One Bad Day

Part Three: Opposite and Unequal Reaction

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

Wednesday Afternoon, December 22, 2010
Sarah Pelham

"Here you go, honey." Neil's rumbling voice brought Sarah out of an uneasy doze. At the same time, the delicious scent of chamomile tea drifted across her nostrils, giving her the impetus to open her eyes. Reaching up, she accepted the cup from him and sipped at it, enjoying the flavour as it spread through her mouth.

"Thanks," she sighed. "This is just what I needed." A moment later, she frowned. "Did I ask you to make this? Because I don't remember doing that." She took another sip anyway, feeling the tension easing from her body. As tough as things were out there on the streets, having Neil to support and care for her made all the difference.

"Nope." He settled on to the sofa beside her, one arm automatically going around behind her neck. Just as automatically, she snuggled into the embrace, making a small contented sound in the back of her throat. "But you looked beat, and I know you like it." Leaning over, he planted a kiss on the top of her head. "You're pushing yourself too hard, honey."

"Holiday madness." It was a common phrase among capes and cops alike. Just as normal crime spiked around Christmas and Easter, so did the incidence of offences either perpetrated by parahumans or to parahumans; quite often, both at the same time. Along with the rest of New Wave, Sarah had been doing her best to help keep the insanity down to a manageable level. She wasn't at all sure they were succeeding. "I mean, the Empire's not just roughing people up these days; they're murdering them. From what Vicky told me, they're even marking their kills. That's a shift toward the disturbing."

Neil grimaced. "I heard. I just hope—"

What he hoped went by the wayside as the landline rang at Sarah's elbow. Plucking the cordless phone off its cradle, she checked the caller ID as she hit the answer button. "Hi, Carol. What's up?"

"Are Vicky and Amy at your house?" asked Carol without preamble. "Because they never came home from school. When I called Arcadia, I was informed that Vicky had cut class after first period, and Amy never attended any classes after lunch. If they're there, send them home at once. I have serious words for them." Her tone was tight and controlled, but Sarah could hear a certain amount of suppressed tension under it. Carol had already lost Mark, and quite understandably didn't like not having her girls where she could see them. If Sarah lost Neil, she knew damn well she'd become a lot more protective of Eric and Crystal, and rightfully so.

"Uh, I haven't seen them, but Neil might know where they are," Sarah said, then turned to her husband. Putting the phone to her chest to cover the microphone, she asked, "Have you seen Amy or Vicky? Carol says they never came home."

He frowned. "Uh, no. Are they out with Eric and Crystal?" His expression became a lot more concerned when she shook her head. "Crap. Are they home?" By 'they', she knew he meant their own two children. She nodded. "Okay, I'll go ask them if they know." With a sigh, he took his arm away from her shoulders, then stood. "Tell her … tell her not to worry. Vicky's as tough as they come, and nobody in their right mind would hurt Amy."

Yeah, but there's any number of people in the city who aren't in their right minds. Sarah took a deep breath and lifted the phone to her ear again. "Neil hasn't seen them either, but he's just gone to ask Eric and Crystal if they know. Have you tried their phones?" She knew quite well that both the Dallon girls—as well as Carol herself, and Sarah and her family—carried cell-phones as a matter of course.

"Yes, I tried their phones." Sarah winced as the unspoken phrase 'you idiot' came across quite clearly. "They're either out of battery, out of range of towers, or switched off." Which was all the more concerning, as the first two were quite difficult to achieve; as a favour to Carol, Armsmaster had worked on the phones and made them much more efficient, both in reception range and in battery life.

"There's probably nothing to worry about," she said soothingly, casting about in her mind for a reasonable explanation. "They've probably just gone to the movies or something. I haven't heard of any major action by any of the gangs today; have you?"

"Well, no," Carol replied, sounding slightly less tense. "Though they should know better than that by now. I've told them and told them. One of them always has to have her phone on, even if it's just on silent, for situations exactly like this."

"Teenagers will teenage," Sarah said soothingly. "They're probably off somewhere having fun. You can yell at them when they get back, you'll feel better, they'll be typically resentful, and everything will be back to normal." She looked around as familiar steps descended the stairs. "Here's Neil now. Let's see what's going on."

The look on his face gave her pause. "I'm not sure what's going on," he said slowly, obviously having caught the tail-end of what she was saying. "There's been something going on on the PHO boards for the last quarter-hour. Eric's trying to catch up with it now, but the mods have locked three threads so far and issued a record number of temp bans on top of that." He shook his head. "It all started with a comment from some Empire guy who says Vicky nearly killed him."

"What? What's going on? What's that about Vicky?" Carol sounded more anxious than ever. "Put me on speaker!"

Sarah pressed the appropriate button and held the phone up between herself and Neil. "He says there's something going on with the PHO boards, and some Empire guy claims Vicky nearly killed him."

