I Am The Night (Part 3)
Comics Retcon Universe 015
I Am The Night
Bruce Wayne has been a vigilante stalking the nights of Chicago for months, doing what he could to help stop the rising crime rate. But he's just a man and now he's met his match.
Author's Note: Here's the beginning of a brand new story but I must warn you that he is not the Bat from the comics so I took some liberties with his character. I wanted to establish that this is a real world interpretation of him and as such he's not nearly as cool as he is in the comics or movies. So you need to keep that in mind when reading this. You also have to keep in mind that he is not the main character of this story. I'd like to thank djkauf for the editing and DC Comics for the wonderful characters.
“Is there anything you can do about the wedgie?” I asked as the two of us walked down the hall.
Jen looked at me, confused. Then it dawned on her a split second later, her eyes getting big. Then she laughed. We slipped into an empty classroom, locking the door behind us. After getting off the phone at far too early in the morning, I went through my usual routine. After showering and dressing for school, I pulled the costume from under my bed. I wasn’t really sure what to do with it but after I thought about it, I realized that I needed to do something about the underwear situation. Last night it was riding up my butt and driving me insane. I had thought about not wearing any but that just creeped me out even more.
“Well” she said with a smile. “You can always wear a thong?”
I groaned. I was dreading she’s say something like that.
I stuck my tongue out at her. “Or I could make you wear the costume and let you prance around on rooftops wearing it all night?”
The color drained from her face. “I’ll see if I can design some built in underwear feature.”
I smiled and the two of us left the classroom. When we opened the door, a bald teacher frowned at us, clearly annoyed. I don’t think he liked being locked out of his own classroom. Before he could say anything, we broke into laughter and slipped around him. We got to our lockers and separated. We didn’t meet up again until it was lunch time. On the way to the cafeteria, we passed Arnold’s locker. I frowned when I looked at it. According to his parents, he was going to be in the hospital until at least the end of the month. I just hoped that that wouldn’t affect his chances of competing in the Talent Show. It was at the beginning of December, a few days before Winter Break. Arnold was really excited about it. I visited him the other day---we were still on rough terms---but he told me all about his Act. He even showed me how to throw your voice, demonstrating by doing his tough Italian Mobster voice he used for “Mr. Scarface”.
At lunch, I sat with Jen but kept getting dirty looks from the cheerleaders. I tried out last week. I thought things went well but apparently, things went too well. I showed them all up, making them look like amateurs. None of them were too happy about it. Their Coach loved me though. She wanted me on the team immediately, but looking at all the girls glaring at me, I knew it wasn’t safe. I didn’t want one of them to accidentally forget to catch me or somehow drop me off the top of a pyramid. So in the end I declined. Miss Wells---the Coach–wasn’t too happy but at least I avoided trying to explain why I didn’t break my leg when they did one of their stupid “accidents” to hurt me.
Jen glared at the girls. “You should have told them to go fuck themselves.”
I shrugged, dipping my fry in some ketchup. “It wouldn’t have changed their attitude toward me.”
Jen frowned. “I don’t know why you wanted to be one of them anyway. They’re total spazzes.”
“I didn’t really but I want to get into Gymnastics again and the school doesn’t have a team.”
We talked a little more about then Jen changed the subject. “If you swing by my place after your training today I can fix the suit for you.”
She hadn’t been happy when I told her about the knife cutting it. She complained and gave me the riot act, telling me to be more careful. We both agreed that as soon as my training for today was over I’d drop the costume off. I wanted to do another nighttime run tonight but I can’t very well do it if I’m not comfortable. Lunch went by at its usual pace after that. Jen asked me a few more questions about last night but we didn’t really want to talk about it with so many people around. After lunch, the rest of the day seemed to drag on slowly. I couldn’t stop thinking about last night. I’d never felt more alive. Every time I closed my eyes I saw myself fighting, that bastard and I couldn’t help but feel good inside.
When the final bell rang, Jen met me outside my last class. The two of us walked out to the parking lot together. I’d taken to being her own personal chauffeur now. AS the two of us were getting into the car, I heard the tell tale roar of a familiar motorcycle. I groaned and turned around. Tim had pulled his Ducati right up behind my little Focus, cutting the engine. I couldn’t help but groan because I wasn’t in the mood for him today. He took off his helmet and I could almost see Jen salivate. I elbowed her in the side, breaking her trance. Jen wasn’t really into the bad boys but it was hard not to drool all over Tim. He would be overly gorgeous except every time he opened his mouth he ruined that. He was looking particularly good today in his red leather jacket, his hair slicked back. How he didn’t have helmet hair was beyond me.
When he climbed off his bike, I huffed. ‘You’re blocking me in.”
He shrugged. “We need to talk.”
“Move your bike and maybe I’ll consider it.”
He crossed his arms in front of his chest. I sighed. “What do you want to talk about?”
“What about him?”
“He’s driving me nuts. You have to come back.”
I shook my head. “He knows why I left. If he wants me back so much then all he has to do is admit that I’m right and help me.”
Tim groaned. “I’m not sure what the two of you have been arguing about and frankly I don’t care but it’s stupid.”
I looked him over. I could tell what his real problem was immediately. I smiled. “His making you do everything he made me do, isn’t it?”
Tim didn’t say anything. I laughed. Jen just looked confused. It felt kinda good to laugh in Tim’s face a bit. I’m not sure how long I laughed but I think he finally got the clue that I wasn’t going back. He growled in frustration and got back on his bike. It didn’t take him long to gun the engine and take off. I watched him go, satisfied that I got the last word in. I didn’t feel the least bit sorry for him. He was an arrogant jerk and sometimes jerks like him needed to be put in their place.
“So that was him, huh?”
I nodded. “Yep.”
“Kinda cute” said Jen, smiling like a lovesick puppy.
I didn’t say a thing. Instead, I frowned at her and we got into the car. As I said before I couldn’t argue the fact that he was in fact cute but it was everything else I hated about him. He was an insufferable prick, even more so now. The nerve of him showing up here and trying to get me to go back just so he didn’t have to work. That boy infuriated the hell out of me. He was on my mind the whole way to Jen’s. When I pulled up in front of her apartment building, I popped the trunk. This morning I took the costume from the safety of my bedroom and put it in the trunk, making sure it was hidden and out of sight. I thought about the best place for it and decided Uncle Jim was least likely to find it in my trunk. OK, so it wasn’t the best place but until I could find an alternative it would have to do.
I gave Jen the costume so she could fix the problem and then left her to drive off to Onyx’s. I parked around back; there was no way my car could fit into the alley. Onyx’s place was a lot bigger than I originally thought. She owned the whole building. I’m not sure how many square feet that was---I’m not good at that kinda thing---but there were at least four floors. She converted the top two into a living space. I spent last weekend here in one of her guest rooms so she could really drill into my head the need to train all the time. She was a slave master but it was definitely paying off. I proved that last night when fighting that nut.
I went in through the back door, which was sorta off to the side, half obscured in shadow. I took off my shoes and silently padded my way into the main room. I had walked this path so many times I could do it with my eyes closed. In fact, I have, numerous times actually. When I got to the Dojo, Onyx was dressed in her usual green garb, meditating on the center mat. I tried to be quiet but there was no sneaking up on her. So instead, I crept slowly into the room, curled up next to her and started meditating too. I took deep, shallow breaths, trying to find my center. I lost myself to the nothingness just like usual. I’m not sure how long I was like that before I felt her gently shake me awake.
When I opened my eyes, she frowned. “Did you enjoy yourself last night?” she asked coldly.
I inwardly cursed. Of course, she knew about it, she knew everything.
I bit my lip. “I had to try. I needed to know if I could do it.”
She shook her head. “You weren’t ready.”
“I beat him”
“You got lucky. Next time your opponent might be much faster or much more skilled than you. What happens then?”
I shrugged. I didn’t have an answer for her.
But I did have a question. “Does that mean I can’t go out again?”
She sighed. “I could tell you no but you’ll probably disobey me anyway. I know what it’s like to feel that rush. You might not believe this but I wasn’t always cooped up in this place you know. I know what it’s like out there.”
I smiled. “Were you like The Bat?”
I didn’t call him Bruce. I promised Bruce not to reveal his secret and I was keeping that promise. Knowing her she probably knew who he was anyway, even if she never let on she knew. Onyx was like that. I’d only known her for a little while but she was the kind of person who told you what she knew some of the time and left the rest of it to herself. Our biggest topic of discussion was Oracle. I knew she knew who he was but no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get her to tell me. She kept saying that “when Oracle wants me to know then I’ll know.” I hated when people got cryptic like that. That didn’t stop me from trying though. I even went so far as to try tracing back the text messages but no matter how hard I tried---well Henry actually---we came up with a dead end. Henry was definitely an infant compared to Oracle.
I asked my question again. Onyx shook her head.
“I was something else” she said and left it at that.
Then we started training.
She ran me ragged for a whole week. I think she wanted to make sure I was tough enough and strong enough to take on any opponent. She became convinced that defense wasn’t the only thing I needed to work on. So she started me on some Jujitsu, hoping it might toughen me up a bit. I took to it about as quickly as I did Aikido and Feng Shou. I kinda liked it actually. It was similar to the others in that I had to use the opponent’s force to my advantage but it was more aggressive. It involved a lot more physical contact. There were a lot of quick take-downs and fast moving punches. Onyx said she was impressed by how quickly I took to it. Besides martial arts, I was starting to get pretty skilled with weapons too. Onyx was fond of the bullwhip and nunchaku. Me, I was all about the tonfa. If you don’t know what one is, it’s really hard to describe. They come in pairs; they’re like two wooden poles about the length of your forearm with a handle. I know I’m not really describing them all that well but to fight with them was another thing entirely. Onyx wanted me to get used to using something that can protect my arms in case my opponent is much too large for me to handle. Tonfas were kinda clumsy for me to carry around but she remedied that by giving me a collapsible baton.
It wasn’t the same but it worked just as well.
I took my new skills to the street fairly quickly. The first night I started jujitsu I was out on the streets. Jen’s retrofit of the costume was much better. I didn’t have to wear underwear anymore because it was built in. She also added some venting to help me breathe a bit better. My boots got an upgrade as well. Gone were the ones with the heel, replaced by heavy duty combat type boots. They were easier to move in but flexible enough in case I needed to kick the crap out of someone. Not that I did much kicking. But the biggest change to the suit was cosmetic. When I first saw it, I didn’t approve in the least but Jen was insistent upon it. Do you remember how I thought the front of the suit was missing something well Jen thought the same? So she went out of her way and put a giant yellow bat on it. I guess it looked kinda cool---it was sorta this yellow outline, it was kinda wicked. But it made me frown a bit. It was like I was thumbing my nose at Bruce or something.
