Alfred Pennyworth was worried. Despite what some might think, this was not a particularly common state of mind for him. He did not worry when Master Bruce went out into the night to bring justice to Gotham's seedy underbelly, not anymore. Too many times he'd watched his employer drag himself back almost from beyond the grave through sheer force of will to be easily concerned over his wellbeing. Similarly, he didn't feel more than a twinge of anxiety over Masters Dick, Tim or Damian swinging from rooftop to rooftop. They were young, true, but they were each trained by the best, fit as fiddles and determined to emulate Master Bruce as completely as they could. No, for the most part he didn't worry about them any more, just waited patiently for them to drag themselves back to the cave so he could stitch their wounds, feed their empty bellies and wash their sodden uniforms. Even now that some of the birds had left the nest, they would still periodically return for a taste of Alfred's cooking or a display of the proper way to close a knife wound.
But today, he was worried. Master Bruce had now been absent from the cave for three days and three nights without any explanation. Normally, if he was going to be away with the Justice League or chasing Miss Talia across the globe, he'd at least leave a note so that Alfred wouldn't waste time making meals no one was going to eat. Well, not more than usual, anyway. Master Bruce didn't always remember to consider the feelings of others, Alfred reflected, but he certainly considered the well being of Gotham and there were currently no members of the extended Bat-family patrolling its streets apart from Master Damian and he could hardly be expected to handle the entire city alone.
No, Master Bruce had not given any notice that he would be absent from the city and that worried Alfred more than he cared to say. He'd been distracting himself all day by dusting different parts of the manor and the cave, doing jobs he'd be putting off (like cleaning the Batcomputer's screen, wretched thing, why does it need to be so large?) and generally avoiding thinking about the problem at hand. But now that night had fallen and the Batsignal lit up the sky, Alfred could hardly put if off any longer, especially not with the news that Talia and her contingent of the League of Assassins had arrived in Gotham.
Moving at a determined pace, Alfred walked from his station in the kitchen to the west study and took the stairs down the cave. The hinges on the ornamental grandfather clock that did the job of concealing the cave's entrance from view seemed to be squeaking slightly, he noticed, and were clearly in want of oiling. As he reached the bottom of the steps he spotted young Master Damian in training section of the cave, hurling knives at a defenceless dummy with all the ferocity Alfred had come to suspect from the current bearer of the title 'Robin'. His fascination with sharp weapons weren't shared by even Master Bruce and Alfred felt he really aught to have a talk with the boy about it one day soon, perhaps to explain exactly why it was Master Bruce objected to causing lethal harm. Master Bruce was hardly going to sit down and have a heart to heart with the boy, after all.
But for now, Alfred contented himself with striding over to the colossal Batcomputer, leaning over the microphone and saying "Condition Empty Nest, initiate Protocol Swarm" in crisp, clear tones. The computer hummed, whirred and went to work. Faces flashed up on the screen, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and many others, and the computer reeled off contact details and dispatched messages. After a while Damian strolled over, implying a complete lack of interest with every movement. "Who are you contacting Pennyworth?"
Alfred gave a wry smile and raised an eyebrow. "Who do you think, Master Damian? I am calling everyone."
They called it Billyland. Rednecks and peckerwoods from all over Appalachia flocked to the city during and after WW2 to work the industry jobs all the upstanding crackers left behind when they went to war. The Hillbillies, Billies to those in the know, made unincorporated Gotham a hicktown haven and had been there ever since. Billyland was a running joke through the city. You going through Billyland and hear banjo music? Roll up those windows and drive faster, boy. How do you castrate a Billy? Kick his sister in the mouth. What do you call a Billy girl who can run faster than her brothers? A virgin. Billyland: 10,000 people and only six teeth.
Slam drove down streets in his heap. He nursed a flask of gin and kept his eyes peeled for Peter Dubose.
THE JOB: Peter Dubose has a huge crush on Glenda Glitter, feature dancer at the Gold Rush Strip Club. Dig Gorgeous Glenda grind on the floor. Guys go gaga over Gyrating Glenda. See Pete pop his peepers at that sight. Pervert Pete likes to watch Glenda glide around the Gold Rush. Paramour Pete's heart pumped passion for Glenda. Purser Pete won't take a pass. Persistent Pete paws at Glenda and takes no prisoners. Pugnacious Pete gets violent. Glamourous Glenda gets a shiner. Enter Slammin' Sammy. Slam gets six bills and lapdances gratis for putting the fear of god into Pesky Peter. A straight up muscle job, just the way Scary Slam liked it.
Slam cruised through Billyland for two hours and took in the sights. Dig those trucks and big ass tires. Dig that Billy music. Fat girls in tight jean shorts and tighter tops. Muffin tops abound. Tweaker sores abound as well. Teenage mothers pushing babies, rebel yells, motorcycles, more jacked up trucks. Confederate Flags and "Heritage, Not Hate" signs as far as the eye can see. Slam hit the gin and sang country songs under his breath.
"Sun's coming up... something-something griddle, blah blah blah fiddle, thank God I'm a country boy!"
FEATURE: Peter Dubose coming out of a bar. Pudgy Pete looks like he's three hundred easy. Pimply Pete picks acne and pops zits. Slam cruised sloooow and watched Pete climb into a shitbox of a truck and speed off, blowing exhaust behind him. Slam counted seconds, got to twenty, and went. The exhaust smoke gave him a beacon to follow. He gave Pete a long leash and cruised, polishing the gin off and kept singing.
"Let's go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys. This... something-something feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys."
Slam caught up with Pete when he was leaving his shitbox parked outside a grocery store.
"Peter Dubose?" Slam asked.
"Yeah. And you are?"
"I'm a friend of Glenda Glitter."
Pete's eyes went wide just before Slam laid into him. He had big hands. Once upon a time the hands pulverized light heavyweights and cruiserweights without prejudice. Not so long ago they worked over murderers and robbers in the GPCD interrogation pen with beaucoup prejudice. Now they turned Peter Dubose's sides into shredded beef and sent his teeth flying across the parking lot. A three combo sent Pervy Pete flying against the side of his truck. He slid down the side and spat teeth. Slam rubbed his knuckles and watched Pathetic Pete sob.
"You touch Glenda again, you're dead. You get within ten miles of her, you're dead. You even step one foot back in that strip club and you're dead."
Slam took the driver's side mirror and ripped it off. He cradled the mirror in the palm of one hand before smashing it into the ground.
"Get what I'm saying, boy?"
Slam stumbled out the bar seeing double. Every cent he got from Glenda, all six hundred bucks of it, went to settling his tab at The Handlebar and running up a new one. The Handlebar; call it a dive bar for the people that were too rough or too drunk or too sorry for regular dive bars. O'Shea's had been his watering hole of choice for nearly twenty years but he was banned. O'Shea's was a cop bar and he was big time persona non grata anywhere cops gathered.
He turned his collar up against his neck. The old thing stunk of booze and smokes, just like its owner. Streamers and shit going off all over the street; people down the street were celebrating a birthday or something. The Handlebar didn't celebrate birthday's and he was glad for that. A birthday was for people dumb enough to believe they had a future, it was for the people who had hope. Slam knew what hope felt like, the same way a guy with a voice box remembers what it used to feel like to not have a hole in their goddamn neck.
Big hands rifled through the coat, searching for his cigs and lighter. The big hands were passed down from the old man, the only thing he'd given Slam that was worth a damn. Pa Bradley went splitsville in the early 70's, leaving Ma Bradley and little Slam to fend for their own. The big hands were helpful back when he was a kid growing up. The scar on his third left knuckle was from Bobby Shaw's tooth when Slam beat his ass.
Slam lit the cigarette after his fifth attempt. He headed down the street, blowing smoke while the people celebrated. He passed more drunks stumbling to parts unknown just like he was, both parties giving silent acknowledgment as they passed that they were both part of the fraternal order of drunken bastards.
Halfway down the block, tires screeched and an engine revved. Slam turned too late. Four big men in black tracksuits jumped out a black SUV and drove Slam hard against the side of a building. The cigarette went flying along with the air from Slam's lungs. He gasped while one of the men worked on his ribs.
"Where is our money, asshole?"
Thick Russian accent, bad breath. Call it: Pasha's men on a collection call. Pasha ran book for the Russian mob and held a note on Slam for seventeen hundred. It was only five hundred until a few weeks ago, he doubled down on Preston Harper in the fight against Juan Lopez. Lopez had a glass jaw. By round four he'd be on the canvas crossed eyed while the ref called it. Harper went down in the second. Lopez's glass jaw, it turned out, was trumped by a fantastic left cross.
"Where is our money?"
The beating stopped. Slam sucked air, gulped and nodded.
"You try looking up your ass?"
Wrong answer. He always got mouthy when he was shitfaced. The Russians held him against the walls while their buddy started tenderizing his sides again. He got into it, went high and punched Slam right across the face.
"You owe Pasha money. Two thousand."
"Seventeen hundred, Boris."
Backhanded slap smacked Slam's head back against the brick side of the building. He pulled away from the wall tasting blood, a cut somewhere in his mouth. Slam spat blood. It dribbled down his mouth and on to his tie.
"Two thousand, with interest. You don't pay in a week, it's four thousand. You don't pay a week after that, we kill you..."
"Not an effective way to run a collection service, Boris. But I guess all you Soviet fucks don't realize how capitalism really works..."
More slaps and blows, teeth rattling punches knocking him every which way. Boris breathed deeply; shook his head and spat in Slam's face.
"I was born in Gotham, asshole. God bless America."
The muscle tossed Slam to the ground with a few more kicks in the ribs for good measure. He stayed still on the sidewalk, waiting until the car was gone before moving. He sat up and leaned against the wall, bruised and bleeding and did an inventory; no broken bones, ribs hurt like hell but were intact, ditto for the teeth. No serious damage, but their message was delivered loud and clear. Slam lit up another smoke and breathed in deeply. The smoke hurt the cut in his mouth but he didn't care. Singing down the block.
"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you-"
Slam laughed and stubbed the cigarette out on the cement. He leaned against the wall and sighed, wishing he'd just stayed at home and got shitfaced there.
Vincent tried to remember the poor bastards name, or even what he looked like. He had killed him not a few hours ago in the early evening, in a crowded bar right across from a diner that was popular among cops, both new, old and retired ones, and was even chased off by Jim Gordon himself. It was such an obvious job, one that would stick with most men for the rest of their lives. But he wasn't like most men. He didn't see faces when he killed or harmed someone. Young or old, male or female, saint or sinner, he didn't care. All he saw, was the money he would get paid for doing the job. That he remembers, he always remembers the money.
Southside Gotham. Five hours previous.
He hated the wait. His target would arrive soon, but still he was impatient. He hated standing still, too obvious even though he was in a dark alley where nobody could see him. His feet ached from standing still for so long, and it was cold in the alley. He'd hive anything to be able to have a smoke right now, but he waited.
People were laughing inside the bar. Carradale was a bar like no other. Not because of the name or even the drinks. For the most part it looks like any other drinking establishment. Until you met the people. For the most part they were crooks. Thiefs, murderers and made men gathered here. But even that wasn't the main part that made it interesting. What made interesting was that it was right across from a diner that was popular with Gotham PD. Even retired cops went there to meet their old pals and to talk to the young blood of the force. Nobody inside the bar would even fight, but they still went their to feel superior. To feel untouchable because of the cops outside, and the killers inside. It was the perfect place to set an example. The Bertinili family was making a come back, and they wanted everyone to know it.
