Part Thirteen: Lucky for Some
[A/N: This chapter beta-read by Lady Columbine of Mystal.]
"Did you hear? Skidmark's dead."
Hannah looked over at Armsmaster's pronouncement. They were both on treadmills in the capes-only exercise room in the Protectorate HQ base. He showed no particular emotion at the revelation, but then, he'd never been overly demonstrative at the best of times.
"Well, that's a shocker," she said dryly. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that he OD'd on something. Meth? From his looks, I always figured that was his go-to." She wouldn't be treating the death of a human being in such a cavalier fashion in public—PR mandated that heroes be seen to be kind, caring and above all empathetic—but as far as she was concerned, there was nothing there to be empathetic for. At best, the man had been a drug-fucked cape who occasionally used his powers in vaguely unethical ways. At worst, he'd been a wannabe gang lord who sold hard drugs to schoolkids. There was a word for someone like that: scumbag.
"I'm not a hundred percent sure," he admitted.
Surprised, she let the treadmill slow as she looked over at him. "Excuse me? Are you going to explain that statement, or do I have to call Mike-Sierra on you?"
He snorted at the half-joking reference to Master-Stranger protocols. "The signs point to murder. Him and Squealer and Mush. The cops got an anonymous tip-off that led them to his latest crash-pad. One dead guard outside, one with a serious concussion and a broken jaw. Inside, they found all three capes, dead, as well as two of his followers. They'd had seizures and haemorrhaged from their eyes, ears and noses. The pain must have been intense, because they all clawed at the floorboards so hard they tore the nails clear off their fingers. Oh, and all of them had arched backs and a fixed grin on their faces." His voice was meditative as he continued. "I'd never really understood the word 'rictus' before today. Now I do."
"So, blood work?" she prompted him after a few seconds. "Tainted drugs? Some sort of targeted neurotoxin? Were they forced to take the drugs?"
"That's what all the evidence says so far," he confirmed. "Not the forcible ingestion, though. No sign of restraint or bruising consistent with that. Besides, time of death is some hours after the door guard. The investigation officers found a bunch of drugs, all untainted, in a bag behind a chair. At a rough guess, everyone else bolted after they realised their boss was dead." He shook his head. "It looks like someone took out the door guard, walked in, moved the drugs, and left a bag of contaminated cocaine. That's the most prominent drug in their systems. We tested what little cocaine residue was left, and found traces of a foreign substance. The chemistry is extremely complex, to the point that it's almost biological in nature. Chances are, it's what killed Skidmark, so we're treating it with the utmost caution."
"Wait, they left poisoned drugs so Skidmark would kill himself?" Hannah shuddered. "That's … cold. That's also someone leaving a very definite message."
"Yes, but what's the message?" Armsmaster asked. "I can kill any cape I want?"
"No." Hannah was recalling a report she'd filed not so long ago, under the codename 'Jester'. "Remember how Shadow Stalker got stabbed by someone who'd been fighting ABB? She and the girl with her said the attacker had a really creepy grin and was giggling and laughing all the time. I'm thinking this might be her, making her mark."
"Maybe. I've got another suspect in mind. If it turns out they're all the same person, it'll simplify things a lot." Armsmaster nodded to himself. "Earlier last night, a couple of people wearing clown makeup invaded one of the smaller station houses and worked over the officers there pretty good. They all survived, and they described the one in charge as being a petite woman with glowing eyes, and a grin that was way too wide. And she giggled and laughed a lot." He paused before dropping the final bombshell. "And she didn't take a thing. All she did was get on the computer system and look up old cases."
"Skidmark." It wasn't exactly a huge leap of logic.
"My thoughts exactly. The trouble was, we don't know which case she was looking for. The last one she looked at had nothing to do with him. But the ones that do … well, there's a lot of them. He has to have upset half of Brockton Bay at one point or another."
"Unless she was just trawling the files to see who she wanted to kill next, and he caught her eye." Hannah didn't really like that as a concept, because it didn't give them a pattern to go on with. Random villains were the worst. "What are the Director's thoughts on this?"
He snorted again. "Unofficially, she's shedding no tears about the fact that Skidmark and his fellow capes are deceased. I believe the actual quote is 'and not before time'. But officially, we need to track down whoever did it and arrest them as soon as possible, before the other gangs start getting nervous that someone might be gunning for them next."
"I can actually see her point there," Hannah noted. "This sounds like it was very smoothly done. No matter which way you slice it, there's a cape out there who's proven that they will remove someone like Skidmark from the scene, just because they can." She looked Armsmaster in the eye. "Do you honestly think that they'll stop now without targeting someone else, villain or hero?"
