The rain kept coming down, but the thunder was dying out. It was the last storm of the season and nature was going out with a bang. A bright flash of lightning cut across the sky illuminating the darkness that was Gotham City by night. Puddles filled the streets and almost washed away the crime as crooks and victims alike ran for shelter. Stephanie Brown, formerly the Spoiler but recently made the newest Robin, drove quickly down the thin hidden road that led to the Batcave. Thunder roared overhead and she flinched violently at the noise. Her bike swerved suddenly on the road and missed the turn, slamming into a tree. Steph struggled to right the bike, now bearing a large dent on the side. She heaved and hopped back on the heavily customized motorcycle.
She looked about frantically as if she expected to see something else other than the abandoned-looking road through the woods. Tears streamed down her face, invisible in the streaming rain. Her costume clung in wet tightness to her thin frame as she started the bike and rode off. She was almost at the Batcave, she was almost safe. Slowly she reached up and fingered the wound. The bullet had left a nasty memento.
It had started two nights ago when every one of the larger jewelry stores in Gotham was robbed. Strangely, the crooks never took any money or gold, just large unflawed diamonds. The next night the same thing. Unfortunately, Batman was too preoccupied with an escaped killer to worry about some thieves. But Robin wasn't.
A quick investigation showed little. Security cameras showed several burly men enter and take out the cameras. Clerks and customers present at the robberies remember nothing. All their memories of the robbery were gone, removed by some unknown means.
It hadn't taken long to discover the thieves' next target. As it turned out by one of those massive coincidences that always seem to happen the fabled Heart of Quarac, which was luckily out of the country when it was destroyed, was on load to the Gotham Museum. Being one of the top twenty largest and most beautiful diamonds of the world, it seemed much too tempting for the thieves to pass up. Steph decided to stake out the museum that night.
The Gotham Museum was broken into almost on a weekly basis but the security was never tightened. It was still a cakewalk to bypass. Robin pulled off the pane of glass, attached a Batrope to the wall and slid down into the museum, replacing the glass above her as she went. The floor was covered in pressure sensitive pads that responded to the slightest weight. She slid along the handrails on the wall, conveniently put there for the blind and occasional thief, every now and then hopping onto displays and occasionally swinging across a room on a Batrope.
She reached the gem and rock wing that was full of geodes and other shiny stones, as well as a standard laser sights security web. Anyone who broke the laser's connection would trigger a series of alarms that would seal the room and signal the police. Steph smiled, put on a pair or goggles and removed a small globe from her belt. The small sphere clumsily rolled into the middle of the archway into the room before it clicked to life and shooting out a halo of red laser light in all directions. Even with her goggles on Robin saw the red glow. She walked through the arc, reached back and picked up the sphere. As she pocketed it she wondered how much it had cost. Being a millionaire playboy had its advantages.
The room was filled with several dozen large display cases full of every conceivable variety of rock or precious stone. Larger roped off displays held the more valuable stones, such as the Heart of Qurac, which sat behind thick plexi-glass on a pressure sensitive cushion. Steph placed herself strategically behind the obsidian display case and waited.
The Batcave's hidden entrance swung open and she skidded almost out of control into her bike's stall. She slammed into the wall and rolled off her bike onto the rocky ground. The cave swam around her. "Damn..." she thought, "...I dented my fender too..." Blood loss was taking its toll. She felt like she'd been on an all night bender. Her legs were on strike and no longer listened to her. Distantly she heard footsteps, Alfred most likely. "Heh," She laughed out loud. Alfred was always chastising Bruce for not getting any sleep but the faithful butler was always awake when they came home, ready to come running with the first aid kit and sandwiches. She felt cold, as cold as she had in the museum.
Almost no one was there at night so the heating was turned off to save on power. The guards had gotten used to it and had taken to wearing thicker coats. Steph shivered slightly in her thin costume. She hoped her Kevlar was thick enough. It was hard enough to be taken seriously as a super hero when you're a teen or a girl, let alone a teen girl. The absolute last thing she needed was for her nipples to poke out through the costume. She smiled to herself, what kind of dork would design a costume like that? No one would take you seriously...
