I Am The Night (Part 2)
Comics Retcon Universe 014
I Am The Night
Bruce Wayne has been a vigilante stalking the nights of Chicago for months, doing what he could to help stop the rising crime rate. But he's just a man and now he's met his match.
Author's Note: Here's the beginning of a brand new story but I must warn you that he is not the Bat from the comics so I took some liberties with his character. I wanted to establish that this is a real world interpretation of him and as such he's not nearly as cool as he is in the comics or movies. So you need to keep that in mind when reading this. You also have to keep in mind that he is not the main character of this story. I'd like to thank djkauf for the editing and DC Comics for the wonderful characters.
“You’re going to wear a hole in the floor with all that walking,” said Uncle Jim from his chair.
I didn’t respond. Instead I continued my pacing, waiting impatiently for Jen. After talking with her on the phone last night for two hours, she wanted to rush over here immediately. But I talked her out of it, it would have been pointless what with the Narrows unofficial curfew and all. So we decided that she’d show up here after school today. I’m not sure how her day was, but for me it was a total bummer, having to wait all day for her to show. After talking with Jen last night, Uncle Jim and I had a talk, too. We both decided that I should forego school for a few days---at least until I got some proper credentials to go with my new self. He made an appointment for me with some government woman---it was scheduled for later this week.
I wasn’t really sure how to respond to that. I’m not sure why it was such a big deal but the idea of some government person coming here in a few days made me kinda uneasy. I guess I was kinda nervous that she was going to take one look at me and say that I couldn’t be a girl. I know it sounds crazy but crazy things have been happening lately. There were heroes all over the world now, and villains to match. In San Francisco, the Green Arrow and Blue Beetle were stalking the streets, and here in Chicago there were so many heroes that I couldn’t even name them all even if I tried. There were countless others too---like Terra and Jade. I had to wonder if any of them had to pass government scrutiny, too.
The hissing of bus wheels drew me from my thoughts.
I rushed to the door and pulled it open. There was a large city bus in front of our house. When the door opened, Jen was the only one who got off. She looked like her usual self, dressed in an earthy outfit. I rushed out onto the large porch, barely containing my glee. I wanted her to see the new me more than anything. She was halfway down the walk when she stopped dead in her tracks, getting a good look at me. I was wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, both belonging to Babs. We were close to the same size. When our eyes locked, for a moment I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. It was the longest thirty seconds in my life I think. But it ended quickly when Jen rushed forward and threw her arms around me, crying of all things.
Her crying got me crying.
“Girls” said Uncle Jim from the doorway. “Why don’t you come inside and I’ll get you something to eat.”
Uncle Jim didn’t have to go into work until later. He said, though his job was important, there were others who could handle things until he got there. I think he wanted to be home with me---at least for today. I was the one who convinced him to cut it to half a day. I don’t think he was too happy but he conceded. He was still looking for my story, I think---trying to be the sly detective about it. But so far he’d been unsuccessful and I wasn’t ready to give. Partly because I was afraid he’d get angry with me and partly because I needed to think up a good lie so he wouldn’t get angry. But it’s really hard to lie to a cop, especially the Head one.
Jen and I went into the house. She looked around wide eyed at the size. Her grandparents’ place was big, especially considering where it was located. But this place was like the Manor compared to that. I gave her a quick tour, which ended in my room. We closed the door, making sure not to lock it. Not that we’d do anything stupid but Uncle Jim told me he didn’t like locked doors.
“Holy crap” said Jen, flopping down on my bed. “I hardly recognized you.”
I smiled. “I’m still me.”
“Give me a twirl,” she said excitedly.
I rolled my eyes and she laughed. I slowly turned in a circle, Jen sized me up. When I was done, she frowned. At first I thought I did something wrong. I put on a pouty face and she laughed.
“It’s not that” she said, still laughing.
“What is it?”
“You’re bigger than I am.”
I grabbed a pillow and threw it at her. Which of course made her grab a pillow and the two of us went at it. It was kinda fun and stupid but very carefree. We dueled for a while, finally ending in a draw. After that, we sat and talked. Jen was pretty bright so it didn’t her long to start asking the real serious questions. She wanted to know what happened. Last night I gave her a small rundown of events; she was angry with me at first. I don’t think she liked the fact that I lied to her. I didn’t like it either but I knew she’d talk me out of it if I told her. So now, when I told her everything---all the details---she glared at me. Then she scolded me. I deserved it. What I did the other night was beyond stupid. In the end, she made me promise never to do anything stupid like that again. I quickly did so.
After that, the conversation went to lighter things. She mainly wanted to talk about how to redecorate my room. Jen was a typical girl where it counted. I told her about maybe painting the walls a light shade of purple. I might have mentioned before I’m kinda obsessed with the color. According to her, the only good thing about the whole warehouse incident was that my ratty purple hoodie was burnt beyond recognition. I was still mourning its loss though. We talked girly things for hours after that then the conversation switched to school. I told her I would still be attending the same one but had to wait until I had a meeting with some government woman.
Jen left before it got dark, taking the bus back into the city. That was one thing I was going to miss about living here: Jen was no longer around the corner. After she was gone, I was alone in the house. Uncle Jim left for work and wouldn’t be back until later. Have you ever been in a big house all by yourself? Let me tell you right now it’s kinda creepy. I thought about calling Babs but remembered she had a night class. So I decided to take advantage of the park across the street. I went upstairs and rummaged through Babs’ closet, looking for something warm to wear. Though it was September and nice during the days, the nights were getting a bit chilly. You’ll never guess what I found: a black hoodie. It wasn’t purple but it was better than anything.
It was a zip up kind and when I put it on, it was at least two sizes too big but it was nice and warm. Babs was a product of that bygone age where kids liked bigger clothes. At least as far as hoodies went. After making sure I wrote Uncle Jim a note, I left the house. I half ran down the drive and then across the street. It was not quite six, so the sun was still up but just barely. Looking at the park in this dim light made me smile. I couldn’t remember the last time I was here. I also couldn’t remember the last time I could take a walk this late and not fear for my life. That was one thing I wasn’t going to miss about the city.
I headed straight for the track. The local high school used this place for practice a lot. I was watching them earlier from my window. I think it was the whole football team, running laps. It must have sucked being run through your paces like that. It kinda made me a bit nostalgic though. I kinda missed gymnastics. It made me want to find the nearest Gym and sign up again. I could too, especially now that I was out of Dad’s hair. But to get back into it after so long; I’m not sure if I could do that. Besides everything was different now: I’d have to relearn the whole thing.
I sighed heavily and shivered in the wind, pulling the hood up over my head. I kept my head down as I walked, lost in my thoughts. I headed for the track and slowly walked around it. There was no one here at this time of the day, what with evening almost upon us. I had the thing to myself, which I kinda liked. It helped me get lost in my thoughts and boy did I have some things to think about. Yesterday I had been the most excited girl in the world---and I still was---but I was scared, too. It’s not every day that a guy turns into a girl. I love everything about it---I wouldn’t take it back for anything---but what did it all mean? There has been a lot of talk about Metas over the last few months, some good and bad. People are a little up in the air on the subject actually. There are those in certain communities who think we’re “devils” while others see us as “gifts from God.”
Me, I was always kinda indifferent about it. Was I jealous of Metas---of course? I mean who wouldn’t want to have cool superpowers. But at what cost? There were a lot of guys and girls out there who weren’t like me. I can clearly remember the interview they did with Myka Carter shortly after she saved the President. She had been happy as a guy. She did admit that she had a gambling problem before but that her life was pretty good. Then everything got uprooted by the “Change”. That’s what a lot of people are calling it---The Change. I guess that makes sense but couldn’t it have been something cooler like “The Metamorphosis”. I had to read that in English class last year---Ovid’s not Kafka’s. I don’t remember much of it other than I was really jealous of that prophet guy---the one that got turned into a girl for striking a pair of snakes while they were having sex. I can honestly admit I thought about looking for a pair myself just to see if it would work. Now that I’ve found my own snake---figuratively of course---I’m kinda scared that it might come with a hefty price.
I continued to think about my blessing or curse as I walked around the track. As I walked, the sun went down and darkness slowly crept in. With it came the cold. I thought about zipping up the hoodie but it wasn’t too bad. I shivered a bit and started back toward the house. I was about halfway there when something caught my eye. Actually someone. More than someone, it was a bunch of some ones. I noticed them a few minutes ago but I thought they were a bunch of kids about my age, fooling around in the park like guys did. They were laughing before and having a good time. Or that’s how it appeared.
I caught sight of them again as I was leaving the track. They were far enough away that I couldn’t really make out what they were doing but I could see that there were at least four or five them. They were surrounding one of the picnic tables, laughing and carrying on. I couldn’t make out any faces but that didn’t really matter because I didn’t know many of the guys in school anyway. In school? Were they even from my school? I know it wasn’t much of a stretch to think that, after all this town had its own school, too. But there was just something about these guys that seemed to breathe familiarity to me. I guess that’s why I found myself slowly making my way over, pretending of course to walk along the path that ran pretty close to them.
Familiarity came pretty quick, especially when one of the guys talked: “C’mon, it’s not going to hurt.”
The voice was awfully familiar. I pretended to stop and tie my shoe, not that they noticed anyway. I glanced at the group and recognized the speaker. I didn’t know his name but he was in my third period government class. So these were some of my classmates. I looked at some of the other faces but the speaker was the only one who was facing me. The others were tall though, wearing hoodies not all that different from my own. The only one who wasn’t was the guy they were surrounding. I couldn’t see his face but from the position he was in---lying on his back on the table---it was clear that he was much smaller than them. It was also pretty clear that he didn’t want to be there.
I cursed. Then I stood up, finishing my pretend activity. I looked about, wondering if there was anyone else here to take notice. But as far as I could tell, we were the only people in the park. I cursed again. A small part of me wanted to leave and not get involved. It was a very small part. It wasn’t in control though so it couldn’t stop me when I took a deep breath and left the path. It was a good thing too because as soon as I got closer, one of the taller boys’s moved and I saw their victim’s face: it was Arnold. I bit my lip and charged in, not a moment too soon.
“Just stick it in him already” said one of the other boys.
The boy closest to me was trying to jab a needle into Arnold’s arm while two others held him down.
Arnold squirmed and kicked. “I changed my mind guys…I don’t want….ahhh….you bastards.”
I got to them at about that time. I was closest to the one doing the injecting. I grabbed him by the shoulder, pulling him away. I think I shocked him more than anything. The needle actually snapped in Arnold’s arm, the little freshman screamed. The Injector looked at me bleary eyed for a second. When I looked in his face, I did a double take. I’m not sure what he was on but whatever it was, it was bad. His pupils were huge, his veins bulging and his skin was really pale. There was a weird look in his eyes too, like a crazed lunatic. He held the empty needle in his hand and for a second he looked stunned. Then he reacted. He crushed the needle in his palm, shards of glass digging into his flesh. It was a bloody mess but it didn’t seem to faze him much.
I let go of his shoulder and took a step back. I locked eyes with Arnold but he couldn’t see me because of the hood. I wasn’t about to drop it though, not until these guys were gone.
“The kid said no,” I said, putting an edge to my voice, trying to sound menacing.
It didn’t really have the effect I was looking for. Especially when the other guys turned toward me. They were huge and I’m not just talking tall, I’m talking bulging muscles. One of them wasn’t wearing a jacket---just a tank top–it showed his bulging veins. It kinda creeped me out. I snapped around the circle, looking at all their faces though. They all had the same pale skin and blood shot eyes. It didn’t take a genius to know what was going on here: these guys were Thrill Seekers. When the police sent the memo to Leslie about Thrill, they added a description of what a Thrill Seeker might look like. I was staring at four of them now. I took another step back, having read the whole report. Thrill was all about the adrenaline rush and these guys looked like big Seekers.
What the hell did I just get myself into?
“You need to back the fuck up out of here right now,” said the one who crushed the needle, blood dripping from his hand.
I looked at the hand but if he knew he was bleeding he didn’t seem to react to it. I had to wonder if it was part of the drug reaction. I looked away from him quickly and back over to Arnold. He was sitting up on the table, holding his arm. The four Seekers had completely abandoned him as the target. Now they were all concentrated on me.
I played the only card I had. “You guys better get the hell out of here right now. The police commissioner lives right across the street, all I have to do is scream.”
The leader of the group seemed to pause but only for a second. Then he laughed. “Let him come, we’ll jack his ass up pretty good.”
Ok so much for the subtle approach. I bit my lip. It sucked that I hadn’t been a girl longer. If I had been, I would have had a purse and inside I would have been prepared. Jen had two very important things in her’s: a can of mace and a rape whistle. Not that she ever had to use them but her grandparents were the overprotective type. I kinda wished that Uncle Jim had at least bothered to give me one of those. I suppose he probably would have if I had been with him for more than a day. I suppose it’s my own fault in a way, coming out, thinking that I was safe just because I wasn’t in the Narrows anymore. I guess the moral of this story is that crime is everywhere and that you need to be prepared for that.
“You guys don’t want to start shit here, it’s beneath you.”
The leader smirked. “You should have thought of that before getting your ass involved.”
Shit. I opened my mouth to say something else but didn’t get a chance to speak. Instead, I squeaked as the leader lunged for me. I’m not really sure what happened. I know he was pretty close and the odds of me getting away from him weren’t all that great. So it kinda surprised the hell out of me when I easily slipped from his grasp, slithering away like a snake. I only had a moment to think about it because one of his friends came for me. The way these guys moved, they could have been on the football team. They were big but they were fast. The one that came at me hit me hard in the side, his head slamming into my ribcage.
The blow drove me to the ground. He dropped on top of me, pinning me in place. The strangest thing was the lack of pain. I should have been screaming and wailing from it. It should have hurt like hell but I didn’t feel a thing. I wonder if it meant what I thought it did. Not that I had time to ponder that possibility. The guy sitting on top of me grounded his knee into my back. I think he was expecting me to scream out in pain but when I didn’t he looked a little perplexed.
“What the fuck” he said, reaching down and grabbing my hood. He pulled it off my head and the look on his face was genuine. “Holy shit, it’s a chick.”
He shifted his weight, rising just a tad. It was enough for me to roll fully on my back. Then I did something a little crazy. I snapped my head forward as hard as I could, driving it right between the legs. Being a guy only a short twenty-four hours ago---more or less---I knew being hit in the joy spot wasn’t all ice cream and kitties. But being head butted there had to hurt like a bitch. The look of pain spread across the son of a bitch’s face. He fell off me, grabbing his crotch. Then he toppled on the ground, writhing in pain. I kicked him a few times, making sure to get him in the face at least once.
“You fucking bitch” snapped one of the other guys. “You’re dead.”
Two of the others rushed forward but their leader---Mr. Bloody Hand---stopped them by holding out his arms. He looked at me and smirked. “If it isn’t the ball breaker herself. Is this what you do, patrol the local parks looking for dweebs in trouble.”
I glared at him. It pissed me off that I didn’t have a name for his face.
“Stephanie?” said a voice from behind.
I snapped quickly over to Arnold. He was crawling off the table, still holding his arm. I smiled at him. “Hey Arnie, nice night for a stroll in the park, huh.”
Mr. Bloody Hand spoke again. “Hey Bitch, we not good enough for you.”
I turned my attention back to them. I shrugged. “You guys aren’t good enough for anyone.”
“Let me mash her face, Johnny,” said one of his eager friends, twitching with excitement.
I nodded toward him. “He doesn’t look so good. I think you guys need to lay off that shit.”
Bloody Hand smirked. Then he reached into his pocket, pulling out a second needle. I looked at it, at the yellowish green liquid inside. “You want a hit, baby,” he said with a big grin. “It will take you places you could never dream.”
He shrugged. Then he stuck the needle in his arm. It didn’t take him long to find a vein, after all they were practically bulging out of his skin. His body started to quiver as he injected himself with it. Then it was as if he was reacting to a massive orgasm. He gasped real loud, closing his eyes and throwing his head back. Not that I knew what that was like but I’ve seen it in movies. His two friends looked on in jealous envy, probably wishing they were having the fix he was having. I looked at the three of them then at Arnold. I knew we didn’t have much time so I grabbed his arm and ran, dragging him with me. At first, he stumbled along behind me---probably a bit confused---but he caught on pretty quick.
We ran as hard as fast as our feet could take us. I knew as long as we got across the street and into the house, we’d be fairly safe. If the three of them were stupid enough to try and break into the Commissioner’s house they needed to be arrested. We were going pretty fast but it didn’t take long for them to come pounding after us. I could hear them coming up fast, faster than they should have. We had a huge head start but they were gaining ground too quickly. It had to be that fucking drug. I don’t remember anything about it saying that it enhanced speed but the report was also preliminary at best.
They made up the distance too quickly. I could see the street but there was no way we’d make it. So I made a decision. “Arnold, run across the street and into that big brown house. Call the police; tell them you’re a friend of the Commish’s niece.”
Arnold didn’t ask any questions. He just kept running. I watched him go then turned on our pursuers. The closest one was one of the goons. I think it was one who wanted to “mash my face” earlier. He was charging like a bull, saliva flying out of his mouth. He was really too fast for me to react and yet somehow I did. I’m not really sure how to explain it. It was like the warehouse all over again. I felt lighter than air and when he lunged, I turned so effortlessly that it was as if I was reacting without even thinking about it. He was going too fast to stop so he stumbled and slammed into the ground, face first. It probably hurt like hell. I heard him groan then push himself up, a face full of grass and dirt no doubt. I didn’t wait to find out though. I took this momentary relapse to continue running. With him down and his friends still somewhere behind me, I ran for the street.
