Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Part Six: Training Montage


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


A Couple of Hours Later (after dark)
Taylor


Holding Chewie in her arms with a heavy plastic bag hanging from one hand, she chose to avert her eyes when her father carried the plastic-wrapped bundle up out of the basement. The oven gloves and the long-sleeved shirt didn't look too much out of place, though the shower cap gave him a faintly ludicrous air. She switched off the kitchen light before she opened the back door, to avoid silhouetting him against the light.

"Clear?" he murmured.

"Clear," she confirmed. It was too dark out for her to see anything, but that didn't matter to the hundreds of thousands of bugs that were confirming that the surrounding two blocks contained no watchers.

He went down the back steps then crossed the yard to where the car waited, trunk open. It had already been lined with more plastic; there was no sense, he'd explained, in not taking extra precautions. She hadn't argued, though she'd wondered where one got rolls of industrial-strength plastic from. It seemed like such a niche product.

His burden safely deposited in the car, he relieved her of the bag. Within it, she knew, were Shadow Stalker's mask, her crossbows, and some extremely sharp arrows her father had found in a holder at the small of Sophia's back. Tying the handles of the bag together, he placed it in the trunk next to the body then shut the lid; not with an audible slam, but pressing it down the last inch gently, so that the latch clicked into place. Then he stripped off the oven gloves and shower cap and turned to her.

"Want to come for the ride?" he asked, and nodded at the furry bundle in her arms. "Chewie gets lonely and howls if nobody's around. So if you come, he has to come as well."

He wasn't trying to warn her off, she understood. He was just giving her all the facts. "Sure, I'll come," she said. "You need someone to watch your back, right?"

The smile he gave her sent a warm feeling right down to her toes. "It's definitely appreciated," he agreed. "I could do it on my own, but having a second set of a million eyes along is very useful." Moving to the passenger side, he opened the door for her. She got in and arranged Chewie on her lap while he closed the door for her. Manoeuvring her seatbelt around the wriggling puppy was a little tricky, but she managed. Chewie licked her face, then stood up with his front paws on the window ledge as if to say, Come on, let's go already.

"Patience, Chewie," she murmured, wiping puppy drool off her cheek (not for the first time) and rubbing his ears so that he arched his neck into her hand. "Dad's gotta lock up yet."

Sitting in the cool darkness of the car, holding the warm bundle of her dog in her arms, she considered the turns her life had taken over the last day. The hospital had been tolerable, but she'd been aching to get home. To sleep in her own bed, to play with Chewie, and to forget everything that had happened to her.

Well, not everything. Her bug powers weren't going away, and her father seemed to be intrigued by them, so there was that. And there was also the fact that her father was the Dark. A man whose very name had inspired the equivalent of a meme in the criminal underworld; one which nobody laughed at. It wasn't just Dad. It was Mom, too. As she rubbed her cheek against Chewie's soft fur, she tried to figure out how she felt about that. My parents used to kill people for money.

The most striking part of all this was that her father had never tried to explain away what he used to do, or even excuse it. He'd simply told her, and left her to decide how to react. Also, he and Alan Barnes had murdered Sophia Hess in the basement.

This was the part that she was still trying to get her head around. Sophia Hess pushed me into my own locker, full of horrible crap, so Dad told Alan Barnes to kill her. And he did, so Dad wouldn't do the same to Emma. To save her life, Emma was going away to boarding school in Europe, and Taylor would never see her again, just because her father had said so.

And Sophia Hess was a Ward. A superhero. She bullied me and put me in the hospital, and Dad had her executed because of it.

Superheroes were supposed to be the best of people. They were literally supposed to embody the concept. The bright costumes, the hopeful names, the powers. They were supposed to stand between normal people and the evils of the world. But Shadow Stalker didn't wear a bright costume, and even her name sounded creepy as hell. Still, she should've lived up to being a hero. Instead, she'd been a bitch and a bully, even after she stopped being a vigilante and joined the Wards. In fact, she'd gotten worse. She'd helped subject Taylor to abuse that had driven her to the depths of despair more than once. In the locker, Taylor had honestly thought she was going to die. How could someone do that to someone else and still call themselves a hero?

She was no hero. She was a villain, pretending to be a hero.

The epiphany left Taylor almost breathless. It explained so much. Far from protecting people from the evils of the world, she'd been one of the evils of the world. Her father had even mentioned how she watched crimes happen without intervening if the victim didn't fight back. That's not a heroic act. That's letting evil happen. It was how Emma got her head twisted around.

