by Starsky Hutch 76
Kara Zor-L walked up behind Dick Grayson as he sat hunched over the computer terminal in the Batcave. She was wearing her Power Girl outfit, while he was in his Red Robin costume, but without the mask. “Another long night?” she asked, rubbing his shoulders.
“The streets are too quiet,” said Dick. “Unnaturally so. It’s his doing. I know it is. Crime doesn’t simply come to a standstill. He’s planning something.”
“That’s giving even the Joker too much credit, don’t you think?” said Kara.
“He’s the only one I’ve seen who was able to use fear as a weapon with as much skill as Batman,” Dick said. “That includes the Scarecrow.”
“You’re doing a pretty good job of using it that way yourself these days,” Kara said. “You don’t think you might deserve a little of the credit for peaceful Gotham nights?”
“Not this peaceful,” Dick said. “They’re probably more afraid of him than me, because most heroes don’t kill.”
“Obviously, they haven’t been reading the papers in the last few months,” Kara said, pointing to an article on Odysseus from a couple of months back.
“Counting you and G. Gordon Liddy, that makes two people who’ve actually called Odysseus a hero,” Dick said, turning back to his terminal.
“I was using the term loosely.”
“Obviously,” Dick smiled. “Criminals are terrified of Joker for the same reason. His unpredictability. He’s got a grip on the entire underworld of Gotham, and he’s using it to try and lull me into a false sense of security. He won’t get caught with his pants down again. He’s planning something. Something big. I just wish I had a clue as to what it is.”
The Joker spun around the room, holding a mirror and singing “I feel pretty” off-key, much to the chagrin of his longtime chief henchman, Franko Morelli. Both of them looked better and younger than they had in years, thanks to a mystical rejuvenation responsible for giving new life to several old crooks. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Showcase: JSA Reserves: All This and Earth-Two, Chapter 3: Villains Rejuvenated.]
The Joker’s daughter, Harley Quinn, joined him in a mad waltz around the large room, nearly sending them into a collision course with Franko. “…as pretty as pretty can be! And it’s plain to see, that pretty little Joker’s me! … Why so glum, Franko? You’ve got an awfully long face for a guy who just got a magic facelift.”
“Uh, yeah. Don’t think I don’t appreciate you including me or nothin’, boss. I mean… I feel like I could go ten rounds with Jake La Motta.”
“You have gone ten rounds with Jake La Motta,” the Joker said wryly. “I didn’t do it just for you, Franko. I couldn’t risk one day losing my number one guy.” Franko winced, remembering what he’d seen happen to the last three number one guys in the old days. “Plus, I wasn’t about to have you kick off from old age and stick me with looking after that dim-witted nephew of yours,” he added.
“Aw… Lenny’s cute,” Harley said, swooning coquettishly.
“Ah, the things I endure for my little punkin’,” the Joker sighed.
Franko’s jaw dropped in shock. He was used to Lenny getting by on his looks, but this time it made him more nervous for his nephew than ever.
“Didn’t you sleep last night?” Kara asked, joining Dick at the breakfast table. “Foolish question, considering the absence of anyone on the other side of the bed.”
“Sorry,” Dick said, sipping his coffee. “I lost track of time.”
“That’s pretty much every night, these days,” Kara said.
“I’ve been looking through crime files hoping for some clue to the Joker’s actions. Not just in Gotham, but everywhere. He’s got to have money coming in somewhere.”
“You think he’s left Gotham?” Kara said, surprised.
“No, but I’m not going to rule out any options. This will always be his main base of operations, but there’s always the possibility he could be committing crimes elsewhere until he’s ready for whatever he has planned for Gotham.”
“He could just be laying low,” Kara suggested.
“Not his style,” said Dick. “He’s got something in the works. His last plan was discovered ahead of time. He’ll be twice as determined the next time.”
“Something smells good,” Kara said, changing the subject.
“Alfred’s prize-winning western omelettes,” Dick said, smiling. “It’s great to see him back to working magic in the kitchen again. It’s been a long time since he was strong enough. I appreciate you using your boon from Odin on his behalf.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice Society of America: Ragnarok Aftermath, Chapter 1: Taking Flight.]
“I didn’t,” Kara said, surprised. “I thought you or Helena did.”
“I know I didn’t,” said Dick. “I asked Helena, and she said she didn’t, either.”
They both sat in stunned silence for a second until Dick said, “It must have been Bruce. He wanted to make sure Alfred would be around to look after things a while longer.”
“Wow,” Kara said. “For some reason, I thought only the living were granted boons. But it makes sense that we’d all have been granted one.”
“It should be interesting to see what else should happen as a result of this,” Dick said. “Speaking of boons, have you given any thought to the one I asked of you?”
“Great segue,” Kara laughed. “You mean moving in permanently?”
“You’re practically living here as it is,” Dick said. “Why not make it official?”
“My job is in a different city. Not a problem for Power Girl, but a big problem for Karen Starr.”
“You’re a software specialist,” Dick said. “It’s not like there’s not a big demand for that in Gotham, too.”
“I’ve put in a lot of time at Ultimate,” Kara said, referring to the Ultimate Computer Corporation, for which she’d worked over the last several years under the assumed identity of Karen Starr. (*) “I’m going to need some time to think about it.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Crater That Was Keystone City,” Showcase #99 (April, 1978).]
“No rush,” Dick said with a weak smile.
“It’s not that I don’t want to,” Kara said. “It’s just… I put a lot of work into building a life for myself — a real life! Not one that’s a sheltered virtual reality like I grew up in… or one spent under Kal’s shadow.”
