Black Canary landed on her backside in a large, well-lit warehouse. It was newer and more modern than the typical run-down, shadowy dives associated with the Gotham docks. The concrete floors were glossy gray and devoid of imperfections. In-game items were stocked neatly into steel-framed shelving units which were labeled with their contents. A type of forklift known as a “cherry picker” dotted the aisles. The place was more home-improvement retail warehouse than din of crime.
Red Death arrived a moment later and tumbled across the floor away from her. He was a fifteen year-old would-be Romeo who hit on Black Canary when she first joined the Streets of Gotham gaming community a few hours before. While fighting, the two of them fell through the mail slot of a mailbox that served as some sort of graphics generator. Black Canary wasn’t sure how she beat Red Death through the portal since he entered first, but at least he managed to roll and his butt probably didn’t feel like Darkseid drop kicked it.
“Picked up a hitchhiker did we?” Batgirl asked.
Black Canary stood and sighed. “He attacked before I could follow you. I didn’t bring him along by choice.”
His awkward roll across the floor complete, Red Death sat up and looked around. “What the hell? Where are we? Glitch in the game?”
Black Canary offered him a hand. “You need to get out of here as quickly as possible, kid.”
“How did you duck my attack like that?” Red Death asked as he took Canary’s hand and pulled himself up. “No way a newb does that!”
“Cheat codes,” Flamebird bragged.
Despite the warehouse’s impeccable upkeep Red Death brushed himself off. “Dude! Share the wealth!”
Batgirl shook her head. “That’s not going to happen. Take Black Canary’s advice and get far away from this place, kid. What transpires here could endanger you offline.”
“Awesome Batgirl costume,” Red Death beamed, undaunted by Batgirl’s advice. “She was one of my favorites - one of the great underrated heroes of all time!”
A sly smile spread across Batgirl’s lips. “Mine too. Good taste kid but you’re still in danger.”
Red Death laughed. “Me, in danger? I’m fifteenth level!”
“Which explains how you ended up here,” Black Canary huffed and rolled her eyes.
Red Devil got in Black Canary’s face. “If you hadn’t tricked me in the first place I wouldn’t be in this mess!”
“Kid, if you hadn’t been a jerk to begin with you’d still be abusing virtual prostitutes in a back alley instead of here in… What is this place anyway?”
“Judging by the inventory, we’re in the very heart of the game itself,” Batgirl replied.
The shelves were filled with tools and weapons to aid gamers in their lawless quests. Large, unopened crates sat in a holding area by the warehouse doors. They were labeled with the names of objects that couldn’t possibly fit into them – secret lair, helicopter, and private island
were among the craziest Black Canary noticed.
“So this is where they keep all the cool stuff!” Red Death exclaimed. “Come on, ladies! Let’s load up while we can! I doubt we’ll ever find our way in here again!”
“I’m not sure it works that way,” Batgirl replied. “The game still must verify you’ve earned the experience points required to purchase the items.”
“Maybe the Watcher could float me a loan,” Red Death added.
“Who?” Flamebird asked.
Red Death shook his head and grinned. “He’s probably just urban legend but word is that a lone programmer is the genius behind the entire SOG franchise. Rumor has it that he floats loans to some players for off-line properties.”
“Has anyone offered you a loan?” Flamebird asked.
Red Devil shook his head and laughed. “You kidding? Nobody wants to loan that kind of money to a broke kid from Queens.”
“Says who,” asked a voice from the shadows.
The three heroes closed ranks around Red Death.
“Stay behind us kid,” Black Canary warned.
“Who’s there?” Batgirl asked. “Show yourself!”
A janitor in a bright orange prison-issue jumpsuit stepped from behind a crate of explosive gag gifts pushing a broom. The shadows covered his face. “Well, well! Batgirl! Long time no see!”
Even behind her cowl it was obvious Batgirl’s face was ashen.
“What’s the matter dear, sweet girl?” Joker asked. “Bat got your tongue?”
Batgirl steeled herself. “You don’t scare me, Joker.”
The Joker laughed. “We both know that isn’t true. I’m surprised you haven’t soiled yourself by now.”