The target finally rocked up to the bar. Right on time as always. He parked outside and went on in, he even vrought a couple of dates along with him. He was a nobody really, just some low level mobster. But he was the most recognised out of the crime families besides the higher ups. He was flashy, arrogant and creepy. If he wasn't a made man, he'd be dead in a gutter. Vincent didn't care about him being a made man. Ge wasn't getting paid to care. Only to kill.
As soon as he went inside Vincent made his move. He left the alleyway and made his way across the street. He looked over at the diner and saw that their were a few cops inside, mostly retired ones. Perfect. He slipped inside the bar and looked around.
There was cigarette smoke in the air, as well as the smell of stale beer and even staler vomit. The cump was in the corner, an arm around each of his dates. He wasn't facing the door. Nobody saw him enter. Brilliant. Vincent walked along the bar floor, being careful not to bumo anyone. It took him a little while, but he finally slipped behind his target. He leaned down close to the mans ear and started whispering.
"Sir, I have an urgent message for you."
The guy didn't even look up, he was staring at the blonde bimbo on his left arm. "Yeah? What is it kid?"
"The Bertinili family sends its regards." Vincent then pulled out a corkscrew, and stabbed the mafioso in the neck with it.
The guy started gurgling on his own blood, the bimbos on either side of him screamed, but Vincent wasn't concerned. He jerked out the corkscrew and stabbed him twice more with it, leaving it impaled in his throat. Then, Vincent just walked calmly to the exit. No one had any idea what was happening, until they saw the body. By then, Vincent was out the door.
He walked calmly towards the alley he came from, when he saw a guy step out of a car in front of him. He knew who the guy was instantly. Jim Gordon, the Jim Gordon. Oh shit. Vincent kept calm and continued onwards, calm as a cucumber. Until the bar door slammed open. It was one of the bimbos, she pointed at Vincent and screamed one word.
Vincent looked at Gordon. Gordon looked back. It was like a scene from the movies where two characters stared at one another before something big happened. Gordon opened his mouth to speak, but before the words even cane out, Vincent took off running.
He heard Gordon shouting behind him, but he didn't look back. The alley was too narrow for a car, so it was a foot chase. It didn't last long. The alley was a maze of twists and turns, and Vincent knew which ones to take. Within a few turns, Jim Gordon's voice started to fade away. By the time Vincent reached his car on the other side of the maze of alleyways, he couldn't hear the old windbag at all.
Vincent smiled to himself and hopped in his car. He would be home in a bit, and as soon as the late night news was on, his paycheck would practically be in the mail. There was one problem though, h3 had no idea who he killed. Oh well, it will come to him eventually. If not, he hoped his employer would tell him at least, or he'd find out in the news.
Just another job like any other. Another day, another dollar
Another day, another night out in the streets of Gotham. It had been a week since Anton Bolton put together his Razor Batsuit and he had already gotten a hang of the equipment. He figured to start with the basic: integration of his Razor smartphone with unlimited wi-fi and hookshots he had equipped to his waist. The two hookshots latched into the concrete side of the building and rappelled him to the other side of the block in ten seconds flat. As he landed onto the roof, he looked around. No signs of any crap going on.
It was a pleasant night. Well, as far as nights in Gotham go. Usually there'd be some crazy scheme happening in the middle of Gotham and if not that, at least some bank robbery going on in the process. Well, this was perfect timing for him to catch up on those Tae Kwon Do lessons. He opened up the video app and played one of the videos he downloaded onto the phone.
"First, maybe, when he throws his first kick, I might slide out. Now, the second kick, I'm going to actually clinch forward and cut him off..."
As Anton watched inside his helmet, something else caught his eye. A person was selling phones off at the corner of Park Row. This wasn't the average phone seller though. The thick trench coat and the way he slithered his hands on the phones pretty much told him that he was a bootlegger...
Well, that and found out about this guy through Kijiji. He decided to go closer to his target.
"So... How about a Raaaazor? They're pretty cheap..." The man in the trench coat said to the customer as he offered him one. Anton stayed up on the rooftop above him. He hesitated to jump down and ruin a business deal. He had to remember that it was not an official Razor product and just some cheap Chinese knockoff. But what set him off was what the customer said:
"No way! I don't want that piece of shit. Get me a Lexdroid or an iPhone!" As soon as he said that, Razor Bat leaped down and knocked out the dealer with a swift slap to the face, letting the metallic alloy in his glove do the heavy hitting. He turned to the customer, who shook in his knees. "Aaah! B-Batman!" Anton took the moment to roll his eyes before he grabbed the customer's hand and tightened his grip. He could feel the bones strain in his fist as the customer screamed.
"I'm not Batman. There's a new name in town. A name so fine, you'll be thinking twice about that comment you made. My name... is Razor Bat." He let go before he broke the customer's bones, let alone any skin. It bruised, yes, but not bled. The customer winced and ran off. Anton smiled. He could already see his name on the Twitter feed.
Speaking of, he went back onto the rooftop and looked up if he had been mentioned at all on Twitter or if people mistook him for Batman in a cybersuit.
Let's be honest: there are far better places for a kid to grow up than Gotham. By all accounts, even after the Batman showed up it was a crime-infested wreck, the saving grace being at least the worst criminals were easier to pick out in a crowd due to how flamboyent and... Let's say "eccentric" they'd became. Sure, the "nicer" cities like Metropolis, Fawcett and Central had their share of costumed lunatics, but compared to the grimy, smokey hive that was Gotham? It could be worse, at least; it could be, say, Hub City or something. But still, the point is Gotham was never exactly a nice place. The Batman had made it marginally safer for the common people, yes, as did his Robins and Batgirls and other assorted crimefighters, but that had just made it a bit harder to sleep easy after reports of his disappearance. Even worse, with the Joker dead (had that really happened? It seemed like nothing could kill the Clown Prince of Crime, but even he was mortal in the end)... You'd have to be blind to not see the immense power vacuum that would open up. The streets of Gotham were even more dangerous with the two seemingly gone.
So maybe that's why she was doing this. As soon as she'd heard about the Joker's death... Somehow it hadn't given her the solace she'd thought it would. Her father's murderer was dead, finally receiving whatever justice he'd deserved for the countless atrocities he'd committed, and yet she couldn't think about how glad she was because of this; all she could focus on was... Well, what would happen now. Yes, maybe she hadn't thought this through well enough, and maybe she was just being an impetuous child, and maybe, just maybe she was just trying to play hero to live up to her idols despite lacking... Well, superpowers, for one thing, but still...
Really, she was glad her mother had been working nightshifts so much lately. If she'd found out what she was doing, the punishment she'd receive would be far worse than anything the street gangs she'd been fighting could dish out. Yes, she'd catch hell if she was found out, but that still didn't stop her from putting on the costume as soon as she heard the car leaving the driveway. After some last minute adjustments in front of the mirror, she opened the window and deftly lept out into the streets, a streak of primary colours amidst the black.
This had been her evening routine for the past week, really. Even before the two most feared men in Gotham had vanished, Kuroko Rayne had been sneaking out at night, but her efforts were redoubled when it happened. The fact that it didn't take long for her to run into trouble only confirmed her fears in her mind, as not long after entering downtown she spotted a group of thugs in lurid makeup threatening a defenceless couple. And even though she knew she should wait for an opening, she couldn't help it. She couldn't just sit back and watch them do this... Acting purely on instinct, she lept out of the shadows and floored one of the creeps with a well aimed kick.
"Have no fear!" Kuroko took a moment to strike a pose, the thugs momentarily too confused by this random intrusion to react, whilst the couple seemed to decide this was the perfect opportunity to run. "Robin is here!"
"Ain't never heard of no Robin wearing a training bra, but hey," the lead clown stepped up, flicking open a knife as he advanced on the luridly-dressed wannabe superheroine. "Ever since the Bat iced the Joker, I've been dying to carve up his little turkey!"
"..."Little turkey"? I... Geez, with the Joker gone you're having to write your own material, aren't you?" Ducking from side to side as he swiped at her with the knife, Kuroko couldn't help but wonder if word of her had actually spread at all. After all, the Robin name was vacant... She thought, at least. The old one was now Red Robin, right? So there was room for a new Robin, right? "Hell, it's probably cut off your allowance, too! Were you trying to get money for Faygo from those two? ...Come to think of it, what the hell is Faygo anyw-"
Oh, there I go, running my mouth again. "Robin" was still new to this, after all. She always thought the feeble banter phase of the fight was pretty important, but she hadn't gotten it down just yet. After all, if she had, she wouldn't have shut up for a moment just to dodge the other two thuggalos. Aw man, I almost forgot there was more than one!
She could totally take all three though. Well, maybe. It wasn't the worst fight she'd been in over the past couple of days, after all. And really, it didn't take that long. Despite their overconfidence, they were just a bunch of untrained thugs, and whilst she was no Batman (and really, not much of a match for the previous Robins either), she could easily handle them. After a few minutes, her only concern was how to get that white facepaint off her gloves.
"Hah! That's what you get for messing with the all-new, all-different Robin!" Rubbing her hands eagerly, she took a moment to savour her victory before speeding off through an alley. After all, the night was young, and there was plenty more crime to fight! And the more she fought, the more word would spread about her! Soon, all of Gotham would know there's a new Robin in town, and she meant business!
Gotham is full of CCTV cameras, remarks most every visitor to the city. Some are private, installed by anxious business owners, but most were paid for and are maintained by the tax payer's dollar. And they are almost everywhere, practically all seeing and all hearing, on every street corner and every junction. Of course, kids throw rocks at them, serious criminals cut their power and even the Batman occasionally disables one to maintain his privacy but the city always buys more or has them repaired. It's strange, thought a junior aide in the Mayor's office as he reviewed the budget, but the same company has been responsible for supplying all our cameras for over ten years. They're cheaper than anything else on the market, rarely break down and they have complimentary maintenance at a reduced rate for five years after the initial purchase. It almost sounds too good to be true... I should probably look into this.
That was three weeks ago. The aide attempted to look further into this problem, perhaps arranging an interview with the owner of the company or having some of the GCPD covertly look into the business to make sure it was on the level, but he was tragically killed in a car accident just hours after mentioning this discovery to someone else. His replacement was a studious sort who looked at numbers and didn't think about people or real-life and therefore didn't see anything wrong with one company having a monopoly on Gotham's eyes and ears. The company itself was called 'Aknadah Incorporated' and was, on paper, owned by a man called Andrei Augustin. He was an American citizen born and raised but his family were originally from a small Slovakian village, or at least that's what the system would tell anyone researching him. In that village, a strange twist of history and language meant that they spelled many Slovakian words backwards when compared to the rest of the country. And the Slovakian word for Riddle just happens to be Hádanka.
So, in a basement room surrounded by glowing monitors showing different views of Gotham's streets, the Riddler grinned a self satisfied grin and finished yet another 'impossible' crossword book. He'd kept his little ace in the hole well guarded all these years, fending off corporate takeovers and marketplace competitors from his cell at Arkham or wherever he happened to be hiding in Gotham and never letting anyone who noticed this slight flaw in Gotham's safety net live too long. Even the Batman hadn't noticed it yet, which Eddie thought was odd, given how obvious the clues he'd left for him were. Still, it was probably better that the Bat not try to remove his CCTV cameras, for how else could Nigma keep watch on the city to find the perfect people to bait his traps?
A computerised beep interrupted his musings, signalling that one of the searches he had set running hours ago was complete. Rolling his chair across the floor to the flashing panel, Eddie hit the play button. A familiar voice issued from the computer. "There have been no credible sightings of the Batman for [3 days] and [3 nights]. This is [highly suspicious]. All CCTV footage has been scoured, all social media feeds have been scanned and all Police reports intercepted to bring you this report." Some years ago, Eddie had synthesised his own voice and programmed the computer to use it so he wouldn't have to suffer getting information from anyone else. But three days and three nights? That was unusual.
