Chapter Two: Fear and Loathing in Lawndale

 

           He who has a strong enough why can bear almost any how.

 - Friedrich Nietzsche

 

 

            Harvey Dent dropped his coins into the machine, pushed the button for the soda he wanted, and listened to the heavy thump as the can dropped into reach. Drink in hand, he turned and walked down the darkened hallway back to his office. The building was quiet, everyone else having gone home hours ago.

            Dent rarely went home before midnight; having no family waiting for him made it easier to put in the long hours that he fervently hoped would lead to a better Gotham City. If only every day didn’t feel like one step forward and two steps back, he might be able to convince himself it all wasn’t a waste.

            “I’m starting to sound like Jim,” he muttered to himself. He opened his office door and walked in, stopping with a frown when he noticed that the lights were out. He turned towards the switch and staggered backwards in shock when he saw the apparition hovering at his elbow.

            “I’m not here to hurt you,” it said, speaking in a flat, inflectionless voice. Dent couldn’t tell much about the person due to a large, dark-colored cloak and cowl. Even the face was covered by goggles and some sort of breathing mask.

            “What . . . who . . . are you?”

            “I’m a friend. You want to clean up Gotham City?”

            “Yes.”

            “So do I, and you have information I need. Let’s talk, Mr. Dent.”

 

***

 

            “So. Here we are again, Miss Lane.”

            Jane sighed quietly to herself and tried not to roll her eyes. For once, she was putting some effort into making the school psychologist happy. She actually had a vested interest in not getting stuck in the self-esteem class again.

            “How was your summer?”

            “It was good, Dr. Manson. I have some new friends, and we got to hang out quite a bit. I also did some amateur photography work that got published in the newspaper.”

            “Any boyfriends?”

            “No,” Jane answered with a shrug. “I admit I’m sort of worried about dating. I don’t want to hurt some poor guy, you know?”

            “Hurt?”

            “Oh.” Jane blinked a couple of times, realizing what she’d said. “Well, you know I’m in really good shape: I run and I do aerobics and weight lifting and stuff. I’m worried about accidentally hurting some guy’s ego.”

            “Ah, yes.” Manson smiled. “A lot of men do have fragile egos, especially in their teens. Miss Lane, I had my eye on you last year. I didn’t think letting you test out of the self-esteem class early was a good idea.”

            “Oh?”

            “However, it seems that you and Miss Morgendorffer have been good influences on one another. I am very pleased by your improvement since the last time we spoke, and I don’t think you’ll need to spend any more time with Mr. O’Neill after school.”

            “Thanks.”

            “Do you think you’ll be trying out for the track team this year?”

            “Probably not,” Jane said with a shrug. “I love running, and I don’t want it to feel like something I have to do. That’d take the joy out of it.”

            “I see. Well, I suppose we’re done here.”

            Jane nodded and stood.

            “Could you send Mr. Burns in on your way out?”

            “Sure thing,” Jane said as she left the office. She glanced around and saw a few other students hanging around in the hallway outside, and motioned to a blond boy in a blue fleece jacket.

            “I’m up?” he asked.

            “Yeah.”

            As the boy entered the office behind her, Jane wandered over to where Quinn stood chatting with another red-haired girl. It took Jane a moment to remember why the second girl looked familiar, and then remembered talking to her outside the Pizza King just before using super-speed to disassemble Kevin’s Jeep.

            “I’d like it if we could be lab partners again,” Quinn said. “The last thing I want is Mrs. Barch to stick me with some brain dead lug that I’m going to have to carry.”

            “It’ll be fine if I can get my class periods switched for AP Chem and World History,” the girl answered. “I just have to get Barch and DeMartino to sign off on it.”

            “Hey,” Quinn said as Jane walked up. “Jane, this is Scarlett. She’s the best lab partner ever. Scarlett, this is my best friend Jane.”

            “Hi,” Scarlett said. She gave Jane a brief smile and then looked around the hallway nervously. “Did Josh go in?”

            “Blond guy, about this tall, wearing a blue fleece?”

            “That’s him.”

            “Yeah, it was his turn after me.”

            “Oh, I hope he’s okay. He gets a little paranoid about being psychoanalyzed, and he has these crazy ideas about Dr. Manson.” Scarlett sighed and shook her head.

            “I don’t really know him,” Jane said. “He sounds a little unstable, though.”

            “He’s my boyfriend.”

            “How does that foot taste, Jane?” Quinn asked with a smirk.

            “Needs salt.”

            The three girls chuckled together quietly as they headed off down the hall to their first classes of the morning.

 

            Later that day, Jane and Quinn were joined in the lunch room by an energetic and cheerful Stacy Rowe.

            “You think you could dial the pep down a little?” Jane asked with a smirk.

            “Nope,” Stacy said, smiling broadly. “I got some good news this morning, and I’ve been up all day. Not even Mr. DeMartino could get me down.”

            “You made captain of the cheerleading squad?” Quinn asked.

            “No, Brit is still captain. Guess again.”

            “Sandi made you president of the Fashion Club?” Jane asked.

            “No,” Stacy said, rolling her eyes. “I could never replace Sandi as club president . . . I think there’s something about it in the bylaws.”

            “Okay, we give. What’s up?”

            “I’ve been invited to the Nationals this year,” Stacy said with a squeal.

            “Nationals?” Jane asked blankly.

            “Gymnastics? The national competition,” Stacy explained. “If I do well, I could compete in the Olympics.”

            “Stacy, that’s great!” Quinn said. “We have to do an article about it for the next Lowdown.”

            “That would be awesome,” Stacy said with a smile.

            “What would be awesome?” Sandi asked as she sat down across the table from Stacy.

            “She’s going to the national gymnastics competition,” Quinn said.

            “Congratulations,” Sandi said, before turning to Jane with a small smirk. “Only two this year, you owe me ten dollars.”

            “Dammit,” Jane muttered, handing over the cash.

            “Only two what?” Quinn asked.

            “People that had to go to the hospital on the first day of school,” Sandi said. “Every year, Manson reviews all the head cases and every year a couple of them have break downs in her office and have to be rushed off and sedated.”

            “She always tried to break me,” Jane said with a smirk. “Who was it this year? Any of the new people?”

            “A new freshman, and Josh Burns.”

            “Wow,” Jane said. “I guess Scarlett was right to worry about him, then.”

            “Whoa, wait a minute,” Quinn said. “You guys are telling me that one or two people have nervous breakdowns requiring hospitalization at the beginning of every school year?”

            “Well, yeah,” Stacy said. “It’s usually more like three or four, though. Manson must be losing her touch.”

            “This doesn’t strike anybody as being the least bit strange?”

            Stacy, Sandi, and Jane all exchanged glances and then turned back to Quinn.

            “Well,” Jane said, “now that you put it like that, yeah it is kind of odd. It’s just always been that way, as far back as I can remember. Hell, it even happened to Trent one year and now he has some kind of phobia about bookstores.”

            “I had a breakdown last year,” Stacy said quietly. “My parents hired a psychiatrist for me after that and I built up a lot of self-confidence through my counseling sessions, so maybe it was a good thing.”

            “I wonder,” Quinn said, tapping her finger on the table and staring into space.

            “Crap,” Jane said, looking put upon. “There she goes.”

            “Sounds like there’s a story here to me,” Quinn said. She glanced around at the bemused stares of her friends. “What!?”

            “You’ve got that reporter look again,” Stacy said. “You know, the one you always have right before you rush off and get into trouble.”

            “I don’t rush off or get into trouble,” Quinn said.

            “The ticket-fixing scandal you exposed?” Stacy said. “Your aunt almost got her driver’s license revoked before that got straightened out.”

            “I had to have some speeding tickets to get into the system,” Quinn said.

            “When you walked in on that Star Labs employee gone bad and almost got taken hostage?” Sandi asked, quirking an eyebrow.

            “The lab director was very pleased that I helped them discover the corporate espionage,” Quinn said.

            “Two weeks ago when you were investigating your new angle on organized crime and that guy tried to shoot us?” Jane asked quietly.

            “What!?” Sandi said, her eyes getting huge.

            “I’m sorry,” Quinn said, looking down at the table miserably. “I thought you did get shot at first.”

            “I was fine,” Jane said. “Damn good thing your super buddy showed up, though.”

            “What happened?” Sandi demanded.

