Shadow Unit


"Wild Card" - by Leah Bobet

Act I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V

"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.

Dear Shadow Unit readers:

While we don't normally preface an episode with a content warning, we've felt it appropriate to put one forward for "Wild Card" in light of the mass shooting that occurred in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012. This episode deals with themes and content which may be difficult for some readers in the context of that real-life event, and while the Shadow Unit writers sincerely enjoy emotionally complicated reactions, we'd prefer to generate them on purpose, and not because of the quirks of five-year story scheduling.

Everyone in the Shadow Unit writer's room would like to urge you to please exercise discretion and self-care, and if you feel the need to sit this one out or hold it for later, that's entirely understood, appreciated, and supported on this side of the desk.

Thanks again,

The Writing Staff

Act I

Chicago, IL, July 10, 2012

"And I need to pay this power bill too," the old man at Sondra's till said. "Miss, quickly. I've got somewhere else to be."

Have you ever, she thought acidly behind her bright professional smile, heard of Internet banking?

"All right, we can do that," she said through her teeth, and took the creased and overdue power bill from the laminated counter in front of her. The sound system was playing something overly perky and full of jazz clarinets. One hour into her shift, and her neck already hurt from holding the frustration in. Right--get into finance. It was better than working in diners, scraping cold french fries off plasticky plates and sucking up for tips. Her temp agency placement counselor had neglected to mention that working in a bank was still working retail, with all the disdain and stupidity and pointlessness of retail, just with less comfortable clothes.

She wrinkled her nose just as deep as the skin on her customer's hands. The paper was damp. He'd sweated all over it.

She was dusting her hand on her black dress-code-approved skirt when the entire east wall of windows teetered in their frames and fell out of the building.

It took a moment for her brain to catch up: there were the windows, the gorgeous view of the trees and sidewalk and coffee shop across the street, tilting down, creaking, and crashing to the sidewalk. There were the pedestrians, scattering into the street; the sound of shrieks and car horns and tires as a cab yanked itself out of the way.

There was the red Volkswagen driving right through the space where the windows used to be, spinning a circle on the marble floors, and screeching to a halt in the foyer.

What? she managed, damp sticky bill still in hand, before the doors opened and the masked men tumbled out.

"Oh, shit," Pierre at the next desk said, and dropped to the floor. She looked down and saw him fumble for a button under the desk. The silent alarm. He was hitting the silent alarm button.

This was a robbery.

Two men in black masks opened wide burlap sacks with big black dollar signs stenciled on them, thick with the scent of permanent marker, and two more fired three rounds into the air. Customers screamed. The old man in front of Sondra's till clutched his brown porkpie hat.

A pair of pinstripe-suited legs emerged from the passenger side of the Bug, capped in shiny black leather loafers. Their owner ducked out gun first and tailcoat last. His face was painted carnival white, with his lips outlined in a terrible red grin.

The clown-painted man in the three-piece suit drew a slow arc with his automatic across the teller counter and stopped in a direct line to Sondra's chest.

"Take me," he said, in an old Chicago mobster accent that had to be dead fake, "to the vault, doll, and nobody gets hurt."

"Me?" she said. It was hard to breathe. Her voice came out in a squeak.

The clown squinted, jerked his big chin past her. "No, her. You see any other dollfaces in here?"

Sondra turned to see Charlene, the tall, blond assistant manager, teeter toward him on her black four-inch heels, eyes huge and terrified. She dropped the phone bill and sat down behind the particle board counter, guaranteed to stop exactly no bullets from entering her delicate and precious flesh.

Damn, but she hated this job.

J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC, July 19, 2012

"I'm about ready to present the case," Nikki Lau said, and SSA Esther Falkner--now Special Agent in Charge Esther Falkner--looked up from the bullet-point list on her computer monitor.

Lau was framed in her doorway, not a hair out of place, as usual. Falkner scrutinized her for signs of excessive politeness. The way the team looked at her was different now; had been different ever since she'd been formally invested as Special Agent in Charge and Reyes had cleared the last dusty rubber bands out of his desk.

His door sat locked now. Technically, Falkner had a right to move into the bigger office. But she hadn't yet, and was pretty sure she wouldn't, ever. She wasn't Reyes, this was her space, and moving just frankly sucked.

No, she decided; no excessive deference here. And so: "I'll be right there and get you properly sent off," she said, and locked her computer even though nobody was going to be in the unit, never mind her office.

"Not coming along?" Lau asked, lingering in the doorway.

"Paperwork," Falkner said, and for a moment, brutally regretted it. There were good reasons to be sidelined: she had a job posting to draft to fill the vacancies in the unit. Her back was having one of its bad weeks: a nagging, pulling pain that meant walking that much slower and taking that many more painkillers to settle down. Deborah had a softball game tonight at seven, and she'd promised she'd actually be there.

She had always been the backup team lead in Stephen Reyes's absence, and now that he was gone, it was her job to develop someone else's capacity to lead them. Which meant her team working without her, live without a net.

Desk job, she thought, and her soul sighed like a big exasperated dog. This was how it ended. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

"I'll see if I can get Celentano to lend us Tan or Pauley," she said. "The job posting goes up this week. It'll get better when we have another pair of hands."

There was no question that she'd get that temporary loaner; one or even both. Victor Celentano's quarrel had, for whatever reason, been with Stephen Reyes. Falkner had ended up on the ACTF in the first place because upper management saw her as diligent, someone who could keep the pressure from blowing; keep Reyes's less social tendencies in line. And even though she'd interpreted that expectation in her own ways for years, relations between Shadow Unit and Down the Hall had never been so cordial.

Lau nodded. "I'll get everyone together, then."

Falkner took a minute to drain her coffee and send her phone to voice mail before she trailed Lau to the briefing closet, where her team--four bodies large, which meant three too small--was already seated around the table. They didn't rib her at all for being last through the door. Definitely excessive politeness. She closed the door behind her and leaned against it. "Thanks for the forbearance, folks. Please go ahead."

Lau stood up and prodded her laptop to life. A grainy shot of security camera footage flicked onto the screen: two men in black balaclavas, holding weapons on a cowering crowd against a background of shattered glass and potted green plants. Two more masked men held something crumpled in their hands. There was a fifth, tall and narrow, standing with them in a pin-striped suit, his back to the camera.

"We're looking at a string of armed robberies in downtown Chicago, all by the same gang. They've pulled off four broad daylight bank robberies in as many weeks. They're smart enough to not fire a shot unless it's into the ceiling, and so nobody's been hurt except cuts and scrapes from broken glass, which kept it to a pair of major crimes detectives before, well, this."

Lau clicked the remote again, and the pin-striped man filled the screen. A close-up this time, including rumpled brown hair and his face: covered in white paint and a false clown grin, cheeks famine-victim hollow.

"Why so serious?" Chaz Villette said, and Hafidha rolled her eyes.

Brady leaned in, examining the pixelated screen capture. "So gamma bank robber drives through the glass, they take the cash, and...what?" Brady asked.

Lau's face was poker-star blank. Which meant this was going to be extra good. She only saved the Inscrutable Asian look for when she really wanted to make you drop out of your chair. "They didn't drive through the glass. The windows conveniently fell right out of the wall, and the UNSUB drove right through the hole. In a stolen VW Beetle."

Chaz Villette blinked. "Five guys in a VW Bug?"

Lau clicked to the next slide: a close-up shot of something metal that didn't yet make sense. "Unfortunately, that's not actually the manifestation. The windows came out because the adhesive holding them in suddenly failed to adhere. And then the local police and the insurance investigators realized the burgled vaults wouldn't lock again after the robberies. They didn't just open the vaults; they replaced the steel in the vault lock with calcium carbonate. The magnet keeping the vault locked had nothing to grab on to except Tums."

And yes, there it was: the picture was the side of a bank vault door. Lau traced the white blotch on the screen with a red laser pointer. The work was seamless. Falkner would have sworn it came that way factory-direct.

"How'd they do that?" Brady said, even though he surely knew the answer.

Lau wiggled her fingers. "Maaaagic."

"So that's the manifestation," Chaz said, forehead wrinkled. "Transmutation. Alchemy. That could go really bad if he escalates."

Falkner caught the look on his face and nodded. "There's iron in blood."

"Dental fillings," Brady added, suddenly somber.

"Why not just buy some lead and turn it into gold and skip the bank robbing part?" Hafidha asked dryly.

