Gotham's shadows were pitiless and cruel, a non-discriminate ravager of souls. Far more sinister than the frigid recesses hidden beneath other towering metropolitan skylines, angels feared to tread the Grim Lady's littered streets and filthy alleyways. Demon-spawn whispered of her twisted depravity with trembling and reverent fear. Its darkest corners were foreboding as walking over one's own grave, a separation rife with loneliness and despair and renounced by God himself.
Huntress entered the small third floor apartment and searched the ransacked quarters for any clues Gotham CSI may have left behind. She checked the front door and discovered a small piece of tape preventing the latch from locking which meant Batman made the scene already too. "So what can an ESL-teacher-by-day find at a crime scene that Gotham's finest and the World's Greatest Detective may have overlooked?"
The lonely shadows answered her rhetorical question with uneasy silence.
It was her new job as an ESL instructor at a school for immigrants that led her to investigate this crime scene in the first place. Drina Doward was the fourth girl that disappeared from the Lower East End in a two week span. All were found brutally murdered along with their families under mysterious circumstances. Drina was a standout student at the school.
Aside from the blood-splattered walls, Drina's bedroom was typical for most girls her age. Huntress didn't recognize the heartthrob smiling from the poster above Drina's bed. He was a handsome young man in his mid to late teens with perfect teeth and soft, delicate features. He was the usual safe, pretty-boy type girls her age swore their undying love to until they met their first bad boy.
The bloody sheets were missing from the bed. GCPD probably took them if Batman didn't beat them to the punch. Huntress cursed them both. It would have been helpful to examine the sheets for any particular type of tearing or cut patterns. She turned to leave but something unusual in the mattress itself caught her eye instead. A series of small, crescent-shaped holes dotted its pillow-top surface. Huntress ran her gloved fingertip over the pattern and guessed they were likely made by human fingernails. What frightened Drina so that she shredded her own bed?
Huntress slinked through the house, favoring the shadows. Drina's parents' bedroom was a bloody mess as well. Checking the dresser drawers on each side of the bed it was easy to determine which spouse slept on which side of the bed. Mr. Doward slept closest to the door. Huntress searched the mattress for the same fingernail marks she found in Drina's room but found them only on the side of the bed where Mrs. Doward slept.
"Looks cut and dry doesn't it?" asked a deep, male voice from the other room.
Huntress drew her crossbow and loaded a bolt in one motion. She whirled around to see Batman standing in the doorway. "It's not wise to startle someone with a crossbow."
Batman held up a Batarang. "Noted but I was ready in case you had an itchy trigger-finger."
"Not likely," Huntress replied, dropping her crossbow and loosening the tension in the drawstring. "My trigger finger's steady. What happened here?"
Batman shook his head. "GCPD did a number on the crime scene before I arrived."
"The boys in blue beat you here?" Huntress asked.
Batman put away the Batarang and nodded. "I ran into a Penguin problem on the way."
"Hate when that happens," Huntress replied. "Any ideas?"
"No idea until I can analyze the data back at the cave," Batman replied. "What's your interest on this one Helena?"
"Personal," Huntress replied. "And yours?"
Batman's face tightened. "It's my city. Everything is personal."
Huntress moved past Batman toward Drina's room. "Did you notice the fingernail punctures in the mattress in Drina's room and in her parents' room?"
"You knew the victims?" Batman asked.
"The daughter," Huntress replied.
Batman nodded. "You've been teaching at the Assimilation Project?"
It was Huntress's turn to nod. "Keeping tabs on me?"
"Again, it's my city," Batman replied. "I make it my business to know the status of every costumed entity in Gotham, good or bad."
"And which do you classify me?" Huntress replied.
"I put away my Batarang," Batman replied.
Huntress moved into Drina's bedroom. "The nail marks "
Batman studied the mattress. "I overlooked them before. I was in a bit of a hurry. I doubt they are nail marks. It would take someone with nearly superhuman strength to shred a mattress like that with their fingernails. "
Huntress felt proud of herself. She noticed something the Dark Knight missed even if he dismissed her theory so casually. "Or extreme adrenaline."
Batman removed a small canister from his utility belt. "Kill your light."
Huntress turned off the flashlights built into her belt and gauntlets.
The Dark Knight sprayed the bed with a burst of Luminol. He followed with a coating of hydrogen peroxide from another container and placed both back into his utility belt. He removed a small ultraviolet penlight from his utility belt. "It's definitely blood and "
Batman removed a broken fingernail from the puncture wound in the mattress and held it up in the light. "It appears your theory has more merit than I believed. See if you can find "
Huntress held up a hairbrush. "DNA sample to compare it to?" She tossed the brush to Batman. "Let me know what you find." She turned to leave the room. "Oh my God! Bats shine your light over here!"
