Pulling the Curtain
At Batman's challenge, Cornelius Stirk whirled about. The masked figure could hear Robin's laboured breathing and muffled protests as the youth tried to dispose of the gag jammed into his mouth. The room smelled of damp, mildew, sweat, and other, more foul odours that had, over the years, bonded with walls and floor so that no disinfectant would ever purge the stink entirely.
"Ah…" Stirk crooned softly. "The two Masters of Fear meet again."
"What?" Batman gritted.
"We both seek a similar purpose, Sir," Stirk said. "We both wish to provoke fear in others. That is how we both have survived as long as we have. It's a perfectly sane, perfectly rational desire, Batman. Surely you agree that there's no taint of madness in such a goal?" Almost absently, Stirk pulled a pendant out of his pocket and let it swing slowly before him, as steadily as a metronome. Batman could hear the faint clinking as the crystal swung back and forth on its chain. Robin's muted grunts took on a new urgency as Stirk stepped closer.
"Don't even go there," Batman warned, advancing a step toward him.
"Why not?" Stirk demanded. "Do you… ahem… fear that I might be right?" His voice turned soothing. "I need to retain my sanity, and to do so for any length of time, I must keep to a strict… well… call it diet, shall we? Although I would it were otherwise, I do as I must, for the greater good. This is sane. This is rational. In order for you, Batman, to function as you do, you must instil fear in your prey as well. I'm certain you take no pleasure in so doing, but to achieve your aim… you too do as you must. Equally sane. Equally rational."
Batman paused in his approach, indecisive, his weight still shifting in anticipation of his next step.
"So, Batman," Stirk whispered as he took a step toward the costumed vigilante, "are we truly so…dissimilar?"
Stirk's breath, hot and stinking of rancid meat, assaulted Batman's nostrils, breaking the spell. As the little man lurched forward, Batman threw himself to the left, diving out of reach of the blade in his opponent's hand. He could hear Stirk scrabbling behind him and immediately flipped onto his back, delivering a powerful kick to Stirk's mid-section. There was a satisfying thud as his opponent's back hit the wall. Then… heavy rubber-soled boots, half-scrambling, half-sliding on the wooden floor, and the reverberation of metal sliding and banging against metal.
"Batman," Stirk wheedled, "Surely you wouldn't harm me. Why, we should be friends!"
He felt it then. A tug on his mind, firm and assured, not even considering the possibility of defeat. And if he'd been meeting Stirk's gaze, Batman had no doubt that he would, in short order, find himself entirely at his assailant's mercy. But, knowing his adversary, Batman had taken a precaution before entering his enemy's lair.
Careful. Time it right. Don't tip your hand too soon. Placing a hand to his temple, he shook his head, as if to clear it, turning his face away from Stirk as he did so. "Keep back," he urged, allowing a faint hint of nervousness to creep into his voice.
Stirk picked up on that immediately. Batman could hear him advance another step, his gait more self-assured than it had been. "Such manners, Sir. Surely you've been taught better."
Batman froze. The voice the words, the intonation… It's a trick. You know whom it is you're facing. You know how he operates. But it sounded exactly like… It isn't. It can't be. You know it can't be. A patch of air before him felt warmer than the rest of the room did, and he could smell something faintly acrid.
"Come now, Sir. Look at me when I'm speaking to you."
Automatically, his face turned in the direction of the voice.
"Much better," the voice turned silky with triumph and the warm air suddenly seemed to be several inches higher. "Much…"
Without warning, Batman crouched low, and then, like a tightly coiled spring suddenly released, sprang upward, kicking out at a 120-degree angle, and connecting exactly where he knew Stirk's chin had to be. He heard the clatter as whatever Stirk had been holding hit the floor, but paid it no heed as he leaped atop his opponent, and rolled the smaller man onto his belly. He fumbled in his belt for the plastic handcuffs, which he fastened expertly around his captive's wrists. Batman hesitated for a moment to get his bearings, listening intently for the sound of Robin's breathing. Once he heard it, he homed in on it.
"Robin? Are you alright?"
Immediately, muffled cries reached his ears.
"Here. Easy," he said as he fumbled for where the boy's face had to be and pulled a wad of fabric out of his mouth. "You okay?"
Robin retched and spat, trying to get the taste of the gag out of his mouth. "Y-yeah," he said finally. "What about you?"
"I'm… fine," Batman said. He would be, at any rate. He thought for a moment, then picked his way over to where Stirk lay, and shoved the handkerchief into the prone man's own mouth. Stirk squirmed in protest, as Robin vocalized his own disgust.
Batman turned away. Extending an arm before him, he groped for the wall.
"Batman? What's wrong?" Tim sounded nervous. Not panicked, just concerned. As was totally appropriate to the circumstances.
"Nothing," he said reassuringly. "I know Stirk can't see me. Could anybody from outside?"
"What?" Now Robin was scared. Batman chuckled.
"Relax. I covered the cowl lenses with moleskin before I came into the room," he explained. "I knew Stirk was going to try hypnosis on me if he got the chance, either by twirling something in front of me, or by using his psi power to make me think I was looking at somebody I could trust. If nobody can see my face from where I'm standing, I'll peel the stuff off now." He wrinkled his nose. Although the room didn't feel any warmer, it was starting to smell like a bonfire.
Dick rolled up the cowl and deftly removed the fabric from the eyepieces, replacing the cowl when he was done. The burning smell was coming from the hot electric coil, which had fallen to the wooden floor. The coil hadn't had time to do more than scorch its impression into the floorboards. Dick unplugged it. "Okay, let's get you out of this thing," he said, working one end of the wire around Robin's left wrist free.
"You mean, you took Stirk on… blind?"
"I stuck my head in here long enough to take note of the layout of the room before ducking back into the corridor to put on the moleskin. It was a risk," Batman admitted. "But it was a calculated risk. And it paid off."
"Yeah," Robin agreed. The wire loosened and he slid his wrist out, as Batman went to work on his other side. "But he still got to you."
"A little. I didn't realize he could also delude you into hearing the voice of someone you trusted. That threw me."
"You alright?" Robin demanded again, as Batman bent down to attend to his ankles.
"I will be." Once Tim was free, Dick spoke into his comlink, instructing Oracle to tip off GCPD anonymously about Cornelius Stirk's whereabouts. "Hang on." He dashed into what appeared to be a bedroom, rummaged through a drawer, and emerged with a wrinkled, but clean black T-shirt. "Your vest's a write-off. Put this on until you're back in the Redbird."
Tim accepted the garment gingerly. "Thanks. I guess," he said. Dick had no trouble understanding his reluctance to take anything from the man who had just put him through that ordeal. The necessity of leaving the scene before the police arrived won the younger boy over.
"So," Tim said as the two headed for the fire escape at the rear, "is there some technique I should know about to fight him off, if there's a next time? I mean, did Raven teach you, or something?"
Dick hesitated. "She did teach me a few things," he said finally, "but in this case, Stirk just sounded like somebody he couldn't possibly have been. All I did was keep reminding myself about that… accept that it couldn't be… who it sounded like… because…" he closed his eyes as though that could somehow steady his voice, "because the funeral is tomorrow."
But, damn. For one glorious moment, he'd half-believed it had been Alfred's voice.
