Oracle slid the bright-white standard office envelope across the desk to Lady Blackhawk. “Care to explain?”
Zinda Blake retrieved the envelope and stared at the address. “It’s addressed to me?” she asked, obviously perplexed.
Oracle nodded. “With no return address and a postmark from a town in Florida called Coast Grove. I looked it up. It’s a sleepy, little coastal community dotted with vacation homes and migrant seasonal transplants. Do you know anyone there?”
Zinda shook her head. “Not a clue, Skipper. Honest.”
Besides being a cop’s kid, Oracle fought crime at Batman’s side as Batgirl. She was superb at reading body language and Zinda was genuinely stumped by the mysterious envelope too. “I believe you Zinda but the Aerie has been compromised and it’s important I know how that happened.”
Zinda shrugged her shoulders. “Not sure what to say, Skipper. If I knew, I’d tell you.”
“Go ahead and open it,” said Oracle.
“Are you sure it’s safe?” Zinda asked.
Oracle nodded. “It’s been x-rayed twice. There’s nothing inside but paper.”
Zinda retrieved an envelope knife from a pencil holder on Oracle’s desk and ran the blade along the edge of the envelope. It zipped open cleanly.
“It doesn’t bother you that I x-rayed your personal mail?” Oracle asked.
“I was a Blackhawk,” Zinda explained as she pulled the contents from the envelope. “I understand prioritizing threats and such a package arriving under mysterious circumstances would arouse my suspicions too, especially if my previous headquarters had been … well, you know.”
She made a gesture with her free hand that indicated something blowing up.
Oracle appreciated Zinda’s professionalism. Her paramilitary background paid dividends far beyond her piloting skills. Any other member of the team would probably have complained about the perceived invasion of privacy.
A sheet of black construction paper was folded around a letter to prevent anyone from holding the envelope up to the light to read the contents inside. Zinda tossed the construction paper into a garbage can by Oracle’s desk and unfolded the letter. She moved her lips while she read but not consistently enough for Oracle to make heads or tails of it.
“Any idea what it’s about now?” Oracle asked.
“Hold on, Skipper,” Zinda replied. “It’s hard to make out. Whoever sent it writes tiny.”
Zinda wasn’t kidding. The Aerie’s mailing address was scribbled across the lower right-hand corner of the envelope in impossibly small handwritten cursive. Oracle found no matches in the FBI’s databases, in Checkmate’s computers, or with the DEO. It was nearly impossible to evade even one of those organizations, but all of them? Someone was well-connected.
“Take all the time you need,” Oracle replied.
Lady Blackhawk’s eyes widened as she scanned the letter. Upon finishing, she folded the message carefully and clasped it in her left hand. “I need to take a personal leave. I’m not sure how long I’ll need.”
The letter rattled Zinda and that was no easy feat.
Oracle was more curious than ever. “I’d be happy to help if…”
Zinda shook her head. “It’s personal business, Skipper. I’m sorry I can’t say more.”
Oracle hated secrets, which she realized was hypocritical since she kept so many herself, but being in the dark frustrated her when it involved her inner-circle. Since Zinda refused her help, the best she could do was to play it cool. “The team will be here if you need us.”
Zinda nodded and removed the bird-shaped earpiece that allowed team members to stay in constant contact with one another. “I appreciate it Skipper but I have to take care of this one alone.”
“I understand,” Oracle answered, staring at the plastic earpiece on her desk. So much for tracking Zinda with it. Her cool was warming by the minute. “Should I have Blackhawk One prepared for takeoff tomorrow morning?”
Zinda nodded. “Yes, thank you. I’ll leave at 0600 hours. Excuse me, please. I have to pack a few things and file a flight plan.”
“Certainly,” Oracle replied. She wasn’t sure what else to say.
Zinda left Oracle alone with her thoughts. She wanted to help but knew all too well from Batman’s sometimes well-intentioned interference in her own affairs how it felt when given unwanted assistance with a personal matter. She would have to simply trust Zinda.
Misfit entered Oraclce’s office, better known as the Nest. “What’s up with Zinda? I said hello but she brushed me off and kept on walking. That’s not like her.”