"That," Falkner said, "is a question you lucky folks will all get to answer in Chicago."

Reactions around the table; reactions for everyone. Brady's eyebrow went up, Hafidha leaned back, and Chaz pulled that still, blank face that surfaced when he didn't want to react. "I'll be available by phone from the office, and there will be one more agent. In the meantime, though, Agent Lau is in charge."

Lau blinked. Me?

Falkner leaned back in her chair, confident, leaderly: Yes, you.

To her credit, she adjusted quickly. "All right," Lau said. "The plane's almost ready to go, so we'll call it wheels up in an hour and map the robbery sites in transit. Let's get moving."

The look she cast Falkner on the way out the door was equal parts surprised and intimidated and determined and actually-I-don't-like-surprises. That's right, Falkner thought, walking back to her office. We call this maneuver the Mean Sergeant.

That look was perfect.

They were going to do just fine.


The file dropped on Arthur Tan's desk just in time to catch the last crumb from his sandwich.

He looked up, and the perpetrator was standing right above him: Victor Celentano. Make that Unit Chief Celentano.

"Sir," he said, and wiped the second-last crumbs from his mouth with as much dignity as was possible. "We have a case?"

Celentano shook his head. "Down the Hall does, and they're still a man short. The flight leaves for Chicago in forty minutes."

"Right," he said, and wiped his hand on his cafeteria napkin. "I'll liaise with them right away." Internally, he winced. Padma was going to hate this. He would have to send her sushi delivery for dinner tonight before he left. The good kind, with the hand rolls.

Tan picked up the phone and dialed Sushi Garden by memory. Flipped open the case file idly as he did, paging through the incident reports and eyewitness statements.

Stopped, and dropped the phone into its cradle.

"Hey, Pauley," Tan said.

Pete Pauley spun his desk chair around, pen behind his ear. "Mm?"

"Do we have," he asked, and held up the photo between thumb and finger, "any official Bureau procedures for supervillains?"

Act II

Chicago, IL

"It had to happen sometime," Lau said, go bag in hand, as they climbed the short steps of the Racine Avenue police station. It stood like a camel-colored cinderblock at the busy street corner. Long plastic blinds fluttered in the blocky windows. In L.A. the building would have been snapped up for a dance club. Or a boutique hotel. And in DC, it would be government property and surrounded by a barbed wire fence.

"What, Chicago?" Brady said. "Last I heard it's been happening since the 1830s."

She shot him a dirty look and almost missed the edge of the top step. "No," she said, like you did to a big brother or a small child. "Supervillains. Enough people read comic books that this was totally in the bag. Not everyone's worldview is straight out of American Gothic."

"Or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre," Hafidha added.

"Hey," Brady said. "Other states have also had chainsaw massacres."

"Name one," Hafidha replied, and then they opened the door and were inside.

Their liaison officer was already at the desk: a white, broad-stomached, thin-haired man with a meaty handshake. "Detective Pete O'Leary," he said, and thankfully stopped crushing Lau's free hand before she had to cry uncle. "Glad to have you on board."

"Agent Nicolette Lau," she said; the extra syllables in her first name gave her more leaderly gravitas. "These are Agents Brady, Villette, Tan, and Gates."

"A pleasure," O'Leary said to the lot of them, and waved them around the desk. "We have a spare office, but it'll be a tight fit. We're just a little neighborhood station here."

"Not to worry," Lau said, remembering the spaces they'd worked out of in Chillicothe, in Natchez, mobile in rural Texas. This would be what they called a policing first-world problem. "I'm sure we'll do just fine."

The office was perfectly fine: a vacant one the size of Reyes's office--his old office, Lau reminded herself--with two desks hastily shoved against opposite walls. Hafidha dropped the two suitcases that held her mobile office on the one farthest from the door and proclaimed "Shotgun," cheerfully.

"That's only for cars," Chaz mumbled, arms full of suitcase. He cast around for a place to drop it and settled on the floor in the corner.

"I can get you more chairs," O'Leary said apologetically.

Lau nodded. "Much appreciated," she said, crisp and professional. You're imitating Falkner, she realized abruptly. Cut it out. "We're going to be mostly in the field anyway today, I think."

"You want to see the last robbery site?" O'Leary said, a little too eager. A robbery detective who wants to be a murder detective; check. Sure, let him have it; she watched CSI too.

"Exactly," she said, and turned to the rest of the team. "Danny?" In charge or not, calling him SSA Brady was just plain weird.

"Sure thing," he said, and picked the regulation government car keys back up off of the regulation government desk.

Lau turned to Hafidha and found herself at a loss. She knew every agent on her team was a resource. She knew how they were best deployed. But not better than they did; not better than they could feel out their own strengths.

And knowing that is your strength, she told herself mildly, and squared her shoulders. "What's your first line of inquiry?" she asked.

"Let's see that security camera footage," Hafidha said, and snapped open the clasps on the first metal suitcase. "I bet we can get a good facial composite if I click real slow."

"Oh, we have a composite as well," O'Leary said, and fumbled through his folder. "We had our witnesses sit down with one of our sketch artists and work up a portrait. She got rid of the makeup to approximate the facial structure underneath, and here's what she turned out."

Huh, Lau thought. A robbery detective who might just make murder detective, if he stayed that proactive on all his cases.

Detective O'Leary held up the sketch. It was pencil shaded, bereft of clean lines. A long chin, narrow cheekbones, dark eyebrows. Two fuzzes of simulated shadow highlighted the gauntness of the cheeks.

"One of ours," Daniel Brady said.

"Or a Morlock," Hafidha replied, still connecting USB cables to hardware the same way some people cleaned and assembled a shotgun.

"Or a supervillain," Arthur Tan said, and Lau quirked an eyebrow. He quirked one right back.

"I do not want nerds with gamma powers," Hafidha muttered, and hit the power button on her rig pointedly with her finger. "I know nerds. I am nerds."

O'Leary glanced between them with a faintly puzzled expression on his broad face, but said nothing. They were federal agents. Clearly they were contractually obligated to crack wise.

"In that case, I'm gonna follow the money," she said, with a glint in her eye. "Detective, has the bank provided a list of serial numbers for the large bills?"

"I can get that for you," he said, and the confused lines smoothed out of his forehead into a more intent expression: complete mental note-taking. Follow the money; check.

Lau cleared her throat slightly; another Falknerian mannerism creeping right in. "Chaz?"

Chaz unfolded the map he'd been marking up on the plane. "Going to do the geographic profile. Here's the area he's sticking to: the Loop and the Near West Side."

"Armed robbers know better than to shit where they eat," Brady said. "That is, if they want to keep robbing banks today."

Chaz nodded. "He'll be close enough for those neighborhoods to stay accessible, but that's not where he lives."

"There's an easy way to find out where he lives," Lau put in, and turned around the map.

"Oh?" Brady asked.

She pulled a green marker from the side of Chaz's bag. "How do you and Agent Tan feel about finding some comic stores?"


Two steps into Punch in the Face Comics, and Arthur Tan was convinced the door was hooked up to his childhood. Specifically, 1989 in Columbus, Ohio, two minutes before Batman #428 made its way into his backpack. Same gray institutional carpeting; same walls upon walls of shelving, wrapped tight around a floor covered in chest-height longboxes crammed with single-issue runs.

Agent Brady's nose wrinkled. Tan grinned. "Ah, fanboy funk," he said, and sniffed appreciatively. "Some smells you never forget."

"I can see why," Brady said.

"Jock," Tan replied cheerfully, and picked his way around the longboxes to the front counter.

The man behind the counter was tall and spindly looking; the kind of guy you'd think you could take in either a fight or thumb war before you saw the lumpy muscle in his arms. He had a dark, prickly beard going on that mercifully stopped before the neck. Good on you for fighting the war against stereotypes, Tan thought, and waited to catch the guy's eye.

"Help ya?" he said, and as if they'd even thought about planning it, Brady and Tan pulled out their badges.

The guy behind the counter went white. Whiter. He was already plenty white. "Look, is this a bust?"

Brady stopped, looked down at him. "Is there something we ought to be busting you for?"

"The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund thinks not, G-man," he said hotly.

Brady stepped back, buffeted by the force of sheer nonplussedness. Tan felt the entirely inappropriate urge to giggle. Not at any point in all his years had he been called a G-man.

