Are You Afraid of the Dark?


Part Nine: The Oncoming Storm


[A/N 1: This chapter commissioned by GW_Yoda and beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
[A/N 2: Work is still kicking my ass, which is why this is so late in the month. Book is entering the last stages of editing, so woo!]
[A/N 3: Trigger warning of a racial slur in the Empire section. Racists be racist, yo.]


Saturday Morning
January 8, 2011


The next morning didn't exactly dawn bright and early—it was January, after all—but it definitely started sooner for some people than for others. Dad had me set my alarm for half after five, more than an hour before sunrise, so when I stumbled yawning and stretching from my bedroom, it was still dark out. I'd hoped Chewie would sleep through the noise, but he woke up and came looking for attention shortly after we got downstairs.

"It's going to be a big one, today." Dad spoke calmly as he made the bacon. Alongside him, I dealt with the eggs. "The PRT's decided to land with both feet on the Empire, once and for all, because of what happened to Shadow Stalker."

It took a couple of seconds for that to sink in, then I realised what he wasn't saying. "You meant for it to happen this way!"

"It was a possibility." He shrugged, putting bacon onto three plates; one each for us two, and a smaller rasher for Chewie. "You have to admit, they've more or less opened themselves up as a target for that sort of frame. No matter who killed her, they were going to be the prime suspects."

I couldn't argue with his logic. "So they're actually going to arrest them all?"

"It's what I heard." He carried the rest of the bacon to the table while I put a generous helping of eggs onto each plate. Chewie got some egg, too. A growing puppy needed his protein. "I strongly suspect that with the capes, it's going to be a case of surrender or be gunned down in self-defense. They won't be going into the 'too hard' basket this time. Also, we've got a job of our own. One man in particular is going to die."

"Who?" I carried our plates to the table and sat down, then poured orange juice for each of us. "Kaiser?"

"No." He chuckled, shaking his head. "I almost feel sorry for him. He knows precisely what the score is and how he can't win, but I'm betting he's too proud to accept it without a fight. Unfortunately for him, the clock just ran down on the Empire and there's no compromises he can call on. The PRT can have him, for all I care."

While Dad gave Chewie his breakfast, I started on my bacon. Then, as he sat down, I asked the question. "Okay, so who are we killing, and why?"

"His name is Larry Peterson," Dad said, not actually helping with my curiosity. "He's twenty-two years old. Seven years ago, he walked up behind a woman named Jess Chandler at a bus stop and stabbed her five times in the back, then cut her throat. He was restrained and people called nine-one-one, but she died of her wounds before the ambulance ever got to her. As he was a minor by law and had no priors, he wasn't tried as an adult. He was released when he turned eighteen ..." He paused in his explanation as I sat up in my chair, and looked over at me. "Yes?"

I'd just realised who he was talking about. "Fleur! That's the guy who murdered Fleur, of New Wave! Whatever happened to him, anyway?"

Dad shrugged. "He did it to prove himself as a potential member of the Empire Eighty-Eight. When he got out, he applied again, and they welcomed him with open arms. Since then, he's just been one of the boys. No doubt, any of them who have tangled with the rest of the team have bought him drinks from time to time." He steepled his fingers, giving himself a supremely sinister air. "And today, we're getting paid to put him in the ground."

"Getting paid." That part drew my attention. "So, we're not just putting an end to him because he's a bad person?"

He chuckled before taking up his knife and fork again. "Oh, good Lord, no. If I used that as a reason, there would be dead bodies from Downtown to the Boat Graveyard. There are many worse people than him in the city. No, the only reason I kill people for free is if they're a threat to me or mine, and I don't believe they can be reasoned with. I've never met this despicable little hooligan, and he's never done anything to me, but someone wants him dead badly enough to pay for it. Given what's happened recently, I figure it's time for me to officially come back out of retirement. So, he gets to die today."

I thought over that as I finished my breakfast. Chewie, being an opportunistic little mooch, gobbled down the bacon and eggs we'd given him then came to us looking for more. I, being the strong-willed and independent young woman that I am, of course gave him more. All I had to do was look into those soulful puppy-dog eyes and my resolve just crumbled on the spot.

"So what's my job in all this?" I asked, once we were washing the dishes. Chewie had retired to a spot under the table where he could wrestle with one last piece of overly tough bacon; his tiny growls provided a counterpoint to our conversation.

"As much or as little as you feel comfortable with," he said at once. "I kill people; you know that. In fact, I'm impressed by how understanding you've been. I believe a certain mindset is needed to be okay with it, so I'm not going to rush you into things."

