Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Part Four: Night Terrors


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


Alan Barnes pushed himself away from his desk, the office chair rolling easily over the smooth carpet, and rubbed his eyes. He'd once overheard one of his colleagues asking—maybe rhetorically, maybe seriously—how hard could it be to be a divorce lawyer. The divorce was going to happen anyway, right? It wasn't like he had to prove someone was guilty or innocent to make it happen.

Oh, if only you knew. He figured there was more guilt rolling around in both sides of the average divorce case than in any ten criminal cases. There was always a brain-numbing amount of he-said-she-said that had to be unravelled before he could even make a start on the case. And what was worse, the more he delved into this particular brief, the more the story between the lines was starting to look bad for his client. It wasn't what she'd said that was setting off the alarm bells, it was what she hadn't said.

But he'd opted to take the case and he'd get paid anyway. So, win or lose, he would stand out there and do his best to paint her as an upstanding citizen who most certainly was not getting it on with the gardener while her husband was banging his 38DD secretary at work. Or at least she'd accused the guy of doing so. Alan had seen photos and he had to admit that in all fairness, the secretary didn't look like she'd been hired for her brains. So, guilt on both sides. He just had to spin it so her guilt (which her soon-to-be-ex-husband's attorney would flaunt from the rooftops) showed up as a negligible peccadillo while his guilt became the betrayal of the ages.

Heaving a sigh, he stood up twisting his shoulders to crack his back. Next he popped his neck, then glanced at his desk clock. Zoe would give him hell if he didn't get to bed sometime soon, but he had to finish reading the brief and making notes first. However, right now his brain was threatening to melt out through his ears, so he had to get a metaphorical breath of fresh air before he got back into it. He was just about to head out to the kitchen to pour himself a drink when his phone went off. Bzt-bzt. Bzt-bzt.

It was only a text message, which puzzled him. If people contacted him at this time of night, they usually rang him. Frowning, he scooped up the offending device and brought up the message.

Alan. We need to talk. Front door. Now. It was from Danny.

"What the hell?" he muttered. What was Danny doing texting him at oh-dark-thirty in the morning? What was so important that he couldn't wait till some more civilised hour? And what was 'we need to talk' about, anyway? They'd been friends for more than ten years. More importantly, they shared some important secrets that nobody else knew about, and nobody ever would. Real friends help you move a body …

Sliding the phone into his pocket, he opened his study door and padded in his carpet slippers down the hallway to the living room. It was in darkness, as was the rest of the house. Through the living room into the front hall, and thus the front door. A flick of a switch turned on the outside security lights, but the peephole revealed no Danny on the front step. Which was really odd. If Danny wanted to talk about something, why didn't he just ring? Or say what he wanted to say in the text message? And why say 'front door' if he wasn't going to be there?

And then he froze. Someone was audibly breathing in the living room.

The rest of the house was utterly silent, but Alan could hear panting, as if the person had just run a marathon. His heart rate hitched up a few notches, and he edged forward until his hand could curl around the door-frame into the living room. His knee nudged the umbrella stand, and he grasped the heavy golf umbrella that he usually took out on the course when he had time to visit the Augustus Country Club. It wouldn't give anything but visual cover against a gun, but Danny had shown him a few tricks to use against someone with a knife.

The questing fingers of his other hand found the light switch, and he flicked it over, bringing the umbrella up in a defensive stance. There, sitting in an armchair, facing the front hall … was Danny. On his lap was a puppy, panting happily.

"Hello, Alan." Danny's voice was cool and reserved. Alan recalled the number of people he'd used that tone with, and what had usually happened to them. Then he wondered why he was hearing it. Was it something about Taylor? And why a dog, of all things?

"Danny!" Alan kept his voice down, but he tried to use his tone in a reproving fashion. "What the hell? You scared the crap out of me." He slid the umbrella back into the stand. "What's the matter?" Belatedly, he recalled that Danny knew where he kept the spare key to the front door. Or had he even bothered to use it? Covert entry was one of Danny Hebert's more esoteric skills.

In any event, he ignored Alan's question. "How's Emma doing at school?"

"What?" This was not what he'd been expecting to talk about.

"Emma. School." Danny's voice was firm. "She started back on Monday, just like Taylor. How was she acting when she got back from her first day?"

Alan blinked. He had no idea where this was going, but his innate caution made him think carefully before he spoke. "Uh … the same as normal. A little excited, I guess. She had one of her friends with her. Madison somebody, I think. Is this about Taylor? Because she didn't come over."

"No," said Danny. "She wouldn't have. Because she's in the hospital." He shooed the puppy off his lap; it scrambled down to the floor and immediately began snuffling around like an industrial vacuum in a pint-sized package. However, Alan's incipient thoughts about how cute the puppy was came to a screeching halt when Danny got up. The movement caused his oldest friend's jacket to swing open, affording Alan a glimpse of a leather strap across his chest, and a very familiar object tucked under his left armpit. Something Alan hadn't seen there in quite some time. When he looked up at Danny's face again, Alan was quite sure that he'd been meant to see the gun.

