Chapter Three: The Girl Wonder

 

           That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

 - Friedrich Nietzsche

 

 

            The figure moved across the gymnasium floor, carefully avoiding the crumpled bodies of the unconscious or hallucinating students. It seemed to almost hover forward, since all body movement was hidden by a dark, flowing cloak. Few details could be made out from the grainy, black-and-white video being shown, but the subject of the film seemed to radiate a deep sense of purpose. It slipped out the door, following the insane psychiatrist who had attacked the high school dance, and the video immediately froze.

            The lights in the room came up, and Police Commissioner Peter Grogan put the remote control down on the table next to the television set. He crossed his arms and frowned, glaring at the briefing room full of cops.

            “That’s all we have,” he said. “One low quality security video, and couple of hundred wildly conflicting witness statements.”

            Detective Flass chuckled and said, “You’d think with all the money that gook bitch was dumping on security at that school she could’ve popped for some cameras that weren’t crap.”

            There was a general rumbling of quiet laughter in the room that faded away when the commissioner cleared his throat.

            “Arnie’s dry wit aside,” Grogan said, “I’m not going to have my city overrun with costumed freaks and masked vigilantes. It’s bad for business, bad for the public, and bad for the police department.”

            A uniformed patrolman raised his hand and asked, “So, what are we going to do about it?”

            “I’m putting together a special task force to deal with this sort of nonsense, and I’m putting Lieutenant Gordon in charge of it.”

            “Me?” Gordon asked, giving Grogan a shocked look.

            “I hear good things about you, Jimmy. You’re dedicated to law and order, and I think you’re the perfect man for this job. Your number one priority just became the capture and arrest of Batgirl.”

            “She saved the lives of those children.”

            “She didn’t do anything that Branden and his boys couldn’t have done just as well.” Grogan leaned on the table in front of him and glared down at the recalcitrant Lieutenant. “She isn’t one of us, she isn’t a cop. She shouldn’t be out trying to enforce laws without a badge, Jimmy. Bring her in, understood?”

            “What about the other one? What’s her name . . . Supergirl?”

            “She doesn’t get into the city much, so that makes her the county’s problem,” Grogan said with a shrug. “Batgirl works the East Side, that’s where you’ll find her. Get to work, Lieutenant. Dismissed.”

            The men and women in the room stood and began shuffling towards the door, most of them laughing and joking as they went. Gordon stuffed his hands in his pants pockets and strode away in the direction of his desk. After a moment the room had cleared, leaving two men to talk alone.

            “You sure about handing this detail to Jimmy?” Flass asked.

            “Sure I’m sure,” Grogan answered with a shrug. “If he’s going to insist on being a good cop, he may as well be a good cop in a direction we can benefit from, right?”

            “You’re the boss.”

            “That’s right, and don’t forget it.”

 

            Gordon walked outside and looked up at the thin strip of dark sky he could see between the buildings. He pulled a pack of cheap cigars out of his coat pocket and shook one loose. Lighting the cigar and taking a long drag of hot smoke, Gordon felt himself get light-headed for just a moment. He felt a buzzing at his hip and reached for his cell phone.

            “Yeah?”

            “Jim, this is Harvey. You sound as cheerful as always.”

            “I just got handed the king of all crap details, Harvey. One person finally trying to clean up this crap-hole city, and the commissioner just put me in charge of arresting her.”

            “Is that a fact?”

            “Yeah,” Gordon said and took another long drag off his cigar. “I’ll do my best, of course, but I don’t have any illusions that I’ll catch her. May as well try to catch a cough in a butterfly net, it’d waste less resources and manpower. Probably be easier, too.”

            “Well, if you need anything don’t hesitate to let me know.”

            “I will. What did you call about, Harvey?”

            “Oh, nothing. Just checking in, have a good evening, Jim.”

            “Yeah, I’ll tell Barbara you said hello.”

            “Do that. Later, Jim.”

            With a sigh Harvey Dent returned the handset of his telephone to the base resting on his desk. He glanced over at the shrouded figure standing next to his office window and shook his head.

            “What’s the problem?” Batgirl asked.

            “The police commissioner followed through on his threat to put together an anti-vigilante task force.”

            “Gordon is in charge?”

            “Yeah, and if there’s a cop on the force that can put a stop to this whole operation it’s him.”

            “He won’t catch me,” Batgirl said, turning towards the window. “And if he’s not coming to a meeting I have work to do.”

            “Be . . .” Dent said as she vanished out the window. He walked over and looked out at Gotham City. “Careful out there.”

 

            Three blocks over Batgirl dropped off the top of a building into a dimly lit alley, flipping her cloak out about two-thirds of the way down to catch the air and slow to a manageable speed before hitting the concrete in a crouch.

            She stood and strode to the bike hidden in the shadows, tapping the spot on the back of her gauntlet that unlocked all the electronics on the vehicle. She kick-started the bike with a roar of the engine, and sped out of the alley towards the East Side.

            This is a setback, but not unexpected. If the knights and bishops are being moved against me, it means the kings and queens have finally noticed all the missing pawns.

            Her bike grumbled as she wove through the back streets and side alleys of the East Side, a poorly lit urban maze. She pulled into the courtyard of a dilapidated motel, long closed to tourists and converted into a brothel, and stepped off her bike. She killed the engine and wheeled the bike into an abandoned room on the first floor, locking it down once she had it stashed out of sight.

            Batgirl pulled herself through the bathroom window and free-climbed the cracked stucco wall to the roof. She silently walked to the back of the building, ignoring the noises emanating from the rooms beneath her feet, and settled down where she could get a good view of the bistro across the parking lot.

            Two guards at the door, so somebody important decided to have a late night snack. Let’s see if the rumors about this being a mob meeting place are true.

            She tapped the side of her goggles, bringing up the zoom function, and inspected the restaurant’s patrons. Two cops at one end, having burgers and coffee; a little further down there was a bottle blonde with too much makeup and not enough skirt having a glass of something that looked alcoholic; past her a bearded man that looked like a vagrant snoozed in a booth; and finally an overweight man in a rumpled suit sat alone in the corner facing the door. The suited man was her obvious target, but she snapped photographs of each person in the restaurant for analysis just in case.

            “I’m transmitting some pictures to you,” Batgirl said, the microphone along her jaw picking up the subvocalization. “Run them through the computer and see if anything matches.”

            “Sure,” Amy said. “That reminds me, I was meaning to ask you how you got a feed into the NCIC. The FBI usually gets sort of cranky if people just go snooping around in their secure database.”

            “They occasionally require hardware upgrades. New hardware includes new drivers and other support software.”

            “Ah, I see,” Amy said. “Well, the cops are cops and the blonde has a rap sheet as long as your arm: mostly possession and prostitution charges. Nothing on Grizzly Adams, but the last guy I recognize on my own.”

            “Who is he?”

            “Rupert Thorne, he’s a city councilman. I know him because he’s been pushing hard to have the whole county incorporated under metro government, something I’ve been motivated to write a couple of letters to the paper about.”

            “Did they get printed?”

            “Of course not,” Amy said with a wry chuckle. “Ah, here we go. The district attorney’s office has investigated Mr. Thorne a few times, it seems that Dent suspects him of having ties to organized crime. I’m shocked and dismayed that an upstanding public servant would deal with such low persons.”

            “Any other relevant information?”

            “Lots of charges, nothing that stuck.”

            Dent has a huge file on Rupert Thorne, the man is one of the three crime lords of Gotham City. Anybody he’s meeting in person has to be important, maybe even one of the other two bosses. Falcone I know, but the other boss . . . Lex . . . he’s a mystery. Stays hidden, always works through middle men.

            A brunette woman walked around the corner, looking back and forth to see if she was being followed or watched. She nodded to the burly men hanging around the diner’s door and went inside, immediately walking to the back corner to sit with Thorne.

