Finding the Will
"Hush," Barbara repeated. "I'd say this has just gotten a lot more complicated."
"How does he fit in, though?" Tim wondered.
Barbara's fingers flew across her keyboard. "The first time we… or rather, Bruce faced him, he was hired muscle. Riddler had figured out who Batman was. Elliot was Nigma's doctor, as well as one of Bruce's old friends. What we didn't know, then, was that Elliot had a grudge against Bruce, because when—" she frowned in disgust. "When Tommy Elliot was a cute little kid, of about eight or so, he decided life would be so much better with his parents out of the way. So, the precocious little thing cut the brake line on Daddy's car, and caused it to veer off a bridge. Daddy was beyond help, but Doctor Wayne managed to save Mom's life, to Tommy's utter dismay, and-"
"And he's hated Bruce ever since?" Dick broke in. "And they want to put Bruce in Arkham? What's wrong with this picture?"
"What's wrong with it," Barbara said, "among other things, is that, according to Bruce's files, Nigma masterminded the whole scheme. He got Tommy's help by letting him know that they had a common 'enemy', but he cooked up the whole idea."
"Or," Dick said intently, "that's what they both wanted Bruce to believe. "You're getting this from Bruce's notes, or is there a transcript?"
Barbara's eyes narrowed. "Transcript. Bruce paid a visit to Arkham," a slightly mocking note crept into her voice, as she enabled voice-mode, "and…"
-This will NOT be recorded, Bruce's voice came through clearly. "…It sounds like he fibbed, right there," Barbara finished. Bruce's voice continued.
No one is listening in. I think you know why. I honestly didn't think you were capable of it. "Criminal mastermind" and YOU don't come together immediately.
A new, slightly nasal voice, responded smugly. That was sort of the point, wasn't it?
-You still don't have all the pieces. That's why you're here. This is fun.
"He's enjoying it," Tim said suddenly. "He's the stupid kid in the schoolyard chanting 'I know something you don't know.'"
Dick nodded, as listened to Batman asking Riddler about where he'd obtained the Kryptonite for Ivy's lipstick.
-Where did you get it for that ring? You have enemies in VERY high places. But you didn't hear that from me.
Dick frowned, then glanced around at the others, eyes glinting with realization. "Notice how he's not actually admitting to any of it," he said slowly. "Bruce isn't asking Nigma outright whether he was behind it all… he's assuming, and Nigma's letting him."
"Why?" Dinah asked. "What does he gain?"
"Rodney Dangerfield's heart's desire," Dick replied. He laughed suddenly. "Bruce just said it himself: you don't normally put 'Riddler' and 'criminal mastermind' together in the same sentence. It must get a little frustrating for the guy… he tries, and tries, and somehow he never makes it off the B-list. So, with Hush missing, presumed dead, Nigma takes the credit… and gets even Batman to admit he didn't see that one coming… because Hush was manipulating everything from behind the scenes…
The recording droned on in the background.
-Everyone wants something.
-Money. And she's got a thing about Catwoman.
-Love. Getting to work with the Joker.
-The Joker… HE couldn't have been easy.
-At first. When he heard "the Jason Todd Gag," he couldn't resist…
"Riddler?" Dick asked rhetorically. "Respect. A chance to confound Batman. The opportunity to get a couple minutes of glory… but what's Hush's angle? What does he gain, if Riddler takes centre stage on this one?" His brows knitted together, as the recording continued to play. Suddenly he drew in his breath and leaned in closer to the speaker.
-What time is it when an elephant sits on a fence?
-What time is it when an elephant sits on a fence?
"That's it," Dick whispered.
-Time to get a new fence. Everyone knows that one. It's worthless.
"Oh, no it isn't," Dick countered.
"What?" Barbara asked. Dick glanced around. Tim and Dinah also looked blank.
"What time is it when an elephant sits on a fence?" Dick repeated. "Time to wonder who helped him get on that fence in the first place… an elephant can't exactly climb one on its own." A grim smile appeared on his face. "Damn. Bruce had it. It was staring him right in the face. And somehow, he didn't make that last connection."
"I still don't-" Tim started to say.
"The elephant was an exercise in misdirection. We were asking the wrong question. It's not what Riddler gains by being taken for the mastermind…"
Barbara nodded excitedly as comprehension dawned on her. "It's what Hush gains by not being taken for him!" she chimed in. "If we assume Hush is labour and Nigma's management…" she looked guiltily at Dinah for a moment."
"Water under the bridge, Red," Black Canary said lightly. At Tim's inquisitive glance she shook her head. "Long story. You had to be there. Bottom line, if we assume Riddler came up with the idea, we underestimate everybody else he involved in the scheme." She nodded to herself, as understanding dawned. "We figure he either paid, blackmailed, or talked everybody else into going along with him-"
"When, going by Elliot's track record since then, it looks like it was either an equal partnership, or Hush was the power behind the throne," Dick nodded. His expression turned serious. "Which means bad news for the rest of us, unfortunately. Because we're dealing with somebody intelligent, educated, thorough," he thought for a moment, "extremely patient, wealthy enough to be able to afford just about any tool he might need-"
Tim cleared his throat. "Dick? You're describing Bruce, you know."
"I wish," Dick said grimly. "If I'm right, Tommy's also able to manipulate the likes of Joker, Killer Croc, Catwoman, and Superman, and get them dancing to his tune. I honestly don't know whether Bruce could do that." He frowned, thinking. "Alright. As of this moment, finding Hush and Black Mask get equal, and top, priority. Babs, call Cass back here, Bludhaven's going to have to do without us for the next little while. If things get really bad in that part of the world, we'll have to re-evaluate, but for now, I want Robin and Batgirl in Gotham."
Barbara nodded. "And you'll be-"
Dick hesitated. "Right now? I'm going to get some sleep. I'm meeting with Rae Green this afternoon. I want to know what she thinks Bruce's chances are. After that, I'll check in with Lucius, make sure WE is still standing."
