DISCLAIMER: Birds of Prey and its characters are the property of Miller/Tobin Productions, Warner Brothers, DC comics etc. no infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Bad Grammar
By Phryne





Barbara calls it instinctual, sub-conscious, sensory perception.

I call it the heebie-jeebies.

And it has nothing to do with the fact that Barbara's talking to Detective Dick Grayson on the Delphi. Dinah is giving me the stink-eye because I'm giving Dick the stink-eye. She's all swoony and dreamy eyed about Nightwing fka Robin aka pixie boots. Look at her drooling over him – she wants to have his babies. At least he got rid of that ridiculous mullet he had four years ago.

"…And that's all I know about him."

"But you'd never actually met him before," Barbara asks.

"No, but it's pretty clear he belonged to the Blüdhaven field office. We've been following these guys for about three years now. We know they've been getting help from Falcone in Chicago but we had no idea that the Feds were involved. This whole fiasco just flushed three years of a very expensive undercover operation down the toilet. 'Course once you guys got Hawke we thought the operation was over, but I guess it isn't."

"Okay thanks."

As I move closer to Barbara, I wander into camera range. He notices me and nods at me. "Helena."

"Dick," I reply, and notice that another one of Barbara's programs is pinging at her asking to be acknowledged.

"That was nice," he responds. "Didn't even sound like an insult."

"Hmnh," I shrug. She keeps looking over to the squawking icon, hmm…it's too bad I'll have to cut this conversation short.

"Still as friendly as ever."

"Still as observant as ever."

"See ya around."

"…Not," I mutter.

"All right. Babs," he waves, preparing to sign off, "Dinah. Call me if you need anything else."

Barbara nods and closes the screen. With a little jump she clicks on the icon that releases a blank screen. As she settles the earphones around her head I move closer to her. She turns around to give us an impatient glare. Dinah starts to run off like a rabbit, but I grab her by the hand and make her stay.

"What, is that your cyber sex partner?" Barbara's glare just turned deadly and Dinah's starting to squirm. "Does it have to do with fact that the kid and I've almost had our goose cooked twice in the last five days?" She doesn't say anything. "Then we're staying."

She removes the earphones and drops them on the table with a sigh. "Don't say anything," she says to me with a resigned expression and then turns a firm gaze on Dinah.

I lock my mouth with an imaginary key and toss the key away before throwing my hands up in the air. Dinah nods, tucks her hair behind her hair and pulls a chair next to Barbara, who shakes her head and turns back to the monitor. I know I saw a little smile in there somewhere. When she turns up the volume I hear a voice that's hidden under so many layers of distortion I can't even tell if it's alive. Great another paranoid hacker just like Barbara! This should be fun.

"…You standing me up again, hot-stuff?" Who's he calling hot stuff? I wonder if the pimply-faced little geek knows Barbara's old enough to be his mom.

"I'm right here Doomstar." Doomstar? I take it back this isn't a pimply-faced geek. This is an original Star Trek watching, pot bellied, bush-shirt donning, pocket-protector wearing geek.

"Hey there champ, we all secure?"

"Roger that. By the way, I've invited phreak_show to this pow-wow, hope you don't mind" Roger that?

"So what's the problem?"

Barbara begins with the Arkham fiasco. "I was monitoring a few security routines on this network and …" Dinah looks in looking all serious and involved with her best kiss-up face. All I hear is "Computer stuff…."

By the time I've counted up to the six hundred and twenty second perforation on the exposed acoustic tile I feel a slap on my hand. Apparently I've been drumming on the back of Barbara's chair. "Sorry," I mouth silently at her.

Electronic geek voice is still going on. "…And you've tried querying their databases.

"Yeah no luck."

"The actual remote servers, not the Field Office files?" Doom asks. Even through the distorter I can tell how surprised he sounds.

"No luck."

He laughs. "You having a bad week, hot stuff?" This time both Dinah and I share a look. She looks confused and unsure, but I have a sneaking suspicion. "Since when does the FBI database give you trouble?"

"I'm having a bad year Doom, like you wouldn't believe."

"Well, the whole thing sounds strange…and you say you've given the hardware the once over."

"Yes," she replies looking over at me. Hey don't look at me all I did was unplug the suckers when you asked me to. And it only took us something like 6 hours. All things considered I'd rather have been doing inventory down at the bar, at least there I know what the thingies are called. And no one would have been staring at me trying to ask me sensitive questions about my love life and my state of mind. God! Barbara's about as subtle as a jackhammer sometimes.

"What about the remote location, if you're having a problem with synchronicity, the lag time between the two data streams could be confusing the software. The New York metro had a signalling problem on the track two years ago because of something like that, had to shut down three lines for two days before they could …Hey look, phreak's here.

"Phreak_show! Welcome to the party."

As soon as the new icon signs on, Barbara sits up straighter in her chair…'the hell is that about?

The new voice acknowledges everyone in the little conference. "Hot stuff, Doom. Sorry about the delay. Real life was being a pain in the ass." I knew it! I turn a shit-eating grin on a very disturbed looking Dinah. That's her handle. That's why Barbara didn't want us sitting in on her consult conference; she didn't want us to know that she goes by Hot Stuff. I snigger behind her back. She hears me but doesn't turn back.

"What's up?" Doom asks the new voice.

"Professor was giving me a hard time about my mid-term paper." Oh great, this one is a pimply-faced geek.

"Aw man that's rough. So you in on this little problem hot stuff's been having."

"Shoot yeah. I'm sorry, hot stuff… but how secure are you."

I roll my eyes at that question. No one has ever caught Barbara snooping around on the internet. She's that good. Nobody outside of our little family knows who Oracle is except for Quinn, but lets not talk about that.


"A'ight talk to me."

And Barbara repeats the whole boring spiel, "Computer stuff, geek stuff, more computer geek stuff, hardware, software, computer stuff." She isn't actually saying 'computer stuff' but that's what I'm hearing. Damn! This time when she hits my hand it stings.

"What?" I ask her indignantly.

She depresses the mute button and glares. "Can you find another chair to play with, please?"

"Why? This is fascinating."

She holds her hand out pointing to a chair next to Dinah. "Sit!"

"Fine!" I go to the chair. It really is her fault for not sending me out on sweeps tonight. And Dinah can take her suppressed laughter and shove it.

The freak's voice comes back on line when she releases the mute key. "Can you send me the diagnostic log?"


If I spin the chair fast enough the new 3D display tracks make funny psychedelic patterns on the ceiling. Like when you close your eyes and press your eyelids really hard…except that my eyes are open.

The next thing I hear is Barbara's patient teacher voice holding back her a snappy remark. "Yes, I queried their databases already for his record." She's massaging her head.

"Have you gone back for a second try?"

"Not yet."

"What happened?"

"Query timed out."

Two electronic voices chime in simultaneously in a squawk of alarm. "What?!"

Barbara pushes up some more in her chair and straightens her glasses. Now I'm getting the heebie- jeebies again.

The geek boy asks very carefully. "You timed out? On the personnel records database?"

"Yes," Barbara says.

"Umm hot stuff," says the freak, "I know the architecture of that database inside out. There is no time out protocol in that program. I mean..." she stutters, "…at least…there wasn't the last time I snooped around." A sharp electronic whistle cuts the static on the speakers; and Dinah's face goes a little pale. What? What? What's the big damn deal? I can hear the furious clacking of keyboards and the clicking of…mouses? Mice seems wrong…But it can't be worse than mouses.

Barbara quickly starts clicking through all her keyboard and calling up all sorts of windows that I've never really paid attention to before. Suddenly there's a buzz in the room like from the whine of drives and motors kicking in. The entire Delphi is revving up. There's fear in the room; I can smell it. When I pay attention to my own body I notice that I'm standing and the muscles in my neck are trembling.

Through the clicking Doom's voice comes back on. "Hot stuff, you hear about Lightning King?"

"No," she replies equally distractedly.

"I hear he was in a take-down." Barbara doesn't say anything she just blinks. "He got sold out."

"FBI?" she asks.

"Yeah," the freak says, "but it was a free-agent sold him out." There is a hissing silence for a few seconds before the freak's voice comes back on. "Hot stuff, I know I'm getting personal, but you're on the eastern seaboard, yeah? I'll take a wild guess without actually checking – New Gotham."

I can sense Barbara's breathing slowing down as her heart speeds up. "Yeah…" she says slowly making her answer a question.

"You know anything about Oracle?"

Dinah who has been sitting there quietly all this time squeaks before grabbing her mouth with both hands.

Dungeons and Dragon boy decides to break the ice. "The hacker not the program…" Yeah he's real funny. "Super fast, super underground, helped the cops close down a few operations – the Capellinis in NYC, a Colombian drug cartel running on the west coast. Even hacked a few dot gov sites, hung a tag and got out. Made the CIA look like real assholes a few years back over the arrest of a few political prisoners from the Ivory Coast?" Oh yeah, I know what he's talking about, that's the ex-President of somewhere where they have a lot of oil, and his wife I rescued from the yacht anchored off the harbour five years ago. Wasn't the slickest operation I was ever involved in – had to crack a few uniformed skulls on that one.

Very carefully she Barbara responds, "…Oracle's an urban legend, a ghost in the machine."

"Oh no, naww, sister," freak says. "Oracle's real. There's too much weird shit going on out there on the east coast for that."

"Especially up in New Gotham. That place is locked up tight, dude. There's got to be someone trolling the signal."

I sense the exact second Barbara stops breathing. "So what about Oracle?"

"Word is, someone's looking for him. Big money to be had if you can track this Oracle dude."

"Oracle's a chick, man! Get over it."

"Whadya mean, she's a chick, phreak?"

"Shoot, Hot Stuff's a chick, doesn't burn your shorts. Oracle's a chick. Gotta be."

"How come."

"Just a feeling I got."

"Yeah, your spidey senses are tingling, whatever. A lotta the older hackers are getting freaked out over this. Word is, Lightning fit the profile and got handed over to the cops."

Barbara licks her lips and pushes back from the table just a little. "Are you saying that the Feds are surveying the net for Oracle."

"Dude, who knows? All I know is a lot of code jockeys and hackers out east been catching bugs. You may want to lie low until this whole thing blows over."


"I've gotta go with what he says." Silence. "Hey hot stuff? Don't take this wrong, but maybe we shouldn't catch up for a while."

Barbara pulls her glasses off and presses her eyes. "No, no. You're right."

"A'ight. I'll check for your tracks on the boards sometime."

"Hot stuff, don't mean to chat and run but I haven't been this spooked since techno_grok sold out the Machine Shop BBS to the Feds."

"Roger that, Doom. Out."

The two icons on the screen go dark and Barbara turns off the monitor before freezing in place. Both Dinah and I wait for her do something, say anything but she just stays there, motionless.

"Barbara?" Dinah says. "What's going on?" Dinah turns to me when she doesn't move.

I straighten up and lay a hand on her shoulder. "Barb…"

When she looks up, her eyes are as green as I ever remember them being, under my fingers I can feel the frantic rushing of her blood, and her pupils are shrunk to dark points. "I'm being hacked."

Thursday, December 5. Late evening.

Sal Mungioli's Coffee Shop. Established 1919. Best Cheesecake in town. Ask Anyone.

Now if you ask me I always thought that Arthur's Confectionery uptown has better cheesecake, but then again my name isn't Anyone. But, two blocks away from NGPD HQ, if you wait by Sal Mungioli's long enough you'll run into any cop you want to meet including the Commissioner. I should know – Commissioner Jim Gordon introduced me to the place. It has the softest, best, melt in your mouth, honey dip doughnuts, better even than Krispy Kreme, and that's saying something.

It's a good thing Jesse works out the way he does because if he always buys four doughnuts for himself before dinner he'd be a lard ass in no time flat. And the way cops have been getting shot in this town it's also a good thing that I'm on his side because he didn't even look into his car before opening his car door.

When he lays the bag of doughnuts on the front seat, I ask him, "Where's your partner, Detective?" He drops his keys and reaches for his gun. Before he can cock it, I have it in my hand as I brush a crumb of glaze off my shirt. "Jeez," I look at the side of the gun, "the safety's on Reese, what were you going to do, beat me senseless with your weapon?" I return the gun to him

"God damn it!" he says, and bends to find his keys. The sound of his head meeting the steering wheel on the way up is a little scary but he comes up looking clear-eyed.

Sounds like I might have flustered the good detective – I'm always making him drop his keys. "Smooth."

"What do you want?"


"Fuck you."

"I've got information for you."

"I'm done playing errand boy for you."

"Jesse, I don't know about you but with the way I'm dressed right now, I'll bet that if I start screaming, the reporters hanging around Mungioli's hoping for a friendly leak will be happy to write a story about the Detective who tried to pick up a hooker."

He stares at me like he wants to use that gun on me but I know better. I take another bite of the doughnut. Before I can finish swallowing, the engine starts. I look up when I realise we're not moving. "Seatbelt," he says.

"Are you serious?" When the car doesn't move I realise he is. Quickly, I take the two remaining bites of the doughnut and strap in. "Happy?" I ask. He grunts in reply.

"So what do you want?"

"What do you know about the raid at the old Falcone place?"

"Jesus Christ…I don't believe this."

"Hey, it's not a big secret. Anybody can look up the deeds at City Hall."

"I can't reveal anything about an ongoing investigation."

"I get that Detective. Besides I don't want to know anything about the investigation. We figure it was an inside job."

"What?" he shouts as he brakes the car in the middle of the street. Behind us, an irate cabbie swears us out in some Indian language and goes screeching away into the night.

"I was there." He shakes his head. "The Fed, and your cop by the way, was alive when I left the party."

"Do you have proof?"

"Nothing better than the recording of your own radio transmissions."

"So what am I supposed to say," he asks leaning right into me. " 'Excuse me boss, but my vigilante friend who was at the raid illegally, after illegally hacking into our system and knowing all about our movements says that there's something strange about the deaths at the raid?' You think there isn't a single cop out there who doesn't think there's something funny about the way the those two men died?"

"Back off Reese! I didn't shoot those guys. And if you can get over me for a second you'll listen to what I'm telling you. Marks…Agent Gianetti knew that Jerome was undercover. The two of them figured it out within a minute of it all going to hell. Ask your audio labs to go over the tapes, somewhere about eight minutes into it you should be able to hear the two of them talking, and Jerome shaking hands with a couple of Feds. So if you find a Fed bullet in the guy, I'm telling you have a dirty Fed."

Reese looks at me like I've just kicked his dog. Before he even knows what he's doing, I see his hand come up to the lapel of my jacket and grip it as he pulls me toward him. "You'd better not be jerking me around on this." I know exactly how serious this is to him. Jesse thinks every cop is his brother – he's probably over-compensating for lying about his dad, but there you have it.

"Jesse, I'm letting you put a crease in my leather jacket and we're not even sleeping together anymore. I'm not jerking you around." He notices what his hand is doing, how close our faces are, and drops me like a hot coal.

He starts up the engine and drives, but in about fifteen seconds we're at a red light. "What do you want?"

"At the press conference, one of the reporters asked about an NGTA systems compromise. Kelly said something about the cyber division." He nods. "What's the word on the X-files dude?"

"Special Agent Smith?" he asks with a smile. What do you know; the man has a sense of humour.


"Can't Oracle tell you all about him?"

"She can, but I want to know what you can tell me."


"What's the word on the street with Falcone?"

He groans in response. "Jerome was working a narcotics case for three years now. Every time we try to get a fix on the big names or major deals, things disappear. Blüdhaven PD has the same problem. Two weeks ago narco gets a call from Blüdhaven about a possible major deal about to go down. Jerome tells narco the head honcho's coming to town – word is, it's junior Falcone. They've been tracking the Falcone family for three years now. They think it makes sense – the Petrovs are out, Hawke is out, Quinn is out. Maybe the Falcones are making a comeback bid in the town that made the family. That's why we planned the raid. The word was Falcone was going to be there."

"What happened?"

He shrugs. "Big mystery." He looks miserable when he says that.

"You knew him?" I ask on a hunch.

"Jerome was my buddy in academy."

"I'm sorry."

He nods in that stupid iron-jawed way that people do when they don't want anyone to know what they're feeling, except the grinding muscles on the iron jaw gives them away. " All right. But I'd better not be getting on the audio forensics guys for nothing, I don't have that many markers on the force these days."

"You'll have plenty of markers after this one, Reese." When the light turns green and he puts his foot to the pedal, I pop the door open and step out.

Thursday, December 5. Night.
Old Town

The sound of flesh striking flesh is very distinctive. You might think it sounds like something else – like maybe a ripe tomato hitting the ground, or a melon hitting the floor or a stick hitting a carpet. But that's not true. It sounds exactly like what it is. There's no mistaking it. If someone in the room gets slapped and you're drinking your beer in the back of the bar with your back turned to the fight, you'll turn around when you hear that sound because right away you'll know what's happened.

The feel of flesh striking flesh is very distinctive too. There's nothing else like it. You can play golf, or be an archer, or play darts or whatever the hell you want. But it just isn't the same. Why do you think you just can't get a boxer to retire? Why do you think competitive martial artists keep competing forever? You just can't get them to give up. Because they know that in a competition, in a battle of skill and wits, there is nothing quite like the feel of getting in a shot when your opponent didn't; of knowing that you know exactly where to hit where it hurts the most, to know that you can control exactly how much pain your opponent is feeling.

