Part Fifteen: Lung Shot
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
Max raised his hands and rubbed at his temples with his fingertips. "How could this even happen?" he demanded. "How did it happen? Why didn't Bradley just kill them all?"
Melody, her Cricket face-cage in her hands, shrugged and glanced at Stormtiger. Max glared at them both. "Why weren't you there?"
"Because he said he didn't need us to babysit him, and if you've seen one dogfight, you've seen them all," Stormtiger said defensively. "That was always his thing, not ours. But I talked to the people there afterward. There was a big guy with a white face, like clown makeup, and a red nose. And a chick with green hair, white skin, a crazy grin and glowing teeth. She was just shooting into the crowd. Four people died and about twenty more got hit. Some pretty bad. And that's not counting the guys in the back room."
"That doesn't explain how Bradley died." Max was holding onto the barest edges of his temper. "His neck was broken and his skull was in pieces. Someone kicked his mask in so hard, it was pushing bits of his face bones into his brain. But they found bits of his blades nearby, so it wasn't by surprise. So tell me how it happened."
Stormtiger spread his hands. "I honestly have no fucking idea. If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't have believed it myself. Do we have any idea who this new cape is? The one with the glowing teeth?"
Max let out an aggravated sigh. "We've got a police report and a PRT report." Unspoken was the understanding that neither the police nor the PRT would willingly share their reports with either the head of the Empire Eighty-Eight or the CEO of Medhall. "They've got reports of a man and a tall girl or a petite woman of that description, but wearing gaudier outfits, invading a police sub-station. They roughed up the cops pretty bad, but nobody died there. The police took some good images off the security cameras. Black and white, but you work with what you've got."
"And the PRT report?" asked Stormtiger.
"Skidmark." Max didn't have to say anymore.
Cricket's eyes opened wide, and Stormtiger wasn't far behind. "Fuck! She was the cape who did that?"
Max shrugged. "The PRT seems to think so. With the giggling and laughing, and the fact that Skidmark and his crew all died in agony with grins on their faces. They're calling her Rictus."
"Hookwolf didn't have a grin," Stormtiger said carefully. "At least, we don't think so, once they got his mask off."
Max had seen the photos too. He wasn't going to be eating rare steak for awhile. "There's no way we can tell, after the mess she made of his face. The big guy called her 'Boss' and she called him 'Minion Number One'." There was no way he was going to call anyone 'Boss'. "We'll call her 'Rictus'."
"We'll fuckin' call her dead meat." Stormtiger smashed a fist into his palm. Cricket nodded in agreement.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." Max looked at the both of them. "Now, how in hell did those two get into the building? If they stopped to put on makeup, why didn't anyone see them and make a fuss? Did anyone you talked to see anything suspicious?"
Stormtiger shook his head. "Nada. I asked around. One of the guys on the door caught a bullet, but the other one swore up and down that no girl who looked like that walked in with anyone."
Max gritted his teeth. "This 'Rictus' has made us out to look like fools. She walks into a gathering of our like-minded friends, literally beats Bradley to death, and steals his motorcycle along with about a quarter of the night's takings. And then shoots up the place on the way out. It's a slap in the face. Lung must be laughing himself stupid."
"Stupider," Stormtiger said automatically, then caught himself as Max glared at him. "Sorry, boss. Just slipped out. But yeah, it's not a good look for us. You think it was a targeted hit?"
"I don't know what it was." Max smashed his fist on the desk. "But we need to find this 'Rictus' and her minion, and make a very public example of them. Otherwise, the ABB and Coil are going to decide that it's open season on us. And we can't afford that, not with Bradley gone."
Cricket decided to put her two cents in at that point. "Not a targeted hit," she said, holding the buzzing device to her throat. "Rictus is going after the gangs. First Merchants, now us. Next will be ABB."
Max considered her words, nodding slowly. "That kind of makes sense. I'll get Krieg to send out a feeler to the ABB and propose a meeting, so we can all go after her at once."
