Lawndales Finest

 

Action Stories

 

 

Issue Three: Two Knights Defense

 

           Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is also true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.

 - John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)

 

 

           The hallways of Lawndale High were filled with students milling around, talking with friends, and unloading books into lockers. The traffic was mostly headed in a single direction, and carried Jane and Quinn along with it.

            “What are we being dragged into the auditorium to listen to this time?” Jane grumbled.

            “Heck if I know,” Quinn answered with a shrug. “I still have flashbacks to the riot that broke out after our self-esteem speeches.”

            Jane snickered. “I still think the funniest part of that was watching Mr. O’Neill get trampled by Stacy.”

            “Yeah.” Quinn sighed. “Of course, that’ll never happen again.”

            “You need to quit being so gloomy about it,” Jane said. “It’s not like you dropped a huge block of concrete on her leg personally. You weren’t even in the building when it happened.”

            “I know, it’s just . . . .” Quinn sighed again. “You don’t have to watch her limping around on a cane with that giant metal brace wrapped around her leg. And she’s still so damn cheerful all the time.”

            “She’s probably glad it wasn’t her head that got crushed.”

            “I guess.”

            The pair turned and, along with the crowd, filed into the auditorium to take their seats. The stage was mostly empty, aside from the ever-present podium. Off to one side, Ms. Li could be seen talking to a man and woman dressed in severe black suits and matching mirrored shades.

            “FBI?” Jane asked.

            “CIA,” Quinn said. “FBI agents would have their IDs clipped to their coat pockets.”

            “Could be NSA.”

            “They’re mostly just tech geeks.”

            “Secret Service?” Jane asked.

            “Maybe. I got to meet some Secret Service agents once, when President Clinton visited my old high school and gave a speech. They beat up the principal, it was pretty funny.”

            Ms. Li stepped up to the podium and tapped on the microphone to get everyone’s attention. “Settle down, young people. Now, before the varsity interpretive dance team begins its performance of ‘History, We Are You’ we have a brief announcement from some special guests, agents . . . .”

            Before Li could finish the sentence the man in the black suit shouldered her away from the podium. The principal glared and tried to step around him and ran right into the female agent’s back as she stepped up next to her partner.

            “No names,” the man said.

            “No credentials,” the woman added.

            “Students,” the man said, “we’ll be brief. We’ve received some disturbing reports from this school, and we’re asking for your cooperation.”

            The woman leaned forward and said, “Keep your eyes open, watch for people who are different. They know who they are.”

            The man smiled tightly and nodded. “And with your help, kids, so will we.”

            “Different, eh?” Quinn asked, pitching her voice under the general muttering from the other students. “I wonder what I get if I turn you in.”

            “More free time with the Fashion Club?”

            Quinn smirked and waved her fist at Jane. “Curse you different ones and your insidious logic.”

            The room filled with music as the dance team ran onto the stage, each of them carrying a set of streamers or sparklers. As the dance progressed, the students with the long, billowing streamers and the students with the sparklers started to get dangerously close together.

            “This isn’t going to end well,” Jane said.

            “I know,” Quinn said, shaking her head sadly. “And here we are without any popcorn.”

 

            Later that day, Jane and Quinn were sitting on the edge of Jane’s bed watching Sick, Sad World. Jane was passing the remote back and forth between her hands and staring at the television with an annoyed expression. Quinn just looked amused.

            “From outer space to in your face! Aliens walk among us, a Sick, Sad World exclusive!”

            “But if there are aliens, you have to wonder which sick, sad world they’re referring to,” Quinn said.

            “The aliens aren’t coming,” said the show host. He sat at a news-style anchor desk, and a picture of a green man wearing blue trunks and a matching cape was on the screen next to him. “They’re already here. They could be your friends, your family. They act almost normal, but something’s off.”

            “Yes,” Jane said. “The TV.” She clicked the remote and the screen went dark, and then she turned to Quinn and said, “If there were any aliens smart enough to come here, I don’t think they’d be stupid enough to come here.”

            “I’m sorry, what?”

            “Let’s say I’m an alien, and you’re you.”

            “Jane are you about to tell me that women really are from Venus?” Quinn asked. “Because I think I’d already know if we were.”

            “Seriously,” Jane said. “Why would I, a being from a highly advanced culture, strap my kid into a spaceship and launch said kid across the galaxy all alone?”

            “Um . . . .”

            “You’d think I’d want to go with my kid, or at the least send an eligible bachelor so she doesn’t have to take care of all her personal business personally, I mean . . . why are you looking at me like that?”

            “You’re still single, aren’t you?” Quinn asked.

            “Maybe.”

            “Okay, I think what we have here is a clear case of over-identification.”

            Jane grumbled a little and glared at the ceiling. “All I’m saying, is that Nurse Chapel was a moron. That’s all I’m saying.”

            “Who?”

            “Ask your boyfriend.”

            There was a light knock at the door and Trent walked in, glancing back and forth between the two girls. “Hey, Janey, are you making something in the kitchen?”

            “No.”

            “Oh, I could have sworn I noticed a burning smell. It’s really strong in here.”

            “That’s my cue to leave,” Quinn said. “I’m going to go home and dump my clothes straight into the laundry, and then wash my hair a few dozen times.”

            “See ya tomorrow,” Jane said.

            “I’m talking to Mack,” Quinn said. “He’s single, you’re single, I’ve seen you making eyes at him. Later, Trent.”

            “She’s such a meddler,” Jane said, shaking her head.

            Trent frowned. “Why do you and Quinn smell like smoke?”

            “Let’s just say that I never knew history could be so flammable. I’m heading for the shower m’self, if you don’t mind.”

            “Yeah, that’s cool. I think I’m late for band practice anyway.” Trent walked out into the hallway and then paused. “Are you okay, Janey?”

            “I’ll deal.”

            “If you need anything, just come wake me up, okay?” Trent said.

            “I thought you were going to band practice.”

            “Oh, right. Thanks for reminding me, I think I’m late.” Trent hurried off to get his guitar and car keys.

 

            Quinn had just finished getting dressed, and was standing in the upstairs bathroom frowning at her reflection. Experimentally, she ran a brush through her hair and then sniffed at it.

            “I really don’t want to know,” Daria said from the hallway.

            Quinn jumped and spun around, giving her sister a wide-eyed stare. “Gah! Why do you have to sneak up on me like that? You know I hate it!”

            “Sorry.”

            “Anyway, there was a fire at school today,” Quinn said. “I was making sure all the smoke smell was out of my hair.

            “Didn’t your chemistry lab explode a couple of months ago?”

            “No, there was an electrical fire in the storage closet; nothing exploded except Scarlett and she’s fine now.”

            “Well, color me reassured,” Daria said, rolling her eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to Fielding or Grove Hills?”

            “Yes, I’m sure.”

            “Fine, be that way. I’m calling the superintendent, and I’m going to get some building inspectors down there to make sure that place is up to code,” Daria said. “Maybe I’ll get that Li woman’s books audited while I’m at it.”

            “Have a health inspector drop by the lunch room while you’re on a roll. Just never tell me what they score.” Both girls paused when the door bell rang, and then Quinn said, “That’s Charles, we’re going out tonight.”

            “Okay, be careful you don’t knock his car out of gear and roll off Make-Out Point.”

