Nightstalker came to herself with excruciating slowness, hurting in every corner of her body. Each individual cell had its own movement in a symphony of agony. She tried to move, found that brought more pain, and flopped back on the cold pavement, marshaling her waning strength for another try. Thoughts spiraled through her throbbing brain.
**Bust gone bad... Brainstorm got away... took me out... it HURTS!**
She took a deep breath, feeling a stab of pain in her chest at the action, and nearly passed out again, but clung to wakefulness by her fingernails, feeling that tenuous hold slowly begin to slip.
There was a sticky wetness on what was left of her costume. It took her several minutes to realize that it was her own blood. **Ohgod...sweet Mary and Jesus, it can't end this way.... C'mon, Shanna, get up...I'm Nightstalker, dammit! Nightstalker!**
She took another deep breath, and the effort brought on a spasm of coughing that left her unable to do more than wait for it to pass. One hand scrabbled on the cold concrete for a weapon that wasn't there. **My crossbow... gotta get... my... crossboowww....**
The blackness closed in on her again.
Across town in a small bistro, five individuals waited pensively for the arrival of a sixth. It was long past the time she had promised to come, and more than one of the little group was worried.
"Shouldn't Shanna be here by now?" Lita asked, frowning as she eyed the empty place at the table. "After all, it is her party."
Tatsu shrugged. "She said she had some business to finish...and she isn't the type to look at a clock while she's working." Despite her light tone, she caught her lip between her teeth, the way she always did when she was worried, her long, graceful hands absently toying with her silverware.
Olivia tried to lighten the mood a bit. "I can't believe she'd take a case on her birthday!" Then she paused. "On second thought, maybe I can."
Marc steepled his fingers at the level of his chin, turning things over in his mind. "It isn't like Shanna to be late...she may be in trouble. Derek is making inquiries."
At that moment, Derek had the precinct on the line. "Hello...I need to speak with Officer Rice." A pause. "Chelsea? Derek Shaw. Listen...I need a favor. Can you give me the lowdown on those warrants you gave Nightstalker? Yes, I'll hold...."
A few minutes later, he returned to the table. Warrant officer Rice gave me a name...Brainstorm. Ring a bell?"
Tatsu snapped her fingers. "Yes! Brainstorm was her planned target for tonight."
"It might be wise to assume Shanna is in need of our assistance," Francesca remarked thoughtfully, rising from her chair.
Marc nodded, beckoning to the waiter. "Check please, Jean-Paul."
The young man nodded. "Of course, Mr. Raven. Will that be all?" Marc gave a brief nod.
Minutes later, the little group was on their way to search for their missing compatriot.
Less than a mile away, the object of the search was slowly returning to consciousness. A bitter smile twisted her bleeding lips. **Happy...flippin'...birthday, Shanna. Many unhappy returns.**
She saw the glint of light on her crossbow. It was only a few feet away, but in her condition that seemed like a thousand miles. She tried to rise, but her legs refused to obey. Slowly, inch by painful inch, she crawled to where it was within her reach.
The crossbow was in her grasp now; she curled her fingers around the handle in a death-lock. **If I'm gonna go, I'm gonna go fighting.** The bolt was still loaded, a point in her favor. She blessed the locking system Marc had installed for her. If Brainstorm came back to finish the job, she'd have at least one chance.
Now that she'd accomplished the task, she felt herself slipping from the small island of awareness into a vast sea of blackness, and tried desperately to hold on to consciousness. **Focus. Don't. Let. Go.** She tried to gain her feet, felt a wave of agony wash over her again, and drowned. With a sound that was part scream, part whimper, she sank beneath the rising tide of darkness and silence.
When the body has been tasked beyond endurance, the mind will often take refuge in dreams. So it was with Nightstalker. Her body badly beaten, her mind took her into the past, where she had been safe, warm and free of pain.
Dawn's pink light was tinging the sky as she snuggled against Derek, bathing in the afterglow of their recent lovemaking.
He rubbed his cheek against the crown of dark hair on top of her head. "Enjoying yourself?"
She rested her head against the tangle of dark curls on his chest, enjoying the faint scent of citrusy aftershave and his own spicy male aroma. "Immensely."
He playfully toyed with the midnight silk at the nape of her neck. "Want to go again?"
She swatted his chest lightly. "Don't be greedy," she said in a mock scolding tone. "Besides, it's almost morning, and I'm due to meet with my publisher at nine. And isn't the precinct expecting you in this morning?"
He nodded, extricating himself from the tangle of the bedclothes with a faint sigh. "Much as I'd like to stay here with you where it's nice, warm and fun...you're right." Standing up, he stretched his lean, muscular body to its full height, then reached for the gym bag on the floor which contained a set of clean clothes while his lady made for the shower.
