Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Part Three: New Information


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


Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Kaiser


Max Anders loomed over the quaking mook, with Krieg standing off to the side. He'd never met the guy before, and under normal circumstances there would have been no contact with peons like him. But this was one of the few witnesses to the death of Cricket, and the last member of the Empire to see Hookwolf alive.

The leader of the Empire Eighty-Eight had called on this man because of the tentative rumours he'd heard about the incident at the dogfighting ring. Some had blamed the Undersiders in general and Bitch in particular, but Max didn't believe it. The Undersiders weren't killers, and the way the Empire hitters had gone down didn't fit their methods. But then he'd heard a name being whispered around; a name that hadn't been spoken in Brockton Bay for nearly three years.

"Tell me what you heard," he commanded, knowing his voice echoed menacingly in the helmet he had formed around his head. Good. That meant the man would be less likely to lie. "Everything."

"Well, uh, we were at the fight," the guy said. "First I knew about it was some shootin' near the back door. I was just lookin' around to see what was goin' on, then the lights went out an' I heard this voice." He shuddered. "I ain't never gonna forget that voice. He said somethin' about your attention please. Then he asked if anyone was afraid of the Dark."

Max closed his eyes inside his helmet. Of course he did. "What happened then?" he asked, resisting the urge to skewer the man with his powers.

"Well, it took me a bit to figure out what he meant, but then the shooting started again. And the screaming." The guy shuddered. "The Dark just … went through them. Whoever stood in his way just fuckin' died."

"I notice you're not dead," Krieg said. "What's the matter? Did you lose your nerve?"

"It's the Dark," the guy said desperately. "I've heard the stories. When Marquis wanted someone dead, he called on the Dark. I mean, he's the reason Jack Slash went into the Birdcage in a fuckin' wheelchair. You don't fuck with the Dark. He wasn't hunting me personally, so I ducked and covered."

"So who was the Dark after? Who was his target?" asked Kaiser. He couldn't figure it out. The Dark had been away for years. Why was he suddenly back?

The guy shook his head. "I—I dunno. He was chasing some guy. One of the guys promoting the fight, I think? Then Bitch came in, just before Cricket showed up. Cricket was going to go after Bitch but the Dark told her to back off. She came at him anyway. I've seen her kill people, but he put her down like it was nothing."

"Like it was nothing." Krieg's voice was faintly disbelieving. Kaiser knew that he, too, had watched Cricket at work. She had a penchant—she'd had a penchant—for toying with her opponents, a remnant of her cage-fighting days. But against an unpowered opponent, there should have been no contest. Everything he'd ever heard said that the Dark had no powers. It was one of the more terrifying things about the man.

"And then what happened?" asked Kaiser. "When did Hookwolf come in?"

"Just after the Dark blew Cricket's head off." The guy shuddered. "I had a gun on me, but I also had one of those fuck-off monster dogs in my face. Last guy I saw who pulled a gun around them lost his hand. But I saw Hookwolf and the Dark go head to head and the Dark just danced around him. Then the Dark took Cricket's motorbike and Hookwolf followed him. That's all I know."

That matched what Kaiser knew, as unbelievable as it seemed on face value. More worryingly, it matched what Kaiser had heard of the Dark. "So what can you tell me of the Dark? What did you see?"

The mook shook his head. "I didn't see much. The lights were out, like I said. But I can tell you he's a big guy. Taller than Cricket. And the way he moves … it's like he already knows what you're gonna do. Anyone who got close to him just … died."

Kaiser grimaced. "Fine. Go. Don't spread this around." If whatever had brought the Dark out of retirement could be settled in good time, the Empire might even be able to go back to business as usual. On the other hand, if the Dark was back for good and he was now killing capes, this would signal a major change in the way things were done in Brockton Bay.

He watched as the man scrambled from the room, then closed the door. Schooling his movements to appear casual, he turned toward Krieg. "You have something to add?"

"You're just going to let him go out and spread that wild tale?" Krieg shook his head. "By tonight, every man in the Empire's going to be jumping at their own shadow. And everyone outside the Empire will be laughing at us."

"He knows not to do it too obviously," Kaiser corrected him. "If we told him to tell nobody, or even killed him, that would merely hasten the spread of the story, with the addition that we were terrified. They would see us as losing control of the situation. As for those outside the Empire, the ones who know the truth about the Dark won't be laughing at all." He went to his desk and retrieved a small notebook. It was old and yellowed, and the pages were brittle.

"What is that?" asked Krieg dubiously. "And what is the truth about the Dark?"

"This is a collection of the most important phone numbers in Brockton Bay," Kaiser said quietly. "Everyone who's anyone is in this book. I got it from my father. As for the truth about the Dark, it's quite simple. Everyone the Dark has ever been paid to kill … has died. Everyone who's tried to kill him … has died. Nobody knows who he really is, or even if he works alone, and anyone who's tried to find out has ended up dead or wishing they were. When the police find out that the Dark's involved in a situation, they tread lightly. He's never accepted a contract on a parahuman before. The rumour is that he once said this was because he wouldn't find it enough of a challenge. Given the ease with which this man dispatched both Cricket and Hookwolf, I'm not entirely inclined to dismiss that claim."

"So who are you going to be calling?" Krieg frowned. "And why hasn't the PRT gotten involved years ago, if he's so dangerous?"

"The PRT haven't gotten involved for three reasons," Kaiser said, carefully turning the pages of the notebook. "One: the Dark doesn't normally kill capes. Two: the Dark isn't a cape. Three: they know what's good for them."

"Not a cape?" Krieg shook his head. "I find that extremely hard to believe."

"Apparently the PRT believes it." Kaiser shrugged. "They have Thinkers who can ferret out the truth about that sort of thing. The fact of the matter is that they've never gone after the Dark." He stopped turning the pages and prodded a number. Beside it was written just one word: DARK.