I snorted and rolled my eyes. "Well, I am your daughter, and Mom's as well, so I'm thinking genetics might play a small part in that. Also, everyone you killed so far has deserved it, right?"

"Well, it's not usually part of the decision-making process, but I like to think so," he confirmed. "It's hard to qualify for the attention of a hitman of my calibre, without being involved in something shady. Usually it's a turf war, or someone took something they shouldn't have."

"And Cricket and Hookwolf were just plain bad people, and the ones you killed to get Chewie back would've watched him die and laughed about it." I shrugged. "It's a tough world out there. I'm sick of being stomped into the ground while the supposed 'good' people ignore everything. If you and Chewie are the winning side, then sign me up."

"That's my girl," he said approvingly, reaching over to ruffle my hair. "But as I said, I'm not about to push you into doing anything you're not comfortable with."

"I'm good with that." I handed him the last dish to dry, and took a deep breath. "I'm fine with going as lookout and Chewie wrangler for the moment, but I'm thinking I'll carry that pistol you've been training me with, just in case."

"And that's perfectly fine." He stared out the window thoughtfully as his hands carried out the automatic task of wiping the dish dry. "I'm pretty sure I've got a clip-on holster for that one somewhere."

"What, not a shoulder holster?" Every time I'd seen someone carrying a pistol surreptitiously in the movies, it had been in a shoulder holster. Had Hollywood lied to me yet again?

He actually chuckled at my expression. "We can fit you with one, but they take time to learn how to wear and draw from effectively. It's much easier to give you one that clips onto your waistband, that you can slide around into the small of your back under your jacket as soon as you get out of the car. Your waistband is literally the last place you should put your pistol."

"Sounds like there's a few stories you could tell there," I observed as I crouched down next to the table. Chewie trotted out and jumped into my arms, and I scratched his ears as I stood up again.

"More than a few. I've seen people get away with it, I've seen them just plain lose the weapons—never a good thing in a firefight—and I've seen them shoot themselves in the feet, the legs, the butt, the femoral artery, the groin …" He shook his head. "People like that usually forget to set the safety catch, or it can accidentally disengage. They're also the type not to practice trigger discipline. Putting your finger on the trigger when you're not immediately intending to shoot what's in front of the gun is an excellent way of taking yourself or one of your buddies out of action."

"I got it, I got it." He'd been rigorous in enforcing trigger discipline from the very beginning. I was still an amateur with firearms, but at least I knew not to trust any gun as being unloaded unless I could personally see that it was. This was another lesson, I could tell. I resolved not to stick any pistol into my waistband if I could possibly help it.

"Good." He opened the door to the basement. "Let's go get kitted out, then."

As I followed him down the stairs, I couldn't help a quiver of excitement. Dad belonged to a strange and mysterious world, and for the first time I was going to see him doing what he did best.

I couldn't wait.


PRT Building Parking Garage
0730 Hours
Director Piggot


"Attention!" The order echoed through the underground garage.

Emily Piggot walked along the line of troopers, her face impassive. Inside, she was seething at the need to go back into the Ops room while the active-duty men and women went out there and faced danger in her stead. She understood why the regs were the way they were, but that didn't make it any easier to handle.

Standing in their own little group were the heroes she'd selected to go along with them. While they'd all volunteered to go along on the mission, Vista, Clockblocker, and Kid Win would be staying in base. She understood they could all be useful in their own ways, but the first two were vulnerable to anyone with a pistol and a clear shot, and the third only had lightweight laser pistols to call upon. Aegis was durable enough to stand up to virtually any of the Empire capes, at least for a while, and Gallant's powers would work through armour. Triumph was due to be promoted into the Protectorate, and his sonic blast was definitely powerful enough to be of tactical use.

Bastion and Weld stood apart from the others; this was partly because they weren't used to working with them, and partly because (if Emily had it right) Weld's power tried to absorb any metal that he touched. Thus, if he touched anything metallic, it stuck to his skin. When coming into contact with vehicles and street-lights, this could be extremely problematic. On the upside, he was extremely durable and apparently much more level-headed than Bastion.

The adult contingent were all on deck, though Armsmaster had reportedly worked the night through on potential counters to Fenja and Menja's growth ability. Emily didn't know what sort of insane stimulants he was on at the moment, and didn't want to know. Miss Militia, grim-faced, had some kind of portable minigun slung over her shoulder. Usually, as far as Emily could tell, her weapon choices were guided by whim or amusement value; today, she looked like she planned on winning a war. Most telling of all was Assault's demeanour; normally he'd be making irreverent comments, but today he was silent.