            “We do not go to Make-Out Point,” Quinn grumbled on her way down the stairs. “Why does everybody think that all Charles and I do is go hide somewhere and suck face?” She jerked the door open with a scowl, and then took a step back in surprise. “What are you doing down here?”

            On the doorstep stood a short brunette who looked identical to Daria, who was still upstairs the last time Quinn saw her.

            “I have an appointment,” the girl said.

            “Right, sure you do.” Quinn shook her head, and saw Charles’ car pulling into the driveway. “Tell you what, I’m going to get in my boyfriend’s car and leave. You stay here and play all the practical jokes you want on Amy.”

            “Uh, sure?” the girl said, watching Quinn walk away. She shrugged to herself and walked into the house, glancing around to see if anyone else was present. Finding herself alone, she quickly pulled a small pistol out of her jacket pocket and pointed it at the ceiling near the center of the room. When she pulled the trigger, the gun made brief hissing noise and a small puff of dust showed where the projectile had landed.

            She stowed the pistol and pressed her fingertips against her right ear. “Are you getting a signal?”

            “Loud and clear,” came the response over her ear bud. “You gotta love all this James Bond stuff, it even makes sitting in the van feel cool.”

            “Okay, I’m going to make contact now,” she whispered. Raising her voice, she called out, “Hello? Anybody home?”

            Daria came down the stairs and smiled cheerfully at the newcomer. “Your pictures don’t do you justice, Miss Powers. Did you have any trouble with the travel arrangements I had set up for you?”

            “No, everything was fine. I’ll tell you what I told your aunt: please, call me Melody.”

            “Okay, Melody.” Daria sat on the couch and gestured for Melody to sit on the nearby loveseat. “You’ll be getting together tomorrow with Mr. Fox for all the formal paperwork nonsense. I just wanted you here so that I could get to know the person who is going to go around pretending to be me.”

 

            Jane found herself alone, sitting in her living room and doing something she seemed to spend more and more time doing lately: brooding. She would occasionally pick up the telephone, stare at it a moment, and then put it back down. All the lights were out in the house, and the sun was nearing the horizon outside, but she could see perfectly clearly.

            Jane’s senses expanded and every shadow in the room vanished, each piece of furniture or trash on the floor suddenly became crisp and razor edged. She listened to water running through the pipes of the house, and the faint buzz of the electrical lines. She rested the palms of her hands on the arms of the chair and felt every individual thread. With a thin smile she deliberately didn’t try to accentuate her sense of smell.

            In the next house over, she could hear the rhythmic key clicks of a man using an adding machine to figure out his budget for the next month. He was stressed and probably short on cash, based on how frequently he paused to take a drag off his cigarette.

            A car slowed in front of her house and pulled into the driveway. She didn’t recognize the sound of the engine, nor did she recognize the tread of the young man who got out of the car and walked up to her front door. When the bell rang, she stood and walked to the door.

            The pimply, red-haired man standing on her doorstep blinked at her and took a half step back. She knew her pupils were fully dilated, and her body language tended to get a little odd when she was ramping up her senses. Most people just assumed she was on drugs, a misconception that went right along with her status as a bohemian artist type.

            “Lane?”

            She focused on the man, and immediately caught the odors of cooked meat, bread and chocolate. He lifted a pizza box and waved it at her, smiling nervously all the while.

            “Yeah.” She nodded slowly. “How much for the pizza?”

            “Twelve ninety-five, plus gratuity.”

            Jane pulled a ten and a five out of her shorts pocket and handed them over, taking the pizza in exchange. “Keep the change.”

            “Thanks.” He turned to hurry away.

            “Wait,” Jane said. When he turned back to look at her, she continued, “Didn’t I see you on Sick, Sad World last year?”

            “Yeah, I got abducted by aliens. I’m Artie.”

            “Right, they starched your pants. Thanks for the pizza, pizza-guy.” Jane closed the door and walked to the kitchen.

            Outside, Artie walked to his car and climbed in. He sat, staring at the house quietly for several minutes with a thoughtful expression on his face. Finally, he reached into the paper bag sitting on the passenger seat, pulled out an Oreo cookie, and popped it into his mouth. As he chewed, he cranked the car and pulled it out of the drive and then headed off to make his next pizza delivery.

 

            The apartment door swung open, and the girl who had introduced herself to Daria as Melody Powers walked into the living room. With a sigh she tossed her jacket onto the arm chair, and then fell face first onto the couch.

            A minute later a red-haired girl in her mid-teens came into the room from deeper in the apartment. She wore a pair of blue jeans that were several inches too short for her legs, a t-shirt with a unicorn on it, and glasses with round, black plastic frames.

            “Tough day at the office?”

            The older girl’s response was muffled by a couch cushion.

            “So, what’s she like? According to the tabloids she’s really eccentric, but also really nice.” The redhead frowned at the lack of response. “C’mon, Erin, spill!”

            Erin rolled over and glared at the younger girl. “She’s an idiot.”

            “How’d she get to be so rich if she’s dumb?”

            “She’s got people that handle the money for her.”

            “Oh.”

            “Hey, cheer up. I got the job, so now we get to be a little bit rich, too. Provided the job doesn’t give me a massive headache, anyway.”

            “How deep are you in now?” The redhead started ticking off points on her fingers as she spoke. “You’re Erin Chambers, pretending to be Melody Powers, pretending to be Daria Morgendorffer.”

            Erin nodded. “I met the sister today, briefly. Aside from your glasses, the two of you look almost identical. You're a lot taller, though. As usual.”

            “Maybe we’re them from an alternate reality,” the redhead said, smirking slightly. “I could go do the math on that, if you like.”

            “Brat.”

            “So, not to be a killjoy, but how does this help us find out what happened to Mom and Dad?”

            “I’m pretty sure Morgendorffer is going to set me up with more money than I need, and some of it is going into your bank accounts. Of course, after I finish the job maybe I can get the people I’m working for to do an investigation.”

            “Do you trust them?”

            Erin sighed. “I don’t know.”

            The redhead sat next to her sister and gave her a brief hug. “I trust you. You’ll find out who killed Mom and Dad, and you’ll bring them to justice. You won’t stop hunting them.”

            “I promise,” Erin said, hugging the younger girl. “I’ll hunt for the answers, but I need you to help me. Don’t worry, Ronnie. We’ll get to the bottom of it, together.”

 

***

 

            “Look, I’m not saying my sister is some kind of evil space creature, okay?”

            “Oh, but why not?” Jane said. “It sounds cool.”

            “It was just so weird,” Quinn said, shaking her head. She pulled a notebook out of her locker and put it in her backpack, and then turned to her best friend. “She was right there, and then I headed down, and she got there ahead of me. I still don’t know how she did it.”

            Brittany paused as she walked past and smirked at the redhead. “Oh, Quinn. You should never have let Upchuck talk you into that if you couldn’t compete.”

            “Yeah,” Kevin said, putting one arm around Brittany’s shoulders. “If you need help, talk to my babe. She set the speed record for ‘heading down,’ right, Babe?”

            Quinn and Jane watched the couple head off down the hall, shocked into silence.

            “I’m confused, and yet horrified,” Quinn said. “I hope Brittany isn’t about to start a rumor.”

