Batgirl swung from the Gotham Public Library roof and glided to the street below. Her blue, scalloped cape enveloped the Royal Flush Gang beneath its dark, bat-shaped shadow. They were mesmerized by the grand entrance, pausing to take in the full effect before turning their guns skyward and opening fire. With the grace of a ballerina Batgirl danced between each bullet, twisting and turning so they sailed harmlessly into the Gotham night.
She retracted her Bat-line when she landed and returned it to her bright yellow utility belt. Once it was secure she cracked her knuckles. “This is going to feel so good!”
“You talking to them or me?” Black Canary asked. Her own recent incapacitation made stretching her muscles in the virtual world of Streets of Gotham a sinfully delightful experience even if the Royal Flush Gang did a number on her underpowered avatar. She couldn’t help but wonder how much greater the thrill was for Oracle to don her Batgirl costume again and return to action.
“Both,” Batgirl answered. “Check on our girl while I take out the trash.”
Black Canary crawled toward Flamebird who was gunned down moments before by the Royal Flush Gang. Her avatar was blinking at a steady pace. Canary placed her ear on Flamebird’s chest and was relieved to hear a heartbeat.
Batgirl dropped a smoke bomb and lit in on the Royal Flush gang. She dropped the Two of Diamonds with a haymaker to his jaw. “How’s Flamebird?”
“She’s lucky. The bullet entered below her collar bone and not her chest cavity. Her breathing is shallow but she’s alive,” Black Canary replied. “She’s losing blood. You need to wrap this up quickly.”
“Roger that!” Batgirl replied.
Black Canary cleared Bette’s airway and started chest compression. “Come on! Stay with me girl!”
Batgirl would have done Batman proud. She elbowed the Eight of Clubs in the bridge of his nose when she drew back her fist to punch out the Six of Clubs. While both staggered, she slammed their heads together, taking them out of action. A leg sweep dropped the Eight of Hearts. A rolling judo throw took the Jack of Spades out of commission. She got the Seven of Spades with a Bat-a-Rang. The Six of Clubs chose to flee on foot.
At last Flamebird gasped and took in a deep breath. She wasn’t out of the woods but the good sign allowed Black Canary to finally let out a deep breath of her own.
Batgirl knelt beside her and joined in administering first aid to their partner.
“You were always good but that was amazing! I don’t remember you moving with that kind of fluidity or precision before,” said Black Canary.
“That’s what twenty-five levels of power ups will do for you,” Batgirl answered. She tore off a piece of her cape and applied pressure to Flamebird’s wound. “I haven’t felt that good since Dick took me up on the trapeze a few years ago. But to move my own legs again? It was heavenly!”
“So how’d you score an avatar that would shame Batman and we get stuck at level one?” Black Canary asked as she continued working on Flamebird.
“The programming code was complex but I finally cracked it,” Batgirl replied. She retrieved a vial from her utility belt. “Prop up her head with your hands.”
Black Canary cupped Flamebird’s head in her hands and lifted it gently.
Batgirl uncapped the vial and lowered it to Flamebird’s lips.
“What’s in the vial?” Black Canary asked.
“No idea,” Batgirl answered.
Black Canary grabbed Batgirl’s wrist, preventing her from administering the serum. “Are you nuts? You can’t give her something if you don’t know what it is!”
“I can analyze the code for it later,” Batgirl answered. “Right now I’m trying to keep her here with us in the virtual world.”
“You mean it isn’t real medicine?” Black Canary asked, releasing her grip on Batgirl’s wrist.
Batgirl emptied the vial’s contents into Flamebird’s mouth. “Exactly, it’s a digital remedy I created from the source code to restore a player’s health. Bette’s health meter should respond any minute now.”
Flamebird’s avatar stopped blinking and her health meter at the top of the screen nudged its way to one hundred percent. Her wound cauterized almost instantly then faded altogether.
“Anyone get the tag number of that playing card that hit me?” Flamebird asked.
How do you feel?” Batgirl asked.
“Whoa! Batgirl?” a confused Flamebird replied. “Are you kidding me?”
“It’s me, Oracle” Batgirl answered. “I chose Batgirl as my avatar to honor her memory.”
Batgirl and Black Canary helped Flamebird to her feet.
“Didn’t know she was dead,” said Flamebird. “I assumed she gave up the superhero business. Probably met some cute guy and settled down, white picket fence in the suburbs, two point five kids and a dog. You know, living the dream.”
“And what would be wrong with that?” Batgirl asked.
Flamebird rolled her shoulder in small circles, testing it. “Nothing wrong with it, I guess. But I always knew she didn’t have it in her. Probably got into the game for the same reason I did – to meet a guy. Good for her if she found him. What’s in that stuff you gave me? I’m good as new!”
