THE CUCKOO'S EGG

by Galen Hardesty

Chapter Eleven

THE MASKED AVENGER

~*~

It was full dark, but the streetlights were on. Jane was keeping an eye out for Daria as she sat in Trent's blue Ford on Glen Oaks, but the rap on her window made her jump. Looking out, she saw nothing but the houses across the street. Puzzled and somewhat alarmed, she looked around. The rap came again on her driver's side window. Jane whipped her head around, but again, there was nothing to be seen but the empty street and the houses on its other side.

"Daria, I know that's you. Come on and get in if… Aahh!" Jane's sentence broke off as a black form was suddenly standing there, right by the window.

"What's the matter, Jane? You said you knew it was me," Daria inquired as she removed a black ski mask.

"I was, uhh, worried you were gonna scratch the paint," Jane replied lamely, as Daria walked around the car and got in. "Geez, you weren't kidding about the Masked Avenger costume, were you?"

"Low observability. Can't hurt, might help." Daria was wearing a black turtleneck sweater and black jeans, with her usual boots. Her hair was secured in a bun in the back.

"So, where to, Captain Midnight?"

"The office park on North Main. I have an appointment with Dr. Drake."

"Think he'll be there?" Jane asked.

"Ehh… if he isn't, I'll leave him a note or something."

"So," said Jane, as she headed for Main Street, "this guy prescribed you an antidepressant, huh? It certainly produced results."

"He ain't seen nothin' yet. I'll show him results. The very latest development, he said. First of a new class of drugs, he said. Fast-acting, he said."

"Well, he wasn't lying about the fast-acting part," Jane pointed out.

Daria was on a low-volume rant. "Increase my neurotransmitter level. Reuptake inhibitor. As if I didn't already have more neurotransmitters than I know what to do with. Incompetent jerk."

"You shoulda told him that."

"Yeah. I got the highest IQ ever recorded at Lawndale High, I shoulda told him. I'm up to here in neurotransmitters, I shoulda told him. They dribble out my ears when I walk, I shoulda told him."

"Yeah, that's tellin' 'im. What are you going to do tonight?"

"I'm going to look through his records of patients from Lawndale High and other schools and see who referred them and what treatment they got. I'm going to try to link that to kickbacks from drug companies and look for evidence that he paid 'finder's fees' to school councilors. I'll note anything I find so Mom can subpoena it."

"Cool."

Daria spun around. Trent was in the back seat with his acoustic guitar.

Daria shot Jane an accusing look. Jane shrugged. "I didn't know he was there."

"I just came out to the car to get in some undisturbed guitar practice," Trent said.

"Trent, you were sleeping," Jane pointed out.

Trent smirked and lifted the guitar. "I didn't drop it."

"Great," groused Daria, "another witness to deal with. Another hole to dig. Take the next right."

As they drove past Colonial-styled brick doctors' and dentists' offices, Jane asked, "How are you going to get in? You know it's gonna be locked up tight."

"I have my lockpicks with me if I need 'em," replied Daria. She knew that Drake had forgotten to lock up when he'd left in tears earlier in the evening. "but I'm going to try to open the door by telekinesis first." Daria was less than confident of her ability to pick a modern lock such as these offices were likely to have, but there was the exam room window around back that she'd unlatched earlier, if it came to that.

"You need any help?"

"No. I'm just going to locate some files. Besides, this is a felony. If I get caught, I don't want to drag you down with me."

"Flapdoodle. We could just as easily get caught waiting for you."

"It's best if you don't wait. Drive by once on the off chance I can't get in, then go away and come back in about fifteen minutes. If you do park and if a cop comes by, Trent, you just stick your tongue down Jane's throat. He'll tell you to move on, and you can come back by for me later."

Jane made a face. "Eewww! Daria, you're my best and only friend and all that, but I don't like you that much."

"That's the one, ahead on the right. Don't pull into the parking area, just let me out at the street." Daria slipped the ski mask back on. As Jane slowed and stopped, she got out, thankful that the dome light in Trent's car was burnt out. She closed the door as quietly as possible and the car pulled away.