It's the opposite of sex, but the pleasure you get from it is exactly the same – don't quote me on that. But you need to get your kicks where you get them

The salt and metal taste of blood as I lick it off the scraped skin of my knuckles is exactly the reminder I need to stay calm. God, I hate these out of shape, winded, mouth-breathing brawlers. You hit them in the face and you end up cutting your knuckles on their teeth.

I watch him pick a tooth out of his mouth. He looks at it in shock and repulsion. When he feels the bleeding gap with his tongue, he jumps from the pain. Oo! A whining bleeder, I bet.

"Shit man!" he says holding up the bloody tooth to me. "Look at what you done, you fucking bitch! I'm going to kill you!"

He's so original. "I'm sorry you only win the grand prize if make the one thousandth threat. Unfortunately, you are only threatener number seven hundred and twenty three."

"Fuck you, you crazy bitch!"

"Now, Frankie, there's no need to get nasty about the whole thing. All I want is a couple of answers." Just a couple. That's all Oracle's asking for. She's a busy woman these days, handing out holiday homework, organising faculty Christmas parties, making sure she's undetected while she figures out who's trying to hack her.

"I aint tellin' ya nothin'." He pulls his gun out of his back as he backs into the window.

It's too bad he doesn't really 'believe no propaganda about no mutant, meta freaks'. Because he wouldn't be so surprised when I get the gun out of his hand before he can breathe. I slide the magazine out with a silent click and throw the gun out the window. I notice that it makes no clanging noises as it falls. No fire escape on this window. Perfect. The fabric of his shirt knots perfectly around my hand in an unbreakable grip as I twist my hand and force his body out the window.

The woman across the street slams her window down and pulls her shades as I lean into Frankie, the Fed's throat with my forearm. "This can go three ways Frankie. One, you don't tell me what I want to hear and I break your back on this windowsill. Two, you don't tell me what I want and I pitch you the hell out this window. Or, three, answer my questions and I go away." I should have brought the kid with me she'd have the information in no time flat.

His breath comes fast and hot in the cold air. The bristles of his unshaven beard break through the thin film of blood on his face as his skin prickles in the cold. "They'll kill me," he gurgles out.

"Oh yeah?" I reply, the expression on my face asking him to consider what his position is now. And just to make my position clear, I add, "You know no one's going to call the cops if you go out the window, right?" In this neighbourhood? Of course he knows. He's one of the guys who made Old Town that way, with it's 'family loyalties' and its code of silence. I bet he's wishing he'd kept his money hidden in a bank like all the other old-timers these days. I press his back a little harder into the window just to let him feel the jagged edges of the broken glass. "You want to go like this Frankie? After twelve years in the pen? After three years of pretending to be a nobody baker in WitSec, waiting for Sal to croak? How much did it cost you to have him whacked?" I love it when Oracle feeds me information. I just wish she would stop wincing so loudly in my ear. I'm trying to do my job here. His eyes widen at my recitation of certain key events of his life. "Come on Frankie," I whisper, so softly – I'm making promises with my voice. Come on Frankie, tell me. Tell me, and it'll all go away. "Tell me who's running the game on the streets these days. Just one name."

I guess he believes the promises I make because he coughs out an answer when I let up on the pressure on his throat. "Falcone."

He is getting on my nerves. "I know that." Maybe if I pushed him just a little further out the window, which I know can't be comfortable with all that glass digging into his back. "Which Falcone?"

"Eddie!" he screams out as his feet leave the floor. "Eddie Falcone!"

That was easy. "And is Eddie in town. Frankie? Don't you lie now, I'll know."

"Yeah," he gasps. "Eddie's in town."


"I don't know." The backs of his knees catch the glass as I lean out, holding on to the window frame with one hand. He screams, "I don't know, I don't know! Nobody knows!"

That is the lamest thing he has said all night. Luckily for him, I believe it. "Thank you, Frankie. You've been very co-operative." With a chop to his neck, I knock him out and dump him next to his open safe with the stacks and stacks of cash – enough to buy a small country. As I arrange him neatly, I hear the sirens already on the way. If nothing else, they'll be able to get him on tax evasion – or, at least that's what Oracle tells me. But who really cares, it's great day outside, maybe I'll stop for an ice cream on the way back.

God! There's nothing like a mission to take my mind off my troubles.

Saturday, December 7
Clock Tower

I've heard all the cheesy corny lines about my body. I've heard all sorts of descriptions of how I move, how I run, how I dance, how I can carry six mugs of beer in each hand through a crowded bar and not spill a drop. Poetry in motion, and all that other bull shit. Yeah I can kick ass and look good at the same time. Big deal. I just go to where Barbara points me and I do what she tells me to…most of the time. But watching Barbara work on the keyboards is it's own special poetry.

Yeah, I know that's pretty sappy.

But what I do isn't special – I'm just lucky that I have more strength and speed than a normal human. What I do isn't about something that I do – it's just something that I am. I was born that way. I don't really have to work hard at it. But what Barbara does – that's something she does. She does it. No one else can do it like her. It's her mind. I know I make fun of her for being a nerd or a geek but I couldn't do half the shit she does. For Barbara, being Batgirl was her entire identity. I can't even imagine what it would feel like to not use any of my meta powers ever again. I'd want to shoot myself in the head or slit my wrists or something. But Barbara, she just kept going.

You have no idea what it feels like to watch her work. I never really got to see her work as Batgirl – except for that once, and she kicked my ass so hard I had to stay in bed for two days. God I was so fucked up that night. And I don't really get to see her do the Oracle thing. Usually when she's working I'm outside or I'm in the training room or sleeping or something. And when she's really working on the computer she doesn't like if someone is in the room with her. So when she doesn't notice that I'm watching her it's kinda special.

You just have to see her. She's so completely focused. And it's the way her fingers fly over the keyboards. And the way she sits up in that chair, leaning forward just a little bit, with that look on her face. It's like she sees something no one else is seeing. And it's the way she looks at all those screens in front of her, taking in all the information evaluating and re-arranging it in a thousand different combinations, before I can even finish reading. If I didn't know her I would be scared of her.

Sometimes when she's working she gets this little look of concentration that's so strong you could crush rocks with it. There are these two little lines that form between her brows and the muscles in her jaw start to stand out. And then there's that second when that look disappears and is replaced by a new one – it's almost a smile but not quite. It's just a little twitch of the corner of her mouth and a twinkle in her eye. It's not an expression as much as it is a micro-expression. It's so small that you couldn't even see it. But she has that look now.

She's been working on that thing for about three hours now. For two and a half hours she had that furrowed look on her face and now it's the almost smile. It means that whatever she's doing is working out well. And now it's the arrogant look – a small twitch by her cheek and nose like a mini-sneer. Things are going really well.

When she finally stops typing and removes her hands form the keyboard, she leans back into her chair and places her hands on the armrests. She tosses her head back just a little, her jaw thrust out. She'd never say it out loud, but I know it's a silent fuck you.

I can't help smiling when she throws her head back like that. It's like when she used to warm up before the kids arrived when she was our gymnastics coach. When she thought no one was looking she'd practice her events – always perfect form. This is like that. When she's done working she always throws her head back just that little bit and straightens her shoulders for that panel of judges in her head. She should have gone Olympic – she would have killed the competition.

When she sees me, she returns the smile I have on my face ten times. "Hey!" she says.


"How long have you been there?"

"Just a couple of minutes…"

"I didn't hear you."

"You were working. I though I should be quiet." He grin grows wider as I talk. "What?"

She rubs her hands gleefully. "I've just put a severe dent in Falcone's little operation here in Gotham."


She shrugs. "Sort of."

"Shouldn't this be more difficult?"

Her narrowed eyes warn me off questioning her ability with a computer. But I'm still confused. "Falcone's been trying to track me by the databases and servers I use. So I went back and took a look at the logs of each time I thought the Delphi was malfunctioning. The Delphi wasn't malfunctioning, the databases were. His hacker is good – good enough to hack the FBI and the ATF files but not good enough to erase his tracks. So I went back to the Arkham networks and went over all their code. I went back to the FBI databases and looked over everything. I went back to every backdoor I use and embedded a little worm. Any computer he uses will automatically download it and pass it on to any other computer he uses and feed the information back to me. I should be able to track him down eventually."

All that effort to tell me that she booby-trapped the booby trap. I never said her work was romantic - just that I like watching her do it.

Sunday, December 8
Clock Tower

The thing to remember, I tell myself, as I hold the cold pack to my bleeding nose, is that she isn't angry with me. I just happened to be in the way. The other thing to remember is never let your guard down. That'll teach me to feel sorry for her. And another thing to remember is to kick Dinah's butt extra hard during sparring next time because the way she's looking at me right now, I don't want her to get any funny ideas about messing with me.

"Are you okay," Barbara asks guiltily as she hands me a small towel to wipe the blood off my neck. I nod because the vibrations in my nose when I talk are just a little irritating…annoying…painful. "Are you sure?"

"I'm fine, damn it!" I snap at her. It's the fifth time she's asked that question. In the corner, Dinah is trying really hard not to laugh. Her face might be still, but I know it – she's just dying to laugh. I pull the pack off my face and turn to her. "Laugh and die, psychic girl." She purses her lips and turns her head. Hah! That confirms it – she is dying to laugh. That's two extra ass-kickings for the little girl.

Barbara is fiddling with the half-gloves on her lap. I think she's got a little blood on them from when she handed me the cold pack. "I'm sorry," she says really pathetically. I wave away her apology. These things happen – just usually not to me. Anyway it's not like she broke it, then I would have to have kicked her ass. Just on principle.

They say pain disrupts your defences. It must be true because I hear myself saying, "Jesus Christ! That's the dumbest move I've ever seen you make."

That gets her back up, and her eyebrow, and her voice. "Excuse me?"

"No bat-a-rang, no rope, no stick. That was your last weapon and you threw it at me."

"Well, it stopped you, now, didn't it?" She does have a point there.

I remove the comforting grip I have on my nose and look at her. "I can't believe you threw it at me. What if it hit me the wrong way?" I say it just to bug her, because I feel like an ass not to have seen the baton come flying at me, but from the look on her face I should have just kept my mouth shut. Oops!

"I'm sorry, I don't know what I was thinking."

"I know," I say, balling up the towel and throwing at her face. "You were thinking how much you hate to lose. You know kid, if she ever asks you to come spar with her, just run. She really hates to lose."

That draws a small smile out of her but she's still brooding. "I think that's enough for today," she says and goes to pick up her towel. I think I have to agree with her. Not that I couldn't go a few more rounds, but someone's got to talk to her about the temper she's been in since last night.

When I'm done cleaning I find Barbara in her sweaty clothes sitting in front of the Delphi eating a bowl of mint-chocolate chip. Mint chocolate-chip: not a good sign.

The spoon clatters into the bowl furiously and she starts swearing. Another not good sign. "Problem?" I ask.


"That's a lot of mint-chocolate chip for no problem."

"The FBI is trying to run a packet trace on my inquiries."


"I sent them all the information my miner program found out about Falcone and they're trying to trace me."

Now I get it – she's offended. "And? Do you think they'll find you?"

"Of course not." Of course not. Perish the thought, how could I even think such a thing. "They don't even know what they're looking for let alone who."

I let her rattle away on her keyboard for a while before I talk again. "So you find this guy yet? The one who screwed with Delphi?"

Sometimes you have to phrase things just the right way. Like with Barbara: never say anything bad about her computer. You can say bad things about her if you like but never say anything bad about the computer. "He didn't screw with the Delphi. He can't screw with the Delphi because I'd know someone was screwing with it. He was sneakier than that. He went into the databases and servers I access and changed them instead."

"So what's the problem?"

"Helena, if I can't trust the information I use everyday while you're out on sweeps and while I'm trying to work, I can't work. I'll spend more time trying to figure out if the information is real or not."

"It can't be that bad. You'll find him, right? You can find him?"

She nods reluctantly as she shoves another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth. "I'd just like to be able to work on tracking down Falcone without bothering with the FBI as well. It's as if Falcone doesn't exist. Four cities – I've tracked the Falcone organisation in four cities. Any time there's some kind of falling out between gangs in or an internal feud suddenly they find they've been replaced by someone bigger and more ruthless than them – it's always junior Falcone, Eddie. But no one has ever met him. No one's seen him." This is true. No matter how many skulls I crack or how many heads Dinah gets into we haven't been able to find a lead on Falcone. "No one has met Eddie Falcone. He has no DMV records. He has no postal records. He has no passport. He has no credit cards. He has no IRS records. He has no criminal records. The last trace of Eddie Falcone is in his high school graduation program where he is listed as a speaker for his class. After that, there's nothing. There isn't even a record of his death. It's like he disappeared into thin air."



Tuesday, December 10. Night
Clock Tower

I don't need Helena's comm. to gauge the level of chaos that exists outside on the street. Outside the clock Tower I can already hear the sounds of cars frantically beeping cars and raised voices. After the initial shocked lull of silence following the blackout, a legato roar of panic has risen from the collective throat of the city. It's a very instinctive thing for humans. We may build edifices that pierce the heavens, and fly to the moon. But at night, we are still afraid of the dark and left alone in it without a choice, we scream for our mothers to come rescue us. And when no one comes to chase the darkness away we fling ourselves against the fates in raging protest like a child throwing a tantrum.

At this very moment, Dinah is helping a child find her way out of a building on fire and Helena is engaged in what the police like to call crowd control, but she usually likes to call fun. Only she's doing it the way most policemen wish they were allowed to do it. The sound of fist meeting body in that very distinctive sound comes across the comm. The only thing missing is the usual banter that we engage in. But the entire four hours that this has been going on, I've heard more from Dinah than I have from Helena. I think she needs a break. In fact as soon as I've got this mess sorted out, I may need a break as well. This has been an exhausting year.

<"Oracle, what's the status on those ambulances and fire trucks.">

'There's no way to tell. The traffic grid is impossible right now."

<"I thought you were in the system.">

"This is going to take time. A few hours at least." I've managed to return partial operability to NG Light and Power but the intersecting interfaces of outdated pre-quake, analogue technology and the more modern digital technology is making it difficult for me. Even where I have reset the soft ware to do its job, the power nodes still have to be manually reset by technicians by flipping physical switches at shunt boxes.

<"This is a mess.">

"I know." I know better than she thinks. After all, I did live through the quake in the year before I started my crime-fighting career. "What's the situation?"

<"I've got these goons under control and any wannabes are having second thoughts. Canary?">

<"I've got everyone out of the building. But it's spreading to the next building.">

<"Can you try to stop it?">


<"Hang on."> She addresses someone in her vicinity. <"Anh ah, sonny,"> she growls. <"Use it and lose it!"> The sound of scampering feet proves the effectiveness of her mild threat. She redirects to Dinah. <"Just like in the training room. What you did with the boxes.">

<"I've never tried it like this…">

It's an excellent idea. If Dinah could telekinetically stall the spread of the fire, even for a little while, it would buy the fire trucks a little time. "Won't hurt to try," I encourage her.

I turn my attention for a minute to the scanner chatter. There is a fire truck on its way toward Dinah, but with all the traffic still stalled on the roads its progress is infinitesimally slow.

I toggle back to the new NG Light and Power window. The software is rebooting. The overload alarm has shut down transmission all down the lines. The computers controlling the grid have shut down with the lines in protest at the damage done their operating systems.

Another 911 call catches my attention. Looters are breaking into a shop-front and there is a bank robbery in progress. Some enterprising young men seem to be blasting the ATMs out of the bank face to cart off in their trucks. Apparently the guards are either injured or dead. The woman is cut off with a shout before she can give the location of the bank. But her cell phone is still on and I triangulate the signal to 78th and Lex. It should take Helena seven minutes to get there from where she is.

<"Huntress, there's a situation at 78th and Lex.">

<"There's a situation right here. It's a fucking riot. There's a truck driver with a baseball bat, and a suit with a gun facing off on the main avenue, and everyone is joining in.">

<"It's a possible hostage situation,"> I say to her absently as I struggle with the software that operates the shunts.

<"Well, I've got an actual riot situation here."> The sound of a gunshot cracking through the air startles a, <"Son of a bitch!"> out of her.

When I hear her wade into the crowd, I transfer back to my map of the city. She is 10 blocks from precinct 33. The bank robbery and looting is happening 25 blocks away from the nearest police precinct. It's a judgement call. "Huntress, I need you at 78th and Lex."

<"Damn it! It'll take me forever to get there.">

"Just get there. Leave this one for the police they're 10 blocks from you."

<"It's your call.">

When I return to my examination of the electrical networks, I realise a very strange thing. None of the grids outside of the greater Gotham area seem to experiencing cascade failures. Only the power plants feeding directly into the city are shut down. According to the error logs on the Blüdahven networks, there were no cascade failures on the transmission lines.

<"Oracle,"> Dinah's scratchy voice comes over the comm. <"I can't do this much longer.">

"They're almost there Dinah. They're only two blocks away from you. Do as much as you can."

I enter the super administrator account on the network.

<"Oracle,"> Helena's voice demands, <"When's the damn power coming back on?">

Before I can stop myself, I spit back at her, "I'm working on it damn it!"