Neil opened his mouth to speak, but Carol got in first. "Ridiculous! I want to see his injuries! If he can post to PHO, he can't be that badly hurt."

Sarah didn't voice the obvious. If Vicky had called Amy to leave school and heal the guy, it would make sense. For a certain definition of 'sense', that is. And she had noticed Vicky was letting loose a little more frequently of late.

"No, that's not the thing they're locking threads over," Neil stated carefully. "Carol, I need to ask you something. Are Amy and Vicky an item? Because this guy says that before he ran off, Panacea and Glory Girl were kissing each other like there was no tomorrow."

Sarah's train of thought locked up on all brakes and derailed; there were no survivors. She stared at Neil. "Please tell me you're kidding." His expression, as he stared back at her, was not his 'gotcha' face. It was his 'I have no idea what to do next' face.

"No." Carol sounded like she was hanging on to her last shred of normalcy for dear life. "I refuse to believe that. Vicky is seeing Dean Stansfield. I have no idea which way Amy swings, but Vicky is straight; I'd bet my life on it."

"And even if they have just now decided they're in love, why would they have gone dark?" Sarah interjected. "They're not related, after all. It'll blow over." But even as she said the words, she knew she was wrong. She shuddered at the thought of the shitstorm that had to be tearing apart PHO, especially given that Amy's adopted status wasn't well known. Some people would even be deliberately ignoring it for the sake of pushing the controversy even harder. The chance to smear New Wave with a a teenage lesbian incest scandal would be too tempting for certain interests to pass up.

There was a beep, and Sarah checked the phone. Another call was incoming; caller ID had it as the news desk of the Brockton Bay Bulletin. "Uh, I've got a call incoming from the newspapers."

"I've got three," Carol snapped. "Don't answer them, or if you do, don't give any substantial replies. Everything's fine in the team, no comment. Especially not to the tabloids."

"Got it," Sarah agreed. "I'll let you know if we hear from the girls before you do. Talk to you later." She ended the call, then took a deep breath before she pressed the button to answer the incoming call. No comment. Everything is fine.


"So you're aware that this supposed witness is not only hiding behind the anonymity of the internet, but he's also a self-described member of a criminal-led gang, correct? Not necessarily the most unbiased of people when it comes to making claims about a superhero team. Think about that for just a moment." Carol deliberately paused to give the reporter on the other end of the line time to try to regain some ground.

"But there's still the claim he made …"

"Yes, the claim," she said flatly. "Let's talk about that for a second. Let's suppose just for a second that it's not a total fabrication to smear the good name of New Wave. Which, by the way, the Empire would just love. Let's say it was true. Glory Girl and Panacea are both sixteen, and Panacea is adopted. They've also grown up with each other. So even if it wasn't a simple affectionate kiss—which sisters the world over will give one another—there'd still be nothing illicit or illegal about it. For the record, I don't believe for a moment that it is true, and if you print anything to the contrary without absolute proof, you'll be knowingly assisting a bunch of supervillains in weakening public support for one of the few superhero teams that practises true public accountability. Do you really want that?"

There really was only one answer that he could give. "Well, no, but …"

"... but if you really want to go farther with this, I suggest the following course of action," Carol talked over the top of him. "Find this so-called witness and publish his name and address. I fully intend to sue him for defamation of character, on behalf of Glory Girl and Panacea. If he can't be found, or if he's not willing to face me in court, what does that tell you about his spurious claim?"

A few moments later, she ended the call. Then she threw the phone across the room, bouncing it off of an armchair, which absorbed the force of the impact. She couldn't have gotten away with talking to no reporters; the news crews would start making up their own news at that point. But talking to one reporter from the relatively staid Brockton Bay Chronicle meant that everyone else would swarm around that publication and steal snippets for their own papers. Or at least, that was the plan.

Getting up, she went into the kitchen and took a bottle out of the liquor cabinet. It was a prime aged whiskey she'd gotten Mark for Christmas; the night after his funeral, she'd had one glass from it, in private, and cried herself to sleep. Now, she unscrewed the top and poured herself a glass. She wasn't a drinker by habit but the alcohol slid down her throat with ease, burning pleasantly as it went. It didn't do much to put distance between her and the rest of the world, so she poured another one.

That one went down easily, too.

PRT Building
Director Emily Piggot

I need a drink.

It was a thought Emily had had more than once during her tenure as regional Director of PRT ENE. Fortunately for her ruined kidneys, these days it was less of a direct urge and more of a lingering wish. That didn't prevent it from recurring at times like this, when it seemed all the troubles of the world seemed intent on landing on the back of her neck, all at once. For all that Brockton Bay was in the top ten cities in the continental US for cape presence (with a correspondingly high proportion of criminal capes) she'd never had a Ward murdered on her watch before.