“Kara,” Dick said, taking her hand. “The last thing I want to do is–”
He was cut off in mid-sentence by his ward bursting in and setting his school books on the breakfast table. “What’s Alfred cooking up for breakfast? I’m starving!” Jason Todd looked at the expressions on the faces of Dick and Kara and realized he might’ve interrupted something. “Uh… what’s going on?”
“Nothing,” Dick sighed. “Nothing at all.”
“Why didn’t we take Gotham while the JSA was away?” Lenny asked. (*) “The Joker’s plan would’a worked for sure then.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Justice Society of America: Ragnarok.]
“Because he didn’t want to do it if Red Robin wasn’t here to see the fireworks,” Franko snapped in a way that told him to keep his voice down.
“My dear old friend Franko gets it, young pup. So why don’t you?” the Joker said, strolling into the room, accompanied by Harley Quinn. “I fear for the sake of any future grandchildren I might have with such a simpleton for a son-in-law.”
“S-s-son-in-law?” Lenny gasped as Harley hugged his arm, rested her head on his shoulder, and looked up, batting her eyelashes at him.
“Everything I did, I did for the former boy blunder,” the Joker said with a dramatic flourish. “But did he show any appreciation? Nooo! Instead, he has one of his agents plant bugs in my hideout so he can listen in on my plans and cut me off at the knees!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: Actually, Catwoman did this before meeting Red Robin, as seen in DC Universe: Crawling from the Wreckage, Book 3, Chapter 5: Dark Dealings.]
The Joker brought the back of his hand up to his forehead, closed his eyes in mock pathos, and said, “It’s led me to do a lot of soul searching.”
“It has?” Franko said, raising an eyebrow at the idea of his employer being introspective.
“Yes, it has,” the Joker said, going from wistful to frenetic. “I realized why Red Robin could be one step ahead of us. It’s because he’s the Bat!”
“Well, he’s sure looking more like Batman these days,” Franko said.
“No, you idiot! I mean he really is the Bat! The man died, but the Bat lives on! The Bat took over the Boy Wonder when Batman died, and now Red Robin has a boy wonder of his own. And he’ll be the Bat when Red Robin is gone!”
“There will always be a Bat in Gotham,” the Joker said with determination. “Therefore, there must always be a Joker.”
“How do you plan to do that, boss?” Franko asked warily.
“I must stay young,” Joker said.
“Well, you kinda gotten that taken care of for both of us,” Franko said.
“It’s not young enough!” Joker said. “Red Robin is still younger, and he’s got another whelp waiting in the wings to take over and become the Bat! I have to get even younger than Red Robin to keep up!”
“How you gonna pull that off?” Franko asked. “Karkull’s history.”
“Obviously, you haven’t been reading the papers,” the Joker said, holding up a copy of the Gotham Gazette. He pointed to a photo of a shaggy-haired, slightly balding, middle-aged man with thick glasses, a pot belly, and a bushy mustache. Overall, he was an unimpressive-looking figure. If it weren’t for the fact he was wearing a rumpled lab coat with an I.D. badge clipped to it, no one would believe he was a scientist. He stood with his arms folded in a look of smug satisfaction. The headline read, Scientist at STAR Labs Claims to Have Cracked the Age Barrier.
“Instead of taking Gotham, I propose we narrow our focus to one building,” the Joker said, grinning evily. “STAR Laboratories.”
Dick stared at the phone, wondering if he should make the call. Would it seem manipulative? Kara’s temper was legendary. But if there was a chance it would help them have a life together, wasn’t it worth the risk? He picked up the phone and made the call.
“Chuck Grayson,” the voice from the other end said.
“Hey, Chuck. This is Dick.”
“Hey, Ro — Dick,” the former Robotman said, correcting himself. Dick winced from the other end. “How are you doing?”
“Pretty good. I figured I’d give you a call after hearing you’d come to Gotham. Us Graysons have got to stick together. How are things over there at STAR?”
“Couldn’t be better. Of course, it’ll be a lot of work to try and get the robotics department as much attention as some of the others around here, as I’m sure you’ve heard.”
“Right. The aging thing.”
“Of course, that probably doesn’t mean much to a guy like you,” Chuck Grayson laughed.
“Right,” Dick sighed. Hadn’t this guy ever heard of secret identities? “So could you use some help over there?” he asked.
“Well, we can always use good people, like I said. Competition is tough.”
“How about a software specialist?”
“Hmmm,” Chuck said, sounding as though he were deep in thought. “Could be. We’ve been looking for ways to make robots react more like humans. Some fresh perspective might be what we need. Did you have someone in mind?”
“Her name’s Karen Starr. She’s been doing big things over at the Ultimate Computer Company. Word is she’s completely revolutionized the place.”
“I think I’ve heard of her,” Chuck said. “Is she available?”
“She just might be,” Dick said. “If the right offer came along.”
Karen Starr was a bundle of nerves as she walked into the Gotham City headquarters of STAR Labs. She did her best not to show any signs of nervousness. She was in her best suit and had thoroughly rehearsed everything she would say. If this worked out, it would be a big step up from her role as software specialist at the Ultimate Computer Company. Plus, she would be able to take Dick up on his offer to move in together without making any sacrifices to her own career.
“I’m here to see Dr. Will Magnus,” she told the receptionist.
After a few minutes, a silver-haired gentleman stepped out of the elevator. “Ms. Starr,” he greeted, taking her hand. “It’s certainly a pleasure. I’ve read your theories on nanotechnology and intelligence colonies. Simply fascinating.”
“Thank you,” she blushed. “Coming from a man of your reputation, that’s high praise.”
“Well-deserved praise,” he said. “Well, enough of this mutual admiration society we’ve got going here. Let me show you around.”