Lawndales Finest

 

The Dark Knight

 

 

Chapter One: Millionaire Playgirl

 

           Man cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past: however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him.

 - Friedrich Nietzsche

 

 

            “This might accidentally be fun,” Quinn said, smoothing down her bright pink sun dress.

            “Are you absolutely sure you need pictures taken of this?” Jane asked, raising her voice to carry through the closed bathroom door. “I mean, school is out for the summer so we’re pretty much off the Lowdown hook, aren’t we?”

            “I’ve already made arrangements with the society editor of the Sun-Herald,” Quinn said patiently. “Come on Jane, this is a good opportunity for us. We can get in the paper for something other than crime and death.”

            “Hey, if it bleeds it leads,” Jane said with a smirk, finally leaving the bathroom. She wore a dress similar to Quinn’s, but in red. “I don’t think the dress goes with my boots, though.”

            Quinn smirked down at Jane’s scarred-up combat boots and shrugged. “We’ll tell them you have a sandal phobia, let’s go.”

            “Okay, I gotta get the camera out of my room.”

            The girls walked down the hall to Jane’s room, where Quinn tapped her foot impatiently while Jane hunted through the clutter for her camera bag. After a couple of minutes spent searching, Jane pulled the bag from beneath an old armchair near the window.

            “Ah ha!” she exclaimed, then peered out the window. “Did you order a limo?”

            “No,” Quinn said, joining Jane at the window to look down at the long, black car. “I was expecting us to bully a ride out of Trent.”

            “Me too,” Jane said with a frown.

            “Uh, Janey?” Trent said, sticking his head in the door. “There’s some girl downstairs, says she’s here to give you and Quinn a ride to the party.”

            “Maybe Elsie sent it,” Jane said with a shrug.

            “Maybe,” Quinn said doubtfully.

            The pair left the room and went downstairs to the living room, where the newcomer was waiting for them. The woman as young, wore a breezy-looking green dress, and allowed her long auburn hair to hang freely. She was cleaning a pair of light, metal-framed glasses on a white handkerchief, and glanced up when she heard feet on the stairs.

            “Quinn,” she said quietly, putting the glasses back on.

            “Oh God,” Quinn said in choked voice, and ran across the room to embrace the other woman. “Oh God, it’s been so long.”

            “I’m back now,” the woman said, returning Quinn’s hug, “I’m back and I’m not going to leave you ever again, I promise.”

            Jane stood at the foot of the stairs, feeling slightly uncomfortable. The woman looked up at her and smiled, pulling away from the tight embrace.

            “You must be Miss Lane,” she said, walking across the room with one arm still around Quinn, “I’m Quinn’s sister, Daria.”

            “Please, call me Jane.” Jane met the sisters halfway across the living room and shook hands with Daria.

            “Jane,” Daria said with a smile. “Thank you again for everything you’ve done for my family. I hope you’ve got room in your circle of friends for one more.”

            “Always,” Jane said, matching Daria’s smile.

            “Good,” Daria answered, “then I believe we have a garden party to attend. You can tell me all about this Charles fellow on the way over.”

            “Ack!” Quinn said, blushing.

            “My pleasure,” Jane said with a smirk.

 

            “Elsie, my sister Daria Morgendorffer. Daria, my friend Elsie Sloane,” Quinn said.

            “Pleased to meet you,” Daria said with a smile, shaking the younger girl’s hand.

            “Thanks,” Elsie said, “I just want you to know that this party was not my idea, and I accept no blame from the people that got drafted into coming.”

            Daria laughed merrily. “It’s a lovely party, and you’re only sixteen once. Enjoy it.”

            Elsie quirked an eyebrow at Quinn, who grinned and shrugged.

            “Please, pardon me,” Daria said, “I have to go prowl a little.” With a small smirk she walked off through the crowd to a young man who, in khaki shorts and a blue t-shirt, was seriously underdressed for the occasion.

            “Did she just blow me off for my brother?” Elsie asked.

            “Yup,” Quinn said.

            “Well, I guess that’s what you call instant karma. Let’s go investigate the buffet table.” The two of them, along with Jane, walked towards the heavily laden table while chatting amiably among themselves.

            “Count the letters in his name,” a boy was explaining to a group of adults as they walked past, “there’s six letters in each word. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

            “You know some weird people,” Jane said to Elsie.

            “You could say that,” Elsie replied, glancing down at Jane’s combat boots.

            When the trio arrived at the table they found Sandi Griffin already there, picking over the vegetable slices.

            “Sandi,” Jane said with a smile, “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”

            Sandi gave her friend a half shrug and nodded towards Elsie. “Our fathers were business partners.” At the mention of the girls’ recently deceased fathers a pall fell over the small group.

            “So,” Quinn said, trying to break the uncomfortable silence, “since I’m also here in a professional capacity, are there any remarks you’d like to make on the occasion?”

            “Hurray,” Elsie said dryly. “I lived sixteen years and didn’t fall down a well or anything.”

            The girls shared a chuckle and began fixing themselves plates from the buffet table.

            “Seriously,” Quinn said.

            “Well,” Elsie answered, leading them all to a shaded table, “it’s traditional for women in the Sloane family to take up some kind of charitable cause. You know about my mom’s work at the museum.”

            “Yeah,” Jane said with a wry grin. “I wonder if she’s recovered from the brawl between those super things?”

            “You’re referring to Supergirl and the Eradicator?” Quinn asked, quirking an eyebrow.

            “Yeah, them.”

            “Well, as I named them I’d appreciate it if you didn’t refer to them as ‘super things’ in my presence,” Quinn said with a sniff. “I happen to be fond of Supergirl, and would rather she be spoken of with a bit more respect.”

            “I agree,” Elsie said, grinning at Quinn’s faux-snob act. “She did save our lives.”

            “From what I heard, you guys helped out a lot with that crowd control foam,” Jane answered.

            “I wonder who she is,” Sandi mused.

            “Probably a normal girl most of the time,” Quinn answered with a shrug, then turned to Elsie. “So what charity are you going to endorse?”

            “I’ve been reading a lot about the destruction of the rainforests,” Elsie said, leaning forward with an intense look. “Did you know that we lose an acre and a half of rainforest every second? We’re destroying 137 species of plants, animals, or insects every day.”

            “Wow,” Quinn said, jotting down Elsie’s remarks.

            “But that’s just the beginning,” Elsie continued. “I’ve already decided I’m going into botany in college. There’s an undreamed-of cornucopia of medical wonders, potential cures to everything that has ailed humanity since we figured out how to hit each other with rocks.”

