Chapter Four: The Ace of Knaves
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
Daria stood and watched the video screen, protected from the chill of the cave by a pair of slacks and a turtleneck sweater, both in black. The video had been recovered from one of the parking lot security cameras at the Gotham convention center, and Daria was watching it frame by frame.
The frame she was currently studying showed a crowd of injured people; some standing, some sitting on the asphalt, and some lying unconscious. The worst of the wounded were being attended by paramedics, with Gotham police officers performing first aid on those who were not in immediate danger of death.
There were two other things in the image, and those two objects were the focus of Daria’s study. In the lower part of the frame there was a short streak, mostly blue but with a red stripe at the top. At one end of the streak was a human shaped blur that Daria knew to be the superhumanly fast Supergirl. The mystery was the long, indistinct red streak that curved across the top of the frame.
“Stacy, come here a moment.”
From behind Daria, the rhythmic clinking of Stacy working a weight set ended with a clang as the slim brunette put the weights back into the rest position. She wiped the sweat off her face and walked over to see what her mentor wanted.
“Look at this image, and tell me everything you see.”
“It’s the parking lot outside the arena, after the bombing,” Stacy said, her voice catching slightly on the word ‘bombing.’ She took a deep breath and continued, “I see policemen so this was taken after you left, and it’s probably from a security camera. Maybe one mounted on a light pole?”
Daria quirked an eyebrow and motioned for Stacy to continue.
“There are paramedics and policemen helping wounded people. I see Supergirl in the bottom of the frame delivering another rescued person to them. There’s some sort of red blur at the top of the screen, maybe a problem with the film?”
“I’ve analyzed the video with three different computer programs, and that’s not a false image. Something was there.”
Stacy stepped closer to the screen and examined the picture carefully. “Well, then it’s either a random shaft of red light that no one at the scene noticed, or it’s something moving faster than Supergirl.”
“You can see Supergirl’s movement across the parking lot when the video is played at regular speed. What caught my attention were several injured children appearing from nowhere several yards away from where Supergirl was dropping people off.”
Stacy frowned. “If you already knew there was a second person moving at superhuman speeds, why did you ask me?”
“I wanted to see if you’d come to the same conclusion I did. I’m not always right, you know.”
“So, do you know who it is?”
“No,” Daria said. “We’ll have to stay alert, and see if we can gather more data on this unknown metahuman.”
“Are you done with your weight training for the day?” Daria asked.
“Yeah,” Stacy said. “I’m about ready to hit the showers. Hey, there was something I wanted to ask you about.”
“If this is about your missing loofah, ask Quinn. I don’t use the things.”
“No, I wanted to ask you something about my training. I’ve seen the way you fight, your suit is heavily armored and you do a lot of blocking.”
“I’m faster than you are and I could have competed in the Olympics as a gymnast. Maybe I need to train more to those strengths than try to copy your fighting style,” Stacy said.
Daria looked at Stacy for a moment and slowly quirked an eyebrow. “So, you think you have a better idea what kind of training you require than I do?”
“Um . . . yes?” Stacy shuffled her feet a little and looked away. “I’ve pretty much been my own coach for the last couple of years, so it’s not like I haven’t made decisions like this before. And I just thought that if I’m going to help you, maybe it would be better if I did things a little differently, you know? Mix things up?”
“Very well,” Daria said, and turned back to the large screen. “Draw up a new regimen for yourself, but don’t stint on the weight training. I know you don’t want to lose flexibility, but you are going to need to build your upper body strength.”
Daria glanced at her watch. “I have a business meeting to attend, so I’ll see you back down here tonight. I want you at the computer observing one of my patrols.”
“Will do.” Stacy turned and jogged away, eager to get out of the chilly cave and into a warm shower.
The computer beeped twice, drawing Daria’s attention to one of the side screens. The screen displayed two sets of wavy lines on charts, stacked one on top of the other. Beneath them, in red letters, the screen displayed the words: voice match complete.
“Very interesting,” Daria muttered. The alarm on her wristwatch beeped, and she turned and strode to the ladder leading back up to the house.
“So, how’s Stacy?” Charles asked
“How do you think she is?” Quinn answered sadly. The couple stood on the school lawn, shivering slightly in their heavy winter coats and watching the light snow drifting down. “She went from Olympic hopeful to crippled orphan before she graduated high school.”
Quinn shrugged. “The doctor that looked at her x-rays said she’ll probably be walking with a cane for the rest of her life.”
“Harsh, but not the same as crippled.”
“I just wish . . . I just wish things had been different,” Quinn said. “Supergirl was there, Batgirl was there, and still all those people got hurt and died.”
“That tells us something very important,” Charles said. “It tells us that as helpful as these superheroes are, at the end of the day humanity still needs to look out for itself.”
“I’m not complaining.” Charles turned and put his arms around Quinn. “I’m grateful they rescued the person most important to me.”
Quinn leaned into the embrace and muttered something against Charles’ chest.
“What was that?”
“I said that my face is getting cold.”
“No, but I’m not repeating myself. You snooze, you lose Ruttheimer.”
Charles grinned and started to say something when he was distracted by the sight of a gloomy-looking Mack MacKenzie leaving the cafeteria and trudging through the thin layer of snow on the ground.
Quinn looked up at Charles’ frown and then followed his gaze to the football player. “Mack?”
He glanced up when Quinn called his name, and changed his direction to approach his friends. “Hey, Quinn. Upch . . . uh, Charles.”
“What’s wrong?” Quinn asked.
Mack shook his head. “Nothing I want to talk about. I’m heading down to the field to run some laps, I’ll see you two later.”
“That doesn’t bode well,” Charles said. A moment later the bell rang, recalling the students at lunch to their afternoon classes.
“We better get to the paper room,” Quinn said. “We’ll let Jodie know that Mack isn’t going to be there today.”
“I have a suspicion she knows,” Charles said.
“Yeah,” Quinn said with a sigh.
Charles shrugged as they walked into the building. “At least she didn’t get stuck in some crappy foster home.”
“Stacy,” Charles said. “I’m picking up the conversation where we left off.”
“Oh, yeah. It was really nice of Daria to suggest that we take her in, Stacy’s nearest relatives are in the Midwest somewhere. It would have sucked to have to move away from all her friends after what happened.”
“You moved away from all your friends in Texas,” Charles said.
“I didn’t have any friends in Texas, I was a big nobody.”
“No friends at all?”
“Well, there were a couple of guys I hung out with sometimes, but it was mostly out of morbid curiosity,” Quinn said. “They were a year older than me, but they acted like five year olds.” Quinn frowned. “Perverted five year olds.”
“Ah, now I see why you were able to put up with me,” Charles said, giving her a small smile.
“No matter how bad you may have been you were better than both of these guys put together.”
“You have a basis for comparison, then?” Charles grinned widely and made a clawing motion in midair with one hand. “Feisty!”
“Oh, yuck,” Quinn said. “You will be punished for putting that image in my head, just as soon as I think of something suitably terrible.”
“I await with bated breath.” Charles opened the door to the computer lab and stepped aside so Quinn could precede him.
“Hi, Jodie. We’re here to break all records in journalistic excellence,” Quinn said as she walked into the room. “How does ‘Local Girl Mauls Boyfriend’ sound as a headline?”
“I guess you ran into Mack,” Jodie answered, swiveling her computer chair around to glare at Quinn.
“Yeah. Oh . . . eh . . . I was actually talking about roughing up Charles. I’m sorry, Jodie, what happened?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Quinn fished around in her pants pocket and dug out a dollar bill, and then turned and handed it to Charles. “Go get me a soda, Diet Ultra Cola, please. And walk slowly.”
“I live to serve,” Charles said with a small bow, and headed out of the room.
“How do you put up with his cornball act?” Jodie asked.
“He doesn’t do it that often anymore,” Quinn said. “Mostly when he thinks I need cheering up. So, now that it’s just us girls: what happened?”
“Jodie . . . .”
“No, that’s what happened: nothing.” Jodie sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Mack and I have been dating since middle school, and we’re really good friends. He’s always there for me, even though my parents keep me so busy that I usually can’t be there for him. I love him, but . . . .”
“You’re not in love with him?”
“It’s stupid and girly, isn’t it?” Jodie asked.
“Nah,” Quinn said with a shrug. “There’s no spark, I get it.”
“Exactly, Mack and I are together because everybody thinks we should be. I think it just took us a while to realize we were going through the motions just to be role models and we really weren’t happy.”
“I’m sorry it didn’t work out.”
“I’m not, not really. Mack and I will always be really good friends and that’s just as important. I just feel bad because I think I’ve been wasting his time, when he could have had a girlfriend that could pay attention to him.”
“He seemed a little upset when we ran into him, I’m not sure he felt like he was wasting his time,” Quinn said.
“We agreed the relationship wasn’t going anywhere,” Jodie said. “I’m sure he’s not happy about breaking up, I’m not ecstatic about it myself. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right thing to do.”
“You’re in a better position to judge than I am,” Quinn said. “So, are you going to be okay, or do we need to dig up another editor for a week or two?”
“I’ll be fine,” Jodie said.
The door opened, admitting a scowling Mr. DeMartino with Ms. Li right on his heels.
“I’m glad to hear that, Miss Landon,” Ms. Li said. “I wish more students had your focus and reliability.”
“Thanks,” Jodie said, a note of depression creeping into her voice.
