Hostage Situation


Part Twelve: Attending to Business


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


Glory Girl


They were lofting up and away from the dilapidated mansion when Eric cleared his throat. "I, uh, it's really none of my business, but ..."

"But you consider it important enough to raise as a topic, despite its sensitive nature," Amy's dad responded. "I would wager you are about to ask a question about the money. Go ahead and ask; you will not learn if you never question." Reclining at his ease within the force field like a potentate of old, he gestured in invitation.

And that was just one of the bizarre aspects about him. Despite her intense curiosity—Marquis was the closest thing to a living fossil that the Brockton Bay underworld had—she'd been ready to jump on him with both feet if he turned out to be an asshole, especially to Ames. However, the newly-renamed 'Patrick Matheson' had repeatedly shown both restraint and an underlying strength of conviction, especially when dealing with Vicky's parents and with Director Piggot. His consistent courtesy and willingness to treat them as equals had put him a cut above the other Brockton Bay villains she'd encountered in the past.

Eric nodded. "I was just wondering ... once the Director finds out about the money, and learns that Amy got it from you, what's stopping her from doing that asset seizure thing on it?"

"That is indeed a good question." Matheson raised an eyebrow. "I have one for you in return. Do you believe it would be fair or equitable for her to do so?"

To Eric's credit, he didn't even hesitate. "Uh, no. You gave it to Amy. It's hers."

"Indeed. And Glory Girl? Your opinion on the matter?"

Vicky shook her head firmly. "You said it was clean, and I believe you. Ames should get to keep it."

Sitting next to her father, using the box as a seat, Ames raised her head at the expressions of support. "Thanks, guys. I appreciate it, I really do."

"As do I." Matheson bestowed an approving gaze upon Eric and Vicky. "Now, to answer your question in part if not whole. There exist ways and means that, while technically not legal, are not specifically a crime to make use of. I will be instructing Amelia in their use so that the money is safe from the rapacious grasp of the United States legal system, yet still accessible to her."

Damn, this guy was making the whole concept of villainy sound cooler all the time. "So, uh, we don't get to know what these ways and means are?"

His urbane smile turned in her direction. "Plausible deniability, my dear Glory Girl. If you do not know, you cannot accidentally reveal it to the wrong people."

Or have it wormed out of me by Mom. It still irritated Vicky that her mother was a better interrogator than she was, and this was entirely achieved by way of lawyer tricks rather than super-powers. Fear only worked so far with some people, and with others it made them shut all the way up.

"Yeah, that makes sense," Eric agreed. "I think—"

What he thought would be forever lost to posterity, when his phone suddenly went off, chiming alert after alert. Vicky's was doing exactly the same; a fraction of a second later, Amy's phone joined the raucous chorus.

"Son of a bitch," Vicky muttered. If her phone was blowing up like this—if everyone's phones were blowing up like this—then something serious had to be going down. Hauling out her phone, she called up her messages.

"The bombings have started up again," Eric reported, reading off his own texts. "We're needed for search and rescue." He frowned. "One of the bombs must have taken out a cell tower, so we didn't get the alerts until now."

"Carol wants me at the hospital," Amy added, looking at her own phone. "They've got casualties coming in."

"Because of course she does," Matheson murmured. "For a lawyer, Brandish always did lack imagination."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Vicky asked, a little more sharply than she really meant to. "If people are hurt, they're going to need healing."

She wasn't quite sure how he managed it, but a single raised eyebrow made her doubt everything she'd just said. "My dear, hospitals are well-staffed with medical professionals who are specifically trained and equipped to keep people alive until they recover all by themselves. They're famous for it. I believe my daughter has a different role to play in this little drama. Amelia, if you would like to stay with me for the duration?"

"Uh …" Amy looked and sounded torn. "I want to, but … I promised a week of normal healing duties while they worked on getting you out of the Birdcage. The week's not up yet."

He sighed. "Let me guess. Alexandria?" Before she could answer, he went on. "Very well, I shall make certain to deliver you to the sweatshop just as soon as we have finished our errand together. You may then ensure that the hoi polloi return to their regular lives with little to show from their undoubtedly harrowing experiences."

"Wait," Eric said. "Where are you going to be going? What will you be doing? Mom and Dad—and Aunt Carol and Uncle Mark—are gonna want to know."

Matheson gave him the raised-eyebrow treatment next. "If I don't tell you, then you won't be obliged to conceal it from your respective parents. This way, they won't attempt to interfere when least needed."

"I don't like the sound of that," Vicky said carefully. "Ames, you don't have to do this if you don't want to."

Amy took a deep breath. "Don't care. Tell Carol and Mark that this is my choice. If we end up doing something blatantly illegal, I'll arrest him myself, but he's already promised not to, so I'm pretty sure he won't."

"Well said, Amelia dear." Matheson pointed downward. "You may set us down anywhere there, young man. Then go about your duties. Make your city proud of having such upstanding heroes."

Eric gave him a dry look. "I'm pretty sure they could tell that was sarcasm in Miami."

Matheson smiled, with an almost roguish twinkle to his eye. "Now, now. With Victoria and yourself, I was actually being serious. Amelia could not have found herself a better adopted sibling or cousin."

