Dick knocked gently at the door. “Hey, Donna?” he called.
From inside the spare room came a startled little yelp. “Dick! You scared me! And you’re early—no, wait, you’re not.” She sounded chagrined at that, but Dick didn’t mind at all. Donna continued, “Sorry, I got distracted. I’ll open up as soon as I get this in the washer.”
“Sure thing,” he said, enormously relieved. That Donna was okay was one thing, but that she was doing what she was doing was completely another and deeper sense of relief. When she opened the door a moment later, the chemical smell that seeped out with her would’ve made him wrinkle his nose, but right now it smelled like normality. Like life finally getting back on track. Donna in the darkroom processing photos was the most reassuring thing he’d run across all week.
The former Wonder Girl had her black hair tied back in a hasty ponytail, and her eyes were still shadowed, but she looked more like herself than she had in months. “Sorry,” she said again, smiling apologetically.
Dick swept her into an impulsive hug, and actually startled a laugh out of her. “Best friends are worth waiting on,” he told her.
Donna’s only reply was a squeeze that spoke volumes. They had known each other from adolescence, when the Teen Titans were still just teens, and they’d been through so much together that Dick at least thought of them as soldiers who’d survived the same war. It was apt.
“What’ve you been working on?” he asked when they both stepped back after a long moment. “Do I get to see, or do I have to use Bat-powers of espionage?”
She hesitated, and he worried a little at that. “Yeah, you can see. But you won’t like it. I’ve done two series this week. The first one’s in the binder on the bookcase. This one … you should go look at the first ones first. Let me get this last one washed and hung before you come in, okay?”
That sounded … un-good. “Okay, I’ll go look,” he told her.
Donna pecked his cheek with what felt like relief. “I’ll only be about ten minutes. Feel free to feed yourself while you’re looking through them. You know where everything is.” On that note she disappeared back into the darkroom.
When he’d last been here the spare bedroom had still been sitting unused with unopened boxes from the move stacked along the walls. It was good to see Donna putting it in order, and even better to know she’d unpacked her photographic equipment. To the best of his knowledge, she hadn’t raised a camera in over a year. Not since the accident.
He’d asked her once, a couple years ago, why she didn’t go digital. DSLR cameras took incredible pictures, and computers allowed an effortless range of manipulation. Donna had shaken her head slowly, explaining her preference for black and white. Digital felt almost too easy to her. She loved the process, the manipulation of light and chemicals, the ritual of developer, stop bath, and fixer followed by washing and hanging the prints.
What she didn’t say, but he knew anyway, was that she loved the range of control she had over the final product. Donna was always experimenting with techniques and processes, exposure times and filters, to manipulate the result. Dick had laughed to see her cutting up a pair of pantyhose to stretch over a small hoop, but the soft-focus effect created by moving that hoop back and forth in the beam of the projected light while exposing the photo paper was magical. To think something like that was created with a stocking and a coat-hanger was amazing.
Eventually Donna might buy herself a DSLR and the software for a digital darkroom, but she would always prefer the old-fashioned way, and Dick understood that and loved her all the more for it. She was, after all, his very best friend; sometimes it had felt like they were the only two on the Titans who had ever really gotten each other. He had even been the one to give her away at her wedding….
That thought was ashes on his tongue, and Dick went into the living room in a more somber mood. He saw the binder Donna meant immediately, a large three-ring job with archival-quality plastic sleeves inside. Each sleeve held a single photo, printed on eight-and-a-half by eleven inch paper, with just a sliver of white border around the edge. Very stark, in the black-and-white medium she preferred, almost hyper-real.
Dick saw autumn leaves first, and half-denuded branches clawing a graying sky. The backgrounds were all out of focus, unreal, while the foreground images were so crisp they seemed to leap off the page. He paged slowly through the latest collection, wondering. More images: lichens on dark stone, birds silhouetted against storm-tossed clouds, black tree trunks buried ankle-deep in fallen leaves, a white feather caught in long brittle stems of grass.
All in all, a melancholy collection. Almost … funereal. Although that was to be expected, under the circumstances. Dick sighed, letting out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. Maybe, just maybe, as sorrowful as all this seemed, it was a step in the right direction.
And then he got to the end of the album. Everything up front had been natural images. The last few had manmade objects. A barb-wire fence with twists of horsehair caught in the barbs. A softball with worn laces sitting in a drift of leaves. And a child’s tricycle lying on its side, the canted handlebars seeming to reach pleadingly up to an uncaring sky.
Dick closed the binder and closed his eyes, struck to the heart by that last poignant image. He was still standing there when Donna said softly behind him, “Didn’t I tell you to feed yourself?” Her voice was small and uncertain the way it had so often been this last year, and the sound of it hurt him.
Turning to her, Dick held his arms out, and Donna came to him mutely, resting her head on his shoulder. Safe in the circle of his arms, the tension bled out of her body, and Dick found himself rocking her gently back and forth. “You’re all right, palone, you’re gonna be all right. I promise.”
Donna sighed, her breath warm on his neck, and then she murmured softly, “If those worry you, I’d better not even show you the second series.”
“I don’t know Superman’s name,” Elise pleaded, twisting her hands within the cuffs. Those car batteries … how much juice was that? How likely was it that her captor knew the amount that could hurt versus the amount that could kill?
“We have reliable information that you do,” the distorted voice purred.
“Well, your information’s wrong,” Elise shot back. She couldn’t keep her voice from quavering, but hoped she sounded more angry than scared.
“You don’t want to lie to me, Ms. Thorne. Give me Superman’s name.”