“Where is everyone else?” Li asked, looking around the mostly empty room.
“We’re here for a study period,” Jodie answered. “Everyone else will be here next hour.”
“Hmm, very well then. I only need to talk to Miss Morgendorffer anyway.”
Quinn’s eyes narrowed, and she glanced over at Mr. DeMartino. The teacher shrugged slightly and looked away.
“I wanted to remind you that you’re writing articles for a high school newspaper. You are not a professional investigative reporter.”
“This is about the Scarecrow story, isn’t it?” Quinn asked.
“Dr. Manson was a long term, valuable member of the Lawndale High faculty. It doesn’t reflect well on this school or this community to focus on her unfortunate nervous breakdown,” Ms. Li said, glaring at Quinn.
“She was drugging students at this school for years,” Quinn said, glaring back. “I think that looks pretty bad on you, and never mind the school or the community. Why don’t you give me an interview, tell your side of the story and explain how she fooled you for so long?”
“Miss Morgendorffer, this paper will print stories that are appropriate reading for high school students or it will cease to exist. Am I understood?”
“I understand,” Quinn said.
“Very good.” Ms. Li smiled brightly. “Everyone cheer up and try to have a good time with your activity. Have fun learning!” The principal turned and left the room, humming happily as she walked away.
“Mr. DeMartino,” Jodie said.
“My hands are tied, Miss Landon.” His eye twitching, the teacher turned and stomped out of the room.
“Li knows something,” Quinn said.
“Can you prove it?” Jodie asked.
Jane grabbed another slice of pizza and shook her head. “Can she get away with that? Isn’t there something in the Constitution about freedom of the press? I clearly remember DeMartino talking about it last year.”
“It’s her press,” Quinn answered. “She has final say over what it prints. It’s not fair, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do about it.”
“At least the Sun-Herald will print whatever you find out.”
Quinn sighed. “No, they won’t. I got a call from the editor while I was waiting for you to show up. He thinks this is some kind of vendetta for me because she gassed me twice, and told me to go focus on something else.”
“Well, crap. I don’t know what to say then, except sorry I was late getting here,” Jane said.
“I didn’t see you at school today, and you were late for pizza,” Quinn said. “Where were you?”
“I had stuff,” Jane said, waving one hand in the air. “Family emergency, you know how it is. Nothing major, it just required my immediate attention.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I just had to run to Metropolis and help my sister out of a jam. You remember me mentioning Penny?”
“The journalism major?”
“Yeah.” Jane leaned back in her seat with a thoughtful expression. “Hey, aren’t you rich now? Why not buy a newspaper and make them print your stories?”
“That’s what Daria always does. Anytime somebody tells her no, she buys the place she’s at so she can change the rules. I don’t want to be like that, it’s arrogant.”
“So you’d rather carry on with your chosen solution, which is to ignore the rules and hope you don’t get into trouble.”
“It’s worked so far, mostly.”
“Well, now that we have a plan, what have you found out about the Scarecrow formerly known as Dr. Margaret Manson?”
Quinn shrugged. “Dr. Manson graduated in the top five percent of her class, and moved straight into private practice as a psychologist. A couple of years later, she closed her doors and got a job at Cedars of Lawndale. Then, things get weird.”
“Okay, I like weird. Let’s hear it,” Jane said, digging into the pizza again.
“She lost her job at the hospital, and all the records about why are sealed. She was hired at the high school three months later. Records are usually sealed to protect the identities of victims, so I’m guessing she was doing something to the patients.”
“That’s not just weird, it’s also creepy.”
“And then she got hired at the school without a hitch, and no charges were ever filed against her or the hospital. That tells me that somebody covered for her, and then put her in a position to have all the test subjects she’d ever need.”
“Okay, I stand corrected,” Jane said. “Now it’s gotten creepy.”
“There’s just one other thing I’ve figured out,” Quinn said, and slumped down in her seat. “Manson was getting all her supplies from Ace Chemicals.”
“That’s great, we can go by there and do a little snooping and . . . why isn’t it great?”
“Charles’ dad is the plant director, plus he like . . . owns it or something. What if he’s directly involved? If I dig something up that sends him to jail, Charles is never going to forgive me,” Quinn said. “Or worse, what if Charles already knows? What if he’s been lying to me all this time?”
“Okay, whoa. I admit that I’m not exactly Chuck’s number one fan but even I can tell that he’s devoted to you.” Jane frowned. “Almost stalker-level devotion, but that’s not my point.”
“You’re not helping.”
“Sorry. I just don’t think he’d keep anything from you. Also, you’re not going to know if Chuck Junior is involved until you dig into it, and we both know that not knowing will drive you crazy.”
“So, let’s go expose some truth. We’ll decide what to do with it when we know what’s really going on.”
Quinn nodded. “I just have a feeling this isn’t going to end well.”
Amy stepped away from the ladder and walked across the cave to the information center. The center consisted of several monitors resting on or hanging above a banked console, the whole thing operated by a single keyboard resting in front of a large and comfortable-looking chair.
Stacy looked up from the chair with a small smile and waved at the older woman. Amy walked over and leaned against the console and crossed her arms, looking down at Stacy.
“Are you sure this is where you want to be? What you want to be doing?”
“Of course this isn’t where I want to be,” Stacy said with a small sigh. “I want to be at home with my parents and little sister, working my ass off to compete for a spot on the Olympic gymnastics team. This is where I am, and I’m . . . I’m okay with it.”
“Are you sure?”
Stacy turned and looked up at Amy, her jaw tightening. “The man that murdered my family is in Arkham, but the people who hired him are still out there. I want to see them stopped, and punished. This is the only way that’s going to happen.”
“I . . . .”
“I had a nervous breakdown a little over a year ago,” Stacy continued. “I always had self-esteem issues, self-image problems. According to my therapist, my mother had been undercutting me psychologically my whole life. The therapist wanted to file child abuse charges.”
“I’m sorry,” Amy said.
“Two days after the therapist discussed it with my father, he confronted my mother about it. They had a huge, raging argument and Mom stormed out of the house. She was back the next day, and my parents never argued again. A week later, I found out my therapist had been killed . . . she supposedly walked in on a man robbing her house.”
“Of course by that time the damage had been done, and somewhere in the back of my mind resentment against my mother hid and grew. I didn’t want to believe, when Daria . . . when Batgirl told me that my mother was a crime boss. I didn’t want to believe, but part of me wasn’t surprised. Part of me just said, ‘oh, well . . . that certainly explains everything doesn’t it?’ and then felt justified.”
“I miss my sister,” Amy said quietly. “Sisters, really. Helen, Daria and Quinn’s mother, was the middle sister. I haven’t spoken to Rita since the funeral, there was an argument, and . . . .” Amy shrugged.
“Does it get easier?”
“The pain never goes away, not completely, but you get used to it. It settles in and stops being so fresh. And then one of the girls will stand a certain way or say something in a certain tone of voice and it’s like Helen is there again for just a second. And for a second, I feel just as lonely and empty as the afternoon I was called out of class and told she was dead.”
“The two of you were close?”
“We couldn’t stand each other,” Amy said with a chuckle. “People used to refer to the three of us together as the Battling Barksdales.”
“Shelly and I were really close, she thought I was the coolest big sister ever,” Stacy said sadly. “That’s why I’m doing this.” Stacy reached out and tapped one of the monitors.
Amy leaned forward and examined the wire-frame schematics slowly rotating on the monitor. “Your suit?”
“My sister helped me design my costume for the gymnastics competition, and I’m going to give my armor the same look. I’ll have to darken the colors, of course: a flat crimson for the torso, and forest green for the limbs.”
“This is modeled on the Batgirl armor?”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m using as the starting point,” Stacy said. “I’m pulling out the armored inserts and the steel boning so I can maintain speed and flexibility. I’m also dropping the cloak in favor of that.” Stacy pointed at a box on a nearby table. The box was open and a length of dull yellow cloth was spilling over one side.
Amy pulled out a length of the cloth and ran it through her hands. “Feels like silk.”
“It’s actually an advanced poly . . . um, poly-thingy. I don’t know, Daria explained all of this to me before she left on patrol, I’m just working from the notes I took while she was talking.”
“What does it do?”
“It gets rigid when you run electricity through it,” Stacy said. “She was going to use it to make her cloak turn into a glider, but for some really complicated reason that involves molecules it only comes in yellow. She has people working on changing that, but for now it clashes with the rest of her outfit.”
“It clashes?” Amy asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Well, that’s not how she put it, but yeah it clashes. Anyway, I’m gonna use it to make like a flying squirrel; it’ll be awesome. I haven’t gone hang gliding since I was a kid, but I guess it’s like riding a bike.”
“Just don’t fall off the bike,” Amy said, quirking an eyebrow. “It might be a long way down.”
One of the panels behind Stacy lit up with a series of flashing red lights, accompanied by a low but insistent chiming. The brunette spun around in her chair and jabbed a button to bring up the communication system.
“Batgirl, we’re picking up an alert from the police network. Are you in trouble?” Stacy said.
“Trouble?” Batgirl asked, her voice backed by a thin hiss as it issued from the speakers. “No, no trouble.”
“She’s lying,” Amy said, pointing at a screen. The monitors for Batgirl’s vital signs were spiking, a sure sign of strenuous physical activity.