"Danny …" Alan whispered the words. "Are you … working again?"

"That depends," Danny said, his jaw set. "Let's go to your study. We need to have words, and I might just be raising my voice."

Dazed, Alan led the way to his sanctum sanctorum. Questions whirled in his head, like moths battering themselves against a lightbulb. Why was Danny asking about Emma? How had Taylor ended up in the hospital? Why was Danny wearing a gun again?

Scratch that last one; Danny was wearing a gun because Taylor was in the hospital. Whoever had put her there would not long regret that action. But why was Danny here? Why was he going to be raising his voice? Why, in fact, did he have a faint smell of smoke about him?

All of these questions had one pivotal point, and it didn't take him long to narrow his sights down to what it was.

What does he think Emma's done?


Coil


"Say it again."

The mercenary took a deep breath. "Are you afraid of the Dark?"

Calvert frowned slightly. There was something missing. The man was big and husky, just the right body type for this 'Dark' boogeyman that the criminal element of Brockton Bay had their drawers in a twist about. He was good enough with a gun to carry off the role, and a balaclava would be a suitable disguise. But still …

He twirled his finger in a circle. Again.

"Are you afraid of the Dark?"

"No …" He rubbed his chin. "Don't just say it. Feel it. You're a scary bastard. Everyone knows it. Nobody's going to fuck with you. It's not a threat. It's a promise."

Lifting his chin, the mercenary tried again, doing his best to infuse his voice with menace. "Are you afraid … of the Dark?"

Finally, it sounded right. "Yes. That's it. Perfect." Under his mask, Calvert smiled.

Making use of an urban legend to further his aims. Who knew?


Lung


"There's just one thing you need to know about the Dark!" Kenta strode up and down, his voice booming through the empty space. His men (and women, because women could hold guns too) watched him carefully. Oni Lee stood impassively to one side, thinking whatever thoughts that occupied him when he wasn't killing people. "There is no such person!"

Again, he strode up and down. Nobody said anything. Finally, he raised his voice again. "Does anyone doubt my word?"

The pause was long and pregnant. It was obvious that nobody wanted to gainsay him. As Lung, he had a reputation for burning people alive. Part of this was true, and part was exaggeration. Only a little was exaggeration, of course. Reputations had to start somewhere.

"Uh, great Lung." An older man hesitantly raised his hand. Immediately, everyone around him shuffled away to leave him in an empty spot. "I do not doubt your word. You are the Dragon of Kyushu. If you say the Dark does not exist, then he does not exist. But … they say he walks the streets of Brockton Bay. What do you want us to do if we encounter someone who says they are the Dark?"

Kenta stalked up to the man, and loomed over him. "Do you have a gun?"

"I … yes, sir." There was a long pause, as Kenta glowered at him, then the penny finally dropped. Hands made fumble-fingered by haste, he pulled it out and pressed it into Kenta's hands.

Kenta examined it, pulling back the slide to check that a round was chambered. Then he raised his voice again. "One of the many rumours about the Dark is that he's just a man! That he has no powers! That he's done all he has with no powers! Do you know what this means?"

Absolute silence reigned in the warehouse. Kenta fancied he could hear the spiders spinning their webs in the rafters above. He glared at his people, wishing they'd understand the difference between when he wanted them to speak up and when he wanted them to stay quiet. "It means that he can be killed, just like any other man!" He jammed the muzzle of the pistol up under its owner's jaw. The man froze in place, his wide eyes staring at Kenta for mercy.

"If I pulled the trigger now, this man's brains would be all over the floor. Does anyone doubt that?" He left them about twenty seconds to voice any doubts. Nobody did. Then he put the safety on and handed the gun back to the man. "That's what you do to any idiot claiming to be the Dark. Whoever he is, he has no powers. So you shoot him, then when he's down you shoot him again, to make sure. What you don't do is piss yourself and run away, just because someone quoted a name from some idiot story." He glared at the gun owner. "What are you going to do?"

"Uh, shoot him?" ventured the man.

Leaning close, Kenta whispered, "If I have to ask you again, you're going to wish I'd shot you."

The man took a deep breath. "I'm going to shoot him, sir!" he shouted.

Kenta nodded, once. Then he turned away and began to stride up and down once more. "Now we have that out of the way, let's get down to business."


Danny


The chair in front of Alan's desk was as comfortable as ever. Chewie had relieved himself before coming inside (on Zoe's prize rhododendron, but she didn't have to know that) so Danny felt comfortable with unclipping the lead and giving the puppy the run of the office once the door was securely closed. He watched as Alan sat down behind the desk, probably more from habit than anything else.