He kind of liked it.

The guy behind the counter was turning red under his beard. "I'm tweeting Neil Gaiman right now. I'll do it, buddy," he said.

Brady blinked. "Who?"

The guy looked quite literally down his nose at him. "God," he said, disgusted. "Really?"

"Really," Tan said. "Sorry."

"You should be," he said, and put his hands on the counter. "This isn't a bust, is it?"

"It's not," Tan said, and put away his badge. "We're canvassing the neighborhood to identify a suspect in a robbery."

The clerk's mouth pinched tight. Considering all the single issues in here, and the way the really articulated models and busts were tucked safely into locked glass cases, he probably had a serious opinion on the word robbery.

"We just want to know if you recognize this man," Brady said resignedly, and held up the sketch. It fluttered in the air-conditioning.

The guy peered at the sketch. "I don't think so. Maybe," he said, sounding doubtful for the first time, possibly, in his life. "Let me ask Kelly." He cupped hands around his mouth, called across the store: "Kel?"

A twentysomething girl with bottle-red hair swung out from the back room, a huge box of comics balanced on both arms. "Oh hey, original art? Is that David Mack?"

"Police sketch," Tan replied, beyond flappable now. "Does the person in it look familiar? Like a customer you might have seen? He's about yea high"--he mimed with his hand--"and really, really thin."

The redhead put down her box and squinted. "Oh. This one. I know this one," she said, and jumped to the computer on the desk. "He kept calling me 'my dear' like he was some cut-rate Doctor Doom, and he never picked up his pull list." The look on her face was as close as civilians could get to Agent Brady's fanboy-funk expression. Tan genuinely couldn't read which listed offense she considered the greater crime.

"Do you have a name or contact information for him?" Brady asked.

The redhead--Kelly--tapped a few more keys on the computer. "Right," she said. "Dan Morrison. Tried to tell me his name was Danny Dare, but lucky for you, we take ID for pull lists bigger than fifty bucks a week. What'd he do?"

"He's wanted for questioning in a string of robbery cases," Tan said.

"Oh," the redhead replied; intrigued. That car-crash kind of intrigued. "Wouldn't have thought ol' Danny had it in him."

"Well, they don't know he does, yet," the beardy clerk put in, looking a little bit put out.

"Here's his cell number," she said, and scribbled the digits on a piece of scrap paper. Pushed it across the counter toward Tan and Brady. "If he's not a master criminal, tell him to pick up his damn comics."

Tan and Brady pushed out the door into the sunlight, and Tan said, "Not bad."

"Not bad at all. To the Batmobile," Brady said, swinging into the driver's seat.

"No, no," Tan said, and then dropped his chin, and said in an entirely different voice: husky, hoarse, dark, and familiar. "To the Batmobile."

"Nerd," Brady replied, and shut the car door.


They had swept the broken glass off the tree-lined sidewalk, but Nikki Lau still heard little crunches beneath her toes as she walked up to the bank branch. She picked up one leg and examined the sole of her shoe; if there were still glass fragments there, they were too small to see.

Chaz Villette strode ahead of her, angling his head to inspect what were once the weatherproof joins on a wall of safety glass windows. They had covered the empty holes left with plastic sheeting. It billowed and crackled in the Windy City wind.

He held the sheeting aside and peered up into the bracket that had once held the windows. "The adhesive didn't fail. There's no adhesive left," he said.

"I wonder what industrial adhesive turns into when you add a basic chemical reaction," Lau replied.

Chaz dropped the sheet and made for the door. "A basic magic chemical reaction," he tossed over his shoulder. Lau wasn't sure whether to sigh or snicker. She followed.

The crime-scene techs were still working over the surface of the vault door with fingerprint brushes and tweezers, hunting for the slightest hair that might net them an evidence chain. One of them, brown hair twisted back under a ball cap, slight and short in her uniform, stood up and nodded at their badges. "Detective O'Leary told us you'd be by. Jane Townsend."

"Nikki Lau," she said, and stuck out a hand. This one didn't need syllables. "This is SA Charles Villette."

"Pleasure," she said, consummately professional. "So you want to see the mystery?"

She led them through a gauntlet of hunched, crouched, whispering techs inspecting every angle of the marble-floored bank like art restorers. Pens and documents lay scattered where they had fallen: a day's business flash-frozen and abandoned along the suddenly patio-style east wall into the street.

The vault was open and, Lau assumed, rumpled out of order; she hadn't seen the insides of enough bank vaults to say what they looked like when they were feeling good. A gray folding table had been set up in its centre: evidence-sorting station and command center, all in one. Townsend grabbed a small sample bag, one of dozens filled with specks of white powder, and handed it to Lau. "This is it."

She peered down. She had thought it would be bigger: a tiny puddle of calcium carbonate the techs had scraped out of the steel vault door. Chaz took another baggie, held it up to the light, and squinted. "Could I get a pair of gloves, please?"

There were gloves. Crime-scene techs were the portal through which all nitrile gloves flowed. Chaz snapped them on and dipped a finger into the powder. It shifted like a pile of fluffier sand. She looked up at the door: the hole in the vault from whence the powder had come was long, and spread out like tree roots, lined with white dust that faded grayer and grayer the farther back she looked.

Lau put down the bag and surveyed the rest of the evidence buffet: a few hairs, tweezed gently into sealed plastic; a pile of statements, hastily taken; a huge evidence bag folded up on itself, and inside it, undyed burlap. Lau picked it up and flattened it to its original size, and there it was: a giant dollar sign, markered onto the side of the rough-woven sack.

"Hey, Chaz," she said, and his eyebrow rose.

"We dusted it for prints, Agents," a tech said, brushing latex-gloved hands on his pants. "It came up negative. They wore gloves."

"That's not the point," Chaz said, excited, and took the fat plastic bag from Lau. "They made money sacks. For their heist. Even though waving this around means they're that much more likely to get caught by a roadblock, or on the street. It was more important than not getting caught."

Lau studied the smudgily markered lines. "He really does think he's a supervillain."

"You totally called it."

"I was joking," she said, although she'd only been halfway. Nothing was ever more than halfway funny when you worked for the ACTF.

"Joke about a decent taco joint for me next time, too?" he said, and Lau's jacket pocket lurched in a familiar way. Phone ringing.

She fished it out, hit the button with her thumb. "Lau."

"Hey, babycakes," Hafidha's voice came, blurred, through the line. "You on your way back soon?"

Lau rearranged the phone against her ear. "We're nearly done here."

"Might want to make that double-time," Hafidha said. "We've got mail."

Nikki Lau's phone beeped, loud. She pulled it away and thumbed open the picture Hafidha had just flicked onto her screen.

The front steps of the police station, covered in playing cards, every single one of them jokers wild.


Chicago PD hadn't been able to hold back the press. Lau and Chaz edged their way into the station past a murder of sharp-eyed reporters, their cameras at the ready, prepping on-air live segments for the six o'clock news. The steps were littered with playing cards, the doors locked, the whole front of the station surrounded by a ring of yellow police tape and grim-faced officers.

Lau held up her badge discreetly at one of them; his eyes widened, and he motioned them around the side.

"That's one thing for not wearing a uniform," Chaz muttered as the doors closed behind them. "Reporters somehow forget to put you in a choke hold for the details of today's special."

"Says you," Lau said. Their footsteps echoed up the metallic gray steps of what looked to be an old service stairwell. "Once they find out we're here, you'll never see me again."

A small handful of playing cards were scattered on Hafidha's claimed gray desk, the evidence bags that encased them reflecting the boiled light above. Detective O'Leary leaned over them, in a posture a sculptor might describe as determined puzzlement. He greeted them with a little wave from his big, long-fingered hand. "The plot thickens."

"Apparently," Lau said. She picked up a baggie, examined the card inside: pristine, corners unbent; a little man in a tasseled cap riding a red-and-yellow bee. "This fits with what we saw at the latest crime scene; it looks like our UNSUB really is playing supervillain."

Easiest to call it playing. Some local liaisons saw enough, knew enough already to take the truth and not have it throw them off stride. Lau couldn't tell yet if O'Leary's eagerness went that far. Sometimes ambitious cops wanted off the farm, but only so far as the suburbs.

"Oh, and we looked into the stolen bills," Hafidha added. "I'm about halfway through the list, but so far, interesting thing: Mr. Riddler McPenguin here hasn't spent a dime of his loot."