“But,” Stacy said.
“Quiet,” Amy snapped. “Get out of my chair.”
The Gotham east side got cold at night, when the sun went down and the wind started blowing off the Atlantic. More so on the rooftops, most of which are barren and open to the cutting knife of the wind. The moon was obscured behind the thin, scudding clouds, almost like it couldn’t stand to look down on Gotham.
Sometimes, I know exactly how it feels, Batgirl thought. She crouched on the edge of a rooftop, silently staring down at the city. She had been there for the last hour and a half, patiently waiting for something to happen.
“Fine, fine you win. You always were better at motionless patience than I was, I get bored too easily.”
Batgirl stood and turned, looking at the speaker. The other girl on the rooftop was a couple of inches taller and dressed head to foot in layers of black cloth and leather. When Batgirl stepped into the light, the other girl took a half step backwards before recovering herself.
“Talia,” Batgirl said.
“My father calls me that,” the girl said. She reached up and removed her leather faceguard so she could pout without an obstruction. “I was always Nat to you, Dee.”
“Dee isn’t here.”
“Yeah,” Talia said, shaking her head. “I’ve been getting the local newspaper, reading all about the terrible and menacing Batgirl. You certainly took Father’s lessons to heart, you’ve become a true shadow warrior.”
“Why are you here?”
“You know why I’m here. You left the Academy with no warning and without permission; Father sent me to bring you home.”
“Gotham is my home,” Batgirl said flatly. “Go back to your father, and tell him I won’t be returning.”
Talia’s face hardened. “How can you betray us like this? This is all about Quinn, isn’t it?”
“I wanted to come back when I heard about her injuries, but I decided to remain and finish my training instead. So, no, this has nothing to do with Quinn.”
“Then why? Why did you leave us, Dee?” Talia looked down at the gritty rooftop for a moment, and then back up at Batgirl. “Father misses you, you know he always thought you were his best student.”
“I left because I discovered the true purpose of the Academy,” Batgirl said. “I’ve devoted my life to stopping criminals, not committing mass murder.”
“Yes, you must protect the commoners that infest this world like parasites,” Talia said, her voice harsh with disdain. “These people are worse murderers than any graduate of the Academy, and they’re blind to the destruction they cause.”
“I’m afraid we have a different definition of murder,” Batgirl said. “Go home, Nat. Tell Ra’s al Ghul that I won’t be joining his League of Assassins.”
Silently, Talia buckled her faceguard back into place. She turned and took a few steps away and then stopped. “No, it’s not that easy,” she said, spinning in place and hurling a handful of small pellets at Batgirl.
Little explosions ripped across the rooftop as Batgirl jumped backwards to avoid the pellets. She performed a flip in midair and vanished, dropping past the edge of the roof and out of view.
Talia ran to the edge and looked over, just in time for Batgirl to swing herself back up onto the rooftop. She spun sideways under the force of the Dark Knight’s passing blow, catching her balance a bare inch before the twelve-story drop to the alley below.
“Are we really going to do this?” Batgirl asked.
“I hate you!” Talia screamed, charging across the roof towards her enemy.
Batgirl dropped into a leg sweep, which Talia jumped over to deliver a nasty kick to the face. The pair fought back and forth across the rooftop, trading kicks and punches but neither able to strike a conclusive blow. A few minutes into the fight, the air suddenly filled with the deep growling of a helicopter rotor.
The ‘copter swung around a neighboring building, playing its searchlights across the rooftop and illuminating Batgirl and Talia. It hovered for a moment, and then one of the doors slid open to reveal James Gordon.
“This is the police,” he said, his voice amplified through a bullhorn. “We have the building surrounded, throw down your weapons and surrender.”
“This isn’t over, Dee.” Talia turned and ran, leaping off the rooftop. She did a front flip in the air and then dove, crashing through an office window and into the next building over.
“Lieutenant,” the chopper pilot said. “Should we go after her?”
“Call it in,” Gordon said. “Maybe we can get some use out of Branden and his thugs for a change. Keep those lights on Batgirl.”
Batgirl sprinted for the roof edge opposite the one Talia had exited from, and her earbud crackled to life.
“Batgirl.” The voice was Stacy’s, made small and hollow by the tiny speaker. “We’re picking up an alert from the police network. Are you in trouble?”
Batgirl leapt from the rooftop, firing a cable at the next building as she went. The piton imbedded itself, and the sudden force of the line swinging her out and over the street made her shoulder weep. As she crossed over the street she saw a dozen or so police cars and several SWAT vans, their red and blue lights illuminating the gulf beneath her.
“Trouble? No, no trouble.”
The inertia from her leap and subsequent fall combined to whip her around the side of the second building and into the alley. She released the line and flipped out her cloak, using it as a parachute to slow her plummet towards the concrete below. She had barely touched down when her earbud came on again.
“According to chatter on the police band, you’re being tracked by Gordon’s task force,” Amy said. “They’ve sent SWAT after your accomplice, whoever that may be.”
“I wish them luck,” Batgirl muttered. She swung one leg over her bike, her hands on the controls bringing the machine to life. As she gunned the engine and roared for the street the helicopter came into view again, its searchlight stabbing down at her to reveal her location.
“They’re using a helicopter to track you,” Amy said.
“Good to know.” She made a tight turn onto the street and shot away, pushing the bike for all it had.
“There she goes,” Gordon shouted, pointing down at the bike and rider below. He tapped the pilot on the shoulder and said, “Don’t lose her, unless you want to be directing traffic around an elementary school.”
“Yes, sir.” The helicopter spun in place and then accelerated after the motorcycle. “Don’t worry, sir, there’s no street legal vehicle that can get away from us.”
“So,” Gordon said, watching the bike pull ahead. “I guess I can add speeding to the list of charges against the Batgirl.”
“That . . . that shouldn’t be possible,” the pilot said.
Below, Batgirl wove in and out of traffic in an attempt to lose the police cars pursuing her. When the sirens started to grow more distant, she pulled into a parking garage and allowed the bike to slow to a stop. She sat and waited, listening as the police cars howled past the garage, still searching for her. A moment later, she heard the helicopter pass over as it slowly circled the area.
“They lost you,” Amy said. “Gordon is pissed, by the way.”
“He has my sympathy.”
“Funny. So, who were you meeting with?”
“Just a friend from school,” Batgirl said. “Tell the new hire to come pick me up, I don’t want to give that helicopter another chance to notice me.”
“Tell her to take the Porsche, the keys are hanging on the peg next to the front door.”
Quinn hurried across the Pizza King and dropped into a booth to join Jane and Charles, who were already most of the way through a large pizza. She leaned over and kissed her boyfriend on the cheek, and then pulled off her cap and gloves.
“Sorry I’m late, I lost track of time while researching a story,” Quinn said, reaching for a slice of pizza.
“No problem,” Jane answered. “I’ve spent the time trying to pick up your boyfriend.”
The pizza slice stopped halfway to Quinn’s mouth.
“She’s kidding,” Charles said nervously.
“Yeah, I am. We’ve actually been talking about all the things you do that annoy us, but we’d never complain about to your face.” Jane’s smirk turned into a grin.
“That, I believe.” Quinn began eating.
“I just kept insisting you were perfect,” Charles said. “Jane kept ranting about you singing off-key in the shower.”
“I said nothing of the kind,” Jane said. “He’s trying to frame me, he’s the one who was talking about your shower time serenades.”
Quinn swallowed and frowned at her boyfriend. “How do you know I sing in the shower?” Her frown deepened. “And I do not sing off-key.”
“I . . . uh . . . .”
Jane cackled madly.
“Geez,” Quinn said, rolling her eyes. “You don’t have to spy on me in the shower, Charles. You can just come on in, and help me wash my back.”
Jane’s eyes widened, and her laughter immediately stopped.
“Really?” Charles said, his voice small and his face bright red.
“No.” Quinn continued eating, grabbing a second slice.
“Hey, leave some for the rest of us,” Jane said. “Did you skip lunch or something?”
“Yeah,” Quinn said with a shrug. “I was too busy . . . .”
“Working on a story,” Jane said, chiming in to say it simultaneously with the redhead.
“What have you been working on so hard?” Charles asked.
“It’s a . . . uh . . . story,” Quinn said. “It’s still speculative, I don’t want to say anything until I have some solid proof.”
“Okay,” Charles said. “If you need any help, feel free to ask. You know I’m good with computers.”
“I know, thanks.”
“So if you can’t talk about the story, what can we talk about?” Jane asked, quirking an eyebrow.
“Always amusing,” Charles said. “My dad had a conniption last night when he found out my uncle is going to have me on stage as his assistant next week.”
“Stage?” Jane asked.
“He’s a prestidigitator,” Quinn said. “Charles has been studying with him.”
“They let you do that in public? I mean, you’re still underage, Chuck.”
“It’s stage magic,” Charles said, shaking his head. “Performing live on stage with my uncle is my final test. I can do all the tricks, I just have to show I can do them in front of an audience.”
“Oo!” Jane said, grinning widely. “You mean like pulling a rabbit out of a hat and guessing what card somebody pulled?”
“Actually,” Quinn said.
“Yes, exactly like that,” Charles said. “Except not so tawdry.”
“Well, it sounds cool.”
“I’ll get you a ticket,” Charles said. “I have three I can give away, I figured I’d give two of them to you, anyway. You can bring a date.”
