Falling Shoes

The ringing of the phone in my pocket caught Taylor off guard, causing her to reflexively jump where she was sprawled across the sofa. Digging the phone out of my pocket I punched the mute button on the TV remote.

"Go," I answered bruskly, adding a touch of gravel to my voice.

A slightly husky contralto voice answered from the other end. "Dammit all Norm! You RETIRED!"

"Comish! Great to hear your voice. How's life treating you?"

"Can the crap Norm, I know this is no social call." Jaime Gordon was always no-nonsense when we communicated. It was half the fun of winding her up. "You asked for me, so that means you're back in the hunt. Is this a one off or is the cowl off the hook?"

I'd first met Jamie Gordon as a student at Brockton Bay University, about a year before meeting Annette. Jamie was a newly minted BBPD patrol officer so fresh out of the Academy that she still squeaked. To my great disappointment, she was also newly and happily married. We were paired as study partners in a corporate accounting class that we both were taking as a pre-req for a forensic accounting class. She was, of course, a Criminal Justice major. I was doing the Accounting track with a CJ minor.

As a joke, I started calling her Jim. Then I had to bring in one of my old Batman comics to explain the joke. I also made the mistake of using it in the presence of her partner when he picked her up from a study session and apparently the nickname had stuck. Of course, when I later arranged to approach her in costume I had to come up with something different. Thus, as Norm Man I always called her by either her proper name or Comish.

I sighed into the phone. "Yeah Comish, the cowl's back on. Long story short, a friend of a friend of a former contact got steered to me. His daughter was attacked at school and I've agreed to look into it. I've got their story and I've got copies of the documentation the victim provided. I was hoping I could get something more from your side that might enable me to help them and you out."

I could hear her groan from the speaker. "You know there are limits to what..."

I cut her off by rattling off my Private Investigator's license number. "Retired doesn't mean I've let things lapse."

"Okay," she replied. "I'll send you what we're allowed to give affiliated support capes."

I quickly rattled off an email address I had acquired from an anonymous service. "Thank you Detective Gordon."

"You're welcome," she answered. I could feel the strain in her voice. "And Norm, welcome back. We need you."

I looked over at my daughter who was following at least my half of the conversation. When she nodded, I knew she'd actually been able to hear both sides.

"Jamie, you have us."

=NM=

"Taylor!" My yell echoed across the basement. I was taking the morning to review the case file Jim had sent over, planning to head for the office after lunch.

After a moment I heard her feet thump on the kitchen floor and the door open. "Yeah Dad?"

I had been reviewing the case file Jaime had sent over and had just come across an interesting and disturbing piece of data.

"Can you come down here a minute? And close the door behind you."

The thud of my daughter's boot clad feet on the basement stairs followed and she was soon leaning on my shoulders as I pointed out the highlighted line in the report. Her hand reflexively clamped down on my right arm and I could hear her teeth grind in my ear.

"Why the FUCK is the PRT requesting that the Brockton Bay Police Department delay and BURY MY CASE!"

I flipped back several pages on the screen. Because the suspects were all minors, their names had been redacted from the document, but their physical descriptions and ages had been left.

Of course I recognized Emma's description immediately, not needing Taylor's finger jabbing at the screen as she growled out her name as well as Sophia and Madison's.

I waved to the other workstation we had set up. She quickly had her machine booted. I nodded approvingly as she logged in through an onion site. In a world with Tinkers, it was far from a perfect means to anonymize a search, but it would suffice for what we were looking for.

"Bring up PHO and lets see what we can find."

Much of the world hears the term PHO and all they think of is forums full of cape geeks, conspiracy theorist and bad fanfiction shipping everything from Triumvirate orgies to pick a hero/pick a villain starry eyed romances. Thank god Tin Mother had started cracking down on and deleting the accounts of the perverts who tried to post anything involving wards or known to be underage villains. Just having seen the handle Lung&Vista4evah was enough to make me sick!

But I digress. ParaHumansOnline was far more than just the forums. It was the repository of record for the current status of all of the known hero teams, most of the rogues and a good many villains as well.

"Search Brockton Bay Wards Team Photo for me."

Taylor quickly had an image pulled up, downloaded and expanded to fill her screen. A banner across the top proclaimed 'Brockton Bay Wards – October, 2010', the most recent group shot available.

I immediately dismissed the four guys in the image. Aegis, Gallant, Clockblocker and Kid Win were obviously not any of the three we were looking for. The last two members were Vista, who despite her long tenure on the team was widely known to have only just turned thirteen, and Shadow Stalker.

Her dark, full body costume with hood and cape revealed little about the newest Ward. About all that could be told was that her height was the same as Aegis and she was thin, with a runner's build. That definitely ruled out either Emma or the Clements girl.

I could hear Taylor starting to growl under her breath. 'Annette, I'm sorry, but I think that while she inherited my temper, she got your gift for language.'

I rolled my chair over beside hers and pulled up the PHO page for Shadow Stalker. As expected there were no vital details listed. After all, the mods were assiduous in their work to keep data that could out a cape off the site. But there were more ways to figure things out. I quickly scrolled through the images attached to the page but did not see one like I was seeking.

I glanced again at the group picture, then pulled up Aegis page and hit the jackpot. The third image was of Aegis shaking a police officer's hand in the entrance to a convenience store where he and Vista had disrupted an armed robbery, most likely saving the manager's life in the process. There, behind the ward's head was one of those colorful measuring stripes that are so ubiquitous on the doorframes of such establishments that they disappear from conscious view.

It did not take long to compare that information against the police record and verify that Aegis, and therefore Shadow Stalker were in the correct height range to be 'suspect number two'.