If Dad hadn't stepped in … what would have happened? Taylor could see it for herself. She would've recovered in time, and gone back to school. Well, if Winslow hadn't burned down … wait a minute. Dad knew the names of people that he didn't know before … and Winslow burned down last night? Coincidence? I think not.

The driver's side door opened, and Danny got in. "Ready to go, honey?" he asked.

"Sure," she said. "Uh, quick question though."

He gave her a grin as he fastened his seat belt. "Shoot."

She took a deep breath. "Did you burn down Winslow?"

Putting the key in the ignition, he started the car. "Yes, actually." He raised an eyebrow. "Do you have any objections? I was under the impression you hated the place."

"Oh, no objections at all," she assured him. "I was just wondering." Another thought struck her. "You told me Chewie can't be left alone or he howls. Did you take him along with you to burn down Winslow?"

The car clunked into gear, and he started it rolling gently down the driveway. "I took him along, yes. The idea was originally to gather information. Once I had it, I decided that the place deserved to burn. Chewie was in total agreement with me. In fact, he handed me the matches."

His delivery was so perfectly deadpan that she burst out laughing. Chewie yapped and licked her face, and she cuddled him to her. "I'll just bet he did," she managed between giggles. "My little Chewie, the arsonist."

"That's right." His tone became more serious as they headed off down the road. "Now for the next question I know you want to ask. What are we going to do with the body?"

Taylor stared at her father, wondering when he'd become a mind reader. A moment later, she got it. "Everyone asks that, don't they?"

"It was certainly the subject of discussion between myself and your mom on more than one occasion," he confirmed. "So tell me; what are the options?"

She thought about the matter seriously. "Drive out into the woods and bury her there, put weights on her and dump her in the bay, find a construction site where they're about to pour concrete … um, yeah, I'm out of ideas."

This was all weird to her, but she felt she could handle it better if she thought of it as disposing of the body of a villain who'd tried to kill her, and would've kept trying. And she probably would've hurt Chewie too, just to get at me.

"All good ideas," he said approvingly. "I've used them all in the past. But there's one you missed."

She frowned. "What's that?"

He indicated to take the next left, heading north. "Let them find it. But you muddy the waters at the same time."


Next Morning
Friday, 7 January, 2011
PRT ENE
Director Piggot


"What do you mean, Shadow Stalker's dead?" Emily Piggot hated Mondays, but Fridays had just made her list as well. "Don't we have precautions in place to make sure this exact thing doesn't happen?" When the Youth Guard finds out about this, the shit is going to hit the fan so hard.

On the other side of her desk, Armsmaster took a deep breath. "We do. Partnered patrols, regular welfare checks, a tracking device in the Wards-issued phone, and carefully devised patrol routes that kept them away from trouble hotspots. But she's … she was … good at ducking around the regulations if it didn't suit her to follow them. She apparently had a habit of ditching her patrol partner, going off-route and ignoring welfare checks as long as possible. It didn't help that her shadow state disrupted signal reception with the radio and phone, so it was hard to keep track of her at the best of times. I strongly suspect that she knew about this and played on it, because the number of 'radio disruption' and 'phone signal loss' incidences we had with her outweigh the rest of the Wards combined."

Emily spread her hands in frustration. "And she wasn't disciplined for this, why exactly? She was on probation, for Christ's sake!" Bringing a semi-criminal into the Wards had not been her idea, and she'd never been in favour of it, but they did need all the heroic capes they could muster on the streets, and the girl had been reasonably competent, so she hadn't complained too loudly. Now, it seemed she would've been well-served to complain a lot louder.

"Several reasons." Armsmaster's tone suggested he was reading a pre-prepared list from his helmet HUD. "She was smart enough to read the regulations and figure out exactly how far she could push matters before things got serious. Also, the radio and phone problems were due to interactions with her power, which she never actually allowed us to measure, so there was a chance that they were legitimate. A small chance, but a chance nonetheless. Next, she was abrasive enough that people rarely complained when she dumped them on patrol. Not that she did this all the time; just enough that they weren't surprised when she did do it. And finally, Triumph is good at shouting orders but not so good at dealing with breaches of discipline. He's on track to graduate to the Protectorate in the next couple of months, and I suspect he may be slacking off a little, leaving his problems to be dealt with by Aegis once he takes over."

