Author's Notes: This is a Halloween-themed story featuring Cassandra Cain as Batgirl. It is set roughly around the time of the Batman and Batgirl comics which were being published in late 2001, after Batman had set her up with her own Cave in Gotham City. However, as with other Batgirl stories which I've written, I assume that Cassandra already has learned that Bruce Wayne is Batman, even though this is set before the events of the "Bruce Wayne: Murderer?" story arc, which was when she found out in the regular comic books. Other than that, I try to conform to the continuity of that era. (If you really don't know or care about the nitpicking details of comic book continuity from around 2001, then you probably don't need to worry about this paragraph either.)
I'm starting it now in hopes of actually having the final chapter ready to post by Halloween.
Chapter One: Where There's Smoke
October Thirty-First. Just another day to Cassandra Cain, but people she trusted—namely Batman and Oracle—had been warning her for days that it was a "holiday occasion" to other people, and this would lead to unusual patterns of behavior. For instance, lots of people would be wearing "Halloween costumes" on their way to and from "parties."
Batman, a professional pessimist, had stressed the point that Cassandra really shouldn't attack anyone just because they were silly enough to disguise themselves as Two-Face, or Joker, or any of the other "usual suspects" in Gotham City. He could have saved himself the trouble, really. Cassandra wasn't one of these people who got all uptight over what other people were wearing on any given night. She could spot at a glance the difference between a warm-hearted nurse dressed as a wicked witch and a professional assassin dressed as a funny animal. And after meeting them once, she'd know them again, with or without the masks.
Ever since she'd met Batman and started being introduced to some of His fellow "superheroes," one of the things Cassandra had found particularly hard to grasp was the way most of the costumed "superheroes" in the United States took it for granted that wearing those flimsy little masks would actually conceal their identities from people who already knew them in their other roles. Cassandra always knew perfectly well who Batman or Robin or Nightwing were, whether they were wearing masks and costumes, or suits and ties, or just swim trunks as they lounged by a pool, or whatever. Having met them before, she would have known any of them again, even if they began wearing steel helmets to cover their entire heads.
It had taken her some time, after she arrived in Gotham, to really come to terms with the idea that those silly masks actually worked on most observers. Sure, Cassandra had long known that she was way better than average at reading other people—but most of the people she'd met in other parts of the world hadn't bothered wearing masks in the first place, so that was one area where she'd never had to gauge her own perceptions against everybody else's.
Barbara had once said that what Cassandra could do with the nuances of body language must be very much like having "perfect pitch." She said that sometimes a person with perfect pitch had a terrible time believing his friends and family couldn't hear (and identify) exactly what he heard in a piece of music, no matter how hard they tried.
(Then she'd gotten distracted by the sudden realization that she had no idea whether or not Cassandra had "perfect pitch" too, and insisted upon testing for it right away. The answer was "no.")
Now the sun was setting, and Cassandra was finishing up an exercise session in the separate Cave Batman had fixed up for her recently. Time to hit the streets. Cassandra pulled on her costume and resolved to think of herself as "Batgirl" for the next few hours, after she left the Cave. It would be good practice. Batman and Barbara and the others were very fussy about the "secret identity" thing. For most of her life, Cassandra had been very weak on the concept of "names"—she could tell people apart, but she couldn't learn their names for future reference because her language skills were almost exclusively in the area of "body language." An encounter with a sympathetic telepath had led to some drastic changes in how her brain functioned, and she'd quickly started matching up names with faces; this apparently being a very important "social skill" for normal people to have. It was rude to call one person by another's name.
But she rapidly learned it was more complicated than that—people often had many different names, and sometimes you could get in trouble if you called a person by a name that was "wrong" for him at a particular time and place, even if it would have been fine in a different setting.
Batman, for instance, was Batman, Bats, Bruce, Master Bruce, Brucie, Bruce Wayne, Wayne, Mister Wayne, Boss, Chief, Sir, and a few other names, depending upon who was speaking to Him, and which role He was playing, and what mood the speaker was in, and some other variables Cassandra didn't understand at all. For instance, Alfred often addressed Him as Master Bruce, but she never heard anyone else do so—she didn't know what made Alfred's case different. (Batman had recently told her she'd be fine if she stuck with two simple rules: Just call Him "Bruce" when He wasn't wearing the costume and "Batman" when He was, and that would avoid giving away any secrets to people who didn't need to know. But it was obvious that many of the other people who knew "Bruce" thought the rules required them to call Him something else.)
For that matter, sometimes Batman was just That Man when Oracle was speaking of Him in His absence (it was usually a bad sign when she called Him that). In addition to the things His friends and employees might call Him, there were other names used by people who didn't really know Him. Tim had once told Cassandra that members of the media sometimes amused themselves by giving Batman colorful nicknames such as The Caped Crusader, The Darknight Detective, The Dark Knight, The Gotham Guardian, and others Tim couldn't remember offhand.