Casa Puccini was located almost at the halfway point between GCPD headquarters and the Gotham City Courthouse, making it a preferred lunch spot for police and lawyers alike. Its generous portions and all-you-can-eat bread bar more than made up for the slightly higher-than-average cost of a meal.
Mike Akins sat at one of the tables, idly arranging his loose change on the blue-and-white chequered tablecloth, as though setting up a game. He'd scheduled an after-work meeting with Karl May, and the current district attorney was ten minutes late.
Akins looked up to see the MCU's second shift commander, Lieutenant David Cornwell waving a greeting at him.
"Cornwell," Akins forced himself to smile back. "Here by yourself, tonight?"
"Sarge'll be joining me in a bit," Cornwell replied. "I've been scheduling time to get to know my people, one-on-one. And," he glanced away, "I know Sarge wanted my job in the first place. I just figured…"
"Has he been giving you any trouble, Lieutenant?"
Cornwell shook his head emphatically. "Not at all, Sir. His performance has been exemplary. But, just in case, I'd rather clear the air now then face a problem down the road."
Akins started to respond, when a deep booming voice called out "Mike!" The police commissioner turned with relief.
"Afternoon, Karl. I was concerned you weren't going to make it." He turned to Cornwell. "If you'll excuse us, Lieutenant?"
Cornwell nodded easily and headed for the bread bar. It featured several different sorts of bread and plain and seasoned butters. Diners made their selections and toasted their choice on an open grill. This feature alone had made Casa Puccini a popular fixture in the neighbourhood.
"Sorry, Mike," Karl said as he took his seat. "We've had a busy few days of it, what with all of the excitement."
Akins nodded. "How does it look?"
May busied himself with one of the menus that their server had dropped unobtrusively onto their table. "By 'it', I would assume you mean the number one news story of the week," he said. "Have you tried the veal tortellini?"
"I haven't been here before. Any good? And, yes." Akins opened his own menu.
"Judge Craig recommends it, but I haven't tried it myself." May cleared his throat. "Getting on to the business end of things," he continued, "it's going to take time, and plenty of it. There's a lot of red tape to cut through."
Akins grunted. "So, it would come to trial… when? Some time in the new year?"
"Now, you're being optimistic," May chuckled. "I've just today sent off a petition to the UN for the right to try him under our jurisdiction. Considering the number of other items currently on their agenda, I'd guess it would take a couple of months before the topic even comes up for discussion. Then, of course, the issue will be debated back and forth before it's denied—"
"Denied?" Akins asked sharply.
"Initially, yes. We're effectively asking them to waive diplomatic immunity. That's not something they'll undertake lightly. Not with the kind of precedent we're about to set. When you get right down to it, virtually every JLA member can theoretically be charged with assault, property damage, obstruction of justice—"
"Believe me, the whole fiasco with Wonder Woman is the single strongest point in our favor," May stated. "It's probably the only reason the UN council is even willing to hear our petition in the first place, but they're still going to worry about pushing that door open any wider." He shook his head. "No, Mike. They'll deny it the first time, that's a given. Then we'll file an appeal, and they'll debate that for a spell. The earliest that this is likely to get a trial date would be a year and a half. And it could drag on longer."
"May I take your orders?" A waiter materialized at May's shoulder. May took the tortellini. Akins went for the linguine al pesto. The two men got up to go to the bread bar. Akins noted that Cornwell already returning from a second trip. Or, perhaps a third-he hadn't been paying attention. Sarge still hadn't shown up.
As the two men approached, Cornwell's eyes widened. "Down! Now!" The lieutenant shouted, launching himself at them. At that instant, a gunshot blasted from the street outside the restaurant, and the plate-glass window behind Akins and May shattered.
To Akins, everything seemed to happen in slow-motion. He dropped to his knees, and dove under one of the tables. May froze. Cornwell tackled the DA, pushing him to the ground, and shielding the large man's body with his own as the crown of the officer's head erupted in a flood of red… then time sped up to normal as Cornwell slumped over the DA, his weight holding the petrified man down.
"Someone call an ambulance," Akins shouted as he crawled the few feet over to where his lieutenant lay bleeding. He told himself that it was probably just a graze. Scalp wounds bled a lot, everybody knew that. As long as the EMTs could get the bleeding under control, Cornwell would be fine. Akins told himself that, and he kept telling himself that, until he realized that a good part of his shift commander's skull seemed to have been shorn off by the force of the bullet's entry, and that the lieutenant did not seem to be moving… or breathing.
From the Gotham Herald, the next morning:
'Officer slain in drive-by shooting'
'23rd murder victim since Batman's arrest'
'Can Akins restore order?'
30 Per cent increase in vandalism claims this month: Grand Eastern CEO states
'Officers attempting to cope with crime-wave'—Page 3
'Was The Batman more essential than we knew?'—Page 3
'Akins rejected JLA member's offer to help'—Page 3
'DA's office petitions UN for right to try Batman'—Page 14
'Was May the Target?'—Page 15
'Wayne's competency hearing today', —Page 16
'Funeral for Alfred Pennyworth to take place today', —Page 16
Dick Grayson hated writing speeches. And, media relations success notwithstanding, he wasn't overly fond of giving them, either. This was one situation, however, where he truly had no choice in the matter. He would have deferred Alfred's eulogy to anyone else, except that this time, there really wasn't anybody else. Bruce should be here. Bruce should be… Dick shook his head. It had been years before Bruce had been able to bring up Jason's name in conversation. Expecting Bruce to be able to stand up and speak about Alfred, even were such a thing feasible… it would be correct. It would be proper. Had it been anybody other than Alfred being interred today, then Alfred himself would have reminded Bruce of what was expected. But forcing Bruce to fulfill this duty would have been one more cruelty that, propriety aside, Dick was glad his mentor was being spared.
It wasn't as though there was any other choice. With Bruce out of commission, the task fell to Dick as the person next-best-qualified to speak. Tim couldn't. As well as he had come to know Alfred over the last four years, Tim had not had the experience of growing up under the elderly man's influence. And Dick wouldn't, couldn't place that kind of burden on the shoulders of a teenaged boy, who had already buried a parent, a girlfriend, and a classmate, only a year or so ago. Barbara knew Alfred well, but it wasn't her place either. If it couldn't be Bruce, it had to be him. Dick realized. There simply wasn't an alternative. Somehow, that steadied him. If he couldn't delegate, then he would have to perform the eulogy and perform it well.
Dick looked at the people who had followed the hearse to the Wayne Family Cemetery, and who now gathered around the open grave. Alfred had no surviving relatives, at least none that he had ever mentioned. At Dick's urging, Barbara had listed his obituary in the London dailies. If anyone from Alfred's past had seen the notices and flown in for the funeral, they hadn't approached to introduce themselves. Most of the people surrounding him now were the people that he, and to a certain extent, Bruce, were close to. Tim was standing beside him, pale and nervous. He claimed it was only the after-effect of his encounter with Stirk. Dick wasn't going to call him on it. Barbara was on Dick's other side, flanked by her father. Cass stood alone, a few paces behind Tim. Dick wondered idly whether this was her first funeral. He'd been out of commission when Stephanie Brown and Jack Drake had been interred, and he'd never asked whether she had been there. It wasn't important, in any case. You were always too young for your first, and the rest didn't get any easier.