"Really." Emily made a note: deal with Triumph re: SS. Then she looked up at Armsmaster. "So, give me the gory details. How did it happen, and where?"

"We found her at the Boat Graveyard, via an anonymous phone tip, a little before midnight." The armoured hero's tone was matter-of-fact. "The content of the call was simple: a disguised male voice saying they thought they'd seen a superhero get shot at the Boat Graveyard. Duration of call was less than fifteen seconds. Burner phone. Velocity got there within five minutes, and both located and identified her. She was lying face-up in shallow water near the docks. I was next on site, and we got her up on shore. Cause of death was easy to ascertain; someone had shot her in the forehead with a nine-millimetre pistol. Death would have been near-instantaneous. There was no seawater in her lungs, so she went into the water after she died. Rigor mortis had already set in, so she'd been dead for more than two hours already. Getting an exact time of death was difficult, given that she was submerged in water for at least part of that time. But there's a problem."

"I'll say there's a problem." Emily leaned forward over her desk. "She was dead long before we got that tip-off. Whoever shot her wanted us to find her. The killer was taunting us. Sending a message."

"More of a problem than that." Armsmaster grimaced. "Her mask had been removed before she was shot. No bullet-hole. It was lying beside her in the water, like it was tossed there. And from the angle of the shot, she'd been made to kneel before they shot her. Execution style."

"Christ." Emily clenched her fists. "Anything else?"

Armsmaster nodded. "She put up a fight. There's bruising on her body along with a cut on her face and marks from a stun-gun. No signs of sexual assault; no extraneous DNA at all, actually. Both her crossbows were nearby. They'd been fired. We found the projectiles some distance away." He paused. "Sharp arrows. The type she was using when she was still a vigilante. There were more in a holder on the back of her belt, under her cloak."

Emily pinched the bridge of her nose. "She shot at someone, intending to kill them, and missed. They subdued her, unmasked her and executed her, then left her for us to find. God damn it." This was getting more and more problematic by the minute. "Do you have any good news to tell me?"

To her surprise, Armsmaster nodded. "The bullet that killed her didn't go all the way through, and we were able to retrieve it. There were enough rifling markings on it that we were able to make a match. That bullet came from a pistol used in several killings by the Empire Eighty-Eight."

"Now why does that not surprise me?" marvelled Emily in a savagely mocking tone. "We had exactly one black Ward in the city, and she got unmasked and murdered by our resident neo-Nazis." She pointed at Armsmaster. "Have you contacted her family yet?"

He nodded. "Yes, ma'am, we have. They've been taken into protective custody until we can determine if the Empire intends to come after them as well."

"Good. Well, even if they don't, I'm not letting this stand."

"Director?" asked Armsmaster, taken slightly aback by her change in tone.

"If the Empire wants war, we'll give them war." Emily stood from behind her desk. "I'm going to be calling on Boston and New York for reinforcements, and then we're going to explain to Kaiser and his minions that nobody murders a Ward so blatantly in my town and gets away with it. Even if she was on probation and had a habit of going off the reservation."

"Yes, ma'am."


Danny


The punching bag barely shuddered. Danny steadied it and leaned around to nod at Taylor. "Again," he said. "From the shoulder."

Taylor, wearing a sleeveless top and sweatpants, her face sheened with perspiration, nodded tensely. She wiped her forehead with the back of her glove and shaped up again. This time, she managed to put a little more force behind the blow, and the bag moved perceptibly.

"Better," he said approvingly. "Like that. Let's see if you can't do that five times in a row."

The breath rasped in her throat, but she complied. Once, twice, three times, she made the bag shake. The fourth was weaker, and after the fifth she let her hands drop to her sides. "I can't believe people do this for a living," she panted.

"It's a useful skill to have," he reminded her. "In a world where bug-spray exists, you're going to need to punch someone out sooner or later."

"And if they've got powers that make them immune to bugs and being punched out?" she asked; he judged that her question was half sarcasm and half serious.

"Running away is also a useful skill." His answer was entirely serious.

"And if they can run faster than me?" She raised her eyebrows, the sarcasm still evident.

