by Martin Maenza
Inside the almost-empty Gabriel’s Horn nightclub:
“A lie?” Karen Duncan asked as she handed the glass of ginger ale to their guest.
The brown-haired woman named Duela Dent reached for a straw, tore the paper off one end, put the open end to her lips, and blew. The paper flew off the end of the straw and wafted into the air. Duela smiled and put the straw in her glass, taking a sip. “Yes, a lie,” Duela said. “I honestly wasn’t aware of it myself until recently.”
“What happened?” asked Mal Duncan.
“Dick was in New Carthage, our old college town stomping grounds, visiting a friend when he got wind of a missing person case,” Duela started to explain. “You know how he gets when there’s a mystery afoot. Must get that from his mentor.” She put both hands to the sides of her head and extended her index fingers. She then wiggled them back and forth for a second.
Mal and Karen nodded silently to one another.
“Anyhoo,” Duela continued, taking her hands down, “Dick found out that someone had been dressing up girls in my old costumes and causing trouble in the area. That someone, turns out, was me.” She pointed to herself.
“You?” Karen asked in surprise. “Why?”
“Seems this extra-dimensional creep named the Antithesis has got a mean hate-on for the Bat-boy,” Duela explained. “So he used his manipulative mental powers to put a brain-whammy on me all the way from Limbo. The plan was to try and free himself from his little prison.”
“I remember that guy from the old Teen Titans casebooks,” Karen said. “Mal and I read that one just before the East Coast group broke up. So, this creep, he used you to try and free himself?”
“He used me for more than just that,” Duela said sadly. “Turns out he had been manipulating my brain for years, as far back as when I first met Dick and you all. He was the driving force behind me taking on a costumed role to begin with. He wanted me to get all chummy with you all so that I could then help him to destroy all of you and especially Dick.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Nightwing: A Bad Deal.]
“Wow,” Karen said stunned.
“But I didn’t mean to hurt you guys,” Duela cried. Her eyes got a bit puffy. “You guys really are the only friends I’ve got.”
Mal put one arm about her shoulder while grabbing a napkin. “Hey, kiddo, don’t worry,” he said. “You’re still our friend. In fact, more like family.” He handed Duela the napkin.
“Thanks,” she said through tears. She raised the paper to her nose and blew. It let out a loud honking sound. “I’m glad to hear that.” Duela balled up the napkin, placed it on the bar, and then took another sip of her soda.
“So, what brings you all the way out here?” Karen asked, trying to change the subject.
“I was actually looking for Lilith,” Duela said. “After the incident, Dick made a promise to me that he’d get me help to sort through it. He’s such a sweetie, you know. So, a while after that, he had me drop into their Titans Tower so I could work a bit with Red, given her special abilities and all.”
“How’d that go?” Mal asked. “Was she able to help?”
“I think it was too soon after,” Duela said. “I — I don’t know. It just didn’t seem to be helping initially. I told her I thought we should stop, take a break. Lil agreed. So I took some time off to myself, to sort through my checkered past.”
“Makes sense,” said Mal.
“Yeah, I found it interesting,” Duela explained. She leaned forward, blew into the straw, and made some bubbles in her drink. “But now I wanted to follow up with Lilith, so I buzzed the Tower. Roy told me she was out here working with you guys, so I packed some bags and headed out. I hope that was OK, just dropping in like this.”
“It’s fine,” Mal said. Then he frowned. “But Lilith’s not here.”
“Oh?” Duela looked surprised. “She’s moved on again?”
“No, not at all,” Mal shook his head. “She and I’ve been working with some kids, new recruits, if you will, down in Los Angeles. They’re kind of the next generation of Teen Titans, we hope.”
“Fudge!” Duela said. “I should have asked Roy more questions, but he said he had to go and change his daughter. I still can’t believe he’s a dad. Who’da thunk it? When he said she was in California working with you, I assumed he meant here in ‘Frisco. I remembered from Donna’s wedding that you guys were moving out this way, so that’s why I came here.”
“That’s OK,” Mal said. “Even if you went to L.A. first, you wouldn’t have found her. Not right now. She’s actually back east for a bit visiting her family in Kentucky. She took a couple of the girls with her, too.”
“That’s nice,” Duela said, “but I guess that’s a problem for me, then.”