"Listen up!" she barked, raising her voice enough to reach all the assembled personnel. "You all know the situation! You all know the stakes! You all know what we're fighting for out there! You've all been given your orders!" She paused then, to scan the ranks for any reaction. There was none. "I'm going to give you one more order! Don't take any chances! If they'll execute a teenage Ward for being black, then they'll murder any one of you if you let your guard down even once! I want to see each and every one of you back here in this building tonight! And if you're stupid enough to let one of them kill you, I will by God reach down into Hell and bring you back to life just so I can kill you again! Got it?"

There was scattered laughter amid the replies of, "Yes, ma'am."

She tilted her head. "I said, Got it?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

"I can't hear you!"

"YES, MA'AM!"

Drawing in a deep breath through her nostrils, Emily looked them over again, pride swelling in her chest. "Good. Take ten, check your gear over, make sure everything's ready to roll. You move out at oh eight hundred, on the dot. Dismissed."

As the formation dispersed, she turned to the strike squad commanders. "Keep them from getting too excited," she said in a low voice. "Verified Empire targets only. Kids throwing rocks aren't a threat. We need to make the point that we're cleaning up the city, not cracking down on everyone. The capes are force multipliers, so they're a priority. It's almost a certainty that one of them gave the order for Stalker to be murdered in this way, probably as a reaction to Hookwolf and Cricket. We just need to find out who, so they can be tried and Birdcaged."

This had all been covered in briefings already, but it was worth repeating. The city would be blowing up over this no matter what, but if she could shape the narrative, she could maybe get the citizens to understand that the Empire was the bad guy here. She had no doubt that she was walking a tightrope over a pit of hungry lions, but there was no way in hell she was letting the Empire get away with murdering a Ward on her watch. To do nothing would be tantamount to posting an ad on prime time TV: "Don't send your minority capes to Brockton Bay, because they won't come out alive."

Calvert answered for the rest of them. "Understood, ma'am. Question: the other gangs?"

What do we do if we see them, he was asking. It was a cogent question, but hopefully she had the correct answer at hand.

"If they don't bother you, you don't bother them," she said. "They'll probably already have the word that we're targeting the Empire, and why. If they've got the sense God gave a rock, they'll be sitting back with popcorn, watching us take the competition off the board without needing to do a damn thing. They haven't got a single reason to interfere, and every reason to keep out of the way."

"What if they offer to hand over Empire members to us?" asked another squad commander, Rusworth.

Emily paused briefly to think about that. "Accept. Be polite, but don't let down your guard. The enemy of your enemy is never your friend, merely an ally of convenience. And as soon as it stops being convenient, they'll stop being our allies. Got it?"

Rusworth nodded. "Understood, ma'am."

"Good." She would've said more, but her phone buzzed. Taking it out, she saw a message: New Wave on roof. Quickly, she typed back, On way. She looked up from the phone at the strike commanders. "See to your men. I've got business to attend to."

Turning, she headed for the elevators. Every last bit of assistance would be useful, she understood that. More capes would add firepower, but in her heart she wanted more boots on the street. People she knew she could depend on. Once again, she felt the chill down her spine from ten years before when she'd heard the capes had fled the Ellisburg battlefield, abandoning the PRT troopers to their fate.

Intellectually, she knew the Wards and Protectorate capes weren't like that, and New Wave had a reputation for getting the job done. Emotionally, she wasn't convinced. Part of her insisted that a cape was a cape was a cape. They were all the same; overgrown children with assault weapons nobody could take away. And it was her job to wrangle them into something approaching unity.

She used the elevator ride upward to compose her thoughts. Brandish had always been a firebrand, but Lady Photon was a more moderate voice, one whom Emily could find common cause with. The fact that they'd shown up in good time to go out with the troops was definitely a point in their favour.

When she stepped out onto the roof, she saw the guards facing New Wave; it wasn't quite a stand-off, as no powers or weapons were being readied, but there was a certain tension in the air anyway. It would be thus between the PRT and any non-Protectorate cape, at least for today, she suspected.

They'd brought the whole team, including Panacea, which heartened her more than a little. Troopers would be hurt during this mission (and capes might be, as well) but the difference between a mission-kill and an actual kill was considerable. The presence of the unassuming frizzy-haired teenager across the roof from her might literally spell the difference between life and death for any number of her men. Extrapolating that to troopers being able to pick up a rifle and head back out there to back up their buddies, her value in potential lives saved was considerable.

"At ease," she commanded the troopers. "New Wave. Has anything changed since you attended the briefing?"

It almost certainly hadn't, given they'd brought the whole team along. But she had to ask the question, in a way that gave them a graceful out if such was the case.