Dick drew a deep breath. "It's like this," he said hesitantly. "From everything I've learned… from what you told me, Tim," he nodded to the younger crime fighter, "from what Bruce has said, and not said in the past… when Bane came to Gotham, the first time, the way he took Bruce down was by wearing him out. Bane studied him, figured out how he'd react in a given situation, and set things up so that Bruce wouldn't get the opportunity to relax, much less sleep, until the crisis was over. The mob war last summer was the same idea, except Bruce did it all to himself. And, not to bring my own baggage into this, but I went through something pretty similar not too long ago, culminating with me and Blockbuster facing off in a stairwell." He glanced around, noting a distinct lack of surprise on the part of Tim. He wasn't sure whether he was supposed to be relieved or dismayed by that, so he chose to ignore it. "Bottom line? Bane, Black Mask, Blockbuster… they've all managed, at one time or another, to take down Bruce, or myself, by playing to our… psychologies. Manipulating things so that their… target… feels he can't take the time to eat, rest, or even think. Getting us so caught up in the situation that all we can do is act and react and hope we catch a breather soon, only we don't… and," he grimaced, "we fall for it." His expression hardened as he continued. "Every. Single. Time." He looked at each of them in turn, waiting for them to meet his eyes. "Well, that ends, now. It has to. I don't know about the rest of you, but with everything at stake, I can't afford to operate at anything less than peak efficiency. That's why I want Cass back from the 'Haven today. We're not going to catch a breather… not one of us… unless we take one. And we've got to. So. I'm taking mine tomorrow night. Robin, you and Batgirl will be handling the city. The night after that… Tim, you're off, and it'll be Cass and me. Cass gets the next night. And off means 'off.' It doesn't mean sitting in one of the satellite caves poring over data. It doesn't mean using the commlink to find out how those of us 'on duty' are handling it. If you get a sudden flash of inspiration, by all means, call it in, but that's as far as it goes. Babs," he added, straight-faced, "in the third compartment of the left gauntlet of the Nightwing suit, you'll find a small canister of ver-sed." He glanced away, with a wry smile. "I… um… raided Bruce's supply of knockout sprays the other night when I ran back for a spare cape. Take the canister out, now. If I do try to go on the town, later, you not only have my permission to use it on me, you have a direct order to use it on me. Any questions?"
Barbara considered. "When all this gets resolved," she began seriously, "is there any way you think you can give Bruce that same speech? Verbatim? Because someone should have told it to him years ago."
Dick blinked as he tried to read her expression. An instant later, a grin split her face from ear to ear, as she wheeled over to him, seized his hands, and pulled him down to her eye level. "Welcome back," she whispered. She hesitated a moment, then, with a self-conscious laugh, she shifted her hands to his shoulders, and drew him closer. With an answering grin, he hugged her back.
"I love you," he whispered.
James Gordon was waiting outside Akins' office when he arrived later that morning.
"Jim," Akins greeted him with a smile and some measure of surprise. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Let's talk in your office," Gordon replied grimly.
Akins' smile fell away instantly, as he unlocked the door and held it open for Gordon to precede him. Looking at the older man standing opposite him, Akins felt like a schoolchild summoned before the principal. "Something I can help you with?" He asked, reminding himself that he was currently the man in charge.
"I hope so," Gordon said. "I hope you can help me understand why you pulled that stunt on Grayson last night?"
At the mention of Wayne's son, Akins' expression hardened. "I don't know what you mean."
"No." Akins said flatly. "I let him into the room. He got his visit. Meanwhile, we had seventeen confirmed Batman sightings between ten and eleven last night, at least five of them put him simultaneously in completely different neighbourhoods, four of them nowhere near the hospital. And you're accusing me of pulling a stunt?"
"Are you that convinced that Grayson had something to do with those sightings?" Gordon asked seriously. Without waiting for a response, he snapped, "visiting hours were over at ten. The only reason he got to see Wayne at all was because he was a couple minutes early and the nurse was a couple minutes late."
Akins' stunned expression told Gordon what he'd needed to know. "It never occurred to me," he said slowly, "that the hospital would enforce that policy, given the circumstances."
Gordon raised an eyebrow. "Circumstances."
"Well… yes. He's isolated from the rest of the patients, there's no way late-night visitors would disturb anyone else. I was told the doctors are trying to adjust his sleep cycle to something more typical, but without sedation, I'd think he'd normally be awake at that hour-"
"It's a hospital, Mike," Gordon retorted. "They live by policies and schedules." He wanted to add a few choice phrases about the security measures currently in force in Wayne's room, but refrained, guessing that antagonizing the current commissioner would not help matters. "Have you been to see him, at all?"
Akins shook his head. "I've had other things on my mind. All of a sudden, the gangs are using armour-piercing bullets in drive-by murders. One officer got shot in Tricorner, the other night, maybe a stone's throw from your old place. There've been a half-dozen other shootings around the city, since then. The victims in those cases were civilians. Not that the distinction matters. Last night… there were no fewer than twenty-five burglary attempts, eighteen of them successful, fifteen attempted muggings, fourteen assaults-not counting those perpetrated by some copycat in a bat-suit, incidentally-"
"Heard Riddler's back in custody," Gordon interrupted, smoothly.
"He is," Akins admitted sourly. "And I know I should be glad of it, no matter who brought him in."
At Gordon's raised eyebrow Akins clarified. "Nigma insisted it was a 'Bat-woman' if you can believe that."
Akins shook his head. "I've seen Batgirl. From the description Nigma gave the arresting officer, this was someone new." He glowered. "I wish I knew how Grayson pulled it off."
Gordon blinked. "Grayson. You're that convinced."
"You used to be smart, Jim. He comes back to Gotham, and inside of two nights we've got another Batman running around."
"Last night, to hear you tell it, it was more than one, and Grayson had an alibi. An airtight alibi that twenty-one officers inside the hospital could probably vouch for. Did you want to double check with the snipers on the roof, too?"
Akins' expression hardened. "What are you implying, Jim?"
Gordon leaned in closer. "I'm not implying anything, Mike. I'm stating outright that when a couple of press conferences make it apparent that Batman won't be out on the streets, certain quarters take that bit of news as a license to settle a few old scores. I'm stating that at a time when you need every available officer out there, you're keeping more than thirty of them tied up on guard detail, for a prisoner who, at this moment, has no chance of escaping!"
"He's Batman!" Akins snarled. He sprang from his chair and leaned halfway across the desk. "He broke out of a guarded prisoner transport on the way back from a court appearance. He fought off virtually every mobster in Gotham when they had him surrounded in that stadium. There's not a roadblock we've set up that he hasn't avoided or broken through. Don't you goddamned stand there and tell me he's got no chance of escaping!"
The rubber tip of Gordon's cane was suddenly pressed against Akins' Adam's apple. "Sit down, Mike," Gordon said firmly. "And listen to me carefully." He kept one hand braced on the desk for support. It was a risk. If Akins were thinking clearly, he would realize that there was nothing to stop him from knocking away the cane… or pushing it backwards and knocking Gordon off his feet. If the current commissioner recognized this, he gave no sign. Eyes blazing, he lowered himself into his chair.
Gordon removed the cane, mentally conceding that Kessler had been right, after all; it was a weapon. "A man," he gritted through clenched teeth, "with a leg in traction cannot leave his bed. Any attempt to move him until that bone heals could result in permanent disability. How exactly do you think his people are planning to get him out? Drag him through the air vents? Rig a pulley system out his window and lower him eight stories to the pavement, bed, weights, and all? Get serious, Mike. And when you do, remember that the police aren't the only ones who've been wanting to get their hands on him for a while. If I were Joker, or Scarecrow, I'd be watching very carefully to see which hospital, or precinct lock-up, had the most security… and then I'd start asking myself why. Your SWAT team might be endangering every staff member, patient, and visitor at Central Hospital, or didn't you think of that?"