“It’ll scare them” was Jen’s reply to my complaints.
It did, too.
The first night that I went out, I ran into a pair of jackasses trying to break into a car. It was dark; most of the street was obscured in shadow. It was kind of a petty crime but as long as I was around there was going to be no crime. I dropped down silently behind them, my cape flowing around me. When they turned around and saw the Bat on my chest, the first one actually pissed himself. I disarmed him quickly with a head butt. The other tried to run. I grabbed the crowbar they were using to try to pry into the car and threw it at the back of his legs. He fell face first into the street. It was nearly midnight and no one was around to see me drag him back into the shadows by his ankles, kicking and squirming the whole time.
The next morning my actions made the news. This time the goons easily told the reporters who and what I was. Word spread quickly after that, The Bat was truly back in the city. Not that that made my job any easier. The night after nabbing the car thieves, I dropped on a mugger. He didn’t seem to be too scared of me until he found that I could deflect all his sloppy punches. All it took for me to take him down was a swift kick in the gut. I left before he or the woman he was robbing could get a good look at my face. It bothered me that everyone was still describing me as a big menacing guy with a deep sinister voice, still connecting me to Bruce. But the way I figured it they were either too scared to think clearly or too embarrassed to say they were beaten up by a little girl.
After that, word spread like wild fire. As much as the criminals feared the Roving Ravager, there was something about a person in black leather and a cape that frightened the hell out of them. After another night of taking out scum, things started to die down. It gave me time to concentrate on my real objective: Thrill. The drug had disappeared. The Roving Ravager was busting up Parks all over the city, leaving behind several semi-conscious and severely beaten witnesses---i.e. the Seekers. He had a rough style but I couldn’t hate him too much because he was getting the job done. Unfortunately, though he was scaring off the Seekers. I guess that’s a good thing but now I had no one to hunt. I was still hell bent to ruin these bastards and yet I had no trail left to follow.
That is until this morning. I was leaving English class when my phone went off. I groaned, ducking into a nearby girl’s bathroom. I pulled the phone out of my bag and flipped it open. I scanned the quick message: SEEKER PARTY 1 AM TONIGHT, WAREHOUSE DISTRICT, DRESS APPROPRIATELY, ORACLE. I smiled at the message. I wanted to scream out in excitement; instead, I stuck the phone in my pocket. It was exactly the lead I was looking for. This time bumbling Stephanie Brown wouldn’t be going there, this time it would be The Bat.
I rushed out of the bathroom, positively glowing.
Yuck, why did it have to rain?
I groaned as I shifted position, trying to find a good spot on the edge of the building. But it was hard to get comfortable with the rain beating down on me so hard. I guess it was better than snow, though. But of course, it was one of those rains that was kinda half and half. The weatherman called it freezing rain. Well it was definitely that and then some. As cool and sleek as my suit was it definitely wasn’t made for this kind of weather. I would have to see if I could get Jen to some kind of insulation. I’m not sure how but the cape only kept some of the chill off of me. I know it’s not very stealthy but I was shivering as the water drummed heavily on me, in some instances clinging to my leather clad form. The only one out here tonight more miserable than me had to be the guy standing in front of the building.
I was at the address Oracle sent me too. How did I know it was the right place? An hour ago, I picked up the trail of a few Seekers and followed them here. It didn’t take a genius to figure out which of the many warehouses was the one they were operating from. After following my quarry, I took up my roost on this building. It was at the edge of the district, overlooking the warehouse in question. After my guys went in, several more filed in over the last hour or so. I’m not really sure what I was waiting for. OK, that’s not true. I knew what I was waiting for. There was no way Oracle would send me here unless it was damn important. After all this didn’t feel like a routine Seeker Park. For one thing, the guy at the door---the one I felt partially sorry for---was holding an AK-47. You didn’t pack that kind of firepower unless something big was going down.
I grumbled, shifting position again.
The belt around my waist was a bit heavier tonight. Jen thought I should name everything---kinda call it “Bat” this or “Bat” that. I thought that was the stupidest idea ever. If she had it her way, I’d be wearing a “Bat” belt around my waist. She means well but sometimes she doesn’t have a clue. But she was kinda right about the naming thing. Not that I wanted to get cute and name everything in my arsenal some stupid name. So I called the belt my “utility” belt for lack of a better term. In the pouches were the usuals---cell, mace, flashlight. Now there were a few new items to add to the list. In one pouch, I know had a small pair of binoculars and in another was some shuriken. Even though Onyx told me she didn’t want to actively get involved in all my nocturnal activities---besides training me---she did equip me properly. The shuriken were her idea as well as the collapsible baton now attached securely to my hip.
She said fighting with my fists was one thing but I’d deal more of a blow with the baton. I couldn’t argue with her there.
Now if she could have found some way to speed up time.
I shivered and sighed. Waiting was my least favorite part of anything. And waiting in the freezing rain, well that was now near the top of my least favorite things of all time list. It was a smidge above clowns and a few lines below my father---who was at the top of the list. Sitting here in the dark and the cold, I couldn’t help but feel I wasting my time. Yes, this looked like a real bad place but so far the only bad thing I saw was the miserable bastard stupid enough to join me out here. I groaned, ready to call it quits. It’s a good thing I didn’t. If I had bailed when I wanted too I would not have heard the rumble. At first, I thought it was thunder, which would have made this the worst day ever. Then I saw it come bumbling around a corner: a large white delivery truck. It was non-descript except for the color but it didn’t take a genius to figure out where it was going.
When it stopped in front of the warehouse across from me, I decided to get a closer look.
I leapt across the gap and landed gracefully on top of the truck. I didn’t stop there though as I ran softly across the top and jumped onto the warehouse. It was a good five or six feet from the top of the truck to the awning above the warehouse door. Luckily, it wasn’t one of those Indiana Jones kinds---you know the ones that people thought they could jump on and not fall through. The awning was solid, made of concrete. It wasn’t very large but it was big enough for me to crouch on and hide. It was also close enough for me to see what was going on which was a big plus.
The guard pulled the collar of his coat up around his check, grumbling. He walked up to the truck as the driver got out. The first thing I noticed about the driver was his mask. What in the hell? He was wearing a cheap plastic mask, in the shape of a pig. In the cab of the truck there was a passenger, he was wearing a mask too, a rabbit this time. I didn’t realize Halloween so still going on.
“Where the hell have been, Porky?” asked the guard with a snort.
The driver flipped him off. “Give me a break; you realize how much of this stuff we had to load.”
I reached into one of my pouches. I pulled out another new tool of mine---a spy camera. It was small and slender. I snapped off a few shots of the three of them. Then I took a picture or two of the truck and in particular the license plate. Evidence gathering was a new thing for me but it seemed like the right thing to do. The camera was Jen’s idea. She had just in case I wanted to clue the police in on what was going on. I thought it was a pretty good idea actually. From the television and my Uncle’s numerous phone calls, I knew that Detective Gage was actually the head of the Thrill Task force. So I had to wonder if he might like the photos that I just took.
I took a few more photos just for posterity.
The guard and Porky went around the side of the truck. I heard them open the back and waited. About a minute later---after some grunting and cursing---Porky and the guard were carrying a large crate between them. I took a few pics of that too. The passenger side door opened and Bugs got out. Well what else would you call a guy in a rabbit mask? He was bigger than the other too, wearing black leather gloves. He followed them to a point where I couldn’t see. I shifted position and just caught the three of them out of the corner of my eye. I quickly leapt from the awning back onto the roof of the truck. I got a good view of them now. They were at a pull down door, like a garage door. Bugs lifted it without a problem, the sound of rusty chains and gears mixing with the rain.
Bugs waited for the two of them to carry the crate inside then slammed the door down. I moved like lightning. I sprang from the truck back onto the awning. Then I jumped up, grabbing the small ledge of the window there. I pulled myself up quickly then grabbed the ledge of the window above it. There were three rows of windows directly on top of one another before I got to the roof. When I pulled myself up onto the roof, I was hit with a gust of cold air. The rain went into my face, disorienting me for a second. I shielded myself with the cape until I got my bearings. When I dropped it, my heart skipped a beat because I wasn’t alone on the roof.
He was there too.
He was half shrouded in shadows but it didn’t take a genius to figure out who it was. He wore a cape and cowl both black like mine, his mouth and eyes the only thing visible. The rest of his costume was pretty much red, it looked leather like mine. I was a bit surprised to see him but that shock wore off quickly. The Roving Ravager and I locked eyes. I couldn’t read his expression because it was cold and hard. His eyes seemed to burn into me as we stared at each other. Neither of us made a move for about a minute but he eventually. He seemed to glide across the roof and went right for the skylight. I moved a second later. There was no way I was going to let him bust this place up. This was my only shot and he wasn’t going to get in the way of that.
“This is my bust,” I said, adding a sinister edge to my voice.
He looked at me, smirked and kicked out the glass. Subtlety was not this guy’s strong suit. I lunged forward to stop him but he dropped into the roof. I cursed. It had to be a thirty-foot drop. I ran over and looked down, watching, as he seemed to float harmlessly to the ground. At first, I thought he might be a Meta like me until I saw the rope. It was hard to see in the dark but I found the edge of it attached to a hook, embedded in the roof. A small part of me wanted to pull out the hook and watch him fall. Hey, I said a small part. Instead, I watched as he landed on the ground. In one fluid motion, he was free of his rope and springing into action. He caught the first few Seekers off guard, tearing into them. But the others sprang into action really quick. There were a lot of them, more than I thought. I realized quickly that alone he didn’t stand a chance. That’s when I heard the rapid bursts of automatic fire. I couldn’t see the guard with his machine gun but I knew he was down there. I cursed. Things were definitely not as easy as the last time. A chill ran up my spine and for a split second, I thought about bolting but then I realized I couldn’t leave him down there to get slaughtered.
I took a deep breath, pulled pair of shuriken from my pouch and jumped through the skylight. I’m not sure why I didn’t use the rope. I think a small part of me knew I didn’t need it. Halfway through the air, I spread my arms out, bringing the edges of the cape up with me. I sorta glided through the air, probably looking pretty damn menacing when I finally hit the ground. As soon as I did I landed softly, not hurt at all from the thirty foot drop. It only took me a second to get adjusted to the dimness of the room but as soon as I straightened up from my landing crouch, the room fell silent. I looked around and watched as several people stopped doing what they were doing and stared. Even the guard stopped firing. The Ravager was crouched behind the wooden crate, probably hiding from the barrage of bullets. He even turned to look at me.
Finally, one voice cut through the silence. “It’s the Bat.”
