Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Part Two: Seeing a Man About a Dog


[A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]


Danny


Professional killers have certain traits in common with spies.

Both inhabit the shadows, their presence only revealed by the fallout of what they've done. The good ones go unnoticed until the job is done and dusted; the very good ones aren't even identified after the fact. Both require anonymity as a first principle for the job; to be known is to draw extremely unwelcome attention not only from the target, but also from those who might think they're the next target.

And, of course, they rarely retire. Oh, they may cease to take paying work, but it's a fact that the best killers and spies only get that good due to a certain natural affinity for the work. So the really good ones never stop looking, gauging, analysing. They're always preparing, however subconsciously, for the next mission. If they're lucky, they get to pull that one last job.

If they're really lucky, they might even survive it.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


The worn backpack sat on the passenger seat beside Danny along with a grungy jacket salvaged from one of the gang punks, the former gently clanking each time he took a corner. He drove with absolute concentration, making an effort to not clench his hands on the wheel; over-exerting his finger muscles at this point would lead to uncontrollable cramping and twitching when he least needed it, later on. In his mind, he was preparing for the fight to come.

This time, he wouldn't be up against a bunch of overconfident and under-prepared no-hopers. While the men at the dog-fight would be woefully inadequate to face him on a one-on-one basis, they would be more numerous and more amped up on adrenaline than the ones at the house. He wasn't quite sure who'd come up with the maxim 'Quantity has a quality all of its own', but it was extremely apt in this situation. The turnout at one of those dog-fights was likely to be upward of fifty or sixty men, which was more than he'd ever taken on at one time before, even with Annette at his side.

Despite knowing that, and knowing he was out of practice, not once did he consider abandoning the rescue mission. Chewie was far too important to Taylor for Danny to let him be slaughtered by a bunch of racist assholes for their own amusement. Which didn't mean that he intended to charge in blindly. Tactics and planning, properly utilised, were potent force multipliers. So was the element of surprise. He intended to make full use of all three.


When you're setting up for a kill, you've got all the time in the world. You're going to need it; you have to study your target, figure out his routine, his weaknesses and his strengths. You need to wait until you're comfortable with the hit, until you've figured out how you're going to get close, how you're going to do the deed, and how you're going to exfil afterward. Then you work out another plan, and a third one, then a fourth. You figure out what you're going to do when the plan goes wrong, as it inevitably will. All this takes time.

The inverse applies when you're going for a rescue mission. I haven't done very many of those, but they came up once in a long while. The life expectancy of the victim of a gangland kidnapping is usually a few hours to a few days, so we had to act fast to get them back before anything happened to them. And of course, we usually had to kill quite a few people to get the job done. Including—and I always made a point of this—the person who ordered the kidnapping in the first place.

It was my way of ensuring they didn't ever do it again.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


The warehouse where the fight was due to happen wasn't hard to find. He parked the car next to a straggling row of dented pickups, one with an entire series of spotlights on the roll-bar across the top of the cab. Rednecks in New England. Now I've seen it all. Climbing out of the car, he pulled the jacket on and rummaged in the backpack for the pistols he'd salvaged from the five gang punks. Not one of them was fully loaded, so he took out the magazines and stuck them in his left pants pocket. Three of the pistols had rounds chambered, and it only took a moment to remove them and replace them in the magazines. Fortunately, all the pistols were chambered for nine-millimetre rounds, which wasn't a total surprise; it was one of the most popular calibres in the world, after all. The now-empty weapons went back into the pack, now slung one over one shoulder. He started moving briskly toward the warehouse.

As he walked, he tested the tension in the springs then started to swap ammunition between the magazines, thumbing the cool copper-and-lead projectiles out of the emptiest ones and pushing them into one of the more fully loaded ones. The familiar repetitive action was almost soothing, helping to get his head back in the game.

People were still filing in through the main doors, which gave him hope that Chewie was still alive. But it was getting close to the hour, so he didn't have much time to play around with. Swapping the bullets over had filled one magazine and nearly filled a second one, so he stuffed the now-empty magazines into the pack along with the pistols that went with them. Loading two of the pistols, he chambered rounds, applied the safeties, and put them back in the pack as well. As an afterthought, he took a switchblade he'd salvaged from the earlier fight out of his back pocket and slid it into his sleeve.

The jacket had enough Empire-related patches that nobody looked twice at him, but it would still take too long for him to get where he needed to be without being noticed. With this in mind, he detoured away from the converging crowd, around to the back of the building. As he'd expected (having a certain amount of familiarity with this sort of facility) there was a loading dock mostly filled with random trash. Beside the rust-laden roller-door was a doorway of more normal proportions. Near the door, an equally dilapidated fire extinguisher hung on a bracket, no doubt a relic of safety regulations dating from more prosperous days.

However, of more interest to him were the two guards in front of the door, both eyeing him with a certain amount of disfavour. The one on the left stood about six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a broader gut. His thick beard spilled down on to his chest over a faded black T-shirt that displayed a raised fist with a swastika on the back, and the slogan "White Power" beneath. At least, Danny figured that was what it said, given that all but "ITE POW" was obscured by the leather vest the Empire thug was wearing. The patches on the vest were more or less the same as the ones on Danny's 'borrowed' jacket, while tattoos of a similar nature decorated the Empire thug's thick forearms.

The guard on the right was about six inches shorter and fifty to a hundred pounds lighter than his buddy. He also wore a jacket proclaiming his lack of moral standards, and had a heavily acne-scarred face with greasy dark hair falling over it, along with a receding chin. With his beady, suspicious gaze and straggly moustache, he rather resembled a rat peering over a hairbrush.

Danny was briefly reminded of a quote—he wasn't sure where from—that asked 'Why is it the greatest champions of the white race always turn out to be the worst examples of it?'. While both men were technically armed—with pistols pushed into the front of their pants, a move he wouldn't advise to anyone who was set on raising a family—he saw the two-way radios clipped to their belts to be a greater threat than the weapons ever would be. If he was going to pull this off, he had to make his entry quick and quiet. At a pinch, he'd settle for one out of two.

"Wrong way, asshole," grunted the bulky guard, scratching his neck under his beard. "This ain't the way in." His rat-faced partner nodded in agreement. Fortunately, as far as Danny could see, neither one of them considered him to be more than a mild annoyance. He ignored the warning and took a couple of steps closer, flexing his wrist slightly.

"Got a question," he said bluntly. "Either of you guys afraid of the Dark?" As he spoke, he let the switchblade drop into his hand.