Ten minutes later, he was ready for the ride across town to work, when Shanna emerged from the bathroom, her hair done and makeup finished. He grinned at her. "How about a kiss for the road?" She smiled and and pulled him close, then pressed her lips to his. His arms slipped lightly around her waist; he was unwilling to let the moment end. But end it did, and he went on his way, though reluctantly.
Alone, Shanna was abruptly jarred from her pleasant remembrances of the night before by the insistent jangling of the phone. With a sigh, she answered it. "Hello?"
"Nightstalker? Chelsea Rice here. I've got those warrants you asked for...do you want to pick them up, or should I give 'em to Detective Shaw?"
Shanna made a quick run-through of the day's schedule in her head. "Could you hold them 'til this afternoon? I'll be there to pick them up...say around three?"
"No prob. I'll hold them for you...and I'll even make sure Lt. Kelley doesn't get wind of it. Catch ya later!" Her streetwise speech becoming noticeably less concealed, Chelsea hung up. Shanna sighed, stuffing her costume into the ancient denim-blue duffel bag that held all her necessities, from makeup to paperbacks for long bus rides. Pausing only long enough to hastily finish some toast spread with raspberry jam and the remains of a glass of iced tea, she was out the door.
At two fifty-nine that afternoon, Chelsea Rice was enjoying a carob raisin break when she was interrupted by a familiar voice.
"Carob raisin, Chelsea?"
The red-headed warrant officer looked up to see Nightstalker giving her a friendly smile, which she returned with one of her own before responding. "Yeah, donuts don't mix with an exercise program." Reaching into the wire basket on her desk, she retrieved a package of computer disks, which she then extended to Nightstalker. "Got these for you special delivery."
The darker woman nodded, tucking them into the pouch on her belt. "Thanks, Chelsea. I'll put these to good use."
The angry bellow startled both women, who turned as one to behold a very large, very angry man bearing down on them like an enraged bull.
Lieutenant Michael Kelley, six feet three inches and two hundred twenty pounds of pure hostility, glared furiously at Nightstalker, his face nearly as red as his hair. "What the hell are you doing here? My officers have better things to do with their time than waste it helping you do their jobs!"
The black haired heroine arched an eyebrow at her assailant. "Gee, you'd think they'd appreciate my lightening the workload."
Kelley was not amused. "Cut the smart remarks, lady! If I ever catch you in my station again, you'll be back out of it before you can spit!" With that, he stalked into his office, slamming the door behind him.
"Your station, Lieutenant?" quipped the black-cloaked vigilante. "I didn't realize you'd taken a mortgage out on it."
"Ah, don't mind him," returned Chelsea. "He gripes on everybody."
Nightstalker grinned. "Be that as it may, I wouldn't want to wear out my welcome too soon...Besides, I've gotta get cracking on these warrants." She patted the pouch at her hip. "See you around!"
Minutes later, she was swinging across the Los Angeles skyline. The wind tossed her hair back and caused her cape to billow out behind her.
Reality intruded relentlessly upon memory, and Nightstalker found herself all too soon back in her crumpled, pain-wracked body despite her attempts to cling to the pain-free world of the recent past. Thoughts cascaded through her fogged brain.
**Brainstorm thinks...I'm dead. Warrants were for robbery, not murder. He'll be back to...ditch my body!** She gave a short, mirthless bark of laughter. **He's in for a nasty surprise; I'm not finished yet.**
Like a wolf injured on the hunt, who knows it must find a place to heal, or lose its life to other predators, Nightstalker knew she had to find cover. Bracing her ribs with one arm, she clawed her way to a standing position using a nearby wall, and took a step...another...another....
Suddenly, a wave of dizziness washed over her, battering away any resistance. With a half-strangled cry, she collapsed. She fell into a world of fever dreams and nightmares.
"You're not going after Brainstorm!"
Shanna looked up from the computer screen. "Why the hell not? God knows that maniac shouldn't be running around loose, and the L.A.P.D. hasn't made any headway into busting him!"
She was seated at her computer, her cape, mask, and utility belt laid out and ready in a nearby chair. She took a deep breath and looked up at Derek, who had just given the vehement outburst. "Listen, didn't Tatsu and I bag the Tigress at the museum benefit last week?"
He exhaled sharply. "Yeah, and the cat-woman nearly raked your arm open!" He took her hand in his. "Listen, honey...Brainstorm's dangerous! He's already put three officers in the hospital, and two of those are on the critical list!" His voice dropped to a quiet plea, meant for her ears alone. "I just don't want you hurt, is all."
She carefully returned the disk to its case and rose, retrieving her equipment. "I won't be. Look, I know every bit of information you have on him up, down, backwards and sideways. There's no way he'll be able to surprise me." With a smooth, unhurried grace, she buckled on her belt, attached her cape to the neckline of her leotard and then put on her mask. Smiling tenderly at him, she gave him a quick kiss on the cheek. "I'll be back in time for dinner."