"Computer, search for mentions or sightings of the Batbrats in the same time space."
This time, the beep came only a few minutes later, the computer having already reviewed the information and merely needing to search its own memory. "There have been sights of [The 4th Robin, the violent one]. There have been no sightings of other known affiliates." Now that was very odd. When Batman normally disappeared for a few days, he'd make sure there were a dozen of his pestilential brood waiting in the wings to swoop in and pick up where he left off. Could he be off mourning the passing of the clown prince of crime? I always wondered if he didn't somehow need that pasty faced palooka for balance Eddie thought as he idly surveyed a mugging through one of the city's many cameras. He could be dead, better have some of my people check out the local dive bars and see if anyone is bragging about killing the bat. But I would've heard, he's not the sort to go quietly. Maybe he's been kidnapped? I heard murmurs that the league of assassins were in town, preaching their short sighted, self regarding, egotistical dogma about purging the earth of criminal scum like the unimaginative broken records that they are, maybe they've gotten a hold of him? I'm sure I can have eyes on their regular safe houses within a few minutes.
With a smile and a whistle, Eddie set to work sending messages to his informants and information gatherers. They were everywhere from the police station to the Iceberg Lounge and knew their business well. Of course, each one had only a scrap of information that would lead any who tortured them no further than a throwaway email address or unregistered phone. Just because he used human operatives, didn't mean the Riddler had forgotten how utterly useless the vast majority of the human population were.
Where are you, Batman, where are you? Ready or not, here I come...
Nightwing was concerned. Deeply concerned. The Joker was dead. It had been all over the news that the Clown Prince of Crime had finally bit the dust. Dick certainly wasn't going to shed any tears for that monster. In his opinion, the Joker rated at slightly over Raven's dad on the scale of "irredeemable scumbags." So why was he so concerned? Two words: Bruce and Gotham. As long as Dick could remember, even for a few years before his parents' deaths, those three were symbiotic. Batman and Joker were two sides of the same coin, and that coin was Gotham City. The Joker needed Batman and, as sick as the idea was to Dick, on some level it always felt like Batman needed Joker too. It was... A difficult relationship to work out, but then again so was any relationship either of those two had, so it came full circle. Then there was the inevitable power vacuum that would come up from Gotham's most notorious criminal being removed. Throughout the last day, he thought about reaching out to Bruce and Alfred to offer his services. If he was right, there would be a war, so Gotham was going to need all the help she could get. Maybe he would, and catch up with Babs while he was at it, but right now he was busy.
"Ah! Aaaah! Don't drop me, don't drop me!" cried out Jonesy Jones, career criminal.
"I'm hoping I won't have to, Jonesy. Now would you please tell me where Blockbuster is getting his next shipment?" Nightwing had been dangling Jonesy over the side of a tall office building, holding onto the man's ankle with one hand. Nightwing himself was hanging upside down, attached to the building by dangling himself from a gargoyle, only one leg wrapped around the statue's neck for support. 5,000 foot drop and no net. He felt back at home.
"I thought yous was supposed to be the nice one, man!" Jonesy cried out. His coat fell off and fluttered down to the streets below.
"Didn't you hear me say please?" To prove his point, Nightwing let go of his captive. Jonesy screamed himself hoarse as he began tumbling downward through the air, but his fall was stopped short. The acrobatic hero shot his grappling hook at the mobster, which coiled around the man's waist and pulled taut. Meanwhile Nightwing secured the grapple firmly to his gargoyle platform, then slid down the side of the building. He landed on a ledge near his dangling captive. "Did you have fun? It's a lot like the Tower of Terror ride, and look! There's no line! Lucky you."
"Ok, ok! I'll talk, I'll talk! The boss is gettin' his next shipment by big rig, delivered to the warehouse on 5th of Bleeker, man!" Jonesy's pants had grown considerably darker, yet his skin was so much lighter. Funny how that worked.
"I'm glad we could come to an arrangement, Jonesy. Now you be a good boy and wait here for your ride home alr-" Dick's words were cutoff as his left gauntlet began to vibrate, and a faint light flashed in it. "No..."
Dick brought the gauntlet up even with his eyes and peeled back a small latch, revealing an even smaller computer screen. The message was one he never hoped he'd ever have to see. "Empty Nest. Protocol Swarm." He mouthed the words silently to himself while Jonesy Jones swayed listlessly in the wind, spinning lazily.
"Come on guy, I gave you what you want! Can't you let me go?! I'm startin' ta... Get all... Woozy."
"You have fun with that," Nightwing muttered, his eyes trailing the flashing red and blue lights in the distance. With that he flipped off from the ledge, fell about two hundred feet, grabbed onto a flag pole, drained some of the dangerous momentum by spinning around it a few times, then let go and landed on the rooftop of a shorter building. In Bludhaven, when you saw the cops the chances were they weren't going to arrest the criminal, and even if they did there wouldn't be any charges pressed. That's just how things worked in a city run by criminals through and through, but right now it wasn't any of Dick's concern. Right now he had to get somewhere. For the second time he opened the small wrist mounted computer within his gauntlet, then spoke into it. "This is Nightwing. I'm coming home."
A lone motorcycle sped through the streets of Gotham with total disregard for the speed limit. This was all scenic, totally irrelevant, and the man at the throttle had someplace to be. Now. Of course, this being Gotham it wasn't going to let him get by that easily. As he rounded a corner, a young woman was being accosted by two thugs with a knife. Without even slowing down, the driver popped the front end up and swung back around in an unbelievably impressive display of driving.
The two thugs stopped what they were doing soon as that motorcycle came right back for them. Freaking out, they ran into a nearby alleyway, leaving the woman on the sidewalk but taking her purse with them. It was foolish to think that a simple alleyway was going to stop Nightwing. He pursued the two into the darkness between buildings as the woman looked on, dumbfounded. The roar of the engine and lack of light prevented her from hearing or seeing what exactly was going on, but in only a few moments the young hero emerged from the alley once more, speeding right by her and out of sight. Once she had a moment to recollect her senses, she noticed her purse lying at her feet. What had just happened?
Outside Wayne Manor
Dick Grayson sped along the winding hill road, finally coming to a slow. However this wasn't because he was stopping, quite the contrary. He slowed himself in order to make a turn off the road into the trees. Once that had been done he hit the throttle once again, weaving in between foliage and rocks and other natural landscapes until he came to the side of a cliff with running water. Aligning himself toward the waterfall, Grayson accelerated even faster. With his left index finger he pressed a single button on his helmet, which transmitted a radio signal outward. Immediately a large doorway opened up behind the waterfall, parting the rushing liquid to either side. In just a second Dick had passed through, and the door closed to once again allow nature its course.
The engine's roar echoed throughout the tunnel and cave, but it could not last forever. The tunnel opened wide into a large central chamber and Dick Grayson slowed his motorcycle to a complete stop, parking it right next to the Batmobile. Stepping off of his motorbike, Dick removed his helmet and called out, "Alfred? Damian? I'm home."
There always came a time in a Gothamite’s life where one became part of the city's lifeblood, knew its breaths and patterns, tuned into the city's rhythm. Most citizens had a way of just knowing something was off. And most of them never looked further, always attributing it to something rational:
The Batman taking another major crook to the revolving door known as Arkham.
The latest breakthrough from Wayne Enterprises.
A poor sap getting his legs broken after a member of the mob failed to collect on his payments.
A citizen calling the police and for the first time, trusting the officer who arrived to help them.
Just another day in Gotham City. Just another pump in the city's heart: living, breathing, creating, destroying.
But among the citizens were the rarer few who embraced their part in the city's lifeblood, specifically tuned into the changes in the air. Ones who embraced and directly sought out those shifts in the pattern, who lived for that ripe moment when the city unknowingly held its collective breath.
The Batman was one such soul. The Joker had arguably been another.
Most now attributed those delicious little tremors going down their spines, that uneasiness that ate at their hearts, the trepidation of taking a breath of relief to the rumors of the latter’s most recent demise.
But those who learned how to watch and listen knew that while the fall of Gotham’s self-proclaimed Clown Prince of Crime had indeed played its part in the shift in paradigms, something else lurked beneath the surface.
Another change, one hidden to all but those specifically looking for it.
Jonathan Crane enjoyed those moments.
Something changed. Something important. Something that made his skin prick, his blood run cold, his breath come in long, uneasy draws.
Not only his own, but those around him.
From the rooftop of one of Gotham’s crumbling old buildings, the Scarecrow stood tall in his proper attire, relishing in the small thrill of potentially getting seen or caught. The Gotham wind gently caught the ends of his tattered coat that provided little protection against the midnight chill, made the brim of his hat shift and flutter. His left leg straightened in its brace, aching from the evening weather, and his face only remained warm behind his cloth mask due to the trapped heat of his breath.
The little thrill passed in fleeting seconds. Once upon a time, it charged him, granted him precious anticipation as he patiently waited for another piece of his schemes to fall into place, for the Batman to arrive so his twisted games could begin.
Now it taunted him, giving him only the smallest taste before it mercilessly pried itself from the tips of his fingers.
He didn't know what changed about this city, only that something did. And it lured him from one of his many sanctuaries in this city, instinct as keen as a bloodhound’s nose.
Earlier this evening, he made a few rounds in the city, taking care to keep back, to shift his posture, even going so far as to wear a bulked up coat to disguise his distinct skeletal frame, a pair of loose slacks to cover his brace, and old hat to hide his eyes. Few paid him any heed, in their eyes just another lost soul in this city looking to get home and drown his sorrows after a long day of work.
His wanderings only served to confirm what he already knew. Whether they realized it or not, they were afraid. Anxious. Terrified. On edge about the new dynamic, the new heartbeat, the new dance Gotham would take on now that the one between bat and clown had ended.
The Scarecrow took in and savored each little morsel of fear as a dying man would his last meal.
And like a dying man, those trivial tidbits of terror hardly satisfied him.
The Scarecrow glanced down at the street, at the pavement below. He watched as two men herded a terrified woman into a nearby alley, listened to their footsteps, their mocking words. He closed his eyes as they disappeared into the shadows, just listened to the woman’s pitiful pleading, the sounds of a struggle, the distinct creak of leather jackets and the rustle of cloth.
He breathed in deeply as she screamed.
What a beautiful pitch, the panicked tones rising, the timbre unbroken, the note long and satisfying when it finally hit the crescendo.
Like an opera singer giving her all right before the curtains fell.
It cut off as one of the men covered her mouth, but even from here, the Scarecrow heard the echoing of stifled vocal chords against the alleyway, the weak attempts at self-defense as he imagined one of the men holding her back, the soft sobs as she gradually lost all hope of someone helping her.
He didn’t care about what happened in that alley, only about the gentle taste of fear on his tongue, the tiny shudders down his spine, the increased pace of his heart. It would have been much sweeter had he been close enough to see her face, to smell the horror brought to the surface, to watch her body contort in a fearful dance as she fought to free herself from her captors.
Like before, it left him with only a cruel taste of what he desired. Of what he needed.
It rarely lasted anymore.
Unfortunately, more urgent things required his attention. His earlier jaunts helped him to better pinpoint the shifts in Gotham’s paradigm.
In its fear.
The chokehold that gripped this city for nearly two decades now waned. Each new breath the city took would sting as it tried to steady itself, to find a new pace, a new heartbeat, a new dance.
The Scarecrow walked over to the side of the building, crouched down onto the fire escape. Once he reached the ground, he ducked into the shadows, kept moving and stayed out of sight until he reached the closest of his sanctuaries.
Once there, among his books and chemicals, he pulled out a cheap, disposable flip phone. Though Edward kept his secrets very well under wraps, he still left a few ways to contact him in the rare instance it could be needed. The Scarecrow typed a few words into a text, sent it to an unregistered number.