Taking a deep breath and letting it out again, she looked up at Armsmaster as he stood on the far side of her desk. "So you've got a witness and a name?" It was heartening that they had so much already. Of course, she would much prefer not have had one of her Wards murdered at all, but the universe was rather good at not letting her have what she wanted. With any luck, if they got this solved fast enough, the Youth Guard might not even get involved at all.

"And a timeline," he confirmed. Taking a miniaturised projector from his belt, he slotted a chip into it and placed it on her desk. "I carried out the interview myself." He stepped back out of the way of the projection as the device came to life, throwing a still picture up on the blank wall of her office. A time/date stamp was visible at the top left corner of the image.

As with all of his inventions, the picture and sound were very impressive for something so small.

The girl on the screen was sixteen or seventeen, with well-styled red hair and definitely above-average looks, for all that she looked like she'd recently been crying. Flanking her as she sat at the table was an older man, also with fading red hair. The familial resemblance was easy to see, but that wasn't what caught Emily's eye. "I know that man," she said suddenly. "I've seen his face before."

"Yes," Armsmaster agreed. "He provided a character witness for Stalker when she was inducted into the Wards. He and his daughter are on record as being in the know about her secret identity, from before she joined the Wards. Playing back the footage now."

The picture jerked into life, as Armsmaster's voice spoke over the top. "This is Armsmaster, conducting preliminary witness interview regarding the murder of Shadow Stalker, on December twenty-second of two thousand ten. Please identify yourselves for the record."

The bulky older man raised his head slightly. In a practised tone, he spoke clearly and firmly. "My name is Alan Barnes. This is my daughter Emma."

There was a moment's pause, then he visibly nudged the girl—Emma—with his elbow. With a start, she spoke up. "Uh, sorry. I thought Dad—uh, my name is Emma Barnes. I'm a student here at Winslow."

"That's all right, Emma." As far as Emily could tell, Armsmaster was working on his people skills. He still wasn't exactly good at it, but at least he was making the effort. "I understand that you're acquainted with the alleged assailant?"

"Yeah." Emma tightened her jaw and looked directly at the camera. At the same time, her hand took hold of her father's, and held it tightly. "We used to be best friends, you know? Back in elementary and middle school. But when we came to Winslow, I made new friends and she never really got over that." There was another nudge from her father's elbow. "What? Oh, yeah. Her name's Taylor Hebert. That's H-E-B-E-R-T. Anyway, she went from being a nice kid, bit quiet, to being one of those weird loner psychos. The type you expect to bring a gun to school or something."

Emily frowned. The girl's delivery was … if anything, a little too polished. Almost as if she'd rehearsed saying her lines. "Pause it," she said, and the picture froze. "Does the Barnes girl have acting experience?"

"She's modelled teenagers' lines for local stores," Armsmaster responded. "Is that what you mean?"

Leaning back in her chair, Emily nodded slowly. "Yes, that sounds about right. Keep it going."

The footage rolled on as Armsmaster's voice came over the top again. "Are you aware of the nature of the wounds we found on Shadow Stalker?"

Emma looked a little puzzled. "I heard she got stabbed. Is that what you mean?"

For the first time, the alignment of the image altered, swaying a little from side to side. Emily guessed that Armsmaster had shaken his head. "Part of the wounding involved a swastika. Was Taylor involved with the Empire in any way?"

That, Emily saw, brought the girl up short. "Uh, not that I know of. But I didn't know everything she did. I knew she didn't like Sophia, but I thought it was because, well, because she was my friend." She seemed to think about her next words. "If she was connected to the Empire, she wasn't big with them. Maybe she was trying to get in by doing that?"

"Pause." Emily waited till the image froze again. "Do you have any evidence that the Hebert girl has Empire ties of any kind?"

"Nothing direct," he admitted. "But the way Stalker was killed was positively brutal. She was stabbed in the chest, puncturing her lung, then three more times in the back while she was trying to get away, then her head was pulled back by the hair and her throat was slashed. Then someone carved a swastika across her back. There's a lot of hatred there. A lot of anger."

Lips pursed, Emily nodded. She'd seen the aftermath of gang slayings before, especially ones motivated by racial tensions. They could get ugly. "Have the forensics people located the knife yet? Prints would be very useful around now. Also, is there any indication that her parents or siblings have Empire ties?"

"She's an only child, and her mother's dead," Armsmaster reported crisply. "The father's actually head of hiring for the Dockworkers Association. No known gang ties, but we're still looking into that. And no, they haven't located the knife. Best approximation is that it's a double-edged leaf-shaped blade about six inches in length. The Empire uses several types of blade that follow this model. Preliminary forensics say that it was either the same knife that did all the wounds, or virtually identical ones."