Daria jogged across the parking area to the entrance. She eased the door open and listened at the crack. Hearing nothing, as she'd expected, she opened it wider and slipped inside. Pulling out a small flashlight, she found her way back to Dr. Drake's office. Crossing to the file cabinets, she quickly found the records she wanted and copied several of them on the copier, which the Doctor and his messed-up staff had conveniently failed to shut off for the night. Then, returning them to their files, she took a gym sock from her pocket, carefully wiped every surface she'd touched, and left as silently as she'd come.

Daria waited inside the front door, scanning the street through the crack until Jane and Trent returned. Then she darted out, slipped into Trent's old car and quickly but quietly closed the door. "Mission accomplished," she said.

"Is that it?" Jane asked. "You wanna go home now?"

"I need to go one more place, if you're up for it," Daria replied.

"I was born up for it. What's the mission?"

"Laaaaawwndale Hiiigh."

~*~

"Come on, Daria, we've all heard about Li's legendary security system. Tell me how you got past it," Jane wheedled as they rolled homeward through the suburban night.

"If I tell you, you'll lose some of your awe of my superhuman abilities."

"No, I won't. Cross my heart. But I might have to do my nails next time you need a getaway driver if you don't."

"Oh, all right. It's really very simple." Daria yawned and rubbed her face. "I know which electrical circuit powers the security system, so I just tripped the circuit breaker for that circuit."

"That's it? Waitaminnit… How'd you get inside to trip the breaker without setting off the alarm?"

Daria blinked and shook her head. She was getting sleepy. "Didn't have to. There are a couple of outside outlets on that circuit. I just went behind a certain bush and plugged this into one of them, shorted the circuit, and tripped the breaker." She held up a modified electrical plug with no cord attached, the cord end of which had been wrapped with electrical tape.

"Ghod, that's brilliant! How'd you find out about the electrical circuit, though?" Jane asked.

"I looked it up on the blueprints at the county records office. There's an up-to-date set in the maintenance room, if you can get to them." Daria yawned again. "It's not like I'm the only one who can do it, though. I ran into Andrea in there once, and she says she knows of Upchuck and the Head guy getting in."

"The Head guy?"

"You know, that nerdy kid that was in self-esteem class with us."

"Oh, yeah. How did they get in?"

"Andrea didn't say," said Daria.

"In my day, we used to come in through the crawlspace. There's a hatch that opens into one of the janitors' closets," Trent put in.

"Trent! You bad boy! You never told me you used to break into school," Jane exclaimed.

"You never asked me."

"The bars on the crawlspace entrance are wired into the alarm system now. You can still come in that way, if you bring a couple of bypass wires with alligator clips, but you can set off the alarm if you're clumsy. I'd rather not crawl in the dirt," Daria said.

"Not to mention the cobwebs," Trent said. "So you just walk right through the door, huh? Cool, Daria." He strummed a few chords on his guitar, then sang,

o / "Out of the night when the moon is shining bri-ight

comes a burglar known as Daria.

This bold renegade carves a 'D' with her blade

A D that stands for Daria." o /

Daria tried in vain to stifle a giggle. "Jane, can't you get him to shut up?"

Jane grinned. "Sorry. It's kind of his car. Anyway, you look like you could use a laugh."

Trent continued,

o /"Daria... the fox so cunning and free...

Daria... she makes the sign of the 'D'

Daria! Daria! o /

By the time they pulled up in front of 1111 Glen Oaks Lane, Daria was blushing a bright pink. She picked up her ski mask and turned to her friend. "Thanks, Jane, for aiding and abetting. And thank you, Trent, for, uh, letting Jane steal your car."

"Wanna go with us for pizza? The night is young," Jane proposed.

"Not for me. I gotta get inside quick or I'll wake up tomorrow morning on the lawn. I'm really thrashed." Daria waved and headed up the walk.

Before she reached the door, it opened. Quinn looked past her at the car with its departing troubador. "What was that?"

"My theme music." Daria pushed past Quinn into the house, suddenly staggering with weariness.

"Daria, where have you been? And why are you dressed like that? You look like a burglar!"

"Burglar? Whatever makes you say that?" Daria shifted her arm to press the papers under her sweater tighter to her stomach, and the ski mask fell to the floor.

Quinn stared at it, alarmed. "Oh, lord. Daria, what on earth have you been doing?"

"Just looking up a few things." Daria tried to pick up the ski mask, but almost lost her balance and had to grab the banister to stay on her feet.

"Daria? Is that you?" Helen called from the kitchen entryway. "Dinner's… why are you dressed like that?"