I got across it quickly enough. He was about to give chase but a car zoomed by. I was lucky because I got on the other side before it hit me. He glared angrily at me. I wanted to flip him off but I didn’t waste the gesture. Instead, I turned and ran up my driveway. When I got into the house---glad I forgot to lock the door---I found Arnold in the main room. He was on the phone, probably talking to dispatcher. He smiled at me and looked relieved as I walked into the room. I locked the door this time. Then I turned and looked out the window. The goon was gone. I guess he wasn’t as ballsy as he pretended to be. I wouldn’t have pursued us either.
I sighed in relief and walked over to the couch, flopping down on it. Arnold got off the phone a few minutes later, dropping down too. I looked at his arm, it didn’t look too bad. It was a little red and swollen where the needle jabbed him but other than that it didn’t look too bad.
“You want me to bandage that for you?”
He shook his head. “I’m good.”
I nodded. “Are the cops sending someone?”
He shrugged. “They have a car in the area.”
We sat in silence for a few minutes after that. Then I asked the question that was foremost in my thoughts. “What the hell were you doing with those guys?”
He sighed and told me his story. It wasn’t all that hard to piece together. They promised to help him fight off the bullies. Apparently, there was an incident today in school---one I wasn’t there to prevent. I guess I can’t be around all the time to protect the kid but it pissed me off. Arnold got roughed up pretty good and those guys helped him. Then they promised to help him some more. He was a little desperate and agreed. He gave them some money and they brought him to the park. He was hanging out with them---they acted like they wanted to be his friends. But that’s when they told him about the drug. The rest I knew.
“Guys like that are the lowest of the low,” I said angrily.
He nodded. “I was just so damn tired of all the bullying.”
“You have me, you know. As long as I’m around I won’t let those jackasses touch you.”
I’m not sure that was the right thing to say. I guess I couldn’t blame the kid. I was the bullied kid for the longest time. I knew exactly where the kid was coming from. So when he reacted to my words, I kinda felt his pain too.
“You’re a girl,” he snapped. “If you were me would you want a girl sticking up for you all the time?”
I shook my head.
He continued. “No offense, Stephanie, you’re cool and all but you’re only making things worse.”
That threw me a bit. “They’re fucking with you. How am I making things worse?”
“You’re not helping, that’s for sure.”
I frowned. “You want to be their punching bag all your life?”
He got angrier. “Better that than being known as the Sissy who has a girl fight all his battles for him.”
The gibe stung. It stung a little less though because it was true. I was so busy seeing myself in Arnold that I forgot he wasn’t like me. I would have loved it if someone had stuck up for me---protected me like I did for him. I wouldn’t have cared if it were a girl. But then again I saw myself as one so it wouldn’t have been too much of a problem for me. For Arnold though---it was bad. I forgot how rough guys could be to one another. It was no wonder he liked it so much better when those four stood up for him.
I opened my mouth to say something else but closed it just as quickly. I didn’t really know what to say. So the two of us sat in silence, Arnold with his back to me, sniffling. I let him cry. It was good to cry every now and then even for a guy. He cried for a while then more silence followed. The ringing of the doorbell interrupted our dead silence. I got up and answered. It was the police officer we called for. I invited him into the house---Arnold wiped his tears. He took our statements, first Arnold’s, then mine. He was here for about an hour, trying to get as much detail as he could. I told him everything I knew, including the names I heard used. I think he was impressed with how much I was able to take from the scene. I was a little impressed myself.
“Would you like a ride back into the city, son?” asked the cop of Arnold when it was over.
Arnold looked back at me, ice in his stare. “Yeah, I’m done here.”
Another sharp sting. That one I didn’t deserve. I was only trying to help and he threw it back at me. “I’ll see you in school?”
He shook his head. “Just leave me alone.”
Then he turned and followed the officer out of the house. I went to the door and watched the two of them go. I felt a pain in my chest, knowing that in the end I had hurt Arnold more than helped him. I wanted to cry but no tears came. Instead, I stood there and watched as he got into the patrol car and they drove off. I stood in the doorway for a while, staring off into the park. A small part of me wanted to run across the street and back into it looking for those bastards. I wanted to pound the snot out of them. But another part of me wanted to crawl into the corner and cry. After a few minutes of staring, I found myself at a midway decision.
I turned and went back into the house. I didn’t go into the corner though; instead, I went to the couch. I grabbed the remote and watched TV. I avoided the news though; I didn’t want to hear stories about successful heroes, heroes that people actually thanked. Heroes that people wanted to save them. Instead, I found myself on Cartoon Network. I watched for a few hours until Adult Swim came on. It was then that I heard the front door open. I shut off the TV, pulling my legs up onto the couch, hugging my knees.
It didn’t take Uncle Jim very long to walk into the room. At first, he didn’t say much. He set his briefcase in a chair then took off his coat, hanging it in the closet. When he was finished with that, he took the paper and went over to his chair. When he sat down he finally locked at me. When our eyes locked, he frowned.
He sighed. “You know when the police are called and my name is dropped, I generally take notice.”
I sighed. “So you heard about today?”
He nodded. He didn’t say anything for a few minutes; then let out another sigh. “I think you and I need to have that talk now.”
All I could do was nod.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt particularly relaxed. Most of the events of the night before were long gone from my head. I guess it helped that Uncle Jim and I had a nice long talk. He wanted to know everything---starting with the real reason why I was at the warehouse. I thought about lying, but like I said before, he’d know. So I found myself telling the truth and it was strangely invigorating. I don’t think he was too happy with it but he did say that he was glad I didn’t make something up. He scolded me a bit about it though, which only got worse when I told him about last night. He said all he could do was ground me for the day, telling me to stay in the house. I was kinda excited about that actually; I’d never been grounded before. It made me feel like I was finally in a real relationship with someone---the kind where the kid does something wrong and the adult punishes them the proper way.
I smiled about it as I stripped out of my shirt and got into the shower. While the warm water washed over my newer, sensitive body my thoughts drifted to the Manor of all places. Leslie had told me not to go into work for a few days to help me adjust to things. She also said she’d square things away with Bruce to at least get me a few days off there as well. Though it kinda annoyed me, it was a lot of help. As much as I love going there, I was kinda glad I had a day or two for myself. My thoughts drifted to school after that and of course to Arnold. Last night I had accepted his anger toward me but now it kinda pissed me off. It seemed to me that Arnold wanted to go through his whole life with people shoving him around and I guess I couldn’t stop him. But there’s no way I could stand by and watch others do it. It pissed me off to see the big prey on the little.
When I got out of the shower, the phone was ringing. I just managed to wrap a towel around my wet self and run into my room to answer. “Hello” I said, a bit out of breath.
“Is this Miss Stephanie Brown?” asked a female voice on the other end.
“This is her,” I said, wondering how many people actually knew that name.
“Miss Brown my name is Special Agent Cameron Chase, I work for the Department of Metahuman Affairs, I believe Dr. Klyburn told you I might be contacting you.”
I wanted to sigh. Instead, I confirmed it. We talked for a few minutes, she asked me some questions and I answered them to the best of my ability. Then she told me the reason why she called, she was moving our meeting up to today. A car would be by to pick me up in an hour. I’m not sure I was too happy with it but who was I to argue with the government. So I told her that was fine and ended the conversation. An hour didn’t give me much time to get ready but I tried. I rushed about my room, drying off and getting dressed as quick as possible. I dressed as sensible as possible, raiding Bab’s closet again. I was just lucky she left a lot of clothes behind. I found a sensible blouse and skirt. The shoes would have to do as well though I wasn’t so sure about the heel. I’ve walked in heels before but not very far and nothing more than an inch. The two-inch ones were a bit tricky but I got the hang of them really fast---too fast in fact.
My hair was still a bit damp and my makeup was rushed but I got down the stairs with time to spare. It was a good thing too, because while I was in the kitchen fixing some toast, the doorbell rang. I groaned, taking my buttered bread with me as I went and answered the door. When I opened it, I was surprised to see a tall, stern looking man standing there. He was dressed in black from head to toe which contrasted with his well-coifed blonde hair. His casual look surprised me though; I didn’t think a government agent would wear a turtleneck.
“Miss Brown?” he asked, I nodded. “I’m Agent Tresser, DMA.”
He flipped a badge up then back down. It was too fast for me to really see but I believed him. I looked from him to his shoulder holster, I thought these guys were supposed to conceal their weapons, not leave them out in the open like that.
“I thought I was meeting with an Agent Chase?” I asked as I walked over to the closet and got out a coat. It was another item of Babs’. As soon as I got some time I was definitely going shopping. Agent Stern Face stood in the doorway the whole time, watching me as I put on the garment. He kinda freaked me out a bit.
“Agent Chase is the acting Operating Supervisor of this region; I will be handler for the duration of the DMA’s involvement in your case.”
My case? “How long will that be?”
“That is not for me to decide.”
I frowned, his face was expressionless. I wrote Uncle Jim a note---today he had no choice to go into work. I told him where I went just in case he got back before me. Then I followed Mr. Stiff Agent out to his car. It kinda surprised me too. It was one of those new Acuras, only on the market for a few months now. It was sleek and black with government plates. I was able to sit in the front seat which I think annoyed him some. When he got into the car and turned on the engine, I half expected him to speed. He looked like the kind of guy who would do something like that. But when he pulled down the drive and onto the road, he went the speed limit.
Kinda boring after all. I frowned at that.
We drove into the city. I’m not sure what I was expecting but an hour after leaving the house we pulled into a parking garage next to a gray building with a glass front. We probably passed through several different security doors---Tresser swiped his card so many times I lost count. Every hall we looked through looked the same and every door we passed had no names. It was kinda boring but it was definitely freaky. We finally came upon a room that looked semi-normal. Inside I went through what Tresser called processing. A woman handed me a gown and told me to take off all my clothes. I did so a bit reluctantly.
“Dr. Klyburn already gave me a physical,” I said when I was finished putting on the gown.
The woman nodded. “This is for our records sweetie.”
“Where am I exactly?”
The room rolled her eyes. “That man has no people skills whatsoever.”
But she didn’t answer my question, at least not right away. Instead, she went through the paces of a physical. She made me sit on an exam table while she took my temperature then blood pressure. She did some other stuff too. But just like Dr. Klyburn, she couldn’t take blood either. I was still trying to figure that out actually. According to Leslie, she took some of my blood while I was unconscious. So maybe that was the trick, not that I wanted to find out. It did freak me out a bit that they couldn’t stick a needle in my skin. I hadn’t really given what happened the other day much thought but sitting here now---in a similar situation---I couldn’t help but wonder. Was this part of my metagene? Was I now indestructible girl?
When she couldn’t take blood, she ended up swabbing my cheek too. After that, things went a little smoother. She took my weight---102---and my height. I frowned at that. I’d read somewhere that some people got taller when the Meta change happened to them but apparently I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t have to look over her shoulder when she wrote that down. When she was down with that, she did some measuring. Why the government needed to know my bust, hip and waist measurements were beyond me.
“You can get dressed now, sweetie, you’ll need your normal clothes for this next part.”
She finished writing on her clipboard and then left the room.
I pulled off the gown---happy to be rid of it---and dressed as quickly as possible. I sat in the room by myself for a few minutes then the woman came in to retrieve me. She led me down the hall to another room. This one looked like the photo room at the DMV. She made me stand in front of a large digital camera and took several pictures of me. I had my license, not that it meant much in the city. There were a lot of people who could drive but didn’t have cars. I was one of them. Dad said there was no reason for me to drive. I think he didn’t like the idea of me being able to bail from him if need be. Jen had her license too but her grandparents thought she was too young to drive by herself. We both laughed at that one, what with her being almost eighteen and all.
“What’s all this for anyway?” I asked after picture number five or six.
“Your new identification of course.”
After pictures, I was taken to another room. This one was small with a table and two chairs. The woman handed me a lot of papers and a pen. She didn’t even tell me what to do. I sat at the table and browsed through them. They were some pretty standard stuff---change of address form, change of name form. It surprised me that Uncle Jim’s signature was already at the bottom in the spot marked Guardian. They must have had him sign them earlier or something. I read over the official documents thoroughly before signing them myself---I smiled when I put Stephanie Brown down. It felt kinda good to be official like that. The next bunch of papers had to do with school. A lot of that info was already filled out; I recognized my uncle’s handwriting. All I had to do was sign but I read them just to make sure. But it was all there. I was still going to Jefferson High in the city. How I was getting there, I didn’t know. That is until I got to the last few documents in the pile. One of them was for some kind of government incentive---I guess they gave a stipend to all new recent transformees. I frowned because it didn’t say the amount but knowing our government it probably wasn’t much. The last page was a lease. When I saw it my eyes bugged out of my head: it was for a car. I couldn’t believe that the government was actually giving me a car. But when I read, further I realized it wasn’t the government at all but Uncle Jim. He’d apparently bought me a brand new 2012 Ford Focus. I couldn’t sign that one fast enough.
Ten minutes after I signed the last sheet, there was a knock on the door. Whoever was on the other side didn’t wait for me to say come in. The door opened and in walked a sharply dressed blonde woman, her hair pulled tight on the top of her head. She sat in the chair across from me, placing a folder on the table in front of her. Agent Tresser slipped into the room behind her, grimacing. Apparently, whoever she was, he didn’t look too happy about her stepping into his jurisdiction.
“Miss Brown” she asked, I nodded. “I’m Special Agent in Charge Cameron Chase.”
Ah, so that’s why Tresser was pissed. This was the boss that called me earlier then blew me off, sticking me with Agent Personality over there.
I smiled. “It’s nice to meet you at last.”
She cut right to the chase---no pun intended. She opened the folder. “You have a lot of powerful friends Miss Brown. So powerful in fact that I’m afraid they’ve completely undermined my authority here. Usually new Metas like yourself are put through an intense screening process but in your case that doesn’t seem to be necessary.”
“I don’t understand.”
She smirked. “You’re no longer our problem.” When she said it, there was ice in her voice. She was clearly a woman who did not like being told what to do. “I think we should all be so lucky as to be friends with influential billionaires.”
Billionaires? Oh God Bruce. I still hadn’t figured out what I was going to say to him or Tim. I suppose that didn’t matter anymore, the cat’s out of the bag as they say. I suppose it was no surprise, him knowing about me so quickly. The man seemed to know a lot of things and prided himself on it. All I could do was smile, hoping my happiness would wipe the sneer off this woman’s face.
So no DMA---whatever that was. No Sneering Woman, no Cold Tresser. I could definitely live with that.
When Agent Tresser dropped me off, I didn’t bother to say good-bye. I rushed into the house, a stack of papers under my arm. They were mine after all, the government had their copies. I carried them into the kitchen and started making phone calls. The first number I dialed was the car dealership. Apparently, my car was being shipped from an overseas factory; it would arrive in a few days. I should have been disappointed about that but I was still too damn happy I was getting one. After that, I moved onto the more official calls. First was the bank. The government set up a temporary account for me. I called the automated service, spent way too long punching buttons. When I finally to the actual account I nearly dropped the phone. Fifteen thousand dollars was not a small stipend in the least.
I had a lot of things I wanted to buy with it but college was nagging in the back of my mind. I wanted to go to Northwestern like Babs and Myka Carter. All my life I’d only had one dream: I wanted to go into law enforcement. I’d already started filling out the application too, signing myself up for the criminal justice program. From there I’d try to get into a criminal psychology program I think. As much as I dreamed about being a police officer like Uncle Jim, what I really wanted to do was get into the heads of some of these bad guys. My guidance counselor at Jefferson was already helping me get one step closer to that dream.
Speaking of Jefferson, they were my next call. I spent the longest time on the phone with them. First, I had to convince the secretary who I was then I had to convince her that I wasn’t a girl already. After that, I was put through to the Vice Principal and had to do everything all over again. In the end when I finally got the principal, he already knew about it. Apparently, Special Agent Chase gave him a call. He set up a meeting to meet with Uncle Jim and me before school tomorrow morning. After that, I would officially be a student again at Jefferson.
After the hour or so I spent on the phone with the school, I wanted to call Jen. But she was still in class. I bit my lip and realized there were at least two more calls I needed to make. The first was to Leslie. I think she was pretty happy to hear that everything was all right. When I told her I was free to come into work right now she told me to take another day off, make it official tomorrow. I was more than happy to oblige. We talked for a few minutes but she was busy teaching my temporary replacement the ropes so she had to let me go. After getting off the phone, I made my last scheduled call.
“Hey Al” I said, when the butler picked up on the third ring.
“Miss Stephanie is that you?”
“In the flesh, well sorta.”
Not even a chuckle from him. Instead, he responded with: “I didn’t recognize your voice, it sounds very lovely.”
“It sounds lovely to me too.”
We talked for a few minutes. After he asked me if I was “feeling” better, we got right down to business. I told him that I’d be starting school again tomorrow and that I was willing to start up again if Bruce still needed me. To which he replied:
“Master Bruce would be lost without you my dear.”
I’m not sure about that but it was nice of him to say. When I got off the phone, boredom set in. I made myself some lunch, then went into the living room to watch TV. But the only thing on was crummy soap operas. I found myself getting absorbed in one of them though. It was some insipid plot about identical twins. The doorbell saved me. I practically ran to the door and yanked it open. I think I surprised the mailman. He blinked a few times, looking me up and down.
“This is the Gordon residence is it not?” he asked, looking at the house number.
I nodded. “I’m Commissioner Gordon’s niece, Stephanie; I’m living here from now.”
The mailman smiled. “That would explain this envelope then. I rang the bell because I thought was a mistake.”
I looked at a brown envelope on the top my name and this address hastily scrawled on it. I smiled and thanked him as he handed me the mail. I waited until he walked off before I shut the door and carried the pile to the kitchen table. Everything else was for Uncle Jim so I just left it there. I carried the envelope back into the main room with me, muting the TV in the process. I flopped on the couch and tore it open, emptying the contents into my hand. Only one thing slid out, the bus terminal key. At first, I was a bit confused then it suddenly dawned on me. I’d completely forgotten about the laptop and mailing the key to myself.