Quoth the raven.
Their code for the rare instances one of them needed to talk.
He hit send, waited for confirmation before sending another.
The beating heart tells no tales.
Anyone intercepting the messages -- like a certain pointy-eared, dark-caped rodent -- might presume a Poe theme, or even think about Dead Man’s Point near Gotham Harbor, where a few pubs and other secluded locations might make for a certain meeting point among deviants. For the Scarecrow, it was a sense of professional courtesy. It meant he was allowing Edward to take time out of his very busy night of doing whatever he did to set up his riddle clues in order to give him a time and place at his convenience.
After that, it was a simple matter of biding his time.
One of the many benefits to living in a large mansion, was that it was incredibly easy to sneak out of. All Charlie had to do was suit up, open up his overly large window, and climb on down to the ground. As he quickly made his way to the street, he mentally thanked his mother for being such a kickass inventor, and also for not noticing all the stuff he'd stolen in the past two months.
But gratitude aside, tonight was a big night. Tonight, Charlie had decided that it was time to take on something bigger than a common street thug. Beating up a mugger was too easy for him. There was no challenge. No, tonight, he went for some of the remnants of the Joker's men. He knew there'd be some still hanging around the abandoned amusement park, causing trouble for anyone who wandered on by.
The fastest way from the nicer side of Gotham to the considerably shittier side where the amusement park was located, was via rooftop. Unfortunately, Charlie had yet to perfect anything capable of getting him up to a rooftop, and so he was forced to move as quickly as possible to get to the amusement park. All in all however, it still took him fourty five minutes, traveling through ally ways and under broken street lights. He really needed to get that grappling hook working.
Charlie took a moment to stand and look up at the amusement park as he arrived. The now decrepit ferris wheel, the buildings that were now crumbling to pieces. He could hear the echoing laughs of the Joker's former thugs from where he stood. Taking a deep breath, he entered through the front entrance of the amusement park, his head swiveling each and every way. Suddenly, this wasn't such a great idea. These were murderers. People who'd have no qualms about killing him.
But then it was too late. Four men, dressed up in crude clown suits rounded a corner and laid eyes on him. "Well well, what do we have here? One of Batman's little bitches? I haven't seen you before," one of the men said, twirling a baseball bat in his hand. Charlie looked up at the men. "You know, that kind of generalization is offensive to say the least? Just cause I wear dark clothes and run around at night, that means I'm with Batman?" While the men pondered his words, Charlie rushed.
The men weren't caught as off guard as he'd have liked, and he was forced to duck under a rapidly approaching baseball bat. He drove his shoulder into the attacker's gut, driving him back. He jumped back, spinning away from punch that would've knocked him out, before lashing out with a kick of his own, aimed at one of the clown's knees. He fell to the ground, screeching. One down, three to go
The other three men came at him all at once, forcing him to roll back and out of the way. When he got back up he was greeted with a solid punch to the gut. His clothes absorbed the worst of it, but he still wasn't a big fan. His own punch however, aimed at one of the men's face, sent him reeling. Hardened leather knuckles really packed a punch. The other two snarled at him and he grinned. "Not very liberal with the insults now are you guys? Come on, cat got your tongue? he asked, before striking out with front kick that sent the clown on the left to the floor. He turned to the last one. "Tell you what. I'm going to leave you alone. Let you tell your friends what I-" his taunt was cut off as the man charged, screaming. Charlie simply stepped out of the way and sent an elbow straight to the back of his head. He crumpled and remained on the ground.
A grin spread across his face. That had been fun. You know, most kids really don't spend their nights beating up thugs. Granted, I guess I'm not most kids. I guess most kids also don't have conversations with themselves while dressed up in a crime fighting suit. Guess I'm just special He stepped over the men and began relieving them of any weapons they might have, which wasn't a lot. Guess they'd really downgraded since the Joker's death. Pity. He'd been looking for a challenge.
Three days of constant vigilance. Three days of non-stop fighting against what seemed like every mugger, miscreant and madman in existence. Three days as Gotham's only real protector.
Three days without his father.
True, once that would hardly have registered to Damian in the least. He'd spent nine years with no knowledge of his father at all besides occasional stories from his mother often told in between rounds of vicious combat training that had passed for bonding between them. From those he had come to Gotham expecting a living legend, a stern shadow that haunted the night striking fear into the hearts of the wicked, a peerless warrior who was always more myth than man.
The truth had been considerably more complex. Still Damian had fought and struggled to understand his father's world, to become part of it. Even after two years he was still unsure of his place in it, but he had come to accept that what they did was necessary or even vital to the survival of Gotham, maybe to the survival of the world itself. The world needed Batman and Batman needed Robin. Now that Batman was missing it stood to reason that the world would need Robin at least twice as much. So he had been fighting without sleeping and barely eating for just about three days, doing what he could to keep control of Gotham's streets by himself. Only the League of Assassin's training kept him on his feet at this point, but Damian was holding the city together. at least that was what he told himself he was doing. If each punch he threw and each criminal he took off the streets also happened to distract him from a certain level of gnawing anxiety and even...concern(?) over his father's disappearance, well Damian was hardly about to acknowledge it.
After all, he was Damian Wayne, Son of the Bat, Grandson of the Demon! He needed no one and absolutely didn't miss his father and he certainly wasn't worried about him. Such concerns were beneath him, it was only the future stability of Gotham he was concerned for and even then he was more than capable of keeping the city stable by himself. So when Pennyworth initiated the Empty Nest he took it in with the casual indifference that he used for most situations. If he didn't complain about needlessly calling in the others when he already had things handled like he normally would, well it was clearly because he had more important things to worry about. Like rumors that there was a fake Robin in his city! A girl Robin at that! Just because he'd been too busy keeping the city together to deal with it himself didn't mean he would stand for such an outrageous insult to the mantle that he'd earned!
The others returning gave Damian the perfect opening to go deal with the copycat Robin and skip out on having to play nice and socialize with whoever Protocol Swarm dragged in from the shadows. So by the time Grayson had arrived Damian had already gotten suited up and ready to head out to find his unwelcome copycat.
He gave Grayson a brief nod of acknowledgement as he passed toward one of the many hidden exits. "Grayson. If nothing else the first to arrive is one of the least incompetent. I'm sure you'll call for me when I'm inevitably needed to rescue you but I've no time for your usual inane banter. Now you're here, there's a personal matter I need to go deal with." Violently his tone and posture implied, though with Damian it hardly needed implying.
No, with Damian violence was almost always a matter of course.
Streets of Gotham
It hadn't taken long to pick up her trail. The would-be Girl Wonder moved and fought through the city with all the stealth of an exploding fireworks factory. Decent for a complete amateur, Damian would concede that much. For one thing she hadn't managed to get herself killed. Yet. But everything about her was an insult to him. Her combat technique was sloppy and unrefined, her quips were ill-timed and left her prone to distraction and then there was the costume! Even on the occasions when he'd sneaked out in a modified version of one of Drake's old outfits it had been less of a disgrace than that abomination to the R this girl was wearing.
So he took his opportunity, dropped down as silently as only a boy raised his whole life among assassins and The Batman could into the shadows of an alley behind her and announced himself with the purposefully audible hiss of his sword being partially drawn from its' scabbard. Damian was extremely fond of the sword, even if he'd had to dig it up from where he'd buried it outside the cave and sneak it on during his patrols these last few nights. It had belonged to Grandfather and was allegedly made of true Damascus steel, certainly seemed sharp and durable enough to be true and possessed of the correct patterning. In any case he followed it up with his best imitation of his father's scowl, the one that occasionally made criminals surrender all on its' own. He was about to teach this insolent girl what a real Robin was like.
"Take off that disgusting mockery of a Halloween costume before I cut if off you myself! Then go home and stay off of my streets!"
Talia al Ghul | The Demon's Head | Assassin "You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it."
Neon lights flickered overhead, streetlamps reflected dimly against wet pavement, the familiar wail of sirens screamed in the distance, a trio of prostitutes chattered amongst themselves outside of a nearby corner store. One could argue that Gotham City became more colorful and made more noise when darkness fell than it ever achieved during daylight hours. Harvey Bullock shuffled through the streets, ignoring the cautious and knowing glances of the hookers and puffing away on the cigarette in his hand. Up ahead the dimly lit sign of the bar beckoned. The stocky fellow stopped only long enough to drop and stamp out the spent cigarette butt, when a car pulled up alongside him. It was a luxury town car, pitch black, similar to those he'd seen the mafia headmen traipsing about in. He tensed, wondering if he was being pegged for a less graceful exit than Jim Gordon had been granted, while simultaneously weighing the chances of an impending bribe from whichever don occupied the car.
Harvey didn't move, staring blankly at his reflection in the tinted window. Finally, after what seemed like eons, the window eased down with a mechanical whir. To his surprise he wasn't greeted by a familiar face, or any face at all. Inside the vehicle was dark and the light from the streetlamp overhead only shone in enough for Harvey to lay eyes upon a pair of tawny, shapely legs clad in a fitted pencil skirt. The woman sat on the far side of the vehicle behind the chauffeur, but her face was indiscernible in the darkness.
When she spoke her voice was carefully measured and richly accented, "Get in. I won't ask a second time."
Despite popular opinion, Harvey wasn't a complete idiot and he had enough common sense to glean that whoever this woman was he wanted nothing to do with her. At least, not if there wasn't something in it for him, and if she was offering anything she'd have said so upfront. It was his experience that anyone that was on the streets in this area of town at this hour was usually up to no good. He braced a hand on the roof of the car and bent down, "Sorry lady, whatever you're sellin' I ain't interested." With that he straightened himself and turned to continue toward the bar, only to be swiftly halted by a towering man stepping into his path. The man was clad in all black military-grade fatigues with a full face mask and tactical vest. Harvey didn't have to assess him to read that he was carrying weapons on his person. A lot of them.
Behind him the woman's voice chimed nonchalantly, "Alternatively, my companion would be all too happy to....coerce you." When Harvey didn't immediately comply she pressed on, "I promise, I intend you no harm. A moment of your time is all I require, Detective."
Bullock frowned, his eyes narrowing on the imposing thug in front of him. After a moment of further hesitation he muttered bitterly to himself and turned back around, opening the car door and taking a seat beside the mysterious woman who seemed so oddly insistent on speaking to him. The moment the door shut behind him the car lurched forward and Harvey felt momentary panic, suddenly positive he had just signed his death certificate. He turned to the woman sitting an arm's length from him, attempting to memorize or place her face in the limited and infrequent streams of light that passed overhead as the car moved along the road.
Talia did not immediately acknowledge the detective, allowing him a moment to weigh the situation and realize that his full cooperation was in his own best interest. Bullock was by no means the sharpest blade in the armory, but he was at least wise enough to know that he could not gain the upper hand in this situation and his freedom was currently at her discretion. The proviso, of course, being that that he divulge the information she requested of him.
Unsurprisingly, the detective's impatience and trepidation getting the better of him, as he did not wait for her to breach the subject of their meeting, "Alright, what's the deal, what's a broad like you want from me?"
Talia's posture changed only slightly, her shoulders rotating back but a fraction, her chin lifting in the faintest manner. And yet somehow her displeasure was conveyed so clearly that she could feel his disquiet at the prospect of having inadvertently angered her. The silence that followed his blunt words was heavy, intentional, and she sensed he could feel the ire in her expression despite that he could not see it. The quiet didn't stretch for long, however, and her response was quickly forthcoming and rather to the point, "You worked alongside James Gordon during his time as the Commissioner." It was a statement, not a question or an answer to his inquiry, "Tell me, what were the conditions of his retirement?" Before Harvey could recite his practiced refutal of having any knowledge on the matter she continued, "Don't bother lying to me, Detective Bullock. I know the company you keep and I am already aware of the gossip of Gordon being forced out. I simply need further information from a source more....closely related to the subject at hand."