            Quinn shrugged. “This guy called me, told me he could give me a good lead on finding the higher-ups in one of the big crime syndicates. I asked him why he didn’t call the police, he laughed and told me that some of the police were the higher-ups.”

            “We went to go see the guy,” Jane said. “There wasn’t anybody in the hotel room he wanted to meet us at, and then somebody opened the door and took a couple of shots at us. We hit the deck, and I cracked my head on the nightstand. Quinn ran after the guy and she found him and his partner in their car downstairs. The car had been bent in half, and Supergirl had given them a stern warning to wait until the police arrived and then confess all.”

            “Apparently the whole thing was a trap,” Quinn said. “Not for me, but for some guy that’s been causing them trouble.” She sighed sadly. “I almost got us killed for nothing, because somebody thought I was working with some thief guy.”

            “Eh, I think the thug took a couple of shots and ran like hell when he saw it was two teenage girls and not some dude all dolled up in bondage gear,” Jane said. “We’d have been fine, probably.”

            “I still can’t believe he missed us,” Quinn said, shaking her head. “At least Supergirl stopped them from getting away.”

            “Guy in bondage gear?” Sandi said.

            “Oh, you haven’t heard?” Stacy asked. She bobbed out of sight for a second as she pulled her backpack from underneath the lunch table and started hunting through it. After a moment, she pulled out a copy of the Lawndale Sun-Herald and put it on the table, pointing at the headline.

            “Winged Freak Terrorizes Gotham Gang Land,” Sandi read aloud.

            “I heard about that,” Quinn said. “Apparently there’s some guy, or thing, or whatever attacking criminals at night. Eyewitness accounts say it’s some kind of vampire or bat creature.”

            “So first Supergirl and the Eradicator, and now Batman?” Jane asked with a smirk.

            “The newspaper says that the attacks may be linked to a series of burglaries,” Stacy said, tapping a different story. “He breaks into rich people’s houses and scares them real bad before stealing some stuff and leaving.”

            “That must be very unpleasant,” Sandi said. “I need to go make a phone call, I’ll see you later.”

            “I need to hit the library,” Quinn said, glancing at her watch. “Do a little research before I go back to class.”

            “There are the other cheerleaders, I have to go tell them about me getting into the Nationals,” Stacy said, also leaving the table.

            Jane sat for a moment, and then folded up Stacy’s paper. She glanced around, and then surreptitiously sniffed at herself. “Hmph,” she said, “and little Janey is all alone again.”

 

            Sandi left the lunchroom and walked out into the parking lot. Once she was far enough from the building to prevent eavesdropping, she pulled out her cell phone and hit one of her speed dial buttons.

            “This is the office of Cindy Rowe, CPA. How may I help you?”

            “This is Sandi Griffin, I’d like to talk to Mrs. Rowe.”

            “Just a moment, hon.” Sandi tapped her foot impatiently while listening to the hold music. After a moment, Stacy’s mother came on the line.

            “Sandi? What’s going on, is Stacy okay?”

            “She’s fine. I’m actually a little more worried about one of my other classmates, a girl named Quinn Morgendorffer.”

            “The girl that works for your school paper?”

            “That’s her. Would you believe that somebody set her up to get killed by hit men? I mean, who could possibly do something that that?”

            Cindy didn’t answer, but Sandi could hear the creak of her desk chair as she sat up and started paying attention.

            “It’s just an awful thing, trying to murder a poor schoolgirl. Whoever was behind that should be found and punished, don’t you think?”

            “Yeah,” Cindy said. “I’m sure a lot of questions are going to be asked, and I wouldn’t want to be the person having to answer them.”

            “I imagine not.” Sandi glanced back at the school building when she heard the bell ring. “Look, I have to get to class. Are we still on for our bridge game this Friday?”

            “Always.”

            “Good, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to talk then.” Sandi snapped her phone closed and walked back inside, carefully schooling her face into a neutral expression. Cindy Rowe would already be on the phone, tracking down whichever poor idiot decided it would be a good idea to send a couple of thugs after Quinn. Whoever it was would shortly be getting a summons to meet with Lex Griffin, and those sorts of interviews tended to be short and final.

 

            “Tiffany?” Stacy called out, tapping on her friend’s bedroom door. “Your mom said I should come on up, are you awake?” Stacy heard some unintelligible muttering from inside the room and pushed the door open.

            Tiffany was inside, sprawled across her bed on top of the covers and still wearing her sleep shirt and panties. The room was a disaster area, with dirty clothes strewn on the floor and a few slightly moldy plates and glasses scattered around. The walls, normally decorated with a combination of Boyz2Guyz posters and photos from Tiffany’s modeling portfolio, were now covered in paintings of hauntingly beautiful crystal cities.

            “I missed you at school today,” Stacy said, sitting on the edge of the bed. “Are you sick, or did you forget today was the first day of school?”

            “Stacy?” Tiffany drawled, slowly opening her eyes and blinking in the afternoon sun streaming though her window.

            “Hey.” Stacy looked around the room, feeling uneasy in the awkward silence that followed. “Your paintings are getting better, have you figured out what they’re about yet?”

            “No.” Tiffany sat up and leaned against the headboard of the bed. “Stacy, I’m scared.”

            “What are you afraid of, Tiff?”

            “I don’t know.”

            Stacy frowned and looked around the room again, hoping to find the source of her friend’s distress.

            “I mean,” Tiffany said slowly, and then closed her eyes to concentrate. “I mean that I don’t know and that’s why I’m afraid, not that I don’t know why I’m afraid.”

            “What don’t you know?”

            “I hate being stupid,” Tiffany said, burying her head in her hands as tears began to trickle down her face.

            “You’re not,” Stacy said, putting one arm around her friend. “You got hurt Tiffany, you’re not stupid. You just got hurt.”

            “I’m barely smart enough to know how stupid I am,” Tiffany said, hugging Stacy and crying on her shoulder. “I’m so scared, Stacy.”

            “You’re going to be okay, I promise.”

            “I’m starting to forget things,” Tiffany said. “Like, I forgot a couple of days last week and most of last night.”

            “You forgot last night?”

            “I had lunch yesterday,” Tiffany said, pulling away and wiping her face with the corner of a blanket. “And then you woke me up just now and told me I missed school.”

            “It is weird that you’re sleeping so much.”

            “I don’t think I was asleep,” Tiffany said, pointing at a fresh painting on her easel. “That canvas was blank last time I saw it.”

            Stacy walked over to the painting and looked it over. It was an almost photographic quality image of a star going supernova. Stacy leaned forward to examine the details, the tiny images of planets and asteroids being smashed by the shockwave as it rode through the solar system.

            “This is really good. Maybe you should be a painter instead of a model, Tiffany. It’s probably less stressful, you know.”

            “I didn’t paint it.”

            “You put your initials in the corner, like you always do.”

            “I don’t remember it, I don’t remember most of my paintings.”

            Stacy turned around with a thoughtful frown and started tugging on one braid reflectively. She returned to the bed and sat, giving Tiffany the same scrutinizing look she had been giving the painting a moment ago.

            “Tiffany, if you’re losing time you should probably see a doctor.”

            “I know,” Tiffany said, looking dejected. “What if there’s something wrong? What if I’m dying? What if I’m going to get dumber?”

            “We won’t know until you get checked out, will we?” Stacy stood and pulled Tiffany to her feet. “You go shower and get dressed. I’ll go downstairs and talk to your mom, okay?”

            Tiffany nodded and headed towards her bathroom. “Thanks, Stacy.”

            “For what?”

            “You always watch out for me. Thanks.”

            “You’re welcome, Tiff.”

 

            Daria sat rigidly in her armchair, watching Amy walk down the stairs into the living room.

            “Well?”

            “She’s going to be fine,” Amy said, sitting on the couch. “I put her under a mild sedation, and she’ll sleep for at least ten hours. She’ll probably miss school tomorrow, but I’m sure they’re expecting that.”

            “I want to know what happened to my sister.”

            The conversation was interrupted by the doorbell, and Amy went to the door. After peeking through the spy hole she swung the door open and let Jane in.

            “Hi, Amy, Daria. On the phone you said Quinn was sick, what happened? She looked fine at school today.”

            “We were hoping you could tell us,” Daria said, giving Jane a tired smile. “Nothing unusual at school? She didn’t eat anything weird at lunch?”