<"Whoa! I'm only asking. But there are a whole bunch of kids outside this grocery store and things are looking iffy.">

"Just get to Lex and stop the bank robbery. I'll let you know when I'm done."

The account fails to recognise my password.

User authentification failed. The words flash blandly on my screen. I think I have mistyped in a hurry and try again.

User authentification failed. The same message greets me.

It is a testament to how far past stressed I am in the moment that my heart does not skip a beat when a dull blue window pops to life on my screen.

[i see you oracle]

An electric chill runs across my skin, bringing all my hairs to attention. On the comm. I hear Dinah's voice giving orders to a crowd in a very calm and controlled voice. I'm very proud of the way she has handled herself tonight.

[having trouble?]

Taking a page from my younger protégé's book, I respond calmly. {nothing that you can help with}

Ten seconds later power switching nodes on my NGLP status screens come alive.

[anything you can do, I can do better]

{what do you want?}

A whoop of triumph arrives form Helena's transmitter. <"All right, Oracle! City Hall just lit up. I've got the bank robbers all tied up – buncha stupid kids. Their hostage is safe.">

[to talk]

{we're talking now}



<"Oracle, I'm going to head back toward the grocery store, see if the situation is stabilising.">

"Whatever you think." I respond distractedly.


"Huntress, I've got my hacker on line. I'm a little busy."

My hacker's words appear on the screen during my argument with Helena

[face to face?]

[just to talk?]

<"I'm right there!">

"No. Stay out there and handle it. You can't do anything here."

<"Damn it.">

"Huntress you're my field operative so stay in the field," I shout at her to emphasise how serious I am. "There's nothing you can do here."

There is a note of pleading in her voice. <"I don't know if I can do this by myself.">

"Just try, Huntress. Go help Dinah out."

There is a long pause before she replies. <"I'm on it. If you need anything, holler.">

I agree to let her know, but turn off my microphone anyway. When I return my attention to the screen the words glare at me.

[are you there?]


[trying to trace me?]

Yes, of course what does he take me for?


{you didn't answer my question}

[what question?]

Even knowing that tracking him down is a long shot, I try.

{what do you want?}

[face to face]

{where are you, in gotham?}

[i'll find you]

{what do you want to talk about?}

I keep an eye on my tracer. The first three numbers of his IP address appear, then the next three. Yes! He is in Gotham. The next three numbers. Then his words.

[you lied. i'm going to find you]

And the window disappears.

My tracer beeps at me, blinking the message "Trace complete."

I throw my head back and let out a sigh. Whether or not the trace will lead me to a valid address he's given his game away. He's just confirmed we're both in the same city.

Tuesday, December 10. Late Night
Clock Tower

Helena is pacing the room like a caged animal. Dinah keeps staring at her nervously at her from her chair. Helena is bursting with a seething violence that is crackling the air around her.

I click the flashlight off and pause my neurological examination of Dinah. "Helena could you do us both a favour and sit down? You're making Dinah dizzy." Dinah opens her mouth to protest but I give her a look and she shuts up

Helena mumbles an apology, "Sorry," but remains standing, albeit in one place.

I return my attention to Dinah. Her pupils seem to be responding well and there are no lumps on her head that I can detect. The cortical scanner, which with a few programming tweaks functions handily as an MRI machine, shows no physical neurological damage. But apparently she seems to be showing hyper activity of the neural clusters that are associated with her meta-human powers. "Still have a headache?" Dinah nods yes. "Where?"

"Around the front of my head, behind my eyes and back here." She touches the occipital bone

"Shake your head slowly." She complies. "Does that hurt?"


"Try it just a little harder." She does. "Hurts?"


"Okay. And you're sure nothing fell on you."

"No, I just got a little dizzy."

"I think you just overworked yourself. Helena tells me that you didn't get singed at all when the fire-ball hit." Even as I speak about the incident I am amazed by the steadiness of both my tone and my hand.

She nods. "I guess I just did what I do in the practice room. I imagined that it wouldn't reach me and the fire just turned aside." She is trying to be serious and objective but I can detect the hint of a twinkle in her eye and the smallest twitch at the corner of her mouth. I don't blame her. It's a remarkable feat to accomplish.

I let myself smile widely at Dinah. "I'd say that was pretty handy, wouldn't you?"

She follows my lead and beams back at me. "Yeah."

"You did okay."


"But the next time you're out there, when Helena tells you to move it. Do it."

Her eyes cast downwards in gesture of shame. But I let her feel it fully without trying to make her feel better about it. Helena may be overbearing and protective at times but she would never give Dinah an order that she didn't mean.

"Yeah, do it," Helena joins in. "Stupid kid," she mumbles, and then whirls on me with a flourish. "I am sick and tired of this. I am fucking sick and tired of this."

"I know."

"This is the third time in nine goddamn days."

"I know."

"The third fucking time!" she explodes.

"I know."

"I almost end up like Peking duck in the steam tunnels, I don't give a damn. I have to crash a fucking van on the way back, I don't give a shit! But he starts gunning for you and it's over! It's fucking over. And her, she's just sixteen years old. We find this guy and we stop him now."

"I know."

"Hey I'm right here in this room. Can we not please talk about me in the third person? And I can take care of myself."

"Shut up!" Helena advances menacingly on her. "You'd be sleeping under a pile of concrete right now if you hadn't gotten lucky."

"But I did get lucky, so get off your guilt trip already. You can't save everybody and you can't be everywhere at once." When she finishes speaking, she is more surprised by her own temerity than either of the two of us. "I mean…" she tucks her hair behind her ear, "I'm okay, so it's okay."

Thus confronted, Helena retreats, and throws herself onto the sofa flinging an arm over her eyes. "Because this is goddamn getting old. I haven't slept in days. I haven't eaten today. I am worn out."

I am about to say, 'I know' when I realise that it will be the fifth time for the useless and completely inexpressive utterance, and stop myself. The only problem, of course, is that I find myself entirely in agreement with her. Dinah glances at me speculatively to see what I will say or do. "Yeah," I sigh.

"I can't do this. I can't keep going like this." Dinah gawps at the alarming words that are leaving Helena's mouth, her face giving expression to my own feeling. "It's too soon. I've only just had to deal with losing ……all this. And you've…I need a fucking…"

"…Break from all of this," I finish for her. "I know."

"Yeah like that's going to happen."

Dinah's voice is wistful and wishful. "Gosh, like a real vacation? That would be nice."

"Maybe we should take a vacation after all this." I say. "Pack it all up and go somewhere else."

The staccato laughter that spills from Helena's lips is more incredulity than humour. She pushes herself up and looks at me. "A holiday? An actual leave the Delphi behind, get on the plane, check into a hotel room, get on a bus in the morning and wander around with a camera doing stupid things holiday?" I nod. "Do you have a fever? Are you delirious? Dinah did she seem feverish to you when she was examining you?"

"No," I protest, "seriously. Lets take a vacation."

"We go somewhere warm," says Helena. "Like Barbados or St. Croix."


"I don't know," she blushes. "I've never been anywhere except Opal and New Gotham."

It strikes me at that very moment how little Dinah has seen of the world and how easy it is to forget that because of how open minded and eager she is. "This will be your chance then. Anywhere you want to go."

"Ummm…Greece? I've always wanted to visit Athens." Apparently there is something to the adage 'learn something new everyday' because I certainly had no idea that Dinah was interested in Athens.

"Why not? Helena can show you around. She spent a lot of time there."

Dinah turns her wide eyes on Helena, their brief spat of earlier already forgotten. "It's been a while," she responds.

"I think it's an excellent idea."

"Sure," Helena concedes. "If we can find this guy before Christmas, you'd still have two weeks vacation left."



Wednesday, December 11, Happy Hour
Dark Horse.

"Reese..Jesse. What're you doing here?"

"You'll want to take a look at this."

"Are you supposed to show me these?"

"No, but you should see them."

"It's an execution. What'd the guy do, run off with the mob money?"

"His company was under surveillance by the FBI because someone there was using computers to access bank accounts illegally. He's a suspected hacker."


"…That's my phone. Anyway, you need to watch out – I've got a meeting with Agent Smith – to go over my informant lists. He wants to know why I have such a good arrest record."



Wednesday, December 11, Evening
Clock Tower

>>> brrnn brn… brrnn brn… brrnn brn… brrnn brn… brrnn brn… brrnn brn…


You have reached Richard Grayson's voicemail. Please leave a message after the beep.


"Dick, I need you to do me a favour. I need you to give me any information about apparently motiveless execution style killings in this week, specifically ones where the victim had any technical contact with computers on a daily basis. And this is important – call me with the information. Call me."

Wednesday, December 11, Night
Clock Tower

Police continue to be baffled by the murder of Marcus Jensen a prominent local computer entrepreneur who was shot to death in his apartment, execution style on Thursday night.

I can feel the dual weight of Dinah and Helena's gazes on my back as I speak to Dick. "When?"

Marcus Jensen was discovered in his apartment by his girlfriend of several years when he failed to meet her for a date. The grisly murder of this reportedly shy and generous man who changed the face of this economically depressed neighbourhood came as a terrible shook to the community.

<"Last night. ME thought it was an accident at first: kid passes out with the laminator on while toking up. Her place was a mess, papers and wires everywhere, it went up in minutes. But the full examination showed a bullet in the cranial cavity.">

Jeremy Williams, family friend:

"He was real quiet you know, always reading a lot. He grew up just a block over from where he lived. When he came back from college he was really into helping out the neighbourhood. First thing he did when he made his first million was clean up the park so that the kids could play, you know, without the broken bottles and the trash and *bleep*. He never took no credit for the things he did, you know, he'd like smile and say, it was the people that done it."

"What did you say she did?" Behind me Helena is bristling in anger and frustration.

"Programmer at a local software company." His face pixelates in a stutter of satellite static. <"B…Oracle? Is there a problem?">

"Did you know she was a hacker?"

Sally Means, neighbour:

"I really don't know who would want to do something like that. He was just a really nice boy. Always helping out with carrying my groceries up the stairs. Playing with the children. Helping the kids stay in school. He was just a good boy."

<"She had a reputation, but nothing that we could stick on her.">

Suddenly I find that this conversation is too stressful for me. "Dick, I've got to go."

<"Oracle…are you in trouble?">

Mr. Jensen, 32, was the sole owner of the local internet shopping and delivery service Wiz It! The company made a mark six years ago by offering shopping 'valets' for those too busy to shop. The company's unique policy to hire young high school aged students from economically challenged neighbourhoods and provide them with education as part of their contracts made the company a model of community building. Mr. Jensen was highly regarded as a leader and community builder, and his brutal, apparently senseless killing has left his friends and neighbours shocked and traumatised.

I sigh as restrainedly as I can. "I may have a small technical problem. But don't worry about it. I'm handling it."

<"If you say so. Ummm…"> he offers me a sincere and determined smile. <"…But if there's anything you need…"> Unfortunately I cannot bring myself to respond before I sign off.

This is Joanne Chen reporting live for News Channel Four. Ben, back to you in the newsroom.

Thank you Joanne. Ladies and gentlemen Joanne Chen reporting from Old Gotham where police are unable to discern a motive for the mob style execution of a local businessman.

My life is just a little more complicated than I would like it to be right now.

Thursday, December 12. Early morning/late night
Clock Tower

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.

I wonder why there are no equivalent phrases for people, or animals, that wander about in the December cold, because there is absolutely no sense in sitting outside on balcony when it's freezing outside. But looking at the city all lit up after the power outage earlier this week gives me a sense of satisfaction. The yellow and crimson ropes of traffic are not the only lights in the night now.

Right this minute I'm starting to wish there actually had been a break out at Arkham. At least I know what I'd be facing.

Damn it! I really don't know how I could have misjudged the situation so badly. I've been keeping tabs on the Falcone family so long that I've forgotten why Gotham city used to cower at the mention of the name Falcone. Daddy built his career fighting Carmine Falcone and his minions. But for the last fifteen years they've haven't really been a name to reckon with – insidious, yes, but not powerful. If there was ever any question about who's trying to find me it's all gone now. Two people are dead because somebody was angry about what I did to the Falcone family. If my timeline is correct someone has been searching for Oracle for the last six months and only a week and a half ago managed to narrow the search to the greater Gotham area, coinciding very neatly with my run of bad luck. Someone who is really determined to find me – determined enough to start killing off hackers who might be Oracle.

The clouds tumbling through the night sky pass for a second to reveal the moon, and out of the corner of my eye I catch a glint of something. I move further out onto the balcony and trace the curve of a two wine glasses nestled, side-by-side, in the crook of banister and flagstone. I shake my head – the blessed things have been sitting there for two weeks now. If even Alfred won't come out here to see if everything is ship shape it must be cold, and I must be truly addled to be sitting out here. And as much as I pretend to be baffled by why I'm sitting in the dark, in the cold, this time I know why I'm out here: Helena.

I know that she's somewhere out in the darkness biding her sleepless nights, staring out over the city, keeping an eye on it. Bruce used to do that. Sometimes he would just find a high tower to stand on and just stay there. No matter how cold, or how wet, or how hot, he would just stand there like a totem or a ghost, standing vigil over the city that had broken him and remade him in its own image.

I wonder if she will stop standing out in the dark if I tell her how much like her father she really is, with her broodiness and her love of the dark. The thought drags a chuckle out of my lungs – I can only imagine the outrage on her face right before it morphs into a pout borrowed straight from Selina's book. If she was holding something, she would probably want to throw it, then she'd flounce off, stomping so hard I'd probably feel the beams shake. Helena always makes bigger fuss when she want to *show* me how angry she is, because when she really is angry, you can feel the air prickle with electrified ozone around her even when she hasn't moved a muscle. She really can be something of a drama queen when she wants to. That thought makes me laugh again.

The wind picks up and I let it cut through me, letting myself shiver. The cold passes right through me shaking my bones in a punishing rattle. My hands travel to my mouth and I instinctively blow a warm breath into them. When I scrunch my shoulders into a turtle-ish huddle against the wind and dip my head to blow into my hands, the motion brings the wine glasses into my line of sight again. The action of the wind and dust, and layers of condensation and evaporation have exposed the latent fingerprints and lip marks on the two glasses. That one, I think, that one is Helena's glass. There is no mistaking the shape of the mark left by cupid-bow lips. And as I study the depth of the evaporation bands ringing the wall of the glasses I realise that the glass with the lesser amount of wine that I appropriated really was hers.

For some reason a perfect crystal of recollection floats loose from the reef of my memory.

She is putting the dishes away in the washer as I wander away to the table. I can count them by the sound each item makes as it goes in the machine: serving platter, plate, plate, charger, charger…

I pick up my glass from my seat at the table and then wheel around to her seat. Her chair is the only one sitting askew from the table. I pull the chair aside and pull into the spot. As I rest my glass on the table, my tipsy hand bumps into her glass. The dark liquid sloshes around, licking the walls of the glass in thick running legs. I reach out and steady the glass before any liquid can slosh over to mar the whiteness of the tablecloth. I must be drunk because my fingers are telling me that this glass is warmer than mine and that's not possible. I move my hand and test the temperature of my glass. Yes, hers is definitely warmer. Maybe it's the wine, I think. Is alcohol endothermic or exothermic? I pull the wine bottle toward me and tip out the last jiggerful of wine into my glass to see if that makes my glass feel warmer. I touch my glass and then hers. No, hers is still warmer. As I stare at the liquid levels in the two glasses, I hear her putting the cutlery into the machine. I slide my hand underneath the bowls of the two glasses and call out, "Come sit outside with me."

Yes, mine was definitely the glass with more wine in it. How drunk was I that, in the three minutes it took me to manoeuvre my careful way to the balcony, I forgot that? A shiver runs through me as I ask myself that question and I tuck my hands into my armpits.

"You're going to start freezing in about two minutes." The lazy voice almost frightens me out of my chair. As it is, it feels like I'm having a cardiac infarction, my heart is beating so fast. I twist up to trace the source of the voice. There she is – swinging her legs nonchalantly, her hair a shaggy fringe around her face.

"You scared five years off my life. What the hell?"

She yawns loudly. "I can hear your teeth chattering from up here, what're you doing?"

"Why aren't you at home."

"You look like your dog just died."


She stops swinging her legs and stares. For a few seconds we both dodge each others' questions and then finally…

"I couldn't sleep," we both say simultaneously.

Her clear laughter comes falling from above. A second later she floats down with a whoosh of air. "Birds of a feather," she says as she leans against the banister.

We're both ridiculous, standing out in the frosty cold, watching our breaths fog and crackle in the air, laughing about absolutely nothing. I bury my face in my hands and shake my head. "I need to sleep."

"Tell me about it," she says.

"So why can't you sleep?"

"Same reason you can't sleep."

"Because I'm about to take a bullet in my crime-fighting career again, only this time I see it coming?"

Her forehead wrinkles and she flaps her mouth in a very unbecoming imitation of a fish. "I was going to say no sweeps."

"Well, you say potato.... I say potahto."

"Actually, you say potato, I say spuds."

"Same thing."

She looks away from me and turns her torso to stare at the same lights I was staring at. The light of Wayne tower paints a narrow halo around her head. "There'll be no bullets for you," she mumbles. The expression on her face is determined, defiant; maybe there's even the lightest twinge of hurt. It's the hurt that I find so incongruous and painful. "You're not going to take any bullets Barbara, not while I can stand in their way." Then as if she realises she has come too close to an intimate conversation she smiles. "Hell, why me? Put the kid in the way and she'll catch them with her mind – she's the one who wanted to sign up to be a superhero. Tell her it's her signing fee."