"Her mother's dead?" Emily's interest was sharpened. "Any chance it's what pushed her into the Empire?" It was entirely possible; the ABB was aggressive enough from time to time to murder people, and of the other two gangs actively recruiting in Winslow, the Merchants were hardly viable to be called a gang. Moreover, their ethos was more about selling drugs and shooting up than taking revenge for a dead mother.

Armsmaster shook his head. When he spoke, his tone was regretful. "Probably not. She was killed a couple of years ago in a single-vehicle accident. The police report stated that she was probably texting and driving. She didn't have anything in her background that might link her to the Empire, though there was an arrest back in her college days that links her to Lustrum's movement."

Emily frowned. A decades-old link to a now-Birdcaged cape with fanatical feminist tendencies didn't offer much of a reason to join a neo-Nazi organisation in the present day. Unless, of course, the tendency to join extremist groups was somehow genetic in nature. There was almost certainly a study about it somewhere. Certain modes of thought, she surmised, might actually make it more likely to join such groups, and such things did run in families …

That was something to consider later, she decided. "So noted. Continue the playback."

"That's something that has yet to be determined," Armsmaster's voice stated. "Please walk me through what happened. When did it start?"

On the makeshift screen, Emma took a deep breath, then licked her lips. "After third period. Sophia and I met up with Madison outside Mr Gladly's classroom to go to lunch together, but Mads said she needed to go to the bathroom. So we went to the third floor one and waited-"

"I'm sorry to interrupt, but why did you go up there?" Armsmaster broke in with the question. "Aren't there bathrooms on lower floors?"

"Yeah, but most everyone wants to go to the bathroom at the beginning of lunch break," Emma replied. "We—I mean she—didn't want to have to wait too long."

Emily filed away the slip of the tongue—if it even was one—without comment. It wasn't something she could really call out, and in any case there was something else that had caught her attention.

"So what happened then?" prompted Armsmaster's voice.

"Sophia and me didn't need to go, so we waited outside the bathroom while Madison went in. The next thing, we heard her scream, so we ran in. Taylor was just standing there with a kind of sick grin on her face, and Madison was screaming and thrashing around. She was covered in bugs. When Soph and I burst in, a few came for us, but not as many as there were on poor Mads." Emma clutched her father's hand convulsively. "It was horrible." Turning to her father, she buried her face in his shoulder. He wrapped his free arm around her and held her tightly.

Armsmaster paused the playback. "We pulled up the interview for a few moments until she regained her composure," he explained. "It seemed to have affected her badly."

"I'm not surprised," Emily said dryly. "Though there are a few things that don't seem to be adding up. It could be her memory playing tricks on her, but I'm a little dubious about them."

When Armsmaster spoke next, he sounded puzzled. "I'm not sure what you're talking about. I mean, there are some things about this case that don't make sense to me, but not in that part of the interview."

"I'm going to assume that you know very little about teenage girls." There was no change in Armsmaster's visible expression, but Emily almost smiled at the air of confusion radiating off the man. "There is no way two would wait outside while one went in. Was there a mirror in there?"

"Well, yes, but I don't see the connection." Thus spoke, Emily mused, a man who'd never had to share a bathroom with a teenage girl. Or, for that matter, a woman of virtually any age.

"Run it back a little." She waited till he complied, then pointed. "See? You can see she's been crying, but her makeup is perfect. I'm willing to bet that during the break before you resumed, she went to the bathroom and fixed it all up again."

"So you're saying she would've gone in with Madison. Both of them would have." Armsmaster finally seemed to be getting it.

"Exactly." Again, Emily indicated the face of Emma Barnes, frozen in mid-word. "I'm not saying all teenage girls are so image-conscious but with her looks and her background in modelling, it'd be basically impossible for her not to be. Her not going in there with Madison, especially just before she goes to lunch with all the other students, is within the realms of possibility, but extremely unlikely. So there's that. Also, something else."

"Something else?" Armsmaster's tone seemed to be asking another question: what else did I miss?

"She said the Hebert girl already had her bug powers; specifically, she was attacking Madison with them when they entered." Emily waited for him to get the inference.

"You're saying that because she may have lied with one part of her statement, she lied about that too?" Armsmaster sounded dubious. "You realise, that doesn't necessarily follow."

"No, you're right. It doesn't." Emily heard the satisfaction in her own voice. "But we have the swastika carving, which indicates Empire involvement. The thing is, if she wanted to get into the Empire and she had bug powers, all she'd have to do is present herself complete with powers, and they'd welcome her with open arms. So if she had the bug powers before today … why hasn't this already happened?"

Armsmaster nodded slowly. "So either she hasn't had the bug powers for that long, or someone else carved the swastika. And presumably finished off Shadow Stalker." His lips compressed as he presumably frowned. "I had been wondering how a brand-new cape with no formal training that we know of managed to beat Stalker so comprehensively."

