Lawndales Finest

 

Detective Stories

 

 

Issue Two: Daughters of the Demon

 

           “Idealism is what precedes experience; cynicism is what follows.”
 - David T. Wolf

 

 

            Elsie glanced up from her great-great-grandfather’s journal when she heard the key rattle in the lock. She had enough time to conceal the antique volume among her school books before the door opened, and then turned towards her visitor with a puzzled smile.

            The girl standing in the doorway was about the same height as Elsie, with finely sculpted features and long, brown hair. She smiled at Elsie over the top of a cardboard box and walked into the room. Mrs. Hennessey, the dorm mother, followed along behind her with a suitcase in one hand and her key ring in the other.

            “Elsie Sloane, your new roommate, Natalia Head,” Mrs. Hennessey said. She walked over to the formerly spare bed and put the suitcase down beside it. “Well, I’ll leave you girls to get to know one another.”

            As soon as the older woman left, Nat turned and said, “I really prefer Natalie, okay?”

            “Sure,” Elsie said, adding a shrug afterwards. “I’ve only got two rules: no bright lights or loud music after ten o’clock on school nights, and don’t take anything with my name on it out of the mini-fridge. If you decide to use the fridge, I’ll stay away from anything you put your name on. Fair?”

            “Sounds good to me,” Nat said. She walked over to her bed and put down the cardboard box. “So, I had a question.”

            “What?”

            “I was wondering . . . .”

 

            “. . . what do you people do around here on weekends?”

            “Meditation, chores, practice forms in the dojo,” Nat said, frowning at the strange girl that her father had just left in her care. “What do you do on weekends?”

            “Mediation, chores, and practice forms in the dojo, apparently.” The shorter girl stepped towards Nat and put one hand out. “My name is Daria. I’m here because I heard the rumors about the Shadow Academy; I’ve come to study with Ra’s al Ghul.”

            “You may call me Talia.” She reached out and shook the girl’s hand. “Ra’s al Ghul takes very few students, so don’t be disappointed if you are assigned a lesser teacher.”

            “I know, Henri already told me that he’ll be teaching me until I’m worthy of the master’s time.” Daria rolled her eyes, and then looked sharply at Talia when she gasped in surprise. “What?”

            “Henri is training you?” Talia sat on the edge of her bed and peered at the newcomer, as if searching her for hidden qualities.

            “That’s what he told me,” Daria said, frowning slightly. “Why, is he the newbie instructor or something? I’ve already spent too long and learned too much to be put off with a class full of know-nothings.”

            “No, Henri is my father,” Talia said, and then hesitated a moment. “He is the finest instructor we have.”

            “Other than Ra’s al Ghul.”

            “I would say that my father is just as good as the master,” Talia said, smiling slightly. “Perhaps I am biased.”

            “I guess I’ll find out,” Daria said.

 

           Stacy hit the mat hard, bounced once, and skidded to a halt. She gingerly touched the friction burn on her arm and winced, then lifted her hand to wipe away the blood oozing from her busted lip.

            “Better,” Daria said. “I actually had to wake up and defend myself from that attack.”

            “Nice to know you approve,” Stacy grumbled, rising to her feet and walking back to the center of the practice area.

            “You’ve almost mastered the basics,” Daria said. “Soon, I’ll be able to start teaching you how to actually fight.”

            “What have you been teaching me so far?” Stacy asked incredulously.

            “Control, discipline, precision.” Daria dropped into a fighting stance, nodding with approval when Stacy immediately followed suit. “Now . . . .”

 

            “. . . defend yourself!”

            The teacher shot forward, one fist coming in low and one fist coming in high. The student blocked the low punch and ducked under the high punch, using the momentum to spin into a back-kick that could shatter ribs. The teacher deflected the kick, slapping the foot aside and then bringing his knee up into the student’s face.

            Daria hit the hardwood floor with a thump, bounced once, and skidded to a halt. She clutched at the friction burn on her arm and staggered to her feet, ignoring the trickle of blood running down her chin.

            “Almost got you, didn’t I, Henri?”

            “You’re learning faster than any student I have ever taught before,” the man said, nodding slowly. “Soon, we’ll begin your true training.”

            “I look forward to it,” Daria said, wiping away the blood on her face and dropping back into a fighting stance.

            “No, let’s take a break. I’m an old man, and I can’t take having you children pounding on me all day.”