"Shut up," I tell her. I hear her smack her lips as she ducks her head at my chiding. As I watch her breath freeze and disappear in front of her mouth, the devil whispers in my ear and the cold has numbed my brain just enough that I want to heed the voice. "Do you want a drink?"

She blinks in surprise and then shrugs. "Sure," she says as she moves towards the door. "You still got Mr Gordon's stash from last Christmas?"

As it turns out daddy's stash of Christmas scotch is nowhere to be found. But there is a bottle of Tanqueray in the spice cupboard, and a bottle of dry vermouth in the behind the mushroom soy sauce. And in no time at all Helena serves up martinis in highball glasses.

She is rimming my glass with a twist of lime peel, preparing it for a second filling as I refill hers for the third time. "So talk to me," she says. I make a great show of not spilling a single drop as I twist the shaker away from the rim of the glass. I'm surprised she has waited this long to draw answers out of me.

"I've been doing this for seven years."

"Longer if you count what you did before."

"True, true," I agree, as I sample the acerbic bite of the citrus oils on my glass. "But let's just go with say, seven – seven untraceable years. No one is supposed to know I'm around."

"Yeah! Until you start hacking NASA and borrowing transponder time because you think the next big one is going to hit." I can't believe she's still teasing me about that one. The seismographic information that came down from the Geological Institute's sensors was very alarming and I wanted to take a look at wave dispersion patterns on the ocean. It was a legitimate concern. I remember the quake. I remember the hell that Gotham turned into for six months and the two – almost three – years it took to rebuild.

"I thought I could just stay underground. Just be a ghost in the machine, like…like…"

"Like you were a ghost on the rooftops?" Ghost on the rooftops – that's a laugh. "Everyone knew you were out there, Barbara. Bobby Grene, and every other teenaged jerk off, used to have some pretty nasty fantasies about Batgirl. Oh man! The scenarios they'd come up with about Batman and Batgirl and Robin…" she whistles long and low. "Sick."

The thought of that pairing…tripling…combination makes me blush hot. Dick and I may have had our little fling but the thought of Bruce and me together still makes me as nauseated as the first time Selina mentioned it. I have to agree with Helena's assessment. "That's just sick."

"You don't know the half of it," she says taking another slug of her martini. I'm really hard pressed to understand how someone with a nose as sensitive as Helena's can enjoy the highly aromatic spiciness of gin. I can barely drink the stuff, and I'm the one with the alcoholic genes. "Didn't you used to date Bobby Grene?"

"Yeah, I did."

That gets my back up. "Even after you knew about his twisted little fantasies?"

That gets me a sheepish look and a small start. "Uhh…"

"No, no," I exclaim. "Allow me to guess. You had some pretty sick fantasies of your own," I say broadly as I lift my own glass to my lips. For the second time this week, I see Helena blanche and flush. I laugh at the sight and, as the gin burns down my throat, I infer that it means she did. The thought makes the alcohol stick. I cough and splutter as she thumps me on the back in an effort to get me to breathe normally. I stare wide-eyed at her as I consciously contemplate for the first time that Helena Kyle… Helena, my troublesome ward may actually have had the odd sexual fantasy about me…no…about Batgirl, which, actually, after all, in effect, is essentially the same thing as me. I automatically take another gulp of my glass again forgetting that it's not water, and choke again.

"Easy there, Irish. I know you can probably drink a lot of people under the table, but you really need to slow down." I wipe the water out of my eyes and nod.

As I struggle to breathe and Helena runs off to bring me some water from the kitchen, I hear the sound of flesh impacting something solid, followed by the energetic swearing of my young ward. As the swearing lessens it is followed by more thumping and bumping. It doesn't sound very healthy, to say the least. "Dinah?" I call out.

"Barbara!" she squeaks in sleepy reply.

"Are you all right?"

"Yeah. Why is it so dark in here?"

Is it? I haven't noticed. I look around and realise that it I've turned all the Delphi monitors off. I've been sitting in the dark for so long my eyes have become accustomed to the ambient level of light seeping in from the windows. "Hang on I'll turn on a light for you." I start to transfer back into my chair but Helena saves me the trouble. The sudden burst of light is a little disorientating, and I feel a small burst of resentment for the loss of the intimacy that the darkness carried.

"What's up kid? You break something?" Helena asks as she hands me a bottle of citrussy vitamin water. This is a sports drink. Helena catches my confusion and replies. "You might as well. You'll be needing it in the morning." Fair enough, I think and crack the seal on the cap.

Dinah approaches the railing as she rubs her eyes and pushes the hair back from her face. "I was just coming down to get some water. It was really dark. What's going on?"

"We're having a night cap. Wanna join us?" retorts Helena.

The clang-thump of sleepy feet follows Dinah down the stairs. When she appears, she is squinting at the watch on her wrist. "It's almost three."

"Yup," says Helena. "Bar doesn't close until four. Here," she wanders back into the kitchen for a new glass "have one."

Dinah looks unsurely at me, remembering the lecture I gave her after the No Man's Land event.

Helena stares knowingly back at her. "It's okay, she'll let it go this one time. It's a special occasion." Then she turns to me as she pours Dinah a glass. "C'mon Barbara, she's a super freakin' hero. The world could end tomorrow and she won't know what a good martini tastes like."

When Helena thrusts the glass at her, she accepts it hesitantly. I wave my hand at her to let her know that it's okay. "Just this once," I warn. The look on her face as she samples the beverage is priceless. Whatever else, Dinah is not going to be sampling more martinis anytime soon.

Helena saves her by taking the glass out of her hand and replacing it with a plastic bottle. "Here have a Pepsi."

Dinah looks relieved and chugs the caffeine and sugar enthusiastically. "What are you guys talking about?"

Helena turns a smirk to me, and answers Dinah. "Well, Irish here was about to stop beating around the bush any second now, now that she's good and drunk."

"I beg your pardon?"

"C'mon Barbara, you never drink unless there's something huge on your mind, and the only time you invite me to join you is if you think I'm going to pitch a fit."

"I do?" She nods in response. That gets me thinking, am I worried about how she's going to react? Maybe just a little. "Oh."

"So spit it out already. Don't make me drink you under the table, you'll suffer in the morning."

I savour the coolness of the glass against my cheek before I answer. "Bruce and Dick and I spent so much time making sure that every remnant of the Falcone organisation was cleaned up that I never really shook the habit. Anytime it looked like they were getting close to being a real cartel again, I've managed to sabotage them. I've let it go the last two years, but…they've slowly tech-ed up over the years. If Eddie Falcone is looking to be king of Gotham he's not going to stop. He's going to keep killing anyone he thinks is a candidate for Oracle. I can keep hiding but he'll keep looking, and more people are going to die. And I have no idea who he is."

And then Dinah asks the question that I have been dodging for about six turns of conversation now. "What are you going to do?"

"We know Falcone's in town." Dinah nods patiently, but Helena's expression turn hawkish as she bites her lip in impatience. "So I'm going to let him find me."



Saturday, December 14. Late evening

I have to admit, this is not the worst idea she has ever had. The plan she had with Freeze where she poured poison into my veins – now that was pretty bad. Sure it worked out okay in the end, but she didn't know it would, she had simply hoped. And what about The Stupidest Fucking Stunt In The Whole World – that was pretty bad, probably the worst idea she's ever had.

But this one – I'll agree with her – it's okay.

"It's very simple," she said. "I'm going to let him 'track' Oracle down to a physical location and then let him confirm it. Then I'm going to make such a big mess of his finances he's going to want to come for me. And when he comes for me, you're going to be there."

I wasn't sure that Falcone was going to be there myself, but she said it didn't matter. Whoever came would know him, and then Dinah could get the information out of him. It sounded like plan – and anytime we get to trash a couple of hundred thousand dollars of dear ol' dad's cash is fine by me. So I said yes. It's not every day that you can get Barbara to agree to hitch a bomb to an expensive computer she put together. In fact, I'm not so sure how I feel about it – I did help her put it together as a back up after the mess with Quinn.

I keep an absent eye on the monitors showing the entrance – nothing out of order. The doorman is flipping through his latest issue of Vanity Fair – this is an upscale space. The motion detectors are quiet and the outside views are boring too. I should have brought more video games, 'cause I'm already bored with this one. I let The Ride of the Valkyries have one more spin on the CD player just for kicks. Two minutes later right when the music is about to get interesting I feel a little prickling through my back. A second later the computer – I like to call it mini-Delphi – starts beeping at me.

<"You have contact,"> Barbara says.

"No kidding. Are you seeing this?" The weasel thinks he's being sneaky coming in to the building through the basement next door. But you have to go a long way before you can put one over the Oracle. The cameras show the foggy green images scuttling through the dark corridor.


"You have got to be kidding me! Who does he think he's coming for, Rambo?" I see four figures hustling through the hallway in body armour and night vision goggles. None of these guys can be Falcone. "Canary?"


"You see anything outside, anything that feels out of place?"

<"There's a van parked outside the building – Stan's Plumbing and Boiler Maintenance – a bunch of guys just walked into the building with big bags.">

"How many?"


<"That's it,"> says Barbara, <"Those are the rest of your guys.">

"Can you make out any of their faces?"

<"No,"> she replies unhappily. <"Their hats are pulled too low.">

It doesn't matter, because the heating in the building is working just fine. I take a good look at how they approach the desk and present the work order. One of them hangs back a little and glances up at the camera. The brim of his cap covers most of his face and he's wearing goggles. Call it a hunch, but I think that's my man. And who the hell sends a six-man team to fix a boiler anyway?

"Anything else?"

<"Ummm….I don't know….">

"Keep an e…" Before I can finish my sentence the lights go out. Even the cameras feeding into mini-Delphi go blank. All I'm left with is the glow of the wallpaper on the screen and the hum of the motors. Someone's done their home work: they've found the independent power lines for the cameras too.

A shiver runs right through me at the thought of the hunt and I close my eyes. No matter what else has happened this year, I haven't forgotten this, the thrill of the hunt – me in the darkness against the bad guys. Barbara rules the cyber world but the darkness is mine. When I open my eyes the darkness is nothing more than the edge of a warm silver glow.

Barbara's voice in my ear is excited and edgy. <"Huntress, start the shutdown, and set the timer."> Following Barbara's instructions I click on the red icon that will shut the computer down. Right as I reach for the flip switch that will set the time for three minutes there is a loud boom followed by a concussive wave that knocks me off my feet. My hand falls on the switch and turns on the timer.

A second boom knocks the plaster loose from the ceiling and fills the room with clouds of dust. The dust irritates my eyes and my lungs, making me blink and cough as I stand up. The red numbers on the timer run off their millisecond countdown as Barbara's voice sounds in my ear. <"Huntress, status!">

There are alarms going off everywhere. I wave my hand to clear the dust away from my face. "Well..." I cough out, stating the obvious, "There were two explosions. What the fuck was that?" I grab the handle on the door and pull but the door doesn't respond. I try again but the door only beeps a curse at me. Fuck! The door has default locked in the absence of power. I rip open the nearest grate and haul myself into ceiling vent, slamming the grate shut behind me.

Awhh! Bad fucking idea. The vents are filled with smoke. How dumb is that? I choke down on my breath and push my way through looking for the nearest exit without any regard for safety. I come out in the hallway outside the mini-Delphi's suite.

Barbara is going nuts in my ear wanting to know what is going on and I growl quietly to let her know to shut up. I hear the elevator doors slide open and duck behind a plastic plant. The sharp light of a red laser cuts through the smoke playing across shadows in the clouds. "Oracle, these guys are serious fire power." From the stairwell I can hear the sound of booted feet clumping up the steps. These guys are serious about grabbing Oracle. I don't know what the hell Barbara did, but Falcone must be pissed off as a hornet without a nest.

The four guys coming up through the elevator shaft are professionals: they jimmy the lock in about a minute and are through the door. When the alarm doesn't go off, I know they're good. The first three duck into the apartment, the last one does a quick scan for anyone behind him and turns to enter. The second he turns his back, I grab him by the mouth and knock him out.

"Okay, I'm back inside the suites," I let Barbara know.

<"No,"> she bites out, <"Go after the plumbers.">

"The fewer stray guns there are the better I'll feel."

<"Be careful,"> she tells me.

"Always," I lie. She snorts to let me know that she knows I'm lying.

Inside, the three guys have split up into different rooms – after all they're hunting only one person. As I stalk the second guy in the kitchen and knock him down with a thunk of the frying pan, I hear a shout behind me. Someone's discovered the unconscious body by the door. Oops!

More bodies enter the apartment. Mmhhh… "Back up's here," I tell Barbara. "Time to party."

<"Make sure they're all inside first,"> she says. I nod, even though she can't see me. But that's okay she didn't really expect me to answer anyway. It's just her way of letting me know she's with me.

In the distance there are the sounds of fire trucks and ambulances. That was a pretty quick response time. I slink against the walls waiting for the stream of bodies to pass me by before I try to pick them off one by one. One…two…three…four…five… Wait…wait…wait…six. They're all in. Inside the apartment I hear a bubbling hiss – very faint, just a little gurgling, not louder than the hissing of the radiators. And I know the acid in the computer room is doing its job.

I sneak up on one of the guys, grab him by his collar and hit his head on the wall. "Three down, six to go." He leaves a little dent in the smooth dry wall as he goes down. As I creep towards the computer room where I see one body heading, I hear the crackling of radios before a confused shout. The rapid fire of bullets then confuses me. <"Are you okay?"> Barbara asks

"Yes," I reply. Who the hell are they shooting at? I'm right here. "Mother fucker!" I can't help the curse that falls out of my mouth when I hear the next series of shouts that goes up.

>>Freeze! FBI!<<

>> Federal agent! Put down your weapons!<<

"God damn it! Oracle!" I grit out. "Is this going to be another fucking fiasco?"

I can hear the rapid clicking of keys and muttering over the earpiece as I duck even lower. I can't believe I've been cracking the skulls of the law. Yeah that'll keep them off Oracle's back. But if they're the FBI, why are they shooting each other. As I listen to the chatter and the sound of bullets, I realise that there are two sets of guns – one sharp firing and loud and the other muffled. Someone in here is using suppressors. Great! Now I have to baby sit the law and figure out who I need to take back to Barbara without getting noticed.

It's only when I round the corner of the hallway that the mini-Delphi is in, that I see the bright yellow lettering, glinting white in my enhanced vision that proclaims the acronym of their agency. He is distracted by a sound - this is my chance to sneak by him – and then I notice the bright red line that comes to focus on the back of his head.

Leave him? Save him? Damn it – save him. I tackle him in the best NFL form and the coughed bullet chews into the wall. I hit him once, to make sure that he doesn't get any nasty ideas about me, and jump in the direction of the shooter with a snarl. The muzzle of the gun stares me in the face as I leap at him. His finger on the trigger squeezes and I can see the bullet spiralling out of the barrel. I move my head only an inch and the bullet goes wide. I grab him by the neck and slam him into the wall.

Even seven feet from the computer room my eyes start stinging and it's hard to breathe. "Oh man! There're fumes everywhere." If I thought the dust was bad I was mistaken – this is bad.

"Huntress, those fumes are toxic. You need to get out of there as soon as you can."

Shit she doesn't need to tell me. I may not remember all my chemistry lessons but there's one thing I know. Acid:bad as stinging fumes:toxic. The acid fumes are spilling out through the open door. I do my best to focus my awareness on everything in front of me. I can make out two sets of feet. One soft soled and the other heavy rubber

"There's a cop and a scum bag in there, Oracle," I tell her. "I can grab the baddy for you, no problem."

<"Forget it,"> she orders me. <"We can do this another way. Another day.">

"No," I insist, "he's going to shoot the cop. I can't just leave him in there."

<"Forty five seconds,"> she concedes. <"After that, I'm sending Alfred in after you.">

Now that's just black mail. "Forty five seconds," I agree.

When I catch up on my two guys, I see the Feeb scanning the room before ducking in. Fat lot of good that's going to do him – the place is filled with nooks, and his vision is obscured by his gas mask. The other guy is nowhere to be seen.

As I get into position behind the Feeb, I hear the smallest click of a trigger cocking. Simultaneously I push the man out of my way as I snatch the radio set out of his belt and throw it in the direction of the sound. The plastic makes contact with a small crunch – right on the nose. "Yes!" I murmur softly and hear Barbara's indulgent warning.

<"Fifteen seconds.">

The little feeling of triumph that surges through me at the sound makes me feel better about Barbara's baton the other day. I guess sometimes you just need to throw something.

"Give me ten, and I'll have you a present too."

A second bullet fires, this one blazing right past my ear. I turn my entire focus on the shooter so that I can get him and get out of there. Even with one hand on his nose and blind with pain, his aim is pretty good. My villain jumps out and makes a desperate grab at my neck with one hand and with the gun trained in the general direction of my head. This is pathetic. I smirk and start to slap his gun away. As I raise my hand, I see his eyes go wide as they focus on something behind my shoulder.