I'll be waiting on a nearby rooftop with a sniper rifle. "We'll be working on that later. The endurance will be good for your boxing, as well." He moved around the bag and raised his own gloves. "For now, watch my form. You've been holding your hands a little low. When you lay a punch on someone, you're trying to put your fist all the way through them. Your entire body weight has to go into it. Doesn't matter if the other guy is your size, or ten stone heavier. Make him feel like he's been hit by an eighteen-wheeler."

Moving almost in slow motion so that she could follow his movements, he unleashed a right into the bag. It moved, but not very much. His left was faster, then his right came back at full power, making it buck and jerk on the chain. He hammered a four-punch combo into the hanging target, leaving it rocking and swinging, then instinctively followed through with a rising shin-strike that would've impacted under the short ribs.

"You didn't teach me that one," Taylor said as he steadied the bag again. Now, she sounded impressed rather than sarcastic. "Am I going to have to learn how to do that, too?"

He grinned. "If you want. But you're going to have to walk before you run. For now, I need to make sure you've got a solid grounding in the basics. Now go shower while I check on Chewie. It's time I got caught up on the details of what you can do."

"Yes, sir," she replied with a jaunty grin, the sarcasm back in full play. Holding out her hands, she let him unlace the gloves, then headed up the stairs.

He watched her go, then nodded approvingly. She had what his father would've called moxie. She's a Hebert. She'll last the distance. Teasing out the lace tags with his teeth, he began to remove his own gloves. He was looking forward to this conversation.


Brockton Bay
Traffic Lights at Fifth and Main


The armoured truck had plenty of momentum, so Joseph Keller made sure to slow down well before the lights. "Been doing this job twenty years," he told his offsider as he downshifted. "Rain or shine, I can put this truck at any bank within one minute of the due time."

"What, you've never been late?" Mike was six months into the job. "Like, ever?"

"Oh, I've been late before," Joseph was quick to admit. "Once because of a blown tyre, and three times because—" He broke off, eyes flicking between the truck mirrors. Twenty years had given him a knack for reading traffic, and he really didn't like the look of those black Chevy Suburbans that were coming up behind.

"Because what?" Mike wasn't as quick on the uptake.

"Robbery." Joe grabbed the mic off the dash.

"What, you got robbed three times?"

"Four, now." Joe keyed the microphone while he slid the truck over another lane, hoping to maybe sneak around the corner before the Suburbans boxed him in. "Anchorfield three four nine to Control. I say again, Anchorfield three four nine calling Control. We've got five Suburbans crowding us, over."

"What the—" Mike peered out his own window, then recoiled as one of the Suburbans blurred past and swerved in front of the truck. "Shit! What's he doing?"

"Blockading us! Hold on!" Joe took his foot off the brake and shoved it on to the accelerator. The engine responded with a roar and the truck surged forward. He whipped the wheel around, trying to squeeze the ungainly vehicle into the gap between the Suburban and the curb. Hands moving on automatic pilot, he changed up again in an effort to wring more speed out of the truck.

The driver of the Suburban had clearly anticipated this, as the vehicle angled across the lane, nose almost in the gutter, before slamming on its brakes. An instant later, the nose of the armoured truck slammed into the side of the Suburban, driving it sideways with a great squeal of rubber on asphalt. The engine faltered, on the verge of stalling, and he punched in the clutch and downshifted again. Mike yelled as he was thrown against his seatbelt.

"Shotgun!" bellowed Joe, wrestling with the wheel. He was pushing the Suburban sideways at a steady rate, but it wasn't fast enough. If he could just reach the corner …

"… chorfield three four nine, this is Control. Copy five Suburbans. Be advised, backup incoming. Requesting update, over."

Even through the thick glass of the windows, he heard the multiple shots. They weren't aimed at the windows or the windshield; in fact, the shooters were nowhere in sight. But he knew where they were and what their targets were, because he felt it through the truck. Both rear tyres had just been shot out, with a corresponding loss of traction and control. Still, he kept his foot flat on the accelerator, engine screaming as he felt the rubber flaying off the wheels, doing his best to push that damn Suburban around the corner.

"Shots fired. I say again, shots fired," he managed into the mic. "Confirmed robbery. Black cars, no plates. Rear tyres just got shot out. Blockaded, over."

By now, Mike had recovered his wits sufficiently to reach back and retrieve a shotgun from the rack behind them. The chak-chak as he worked the slide was music to Joe's ears. The shotguns were loaded with rifled slugs, perfect for short-range work. He didn't care what sort of body armour these assholes were wearing; a high-velocity twelve-gauge slug would break bones and bruise internal organs, leaving them gasping on the ground. And if they somehow came to an armoured car robbery without body armour, they'd be stretchered away with fist-sized holes in them.