He pulled away. "Don't make jokes about this, Shanna. It isn't funny." He sighed. "Look, did you ever think that, well, maybe the time for being Nightstalker is past?"
She stopped dead while getting out her grapple and line. "What?"
Now it was his turn to draw a deep breath. "I won't deny that you've done a lot of good. But it's been almost two years since your Dad died. Maybe it's time you left this sort of thing to someone else."
Her features set in a hard line. "Like the police? Need I remind you, Detective, that most of your colleagues don't have my training, or my reputation on the streets? The rats in their holes out there need someone to keep them in line."
He sighed. "And you're the only one who can do that?" His fingernails dug into his palms as he curled his hands into tight fists. "There's gotta be another reason why you put on that outfit and beat on scum night after night!" His eyes narrowed. "I'm beginning to wonder who the woman I'm dating really is--Shanna O'Callahan, or Nightstalker!"
A myriad of emotions churned inside her, and before she knew it, she felt compelled to unleash the full fury of her father's Irish temper on him. "That was a dirty shot, Shaw, and you know it!"
His own emotions strained painfully taut, Derek was all too ready to return outburst for outburst. "Maybe you needed it, to knock some sense into that stubborn head of yours!" Too late, the words burst out, and he would have apologized but for the words that exploded from her lips .
"This isn't about my being Nightstalker at all, is it? It's about some macho need for you to have control over this relationship! Well, this is the way it is. If you don't like it, get out!"
He reached for her arm, then thought better of it. "Shanna...."
She whirled on him, cheeks hot with fury. "I said, get out! Or do I have to throw you out?"
He was out the door without looking back even once. Left alone, she sank into a convenient chair to collect herself. Her gaze lingered on the phone for several minutes, then returned to the warrants on the table. Decisively, she flung wide the window, tossed her grapple, and swung out into the orange and red tinted sky.
By the time twilight gave way to the mystery and comfortable concealment of the night, the dichotomy between her two selves was complete. Shanna O'Callahan was no longer; all that she was had been subsumed into the persona of Nightstalker, the Daughter of Darkness.
She landed with the grace of a diving bird on a shadowy ledge overlooking the city's mean streets--a place where the representatives of humanity's worst traits plied their trades with impunity.
A predatory grin stretched her lips. That was about to change. In a few minutes, if her information had been correct, there would be one less two-legged jackal in this lioness's territory.
As she watched from her perch, a man entered the nightclub just below. Her quarry had arrived right on schedule. As he laid a hand on the door handle, she rose from a crouch and rapped out a single sentence in a crisp, commanding tone, "Gilbert Janstone, AKA Brainstorm--you're under arrest."
He whirled, and she allowed herself a small chuckle. "Up here, stupid." Seizing a previously primed line, she swung out into space, stun arrow loaded for the capture. But as fast as she was, Brainstorm was even faster. Before she could connect with him, he whipped out a small rectangular object and aimed it at her, pushing a button with a growled, "Up yours, stupid!"
The information in the warrant had been cut and dried: "Subject possess electronic device which emits a signal capable of inducing hallucinations in any individual caught in it's three-meter radius of effect." Nothing could have prepared her for experiencing it firsthand. Her mouth went utterly dry, her heart seemed to explode with every painful beat, every breath was agony as every fear, every nightmare, every terror she had ever experienced was relived and relived and relived. The stark terrors of childhood nightmares broke free of their cage in her subconscious mind; she felt her mother die in a car wreck, experienced her father's pain as a bullet tore into his body....
The haze reddened, but the pain remained, and she suddenly realized with a shock that the gunshot had been no illusion. The deep midnight blue of her costume was already stained with crimson. She groped for the line, but suddenly the wind was knocked out of her by a devastating blow from behind. Her crossbow fell from her grasp and skidded across the alleyway.
Just before everything went dark, she glimpsed her quarry holding a handgun by it's muzzle and berated itself for her carelessness.
**Can't stand...can't walk...crossbow's gone...stupid, stupid, stupid! You let him get the drop on you...and now you're nailed.**
Darkness took her.
Having brought her back up to the present, the memories receded back into the mists of her unconscious mind. She awoke in the shadow of a nearby building, noticing that it had grown colder than she remembered it being. How long had she been out? Minutes? Hours? Days? She could not remember. The darkness yawned beneath her, its soft, seductive touch beckoning her like a lover. How easy it would be to just let go, slip into the darkness and not feel any more pain....
**NO!!!** The denial was like a bucket of ice water in her face, shocking her back to awareness.
In some people, the will to survive is as hard as a steel hawser. In Nightstalker, it was as invulnerable as a stone wall. Pushing the pain back to the farthest reaches of her consciousness, she pressed her back to the wall, teeth bared in a predator's snarl. Though wounded and cornered, this tigress would fight the Dark Hunter down to the last ounce of her strength. And if the hyena who had done this to her returned, he would feel her claws before she gave up her last breath.