Emily Piggot knew she had a reputation of not being able to handle capes well. That was untrue; she was reasonably good at dealing with people, and capes were people, for the most part. She just didn't bother trying to deal with them politely most of the time, because confronting them over something stupid and avoidable brought out her acerbic side. And for some reason, capes brought 'stupid and avoidable' to a whole new level if they got the chance.

Now, she gave New Wave a polite gaze, awaiting the answer to her entirely non-confrontational question. They hadn't done anything stupid and avoidable since landing on her roof, so she was going to give them a conditional pass for the moment. Whether that state of affairs continued would be entirely up to them.

"We're here to help you against the Empire," Lady Photon confirmed. Emily took note of how her chosen wording was entirely unambiguous. "This is something that should've been done long ago."

Darkly amused, Emily snorted softly. "Well, I can't argue with you there."

"So, how does this work?" asked Manpower. "Do we split up and go with your guys, or go out on our own, or what?"

Emily had actually been putting some thought into this. "I think we can all agree that while we don't want Panacea getting hurt, her power could literally save the day for us. So we treat this almost as an Endbringer situation; we set up a medical post here in the building, and any injured get brought back as soon as possible. With her protected, the rest of you can embed with our troopers, just as the Protectorate and Ward capes are doing, and provide muscle where it's needed. We don't have flyers and the streets might end up being blocked, so if it gets bad, we might be calling on you for medevac duties. Are you okay with that?"

Part of her hated to be in the position of asking a cape if they could do something as self-evident as save the life of a fellow human being, but that was the situation. To her relief, she got four immediate nods from the capes in question.

Lady Photon stepped forward, lifting her chin. "You can count on us," she declared, then glanced over her shoulder. "Shielder and Laserdream, you'll be pairing with Glory Girl for that."

Emily frowned. "Why pair them up? Wouldn't they work twice as well separately?"

"Glory Girl can't shield anyone she's carrying," Lady Photon explained. "If they're sniping from rooftops, someone carrying a body will be an easy target."

"Right." Because of course she wouldn't be able to depend on the other side respecting things like removing wounded from the battlefield.

"I have a question," Manpower stated. "What's to stop the capes from simply stepping back into the shadows, taking off their masks, and hiding in their holes?"

"Only one thing." Emily set her jaw. "Pride. If they fall back on their secret identities, we will sweep up every last skinhead, white supremacist and racist redneck in this city. By the time they stick their heads up again, they won't have a gang. And how many people will flock to their cause once word gets around that the capes cut and ran once there was serious opposition?"

"Some will," Brandish predicted. "Because some people love to hate, and to pretend that they're the oppressed ones."

"But not as many as before." Emily was sure of that. "And it's virtually impossible for an organisation of that size to not have some leaks. Up until now, loyalty to the cause has kept their mouths shut. If they do go to ground, how long is that loyalty going to last among the few that are in the know? All we have to do is offer them a plea deal in return for a name."

With any other cape, her comment would've likely been met with shock or disbelief. The heroes of New Wave, already unmasked, nodded slowly in agreement. Glory Girl's lips drew back in a vicious grin; looking forward, no doubt, to punching Nazis in the face.

"Some people might have a problem with you outing them like that," Lady Photon observed mildly.

Emily shook her head. "Then those people can come and say it to my face. If they didn't want to deal with the consequences, they shouldn't have murdered a Ward. That breaks their so-called 'unwritten rules' in so many ways it doesn't matter. Kaiser didn't turn over the guilty party, so he gets to reap the whirlwind." She raised her eyes as she looked at the assembled New Wave capes. "Does anyone have a problem with that?"

Amid the various head-shakes, and Glory Girl smacking her fist into her palm, Brandish's voice carried through clearly. "Not in the slightest."

"Good." Emily turned and headed back toward the elevators. "Then let's get to it."


Kaiser


Max Anders was having a bad day, and it was getting worse by the second. He'd successfully managed to divert the Dark's attention onto Coil—why the fuck that idiot had chosen the worst possible person on the eastern seaboard to impersonate, he had no fucking idea—but now this shit was looming over him. And he had no idea how to fix it.

Kayden was already gone; she'd finished packing up the car around midnight, shoved Theo into the passenger seat when Max's back was turned, and vanished into the night. He thought she might've gone south to Boston, but for all he knew she was outbound for LA. Somewhere far away from the developing shitshow here in Brockton Bay. And to be honest, some small part of him didn't blame her.

"What do you mean, you don't know who gave the order?" he yelled at Stormtiger—hastily promoted to 'lieutenant' status following Hookwolf's death—and Krieg. "Not one of those mouth-breathing fuckwits out there would've had the monumentally fuck-stupid idea of murdering Shadow Stalker as dramatically as that without either being told to do it like that, asking if they could do it like that, or boasting that they'd done it like that! One way or the other, we would've heard about it!"