I looked at the clock as I picked up the handset. Jen was still in class, besides I still had her cell. Or what was left of it anyway, fire tends to ruin those kinds of things. So I quickly punched in the number of Babs’ cell. She picked up on the second ring.
“This is Stephanie I assume,” she said cheerfully.
“Uncle Jim is at work.”
“How are things then?”
“Good. I had a governmental visit today. They took me into the city, gave me a physical and some new ID.”
“I hope Dad knew about all this?”
I could hear the annoyance in her voice. Barbara wasn’t a fan of Big Brother.
“Uncle Jim already signed the papers.”
Babs was quiet for a second. “Was it the DEO?”
She sighed. “Department of Extranormal Operations.”
“Agent Tresser said he worked for something called the DMA.”
“Department of Metahuman Affairs, they’ve a division of the DEO.”
She surprised me. “How do you know that?”
Babs laughed. “They’ve been on the news once or twice. They’re the guys who deal with the Meta problems now. Any new Meta that seems to crop up these days the government tries to stick their nose into their business.”
I nodded even though she couldn’t see me. I didn’t want to discuss her crazy theories so I quickly changed the subject. “Do you remember the laptop?” She said she did. I mean how could she forget. “Well, I put it someplace safe like you said and I mailed the key to myself. Do you think when you get a chance; you and I can go and get it?”
“You’re giving it straight to my Dad right?”
“I don’t want anything to do with the damn thing. I nearly got killed for it. Trust me when I say this Babs, my vigilante days are over.”
We talked a little bit more after that. We mainly discussed going shopping after she got out of class. I asked if I could bring Jen along and she seemed to like the idea. After that, I hung up and went back to TV. I turned the soap operas and ended up watching the news. The top story was about Thrill. Apparently, it had produced its first casualty. I wasn’t really paying much attention until I saw the face of the victim flashed across the screen. It was one of the guys from the park last night, the one that chased Arnold and me nearly to my front door. According to the reporter on scene at the hospital, the victim---Danny Wilkes---was found two blocks from the park, dead of an apparent overdose. The news switched to another story and I muted the TV again.
So now Thrill killed, that was going to make Uncle Jim’s job a lot harder. I didn’t envy him one bit. It was still kinda shocking though that it was someone I kinda knew, even if he was a scumbag who tried to pound the snot out of me last night. It made me wonder if the other three guys were at risk too. They didn’t seem to be nearly as far gone as he was but they were all pretty close. I guess the only good thing I could take out of this was that I managed to stop Arnold from going down that road too. Even though he swore never to talk to me again, I still helped him.
It made me feel good that I made at least one difference.
“You’re wearing that to school?” asked Uncle Jim when I came down stairs.
The "that" in question was actually one of the airy summer dresses that Babs and I bought last night. I didn’t answer; instead, I gave him a twirl. He smiled and shook his head. After watching some more TV, I finally got a hold of Jen. I told her all about going to school and how I wanted her to come shopping with me. What girl doesn’t like shopping? Suffice to say she jumped at the opportunity. Babs picked her up first because the two of them were in the city together. I thought it was so cool that even though she was disabled she could still drive a car. Of course, it wasn’t the greatest of vehicles but it was still a car.
After she and Jen picked me up, we went to Woodfield. I’m not sure how long we spent there clothes shopping. We were there long enough to eat dinner. Then we went back to the house and put everything away in my room. Babs drove Jen home and I spent the night trying to decide what was best to wear to school tomorrow. When Uncle Jim got home, I told him about the DMA. I don’t think he was too happy that they chose to bring me in without him being present but there was nothing he could do about it after the fact. He did say he signed the papers for them yesterday at work but was under the impression they would wait a few days before they contacted me. But clearly they wanted to do it as quickly as possible.
“You don’t like what I’m wearing?” I asked as I sat at the kitchen table.
Uncle Jim placed a plate of bacon and eggs in front of me. It was nice to have someone else cook breakfast for me.
“Its very girly” he said, sitting down with his own plate.
“Well I am a girl.”
Uncle Jim looked a little uncomfortable with that statement. I think he might have been a tad bit uneasy about all of this. After all a few days ago I was his nephew---all be it a slightly feminine one---but his nephew nonetheless. Leslie and Barbara both said they explained things to him, everything in fact. He said he was ok with it but Jim was kinda old fashioned in his ways. He’d accept me but I’m sure he was extremely awkward about it. Not that I could blame him, I guess. If I was in his shoes, I’m not sure how I’d react to me. I’m sure he could tell I was unhappy as a guy---it was hard not to. I’ve dreamed all my life to become a girl and now that it happened, I was going to cherish every minute of it. I could deal with the occasional uncomfortable stares.
“I have to work after school today,” I said, picking up my second piece of crispy bacon.
“Wayne Manor?” I nodded, he sighed. “He’s a good guy; it was a horrible thing that happened to him all those years ago. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel troubled by that scene in the alley.”
“You were there?”
He nodded. “I was one of the first on the scene” He shook his head and sighed heavily. “Let’s talk about something else please.”
We didn’t talk about much after that. Uncle Jim didn’t like to talk about work, especially his early days. Not that I could blame him. Chicago was like it was now, filled to the brim with crime. Except now, there was an escalation of it, especially because of the vacuum The Bat left when he disappeared. Not that the Roving Ravager wasn’t helping but he was one guy after all. He was no Bat, though. I’m not sure how the Bat pulled it off but he actually had people afraid to commit crimes in the city. People like my father and the bastard he worked for; there was no way they would have done any of their stuff when the Bat was patrolling the streets.
After breakfast, Uncle Jim drove me into the city. Our car ride was filled with silence too. It’s hard to talk when you shared very little in common. I thought about discussing my future plans with him but Uncle Jim wasn’t a fan of the professionals trying to pass themselves off as policemen. I think he liked the idea of a beat cop---like himself---moving up through the ranks the proper way. Now these guys showed up with PhD’s and made detective easy. Not that that’s where I wanted to be. I wanted to be the woman they called in when they needed someone to get into the mind of a killer. I wanted to be able to crack the psyche of the next Hannibal Lecter. The only problem was that the world didn’t have real homicidal nut jobs like that, at least not any dumb enough to get caught by the cops.
When we got to school, the halls were deserted. We were there before it started after all. The secretary was pleasant enough, telling me I looked very pretty. When I passed the Vice Principal he gave me a look like he’d seen me somewhere before. It didn’t take long for him to put two and two together.
“You’re the girl that helped that Arnold kid the other day?”
I nodded. “Except I wasn’t a girl then, I am now.”
“You’re kidding right?” I shook my head. He laughed. “You’re something else, Miss Brown. I’ve been teaching for twenty years and you’re the first one that was ever able to fool me.”
I smiled. I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment or not.
When we went into the principal’s office, he greeted me like we were old friends. In truth, this was the first time either of us had actually met. I think he was just excited that he had a Meta in his school; after all, I was the first. We talked for a bit then I filled out more paperwork. After that, he gave me my new schedule and a new locker. It felt kinda weird---it was like I was a completely different person now. Officially, I was the same one I guess but just female now. I didn’t have any friends in school save Jen so it’s not like anyone would notice the difference. I didn’t take Gym class and I was practically silent in most of my previous classes. I don’t think any of my teachers knew if I was a boy or girl anyway even with the roster. I liked it that way. I liked things the way they were now but I was also tired of hiding. That’s why I decided on the dress. I was ready to announce to the world that I was a girl and I was proud of it. When we left the main office, the halls were already starting to fill. A few people stared and there were some whispers.
One girl came up to me and complimented me. “Its good to see you shed that tomboy image of yours, Stephanie.”
I smiled at that, Uncle Jim looked uncomfortable.
I followed him to the front entrance.
“If you need anything or have any trouble…”
“I’ll be fine Uncle Jim,” I said, cutting him off. Then I gave him a gentle hug, it felt kinda nice.
He left and I walked to Jen’s locker, waiting for her to show. It didn’t take long. When she saw me, her face lit up. She told me I needed to make myself known and I think I achieved that pretty well. When she got to her locker, she gave me a big hug. We shared a laugh then I quickly told her about the meeting. She frowned at the VP’s comment. Leave it to Jen to be insulted.
“I can hex him if you want,” she said and we both laughed.
Everyone thought Jen was an evil witch that cursed people. No one seemed to understand Wicca at all. It took me a while to understand it too, but now I thought it was kinda cool. It was kinda fitting, us being outcasts and friends. I wouldn’t change a thing in the world.
I stood outside once again waiting for my ride. Bruce was sending Alfred with the car again; apparently, it would look bad if Tim picked me up on his motorcycle. Not that I cared much, I was never getting on the back of that damn thing again. While I waited for my ride, I thought back to my day at school. I was surprised at how much everything was the same. I got several more compliments, mainly about coming out of my shell. I got some sneers too, but mainly from Jordana and her brood. The only person who didn’t seem to care either way was Arnold. I passed by his locker on the way to lunch but he didn’t even look at me. I thought about stopping and trying to patch things up but knew it wouldn’t make much of a difference. He’d made his decision and he was going to stick with it. I suppose there was nothing more I could do about that.
After school, I went to the Clinic. With the new girl---Holly---things moved a lot faster. She was college age and was studying to be a nurse, so it was good to have her there. The two of us hit it off pretty quickly. We didn’t have much of a day though. There were a few scrapes and bruises. My friend Tony came in again, with another “injury”. But he wasn’t there to see me, he was all about Holly. I’m not sure how I felt about that but I guess it was better than him “hurting” himself to see me. I spent my hour or two at the Clinic then called the Manor for a pick up.
“Do you have a lighter?” asked a voice from behind me.
I turned and saw Holly, leaning against the wall of the building. There was a cigarette hanging limply from her lip. I hadn’t even heard her come out. I shook my head about her question. “No and I’d be careful about that, if Leslie sees you she’s going to skin you alive.”
Holly pulled the cigarette from her mouth and tossed it into the street. I smiled.
“So, you really work for Wayne?”
I grunted. “More like his slave.”
“That’s so cool though, is he really more handsome in person?”
I nodded. “The pictures in the paper do not do him justice.”
We talked a little more than Alfred pulled up. He wasn’t driving the usual today. I liked the Mercedes but I felt more regal in the Rolls. I got into the back, watching as Holly stared fish-eyed at the car. It was nice to impress people you just met. I waved and smiled as we drove off. Alfred was silent the whole way there, not that that bothered me in the least. It was nice to get some quiet. Holly was a nice person but she talked too much.
When I got to the Manor, I went straight to the Tower. Like every other day, I went straight to the boss first. He was sitting up in bed and still looked like he’d been hit by a truck. Not that he’d ever let on to the fact that he was in pain though. Today his pajama top was off and I could see the bandages wrapped around his torso. I could also see his finely toned muscles. He was clearly a guy who wasn’t afraid to exercise---hell he had at least three different exercise rooms. There was something else too. Staring at his naked torso, I was surprised to see a couple of old scars. It made me wonder what billionaires liked to do in their off hours.
He smiled at me. “You’re positively glowing,” he said with a laugh.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good about life these last few days actually.”
“I’ll bet,” he said.
I knew he knew and I think he knew that I knew. But both of us seemed to be playing a game of fooling the other. Does that make any sense?
“So what’s on the agenda today, boss?”
He smiled. “I’ve got some things I want you to straighten up in the parlor. Then I need your help in here. I’ve got some documents that need to be sorted.”
Documents? This was a first. So far, I’d been little more than a grunt. I couldn’t help but smile at that. I was glad that he was finally trusting me with some of the “heavy lifting” even though that’s technically all I’d been doing around here---literally. Does that make sense?
I didn’t waste any time. As soon as he dismissed me, I went into the parlor. I’m not sure what he wanted me to straighten up so I started with some cleaning. There were some magazines scattered across the little coffee table so I stacked them. Then someone---probably Tim---knocked one of the couch pillows on the floor. When I picked it up and put it back, I found a book wedged between the couch cushions. I sighed and pulled it out. Then turned and walked over to the bookshelf. It still amazed me that he had so many books and this was only a fraction of his collection. The Manor had a huge library though I had yet to explore it fully but I planned to.
I stuck the book on the shelf---sliding it into the only empty slot there. I was about to turn back to the room when I noticed that other book. I frowned at it. I was kinda anal when it came to things that looked out of place. Ever since I noticed it the first day here, it’d been kinda nagging me. I looked around just to make sure Tim wasn’t going to pop up behind me like before. Satisfied that he wasn’t there I reached and pulled the Dumas masterpiece off the shelf.
As soon as I did so, there was a clicking sound. The book only came out about halfway. I tugged it again, thinking it was stuck; then something else happened. The bookcase rumbled. I stepped back, scared I’d done something stupid. As soon as I got about a foot away, the rumbling turned into a creak and the bookcase swung open, revealing a space behind it and a staircase leading down.
I bit my lip. Holy crap.
Secret passageways behind walls were one thing; but secret staircases... that was something else entirely. Now I knew I was in a mansion. I took a deep breath and excitedly stepped over the threshold. The first thing I noticed was the dark---of course. The second thing I noticed was how cold it was. I actually shivered when I stepped on the first step. I thought about looking for some kind of light switch but I knew there wouldn’t be one. So I put my hand on the wall and slowly started down. The wall was made of stone---like the rest of the tower---and the stairs were kinda steep. As I walked down, I only counted about six until I reached the bottom.
In the dark, I couldn’t really see much. I stumbled about like an idiot, fumbling for something to grab a hold of. I finally found another wall and used that as a guide. I moved along it, hoping I might find something that could tell me where I was. As I walked, I was surprised that nothing was in my way. Usually places like this were filled with stuff. Not that I’d ever been in a place like this but in adventure novels and movies these places were prone to be used as storage. I just hoped that that wasn’t the case here. Not that I was expecting treasure or something but I was at least hoping for---well anything. Bruce had already proven to be mysterious and paranoid so what better place to hide your secrets. After all, if this place was what I thought it was, it was already forbidden.
Fumbling along the wall my hand finally brushed over something. It was small and sticking out. I realized it was a light switch. Ok not exactly secret passage décor but it was the twenty first century after all. I flipped the switch and the room suddenly exploded in light. I’d only been down here for a few minutes but it was blinding nevertheless. I snapped my eyes shut, wincing. Then I slowly opened them, shielding them with a hand until I got used to it. It only took about a minute and even though I was still blinking, I took stock of the room.
I frowned at what I saw. Any hope of finding something cool was dashed to pieces in an instant. My earlier assessment was right: there was nothing in here but junk. Ok, so junk was a harsh word but it was nothing of substance. There were a lot of boxes, some cardboard, most wooden. I stepped toward the nearest one and peered inside. This one was filled with old newspapers, some of which dated back over fifty years or more. I looked at some of the headlines but they didn’t really interest me. So I moved onto the next box, it was filled with clothes. I began moving around the room, opening boxes and taking a look. It was a lot of useless miscellaneous stuff. It didn’t take me long to work up that most of the boxes seemed to be filled with outdated things.
But boxes weren’t the only thing in here. After opening several of them I found myself staring at a dressmaker’s dummy. It looked kinda creepy. From there I found an old trunk, a bicycle with one wheel, lots of outdated sporting equipment and an old rocking horse. The rocking horse was kinda cool though. You didn’t see those anymore. It looked expensive too, not at all like the rest of the stuff around it. I approached slowly, running my fingers over its wooden snout. It was carved to look like a real horse and hand painted. I marveled at the craftsmanship of it. Then I noticed an inscription the right ear, barely readable: To Bruce, Our Darling Little Boy, With Love, Mother and Father. I smiled at that. It was hard to imagine that Bruce was a child but it made sense I suppose. Everyone was a child at one time but it was just hard to picture the man upstairs ever being involved with anything as silly as a rocking horse.
I laughed and moved on. There was another box nearby. When I opened the lid, the first thing I saw was a framed photograph. There were two people in it: a young black haired boy and an older girl, in her teens. The girl had her arms wrapped around the boy and they both looked so happy. I smiled at the image, recognizing the boy as a younger Bruce. The girl was familiar but I couldn’t place her. I picked up the picture and wiped the dust from the glass to get a better look. I squinted and saw the resemblance: it was my mother. I started to tear up. She was so young and so happy there, not like the hurried and rushed woman I knew her to be. I loved my mother with every fiber of my being but she worked more than I would have liked. I suppose I couldn’t blame her, she was a successful doctor after all. But this girl in the photo---the happy one---it made me sad to think that she didn’t have much time to be like that around me.
“Is everything to your liking, Miss Stephanie?”
I nearly dropped the picture in fright. I also nearly jumped high enough for my head to hit the ceiling. I snapped around, Alfred standing there. I hated it when people did that. My heart was hammering in my chest, my face flushed red in embarrassment. I was a bit scared too; after all, I probably shouldn’t have been in this place. But looking at Alfred, he didn’t seem to be angry, in fact he didn’t seem to be anything.
“You scared the heck out of me”
He nodded. “Occupational hazard.”
It took me a few seconds to recover then I held up the picture. “I thought my mother and Bruce were childhood friends?”
“She’s older than him.”
Alfred squinted at the photo. “Miss Crystal was Master Bruce’s babysitter. They were very close, like brother and sister.”
I smiled at the picture. “They look very happy.”
Alfred nodded. “She was the only who could make him smile like that.” Alfred reached for the picture and I handed it to him. He sighed. “This photo was taken about two months after the tragic death of Master Bruce’s parents. Dr. Thompson brought Miss Crystal to the house to tend to Bruce while I and the rest of the staff dealt with the household chores. The two of them did everything together after that. She stayed with us as a permanent fixture until she graduated from high school and went to college. When she left it nearly broke the young master’s heart.”
