, but she wasn't about to let her mind go down that rabbit-hole. When all was said and done, Amy was a welcome member of their group, not just of the team, and not just because of her powers. Lisa knew all too well what it was like to not know who she could depend on in a pinch.
Which raised the next question: how do we get Victoria Dallon to go away without making it seem like we're chasing her off? Lisa was adept at the first, but it usually went hand-in-hand with causing people to leave in tears by prying at sore points in their lives. Making an enemy of Glory Girl was something she didn't want to do in costume, let alone out.
She glanced from side to side, hoping that someone else in the room got an idea before she was forced to pull the nuclear option; or worse, get so boring that Glory Girl left of her own accord. Annette, still holding onto Amy's arm, didn't look like she had anything to contribute, and Amy was currently engaged in being annoyed at Vicky. Lisa glanced at Taylor then at Dinah, who grinned slightly.
"Oh, well, we're just discussing what we're going to be doing in our next game of Dungeons and Dragons," Dinah said breathlessly, managing to sound like a star-struck eight-year-old. "You want to play, too? I'll help you make a character up. We can be magical elven princesses together!"
Lisa bit her lip to avoid laughing out loud. She'd never played the game, but she was certain whatever Dinah played in the game, it was not a magical elven princess. Vicky was wavering, but hadn't decided to go yet …
Lisa almost missed Dinah's nod to Taylor. "Hey yeah," Taylor said enthusiastically. "We'll be able to tell everyone at school that Glory Girl plays D&D with us!" She produced a multi-sided die from somewhere; Lisa wasn't quite sure where, but her power told her it had twenty sides. "Roll for initiative!"
In a motion that looked careless but had to be anything but, Taylor sat forward in her chair and tossed the die at the tray. It hit the upcurve and bounced into the air; Vicky jerked her head back just too late as the die hit her in the left eye, then bounced to the floor. "Ow! Hey!" she yelped. "Watch it."
"Sorry," sang out Taylor. "My hand slipped. Happens when I get excited. So, you wanna play D&D with us? You'd make a great magical elven princess."
"Are you okay there?" asked Danny. "That got you right in the eye."
"Nah, I'm good," Vicky said. "Force field caught it, but that flinch reflex is something you never quite get rid of. Still, I'm gonna have to call a raincheck on playing Dungeons and Dragons. I already wear a tiara in my day job. Doing it while pretending to be a princess might be a little on the nose."
"Aww, that's too bad," Annette said cheerfully. "Dinah's already memorised the magical princess song. She could've taught you to sing it easily."
"Yeah, no, I think I'll definitely pass. Besides, I need to go on patrol with Mom and Eric soon, so I gotta go." Vicky nodded to Danny and Andrea. "Nice to meet you, Mr Hebert, Ms Campbell …" She paused, looking awkwardly at Kayden. "Sorry, ma'am, I don't think we've met."
"Well, not socially, anyway," Kayden said with a polite smile that had Lisa falling about on the inside from repressed laughter. The chances of Purity having duelled with Glory Girl were fairly high. "Kayden Russell. I'm Theo's mother."
"Ah, okay." Vicky gave Theo a vague wave. "Hi. Um … is it okay if I just open a window here?"
"Certainly, Miss Dallon." Kayden went over and unlatched one of the windows. "Feel free to visit anytime."
"Sure, no problem, Ms Russell." Vicky paused at the window and looked back at her sister. "Give me or Mom a call if you want a lift, okay?"
"Oh, she'll be fine." Andrea grinned at her. "We've got three cars between us. I'd be astonished if we couldn't give her a ride home."
"Right, sure, okay." The teenage hero climbed out the window, then flew away. By the time Kayden had the window closed, Taylor was howling with laughter, with Dinah a close second. Lisa lost it around then, dropping to her butt on the floor and leaning against the wall. Through the tears of mirth welling in her eyes, she saw Amy and Annette leaning on each other and giggling madly. Even the normally dour Theo joined in.