Oracle shook her head. “You tell me and we’ll both know.”
“Weird,” Misfit replied. “Did you know we’re out of cereal?”
It amazed Oracle how quickly the flighty young woman could switch gears. For once the jarring about-face was welcome. “I’ll put it on the list. I have to go grocery shopping tomorrow.”
“And milk,” Misfit added. “What we have now is more like cottage cheese.”
Oracle nodded. “And milk. Anything else?”
Misfit’s face lit up. “Now that you mention it…”
Coast Grove, Florida, the Next Day
Zinda Blake parked her subcompact rental in the parking lot of the Florida Dignity Center. According to her research it was a state-sponsored long-term hospice for elderly patients serving life sentences. But it wasn’t a patient she came to see.
She fussed with her hair in the mirror before getting out of the car and closing the door behind her. A quick once-over assured she was dressed appropriately. When one ran with the cape and spandex set it was easy to forget how to dress for the real world. Her gray flannel skirt rested about an inch above the knee and wasn’t too tight but still flattered her athletic figure. In place of her usual thigh-high leather flying boots she opted for black pumps. A pink sleeveless V-neck top and a heart-shaped silver pendant necklace completed the ensemble. She’d have to remove the pendant for the metal detectors but it was nice to show her feminine side for a change.
As she approached the facility she spotted a hulking, elderly priest reading the newspaper on a bench. A houndstooth jacket lay beside him – a testament to the already warm morning sun. A Styrofoam cup from the fast-food joint on the corner rested on the bench’s flat, wooden arm. He looked up from the newspaper and smiled as she approached. Zinda returned the smile and despite his age couldn’t help but blush when he folded up his newspaper to admire her as she walked past him.
“Yumpin’ Yiminy! Pass an old man by will ya girlie?” the old man chuckled.
The booming voice stopped Zinda in her tracks. It had been a long time! She spun around and ran for the old friend who was now standing with his arms open wide. She leaped into his barrel-chested embrace. “Olaf Bjornson! Still the same crazy lug after all these years!”
“Not quite the same lug,” Olaf replied as they broke their hug. “I have a few more wrinkles and this bushy white moustache, to say nothing of the unfortunate toll gravity has taken on my midsection!” He grabbed Zinda’s shoulders in his still formidable grip and looked her over. “Well then let’s have a good look at ya, lass! Still beautiful as ever I see!”
Zinda blushed. The men of her generation sure knew how to compliment a lady. “Oh stop it!”
“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to offend,” a flustered Olaf replied as he released Zinda’s shoulders. “Please accept my…”
Zinda smiled and pecked Olaf’s cheek with a kiss. “I meant stop as in “keep going” you dear sweet man.”
“Oh, the yoke’s on me,” Olaf chuckled.
With the wind blowing off the nearby ocean and Olaf’s thick Swedish accent tickling her ear, Zinda closed her eyes and was transported across time to the shores of Blackhawk Island in the early 1950’s. The waves lapped at her toes as the sunset dipped below the horizon. She wanted to hold the fleeting memory forever.
“Zinda? You still with me, lass?” Olaf asked.
Her teammate’s booming voice washed the image in her mind into the warm waters of the South Pacific. “Sorry, old friend. Yesteryear beckoned.”
Olaf nodded. “Happens to me too, lass. Her song grows sweeter each passing day. You’ll understand when age finally creeps upon your weary bones.”
Zinda rolled her eyes. “Please! You’re not that much older than me.”
An awkward silence hung in the air between them. They were the same generation and served together as Blackhawks yet one faced mortality while the other still fought bad guys and knocked back a few in the local pub afterwards.
“I’m sorry Olaf. I didn’t mean…”
Olaf placed a reassuring hand on Zinda’s shoulder. “Don’t apologize for your gift of youth, my dear. You have no idea how much good it does my heart to see one of us still fighting the good fight.”
Zinda placed her hand on top of Olaf’s. “Thank you, my friend. As long as I can breathe and am able to fight, you can bet I’ll do my best to do the Blackhawks proud! And look at you! A priest!”
Olaf nodded. “I suppose spending so much of my life in the clouds gave me a yearning to spend eternity among them too. Besides my religion was always important to me.”