“A date, great.” Jane’s humor seemed to flatten a little. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Mack’s single now,” Quinn said.
“So I heard.” Jane shook her head. “Sometimes I wonder about Jodie’s sanity.”
“She’s a very busy girl,” Charles said with a shrug. “Frankly, nobody was surprised by this except Mack.”
“So, to steer the conversation somewhere less depressing,” Quinn said. “I think Amy has a secret boyfriend or something.”
“Oh?” Jane asked. “Do tell.”
“Well, I don’t have any hard evidence yet,” Quinn said, leaning across the table. “But there have been a few times that her car is home, but she’s not. And once, I heard her in the kitchen downstairs, and when I walked down she was gone.”
“Gone?” Charles asked.
“Yeah, like she’d slipped out the back door or something. I think she’s seeing some guy, and she doesn’t want to introduce him yet.”
“Or maybe she’s going to those swank parties with Daria,” Jane said.
“Please.” Quinn rolled her eyes. “Not even Daria is going to the swank parties with Daria.”
“Yeah, it was a big relief when I found out. The two of you are completely sworn to secrecy.”
“It won’t be a hard secret to keep,” Charles said. “Since you haven’t explained what you’re talking about.”
“Oh, sorry. You know all those wild, embarrassing parties that Daria keeps showing up at, and all the tabloid pictures, and stuff?” Quinn asked.
“It’s not her; Daria hired a body double to go out and pretend to be her. I met her last week, and the resemblance is pretty spooky.”
“Oh, that’s the girl with the bike,” Jane said. “I was wondering.”
“So, let me get this straight,” Jane said. “This girl gets paid to attend decadent Hollywood parties, get absolutely sloshed drunk, and hang out with the elite of the entertainment industry?”
“Yeah, sounds like a real headache,” Quinn said.
Charles and Jane stared at her silently for a moment.
“What?” Quinn asked. After another moment passed, she said, “No, really. Why are you two looking at me like that?”
“I love you, but sometimes I wonder about you,” Charles said.
“It’s the head injury,” Jane said, slowly shaking her head in mock sorrow. “She just hasn’t been the same since the concussion.”
“Oh, bite me.”
Jane smirked as Charles quietly leaned over.
“Ack! Get off, get off! Ack! That’s my ear, stop, it tickles! Ack! Jane, help!”
With a shark’s grin, Jane stood and moved over to the other side of the table.
“Augh! You’re all freaks!”
“Opinions?” Stacy asked.
She posed for her small audience, turning back and forth to let them see her outfit from all directions. Her lightly armored, dark green leggings fit into matching boots. Above that, she wore a dark crimson tunic; the tunic was more armored than the leggings, but not enough to limit her flexibility or speed. The dark yellow cloth was seamed along her arms from wrist to armpit and then down to her waist, leaving long folds of fabric to reach nearly to the floor.
“Aren’t you worried someone will recognize the design?” Amy asked.
“No.” Stacy sighed. “The only people who would recognize it on sight are dead now. In the unlikely event somebody does get a good look at me and remembers the competition I’ll just hobble around on my cane for them.”
“We’re going to have to do something about the hair,” Daria said. “Luckily, I’ve already got something ready for you.” She stood and walked to a nearby equipment locker, pulling out what appeared to be a long, black wig with a set of attached goggles.
“I always wondered how I’d look if I dyed my hair black,” Stacy said. “I mean, I wouldn’t do it, obviously. The goth look is a huge fashion faux pas . . . and that’s really not the point, is it?”
Daria slowly lowered her quirked eyebrow and approached her apprentice. As she began fitting on the wig, she said, “With a little practice you’ll be able to get in and out of this thing in just a few seconds. The goggle straps are built into the hairpiece, it may fit a little snugly but you don’t have to worry about it coming off.”
Stacy shook out her new hair and reached up to settle the goggles into place. “Hey, I can see in the dark!”
“The goggles are multifunctional, you control them by tapping different spots and they react to the chips built into the fingertips of your gloves,” Daria explained. “I’ll instruct you on that later. Also, the skull cap of the wig has ballistic fibers woven into it for added protection.”
“My hair is bulletproof?”
“No, it will not stop a shot to the head. What it will do is help turn a glancing blow and that might save your life.” Daria frowned. “The moral of the story is don’t get shot, especially not in the head. You aren’t as well armored as I’d like you to be.”
“I’ll be sure not to get in front of any guns.”
“I seem to remember a similar conversation,” Amy said. “A few months ago, when you were first designing the Batgirl suit.”
“You need a call sign,” Daria said, ignoring her aunt. “Something I can use over the radio, and call you in front of outsiders.”
“Red Robin,” Amy said. “Isn’t that what your costume was supposed to be, the first robin of spring?”
“We’ll go with Robin,” Daria said. “It’s shorter, faster to say.”
“Sweet,” Stacy said, grinning. “So, I guess I’m ready to go out and fight some crime, huh?”
“But, I’ve been working out and training,” Stacy pointed down at her torso. “And hey: armored suit, with night vision goggles and stuff.”
“Yes, your training has reached a new stage,” Daria said. “Now that you have body armor, I won’t have to hold back.”
“Hold back?” Stacy blinked. “You’ve been holding back?”
Daria slowly smiled.
Quinn leaned back in her chair and frowned at her computer screen. Through some creative research, she’d managed to turn up information on shipments to and from Ace Chemical over the last couple of years. The problem was that for the last few months the list of raw materials being shipped in and the list of finished products being shipped out didn’t quite jibe. The real problem, for Quinn at least, was the fact that the purchase orders for the extra, incongruent chemicals had all been placed by the plant director: Mr. Charles Ruttheimer, Jr.
“Maybe they’re working on something new, something still in development,” she muttered to herself. There was a light knocking at her door, and without looking she said, “I’m sorry, the door you’ve reached has been disconnected. If you feel you’ve reached the message in error, please come back later and knock again.”
“Um . . . okay,” Daria said from the hallway, sounding confused.
“Oh, come on in, Daria,” Quinn said. She reached up and turned off her computer monitor and then swiveled her chair to face the bedroom door.
“Hey, sis.” Daria walked in and glanced around briefly. “We’re about to go to dinner, you want to come along?”
“Sure, I need a break.” Quinn stood and stretched, causing her back to pop.
“What’s got you working so hard?”
Quinn frowned a moment, and then said, “Did you know that the state keeps records on all shipments of hazardous materials to or from locations inside state lines?”
“No, but I’m not surprised. There’s probably a fee or license or something they have to keep track of, I guess.”
“I’ve been looking through the database, there’s a scary lot of hazardous material being shipped around. That’s not including stuff that gets shipped through the state but doesn’t stop here, of course.”
“Doing another big story on the potential for an eco-nightmare?” Daria asked.
“No, I just did one of those as a favor to Elsie. You remember Elsie?”
“Yeah,” Daria said. “We’ve spoken once or twice, she occasionally calls to complain about less than green activities by one or another of the companies we own. Since she’s a friend of yours I speak to her personally, if I have time.”
“Sounds like her.”
“So, if this isn’t an ecology story then what is it?” Daria asked.
“Can you keep a secret?”
Daria smiled slightly and nodded. “Yeah, I think I can keep quiet about something.”
“I found out that Dr. Manson was getting her supplies from Ace Chemical.”
“Wow, they didn’t ask her what she was using all that stuff for?”
“It’s more than that,” Quinn said. “They don’t do retail, Daria. They only deal in huge shipments to other companies, and yet they still filled her orders twice a year.”
Daria frowned. “That is odd. Do you think they knew about her experiments?”
“I don’t know,” Quinn said. “I hope not, but that’s not the only problem. I’ve been looking through those hazmat records I mentioned earlier, and they’re bringing in stuff that doesn’t jibe with what goes into their products.”
“Is this a story?”
“Not yet.” Quinn sighed and looked at the floor with a miserable expression on her face. “Charles’ dad is the plant director, and owns almost all the stock. What if he’s in on it? I can’t decide between my boyfriend and my journalistic integrity.”
“Quinn, you’re fifteen,” Daria said gently. “You’re not supposed to have journalistic integrity.”
“I’ll be sixteen in a couple of months,” Quinn grumbled. “And that’s not the point. You’re smart Daria, tell me what I need to do.”
Daria quirked an eyebrow. “Quinn, I can’t remember where I’m going to lunch without two personal assistants, a secretary, and a PDA. You’re the smart one, I should be asking you for help.”
“It’s an act.”
“What’s an act?”
Quinn rolled her eyes. “Your whole ‘cute, dumb, and rich’ thing is an act. You drop it whenever something important comes up, or whenever you’re talking to Mr. Fox. If you want to use it as an excuse to blow off business meetings or the press that’s fine, but don’t pull it with me. Okay?”
“Maybe I just like relaxing and being irresponsible sometimes,” Daria said with a shrug. “I didn’t mean to upset you. So, you really want my advice?”
“My advice,” Stacy said, as she leaned against the doorframe, “is to drop whatever the problem is for now and come downstairs so we can go eat. Amy’s stomach is growling loud enough it frightened me.”
Quinn shot Stacy a guilty look, trying not to stare at the clunky metal brace covering her right leg or the cane she was impatiently tapping against it. “I’m sorry. You didn’t have to come up the stairs, Stacy. You could have just yelled.”