I smiled. It was nice but sad too. “Was he in love with her?”
Alfred frowned. “It’s not my place to speculate on those things.”
I forgot who I was talking to for a second. Alfred didn’t say anything else on the matter. Instead, he walked over and put the picture back into the box then looked around the room. He frowned at the other boxes. Even though I had closed them all after looking, it was clear that I’d been through them. When he looked at me, I couldn’t meet his gaze. He made a tut sound then placed a hand gently on my shoulder. In silence, he turned me and pointed me toward the stairs, actually walking behind me to make sure I went. I took one last glance at the room, disappointed. My gaze fell on the rocking horse. It was odd that everything else in the room looked so old except for that.
When I got upstairs, the boss’s voice came over the intercom, asking me to come to his room. I did so a bit reluctantly, dragging my feet. I wonder what meaningless task he was going to have me do now. When I got into the room Bruce smiled, which knowing him I’m not sure was a good or bad thing. When he spoke, I was surprised to say the least.
“Find anything interesting?”
I groaned. He’d been watching, of he’d been watching. I hadn’t seen the camera down there but I’m sure there was one. Now I felt like a real idiot.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly, looking at the floor. “I didn’t mean to pry, I…the book…”
Bruce laughed. “No harm done.”
I smiled. “It was nice to see my mother looking so happy.”
The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them.
Bruce didn’t say anything for about a minute or two. Then: “Was she unhappy with your father?”
I didn’t know how to respond. I just stood there, trying to come up with the right words. He seemed to read it in my face though and smiled. Then he changed the subject, telling me what else we needed to do today. We went right into business again, like we’d never had the previous conversation. Though I could tell he was thinking about it, he never once again mentioned it. Instead, he sent me to a nearby desk and I started helping him file papers. Most of it was work related but there were a few interesting things here and there. It’s hard not to look at papers when you’d been sorting them for a couple of hours. One document in particular was one of many phone records; Bruce having received a series of calls from some place in the city, the only listing was government. Below that were initials KF. There were a lot of those calls on the sheet.
Another document that seemed to interest me talked about a warehouse. It didn’t give specifics but the name Lex Luthor turned up. That was a name everyone knew. What surprised me was it showing up in Bruce’s documents. It was well known that Wayne Enterprises refused to do business with Lex. I suppose I couldn’t blame him, Luthor kinda creeped me out. So what was his name doing on a document? I scanned it, curiosity getting the better of me. There was mention of some pharmaceutical company too and some technical mumbo jumbo about a drug. That part went over my head a bit. But the name of the drug company sounded familiar; maybe I’d seen an ad for it or something. Was Bruce getting into business with Luthor and a drug company? I thought Wayne Medical Research was one of the leading pioneers in their field.
After another hour of filing papers. Bruce sighed heavily. “That’s it, no more damn paper cuts.”
I stopped what I was doing. “You want to quit?”
“I want to eat,” he said with a laugh.
I couldn’t argue with him there. So we quit for the day and I headed down to the dining room. When I walked through the door, Tim was already there. I frowned when I saw him. I’m not sure why but today I just wasn’t in the mood for him. When he saw me, his eyes widened a bit. It took me a moment to realize what he was staring at. It never occurred to me that I looked any different than before. Except before I was a boy dressed like a girl and now I was all girl. My biggest change had to be my curves, I had some now... whereas before there was nothing, well nothing real anyway. He stared at me the whole time as I walked across the room, taking my usual seat.
“You look different,” he said after a few moments of silence.
“It's called taking a shower, you should try it sometime.”
It was a little harsh but I wasn’t in the mood for his antics today. He glared at me after that which was good because his dumbfounded stare was starting to creep me out. Neither one of us said anything else and the meal passed quickly. After it was over with, it was time to leave. I made Alfred make a stop at the bus depot. He didn’t ask any questions. Yesterday I forgot to grab the laptop but I rectified that mistake rather quickly. He didn’t even raise an eyebrow when I came out of there with it tucked underneath my arm.
I got into the car and he drove me home.
The rest of the week went by rather slowly, then blended into the next. Soon it was almost the end of September. It didn’t take me all that long to adjust to my new life; in fact, I loved every minute of it. In school, it was like nothing changed though people did comment about how much more outgoing I was. Arnold still pretty much ignored me but he found himself some new friends. They weren’t like him in the least but he was happy with them. The bullying had stopped too, which made me think he’d been right all along. At the Clinic, Holly and I were becoming fast friends though she couldn’t stop talking about her cat. She was obsessed with her. Talking about obsessions, Tim had his Russian beauty over almost every single day. Whenever I was nearby, he tried to rub it in with outlandish displays of affection. He thought it would get under my skin, it didn’t. Now that I was fully fledged girl, Jen and I were closer than ever. She even spent the night over at my house, something that never would have happened if I were still living with Dad. And speaking of Dad, he was about to go on trial, apparently not only for my assault but for several other rather nasty things. The Chicago PD had been building a nice case up on Dad’s former employer---Roman Sioris---but even with Dad, they still didn’t have enough to convict.
I suppose the laptop would have helped. Unfortunately, they didn’t have it. Don’t ask me why I didn’t turn it into Uncle Jim like Barbara wanted me to. That night I got home from Bruce’s---the night I got it---I had every intention of doing so. But I left it sitting on my desk all night; I barely got any sleep thinking about it. When I woke up the next morning, I just knew I couldn’t hand it over, at least not yet. So then, I decided I was going to crack into it myself. Jen helped but after a whole two days of trying, we were unsuccessful. That’s when Jen said we should try Henry Russo, the head of the school’s computer club. When we brought it to him, we made up some story about it being on the fritz. Henry told us to leave it in a pile and he’d get back to us.
Now almost a week after dropping it off, Jen and I were ready to pick it up. Henry texted me this morning, telling me it was “urgent.”
When the two of us walked into the computer room, it wasn’t all that hard to find him. There were several rows of outdated computers but Henry wasn’t sitting at any of those. He was sitting in the far corner, two laptops opened in front of him. He was the only one in the room, which was going to make things much easier. Jen closed the door and then the two of us approached him. He was in the middle of a computer game, some fantasy MMORPG. He didn’t hear me when I snuck up on him, and nearly jumped when I put my hand on his shoulder. After working in the manor for so long, I was starting to pick up some of those patented sneak skills.
He snapped around, pulling off his bulky headphones. “You scared the hell out of me,” he said, running a hand through his close cropped blonde hair.
“Well if you weren’t off in La La Land you would have heard us coming,” said Jen with a snort, staring at the sexy female image on the screen that represented Henry’s avatar.
"It’s not La La it’s Azeroth”
Jen rolled her eyes. “Geek.”
I groaned. “Focus people.” I snapped, crossing my arms in front of my chest. “Henry you said it was urgent.”
He smiled. “Oh yeah.”
He leaned down and pulled the laptop out of his backpack, placing it on the desk in front of him. He flipped it open and shook his head. “I don’t know who encrypted this thing but they’re better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
“So you couldn’t get in?”
He shook his head. Then he started to rattle off all this computer mumbo jumbo, most of it I couldn’t understand. He went on and on until Jen interrupted him by smacking him in the back of the head. He glared at her but at least it shut him up.
“There are other computer people around you might want to try” he said and spun in his chair, going to the second laptop. He started typing furiously.
“There’s some rumors going around the Internet about some people affiliated with some of the Meta's who are ace computer hackers. I think I know how to contact one of them if you’re interested, her name’s Lena.”
I groaned and shook my head.
“No more nerds please,” pleaded Jen, getting another look from Henry.
I took the laptop. I was about to tell him that I wanted to keep this with a small group of people but changed my mind. Maybe one of these other people might have a chance. I bit my lip. “How do you contact her?”
He smiled.”I don’t know the exact details but give me a few days and I’ll see what I can dig up.”
I nodded then Jen and I left.
“You’re not serious are you?”
I shrugged. “I want to know what’s in here.”
“You should have just given it to your uncle. He has people who could probably crack that thing in a heartbeat.”
Jen and I had had this discussion before. As I said, I’m not sure why I didn’t hand it over. I guess a small part of me still wanted to bust my father. I’m not sure why, he was already in jail after all. But there was something about this thing; something that I knew went beyond him.
“I can’t hand it over right now.”
Jen shook her head. “Well it makes me nervous, let’s at least lock up somewhere until we can figure out something to do with it.”
Jen went off to class. I took the laptop to my locker for the time being. I didn’t want to carry it around any longer than I had to. On my way to my next class, someone slammed into me when I was turning a corner. I was about to say excuse me when the person shoved me back. As soon as he did, I saw a familiar face: Arnold. But he didn’t look anything like the kid I knew. He looked like hell. His skin was all pale and he was sweating like crazy. He was clutching his stomach. When he saw me, he glared angrily at me, cursed and pushed me further out of the way. He stalked off down the hall, pushing others out of his way too. I gritted my teeth and followed him. There was something wrong. This was way beyond him being mad at me for protecting him.
I took off down the hall after him. He was moving a lot faster than he usual did, pushing people left and right. He went straight for the nearest bathroom. I picked up my pace, not bothering to pause at the Man on the door. When I pushed my way inside, Arnold was standing at the sink. He didn’t notice me at first. He was too preoccupied with himself, just staring at his reflection. I took a step into the room but he still didn’t notice me. He didn’t see me until I appeared behind him, reflecting in the mirror. When he focused on me, I saw the anger grow across his face.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he snapped, venom in his voice.
I saw his eyes for the first time. They were bloodshot and bulging. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was up with him. I groaned.
“You took Thrill didn’t you?”
“What’s it to you?” he snapped then winced, grabbing his stomach.
“Arnold that stuff is dangerous, haven’t you been watching the news?”
Thrill was beyond dangerous. After the first initial few cases of OD’s, they were springing up all over the place. The police had officially declared war on the drug and its makers. They were cracking down on every Thrill Center they could find, anyone caught within a ten-foot radius of these places was being brought in. For the last two weeks, I’d seen how it’d been plaguing my uncle. He was coming home later and later each night, restless and agitated. The police were being stretched to their limit and that was only the half of it. When Thrill wasn’t putting kids in the hospital, it was making the rest into maniacs. There were more and more cases of Thrill Seekers going berserk. There was just a story in the news last night about a Seeker going ballistic in a McDonald's when the clerk told him he didn’t have the change. The guy smashed the register with his bare hands and put the clerk through a window.
Thrill was out of control. Not even the mysterious Roving Ravager seemed to be able to keep up with it.
“I can handle it,” he said, wincing again. He lurched forward, grabbing the end of the sink.
I reached forward and touched his shoulder. He reached quickly. He snapped around and swung a punch. I reacted on instinct, snatching his fist like it was nothing. I held onto his hand. He didn’t seem to notice as he threw another punch. I deflected it with my other arm but the blow left me throbbing. Arnold’s punches were like bricks. I’m not sure how much of the stuff he’d already taken but he was in some serious trouble. The news was saying that even a small amount of the stuff seemed to be affecting people, as if whoever was making it was purposefully driving users to the brink.
Arnold pulled his hand free from my grasp. “Why do you always have to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong?”
He swung at me again, I swiftly dodged it. I’m not sure how I was doing it but with each swing he took, I moved out of the way. It was like my body was super flexible, moving with each blow, dipping and weaving. He couldn’t land a punch on me, which was making him all the more furious. Finally, he just charged me, head down like a bull. When he got close to me, I put my hands on his shoulders and flipped over him. When I landed, I was amazed. He crashed into the stall behind me. I spun around quickly; Arnold was leaning over the toilet gasping. I thought he was catching his breath but there was something about those gasps that scared me. Playtime was over, he was in serious trouble.
I ran over and knelt on the ground with him. He rolled away from the toilet; his head fell into my lap. The look on his face said it all, there was something seriously wrong.
At that moment, someone decided to walk into the bathroom. He looked at me, confused. Then shook his head. “This is the boy’s bathroom” he said, annoyed.
I ignored him. “Call 911 right now.”
The guy quickly snapped to action.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a hospital waiting room. Ok, so that’s not technically true. The last time I was in one was the night Mom died. The doctor called Dad and asked him to bring me along; he knew it would be soon. I remember sitting in the waiting room, waiting for my turn to say good-bye. I was a total wreck, sobbing and burying my head in Barbara’s lap. When I saw my Dad walk out he just shook his head. I remember being so pissed off at him because he took so much time with her, too much. I think that was the beginning of our animosity, the bastard didn’t let me have a chance to say goodbye to her.
Sitting here now, I was a total wreck. But not more than Arnold’s parents. After the kid walked into the bathroom and called 911, Arnold had fallen unconscious in my arms. I’m not sure how long it took the paramedics to get there but by that time, he wasn’t breathing. The school nurse was able to keep him stable until they got there though. I rode with him in the ambulance, shouting to Jen in the crowd, telling her to call Leslie. That was about two hours ago. I’m not sure who called Arnold’s parents, probably the doctor. When they showed up they had a pretty good idea who I was. I don’t think I’ve ever been called an Angel before or been hugged so much. Now sitting here---looking at these two very distraught people---made me think about my own mother. It also made me think about the bastards who pumped Arnold full of those drugs. If I ever found out who they were, I was going to…well it wasn’t going to be pretty.
“Steph” said a voice as someone gently touched my arm.
I looked up and saw Barbara. She arrived about twenty minutes ago. Apparently, Leslie couldn’t get away from the Clinic and Uncle Jim was busy. Barbara left class for me and rushed over. Now she was bringing me a cup of coffee. I gently took it from her and smiled.
“I’m glad you’re here, Babs,” I said as she gently squeezed my hand.
“Anything to help, Cuz”
We played the waiting game again. No one would tell any of us anything. Mrs. Wesker kept getting up every five minutes and going to the nurse’s station asking for updates. But she always came back to her chair disappointed. I ever tried once, hoping to use my Mom’s name as leverage---this was her hospital after all---but the nurse was too new to know her. So all we could do was wait and hope. The prognosis didn’t sound good when they brought him in. Even though the paramedics got him breathing, they couldn’t seem to bring him out of whatever it was. I tried not to think about how he acted in the bathroom but it was hard not to. He’d been all pure rage and anger, lashing out blindly. Not at all like the quiet, sweet kid, I knew.
Every time I closed my eyes, it pissed me off more and more. I could see his face. Then I saw the face of the Seekers from the park, the ones who tried to get him hooked on it before. I had to wonder if they were involved in this, too. There was still three of them left---the fourth was six feet under, now. I felt the rage and the hatred building just thinking about those scum and all the other scum like them. They were helping to spread this poison throughout the streets and innocents were getting hurt. Arnold was innocent and he didn’t deserve this.
Another twenty minutes passed before we finally got our answer. I saw the doctor before the others but I pointed him out to Mrs. Wesker. She was on her feet and to him before he got to me. I was about to do the same when I saw another person lingering. He was tall and handsome if you liked that rugged look. He was dressed in a leather jacket and jeans but I could tell by looking at him that he was law enforcement. When his eyes locked with mine, I think he knew I figured it out. I tried to make a beeline toward the Weskers but he intercepted me.
“Are you Stephanie Brown?” he asked, pulling a pad out of his pocket.
I groaned. “You do know who my uncle is don’t you, Officer?”
“It’s Detective actually,” he said, quickly showing me the badge that hung on a chain around his neck. “Detective Nick Gage.”
I nodded. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“I asked one first.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes I’m Stephanie Brown and to answer my own question I don’t think my uncle---the police commissioner---would like me talking to you.”
I’m not sure if he knew that or not but it didn’t seem to faze him if he did. “I still need to get your statement, Miss Brown.”
I sighed. I looked over at the Weskers and saw Arnold’s mother put a hand on her chest and sigh. But she still didn’t look happy. I frowned at the Detective, angry that I was here and not over there. He looked over at them too and smiled.
So I quickly gave my statement, telling him everything that happened. I talked real fast and he wrote just as quickly. When I was done, he tried to keep me around but I was done talking. I looked around and saw Barbara, lingering in the background, looking awkward. I pointed her out to him and told him to get the Commissioner’s daughter’s statement too. He smiled and walked over. I watched the two of them for a second and then rushed over to the group. The doctor smiled at me and left.
When Mrs. Wesker turned to me, she looked a little better than before. “He’s going to be all right,” she said, I sighed.
“That’s good news” But she didn’t look so happy about it. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s in a coma,” her husband said. “According to his blood work, there was only a small portion of the drug in his system but due to his size it was enough to do some damage. They’re not sure when he’s going to wake up.”
That pissed me off. I could feel the anger swelling inside me, boiling over. At the last minute---right when I felt like I was going to erupt---I pushed it back down. It was still boiling there. I kept it in check, talking to the Weskers, reassuring them everything was going to be ok. Everything would be too,as soon as I made those who hurt Arnold pay for what they did. It just wasn’t Arnold either---there were reports of this kind of thing happening all over the city. Someone needed to stop them and if that someone had to be me, then so be it.
I stood on the corner, blowing into my hands. It was fairly cold which was a little rare this early in September. Usually the weather didn’t get this cold until mid to late October, but that’s Global Warming for you. What with all those horrible storms we had in the spring and the bitter winter before them, things weren’t looking so good. It was safe to say that 2011 wasn’t a good year for weather and tonight was a bad night to not wear pants. Why I had chosen a skirt---one as short as this---was beyond me. OK, so I know why I chose the skirt, it was a part of the plan but why it had to be the shortest jean skirt in the store was far beyond me.
“It’s a distraction,” Jen had said when I complained an hour ago.
“I look like a tramp” was my quick reply.
“That’s the idea.”
