by Martin Maenza
Over the next few months, the scientist and the student spent a good amount of time together. Karen Beecher enjoyed working in the lab atmosphere and was very eager to learn new things. Dr. Blake Mansfield specialized in the area of physics and had a strong electronics background as well. He always seemed to be tinkering with something or other and was very pleased to have such an astute listener to talk with about his projects.
For those times when they would work late or had to miss a meal, the doctor would spring for a pizza or something. Karen would occasionally bring sandwiches or salads for the times that were long planned sessions.
Winter’s snow gave way to spring’s blooms. Soon, the end of the school year was upon them.
Karen popped into Dr. Mansfield’s office on campus. “I got my grade on…” she started to say, but stopped when she saw he was packing up some stuff from his desk. “Oh! Are you leaving?“
“Just for the summer break, Karen,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you?” He picked up a photograph from his desk. It was a framed picture of a woman and himself.
“I was so busy with exams that I must have forgot,” she said.
“Are you taking courses this summer?” he asked.
“I hadn’t planned to. Why?”
“Well, if you’re not, how would you like to intern for me down at STAR Labs?” Blake asked. “It’d be more or less the same stuff you’ve been doing here, just on a full-time basis. The pay would be more, too.”
“Really?” Karen beamed.
“Sure,” Blake said with a smile. “Besides, you’ve started to know my work patterns well. We’ve got a groove going, as you kids say. I’d rather work with you than try to break in another assistant.”
Karen blushed. “Thank you,” she said. “I’d like that.”
“Good,” Blake said. “Let me give you the address, and I’ll arrange for you to start on Monday.”
Karen’s good mood faded though after she got back to her apartment and spoke with her boyfriend on the phone. “Why aren’t you happy for me?” she asked him with concern in her voice.
“It’s not that,” Mal Duncan grumbled on the other end. “I’m happy. I think that’s nice and all, but I thought we were gonna spend your time off together, you know?” He sat in Titans Lair, the Teen Titans’ old mountain headquarters, amidst the boxed-up journals and dust-covered table. “You know, some you-and-me time.”
“And what?” Karen asked. “Help you re-catalogue casebooks or something?”
“Well…” Mal said.
“No, sir!” Karen said. “I’ve got a good opportunity here with this summer job. It’s at STAR Labs. STAR, Mal! The big time. This could be a big thing on my resume when I graduate. It could help a lot in getting a job after graduation.”
“Oh,” Mal said. “Does that mean you think I can’t support us?” There was a bit of anger in his voice.
“Back up!” Karen burst. “Who says the man has to support the family? Not me. Not my mama! She raised me and my brother just fine without a husband, thank you!”
“Don’t put me in that category!” Mal said, getting defensive. “You ain’t the only one who knows about hard times, missy! I’m just gettin’ tired of everybody comin’ down on me! Like I had nothin’ better to do that keep an eye on all this stuff! I could’ve gone to college, too, like the others — like you!”
“Sounds like maybe you need to think about what’s important to you,” Karen said, “and whether not I fit into that picture! Once you get your head on straight, call me back. Or don’t!” With that, she hung up the phone.
The two didn’t speak again for a few weeks. Eventually, as the summer wore on, Mal did call Karen back, and they reconciled. He seemed a bit better, having thought about his future — their future. He was even pleased to report that the team was talking about coming back together, and he made his peace with Robin, Kid Flash, and the others. He wanted a future with Karen, if she was willing to take him back. Karen, of course, did.
But it didn’t take long for Mal to be upset once more. The others were riding him for his lack of his own powers. At one point, he had to borrow from various items in the group’s souvenirs in order to cobble together something to rescue them from Doctor Light. What Mal lacked in the power department, though, he made up for in courage and determination. There was a time in his life that all he needed were his fists to get by.
Karen knew there was good in him and wanted to help him with his passion of helping others. She had been designing some gadget-type things for him to use to help boost his contribution to the team. Heck, even Robin had to rely on a utility belt now and again. All she had to do was show them that anyone could become a Teen Titan, even herself.
She went to Blake with some of her ideas in a more broken-down state to get his assistance in helping her to work them through. The scientist was invaluable in tweaking concepts that allowed her to finish items that would some day become her stinger-blasters and flight-assisting wings.
Working late one night in the lab, Karen was hunched over some prototype, working. Blake moved up from behind. “That looks good,” he said, complimenting her.
“Thanks,” she said, not glancing up. Then she felt Blake’s hand brush up against her hair. “Uh, Blake…?” she asked cautiously. His response was to plant a kiss onto her lips. She was rather surprised by this unexpected advance. She pulled away. “Blake!“
“Karen,” he said, “you are an attractive and intelligent woman. I — I’m sorry if that was forward.”
“It was!” Karen said. “Besides, it’s wrong! You’re married, with a kid on the way, no less. And I have a boyfriend. A boyfriend I love a lot.”
“But you get me, Karen,” Blake pleaded. “You get my work. You understand it. My wife… she thinks it’s all gibberish. But it’s not gibberish to you. You know how rare that is?”
Karen held up her hand. “That’s no reason to throw things away, for either of us! I like you, Blake, but as a friend and a mentor. Nothing more. Do you understand?”
The man dropped his head in shame. “I’m sorry, Karen,” he said. “I like you so much. I just didn’t know if there was something more. What can I do to make this up to you?”