She froze as she heard footsteps. She could hear several large clumsy people walking right across the pressure pads up to the archway. There were no alarms. Up to the lasers. They stopped right before the crisscrossing light and a voice broke the silence. "Well what are you waiting for, my guard chum, through yonder portal we must go."
From her vantage point Robin could not see who was speaking, but he was definitely British. "Hmm," she though, "Maybe it's Sean Connery acting out scenes from 'Entrapment'," she joked to herself.
Fingers hit buttons entering an exact code shutting down the alarm lights. A bulkily clad guard strolled inside the gem room. He stared forward blankly like he was drugged.
"But boss," a gruffer and blatantly American voice said, "What about the alarms on the cases? I thought ya said only da owner could turn em off."
Steph slinked about trying to get a look at the 'boss'. She got a glimpse of big shoes and a long coat but then a towering man-ape blocked her view. "Oh ye of so very little faith and even littler brains," the British voice said calmly with an air of dignity and distain. "Get on the wireless and let your coworker know it is time."
The brute pulled out a cell phone and hit a speed dial button, "Yeah, uh-huh, boss says 'now', uh-huh," he muttered into the phone.
The lights suddenly when out and the museum was plunged into darkness. "They must have cut the power to the entire block," Steph thought and smiled. She was trained to work in the dark. They were at the disadvantage now.
She counted until twenty for them to get comfortable enough to spread out and start moving to the diamond. She activated her starlite lenses and flipped out with a jump kick off the display case.
She caught the first hired grunt in the solar plexus, then followed that by slamming the heel of her hand hard into his chin. He stumbled back, stunned, and she turned towards the other two brutes and their employer.
The boss spun around and there was a flash of light. Her lenses amplified the light to blinding levels. Steph staggered back, startled, her eyes seeing only white and her hand clawing at her face attempting to turn off the lenses. She tripped over something and several large meaty fists fell on her. She felt pain blossom and everything faded out.
She had been beaten up by the henchmen. She remembered that now as Alfred injected her with painkillers. She felt the same wooziness from being unconscious as from the numbing agent. The same disorientation and loss of absolute reality. Alfred helped her to the operating room, "every secret hideaway should have one of these..." she muttered to herself.
Everything slowly swam back into focus. Steph blinked. Something wasn't right. The world was upside down! She turned left and right before she looked down, or rather up, and saw she was tied upside-down and suspended from the ceiling of the gem room. Robin looked around the room and saw the three hired muscle men were still around, as was the drugged guard. And the boss. He had turned one of the display cases into a makeshift chair and was working on what looked like a large tube with multiple diamonds on the front end. It was what had blinded her before. She recognized the Heart of Quarac in the middle.
He looked up and smiled, Robin's head snapped back in recognition. "Mad Hatter?!?"
"Hello my dear. I see we're awake."
"Oh gawd, I'll never live this down," Steph moaned. "Taken down by the Mad Hatter."
The Mad Hatter hopped off his chair and slinked about the room. "You were not what I was expecting either, my dear. I thought you were that pesky Bat, not a little lost Alice." He slid up to her and ran a hand down her face. "You just wandered down the wrong rabbit hole and into a mess that might cost you your head."
One of the flunkies cracked his knuckles loudly.
Steph swallowed. She had to think but all the blood was running to her head and making her woozy. Like a concussion or painkillers. "So you're a petty diamond thief now, Hatter?" she asked in her most condescending tone of voice. "Breaking into museums and jewelry stores. Looking to make a diamond studded hat? Compensating for anything?"
Hatter's face shifted to pure rage and he backhanded her. "Watch your mouth, little Miss. Or someone will watch it for you."
The Mad Hatter turned and picked up the large cylinder and ran his hand down the shaft gently. "No I have something much grander in mind," he said laughingly. "Being crowned King of Gotham."
"And a shiny diamond tipped pimp-stick is going to do that?"