The other faces were also familiar. Although Gordon had tried to keep the funeral private, the costumed crowd had its own grapevine. Babs said that she hadn't passed the word on, and Dick believed her. Still, those who were gathered to pay their respects included Titans, past and present, Outsiders, and former Justice-leaguers, both in and out of costume. Lucius Fox, and, Dick noted with some surprise, Renee Montoya was present as well. There were two other people with her: a young Hispanic woman, whose short dark hair fell back from her forehead in a widow's peak, and a solidly-built African-American with a goatee and mustache. Despite his civilian attire, Dick was fairly sure that the man was also police. He wasn't certain about the woman, but he didn't think so.
There were also a few reporters and photographers keeping to the rear of the crowd. Dick's eyes narrowed. He hadn't invited them. He relaxed slightly when he saw that Lois Lane and Clark Kent stood among them. Actually, they were standing in front of them, discreetly blocking the others from approaching too closely. As their eyes met, Clark nodded slightly, and gave an encouraging nod. Dick nodded back, feeling a momentary swell of gratitude, as the minister began to speak.
Dick heard without hearing. He wondered why he still couldn't cry. He's really gone, he thought to himself. That's what this is all about. That's why you're here. Alfred is in that box. And that box is going into the ground. And you'll never see him again. He's not going to turn up unannounced with a home-cooked breakfast and shake his head over the leftover Chinese takeout you were about to dig into. He's not going to smooth things over when you and Bruce get into one of your stupid arguments-and face it, Grayson, most of them are stupid, and would end a lot sooner if you decided once in a while, that it isn't so blasted important for you to be right! Alfred is… dead. Gone. Passed on. All those times when you broke off contact with him because you were afraid that if you called the manor, Bruce would pick up the phone… all those times he'd ask you to stop by and you didn't because you were afraid of another scene, or you were working on a case, or you were afraid of being lectured, or afraid that he wouldn't lecture you, even though you both knew you deserved it… it looks like you can stop worrying, now. You're never going to have to worry about anything like that again.
Did Alfred ever wonder, when you stormed off in a huff, whether he had done something to offend you? Did he ever wonder if you hated him? After all, during that year and a half that you didn't speak to Bruce, did you ever even drop Alfred a note, a birthday card, anything? You always figured there'd be time for that down the road, didn't you?
He realized that the minister had finished and was looking at him. Dick nodded, swallowed, and took a step forward. He delivered the eulogy that he had written two nights earlier, knowing that it wasn't doing Alfred justice, knowing that no words could, and knowing that if Alfred were standing next to him right now, he'd be telling his surrogate grandson to stop bothering about him and start figuring out a way to help Bruce. He was positive that despite his hours of preparation and half-finished drafts, it sounded as though he was reciting something dashed off five minutes before the funeral, until he saw Anissa blinking rapidly. Unconsciously, she moved closer to Roy, who wrapped an arm about her shoulders. Dick felt a slight pressure on his hand, and looked down to see Barbara holding it firmly. He squeezed back. Tears were pouring down the red-haired woman's cheeks. This is one time where crying isn't just okay, it's expected, Dick told himself. Then, why couldn't he?
He concluded the speech, and watched as the coffin dropped slowly into the open gravesite. As the undertakers began shovelling earth, the knot of reporters started to move forward. Dick groaned mentally, as he steadied himself, bracing for the inevitable barrage of flashbulbs and questions. To his surprise, Montoya and the man standing next to her turned as one, and Dick caught the glint of badges as they faced down the press. Uncertainly, the paparazzi fell back, mumbling.
"This is neither the time nor the place for you people to do anything other than pay your respects," the man's basso profundo rang out clearly. The faint squelching of leather-soled shoes running through damp grass made Dick turn his head, to see Tim sprinting the half-mile back to the manor. He turned as if to follow, then looked down at Barbara. She nodded understanding, and released his hand. Dick started walking briskly in the direction in which the youth had gone, but made no effort to catch up to him.
When he entered the manor, there was no sign of Tim. Hesitantly, Dick made his way up the stairs. The door to Alfred's bedroom was ajar. He pushed it open wider. Tim was sitting on the bed, looking dully at a portrait on Alfred's dresser. Dick recognized it; it had been taken shortly after Bruce had been granted legal custody over him. He'd never known that Alfred had kept that photo, though it really shouldn't have surprised him. Many people did, after all, have pictures of their loved ones out in plain view. "Hey," Dick said, sitting down next to him.
Tim didn't look at him, but as the mattress sagged when Dick's weight came down on it, Tim edged slightly closer to him. "H-hey," he echoed.
"They'll be coming back here in a few minutes," Dick said quietly. "You don't have to mingle." He glanced at the picture. "I was nine when Alfred snapped that one," he ventured after a few minutes.
"He… he'll come back. I know it."
"Tim," Dick started to say.
"Every time we think Joker's gone, he comes back. Almost two years ago, I thought I killed a man. He survived. We… we thought Jason was dead. Bruce buried him! And he turned up again." He looked at Dick. "So, don't you see?" His voice was earnest. "Alfred has to come back, too. Right?"
Dick slid an arm around the younger man, pulling him closer. "I'm sorry, Tim."
"Don't say that!" Tim shouted as the tears that had been welling up finally overflowed. He would have leaped up from the bed, but Dick's grip was firm. "He's got to come back. I need him. Bruce needs him. We..." He tore himself out of Dick's grip and threw himself face-down onto the eiderdown quilt. "Why don't the right people come back?" His voice was muffled. "Black Mask falls off a building, and he's fine." Dick stretched a hand out and rested it on Tim's shoulder. "Riddler gets to dunk in a Lazarus pit! But my mom… my dad…" He choked, taking up handfuls of the coverlet. "Stephanie… Alfred. Why are the ones who should come back the ones who really go? Why?" And whatever else he had been about to say was lost in his sobs.
"I know," Dick whispered hoarsely, as he stroked Tim's back. "I need him too," his voice broke. "But he is gone," he said, "and he's not coming back. I am so, so sorry." And finally, he felt his own tears course down his cheeks.
Tim rolled onto his back, sat up, and lolled his head against Dick's shoulder. Dick hugged him. "It's not fair," Tim whispered.
"I know," Dick managed to choke out. "I know."
Danziger looked the battery-operated shaver over carefully. "It's probably safe," he hedged, "but in Batman's hands..."
"Restraints won't be necessary," Renee said quietly, almost pleading. "I-I'll handle it, or let one of the nurses. He won't touch it, himself. Come on, Gil, it's enough."
Danziger considered. When he reluctantly nodded, Renee let out a breath she hadn't known she'd been holding, and thanked him profusely before going in.
As soon as Renee entered Bruce's room, she knew that something was wrong. In one hand, she held the shaver that Dick had given her before she and Cris had left the manor. In her other hand was a book of logic problems. Pens, she thought ironically, were deemed too dangerous to allow within Batman's reach. But perhaps, they could work through the book verbally. Maybe he'd find the puzzles more interesting, Renee thought without malice, than her stories about growing up on Spanish Van Buren, as that area of Otisburg was commonly referred. She'd been inflicting her childhood on him for nearly a week, now, and he had to be getting sick of hearing about it.
"Hi," she said, taking her seat, knowing that he wouldn't respond to her greeting, any more than he had for the last five days. To her surprise, he turned his face toward her.