Good fake, I think as my hand makes contact with the gun and



Saturday December 14. Late Night
Clock Tower

…in a violent sequel to the tragic raid that cost the lives of Detective Andrew Jerome and Special Agent Anthony Gianetti. Officials say that the bomb was set off by the suspects in this seven-storey apartment complex in midtown New Gotham in a desperate attempt to escape federal custody. Twelve residents were injured in the resulting explosion. The suspects, three of whom have a violent history with the mob opened fire injuring at least one agent. Four suspects are dead and at least one is said to be at large. More when we return after the break.

It was meant to be a simple plan. A bait and grab. In and out. No problem. Ideally, once Falcone bit, and either sent his man to get Oracle or arrived in person, Huntress was going to grab him; an actual operation time of not more than 20 minutes. Not the safest plan, but simple. Only now I am out of contact with Huntress; the press is reporting "the death of three suspects alleged to be part of a criminal ring working to attack the city's infrastructure while a fifth suspect is at large"; three agents are being treated for injuries, and still no Falcone.

The only upside to this is the fact that no one seems to be looking for Oracle anymore.

It's been five hours already, damn it all to hell! Where is she?

Sunday, December 15, All day
All over New Gotham

Helena, Where are you?

Monday, December 16,
Approximately 1:30 a.m.
Nick's City Diner

We must make a very strange trio at the all-night diner: two drawn and worried looking women whispering in the corner with the nervous police detective.

Reese opens a manila envelope and slides out a few prints. "One of the dead men had this in his hand."

I study the images. One, of the object in the John Doe's grip, and the other, neatly laid out on the white tile of the ME's table. I am not shocked at what I see but at least it's an explanation.

Dinah slides one of the photographs of Helena's transmitter bracelets towards herself. Her voice is quavery and weak. "I guess that's why we can't find her."

I nod wearily and address Reese. "Anything else?" Reese shakes his head and sighs. "You're sure they're not keeping it hush-hush and quiet?" It's a desperate question but I have to ask it.

"Because I searched all around the building and she wasn't there," Dinah adds in. What she doesn't mention is that she even 'probed' a few people to see if they saw anything and there is still no sign of Helena.

I lean forward and take another sip of my coffee. All information of relevance exchanged, we absorb the awkward silence around us. There is no logical reason for meeting here, except I desperately wanted to be anywhere but in the clock tower for a few moments. I rub my itchy eyes and realise that the coffee has ceased to have any stimulating effect on my system.

"Tell me more about this raid."

"Said they received information from a source they felt confident about. The Commissioner reamed the SAC a new one but he insisted the opportunity was too great to pass up. And he said he didn't share the info with the local PD because he didn't want to risk a leak."

On the face of it, the reasonable is perfectly logical and sensible. But the facts at my disposal make it suspect. If there is a leak, it seems to me the SAC should have been more worried about it coming from his agency. Of course the fact that made the information even more suspect is that there is no way the FBI could have known about the trap I set for Falcone. Ergo there is a mole in the FBI.

The rising anger does what the coffee has failed to do. I dig in my purse and throw ten dollars on the table. "Thank you, Reese. You've done a lot." He looks startled when he sees I am preparing to leave. For a second something I think is hurt flashes in his eyes. I realise that he must be worried too. After all no matter how it ended between him and Helena, he must still have feelings for her. I reach across the table and clasp his hand. "We'll find her. For all we know, she's sleeping it off somewhere in some dark corner." The re-assurance, while having some precedence to back it up, is feeble, but it's the best I can do. His smile looks as wan as I feel. I ask him one more question as I usher Dinah out of the booth. "The FBI team, are they still in town?"

He shakes his head, " No, they went back to Blüdhaven this afternoon."


Monday December 16. Morning
Clock Tower

I have in front of me, the personnel records of all six agents involved in the "Falcone raid".

Special Agent Gilbert Chavez
Special Agent Randall Eliot
Special Agent Robert Murphy
Special Agent Jonathan Randolph
Special Agent Robert Smith
Special Agent John Zielinski.

The most remarkable record belongs to Agent Randall Eliot, of Chicago. A gang member at the age of thirteen, he was arrested as an accessory to the murder of a rival gang member. Because he was fifteen at the time, and the evidence against him was circumstantial at best, he was not tried and his records were sealed because of the evidence he provided in another case. It's remarkable because not many persons with a background like that are inducted into the venerable FBI. But because he was a model citizen in juvie and later counselled other inner city kids against the violent gang life, he traded his excellent background as a police officer into a career with the FBI.

But the record I find most fascinating is that of Agent Robert Smith. Say the name: Bob Smith. Now search any database for that name – in the New Gotham phone book alone, there are seven hundred and twenty three instances of persons named R. Smith or Bob Smith. All similarity to the Matrix aside, the dark-haired, square-jawed Agent Smith makes for fascinating reading.

His records are exemplary. Recruited out of MIT. Top 10 of his graduating class from Quantico. And a career-track like a rocket. Involved in six major undercover operations eight years before moving to the Blüdhaven field office – this despite his specialty as a computer-crimes consultant – where he oversaw two successful sting operations. Received the FBI's Medal of Bravery. From what I can tell, the man seemingly has no social life. No spouse, no children. Completely devoted to his job and his ailing grandmother in Blüdhaven. He pays his utility bills by mail and uses his credit card only to pay for plane tickets, make car payments and buy books and music. He makes donations to the ASPCA and Habitat for Humanity. Show me an upstanding citizen and I'll show you Agent Bob Smith. This, of course, is in complete contrast to our quarry Eddie Falcone who ceases to exist after graduating high school.

Except for one thing. Every place Agent Smith has ever lived, where he has been involved in undercover operations, the Falcone family has shown signs of resurgence, almost as if the Agent had magically cleared the way for Eddie Falcone to take over. Now show me a suspicious circumstance and I'll show you Agent Robert Smith.

And since I'd hate to accuse a man of being a monster without proof, I'll just have to find some.

"The lab is on the last hallway to the left."

<"Umm…there are, like, people in there?">

"Just walk in, and go to the back door in the room."


"Canary, trust me."


The door opens and then I hear the whuff of air as it closes behind her. The hum of spinning centrifuges and the tinkling of glass against counters is apparent over the speakers.

<"I'm in the room.">

"Okay, how are the samples filed, alphabetically or numerically?"


I suppress the burst of irritation I feel at the propensity of her generation to make simple statements into questions. "The order number is 000-20031214-0138-TM."

Two minutes and forty-three seconds later after much humming and hawing of numbers Dinah exclaims, "Okay, here it is!" The cold locker hisses its release of frigid gases. "Wow, that's cold." Another minute later, she has palmed a vial of blood and shuts the door on the refrigerator.

>>Hey! What're you doing back here?<<

<"…Aaaah…I'm the new nurse intern?"> While it could be a valid reason for her presence in the hospital given how young Dinah looks, somehow I don't think the authoritative voice that has challenged her is going to take her at her word the way her voice pitches up at the last word.

>>You're not allowed to be here<< the voice accuses.

"Liz Alrick," I prompt her.

<"Um…Liz Alrick? ...Said that I should come down here and ask you guys to re-run some tests on a sample they took last night."> As I hear the hesitation in her voice, I wonder if we're ever going to be able to teach Dinah the art of subterfuge. While she can handle herself just fine on the streets, she cannot lie worth a damn.

>>Why are you in here?<<

But wonder of wonders, <"I just thought if I uh…pulled the sample and handed it over it could, you know, go faster.">

>>That's not the way we do things here. Where's your order form?<<

<"She didn't give me one.">

>>God damn it! Wait here. Liz, from ER, you said?<<


The footsteps fade away and I hear the faint bips of a phone being dialled. "Canary," I say, "Run, now."



Aww shit! This is embarrassing; Alfred had to come rescue me. Barbara's going to be so pissed off at me. I'm going to have to wear that ugly utility belt that she used to wear just so that I can have a gas mask for situations like this. Jesus! She's the one who said that the acid was for show – to convince Falcone that Oracle had to trash the place for a quick get away – that I wasn't actually going to have to go back in the room. Man! It feels like I got hit by a sledgehammer; and my lungs hurt. Even the oxygen mask isn't really helping my cough. I start to pull the mask off and feel the tug of an intravenous needle in the back of my hand. An I.V – nasty. Bet I get an earful over this. It's only when I take a deep breath and turn onto my back do I realise – the place smells all wrong, and the surface I'm lying on is too hard – that I am nowhere that I recognise.

"Mr. Falcone," I hear a voice say, "She's awake."

I bolt awake and look around the room. Two doors, windows are blacked out with drapes, and there's not one thing to let me know where I am or what kind of building. There are two guys near one door and the other one is unguarded. Well, wherever I am, the exit is through the two guys with the automatics. I strain to hear outside sounds for a clue but all I hear is nothing – expensive soundproofing.

I'm sitting on an examining table with eight men in the room. The room is sparsely but tastefully furnished – one of those avant garde, minimalist, Architecture Today interiors. It's a working space with the comforts of home. To my right is a workstation crammed with multiple computer screens with a leather executive chair sitting near it. In front of me is large desk, an old fashioned English one – probably early eighteenth century I think absently – rosewood, if I'm not mistaken. Must have cost at least a hundred thou, easy. And behind the desk, dressed in a sober blue silk shirt is Mr. Falcone.

Falcone. Oh…this is more embarrassing than having Alfred come rescue me. Waayyy more embarassing.

I focus on Falcone's very familiar looking face. I shake my head minutely to jog my memory.

"Welcome to the land of the living Ms. Beddoes. May I call you Amy? You've been such a hard woman to track down." Amy? What the hell? Oh yeah, that's the alias under which Barbara rented the suites for the mini-Delphi.

And then I remember where I've seen Falcone. "Agent Smith."

"Right first time." His voice is a cultured baritone, a paternal rumble like an old time radio newsreader. "Very good, Amy. Or shall I say, Oracle."

Then again, I never did have a thing for paternal figures in my life. I pull the I.V out and watch the little bubble of blood trickle down the back of my hand as I burst out in laughter. Holy shit! This guy thinks I'm Oracle. I guess Barbara's plan worked after all – kind of. I focus again and then realise why I'm freaked out by the silence. I don't hear anything in my ear. Not even static. "Oh shit…" I chuckle, as I bring my hand to my chest. Hopefully it looks to him like I'm holding back my hysterically nervous, girly laughter. I'm actually checking for the transmitter. And don't you know it – it's not there. "Ohhh….shit!"

"Yes. It is quite the dilemma for you, isn't it? Especially as you've gone to so much trouble to evade me. But it seems you have a soft spot for law enforcement personnel. And my gamble was correct. You stayed to help the poor helpless agents. You don't have much of an opinion of them do you."

"No. No I don't." Not if they let scumbags like him into the agency. Suddenly it all makes sense. Of course he was able to manipulate the FBI information, he's one of their stars.

"Yes, I gathered. Breaking the law on one hand," he waves his right hand. "And turning in criminals," he waves his left hand, "on the other – very hypocritical. It doesn't endear me to you."

"Yeah, well, screw you Falcone. I'm not here to make you happy." Slowly I ease myself off the bench and glare at the four assholes who train their guns on me. When I move my head I feel how sore it is. I feel the back of my neck – there are two little bumps. That's right, the fucker tasered me. In the head. Cocky bastard. He could have killed me.

"Be that as it may, I suspect that you will not like it if I am unhappy with you." My legs feel a little wobbly when I stand up. "Anyway, I've got someone who's dying to meet you," he snickers. I really don't get what's so funny. He points to a kid near the door. "Get Vince in here."

Out of the corner of my eye I see the kid reach for the radio on his belt and start to click it before he stops and steps out of the room. A moment later he re-enters and nods at Falcone. No wonder there's not even static on my receivers; there are no radio signals in the room – what a paranoid bastard. But then again, it's worked for him all these years. That's going to be a problem with Barbara finding me – but not impossible. She'll figure it out eventually. I just have to stall until she can or until I can get out of here.

I flex my hands and notice how soft and rubbery they feel. I focus on my hands as I study the layout of the room, and silently thank him for confirming my theory about the door. But the feeling is weird – like I'm made of jelly. I shouldn't be feeling like this. Of course, the I.V. He's probably got it loaded with horse tranqs or something – I look at it balefully.

"Yes," he says, noticing my gaze. "I'm afraid I've had to take some protective measures what with your…" he's distracted by the sound of the door opening. I turn to look as well and notice a nervous four-eyed geek being led into the room. "Well, here you go, Vince. Meet your hero. I must say she's a pretty one."

I don't think I care for the way he says 'pretty'. It makes me feel slimy. The geek walks up to me with his hand outstretched. "It's a pleasure to meet you. A real pleasure."

"So, Vince," he waves his hand and a burly guy behind me steps out and to the side, "did you figure out what she did that froze your computers?"

"No," Vince turns his head. "It's amazing this program. It's like a virus… I mean a real one, with mutating code. Every time I try to attack while it's running, it re-configures itself. It's beautiful…"

"You'll forgive Vince, Oracle. He's a little bit of a geek. So am I, but not like he is."

I eye Vince suspiciously. So this is the guy who made Barbara break out the one-year old tub of mint-chocolate chip. Feeling my inspection of him, he turns back to me. "I heard you had to burn your rig. I'm sorry." The really pathetic thing is, he really is sorry. "I have a set up here. I think you'll find it's very versatile, very powerful. I'd love to talk to you about your code – it's so…" he brings four curled fingers up to his thumb and bobs his hand. I see Falcone following Vince's every action with his eyes and wonder if I could use the geek as a hostage to break out. He seems very interested in the guy

"I'm sorry to interrupt your own private DefCon here," Falcone cuts in. "But, Vince," he asks musically, "now that she's here. Be honest now. Would you say she's a better hacker than you?"

Vince nervously fingers the side of his spectacle frame and dips his head. "Well, Mr Falcone, I'd have to say she is. I still haven't been able to crack her miner either. But now that she's here…"

Falcone raises his hand in a shooing gesture, and before I can blink a hole appears in Vince's throat with a bang.

"Thank you Jeffrey," he says to the man who just shot him. "No point having him around if he can't fix it, is there?" he says to me

I brush at the spray of blood on my chest in shock. The two guys near the door come to drag Vince's body away. I watch their progress across the room and weigh my desire to be out of the room against the wobbly feeling in my limbs. I have no real idea how slow I'll be but I think I can make a run for it when they open the door. All I need to do is get out. Then later I can come back and kick his ass. In any case he'll still be barking up the wrong tree about who Oracle is.

"Well, perhaps you can fix the complications you've created, Oracle." I sneer at Falcone as he smirks at me. Ten feet.

"In your dreams asshole." Five feet.

"You're being awfully non-compliant for someone who's got six guns trained on her." They stop to adjust the weight of his body.

Two feet. "Fuck you."

His hand is on the handle. "Such language." The handle clicks open.


I slam my elbow into burly Jeffrey's throat and coil my body for the surge of speed that will take me to the door before anyone can draw a breath.

"By the way, I wouldn't recommend that."

I take two long strides and go down like a sack of potatoes as my muscles stop responding. The bulldog Jeffrey is on me in a flash and places a nice vicious kick to my kidneys.

"I told you I had to take a few precautionary measures. You kept reviving extremely quickly," Falcone keeps blathering on.

Even as I flip around to kick the goon, he intercepts my knee and presses a taser into my upper thigh. The setting is high enough to travel in a giant wave through my body, and I flop like a fish. Through the painful haze I can feel the cool liquid pouring into my veins and everything becomes just a little hazier as I turn on my side to face Falcone.

"So what do you say, Oracle? Play nice and I'll let you live."

What a lying creep. Well he can play as not nice as he wants but as long as he thinks I'm Oracle, Barbara is safe. And as long as she's safe, she can find a way to find this guy. So, "Fuck you," I say to him, "and the dog you rode in on."

The creep pulls a dull metallic Zippo from his left breast pocket and delicately lights a cigarette that his lackey hands him. He takes a long hissing, orgasmic suck on the cigarette before turning to me. He twitches his head and two of his creeps haul me up by the armpits and toss me onto a chair across the table from him. Through the thickness of the drugs I can feel handcuffs, going around each of my wrists and ankles, and attaching to the heavy chair. He waves his hand regally and someone arrives with a screw gun and flanges. I can feel the vibrations from the drill travel all the way up from the floor and into the base of my skull – thirty two times. Once he's done, drill creep stands behind me and rocks my chair – it doesn't move.

"Thank you, Jeffrey," Falcone says. "Very kind. Good job." He takes another suck of his cigarette, and turns back to me. "I encourage you to test the integrity of your restraints and the fastening bolts. I understand that you might be feeling a little weak at the moment, but I think you'll be able to get a general idea of what I mean."

I sit and stare at him muzzily.

He lays his hand down on the table and says coldly, "I insist that you do."

I don't move.

He sighs petulantly and rolls his eyes. "Jeffrey, maybe you could assist our guest."