OK, so that was only one part of the idea. The whole plan had sounded pretty good when we spent the last four days coming up with it. I was to pretend to be a Seeker looking for a hit, going from street to street in hopes of drawing out a dealer. Then once the deal was made, I was supposed to follow him back to his supplier. I’m not exactly sure what I was going to do when I got there but Jen made me buy the best cell phone on the market with a good memory chip and camera. She thought if I could get video of the suppliers and dealers I might be able to anonymously send it to the police. It wasn’t exactly the kind of justice I wanted for Arnold but it would have to do.
When I told her about wanting to get revenge for poor Arnold, she knew exactly what I wanted to do. She wasn’t very keen on the idea of me dressing up in purple and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. She thought we should be more subtle. So that’s what we did. Last night I followed one of the kids from school to this spot. I staked him out all day, making sure he was the right mark. Then I went to his house and waited in the shadows. I followed him to this corner. Then I witnessed him making a transaction, catching all of it on video. But it wasn’t enough. I needed the suppliers and in order for me to do that, I needed to follow the Dealer.
I blew into my hands, my mind straying to Arnold. He was still in a coma but according to the doctors, his condition was better. When I wasn’t at home or school, I spent my time there. I took a leave from the Clinic and from the Manor; both Leslie and Bruce understood. I wanted to be there for Arnold, I wanted to make sure he was all right. It was killing me standing here, not being by his bedside right now in case he woke up. Uncle Jim was being a prince about it, too. I think he was just happy to see one Seeker not end up in a body bag. Since Arnold’s hospitalization, three more kids had died from the drug. The police were really starting to knuckle down. A day after Arnold’s incident, my Uncle put a Thrill Task Force into place, led by Detective Gage. The TTF has so far been successful in busting up at least two Parks---that’s what they’ve been calling the drug dens where the Seekers have been hiding out. But according to a press conference, it was believed there were several all over the city.
The vibration of my phone nearly scared the hell out of me. I jumped then cursed. I pulled it out of back pocket and flipped it open. The damn thing was so small I thought I was going to break it. I put it up to my ear and sighed.
“Yes, Mother” I said sarcastically.
“Just checking in” said Jen in a hushed tone.
It was after dark and her grandparents didn’t like her on the phone this late.
“Nothing new to report except that it’s freezing out here” I said, shivering, my knees practically knocking together.
Jen laughed. “You must suffer for your trade in order for it to be successful.”
“Can’t you conjure up something witchy and make them reveal themselves to me?”
She scoffed. She knew I was just messing with her. I had a lot of fun at her expense about her so called magic powers. She and I had a few laughs about it too and she kinda enjoyed teasing others into believing she was actually a sorceress. The two of us joked about it a bit on the phone, her coming up with all these insane ideas. We were laughing and having a good time. I almost didn’t see the guy across the street, stepping out of the alley for a smoke. I quickly clicked off, telling her I’d call back later. It was the same guy from last night, the one I lost. I tried tailing him last night but I got sidetracked by a cat---it jumped out of nowhere and scared the hell out of me, causing my pant leg to snag on a broken piece of chain link fence. By the time I had pulled myself free the guy was gone. Now there was no way I was going to let this bastard out of my sight.
We locked eyes and he nodded, stomping out his cig and walking across the street toward me. I took a deep breath as he approached.
“You looking for a roller coaster, baby?” he asked, using the code word he used last night with my fellow schoolmate.
“I have a ticket right here,” I said, pulling a wad of cash from my bra.
Jen had forced me into a low cut top and push up bra; she wanted me to really sell it. It sucked that it was my own cash though. Jen had a nice allowance but withdrawing that much from her account would bring up too many questions with her grandparents. So we decided we were going to use my Government money. I frowned as I passed the five hundred over to him---sad to see that much go. He smiled as he took the cash then reached into his jacket, pulling out the needle. I took it from him with delicate fingers. He didn’t linger around long enough to watch me shoot up. Which was a good thing seeing as soon as his back was turned, I threw the shit down the nearby sewer drain.
He walked back across the street and disappeared into the alley.
I took a deep breath and ran across, following him. He wasn’t too far ahead, disappearing into the dark. I kept far enough away that I could follow but not look like I was following. But it didn’t matter because he never turned around to look. Apparently, he wasn’t the paranoid type. I stuck on him like glue, taking my time as the two of us wove through the underground of the city. We went far into the Narrows; farther than I wanted to go. Luckily, the police had scared off most of the criminals who used to lurk in these parts. The only real good the TTF had done was clean up parts of the street again. The rest of the criminals were afraid of the Seekers. It was pretty common knowledge now that Seekers were super strong and prone to fits of rage. No one would be stupid enough in their right mind to go up against them, except maybe another Seeker.
I’m not sure how far or long I’d been following him but eventually we got to the place where I lost him last night. There was no cat this time though and I made sure to avoid that particular part of the fence. As soon as I went through the hall, I saw how I lost him. He went into the building across the street, the entrance obscured by a stack of wooden crates. I took a deep breath and followed, looking around to make sure no one saw me. As soon as I squeezed between the same two boxes he did, I found an entrance. It was low to the ground so I had to crawl, which was bad because my bare legs went through unidentifiable muck.
It was an opening big enough for a person to fit through. I managed without a problem. On the other side however, I found myself crawling right into a pair of legs. Well boots first then the legs attached to them. I slowly looked up and saw the looming figure standing over me. He was huge and bald. He didn’t say a thing. Instead, he reached down, grabbed my shoulders and lifted me off the ground. He set me roughly on my feet---still holding my shoulders---and pushed me into the room. I got a look around, it wasn’t much. The place was run down, most of the dirty windows boarded up, cobwebs and dirt everywhere. It had a musty smell which was made worse by the vomit, urine and BO. I squinted in the near darkness to see a little more than a dozen people, all in some form of Thrill high.
My perp was lounging on a beat up couch, two scantily clad girls on either arm. He smirked when he saw me.
“Sweetie” he said as he got to his feet. “If you think I’m stupid enough not to know when I’m being followed, you’re stupider than I am.”
I bit my lip. I quickly thought on my feet. “I knew you’d lead me to this place.”
He nodded then looked around. “What do you think guys? Do we have a little NARC on our hands?”
There was some laughing and then a chorus of “NARC” shouted a few times.
“I’m not a NARC,” I said, stuttering.
The stutter was part of the plan, hoping he’d see it as a drug induced side effect.
His eyes narrowed. “So little Miss Not a NARC, what are you doing here then?”
“I told you” I said, “I wanted to know where the nearest Park was, the cops busted up my last one.”
A few of the guys, who appeared around us, shook their heads. It was clear they didn’t believe me for a second. I didn’t believe myself, either. I hadn’t planned on being caught. I was hoping that this place would just be a cut through, an abandoned building that led to the real one. Who would have thought it would be the actual Park. It was kinda a stupid location for one actually, so close to where he sold. I’m surprised the cops hadn’t found it actually. The last Park they busted up was only a few blocks away, I “accidentally” took a glance at a report Uncle Jim left on the table two nights ago.
My perp didn’t say a thing. Instead, he nodded to the thug who was still holding my shoulders. The guy was so close to me now that I could smell him, and trust me, that wasn’t a good thing. Then he squeezed my shoulders causing me to scream out. I may not be able to be cut or bruised but that sure as hell hurt. My scream seemed to be all they needed to hear. Apparently Seekers felt no pain on thrill and as far as he knew I’d just shot up a few minutes ago. In essence, I just completely blew it. My perp’s eyes narrowed then anger flashed across them. He reared his arm back and threw a hard punch toward my stomach. I snapped out of the other’s arms, dropping to the ground in a full split. My attacker slammed his first into the giant bald bastard’s chest.
I was a bit awe struck at what I just accomplished. I hadn’t done a split in years and yet it was second nature to me now. I recovered from the shock quickly because that punch didn’t seem to do a thing. I rolled away from the two of them and got to my feet. As soon as I did all hell broke loose. I’m not sure what happened exactly. There was a loud smash and glass came falling from above. With the glass came a figure. He dropped into the room, landing in a crouch. I saw him fully this time unlike the last time when he’d been half shrouded in shadow. He had a long black cape and cowl, dressed mostly in red. When he rose from his crouch, he came up swinging a metal pole. The pole connected with the closest Seeker under the chin, sending the bastard flying.
The Seekers forgot all about me and went for him.
He moved like a maniac with that pole, spinning and twirling it. He dropped three of them before they got close. Another two went down when the pole was jabbed into their stomachs, sending out a sparking shock. Clearly, it was more than it seemed. My two attackers took a step back, afraid of what they might endure at his hands. But it didn’t take him long to realize they were getting away. He spun on them, dropping my perp with a blow to the knees, sending him stumbling. The big guy ran. I grabbed the closest thing I could find---which happened to be a wooden crate lid. I let it fly. The makeshift wooden Frisbee flew through the air and smacked the bastard hard in the back of the head, sending him sprawling forwards.
When I snapped back to the action, it was all over. Every single Seeker in the room was lying on the ground, moaning and groaning. I smirked; I thought these bastards couldn’t feel pain. But it was clear that whatever he did to them was more than enough. When he turned to me, I saw his piercing blue eyes through the slits in his cowl. The lower half of his face was visible too and his lips were pursed in a frown. It was clear he didn’t want to see me here. I wonder if he remembered who I was?
“How is it” he said in a stern voice “that every time I come across you, you’re in some form of trouble?”
I shrugged. He remembered. It sent my heart a flutter.
“Just unlucky like that” I said.
He shook his head. “Or you go out seeking it.”
I shrugged. “What can I say, I’m a magnet.”
He frowned again. “What are you doing here, Miss.”
“Maybe I’m a Seeker?”
He raised his eyebrow. “Highly unlikely.”
I sighed and nodded. “My friend was put into a coma from taking Thrill. I wanted to hunt these bastards down and make them pay for what they did to him.”
He sighed and nodded. “You could have been killed you know. This is not a job for amateurs.”
I bit my lip. “Then teach me.”
I’m not sure where the hell that came from but it felt right. I’m not sure why. He raised another eyebrow. But he didn’t say anything, at least not at first. Instead, he went around, nudging each of the unconscious Seekers. I think he was looking for evidence. It made me wonder what his stake in all of this was. He didn’t look like the type who might be helping the police. But at the same time he didn’t seem to be the type who stalked around the city just looking for trouble either.
When he finally spoke, it was rather cold. “Go home little girl, this is no place for you.”
I opened my mouth to disagree but didn’t get the chance. Instead, he threw something on the ground and the room erupted in smoke. I started to cough and gag, my eyes tearing up. I stumbled about in it, moving out of its path. I waved my hands in front of my face until the smoke cleared. When it did, the Roving Ravager was gone.
The next few days were interesting to say the least. I tried to fit myself back into my daily life but it was hard when I found myself thinking about the Ravager’s words every time I had a chance. They stung to say the least and they’d hurt even less if they weren’t so true. He was right I was an amateur and I really had no place being where I was. But there was no way I was giving any of it up. After leaving that building the other night, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. I came to the conclusion that in order to be successful at any of this I did need something. I decided I needed help and there was no way I was going to seek him out to ask for it. He made it perfectly clear that he wanted nothing to do with me. Which was fine as far as I was concerned? I proved it to myself and him by going back out onto the street the very next day. I went back to the building but everyone there was gone. I didn’t know it but the police raided the place on an anonymous tip after I left the night before, everyone there was now in jail or the hospital. With this Park closed, I tried to find others but with no luck. I couldn’t help but think maybe the Ravager was right and I was an amateur. I didn’t go out after that, without any leads there was no point.
But the Ravager and justice wasn’t the only thing that was dominating my thoughts. Arnold was at the top of them, too. Two days after the Seeker incident, he woke up. To say that the doctors were shocked was an understatement. I’m not sure they were expecting him to ever fully recover but I knew Arnold was a fighter. I was in the room with his Mom when it happened. He was a bit groggy and disoriented but when he saw us, he smiled. Then of course, a few seconds later he told me to “get out.”
Baby steps I guess. At least it was good that he was OK.
The rest of the things in my life were going pretty smoothly though. I was back at work---driving my new car to and from. It finally came the other day---fresh from the factory---and I love every bit of it. They couldn’t make it purple for me but it was midnight blue. It was a nice little compact car, with good mileage and all that junk. I didn’t know much about cars but I knew I loved it. I think out of everyone---including Jen---Alfred loved it the most. Now he didn’t have to take time out of his busy schedule to pick me up and drive me home. Not that he minded, but I think he liked his quiet time in the Manor, doing whatever it was he did while Master Bruce recuperated. Bruce was recuperating slowly. At least he was giving me more duties now. I just wasn’t the errand girl anymore; I was now getting involved in the business.
Just yesterday, I filed some papers for him and spent a few hours fielding phone calls. OK, so I was now a pseudo secretary but it was better than nothing. Now I wasn’t alone. Two days ago, I got some company in the form of Summer. She was Bruce’s PR girl, recently graduated from college and eager to please. I’m not sure why Bruce brought her in but she was a big help. Whereas I was his file girl, Summer became the Gopher. He ran her rampant, making her do all the crazy stuff that I had to do before. I wouldn’t really call her a replacement though I did find her a lot more efficient than I ever was.
Which brings me to where I was now. The two of us were in Bruce’s room---Bruce set up a small desk with a phone for Summer to work at. She looked all official in her crisp business suit, trying to look important while making phone calls. Me---I was a casual teen girl in her jeans, haired pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. Not that Summer thumbed her nose at me. She was really sweet and nice. She was good to talk to as well, having just gotten done with her Masters---which made her about twenty five. She was cute too, which was probably the only reason Bruce kept her around. When they thought I wasn’t looking, the two of them made goo goo eyes at each other. I’m not sure why they were being so discreet about it, it’s not like I had feelings for Bruce.
I was putting another folder into the filing cabinet when I noticed the phone wasn’t ringing. Lately the damn thing had been ringing off the hook. Apparently, Wayne Enterprises could function without the man in charge. So far the acting CEO was doing a bang up job but the company was starting to discover that things couldn’t run as well without Bruce. That’s why Summer was here now, to help him field some of that responsibility. According to Bruce’s latest medical checkup, it would still be at least two more months before he was well enough to go back into the office. You’d think something like that would make a business man like him happy but when Leslie told him the news a few days ago, he actually frowned. Not that I could blame him---I think I’d like the idea of lying around like a bum too.
Which brings me back to the phone call. Summer answered the phone before I could. She smiled when she saw me stick out my tongue. We were constantly competing and having fun doing it. I’d win a few rounds and she’d win a few. Nothing like healthy competition.
“Bruce Wayne’s office” said Summer, Bruce asked us to refer to this place as his “office” while we were here. “Good afternoon, Mr. Fox.”
Bruce grimaced and shook his head, indicating he didn’t want to speak. Lucius Fox was the man that Bruce put in charge while he was “away”. Only Lucius and a few select members of the Board knew what really happened to Bruce---his “accident”---everyone else thought he was on extended vacation. Ever since Summer had arrived, Mr. Fox was calling all the time. Mr. Fox was actually the Head of Wayne Enterprises’ R&D Department but with the boss away, he took on full responsibilities. I think Bruce enjoyed the change of pace, being able to kick back and relax. Looking at him now---smiling at the frown Summer gave him---it was clear he was enjoying not being in charge.
I put away the file and closed the drawer. Bruce mouthed something to me; I think it was “lunch”. Today was Saturday and though I usually only came in on school days, Bruce wanted me to help with filing today. So I arrived here a few hours ago---after breakfast. It was the first time I drove the car all the way into the city and was more than happy to park it in the garage amongst all the really expensive ones in there. I thought about bumping Tim’s bike---by accident of course---but didn’t want to explain how a car got from one end of the garage to the other by “accident”. When I got here this morning, Summer was already here. It made me wonder if she was now a permanent fixture. She was already here when I arrived from Leslie’s in the afternoon and still here when I left after dinner. It made me wonder how much she actually did for Bruce, after hours.
Bruce gave me silent orders so as not to speak in case Mr. Fox heard him. I’m not sure when I picked up lip reading but I was able to make out what he said clearly enough. I left the room quietly, making my way into the parlor. I paused a moment to look at the bookshelf. Every single day I came into the room I thought about pulling it and going down to that room again. Not that I was a snoop or anything. It was the picture of my mother actually. All my memories of her were good but she never once smiled---at least not like she had in that picture. When I saw it made me feel closer to her somehow. She looked so happy back then it was so hard to imagine she was the same woman who raised me.
I half walked, half ran down the spiraling staircase. I had to laugh at how easy it all was now. When I first started coming here, it had been a real chore going up and down those stairs. Now it was like walking across a room, I didn’t even break a sweat. When I got to the bottom of them, Alfred was coming up the hallway. He had a tray in his hand, a plate of food on it. I smiled and shook my head, sometimes I thought he had ESP. I looked at the plate and it was the exact meal that Bruce asked me to bring him.
“How do you know these things, Al?”
He smiled. “Miss Stephanie, Master Bruce has been eating the exact same thing for lunch since he was nine years old.”
“Really?” I said, surprised. “How come?”
Alfred frowned. “It was the last lunch his mother ever made for him.”
I felt a little stupid for asking. As someone who lost her mother early in life, I knew how Bruce felt. I wouldn’t be lying if I said I wished it was Dad and not her but I definitely understood the loss. I also knew what it was like to want to hold onto her memory. For two days after my Mom died, I refused to take off the clothes I was wearing the day she died because it was her favorite outfit of mine. I wore it to the hospital that day hoping it would make her feel better to see me in it. I hated my Dad more than anything after that too, especially when he tore the clothes off me, ripping both the shirt and the pants. That was the first time I really started to hate him. Then he started drinking and I hated him every single day.
I bit my lip and frowned at Alfred’s words. “I used to do things like that after my Mom died too.”
He smiled weakly. “Mrs. Wayne was a wonderful and caring person. She would have liked you a lot; you are so much like your mother.”