"Guy's a pro," O'Leary said from his corner: a whole complicated smoothie of professional respect and personal disappointment. "He knows we can trace the serial numbers."

"Guy's not that much of a pro," Danny Brady said, pushing through the door just ahead of Arthur Tan, and both of them with a little bit of a strut on. "He still leaves his name and number at the neighborhood comic shop." He dropped a piece of paper on the desk as if it were a royal flush. Scrawled on it in red pen: Dan Morrison, and ten precious digits.

O'Leary's head came up, eager and sharp once again, all the fatigue draining away. "I'm going to run this," he said, and swept the scrap of paper off the desk on his way out the door.

Lau nodded at them. "So you found something."

"We found something," Brady said, and sat in the spare chair. "One of the clerks at the third place we tried recognized him. Apparently he doesn't do much to avoid sticking out. If the guy had a moustache, he would twirl it."

"Thing is, the more I think about this the less it fits," Tan said, thoughtfully. "He's careful with the rest of the operation: stolen cars, masks, not firing a shot in the direction of a human body. Why be that sloppy on the back end?"

"He's not being sloppy," Hafidha said, a little light kindling in her eyes: Eureka. "It's his mythology. If the boy thinks he's a supervillain, in the world in his little head, slapping on some clown face and a snappy hat is enough of a disguise to fool anyone. He probably looks in the mirror when he's got that makeup on and sees a whole different face."

Tan's own face changed a little. "Superman and Clark Kent," he added.

"Exactly," Hafidha added, and then grinned. "He probably thinks his identity's a big old secret."

You didn't need a magnifying glass to read the subtext. And that means he won't be expecting us.

"I was thinking this was suspiciously easy," Tan said. He almost sounded disappointed. Arthur Tan, Lau decided, would not stop at the suburbs if he ever decided his career wanted to be on Broadway.

Hafidha shook her head. "Honey, it's easy for us. We're thinking like a hungry gamma supervillain who cares less about the money than about playing sock puppets and making small children cry. It's a lot harder to crack when you think like a bank robber who's trying to get rich."

She saw the thing in Tan's head click. "They called us because they had the wrong profile," he said.

"Right," Lau added. "And had no way of getting the right one."

"Says something for Dad's approach, doesn't it?" Chaz said, and Lau glanced over sharply. He shrugged, a whole inch of movement. Yes: they'd just keep getting the wrong profiles, as long as most of the world didn't know what to look for, or where.

Nobody'd ever said the ACTF didn't come with killer job security.

O'Leary opened the door again, all that investigative spark sucked right out of him. "The phone number goes to a burner," he said, and five people collectively let out their breath. So much for home by suppertime. "Back to the traffic cameras, I suppose."

"Cameras?" Chaz asked.

"There's one at the corner out front. We're reviewing the footage for a license plate or face on the card dump," O'Leary said. That tightness was back in his forehead again. It made him look about fifteen years older. "It happened in broad daylight. There wasn't any further communication; no note, nothing. Media relations isn't too happy with us right now."

Lau could imagine.

"Taunting the cops. It's pretty classic," Chaz mused. "And not just for supervillains."

"So is tracing where your playing cards were bought using Internet technology," Hafidha replied, her fingers flying over her keyboard fast enough that the click of her typing sounded steady as a hum.

Chaz turned one of the baggies over. "They're Bee cards, if that helps."

Hafidha looked up. "Hm?"

"Bee playing cards. The brand."

"How'd you know that?" O'Leary asked; Lau couldn't tell if the note in his voice was awe or faint intimidation.

"I grew up in Las Vegas," Chaz said, without a shred of visible discomfort unless you'd seen him in a hospital bed and learned the frequencies his discomfort could take. "It's like knowing the difference between Chicago deep-dish and New York-style pizza."

O'Leary's impressedness deflated like a sad balloon. Any superpower, sufficiently explained, kind of lost its magic. "I'll let you know if the cameras turn anything up," he said, and excused himself into the hall.

"I think," Tan said, "that we're disappointing him."

"We will have to be better G-men in future," Brady said in stentorian tones, and Lau could have sworn the two of them were about to giggle.

"Right, bros," she said, and waited until they settled down. "How are we fighting crime today?"

Chaz took his map out and spread it across the second desk. "I'm going to recenter our crime scenes on the comic store. And the places the cars were stolen, and dumped. If it's his local, that'll give us a good radius for a door-to-door canvass."

"Right. Tan?" she asked, and if he had a thrilling answer, she didn't get to hear it: Detective O'Leary opened the door and strode through heavily, the lines on his face going downright sardonic.

"You know," O'Leary declaimed, "I thought this case was good before."

"It's not?" Lau asked, warily. Not sure yet whether this was the good good, or the downright terrible kind.

"Oh, it gets better," O'Leary said.

"We're looking," Lau said, "for an evil clown. How much better can it get?"

O'Leary dropped a stiff piece of paper, swathed in evidence-bag plastic, on the table. Lau flattened it with one hand. Magazine-cutout letters pasted stiffly onto print-shop paper. Greetings, fellow protectors of the peace, it said.

"We've been contacted by a gentleman calling himself the Slamphibian," O'Leary said. "Offering his services to locate our perpetrator."

"The what now?" Hafidha said.

"He is, and I quote, 'a dark guardian of our fair city, fighting for justice against the night.'" O'Leary's lip curled. "And he also listed his Facebook and Twitter for us, just in case."

Hafidha took the evidence bag and ran her finger over a few keys. A Wordpress website came up, black background, glaring green type. "He has a website," she said, mouth open with sheer bewildered awe. "And a scuba suit."

"And twenty extra pounds around the middle," Chaz said, with a slight air of relief.

"And friends," Lau added, pointing to a link at the bottom of the page.

Hafidha blinked, and every link on the page opened like a shower of fireworks. "InvisiGirl," she read off, in that same slightly concussed tone. "Fireman--not actually a fireman. Tragic Lad. Captain Snazzypants?"

"Apparently it is now a superpower to have good pants," Chaz said over her shoulder.

"I'd believe it," Brady muttered.

"What is this?" Hafidha said.

"There's a whole subculture of real-life superheroes out there. They have websites and everything. There's a whole crowd of them out in Seattle," Lau replied, tapping her chin with one finger.

"How do you know these things?" Brady said, bewildered, and O'Leary cast him a grateful look.

"Seminar," she said, and shrugged.

Tan leaned back in his chair; the chair he'd rather sneakily co-opted while everyone else was looking at Captain Snazzypants. "If that's your hobby, a real-life supervillain is probably like Christmas and your birthday and an all-inclusive resort vacation, all at once."

It didn't take much for everyone to catch the drift. "They're going to flip," Chaz said.

"And make this investigation harder than it has to be," Lau added with a frown. "If the amateur Avengers start reacting, it'll just cause our UNSUB to escalate."

"And then someone's gonna get hurt," Brady said.

The hum of typing from Hafidha's desk slowed, stuttered, ceased. She looked up, rubbed her hand across the back of her skull. "Well, maybe not today," she said.

"Oh?" Lau asked.

Hafidha leaned back until her upside-down eyes caught Lau's, and grinned. "I wrote a subroutine to check the money trail for us. And Doctor Volkswagen might be professional, but lucky for us," she said, and tapped a few keys, "his henchmen aren't at all."


The light in Interview Three wasn't working quite right. It was too bright, and it flickered. O'Leary flicked the switch off, and then on again. "It's the damn ecofriendly light bulbs," he said to Danny Brady, with a sigh. "The old fixtures don't take them as well as the regular ones."

"It'll have to do," he said, and ducked back behind the mirrored glass pane. "We might as well bring him inside."

The man O'Leary's officers brought into the spare, badly lit room was medium height and burly, and had a face that said "resisting arrest" all over it: short, bristly whiskers, bags under his eyes, and the kind of sneer your mother told you to wipe off your face lest it become permanent. The black muscle shirt and uniform pants just screamed "jailbird." Or "henchman." Or "extra on a 1960s film set."

Nothing that said he'd been dragged out of a 7-Eleven by two uniformed officers at six in the evening for paying for his Big Gulp with a marked bill.

Interviews were all about dramatic timing: the right entrance, the right costume. Playing the part. Brady let him sweat for exactly eleven minutes before striding in, dress shirtsleeves rolled up casually to the elbow, every inch of him radiating authority so complete it didn't even need a suit jacket. The mook--no, Mr. Rahim Kadry of Albany Park--looked up with narrowed eyes.