            “No. Can I talk to her?”

            “She’s sedated,” Amy said. “She was freaking out really bad when I picked her up from school.”

            “Freaking out?” Jane asked.

            “Yeah, she was acting strangely and wouldn’t stop crying. She wouldn’t respond when spoken to, either.”

            “What happened?”

            “We don’t know. The school nurse said that Quinn showed up on time for her appointment with Dr. Manson, but she was wandering the halls in a daze about an hour later. One of the janitors found her while he was locking up.”

            “Appointment with Manson?” Jane asked.

            “The nurse said that Quinn told her she had an appointment, that’s why she let Quinn into Manson’s office.”

            “Oh,” Jane said, suddenly standing. “Look, I need to go out for a run, okay? It’s what I do to clear my head and think. If Quinn wakes up and wants to talk, call me.”

            “She won’t be awake until,” Amy started, pausing when Jane immediately walked to the front door and left the house. “She looked spooked, I wonder if she knows more about what happened than she’s letting on.”

            “I’ve already pulled some interesting records from Cedars of Lawndale,” Daria said, frowning. “Every year a few high school students have breakdowns on the first day of school, and all of them are Dr. Manson’s patients.”

            “Didn’t anybody else think that was strange?”

            “It’s just a few kids a year, and they’ve usually already been diagnosed with some kind of disorder or caught with drugs. Everybody listens to the explanations from the woman with the psych degree instead of digging deeper.” Daria stood and began walking towards the kitchen.

            “Where are you going?”

            “I’m going to dig deeper. I want you to get a blood sample from Quinn and analyze it in the lab, find out if she’s been dosed with something. I have a bad feeling about this.”

            “I’ll call you if anything strange comes up,” Amy said.

 

            Lawndale High School sat in the darkness of early evening, a few scattered security lights creating pools of illumination. A dark shape moved through the shadows surrounding the building, and then silently scaled a brick wall to the roof. A few seconds of work with a set of lock picks opened the skylights over the indoor pool. The intruder secured a line to a nearby air conditioning duct and silently rappelled into the gym, swinging on the rope to land at the pool’s edge.

            She slipped out of the gym into one of the hallways and paused to tap the side of her goggles. The eye pieces made a quiet whirring noise, and she looked around the hallway through the lambent green of night vision.

            Looks like there’s a security camera every thirty feet. One wonders, is this is a school or a prison? Where does the administration get the money for all this equipment?

            She lurked in a dark corner, watching the cameras pan back and forth. After a minute of quiet observation she sprinted down the hallway, weaving in and out of doorways and ducking behind trash cans in order to avoid being caught by any of the cameras. She came to a halt in the foyer, directly underneath the camera stationed there.

            To her left were the double doors leading outside, and to her right was the nurse’s office. Directly in front of her was the school psychologist’s office. She ran her fingers along her belt and opened one of the small compartments on it without looking.

            I really did not think I was going to have to use intrusion gear to sneak into a high school counselor’s office. I really need to have somebody look into what kind of funding this school is getting, and whether or not this much surveillance is needed.

            She extended the neck of the small handheld device and reached up to clamp it onto the camera’s electrical cable. The teeth on the clamp pierced the cable’s rubber sheathing and the device’s capacitor immediately dumped enough electricity into the camera to fry it out. To a cursory examination the cable would look like it had been chewed on by a small animal.

            The lock on the office door was superior to the one on the skylights, it took her almost a minute to tease the tumblers into place. Finally, she slipped through the door and pushed it closed behind her. She relocked the door before proceeding into the room.

            Everything looked simple: a desk, a table, a couple of chairs, a bookshelf, and a pair of filing cabinets. She scanned the bookshelf first, finding a large collection of books on child and teenage psychology mixed in with various self-help guides and some new age ‘feel good’ books.

            She moved to the filing cabinets and began rifling through the student records kept there, specifically looking for records of the people who had required hospitalization over the last couple of years. After a couple of minutes she stepped away, having found all the evidence any prosecutor could ask for to assure the psychiatrist a long prison stay. Names, dates, dosages, and results were all spelled out in Manson’s spidery handwriting.

            A quick check of the desk discovered the usual assortment of writing utensils and personal detritus, and one locked drawer.

            If there’s anything else to be found it’ll be here.

            She attacked the drawer with her lock picks and had it open in short order. The contents of the drawer consisted of a handwritten journal and a pair of small spray bottles. She began flipping through the pages of the journal and one thing immediately became clear: Dr. Margaret Manson had never been a simple school psychologist. The journal described experiments going back years, experiments using a variety of chemicals on the students who had been consigned to her care.

            “I found something strange,” Amy said, her tiny voice coming from the ear bud that Batgirl wore under her cowl.

            “Me too,” she muttered. The microphone resting against her jawbone picked up the subvocalization and transmitted it back to the cave on a secure and scrambled channel.

            “She has some chemicals in her bloodstream that I’m not familiar with, and they seem to be affecting the hormone balance in her brain. The good news is that the chemicals are rapidly breaking down, and should be out of her system in another couple of hours.”

            “Manson has been experimenting on the students, looks like she started almost as soon as she got the job here.”

            “Jesus Christ,” Amy swore. “I guess joining the PTA was a waste of my time.”

            A loud crack reverberated through the room, and Batgirl quickly tucked the journal away in a hidden pocket inside her cloak. She heard footsteps and carefully raised herself up high enough to see over the top of the desk. The office door was standing open, the doorjamb splintered and broken. A girl wearing a short dress, a cape, and sunglasses walked confidently across the room.

            “The silent alarm has been triggered,” Amy said. “Time to go.”

            Batgirl moved smoothly and silently, rising to her feet and leaping to the top of the desk in one movement. Supergirl stepped backwards and cried out in shock as Batgirl jumped off the desk and rolled out into the hallway.

            “You wait a minute,” Supergirl yelled, turning to follow the cloaked figure. “I’d like to have a word with you.”

            Batgirl heard the quick steps following her, and saw the gloved hand dropping towards her shoulder. She spun in place, grabbed Supergirl’s wrist and twisted it away while shifting her balance.

            “Gah!” Supergirl yelled, flipping through the air and landing hard on a table covered with fliers for various student activities. She sat up and looked around, finding herself alone.

            She climbed off the table with a scowl and straightened her cape. Still seeing no sign of the intruder, she went back into Manson’s office to see if she could figure out what had happened to Quinn.

 

            “What’s going on? Your heartbeat spiked for a moment,” Amy said.

            “I bumped into Lawndale’s guardian angel.” Daria kick-started her bike and roared away from the school.

            “Supergirl?”

            “The blue girl scout herself. She may be strong, but she’s not particularly bright. Or resistant to jujitsu, for that matter.”

            “Did you find out anything about the chemicals Manson is using?”

            “I have her journal, the information is probably there. I’ll be back soon, I have to make a side trip first. Go keep an eye on the patient.”

            “Okay. Call my cell if you need something.”

            “I won’t.”

 

            Angela Li’s eyes opened in the darkness and she knew that she was not alone. The bedroom window was open, its screen missing. She sat up in bed and something moved in the darkness, a shape that was a little darker than the unlight of the room. The shape was vaguely human.

            “Who are you? What do you want?”

            “Dr. Margaret Manson has been performing experiments on the students at your school,” someone replied. The voice was dry and flat, and seemed to be filtered and mechanized.

            “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Li said. With one shaking hand she retrieved her glasses from the nightstand and put them on. The shape standing at the foot of her bed resolved slightly, but remained hidden in the darkness.

            “Temporary alteration of brain chemistry, artificial inducement of emotional response, hallucinations, nervous breakdowns, does any of this sound familiar to you?”

            “N-no.”

            Li jumped and cried out in shock when the bedside phone began ringing.

            “That’ll be the Sheriff’s department, calling you about a break-in at the high school. Answer it, go to the school, and examine what you find in your psychologist’s office.” The shape moved and the faint light from the window was briefly blotted out. Angela lifted the phone from the cradle and held it next to her face.

            “Hello . . . speaking . . . of course, I’ll be right down. Thank you, officer.”

            She reached out and pressed the button on the phone base, cutting the connection. A moment later she released it and dialed a number from memory.

            “Margaret . . . Angela here . . . yes, I know what time it is . . . listen, there was a break in at the school . . . somebody found your research.”

