Dark as Night
Life seemed to die away each time the blanket of night would fall upon the city of Blüdhaven. The streets at once became deserted, the people that appeared to have been carelessly walking them in the daylight suddenly starting to nervously hurry back to their homes to lock themselves there until the next day's morning came. Even those who had no homes to return to knew better than to stay outdoors at such a late hour and would quickly find some deep corners where the veil of darkness could shelter them from the many dangers that the streets of Blüdhaven were filled with at this time. Over the past several years, crime rate in this city had reached critical proportions, and now no one living here could feel completely safe anymore.
For fairness sake, criminal situation in Blüdhaven had never really known good times. Numerous failed attempts on the part of its public authorities to turn this former whaling town into a large manufacturing and shipping center only succeeded in further deteriorating the city's economic environment, thus creating a huge breeding ground for increase of crime wave. Also, being an overshadowed neighbor to the famous and prominent city of Gotham which was protected by the vigilante Batman and the team of his sidekicks, Blüdhaven had always been some sort of a 'reserve airfield' to those criminals that would fail to find their fortune in Gotham. Drug-dealers, mobsters and other criminal elements were eagerly coming to this town, inspired by the absence of any masked heroes to stand in their way here. The local police forces represented little impediment to their ambition because the law enforcement system in Blüdhaven had long since drowned in endemic corruption. Cops were bought by public officials who, in their turn, were bought by members of organized crime syndicates. Of course, it wasn't that Blüdhaven was completely without any honest policemen or judges. But like in almost every other crime-consumed city, such unlikely individuals were usually the first ones to be shot right in their faces.
Still, even with all those disheartening factors taken into account, there was still no solid explanation for the recent unprecedented outburst of lawlessness in Blüdhaven. If just a couple of years ago Blüdhaven was an ordinary town with high level of crime where it was simply safer not to walk in the streets at night, now this city had begun to turn into a place where it was safer to not live in at all. Drugs were sold on every street corner. Thefts, robberies and burglaries raged all around the town. Innocent citizens were getting murdered every day. Police and justice were corrupted to the core. The very name 'Blüdhaven' was slowly turning into a common noun for a pandemonium of crime. The city's populace was gradually growing extinct with its residents doing everything they could to save enough money and leave this pit of hell and the visitors from other cities and states not even conceding the mere idea of coming to live here. Nobody understood how the state of affairs in Blüdhaven could have taken such a drastic change from simply 'bad' to 'worse than ever', but at this point, this understanding hardly made any difference anymore.
Many believed that the recent dramatic debasement of life in Blüdhaven had to do with the rumored overthrow of the city's former crime lord, Angel Marin. On the face of it, a mob kingpin controlling the entire city getting dethroned at last was supposed to be a good thing. But that was only unless his place was taken by someone far worse than him. Nobody knew the name of this new criminal master to have superseded Marin, but if the recent swing of things in Blüdhaven was any indication, this man was a far bigger of the two evils. Blüdhaven might have always been far from being trouble-free, but never before had the crime in this city been so much out of control. Disregard of the law had become like some cancerous tumor feeding off this city, and at the rate things were going, this infection would soon spread far beyond Blüdhaven's borders. Someone needed to stop it, but with the entire local public order bribed and oppressed, who in the world could that someone possibly be?
The answer to this question came on one fateful night.
It was late autumn in Blüdhaven. Days were getting shorter and nights were getting longer. And just as always, when darkness came, the city's streets quickly emptied out. Shops, stores, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, movie theatres – everything became closed the very instant the sun dipped below the horizon. The owners of those places were completely careless of the potential extra profit they could lose by calling it a day this early. Everybody just followed their instinct for self-preservation, having only their own personal safety on their mind. Therefore, by the time it was 10:00 PM, Blüdhaven's panoramic view already resembled some of those ravaged post-apocalyptic cities they usually showed in zombie horror movies where the entire population was utterly wiped out by living dead monsters. The only things to give away that the town was not completely dead were the lights shining through the dwelling houses' windows and some occasional police sirens ringing here and there. When the city fell asleep, its crime woke up, and it stayed awoke until the next day's sunrise dispersed it.
That night, though, was not just like any other night in Blüdhaven. Whereas the rampancy of crime had long since become something Blüdhaven's night life was simply unimaginable without, recently the iniquity taking place here had reached an entirely new level. This was no longer about just some ordinary violent crimes and property crimes committed by street punks under the cover of darkness. In their constantly growing sense of impunity, the local gangsters decided to cross the line they could never even dream of crossing before. That line was an attempted robbery of Blüdhaven Bank.
Regardless of how debilitated was the criminal situation in Blüdhaven, robbing a local bank here or in any other civilized city for this matter could seem as stupid as it was it was pointless. Banks by their very nature were the kind of places that were protected like no other institutions, and even if someone could theoretically have the strength and resources to take out all bank security guards and avoid the numerous anti-intrusion alarm systems, without the knowledge of means of progressing past the whole multitude of various identification systems and electronic control panels that provided access to the bank vault, the effort was pretty much foredoomed. Blüdhaven might have been downtrodden, but it lived in the same age of advanced technologies and computer progress as the whole world around it, where brute force couldn't always be a solution to everything. But then again, the criminals operating in the city weren't always relying just on their muscles either.
The night the bank robbery took place, very few people in Blüdhaven could have any idea what was really going on there. The Bank's exterior façade with its two golden life-sized lions standing on their individual pedestals either side of the building's entry door and a large golden 'B' letter placed within a circle frame above it looked completely innocuous from outside. No strange people could be seen hanging around the building. No sounds of any brawls or gun-fights could be heard. No alarms were ringing and no police cars were rushing to the Bank. Everything seemed peaceful and quiet. However, that outer quietness was only a cloak to what was actually transpiring within the walls of the Bank.
Inside the building, the entire bank security was lying unconscious all over the place, bound and gagged by their ambushers. The alarms, as well as other anti-intrusion systems were deactivated and silent. The numerous heavy bulletproof armored doors blocking the way to the bank vault were all open, allowing a gang of masked armed-to-the-teeth thugs that were the very ones mobbing this place right now to unceremoniously access the room where all the valuable assets of the Bank's customers were stored. The way how smoothly and carelessly they were handling their task gave a serious reason to doubt whether banks really were as effectively protected as they were believed to be. Either those robbers were high-caliber professionals or there was something else at work here that had ensured their success.
Before it was even midnight, the mobsters were almost done penetrating their way into the bank vault. Only the last steel-reinforced door remained separating them from their target, but unlike all the previous doors which electronic access systems they had managed to hack, this one was not supplied with any automatic locks. While the alarm protecting it was already disarmed, opening a 3.5 feet thick door required some raw power which the robbers had been avoiding to use all along. However, the criminals turned out to be more than equipped to handle that challenge too as one of them took out some advanced laser-like device from his backpack and started melting the door's steel surface with it. This was going relatively slow, but with all the guards knocked out senseless and no stir having been made so far, time was something those robbers had aplenty.
As the one with the laser continued doing his part, the others continued walking around the place with their weapons at the ready, keeping ward of the captive security and making sure nothing happened that would put their operation in jeopardy. Over time, though, it became clear that the quiet atmosphere of this crime site would hardly be violated anytime soon, and the robbers relaxed a bit, starting to do some small talk with each other.
"Man, this is almost too easy!" one of them smirked. "I couldn't have even dreamt of robbing a bank like this back when I was still in Gotham!"
"Me neither," another one agreed. "That Bat-freak with his snot-nosed goons wouldn't have even allowed us to get close to any of their dampers."
"Yeah. Luckily, no costumed clowns can touch us here, in Blüdhaven. This city is ours!" the first one declared jubilantly.
The two thugs shared a good laugh then, which was quickly caught by the rest of their friends idling around nearby. Then another one joined their conversation.
"Guys, guys, let us not attribute everything only to absence of Batman and his vigilante punks on our way," he took the word. "I mean, what would we do without the help of our 'right friend in the right place'? Am I right, Joey?" he referred to another masked mobster standing next to him and slightly punched him in the shoulder in a friendly gesture.
The rest of the gangsters hurried to shower that Joey guy with more cries of approval as well, but the praised thug didn't seem to enjoy the ovation and even appeared discomforted by this kind of attention to his persona.
"Hey, would you please quit kidding around at a time like this!" he brushed aside, sounding almost annoyed. "The operation isn't over yet!"
"Ooh, look who's nervous," the thug that had started the whole conversation taunted him. "Isn't that someone who's afraid of losing his job at this place?"
That comment sent a wave of chuffy laughter among the entire gang, making Joey awkwardly jolt on his place with fright.
"Quiet you idiot!" Joey hushed at him. "What if one of the guards hears you?"
"What did you call me, you two-faced slimeball?!" his interlocutor snarled back at him and already made a harsh move forward as if looking to start a fight.
However, he was quickly restrained by the criminal that had brought up the subject.
"Shut the hell up, both of you!" he attempted to stroke his partners down, still holding back the one that was desperately trying to get his hands on Joey. "Now is neither the time, nor the place for this!"
The restrained thug made a couple more attempts to break free from his friend's grip, but then calmed down, though still looking aggressive. As the dust settled a bit, the one to have taken it upon himself to defuse the conflict resumed the dialogue.
"Easy there, Lance, no need to be rude here," he said loyally, his voice, though, still emanating with cynicism. "It's not like it's his fault that he doesn't get paid enough for providing security services to such an important and serious institution, right?"
The robber whose name appeared to be Lance just straightened his messed leather jacket and scoffed derisively,
"Whatever. Not my problem that the guy chose to become a rat and is now being chicken about it."
This time it was Joey's turn to snap as he crustily approached Lance after his acrid comment and pointed a pistol right at his gang-mate's face.
"You know, maybe I should really switch back to my primary duties and blow out the brains of some criminal douche-bag trying to break into the local Bank, huh?" he asked hatefully, his finger trembling on the kill-switch.
Lance flinched slightly at the sight of a gun muzzle looking directly onto him, clearly not having expected this kind of move on the part of Joey. Luckily, his friend that had restrained him just a moment ago now intervened on his behalf by putting the barrel of his machine gun right before Joey's face.
"If you two don't calm down right now, you're both gonna get a bullet in your heads," he threatened the two quarreling robbers, his former jesting tone quickly changing to a serious, bossy one.