“It’s fine,” Stacy said gently. “Really, it’s fine. I’ll be back at school next week anyway, I better be ready for steps.”
“Besides,” Stacy said, turning away and clomping off down the hall. “I’m looking at the silver lining: I never have to see the inside of the locker room showers again.”
Chuckling quietly, Quinn followed her. Daria lingered a moment, frowning at the darkened monitor on the computer desk, and then followed.
Thirty minutes later, they, along with Amy, were seated at Chez Pierre and a pair of waiters was delivering their dinner to the table. After quickly and quietly laying out the plates and topping off the drinks, the two men withdrew.
“The service here is a lot better than I remember,” Quinn said.
“When did you eat at a fancy French restaurant?” Amy asked.
“Charles brought me here once, but the service was less than stellar.” Quinn shrugged. “The food wasn’t that great either, this is much better.”
“Glad you like it,” Daria said. “I bought the place a few weeks ago.”
“I left my surprised face at home,” Quinn said, rolling her eyes.
“These crescent rolls are so good,” Stacy said, happily munching on the bread.
“Croissants,” Quinn said.
“Sorry. These croissants are really good, you should try one. They’re buttery.”
“They’ll go straight to my buttery,” Amy grumbled. “I remember being young and having a high metabolism. I hate you all.”
“I brought in a couple of French chefs,” Daria said, smirking at the banter. “Real chefs, actually from France. The quality of the food improved immediately.”
“And the waiters?”
“Some retraining, some new hires,” Daria said. “I don’t know the details of all that, once I hired Jacques I left him in charge. I had Stacy phone in the reservation, so they probably don’t realize who we are.”
“I was clandestine,” Stacy said, reaching for another croissant.
“Quinn! Fancy seeing you here!”
Quinn looked up when her name was spoken, and nodded at the two girls approaching the table. She immediately recognized the speaker as Elsie Sloane, but Quinn didn’t know the attractive brunette that was with her. Both girls wore expensive-looking evening gowns that were a little too fancy for the restaurant.
“Elsie,” Quinn said. “Nice to see you, who’s your friend?”
“Natalia Head,” Elsie said. “My friend Quinn Morgendorffer, her sister Daria, and her aunt Amy Barksdale.”
“Nice to meet you,” Quinn said. “This is my friend Stacy.”
“We met,” Nat said. “We were at the gymnastics competition together, ghastly business. I read about your leg, I’m so sorry.”
Stacy shrugged and looked away.
“How did you two meet?” Daria asked. Quinn blinked and shot her sister a look, confused by the seriousness of her sister’s tone.
“We share a room at Grove Hills,” Nat said, smiling down at Daria. “You look familiar, have we met before?”
“I go to a lot of parties,” Daria said, her expression remaining serious. “We might have met, but I’m pretty sure I don’t know you.”
Natalia’s expression darkened a moment, and then she smiled brightly again. “Well, I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.” She turned to Quinn and her smile tightened a notch. “And it was very nice to finally meet you, Quinn.”
“Hey, Tom’s here,” Elsie said, pointing towards the door. “We have to go, I don’t want to miss any quality groveling. Good to see everyone, and I’ll call you later in the week, Quinn.”
“Uh, sure.” Quinn blinked in confusion for a moment as the two girls headed towards the restaurant’s front door, and then turned to Daria. “Did you just have a whole second conversation that I didn’t understand?”
“That girl was a little creepy,” Stacy muttered.
“I think I left a party with the guy she came with once,” Daria said. “She probably holds a grudge.”
“You don’t actually go to any parties,” Amy said. “You hired somebody to do that for you, remember?”
“I go to some parties,” Daria said defensively. “I’m just not going to fly to California so I can have drinks and chat with the people from the cover of the Enquirer.”
“I’m going to talk to Elsie about her,” Quinn said. “She doesn’t like you Daria, and for some reason she doesn’t like me, either.”
“We could get you a bodyguard,” Daria said, smiling brightly at her sister. “Maybe a big guy named Guido, he could follow you around all the time and keep the stalkers away.”
“I like that idea,” Amy said. “He could make sure Charles doesn’t get too carried away when you two are making out on the couch after you think I’ve gone to bed.”
“Hey!” Quinn blushed brightly.
“And then everybody laughed at me,” Quinn said. The redhead was lying sideways across Jane’s bed, her boots propped up on the wall and her hair brushing the floor. “Now you’re laughing at me, too.”
“I’m not,” Jane said, suppressing a snicker. She was working on a canvas, mostly to keep her back turned towards Quinn. The laughter she could hold back, the huge grin was a little more difficult.
“Why was she sneaking around spying on us, anyway? That’s a little freaky if you ask me, especially with this secret guy she’s spending time with.”
“Maybe she’s just worried about you.”
“I guess,” Quinn said.
“So tell me more about this girl that’s stalking your sister.”
“I don’t really know anything about her,” Quinn said with a frown. “Yet, anyway. You can believe that I fully intend to spend some quality time with the Grove Hills student records just as soon as I finish up my Ace Chemical research.”
“My friend, the hacker. I’m envious of your leetness,” Jane said.
“You should be. I do not forgive, and I do not forget.”
“Speaking of forgiving and forgetting, have you talked to Charles about his dad yet?”
“No, and I really don’t know what to say. The things I’ve uncovered can’t have happened without the knowledge of somebody in charge. If it wasn’t Mr. Ruttheimer then it was somebody directly beneath him.” Quinn sighed. “So he’s either a crook or dangerously unobservant, and either way it’s going to be bad if this comes out.”
“If? You’re thinking of not running the story?” Jane dropped her brush into a jar of turpentine and then sat on the edge of the bed next to Quinn. “Are you going to be okay with that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you should talk to Charles.”
“Maybe.” Quinn stared moodily at the opposite wall.
“Okay, come on.” Jane stood and reached out to grab Quinn’s hand, pulling her upright. “I haven’t seen you this broody since the car wreck, let’s go.”
“Where are we going?” Quinn asked, struggling to her feet.
“Trent’s band is playing tonight. They’re horrible, and the pub they play in is horrible, and it’s exactly what you need to cheer yourself up.”
“Well, it’s been a while since I got a good mocking in,” Quinn said, smirking. “How’s the food at this place?”
“Great, let’s go.”
The rough surface of the rooftop crunched as Robin settled herself down to peer over the low safety wall at the edge. She tapped the side of her goggles the way she’d been shown to activate the zoom function, and then carefully scanned the shipping yard across the street. The stench of the industrial park was stupendous, but she wasn’t going to let that dim her high spirits.
“I have an assignment for you,” her mentor had said. “This is reconnaissance only, you are not ready to make contact with the enemy. If you are discovered, you’re fired. If you deviate from your instructions, you’re fired.”
Daria didn’t think she was ready for field work yet, but every bird has to leave the nest eventually. So while Batgirl followed up on leads downtown, Robin found herself perched over Ace Chemical.
“If they’re smuggling the chemicals out of the plant,” Daria had said, “they’ll be doing it at night in small trucks or unmarked vans. We need to know where those chemicals are going, if they’re leaving the plant.”
“If?” Stacy had asked.
“They might be stockpiling, and that’s probably worse.”
Now she sat and watched, waiting to see if there were any secret shipments being sent out in the dead of night. If she spotted anything suspicious, she was to report it immediately and then follow the pick up vehicle. If nothing happened, then she was to sit on the roof until just before dawn and then come home.
“Bored already,” she muttered.
“You’re the one that was in a hurry to get out into the field,” Amy said, speaking over the comlink. “You realize I could just surveil the place via satellite, right?”
“Eep! Sorry, I forgot this thing was voice activated.”
“It’s okay. You can switch over to a push control by pressing the button on your goggle strap behind your left ear,” Amy said. “I don’t recommend it, you never know when you’re going to need to talk to me while you use your hands for something.”
“Yeah, okay.” Robin looked thoughtful a moment and then said, “It must be pretty cool, to sit in front of those computers and have all that information and satellite images and stuff right there at your finger tips.”
“I spend too much time on wikipedia,” Amy said. “I know more about my favorite soap operas than I’m comfortable admitting.”
Robin snickered. “It’s like talking to an oracle
or something. If I have questions, you’ll have answers.”
“Oracle, hmm? I like that,” Amy said. “You guys got code names, and I was feeling left out. From now on, I’m Oracle.”
“Cool.” Robin sighed. “Okay, I’m gonna settle down and keep an eye out for bad guys.”
“Alright, I’ll be here if you need me.”
Stacy knelt on the roof, leaning against the low safety wall, and tried not to brood. She’d always been upbeat and cheerful, if slightly neurotic, but ever since the gymnastics competition maintaining a good mood was always an uphill battle.
Over and over, her thoughts drifted back to that day. She could see her parents and her sister, framed for a split second by falling debris before being crushed by hundreds of pounds of concrete. The caskets at the funeral had been empty; the bodies weren’t recovered until weeks after the bombing.
Stacy was bedridden and missed the funeral, but she was up in time for the actual burials. She remembered trying to open her sister’s coffin, and finding it bolted shut. She had raged and screamed at the funeral director, a pudgy man who had taken everything she said in stride. After she was done he had patted her on the shoulder and said, “It’s for the best, you know. You don’t want to see what’s in the box, it isn’t your sister anyway.”