That’s all it took to break the stunned silence. The room erupted and the stunned Seekers charged at me. I threw my shurikens, picking my targets. The first went at the guard, slicing his upper arm, causing him to drop his gun. The second grazed the cheek of the nearest Seeker, causing him to fall back. I say fall back but it did not slow him down. He charged me. I jumped into the air, flipping over him. He slammed into one of his companions coming from the other way. About half way through my flip I landed on my charger’s back. I ran along him and used his momentum to launch myself at the next bastard. I kicked him in the chin, throwing him backwards. There was a collision of bodies as my opponent slammed into two more charging Seekers.
When I landed, two more Seekers charged me. I rolled into them, pulling the baton free. I hit the first in the face then in the groin. He dropped. The second got my elbow in his face, the baton in his throat. The onslaught came after that. I’m not sure how many there were but I threw a lot of punches and drove away a lot of them with the baton. I’m not sure when it happened but someone pushed his back against mine. I had a pretty good idea who. I’m not sure how long we were fighting but eventually it came to an end. I threw the final blow, hitting a Seeker in the face with my knee. He went down like a ton of bricks. He didn’t get up, which was a good thing because I’m not sure if I had any more in me.
It was at that moment that I realized someone was pressed against me. I spun around, ready for another go. I swung the baton only to find it blocked by a metal pole. The Ravager was standing there, his face covered in sweat, panting like I was. We stared at each other for a long time, neither moving or saying a word. We didn’t even lower our weapons.
He broke the silence. “So you’re the person pretending to be the Bat.”
I huffed. I wasn’t pretending anything.
“And you’re the Roving Ravager” I said, trying to make my voice sound dark and sinister. “The guy pretending to be a hero.”
His eyes narrowed. “Red Robin.”
“What is?" I asked, confused.
“My name” he said, “RR stands for Red Robin.”
“Seriously” I said, the edge falling from my voice.
He frowned. “Robins are graceful, intelligent birds.”
There was a bit of a whine to his voice when he said it. It made it hard to believe that this was the same guy that just brutalized all these punks.
We didn’t say anything more for a while. Instead, he started poking around. He bent to check one of the guys that was lying unconscious nearby. Me, I went for the crate. I left him to play whereas I was here for a reason. I pulled out my camera again and took pictures. First of all the goons then of the crate itself. I thought about taking a pic of him but I decided against it. I wouldn’t want anyone to take my pic either. So instead, I concentrated on the crate. When the pictures were done, I scrutinized it. Or what was left of it. When the Red Robin---stupid name---had crouched behind it as a shield, the bullets did a bang up job on it. Most of the contents inside were trash. I found a nearby crowbar and pried off the lid, getting a good look inside.
There were several green liquid filled glass vials packed in straw. A good portion of them were smashed. I fingered one, rolling it over. There was a label on the glass, V10. I rubbed my chin, why did that name sound familiar. I racked my brain, trying to come up with the answer.
“Is it Thrill?” he asked as he came walking over.
I picked up one of the vials, sloshing the liquid about. “I think so.”
He picked up one of his own. “V10”
I nodded. “According to the truck driver, it sounds like the truck outside is filled with this stuff.”
“Well it's gone now” he said with a sigh, dropping the vial back in the crate.
“What” I said then looked around.
There were a lot of people lying about unconscious, Bugs was one of them. Not amongst the group was Porky. I cursed. He must have slipped out during the battle. So the Robin was right, the truck was long gone. I scanned the faces just to make sure but he was definitely not among them. I turned back to the crate and stared at the vial in my hand. Just then, my phone vibrated. It wasn’t the only one either. I reached for my belt, pulling it out of my pouch. The Robin reached inside in cape. I looked at my screen; it was a text from You-Know-Who: GET A VIAL OF THAT STUFF; I THINK I KNOW SOMEONE WHO CAN HELP, ORACLE. I clicked my phone shut then carefully stuck the vial in one of my pouches, hoping that it would be safe there. I looked at the Robin; he discreetly grabbed a vial too. We locked eyes and then he smiled. He showed me his phone and I sighed, it was the same message.
“Looks like someone wants us to work together” he said.
I frowned. “The Bat and Robin, I’m not so sure.”
“Why are you saying it like you’re in charge? I’ve been here longer, I have more experience.”
“Because a Bat would definitely be in charge over a stupid bird. Besides Robin sounds like a sidekick’s name.”
“It's Red Robin.”
He opened his mouth to protest but never got a chance. The sound of sirens cut through the night. I turned and looked at the door. When I snapped back to tell the Red Robin we should run, he was already gone. I cursed. I snapped around to his rope but it was gone too. Some “partner” he turned out to be. I rushed to the door just as it opened. I was halfway there when two police officers walked into the room. They caught sight of me and froze for a split second. Then they pulled out their guns, shouting freeze. I reached into another pouch, pulling out another one of Onyx’s goodies.
A smoke bomb.
I threw it at their feet. The room erupted into a cloud of thick gray smoke, allowing me to escape. I ran up the far wall, grabbed the edge of the window and broke it with my elbow. I looked down at the coughing police officers, frowned at almost being caught, then jumped out the window. I disappeared down the alley as soon as I hit the ground.
I groaned as I woke up, feeling the strain from the night before. Even with the Red Robin there to help, there had been just too many guys. I sat up and groaned; every muscle in my body ached. After sitting there for a few minutes, I pulled myself out of bed and into the shower. Last night kept flashing through my head. It drove me nuts that I was completely blanking on that V10 thing. I knew I had heard the name somewhere; I just couldn’t remember where. It plagued me through the whole shower, even preempting my thoughts on today’s history test. Of all the things to worry about, Onyx said she was worried most about my studies. Apparently, crime fighting had a tendency to cut into schoolwork but I was doing OK. I was getting my homework done and was getting enough sleep---a few hours---each night so I didn’t fall asleep in class. I made sure to stay out no later than one so it gave me plenty of time to fall asleep.
When I shut off the water, I stretched. I made it as hot as I could to help work out some of the pain. I may not be able to get cut or bruised anymore but I still felt the pain. It wasn’t overwhelming or anything but it was throbbing. Kinda like a dull ache---like sleeping on your arm all night. I guess the word I’m looking for was numbing pain. Well, after the really hot water, most of the numbing pain was gone. After the shower, I went to the mirror and brushed my teeth. I always showered first. Then I went and got dressed. When I got downstairs, I was on my own for breakfast. Ever since Thrill had become a serious threat, Uncle Jim was going into the office real early. Over the last month, I could count how many times I actually saw him on one hand. But he was always kind enough to leave me a note. I don’t think Babs liked it that he was working so much---he wasn’t getting any younger, according to her---but she knew he was making a difference.
I made some toast and turned on the TV. The kitchen set was always on the news. I wasn’t surprised at all to see the warehouse as the top story. A pretty blonde reporter was on the screen talking to one of the police officers from last night. I turned the volume up.
“I’ll telling you, he ain’t human,” said the cop, white faced and sweating.
“Officer Jones are you trying to tell us that The Bat is supernatural in origin?” asked the reporter, holding the mike so close to the man’s mouth that it was practically in it.
Officer Jones looked confused. “He’s a man but he’s not.”
“Perhaps he’s a woman,” said the reporter with a laugh.
I frowned at that. Dumb bimbo.
“He ain’t no woman. Trust me when I say this, there’s no way a woman could move like that.”
I groaned at the TV. Then I snatched up the remote and shut it off. Sexist blind pig. How can these guys not tell I’m a woman? I reached up and grabbed my breasts. Hello stupids, look at these. I’m wearing skintight black leather, you morons. How hard is it to tell that I’m a girl? Some people are so stupid. I had half a mind to unzip the top half of my costume and give my next victim a show just so the world knows the truth. I wonder how fast I could subdue him after that. I’m not sure why it bugged me so much. It thrilled the hell out of me that they thought I was The Bat. Of course, it’s not like I did anything to make them think otherwise. But I had to wonder what Bruce was thinking about all of this. After all, he was The Bat---the real one---and he was pretty adamant about me not taking up his mantle. I felt a little bad about that. But it’s not like I deliberately took it from him. It was the people who thought I was him. As long as they thought so I was going to continue with the charade. As soon as Bruce got back on his feet, I’d find some new identity to go under, maybe something in purple. I smiled at the thought, that would really annoy Jen.
After my toast, I went back to my room. When I got home last night, I stored my suit in my trunk but not before getting the vial out of the pouch. I brought it into the house with me last night and stashed it in one of my dresser drawers. I opened that drawer now and frowned. After escaping the cops last night, I got another text as soon as I got to the car. It was from You-Know-Who with instructions and an address. Oracle wanted me to package up the vial and send it to the address. Apparently, her person would analyze the contents and then we could figure out the next step from there. But I had a pretty good idea what my next step was going to be. As soon as I found the bastard responsible for Thrill, I was going to put him in the ground.
I closed the drawer. I’d deal with the vial later. Besides, I had to get the proper packaging to send it anyway. I finished doing some of my other morning routines and went downstairs. I usually left with plenty of time in the morning to get to school. Jen took the bus in the mornings. I thought about driving in and taking her but that would have meant me getting up earlier. It would have been OK in the past except now my nocturnal activities were getting in the way. But that was the only thing they seemed to be getting in the way of. I was afraid that they might interfere with my schoolwork but things were still going real good. What little time I had to actually do it was spent vigorously working to make sure I didn’t slip. My grades were solid. They needed to be if I wanted to go to college in the fall. I’d already started on that. I looked at applications the other day in the guidance office. I think I want to go to Northwestern like Babs. She even talked about letting me move in with her, we’d just have to get a bigger place.
I thought about the possibilities of living in the city again on my drive to school. Not that I didn’t like living with Uncle Jim---I loved it---but I needed to get my own place, too. Living in the city also had the advantage of being able to stay out a little longer too. I’ve only been able to do a little bit of stalking because I needed to leave early to drive home, cutting out some valuable time. Not that I was the only one making a difference in this city but so far I seemed to be the only one who cared about the little person. OK so that’s only half true. The Red Robin was doing his part too. But his tactics were a bit extreme. I’m not just talking about last night either. Both times, he rescued me---the first time in the alley, the second time in the “Park”---he put all those guys in the hospital. I know because I checked. Not that I was feeling remorseful but a girl has the right to know. When I beat people up, I at least tried to leave them well enough to go to jail.
When I got into school, I went straight to my locker. I wasn’t surprised at all to see Jen standing there.
“How did it go last night?” she asked, referring to my extracurricular activities.
I shrugged. “I made a friend I think.”
She raised her eyebrow. I quickly told her about my encounter with the Red Robin as I stuffed my bag in my locker and got my books. It didn’t take me very long to tell her as we walked to my first period class together.
“And you’re sure it was Oracle?” she asked, referring to the text he got.