Jim watched carefully. For the briefest second, he saw indecision flit across Akins' face. Then it was gone, replaced by anger. "I know what I'm doing, Gordon," he snapped. "I really doubt any sane person is going to challenge a guard that heavy-" he broke off abruptly, as Jim nodded.
"Any sane person," the former commissioner repeated, drawing the words out softly and slowly. "But I was talking about Joker and Scarecrow just now, wasn't I?" He paused. "You've got Batman in custody, and it's no longer my place to agree or disagree with that. But I'm urging you to leave it there. Don't go after the rest of them. It's a bad idea."
Akins shook his head. "We have the ringleader. Of course we're going after the smaller fish, too. After yesterday…"
Gordon looked up, sharply. "Yesterday? Mike, do me a favor and elaborate so I don't jump to conclusions." His plea was a bit late, he realized. He already was, and he didn't much care for them.
Akins sat implacably, both hands holding the edge of his desk, at opposite corners of the desk blotter. "I had Grayson dead to rights, Jim," he said. "I was this close to proving that he was out there in direct violation of my express orders. I don't know how he arranged for those… those… bat-fakes to be out there, but if he thinks he can just sit back and laugh at me, he's got another…"
"Is that how you're taking it?" Jim asked slowly, disappointment heavy in his tone. "Mike, right at this moment, he's among the very few who aren't laughing. Or did you not see today's paper?"
Akins had seen it. The editorial cartoon in the Herald had been a portrait of himself, minus his nose. He'd been drawn holding an old-fashioned shaving razor in one hand, and the missing body part in the other, with a caption underneath reading 'never liked my face, anyway.' The caricature was framed by two opinion pieces. The first was titled: 'Black Mask's in command, Batman's in custody. Anyone else got a problem with that?' The second read 'Akins' strategy to end the shootings: lock up the Batman.' More telling, the letters to the editor were meant to be a representative sampling of the views of the readership. Of the dozen that they had printed pertaining to Batman's capture, ten were highly critical, and one vacillated, trying to see both sides of the issue. Only one letter showed strong support for the GCPD's action. "What's your point, Jim?" He asked.
"Only this," Gordon replied. "You wanted to arrest Grayson on charges of vigilantism, he got himself sanctioned."
"And couldn't wait to show up and throw that in my face," Akins interrupted.
"That's one way to look at it, I suppose," Gordon said mildly. "It could also be that he wanted to let you know, up front, that you wouldn't be able to take him into custody, before you made the attempt. Gave you a chance to avoid an embarrassing situation, as it were."
Akins looked furiously at him. Gordon continued. "You told him Nightwing wasn't welcome in Gotham. Nightwing hasn't appeared since."
"Yes, he has. And Grayson was accounted for at the time. If you have proof that he was involved, go ahead and bring him in-"
"So nice to know I have your nod of approval," Akins remarked sarcastically. "And if I did have proof, or even reasonable grounds for suspicion, I would do exactly that. But right now, what I have is a young man with every valid reason to be back in this city, no evidence to connect him with… with whoever it is in the suit this time, and…"
"And?" Gordon asked, after a moment.
"And," Akins all but growled, "with the stance the media is taking in all this, I can't chance him filing wrongful arrest or harassment charges against the GCPD."
"Mmmm," Gordon rumbled. "That was never a consideration before."
Akins frowned suspiciously. "Excuse me?"
Gordon did his best to keep his expression neutral. "Well, Mike, simply put, up until the mob war, the relationship between vigilantes and law enforcement had been one of finding a… call it an acceptable grey area, if you like. We tolerated them out there on the streets, provided that they didn't kill. They assisted us in apprehending our suspects, but not to the point of testifying in court, seeing as that would mean disclosing their real identities. However, their inability to testify in court also precluded their ability to file suit, for the same reason. Up to last summer, the concessions had been on both sides, and the system, for the most part worked.
"Mike, over the past few days, you've insisted that Grayson meet you entirely on your terms. You questioned the legality of his operations. He retaliated with an official sanction that you can't touch, unless certain… circumstances are met. You tried to keep him from seeing Wayne—and I sincerely hope that your reason was the legitimate security concern you'd indicated…"
"Just what are you insinuating?" Akins asked testily.
"Nothing," Jim said quickly. "Only, that from the way this conversation started out, well, Mike, up to this point I never would have thought to accuse you of pettiness, and I'm certainly not about to do so, now. But your actions could definitely be read that way."
Akins was silent. Jim continued.
"Last summer, one of your people put a bullet in his thigh, on your orders. If he were almost anybody else, the instant that his identity became known, he would have taken legal action. He still could, considering that when you announced Batman's identity, you effectively 'outed' his as well. I'm no lawyer, but I'm sure that there's one around who could argue that your revelation has hampered Nightwing's effectiveness, possibly on a global scale. But the only time Grayson found it necessary to bring the subject up was when you tried to keep him from seeing Wayne.
"You've been holding press conferences to justify your actions. He's held one, to try to contain the… collateral damage caused by your statements."
"Now, just hold on one moment!" Akins said sharply. "Are you implying that we should have dropped all charges because Wayne's company might have met with financial hardship? Look, Jim, I'm as sorry as the next person that WE could be impacted, but—"
"Did you contact Wayne Enterprises before making your announcement, yesterday? Did you give them a chance to prepare a strategy to deal with the fallout? Or were you just going to let them find out at the same time that the rest of the city did?"
"It's not my job to—"
"Yes, Mike," Gordon said quietly. "Technically speaking, you're one hundred percent correct. But it should have been your responsibility. If it had been me, I wouldn't have made that statement without warning Fox, or someone else on the board of WE. Did you even think to find out how many jobs could have been jeopardized? Because Grayson did. I don't know if you were paying attention, but his original speech, the text that he prepared, was only about the future of Wayne Enterprises. Yes, the press asked questions on other subjects afterwards, and he had planned for that, or else I doubt he could have fielded them half as well as he did. But that's the point. Grayson planned for those variables. Which is more than you did. He's not an employee of WE, and he's not on the board. Fox could have just issued a statement and hoped for the best, but that might not have been enough."
"And just how," Akins demanded, "do you know so much about him?"
"I've known him more than half his life," Gordon said. "And before you ask, yes, he has been in contact with me since his arrival in Gotham. More than that, I've got two people whose judgment I trust as much, if not more than my own who can vouch for him. Now, Mike, I've been listening to you, not just today, but yesterday on television, and the day before that when you arranged for me to visit Wayne-for which I'm grateful, by the way. And I really do hope that your motivations stem from real security concerns. I want to believe that, more than anything. Because if you are letting personal issues, and pride cloud your judgment…"
"What?" Akins asked. "You'll start a grassroots campaign to get me fired?"