            Jane and Sandi exchanged a slightly uneasy look. Quinn, industriously taking notes, hadn’t noticed the fervent expression that was growing on Elsie’s face. Jane was uncomfortably reminded of a street preacher she’d run into on Dega Street once: the man had chased her for three blocks shouting about her impure soul.

            “It’ll all be lost if those idiots in the government and the big corporations don’t stop what they’re doing and take a look at the big picture,” Elsie said bitterly.

            “That’s . . . um . . . interesting,” Quinn said, finally catching the mood at the table.

            “My mom raises money for a museum,” Elsie said with a shrug, “I intend to change the world.”

 

            “When did Elsie get all freaky about the environment?” Quinn asked later, as they rode home in the back of the limo.

            “No idea,” Jane answered with a shrug. “She’s your buddy, I was just there for the buffet table.”

            “That was more than apparent,” Quinn said, smirking.

            “Are you trying to say something, Red?”

            Daria sat and smiled quietly, watching the byplay between the two friends. After a few minutes of friendly bickering, she decided it was time to cut in.

            “Quinn,” she said.

            “Yeah?”

            “We need to talk,” Daria sighed and looked out the window. “We need to talk about Mom and Dad, and Grandpa Morgendorffer.”

            “I can walk home from here, if you want to drop me off,” Jane offered.

            “No,” Quinn said, giving Jane a look of mild reproach.

            “Jane, I’m certainly not going to make you walk home,” Daria said with a smile. “I brought it up with you still here so you wouldn’t be surprised if Quinn shows up on your doorstep in a couple of hours. I’m her sister, but you’re obviously her best friend.”

            “She knows she’s welcome any time,” Jane said, patting Quinn’s hand.

            “Thanks,” the redhead said, “but I sort of knew this was coming. I think I’ve been getting ready for this talk for about ten years now.”

            The rest of the ride was made in silence. They parked in Jane’s driveway and she impulsively hugged her best friend before climbing out of the car. She watched with a pensive expression as the limo pulled away, and then turned and walked into the house.

            “How’d it go?” Trent asked.

            “Weirdly,” Jane answered, dropping her camera bag on the kitchen table. “I rooked a bunch of stuff off the buffet table for you, it’s in the side pockets.”

            “Best little sister ever,” Trent said with a grin.

            “I’m going to go for a run,” Jane said. “If anybody shows up looking for me, I’ve got my cell phone on me. Call me and I’ll be back as fast as I can, okay?”

            “Sure,” Trent answered, pulling a variety of snacks out of the camera bag.

 

            Daria tapped on the glass separating the driver from the passenger section of the limo, and the driver nodded once.

            “That was clandestine,” Quinn said.

            “We’re going to the graveyard,” Daria said. “You don’t have to come with me, but I haven’t visited their graves, Quinn . . . ever.”

            “I’ll take you to them, it’s a nice spot.”

            “Thanks, Sis.”

            “I’ve missed you so much, Daria. I was really angry at first, you know. I felt like you abandoned me when I needed you the most.”

            “I did,” Daria said, looking away from her sister. “I’m sorry, Quinn. I know saying that won’t make up for lost time, but it’s all I have.”

            “You said you had a promise to keep.”

            Daria nodded slowly. “I made Mom and Dad a promise, that I’d do everything in my power to . . . to force the world to make sense again. The world is a horrid, random place . . . it’s chaotic and hurtful, and it doesn’t make sense unless you force it.”

            Quinn moved from her seat to the one next to her sister and put one arm around her. The sisters rode the rest of the way to the cemetery in silence. When they arrived, the driver parked the car and exited, walking around to open the car door for the girls.

            “Thank you,” Daria said quietly. “We’ll be back shortly.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            Quinn led Daria along the path to the top of a hill, where a double-sized headstone read:

 

Jacob and Helen Morgendorffer

Husband and Wife, Father and Mother

In Loving Memory

 

            “Hi, Mom . . . Dad,” Quinn said. “You’ll never guess who I brought with me today. Daria is back home, and she said she’s going to stay now. I’m going to give the three of you a little privacy, okay?” Quinn squeezed her sister’s shoulder and walked down the trail to the foot of the hill.

            Daria stepped up to the graves and bowed her head. She stood quietly for several minutes before opening her eyes. She stared at the gravestone with a blank non-expression that was nothing like the cheerful mask she’d worn in front of her sister.

            “Mother, Father,” she said, her voice flat and inflectionless. “I’ve come home.”

            Daria took a step forward and dropped to her knees, reaching out and placing one hand on each grave.

            “I’m not ready,” she whispered. “I spent twelve years honing my mind and body, perfecting every skill and talent. I should be ready . . . but something is missing. Please, show me what I need to do.”

            The slim girl closed her eyes again and waited a long time for the answer. If it came, no one heard it but her.

 

            Quinn jumped when the limo door opened and Daria dropped into the seat across from her. “I was about to send out a search party,” she said, giving her sister a weak smile.

            “I’m sorry,” Daria answered, returning the smile. “I guess I lost track of time.”

            “It’s okay,” Quinn said, taking her sister’s hand and squeezing it gently. “You haven’t been here since the funeral, have you?”

            “No, we moved to Texas with Aunt Amy and then I left the country.” Daria tapped the glass partition and the driver started the car and pulled away from the cemetery.

            “Where have you been?”

            “Tibet, Malaysia, the Philippines, Argentina, England, France, Germany, and Japan.”

            “Wow.”

            “I had a lot to learn,” Daria said, “and now it’s almost time to keep my promise.”

            “What are you going to do?”

            “Remember the money I inherited from Grandpa Morgendorffer?”

            “Yes.”

            “Not counting the part that I set aside for you and Amy, the money was turned over to a brokerage firm in Gotham. It was the same firm that held the trust before I inherited it: Grace, Sloane, and Page.”

            “You know that it’s just Grace and Page now, right? Mr. Sloane was Elsie’s dad . . . he died not too long ago.”

            “Ah, that explains why young Thomas was so moody.”

            “Thomas?”

            “Elsie’s older brother, the guy I was chatting with at the party.”

            “Oh. So what about the firm?”

            “They’ve had it ever since; keeping it cycling through CDs and bonds, buying blue chip stocks and letting it settle, vigorously engaging in high risk stock brokering, that sort of thing.”

            “So now instead of being rich, you’re really rich?”

            “Quinn.” Daria took a deep breath and looked her sister directly in the eyes. “Quinn, I’m a billionaire several times over. So are you.”

            “What!?”