After that, the day was a blur. She remembered that she eventually ended up back in the cave, and had worked herself to exhaustion on the exercise machines. She never could get the image out of her mind, though. The perfect mental snapshot of her family, the last second she ever saw them.
Robin was snapped out of her gloomy reverie by a metallic thump behind her. She turned and stood, immediately seeing the man perched nearby on top of an air conditioning unit. He wore black leather from his boots to his mask, and he gave the startled girl a slight smile.
“The rooftops are getting awfully crowded these days,” he said. “There’s me and you, and Batgirl, and the other day I saw a ninja fighting a group of policemen.”
Robin reached up with her left hand and pressed a spot behind her ear. “A ninja?”
“Yeah, you see some crazy stuff up here. I mean, who dresses up like a ninja and runs around on rooftops?”
Robin blinked, and glanced over the man’s apparel before glancing down at her own. “Ninja is passé,” she said, smirking slightly. “Retro, even.”
“Nice, you have a sense of humor. That makes about half of us up here.” The man dropped off the air conditioner unit to the rooftop and took a couple of cautious steps forward. “You haven’t tried to hit me yet, so how about we keep talking?”
Robin nodded. “Why are you here?”
“Same reason you are, I bet. Ace Chemical has connections to organized crime, and I want more information about it. Is that why you’re here?”
“Yeah,” Robin said. She glanced back over at the plant’s shipping yard and then back at the man in leather. “I’m watching for people smuggling chemicals out of the plant, in the deep dark dead of night.”
“Very noir,” he said with a smirk. “Well, since we’re both here for the same thing there’s no reason we shouldn’t keep each other company. No real point in using up two rooftops when we can share this one, right?”
“I suppose,” Robin said, wondering what the man looked like under the mask. The part of his face she could see was handsome enough, and he had a pleasant voice.
He stepped past her and crouched down, quickly scanning the yard across the street with a pair of binoculars. Robin knelt down next to him and checked the area herself for anything suspicious.
“So, I noticed that your outfit looks a lot like Batgirl’s,” he said casually. “You work with her?”
“Yeah.” She turned and held out one hand. “I’m Red Robin, but you can call me Robin.”
He took her hand and shook, his grip strong and polite. “Tomcat.”
“So, you’re a crime fighter?”
“In a manner of speaking,” he said. “Let’s just say I’ve got a pressing need to have a personal, face-to-face conversation with Lex Griffin.”
“Oh. What did he do to you?”
“Maybe we can talk about that later,” Tomcat said. “It’s personal, and I don’t want to give up all the mystery on the first date.”
“Date?” Robin asked, her voice cracking slightly.
“Robin, are you okay?” Oracle asked. “Your heart rate just spiked and your skin temperature jumped a couple of degrees.”
She reached up and tapped the comlink button. “I’m good, I just . . . ah . . . I just saw a cat, that’s all.” She tapped the button again and glared at her companion. “Quit smirking or I might change my mind about trying to hit you.”
“Okay,” Oracle said. “Try not to get jumpy up there, I’m going back to click-clicking my life away on wikipedia.”
“If nothing happens tonight, tomorrow I’ll bring Chinese,” Tomcat said. “Is that okay with you?”
“I like lo mein,” Robin said, turning away and smiling into the night. “I’ll bring some soda.”
Quinn shuffled along, hunched over against the winter wind that made the trees sway and groan. When she reached the school building, she shifted her bag into her left hand and knocked loudly on the front door. After a few seconds spent shivering in the cold, the door swung open and she hurried inside.
“Good evening, Miss Morgendorffer.”
“Hi,” Quinn said, pulling her scarf down so she could speak freely. “Thanks for letting us in, Mr. D.”
“My pleasure,” the teacher said, his right eye twitching slightly. “You don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve seen young people willing to put any effort into anything other than sports and fornication.”
“Uh . . . right.” Quinn started edging away down the hall, afraid to make any fast movements around the notoriously twitchy man.
“Speaking of which,” Mr. DeMartino continued, “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about Ms. Li’s edict regarding the Lowdown.”
“I happened to be flipping through a copy of the Student Handbook I found in the teacher’s lounge, and it seems that a student is exempt from punishment if they have permission from a senior faculty member to do something that is normally against the rules.”
“That’s interesting,” Quinn said. “I’m not sure how it applies, though. She’s not going to give us permission to run a story that might make the school look bad.”
“Department heads are also senior faculty members,” DeMartino said, baring his teeth in a feral grin. “So if you got permission from someone like, say, the head of the social studies department . . . .”
“Couldn’t you get fired for that?”
“Tenure, Miss Morgendorffer.” DeMartino gave a rusty chuckle. “I have the teacher’s union behind me, she’ll have to step very carefully.”
Quinn nodded. “Let’s keep that in our back pocket for right now, okay? I don’t want you risking your career over this.”
“Might be worth it to get free from this purgatory.” DeMartino chuckled again. “Let me know if you need me to cover you on anything, Miss Morgendorffer.”
DeMartino chuckled quietly to himself as the redhead hurried away down the hall. Once she was out of sight he sat down and pulled out a magazine, waiting for any other newspaper kids that might be showing up.
Meanwhile, Quinn found herself standing outside the door to the computer lab racking her brain to find a way out of her dilemma. After several agonizing seconds she sighed loudly, squared her shoulders, and walked into the room.
“Charles?” Quinn looked around a moment and then put her bag down on a table near the door.
“Haven’t seen him,” Jodie said. “Isn’t he doing some kind of show or something tonight?”
“He’s supposed to pick me up here,” Quinn said. “I needed to talk to him before the show.”
“What’s up?” Jodie swung her chair away from the computer she was working at and saw the look on Quinn’s face. “Uh-oh, you don’t look happy.”
“I finished the research on a story,” Quinn said “I need to talk to Charles before I give it to you, though.”
“Is it a sad story? You look really upset, Quinn.”
“It might be sad, I don’t know how it’s gonna end yet.”
“Right.” Jodie blinked a couple of times. “Do you want to explain that to me again, and this time be less vague?”
“Just as soon as I talk to Charles,” Quinn said.
“So, talk.” Charles pushed the door closed as he walked into the room. His outfit was reminiscent of his ‘dressed up’ clothes before he started dating Quinn: a long-tailed tuxedo made of crushed velvet and colored tomato red. The white gloves, orange vest, and brightly shined spats did not add anything positive to the view.
“I can’t be in the same room as that outfit,” Jodie said. “No offense.”
“Draws the eye, eh?” Charles asked, stepping aside and opening the door for her. “Helps things like this evade your notice.” With a quick, smooth motion he reached out and drew a foot-long knife from behind Jodie’s ear.
Jodie’s eyes got huge as she reached up and patted her ear and the side of her head.
“How ever did you get this through the metal detector?” Charles asked, giving the girl a small smile. “Ah, well. Easy come, easy go.” With that, he slammed his hands together and drove the blade into the palm of his left hand.
“Chuck!” Quinn shrieked, leaping forward to grab his hands. She pulled them apart and the knife was gone, he was unwounded, and his lily-white gloves were still fresh and clean.
“It’s an illusion, sweetheart.” He smiled again. “Apparently a very convincing one, sorry I startled you.”
“I’m going to leave you two to talk,” Jodie said before hurrying out the door.
“Talk?” Charles said, frowning slightly. “We’re a little pressed for time, and you haven’t even changed yet.”
“I can change fast,” Quinn said, reaching over and unzipping her bag. “I need to talk to you about the story I’ve been working on.”
“Oh, you finished your research?”
“Yeah, I finished it.” Quinn pulled a manila envelope out of her bag and looked at it sadly. “Then I double checked it, and then I had Jane look over my shoulder while I triple checked it.”
“This sounds really serious, what is it?”
Quinn handed him the envelope and then turned away, folding her arms over her chest. Charles opened the envelope and pulled out the sheaf of papers inside. He began reading through them, slowly at first and then faster, finally just skimming the pages. After a couple of minutes he tossed everything onto the table and turned towards the door.
“I’m going to go talk to him,” Charles said quietly. “I want hear him admit it with my own ears.”
“You believe me?” Quinn asked weakly.
“Of course I believe you. You don’t make mistakes when you do research, Quinn. I know you wouldn’t make this up, either.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Charles half turned and put one hand on her shoulder. “He’s working for criminals, or worse. He provided the chemicals that Dr. Manson was using to experiment on us.”
“We don’t know for sure that your father is directly involved.”
“Nothing happens in that plant without his knowledge,” Charles said, shaking his head. “He controls everything with an iron fist. Why do you think I was so interested in studying with my uncle? It’s something my dad can’t threaten to take away from me.”
“Let’s just call the police and let them handle it,” Quinn said. “We’ll go to the show, and Jodie can get the story ready to run.”
“No. I almost lost you, because of Manson and her Scarecrow nonsense.” Charles frowned and Quinn realized that she’d never seen her boyfriend look angry before now. “Go ahead and call the cops. I’m going to talk to my father and then they can have him.”
Charles walked to the door, opened it, and left the room. Quinn stood next to the table staring down at the pile of print-outs for almost a minute.
“Ah, hell,” she muttered before running out the door.
The room remained quiet and empty for another couple of minutes, and then Jodie walked back in. She glanced around, noticing that the others had gone and that Quinn’s things were still on the table near the door. She started leafing through the papers curiously, and the more she read the deeper her frown became.