"If it is indeed the girl in the alley, she's already shown she's willing to stab a hero and just walk away." Armsmaster pursed his lips. "No, you're right. Even if she thought she had a good reason, people like that are adept at thinking up more good reasons to keep stabbing people. Or poisoning them, for that matter."
"Well, it's not like many other capes have a drug habit," Hannah offered. "Have you figured out if it needs to be inhaled, or can it be ingested or injected as well?"
"I'm not at all sure if it needs drugs at all," Armsmaster said. "We'd need to test it on something living to be sure, but it seems to have gone straight in through the sinuses. Didn't even need to reach the lungs. For all we know, it just needs to be sprinkled on steak or something similar."
"And then you die in agony, with a horrible grin on your face." Hannah shuddered. "Yeah, we need to locate this girl soonest. If only to find out her plans."
She didn't say what had to be on both their minds. If this mystery cape was going to make a practise of murdering capes (even villains) in their private lives, then every cape in Brockton Bay (especially villains), would soon be after her. And that didn't even bring the Birdcage into it, as such activities almost certainly would.
"I'll get the Jester file to you, so we can correlate data. What name were you giving your suspect?"
"I was going with Rictus, actually."
"That's what five counts of murder one gets you."
The rest of the exercise period went by in silence.
Leaning back in his most comfortable chair, Kenta switched channels in an effort to find something a little less vacuous than the normal pre-digested American TV pap. A news channel caught his eye and he stopped clicking, just in time to catch the image of Skidmark's face, the discoloured teeth on full display in a grin that seemed more than half grimace.
He listened to the commentary with half an ear, most of his attention aimed at the image on the screen. Skidmark had bled from the eyes, he could see, as well as the nostrils and possibly the ears. He'd seen all of this before, just not usually in the same person at the same time. The grin was also more than a little off-putting; for a man who had made it his practise to be the most terrifying cape in the city, that was saying something.
The PRT spokesman came on screen and spoke for several minutes, managing to say nothing at all in that time. No leads at this time, appeal to the public for information, blah blah blah. When the news switched to another item (a feelgood shot showing Glory Girl getting a kitten down from a tree without actually breaking the tree) he muted the sound then sat back, thinking.
Skidmark had been, in anyone's parlance, a waste of space and oxygen. If he'd ever seriously faced Kenta, he would've died in that moment. But he hadn't. The man, though clearly stupefied by far too many hard drugs (Kenta could vaguely sympathise with that) had yet possessed the common sense of a brain-damaged lemming, given that he'd never tried to take on the ABB.
Still, someone had killed him. Murdered his entire crew. The news didn't go so far as to state it out loud, but the implication was right there. Someone had tampered with the Merchant leader's drug stash, and Skidmark and his people had died as a result.
Kenta couldn't actually see himself benefiting as a result. The Merchants had never posed a threat to the ABB, or held territory that the ABB couldn't take from them by the simple expedient of walking onto the turf and staying there. They'd never really been a serious gang, so much as a bunch of overdoses waiting to happen. And by existing, they'd provided every other gang in the city with a veneer of reverse gentility. "At least they're not as bad as the Merchants." They'd been an example of what the cape gangs in Brockton Bay could really be like.
Now, the contest had suddenly devolved to be between the ABB and the Empire Eighty-Eight. Coil's gang barely even made the radar most days, and jokes like Uber and Leet weren't worth mentioning. And of course, there was someone out there who thought it was a good idea to kill capes in their own safe spaces.
The conclusion was obvious. For several very good reasons, the interloper had to die. He didn't yet know who they were, but that was only a detail. His people would ask questions until they found someone who knew the answers.
And then whoever this … this 'Smiler' was, would die.
He, Lung, had spoken.
I sat on the sofa and watched the news on TV. Normally I ignored it, as I ignored everything that didn't personally concern me, but I wanted to see what they made of my handiwork. Nothing had come of the stash house where I'd recruited Frankie, but this was the first time I'd gone out to make a splash. I'd finally gotten to murder someone, and it was a righteous kill. Skidmark had taken my mom away, so I took him away.
When they showed the pictures of Skidmark, after the mandatory warning of sensitive images (which almost certainly were calculated to make more people tune in, rather than fewer) it was everything I'd hoped for. He'd died in agony and confusion, wondering why his body was betraying him like this. The only thing better would be if I'd been able to crouch beside him and whisper in his ear, "This is me. I'm doing this for my mom." But I could deal. I'd even got Squealer and Mush at the same time, so bonus points right there. Go me.