There was a warning so subtle but distinct in her voice. A threat that easily could have been missed by anyone that didn't run in circles with dangerous thugs on a daily basis. Fortunately for Talia, Harvey caught on to her implication, and if he was a detective at all worth his salt then he could easily determine that she wasn't the type to make idle threats. Peripherally she noted his body language, telegraphing his discomfort as he rubbed at his face with his right hand, glanced out the car window to take note of the streets they were passing and turns that were being made, attempting to gauge where they were going and undoubtedly wondering if his life was truly in peril.
When he finally replied it was with obvious unease in his voice, "There's some chatter. All speculation, really, but some folks are insisting Gordon's retirement wasn't....kosher. The idea is that if it was just Gordon stepping out then it wouldn't be anything strange, but both his Chief of Police and the Captain of the MCU also stepped down and it's caused all manner of racket in the department. No one will say it out loud but anyone who cares thinks the sudden regime change was an executive order from the higher ups. Some even go so far as to pin it on Gotham's shiny new Mayor. Right now Burrows is acting Commissioner, but no one is expecting that to last long."
Another moment of silence, wherein Talia processed the information he had given. She found herself questioning if Batman's disappearance and Gordon's forced retirement had any connection. She already knew that the Court of Owls had more than a little to do with Bruce's disappearance and she had her assets combing through Gotham's city records for clues regarding the Court's base of operations. Political manipulation was directly within the Court's wheelhouse, so to speak, and if they were once again attempting to retake the city they considered theirs then removing threats to their control would be among the first steps in their plan. That would entail Batman and Gordon, and likely anyone who followed their ideals. Gordon's regime of non-corrupt officials made it difficult for the old money bureaucrats to bend the city to their will, and the presence of the Batman and his affiliates had a habit of inspiring a desire for justice among the city's occupants.
Talia paused her train of thought to muse over at a later time, confident she had obtained enough information on the subject to pursue the matter when time was of less importance. When she spoke again she shifted the gears of the conversation, "It's my understanding that Batman has been distinctly....absent for some time, and I know this city well enough to determine that hasn't gone without notice or consequence."
She didn't state a question, in the most literal sense, but Bullock read her meaning easily enough, "Some of the Bat's whack jobs have been taking advantage of the situation, especially with the Clown's death. Gangs and mobsters have been getting ballsy and moving in again. Curious thing though, there's been an uptick in vigilanteism, mostly youngin's running around playing hero. One of 'em is even claiming she's Robin."
Green eyes narrowed, one dark brow arching inquisitively as the detective's use of pronouns caught her attention. She spoke one word, "She?"
Bullock nodded, "Yeah. She. Pretty young, not as young as the other one though, the boy. Not as good, either. Hell, I don't even know, I can't keep track of 'em anymore. We got footage of her on quite a few video feeds, she's not nearly as...covert as the others."
"Interesting." was her only response. The prospect of fledgling vigilantes taking to Gotham's streets was certainly nothing new, but Bullock's comment on this "Robin" and her lack of stealth told Talia all she needed to know. And just what did Damian have to say about this "Robin" imposter? Whoever this girl was, she was lucky Batman wasn't around, as he was not fond of inexperienced children taking it upon themselves to join his crusade. However, that didn't go to say the actual Robin wouldn't step in and set the naïve girl straight.
As the town car rounded another corner she noticed Bullock straighten, recognition alight on his face as he laid eyes upon the same street corner he'd been picked up from. Anxiously he glanced back at her, disbelief in his tone, "So we're done here, that's all you wanted?"
"For now." She extended a card to him, it was black with a matte finish and held no other information besides a number in raised lettering, also in black.
He looked caught off guard, as if expecting her to draw a weapon on him instead. When he looked at the card, however, he seemed angered. Perhaps he was emboldened by the naïve assumption that he was out of the woods, because the words he spoke then seemed void of the cautious respect he'd employed for most of the car ride, "Listen lady, I don't know who you are but I got my own allegiances to look out for, with people who don't nab me off the streets against my will. I'm not interested in being your lackey, got it, sweet cheeks?"
Before Bullock could utter another word there was a sudden blur of motion and he found himself gasping for air, clutching at his throat as it suddenly felt like a noose was around his neck. There was nothing around his throat though, and it wasn't caused by his necktie either. He shot a desperate glare across the cabin of the car at the woman, who looked as though she hadn't even moved an inch. Despite that he was struggling to breathe he managed to eek out a smattering of words, "...You promised....no....harm...."
Talia turned her head toward him, her reply concise and chilled, "Promises are fickle things, and should never be taken at face value. You disrespected me, and you would do well to remember that doing so nullifies any guarantee of safety." Bullock's gasps were becoming louder with each breath as he panicked, "Calm yourself, Detective. The more you struggle the longer you'll suffer. It's only a temporary blockage of your trachea caused by inflammation, trying to talk simply makes it worse. You'll survive, though you won't be able to speak properly for several days. Instead, why don't you attempt to listen carefully to what I am telling you: You will take this information and use it to contact me if you happen upon any further information regarding Gordon's forced retirement. If you cooperate then you have nothing to worry about, but do trust me when I say that I have eyes all over Gotham and avoiding me will only cause you more trouble than it's worth."
The car eased to a halt in the exact place the detective had been picked up. Bullock's vision was fading, blurred and dark at the edges, and as he blindly scrambled for the latch of the door it suddenly opened from the outside. The fatigue-clad leviathan from moments before reached in to seize hold of Bullock by the back of his collar and yank him out of the vehicle. Still disoriented, Harvey rolled out onto the sidewalk, gasping and heaving. The brute stepped over him and into the car, and Harvey struggled to watch as the car drove off, his vision too hazy to clearly make out the license plate. It took another several minutes on his hands and knees on the sidewalk for the detective to find a proper way to breathe that was only somewhat less painful, and only when his vision began to clear and his eyes stopped watering was he able to make out the crisp black card laying on the sidewalk in front of him.
She couldn't hear anything, and she was thankful for it. The bass booming with the beat of the hip-hop song that trailed slow and low in the background so loud it took all but yelling right next to someone to hear them. Her mood was dark, her mind distant from the shadowy room around her alive with neon and laser light glowing from the dance floor, not but dim mood lighting in the opposite of the room as the dance floor. The part of the room that was private booths that were kept dark for various reasons.
Helena's only reason was the desire for a few moments alone to think. To ponder, to allow her mind to drift in ways she barely got the chance for. She wasn't fool enough to think that she was completely safe in the private wing of a strip club; even a very nice strip club, even with killers around her just waiting for someone to come too close in her direction before stopping them with a quick, authoritative, "Hold up." Guiseppe Bertinelli, her last remaining cousin, sat across from her in the booth. A few years older than she, raised in Gotham City, well liked but unable to out run his last name.
Geppe, they called him, and so now did she: when she first approached Geppe she wasn't able to finish speaking before he was signing up for it. His dream was to bring the Bertinelli name back in an "old school" approach to the Mob; the mafia with at least the pretense of honor. A community first approach that brought the Don back into the streets and into the lives of the people struggling to get by on those streets. To be the type of family that Ciro Bertinelli, her father, had set the standard for. It was a beautiful thought. Ciro Bertinelli was respected, he was feared, and he was loved by the people in his neighborhoods.
And he was dead.
Nearly that entire honorable family had been slaughtered in cold blood, betrayed to enemies by friends and even members of their own family. But the crime family endured, going underground for decades to protect wives and children. Juliano Bello, known as Bells (or some derivitive thereof), was the son of a former Bertinelli Capo. Geppe's bestfriend since birth, a young man that had a street education that could put many academics to shame. Someone that endeared himself to Helena the moment he insisted she be Don Bertinelli--fuck what the old men say about it. (Old men Helena still had to court, anyway.)
It was an inner circle smaller than a period, the only one not with them was Lupo. Lupo was new to Geppe and Bells, someone Helena had known since she was a girl new to the old country. And the only soul in her world that knew what Helena really did when the moon came out. Where Geppe and Bells were relatively new to the dangerous life, she and Lupo had been brought up in it, raised for it, by the Damned. The other two had been brought in as much as Helena could allow; Bells a consigliere of sorts, Geppe her second in command.
Lupo's position in the organization was less formal, but had been summed up nicely by a new nickname for him circulating through the soldiers and associates: Vader. As in, the Darth Vader to her Emperor. She liked it, even if she could tell it irritated Lupo for some reason. A thought Helena took more joy out of it than she'd ever let on to Lupo, himself, her precious mental wanderings disturbed by the light of a smartphone screen that disturbed her like a pissant demanding her attention--Geppe's phone that he slid across the booth's table for her to read.
Alphonse Sisca assassinated. Witnesses say "with regards from the Bertinelli family."
Helena frowned, and slid the phone back across the table to Geppe with ease, her brown eyes firing over the private area of the strip club like one of the laser lights; darting here, there, then over there, then back across, and all the way back again, putting eyes on everything and everyone. They were all Bertinelli people. Joe Tisci, a soldier one day worth promoting to Capo, was having a birthday party. He wanted Helena there, so long as strippers and strip clubs didn't offend her. It had made Geppe laugh out loud; Helena was a bigger womanizer than anyone in the Family, he said through laughter, leaving Helena no way to duck the invitation.
But that might have been Geppe's plan all along, and so Helena found herself fitting the bill for the strip club's private wing, it's best strippers, and cases of champagne. The inner circle didn't allow groupies, except for bodyguards, yet Helena still had Bells get the name and number of a buxom red haired stripper--just to have fun and play along. And, maybe, a little bit for later. The woman did have pretty, pretty, eyes...
"Get everyone out of here once we leave, Bells," she shouted, Bells' confused look making Helena unsure whether or not he even heard her. Until he answered her, at least.
"What's wrong?" Geppe showed him the text, but it didn't seem to be enough for him. "You really think that's gonna send bullets in a birthday party? Even the Vitis didn't even like Sisca. And half the guys here are on some mix of Tfour and Addy."
Sisca was a member of the Viti Crime Family, all that remained of the once overpowering Falcone Crime Family. The Vitis weren't the same domineering presence as the Falcones had been, but they were the largest Italian mafia family left in Gotham City because of the Batman, and more importantly, his rogues. It wasn't Batman that killed the mob in Gotham, it was his rogues. It was Two-Face, and Penguin, and Black Mask, and on and on. What was left was taken over by them, except for beach heads of tradition such as the Vitis.
She didn't want to destroy the Vitis, because then she'd have a much smaller foothold against the other crime lords in the city. Open war between Viti and Bertinelli was bad for all the organized crime not belonging to rogues in Gotham City--not just Italians. It meant the only option was finding out who framed her family, and finding out before a full scale war could truly break out.
In the end, after her silence, Helena just shrugged and took another shot of vodka. "We can't afford to be wrong with this many Bertinelli men in one location. Right bomb in the right place...or a few men with body armor and LMGs...or--"
Bells put his hand up, palm out, and yelled back at her. Fear in his eyes as they started to dart around the room, too. "I'm convinced. I'll make it happen, Don, don't worry about it. You two just be safe."
Without even being told, Bells knew Geppe and she needed to leave. And they did; down stairs and out a back door with the armored Cadillac Escalade ESV. Geppe got in, Helena did not. "You can handle the angry phone calls?"