"Exactly." In a fight between Shadow Stalker and a bug controller, even one armed with a knife, she would've bet on the Ward. As much as Emily had disliked the volatile teenager, she was aware that Shadow Stalker had pursued a middling-successful career as a vigilante for some months before being snared by the PRT for her lack of care and attention. "Do you think the Hebert girl had help from the Empire? Or perhaps other powers that Trumped Stalker's?" It was the only thing that made sense, really. "Or even both?"

"Too many anomalous data points to reach any firm conclusions at this time," decided Armsmaster. "There's a little bit more to go with the interview."

"Show me," Emily ordered, settling back into her seat. Belatedly, it occurred to her that the swastika carving may have been carried out to frame the Empire for the killing. She made a mental note to look into that possibility as well. Too many variables.

The footage skipped ahead, showing Emma back in control of her emotions. As Emily had predicted, her makeup was perfect once more.

"So you entered the bathroom," Armsmaster said. "What happened then?"

On screen, Emma licked her lips again. Emily wondered if it was some kind of tell. "I—I wanted to save Madison, but Soph just grabbed me and shoved me out the door. She told me to go, that she'd hold Taylor off." She sniffled and dabbed at the corner of her eye, though Emily was fairly certain there hadn't been any tears there. "It was the most heroic thing I've ever seen."

Already inclined to be dubious, Emily decided to take the dramatics with a large grain of salt. Given that Emma was alive and Sophia was dead, she was willing to accept that Emma left while Sophia stayed. How it had come about was something she did not intend to blindly accept from Emma's testimony.

"What did you do?" Armsmaster's voice was non-judgmental.

"I ran downstairs," Emma supplied. "Went straight to Principal Blackwell's office and raised the alarm." She paused. "Oh, and I think I saw the knife, too. Just as I went out the door, I looked back and I thought I saw something in Taylor's hand. Something shiny."

"Can you describe it for me?" asked Armsmaster, an increase of interest now evident in his tone. "How long was the blade? How was it shaped? Were there any distinguishing markings on it? Any details at all would be very helpful."

The teenage girl hesitated, and Emily made a private bet with herself that no pertinent details would be forthcoming. "I—I didn't see very much," she confessed. "Just a glint, you know? I didn't even realise what it was until I heard that Sophia had been stabbed. Then I knew what it must've been. I think she must've brought the knife to school on purpose. To kill me, or Sophia, or Madison. Or all three of us."

Emily held up her hand, and Armsmaster paused the footage once more. "She never saw the knife," she said flatly. "I would bet a large amount of money that Taylor wasn't holding it when Emma went out the door."

"I'm forced to agree." He sounded a little hurt; she suspected he'd been feeling a certain degree of sympathy toward the redheaded girl. Which, of course, had been Emma's aim all along. The teen was really good at presenting herself as an innocent victim. "But why play that up?"

"To fix in our minds that Taylor had a weapon on her from the beginning, and ignore the fact that she had bug powers." She rubbed her chin. "How many capes with a reliable ranged power also pick up a weapon like a knife to augment that? I'm not being rhetorical here; I really don't know. It just seems to me if you can swarm someone to death with bugs, being able to stab them is a little superfluous."

"Not many that I know of. Still, Stalker was stabbed," he pointed out. "There was a patch of aspirated blood in the middle of the floor that I'm willing to bet she coughed up once she was wounded. And as I said earlier, if our forensics techs are correct, all the wounds were done with either the same weapon or blades that were virtually identical to one another. But if we can't actually put the knife in Taylor's hand, did she even do it? Or did someone else come in and take over? Someone connected to the Empire?"

"Maybe we don't even need the Empire connection," Emily said, recalling her earlier thought. "What if whoever killed her did it for their own reasons, and only carved the swastika to throw investigators off the scent?" Which, if she thought about it, made Taylor a possible suspect once more. She wasn't sure why the girl would've stabbed Stalker, or even how Taylor could have overcome her in a straight fight, but reading between the lines of Emma's description of her, she got the strong indication that Emma disliked Taylor Hebert intensely. Is that why she was in that bathroom?

"But it's got similarities to a murder that happened a few weeks ago," Armsmaster said. "We found Grue of the Undersiders, a young black man, stabbed to death with a broken-off broomstick. They carved a swastika on him as well. The Empire denied responsibility, but Shadow Stalker's report clearly put them on the scene at the time …" His voice trailed off. "That's a really odd coincidence. Two murders, two swastikas when they've never made a practice of doing that before, and Stalker just happens to be involved in both of them."

"She's the victim in this case, don't forget," Emily said flatly. "But I agree; it is odd. If the same people did both, or even if this one's a copycat, it follows that Stalker's killer almost has to be Empire. Maybe they figured out who she was and thought she could identify them, so they came to Winslow to shut her up?"

"Doesn't hold water," Armsmaster replied. "That was nearly three weeks ago. They'd assume they're free and clear by now."