Hearing things like that made me feel like I was a thousand feet tall.
I offered to take the tray to Master Bruce, which I think Alfred really appreciated. I don’t think he liked climbing all those stairs. When I got to the top, I carried it gleefully into the room. When I walked in, the two of them were laughing. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, looking rather comfortable. I rolled my eyes and cleared my throat, announcing my presence. You would have thought I was a poisonous snake ready to strike. As soon as I cleared my throat, Summer practically jumped off the bed. She straightened her skirt, fixed her tight hair bun and returned to her desk. I put the tray on the bedside table and asked if there was anything else he needed.
“You can go to the kitchen, Steph,” he said with a smile. “I’m sure the chef can fix you something too.”
I smiled but before I left I winked at Summer. She flushed, causing me to smile all the more.
When I walked into the parlor, I was about halfway across the room when I stopped. I slowly turned on my heel and looked at the bookcase. I bit my lip then looked around just to make sure I was alone. I didn’t want Al to sneak up on me this time. Making sure I was completely alone, I rushed over and tugged on the book. There was a hiss and a metal grinding as the bookcase moved away and opened up. This time I had my purse and I reached inside to pull out the little flashlight in there. I used it to light the way as I walked lightly down the stairs. I smiled when I got to the bottom of them, crinkling my nose at the moldy, dusty smell. I knew exactly where to go this time, heading straight to the box.
I pulled it open gently, finding the picture right on the top. I took it out and hugged it to my chest. It was no substitution for my real mother but somehow it felt a bit comforting. I held it there for a few seconds then pulled away. I didn’t even know I was crying until one of my tears fell on the glass, landing on my mother’s smiling face. I wiped my eyes and carried the picture over to the rocking horse. It was big enough for maybe a six year old but seeing as I was so small I was sure I’d be able to sit on it without a problem. I took a deep breath, looked it over to make sure it was sturdy. I decided to sit on it sidesaddle, just allowing my butt to gently rest on the seat.
When I sat down, I made sure not to rock. I looked down at the picture in my hands, smiling down at Mom. She looked so happy there, Bruce did too. I figured Mom had to be at least thirteen or fourteen there, which made her about four or five years older than Bruce. The two of them could have been siblings though her hair was lighter and she had a smattering of freckles on her cheeks. He looked pretty much the same except a lot happier. Hadn’t Alfred said it was taken right before his parents were murdered? I looked it up on the Internet and just thinking about it made me shiver. I couldn’t imagine watching my Mom and Dad gunned down in front of me like that. I couldn’t imagine what something like that would do to a kid, especially one so young.
I reached out and gently stroked my finger across Mom’s face. Then I found myself stroking the very same finger across Bruce’s as well. As I did that I moved, gently moving the horse with me. But there was nothing gentle about the way the horse moved. It jerked forward slowly, making a clicking sound as it did so. Then there was another noise but it didn’t come from the horse. It came from behind me. I snapped around and my mouth dropped open. A section of the wall was slowly moving away, revealing a space behind it. I jumped to my feet, setting the picture on a nearby box pile. I stared at the wall as a bright light emanated from it.
But that wasn’t the crazy part. The crazy part was what the wall had been hiding. It wasn’t a very large section that moved away, just big enough for a few glass shelves and a large space in the center. In the space was a black armored suit, looking particularly wicked, especially with the long black cape and mask? I stared at it for a few seconds, trying to figure out exactly what I was seeing. I took a step forward, finding myself bathed in the light. I stared at the suit for a bit, reaching out to touch it but stopped at the last second. My eyes drifted over to one of the glass shelves and what lie on it. There was several of them, small and black, like throwing stars. I reached over and picked one up, marveling at how light they were.
But they weren’t any normal throwing stars. This thing in my hand was different because it was shaped sorta like a bat. It took me a few seconds to process what I was holding. When my mind finally did, everything seem to come at me at once. Bruce didn’t get hurt in a climbing accident, it was something else entirely. Something a lot crazier. He knew all about me because he was a fantastic detective, not because he was rich and had connections. He had fancy cars, secret passages, and the most advanced security I’d ever seen. I thought it was because he was a paranoid billionaire but the truth was far more bizarre. Bruce Wayne was not a paranoid recluse. He wasn’t a stuffy businessman either with far too much money and time on his hands.
I looked at the bat shaped thing in my hand and smiled.
He was the Bat.
I’m not sure what I expected to happen next. But what did happen was not at all like I expected. Someone loudly cleared their throat behind me and placed a hand gently on my shoulder. From the grip, I could tell who it was. I didn’t even have to turn around but I did anyway. Alfred was standing there, his hand still on my shoulder. He didn’t look upset or angry but he definitely looked annoyed. I guess he had a right to be; after all, I was definitely poking my nose in where it didn’t belong. I took a deep breath and opened my mouth, hoping for some kind of explanation to issue forth. But nothing came. That surprised me. But it didn’t surprise him in the least.
“Miss Stephanie” he said, softly moving his hand and shaking his head.
“I’m in big trouble aren’t I?”
He frowned. “Do you even need to ask?”
I sighed and nodded. He turned and I knew that was the cue to follow him. A normal person would have put the bat shaped throwing thingy back but I’m not normal. For some reason I found myself still holding it as I followed him toward the stairs. Another thing I found myself holding: the picture of my mother and Bruce. I snatched it up from where I left it, carrying it like it was the most precious thing in the world. As I got to the stairs there was a hiss and a low thump, probably the wall closing back up. I bit my lip and followed the elderly butler up the stairs to my doom. Ok, I was being a bit overly dramatic but something like this wasn’t exactly covered when the job was discussed. What to do when you find out your boss moonlights as a crime fighter? Hmmm, nope definitely not covered anywhere in any talks with me.
When we got back into the parlor and the bookcase closed up, Alfred led the way to Bruce’s room. The first thing I saw was Bruce, sitting up in bed. He didn’t look pissed but he didn’t look happy either. Summer was sitting on the edge of the bed again but it was clear she had no idea what was going on. I quickly stuffed the throwing star in my pocket; I didn’t want her to see it too. It was bad enough that one of us knew his secret, there was no need for me to go advertising it. Alfred gave me a reassuring push and I half walked, half stumbled to stand before the bed. Summer looked from me to Bruce and back to me again. The look of confusion plastered across her face was the same look I’d had moments ago. Except her look would never disappear.
“Did something happen?” she asked, trying to read the blank expressions on our faces.
“Summer, go wait in the parlor” said Bruce in a stern voice.
She slowly slid off the bed. “You told me that I was supposed to remain here at all times…”
“Leave” snapped Bruce, raising his voice an octave.
The color drained from Summer’s pretty face and she bolted from the room. I turned and watched her go. Then looked back at Bruce. He nodded his head and Alfred disappeared too, closing the door behind him. Now the two of us were alone. The silence in the room was eerie. I tried to look anywhere but his face. But for some reason I found myself looking at him. I was trying to see the man there, the one that stalked during the nights, fighting crime and making the city safe. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t see it. I could see a man clear as day---a good, honest man---but there was nothing mysterious or dangerous about him. It was Bruce Wayne lying before me, not the black clad vigilante that the press called “The Bat”.
I decided that it might be a good idea to apologize so that’s what I did. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…it was an accident” I said then held up the picture. “I found this the last time I was down there…I just wanted to look at it again.”
He didn’t say anything. Instead, his eyes drifted to the picture frame in my hands. For a moment, his lips curled into a smile but it was gone quickly. A tear rolled down my cheek, which surprised me because I didn’t even know I was crying.
He smiled again, this time not trying to hide it. “That picture was taken a few days after your mother and I first met,” he said, adjusting his position on the bed. “My parents were going out of town and they hired her to take care of me for the weekend. I suppose Alfred could have done it but I wanted someone new, someone around my age. I was nine then and I thought my parents might find a teenage boy to come.”
He laughed and coughed, clearly it hurt to do so. “Of course I’d never had a babysitter before so I didn’t know that guys didn’t normally do those kinds of things. When your mother showed up---and I saw it was a girl---I threw a temper tantrum. I fell to the ground and kicked my feet, tossing up dirt and grass. Alfred pulled me to my feet and tried to get me to behave.” He laughed again, “I was a little brat at that age. When Alfred got me to my feet your mother stomped over to me and do you know what she did?” I shook my head, mesmerized. “She slapped me. She slapped me hard. I felt it for the whole day, the sore, swelling pain. No one had ever hit me before.”
He laughed again but there was no cough. “After that I couldn’t believe how cool this girl was. Of course, I didn’t tell her that. I was a little bastard to her for the rest of the day, I gave her hell. But your mother, it didn’t seem to faze her in the least. She put up with my crap and came back the next day, ready to take it again. But I was done fighting; I’d already had my fit. Back then, I didn’t have any friends; there were no other kids who lived in the Manor. We had a lot of staff but all of them were my parents’ age or older. She was the first person my age---well just about---and I loved her like a sister from that day onwards.”
I smiled. “You two look really happy here,” I said, indicating the picture.
He smiled. “That picture was taken on the day that my parents came back. I was so happy because they promised to take me to the theater that night…” his voice trailed off after that and it was about two minutes before he spoke again. “I don’t think I ever was that happy again.”
It didn’t take a genius to figure out which day this was taken on. I know Alfred had told me a bit about it but I got curious too. I looked up the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne on the Internet. As I mentioned before, I couldn’t imagine what watching your parents killed in front of you might do to someone of that age. But I had a good idea that it had a horrible impact on Bruce. The clocks in the house, the same lunch every day---it was scary and sad all at the same time. Then there was the other thing, the dark thing. I reached into my pocket and pulled out the bat shaped throwing star, gripping it tightly in my palm.
I think I figured out then where “The Bat” came from, too. It made sense in a way---a man not wanting anyone else to suffer what a boy suffered. I understand. I had an overwhelming sense of justice too, one that had driven me to almost the same point as Bruce. Not nearly as severe but close enough to be almost cousins.
I took a deep breath and set the throwing star on the bed. “I won’t tell anyone,” I said softly, but loud enough for him to hear.
I went to set the picture on the bed too but he shook his head.
I shook my head. “I can’t take this from you…it’s your last happy memory.”
He smiled. “I have one more. You take that one, let it be your happy memory.”
I smiled. “I’ve never seen her so happy” I said, stroking my mother’s face.
Another silence lingered between the two of us. I looked at the bat on the bed then at the man, trying to tell who started and ended where. The bat was just a thing but it represented so much more. When my eyes locked with his, I think he saw it there. I know I tried to find the Bat in his eyes but I couldn’t see it. His eyes were the same blue if a bit darker now, colder maybe. I had a chill run down my spine. This was Bruce Wayne, the real Bruce Wayne. Here was the tortured boy grown into an even more tortured man, never truly ever able to give up his parents. The man I knew and came to respect was a façade.
He broke the silence again. “You can have the rest of the day off, Stephanie. I’ll see you Monday afternoon, right after school.”
I nodded and backed toward the door, staring at the bat on the bed. Then I turned and started for it. I’m not sure why it felt like there was lead in my chest or my feet for that matter. I got a few steps, almost to the door when I stopped. I closed my eyes and I saw the Bat again but it was different. It was bigger, brighter, spread across a banner of black. I opened my eyes and my heart skipped a beat. I turned around and Bruce sighed. I looked at the bat on the bed again then at him. Our eyes locked again. I opened my mouth but it was already like he knew what I was going to say.
“No” It was one simple word but it cut me like a knife.
“But I can help.”
“Out of the question.”
I pressed harder. “I’m different, I’m not exactly sure what I am but I’m not human. You know that, you’ve seen the medical files, you know about STAR Labs and the DMA. You know what I am.”
“It doesn’t make a difference,” he said sternly, raising his voice a bit.
“I can do this,” I said, puffing up my chest. “It won’t be forever, only until you get back. I can take your place, fight crime in your stead.”
“It’s too dangerous,” he said then quickly added. “You’re not trained for it.”
“Then train me,” I said, insistent.
He shook his head. “Out of the question.”
I was pretty pissed now. It was like he wasn’t even listening to me anymore. He was the Bat; he was the great defender of justice. He helped people, he kept the city safe. He should have been out there, out there taking out the bastards responsible for hurting Arnold. Out there making sure Thrill didn’t hurt anyone else. But he was being stubborn. Stubborn and stupid and scared.
“Are you scared?” I snapped, regretting my words. “Scared I might do better.”
That sent him over the edge. “I’M SCARED YOU MIGHT GET HURT.”
My temper flared. “WHY DOES IT MATTER TO YOU?”
Bruce didn’t say a thing. I should have felt real good about shutting him up. Instead, I felt about two inches tall. But my stubborn pride was getting in the way. It was my pride that guided my hand, causing me to reach and grab for the bat. Bruce was quicker. He lashed out and grabbed my wrist, giving it a rough twist. Even though he was weak, I could feel the power behind it. When I snapped up at him, fire in my belly, tears in my eyes, I knew there was no way he was going to let me do this. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, instead I pulled my wrist from his hand and stormed out of the room. I pushed past Alfred who was coming to see what was going on, not stopping to apologize. I stormed through the parlor and down the stairs, anger and pain guiding me. Bruce was still the spoiled rotten brat, not willing to share his things with others. Anger was fueling my thoughts but all I wanted to do was help. I thought he’d understand, I thought he’d help me. But he didn’t want to help me; he wanted nothing to do with it. Well the hell with him, the hell with all of it. I was done with this place, done with the fake Bruce Wayne.
I’m not even sure how fast I was running. I knew I was running though because one minute I was running down the stairs of the tower and then the next it was down hallways. I found myself in the garage shortly after that and into my car. I tossed my purse and the picture frame on the front seat. I got out my keys and drove. I wasn’t speeding but I was driving angry. I peeled out of the garage, down the long drive and into the street. I headed into the city, headed nowhere I knew. It was like my body was driving without my mind knowing where it was going. I’m not sure how far I drove but it wasn’t long before most of the familiar was gone and I found myself in an unfamiliar place.
I finally shut off the engine, the car parked under a tree. I looked about, my heart pounding in my chest. Then I pounded the steering wheel with my fists, crying. My pounding was so hard I caused the horn to beep with each fist. I’m not sure how long I pounded for but I did manage to hear the tapping on my window. It brought me out of my anger and into the real world again. I stopped pounding and looked around, realizing that I kinda had some idea where I was after all. I was on the far side of the city, in a small shopping district that my mother used to take me as a child.
It was then that I noticed whoever it was tapping on my window. I frowned and cursed. Then I rolled down the window, finding a police officer standing there. He’d been tapping on my window with the butt of his flashlight. He didn’t look too happy either.
“Are you all right, Miss?”
I nodded, wiping my tears. “I’m good, officer, I’m sorry for causing so many problems.”
He frowned. “As long as you’re good. But you shouldn’t stay out here for too long, its past curfew and you know I don’t have to tell you want happens then.”
I nodded. This time of the night was when the crazies came out. He smiled and walked over, probably to get to his car and get the hell out of here too. I took a deep breath and turning the key in the ignition, about to do the same as well. As soon as I turned on the engine, my phone rang. It was a short burst of noise, meaning it was a text and not a phone call. I frowned as I grabbed my purse, rummaging inside. No one had my number except Jen. The phone was too new; I hadn’t even given the number to Uncle Jim or Barbara. When I pulled it out and saw a number I didn’t recognize I frowned in confusion.
Then I sighed and clicked on it. It was probably another stupid ad from the cell phone company. I got a dozen of those a day. But the message on the screen wasn’t an ad; it was also from no one I’d ever heard of either. I stared and read, it was pretty short: DO YOU WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN THIS CITY, LEARN HOW TO PROTECT IT LIKE HIM. THEN SEEK OUT ONYX, SHE’LL HELP YOU BECOME THE PERSON YOU WANT TO BE.
Onyx? I looked at the signature on the bottom, it was only one word, I’m not even sure it was a name.
ORACLE. What the hell was Oracle?
“Oracle?” said Jen as the two of us walked down the hall. “Like in Delphi?”
I shrugged. “The texter didn’t clarify”
“Sounds kinda fishy to me,” she said as we walked into the cafeteria.
That was exactly my thoughts all Saturday night. After getting home from the “incident” with Bruce, I couldn’t help but think about it. It tortured me all night. I barely got any sleep in fact. When I woke up Sunday morning, I spent the whole morning trying to figure out how a random stranger could have texted me like that. I came to the conclusion it had to be some kind of scam. But no matter how much I tried to drop it, it just kept coming back to me. I tried to occupy my time by jogging in the park. I’d been doing that a lot lately on the weekends, especially on Sundays. The weather was only going to be good until at least the end of October and I wanted to get in as much exercise as possible. Last week I saw a flyer on the wall for cheerleader tryouts. I know what you’re thinking and no, I didn’t really want to be a cheerleader but the school had no gymnastics team. The tryouts were not until next week---apparently one of the girls hurt herself during a game last week and they were looking for a replacement.
But the tryouts were the last thing on my mind. If it wasn’t Oracle, it was Onyx. She was even more of a conundrum than Oracle. Well, I’m guessing it was a woman anyway. I don’t know how many guys were named Onyx to tell you the truth. So Sunday night I decided to take a look on the Net to see what I could find. I didn’t find a thing, which didn’t surprise me in the least. I spent hours looking though and finally came to the conclusion that someone was pulling my leg.
Jen and I walked into the cafeteria. I looked over into the corner---at the table that Arnold might have been sitting at if he was in our lunch period---it was full of geeks. It made me think of him. According to the doctors, he was going to be recovering for a few weeks, bedridden in the hospital. I think they were just making sure the drug was completely out of his system. Sitting at the table were a group of unfortunates, so like Arnold it was scary. They looked particularly somber. They had a right to be. Last night on the news, someone else had died from Thrill---another one just like Arnold. I’m not sure who was targeting them specifically but it was clear they were prime bait. After all Thrill was like a super steroid and the lot of them were at the bottom of the food chain.