“Probably some sixteen year old kid on a laptop,” Flamebird hissed. “Don’t let him get to you!”
Red Death grinned from ear to ear. “God, you guys are such newbs! Everyone knows the real Joker plays SOG! And looks there’s no id number after his name! This cat’s the real deal!”
Flamebird rolled her eyes. “Sure, and I’m Wonder Woman. That’s just a marketing ploy, kid.”
The Joker crossed his arms and tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Yes, you do raise a valid point, young lady. Anyone could assume my identity. In fact, take my identity, please!”
The Clown Prince of Crime’s chilling laughter devolved into an uncontrollable fit of knee-slapping. “Take my identity! That’s a good one, eh?” Finally Joker wiped a tear from his right eye and crossed his arms. “Sorry, where was I? Oh yes! Conversely I could choose an alter ego for myself too, like Batman or Superman. No, those fuddy-duddies would bore me to tears. The Flash or Green Lantern?”
Joker shook his head. “Perhaps Plastic Man? Now there’s an idea! If I had to be a superhero at least I’d have some chutzpah!”
“Or wait! I’ve got it!” Joker exclaimed, throwing his arms open wide as if playing to a grand audience. “I choose… me! Glorious, wonderful me!”
Red Death extended his hand for Joker to shake. “Pleased to meet you, Mr.Joker, sir! My name is Red Death and I’m a villain too! What say we mop the floor with these broads?”
The Joker pulled a gun from beneath his coat and raised it to the boy’s forehead. “A good old-fashioned super-villain team-up? The possibility boggles the mind, eh, dear lad?”
The heroes moved to help.
“Not so fast,” the Joker warned. “One more step and I’ll show you both red and death.”
“Batgirl?” Black Canary asked. She hoped her partner had a plan.
“Red Death, are you playing in vitals mode?” Batgirl asked.
Red Death stared at the gun and nodded. “Who doesn’t? Otherwise it’s just a plain old video game. No rush in that.”
“Let the boy go Joker and you can have us,” said Flamebird.
“And just who are you?” Joker asked. “I know the names Black Canary and Batgirl, but you may as well be…” the Joker glanced at the identity tag over Red Death’s head. “Ah yes! Red Death! You may as well be Red Death to me!”
Flamebird threw a Bat-a-Rang and knocked the gun from the Joker’s hand before he could pull the trigger. “Flamebird’s the name, clown. Remember it.”
Red Death let out a deep sigh of relief and turned to Flamebird. “Thank you.”
Batgirl retrieved the gun and fired it. A ten-inch rod shot from its barrel. A green, pennant-shaped flag was attached to it. It read, “BANG!!!” in bold, purple letters.
Joker cackled and held out his hand to Red Death. “You gonna team up with me, you’d better have a good sense of humor kid. Put her there!”
Red Death laughed nervously and extended his hand again. “You’re a funny guy, Mr. J! You’ve got style!”
“I do love my style points, kid!” said Joker as he took the boy’s hand.
Red Death’s body stiffened instantly from the electric jolt of Joker’s joy buzzer. His face twitched and danced to the hellish beat of current running through his body. His hair stood on end. Smoke arose from his head as the smell of burning flesh filled the room. When Joker finally released the young man’s hand his avatar slumped to the ground. He looked to the Birds for help but it was too late. His avatar was blinking.
The Clown Prince of Crime howled in delight. “The classics never go out of style!”
“You freakin’ monster!” Flamebird spat.
Joker feigned shock. “Oh come on! They have to know that one’s coming and they fall for it every time!”
Flamebird somersaulted toward Joker and kicked him beneath the chin. The blow snapped his neck around and staggered him but he didn’t fall.
“Oh goodie!” the Joker squealed. “You want to play rough!” He fingered the flower on his lapel and a stream of acid shot out of it and hit Flamebird in the eyes. She immediately fell to the floor and clawed at her face.
“My god it hurts! Canary? Batgirl?” Flamebird yelled. “Help me!”