            “Yeah, it might give your boy some new ideas.” Jane smirked. “Or remind him of some old ones.”

            Quinn shuddered and started walking to class, with Jane falling in beside her. “I guess it’s better than letting Sick, Sad World give him ideas. He might want an alien girl.”

            “Can we not talk about alien girls?” Jane asked, giving Quinn a sour look.

            “Aliens?” Mr. O’Neill asked as the girls walked past. “Have you two been watching The X-Files? I know I have.”

            “That’s great Mr. O,” Quinn said.

            “You know what’s really interesting?”

            “Why do you encourage him?” Jane asked, pitching her voice low enough that Mr. O’Neill probably didn’t hear her.

            “All these alien invasion movies and television shows have been around since the fifties and sixties, and it all started out as anti-communist propaganda,” the teacher said.

            “Aliens in the sky, communists under the bed,” Quinn said.

            “And little green men in your head,” Jane muttered.

            “Exactly, Quinn!” Mr. O’Neill smiled. “And all over atomic jitters. You’re an alien, you’re a communist.” He pointed at Jane, and then Quinn, and then he chuckled. “Silly, isn’t it?”

            Quinn smirked at Jane, then looked back at Mr. O’Neill. “Now tell us about the time before microwave popcorn.”

            “Boy, does that take me back!”

            A little further down the hall, a couple of the football players walked up to the Fashion Club. The girls were huddled in front of Tiffany’s locker, Tiffany handing scarves to Sandi who was using them to decorate Stacy’s leg brace.

            “With enough effort, we can even overcome this fashion handicap,” Sandi said. She quickly glanced up at Stacy. “I’m sorry, I mean, uh . . . .”

            “Don’t worry about it, Sandi. It’s not like this is your fault, you know.”

            “Yeah. Not my fault.” Sandi looked at the floor a moment, and then went back to work wrapping the steel brace in colorful cloth.

            “Um, Sandi?”

            “What?” Sandi looked up at the boy who had spoken and gave him a glare. “I’m a little busy here, Joey. This had better be important.”

            “Um, Mr. O’Neill just said that your friend Jane was an atomic communist,” he said.

            “And that Quinn is some kind of alien,” the other boy added.

            “Thank you for that important information,” Sandi said, rolling her eyes. “We’ll be sure to bear it in mind going forward.”

            A little further down the hall from that, Kevin closed his locker and turned to Brittany. “Aw, come on babe. If the uncool, brainy chicks are doing it then it must be okay.”

            “I’m almost afraid to ask, but what are you talking about now?” Mack said, as he walked up and started opening his own locker.

            “Bro! Quinn and Jane totally tag-teamed Quinn’s boyfriend. And Quinn’s mad because Jane was better than her.”

            Mack narrowed his eyes and stared at Kevin for several seconds. “Remember that game when you fell on your head? Remember how you thought Vince Lombardi was sending you plays from hell?”

            “Heaven, bro!” Kevin scowled. “Vince Lombardi did not go to hell.”

            About that time Stacy walked past, one arm around Tiffany as she lurched along on her one good leg.

            “But, Stacy . . . if Jane’s an atomic communist from Mars that would explain why she wears red all the time,” Tiffany said.

            “Tiffany, I promise to explain it to you later,” Stacy said. “For now, just help me get somewhere so I can take some of these scarves off my leg. This brace is supposed to be able to flex at the knee.”

            Mack, Kevin, and Brittany all looked at each other for a moment.

            “Yeah, I heard it too,” Mack said, turning to walk away.

            “Hey, Mack,” Brittany said, following after him, “Kevin and I were just discussing something.”

            “Babe, that’s not what I meant!” Kevin said, hurrying along behind.

            None of them noticed the dark-suited agent standing nearby, listening in on their every word.

 

            “I’m glad this day is over,” Quinn said as she stuffed most of her books back into her locker.

            “You say that every day,” Jane replied.

            “Today, I’m especially glad.” Quinn closed the locker and the girls started walking towards the school exit. “I halfway expected a swarm of guys in suits to show up today and totally disrupt school.”

            Jane pointedly glanced at one of the nearby agents, wearing his requisite black suit and mirrored shades. The men and women of the unknown agency had been lurking in odd corners of the school for the last couple of days, never speaking to the students and rarely to the faculty. Most people just overlooked them now.

            “Not them,” Quinn said, rolling her eyes. “When I was talking to Daria last night, upstairs before she did her magic teleportation act or whatever it was she did, she was talking about getting some building inspectors sent to check out the school.”

            “Really?” Jane asked. “Well, I suppose we have had more fires and explosions than usual this year. I bet all the security equipment is putting a strain on the wiring.”

            “That’s the other thing,” Quinn said as the girls walked through the doors and headed outside. “Daria wants the school’s books audited. How is Ms. Li paying for all this stuff, anyway?”

            In her office, Ms. Li leaned back and narrowed her eyes as she listened to Jane’s reply. “I heard she just bought a lie detector machine, and those things aren’t cheap.”

            “I think we’ve had just about enough of your snooping around, Ms. Morgendorffer,” Li muttered aloud. “Let’s see what I can do about this.”

            She tapped the call button on her desk, and a moment later her intercom popped on. “Yes, Ms. Li?” her secretary asked.

            “On your way out, please stop by Mr. DeMartino’s classroom and tell him that I’d like to see him first thing in the morning.”

            “Yes, ma’am. Will that be all?”

            “Yes. I’ll probably be working a little late tonight, but you go on home.”

            “Yes, Ms. Li.”

            She opened the bottom drawer on her desk and pulled out a glass and a bottle of expensive brandy. With careful, deliberate movements she filled the glass and then put away the bottle. Then she took a sip of the drink and leaned back in her chair to think.

            I’ll talk to Anthony in the morning, and we’re going to curtail that nosy girl’s activities for the school paper. I won’t have anti-Lawndale propaganda being printed in my paper, and it’ll make a good shot across the bow. Warn her to keep her nose clean.

            She took another sip and then booted up her computer. The chances of anything being found in an audit are slim, but I’d better check over the books again just to be sure.

            There was a light knock at her office door, which then immediately swung open as one of the black-suited agency men walked in.

            “Special Agent Smith, what can I do for you?”

            “I need any information you have on a girl named Quinn Morgendorffer.”

            “Of course, just a moment.” Ms. Li stood and walked to the file cabinet she reserved for trouble makers and opened the middle drawer. “Ah, here it is.”

            “Just like that?” the man asked, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re not going to demand I explain why or show you a warrant?”

            “Agent Smith, if that is your name,” Angela said, smiling thinly, “you and I are more alike than you know. I can tell by your bearing that you are a man that appreciates order, safety, and productivity. You and I both know that the criminals hide behind laws, that things intended to protect the innocent usually become nothing more than roadblocks to justice.” She handed him the heavy folder and walked back to her desk.

            “Thank you for your cooperation.”

            “Besides, everything in that file is a photocopy. You’d have a fight on your hands if you wanted my originals, but other than that I’m happy to help your office.” She smiled again, and gave him a look over the top of her glasses. “Happy to help any way I can.”

            “I’ll . . . uh . . . I’ll keep than in mind,” Smith said, and quickly backed out of the office.

            Outside, his partner fell into step beside him and quirked a small grin at his sterner-than-usual expression. “So,” she said, “Angela Li likes men with authority, huh?”