She thought for a moment. His apology seemed very sincere, and she did not feel in danger that he would make any further advances toward her. “Grab a soldering iron,” Karen said. “I’m having problems with this one particular component.”
Blake smiled and got the tool. He joined her at the bench. They worked silently for a few moments, hands close together. “Karen?” he finally said.
“That boyfriend of yours…”
“Mal,” she said.
“Mal,” he repeated. “He’s one lucky guy to have you.”
Karen Duncan was smiling as she approached San Diego. Even despite that, we remained acquaintances, she thought to herself. He even helped me get a full-time job at STAR out here after graduation. I owe him a lot, and yet here he’s still repaying me by including me in his will.
Curiosity about that last bit was what kept Karen focused as she looked for the law offices of Storck, Williams, and O’Connell.
Meanwhile, back in Los Angeles, two women watched from the sidelines as three unique teenage girls ran through their training exercises. “I like the one with the white skin,” Duela Dent remarked.
“That’s Argent,” Lilith Clay said. “Or Toni. Argent’s her code-name.”
“Right, right,” the brown-haired woman said. “I get so bad with names. That’s why I make up little nicknames for folks. Know what I mean, Red?”
Lilith said, “I can’t tell you how often I heard that growing up.”
Duela caught the red-head’s tone. “Sorry about that. Anyway, Toni — I like her sense of style. She reminds me of a younger, well, me!“
“I’m sure,” Lilith said. She then stood up and called out. “OK, ladies, that was great! Why don’t we take a break for lunch, OK?”
“Sounds good to me,” Redwing said as she landed on the floor. “I’m famished.” The feathery appendages on her back folded in nicely against her body.
“A break would be nice,” said Prysm, the transparent youth. “Can we get some burgers and shakes?”
Argent grabbed a towel and wiped the perspiration from her brow. “Not me,” she said, taking a bottle of water from the table. “A salad’s all I’m having.”
“Be back around three,” Lilith called as the trio of teens started off for the showers. “You’ve all got your studies to work on.” There was a collective groan from the girls.
“You handle them well, Re — Lilith,” Duela said. “I remember how wild I was at their age. I can’t imagine three.”
“They’re good kids,” Lilith said. “The boys are good, too. They can be a bit of handful all together, but that’s OK.” The two started off down the hall. “Mr. Jupiter really believes in this program, and I can vouch for it, having been through it with Mal.”
Duela nodded. “We all had our share of interesting times growing up,” she said. Lilith nodded and glanced away. “I know it’s a bad time, what with your loss and all…”
“It’s OK,” Lilith said. “I was never one to sit around feeling sorry for myself. I’d rather help others, you know?”
Duela nodded again. “Yeah, Dick really sings your praises in that department. And he’s right. I think our talks a few months ago helped, but I needed a break for a bit. I wanted to go out and do a little digging of my own.”
“Digging?” Lilith asked curiously. “About?”
“About my real parents,” Duela said solemnly.
One of the legal counsels led Karen Duncan into a large conference room with a large oak conference table. “Mr. Williams will be with you in a moment,” the young blonde woman said. “Can I get you some coffee while you wait?”
“Yes, please,” Karen said. “With cream and sugar.” The blonde woman nodded and left the room.
Karen looked about. An older-looking woman was sitting at the far end of the table, a sour look sat upon her obviously lifted facial features. “I’m sorry,” Karen said as she started down the way with her hand extended. “I’m Kar–“
“I know who you are, Ms. Beecher!” the woman said firmly, not bothering to rise or to accept the offered hand.
“It’s Mrs. Duncan,” Karen corrected her. “I’m a married woman.”
The older woman let out a disapproving humph. “It may have been a few years, but I know exactly who you are! The question is, why are you here?“
Karen was taken aback by this. She analyzed the woman’s features, and they jogged some memory. Of course, Blake’s wife. “I was very saddened to hear about the senseless accident,” she said. “Your husband was a brilliant man.”
“I don’t need your pity!” Vivian Mansfield spat. “I just want to know why you are here!”
“I received a telegram from the attorneys,” Karen said defensively. “I couldn’t just ignore it. That wouldn’t be right.”
“Right has nothing to do with it!” Vivian said. “It’s about respect! I know what went on between you and my husband! He was cheating on me with you, wasn’t he?”
Karen shook her head. “Nothing went on between me and your husband,” she said. “We had a working relationship during my college years, and that’s it. I hadn’t been in touch with him for a long time.”
“A likely story,” Vivian said. “My husband would go on about you, about this breakthrough and that at STAR! And I also recently found hints of strange, secretive behavior from him. Working all hours through the night, unexplained trips…”
Karen felt flattered that Blake had been watching her career from afar, but she was more concerned about how his wife was reacting. Sure, some of it was no doubt a mix of grief for her loss and anger about the senseless death, but still, she felt she had to say something.
Just then, one of the attorneys stepped into the room. “Ladies,” said the man in the gray suit with matching tie and white shirt. In his hand was a large envelope. “If we can, let’s begin with the reading of Mr. Mansfield’s will, shall we?” The blonde put a cup of coffee near Karen, then sat down and began to record notes for the proceeding.
Mr. Williams went over the information contained in the envelope. Most things, as expected, were left to the widow and their son Nathan. A small amount was given over to local charities in the coastal area. “As for Mrs. Duncan,” the lawyer said, “Mr. Mansfield has willed to you a number of patent rights that were held in his name.”
Karen was a bit surprised by this.
Vivian was a bit angry, and her face showed it.