I nodded. “It was the same message.”
“What’s this guy up to?”
I shrugged. Damned if I knew. I had similar thoughts when I went to bed last night. Clearly, Oracle was playing both of us, getting us to do his dirty work. But to what end. It was cool that he was helping me, setting me up with Onyx, pointing me in the right direction concerning Thrill. But what was this guy’s ultimate goal. What did the Red Robin have to do with any of it? Those thoughts seemed to plague me until I fell asleep last night. They plagued me all through first period and into second. Not that I was daydreaming of course. Thinking about Red Robin got me wondering about the man behind the mask. Ok so maybe man was pushing it. It was clear he wasn’t as old as I had originally thought. If I were to guess I’d say maybe eighteen at the most. I couldn’t help but look around the room, wondering if he was in the class with me.
In third period, I did the same thing. Unfortunately, it had an undesired effect. A kid in my class, David, looked in my direction. He wasn’t bad looking but he wasn’t really my type either. He was a Soccer player, a bit taller than me with sandy blonde hair. I suppose I could see myself with him but I wasn’t ready for a boyfriend yet. I had too much to do and definitely not enough free time to play around with some guy. But that didn’t stop David from trying. He caught up with me when we were leaving class after spending most of it staring at me.
“You’re Stephanie, right?” he asked, slipping beside me as I walked to fourth period.
“Well my name definitely isn’t Steven,” I said which made him laugh.
“Well, Not Steven, I was wondering if you wanted to go grab a bite to eat after school.”
I bit my lip. I was almost tempted. But after school was Onyx time. “I can’t, I have after school extracurricular things that take up my time.”
He smiled and nodded. “How about this weekend?”
No matter what I said, I was certain this guy was going to bug me. So in the end I decided to give him my cell number. I told him I couldn’t promise anything but I’d try. I think that made him happy because he had this huge smile on his face when he walked off. It made me a bit happy too. I know there was no chance of a date with him but it was nice that someone finally asked. For a while, I thought I was going to remain boyfriend-less for the rest of my high school life. Yes, I got a lot of boys staring at me but I think what I did to Francisco was still fresh in everyone’s head. Especially when the guys were concerned. I even caught one shying away from me with his hand over his crotch. I almost kicked him there for the hell of it.
Halfway to class, another male voice called my name. I groaned and snapped around, ready to lay into the prick. One guy was enough. I stopped in mid insult when I realized it was Henry.
He finally reached me, panting. “Boy you’re fast.”
I rolled my eyes. “Trying to avoid admirers” He nodded, confused. I smiled. “What can I do for you, Henry?”
“I found her.”
It took me a few seconds to realize the “her” he was referring to. Then I remembered the laptop and his goal to find someone to help me. I could have kissed him right there. Instead, I grabbed his arm, pushed him into a nearby classroom and told him to tell me everything.
I sat at the table, drumming my fingers. It annoyed me that I was waiting this long. I looked at my watch again and sighed. How long does it take for a bike messenger anyway? It was all a part of the plan. After Henry told me he contacted Lena, we made arrangements. Two days from the time of her contacting him, I was supposed to go to a local coffee shop, wear a pink scarf and wait for a bike messenger to arrive. He would come, pick up the laptop and I was supposed to remain put. When the job was finished, she’d text me and I would come to the same shop to pick up the laptop. I only liked one part of that plan however. I didn’t mind her need to be secret but the part with me not knowing where the thing was going. I didn’t like that at all.
I picked up my cappuccino and took another sip. I didn’t like the way things were going in all this. First I had to get that vial and send it off to Oracle’s people---I bubble wrapped and boxed it. Now here I was waiting for another mysterious thing I wasn’t going to be a part of. Well Stephanie wasn’t going to be a part of anyway. As soon as this guy showed up and took this damn thing, I had no intention of following through with the original plan. I needed to see where this thing was going and I couldn’t very well do that as myself. If Stephanie couldn’t follow the package, I was going to make damn certain The Bat did.
I’m not sure when I started to refer to myself as two different people. I think it started the night after my joint fight with Red Robin. That was three days ago. The next night was when I started to make the separation. It was partially to keep me level headed and partially so I didn’t accidentally refer to myself while in costume. I almost did. It was the second “official” meeting between the Robin and myself. I’m not sure how he found me exactly but we stalked the night together nonetheless. We didn’t talk much but we did some fighting together. He led me to another “Park” and we busted it up. I think both of us were hoping to get lucky, maybe spot that truck again. But nothing like that showed up. We did take out a bunch more Seekers so it wasn’t a complete waste.
The two of us worked well together actually. He had a lot of raw talent. Onyx probably would have scolded him for it. His technique was a bit messy and he tended to leave himself open a bit but he wasn’t bad. Me, I was getting a lot better. I took to jujitsu like a fish to water. According to Onyx, I was unlike anything she’d ever seen. I was mastering things that should have taken me months or years to do. I couldn’t help but wonder if it might be an extension of my Meta powers. I was beginning to get a grasp on them too. I think I’ve figured them out. Besides not being able to get cut, burned or bruised, I was agile and flexible too. I couldn’t help but wonder if I somehow subconsciously brought about these gifts in myself, after all I was a former gymnast.
The bell above the door dinged, taking me from my thoughts. I looked up, wondering if this was going to be my guy. I frowned when it wasn’t. I sighed, returning to my cup. I was starting to get real annoyed with all this cloak and dagger stuff. I think Oracle was part of my problem. It annoyed me that I’d been communicating with this person for so long and had yet to actually meet them. They were giving me a lot of information---good information---but it’s hard to trust someone if you never saw their face. I suppose the same could be said for Red Robin too. Not that I trusted him but the fact that I couldn’t see his face was part of the problem. But I guess I couldn’t complain there, after all I wore a mask too.
I drained the cup. About a minute later, a waitress came by asking me if I wanted another. I nodded and she went off to get it, taking my empty cup with her. As I watched her walk away, my messenger finally showed. I knew it was him because he was carrying a bike helmet. That and because the shop had a glass front I could see him park his bike. When he came in---the bell dinging---he searched the assorted faces. I reached into my bag pulling out both the laptop and the scarf. I didn’t put the scarf on though; I draped it over the top of other chair. When he saw it, he nodded and walked slowly over.
“You got the thing?” he asked.
I tapped the laptop. He smiled and slid it across the table, taking it under his arm. I waited until he left before dropping some money on the table. I didn’t wait for my second cup. Instead, I ran out into the street and followed. He took off like a bat out of hell. Fortunately, for me my running in the park was paying off nicely. I ran after him, able to keep up without a problem. It was still fairly light out but that was slowly starting to dwindle. I was glad that I was wearing my black boots. I couldn’t imagine running like this in sneakers. As I ran, I took note of where we were going. The coffee shop was not far from the Warehouse district so I had a pretty good idea where we might be going. I wasn’t wrong. The messenger zoomed into the block of warehouses. He zigzagged through the buildings, doing it effortlessly. When he finally stopped, it was in front of a warehouse that looked exactly like all the other ones, complete with a few skylights on the top a dumpster along the side. I remained hidden as he went to the door. I managed to catch a glimpse of the girl who answered: she was a really tall red head. She looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite place her.
I waited until he was gone before I un-shouldered my back pack. As soon as he zoomed on by me, I slipped into one of the nearby alleys. Then I opened my bag. I undressed quickly, down to nothing. I was so glad no one was about. But it was a bitch in this cold. I tried not to think about it as I slipped into my Bat suit. Yeah yeah, I’m naming it that but what else am I supposed to call it. I guess a little bit of Jen’s wanting to name things wore off on me. After I donned the suit, I waited for the cover of darkness. It only took about twenty minutes. Then I ran across the small gap separating me from the building. I used the dumpster as a boost. I jumped off it, high enough to grab the bottom of the fire escape on the side. I pulled myself up and moved like a stealthy cat, slinking my way up to the roof. I had to jump again at the top of the fire escape to get onto the roof but that wasn’t too much of a problem for me.
On the roof, I moved from skylight to skylight. I finally found out that was open a crack. The glass was dirty and hard to see through but through the crack, I could at least make out some voices. There were only two girls talking, both discussing my laptop. One of them wanted to see if she could take a whirl at it, encryptions were her specialty. They bantered a bit then the first girl handed it over to the second. I frowned, annoyed that I couldn’t see anything. One of those girls had to be Lena but the other one was a mystery to me. I bit my lip, if I wanted to see what was going on I needed to get down there myself.
A noise caught my attention. I turned my head and saw a slight movement behind me. It was a flip and a flash of black and red. I frowned. How the hell did he keep finding me? I watched and waited as the Red Robin slowly made his way across the roof, quietly creeping up next to me. His expertise with the jumps and the flips were starting to impress me.
“You aren’t an acrobat are you?” I asked in jest.
“Maybe in another life.”
I went to the Circus once. The acrobats wore red and green jumpsuits. I tried to imagine him dressed up like that---with a mask of course---but the image was frightening. I made a mental reminder to wash out my brain with something as soon as I got home---loud music might do the trick.
“So who are we watching tonight?” he asked, lifting the skylight lid up a bit.
I cursed but the damage was done. Thankfully the girls down below didn’t hear it. But it did enable me to see them now. There were two of them. They were sitting at a bank of computers, some high-tech ones from the look of them. I’m not a computer person so I don’t know much about those things. But these two apparently did by the way they were talking.
The short brown haired girl was talking about the laptop history. At least the one I was nice enough to supply for Henry. I didn’t give him much so she didn’t tell the other girl much. I looked from one to the other as they talked. The other girl was Hispanic and cute. She knew a lot about this stuff. When she spoke, I couldn’t help but feel a flutter when I heard her accent. It surprised me a bit at first: a British person here, but it takes all kinds I suppose. But what surprised me even more were the words that came out of her mouth next:
“Back in my old life I was actually designing a security program to keep people from hacking into secure bank systems. Who would have thought I’d be the one doing the hacking now.”
Both the girls laughed.
Her old life? I narrowed my gaze. There was something about her. Though she looked to be about sixteen or so it was the way she talked that seemed to floor me. The other girl knew a lot but this girl sounded like a pro. In fact, it sounded like she’d been doing this stuff for years. It made me wonder if I might be dealing with another kindred spirit. I listened some more as the two of them went back into a bunch of computer stuff then turned away, disinterested. I looked at my silent companion. He looked a bit uncomfortable. Probably because he wasn’t off somewhere bashing some one’s skull on the ground. He was kinda cute that why. Wait, I did not just think that? OK, it was true. Even though I could only see the lower part of his face, he was still very cute.
“Give me your rope,” I said, pointing to the coil of thin black climbing rope hanging on his belt.
He frowned. “You want to go down there?”