Seeing that Helen was coming, Daria lifted her sweater and pulled the copies she'd made out of her waistband. "Here," she said, handing them to her mother, "Drake gettin' kickbacks fum drug cumnies. Paid Manson to send stoonts to 'im."

Helen's practiced eye scanned the papers. Expressions of surprise and anger chased each other across her face. "This is… Daria, where did you get these?" she asked.

There was no answer. Helen looked around. Daria was seated on the sofa, apparently unlacing a boot. Helen walked over and tapped her on the shoulder. "Where did you get these, Daria?"

Daria's head bobbed once, but she didn't straighten up. "In a cavern, in a can…" she mumbled.

"What?" Helen grasped Daria's shoulder and pulled her to an upright sitting position. "Where did you get these documents?"

Daria tried to raise her head. "Strange thing dog did in the ni…" she murmured, trailing off to silence. She sagged into a reclining position on the sofa.

Helen reached down and shook Daria's shoulder. "Daria! Answer me!"

"I'm green, I'm gree…" Daria mumbled, then her head rolled to the right. No amount of shaking or shouting could get another syllable out of her.

Helen held a hand over Daria's nose to check her breathing, then rested it on her forehead to check for a fever. Feeling none, she stood gazing down at her daughter in concern. "Quinn, take her boots off, then come in to dinner," she said. Grumbling under her breath, Quinn knelt to comply.

~*~

As Helen came downstairs the next morning, the aromas of coffee and sausage drifted up to her from below. Entering the kitchen, she saw Daria, still in her black jeans and sweater, cooking a very large amount of breakfast.

"What in the world… well, good morning, Daria. It's good to see you awake. What's with the feast?"

Daria looked up from scraping a large quantity of scrambled eggs from the skillet onto a platter. "Hi, Mom. I'm really hungry this morning for some reason, and I figured I might as well make enough for everyone."

Helen poured herself a mug of coffee. "Well, you did miss dinner last night. Did you sleep well?"

"Pretty well, I guess, considering where I slept. I had a dream about wandering through dark tunnels looking for something, that went on way too long." Daria removed a plate of turkey sausage from the microwave and carried it to the table.

A less cheery expression came over Helen's face. "Daria, those papers you gave me last night, most of them had to have come from Dr. Drake's office. Did you break into his office and go through his files?"

Daria loaded the toaster and poured herself a cup of coffee. "No, I didn't break in. He left the door unlocked. I just walked in. The file drawers weren't locked either. The staff must have been in a hurry to leave yesterday."

"Daria, surely you know that's still illegal. What in the world were you thinking?"

Daria paused and tried to recall. "Ordinarily I could tell you, but yesterday is… confused, to put it mildly. I remember doing it, but it just seemed like the right and obvious thing to do at the time. I saw some things in Manson's office, and some checks from drug companies on Drake's desk, and I figured he was getting kickbacks from drug companies and bribing school counselors to refer students to him. Going back and getting the goods on him was a no-brainer."

"No-brainer is right! Do you have any idea how many laws you broke?"

Daria carried her coffee and toast back to the table and sat down. "Uh, just a couple that I can think of, unless you count lurking with intent to creep."

"This isn't funny! Have you no conception of what could have happened to you? What could still happen to you?"

Daria looked up from loading her plate. "I'm starting to. But yesterday, the thought literally never crossed my mind." She ate a forkful of scrambled eggs and speared a piece of sausage.

Helen raised a hand to her forehead and stared out the window in one of her 'suffering mother stressed to the limit' poses. "I don't know what I'm going to do when the police come to get you. I don't even know if I can keep you out of jail pending trial."

Daria reluctantly paused her attack on breakfast. "Oh, now you're being insulting. You don't really think I'd leave evidence, do you? There's no sign that anything happened at all. The only way they might possibly find out is if Quinn blabs." She took a drink of orange juice. "And if they did come for me, you'd just tell them I was under the influence of a prescription drug and couldn't stop myself. Which is true. Prohappia gave me an irresistable urge to see Dr. Quack behind bars."

Helen shot Daria an angry look. "Daria, if you think you can throw a fit and run wild and blame it all on that one little pill and get away with it, you're crazy. That medication has passed the world's strictest set of tests for drugs. It wouldn't be on the market if side effects like that were possible." She looked away as if thinking, then looked back at Daria again. "If the police don't get you, maybe I should do something to convince you that you can't do just anything you want because you're smarter than most people."

