She awoke with the rays of the sun playing on her bare cheek with the tenderness of a mother's caress. It stirred in her mind memories of a laughing, dark-haired woman who had told her bedtime stories about a faraway land where samurai wielded swords in defense of their lords and martial artists practiced their skills in hidden temples. Her mother.
Her mother, who had been taken from her before her seventh year had passed. Strange, now, to think of that, more than a decade after that summer's eve when she had learned her mother would never return from that trip to Japan.
Enough of memory. Today, of all days, she wanted nothing to spoil the announcement she planned to give her father when he returned home from his nightly patrol as a police officer. Today, she would share with him her acceptance to the police academy and her decision to follow in his footsteps. Today, Shanna O'Callahan would become the latest in a long line of O'Callahans to wear the blue uniform and silver badge of the Los Angeles Police Department.
The jangling of the phone jolted her out of her musings.... A little guiltily, she dashed to the kitchen to answer it. "Hello, O'Callahan residence."
"Is this Shanna O'Callahan...Brian O'Callahan's daughter?" The voice on the other end of the line was unfamiliar, and thus, Shanna's reply was cautious. "Yes, this is she. Who's calling, please?"
"This is Saint Luke's Hospital. Sergeant O'Callahan was just brought in this morning. I'm afraid his condition wasn't very good...he suffered a gunshot wound to the chest...he's in emergency surgery right now."
**Omigod--Daddy!** She nearly dropped the phone, only sheer force of will keeping her upright. Even as she heard the words, a part of her kept denying it was true. **It can't be Daddy...It can't..**
"Miss O'Callahan? Are you still there?"
Holding onto a chair for support, she got her emotions under control. "Yes... Yes..." She took a deep breath. "I'll be there as soon as I can." She let the receiver fall to the cradle as it dropped from her nerveless hand.
The ride to the hospital seemed endless. A myriad of emotions churned through her as she sat in the back seat of a cab, glad that she was not the one driving. She clutched her old rosary in sweating hands. The words she had learned long ago in grammar school helped to keep her from slipping into hysteria. **Our Father, who art in Heaven...**
The cab pulled to a stop. Pausing only long enough to pay the driver, she hurried to the Emergency Room, where she was met by her father's partner, Jason Camtatka.
Jason felt his heart twist as he looked into the young woman's pleading dark eyes.
"How is he?" Her question was more a plea.
He held her close. "They haven't told us anything, sweetheart. I'm as much in the dark as you are."
"How did it happen?" She was surprised at how strained her own voice sounded.
"Maybe I shouldn't tell you until you can handle it." It was a flimsy excuse, he knew well, but he didn't want to be the one to tell her if he could help it.
She hastily swallowed her sobs and took a slow, deep breath, and regained control of herself. "I can handle it now."
He swallowed hard. "Okay. We were investigating a man named Mitchell Gareth. Your dad was trailing a lead, a man in Gareth's employ. He went into the building to bring him out...the next thing I heard was the gunshot."
"Sergeant Camtatka? Miss O'Callahan?" A surgeon stood in the doorway, still wearing her surgical greens. Shanna felt a chill go up her spine.
The doctor was haggard, her hair damp with sweat where it poked out from beneath her paper cap, her face etched with lines of weariness. "We did all we could...I'm sorry."
At that moment the bottom dropped out of the world. Shanna buried her face in Jason's chest and let the tears come.
The ride home from the hospital took forever. Shanna wanted nothing more than to wake up and find out that this was some sort of terrible dream, but no matter how hard she wished, it remained true. **Oh God, Daddy, I miss you so much already!**
"Shanna? Hey, how you doing, sweetheart?" Jason cast a concerned glance in her direction.
She sighed, rubbing her temples, "I'm okay. Just drop me off at home."
He frowned. "I don't like the idea of you being all alone there. You'll just stare at the walls. Maybe it'd be better if I stayed with you for a couple days."
"Yeah...sure..." Her tone was flat, lifeless.
A little less than an hour later, over Shanna's chamomile tea and Jason's coffee, the two were talking at the kitchen table.
"I was going into the Academy next week," Shanna said softly. "Today's the day I meant to tell him. He'd have been so happy I was following in his footsteps."