The rat-faced guard was a little quicker on the uptake than his partner. His eyes opened wide and his face paled dramatically as he stepped back, hands held up defensively in front of him. "Oh, shit," he muttered. "Oh, shit. Chuck, it's the Dark."

"The fuck you on about?" Chuck almost literally puffed himself up. "This ain't the Dark. He's just some skinny fuck." Pulling the radio from his belt while reaching for the gun with his other hand, he thumbed the button. "Hey, we—"


When you're using a short knife, like a switchblade, the temptation is to stab with it. This isn't the best idea in the world. Barring certain areas where vulnerable points are very close to the surface, a stab will be painful but won't do a whole lot to your opponent. Slashing is more difficult, but opening up a vein or artery can easily be a fight-ender. Likewise, taking out tendons and ligaments will seriously hamper your opponent and give you an edge. The straight razor is the epitome of this principle; most see it as almost an archaic weapon but in the right hands, it can be terrifying.

Of course, this isn't to say that stabbing is always a bad idea. At the right time and place, it can be exactly what you need to do.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


Danny flicked the switchblade open and threw it underhanded, sending it flashing in a bright line that terminated in the man's right eye. Even as the guy dropped the radio and let out a high-pitched scream, Danny reached out and yanked the fire extinguisher from its place on the wall. Ramming it forward, he slammed its base into the switchblade, driving the knife deep into the thug's brain.

"Oh, shit, oh, shit!" yelped the rat-faced guy, trying to edge backward. Danny turned and took one long stride toward him, then swung the extinguisher. With a hollow clang, it bounced off the guy's skull. His eyes rolled back in his head as his knees buckled and he slumped to the grimy concrete, out cold. Dropping the extinguisher on the chest of the deceased Chuck, Danny leaned down and plucked the gun from his belt. The other one hadn't done anything to deserve death quite yet, so Danny decided to let him live and just took his gun instead.

Turning to the door, Danny pushed down on the handle with his elbow. It utterly failed to open, which didn't surprise him; locking the door was only a logical precaution. It would've made his life a little easier for them to have overlooked that one, but he couldn't have everything. It looked as though he was going to have to go with 'quick and noisy' for his entry, which meant he'd have to do a little preparation. Setting the safety catches on the pistols he'd just souvenired, he grimaced and shoved them into his waistband in the small of his back, where they'd be concealed by his jacket. His hands now free, he took the loaded guns from the pack, dumped the empties along with their magazines on the loading dock, and slung the now-empty pack properly on his back.

While storing a gun in the waistband was convenient and could be done ninety-nine times out of a hundred without mishap, there was always the hundredth time. Danny had never liked it; there was always the chance of a safety disengaging and the gun going off. Shoved down the front of the pants, the gun muzzle was guided with almost laser-like accuracy toward certain parts of the anatomy that every man held near and dear. Down the back, there were the leg muscles and the large arteries in the thigh to worry about. Just as importantly, the waistband depended on friction and luck to have the gun still there when it was needed. He much preferred a well-made holster. The trouble was, he didn't always get what he wanted.

The pistol in his left hand was a Beretta 92-S, fully loaded; in his right, a Sig-Sauer P-220 with eight rounds. That meant he had twenty-three bullets to play with, in hand. The guns he had stashed in his waistband had felt like they were close to fully loaded, so he figured on another twenty or so rounds there. Once he was getting close to running out, he knew he'd have to take weapons off of someone else. It was an ad hoc arrangement and one he wasn't overly happy with, but he'd long since gotten used to dealing with uncomfortable choices.

Prep was done, and the noise from within the building was starting to build. Time, he knew, was getting short. Stepping back a little from the door, he straight-armed the Sig at it, flicked the safeties off of both weapons at once, then fired a shot at the lock. The muzzle flare would've blinded him if he hadn't squinted, and the report echoed loudly in the empty loading dock, but the lock was blown away and the door sagged open. He hit it hard with his shoulder an instant later, arms already crossing over his body.


When you're going through a door into an uncleared area and you've got two guns, cross your arms over so your right gun is shooting left, and your left gun is shooting right. The most effective place to wait in ambush is right beside the door, which is a hard place to target with a pistol on that side; the human elbow and wrist aren't designed to bend in that direction. If you can't put a couple of rounds through the wall before you hit the doorway, make sure you can shoot sideways as you go through the door. It's a little tricky to put your bullets exactly where you want them, but enough practice can fix that too.

Annette taught me that one. It's saved my life more often than I can count.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


His instincts were correct; there'd been a guard to either side of the door. The one on the left was out of luck, because he had a door in his face. For that matter, the one on the right was even more out of luck, because he was facing Danny's Beretta. Behind that guy, there was a set of stairs going up to some sort of platform, and someone was coming down them. He put three shots through the door with the Sig, then saw both men reaching for their weapons. Stepping closer to the guard at the foot of the stairs, he jammed the Beretta into the guy's chest and double-tapped off two shots. A shudder went through the guy as the first round punched through his heart and kept on going to bury itself in a wooden support. For the second shot, Danny angled the gun upward; this one ranged up through the guard's body, crossed the intervening space in a fraction of a second, and took out the guy on the stairs.

As they both started to go down, Danny half-turned just in time for the left-hand guard to push the door closed again. The action was probably reflexive, because the guy just kept leaning forward, the pistol falling from nerveless fingers to clatter on the ground. He joined it a moment later.

This just got real loud. With that in mind, Danny turned toward the rest of the warehouse. He couldn't see the dog-fighting arena, blocked as it was from his sight by a row of makeshift bookies' desks where people had been laying bets up until the shooting had broken out. Three more guys, with the air of enforcers, were even now moving toward him. This was good, as it saved him from having to go after them, as time was not his friend at the moment. On the downside, he couldn't see the guy he was after, which meant he had to get a better view of the venue.

The set of stairs to his right seemed tailor-made for the purpose; they went up about twenty feet to some sort of platform. And in fact—Danny's eyes widened slightly in recognition—the guy up there was the one he was looking for. Which would've been more useful if the guy hadn't seen him at the same time. He could just see Chewie's head sticking up over the guy's shoulder, so he couldn't risk a body shot. Raising the Sig, he snapped off a shot to make the guy keep his head down. With that breathing space, he opened fire on the incoming enforcers; left, right, left, the guns bucking in his hands. Their heads snapped back, blood spraying bright in the actinic glare of the floodlights. As the last one fell, he turned and went up the steps, taking them two at a time.