            Batgirl shifted, leaning forward slightly to get a better angle on the woman, and tapped the button on her goggles that took a photo and transmitted it back to the cave.

            “Holy crap,” Amy said. “My accountant is having a clandestine meeting with Rupert Thorne?”

            “You know that woman?”

            “Yeah, her name is Cynthia Rowe. Like I said, she’s my accountant; I met her at a PTA meeting, she has a daughter that attends Lawndale High School. Oh, and she doesn’t have a criminal record.”

            Batgirl frowned and leaned to her left, trying to trace an odd clicking noise she heard and realizing it was coming from a motel window directly beneath her. After a listening for a few seconds she recognized it as a high-speed camera. Grabbing the edge of the roof, Batgirl did a back flip off the building and shot through the window feet first.

            The man inside the room rolled out of her way in an amazing display of acrobatic skill, his camera bouncing across the floor and sliding under the TV stand as he lost his grip on it. He was tall and well built, clad in black leather from head to feet only leaving the lower part of his face uncovered.

            “I’d say you must be that ‘Batman’ I’ve read about in the paper,” he said, looking her over as she crouched between him and the door, “except I’m pretty sure you aren’t any kind of man at all. Is that outfit rubber?”

            “No,” Batgirl said, her voice flat. “I’m not interested in kinky materials like, say, leather.”

            “Too bad.”

            “So were you spying on Thorne or Rowe?” Batgirl slowly stood, allowing her cloak to drape around her frame.

            “What, it can’t be both?”

            “You’re the thief that’s been hitting a lot of Gotham’s richest and most corrupt citizens. I don’t think you’re a common cat burglar.”

            “I’m just a Tomcat,” he said, chuckling quietly at a private joke. “But you’re right; I’m not interested in stealing, I’m interested in revenge. These people destroyed my family, and I’m going to track down the bastard responsible and kill him.”

            “Revenge won’t bring anybody back,” Batgirl said. “Believe me, I know.”

            “I’m also not interested in resurrection, or philosophy.” He took a step towards his camera, and Batgirl moved to counter him. “You’re not part of my revenge, Batgirl. I don’t want to fight you.”

            “I want these people brought to justice . . . Tomcat. We don’t get to be judge, jury, and executioner; that would make us no better than they are.”

            “Who said I wanted to be better?” Tomcat asked harshly. He turned and took three running steps and dove through the open window.

            Batgirl nudged the camera into the open with the toe of her boot and then stooped to pick it up. With quick, economical movements she retrieved the film and stored it in a pouch on her belt. With one last look out the window, she tossed the camera onto the bed, turned, and left the room.

 

            Later, at stately Sloane manor, a dark-clad man scaled a trellis to one of the third floor balconies and easily slipped over the railing. With the soft creak of leather, he walked to the French doors leading into the house and entered. He unlaced the back of his cowl and pulled it free, tossing it on the bed with a sigh.

            The bedroom light clicked on, and Tom looked in the direction of the switch. His sister Elsie was sitting on a chair placed near the bedroom door, still with one hand raised to the light switch. She was wearing a slightly oversized green dressing gown, and her expression was thunderous.

            “Elsie.”

            “Tom.”

            Elsie stood and walked across the room, stopping in front of her brother to stare up at him expectantly.

            “I know this looks bad, let me explain.”

            Elsie’s face hardened as she lashed out, slapping Tom across the cheek. “How dare you?”

            “Elsie, you don’t understand.”

            “I understand more than you think, you idiot. I’ve read Father’s journals, and Grandfather’s, and all the way back to when this family was founded on piracy and smuggling. Ten generations of Sloanes, every single one with blood on his hands and larceny in his heart.”

            “You can’t be serious,” Tom said.

            “Oh, yes. It’s all downstairs in the library, there to be read by anyone with an interest in the family history. We are one police raid away from being paupered, Tom.”

            “Elsie . . . .”

            “When Father died, I cried the way a girl should for her dead daddy. But some small part of me said, ‘Thank God’ and do you know why? Because that criminal bastard died before drawing you into his dirty dealings. I thought, ‘Thomas is far too smart to be pulled into that sort of nonsense, and now that Father is dead the long nightmare is over at last,’ and I smiled a little as I wept.” Her eyes narrowed. “I suppose I overestimated you, Thomas.”

            “They murdered him.”

            “Yes, because that’s what criminals do to each other. Now, you’re one of them and that’s what’s going to happen to you. Well, I won’t stay here and watch it happen.”

            “Elsie, you’re sixteen. Where are you going to go?”

            “Grove Hills Academy,” she answered. “Mother has already signed all the paperwork, and I’ll be moving into the dorms on Monday.”

            “Did you tell her why?”

            “No, and I doubt she’d understand me if I tried,” Elsie said darkly. “I don’t think she’s going to be coming back from planet Valium anytime soon. So, you don’t have to worry about her interfering with your stupid crimes.”

            “I’m not a criminal,” Tom said angrily. “I want to get revenge on the people who murdered our father, Elsie. Can’t you see that?”

            “No, I really can’t,” Elsie said sadly. “I’m not going to write, Mother wouldn’t appreciate the letters and I have nothing to say to you.”

            Tom watched his little sister walk back to the door, where she paused and looked back at him.

            “I’m sorry,” he said.

            “No, you’re not. Don’t worry about the journals, I wasn’t too keen on written records of all our family’s ill-gotten gains so I destroyed them.”

            “Someday you’ll understand,” Tom said quietly as she left.

            Elsie shook her head as she quietly walked down the hall to her own bedroom. Inside, the floor was dominated by a trio of huge trunks; two of them were already filled with belongings and locked firmly shut. The third stood open, and still had room for more packing.

            With a sigh, Elsie gathered the last of the old books off her desk and finished packing them away in the final trunk. She had wanted to destroy the journals, but she hadn’t been able to make herself do it; at least, not until she’d finished reading them all. They told horrible stories, but they were stories about her family and her blood and Elsie had found them deeply fascinating.

 

***

 

            “So tell me,” Rupert Thorne said, smiling across the table at his lunch companion, “to what do I owe the honor of this invitation?”

            “I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” Sandi answered with a shrug. “You and Carmine never get together and talk, so that leaves any desired coordination up to me.”

            “He and I used to talk more, but we ended up shooting at each other too much,” Thorne said with a shrug. “He does his thing and I do mine, that way we don’t bump heads too much.”

            “I just think we could do better. We each control aspects of the city that could help the others, if we could just cooperate.”

            “I used to think like that,” Rupert said with a thin smile. “No offense, but you’ll grow out of it. Until then, I’m going to enjoy the novelty of being asked out to lunch by a pretty girl young enough to be my daughter.”

            “Nice mix of insult and complement, Mr. Thorne.”

            “Thanks, I’ve been working on my people skills. My aide tells me it’s important for a politician to be friendly with his constituents.”

            “It may interest you that I have a concrete example in mind of how we can benefit one another,” Sandi said. For added effect, she quirked an eyebrow and slowly raised her wine glass for a slow sip.

            “Don’t keep an old man in suspense forever, little lady.”

            “You aren’t old,” Sandi said with a smile, “just well seasoned. You’ve been having two big problems with your businesses on the Gotham East Side: this new Batgirl character, and the police have stepped up patrols in the area.”

            “You control the police.”

            “I influence the police,” Sandi said, gesturing with her fork. “And I recently influenced them to make capturing Batgirl a priority. That helps all of us, of course, but it mostly helps you.”

            “It’s a generous gesture,” Rupert said with a shrug. “Of course, this anti-vigilante tack might help them catch that burglar that’s been giving your people so much trouble. I understand he dresses all weird and skulks around at night, too.”

            “I’m also considering a discussion with the new commissioner about reassigning officers away from the East Side,” Sandi said, not rising to the bait. “After all, the more affluent districts might not have sufficient patrols.”