"But we didn't," Stormtiger pointed out needlessly. "Nobody's said a word about it."

Max clenched his fists and refrained from nailing the idiot to the ceiling. "Which means that either we didn't do it, or much more likely, whoever did it has realised exactly how thoroughly they've fucked up and they're keeping quiet about it." He looked at his watch. There was less than half an hour to go before the troops rolled out, and his last chance of calling off Emily Piggot's dogs evaporated. "Okay, cards on the table. Time for the truth."

"What?" asked Krieg cautiously.

Breathing deeply to calm himself down, Max eyed them both, trying to isolate tells and tics from general nerves. "In twenty-five minutes, the Empire Eighty-Eight comes under attack from every hero in this city, as well as the PRT. They'll be arresting every single one of our followers on suspicion, and forcing confrontations with any of our capes that will end in either arrest or death for us. Even in the unlikely outcome that we win, Lung is likely to pounce on us and finish us off while we're still licking our wounds. So, we don't want that. Understand so far?"

"Yes …" Stormtiger didn't sound happy about it. "Why are you looking at us like that?"

"Because you two are the most likely to have given the order to kill Shadow Stalker." Max spoke flatly, without emotion. "You had the most authority, under me. I'm offering you both a one-off amnesty if you come clean. If you okayed it or gave the order, tell me who did it, and I'll give you a head start out of the city before I hand the asshole over. So, tell me. Did either of you do it?"

They both stared at him, then glanced at each other. He tensed; had they come up with this between them? Was this going to be a coup where they blamed him, and tossed him to the figurative wolves?

The moment passed, and they both looked at him again. "No," Stormtiger said. "I woulda told you straight-up if I had offed the nigger cooch, but it wasn't me."

"Nor did I do it," Krieg stated. "The schwarze Schlampe was not worth my time. And I would have checked with you first, because of this exact situation."

Max wasn't totally convinced, but they'd given reasonable excuses not to suspect them, so he had to accept it. "Alright then, one of the others is lying," he declared. "I know it wasn't Nessa or Jessica, because they're never far away from me. I doubt Tammi would have the initiative."

Stormtiger nodded. "So you're thinkin' Victor or Othala, or maybe Crusader? Yeah, I could see any of 'em doing it, but we asked 'em, and they all said no."

"Someone lied." Krieg's tone was matter of fact. "They are still lying. I do not think it was Crusader. He is too brash, too mouthy. He would want bragging rights. We would know."

"Yes." Max had to agree with him. Justin was an incurable show-off. There was no way he would've kept it quiet in the interval between Shadow Stalker's not so unfortunate demise, and the subsequent development of the shit-show that followed. "So, Othala or Victor then."

"Not Othala." Stormtiger snorted derisively. "Girl can't tell a lie to save her life."

"Whereas Victor," mused Krieg, "could tell us all the sky was green, and we would believe him until we went outside to see for ourselves. The man is an accomplished actor. We all know this. He also has a flair for the dramatic."

He wasn't wrong, Max had to admit that much. Nobody played poker with Victor for money. But the idea that …

"Fuck!" spat Stormtiger. "He could've done it, but would he? Why lie to us?"

Max tried to rein the discussion in, see the bigger picture. Time was ticking on; they had perilously little leeway in which to fix this. "Okay, let's put a pin in that. If it was one of us who okayed it, it was Victor. But what if it wasn't us? What if it was someone else?" It was a crazy idea, but he was willing to grasp at any straw by now.

"Yes, but whom?" Krieg posed the obvious question immediately. "Who else would murder Shadow Stalker in such a blatant fashion, and why?"

Stormtiger beat Max to the equally obvious answer by a fraction of a second. "To frame us, duh. To make this shit right here happen. The Merchants couldn't have done it if someone wrote the instructions on the side of a bag of weed. So we're looking at … Lung and Coil, yeah?"

Krieg frowned. "Was it not Coil who attempted to frame us for his impersonation of the Dark? Could this be some kind of ongoing campaign to have us ousted from Brockton Bay?"

"Well, shit." Max blinked a couple of times at the subtle brilliance of the idea. "That's … that's totally possible. We deflected the Dark thing, but this is a lot more direct."

"Or, y'know, it coulda been the Dark himself," Stormtiger pointed out.

That didn't take Max more than fifteen seconds to shoot down in his own head. "Nah. Everyone knows he doesn't target capes without a really good reason. He sure as hell doesn't accept hits on them. And I sincerely doubt she'd be able to do anything that might make him feel remotely threatened."

