Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Part Seven: Zeroing In
[A/N: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Dad pulled the car to a stop outside Arcadia High. I stared at the wall surrounding it, the clean-looking building, the neatly manicured lawns. There was not a speck of graffiti to be seen, no gang tags, nothing. Chewie wriggled on my lap, clearly anxious to explore this exciting new world. I wasn't so sure; school, after all, was … school. Before it burned down, Winslow had been a hive of scum and villainy (as that one movie had put it) and despite outward appearances, I wasn't quite prepared to give Arcadia the benefit of the doubt.
"Ready to go in and say hello?" I had to give Dad that, he wasn't being pushy. If I said no, he'd probably turn the car around and take me straight home again.
I sighed, and Chewie licked my chin. "Pfft, get off," I said without heat. "Yeah, sure. We're here now, so we may as well go and see what the fuss is all about."
We got out of the car and I clipped Chewie's lead to his collar, but kept him in my arms. It looked like a moderately long walk to the front office, and I didn't want to tire him out quite yet. I wasn't totally heartless, though; once we got close to the main doors, I let him down so he could sniff at (and pee on) a few bushes. As soon as I was sure he wasn't going to have an embarrassing accident—he really was doing very well with potty training at home—I picked him up again and we went inside.
The receptionist smiled as soon as we walked in, a facial expression with which I was unfamiliar, at least coming from school administration. "Can I help you?" she asked, the question directed at Dad and myself equally. This was followed almost immediately with, "Oh, what a cute puppy! What's his name?"
There may have been a quicker way to disarm my worries, but I don't know what it was. "Chewie," I said, the word popping out of my mouth before I had time to think. "Thank you," I added belatedly.
"Taylor had a bad experience at her last school," Dad said smoothly. "Chewie's a new addition to the household, but I think he's fitting in just fine."
"I totally understand," the receptionist replied with a warm smile. "He certainly seems attached to you. Can I see him?"
Carefully, I placed Chewie on the desk, keeping a firm grip on his leash in case he decided to try to jump off and go exploring. He did nothing of the sort, instead padding across the width of the desk to meet his new best friend. She skritched his ears and made the appropriate ooh and ahh noises, which of course he lapped up as was his right and proper due.
After proper introductions had been made, of both canine and human, she accepted the papers Dad had prepared. I regained possession of Chewie while she looked them over and nodded. "Yes, this looks all in order. Just a moment, please." Pressing a button on her desk console, she pulled the microphone on her headset down to her mouth level. "Ms Howell, the Heberts are here. Yes, Taylor Hebert." She released the button and looked up at us. "You can go right through. Ms Howell will meet you."
Ms Howell turned out to be a skinny blonde woman with a bowl cut; in body type at least, she could've been Principal Blackwell's sister. Just what was it with skinny women and high positions in school administration, anyway? I hoped my own future didn't lie in that direction. In this particular instance, she was the vice principal rather than the principal, and (shock, horror) knew how to smile. I began to wonder if the whole 'evil twin' thing was actually real, and whether I was just now meeting the good twin.
We settled down in a conference room, having pulled three chairs away from the table so that we could sit without anything between us. Ms Howell spared Chewie a little attention (he was a very gregarious puppy) then got down to business. Equally to my shock, her questions seemed to indicate that she was interested in finding out the truth rather than reinforcing a pre-formed judgement.
"So, I gather from your earlier academic transcripts that you could have had a place here from the beginning of your freshman year, but you chose to go to Winslow for reasons that you've already explained." She leafed through the pages as she spoke, glancing down at the text every now and again. "I can see here how your grades declined steadily in your first year, which I can absolutely understand considering the stresses you were under."
"Uh huh," I said, more to fill the silence than give a reasoned response. This felt utterly bizarre, to have someone apart from Dad acknowledge what I'd been through, and not just in a throwaway fashion. Chewie snuggled up to me, his fur warm and comforting under my fingers.
"I'm going to presume that you're a bright young lady," Ms Howell said, putting the papers down. "Per the destruction by fire of Winslow and the fact that more than a few of the students displaced from there will be trying to come here, I'm very much inclined to offer you a place ahead of time to make up for the poor showing that you were given there. However, I will also give you a choice."
I blinked, but didn't answer. After a moment, Dad coughed quietly and nudged my arm, reminding me that Ms Howell was waiting for a response.