Krieg stared at Kaiser. "He killed two of your capes and you're going to be giving him a phone call?"

"You're not from Brockton Bay. You wouldn't understand." Kaiser lifted the telephone receiver and carefully punched in the number. "It's easier this way." Putting the phone on speaker, he replaced the handset on the cradle. It rang once, then twice. Halfway through the third ring, it was picked up.

"Hello, Kaiser." The voice was deceptively mild. Despite the intervening years, he recognised it immediately.

"Dark." Even saying the word out loud made his throat constrict.

"You're calling about Cricket and Hookwolf." The casual tone of the Dark's voice made the conversation all the more surreal.

"I … am." Kaiser took a deep breath. "Why did you kill them? Are you working again?"

"One of your men took my dog. I came to take him back. Cricket and Hookwolf got in my way. I told them to back off. They wouldn't."

Kaiser let his head fall back, trying to gain some level of comprehension from the Dark's words. "A dog? You killed them over a … dog?"

"He's very important to me."

Kaiser flinched at the implied rebuke. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean … of course dogs are important." He didn't own one himself, but he'd heard people say that. "Uh … you got him back okay?"

"He'll be fine. I regret what happened to your people." He didn't exactly sound regretful. "If they'd backed off, none of this would've happened."

"And, uh, the Undersiders?"

"Coincidence. Hellhound showed up at the same time as I did. We were on the same page, so we worked together."

That made for a certain kind of sense. "I see. So … are you back? Are you working again?"

"I hadn't planned on it, but it depends on who wants to get in my way." The subtle threat was back in his voice.

"Right, right." Now came the sixty-four million dollar question. "You've got your dog back. The ones who took him are dead. Are we good?" Am I going to be looking over my shoulder for the rest of my life? Do I have to mobilise the Empire for one last hopeless battle against an impossible opponent?

The Dark didn't answer immediately, and Kaiser's gut knotted up. Finally, the answer came back. "For now. So long as nobody messes with me or mine again." There was a click; it took him a few seconds to realise that the Dark had hung up.

When he turned his head, Krieg was staring at him again. "What?"

"What in God's name was that?" Krieg's tone was disbelieving. "I can't believe you just rolled over and showed your belly to a normal!"

Kaiser punched him in the stomach, doubling him over. Then he hauled him up by his collar and backhanded him across the room. Stalking after Krieg, he loomed over the Gesellschaft cape, a long metal spike extending from his forearm.

"Rule number one," he hissed. "You don't fuck with the Dark. Rule number two. You don't do anything that will draw the Dark's close and personal attention in the direction of the Empire. And rule number three. Question my decisions again and I will put a spike right through your head. Is that understood?"

Krieg looked up at him, a trickle of blood running out of his left nostril. " … Understood," he said reluctantly.

"Good." Kaiser turned away from him. "Now go and give the order. The dog fights stop now. As of today. Got it?"

"Dog fights?" Krieg began to climb to his feet. "Why the dog fights?"

"Because the Dark has a dog now," Kaiser explained patiently. "If anyone kills his dog, they're dead. And if they're Empire, we're dead. So we don't do dog fights any more. Just in case."

He didn't let his guard down until Krieg was out of his office. Once the door was shut once more, he went to his liquor cabinet. Retracting the metal from his hands and head, he poured himself a drink and tossed it back in one gulp. Losing Hookwolf and Cricket in one fell swoop had rattled him deeply, but not as much as the phone call with the Dark. At least the Empire was safe for the moment.

Fuck, I hope nobody does anything stupid.

Pouring a second glass, he began to consider who would be a good replacement for Hookwolf. And possibly Krieg.


Director Emily Piggot


The report was almost dramatic in its simplicity. There had been a major incident at an Empire dog-fighting ring, resulting in the deaths of more than thirty men, and the maiming of quite a few more. Rachel Lindt, aka Hellhound, had been placed at the scene, but Assault (who'd written the report) hadn't attributed the deaths to her. Nor did Emily consider that an oversight. While Lindt had a couple of deaths and many cases of unlawful wounding on her file, all of the killing at the arena had been done with knives and guns, not Hellhound's trademark monster dogs.

Worse, forensic analysis of the aftermath—including the deaths of not one but two high-profile Empire capes—indicated that just one person had been the culprit. That person had shot, stabbed, maimed and murdered dozens of opponents in close quarters, and had made it out alive. Cricket had been taken apart in hand to hand combat, and Hookwolf had met a gruesome end via a junkyard magnet. But that wasn't the worst bit. The worst bit was who was being named as the architect of this massacre.

Closing her eyes, she massaged her temples slowly. When she opened them, the name was still on the page before her. "How reliable are your contacts?" she asked, looking up. "How certain are you that the Dark was involved?"

"Oh, I'm positive," Assault said with no sign of his usual humour. "I met him a couple of times in the old days." This, she knew, was code for 'while I was still working as Madcap'. "And I saw his work. This is very familiar to me. I just asked around to see if anyone had a second opinion. Nobody did."

"So, the Dark's back." She leaned back in her chair and let out a gusty sigh. "Just perfect."

Assault cleared his throat. "Uh … I'm not being facetious here, but … you know, it could be worse. The Dark doesn't take jobs on police or PRT. Or any innocents, really. Everyone he's ever killed has been dirty as hell."

"He also had a reputation for not killing capes," Emily pointed out bitingly. "He's been away for nearly three years. What else has changed?"

"Maybe he didn't plan on Cricket and Hookwolf showing up?" suggested Assault. "Maybe it wasn't an ambush, like those Empire guys we picked up are saying?"