I nodded. “That laptop has information on it that I need.”
He sighed. Then he took the rope off his belt, slowly unwinding it. He talked me through how to get down there. But all I really wanted to do was use the rope to lower myself down their low enough to jump. I didn’t need a safety lesson. But he gave one nonetheless. His concern for my safety was kinda touching though. I’d only known him officially for a few days but he was already older brothering me. It was kinda cute actually. Here he was playing the big strong man trying to protect little old me. The only problem with that it was that I didn’t need protecting in the least, not anymore and never again.
He hooked the rope to my belt and then lifted the skylight enough for me to squeeze through. I didn’t wait for him to tell me when, instead I dropped. OK, so dropped is the wrong choice of words. I kinda glided into the room below me. Don’t ask me how far of a drop it was because I really don’t know. When I landed, it was so softly that not even I heard it. The two of them had their backs to me, typing away. I unhooked the rope and stood behind them, looming like a spectral interloper.
The Hispanic girl finally spoke again. “Lena, who did you say sent this to you?”
“I didn’t,” she said, “it came from some high school kid; he’s doing a favor for someone.”
The Hispanic girl laughed. “I’m not sure who he’s doing a favor for but whoever it is they definitely know how to get into trouble.”
“You crack the encryption?”
“What do you Yanks say all the time?” she asked, then smiled. “Oh yeah, piece of cake.”
The other girl---Lena---leaned over and looked at the laptop screen. I looked too. It was the same spreadsheet as before, the one that looked like a bunch of numbers to me. But apparently, this British girl knew what was going on. I scanned the screen, looking for names again. One name popped up more often than the others: Friitawa. I vaguely remember that one from before. Something else popped up too: V10. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. That’s where I’d seen that before. The revelation wasn’t a good one either. A chill rang down my spine. My father was somehow involved in all of this Thrill stuff.
“What is this?” asked Lena.
“Evidence” I said, in that cold tone I created for The Bat’s voice.
Both girls jumped about ten feet in the air.
“Bloody hell” snapped the British girl, spinning quickly in her chair.
The other girl spun around too. They took one look at me and the color drained from their faces. There was no light in the room save for the one coming from their computer screens. The only thing it lit up on me was my face. I can’t imagine what thoughts were running through their heads. Neither of them said anything for a few minutes, they just continued to stare at me. Finally, the Hispanic looked at my chest and her eyes got bigger.
“You’re the…” she said.
“The Bat” I said, finishing for her.
The two of them looked me up and down. The other girl, Lena, frowned. “You’re not at all how I pictured you.”
I frowned at that. “Don’t believe everything you hear on TV.”
She nodded. “So this is your business then?”
I nodded my head slightly, trying to be cool. “It might be connected to Thrill.”
Both of them sighed heavily. “That has been a real pain in the ass for us as of late. Rena and I have been trying to track it but whoever is involved can hide their tracks really well. They leave barely any paper trail and any computer activity doesn’t exist.”
“I confiscated this laptop off a criminal called The Cluemaster” Hey why the hell not. “It looks like he may have been keeping records for whoever is in charge of this thing. A few nights ago, I busted up one of their Parks, managed to get a sample of the stuff. It’s being analyzed as we speak. If there’s a trail, I’ll find it.”
Rena and Lena, seriously. That's gotta be really confusing.
Rena smiled big. “You are just like a detective then?”
I shrugged. “I do my part.”
They both smiled. They got over their shock at my arrival quickly after that. Then they both tried to explain what my father, aka The Cluemaster, had done to cover his tracks. I only half paid attention. All I really cared about was what his overall involvement in all of this might be. Dad was a lot of things but a drug dealer, I couldn’t buy that. There had to be more to it than that. I suppose I could pay him a visit but I’m not sure that would solve anything. For one he’d never talk to me---I was the one who put him in there. Going as The Bat was out of the question too, unless I could phase through walls. Asking the police to let me in was out of the question too. Stephanie had pull but The Bat had none. Besides which I was public enemy number one with the Mayor. Apparently, he didn’t like the fact that I was cleaning up the city and doing a better job than he was. The only one who didn’t seem to have a problem with what I was doing was Uncle Jim. He seemed to think The Bat was making a real difference, cleaning up this city like so many had failed to do before.
“Do you want us to put this on a disk for you?” asked Lena, interrupting my thoughts.
I nodded. “I want any information that might lead me to whoever is behind all this.”
They got busy, downloading any info that might help. It didn’t take them very long. When they handed me the disc I put it in one of my pouches. Then they started talking amongst themselves. I thought about taking the laptop but I figured anything I needed was already on the disc. While they talked amongst themselves, I chose that time to make a hasty exit. I grabbed the rope and climbed it quickly, moving so fast that they never heard me disappear. When I got to the stop, I paused and looked down on them.
“Bloody hell” said Rena when she turned around.
I smiled and grabbed the lip of the skylight, pulling myself up the rest of the way. Red Robin was standing there. He held out his hand, I grabbed his wrist and he pulled me up the rest of the way. My cape snagged the corner of the skylight though when I was almost fully through. I slipped and fell forward, ending up on top of him. My face and his were inches apart, our lips almost touching. His arms were draped over my back. A part of me wanted to push away from him immediately. But another part of me wanted to stay there forever. My heart skipped a bit. We stared at one another for the longest time, neither moving or saying a thing.
He spoke first. “Did you get what you needed?”
“I think so,” I said in a voice barely above a whisper.
I started to push up a bit but he grabbed my wrist gently. “You smell really nice.”
I blushed. I was tempted to say something sweet and flirtatious back to him. I opened my mouth to do so when he leaned forward and kissed me. It was a quick kiss. I’m not sure how I felt about it. On one hand, it felt amazing but on the other, he was a stranger. I barely knew him and he was already making a move on me. But I didn’t push away. I wanted too but a small part of me loved that he was so forceful, so bold. I could have kissed him all night. Instead, it lasted only moments and when he pulled away, I felt all fluffy inside. I smiled big. He smiled too.
I leaned in but he stopped me, putting a hand in front of his mouth. I frowned. “We should try this without the masks sometime.”
I smirked. “You first, Bird Boy.”
He opened his mouth for a snappy come back but whatever he was about to say was drowned out by the vibrating of my phone. I cursed and pushed myself off him. I sat up and pulled it from my pouch. I had a pretty good idea I knew who it was from. When I flipped it open and saw the message, I sighed. ANALYSIS COMPLETE, ORACLE. I quickly texted back a reply, removing my glove to do so. I wanted to tell him all about what I had, finally able to contribute to this investigation of ours. It was the first time I’d been able to do so. It was also the first time that I ever texted him. I waited and it didn’t take very long to get a message back:
WE SHOULD SWAP NOTES. I THINK IT’S TIME TO TAKE THIS PARTNERSHIP TO THE NEXT LEVEL. ARE YOU READY TO SEE BEHIND THE CURTAIN, DOROTHY, ORACLE.
I smiled. Another text appeared seconds later with an address. Red Robin tried to look at the message over my shoulder but I snapped the phone shut. I’m not sure why but I wanted this to be my achievement. My heart was pounding in my chest. I was finally going to meet Oracle.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m off to see the Wizard.”
The room was so dark I could barely see anything but I guess that was the point. The lesson was meant for me to stalk around in the dark, getting a feel for my surroundings. The only solace I had was my tonfas but in the dark---not being able to see what was coming---they weren’t really much use. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly, walking like a cat---one foot in front of the other---just like Onyx had showed me. My breathing was the only audible sound I could hear because one can’t really hear the pounding of their own heart. Nevertheless it was thumping in my chest like a drum, keeping in rhythm with my breathing. I’m not afraid to admit that I might have been a tad bit scared of this exercise. The two of us had been building up to it actually. A week ago, Onyx mentioned that I was progressing to the next level and as such, she was going to start teaching me other things.
Today it was about fear. More importantly, it was about using fear as a weapon. The scenario was simple. She set up the training room with a bunch of practice dummies and turned off the lights, making it pitch black. It was my job to weave my way through the dummies without making a sound and doing it solely on instinct. Before the lights had gone off, she gave me about a minute to memorize the room, making sure I could get a good idea where every single dummy was. As soon as my minute was up she shut the lights off and the room plunged into darkness. Simple enough task. But that was only part of it. The other part was avoiding her. Somewhere in this darkness, lurking, was Onyx. Her objection was to strike without warning, trying to catch me off guard. The real goal of this exercise was to teach me that I could use my environment to scare my opponent. She claimed it was the key to using fear as a weapon.
So far, the only one scared was me.
I knew I shouldn’t have been but I couldn’t help it. Onyx has been training me for weeks now, honing my skills like fine dagger points. If it wasn’t martial arts it was weapons training. If it wasn’t that then it was exercising. It was all in an attempt to make me better than I was. It was working too. She said I was a Grade A pupil, one of the best she’d ever had. Not that she ever mentioned other students of hers. She said I impressed her so much that she wanted to pass on more of her wisdom to me. That’s how I ended up in this position in the first place. She didn’t even give me a chance to say yes or no. She pushed me right into it. She said it was like a Mother bird pushing her baby out of the nest for the first time. None of this would have come about if I hadn’t told her about my meeting with Oracle.
Last night was when Red Robin and I went to the warehouse. I was anxious all through school today, a ball of excitement. I’d been texting with this person for almost a month now. I think it was about time the two of us should meet. I didn’t tell anyone though. When I say anyone, I mean Jen of course. I did tell her about the laptop though and what Lena or rather what Rena had found out. It wasn’t really much. I looked at the disc when I got home last night actually. Most of it was numbers I didn’t understand but one name kept coming up over and over again: Frittawa. I tried looking the name up on the Internet but I didn’t get any hits. I even tried the phone book with no such luck. Whoever this Frittawa person was they were more of a ghost than Oracle. Well maybe not that bad but it was pretty close. It made me wonder who exactly I was dealing with here.
After school today, I went right to Onyx as usual. I told her all about last night, including the text message.
“We need to step things up a notch then kid,” she had said.
This was far above the notch I was expecting.
I took another breath, walking blindly. I walked right into a dummy and cursed. As soon as I did so, I realized my mistake. I was supposed to be quiet. I reacted a second too late when the attack came. Onyx snapped out at me, her fist driving into the side of my head. I stumbled into another dummy, getting tangled up in his limbs. We both went crashing to the ground, it falling on top of me. A blue light shined on my face, framing Onyx as she stood over me.
She shook her head. “You got distracted.”
I frowned. “I was thinking about yesterday.”
She shook her head again, pulling the dummy off me. She didn’t help me up but I didn’t need it. I flipped up to my feet as she set the dummy back up. Her light clicked off, shrouding the room in darkness again.