"What's this about, Danny?" Alan got straight to the point, anyway. "Why are you here? Why are you armed? What's happened to Taylor? And why are you asking about Emma?" He didn't mention Chewie.

Danny rested his elbows on the arms of the chair and steepled his fingers in front of him. "Monday morning, when Taylor went to school, someone shoved her into her locker and locked her in." He raised one hand briefly to quell Alan's shocked gasp, then resumed his pose and kept going. "Over the Christmas break, her locker had been filled with biohazardous material of a particular nasty type. She was in there for at least an hour before someone noticed and she was let out."

"Jesus Christ," muttered Alan, and Danny knew he wasn't praying. "What the hell, Danny? Is it someone who knows about your past, sending you a message?"

"I considered that option, briefly." Danny shook his head. "It doesn't scan. Anyone who hates me that badly is already dead. No, the answer's worse than that." He took a breath, and continued. "She's in the hospital, right now. Psych ward. They're also treating her for potential infections from the material in the locker. I decided to check with the school."

"Something tells me you didn't get the answers you wanted," Alan said slowly.

Danny grinned briefly. Alan did know him, after all. "They were remarkably unforthcoming. So I went back tonight. It appears there's been an ongoing and concentrated campaign of bullying against her, ever since she entered Winslow. She complained. They didn't do anything about it, and then they started telling her to shut up and keep her head down."

Alan blinked. "No, that's not right." He shook his head, as if to try to dislodge an insect from his ear canal. "Emma's said nothing about that." He stared at Danny. "Did you want me to bring her in here, so you could ask her who could've done this?"

"No." Danny shook his head in turn, for a different reason. "I found the names of the girls who've been bullying her." Opening his jacket, which of course reminded Alan once more that he was carrying, he took out the single sheet of paper he'd salvaged from the blaze and unfolded it. "Or rather, the initials. S. H., which apparently translates to Sophia Hess …"

Across the desk, Alan's face went through several abrupt transformations; disbelief, shock, fear. Danny's worst suspicions seemed to be coming true; Alan knew that name. He waited, but his oldest friend said nothing.

"Then there's M. C., whom I couldn't put a name to."

This time, he saw Alan's lips form a name. His lip-reading was a little rusty, but he was pretty sure it was Madison. He didn't react. "I'll give you three guesses whose initials also came up. And the first two don't count."

Alan Barnes went white as a sheet, or rather, as white as he could with his ruddy complexion. Then, as if in a time-lapse sequence sped up for comical effect, he went red again. Not fear. Not embarrassment.

Anger.

Danny tensed then. He and Alan Barnes had been friends for a very long time. While he and Anne-Rose had taught Alan a thing or two about protecting himself back in the day, the man had to know he was no match for Danny. If Alan attacked him, Danny would have to be careful about how he went about subduing Alan. While not injuring his oldest friend too badly was a factor here (albeit a minor one) he wanted Alan conscious and both willing and able to talk.

"That conniving, two-faced manipulative bitch!" exploded Alan.

Danny blinked as Alan ranted on, using some particularly vicious epithets more suited to the lowest dockside dives. That was new. Alan rarely made outbursts like that, and he never said things like that about women, especially after having two daughters. Even when his female clients lied to him, he kept his cool. This was, in a word, unprecedented.

"Who, exactly, are you referring to?" asked Danny, when he could get a word in edgewise. Despite the fact that he'd been edging the conversation around to Alan's younger daughter, he had a hard time accepting the idea that Emma was the subject of this tirade.

Alan paused, panting. "Oh, sorry. Sophia goddamn fucking Hess is who I'm talking about. That stinking little cow insinuated herself into our lives. She caught Emma at a vulnerable time ..." He gave a hollow laugh. "Who am I kidding. She caught both of us at a vulnerable time. I welcomed her into our home. I had no motherfucking idea that she was infecting Emma with her ideas. I certainly didn't have the faintest notion she was turning Emma against Taylor."

"But you know now." Danny didn't say it as a question.

Alan ran his hand over his forehead. "You know what they say about hindsight being twenty-twenty. I could see what you were leading up to, and I didn't want to hear it. But in law school, they train you to look at a case from both sides, so you can attack the opposition's weak points and shore up against their strong points."

Danny nodded. It wasn't an unfamiliar concept. He'd had occasion to put it to use himself, a time or two.

"Yeah, well," said Alan, as if Danny had actually spoken. "Just for a second I asked myself, if he's telling the truth, how could this have happened? And it all came together. Sophia motherfucking Hess." Even without the profanity, the name was a curse on his lips.

Danny paused. In all truth, he'd come here tonight to speak to Alan and hear his side of matters, explain what Emma had done, and visit summary justice on her. The other two girls would also suffer, but it was the betrayal of a long-standing friendship that angered him the most. Taylor had trusted Emma.