"So you're saying that the Dark was there for another reason, and when Cricket and Hookwolf showed up, they were eliminated just because they were in the way?" The idea of someone casually brushing Hookwolf aside as being surplus to requirements sent chills down Emily's spine. As much as she despised the Empire, she was fully aware of the fact that the killings would send tremors to the far reaches of Brockton Bay's gang scene. The aftershocks, she suspected, would be reverberating for some time to come.

"Well, it fits with what I know of him," Assault agreed. "He wouldn't have killed them if they weren't trying to kill him. Or maybe he was protecting Hellhound."

"All right." Piggot put her hands flat on her desk, mainly so she could avoid rubbing her temples again. "If he was there for another purpose, what was it? Was he there to assist Hellhound in her personal crusade? Do you think the Undersiders may have hired him for that?"

"That's a very scary thought." Assault pinched his lower lip, pulling it out. "But I can't see it. He killed a lot of them, and I doubt the Undersiders would want their name linked to that sort of thing, much less the deaths of two Empire capes."

His summation made sense to Piggot, unfortunately enough. "Granted. So he wanted something in that building on that night. It wasn't anything concealed on site, because he could've gone in the night before or after, when there was nobody there. It had to be one of the Empire men on site. He killed his way through half the crowd to get to whoever it was. And then he killed Cricket and Hookwolf because they interrupted him."

"Which means that one of those corpses is a lot more valuable than he looks," Assault said, spreading out the photos of the carnage that littered Piggot's desk. "Any of them known to run in important circles?"

She shook her head. "No. Everything I've got on any of them says 'low level Empire minion'."

"Then there's something we're missing. Has to be." Assault pulled off his helmet and ran his gloved hand through his hair. "I can buy him killing all those idiots, but not for nothing."

"We'll just have to keep looking." Piggot hated that idea, and didn't bother schooling her face to hide the fact from Assault. "If he'd just stuck to killing normals, we could've washed our hands of the whole affair. But he had to kill capes."

"Criminal capes," Assault reminded her. "And I seem to recall that Hookwolf was looking at Birdcage time himself."

"Birdcage, not a kill order," she snapped back. "And Cricket didn't even have that."

"Hm." Assault's tone was carefully noncommittal. "Just so you know, Armsmaster's looking to go on the hunt just as soon as he starts his patrol this afternoon. He's been working on a new halberd all morning."

Piggot's eyes opened wide. "That idiot." Picking up her phone, she stabbed a few buttons with her fingertip. "Get me Armsmaster. Now."

Assault tuned out the upcoming explosion as he leaned over the desk and stirred the photos with his finger again. If we just had some idea of why he was there …


Lung


"Hookwolf and Cricket are dead."

Lung let the pronouncement hang in the air as he looked around at his men. They stared back with varying levels of excitement and trepidation. Only the faithful Oni Lee evinced no trace of emotion, and it wasn't just because of the full-face mask he wore. Oni Lee never showed excitement over anything.

He wanted to pace back and forth, but the room they were in lacked the space to do that, so he smacked his fist into his palm instead. "The Empire Eighty-Eight lost two of their stronger members last night. They will be reeling, unsure of themselves. We can push outward, into their territory. Take it for ourselves."

One of the braver men raised his hand. "What about the Dark?" he asked.

"What about him?" retorted Lung. "The man doesn't exist. His so-called exploits have been blown out of proportion. Every time an idiot criminal tripped and hurt himself in Brockton Bay in the last twenty years, they've blamed it on the Dark. Nobody could do what he's said to have done. Especially without powers. Whatever happened to Hookwolf and Cricket, it wasn't the Dark."

"But Jack Slash—" objected the man.

Taking one long stride, Lung smashed the man to the floor with a single punch. "Jack Slash was found with his knees and elbows shot out by high-powered rifle fire!" he shouted. "The Dark was invented by the PRT in the first place! Back then, Brockton Bay had too many criminals, so they dreamed up a master assassin who could take the fall for them killing anyone they wanted out of the way. When Jack Slash was getting too troublesome, they crippled him then stuffed him in the Birdcage, but said the Dark actually took him down so nobody would look too closely at how they did things."

He'd thought about the matter long and hard since he first came to Brockton Bay. In the seven years and change he'd been there, the so-called 'Dark' had only been active for five, and barely any of his killings came to light. It had been more than two years since anyone even mentioned the mythical killer's name. The conclusion was inescapable. The 'Dark' was obviously a fraud perpetrated on the gullible criminal underworld of Brockton Bay to excuse extrajudicial killings, something that had been all too common in the CUI.

It made him want to punch someone. Everyone was pissing their pants over a name, a word. Over something that wasn't even real.

"If there ever was a Dark, he's been dead in a ditch for years. If there's anything we need to fear, it's not the Dark." Turning away from the unfortunate minion, he addressed the rest of the men in the room. "Tonight, we prepare. Tomorrow night, we start our push. We won't take the city in a night. We won't take it in a week. We won't even take it in a month. But we will take it."

Behind his mask, he smiled. Things were finally looking up for the ABB.


Coil


Thomas Calvert frowned. "The Dark?" he asked out loud. "Who the hell is the Dark?" He scrolled upward and read through the report again. It was from one of his moles in the Empire Eighty-Eight. Apparently, the murders of Cricket and Hookwolf were being attributed to someone with that singular name. Not only did the mole assume that he knew exactly who the Dark was, but the whole tone of the report indicated that the Empire was bending over backward to make sure they didn't annoy the Dark again.

Tapping in a command, he accessed his home system. Using that as a back-channel, he logged in to his office computer in the PRT building. From there, he downloaded all the files with his clearance that were tagged with the name 'Dark'. There weren't many of them. In fact, as he scanned through them (after wiping his traces and logging out of the secure link) he decided that they had to have been redacted at a high level.