Joey and Lance exchanged some conflicting glances until Joey finally decided to listen to the voice of reason and slowly lowered his pistol. Once he did, the one with a machine gun followed his example as well and said,
"One thing Joey's right about is that this operation isn't over yet. And until it is, you morons better not do anything that could jeopardize its outcome. After we're done here, you two may tear each other apart for what I care – I won't give a shit. But if you fuck anything up before that moment, don't come to me begging to save you from what the Boss is going to do to you for this."
At the mention of this 'Boss', the two quarreling criminals both shifted uneasily as if having recalled some very unpleasant experience in dealing with him. Then Joey relaxed his posture a bit and took a few short steps away from his opponent.
"I guess we'll return to this matter a bit later," he said in a calmer tone, though still looking daggers at Lance.
"We sure will," the other robber replied menacingly.
The two thugs then dispersed separate ways from each other, leaving their mediator stand in triumph from having so smoothly sorted out the conflict between them. It was vital that this operation they were carrying out here remained unsighted, and all things that could compromise its secrecy like this absurd feud had to be eliminated no later than they occurred. Thankfully, so far no one other than the Bank's captive guards and their own gang knew a thing about what was going on here, and if they could keep it this way until the end of their mission, the police would hardly ever pick their trail afterwards.
However, the mobsters had no idea that there was one more person unknown to them who was aware of their illegal actions. That person was sitting crouched on the rooftop of a neighboring building overlooking the Bank and was watching them through one of the Bank's windows with his night binoculars. He was about six feet tall and had lean, slender, well-built masculine body type like that of a professional male athlete. His hair had raven-black color and was shaggy and unkempt, hanging over his forehead and reaching the back of his neck. His body was all covered in armored unitard made of resistant kevlar material that was almost as black as his hair. He was also wearing blue shoulder pads and a large chest plate emblazoned with a symbol of a blue bird with its wings spread to his shoulders. In addition to this unusual outfit, around the mysterious man's waist was hanging a dark utility belt with various ingenious gadgets and devices attached to it, which purpose was probably known only to the man himself. The enigmatic stranger had a guise of a young man who was maybe just in his early twenties, but there was no telling for sure about it as the only feature of his appearance that could tell his age for sure – his face – was securely concealed by an onyx-black stylized domino mask covering a large facial area around the man's eyes, temples and cheek-bones. The man obviously had an eye toward the idea of concealing his identity, which, together with the rest of his traits, could only be a sign of one thing – he was a vigilante.
Which vigilante exactly he was, though, was a far more challenging question. He was undoubtedly no Batman, but he didn't look like any of his younger sidekicks as well. Either Gotham's protector had picked a new member for his team or there was a completely new masked hero to have entered the picture. For now, though, it wasn't even clear yet if there was any connection between him and the Dark Knight, and if he was even a hero in the first place. But regardless of his affiliations, he appeared to have some interest in what was happening at Blüdhaven Bank right now.
At some point, the mysterious masked man moved the binoculars away from his face, exposing his sapphire-like blue eyes showing from the eyelets in his mask. Those eyes continued to regard the Bank's external layout for some time as the vigilante pondered into thoughts.
"For weeks I have been chasing the trail of several murders that were committed in Gotham. That trail has led me here, to Blüdhaven – a city where going to hell after death is considered a promotion. At first I believed those murders to be connected to Gotham's crime lord, Roman Sionis, also known as the Black Mask. But now that my searches have brought me here, I am no longer so sure about it. Sionis might be an influential crime boss with lots of powerful connections, but to rob a city bank outside Gotham like this is too audacious even by his standards. I have to find out who this gang is really working for."
Amid this thought, the vigilante placed his binoculars back into his utility belt and took out some handgun-like gadget loaded with a triple-clawed mechanical hook protruding from its muzzle. That gadget was called a Grapnel Gun and was devised to grapple onto various vantage points and ledges. Once holding it tight in his hand, the vigilante stood up and jumped off the roof he was sitting on all the way down.
After falling about half the distance to the ground, the enigmatic man fired his grapnel gun in mid-air right at the Bank's building in front of him. The device launched a cable line which tridental end dug into the fundament of the Bank's canopy-like superstructure above its entry door almost at a speed of a bullet. Then the cable line retracted, dartingly pulling the vigilante right to the spot where it had adhered to the building.
At the last second before the grapnel wire found its end, the masked man pulled the gun's trigger again, causing the device to detach from the fundament it clung to. This left the vigilante in a free fall, but he expertly converted his fall into a double front somersault and softly landed on his feet with graciousness of a cat. The mysterious man was displaying agility and athleticism of a professional acrobat, and the way how effortlessly he was performing all the moves spoke of his solid proficiency and experience in this. If he really was as young as he appeared to be, he must have been trained to do this kind of stuff since early childhood.
As the vigilante stood in front of the entrance to Blüdhaven Bank, he briefly observed the face of the building and then clicked something on the temple part of his mask. When he did, the eyelets in his mask became folded with flaring lens, making his eyes look blank white from outside. But that was only the outer effect. Through the lens-covered eyelets, the enigmatic man started seeing everything around him in panoramic, digital, ultraviolet view. The entire environment before his eyes became purplish and half-translucent with all its physical objects getting distinctly outlined against the background and their contours turning highlighted. This felt very similar to an X-Ray effect, only with lesser degree of detail and transparency of the viewed objects. However, this unique vision mode had more to its application than just providing the ability to see through solid objects. The gadget was also equipped with a proximity radar which could detect thermal wakes left by living beings and make them visible by the infrared color of radiation their bodies were emanating. Thanks to this feature, the vigilante could also discern a multitude of orange-colored human shaped figures flaring on the ultraviolet background behind the Bank's walls before him.
"Eight bodies moving. Evidently, those of the very thugs robbing this Bank now. The rest appear to be the security they have subdued. If these robbers were able to neutralize all the guards at the Bank without even making a sound, they must be pretty skillful at what they do. Probably armed to the teeth as well. Still, nothing insurmountable for me. I just need to find a way to enter the building stealthily."
With this goal in mind, the vigilante approached the Bank's main entry door and studied it in a closer look. After a few seconds of visual examination, the masked man carefully palpated its surface with his right palm.
"The main door has no signs of break-in. Just as I suspected, those robbers knew better than to infiltrate the Bank through its most guarded and protected entrance. There has to be some other means into this building that they used."
Faced with this comprehension, the vigilante turned off the Night Vision mode in his mask and then briskly broke into running. The mysterious man was looking to pass the Bank's building around and see if it had more entrances. He knew that he had to hurry because with every second passed, the criminals kept getting closer to completing their mission and escaping from this place.
Despite wearing armor and carrying a whole bunch of gadgets and devices, the vigilante also turned out to be very fast and covered the distance along the building's perimeter with speed and dexterity of a sprinter. After turning round the second corner, he came across another entry door. This one was made of metal and had a coded lock on it. The masked man had to turn his Night Vision back on to study the door in detail.
"This gate seems to be a back-door entrance, but it doesn't have any pry marks on it either. The criminals must have been even more unorthodox in their choice of method of penetrating into the Bank."
Switching his vision mode back to normal, the vigilante took a few steps away from the back-door and swept his eyes over the building again. After calculating the alternative options the robbers could have gone for, he once more reached for his Grapnel Gun and blasted it at the ledge of the Bank's roof. In the following instant, he was already on top of the building, making an elegant tumbleset over the roof's verge and at once expertly jumping to standing right on its surface.
As the vigilante felt firm on his feet, he glanced ahead of him and instantly spotted what he had been looking to find there. It was a grey cabin-like build-up erected in the very center of the plain roof surface, with a door leading into it. The masked man was certain the Bank also had to have a roof entrance like most other buildings did, and as soon as he got reassured in this, he resolutely headed for the door, not even caring to examine it with his Night Vision first.
However, just as the vigilante tried to open the door, to his surprise he found it to be locked from the other side. This brought the enigmatic man back to the necessity of activating his Night Vision and scanning the entrance for traces of damage.
"This is starting to get odd already. The only possible entrance to the Bank other than those two I have just seen should be right before my eyes, but it's also not broken up. How could those thugs get into the building without snapping off any of the locks? Maybe they used some other entrance I'm not aware of yet? But what kind of one can this possibly be? Could they tunnel their way into the Bank? No, this is ridiculous - they'd never pulled off something like this without getting themselves revealed to the security and to the local police. Something here doesn't add up."
Puzzled by his discoveries, the mysterious man took a moment to ponder everything he'd just learned. Quickly, though, he came to the only reasonable conclusion his observations suggested.
"Well, whatever's the method of infiltrating the Bank that those robbers used, it is not accessible to me. This means that I have to devise one of my own to do the same. If my intuition has made me climb on this roof, maybe this really is the course of action I should continue developing further."
Snatching at this inference, the vigilante paced a few feet back from the door and then gamboled high into the air. While in mid-air, he pirouetted several times with his whole body like some figure skater and then sharply brought forth his leg right at the door handle. In the following second, there was a loud clapping sound and the door was burst open, the metal bolt bar that used to lock it from the other side getting fractured in half. The vigilante didn't exactly approve of damaging public property even when it was dictated by the grounds of extreme necessity, but right now he was forced to be following other priorities.
The man in a mask stepped into the revealed passageway which brought him to a set of stairs leading downwards. Without thinking long he descended them, looking to find his way into the Bank's main hall from here.
After crossing several stairwells, the vigilante encountered the first door that could potentially lead to some of the building's inner premises. Unfortunately, he quickly picked that it was similar in design to the door he had come across on the ground floor, having the same braced metal frame and, what was even more frustrating, an electronic coded lock.
"Damn it!" the masked man cursed aloud out of spite, barely refraining from slamming his gauntleted fist into the door.
"I should have guessed from the start that at a bank of this caliber, a roof exit can't just be directly connected with the indoor spaces without having the same access control systems blocking the way between them. I may have been trained by a man that many people call 'the world's greatest detective', but I'm clearly lacking his ability of foresight, at least yet. Still, it doesn't necessarily mean that I can't come up with a solution on the second try."
Intent upon quickly finding a solution to his problem, the vigilante surveyed the surroundings, searching for anything that could help him progress past this hindrance. After seeing nothing around but grey faceless fundament, he took note of the sole object that could be of help to him. It was a square-shaped vent shaft running along the right wall's length about ten feet above, with a grated covering adorning its front side. The sight of this finding made the vigilante get caught up in more musings.