Daria put her fork down and locked eyes with Helen. "Mom, if you think I wanted to do any of those bizarre things I did yesterday, you're the crazy one. I told you I wasn't clinically depressed. I gave you facts. I reasoned with you. I begged and pleaded. You practically rammed that pill down my throat with a poke stick. What happened as a result was in no way my fault, and I won't accept any blame for it. If you feel I should suffer the consequences of my evil deeds on top of the public ridicule I'm already facing, then call the law and turn me in." Her expression was suddenly as hard and cold as granite. "Just count the cost before you do. Now I have to shower and get ready for school. The police can find me there."


Daria headed out of the kitchen, but stopped as she passed Helen. "Oh, here's a printout I got off the Internet this morning." She pulled a folded piece of paper out of a pocket. "The FDA has just rescinded their approval of Prohappia pending further tests, because of many reports that people with normal and higher intelligence are having exaggerated reactions to the drug. It seems that all the original test subjects came from a trade school for the learning impaired." Daria handed the paper to Helen. "Note the date… three days ago."

~*~

Daria was fastening her skirt when there was a knock at her door. "What?"

Helen opened the door a crack, then about halfway. "Daria, I want to talk with you," she said in a conciliatory tone.

Daria looked at her for a second, then said, "Come in."

Helen entered as Daria sat down on the bed and began putting on socks and boots. "Daria, we sort of got off on the wrong foot this morning. When you find out your daughter has been committing felonies, it's sort of disturbing." She held up the paper Daria had given her. "But if this is true, then maybe you didn't do those things deliberately."

Daria looked up from tying a bootlace. "'Maybe?' Two things here. First, if you know anything about my personality, such as it is, you'd know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I would never willingly sing, dance, ad lib bad poetry, or in any other way act a fool in public. I loathe looking foolish and being embarrassed so badly that even seeing other people being embarrassed makes my stomach knot up. I hate it with every fiber of my being.

"Second, when I gave you those papers last night, it had not occurred to me that having them in my possession was prima facie evidence that I'd committed a crime. That alone should completely convince you that I wasn't in my right mind at the time."

Helen stood there, considering Daria's words. The more she turned them over in her mind, the more obviously true they seemed.

"All right, forget the maybe. You didn't do those things deliberately. Sweetie, I'm sorry I doubted you. I hope you don't think I'd ever want to see you in jail, for any reason. I only want what's best for you."

"Does that mean you're going to start trusting me and taking my side, at least until you have good reason not to? That you're going to start really listening to what I say, and giving me the benefit of the doubt if you have one?"

"I wasn't quite that bad, was I?" Helen asked.

"Well, look at it from my perspective. You didn't hesitate for a minute to take the opinion of Manson and Drake over that huge battery of tests I took at Quiet Ivy and Dr. Millepieds' expert analysis. Jean-Michel is recognized as a top man in his field, and Manson is generally known to be incompetent. And just now you were assuming that I acted the way I did yesterday because I'm just no good. I'm not exactly feeling loved and protected here."

Helen looked down at Daria's ugly rug and sighed deeply. "You're right. I've been treating you like you're insane. How could I have gone so far wrong? I was just trying to be a good mother and do the best I could for you." She looked back up at Daria. "I would never think you were no good, Daria. I love you. But when you come home dressed like a burglar and practically admit to breaking and entering, that's kind of a shock to a mother's system."

A small smile crept onto Daria's face. "Okay, I'll give you that."

"What do you think I should do, Daria?"

"Well, start out by assuming that I'm not clinically depressed or otherwise demented, and get my side of the story before you do anything." Daria's smile took on a slight wicked tinge. "And then do what you do best. Sue the bastards."

Helen smiled a similar smile. "I think that's doable. It might even be highly remunerative." Helen took a step toward the door, then stopped. "Daria, how sure are you that you didn't leave any evidence last night?"

"Well, I didn't want to alert the prey that they're being stalked. I didn't break to enter. I didn't take anything except those few sheets of copier paper. I left everything just the way I found it, and I didn't leave any fingerprints. On the off chance that there was a security camera I didn't see, I worked in the dark and wore a mask. I'm pretty sure."

~*~