A smile almost crossed my face as I leaned back against the sofa, ignoring the shot of Glory Girl getting the kitten out of the tree. I'd done it. Skidmark was dead. I'd avenged the death of my mom, only a couple of years late. The only way more fitting would've been if I'd run him down in a car then backed up over him a few times, but then again, I'd used the tools at hand and put my calling card out there at the same time. Everyone would see that grin in their nightmares and wonder, "What did Skidmark do to deserve that?"
Uncertainty was an amazing weapon.
"You alright there, Ames?"
Amy turned at the question, interrupted in her quest for finding a snack in the fridge. "Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"
"Eh, I dunno." Vicky dismissed the question with a flick of her hand. "You've just been a bit off since you got home. Like something's bothering you. One too many hangnails to fix at the hospital?"
"No, actually." Amy returned her attention to the fridge and spoke over her shoulder. "The PRT asked me to come in and evaluate what happened to Skidmark." She shuddered. "Scary shit."
"Wait," objected Vicky. "Skidmark's dead. You can't fix dead people."
"That's true." Amy selected a banana and closed the fridge door, then looked seriously at her sister. "Don't spread it around, but we've discovered that if they put electrical impulses through a fresh cadaver, I can read the body. I can't fix it—there's nothing for my power to grab onto—but I can definitely determine the cause of death."
"Man, that's creepy Frankenstein stuff right there." Vicky floated up alongside Amy as they headed for the lounge. "So what killed him?"
Amy shook her head. "Some kind of weird pseudo-biological stuff. Definitely engineered. Dissolve it in water and it'll pass straight through cell membranes and go looking for your central nervous system. Triggered the equivalent of a grand mal seizure in Skidmark, only it kept going until he died, with a targeted effect that left him grinning like a loon." She shuddered. "As far as I can tell, the effect will be one hundred percent fatal in humans, even in tiny doses. The immune system doesn't even recognise it as a threat."
"That still sounds all kinds of creepy," Vicky agreed. "Can you make people immune to it?"
"I honestly have no idea," admitted Amy. "I'd have to see it at work on a living subject first. But it's … well, you know how viruses aren't really alive?" She sat down on the sofa and picked up the remote.
"Yeah, you might've mentioned it a time or two," Vicky said, floating down to sit beside her. "Is this thing like a virus, then?"
Amy shook her head. "Yes and no. It's less alive but more malignant. Like the difference between a tiger and a Tiger tank. I have trouble reading its structure in a dead body. And to be honest, I don't know if the victim being alive would help all that much."
"So how long does it take to kill someone?" Vicky just had to be morbid.
"You don't want to know." Amy closed her eyes and put down the remote. Slowly, she started peeling the banana by feel.
"Yeah, I do. An hour? Less?"
Amy took a deep breath then let it out again. "About one minute, is my best guess. Of which thirty seconds is utter, horrific agony. Your heart rate goes through the roof, your blood pressure spikes and you haemorrhage out of your everywhere. And you end up grinning so hard you tear muscles in your cheeks."
Vicky was silent for about a minute. Amy finished peeling the banana and took a bite. "Well, fuck," Vicky said quietly.
"You asked." Amy raised her eyebrows.
That got her a dirty look, but then Vicky nodded. "Yeah, I did. Next time I ask a stupid question like that, remind me of this one, okay?"
Amy snorted. "You'll still want to know."
"No, I won't." Vicky turned on the TV.
"Yes, you will."
"No, I won't."
"Will, and change the channel. This show's shit."
"Won't, and no it's not. Your taste is shit."
"Yeah, it is. Change it or else."
"Or else what? You gonna make me?"
"If I have to."
"Hey, no using your power to make me extra ticklish!"
"No flying in the house!"
"You started it!"
In the ensuing argument, the issue of Skidmark's untimely demise was entirely forgotten.
"Did you hear Skidmark was dead?"
Max looked over at where Krieg was sitting. "Yes, I heard. Good riddance to bad rubbish."
"So, what were we going to do about it?" The question was blunt, almost challenging.
"Nothing." Max sat back in his seat. "He's dead, we're not, everyone can move along in the knowledge that Brockton Bay is just that little bit less of a shithole than it was this time yesterday."
Krieg wasn't letting this go. "Max, he was executed. By a cape. That's right against your Unwritten Rules. It could be one of our capes next. We can't risk that."