Jason only nodded.
She rose from the table, picking up a framed photo from the mantel. The picture showed a beaming, uniformed Brian O'Callahan, while a five year-old Shanna played with her father's hat. "This was the day he made detective. Mom and I were so proud of him." Her slender fingers curled around the picture as if it were a man's throat; her face contorted with rage. "And now, because of some...scumbag, he's dead!" Furious, she drew back her arm to hurl the photo across the room, but Jason stopped her.
"Shanna...honey...no. Stop it. Your dad wouldn't want you to act like this." He took a deep breath. "Listen...there's somebody I know who might be able to help you get a grip on this. I'll introduce you in a few days. Right now, you'd be best off getting some rest."
Nodding, she passively allowed herself to be helped to her bedroom, where a deep, dreamless sleep overtook her.
It rained on the day of the funeral, a dark, sooty rain that turned the world gray.
Watching as the casket was lowered into the ground, and numbly accepting the condolences of mourners, Shanna felt as if she were trapped in a melodrama, with no way out.
The next few days were worse in their own way, as she discovered that her father's colleagues were unable to bring the man responsible for his murder to justice. Each assertion that the police could make no evidence stick to Mitchell Gareth added to her frustration and anger.
And then, salvation came unrecognized, when Jason Camtatka arrived at her door with a handsome, dark-haired man in tow.
"Shanna, I'd like you to meet Marc Raven, lawyer extraordinaire. Marc, this is Shanna O'Callahan, the young lady I told you about on the phone."
Raven returned Shanna's handclasp with a strength that was somehow at odds with his innocuous appearance and professed occupation. This man was more then he seemed.
Over tea, the three discussed the legal channels Shanna had open to her, a discussion which she secretly believed was a waste of time; the police had already told her more then once that they could find no evidence against Gareth that would hold up in court.
After about an hour, Jason checked his watch, rising apologetically. "I've got to get back to the station. Sorry we can't stay, Shanna." He turned to Raven. "Come on, Marc. I'll give you a lift back to the legal clinic."
"In a minute, Jason," the dark-haired man said quietly. "I'd like to talk a little more with Ms. O'Callahan."
Jason acknowledged Raven's wishes and headed outside. "See you outside in a few, then."
Once her friend had gone, Shanna faced her guest squarely. "Frankly, Mr. Raven, I don't see how you can help. My father's colleagues at the precinct keep telling me that there's no way to pin anything on the man who ordered his murder."
"Perhaps not legally, Ms. O'Callahan, but believe me, there are other ways." Raven's voice was soft, yet it hid a hint of a hard edge, as a leather holster hides the cold steel of a handgun. Intrigued by this man of seeming dualities, Shanna leaned a fraction closer. "I'm not sure I get your meaning."
In answer, he quickly scribbled something on a sheet of paper and handed it to her. "Here. I have a small place out in the country that you might want to visit. This is the address. Until then, I really must go. I imagine you need time to think about what I've told you." He rose, packing up his briefcase.
"Wait!" she gasped. "What's the idea? You come here, give me an address, and leave? Why?"
He half turned. "Call it a desire to see justice done, Ms. O'Callahan." Then he was gone.
Alone in her bedroom that night, she was still unable to sort through the day's events.
Suddenly, the quiet of the night was shattered as a streak of black shot through her open window, solidifying into a figure clad in tendrils of night. One black-gloved hand reached out to her. A voice came to her ears; although is was distorted by the mask, it seemed oddly familiar.
"Shanna O'Callahan? Marc Raven sent me...I know about your father. I can take you to somebody who'll help you avenge his death."
She tried not to panic. One hand crept to the lamp on the bedside table. It was metal... heavy. If she could take him off guard, then maybe...
She forced herself to sound calm. "How do I know you're telling the truth?"
A faint sigh came to her ears. "You don't. But I can give you something that might let you trust me." One gloved hand unfastened the mask and hood. "My face, Shanna."
She gasped as the doffed mask revealed raven-black hair and a face she recognized.
Twenty minutes later, the two were headed into the country in Marc's car, the young woman not knowing quite why she trusted this man, only that she did.