“If putting away pints was your religion then I’d believe that!” Zinda laughed.
Olaf belly laughed. “I could put them away, couldn’t I? A little liver damage about twenty years ago changed all that.”
“Oh no,” Zinda replied. “Are you okay?”
Olaf placed his hand on the small of Zinda’s back and led her along the sidewalk toward the facility. “Good days and bad, my dear but I’m thankful my health isn’t worse at my age.”
The two former Blackhawks soon reached the main entrance. Olaf scanned a plastic identification badge that hung from his neck and the locks whirred open and granted them entry. They stepped into a long, sterile hallway with hospital rooms on either side. Guards and medical personnel dotted the busy corridor.
“Do you still hear from the others?” Zinda asked.
A middle-aged guard tipped his hat to them and nodded. “Afternoon, Father Bjornson, Ms.”
“Afternoon to you too, Davidson,” Olaf replied. “How are the wife and kids?”
“Doing good,” Davidson replied. “My youngest smacked two home runs last week in Little League.”
“Got a real slugger on your hands there,” Olaf replied.
Davidson nodded proudly. “Yep, I sure do. See you later, Father.”
“Later,” Olaf answered.
Zinda smiled at the guard and soon the former colleagues continued down the hall.
“Now where were we?” Olaf asked.
“The others,” Zinda replied.
“Chuck, Andre, and Wu Cheng call me from time to time,” Olaf replied. “Sadly the rest aren’t with us anymore.”
Zinda averted her gaze to the ground in respect for the memories of her deceased friends. She was thankful there were no new additions to the list since the last time she checked on them. “Still it’s good to know Chuck isn’t on that list too after the team’s last mission.”
“He gave us quite a scare,” Olaf answered. “We thought we lost him on that suicide dive but luckily he ejected. Took us a couple of weeks of search and rescue to locate him. He lives here in Florida too, a great-grandfather. Can you imagine?”
Zinda smiled. “Maybe I’ll look him up while I’m down here.”
“I doubt there will be time for such pleasantries, my dear,” said an increasingly somber Olaf. “Here is his room.”
“Whose room?” Zinda asked. “What’s this about, Olaf?”
“You’ll see,” Olaf replied ominously.
They entered the room. An elderly man lay asleep on his back in a bed. He was hooked to any number of gadgets but resting peacefully and snoring lightly. A couple of talking heads from both sides of the political aisle were locked in heated debate on the television set mounted near the ceiling in the corner of the room across from his bed. The sound was muted.
“This is the reason I asked you to come,” said Olaf. He escorted Zinda to the edge of the man’s bed. “He isn’t doing well.”
The sleeping man was very frail. The tuft of white hair that remained on his head was mostly thinned and the age spots and wrinkles that marked his skin suggested he was easily in his late eighties or perhaps even early nineties. A set of pearly-white false teeth soaked in a clear plastic disposable cup on the nightstand beside the bed.
Zinda still wasn’t sure who the man was or why he was so important to Olaf. Perhaps he was an aging vet who wanted to meet Zinda before he passed? She was a favorite pin-up girl of the era. Yes, it was a little cheesecake but she was proud to do her part to raise the morale of the boys defending freedom anywhere in the world.
Olaf shook the sleeping man and bent low to speak directly into his right ear. “Boryslaw, wake up. She’s here.”
The old man was slow to rouse but finally opened his eyes. He reached for his glasses on the nightstand beside him. He found them first and then his teeth. Feeling he was finally presentable he smiled. “Hello, Zinda.”
“Killer Shark?” Zinda shrieked. “Olaf, what the hell?”
Olaf moved between her and the door. “Please forgive me, Zinda. I knew you wouldn’t come if I told you the whole truth.”
“You’re damned right, I wouldn’t have!” Zinda shot back. “Killer Shark? How could you do this to me, Olaf?”
“Please dear girl, don’t blame Father Bjornson,” said the frail man who once terrorized the Seven Seas. “It is I who asked you here.”
Zinda spun on her heels and glared at the fiend who once kidnapped her and made her his love slave via a mind-control formula he developed. “I have nothing to say to you! Nothing!”
