The trail was not difficult to follow. The police had failed to notice the clues. Frank McDonald had not known enough about his missing niece’s neighbors to make the right connections. Of course, as the young man’s keen mind realized soon afterward, the entire abduction was designed to lure him to a certain location. That revelation only came later to Dick Grayson.
When he first learned that his old girlfriend Lori Elton from Hudson University had been missing, all he knew for certain was that he was determined to find her. He had talked to Frank McDonald and had felt the veteran cop’s pain, worry, and resentment. It was true that McDonald had blamed Dick for Lori’s pain and disappearance. Dick felt more than a little guilty himself. His entire reason for seeking the girl was a desire to right a past wrong.
After I resolved my estrangement from Batman and came to terms with both Brother Blood’s efforts to control me, Raven’s problems, and Kory’s marriage, I figured it would only be right to try to get some closure with Lori, too. I had dropped out of Hudson University so quickly and left her with barely more than a distant goodbye. I never wrote because I was always tangled up with cases with Batman or the Titans. When Kory came into my life, I was literally afraid to love her at first, because her raw and vibrant passion was so very alien to my nature and my training. She won me over by her tireless love, and I never looked back at Lori or Betty or any of the other girls from my past.
Dick Grayson thought of these things as he rode his motorcycle through the rainy night. He drove with skill and discernment and noticed every detail of his surroundings, something he did out of habit and training. He knew exactly where he was going. The evidence had made the trail painfully clear.
When Lori moved to the apartment off-campus, she spoke often about a lonely retired woman who lived across the street and watched everything in the neighborhood with her binoculars. I knew that if anyone had noticed anything strange about Lori’s departure months ago, it would have been Mrs. Berk. I checked with her, and she confirmed that Lori had left suddenly one night with a woman driving a sports car. The plate caught her eye and stuck in her memory. T-Berg. It was close to her own name, so she remembered it.
The description she gave of Lori’s friend only superficially matched my own memories of Terri Bergstrom, but then, it is easy enough to dye your hair or cut it. McDonald never knew that Lori’s neighbor watched the street so regularly or was so lonely. The distance was great enough that, without the binoculars, she could not have seen anything. He didn’t check, and that was his error. The fact that Mrs. Berk went into the hospital right afterward made it more unlikely that he or anyone else would try to question her.
I tracked Terri down by a DMV search. It was her car, and she lives in Westfield, Dick thought.
Terri Bergstrom was a mystery as well. She had been a Hudson University student with psychic powers. Those powers had thrust her into a few deadly situations, and Dick had rescued her while still using his old Robin identity. He had been trained by Batman in deduction, disguise, martial arts, and other skills and knew his business very well. It was through his Robin identity that he had also met Terri’s cousin, Lilith Clay. Lilith was a member of his heroic group, the Teen Titans. She and Terri had been related and shared mental abilities. The connection was a weird one, since he had later learned that the Clays were not Lilith’s true family. She was the daughter of a true Titaness named Thia.
Since Lilith has no true blood tie to Terri, then Terri’s own mental powers and their effect on Lilith can’t be explained away as something unique to their family. Terri’s mental powers must come from some other source and thus may be capable of affecting others in addition to Lilith, he deduced.
The effect he referred to was sinister in nature. Terri had supposedly turned Lilith evil merely because her proximity created a type of negative mental energy that the shapely Titan was vulnerable to due to her own powers. They had reluctantly separated and, as far as he could determine from Lilith, had rarely communicated since that parting.
He reached the heart of the small town and frowned as he detected a furtive figure exiting a jewelry store. She was costumed and carried a strange device. She had apparently silenced any security alarm the store possessed. Great. Do costumed punks follow me everywhere I go? he wondered ruefully as he pulled into an alley and made a swift and practiced change to his Nightwing identity.
He hurried out and spotted the woman as he raced into the night. He gripped an awning and swung himself upward. From the vantage point of a store roof, he tracked her path and easily intercepted her by darting skillfully from one store to another. “Never any traffic jam on roofs,” he laughed as he dropped down in her path.
A streetlight revealed her startled expression, although her half-mask covered her upper face. She was lovely, with waist-length, reddish-blonde hair. Her figure was trim and lithe. She wore a halter-top with red and gold coloration. Her midriff was bare but firm. Her pants were red and flowered at the bottom where they tucked into yellow, high-heeled boots. The costume had a few card suits emblems across the mask and chest.
“The Card Queen!” he gasped in recognition as she swung her line around and a stylized club missed Nightwing’s face by inches. “Don’t make me deck you,” he quipped as he flipped backward and circled her warily. Can’t be Duela. She was heavy last time I saw her. This woman has rock-solid abs, he mused.
She laughed and said, “Don’t be cocky, stud. I have an ace up my sleeve!” She whipped out a small gun and fired a greenish cloud of vapor.