            “You were working with Nat this morning?”

            “I’m very proud of her,” he said, smiling. “She was the best student here before you arrived; I think the competition has been good motivation for her.”

            “Maybe she and I should . . . .”

            “No, not yet,” Henri said, shaking his head. “One or the other of you asks me that every day, and the answer will remain ‘no’ until I’m certain you won’t permanently injure one another.”

            “I promise to take it easy on her,” Daria said, giving her teacher a thin smile.

            “Until you can defeat your rage, you will fight no one at this school except me,” Henri said. “The Master was very specific, and I agree with him.”

            “What does he know?” Daria asked sullenly. “All he does is sit in the temple all day meditating. No offense Henri, but I came here looking for the great Ra’s al Ghul and his Shadow Academy. So far, I’m not impressed.”

            “Perhaps he is not attempting to impress you,” Henri said, smiling slightly at the irritable girl. “Perhaps he thinks you are a spoiled child, and that you’ve been tainted by the weakness of your parents.”

            “Weakness?” Daria growled.

            “If they were strong, they wouldn’t have been killed.”

            “My father was a decent man, he tried to reason with the thug that attacked us. He tried to find a peaceful solution.”

            “As I said, weak: one does not parley with a mad dog without being bitten. If your father had acted swiftly and with strength you would not be here today trying to find the power he never had.”

            With a snarl, Daria leapt into the air. One foot lashed out, striking her teacher in the stomach. As he reeled from the attack, she landed and followed up quickly by smashing her fists against his face and chest rapidly. He dropped to one knee and spun, extending a leg to sweep Daria off her feet. She landed hard, gasping as the wind was knocked out of her lungs. She staggered to her feet again, and glared angrily at her teacher.

            “That is why you do not fight anyone but me,” he said calmly. “Control your rage and you will have all the strength you will ever need. Allow your rage to control you, and it will give you nothing but weakness.”

            “Yes, teacher.” Daria’s face calmed, but the anger did not fade from her eyes.

            “Go clean yourself up, and calm down. You and Talia are spending the next week in Buenos Aires, aren’t you?”

            “Yes, teacher.”

            “Have a good time,” Henri said. “The relaxation will help your focus when you return.”

 

***

 

            “Grovel,” Elsie said, smirking at her brother. “Beg for my forgiveness.”

            “I drove out here to give you and your roomie a ride back to school because your driver flaked,” Tom said, quirking an eyebrow. “I can turn around, walk back to my car, get in my car, and drive my car back home. Did you catch the operative phrase ‘my car’ in that?”

            “Fine, whatever,” Elsie said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s get out of here before Nat has another weird run-in with my friends.”

            “What happened?” Tom asked as he led the girls out into the parking lot.

            “Nothing,” Talia answered with a shrug. “I just know Daria Morgendorffer from elsewhere, and I was surprised to see her.”

            “That doesn’t explain the hate vibes,” Elsie said.

            “Why should your brother beg for your forgiveness?” Talia asked.

            “Uh,” Elsie said, blinking at her roommate.

            “We had a family disagreement after our father’s death,” Tom said smoothly. He unlocked the car doors and climbed in, waiting for the others to follow suit. “I’m sure you wouldn’t be interested in hearing about it.”

            “Perhaps not.”

            Tom cranked the car and pulled out of the Chez Pierre parking lot, the car filled with a slightly uncomfortable silence. The quiet stretched out until they got on the freeway, and Tom said, “So, you’re from South America?”

            “Argentina.” Talia sighed. “I miss it, the countryside is so beautiful. Not polluted and ruined like you’ve done with so much of North America.”

            “She’s an eco-activist,” Elsie said proudly. “Like me.”

            “How nice,” Tom said dryly, resolving himself to listening to another eco-tirade from his sister.

            “Can we drive into the city?” Talia asked abruptly, cutting off Elsie before she could get wound up. “I would like to see more of the city.”

            “Sure,” Tom said, shifting lanes.

            “Why?” Elsie asked. “It’s huge, it smells bad, and it’s full of angry, violent people.”

            “Sometimes I have to remind myself,” Talia said absently. “Sometimes I have to visit the city, to remember why I love the country.”

 

            “Sometimes I have to visit the city, to remember how privileged we are to live in the country. To realize the truth of Ra’s al Ghul’s vision of the future.”