Well, that was something. She held up the shaver. "I thought if you wanted to, I…" She thought about what she was offering. It had to be humiliating for a man like Wayne to be this completely at the mercy of his… his captors. And that included her as well, she realized with a pang. She looked away. "I'm sorry," she said miserably. "My being here. It's just making things worse, isn't it?"
She didn't expect a reply. He surprised her. "Worse." It was a statement, not a question, but his eyebrows lifted inquiringly.
Renee drew a deep breath. "My coming here," she said, "I'm wondering if maybe I'm just being selfish. It's…" Her face had to be beet-red, she was sure. "You'll think it sounds stupid. It's going to make me sound like Dunning. He was…"
"Dressing boys in Robin costumes and murdering them. I remember."
"That's right. But his motive actually made sense to me. This," she forced a smile. "You're going to laugh."
"Fine. Here goes. I was about seventeen when the signal went up for the first time. And it meant something to me. I didn't know if you were real or not, but somehow, seeing that big spotlight up there, it made me feel that there was somebody out there, keeping an eye on things. And I wanted to do that, too." Her blush grew deeper. "Dunning killed because he wanted to 'enter your world'—I think that's how he phrased it. As if meeting you would somehow, I don't know…validate him, in some way?" She should have kept her big mouth shut. Of course, of all the subjects that she'd broached over the last few days, this had to be the one to capture his attention. "The crazy thing is, I understood that. Because ever since I saw that signal go up, I… I used to dream about doing what you did. Not running around in a costume, but making a difference, even if it meant putting my life on the line out there. Look, you know what Gotham was like when you started. Seeing that light up there, and seeing the cops who used to come into Poppa's store demanding 'insurance money' suddenly stop coming round." She smiled, remembering. "The next time we saw them was on the six o'clock news when they turned themselves in. I don't know what you did to spook them, and I'm not sure I want to, but thanks.
"When I was fresh out of the academy," she continued, "Central took me right away. I remember, my first night, just going up on the roof and looking at that floodlight. And thinking to myself that I really was a part of… it." She laughed. Spoken aloud, the words sounded idiotic. "Don't ask me what 'it' was. I still don't know if I can really explain it."
Batman looked away. Probably, Renee imagined, as embarrassed as she was. "Of course," she continued, "my second night, I was in Commissioner Gordon's office when I heard a noise at the window… and I almost shot you."
"No." He corrected. "You almost fired your weapon."
Renee blinked. Was he… teasing her? Or, was he just stating a fact? She shook her head. "I spent years looking up at that symbol. And it made me want to help…" ...you, she wanted to add, but didn't. "So," she continued, "how come whenever we're face to face, I always seem to be shooting at you, arresting you, or… or browbeating your bodyguards? Don't answer that," she added. "I guess, maybe, I've been coming here because it makes me feel like I'm doing something. But if all I'm doing is… reminding you that you're here because I brought you in… then my visits are only making things worse." She broke off, realizing that his hand was covering her wrist.
"Detective Montoya," he said slowly, "If you hadn't arrived on the scene the other night, what would have happened?"
"Speculate, Detective. My… allies were no longer in Gotham. I was seriously injured and slipping into shock. If you hadn't arrived when you did, what would have happened?"
Seeing that she wasn't about to continue, he did. "The injuries that I sustained might have been permanent. Or fatal. Had any of my… enemies happened upon me in that condition, I would have been an easy target. Or, I could have encountered some of your fellow officers who might have had less inclination to… listen to my warnings about my costume's defenses."
Renee's eyes widened as she considered the implications. "I… that hadn't occurred to me," she admitted. "So, you don't mind my coming down here, then."
She sighed. "I thought… when I came in, you seemed upset."
His expression turned somber as he withdrew his hand. "That had nothing to do with you."
She waited. "I won't pry if you don't want me to," she said after a while.
"The hearing," he said finally, "was this morning. A motion to postpone," he continued, speaking in a monotone, "was tabled. And granted. My presence at those proceedings," he added, "was not deemed necessary."
Renee's eyes widened. "Oh," she managed. "Well that stinks. But, I mean, they couldn't have taken you out of this room to attend in any case, right?"
He shook his head. "I'd thought it would take place in here. It… doesn't really matter, I know. I told my lawyer to use her own best judgment, and I'm sure that's what she did." The corners of his mouth lifted in an ironic half-smile. "Doubtless, she thought that attending the hearing might prove unduly stressful, for me."
His voice was dispassionate. Had he been wearing the cowl, its lenses would have concealed the pain in his eyes, and Renee might have been taken in.
"But the situation still stinks," Renee finished. She could pretend that she hadn't seen that pain. He'd had enough secrets exposed over the last few days. She could keep this one for him.
Three days later
"…The house with the green door is east of the Johnson residence," Renee read aloud, "and west of the household with the Chevy Lumina in the driveway." She waited for Bruce to nod before going on to the next clue provided for the logic puzzle. "Neither the Martins nor the family living in the house with the blue door, which is not the westernmost on the block, drive the Ford Taurus." As she finished the sentence, she turned, suddenly aware of another's presence in the room. A young man in the nondescript green scrubs that nurses and orderlies both seemed to wear stood patiently holding a quart-sized mason jar.
"I just wanted to advise you, Sir," he said looking at Bruce, "that someone dropped off some applesauce for you. It'll be in the fridge at the nurse's station. If you want it, just ask for it."
Bruce's eyes narrowed. "Do you know who sent it?"
The man tugged at the small folded piece of paper through which somebody had punched two holes. A string was threaded through the holes and attached to the neck of the bottle. "Card says, 'Thank-you. Romy Chandler,'" he read.
"Romy?" Montoya exclaimed. She looked at Bruce. "But she… I mean, after you broke her nose…"
Bruce looked stunned. "It is… unexpected," he admitted. "Thank-you," he added to the man in scrubs, who smiled and withdrew. "There was something with which I was able to help her last week. I suppose she felt the need to make this gesture. Unnecessary," he added.
"But appreciated, anyway?" Renee asked shrewdly.
Bruce didn't answer.
Six nights later
Gordon had been sitting by the bed, for the better part of the last ninety minutes, hoping that Wayne would awaken before visiting hours officially ended.
"We're still trying to pinpoint the proper dosages for his medications," the nurse had explained apologetically. And, Gordon reflected, it couldn't help that Bruce's circadian rhythms almost had to be abnormal to begin with, if he was operating as Batman by night, and appearing as Bruce Wayne by day. Medical interns pulling seventy-hour shifts probably had more regular sleep patterns.
A low moan drew his attention back to the bed. "Bruce?" He asked.
The man in the bed cried out again. "No… go away…" he mumbled in his slumber. "Don't…"
"Don't dawdle, Brucie. It's getting late."
The little boy turns to his mother in protest. "I'm not tired. 'Sides, there's no school tomorrow."
"Leave the boy be, Martha," his father says. "He's still keyed up from the film." He bends down to Bruce's eye level. "I'll tell you what. Pick up the pace, and if we get back to the car fast enough, we can stop off for ice cream."
His mother shakes her head, frowning. "Cones."
Bruce's face falls. "Awww!"
Thomas Wayne looks at his wife. "Thomas," she says sharply, "No."
"Single-scoop, Martha," he coaxes. "What would it hurt?"
Mother frowns, but nods slowly.
"Alright!" He leaps forward. A hand holds him back.