            Li frowned slightly at the response.

            “It’s not my fault, Manson. Look, just get out of town for now and don’t call me because I can guarantee my phone will be monitored. Here, let me give you a number you can call for help.”

            The principal rattled off the number from memory and then hung up the phone. With a sigh, she climbed out of bed and started pulling clothes out of her closet. She knew that with a little luck and a few bribes she could make this whole thing blow over as far as the authorities were concerned. It was the other consequences she was worried about.

 

            Amy looked up from the lab table as the motorcycle pulled into the cave and stopped. Batgirl stepped away from the bike and reached up, unfastening her breathing filter so it hung loose and then pulling back her cowl. Underneath, her sweat-slicked hair was pulled into a tight braid and coiled at the base of her neck.

            “Well?” Daria asked.

            “I checked on her a few minutes ago, she’s sleeping peacefully.”

            “I meant the chemical, what did you find out about it?”

            “Oh,” Amy said with a small frown. “Well, it definitely stimulates the brain directly. It specifically activates the victim’s fight or flight reflex, and it’s got a potent hallucinogen mixed with it. Basically, it’s like an acid trip on steroids that’s guaranteed to be bad.”

            “I’ve got Manson’s notes,” Daria said, pulling the journal out and putting it on the table. “Hopefully that means nobody else will be duplicating her research any time soon.”

            “What about her?”

            “After what I saw in her office, I’m pretty sure she’ll be in prison for a long time.”

            “Alright, I’m going back upstairs. I’ll check on Quinn again before I go to bed. Do you need anything?”

            “Actually, yes.” Daria picked up a clipboard from a nearby table and handed it to her aunt. “I’m hiring a body double, somebody to go to swank parties and pretend to be me. These are the people selected by the agencies I contacted, and I’d like you to do the preliminary screening.”

            “Sure, I guess,” Amy said, scanning the list of names. “Um . . . this one is a guy.”

            “If he can put on a dress and look like me I don’t care if he has to tuck and cover.” Daria sat at the table and flipped open the journal, preparing to give it a more thorough going-over.

            “I’ll keep that in mind.”

 

            Margaret Manson stood, stepping away from her computer desk. Behind her, the machine was busily formatting itself. The fools may have seized her journal and records from the office, but the bulk of her research had been done here and those notes could not be allowed to fall into anyone else’s hands. She wasn’t concerned that the records were evidence that the police could use against her, she simply didn’t want any of her competitors stealing her research.

            She walked through her house to the foyer where she picked up a suitcase and a laptop bag. She paused at the alarm pad to punch in a code that her security company was unaware of, and then left the house without bothering to lock the door. Manson unlocked the passenger side door to her car and put her luggage inside, and then looked up as a county sheriff’s car pulled into her driveway.

            She calmly walked towards the cruiser, casually dropping one hand into her pants pocket. The deputy opened the door and stepped out of the car, smoothly drawing his sidearm and pointing it at the psychologist.

            “You stop right there, ma’am. Hands up, please.”

            “Curtis Stalano?” she asked, taking her hand out of her pocket. In the dimly lit driveway, the deputy couldn’t see the small spray bottle she was holding.

            “That’s me, Dr. Manson. I’m with the sheriff’s department now. I’m afraid you’re going to have to come down to the jail and answer some questions.”

            “I’d be happy to, Curtis. I remember when you were a freshman, you badgered Ms. Li for weeks to let you be hall monitor. You always had a deep respect for rules and orderly behavior, didn’t you?”

            “Yes, ma’am.” He slowly lowered his weapon, feeling silly for drawing it on a harmless lady in the first place. “I’m awful sorry about this, ma’am.”

            “It’s alright, Curtis.” Manson stepped up to the man and casually lifted her hand, discharging the spray bottle directly into his face. “I forgive you.”

            The deputy made a harsh wheezing sound as he slowly collapsed to the ground. After a few seconds he curled into a fetal ball and started whimpering quietly. The doctor walked back to her car and got in, cranking it and backing around the cruiser into the street. She put the car into drive and left the middle class neighborhood behind.

            A minute or so later, a red and blue blur came to a stop next to the patrol car. Supergirl dropped to one knee and examined the quietly gibbering deputy.

            “I can run over a hundred miles an hour,” she muttered to herself. “You’d think I’d quit showing up places a few minutes too late.”

            She stood and reached into the car for the radio microphone. Holding it to her mouth she said, “Hi, this is Supergirl. The deputy you sent out to Manson’s house seems to have had some kind of nervous breakdown, he probably needs medical attention.”

            She tossed the microphone back into the car, ignoring the dispatcher’s demands for more information and that she identify herself. Supergirl turned away from the car and took three steps up the driveway before the house was consumed in a huge explosion. Instinctively, Supergirl looked away and lifted one arm to shield her face as shrapnel flew all around her.

            “My night just keeps getting better and better.”

 

***

 

            Sandi leaned back in her chair and examined the other people that sat around the table with her. Andrew Landon looked calm and collected as always; even on the occasions that he’d suffered a setback or made a mistake he always showed up to the meetings with a game plan to get things back on track. At the moment he knew he was in good favor; at the beginning of the meeting he’d announced that Mayor Hill had been convinced to appoint Pete Grogan as the new police commissioner.

            Across the table, Jim Vitale gave her an inscrutable smile and took a long drag off his cigar. She could tell her mentor was amused with her, which only added to the weight hanging from her frayed temper. There had been some serious breaches in security, and he was treating it like a mildly funny joke.

            To her right, Cindy Rowe looked upset and harassed. There was good reason, since she’d just spent the last ten minutes being grilled by her temperamental teenage boss. At the moment, there was a certain resemblance between the mother and the daughter’s occasional self-confidence crisis.

            “Let’s go over this one more time, shall we?” Sandi asked.

            “Fine.”

            “The men that tried to shoot a pair of schoolgirls?”

            “Gone,” Cindy said with a sigh. “Somebody made bail for them, and they’re not in the city anymore. I’ve got feelers out, if they so much as sneeze I’ll be right there with a hanky and a handgun.”

            “Very colorful phrasing.”

            “Thanks.”

            “And we have no idea who gave them their instructions, or why?”

            “Correct.”

            “May I presume that you’ve made it abundantly clear to your subordinates that murdering two popular teenage journalists would draw all the wrong kinds of attention to our operations?”

            “Yes.”

            “Fine. Moving on, what about the guy that snuck into my house?”

            “He’s managed to evade our traps, but I do have some interesting information there. It seems this new ‘Batman’ character hunting in the Gotham east side is somebody different.”

            “So,” Sandi said, “we have two overly gymnastic leather-clad freaks running around the city upsetting our operations?”

            “Yes, but at least the bat guy is pissing off the Roman and Thorne as much as he is us. Frankly, I advise letting them worry about it while we focus on the guy who is exclusively stalking us.”

            “The bat is eventually going to be our problem,” Vitale said.

            “Keep gathering information on him,” Sandi said. “I want to know more, even if we aren’t acting on it right away. That also goes for you, Andrew.”

            Andrew and Cindy both nodded.

            “Now, what do we know about Dr. Manson?”

            “I’ve looked over the police reports,” Andrew said. “She’s been experimenting on students for at least a decade, trying to perfect chemical cocktails that would act as artificial emotional triggers. So far the only major success she’s had is a drug that causes fear, although she was apparently close to a breakthrough on something to directly stimulate the pleasure center of the brain.”

            “I could go for a little of that,” Cindy said with a small smirk.

            “I know her house blew up, how much of her research got recovered?”

            “Very little, unfortunately. I quietly had copies made of what the police seized, and passed it off to some of our top people at Ace Chemical. They’re all terribly excited about the possibilities.”

            “I’m sure they are,” Sandi said, rolling her eyes. “Any idea how she’s been getting away with this?”

            “Well, the sheriff’s department was investigating a suspicion that both Manson and Li were under someone else’s employ, but the officers involved were all suddenly moved to other cases.”

            “I detect the heady bouquet of a cover-up,” Vitale said. “Cindy, were we paying the good doctor to drug our children?”

            “No.”

            Jim stared at Cindy speculatively for a moment, and then said, “Then I wonder who was.”

            “Do we have any idea what rock she’s hiding under?” Sandi asked.