“I better show this to Mr. DeMartino,” she said to herself. Scooping up the papers, she went in search of the history teacher.
“Well, you don’t see that everyday,” Tomcat said, lowering his binoculars. Robin put down her takeout box of curry and pulled herself up so she could see over the safety wall at the roof’s edge. The bright pink Cadillac pulling into the mostly empty parking lot next to Ace Chemical stood out like a sore thumb.
“It looks like a pimp car,” she said. She reached up and tapped her goggles, zooming in on the car as the driver got out and started walking towards the building. “He’s the plant director’s son.”
“Hmm. Do you think we should check it out?”
“I don’t know.” Robin frowned. “He could just be stopping by to see his dad.” Of course, I know for a fact he isn’t: he’s supposed to be pulling rabbits out of a hat right about now. I bet Quinn dropped her bomb on him and he’s here to confront Charles Jr. about what’s been going on.
“Maybe you should tell your boss about it,” Tomcat said, smirking slightly.
“She’s not my boss,” Robin said. “You’re probably right, though.” She reached back and tapped the button to turn on her microphone. “We have activity at the location.”
“What’s going on?” Oracle asked.
“The director’s son just showed up,” Robin said. “He’s alone.”
“Maintain surveillance,” Oracle said. “Let me know if the situation changes.”
“I will,” Robin said, reaching up to turn off the mike again. Her hand froze halfway, and she said, “There’s a taxi pulling in next to the son’s car, passenger is a girl with short red hair.”
“She’s wearing a coat with a hood,” Tomcat muttered, raising his binoculars and trying to get a clear look at the girl. “I’ve got to get better equipment.”
“I’m on my way,” Batgirl said, cutting in on the channel.
“So are the police,” Oracle said. “The call just went out from the dispatcher, they’re sending in a SWAT team.”
“Robin, maintain surveillance,” Batgirl said. “Apprise of any further changes.”
“We’ll talk about your boyfriend later.”
“Boyfriend?” Oracle asked. “What boyfriend?”
Tomcat glanced over, immediately noticing Robin’s stricken expression. “Busted,” he said, smirking again.
Quinn stepped through the door into the reception room of the chemical plant and quickly glanced around. The room was small, poorly lit, and filled with a powerful and pervasive antiseptic smell. She could see through the small window into the office where the receptionist or security guard would usually be, but the room was unoccupied. The door leading deeper into the plant was standing partially open, and that was all the invitation Quinn needed.
She slipped into the hallway beyond the door and began hurrying along as quietly as she could. She’d passed several closed offices when the large, metal door at the end of the hallway swung open. Quinn saw the irritable-looking security guard and immediately opened one of the office doors and stepped inside, pushing the door shut as she passed. She leaned against the door, holding her breath and pressing one ear to the door.
“Damn snot-nosed little bastard,” the guard said as he walked past. “If it hadn’t been for that trick flower I’d have caught him, damn near knocked my contacts out with that spray.”
Quinn smirked as the guard’s voice moved further down the hallway. She heard the thunk of the entry door being slammed shut, and stepped back out into the hallway. Wasting no time, she hurried to the door at the end of the hall and pushed it open just enough to peer through the crack.
Beyond the door was the open floor of the chemical plant; a vast open space filled with vats and cauldrons ranging from small to gargantuan, huge pieces of machinery with unknown functions, long winding conveyor belts, and several levels of steel catwalks. The odor was sharp and acrid, making Quinn’s eyes burn slightly.
“If I were a director’s office, where would I be?” Quinn muttered, looking around. After a moment she spotted what looked like a small structure built right into the catwalks, near the ceiling. She couldn’t see through the windows from the plant floor, but there were lights on up there so she decided to check it out.
She hurried up the stairs, thankful that the rattling of the machinery drowned out the noise of her boots on the metal. She neared the door to the office and clearly heard her boyfriend, his voice was raised and angry but she couldn’t make out what he was saying. Quinn tiptoed up the last staircase, partially hunched over to avoid being seen through the windows.
She turned and put her back against the office wall, crouched down under the window next to the door. She heard Charles inside, arguing with an older man whom she presumed was his father.
“Charles, you just don’t understand,” his father said. “This company has been in our family four generations, and I wasn’t about to lose everything just because the Gotham economy dropped into the toilet.”
“So this is about the money,” Charles said.
“It’s not that simple. There are men and women here who have worked for Ace Chemical their entire lives, and they deserve a retirement and a pension. Was I supposed to just let them go?”
“They’d have probably preferred that to working for the mafia.”
“The mafia,” Charles Ruttheimer Jr. said, pausing to chuckle quietly. “You watch too many movies, Charles. I suppose you think I went to see some Italian man, kissed his ring and asked him for a favor?”
“Well . . . .”
“I went to an accountant, one of the best in the city. I wanted advice on how to keep our business up and running, and it just so happened he had some for me.”
“Tom Griffin,” Charles said. “There were rumors that he had connections to organized crime. It got him killed, Dad.”
“I’m not going to get killed, Charles. I fill my customers’ orders and I don’t ask questions, that’s how you have to deal with these people.”
“Dad, you supplied chemicals to Dr. Manson. She used them on people at my school, she nearly killed my history teacher.” Charles paused a moment, and in a lower voice said, “She nearly killed Quinn.”
“That Scarecrow woman?” Charles Jr. sounded shocked. “I guess I should have guessed, I just didn’t want to know. Well, it doesn’t matter anymore. She’s locked up in Arkham and we’re on the brink of something huge here, something revolutionary. When the lab guys make their breakthrough, I’m not going to need to work with criminals any more.”
“We were given a partial set of research notes, some real groundbreaking work. It’s a gas that directly stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, and we’re this close to getting it ready for FDA trials. Just think, son: Ace Chemical will be able to manufacture happiness in a bottle.”
“My God,” Charles said, his voice full of horror.
“We’ll be rich, and we’ll move away from this stinking pit of a city and never have to want for anything ever again. How does Metropolis sound, or maybe Central City?”
“Dad, they’re going to want to sell that stuff on the street. Do you realize how addictive it must be?”
“The lab guys assure me that it has no properties that cause physical addiction.”
Having heard enough, Quinn stood and grabbed the doorknob. Just as she swung the door open, a voice boomed from a megaphone outside.
“This is Captain Branden, of the Gotham City Police Department,” the voice said. “Come out with your hands up, you have thirty seconds.”
“What the hell?” Charles Jr. said, looking in shock from Quinn to the window looking out on the parking lot. A second later the sound of glass breaking could be heard as dozens of tear gas canisters crashed into the plant.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Quinn said. “That guy is a psycho.”
“You brought him here,” Charles Jr. said angrily. He moved forward and raised his fist before his son grabbed his arm.
“If you raise your hand to her again,” Charles said. Before he could finish the threat the building shook from a series of explosions on the plant floor below.
“The CS gas is reacting with the chemicals,” Quinn said as she clung to the door frame. “Run away now, argue later, okay?”
“Let’s go,” Charles said. He took Quinn’s elbow and the two of them hurried down the metal stairs to the catwalk below. Charles’ father followed right behind them, occasionally cursing under his breath.
They were about halfway to the next set of stairs when the building shook again, this time from a massive fireball centered on the main exit. All three of them were thrown from their feet and the catwalk groaned as several anchor bolts shot free.
“The idiots tried to blow the door of a chemical plant?” Charles Jr. asked. He had gotten a nasty cut on his forehead, and reached up with one hand to wipe the blood out of his eyes.
“It wasn’t even locked,” Quinn groaned, her voice coming from underneath Charles. “Honey, I appreciate the chivalry and all, but get off me.”
“Sorry,” Charles said. He grabbed the railing and pulled himself to his feet. “I was hoping for some near death experience, if you know what I mean.”
“Men,” Quinn muttered, rolling her eyes. She grabbed Charles’ hand and he helped her stand.
“We can’t go out the front,” Charles’ father said, also standing. “But there are plenty of fire exits, so we’re still okay.”
Abruptly, the catwalk sagged and twisted as several more bolts shot free. Charles cried out in pain as one of them, bullet-like, cut a deep slash across his right cheek near the corner of his mouth. Quinn screamed as she lost her footing again and slid under the railing, barely catching hold before plummeting to the floor below.
Charles dropped to his knees and grabbed Quinn’s arms, trying to pull her back onto the walkway. She looked up at him and watched the blood run down his jaw line and drip on her hands, and realized it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen. She started giggling and swinging her feet back and forth through the open air.
“This isn’t funny,” Charles grumbled. “Dad, help me.”
“It’s the new formula,” Charles Jr. said, staring down at the vats on the floor directly beneath them. Several medium-sized containers were filled with clear liquid that was beginning to boil in the heat of the fires below, and giving off fumes in the form of a light green vapor. “It’s not supposed to be in production yet. The men in the lab have been lying to me.”
“Dad, help me!” The seriousness of Charles’ tone tapered off into a pained chuckle.
“If she falls, there’s no one to say that I committed any crimes.”
“You fucking bastard,” Charles said, suppressing another laugh. “I will kill you myself if you let her die.”
Quinn, meanwhile, was only halfway following the argument above her. She was mostly interesting in swinging her feet and causing the catwalk to sway back and forth like an amusement park ride. So, when Charles Jr. grabbed his son’s shoulders and pulled him away she didn’t notice that she slid several inches closer to falling. When Charles elbowed his father in the stomach, causing him to stagger and lose his balance, the sway of the catwalk was sufficient to flip the older man over the guardrail.