            Smith gave a non-committal grunt and started flipping through the file as they walked. “I wish these pictures were better,” he said. “The angles are bad on most of them, and the ones that show her face are a little grainy.”

            “Do you think Morgendorffer is our target?”

            “We’ll find out, won’t we?” Smith said, tucking the folder under his arm. “Put a strike team together, I want them ready for a briefing in thirty minutes.”

            “Will do.” She pulled out her cell phone and then paused, grinning at her partner again. “You know, Li got through college on a gymnastics scholarship. I bet she’s still flexible.”

            “Strike force, Agent Brown.”

            “We may need them sooner than thirty minutes,” Brown said, nodding across the parking lot. In the distance, they could see Quinn climbing on the back of a motorcycle behind a much shorter girl. Jane seemed to be laughing at Quinn’s obvious trepidation.

            “I’ll make sure somebody is keeping an eye on her,” he said, pulling out his own phone.

 

            Erin parked her motorcycle in the small garage built onto the side of her apartment building and killed the engine. Quinn immediately got off the bike and removed the loaned helmet so she could shake her hair out.

            “Like it?” Erin asked, pulling off her own helmet.

            “It was terrifying, but kinda cool,” Quinn said.

            “So you’re not going to rush out and buy half a dozen for yourself?” Erin asked. She set the locking bars on the parking space, hopefully preventing her bike from being stolen.

            “Unlikely.”

            “Well, my apartment is this way. It’s not anything like what you’re used to, but I call it home.”

            “Look,” Quinn said as they walked towards the front of the building. “I’m not sure what you think of me, but I’m not a billionaire airhead.” Quinn frowned. “And I still think it’s creepy how much you look like Daria.”

            “Creepy, yet profitable,” Erin said. “And just wait until you meet my sister, then you’ll be really creeped out.”

            They walked into the building and up a short flight of stairs, and then Erin unlocked the apartment door. As they walked in, Erin called out, “Harm? I’m home, and I brought a guest.”

            “Hey, Mel,” Veronica said, waving from the kitchen. “Dinner is almost ready or I’d come be social. You must be Quinn Morgendorffer.”

            Quinn stared at the girl with her mouth hanging open. She could go home right now, flip open her yearbook and find this girl’s picture with her own name written underneath it. Aside from the height difference, and the glasses, they were identical.

            Erin smirked. “Quinn Morgendorffer, my sister, Harmony Powers.”

            “Pleased to meet you,” Quinn said automatically, and then shook her head. “Yeah, now I’m creeped out.”

            The sisters shared a laugh, and then Erin gestured for Quinn to sit on the couch. As Quinn sat, she dropped into a nearby recliner and smiled at her guest.

            “So, tell me about Daria. Anything that’ll help me pretend to be her.”

            “Well,” Quinn said, thinking. “She’s not as ditzy as she acts, so if you say something smart occasionally don’t worry about it. And she gets this look when she sees a cute guy . . . I’m not sure I can explain it, but it’s really intense.”

            “Okay, that helps.”

            “Damn it,” Veronica said. She walked out of the kitchen and grabbed a button down shirt off a hook near the door. “I ran out of milk, I need to run down to the store. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

            “It’s cold out,” Quinn said. “Aren’t you going to put on a coat?”

            “This is my coat,” Veronica said ruefully, buttoning up the shirt.

            “Here, borrow mine.” Quinn stood and pulled off her green jacket, tossing it to the younger girl. “Be careful with it, it’s my favorite jacket.”

            “Sure, thanks.” Veronica pulled on the over-sized coat and smiled. “I’ll try to hurry.” The redhead pulled the front door open and left, closing the door on her way out.

            “So,” Erin said, turning back to Quinn. “Tell me a little bit about yourself.”

            Outside, Veronica took the steps two at a time and turned down the sidewalk, setting a brisk pace for herself. She needed to hurry to get back in time to finish dinner, and besides she didn’t want to be out in the cold any longer than she had to be.

            “Excuse me, miss?”

            She glanced up and frowned at the man who had spoken: a tall, muscular man wearing the dark suit that was pretty much the standard uniform for television government agents. She stared at him a moment, but he did not speak again.

            “Ow!” Veronica exclaimed, jerking away from the feeling of a bee sting on her shoulder. “Wait . . . bees . . . in . . . winter?” Her voice faded out as she slumped to the ground.

            A black van pulled up to the curb and the side door slid open. Two agents got out, grabbed the unconscious girl, and pulled her back into the van. The agent standing on the sidewalk followed them into the van, sliding the door closed after entering. The van smoothly pulled away, merging with traffic and accelerating to the speed limit.

            About fifteen minutes later, Quinn glanced down at her wristwatch and was shocked at the time. “I need to get home,” she said. “I’ve got stuff I have to do before I go over to Jane’s tonight.”

            “Sure,” Erin said. “I was hoping you might stay for dinner, but . . . hang on, she’s been at the store for a while, hasn’t she?”

            “Yeah, and she’s got my jacket,” Quinn said with a frown.

            “I’ve got to drop by corporate headquarters tomorrow and fill out paperwork, I could take it with me and get somebody to deliver it to you.”

            “That should work,” Quinn said. “I’ll catch a cab home, tell your sister I’m sorry I missed saying goodbye.”

            “I will,” Erin said. She sat quietly as Quinn headed out of the apartment, her cell phone open and already calling the cab company. When the door closed, she pulled out her own cell phone and hit a speed dial button.

            “Hey, it’s me. Yeah, look, do me a favor. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but can you check on where Ronnie is right now? Yeah, I can wait,” Erin sat back and tried not to fidget, but the answer brought her to her feet with an outraged shout. “She’s where!? Yes, I understand that ‘the interstate’ isn’t really a place. Come pick me up, it looks like we’ve got some emergency fieldwork. Yeah, see you in a few minutes.”

            Erin closed her phone and stared at the ceiling for a few moments, and then said, “Veronica, I swear if this is some dumb stunt I’m going to lock you in the bathroom until you turn eighteen.”

 

            Ten minutes later, Erin left her apartment and got into the passenger’s side of a grey van. The outside of the van was decorated in bright red letters advertising a local barbeque restaurant, the inside was packed with cutting edge surveillance gear. The driver was a young man with unruly brown hair, wearing a blue windbreaker.

            “You realize this will be noticed,” he said as he drove towards the freeway. “Mysterious government agencies do not like it when their employees borrow company equipment for personal projects.”

            “The FBI is not terribly mysterious,” Erin said. With a frown she added, “Are you giving me static about tracking down Ronnie?”

            “Hell no, I’m just saying that this is inevitably going to go pear-shaped on us. You know I’m all about helping the bean sprout, she's the apple of my eye. That doesn’t mean I can’t keep an eye out for flying tomatoes.”

            “Too many vegetable metaphors, Bri.”

            “Pears are fruits. Also, apples.”

            Erin rolled her eyes and moved to the back of the van so she could start sorting through the equipment lockers. The first one she opened had the new armored jumpsuit she’d finagled before being sent on the Morgendorffer mission. With a quick glance to make sure her driver was keeping his eyes on the road, Erin began changing clothes.

            “So, what’s the plan?”

            “Are you still following the tracker I put on her?”