            “I’ve been sending some very specific instructions to Mr. Grace. I’ve incorporated under the name Morning Light Enterprises; MLE has holdings in scores of companies, and outright owns dozens more. Heavy industry, light industry, medical research, imports, exports, construction, energy, entertainment, there is no field that MLE doesn’t influence.”

            “Wow, again.”

            “I own sixty-five percent of MLE, and Amy owns five. The other thirty percent is yours.”

            “I can’t own a company, I’m still in high school!”

            “Don’t worry,” Daria said with a smile, “Aunt Amy is voting your stock until you turn eighteen. After that, you’ll be able to afford any college in the world, jump right into helping manage the business, or even take a few years off to put your feet up.”

            “I’m not sure what to say.”

            “That’s not all, though. I think we can do a lot of good for the world through MLE and the kinds of advances it’ll produce, but I wanted something a little more direct. So, I endowed the Morning Light Foundation. MLF is a non-profit charitable organization; it helps promote education for inner city students, bankrolls welfare-to-work programs, rehab centers, homeless shelters, and homes for battered women and children.”

            “You’re some kind of saint, aren’t you?”

            “No,” Daria said sadly, “I’m just in a position to do something about the world. How can I not?”

 

            “They’re cutting into our profits in a few endeavors here and there,” Andrew said, “but we’ve stemmed the tide through the simple expedient of letting them buy into us and then buying into them.”

            “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” Cindy quipped.

            “Sounds good to me,” Sandi said, tapping her pen on the table absently. “Does that conclude the report on our legitimate business concerns?”

            “Pretty much,” Andrew said.

            “What about our other business interests?”

            “So far, everything is golden,” Cindy answered. “Profits are ahead of projections, operating expenses are down, and employee morale is at an all-time high. There was some unease at first, but Lex has become a very popular boss.”

            “As I predicted,” Vitale said, lighting a cigar.

            Sandi leaned back in her chair and looked at her advisors. Not too long ago this meeting would have been attended by almost a dozen self-important, argumentative men. Now, the entire operation was run by four people. Andrew Landon kept an eye on Grace and Page, along with the rest of the Organization’s aboveboard concerns. Cindy Rowe received reports from the criminal sub-bosses in Lex’s name, and issued orders under the same authority. Any major concerns were brought to Sandi, the person behind the name Lex, for her to review and decide. Jim Vitale was the generalist, involving himself wherever he was needed and always ready with shrewd advice. The rest of the Organization’s leadership had been . . . terminated.

            “What’s the bad news?”

            “Mayor Hill is still waffling on appointing a new police commissioner,” Cindy answered with a sigh. “On the plus side, it means the local cops are less organized and easier to dodge. Unfortunately it also makes them unpredictable, so we’re seeing more busts based on dumb luck. Plus, without a commissioner there are no reins for us to grab when we need to steer the police one way or another.”

            “Can we lean on him?”

            “I’m doing what I can from my side,” Andrew said. “I’ve been pushing Peter Grogan whenever I get a chance to chat with Mr. Hill.”

            “Ugh,” Cindy said with a shudder. “Grogan is a walking slime ball, Andrew.”

            “But he’s our walking slime ball,” Vitale said, grinning around his cigar.

            “We’ll support Grogan, of all the captains that are up for the position of commissioner he’s the one we’ve got the most hooks in,” Sandi said. “Anything else, Cindy?”

            “Falcone is still making noise about wanting to meet with you.”

            Sandi sighed and closed her eyes, bringing up one hand to pinch the bridge of her nose. “Can we kill him?”

            “Can?” Vitale asked. “Yes, of course we can. The question is whether doing so is worth the time, money, and manpower. Not to mention the huge waves it would make in the underworld.”

            “That’s what you said about Rupert Thorne.”

            “Yes, and I was right that time, too.” Vitale gave his pupil a toothy grin. “It’s fine for Lex to have a layer of middle management to deal with her own underlings. The other crime bosses require a personal touch, and you know it.”

            “I know, I know.”

            “Everything went fine at the meeting with Thorne,” Cindy said. “We’ve been working hand in glove with him ever since, and profits are up for everyone.”

            “Call Falcone, make an appointment with him, and reserve us a table at Chez Pierre. Now, do you have anything on that special project I asked you to work on?”

            “If you’re asking about Supergirl, the answer is no; I haven’t dug up anything about who she might be under those wrap-around shades. Nothing on the other one, either. What was it that newsgirl named her?”

            “The Eradicator,” Vitale said. “That Morgendorffer girl has quite a flair for the theatrical, don’t you think?”

            “Quite,” Sandi said, shooting her mentor a slightly disapproving look. Vitale chuckled and continued puffing on his cigar. “Keep digging, all of you,” Sandi continued. “If we could get either of them on the payroll the results would be fabulous.”

 

***

 

            “I’m gonna spend the night over at Jane’s,” Quinn said as she came down the stairs.

            “Okay, sweetie. Call if you need anything,” Amy said.

            “I will,” Quinn answered. “You wanna come, Daria?”

            “I’ve got a date tonight, or I would.”

            “Okay, we’ll be up all night so you can drop by later if you want.”

            “Okay.”

            Quinn left and silence settled over the living room. After a couple of minutes Daria stood to leave.

            “So, who have you got a date with?” Amy asked.

            “You know where I’m going.” Daria’s voice was flat and emotionless, devoid of her usual good humor.

            “You know I don’t approve of this.”

            “I know.”

            “Why, Daria?”

            Instead of answering, Daria walked over to a photograph taken when she was much younger. It showed Jake and Helen standing together, Jake holding an auburn-haired toddler in his arms while his wife held a redheaded infant.

            “Isn’t the corporation enough? The charities? You’re seventeen and you’re already making the world a better place for so many people. Can’t that be enough?”

            “No.” Daria walked to the front door and stopped, turning back to her aunt. “I wish it could be, but it’s not. Don’t wait up, I don’t know when I’ll be home.”

            Amy sat on the couch and heard the door open and close, and then the sound of Daria’s car cranking and pulling away.

            “I don’t know when you’ll be home, either.” Amy sighed to herself and leaned back on the couch with a bleak expression.

 

            Daria parked her nondescript car one floor below the roof of a run-down parking garage on the East side of Gotham City. Lawndale was south of Gotham, a nice little suburb that was largely and willfully ignorant of the rancid carcass rotting just thirty minutes up the freeway.

            The East Side . . . a human sewer. In this garage alone I passed two drug deals, seven passed out junkies, a fist fight, and six prostitutes. I have to remember that I’m just here to observe, to take notes. This is just another class, and non-interference is the pass/fail test.