            “Now, that’s interesting. What sort of favor would you be looking for in return, little lady?”

            “To begin with, you can stop referring to me with that undignified nickname,” Sandi said. “Other than that, I have a problem that I can’t address with any of my personal resources.”

            “Do tell.”

            “I have an unruly lieutenant, and I have reason to believe she’s plotting to take over my position. I can’t move against her without her finding out, and I’d prefer to have the problem handled quietly.”

            “And in a way that can’t be traced back to you,” Thorne said. “So, you want me to bump off one of your capos. And then what? You act all offended and declare war on me and mine, no thanks.”

            “You have my word that I’ll do no such thing.”

            “You know how much a crime boss’ word is worth, little lady? There is no honor among thieves.”

            “Then consider it a calculated risk. If I’m telling the truth then we’ve taken a bold step towards consolidating our hold on Gotham City, and if I’m lying it’s business as usual.”

            “Just for the sake of the discussion, who is this target?”

            Sandi sighed and looked down at her plate for a moment, then looked up and said, “Cynthia Rowe.”

            “The accountant lady your daddy used to work with? I’ve talked to her about a couple of city budget proposals, she seemed like a nice lady.”

            “She’s not, and I’m pretty sure she’s going to try to arrange my death if I don’t get her first. Listen, her daughter is in the big gymnastics competition downtown in a couple of weeks. The whole school is going to see it, so I’ll be there in the crowd when it happens.”

            “Perfect alibi for you,” Rupert said, nodding. “Okay, I solve one of your problems and you solve one of mine. I’m willing to give this a shot, no pun intended.”

            “I want it clean, and if you can make it look like an accident that’ll be even better.”

            “You have my word,” Thorne said, giving Sandi a crooked grin. “Now, if you’ll excuse me I need to go make a few phone calls.”

            Sandi nodded and watched as he collected his hat and coat and left the restaurant. After a moment, she flagged down a waiter.

            “Yes, ma’am?”

            “Can you bring me the rest of the bottle?” she asked, tapping her wine glass with one finger.

            “I’m not sure I can do that,” the waiter said with a frown.

            “If you’re concerned about my age, I assure you that the owner of this fine establishment will tell you not to worry. Also, I’m not driving myself.”

            “I’ll have that bottle for you in a moment, ma’am.”

            Sandi sighed as the waiter headed to the back of the restaurant, probably to confirm her claim with the owner. She drained the rest of the wine from her glass and pushed away the remains of her half-eaten lunch.

            I’m sorry, Stacy. Maybe you can go hang out with Elsie and compare notes about having your parents killed by your buddy, the teen crime queen.

 

            “I’m so not looking forward to this,” Daria said with a sigh as she came down the stairs. She walked over to where her aunt and sister were sitting and held her arms out. “Do I look like I’m ready to go to the nut house?”

            “You look fine,” Amy said, giving Daria’s outfit a cursory look. She was wearing a conservative green dress and low heeled pumps, and for once Daria’s glasses were on her face instead of perched on top of her head.

            “Nut house?” Quinn asked. “You don’t mean that place in the mall, do you?”

            “No, I’m going to Arkham for their grand re-opening ceremony. A few boring speeches, a ribbon cutting for the photo ops, and a nice luncheon. Then they start bussing in the head cases.”

            “We’re closing down the psych ward at Cedars,” Amy said. “I’ve been looking forward to it; we need more bed space for hurt people, and very few of the nurses are qualified to work with the clinically insane.”

            “Do you want to come with me, Quinn?” Daria asked.

            “Sounds like an interesting story,” Quinn said thoughtfully. “I think Charles is covering it for the Lowdown, so I could sneak a little boyfriend time. Why do you need to be there, anyway?”

            “The Morning Light Foundation made a sizable donation towards their renovation costs, so they wanted one of us to be there. They’d actually probably prefer you, since the donation was made in your name.”

            “My name?”

            “Yeah, I think they’re naming a ward after you.”

            “That’s so sweet,” Quinn said sarcastically. “But I just remembered that Jane is supposed to pick me up a little later so we can go watch Stacy practice her competition routine.”

            “You’re just afraid that if you set foot in a crazy house they won’t let you leave again,” Daria said, smiling down at her little sister.

            “I better go call Jane and make sure she’s awake,” Quinn said. She stood and, maintaining a dignified pace, walked to the kitchen to use the phone. She dialed and waited a few moments before the call was finally answered.

            “Mrr?” Jane said. “You know what time it is?”

            “Almost noon.”

            “I suppose I have no grounds for righteous indignation, huh?”

            “No, not really,” Quinn said, chuckling quietly.

            “Alright, let me go drag myself through the shower and we’ll go do whatever it is you woke me up for.”

            “I’ll walk on over, I should be there by the time you get out of the shower.”

            “Ooo, Chuck’s gonna be jealous he missed this.”

            “I’ll walk slowly, so you also have time to get dressed. Try to wash between your ears while you’re in the shower,” Quinn said, and hung up before Jane could reply. She walked back into the living room and stopped in the doorway. Her sister was staring at her with a slight frown, while her aunt just looked exasperated.

            “You didn’t tell me you went to the hospital yesterday,” Daria said. “Your chemistry class exploded or something?”

            “It was no big deal,” Quinn said with a shrug. “My whole class had to go, to make sure we didn’t get exposed to any harmful chemicals. There wasn’t an explosion, there was an electrical fire in the storeroom.”

            “So you’re okay?”

            “I’m fine,” Quinn said. “My lab partner was getting some equipment when the breaker box blew, though. She’s still in the hospital.”

            “We’ll send her some flowers,” Daria said.

            “She’s supposed to be moving out of intensive care today,” Amy said. “The doctors are all amazed at how fast she’s recovering.”

            “Awesome,” Quinn said. “Okay, Jane’s expecting me so I gotta book.” Waving her goodbyes, Quinn left the house and fifteen minutes later opened the front door of the Lane house to peek inside. Trent was asleep on the couch with his guitar across his lap, but he cracked one eye open when he heard the sound of the door.

            “Oh, hey, Quinn. Janey’s in her room, go on up.”

            “Thanks, Trent.”

            “She was walking around in a towel and cackling, I got weirded out and came down here,” Trent said. “Is that some kind of girl thing?”

            “No, it’s pretty much a Jane thing,” Quinn said, heading towards the stairs. “If I see her bare butt, I’m putting a boot in it, though.”

            Trent shook his head as Quinn went upstairs. “Girls are weird,” he muttered, and then started strumming his guitar.

            “Come in,” Jane yelled when she heard the knock on her door.

            “If you’re not clothed,” Quinn said as she opened the door and walked in, “there will be dire consequences.”

            “Well, I am still lacing up my boots.”

            “Close enough to dressed to divert my wrath.”

            “Hmm,” Jane said, her eyes wandering over to a nearby blank canvas. “The wrath of Quinn upon the naked, that gives me ideas. I’ll let it fester in the back of my head for a little while, see what comes of it. So, what’s up, Red?”

            “I thought we might go by the gym and watch Stacy practice. You could take some pictures for the paper.”

            “Sounds like fun,” Jane said with a yawn. “Will there be coffee?”

            “We can get some on the way, let’s go.”

            A short time later Quinn walked into the Lawndale High gym, followed by Jane who was still working on the extra-large coffee she’d gotten along the way. They waved to Tiffany, who was sitting nearby on the bleachers, and started walking in her direction. The floor was covered by huge, blue wrestling pads and on the far side of them Stacy was fiddling with a portable CD player. The brunette’s bright red leotard contrasted sharply with her green tights.

            “Hi, Tiff,” Quinn said. Jane waved half-heartedly and continued sipping her coffee.

            “Hi, guys.” Tiffany drawled out her response and then slowly smiled. “Stacy is working really hard for this.”