"I used to do a lot of vent-climbing back when I was still a kid, but now that I have grown to be at least a couple feet taller and about fifty pounds heavier, I don't feel so eager to do this anymore. Still, it appears that I'm lacking any other options at the moment. After all, my former mentor that taught me this wasn't above doing the same even with his much more imposing stature and much older age."
Having made up his mind, the man in a mask once again reached for his Grapnel Gun and fired it at the grate in the shaft. The wired hook anchored to the grate's bar with its triple-bladed claw, but before the cable line could start pulling the vigilante to where the hook had adhered, he clicked the gun's trigger twice, making the wire steady itself. Then the masked man grabbed the cable with his other hand and started tugging it toward himself hard. The grate was tightly fastened to the vent shaft and the effort it was taking the vigilante to pull it off was quite excruciating. But soon the construction gave way and got torn off its bolts, dropping down on the stairs with a loud metal clang.
Upon seeing this, the vigilante detached his Grapnel Gun from the torn-off grate and then took a high jump at the vent shaft. Once his hands grabbed the edge of its exposed aperture, he quickly pulled himself up. The vent's metal frame chirred perilously from his weight, but the vigorous masked man disregarded that and just stroke a half-crouched pose, uncomfortably squeezing himself into the shaft. Despite him no longer being as lean and short as he was about five years ago, he was still at the peak of his agility and flexibility, which turned out to be good enough for him to fit into this narrow hole.
The next few minutes were all about patience and persistence to the vigilante. Crawling through this cramped shaft didn't feel very comfortable, to say the least, and it also didn't help that he had little but no idea about the exact location this shaft was leading him to. Soon, however, he began to get reassured that at least his direction was right as he started hearing the distant echoes of the voices of the criminals he was tracing now. At first, only some barely audible aftersounds could be distinguished, but the farther he kept crawling, the louder the voices became, to the point when he could overhear entire conversations between the robbers.
"How much longer are they going to dink with that vault there?" one of the thugs could be heard grumbling. "It's almost midnight and we're still done here!"
"What's the big hurry? Late for a gay club?" the other thug teased him.
"Not fucking funny," the first one snarled back angrily. "I just wanted to get home before 1 AM to watch the next episode of Daredevil."
"You watch TV series where guys like you get their asses kicked by a vigilante freak?!" the other one smirked. "You gotta be completely retarded."
There was a short moment of silence to follow that comment as if the first interlocutor really got put to shame by it. But then he finally managed to get through with his abashment and returned,
"Still more interesting than your stupid Vampire Diaries."
After that phrase it was probably the other guy's turn to feel ashamed. Meanwhile, the vigilante who was hearing all that loud and clear realized he already got close to the crime scene and decided to turn on his Night Vision again to get his bearings.
As the world before the masked man's eyes turned purplish and digital again, he saw that the thermal reflections of the two criminals whose small talk he'd just overheard were right underneath him. One more orange-colored figure was also radiating from a distance of about ten yards away, and one seemed to be moving somewhere below it, as if walking stairs or something. The rest of the gang was looming deep downstairs along with the majority of the Bank's guards they have taken hostage, probably in the lobby on the ground floor near the vault they were trying to break into.
"The way the robbers are spread across the building is working in my favor. But before I can start making use of it, I have to find a way to exit the shaft without getting noticed."
The man in a mask continued to creep through the vent on all fours, his every move even more careful and polished than before to make sure the two thugs beneath couldn't hear him moving inside the shaft. After crossing about twenty more feet of the shaft's length, he finally found another grated covering admitting to the premises of the main hall. All that remained was to remove the grate from his way, and he would be inside the main hall. But the simplicity of this task was only alleged as then he caught himself figuring out that it also implied some very undesirable side-effects.
"If I just tear this heavy set of grill off its spot, I can inadvertently make a lot of noise that will at once give my presence away to the robbers. I have to be extremely careful when doing this - otherwise, I might be taken out of the game before I even get into it."
Upon making certain that both criminals beneath were at a respectful distance from him, the masked man grabbed the grate's bars with his hands and started smoothly, but forcefully pressing the grill outward. His physical strength could well allow him to crumple it like a tin can, but this time it was not just about getting rid of an obstacle – it was also about doing it quietly and covertly. Therefore, what would normally take him only a couple of seconds to do was now taking him a little bit more time. Still, the metal couldn't resist the intense force applied to it forever, and at some point, the bolts holding the grill fastened to the vent began to drop off one by one, until only the vigilante's hands were left preventing it from falling off completely as well.
Without quitting hold of the loose grate, the man in a mask carefully crept to the edge of the newly opened exit from the shaft and jumped off it on the ground beneath. His legs quietly landed on a soft red carpet that covered the floor of some balcony-like platform enveloping this entire hall along the perimeter. Beneath could be seen the bank lobby with the same red carpet flooring, a long 'U'-shaped reception desk and numerous ACD's spread all across the hall's periphery. The lobby was connected with the balcony area by a long set of broad stairs in the northern part of the hall, just as he had deduced earlier when watching one of the thugs walking there. It turned out that the main hall of the Bank really was divided into two floors, but the upper one actually lacked seamless ground and was represented only by a wall-adjacent platform overlooking the lobby. This provided perfect view of the entire environment and thus offered the vigilante a much greater variety of tactical ruses to calculate in advance.
The man in a mask sharply turned his head to the left, watching out for the two thugs he'd been trying to avoid all along. Luckily, they still had their backs turned to him, completely unsuspicious of his emergence from the air vent. The other two on the stairs and on the opposite side of the balcony also had their gazes directed somewhere else. Hurrying to avail himself of this, the vigilante swiftly sneaked his way to the right of the balcony and slid behind the nearest corner. Once there, he carefully put the torn-off grill against the wall and then took out his binoculars again, looking to study the local scenery in greater detail.
"Although slipping past the warding mobsters is a success already, if I'm looking to take out their entire gang, I will also need to find myself a convenient position from where I can start ambushing them one by one until there's no one left to oppose me."
After having examined the hall area through the field glasses, the masked man found only one detail of the local environment that could provide him some positional advantage. It was one of the arc-shaped foundations high above that supported the hall's ceiling. The wooden beams interconnecting those structures could be used as perfect vantage points from where he would be able to attack the robbers from a distance and at the same time remain far beyond their field of vision. The only thing that was off about this seemingly flawless scheme was reaching that location.
"Whereas my Grapnel Gun can certainly help me with attaining a spot suspended at such a great height, if I use it now, the loud sound it makes when fired will inevitably attract the attention of the criminals. Since there is no way to mute this noise effect, the only way for me to avoid getting spotted at the early going is to create some sort of diversion for the robbers to make sure they will be too busy with something else to detect the source of the sound when I shoot the device. The only question is: what can possibly get those thugs so interested?"
The answer to this came quite unexpectedly when the vigilante's train of thought got interrupted by one of the thugs to the left asking wonderingly,
"Hey, what the hell with all those bolts on the floor?"
Upon hearing that phrase, the man in a mask experienced a thick, sticky feeling of being busted.
"Again I find myself having made another fluff by leaving some traces of my presence for the robbers to find. Even though I've put the torn-off grill out of sight, I didn't even think the criminals would be so attentive to detail as to notice the dropped bolts on the floor. It seems I have underestimated my enemy, and now this can play a very low-down trick with me."
In the meantime, the criminal that had discovered the bolts on the floor continued making further findings.
"And where the fuck is the vent covering?" he voiced another question aloud, making one more step toward spying out the lurking vigilante.
Finally, his exclamations caught the attention of his partner that had criticized his leisure time preferences earlier before.
"The hell are you barking about here?" the thug asked him with annoyance in his voice.
"I don't know, man," he replied perplexedly. "The vent covering – it's just fucking gone."
The other thug knitted his eyebrows together in a grimace of distrusting confusion and then looked at the aperture in the vent shaft.
"Are you even sure it was here in the first place?" he asked his suspicious fellow, clearly not impressed by his discovery yet.
"No no no, I'm telling you dude, it was here!" he started anxiously coaxing him. "And I can swear there were none of these bolts lying here on the floor just a couple minutes ago."
His interlocutor then lowered his gaze to the four metal fasteners sprawled at his feet.
"So what's your point?" he asked him then, still not sounding fully convinced.
"My point is that someone must have got here through this vent while we were looking another way," the first thug replied in such a tone as if he didn't completely believe his very own inference.
The other thug only scoffed arrogantly at his words.
"Pfff, someone has got here through the vent?! You really need to stop watching so many superhero TV series."
The first one scowled angrily at this remark with his whole masked face, but still didn't give up on his apprehension.
"You can laugh as much as you want, but I'm sure something's not right here!" he insisted. "I'll go check the rest of the balcony and see if there's something else here that's also suspicious."
The other robber just waved his hand in a gesture of utter nonchalance and turned his back to his partner to start walking the other way.
"If you're so fond of making an idiot out of yourself, then be my guest," he returned and then left his gang-mate stand all alone with his crazy suspicions.
The first thug seethed him for this impudent display of acrimony, but then re-focused on the matter at hand and headed for the opposite side of the platform, the machine gun in his hands held at the ready. The robber was adamant that the mysterious disappearance of the vent covering was no accident and that the cause of this nonsense had to be somewhere close around. So he continued to slowly and cautiously walk toward the verge of the balcony, unaware, though, that right around its corner, the vigilante could see him approach with his Night Vision.
"It seems that I will have to break my cover a little earlier than I planned. But who said I can't at least do this silently?"
The man a mask then leaned onto the wall behind him and carefully crept along it toward the corner from where the thug was coming, his Night Vision mode still on. He patiently waited for the moment when the mobster would be within less an arm's length from him, and then, just as the robber's thermal figure barely showed from out of the corner, he sharply grabbed him in a chokehold and dragged him behind his covering place. The vigilante performed the move so fast that the criminal had no fraction of a second to even process what had happened to him and could only gasp fearfully as somebody's strong, well-muscled arm braced him around his neck and tightly covered his mouth with his palm, preventing him from calling for help. The thug helplessly dropped his weapon on the floor and started vehemently struggling in an attempt to get out of the lock, but the mysterious assailant was holding him with a grip of steel.
"Shhh, we don't wanna scare your friends, do we?" the vigilante whispered playfully to the wallowing criminal.