But now it seemed there was something deeper at work. Emma hadn't just decided to backstab Taylor on a whim. This Sophia Hess, whoever she was, had gotten into Emma's head and turned her around. He was well used to the idea of former allies becoming adversaries when paid by the opposition. After it was all over and the survivors encountered one another, there were rarely any hard feelings. It was just business. And money wasn't the only way to temporarily change someone's allegiance.

Emma would still pay, he decided. There was more than a year of torment, and the locker on top of that, for her to atone for. But not yet. The true architect of all this was the shadowy girl behind the scenes. Sophia Hess. And a great deal of Emma's punishment would depend on how fixed she was on this course once the other girl was removed from the equation. 'Just business' never applied to the paymaster, after all.

Leaning forward, he fixed his eyes on Alan Barnes'. "Tell me everything you know about the Hess girl. Leave nothing out."

Perhaps sensing a partial reprieve for his daughter, Alan Barnes began to talk. As the tale rolled on, Danny's eyebrows hitched higher and higher. After Alan got to a certain point, Danny began to swear.


Alan Barnes


Danny paused at the door, the puppy already sniffing at the front doormat. He looked back at Alan, a warning in his eyes. "I will be back," he said. "If Emma isn't here, I'll have to go looking for her. She doesn't want that."

Alan absolutely believed him. "Do you want me to talk to her, make her understand just how much trouble she's in …?"

"She won't understand." Danny's voice was flat. "You've seen people like that. The ones who've never been held accountable. So long as they've got the slightest reason to think they're going to get away with whatever they've done, they just dig their heels in." His left hand brushed his closed jacket, a gesture that had supremely sinister connotations when it came to Danny Hebert. "There's only two ways to get through to them."

The taste of vomit rose into the back of Alan's throat. "What … what's the other way?"

Danny stepped out through the door. He glanced back once. "Kick their legs out from under them." Then the door closed and he was gone.


Danny


With Chewie trotting happily at his side, Danny made his way back to his car. Where before his anger had been entirely directed at Emma, now he was seething, with a new target in mind. Corrupt cops were not his favourite people in the world; if police officers couldn't be depended upon to do what they were paid to do, who could? Under the circumstances, he was willing to extend this attitude toward so-called superheroes.

Unlocking the vehicle, he opened the door and got in. Once he was sure Chewie was settled on the seat, he pulled out his phone, then took an aged notepad from his inside jacket pocket. Flipping through the pages, he settled on a particular number.

Before he pressed the buttons to dial the number, he paused to think about his options. A great many consequences would ride on the outcome of this call. He was about to take more steps down a path he'd never ventured on before. Is this what I really want to do?

The memory of Taylor in the hospital bed, frail and helpless, decided him.

Yes.

To hell with the consequences. If they didn't want consequences, they shouldn't have messed with my daughter.


Assault


The credits rolled, and the late movie came to an end. Ethan stretched and yawned, careful not to dislodge the warm weight of his sleeping wife against his chest. It was time, he decided, to go to bed. Tomorrow was another day, after all.

He nudged her shoulder. "Wake up, puppy. Movie's over."

"Hmm?" she murmured, and snuggled into him.

"Movie's over," he reiterated. "Time to go to bed. Get some sleep."

"'m comfy right here," she mumbled.

His reply was interrupted by his phone ringing. "Crap," he muttered, and carefully wriggled it out of his pocket without jolting his wife too much. Pressing the button to answer it, he held it to his ear. "You've got Ethan."

"Hello, Madcap." The voice was familiar, though it had been years since he'd heard it. Adrenaline flushed through his system, and suddenly he was a great deal more awake.

"Uh, hi, uh, buddy," he stumbled. "What's up?"

"I'm going to assume you're not alone." The Dark was as perceptive as ever. "Don't worry; this won't take long. I'm calling in a marker."

"Wait, what?" Ethan scrambled for something to say that wouldn't alert his puppy to the fact that the night had suddenly taken an ominous turn. When the Dark called in a marker, nobody said no. "Uh, beer and poker night next Saturday? Isn't that a bit sudden?"

As expected, those words woke his wife all the way up. "What?" she hissed. "You know we're having dinner with Robin and his girlfriend next Saturday." She sat up and glared at him.

"I know, honey, I know," he said placatingly. "Listen, I'll just go out on the porch and explain that. I'll just be a moment, mmkay?"

"Don't be too long," she growled. "And don't give in. I've been looking forward to this for a while."

"I won't," he said in answer to both of her strictures. "I'm just going, okay?" He got up from the sofa and escaped to the front porch, where he closed the door for some privacy. "Okay, what the hell, man? You drop out of sight for years, and then you ring me in the middle of the night?"

"I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't important." The Dark had a way of cutting to the chase. "I presume you managed to convince your Director that it was me behind Hookwolf and Cricket?"