Vicky snorted. "I notice you don't include our parents in that."

"Astute as ever, Victoria." Matheson stood up as the force field bubble reached ground level and dissolved. "Go, save the innocents. We shall be along in good time."

As she flew off alongside Eric, Vicky turned to her cousin. "Any idea of what he's talking about?"

He shrugged. "Apart from doing whatever it is to hide the money? No clue."

"Hmm." Later, she decided, she would corner Ames and see if she could find out what was really going on.


Panacea


When Eric dissolved his force field and flew away—not without a wave to me, which I returned—I stood up and dusted my hands off. I was still fairly grimy from digging the box out, and I wondered if there was a micro-organism I could make to act like soap or something. This wasn't the time or place to start experimenting, though. Instead, I looked around to see if I could get my bearings.

In a way, I did, but not in the manner I'd expected or wanted.

Brockton Bay had never been quite large enough for dedicated cultural or ethnic enclaves to form over decades; we didn't have a Little Italy or a Chinatown, for instance. However, there were blocks where people from the same regions had established businesses, possibly because they were related in one way or another. Looking across the road from where we were, I saw a couple of shops with pictogram writing on them that might have been Chinese or Japanese. And, because I was looking for it, I saw one other thing.

The red and green tag of the Azn Bad Boys.

I cleared my throat and looked down at Dad, who was down on one knee, examining the box. "Uh … problem." While I didn't know how big a problem it was going to be, I figured he needed to know, sooner rather than later.

He stood up fast, turning to face where I was looking, with jagged bone poking through holes in his hands. "What is it?"

I gestured at the tag. "ABB. We're in their territory." This was absolutely a problem. After all, the ABB had more or less declared war on the rest of the city. Under the cover of Bakuda's bombings, Oni Lee had broken Lung out of holding, which was bad enough. However, we'd sort of assumed that the bombings would stop once they'd achieved their objective. Seeing as they'd started up again, it looked like they wanted more. And being caught in their territory would be a problem for anyone.

"Oh, is that all?" He turned his attention back to the box. "This was deliberate, dearest Amelia. It's the one area the bombs won't be going off in. I required some peace and quiet to do what I need to do."

"Then we may have come to the wrong place," I murmured, hardly moving my lips, as three gang members emerged from a nearby convenience store. The tallest of the three was stuffing a wad of cash into his pocket. I was fairly certain he hadn't just used the ATM.

I recalled a report I'd heard Carol and Mark talking about, how the ABB rank and file were far more numerous now. They were pushing their recruitment efforts more than ever before, and they had hundreds of members on the street.

"Hey!" called the tallest of the gang members. "What are you two doing here? What's in the box?" He started swaggering toward where I stood with my father, with his two associates trailing behind. If I was reading their body language right, they didn't really want to be there, but they didn't have a choice in the matter.

"On the contrary, this too was entirely deliberate." Dad glanced my way with a slight smile, then flexed his wrists in a slow, deliberate fashion. There were no bone spikes in sight now, but that meant nothing at all. "Would you agree that we are in danger, and have a right to defend ourselves?"

"Hey!" The gang members were standing right in front of us now. "Asked you a question, old man!" Reaching out, the leader shoved Dad back slightly. It was a dominance move, older than civilisation, with a very basic thought process behind it. React or submit.

I sighed internally. Oh, these idiots have no idea what they're doing. Not that I had much in the way of sympathy for them. Dad's question had been evidently intended to elicit one specific answer, so that he could act freely in this matter. I was inclined to go along with him, because screw Lung and screw the ABB. Deliberately, I cleared my throat, drawing the gang members' eyes to me. "Yes."

"Good. I'm so glad we agree." For all his playful tone, his eyes were deadly serious. The bone spikes emerged from his hands again, shooting out and forming a cage around the importunate gang members. From every bar, wickedly sharp blades angled inward, pricking the clothing and flesh of the three young men, holding them immobile.

"Don't kill them!" I blurted automatically, then felt just a little embarrassed. If he'd wanted them dead, they would be corpses by now.

"Oh, I have no intention of doing so, unless these young louts decide to do something supremely idiotic," he said. He met the eyes of the tallest gang member. "You and I are going to do some talking, in just a moment. Your future depends entirely on the answers I get. Do I make myself abundantly clear? Don't nod; you may do yourself an injury."

The ABB member's eyes rolled sideways, looking for a way out. He twitched away from some of the foot-long barbs, but that only brought him into contact with more of them. "You got no idea who you fuckin' wit', ol' man," he mumbled.

"On the contrary, boy, I know exactly who I'm dealing with." 'Patrick Matheson' was in full Marquis mode by now. His voice, still urbane and cultured, sounded downright sinister. In another instant, a bone mask with jagged spikes forming an irregular crown had formed around his head. "Do you?"

From the way the ABB idiot's eyes widened, he recognised what he was seeing. "Shit!" His voice hit a higher note than he probably intended. "You're Marquis!"