            Daria glanced at her friend, and then looked around the busy airport they had been dropped off in. “Well, speaking for myself, I have been dying to get back to civilization. I’m looking forward to tracking down a good pizza place.”

            “Such food pollutes your body,” Nat said, reaching down to grab her suitcase.

            “You just haven’t had really good pizza,” Daria answered, grabbing her own bag and hurrying to keep up with the taller girl. “Where are the good restaurants here?”

            “I don’t know,” Nat said, shrugging at her friend. “I’m sure we can ask at the hotel.”

            “I thought you were from here.”

            “I was born here, but we moved into the country when I was very young. I don’t remember much about the city except the smell and the noise.”

            “Oh.” Daria waved at a passing taxi and frowned when it passed without slowing. A moment later she waved again and the second taxi also passed by, the driver ignoring the two girls standing on the sidewalk.

            “You ladies need some help?” a young man said, slowly speaking in rough Spanish. “Trying to get a taxi?”

            “You’re not from around here, are you?” Daria asked, smirking up at him.

            “Oh, you speak English.” He smiled back. “No, I’m a Canadian here for the week. Most of my frat brothers went to Florida, but I think I’ll have a better spring break than they will. This is supposed to be a party city.”

            “That’s what I’m talking about,” Daria said, elbowing Nat and smiling. “I’ll bet some of these parties will have pizzas at them.”

            Nat rolled her eyes.

            “We’re in town for the week, too. I guess you could say that we’re taking a break from school also.”

            “We’re going to hit the clubs tonight,” the young man said. “We could come by your hotel and pick you up.”

            “Your dad keeps telling me I need to work off my aggressions,” Daria said. She quirked an eyebrow at Nat, who frowned a moment and then shrugged.

            “We’re staying at the Miravida,” Nat said. “Room 300, just come up and knock. When should we be ready?”

            “Eight?”

            “We can do eight,” Daria said, and then glared at the street. “If we can get a cab by then, anyway.”

            “Allow me,” the young man said. He watched the street a moment, and when a taxi turned the corner he jumped out in front of it, yelling and waving his arms. The driver slammed on the brakes and laid on the horn, screaming a vile litany of curses out his open window.

            “Thanks,” Daria said, jerking open the cab door and climbing into the back.

            “See you at eight,” Nat added, climbing in next to Daria and closing the door.

            The young man smiled and waved as he walked back towards the sidewalk and the cab accelerated away.

            “Where you going?” the driver asked.

            “Miravida,” Daria answered him, and then leaned over to her friend. “So, do you think they’ll show at eight?”

            “No,” she answered, staring at the cab’s side view mirror. “He got into a car with three other men as soon as our cab pulled away. They’ll probably be about ten minutes behind us.”

            “This is going to be fun,” Daria said, rubbing her hands together and smiling coldly. “After we’re done with them, let’s order room service.”

            Nat’s expression slowly shifted from annoyance to amusement as Daria’s infectious smile worked its magic. After a moment, she was smiling back and nodding in agreement. The driver glanced up in the mirror, saw the twin wolf-grins and pushed the cab to a higher speed.

 

            “So,” Amy said, glaring at Daria. “Now that Quinn is safely away at Jane’s house, how about you explain to us exactly who that girl is.”

            “And why she was so creepy and hateful,” Stacy added.

            “Don’t you have some weight training to do?” Daria asked, narrowing her eyes at her partner.

            “Time for that later.”

            “Let me rephrase: you have some weight training to go do.”

            Stacy rolled her eyes. “Fine, but if this girl ends up being a problem later you’d better be ready to spill.”

            Amy watched Stacy walk away and then turned back to her niece. “She’s right. If there’s some kind of danger, we deserve to know, Daria.”

            “She’s not dangerous to you or Stacy.” Daria sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Talia and I were friends at one of the schools I attended, and we parted on less than ideal terms.”

            Amy’s eyes narrowed. “This wouldn’t happen to be the same school buddy you had a rooftop run-in with a little while ago, would it?”

            Daria looked away and said nothing.

            “Goddamn it,” Amy said. “She really doesn’t like you, and I don’t think she liked Quinn much either. She took out a squad of SWAT guys without slowing down, what if she decides to go after me or Quinn?”

            “She won’t.”

            “How can you be so sure?”