It would be so easy, just two syllables, but Elise couldn’t, wouldn’t, do it. Not now. Not ever. Not even if she never saw Jason again. She couldn’t hand Mr. Kent and his family—because it would surely come to that—over to this sicko. “Listen to me very carefully,” she said, forcing her tone level. “I. Don’t. Know.”
A disappointed sigh. “I did warn you not to lie to me.” And then Elise finally saw the figure in the shadows, just a faint outline of an arm holding something with a tiny light on it. Like a remote of some kind…
…there was a louder humming, and Elise caught a whiff of a scent she knew well. Her father liked to build electric model trains, and the transformers had a certain oddly burnt, almost furry smell when they got warmed up. Elise smelled that now, and the hair stood up on the back of her neck. “No, wait, hey, don’t—!” she babbled, trying desperately to jerk free of her bonds.
A sudden loud crackle, and Elise screamed. Her wrists felt like they were being stabbed with fiery needles—but it wasn’t lethal, thank God not lethal, just enough of a shock to make her shriek with surprise and pain. “Holy shit don’t do that!”
“Don’t force me to,” came the calm reply, as the hum quieted and the burnt smell faded. “Now, one more time. All I need from you is one thing, Ms. Thorne. One small thing. Superman’s name. Then you can go. I promise you, he’s a big boy. He can take care of himself. You don’t owe him your death.”
Elise started to cry. She couldn’t help it. All she really wanted to do was get away from this, but she couldn’t see a way out other than to do what her faceless tormentor demanded. And she couldn’t do that. Mr. Kent was one of the nicest people she’d ever met, she’d known that even before she found out the family secret. She couldn’t give him up. If she did, she’d drag the whole family into it, too. Mrs. Lane-Kent, what a firecracker, how could she sell her out? Not to mention Jason and Kala. Her ex and one of her closest friends.
The voice of self-interest in the back of her brain spoke up. So you’re gonna die for them? Is that the plan? Real noble and all, but you’re gonna die. As in dead. As in worm food. As in body dumped in a landfill somewhere, or of the coast with a cement block chained to your ankle. And your parents will probably never know what happened to you. Don’t they deserve not to spend years wondering if some serial killer got their daughter?
No. She couldn’t sell someone else out to save her own life. Elise just wasn’t wired that way. Still crying, Elise managed to say, “No! Even if I knew I wouldn’t tell you! Forget it!”
“Then there’s only one thing left to do with you,” the distorted voice said, and Elise saw the remote move again. She braced herself against the pain, hoping it would be quick, please God let it be over quick…
…the cuffs around her wrists clicked open, and a similar set at her ankles did too. Other bands around her chest and waist also sprung open, and the lights came up. Elise looked around wildly, unable to comprehend what had just happened.
The first thing she saw was that the cable from the car batteries went nowhere. They ended just outside the circle of light. She’d never been shocked and couldn’t have been shocked, not by the amount of voltage that had been threatened anyway. The intimidating dark chamber was some kind of storage room, with boxes labeled in code pushed out of the way to make room for her chair.
She then whipped her head around to stare at her tormentor, and to her immense shock saw a pretty redhead in green-tinted glasses. The surprise wasn’t over, though. Her captor was sitting in a wheelchair—the source of the creepy motorized hum. “I’m sorry about all this,” the young woman said, her voice quite pleasant without the digitizer. “We had to know if you could be trusted, first. I’ll explain everything, but for right now I suppose you’d better take a moment to regroup. Oh, and by the way, the bathroom is the second door to your right in the hallway behind you.”
Elise knew her jaw was hanging open. She couldn’t quite process the situation. Her body chose that moment to remind her that she’d needed to use the facilities before being threatened and shocked and scared, so she got up shakily and headed out into the hall, expecting every moment for someone to leap out of a corner and grab her. Nothing seemed real just then, and she sort of expected to wake up from this insane dream.
While she was taking care of business, she heard voices in the hall; the redhead and another woman. It sounded like a perfectly ordinary conversation, not chitchat between psycho killers. Elise splashed water over her face to erase the tear-tracks and take the puffiness from her eyes, then stepped back into the hall warily. She still didn’t know quite what to think, but an emotion was beginning to eclipse the numb shock, and the feeling was outrage.
The second woman was a tall blonde in a black coat, giving her a somewhat pained smile. The redhead in the wheelchair looked over at her quite calmly. “Come into the other room, we have a lot to talk about.”
Elise blinked. That sounded like such a reasonable request, and yet she couldn’t let herself forget the whole strapped-into-a-chair-and-threatened-wit
Before the redhead could speak, the blonde answered, sounding chagrined. “Elise, I’m sorry. It had to be this way. We needed to know if you would keep a secret that big, even under threat.”
“You can’t make me believe Superman put you up to this,” Elise snarled, started to shake. Partly out of reaction to the adrenaline that had been coursing through her body moments ago, and partly out of sheer rage.
“No, he didn’t,” the blonde said. “As a matter of fact, I had to warn him ahead of time not to come to your rescue, and he would only let us go through with this if we promised you’d get nothing worse than a static electric shock.”
“Bullshit, that was way more than static electricity!”
“No, it wasn’t,” the redhead cut in. “You thought it was because I set the stage that way. You received an extremely low-current shock, on the order of five thousand volts but only a billionth of an amp. Thanks to the sound effects and the burning smell, though, you thought you were getting a much stronger shock.”
“But why?!” Elise demanded. “And while we’re at it, who the hell are you?”
The blonde sighed. Before she could answer, the redhead said, “I’m Oracle. She’s Black Canary. As for why, we might have a job for you. Now, are you coming?”