Nothing much happened during the first hour of her evening patrol, so Batgirl had plenty of time to keep thinking about the peculiarities of the human condition and this obsession with having lots of different names for the same people, and lots of different words for the same things you saw in the world around you. Oracle had tried to explain about "shades of meaning," but Batgirl still figured whoever had the job of creating all the words to fill up the English language had gotten so carried away with his own cleverness that he didn't know when it was time to quit.
"Batgirl," Oracle's voice finally said via circuitry in the cowl, near her left ear. "Something weird just happened, about five blocks north and two west from your present position. An ATM camera is picking up lots of smoke outside the bank, but no fire alarms are sounding. Might be camouflage for a crime."
"Right," Batgirl said, and made tracks in that direction.
While she traveled, she knew Oracle would be seeking more information from other sources. "That's funny," Oracle finally said around the time Batgirl was two blocks out from the target, "Two other cameras with overlapping fields are showing nothing exciting—just an empty parking lot, since that branch is closed for the night. Someone is playing games with looped footage or something similar, either to make real smoke and anybody lurking in it invisible to other cameras, or to create 'virtual smoke' out of thin air as a diversion for something else, depending."
"Real smoke," Batgirl said helpfully as she swung around a corner and saw the bank a short distance away. "Green. No flames, though."
"Real smoke it is, then. Tread carefully, kid. This already smells like a trap for someone. I don't think anyone else has called in the green smoke to 911, yet—should I try to get a prowl car headed in your direction as backup?"
"No," Batgirl said automatically, and grinned beneath her mask. It had been a pretty boring day, so far . . . but now things were looking up! If it really was a trap, she'd rather not have cops getting in her way before she had settled the hash of whoever was responsible.
"Why did I bother to ask?" Oracle muttered, and then shut up for a minute so Batgirl could concentrate on whatever was happening in the smoky parking lot as she approached.
Chain-link fence stretched around the parking lot on the three sides that didn't face the street; Batgirl scrambled over it and moved toward the ATM built into the wall next to the drive-through stations on this side of the bank. No signs of anyone ripping the machine open to get at the cash inside, which had been her first guess. There were some dark canisters scattered around the area, and a green haze still lingering in the air, thicker in some spots than others—
Suddenly, just as she stepped into the roofed-over area of the drive-through stations, a fresh cloud of green smoke surged up from the pavement, about fifteen feet in front of her, and then, as it began to dissipate, she glimpsed a man-sized figure in a green hooded robe standing in the middle of it. He hadn't been there before.
Batgirl instantly dove to the left, rolled, and came up into a crouch ten feet away from her starting position, still looking around for the real attack; she ignored the smoke-shrouded figure as irrelevant.
Sure enough, a wide net had dropped down from above—must have been attached to the underside of the roof—and if she'd moved toward the figure as soon as she'd seen it, or even stood still for a few seconds as she studied it, then she would probably have been snagged. As it was, she'd barely evaded it.
"Bravo!" said an oddly-pitched, rather creepy voice from somewhere beyond the still-slowly-dissipating smoky area. The green-robed figure was still looming there, motionless, its outline getting clearer and clearer each time her eyes swept across it.
"Batgirl?" Oracle was saying. "What's up?"
She whispered her reply, knowing Oracle's computers would automatically pump up the volume until it was clear. "Green hooded robe, decoy, falling net, dodged."
"That was a nice initial reaction," the creepy voice was saying chattily. "The first time I tried the inflatable-balloon-figure stunt on the real Bat, he fell for it, hook, line, and sinker! Lunged forward while I was stealing his Batmobile behind his back! Did he tell you all about it in a bedtime story, little bat fly?"
No. Actually, Batgirl had known at a glance that the figure in the center of the newest cloud of smoke didn't have any living consciousness animating nerves and muscles; therefore it was a decoy; therefore the real bad guy was probably observing—and planning to blindside her—from some other angle; therefore she had better move in an unexpected direction, fast. It was mildly discouraging to be reminded that even Batman couldn't see these things the way she could. She didn't feel the slightest need to explain all that to the Voice, though.
Even as she thought this, she was prowling clockwise to get around the smokiest area, while simultaneously staying extra-alert to her surroundings, particularly above, in case the man with the weird voice had a whole array of nets ready to fall at the proper times.
Oracle said softly in her ear, "I think you've just met Val Kaliban—The Spook. He hasn't been seen in Gotham for ages; not since the days when Dick was still Robin, come to think of it!"
"And?" Batgirl whispered, not really caring how long it had been since this man last made trouble. He was doing it right here, right now, wasn't he?