"No, not since I left the Birdcage." The bone crown dissolved to become dust on the wind. "If I still were, I would already be disposing of your remains. We can go back to that, if you truly want to. Your choice." Dad shifted his viewpoint to another one of the gang members. "After all … I have spares."

There was a long and extremely thoughtful silence. The ABB guy blinked a couple of times. "I can talk."

"Good." Dad glanced down at the box, then covered it with another layer of bone and secured it to a convenient parking meter. "Amelia, dear, kindly wait here with these charming gentlemen while I make a few purchases. I should not be long."

I shrugged. "Okay." It wasn't clear to me yet exactly what he had in mind, but so far he seemed to know precisely what he was doing. If this was my father after ten years out of the game, what must he have been like at the top of his form? I was pretty sure I knew why nobody had messed with him.

Dad entered the shop; the little bell tinkled as the door shut behind him. I looked around and saw no more threats. The few people on the street stared at the bone cage, then turned and hurried in the opposite direction. Nobody wanted to know, nobody wanted to be involved.

"Psst! Hey!"

I looked around; it was the self-appointed spokesman for the ABB gangsters. "Can I help you?"

He rolled his eyes toward the shop door, then back to me. "You're Panacea, right? Amy Dallon? Are you his hostage?"

It was blindingly obvious as to where he was going with this, but I thought I'd play it out anyway. "I'm Panacea, yes. But I'm not his hostage. I'm his daughter. Why do you ask?"

From the look of shock on his face, he hadn't been paying attention to the news, or PHO, over the last couple of days. That was if he even had access to either one. "Uh—you—he's gonna kill us, you know that, right? You're a superhero. You can't let him do that."

I sighed. Fred had ranted about this sort of thing more than once. "You're willing to victimise and murder people, but as soon as it's your ass in the firing line, things are different all of a sudden. Riiiight." I leaned closer. "He's not going to murder you, you idiots. He's said he won't, and that's that. Unless you do something really stupid, like threaten my life. Two men have already died, doing that."

While he was still digesting that, the shop door opened again. Dad emerged, looking pleased with himself. Before I could ask what we were doing next, my phone rang.

Oh, boy. I was no kind of Thinker, but I had a good idea who was calling, and why. Reluctantly, I looked at the caller ID. Sure enough, it was Carol. "Hey," I said, putting the phone to my ear.

"Where are you, and what are you doing?" she demanded. "They need you at the hospital, healing people!"

I refused to feel guilty about what I was doing. "Right now, Dad needs me to do stuff with him. I'll go to the hospital after we're done."

"What? What does he need you to do that's more important than saving people?"

I hadn't realised Dad could hear both sides of the conversation until he plucked the phone from my hand with a murmured 'excuse me'. "Saving more people, my dear Brandish," he said, then ended the call and handed the phone back to me. "I would advise you to turn that off for the duration. She does not appear inclined to listen to our side of things, and the noise could be a dangerous distraction."

I hesitated. Ever since I officially became Panacea, I'd never turned my phone off. I'd always been on call, night and day, just in case some illness or condition that only I could deal with cropped up.

It began to ring again, Carol's name on the caller ID. With a convulsive motion of my thumb, I declined the call. Then I pressed the sequence to power the phone down. I wasn't exactly sure why Dad was concerned about 'dangerous distractions', but neither did I want to try second-guessing him.

"Phone's off," I reported, putting it away. "But you haven't yet told me what's so important that I'm likely to get guilted at for the next six months."

"One thing at a time, dear Amelia," he said, using a bone blade from his fingertip to slice open the plastic packing around the basic-use cell-phone he'd just bought. His other purchase , currently tucked under his arm, was a small roll of aluminum foil.

"Uh … didn't the PRT already give you a phone?" I asked. "A better one than that, even?"

He chuckled dryly. "I may be as the merest babe in the woods when it comes to computers in this modern age, my dear, but even I know when I'm being handed a surveillance device. If that contraption is not equipped to record all my calls, much less track my every footstep, then I will be sincerely astonished."

As he spoke, he exchanged the phone in his hand for the PRT-issued one in his pocket. The latter he proceeded to wrap in tinfoil until it was well and truly swathed.

I didn't want to think that the PRT would deliberately bug my dad, but the more I considered the notion, the more likely it sounded. Director Piggot was someone I could totally see doing it, and justifying it with the explanation that Dad was a notorious supervillain. Which he technically was, but he was also someone who had survived ten years in the deadliest human-created long-term living space on Earth. At the very least, I figured, he'd earned a bit of slack.

"Now then," he said genially to the three ABB members. "I am going to release you in a moment. You will pick up this box here and carry it to that alley just down there. You will not attempt to run off with the box, or perform any other stupidity with it. Do I make myself absolutely clear?"

"Wh-what happens if we do?" asked the leader of the group.

A heavy bone band formed around his leg, just above his knee. The same happened with each of his two compatriots. They twitched, evidently aware of what had just happened, but not of its significance. To be fair, neither was I.

"That depends, young man, on how attached you are to your femoral artery." Dad was an artist at the bland delivery of a mortal threat. From his expression and tone, he may have been commenting on the weather. "You may outrun me. You will never outrun my power."