Despite having been certain in his own mind about both, it was good to have verification. For a given definition of 'good', that is. "Yeah. I kind of had to. If I'd pretended not to know, she wouldn't have bought it for an instant. Hope that's okay."

"It really doesn't bother me." The scary part was, the guy was absolutely serious. The PRT has been alerted that I'm active again? Meh, who cares.

Ethan took a deep breath. "Uh, so, quick question. Are you back? Are you working again?" The answer, he knew for a fact, would decide whether he was going to sleep that night or not.

"That depends. Like I said, I'm calling in a marker. If I can get my business concluded and out of the way in a timely fashion, this is a temporary thing." He didn't have to spell everything out. Ethan could see the writing on the wall. If his business wasn't concluded in a timely fashion … the Dark was back, and life in Brockton Bay was likely to get that little bit more complicated.

"Okayyyy …" Next was the question he didn't want to ask, because the answer was undoubtedly something he didn't want to hear. "What do you need from me?"

"Information. Everything you have about one of your Wards. Shadow Stalker, to be precise."

Ethan was jolted to the core. Before, he'd been casually wondering why the Dark had called him. Now he knew. To say that this set off a lot of alarm bells was putting it mildly. What the Dark had just requested went against nearly everything Ethan knew about him. And it would cause a massive upheaval.

"Uhhh …" He racked his brain, trying to recall what markers the Dark had on him. He wasn't going to refuse the request, but he didn't recall anything that stringent. Maybe he could talk the guy down to something less explosive. "Refresh my memory. When did I run up a marker that big?"

"Oh-five. April. Carnifex. Birdcage run. You'd been contracted by his followers to spring him. They decided to feed you to him once you succeeded."

"Oh, fuck, yes." Ethan didn't need any more reminding. Carnifex was a Changer, who became a huge feral bear-wolf-wolverine hybrid creature that ate people. He'd had a cult following him, sort of like the Fallen-lite. The hit on the Birdcage convoy had gone off perfectly, right up until he presented Carnifex to his loyal followers for the second half of his pay. The net had been an unpleasant surprise, wrapping around his limbs and tumbling him to the ground. Carnifex had unlimbered a jaw apparently capable of engulfing Ethan whole, then a shot came in from nowhere and blew most of the feral cape's lower jaw all over the ground.

Ethan managed to escape in the subsequent chaos. He didn't know exactly what had happened with Carnifex and the cultists after that, but the rumour was that the cape (along with an indeterminate number of his cultists) ended up dead. It didn't surprise him that it was the Dark behind the rifle. "Okay, yeah. That's some marker."

"So, what information can you give me?" The Dark was relentless. It was kind of his thing.

Unfortunately for Shadow Stalker, Ethan knew a lot about her. Sizing up other capes fell somewhere between 'fun hobby' and 'survival trait' for him, and he was very good at it. What he was officially allowed to know, what he'd found out by poking around, and the gossip he'd overheard from time to time; it all added up to a fairly comprehensive picture. Over the course of the next few minutes, he conveyed that picture to the Dark.

"What are you going to do with this?" he asked, once he'd finished. "I thought you didn't go after capes. Hell, I was pretty sure you didn't go after kids."

"Shadow Stalker stepped over a very personal line." The absolute chill in the Dark's voice sent shivers down Ethan's spine. "I aim to send a message."

The message, Ethan intuited, read something along the lines of 'don't do this if you like having working kneecaps'. "How … uh, how hard are you going to push this message?"

"That depends entirely on her sense of self-preservation." The call ended.

Ethan closed his eyes and rested his forehead against one of the porch roof supports. Everything he knew about Shadow Stalker told him this would not go well for her.

"Honey?" The door opened. "Is everything all right?"

He manufactured a smile for the love of his life. "Sure. All sorted. Let's go to bed."

Sleep, he knew, was going to be a long time coming.

Never once did he even consider warning Shadow Stalker. You fucked up, you wear it.


Danny
Brockton Bay General Hospital
The Next Morning


Taylor rubbed Chewie's stomach, eliciting comical grunting noises from the puppy as he wriggled on his back, eyes closed and tongue hanging out the side of his mouth from sheer doggy pleasure. Spread on the bed before her was a copy of the Brockton Bay Bulletin, showing the front-page image of smoke billowing over Winslow High, the school itself in ruins. Danny, sitting at the side of the bed, kept a surreptitious eye on her expression. Was she upset or merely puzzled?

"Wow," she said at last. "Says here they'll be closed indefinitely?"

"Yeah," he replied, having read further through the paper than she had. "Apparently the fire brigade managed to save a chunk of the school, but when the fire inspectors went through the place they found so many violations of the fire codes that it's basically going to have to be demolished and rebuilt from the ground up. There's even rumours of charges being laid for criminal negligence against some of the school administrators and staff."