The information on the man was maddeningly obscure. In fact, it was downright non-existent. Barely any hard data about the man called 'the Dark' was available, even at squad commander level. Nearly every reference ended in the notation "Referred matter to BBPD". What the Brockton Bay police department did with it, Calvert couldn't tell. They certainly hadn't arrested anyone, or at least no such arrests had been recorded in the files.

Closing the files, he began to wonder if he was the victim of an elaborate prank of some kind. Or perhaps the Dark was just some kind of urban legend. Even as a crime boss of growing power within Brockton Bay, he'd never encountered the man, much less heard anything about him.

Making an irritated noise, Calvert picked up his phone and dialled a particular number.


Lisa


Oh, holy shit. Lisa carefully closed the laptop screen, but the inferences she'd drawn from the crime-scene photos stretching back decades were still running around in her brain, hitting the panic button. Fuck me, he's still alive.

She'd never heard of the Dark before she came to Brockton Bay, but when people let their guard down, they talked. And she was good at listening.

Over the last ten months, she'd heard whispers of a name, always respectful, almost nostalgic. The Dark had been one of the scariest highlights of the Bad Old Days of Brockton Bay and in a very odd way, one of the most comforting. Everyone who was in a position to know, knew that if anyone got too excessive, someone would hire the Dark to get rid of the problem. Nobody knew who he really was, not even the ones who hired him. The word on the street was that he wasn't a cape—her power agreed—and that to cross him was to die. Her power agreed with that, too. His one quirk was that he didn't go after capes.

The Dark's career had stretched from 1988 to 2008. In the criminal underworld, a twenty-year run was almost unheard of, especially when it wasn't rounded out by a public funeral or an even more public trial. He'd been trailing off with his kills—personal choice, her power said, caused by outside circumstances—and then simply cut off altogether. Had he died? Made the decision to just … stop? Her power couldn't quite come to a conclusion. There wasn't enough data.

And then, last night, Rachel had run into someone who'd killed dozens of men with the same ease that Lisa ate pop-tarts, then killed Cricket in front of her before leading Hookwolf away. Lisa had plucked the news about Hookwolf's death out of the morning news. It wasn't exactly a strain to figure out that the Dark had killed him, too.

Because it was the Dark. There was absolutely no doubt about it. Rachel, as puzzled as she ever was, had repeated the question to Lisa: "Are you afraid of the Dark?" Only the Dark ever used that catchphrase, because apparently nobody else was stupid enough to impersonate him.

So the Dark was back in Brockton Bay, from wherever he'd disappeared to—didn't go anywhere. Was here in Brockton Bay the whole time—and had come out of retirement to rescue a puppy from a dog-fighting ring, of all things. That part, Lisa knew Rachel had no problem with. The stocky girl would happily have slaughtered the rest of them to save the puppy as well.

What terrified Lisa was that the Dark almost certainly had just as little problem with it. And that, combined with his obvious talent for directed violence, led to an inescapable conclusion. Someone else in Brockton Bay was going to cross the Dark very soon, because people were like that. And that someone was going to have a very bad day. No matter how unlikely it was that she'd ever come to his attention, it was still one hell of a wake-up call to find out there was an extremely accomplished killer living unseen in Brockton Bay.

Her phone buzzed. She picked it up, noting the number as she swiped her thumb across. "Yo, boss," she said, leaning back on the sofa and consciously relaxing her back muscles so that Coil wouldn't hear any traces of tension in her voice. "How can I help you?"

"I want you to find everything you can on the Dark," her so-called boss replied, his voice clipped and precise. "His place of residence, his name, his weaknesses, his record. Everything."

Lisa's power filled her in even as she was formulating her reply. Coil had tried going through official channels, and had run headfirst into a brick wall. Are the PRT and cops soft-selling the Dark's existence? Holy shit, I think they are.

And then the Plan dropped into her lap, almost fully formed. "I … heh, would you believe I've already been looking him up?" she asked. "Rachel met someone calling himself that at the Empire slaughter last night. I found out a bit, too."

"I'm listening." Coil's voice was tight.

Lisa made herself shrug. It was easier to make bullshit sound just right when you did the gestures as well. "There's no such person as the 'Dark'. Oh, there might have been one once, but every few years when someone got the drop on the previous one, they'd take over the name. The last one got his head blown off in a screwed-up bank robbery three years ago, so there's been no contenders for the title until now. The thing is, if you claimed the name, this guy's likely to come after you with the idea that you're some grandstander. But he doesn't know who you are, so your guys'll take him down easily." The story came easily to her, flowing to its natural conclusion.

"And why should I do that?" But she knew she had his attention.

"The reputation, duh," she said. "If you can put it out that the Dark is working for you, nobody's going to want to cross you."

"Hmm." There was a long moment of silence. "So do you think—"

"I mean, I'm pretty sure we couldn't pull it off," she interrupted, trying to make it sound as though this had only just occurred to her. "I mean, we're all too young to be the original Dark, and everyone knows the Undersiders don't kill. One of your guys could do it easily, though."

"I'll keep that in mind." The dial tone cut in, indicating that he'd hung up.

Lisa dropped her phone, grabbed up the sofa pillow, and held it over her mouth. The squeal she let out was still a little loud, even muffled by the pillow, but she didn't care.

Holy fuck, I think I just did it.

Fuck you, Coil. Fuck you.


You know you've built a solid reputation when people you've never heard of, people who weren't even around when you set out to build it, veer off from upsetting you just on the strength of what you're supposed to have done.

Of course, there are those who can't take a hint, and have to poke the bear.

These people are otherwise known as 'object lessons'.

- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert


Danny


Taylor giggled as Chewie licked her face. She cuddled the wriggly little puppy in her arms and scratched behind his ears. He stretched out, a blissful expression on his puppy face, as his back leg thumped on her arm. Danny leaned back in his chair with a faint smile on his face. All the violence and death, even the unwanted notoriety that would come from the Dark killing capes, was worth the glow of joy on Taylor's face.