I was pretty sure he wouldn't actually do it—casual murder was one thing I would wholly object to, and he had to know it—but the way they went pale showed that they were convinced otherwise. When he dissolved the cage, they stumbled a little, watching him warily. They were probably armed—knives at the very least—but they showed basic smarts by not even attempting to pull a weapon on him.

Next, he removed the bracket holding the box to the meter. "Pick up the box and carry it," he directed them. "Put those muscles to use."

While he directed them where to take it, I kept a lookout all around. He was probably doing the same—ten years in the Birdcage would teach a certain amount of situational awareness—but I didn't want to feel totally superfluous.

Nothing happened. Passers-by carefully ignored us. Really, it was the safest option; come in on our side, and their faces would be remembered for later. Come in on the side of the people extorting them for money, and they'd have to deal with our powers. Overall, a lose-lose situation. Better to see nothing.

With the box safely deposited in the alley, Dad had them stand back and then removed the reinforcing bone, leaving just the box we'd dug up from the overgrown lawnscape. Then he took his phone out but did not immediately dial a number.

"What's up?" I asked quietly. So far, Dad had been getting everything right. I didn't like the idea that he might not know what to do next.

"I am making use of a mnemonic to recall a number I once knew," he replied, equally quietly; now that I was paying attention, I could see that he was tapping a pattern on his wrist with the fingers of his free hand, as if pressing buttons. "Pray give me a moment, dear girl."

"Okay." I went back to watching the box, the gang members and the street. Tension ratcheted inside me, and I felt my nails digging into my palms. If Lung and Bakuda learned that we'd invaded their territory … well, Dad was good, but I didn't know if he was that good.

And then he started dialling. One number after another went into the keypad; a steady, measured series of beeps. Who he was calling, I had no idea. But it was like Fred Jones had once said; back in the day, my Dad knew everyone.

"Ah, yes, hello," he said, as cheerfully as if he were speaking to an old friend on the street. "Yes, it is indeed myself. As you are no doubt aware by now, I am a free man once more. I wish to reactivate my account. Yes, a card as well would be considerably appreciated. Also, I would like to open a new account, with its own card. The funds for it are at my location. Yes, thank you. I will expect you momentarily."

Stepping from the mouth of the alley, he put his hand to the wall. Bone, spreading from his hand, became a barrier blocking off the entire entrance to the alley. I couldn't quite figure out what he was doing, and the three gang members looked equally puzzled. He'd contacted someone, and arranged a bank account for the money he'd put aside for me, but what was supposed to happen next, I had no idea.

After about two minutes had passed, we heard a distinct clack from inside the alley. Dad gestured, and the bone barrier disintegrated. Within was the box, but now it was empty. I could tell, because the lid was half-dislodged, sitting askew on the box. But that wasn't all; on top of the box lid, there were two envelopes that hadn't been there before.

"Aha." Dad stepped forward and picked them up, then smiled and handed one to me. Written on the front was 'Amelia'; when I opened it, I found a magnetic-strip card and a piece of paper. The card was blank on both sides, apart from the reader strip. On the piece of paper was a string of numbers and letters, printed with impeccable penmanship.

Holy crap. That's better service than my bank here in Brockton Bay.

Closing the envelope, I folded it over and slid the whole thing into my pocket. "Okay, I will admit to being seriously impressed. But can we maybe get out of ABB territory before Lung and the others learn we're here, and come looking?" I figured the box was the equivalent to all the birthday presents I'd missed out on since Dad went to the Birdcage. It would suck to get it all at once, then not have a chance to spend the money.

"My dear Amelia." The tone of Dad's voice changed, becoming more serious. "That was never the plan. We came here for a reason, and we will be seeing it though." Turning his head fractionally, he appeared to survey the nearby rooftops. "Place your back to the wall, now."

Dad didn't usually give me orders, but I'd found that even his suggestions were well worth following. As I moved to obey, I saw tiny shards of bone sprinkling from his hands to the sidewalk and then spreading in all directions like a light dusting of frost. As it went up the wall, I looked more closely; it was a gossamer-thin network of bone spicules, just strong enough to hang together of its own accord.

While—as previously mentioned—I could never claim a traditional Thinker rating, his words and actions gave me a severe case of unease, and I lowered my voice when I replied to him. "Why? What's going on?"

"As I expected, someone has indeed alerted Lung's cape faction." His tone was light again, possibly to make sure I didn't panic. "I just spotted Oni Lee. He's approaching carefully, to ensure that this is not a trap."

I was pretty sure I knew the answer to that one. "But it is a trap, isn't it?"

My father smiled tightly in approval. "Of course, my dear Amelia. However, I have one question to ask of you. Oni Lee is a killer, and no doubt intends to murder us in cold blood. Would you prefer I killed him or captured him alive?"

Jeez. Put this on me all of a sudden, why don't you? I knew damn well that legally speaking, we were permitted to meet lethal force with lethal force. But I just couldn't bring myself to be okay with baiting someone in just to kill them as soon as they got close enough. Also, I didn't know how he was going to do it, but there was no doubt in my mind that he could and would. "Uh, alive?"