"So tell me," she asked, "Why does a lawyer spend his nights arriving in people's houses, unannounced, all dressed up like Batman? I mean, there have to be better ways to spend an evening."
He quirked a grin. "There are, But none of them fits in with my night job. Crimefighting doesn't lend itself to fun all that readily."
She had to smile in spite of herself. "You read a lot of comic books when you were a kid, didn't you?"
He sobered. "I'm not a glory-monger, young lady. I'm a hunter. My prey is the most dangerous game...criminals."
"What's your interest in me, then?
"You seem to have as great a desire to see justice done as I do. I want to help you achieve that goal." Then he pointed up the road, to an old farmhouse just a little ways ahead. "That's the one. "
Once inside, Shanna was treated to a tour of the place. To her surprise, it contained a gymnasium and a small martial arts practice floor, as well as one wall completely lined with targets, presumably to serve as a shooting range of some sort.
Marc motioned her upstairs. "You'd better get some sleep while you can. We start your training first thing in the morning.
The next morning, training began in earnest with a round of calisthenics followed by running at dawn. Martial arts training came next, with Shanna silently thanking her mother for teaching her the fundamentals of Judo and Karate. Those skills helped more than a few times as Marc attempted to utilize a variety a throws and kicks on her.
He patted her on the shoulder. "Very good for your first time out!"
She smiled. "My mom was California's Women's Karate champ three years straight. She had me practicing moves since I was big enough to tag along to the dojo."
He grinned. "Good. Then we can skip the basics and move on to something a little more advanced--like THIS!" Suddenly, she was down and pinned to the mat. Then he let her up, winking briefly. "Always remember: no matter how good you are, there will always be somebody better. Never underestimate your opponent."
She nodded. "I'll remember."
He cracked a grin. "Atta girl, Shanna. We're going to get along fine."
The next weeks flowed into a routine: up at five, then calisthenics. Running. Breakfast. Forensics and criminology. Martial arts practice. Gymnastics and acrobatics. Supper. Private time. Lights out.
Though she generally deferred to Marc's superior experience in most matters, on one point was Shanna resolute: she refused to use a gun, preferring instead to use the crossbow, a weapon with which her skill was rapidly approaching the uncanny.
When her mentor questioned her actions, she answered with a slight shrug. "I guess you might say that guns just don't sit well with me. When I see one, all I can think of is that one of those things killed my dad."
He nodded, watching as the steel-headed bolt buried itself in the center of the target, the fifth arrow to do so that in as many shots. "If you keep this up, you won't need a gun. You handle a crossbow like you were born to it."
She smiled; that was high praise coming from her tutor. Then she returned to her practice, her demeanor steady and calm. "Soon," Marc had told her when she questioned when she would see justice done. SOON. She would be ready.
Two weeks later, she was roused from bed by Marc's gentle shaking. "Meet me downstairs in ten minutes. I've got a surprise for you."
Intrigued, she did her morning calisthenics, showered and dressed, then headed downstairs.
Marc waited in the parlor. When she arrived, he grinned at her.
"It's been twelve weeks since we started this. You've performed to the greatest of my expectations in everything I've taught you...even gone beyond in some." He handed her a gaily wrapped package. "You've more then earned this. Happy graduation. Shanna."
Puzzled, she unwrapped and opened the box. Within was a gleaming metal weapon sheathed in a thigh holster of purple leather. Frowning, she withdrew what appeared to be a handgun. She sighed and turned to her teacher. "I appreciate the thought, Teach, but you know how I feel about guns."
He smiled. "Uh-huh. That's why that thing in your hand isn't a gun." He gestured to the weapon. "Hit that stud on the handle."
She did as she as told, and gasped as a collapsible bow snapped into place. "A crossbow?"
He winked. "Not just any crossbow. State of the art, custom made, the only one of its kind. Pure vanadium steel, too."
Touched by the appropriateness of the gift, she gave him an affectionate hug. "Thanks Marc."
He returned the embrace and enjoyed the tender moment for a while, but then he resumed the mask of the properly distant trainer. "Don't go all soft and sentimental on me, now. You'll get sloppy."