Her eyes widened. "Charges? Criminal negligence?"

"Yeah." He nodded. "Emergency fire exit door alarms not working, defective sprinkler systems with years of fraudulent inspection certificates, fire extinguishers that had been long since discharged and not replaced, smoke detectors dead and gone, and so forth. The word is that Blackwell and several other senior administrators were either turning a blind eye or actively participating in the fake certification scam. It would cost them a fraction the cost of a genuine inspection, and they pocket the difference. Once the investigators start digging, they'll find out which one it was."

He was quite satisfied with this outcome. None of the school staff had actively set out to harm Taylor; it was merely their wilful negligence that had done so. Proving their culpability in what had happened to Taylor would've been a long and tiring legal battle, especially with Alan Barnes appealing everything in sight to keep the heat off Emma as long as possible. But this had nothing to do with Taylor, so she could be kept out of sight and out of the papers, and the fire safety board would be highly unlikely to simply drop the case and walk away.

A smile spread across her face. It was like the sun coming up. "Well, good. It's about time bad stuff happened to them rather than me." She paused, looking concerned. "Didn't you say something about the school paying for my medical bills …?"

"We're good," Danny assured her. "The check already cleared. I'm not saying I anticipated something like this happening," he gestured at the paper, "but I'm all too familiar with the idea of bureaucrats cutting off funding for a partially paid-for project. So I went in to the bank, first thing." At the time, it had been his only way to stick it to those self-important assholes. Depriving them of the money before they could change their minds was basic common sense. Now, he was pleased with his foresight.

Her smile returned, in full force. "And the more they paid you, the less they have for their other legal fees? Good."

He didn't have the heart to tell her that the amount they'd gotten from the school was likely a small fragment of the total money available, but it wouldn't matter. All the legal trickery in the world wouldn't get those scumbags out of this fix. Though something else had occurred to him, and now he brought it up. "Talking about that. Once the investigators start going through their books, this payment is going to come to light. They're going to probably want to ask us questions about it. Do you think you'll be up to that?"

She hugged Chewie to her. The puppy wriggled around in her arms and licked her chin. "Yes," she said firmly. "If it means Winslow never gets rebuilt, I'll talk to them all day long."

Danny smiled and ruffled her hair. "That's my girl."

"Da-ad!" But she giggled, even as she ducked away from his hand.

The door to the room opened suddenly. Danny stilled his reach for the gun under his armpit as Doctor Franklin entered the room. "Morning, Danny, Taylor," he said cheerfully. His smile widened as he took in the scene. "How are you feeling today, Taylor?"

"Better," she told him, lifting her chin for emphasis. "Dad told me the school burned down last night, and the people running it are in deep legal trouble."

Franklin's eyebrows rose as he took Taylor's wrist. He glanced at his watch as he counted silently for a minute, then nodded and released her hand again. "Do I detect a hint of schadenfreude there?" He paused. "Schadenfreude means—"

"I know what it means." She grinned at him. "Mom was an English professor. Anyway, it's only what they deserve. They never did a thing to stop people bullying me. It's only right that their negligence comes back to bite them in the ass."

Danny watched the byplay with a sense of pride and amusement. Even in a hospital bed, his Taylor could hold her own with the best of them.

"I agree totally," Franklin said gravely. He produced an electronic thermometer, the type that gets inserted in the ear. "Hold still." Clearly used to multi-tasking, he held it in place and gave Chewie a brief head-rub as he kept talking. "You're looking better. Your blood scans are clearing up faster than I'd expected. We might be able to discharge you as early as tomorrow." The thermometer beeped and he took it out of her ear and examined it more closely. "Yes, that's looking very good." Moving down to the end of the bed, he took up the clipboard there and made a couple of notes. "And is the little furball behaving himself?"

As everyone looked at Chewie, he sat up and panted happily, apparently aware that he was the centre of attention. Then he grabbed Taylor's sleeve—already a little the worse for wear—and began gnawing on it again with tiny growls as he shook his head from side to side.

"Mostly," Danny allowed, scratching the puppy behind the ear. "He's very adventurous. Keeps me on my toes." He gave Taylor a mock-stern glare. "So get well soon, young lady. I'd like to be able to relax once in a while."

She rolled her eyes and stuck out her tongue. "I'm working at it, okay?"

Franklin chuckled. "Well, I'll leave you to it. I'm very pleased with your progress, Taylor." He nodded toward Chewie. "A positive attitude is one of the best tools that can lead to a quick recovery. That little guy is probably doing more for you than I ever could."

"Well, I appreciate what you're doing as well," Danny said firmly.

That got another smile out of Franklin. "It's good to be appreciated. I'd stay and chat, but I have rounds to do. So I'll see you both later." He headed for the door; a moment later, he was gone.