He inclined his head briefly. "Alive it is. Now, hush. I shall be needing to concentrate."

I tried to quiet my breathing, then I wondered about the other three. They hadn't said a word in some time, and this would be a perfect opportunity for them to disrupt Dad's ambush. Carefully, I turned my head, and I realised why Dad had been speaking only to me.

They were still alive, which was a relief. He could easily have murdered them behind my back, but he hadn't. Then again, I'd asked him not to kill them, so there was that.

However, they weren't about to shout a warning. Not only were they locked into bone manacles that held them immobile, but bone gags across their mouths prevented them from making any noise above a quiet mumble. And Dad had done this while I was right there, literally behind my back while I was talking to him.

He is really, really good with his powers. Like I didn't know that before.

And then it was waiting time. I didn't know where the ABB assassin was, and I didn't know how he was going to try to kill Dad, but I knew it was going to be soon. The seconds ticked by. Sweat trickled down the back of my neck. I tried not to fidget.

If he got within arm's reach, I could put him to sleep. But he had to know that already, so there was no way he'd let me even get close to touching him. So it was all down to Dad.

I only spotted Oni Lee's attack run because I was almost looking that way, and I caught him from the corner of my eye. He appeared in the alley; Dad and I were backed up to the walls on either side of the entrance, looking out into the street. With virtually anyone else, he would've achieved total surprise.

My father wasn't just 'anyone else'.

Before I could turn my head or begin to shout a warning, before Oni Lee was able to aim the pistol or toss the grenade he was holding, Dad's power acted. From the grimy, trash-littered floor of the alleyway sprang slabs of bone, launching upward to surround and imprison the masked figure in an instant. (I'd say 'entomb', but Dad had said he wouldn't go lethal).

I finished turning my head and stared at the bone monolith that had appeared in the alleyway. "Okay," I said. "I'll bite. How did you pull that one off?"

Dad shrugged modestly, or as modestly as he was capable of, which wasn't very. "I learned a long time ago how to deal with teleporters, my dear Amelia." Holding up his hand, he exhibited more of the fine bone network, then made it vanish. "I am aware of all bone in my vicinity, especially when it is still connected with me. A fine carpet of it is almost invisible, and when the teleporter crushes it …"

"… you know where they are, and the bone walls can be grown up around them." It had been right there in front of me, but I was still impressed. "What are you going to do with him now?"

"Me?" He raised his eyebrows and placed his hand, spread wide, on his chest. "Nothing."

I wasn't sure where he was going with this. "You're just going to … leave him there?"

He spread his hands as if to show there was nothing up his sleeves. "Amelia, I have no better way to maintain him as a long-term prisoner than where he is right now. If you wish, we can get him out and you can put him to sleep, but if we just leave him there, he can breathe quite well."

"And what about food and water?" Oni Lee might be a villain, but I wasn't going to just let the man starve to death.

"I am certain the PRT will be able to supply him with both when they arrive to arrest him in a few hours." He beamed at me. "I understand that they have holding cells aplenty, which will fit their needs to a T."

I was missing something. "And what are we likely to be doing in the next few hours that will delay us from informing them of his whereabouts until then?" Dad did not strike me as being the sort of person who would sit around doing nothing for an hour out of pure spite.

"Why, Amelia." He pretended surprise. "There are villains bombing my city—our city—almost with impunity. Don't you think it would be a good idea if they were stopped?"

Oh, yeah. That was what I'd been missing. "Just gonna say, Dad, that sounds almost heroic of you. Turning over a new leaf or something?" I raised my own eyebrows as I said it; he didn't have exclusive rights to all the good lines.

He chuckled in delight. "You are definitely my daughter. No, I'm still firmly in the villain camp, though I suspect I will be trending toward rogue once I find my footing in this brave new world. Removing Lung and Bakuda from the board will not be so much a heroic act as a pragmatic one. It's hard to do business when everyone is looking over their shoulder for the next explosion, after all."

"I … guess." He had a distinct point, but it still felt weird. "How are we going to be doing this?"

Turning to look at me, he raised his eyebrows. "'We' are not going to be doing this at all, young lady. I pledged to deliver you to the hospital where you can heal the ongoing trauma cases, and that is what I shall be doing. The rest, I will do on my own."

"What?" My voice rose in indignation. "No! That's not gonna happen! Lung's the most powerful cape in Brockton Bay, and Bakuda does bombs! There's no way I'm going to let you go after them on your own!"

He paused to look at me, and tilted his head slightly. "You truly mean that. I am touched. Also, I find myself wondering if a little of your sister's tendency toward precipitate action has not rubbed off on you."

I rolled my eyes. "Leave Vicky out of this. Either we're taking down Lung and Bakuda as a team, or not at all." There was no way I was going to let him just go off and maybe die, or get charges trumped up against him by the PRT while I wasn't there to stand by him. It was as simple as that.

"As you wish, my dear." He led the way out of the alley, then casually erected a solid wall around Oni Lee's ad hoc prison. "You three; the time has come for the conversation I alluded to earlier." Without so much as a gesture, the gag on the tallest one melted away. "Let's see how short and sweet I can make this. Where might I find Lung and Bakuda?"