"A, uh, choice?" I asked stupidly.
"Yes." She beamed at me as if I'd just done well on a test. If this was a psychological move to make me see her in a more positive fashion … well, it was working. So far, she was scoring higher on my Helpful Adult Meter than anyone but Dad or maybe Mrs Knott. Of course, I saw Mrs Knott for exactly one class a day, and none of the bullies shared that class, so that wasn't a high bar.
She gave me and Dad a serious look. "The choice is whether you want to continue as a sophomore, or to repeat your freshman year. If you come to Arcadia as a sophomore, given the mess your grades have been to this point, you're going to have to work hard to get up to the standard you should be at by now. We will, of course, give you all reasonable assistance in this matter." She spread her hands. "Or, if you don't think your grades are salvageable—and you would be a better judge of that than myself—you can come back in as a freshman, and hit your sophomore year running."
Once more, I was sent mentally reeling. I was being given a reasonable choice by the people in charge. It was almost as if they had my best interests at heart. "Uh … Dad?" I asked, looking over at him helplessly. I had no idea which way to jump.
On the one hand, the idea of being held back a year gave me an obscure feeling of being a failure somehow, though I knew she didn't mean it that way. But on the other …
"Making up your grades won't be easy," Dad said, echoing my thoughts almost exactly. "It's up to you, Taylor. Do you think you can handle it?" With hardly a pause, he kept talking. "Don't answer that quite yet." Turning to Ms Howell, he asked, "If Taylor came back in as a freshman but got back into the swing of things faster than expected, could she take the following year's exams to skip a year if she feels up to it?"
The vice principal of Arcadia raised her eyebrows. "I honestly cannot see why not," she said. "Taylor, do you think this is a viable course of action for you?"
Dammit, I was being offered far too many choices. I'd gotten used to having no way off the shitty path I was on, and now I had one and didn't know what to do with it? No fair, world.
"Uh … can I think about it for a bit?" I asked, holding Chewie closer to me for comfort.
Dad nodded. "How about you take Chewie for a walk outside?" he suggested. "I'll go over the boring details with Ms Howell while you're gone. When you get back, you can let us know what you've decided."
"Yeah, I'll do that," I said with some relief. "C'mon, Chewie, let's go."
Carrying the little pup out of the building, I put him down on the grass. With the lead played out, it was easy to follow him as he scrambled eagerly from one new discovery to the next. "So what should I do, Chewie?" I asked as he sniffed at the base of a bush, then added his own little contribution to the scents on it. "Do I set myself up for extra work just for the sake of my own pride, or do I admit that I can't do it and start fresh as the tallest girl in my year?"
To be honest, I'd been the tallest girl in my year at Winslow anyway, with only one or two possible exceptions, but this time around would really seal the deal.
Chewie's industrious snuffling disturbed a bug in the grass that my power had already noticed and dismissed, and he yipped and jumped back. I told the bug to go back to sleep, and tugged Chewie away from any more entomological explorations. "Actually," I murmured. "That is a good point. Thanks, Chewie."
Until he'd made the discovery, I'd been entirely discounting the fact that I had powers, and that Dad was going to be training me to be the best hero I knew how to be. Unless I had my cape pop culture entirely wrong (which I was totally willing to admit that I did) that would require a lot of late nights and extra time on weekends that I wouldn't be able to devote toward schoolwork, at least until my superhero career was up and running. Jumping into Arcadia as a sophomore would just serve to load more work onto my shoulders, and more stress was the last thing I wanted on my plate right then.
Over the next few minutes, I thought it through and decided that this was the correct course of action. While I'd be effectively a year older than everyone else in my new class, I'd actually been in the latter half of the year at Winslow, and nobody knew me here. And finally, I wasn't looking for the approval of anyone but myself, Chewie and Dad.
Gathering up a happily panting and well-walked little bundle of fur, I headed back inside. The secretary gave me a nod and a smile as I went past once more, and I ventured a smile in return. It still felt weird, like I'd taken a sharp right into the Twilight Zone: The Land of Nice People.
Dad and Ms Howell looked around as I knocked on the open door to the conference room. "I've made my decision," I said to the both of them. "I'm thinking that the last thing I want right now is more stress on top of what's already happened, so I'm willing to go into your freshman class with the option to study for those exams and take them, once I feel that I'm up to it."