Smeared across the back wall in a glowing neon splatter of blood was one word Borsaka!
The Aerie, The Next Morning
Lady Blackhawk rapped on the doorframe leading into the Nest, the pet name assigned to the meeting room where Oracle's team met for briefings. Zinda looked stunning in a red dress and matching pumps that were a throwback to the early 1950's. How could a woman look like such a grease monkey one day and pin-up girl the next? "Got a minute, Chief?"
Oracle looked up from the scattering of computer hardware surrounding her. She was getting closer to assimilating the Mother Box Scandal Savage's team of "Dirty Birds" secured for her into her personal mainframe. Of course she still hadn't figured out how to hide it all from Bruce Wayne. He made it clear that he was suspicious of her possessing the Mother Box and wanted her to hand it over to the League. He would have caught her red-handed with it if it had not been for Misfit stealing it from her office before he barged in to search the room. He even threatened to pull his funding of her team. Oracle had money of her own but couldn't run in Bruce's financial circles. "Sure Zinda. Come in."
"Got a little mess, huh?" Lady Blackhawk asked.
Oracle smiled. "Is it that obvious?"
"I heard you had a run-in with the big guy," Lady Blackhawk said.
Oracle's heart sunk. She asked Misfit to keep that information to herself. "I'm going to kill Charlotte."
Lady Blackhawk smiled. "Don't be too hard on her. She was worried about you. She hates to see you dictated to in such a way. That kid really looks up to you."
"Are you trying to make me feel bad for wanting to choke her?" Oracle asked.
A hoarse, throaty bellow erupted from Lady Blackhawk's belly. "Is it working?"
Oracle tossed aside a mounting bracket and pulled herself into her wheelchair. "Not yet but I'm immune to Irish-Catholic guilt, lots of practice. What's on your mind?"
"It seems the Bat and Bruce Wayne have you in a tight spot," Lady Blackhawk replied.
Oracle nodded. "You let me worry about that. I'm going to do what I feel is right even if the two of them kick us to the curb. If Penguin can run Gotham out of some old nightclub then surely I can find a storefront or something we can use."
"That won't be necessary," Lady Blackhawk replied. She opened her tan leather purse and retrieved a check. She reached it to Oracle. "I hope it's enough to fund our operations for a few years. If not, please let me know. I have plenty more where that came from."
Oracle took the cashier's check and unfolded it. She wasn't sure how they fit so many zeroes on the blank. "Zinda.. this is incredibly generous but "
"But nothing," Lady Blackhawk replied. "What we do matters. Most of my life I've been on the poorer side of the middle class scale but being with an organization like the Blackhawks it really didn't matter. The necessities and more were provided to me but now that I'm wealthy thanks to dear old Dad leaving me his fortune in patents and pending tech projects, I want to step up. It will still be your team and we, your minions, but you won't have to answer to anyone ever again. Not even me. You've earned my trust and friendship and I don't give either lightly. It's what I want to do. Will you accept?"
Taking money from Bruce Wayne was one thing. He funded crime fighting efforts in Gotham for so long that most of the capes in town probably took his generosity for granted. But to accept such a gift from Zinda? Then again with such a stirring speech how could Oracle say no? She smiled. "If I could jump out of this chair and hug you right now, I would!"
"Then it's a go?" Lady Blackhawk asked.
Oracle fought back tears. "Of course it is! Yes!"
"Two things I ask " Lady Blackhawk added.
And there was the blow to the stomach. No one ever gave money without wanting something in return. "Yes?"
"One, we keep this between us," Lady Blackhawk replied. "I don't want the others looking to me for leadership. If they know I hold the purse strings it may cause problems."
Oracle nodded. That wasn't a bad condition. "Agreed. What else?"
"I'm in charge of aircraft shopping from now on," Lady Blackhawk answered.
"I think I can live with those conditions," Oracle smiled. "Miss Blake, you have yourself a deal!"
"Did you guys see the paper this morning?" Misfit asked from the doorway. "They found another girl dead on the Lower East End along with her parents. Nice dress, Zinda."
Lady Blackhawk smiled. "Thanks, kiddo."
Oracle hoped Misfit hadn't heard too much.
Moments later Flamebird filed into the Nest. "What's up crew?"
"Another murder on the Lower East End," Misfit replied.