            “Are you okay?” Quinn asked. “You sound a little . . . I dunno . . . .”

            “Slower than usual?” Tiffany’s smile widened just a little. “It’s ok Quinn, you won’t hurt my feelings.”

            “Um, I guess,” Quinn said, blushing.

            “I’m on a new medicine, to stop having blackouts,” Tiffany said, shrugging. “It helps, but I don’t like some of the side effects.”

            Across the gym, Stacy turned on her CD player, filling the air with a cheerful swell of classical music. She stepped out onto the mat with her eyes closed and began working her way through her routine; running, jumping and tumbling to the music.

            “I’ve heard that before,” Jane said, wearing a frown of concentration as she tried to remember.

            “It’s Vivaldi,” Quinn said, smiling and swaying slightly with the music. “From the Four Seasons, this is Spring.”

            “It was Shelly’s idea,” Tiffany said. “She said that since it’s winter, it would be nice if Stacy did something about the first robin of spring.”

            “Well, that explains the red,” Jane said.

            “Shelly?” Quinn asked.

            “Stacy’s little sister,” Tiffany said. “She plays the clarinet.”

            “Oh.” Quinn glanced around the gym. “Doesn’t Stacy have a coach?”

            “She works with Ms. Morris a lot, but she’s busy today,” Tiffany said with a shrug. “Stacy’s parents won’t pay for her to have a real coach.”

            “She has a shot at the Olympics,” Quinn said. “Her parents still won’t pay for a coach?”

            “Stacy’s mom is a bitch, I don’t go over to her house any more.”

            Stacy whirled to a stop in front of her audience and opened her eyes with a smile. “What’d you think, Tiff? Oh! Quinn, Jane, when did you get here?”

            “A few minutes ago,” Quinn said. “You looked awesome, I’d die if I tried to do any of that stuff.”

            “It’s not that hard,” Stacy said with a slight blush.

            “She says, after years of practice,” Jane said. “I brought along my camera, by the way. We’re gonna take pictures for the story about you in the Lowdown.”

            “Oh,” Stacy said, looking down at herself. “Eh, I don’t know if I want any pictures taken in my practice outfit. It’s a little baggy and I’m all sweaty and my hair is messed up.”

            “That’s baggy?” Quinn asked, pointing at the spandex outfit.

            “Well, more . . . stretchy in places and sloppy looking,” Stacy said, tugging at her garments self-consciously. “And my competition outfit has ribbons and stuff on it, much cooler looking.”

            “How about some long shots while you’re practicing, and then a posed shot in the competition outfit?” Jane asked.

            “Sure, I’ve got about another thirty minutes of practice and then I’ll need to shower and change, and then change again after the pictures.” Stacy frowned. “Maybe fifteen minutes of practice, to make sure I have time for all the changing.”
            “You’ve got an appointment somewhere?” Jane asked.

            “She has a date,” Tiffany said.

            “Brett Strand,” Stacy said in a high-pitched squeal. “He’s so cool, and his eyes are so dreamy, and he’s so taking me out to dinner and a movie.”

            “Strand,” Quinn said thoughtfully. “Isn’t he on the track team?”

            “No, he’s on the basketball team,” Stacy said. “It’s okay, Quinn. We all know that athletic guys aren’t your thing.”

            “Hey, Chuck can be athletic.” Quinn’s eyebrows shot up as she glanced from Stacy’s barely suppressed giggle, to Jane’s sardonic smirk, to Tiffany’s small smile. “That is totally not what I meant.”

            “Keep digging,” Jane said, and then turned to Stacy. “Well, get out there and jump around some more so I can get those long shots. You don’t want to be late for Mr. Dreamy Eyes.”

            “Right,” Stacy said as she turned and jogged back to the CD player to start the music over again from the beginning.

 

            Daria carefully spooned some potato salad onto her plate and then turned away from the buffet table, almost running into the skinny, red-haired boy standing behind her.

            “Excuse me!” Charles said. He clumsily tried to dodge backwards and stumbled over his own feet, barely catching himself before tripping.

            “Charles, right?” Daria asked, peering at him curiously. “How’s the limo driver thing working out for you?”

            “I . . . uh . . . don’t work there anymore,” he said. “I’m here to do a small piece on the asylum re-opening for the paper.”

            “Oh, that’s nice. Too bad about the job, but I warned you about dating on company time.”

            “Oh, it’s fine. I’m sure I’ll find something else,” Charles said, shaking his head. “Can we talk?”

            “Sure,” Daria said, and led him over to one of the small tables that had been set up for the luncheon. The other notables, politicos, and reporters milled around, creating a dull background noise of conversation and silverware clinking on plates.

            “So, what have you been doing lately?” Daria asked.

            “School and working with the paper, mostly. My dad set me up with some kind of intern job at his chemical plant this summer, though.”

            “Sounds interesting.”

            “It’s not,” Charles said with a small smile. “My Uncle Thaddeus taking me on as an apprentice is interesting, though. Also, my dad hates it.”

            “Apprentice for what?” Daria asked.

            “Stage magician.”

            “Like, pulling a rabbit out of a hat? Pick a card, any card?”

            “A little more classy than that, but you have the general idea,” Charles said. “He has a couple of unique tricks that he’s going to teach me, I can’t wait.”

            “Excellent. Do you need a grant?”

            “Uh . . . no, no thank you.” Charles said.

            “Okay. So, to business: what kind of remarks do you need for the story? You know the donation was made in Quinn’s name, right? Can you be sure to put that in the story?”

            “I’ll see what I can do,” Charles said. “I didn’t really want to talk to you about the story, though.”

            “Oh?”

            “I wanted to ask you about Quinn,” Charles said in a rush. “She’s hard to read sometimes, and I guess sometimes I worry about how she feels. If she feels the same way about me that I feel about her.”

            “Well, what do you feel about her?”

            “You have to understand, I was a bad joke before I met her. I had no manners, no idea how to talk to people, let alone women. The only people that didn’t despise me were the ones that ignored me.”

            “You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself,” Daria said. “You seem like a nice guy.”

            “I am now, because Quinn did the one thing for me that nobody else ever did: she gave me a chance. She treated me like a human being, and I learned how to be one. I don’t really understand why, though.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “She’s perfect,” Charles said with a shrug. “Why waste her time on me?”

            “Ah, she’s not perfect. She sings off key in the shower and doesn’t put the cap back on her toothpaste tube.”

            Charles blinked a couple of times and then started chuckling. “Really?”

            “Yeah, the toothpaste gets all dry and crumbly; it’s nasty.”

            “Certainly a dread secret worth hiding, I’m sure she’ll be furious that you told me.”

            “Look,” Daria said, giving him a small smile. “I know she can be moody sometimes and she doesn’t open up to many people. Did she tell you about our parents?”

            “Yeah,” Charles said sadly. “My mother died when I was born, so I can sort of sympathize. My father is still around, but honestly he’s pretty useless as a dad.”

            “You haven’t latched onto her because you’re lonely, have you?”

            “No,” Charles said firmly. “Well . . . maybe a little, but I care about her a lot, and it’s not like I’m lonely anymore. I have other friends now, I even had to turn down a girl who wanted to go to dinner with me. I’m with Quinn because I want to be with Quinn, not because I’m clinging.”

            “Good,” Daria said with a nod. “Because if I thought you were bad for her, I’d have to hire assassins to take you out . . . and not to dinner.”

            Charles stared at her in shock until she smiled and winked, and then he started chuckling. His laugh was shaky at first, but after a moment he was laughing hard enough and loud enough that he began attracting stares from nearby tables. Daria smirked and turned back to her plate.

            “It’s not that funny,” she said, rolling her eyes.

            “It just . . . I dunno, struck me,” Charles said, drying his eyes with the corner of his napkin. Still grinning, he started eating his lunch.