The Hatter smiled. "Oh this is more than that, my dear," Hatter said. "The human mind is a wondrous thing. So complex and yet so simple, a miracle of simplification. The whole body is including the eyes. Windows to the soul and the mind." Hatter continued spinning and dancing about the room. "The proper sequence of light sent though the eyes to the brain does the strangest things to the human psyche. The mind becomes pliable, malleable and ever so co-operative. Isn't that right, Mr. Security Guard?"
"Yes, that is so, Mister Mad Hatter."
The Mad Hatter giggled. "Oh, what a wondrous toy, an un-birthday present for me to share with the world," he said, hugging the tube tight to his chest as he twirled around the room. "With the diamonds atop this powerful flashlight, it hypnotizes anyone I shine it on. And with this I will control the city."
Robin nodded slightly. "Lotta people to get through. If you start now you might finish by the next decade or so. Assuming no one has kids in the meantime."
Hatter giggled again. "Oh, my poor, naive little soul," he said putting his cheek on hers. "I'll let you in on a secret."
Robin struggled again, testing the bond tightly wrapped around her wrists.
Hatter began whispering softly into her ear. "It is so simple. It really is. This small toy is but a miniature version of the one I will make using the rest of the pilfered gemstones. The larger one will be thirty times as bright and powerful and be mounted atop the highest building in Gotham!"
Robin snickered. "But what about everyone on the other side of town? Won't they be facing the wrong way for the light?"
"Ah, you underestimate my genius and my cunning. My cunning genius. It will rotate!" Hatter said proudly.
"Like the earth around it's celestial light. Or the lighthouse on a rock-strewn beach."
"What about people facing the wrong way, or actually in that building?"
"Oh I'll move it occasionally. Then the whole city will be mine! Forever!" Hatter declared, chucking evilly.
"Except for the blind."
"Well... maybe not the blind."
"Or the extremely nearsighted. Or people who constantly wear sunglasses."
"Or those people who don't look up and stare at the ground all the time."
"ENOUGH!" The Mad Hatter roared. "You test my patience, my dear."
"It may not render absolutely everyone my mind-slave but it will affect enough. The rest will be dealt with," Hatter said. "Starting with you." He turned the flashlight on and the hypnotic light streamed through the crystalline rock and at Robin.
Her face was engulfed in white light again, only this time she wasn't saved from hypnosis by blindness. Robin twisted slightly then went limp, her features slackened and her muscles relaxed. Her defiant grin loosened into emotionless.
Hatter smiled. "Cut her down." The lackeys hopped to work and pulled the helpless hero off the rope. They straightened her up and put her on her feet. She swayed back and forth before straightening and staring blankly ahead.
Hatter stepped forward. "And who do you serve, my dear?"
"You, Mr. Hat." Robin monotoned.
Hatter grimaced. "No, no, no. I don't like that name."
"Then complain to Mr. Garrison," Robin joked.
Hatter blinked. "Who?" He scratched his head slightly. "Wait, how could you make a joke when hypnotized?"
Robin smiled and sprang to life. She ducked down and swept her leg out toppling one of the guards while lobbing a smoke pellet at another's face.
Steph flipped over and ran out of the gem room into some place with more maneuverability. One of the henchmen followed her. She tossed a handful of ball bearings in his path and watched as he slipped and slid out of control. Robin hopped on top of him and drove her fist into his face. He was still awake. She did it again.
Hatter muttered to himself and fanned the smoke away from his eyes. "Find her!" he yelled at the remaining henchmen. They ran out of the room.
Hatter grabbed the few remaining diamonds, picked up his hypno-ray, and ran from the room. "I believe it is time for a hasty retreat."
A bolo came out of the darkness and wrapped itself around his feet. He toppled over and came smashing down into the ground. His hat toppled off and his hypno-ray rolled away and into Robin's waiting hands.
Hatter struggled to a sitting position. "But how? How did you resist my ray?"
Robin shrugged. "I closed my eyes."
She kept smiling until the police arrived and found the gift-wrapped bundle of villain and henchmen with several small bags of stolen diamonds that the Mad Hatter had conveniently left in his van outside instead of his lair.