The door clicked open and Danny turned, his right hand easing toward the pistol that now rode in the shoulder holster under his left arm. He was pretty sure that nobody had identified him, much less that anyone would be coming into the hospital to take him out. But there was no such thing as being too careful.

"Hi?" To his jaded eye, the young woman looked like a teenager, but she was wearing a lab coat with a nametag, and carrying a clipboard. Her hands were in plain sight, and she didn't walk like a killer. "I'm Doctor Marshall? I'm looking for Taylor Hebert?"

Danny came to his feet and held out his hand. "That's Taylor on the bed. I'm Danny Hebert, her father. I wasn't aware that she needed any more specialist medical attention." Whatever this was about, he was sure the money he'd been given by the school wouldn't cover it.

"Oh, no, I'm the child psychologist?" She had, Danny was quickly learning, a habit of phrasing her statements as questions. Her free hand fluttered up toward where her black hair had been gathered into an untidy bun. "Doctor Franklin asked me to do an assessment on your daughter?" As if spotting his hand at the last moment, she shook it. Her hand was cool and slim.

"Oh, right." Danny nodded, remembering. Yesterday seemed so long ago. "Do you want me to wait outside?"

She shrugged, looking self-conscious. "If you wouldn't mind? I find children act more naturally when their parents aren't in the room to give them cues, don't you?"

Danny glanced at Taylor. "Honey?" If she gave the word, he was going to stay in the room, doctor or no doctor.

She held Chewie close to her as she stared past him at the doctor. "Uh, can Chewie stay with me?"

"Chewie's your dog?" Doctor Marshall smiled at Taylor. "Certainly he can stay." It was the first definitive statement she'd made.

"Then I'll be okay," she said, making an obvious effort to be brave. Her hand stroked Chewie's ears, and he licked her chin.

"Okay. I'll be right outside." Leaning over, he ruffled her hair then brushed the back of his fingers across Chewie's fur. Giving the doctor a nod, he stepped past her and out the door then pulled it shut behind him.

There were some chairs here, of the type that were comfortable for about five minutes then quickly became an exercise in torture. He sat down anyway, then picked up a newspaper that someone had discarded on the next chair over. Turning it over, he went still for a long moment. The headline said: CRICKET, HOOKWOLF SLAIN IN GANG VIOLENCE.

Leaning back in the chair, he turned the pages of the paper until he reached the body of the article. He scanned it with a practised eye, looking for one particular word. It wasn't there. Nowhere was anyone connecting the killings with him; not that the Dark was officially known to the public, but stranger things had happened.

Going back through the article, he read it through more carefully. While the author had gotten most of the facts right, the general idea seemed to be that the massacre had been perpetrated by a fireteam rather than a single man. The article assumed there'd been about ten people in the team, even suggesting that some had been wounded or killed during the fight.

Cricket's death was attributed to being shot from ambush, with speculation that Hookwolf had been immobilised somehow before being taken to the wrecking yard and executed. On reading this, Danny snorted. Whatever his personal feelings about the Empire capes, they had gone down bravely. Hellhound's presence—he knew her cape name was Bitch, but he refused to call any woman that—at the scene wasn't mentioned at all, which surprised him a little.

The Brockton Bay Police Department was usually better than this with their forensic investigation. However, he suspected that their eagerness to fill in every detail had dried up altogether once the Empire guys he'd left alive at the scene had started talking. The entire article could be summed up as "Hookwolf and Cricket are dead, please don't ask for inconvenient details, now sports."

Closing the paper, he rolled it up and sat for a few moments, tapping his lips with the end of the paper. Taylor was happy with Chewie at the hospital, but something was niggling at his mind. He knew damn well there was more to the story than the weak-as-dishwater narrative the Brockton Bay Bulletin was trying to pass off as investigative journalism. The reporter who wrote the story probably knew that as well. And the cop who'd provided details for the journalists definitely knew it. But the average person on the street would read the article and take at face value that there was no more to be said.

When Taylor had been shoved into her locker, no criminal investigation had been launched. He wasn't even sure if the school had questioned any of the students. They'd done a masterful job of sweeping it under the carpet, to the point that Danny wouldn't have known it had even happened if he hadn't been forcibly made aware of it. Why are they working so hard to hide what happened? Who are they protecting?

The door to Taylor's room opened and he looked around. "That was quick," he said, a little surprised.

"We were a good fifteen minutes, I believe?" Doctor Marshall gave him a brilliant smile.

"Oh. Right." He'd been concentrating on the article for longer than he'd realised. Dropping the paper on to the chair, he stood up again. "So, uh, how is she?"

She stepped out of the room and closed the door. Taking a deep breath, she clasped both hands on her clipboard and held it in front of her. When she spoke, her voice was serious. "Mr Hebert, it's obvious that your daughter's been through a very traumatic experience. She's going to be showing the effects of it for some time, though the puppy you got her is already blunting the edge of that."

He inclined his head in acknowledgement. "Will she be needing therapy?" The question was more in hope than in any confidence that the answer would be negative.

"Mr Hebert, we all need therapy. It's the world we live in." He raised an eyebrow at her cynical tone. "It will be expensive, I know, but she really will be better off in the long run." She sighed. "She's already bottling some of it up, and I don't think that's good for her, do you?"

"Well, no." He'd had anger issues in his youth, and holding those in had never helped either. Fortunately, his father had recognised the problem before it got out of hand, and given him a useful outlet. I'm pretty sure we've still got that punching-bag in the basement. That'll be a good start.

"Well, I'll leave you to think it over, all right?" She gave him another smile. "It was nice meeting you, and Taylor and Chewie as well. You'll let Doctor Franklin know of your decision?"