More gunfire sounded, and the truck lurched; that had been the passenger-side front wheel. It was official now. They weren't getting around the corner, and they weren't getting away. Okay, then. Time to show these sons of bitches who's boss around here. Even apart from the shotguns and their personal sidearms, they still had their passenger in the back. Steelheart, a rogue cape whose body could take on the consistency of whatever metal he was touching, was paid the big bucks to protect these shipments and keep insurance premiums down. Whatever bullets they hosed him down with were just going to irritate him.

He took his foot off the accelerator and put the truck into neutral, allowing the engine to go back to an idle. "Okay, then," he said tensely as he reached back to get his own shotgun. "The glass is good against small-arms fire, and we've got the big guy in the back. We can bunker down until the cavalry gets here."

Another Suburban pulled around in front of the one that had blockaded them. The driver's side door opened, and a man got out; tall, imposing, wearing a simple cloth mask. He raised a bullhorn to his mouth. Joe knew what was coming next; 'surrender or we bust in there anyway and take you out'. Same old, same old. He went to rack the slide on his shotgun.

"YOU THERE, IN THE TRUCK." Here it came. "ARE YOU AFRAID … OF THE DARK?"

Wait, what? Joe froze in the act of working his weapon's action. What did he say? That was a phrase that let every Brocktoner with a brain and a shred of common sense know when it was time to duck and cover. He'd never encountered the Dark himself, of course. Nobody he knew had. But everyone knew the question. And there was only one right answer.

"Wait, is that … him?" With a shaking hand, Mike pointed out the windshield at the masked man.

"Looks like it." Because nobody would be so fuck-stupid as to impersonate the most terrifying man in America. Carefully, Joe put the shotgun on safe and replaced it on the rack. Then he began to wind down the window.

"But doesn't he normally just kill people, not rob armoured cars?"

"Maybe he's saving up for retirement. Anyways, I'd rather be robbed than killed, get my drift?" Turning off the ignition, Joe took the keys out and dropped them out the window. Then he put his hands on the wheel, in plain view of the man with the bullhorn.

"Yeah, good point." Mike put his own shotgun back on the rack and leaned forward to place his hands on the dash. Joe let out a silent sigh of relief. They'd catch hell from the boss, but at least they'd live past the next five minutes.


Taylor


Once again, Taylor blessed the impulse that had led her father to buy her a puppy. Sitting on the sofa, holding the bundle of warm fur, she was able to lean back and relax instead of tensing up over her father's questions. Chewie was enjoying the situation as well; as befitted his name, he'd found the corner of her sleeve irresistible, and was gnawing on it with little growls and shakes of his head.

"I can sense and control bugs out to two or three blocks, as far as I can tell," she explained. "It varies from time to time, but I'm not sure why. Anyway, I can sense every bug in the area, and I can control every bug I can sense."

"That's a lot of bugs," he noted. "Do you have any difficulty in doing this? I've heard that some capes get headaches when they try to push their powers too hard."

"Nope, no headaches." She smoothed down Chewie's ears as she thought about her answer. "If they're in my range, I can control them. If they're not, I can't."

He raised an eyebrow at that. "I suspect a few capes out there would be very envious of you. How precise is your control level?"

"As precise as you want." She wasn't sure where he was going with this. "I could have ten thousand spiders dancing the macarena on the living room floor if you wanted. Of course, I'd have to get ten thousand spiders together and learn how the macarena goes, but that's just detail."

Both his eyebrows went up. At the same time, he made a negatory motion with his hand. "Let's not have any spiders, doing the macarena or otherwise, okay, honey?" Pausing, he raised a finger. "At least, not in our living room. There are some situations where it would be definitely worthwhile to have spiders and other bugs going places where they shouldn't."

"Sure, okay." Taylor smirked. "Did you want to know how many spiders and roaches we have living in the basement? Because I can tell you, if you're really interested."

He gave her a medium-dirty look. "Unless the answer is 'zero', I'd rather live in happy ignorance. How good is the sensory information that you get from them, anyway?"

Chewie seemed to have given up on the sleeve and gone to sleep; Taylor shifted him to a more comfortable position. "Good and bad, at the same time. Sensing exactly where they are and what they're doing, it's extremely precise, down to a fraction of an inch. Sensing through them is almost hopeless. Bug senses are weird."