“Not a problem,” Mal said. “Why don’t you crash with us for a few days? The guest room is free, now that Charley’s moved out.”
“Really?” Duela’s eyes brightened. “You’d do that for me?”
“Sure,” Karen said. “It’s the least we can do for an old friend and teammate.”
Duela clapped her hands together gleefully. “Goodie!” She threw her arms about each of them in turn, giving them great big hugs. “You guys are the best!”
Mal was all smiles. “Sure, no problem.”
“I’ll gladly cover my expenses,” Duela started to say. “It beats paying a hotel.” She started for her purse.
“None of that,” Mal said, stopping her. “We don’t take money from friends.”
“Are you sure?” Duela asked. “I don’t want to be a freeloader.”
“If you really want to do something,” Mal said, “you can help out down here at the bar. I seem to recall you were a pretty good waitress back when we had the old club in Farmingdale.”
Duela smiled. “You better believe it! Nobody could balance a tray of drinks like yours truly! You’ve got yourself a girl.”
Karen finished up behind the bar. While it was good to see Duela again, she felt a little discouraged. Here, after almost a year, they finally had the house to themselves now that Charley Parker had moved out. She had hoped that she and Mal could start to work on that family they had been discussing. Oh well, Karen thought to herself. I’m sure it will only be for a few days.
Down the coast of California, anchored just off shore of a quaint beach community, a couple sat on the deck and watched the clouds clear away from the moonlit sky. “Wow,” said the long-haired young man dressed only in long beach shorts. “It’s, like, so beautiful out here. I mean, like, totally.”
The blonde woman smiled. She was wearing a long T-shirt and bikini bottom underwear. “Yeah, it is,” Lisa Morel said. “I thought you’d enjoy it.”
“It’s great,” Charley Parker said. He turned and looked her in the eyes. “Thanks for, like, suggesting we do this.” He leaned forward and gave her a long, deep kiss.
When they separated, Lisa smiled. “You’re welcome,” she said. “I thought a little weekend away would be a nice way to celebrate, you know, taking our relationship to the next level.”
“Yeah, really,” Charley said, smiling. “Though is it really, like, going away when we take our place with us?”
“Welcome to my world,” Lisa said, waving her hands about in a sweeping gesture. “I like the feeling of never being far away from home.”
“I’m sure I’ll get used to it,” Charley said.
“What?” Lisa asked. “You don’t like living with me?”
“No, no, God, no!” Charley exclaimed. “I didn’t mean that. It’s just the houseboat is, like, a bit more smaller than I’m used to, you know?”
Lisa leaned closer and ran her hand down his bare chest. “I prefer to think of it as cozy.”
Charley smiled. “Yeah, cozy.” The two kissed again.
“So, shall we sit out here a while longer, or head to bed?”
“Whatever you say, ma’am,” Charley joked.
Lisa smirked at him. “Ma’am? I’m not that much older than you, sweetie. Seven years.”
“Eight, come October,” Charley corrected her with a smile.
“Fine, fine,” Lisa said. “Just don’t call me Mrs. Robinson.”
“Who?” Charley asked in all seriousness.
Lisa looked at him and almost laughed. Then she decided to go a different route. “So I’m a cradle robber now. You gonna arrest me?”
Charley smiled. “The interrogation could be, like, totally fun.”
A few hours later and on the other side of the country, the birds in the trees sang outside the window of a small home just outside a small Kentucky mountain town. A red-haired woman stepped into the room where two figures were slumbering. She crept over to the window and then drew the shades open quickly. “Rise and shine, sleepy-heads,” Lilith Clay called in a cheery voice.
“Ughhh, the light,” groaned a dark-haired teenage girl. Toni Monetti grabbed the covers and pulled them over her albino white-skinned face.
“It’s not so bad,” the other waking girl with short, feathered red hair said. Carrie Levine moved the covers back and rolled out of bed. She put her feet to the floor, stood, and stretched her arms with a yawn. A pair of large wings on her back stretched out, too, with a loud flapping sound. “It looks to be a great day.”
“It’s my vacation,” Toni grumbled from under the covers. “I thought that’s when we got to sleep in.”