"Sure. Nice meeting you, too." Danny shook hands with her, then watched her walk off down the corridor. Opening the door into Taylor's room, he stepped inside.

"Hi, Dad." Taylor was sitting up in bed with Chewie sleeping on her lap. She looked happy enough, but he recalled the doctor's words.

"Hi, kiddo. How'd it go?" Pulling the chair around, he sat down next to her so he could look her in the eye.

She shrugged gently so as not to disturb the snoozing puppy. "She asked a few questions that I didn't really want to think about. But she was really nice about it, and Chewie likes her. If you think I should get therapy, I guess I can do it."

"Well, we're not going to do nothing," he assured her. "But we might look at less expensive methods first, if that's okay with you?" Teaching her the basics of hand to hand self-defence would give her a boost of confidence, and then maybe she could stand to learn how to shoot. Just in case. The basement had been carefully soundproofed for a reason, after all.

"Okay." She smiled at him. "So what are we gonna do right now?"

"Well, if you don't think it's too boring," he said, reaching into the shopping bag he'd carried in from the car, "I brought some board games. How do you feel about Monopoly?"

"Cool!" She sat up a little more, and Chewie grunted and rolled over, then went back to sleep. This didn't surprise Danny. The little guy had been through a lot, the night before. "Chewie can play too. I'll roll for him."

He blinked. "Chewie?"

"Yeah." She grinned mischievously. "He can be the Scottie dog."

Danny facepalmed. "Of course." He looked at the smirk on Taylor's face and the light of glee in her eyes, and mentally shrugged. "Why not?" It was an excruciatingly obvious cheat, but if it made Taylor happier, then he was perfectly okay with losing to her.

"Awesome." Taylor reached over and pulled the rolling table into place. "Let's get this set up."


Hebert Household
Much Later


When Taylor cheated, Danny decided, she went all out. Even with her occasional bouts of distraction—which he totally understood—she had perpetrated such gross misrepresentations of the rules that he wasn't sure if the game would survive. And of course, once she and Chewie were the sole owners of the board, the puppy had graciously conceded the game to her. Or at least, that was the way she'd interpreted him sitting up and yawning, then licking her face.

He couldn't have been prouder. His entire career had been predicated on figuring out what the target was doing, then cheating as hard as he could. Entire cemeteries were filled with people who'd chosen to fight fair. Taylor was showing that she was a Hebert through and through.

His watch told him that it was a little after ten, which was late enough for what he wanted. Standing up from the sofa, he checked himself over. Balaclava currently masquerading as a watch cap on top of his head, dark clothing, heavy boots. Pepper spray and folding knife in the pockets, plus a few other potentially useful items concealed about his person. Pistol, of course, in the shoulder holster. After not wearing one for so long, it was amazing how quickly he was getting accustomed to the weight again. No more shoving one down the waistband.

He took one step away from the sofa. Chewie, who'd been sleeping beside him, sat up and looked questioningly at him.

"Stay," he told the puppy firmly. "I won't be too long."

Chewie responded by jumping off the sofa and looking up at him with an expectant air. His tail whipped back and forth through the air. Are we going out? he seemed to be asking. Walkies?

"No," Danny said as firmly as he was able. "This is not a Chewie thing. This is a me thing. No place for little puppies. Stay." Turning, he took two steps toward the back door. Totally ignoring the command, Chewie trotted after, nails clicking on the floor.

Danny grimaced. He headed for the door and opened it. The guys from Kwiksmart had done a good job of re-hanging it on its hinges and fixing the front door step. Stepping outside, he leaned down and captured Chewie, then gently shoved him back inside and shut the door. "I said, 'stay'."

Carefully, he turned the key in the lock, ignoring the snuffling sound that was coming from under the door, then went down the steps to the back yard. He made it exactly two more steps toward the car before Chewie started howling.

"Oh, God," he muttered. He took two more steps, then waited. The howling didn't stop. It occurred to him that Chewie had never been left alone since Danny had acquired him. Worse, if he walked away now and Chewie kept up the racket, it might just draw attention.

With a put-upon sigh, he climbed the steps once more and unlocked the back door. Chewie scrabbled his way past the opening door and leaped into his hands. Danny lifted up the wriggling bundle, tail wagging so hard that Chewie's entire back half was jerking from side to side, and looked him in the eye. "What am I going to do with you?" he asked rhetorically. Chewie's answer was to lick him on the face.

Holding Chewie with one arm, he locked the door with his free hand then headed down the steps to the back yard. "Okay," he said seriously. "These are the rules. You don't make noise. You don't run off. And if trouble happens, I'll take care of it. Got that?"

Chewie tilted his head to one side. Danny hoped that meant Gotcha, boss. Whatever you say. It was more likely, of course, that what it really meant was I have no idea what you just said. Whatever; he had a leash in the car. He'd just have to deal.

Unlocking the car, he climbed in and put Chewie on the passenger seat. The pup immediately put his paws up on the windowsill and peered out, as if to say, Well, why aren't we moving yet? Shaking his head, Danny started the car. Carefully, he backed the vehicle down the driveway and out on to the road. Running the engine at just over an idle, he rolled off down the road. The fewer people who knew that he'd gone for a late-night drive, the better.

It only took him about fifteen minutes to reach his destination. All the same, he didn't drive into the Winslow parking lot. There would be no better way to advertise his presence in the school. Neither slowing down nor speeding up, he made his way past, then parked in the first side-street he came to. This time, he didn't even bother trying to lock Chewie in the car. Leaning over to grab the leash from the passenger-side foot-well, he suffered a slobber attack in his ear. When he straightened up, he tried to glare at Chewie, but the pup looked so happy that he didn't have the heart.