It looked like the guy had grown a backbone while secured, or maybe Dad had hit the one hill he was prepared to die on. "Fuck you, old man. That's where. Ain't telling you shit."

"Are you certain about that?" A bone blade grew from between Dad's knuckles, and teased across the idiot's throat. "As I said, I have spares. Once they see your fate—"

"Dad," I said in a tightly controlled voice. "Can I speak with you for just a moment?"

I was starting to get the idea of why he'd wanted me to go back to the hospital while he went after Lung and Bakuda. His methods of getting information were likely to be as brutal as they were effective, and he had to have known that I wouldn't approve. The trouble was, I was here now and he just had to lump it.

He stepped with me back into the alley and lowered his voice. "Amelia darling, please don't interrupt me when I'm working. If I am unable to elicit the correct information from one of these three morons, my task of ending the bombing spree will be much, much harder. And it's entirely unlikely that any of these three is an actual innocent."

"Yeah, I get it," I said heavily. "But I don't care. You don't murder prisoners. It's literally their job to be loyal to Lung. Is there any way we can convince them without actually committing a war crime?"

His lips pressed together, Dad seemed to ponder my words. "I can think of one way, but it will require your cooperation, and a little trickery."

Well, if he was willing to compromise, so was I. "I'm listening."


The Villain Formerly Known as Marquis


As I rounded the corner again, I raised my voice. Our performances in this little play did not have to be perfect, just good enough to deceive three young louts already in fear of their lives. "If you do not have a better way to do this, stay in the alley!"

"But I told them you wouldn't—"

"More fool you, for making a promise you couldn't keep!"

Placing myself directly in front of the leader of this little band, I looked him squarely in the eyes. My left hand clamped onto his shoulder, so that he was less likely to notice Amelia laying her hand on his arm, from outside his line of sight. The bone blade I formed from my hand was impressively large and came to a wicked point. As I waved it hypnotically before his eyes, he gulped nervously. "You—you can't. She said you wouldn't—"

"She has no say in this," I interrupted, pricking his Adam's apple with the very tip of the knife. "Now … where might I find Lung or Bakuda?"

He gritted his teeth and shook his head. "Fuck off. Not gonna—"

"As you wish." I swiped the knife across his throat. Immediately, he began to choke and gurgle as the life faded from his eyes. A red tide spilled down his front, soaking his shirt; more trickles of red came from his mouth and nose. He convulsed a few times, then hung motionless in his bonds, his head hanging forward.

Flicking the blade in a theatrical fashion, I moved on to the next in line. He stared at me, then at his erstwhile leader. "Don't—don't kill me! Please!"

"Tell me what I want to know." I made my tone implacable. Between that, his helpless position, the threat of the blade, and his slumped-over associate, his will to resist would surely crumble.

Still, he didn't divulge the information that I sought. "I can't. We can't. She'll kill us." He was terrified, almost crying, but still holding out.

I traced the blade over his cheek and dropped my voice to a menacing whisper. It was time for a little more stick, along with some carrot. "And you believe I will do less if you keep refusing? The moment you give me what I want, I will release you, and you can go back to your tawdry little lives. Nobody need know you were ever involved."

"She'll still kill us!" It was the third one speaking up. He twisted his head around until an ugly scar was revealed, down behind his ear. "She put bombs in our heads. If we don't do what she says, we explode, or turn inside out, or melt, or something! She gets off on that shit!"

"Ah." That put an entirely new complexion on matters. "Amelia, dear? Could you perhaps apply your expertise to this problem?"

"Bombs? Really?" Amelia stepped in beside me and poked his cheek with her finger. "Okay, wow, yeah. There's something in there. Not sure what, but she's hooked up some nerves to it." She frowned. "I should be able to remove it without any problems. There's no large blood vessels in the way. Do you consent to me taking it out of your head?"

His eyes opened wide. "You can do that shit? You do that, I'll tell you everything I know!" He seemed to have entirely forgotten about his unfortunate colleague, which didn't precisely surprise me. The (shudder) 'Azn Bad Boys' did not seem to run on the concept of supporting one's fellow man, especially considering how Bakuda was doing her recruiting.

If she were to survive this episode without a Birdcage sentence or a kill order, I was going to lose what little faith I had in the integrity of the PRT as a whole. Seriously. I might go so far as to write a strongly worded letter to my Congressman.

Still, there were certain precautions that would need to be taken. Just because I had set a trap for Oni Lee did not mean we were immune to being trapped ourselves. "Not so fast, Amelia."

"What?" She turned to look at me. "Why? We've got to get this thing out."

I dissolved the bonds holding the boy's legs immobile. "And you may do so, once I have this one separated from his friend. Just in case, you understand."

Together, we walked him into the alley, where Oni Lee remained imprisoned within his calcareous prison. Everything I had read about him indicated that he required line of sight to utilise his teleport power, so I had blocked that off as soon as he appeared. New problems; old solutions.

Generating more bone, I locked our potential source to the wall of the alley and stood back. "Have at it, Amelia dear."