            She pulled the slim makeup case out of the glove compartment and began applying a thin layer of base. After a few minutes she’d darkened her normally pale skin to a golden bronze, and she put away the kit. Her glasses joined the kit in the glove box, and she began to pull her hair back in preparation for attaching the long, blonde wig sitting in the passenger seat.

            She looked in the rearview mirror, giving herself a bright and vapid smile. “Now wheh-ah does a gal go for a good time ‘round he-yah?” she asked, her voice twanging thickly with a southern accent. She nodded once and left the car, heading down to the street below for her first contact with the enemy.

            She stepped out of the parking garage and paused to smooth her dress, smirking down at it. The dress was a cheap knockoff of the designer number she’d worn a couple of weeks ago when she’d attended Elsie Sloane’s birthday party. She began wandering down the avenue, gawking like a tourist and carefully noting details: the places that peddled flesh young and old, the hidden spaces that drug dealers lurked in, the subtle advertisements hidden among the garish.

            Daria was surprised that she blended into the crowd as well as she did. The whole area was full of tourists looking for an illicit good time. Some of them, Daria was sure, wouldn’t be making it back to their hotel in the morning. Some would awaken in alleys or gutters, some would awaken in jail cells, and others wouldn’t awaken at all.

            The flickering neon and flashing strobes were distracting, as was the noise. An overwhelming mix of laughter, angry shouts, insane babbles, distant screams, and the carnival-like barkers outside some of the clubs filled the air. The strongest sensation, however, was the smell. An ever-present miasma of stinks that merged and flowed to become the all-pervasive stench of human misery.

            “Hey, lady?” Daria felt a slight tug on her purse, the weight shifting as her wallet was removed. She turned and looked at the dirty little boy beside her and didn’t mind losing the hundred bucks she’d taken along as part of her cover.

            “Yeah?”

            “You’re a tourist? You looking to have some fun?”

            “Maybe so, kid, but Ah’m not sure yer tall enough to ride this ride,” Daria answered, drawling out her words.

            “That’s okay,” he said with a smile. “If you don’t like me there’s a couple other guys, and plenty girls if you want that. My sister’s a little older’n me.”

            Daria’s eyes followed the boy’s gesture towards a nearby alley and spotted a ten year old girl with long blonde hair and a dress that was far too short for her age. A man leaned against the wall a little further down the alley.

            This is just another class, and non-interference is the pass/fail test.

            Daria’s legs started moving her towards the alley, the boy trotting along behind. She stopped and looked down at the girl who returned her stoic gaze with a cheerful smile. Daria ignored the smile, the dimples, the carefully brushed out hair, the lightly applied makeup, and looked the girl in the eyes. Her dead, vapid eyes from which the light of her human soul had been snuffed out long ago.

            Daria stepped past the girl and approached the man, who looked up at her with a smirk.

            “Never met a broad that liked little girls before,” he said, his smirk twisting into a predatory smile. “Hundred bucks gets you half an hour, and for an extra fifty I’ll take you some pictures you can keep as a souvenir. You can pay after, you look honest.”

            “How generous,” Daria said flatly, “especially considering the boy already stole my wallet. I presume you’d expect me to turn a trick or two to pay you back, right? And the negatives of those pictures come in handy for blackmail later, don’t they?”

            “Wha?”

            “You’re the most disgusting piece of human filth I’ve ever seen, and let me tell you there’s some stiff competition. You’re done here.”

            “Mouthy bitch,” the man snarled, drawing a knife from under his coat. “We’ll see how much you talk when your throat’s cut.”

            He swung the knife and Daria shifted slightly, letting him miss by several inches. She grabbed his wrist and used his momentum to flip him out of the alley. He landed on the sidewalk with a bone-jarring thud.

            Dammit. Tonight’s class is now a failure. I have to get out of here before I attract any more attention.

            Daria hissed at the sudden, sharp pain in her leg and looked down to see the little boy. He smiled at her beatifically as he yanked the pimp’s knife out of her thigh and pulled it back to stab her again. She backhanded the knife out of his hand and saw the girl pulling a blade of her own from her small purse. Staggering slightly on her wounded leg, Daria evaded the platinum-haired children and limped out into the street as a police car pulled up, its blue lights strobing brightly. The street was rapidly emptying as the roaches scuttled into any available crack.

            Dammit, since when do the police patrol this part of the city? I can’t let them catch me, if I get arrested the war will be over before it can begin.

            “Her!” the pimp shouted, pointing at Daria. “That crazy bitch broke my fuckin’ arm!”

            “Freeze!” one of the policemen commanded, standing behind his open car door and training his pistol on Daria. His partner fired, and Daria fell over from the force of the bullet slamming into her torso.

            “She didn’t move,” the first cop said, sounding aggrieved.

            “She was gonna,” his partner replied.

            Upper torso hit . . . near my left shoulder . . . losing a lot of blood . . . God, this hurts . . . I have to get up . . . have to run . . . .

            Everything faded to black for a moment, and when the darkness receded Daria opened her eyes and glanced around. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, and her shoulder was screaming in agony from the position. She was face down in the back of the patrol car.

            “We should take her to the hospital,” the first cop said from somewhere above her and to her left.

            “Maybe after we book her,” the partner said. “Hell, it’s too bad she’s bleeding everywhere. We could have had some fun with her before we took her to the station.”

            “Man, you’re sick.”

            “Like you’d complain. I saw you peeking up that dress when we dumped her in the back.”

            Daria gritted her teeth against the pain, rotated her right wrist, and pulled. After a few seconds her hand popped free of the cuffs.

            Note to self: blood can be a decent lubricant.

            Daria rolled onto her back and sat up, glaring at the policemen through the mesh grill between the front seats and the back.

            “Stop the car and let me out,” she growled.

            “Hey, she sounds pretty perky,” the first cop said. “Maybe we can have some fun after all, I don’t mind the blood.”

            “You were warned,” Daria said flatly. She leaned back in the seat and brought her legs up, smashing her trendy shoes into the mesh barrier. On the third kick, the grill tore free with a metallic screech and she ruthlessly shoved it against the patrolmen, pushing the passenger into the dashboard and the driver up against the wheel. The car swerved sharply and ran up onto the sidewalk, slamming into the corner of a building.

            Daria finished climbing into the front seat and opened the passenger side door, pushing past the unconscious officer to exit the patrol car. She paused when she smelled burning, and looked back to see flames flickering under the hood.

            “Dammit,” she muttered, turning back to the car. She dragged the men from the car and then staggered away from the patrol cruiser . . .