"Oh, right, yeah." Stormtiger rubbed the back of his neck. "Good point. So, you reckon Coil's behind it then?"

"He does seem to be the most logical candidate," Krieg agreed. "Even more logical than Victor, to be totally honest. The burning question now, of course, is how to prove this to the PRT Director before her men overrun our territory?"

Max grimaced. He'd heard the saying 'the truth hurts', but now it applied more than ever. "We can't."

Stormtiger summed it up for all of them. "Well, fuck."


Tattletale


"In case you hadn't already gotten the memo, we're staying home today," Lisa announced to the other members of the Undersiders. In the event, this was Brian and Rachel; Alec rarely surfaced before ten or eleven. Not that he went outside the loft much as it was. The kitchenette and the sofa were usually the limit of his travels unless they were going out on a job.

So, of course, Rachel had to argue. "Can't. Gotta go check on my dogs."

She didn't have many as yet, but her collection of strays was gradually expanding. And now that Hookwolf was dead and the dogfights officially cancelled—an event that had almost caused the stocky girl to smile when she heard the news—there was less to endanger them out there. Still, she took them in, because that was what she did.

"It's going to be a war-zone out there," Brian warned her. "Everyone's going after the Empire Eighty-Eight for what they did to Shadow Stalker."

"You hated her, too," Rachel pointed out accurately. "A lot of people didn't like her. Why are they going after the Empire for it?"

"It's not a case of not liking her," Lisa said. She'd scoured the social media channels, and had come up with a conclusion that she hadn't shared with anyone. "She was held down and shot in the back of the head. They executed a Ward because she was black. The PRT and Protectorate can't let them get away with that sort of thing, ever. It's a public relations thing."

Normally when she knew something nobody else did, she couldn't wait to share it. Passing on information, watching the emerging comprehension in someone's eyes, gave her a dopamine rush like nothing else. But this time around, what she'd pieced together was totally off the menu. As in, "fuck NOPE!" The most terrifying event in her life had been when the Dark walked into their base and spoke to her about getting information on Coil. He hadn't said a single word about how she'd told Coil it was a good idea to make a fake Dark, but he didn't have to. Somehow, he knew.

Worst of all, he hadn't confronted her with the knowledge. He had instead let her dangle, allowing her to see it in his eyes as they spoke oh so politely and pretended everything was normal. They'd both known he could kill everyone in the room in less than two seconds. She'd seen some of it in his daughter's eyes as well; the awareness that lives hung in the balance. Brian had only been butt-hurt that he'd had his ass kicked on his own turf, and Rachel had automatically deferred to him.

They'd come out the other side of it okay, in her estimation. Nobody was dead, she had the chance to actually fuck up Coil properly this time, and the team would have access to an actual favour from the Dark. This was like the Holy Grail, if it were bestowed by a darker power.

Of course, when it came time to call the favour in, Brian and Rachel were going to have to sit on Alec, but that was just a minor detail. The trick would be to find something that benefited them all equally, and not to hold out on using it just in case a better idea came along.

For herself, she would've gone with "shoot Coil in the head, pretty please?" but it looked like he was well on the way to doing just that, as soon as he got the information she was carefully compiling on her laptop. The majority of the work was to make it look like she'd hacked it and not just downloaded it.

"It's not gonna do 'em any good anyway," Rachel said grumpily. "Soon as those Nazi jerks start taking casualties, they'll just duck for cover. Nobody knows who they are."

And that was when Lisa had her Idea. Slowly and carefully she looked it over. There didn't seem to be any flaws in it. Of course, that didn't mean the others would like it. "Guys …"

"Yeah?" Brian looked over, having caught the tone in her voice. "What's up, Lise?"

"Just how badly do we want the Empire to go down?" She looked over at Rachel. "I mean, even if they don't have dogfights anymore, they're still assholes to dogs, right?"

"Yeah, they are." Rachel scowled. "That's why I want to go see to my dogs. Why?"

"Just an idea I had. Brian, how about you? What if the Empire could be made to go away altogether today? How happy would you be?"

"I'd be thrilled," he said frankly. "But how are you going to achieve that? Call in the favour to the Dark and have him shoot Kaiser in the head?"

"Who's shooting Kaiser in the head, and can I watch?" Alec stumbled out of his room, rubbing his eyes. "What the fuck time is it, and why is everyone talking so loud?"

"It's seven forty-seven in the morning, and we're talking normally," Lisa told him. "Got a question. The Empire Eighty-Eight. What if it went away altogether, today?"

"Never happen," Alec said without even pausing for thought. "They'll go to ground and pop up again as soon as everyone forgets about Shadow whatsername."