Geppe stared, knowing what the question meant: that she wasn't getting into the car. That she was heading to the house. Finally he smiled at her, confident, if subdued. "I got you, Lena. I'll set up a meeting, we'll work this out. Say hi to the House for me." It made her feel a little better as she closed the door and watched him roll off--Helena Bertinelli could turn on the charm whenever, whereever, needed. But it didn't come naturally to her like it did to Geppe. People liked Geppe; he kept the remnants of their family in Gotham City together until she moved back for good. At first the city, and her own family, didn't like it. Some openly wondered if she could handle it, let alone being a woman in a man's game.
Then it got around (thanks to Bells) that Helena Bertinelli was groomed by Giovanni the Damned, the maker of more beautiful cadavers than any other member of the Sicilian cosa nostra in it's history, if stories were to be believed. And in Sicily, she enjoyed overwhelming support from the family in the old country, something Geppe made known to everyone who came asking. But success and wealth won Helena Bertinelli any respect in Gotham, and in America, she currently had. Geppe was the frontman, the figurehead.
But everyone in the city who knew anything knew who the boss was. The steel gray Ferrari F12 was brought up to the curb for her, a car fast enough to let her get over the bridge and out of the city quickly. She mostly did the speed limit in the city, until she got past the bridge and into Bristol--then once into Gotham Heights she let her speed go unchecked. It's not like a speeding half a million dollar car in the same neighborhood as Wayne Manor would stand out, but Helena even sped past the Bertinelli estate she was rebuilding, and kept going up the hill, up and up until she was the gate to Wayne Manor itself.
A quick park, a quicker dash into it, the door unlocked for her following verification from the Batsystem. She stepped into the cave wearing a light blue sleeveless silk blouse that loose, and black paneled lambskin trousers that fit to her legs tight as the blouse was loose. Her boots were heeled, black, Italian leather with a royal purple outersole and heel, dark hair long with the occasional curl down just past her shoulders. Still probably smelling like a strip club.
Helena took a few minutes with the Batcomputer, a few custom keystrokes and password overrides, then a minute of reading, before the side screens she occupied went dark. She saw Dick come in, silently nodded a greeting to Alfred, and managed to do no more than smirk at Damian's disappearance--a smirk that made her lean into Alfred, and whisper, "Twenty says he's going to see Talia, instead of dealing with the little bird."
Little bird, Helena said, referring to this new "Robin."
When Dick shouted out, Helena answered, "He's up here at the computer," before turning back to Alfred, "Apparently I ordered a hit on Alphonse Sisca. The system had a few leads on the killer, so I'll have Don Bertinelli's folks bring the killer him and question him--I can't tell if this is Two-Face or Black Mask looking to frame the Bertinellis for killing a Viti to start a mob war, or if it's some other yet unknown faction. I don't think it's tied to Bruce, unlike that."
Helena said, nodding her head upwards, motioning to the map of Gotham City on one of the many screens looming before the Butler. To the island titled Nykawa Center. "Bruce goes dark and suddenly the League shows up?...what the absolute fuck? They're making organized crime folk real nervous. More nervous than the idea of this Cave makes them." She said 'idea of this cave' because no Mafioso really thought it existed, let alone had seen it.......except for her.
"Speaking of which," the next part she threw out carefully, or as carefully as she could, "I called Barry, who talked to both Kal and Di, and the Justice League doesn't know where Bruce is. They haven't heard from or seen him since the Grodd incident a month ago. I had to remind Barry how much Batman dislikes metahumans in this city to keep the League from showing up to help us find him. And nothing from the Mafia world--there was one guy who belongs to what remains of the Maroni clan that was talking up a storm about killing Batman, but unless Bruce suddenly got slow, stupid, and clumsy than this guy is lying. Nobody else even claiming to know anything. A lot of people that know people that know people that heard things, maybe, but that's it. Fair to say the underworld has no idea where he is, or what happened to him, either."
In her tone, one thing became apparent: Helena wasn't worried. In her mind this was the Batman, and Helena knew he'd show back up eventually. He always did.
Donny walked out of the UPS with his package, and into the Starbucks next door. He stood in line. In front of him was a fat guy with glasses. Donny smiled noncommittally at the back of the man's neck, staring hard to make Lardo nervous. The fat guy edged from foot to foot, peeking behind out of the corner of his eye. Donny winked. Fatty winced and turned his eyes back to the pretty girl behind the register.
"One triple extra large caramel machiato with a double chocolate pump. Oh, and three croissants. And three blueberry scones please."
With a smile the girl took fatty's dough and relayed his coffee order to her companions, whilst she retrieved the food items from their little tanning beds. As fatty walked past Donny, the ginger let a few choice words slip into the fellow's pudgy right ear. Just loudly enough that others nearby could hear too.
"Yuh gawn eatchyasuhlf intah yuh early grahvvv withuh foke n' spoon boy. Think Atkins."
Fatty's face turned red as he hurried out the door. The cashier glared at the rudeness. Donny stepped up to the register and pulled off his fedora, giving the cashier his best perv grin.
"Medium ruhst, black uhs night, m'kay girl?"
The girl rung up his order for a simple black coffee and extended her hand for payment. Donny placed his debit card down on the counter, ignoring her hand. She fruitlessly tried to pick it up off the flat surface for a moment before sliding it to the edge of the counter.
"Would you like cash back Sir?"
At this, Donny leaned back on his heels, stroking his chin in thought. Behind him, several other customers grumbled impatiently. After fifteen seconds Donny leaned forwards again, nodding.
"Ayuh, twentuh bucks."
The girl removed a crisp twenty and closed the register, offering it to Donny.
"Cannuh get thahut in ones, missus?"
The line behind him was piling up. The cashier hastily reopened the register and sorted out the bills, running out of ones in the process. The last dollar had to be given in quarters. Donny accepted with no complaint, though the cashier by now seemed pretty pissed. After taking another half minute to slowly shuffle the bills into his wallet, Donny paced out of the way to wait for his beverage.
He walked out of the Starbucks and crossed the street to his white minivan. It was parked next to a fire hydrant. He cruised casually through red lights. He did not use his blinkers. With that faint poetic smirk, he gave the finger to whomever blared their horns. The only time he eased up was when cops were around. He had a police radio. They didn't know that. He pulled up in front of a gas station seven minutes later, parked up on the curb, and returned with two packs of unfiltered Camel soft packs and a Zippo. He'd need cigarettes tonight. That, and the high powered x800 ShadowHawk flashlight he had received from Amazon.
Gotham Park, 11:00 P.M
"C'mon Turk, where's the shit?"
"I dunno man, I dunno! I swear to fuckin' God I dunno!"
"You'll be bleedin' out the ass if you don't tell us where the shit is, you weasel fuck."
Hank pulled out a bowie knife, and held it beneath Turk's chin. With him was his partner Lensman, who had a 9mm holstered in his pants. Drug dealers. Turk lay at their feet, shivering with pain. Three teeth were gone, his left arm was broken, and his eyes were swollen shut. The three men were huddled beneath an oak, out of the light from any lampposts. Turk, being the dumbass that he was, had gone and blown the stash. Hank and Lensman hauled him to his feet, and began shuffling him towards a dark patch of bushes. Good place to hide a body for the night. Lensman almost missed the sight of the watcher. A figure wearing a dark overcoat and fedora, leaning easily against another oak twenty feet away. Lensman immediately dropped Turk and took two steps towards the figure, reaching for his piece. Donny looked up, an unlit cigarette crooked between his lips. Lensman stopped short, hand hovering over his pistol. Hank stood quietly beside the fallen Turk, eyes wide. He hadn't brought a gun. Donny shifted his weight off the tree, withdrawing a Zippo lighter from his pocket. Lensman stiffened, extending his empty left hand as if to ward off the ginger.
"Easy there Donny, easy there... We ain't got shit with you. What's between you and Larry don't concern us."
Donny flicked open the Zippo, his creamy features illuminated from below by the wavering orange glow. He lit his cigarette, and two gouts of smoke streamed from his nostrils as he spoke.
"Ayuh, but a man's gawtuh have himsuhlf prince'a'paawls. Larruh skipp'd out awnuh ownin' up fuh loosuhn at thuh races, an' seein' as he's dead n' all, thuh best men inherruht thuh damage."
There would be no compromise. Not because Lensman and Hank didn't have the money. Donny didn't run the races because he liked to collect money. He did it because he only wanted an excuse. A bright light flooded into Lensman's eyes, and suddenly all he could see was a glaring white tunnel. That was one fucking bright flashlight. His palm slapped down onto the grip of his gun. At the same time a noise like thunder rocked the park. Lensman's head opened up like a broken egg and he crumpled, white and red leaking from where his face had been. Hank figured the white stuff was brains. The flashlight clicked off and Hank stepped back, aghast. In Donny's right hand was the biggest gun he had ever seen outside of the movies. He opened his mouth to make an excuse, and another report shook the park as his jaw vanished into a rainbow mist of gore, and the back of his neck was reduced to a bone-flecked soup. Turk rolled and scrambled sightlessly, yelling as his broken arm failed to support his weight, sure that he would be next. He was not mistaken. He wasn't a loose end, and Donny had never seen him before. But damned if he wasn't right there in plain sight, and Mr. Booth's trigger finger was itching something fierce. Turk took one in the back and he contorted against the damp grass, mouth agape in a silent yawn of mortal agony. A second later both eyes and the bridge of his nose exploded into the turf, which in turn erupted with a splurt of black dirt as the bullet passed through his skull and buried itself four feet into the ground.
The van rocked on its wheels as Donny lunged through the open door and into the driver's seat, black shoe slamming the accelerator to the floor. With a gun that loud, you had to make tracks fast. As he sped along through the city, Donny contemplated how business was going. Not too well. He had less than nine grand left, and most of that would eventually be funneled into sustaining his penthouse suite. Living high isn't cheap, and neither is living dangerously. Donny slowed to a stop outside of a dark warehouse in the city dregs, and flicked the butt of his cigarette out the window. He needed a new employer, one with a strong reputation and plenty of odd jobs to dole out. Donny slid out from his vehicle and leaned up against the side of the warehouse. He'd go home in the early hours. He was still too jazzed from the shooting to be tired. Perhaps he'd just bide his time here for a little bit. Enjoy the evening breeze, the distant city lights. Revel in the fresh memory of those white brains soaking into the ground. Was this too edgy? Donny thought so. Time to loosen up. He pulled off his pants, shirt, and jacket. Beneath his usual garb he had on a light blue tank top and a pair of orange dolphin shorts.
Donny began warming up with some squats, his horribly pale legs plain for all to see. A look of studious concentration permeated his pasty puss.
Slam Bradley rode shotgun in the unmarked car. Captain Grogan sped through the city at "fuck traffic laws I'm a cop" speed. Slam smoked and saw the sights. Open-air drug markets. Fiends scuttling across streets like cockroaches. Hookers peddled their stuff by the curb. Corner boys trading blowjobs for blow. Slam cracked the window, blew smoke.
Slam smiled. He felt alive. He felt jazzed. Grogan's squad worked the streets. They ran the streets. They were the landlords out here, and everybody paid their rent or they got hit. Two-Gun Jack was a hick from somewhere out west, Oklahoma or Texas or something, and he had that southern twang prairie accent. The hump wore two six-shooters on both hips, the hump wore shit-kicker boots and a white stetson with a goddamn bolo tie. He chewed tobacco and thought he was Jonah Hex reincarnated. He looked like a clown on the surface. Beneath it, he was all killer.
Grogan spat tobacco juice in a coffee cup. He wiped his mouth and said, "Samuel, how you been liking these past six months?"
Slam beamed. "Fantastic. Anything to get me out of Gotham Central and Vice."