Both his guns were raised and ready to shoot in case the asshole showed himself, but he got to the top without being shot at; in fact, by the time he got there, the only one facing him was a chubby little guy with glasses. He didn't look dangerous but Danny knew not to take that as a metric, so he elbow-charged the guy in the chest, sending him back over the rail with a shriek. Turning, he scanned the crowd, looking for his quarry.

A moment later, he spotted the guy. Irritatingly enough, he'd apparently made the jump down from the platform without hurting himself and was now pushing his way through the crowd with the puppy visible in the crook of his left elbow. Danny had a clear shot, but if he took it, he risked Chewie being trodden to death if the puppy was dropped into the milling crowd, so he didn't fire. But he could make the guy's life difficult in other ways. Looking down at the control panel, he saw what he needed and tucked the Sig under his arm.

Knowing he had to be quick, he closed his eyes and tucked his face into the crook of his right arm. The microphone was easy to find, and he flipped the switch. "Your attention please," he said, his voice echoing throughout the building. "Is anyone here afraid of the Dark?" Without waiting for a response, he skated his hand sideways and flipped the switch beside the microphone; the one that said LIGHTS. He didn't see the lights go off, but the radiant heat from the floods cut out immediately. Due to his preparations, when he dropped his arm from his face and opened his eyes, he was the only sighted man in the land of the blind.

All that was left was the glow from the tired fluorescents hanging from the rafters, which had been on all the time and had probably been installed when the building was constructed. He could see clearly by this light; not so the crowd. Between his announcement (which maybe half to two-thirds of the people in the warehouse were taking seriously) and the sudden darkness, the crowd was on the verge of panic. Just the way I like it.

Danny had already marked the position of the guy who had Chewie, and since he'd had enough of jumping off high things on to hard surfaces, he took the Sig in his hand and headed for the way down. There were two enforcers in single file at the bottom of the stairs, the first one just starting up the steps. Each had a gun in hand. They stared up at him, eyes obviously still adjusting to the dark, and tried to bring their guns into line, but he fired a single shot from the Sig before they were halfway there. It went through the throat of the enforcer in front and punched into the chest of the guy behind him, dropping them both to the ground before they were even aware they'd been hit. At the same time, the Sig's slide locked back, confirming that the gun was empty.

Tossing the empty weapon aside, he pulled one of the guns from his waistband and jogged down the stairs. As he stepped over the pile of bodies at the bottom, he was just reflecting to himself that he was getting too old to pull this sort of shit on a regular basis when one of the bodies moved. By sheer instinct, he fired three shots into the pile; there was no more movement. Then he looked around to orient himself and headed toward where he'd last seen Chewie's abductor.

The bookies' desks were hardly an obstacle, and the bookies themselves cowered back when he kicked one of the desks over to get past. He was splattered here and there with blood—shooting someone at close range makes it hard to avoid that—and was carrying two guns, so it was hardly surprising that they didn't want to get in his way. Or maybe they were just that afraid of the Dark.

Good.

Guns in hand, he stalked into the crowd. It parted for him, not unlike the Red Sea before Moses; if, that is, the Red Sea was made up of panicking humanity. An enforcer came out of the crowd to his left, already firing wildly. Danny ducked aside as people went down screaming, then knocked the gun aside and kicked the man's legs from under him. He fired a single shot into the downed man and kept going without pausing.

Up ahead, he heard Chewie's frantic yapping, and he quickened his pace. More enforcers closed on him from all sides, or perhaps they were just regular Empire thugs who'd decided the Dark wasn't as scary as Kaiser. Their mistake. He fired to the left and right, parried a knife-slash, then elbowed one man in the jaw as he shot another in the face. A gunbarrel angled in his direction, but he shot the man in the groin then the head in quick succession.

Someone kicked the Beretta from his hand; it fell to the floor and skittered away. He twisted away from a follow-up blow, then intercepted an incoming slash from a Ka-Bar, the man's wrist slapping into his palm. Dropping to the floor, he fired half a dozen shots into the thugs crowding around him as he stabbed the Ka-Bar guy with his own knife. Bodies slumped to the floor, including the surprised-looking thug whose knife he appropriated, seeing as the guy didn't need it any more. As he came to his feet, he wondered at the sudden outbreak of screaming. They hadn't been screaming en masse up until now: what's changed?

What had changed, he realised in short order, was that a new player was on the scene. A stocky girl on a rhino-sized dog was charging through the crowd, tossing people to left and right. It was the member of the Undersiders called Hellhound; as Danny understood things, she made dogs grow to monstrous sizes then told them what to do. It occurred to him, from what he knew about her, that she may not be a fan of dog-fighting.


While Annette and I made a rule of never going after capes, it only made sense to find out all we could about them. After all, even if we never went after them, there was nothing to say that they wouldn't come after us at some point. So we took in all the public-consumption information we could find, then dug deeper. Not that we ever intended to use it against them unless they brought the fight to us, but forewarned is forearmed.

By the time Annette passed, we were quite well-informed about all the capes in Brockton Bay, including some points of data which would have shocked the public if they knew. I kept up the information-gathering afterward, more from habit than necessity. While I wasn't quite as well-informed as we had been before—cutting ties with my old life also meant casting away access to illegal sources of information—I still knew more than most about the capes of Brockton Bay, who they were and who they associated with.

And, of course, how to take them down if I had to.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


Any distraction for the opposition was a good distraction, but Danny had other fish to fry. The crowd had thinned somewhat—virtually everyone who'd been willing to face him was dead or dying—and the asshole he was chasing was just up ahead, alongside the dog-fighting cage.

The cage was a circular affair roughly ten feet across. It was made up of a wooden frame about two feet high with chicken-wire extending another four feet, so the audience could see every detail of what happened, while the loser in the dog-fight couldn't easily escape its fate. The framework was broken in two places by gates to allow dogs to enter for the fights. Another, larger, gate was obviously there for people to enter and drag out the corpse of the loser. This gate was on the far side of the arena to where Danny stood.

Within the cage, there had obviously been a teaser fight going on, between two somewhat mismatched dogs. While Danny was taking down the opposition, the larger dog had dispatched its scrawnier opponent and was now looking around in evident confusion at the running and screaming. But Danny had no eyes for that; his gaze was locked on the man with Chewie, whose own gaze was flicking back and forth between him and Hellhound.