            “No,” Cindy said, looking away. “Andrew and I are both certain she’s fled the city.”

            “Alright,” Sandi said. “Unless anybody has some actual information for me, I think this meeting is over.” She leaned back in her chair as Landon and Rowe stood and left the room, and then quirked an eyebrow at Vitale.

            “You tell me,” he said.

            “I don’t think Cindy is very fond of me anymore, and I think she’s lying about at least one of the things that she supposedly doesn’t know anything about. I just don’t know which one, or ones.”

            “It is possible that she’s just had a run of bad luck, is being totally honest about it, and is still loyal to the Organization.”

            “I don’t doubt her loyalty to the Organization,” Sandi said. The teenager stood and walked to the door, and then paused before leaving. “I doubt her loyalty to me.”

            The door clicked closed behind her, living Jim Vitale alone with his thoughts and his cigar. “That girl reminds me entirely too much of her father at that age.”

 

            “How dare you abandon me?” Margaret shouted into her phone. “You don’t realize how close I am to another breakthrough . . . don’t you hang up on me!”

            With a scream of frustration she threw the handset against the wall, shattering it into chunks of plastic and silicon. She stomped back into the kitchen, the phone shards crunching under her shoes.

            The house she was staying in had originally belonged to her grandparents. She’d inherited it a few years back, and realized it would make an excellent place to hide if things ever went wrong. The house had been sold through an agent, and she’d purchased it from herself, under an assumed name, through a different agent. It was possible the police would swing by to take a look, but very unlikely.

            The house was well out in the country, about thirty minutes away from the freeway and then another thirty to Lawndale. The nearest neighbor was half a mile away, and most people in the area thought the house was uninhabited. It was mostly surrounded by trees, except for the ruined and overgrown garden plot in the back.

            Margaret leaned against the kitchen counter and tried to bring her anger under control. Everything had been going smoothly, the occasional setback or damaged test subject aside, until she’d been exposed. Her office had been broken into the night after she’d caught that Morgendorffer girl snooping around, something too suspicious to be a coincidence.

            “I was so close.” She examined the parts scattered across the kitchen table through narrowed eyes. She had found a couple of pump action crop sprayers in the barn, and had disassembled them to examine their inner workings. Margaret was no mechanical engineer, but she felt confident in her ability to rig up a delivery system more robust than the small spray bottles she’d been using.

            “I can’t continue my experiments without funding, without test subjects.” She sat and began assembling the new sprayer from the pieces she’d scavenged and some newer couplings and seals she’d picked up at the local hardware store. As she worked, she continued muttering to herself.

            “You were never supposed to use chemicals on the students,” she said, quoting the cold-voiced woman she’d spoken to on the phone. “Why the hell did they set me up at a school, then? Why hire Li to run interference for me unless that was exactly what I was supposed to do?” She slammed a wrench down on the table and closed her eyes, forcing herself to breathe slowly.

            “Gods help us, I might have hurt one of their precious little brats. There are too many damn kids at that school anyway if you ask me, especially the ones that go snooping around in locked offices after hours. Now, because of the wonderful, special children I have to hide out and . . . and . . . .”

            Margaret looked down at the mostly assembled device in her hands, and then over at the two small tanks of fear gas. A slow smile spread across her face.

            “Maybe I don’t need more experiments and test subjects after all. I’ve got a working compound, just not the one I was originally hired to create.” She sealed the last few connections and attached one of the hoses to a bottle of gas. “Maybe what I need is revenge on those beautiful children and their overprotective nannies.”

            She rapidly finished assembling the spray device and attached it to one of the gas tanks. Picking up the spray wand and turning towards the kitchen sink, Margaret pulled the trigger a couple of times and cursed when nothing happened. She dropped the wand back onto the table and started checking over the tubing leading to the gas canister. Within a few seconds she found the improperly sealed connection, and a few seconds after that the built up pressure discharged a cloud of gas directly into her face.

            With a blood-chilling scream, she staggered out of the kitchen and onto the back porch. Wildly flailing her arms around her head, Margaret tried to run from her hallucinations and stumbled into the backyard garden.

            Blood . . . torture . . . murder.

            She spun around, trying to find the source of the scratchy whispers. In the dim light of the moon she could barely make out her surroundings, and the voice seemed to come from all around her.

            Terror . . . death . . . pain.

            She slowly turned and saw a skeletally thin, impossibly tall man standing in the middle of the garden. He swayed slightly and seemed to beckon her to him, but she was rooted to the spot with fright.

            Promise . . . suffering . . . horror . . . punishment.

            Margaret didn’t remember moving, but she found herself standing in front of the cruelly whispering man. In the faint light she made out his corduroy pants and red flannel shirt, his work boots and broken straw hat. He had no face, just a swatch of dark burlap that hid his croaking voice.

            Hell . . . seem like . . . paradise.

            Her screams continued, until a sharp pain and the taste of blood reduced them to a harsh croaking. She moaned and collapsed, falling against the dark figure’s legs and twitching violently. He swayed a moment and slowly collapsed on top of his victim, holding her in a tight embrace.

            Make them . . . suffer . . . hurt them . . . all.

 

***

 

            Jane slowly settled herself into the overstuffed armchair and looked around the extravagant sitting room. Everything from the heavy carpet to the dark wood paneling spoke of money, and the whole atmosphere made her feel out of place. She shifted in her chair and adjusted the long red dress she wore, taking a moment to admire the pointy toes of the high heels she’d been talked into wearing.

            The door crashed open and Jane jumped with surprise. Two boys, both a little younger than their teens, sprinted into the room. The older one was hot on his brother’s heels, while the younger one cackled madly as he fled. Jane settled back in her chair and grinned as the boys made laps around the room, oblivious to her presence.

            “Sam! Chris!”

            Jane snickered as they turned towards her with shocked expressions. They didn’t quite stop running as they turned, and Sam plowed into his younger brother. Both boys hit the floor in a heap, and skidded to a halt when they thumped into the far wall.

            “Jane!” they said simultaneously. Chris continued, “We heard you and Sandi were hanging out again.”

            “You heard right. So, have you two been good for your mom and sister, or are you still a pair of little hellions?”

            “We’re good,” Chris said.

            “At being bad,” Sam said, smirking.

            “Come here,” Jane said. The brothers stood and walked over to her chair, giving each other nervous glances. “Listen, you two: Sandi and Linda have been through some rough times, and I know you have too. I’m sorry about what happened to your dad.”

            “He hated you,” Sam muttered.

            “I’m still sorry, okay?”

            The boys nodded.

            “I’m gonna ask you guys to tone it down a little, okay? Try not to cause any more stress around the house, maybe be nice to your sister. Can you do that?”

            “What do we get out of it?” Chris asked.

            “Well, to start with I won’t put lipstick marks all over your face again.”

            “I’ll be good!” Chris shouted and sprinted out of the room at top speed.

            “And what about you?”

            “I dunno,” Sam said speculatively. “I hated that lipstick thing when I was younger, but now I think it might not be so bad.”

            “You are way too young to say things like that,” Jane said, shaking her head. “I remember when you were in diapers.”

            “You’re not that much older than me.”

            “I think I also have some pictures of you during a diaper change, I’m sure Sandi would like to have them. She could show everybody her darling little brother’s butt.”

            “Whoa,” Sam said, holding up his hands in surrender. “You didn’t have to go for the big guns. I’ll be good, okay?”

            “Okay.”

            “Maybe you can think about that lipstick thing.”

            Jane shook her head again as Sam sauntered out of the room. She had only been alone for a few minutes when Sandi came into the room.

            “Sorry you had to wait, Jane. I had a run in my hose and had to dig out a new pair. What do you think?” Sandi spun around, showing off her expensive-looking maroon evening gown.

            “Very nice, and don’t worry about the delay. Your brothers kept me entertained.”

            “I’m so sorry.”

            “No, it’s fine. They’re good kids, mostly. It got a little weird there at the end when Sam started hitting on me, though.”

            Sandi started laughing as she sat in the chair opposite Jane. “I’m glad I missed that. Well, we’ve got a few more minutes since the limo won’t get here until seven.”

            “Arriving in style: much better than having Trent drop me off in his blue beater. So, I know why I don’t have a date to the homecoming dance. Why don’t you?”