"Alright then." She drew a deep breath, which I judged to be more a habit than a sign of trepidation, and moved in close. I found it intriguing that while she needed to achieve physical contact to activate her power, the expression of that power was far more versatile than mine. Except, of course, in the case of affecting her own body.

"That feels weird," he muttered, squirming under her touch. "Tickling me inside my head."

"Sshh," she admonished him. "Nearly got it … uhh, is it bad that it's flashing heat?"

Alarm bloomed in the back of my mind. "Back!" I snapped, taking hold of Amelia's shoulder and dragging her bodily away from her hapless patient. Once I had line of sight on the young man, I shot a bone claw out from my hand toward the flashing red light I could see within his neck. The claw closed on flesh and bomb alike, tearing them free to the accompaniment of an agonised scream from the ABB member. As part of the same movement, I flicked the claw sideways, detaching it from my hand with a familiar stab of pain so that it flew off down the alley with the bomb and gobbet of flesh firmly clasped in its pincers.

Perhaps a second after it passed by Oni Lee's prison, it exploded. Or rather, something happened that turned the walls and floor of the passageway into a twisted mess capable of giving Mr M C Escher nightmares for a week.

Amelia and I stared at one another for a moment. "Booby trap?" she asked, somewhat faintly.

"Booby trap," I agreed. "Possibly activated by light or exposure to air. I am truly beginning to despise Bakuda." She was exhibiting all the traits that I detested in my fellow supervillains. While life was anything but sacred to me—I had killed many people, some of whom were technically heroes—I considered murder to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. Removing disloyal subordinates was one thing, but anticipating their removal by implanting bombs in their skulls was a measure of vicious pragmatism I would never embrace.

In a way, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy; if one's minions were treated so badly that they needed to have implanted bombs to ensure their loyalty, then disloyal thoughts were almost certain to be entertained at one point or another.

In this particular case, I didn't blame them in the slightest.

She returned to her patient and closed the jagged wound I had torn in his neck. It had been bleeding badly but not catastrophically; fortunately, as she had noted, there were no significant blood vessels in the way. "You could've not ripped half his throat out, you know," she observed with more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

I raised my eyebrows. "In situations like that, dear Amelia, there is the gentle solution and there is the solution that saves lives. All too often, these are not the same thing, and anyone who stops to attempt to locate the perfect solution will find it too late, if it exists at all."

"I still think you could've been nicer about it." She finished healing her patient—who still had his eyes clenched shut in terror—and stood back. "Hey, you can open your eyes now. You're fine. Bomb's out, and it didn't even kill you."

Not for want of trying, I thought, but did not say.

"Ah. Right. Um." He licked his lips nervously. "What did you want to know?"

Now we were getting somewhere. "Where can I find Bakuda and Lung? I wish to have words with them about their management practices and public relations model. They're giving supervillains a bad name and may I say, that is a rather impressive feat, given that we are sharing a city with literal Nazis."

"Yeah, I know, right?" He nodded. "Bakuda's got a workshop over on—"


Panacea


"Hey!" called out the guy I hadn't knocked out. "Marquis! Panacea!"

Which reminded me; I was going to have to wake the other one up at some point. Dad and I had pretended to murder him in order to put the fear of God into the others, and it had worked, but now the need had passed.

"What?" I asked, stepping out onto the street. "We'll get to you in a minute." As soon as I can figure out how to get those damn bombs out safely.

"It's not that," he said, pulling fruitlessly at the bone holding him against the wall. "They're coming. She's coming. And she'll blow me up just to kill you!"

"What?" Aware I was repeating myself but unable to avoid it, I looked around. Then I listened.

That was when I heard the engine. It struck me that there'd been no vehicle traffic for all the time we'd been here, which kind of made sense; everyone was staying indoors. I wasn't a car person, but this sounded powerful, not to mention loud. It echoed through the streets, and it was coming closer.

Just as I opened my mouth to call Dad, he stepped out of the alley. "Is there a problem?" he asked.

"Yeah." I indicated the direction I could hear the engine noise coming from. "He says that's Bakuda. And she'll blow him up just to get us."

Which, now that I was thinking about it, I could totally believe.

"We need to be out of sight, Amelia dearest." Dad grabbed me by the arm and hustled me into the alleyway. "There is no sense in presenting a free target when your enemy has a ranged weapon."

"We don't know she's got ranged weapons," I protested, though I didn't resist.

"Yes, we do." His tone was grim. "Her main attack involves bombs or bomb-equivalent technology. No Tinker worth their salt would pass up the chance to put such munitions as far away from them as possible. I would wager she uses a forty-millimeter grenade launcher, or something of that nature."

"Yeah, she does," confirmed the gang member Dad had ripped the bomb out of. "Sometimes even she doesn't know what she's going to use before she uses it."

"Which makes her a loose cannon of the highest order," Dad mused. "We cannot afford even a near miss." I saw him frown, and figured that he was going through his options. What they were, except 'run away', I wasn't sure.

"They're getting closer," I ventured. As much as I wanted to tell at him to hurry up, I didn't. The last thing I wanted was to distract him.