"Bruce, wait. We can take a shortcut." He sees where his father is pointing and, unhesitatingly turns. As one, the boy and his parents stride into the alley…
…It's dark, extremely dark. Bruce can't see his hand before his face. "Mother? Father?"
"Master Bruce!" That's Alfred's voice. But what's he doing here? He's supposed to be at home. This is all wrong. Where are his parents?
"Mother? FATHER! Where are you?"
As if an overhead lamp had been suddenly switched on, he sees two figures lying in a circle of light, framed by blood and pearls. Overcome by a horror that is no less intense than it has been the countless other times that he has witnessed some variation of this scene, he drops to his knees, before their prone forms. "No," he whispers.
"Bruce. Bruce! Oh, you poor dear. Come." A woman's voice, sweet and sorrowing. He knows her, but… "Come away from here," she repeats, pulling him away from the bodies, from which blood continues to flow.
Wait. If it's flowing, then… "They're still alive, Dr. Leslie! You can help them!" He tries to twist away from the hand holding the stethoscope. He's fine. But his parents…
"I can't, Bruce. I'm sorry."
"What do you mean can't? You're a doctor! Why not?"
"I have to teach you a lesson."
What? Bruce breaks free of Leslie's grasp and runs back to the bodies. That's when he realizes that the woman's hair is blonde, not brown. And she's young, so much younger than his mother. She is bleeding from numerous injuries, in addition to the single gunshot wound in her chest. And the man… he can barely recognize his features, partially concealed as they are by the chunk of cement crushing in part of his face. "Alfred! Noooo!" He turns back. "Leslie, you have to help them!"
"Perhaps this will make you think twice about putting on a mask, Bruce. I can't be a party to this madness. I have to do something, anything, to end it."
"You're a menace," a new voice chimes in. Akins is suddenly standing next to Leslie, glowering down at him. "Everything you try to do blows up in your face, and it's the innocents who pay the price."
Suddenly, Bruce realizes that there are others in the alley, lying shockingly still. Some wear police blues. Some are in business suits, or T-shirts and jeans. A blond man wearing a bat-suit, sans cowl his neck twisted at an odd angle. A young woman, also blond, bends over him crying. She looks at Bruce and her eyes are cold. "You killed him," Jeannie says. "You let him die to save your own miserable neck… I thought we were alike. I trusted you... Burn in Hell." Jason. Wearing the shredded remains of the Robin costume, and impossibly, there is a second, older Jason as Bruce saw him last only two weeks ago. Other scenes unfold before him. He sees himself punch Dick shortly after Jason's funeral-when the one whom he truly wished to hurt was himself. He rails at Alfred, ordering him to mind his own business, when in fact Bruce's welfare is his business. Bruce cringes as he sees himself again betray Tim's secret to Stephanie Brown. He'd used Stephanie, as he, in fact, used everyone around him when necessary, to further his own goals, treating her as though she were no more than a chess piece. She deserved better. As did the others lying dead before him. What kind of monster is he?
"We're both monsters, now," Leslie says. Bruce stares at the woman he thought was his friend. What she's saying makes no sense. She would let two people die… to prove a point? It's evil… insane… Leslie walks toward him, arms outstretched, hands stiffening into sharp talons. "Don't you understand, Bruce?" She hisses, as tears flow copiously from her eyes. "I want to help. Like you." She smiles then, a horrid caricature of a smile, and suddenly Bruce remembers somebody else who was willing to commit an atrocity, simply to prove a point.
"NO! Go away! Get away from me! Go!"
"No! Go away! Go Away! Go AWAY! AWAY!"
Gordon leaned forward alarmed. Next to him, one of the officers on duty had his finger down on the nurses' call-button.
"GO AWAY!" Bruce repeated, angrily, in his sleep, as he battled the bedclothes.
"Fuller," the officer called to one of the two men guarding the door, "get someone in here before he hurts himself." Fuller opened the door, and Gordon could hear him speaking quietly to somebody in the corridor outside. Probably medical staff, he thought. Media criticism and a crime wave that showed little sign of abating had finally prompted Akins to dispense with the dozen guards who had previously taken up posts in the outside corridor.
Bruce's thrashing did not subside. If he manages to pull that leg loose… Gordon thought to himself. He bent closer. "Bruce?" He whispered.
"GET OUT OF HERE!"
"Wake up," Gordon said urgently. "You're having a bad dream. Easy. Easy now." He placed a hand on Bruce's forearm. "I'm here."
Bruce never telegraphed the punch that caught Jim Gordon squarely in the jaw, slamming him back into the chair, which toppled over sideways. Jim landed heavily on his side, feeling a near-blinding pain in his shoulder as he did. Stupid, he told himself, as the door to the room burst open and the nurse in the doorway took in the scene. You're supposed to know better than to approach somebody with combat reflexes when he's not in control…
And the room was suddenly overflowing with people in surgical scrubs. Somebody was bending over him, helping him to sit up, and gently probing his arm. Gordon could see somebody else moving away from the bed, carefully holding an empty syringe. He winced. He heard someone talking over him. No, somebody was addressing him. "Sir? We're going to take you down to x-ray to see about that arm and shoulder of yours."
Gordon nodded. This was the wrong time to argue about the wheelchair. The last thing he saw before they wheeled him out was an orderly putting arm restraints on a now-quiet Bruce.
Romy was having a good night off. In point of fact, for over a week, she'd felt more relaxed than she had in a long time. It wasn't just knowing the truth about Nate's death, although that was part of it. It was that, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she'd been holding on too tightly to too much: her grief over Nate's passing, her guilt at obeying his orders to vacate the building before the bomb went off, her hatred of Batman. She could admit, now, that she'd been clinging to that last one as though letting go would have been a betrayal of Nate, of her academy instructor, of the other officers killed during the mob war. Ironically, she had begun to heal and move on months ago, after Batman had returned her weapon to her. But she hadn't wanted to admit it. What was it they said about keeping a grudge being like letting somebody you didn't like live rent-free in your head?
She reached into her handbag again, feeling the smoothness of the quarter-pint jelly jar with its tightly-fitting lid and ring. She smiled to herself. She still didn't like him… but he'd helped her. And she owed him. She'd just drop this off at the nurse's station, she thought to herself as she ascended in the elevator.
Pandemonium greeted her on the eighth floor. Medical personnel and officers raced along the corridor that led to and from Wayne's room. Hesitantly she started walking in that direction. The guard detail that had been outside the room was nowhere to be seen. The door was ajar. Peering inside, Romy saw a familiar person standing by Wayne's bed, barking orders.
"Run a tox test on him," Hardy directed. "I want to know why he stopped responding to the sedatives." His eye fell on a plastic bowl on the dinner tray. "That's not part of his standard meal," he said, pointing to it. "What is it?"
"Applesauce, Doctor Stearns," one of the nurses said. "There's a jar of it in the nurses' fridge."
Romy froze. Stearns? He'd told her his name was Elliot Hardy.
"Get it," Hardy/Stearns directed. "And just for the fun of it, someone check out the contents of the wastepaper baskets before custodial empties them."
Romy sensed a presence behind her, turned, and nearly stumbled into Marcus Driver. She grabbed his arm and pulled him back down the corridor and around the corner.
"Romy?" He asked. "What's gotten into you?"
Romy didn't answer right away. "What happened, Marcus?" She demanded. "Where is everybody?"