 

            The key scraped loudly in the lock, causing the empty-eyed young man in the room to briefly turn away from the television. The door to the ramshackle hotel room swung open and a burly man in jeans and a t-shirt walked in, quickly pushing the door closed again. The newcomer frowned slightly at the man sitting on the bed; he was painfully thin, and his unkempt clothes and long, stringy hair lent him a shabby air.

            “Tom Kyler?”

            “Usually,” he answered in a dry, cracked voice. “Leave the lights off, okay? Too much light hurts my eyes.”

            “Whatever, buddy. The boss has a job for you.”

            “Which boss?”

            “The big boss,” the man at the door answered. He tossed an unlabeled manila envelope onto the table near the door. “The pictures and all the information you’ll need are in the envelope, along with half the money.”

            “Okay.”

            “It’s two women, and the boss doesn’t want it to look like a hit. Think you can handle that?”

            “Yeah, man. It won’t be a problem.”

            “You’ll get the other half of your money after the job is done,” the man at the door said. He waited a moment for an answer and when none seemed forthcoming he left.

            Kyler stood and walked over to the table, pulling open the envelope and dumping the contents out on top of some old newspapers. He squinted at the pictures in the dim illumination from the lights in the hotel’s parking lot.

            “Hmph,” he grunted and dropped the pictures back onto the table. “Why somebody would want to bump off a pair of fine bitches like that I do not know. Especially the young one, she looks all pouty.”

            He walked back over to the bed and sat down, and then leaned over and opened the drawer on the nightstand. After spending a moment fishing around in the drawer full of trash, he pulled out a pill bottle. He opened the bottle and shook it over his palm. When nothing came out, he held the bottle up to one eye and peered inside.

            “Okay, this might be a problem.”

 

***

 

            “Daria, wake up. Damn it, Daria, I’m not going to go over there and shake you awake so you’d better be able to hear me.”

            Daria cracked one eye and blearily looked over at her aunt. With a small frown she glanced around, taking in her surroundings. She was still dressed in her suit, with the mask, cowl, and cloak sitting on a nearby table. Computers hummed and beeped around her, and several screens still patiently presented her with the data she’d been skimming before she dozed off.

            “You spend all night sneaking around Gotham,” Amy said. “Then you come back to the cave and spend all day sitting in front of these computers.”

            “Something is happening,” Daria said, rubbing her face and blinking. “The bad guys have gone into hiding and people are staying in at night, even the cops are staying holed up and under cover.”

            “Congratulations, you’ve driven crime from the city. Now you can retire before Gordon’s team catches you and puts you under the jail.”

            “No, this is something else,” Daria said. “The lull before the storm. Something big is being planned and I can’t get a line on it. There has to be something I’m missing.”

            “You’re missing Quinn’s jokes about you disappearing again,” Amy said acidly. “She always sounds glib and laughs it off, but the look in her eyes tells me she’s wondering if it’s a joke or not.”

            “Damn it.” Daria stood and glared angrily at the computer screens. “I can’t do it all by myself, Amy. I can’t patrol the city, and put together the clues, and keep up the ditzy playgirl act, and run the business, and be big sister.”

            “Lucius is doing a good job with the company, and I’ve got a couple of messages for you from the talent agencies about that look-alike you want to hire,” Amy said. “Tell me what you’re working on here, maybe a fresh pair of eyes will help.”

            “I still can’t put a face with the name Lex Griffin, although I have uncovered pretty persuasive evidence that Tom Griffin was a boss before he got knocked off and not the humble cruncher of numbers he claimed to be.”

            “Sandi’s father?”

            “Yeah, and there’s something not adding up about her. I spent a couple of nights watching her house and it’s being very discreetly guarded by mob muscle. This leads me to believe that Lex didn’t just swipe the last name Griffin and that he’s probably a member of the family.”

            “Quinn said that Sandi had been acting weird and was losing sleep ever since her father died, maybe it’s not just grief.”

            Daria nodded. “She may know more than she’s letting on, and if so I’m going to need to find out what she knows soon.”

            “Why?”

            “Because there’s dissention in the ranks, that’s the only thing I can think of that would be causing the current situation. Thorne’s men are all hiding under rocks, Lex’s men are tense and jittery, and Falcone’s operations are carrying on like nothing’s happening.”

            “So you think a gang war is about to break out between Thorne and Lex?”

            “I would, except for that meeting between Thorne and Rowe. She worked side by side with the old boss, and yet didn’t get purged by the new boss. Maybe she has a grudge and is setting Lex up to get bumped off, maybe she’s brokering an agreement between her boss and Thorne to team up on Falcone.”

            “Maybe she is the new boss, and is hiding behind the male name to help disguise herself,” Amy said.

            “And maybe she’s Thorne’s accountant and they got together to discuss his taxes.” With a sigh, Daria started stripping out of her armor and racking the pieces. “I’m going to shower and then surprise Quinn with some sisterly bonding time. Is she home?”

            “Yes, but we’re heading downtown in an hour to see her friend at the Nationals gymnastics competition,” Amy said. “Did you ever meet Stacy?”

            “Yeah, briefly. She seemed nice,” Daria said, and then slowly turned towards her computer monitors. “There’ll be thousands of people there,” Daria whispered. “They can’t possibly think they’ll get away with it.”

            “Get away with what?”

            “The competition; Cindy Rowe will be there, Councilman Thorne will be there, and I’m betting that Lex Griffin will be there. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen tonight, and it’s going to put a lot of lives in danger.”

            “So I take it Daria won’t be going with us?”

            “No, Daria will be there,” she said, heading for the elevator. “But she’s driving the Porsche, and will probably have to slip out for a business call shortly after you arrive.”

            Amy sighed and pressed a button on the armor rack, causing it to recede into the washer, where it would receive a much needed scrubbing.

 

            Stacy tugged at the waist of her red tunic and tried to ignore the sounds of the crowd cheering as the current competitor did her routine.

            “I’m a winner,” she muttered under her breath. “I’ve worked very hard, and I deserve to win. I am a winner, I’ve earned my place here.”

            “Never underestimate the power of positive thinking.”

            Stacy glanced over at the bench, and the girl who had spoken. She was an attractive brunette in a simple white leotard, and she gave Stacy an encouraging smile.

            “Are you nervous, too?”

            “Maybe a little,” the girl answered, adding a small shrug. “My friends call me Nat, are you from the United States?”

            “Yeah, I’m Stacy and my home town is a little south of here. Where are you from?”

            “Argentina.”

            “Really?” Stacy asked, clasping her hands together. “I’ve heard it’s so romantic there, and the people are so beautiful! You speak English perfectly, I’d have never guessed you weren’t American!”

            “I am American,” Nat said, “just not from the United States.”

            “Oh, well, yeah,” Stacy said, slightly flustered. “I mean . . . uh . . . I’m sorry.”

            “I’m not offended. You say that you’re from near Gotham City?”

            “Yup, good old Lawndale,” Stacy said. “It’s about forty minutes or so down the freeway. It’s nice, if you want to visit before you go back home I could show you around.”

            “I may take you up on that,” Nat said. “I’m supposed to be looking for one of my father’s former students while I’m here. He lost touch with her, and is quite concerned.”

            “Oh, I know lots of people! What’s her name, maybe I can help?”

            The loudspeaker in the dressing room clicked on and a voice said, “Natalia Head, five minute warning. Repeat, Natalia Head, five minute warning. Anastasia Rowe, fifteen minute warning.”

            “Fifteen minutes,” Stacy said. “I better get stretched out.”

            “And I better get out there, I’m up next,” Nat said. “We should talk more after the competition is over.”

            “Sure,” Stacy said with a big smile. “You can meet all my friends, we can go get something to eat. My friend Quinn is great with computers, I bet she can find that girl you’re looking for easily.”