Gordon sighed. "I won't have to, Mike." He pointed to the newspaper on Akins' desk. "It's already happening." He waited for the commissioner to lower his eyes. "I have some advice. You can laugh at it, ignore it, or shout at me, when I'm done, but I'm asking you to hear me out." Akins looked at him and nodded assent. "Stop trying to 'catch' Grayson. If he's doing what you suspect, you won't be able to, anyway. And if he isn't, well, he just might turn out to be a bigger problem for you operating within the confines of the law than outside of it. Remember… he can testify, now."
"Anything else?" Akins asked testily.
"Ask yourself why, with the city practically a war zone, at this point, you're targeting him in the first place. If you truly believe him to be a menace, well and good. I disagree, but you're in charge. If it's more an issue of pride, stop. Stop now, while you can. Or it's going to bring you down."
"Pride?" Akins asked in disbelief. "Is that what you think this is all about?"
"He's met you on your home turf," Gordon pointed out. "In broad daylight. On the legal front, and on the PR front. And he's not only managed to walk away looking good, he's managed to keep the GCPD from looking bad." His eye fell again on the newspaper. "Well, worse than the press has already painted it, anyway," he amended. "You know as well as I do that he could have attacked police effectiveness and efficiency. He had cause, he had evidence-the same evidence those columnists mentioned today, I might add. More importantly, he had precious little to lose. And he came up with that comment about lifeboats on the Titanic, instead. He's playing by your rules, Mike. And he's beating you. And what must be absolutely galling for you," Gordon added, not quite able to keep a gleam of humour from his eyes, "is that he doesn't even seem to realize it."
Seeing the furious look on Akins' face, Jim realized that he might have gone too far, but he also knew that he had meant every word. "Just think about it, Mike," he said quietly. "I'll see myself out."
Dick rode the elevator up to Rachel Green's law firm. He hadn't been there in nearly three years, not since his adoption had been finalized. He couldn't remember whether she'd had a receptionist before, but she had one now… possibly a student intern, Dick mused to himself. The young man behind the desk took his name eagerly and immediately raised the phone to his ear. Apparently, somebody was trying to impress the boss today. A moment later, Rachel entered the outer office.
"Mr. Grayson," she said, smiling cordially. "It's good to see you again," she pumped his hand firmly. "Won't you come this way, please?" She ushered him into her private office.
Once the door closed behind them, her expression turned serious. "I can guess why you asked to meet with me," she said quietly.
"What are his chances, Rae?" Dick asked. He was in no mood for small talk.
She motioned him to a chair. "Sit down." Rae sighed. "Tomorrow, I'm going to move to postpone the competency hearing. That buys us up to ninety days."
Dick tried to smile. "But that's good, right?"
"Compared to the alternatives," she admitted, "yes. But only compared to the alternatives."
"Those being…" Dick wasn't sure whether he really wanted to know.
Rachel Green drew a deep breath. "If the hearing goes ahead tomorrow, from what I've seen of his behaviour since the arrest, he will be deemed incompetent to stand trial, and remanded indefinitely to Arkham Asylum."
Dick managed not to gasp, but it was a near thing.
Rae continued, seemingly oblivious to his discomfort. "If, by some chance, he's able to persuade the judge otherwise, it'll be a more…conventional prison, until such time as the trial takes place."
Great, Dick thought to himself. Arkham, or one of the cells at the GCPD lock-up. That wasn't exactly much of a choice. "And, if the postponement goes through?"
"Arkham until the new hearing takes place." Seeing his shocked expression, she continued. "Believe me, I intend to make sure he's kept segregated from the general population, whatever happens. And he's not going anywhere until he can be moved. Given the normal recovery time for Mr. Wayne's injury, that won't be for weeks, in any event." Her professional demeanour softened slightly. "I can only imagine what this must be like for you. Unfortunately, I don't have better news. He won't be released on his own recognizance, that's a given. If bail was denied the last time Wayne was facing charges, well, I can go through the motions, if you like, and I'll be suitably outraged when the judge denies bail again, this time, but we both know it's going to be denied. At this point, the only real question is not whether he'll be confined, but where."
And wherever it is, there are going to be a bunch of people around who'll be only too happy to tear him apart. "And you're saying Arkham would be better?"
Rae worked the button on her retractable pen absently. "In general, yes. With most of my clients, Arkham's preferable to a jailhouse, especially when competency issues come up. It's also a bonus should it become necessary to file suppression motions. And of course we'd bypass the danger of some prison snitch trying to get a reduction on his own sentence by claiming he'd heard Mr. Wayne admit to something."
Dick frowned. "I should have thought about that," he admitted.
"No reason why," Rae countered with a quick smile. "As I understand it, your purview ends once the accused make it into police custody. That's when mine starts. Get caught off guard once, and you take precautions going forward."
"Meaning?" Dick asked, interested.
"Well, one of my first homicide trials had me representing a youth charged with second degree murder. During the bail hearing, one of the guards testified that, on the previous night, he'd 'found' a toothbrush with a razor blade on it 'on' the kid. That was the first I'd heard about it."
At Dick's low whistle, she chuckled. "I used to have a basket of china eggs on my desk," she added. "After I'd shattered two of them against the wall, I came to my senses enough to bring the rest home with me, where they'd be safe."
"Getting back to business," Dick continued, "How does it look for Bruce, if he does stand trial?"
Rae smiled. "Well, if he does, most of the charges pertaining to events occurring prior to the disbanding of the JLA would have to be dropped. That's a break for us right there. It takes care of the assault charges, and all the variations thereof, as well as rebellion, obstruction of justice, and so on. The most serious matter though, is that which pertains to the deaths of the police officers during the mob war. If there's any way that the prosecution can try him for those, they will."
"Yes." Rae sighed. "They'd have to present a formal request to the United Nations, similar to what would happen if one government were to ask another to waive diplomatic immunity for one of its citizens. If the case is presented strongly enough, the UN might well grant the request. Now, I'll admit that this sort of thing is a bit outside my experience, and I'd need to refresh my memory before I could give you a definitive answer, but I would imagine the process to be long and bureaucratic. There's bound to be red tape, appeals, injunctions… but ultimately, yes, I do think that the prosecution's motion would be granted. Especially, now, with the Justice League disbanded, and with Batman's identity compromised, it might not appear to be worth it to the UN to want to afford him any protection."
"Twenty-eight counts of second degree murder." Dick intoned hollowly.
"Well, probably not that," Rae said. "I can likely get it knocked down to voluntary manslaughter, maybe even involuntary manslaughter under the criminal negligence theory."
That still didn't sound good. "Meaning?"