"You know what's going on out there," Marcus replied. "Commish decided Wayne didn't need the guard detail in the corridor. They're back on the streets. You okay?" He slid an arm around her waist.
"Never mind about me," she snapped. "What happened in there?"
Marcus sighed. "They're trying to answer that right now. All I know is that Batman had some kind of seizure or something. He knocked Gordon out cold. That guy, Stearns, the one acting like he's in charge thinks somebody might have tampered with Wayne's meds, in some way." He shook his head. "With all the security around here, I can't think how."
Romy smiled, commiserating. Then, the smile froze. Purposefully, she strode to the small kitchen alcove behind the nurses' station, Marcus on her heels. She opened the refrigerator door, and gasped. She'd been right, she realized in disbelief. There, on the top shelf, was the jar of applesauce, now two-thirds empty, that she'd given to Dr. Hardy. Or was it really Dr. Stearns? She reached for the jar, as someone opened the fridge door wider behind her.
"Excuse me," a nurse apologized, taking hold of the jar. "Doctor needed this."
Numbly, Romy closed the fridge behind her. So, he'd given away her gift, she thought, hurt. But then why had he reacted as though he hadn't known about it?
"Doctor!" She whirled. An orderly, who had dumped the contents of a nearby garbage pail onto the floor was waving a small foil card triumphantly aloft. Each plastic blister that had once contained a pill was now empty. As the orderly dashed toward Wayne's room, Romy started to shake.
Marcus seized hold of her shoulders. "Talk to me, Romy. Please. What's the matter?"
"Everything," she said dully. "I… I have to get out of here. Now." She tore herself free of Detective Driver's grasp, opened the door to the stairwell, and ran down the stairs. Was she too late? Would security… or worse, some of her fellow officers be waiting at the bottom? She had to make it out of the hospital unnoticed, she thought, trying and failing to calm her apprehensions. She had to get someplace where she could think calmly and determine whether things really were as bad as they looked. She thought for a moment.
Four floors down, she exited, dashed down the corridor to a second staircase, ran three flights up, and summoned an elevator, which she rode down to the main floor. Sitting in her car, she hugged herself, tightly, then fumbled in her purse and pulled out the unused Desoxyn card that Hardy had give her nearly two weeks ago. It could well have been a match for the one that the orderly had found in the trash. Again, she mentally replayed what Hardy had told her about Desoxyn in their earlier conversation:
If the dosage is too high, it can also cause paranoia, hallucinations, panic states, assaultiveness…
Tampering directly with medications was tricky. The meds were not supposed to be out of sight of the medical personnel distributing them. But, concealed in food, such as applesauce… She froze. Hardy had been wearing gloves when she'd give him the jar. And when he'd given her the Desoxyn. But she hadn't been! Her fingerprints were all over that jar! And… No! He couldn't have… As though watching a film rewind and play forward slowly, she saw him reach with his left hand into his pocket to give her the sample card. She saw herself push it back to him, and watched him replace it on the same side. And then, she saw his right hand reach down toward a different pocket to pull out the sample card a second time. But, her fingerprints were on the first sample card. The card, she realized, that was, in all likelihood, the one that the orderly had just found in the waste bin. The meds could have been blended into the applesauce at any time. All Hardy had to do was hold on to the card, and dispose of it when he knew that somebody would be searching for it.
Think calmly, she told herself. So your fingerprints are on the jar. You made the applesauce, after all. And if you explain how you got your hands on that sample card, they'll believe you. She pressed her hand against her eyes. No, they wouldn't. Her animosity toward Batman was well known. Given her lacklustre job performance of late, and her… just own up to it, already, erratic behavior… She hadn't had anything to do with Wayne's attack. But who would believe her?
"Means, motive, and opportunity," she whispered, breaking the silence. "I've been set up." The panic that she'd been trying to suppress overwhelmed her. She had to talk to somebody … somebody who had also been framed, who might, at least be inclined to consider her version of events.
Three hours later
Renee Montoya looked up from her computer. "Romy?" She asked. "You're not scheduled for duty, tonight."
"I've got to talk to you, Renee. In private."
Montoya took in her colleague's agitation. "Cornwell's office should be vacant," she said hesitantly, feeling a bit ghoulish. The late shift commander's personal effects were still inside. Going in felt like an intrusion. Chandler, though, simply nodded, and followed her inside, shutting the door behind them.
The instant Renee flicked the light switch, Romy blurted out, "I'm in trouble." Then a moment later, "He's in trouble."
The concerned expression on Montoya's face took on a note of anger. "What do you mean?" She demanded. Romy flinched. Renee drew a calming breath. "Tell me, Romy."
"…So it looks," she finished, "like I did it. They've got my prints. They know… Jesus, when I went up to his room the first time, I did everything but attack him physically… there are witnesses, for chrissake! You know how it looks… I had a grudge, I had the pills but I didn't… I wouldn't have…"
"Hey," Renee said softly, "easy. It wasn't that long ago someone planted my gun at a murder scene, remember? I… okay, don't panic. There has to be a way to clear your name. If you didn't do it, then there has to be something…"
Romy shook her head bitterly. "Who's going to take the time? I'm the perfect suspect, why would they bother looking further afield?"
"They wouldn't. I would."
Both women turned as one to see a third figure in the room. Renee recovered first. "How long have you been standing there, 'Batman'?" She demanded, twisting the last word sarcastically.
"Long enough." The cowled figure took a step forward, expression grim.
Romy shrank back. "It wasn't me," she whispered.
Dick sighed mentally. The detective was nervous enough without him making things worse. "I know," he intoned.
Romy gaped at him, disbelieving.
"Detective Chandler," he said quietly, "if the person who set you up is the person I think it is, you can stop berating yourself. He's extremely good at finding people who'll act in his best interests, whether they know it or not..."
"Who is he?" Renee broke in.
Batman looked at her, then turned back to Romy. "Can you describe him?"
Romy drew a deep breath. "Male, middle thirties, height about 6'2 weight about 230. Red hair, grey eyes…" She broke off as Batman spun about abruptly. He no longer seemed to be paying attention.
"The docks?" He asked.
"What about them?" Romy replied, bewildered.
Batman ignored her. "Absolutely not," he stated emphatically, "you tell him to wait. I'll be there." He suddenly seemed to realize that he wasn't alone. "I'll contact you shortly, Batman out," he stated. He turned back to the two women.
"The man you're looking for is Doctor Thomas Elliot. He also calls himself 'Hush'. And you probably don't have a file on him, yet." Batman focused his gaze on Romy. "Packing up and leaving would make things look worse," he stated.
"Well, what would you suggest?" Romy snapped. "Just sit here and wait to be arrested?"
He paused, considering. She was raising a valid point. "Go home," he said finally. "The tox test results probably won't be in until later. Then they'll have to cross-match the prints," he broke off as he realized that Romy was growing paler. Wrong tactic. You're scaring her. Blasted bat-suit had its disadvantages. "By the time they have enough evidence to proceed, they won't have a case against you," he said finally. "I'll see to that." At that moment, there was a knock on the door. The two women turned as one toward the sound.
"Renee?" Cris Allen's voice called. "Are you in there?"
Montoya hesitated. "Now what, Batm…" she broke off, realizing suddenly that she and Romy were alone in the room. Damn! Gordon was right; this was frustrating. She opened the door to admit her partner. "What's up?"