Nightwing was ready and had already covered his nose with a rebreather. He knew the woman’s style and her traditional weaponry. The club-line, gas-gun, and throwing gems, he thought even as he grabbed her wrist and twisted the gun out of her hand.
She cut at his chest with a sharp, diamond-shaped object, but he had turned aside and now pinned her arms. She was clearly enjoying the fight and felt pleasure, if not exultation, in the combat. She kicked backward and rocked him off his feet. She spun around and flipped him over her back even as he turned and landed on his feet to tackle her. She fell and lifted as she dropped. He countered her move by elbowing her in the chin and rolling aside.
“You move well, handsome! I’d like to play with you again, but this has to be the final deal of the night,” she said in a sultry purr.
He gasped as she caught him with a flashing gem that left him dazed as she escaped into the night. Batman would have been ashamed. She blinded me like I was a novice. How’d she get the drop on me? he wondered. For that matter, who is she? The costume and gear match those used briefly by the former Titan called Harlequin, alias Duela Dent. But she retired and hung up her costume long ago, although it was only a while ago that I realized she was lying about her past when she claimed to be the daughter of Two-Face. Something tells me I let that mystery go unsolved for too long. I also think Lori’s disappearance is connected to this new Card Queen, and possibly the old one, too.
Nightwing soon learned that the Card Queen had robbed the jewelry store of numerous costly gems. She had hit a few other stores and a bank in the tiny town as well in the last few weeks. A check of crimes in the region matched her method of operation, and he realized that she had been operating in the tri-state area for some time now.
She showed up around the time Lori left with Terri. I think I can assume the worst. Could Harlequin be stalking women who had any connection to me? She was always flirting with me when she was a Titan. Yet I feel certain this Card Queen was not Duela Dent. For that matter, she was not Lori or Terri, either, although I admit I had a wild notion that Lori had adopted the costumed ID as well.
He slipped inside the run-down home owned by Terri Bergstrom. His DMV check had led him there easily. He saw no sign of occupation. The house was dirty, yet he saw little evidence that it had been lived in recently. Odd. Still, if there is one thing this former teen wonder knows about, it’s hidden headquarters. The dust ends around the rough outline of a trap door, he noted as he bent down and flipped open such a door.
He dropped down into a large lighted chamber beneath the house. It appeared to have been carved out of the ground like an old mine. Mining was an industry here back in the Depression. I’d say the owner made use of the place for his or her own purposes. Maybe it’s the base of the new Card Queen.
A sound reached his ears, and he ducked as the club-line smashed into the wall near his head. He caught the end and pulled hard. The Card Queen staggered into his arms, and he wrestled her to the ground. This time he was in no doubt. He pulled off her mask and revealed Lori Elton’s pretty face. Lori! That left-handed move you used with the club and other features led me to know her this time. Still, she was not the first Queen I fought. The first one had true talent as a fighter, he thought.
“Lori Elton? The New Carthage Police are looking for you. Frank McDonald is worried sick. I’m taking you in and getting some answers,” he said.
“Don’t blow a fuse, bat-boy! I’ll give you all the answers your rapid-fire mind needs!” shrieked a familiar voice.
He whirled to see the mocking clown face of the Joker’s Daughter. She wore the purple suit of his old foe and laughed mockingly as she brandished a huge powder puff. “You aren’t Duela Dent, either. I see someone is taking full advantage of her old images and gear. In fact, I think the whole situation is decidedly unfunny,” he said as he released Lori and kicked the puff back in the grinning female clown’s face.
“I’m immune to the toxin, wings!” she sneered as her elongated arm shot forward to shock him with a gimmicked joy buzzer.
He frowned and hurled a batarang toward her. She ducked, but by that time he was already across the room and had roped her legs together with a bat-line. He clicked a pair of handcuffs on her wrists and wiped one hand across her face. The white clown make-up smeared and revealed a woman he had never seen before.
He turned to where Lori Elton lay. He knew this woman well. She was stable and would not have lightly become a criminal or donned a costume. He decided that it was likely the same could be said of the woman calling herself the Joker’s Daughter.
It’s got to be Terri. She has learned that her mental powers can make anyone, not just Lilith, turn evil. She’s used them to get ordinary girls like this one dressed in the Joker suit and Lori to become versions of Duela’s old identities. I’d say she came to Lori’s place and took her over and just ordered her to join her here. Come to think of it, there was a sighting of a feline thief in the next county. Catwoman has gone straight now, so it must be someone dressed as Catgirl. Duela posed as a Catgirl before, too, as well as a Scarecrone. Terri may have a whole team of women trading identities to make her rich. I know Lori’s not drugged, so it must be some form of personality alteration like the one Terri forced on Lilith years ago.
He gently lifted the bound Lori to her feet and said, “Lori? Take me to Terri. She is behind all this, right?”
A strident laugh rang out as something struck him across the back of the head. He fell and knew no more.