"Fuck you!" the man yelled, obviously deciding Danny was the greater threat. He raised the pistol he held; just as he snapped off a shot at Danny, Chewie growled and sank his sharp little puppy teeth into the man's thumb. Danny would never be sure if this caused him to miss, but the shot went wide anyway. The real problem was that the guy reacted to the bite by flinging his arm out to the side. Chewie hung on for a split second then let go, performing a parabolic arc through the air. Predictably, because things obviously couldn't get any better, he went over the mesh and into the cage. Where he landed was both good and bad news.

Had Chewie landed on the bare concrete floor of the fighting arena, there was a strong chance he would've been injured by the fall. Fortunately, what he landed on was soft. Unfortunately, the soft thing he landed on was the back of the victorious dog.

With a startled yelp, Chewie rolled off the back of the dog on to the ground. When he hit the concrete, he kept rolling, which saved his life; teeth snapped together just inches away from his body. Too young to really have an opinion in the matter, the little puppy nonetheless acted correctly; scrambling to his feet, he tucked his tail between his feet and fled, yelping frantically. Hampered by the few injuries he'd received in the fight, the bigger dog turned in pursuit.

Once Chewie was out of the sight picture, Danny double-tapped the guy twice in the chest, then finished him off with one in the head. The guy hadn't even finished crumpling to the ground by the time Danny was at the cage. "Chewie!" he called. "Chewie! Come on, boy!" Spying one of the wooden slide-gates into the cage, he kicked at it viciously, shattering it inward. It measured about two feet square, large enough for a dog to enter, but problematic for someone even as skinny as him. "Here, boy! Come on!" Up came the pistol, aiming at the bigger dog. While he didn't like killing animals as a rule, he'd certainly do it to protect Chewie. Unfortunately, all he got out of it was a dry click.

Discarding the pistol, he reached back under his jacket for the last one he'd stashed there … but it wasn't there any more. At some point during the melee, possibly when he'd gone down on to the floor, he and the pistol had parted ways. Which was just one more black mark in the record against shoving them into the waistband, but he didn't dwell on that. Chewie had heard him and was gamely galloping in his direction, but the other dog was gaining with every stride. It would catch Chewie before the puppy got to the gate, and then it would be all over.

Reaching up, he yanked down at the chicken-wire, trying to give himself enough room to throw the knife at the pursuing dog. While he had both arms atop it, struggling to get enough slack—someone had been thoughtful enough to run wire through the top of the mesh, preventing it from sagging, or being made to sag—he heard a piercing whistle, and a command: "Fetch!"

Before he could make sense of it, one of the rhino-sized dogs burst clear through the chicken-wire on the far side of the arena, twanging the retaining wire like a guitar string very briefly before snapping it altogether. The sudden tension flung Danny away from the cage to land on his back, just in time to see the lizard-dinosaur monster tear out through the near side of the arena with the bigger dog struggling in its jaws. Enormous claws ripped chunks from the blood-stained concrete as it turned back toward its mistress, revealing the fact that Chewie was wrapped up in its tail.

He kept enough presence of mind to roll to his feet; on the way, he collected someone's discarded pistol. Upright again, he checked chamber—there was a round ready to go, and the pistol felt heavy enough to have more than a few in the magazine—then started toward where Hellhound and her dogs were harassing the remnants of the crowd. After a moment's thought, he paused to shed the empty pack, preparatory to removing the jacket. The lizard-rhino dogs had proven to be bulletproof in the past, and he didn't feel like being mauled for wearing Empire colours, when all he wanted to do was take Chewie home. Once he had the jacket off and stuffed in the backpack, it would supply ample padding to keep Chewie comfortable on the ride back to the house. And if the little dog felt like peeing on it, Danny was good with that too. He'd even stop by a fast-food place, to treat Chewie to more bacon.

The universe chose that point in time to express its amusement at his daring to make plans past the moment. Just as he began to pull one arm from the jacket sleeve, he heard the familiar roar of a motorcycle engine being revved to the max. More than once in the past, he'd been the one doing the revving. He wasn't surprised to hear it; what better way to escape from an attack by Hellhound than by motorcycle, after all? What was unusual in this specific instance was that the noise was coming closer. A lot closer.

Danny turned to look at the main entrance, a moment before the people struggling to crowd their way out were flung aside by the mass of a speeding motorbike. The rider, clad in loose clothing and wearing a metal cage around her head in lieu of a helmet, came off over the handlebars as the front wheel struck an obstacle it couldn't go over—in this particular case, a person. However, her dismount was anything but uncontrolled, as she proved in short order. Touching down, she rolled to her feet and kept moving at a dead run, drawing a pair of kama from her belt as she made a beeline toward Hellhound.

The fact that people had been hurt by her precipitate entrance didn't seem to bother the woman; nor did Danny think she'd be worried about it later. By all appearances, this was Cricket, one of the Empire's leg-breakers. She wasn't a big-name hitter like Purity or Hookwolf but she was fast and, by all accounts, almost prescient in a fight. Danny had his theories about how that worked, and how she managed to keep her opponents off-guard. If he was right, he'd need a little preparation before he could face her on terms he preferred.

Hellhound wasn't oblivious to the danger; as he picked up the Ka-Bar knife and started slicing a strip of cloth from his shirt, she whistled and pointed. Two of the monstrous creatures—neither one being the dog that had Chewie—began loping toward the newcomer. Misshapen jaws opened to unleash unearthly howls, and drool hung in ropes from their jaws.

Danny had the strip almost torn away when they met the woman head-on, or tried to. As one snapped at her, she pirouetted away, then wedged a kama into its grapefruit-sized eye and dove on to its back. The stricken monster howled and turned its head to snap at the elusive prey, but she ducked away again, ripping chunks from its bone-encrusted neck with her second kama. Planting her feet under her, she launched herself into the air from the dog's back, leaving them behind her. Now there was nothing left between her and Hellhound.

For just a moment, Danny was tempted to let the fight play out. The only beef he had with the Empire—apart from them being racist assholes—was that they had Chewie. If Cricket beat the snot out of Hellhound, Chewie wouldn't come into it at all. He could wait till the dust settled, take Taylor's pet, and go home. No harm, no foul.

Then he sighed as the Ka-Bar snicked through the strip of cloth, dividing it in two. Hellhound was undoubtedly someone's daughter, and she was trying to do the right thing by the dogs. Also, she'd saved Chewie, so he owed her. "Hey!" he called out. "Cricket! Over here!"