            “Yeah.” Brian held up a handheld device about the size and shape of a PDA. The screen displayed a map of Gotham City with two blinking lights on it: one marking them in the van, and the other marking Veronica. “As long as she keeps her shoes on, we’ll know where she’s at.”

            “It would take an act of God to separate her from those ratty sneakers,” Erin said. She moved back to the front of the van and dropped into the passenger seat. “I know I wasn’t able to do it.”

            Brian glanced at his partner and almost ran the van off the road. She was wearing a dark blue, form fitting jumpsuit. Over that she wore a tailored ballistic vest, armored knee boots, and gauntlets all in royal purple. Her tactical belt was also purple, as was the baton sheath and strapping on her right thigh.

            “The road, Bri!”

            “Sorry, sorry,” he said, locking his eyes back on the road and ignoring the chorus of angry horns around the van. “That outfit doesn’t leave much the imagination.”

            “I needed something armored, that I could still get around in,” she said with a shrug. Her nonchalant tone was betrayed by the slight reddening of her cheeks, but her partner was too busy staring at traffic to notice.

            “Well, you’ll be pleased to know that I prepared something for just this contingency. Check the glove compartment.”

            Erin opened the small drawer and pulled out a purple mask; the eyeholes were covered with clear plastic and the mask was large enough to cover from cheeks to forehead, with two upswept points that exaggerated the eyebrow line. It had a small elastic strap to hold it in place.

            “A mask?”

            “Hey, when in Gotham,” Brian said, shrugging. “The lenses are industrial plastic and molded to your vision prescription, and the mask is two-ply. The outside is Kevlar, and the inside is silk: once you’ve been wearing the mask a few minutes static electricity will make it cling to your skin.”

            “Where did you get the materials for this?” Erin asked, staring down at the mask.

            “I . . . um . . . borrowed some stuff from the equipment room last time they had me hauling stuff out to the van,” Brian said sheepishly.

            “Hypocrite,” Erin said, and then put the mask on. “Do as the Gothamites do, huh? Well, let’s hope this works.”

            “Of course it’ll work, you’re you and I’m me. When have we ever failed before?”

            There was a pause, and then, “Do you want me to answer that?”

            “No.”

            “Okay.”

 

            Quinn headed down the sidewalk towards Jane’s house, trying to keep up a brisk pace to keep off the cold. As she walked she rubbed her bare arms vigorously. She kept up a running monologue, muttering to herself in an attempt to distract from the chilly temperature.

            “Had to loan out my favorite jacket, to some girl I’d just met. For all I know she sold it for crack or something.” Quinn sighed. “No, she seemed nice. Also, her sister wouldn’t have gotten a job from Mr. Fox without a background check. Ugh, why didn’t I buy an extra coat? It’s not like I can’t . . . afford . . . one . . . .”

            Quinn’s voice trailed off as she saw a brilliant green meteor flash by overhead, low enough to the ground that she could hear the rumble as it flew through the air. It crossed the sky, and Quinn lost sight of it as it passed behind a wooded area next to the road. A few seconds later, everything had gone back to normal.

            “Okay, that was extra-weird,” Quinn said. “I’ve never seen a colored meteor before, and if it wasn’t so cold out here I’d go check it out.” She started hurrying along the sidewalk again. “And who the hell am I talking to? Gah, I’m cracking up.”

            A few minutes later she reached Jane’s and pounded on the door impatiently. When Trent opened the door, she squeezed by him and then suddenly stopped to clamp on to the source of sudden warmth.

            “Hey, Quinn,” Trent said, his normally relaxed voice a little higher and a little faster than normal. “You’re pretty cold, you know?”

            “Yeah, I . . . .” Quinn stopped speaking when she realized that she was pressed against Jane’s brother with her arms wrapped around him. “This is embarrassing.”

            Trent chuckled, ending the laugh in a dry cough. “Janey’s upstairs, I’m pretty sure she has an electric blanket up there.”

            “Thanks,” Quinn said, letting go and fleeing up the stairs.

            “Brilliant green meteor?” Jane asked, after Quinn had finished telling her story. She’d left out the part about using Trent as an emergency heater; Jane would have given her no end of grief about it.

            “Yeah, you wanna check it out?”

            “I’d really rather not,” Jane said with a frown. “It’s cold, I’m tired of hearing about things and/or people falling from space, and I’m feeling too lazy to go tromping off through the woods. Plus, I ordered pizza just before you got here.”

            “I guess I can go looking for it tomorrow,” Quinn said. “You convinced me with pizza.”

            “That’s because I know your weakness.”

            “I can’t resist pepperoni and extra cheese,” Quinn said with a sigh. “It’s a damn good thing I walk all over town. If I ever buy a car, I’m going to have to get an exercise machine, too.”

            “Isn’t Charles giving you enough of a workout?” Jane asked, grinning widely and wiggling her eyebrows

            Quinn rolled her eyes. “I swear, I’m hooking you up with the very next guy I see.”

            The sound of the doorbell ringing could be heard from downstairs, and Jane grabbed her pizza money off the nightstand and headed down. Still smirking, Quinn followed along behind. Jane opened the door to a gangly, red-haired boy standing on the doorstep.

            “Hi, I’m Artie,” he said, holding up a pair of pizzas. “You’re looking better today, Miss Lane.”

            “Thanks,” Jane said with a frown. She leaned over to Quinn and whispered, “Take it back, Morgendorffer.”

            Quinn giggled and took the pizzas from Artie while Jane handed him the money. “Hey,” Quinn said, “aren’t you the guy from Sick, Sad World?”

            “Yeah, that was me. I’d love to stay and talk, but I got more pizzas to deliver, and if I don’t get them there in thirty minutes or less they’re free.”

            “You didn’t happen to see a bright green meteor earlier, did you?” Quinn asked.

            Artie’s reaction was immediate and profound. With a loud cry of, “Oh no! They’re back!” he pushed his way into the house and slammed the door closed. He twisted the deadbolt and then placed his back against the door.

            “Dire consequences,” Jane said, glaring at Quinn. Quinn had stepped away from the door when Artie lunged forward and tripped over the couch arm. She was now sprawled out on the couch, laughing hard enough that her face was turning red.

            “You can’t let them find me,” Artie said, looking right at Jane with a pleading expression in his eyes.

            “Who?”

            “The . . . the aliens,” he said, his voice suddenly dropping to a whisper. “The aliens will find me, and they’ll steal my skin. They want our skin because it remembers what it feels.”

            “Don’t worry, the aliens won’t get you,” Jane said, rolling her eyes. “We’ve got a layer of tinfoil spread out in the attic, it prevents them from scanning the house.”

            “Good thinking!”

            Jane glanced over at Quinn, checking to make sure the redhead was still breathing. She might not be for long, depending on how the next few minutes go, Jane thought darkly, and then smirked as another idea occurred to her. Maybe I should tell Artie that I’m from Krypton, I’d like to see how he reacts to that.

            “Miss Lane?” The high-pitched, nasal whine had dropped out of Artie’s voice, causing it to drop at least three octaves. Jane looked at him in surprise and found him standing straight, away from the door, with his arms crossed.

            “What?”

            “I hope my reaction is everything you want it to be,” he said calmly, before backhanding her across the house and through a wall into the back yard.