Vice straight bored him. It was either hooker rousts or gambling busts. He was too well known around Gotham to work undercover. Vice required him to roust prosties and break bookies. It was straight shit-work. His brain was wired for the street. He needed to be out here in the thick of it. This was his element. Grogan picked him because he was big and intimidating. The captain promised muscle work and he made good on the promise. Anybody he wanted worked over Slam worked. Fist work, brass knucks work, rubber hose work, followed by dental and surgical work.
Slam flicked his cigarette out a window. The butt hit a passing wino in the forehead. The wino flipped it away and shook his fist at the car. Slam laughed. Gorgan roared.
The GCPD car rolled through Chinatown. They met up with Detectives Tommy Burke and Mal Harris. They piled back into the car. Slam drove and Grogan rode shotgun. Burke and Harris sat in the back. They were headed to a Tong summit to act as muscle. One Tong family swore vengeance on another Tong family. A Chinatown war loomed on the horizon. It defied Grogan's mandate for the mobster squad. They kept the peace at all costs.
The convoy pulled up to a fish factory. They got out with pump-action shotguns and automatic pistols. Slam had his big .45 in his hand. Grogan wore two six-shooters on his belt. Grogan stuck a plug of tobacco in his mouth and strutted into the factory with a bullhorn in his hands. The factory floor: Wall to wall to Chinese men yelling in their heathen language. Six Nation Tong on one side in red, the Yellow Dragon Tong on one side in yellow. They jabbered at each other, flashed knives and guns and threatened to go to war right then and there.
Two-Gun Jack held the bullhorn to his mouth. His voice amplified across the din. The bullhorn made it screech weird. Grogan's voice sounded inhuman. Slam realized he was speaking Chinese. The Okie fuck gave the Tongs the spiel in fluent Mandarin. The speech: Calm down right now or we will send in the riot squad and bash all your heathen brains in.
The panic subsided. Grogan grinned. He motioned the rest of the squad to flank out. They covered exits and corners with their guns. Grogan and Slam walked towards a card table in the middle of the mob. Fat Ricky Fat of the Six Nation sat on an opposite side from Hau Song and the Yellow Dragons. A third chair for Grogan sat between them. Two-Gun Jack sprawled into the chair. Slam stood behind him as muscle. Hundreds of eyes fell on Slam. He winked en masse to the crowd.
The negotiations began. The two old men spoke through Grogan. They talked to him and he talked to the other. All eyes fell on the negotiations. No noise from the crowd. You could hear a pin drop. Ricky Fat said something in his gobbledygook. He pounded the card table. A buzz filtered through the crowd. Ricky Fat made the throat slash sign.
Hau Song shook his head and rattled off gibberish. Grogan held both hands up. He talked, talked, talked in their tongue. He pointed to both men. He expounded on some theory that made both men's heads nod. He finished. They both agreed. The crowd clapped. Wolf-whistles broke out.
Grogan got up smiling. He pulled Slam close. Slam could smell his tobacco breath as he whispered in his ear. "I give you peace. Peace for our time, son. Go find Burke. We've got some more work to do."
Burke drove and Slam rode shotgun. Grogan and the head of Six Nation Tong sat in the back. Fat Ricky Fat spoke in Chinese to Grogan, Grogan gave it right back. They laughed. Slam looked in the rearview mirror. He saw a pistol and hatchet in Ricky Fat's lap.
Grogan switched to English. He said, "GCPD caught a dead body two days ago. A Chinese girl stabbed to death in a Chinatown motel room. The victim was Ricky Fat's niece. Her murderer is Yellow Dragon. Some punk she was fucking is the fiend. He saw her with some Six Nation boys and got jealous and stabbed her sixteen times. A real Romeo and Juliet story. I learned all this at our summit just a few moments earlier. Knowing Homicide like I do, they will give the killing a cursory investigation and drop it. If it's not white, they don't care. This degenerate who killed Ricky Fat's niece has tarnished his family honor. Old world customs dictate that he must regain that honor with vigorous bloodletting."
Slam saw the hatchet blade glint in the sparse light. Ricky Fat held it up swung it around the backseat gracefully. Grogan laughed. Grogan said, "To advert full on war, Yellow Dragon has agreed that this heinous crime must be avenged. Take a left here, Thomas."
Burke pulled up to an apartment. They got out. Slam and Burke walked point, Grogan and Ricky Fat behind them. They hit the fourth floor. Apartment six. Slam had his .45 out, Burke gripped his nine mil. Grogan pulled his six-shooters. Ricky Fat had a hatchet in one hand, his pistol in the other.
Grogan said, "Go!"
Burke kicked the door. Once, twice, three times. It snapped on the third kick. It fell to the floor. They walked over it. They walked in on five Chinese junkies geezing up on Big H. Slam and Burke aimed at the same man. They blew holes through his chest. Two-Gun Jack opened fire with both six-shooters. He turned two men into swiss cheese. Six shots a piece center mass. Ricky Fat charged the one man left alive. He screeched something in Chinese and hacked at the man with his hatchet. The man screamed and fell to the floor. Ricky Fat kept hacking. Grogan nodded, he spun his guns like a cowboy and holstered them. Burke went green. Slam holstered his piece. Grogan put a hand on his shoulder and lead him and Burke out.
"Let Ricky Fat have his fun. We need to talk since we have a moment."
Grogan spat tobacco on the floor and shook his head. He talked over Ricky Fat's screams/the killer's moans.
"Tonight's your last night working with me for some time, boys. I did what I could, but you both gotta pay something for that mess with the drug dealer from last month. Thomas, you're going to the Eastern District flexsquad to work drugs. Samuel, they're packing you to Homicide. It's supposed to be temporary. How long it'll last, we'll see."
More screaming inside. Choked and phlegm filled death rattle. Blood ran out the door and pooled at their shoes. Burke dry-heaved. Slam saw a severed eyeball float by.
Breathing had become a painful enterprise like few others before it. It hadn't stopped him, much less slowed him. More than anything it drove him, pushed him forward another step, another inch. How long had it been? How long had he been down in this hell created just for him? It was hard to know. Ask her. Armored knees scrapped against smooth milk-white marble, as he reached up for the edge of the pool, and began to pull himself up. For too long he stopped and stared at the surface of the pool's water. At the reflection of himself, one eyed bloody, cowl ripped in some places, cracked in others. The suit's micro-processors had gone out the first day; like the assassin knew exactly where to attack him to cripple the suit's eletronics.
Desperation made the impossible seem real. When his bloody eyes creeped up and off to the side, his lips started to move, a mutiny against his mind and his better senses. She wasn't real. Why would he ask her? It made the assassin and his masters snicker at him, to hear him speak to a ghost, to a spirit. Let them snicker. The first time he tried speaking, no words came, his throat pure fire, causing him to push his face closer to the water, to pool it in his gloved hands and drink. Drink carefully, because the water was poisoned.
She sighed. "...it's not poisoned, it's drugged. And you've been down here four days, now."
Cool relief flooded his throat with the cold water, laced with some drug designed for him. His hands pushed against the side of the pool, his body twisted just enough to allow his back to rest against the marble sides of the pool. To watch for the assassin to come again, and again, and again...the fists of the Batman coiled and shaking, without his even realizing it.
"You're. not. real."
There was a brief pause, the woman's voice displaying the smile he didn't bother to look up to see. "Am I not? My family would be very surprised to hear that. Some of them might even be rather happy to hear that. Although you really can't believe how many people tell me 'You're not real!' when they meet me. People have no problem accepting some of my siblings, but once they meet me, it's all mortality flashing before their eyes and the stages of grief."
A puddle of phlegm and blood and saliva smacked against the polished milky marble floor, spat from his mouth, his breathing labored but consistent, his mind going down the checklists for each drug, or poison, he knew--it was a lot of lists. "This isn't Denial..."
Finally, she sat upon the edge of the pool, crossing her legs, her pale hands resting upon her knee. "Oh, of course not. Why would I think it was with a statement like 'You aren't real'?"
His thoughts bled together, blurring lists, missing steps. His eyes closed, but only briefly, soon as he opened them once again he expected the assassin. But he wasn't there. Only the pale woman in black. How did they know? How did I miss it? He should have caught it. Even as a child, Bruce Wayne should have found the clues that revealed the Court--he'd been looking. And he gave up. Gave up on finding those responsible for his parent's death. Joe Chill was a pawn. How could any of them been so stupid to think that Thomas and Martha Wayne were randomly killed for a Rolex and pearls?
How could he have failed them all so badly? That night came to him endlessly. Every night in his dreams he defended his mother and father. As Batman, as a boy, as a giant bat--the dream differed in small ways every single time, all of them so endlessly real, yet as hapless and helpless as any dreamer upon waking up from a dream to find the nightmare of life again. "...I was supposed to help them...to change the city they loved..."
Her smile turned sad. "They loved you. There was nothing you could have done that night."
His focus pushed through the haze, past the fog of drugs riddling his mind with falsehoods and hallucinations. Focus fueled by anger, his hands gripping the edge of the pool in which the figure sat, squeezing as every muscle in his body worked as one to achieve being upon his own feet again. "How would you know?" His legs were still trembling from the task when her voice cut through all of it:
"Because I was there, Bruce. Think back, and you'll see me--just this once."
Think back? He thought of precious few other things, every single day. Crime Alley, the starless night sky above, the bitter cold of Gotham City winter, the menacing man with the look of a begger and the weapon of a killer--the gun. The pistol in his hand, his father darting in front of Bruce when the gun was pointed his way, his father's hands outstretched, his voice calm, his words reassuring to the criminal. There's no need, here's my wallet, here's my watch..."
Even now, Batman flinched at the echo in his mind.
His boyhood trousers wet as he sank to his knees in the snow covered pavement below, crying out, howling, as the blood began to pool...searching for the criminal, searching for help, his eyes looking this way and that and--Batman found his feet, coming to stand at full height upon the white marble floor, in the maze built to entrap, to murder. "...I saw you next to them. Next to me. You...you're..."
"...not here for you. So get moving, Bruce, you've got a long way to go."
When he turned to her, he found only empty space, and heard only the sound of fluttering wings.
Dick Grayson hung up his helmet as Damian Wayne addressed him in the child's usual superior and condescending tone. Other men would have been offended by a child talking back to them in such a manner. Dick was empathetic. There was no doubt in his mind that Damian was hurting more than most of them. He had only just begun getting to know his father, only for Bruce to up and vanish on them. Even if Bruce weren't the most emotionally available man, that couldn't be easy. Dick could understand Damian's pain because they were both missing their father. Instead of talking back or stopping the new, youngest Robin, Dick spoke to the boy in a reassuring voice. "It's alright to be angry, Damian. Just make sure you keep it focused."
And with that Damian had left the cave. Dick approached Helena and Alfred at the bat computer just as she began pointing out just how convenient it was for Bruce to vanish right when the League of Assassins shows up and claims a foothold. "Bruce goes dark and suddenly the League shows up?...what the absolute fuck? They're making organized crime folk real nervous. More nervous than the idea of this Cave makes them." He looked over the computer as she spoke, taking mental notes. It was definitely suspicious, he had to admit as much. Though in his mind they had to determine who was leading the League in this endeavor. Ra's? Talia? Shiva? Another high ranking member? Most likely it would be Ra's or Talia, since they both have a personal stake in the Batman and nobody else would dare to make a move without the consent of one of them. No matter who it was, the Batfamily had their work cut out.
"Speaking of which," the next part Helena threw out carefully, or as carefully as she could, "I called Barry, who talked to both Kal and Di, and the Justice League doesn't know where Bruce is. They haven't heard from or seen him since the Grodd incident a month ago. I had to remind Barry how much Batman dislikes metahumans in this city to keep the League from showing up to help us find him. And nothing from the Mafia world--there was one guy who belongs to what remains of the Maroni clan that was talking up a storm about killing Batman, but unless Bruce suddenly got slow, stupid, and clumsy than this guy is lying. Nobody else even claiming to know anything. A lot of people that know people that know people that heard things, maybe, but that's it. Fair to say the underworld has no idea where he is, or what happened to him, either."