"That's probably not a bad idea, all told," Ms Howell said at once. "I have no doubt you can do the work, but we don't want to burn you out and put you even more off the idea of coming to school than you no doubt already are." She chuckled to let us pretend it was just a joke, but we all knew it was no such thing. Just one hint of the attitude I'd gotten from Principal Blackwell, and Dad wouldn't have been able to drag me into the place.
"I tend to agree," Dad said. "I'm all for adversity building character, but 'too much of a good thing' is more than a cliché, as far as I'm concerned." His tone was light, but the look he gave me showed a deeper understanding. Even if he hadn't followed my whole thought process, I was willing to bet that he knew exactly why I was taking the easier road. In fact, it had probably been at the forefront of his thinking from the beginning.
Ms Howell nodded. "I'm glad we're all in agreement. I'll get the paperwork sorted out, and then you can be on your way." She gave me a sympathetic look. "I've got no intention of pushing you before you're ready, but when do you think you'll be able to start classes?"
Once again, I shared a glance with Dad. "It's Friday afternoon now. Maybe next Monday, on the seventeenth?"
Dad nodded. By way of explanation, he said to Ms Howell, "She came out of the hospital just the other day. Chewie's helped a lot, but I think a week at home is best before she goes back into that sort of environment. No matter how non-hostile it is."
"I wasn't going to argue," she replied at once. "The last thing we want is for her to have a panic attack in class because we rushed her."
I had to agree with that. Also, I didn't want to get a reputation for falling asleep in class because I'd been up too late doing things that weren't schoolwork. Also also, Chewie was good for heading off incipient panic attacks, but I doubted I'd be able to bring him into Arcadia with me. I had to make sure I didn't need him with me every minute of every day.
"Which reminds me," I said to Dad as Ms Howell got up and left the room. "How long do you think it'll take before Chewie will get used to us not being there during the day?"
He grimaced. "I think maybe I might have to take him into work myself for the time being. Not that the others will mind. Lacey loves dogs."
I snorted. "I suspect the real hassle will be when you want to take him home again."
"That's almost a certainty," he agreed dryly. Taking a deep breath, he looked around the room and slapped his knees in a blatantly obvious 'well, I'm out of things to talk about' gesture. "So, what do you think of Arcadia so far?"
"Well, the staff seems nice, but given that I haven't actually seen anything more of the school than the front office, I don't have much else to go on with, do I?" I raised my eyebrows and shrugged. "Chewie likes the lawn, so there's that."
"Chewie likes peeing on the lawn," he corrected me. "He also likes chewing on your sleeves, so his judgement is probably a little suspect in that regard."
It wasn't all that funny, but I was still laughing by the time Ms Howell came back with the paperwork.
When we got back home, I released Chewie so he could attend to his water bowl then food bowl in that order. Over the sound of puppy jaws industriously crunching kibble, Dad and I went over the paperwork so that we were both aware of the start times and finish times, and what my actual subjects would be for my first semester returning as a freshman.
"Just so you're aware, these teachers are likely to actually try to teach their subjects, not just throw them at the students and hope something sticks," he pointed out with the air of an attempted joke.
I made a face. "God, I hope so. Mr Quinlan never put more than half an hour effort into an hour and a half period. Mr Gladly loved getting everyone into group projects so the cool kids could hang out together and he didn't have to do anything. Except reward the top-marked group with snacks from the vending machine, like a bunch of performing chimpanzees."
"Which I'm guessing were always the popular kids," he said sympathetically.
"Well, he marked fairly enough, I guess," I said, trying to be even-handed. "But they stole ideas off everyone else. Hell, Madison even stole my actual work, once or twice. He never saw a thing, never said a thing."
"Really." He said the word quietly, rolling it over his tongue.
"You don't need to, uh, kill them too," I said hastily. "Sophia actively wanted to murder me, and her death can be passed off as a gang killing. If another one of my classmates and one of my teachers also end up dead, after Winslow mysteriously burns down …"
He paused for a long moment, then nodded. "I'll respect your wishes in this. Of course, if they still managed to get to you somehow after all I've done, I reserve the right to change my mind."