 

            Brian parked the van, looked up at the building he’d parked near, looked down at the tracker, then back up at the building, and then frowned deeply.

            “Bri, that’s the Gotham City Federal Building,” Erin said.

            “Then Ronnie is visiting the Feds. Don’t we work for the Feds? Are you and I not, in fact, Federales?”

            “Can you tell me where in the building she is?”

            “Not without a floor plan,” Brian said. “I can guide you in, though.”

            “Great. There’s about ten different agencies with offices in that building, and we have no idea which one picked her up.”

            “I’m willing to bet it wasn’t the Department of Agriculture.”

            “Do we have secure communications?” Erin asked, while inserting a radio earbud.

            “Oh, yeah. I scrambled the radios in the van so we’re not on any of the usual FBI channels. I probably shouldn’t call you by your usual codename though, you have any ideas for a new name?”

            “Yeah,” Erin said. She moved to the back of the van and slid the side door open, stepping out into a dark alley. “You’re Base, and I’m Huntress.” She slid the van door closed, and Brian moved to the back of the van.

            “Man, I wish I got a cool name,” he muttered, while sitting in front of the surveillance suite built into the van. He brought up the computer, and sent it searching for the floor plans to the building his partner was infiltrating.

            Huntress hurried up the fire escape, moving as quickly as she could while remaining silent. When she reached the roof, she walked over to an air-conditioning unit and crouched down next to it. Pulling out a small tool kit, she removed a section of the venting duct attached to the side of the machine.

            She put away her tools and slipped into the duct, bracing herself against the sides and carefully sliding down. “You have those floor plans yet?”

            “Yeah, came up a few seconds ago. Give me a moment to triangulate, and . . . you’re between the seventh and eighth floors. Target is on the fifth floor.”

            “Alright,” Huntress said as she started crawling along the duct looking for another drop. “Think you can hack building security?”

            “Can I hack building security? I scoff at your need to even ask that question, especially given the very expensive toys I have at my disposal.”

            After a couple of minutes of crawling through cramped, dusty ductwork Huntress found another two-story drop-off and slid down. Another minute of exploration found a vent grille big enough for her to crawl out of, and after cutting the bolts from the inside she pushed the cover aside. She found herself emerging from beneath a row of sinks in a men’s bathroom.

            “You should be in the little boy’s room,” Bri said. “Go left out into the hallway, and then right at the first intersection.”

            She slipped out into the hallway and followed the directions she’d been given. She paused to peer around the corner and saw a woman wearing a black skirt and a white blouse standing at an elevator. The woman had her back turned, and Huntress silently glided towards her.

            Some instinct warned the agent, but she started to turn a moment too late. Huntress clamped one hand around the woman’s mouth and jammed a Taser against her side. After several seconds of muffled screaming, the woman lapsed into unconsciousness. A second later, the elevator doors opened and Erin looked up into the surprised face of a second agent.

            He had just enough time to get out, “What the . . . .” before she shot forward and punched him in the throat. The man gagged and dropped to his knees, and Huntress immediately moved behind him and applied a chokehold.

            When the man stopped struggling, she stood and punched the button to reopen the doors. It only took a second to drag the woman into the elevator, and then she pushed the button for the sub-basement and quickly slipped between the closing doors.

            “Obstruction clear,” she whispered. “Now where to?”

            “I was wondering what the hold up was. Okay, count three doors down on the right hand side and that’s the room she’s in. However, if I’m reading this right she’s in an interrogation room.”

            “So?”

            “So, go in the room two doors down first and take out the guys on the other side of the two-way mirror.”

            She rolled her eyes and quietly walked down the hall, stopping to listen at the second door on the right. A few seconds later, after hearing nothing, she boldly opened the door and stepped inside. Four men in black suits, three of them holding cups of coffee, stared at her in open-mouthed amazement.

            “Nobody,” she said in a flat, deadpan voice, “expects the Spanish Inquisition.” After delivering the line, she unsheathed the stun baton on her belt and jumped at the closest target.

 

            Artie frowned when the lamp shattered over his head. He turned and blinked at a belligerent looking Quinn, who stuck one hand in a pocket and came out with a black, cylindrical tube.

            “Eat mace, jackass,” she said, and unloaded the can directly into his face. He stood motionless until the can emptied and the spray stopped, and then he casually reached up and wiped the fluid out of his eyes.

            “Sleep,” he said calmly. Quinn’s eyes rolled back into her head as she slumped to the floor.

            “I don’t know what the hell this is about,” Jane said to herself, rising to her feet in the back yard. “But I do know that it is on like Donkey Kong.”

            She heard a crunching noise from the house and looked up, seeing the pizza guy pushing his way through the vaguely Jane-shaped hole in the back wall of the house. She ran towards him, jumped into the air, and came down with a two-fisted smash on his head that caused him to stagger to the side.

            “If you wanted a bigger tip, you could have just said something,” Jane said, jackhammering her fists into the skinny redhead. “Do you know how much it’s going to cost to get that wall fixed?”

            “Enough!” Artie caught Jane’s arm as it swung in, then grabbed her by the belt and lifted her off the ground. He swept her through the air, over his head, and then back down again with enough force to make the ground tremble.

            Jane blinked and glanced around the five foot deep pit she found herself in. “Good one, Artie. I almost felt it.”

            “Artie Simmons is a cover identity,” he said, glaring down at Jane. “Know that my true name is J’onn J’onzz, the last Manhunter of Ma'aleca'andra, and I am your doom, Kryptonian.”

            The skinny red-haired boy suddenly filled out, growing taller and more muscular. His grungy t-shirt and jeans morphed together and darkened, becoming a black bodysuit, while a bright red belt and crossed bandoliers grew out of his body and wrapped themselves around his chest and waist. His eyes retreated under an overdeveloped brow ridge and his hair vanished as his skin turned green.

            “I have no idea what that means,” Jane said. “But we’re gonna find out what color green people turn when they bruise.” She shot up out of the hole, one fist connecting with the man’s jaw hard enough to shatter steel. He took a half step back and frowned.

            “You are toying with me, very foolish.” He jammed his rigid fingers into her solar plexus, forcing the air out of Jane’s lungs. She staggered and he grabbed her hair, jerking her head down into his knee. He let go, and casually booted her back into the hole she’d just come out of.

            Jane reached up and touched her face, and came away with bloody fingers. She grinned broadly and said, “You didn’t do it right.”

            “I seem to be doing it right so far,” he answered.

            “No, this is just . . . what do you call it when people are crazy?”

            “Madness? This is madness?”

            “This isn’t madness,” Jane said. She moved fast enough that a storm of dirt flew out of the hole behind her, digging the pit a little deeper. She appeared behind her assailant and screamed, “This! Is! Lawndale!” She lashed out with one booted foot, catching the green-skinned man in the ribs and causing him to tumble down into the pit.

            The man floated up out of the pit, and hovered several feet over it glaring down at Jane. “Make jokes while you can, invader. The Kryptonians may have wiped out my people, but you will not have the Earth.”

            “Oh, screw you,” Jane said. “I’ll have the . . . wait, what?”

 

            Huntress stepped over the last agent, now unconscious on the floor, and stared through the two-way mirror into the room her sister was in. Ronnie was half slumped over in a chair, blinking groggily as she came out of whatever they’d dosed her with during the kidnapping. Her hands were cuffed behind her back, and a piece of duct tape had been put over her mouth.