She slowed to a stop and turned to look at him. Rolling one of the strips of cloth into a ball, he stuffed it into his right ear. She glanced from him to Hellhound and back, then raised a stubby metal cylinder to her throat. "Who are you?" she asked, the words distinct despite the raspy tone.

"I'm the Dark," he replied simply. "And I'm giving you one chance to back off and walk away." As he held her gaze, he balled up the second strip of cloth. Take the option. Walk away.

"And what happens if I don't back off?" She began to walk toward him. Her whole attitude told him the story; she knew who he was, and didn't care. Which just meant that she hadn't heard enough about him, or had decided that because she was a cape, she was better. Not an uncommon attitude among capes, he'd heard.

"You don't get to walk away." He shoved the other balled-up strip of cloth into his left ear. "I'm sorry, but that's the way it is." The makeshift earplugs functioned well enough. There was the faintest of sensations on the edge of nausea, but he'd dealt with worse in his time.

Again, she glanced from him to Hellhound and back, quite possibly judging whether to ignore him or take him out first. Holding out his hand, he made the classic come-at-me gesture, the hilt of his knife laying across his palm as he did so. That must have decided her, because she started toward him at a steady jog, her kama at the ready.


When the odds are against you, change the odds.

Always assume the odds are stacked against you. If you believe this isn't the case, you're almost invariably mistaken.

Fair fights are never what they seem. If you seem to be in a fair fight, be assured someone will correct that error soon enough.

If defeat means death, then winning at any cost is the only sane strategy. Losing because you played fair has the same end result as just plain losing. So take advantage of every opportunity to stack the deck in your favour, because the other side most certainly will be.

Luck is the art of arranging for improved odds before your opponent's even aware there's going to be a fight.

In other words: if you're not winning, you're losing. If you're losing, you're not cheating hard enough.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


From the moment Cricket started for him, Danny knew he was in for a fight. She was younger, faster and couldn't be blindsided. She was also an experienced combatant, but that played into the difference between them. He'd been doing this longer than her, he knew how good she was, and she was used to being able to screw with her opponents using her power.

The adage about age and treachery versus youth and enthusiasm flitted through his mind, but he suppressed it. He didn't watch her hands or feet as she got close to him; instead, he watched her eyes. Kama could be deadly weapons in the right hands—and if any hands were the right hands, hers definitely were—but in order to land a blow, they had to get through the enemy's guard.

As combatants, right then they were almost an even match. Danny was feeling a little bruised from the earlier fighting, but paradoxically it had also done a lot to knock the rust off. He'd never been more in the zone than he was right now. As it stood, he suspected he had a slight edge on her, but he intended to make that edge a lot bigger, while letting her think the opposite until it was all too late.

The first pass was almost formal. She came in fast, feinting with the right-hand kama while seeking blood with the left. He could tell the wound she intended to leave would not be deep or greatly debilitating, but it would give her the measure of him. Accordingly, he blocked the feint with the Ka-Bar, sparks scraping off the steel, and pretended to awkwardly fall away from the true strike. For a split second, he thought she was going to fall into his trap and follow through while he appeared vulnerable, but as he brought the gun into line, she twisted away and disengaged.

Or at least, she tried to disengage, but he recovered fast and followed on. She brought the kama into line, deflecting the Ka-Bar away from her body. The other kama caught the barrel of the pistol, preventing him from aiming it at her; or rather, it would have if that was what he'd been trying to do. He squeezed the trigger three times rapidly, the gun hammering back into his palm. While the bullets missed her head by a good six inches, he saw her flinch as the waves of high-intensity sound hammered at her ears. Just the way he'd intended.

He wasted no time in capitalising on the momentary advantage he'd gained from overloading her hearing, bringing his shin up into her ribs. The impact was solid, knocking her sideways and off balance. A momentarily twitch in expression betrayed something going on behind her eyes; with any luck, she was feeling fear now. Fear meant a lack of confidence. It meant she'd be second-guessing the moves she normally pulled off flawlessly, slowing her down by that fraction of a second which meant the difference between winning and losing.

She threw a kick at his kneecap, an almost transparent ploy to push him back and give her space to manoeuvre. As a counter, he angled the pistol downward; the kick would connect, but in the process she was going to lose her own kneecap. It was the ultimate game of chicken. At the last second she flinched, swinging her leg away from the line of the shot and spoiling her own kick. His own kick at her other kneecap was already on the way, but even though she spotted it and tried to jump back out of the way, his boot still smashed into the side of her ankle.

She went down, but turned it into a roll and a handspring that got her back on to her feet. If Danny had given her a moment's respite, she might've recovered the initiative, but he had no intention of giving her that chance. Pushing in hard, he crowded her space, reducing her options. His next slash from the Ka-Bar was a feint but it drew a defence from one of her kama anyway, more sparks flying off the steel. With her attention drawn the wrong way, he went in with the real attack, bringing the pistol into line. The second kama came around to hook it away, but the move was hurried, lacking in her usual finesse. He twisted his wrist, tangling the pistol with the bladed weapon and yanking hard.

Faced with the choice to either let go or be forced to put her weight on to her bad ankle, she obviously decided that getting clear of him was the best option, so she released the kama. She wasn't quite done though; as her fingers let go the weapon, she reached for the pistol instead. Her fingers closed over the barrel, but an instant before her thumb clicked over the safety, he pulled the trigger. This time, the muzzle was a lot closer to her head, and the bullet went within half an inch of her ear.

He knew he'd scored, hard. Her face clenched in agony and her head jerked sideways as if she'd been physically struck. He was reasonably sure he'd just burst her eardrum, which had to really hurt for someone whose hearing was sensitive enough to use for sonar. On the other hand, she was a cage fighter; there was only one way to put her down for good. The trouble was, killing a cape would cross a line he'd never crossed before. It would draw the attention of other capes; unwelcome attention.

She's seen my face. She could find out who I am. Killing whoever came after me wouldn't be a problem, but Taylor might be at risk anyway. It was a no-brainer, really. As the knife went in under her breastbone, her eyes widened in pure shock. It didn't stop her from bringing the other kama around and trying to bury it in his side, but he spoiled that at the cost of a minor slash to his forearm. They strained against each other for a moment, then she tried to kick him in the groin. He blocked the knee with his leg, then brought up his own knee and jammed it against the hilt of the knife. As the blade moved in the wound, her grip on his gun weakened fractionally. Making a supreme effort, he twisted the weapon from her grip, flicked the safety off again, and shot her in the face from a range of less than six inches.