By the time Lisa could see straight again, Danny was sitting down at the dining room table with Andrea, while Janet and Kayden looked on with bemusement. "Okay," said Janet. "I'm guessing that Dinah doesn't play a magical princess in this game of yours?"
"I don't—I don't even play!" gasped Dinah, her face red with laughter. "Oh god, the look of utter horror on her face!"
"I can't believe you hit her in the face with that d-twenty," Annette told Taylor, in between chuckles. "That was perfect. Though we probably managed to put her off the game for life, now."
"Serves her right for inviting herself along to vet my friends," Amy grumbled, though a smirk kept crossing her features. "Was that whole thing an act put on to chase her away? That was amazing."
"That was Dinah," Lisa said, smirking right back. "And Taylor, chucking that, uh, d-twenty at her? That was genius. That's what tipped the scale."
"That and Mom making up the whole magical princess song thing," Annette said, shaking her head. "Man, I wonder if she'll ever realise how badly she just got played?"
"I'm just wondering if we shouldn't have actually let her in on what we're really doing here," Janet said quietly. Everyone turned to look at her, and she raised her good hand slightly. "I know, I know. Uninvited, a bit bratty, more than a little entitled. But think about it. She's a big hitter, I don't like to confront people directly, and Kayden's vulnerable as our only real front-liner. Glory Girl would make things a lot more secure on that front."
"Janet's actually got a point there," Danny said, getting up from the dining room table. "I'm not an expert on how cape teams work, but it seems we're heavy on Thinkers and light on actual throw weight." He looked toward Kayden and Dinah. "Correct me if I'm wrong."
Kayden shook her head. "You're not wrong. The Empire was weighted very much the other way. Most active teams are."
"The Undersiders are too," Lisa remarked. "Well, they were until you guys poached me away. I was the Thinker support, if you don't count Coil. Which I don't, because that asshole would've burned us in a heartbeat if it got him a good deal." She shuddered. "Sometimes I got the feeling he was looking for another high-end Thinker to, you know, drug up and keep in his lair so he could double-dip on his power. I'm just glad my power needs me to get out and see stuff, or that might've been me."
"If and when we take on Lung or any other team with a big hitter, Glory Girl would be a distinct asset," Dinah said, getting back to the original topic. "Right now, though, we haven't got any big wins under our belt that anyone knows about. We don't even have a team name yet. The only people who even know we're a group are … well, us."
"From that, I'm hearing 'Merchants' as our next target," Taylor decided. "Guys?"
Lisa nodded. "I like the Merchants for this. Their heavy hitters are what, Mush and Squealer?"
Kayden nodded. "Yes. Skidmark's got potential, but he's barely more than a medium hitter because he's an incompetent, drugged-out fool. Their last member's called Whirlygig. She can make small objects spin around her in a cloud. I don't think she's got a ranged attack. Neither does Mush. Skidmark can fake a blaster attack if he works at it, but his biggest asset is the fact that his power lets him be very hard to pin down one-on-one."
"Which makes Squealer the most dangerous one." That was Theo. "My father gave her fifty-fifty odds of murdering Skidmark one day and just taking over. She hasn't yet, so I'm dubious. Still, she can build tanks from junked cars. They look like they shouldn't run, but they face up to the PRT and get away. According to my father, her most impressive invention isn't the tanks, but the fact that she can drive them through town and not be seen or heard by anyone until she gets to where she's going."
"Huh," mused Lisa. "Cloaking or teleportation?" Either one would come with its own potential problems, teleportation being the most irritating.
Leaning toward the tray, Taylor picked up the coin that had fallen over at some point during the discussion. "Heads, cloaking. Tails, teleportation." She flipped the coin into the air then grabbed a cookie before it came down. Holding up the back of her other hand to catch it, she took a bite from the cookie, then finally looked. "Heads," she mumbled around the bite, swallowed, and repeated herself. "Heads says she cloaks her stuff."