Joker seemed pleased with himself and kicked Flamebird across the warehouse and into a shelf of motorcycles. She slammed into the unit’s lower cross beam with so much force the impact crumpled it and broke loose the welds that held it together on both sides at the hooks. The shelving unit teetered and tottered before finally burying Flamebird beneath an avalanche of twisted steel.
“Angry Birds,” the Joker guffawed. “Who’s next?”
“You can’t do that,” said Batgirl.
Joker smiled menacingly. “Did I forget to mention my character has super-strength?”
Black Canary had seen enough. “Oh Yeah? Why don’t you show me?”
Batgirl pulled her back. “You tend to the wounded. The clown’s mine!”
Gotham Convention Center, Streets Of Gotham Convention
Perhaps working the convention floor wasn’t so bad after all. The majority of fans Lady Blackhawk met were friendly and respectful. Before long she forgot about her skimpy outfit altogether and settled into the role of SOG goddess. She was no closer to solving Oracle’s friend’s murder but at least no one had pinched her ivory butt yet.
And then two large men approached her.
“Can I help you boys?” Lady Blackhawk cooed. Men were suckers for that kind of thing.
The men simply stared at first – not the rubbernecking gawks of some convention geeks, but menacing gazes with arms their beefy arms crossed. They were sizing her up in a way that screamed “bad guys”.
“Thirty minutes,” spat the one on the left.
“Excuse me, big fella?” Lady Blackhawk asked. “Thirty minutes to what?”
The man on the right rolled his neck to one side until it popped loudly. “The show begins. Your opponent took a shot. Do you want one?”
Lady Blackhawk hated being in the dark. “What show and a shot of what?”
“You the contracted entertainment, ain’t youse babe?” asked the man on her left. His convention badge read, “Ernesto” and indicated he was with the event company that organized the show.
Lady Blackhawk played along and nodded her head. “Slutty Barbie not enough for you, handsome?”
The men grinned menacingly like they knew something Lady Blackhawk didn’t.
“What’s so funny?” Lady Blackhawk asked.
The other man, “Sonny”, smiled. “You didn’t notice the wrestling ring in the center of the floor?”
Lady Blackhawk nodded. “Sure did, Cap’n but I figured it was for show.”
“There’s a show alright! Youse scheduled to fight in… twenty-seven minutes,” Ernesto said, checking his wristwatch.
“Fight who?” Lady Blackhawk asked.
Sonny pointed to a girl working the other side of the convention floor. She was an exotic Asian beauty, dressed in a similar costume sans cape but hers was red and sported thigh high leather boots. “Her name is Prima Donna. She took a shot of E2 so I’d recommend you doing the same if you know what’s good for you, Blondie.”
“E2?” Lady Blackhawk asked.
“It stands for Earth Two,” Sonny answered. “Your agent was supposed to tell you.”
“My… agent failed to mention it,” Lady Blackhawk answered.
With a wave of his hand Ernesto beckoned her to follow them behind the back of a tour bus modified with a cabin extension to offer convention-goers a laser-tag like real-life SOG experience inside. Lady Blackhawk followed.
Sonny bent his knees and cupped his hands beneath the bus’s trailer hitch. He gritted his teeth and strained. At first it appeared his effort was futile but then the back of the bus rose off the ground six inches as he straightened his legs. “Not exactly Superman but more than enough to get most jobs done.”
“Son of a…” exclaimed an astonished Lady Blackhawk. “This juice gives you super strength?”
Sonny gently returned the bus to the floor. “There are no guarantees how it will interact with your body’s unique chemistry. Super strength, invisibility, and super speed are the most common but other abilities have manifested. The effect wears off after about half an hour, but I have to tell you girlie, it’s a rush!”
There was no way Lady Blackhawk was going to ingest “the juice” but she was sure Oracle would like to inspect a sample. She put on her best game face and reached for the drug. “Super strength, huh? Count me in, beefcakes.”
Inventory Warehouse, Inside the Streets of Gotham Video Game
The Clown Prince of Crime’s fists shattered the warehouse’s pristine concrete floor like twin jackhammers, hurling debris in every direction and leaving behind a crater. “When I get my hands on you…”
“I know,” Batgirl replied as she somersaulted to her feet. “I’ve heard it all before, gruesome. Do all you villains use the same speech writer or what?”