"I cannot BELIEVE that Sophia FUCKING Hess is a GODDAMN HERO!" Taylor's outraged screech devolved into French, then Portuguese. I'm the one in the dockworker's union so where the hell did she pick up Filipino and Vietnamese? Oh God. The summer Annette had the teaching contract down in New York and Taylor spent the days with me at the docks. 'No wonder you weren't happy with me when you got back.'

I let her continue to vent it out of her system 'much like you used to do with me dear.' Switching back to Shadow Stalker's PHO datasheet I skimmed through her history. She had first shown up about two years before as one of those independent heroes better described as a vigilante. The sort who's only in it for the fight and could just as easily be a villain. The big game hunter mentality. Lots of descriptions of excessive and potentially deadly use of force but for the lucky survival of her targets.

Something bugged me about the descriptions that were included. There was a pattern there, tickling at the back of my mind.

Taylor was now using Spanish to describe shoving an earth ball up inside Sophia and inflating it with Helium so she could see how high she would float before she popped. I shook my head as she switched to Farsi. I'd feel proud of her language skills except for the fact I understood what she was saying and none of it was acceptable for company. We Hebert's have always had a temper and we've had to fight to cont... wait...

Fight...

I looked back at the synopsis of Shadow Stalker's known actions. In every case where there were comments from survivors who were rescued by her, they fought back before Shadow Stalker intervened. There were a lot of cases where she took out attackers after they had robbed and or beaten civilians, but there was no gushing praise from the victims unless they fought back first.

Oh God. The worst sort of mentality to be out there. Someone out to save those who deserve it.

The strong are to be saved, the weak are to be trod upon, if acknowledged at all.

Only idiots believe that the Empire 88 has a monopoly on this type of stupid philosophy.

I wanted to throw up. Or join my beloved daughter's rant.

Is that Maori?

=NM=

Years ago, about six months after Behemoth's attack, I was following a lead and ended up down in New York City. While staking out a mook for the case I had been accosted by one of the city's young heroes. A tinker. Why someone who's skillset revolved around making things wanted to be a brawler I had no clue. It turned out that the kid was part of the New York Wards, an experiment at the time in training up the next generation while keeping them alive and out of the hands of the criminal gangs.

It took a call to the local protectorate and a chewing out by the kid's team supervisor but he had eventually become an asset to the operation. I still smiled at the memory of Legend's voice over the radio telling the kid to 'Shut up and pay attention. Norm Man might just teach you something important."

Of course, the irreverent manner I embraced while in costume, and my own inspiration meant that I couldn't let the fact that Armsmaster was a Ward slip by.

Picking up another of the burner phones the Namode's had sold me I dialed the main protectorate number.

"Protectorate East Northeast. If this is an emergency involving an active parahuman presence press one, any other emergency hang up and dial 911 immediately. If this is not an emergency, please listen to the complete menu before selecting your option. To schedule a publicity event press two. Media requesting information or interviews press three. If you are a parahuman interested in joining the Protectorate press four. Independent heroes press five. Merchandise vendors..."

The beep tone of the phone five key sounded in my ear.

"Please state your verbal access code."

"Grayson, Wayne, Pennyworth DC 27 1939"

"Greetings Retired Independent Hero Norm Man." A pleasant, live, female, voice answered. "How may I direct your call."

Time to burn the donuts.

"I would like to speak with Armsmaster please." I let a hard edge drop into my voice. "It is regarding the actions of someone on his team."

"Please hold while I see if he is available."

=NM=

Colin Wallis was many things. He was dedicated. He was focused. He was professional. Hell, he was Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Courteous, Obedient, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent. What he was not was personable by any stretch of the definition. Friendly, Kind and Cheerful were not words with which he had any personal acquaintance. They were not efficient.

He was just settling in at his workbench and pulling up his nano-thorn designs when the phone in his office rang.

Pushing the speaker button he growled at the interruption. "Armsmaster."

"Sir, Retired Independent Hero Norm Man is on the phone asking to speak with you."

He waited a moment before prompting. "Regarding?"

"He said 'the actions of someone on your team', Sir."

Colin sighed deeply. "Put him through."

"Yes sir."

There was a click and before he could say anything the man on the other end was speaking.

"Morning Dick!" The voice was gravelly, yet still sounded annoyingly cheerful.

"You've been retired for fifteen years Norm, why do you still insist on calling me that?"

"Because you said I couldn't call you Burt."

Colin groaned, loudly. He was losing valuable tinkering time. "Norm, why are you calling?"

"One of your wards is off the reservation."

He reached out and closed the nano-thorn file. "Which one, what have they done, and how are you involved?"

He heard the man on the other end take a deep breath. "I'm involved because a friend of a friend of a contact hired me to investigate a case of bullying against his daughter that rises to the level of at least felony assault, possibly attempted murder, and that case is being squashed by the PRT."

FUCK! "Who is involved and how do you know they're a ward?"

"If the PRT is going to squash a bullying case, then the PRT Officer should not make the request directly to the police department, with their identification codes. As to which ward, well the victim gave me the name Sophia Hess and the physical description can only fit your recent addition from the sociopathic vigilante ranks."

Colin felt his breakfast rise in the back of his throat. He had waved off the concerns raised by Assault, Velocity and Dauntless over Shadow Stalker's psychological profile. Her Darwinistic outlook bordered on the edge of what was acceptable, but others had convinced him she was redeemable. "I'll need to see the evidence."

"I'll forward you a copy of the redacted case file the BBPD sent me as well as my notes." There was a an uncomfortably silent pause. "And Armsmaster. The cowl's come off the hook."

The phone clicked off and Colin sat there staring at it until his email beeped several minutes later.


A/N: This is the last chapter that I had ready to go when I started posting. From here on I shall get them up as I have them ready to go. Please don't forget to participate in the forum I mentioned last chapter, it's your chance to be part of the story!