“Bat anti-bodies,” Batgirl hissed.
“Whoa!” said Flamebird. “Didn’t mean to whiz all over your bat-flakes!”
“She’s a little sensitive when it comes to her favorite super-heroine,” said Black Canary. She shared a glance with Batgirl as if to remind her Bette didn’t know Oracle and Batgirl were one and the same.
Batgirl must have caught the gesture. She composed herself and retrieved a couple of glowing, blue pills from her utility belt. She distributed them to her associates. “Take these.”
“What are they?” Flamebird asked.
“This pill represents the same code I used for leveling up,” Batgirl answered. “Good for a boost to twenty-fifth level.”
Black Canary grabbed one of the pills from Batgirl and swallowed it. “Now that’s more like it!”
Flamebird reached for the power-up pill. “For pleasure has no relish unless we share it.”
“Virginia Wolfe,” Oracle answered. “I’m impressed.”
So was Black Canary. “Say what you want about our girl but she’s one smart cookie!”
“Is that a compliment?” Flamebird asked. “Because if it was, I’ll take it - backhanded or otherwise.”
“Ladies if we’re all in one piece now, it’s time we locate the Stallion’s Lair and get to the bottom of this mystery,” said Batgirl.
Gotham Convention Center, Streets of Gotham Convention
“For the record I hate this!” Lady Blackhawk protested as she stared at the tiny, black g-string bikini left for her to wear.
“I’ve watched those old beach movies,” Gypsy countered. “You guys had bikinis back in the 1950’s too.”
Lady Blackhawk held up the teeny swimsuit and wondered which piece was the top and which was the bottom. She decided the one with less material was the bottom. “Of course we had them too, but this is butt floss!”
“Would you stop complaining already and put it on?” Gypsy asked. “Oracle took this modeling gig right out from under some poor girl’s nose to grant us access to the convention floor so suck it up and play your part. Just think somewhere out there is a girl who was dying to play the part of…” Gypsy flipped over a placard with the name of the bikini-clad character’s name on it. “The Diva of Darkness.”
“I noticed you’re not volunteering to wear it,” Lady Blackhawk argued.
“Because I can blend into the background and render myself effective invisible,” Gypsy shot back. “Besides you have the body for it. What’s the big deal?”
Lady Blackhawk was not convinced. “The body to do what with it? Fall out of it? I had more dignity as Queen Killer Shark.”
“Just put it on, Zinda,” Gypsy giggled. “Consider it your uniform for today.”
Lady Blackhawk disappeared behind a dressing screen and removed her leather boots and socks. She wished she had a decent pedicure but doubted anyone would be looking at her feet.
“How’s it going back there?” Gypsy asked.
Lady Blackhawk took a deep breath and dropped her black, pleated skirt to the floor then removed the rest of her clothes. “God this is so embarrassing.”
“You’ll be fine,” Gypsy assured her.
Lady Blackhawk stepped into the bikini bottom and shimmied into it. “I wonder if camels ever look at their toes and wonder…”
“Ok, ok! I get it Zee. It’s tiny,” Gypsy answered.
“Could you tie the top for me?” Lady Blackhawk asked. “I can’t make sense of these little spaghetti straps.”
“Sure,” Gypsy replied. She stepped behind the screen and gasped. “Oh, Zinda!”
Lady Blackhawk felt herself blush. “That doesn’t sound like a gasp of admiration.”
“Oh no, honey,” Gypsy replied. “Your body is amazing but your tan lines are…”
“Just go ahead and say it,” Lady Blackhawk replied. “My butt is white as flour, huh?”
Gypsy giggled. “Self-rising, at that.”
“There are parts of a lady’s body that aren’t meant to see the sun and the full moon is one of them!” said Lady Blackhawk.
Gypsy quelled a second staccato snicker with her hand.
“Ok, that’s it! Get me something to cover up with now!” yelled Lady Blackhawk. “I can’t go out there like this!
Gypsy tied Zinda’s straps and spun her around. She put her finger in the reluctant pilot’s face. “Oracle trusts us to not screw this up! This is our best opportunity to uncover information about her friend’s murder and if that means your Eisenhower-era modesty is compromised then you’ll do it with a smile on your face! Got it?”
“Says the invisible girl who will stay fully-clothed,” said Zinda. “But I don’t have to like it.”
“Fair enough,” Gypsy answered. “Maybe there’s something in there that will help?” She pointed to an old steamer trunk sitting next to Zinda’s lighted makeup mirror in the dressing room. Gypsy popped the latches and tilted the top lid open. She reached into it and retrieved a calf-length black cape. “Look what I found!”