            There were two adults in the room with her, one male and one female. The man was glaring at Ronnie angrily, and the woman seemed to be trying to draw as little attention to herself as possible.

            “This is not the right girl,” the man said angrily. “Agent Brown, I wasn’t aware that our highly trained operatives were, in fact, a troop of circus clowns.”

            “It was the lousy pictures,” the woman said. “There is a striking resemblance, you have to admit.”

            “This girl is almost a foot taller than the target. You did tell them the girl they were looking for was sixteen, right?”

            “This girl is sixteen.” Agent Brown shrugged. “I can't explain how they didn't notice the glasses.”

            “Also, tranq darts?” the man asked, quirking an eyebrow. “According to all our reports the target’s skin is impenetrable to small arms fire, never mind a dart.”

            “She’s awake,” the woman said. She walked over to Ronnie and smiled down at her. “Don’t worry, honey. This has been a huge mix-up, and we’re going to get you out of here and back home as soon as we can.”

            The woman reached down and grabbed the edge of the duct tape, and carefully pulled it away from Ronnie’s face. Ronnie, who had been glaring angrily up at her the whole time, opened her mouth and screamed.

            The air shook with the force of it, sound waves striking the two agents in the room like fists. The adults were driven to the floor, clutching the sides of their heads as they lost consciousness. A glass of water on the table shattered, and then the glass in the two-way mirror exploded.

            Erin slowly picked herself up from the floor and leaned against the wall, staring numbly at her sister. Her body ached from the pummeling she’d just received, and the blast hadn’t even been directed at her.

            “Erin?” Ronnie asked. “What the hell is going on? Where are we? Why are you wearing a mask?”

            “Quiet,” Huntress said, vaulting through the hole in the wall and into the interrogation room. “I’ll explain everything just as soon as we get the hell out of here.” She quickly rifled the pockets of the agents on the floor and came up with a key to the handcuffs, and a moment later she set her sister free.

            Ronnie stood, still a little wobbly, and started rubbing her sore wrists. She looked around the room, at the unconscious man and woman, at the tiny shards of glass in Erin’s hair, at the broken water glass on the table.

            “I did that,” she said numbly. “I did that.”

            “Come on, we’ll deal with it later. Right now we have to get out of here.” Huntress put one hand on the girl’s shoulder and steered her out of the room.

 

            Jane leapt over the pit and swung at the floating man, putting everything she could into the punch. He flew across the yard and hit the gazebo, causing it to collapse on top of him. Jane landed in a crouch and surveyed the pile of broken timbers through narrowed eyes.

            The wood shifted, and the man stood again. He walked a few steps towards Jane and then stopped, shaking his head at her. “I wouldn’t have believed it until now, that the mighty Kryptonian Empire would use an untrained child as an advanced scout.”

            “There is no Kryptonian Empire,” Jane said venomously. All the anger, bitterness, and loneliness of the last year surged forward in her mind and for a moment she saw red. Her eyes tingled a moment, and the ruined gazebo burst into flames.

            The green-skinned man screamed, staggered away from the fire, and collapsed to the ground. Suspiciously, Jane moved forward to check on him and found him curled in a fetal ball a few yards from the blaze.

            “You . . . win . . . Kryptonian,” he said, barely getting the words out through clenched teeth. His facial features seemed to be sagging, as if he’d lost control of his shape shifting ability.

            Jane reached down and grabbed him by an arm and a leg, lifted him easily, and carried him to the back porch of the house. The further they got from the fire, the more control he seemed to have and when they reached the house he twisted away from her and stood under his own power.

            “Listen,” Jane said. “I don’t know who you are or what you think, but there’s not an empire and they sure as hell aren’t invading the Earth. From everything I know, Krypton was a peaceful planet ruled by a council of scientists. It doesn’t matter anyway, because they’re all dead.”

            “What? But . . . how?”

            “I don’t know exactly, but the planet’s core became unstable. The planet exploded, and I’m the only survivor.”

            “I . . . I am very sorry,” the man said. “I knew my information was out of date, but I had no idea that it was that out of date. I am deeply sorry for attacking you, and the damage to your home. I will see to it that repairs are made.”

            “You go from full throttle combat mode to heartfelt apology that fast?” Jane asked. “I could be lying, you know.”

            “No, I see the truth of it in your thoughts.”

            “Oh.” Jane frowned. “Don’t do that, my thoughts are personal.”

            “I do not invade a mind without reason, your privacy is safe from me,” he said. “If you will forgive me, I would like to begin this meeting again.”

            “Sure,” Jane said. “Why not? Step into my rubble-filled living room.”

            Jane stepped back through the hole in the wall and immediately saw the unconscious Quinn sprawled on the floor. She spun towards her new companion with a ferocious glare.

            “Stay your fiery gaze,” he said, holding up one hand. “Your friend is unharmed, and will awaken with no memory of the fight. I also preserved your secret heritage by removing her knowledge of it.”

            Jane sighed and lifted Quinn to the couch. “I was okay with her knowing.”

            “I am sorry again, then. You can always remind her, but I would appreciate it if you did not inform her about me.”

            “No, she hinted around that she didn’t want me to confirm it. She figured it out once, she can figure it out again.” Jane turned towards her visitor and crossed her arms. “What did you say your name was again?”

            “J’onn J’onzz,” he said. “Like you, I am the last of my people, and the last of the Manhunters. You would know my home as the planet Mars.”

            “The Martian Manhunter, huh? And you’ve been the pizza delivery guy this whole time?”

            “I was looking for you, it seemed to be an easy way to visit many homes without drawing suspicion.”

            “Because you thought I was an advanced scout for a Kryptonian invasion?”

            “Yes,” J’onn said. “I must report back to my employers, tell them that I have met with you and that you are not a threat to this world. I believe they will be pleased, there was quite a bit of concern about you.”

            “Employers? Who do you work for?”

            “Mars is dead, I now serve the people of Earth,” J’onn said with a shrug. “I will arrange to have your home repaired, and see to it that work begins tomorrow morning. Farewell, Jan-L of Krypton.”

            “That’s it?” Jane said, still glaring angrily. “You’re just gonna say ‘oops, sorry, I’ll take care of the damages’ and vanish back to where you came from?”

            “I must, for now. But you and I will meet again, count on it.” J’onn floated into the air and shot away, passing through the roof of the house without damaging it.

            “Damn it anyway,” Jane grumbled, and walked to the couch to try to wake up Quinn. She paused and looked at the floor near the front door, noticing the two completely unharmed pizza boxes. “The night does end well,” she said with a smirk, and started shaking Quinn’s shoulder.

 

            “Everything is going to be okay,” Erin said gently. She was half carrying Ronnie as they slipped out of the building and into the alley. The drug that had been used on the younger girl was still playing havoc with her system, causing her to stumble every couple of steps.

            They reached the van and Erin opened the sliding door, and then stopped and surveyed the interior through narrowed eyes. Three men, wearing dark blue jumpsuits similar to her own, were in the van with Brian. One of the men was sitting in the driver’s seat, one sat next to Brian with a pistol pointed at him, and the third was just inside the door, pointing a pistol down at the Huntress.