"Crime," Allen deadpanned. "Word is, there's something major going on down at the docks. Sawyer wants us out there." He glanced at Romy, taking in her agitated state. "Did I interrupt something?"
Montoya shook her head. "Romy?" She said. "It's going to work out. Go home. I'll call you later." She squeezed her colleague's arm, before walking off with Allen.
Alone, Romy considered her options. She could follow Renee's instructions, go home, and jump every time that she heard footsteps coming down the hallway. She could drive away from Gotham for a few days, except that Batman, whoever this version of him was, was right. It would look like she was running away. Which would not bode well. Still bemused, she headed out of the office.
"Chandler?" Maggie Sawyer approached her. "I thought you were off tonight."
"I was," Romy said, thinking quickly. "There was just something I needed to check int…"
Maggie wasn't paying attention. "Azevedo's partner's out sick. As long as you're here, we need more people at the docks, tonight. If you want to put in the overtime…"
More work, she thought. It sounded like exactly what the doctor ordered to take her mind off of things. "Sure," she agreed. "If things are that bad."
"They are," Maggie responded. "Get changed fast."
"You all right, Chandler?" Azevedo asked.
Romy jumped. "Fine," she lied. "Just wondering when the party starts." Her temporary partner had filled her in on the way. Somebody had phoned in a tip that Black Mask, Batman, and Robin were holed up in one of the warehouses that faced out onto the waterfront. That was weird. Batman had been at GCPD thirty minutes ago, and, from the half of he conversation that she'd overheard, it hadn't sounded like he'd had any plans to head for the docks until he'd gotten that call. So the tip had to have been phoned in before Batman had ever gotten there. Great. And just how am I supposed to tell anybody without admitting that I was talking to him? She glanced across the pier, spying Renee crouched behind another flat of crates. Montoya gave her a brief smile, and touched her finger to her lips. Romy nodded. She wasn't supposed to tell anybody.
"Do you have a clear target?" Akins asked.
McGrath, eyes on his rifle-scope, shook his head. "Nobody at the window, Sir."
"Keep me posted," the commissioner said, moving on.
He saw Simon Lippman standing unobtrusively behind the lines, clearly hoping to land a story for tomorrow's front page. Akins had more than half a mind to send the reporter packing, but Lippman was one of the few reporters whose writing did not currently reflect an anti-police bias. He couldn't afford to lose that, so he contented himself with an irritated frown.
"Sir!" Akins strode over in response.
"What is it, Burton?"
In response, the heavyset man pointed two buildings over. A shadowy figure, cape flapping behind him was approaching swiftly via the rooftops.
"Fire at will," Akins directed.
Silence greeted his order. He glowered. "Well?"
Burton shrugged. "I couldn't get a clear shot. Sorry, Sir," he said neutrally as Batman entered the warehouse via the side window.
Akins was about to respond when he noticed that Lippman suddenly seemed to be standing only a few feet away. "Well, try harder, next time!" He snapped.
He turned to one of the officers standing by a monitor display. "Did you get the greenlight on the video feeds from inside?"
"Actually, somebody from inside is broadcasting them out," Rutledge replied. "We've been getting them for about five minutes."
Akins grunted. His radio crackled to life. "Commissioner, there's been an incident at the hospital…" As Akins listened, his expression hardened.
"Sarge," he beckoned. "Have you seen Azevedo and Chandler?"
Robin knew his business, Batman reflected as he stumbled over his eighth unconscious mob enforcer. The kid was cutting a swath through all of Black Mask's henchmen-no mean feat for a seventeen-year-old. But then, he did have the advantage of having been trained by the best: Bruce, Lady Shiva, Dick himself, and these days, Vic, Raven, and Kory. Maybe Robin wasn't a natural, as Dick had been, but he'd striven to overcome that shortcoming. And, Batman considered as he dashed past mook number nine, by and large, he'd succeeded. That still didn't excuse his running into the warehouse over Batman's explicit orders, however.
Batman heard the thud of flesh and bone landing against plywood. From the impact, it was probably somebody weighing between 190 and 200 pounds. Not Robin, then, he thought, as he rounded the corner, and pushed open the door.
Black Mask rose unsteadily to his feet. "Looks like Batman trains some of his brats better than others," he said mockingly. "Don't tell me the girl was supposed to be cannon fodder."
Robin flung himself furiously at his wiry adversary. At the last instant, Black Mask stepped aside. Robin tried to stop short, but his momentum propelled him into the wall. Black Mask clamped a hand about the back of his neck and pulled him to the ground. As the young man struggled to rise, Black Mask straddled him, fastened his other hand about the vigilante's throat, and slowly leaned behind, forcing Robin's neck up and back.
"Let him alone!" Batman gritted, tossing a batarang. It sliced deeply into Black Mask's upper arm.
The crime lord gave a cry of pain, and his grip on Robin slackened slightly. Before he could regain it, a flying kick carried him clear of the youth, and Black Mask found himself lying on his back with Batman pinning him in a judo hold.
"Well, well," Black Mask chortled. "I must say this is a surprise. Of course, you do realize that I have you at a disadvantage."
Beneath the cowl, Batman raised an eyebrow. "How so?" He growled.
"Easy. You're a mass of conflict. You want to kill me," he said, "but if you do that, you'll betray everything that Batman stands for, but," his voice took on a sing-song intonation, "if you don't kill me, then you'll betray the memories of that blonde bat-wannabe, and the English bloke, won't you?"
"Shut up, Roman," Batman gritted. "Or you'll find out how much I can do to you and still keep you alive!"
"Oh, puh-leeze!" Sionis mocked, breaking loose, "you're actually feeding me those lines? Seriously. Who writes your material?" He aimed a high kick at Batman. Batman crouched, and the foot passed harmlessly over his head. An R-shaped throwing knife thunked heavily into Black Mask's exposed thigh, and the mob boss staggered and landed heavily on one knee.
Batman pinned his wrists behind his back with one hand, while twisting the knife deeper into his thigh with the other. "Give up, before I nick the artery, pull it free, and let you bleed out," he ordered.
"Nice try, Batclone, but I know you're bluffing."
Batman didn't hesitate. "A few months ago, you would have been right. But you know what they say," he gave the knife another half-turn, surprised at his rush of satisfaction when Black Mask cried out. "Practise makes perfect. This is for Alfred," he twisted again. "And this is for Stephanie Brown. And…" Bruce said to FIND him… NOT kill him! he reminded himself. But he had to know what happened with Blockbuster. He couldn't order me to kill Black Mask, but he must want me to… doesn't he? Or is it that even if he knows what happened, and even if he wants Black Mask dead, he trusts me to do the right thing? How do I figure out what he really wants me to do, this time? A new thought occurred to him, suddenly. Why should that even be a factor? Even if he wants you to kill him, YOU know better. But… he killed Alfred. He started to twist the knife again, then stopped. Would Alfred want you to avenge him this way? Sure, Black Mask deserves it. But YOU don't deserve to become his murderer. Do this and he wins. Blockbuster wins. Joker wins.