“You need to concentrate,” said her voice, echoing in the darkness. “Clear your mind and think of only the now.”
I groaned. Whatever you say, Yoda.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. I needed to concentrate and listen. I counted off in my head, down from ten. Then I started walking with my eyes closed, using my other senses. The room was deathly still, not a single sound but my own breathing. But I knew that was impossible of course. This wasn’t the first exercise we’d done with the lights off. I knew from her teaching that there is no place without some sound. That’s why I closed my eyes and concentrated. I reached out with my ears. In the corner there was a beetle scampering across the ground, barely audible. The wind was blowing too. I blocked those two things out and found the third sound in the room. It was faint but it was there. It was another set of breathing. I smiled and went for it. When I opened my eyes, I was partially adjusted to the darkness now.
I could almost see the faint outlines of the dummies. This time I was able to weave through them. I followed the faint sound. I was coming up on a dummy, just like all the others but there was something different about it. It seemed larger than the others, had more shape. I smiled. It was her. She was hiding amongst them. That’s why she was able to get the drop on me so quickly. I moved toward it, preparing my tonfa to strike. When I was almost upon it, I felt the wind shift behind me. I caught a slight movement out of the corner of my eye. I snapped around at the last second, blocking the blow that was coming for me. The dummy in front was clearly a decoy. I blocked Onyx’s blow. She rolled around, disappearing into the dummies again. I felt the air move with her. She came again, trying to get behind me again. I lashed out this time, hitting flesh. I think it was her ribs. She made no sound. She moved again, trying to sweep my legs out from under me. I jumped over the kick, swinging my tonfa again. I caught more flesh, this time something hard, like her skull. I heard her gasp and stumble back. For a minute there, I thought I hurt her until I heard her laugh.
The blue light back, hitting me in the face. “Sloppy but much better.”
I frowned. “How is scaring me to death helping me learn to use fear as a weapon.”
She smiled. “You know fear now and can use that fear as a weapon.”
“Bumbling around in the dark is good and all but I can’t use my senses all the time to guide me.”
She nodded. She walked across the room, the little blue light dancing as she did so. I realized what she doing and closed my eyes, preparing myself. I opened them slowly as the light exploded around me. It took me a few second to adjust to it, blinking several times. I got my first look at the dummies again. In front of me was the one she used to trick me. I realized my mistake right away. All the other dummies were female except this one. It was almost the only other one that was clothed. How had I not noticed that before? I frowned and wove my way carefully through the rows, not bumping a single dummy as I did so. I made my way over to where Onyx was standing.
When I got to her, she pulled open the door and I followed her into the next room. This room was one of many that led off the training room. This particular one contained a lot of the weapons we used to train with. Most of them were used for training but there were several real and deadly ones hanging on the walls. Lots of different kinds of swords and staves and things like that. Toward the back of the room was a metal case, it looked out of place with the rest of the Japanese inspired hardware. She walked over to it and opened it up, reaching inside. She pulled out a pair of goggles with green lenses. They looked like something I might wear in a pool.
She turned and tossed them at me. I caught them in one hand.
“You’re giving me your old pool goggles?”
She laughed. “Those aren’t for swimming, kid. They’re a pair of goggles given to me when I worked for the League.”
I almost dropped them, fearing they might sting me or something. Holding them made me really nervous. The League was bad, really bad. When she told me about her past, I thought she was fucking with me until she showed me the scars. They were the scars given to her when she told her Boss she was leaving. They tried to kill her. Apparently, no one left the League. I didn’t know the whole story but she managed to fight off her attackers and lived to tell the tale. I’m not sure how they let her get away but seeing as she was here they must have. She didn’t like to talk about it much other than to say that the League of Assassins was very real and very dangerous. Sounds like a joke, right, but I’ve seen what she can do and it’s no joke. If she said she was a killer before then I believed her.
“So what are they, then?”
She smiled. “Night vision.”
I frowned. “Aren’t those supposed to be all big and bulky?”
She nodded. “Not these ones. They’re not exactly on the market, not even the military has anything this high-tech.”
“Then where did you get them?”
She shrugged. “I have my sources.”
“And you’re giving them to me?”
“You need them more than I do kid.”
An awkward silence fell over the room then. During which I returned my tonfas to their rightful place and pocketed the goggles. After that, the two of us returned to the main room. I helped her put away her dummies. When we were done, it was time for me to go. I looked at my watch as I headed into the room to change. I cursed. I was just going to have enough time to make it to meet with Oracle. My heart skipped a beat as I changed as quickly as I could.
It was snowing when I left Onyx’s. It was a light snow, barely staying on the ground for more than two seconds but it was snow nonetheless. I groaned regardless. But as long as it wasn’t as bad as last winter, I’d take a little snow. I just pulled the collar of my coat up a little more and kept my head down as I made my way to my car. There wasn’t enough snow to give it a brush down so I just put on the wipers, turned on the lights and pulled out my cell. I checked the text to make sure I knew where I was going. It seemed weird to be meeting in such a public place but I guess there was really no need for secrecy. After all, he already knew who I was.
I pulled up in front of our meeting place. To call it top secret would be the biggest joke in the world. There was nothing top secret at all about a standard coffee shop. Yeah, I said coffee shop. I staked the place out before going to Onyx---I wanted to know where he was sending me---I was pretty shocked when I saw it. It’s not exactly the most secretive of places for a clandestine meeting with a top secret computer hacker. But I suppose he was a bit paranoid. I guess it’s better to meet in the open like this than in some place where I might “kill” him. Not that I ever would but who knows with this guy. I mean his standard mode of contact was through text messages.
I found a spot to park in front of the shop. I took a deep breath as I exited, making sure I knew what I was getting myself into. After all I was about to meet the man who’d been cyber stalking me pretty much. What do you call texts from a stranger? Text Stalking?
Anyway, I wasn’t sure if I was ready for this but seeing as I was already here, I didn’t have much of a choice. So I got out of my car---making sure the doors were locked---and approached the building. It had large glass windows in the front so I could see everyone inside. It looked like a little Parisian outdoor café except it was inside instead of out. Through the glass, I could see the back wall was a huge painted mural of Paris, complete with Eiffel Tower. I suppose it made sense, considering the place was called Le Coffee Shop. I rolled my eyes at the little sign above the door as I opened it.
There weren’t a lot of people inside. I scanned the faces, trying to see if any one of them met my eyes. I’m not sure what I was expecting or rather who. I looked from one person to the next but none of them seemed like the type. I even looked at the man behind the counter---the barista I guess he was called. He was wearing a black and white striped shirt with a black beret, I guess to match the whole Paris theme. He looked like a Mime. I shuddered at the thought. I looked from him and found my eyes drifting to the far corner. There was a person sitting there, a paper obscuring their face. I took a deep breath, knowing this had to be my guy. I wove through the tables, heading toward the corner. As I got closer, two things stood out to me immediately: one it was feminine hands holding the paper and two the person wasn’t sitting in a chair.
There was only one chair at the table, meant for me. The other person didn’t need a chair because they were in a wheel chair. What are the odds? I took another deep breath and slipped into the chair. As soon as I did so, the paper lowered and I let out a gasp.
“Hey Steph” said Babs with a big smiled on her face. “Did you find the place all right?”
I was speechless. I guess shock is the proper word. I blinked a few times and looked around. This had to be some kind of joke. She smiled at my confusion, which confused me even more. I looked down at the table in front of her. Besides the cup of coffee there was a cell sitting there. It couldn’t be.
“You” I said, finally finding my voice. “You’re Oracle?”
She smiled. “I know what you’re thinking and you’re right, I don’t seem the type but I assure you I am the person you came here looking for.”
“I don’t understand” I said, still a bit shocked.
She smiled and nodded. “I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you the truth right away but I wanted to make sure you were serious about all this. Your counterpart is a little bit of an ass, too brash and gung ho. I needed to know if you were in it for the glory or for making a difference. You’ll be happy to know I’ve decided that you’re not a glory hound.”
I nodded. “I’m still not sure what’s going on here?”
She picked up her coffee and took a sip. “You want one?” I shook my head so she continued talking. “It all started all those years ago when that son of a bitch shot me. While I was lying in that hospital, in that bed, feeling sorry for myself I came to an epiphany. I wanted to make sure that scumbags like him never did what he did again. So I got better, went through my therapy, both physical and mental then dedicated my life to making guys like him suffer. It was small stuff at first. Then things started to escalate over the years. I’ve always been good with computers but I learned so much more, honing my skills until I was the best there ever was. When the Metas started popping up last Fall, I knew it was a sign. That’s when he sought me out.”
“He?” I asked but I already knew the answer somehow. “You mean the Bat?”
She nodded. “Your former employer needed someone with my skill to help him make this city a better place. The two of us formed an unlikely partnership. I became the “Oracle”, the all seeing, all knowing Eyes of the city, locating the bad guys for him to take out. He became the enforcer, dealing out the justice that I couldn’t and that he trained for. We were a good team too until he got hurt back in August. With him out of the picture I thought we were done until the other showed up.”
She nodded. “He had fire and passion but no heart. He was violent and brutal but uncaring. I tried to guide him but he barely listened to me. He kinda annoyed me a bit. Even after I met with him he still only half listened to what I’m telling you know.”
I interrupted. “You know who he is?” I asked, blushing.
She sighed. “Stay away from him, Steph, he’s damaged goods.
Nothing good will come from a relationship with him.”
I sighed but then remembered something. “You scolded me for what I did back at the warehouse in the beginning.”
She nodded. “I was trying to protect you.”
“I don’t need it anymore.”
She shook her head. “You might be pretty good right now but you’re still vulnerable. That’s why Bruce” she said his name in a soft whisper. “tried to talk you out of it. We argued a bit after you stormed out of the Manor. I told him you were ready and just needed a chance to prove yourself but he wanted no part in it.”
“But you contacted me anyway?”
She nodded. “He wasn’t happy, especially when the press started calling you the Bat. He wanted me to pull the plug, he threatened to tell Dad. But I think he was pleased too. Even though he was against it, he was happy too. I mean who else could have convinced Onyx Addams to take you on as a student.”
“Wait what?” I said. “I thought that was you?”
She laughed. “I wish. I told you to seek her out but I never thought she’d take you on.”
“But you told me where to find her.”
She shook her head. “Not me.”
Realization dawned on me just there. Oh my God, it was Bruce. I smiled at that.
She cleared her throat. “Ok, so enough of all that” She said, bending to the side and pulling something from her messenger bag. She placed a large manila envelope on the table.