"Ah, but what if it did?" Lisa put all her persuasiveness into it. "We'd still have Lung to deal with, true, but …"

"But there'd be a lot fewer assholes on the street who want to fuck me up just because of my skin colour, yeah, got it," Brian said. "Are you saying we should ask the Dark to kill Kaiser?"

Lisa shook her head. "No. But …" She drew the word out. "He's been in Brockton Bay longer than I've been alive. He knows all the movers and shakers, and they know him. And he'd know secrets that only a few other people know about. Such as … the secret identities of most of the Empire."

She'd meant the conclusion to be glaringly obvious, but it was a few seconds before Alec jumped on it. "Holy shit, you want the Dark to out the fucking Empire?"

"Well, yeah." She shrugged. "If the PRT knows who they really are, they won't be able to run and hide. It'll make things a lot easier for them. And life a lot more convenient for us. And let's face it; it's not something we could pull off any time soon."

"It's not something we would pull off." Brian was scowling now. "Have you forgotten about the unwritten rules?"

Lisa rolled her eyes. "Did whoever unmasked Shadow Stalker then shot her in the back of the head care about the unwritten rules? No? If the Empire got its hands on you, Brian or you, Rachel, do you think they'd care about the unwritten rules? Fuck 'em. Those rules only apply to people who never break them. You guys and me. The little guys. Not the big gangs. Anyway, we're not breaking the rules, and if the Dark doesn't want to he'll just say no."

She knew damn well he wouldn't, and they probably suspected it, but they didn't know what she knew about why. As the phrase went, it was a beautiful example of plausible deniability.

"Huh." Alec scratched the back of his neck. "I was gonna try and talk you guys into asking him to kill my dad. But sticking it to the Empire sounds like a boss move, so fuck 'em. Let's do it."

"He doesn't go after capes, remember?" But Brian sounded like he was coming around to the idea. "Okay, fine, if you're all in favour of it, I won't say no."

He doesn't go after capes. For a moment, she wondered if she'd achieved a totally erroneous result with her power, but then the second part dropped into place. Unless it's personal.

"Okay, so that's a yes from Alec and a conditional yes from Brian." She looked at Rachel. "Yes or no? Your call."

What the hell could Shadow Stalker have done that made the Dark come after her like that? It was something Lisa both feared to know and wanted to find out, if only to ensure that she never ended up in the same situation.

Rachel shrugged. "Fuck the Empire Eighty-Eight. They kill dogs."

"I'll take that as a yes, then." Lisa picked up her laptop and looked over her assembled files. Making a snap decision, she settled the computer on her lap and took out her phone. Taking the card from her pocket, she dialled the number, one momentous digit at a time.


Driving Through Brockton Bay
Taylor


I took the mask off so I could admire it again. I wasn't sure when Dad had done the work, but he'd presented it to me when we went into the basement to grab our gear. A simple black domino mask with glasses lenses set into the eyepieces, it had a moth as the centrepiece over the bridge of the nose, the markings showing up as a prominent skull.

I loved it.

"You know, you don't have to wear it until we get there," he said with a quick sideways grin.

"I know, but it's so cool." I looked down to where Chewie was curled up in my lap, his nose tucked under his tail. "Maybe we should get Chewie one too. Dog-Breath of Doom."

This time, he chuckled. "We both know he'd chew it to pieces."

"Yeah, this is true." I tried the mask on again. "I'm Death's Head." Slyly, I glanced across to Dad. "Death's Head and the Dark. That actually sounds pretty badass."

He snorted. "Or like some forgettable punk rock band from the nineties." Turning his head, he glanced at me. "Just by the way, when you do speak, I'd suggest using the insect-buzz trick to overlay your voice. You'll sound a lot more intimidating that way."

"Okay, got it." I didn't have enough bugs in the car to make that happen, which was an oversight on my part—I'd have a swarm with me from now on, I decided—but that was something easily fixed when we got out. "I wish I could sound one-tenth as intimidating as you do without the bugs, though."

"Hm." He smiled easily. "Some things come with practice."

Right then, his phone rang. He fished it from his pocket and handed it to me, so I swiped to answer and put it on speaker. Carefully, I held it so it wasn't in his way but he could talk into it normally.

"You have the Dark."

"Uh, hi. This is, uh, this is Tattletale?" I recognised the voice as belonging to the nervous blonde from the Undersiders.

"I remember you, yes." Dad was all business. His 'Dark' voice was different from his usual warm tone. "What's the issue?"

"I've got some of the information you asked for, with more to come." Tattletale paused. "I, uh, we were wondering if we could have the favour right now instead of later."

"I'm a little busy at the moment," Dad replied. "How do you intend to get the information to me?"