            . . . and found herself back in the garage, sitting in the driver’s seat of her car.

            Lost too much blood . . . losing time . . . hope I didn’t attract too much attention on my way back . . . I’ve screwed up enough for one night.

            She cranked the car and left the garage, heading for the freeway and Lawndale.

            They’re quick to move to violence . . . faster than I thought they would be . . . children . . . no, not children . . . wolf pups, already learning to prey on the weak. The weak and frightened . . . frightened . . . even after I threw the pimp almost ten feet they weren’t afraid . . . .

            Daria heard horns blaring around her and she jerked the car back into the proper lane. She gritted her teeth against the darkness on the edges of her vision and focused on the road in front of her.

            They knew no fear . . . what was I, compared to the hell they live in? Even the pimp . . . I broke his arm . . . I tossed him ten feet through the air . . . if the police hadn’t arrived he’d have waded back into the fight . . . these aren’t people any more . . . normal threats don’t concern them.

            Daria took the ramp off the freeway into Lawndale, and headed towards Glen Oaks Drive.

            I have to make them fear me . . . the best body armor in the world will fail eventually, but if the criminals fear to attack . . . yes . . . they must be made to dread my coming . . . tell each other horror stories about me in their dens and hiding holes.

            Daria jerked forward as her car collided with something, and before she could react the airbag deployed, shoving her back into her seat. A few seconds later, the bag deflated and she looked out the broken windshield. She was parked in the front yard of her aunt’s house, the front of her car crumpled against a large tree. She got out of the car and staggered into the house, collapsing onto the couch. She looked across the room at the photograph she’d examined at the beginning of the evening.

            Jake and Helen stared at her from the photo, stern and disapproving.

            Mother . . . Father . . . forgive me, I have failed you. I’ve tried to be patient . . . but I have to know. How do I do it . . . how do I make them fear me?

            Her eyes slid to the staircase, flicking upwards towards her aunt’s bedroom.

            All I have to do is call out, and Amy will come downstairs and patch me back together. I have everything I need . . . a medical expert who knows my secrets . . . money for all the weapons and tools I’ll ever need . . . even this house is perched above a cave complex that will make the perfect headquarters . . . I have everything except patience . . . I won’t wait another hour . . . Mother, Father . . . tell me what I must do . . . I’ve already waited twelve long years . . . twelve years since . . . .

            “How’d you like the show, kiddo?”

            “It was wonderful,” Daria answered, smiling up at her father. “And so much better in the original German.”

            “You’re a little wonder, you know that?” her mother said.

            Daria smiled at her mother and shrugged.

            “I’m still not sure why they all ended up in prison at the end,” Jake said, scratching his head.

            “It was part of Dr. Falke’s revenge,” Daria started to explain. Her parents suddenly stopped walking, and Jake grabbed his daughter’s shoulder and pushed her behind him. A shabby-looking man was standing in front of them, pointing a pistol at her father.

            “W-wallet,” the man said, “g-gimme your wallet and purse. And that necklace, lady. C’mon, now!”

            “Calm down,” Jake said, slowly reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out his wallet. “You can have them, just calm down.”

            The man snatched the wallet from her father’s hand and the purse from her mother’s arm. Then with a snarl he grabbed Helen’s strand of pearls and tried to yank them off her neck. Her mother screamed and recoiled.

            Time stopped.

            The gun exploded, a thunderous noise and blinding flash. Her mother screamed again as she fell to the ground. Pearls and blood rained down on the pavement. Her father took a step forward and the man swung towards him.

            The gun exploded again. Her father jerked once, and looked down at his chest with the puzzled expression that usually warmed Daria’s heart. Slowly, he dropped to the ground near his wife, their hands almost touching as their blood ran together.

            Daria dropped to her knees and took her parents’ hands, and then looked up at the man. He pointed the gun at her for a moment, and then lowered it.

            “I . . . I’m sorry, kid.” The man turned and fled into the night.

            In the distance, Daria heard the shouts and the sirens . . . they were all quiet and far away. Eventually, time started again.

            Daria’s eyes focused slowly as she came back from the memory. She glanced down at the bloodstained couch, flicked her eyes towards the bloody trail leading back to the front door. A whirring sound drew her attention to an open window as something flew into the room. She tried to track it with her eyes but it moved too fast, circling around near the ceiling. After a moment it came to rest on the table and glared at her hatefully. The tip of one wing brushed against the photo, and it hissed.

            You . . . yes . . . I remember you . . . the camping trip . . . you frightened me when I was a little girl . . . frightened me . . . frightened . . . yes, of course. Father . . . Mother . . . thank you for showing me what I must do . . . like Dr. Falke, I shall have my revenge . . . I shall become a bat.

 

***

 

            “I just don’t freakin’ believe it,” Quinn said, thunking her soda glass on the table for extra emphasis.

            “Whoa there, tiger,” Jane said. “Try not to slosh any of that on the pizza, okay?”

            “Yeah, sorry.” Quinn slumped down in the booth with a depressed expression and surveyed the nearly empty Pizza King. She and Jane sat at one of the three occupied tables. One group was made of people that she didn’t recognize, and the other was the girl who had been her lab partner in Chemistry the year before and a couple of her friends.

            “Tell me the story from the beginning, and this time try to talk slower and with less righteous indignation.”

            “When I got home from your place Daria’s car was in the front yard, and she’d hit a freakin’ tree. There was blood all over the living room and we’re going to have to buy new cushions for the couch.”

            “Yuck.”

            “So I start freaking out, and run upstairs, and Daria is asleep in her room. So I go in to check on her, right?”

            “Yeah.”

            “So she wakes up and I ask her what happened, and she told me she wrecked her car after having too much to drink at a party.”

            “Wow.”

            “So I proceeded to pitch a screaming fit at her for endangering herself and everybody else on the road, or did she forget that I damn near died because of a drunk driver?”

            Jane winced, but didn’t reply.

            “At least she looked sorry,” Quinn finished, still scowling.

            “She apologized?”

            “Yeah, and she promised me it wouldn’t ever happen again. I told her I was gonna kick her ass if it did.”

            “She seemed pretty trustworthy the couple of times I’ve talked to her, and it’s obvious that you’re really important to her, Quinn. She’s a little flighty, but I’d be willing to bet she’ll try to avoid getting on your bad side.”

            “I hope so,” Quinn said with a sigh. “She’s brilliant, and well educated, but she does the stupidest things sometimes. It’s like she doesn’t have any common sense.”

            “Do tell,” Jane said, with a slight grin.

            “Well, the other day I came downstairs and found her turning the living room upside down looking for her glasses. They were perched on top of her head.”