If you're going to kill, kill.

Don't mess around and don't try to be fancy. Above all, if you want to send a message, don't do it by killing someone. Western Union works just fine. The only message a death should convey is that someone needed to be made dead.

On the other side of the coin, if you do choose to kill someone, be aware that it's up to you to own it. You thought it was necessary at the time, so don't agonise over it and don't ever second-guess yourself.

Once someone's dead, they're dead. If you're a professional killer, you've got enough to worry about without having the ghosts of your targets living in your head as well.

Of course, if the person you killed has friends, that is something to worry about, which is why a quick, quiet kill is best. Sometimes, of course, despite your best efforts, shit will impact the fan at high velocity, and you've got a decision to make. There are now people after you, and you have exactly two options; evasion or dissuasion.

How permanent you make the dissuasion is up to you.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


Panting, Danny stood over the body of his first cape kill, smoking gun still in his hand. Even though she looked dead, with half her brains sprayed over several square yards, he still kicked away the remaining kama before retrieving the Ka-Bar, automatically wiping it off on her clothing. Reaching up, he plucked the wads of cloth from his ears, sound returning to his world with a jolt. When he looked toward the other end of the warehouse, he saw Hellhound dealing with the caged dogs, prioritising that over joining in the fight.

She wasn't an idiot, though; her monster dogs were on guard, watching his every move. Juggling his weapons from one hand to the other, he shrugged out of the Empire jacket. It had long since served its purpose, and would be more of a drawback than a convenience from here on in. Shaking it out, he draped it over Cricket's face, more as a civilised gesture than an act of conscience.

He had no more reason to be here. The Empire punk who took Chewie was dead, as was the cape who would've killed Hellhound; all he needed now was to take his dog and go home. Which depended on exactly how reasonable Hellhound was going to be about it. He didn't want to have to kill a second cape tonight, especially one who'd saved Chewie's life, but Taylor's well-being was of utmost importance to him. Nothing else mattered.

At some point during the struggle, Cricket had found the magazine release and activated it, though she hadn't been able to work the action to remove the chambered round. Picking up the magazine and shoving it into his pocket, Danny used the Ka-Bar to hook the shoulder seam of his shirt. With a hole started, he yanked down on the cloth, ripping the sleeve clear of the shirt. Wrapping the sleeve around his forearm wound, he tied a knot and used his teeth to help tighten it. There was a first-aid kit at home, with disinfectant and proper bandages; once he got Chewie home, he'd deal with the cut properly. All he needed to do right now was—

"What the shit?" The new voice came from the same entrance Cricket had used. It was masculine and rough, and Danny had a fair idea who it belonged to. "Who the fuck?" Slowly, he turned, not wanting to be right. But of course, he was. Facing him, outlined in the glow of lights from outside the building, was a familiar silhouette. "Cricket!" The word was a bellow, with faint metallic undertones.

"Hookwolf," sighed Danny. "Why did it have to be Hookwolf?" He knew why, of course; in the circles that mattered, the brawny Changer's name was inextricably linked with Brockton Bay's underground dog-fighting scene. But he could've been gone before the Empire cape ever showed up. If he'd just been a little faster. If he'd cared a little less about debts owed. "Cricket's not here any more," he called back. "Take her away for burial. Fight's over." Take the hint. Let the fight be over.

Hookwolf's tone changed, even as steel bands and plates slid into place to cover him. "Holy fuck, is that you? Is that the Dark?" He advanced into the warehouse steadily, warily. "Heard you were fuckin' dead, man." Danny made sure he was standing in a patch of shadow, so the Empire brawler couldn't see his face clearly. They'd met before, years ago, and since Hookwolf hadn't seen his face then, Danny didn't see any reason to change that now. "What the fuck you doin' here?"

"My business." Danny made his voice as clipped as possible. "Helping out Hellhound. She gave me a hand, so she keeps the dogs. Empire keeps the money." Well, technically he was helping the Lindt girl. He'd take Chewie, she could take the rest. And he was also helping her by making sure Hookwolf didn't interfere.

"So what, you're working for them now? The Underbitches?" Now Hookwolf was about twenty feet away. Gleaming metal covered nearly all of his body. "You kill Cricket for them?" His tone was accusatory. "Thought you didn't go after capes."

Danny sighed. This wasn't going well, but maybe he could still turn it around. "Not on contract. Something got stolen. I came to get it back. Hellhound gave me a hand. Cricket wouldn't back off. Gave her the chance. She didn't take it." He spun the Ka-Bar in his hand, flipped it into the air and caught the point between finger and thumb. "You still got the chance to walk away. Take it. Come back in half an hour."

Hookwolf presented a problem for Danny. He couldn't be shot or stabbed, or even hit with a car. Or rather, he could be, but it wouldn't stick. Which wasn't to say Danny didn't have a way of taking him down, but the way was likely permanent, and he still didn't want to have to kill another cape tonight.

Slowly, the metal-covered man shook his head, eliciting a light scrape of steel on steel. "Sorry, man. Cricket's one of mine, y'know? She's not just Empire. She's a fighter like me. Someone puts her in the ground, I gotta make that someone pay, even it it's you that did it. It's a fighter thing. You understand." He sounded regretful, but there was an implacable determination underlying his words.

Danny nodded. "I understand." He flipped the Ka-Bar up again without looking, and let the hilt slap into his palm. "Hope you don't mind if I've got other ideas, though." Every element of his bearing was carefully calculated to give the appearance of rock-solid confidence without betraying his actual plan. Even the slightest hint of weakness or pleading would likely goad Hookwolf into attacking instead of playing along.

For a long moment, Hookwolf stared at him, then he burst out laughing. "Holy shit, you're serious." He shook his head again, this time in wonderment. "I know you—I mean, I don't know you that good, but I know you—and you're as good as they get, but you're no cape. There's no fuckin' way you're gonna come out on top against me."

Danny took the magazine from his pocket and slid it into the pistol, then worked the slide. He had the Ka-Bar in his other hand, the blade protruding below his fist. It had worked just fine on Cricket, but as both he and Hookwolf well knew, there was no way even Danny's skill would get it past the Empire cape's metallic integument. Nor would the pistol be of much use as an offensive weapon—but then, Danny didn't intend to employ it as one.