Lady Blackhawk reached for it. “Gimme!”
Gypsy jerked it back and waved a teasing finger in protest. “You have to promise one thing first.”
Lady Blackhawk rolled her eyes. “Anything, just give me the damned cape!”
“Let the sun hit those cheeks every now and then,” Gypsy laughed.
Lady Blackhawk reached for her face.
Gypsy tossed the cape to her. “Not those cheeks, silly. Here, eclipse that full moon.”
“Hardy-har-har,” Lady Blackhawk mocked as she caught the cape. She was anxious to cover her backside. She threw it over her shoulders and pulled the Velcro ties together.
“And look, this silver belt matches these heels,” said Gypsy pulling more clothing from the trunk.
Lady Blackhawk gawked at the high-heeled sandals. She’d never worn a heel so high. “Please just let me wear my boots. Pity me one concession.”
Gypsy tossed the belt to Lady Blackhawk. “Wrap this around your waist and I’ll help you with the shoes.” She kneeled before Zinda and grabbed her right ankle. The shoe slid on easily enough and Gypsy wound the lace around Zinda’s calf and tied it. .
A knock rapped at the door and it flew open. “You ‘bout ready in there girly?” barked a gruff male baritone.
No one ever accused Lady Blackhawk of being a prude but she drew the cape around her. What was wrong with her? She’d done her share of USO shows in front of thousands of rowdy GI’s so why did this gig make her feel so straitlaced? After all, it was just a little skin. Ok, a lot of skin. “Be with you in a minute, love.”
The door closed.
“Take a deep breath,” Gypsy advised as she finished with the shoe. “You can do this.”
Lady Blackhawk placed her left foot in Gypsy’s lap. “Let’s just get it over with.”
The Virtual World of the Streets of Gotham
Batgirl took the lead, winding her team through Gotham’s dark streets to the lower East End. They soon found themselves in an older, run-down part of the city dotted with ethnic groceries and 24 hour convenience stores. Every now and then a bank, a laundry, a dry-cleaner, or a buy-here, pay-here used car lot would pop up to sweep away the monotony of abandoned buildings. A few two-story apartment buildings were nearby, one with graffiti-riddled plywood replacing the windows. The Bat-signal was clearly visible in the distance over the rooftops.
“For five thousand big ones you’d think your boy could have gone uptown a little farther,” Flamebird half-whispered.
“She has a point, O,” said Black Canary. “He sucked at shopping.”
Batgirl nodded. “It’s a rough neighborhood but we don’t know the market. Besides, who would look for a superhero here?”
The heroines made a right at the corner of Bill Finger Place and West 113th. An abandoned fire station halfway up the block begged attention. A large banner hung over the oversized apparatus bay doors. In bold, black letters it read, “The Stallion’s Lair”.
“I’m guessing Leonard missed the secret hideout memo, huh?” Flamebird asked.
Black Canary tried the front door by the garage. It wouldn’t budge. She slammed her weight into the door but it held tight. “This door can’t be this strong!”
Batgirl removed a key from her utility belt.
“You have a key?” Flamebird asked incredulously.
“Maybe,” Batgirl replied. “I hacked a few sites Leonard frequented and developed a database of his password history. There was surprisingly little diversity in his method.”
Batgirl placed the key into the lock and turned it slowly. The door opened.
Flamebird clapped softly. “She shoots! She scores!”
The heroes entered the Stallion’s Lair slowly. The fire hall was dark and foreboding. Black Canary rubbed her arms to relieve the chill. The air smelled stale like mildewed carpeting but the scent was faint, not overpowering.
“Be careful,” Batgirl warned. “I’m sure Leonard took precautions against intruders.”
Black Canary removed a small pen light from her belt. “You mean the same Leonard who advertised the location of his secret hideout to the world?”
Bette found a light switch and a dead man’s private world exploded into glaring focus. The Stallion’s Lair was part crime lab and part geek chic. The center of the room was dominated by items one would expect to find in a forensics lab – an examination table, a laptop, a digital scale, Bunsen burners, test tubes filled with liquids of varying color, and a microscope. Various tools such as knives, scissors, and files were scattered here and there.