            Daria turned and locked eyes with her aunt. “Because I am.”

            “She knows who you are. What if she decides to tell the police who Batgirl is? What if she decides to go to the press?”

            “She won’t do that, either.”

            “Why not?

            “It’s against the code,” Daria said.

            “Code? There’s a code?” Amy threw her hands up in the air with exasperation. “Nobody told me there was a code. And are you sure the code isn’t mostly just a guideline, anyway?”

            “I’m going for a walk,” Daria said. She stood and strode away into the gloom beyond the artificial lighting, vanishing in seconds.

            “Oh, that’s reassuring,” Amy muttered.

            Daria walked into the deeper recesses of the cave, and thought about one of the last times she and Talia had been together, away from school, as friends. It had been late afternoon, in a hotel room in Buenos Aires, as they waited for a group of gentleman callers to arrive.

 

            “How do I look?” Nat asked, walking out of her bedroom into the suite’s common room. She wore a short, red dress and black boots, and her hair was pulled back into a pony tail.

            “Nice,” Daria said. She gestured down at her casual slacks and green blouse, and said, “I feel underdressed, now.”

            “You should do something with your hair, pull it back or something.”

            “Maybe.” Daria grabbed a ponytail holder off the coffee table and started pulling her hair back, pausing to glace up at the knock on the door.

            “Dates are here,” Nat said. “I’ll get the door.”

            She walked to the door and pulled it open, and before she could speak one of the men outside rushed in. He scooped her up on the way and threw her over his shoulder.

            “Get the other one,” he barked, pointing at Daria. His two confederates hurried into the room, each circling the coffee table in a different direction in order to catch her between them.

            Talia flexed, pointing her boots directly at the ceiling, and slipped out of the man’s grasp. She rolled back to her feet and savagely punched him in the kidneys. With a groan, he staggered and began turning just in time to catch a high kick to the face. The man made a high-pitched mewling sound and collapsed to the ground, clutching at his shattered jaw.

            Meanwhile, the men who had attacked Daria had gotten tangled up in one another when she evaded their grabs. She slipped around and axe-handed one of the men in the back of his neck, and he immediately collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. The second man turned to run, and she lashed out with a low kick that caught him in the calf.

            The man staggered, barely managed to keep his feet, and tried to lurch past Talia and back out the door. Daria rolled across the top of the coffee table, sending magazines and glassware flying, and planted both of her boots in the small of his back. At the same time, Talia jumped back and to the side, and flat-palmed him in the center of his chest. The resulting forces caused the man to do a full rotation in midair and land on the carpet facedown.

            Daria crouched in a defensive position, scant inches from where Nat was poised to continue fighting. The two girls stared at each other as a palpable tension filled the room.

            “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Daria asked.

            “We mustn’t.” Nat frowned. “We’ll be thrown out of the Academy, at best.”

            “What your father doesn’t know won’t hurt us.”

            “He’ll know, and Ra’s al Ghul will know.” Nat took a more relaxed stance. “The time will come, be patient.”

            “I suck at patient,” Daria said, standing and stretching. “I’ve been practicing, but I’m just not improving my patience quickly enough.”

            “Dee,” Nat said, rolling her eyes. “Let’s go out and eat. I’ll call the number Father gave me, and this trash will be cleared away by the time we return.”

            “Sounds good to me.”

 

***

 

            Elsie stood in the dorm hallway, the door to her room open in front of her, and stared in shock at what she was seeing. Her keys slipped through her numb fingers and thumped on the carpet, and Nat glanced up from the book she was reading.

            “Come in, close the door,” Nat said quietly. She closed the heavy, leather-bound volume she’d been reading and set it aside.

            Wordlessly, Elsie stepped into the room and pulled the door closed. She continued to stare at the book on Nat’s desk for several seconds, and then slowly turned her head to stare at her roommate.

            “I like what you wrote there,” Nat said. She picked up the book and flipped it open to the section she’d been looking at and read aloud, “The Earth is not dying, it is being killed. The people who are killing it have names and addresses.” She glanced up at Elsie. “Utah Phillips, isn’t it?”

            “Paraphrased,” Elsie said. “That’s not exactly how he phrased it, of course.” She moved to her bed and sat on the edge. “Nat, that journal was locked in my trunk.”