"Okay," he said. "Walkies." Clipping the leash on to Chewie's collar, he climbed out of the car. Chewie followed eagerly, jumping to the floor of the car then down to the road with the ease of a seasoned expert. He snuffled busily over the road while Danny locked the car, apparently finding a dozen scents in as many seconds, all of which were equally fascinating.

Fortunately, when Danny headed off back toward the school, Chewie obviously decided that walking was as much fun as sniffing scents, and trotted out in front. As an afterthought, Danny removed the balaclava and shoved it into an inside jacket pocket. I'm just some guy out for a walk with his dog. Nothing to see here.

Slowly, the school came into sight. Danny would have preferred to move faster but he didn't want to drag the puppy, and to carry Chewie would've invalidated the whole 'walking the dog' concept, at least while they were in view of the public. So he let Chewie bumble along at his own erratic pace, while he enjoyed the brisk night air. Though if it was much more brisk, his ears would be in danger of falling off.

He was, of course, keeping a discreet eye out. The incident with the would-be carjacker was still fresh in his memory. Back over his shoulder, just as they were coming up to the school driveway, a police car cruised into sight. No flashing lights or sirens, which meant they were just patrolling. Of course, if the word was out that the Dark was active again, they'd be a little more cautious than normal.

Straight past the driveway he strolled, just a suburban dad out for a late-night walk with his puppy. It was such a quiet night that he heard the tiny squeak of brakes being applied as the cop car came up behind him. And then, much less quietly, the rasp of their siren being flicked on and off again.

Turning, he was careful to keep both hands in sight as he shaded his eyes against the flashing red and blue lights now throwing weird shadows across the school parking lot. Chewie, frightened by the noise, began yapping at the car as it eased up to Danny.

"Evening, officers," he said politely. "Can I help you?" The passenger-side window was already down. He figured he could have the guy in the passenger seat out and disabled before the driver could respond. Rolling over the hood and taking out the driver without killing him would be a little more difficult with Chewie there, but it could be done.

"Good evening, sir." The police officer looked down toward where Chewie was still expressing his displeasure. "Would you mind quieting your dog?"

"Sure," said Danny. "Sorry about that. He's still young." Bending down, he scooped Chewie up and ruffled the dog's floppy ears. Chewie quit yapping and licked his hand. "Is there a problem?"

"No problem, sir." The cop looked him up and down. "It's a bit late to be out and about, that's all."

"Don't I know it." Danny affected a yawn. "I got him for my daughter, but the little critter just won't settle. So, walkies time." He rolled his eyes and put on a sarcastic tone for the last few words.

"I hear you, sir." The officer offered a sympathetic nod. "It's just not a very safe neighbourhood to be walking around in, this late at night."

With his free hand, Danny patted his pocket. "I've got pepper spray. And I'm on the way home, anyway. Want to see my ID?" Within the lockbox, he'd also had stored away several fake driver's licences. One now resided in his pocket for just such an occasion.

"Nah, it's fine." The cop waved away the question. "You get home safe now, you hear?"

"Will do, officer, and thank you. Glad to see Brockton Bay's finest on the job." Danny stepped away from the car and tipped a vague salute to the cop. The window was already buzzing up as the car moved off.

"Well," he mused as he put Chewie down again—the cops were almost certainly watching him in the rear-view mirror—and started forward again. "It seems that you're handy for dealing with the police. Maybe I've been missing a trick, all this time." Up ahead, the cop car turned a corner. He kept walking, counting in his head. At 'twenty', just about the time it would've taken to pull a three-point turn, the car came out of the side-street again and headed back toward him. He offered a friendly wave as they went past. Due to the glare of the headlights, he wasn't sure if they'd waved back.

Glancing back over his shoulder, he watched until the car was out of sight again. No cars were visible in either direction. It was time to move. Bending down, he gathered Chewie up and began to retrace his steps, moving quite a bit faster now. When he got to the school driveway, he headed in. Loose gravel crunched under his boot soles and his heart beat faster, the excitement catching up with him.

When you're setting up for a kill … you have to study your target. Danny had written those words a year or two ago as notes for a potential memoir. Despite his years as a contract killer, he now found himself in an unusual situation. Studying his target, he was familiar with. Finding out who his target was before he actually set up the kill was new to him. Normally, that sort of information was handed over before he ever began to prep for action.

In order to find out who he needed to kill, he had to return to the scene of the crime. In this case, Winslow. Fortunately, unlike every crime scene investigator in history, his evidence would have been written down and stored away, waiting for him to come and check it out.

A car cruised past on the road. He dropped to a kneeling position next to a bush and held still, head down, hardly breathing. Chewie wriggled around and licked his face. It wasn't the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He was just pleased that the puppy was enjoying himself.

When the road was clear again, Danny came to his feet and jogged the rest of the way to the school. During his previous visit, when he'd harangued the school principal, he had almost subconsciously noted that the school had no operational security system. Wires had been pulled away from the wall, motion sensors were dead and dark, and everything that should show glowing LEDs … didn't. Even the remaining security cameras were actually a well-known fake brand. Which meant that all he needed to do was get inside.

Of course, he didn't want to make it clear that anyone was inside, so he eased his way around to the side wall, to where a sturdy-looking downpipe was attached to the building. Zipping his jacket part-way up and tucking it in, he tightened his belt to almost painful levels. Then he picked Chewie up and put him inside his jacket, zipping it the rest of the way. After a little squirming around, Chewie pushed his head out through the neck of the jacket, looking around with interest.

Taking the balaclava out of his pocket, Danny pulled it on to his head, watch cap style. Then he took out a pair of black leather gloves. Finally, he reached into his jacket sleeve and unhooked a small pry-bar from where it rested against his forearm.

Reaching up to where a bracket held the downpipe against the wall, he inserted the pry-bar and used it to hoist himself off of the ground. Holding on with his knees, he hauled himself up the wall in that fashion, while doing his best not to press his body weight on Chewie too closely. Fortunately for the both of them, the pup seemed fascinated by this method of travel and didn't try to climb out of the jacket halfway up.