Annette nodded decisively. "Good. Both of them are a pain in the butt, but invisibility's a lot easier to plan around than straight-up teleportation."
Kayden raised her eyebrows. "You talk like you've had to deal with both."
"Well, not in real life, obviously," Annette said hastily. "But you'd be astonished how often things like that come up in a high-level D&D game. I can't guarantee the fixes would be identical, but it definitely gives me a baseline to work with." She looked from Kayden to Theo. "But I'm going to need whatever hard numbers you've got on everyone's powers. I don't want us going in blind, here."
At that moment, Aster wailed from the bedroom. "I'll take care of her," Kayden said. "Theo, you've got this." She gave her stepson a smile and headed out of view.
Theo took a deep breath. Annette gave him an encouraging smile. "Okay, then," he said. "Skidmark lays down kinetic fields. They can be on the ground or on any object he can see, and they have a colour gradient, from violet to blue. Anything touching the field is pushed from the violet side to the blue side. One field on its own isn't very strong, but he can layer them …"
Three Weeks Later
Adam Mustain was irritated. The Empire Eighty-Eight had been virtually eliminated in Brockton Bay, and now some minge-sucking arsewipe was messing with the Merchants. It wasn't any of the known heroes attacking head on; he could deal with that shit. But for the last two weeks, someone had been pinpointing their stash houses and calling the cops in on them. One night after the next, like clockwork. Like someone knew exactly where they were.
Even more irritatingly, they were able to arrange matters so that when the cops came in, it was always when the Merchants were busy elsewhere. By the time him and his people actually heard about the busts and mobilised, the cops were already on site in force, usually with a couple of heroes hanging around. Him and Squealer and Mush and Whirlygig (she'd refused to let him call her 'Shitstorm') were usually enough on their own to make the cops think twice about taking them on without a good reason, but once the drugs were taken away and the arrests made, what was the fucking point anyway?
By now he'd lost hundreds of thousands of bucks' worth of product, and that was money he'd never see again. Worse, when he questioned his dealers about who was singing to the cops, nobody had word one to say, even when he got a little enthusiastic with his questioning. In fact, some of them had started slipping away when he wasn't looking. Not to snitch to the piggies, just … leaving. Leaving the Merchants. Abandoning what he'd built.
After the third hit, when Sherrel had suggested it might be someone on the outside, he'd told her to fuck off. Were the cops raiding any other buildings in the area, or just theirs? These weren't blind guesses. Some little taint-sniffer was talking, and he was going to find out who. But no matter what he did, no matter how much they begged for him to stop, nobody had a word to say about the stash house hits. Nobody knew nothin'. And now he was losing dealers. They'd had a good deal, but it looked like they'd rather fuck off than work for him.
So, a week in, he'd gone back around the dealers who were still sticking by him, and he'd asked a different set of questions. Had they seen anyone, he asked. In the days before the busts, had there been anyone loitering around that smelled of cop. Usually the piggies liked to arrest the dealers at point of sale rather than risk going up the chain and running into capes, but it looked like they were getting a lot sneakier now. Maybe they were following the dealers back after doing the buy, or just using drones or some shit. Whatever it was, they were locating his stash houses and fucking with his livelihood. That shit needed to come to a screeching halt, or he was going to kill some donkey-fucker.
At first, his dealers were almost insulted when he asked about undercover cops. They might've asked what he'd been smoking, but they didn't need to ask, because they smoked the same shit. Still, whether they were straight or so fuckin' high they were licking the Simurgh's ass, they all knew what a cop looked like, and they all swore blind not a one had come near the dealers or the stash houses. It was all their regulars, all the time.
Well, except …
When he heard that 'except' for the first time, Adam thought he was about to break the case wide open. But it was nothing. Just a few teenage kids, wandering past the stash house itself. Not even really looking at it, not bothering the guards, just walking past. They'd only stuck in the one guy's mind because one was a redhead and they were all dressed a bit too good for the 'hood. It wasn't exactly uncommon to see rich kids slumming it in Merchant territory for a cheap thrill and a hit of the good stuff.