I nodded. That was fair. "So, what did you want for dinner? There's the makings of a lasagne in the fridge, or we could just order in pizza."
"Lasagne sounds great," he said with a smile. "I'll even …" The mobile in his pocket rang. "Well, I was going to give you a hand. Let's see how long this call goes for." Fishing it out, he pressed the answer button. "Yes?"
I smiled as well as I headed into the kitchen. For all that Dad was a ruthless killer, my life was getting better by leaps and bounds. Getting Chewie, going to Arcadia, learning how to deal with my power, learning how to defend my self in the cesspit that was Brockton Bay … yes, things were definitely looking up.
Madcap. So as not to let Taylor hear, he spoke quietly. "Why are you calling?"
"Trust me, I didn't want to. But I also didn't want to see too many more corpses on the nine o'clock news, so here we are."
"So noted. Why are you calling?"
"Have you seen the news recently? Armoured car heist. The guy who pulled it off claimed to be you."
Danny didn't have to ask what he meant. Danny Hebert was a nonentity. The Dark was someone who could be impersonated. But just because he understood the implications didn't mean he was okay with it.
"Any idea who?"
"None right now, but I'm going through my contacts as fast as I can get ahold of them." Assault hadn't even tried to crack any jokes, which showed just how serious he really was. "I've clued the Director in that it wasn't you, and she's gonna try to get the cops to stand down. Can't guarantee that'll work. There's always some young glory hound." He took a breath. "Just working from general principles, it won't be Lung because they weren't Asian. Possibly Kaiser, though there was a distinct lack of skinheads and tattoos."
"Not Kaiser," Danny said definitively. "Not after Hookwolf and Cricket."
"You know that for certain?" Assault seemed to be edging between hope and disappointment.
"He called me personally, to apologise and ask if I was going to keep coming after his men."
Assault snorted. "Well, that's … actually kind of par for the course, for you. So the Empire's out of the picture. And the Merchants wouldn't have been able to pull this shit off in a hundred years."
"So you're saying it's probably Coil." Danny's hand clenched around the phone. Coil hadn't been in the city long enough to see him at work. It figured that the sleazy snake would decide to slither into his affairs and try to capitalise on his name, just as he was making progress on being a good father for once.
"Not for certain, no. But it's a good bet. None of the other players are big enough to try this, or have the goods to fit the frame."
"And Coil's got a bunch of mercs from around the world. Any one of whom could've pretended to be me." Danny nodded to himself in agreement. "Okay, thanks for the heads-up. Was there anything else?"
"Yeah. Shadow Stalker." Assault seemed to be tamping down anger. Objectively speaking, Danny didn't really blame him. Subjectively speaking, he couldn't give a fuck. "I thought you were just gonna, I dunno, break her kneecaps or something. Not shoot her in the fuckin' head."
"I didn't shoot her. Someone else did." Danny lowered his voice a notch, to put across the message that the subject was done. "And she might've come out of it with just a few career-ending injuries, but she had the gall to threaten me and my daughter to my face. After I told her exactly who I was."
Assault sighed. "Okay, so suicide by terminal lack of survival instinct, gotcha. I hope you're not going to be killing off any more of our Wards? Some of them are pretty nice kids."
"Not if they don't make a habit of targeting my daughter, I won't." That was as plain as Danny could put it. "They do their thing, I do my thing, and never the twain shall meet."
"A twain is something that wuns on a twack." And there was the old joking Madcap. "I'll make sure they're briefed on what to do if they ever encounter you. Short version: walk away. Long version: be polite, walk away, and don't look back."
"If they can stick to that, then they'll probably survive their time with the Wards and go on to enjoy a long and oh so fulfilling career in the Protectorate." He could make jokes, too.
Assault snorted. "I'm pretty sure that's not how you pronounce 'endure'. But are we good?"
"We're good." Danny ended the call, then thoughtfully put the phone away again. He noted that Assault hadn't asked if he was back. The time for that question had come and gone.
Someone was cheapening his reputation? The reputation he and Annette had built over the course of twenty years? Of course he was back.
He went through his contacts list and made a call. It was time to shake up the rat cage.
The phone rang. Max picked it up, then stopped dead when he saw the number. Oh, shit. It's him. He's decided more people have to die.
There was only one thing for it. He had to tough it out and hope he was still breathing at the other end of whatever this phone call heralded. "Hello?"