She smiled and returned to her cool, collected state, but there was a twinkle in her eyes. "Yes, Teacher." Then the smile disappeared as she faced him squarely. "Am I ready now?"
He nodded. "You're ready."
The next two nights passed uneventfully. On the third night, as the full moon cast an eerie silver light over the landscape, a shadowed figure stood in a silent cemetery. A voice rose, clear and strong, to challenge any who might hear.
"From this moment on, I vow to dedicate my life to bringing your killer to justice!" The figure crouched by one of the stones then, one gloved hand tracing the letters incised into it: BRIAN O'CALLAHAN. The voice dropped to a whisper, the sob of a child who had lost a parent not quite concealed. "I swear it...Daddy...."
As she straightened up, a stray shaft of moonlight illuminated a young woman clad in the deepest blue and violet, a black cape swirling about her shoulders, giving her the illusion of the spread wings of a bird of prey. She looked to the sky, and though only the moon and the gravestones bore witness, the Fates themselves would surely admit that this night, a legend began.
"My father was only the latest in a long line of your victims, Gareth. That line ends tonight. From now on, the night is no longer yours...I claim that territory for myself! So swears NIGHTSTALKER!"
In an alleyway in a deserted stretch of town, a thug, who waited to score his next wallet or purse, was suddenly seized in a viselike grip and lifted him from the ground. A voice came to his ears; soft, yet hiding a tone of menace as a leather sheath might conceal the cold steel blade of a knife. "I need information. Tell me where I can find Mitchell Gareth."
The man squirmed. "I don' gotta tell you nuttin', lady!"
The darkly-cloaked woman who held him smiled; a predator's sharp grin. "Oh, I think I can change your mind." The cold steel point of a knife pricked his throat. "And I'll know if you lie." Her voice grew colder. "I'll only ask one more time, sludge...where's Gareth?" She pressed a bit harder; the skin broke and a thin trickle of blood ran down his neck.
He gulped. Lifting his head, he met the cold merciless gaze of a predator. Her hand hadn't loosened on the knife during the entire episode. Words spilled from his mouth. "Gareth...the top floor of the C.S.A. building...."
She smiled. "Thanks. Now, say good night." With that, she struck lightly at the top of his spine. The pressure point hit, he slumped, unconscious, to the ground.
Reaching to the holster on her thigh, she withdrew her crossbow, and swiftly snapped it into shape. She pulled the trigger, and a black arrow shot into the air, to burst into a three-pronged grappling hook that latched onto a nearby building, trailing a thin, strong line behind it. Within a heartbeat, Nightstalker was scaling the building; within three, she was swinging across the skyline where she would find her quarry.
And when she had him in her sights, she would show no mercy.
Mitchell Gareth leaned back in his chair, surveying the papers on his desk with pride. It hadn't been easy, but he'd managed to secure a convenient exit from the city for himself. If all went well, and the two he'd hired fulfilled their roles, by tomorrow he'd be on a flight to South America, with enough money coming in to enjoy the good life for a long time to come. Not a bad exit for a man whose corporation was one of the largest in the area, in both legal and illegal quarters.
He'd almost lost everything to those two detectives, though. The one had been too close to the operation for Gareth's peace of mind. He had to be eliminated. Strange though, that he couldn't even remember the man's name now. "What the hell was it again? ...Something Irish. O'Brien? O'Hara? O'Rourke? Damn!" he muttered distractedly. "What WAS that dick's name, anyway?"
"It was O'Callahan," came a voice from somewhere in the room. In the next instant, the room was plunged into darkness so thick that it seemed as if it were choking off his air.
His voice quavered in spite of himself. "Who's there?"
He heard a dry chuckle, as the same unknown voice came to his ears again. "What's the matter, big man? Afraid of the dark? Or is it what's in the dark that frightens you?"
His heart pounding, he reached for one of the ledgers on his desk, hurling it into the dark nothingness from which the voice had come. He heard it rebound off the wall with a dull thud; in the next instant, a shaft struck with surgical precision, pinning him to the wall. His hand sweating, he tried to get the drawer of his desk open and find the handgun he kept there for emergencies.
Now the voice was closer, growling in his ear. "You'll have to do better then that, Gareth...better than on the night Brian O'Callahan died! Do you remember that night? You should...because you're going to pay for it!"