Jeffrey returns, without his drill but with a nightstick, and strikes me solidly in the chest with enough force to make me lose my breath and possibly crack my ribs; with enough force to throw a body out of the chair, but the chair doesn't budge. I struggle not to make a single sound but I make a minute gasp that I know Barbara couldn't have missed had I been wearing the transmitter necklace. It would drive her nuts and she'd ground me forever – never let me go out to anything ever again. She'd wrap me in cotton puffs and lecture me for the rest of my life. She'd quit. She'd never work as Oracle again. She'd make me buy gallons and gallons of mint chocolate chip ice-cream and she'd make Alfred buy gallons and gallons of mint chocolate chip and then eat all of it and then bitch and moan about how much weight she was putting on and I'd have to listen to her whine all day and all night. She'd wake up in the middle of the night to work out and make a lot of noise. Good thing I don't live at the clock tower anymore, but the poor kid – Dinah would turn into a mess. That little thought makes me giggle

"You find this amusing, Oracle?" That makes me laugh even more. I wouldn't know a slash dot from an alt escape. "Do you know how much it's cost me to find you?" he takes another hit of his cigarette. "Something like 9 million dollars." The guy next to him whispers in his ear. "Thank you Charlie, 9.13 million dollars. Not to mention the fact that I sustained millions and millions in losses from failed business enterprises.

"I fund the downfall of the Hawke empire and what happens – a big fat mess. I set Spitz up to hire the help he needs and what do I get – chaos. I fund Joker's crazy bitch and where does she end up – in the nut house. Where is my man Al Hawke – nobody seems to know. Everywhere I turn, I have problems. I have 17.8 million euros in a bank overseas that I can't use because I have been shut out of my own accounts. That's something in the order of 22 million dollars, US.

"The Capellinis won't work with me in New York. The Rourkes won't work with me in Seattle. The Jefferson Boys in Detroit don't trust me in anymore. Forget Metropolis." He crushes his cigarette out on the table. "That fucking underoo-wearing fag makes my life hell anyway. You can maybe understand my distress, here.

"I had such high hopes of Hawke – he was always so cool and collected. But he got so emotional about the Canary bitch and ruined it all in the process. So, I hired Vince to trace him. I ran into a blank wall so clean that it might as well not be there. So I leaned on the little spectacular nerd there," he points to the bloody stain on the floor, "and he tells me of this mythical creature, this…Oracle they call this entity. So I asked him to find Oracle.

"So here we are, 9.13 million dollars later," he waves his hand to indicate the machinery surrounding us, "with all these lovely, expensive computers, and just you."

Fuck! Why do all the bad guys always have to be egotistical and full of hot air? He's been going on forever – and it's not helping my headache.

"I must say, though, I've always pictured Oracle as a slightly more homely and inathletic individual, but Charlie tells me…Have you met Charlie? Charlie here is my Man Friday and my accountant. Say hello Charlie."

Charlie nods dutifully, and says, " Hello." And then it's back to the never-ending monologue.

"Charlie tells me that you're one of those mutant freaks."

"Meta-human, you fuck head," I growl at him as menacingly as I can and lunge at him. He sighs and looks at Jeffrey who hits me again.

"Meta, muta – it's all the same to me. You're a disease." He leans jovially onto the table with both his crossed elbows. "So let me tell you what your situation is: no one knows where you are. No one knows who you are. Your natural tendency for privacy made it easy for my boy there to erase or alter much of your electronic information. There is no one looking for you, there is no one who cares. You are at my disposal until you help me get control of all the funds I've lost access to. And you're going to hack the Interpol database and remove all reference to me. And you are going to track down your miner software and disable it. If you don't I'm going to kill you." I open my mouth to tell him to fuck off. He holds his palm out in a stilling gesture. "Anh ah, I'm not done," he smiles. "Let me finish. If you can't do what I've asked you to, you're going to find a way, or I'm going to kill you. But first," he leans in and lowers the pitch and carry of his voice, "I'll torture you. I will fuck with your head. I will fuck with your body. And then I'll fuck you. It's going to hurt." His smile is conspiratorial and amused. "And you're not going to enjoy it. At all." He leans back. "I leave your future in your hands." He purses his lips and raises his eyebrows at me to ask what I'm going to do.

I have to give him credit. He doesn't flinch when I spit a mouthful of blood and mucus at him. He doesn't even look down at where it trickles down his face and onto his expensive hand sewn silk shirt. He simply holds his hand out to his lapdog who gives him a handkerchief that he uses to wipes the spit off his face before blotting his shirt.

He sucks the air in through his teeth a couple of times before he hands the hanky back and speaks. "I must admit that I was hoping you would want to do this hard way. The sound of screaming always was a turn on for me." He pushes his chair backwards and crosses his calf over his left thigh. I hear the roll of wheels as something heavy comes to sit behind my back. Cold bands wrap around my head, crushing my skull. And then something heavy and large slips over the top of my head – like a helmet. I'm starting to understand why Dinah might have been a little freaked out when she first met us. Barbara's neural scanner is kinda like the get up he's got on me. The Jeffrey creep presses a button and I jump in my chair from the little jolt that buzzes around and inside my head. I hate to say this but that fucking hurts…really hurts. And if he can ratchet that thing up any higher than this I don't know how long I can hold out. But I keep telling myself it's only a little while – because he's wrong. Someone does know who I am and she's going to find me. And she's going to give him the ass kicking of his life.

The burly bastard holds out the control pad to psycho Falcone, who licks his lower lip and shakes his head. "You do the honours, Jeffrey. I do so like to watch."



Tuesday, December 17, Early Evening
Richard Grayson's Apartment

"Barbara?" To say that he is surprised to see me at his door is an understatement. He's shocked, amazed, flabbergasted.


He notices the fidgety girl behind me. "Oh, hi Dinah."


"What are you g...I mean, come in. Come in."


"Holy surprise house guests!" he exclaims once he has the door locked. Quickly, he runs around picking up his discarded clothes where they are strewn across the furniture. "Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"

I point Dinah to what seems like an appropriate corner to put down the luggage. "It was a spur of the moment thing."

"Okay," he responds, still too shocked to ask me what I am doing here. I pull the file out of the side pocket of my chair and hand it to him. He opens the folder and flips through the contents. "What's this?"

"It's a genetic assay for a certain Agent Robert Smith of the FBI…"

"Babs, I can s…"

"I've compared it with an assay of a sample of Carmine Falcone's blood. There is a 87.3% probability that Carmine Falcone is Agent Smith's father." Before he can open his mouth to interrupt me, I continue, "I've also attached an analysis of all the operations he's been involved in and compared it with the approximate timing of the ascendance of the Falcone organisation in each of those cities. The observations are quite astonishing. Dinah was also able to find me an actual photocopy of the Edward Michael Falcone's birth records in hospital archives. The certificate has footprints of the baby Falcone. It could come in handy."

He studies the documents I've provided him with great consternation and excitement, "Does this have anything to do with the technical problem you said you were having last week?" I nod. "This is amazing. This means we can…" Finally something in his expression clicks. "Where's uh…?"

"I don't know," I say. "But I think he has her."

Tuesday, December 17. Late night.
1237 Classon Terrace

The infrared images of the main structure in the compound compile on my screen from Nightwing's portable unit. "Now do a slow scan." The images flicker and change as he complies. I see the distribution of several person shaped flames, but not the distinct heat signature that Helena's high metabolism should give off. "I need you to try the lower floor."

I follow the rustling of boot steps and fabric as he tries to get a better view. <"Kinda like old times, hanh?"> he asks as he tries to settle into position.

"Kinda," I reply.

<"Only this time maybe I'll actually do what you tell me?"> he chuckles. I can just picture the brilliant even-toothed smile.


<"Not much for talking today, are you?">

"No." I've got other things on my mind. "Do you have a position yet?"

My curt answers clues him in to my absence of humour in this situation. <"I'm sorry Oracle, but I can't find a good angle. I try to get any lower and I'll probably have a few guns and a couple of dogs on me.">

"Canary?" I prompt.


"Do you think you could give Nightwing a hand?"

<"Umm…I can try.">

"See if you can't use the trees for cover. If you get tired you could set down in one of the branches."

Dick's uncertain hum comes over the speakers as Dinah slowly shuffles her way into visual contact with the infrared imaging module. <"Oracle?">

"Watch and learn, Nightwing."

The smooth tracking motion of the images lets me know that the camera is now airborne. "Excellent," I congratulate Dinah.

<"Holy hands-free imaging!">

<"Look ma,"> Dinah says with a small smile of triumph in her voice, <"no hands!">

"Very good, Canary. There's no one in the front of the house, can you track left?"

It's a while before she answers me, and when she does her voice is full of strain. <"I don't know if…if I can't see it, I don't think that I can…">

"As far as you can," I assure her. "Just a couple of feet."

And a couple of feet is all I need. I feel a burst of triumph when the edge of the screen shows a hot flare sandwiched between two cooler flames moving into another room. I start the program that dials into 911 and lets the local fire and police departments know that there is huge fire at 1237 Classon Terrace. The triumph bleeds into worry when I realise the bright spot that is Helena is not moving of her own volition. "Got her," I let them know. "You can bring the camera back in."

Dinah's sigh of relief as Dick packs up the equipment is very clear. <"All right, Oracle. Time to rock and roll.">

I hear him shrug off the shoulder pack as Dinah hands him the explosives for the next part of this rescue operation. I wait until the sound of his footsteps no longer echoes off Dinah's transmitter, and switch frequencies to a private channel. A minute later, the sound of grenades going off lets me know the plan is proceeding apace. "Dinah," I say. "Be ready." The scanner lets me know that Ladder 27 is already responding.

<"Oracle?"> she asks hesitantly. <"Are you sure this is a good idea?">

I slip on the heads up display unit and check its functions. All systems are nominal. "Probably not," I say as I slide the van door open and step out onto the gravel. But sometimes a woman has to do what she must.

I aim the tranquilliser pistol at the large Doberman bounding towards me. A squeeze of the trigger later, the animal goes down with a yelp. The grenades have done their jobs – carefully placed to hit the gas lines they have started a huge fire in the compound that is probably visible for miles around in the city. The police helicopters are keeping their distance in an effort not to fan the flames.

One flick of a bat-a-rang knocks out a guard with an automatic weapon, leaving the entrance to the building clear. As I step over the unconscious body, I can't help feeling a little disappointed. This is too easy. I want there to be a little more resistance. But I suppose this means that everything is going according to plan, for once. From the shouts and random bursts of gunfire, I can tell Dick is doing an excellent job of being visibly annoying while Dinah is fouling up their attempts to stop him. I follow the hallway past the kitchen and the rec room. I don't even need the map that flashes inside the field of my vision. I have memorised it off the screen from inside the van.

I pick up the sound of voices raised in anger at the end of hallway, followed by the sound of a door slamming. I duck inside one of the doors to avoid the footsteps running in my direction. Outside the oak panelled door I kneel down to peer into the keyhole. Five men, including one grey suit. When Nightwing calls to let me know that the police are on their way, I whisper an acknowledgement and ignore his puzzlement when he wonders why I am whispering.

The sensation of knees flexing as I reach for the gas grenade on my utility belt makes me dizzy. The long unfamiliar familiar sensation combined with Dick's voice in my ear strips away all sensation of temporal awareness. For a second I am thrown back in time. And any second now I expect Robin to come crashing through the walls with the Batmobile while Batman admonishes him for his reckless behaviour. What mission is this? Joker? Penguin? Two-face? I shake my head to clear the sudden dizziness. Huntress, I have come to rescue Helena. And the man in the grey suit inside that room knows where she is.

I shoot the sentry inside the door with a tranquilliser and toss the smoke grenade into the room. Anything that moves in that room becomes a target. I strike each blow precisely – I have no time for do-overs or room for finesse. Each action is a brute force blow struck by my baton. I feel no guilt for the sound of breaking bone or the screams of pain. Today, I am not only invincible but I am also impermeable. My progress through the room is a straight line of violence until my gloves close around the collar of Eddie Falcone.

His eyes widen at the sight of my mask and cape. "Impossible," he breathes out.

"I thought we told you to stay out of our town."

"You're a fucking ghost," he spits. "You're not real." The back of his fist against my face barely fazes me. I am riding high on adrenaline and the painkillers I need to wear the neural coupler for any length of time.

I pull another original bat-a-rang from my belt and flash it in front of his face. "I'm very real, Eddie."

His eyes narrow in hate as he hisses, "You're very dead is what you are, bitch." The impact of the bullet to my stomach throws me away from him. And while the armour plating absorbs the force of the bullet, the point blank blow is painful enough to be crippling. Especially when the neural coupler hits the floor with a small crunch of electronic circuitry. The buzzing static on the HUD faithfully displays a damage report as random electrical pulses run up and down and my back in excruciating spikes, forcing the breath from my lungs.

"You're pathetic," he says as he points the gun at me. "You're not even him."

But I have had enough of a lifetime of guns being pointed at me; and having ended one life at the barrel of gun, I am not scared at all. I look him square in the eyes as he flexes his finger. He does not even see the stylised metal bat logo that hits his throat. His knees hit the floor with a dull popping sound as his hands convulse reflexively around his throat.

Screaming silently from the pain, I lever my body off the floor. Forcing my legs to obey the errant impulses being generated by the transponder, I walk over to Eddie Falcone. I push my fingers around the cracked bones in throat and release the pressure on his trachea. The relief that flashes in his eyes when he realises that I'm not going to kill him makes me sick to my stomach, especially when I consider that he probably never gave any consideration to all the people he killed. I enjoy the sound of his head bouncing off the floor when I drive my fist into his temple. I hope he enjoys his concussion.

Each step I take is like a blow to my back. It's a cross between an electrical shock and a kick to my kidneys. Maybe Dinah is right; this is perhaps not such a good idea. Certainly Helena isn't going to be amused by it. I run my eyes over the medical equipment in the room. There is an examination bench with a discarded IV apparatus, the bag hanging limply from the pole. Three feet in front of it is a bloodstain. Fervently hoping that none of it is Helena's, I look around for another door. To my left. Pushing the pain to some remote corner of my brain, I stagger the ten or so feet to the door and push it open.

The dizzy sensation I felt when I entered this room returns ten fold. And if I wasn't scared when Falcone pointed the gun at me, I am now. The sound that greets me is a sound that has haunted my dreams. For years it was the sound that haunted my waking moments. The hot spill of fear and pain in the centre of my belly is as fresh today as the night I felt myself bleed to death on the floor of my apartment.

And despite all the strength of will marshalling my control of the damaged technology that is keeping me on my feet, the sound of unceasing, mindless, maniacal laughter finally drives me to my knees.

Dinah is the first one to reach me where I have collapsed. When the grisly scene before me heaves violently, I realise that she is shaking me. All sensation of time and pain return to me.

"Nightwing," I hear her scream. "I need your help."

If Dick is surprised to see me there when I am supposed to be in the van monitoring the entire operation, he doesn't show it. Efficiently, he helps Dinah find the catches in the batsuit, and strip the coupler from my spine. Little by little I can feel the sensation subsiding from my lower limbs.

"NO! God Damn it, no!" I shout at Dick to put me down. "Get her. We have to get her out of here." All he does is tighten his grip on me. "Dinah," I order, "stop him."

"Barbara!" he yells in return. "Barbara, we can't take her. You know we can't. She needs medical attention." He blocks my arm smartly when I swing it at him. "Damn it how the hell are we going to explain her injuries in a hospital?"

I want to rage at him for thinking of something so banal as explaining injuries in a hospital; but it is finally Dinah's tearful voice that snaps me out of it. "Please, Barbara. There are ambulances here already."

I nod wearily at the two of them. Dick slips his arms under my shoulder and knees and we scramble off to wall separating this property from the next and make our way back to the van.

Friday, December 20
Marston County Hospital

As much as I hate the detective interviewing me right now, I am actually grateful to be away from Helena. The image of Helena, unconscious and restrained to her bed while the laughter spills helplessly from her is more than I can bear. It has been forty-eight hours already and the doctors still haven't been able to diagnose or treat her correctly. Dinah has seen more of Helena in the last two days than I have. But I simply cannot be in the same room as Helena right now. It's completely wrong and cowardly of me, but it's the specific pitch and non-rhythm of laughter that the fits are causing to spill from Helena that have undone me. The deepest visceral part of me cannot help recall another person who laughed…laughs like that – mindlessly, without ceasing. In the meanwhile, the epileptic fits of laughter continue to ravage Helena's brain in cascading seizures.

"And you have no idea why someone would want to kidnap Ms. Kyle?" I shake my head wearily. "Why didn't you report it to the police?" This is the third time I have been questioned by the police.

"I did. I called Detective Dick Grayson." I have not slept in quite a few days.

"Of the Blüdhaven department. Why didn't you contact the NGPD?"

I surreptitiously adjust the cold pack icing the bruise on my back. "Because, she was here in Blüdhaven, when she dropped out of contact."

"You say you called Detective Grayson within twenty four hours of last contact?"

And I am starting to lose my good temper. "Look Detective, am I under investigation here? Like I told you, Helena has always been very good about keeping in touch with me when she goes on trips. I called Dick because he's a good friend of mine and knew he could do some unofficial checking because the PD won't file a report until 48 hours." I catch sight of the doctor treating Helena. "I don't know why she was there!"

My show of temper does not faze the detective one bit. "Why was she coming to Blüdhaven?"

I sigh impatiently. "To visit her brother, her adoptive brother." A 'fact' he'd know if he'd read his partner's notes.

"Who would be?"

"Detective Richard Grayson of the BPD." That catches his attention. Like all policemen he suddenly feels the urge to display sympathy now that he knows the victim is related to one of theirs.