"Best case scenario?" Rae sighed again. "Arkham. The court finds him not guilty by reason of insanity, and sentences him to inpatient treatment for an indefinite period. It's basically the same thing that would happen if they found him incompetent to stand trial except," she looked at Dick and watched as he braced himself to hear the rest. "With incompetency, if he ever became competent, he could still be tried later. With a 'not guilty' verdict, if he was ever determined to be sane he could eventually be released. Worst case scenario … he's found guilty on all counts and sent to Blackgate … forever."
No, Dick thought to himself. This doesn't sound good at all.
Tim and Barbara gaped at him. "That's the good news?" The teen choked.
Barbara recovered first. "I know we were discussing it the other night, but-"
"It's what we all said," Cass broke in. "Why surprised his lawyer says same thing?"
Barbara sighed. "We were guessing. It's a little different when an experienced attorney tells you that your hunch was right."
Cass considered that, then nodded slowly. "Can we help?"
"Right now?" Dick asked. "Not directly. Gordon and I are going to keep trying to visit Bruce at the hospital, but that's more to let him know we're not abandoning him."
Tim cleared his throat. "There's another reason, too. When my dad was in the hospital all that time, after the Obeah man," he closed his eyes for a moment, I'd visit him whenever I could. And when I was off in Europe, Alfred took over. If the doctors know somebody's keeping tabs, they're more careful." Dick started to say something, but Tim continued. "And if one of the cops on guard detail is holding any grudges, maybe he or she would think twice before pulling something."
Dick considered that derisively, at first. Batman could handle forty opponents at a time. Batman could strike terror into a crowded room with a glare and a whisper. Batman could single-handedly take down the Justice League. Then another, more sobering, thought struck him. Batman was currently lying in a hospital bed, restrained, and at the mercy of the GCPD, so overwhelmed by grief and depression that he seemed almost oblivious to the larger situation. He winced. 'Batman' and 'overwhelmed' didn't normally belong in the same sentence. Much as Tim's statement disturbed him, Dick had to concede that the teen did have a point. Slowly he nodded. "That's another reason. Tim, Cass, it's too risky for both of you to try to get in to see him. All we need is for the cops to put two and two together. Babs, if you can come up with a plausible way you and Bruce could know each other, I mean know each other beyond shaking his hand once at the… the Policeman's Ball, or something, you might be able to get in. Maybe."
"Working on it," Barbara said. Tapping the chair, she remarked tartly "at least nobody's going to think I'm secretly the Huntress with this thing."
"That reminds me," Dick said. "Babs, what's your team up to, these days? You're calling yourselves the Birds of Prey, now, right?"
Barbara nodded. "We're not on a mission, right now, but that could change."
"Fine," Dick said seriously. "Until it does, if we need backup in the field, would you be willing to lend a hand?"
"Dinah would," Barbara considered. "Helena… well, you know she considers herself 'over' trying to join the Bat-brigade at this point. She'd probably get a good laugh out of it if we asked her to help out, now."
"If I asked her, for sure. But… she made contact with Grace, last night. And, assuming she's turned on the radio, picked up a newspaper, or spoken to anybody in the Western Hemisphere since yesterday, she won't have to ask how Batman feels about it. Just ask her if she'd consider it as a favor."
Barbara nodded. "What happened with Lucius?"
Dick brightened. "It's a little soon to be sure, but it looks like things are going to work out. WE took a hit today on the Gotham Stock Exchange, but overall, the entire GSX was down, as were the Dow Jones, and the US dollar. And the stock only fell one and three-quarter points. That's not bad."
Barbara started to nod, then caught a faint glimmer of excitement in his eyes. "And?"
"Well," Dick said with a sigh, "Lucius is talking about renaming the company, to try to distance it more from the scandal. Bruce's grandfather founded the corporation, so Lucius is thinking of submitting a motion to the board to change the name to 'Patrick Morgan Wayne Enterprises', or PMWE for short."
"And if this whole thing blows over," Tim said sagely, "the name change can stay on the books, but the company would be able to unofficially go back to 'WE' as a shortened variation."
"And?" Barbara asked again, somewhat testily.
Dick grinned. "And, Lucius offered me an entry-level position in media relations."
"He what?" Barbara exclaimed, as Tim let out a whoop and slapped the elder vigilante on the back. Cass looked at the three faces surrounding her, frowned in confusion, then stiffly extended her hand to Dick.
"Congratulations. Um… what did he do?"
"But…" Barbara hesitated, "you never seemed to want anything to do with the company before."
"That wasn't it exactly," Dick said. "It was more… I didn't want to take over the company, just because I was Bruce's ward. Look, that one semester when I was in college, I tried taking business administration. Not because I had any interest in it, but because I knew what Bruce expected of me. And when I flunked out, I realized that, if Bruce and I had been on speaking terms back then, had I told Bruce what happened, he would have been disappointed. He might have tried to talk me into trying some other college. But bottom line, he would have told me that he still had confidence I'd be ready to step into his shoes one day. Lousy marks, low aptitude… it all would have been a formality. I was the CEO's kid. The position would have been handed to me." He frowned. "The fancy house, the cars, the designer clothes… those never bugged me so much, but this did. If I didn't have the ability, look, maybe I understood why Bruce used to put on that clueless act in front of the Board of Directors, but the truth is, he knew exactly what was going on in the company on any given day, or could have, had he been interested. He didn't have the time to take an active role and still be Batman, so he shifted the responsibilities for WE onto Lucius, but if he'd wanted to, he could have handled things. Me… it's not just a question of the grades-I could have worked on those, maybe. It's that I found the whole program… boring."
Dick turned to Tim. "Lucius said," he flushed. "Well, he said that based on what happened yesterday, apparently, I might have enough talent to make a career out of this kind of thing. I told him the only reason I did as well as I did was because I had a couple friends rehearsing me. He said…"
"Good. If you'd told me you'd made it up as you went along, you would seriously be scaring me. Planning is a good thing."
Cass blinked. "He's right. You know that already. Why argue?"
"I'm not," Dick said. "I'm just explaining. I don't want to run the company. Frankly, I could do without the gossip at the water cooler about how I only got the job because I'm the boss's son. And if Bruce were to have made me some executive something-or-other, that gossip would have been true. But getting an offer like that, at a time like this," he grinned, "that's something I earned, not something handed to me because of who my father is. Plus, I need a job. And plus, once I got into the rhythm of it, I actually enjoyed it, yesterday."
"So you're going to take it," Barbara stated.
"I think so. I told Lucius I'd sleep on it. He said there's no rush, but…"
"If you get any other offers in the interim, let me know. If it's a question of benefits, we might be able to negotiate."
He looked at Barbara. "What do you think?"
Barbara shrugged. "I think it gives you a perfect reason to stay in Gotham until things get resolved. I think Lucius knows a good thing when he sees it. I think that if this is what you want, then you should go for it."