"Kaiser. I'm disappointed in you."
The distant chill at the back of his neck became a sudden and horrific Arctic blast that froze his spine to the chair. "I … what? I thought we were good?" What's Krieg done? It was the only thing that made sense. If that idiot had gone ahead and done something to piss off the Dark, Max was going to personally eviscerate him, then hand over what was left to the Dark. In as many pieces as it took.
"The armoured car heist. Which one of your men did you pay to impersonate me? Or did you do it yourself and think I wouldn't find out?"
Sudden realisation burst in on him. The Dark thought he was behind that! In the meantime, he'd been sitting back, congratulating himself on knowing that it hadn't been the Dark at all. Shit, shit, shit, what do I say?
"No, no, that wasn't us, I swear. We had nothing to do with that." He felt sweat beading on his forehead.
"Well, it certainly wasn't the ABB. I got an anonymous call saying it was you. Are you certain none of your boys have gone off the reservation?"
Again, he wondered about Krieg's loyalty. But no, he hadn't heard even a whisper of anything like this. "How about Coil?" he asked, grasping at straws. "Maybe he did it, then made the call to throw the heat off of him."
"Hmm. Coil." The Dark actually sounded thoughtful, and Max decided he probably wasn't going to wet himself after all. "Interesting thought. Can you provide proof? Give me a name or a location?"
"What?" The solid ground beneath his feet was rapidly assuming the texture of quicksand once more. "No, I don't know his operation that well. I'm just saying it wasn't us, and he's the only other real suspect."
There was silence for a moment. "Meanwhile, someone else is saying it's you. I'll tell you what. I'll hold off on judgement for the moment. Give you a chance to bring me something solid. Prove it wasn't you. Sound fair?"
It didn't, not in the slightest, but Max wasn't going to argue. "Yes. Absolutely. I'll let you know, the moment I have anything at all."
"Good. Don't keep me waiting." The call ended.
Slowly, Max put the phone down on the desk, then visited his en-suite, to deal with a very pressing need to relieve himself. When he came back, he took the elevator down while making more calls. This would require all the resources he had at his disposal.
The meeting convened in a nominally abandoned building, actually owned through a multitude of shell entities by Max himself. It was kept neat and clean, fumigated regularly, and swept for bugs on a weekly basis, just in case. Max, in his armour as Kaiser, took the podium, while Menja and Fenja flanked him, and the rest of his capes stood at either end of the stage.
Before him sat the second-tier lieutenants, and their most trusted men. While this wasn't all the people the Empire could bring to bear, it was most of the smart ones. He didn't need numbers in this situation; he needed brains.
"Who here has any knowledge of Coil's operations, or any of his people?" he called out. There was a brief, confused silence, then murmuring broke out. Several people raised their hands.
He let the talk die down. "Excellent," he stated. "Coil has accused us of impersonating the Dark in that armoured truck heist the other day. I don't need to tell you just how bad it could be if that gets out."
Not one voice disagreed. The deaths of Hookwolf and Cricket, as well as the other wounded and dead in that dog-fight arena, had gotten everyone's attention. Nobody wanted to deal with the Dark again … ever. Even Krieg was silent; it seemed Max's message had gotten through to him.
"So, you're going to find out everything you can about Coil's operations. Any and all of them, but focusing on this fake Dark thing. I want results …" He leaned forward on the podium. "And I want them yesterday. Does anyone not understand me?"
Dead silence fell over the room. Not a man (or a woman; he was an equal opportunity supervillain) moved, for fear that it would be construed as an answer in the affirmative. Max fancied he could hear dust motes falling to the floor.
"Good," he said, and smacked the metal podium with his fist. "Get to it."
I had the lasagne in the oven by the time Dad came in from the living room. He scooped up Chewie from where the pup was snuffling around my feet for potential dropped snacks, and scratched him behind the ears. Chewie grunted with pleasure, his whole body going limp in Dad's arms.
"Okay, what's got you in such a good mood all of a sudden?" I asked suspiciously. While we'd been in good spirits when we got back from the visit to Arcadia, right at the moment he was positively grinning with mischief.
"The Empire," he replied, rolling Chewie over so he could rub the puppy's tummy. Chewie managed to go even limper than he had been before.