So now that pleasantries were over it was down to business. Looking at the woman sitting across from me it was hard to see Barbara there at all. My cousin was usually a lot more carefree and laid back compared to this person sitting before me. I’d like to say this woman here was the fake but I’m guessing it was the other way around. Here was the real Barbara Gordon, the one born when she was put in that wheelchair. Her hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail; she was wearing a purple turtleneck and jeans. She looked like she was ready for work. She got right to it too, pulling things out of the folder and laying them on the table.
I looked around, surprised. “We’re doing this here?”
She nodded. “Contrary to Internet rumors, there’s no cave that The Bat hides out in. We don’t have a secret headquarters either.”
“Why not your apartment then?”
“Public places are better, I have more control.”
I didn’t understand what she was talking about until I looked at her cell. It was a little more advanced than mine. I couldn’t help but think that she was somehow using it to monitor everything that was going on in the room. I looked up to the ceiling, seeing the security cameras. I couldn’t help but wonder if she tapped into them. I also couldn’t help but wonder why this place was more secure than her own?
She interrupted my thoughts, putting a picture in front of me. I looked down and saw the whitest woman I’d ever seen. I’m not talking Caucasian either. She was white, white like a sheet. Her hair was a light blonde too, almost as white as her skin. She was dressed in a lab coat, wearing dark sunglasses.
“This is Dr. Linda Friitawa,” she said, passing the picture to me.
The name I recognized immediately. “I know her. Her name appeared several times in the files on Dad’s laptop.”
Barbara nodded. “I figured as much. In the criminal underworld, she’s known as Dr. Fright. She used to be a geneticist, working for the government. Her partner was a Dr. Randolph Porter. Together the two of them were working on a drug for the government; they called it “Venom”. It was supposed to revolutionize soldiers on the battlefield. But the two of them argued with how to implement it. Dr. Fright wanted to distribute it on the streets, using the city as her test subjects. But Porter wanted in lab trials on inmates. They parted ways, each conducting their own research.” She passed me some other photos, a couple of girls I didn’t know but looked about my age and a really nasty looking guy in an orange jumpsuit.
“Porter continued to work on inmates, this man here was his prime patient” She tapped the pic of the guy in orange. “Fright moved onto distributing her drug elsewhere, first in pill form. There was an incident some months ago involving a health spa and some girls about your age. It didn’t end well. The government thought Porter was involved so they asked Bruce to gather evidence for them.”
“Is that how he got hurt?”
She nodded. “Dr. Porter was in the midst of injecting his subject with his first batch when Bruce interrupted. There was an accident and the doctor was killed. The subject woke and took out his anger and frustration on Bruce. It took a very skilled and powerful government agent to take him down. Before Bruce lost consciousness he was able to salvage Porter’s work and download a copy of it himself before the government confiscated it. The two of us soon learned that though there were similarities, the drug that harmed those girls was not Dr. Porter’s strand.”
I nodded. “It was Dr. Fright’s?”
Barbara smiled. “The pills weren’t as nearly as effective as the doctor wanted so she changed the formula, creating an injectable liquid instead. She also moved onto her original plan and got it distributed into the city, as V-10 or as it’s more commonly known as “Thrill.” I think you know the rest of that story?”
I nodded. “So do we know the distributor finally?”
She shook her head. “No but I think I might have locked down an address for Dr. Fright.”
I smiled. “I think it’s time The Bat paid her a visit.”
“It’s freezing” I muttered, rubbing my hands along my arms.
Babs laughed and said, “You’re the one who refused to allow me to retrofit that suit of yours.”
Her voice was small and in my ear only, coming from the Bluetooth. She made me wear it at all times now so the two of us could remain in constant contact. It was her attempt to be a part of the action, according to her. She tried to talk Bruce into the same thing but he didn’t like the idea of her in his head, second guessing everything. Now I knew exactly what he meant. Not that it wasn’t comforting in a way. It was kinda nice knowing that she had my back, even though she was nice and warm in her apartment, sometimes on the other side of the city.
“I couldn’t insult Jen by letting you change everything,” I said, in reference to her supposed retrofit.
After she told me about “Dr. Fright”, she insisted on aiding me in the cause. A lot more than just information apparently. She’d been in talks with some of her contacts, trying to get me resources I might not have access to otherwise. I’m not sure what these resources were but one of them was to make me a new suit. She sat she liked the look---black worked for me---but the design was too fragile. She didn’t like the fact that I was gallivanting around the city with nothing but thin leather to protect me. But to change the suit after Jen spent so much time making it for me, it was kinda insulting. I reluctantly declined her offer---as nice as it sounded.
That was two days ago. And in the two days since, the weather had taken a turn for the worse. It was like last winter all over again except without a lot of snow. There was no snow but it was the cold that was a bitch. The leather wasn’t all that warm and my cape did little to hide things. When I say things well let’s just say that I could cut glass with my nipples most nights and leave it at that. Breathing into my gloved hands only helped so much. I could rub my arms all I wanted but nothing seemed to keep away the bitterness of it all. When I breathed, my breath came out in little clouds. Every time I took a breath, it was like sucking the whole of winter into my lungs.
“How’s the view?” asked Babs, changing the subject.
I lowered my night vision goggles back over my eyes and looked across the street. At least it was something to keep my mind off the cold. For the last two days, I’d been like a second shadow to Dr. Linda Friitawa. Why a shadow and not a thorn; well that was Babs idea. We both knew how guilty the damn woman was but we didn’t want her. As guilty as she was, we were after bigger fish. The biggest in fact. It was Babs’ hope that the good doctor would lead me right to the source. But so far the only place she seemed to like to go was around the block and then back home. I mentioned this to Babs---thinking maybe she was on to us---but my cousin was certain was just covering her tracks well.
It turns out Babs was half right. Tonight we were at a different place. Like aforementioned shadow, I followed close behind as she left her apartment and went some place new. This place was in a seedier part of the Narrows, a place that not even the scum dared to go. A lot of this area was under the jurisdiction of the drug lords, led by Carmine Falcone and his brood. No one in their right mind dared to come here. Except disgraced albino doctors apparently. And of course black leather-clad vigilantes who were currently freezing their asses off. I had to wonder how the Red Robin was dodging such a scene. Ever since our visit to the warehouse and the quick kiss or two we shared on the roof, he had completely disappeared. Seeing as I didn’t know how to get in contact with him, I had no way to know if he was insulted by what transpired.
Typical male I guess. He kisses me and then runs off before we can discuss it further. Not that I knew what there was to discuss. I barely knew him---in fact, I only had ever really seen half his face so I didn’t even know if he was handsome or not. The only thing I did know was that he was a damn good kisser.
“She’s on the move,” said Babs' voice, cutting into my thoughts.
I groaned. “If you’re going to tap into the local security cameras then why do you need me to spy for you?”
“Because you’re daydreaming” was her curt response. “Your target would have slipped right under your nose.”
I didn’t have a response for that. Instead, I looked at the building. I could in fact see movement on the top floor window, someone moving past the last window on the right. Though the goggles illuminated things rather nicely, I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. I suppose I’d have to defer to Babs’ judgment on this one.
“What does the Great Oracle see inside?” I asked.
“Not much I’m afraid,” she said quickly. “There’s one camera in the room and it’s in a bad position. I see the doctor---I think but she’s half obscured by a dresser.”
A dresser? ‘I’m going to go in for a closer look.”
Babs sighed. “Ok but be careful.”
“Aren’t I always” I said, then clicked off the Bluetooth.
I took it out of my ear and returned it to a pouch. I didn’t want to lose it considering what I was about to do. I took a deep breath and leaned forward, dropping straight off the building. I fell a full story before landing like a graceful cat on the top of a street light. I was there for maybe thirty second before I launched myself into the air, gliding smoothly across the small gap between the two buildings. Remember they called this place the Narrows because the buildings were so close together. I landed on a windowsill, turning quickly on my heel and jumping straight up. I caught the next sill and pulled up effortlessly. I didn’t stay there for long, climbing to the next window and the next before I grabbed the edge of the roof and pulled up onto it.
When I was fully on the roof, I retrieved the Bluetooth and put it back in my ear.
“Show off” scoffed Babs in playful annoyance.
I looked across the street and spotted the camera. It was small and barely noticeable, probably there to warn the occupants of the building the police were on the way. When I got here, I know for a fact that she hacked it and replayed a feed loop so it looked like all was quiet outside. It was amazing how I could have done any of this without her---she was like Rambo but with a computer. I made sure she saw me through the little camera lens and waved, plastering a big smile on my face.
“Stop screwing around, I need better eyes on that room.”
I looked across the roof and spotted a hatch. “I’ve got an entry; your eyes will be up soon.”
I ran lightly across the roof, barely making a sound. I was almost to the roof hatch when it opened all by itself. I dropped and rolled, coming up in front of it. I caught the Hippo masked goon by surprise. He didn’t even have a chance to react before I punched him hard in the face. When his head jerked back, I grabbed it and slammed it hard into the roof’s paved surface. The impact knocked him unconscious. I slipped my hands under his armpits and pulled him fully onto the roof. Then I secured his hands behind his back with plasticuffs before slipped down the hatch, leaving him to the cold.
“Another damn animal mask” I said when I dropped soundlessly to the floor.
“Stay focused,” said Babs.
I frowned as I slipped down the dark hall. Well dark for everyone else but actually green for me through the goggles. I moved with the greatest of ease, the only sound was the flapping of my cape. I went from wall to wall, inching slowly along until I got to the room in question. When I peered around the doorframe, the entire room was in view now. It was set up like a bedroom except there was no bed frame for the bed. There was a mattress though and the dresser she saw. In the window was in fact a person but there was no way that Babs could have seen this person move. I cursed, pulling my head out of the room.
“It’s a dead end,” I said, cursing again.
“What do we got?”
“Empty room, one goon. He’s currently counting hippo mask wearing sheep on the roof. The person in the window was a mannequin.”
This time Babs cursed. “You’re right, she probably caught on to us and led you here as a diversion.”
Babs sighed. Back to the drawing board.”
Son of a bitch. I was so close too. I slipped back down the hall and jumped back up through the hatch. The goon was still where I left him. I wondered how much he might know but if she left him here for me to find it probably wasn’t much. I cursed a third time. Stupid bitch knew I was coming which meant she was a lot smarter than I thought. I guess that just went I’d have to up my A Game a bit.
Bring it on.
It was snowing pretty hard as I slipped through the top floor window into the room. I had to be careful because even though I knew the place was deserted, I had the police to contend with now. I pulled my goggles down over my eyes, turning them on as I did so. Immediately the darkness was lit up in green. I took a moment to collect myself before I began to look around. My breath was visible as it left my mouth and it felt colder than last night. I pulled my cape around me, trying to not to think about the cold or my nipples poking against the leather. I guess I should have taken Babs up on the new upgrade offer. But doing so probably would have put me out of commission for a few days and right now that was something that I couldn’t do.