            “I just didn’t have time to worry about it,” Sandi said. She reached up with both hands and stopped a fraction of an inch from running her fingers through her expertly coifed hair. “I’ve been . . . I haven’t been well lately, Jane.”

            “Wanna talk about it?”

            “I inherited some of my dad’s businesses, and they’re very stressful. I can’t really trust anybody else to run things, and I can’t talk about it for legal reasons. Plus trying to keep up with school, and the Fashion Club, and writing the column for the paper. It’s hard.”

            “Jeez, Sandi. If you told people how much pressure you were under I’m sure they’d be willing to help pick up a little slack for you.”

            “I don’t want them to know, I don’t want to look weak or sound like a whiner. You won’t tell anybody, will you?”

            “I’ll keep it to myself.”

            “Thanks,” Sandi said. “So why don’t you have a date? Stacy or Tiffany could have hooked you up with all kinds of guys.”

            Jane shrugged and looked away.

            “Come on, seriously. This isn’t another rebellious artist thing, is it?”

            “You know I run and work out, right?” Jane asked with a sigh.

            “Yeah.”

            “Most guys don’t like their date to be stronger and faster than they are. Plus, what happens if I’m kissing the guy and I get carried away and squeeze too hard?”

            “I know you’re in good shape, but you’re really not that beefy, Jane.”

            “I’m a lot stronger than I look,” Jane said, looking at the floor.

            “The car should be here by now,” Sandi said, glancing at her watch. “Look, let’s just go have a good time, okay? We’ll find some guys and dance . . . it’ll be great. No worrying for either of us.”

            “Sounds good, I could use a stress-free night.”

 

            There were only two bars in Lawndale, since most of the population interested in evening activities tended to hit the freeway for Gotham City and its very active night life. One was the Zon, a modest brew pub that catered to trendy young adults, bohemian scenesters, and guys catching a beer or two on their way home from work. The other was named McGrundy’s and it catered to a much rougher element: dockworkers, petty criminals trying to lay low, and the occasional biker gang.

            The door to McGrundy’s swung open and the patrons all glanced around to see who the newcomer was. Generally, this would be a quick look and then everyone would go back to minding their own business but this time the figure in the door was outlandish enough to provoke a shocked silence.

            The woman stood in the doorway and allowed the patrons some time to stare. Her old, weather-beaten corduroy pants were stuffed into a pair of oversized, scuffed up workman’s boots. The red flannel shirt was also too big, and hung from her shoulders while the cuffs were pinned up over her shiny new leather gloves. The most bizarre thing about her outfit wasn’t the graying, broken straw hat perched on her head, it was the dirty burlap mask she had on underneath it. Three slashes in the mask approximated eyes and a mouth, but only shadows could be seen within the holes.

            “I’m looking for a few good men,” she said, her harsh, broken voice only slightly louder than a whisper. She took a step forward and the door closed behind her with a thud that echoed in the quiet bar. “But I suppose I’ll have to make do with some of you.”

            The bartender reached under the bar and pulled out a baseball bat. “Ok, lady. I don’t know what you’ve been smoking but Halloween isn’t until next month.”

            The woman walked across the room, the patrons now grinning and nodding to one another as they waited for the barman to dish out some entertainment. She stopped just shy of the bar and lifted her right hand to point at the bartender. Her fingers twitched and a cloud of gas sprayed out of her sleeve and enveloped the man.

            “Get away,” the man said, staggering backwards. “Get away from me, get away!” He lost his footing and collapsed behind the bar, still gibbering and occasionally crying out. The woman spun to face the rest of the bar.

            “You can call me Scarecrow,” she said in her rasping voice. She slowly turned her head, examining the frightened crowd. “I need a dozen volunteers, and you’ll be paid well . . . or you can all have what the man on the floor is having.”

            “Pays well?” one of the patrons asked.

            She nodded.

            “Doing what?”

            “Chaperoning a high school dance.”

            “Okay, I guess you can tell me what’s really going on later. I got nothing to do tonight and I ain’t had an interesting job in a while,” the man said, rising to his feet. “Sounds better than getting a face full of whatever that stuff is you’re spraying, anyway.”

            There was some general muttering among the patrons as a few more people stepped forward to take the offered job. The Scarecrow led her newly hired thugs out of the bar and the people left behind breathed a collective sigh of relief. In a darkened corner, a brunette leaned out of the booth she’d been concealed in and motioned for a waitress to bring her another beer.

            “Well, I’ll be damned,” Cindy Rowe muttered to herself. “It looks like Dr. Manson’s sanity check bounced.” After taking a swig of beer, she flipped open her phone and hit a speed dial key. After a moment, her call was answered.

            “Tell your guys to take the rest of the night off,” she said. “The Princess is heading to a school dance tonight, she doesn’t want a bunch of mooks hiding in the bushes if she decides to kick a gearshift later.”

            Cindy closed her phone and raised her bottle for a brief toast. “Here’s to one problem hopefully solving another.”

 

            Charles pulled his long, pink Cadillac into the Morgendorffer driveway and parked. He examined the other car in the driveway with a small frown. Amy’s red Saturn was nowhere to be seen, and in its place was a sleek, green Porsche. Amy was obviously not home, probably working a shift at the hospital, and this car probably belonged to Quinn’s sister.

            Daria had returned to Lawndale from parts unknown a couple of months ago, and had profoundly affected Charles’ life even though he’d yet to meet the woman. Quinn seemed a lot happier these days, and if that meant Charles had to give up some of the time they’d been spending together then he was okay with that.

            He stepped out of his car and straightened the lapels of his suit jacket with a small smile. Just a year ago he’d have been wearing a suit made of velvet in some outrageous color and going to the dance alone. Now he was in a pressed black suit about to pick up the prettiest girl in school. Life, he decided, was good.

            Charles walked to the front door and rang the bell. After a moment of waiting the door swung open, revealing a young woman with long, auburn hair wearing a simple black evening gown. She squinted her eyes and blinked at him a couple of times, and Charles noticed the glasses perched on top of her head.

            “I’m so sorry,” she said. “Did I order a limo tonight? I really was going to drive myself.”

            “Uh,” Charles said.

            “But I guess if you’re here I may as well let you drive. I was so looking forward to taking out the new Porsche, though.”

            “Um.”

            “Oh, I know!” Daria said, clapping her hands together and smiling. “I’ll just let you drive my sister tonight. Her boyfriend should be coming by to pick her up, they’re going to a school dance. You can take them and that way I can still drive myself.”

            “Okay,” Charles said weakly. Daria motioned him into the house and pushed the door closed behind him. He heard footsteps on the stairs and turned in time to see Quinn walking down. Her red hair was swept up in some kind of swirl, and her dark emerald sheath dress sparkled faintly in the light. Life, he decided, was very good.

            “Quinn,” Daria said. “I’ve got a surprise.”

            “What?” She walked past her sister and casually reached out to tip Daria’s glasses forward onto her face. Quinn smiled up at Charles and put her arms around him, pulling him down for a quick kiss.

            “Quinn! Charles is going to be mad if he sees you kissing the driver.”

            “This is Charles,” Quinn said, chuckling at her sister.

            “I thought you were taking her to the dance tonight?”

            “I am,” Charles said.

            “Well, you should have asked off from work then. Does your boss know you’re doing this? If you’re going to get in trouble I can just buy the limo company and give it to Quinn.”

            Charles blinked a couple of times and looked at Quinn, silently pleading for rescue. His girlfriend was doing her best not to crack and start laughing out loud.

            “Don’t worry, Daria. I’ll make sure everything gets straightened out, okay?”

            “Okay, Quinn. You two go on ahead, and I’ll be right behind you in a few minutes.”

            “You’re coming to the dance?” Charles asked.

            “Yeah, Aunt Amy volunteered to chaperone and then got called in to cover a shift,” Daria said. “So, I cancelled my other plans so I could fill in for her. I’m going to be watching you, buddy.”

            “Um.”

            “Let’s go,” Quinn said, grabbing Charles’ arm and dragging him back to the door. “See you there, sis.”

            “Sure thing!”

            The door closed, and Daria’s smile dropped off her face with an almost identical thud. A moment later, Amy stepped out of the kitchen.

            “I hope you’re wrong about this.”

            “So do I,” Daria said quietly. “I didn’t expect Manson to get away from the police, and I don’t intend to make a mistake like that again. If she’s going to come back for revenge, this’ll be her golden opportunity.”