            “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” Nat said. “That lock is very old; I could have picked it open as a five year old. If you’re going to keep journals full of criminal confessions around, you really should keep them somewhere more secure.”

            “You’ve read them?”

            “Over the last few weeks, yeah. I just got to your journal tonight, and I wasn’t expecting you home this soon.” Nat smiled sympathetically. “Your date go sour?”

            “He wasn’t feeling well, we called it right after the movie and when were you going to tell me that you’ve been reading the Sloane family history?” The numbness was starting to fade, being replaced by anger.

            “Calm down, Elsie.” Nat’s smile sharpened a little and she leaned forward to whisper conspiratorially. “I’ve been talking to my father about you, and he wants to meet you. He’s the head of a . . . well, let’s say it’s an environmentally conscious organization that’s acting to minimize the damage humans are doing to the Earth.”

            “So, you’re not going to go to the police about my dad? Or about Tom? You’re not put off by my family being pirates, smugglers, and cutthroats?”

            Nat’s laughter tinkled darkly through the room. “Elsie, my father is Ra’s al Ghul.”

            Elsie blinked and shook her head. “That name is mentioned in the oldest journals. He must have died nearly three hundred years ago, how can he be your father?”

            Nat glanced at her watch. “He’ll be here in a few minutes, and then he can prove it to you himself. While we wait, why don’t I tell you a story?”

            “Okay,” Elsie said, shrugging. “It’s not like things can get any weirder, right?”

            Nat chuckled again, and started her story.

 

            The pain was nearly indescribable, but some small, overly rational part of her mind tried to categorize it anyway. Her left leg was freezing cold, and the way her weight had shifted as Dee carried her back to the truck told her she didn’t want to look down at it. Her ribs felt like a dozen saw blades were sliding in and out of her flesh in time with her breathing.

            She could taste blood in her mouth, not the bright, copper penny taste of a busted lip but the dark, full iron taste of blood from deep in the body. Her vision had faded out some during the drive back to the Academy, and everything seemed to be soft and unreal now.

            “Dee?”

            “She’s outside,” her father said. He knelt over her, checking her wounds. “You’re a very lucky girl, Talia. Daria has great skill as a field medic.”

            “My fault.” Nat coughed and grimaced at the grinding pain in her left side. “Wasn’t paying attention, too busy showing off. I failed you, I’m sorry.”

            “Nonsense.” He began stripping away her broken armor and torn clothing, working around the bandages and tourniquet in order to leave them in place. “You carried out the mission, you returned alive.”

            “Barely.”

            He smiled down at her. “Well, in the future I do expect you to come back with all of your limbs intact.”

            “Dee?”

            “Unwounded, you should be concerned about yourself, Daughter.”

            She nodded slowly. Her vision was receding as everything turned grey around her.

            “Listen to me, this is very important and we don’t have much time. The men I sent you to kill are dead?”

            “Yes.”

            “Do you have any regret for what you’ve done?”

            “They were filth, maggots. They were judged by their actions and sentenced to death, and I executed them. I regret nothing.”

            “Will you swear allegiance to the League of Assassins? Will you swear allegiance to the Head of the Demon?”

            “I swear,” Talia said, and her eyes rolled back in her head.

            Her father checked her pulse and frowned slightly. He glanced up at the two warriors standing quietly nearby and motioned for them to approach. “Take my daughter below, quickly, and prepare her for the Pit. I will follow in a few minutes.”

            The men nodded and, each one taking an arm, they lifted the girl’s body and hurried off down a nearby hallway. The girl’s father walked the other direction and pulled open a closed door.

            Later, Talia’s pain returned ten times greater than it was before. Her whole body burned, and her left leg ached and wept. With a powerful stroke she lifted herself above the surface of the waters and was blinded by the brightness. She drew in her first, ragged breath and screamed her pain to the world.

 

            Amy stood quietly in the cave, frowning at her niece. Daria was staring at one of the computer monitors, but her eyes weren’t focused on the information it was presenting her. She’d been brooding more and more lately, and Amy was at her wit’s end on how to snap her out of it.

            “Daria? Daria?”

            “Hmm?” Daria glanced around, blinking in mild confusion as she came back from wherever her thoughts had been. “What’s going on?”

            “Nothing catastrophic,” Amy said as she walked across the cave. She sat in the second chair they’d installed at the control center and resolved herself to try again. “Talk to me, please.”