"What about the Empire?" I asked. "You said something about how Kaiser called to apologise about Chewie. Was this more of the same?"
Dad's grin became a smirk. "No. Someone's out there pretending to be me. I just got the heads-up."
"Wouldn't that … well, piss you off?" I asked. Being the Dark was pretty important to Dad.
"It did, and it is," he confirmed. "But I've narrowed down who's probably responsible. I just made Kaiser an offer he couldn't refuse, and now he's got his men doing my legwork for me. Once I know exactly where to find him …" He mimed firing a finger-gun, not an easy task with Chewie demanding all his attention. "Problem solved."
"Okay, yeah, you win." I shook my head. Only my Dad could force the same people who stole Chewie to do his personal bidding in a situation like this. "Think it'll work?"
He chuckled. "Oh, it will. Let's just say I've been doing this for awhile. I know how people like that tick."
At times, in my line of work, you will find yourself in a position where you need someone shady to do something for you; where if they were aware of the true state of affairs, they may half-ass it, attempt to gouge you for their services, or even outright refuse to help.
The best way to inspire someone like that to put their absolute best effort into serving your needs is as follows:
One, give them the impression that their continued health and well-being depends entirely on doing whatever it is you need them to do.
Two, you don't ask. You tell. It adds a certain note of urgency.
Three: you arrange matters so they believe you're doing them a favor by accepting the assistance.
Four, you allow them to assume that the requirement originated from outside, not from you. That way, they don't end up resenting you for it, and screwing you over out of spite.
I find this gets me better results than saying 'pretty please with sugar on top'.
- from the collected notes of Daniel Hebert
Thomas Calvert surveyed his men. They were still in high spirits after the armoured truck robbery, and he couldn't blame them. It had gone off without a hitch, the guards surrendering without so much as a token fight. Even the cape in the back had put up his hands and stood aside once the doors were opened.
A few words of encouragement wouldn't hurt, he supposed.
"Well done, everyone," he said, thankful that the full-body costume he wore meant he didn't have to fake a smile. "You pulled it off. We officially have a Dark. This is the beginning of a new era for this organisation. The local idiots are so scared of a simple name that we can go where we want, do what we want. As of right now, we are untouchable." He gestured at the coolers full of beer. "Drinks are on me."
It wouldn't last, he knew. Reigns of terror rarely did. All it would take was a single moment of doubt, or even something so simple as one person deciding that he had the chops to match off with the notorious Dark. Sooner or later, the man behind the mask would die, and the legend would fade away to its long-overdue end. But until that point came (and he would stave it off with his powers as long as he could) he was going to cash in.
Which reminded him of something else he had to do. As the men who had been in on the heist swarmed the coolers, he gestured to the mercenary—a man named Frankoff—who had played the central role. A single finger-crook was enough to bring the man to his side.
"Yes, sir, Mr Coil, sir?" Frankoff's was at odds with the persona he'd put on to play the Dark, grinning but respectful to the man who had given him the opportunity.
"You've done well," Calvert said, quietly enough that nobody else but Frankoff heard his words. "But just remember, in case you're ever tempted to take your little 'are you afraid of the Dark' show on the road … I'm the one who made you, and I can unmake you just as fast. Do we have an understanding?"
"Uh, absolutely, Mr Coil, sir!" the mercenary blurted, his face going a shade paler. "I wouldn't even dream of it!" From the sheen of sweat that sprang up on his forehead, Calvert judged the message to have been received loud and clear.
"Good," he said neutrally. "You realise why I had to make that clear, right? The one thing I can't abide above all else is disloyalty." It wasn't an apology; neither would the man be getting one. Saying 'sorry' for something that had to be done would easily be taken as a sign of weakness.
Even if he had the build to carry off a tough-guy role such as the mythical Dark, there was no way he would opt to stand front and centre, a target for every hostile gun if (and when) things went sideways. So he needed someone like Frankoff to take the heat for him. But there was no way he was going to allow the man to let the role go to his head. Everyone else feared the Dark, and Frankoff feared him. That was the normal and natural order of things.
"Absolutely, sir," Frankoff said again. "You're calling the shots. I'm just the guy wearing the mask."
"Excellent." Calvert slapped him on the shoulder. "Well, maybe you should go and enjoy a beer or two. They aren't going to drink themselves, you know."