            “Quinn? Interesting name,” Nat said. She stood and quickly left the dressing room for the arena floor, leaving Stacy to start her stretches.

 

            “I’ve never been to a gymnastics competition before,” Amy said as she took her seat. “Do they sell beer and hot dogs at these things?”

            “I don’t think so,” Quinn said, shaking her head. “I guess you could ask, if you want to embarrass me completely to death.”

            “I could always buy the building and tell them to start,” Daria said with a shrug.

            “Daria,” Quinn said. “You can’t just go around buying things and places because you don’t like how they’re being run.”

            “Sure I can,” Daria said, giving her sister a mischievous smile. “Besides, a convention center is a good investment anyway.”

            Quinn rolled her eyes as Daria pulled out her cell phone and hit one of the speed dial buttons.

            “Lucius, this is Daria. Do I own the convention center downtown? The one that’s hosting the gymnastics competition.”

            Quinn smirked at Amy when Daria frowned.

            “Public property? No, that won’t do . . . can you have somebody set up a meeting with the mayor, please? Sure, thanks . . . hmm? It’s a little late in the day for that, isn’t it?”

            Quinn gave a small, disappointed sigh and Amy frowned to herself but said nothing.

            “Fine, fine . . . yes, I know that not everywhere runs on Eastern time. Yes, I’ll be there. Look, could you do me a huge favor?”

            Daria glanced over at her sister and mouthed the words, ‘I’m sorry,’ at her. Quinn shrugged and started reading through her program book.

            “Yeah, when we get off the phone could you call my assistant and tell him to clear me all week next week. Yes, everything . . . Lucius, I have every confidence in your ability to keep the company running without me for five days. Thanks, I owe you one.”

            Daria flipped her phone closed and glanced over at her aunt and sister.

            “Important business?” Quinn asked.

            “It’s delicate, important, and operating on San Francisco time,” Daria said apologetically. “You could come along if you want.”

            “No, there are people expecting me to be here,” Quinn answered tartly.

            “Quinn . . . .”

            “Go, do business,” Quinn said, making a shooing motion with one hand. “I’m not mad, I swear.”

            “I’ll make it up to you next week, I’m taking the whole week off. You heard me say so on the phone, right?”

            “I’ll be fine, I promise.”

            With a small sigh, Daria stood and made her way towards the exit. On her way out, she bumped into a blond man wearing light blue coveralls with the word ‘maintenance’ stenciled over the pocket.

            “Excuse me,” she said.

            “Sorry,” the man muttered as he maneuvered around her and continued on his way. He had more important things to worry about than random girls in the crowd. He had a job to do, and he was determined to do it correctly.

            He couldn’t remember now if the newspapers had originally been in the envelope with the pictures and the money or not, but they’d given him such good ideas that he decided it didn’t matter. He was supposed to kill the woman and the girl, Rowe and Griffin, and make sure it didn’t look like a mob hit.

            That’s where the newspapers had helped out, with advertisements about a pyrotechnics store going out of business and selling out their stock and news stories about people wearing masks and beating up criminals in the night. Everybody knew that a mob hit was a bullet to the back of the head. Dressing up in a costume and blowing up the building his targets were in would throw everybody off.

            He unlocked the door to a maintenance closet and went in, stepping over the dead body of the man who had lent him the coveralls. Tom Kyler pushed the door shut and then walked across the small room. He unzipped the coveralls and stepped out of them, and then tossed them on top of the corpse.

            “Thanks, buddy. You can have this back now,” he said quietly, and then giggled. He took the heavy, flame-retardant jumpsuit from the shelf and put it on, and then pulled on the matching boots. He put on the helmet last, and then settled a pair of tanks onto his back. One tank for his air supply, and the other providing acetylene to the cutting torch he held in his right hand.

            “Forget about Tom Kyler,” he said, grinning. “Say hello to Firefly.”

            He took a dramatic pose for a moment, and then his wristwatch started beeping loudly.

            “Crap, still got five more minutes. Well, let’s go scare some people.”

 

            “Where’s your sister?” Jane asked, taking the empty seat next to Quinn.

            “Business,” Quinn said, rolling her eyes. “It’s still annoying, but at least it’s not like some stupid party or something. You wouldn’t believe the places she gets off to sometimes.”

            “Sure I would,” Jane said with a smirk. “I’ve got the internet, and the internet has all these cool video sites like YouTube.”

            “YouTube?” Amy asked, quirking an eyebrow. “She’s on YouTube?”

            “Yeah, there’s a great video of Daria at some club dancing with one of those has-been rock starlets. I can’t remember her name now, but it’s the blonde one.”

            “Please tell me she’s wearing underwear,” Quinn said, closing her eyes and rubbing her temple.

            “The cameraman really didn’t get that adventurous,” Jane said.

            “Thank God,” Amy muttered. Thank God for that body double we hired, anyway.

            “Weren’t you supposed to pick up Tiffany?” Quinn asked.

            “Yeah, her mom said she was in bed with a headache. She’s really not well, is she?”

            “She was really looking forward to seeing Stacy compete,” Quinn said pensively. “We’ll stop and order her a video of the event on our way out.”

            “Isn’t that Stacy?” Amy asked, pointing down at the auditorium floor.

            Down below, Stacy had walked out onto the mat and taken a pose with one foot pressed against the opposite calf and her arms stretched out to either side. Her hair was pulled into a single braid down her back, and her face was painted with heavy stage makeup. She wore dark green leggings that contrasted sharply with her bright red leotard. Long, yellow streamers hung from her arms with about an inch and a half of space between each one.

            After a few seconds the light strains of Vivaldi filled the air and Stacy began her routine.

            “Wow, she’s good,” Amy said.

            “She told me that she’s confident she can ace the other competitions,” Quinn said. “So she put a lot of practice time into her freestyle routine.”

 

            Tiffany stood near the big double doors leading into the auditorium, her arms wrapped around herself as she shivered. Her headache was awful, and she wasn’t sure why the people running the convention center had the air conditioning set so low, but she was happy to be here in time for Stacy’s performance.

            She had pulled herself out of bed and, against her mother’s protests, had driven herself here to watch Stacy. As soon as Stacy’s routine was done, Tiffany was turning around and driving right back home. She didn’t want to miss the other events, but she really didn’t feel well and balance beams weren’t that exciting anyway.

            Tiffany lurched sideways as she was buffeted from behind by a passing stranger. She caught her balance and looked angrily at the rude man, and then blinked in confusion. The guy was dressed like a firefighter, but he was carrying some kind of welding torch instead of a water hose.

            Stacy had finished her routine, and the judges were too busy discussing her scoring to notice the strange man as he walked up to their table. He picked up the announcer’s microphone and flipped it on.

            “Ladies and gentlemen, I am Firefly and I’m asking you to please remain calm. There are several explosive devices within the building, placed to cause the maximum amount of destruction and loss of life.”

            “What is it with these people and making public announcements?” Quinn asked. “Ego gratification much?”

            “Quinn, we need to go,” Amy said, grabbing her niece’s arm and pulling her up as she stood. Amy glanced around quickly and then asked, “Where’s Jane? She was right here a second ago.”

            “She runs fast,” Quinn said. “Come on.”

            “Is this some kind of joke?” someone yelled from the crowd.

            “No, this is no joke.” Firefly looked at his watch, and then said, “The bombs should be detonating in about twenty seconds. I hope everybody has a good time . . . I know I will.”

            At first, a few scattered people panicked and started running for the doors. Then, the panic spread and the crowd became a mob that surged towards the exits. People screamed as they fell and others trampled them; including Tiffany, who was knocked from her feet and sucked under by the tidal force of the crowd.

            A red and blue blur zipped around the throng and whipped up into the stands. Quinn and Amy vanished as it blew past them, and Amy nearly vomited from the sudden acceleration. Suddenly, they were moving up and she heard the sound of breaking glass and then just as abruptly they were moving down. When the movement stopped, she found herself standing next to Quinn in the parking lot.