            “Cute.”

            “And she has the attention span of a six year old on a sugar high,” Quinn said, starting to grin as well. “Last weekend we went to the mall so she could get a couple of new outfits, and she pretty much dragged me from shiny thing to cute boy to flashing whirl-a-gig the whole afternoon. I wanted to put her on a leash.”

            “So she’s attractive and brilliant, but flighty and absent-minded?”

            “Yeah.”

            “We better keep an eye on her, or she’s going to end up fulfilling some guy’s naughty librarian fantasy,” Jane said, chuckling quietly.

            “Who are we talking about?” Mack asked, dropping into the booth next to Jane. “Can I get her number?”

            “My sister,” Quinn answered with a smile, “and no. I don’t want to suffer the wrath of Jodie.”

            “That’s fair,” Mack said. “You guys don’t mind me crashing your party, do you?”

            “It’s cool,” Jane answered, “have a slice, Mack.”

            Mack grabbed a piece of pizza as Charles took a seat across from him, sitting next to Quinn.

            “Mack, you’re not trying to chat up my girlfriend are you?” he asked, getting a slice of pizza for himself.

            “Nah,” Mack answered. “I was gonna hit on the skinny one.”

            “Skinny one?” Quinn asked, quirking an eyebrow. “Are you saying that I’m fat, Michael MacKenzie?”

            “Doomed,” Jane chortled at Mack, then glanced over at Charles. “Girlfriend?”

            Quinn blushed slightly and shrugged. “We’ve been going out a while,” she said. “We talked about it and decided we may as well make it official.”

            “Good on ya,” Jane said. “Now then . . . Mack, are you saying that I’m skinny? I know I’m not the curviest girl on the street but that’s harsh.”

            “Is there any thing I can say that will get me out of this unscathed?” Mack asked.

            “Nope,” Quinn answered with a grin.

            “Suffer nobly,” Charles advised. “They might cut you some slack.”

            Mack sighed dramatically and the girls shared another laugh at his expense.

            “Did you drop Daria off at her appointment?” Quinn asked, looking at Charles.

            “Yeah,” he nodded. “She said she’d call if she wanted a ride home but that she didn’t expect to need one.”

            “You’re letting her run around unsupervised?” Jane asked.

            “Yeah,” Quinn answered. “She wanted to meet with Mr. Grace today and talk about business stuff. How much trouble can she get into in an office full of accountants?”

 

            Daria, leaning heavily on a cane, cheerfully strolled past the secretary’s desk and headed for the door to Mr. Grace’s office.

            “Miss!” the secretary said, waving at Daria. “Can I help you?”

            “No,” Daria said, pausing to smile at the woman. “But thanks for the offer.”

            “Do you have an appointment to see Mr. Grace or Mr. Page?” the woman asked as Daria started to turn away.

            “No, but I’m sure that Mr. Grace will be happy to fit me in.”

            “Miss, he’s in a meeting right now with one of our senior business managers.”

            “So much the better,” Daria answered before continuing to the door. Pushing it open she surveyed the opulent office of Dennis Grace. Grace was seated behind his impressively large desk, apparently arguing with the tall black man standing in front of him.

            “Miss Morgendorffer,” Grace said with a false smile. “I’m pleased to see you as always, but could I ask you . . . .”

            “You can ask, but I’m afraid the answer will be no,” Daria said, settling herself into one of the plush seats in front of the desk. She glanced over at the other man in the office. Tall, dark skinned, with graying hair and a face that was lined but still handsome. She nodded slightly at the firm set of his jaw and the spark in his eyes. She’d obviously walked in on something important.

            “Then I’ll ask Mr. Fox to step out so we can discuss your business,” Grace said.

            “What we were discussing is her business, Mr. Grace,” Fox said, glaring down at his boss.

            “I’ll be brief,” Daria said, tapping her cane against the desk to draw the men’s attention. “I want a copy of all my business records. Every stock, every bond, and the records of every company I’m invested in as far back as I’ve been invested in them. Every penny, Mr. Grace.”

            “It’ll take time to assemble that information,” Grace said.

            “He’s right,” Fox said, nodding. “It took days to get it all together, and I didn’t like what I found after I reviewed it.”

            “Is that right?” Daria asked, looking up at the man again.

            “Lucius, you’re very close to being in breach of the confidentiality clause in your contract. One more word and you’re fired.”

            “Do you have that information at hand?” Daria asked.

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Good, bring it with you,” she said, and lifted herself back to her feet. “Thank you for your time, Mr. Grace. I’ll be taking Mr. Fox and my records along with me, and I’ll call and make an appointment to meet with you later in the week.”

            “Of course, Miss Morgendorffer.”

            “Let’s go to lunch,” Daria said, nodding to Fox as she turned towards the door.

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “Do you have a laptop computer?”

            “I do.”

            “Good, bring that along too. We’ll review my records and make it a working lunch. That’s a tax write-off, isn’t it?”

            “It can be.”

            “Good. We’ll also call it a job interview, I’ve been thinking of hiring a CFO.”

            “Yes, ma’am.”

            “And call me Daria.”

            The pair left the office and Grace glared at the door. After a moment, he picked up the phone and hit a speed dial button.

            “Andrew,” he said when the phone was answered. “You’re not going to like this, but we may have a situation.”

 

            “And she pulled all of her assets out of Grace and Page,” Andrew Landon said with a shrug. “Dennis is terrified but I told him we understood that it wasn’t his fault and promised that we weren’t going to kill him.”

            “You shouldn’t make promises that you can’t keep,” Sandi said, glaring across the table at him.

            “Should I call for a hitter?” Cindy asked in a tired voice.

            “No,” Sandi answered. “People make mistakes, but if we kill them they won’t learn anything. Have his right leg broken, once; a clean break, quick to heal but very painful.”

            “Alright,” Cindy said.

            “So how bad is it, really?”

            “The loss of access to her assets hurts,” Andrew answered. “And she’s slowly disentangling herself from our business interests. Give it another couple of months and we’ll be right back where we were before we started cross-pollinating with her corporation.”

            “She’s breaking ties with our legitimate business interests as well?”

            “Yes,” Andrew said with a sigh. “I’m starting to think Lucius Fox has some kind of sixth sense. It’s like he can smell the Organization ties just by sniffing the quarterly reports.”

            “So what’s your bad news?” Sandi asked Cindy.

            “We’ve got a freelance burglar working upscale neighborhoods in Lawndale and Oakwood. He slides in and out like smoke, and usually only steals one or two things from any given house. The problem is that he’s hitting our people exclusively, high-ranking members of the Organization on both sides of the law.”