The thug tried to mumble something through the masked man's hand, still fighting out of the chokehold with all his might, but soon the lack of oxygen began to show and the mobster's strength started fading. A few seconds later, the thug's frightened eyes rolled into the back of his head in a loss of consciousness and his body went limp. When it happened, the vigilante released his hold on him and carefully dragged his senseless husk into the depth of the corner.
"One down, seven more to go. Of course, sooner or later, the rest of the thugs will notice that one of them has been taken out. I need to make sure that by the time it happens, I will have already occupied that vantage point under the ceiling."
Unfortunately, the discovery of the first robber having been neutralized was about to happen rather sooner than later as his gang-mate that had been so distrustful toward his apprehensions suddenly decided to ask him from the other end of the balcony,
"Found anything yet? Any vent-crawling monsters, zombies, or maybe vampires?"
The thug's intonation was clearly a mocking one as he must have decided to continue further messing with his partner. However, when no response followed to his snide remark, he slowly began to grow concerned.
"What's this, a silent treatment?" he asked, still trying to sound imperturbable. "Did my calling you an idiot offend you so much?"
Again, his questions were left unanswered. Even though the robber kept convincing himself that those were probably some mind games his partner was now trying to play with him in retort for his acidic comments, gradually, it was getting ever harder to continue taking this lightly.
"Alright, alright, I get it – you're trying to mess with my head and make me believe there's really something going on with you there," he shouted as if playing the buffoon, although already growing antsy on the inside. "Very well, I'll pretend to be playing into your hand and go check on you. After all, who knows, maybe you really found some alien monster there that had come through the vent and is now chewing on your brains as we speak?"
With little hesitation, the masked mobster started making his way to the distant end of the balcony. Meanwhile, on the other end of the platform, the lurking vigilante cursed inwardly again, angered at the non-dwindling wave of complications that kept on preventing him from planning out his strategy. However, a moment later he got illumed by a fresh idea of how he could turn this chain of ill-luck to his advantage.
"I could pick off this thug stealthily just like I picked off the previous one, but instead I think I'll purposely do this overtly so that the henchmen on the opposite side of the balcony get alerted by this and come here. If my trick works and they get too distracted by the sight of what happened to their fellow goons, this will give me an opening for grappling onto one of those arcs above."
With this plan registered in his mind, the man in a mask reached for his right calf where a black holster was hanging wrapped around it. Inside this holster was placed a pair of his most favorite and, arguably, most dangerous weapons – eskrima sticks, also known as kali sticks - a name originating from the traditional martial arts of the Philippines. Wielded as both offensive and defensive weapons, these sticks were originally supposed to be used only for conducting melee combat. However, the eskrima sticks the vigilante carried were not like the ones known to the majority of the world. Just like almost all other weapons he had, they were also considerably advanced and upgraded and had multifunctional application. His sticks were made out of unbreakable polymer and were wired with blue-colored tasers on their tips, which, when clashed together, could create a pulse of electricity that would stun and knock off enemies. In addition to this, the sticks were modified to have the ability to be thrown like long-ranged weapons and ricochet off walls and objects to return right to vigilante's hands. That was how the man in a mask was intending to use them now as he took one eskrima stick from his holster and held it tight in his right hand, anticipating the moment when the second thug would show out of the corner.
In the interim, the robber approaching him kept growing evermore tensed with every next pace he was making toward where his friend was supposed to be looking for other traces of the mysteriously disappeared vent covering. If that was some joke his partner in crime was playing with him, it had clearly stretched on late. The criminal's heart was only warmed by the thought of how bad would be the ass-kicking he would deliver to his gang-mate for messing with him like that.
When the last foot remained separating the thug from what the balcony's corner was obscuring from his sight, he took a deep breath and then resolutely stepped past it, trying to make it look like whatever his partner was involved with there hadn't stirred him one single bit.
"So, what do we have h-?" but before the robber was even was able to finish his question, the spectacle to have unfolded to his view seemed to have rendered him speechless.
The criminal froze on his spot in mid-sentence, his eyes that showed from the eyelets in his mask bugging out in utter shock. Before him lay the unconscious body of his partner whose suspicions about something going wrong here he had so rudely brushed aside, believing them to be just a display of paranoia and stupidity. And standing over his body was a tall, dark, menacing figure in a mask with some baton-like thing held in its hand.
"Surprise!" the vigilante greeted him with a smugly grin on his face and, before the robber could even lift a finger, the former sharply threw his eskrima stick at the floor area to the right of him.
The thug flinched frightenedly as the weapon dartingly rebounded off the floor, becoming redirected toward the balcony's balustrade behind his back, and then rebounded off the balustrade, hitting him straight to the back of his head. The vigilante was clearly a very skillful user of those sticks as he was even able to expertly calculate the deflection angle and hit his aim with marksman's precision.
The criminal who was completely unprepared for this kind of assault immediately lost his balance and fell on the ground face-first, dropping his machine gun in the process.
"Ungh!" he moaned mournfully, clutching at his head with both hands and rolling onto his back in anguish.
Of course, that groan of pain couldn't have been failed to be heard by the other two thugs warding the upper part of the hall.
"Huh?" one of them wondered aloud, unable to comprehend where the sound had come from.
"Who's screaming?" another one asked.
The two mobsters quickly lost their relaxed demeanor and alarmingly rushed to the opposite side of the balcony. This was the very effect the vigilante was counting on when pulling this thing off, and as soon as he detected their movement with his Night Vision, he knew what he had to do next.
The man in a mask returned his attention to the robber he'd just stunned with his eskrima stick. The knocked-off thug had already started to come to himself from the attack and was now trying to reach for his dropped machine gun. Not taking any chances with him, the vigilante jumped high into the air, making a screw somersault and then landing with his knees right on the belly of the spread-eagled criminal. The thug gasped gruesomely as the vigorous man nailed him to the ground with all his weight.
"Sorry, pal, play time's over for you," the vigilante quipped and then delivered a mighty fist-punch right to the gangster's masked face, knocking him out cold.
As the thug went down into no man's land, the man in a mask hastily got off him, picked up his dropped kali stick from the floor and ran up to the balcony's balustrade. Once coming close to it, he glimpsed to the left from where the two other henchmen were coming. Luckily, they still were too far away to see him, so he didn't waste time and grabbed the balustrade by its railing, climbing over it and thus allowing his body to hang loose from the other side of the balcony. This way he could remain concealed from view when the other two thugs would get here.
The vigilante continued hanging like this until the criminals arrived at the scene. Needless to say, the sight of their two gang-mates lying out for the count left quite an impression on them.
"Oh God, everyone, get your asses over here, NOW!" one of them cried in shock. "We've got two men down here!"
The thugs on the ground floor exchanged confused glances with one another in response to that call.
"The hell is going on over there?" the one with the name Lance asked, puzzled.
"I don't know. Go check," the one who had settled out his conflict with Joey earlier before replied, also sounding confused.
"Why me?" Lance argued.
"Why not?" his partner talked back to him as if not feeling very eager to do that himself.
Lance groaned discontentedly, but decided not to debate the issue further and just headed for the stairs leading up to the balcony area. Once he did, the thug to have ordered him to do this turned his attention to the one tampering with the vault.
"How much longer until you're done melting that fucking door?" he asked anxiously.
"Almost there," the one with the laser returned confidently.
"I heard the same about 15 minutes ago," he rebuked, "Hurry up, damn it!"
As the thugs on the ground floor went on nervously fussing around the vault, their two partners above went on fussing over their knocked-out comrades.
"Are they even alive?" one of the robbers asked fearfully.
"Yes, but they are unconscious," the other one replied while sitting hunched over the two motionless bodies.
Then he started trying to bring one of them to senses by slightly slapping him in the face.
"Hey man, come on, wake up!" he coaxed. "Can you hear me? Wake up!"
When all his attempts resulted in nothing, he snapped.
"Damn it, they're out cold!"
The other criminal gulped hard at this conclusion.
"Who could have done this to them?" he questioned, his body already shivering from fright.
"I'm more interested in where this someone is now," his partner said.
The vigilante who was still hanging from the balcony just a few feet away from those two only smiled at those words and then, upon making sure he was still out of the criminals' sight, started scaling his way past them along the balcony's ledge. Using his acrobatic agility, he began to grasp at the balcony's balusters one after another, looking almost like Tarzan climbing lianas in a jungle. In less than a few moments, the corner where the thugs had crowded in together was already left far behind him, and the vigilante eagerly hoisted up back on the balcony's surface and proceeded distancing himself from the criminals by running on his legs.
Upon coming to the center of the platform, the vigilante saw another thug racing up the stairs right toward him. This was an unexpected obstacle to stumble upon, which imposed on him the necessity to come up with a split-second decision on how it could be overcome.
"My first impulse was to knock that guy down by throwing at him one of my eskrima sticks, but then my rush-driven mind told me that spending even a few seconds on calculating the directions and reflections of the thrown weapon was a luxury I could not afford at such a heated moment. I need something plainer, simpler and faster right now."
The realization made the man in mask act on instinct as his left hand reflexively reached for his utility belt. From there he took out another unordinary device which had a boomerang-like shape and appeared to duplicate the bird symbol adorning his breast plate. He called this contraption a Wing-Ding and used it as a non-lethal ranged weapon to stun enemies or knock firearms from their hands. This was an adapted version of a similar weapon he'd been trained to wield in his boyhood days and had been continuously wielding ever since, only re-designed to fit his new identity and matured personality. The vigilante didn't enjoy utilizing it as much as his eskrima sticks, but at the same time, after so many years of continuous use, he mastered it like no other armament in his arsenal. Besides, unlike the kali sticks which could only hit their targets from a distance as a result of recoiling force, the Wing-Ding could be thrown directly into enemies and even return like a real boomerang. This was the very combination that could help him quickly get out of the predicament he'd found himself in.
As the robber running up the stairs got level with the enigmatic masked man on his way, he just couldn't help skidding to a gruff stop at the sight of such a wondrous character to appear before him. The stupefaction the vigilante's appearance had given him lasted only a couple of seconds, but even this was enough to provide the latter with an opening for his cunning maneuver. So before the criminal was even able to recollect his wits and pull the trigger of his machinegun, the man in mask crustily brought forth his right arm, sending the Wing-Ding straight into his opponent's mask-covered face. There was a loud, unpleasant popping sound of a nose getting broken and the thug fell on his back with a thunderous "Aaaaargh!"