            “I’ll be in the cave, monitoring the emergency bands. If anything breaks, you’ll know it.”

            Daria nodded once, grabbed her clutch purse, and headed for her car.

 

            Jane leaned against the snack table and smiled quietly while she watched her friends. Sandi was out in the middle of the dance floor with three guys from the football team’s offensive line, playing them off each other and dancing with each in turn. Stacy was dancing with the captain of the basketball team, his first name was Brett but Jane couldn’t remember his last name. She could see Quinn and Charles off in a dark corner of the dance floor, having a slow dance in spite of the upbeat, fast song being played.

            On the opposite side of the gym, she saw Daria having a conversation with Jodie while Mack stood nearby looking bored. Jane concentrated a second and focused her hearing past the music so she could eavesdrop on the conversation.

            “I’m really glad you could take over your aunt’s spot,” Jodie said. “We always have a hard time getting parents to volunteer as chaperones. Frankly, the teachers are just outnumbered at a function like this.”

            “It’s no problem,” Daria said. “This is delightful, I never went to any school dances myself. Too busy working and studying.”

            “I know how that feels,” Jodie said with a chuckle.

            “I think I can sympathize, sort of,” Mack muttered. Jodie missed the comment, but blinked with confusion when Daria reached out and briefly squeezed his forearm.

            “The two of you should relax a little,” Daria said. “You’ll be adults before you know it, and then what will you do?”

            “Hi,” said a voice next to Jane’s elbow. “You know, I think a girl as pretty as you should be in front of the camera, not behind it.”

            Jane blinked and glanced over at her admirer. He was a little taller than she was, built lean and wiry with short, dark hair. His bright, winning smile seemed a little worried around the edges.

            “I worked on that line for ten minutes before I walked over here,” he said, blushing slightly. “I guess you can tell?”

            “I appreciate the effort,” Jane said. “You are?”

            “Evan, I’m on the track team. We have Geometry together, and I watch you run after school sometimes. I know that sounds creepy, but I really didn’t mean for it to be. I think I’m going to leave now.”

            “Stay,” Jane said, smiling slightly. “I promised my friend that I’d dance and have fun tonight. I’ve been having fun already, so you wanna help me with the dancing?”

            “I’d like that.” Evan took Jane’s hand and led her to the dance floor just in time for the music to stop playing.

            “Just my luck,” Jane said, smiling at the handsome young runner. Evan was looking up at the stage with a frown, and Jane followed his gaze. She saw the DJ’s feet sticking out from behind his tables, and several people she didn’t know standing on the stage looking down at the crowd of teenagers.

            Most of the people on the stage were unsavory-looking men that seemed to embody the phrase ‘cheap thug,’ but the person standing front and center was different. Whoever it was apparently thought Halloween came early this year, because she was dressed as a weather-beaten scarecrow. The figure slowly raised a microphone to her burlap mask.

            “Everyone please relax,” she croaked, her amplified voice still a harsh whisper. A cold chill shot down Jane’s spine and the crowd started muttering. Jane glanced around and saw some more strange men, each one standing where he could block one of the gym’s doors.

            “You have no reason to panic,” the woman said, sounding amused. “At least, not yet.”

            “What’s the meaning of this?” Mr. DeMartino demanded, walking up the steps onto the stage and approaching the strange woman in the costume. “I don’t recall anything in the dance budget for live performers.”

            “Allow me to demonstrate,” she said, waving her arm at the history teacher. A cloud of gas sprayed out of her sleeve, directly into DeMartino’s face.

            The teacher stared at her wordlessly for a moment and then looked around the room, one eye bulging widely. He collapsed to the ground in a fetal ball and screamed, “I won’t tell you anything, you Communist bastards can go to hell.”

            “Oh crap,” Jane muttered. She began quietly working her way around the edges of the crowd towards the girl’s locker room. She’d packed her Supergirl outfit into a duffle bag and put it in her locker, and if she could get to it without attracting attention she could shut this freak show down. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Daria slowly edging towards one of the guarded doors and started moving a little faster in the hopes that she could get the situation under control before Quinn’s ditzy sister did something stupid.

            “You stupid brats destroyed my life,” the woman snarled, her harsh and broken voice almost beyond understanding. “Now I’m going to destroy yours.”

            “Oh, God,” Ms. Li said, taking a half step back and pressing one hand to her heart. “It’s Dr. Manson, she’s gone mad.”

            “Dr. Manson’s office is closed, I’m afraid you’re dealing with the Scarecrow,” she hissed, and dropped the microphone to the floor. Scarecrow lifted one hand to display a small plastic box with a button on the top, when she pressed the button with her thumb a series of loud pops came from near the ceiling and a cloud of white smoke began filtering down from the rafters.

            Panicked students started screaming and rushing towards the exits, the men guarding the ways out quickly stepping aside to let the crowd press against the locked doors. Once clear, most of the men pulled out small gas masks and slipped them on.

            “Nobody said we were gonna need masks,” one of the men said, nearly panicking himself.

            “You saw her gas the guy at the bar,” one of the men on stage replied, rolling his eyes. “Damn newbies.”

            The smoke thinned as it neared the floor, turning into a light haze that filled the gymnasium. Jane turned to sprint towards the locker room and bumped into a frightened girl, accidentally staving in the girl’s chest with an elbow. With an expression of horror, Jane staggered backwards and knocked over more people who hit the ground with screams of pain and the cracking of broken bones.

            Sandi looked down at the smoking pistol in her hand and felt her gorge rise, the memory of murder fresh in her mind. She tried to hide the gun behind her back, but everyone was staring at her and there was nowhere she could hide from the accusing eyes.

            Stacy found herself alone in the gymnasium, watching as the walls and ceiling rapidly retreated into the distance. She collapsed to the floor, pulling her knees in and wrapping her arms around her legs, as she begged loudly for anyone to be there and to please answer if they heard her.

            Daria’s broken body lay in a heap on the floor in a pool of spreading blood. Quinn felt the cold stickiness as she knelt next to her sister’s body, vainly trying to shake her awake. Quinn’s vision blurred and tears ran down her face as she screamed at Daria to not be dead, to not abandon her again.

            The floor rapidly fell away into the abyss, leaving a tiny ledge around the walls. Charles clung to the nearest wall, his toes fighting for purchase on the ledge as the wind howled around him. He could faintly hear screaming from the darkness below, the sound of eternal terror from those who had already lost their grips and fallen.

            In the parking lot, the sound of shattering glass was followed by the thump of a body hitting the ground. Daria staggered to her feet and, turning her back on the broken window and the coach’s office behind it, began making her way towards her car. Through sheer force of will she kept her mind blank and her eyes focused on the asphalt in front of her.

            She reached the green Porsche and pressed her thumb against the fingerprint reader on the trunk, grimly ignoring the specters dancing at the edges of her vision. The trunk obediently opened and she reached inside, this time pressing her forefinger to a second, hidden scanner. With a quiet hiss, the spare tire rose several inches and then slid to the left, revealing a hidden compartment. Daria reached inside and removed a pair of armored gauntlets, quickly pulling them on and reaching for the next piece of her suit.

            A minute later, she tossed her party dress into the trunk and pushed the lid shut. As the dark figure slipped back towards the gym, she clicked her jaw to activate her com system.

            “I have a problem,” Batgirl said.

            “Tell me about it,” Amy replied. “Your vitals are all over the place, how bad are you hurt?”

            “I was exposed to Scarecrow’s fear gas.”

            “Scarecrow? You mean Manson?”

            Batgirl stopped at the edge of the gym and fired a line up towards the roof. It caught and she tugged it tight, then attached the line to her belt and started reeling herself upwards. “Somebody forgot to tell her trick or treating is next month.”

            “Says the girl dressed up as a giant bat,” Amy said. “Luckily, I’ve been spending my spare time synthesizing an antidote. I’ve got a nice, big batch so come home and we’ll get you sorted out.”

            “No time, she has a gym full of hostages.”

            “Shit, okay. I’ll prepare what I’ve got made for injections and head that way.”

            “Negative,” Batgirl said, crouched on the roof. “Do not enter the threat zone, that’s an order. Do you copy? Damn it.”

            “What are you doing, kiddo?”