            Daria sighed and glanced around. “Where’s Robin?”

            “Stacy,” Amy said, stressing the girl’s name, “went out to have a pizza with Quinn and Jane. You were invited also, as I recall.”

            “I have a date tonight.”

            “Sure you do,” Amy said, looking pointedly at their surroundings.

            “No, really, I do.” Daria glanced at her watch. “I’m meeting him in about forty-five minutes, at some cheap sushi place.” She frowned and shook her head. “He doesn’t know it yet, but we are not eating there. Places like that tend to serve their fish with a side of parasites and I do not have time for gut worms.”

            “What a lovely image,” Amy said dryly. “So, what’s this young man’s name?”

            “Tom,” Daria said. “Tom Sloane. His father was mixed in with some very nasty criminal types before he died, but I haven’t found any connections leading to the son. He’s also got a sharp wit, very well read.”

            “Well, you may be a real girl after all, Daria.”

            Daria glared at her aunt, but didn’t deign to answer the comment.

            “So, are you going to tell me about the mysterious foreign girl yet?” Amy asked. “Or am I going to have to wait until she tries to kill me and then ask her to tell me what’s going on?”

            “Alright,” Daria said. “I’ve been . . . I’ve been thinking that I needed to talk about this anyway, and I’ve trusted you with all my other secrets.”

            “You know I’m here for you,” Amy said gravely. “Just tell me.”

            “Okay.” Daria sighed. “She was my training partner and . . . and best friend at the Shadow Academy, where I finished my training before coming home. I found out some things after we went on our first mission.”

            “What kind of things?”

 

            Outside the room, still wearing her black, layered cloth and leather armor, stood Daria Morgendorffer. She was pacing back and forth, her nerves tuned to the breaking point as she waited for news. Just a few weeks ago she’d gotten the news that her little sister had almost been killed in a car crash. Now the girl who’d grown almost as close as her memories of Quinn lay dying in the room beyond the door.

            “Nat?” she asked, turning as the door opened.

            “She will make a full recovery.”

            “Full recovery?” Daria frowned. “But, Henri, her leg . . . .”

            “We have methods here that you have not yet been shown. She will make a full recovery.” He stepped up to the young woman and frowned softly. “Daria, tell me what happened tonight.”

            “We found the men exactly where you said they would be,” she answered. “We chased them, and cornered them. I told them to throw down their weapons and surrender.”

            Henri nodded.

            “They did, and then . . . and then Nat started killing them anyway. After they surrendered. One of them pulled out a hand grenade, said something about taking us with him . . . .”

            “Why didn’t you try to stop him?”

            “I was . . . why did Nat kill those men? I didn’t know we were going to kill.”

            Henri sighed. “Daria, what do you think we’ve been training you to do?”

            “Protect people,” Daria said immediately. “I can capture, I can injure, I don’t have to kill. By killing we’re no better than the people we’re hunting.”

            “Is the wolf better or worse than the rabbit that feeds it?”

            “But . . . .”

            Henri put one hand on Daria’s shoulder and looked down at the young girl. “Those men were criminals, they had stolen and killed and they would have continued to do so. Policemen, courts, and jails have failed to stop them, and failed to stop uncounted numbers of those just like them.”

            “I’m not going to be judge, jury, and executioner,” Daria said. “I’m only human, what if I make a mistake and kill the wrong person?”

            “That is why you must trust me. I will only ever send you to kill those for whom there is no other option. Rabid animals preying on their fellow humans, or those who would corrupt the Earth and kill us all. I will judge, you will carry out my judgment.”

            Daria took a step back from her former mentor, her eyes narrowing in suspicion. “You will judge? What does Ra’s al Ghul think of that?”

            “You’re smarter than that.” Henri smiled. “Go to your room and mediate on what I’ve told you, and you’ll see that I’m right. Tomorrow, you and my daughter graduate the Shadow Academy and become the newest members of my League of Assassins.”

            Daria nodded slowly, then turned and hurried away. Henri watched her depart and then sighed quietly to himself. He snapped his fingers and a pair of dark-clad men stepped out of the shadows and bowed before him.

            “The men are to be relieved of their guard positions. As a training exercise, rouse the third form students and have them keep watch tonight.”

            The men bowed, and vanished back into the shadows from which they had come.