"Unless they're Winslow students, new in the Empire and cocky with it." Emily was having a hard time getting over the double coincidence. "Suppose they came up to the third floor to do whatever; steal from the classrooms, have a smoke somewhere, settle a gang difference. Stalker's been stabbed. She's coughing up blood, so she ghosts out through the wall or door, and they see this. They recognise her as Shadow Stalker and that she's wounded, so they go in for the kill, and mark her the same way they did the other guy. Once the deed's done, they scatter."

Armsmaster paused. "That's a really, really big coincidence," he objected, but she heard the doubt in his voice. "There's still the problem with the knife wounds all being from the same blade. Forensics has a blood-mark inside the bathroom that's consistent with a knife being dropped on the floor."

"From the same type of blade," Emily pointed out. "And what about this; Taylor has the knife and stabs Stalker somehow. Stalker backs off and coughs blood. Taylor drops the knife for whatever reason. Stalker's able to pick up weapons on the way through while she's ghosted; I've read her reports. She does this and ends up outside the bathroom with a bloody knife, but the wound and the passage through the wall weakens her so when the Empire recruits see her, they overpower her, take the knife off her and kill her with it."

"Which would solve the mystery of where the knife went to," Armsmaster conceded. "We've searched every trashcan and dumpster in and around Winslow. There was actually an amazing amount of contraband there, including several knives that fit the type of the one that killed Stalker, but none with any traces of fresh blood on them."

"We'll go with that for a working theory," Emily decided. "Let's see what the rest of the interview has to offer."

The action started again. "What did Principal Blackwell do?" asked Armsmaster's voice.

"She set off the fire alarm and put the school on lockdown," Emma said promptly. "Standard procedure for cape attack. Then she called the police and the PRT and sent me to the school nurse to make sure I was OK. I had a few bug bites, but that was all." Her shiver looked entirely unfeigned. "Seeing all those bugs swarming over poor Madison like that …"

"Can you recall any more details of your encounter with Miss Hebert?" Armsmaster prompted. Emma shook her head. "All right, then. Thank you for your assistance. You've been very brave." A card skated into view across the table; Emily knew for a fact that Armsmaster had a dispenser in the cuff of one of his gauntlets. "Call me at any time of night or day if you think of anything else."

The picture cut off there, and the projector shut down. Armsmaster stowed the device on his belt once more. "After that, I escorted them to their vehicle and went back to see how the forensics techs were doing with the crime scene."

"Anything of note there?" Emily began going over in her mind what she was due to do once Armsmaster left. There was paperwork from Requisitions to look over, and …

"Something odd, yes." The somewhat puzzled tone to his voice brought her attention right back to him. "Inside the bathroom it reeked of bleach. As in, very recently applied bleach. I checked, and they only have cleaners come in once a week, on Saturday. It's a budgetary thing."

"They weren't cleaning up the blood, were they?" Emily felt her ire rising at such a concept. Destroying evidence could and would land someone in jail, if anyone on the faculty was stupid enough to do it.

"No, the blood was still there." Armsmaster shook his head slightly. "It was as if they'd picked one cubicle and scrubbed it to within an inch of its life, for no discernible reason. It wasn't even near where the blood was."

"Do you have photos of the scene?" The question was superfluous; of course Armsmaster had photos.

"I do. Emailing them to your computer now." As the desktop terminal pinged to alert her of the incoming mail, Emily mused that the man was an incurable showoff.

She clicked the mouse on the appropriate icon and opened the folder. Two were of Shadow Stalker's sprawled body at the top of a set of stairs, while the rest portrayed a series of views of a typical high school bathroom. She bypassed the sheet-covered body in the middle of the floor and concentrated on the other details. Grimy mirror, tiled walls and floor, six cubicles … "Wait, the doors open outward?"

"Seems to be the way they were constructed." Armsmaster shrugged slightly. "It's not unknown."

"Sounds ridiculous to me." Emily studied the photos. "Which one had the smell of bleach?" Something nagged at her as she looked them over, but she couldn't quite put her finger on it.

"Second one from the door," Armsmaster said helpfully. "In photo four, it's in the middle of the frame."

"Hm." Emily rubbed her chin. "If they thought it was worth walking past the body of a Ward to clean this one cubicle, I want to know why they cleaned it." She looked up at Armsmaster. "I need you to go back there with the most powerful black light emitter you can build or adapt for the purpose. Bleach is used to clean up biological contamination, and I'm strongly convinced there was some sort of spill there. Maybe more blood, even." Which would definitely change the whole scenario, right there. To what, she wasn't certain. "Hopefully you can find something they didn't clean up, and get a sample."

"Roger that, ma'am." Armsmaster didn't sound thrilled by the prospect. "Anything else?"