"Mr. Kadry," Brady said, careful to make it sound distant and dismissive. He slapped down a file folder full of Kadry's vitals on the table between them and opened it. On top of the thin pile of paper sat that marked five-dollar bill.

Kadry saw it, and his face just hardened.

"So," Brady said, and lifted it up by one end, as if it were a dead fish, or a Barbie doll in a grown man's bedroom. "Your explanation for this."

"It's five dollars, U.S. currency," Kadry said, with an edged, nervous sneer. "Got seeing problems?"

Brady knew his line here like it was on a teleprompter: Don't get wise, wise guy, or something in that neighborhood, and then he could stand up and slam both hands down on the table like he was three days to retirement and his partner's name was John McClane.

"No, I see just fine," he said urbanely, and dealt security camera screen caps out from his folder like five-card stud. "See, because that looks like your nose there. And over there, behind that mask? That's definitely the scar on your right ear."

Kadry twisted around just slightly. Enough to hide his right ear.

"I bet," Brady continued, letting it drawl out, "we could go ask the tellers and customers in that bank, and they'd recognize that voice of yours too."

"Dammit," Kadry said weakly, and then half realizing, shut his mouth tight.

"Dammit," Brady agreed, and snapped his folder crisply shut. "It's not you we're after, Rahim," he said, and laid it on right thick; the full Men in Black treatment. "We're looking for the clown."

Kadry froze mid-twist. "Oh, no way," he said, suddenly absent the whole tough-guy act. "No way are you getting me to roll. I ain't no stoolie."

"Stoolie?" came through the earpiece nestled in Brady's right ear: Hafidha Gates, incredulous. He couldn't argue: This guy hadn't even been born the day the last stool pigeon stooled.

"I'd read you out the charges, and how long that means you could be sitting in a federal prison, but we're all too old for that," Brady said. "You know you're looking at hard time. So do I. Is the clown worth it?"

Kadry was starting to look uncomfortable. "Da boss," he said, pulling the sleeves of his black shirt down around his chunky wrists, "knows better than to tell me just where the hideout is."

"Hideout," Hafidha said wonderingly.

"He has," and Tan stopped, to let this sink in, "a secret hideout."

"Dammit. Real estate," Hafidha said, and the earpiece crackled slightly as she took it straight off her face.

"The boss," Brady said smoothly; he was too old a hand at this to miss a cue that big. "That'd be Dan Morrison, aka Danny Dare?"

Kadry's pugnacious face wavered into just a regular pug. "You know his secret identity."

"Secret identity," Chaz said over the earpiece. "You think he can project his own mythology?"

"No need to. Comics fandom is a shared mythology," Tan pointed out.

"Shh," Lau added, and the peanut gallery fell silent.

Brady said nothing. If he let the silence stretch out enough, it would convert, as if by magic, into We know a lot of things.

Kadry wilted a little under that bluff-laced stare. His right foot started a twitching little fidget routine across the gray-painted floor.

"Where's Dan?" Brady asked softly.

Kadry's shoulders sagged. "He's got a storage unit about three miles from his place. That's where we keep all the stuff."


"The guns, the bags, the masks. All the stuff you keep in a hideout."

He looked, Brady reflected, truly and completely miserable. "How'd you even get into this?" he asked, and Kadry's head came up.

"There aren't a lot of spots for brown guys in comics," he said, and the resentment in his eyes was in a whole different key from the kind he'd been putting on for Brady's benefit before. "Danny said I do a few jobs, I could probably move up. Get my own handle. We'd team up."

"Team up," Brady echoed. He could feel his eyebrow aching to head upward.

"I was thinking the Elephant. Because, y'know, I don't forget shit." His grin was sudden, and way too young.

The eyebrow rose free.

"Yeah," Kadry said, and the grin faded, "I know it's not that good."

Brady was going off-script, but screw it, he wanted to know: "Why not fight crime instead of doing it?"

Kadry snorted, quietly. "Obviously," he said, in the tones of an argument that had been rehearsed over and over for years, "it's the villains that are the real defined characters in any good comic. Nobody would even care about the heroes if there wasn't a villain there first. Take away the super-crime and they're just poor ordinary bastards with better uniforms than the rest of us."

Brady sat back. The earpiece he was wearing crackled. "Bet you a shiny penny we can go back to that comic store and find every single guy in that car," Arthur Tan said.

"I won't take that bet," Lau mumbled. Brady pictured the phalanx of detectives that would likely descend on Punch in the Face Comics in about twenty minutes flat. He'd never seized the records of a comic store before. Story to tell the grandkids, he thought, meditative.

"I can't keep you out of prison," Brady said. "You robbed four banks, and spent a marked bill. They've got you red-handed."

"Should've just made sure I had change for the Slurpee," Kadry mumbled. From the slight reddish stain in his cheeks, Kadry would never need to be told about professional practices in post-heist management again.

"You should have. But you can make this easier on yourself." And here it came, the pitch: "Walk me through. Tell me everything about how this was planned and carried out."

Kadry's eyes widened. "Everything? Like what?"

"Like, say, how you got into the vault." Brady suggested, as if it was just another question, and not the most important question.

His suspect seemed to regain a little poise. "Oh, that," he said, and flickered a smile. "See, that's Dan's superpower. He touches the doors and they unlock. Touched the windows on that bank for us the last time, and down they came. It's pretty cool." He screwed up his face. "Except for the time the bank guard got fresh and Dan grabbed the guy's face, zapped his fillings. That was kind of a dick move."

Brady let out a breath. Practically felt the Significant Glance being exchanged on the other side of the mirror.

Devolving. And fast.

"Kind of," Brady agreed. The sounds in his ear were a quiet pandemonium. "Rahim, the detectives here are going to get a pen and paper so we can go over this bit by bit. Would you like a coffee or something when they come in?"

"Yeah," he said, faintly. "That'd be good."

Danny Brady inclined his head, and slipped out of Interview Three. He moved around the corner to where his team watched Rahim Kadry slump onto his folded arms on the flicker-lit table scattered with photographs.

"You got this?" he said to O'Leary, who was watching Kadry with a speculative eye.

"Oh, do I ever," he said, without turning his gaze even a hair's width.

"I've got it." Hafidha's voice came down the hall, five seconds ahead of the printouts in her hand, her bright, set eyes. "Storage facility, one medium locker, rented to a Daniel Morrison. That's his little villain pad."

Lau looked at the printout, at Danny Brady waiting beside her, at the team gathered about the window of Interview Three.

"All right," she said, and patted her gun. "Let's suit up and move out."

Act IV

The superheroes were gathering outside the station.

They were pretty polite for a mob of vigilantes, Chaz reflected. Polite in that wary way that dancers in a goth club were: with the sheer conviction that if they merely loftily ignored the existence of all other comers, everyone would clue in and pay attention to them. They staked out their corners of the intersection and parking lot, and the media stared at them from across the street as if it was no-man's-land.

All except one, who was happily in the right turn lane, chatting through his scuba helmet to a nest of cameras.

"Oh look," Chaz Villette said, under his breath. "It's the Slamphibian."

Daniel Brady stifled a very unlovely giggle.

"In fact," he was saying, "I take my duties to the fair city of Chicago extremely seriously." The reporter angled the microphone closer. The scuba suit made him hard to hear. "My hunt for the fiend known as the Alchemist will know no boundaries. Night and day, I will walk the city streets relentlessly, seeking to bring him to justice."

"The Alchemist," Chaz said. "They've given him a name."

"They have given him a name," Lau said.

"These guys thrive on attention. This needs to not be happening."

"Cat's out of the bag," Lau murmured back. "Too late now. And there's a certain elegance to letting the reporters and the superheroes just solve each other. Note how we are walking right past them to the car."

They were, in fact, walking right past the clump of humanity camped out on the station steps. Nobody even turned to look at them. Must be, Chaz thought, the total lack of spandex.

No one noticed when they got into the two black SUVs, pulled out of the parking area, and drove up the street into the tangle of Chicago.

Chaz rested the map on his skinny thighs--Dinner, after this, he reminded himself absently--and called out directions in a monotone voice. North through an old mixed-use neighborhood, into slightly more industrial space; the kind that would be torn down or renovated into Exciting Loft Living! the second the economy sputtered back to life.