I looked from them over to another table. If Arnold’s former table was the table of losers, the one I looked at now was as far from it as humanly possible. It was the popular table, ruled over by Queen Jordana and her evil brood. Half the girls there were on the squad, they were dressed in tight jean skirts and baby tees. Thankfully, Jordana wasn’t a member or else my chances of getting onto the team---even as an alternate---were slim to none. I locked eyes with the bitch, she was sending me daggers as usual. She still had to get over the whole Francisco thing, even though it was old news by now. I tried to ignore the look, hoping that some of her friends didn’t share her same hatred for me. Around them were the muscle bound football players and I knew more than half of them hated me.
“There’s Henry,” said Jen, breaking my stare.
I looked away from the popular kids and found our quarry. Henry usually sat in a secluded corner; his only company was his laptop. Today was no different. Jen and I wove our way through the crowd, avoiding the long lunch line for the moment. He was so engrossed in his game he didn’t see us approach. When I flopped down in the chair next to him, he still didn’t react. I reached over and flipped the laptop shut, which caught his attention really fast.
He snapped up, jumping a bit. He pulled off his gigantic headphones and cursed. “Jesus, Stephanie, give a guy some warning.”
“Consider yourself warned,” said Jen.
Henry frowned at her. Jen had this way with people.
“I want to ask you something,” I said, giving Jen a look. I needed Henry’s help again and her antagonizing him wasn’t helping things.
He sighed. “I looked for Lena but I couldn’t find her. But I’ve got a lead which I’m following for a moment; it might take some time…”
“I don’t care about that at the moment” I said cutting him off, he frowned. “What do you know about someone called Oracle?”
As soon as I said the name all the color drained from his face. I think that meant I hit a nerve.
“Where did you hear that name?” he asked in a hushed voice.
I rolled my eyes. “It doesn’t matter where I heard it, what do you know?”
He shook his head. “Not without some serious green.”
I reached into my purse and pulled out fifty, holding it a few inches from his hawk-like nose. “You tell me what I want to know and it’s yours.”
He nodded, staring at the Grant in my fingers. “He’s an Uber-Hacker, one of the best out there. Chicago PD has been looking for him for about two years now but he’s a fricken ghost. No one can find him. They say he has this super computer, he can hack anything. The guy is like a living legend.”
I nodded, sharing a sidelong glance with Jen.
“What about someone called Onyx?”
He gave me a puzzled look. Then he flipped open his laptop and started clicking away. I sighed, it was clear that all my fifty was going to buy was half of what I was looking for. If Henry didn’t know then I was up the creek without a paddle. I tossed the fifty on the table then got up, slipping back into the crowd. Jen followed and the two of us went back to the lunch line, getting behind a pair of giggling blonde bimbos wearing far too much makeup. It didn’t take us long to get through the line then the two of us went to our usual table. A few days after putting Francisco in his place, I had a few groupies but once my fame died down, they fluttered back into the crowd of faceless unknowns. Now Jen and I were back to sitting by ourselves.
We talked about the usual which wasn’t much. The only thing we didn’t talk about was what happened Saturday. The only thing she knew was that I got into an argument with Bruce. I told her I was done with him. I don’t think she liked that idea; after all she still wanted a tour of the Manor. I didn’t tell her about Bruce’s alter ego. I thought about it of course but I had made a promise, even though I didn’t really feel the need to keep it. Thinking about it made me burn inside with anger. It pissed me off that he was too simple minded to see that I could really help him.
After lunch, I went to my afternoon classes. In the middle of study hall, my phone vibrated against my thigh. It scared the hell out of me because I swore I shut it off. I frowned and looked about, making sure the teacher didn’t see. But she was preoccupied by some trashy romance novel. So I reached into my pocket and pulled it out, surprised to see it on. I was also surprised to see a text on the screen, no number this time. I read it quickly and my eyes widened: DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING FOR YOU, ORACLE. Underneath which was an address and the word ONYX.
I stared at the little screen. Who in the hell was this person?
Onyx’s place was practically a hole in the wall, hardly even a place at all.
I stared at the building in front of me then at my cell phone screen. I looked about, wondering if I was in fact in the right spot. It took me about an hour on one of the library computers to find this place. As soon as I showed the second text to Jen, of course she wanted to know what was really going on. When I told her about the first text, I said it just appeared out of the blue. I hated to lie to her but how else could I explain it. And it wasn’t really a lie; it did appear out of nowhere. I just left off the detail about it coming after I had an argument with the man who was The Bat. I think Jen knew I was keeping something from her but we had that kind of relationship, we respected each other’s secrets. I’m sure there was stuff she didn’t share with me too. So after showing her the second text---and her unsuccessfully pumping me for info---she agreed to help me search. I was glad she was there because she was the one who ultimately found the place. Apparently, I had been looking in the wrong part of town. I was expecting it to be in the Narrows but it was actually by the docks, off in a secluded corner. On the computer screen, it just appeared as a blinking number.
Looking at it now, I frowned. In front of me was a gray building, about two stories high. The front part was covered in graffiti; the window facing me was barred. Looking at it, you would have thought it belonged in the Narrows. There was only one door, it was tall and made out of metal. I kept staring at it, wondering if I should knock or run away---my gut was telling me to run. But my feet weren’t moving. Oracle sent me here for a reason, why I’m not so sure. It was clear that he knew what I’d been doing, how I don’t know. I was pretty certain he knew what Bruce was doing too, call it a hunch. The guy was kinda uncanny like that. After all Henry did call him a Super Hacker, I wouldn’t be surprised if he was somehow watching me right now.
I shivered at the thought, looking above me to make sure there were no cameras. I didn’t see any but that didn’t mean a thing. I still felt like I was being watched which gave me some courage. I took a deep breath and stepped forward, rapping my knuckles on the cold metal. A breeze whipped through, coming off the lake. It brought with it a smell of fish and algae, tearing my hair about, tugging at my clothes. I shivered, cursing myself for not wearing a jacket. It was only a few days into October but the nights were getting colder.
When I didn’t get a response to my first knock I tried again. As my fist was about to hit the metal for a second time, there was a click. The door opened slightly which in most circles was an unwritten invitation to come on in. I gulped and pushed the door open more, enough to slip inside. The first thing I noticed was how dimly lit the place was. The second thing I noticed was the smell. It was a combination of sweat and leather. I crinkled my nose and took in my surroundings. I was standing in a long hall with low ceilings, candles flicking on the walls. When I took a few steps, I noticed that the walls weren’t normal. They looked like the walls from those old Samurai movies. I reached out and touched one as I walked, feeling that it was in fact made out of paper.
As I walked, my sneakers squeaked on the wooden floor.
I followed the flickering candlelight to the end of the hall. Once I got there, I found another identical hall, stretching in both directions. I thought about going left until I saw a brighter light to the right. I took a deep breath, right it was. I followed the candles again, going toward the light. As I got closer, I realized it was coming from underneath a door, also made of paper. Through it, I could make out vague shadows but none of them were people shaped. I took another deep breath and slid the door open. Immediately I was hit by that smell again: leather and sweat.
The room before me was a lot larger than I was expecting. It was also vaguely familiar. In fact, it was so familiar I wanted to laugh. It looked like just about any other karate dojo in any martial arts movie I’d even seen. There were mats on the floors, racks of phony looking weapons against the walls. There were even cheesy replicas of Japanese wall hangings. It was all authentic looking but cheap at the same time. In the center of it all was a muscular looking black woman, her head shaved completely bald. She was crouching with her legs crossed, dressed in a green sports bra and skintight green pants. If she noticed me, she didn’t react. Instead, she seemed to be meditating.
I stared at her from the doorway for the longest time, waiting for her to acknowledge me. But when she didn’t, I took a step into the room. As soon as I did, she came to life. Not in a good way, either. I’m not sure what happened but it happened fast. Her hand snapped up and a dagger flew at me. It was quick, quicker than anything I’d ever seen before. I barely had time to react but I did. I’m not sure how I reacted so fast but I found myself lashing out, snatching it from midair. It was a good thing I caught it when I did because it had been aimed right at my face. My heart was pounding in my chest and I was breathing heavily.
How in the hell did I just do that?
She turned her head and smirked. “You’re not as useless as you look.”
I gulped. Then I dropped the knife, scared that it might somehow stab me. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “I knocked and the door did open, I didn’t mean to barge in.”
The woman held up her hand. “You’re too noisy. I heard you far too early. You need to take smaller steps and not breathe so much. How do you expect to sneak up on someone if you stomp around like an elephant?”
I was confused. “Excuse me?”
She sighed. She jumped to her feet. Her motion was so fluid and fast that it was like she floated to her feet. She walked over to me, her hips had a bit of a sway and her powerful muscles were visible in her legs. I looked at her muscled abdomen, marveling at the rock hard nature of it. This was clearly a woman who spent a lot of time honing her body. Her muscles were even tighter than Bruce. I thought he was pretty fit and that was before I knew his secret. This woman looked to be in about the same shape as he was.
She stopped in front of me, towering over me. Once again, I was reminded about how short I was. Though in my defense she had to be at least six foot. “Hold out your arms.”
I reluctantly did do. She frowned. Then she pushed them up further, followed by kicking my legs apart, making me stand spread eagle. That’s when she walked around me. She was barefoot and I couldn’t hear a single one of her footfalls. It was uncanny to say the least. When she finished her full circle of me, she put her hand on her chin. Then she reached forward and grabbed the bottom of my shirt. She gave it a quick tug, pulling it up to my chin. I squeaked in protest, snapped forward to pull it down. Her hand was quicker, slapping mine away. What the hell was this woman’s problem?
“You’re a bit flabby,” she said, smacking my bare stomach with the back of her hand. Then she smacked me on the butt. “You need a lot of toning, too. You’re not completely hopeless but you’re going to need a lot of work that’s for sure.”
I frowned. She finally let go of my shirt and I quickly pulled it down. “Can you please tell me what’s going on here?”
She smirked again. “Oracle sent you?” I nodded. “Well then it’s my job to turn you into something worthy of protecting this city.”
“Why do I have wear this?” I asked, trying to cover up my bare midriff.
Onyx didn’t say a thing. Instead, she spun her wooden stick and smacked me in the knuckles. It stung. I moved my hands. The outfit in question was nearly identical to hers except it was purple. Last night after she dropped that bomb on me about turning me into the city’s protector, she told me to go home. She said she wanted to see me as soon as school got out. I tried to tell her I had a job at Leslie’s but she wouldn’t hear about it. She then said she’d make arrangements. I’m not sure what kinds of arrangements they were until I got a call from Leslie this morning: apparently, she had a brand new nurse working there and she didn’t need me to come in. It scared me that Onyx was on top of things as much as she was.
That scared me a bit. Here was a woman who knew pretty much all about me and it seemed she had a lot of connections. She was also in league with a creepy computer Hacker that seemed to know everything I was doing. So you can see I had grounds not to trust her. Looking at her now---standing there with her wooden staff, her hands wrapped in boxer’s tape---there was reason to fear her. Especially when I showed up today and she had this outfit waiting for me. I don’t know how she knew purple was my color but the idea of wearing it freaked me out.
I was still rubbing my knuckles when she started walking around me. When she got behind me, the staff slapped hard against my back. “Bad posture” she said, causing me to snap to attention.
I was definitely taking that stick from her.
“I’m going to be in the hospital if you keep on smacking me that hard”
She smiled when she got in front of me again. “In order for me to teach you anything you need to learn how to carry yourself better.”
“I thought I was.”
She swung her stick again but this time I reacted. It was another split second thing like last night when she threw the knife at me. My hand came up and I blocked the blow with my forearm. If she was impressed, she didn’t show it. Instead, her foot lashed out from the other side, driving into my exposed legs, taking me down hard to the mats. Hitting the mats knocked the wind out of me and it took me a few minutes to recover. Onyx didn’t move to help me. I slowly pushed myself to my feet, glaring at her. I definitely hated this woman now.
“Let go of that hate,” she said curtly. “Anger will not help you in a fight. Anger is a weakness that causes men to do stupid things.”
I frowned and nodded. I’d seen a lot of people fight in anger---too many in fact. They came in swinging like wild men and in the end; they tired themselves out far too fast.
Onyx walked around me again. “You have weak posture, very little muscle mass and no strength to speak of.”
I groaned. Hit me where it hurts why don’t you.
“But” she continued. “You have a lot of speed and great concentration. You’re agility is top notch too, as well as your reflexes. Normally I would compensate by showing you offensive martial arts but in your case I think we shall play to your strengths.”
I nodded. “What are those exactly?”
She didn’t answer that question. Instead, she told me what she was going to do. “In your case, defense might be the best way to go. I’m going to start with Aikido, which will help you subdue your attacker without too much bodily injury to him. From there I’ll move onto Feng Shou, a form of soft style martial arts that will help you quite nicely.”
Then we began. First, it was all about learning the techniques. I didn’t catch on at first but after an hour or so, I started to pick it. I think I impressed her some. She said I was a fast learner. I think it helped that I had a lot of gymnastic training. It also helped that I seemed a lot more flexible than I ever was as Steven. It was amazing how my body could move now, bending and twisting in ways that I never knew it could. I was agile too, able to do more flips and jumps than ever before. I couldn’t help but think about the fire in the warehouse---the one that started all this. I had been moving and jumping incredibly back then as well. I wonder if that was the beginning of my Meta powers starting to manifest themselves.
I spent about five hours with Onyx as she drilled me on the various techniques of Aikido. We finished about eight then I was able to get dressed and go home. By the time I got my normal clothes on my body was sore---if felt like I’d been pulled in several different directions at once. When I was leaving, Onyx told me she wanted me to exercise at home. She said I needed to turn my flab into muscle if I ever wanted to do anything productive. She gave me an exercise regimen and made me promise to stick with it.
That night when I got home I crashed on the couch, falling asleep without dinner. For the next few weeks, I practiced every day. When I wasn’t with Onyx, I was exercising. She also gave me a strict diet to stick to. It was a pain at first but it was helping. After a week, I started to see results as muscle tone started to appear. The training was grueling---I got smacked several more times by her stick---but it was worth it. I finally got away from the techniques. Then we moved onto the actual martial arts itself. I’m not going to say I was a savant but I took to it really quickly. I’m not sure if it was my Meta power working or not but Aikido seemed to be made for me. After every training session, she made me spar with her. I was still nowhere near as good as her but I was getting better with each day.
When not training, I exercised. I split my time up between a local gym, a little workout room I set up in the basement and the park. I did mainly running in the park, using the track they had there to my advantage. I wasn’t the only one either. The first few times I had run, I was alone. Then another girl started to show up, too. She was an amazing runner; it was like she was built for it. She was built for a lot more too. She was in great physical condition like her body was crafted to be a super athlete. She had a great one too---her body I mean. Tall, lean and tight. It made me kinda jealous but seeing as she was blonde too, I felt connected to her in a way.
After the first few times, I started trying to keep up with her. A little healthy competition never hurt anyone. But she always left me in the dust. After a week though, she slowed down. Neither of us spoke to one another so I didn’t even know her name but it didn’t matter. She was a running partner and I liked that. Running with her sorta became routine and I was getting better. I was nowhere near as fast as her---probably never would be---but it was cool that she let me attempt to run with her. Us mere mortals---me ---running with the Gods---her.
After three weeks of Aikido and Feng Shou, Onyx dropped a bomb on me.
“You’re really getting the hang of things, I think we can move onto the next part,” she said, walking with her staff behind her back, her usual casual stance when she wasn’t trying to hit me with it.
I nodded, huffing after trying to beat her again. “What’s next?”
“I’m still going to teach you the soft styles but I’ve been giving it a lot of thought,” she said, pulling the staff out from behind her back. “I think you might adapt very well to a little weapons training.”
She nodded. “You want to help people don’t you?”
More than ever. But I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I just nodded.
Onyx smiled. I’m not sure I liked that smile.
Training with Onyx seemed to be the only thing I did anymore besides school. That and exercising. The rest of the world seemed to disappear for me. My social life kinda suffered because of it. Uncle Jim was happy that I had found something to do---I told him I was keeping my body in shape; he approved. Barbara liked that I was doing something with my free time. Jen was the only one who knew the real reason I was doing what I was doing. At first, she was a bit annoyed that I was spending all my time becoming a “Well Oiled Fighting Machine”---her words not mine. But she came around quickly. In fact, she was into it more than I was. She told me that she was going to help me anyway, she could.
I was leaving my third period class when she caught me in the hall.
“Steph” she said, huffing up behind me.
I heard her coming a mile away. Besides the martial arts, Onyx was teaching me to be aware of my environment. It was a bit paranoid but she said you never knew when someone might try to ambush you. So I heard Jen coming the moment she left her classroom, three doors down from mine. I knew it was her from the distinct tap of her shoes and the flap of her long flowing skirts. Onyx would set up drills where she’d blindfold me and then attack me. The goal was that I had to use my other senses to tell where she was coming from. At first, I sucked at it really bad. I got sticked a lot. The other day though, I actually heard her. Contrary to what I originally thought, she does make noise when she walks. It’s slight because she walks in a catlike way, barely making a sound. But I was able to hear her and manage to dodge her first blow before I got cocky and she put me on the ground.
But I was learning.
I snapped around to face Jen, she was still in mid-run. She had to slide to a halt so as not to crash into me. I put my arms out and grabbed her wrists, stopping her almost immediately. She huffed and puffed and thanked me.
“Maybe you should come running with me” I said which she stuck her tongue out at me.
Then we laughed.