Except … Adam still had a feeling about it.
Then he talked to the guys who'd been at the other stash houses that had gotten hit, and one by one, they'd repeated that little detail. A bunch of kids, all dressed neat and tidy, one of them a redhead. Not hamming it up, nobody staring at the stash house or taking notes or even using a phone to get some sneaky pics. But the same bunch, for each stash house hit. Or rather, a group with the same description, which he figured was close enough.
By the time he nailed down exactly what was going on, he was eleven stash houses down. This shit had to stop. The guys at one of the remaining ones had seen the kids, while the rest hadn't. Which meant he knew exactly where the cops were going to hit next. He figured that after they kicked in the front door and ran into him and his crew, they'd be a lot less eager to follow some smartass little teenager's tipoff.
He had it all worked out.
If Sherrel Bailey had ever had the slightest belief that standing guard was in any way fun or interesting, that shit was long gone now. Her latest creation was parked in an empty lot not far from the stash house, idling in low-power mode with the cloaking field up and running. The sensory suite she'd built into it was rough and ready, composed mainly of scavenged and stolen security cameras and fire sensors, but it was enough to see anyone coming. The trouble was, she was bored. So fucking bored.
A car cruised past, but it wasn't the teenagers. The cameras picked up a skinny guy in the driver's seat, and a blonde chick riding shotgun, with another chick in the back. They didn't look to the left or the right, just kept on going. The car showed up as perfectly normal on the more exotic scans she pinged it with, and it didn't have any extra radio antennae, so she put it from her mind.
The two-way radio on her dash crackled. "Yo, Squealer. Anything going on?" It sounded like Adam was just as bored as she was.
"Nope," she said. "Car went past, but it's nothing. Should be going by you any second now." Mist drifted past some of her cameras and she frowned. "How cold is it out there?" Brockton Bay got cold in the winter, but nowhere near as chilly as places like New York or Boston, even though it was north of them. Fog just didn't normally form around this area.
"Not that fuckin' cold. Haven't seen the car yet. How many in it?"
She frowned. "Should've got to you by now. Skinny guy driving, two women passengers."
"Right, right, I see it." He paused. "How many people in it, did you say?"
"Three," Sherrel said clearly. "Driver, two passengers. Skinny drink of water, two chicks."
"Must be a different fuckin' car. Just the driver in this one."
Sherrel sat up, adrenaline flushing through her system. "That's not right. I saw three—what the fuck?"
She broke off with the exclamation as the cameras caught a change in the light level around the armoured vehicle she was sitting in. It was like someone had turned on a massive floodlight and aimed it where she was parked. All of her cameras were pointed at ground level, but she had a few of them on swivels, so she started turning one to point upward as she slapped the button to bring the tank to full readiness.
Skidmark began to say something then, but she never heard it, because at that moment something punched a hole through the back end of the tank. She'd never been one to worry about such pissy stuff as actual safety equipment, so the blast threw her out of her seat to land sprawled up against one of the walls. Alarms were blaring, lights were flashing, and a good chunk of the control panel went dead and dark. Her power meter started going down fast; it looked like the engine had been damaged.
Ears ringing, she engaged backup batteries and tried to throw the tank into gear, just as a second blast smashed into the tank, this time blowing the back end clean off. Sparks sprayed from every circuit and panel, and the vehicle groaned and died. Clawing her way to her feet for a second time, she mashed the startup button again, but absolutely fuck-all happened. A tendril of smoke curled its way into the control area. Either something was on fire, or it really wanted to be.
"Fuck!" she screamed, unaware that she was mostly deaf. Forgetting all about the two-way radio that had fallen under the control console, she pulled a panel off beside the driver's seat. Behind it was a lever with the sign "Do you really want to do this?" next to it. Without a moment's hesitation, she grabbed the lever and heaved. Explosive bolts blew, detaching a chunk of armour as well as the wall behind the panel. Cool night air rolled in; she grabbed a pistol from a compartment next to the lever and jumped out.