The streets were deserted. The perfect place for a storage complex. Or for a secret hideout.

Lau pulled into the run-down lot of a low-roofed batch of buildings, the neon sign half burnt out: SP EDY STOR G . Looked at him. "This is it."

Chaz folded up his map and checked his gun. Still there. He climbed out of the passenger seat, shut the door with a soft thump, and formed up ahead of the vest-and-visor-covered SWAT team.

O'Leary met them at the front, and silently proffered the key to unit thirteen. "Thanks," Lau said, and bounced it in her hand. "We all ready?"

It echoed in Chaz's earpiece. Nods around the group: the SWAT officers, Brady, Tan double-checking his vest straps beside him.

"Right then," Lau said, and dropped her voice to a murmur. "Brady, Chaz, out in front please. I'll get the door."

The key to unit thirteen slid into the lock noiselessly; the owner of Speedy Storage, need to buy a vowel or not, kept a tidy ship. Chaz positioned himself on the far side of the door, firearm at the ready, knees bent, legs ready like a sprinter's.

Lau turned it quickly, yanked her hand back.

Brady planted his foot in the center of the door and kicked it wide open.

Chaz wheeled and surged in behind him, eyes going back and forth, back and forth, looking for anything Brady needed to be covered against. The storage unit was dark, shadows shifting, eleven feet by thirteen. The walls were covered--coated--with glossy cartoon posters. They crinkled in the wind of Brady's passage.

Desk; heavy gray safe; a single lamp balanced, burning, atop it. And in the light of that lamp, a cadaverous man crouched over a mess of blueprints, his face a halfway mess of makeup smeared and crackling, dripping down his chin.

"You're not him--" he said, and snarled, and launched himself at Brady's face.

Brady ducked aside, spun around faster than you'd think a man that big could move. Morrison sprawled on the ground, leaving a smear of white face paint across the concrete. Pushed up to a crouch, his eyes bright and mean.

A flicker in Chaz's blind spot: Arthur Tan, his gun at the ready. "Down! Federal agents!" he said, and Morrison's knees wavered.

"Get down on the ground," Chaz said, sharp and biting, and something in Morrison's head recognized its counterpart and gave: Morrison went to his knees with his hands high in the air, poised and waiting. For something.

Tan blew out his breath.

"We have the suspect, and we are clear," Chaz said into his collar, and stayed in his shooting stance.

"Daniel Morrison," Brady said, still staccato with adrenaline, and the clown's head whipped up, sharp, surprised. "You have the right to remain silent." He holstered his weapon and approached slow and deliberate. Reached out for the cuffs looped at the belt below his vest.

Morrison lunged.

Brady caught the one hand mid-flight, slapped a cuff around it. The other deked, dodged, pushed past him. Clamped on to his jaw.

Somewhere, behind them, someone let out a startled shout.

Morrison's eyes narrowed--everyone looked different while jamming--and his grin stretched wide and grotesque. Those gloved fingers tightened on Brady's cheeks, his chin.

Chaz Villette's stomach turned over. His fingers went automatically to the trigger; he lined up the shot.

"Morrison, stand down!" he said, squeezing the trigger soft enough for a breath to tip the whole thing over. He could get the head shot from here. It was so close he didn't even need to try. "Put your hands up in the air!"

And then Brady reared up, shook off the hand, and bent it behind Morrison's back. Click went the cuffs. "Ma Brady didn't raise a son who got cavities," he said sternly, and hauled Morrison up to his feet. "Nice try."

"Shit," Dan Morrison said, suddenly confused, and sagged as the SWAT team swarmed.


Dan Morrison filled out Interview Three much better than his sidekick, Chaz decided. He sat straight and tall and flicked his eyes around the room quickly, with a manic, bitten grin on his white-caked face.

The double-wide cuffs and leg manacles weren't hurting his image either.

He needs to touch you, Chaz reminded himself as Danny Brady and Nikki Lau sat down in the opposite chairs. Kids who drove getaway cars were one thing, but for a gamma, one who'd already gone after the arresting agent? You wanted at least two people in the room, and you wanted them armed.

For the first time on the case, Chaz felt how paper-thin the numbers guarding his back had become. Found himself wishing terribly that Falkner or Reyes were there.

"Mr. Morrison," Brady started, rumbling and deep and with a decided twang. So he had decided to be Bad Cop today. It made sense. There was a light bruise running along his jawline, turning slowly purple. "You're in a lot of trouble. Bank robbery runs up long prison terms. And no parole."

Morrison's face, under the ruined paint, did not even flicker.

"It'll get a lot easier for you if you cooperate," Lau added.

Nope, Chaz thought. Nothing.

"We know you got fired from the scrapyard," Lau said. "After the accident. And we know it wasn't your fault."

For the first time, Morrison's face spasmed. Twin muscles in his neck twitched with the effort of holding still. And even so, his hands closed into fists inside the manacles; closed tight.

"I'm not," he said, in a voice devoid of humor, "going to talk to you about that."

"The coroner's report said the bottom car was badly rusted," Lau said soothingly. "There was no way you could have known it was unsafe."

"You want me to talk?" Morrison said, and bared dirty teeth. "Well. Bring him around, and we'll talk."

The staring contest across the table lasted ten more minutes before Chaz let the mirror, tinily, inchingly up.

He wasn't just indifferent. He was waiting.

And utterly, completely resolute.

Chaz tapped gently on the glass, and Brady and Lau heard it. Closed their files, and came outside.

"It's not going to work," he said, and wrung his hands. "He's waiting for someone, or something, and until it shows up he's not saying a word."

Brady glanced back over his shoulder, through the two-way mirror. Chaz could practically feel Morrison glaring at them right through it. "I'm just going to make you do this every time I do an interview. It'll save me valuable coffee time."

Hafidha snorted from her perch in the corner, next to Tan. "And cost you a fortune in Slim Jims."

Lau waved them both off distractedly. "We need an in here. We have maybe three hours before Chicago field office comes by and informs us that he's their baby."

"But it's our case," Hafidha scowled.

Lau shrugged, infinitesimal. "Four robberies, that high profile, and with an all-new, all-different way of waltzing right past high-tech vault doors? The FDIC is probably having kittens right now. We have to prove that what Morrison does isn't replicable if we want to ever get him through the doors of Idlewood."

"Even if it's going to be suppressed." Hafidha's voice was flat. Chaz snuck a glance over. So was her face.

"Especially if it's going to be suppressed," Lau said, and started toward their borrowed, drab gray office. Chaz trailed behind her, and wasn't halfway to the door before he caught a smell better than sex, a full night's sleep, and sex again in the morning.

"Oh hey there," Hafidha said, and opened the door, and there was O'Leary, arranging a stack of pizza boxes with the most incredible heat coming off them.

"I thought it'd been a long time since you'd eaten," O'Leary said. "And you mentioned, well."

"Detective?" Chaz said. "Bless you," and reached into the top box for about five slices.


"Here's what I don't get," Tan said, around a bite of deep-dish pizza. "He turned steel into peanut brittle. Those cuffs aren't stopping him, and neither is the door. Why isn't he trying to break himself out?"

Chaz turned his head slowly; regarded Arthur Tan. "Now," he said, "that is a good question."

Tan took the praise well. A twitch of the lips, at the corners. Not even a trace of an attempt to duck it, or take over the conversation by force.

"What's he waiting for?" Brady mused aloud. "He doesn't want to get caught, or he'd have been sloppier with his countermeasures. No hideout, no stolen getaway cars, no problem spending the money."

"'We're not him,'" Lau said, quoting softly. "More like who's he waiting for?"

Chaz sat bolt upright on the desk. The metal shrieked underneath him, and he leaped off the furniture.

It did nothing. He sat down again, cautiously. Cleared his throat.

"We don't fit," he said. "Supervillains getting apprehended by diligent police work, read their Miranda rights, and tried in a court of law isn't part of his mythology."

"Origin story," Brady corrected.

"Shut up," Chaz replied. "He's not interested in us. He's waiting for a superhero."

"Aren't we all, baby?" Hafidha said, and Chaz diligently wadded up the wrapper from his straw and threw it at her head. She fended it off with her palm; oil from the pizza glistened down her fingers. "Damn, I need a napkin."

"Hold on," Tan said, "I'll get some," and ducked out the door.