"Down to a fraction of an inch …" he mused. "So, if you had three bugs that were almost lined up in a row, you'd know which how far out of line the middle one was, and how to move it back into line? Even with your eyes closed?"

Taylor wasn't sure where this was going, but the answer seemed clear enough to her. "Uh, sure?"

He smiled then. "Taylor, honey, put Chewie to bed. Then we're going back down to the basement."

"The basement?" She rolled her eyes and groaned. "We just got done with the punching bag."

His smile widened as he shook his head. "Oh, we're not going to be using the punching bag this time."


Coil


"It went off without a hitch," boasted the mercenary he'd picked to be the faux-Dark. "Soon as I called it out, they wet 'emselves and gave up without a fight. Even the asshole cape in the back said 'screw it' when we opened the doors. I dunno why we didn't do this years ago."

"Neither do I," mused Calvert, mostly to himself. He'd been waiting for the other shoe to drop after the robbery, but it really did seem as simple as that. Tattletale's analysis had been on the money, for once; or rather, she'd given him the correct analysis. Normally he had to torture it out of her. Has she figured it out and decided to play it straight for once?

Whatever the reason, he was pleased with the end result. With the Dark supposedly at his beck and call, he was going to become a power in this city. Once word spread, nobody would dare cross him.

And all because of a reputation that should've run its course years ago. How stupid are these people, anyway?


Kenta


Lung's voice rose to a shout. "How many times do I have to tell you? There is no such person as the Dark!" His clenched fist erupted in flames, causing his minions to cower away from him. Except Oni Lee, of course; nothing scared that man. Lung wasn't even sure he was capable of feeling fear.

"I'm not questioning you, great Lung," babbled the minion. "But they say he robbed an armoured truck! The guards didn't even resist! All he had to do was ask the question!"

"HE IS NOT THE DARK!" It was a primal roar, accompanied by metal sliding from Lung's skin and flame bursting out all over his body. "Do you know how I know this? Because there is no Dark! There never was a Dark! Those who fear the Dark fear something that isn't there! They are cowardly and superstitious! They are fools, listening to tales started by the PRT to keep us in fear!"

"So, should we create our own Dark?" That was one of his bolder, more forward-thinking minions. "After all, who is to say whose Dark is real?"

Lung's rage dropped back to a simmering anger as he considered the question. "… no," he decided. "The people will come to their senses, sooner or later. They will realise that the Dark is a hollow name, and that there is nothing inside. We do not wish to be caught out when this happens. We will stand back and laugh at the fools who believed. And if we are lucky, we will be the ones to uncover the sham." He pointed at the nearest man. "If someone claims to be the Dark, what will you do?"

The man blinked, unprepared for the question. "Uh … shoot him?" It was more a question than a statement. He cringed, as if expecting flames.

Lung shook his head, deciding to be lenient this time. "I didn't hear you." His voice was a menacing growl.

"Shoot him!" the man declared, pulling his pistol and waving it at the ceiling. For even appearing to menace the Dragon of Kyushu with a firearm was an invitation to a painful end.

"Louder!" Lung waved his arm to include the rest of the minions.

"Shoot him!" Everyone had a pistol in their hand now. Their voices echoed in the room.

"I can't hear you!" he shouted.

"SHOOT HIM!" they bellowed.

He nodded, pleased. "Good. Now somebody find me some pants."

As they dispersed, he allowed himself a smile behind the metal mask. Whoever was pretending to be the Dark was going to have a very bad day if his men had anything to say about it.


Kaiser


"Don't be an idiot, James. It wasn't him." Max leaned back in his chair and sipped at his drink. Perfectly aged whisky, served just right. Money had its privileges.

James tilted his head, apparently forgetting that he wasn't in costume and he didn't need the gesture to convey confusion. His face did it just as well. "But … he was a big man, and he claimed to be the Dark. The guards just gave up without a fight. What do you mean, it wasn't him?"

"I mean it wasn't him because it wasn't him." Max looked over at James, trying to figure out the best way to describe that water was wet and the earth was indeed round. "Listen. The Dark killed dozens of people. Probably hundreds. He had a twenty-year unbroken record of kills, was never arrested or even suspected by the cops, and didn't end up in a shallow grave. If he wanted money, all he had to do was pick out one of a dozen outstanding hits and collect on it. Robbery was never his style and never will be."