We continued walking down the hall, laughing about her inability to exercise. I noticed something today that I hadn’t noticed before. Guys were checking me out. I guess they did before but today there seemed to be a lot of eyes on me for some reason. The only thing I could think of was that my body was starting to finally shape up. It was a long way from being as toned as say Onyx or my friend the Mystery Runner but it was getting there. It made me feel good to have their eyes on me. It also made me wonder why I hadn’t landed any of them yet. Not that there weren’t a few likely candidates. There was a boy in my English Class who asked me out the other day but I was too busy training, so I had to turn him down. There was also a guy in Math class who kept trying to get my number---but he was slimy.
But every time I thought of a guy only one came into mind and to think of him made my skin crawl.
Fourth period for me was Physics. For Jen it was Art. Not that seniors really had Art like normal underclassmen. This Art class was Design, meant for kids who wanted to pursue a career in Art later in life. Whereas I always dreamed of going into law enforcement, Jen wanted to be an Artist. A fashioner designer actually. When we were kids she used to spend hours drawing girls in different dresses. She was really good at it, even then. She once made her own dress and made me model it for her. It wasn’t bad---for a ten year old.
“I’ll see you at lunch” I turned to leave her when she grabbed my arm.
“This is why I was running toward you,” she said, pulling me into the classroom.
I didn’t like the Art room. It smelled like paint and plaster. Jen dragged me past several paint splattered drawing tables to some lockers in the back of the room. She opened her’s and pulled out her sketchbook. She locked it up there in the morning and took it home with her each night. When she finally let go of my arm I followed her over to one of the desks. She dropped the book down gently and took a seat on the stool. Then she flipped through it, going by dress design after dress design, until finally coming to a few pages in the back of the book. From looking at the first one, I could tell they weren’t dresses. I inwardly groaned. Ever since I decided to tell her about wanting to make a difference, all she wanted to do was create a costume for me.
I thought I’d told her no but apparently she decided to go ahead anyway.
“I thought we talked about this,” I said as she flipped through the hero sketch pages, all the girls bearing a striking resemblance to me.
“You talked, I pretended to listen.”
I frowned but continued to look at the book. At least I could humor her. There were some really nice ones though. I put my hand on a page that showed a drawing of a figure---its face was covered in a black mask---decked out all in purple with black gloves and boots. There was this real cool hooded cape that made her look real wicked. Underneath Jen scrawled: Purple? No More Purple. I frowned at her and she smiled. She flipped a few pages and finally stopped. The figure she stopped on had a lot of potential. It was an interesting design. The figure was decked out all in black---skintight leather maybe---with a cape and a cowl of some sort. The cowl covered most of the figure’s face, leaving her eyes and mouth exposed. It was a sinister look. It looked like a figure that might strike fear into the hearts of criminals everywhere.
“This is the one,” she said, taping the picture with her finger.
“The one what?”
She rolled her eyes. “Your costume stupid.”
“You’re serious?” She nodded. “You want me to wear that?”
“I think it’s kinda sexy.”
I couldn’t argue with that. But I wasn’t exactly ready for that stage yet. Not that that stopped Jen. She started talking. Apparently, she had some of it already made. It turns out she was able to buy a black leather cat suit from a store around the corner---selling left over Halloween costumes. I can’t believe I forgot all about Halloween. It was November third now and yet I was so caught up in training that it completely passed me by. I felt bad about that, Jen and I used to go out every year. She made the costumes and I found the best houses. We might have been a little old the last few years but it was still fun. It worked that I was so short and flat chested---at least I used to be---people used to think Jen was the older sister taking me Trick or Treating.
“Hello Steph, are you even listening?” she asked, snapping her fingers in front of my face.
I shook my head. “What were you saying?”
She gave me her frustrated look. “I think we should do this tonight.”
She rolled her eyes. “The hero thing. I’m almost finished with the costume, just have to work on the cape a bit. I should have it done by tonight.”
I sighed. Once Jen got going, there was no stopping her. I just let her talk and tuned out most of it. I looked down at the picture again and smiled. I think I could make that look work.
I took a deep breath and it’s all I could do. The suit---my costume---left little for anything else. I used to make fun of girls who tried to hard by wearing tight clothes and attracting attention to themselves. But never again. When I saw the drawings in Jen’s sketchbook earlier today, I thought they looked kinda cool and sexy. But seeing it on paper and in real life on were two different things entirely. After I agreed to give it a try in the classroom Jen was ecstatic, it was all she could talk about the rest of the school day. When the day ended, she was eager to race back home and start finishing it. Me, I hopped into my car and drove to Onyx’s. After a few grueling hours of her kicking my ass I was ready to call it quits until my cell rang.
Jen wanted me to try on what she created. So I grudgingly drove to her house. When I got there, her grandparents were already in bed. It was only ten but they were old. I had to climb the fire escape and go in through Jen’s window. She had everything waiting for me. I had to admit when I saw it all laid out on the bed I did think it was pretty cool. It definitely looked like something a superhero might wear. So when she talked me into trying it on I was happy to do so. Suffice to say, it took the two of us to get me into the leather. To say it was tight was an understatement. At least it seemed to breathe which was a good thing. But I could barely breathe which in my opinion is not so good.
“You just need to break it in” she told me.
“Break it in?”
She nodded. “I have just the thing too.”
That’s when she showed me the paper. The front-page article was about the Thrill Threat but on page two, there was an interesting story. Apparently, someone broke into a Joke Store and instead of emptying out the cash register and safe, they stole all the merchandise. They didn’t even touch the cash. It was actually the third in a series of bizarre crimes. The only evidence that the police seemed to find was a strange hair fiber and in one case, a bit of white material that turned out to be face paint. I suppose it takes all kinds. Well Jen talked me into investigating. So I put on the cape and cowl and went out the window. I felt like a total idiot, crawling up onto the roof but she insisted.
She also insisted she had a pretty good place where the robber might strike next. There was a novelty shop two blocks from her apartment. According to her digging, it was the fourth in a row. She figured the robber was going in a line, hitting one place after another. Me, I thought it was a waste of time but I decided to humor her anyway. So that’s how I found myself hopping from her roof onto the building next door, finding that I moved surprisingly well in the tight leather. It was a bit restricting but it was a lot better than I thought. I found that wearing this outfit, I could see my new muscles a little better and it clung so tightly to my body that it showed up curves that I didn’t even know I had. Though it was a bit embarrassing, it was also a bit sexy too.
The only thing I didn’t like were the boots. Knee high and with a two inch heel, not exactly the smartest thing to wear in a situation like this. But they were the only thing that Jen had---left over from last year’s Halloween costume when she hammed it up as a sexy witch. I suppose I could deal with the boots, they weren’t too bad. The cape was going to be a problem though. I tried to talk her out of it but she insisted. She had it made me look dark and sinister. It was cool looking but on paper only. In the real world, it blew in the wind too much and got in my face. It wasn’t exactly light either, dragging behind me like a giant black blanket---though it was made of a lot thinner material.
I took another deep breath, inching closer to the edge of the building. After jumping from roof to roof, I finally found myself across the street from my target. Bozo’s Boutique, complete with a giant clown head sign. I remember seeing that during the day and being kinda freaked about it. But at night---the clown head’s white face seemed to glow in the streetlights and its eyes were large and menacing. I have this thing about clowns. I’m not afraid of them but they give me the creeps. I couldn’t help but shiver when I stared at it.
A buzzing soon added to that shiver. At first, I freaked until I realized it was my phone.
I reached to my belt and pulled it from one of the little pouches there. The belt was Jen’s idea too. She made it a few days ago, said I needed something to carry my stuff in. When I asked her what “stuff” she was referring too, she shrugged. There were about seven or eight little pouches on the same thing. One of them had a small can of mace, the other a pair of plasticuffs. A third one had a penlight. The others weren’t filled except for the one that had been vibrating a few seconds ago.
I flipped open the phone. “Yes Mother, I’m here," I said, knowing it was Jen.
“Any action yet?” she asked excitedly.
I groaned. “I just got here.”
“Oh” I could hear the disappointment in her voice. “You’ll call me if anything cool happens right?”
I groaned again. “What are you expecting to happen?”
“I don’t know... cool stuff.”
I rolled my eyes. “If anything cool happens, I’m calling the police. I shouldn’t even be out here. The last time I got caught on a rooftop, I was nearly roasted alive, remember?”
There was a long silence. “I thought you wanted to help people?”
She had a point. This had been my idea to begin with. She was only helping me to achieve my goal. That night when I followed my father and almost got killed I was a normal human being. Now I was something else, something greater than me. And even though I didn’t have a handle on all my Meta stuff, yet I knew I was a lot more than what I was before. But I wasn’t ready for this. I’d only been training with Onyx for a few weeks, which hardly qualified me for being a heroine. I’m not sure how long Bruce had been training but it was clear that he actually knew what he was doing. Hell, the Roving Ravager even looked like a professional compared to me. Me, I was an overly ambitious girl who wanted to play hero to help punish people who hurt my friend.
I already failed doing that once already. I sighed. I wonder how Jen would react if I told her this was all a bad idea? It would break her heart but there was no way I could do this. I wasn’t Bruce after all…
I sighed. “Look Jen, I’m sorry…” I started to say but was interrupted by a scream.
It was loud and shrill, shattering my whole core. I clutched the phone tightly. It was a woman and she sounded like someone was murdering her. My heart started to hammer in my chest and my palms started to sweat. Someone was in trouble, someone who needed help.
I bit my lip. “I’m sorry, Jen but I’ve gotta go.”
I didn’t wait for her to say anything before I clicked off the phone. I didn’t bother to return it to its pouch as I ran to the other end of the building, away from Bozo’s. I ran for the source of the scream. When I got to the edge, I found myself peering down into the alley. In the dim light I could just make out a woman---on her back now---sobbing uncontrollably. Approaching her was a tall shirtless bald man. He raised his hand and the light glinted off the blade of a knife. It also seemed to glint off his alabaster skin. What I saw took me a moment to register. At first, I thought they were thousand of little tattoos. Then I realized they were actually cuts, lots and lots of little cuts. Some of them were little lines while others were groups of lines---four with a diagonal slash through them. Almost as if he was marking his body, taking count of something. Seeing those marks on his body sent a cold chill down my spine. I gripped the edge of the building with my gloved hand, a fury building inside of me.
“Somebody please” the woman screamed.
I dropped off the roof, landing catlike on the fire escape below, never making a sound. I guess my training with Onyx was paying off after all. Now that I was closer I could see things a little better. The woman was a mess, her makeup ruined, her silky white blouse torn, revealing a green satin bra underneath. She was wearing only one shoe and her stockings were torn. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going on here. That only made my blood boil more.
“Please don’t do this,” she sobbed, backing up until she couldn’t anymore.
Her back was to a dumpster now, the scarred psychopath nearly on top of her.
“Shut up bitch,” he snarled, his voice feral.
He reached out for her but she struggled, kicking and tossing. He bent down, trying to pry her legs open.
“No please” she sobbed.
“Shut up and be a good Number 567.”
That did it for me. I threw the only thing I had which happened to be my phone. It spun through the air, smacking the son of a bitch in the back of the head. It was crude but effective but I definitely needed to get some of those things like Bruce. As soon as the phone hit him, I dropped off the fire escape. I heard the sound of hard plastic on flesh as it echoed down the alley. The only other sounds were her crying and his gasping in pain. But it had the desired effect. As soon as the phone hit the ground behind him, he spun around to face me. The woman was completely forgotten.
I locked eyes with her for a moment then with him. His eyes were cold and lifeless, the eyes of an animal.
He rubbed the back of his head. “That was a stupid thing to do.”
I didn’t say a thing. Which I think pissed him off even more. I saw another glint in the light as a second blade appeared in his other hand. Then he came at me, moving faster than I thought. It was a one two combination, one knife jab then another. My super agility kicked in there. I turned, grabbing the end of the cape as I did so. I flapped it in front of me in an arch, tearing the knife out of his left hand. The knife in his right---clearly his dominant hand---went right for my chest. It grazed the leather, slicing through. I’m not sure if it cut flesh or not but seeing as a scalpel couldn’t I was guessing the latter. When I didn’t gasp in pain, he was shocked for a second.
I launched a counterattack. Onyx’s martial arts training was all about using the opponents own force against him. It was about using his offense and turning it into your defense. He pulled back with his right hand, prepping for another strike and I waited for it. I caught his wrist, twisting up and pulling his body into me. I slapped the flat of my hand into his nose, hearing bone crack. He screamed out in pain. I twisted his arm, the knife clattered to the ground. Then I drove my knee into his stomach, knocking the wind out of him. The knee wasn’t one of Onyx’s moves, it was one of opportunity. It made sense, given the situation. I had him close and it felt right. It worked too. He gasped and nearly collapsed in my arms. But he was twice my size and having him fall on me wasn’t wise.
I pushed him back, slapping both of my open palms into his chest. He stumbled backwards. Then I leaned in, slamming my shoulder into him for good measure. I dropped him onto his back. I didn’t wait for him to move again. I dropped on him, putting my knee in his throat. I held him there but he wasn’t really in any position to struggle. While I held him, I opened one of my pouches and pulled up the plasticuffs. I stepped off him, flipped him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. The whole time my heart was racing. I was scared to death.
I leaned in, my mouth centimeters from his ear. “I guess that makes you Number One.”
I heard a sob. I snapped around. The woman was still lying with her back against the dumpster, the look of terror on her face lessened somewhat. I took a deep breath and approached her slowly. She flinched, afraid that I was going to come after her too. Instead, I bent down and picked up my cell phone, hoping it wasn’t busted. When I put it back in my pouch, I turned back to her, raising my hands so my palms faced her.
“Do you have a phone?”
She nodded numbly.
I smiled. “Call 911; tell them someone tried to rape you.”
She nodded again. She bent down to fumble into her purse. That’s when I decided to bolt. I didn’t exactly want to be around when the cops showed up. Too many questions that I wasn’t willing to answer. I ran back for the fire escape, jumping up with ease. I caught the bottom and flipped up, rolling up and over. I landed in one fluid motion then ran up the small bit of wall and back onto the roof. I stood on the roof---in the shadows---until I heard the siren. When I saw the police officer appear at the other end of the alley, I knew my job was finally done. An overwhelming sense of accomplishment filled me as well as dread. I could have been killed but that woman’s safety outweighed my own by a hundred percent. But it felt good to help her, as if it was what I was meant to do.
I smiled. Then turned and ran off down the roof, heading back in the direction I came.
It was nearly midnight when I got to the house but thankfully Uncle Jim wasn’t home. I still decided it might not be such a good idea going into the house dressed in a black leather suit, so I backed in the driveway and went up the back way. When I say back way I meant I scaled a tree in the backyard and went in through one of back bedroom windows. It didn’t take much and thankfully Uncle Jim kept them unlocked. As soon as I got into the house, I crept to my room. It took me a while to pull off the suit but it was worth it in the end. I was down to my bra and panties, the thing was too tight to wear anything else. I sat on the edge of the bed, my body covered in a sheen of sweat. I was breathing heavily, my heart still pumping. The whole time I drove home, I thought I was going to get noticed. After all, it’s not every day that a girl drives down the street wearing a black cat suit. But no one even looked my way.
Sitting on the bed, it was an overwhelming mix of fear and excitement. On one hand, I just did something incredible, but on the other, I was scared to death of it. I think I had just done one of the craziest things in the world and yet it was such a rush. I felt alive tonight, especially when I kicked that son of a bitch’s ass. Never before in my life had I felt like I was meant to do something. It was still a bit scary though. I fingered the slash on the side of the costume, the place where the knife cut through the leather. I touched my side just in case but I’d been right, there was no mark there. It was a shame he was able to cut the leather so easily but it was an occupational hazard I guess.
I flipped the suit over to stare at the front of it. It was really cool but something didn’t feel right about it. I loved everything, Jen did a fantastic job. When I dropped down off the fire escape and that guy turned around for second I thought he was going to wet himself. But he wasn’t as scared as I would have wanted. I’m not sure what it was but the sight of me didn’t send the same chills done his spine as they did mine. I guess I’d have to work on that.
I stuffed the suit under my mattress. Then I practically collapsed onto the bed, falling asleep before my head hit the pillow.
The ringing of the phone woke me up. I snapped awake, blurry eyed. The phone kept ringing. I blinked and shielded my eyes as the morning sun shone in my face. Morning, when did I fall asleep? I groaned and reached over, lifting up the handset. I cleared my throat before I spoke. “Hello?”
“Steph, oh thank God, I was so worried.”
I sighed. “I’m good Jen, all in one piece.”
There was a moment of silence. “Then that was you last night?”
I nodded. “Yep” then, realization of what she said sunk in. “Wait a minute, what was me?”
She laughed. “It’s all over the news, dummy”
I snatched up the remote and clicked on my little TV. I flipped to the news and saw the alley from last night. It looked so much different in daylight. There was a pretty Asian reporter talking. I turned up the volume.
“It was here last night that Jocelyn Greene was dragged into this alley behind me and was savagely brutalized by a knife wielding assailant,” said the reporter. “Usually in this city that’s the end of the story but not in Jocelyn’s case because she and her assailant weren’t the only ones who went into the alley last night.”
The scene cut to an earlier interview with the woman from last night, a bandage on her forehead. “It was him. He was dressed in black and had a long cape, just like all the papers say. He dropped out of nowhere then he beat the crap out of my attacker. It was him, he’s back.”
The woman looked ecstatic. Me, I frowned. Who did she think I was?
The scene switched back to the reporter. “The only question this reporter has is this: Was it The Bat, the mythical protector of this troubled city, has he finally returned to help the troubled people sleep easy at night once again?”
I clicked off after that. I was floored. They thought…
“Steph, you still there?” asked Jen’s voice in my ear.
I nodded. I forgot I was still on the phone. “They think…” I said into the receiver softly.
I could hear the excitement in her voice. “They think you’re The Bat.”
To Be Continued