She sat back, waiting.
While the Daughter of Darkness prepared to fight what might be her final battle, her compatriots had assembled in her apartment, laboring to discover where she might be.
At the computer, Derek was scrolling through the file on Brainstorm. "I think I've got a lead...Brainstorm's known to frequent a club called the Nightcrawler, over on the lower east side of town. If he's there, there's a good chance Shanna is, too."
"What are we waiting for?" queried an anxious Olivia. "Let's go!"
"Uno momento," returned the detective. "Going after Brainstorm half cocked is not the thing to do. I'm calling for backup...and if Brainstorm's hurt Shanna, he's going to get what he deserves." He held up his service revolver, the room's light glinting menacingly off its barrel, before tucking the weapon into its holster.
After a quickly placed call to Dispatch for police backup, Derek joined his companions in their trip to the Nightcrawler, a silent prayer forming on his lips.
Nightstalker pushed her back against the wall, one hand gripping her crossbow so tightly that she could feel the metal of the handle digging through her glove. Once more, she silently reiterated her vow to fight to the last if she must.
Footsteps came to her ears. **Brainstorm?**
Tatsu turned into the alley, and nearly felt her heart stop as she saw the crumpled figure propped against the wall. Her steps quickened. "Shanna?"
At the sound of a familiar voice, Nightstalker lifted her head, wondering if this were merely a hallucination, some trick of a mind spinning slowly unto death. Then the figure was kneeling beside her, curling strong arms around her. "Shanna! Shanna, it's Tatsu!"
Not a dream! Incredibly, not a dream! With a sigh of relief, Nightstalker embraced her cousin as best she could and managed a weak smile. "Come to wish me...happy birthday?"
Tatsu returned the hug fiercely, feeling tears start in her eyes. "Never mind the jokes; we've got to get you out of here!"
Suddenly a faint thud caught the young Japanese woman's ears. In a flash, she'd half turned, one arm still curled protectively around her cousin, one of the spikes in her hair primed to be thrown.
Brainstorm chuckled nastily as he eyed the two young women. "Take a good, long look, little girls, 'cause I'm the last thing you're ever gonna see before you die."
"Get stuffed, big man," returned Tatsu, the cool, tempered steel of her throwing spike warming in her fingers. If she could just stall him long enough for the cavalry to arrive, then maybe....
He sneered. "You got one helluva attitude problem, trash. Maybe I'll take care of you first."
Derek, just arriving on the scene, sized things up in an eyeblink. He drew his pistol and assumed a commanding stance, barking out a single command. "Freeze--police!"
Whirling, the other man snickered as he pulled the hallucinator from his belt. "Dream on, flatfoot!" With that, he sent a barrage of hallucinations at the younger man.
"Derek..." Nightstalker murmured through bruised and swollen lips. Then she grabbed her cousin's arm. "Tatsu...hold me...help me...raise...crossbow." Her cousin did as she was told.
Drawing on the last of her strength, the Daughter of Darkness projected every last iota or righteous wrath into her voice. "Okay Brainstorm--you're busted!" She squeezed the trigger.
The short shafted, blunt headed arrow struck Brainstorm in the back, generating a stunning jolt of electricity that short-circuted his nervous system. As he fell to the ground, Derek trained his pistol on him. "You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney."
"Blah, blah, blah," quipped an arriving Lieutenant Kelley. "I'll take it from here, Shaw. Better see to Nightstalker."
Tatsu felt the other young woman go limp in her grasp, and her own heart nearly stopped. "For God's sake, somebody get an ambulance!"
Hours later, the little group--less one--waited pensively in a lounge at Saint Luke's Hospital. There were signs of strain on everyone's faces; even Francesca's exquisitely pale countenance was drawn with worry.
Finally, a youngish woman in a while uniform entered the room. "Miss O'Callahan's condition has stabilized, and that's a very good sign. If you like, the doctor will see you now."
Meanwhile, in a room down the hall, Shanna O'Callahan opened her eyes to behold the relieved-looking--and most welcome--face of Derek Shaw. She tried to smile. "Come to say farewell to the birthday girl?"
He smiled, though a tear traced its way down his cheek. "You say goodbye, I say hello."
She reached out a swollen hand and felt it immediately caught up in Derek's solid, reassuring grip. Her sight was starting to blur, but whether it was from the medication the doctors had given her or from tears she was unable to tell. "Derek, I've been such a fool...I'm so sorry."
He gave her hand a comforting squeeze. "About Tuesday? Don't worry about it." He bent over her and dropped a kiss on her cheek where the skin was bare of bandage. "Get well, and and we'll talk. A lot. Just please...get well."