"So … he'll kill two dozen men over a dog, but he won't stoop to robbing an armoured truck in broad daylight?" James' voice was heavy with sarcasm.

Putting his glass down, Max clapped his hands in ironic congratulation. "Precisely! Now you're getting it!"

"You're all fucking crazy here; you know that, right?" James shook his head. "This whole city. Batshit crazy. Verrückt."

"Maybe," conceded Max. "But it still wasn't him. That Dark that's making waves? Dead man walking."

"So, what do we do about it?" James looked at him questioningly.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing." Max picked up the glass and drained it, then turned to look out the window of his office. "I lost two good people and lots of fucking idiots who got between him and his dog. There's no telling what he'll do to someone who gets between him and his kill. So, we sit back and we don't do anything that might antagonise him until he's done with business."

James didn't answer; a moment later, Max heard the office door open and close. Slowly, he shook his head. He's been here how long and he still doesn't understand how we do business?


Danny


"Brace, but don't tense," he said out loud. "Just squeeze the trigger and let it happen."

"Okay." Taylor shifted her grip on the pistol. It was only a .32, so the recoil wouldn't jar her wrists too badly, but Danny still had her holding it two-handed. She did her best to line up the front sight with the rear sight, and both with the paper target he'd pinned up on the far wall of the basement, but her lack of experience showed. The pistol went off with a flat crack that barely made it through their earplugs. As he'd expected, the shot missed the bullseye by several inches. The previous nine hadn't done any better.

"Aw." She looked disappointed. "It's harder than it looks."

"Everything worth doing in life is," he reminded her. "But that was just to familiarise you with the weapon. You're used to the sound and the recoil now?"

"Uh huh." She nodded firmly. "I used to think guns were scary." She looked at the pistol in her hand. "Well, they're still scary, but I know a lot more about them now."

"Good." He pointed at the weapon. "Now, put a bug on the rear sight and another on the front sight, and one where you want the bullet to go. See how accurate you can get."

Suddenly, she looked intrigued. Raising the pistol, she held it while a couple of flies landed on it, and a roach scurried up the far wall. When she aimed the gun this time, she was a lot less unsure of herself; just gauging by eye, Danny figured she had it on target or nearly so. She squeezed the trigger, the pistol went crack, and bits of roach splattered across the bullseye.

"I got it!" she whooped. "I got it!"

Danny raised his eyebrows. "You did. Think you can do it again?"

Five shots later, she had proved she could definitely do it again. At least at short range against an unmoving target, she could reliably place a bullseye shot on target, six shots out of six. As she reloaded and policed up her expended brass, Danny went searching through the gear he had stored until he'd found what he was looking for.

"Here," he said, coming back to her. "Put this on."

"What is that?" she asked, putting the pistol on the bench and taking the length of cloth. "A mask?"

"Nope. It's a blindfold." He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You don't even need to see the target with your eyes. Let's see how good you are when all you can use is your powers."

"Oh. Okay." While she was tying it on, he went and replaced the paper target; the bullseye was more or less gone, anyway. As an afterthought, he placed a thumbtack in the middle of the bullseye of the new sheet.

"Are you ready?" he asked, once he was back behind the firing line.

"I guess." She sounded doubtful. "I can't believe I'm about to do target practice blindfolded."

He snorted. "Well, this is one thing I can't teach you how to do. So take your time."

"Thanks, Dad." She reached unerringly for the pistol and readied it, as he'd shown her. Then she pointed it downrange and squeezed the trigger.

Crack.

Crack crack.

Crack crack crack crack.

She fired until the magazine was empty. The only expression he could see under the blindfold was one of total concentration.

After the last shot, with hot shell casings still tinkling to the floor, she safed the pistol and laid it to one side. They walked down together to where the target was pinned to the wall. Every shot had gone within an inch of the bullseye. The thumbtack was nowhere to be seen.

Pulling up the blindfold, Taylor stared at the paper. "My powers told me I'd hit it," she confessed. "But I didn't believe it."

"I'm looking at it, and I have trouble believing it," he said, and put his arm around her shoulders. "Taylor, honey, your powers have given you a great talent. Maybe one that most people wouldn't think of, and maybe not quite as useful as being able to smother someone in bugs at will, but a great talent all the same."