Baring his teeth, he mustered up a growl from deep in his throat. The knife came up and he launched himself at Hookwolf, the growl rising to the closest thing to a roar he could manage. Hookwolf reacted predictably enough; springing spikes, claws and blades from his anatomy as he leaped toward Danny. Gunfire echoed once more through the warehouse as Danny opened fire at close range, the rounds sparking off of the steel blades criss-crossing over Hookwolf's eyes.

He didn't expect it to do any lasting harm, but the sparks obscured Hookwolf's vision for just long enough. Before the gunshots, he'd been leading to the right; Hookwolf's left. At the last moment, he cut to the left and went down in a diving roll. Hookwolf's bladed slash split the air above him, but by the time the Empire enforcer realised what he'd done, Danny was on his feet and sprinting for the exit.

Correction; not specifically for the exit. For Cricket's discarded motorbike. Behind him, he heard the sound of metal scraping on concrete as Hookwolf tried to stop and turn around. It seemed being covered in steel didn't make cornering easy; who knew? Still, he was fully aware that his window of opportunity wasn't very large; in fact, it was rather minuscule. He recalled, back in the day, dancing on the very edge of catastrophe in this very same manner and glorying in the fact. I was an idiot.

Reaching the motorcycle, he shoved the pistol down the back of his pants—not without a shiver of distaste—and wrenched it upright. There was no place to put the knife, so he stabbed it into the rear of the pillion seat then swung his leg over the bike. The headlight was smashed and it had no doubt stalled—and possibly flooded—when Cricket made her entrance, so he held the clutch in while he jiggled the gear lever down to the lowest setting. Then he flicked the kickstarter out with his foot and kicked it over. The engine refused to start.

Directly ahead of him, Hookwolf had managed to stop and turn, and was now heading back for him. He was extruding more metal, assuming his 'wolf' form as his metal claws tore at the concrete floor. Danny kicked the engine over again and felt it almost catch. Without pausing—Hookwolf was just seconds away by now—he kicked it a third time. This time, the engine kicked over and roared to life, blasting great volumes of blue smoke everywhere as he revved the engine. It was already in gear so he let the clutch out, screeched the back tyre in a half circle and let the brake off.

Leaning forward on the bike, throttle twisted to the max, Danny blasted out of the doorway and on to the surrounding concrete paving, heading straight for the row of cars. Uncomfortably close behind him, he heard the clattering of metal striking concrete, and pulled the kind of sharp turn that motorbikes excel at. He heard the shriek of steel on concrete as a claw missed the back wheel by inches, then a roar of frustration and anger was followed by a loud crash. A glance over his shoulder told him that Hookwolf had not only failed to take the turn, but had also ploughed into one of the vehicles. There was a 'dog chasing parked car' joke somewhere in there, but he decided to let it be.

About fifty yards further on, he slowed to a stop and looked back. Hookwolf was pulling himself out of the damaged vehicle; for all that he was covered in steel, he looked pissed. Looking around, he spotted Danny and pointed at him. "I'm going to kill you!" he roared; his voice sounded like blades clashing deep in his throat. "You can't run far enough to get away from me!"

"The game's called follow the leader," Danny called back. "Can't you take a little challenge?" Reaching out, he made the same come-at-me gesture he'd made to Cricket, and with much the same result. This urge to take up any gauntlet thrown down was a weakness they really should address, he figured. Not that he was about to fill them in; it was too useful to him right then. Had Hookwolf been of a more contemplative nature, he might've figured it out in time. Unfortunately for the Empire cape, he was rapidly running out of time, even if he didn't know it.

As Hookwolf lunged forward, Danny gunned the bike again, the back tyre leaving a thick black mark on the concrete. He peeled out of there on to the street, aware that Hookwolf was cutting the corner and gaining precious yards by doing so. As Danny twisted the throttle, the metal-clad villain tried to pounce at him, but misjudged the bike's acceleration and hit the asphalt barely three yards behind it. Chunks of gravel-infused tar flew into the air as Hookwolf clawed at the ground, trying to establish traction. By the time he got himself straightened out, Danny was six yards ahead and gaining. Of course, he wasn't gaining too much; he wanted Hookwolf to be able to keep up with him, after all.


Most people can be killed with minimal effort. A knife pulled across the throat or slipped between the ribs, or a single gunshot at moderate range. If you've done your job right, they don't see it coming and you're free and clear to exfil.

Other jobs are harder. People who are more paranoid—but of course it's not paranoia if there really is an assassin seeking your death—make our job so much more difficult. Disguises, trickery and sometimes really high-end sniper rifles all have their part to play in such kills.

Then there's the problematic ones, where you can't bring the weapon to the victim. Those are the ones where you have to lure them to their own death. The trick is to do this without letting them know what's going on.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


Hookwolf


While Brad didn't know the Dark to have beers with, he'd spoken to them once or twice, back in the day. He'd been fresh on the cape scene, and the number of kills attributed to the Dark was impressive, so he'd been respectful. Not that they made a big deal of things; the shadows were their thing. Brad had never so much as seen their faces. But the one thing he knew even then was that the Dark never went after capes. Which was, considering their fuckin' fearsome rep, probably a good thing.

Time had passed, and things had changed for the worse. Cricket was dead at the hands of the Dark. He'd known they were good, but taking down Cricket was very fuckin' impressive indeed. Especially when there was only one of them on scene. Of course, this now meant he'd have to kill the guy. Which sucked for the Dark, but they were only normals, after all. Against a cape, especially a cape like him, there was no way this ended well for them.

The noise of the motorbike echoed between the buildings, giving him his bearings. He pushed himself a little harder, wondering why the guy had come this way, into the Docks. Maybe he'd thought he could give Hookwolf the slip in unfamiliar surroundings. Fat chance; that bike was way too loud to lose.

Galloping past the frontage of the Dockworkers Association offices, he followed the sound of the bike engine around the corner to the left. Cutting across the pavement, he shaved time off the turn just in time to see the red tail-light turn the next corner, this time to the right. As he surged forward, he heard a gunshot. Nothing came near him, so whoever the Dark was shooting at, it wasn't him. Fuck, I hope some gangbanger hasn't fucked him up before I can get to him. The Dark was going to die, but he deserved a proper death, with all the respect due him.

His claws scraping on the concrete sidewalk, he powered around the corner and down the next street. He almost missed the gate hanging open, if it hadn't been for the metallic crash that came from within. Slowing down, he turned and went back. It was a wrecker's yard, and the gate had been roughly pushed back into position. But once he got close enough, he could see that the chain was hanging down, and the lock was lying on the ground, busted open by a gunshot. Inside was in darkness, except for the red glow of a familiar-looking motorbike tail-light … but it looked like the bike was on its side. What the fuck happened here?