"Right now?" asked Stormtiger. "Lung's got no reason to. He's just going to ignore us and keep pushing into our territory."
Max recalled the glowing eyes and too-wide manic grin on the girl at the police sub-station. "Not after she hits his operations, he won't." He liked to think he had a feel for people, and that girl made the skin on the back of his neck itch.
"You think she will?" asked Stormtiger. "Nobody in their right mind's gonna risk turning all the gangs in Brockton Bay against them."
Cricket put the buzzer against her throat again. It was nearly impossible to create inflection, but Max understood it as a question anyway. "Who says she's in her right mind."
Max nodded. "Exactly."
"It's a nice bike," Frankie said, running his hand possessively over the fuel tank. "Can I keep it?"
I eyed it critically. "Sure. You got anyplace you can stash it that anybody who sees it isn't gonna instantly know you're the one who stole Hookworm's bike? Because that sort of thing never gets found out by people."
He grimaced unhappily. "Ugh, you're right. I'd never be able to ride it around town."
"Uh huh," I said brightly. "On the other hand, how do you feel about using it to utterly piss off the ABB?"
The disappointed look vanished off his face. "I'm right down with that, boss. You got a plan?"
I grinned widely for his benefit. "More like I've got a notion, Frankie. It's your input that's gonna make it into a plan."
As I launched into my explanation, I spared a thought for the fact that neither one of us had a place we could call our lair. This was starting to cripple our 'acquire illicit goods' capability. There was only so much money, and so many guns, that could be stuffed under someone's bed before people started noticing. Motorbikes, even the really small ones, were right out.
By the time I finished explaining the bare bones of my plan, Frankie's grin was almost as wide as mine. "Well, what do you think?" I asked. "Doable?"
He nodded. "Fuckin' totally. It'll take a few days to organise, but I can stash the bike out of sight 'till then. Once I get that sorted ... party time." Showing his teeth, he rubbed his hands together. "They are not gonna know what hit 'em."
"Sounds good to me." I slapped him on the shoulder. "And once we've got a proper hideout, we'll get a bike with an even better paint job, so you can store it there."
"Damn right," he agreed.
Afternoon of The Next Day
"Dad?" Wandering over to where Dad was watching TV, I plopped myself down on the sofa. It was time to brush up on my being-a-daughter skills, and find out useful information at the same time. I supposed I could've asked Frankie, but I didn't want to have him think I didn't know anything.
"Yeah?" He looked over at me, then blinked. "Huh. That's a nice outfit. When did I buy that for you?"
I experimented with a normal smile. It didn't feel too weird. "I've been saving up my allowance. You like it?" It was something I'd picked up when I was shopping for costumes for Frankie and me. The shop assistant had seemed to think it was okay.
"Yeah." He nodded. "I'm glad you're doing nice things for yourself. Hoodies and jeans only go so far. Did you want to ask for an advance? That outfit must have just about cleaned you out."
"Uh, no, actually." I dug in the little handbag I'd picked up. No time like the present to start showing a different façade to my cape face. "While I was out, I found this on the ground. I was wondering what I should do with it."
'This' was one of the rolls of cash from the Empire hit. It was forty-nine twenties, secured with a rubber band. When Dad recognised it, he snatched it from me, his eyes widening. "Jesus Christ, Taylor! Where did you find that?"
"Kicked into the gutter, just near the intersection of Laramie and Oakes," I said at once, pushing out my blue field to cover him very slightly. I knew as well as he did that there was a large gas station on that corner, and it was right smack in the middle of Empire Eighty-Eight territory; all that I needed now was for him to connect the dots I was laying down for him.
He ran his hand through his thinning hair, then pulled the rubber band off the cash. Lips moving silently, he counted the stack, then counted it again. "Jesus," he muttered again, then looked at me. "Taylor. I'm going to ask you a question, and I want you to answer me honestly."
I shrugged. "Sure." I knew exactly what he was going to ask.
He tapped the roll. "There's one twenty-dollar bill missing. Did you use it to buy that outfit?"