The boomerang-like weapon flew right back to its owner as the vigilante dexterously caught it on the fly with one hand and placed it back into his belt. Now that the gangster in front of him was knocked down, it could be a perfect moment for taking him out for good and thus reducing the gang's numbers by one more member. Unfortunately, the man in a mask couldn't spend any more time on this as the two mobsters behind him must have already been alerted by their partner's agonized cry and could now spot him here any second. Therefore, he hurriedly took out his Grapnel Gun again and fired it at one of the wooden beams in-between the arcs above.
Before the two thugs in the rear even managed to peer out of the corner to observe the author of the latest wail of anguish, the vigilante was already sliding on the cable line all the way up to the ceiling. Once the wire brought him there, the agile man grabbed hold of the beam he'd hooked onto and pulled up on it like a gymnast circling the crossbar. He then sat half-crouched on the beam and started watching the panicking robbers beneath like a hawk watching its prey.
"There's someone else screaming from over there!" one of the two thugs on the balcony shouted, instantly rushing to the opposite part of the platform.
"Man, this just keep getting worse!" the other one added with a frightened tone to his voice, following his partner's lead.
When the mobsters finally got there, they found their gang-mate named Lance rolling over the floor and plucking at his masked face from the pain. One of them tried to help his fellow criminal up, but Joey just pushed him off, still livid about the injury he'd got.
"Get your fucking hands off me!" he yelled, his voice having grown nasal. "That bastard broke my fucking nose!"
"What bastard?" one of the thugs asked.
"Some asshole freak dressed in black and wearing a mask," Lance returned spitefully and drudgingly returned to his feet.
His partners before him gave each other blank glares.
"Batman?" the other one inquired wonderingly.
"No, that son of a bitch had no cape and pointed ears," Lance explained and then rolled up the lower part of his mask to wipe the blood from his face, "But he looked like someone who could share the same freakish league with him."
Although the two thugs were certainly relieved that the enigmatic assailant was not the infamous Dark Knight, the whole mystery around his persona still made them both tense with uneasiness.
"But where is that guy now?" the first robber questioned him then.
"How the fuck do I know?" Lance spat rankly and lowered his mask back. "He just fucking disappeared – vanished into thin air!"
This piece of information was successful in destroying the very last remnants of confidence that the two criminals had been trying to cling onto, finally making them surrender to despair.
"Oh God, how are we gonna find him then?" one of the thugs grieved.
"Man, I don't like this, not one little bit," the other one added ruefully.
"Shut the fuck up!" Lance barked at them and picked his discarded machine gun from the ground. "We need to keep looking or we're all dead!"
Once he took hold of the weapon, he lifted up his head and bawled out about the entire hall,
"Show yourself, chicken!"
The vigilante who was overlooking all this from above just grinned at this and muttered to himself,
"Oh I'll show ya', just wait."
With that, he clicked something on his right gauntlet, making some wrist-mounted gadget unfold from it with a distinctive mechanical gnash. The revealed mechanism was just as dark as the whole outfit the vigilante wore and had a hollow, pipe-like shape which resembled a gun. The man in a mask then straightened his right arm and grabbed it by the wrist with his left hand for better steadiness. Then he started slowly directing the device on his arm at the group of robbers standing on the balcony.
The three criminals gradually began to peel away in separate directions, each one holding his weapon at the ready and nervously twisting his head left and right in search of the lurking intruder. As one of them sheered away from the rest to the left, the vigilante focused his attention on him and followed his direction with a plain movement of his right arm. The vigilante's pulse was still very hurried after all the physical and mental strain he'd experienced, so it was real hard for him to steady his shaking arm. However, he managed to concentrate and balance out his hectic body, which allowed him to finally take a good aim at his target. Then he clicked something on his right gauntlet again and, within a blink of an eye, the thug he was drawing a bead on sharply clutched at his neck.
"Ouch! What the- ?" the robber barely managed to utter as he suddenly groped for some small, yet sharp thing sticking right out of his carotid artery.
Startled, the criminal drew the object out of his neck and found it to be a tiny black dart with a very thin, but long needle. As soon as his mind processed that thought, the thug's vision swam violently and he was overcome with a very intense feeling of vertigo. In a few seconds, his legs helplessly gave way under him and he dropped to the ground as if having been shot down. This didn't go unnoticed by one of his gang-mates to the right of him, who squalled in alarm,
"On man, not you too! What happened to you?"
The thug immediately raced to his partner's aid, as did Lance who was searching the place nearby. Together they found another member of their gang lying unconscious on the floor. While the first robber hurriedly leaned over his comrade's senseless body and started trying to bring him to life, Lance fixated on studying the area around the unresponsive criminal and at once noticed a small dark object with a needle lying discarded near his hand. He picked it up and scrutinized it closely as his partner lamented over the condition of their unconscious friend.
"This is bad, he won't wake up too!"
"That's because he got hit by a tranquilizer dart," Lance summed up after examining the tiny weapon in his hand and then angrily tossing it aside. "That bastard's got everything!"
"But where the hell is he shooting them from?" the other thug asked worriedly, now clearly sounding more concerned about his own well-being than his gang-mate's.
The answer to that question was received by him that very instant as another dart abruptly came almost from out of nowhere and pierced him right in the neck.
"Ack!" the robber squealed as Lance winced on his place in amazement and then sharply shifted his glance toward where the shot should have come from.
It didn't take the criminal too long to figure out the projectile's grazing trajectory and fix his sight on the area right under the hall's ceiling. There he saw his offender sitting on one of the arc-supporting beams and directing whatever weapon he was using to launch those darts right at him. Lance quickly responded by pointing the muzzle of his machine gun back at the vigilante.
"Think you can hide from me there?" he shouted. "Think again!"
On that phrase, the criminal opened fire at the man in a mask. The latter didn't expect to be descried so soon and couldn't help starting to fumble as the volleys of bullets flew into him. The vigilante tried to make use of his agility to avoid the barrages, but on such an unlikely position, the room for this kind of maneuvers was limited to him. Therefore, at some point, one of the bullets finally managed to graze him across the shoulder. Luckily for him, the breastplate he wore was bulletproof and didn't let the projectile pierce his flesh. Nonetheless, it couldn't save him from the hard impact as well, and the vigilante lost his balance and fell off the beam.
While falling, the masked man still managed to tuck himself up and convert his harsh swoop into another acrobatic flip. Concurrently, he took out his Grapnel Gun and fired it at the balustrade on the right side of the balcony girding the upper part of this hall. Lance continued to shoot more bullets into his foe even when the latter was still in mid-air, but once the masked man's gadget clung onto the balcony and propelled him over to it, all the discharged barrages were left far behind him.
Once the Grapnel Gun's line reached its hitch point, the vigilante jumped over the balcony's balustrade and rolled for several more feet by inertia. Lance went on shelling him with more volleys from the other side, at the same time calling to his friends on the ground floor to join forces with him.
"He's right over there on the balcony! Shoot him!"
This time the robbers on the ground floor demonstrated less indifference to that call for help as two of them hurried to the center of the hall to add some fire power to Lance's efforts. Those were the robber named Joey that was armed with a pistol and the one that had temporarily reconciled him with Lance, armed with a machine gun. The two of them took cover behind the reception desk and joined Lance in shooting more rounds at the right side of the balcony where their enemy now was. This forced the vigilante into performing a series of evasive maneuvers as he started rapidly doing various cartwheels, tumblesets and somersaults to avoid the numerous bullets expelled at him.
"You're not getting away this time!" Lance cried after him, relentlessly firing away the entire clip of his machine gun.
The vigilante just kept on inexorably dodging the fire, waiting for the moment when the thug would run out of ammo. Finally, when Lance had to cease firing to change the emptied clip, the man in a mask who was still holding the Grapnel Gun in his hand blasted it right at the robber on the opposite side of the balcony. Lance staggered, believing for a moment that the triple-bladed hook launched into him was about to impale his sorry bulk. But then, much to his relief and at the same time further astonishment, the clawed end of the vigilante's device grappled onto his machine gun instead. Before the robber could even process what had happened, his opponent on the other side of the balcony curtly jerked the stretched wire line of his gadget, causing the criminal to get pulled down by the weapon in his hands right over the balcony's balustrade. Lance could only scream in shock as his body got turned head over heels and then dropped all the way down to the ground floor. Thankfully, the distance between the ground floor and the balcony was not too long, so he couldn't fall to death from there. Still, it was enough to put him out of action for quite a while.
The two thugs firing at the man in mask from behind the reception desk couldn't help but be further discomposed by the loss of another of their gang-mates.
"Oh shit, Lance has been taken out!" Joey cried.
"Blow on it! Just keep shooting!" his partner told him without stopping to shower the balcony with more strings of bursts.
The vigilante just kept on distancing himself farther and farther from the harm's way, ensuring that the seemingly infinite volleys of gunfire could not reach him there. Eventually, when the robbers realized that this gun-battle was beginning to turn into nothing but a waste of ammo on their part, the one with a machine gun decided to introduce a new tactical scheme here.
"That son of a bitch is too nimble, we won't hit him like that," he said to Joey. "Try to draw up closer to him for a precise shot. I'll cover you."
Joey hesitatingly lingered on his place for a few seconds, worriedly glimpsing now at the balcony and now at his partner to have given him this order. The robber was obviously reluctant to shorten the distance with someone who could deal with him the way he'd just dealt with the rest of his gang-mates. But then he finally found the courage to jump out of his cover and sprint toward the stairs leading up to the balcony.
The vigilante saw this from above and immediately held his Wing-Ding at full cock. He waited for the criminal to run up to the very last stair, and then, once the latter was there, he sent his weapon straight into his right knee. Joey hardly had a chance to even understand what had happened to him when something forcefully slashed at his leg, causing it to go numb from severe pain. This resulted in him shortly losing his footing and tumbling down the stairs with wallop.
Joey's partner who was supposed to cover him during his outbreak also failed to react to the vigilante's feint promptly enough and opened fire only by the time his enemy had already retrieved his Wing-Ding and became ready to make his next move. So once a new round of bullets started drumming against the balcony's balustrade, the man in a mask was already taking a dive to the ground floor in another impressive somersault.