Flamebird took a seat and yawned. "Really? Another one? What the hell's going on down there? Isn't that Catwoman's territory?"
Gypsy entered the room. "I'll tell you what's going on. Someone is targeting Romani families. I'll understand if you guys want to sit this one out but I have to "
Flamebird placed a hand on Gypsy's shoulder. "If you're in then so are we, Cindy."
"What makes you believe they're targeting Romani?" Oracle asked. She wheeled over to her computer and stories from local news feeds appeared in the air over each woman's station at the table.
"All four have Romani surnames," Gypsy replied.
Misfit dismissed the computer feed in front of her with a wave of her hand. "Doward doesn't sound Romanian."
Gypsy shook her head. "Not Romanian, Charlie. Romani, better known to most people as Gypsies. They are my people."
"And great people they are too!" Lady Blackhawk asked. "I used to throw back a few with them whenever the Blackhawks were in Gotham. Hard to believe that was nearly sixty years ago. Those blokes could sure throw back the pints!"
Oracle nodded. "Granted, a pattern may be developing but it may be a bit early to say "
Gypsy held up the morning paper. "Police found the word Borsaka smeared across the wall of one of the murdered girls' rooms last night."
"And that means what?" Misfit asked. "I don't get it."
"The Borsaka is the Romani equivalent to a wicked witch in Western European literature," Gypsy replied. "Legend says they are capable of seducing any man and purposefully mate with married men to tear apart their families. They rip open young virgins to drink their blood and are known to sometimes literally scare their victims to death."
"Kind of like a vampire?" Misfit asked.
"But much more malicious," Gypsy replied. "A vampire kills to feed. It needs the blood of its victims to sustain its own life. The Borsaka kills to destroy innocence. They've been known to rip unborn children from their mother's wombs and eat them in front of the mother as they lying dying. Some say they cause infertility in both crops and people. They thrive on destruction of relationships, particularly familial relationships as our families tend to be very tight-knit. They can sense our fears and uncertainties and exploit them through our dreams. Their playing card is discord."
Misfit blew a bubble with her bubble gum. "So we're looking for the average high school mean girl?"
Oracle looked across the table. "Don't be glib, Charlotte. And what have I told you about chewing gum in here?"
Misfit rolled her eyes and removed the gum from her mouth. She tossed it into a nearby wastebasket. "And she scores!"
Lady Blackhawk dismissed her computer image as well. "So what's our first move Chief?"
"We let Cindy take point on this one," Oracle replied. "Cindy?"
The Lower East End, Later That Night
Three of the four girls disappeared from the same neighborhood so Huntress was perched on the highest roof in the area. She wasn't sure what she was waiting for but it felt right. Sure there were other places she could be; Batman would protest if she offered to help him for the night but he likely needed it with him being up to his neck in gangster crime. There was much she could do alone as well. Before the girls went missing, she uncovered a Russian mafia connection in Midtown. And of course there was always the one thing she put off most often - getting a good night's sleep and feeling like a human being the next day. But those things would have to wait. Drina and the other victims deserved justice.
The sound of gunfire was almost a welcome sound. The calm night was far more eerie than the usual hell-in-a-handbasket Gotham mayhem. Huntress turned in the direction of the gunshots and saw the telltale sparks of gunfire in a nearby apartment building. She removed her crossbow and shot a zipline onto the corresponding terrace. With a swift, fluid motion she leaped from the Currency Exchange building and zipped over to the apartment. She wasted little time, crashing through the window.
A man stood over a bloody, dying woman. The woman seemed to have little regard for her own safety at that point. She was crying and demanding answers from her assailant.
"Why Geppe?" the middle-aged woman asked in a thick accent. "Why do this to our family? What has gotten into you?"
The man didn't answer. Huntress looked past them and saw the same man and woman posing in a family portrait with a young girl who looked to be about eleven. A slightly older version of the same girl appeared from the hallway.
"Daddy! Please stop!" the girl pleaded.
The girl's father raised the gun in her direction and pulled the trigger. He missed and shattered the family portrait amid the girl's screams.
"Esmerelda!" the girl's mother cried. "Geppe! Please!" she begged.
Geppe seemed to be in a trance of some sort. He lowered the gun toward his wife to take a final shot.
Huntress had seen enough. She raised her crossbow and loaded a bolt onto the string. She pulled the trigger and the bolt whisked through the air and sunk into the man's hand. He dropped the gun and turned toward her.
"Easy sir," Huntress pleaded. "Just calm down and no one has to get hurt."
"Please don't hurt my Daddy," pleaded the girl named Esmerelda. "This isn't him. It's the Night Hag's doing!"