"So … home tomorrow, you think?" Danny didn't want to get Taylor's hopes up, but the way her face lit up at the suggestion was heart-warming.

"Definitely." She hugged Chewie, who yapped and licked her face. "I can't wait."

"Me too." But he was thinking hard. I can't leave Taylor alone on her first night at home. It'll have to be tonight.

Fortunately, he already had plans in place.


Later that Afternoon


Taylor lay back in bed, apparently reading one of the books her father had brought in. Periodically, she turned a page, but her eyes did not take in a single word. Her mind was far away; or rather, far away in many different directions.

It had taken her a while to come to grips with her power, but her father's visits had helped. Chewie's unconditional affection had done even more to bring her mental state to something approximating equilibrium. Now she was able to explore the ramifications of her capabilities without freaking out more than a little.

It seemed that she could sense every bug for two blocks in all directions. More than that, she could pinpoint their locations and make them move in any direction that she chose. In fact, she could make them do anything she wanted. She could even tap into their senses, such as they were.

As she counted the bugs in her range (it was just another astonishing fact that she could effortlessly count them) and had them do five million independent things, just to prove that she could, a smile crossed her face. She stretched her will just a little and focused her eyes on the page before her. Still manipulating five million bugs (including clearing every single roach out of the hospital building), she concentrated and began to read.

At first it took a little effort, but this was largely due to the fact that she'd never done this before. Much like flexing a muscle she'd never used before, it was not entirely comfortable, but the more she did it, the easier it got. By the time she was two-thirds of the way down the page, she was taking in every word.

She finished that page and read two more as smoothly as if she wasn't also exerting positive control over every single arthropod in the surrounding million square feet. Closing the book, she folded her hands over it. Every bug she'd been controlling went back to what they were doing.

I have powers.

This was huge. She wouldn't have wished what had happened to her on anyone; in fact, she still wasn't sure if having the powers made it worth the torture she'd gone through to get them. It certainly wasn't worth the previous year and more of bullying at Emma's hands, at the hands of all three of them.

But the fact was, she had powers. Unfortunately, they weren't the type of powers that would let her go back and change the circumstances that forced the powers on her in the first place, if that was even possible. But they were the type of powers that would let her do the next best thing.

Slowly, a smile spread across her face.

I'm gonna be a superhero.


That Night
The Docks
Shadow Stalker


Come out, come out, wherever you are.

Sophia took a run-up and leaped across the gap between two buildings, turning to shadow and gliding onward. Her senses got a lot fuzzier in shadow form, but she could tell where her destination was. As she crossed the parapet of the next rooftop, she went solid again and landed without so much as a stumble. She didn't even crack a smile at the confirmation of her absolute capability in this regard. It wasn't just that she thought she was good; she knew she was good.

A groan from below drew her attention, and she moved to the edge of the roof. Looking down, she tapped the side of her mask and cycled through several options. There were no electrical sources below, but the low-light setting showed three people sprawled in the alley in painful poses.

Oh, for fuck's sake. Not again.

Turning to shadow, she stepped off the edge of the roof and drifted down toward the ground. While still a foot in the air, she reverted to solid form and fell to the ground in a crouch. Without pausing, she began to check over the men.

Thirty seconds later, she turned back to shadow and began to ascend to the rooftops again. Her mood, already irritable, was souring even more. It was what she'd thought; far from being innocent victims, the men showed all the signs of being opportunistic muggers. Their weapons had been lying on the ground near them, but their injuries had all been inflicted with hands or feet. She knew the signs.

This was the third group of would-be muggers she'd encountered tonight. All had been armed, all had been savagely beaten and left where they lay. Broken bones had been both plentiful and varied in nature. She couldn't be certain that some would even survive the night. Most wore the colours of the Empire, but some appeared to be freelancers.

Her problem wasn't the fact that someone was kicking the shit out of muggers. She'd done exactly the same thing herself, on many occasions. No, what was bugging her was the fact that there was some unnamed vigilante out and about, doing what she'd done so effectively before the PRT had snapped her up. And he wasn't even using any kind of weapon to do it with. Worst of all, he was smacking her muggers around before she could get to them.

When I find you, asshole, you and me are going to have a chat. She didn't know exactly what sort of a chat it was going to be, but she needed to explain to this guy that she was here first. She took a run-up and leaped across the gap to the next building. It wasn't that she wanted to warn the guy off, of course. But having someone outside the PRT building, someone she could maybe team up with on her previously-solo patrols, capable of this level of directed violence … that was something she could consider. So long as he knows who the boss is.

She kept running, kept jumping. Scanning the street. Listening for anything that might clue her in to a crime in progress. Somewhere, there was someone beating hell out of muggers, and not letting her in on it. She was playing catch-up, and she hated it.

"Uh … hello, guys. Can … can I help you?" It was a masculine voice, a little high-pitched from fear. A puppy yapped. Sophia ran the last few yards and stared down at the scene that was even now playing out on the street below.