"I'll set up a blind drop online and text you the link," she said. "The favour will be really easy for you to do."

Dad glanced at me, his raised eyebrows conveying a question. I nodded; it would be easy to grab the information that way. "Very well," he said. "And the favour?"

"We want you to tell the PRT who the Empire Eighty-Eight are, behind their masks."

I was brought up short by that. Looking over at Dad, I could see he was almost as surprised as I was. Again, he looked at me; this time, I covered the microphone with my hand. "Do you know who they are?"

"Most of them, yes," he confirmed. "Especially the higher-ups." I could see he was thinking it through.

"So, what are we gonna do?"

For an answer, he nodded toward the phone. I took my hand away from the microphone. "Your terms are acceptable. The favour will be carried out."

Before she could answer, he took his hand off the wheel and hit the end-call icon. I let him take the phone back, and he returned it to his pocket. Then he eased over to the side of the road and brought the car to a halt.

"How are you going to do this?" I asked. "I mean, I know the people who have your number are careful with it, but do you really want Director Piggot knowing it?"

"She's not a stupid woman, but I understand your point." He thought for a moment, drumming his fingers on the wheel, before taking his phone out again. This time, he tapped in a number from memory.

It rang twice, then a moderately angry voice answered. "What do you want now? It's bad enough that we're going after the Empire for something you did, but—"

"Madcap." Dad never raised his voice, but the diatribe on the other end cut off. "I have something that will make you popular with your boss. Are you interested?"

A pause, then the voice cautiously answered. "I'm listening."

"Good. Do you have a pencil and paper? I have some information I want you to take down."

"Do I look like a secretary? Don't answer that. Hang on a minute." The voice became more muffled. "Puppy, can I borrow your notepad?"

A moment later, he was back again. "Okay, shoot."

Dad cleared his throat. "Kaiser. Max Anders. Krieg. James Fliescher. Fenja. Jessica Biermann. Menja …" Slowly, he recited the names, giving 'Madcap' a good chunk of the secret identities of the Empire Eighty-Eight. When he finished, he asked, "Did you get all that?"

It took a few seconds for the person to answer. "Did you just … hand us the Empire Eighty-Eight on a platter?"

"Perhaps." Dad shrugged, even though the guy on the other end couldn't see him. "It all depends what you do with it."

"Right. Um. If you had all this information before, why didn't you …?"

"I didn't have a reason to, before." Dad ended the call. "People just ask so many questions."

I grinned and nodded. "It's true." And with that information out and about, it would make life just that much harder for the Empire as a whole.

For some reason, I didn't have a problem with that.


Assault


"I didn't have a reason to, before."

The phone call ended, and Ethan stared at the list of names on the notepad. Right there, on that page, was pure dynamite. He put the phone back in its pouch and tore the page from the pad.

"Hon, who was that?" Battery was by his side. "Why did you need my notepad?"

"Because I forgot mine." He checked his watch. Three minutes to go. Not enough time to catch up to Piggot and explain. Crap. Hauling out his phone again, he took a photo of the page, then called up the email app. I am booting this upstairs right now.


Director Piggot


Emily was just settling into her seat in the Ops Centre when her phone buzzed to indicate an incoming email. It was from Assault, and the header read, A friend from the old days sent me this.

The attached photo wasn't the best quality and neither was his handwriting, but it was still readable. As she worked her way through the names, her eyebrows rose dramatically.

"Motherfucker," she breathed. "Now I've got you."


Coil


As Calvert climbed into the truck and settled into his assigned seat, he couldn't help grinning broadly. The Empire Eighty-Eight was going down, and so was Emily Piggot. All his plans were working out perfectly.

It doesn't get better than this.


Taylor


Carefully, I pasted the link into the search bar and tapped the enter icon. The drop box opened up, and I grinned as the file names showed themselves. "Got it."

"So what is it that we have?" asked Dad pragmatically. "If it's his favourite song list, I will be disappointed."

Somehow, I didn't think Tattletale was that stupid. I tapped the first file, and it unfolded into a map of the city, with a single dot showing in red. Using pinch-and-zoom, I opened up the image until we could determine the exact location.

"Well, well, well," Dad murmured. "So that's where he is."

"Looks like it," I agreed, as Chewie awoke with a yawn. "Chewie thinks so, too."

"Good." He shut the phone down and put it back in his pocket. "We can follow that up later, at home. For now, we have a job to do."

Starting the car, he moved it back out onto the road. I settled back in my seat and rolled down my window so Chewie could stick his nose out and enjoy the breeze.

When Dad got around to dealing with him, Coil wouldn't know what hit him.


End of Part Nine