"Haha no, Dad!" I'd practised the little laugh in front of the mirror, and I hoped it didn't sound too awkward, or too unlike me. "I used my own money. Besides, I only found that yesterday." All of which was true. The money Frankie and I had liberated from the Empire stash house had become our money as soon as we walked away from the building. Kaiser's name wasn't written on it or anything. "I just wanted to know what I should do with it. Hand it in or keep it, or what?"
He stared at the cash, and I could see the temptation in his eyes. Nine hundred eighty dollars would pay off a few bills, or keep us in food for a little while. I was actually curious as to which way he'd go with this. Money didn't mean all that much to me, mainly because having stuff wasn't a big deal. If I wanted or needed something, I could take it. No big.
"Did you see who dropped it?" he asked, carefully putting the rubber band around the roll again. "Or was it just there when you saw it?"
"No, but a bunch of guys on motorbikes rode off just before I got there," I said. "You know, skinheads. Those guys." I ran my hand over the top of my head in illustration.
"Right." He nodded, and I could tell he was buying the story. Empire skinheads liked to ride around on motorbikes looking tough and wearing leather, and if one of them paid for gasoline from a roll of twenties that fell out of his pocket when he got back on his ride … well, too bad, so sad.
"So should I hand it in?" I asked. Before he could give the obvious answer—of course I should—I added the stinger. "Who to? The gas station attendant or the cops?"
And that was the trouble. He knew as well as I did that whether I handed it to the attendant or to the police, the chances were that even if the putative owners never showed up looking for it (because I knew damn well they wouldn't) I'd never see it again. And I'd been so honest in handing it over, too.
I almost felt bad for manipulating him like this, but I did have a purpose in mind. At the same time, I was curious as to what Dad's limits were. I knew that my real father didn't really have any, but I also knew that Jack Slash was a douche-nozzle and a murderhobo, so I didn't feel any real reason to follow in those blood-spattered footsteps. Before I committed to taking Dad on as an adult role model, I wanted to know what his moral stance on all this was first.
If that sounds a bit mercenary, hell yes. I'll be mercenary all day long. Morality for morality's sake has always been a loser's game, as far as I'm concerned. But give me a good solid reason to be moral, and I'll … think about it.
Eventually he sighed, tossed the money in the air and caught it again. "Well, it's probably the proceeds of some kind of criminal activity, so whoever had it doesn't deserve to get it back. Which makes it finders keepers, I guess." He held up his finger warningly, as if to forestall an excited grab for the money. "However. I don't want you blowing it all at once. So I'll be augmenting your allowance with twenty bucks a week, okay?"
Huh. I'd actually been expecting him to 'confiscate' it altogether. Score one for Dad. But this was the cue for my next gambit. "Okay, cool. Uh, Dad, can I ask a weird sounding question?"
He shrugged. "Sure. Weirder than handing me nearly a thousand bucks and giving me a heart attack?"
"Well, not that weird, I guess." I indicated the money. "If they're riding around with cash like that, and it's stolen or something, how would they put it in the bank? Wouldn't the bank be on the lookout for stolen money?"
"Oh, that's easy." He tucked the roll into his shirt pocket. "They get it laundered."
I blinked. "What, washed? That doesn't make sense."
"You grew up in Brockton Bay and you've never heard of money laundering?" He raised his eyebrows as if in disbelief.
"Oh, money laundering. Yeah, I've heard about it, but I don't know what it is." I really did, but I needed more details.
He sighed. "This has become a very strange conversation. If someone's got a load of illicit cash, they take it to a money launderer. That guy takes the cash and gives them back legitimate currency, minus a markup for the guy's profit. He then takes the cash and pulls some sort of sleight of hand to change it out for clean money."
"Oh." I increased the intensity of the blue field. "Like what would he do?"
Dad blinked. "Uh, well, one way to do it is to go into a casino and buy a heap of gambling chips. Then wander around the floor, gambling a bit here and there, then go back an hour or so later and cash them all in. You get back all new cash, fresh out of their reserves."