Tim glanced at his watch. "Speaking of going," he said, "Cass and I had better suit up."
"Right," Dick nodded. "Alright. You both know what you're doing, so I'm not going to insult you by telling you to be careful. Because you both will be. If you run into Black Mask, Hush, or anyone else who might mean more trouble than you can handle, call for backup."
"Yes, Mother," Tim sighed.
Cass rolled her eyes. "Nag, nag, nag…" she muttered, provoking a startled laugh from Barbara.
"Gimme a break," Dick said lightly. "I won't be coming in on your frequencies while you're out patrolling, so you're getting six hours worth of verbal harassment in sixty seconds. Deal with it."
"Sh'yeah, right," Tim snorted. "Later, Bro." He headed for the garage, where he'd parked the Redbird earlier.
Cass paused, uncertainly. "Later," she echoed, as she headed for her motorcycle, also parked in the garage.
Robin laid out the last of the would-be carjackers with a quick uppercut to the jaw, followed by a blow to the solar plexus. As he cuffed the dazed youth, a prickling sensation at the back of his neck told him that someone was approaching from behind. He whirled, relaxing instantly at the sight of a familiar caped-and-cowled form. "Knew you couldn't sit this out," he scoffed. "What's up?"
"Trouble," Batman replied. He pointed to a low-rise apartment building, which had once seen better days. The same could be said for the neighbourhood as a whole. Once a solidly middle-class district, three decades had transformed the Mulvehill Plateau section of Oldtown into an eight-block slum. Refuse overflowed from haphazard trash bins, and graffiti festooned nearly every blank wall. Any unbarred windows were broken, and the few people out on the street at this hour looked as though they would probably be sleeping outdoors, as well.
"What kind of trouble?" Robin asked.
Batman held up a crystal teardrop that dangled from a glittering golden chain. It caught the light from an overhead streetlamp, setting off multicoloured flickers. "Diamond," he said. "Stolen. There are more. In there."
Tim blinked, unable to tear his eyes away from the swaying pendant. "Let's go," he said uncertainly. Yet something made him hesitate. It wasn't just that Batman should be able to handle a simple burglary himself, it was… He struggled to move back. Batman advanced, one hand holding the swinging locket, the other clutching the edge of his cape, pulling it before him. And then… it was as though he could see the cape and cowl super-imposed on a skinny, balding man who resembled nothing so much as a human spider. "You… aren't… Batman!" He gasped, trying to fight, but unable to make his limbs obey. The illusion fell away entirely as Stirk moved in upon him. Instead of a cape, the Arkham escapee was holding a cloth large enough to cover a man's face.
The cloth was firmly pressed over Robin's mouth and nose, and the world went dark…
Romy came off-duty at seven the following morning. Somehow, despite her intent to grab a bagel and decaf, then head home for a shower and sleep before meeting Marcus for a… well what were you supposed to call a breakfast eaten at 2 p.m.? Brunch? Blupper? She grimaced. You know you've been working too hard when you start inventing new words.Despite her gameplan, her Taurus seemed to have a mind of its own. And it was driving her back to the hospital.
She gripped the steering wheel angrily. She didn't want to see him again. She had no intention of seeing him again. He could just stay in that room until they packed him off where he belonged.
She pulled into a vacant parking space as, unbidden, another face floated into her mind. A face with grey eyes that shifted from blue to hazel depending on the lighting, and rugged facial features framed by curly rust-coloured hair. Her features softened as she blinked. Now what was he doing in her thoughts? Sure, Dr. Hardy was decent-looking, well-spoken… tall… smart… a good listener… kind of sweet. She slapped herself smartly on the forehead. Hel-lo! Marcus Driver? Is that name ringing any bells for you, girl? As long as she was here, anyway, Romy decided that she might as well stop off at the hospital cafeteria for a quick bite. Then, straight home for sleep and shower, as planned.
Dick awoke at eight, and padded upstairs to the kitchen. Barbara greeted him with relief. "I was just about to wake you," she said. "Daddy left already. He said as long as he's kept up his Y membership, he might as well get some swimming in."
He reached for the coffeepot. "He swims?" Somehow, that wasn't one of the things that he imagined Gordon doing in his spare time.
Barbara nodded. "He took it up after the shooting. In the water, he's not as limited, physically."
Comprehension dawned. "That makes sense. So. I think I'll give Lucius a call, confirm I'll take that job offer, and then-"
"Dick," Barbara interrupted, "Tim never signed off, last night. And he never came back, either. Cass is looking for him now, but…"
"Show me what you've got," he said grimly, as he slathered peanut butter onto two slices of whole wheat bread. He squirted a pool of honey onto the center of one slice and pressed the second one on top. No point asking Babs why she hadn't woken him sooner. He was the one who had laid the ground rules. Off meant off. "It's morning. Breather's over."
Romy had no sooner taken a larger-than-polite bite from her cream-cheese-laden bagel, when she heard an all-too-familiar baritone exclaim "Detective Chandler! I was hoping I'd run into you again!"
Terrific, she groaned inwardly, trying to finish what was in her mouth quickly, without choking on it.
"Oh!" He said, noting the reason for her distress. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you."
She swallowed the bagel, taking a long swig of the Red Zinger tea that she'd ordered in place of decaf. "You didn't," she mumbled, red-faced. "I was just getting off-shift, and I thought I'd come here for a quick bite to eat."
He grinned. "All the way from GCPD headquarters?"
Romy felt her face flushing. Dr. Hardy seemed altogether too sure of himself. "Yes," she snapped. "There's something I need to find out from-" She caught herself before she mentioned Wayne's name. Akins still hadn't revealed where Batman was being held, and this was a public cafeteria. Anyone could be listening.
Hardy nodded understanding. "I guess he probably would be the one to give you closure, at that," he agreed. "Except, rumour has it, he's not doing much talking."
Romy thought back. "He didn't say a lot yesterday, but maybe he'll be more talkative today. I can try, anyway." She hadn't planned on doing anything of the kind, but thinking it over, it actually wasn't a bad idea. She'd tried something similar a few months earlier, the day that Nate Patton's parents had flown into Gotham to have their son taken off life-support. Distraught, Romy had cornered Angie Molina at a book signing, and asked her about what had happened in the stockroom. Molina, though, had been unable to recall anything. Chalk it up to stress or shock or something like it, but after speaking with Molina, Romy Chandler had no more answers than she'd had previously. Funny how asking Batman about it had never seriously occurred to her. It wasn't as if you could normally get the man to stick around long enough. But now… now, it was another story. She smiled to herself. Another trip to Wayne's room was definitely in order. She blinked, realizing Hardy had just said something. "Sorry, what?"