Hafidha watched him go. "Down the Hall's trained that guy a little too well."

"He's just trying to be nice," Lau said, and held her own greasy hands over the paper plate. "It's not his fault Blaze tries to make every new agent the BAU gets his personal assistant."

"Sidekick," Brady put in.

"I swear," Chaz said, and opened two boxes looking for a spare scrap of mozzarella.

Hafidha watched his fingers thoughtfully. "So you're saying what he'll respond to is some manly chinface in a cape, not us. And until we get him one, he's not going to talk."

"Yeah," Chaz said, closing on a dribble of cheese. "And we have an answer to this." He gestured with his chin to Hafidha's rig. "The Slamphibian. Get him in, coach him up, and get this done."

Lau pulled a wearied face, shook her head. "We can't legitimize that. As much as it's probably just dress-up, they're still extralegal vigilantes, and if we endorse one Mom will have our heads even before Celentano sharpens his guillotine."

"Celentano's guillotine is always sharp," Hafidha said dryly. Chaz took a moment to be briefly very thankful that Arthur Tan was in the precinct kitchen for the insubordination segment of the day.

"Not to mention," Brady said, "they're nothing but regular guys in funny mascot suits. Morrison, for all that he's still working his way up to gamma first base, is still a gamma."

"A gamma in the middle of the story he wants most to be in," Lau said slowly. "So he's happy. His back is nowhere near the wall."

"What're you thinking?" Brady said, because they had been working together long enough that he could of course tell when she was thinking something.

"I'm thinking Chaz is right: what we have to do is keep him in the story he wants to be in. And he'll cooperate, and we don't have to fire any bullets into anybody today, and end this thing tidily."

"The question is, how?" Chaz said.

There was a nagging detail. Chaz was missing something important, something crucial, and--

"Tan does voices," Brady said suddenly, and Chaz sat up straight. Realizing slowly, madly, what might just make this work. "He did Christian Bale in the car."

"He did what?" Hafidha said, bemused.

"It was really good, too. Spot-on," Brady added.

"Interviews," Chaz pointed out, "are all about playing the part anyway."

He saw the second when Lau caught on; her eyes warmed, slowly, speculatively. "We don't need a fake superhero if we have a fake fake superhero," Lau said, wonderingly. "Tan could do it."

"Tan," Arthur Tan said, coming back into the office with a whole sheaf of dining hygiene products, "could do what?"

"You do voices?" Lau said, and Tan cracked a faintly embarrassed smile.

"Ain't I a stinker," he said, and waggled his eyebrows, Bugs Bunny-style.

Lau grinned, bright and brief. "Do you think," she said, "you could pull off a good superhero?"

The eyebrows flattened out fast. "Not to be insubordinate, but what are you all plotting at?"

"We're not plotting," Chaz said. "I can see it on your nasty little profiler faces," he replied, cheery. Wary. Smart guy.

"Morrison's not going to respond to us. He's waiting for some superhero to come in and declare victory over his vanquished criminal enterprise. How would you feel," Lau said carefully, "about a solo interview? And a little playacting?"

"Oh, no way," Tan said, immediate. The napkins hung in his hand, forgotten.

"You did that impression in the car," Brady said. "It was good. It might get Morrison where he belongs."

Tan looked at them all, one by one, eyebrows up. Wavering.

Lau picked up the extension phone and punched three numbers. "Detective O'Leary?" she said into the receiver. "Are there any costume shops close by?"


The cowl smelled like stale beer and sweat. And neither had belonged to Arthur Tan.

This was, he decided, unfair.

"You'd think someone would have cleaned this thing between Halloween and now," he said. His voice was only faintly muffled by the way the mask pressed on his cheekbones.

"It's off-season. There's no point," Villette said, and pawed, for some reason, at Tan's left shoulder. "Hold still; I have to get the cape hooked on."

"Cape," Tan said, and held still. The weight settled more symmetrically about his shoulders. "I don't know how anyone expects to pass a field fitness test in one of these things."

"Lucky for you, you don't have to," Villette said, and gave the cape one last tug. "How's your earpiece?"

"Fine," Tan said, and shoved it into place through the stiff fabric of the cowl.

"Great," Lau added, from the corner. "Now, let's just hope he's not one of those nerd-racists who said Heimdall couldn't be black."

"You're deshpicable," Tan muttered, and took an experimental step. The costume clung to his legs in odd, uncomfortable ways. It's only for a few minutes, Tan old boy, he told himself, sighing. And it is for great justice.

He waddled out of the conference room, down the hall to Interview Three, and opened the door.


The cape swished. It swirled and puddled about Tan's legs as he walked into Interview Three, clear on the other side of the glass, and stopped in a foot-planted pose that out-alphaed any alpha males inside a ten-mile radius of the greater Chicago area.

Morrison's eyes lit up. He would have pushed to his feet if his hands hadn't been cuffed tidily to the table. "You," he said, and spat on the floor.

"Oh, great," O'Leary said. Lau could see him dreaming of mops.

"Alchemist," Tan said, with a depth of grim and gravel that made Lau's stomach shudder. That voice couldn't come out of that man. It was uncanny.

"I knew you'd have to respond eventually," Morrison said, and let out a high-pitched giggle that unnerved for all the wrong reasons. "None of them could stop me. They don't have what it takes; they won't go far enough."

Lau shifted her weight on the other side of the glass. She didn't want to know how far was far enough. Or how this might have escalated. "Ask him," she murmured, "how he did it."

Tan got the message. He crossed gloved arms over his chest and stared down at Morrison's seated, crunched-up form. "There's one thing that racks my brain," Tan said, cold and raspy and even. "How you did it."

"Oh, ho," Morrison said, and grinned as wide as he could; it looked like a recipe for face sprain. "You couldn't figure out my master plan. How many nights I've slaved, refining my dark powers; how much steel I've reduced to dust with nothing but the touch of a finger."

Tan snorted. "I don't believe you. You used chemicals. We'll find them soon enough."

Morrison's nostrils flared wide. "Stupid vigilante. You think I need chemicals?" He reached down, grabbed the chain that linked his cuffs and anklets. A sharp hissing sound carried through the interview room, over the speaker.

The steel reduced to powder, to nothing. Clanked to the floor.

"Looks like you're still cuffed to the table," Tan observed, and Morrison snarled.

"Well, this is a whole different side of the gentleman," O'Leary said from the corner.

"You see what I can do? Your bars can't hold me! Your boxes won't keep me in!" Morrison's grin was more like a rictus now, taut and vicious. "I did it myself, and I spent a whole month in that scrapyard practicing it myself, and once I'm done, none of you are ever going to tell me what I can or can't do again—"

"Villain monologue," Hafidha mumbled. "Oh, no kidding."

"Like telling you you can't work at the yard anymore," Tan said evenly, "because those cars rusted out and fell, and that kid died?"

"It wasn't my fault," he shouted, and slammed his cuffed feet on the floor.

"It's just your fault that you robbed three banks," Tan said.

"Four," Morrison spat, "and I'll do it again."

"And that's a videotaped confession," Brady said, and smacked his fist into his palm like a personal high five.

Tan slouched, almost detectably. Relief. "We're done here, Alchemist."

Morrison stuck up his white-gloved hands. "You've foiled me this time," he said, and grinned extra wide. "But you'll never find the loot."

Chaz Villette's face went blank, briefly. "It's in his comics collection," he said. "One bill per page. He spent the whole night sliding them in and putting them back in their little plastic bags."

Brady's heavy blond eyebrow rose.

"Carefully," Chaz added. "So the corners didn't crease."

"I'll get that search warrant drawn up, then," O'Leary said, and made a note on his battered pad.

"It's not about the loot. We're putting you away, Alchemist," Tan said from behind the mask, softly, almost meditative. "For a long, long time."

Morrison cackled, once, sharp. "Oh, I'll be back," he said, with an undercurrent of sheer, childish, wide-eyed glee. "Just like a bad smell, I'll always be back."

Tan himself might have waved a hand to brush it off, or cracked wise. Tan's costumed secret identity just looked down his molded vinyl nose at Morrison for a long, long moment, and stalked crisply out the door.

"Good?" he said when he came around the corner. His voice sounded hoarse and a bit weary.

"Double-plus good," Lau said, and gave him a small, sharp nod. "Extra good."