A tall skinny guy had been approached by four guys. Balding, wearing glasses, he'd been out walking his dog. Sophia let her breath hiss out from between her teeth; doing that, in this area, was idiotic. Unfortunately, there were far too many idiots in the world today. Like most of the other muggers, these guys were wearing Empire colours. Their victim was white, but skinheads were equal-opportunity muggers.

Sophia settled down to watch the ongoing shakedown. The guy couldn't get away; in fact, he seemed more interested in keeping the leash short so the yapping puppy couldn't run into danger. Neither was he putting up any sort of fight. He was trying to talk the guys into leaving him alone, retreating until his back was up against the grimy brickwork. At his feet, the puppy faced the four muggers, growling defiantly. Sophia liked its style. Its owner, not so much.

The muggers were in no hurry, waving knives and iron bars and trading crude jokes at their victim's expense. They moved in toward him, encroaching on his personal space with casual menace. He kept trying to defuse the situation, keeping his right hand up in a non-threatening gesture while his left was occupied with controlling the puppy's leash. This could only end one way, and it wouldn't be too long coming.

Shit, what if the other guy jumps in first? She did not want to be left on the back foot if the interloper to her territory took these mooks out and saved the victim. At the very least, she'd look incompetent. Should I just go in there?

A moment later, the decision was taken out of her hands. Yapping loudly, the puppy managed to lunge forward, and the guy tried to pull it back. One of the muggers was taken off guard, and the guy accidentally shoved him. Through sheer luck, the mugger tripped and went down hard.

Well, that's good enough for me. It could be argued that the guy wasn't actually fighting back, but Sophia decided to take what she could get. Rising to her feet, she leaped over the edge of the roof, turning to shadow as she went.

She reached the ground a moment later. When she turned solid, it took a moment to take in what was happening. Two more of the muggers were down; even as she tried to wrap her head around the situation, the tall guy smashed the fourth guy to the ground with an elbow to the throat. She stared at the tall guy. He didn't look like a victim any more. Now he looked like her. He looked like a predator.

Holy fuck. It's him. It's the

He whipped around toward her, moving so fast she barely had time to react. As he struck at her body, she instinctively went to shadow. All too late, she saw the stun-gun in his left hand. Where the fuck did he get

Electricity crackled and she went solid again, convulsing from the shock to her system. As she crumpled to the dirty pavement, she heard him speak. His voice was no longer high with fear; now, it was firm with satisfaction.

"Took you long enough."


Danny
Hebert Household Basement


Chewie sniffed around the basement as Danny finished restraining Shadow Stalker (minus her mask and cloak) to the chair. It was made of solid wood, and the cable ties were of the industrial variety. Nothing short of Brute strength would snap them, and Shadow Stalker didn't have a Brute rating. To get around her phasing ability, he had a hundred-foot extension cord plugged into mains power, wrapped around her arms and legs, as well as her body and neck. The other end of the cord was plugged into an electric fan, which was whirring away merrily up on a shelf. In addition, the chair itself was fixed to a solid base, so that it couldn't be simply tipped over.

He'd done this sort of thing before, from time to time.

By the time he pulled the last cable tie taut, he was pretty sure she was awake and faking it. That was fine. He picked up a plastic bucket and went to the faucet in the corner, and filled it. The water was cold; this time of the year, it was always cold. Stepping back in front of Shadow Stalker, he made sure the fan was well out of the way and drew the bucket back. Heaving it forward, he let the teenage girl have the contents, square in the face. The fan whirred on.

She gasped and spluttered, no longer able to fake unconsciousness. He put the bucket down. She glared at him, water running down her uncovered face. A moment later, she recognised this and her eyes flared with rage.

"You unmasked me, you son of a bitch!"

"If it's any consolation, I knew who you were before I ever took your mask off, Miss Hess." He folded his arms and leaned back against the nearby workbench. "But your identity is the least of your problems right now."

"Problems?" she screamed. "You want problems? You're fucking dead! When I get out of this, I am gonna kill you!"

"Save your breath," he advised her. "This basement is soundproofed." Unfolding his arms, he leaned forward and placed his hands on the chair arms, his face a foot from hers. She tried to headbutt him, but the cord around her throat pulled her up short with a choking sound.

Looking around, he ensured that Chewie was nowhere near the water that had pooled beneath the chair. Neither was he standing in it. Producing the stun-gun, he touched it to Shadow Stalker's skin. When he pressed the button, the girl arched her back, her limbs straining against the cable ties. He let the button go after one second, and stepped back.

Slowly, she came back to herself. She glared groggily at him, blood running down her chin from a bitten lip.

"Now that I've got your attention," he said. "Let's talk about Taylor Hebert and Emma Barnes."


End of Part Four