Clambering over the edge of the roof, Danny took a moment to catch his breath before unzipping his jacket and putting Chewie back on his own four feet. Then he loosened his belt again and headed over to the roof access door. He was fully expecting to have to use the pry-bar there, but when he got close enough, he saw that the area around the lock had already been tampered with. When he grabbed the handle and pulled, it opened easily. Pulling a small flashlight from his pocket, he examined the lock; the damage looked like it had been done weeks or even months ago. And they never bothered to fix it. Son of a bitch.

No alarms had sounded when the door opened; it seemed his analysis had been accurate. Chewie slipped through the gap in the door, snuffling industriously at the concrete stairs. Danny wondered what he was scenting, hoping that nobody had spilled any drugs right inside the doorway. The last thing he needed was a puppy strung out on cocaine.

Stepping through, he let the door swing closed behind him. With Chewie jumping from step to step, no doubt enjoying the unusual nightly excursion, Danny prowled down the stairwell, pausing at every flight to listen for noises. Aside from the gentle creaks of the building settling, there were none. Reaching the floor he wanted, he headed along the corridor. He knew full-well where Taylor's locker was, but that wasn't his goal.

When he got to the door of Blackwell's office, it was locked. The pry-bar made short work of it; the muted crack didn't even startle Chewie. Danny was quite aware that he was now leaving traces of his activities, but he was beyond caring. Besides, he couldn't imagine that nobody had ever broken into the school before, or even the principal's office.

Blackwell's office had a window looking out over what could charitably be called sports fields. Danny pulled the blinds closed, then took a small flashlight from his pocket. He could've probably gotten away with turning the light on, but those would show even through blinds. They'd know someone had been there in the morning, but his main concern was being interrupted before he found out who was responsible for Taylor's condition.

Before he started the search in earnest, he spent a few minutes looking around the office and determining where he'd need to search. There were a couple of upright filing cabinets beside the desk, and an antiquated-looking PC on the desk itself. Danny wasn't great with computers, but he knew the basics. He decided to look there last.

First, he seated himself at the desk and tried each of the drawers. One was locked, but that didn't last long. Inside was a locked box, which rattled invitingly when he shook it. In the interests of verisimilitude (and the fact that the school owed him a lot more than the check Blackwell had reluctantly written out for him) he cracked that open and pocketed the cash within.

None of the other drawers yielded results; there were no documents which referred to Taylor in any way. He left the papers strewn over the desk and floor as he got up. Next was the filing cabinet.

None of the drawers were locked; he went for D-H, then started paging through for 'Hebert, T'. It wasn't hard to find. Taylor's file was half as thick again as any of the files around hers, and twice as thick as some. Hauling it out, he dropped it on the desk and started flicking through it. Almost immediately, he began to swear.

From about halfway through the school year in 2009, Taylor had been putting in complaints about being picked on. At first these were sporadic, then there were a lot in a short time, and then they tailed off. At first, there were notations about 'spoke to other person. Warned for behavior'. Then it became 'spoke to T. Hebert. Warned for nuisance complaints'.

He went back again, frowning. No names were given for the other people, just initials. 'S. H.' showed up a lot. 'M. C.' was also a very common one. And then there was a rash, all naming an 'E. B.' for saying nasty things to her.

E. B.? Emma Barnes? Can't be. The very idea was ridiculous.

Well, now he had initials to work with. He went back to the D-H section, looking for any potential S. H. candidates. There were four, but a quick check narrowed it down to only one in Taylor's year, a Sophia Hess. He noted down the home address, and kept looking.

M. C. was either Madison Clements or Monica Carlton. Danny wasn't sure which one yet.

In the B section, he discovered that only one girl had the first initial E.

Emma, what have you been doing?

Cold rage now filled him, and he pulled the filing cabinet over on to its side. Each of the drawers, he dragged open, so that the papers spilled out everywhere. The second one got the same treatment. Retrieving Chewie from where the pup had just relieved himself against Blackwell's desk leg (he decided to excuse the break from house-training just this once) Danny tucked the puppy under his arm as he went back into Blackwell's desk. It appeared that the woman was a smoker, who kept a lighter in her desk drawer. Balling up a single piece of paper, he carefully set light to it then flicked it off the desk and into the mess of paper on the floor. Then he tossed the lighter after it and pulled the door shut.

A little speed was definitely of the essence now. Cradling Chewie in his arms, Danny took a different path out of the school. There was no time to climb three flights of stairs then slide down the drainpipe, but there was a simpler way. He already knew where the emergency fire doors were, so he headed for the nearest one. Taking a tighter grip on Chewie, he pushed the door open, fully expecting an ear-splitting alarm to go off. Nothing of the sort happened, and he shook his head with disgust. They can't even maintain the building that well.

Crossing the parking lot at a brisk jog, he glanced back over his shoulder as he reached the road. He couldn't be sure, but there appeared to be a faint glow from within. If he really concentrated, he thought he could hear the crackling of flames.

By the time he got to the car, Chewie was wriggling in his arms, impatient to be let down. Danny put him on the front seat, then climbed in himself. Stripping the gloves off his hands and the balaclava off his head, he tucked them into his jacket. He started the car and drove off, adrenaline still singing in his veins. From a distance, he looked back at the school, where he was certain he could see a flickering glow through some of the windows.

Principal Blackwell hadn't been directly involved in Taylor's bullying, but she had enabled it. So had every teacher at Winslow. They deserved to lose their livelihood.

As for the ones who had been involved, he would get to them. First, however, he intended to have a heart to heart talk with an old friend. Or someone whom he'd thought was an old friend.

Alan, you'd better have some very good answers.


End of Part Three