A metal-framed desk sat at a forty-five degree angle from the foot of the examination table. An older laptop sat on it and was still powered on thanks to the adapter. A game of Scrabble was on the screen. Leonard’s offline opponent typed, “Yo! Bro! Your move! Hello? You there?” before finally giving up on and logging off. A picture of Leonard’s fiancée sat next to an unopened bottle of water. She was a pretty strawberry blonde with freckles. She was dressed in a white nursing uniform and held a diploma. She looked to be in her early twenties. Written in a child-like font across the top of the ceramic frame were the words, “Love Of My Life”. Not as sweet was a six-inch statuette of Power Girl that served as a paper weight on the opposite side of the desk. Her face was twisted in anger. The statue emphasized her ample cleavage. Written on its base were the words, “Those are NOT my eyes!”
The lower level consisted of an office, a kitchen, a small living area complete with a big screen television, a well-worn sofa, and coffee table. A gaming console was hooked up to the television. Its remote was one of three on the coffee table. A fourth lay on the sofa arm. A cheap Japanese knock-off guitar and small amplifier sat at the end of the sofa. On top of the amp was another picture of Leonard’s fiancée. One could see beyond the kitchen into the small bathroom. Black Canary couldn’t help but wonder why men couldn’t shut bathroom doors. A smooth, steel door led to the apparatus bay and garage area.
The walls were dotted with posters of Leonard’s favorite Justice Leaguers, mainly Superman and Batman but Black Canary was pleasantly surprised to find her own image hanging on one of the steel columns that supported the second floor.
The second floor was accessible by a metal stairway. The floor itself was of metal grating material with a diamond-shaped pattern that clashed with the vertical pattern of the stairs. The men of Station 454 obviously weren’t concerned with interior design. Several rooms were visible from below. Black Canary guessed they were office space and bedrooms.
“Fan out and search every inch of the place,” Batgirl ordered.
Black Canary opted to search the apparatus bay and garage area, leaving the office and crime lab to Oracle and the upstairs to Flamebird. She flipped on the lights and was surprised to find a fairly well-preserved antique ladder truck sitting in the first bay. It appeared to be a mid to late 1960’s model but she wasn’t sure. The faded paint was more of a pale carnation than its original bright red but it was still stunning. Lockers lined the left wall. Some were open and turnout gear was still hanging in them. A rolling toolbox sat near the front passenger side tire. The second bay was similar but also included a tire changing station.
“Any idea what E2 is?” Batgirl yelled from the office area. “It’s on a Post-It stuck to his computer monitor.”
“No idea,” Black Canary replied. Finding nothing of interest to their case in the apparatus bay she returned to the living area. She pilfered through the books and magazines on the coffee table. She found a yellow legal pad at the bottom. “He scribbled it on this too. It looks like he was trying to track a shipment from a trucking company or something.”
Batgirl rushed to her side to investigate. She took the notebook and thumbed through it. “E2… it doesn’t make sense. What does it stand for?”
“Earth Two,” Flamebird yelled from above.
“What’s that?” Black Canary asked.
Flamebird appeared at the top floor railing that lined the fire hall. “No idea. I found it spelled out up here. Think it’s important?”
Batgirl shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know but it’s something to go on anyway. Come on down and let’s get out of here.”
Flamebird eschewed the staircase in favor of the firemen’s pole in the garage area and joined Batgirl and Black Canary on the ground floor.
Moments later the women were back on Gotham’s streets with little more than a single clue to shed light on the mystery of Leonard’s death. They turned north and walked for what seemed like forever but nothing looked familiar.
“Stop,” Batgirl ordered.
Black Canary and Flamebird came to an abrupt halt.
“What’s up, boss?” Flamebird asked.
Batgirl pointed to a mailbox on the corner. “We’ve passed that same mailbox twelve times.”
Black Canary shook her head. “It’s a mailbox. They all look the same more or less.”
Batgirl shook her head. “No, it’s the exact same mailbox.”
“How is that possible?” Flamebird asked. “Are you saying it’s following us?”
“No, it isn’t following us,” Batgirl explained. “We haven’t gone anywhere.”
“Tell that to my aching feet,” Black Canary replied. “These heels are killing me.”
“Markers,” Batgirl replied. “Think of the mailboxes as markers. They tell the game where we are in the virtual world and the game renders graphics based on asynchronous texture paging technology for visualizing high-resolution, photo-realistic databases.”
Black Canary blinked. “You lost me after markers.”
“I get it,” said Flamebird. “These so-called markers tell the game where we are and it generates new graphics and game scenarios for us to tackle.”
“Exactly,” Batgirl beamed. “And if we aren’t getting anywhere…”
“It means someone doesn’t want us to,” said Black Canary. “The techno-babble eludes me but I know bad guys.”
“Indeed you do,” said Batgirl.
Flamebird stuck her hand in the mail slot. “Praemonitus praemunitus.”
Black Canary looked to Batgirl. “What she said.”