The vigilante as always gracefully landed right on his feet as the robber behind the reception desk continued trying to take an aim at him. When he opened fire again, the man in a mask went for more acrobatic skits to elude the discharged bullets. Concurrently, he also took out his eskrima sticks from the holster on his right calf. Only this time he wasn't going to start utilizing them right away. Instead, the vigilante clicked two tiny buttons on the hilts of both weapons. This activated the electrical tasers on their tips which started humming subtly as if getting charged with some energy. Then, while still dancing away from all the gunfire ceaselessly peppered at him, the masked man clashed his sticks together, causing them to flash in a blinding blaze of electric discharge. After the arc of electricity between the sticks dissipated, their wired tips started glowing blue with accrued electrical power. This was when the vigilante made his final evasive pirouette and then violently threw one of the sticks toward where the robber shooting at him was taking cover. Only he directed the weapon not at the robber himself, but at one of the many computers standing on that reception desk the robber was sheltering himself with. The charged kali stick plunged into a monitor, almost piercing all the way through its display with a loud crashing sound. The collision of the electrified weapon with the electronic insides of the equipment caused the latter to erupt in a fountain of sparks that washed all over the criminal positioned near it.
"Ahhhhh!" the mobster shrieked, sharply turning his face away from the candescent flakes.
Seeing that the robber got blindsided, the vigilante hastened to jump at the chance and blisteringly dashed toward the reception desk. Before the thug could even get a glimpse of what his adversary was about to do, the man in a mask already bounced off the desk high into the air, flipped over himself and slammed both his feet into the criminal's chest in a mighty dropkick. The gangster collapsed to the ground with a loud and hoarse gasp as the attack must have taken the whole air out of his lungs. The vigilante, however, didn't stop at this and also added a punch to the thug's masked face for good measure, thus turning his lights completely out.
Another law-breaker was successfully neutralized, but before the man in a mask could even take a second to relish in this perception, more challenges came to haunt him. All out of the blue, one of the computers to the left of him bizarrely burst to pieces in an abrupt, deafening sound of a gunshot. The vigilante almost jolted out of his boots as his body got hailed by a shower of white-hot fragments of the former high-tech equipment and multiple fractured wooden splinters. He quickly adopted a crouching pose and rolled close to the reception desk, taking a cover behind it. Then, an instant thereafter, another shot thundered, blowing up a part of the reception desk just a couple of feet away from him. As the dust created by the shot settled a bit, the vigilante briefly peeped out of his hiding place to observe the source of the havoc going on. What he saw then was another criminal coming from the side of the bank vault with an imposing shotgun held clasped in his hands. The man in a mask realized then that in full swing of the battle he had lost count of the thugs he'd taken out and forgot that there was one more left he hadn't dealt with yet.
"The clearing of this place must have got me so carried away that I even lost sight of the guy responsible for breaking into the door to the vault. Another bad blunder of mine which may well turn out to be incorrigible as well."
The vigilante's subliminal analysis of his tactical errors was cut off by some words of rage addressed to him by the thug coming from afore,
"You skull-fucked freak! You think you can just burst in here and ruin our entire operation?!"
After that phrase, the man in a mask heard the distinctive mechanical click of the shotgun's slide getting racked in anticipation of another discharge. Knowing all too well what was going to follow the next instant, the vigilante grabbed his second eskrima stick and brusquely jumped out of his hiding place.
"That's not all I'm planning to ruin tonight!" he shouted back at the mobster, concurrently tossing his weapon at the floor area about a few feet away from where his enemy was standing.
Before the robber could even put his finger on the trigger of his weapon, the ingenious device hurled at him ricocheted off the ground straight into his crotch. The criminal's eyes almost popped out of his head from the unspeakable pain he found himself in a moment thereafter as he dropped to his knees, gripping hold of his lower part with an anguished cry.
"Urrrrk, you son of a bitch…" the gangster swore, almost coughing up every word out of himself.
"I bet a ruined operation is no longer your top-priority concern, right?" the vigilante sneered while scrambling over the reception desk and then starting to approach his foe in a very slow and casual, almost relaxed manner.
"Fuck you…" the thug growled in return and tried to reach for his discarded shotgun.
The man in a mask had that well scouted, though, and immediately sprang into the air, corkscrewing like a human fidget and then slugging the bowed down criminal across the face with a scathing roundhouse kick. The mobster dropped to the side like an overturned vase, at once joining the ranks of other gang-mates lying senseless over this place.
Once the last thug was neutralized, the vigilante relaxed his posture a bit and started breathing heavily to bear the stress he'd just experienced. There it was done at last – all eight gangsters taken out, all hostages saved and the occupied Bank secured. It had been awhile since he stopped crime operations like this all by himself, and even despite his generally self-confident, presumptions character, he had to admit he couldn't have helped feeling some uncertainty bugging him out during this entire mission. But now that it was complete, that feeling was gradually getting replaced with a much more pleasurable and appropriate feeling of pride. Of course, he still had to interrogate one of the thugs and try to make him tell who their gang was working for, but compared to everything to have preceded this moment, this was a part he had much less reservations about. With that understanding assumed, the man in mask picked his dropped kali stick from the floor, easily tossed it up into the air and then dexterously caught it right into the holster on his leg.
The proud vigilante was about to start pacing back to the reception desk to extract his other stick from the monitor it stuck into, but before he even made one step, out of the corner of the eye he caught sight of somebody moving near the stairs leading to the balcony. He quickly recognized this somebody as the thug he had hit into the knee with his Wing-Ding earlier before, his hobbling walk telling the story. The criminal whose name was Joey was obviously trying to escape from here without the vigilante noticing him, but was unable to do this fast enough because of his bad leg.
"Once again, my triumph is delayed indefinitely as there turns out to be one thug still left unbeaten. Well, since the rest of the goons are out cold and I still need someone to divulge to me the information on the leader of their criminal group, I know how I can still benefit from this mishap."
With that frame of mind, the man in a mask forgot about his stuck eskrima stick for short while and bolted to the fleeing criminal instead. Making good use of his heightened speed and agility, he effortlessly covered the relatively long distance between himself and the hobbling gangster within almost only a few seconds. By the time Joey was able to detect some rapid advance coming right at him, a tall, dreadful figure dressed in black was already standing just a couple of feet away from him, nearly screening him with the large shade it cast.
"Leaving so soon?" the masked man asked humorously, his joking tone seeming very contrast to his dark guise. "And here I was hoping we were gonna have a tea party first."
Joey harshly staggered back from his scary stalker and pointed his pistol at him, his hands, though, trembling frantically.
"Get away from me! GET AWAY!" he cried, sounding almost horror-stricken.
Without even as much as moving a muscle, the vigilante just waved his left arm in a fluent, yet brisk motion. In the next second, the gun the criminal was holding in his shaking hands was knocked from them by a thrown Wing-Ding and dropped on the ground with a loud thud. Joey was so consternated by this that his legs almost sank under him from the shock and he started hectically backtracking from the masked man in front of him.
"No no no no no!" he started repeating over and over again. "No, please, don't hurt me!"
"Hey, relax already," the vigilante replied easily, catching the returned Wing-Ding on the fly and placing it back into his utility belt. "I know this may be hard for you to believe, but I really don't want to hurt you. I only want to talk."
However, Joey was not so easily convinced by someone who had just kicked the crap out of his entire gang.
"No no no, don't get close to me!" he went on blabbering and took out a pocket knife from his jeans, defensively bringing it forth at the vigilante in front of him.
The man in a mask sighed and shook his head in disappointment, expecting another pathetic attempt on the part of the criminal to attack him. However, much to his very unpleasant surprise, instead of trying to strike at him, the thug did something the vigilante turned out to be completely unprepared for. With the knife still in his hand, the mobster starkly crept toward one of the bound security guards that happened to lie right near him, braced his arm around his neck in a chokehold and pressed the blade to the hostage's throat.
"Don't move or I'll slit his throat!" he threatened the vigilante, the knife in his hand nervously shaking an inch away from the guard's Adam's apple.
This also managed to awake the bound guard from his blackout, who, upon barely opening open his eyelids and then seeing what was being done to him, bugged his eyes out in utter terror and started fervently shivering with his whole body. He tried to scream, but with his mouth gagged, all he was able to voice were some sullen mumbles of fright, which, nonetheless, sounded no less blood-curdling.
At the sight of this discouraging spectacle, the vigilante felt some stinging chill run down his spine.
"I did not expect him to go so far as using one of the hostages as an equalizer in this confrontation. I should have known better than to start interrogating this dirtbag without subduing him first. Now a life of an innocent citizen is in danger, and if something happens to him, it will be no one else's fault but my own."
Agitated by this cognition, the man in a mask slowly raised his hands into the air, displaying his lack of hostility, and addressed himself to the criminal,
"Whoa whoa whoa! Easy there, tough guy! Don't do something we're both gonna deeply regret afterwards."
The vigilante then attempted to make one short step toward the duo of the thug and the hostage he was holding in his grip, but Joey immediately intercepted him.
"No, stop right there, I'm gonna slit his throat!" he shouted, pressing the knife's blade even tighter to the guard's neck. "You make one more step I swear I'm gonna spill his blood all over you!"
The vigilante at once froze on his spot, not making light of the criminal's threats.
"Alright, alright, just calm down, okay?" he returned, trying to maintain serene intonation. "Listen, man, you've got a problem with me, not with this guy. Just let him go, and I promise we'll just have a short chat and I won't even lay a finger on you."
"Go fuck yourself!" Joey spat at him, his eyes burning with a mixture of rage and anxiety. "I know better than to trust a word of a vigilante freak like you! If I release this wimp, you're gonna jump me the very second I do this."
Upon that phrase, the gangster got off his knees, lifting the hostage guard he was keeping in a chokehold together with him.
"I'm leaving," Joey spoke again. "And if you even try to follow me, I'm gonna give this guy a Columbian necktie. You understand me?"
The man in mask continued standing motionless, slowly entering into the mobster's words and trying to calculate a solution to his dilemma.
"Even if this bastard has the guts to cross that line and jugulate the hostage, I can sense from his voice that right now he's much more focused on saving his own cowardly ass rather than trying to intimidate me with his threats. If I can push further on this string of his, maybe I'll manage to get him release the guard."
"I understand only that you'll probably have to drag this guy all the way to your home if you really wanna prevent me from following you," the vigilante remarked then with a subtle mockery. "Besides, if my memory serves me, you have a bad leg after that little stunt I pulled on you earlier. So even if you manage to get out of this building, I'm still gonna have no problem catching up with you outside."