Oracle knew her well enough to get the point. She moved on to more practical matters. "Special effects artist. Disguises, tricks to fool the eye, hypnotism, suction cups in the boots to let him climb walls, other fancy gimmicks hidden in his costume—wait! Kick him, but don't hit him with your hands."
That wasn't a problem yet—she was too far away. But why did it matter which parts of her body collided with his tender spots?
Oracle kept talking, answering the unspoken question. "Rubber soles on your boots. Insulated linings, too. I just found a file that says Batman once reported getting a nasty electric shock when he tried to grab The Spook—the outer layers of the robe were all charged up. He had to find a way to work around that. Later, he made sure to redesign his boots—and Robin's, and eventually yours, and so forth—to make it easier to cope with such circumstances. If you can kick the tar out of The Spook, it ought to get the job done. But your leather gloves are more conductive."
Batgirl got the general drift. She could see the real Spook now, stepping sideways himself to keep the balloon replica between the two of them as much as possible. The living, breathing man was also shrouded in a dark green robe with a hood that shrouded his face—although she thought he had a dark face mask on beneath the hood. He moved like a man with considerable self-confidence—and some training in martial arts and acrobatics. If the way he moved right now was the best he could do, then he was not up to her level in either area, but that came as no surprise; few people were. If she could land one good kick on him, she figured it would be as good as over.
But getting that close might take a little time. The Spook seemed bound and determined to avoid an immediate clash. Batgirl didn't want to charge straight toward him if that meant brushing past the balloon-figure; it might burst into flame on contact or some silly thing. The way The Spook kept moving back and forth to keep it between them was a strong hint (to anyone with her training, anyway) that there was something about the balloon which he seriously expected could defend him against her, under the right circumstances. Since it wasn't doing anything to hurt her right now, that probably meant he needed her to touch it first. On the other hand, if he had rigged it with something seriously explosive, he wouldn't be staying within the blast radius—so Batgirl figured that if she just followed his example and never actually touched the inflated figure, she ought to be all right.
Hard to tell, though—that long, loose green robe served well to "muffle" the "voice" of most of his muscular twitches. Batgirl could have read him a lot more precisely if he'd just been in a T-shirt and jeans, say, with at least part of his face exposed for good measure. For that matter, most of the villains who always wore spandex on the job were usually so easy to read that she was often tempted to fight them with at least one eye closed, just to make it a little more challenging.
Each time she danced a few steps to one side, The Spook matched her, keeping his inflated life-size replica almost directly between them at all times. Batgirl preferred a hands-on approach, but every once in awhile she actually felt the need to use the batarangs from her utility belt as missile weapons to mess up an enemy's plans. This looked like one of those times. She drew one with each hand and hurled the first batarang just to the right of the balloon, where the Spook's head was currently visible.
He ducked away—but without waiting to confirm which way he went, she'd already hurled the other batarang lower and further to the left, aimed at where his head might end up if he kept trying to use the balloon as cover.
The second batarang barely missed the balloon-figure and bounced off the Spook's forehead as he moved exactly the way she'd thought he would (although she hadn't been quite sure). He grunted and staggered; he'd be slower for at least a few seconds. . . .
Now. Batgirl charged forward, dodging the balloon by at least two inches as it swayed gently back and forth in the evening breeze—but it suddenly burst anyway, without being touched! (No flame, though—just one loud pop.)
The Spook was leaping away now, getting further and further from her and the shredded remnants of the balloon—and she couldn't follow him because her legs suddenly went numb and she realized she was collapsing to the pavement, barely managing to use her left arm to help break her fall—her right arm was already nonresponsive to stern orders from the brain, and even as she finished falling, rolling onto her back and then getting stuck there, she realized her left arm was also succumbing to whatever had brought her down.
At least she was still conscious, though she doubted that would last. Oracle was chattering in her ear. "Batgirl? Speak to me! What's your—"
Suddenly a white-gloved hand yanked her cowl up off her head and raised it to The Spook's eye level so he could study it closely. Batgirl knew he must hear Oracle's synthesized voice coming from it. "Oh, no, my dear child," he said in his usual creepy tone. "This won't do at all. No back seat drivers need apply to the little party I have arranged for tonight."
Then he slid sideways, out of her field of vision, and she couldn't see what happened next—but ripping and crunching noises suggested no one would ever be using that commlink again.
Before Batgirl blacked out, her last thought was a rueful recognition that some of those silly costumed tricks you ran into in Gotham really could fool even a girl with her training . . . since she couldn't read all the subtleties of The Spook's tactics through his loose robe, and since the inflated figure had possessed no body language at all, how was she supposed to have known it was full of a paralyzing gas?