            “We’re on your side,” the closest man said.

            “Then why the guns?”

            The man, reluctantly, holstered his pistol. “To make you stop a second and listen to me. We work for the same people you work for, and we were sent to bring you in.”

            “I told you they weren’t going to like us borrowing the van,” Brian said.

            “Just come talk to the boss,” the man said, holding his hands up. “You might be surprised by what she has to say. While you’re doing that, we’ll get the girl some medical attention.”

            Frowning deeply, Huntress stepped up into the van and helped Ronnie into one of the empty seats. “Be nice, or I’ll tell my sister to yell at you.”

            “We saw the video of that, we’ll be . . . ahem . . . nice.”

            An hour later, Huntress was being ushered into a tastefully appointed office, after seeing Ronnie off to an infirmary with Brian tagging along to keep an eye on her. There were two chairs in front of the heavy wooden desk, one of which was currently being used by a tall, gangly red-haired man. The other was empty.

            The woman behind the desk could be described as formidable, in much the same way a battleship could be described as formidable. Her navy blue, expertly tailored suit did nothing to hide her bulk, the strong mix of muscle and fat that only middle-aged black women are capable of maintaining without losing any grace or speed. When Huntress entered, she didn’t smile but she still looked pleased.

            “Miss Chambers, I’m glad you could join us.”

            Erin stopped halfway to the empty chair and gave the woman a surprised look.

            “I’m sorry, we’re not going to fall for that ‘Melody Powers’ identity you cooked up. I mean, your friend Mr. Danielson has impressive skill with computers but we have a whole team of people who do professionally what he does for a hobby.” The woman leaned back in her chair. “If he’s as smart as I think he is, he’ll be a member of that team by now.”

            “Excuse me?”

            “Please, sit. Also, feel free to take off the mask; we know who you are, after all.”

            Erin sat and reached up for the mask, stopping just as her fingertips brushed against it. She looked up at the woman defiantly, leaving the mask in place.

            “Excellent, took you longer to roll with the punches than I thought it would but I knew you’d stiffen up. I suppose you’ve already guessed that you don’t work for the FBI.”

            “I was thinking that, yeah.”

            “You were hired by a black ops group chartered and secretly funded by the United Nations, for the purpose of finding, tracking, and potentially neutralizing metahuman threats to human civilization. My name is Amanda Waller, and I am the director of Project Checkmate.”

            The red-haired man waved cheerfully. “I’m Artie!”

            Erin quirked an eyebrow at the strange man and then turned back to the woman behind the desk. “So you want to find, track, and potentially neutralize the Batgirl? That’s who I was hired to find.”

            “If she turns out to be a threat to human civilization,” Waller said with a shrug. “Frankly, we’re not even certain whether she’s metahuman or not. If you filter through all the rumors nobody can confirm that she’s done anything outside the scope of what any highly trained, highly motivated individual is capable of doing.”

            “So why are you explaining all this to me now? We swiped your van and suddenly you realize how awesome we are?”

            “I watched your entire operation, Ms. Chambers. I’ve had my eye on you ever since we found out what your real name was, and who your parents were. I was wondering what your agenda really was, that maybe you were looking for revenge against the people that killed your mother and father.”

            “That’s not it.”

            “No, because you don’t know who killed them.” Waller leaned forward, putting her elbows on the desk. “I’m offering you a promotion, Chambers. You take it, and I’ll put some men on the job of investigating that murder. Deal?”

            “Deal.”

            Waller nodded, and opened one of her desk drawers. She pulled out a slim leather wallet and tossed it on the desk. “These are your credentials, made out in the name of Melody Powers. As far as anybody at the FBI will know, you’re just another Special Agent operating undercover. Welcome to Checkmate, would you prefer I call you Black Knight Chambers or Huntress?”

            “Huntress,” Erin said, taking the credentials and slipping them into a pouch on her belt.

            “Alright, Huntress. Give me your report about Daria Morgendorffer; we still think she’s the most likely candidate for Batgirl.”

            “She’s going to give me an ‘extravagant gestures’ budget,” Erin said with a frown.

            “A what?”

            “A monthly budget of money to throw around pointlessly to prove I’m stupidly rich. A budget that has, I might add, not just a maximum but also a minimum amount per month that I’m expected to waste.”

            “That’s . . . interesting.”

            “Legally, her CFO Fox is going to make me a freelance purchasing agent of Morning Light Industries. If you want my opinion, Daria Morgendorffer is a lunatic. Harmless and generally benevolent, but a lunatic nevertheless.”

            “Now, now Ms. Chambers,” Waller said with a grin. “She’s rich, and that makes her eccentric instead of crazy.”

            Erin sighed. “I suppose. I’ll be filing a written report in another day or so, but I can go ahead and bottom line it for you. Daria Morgendorffer is not the Batgirl; she’s disorganized, lazy, and far too enamored of her posh lifestyle. The younger sister on the other hand . . . I can’t say for sure, not yet.”

            “Alright,” Waller said. “Well, I’ll let you go get started on your grueling schedule of club-hopping and party appearances. I look forward to reading your report.”

            “What about Brian and Ronnie?”

            “Mr. Danielson has his own job offer to consider, but most likely the two of you will still be working together. Your sister used metahuman powers during her kidnapping, and at levels above those we'd observed to date, so we’re going to be testing her to determine exactly what she can and can’t do.”

            “She’s not your guinea pig,” Erin said, her eyes narrowing. “And how long have you been spying on us, anyway?”

            “She will be taken care of,” Waller said, in a tone that brooked no argument. “Fed, clothed, housed and granted plenty of free time. Additionally, we are going to pick up her education where it was dropped when you pulled her out of school, including the private martial arts lessons the two of you were getting.”

            “I don’t like it.”

            “God’s balls, Chambers.” Waller matched the younger woman’s glare watt for watt. “I’m not going to stick her in a lab and let mad scientists experiment on her. I’m offering you a safe place for your sister to stay, and the tools she’s going to need to put her life back together again. Yes, we’re going to want to run tests on her occasionally. It won’t be any worse than the kinds of things any growing girl has to put up with at a doctor’s office.”

            “If I think one of those doctors has taken one step over the line . . . .”

            “You can break his ass off yourself,” Waller said. “Satisfied?”

            “No, but I’ll take it.”

            “Alright, the aide outside can take you to the infirmary so you can check on her yourself. Don’t forget that report, I’m interested in your observations on the sisters Morgendorffer.”

            Erin got up and left the room, and Amanda shook her head. “That girl is far too headstrong.”

            “Pot, kettle?” Artie said.

            “Hm. Well, at least tell me that you have good news, J’onn.”

            “I do,” Artie said, smiling brightly. “Before I get into all that, I’m going to need a new cover identity in Lawndale. I’ve made contact, and now I need to place myself in a position to observe the subject.”

            “Contact? Observe?” Waller asked. “I thought she was the vanguard of an invasion fleet.”

            “Well, I did say I had good news.”

            “Alright, talk to me.”

 

            Author: the NightGoblyn

            Editor: smk

 

            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.

            Veronica created by Robert Nowell.

           Supergirl, Martian Manhunter, Huntress, Black Canary, Amanda Waller, Checkmate, and other DC references © DC Comics and are used without permission, and without profit.