A gloved hand held a card of physician's medication samples. On the foil backing, she saw something like 20 small white tablets, each in a protective plastic bubble. Hardy grinned. "Sorry. I was saying, I was thinking about our conversation, yesterday. If you want to try compensating for your drowsiness, I'd start with these very slowly. Maybe a half tablet after getting up for the first week, and only if you think you need it. If it's working well, then maybe we should schedule a few sessions-purely professional, of course…"
"Oh, of course," rejoined Romy.
"…with an eye towards getting you able to cope without… um… pharmaceutical assistance."
Romy wavered. "I don't think I should," She said, pushing the sample card back to him.
He pocketed it with faint disappointment.
"Don't misunderstand," she said hastily, "but shouldn't I check with my regular doctor, first?"
"Oh, absolutely," Hardy agreed. "But I know that waiting around to get reimbursed by your health plan for the cost of meds can be a real pain. And Desoxyn doesn't come cheap. So if you can get… her? Him?"
"Him." Nice of him not to assume, though.
"Him to approve it, you can start with the samples immediately," he pushed the card back to her, "and see me if you need more when these run out. Okay?"
She found herself smiling, a little. For just one moment, it had seemed… no, he was just trying to help. And maybe he wasn't being quite proper in handing her the medication without a prescription, but then, he was a doctor. And, he certainly hadn't protested her request for a second opinion. This probably was a simple case of a man in a position to lend a helping hand, and choosing to do so. Hesitantly, she said, "I've got about twenty-five pounds of apples going rotten on me. I was planning to turn them into applesauce this weekend. Would you like a jar or two?"
Dr. Hardy's eyes widened, and his face lit up with a genuine grin. "That would be excellent, Detective Chandler," he replied.
"Romy." She smiled. For a moment, it seemed to her that when he'd given her the card a second time, he'd removed it from his other pocket, but that was probably just her imagination…
Romy was almost hoping that the guards at the door would challenge her. She hadn't checked whether her clearance to enter Wayne's room had been only for the one time, or unlimited for the duration. Kessler, however, just smiled and waved her through.
Wayne turned at her entrance. His brows knitted together, then lifted. "Detective Chandler," he stated.
At that moment, everything that Romy had been planning to say fled from her mind. She stood stock-still, staring at him.
He gazed back inquiringly. "Is there a… reason you've come back?" He asked finally.
That galvanized her. "Why? Am I interrupting anything?" She demanded. "Is there something else you need to be doing, right now?"
If he was offended by her hostility, it didn't show. "Curiosity, Detective Chandler," he said after a moment. "I… didn't expect to see you again."
Romy mulled that over, trying to find something objectionable in it. She couldn't, damn him! "I," she hesitated, realizing that to reveal the motive for her return was to allow herself to become vulnerable, once more. She wasn't sure whether she could handle that-setting up her hopes again-giving him the power to dash them, as Molina had. And if he did… that would be worse, she recognized, because if he couldn't help her, then there truly wasn't anybody else she could ask. When Molina had been unable to provide her with the answers she needed, Romy had convinced herself that, if she could only get Batman to talk to her, that would solve everything. But what if it wouldn't? She wasn't certain whether she wanted to know for sure.
"I," she started again. Then her expression hardened. "Nothing. Never mind. It was a mistake coming up here. All I wanted to know was what really happened that night. How Nate got hurt. But Angie Molina doesn't remember, and you don't talk to anybody whose initials don't start with 'James Gordon' so why on earth would you bother answering me, and I'm sorry I disturbed you, and that time I shot at you I wasn't thinking clearly…" She realized that some of the other officers in the room had turned to look at her. Sure. They've probably never seen a woman spontaneously crack up before. Well, first rule of show business is 'leave your public wanting more', and I think I've given about enough for one day. "Anyway, I'll let you get back to staring off into space, or whatever it is you do when the TV's not on…"
"Meditating," he replied. Some corner of his mind could appreciate the irony. Renee came every day, and spoke to him about everything under the sun that she could think of to try to bolster his spirits. And, for some reason he couldn't fathom, although he was grateful for everything that she was trying to do, this antagonistic young woman, who was presently in his room, was provoking a stronger response from him in a few short minutes than Renee had garnered in days. Maybe, if he could somehow think through the sedatives, an answer would suggest itself. But for now…
…For now, a woman was hurting. And he was in a position to help. Any other considerations paled in comparison. He thought back. "The timer on the bomb," he began slowly, "was at 48 seconds and falling when I got there…"
Consciousness returned gradually to Timothy Drake. He was groggy, and there was a sour taste in his mouth. His limbs ached. He tried to rub the sleep from his eyes, and discovered that he couldn't move his arms. He appeared to be standing against some sort of wire mesh, and the twisted metal fibres were cutting into the unprotected skin on the back of his neck, and his arms… and wrists. There was something digging in to his ankles, as well. The balls of his feet seemed to be resting directly on a wooden floor. He swivelled his head to be sure, ignoring the painful scratch as he did so. From the angle and intensity of the sunlight filtering in through the nearly-closed slats of the Venetian blinds, it had to be mid-afternoon. How long had he been out? He was still wearing most of his Robin costume-going by the short green sleeve that he could just see out the corner of his eye-but the high-collared cape that would have protected his neck, and the gloves that would have safeguarded his wrists and at least part of his arms, were gone. Wire was wrapped about his wrists and ankles, securing him spread-eagled to what seemed to be an upended bed-frame, bolted to the floor. His boots had also been removed.
"Oh, so you're awake, young Sir!" A gleeful voice cackled. "Better, and better." A bald man capered gleefully into his field of vision. "I can't tell you what a pleasure it is to make your acquaintance," he said, with a strange gleam in his eye. "And I am glad the drug kept you out for as long as it did." He chucked Robin lightly under his chin. "I've had ever so much time to prepare for you. Or…" He said, as a feral grin split his face, "perhaps I should say that I've taken the time to determine… how I might best… prepare you!"
An excerpt from Batman's files chose that moment to spring from Tim's memory. Stirk believes that he must obtain the nutrients and hormones from human hearts in order to remain alive and sane, and that these are best prepared with the body's own chemicals, i.e. norepinephrine. To this end, Stirk induces fear in his victims, literally terrifying them to death…
Tim felt his heart begin to pound. And Stirk hadn't even started, yet…
"Why wasn't he wearing a tracer?" Dick demanded for the fifth time. He'd done a circuit of all five of the satellite caves, then checked the main one. After that, he'd tried to go upstairs into the manor, completely forgetting that he'd set off the charges and blocked off the clock access with debris. Most of the rocks were piled on the catwalk, just in front of the entrance, but some of the smaller pieces had dropped to the lower levels, and most exposed surfaces were now coated with a veneer of sand and dust. He'd had to go into the manor by a more conventional route. Dick realized that he should probably find out whether he was technically allowed access to the manor until Bruce's fate was resolved. In all likelihood, he was, but for now, he was just as happy not to have run into any police search teams while he was inside looking for Tim. That, however, had been the extent of his good fortune. He'd found no sign that the youth had been to any of the locations since the start of his patrol.