            “What the hell was that?”

            “Supergirl,” Quinn said, and fell heavily to the ground. “Oh, God. I think I’m gonna puke.”

            Gingerly, Amy lowered herself to the ground and sat next to the nauseated redhead. “I’m never riding a rollercoaster again.”

            Quinn nodded miserably.

            Casually, Amy lifted her wristwatch near her face and tapped a small button on the side. “Well, we’re both outside and we’re okay. That’s what matters, right, Quinn?”

            Quinn nodded again, her eyes still clenched shut.

            Back inside the arena, Firefly’s laughter was barely audible over the screams and shouting of the crowd as he turned up the gas on his torch and looked for his victims. He spotted the first one, the girl named Griffin, immediately. She was in the stands behind the judge’s table, still sitting and staring at him with an expression of pure horror. With a smile, he started walking towards her.

            “Excuse me,” a woman said from behind him. “Maybe you should take a seat.”

            He looked around just in time to catch a metal folding chair to the face. It didn’t strike with enough force to injure him through his helmet, but he was certainly rattled, and staggered on his feet. The girl, dressed in an outlandish get up of red and green, jumped onto the judges’ table and then did a front flip into the stands.

            “Sandi, snap out of it,” Stacy said, shaking her friend’s shoulder. “We’ve got to get out of here before . . . .”

            She was cut off by a sudden rise in the volume of the screams coming from near one of the exits. The crowd surged backwards, several of them flying into the air, as the slim and terrifying form of the Eradicator pulled herself free from the mass of humanity and floated above the throng.

            “I am going to kill every monkey in this building,” she said calmly, her voice plainly audible even in the noisy arena.

            “Not if I have anything to say about it,” Supergirl replied, scowling at her from the arena floor.

            With a roar like an angry god the bombs detonated, ripping through the guts of the building. The screams of the people still in the building were briefly overwhelmed by the noise of the explosions, and then the terrifying sound of the building groaning against its own weight as it lost supports.

            Stacy turned and screamed as she watched several hundred pounds of concrete rain down on the crowd, including her parents and little sister. She fell to her knees and screamed again, and then a smaller block of masonry connected with her head and mercifully blotted out her consciousness.

            Sandi looked down at her friend’s bloody face, and then back up at the man wearing the black rubberized suit as he stood and checked his cutting torch. Behind him, she could see Supergirl trading blows with the Eradicator as the building continued to collapse.

            “It’s time to die, Miss Griffin,” Firefly said, and started up the short steps to where she still sat. There was a whirring noise as a thin cable wrapped itself around him, and he was yanked off his feet and back into the arena. He kicked and screamed as the line dragged him across the floor and, with a thump, into the trunk of a black Porsche that was sitting near a large breech in the wall.

            “The building is beginning to collapse,” said a harsh, flat voice from nearby. Sandi looked to her left and saw a person wrapped in a dark blue cloak, her face covered with a mask and goggles. She stepped forward and smoothly lifted the unconscious Stacy, and then said, “I suggest you leave before it finishes.”

            The Batgirl strode across the large room, nimbly evading falling debris, and Sandi hurried along behind her. The passenger door opened as they approached, and Batgirl carefully placed Stacy in the car. She closed the door and turned to walk away and found her path blocked by Supergirl.

            “Finished with your angry little friend, then?”

            “She never sticks around for long,” Supergirl said. “You and I need to talk.”

            “Yes,” Batgirl said. “But now is not the time.” She tapped a couple of spots on her gauntlet and the car smoothly pulled away, seeming to have no trouble with the rough driving surface. “Get the survivors outside, I can do first aid until the ambulances start arriving.”

            Supergirl blurred back into the building and Batgirl walked out into the parking lot. A small crowd of dirty, wounded people had gathered to stare at the now burning building in horror. One of them, Sandi, stepped forward.

            “How can I help?”

            “You can tell me why that man wanted to kill you.”

            “I . . . I don’t know,” Sandi said, looking at the ground.

            Batgirl regarded her silently for a moment, and then said, “Round up anyone who knows first aid and tell them to get over here.”

            Sandi nodded and turned back to the clump of people.

 

            “This horrific terrorist attack has left Gotham City, and all of America, reeling in shock,” the news anchor said, his voice full of sincerity. “With hundreds dead and dozens more missing this is a bleak night for many families.”

            Batgirl carefully lifted the still unconscious Stacy Rowe onto the hospital bed in one corner of the cave, only half listening to the television broadcast being displayed on a computer monitor.

            “The one bright spot in all this,” the anchorman continued, “is that the person responsible for the destruction is in police custody; the man going by the name Firefly has been positively identified by authorities as Tom Kyler, a mentally disturbed convict who was already on the run from the FBI.”

            Moving smoothly and efficiently, Batgirl cut away the tatters of Stacy’s competition costume and dropped the ruined garments into a nearby trashcan. She then carefully inserted a needle into the back of the girl’s hand in order to start an IV drip.

            “Apparently,” the female anchor chimed in, “the suspect was ejected from the back of a moving vehicle in front of police headquarters downtown. Unverified reports claim that this was the work of the vigilante known only as the Batgirl, while other rumors claim she was at least partially responsible for the attack.”

            Batgirl finished setting up the IV and took a step back from the bed. She heard a thump from the ladder leading down into the cave, but didn’t turn to look.

            “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Amy asked. “She needs to be in a hospital.”

            “She is in a hospital,” Batgirl answered. “I want you to check her over, you’ve got better medical training than I do.”

            “Speaking of masks and costumes,” the news broadcast continued, “Lawndale’s super sweetheart, Supergirl, was also seen at the convention center, first fighting her nemesis the Eradicator and then helping pull wounded victims from the rubble.”

            “Sounds like it was a real super-rumble,” the anchorwoman quipped.

            “It sure was, Linda!”

            Amy began checking the unconscious girl, and after a moment looked over at Batgirl and said, “She has a mild concussion, and she’s damn lucky at that. She’ll probably wake up soon, what are you going to tell her?”

            “The truth,” Batgirl said flatly. She picked up a remote control and clicked off the news broadcast. “The truth about who ordered this attack, and why.”

            “What?” Amy asked. “You’re going to . . . no. No, I don’t care how justified you think this is, I am not going along with it. You want to waste your life on this crusade, I can’t stop you, but I’m not going to let you drag this innocent girl into it.”

            “I told you, I can’t do this alone.”

            “I’ll help you,” Amy said. “We’ll talk to Quinn . . . .”

            “No!” Batgirl roared, her fist coming down on a table with a bang. “She doesn’t get touched by any of this, do you understand me?”

            “Fine, but what about Stacy? Who steps up and says she shouldn’t be touched by any of this?”

            “It’s too late for that now,” Batgirl said darkly.

            “A few hours ago she was somebody you vaguely remembered as being nice, and now you want to make her some kind of sidekick?”

            “I don’t need a sidekick,” Batgirl said, looking down at the unconscious girl. “Stacy attacked Firefly, tried to keep him from killing Sandi Griffin. She’s got the right instincts, and with enough training she could be a strong ally.”

            “She just lost her family, she can’t make a decision like this now.”

            “I did,” Batgirl said quietly.

            “Daria . . . .”

            “I’ll present her with the information, and she’ll have time to make up her mind. It’ll be her choice.”

            “Swear to me,” Amy said. “Promise me that you’ll let her decide.”

            Batgirl stood motionless, staring at the older woman.

            “I’m against this.”

            “Your objection is noted,” Batgirl said. “If that’s all, you might want to leave before she comes around.”

            Amy turned and walked back to the ladder, muttering curses under her breath. Batgirl stepped back up to the side of the bed and began attaching electronic sensor pads to the patient.