            Batgirl froze, and then slowly turned. Jake and Helen Morgendorffer were standing on the roof behind her, still dressed in the evening clothes they’d worn out to their last opera.

            “D-dad? Mom?”

            “Honestly,” Helen said in her best no nonsense voice. “What do you think you’re accomplishing, Daria? Traipsing around all hours of the night in that outlandish getup. I raised you better than this.”

            “I have to stop the criminals,” Daria said meekly.

            “A little late for that, isn’t it kiddo? I mean, if this is supposed to be about your mother and I. We’re dead, you know.”

            “I . . . I know. B-but I can help other people. I can stop criminals, save lives, and maybe get the justice we were denied. Get revenge on the kind of people that killed you.”

            “Justice? Revenge?” Helen asked, rolling her eyes. “You don’t know the first thing about either. You’re just a scared little girl, too afraid to admit that your parents are dead. You’re nothing, Daria; you’re a failure.”

            “We were hoping for more,” Jake said with a sigh. “Maybe Quinn will do better.”

            “We can only hope,” Helen said archly.

            Batgirl rose to her feet, her fists clenched and her jaw aching from how tightly she was grinding her teeth together. In the back of her mind she knew she was hallucinating, but it was hard to focus on that right now.

            In the gymnasium below, the Scarecrow nudged one of the students over on his back and knelt down to examine him.

            “It hurts,” he muttered. The boy twitched occasionally, and his wide-eyed stare focused on something only he could see.

            Scarecrow glanced over at a nearby henchman. “Somehow I had the idea this would be more satisfying,” she croaked.

            “Well, um, the boys managed to raise a few hundred dollars by going through people’s wallets. Oh, and we got a really good haul of jewelry.” The man fidgeted nervously, hoping his current employer wasn’t as insane as she seemed to be.

            “Hm, that’s nice,” Scarecrow replied absently. “I wonder how many of these brats are going to end up with permanent mental problems. Out of the ones that survive, I mean.”

            “Survive?” the man asked, looking around at the scores of teenagers sprawled out on the hardwood floor.

            “Oh, yes. You see, I used a highly concentrated version of my fear gas in the canisters I used to dose the building.” The Scarecrow stood and turned towards her hireling, causing her shadow to stretch out unnaturally behind her.

            The shadow began moving independently, crouching across the ceiling as its dark hands reached for the man. He cried out in alarm and tried to move away, tripping over the prostrate body of a student and landing hard on the floor.

            “Yes, a highly concentrated dose. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if it started taking effect through prolonged skin contact.”

            “No!” a voice roared from the roof above. It seemed filtered or mechanized somehow, but was still filled with a note of pure wrath and echoed in the darkness outside. “I am vengeance! I am the night! I . . . am . . . Batgirl!”

            With a resounding crash, a human form plummeted through a skylight and fell towards the floor in a shower of broken glass. It seemed to slow just before it touched down, extending its wings to break the fall shortly before impact. The figure stood, and its dully glowing red eyes immediately turned towards the Scarecrow.

            “Well, I can’t stay here,” Scarecrow croaked to herself. “This is bat country!” She turned and sprinted for the door, pausing only long enough to flip the lock open so she could escape.

            Even that short delay proved to be too long as Batgirl lashed out with one arm, sending a small metallic wedge whirring through the air. The throwing wedge was one of dozens that she’d balanced and ground out herself, forming the metal into a stylized image of a flying bat.

            Scarecrow made it two steps out the door before the spinning blade impacted, lodging painfully in her right calf. With a hoarse scream she stumbled and fell, sliding to a stop on the parking lot. She rolled over and yanked the offending piece of metal free and then tried to rise to her feet. A gauntleted fist grabbed her by the collar and yanked her partially upright, while another hand knocked her hat away and yanked the burlap mask off her head.

            Batgirl stoically looked down at Margaret Mason’s wide-eyed, ashen-skinned face. “Good night, Doctor,” she said flatly, pressing a nerve cluster at the base of Manson’s neck. When the woman’s eyes rolled back and closed, Batgirl dropped her to the ground and walked away.

 

            “It seemed so real,” Quinn said. The redhead, like everyone else at the dance, had been moved outside by the emergency response teams. She was huddled in a rough, green blanket with just one arm sticking out so she could cling tightly to her sister’s hand.

            “I’m just glad it’s over,” Daria said with a shrug. “Hey, Quinn? Is my makeup okay? It’s not smudged or anything is it?”

            “A little,” Quinn answered, rolling her eyes. “I don’t think anybody is going to notice.”

            “I hope not.”

            A tall, broadly built policeman wearing a light blue suit and a blond buzz cut swaggered up to the sisters and smiled down at them. “I understand you two are the Morgendorffer sisters.”

            “We are,” Quinn said. “Do you know if Mr. DeMartino is going to be okay?”

            “The guy they took off in the ambulance? The EMTs said he got a double dose of whatever was getting sprayed around in there. I could probably find out some more if you need me to, beautiful.”

            “Flass!” Another cop, this one in a defeated-looking grey suit and sporting an impressive moustache, stomped over glaring angrily. “Go trawling for minors on your own time, this is a crime scene.”

            “Whatever, Jimmy.” Flass smirked and wandered off towards Brittany, Stacy, and the other cheerleaders, who were all in a huddle crying on each other.

            “Lieutenant Gordon,” Quinn said, smiling faintly. “We have to stop meeting like this.”

            “James Gordon?” Daria asked sharply. When he nodded, she said, “Mr. Dent speaks very highly of you.”

            “You know Harvey?”

            “Our mother used to work with him,” Daria said. “You remember me, don’t you?”

            “Yeah, I remember you.” Gordon sighed and rubbed his eyes under his glasses.
“I’m sorry we never caught that bastard, pardon my language.”

            “You did the best you could,” Daria said. “Mr. Dent says you’re the best cop in the city, maybe the state. Are you in charge of this scene?”

            “Yeah, but it’s a pretty open and shut case. Aside from the loony dressed as a scarecrow ranting about being attacked by a giant bat, that is. I bet she’ll end up in that asylum they’re rebuilding.”

            “At least she didn’t get away,” Quinn said.

            “Lieutenant,” Amy said as she walked up. “Circumstances aside, it’s good to see you again.”

            “How are things at the hospital?”

            “Pretty good.”

            “Good, good. I need to ask you a few questions, for my report.”

            “Go ahead,” Amy said.

            “According to the dispatcher, your niece Daria called you and told you there was a crime in progress?”

            “Well, not exactly. I got a call from her phone, but all I heard was yelling and screaming. I knew where she was, so I grabbed a first aid kit and called nine-one-one.”

            Gordon grunted as he took notes. “How did you happen to have the antidote these people needed, Miss Barksdale?”

            “Quinn had already been exposed to the gas, I found traces of it in her blood work after she collapsed at school. I didn’t know exactly what it was, so I’ve been trying to figure it out. A side effect of that was cooking up something that neutralized the active chemicals in the gas.”

            “Why didn’t you report that when it happened?”

            “Until tonight I didn’t know a crime had been committed. For all I knew, she’d been affected by something in the school’s duct work.”

            Gordon grunted again and put away his notepad. “I’ve still got your number, I’ll call if I need anything else.”

            “Sure,” Amy said. She watched as the policeman stalked off across the parking lot, his hands in his pockets and his shoulders slumped. “Wow, he looks like somebody ran over his dog.”

            “He thinks he’s outnumbered,” Daria said quietly. “Maybe something will happen to cheer him up.”

            “I hope so,” Quinn said. “He’s a good cop, I read his records.”

            Daria and Amy turned towards the redhead, each giving her a look of equal parts amusement and exasperation.

            “His public records,” Quinn clarified. “I don’t go snooping unless I think I need to. Hey, look . . . here comes Jane.”

            “How is everybody?” Jane asked, looking at Amy.

            “Everybody is fine except your history teacher, although I was worried about you for a little while.”

            “Me?”

            “Yeah, when I tried to give you the antidote to the gas the needle broke. Luckily, by the time I had a new syringe ready you were starting to come around on your own.”

            “Lucky me,” Jane said with a nervous chuckle. “Look, I saw Sandi walk off earlier looking really traumatized. If all of you are okay, I’m going to go look for her.”

            “We’re all fine here,” Quinn said.

            Jane nodded and walked away.

 

Chapter Three