Shoving the gate aside, he stalked on in, head turning from side to side in case the Dark tried something stupid, like pushing a junked car over on him. Not that the guy had the muscle to do that, but he did have a rep. And then, when he got closer, he saw what had happened, and he laughed out loud. The bike was on its side next to a heavy crane or something, and the Dark was trapped under it, trying to lift it off and failing. He looked up at Brad's approach; the red glow of the tail-light reflected off of his glasses.

"End of the fuckin' line, man." Brad shook his head. "Led me a good chase. I'll make it quick for you." He flexed his hands, and long sharp claws extended from his metallic paws. "Any last words?"

"That's funny," said the guy on the ground. "I was about to say exactly the same thing." He lifted a bulky rectangular object off the ground, and in the dimness, Brad saw for the first time the heavy cord that trailed back into the darkness, up into the machinery overhead. There were lit-up buttons on the control module, and the Dark pressed a big green one.

Right at that moment, Brad got a really bad feeling. He'd been chasing this guy halfway across town, and he'd been led to this very spot. To where the guy wanted him. In the middle of a car wrecking yard. "Oh, shi—" he began, as he tried to leap out of the way. He wasn't fast enough, as an invisible force grabbed him and yanked him upward. He smashed into the underside of the gigantic electromagnet with stunning force, finding himself pinned on his back with his arms outstretched, looking down at the Dark. Who easily lifted the motorcycle off himself and got up.

Fuck. He played me, every step of the way. But I can get out of this. "You better run, asshole!" he shouted. "You better run and never stop. Because once I get down from here, I'm gonna hunt you down and rip your guts out. You won't kill me as easy as you did Cricket." He began to struggle, trying to pull himself free, to no avail. The magnet was too strong. But it occurred to him that if he worked his way sideways to the edge of it, he could maybe pull free then …?

The Dark shook his head. "Hookwolf, Cricket was the tough one. I had this planned for you ever since I learned about your powerset. How do you think I knew how to arrange this trap at such short notice?" His tone was almost paternal, chiding. "And you're not going to pull free that way. All I have to do is step up the gain, and your front armour's going to come back to meet the rest of it. It'll blend you." He pressed another button on the control box, and Brad felt the metal over the front of his body start to press down.

"I can absorb the metal again!" Brad shouted his defiance. "This magnet won't hold shit then!" He began the process; it wasn't easy and it wasn't fun, but it was his only way out. Of course, the Dark would be long gone before he'd finished, but he'd get the guy in the end.

"Really." The Dark gestured at Brad's face. "And about your wolf mask? Can you absorb that too?" He put his finger on a particular button, then paused and looked up. "I gave you the chance to back off. This is on you. Any last words?"

Brad struggled uselessly. "Just do it!" he bellowed. He stared Death in the eye, and the Dark stared back.

The second-last thing Brad heard was a rising whine above him. The last thing he heard was the bones of his skull beginning to collapse under the pressure.


Danny


Blood dripped down from the corpse pinned to the overhead electromagnet. Danny waited until the last twitching had ended, then he cut the power. Hookwolf's mangled body fell to earth, landing with a clatter as some of the metal armour was jolted loose. Stepping up to the corpse, he took careful aim and shot Hookwolf where the armour didn't quite cover the back of his neck, just in case. Then he mounted the cycle, kicked over the engine, and headed for the gate.


Bitch


Nobody else from the Empire had showed up, which was good. Rachel lugged the last of the dog-cages out to the pickup she'd come in, and strapped it down. She was just about to climb into the cab, where the puppy sat waiting patiently, when she heard the sound of an approaching motorbike. It sounded remarkably familiar, and the puppy started to whine. "Sh!" she told it, quieting it, as she turned to see who was coming. Alongside the pickup, the dogs she had on guard began to growl, and she quieted them too.

It was the guy from before, the one who'd fought Cricket and whom she'd last seen leaving on the motorbike with Hookwolf in hot pursuit. He stopped about twenty feet away, in a patch of darkness between two lights, and got off the bike. "Where's the puppy?" he asked.

"What happened to Hookwolf?" she countered. There was no way she was just giving the puppy away to some random asshole.

"Better for you if you don't know," he said flatly. "I'm here for my puppy. Where is he?" She wasn't good at human body language, but something about him screamed 'predator' to her.

She jerked her head upward. "Prove he's yours," she called back.

He might have smiled; she wasn't sure. Then he put two fingers to his mouth and whistled shrilly. In the cab, the pup perked his ears up and started yapping. Then he scrambled across the seat and down on to the floor of the pickup. Launching himself from the open door, he landed on the concrete with an audible oof, then picked himself up and scampered off toward the tall man in the shadows. As the pup got close, the guy knelt down and gathered him up. Rachel watched him let the pup lick his face and scratch the floppy ears in return. "Thanks," he called out. Then he turned and started walking away.

"Wait!" Rachel normally wouldn't have pushed things this far, but she had to know. "Who the hell are you?"

He asked a question then, and walked off leaving her scratching her head. What did he mean, was she afraid of the dark?


Some may think that because I accept money to kill people, I am a common murderer, indiscriminate in whom I target. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I command high prices because I'm very good at what I do; if I'm going to kill someone, I need to be sure that the client really wants them dead. When there's no money involved, I'm not motivated to go out and kill people. There's no reason for me to do so.

Right up until the well-being of my family is threatened. Once that happens, all bets are off.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


Next Morning

Taylor


The door to her hospital room opened, and Taylor heard a familiar yapping. "Dad!" she cried out, her face lighting up with the biggest smile in the world. "Chewie! I've missed you so much!" She watched as he set the pet-carrier down on the bed and opened it, then giggled in delight as Chewie scrambled out and made his way up on to her lap. His warm wriggly form snuggled up to her and he licked her face, then she buried her face in his fur.

"We've missed you too, honey," her dad said fondly as he carefully lowered himself into a chair. "So how was your night?" Reaching out, he gave Chewie a scratch behind the ear.

Taylor wrinkled her nose. "It was boring, and Chewie wasn't here," she complained, then giggled again as Chewie licked her nose. "How about you?"

He shrugged off-handedly. "Oh, we had a little bit of excitement. Chewie got himself lost, but I found him again pretty quickly. That was about it, though." Giving her a smile, he leaned back in his chair. "After that, we had a quiet night in."


End of Part Two