"Huh." That made a weird sort of sense. "Thanks, Dad. I learned something today." I dropped the blue field.
"You're welcome." He tapped the pocket with the cash in it. "It's always best to be honest about things like this."
"Absolutely," I said, lying through my teeth. I knew better than to press him on where to find someone to launder my rightly-earned gains, but now I knew more about the topic than I did before.
We settled down to watch TV, though my mind was barely on what I was seeing. Inside my head, I was turning over ideas and making plans.
Three Days Later
"Okay, you ready?" I sat astride Hookwolf's motorcycle, the engine rumbling under me. Even though I was tall for my age, it was difficult for me to get my feet firmly on the ground on either side of the bike, but I could just about manage it.
"You sure you want to do it this way, boss?" The concern in Frankie's voice carried through clearly. He knew how tough and strong I was, and I scared the crap out of him on a regular occasion, but he was still worried about my welfare. Aww, who's a good little minion. You are, that's who.
"Absolutely," I replied with a too-wide grin and a creepy giggle. "I'll bail out just before the bike goes through the door. You just make sure you do your thing."
"You got it, boss." Frankie nodded firmly and hefted the AR-15. "Whenever you're ready to go."
Well, that was my cue. The bike was already in first gear so I flicked the switch that had been taped to the handlebars. Then I gave it a little acceleration while letting out the clutch, just as Frankie had shown me. We'd practised starting off like this until I was confident that I could do it properly, every time. It was a little unwieldy, given the extra stuff we had strapped onto it, but I was strong enough to handle it.
I started off strongly, changing up twice before I'd gone ten yards. The ABB guards lounging outside the front of the entrance to the Ruby Dreams casino straightened up, reaching for pistols. Frankie, who had run off to the left, lined up the AR-15 and shot them both down as I swerved to the right. I had to say, for something that wasn't quite an assault rifle, it made a mess of them.
With the guards dead, I opened the engine way out and accelerated for the doors, changing up as fast as I could. By the time I was fifteen yards away, I'd left the pedals behind and I was crouching on the seat. At ten yards, I let the handlebars go and leaped up and backward as high and far as I could go.
The bike kept on going; about half a second after I abandoned ship, it hit the doors with a tremendous crash and busted on through. I tried to land on my feet and almost managed it, but rolled over and over before standing up anyway. My jacket had a new hole in the elbow which honestly made it look cooler. As I was dusting myself off, Frankie came running up with his shotgun and the new Panama hat that I'd bought. At least my wig had stayed on, this time.
"Damn, boss, that was badass." He grinned at me and handed the hat over, just as part of the frontage blew out with a rolling BOOOM. Bits of debris rained around us. Frankie ducked; I ignored it.
"Your timer was pretty good, too," I observed, drawing the Anaconda. "How did you manage to get hold of so much C-4?" I figured I might have to try this trick again sometime. High explosives solved so many problems.
"Most of it wasn't C-4," he confessed. "A little bit attached to the timer, but mostly ammonium nitrate mixed with diesel fuel. Bulky but effective. And once the gas tank ruptured, that went up too."
We went over to the doors, which were basically hanging off the hinges, and peered in. My danger alert didn't ping to anything bad about to happen to me, so I took a deep breath of non-smoky air and stepped inside. "Knock knock!" I called out, and added a cackle for good measure. "Anybody home?"
Nobody seemed up to opposing us, though I did hear what I thought might be pained groans. Oh well, it wasn't me groaning so I didn't care. I raised the Anaconda as the smoke began to clear somewhat. Most of the lights had been shattered by the explosion, but some were still operational, and some of the machines were on fire, giving me enough light to see by. A roulette wheel was embedded in the far wall. And that's double-zero, to the house.
"Okay," I said to Frankie. "Let's grab what we can, and skedaddle."
Lung was gonna be so pissed.
Just as planned.
End of Part Fifteen