 

            Jim Vitale looked up from the briefs on his desk with an annoyed expression when he heard his office door open and close without a knock. The expression immediately dropped away when he saw Sandi Griffin leaning against the inside of the door. She was covered with ashes, her face was smudged with soot, her dress was torn, and she wore the dull expression of someone in shock.

            “What happened to you?”

            “It’s my fault . . . it’s all my fault,” Sandi whispered. Her eyes slowly focused, and she gave him a weak smile. “I wanted to take care of the problem on my own, I wanted you to be proud of me.”

            Vitale came out from behind his desk and helped Sandi into a chair, and then put a glass of brandy into her hand. He returned to his chair and lit a fresh cigar.

            “You hired someone to kill Cynthia Rowe.”

            “She hated me,” Sandi whispered. “She was jealous, she wanted to kill me and take over the Organization.”

            “She thought you were inefficient and bad for business,” Vitale said, and then took a long draw off his cigar. “She was right, but that’s not the point.”

            “What?”

            “I see potential in you, a chance for greatness, but you’re going to have to get past taking everything personally. You have too much emotional investment in everything you do.”

            “You knew she was trying to kill me?” Sandi asked. “Why didn’t you warn me?”

            “I didn’t need to.” He took another draw off the cigar. “You figured it out on your own, didn’t you? I wanted to see what you were going to do about it.”

            Sandi laughed bitterly. “I went to Thorne. He sent somebody to blow up the building we were in, knowing that I was going to be there. He double-crossed me, what should I do about that?”

            “Why did you go to Thorne?”

            “I wanted an outsider, somebody that wouldn’t report back to Cynthia.”

            Vitale spun his rolodex and removed a card, handing it to Sandi with a grin. She read the card and quirked an eyebrow.

            “Bruno? I thought he only worked for you.”

            “I had lunch with him today, and he agreed to take jobs from you also. He’s a professional, and if you treat him like one he’ll be a very valuable asset to you for years to come.” Vitale leaned back in his chair and gestured with his cigar. “I’m going to have to call him later, let him know that he doesn’t need to kill Mrs. Rowe.”

            “Yeah, I guess I took care of that,” Sandi said with a sigh.

            “She went to Thorne about a week before you did. Probably for the same reason, too.”

            “So he didn’t double-cross me, he just decided to help both of us.” Sandi closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. “Why did he send somebody to blow up the building, instead of hiring a pair of shooters? A lot of innocent people got killed tonight.”

            “Innocent people? You’re a little old to believe in fairy tales,” Vitale said with a wide grin. “To answer your question, Rupert Thorne is mentally lazy and assumes the details will take care of themselves. Most likely, he sent an underling to handle it and that underling passed the job down and so on until it reached somebody at the bottom of the food chain.”

            “Oh.”

            “Blew up the building, you say?”

            Sandi nodded, and Vitale reached over to turn on the intercom.

            “Hey, asshat. Are you still here?”

            After a moment the intercom crackled and a voice said, “Yes, sir.”

            “Somebody just blew up the convention center in Gotham City. Go find out who, and offer to represent him pro bono. Make sure you copy me on everything. Got it?”

            “But, sir, I . . . .”

            “Got it?”

            “Yes, sir.”

“Good, and for God’s sake quit screwing your damn secretary in the office.” There was a feminine cry of surprise as he turned the intercom off, and Vitale shook his head. “That boy has no respect for himself.”

            “So, what do we do now?” Sandi asked.

            “Well, I’m going to finish looking over these briefs and then go have a nice dinner. If you like, you can use the executive lounge to clean yourself up and join me.”

            “No, what do we do about the explosion, the dead people, Rupert Thorne and the guy he hired to kill me?”

            “Oh, that.” Vitale shrugged. “I’m not going to do anything about it. I suggest you take this as an opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Go wash up, I’ll call your house and have the maid send over a fresh dress for you.”

            “We don’t have a maid.”

            “You do now,” Vitale said absently, already focused on his paperwork. “Her name is Mercy, and she knows martial arts I can’t even pronounce. Nice girl, you’ll like her.”

            Sandi nodded and quietly left the room.

 

            Stacy’s head was pounding, and she felt nauseous. Slowly, she opened her eyes and blinked at the bright lights over her bed. She heard a steady, rhythmic beeping sound that seemed to be coming from behind her head.

            “Where am I?”

            “Safe.”

            The harsh, flat voice came from the shadows just beyond the pool of bright light centered on the bed. Stacy squinted, trying to see who had spoken, and the rhythm of the beeping increased slightly.

            “I don’t believe you.”

            “Stay calm,” the voice said. “You have a concussion; you were struck on the head by a piece of falling concrete.”

            “I was hit by . . . .” Stacy said, and then her face filled with shock and horror. “Oh, God. They’re dead, I saw it, they’re dead.” She covered her face with her hands and began crying, and the steady beeping rhythm sped up alarmingly. After a few minutes of crying, Stacy took a shuddering breath and looked out into the darkness again. “Are you still there?”

            “Yes.”

            “Why did this happen?”

            “Are you certain you want the answer to that? You might want to wait until your skull has mended.”

            “Tell me.”

            “The building you were in was bombed by a man working for one of the crime bosses of Gotham City. I believe it was an attempt to disguise an assassination as a terrorist attack.”

            “Assassination?”

            “Some of the most powerful criminals in Gotham were attending the gymnastics tournament, and your mother was one of them.”

            “My mom is an accountant,” Stacy said.

            “I have more than enough proof, Ms. Rowe. You can look through it when you feel better, but for now take my word for it. I know what I’m talking about,” Batgirl said, and then stepped out of the darkness. She loomed over the hospital bed, and the rhythmic beeping became rapid again.

            “Y-you’re Batgirl. What do you want from me?”

            “Hundreds of innocent people died tonight, including your father and your sister, because of squabbling criminals. The same parasites that prey on the people of Gotham City day and night.”

            “I can’t believe my mom is . . . was . . . some kind of criminal.”

            Batgirl reached over to a nearby table and dropped a heavy file folder onto the bed next to Stacy. “Stop reading this if it gives you a headache. All the proof you need is in this file.”

            Stacy ran her fingertips over the folder but didn’t open it. “All those people died, and my family, because somebody wanted to kill my mom?”

            “I believe there were multiple targets, but I’m not going to discuss that with you at this point.”

            “You saved my life, didn’t you?”

            There was no response, and Batgirl’s cloak and mask made it impossible to read her body language. Stacy leaned back against her pillows and closed her eyes, and tears started to quietly run down her face again.

            “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t have anywhere to go, I don’t have any other family. Maybe you should have left me to die, too.”

            “So,” Batgirl said in her flat, inflectionless voice. “You’re going to give up, then? Just roll over and die?”

            “What am I supposed to do?” Stacy shouted, glaring angrily. “I can’t bring them back, and neither can you.”

            “No, I can’t. What I can do is try to stop others from suffering this kind of loss, and I can’t be in enough places at once to stop it all. You could help me.”

            “Help you?

            “Your family is dead, Ms. Rowe. The criminals responsible are still out there, bringing more misery and death to the innocent.”

            “I’ve always believed revenge is wrong,” Stacy said.

            “I’m not offering you revenge, I’m offering you a chance to make the world a better place. We can never replace what we’ve lost, but we can protect what we still have.”

            Stacy looked at the folder on her lap for a long moment and then slowly nodded. “I want to help. I want justice, for my little sister.”

            Batgirl nodded once, and then unstrapped her breathing mask and set it aside. She removed her goggles, and then pulled back her cowl and shook her braid free. She pulled off her right gauntlet and reached out and took Stacy’s hand, and the two girls shared a firm handshake.

            “Concentrate on healing your injuries for now,” Daria said quietly. “As soon as you’re ready, the training will begin.”

 

Chapter Four