            “Increase security in general, figure out who he’s likely to hit next, set a trap for him, then kill him. Mr. Vitale, can you help with that?”

            “Of course,” Vitale said with a small smile. “One question, though.”

            “What?”

            “Are you set on killing him, or should we try to recruit him first? He is good.”

            “Give it a try if you think it’ll do any good, but if he really is targeting us he probably has a grudge.”

 

***

 

            Amy walked into the laundry room and closed the door behind her. She opened the small supply closet and looked inside. The closet had several small shelves holding a clutter of cleaning supplies and random detritus, and bolted to the wall on the left side was an odd column of wrought iron brackets, each about a foot across. Amy reached under the bottom shelf and found the switch that made the closet’s floor drop open. Using the iron brackets as a ladder she climbed down into the darkness below, pausing only to push the trap door back into place.

            Once upon a time, this house had hidden a production hub that supplied cheap alcohol to the speakeasies in Gotham City during the prohibition. The FBI had investigated the house a couple of times but never found anything, and after the eighteenth amendment was repealed they lost interest. Not long after, the criminals lost interest as well and sold the house. Nearly a century later, Amy had discovered the case files in the FBI’s public records library and it was exactly the sort of thing her niece had asked her to look for.

            Amy had purchased the house as soon as it came on the market, and after a search she had discovered what the FBI agents had probably been paid not to find. The shaft dropped thirty feet through earth and stone to a small cave complex beneath the house. The smugglers had used the caves to brew their products, which had then been carried about half a mile through artificially widened tunnels to where the cave system opened up at the river.

            Amy stepped away from the foot of the ladder and glanced around. The central cave was lit by floodlights that were triggered by either opening the trap door above or by sensors in the tunnel leading from the river. Daria’s new motorcycle sat near the entrance to the tunnel with several crates of parts nearby, all awaiting Daria’s attention. The center of the room was filled with boxes of computer parts that were also awaiting assembly.

            Her niece was on the opposite side of the cave, using an airbrush on a body suit hanging from a makeshift frame. As Amy approached, Daria stepped back and turned off the airbrush.

            “How’s it coming?”

            “So far, so good,” Daria answered, turning and removing her breathing filter. “I was surprised at how deeply invested I still am in defense, but I guess guns and missiles will always be a growth industry.”

            “You got this from one of your companies?” Amy asked, gesturing at the suit.

            “Yes,” Daria answered. “I had to move them through a few subsidiaries until they got lost, and I couldn’t place an order smaller than thirty-six units.”

            “So we have a few spares.”

            “I was thinking of maybe a couple of different paint schemes. I haven’t settled on what yet, but this one will be for urban fighting.”

            “Why not paint it black?”

            “Black actually stands out at night, nothing is naturally flat black. Dark grey works a lot better. I’ve got a sheet of dark blue Nomex that I’m going to make into a cloak and hood, just in case I end up somewhere that’s on fire.”

            “Is it bulletproof?”

            “More or less,” Daria answered with a shrug. “The suit is Kevlar over Gore-Tex, with Spectra-backed ceramic inserts for the torso. The boots and gauntlets are reinforced with steel struts, which are my own design. The basic suit is slated to be our offering to the Department of Defense for the next wave of infantry body armor, but like I said: I’ve been modifying the design here and there myself.”

            “I think I followed about half of that,” Amy said, smirking.

            “As long as I’m not fighting soldiers, I’m fine.”

            “What if you are fighting soldiers?”

            “I’ll be extra careful.”

            “Daria,” Amy began.

            “Yes, this is necessary.”

            “I wasn’t going to argue that, not anymore,” Amy said with a sigh. “I can tell that this is something you have to do. I was going to tell you to be extra careful anyway.”

            “I will,” Daria answered. “I can’t do much good if I’m dead, can I?”

            “What would I tell Quinn?”

            Daria frowned quietly for a moment, then said, “I’ve got some other things I need to work into the armor while I’m at it. A few gadgets that the military wouldn’t pay enough to outfit a trooper with, but I’m definitely going to want.”

            “Oh?”

            “Scrambled communications links, night vision, integrated breathing filtration, and some kind of tool belt for weapons and equipment.”

            “Sounds like you’ve got things planned out,” Amy said.

            “Now that I know what to do, I can take the time to do it right.”

 

            Sandi, dressed in her nightgown and slippers, walked down stairs towards the kitchen. She paused at a mirror to look at her reflection and didn’t like what she saw. The rings under her eyes were getting dark enough that makeup wasn’t entirely hiding them anymore. Her hair was mussed from tossing and turning in bed; even when she managed to drift off nightmares chased her through the night.

            Her seventeenth birthday was coming up soon, and she already had enough blood on her hands to send her to prison until her seventieth. She’d never be caught, of course; she was far too careful for that, and even if she wasn’t she had confidence in her legal team. She’d only killed once with her own hands, but she knew what had been done in her name and it weighed on her in the middle of the night.

            With a small sigh she continued to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. She drank it slowly, staring wistfully at her father’s liquor cabinet. Sometimes a couple of stiff drinks drove the dreams away and she could get a good night’s sleep. Other times, the drink trapped her, preventing her from awakening while the hellish scenes unfolded behind her eyes.

            She walked out into the living room and stood at the window, looking out at the full moon. The lawn looked calm and peaceful, and no cars were passing by the house. Lawndale was asleep.

            “Nice night, isn’t it?”

            Sandi froze, hearing the man speak behind her. Slowly, she turned and made out his outline in the recliner.

            “What do you want?” she asked.

            “I want to talk,” he answered. He stood and she heard the soft creak of leather. He remained in the shadows, but Sandi could tell he was tall and athletically built and wore dark clothes, including something over his face.

            “So talk.”

            “Do you want to know what really happened to your father?”

            Sandi dry swallowed. “He was shot.”

            “He was assassinated,” the man said. “Your father was the leader of a large criminal organization, and somebody wanted him out of the way.”

            “You’re saying he was some kind of mob boss?” Sandi asked, trying to sound scornful.

            “He was killed, and then most of his lieutenants were killed. There’s a new boss in town now. His name is Lex, and he killed both our fathers, Sandi.”

            “Your father was one of the lieutenants? Which one?”

            “Lex is responsible for a lot of deaths,” the man answered with a dry chuckle. “You shouldn’t make assumptions like that.”

            “Even if this is true, what do you want me to do about it? I’m just a teenage girl.”