"Ms. Gordon, are you telling me you can't offer me any explanation about why the mob may be interested in enough in your friend to kidnap and torture her?"

Actually I do. It's because they thought she was me. "I don't know," I sigh. "Her mother was Selina Kyle." The detective's eyes go wide. "There was some tabloid talk that she was Catwoman. Certainly, she was a wealthy woman. They may have thought the daughter knew something about missing artefacts. I really don't know." When Helena's doctor finally reaches the waiting room, I shrug off the Detective. "Excuse me, I need to go speak to the doctor. If you're done, detective, I think her life is a little more important than your questions."

"Yeah," he mumbles, "I'd like to ask you to stick around for…"

I turn the frostiest gaze in my arsenal on him. "Am I under investigation?" she shakes his head. "Is Ms. Kyle?" he shakes his head. "Then we will leave as it seems feasible to us."

Quailing, he makes one last stab at authority, "My lieutenant may have more questions for you later."

I am not above a little name-dropping. "In that case your lieutenant can reach me in Gotham through my father. His name is *Commissioner* Gordon."

The panel of doctors looks alternately dismayed and confused. This is the fourth such meeting we've had.

"We really don't know Ms. Gordon. At this point we're keeping her in a medically induced coma. It's all we can do to prevent the worst effects of the seizures."

"We've never dealt with anything like this before. She's suffered major trauma to several major structures…the amygdala…the hypothalamus. She's showing lesions of the temporal lobe as well. The insult to the brain is fairly extensive."

"Each neural incident only compounds the damage. And even after thirty-six hours, we haven't found a way to stop them. They have lessened in intensity but they haven't stopped either. I think Ms. Gordon, without giving up hope, at this point we may have to seriously consider the fact that this may be a persisting condition. Even after lobotomy."

"No," I say. I know what they are trying to tell me. Despite her superficial assurance not to give up hope, that is exactly what she wants me to do. I run through all the motivational prods and I can deliver, and come up with the most obvious. "Money is no object."

"Ah…we realise that Ms. Gordon. We've been made fully aware of our patient's identity, but…We just don't have the expertise."

"Who does?"

"There are only a handful of doctors…"


The chief of neurosurgery hands me a printed list of seven names. "This is in no particular order, but I must let you know that some of them have packed schedules and at least one of them hasn't…" The third name on the list jumps out at me and I wonder why I haven't thought of it myself.

"Do you have any objections if we fly her back home?" They confer with each other visually, and then the chief shakes his head. "Thank you." I fold the sheet of paper and pass it back. "If you could convey the arrangements to Mr. Pennyworth, I have a phone call to make."

"Certainly, if you let me know, I'll have my secretary give you the numbers you need."

"That won't be necessary."

The doctor's voice is filled with breathless anticipation. "Lydda!"


Her tone becomes guarded and slightly suspicious. "I'm sorry, how did you get this…"

"…This is Barbara Gordon."

"Oh…Barbara Gordon?…. Hi! How are you?"

"Laura, I need your help. Do you think you could fly down to New Gotham?"

Except for the odd grey hair speckling her black mane, Laura Reade looks exactly the same as she did almost four years ago. If I am not mistaken she is even wearing the same faded Lincoln green polo neck sweater she had on one of the last times we met.

When she emerges from the retractable passageway, she is juggling her bag, laptop and loose file folders, wrestling the loose sheets of papers back into her carry case with some great difficulty. She looks less like a weary professional taking the red-eye and more like a freshly harassed Buster Keaton. Finally, realising the effect her unaware clowning is having on her fellow passengers, she gives up and steps aside, allowing other sleepy and tired travellers behind her clear passage. After she has her papers under control, she conducts a visual sweep of the arrival lounge.

"Barbara!" she exclaims, on spotting our sombre welcome party.

"Laura," I respond.

I'm not sure what to make of her inscrutable and systematic inspection of me. When she meets my gaze, her eyes are serious. "I'm sorry." I wave her condolences away. "Are those for me?" she asks, pointing at the large manila envelope on my lap.

I nod. "Do you have any other luggage?"

She smiles apologetically, "Yes, one bag. It was too heavy to carry in the cabin."

A discreet presence steps up behind me and holds his hand out. "If the doctor would care to give me the ticket I can collect the luggage while you converse, Miss Barbara?"

"Thank you, Alfred," I say.

"I can get the bag," she protests. "It's not very big…"

"In that case," interjects Alfred, "I should not have any difficulty gathering the bag." His no nonsense tone indicates that he takes his duties very seriously indeed and any hindrance in the discharge of it would be insulting.

Laura recognises the tone and relents. "Ah, thank you, Alfred," she says fishing the luggage token out of her pocket. "That would be great."

She watches Alfred stride away before pointing at the films on my lap. Wordlessly, I hand them over to her. She pulls her glasses out of her pocket and puts them on before slipping the large scan out and turning it out into the light. "I got the images you transmitted on the plane. Thanks, it's a help to have a head start."

She is completely engrossed in her study of Helena's brain. "No," I say as the film rustles with a steadying flick of her wrist. "Thank you for coming out at such short notice."

Laura's head jerks short and she puts the scans away. She looks around for a second and, when she finds what she is looking for, she points to a quiet corner with a potted plant. I follow her as she takes a seat on the edge of the concrete pot. When she is seated she looks at me again with her serious and inscrutable gaze. "Tell me exactly what happened."

Monday, December 23. Late night.
Wayne Memorial Hospital
New Gotham

We stand and sit, respectively, in the observation room for what seems like the millionth hour. Dinah is trying her best to hide her dismay and discomfort at Helena's condition but the question gives her away. "Barbara, why won't she stop laughing?"

Laura replies for me as she places her glasses on her face. "She's in pain." Dinah's face is pale with worry and incomprehension when she turns to Laura. "As far as I can determine she seems to be suffering from an extreme form of pain asymbolia." This time I turn to look at Laura as well. She shrugs under the weight of my stare as she slips both her hands under her glasses to wipe her watering eyes. As she is massaging her eyes, she lets out a jaw-cracking yawn. The glasses fall back onto her face with a click of the rests hitting her nose. "Sorry," she says, as she pushes the glasses up her nose. "Long night."

"No need to apologise," I say. Laura Reade hasn't left the hospital in the three days she's been here. She came to leave her bags at the clock tower and catch a nap but when she caught sight of me sitting outside on the cold balcony she rousted me out of the apartment and drove down here.

Tossing the scans onto the floor, she flops leadenly onto the armchair in the observation room. "It's just…I don't know, Barbara. I don't know how to fix this. I need to keep her sedated to handle the pain; but if I keep her sedated she's going to fall asleep and she has sleeping tonic-clonic seizures. If I kept her sedated I'd be able to control the electrical discharges. But I can't keep her sedated all the time – I need to observe the symptoms to figure it out. But the longer I leave her like this the more damage I'm risking. And the longer I leave her sedated, the less time I have to diagnose her safely, the longer she stays like this, the longer the epileptic episodes run, the more damage we're risking. And the epilepsy drugs won't work on her at normal doses – the more of it use, the more I have to keep using." She throws her head into the back of the chair. "And the doses – oh my god the dosage of any drug I have to use on her. I know it's her metabolism…but I'm just not comfortable doing it." She takes her glasses off with a huff, tucks them in the pocket of her white coat and presses the heels of her hands into her eyes. "Am I making sense? Tell me if I've stopped making sense."

Dinah beats me to the reassurance. "No, it sorta makes perfect sense. I get it."

"Good. Because I'm not sure that I do."

In the silence we watch Helena convulsing against the restraints on the bed. Her bunched fist bucks in an upward motion and brings a red band of abrasion in contact with the tight grip of the straps. I hiss in sympathy and revulsion. She hates it. She hates being caged or restrained – it's the thing guaranteed to drive her nuts. "Do you have to…" I start but hold myself back when I hear the accusation in my tone. Laura's doing everything she can. "Can't we do something about the restraints, they've got to be hurting her."

Laura drags a tired hand down her face and laughs. The laugh is hollow and ironic as she puts her glasses back on. "I tried a little experiment on her. I tried to wrap her in a warm blanket." Laura directs her gaze at me. "I got one of the nurses to find me a little velveteen blanket from paediatrics. The kind she likes," she says with a throwaway gesture of her right hand. I nod – hedonistic Helena loves her velvet blankets, she still has the one her mother gave her when she was four. She likes to stroke the soft velvet fur as she's sleeping, or sometimes when she's just sitting there staring into nothing – those fingers run over the nap, bristling and soothing the fibres. "I took a fluffy corner of the blanket and rubbed it against her hand – that got me a pain response."

"What?" It takes me a second to realise that even though I'm thinking the word, the exclamation is actually Dinah's.

"Yes…" Laura continues. "So, just for fun, I thought I'd apply a little supra-orbital pressure." She demonstrates the pressure of her thumbs on the bony ridge above the eyes of her own face for Dinah's benefit. "That calmed her down." She responds to Dinah's puzzled look. "It seems like your girl has a serious issue with pain right now. Her responses to pain and pleasure stimuli are a little scrambled. It seems as if the discomfort of the restraints is somewhat …comforting to her." She laughs bitterly again and stands up with the scans in her hand. The sound of it grates on my nerves – it's too much especially now that I know that laughter is the sound of Helena's pain.

On the lit up wall panels, the patterns of alternating translucence and opacity are like a falling sensation of déjà vu. I have been here before with Laura, in a room exactly like this one – only for some reason I'm more scared now than I had been back then when we thought she might die. She must sense my distance because she addresses her lecture to Dinah. "See that little spot?" she gestures with her pen as I turn away.

"That's the temporal lobe lesion that's keeping her under." She taps her pen against another film. "And then this – see how it's all lit up indicating generalised brain-wide electrical activity? That's one of her seizures."

I hear the rustle and snap of another film being placed on the light panel. "Now take a look at this – this is from three years ago. See the difference in brain activity?" Dinah must have nodded because I don't hear her voice. Then comes the sound of tapping again. "Now see this – this is the first scan they took before Barbara got me down here. And this is an image two days later, the day I arrived."

"It's different."

"Can you tell me what's different?"

"I'm… I think it's…I mean just a little maybe, but it's smaller?"

"Good eye. I've got residents who couldn't spot it."

"But, over here…there's..." Dinah's hesitant voice trails off.

"That's what I'm talking about. I know we can get a handle on this – I can see right here that the lesions can abate. But all this electrical activity here is setting her back – there's as much damage being created as there is healing."

When all I can hear is the silence I turn back from my observation of Helena to see Laura glaring mournfully at the films while Dinah scrunches her brows in intense concentration – almost as if they were willing a solution to appear. Dinah's intense concentration on the task makes her appear very grown up. Despite her youthful complexion, the gaunt lines that worry and a lack of sleep have created on her face make her appear to be Doctor Reade's peer.

Dinah reaches out a finger bleached pale in the fluorescent light of the display panel. "This over here, how come you've circled it?"

Laura re-adjusts her glasses and steps closer to peer at the film that Dinah indicates. "That's her amygdala."

"Oh. Yeah. 'Course."

"Of course?" Laura asks when she hears the knowing tone in the girl's voice.

"Dinah had a close run in with Helena's amygdala a while back," I explain.

"Oh?" Laura's expression turns hawkish.

"She was drugged – with a rage enhancer," I explain, thinking back to Malcolm Lagg's twisted death matches.

She shots me a look of bewildered expectation. "Somebody thought she needed a rage enhancer?" Her expression, coupled with the memory of Alfred's similarly wry observation, draws a reluctant laugh out of me. "How did you bring her down from it?"

I feel Dinah's aggrieved expression even before I hear her voice. "I had to stand around getting my ass kicked until we could get another dose into her and I could shake some sense into her."

"If I recall, Dinah, you were under the influence yourself. And you did more than shake her." That makes her blush.

"Over-stimulation desensitisation, hmmh! Risky… but clever. I'm going to assume you didn't have much time to figure out if there was a neuro-chemical blocker you could use."

I look at Dinah. "Well, the timing was a critical issue."

She follows my gaze to look the girl, as well. "Worked out okay for you, then?" Dinah nods. Laura takes a deep breath and leans her head against the wall. "Well, that's it then."

"Excuse me?" I ask.

"I've been wondering what that is. I thought it…maybe it was a hangover from the poisoning three years ago, but this makes sense." She looks up and reaches into her inside pocket to pull out a chocolate bar. The crackling rip resounds in the small room. She considers something as she leans back against the wall and chews on her bar. "I knew there was something odd. I'm sorry, I just didn't think to ask if she'd collected even more injuries. Maybe you should think about getting someone else in on this, I may have reached the end of my rope. If the amygdaloid nucleus is all messed up as well…I don't know what to say. Obviously that's why the neuronal impulses are being misinterpreted during signal processing, but there's really nothing I can do. I don't know who knows enough about its functioning to specifically target cell clusters. You'd probably be able to find better doctors with your family connections."

"No," I say.

"Maybe I could ask around in Metropolis see if the man in blue can't help out."



"No. You know her. You know her history. You've studied her before. I want you to take care of her."

"Barbara, I understand that you feel comfortable with me but you may need a better specialist."

"You are the specialist."

"But I don't know what to do."

"Of course you don't. You need sleep. You can't think creatively if you're sleep deprived. Lets think about it tomorrow morning."

She lets out an undignified snort. "I'd say the same for you two. You've been up longer than I have."

"Yeah," Dinah chimes in. "She hasn't slept in, like, days. From the first day Helena went out of contact to when we found her in the…I mean…" she pulls up short and then cocks her head at Laura. "You know about … don't you? Batman, Batgirl, meta-humans, the whole deal?"

"I'm afraid I do."

"How come?"

"I have an interest in human mutations and…exotic, shall we say, genotypes." The beeping of her watch interrupts her. She looks at her watch and then at the observation window. "Hang on, it's time to sedate her. Barbara?"


"Maybe you're right. We all need some sleep. There's nothing more we can do here." She waits for me to say something. "Barbara! There's nothing more. The nurses will page me if there's a problem. I need some sleep. And I'm prescribing some for you as well. Don't make me restrain you."

"Lets go," I reply to her very reasonable request. But my heart isn't in it. I feel like I'm betraying Helena by going home to a warm bed and the hot food I know Alfred has prepared. He has been expecting a guest, after all. I start to pick up my coat and scarf as Laura goes into Helena's room to administer her sedative and tranquillisers. Maybe I don't actually have to sleep in a warm bed or eat the food. I know it's illogical to deprive myself when it won't help Helena in any way, but I can't help it.

Tuesday, December 24. Morning
Clock Tower

The silence at the breakfast table is strained. Outside, Christmas has settled on the city in joyful cheer. I've barely noticed the holidays in the last two weeks. But our guest has. The enamelled metalled brooch of holly leaves, with the inset ruby berries are an incongruous dash of colour. It's odd to have someone other than the four of us in here. Every other time a stranger has been introduced to this space, it has ended badly. Also it's a little hard to ignore the feeling of doom and failure that hangs all over us. Laura has been unusually quiet the whole morning, and Dinah and I have already had an argument over my insistence that she fulfil her commitment to spend Christmas dinner with her friend Gabby. I told her that I didn't want her to give up all semblance of a normal life, but found myself being accused of treating her like a child.

Laura is sitting at the table looking uncomfortable. I'm sure she can sense the tension – she's very perceptive. I watch Laura eat her breakfast and it occurs to me that she has quite an amazing appetite. The same thought must occur to Alfred as he serves her an omelette on the heels of her two large pancakes.

His smile is at once superior and conspiratorial. "If you'll pardon my saying so Doctor Reade. But it's quite wonderful to see a hearty appetite." I knew he'd find a way to make a dig about how little we've been eating this past week. "It's quite commendable. The only other person in this household who eats this much is…"

"Miss Helena, I'm sure," Laura finishes for him.


"I imagined so. And please, call me Laura."

"Very well, Miss Laura."

When she doesn't blink at being addressed as Miss Laura I remember that she comes from money and is probably used to this sort of thing while I still find it a trifle jarring – like I'm playing pretend. "You're welcome," she says and returns to the genteel demolition of her omelette.

The only sounds for the next few minutes are the sound of Laura's knife and fork against the china, Dinah's sulking, and the desultory stirring of the spoon in my tea.

Suddenly, Dinah sucks in a breath and sits up. "You know Superman."

"Pardon?" Laura looks up from her breakfast.

"You…you, you know Superman. Last night. You said you'd ask around Metropolis and maybe the man in blue could help out. You were talking about Superman."

"Umm …yes. I…I do know him," she says while dabbing at her lips with the napkin.

"That's awesome!" Dinah says brightly as her eyes shine with hero-worship. It's amazing how her moods can swing from one extreme to another – not unlike my previous ward I remind myself. "How'd you meet him? Do you know a lot of superheroes? Do you know all of them?"

The barrage of enthusiasm takes Laura aback with a laugh. "Well, I…know a lot of superheroes, certainly, not all of them. I know them because many of them are meta-humans, or, as in the case of Superman, extra-terrestrials, and like I said last night I have a special interest in interesting genes."

"You're a meta-doctor?" Dinah always did have a flair for naming things.

"Yes," says Laura with a smile, "in more ways than one."

"You're meta-human too? Cool."