Outside was a lot more well-lit than she recalled, with some sort of floodlight up on one of the buildings overlooking the empty lot. Even though the angle was all wrong, she brought up the pistol to see if she could shoot it out. A moment later, her hand cramped and she dropped the weapon. Then another blast came spiralling down and hit the tank for a third time. It was definitely on fire now.
Forgetting about the pistol, not even trying to query why Purity was attacking her tank (or even how Purity knew the tank had been there), Sherrel bolted for it. The safest place she knew was the stash house. There was a narrow alleyway between two buildings that she'd previously scouted; once she came out the other side, she would be diagonally across the street from the house. Twenty seconds, done and dusted.
There were trash cans in the alleyway, which someone had arranged differently to the last time she'd been down here. Still, it was easy to dodge around them, though a dumpster had been dragged across to block it altogether about two-thirds of the way along. Making use of a convenient trash-can, she climbed on top of the dumpster and prepared to jump down. She didn't like the idea of landing on the tumbled cans on either side, so she prepared to jump down onto where the vague rounded shape of a manhole cover showed in the darkness.
The manhole cover wasn't there. It was just a manhole.
Adam had no idea what was going on.
First off, Sherrel disagreed with him about how many people were in the car. Big deal, he only saw one. The driver was probably getting road head or something. But then she said 'what the fuck' which meant something was going on. He'd just started to ask about that when there was a loud noise in the background and the radio cut off.
"Hey, Sherrel, what the fuck? Talk to me!" He looked at the two-way radio. The charge was still good. "Quit fuckin' around and tell me what's going on!"
"Uh, boss?" called out one of the armed mooks on window duty. "Might wanna see this."
"I'm surrounded by syphilitic cock-jugglers," he grumbled as he went through into the side room. "What do you want, you bleeding rectal tumour?"
The mook pointed, and Adam goggled. There was a glow on top of one of the nearby buildings. He couldn't see the source directly, but there was a fuck-off huge cloud of smoke rising from right about where Sherrel had parked her plonking great death machine. "FUCK!" he screamed. "Why does this always fuckin' happen to me?" Pausing and eyeing off the cloud, he made up his mind what to do next. "Mush! Where the fuck are you?"
It took two more yells before the wizened little man appeared, already starting to gather some of the abundant trash in the stash house to make his Mush form. "What?" he mumbled. "Something happen?"
"Yeah," snarled Adam. Some twatwaffle just blew up Squealer's tank. Take some of these useless pricks and go see what happened. If you catch who did it, mess 'em up good."
Mush looked at him in what was possibly a doubtful manner; Adam couldn't really tell through all the trash the scrawny little turd had covered himself with. "Sure that's a good idea?" he asked. "Could be a trick to make us come over there. Maybe Whirlygig—"
"Whirlygig's staying right here," Adam interrupted him. "That's why you're taking the guys. You're fuckin' bulletproof like that anyway. Don't be such a little bitch."
"Fine," grumbled Mush and shambled from the room. Adam could hear him calling for reinforcements. The guys weren't anything special; Adam had gotten his remaining dealers together, and taken those who weren't so shitfaced they knew which end of a gun went bang. But he'd also promised them a bonus when all this was over, so they knew to at least pretend enthusiasm.
As soon as Mush and the exploration party were out the front door, Adam locked it again. No fucker was getting in to score his product when his back was turned. And even if the cops did hit the place, they'd have him and Mush to deal with, and that wasn't even counting Whirlygig.
It didn't matter what had happened to Squealer. This shit was over as of tonight.
The short-lived scream from the alley behind her made Janet smirk, but it didn't distract her from concentrating on the collections of water that were people in the house just down the block from where she stood in a patch of shadow. Even though she had powers, she felt weird wearing a domino mask. Fighting villains, she knew, had its perils. Panacea had explained what had happened to her Aunt Jess (aka Fleur), once upon a time. So the mask was necessary, if not really her thing.