"High ground," he said decisively. Bone steps formed a stylish spiral staircase, leading upward to the roof edge above. I started up; he followed.

I was puffing by the time we climbed onto the roof of the building. As Dad dissolved the staircase, he raised an eyebrow. "I believe we're going to have to work on your fitness, my dear girl."

Defensively, I raised my hand. "Healer. Not a rooftop runner."

"Nevertheless." Pausing, he turned toward the street, where the engine noise had become a crescendo. This close, I realised it wasn't just one vehicle, but several; a 4×4, along with a few motorbikes and a couple of sedans. Bakuda and Lung had brought backup. "Stay low, and stay quiet."

I needed no urging, though I was puzzled by what Dad was making while we hunkered down. Each the size and shape of a tennis ball, he made about a dozen of them, one after the other. Almost holding my breath, I waited.

I barely heard the crack of bone being smashed, but Dad's head came up. "Showtime," he murmured. Taking up the balls, he tossed them over the edge of the roof, not bothering to see where they went.

The next thing I heard was an almost sibilant whisper, repeated a hundred times over, followed by a chorus of shouts, screams and other sounds of pain. Dad stood up and stretched. "And that," he said, "is how you—"

I was almost caught unawares, but I turned my head at the right time and caught a silver flicker from the corner of my eye. And thus, I was able to leap forward and push Dad out of the way before Lung's huge scaly feet landed where he'd been a second ago. Also, flaming. Did I mention that Lung was ten feet tall and on fire? Because he was.

"DIE!" boomed the leader of the ABB, looming over us. His long metal-scaled tail—yes, it was on fire too—whipped around toward Dad and me.

Shoving me aside, Dad threw up a hasty bone shield ... which shattered into a dozen pieces when Lung's tail struck it. Heat bloomed around Lung's body, and I felt my skin prickling and drying just being near the draconic crime boss. Dad had it worse, as the red-hot metal sliced across his arm and chest, leaving blackened sizzling flesh behind.

Bone spikes struck upward from the rooftop, seeking to impale Lung, but the scales were too strong. I grabbed Dad while Lung was smashing the rest of the bone forest with his hands and tail, and dragged him towards the roof edge. As soon as I made contact with him, I started healing the burn damage, but it was deep and savage.

Lung started toward us again, metal talons seeking to shred and burn us, but Dad temporarily dissuaded him with a shower of bone spikes aimed at his eyes. "Over the edge, Amelia," he grunted. "Now."

It was maybe thirty feet to the ground, but I didn't hesitate. Helping Dad to his feet, I flung us both over the side. If I couldn't trust him when we were both in peril, I fleetingly decided at the back of my mind, when could I trust him?

In the event, my trust was well-founded. There was a huge network of bone between the vehicles and the building, continuing into the alleyway. Everyone had been caught up in it, held at odd angles like flies in a spider-web.

We hit the top layer and it shattered under us, but subsequent layers reduced the impact so that by the time we reached the ground, it was barely an issue. Stumbling to my feet, I picked Dad up off the ground with desperate strength. "Come on," I insisted. "We gotta go."

"C'M B'K H'R!" roared Lung, then opened his mouth and vomited a searing blast of flame at us. Dad produced another shield, and it took most of the damage, but I felt his whole body wince as more burns got added to the total.

Hastily, I healed him some more, turning crisped flesh back to undamaged skin. The bone network parted before us like a curtain as we stumbled past the mouth of the alley. I looked over my shoulder, just in time to see Lung spread a set of metallic wings and glide down toward us. Shit shit shit shit. We are so dead.

Abruptly, Dad straightened and reached toward the last ABB gangster we'd left attached to the wall. The bone claw extended from his hand, and it tore into the unfortunate guy's neck. Even as the poor guy screamed in agony, the claw emerged again with a tiny blinking object in its grasp. And then, Dad turned and threw it at Lung.

Even as injured as he was, his aim was impeccable. The thing went straight into Lung's open mouth ... and detonated. Or, in this case, un-detonated.

Lung's head was the first to go, crunching down to the size of a walnut. Then his chest and arms, reducing in a staccato rhythm that reminded me gruesomely of children's cartoons making fun of superheroes with growth or shrinking. Every part of his body was subjected to the effect, the last to go being his tail.

Glowing almost white-hot, the baseball-sized chunk of metal made a minor crater in the sidewalk. I blinked; the whole thing had taken less than a second, from start to finish. Lung, once the most feared cape in Brockton Bay, was dead.

Dad cleared his throat and indicated the ABB member he'd taken the bomb from. "A job for you, dear Amelia. And then, you may as well call your family. I imagine there is work for you at the hospital."

"And you?" I asked as I set about healing the gaping wound. It really was a good thing there had been no large blood vessels near the bomb. "What about you?"

He chuckled. "Why, I shall await the PRT. I am looking forward to seeing the expression on Director Piggot's face when she finds out who brought Bakuda's rampage to an end."

I snorted and rolled my eyes as I started on his burns. "Dad, you're just mean."

He chuckled again. "My dear Amelia Claire, I never said I wasn't."


End of Part Twelve