Joker swung wild and caught Batgirl with a glancing blow to her shoulder. With his super strength upgrade, even that was enough to send her reeling into a crate labeled “props”. The crate burst open and showered the floor with trick umbrellas and question mark projectiles.
“You dare mock me?” asked an enraged Joker. He rushed Batgirl and stepped on an umbrella. It rolled sending him flailing toward her. He fell at her feet.
Batgirl was lucky he only caught her right ankle. She was able to wriggle out of her boot and escape.
Joker threw the boot at her. His aim was remarkably proficient, striking Batgirl in the nose. The blow sent a trickle of blood onto her upper lip.
While Batgirl distracted Joker, Black Canary pulled mangled motorcycles off Flamebird. When she finally reached her beneath the mountain of steel she was out cold, but at least she was still clinging to life. Red Death wasn’t so lucky. His character’s avatar was blinking – an indication the character was officially dead.
“Did he just electrocute me?” Red Death asked in a chat window that opened above Canary’s head.
“I’m kind of busy right now.” Black Canary replied.
“You don’t understand,” Red Death argued. “I’ve worked so hard on that character and that maniac offed him like he was nothing.”
“Again, busy…” Black Canary replied. “I feel bad for you kid, but we have bigger fish to fry! We’re trying to stop that idiot!”
“The friend of my enemy is my friend,” said Red Death. “Before the life force drains out of my character and he fades completely, I leave behind my inventory for you guys. Take him down for…”
The chat window disappeared in conjunction with Red Death’s character. All that remained of him was his inventory.
Black Canary felt bad for Red Death. He was just a kid after all. She wondered what kind of life he had that he devoted so much time to fantasy. But such thoughts would have to wait. She shook Flamebird. “Come on girl, wake up! We need you!”
A chat window opened above Flamebird’s head. “Too bad we don’t have more of that yummy healing stuff, huh?”
She too started to blink.
“No, stay with us!” Black Canary begged. “I’m not sure we can pull this off without you!”
The rate of flashing increased rapidly and Flamebird was a goner.
Joker kneed Batgirl in the gut and cackled like a madman. He turned to Black Canary. “Don’t be shy, Black Canary! There’s more than enough Joker to go around!”
While Joker was temporarily distracted with Black Canary, Batgirl seized the opportunity and kicked the clown in the teeth. The blow staggered him but he regained his senses quickly and spit out a tooth. His grin was even more sinister with a missing tooth.
“Sneaky! Sneaky!” Joker mocked. He raised both his thumbs. “Survey says…. two thumbs up! My turn now!” He grabbed Batgirl by the cape and yanked until the fabric drew tight around her neck. Another jerk of her cape and she fell to the floor. Her eyeballs looked as if they’d pop out of her cowl any second. She pawed at her neck but Joker had the advantage as long as he held her cape. Her ashen face begged for help.
“Imagine that!” Joker bragged. “Another head for the wall of my secret hideout! My bad! Did I mention I collect the heads of all the Bats I defeat on here? Even if they aren’t the real thing they bring me such joy.”
Without Batgirl’s expertise the mission had no chance of succeeding. Black Canary entered the fray with a flying drop kick that caught Joker square in the chest and knocked him off his feet. He loosened his grip on Batgirl’s cape. Once free, she sucked precious air into her lungs.
Joker rose to his feet once more. “Now there’s Daddy Joker’s naughty girl!”
Black Canary punched but Joker was too fast. He caught her fist in midair and clamped down on it with his super strength.
“I’ve always wondered how it felt to be Superman,” Joker mused. “Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, yadda, yadda, yadda! I would eschew that preposterous long underwear though… but keep the cape. Think I could pull it off?”
Black Canary wasn’t sure which was worse, the pain of Joker’s vice-like grip or his insane prattle. Tears welled up in her eyes but she refused to give the crazy clown the satisfaction of knowing he was hurting her.