Frankoff obediently went over to join his fellows. Calvert watched him go through a round of back-slapping before being handed a beer. He had never been the one that everyone crowded around and back-slapped. That had always been someone else while he stood off to the side, observing the social dynamic without ever being able to break into it.
It was another reason he'd had the quiet word with Frankoff. Because he was not naturally charismatic, he made do with the next best substitute; money. Ensuring the burly mercenary was aware of both stick and carrot meant that even if someone else had the idea and suggested it as a joke, Frankoff would shoot it down before it ever got into the air.
Calvert's eyes narrowed behind his mask as a thought occurred to him; Tattletale was just the sort of person to try to bend his pet bogeyman to her will. Her natural charisma was also lacking, but he was unsure whether this was due to her still being in her teens, or if her odious personality had killed it before it had a chance to mature. The problem was, she also possessed a certain amount of money, and had been known to be persuasive from time to time.
He made a mental note to never let the girl get close to Frankoff. Trying to keep the information about the fake Dark from her would be as futile as attempting to bail out the ocean with a colander, but preventing her from using it would be a sight easier. If need be, he would prime Frankoff with strict orders to report every conversation with the girl, no matter how innocuous.
He tried to think of other precautions he should be taking. When he next went on duty at the PRT building, he would wait until someone spoke to him about the Dark, then check to see what was being done about the armoured truck robbery. This wasn't insurance against a trap being set for the ersatz Dark (his powers would work well enough for that) so much as a gauge of how seriously the PRT were taking it. There was no such thing as being too careful, after all.
They were relaxing on the sofa after dinner, watching TV, when his cellphone rang. Taylor didn't need prompting; she grabbed the remote and muted the sound while he got the phone out. "Yes?" he asked.
"It's me," said Kaiser. "We're still digging up leads, but I thought of an independent source you might be able to check with while we're doing that."
Danny frowned. He hadn't been aware of any 'independent sources' in Brockton Bay. "I'm listening."
"The Undersiders. They're a relatively new group—"
"I know who the Undersiders are," he interrupted brusquely. "Get to the point."
"They're based more in ABB territory than ours or we'd be checking this out ourselves. The word on the street is that Tattletale claims to be a psychic."
"Hmm." He'd known the Undersiders had a Thinker, but apart from making a note of what it would take to bring the gang down (four bullets), he hadn't put much more thought into them. "She's that good?"
"Every single one of my people who's interacted with her is adamant on the subject. I quote: the smart-mouthed little cow always knows far more than she should."
That sounded at least promising. "Do you have a location?"
"Not a very accurate one, I'm afraid. We can pin them down to a few city blocks, but no more than that. Any gains wouldn't be worth the backlash for breaking the rules. Before you killed Hookwolf, Bitch would raid his dogfights occasionally, but we're calling those off altogether now. So, I'm not exactly sure how you're going to narrow it down closer than that."
Danny smiled. "Oh, I'm sure I'll think of something. What's the closest location you have?"
"Somewhere southwest of the convenience store on Richmond and Carey."
"Richmond and Carey, understood." He ended the call and turned to Taylor. "Do you feel up to coming for a drive?"
Taylor blinked uncertainly. "Are you going to be shooting anyone?" She held up a hand before he got a chance to respond. "That won't be a deal-breaker. I'd just like to know ahead of time, that's all."
"That's fair." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I doubt it. We're just going to have a friendly chat with some supervillains."
"Two phrases which rarely go together in the same sentence." Taylor got up from the sofa, then picked up Chewie. "Sure, okay. Let's do this."
Lisa finished watching the footage on her laptop, then closed the cover on it. Attempting to exude 'casual' from every pore, she got up and sauntered toward the corridor leading to the bedrooms.
"What's up with you?" demanded Rachel, who was sitting on the floor, brushing her dogs down.
Startled, Lisa stared at her. "What? What do you mean?"
Rachel snorted. "You're jumpy as fuck. And just now you were walking like you had a stick up your ass. If you need to go, go, but if you use up all the paper, you're the one going to the shop for new rolls."
"Uh, sure," Lisa mumbled, and fled into the bathroom. Locking the door securely, she sat down on the toilet lid. Jamming her arm into her own mouth, she did her best to scream silently so she wouldn't alert the others.