"He's been operating basically solo out of Bludhaven," Barbara repeated. "And he didn't want Bruce keeping tabs on him."
"All well and good," Dick snapped, "but now we can't locate him either. How about the Redbird?"
"He found those also."
Dick frowned. "Wait a second. Bruce made those throwing knives of his, right?"
Barbara nodded. "Yes. So?"
"So, when he makes the batarangs, he builds homing signals into them. Helps him track them down and collect them, if he's trying to hide his presence at a site. If he did the same thing with Robin's knives… Hang on one second." He dashed over to the walk-in closet that was doubling as a costume vault. It still startled him to slide open the doors and see the bat-suits hanging in something so… ordinary. The basement might be filling in as a cave, but it sure didn't look like one. Dick opened the correct pouch in the utility belt, extracted a 'rang, and carried it swiftly back to Barbara's computer console. "See if you can match the frequency. With any luck…"
Barbara's eyes widened. She nodded in comprehension as her fingers flew across the console. "Well, after we eliminate places where we'd expect to find a cache of them, like the 'caves," she murmured, "Bingo!"
"No, I've been on-line gambling and I just covered a card, Hunk-Wonder," she snapped. "Yes, I've got it! Residence in the Mulvehill Plateau. He's stationary. I mean really stationary. Not being jostled at all."
"So, he's either not carrying them, or he's being restrained somehow, or he's asleep." Dick said. "Alright. There are still a couple hours of daylight left, but I guess I'd better suit up. If I don't check in after four hours, call in anybody you have to.
"…I saw that the EMTs had arrived," he finished, "so I carried Molina to one of the ambulances. The paramedics were… better qualified than I was to assist… your partner."
Romy waited a full minute after Batman finished speaking. "So, if you'd known that there were nine seconds less on the timer, you would have handled it differently."
"I…" He hesitated. "I can't answer that. Any time that I'm too… slow, I review my actions… analyse what went wrong. In hindsight, there were at least eight different ways that I could have kept them both alive. But, if you're asking whether I would have recognized one of those possibilities at the time… I won't… patronize you, Detective Chandler. I don't know."
She shut her eyes tightly, and kept them closed. She pictured Nate Patton, alive, flirting with her, totally oblivious to her lack of interest-which had, perversely, been one of his more endearing qualities. She saw him ordering her out of the store. Batman hadn't been there. Nate had no real reason to expect him, and every reason to believe that he, and Molina, were both as good as dead. But he'd chosen to stay and try to save her, anyway. And, had Batman given him a choice, she knew that Nate would have told him to save Molina. "He was a hero," she stated flatly. "Without a cape, without a belt full of hi-tech toys, he was a hero."
"Yes." Batman didn't hesitate this time.
Romy stood up, and drew a deep breath. "Thank-you." Thank-you for telling me what I needed to hear, and not necessarily what I wanted to. Thank-you for the truth. She turned abruptly, and headed for the door. Hand on the knob, she turned back, feeling that there was something else she should say, but she couldn't think what.
It wasn't until she was out in the corridor again that she realized, that at the very least, she could have said 'goodbye'.
When was the last time Bruce wore the suit in daylight? Dick wondered to himself. The Batmobile was in stealth mode with nothing glaringly obvious to distinguish it from a myriad of black four-door sedans on the road on any given day. An expert might realize that the car did not directly conform to any one make or model. A layperson might note the black-tinted windows and wonder at them. But nobody was likely to recognize that the touch of a button would enable turbo jets, bulletproof shielding, and a host of other bells and whistles.
Dick wanted to press that button, and go barrelling with all possible speed to the location flashing on his onboard computer. But he didn't dare. He was avoiding the rush hour traffic on the Aparo, driving through tree-lined residential neighbourhoods at slightly under the local speed limit, and relying on Barbara to keep the traffic lights green for him.
"You'll have to go left on Lyle," She instructed. "Stay on Giddings and you'll be down to one lane of traffic in about two blocks."
And Giddings was supposed to be a two-way street. "Got it."
There was a pause. "I know my timing could be better, but Daddy's made the arrangements." She drew a deep breath. "The funeral is set for 11:30, tomorrow morning. It'll be… private." Her voice faltered on the last word.
Dick made the left turn, and swerved right onto Hilty. "Roger that," he said, his voice sounding harsher than he'd meant it to. "Any obstacles between here and Mulvehill?"
At Oracle's negative reply, Batman increased his speed by three miles per hour. It didn't make much difference, but it made him feel better.
Tim suppressed a moan as he watched Stirk take the electric coil out of the galvanized iron sink, where it had been resting. The figure-eight-curved end of the implement glowed a cheerful orange. Stirk examined it thoughtfully before returning it to the sink.
"I shan't keep you waiting much longer, Sir," the little man remarked. "I know the anticipation can be…" he stroked Tim's cheek with a dry, papery hand, "a killer."
Tim tried to recoil from that hand, but the wire held firm.
"Fret all you like, my boy," Stirk said gleefully. "It will help to speed things along." He turned back to his worktable and picked up a long knife. Taking a smooth metal rod in his other hand, he began to hone the blade, sliding it along the length of the rod. Tim closed his eyes, as though that would block out the scraping sound as the knife went back and forth… growing sharper and keener with each passing slide… would it split a hair, yet? He tried to wrench his thoughts away from the scene transpiring before him.
Stirk was too intent on his prey to notice the door to his apartment swinging noiselessly open, and closing, just as silently, a moment later. The cowled figure glanced quickly around the room, taking stock of the situation.
"Shan't be much longer, at all," Stirk was saying, as he a practiced hand over Tim's heart. "Ah, yes," he smiled. "That's coming along quite nicely. Quite nicely indeed. Why, I had thought it might take days before you were primed." He patted the boy's chest possessively. "I'd forgotten. You have a brave heart. A strong heart. But you are but a child. Your feelings run strong and close to the surface." Picking up the knife again, he deftly sliced the Kevlar vest from collarbone to navel. He then slashed the blade lightly across each shoulder. The vest fell away, leaving him standing in mask and tights. "Your fear, especially." Stirk smiled soothingly. "I wonder," he mused aloud. "With such a tender heart… might not the seasonings overpower the dish? Perhaps, I ought not to be quite so hasty." He cupped his hands around Tim's chin, pulling the boy's face forward until the wire digging into his wrists forced him to cry out. Stirk took away one hand, to reach into his pocket and extract a grubby handkerchief, which he jammed into Tim's mouth. "Can't have you crying out, now…" Stirk said affably. "Why, the neighbors might hear."
And then, a new voice spoke up. "Forget the neighbors," Batman ordered harshly. "Start worrying about me."