She considered the question, then looked over the photos again. That nagging feeling came again, and she tapped a fingernail on the screen. "Those feminine product bins don't look quite right. What's going on with them?" The angle wasn't great, but to her point of view, they looked a little bulkier than they really ought to be.

"I'll ask about that, too." If she knew him, he was making a note as he spoke.

"Good." She leaned back in her chair. "We don't have enough data on what happened when Emma and her friends first entered that bathroom. Did Taylor attack them, or did they attack her? Either way, why? One girl against three, with one of the three being Stalker? It's not great odds. In fact, it's shitty odds."

"We're reasonably certain she has bug powers, and there was a knife involved somewhere there as well," Armsmaster reminded her. "Stalker first got stabbed inside the bathroom, not outside."

"Yes, but still. Masters, by and large, are squishy. This is why Brutes protect them. They just don't tend to step up and go on the attack." Sitting forward, she propped her chin on her hand as she looked over the photos one more time. "We just don't have enough information."

Correctly taking that as a dismissal, Armsmaster moved toward the door, then stopped and turned around. "There's already a BOLO out on the Hebert girl. Are we treating her as a suspect? Approach with caution?"

Emily frowned. "We'll be calling her a person of interest in the case for the moment. If Emma's lying about what happened, maybe Miss Hebert can clear things up." As a person of interest, it wouldn't be hard to get warrants to search the Hebert girl's house and school locker. With any luck, whatever they found there would bring order to the current chaos.

"And if it turns out she snapped, murdered Shadow Stalker, and carved the swastika into her back?" Armsmaster's voice held a note of inquiry.

"Then we throw the book at her, and ask her why she's copying an Empire kill." Emily shook her head. "But I don't think it's going to come to that."

She didn't pay attention when Armsmaster closed the door behind him. Staring at the photos of Shadow Stalker's fallen body, she frowned. Did she attack you or did you attack her? What happened in that bathroom?

After a while, she sagged back into her chair with a sigh. There was something missing; a crucial piece of data that was consistently eluding her. The missing link that would help her make sense of this whole mess.

And she still needed a drink, dammit.

The Next Morning
Thursday, December 23, 2010

It had been one of the worst nights of my life; not only was I sleeping on concrete with a piece of wood for a pillow, but I kept getting flashbacks to the bathroom, with side thoughts of how Dad was going to be taking this. The word 'badly' just didn't seem to be descriptive enough.

I had murdered a Ward.

I had murdered a Ward.

I had murdered a Ward.

I had murdered a Ward.

It didn't matter that she'd been bullying me, or even that she'd murdered a guy (well, that part did matter, but I was fairly certain that the PRT neither knew nor cared about Brian Laborn's death at Sophia's hands). They'd just care that a bug-controlling parahuman (me, just to be clear) had murdered a teenage girl with her bugs, and stabbed another teenage girl (who also happened to be a Ward) to death. Did they Birdcage people for that? I was pretty sure they did. Bug powers aside, I was fifteen years old and skinny with it. Imposing, I was not. Intimidating, even less so. They didn't have any rules or guards inside the Birdcage. I'd be a plaything. If I was lucky, the women would get hold of me, and even then that was a very loose definition of 'lucky'.

A delicious smell assaulted my nostrils, dragging me bodily out of my restless doze. Opening my eyes revealed blurry forms around me, sitting up and looking around. I did the same, fumbling for my glasses. Once I found them, I looked around for the source of the tantalising odours.

It wasn't hard to find. On the floor directly in front of me was a Fugly Bob's takeout bag. Lisa was just opening another one, and Glory Girl and Panacea had one each. I stretched reflexively, feeling about eighty years old from the cramps and creakiness, then stared at the bags. "Did we order takeout or something?" I asked, feeling more than a little confused. "Because I don't remember that."

"We didn't," Panacea said as she unwrapped a burger. Beside her, Glory Girl had her mouth blissfully stuffed full of fries. "Lisa?"

"I didn't do it," Lisa said, eating a couple of her fries. She raised her head, looking around. "Someone else did it, and I think they're still here."

A wash of fear went through me, and I climbed painfully to my feet. An order from me sent my bugs into high gear, swarming through the building. They found nobody, but that didn't change anything. If someone could get into our hiding place and leave Fugly Bobs bags with us without being spotted, they had to be really good at being sneaky. "If they're here, I can't find them," I said, slowly sitting down again. Then I looked dubiously at my bag. "Maybe we shouldn't eat it. Maybe it's got a sedative or something in it."

Panacea put her hand on her sister's arm. "Sugar, salt, grease and MSG, sure, but no sedatives," she reported. "Maybe they should've included some. She's gonna be hyper for hours now." She looked back over at Lisa. "You're certain they're still around?"