            “I think Lex was connected to your father somehow, because sometimes I hear him called Lex Griffin. I think your father knew him, maybe was grooming him to take over someday. Does that sound like anybody you know?”

            “No,” Sandi answered. “My brothers are both little kids, and Daddy wasn’t on speaking terms with his brother at all.”

            “You have an uncle?”

            “Yeah, he lives in Rhode Island. I’ve never even met him.”

            “Think about what I told you,” the man said, silently walking out of the room. “I’ll be in touch, maybe you’ll have thought of something by then.”

            Sandi saw the foyer brighten and dim as the front door opened and closed. After a moment she walked to the phone and began dialing.

            “He was here,” she said when the phone was answered. “It’s definitely personal. He wants me to help him find out who Lex is, apparently Lex is responsible for his father getting killed.”

            She listened to the other person talk and her eyes narrowed.

            “I don’t care if it would make a perfect trap, I want guards. There is no way in hell I’m going let some leather-wearing sneak thief see me in my sleep clothes again.”

            As she listened to the other person’s response her scowl deepened.

            “I will deal with my mother, Cindy. Just make sure we have guards, and make sure they’re discreet guards. Yeah, even my brothers, but make damn sure these guys know not to get spotted. I haven’t had guards up to this point because I didn’t want to attract attention, okay?”

            Sandi nodded when she heard the answer.

            “You know your people, I trust your judgment. Just get it done. Yeah, good night.”

            Sandi hung up the phone and rubbed her face. The chances of getting any more sleep tonight had just dropped from unlikely to impossible. She headed back to the kitchen and her father’s liquor cabinet.

 

***

 

            “You look gloomy,” Quinn said, smiling through the bedroom door at Jane. Jane was sitting on her bed, staring moodily at a canvas. The canvas was covered with slashes of black, grey, and dark blue paint with the occasional spatter of red or yellow standing out from the background.

            “I hate questioning myself,” the artist responded with a sigh.

            “Well, what’s the question? Maybe I can help you figure out the answer.”

            “I dunno, I’m afraid you’ll think I’m selfish or stupid or something.”

            Quinn walked over and sat on the bed next to Jane and gently patted her on the knee. “Of course I won’t. What’s bothering you, Jane?”

            “How serious are you and Charles getting?”

            “Pretty serious,” Quinn answered. “You know I talk to him almost as much as I talk to you. It makes me happy just to be around him, he’s so sweet. Although it is embarrassing sometimes how much he dotes on me.”

            Jane nodded.

            “Or were you asking about sex?”

            “Sort of, I guess. I don’t want any lurid details, it’s just that I . . . well . . . you know.”

            “You’re in need of a guy?” Quinn asked, with a small smile. “Feeling guy-deprived?”

            Jane shrugged and returned Quinn’s smile. “Maybe a little. I guess I’m just trying to live vicariously through your relationship.”

            “Deeply ironic, considering your opinion of Charles when I first started seeing him.”

            “I was afraid of his reputation, I didn’t want anything bad to happen to you. Plus, I didn’t want anything cutting into our hang-out time.”

            “I know we don’t hang out as much as we used to.”
            “It’s okay, you’ve got a boyfriend and your long lost sister to deal with. I’ve spent the extra spare time profitably.”

            “Good, I’m glad to hear it,” Quinn said. “Charles and I haven’t done anything past kissing and snuggling on the couch.”

            “Oh, okay.”

            “Well, except that time I dressed like a cheerleader and showed up at his house with a plastic bear full of honey and a live mouse.”

            “What!?” Jane said, her eyes bugging out.

            “Kidding,” Quinn said, snickering.

            “I hate you, Morgendorffer.”

            “I’m no good at the yenta game, we should talk to the other girls about this.”

            “No, that’s okay.”

            “I’m sure Sandi or Stacy can find you plenty of eligible guys.”

            “I don’t want any Fashion Club leftovers,” Jane said, rolling her eyes. “Besides, I get the idea that Sandi really isn’t in the mood for love these days.”

            “Oh? I don’t talk to Sandi that often, what’s up with her?”

            “Usually she’s fine, but every now and then she just looks so depressed. I don’t think she’s sleeping well, either.”

            “She must still be really upset about her dad.”

            “I hope that’s all it is,” Jane answered. “I worry about her.”

            “Yeah.”

            For several minutes the two girls sat together in companionable, yet gloomy, silence.

            “You should go,” Jane said.

            “Why?”

            “Because I’m getting you down, and that makes me feel guilty on top of already feeling depressed.”

            “I’m not leaving you to wallow in your angst,” Quinn said, pulling out her cell phone. “I’m going to make some calls, and we’re going to have a girls’ night. Sandi can bring over some of that gourmet popcorn, and I’ll ask Stacy and Tiffany to stop at the video place and rent us some MST3K material. Heck, maybe I can even get Jodie and Elsie over here.”

            “Daria?”

            “She’s out of town on business,” Quinn answered, rolling her eyes. “I asked her if ‘business’ included six foot tall, blond polo players and she told me stop reading her email.”

            “You read her email?”

            “No,” Quinn said, dialing her phone and holding it up to her head. “I was being totally facetious, and then mildly creeped out that I was right. How was I supposed to know . . . . Hi, Sandi! Are you up to a girls’ night?”

 

            Amy climbed down the ladder, grumbling under her breath. Daria had called her a few minutes earlier and asked her to come down to the cave. No explanation, just a polite request for her presence followed by a dead line. The problem with Daria was that the cause of the summons could range anywhere from wanting a second opinion on a color scheme for the bike to Daria accidentally cutting her hand off with a spot welder.

            Amy walked into the central chamber and frowned. Most of the big sodium lights were out, leaving the room dimly lit. Her frown deepening, she stepped into the room and looked around. Movement attracted her attention, and she focused on it. When she saw the thing looming in the shadows, her heart skipped a beat.

            It was sort of human shaped; two arms, two legs, a head, and a torso. It had huge wings or something that draped across its shoulders and almost touched the floor. The head was slightly elongated, crowned with a pair of sharp ears, and stared at Amy with unblinking, glittering red eyes. Amy could faintly hear the creature’s harsh, almost mechanical, breathing.

            “Oh . . . my . . . God,” Amy gasped, staggering back against the wall.

            The thing silently drifted past Amy to the motorcycle against the far wall. It mounted the bike and kicked the engine to life; the bike roared briefly and then settled into a dull mutter.

            “Don’t wait up,” the thing said, and turned the bike into the tunnel. As it sped away Amy realized that the voice . . . while deeper, more inflectionless than usual, and slightly mechanized . . . was still barely recognizable as her niece.

 

Chapter Two