 

            Jim Vitale finished reading over the contract, rotated it on his desk to face his client, and pushed it over to her. He removed a gold-inlayed marble fountain pen from its holder and placed it on the contract.

            “My advice is to sign the contract,” he said.

            “But . . . the children,” the elderly lady said, staring down at the thick stack of papers in front of her.

            “The children will be well cared for, you know the state has more resources available than a private citizen.” Vitale smiled. “Besides, children are young and adaptable; they’ll survive and be stronger for it. You’ve led a long life, it’s time you started thinking of yourself.”

            “Myself?”

            “Ms. Foster, you are no longer a young woman, and running an orphanage is a difficult, thankless job. Think of your health, and maybe retiring somewhere that you can enjoy your golden years in peace. You’ve certainly earned a vacation, don’t you think?”

            “Well, perhaps I have,” the woman said. She picked up the pen and signed her name in bold strokes across the bottom of the page. “But I will miss them,” she said quietly, a note of regret in her voice.

            “Nothing says you can’t come back and visit,” Vitale said, pulling the papers back across the desk. “I’ll have these notarized and in the mail before the end of the day.”

            “Thank you, Mr. Vitale,” the woman said, rising and shaking hands with the lawyer. “You’ve been a blessing during this ordeal. Everything has worked out so smoothly, and to think I originally came here looking for help to fight the take over!”

            “I’m here to serve, madam,” Vitale said humbly.

            He saw the woman out of his office and had just returned to his desk when his secretary buzzed him.

            “Sir? Your eleven o’clock is here.”

            “Thank you, Marianne, please send him in.”

            “Yes, sir.”

            “Oh, and Marianne? I’m taking a long lunch and the rest of the day off. I want you to call Mr. Jones and tell him that I just finished lining up some new workers for his packaging business, and then take the rest of the day off yourself.”

            “What about the rest of your schedule, sir?”

            “Am I the only lawyer in the building?”

            “No, sir.”

            “Then have somebody else handle it.”

            “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

            Vitale looked up with a shark’s smile when his office door opened. His visitor was a distinguished-looking gentleman wearing a hand-tailored suit. His dark hair and goatee were shot through with streaks of grey, but otherwise it was nearly impossible to guess his age.

            “Giving your secretary the day off, Counselor?” the visitor asked. “You’ve gotten soft on all this city living.”

            “Not at all, not at all,” Vitale said, rising to shake the man’s hand, and then gesturing to a small table and pair of chairs in one corner of the office. “You know me, I love to share my good fortune with those around me.”

            “I’m sure there’s a barb somewhere,” the man said as they settled themselves at the corner table.

            “If you hook all the bait, the fish eventually stop biting,” Vitale said, shaking his head. “So, to what do I owe the honor of a visit from Ra’s al Ghul?”

            “Actually, I’m in town for business. I decided to drop by while I was in the neighborhood, so to speak.”

            “Ah, a courtesy call,” Vitale said. He took a bottle of scotch and a pair of glasses from a nearby shelf and poured a drink for each of them.

            “Yes,” Ra’s said, taking the offered drink and sipping it gently. “I’ve come to keep an eye on a couple of my wayward children. You know how unruly daughters can be when they’re unsupervised.”

            “I know mine gets up to all kinds of trouble,” Vitale said, shaking his head. “I don’t know where she gets it from, either. Normally, she’s level-headed but sometimes she gets these wild ideas . . . .”

            “Probably takes after her mother,” Ra’s said with an amused grin.

            “Doubtless. So, which ones are you here to keep an eye on? Maybe I can provide some assistance.”

            “Several, as luck would have it. My plans may be reaching their culmination faster than I expected.”

            “The One Who Is All?” Vitale asked, raising an eyebrow.

            “I hardly believed it myself when David came to me with the idea,” Ra’s said, shrugging his shoulders. “Especially after the way things turned out with the Mad Dog.”

            “Yet here you are.”

            “Here I am.” Ra’s said, slowly nodding his head. “Succeed or fail, things are sure to be interesting.”

            “May we live in interesting times,” Vitale said, raising his glass in a toast.

            “May we, indeed,” Ra’s answered, lifting his own.

 

            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.

            Jim Vitale created by Scissors MacGillicutty.

           Gotham City, Batgirl, Robin, Talia al Ghul, Ra’s al Ghul, and other DC references © DC Comics and are used without permission, and without profit.