"Right," he said. "Someone get this sweatshop off of me?" and Chaz Villette nodded, and led him back into the men's room to change.

O'Leary watched Morrison fidget at the table through the glass. "This your usual day?" he asked, only a little strained.

Lau grinned. "Not even close," she said. They hadn't had to shoot anyone all week now. "Our central office will fax the transfer papers to our secure facility over, and get custody assigned formally."

O'Leary nodded, and reached out to shake her hand. She took it, and it wasn't so eager this time: solid, professional. "Thanks for the work. I"--he paused--"don't think we would have pulled it off ourselves."

Wrong profile, he was trying to say. And didn't quite have the everyday jargon for it. "Not to worry," Lau said, and returned the smile. "That's what we're here for."

It didn't take long to pack up: files, computers, the video from that interview room, all safely tucked away in suitcases. And of course, Dan Morrison, handed over to the field office for formal transport to Ashton, Virginia. They'd barely been in town a day, Lau realized. She hadn't even checked in to the hotel.

"Best. Case. Ever," Hafidha said as they trudged down the stairwell to the parking lot, where their two black SUVs sat waiting to take them to O'Hare.

"Best?" Chaz replied, bumping his wheeled suitcase behind him. "You never know what could happen. We could be called in to inspect three-eyed fish. Or suspicious dirigible deaths."

"Best," she said, and hopped down to the ground floor door.

There was a uniformed officer guarding it from the outside; he turned as Lau pushed the door open, and waved them back. "We'll have to ask you to wait a moment, please. I'm sorry, agents. It won't be long."

"What," Brady said, "is the holdup?"

It took a moment before the officer cracked the door wider, and Lau saw what the holdup was.

Rumpled, chained, Dan Morrison was being escorted out of the Racine Avenue police station under heavy armed guard: one officer to each limb, approximately, and all of them holding on tight. Lau watched them go. He didn't even turn his head to look at them. They weren't him, and he didn't care.

Morrison bounced in the officers' grip. He wasn't resisting. He was skipping.

"I feel," Chaz said conversationally, "like we have just done a kind of terrible thing."

"He did steal a few million dollars," Brady said.

"Akin to kicking a puppy," Chaz said. "Or taking ice cream away from a very small child."

"We've safely quarantined a gamma," Lau said, voice low. "And now we get to go home."

Act V

J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC, July 25, 2012

Daniel Brady stopped by Arthur Tan's desk twenty minutes after official FBI closing time, when nobody in the FBI had actually gone home yet but it wasn't treason to start thinking about it. He was even less obtrusive out of the field: hovered genially out of the way until Tan finished his sentence on the report he was writing and turned to acknowledge his presence.

"Jock," Tan said, pleasantly.

"Nerd," Brady replied, and pulled up Pauley's desk chair. "How's life back in the Muggle world?"

"Grim," Tan said, and waved his new case file. "Human trafficking sucks. It sucks the worst of all things."

Brady did not argue. Tan had learned since joining the BAU that there were more worst things in the world than fetishes on the Internet, and they were all still the worst.

"How's life at Hogwarts?" he asked instead.

"Good," Brady replied, shockingly enough. "Dan Morrison's settled into Idlewood, and it looks like the lawyer the court appointed for him is going to take a mental health plea and let him stay. Dr. Ramachandran says Morrison's actually quite well-behaved and cooperative."

"Biding his time for the inevitable Arkham jailbreak," Tan said in an ominous voice.

Brady nodded. "Unfortunately for Morrison, nobody busts villains out of Idlewood to keep the story going for another hundred issues."

He cut off the last syllable too fast. Tan restrained himself from cocking an eyebrow: That we know of, floated into the subtext. He looked disturbed.

Briefly, Arthur Tan wondered what Agent Brady was hiding.

"Anyways. I just wanted to thank you. I know you're still finding your feet with the kind of cases we do, and you really brought that one in."

Tan's eyebrow rose. There was clearly more coming. He knew the difference between an intermission and the end of the show.

"I'm telling you this," Brady said, "because we have an empty ACTF position posting tonight. And I think you might want to look at it."

Everything in Tan's head stopped. Even the part about what he wanted for dinner.

"Hold on," he said. "You guys want me to--"

"My personal opinion only," Brady said quickly, and held up both hands. "And you probably know that there are...limitations to a career move Down the Hall."

That had been obvious, Tan reflected, from the very first day. It was always him or Pauley who talked to the ACTF, never Blaze or Lisa. He was the new kid; he got the scut work, no matter how tight a unit the BAU was.

And Pauley, well. Pauley wasn't ambitious. Not that way. Not the way people marked ambition normally at the Bureau.

"But," Brady added, "you'd be good at it. You think your way around problems. And you weren't too hung up on certain things to get the job done right."

"Like my dignity?" he said, and waggled his eyebrows. "Aw, shucks, stranger."

His heart wasn't in it. Like his dignity; like procedure; like the technical rules of extradition to a private facility, where he didn't quite know what would happen to someone who had, yes, committed a crime.

Suddenly, Tan wasn't sure this all was a compliment.

"I," he said, cautious and polite, "would really need to think about that."

Brady didn't get offended. He seemed to catch all the laugh tracks going through Tan's face, and nodded. "You should, yes." He stood, pushed Pauley's chair back where it belonged. "Goodnight, Nerd."

"Jock," Tan said formally.

The link was where Brady had said it was: a fresh posting to the Bureau internal jobs site. Tan hovered his cursor over the link. The job description inside would undoubtedly be written in the vaguest terms possible: not a word about superpowers or fighting evil, or the things he'd seen in that bunker--the cages, the fear--or the way the agents from Down the Hall had barely seemed to feel it. How they'd looked at those things as if they weren't the worst thing they'd ever seen before.

As if there were worse things.

Tan was reasonably ambitious. He'd hustled hard to move up from bomb squad, and, well, he had a family to help support. But he was also--grimly, terribly, morbidly--curious.

He closed the intranet browser. Padma. He had to check with her first.

He had to talk to his wife.


The office had emptied out by the time Lau tapped on Esther Falkner's office door, the one kept propped perpetually open in case of emergency or need for a spare breeze. Falkner looked up and saw Lau hovering in that neutral space on the wooden threshold, and waved her inside. "Come on in."

"You wanted to see me?" Lau said. Her face was neutral: not holding back a real whopper, this time, but just unsure what to say.

"I looked at everyone's reports," Falkner said, and motioned for Lau to sit. She hesitated, and then sprawled gratefully in one of Falkner's plush guest chairs. "You did a good job: kept everyone on point and moving, and brought in our gamma alive and cooperative, without any collateral damage."

"It was an easy case," she said.

"It was a case with a lot of potential to go volatile and a lot of unpredictable moving parts," Falkner corrected, "and the fact that they neatly canceled each other out means good situation management, not that the job was somehow easier. Don't minimize that," she added mildly.

Lau had the good grace to flush.

"I just don't know that I can take credit, here. I wasn't really all that in charge," Lau said. "Everyone knows what they're supposed to do. We just did it."

Falkner sat and watched her until her face changed slowly. It took about thirty seconds.

Lau chuckled, quietly, like someone who just found their glasses sitting on their head where they'd lost them. "Now I am a Jedi, hm?"

"Wax on, wax off," Falkner replied dryly. "I'm putting in a recommendation. It has to go through Celentano, of course, but I'm going to push for a promotion to SSA on your next review."

That did the trick; the brightness came back into her eyes. "Agent Falkner--" she started, and then stopped. "Esther. Thank you."

Falkner smiled, halfway. "You're due," she said.

It was true. Nicolette Lau had come into the ACTF too early to understand that the time away from home, the trauma, the suspect kill rates were astronomical compared to most every other branch of the Bureau. That this wasn't normal. That they didn't live real life.

"You won't regret it," Lau said, and rose; and from the hint of steel in her voice, Falkner was entirely sure she wouldn't.

"Never thought it for a second," she said, and shifted in her seat. "Go on home. I've got to beat it anyways. Ben's making pad thai for dinner."

Lau saluted--half ironic, maybe---and took herself out the door.

Falkner leaned back in her chair. Easy case? Maybe. But there was no more inappropriate deference in Nikki Lau's step, and no more worry in her shadow.

It was good for kids, growing up. To let them do a thing for themselves, and realize that they could.

Yeah, Falkner thought, as she shut down her computer and locked her desk drawer. They were going to be fine.