She couldn't believe it; she'd pulled it off. Coil had taken the bait and done perhaps the one thing that the Dark could never forgive or forget.
He'd made a Dark of his own.
When the real deal found out and came looking, she was just glad that she wasn't going to be in the line of fire. The screaming fit had passed, and now she was giggling at the thought of Coil's expression (under the mask, of course) when he came face to face with the Dark. Preferably with a gun in his face. A fly alighted on her cheek, and she waved it away irritably.
The dogs started barking around then. Lisa's power identified it as 'stranger outside' rather than any one of a dozen other variations. Which meant she needed to be outside rather than hiding in the bathroom. Flushing the toilet for the appearance of it, she quickly ran water over her hands, then unlocked the bathroom door and stepped out.
"What's going on?" she asked, taking up her domino mask from where it was lying on the table next to the small pistol she favoured. The spirit gum was still good, and she pressed it into place.
"Dogs smell someone outside," Rachel said. "They've got another dog with them."
There was a clank and a creak from downstairs. The sound of a heavy metal door opening. "Not outside," Lisa said tensely. "They just picked the lock. They're in the building." Leaning over, she scooped up the pistol.
"What are you waiting for?" demanded Alec, looking at Rachel. "Grow your dogs!"
"It's too cramped in here!" she snapped back. "And don't tell me what to do!"
"Fuck," growled Brian. Snatching Alec's scepter from him, he billowed blackness from his body, sending it pouring out the door and down the stairs. Lisa lost all vision and a good deal of her hearing, but she felt vibrations through her feet that told her he was heading out to deal with the problem. Moving cautiously, sliding her trainers across the floor, she moved around Alec and Rachel to the doorway, ready to back Brian up if he needed it.
She got to the top of the spiral staircase, leaning heavily into her power to make sure she didn't miss a step and go tumbling down. Grasping the rail firmly, she could feel Brian's descent, step by step. Even though the black fog muffled sound to a degree, she knew he was moving as quietly as he could. She felt the vibration as he stepped off the bottom stair, and knew it was all up to him.
A fly landed on the back of her hand. Her eyes widened uselessly in the darkness. Fuck, the bugs are under control! These are capes! "Grue!" she shouted, knowing he would hear her clearly. "C—"
Just as she went to articulate the word, another bug flew down her throat—aimed there, her power told her, too little and too late. Coughing helplessly, she subsided to her knees, one hand still clutching the rail, her pistol almost forgotten in the other.
Still, she was confident Brian would get the better of whoever had broken in. Being able to see while your opponent could not was a huge advantage, and Brian was a lot better at close-quarters combat than her, Alec or even Rachel. Unfortunately, she had no idea how the fight was actually going; as good as her power was, the total lack of any kind of input meant she was drawing a blank.
And then the darkness began to shred and fade away. Still coughing, she pushed herself to her feet, using her gun hand to brace herself upright. "So did you …" Her voice trailed off as she turned to look at the stairs, at the man who stood just a few steps down, silencer-equipped pistol pointing unerringly at her.
Out of the corner of her eye, at the bottom of the spiral staircase, she saw Brian lying on his side with his wrists fastened behind him. A teenage girl holding a puppy stood beside him, and Alec's scepter lay nearby. The girl was wearing a bandanna over her lower face, and a pair of glasses. She didn't show any signs of overt threat, but that could change in a moment. Still, she wasn't doing anything right then, so Lisa focused her full attention on the man before her.
He was tall and balding, and also wore glasses. Somehow, he knew the exact angle to hold his head so she couldn't see his eyes behind the reflected lights. As a slight smile quirked the corner of his mouth, her power screamed at her. The girl was the bug-controlling cape and he wasn't, but he'd just taken down Brian without taking a hit in return, and he was THE DARK!
Slowly, so as not to trigger a lethal reaction, she pointed her pistol down and to the side, and flicked on the safety. Then she let the weapon slip through her fingers until it clattered on the grating beside her.
"Guys?" she called out. "We have visitors. Everyone on their best behaviour. Don't do anything that'll get us all killed." She thought for a moment, and dredged up a word she hardly ever used. "Please."
The man's smile widened slightly. "Oh, good. You're as smart as they said you were. I have a few questions."
Oh, god. I brought him to our front door. What have I done?
End of Part Seven