Huntress pointed to the hallway. "Get to safety! I've got this!"
She wasn't sure what "got this" meant in context. The man was clearly not in control of his own body. The bolt was still buried in his hand but he demonstrated no signs of pain and lumbered toward her. Huntress charged him and met his advance with her right fist. The unfettered blow struck his jaw and whipped his neck around like a gate door swinging open but did little to slow him.
Whether he was a zombie or enthralled by another entity he was still susceptible to the laws of physics. Huntress dropped to the ground and swept his leg with her right foot. The man fell onto his back. He rose slowly and for once the old boxing glove arrows Green Arrow once used didn't seem so corny. The man rose to a knee and Huntress made a decision. As badly as she hated doing it, she kicked him in the face with all her might. It wouldn't matter who was controlling him if his brain rattled off his skull a few times. The man dropped.
A pungent explosion filled the room with dark smoke. When the smoke cleared, a haggard woman appeared amidst the smoky cloud. Her face was wrinkled with age. Her hair was white as a fresh snow but disheveled and wild. A large wart dotted the tip end of her nose. She snarled and pointed to Huntress with a long, bony finger. "Your interference causes me great pain!"
Huntress shrugged her shoulders. "Um good?"
The old woman moved impossibly fast, as if gliding across the floor, and grabbed Huntress by her dark locks of hair. She hurled the heroine across the apartment and into the wall by the front door. "This girl is mine! I will not be denied!"
Huntress slumped hard to the floor but lacked the luxury to gather her wits. She retrieved a handful of explosive stars from her utility belt and hurled them at the woman. "Not while there is breath left in my body!"
The explosives forced the woman to stumble back and she crashed through the window.
"Damn it!" Huntress cursed. No one could survive such a fall! She didn't mean to kill anyone. She rushed to the window and kicked out the remaining shards so she could get a good look at the shadowy streets below. There was no sign of the woman anywhere. "What the hell?"
"Your understanding is so small woman," her foe cackled from behind her.
Huntress turned to meet the woman but she was nearly on top of her before she could spin all the way around. The mysterious woman grabbed her by the throat and lifted her into the air. The pair crashed through the same window Huntress saw the woman fall from moments before. They grappled as they fell from the apartment building. Huntress landed a solid kick to the woman's ribs but it proved ineffective. The woman's hand tightened around Huntress's throat. Huntress tried to pry her powerful fingers apart but it was hopeless. The longer the woman's hand grasped her throat, the more light-headed Huntress felt. She couldn't afford to black out. She couldn't
Gotham City Medical Center, The Next Morning
It had been six hours since the attack on Esmerelda's family. Both her parents were alive but in critical condition.
"Do you think we'll find her room?" Bette asked.
Gypsy nodded. "It will be somewhere here on the children's floor and well-guarded. You know what to do?"
"I do," Bette replied. "Though it would be easier in my Flamebird costume than this floral-print sundress Zinda picked out for me."
"You look great," Gypsy replied. "And isn't that the point?"
Bette smiled and nodded. "I suppose it is."
The young woman known in super-hero circles as Flamebird was quickly growing on Gypsy. She was far more adept than her reputation and Gypsy hoped her time with Oracle's band of adventurers would go a long way in helping her elevate her status. "The children's wing should be just around this corner. Time for me to vanish."
Gypsy's fade-out startled her companion. "I still can't get used to that," said Bette.
"I'm still here," Gypsy replied. "Walking right beside you."
The women turned the corner and as expected found two guards standing watch over the room directly across from the nurse's station. Both were female officers.
"Crap," Bette cursed. "Looks like I wore this flirting dress for nothing!"
"You just get one of them away from the door," Gypsy directed. "I'll do the rest."
A nurse approached Bette. "May I help you?"
"I'm here to see, Esmerelda," Bette replied. "She's a student of mine down at the Assimilation Center."
The nurse shook her head. "I'm sorry miss but she's been through a lot and no one but immediate family or the GCPD may see her."
"But aren't her parents here too?" Bette asked.
"That information is protected," the nurse replied. "HIPPA regulations. Please come back another time Miss "
The nurse was suspicious. She was trying to milk some information out of Bette.
""Bertinelli," Bette lied. Oracle gleaned the name from the Assimilation Center's database.
The nurse looked Bette over. "We don't see many blonde-haired, blue-eyed Italians around here. Very rare indeed."
One of the officers stepped forward and turned to the nurse. "Is there a problem here Ma'am?"