Killer Shark dropped his head and sighed. “I understand why you hate me. What I did to you is inexcusable.”
“Boryslaw is a changed man,” Olaf explained, still standing between Zinda and the door. “He’s been in my care for the last decade.”
“You’re his guardian?” Zinda asked.
Olaf shook his head. “He’s a member of my parish.”
“It’s true,” Killer Shark added. “Fate brought us together, two former enemies, now friends.”
“Friends?” Zinda cried. Had Olaf forgotten how Killer Shark violated her will and who knew what else? “How can you be friends with this monster?”
“It wasn’t easy at first, lass” Olaf admitted. “But God softened my heart toward him. The Good Lord can change even the hardest of hearts, including my own.”
“But what about my heart?” Zinda asked, choking back tears in the face of Olaf’s betrayal. She was hurt but she refused Killer Shark the pleasure of seeing her cry. Angry and confused, she drew her fist back to strike her old foe. He cowered into his pillows and waited for the inevitable blow. Her hand froze in midair before she finally dropped it.
“Is there a problem in here?” asked a nurse who heard the commotion as she passed by.
Olaf held up a hand and shook his head, signaling to the nurse that he had things under control. She eyed the room carefully before leaving the situation in Olaf’s hands.
“You would be fully justified in taking my life,” Killer Shark replied. “But I beg of you to accept my apology first.”
“Accept your apology?” Zinda shouted. “To this day I’m not even sure what all you did do to me while I was under your control! And you hope an apology will cover it?”
Killer Shark shook his head. “No my dear, it wouldn’t begin to cover it but it’s all I have to give. I’m not long for this world and wanted to…”
“To what?” Zinda interrupted. “Ease your miserable conscience before you die?”
A tear rolled down the old man’s cheek. “My sins are long-forgiven before my God, Zinda, but I will never forgive myself.”
Zinda hovered over the broken shell of a man before her. “Good because I won’t either!”
Olaf put a hand on Zinda’s shoulder. “Come now, Zinda! That was so long ago! Surely you can’t…”
Zinda spun around and slapped her former teammate’s hand away. “So long ago? Maybe to the two of you but it’s only been a few years for me! I’m the one who was misplaced in time! Or have you forgotten?”
Olaf dropped his head. “I’m sorry. I didn’t consider how fresh the wounds still are for you.”
“You damned right they’re still fresh, Father!” Zinda shouted, eschewing Olaf’s real name. She turned back to Killer Shark. “Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you where you lay!”
“My work,” Killer Shark answered.
“What about it?” Zinda asked.
Killer Shark fingered the controls at his fingertips and raised his bed to a seated position. “Many of my inventions and discoveries could prove useful to mankind.”
“The military industrial complex does well enough on its own,” Zinda shot back.
Killer Shark shook his head. “Not the weapons dear girl but advances in medicine and technologies that could ease the suffering of untold legions.”
Zinda ran her fingers through her blonde hair in frustration. It would be easy to make Killer Shark suffer as she did. Killing him would be a favor to the world! On the other hand he was once the planet’s most brilliant scientist and perhaps still held that distinction. Both the Allies and Axis wooed him but in the end he used his genius to serve his own selfish desires. As much damage as it did to Zinda’s psyche, the mind-control drug he used on her was proof of his genius. He claimed to have mapped the human genome in the early 1940’s but due to his reluctance to join ranks with either side in the war, the claim was unsubstantiated. “Advances in medicine?”
Killer Shark nodded. “Outlined in a collection of journals I kept. I won’t lie – there are also deadly weapons of destruction that would make Hiroshima look like a firecracker but the rest could save countless lives.”
Zinda crossed her arms defiantly. “What do these dusty old journals have to do with me?”
Olaf stepped forward and laid a hand on Zinda’s right shoulder. “We want you to retrieve them.”
“Me?” Zinda asked. “What makes you think I could retrieve them? Or that I would even want to?”
“For one, I know you couldn’t live with yourself if there is a chance the work in the journals could ease the suffering of just one,” Olaf replied as he released Zinda’s shoulder. “Do you remember our security system on Blackhawk Island?”