Max rolled his eyes. "No, it won't. And do you know why it won't? Because Skidmark wasn't an actual gang leader. He was a junkie with powers. He didn't have a base, and he didn't have an organisation, not like we do. He was one bad trip away from walking up to Lung and punching him in the mouth. He was low-hanging fruit, James. We are not. We are organised, we have safeguards against people finding where we sleep, and most importantly? None of us are moronic enough to be such habitual drug users that we'll grab the first baggie of cocaine that we see and snort it. In short, he died of stupidity."
"Yes, those are all good points," Krieg acknowledged.
"And yet, I hear a 'but' on the way." Max raised an eyebrow. He'd practised in the mirror.
Krieg sighed. "Yes. 'But …' we don't know that this cape will only use a poison that mixes with illicit drugs. They might have one they can use to dope beer with. Or walk up and stab someone with a syringe … yes, alright, that one is a little hard to pull off and survive," he conceded, holding his hands up. "But food can be tampered with. Alcohol. All we really know right now is that there's a cape who successfully assassinated three capes with a substance that left them with nightmare-inducing grins on their faces, and we don't know who they are, what their intentions are, or who they intend to kill next."
"True." Max couldn't argue with any of those points, no matter how much he might have wanted to. "Though in the Empire, we've all got reasonably secure secret identities, and I can't see someone dosing Hookwolf's beer and getting away with it." He smirked. "Lung, on the other hand, has far fewer people than us, and nowhere near the organisation we do. If you were a new cape, ambitious, who'd just taken out the crappiest gang on the block, would you immediately move onto the biggest and most dangerous, or go after the other stragglers first?"
"So what you're saying is we should wait and see if they go after the ABB or Uber and Leet first?" Krieg's tone was thoughtful. "That sounds like the kind of thing that could backfire on us if we're not careful."
"So we'll take precautions," Max agreed. "But at the same time, we won't panic altogether. Hell, depending on who it is and why they're doing this, we might even see about folding them into the Empire. Wouldn't be the first time."
"Hmm." From the sound of it, Krieg still had his doubts. But he didn't voice them, so it didn't matter.
"Excellent." Max dusted his hands off. "Next order of business?"
Later That Night
The car pulled up at the right spot, and I climbed in. Frankie pulled out onto the road as soon as I was settled; he had his greasepaint on, but the nose was sitting in the centre console.
"Evening, boss," he said cheerfully. "So who are we going to fuck up tonight?"
I giggled. "You know me so well, Frankie. But to be honest, I'm going to need your input. Skidmark was more personal than business, but now we need to start hurting the other gangs. Do you have any problem with hitting the Empire?" I figured he hadn't, given the enthusiastic way he'd gone along with my attack on the stash house, but people have been known to get cold feet.
"Fuck, no," he said. "I was just a warm body to those assholes. You been nothing but good to me. You wanna hit the Empire where it hurts, I'd say the dog fights. Shitloads of money come in, all the time. Downside, you're gonna be up against Hookwolf at the very least. Maybe Cricket, too."
I smiled, allowing the expression to cross my face until I was grinning wider than a human should be able to, showing glowing teeth inside glowing lips. "How about you let me worry about the capes."
He shuddered, and most of it wasn't even feigned. "Sure thing, boss. The other big thing we could do is hit the ABB. They got this illegal casino that the city doesn't really wanna risk raiding in case Lung takes offense. Ruby Dreams, or some shit like that. Upside, fucktons of money all in a small area, and no Hookwolf. Downside, Lung or Oni Lee might show up." He shrugged. "Just saying."
"If I could make the ABB capes not a problem, you think the two of us could take the casino?" Here was where I was relying on my faithful minion's understanding of how these things worked.
Slowly, thoughtfully, Frankie nodded his head. "You know, boss, I think we could just about pull it off. Is that what we're gonna do?"
"That's the next question I had for you." I looked at him seriously. "If you were Kaiser or Lung, and you heard about me killing Skidmark, what do you think I'd do next?"
"Um … shit." Frankie rubbed his forehead. "Lung's likely to want to come after you. He's an asshole like that. Kaiser thinks he's chill, but he's just an asshole too. He'd probably hold back to let you take out some of his rivals. They'd both expect you to go after Lung. Maybe not the Ruby Dreams, but the ABB in general. I mean, it makes sense. Lung might be scary powerful, but the ABB's got just him and Oni Lee. Knock them out, that's another gang off the streets."
"Yeah, I can see that." I rubbed my chin and grinned. "So, when and where is the next dog fight?"
End of Part Thirteen