“Bye!” Quinn shouted, watching the man fall and break against the concrete floor below. She giggled at the pretty colors and waved cheerfully, sliding the rest of the way off the catwalk. Charles fell flat, desperately grabbing her arm at the last second.
“Quinn, you’ve got to climb back up here,” he said. “We have to get away from these fumes.” Charles didn’t notice that the burning pain from his face wound was gone, but he did notice the nearly overpowering feeling of warmth and joy that was stealing over him.
“If I climb up, can I have a kiss?”
“Yes, you can have a kiss.”
“Okay.” Quinn started trying to pull herself up, causing the walkway to sway even more sickeningly. With a pair of loud cracks, two more bolts shot free and the whole walkway dropped about ten feet and stopped abruptly when one end got caught on a lower piece of catwalk.
Charles felt his shoulder come out of joint, and found that the twisting sensation tickled a bit. His hand spasmed and Quinn slipped free, seeming to fall in slow motion towards the floor and burning equipment below. She was almost to the ground when a dark form shot past, swinging from a line anchored in the ceiling.
Batgirl caught the falling redhead and let go of her swing line. In the scant seconds before impact she turned in midair, striking the floor first and soaking up most of the impact. The two girls skidded across the concrete and into a bank of smoldering control panels.
“That was fun! Can we do it again?” Quinn said, and promptly lost consciousness.
Batgirl struggled to her feet and lifted Quinn into a fireman’s carry. She looked up and saw Charles lying on the broken catwalk, his arms still hanging out over the edge.
“Get Ruttheimer,” she said, and started walking towards a nearby fire door.
Charles felt a thump next to him and rolled over on his back, blearily looking up at the figure standing over him. He was pretty sure it was a girl, wearing green and red with loose flaps of yellow cloth hanging from her arms.
“Yeah, she’s safe,” Robin said. “Let’s get you safe, now.” Just as she reached for the grapple gun at her waist the last bolts holding up the catwalk gave way. The metal walkway spun crazily, still hooked on the lower catwalk, and flung Charles into the air like a catapult.
Robin did a neat back flip to get clear of the wildly swinging steel and clenched her fists. A pair of titanium rods shot out of the undersides of her gloves, pulling the yellow cloth of her glide wings taut just as the battery packs shot a charge through them and made them lock into place.
She turned in the air, skating from side to side on the hot updraft from the fire below as she looked for Charles. She spotted him just as he landed in a big metal vat of clear liquid. He seemed to struggle for a moment, and then slipped under the surface.
“I lost him,” she said, nearly in a panic. “He fell into one of the chemical vats.”
“Fear is the mind killer,” Batgirl said flatly. “I gave you instructions, carry them out.”
“Move quickly,” Oracle added. “The cops called for backup, and the backup called for backup. Then, the backup’s backup called for the National Guard.”
Robin tucked her wings and dropped towards the floor, pulling up a yard short and lightly landing on her feet. Unclenching her fists caused the rods to retract and a second jolt of electricity made the cloth go limp again. She stepped up to the vat she’d seen Charles fall into and reached into one of the small pouches hanging from her belt.
She pressed the small wad of grey clay to the side of the vat and then stuck the detonator into it. The three seconds she’d programmed into it gave her time to duck around the side of the container before the explosion. The chemical flowed out in a rush, carrying the body of Charles Ruttheimer III with it. Grimly, Robin pulled him up and into a fireman’s carry and staggered towards the door.
She had barely made it outside when Batgirl stepped forward and took him from her. The shorter girl easily tossed him over her shoulder and hurried into the parking lot.
“More weightlifting,” Robin muttered under her breath, hurrying along behind her mentor.
Batgirl jogged up to an ambulance parked nearby and swung Charles onto a gurney. Robin could see that Quinn was already inside, the paramedics hooking her up to an IV and respirator.
“He was dunked in an unknown chemical compound,” Batgirl said harshly. The paramedic standing outside the ambulance nodded mutely, obviously in shock. “It’s in his lungs, you’ll need to clear his airways and administer CPR.”
The man shook himself and nodded, moving to work on Charles.
“Look how pale he is,” Robin said quietly. “His skin is almost chalk white.”
“They’ll do what they can,” Batgirl said. “Let’s go before we have to deal with the police.”
A few minutes later, two of those policemen walked over to investigate why the ambulance hadn’t already left for the hospital.
“I don’t like it, sir,” the uniformed officer said. “Ambulance all the way up from Cedars of Lawndale, and it’s just sitting here. Was here before I got here, too.”
“We’ll check it out, Merkel,” Gordon said, pulling out a cigar. He clamped the cigar between his teeth and pulled out a box of matches. The desire for a smoke was forgotten when he saw what was in the back of the ambulance.
“Sweet Mother Mary,” Merkel whispered, taking a step back and crossing himself.
Quinn Morgendorffer was resting quietly on her gurney, the light hiss of her respirator declaring that she still drew breath. She was the only person in the vehicle that did, as two of the paramedics lay on the floor in a spreading pool of blood. The third was half leaning against the wall, his face contorted in a horrific rictus grin.
“The straps on the second gurney are broken,” Gordon said quietly. “We need to find out who else was in this ambulance, Merkel.”
“Get some crime scene men over here, and one of the other ambulances to take Miss Morgendorffer to Gotham General.”
The uniformed officer hurried away, and James Gordon turned towards the raging inferno that used to be Ace Chemical. With a grimace, he lit a match and held it up to his cigar.
A couple of hours later, and across town, a middle-aged and slightly overweight man named Patrick screamed himself awake.
“That sharp, stabbing pain you’re feeling in your arm was caused by a sharp, stabbing implement. In case you were wondering.”
Patrick blinked in the darkness of his bedroom but couldn’t see anything. The voice had been calm, amused, and slightly slurred. He shifted his weight and started to sit up.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Pat.” The voice chuckled quietly. “No telling what part of you that knife is hovering over, don’t want to accidentally stick yourself, do you?”
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“Excellent questions, but then you always had a first-rate mind. Let’s take them in reverse order, shall we? You work at Ace Chemical, you’re the guy in charge of the lab.”
“However, I believe you’ve been serving two masters. I believe you also work for the criminals infesting Gotham city like maggots on a corpse. You have been working on something for them, a chemical . . . a drug.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Patrick said, the denial suddenly changing into a squeal of pain as the knife pierced his gut.
“That drug has caused a great many problems,” the voice said. There was another chuckle, tapering off into a giggle. “You don’t have to worry about moonlighting anymore, Patty. You could say you’ve been fired.”
“Ace Chemical is no longer a going concern, it’s up in smoke. An ex-production plant, it has sloughed off the mortal coil and now rests with the choir invisible.”
“Chuck? Is that you?”
The bedroom lamp clicked on, blinding Patrick for a few seconds. When his eyes cleared he shrank back from the specter looming over him. The thing looked like his boss’ son, but its skin was dead white and where Chuck’s hair had been red this parody had an unkempt mop of green hair. An ugly wound on the right side of his face caused his mouth to twist upwards in a perpetual smirk. He wore a velvet suit that, while it had a few spots that were bright red, was mostly a vivid purple.
“Chuck got chucked in the chuckle juice,” he said. “This, once again, brings us around to why I’m here. The formula, Patty. Where is it, and who has it?”
“Only me, if you kill me you’ll never get it.”
“Right. So, let me guess: copies at the lab, obviously, since that’s where you were working on refining it. No copies for the lab flunkies, because your other bosses ordered you to keep the whole thing under wraps.”
“Yeah, yeah that’s it,” Patrick said. “Look, call me an ambulance and I won’t tell anybody it was you. I swear to God.”
“There’s a problem. See, the lab was part of a building that is currently so hot that the concrete is on fire. All your notes are slag, Patty.”
“Then it’s gone, nobody else had what we had. We’ll have to start over from scratch, get another copy of the original research.”
“Well, I guess that means you’re not useful to me after all.”
Patrick’s eyes got huge, and his final scream was lost in a gurgle of blood as the knife slashed his throat. Then the blade was carefully wiped on a bed sheet, and the young man flipped it around in his hand. Grinning, he slammed his hands together making the knife disappear like magic.
“Joke’s on you, fat boy.” He turned and headed towards the bedroom door, still talking to the corpse. “I cracked the password on your laptop and got the formula before I even woke you up.” He laughed again. “I’m a funny guy, Patty. A regular Joker.”
He hummed a cheerful tune to himself as he left the apartment, not hurrying but not wasting any time, either. He had three lab assistants to visit before dawn.
Author: the NightGoblyn
Disclaimers: Stereo Hifi font is ©1997 by Cathy Davies. This story based on characters and situations created by Glenn Eichler and Susie Lewis. The Daria TV show is a trademark of MTV Networks, a division of Viacom International Inc. and is referenced here without permission, and without profit.
Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, © currently under dispute, but mostly held by DC Comics. Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger, © DC Comics. Gotham City, Officer Montoya, James Gordan, Krypton, Scarecrow, Robin the Boy Wonder, Oracle, Firefly, the Joker, and other DC references also © DC Comics and are used without permission, and without profit.
Original characters and situations created by the author are under (K) – all rights reversed. Hail Eris.