Joey's eyes began to shift skittishly as he gave thought to the flaws of his plan that his enemy had pointed out to him. Seeing the conflict in his gaze, the vigilante proceeded,
"If you want to make sure I'll stop giving you a bad time, you'd better let the guard go and kill me instead," he then declared to everybody's amazement.
Both the thug's and the hostage's eyes widened owlishly at this bold statement. To imagine that someone was ready to open himself to an attack like this was as hard as it seemed suspicious. Bewildered by the vigilante's unexpected proposal, Joey continued lingering for some more time, until suddenly it dawned upon him.
"Nice try, freak," he talked back with distrust, "But I won't let you fool me into fighting you when you have all those geeky toys to back you up."
He then tightened his arm's grip on the hostage and went on talking,
"Although you do have a point – I really need to kill you. But this will happen on my terms, not yours."
With that, he directed his glance at the eskrima stick protruding from the holster on the vigilante's right calf.
"Your stick – put it down on the ground, slowly!" he ordered the man in a mask, his voice, though, still thrilling with panic.
The vigilante at once figured what the thug was up to, but decided not to wrangle with him.
"Okay, if that's what your problem is…" he replied flatly, but before he even reached for his holster, Joey barked at him again,
"And don't you even try to pull any fucking gimmicks!"
The masked man floutingly rolled his eyes at this warning.
"Oh, now you truly resent me," he fooled in return. "Do I look like someone who pulls…?"
"Shut your fucking mouth and do what I say!" the mobster cut him off, obviously being in no mood for jokes.
The vigilante quitted his attempts to take the heat out of the situation and just silently complied with the criminal's demand, carefully taking out his weapon and placing it on the floor by his right foot. However, the criminal was still not content with it.
"Now kick it to me – and no fucking monkey business!" Joey pressed on.
Again, the man in a mask obeyed inviolately and shoved his stick to the criminal with a weak foot-kick. The intricate gadget rolled toward Joey who, upon seeing it, carefully put his knife from his right hand into his left one with which he was holding the hostage by the neck and then bent down slightly, picking the weapon from the floor with his now free right hand. Then he tossed the stick away, ensuring it would be far beyond the vigilante's reach.
"Happy?" the vigilante asked him dryly then.
"Not yet," the criminal answered, his tone slowly growing more confident. "Now take off your belt and drop it on the ground."
The man in mask reacted by waving his hands in a gesture of annoyance.
"Oh come on, it won't even fit you!" he kidded again.
"Take off the fucking belt, NOW!" the gangster snapped at him, and, to emphasize his point, pressed the blade of his knife even tighter to the neck of the guard he was holding.
The vigilante had no other choice but to play by the criminal's rules yet another time. If it had been only his own life and health at risk here, he might have well chosen to drop this masquerade and play an all-or-nothing game. But this was not just about himself – it was also about an innocent Bank guard who had the ill-luck of getting caught in the crossfire.
"Fine, fine, whatever you say, boss," the man in mask jeered snidely in response to the criminal's order and started to unbutton his utility belt off his waist. "At least I'm glad you're not asking me to take off my pants as well."
Joey just continued steadily holding his ground, waiting until the man in a mask undid his belt with all the insidious gadgets stored in it and tossed it at the mobster's feet too. Then he picked it up from the floor and threw it away just like the kali stick before.
"So, are we done playing dress-up?" the vigilante asked him then challengingly, now left completely without any technological support.
"Not so fast, whacko job," the gangster snarled back, slowly starting to retrieve his former calmness. "You didn't think I would be so stupid as to clash with you without getting some backing-up of my own?
Upon saying this, Joey hastily dragged his hostage toward where his pistol lay dropped after the vigilante had knocked it from his hand with his Wing-Ding. He then gathered it up from the ground and pointed it at his dark rival standing in front of him. Even though his arm was still shaking with neurotic tremor, it was still visible that the thug was elated by how smoothly his plan had been working so far. Now, with the knife in his left hand still held to the hostage's throat and the gun in his right hand held directed at the vigilante, this criminal believed he had a full carte blanche in this situation.
However, the man in a mask didn't seem to be intimidated in the slightest and continued retaining stoic demeanor.
"Sound move, I'll give you that," he remarked imperturbably. "But allow me to give you one more advice if I may. My whole body is encased in bulletproof armor, so if you're intent upon sending me off to hell with that tiny little pistol of yours, I recommend you to shoot me at point-blank range."
Joey had to stand on his spot nearly petrified for a few moments to digest what the vigilante had told him. The masked man was almost guiding him right into killing himself as if the prospect of getting shot dead didn't bother him whatsoever. Either this guy was totally nuts or someway somehow he still had some ace hidden up his sleeve. The mobster wasn't sure what to make of it, but he refused to believe that while being unarmed, kept at gunpoint and leveraged by the hostage's life hanging on a thread right before his eyes, this freak could possibly come up with any secret game-plan.
"You're even crazier than I thought," Joey finally alleged after waking out of his stupor. "On the other hand, what is to be expected from a guy who dressed like some screwball faggot and thinks he take on an entire gang of armed-to-the-teeth men all by himself?"
Then the thug started slowly approaching the vigilante, still keeping the pistol in his right hand pointed at him and bracing the bank guard with his left arm around the neck.
"Anyway, thanks for the tip," the robber proceeded, still keeping on coming closer to the man in mask. "I guess I'll follow it after all. But, as always, I'm gonna add some improvements of my own to your recommendation."
The gangster then lifted his gun a bit, aiming its muzzle right at his opponent's face. The vigilante, however, continued standing immovably, not even blinking at the sight of a weapon directed at him.
"I'm not just gonna shoot you point-blank," Joey went on, already getting within almost a couple of feet away from the masked man, "I'm gonna shoot you point-blank straight into your stupid fucking head and blow all your freakish brains out!"
Finally, the criminal came almost within a hair's breadth to the vigilante and put his pistol right to his left temple. The man in a mask then heard the gun's safety lock becoming cocked back with a click that rang menacingly right above his ear. The tension of the moment seemed to have slowed the very fabric of time around the vigilante, but he would not yield to this illusionary effect, remembering all too well that every second counted for him now.
"Not sure about freakish," the masked man took the word again, still standing motionless at the barrel of a gun moments away from firing pot at his head, "But at least I have brains."
Then, within less than a blink of an eye, the unthinkable happened. In one unbelievably swift, bolting burst, the vigilante just slipped out of the way of the gun pointed at him. He moved so fast that his body seemed to blur through the air, almost as if he had literally teleported himself away. The robber could not believe his own eyes as one second he was looking directly at his enemy standing at an arm's length away from him with a pistol pressed to his head and the next second there was already nobody before him. It felt almost like some magic trick performed on him by an illusionist, only Joey didn't find much to be entertained about it.
The momentary perception sent a revived wave of fear through the criminal's very system, causing him to lose all the confidence he had been trying to build up within him for the past few minutes. Then, before his own instincts could even come into play and make him either pull the trigger of his gun or slice his knife across the hostage's throat, he abruptly felt his left hand getting roughly seized by the wrist and then becoming bent in a way it wasn't supposed to bend. By the time the thug managed to even react to this, the man in a mask was already behind his back, twisting his arm almost up to his shoulder. There was a loud sound of a joint getting snapped and Joey yelped plaintively, his hand reflexively releasing hold of the knife. At the same time, the bank guard he had been holding in his grip this entire time limply dropped on the ground in front of him face first, his legs probably having grown rubbery after all the shock he'd been through.
The robber, now having lost two of the trump cards that he had, desperately went for the last thing there was left for him to do and brought his right hand behind his head, looking to shoot his assailant at random. Unfortunately for him, the vigilante turned out to be prepared even for this kind of maneuver as he violently lumbered at Joey's right hand with his forearm, causing him to drop his pistol before he ever had a chance to fire it. When the weapon bumped against the floor, the man in a mask, without quitting hold of the criminal's arm he was twisting, also put his right foot on his popliteal muscle and pressed hard, forcing his enemy into kneeling position. Once Joey was down on his knees, disarmed and immobilized, the vigilante at once retrieved his former cocky attitude and addressed himself to his subdued rival,
"That's what I like about you, amateur hour goons – always so easy to lure into even the simplest trap."
The thug who now found himself at the mercy of the masked man was still refusing to accept his defeat and still kept on stubbornly trying to resist.
"Rrrrrr, let go off me, you bastard!" he grumbled, squirming with his whole body in futile attempts to break free.
The vigilante leaned his face right to the thug's head to voice his reply right into his ear.
"I was actually planning to let you go at first," he said, "But that was before you decided to put a hostage's life in danger. Now I'm gonna make you pay."
That threat managed to erase the last remnants of defiance from Joey, rendering him a pathetic, fearful coward again.
"Wh-what do you want from me?" he asked the vigilante, his voice thrilling with former panic.
"Luckily for you, not much," the man in a mask returned, "Just tell me who your gang is working for, and maybe I won't even put you in a full-body cast for the next few months."
The criminal started trembling even harder, clearly appalled by this question, but blurted out his answer as if having been trained for this very moment.
"We don't work for anyone – there are only eight of us and nobody else!"
"Don't bullshit me!" the vigilante hissed in return and angrily twisted the mobster's arm even further, thus causing him more pain. "A bunch of clowns like you would never pull off something that big without some criminal mastermind guiding your every step! So I will repeat my question: who do you work for? And this time I want the truth!"
Joey squealed from the agonizing feeling spreading from his left arm to the rest of his body, but didn't change his story.
"Drop dead! I don't even know what the hell you're talking about!" he squeezed out of himself through pain.
The man in a mask clicked his tongue, displaying his exasperation.
"Oh really?" he asked provokingly. "So we're gonna play this game, huh? Okay, that's your choice, not mine."
Upon saying this, the vigilante grabbed Joey by the index finger of the very arm he was twisting him now. Sensing his tight grip on his finger, the thug shuddered in alarm.
"What the hell are you doing?" he insistently inquired his victimizer.
"Listen, man, I've told you already – I don't wanna hurt you," the vigilante returned, trying to sound almost friendly. "And I know you don't want me to hurt your either. But the problem is that I need information, and I'm not leaving this place until I get it. So if you're gonna continue playing dumb with me, I'm afraid I won't have other choice."
The thug's eyes started nervously shifting again, his whole body sweating underneath his outfit from both physical and mental strain.