She brought up more fog, causing the air humidity to precipitate just that little bit extra and reduce visibility. It didn't impair her in the slightest; she could tell where Kayden was on the rooftop above, where Panacea was in the alley with Squealer, and where Mush was coming with the people he'd chosen.
Just as Theo, Taylor, Lisa, Dinah and Annette had agreed he would.
Danny had supplied the heavy wrench to open the fire hydrant, and now she was holding back the water pressure with her powers alone. She waited until Mush was almost level with her but on the other side of the street, and let go with the first blast. The slug of water hammered across the width of the road and knocked the trash villain off his feet. As the mooks goggled, she angled the stream slightly, blasting them sideways, one after the other. Each time one of them tried to get up, she washed them farther away from Mush.
When the last one got the message and stumbled off down the street in full rout, she returned her attention to the now-waterlogged villain. He was still coherent enough to get up, so she aimed the high-pressure spray at him once more. This time, she focused on blasting the trash off him, washing it away and knocking him over every time he tried to rebuild himself.
Panacea came up alongside her. "Squealer's secured," she reported. "Where did you get the idea of hanging a net inside the manhole, anyway? From your sailing days?"
Janet snorted, moving her hand in a curving motion to shape the outgoing spray. "Nope. From playing pool. Did you have any trouble?"
Panacea chuckled. "Nah. She was climbing out, swearing like Uncle Neil when he's stubbed his toe, and I offered her my hand. She took it, and that's all she wrote."
"Hah." Mush was down to the last few bits of trash, so Janet directed the spray at his face. No matter where he turned, even if he faced away from her, he couldn't get a good breath of air. To make matters even worse for him, she was wrapping bands of water around his limbs that restricted his movement, but she didn't want to chance actually drowning him. "Want to go wrap up Mush for me?"
"Love to." Panacea started across the road. "That'll be two down, two to go."
"We do make a good team." Janet stopped the flow of water and began to screw the cap back on the hydrant with quick, efficient movements.
At the same time, she focused on a particular house down the road and across the way, and concentrated her attention on the pipes.
He didn't know what this weird fog was that had just rolled down the street, but he knew he didn't like it. Not one little bit. Worse, the guys Mush had taken with him had just run past the house, going the other direction. The funny thing was, they were all soaking wet, like they'd been caught in the rain. The fog was heavy, but it wasn't that heavy.
There was no sight nor sound of Squealer or Mush. This was starting to look like a deal gone wrong. Two of his capes were just gone. The Merchants were on the brink. Should he run for it, he wondered, or stand and fight? And what was that glow lighting the fog from above? The last thing he wanted to deal with right now was a fuckin' UFO. Some guys might get off on a bit of anal probing, but not Adam Mustain.
He looked around, annoyance washing through him. "Whirlygig! I left you watching the back yard, you useless bitch!"
She looked pissed at him, but didn't comment on what he'd said, which was lucky for her. He was spoiling for a fight right then. "The pipes are rattling," she said. "Just thought you might want to know."
"What's that supposed to mean?" But he was talking to her back; she was returning to where she'd been to begin with.
Frowning, he went through into the kitchen. Sure enough, there was a distinct rattling and banging coming from the water system. Next door, in the bathroom, it was even worse. Once more, he wasn't sure what was going on, but it was starting to shake the whole house, and he knew it was bad news. The toilet had a complex pattern of ripples on the surface of the water. Adam had become intimately familiar with toilets during his last year of college, given his growing drug habit, but he'd never seen this one.
He was just leaning over to look at it in more detail when it gushed clear to the ceiling, catching him in the face and flinging him across the bathroom. He scrubbed at his eyes, realised he was sitting in water, and looked up to see fountains arising from both the toilet and the washbasin.
As he scrambled to his feet, he heard bangs as pipes burst throughout the house, sending water spraying out of holes in the wall. By the time he got out of the bathroom, he was ankle-deep in water. The kitchen was also flooding, he realised, and the water was rising by the second.