Batgirl smiled. “Forewarned is forearmed. It’s…”
“Latin,” Black Canary smirked. “I got it.”
Batgirl placed her hand on Canary’s shoulder and spoke so Flamebird couldn’t hear. “I meant no offense, Dinah. You’re the most capable woman I know.”
It was a simple gesture but appreciated. Black Canary placed her hand on her friend’s. “Thanks, I needed that. So we know we’re being watched. What can we do about it?”
Batgirl left Canary’s side and examined the mailbox. “Everything in this virtual world exists as code, even us. I’ve written a compiler program that should allow me to analyze the source code and break it down even further into object codes. Give me a second.”
Batgirl removed a small purse-sized black and silver box from underneath her cape. She lifted a cover on it, exposing a screen and a series of buttons and dials underneath. She pointed the device at the mailbox. A high-pitched whine emanated from it as two audible signals competed with each other as they shifted audible phase.
Flamebird covered her ears. “What in the world is that thing?”
“Science tricorder, Star Trek, the original series,” Black Canary beamed. It was a small victory, but she was happy to be the one with the answer for a change.
“You’re analyzing data with a toy?” Flamebird asked Batgirl incredulously.
Batgirl ended her scan and flipped the faceplate in place over the screen. “Just another avatar, Bette. It’s really a highly complex data analysis program. Blame my inner geek for rendering it as a tricorder.”
Flamebird looked at both Batgirl and Black Canary. “You’re both those kind of people?”
Black Canary laughed. “I own all three seasons on DVD. It’s my guilty pleasure.”
“I have all the Star Treks,” Batgirl answered.
“I’m jealous,” Black Canary said. “Can I borrow season one of TNG?”
Batgirl put away her “tricorder” and smiled. “Of course you can, sweetie. Just return it to me in the same condition.”
“Done,” Black Canary agreed.
“I liked Voyager,” Flamebird interjected. “That’s the one with the Bork chick?”
Black Canary and Batgirl laughed.
“Borg,” Black Canary corrected. “Her name was Seven of Nine but some things are best forgotten.”
“We’ve made her feel foolish enough,” said Batgirl. “No need to rub it in.”
“Just tell me what your tri-thingy said,” Flamebird begged, trying to change the topic.
“Ladies, we’re taking the shortcut” said Batgirl.
“That’s our girl!” Black Canary cheered. “What do we do?”
“Cover the price of postage,” Batgirl replied as she jumped into the impossibly small mail slot and disappeared. “First class all the way….”
Flamebird turned to Black Canary. “Did she just…”
An equally dumbfounded Black Canary nodded. “I think she did.”
“Should we follow?” Flamebird asked.
Black Canary nodded. “It’s just like the tricorder and everything else in this world. Things aren’t always what they seem.”
“You sure?” Flamebird asked.
“I hope,” Black Canary replied. “That’s all I got but I trust O.”
Flamebird sighed. “That’s good enough for me. Per capsulam!”
An instant later she too disappeared into the mailbox.
“Hey you!” shouted an annoying voice Black Canary recognized immediately.
Black Canary turned. “Not now, kid!”
Red Death was back and he wasn’t happy. “That was a fake phone number you gave me!”
“Of course it was,” Black Canary shot back. “I don’t give out my telephone number to strangers… or minors!”
“Is that so?” Red Death huffed as he circled for an opening. “Maybe I should teach you some manners!”
Black Canary crouched into a defensive stance. “Trust me, kid. You really don’t want to do this now.”
Red Death cracked his knuckles. “Oh I beg to differ! You don’t know how badly I want this!”
Black Canary wished she knew how to make her level visible. Maybe it would scare him away. “I’m sure you’re a good kid but please go away! I don’t have time for this!”
Red Death leaped. “Then you’d better make time, Blondie! Say goodnight!”
In their previous encounter Red Death was an unstoppable blur and Black Canary felt punch drunk. This time things were different. Thanks to her power up, Red Death hung in the air for what seemed like forever. His muscles rippled and rolled across bone and sinew as he twisted his torso to execute a flying kick. His eyes were focused and unmerciful as he sailed through the air. Was this how the Flash felt? Black Canary considered her options. She decided to sidestep his attack and tackle him to the ground. That shouldn’t damage his health too much.
Sometimes even the best plans go awry. At the last moment, Red Death dug a throwing star out of his utility belt and hurled it at Black Canary. Instinct kicked in and she ducked. When she did, Red Death sailed over her head and into the mailbox slot.
“What the hell?” he shouted as he disappeared into the abyss.
“Oh crap!” Black Canary sighed. “Oracle is going to kill me!” She jumped in after him. “Hold on, kid! I’m coming!”