"You're crazy! You're not getting away with this!" he shouted at the man in a mask.
"That's not an answer to my question," his interlocutor retorted and placed his thumb on the proximal phalanx of the criminal's finger, then pressed it hard.
There was a loud crunching sound and the robber emitted the most ear-shattering shriek of affliction that seemed to have reverberated through the entire building. His whole palm twitched spasmodically, all its fingers becoming bent unnaturally.
"Aaaaaaaarrrrrghhhhh, what have you done to me?" Joey screamed almost in tears from the unbearable pain and many other unpleasant feelings he was experiencing along with it.
"Nothing serious yet," the man in a mask replied lightly, still holding the thug by the arm, "But you have only nine more fingers left before it can get so. Now tell me the name of your boss, or I'm gonna continue my way onto the serious part."
"Alright, alright, I'll tell you, just stop, please!" the criminal begged, almost choking on his own sobs. "His name is Blockbuster!"
Upon hearing that name, the vigilante had to turn his gaze away in distant reverie, trying to extract from his old memories if he had already come across it before. It sure sounded very familiar, but for now, he couldn't precisely recall where it originated from.
"Blockbuster?" he asked the gangster again. "Sounds more like a nickname to me. I need his real name."
"I don't know his real name!" Joey answered whiningly. "He never told it to us! I swear!"
The man in a mask was very skeptical about how truthful was what this thug had to say, especially after his sordid attempt to use a hostage as a means to an end. However, judging by the utter dread resonating in every word he spoke, the vigilante was more or less adamant that now the criminal was not lying.
"Where can I find him?" the vigilante continued to question his examinant.
"I don't know!" the mobster hid his head again. "Blockbuster's never invited us to his place! Whenever he needed something from us, he just sent his own men to meet with us at random locations! Please, you have to believe me!"
The vigilante frowned angrily at this unenlightening reply, but didn't go on torturing the criminal further. Perhaps, that Blockbuster really kept all those goons in the dark in order to preserve his own secrecy.
"The money that you were going to steal from here – where were you supposed to take it to?" the man in a mask put another question to Joey. "And don't you even try to tell me you don't know that as well!"
"No, no, I'll tell you, just don't hurt me anymore!" the thug pleaded with him. "We were supposed to take it to a warehouse at City Dock-Commercial! That's all I know!"
That piece of information caused the man in a mask to delve into more thoughts.
"I'm still new here in Blüdhaven and do not orient in this city as well as I do in Gotham. However, a location of this sort shouldn't be too hard to find. If I can do this fast enough, maybe I'll manage to catch Blockbuster's men at the docks before they figure out that the bank robbery has been a bust and decide to tail to their heels from there."
Now having a new objective in view, the vigilante relinquished his grip off Joey's arm, letting him fall down on the ground right next to the bank guard he'd been holding hostage earlier.
"You were very educational, thank you," the vigilante said dryly to the criminal who was now lying hunched-up on the floor at his feet, moaning and clutching at his numb arm.
"Ooooh my hand – I can't feel it…" the robber whimpered, still squeezing his hand in an attempt to make the blood flow return to it.
"Relax, you big baby – it's not even broken," the vigilante teased him and then leaned over the thug, once again snatching him by the wrist. "Let me help you here."
Before Joey even gave his permission to do something to him, the vigilante already pressed his thumb on the very same spot of the criminal's hand he pressed on before when interrogating him. Again, a crunching sound was heard, making the mobster skirl another painful cry.
"Aaaaaahhh, you're a fucking butcher!" the gangster bawled out, still holding onto his hand.
"Hey, that's not very grateful of you," the man in a mask pretended to be offended. "You should be feeling better already."
Joey didn't reply anything to this and just continued to wallow on the ground and weep for his hurting arm. Seeing that he no longer represented a problem, the vigilante was already about to start taking care of other things like untying the bound security guards and securing the rest of the gangsters before the police arrived. But then, all of a sudden, something else caught his attention. Lying on the floor right near the criminal's leg he saw some small white thing that looked like a card. The man in a mask quickly picked it up and studied it in a closer look. It was made of plastic and had a magnetic coating like that of a pass-card. Then he turned it sideways and got reassured in his suspicion. The card had a title inscription 'Blüdhaven Bank' running along the upper part of its long side and a distinctive watermark symbol of a 'B' letter within a circle frame like the one he's seen above the entrance to the Bank showing on its background. The left side of the card had a photo of the employee it belonged to with lots of holographic lines and stamps placed over it, while the right side showed the information on him. The vigilante, though, focused his gander only on the four words in bold letters that read the name of the card's owner and his job position: Joey McIntyre, security guard.
Having scrutinized this information, the vigilante switched his glance back to the thug lying half-crooked in front of him. The dark hero knitted his eyebrows together in a grimace of intense thinking process and then sharply grasped the criminal by the tissue of the mask he wore, taking it off his head in one brisk move. The mobster who clearly hadn't expected this kind of action freightenedly clutched his head with both hands, afraid that his foe was about to continue tormenting him. However, the only thing the vigilante intended to do now was to compare the face of the robber with the photo on the pass card. Although the picture must have been taken a good several years from today and the man imprinted on it didn't have the gnarly bristle, the greasy, sweaty hair and the pale, haggard face like the one lying in front of the vigilante right now, the similarity of appearance was still unmistakable. Once the man in a mask picked on this, he felt a very enkindling feeling of enlightenment fill him up.
"At last, all the questions I have been having up until this very moment have become answered all at once. Now it is finally clear to me how these mobsters were able to break into the Bank without wrenching open any of the doors or even stirring the alarms. This gang had a double agent at the Bank in the person of this very guy before me who's been working here as a security guard. He must have provided the access to the premise to his gang-mates and also helped take out the rest of the security personnel, ensuring none of them could even call the police when it happened. A very sordid method of doing things even by criminal standards, but undoubtedly efficient nonetheless."
With these inferences drawn, the vigilante looked at the robber in front of him from a refreshed perspective.
"Joey McIntyre, a security guard at Blüdhaven Bank," the masked man said as if willing to state the fact. "I'd love to say it's nice to meet you, but I'm afraid I can't do this."
With an effort, Joey rose to a half-sitting position in response to that comment. He was no longer as panic-stricken as before, but he still appeared a broken and distraught man. It was also notable that he was not even trying to come up with any further means of neutralizing the vigilante as if having truly accepted his defeat.
"Congratulations, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," the former bank guard declared venomously. "Took you long enough to figure out."
The vigilante disregarded Joey's remark, continuing to explicate his previous thought.
"I don't even know what disgusts me more about you," he went on rebuking the criminal, "The fact that you tried to manipulate me by threatening an innocent man's life or that you've been manipulating so many other people around you for such a long time just to make yourself and your fellow goons rich."
Joey rudely wiped the sweat on his forehead with a sleeve of his leather jacket.
"Don't you dare judge me, freak," he objected to the masked man's accusations. "You weren't born and raised in Blüdhaven like I was. You have no idea what's it like to live in this city."
The former bank guard sobbed, as if being on the verge of bursting into tears, then proceeded,
"You don't understand what it's like to live here and have ho future… no opportunities… no hope… You don't understand what it's like to struggle every single day while being in constant fear that tomorrow you won't have a job, what to eat and where to live... or that you won't be killed in some dirty alley by a whacked-out street punk... Believe it or not, but I have a family waiting for me at home that I have to take care of, and I can't possibly do this with these pathetic fucking pittances that this Bank is paying me for being its security guard. All I'm trying to do is turn things for the better for me and my family..."
"...By hurting and terrorizing innocent citizens, stealing from other families like yours that may have the exact same problems and serving despicable criminal scumbags like this Blockbuster who built their entire lives upon other people's sufferings?" the vigilante interrupted him. "Well, forgive me if I don't find your approach worth being sympathized with."
"I could care less about your sympathizing," Joey talked back. "It's not my fault that there's no other way to survive in this city."
"There's always another way," the man in a mask retorted confidently. "It's just people like you who are so much blinded by their anger and frustration that they fail to see one."
The renegade bank guard didn't seem to find a counterargument for this and just swallowed that statement silently. When the vigilante realized that no response was going to follow to his last tirade, he shifted his focus from Joey to other pressing issues at hand. With that, he gathered the knife that Joey had dropped on the ground during their clash and walked with it toward the bound bank guard that his former partner tried to use as a counterweight. Then the vigilante started using the knife to cut the ropes the guard was pinioned with.
The sight of the man in a mask helping his former co-worker made Joey voice some more reflections of his.
"Whatever another way you're talking about, now that you ruined our operation here, there's only one way left," he said solemnly. "When Blockbuster finds out that we failed, he'll kill us all, and that's the only way there is to it."
"Don't worry," the vigilante returned in an unimpressed tone, not taking his attention off the guard he was disentangling. "By the time your Boss finds out about your operation, you will have already been safe in your jail cells."
Joey chuckled at this, for the first time displaying some emotion other than fear or despair.
"You really don't understand, do you?" he messed with the man in a mask, thus finally succeeding in attracting his notice. "Blockbuster is no ordinary gang leader. He controls this whole city. He controls everything, including police stations and prisons. If he really wants to find someone, he's gonna go to the end of the earth to get this somebody, just like he's gonna do with us, and, eventually, with you too."
The vigilante finished cutting the ropes the bank guard was tied with and rose from his knees. Then he turned to Joey to once again look him in the eyes.
"Not if I'm gonna get him first," he declared with loftiness worthy of some legendary medieval warrior.
Joey just scoffed at this statement again, clearly not placing much faith in the words of the mysterious masked hero.
"Can't stop repeating this: you're crazy," the former security guard mocked him yet another time.
Then, suddenly, the criminal gathered his brows together in puzzlement at one question that very spontaneously arose with him.
"Just who the hell are you anyway?" he asked the vigilante straightforwardly, surprised with himself why he hadn't wondered about this earlier.
The man in a mask, who was already on his way to another captive guard, half-turned to Joey, his face cracking a sly smile,
"Oh I'm sorry, I'm sorry, where are my manners?" the vigilante camped around in his typical manner. "Guess I got so carried away by fooling around with you guys that totally forgot to introduce myself."
Then the masked man stood to face Joey, his shoulders thrown back and his head lifted up high.
"I'm Nightwing," he made himself known at last. "And I'm here to clean this city of the people that taint it like your Boss does."