Robin was still smiling as she leapt from rooftop to rooftop. She had saved the day and stopped the bad guy. The sky was the opposite of how she felt, all gray and dark. Clouds above swelled with moisture. It hadn't started to rain yet, but the clouds wanted to. Steph decided to hurry home before the downpour started, but she felt like treating herself to a sundae as a reward for a job well done. Then she saw the gun through the window.
It was a robber sticking up a convenience store. The shopkeeper had his hands high in the air. Robin shook her head, was her job never done? She threw a grappling hook on top of the store and swung down. The doors triggered at her motion and slid open just enough. She hit the robber with full momentum sending him flying across the store into the far wall as she rolled to a graceful stop. The stickup man was out like a light.
The shopkeeper blinked. Robin smiled and waved, "No need to thank me, all in a days work for Robin, the girl wonde-"
She was stopped by a thunder crack. Outside it had just started to rain, wetness covering the small store. But there had been no lightning yet!
She collapsed as pain spread through her face, she crumpled to the side and caught sight of the smoking gun. A second robber. She hadn't seen him and she had been so happy from stopping the Mad Hatter she had completely forgotten to check. Dumb mistake. Amateur mistake. Her vision went red from pain and blood that streamed from her head. There was a second gunpowder explosion.
She waited for it to end, for the bright light to stretch out in front of her. The third of the night. But only crimson darkness invaded her sight. The robber flew backwards into the potato chip display. The shopkeeper stood holding his smoking shotgun.
Robin slowly got up, she felt dizzy and sick. She saw the body of the second robber lying limply on the ruined bags of crushed chips, the red wound still steaming from the shells. She hunched over and puked. The shopkeeper rested a meaty hand on her shoulder, his voice was thick with an eastern European accent.
"Are you alright, Miss?" he asked.
She grabbed something from the floor and ran from the store as fast as her shaking legs could take her. "Some hero," she thought grimly, "Saved by the victim."
She ignored the rain until she found her bike, right where she had stashed it. She had to go home. Her head ached and her mouth tasted of vomit.
She wrapped herself in a blanket inside a living room in the Wayne Manor. A fire softly illuminated the room, casting as much shadow as it did light. She touched the stitches on her face. She could feel them with her fingers but not her head. Her face still felt painfully numb, even after a day or two. Alfred was good, she might not even have a real scar.
She picked up the gun from where it lay on the coffee table beside her Robin uniform. Alfred had fixed the mask and got the blood out, but it was still stained. She just couldn't see the bloodstains, but she knew they were there. The gun was heavy in her hand. For some reason she could not remember why she had grabbed it when she fled from the store. She had a good reason at the time. What was it again? Unimportant.
She held the gun in her hands. Perfect sight and a nice straight barrel. A well made lethal device. It should not have missed, but it had only grazed her instead of taking her head off. The gunman was just a bad shot. Or a good shot having a bad day. She hadn't twitched, hadn't moved slightly to the side, he had just missed. If he had taken another second to properly line up the shot, she would be dead.
The gun was cool and heavy. They never seemed as heavy on TV, when people tossed them around sending out random death. That's what it was. Random. Meaningless. Stephanie knew it was dangerous, she had always known that she could die doing what she did. But not from some punk with a lucky shot.
That was all it took: one unlucky day on your part or one lucky day on theirs. Steph shivered and pulled her blanket tighter around herself. She turned away from the fire and looked outside. The rain had stopped yesterday but the clouds had remained. Dark and dreary. Then a brightness sprung from downtown. A single bright yellow light hit the clouds, a bright yellow light with its black symbol inside.
The Batsignal. Somewhere Batman and Robin were needed. Steph knew Bruce would already be on his way there. She was fine now. No reason she couldn't join him. It was pretty much just a deep scratch now and Bruce had worked with stab wounds and 3rd degree burns. She looked at her costume. She should pull it on and get to work saving lives. It was her job. She didn't move and the blanket stayed tight around her. She just stared at it. Stared at her costume. Looking for stains.