“You’re no Superman!” Black Canary hissed.
A wide, sadistic grin spread across Joker’s lips as he clamped down harder on Black Canary’s hand. “No Superman, eh? How many carats will your fist measure when I crush your raw organic carbon into a diamond?”
Black Canary screamed in horror as her bones crunched. Fragments of bone tore through her skin. In her mind she knew it was nothing but graphics and sensors but it sure as hell hurt like it was real!
A Bat-A-Rang caught the clown at the base of his skull, forcing him to release Canary. “No, clown! Not her or anyone else! Just you and me!”
Black Canary couldn’t fight if she wanted to. All she could do was nurse the mangled mess Joker made of her hand. It was little more than a bloody stump with pieces of bone poking through here and there. She tried not to pass out from sheer shock.
Joker rushed Batgirl. “I’m going to snap your spine!”
Of all the taunts Joker could have chosen, he found the only one that could have possibly deepened Batgirl’s resolve. With catlike reflexes she sidestepped his bull rush and grabbed his right arm. Using his momentum she flung him into a crate of trick boomerangs. He fell to the floor and they pelted his head like drips from a faucet.
Joker wiped blood from the corner of his mouth and rose to his feet. “I’m no longer laughing!”
“What’s the deal, Joker?” Batgirl asked. “What’s in this game for you?”
Joker laughed. “Even master criminals need to unwind every now and then, Batgirl! A caper lasts thirty minutes at the most if a stupid Bat doesn’t show up. What’s an evil genius to do with the rest of his week? It isn’t like I have a nine to five, although I would love to open a hamburger chain and show that other clown how it’s done but I digress! This game amuses me and nothing more!”
“A master criminal? You?” Black Canary hissed as she paused while tying a makeshift tourniquet around her wounded hand with her teeth. “I think Flamebird was right! You’re probably just a zit-faced kid with a laptop. Isn’t it getting close to your bedtime?”
Joker whipped around and focused his attention on Black Canary. “You bite your tongue!”
Over the Joker’s shoulder Batgirl inched toward Red Death’s inventory.
“You lack creativity,” Black Canary continued, hoping to keep Joker distracted. “Where is the cleverness in super strength and invulnerability?”
Joker’s lips snarled as he approached slowly. “Invulnerability! I should think not! And miss the sweet rush of pain?”
Black Canary shook her head in pity. “Amateur!”
The comment sent Joker over the edge. He grabbed Black Canary with one hand and backhanded her across the face. “I was going to let you live, Canary! But now you’ve made it personal!”
“Hey Joker!” Batgirl called. “Say cheese!”
Joker released his grip and turned to Batgirl.
She held a gun taken from Red Death’s inventory.
Joker laughed maniacally. “That’s rich! What are you going to do Batgirl, shoot me? Bats don’t use guns!”
The Joker’s chest exploded. With his eyes wild from disbelief he reached for the wound. His white gloves quickly soaked red with his blood.
“I don’t see an upgrade in your future, Joker,” said Batgirl.
Joker fell to his knees and clutched his chest. “What have you done?”
“Don’t worry,” said Batgirl. “You’ll live but how do you feel about never moving your legs again?”
Joker slumped face-first into a gathering pool of blood. His avatar blinked rapidly while a chat window appeared over his head. “You’ll regret this, Batgirl! I swear on Charlie Chaplin’s grave! You’ll pay dearly!”
“My only regret is that this isn’t real life, Joker,” Batgirl replied. “Now go! Take your sour puss and get out of here!”
A moment later Joker was gone.
“Is he dead?” Black Canary asked.
Batgirl dropped the still-smoking gun. “No, but his character is. You ok?”
Black Canary held up her hand. “About to pass out from shock. Is this over now?”
A chat window opened above both women’s heads. “Not by a long shot. Well played “Batgirl”.
“What now?” Black Canary groaned. “I thought we just won!”
The cursor blinked for an instant before text filled the next line. “I’m disappointed in you, Canary. Ask “Batgirl”. I bet she knows.”
Batgirl’s eyes narrowed. “Calculator.”