He blinked. You don't want to kill him, not really. Not because Bruce wouldn't approve—Bruce doesn't have anything to do with this decision. When you attacked Joker, you either weren't thinking clearly, or else… you were thinking very clearly. Strangling Joker with at least two people nearby who knew CPR and rescue breathing… you knew there was a better than even chance that somebody was going to resuscitate him. Blockbuster… you walked away and let somebody else pull the trigger. There's no way that you made the right move, that time. But, you didn't actively kill him. You screwed up, and you did everything you could to punish yourself for it… everything except talk to the person you felt you'd failed the most. Were you that afraid he wouldn't forgive you? Or… were you afraid that he would? Realization hit him. Forgiving you was never up to Bruce, because you never failed him in the first place. The only person you ever really failed was yourself. Moment of truth, then, Grayson: how do you really make up for that moment of weakness?
He took his hand off the throwing knife and clamped it tightly around Black Mask's neck, feeling for the right spot. A moment later, the crime lord's head lolled forward, as the blackout hold took effect. Dick suddenly realized that he hadn't exhaled for a while. He did so now, and gulped in several breaths of, truth-be-told, somewhat stale air. He didn't care; right now, it was sweeter to him than fresh-mown grass in summertime.
"Robin," he asked faintly, "You okay?"
"Yes," Batman replied, wonderingly. "I think I am." His voice turned grim. "I also think I told you to stay put until I got here," he added with a glare.
Robin looked away. "You know you did. I…" He shook his head. "No excuses. I messed up."
Dick nodded. "Good. You know it. Help me move Roman out into the hallway with the rest of his people. I think the cops are getting ready to burst in, here."
Tim blinked at him. "That's it?"
"You know you goofed. It doesn't happen often. And you won't make the same mistake again, right?"
Tim grinned, as he moved forward to take hold of Black Mask's legs. That was when the gunshot rang out.
"Chandler!" Akins didn't shout; he projected. But it sure sounded like he was shouting.
"You wouldn't know anything about Wayne going into convulsions over some drugged food earlier tonight, would you?"
Romy's mouth dropped open. "I… I," she stammered. "It wasn't me!"
"Oh?" Akins snarled. "Your name wasn't on the applesauce jar? Your prints weren't found on some highly suspicious items? That conversation we had a couple of weeks ago… I knew you weren't one of his fans in the Department, but I never dreamed you'd carry things this far!" Romy was shaking her head, her eyes pleading with his, but he ignored her. His last confrontation with Gordon, the newspaper articles and editorial cartoons, too many good people dying on him—Cornwell only the last in a long line… Batman. Batman, always standing in the shadows, arrogant, confident, self assured—well of course he was! He didn't have to answer to the press and the politicians. He could just get on with doing what he thought his job was: protecting Gotham. Akins had sworn that the GCPD could manage just fine without the Bat—and they couldn't even protect him from one of their own! With everything they knew about Chandler's attitude toward the Bat, she shouldn't have been allowed within fifty feet of the hospital. Forget the field day; the media was going to be celebrating 12 days of Christmas twice this year!
He advanced a step toward Chandler, and she, paling, moved back, frightened as much by the cold fury in his eyes as she was by the vein pulsing in his temple. "Get out of here," he ordered. "Surrender your gun and badge to me. And then... Go home, Chandler, and don't leave Gotham."
Romy shook her head. "Sir…" she protested, even as she handed him what he'd demanded.
"GO!" He spun around on his heel, and came face to face with Lippman. Perfect.
Romy stood there. Now, what was she supposed to do? She'd come in Azevedo's unit. Did Akins mean for her to depart this area alone at this hour of the night? He doesn't care, she realized. Seeing him talking with Lippman, her expression hardened. All he's worried about now is tomorrow's headline.
Montoya came over to her. "Romy?"
She shook her head. "He didn't even want to listen," She said, walking slowly past the video feed. "He…" she froze. An image on one of the screens caught her eye. Some people could remember faces, or voices with uncanny accuracy. Her specialty was walks. And… bandages or no, she recognized that one. Her expression hardened. FBI training included stealth techniques—and she was about to see whether she remembered any of them from her days with the Bureau. Grimly she assessed her surroundings. Akins had taken her police revolver, but he hadn't known about the spare in her ankle holster. She found its weight comforting, as she looked back at the warehouse.
"I'll be fine," she told Renee. "Once this all gets settled." She waited until her fellow officer resumed her post before she furtively doubled back the way she'd come.
The younger boy automatically clapped a hand to the side of his head. It came away bloody.
"Here," Batman said urgently. "Let me see." He sighed with relief. "It only grazed you." He ripped open a sterile gauze packet and pressed it to the wound.
A second shot sounded, and Black Mask's body jerked once, then stiffened. Batman turned grimly. "Don't tell me," he said to the figure standing atop the staircase in the corner, "you were the only one in your graduating class who took the hypocritic instead of the Hippocratic."
If Hush was smiling, you couldn't tell through the bandages. "Careful with the wisecracks," he replied. "Of the last two comics I encountered, one ended up broken, and I'm fairly sure the other one's no longer breathing."
"Why?" He demanded. "Why Alfred?"
"Why Chandler?" Hush taunted. "Why Ivy? Why the Clocktower?"
Batman started forward. "What?"
"Didn't you ever wonder why Black Mask was so certain that the Tower was the Batcave?" Hush chuckled. "You have no idea how hard it was to sink that notion into his," he pointed negligently at the body on the floor, "head."
Dick advanced another step. "Alright, I'll bite. Why?"
"What happened after the Clocktower was destroyed?" Hush asked. "It's the age old question: who benefits? Or, conversely, in this case… who suffers? Who suffers when his chief information-gatherer washes her hands of him? When his allies disperse, because the Gotham climate suddenly becomes too dangerous for the costumed crowd…"
"You couldn't have known that the Tower would be destroyed," he snapped, wondering how in the hell Hush had even known of its significance.
"That's right," Hush agreed, "but I had an idea of how he would react if someone put one of his contingency plans into effect. I've made my studies of you, all of you… from my old childhood friend, to his surrogate family, to those on the periphery. Even to his former inventor-cum-mechanic. The right trigger, the appropriate words or actions at the proper time… and people generally behave as you'd expect them to. Chandler's a perfect example. She couldn't have been a bigger help if she'd known what I was planning. But then," he sighed mockingly, "I'm usually a few moves ahead of the multitude. Even your mentor."
"So you set out to destroy him, because—"
"Because I could," Hush said easily. "Because even though a few have come close, nobody's really succeeded. Besides," he added, "it was fun. Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work, you know."
Dick felt his mind reeling. "You mean that all of this was just to… to prove that you can out-think Bruce? No wonder," he spat bitterly, "you and Nigma got on so well!"
Hush laughed. "Very good. How many a dispute could have been deflated into a single paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms, I wonder.
"Bane had the right idea, of course," he continued, as though conducting a lecture. "He successfully exhausted him physically and mentally… but when the crunch came, Batman still had his allies about him. Not all of you, but enough. I went one better. And now…"
"Alfred," Dick snarled.
Hush sighed. "I am sorry about that one. He was a good man. I needed Batman reacting emotionally, rather than logically. I did suggest to Sionis that he hold the man for ransom, knowing how that would rattle Brucie. But I never condoned torture. Not for him, and not for the Brown girl. I told him, if he wanted somebody out of the way permanently, it was much more effective to simply… how shall I phrase it… 'stick a needle in'?"
Batman felt rage, white hot and incandescent churning within him. He was about to lunge up the stairs, when a woman's voice behind him called out:
"Batman! Move out of the way. You're blocking my shot."