"Yeah," Dick responded, his arms crossed as he studied the computer. "I reached out to the League myself, as well as some others. The Titans and the Outsiders are at a complete loss too. I even made contact with Jason Blood, and he swears that Bruce hasn't crossed on. He's out there somewhere, we just need to find out where." Grayson took over the computer and began running some simulations of his own, looking over satellite images of the Nykawa Center. He viewed it from every angle he could find and inspected each image pixel by pixel for every possible opening. The place was well defended alright, just as you might expect from the League. Some of the security was obvious. Those were the decoys, probably hired muscle that had no idea who was actually there. To the trained eye, to anybody familiar with the League and their ways, one could spot places where an assassin might lurk. Of course they wouldn't appear on the satellite feed directly, they were too good for that, but Dick could see the best vantage points they'd keep a lookout from.
"This is a one man job," he announced, pulling away from the computer. "I'm going in and I'm finding everything they know about Bruce's disappearance. Helena, I'd like you to keep your ear to the pavement. If you have even one contact you haven't turned over, no matter how insignificant, it's worth checking out. Alfred, when Tim gets here tell him to patrol the streets. Damian's been pushing himself too hard and he needs backup, no matter what the boy says."
There it was, the natural leadership and command of Dick Grayson. As he spoke, he made sure that every word he uttered sounded intensely important, because it was. He made everyone's duty sound crucial, because it was. "I've got one more member of our team that I need to call. Hopefully she can help me get in the Nykawa Center undetected." Dick stripped off his motorcycle leathers to reveal his black and blue Nightwing costume, and neatly folded them in a nearby locker. Once that was done he put on his black domino mask and strut back to his motorcycle. As he got on and revved the engine, Dick activated the earpiece in his right ear.
"Evening Babs. How're you doing?"
"Hey there, Dick. What's going on? You only call anymore when you want something," came the voice of a slightly irritated and slightly flirty Barbara Gordon.
"I can mix business with pleasure, but since you mentioned it, why don't you monitor any electronic signals coming to and from the Nykawa Center and see what you can find?"
"Does this have to do with Bruce?" she asked back.
The wealthy mob princeling turned wealthier Don told the working class Italian boy with a family name that was, at best, tragic. Until now, until Helena. Don Luccimo was the man to see if you were a made man in need of financial advice, both for legitimate pursuits, and not so much. In fact Luccimo specialized in "not so much" and stayed respectful in the legitimate areas. All of that was true until Helena came back to Gotham City. Luccimo was great, but he wasn't having lunch with Warren fuckin' Buffet. He wasn't on the cover of magazines as a great financial mind.
That someone like that would willing get involved with a crime family was beyond Geppe's wildest dreams. That the someone would be his cousin, and committed to helping him with his dream, seemed to good to be true. But she was real, and had made a believer out of him. Out of old bitter men like Luccimo? No. Men like Luccimo had been staying low and licking their wounds, waiting for a moment like this to really strike at Helena...and by extension strike at him. And he had to sit there and take it. Or stand, because Luccimo never offered him a seat after receiving him in his Wayne Manor wannabe study.
After taking a second to think and compose himself before repsonding, Geppe allowed words to form. "I'm the Don of the--"
"--she is! WE KNOW IT! What else could she be?"
Geppe let himself get bored, not annoyed. "My cousin and most trusted advisor." Then Geppe said fuck it. He went for the man's liquor, and poured himself a glass. Swirled it a bit in his hand, and took a sip before continuing. "I can understand how you might get confused. Life is a certain way for men like you. Guys like me, guys that grew up in Little Italy and worked two part time jobs to get through community college, we look at it a different way." Then he said, before continuing. The old man's face was half shock, but Geppe knew he had his attention. "You and I both saw her physically destroy Fat Tommy V at the big meet, and I never saw a man do that to Fat Tommy V ever before when we were running the same streets. Works books better than even you, sir," he paused momentarily for a salute to Luccimo with his glass, "I fact I know even you believe, as I believe even you bought shares in her latest venture?"
"Men won't follow her."
It made Geppe really, truly, smile before smothering it with drink of alcohol. "They follow me, like she does."
Luccimo glared. "And why would I follow a boy? Leave. You say the Bertinellis did not hire this assassin, facts state otherwise--we shall soon know once the man is caught. You have four times my number, why would I start a war with the Bertinellis? I am not so eager to see my once proud family name extinguished."
The glass went down, and Geppe stood, taking a second to button his black suit jacket. "But you might join in with the Vitis if they start a war, wouldn't you? Especially if it meant getting some of what's now Bertinelli property as a reward. Just know if you do that it won't matter what Helena says, I got a long memory and a mean streak to those who betray me. Have a good night."
Outside he found the driver, Ray Gee, with the black Caddie still running. Once in he thumbed about the screen of his smartphone, checking for messages. There were fires everywhere to put out, Luccimo was simply a priority for being a Don rumored to be calling for the end of the burgeoning Bertinelli crime empire. The rest was simply anger from the lower levels, at this point, from Geppe was being told. And information about Batman. Some kid claiming a "Sewer King" wanted money for information, Geppe ignored it, snickering at the name. Sewer King. What a joke, this town.
Geppe didn't look up, already texting back someone very important: a stripper from earlier in the evening. And a few sons of bosses in the city, who wanted things to support the Bertinellis. Geppe considered it a small price to pay, and gave his word on it.
"Guy's ready for you. About ten minutes away."
Geppe smirked. "Can we make it five?" Afterall, he was trying to save every minute of the night for someone later. But there was no rushing what was coming. Being framed by someone for a hit on a fellow family's boss wasn't the only fire going tonight. Helena sent him the information that a sergeant of the GCPD was about to get put down.
Couldn't say how she'd found out, or exactly why it mattered to them, but she had already arranged the hiring of a private detective. Geppe felt bad for the guy; probably walking down the street somewhere in Gotham when all of a sudden a car pulls up, and a man gets out the back seat; mean looking, big, suited up like a professional. 'Invite' the guy to get into the limo, making certain it's clear 'no' just wasn't gonna be accepted. Great day for Slam Bradley, right?
Then told nothing, just driven around stopping behind a black Caddie SUV. The mean guy with the suit got out, and Geppe got in. The car pulled away from the still parked SUV, and started driving again. Geppe turned just-so to tilt his body in the guy's direction, before smiling. "Sorry about the drama, Slam. Hope the boys weren't rough or anything stupid. I'm Guiseppe Bertinelli. I've got a job I want you to look into. Happening right about now-ish, one of the GCPD sarges for traffic is gonna get capped. We're not sure by who, we just know it's gonna happen. We know he's crooked, working for someone. We want you to find out who killed him, and to find out who he was on the payroll of. To motivate you, and to address payment, I purchased your gambling debt from the Russians....you should really find better betting guides, my man. That's not a small debt for a guy of your means. Do this job for me, do it well, and the debt's gone. You never have to see me again. What do you say?"
It's funny how different crime is across the world. How the demographics and geographical quirks of a nation can influence how you build your empire. For example, Japan's unique magnetic field makes it the Eastern hemisphere's safest landing zone for extraterrestrial craft. That's how you get immigrants. The magic flowing through the land can turn something as simple as a broken umbrella into a monster. That's how you get yokai. The low birth rate, arranged marriages, and background radiation leads to a relatively homogenous population. That's how you get one of the world's highest occurence of dormant metagenes. And the culture of strictness, of conformity, of xenophobia? That's how you get criminals. And a nation of the ostracized, from alien refugees to human criminals, searching for acceptance? That's how you found them a family. That's how you made Yakuza.
That's what Lord Death Man did, anyway. It's how he'd worked his way up. But now, here in Gotham, he had to start small. Well, small compared to a nation-spanning criminal empire delegated to four subordinates. For now, they needed to get their numbers up. To make sure they had an advantage over Gotham's rabble. Lord Death Man walked alongside an elderly Japanese man with pale skin and wild grey hair. The two chatted back in forth in Japanese as they slid between the banks of computers surrounding operating tables.
<<"Talk to me, Doctor Reaper. How are your boys settling in?">>
<<"Better than expected, my lord. The Super Science Network has resumed our efforts to created altered humans. We've almost completed the transformation for the one you requested, but we're a ways off from any other specimens. We've made a bit of progress on the supers' gear, but... well, the technology's old, and hard to find, even on the black market.">>
<<"Don't you worry about the tech. We'll get on that when the time comes. Just focus on getting Little Mori back on his feet.">>
Little Mori was currently on life support. The dimwit apparently thought the moniker of "The Immortal Lord Death Man" was just hype and jumped on a grenade when one of Death Man's traitorous underlings tried to off him. Well, with his lungs and arms gone, there was little option other than cybernetic replacements. Sighing, Death Man moved on, heading down a corridor to the east.
This was easily the spookiest part of the facility. Broken paper doors, cracked pottery, earthen floors, and the sounds of grinding stone and ghastly moans. Of course, you put up with a good deal of unpleasant architecture when you housed yokai. That didn't mean it was a pleasant place though. Bizarre creatures, ranging from a tiny man made of broken dishes to a gang of lizards in samurai armor, walked along the corridor, saluting as he passed. A towering red-skinned man with unkempt hair and a tiger-stripe suit bowed as Death Man approached a common room, several cardboard boxes piled up by the walls.
<<"Alright, Hibiki, how're your boys settling in?">>
The giant cleared his throat, rubbing the back of his head.
<<"Honestly, boss, the trouble's getting everyone to stop drinking long enough to unpack.">>
Death Man sighed, pinching the bridge of his skull-mask's nasal track. Day one and already the monsters were falling into their old habits.
<<"Just... I know you're talking about the oni, but they need to sober up and get ready too. We're going to need to scout out the local underworld to see what's what. Break a few legs, crack a few skulls, check the leylines, that sort of thing. You think your boys can handle it?">>
It was a horror story told to Gothamite children to make them say their prayers, eat their vitamins and do as their parents tell them. A shadowy group composed of dangerous folk who controlled Gotham, how could something like that exist? Mary Turner always believed it was a story or at least that was until a warm summer’s night during World War II…
She had dealt with persecution all of her life. Being a woman in a misogynistic society wasn’t bad enough, being an Asian woman was another blow to her. All she wanted was to serve her country just like the men of her time but no, she had to be a nurse or a secretary. She had just as much right to fight for Gotham’s safety. She was an American goddamnit, born in Medford, Oregon, raised there and would probably die there. It wasn’t fair.
There had been word over the radio that Emperor Hirihito was planning some kind of attack against the US and that Gotham was a target. Mary refused to hide, she would not let one of her own instil fear in her, the same way she had all but numbed herself to the spiteful words of the Yankee scum. This hot summers eve was an empty one, few were out on the streets in the wake of the Emperors threats. Mary walked proudly, she would not show her fear. This day she would go see the only show left open in town; Haly’s Circus. Hushed whispers across Gotham told of a man, a large inhuman man who spoke in rhymes. Apparently he was the star attraction of their latest show and Mary was in such desperate need of a laugh.
The tents were red and white just like she had always dreamed. There were clowns and strongmen, flying Graysons and bearded ladies. Mary felt at home in this cabal of freaks. A balloon? How funny? She reached for it, unware of the ticking coming from within…
Swooping down from her shadow perch, the Talon landed atop a car in front of the alley and glared with glowing yellow eyes at the Boy and Girl Wonders.