The nurse rolled her eyes and pointed over her shoulder toward Bette. "Miss "Bertinelli" here doesn't want to leave," she replied, forming quotations above her head with her fingers.
The officer blocked Bette. "Sorry miss, you'll have to return some other time."
"I can't see my student?" Bette asked.
Gypsy was thankful Oracle's intel allowed her teammate to improvise. Even if Bette was turned away, her distraction worked perfectly. Silently Gypsy creeped down the hall and stopped before the door to the girl's room. There was still the matter of the other officer. Gypsy hoped her lesser-known skills would do the trick.
"Someone help me," Gypsy cried, throwing her voice to sound as if it were coming from inside Esmerelda's room.
The lone officer guarding the room drew her gun and turned quickly. She flung the door open and charged inside. Gypsy followed. Esmerelda was sound asleep, leaving the officer baffled.
Her partner must have dispatched with Bette because she poked her head inside. "Everything okay?"
"I think so," the first officer replied, holstering her gun. "I swore I heard the girl scream for help though."
"I hate these cases involving the spandex set," said the partner from outside in the hall. "I worked this Joker case once "
The officer in the room gave it another once over and put her gun away. "No proof this one involves a crazy."
Her partner laughed. "Honey, this is Gotham. It always involves a crazy."
Finally the officers left and the door closed behind them, leaving Gypsy alone with Esmerelda. The girl looked peaceful, her chest rising and falling with each breath. Suddenly her eyes opened.
"I can hear you," said Esmerelda. "It's okay. You can come out."
The girl heard her? Even Superman was unable to detect Gypsy when she wished to stalk in stealth mode. How could a teenaged girl hear her? Gypsy materialized slowly to lessen the impact of appearing unexpectedly. She began speaking before she materialized. "My name is Gypsy. I'm with the Justice League."
Esmerelda sat up in her bed and beamed. "Oh my gosh! I hoped it was you! You're my favorite! Justice Leaguer that is. I mean, I'm a huge fan!"
The compliment felt good. Gypsy didn't feel high in the League's pecking order. There were a few times had it not been for J'onn she would have been turned away from an embassy. She smiled at Esmerelda. "Thank you, Esmerelda. Most people have no idea who I am. I'm not exactly Wonder Woman, you know."
Esmerelda sat up in her bed and giggled. "You can call me Esme."
Gypsy nodded. "I like that. It's pretty."
"It's what my Poppa calls me," Esme replied. "You know before "
"Do you feel like talking?" Gypsy asked.
Esme nodded. "I will to you. You'll understand."
Gypsy took a seat in the plush chair next to the bed. "What happened?"
"It was Borsaka," Esme answered. "She bewitched father into trying to kill us. He would have succeeded if it hadn't been for the masked lady in long, purple cape."
The comment piqued Gypsy's interest. "What lady?'
Esme shook her head. "I'm not sure but she was one of the good guys. I just hope she didn't hurt Daddy."
"What did she look like?" Gypsy asked. "What kind of mask? Anything other details you may remember?"
Esme's hands cascaded down her face like water from a fall. "Her hair was long and black. She looked to be pretty under her mask and she shot my father's gun out of his hand with a crossbow. And she could fight really well. She held her own against the Borsaka and would have beaten her but the demon tricked her."
A crossbow? It had to be the Huntress.
"What happened after that?" Gypsy asked.
"They crashed through the window but were gone when I looked in the street below," Esme replied. "I have no idea where it took her. I wish I could remember more. I'm sorry."
Gypsy grabbed Esme's hand and gave it a squeeze. "You did great! Thank you!"
Esme returned the gentle squeeze. "No thank you! I've wanted to meet you like forever! Will I see you again?"
Though it went against every personal rule and boundary Gypsy set for herself when it came to kids, she nodded. "I think I'd like that."
"Me too," said Esme.
Gypsy left the room and entered the hallway. The officers were at a loss as to why the door opened by itself but shrugged it off. Once Gypsy was outside the hospital she joined Bette. .
"Well?" Bette asked. "How did it go?"
Gypsy shook her head. "The Borsaka took Huntress."
"Huntress?" Bette exclaimed. "How is she involved?"
Gypsy shrugged her shoulders and spoke into her earpiece. "Did you copy that Oracle?"
"I did," Oracle's voice replied in her earpiece.
"Gotham's a big city," Gypsy sighed. "How are we supposed to track down this psycho and find Huntress before it hurts her?"
Even through her earpiece, Gypsy could almost hear the gears turning in Oracle's head. At last the group's leader spoke on the other end. "We bring in someone with a nose for this sort of thing."