The ambush, he finally allowed himself to admit, was a dismal failure. He'd been outplayed and outmanoeuvred from the beginning. All he could do now was fuck off. "Whirlygig!" he yelled. "Time to go!"
She didn't answer him—he strongly suspected she'd already deserted the sinking ship—so he dashed to the front door and heaved on it. It moved not at all, which wasn't altogether surprising, given that there was a foot of water on the inside. Swearing to himself, he started laying down field after field inside the door, designed to pull the water away from it. The water began to swirl violently, washing against the door then blasting into the interior of the house.
Grabbing the handle, he heaved once again. This time, the water pressure was minimal, allowing him to drag it open an inch. The field took over at this point, hauling it all the way open so fast it nearly dislocated his wrist. One of the remaining mooks tried to dash out past him, but put one foot on the skid-field and was launched screaming toward the maelstrom that was the kitchen.
Hastily—the water was nearing thigh-deep by now—he threw down some more skid-fields, these ones designed to pull the door and water sideways, away from the door. Once they had the door held, he dismissed the first fields without thinking … and was washed out the door.
"Mother … crapping … dickhole … arsebandit … knobgobbling …" he yelled as he tumbled over and over into the street. Behind him, the house blasted water from every door and window, but he didn't care. All he wanted to do now was get away from Leviathan's little brother, or whoever was pulling this shit.
There was still an inch or so of water on the road where he was, but that didn't matter. He laid down a long skid-field, then another and another, and then stepped on it. Aided by the flow of water, he began to skate away down the road, dropping fields as he went. The best thing about this method of transport, he'd long decided, was that any vehicles trying to chase him would hit the field and lose control. The fog made it hard to see ahead, but all he had to do was stay in the middle of the road and—
The fishing net strung between two electricity poles swept him off his feet and wrapped him up like a Christmas turkey.
Amy took a moment to admire how thoroughly Whirlygig had been tangled up in the net trap in the back yard. The Merchant woman had clearly had the option to not come out with her powers active, but she'd decided that they were under attack and gotten out a window. The fishing nets Janet had sourced had come in amazingly handy, as had Theo's description of how Whirlygig's power worked. Once the power had caught one end of the trap, the woman had literally wrapped herself up before she could turn it off. A series of carefully-placed hooks ensured that she couldn't release herself with equal ease; it was going to take someone with a knife to get her out of that.
For now, there was nothing sticking into her, the water was no longer flowing out of the house, and she wasn't about to suffocate. Reaching out, Amy touched skin and put the villain to sleep.
"So how's Skidmark?" asked Janet, exiting the back door of the house.
"Still tangled in the net you set up there," Amy said with a grin. "The look on his face when I tagged him was amazing. I love how you arranged it so his skid-field would activate the trap."
"It took Lisa and Dinah to get the fine details right," Janet pointed out. "So, did you want to hang around and talk to the cops?"
"Not right now," confessed Amy. "My folks still don't know I'm moonlighting, even if I'm not in costume." She looked down at her black top and jeans, then touched the matching domino mask on her face. "I really don't want to open that can of worms with them at the moment."
Janet nodded. "I hear that. Same for me, except I don't want to open the whole costumed-hero can of worms ever."
They walked through the house and out the front door, where Amy paused and took a note from her pocket, along with a small box of pushpins. Sirens were starting to sound in the distance as Janet helped her pin the note to the door.
They headed out to the street, where Danny was waiting with the car. Kayden was already in the front seat, so Janet and Amy got in the back. As they sedately drove away, Amy and the other two pulled their masks off.
Armsmaster stared at the note that had been pinned to the door.
Skidmark: down the street to the left.
Mush: down the street to the right.
Squealer: in the alleyway across the street to the right.
Whirlygig: in the back yard.
No name was appended.
For all that a bunch of criminal capes had been taken off the street, he knew Director Piggot would not be happy about this. Not at all.
End of Part Fifteen