He started sweating. "No! You can't pin anything on me! It was a common hood who shot that cop!"
The voice lost none of its iciness. "A 'common hood' who just happened to be on your payroll! Because of you, a good man is dead...now it's time for you to pay--in kind!" The shadows seemed to part, to reveal a woman clad in deepest blue and black, a mask covering the upper half of her face. In one gloved hand, she held a crossbow. He could see the glint of metal that was the arrowhead pointing straight at him. He felt a cold hand close about his heart. "You wouldn't shoot me in cold blood...?" Below her field of vision, his hand found the handle of the revolver in his desk. Slowly, so as not to tip her off, he eased the gun from the drawer.
Nightstalker clenched her free hand into a fist in impotent anger. **He's right, damn him! He deserves it, but he's right...I can't...**
Suddenly, her eye caught the glint of gunmetal in his hand. A flood of scarlet rage rushed over her senses, choking off her reason. "You lousy--! I should have known you'd have a gun stashed!" Rage lending her impetus, she pulled the trigger of her crossbow. Aimed well and true, and propelled by the taut bowstring, the arrow bit into Gareth's chest, it's impact sending him to the floor as it cleaved his breastbone.
Disdainfully stepping over the corpse, she turned her attention to the papers on his desk, and found to her amazement that they contained a great deal of evidence that the police had been unable to find. The police would definitely want to see these!
Suddenly, she caught the scent of gasoline and smoke.
**FIRE!?!** With a gasp, she gathered up the papers and made her exit by way of the window, her arrow-line providing her with transportation.
Less than fifteen minutes later, she saw a lurid orange glow light up the skyline where the C.S.A. Building once stood.
The next morning, Jason Camtatka sat in his office, puzzling over the past night's events. The C.S.A. tower had burned to the ground, leaving nothing but ashes and a few grotesquely melted girders to mark it's passing. A few hours later, the L.A.P.D. had booked two perpetrators who had confessed to setting the fire under orders of Mitchell Gareth. It seemed that he'd decided to have the building torched, collect the insurance, and leave the country. A good plan, except for one small detail: where was Gareth now?
He whirled, and nearly dropped his coffee in the wastebasket. Perched on the windowsill was a young woman in a dark blue leotard and black cape, a mask concealing the upper half of her face.
She tossed an envelope onto his desk. "I think you'll find these interesting."
He opened the envelope; inside was enough evidence to bring down a good part of Gareth's operation. "How did you...?"
A smile tugged at her mouth. "I have my ways. Right now, I've got to go."
He turned back to the envelope for a moment; when he looked at the window again, she had vanished. However, there was a card in the envelope bearing a crescent moon and the legend: NIGHTSTALKER.
Marc Raven was preparing lunch when he heard the sound of a motorcycle coming up the walkway. A few minutes later, Shanna entered the kitchen, a blue dufflebag slung over her shoulder. He grinned at her knowingly.
"So, how did it go?"
She returned the grin as she slipped the bag from her shoulder. "He almost dropped his coffee in the garbage when I showed up on his windowsill. By the way...thanks for letting me use your bike."
Marc chuckled. "Keep it. It suits you better, I think." Then his expression turned serious. "What are you going to do now?"
Sitting down at the table, her eyes dark and unreadable, Shanna thought for a moment or two. When she finally spoke, her words were thoughtful and carefully measured. Mitchell Gareth's operation may be a shambles, but there are too many criminals out there who'll be only too eager to fill the gap. If I'm going to make this mean something, I'm going to have to continue the war on all criminals...and that means keeping my new identity. As Nightstalker, I can fight crime in ways Shanna O'Callahan can't." Then her eyes grew misty. "There's only one more thing I have to do."
The next day, as a soft breeze carried the first tang of autumn throughout the city, a young woman stood in a cemetery, her voice quiet and gentle.
"You know, it almost seemed like the world ended that day...but it didn't. In fact, it's kind of like a new beginning for me. And I'm going to make it count for something...to keep your memory alive." She bent and laid a small bouquet against the headstone. "Goodbye, Daddy. I love you."
Turning up the path, she walked with confident tread into the future.