Zinda nodded. “Of course! I helped Blackhawk design it and engineered many of the safety protocols myself.”
“Shark Island has similar precautions in place to discourage unwanted visitors,” Killer Shark replied. He began coughing and reached for a tissue from the box beside his bed.
“Shark Island?” Zinda asked. “Copycat much?”
Killer Shark laughed. “Actually I named my island long before you Blackhawks even formed. And you were there many times, my dear. You just don’t remember it.”
“Of course I don’t remember it!” Zinda huffed. “Some evil pervert kept me drugged so I would grovel at his feet like a foolish schoolgirl!”
Killer Shark averted his gaze to his blankets. “Again, you have my most sincere apology.”
Zinda grabbed Killer Shark by his hospital gown and pulled him toward her. He gasped for air as the linens tightened around his wrinkled neck.
“No young lady zis is not right!” said Olaf as he rushed to stop Zinda.
“Listen to me and you had better listen good, Shark!” Zinda hissed as Olaf tried to separate them. “Your apology means nothing to me! What is it you really want me to do, you pathetic worm?”
“I want you to retrieve my journals from Shark Island,” Killer Shark replied. “That is all I ask.”
“And there’s no magic formula in there to make you young again?” Zinda asked. The last thing she wanted was to be used as an unwitting pawn in one of Killer Shark’s elaborate schemes and unleash a freshly-minted evil genius on the world again. She shoved Killer Shark back into his pillow.
Killer Shark shook his head. “My days on this earth are coming to an end, my dear. Even if I possessed such a formula it would be too late to regenerate a functional set of new lungs for me. Believe me, I know. I grew my first new pair from stem cells back in the ‘50’s. The ones I have now are my fourth set. This isn’t my first battle with cancer.”
Amid the failed attempts at world conquest it was sometimes easy to forget the magnitude of Killer Shark’s genius. The world at-large had barely caught up with what was routine for him fifty years prior.
“Please, Zinda,” Olaf implored. “There are many who would benefit from Boryslaw’s discoveries.”
“Or some super-villain could retrieve them and put the weapon designs to use against the world,” Killer Shark added.
Zinda was getting that nagging feeling that she had little choice but to play along with Killer Shark’s ploy. She wouldn’t allow Olaf a free pass either. There was no doubt in her mind he wasn’t complicit in Killer Shark’s machinations but his habit of seeing the best in people – anyone apparently – had drug him into it. She closed her eyes and sighed. “What the hell do I have to do?”
Killer Shark seemed pleased to secure her cooperation. “My island is currently submerged in the depths of the South Pacific but I’ll give you the coordinates and the remote to raise it from the water and lower its force field. But be warned, the island is heavily booby-trapped to discourage curious visitors. The details of how to defeat them are in this notebook. Ignore them at your own peril.”
“Really?” Zinda asked. “Who the hell still says, “booby trap”?
Lady Blackhawk’s arch-nemesis reached into his nightstand and retrieved a well-worn notebook and handed it to her. She thumbed through the yellowed pages. Most were crude drawings of fantastic weapons scribbled from an old man’s memory. Notes and instructions lined the margins of each page.
“I’ve a plane prepared for your journey,” said Olaf. “You will refuel at a small municipal airport outside San Diego and then proceed to Boryslaw’s coordinates in the South Pacific.”
“A plane?” Zinda asked. Finally some good news! “What kind of plane?”
A hearty grin melted the years from Olaf’s face. “Oh… just a mint condition, vintage F-94 Starfire. I even contacted a local printer to make a magnetic Blackhawk emblem to attach to its side. If such details are important to you, I mean.”
Despite herself, Zinda chomped at the bit to slide into the cockpit of that beautiful, old plane – an exact replica of the one she flew as a Blackhawk. She couldn’t suppress the growing smile on her lips as she looked across the room at Olaf. “ Okay, I’m in but I’m still mad at you.”
“But I do know how to sweeten the pot, eh?” Olaf asked, returning the smile.
Zinda sighed. “What can I say? I’m still a sucker for a fast plane!”
Olaf walked across the room and nearly crushed Zinda with yet another hug. “And they say diamonds are a girl’s best friend!”