"Too?" she turns to me with chiding eyebrows. "Barbara, you've been entirely remiss in introducing me to your family. You can't just expect me to assume that your entire family is meta-human," she jokes. "These things tend to skip generations, you know."

"Not always," Dinah says glumly. And I start to get apprehensive.

"What do you mean?"

"My mom's meta. Maybe you knew her?"

"You refer to her in the past tense, is she umm…passed away?"

"Yeah," Dinah slumps a little, but otherwise appears remarkably unaffected. This makes me very sad and irrationally happy at the same time. Sad because she has lost her mother, but happy because it means Helena and I are helping her adjust to her mother's loss. "Black Canary…"

When Laura starts to cough and sputter while choking on her last piece of omelette I get anxious. Her eyes are wide when she clears her throat and asks, "Black Canary? Black Canary's your mother?" Surreptitiously she meets my eye and I shake my head as unobtrusively as possible. Laura returns her face to a mask of neutral interest and responds to Dinah's hopeful expression. "Yes." She clears her throat. "I met her a couple of times. When I was starting out as a doctor. She had emm… ahem… laryngitis." She takes a drink of water. "But that was a long time ago." After studying Dinah intently for a few moments she speaks. "So you're the reason she dropped out of sight all those years ago." The ruffled expression on Dinah's face gives away her curiosity and Laura continues. "She was in bad shape." She looks to me to ask how much she can reveal. I silently let her know that it's fine. "Hawke…" Dinah's face tightens for a second, "…Did quite a number on her. Personally I didn't know if she'd ever be able to work again. It was pretty bad – lost her cry, some broken bones. But then she dropped out of sight for a while. That's the last I ever met her." Dinah nods, hungrily grasping on to this little piece of information while tucking her hair behind her ear. "So did you inherit her abilities?" Dinah shakes her head and instead of describing her powers, demonstrates instead. Her glass of water rises to her mouth before she grasps it and takes a drink. "Impressive. Much more fun than mine."

"What can you do?" Dinah asks, and it's now Laura's turn to demonstrate. In fact I'm curious too. While I have always known that Laura is a meta-human, I have never seen any manifestation of her abilities – all I know is that she is an unusually sensitive and excellent neurosurgeon.

She reaches into her jacket, pulls out a mini flashlight and quickly divests it of the AAA cells and bulb. She turns to me. "Do you mind if I use you as a guinea pig?"

I take a breath and hold it before I say, "No."

As I push away my mug of tea she continues, "Don't worry, I've done this a thousand times, it's perfectly safe." She arranges the batteries on the table, in front of me, touching positive to negative just like they would in the body of the flashlight. She twirls the tiny bulb around her fingers and offers the copper prongs of its contacts to me with a mischievous smile. "All right, hold this, just the metal part between your thumb and forefinger. Good. Now, just…umm close the circuit…with your…" She nods approvingly when I close the thumb and middle finger of my left hand around the exposed terminals of the conjoined batteries. "That's right, excellent," she says and nods one last time. "That's it."

Nothing happens.

"Is something supposed to happen?" Dinah asks in an uncertain voice.

"No," Laura smiles with a flip flourish of her eyebrows, "Absolutely nothing. Just establishing the control here. Barbara would you agree that nothing happened?"

"I would say that."

"Now don't move." She holds out her hand and indicates my wrist. "May I?" When I nod, her fingers close around the bones of my joint. I study her face to get an idea of what she is trying to accomplish. A few seconds later she winks and bobs her head to indicate my right hand – the tiny bulb is glowing at full strength.

Dinah's jaw has fallen in an ungainly yet completely expressive slackening of surprise. "How did you do that?"

Laura's hand withdraws from my wrist and she answers. "I changed the resistivity of her body by dropping the electric potential across her cells. That's what I do – I'm sensitive to electromagnetic fields.


"Not as much fun as yours but it's very useful in new places, I never get lost."

This time Dinah holds her palm up on the table and asks for Laura's hand in hers. "I've got another one."

"Dinah, I don't think that's …"

But she cuts me off. "I'll be careful, I promise." She turns back to Laura and says, "Think of a number, any number. And then put your hand in mine." Laura looks to me for assurance and I nod. I don't care. I'll do anything to pass the time. Laura has threatened to tranq me if I don't eat breakfast, and if I leave home before 8 am. When Laura's hand touches Dinah's they both jump back as if shocked.

Dinah looks mortified – her blush is climbing over her ears and into her hair – while Laura looks like she has just seen a ghost. "You got that? You saw the referent behind the number?"

"I'm sorry," Dinah sputters. "I didn't mean to. I swear I didn't. I usually have much better control than that." Laura just continues to stare with a wide-eyed look. "I'm sorry."

I'm starting to get worried about Laura. She looks stunned. Dinah turns a panicked glance at me begging me for help. Just as I release the brakes on my chair Laura puts her hand on the table and says in the calmest voice, "Do it again." Dinah freezes. "What you just did, try it again." She twitches her fingers impatiently in a beckoning motion. "Come on." Gingerly, Dinah reaches out. "Tell me what I'm thinking about." Dinah places her hand in Laura's. I wait for the recoil – there is none. "Nothing?" Dinah shakes her head. "Not even a stray thought?"

"No. But it doesn't always work," she protests. "I touch Barbara and Helena all the time I don't always get anything."

Laura blinks and releases Dinah's hand. And then opens her hand again. "Now try it again."

"But I don't always get something."

"Trust me Dinah, just try it." Her eyes are shining and her skin is flushed with excitement. She is on to something.

I don't know why but I start to swell with some unnameable feeling of excitement. I encourage Dinah, "Go on hon, try it."

With a little less hesitation but a lot more scepticism she places her hand in Laura's. When Dinah jumps up from her seat, spilling some of the milk from her cereal, Laura flashes us both a brilliant and triumphant smile. "By Jove I think we've got it,' she whispers. Straightening her skirt she steps around the table to Dinah's side and then looks at me. "Barbara, I think we may just have bought your girl a chance." When she puts a determined hand on Dinah's shoulder and squeezes I want to jump for joy. "Young lady," she says, "how would you like to be the girl who cured an injury there is no cure for."

The fever gleam in Dinah's eyes is all the answer Laura needs.

I have a pain in my shoulder. I should have a pain in both my shoulders from all the rocking back and forth I've been doing, but I guess I hold tension especially well in my left shoulder and arm. My wrist is starting to spasm and I can't rock the wheels. This is annoying – I hate this damned chair. Everything was so much easier when I had the use of my legs – I could pace, I could run, I could take a jog around the block, and I could kick the stupid vending machine when it didn't dispense the Pepsi. God damn it! I need more caffeine right now. A passing nurse glances askant at me as she walks by. I'm certainly not doing a good job holding up appearances. But the frustration I feel has snapped my patience.

Earlier today, Laura grabbed Dinah and hustled her out of the clock tower without so much as a by your leave. She was so excited she even neglected to grab her jacket. It was only when the two of them got to the elevator and discovered that they couldn't get out did they realise that I had shut them out of the control panels. Once I gathered my winter-wear, I recalled the elevator car where I was greeted by one sheepish expression of guilt and one slightly flushed look of bewildered annoyance when I held up the keys to the van.

With a lot of hand waving and gesticulating, Laura explained her brainstorm as we waited in traffic. The more she talked the more hopeful I became.

"…So my theory is that telepathy or whatever you want to call it is a function of electrical potential across neurons, especially in your case. You have to touch someone, correct, to receive any kind of impression from them?" Without really waiting for Dinah's nod she continued on, "And how do you receive these impressions are they sounds or are they smells…how?"

"I don't know – sometimes they're sounds sometimes they're sensations like I was actually there…"

"Like you're actually there? Like sensory hallucinations?"

"No. More like I was there the first time and I'm remembering it now. Or sometimes like I'm dreaming it."

"Okay, all right, that makes sense. Like a memory – you're reading a mnemonic trace, maybe even entire qualia…a…a…a feeling state that comprises of a perception or experience – and so you're telepathic. And that's why I'm so good at what I do. I'm able to detect these minute fluctuations in electrical energy; I'm able to affect them. Now, unlike you, I can't read minds, only be aware of general moods but better than a simply perceptive person. I mean I read thoughts the way an experienced neurologist can read an EEG or a cardiologist can read an ECG. I'm able to correlate emotions to graphical representations of electrical discharges. Sometimes some of my patients report being to be better able to communicate with the people around them if I've given them a little electrical shift – but only for as long as the effects last.

"You are already telepathic – in a heightened state I have even less shielding from you than I normally would. But I can also reverse the effect by increasing my resistivity. I've been struggling with Helena because I can't stabilise her enough to know which of the electrical storms in her head I should quell. You, my dear girl, are going to be my canary in the mines – so to speak." Dinah and I share a look with each other through the rear view mirror when she uses the metaphor. "You are going to help me get into her head and we are going to get that girl out of wherever she's trapped."

But after four hours of trying, we're no further along than before. Dinah is suffering from a headache and recovering from what seems to be the psychic version of a concussion. And Laura is exhausted and half passed out in the observation room.

The vending machine is rescued from impending ramming-by-wheelchair by a young intern jingling a handful of change.

"It doesn't take bills." My raised eyebrow prods him to elaborate. "For some stupid damn reason it doesn't vend when you put in a bill. Here," he says pushing the currency return and retrieving my dollar. He inserts four quarters into the machine. "What're you having?"

"Diet Pepsi," I say automatically, and he presses the correct buttons. The hollow thump of aluminium against plastic heralds the arrival of my can. When I thank him and ask him to keep the dollar, he presses it back into my hand.

"Don't worry about it. You looked like you were having a bad day."

After buying his drink from the machine he wanders off with a salute of his can. As he disappears round the bend of the hallway I remember that he has left his change in the coin return. I lean forward to rescue the thirty cents but decide to leave them there. Judging from the number of coins in his hand I guess that he'll be back at the machine in short order and will have a chance to get his change back.

When I return to the observation room, it is empty. I take the opportunity to look at Helena unobserved. She looks calmer because of the sedation and there are no longer any more restraints around her wrists or ankles. I stare at the charts and scans that plaster the walls of her room and wonder if we will ever get her back. Of all the things that could go wrong this is the worst – worse than Bruce losing his head, worse than me never being able to walk again, worse than anything – losing Helena like this.

I try to think of all the days without her. All the things that will not…cannot happen if we can't help her – no more sweeps, no more protecting the innocent and fighting for justice, no more quibbling over Dinah's future, no more being badgered about the lack of midnight snacks, no more snarky remarks about my choice of dates or clothes or music, no more picnics in the park, no more late-night talks, no more bantering over the comms, no more sound of her mischievous soprano, no more joking work outs, no more smiles. Each 'no more' is a negative account of all the happy things in my life; each 'no more' is an additional vacuum. The sense of emptiness that overtakes me is like a black hole – like I am the only thing left alive and conscious in a singularity from which there is no escape. From nowhere sadness bursts through a weak spot inside me, and wells over. My tears spill to fill the emptiness and I cry like I have never cried before, not for my parents, not for myself and not even for Wade, especially not for Wade – with hitching sobs and gasping breaths, with wracking grief, with desperation, with all the anger of the girl who once asked why her father couldn't just love her, with all the bitterness of a girl convinced she is incapable of being loved.

Somehow I have to find Helena. She is my family. She is the only one who has stood up for me, stood up with me and even stood in place of me. I have to bring her back.

This is how Laura finds me when she returns to the room – hunched over in my chair and weeping. I am done trying to hold back, hold up and hold it together. I don't want to be brave about this anymore. I want Helena back and whole. I wipe my eyes and sit up. I am a finder of information. A brain is just that – a database of information. And I am the best finder of information there is. I am Oracle. And, damn it, what Oracle wants, Oracle gets.

Wednesday, December 25
Wayne Memorial Hospital

Dinah looks like a whipped puppy. Her angelic features are downcast in disappointment and guilt because she hasn't been able to help today. But at least she looks like a rested whipped puppy. The eight hours of sleep she got with a little underhanded help from Laura's medical cabinet seem to have done her some good. For whatever reason I can't seem to convince her that she needs at least eight hours of sleep a day and that I'm not a good role model as far as sleep habits go. But she is as subtly stubborn as Helena is adamantly mulish.

"It was confusing. I didn't know what anything meant and I kept getting tossed around. It was like I couldn't tell which way was up and which was down." Even as she says the words I laugh – it's not an inaccurate description of some of Helena's moods. When they turn to look at me I shake my head in dismissal.

"Exactly, Barbara's theory is that you got a bit of a psychic ding because you don't know how to make sense of the images and memories. What she wants to try is this – and apparently you've done this before – she wants you to let her in there."

Dinah looks a little doubtful. Her experience earlier this day has left her looking pale and weak. She looks like she's been drained of all blood. And she looks terrified of trying it again. My knuckles tighten around the curve of the chair's rests. "Dinah I know you're scared but you can't hurt her. And I'll be there with you. I know what's in her head. I've known her a long time." I don't have the words to explain the certainty I feel this very second. I know how to do this. I've been learning how to do this for the last ten years. Helena's mind is like a corrupted drive. The data is there, I just have to restore it sector by sector. It's very simple – I'm going to hack Helena's brain.

"I don't know if I can take both of you in there."

"That's okay, just do your best. I don't need to be right in the images," Laura assures her, "I can ride the wave. I just need you to be able to tell me when we reach a wall that you can't get through, those walls are her seizures – that's where her brain is damaging itself. If I can calm that neuronal firing we can bring her out of this. Okay?"

Dinah nods determinedly. I simply lay one hand on Helena's arm and hold my hand out to Dinah. As I close my eyes I feel her hand gripping solidly around mine. The sensation is a rushing like being sucked through a small hole. I suck a gasping breath when the images and perceptions assault my mind.

Blood rushing in my veins, fingers digging into my palms, tears, hate, muscles trembling under the strain, a line from a song, the smell of a flower, cold, ice, pain, mud in my toes – feelings and sensations rush through me with a shivering chill – the applause from the stands, 92 degrees with 38% humidity, sex, the feel of leather pants, who is that man with the knife, Barbara Gordon isn't it, I'm Selina Kyle, you I'm going to kill you, Mom no! Somebody stop him, No, no, no! I will absolutely not allow you to throw your life away like that, what is wrong with my eyes, burning, I can see everything, waiting, screaming, I'm in my head but I can't help myself, fists curling I'm going to hit her, somebody's in tro…uble, I mustn't no stop this is wrong her hair is so red how can anyone do that fucking Dick I'm going to kill Wade she rides a Beemer mom hey Nibs who's that guy she treats me like a child make sure she eats something other than tuna wind in my hair flexing muscles yes kill her no this is wrong kill me like you killed her Barbara help me.

Images rip through me with the force of a blinding sandstorm, leaving me raw and lacerated – and from the wounds, my memories slip into hers. It's just too much. It's like being plunged into freezing waters. With a gasp I snatch my hand from Dinah's and wrap my arms around my self. When Laura kneels next to me I realise that I am panting like I've just run twelve miles.

Is this how Dinah feels it when she has a vision? She looks back at me sympathetically. I have a whole new respect for her strength and courage. "Are you okay?" she asks.

"Yeah," I manage to croak out.

"Are you sure?" Laura presses. "What happened?"

I clear my throat. "I'm fine. I wasn't ready. It was just too much at once."

"We don't have to this right away. We can go away and come back tomorrow once we've got even more sleep."

"NO!" I cry out. "I can do this." We're already breaking all the hospital policies, we might as well be here all night and finish.

Laura holds her hands up in a soothing gesture. "All right. All right. Just breathe. Deep breaths – into your stomach. Dinah are you ready? Good, lets go."

This time when I close my eyes I am prepared. When the barrage of images and memories surrounds me, I concentrate on just one and let it carry me. It's a voice without sound, a thought without words; and I hear it without listening, I know it without being told. It is a song that sings itself in my veins. It wraps itself around each muscle, weaves through every fibre and draws out an answering echo – I hold on to this song line like I used to my jump lines and follow the arc to wherever it will lead me. This is what I hear…

My body is to me a thing alive. Not because of me, but by itself, its individual parts. It
used to be a thing alive. It fairly sang with life. The rush of blood, the
thing that fairly sings with life; it tingles with electric abandon; blood rushes
flexing of muscles, the vital electricity that connects brain to limb - each intention
through it in a heady surge; muscles flex and bend, reaching and pulling; tendons bind
in action, precisely measured, controlled to do exactly the thing willed of
my body to my body. It is a thing so alive – that I am always aware of it, aware of it
– it was a miracle to me. I was never so free as I was in my body. When I leaped
space, in place. Sounds, images, motions they are carried to me
into the abyss, no net below me but the air, I sailed through it.
every second of every day. I can't stop it. I see things I don't want to see
I was an animal returned to the primal. I was like a hunter. Trained to
hear things others can't hear. Do things others will not do. All because of my body
decipher things others could not hear, to track things others could not see.
See me run, hear my feet strike the ground on which I run. Feel the shockwave
my body's awareness until little could get by me. Can you imagine
air as my muscles compress in readiness for a jump. See me fly. Isn't it glorious?
to build your body grain by grain, fibre by fibre, stria by stria
as I glide through the air? I am bound to this body.
breath by breath. Even in my dreams
I live in my body. I cannot leave it…
I revelled in my body.

Book 3

Return to Bird of Prey Fiction

Return to Main Page