She wrinkled her nose. "You know I'd much rather I never got these powers at all. What I had to go through to get them …" The shudder that went through her looked entirely unfeigned.

He squeezed her shoulders supportively. "I'd much rather you hadn't gone through that, either," he said. "In fact, I'd much rather I'd thought to buy you a puppy on my own. But if there's one thing life has taught me, it's that there's no sense in regretting a path not taken. You accept what life deals you, and you make the best of it. Or you change it to suit yourself. I've never really been an accepting sort of person, myself."

"Change it to suit myself, huh?" Taylor looked up at her father thoughtfully. "I think I can learn to do that."

Grinning, he reached up and ruffled her hair. "That's my girl."


PRT ENE
Director Piggot


"God damn it," snapped Emily. "You listen to me, Wilkins. Armstrong's already come on board; if you won't release troops to me, I might just order Armsmaster to call Legend direct and have him ask you why you're offering what amounts to thoughts and prayers over the murder of a black Ward by neo-Nazi elements! I need people, damn it! Boots on the ground! Not fucking platitudes!"

"I'm sorry, Emily, but my hands are tied. I can't—"

There was a knock on her office door. "What?" she snapped, looking up from the video call. "No, not you." Then she saw who it was. "Can it wait? I'm busy."

"It's important, Director." Assault's tone was uncharacteristically subdued. "This is something you need to hear."

Friday had been bad enough already. Now, seeing the set of his jaw, Emily was struck by a dark presentiment. "Fine." She directed a glare at Wilkins' image on the screen. "I will call you back." It was as much a threat as a promise. With a click of her mouse, she ended the call, then looked up at Assault. "Please tell me you're here to report Clockblocker for mooning the Mayor on the Boardwalk, on live TV."

"I wish it was that simple." Assault shook his head. "That report of an armoured truck robbery, by the Dark? It's bullshit. The man never did anything so basic. I need you to make that clear to the cops."

"And you're worried about this, because?" Emily clenched her fists on the desk. "The Dark is a murderer! I know you've got connections to people in low places, but why are you covering for him so hard?"

"Because one, I know for a fact he didn't do it, and two, if the cops come after him, he's gonna have to make a choice between not shooting cops and not going to jail. Up 'til now, he's managed to avoid that particular dilemma, because the cops have been smart enough to say 'fuck it' and look the other way. But robbing an armoured truck is not the same as putting a nine-mil hole through the head of some asshole who desperately needs it. The cops actually have to take notice." Assault paused and took a deep breath. "And while he's undoubtedly done shit that in any sane world would get him put away for a long, long time, he didn't do this. Also, the world is anything but sane. And then there's the other problem."

"Other problem?" Emily really, really didn't want to hear this. Unfortunately, her job description said otherwise.

"If the cops start trying to take down the Dark, a lot of them are going to end up in the hospital. They're gonna call on the Protectorate and the PRT for help. Which means we're going to be facing off against the Dark. I don't like that."

Emily's initial impulse was to remind him that he was a parahuman, in a team of parahumans, and one lone normal gunman was unlikely to pose a serious threat to them. Then she reconsidered. She didn't like the idea, either. "You think he's that good?"

"I don't think it. I know it. Twenty years, Director. Twenty years." He rapped his knuckles on her desk. "I don't care how you do it, but make it clear to the cops that the Dark didn't do that armoured truck job. For their sakes."

"Well, then," she snapped, "we can go after the real robber, at least."

"Bad idea," he advised. "Once the Dark finds outand he will find outhe'll be gunning for the guy as well. At which point, the safest option will be to stand well back and award points for style." Turning, he headed for the door, then paused. "Oh, and one more thing."

"I don't want to hear it."

"Yeah. You do. Shadow Stalker wasn't killed on site. The body was moved after death."

The abrupt change of subject caught her unawares. "And you know this, how?"

"Call it a hunch. But mainly, the tides. Where she was found, the tide was just coming in. I know the time of death was hard to pin down, but if she'd been shot and left there in the early evening like the lab boys think, her body would've been picked up by the ebb tide and washed out to sea. Find where she was shot, and you'll find her murderer." He stepped out through the door and closed it behind him, leaving her to think over his words.

"Motherfuck." She picked up the phone. She had more calls to make, now, and she wasn't going to enjoy a single one of them.

At times like this, she kind of understood what drove a man like the Dark to do what he did.


End of Part Six