Lilith smiled and reached down to grab the sheet. After a bit of tugging, she managed to wrestle it away from the fourteen-year-old girl. “I did let you sleep in,” the woman said. “You’re just lucky I didn’t drag you out of bed sooner to go to church with my parents.”
“I preferred going to Mass on Saturdays,” Toni said.
Carrie had her face pressed against the window glass. “What’re we gonna do today, Lilith?” the thirteen-year-old asked.
“I thought after you two got dressed that we’d hike up the path a ways,” their mentor replied. “There’s a nice spot not too far from here that’s perfect for picking berries. I thought they’d make a nice dessert for my adoptive mother’s birthday dinner tonight.”
Carrie was eager to get ready. Toni took her time. Eventually, the two joined Lilith downstairs, and the trio headed out to the hills.
“It’s so pretty,” Carrie said. “It reminds me of where I grew up.” She stretched out her wings and started to raise a few inches off the ground.
“Careful, Carrie,” Lilith warned. “I don’t want to draw too much attention to ourselves. My parents might have a hard time explaining why a girl with wings was seen not too far from their place.”
Carrie nodded and landed. The girls continued to hike up the path.
Toni kicked at a few rocks along the way and straggled behind as the two red-heads continued up ahead, sharing small town stories. Give me a mall any day, Toni thought to herself. She couldn’t help but think of Isaiah and Audrey. Lucky those two. Probably sitting around the family pool on their break.
The trio spent about an hour up in the hills among the fragrant flowers. When they finished picking the fruit, they had gathered two good-sized wicker baskets full of berries. They started back down the path for home.
Suddenly, Lilith stopped and let out a cry, bending over and clutching her head. “Aaah!“
“Lilith!” Carrie cried.
“What is it?” Toni asked.
The woman stood up suddenly. Her face went suddenly pale as an urgent look crossed it. “The house! Hurry!” She darted down the path.
Toni and Carrie looked at one another, then decided they’d better follow. Carrie took flight while Toni stretched out her hands and created a shimmering sled of silver energy, something that had provided her with her code name of Argent. As she caught up to Lilith, she called, “Hop on!” The red-haired woman did, and all three moved down the path with urgency.
Carrie was the first to see the house. “Lilith, I see smoke! Lots of it!”
“A fire!” Lilith exclaimed. As the trio got closer, the source of the smoke was evident. The entire house was a blazing inferno. “Oh, no…” Lilith looked around in a panic, only to realize that her parents’ pickup truck was parked near the drive. “Nooo!“
She reached out with her mind toward the house, trying to sense something — anything. It was hard, but Lilith did pick up the anguished thoughts of her older parents, trapped within the burning structure. “My God, they’re in there!”
“What’ll we do?” Carrie asked.
Lilith started to run for the flames. “Mom! Dad! I’m coming!“
Toni grabbed her arm. “You can’t do that!” she said. “You need protection!”
“What’ll we do?” Carrie asked again.
Toni turned to her. “Fly down to town as fast as you can! Get the firemen up here!” Carrie nodded and took off, spilling the basket of berries all over the ground.
“We’ve got to help them!” Lilith cried, terror in her eyes.
“Maybe I can make some kind of protective shell,” Toni proposed. She extended her arms, and the shimmering silver energy started to flow and form a shield before them. “Let’s try this.” The two moved closer with some urgency. The shell seemed to hold initially.
But as they got closer, the heat of the fire warmed them, even through the protective layer. Beads of sweat formed on Toni’s brow as she poured more effort into the shield. Alas, she didn’t have enough experience for something like this. “Lilith, I’m sorry…”
Lilith was choking back her tears. “It’s OK, you tried…” she said softly. Her eyes grew vacant as she stared at the flames. The fire reflected off her pupils. “They’re gone…” Her voice trailed off.
Carrie, known as Redwing thanks to her working crimson wings, flew back up the road, the sound of screaming fire engine sirens beneath her. She hoped and prayed she had been fast enough.
The engines sped past a street corner and turned. People walking turned their heads to look.
One man, handsome in features with blonde hair and dressed in a brown suit, looked up as the trucks passed and smiled. Too late, dear Lilith, he thought to himself. Your adoptive parents are dead. I warned you: hell hath no fury like a man scorned!
The man turned down a small alley between two buildings, glanced back once more to see that he was not being watched, and then Neron vanished in a flash of light.