Lisa, caught in the act of taking a large bite out of her burger, waggled her free hand in the air. I reached into my own bag and pulled out a wrapped burger, still warm from the oven. My stomach, which had been silently protesting its lack of food to that point, decided that loud was the way to go. If there'd been windows, they would've rattled. Panacea smirked as I flushed, but she sent a semi-apologetic look my way. "Sorry," she said. "I shouldn't laugh."

Lisa swallowed the bite of burger, then cleared her throat. "I'm about sixty to seventy percent sure there's someone still hanging around. Pretty sure they don't mean us any harm. But there's something I can't figure out." Closing her eyes for a moment, she rubbed at her forehead with forefinger and thumb.

I'd just taken a bite out of my burger (I was hungry, and if I was going to be arrested, I'd rather have a good meal first) when something white flew past my vision. My head turned so fast I nearly gave myself whiplash, but it was just … a paper plane? What the hell was a paper plane doing here? And who threw it?

Even as it spiralled down to the ground—it seemed set up to turn really fast—I sent bugs swarming through the area it had come from. They didn't catch anyone. Nor did they smack into an invisible man, or even a visible one; bug eyesight might've been crap, but it could pick up a human form with ease.

That wasn't to say there was nobody there. My bugs kept hitting a fuzzy space, which confused them and threatened to give me a headache. Worse, the fuzzy space kept moving around in a way that prevented me from getting a fix with my bugs. I really hoped Lisa was right about whoever—or whatever—it was not meaning us harm.

The plane hit the ground with a tiny thud, and Lisa leaned over to pick it up. Unfolding it one-handed—the other hand was still occupied with her burger—she squinted at it. "Yo, peeps," she read, then frowned. "You promise not to gank me if I show my face? Friendly, I promise. I'm totes the awesome person who brung you the Fugly. Peace?"

Lisa read through the note again, then folded it carefully and tucked it into her pocket. Panacea and I stared at her, while Glory Girl seemed to be searching through her bag for more fries. "Well?" I asked.

"Well, what?" Lisa retorted as she got to her feet. "Do I think it's genuine? Yeah. Do I think they're telling the truth? Sure. Do I think they're standing right in front of me?" Her hand lashed out and grabbed something, then pulled it close to her. "You can drop the effect now," she added, and I was pretty sure she wasn't talking to me or Panacea.

One moment I was wondering why she was acting this way, and the next I was staring at a black girl, a year or so younger than myself. She had a purple streak in her hair and wore trashy clothes almost certainly intended to shock and irritate others. In deference to the chill in the air, she also wore a light jacket; Lisa had a firm grim on its collar.

"All right, all right," groused the girl sullenly. "You can let go now." She turned to face the rest of us. "Hi. Hope you like Fugly's."

"Aisha," Lisa said warningly. "What've you been up to? Did you go after Shadow Stalker on your own after I told you not to?"

"Yeah, you told me." The black girl—Aisha—shot Lisa an impudent grin. "But I still fuckin' got her, didn't I?"

I raised a hand tentatively. "Uh, I think it was actually me that got her. Just saying." As I put my hand down, I wondered why I'd even spoken up. It wasn't something I was exactly proud of, after all. Then something else caught up with me. "Wait, you know each other?"

"Yeah, Bri was my big brother," Aisha said. "She was the one who told me about Shadow Stinker killing him." She pulled free of Lisa's grasp—or rather, Lisa let her pull free—and came over to sit next to me. "Remember the knife? Who do you think gave it to you?"

A lot of things made sense all of a sudden. I'd thought things had gone a bit weird at Winslow. "And you made me into a fucking murderer," I told her bitterly. "The PRT's gonna fuckin' Birdcage me for that. A cape who killed two girls, one of them a Ward? My feet won't even touch the ground."

"It probably won't come to that," Lisa assured me. "But you're right. There's people looking for all of us, and we're probably safer sticking together. Except you, Aisha. You should go home. Nobody's after you for anything."

"Nuh uh," Aisha said, shaking her head vigorously. "Mom's a druggie who brings home pervert boyfriends. Dad's got a stick so far up his ass it scratches his tonsils. Bri's the only one who ever made it tolerable. I'm never goin' home again. If I get shit for you guys, can I hang with you?"

Lisa looked over at me, then at Panacea. I shrugged; while I was still a little irritated with Aisha for giving me the knife, I couldn't help but recall Sophia's look of murderous rage. She probably would've killed me, if not for Aisha. "I guess?" I mumbled.

"Couldn't hurt," Panacea agreed in the same mildly dubious tone.

"I guess that settles it," Lisa said. "Looks like you're in."

"Awesome!" Aisha bounced to her feet again. "I always wanted to be in a supervillain team. So what are we gonna do next? I vote we rob a bank. I've never robbed a bank before."

Lisa facepalmed, while I shared a look with Panacea. Oh, boy.

Life on the run was definitely not going to be boring.

End of Part Three