So I gritted my teeth and took the cold.
“What are we looking for?” I asked as I scanned the room, still crouched in front of the window.
Babs' voice came back a few second later. “Anything we might have missed last night.”
I nodded. After leaving this place last night---having not caught the doctor like we wanted---Babs and I had a talk at her place. It was clear that Dr. Fright had set us up. I should have known something was up when she kept leading me around in circles for the last few days. I’m not sure how she knew we were on to her but it was clear she wasn’t as stupid as I originally thought. During our discussion last night, Babs was surprised she didn’t lead us into a bigger trap though. It was clear the doctor wasn’t one of those mustache twirling, black hat type of villains or else the room would have exploded as soon as I walked into it. But she was smart. As soon as I was only a house or two away, I heard the sirens. When I got to Babs, it was already on the news. Apparently, the doctor called the police, tipping them off that I was going to be there. So definitely not stupid.
“We’re getting close to something” was Babs’ response and that’s why I was back here tonight. She was convinced the building was more than just a place to set me up. So after a bit of arguing---I thought it was pointless---I found myself back at this dead end. Looking around the room, it was clear the police had already gone over every inch of it with a fine toothed comb. There was yellow crime tape on the door and those little yellow markers you see on crime shows. It was clear the police had found something here, something I’d been stupid enough to leave behind. I knew from the news that the guy I beat up on the roof was now in police custody but he wasn’t talking. Not that he could. Apparently, I got the drop on him so he didn’t see a thing. The police thought he might be working for me, which was a joke.
“What do you see?” asked Babs, cutting into my thoughts.
I sighed. I did a quick preliminary scan of the room. There was nothing. I stood up and started walking about, making sure not to disturb anything the police forensic team might have set up. I pulled open the dresser drawers but found nothing. Then I checked the sofa, thoroughly going over every inch of it. I looked at the mannequin in the window, the one that fooled Babs last night. When I got to her place, I had a laugh at her expense about it. She hadn’t been amused. There were a few pictures on the walls but nothing behind them. Then I saw a desk in the corner that looked rather promising. I opened the two drawers but they were empty. As I ran my fingers gently underneath the edge of it, I heard a faint click. At first, I thought it was a little catch I discovered, maybe a hidden compartment in the desk itself. Then I realized it was actually coming from behind me.
I cursed my stupidity. I guess I should have checked the hallway first. Because I wasn’t alone in this place.
My body seized up and I slowly turned around, weighing my options in my head. I was one girl and whoever it was had a gun. When I was fully turned around, the figure took a step forward. In the dark, he probably couldn’t see me very well but I could see him. I groaned inwardly. It was that Detective from the hospital, Nick Gage, the one that was in charge of the Thrill Task Force. I cursed again. What the hell was he doing here? I looked from his face to the gun in his hand. It was then that I realized it wasn’t pointed at me. He was looking past me; I turned and followed his gaze. I had left the window open, the snow and the wind was coming in. The shabby curtain was flapping. I rolled my eyes, realizing my rookie mistake.
Gage sighed and holstered his weapon, walking across the room. He walked right past me without reacting. It was apparently dark enough not to see me, which was a good thing. I watched as he shut the window and cursed.
“You’re jumping at shadows, Nicky,” he said softly to himself.
I made a split second decision. I pulled my goggles up, took a deep breath and responded. “Not shadows, Detective,” I said, using that dark and sinister voice I created for this persona. “Something much scarier.”
He snapped around quickly. I could barely see him move in the dark but I heard him wrestle his gun out of the holster. A second later, a small light cut through the darkness. The beam swept toward me but I side stepped it. “Who’s there?” he demanded, in a shaky but commanding voice.
I stepped softly through the room, getting close to his left ear. “I think you know who I am, Detective.”
He snapped around, raising the gun. I snapped my hand onto his wrist, quickly disarming him. He stumbled back, bumping into the dresser. He cursed. The beam went up and hit me in the face. Then ever so slower, it moved down the length of my body to the tips of my boots. “You” he finally said, surprised. He recovered quickly. “You’re interfering in official police business. This is an active crime scene, if you don’t…”
I interrupted. “I know your procedure and frankly I don’t give a damn.”
It took him a few seconds to response. “Then you know you’re interfering with an active, ongoing investigation.”
I sighed. Then I slowly walked around so I stood in front of him. “A few weeks ago your Task Force got an anonymous tip in the mail, photos of a delivery truck, showing crates and men in animal masks. Did they not?”
He nodded. “How did you know that?”
I smirked. “Because I was the one who took them.” I let that little revelation sink in for a few moments then continued. “Without me, Detective, your investigation would be going nowhere.”
He paused, thinking over his words carefully. “Why would you be helping us?”
I rolled my eyes. “Because contrary to what you believe, I am not above the law, Detective. I’m not out to make enemies out of the Chicago Police Force. We’re on the same side and we both want the same thing.”
“To get Thrill off the streets.”
He sat on the edge of the dresser, relaxing a bit, dropping his guard. “Is this the part where we decide to work together, pool our resources.”
I shrugged. “That depends on you and what information you have.”
He sighed. “Not much I’m afraid.”
I weighed my options. Babs had already tapped into the police computers and he wasn’t lying. We were both on the right track but he didn’t have nearly as much as I did. He did however have the resources and connections I did not. Babs said there wasn’t much she couldn’t do with computers but she wanted to avoid doing anything overtly illegal with them. This wasn’t like a comic book where we could hack government systems all willy nilly---her words, not mine---without getting caught. This was the real world and like the real world, there were bad consequences for doing stuff like that.
I decided to throw him a bone. “Dr. Linda Friitawa”
It took him a few seconds to realize I was sharing. As soon as he did realize it, he took out a pen and scribbled the name down. “What’s her take in all this?”
“She’s a chemist. She used to work for Alva but now she’s on her own. She’s the one behind Thrill. This whole thing is a demented experiment of hers.”
Gage sighed heavily. “And this place?”
“I’ve been tracking her activities as of late. She led me here last night but it was a dead end. She must have slipped out the back because there was only a goon here when I got here.”
He nodded. “We found a secret door leading from this place. It led to an alley.”
He started asking more questions but I only half paid attention to them. Instead, I turned away from him and pulled my goggles back down. I scanned the room. I walked to the hallway and looked down it; there were two more rooms I didn’t bother to check last night. He figured out pretty quickly that I wasn’t there so he followed. His flashlight beam cut around the darkness behind me but I paid it little attention. I pushed open the first door on the left but the room was barren. The second room was the same. The third one was the last in the hall. When I opened the door and looked inside, I saw the door in question. The forensic team had been here too because there was more yellow tape across the doorway. I stepped under it and slipped inside. Gage sighed but followed.
“There’s nothing here,” he said. “My team went over every inch of this place.”
I nodded. “But that’s when you thought you were looking for me.”
I walked through the room to the door. I looked through it, seeing a staircase leading to a narrow entryway below. Just like he said. I pulled my head back inside and looked around some more. He was right; there was nothing of interest here. “What did you get out of the roof goon?”
He shook his head. “I can’t discuss that with you.”
I turned to him; he lowered his light so as not to blind me. I searched his face and found the answer I was looking for. “He didn’t talk did he?” Gage said nothing, I smirked.
“Get me into the room with him; I’ll get him to talk.”
Gage sighed. “He wouldn’t say much of anything. But he kept talking about someone in a mask. Apparently, they all wear masks, so no faces. But the guy in charge, his mask is black, looks like a wicked skull. We thought he was messing with us.”
Black mask huh? I shook my head. “That’s your man. Too many masks to be a coincidence.”
He nodded. “It doesn’t matter; my boss thinks it’s a load of bull.”
“Go over his head. Take what you know to the Commissioner.”
“He’ll never listen to me.”
“Yes he will” I said, “Gordon is a good man. He wants to catch these guys as much as you do. I assure you he will listen.”
Gage nodded. “What about you?”
“I’m going to find the doctor.”
He nodded. “How can I find you so we can swap notes?”
I stepped backwards, allowing the shadow to consume me. “I’ll find you.”
“You’re sure we’re not cutting into valuable scum bag seeking time?” asked Jen as I down the driver’s side window.
I frowned and shook my head. “I think the city can wait a few hours while me and my BFF go shopping.”
She ran around to the other side and got in. I waited until her seat belt was on before I drove us to our destination. Today was Girl’s Day Out. I tried to talk Babs into joining us but she had some schoolwork she had to catch up on. She had other work too, but she didn’t say what that might be. I think the two of us had been working too hard but I wasn’t able to convince her of that. It took Jen about a week and a half to convince me of it, actually. That’s how long it’s been since Dr. Fright gave me the slip. The day after I spoke to Detective Gage, Babs and I put all our resources into picking up the doctor’s trail again but with no luck. She knew I had been following her before and led me to a dead end then she went underground. Babs exhausted every resource she had but no one had heard a thing. I did the same, not that I had any resources. Since that day, I stalked every single place I thought she might turn up. My only ally besides “Oracle” was Red Robin.
But he was in the same boat as me. For the last few nights though, the two of us had pretty much succeeded in putting an end to most of the Parks. Our exploits were plastered across every headline and all over the news now. If the druggies weren’t in jail, they were running scared. Last night was so dead that the two of us actually had an impromptu make out session. I’m not sure how that one started but it almost ended with me pulling off my cowl and showing him who I really was. It never got that far though; he pulled away when he realized what I’d been trying to do. He said that the mystery was half the fun but it was driving me nuts. It was bad enough that I had to live a dual life, lying to my uncle. Keeping my mouth shut when other girls started talking about the cool Bat. But to have to hide my face and lie to him as well, it was starting to get to me.
The lies were starting to get to me.
The only one who didn’t seem to care either way was Detective Gage. After our first meeting, I sent him another peace offering: a copy of what I got off the laptop. He put it to good use almost immediately. The police were able to put people on the shipping routes. They had already seized several of those big white trucks and busted up two warehouses where the drug was being stored. For once, I was happy that this was ending. We were hurting Thrill and it felt good. It was starting to show, too. The other night, Red Robin and I busted up a Park where they actually had some masked goons as guards. Which meant we were scaring someone. The guards were armed with machine guns but it didn’t take us long to make short work of them. It felt good to make this “Black Mask” character suffer. There was going to be a whole lot more suffering for him as soon as I got my hands on him, too. Gage was only too happy to help. Since our first meeting, the two of us had met three more times, each at different locations, all of Babs’ choosing. She still didn’t trust him. I think she thought he was going to lead me into an ambush and have his men arrest me but I knew better. I’m not sure how I knew but there wasn’t something about the detective that told me he was a good guy.
“Earth to Steph” said Jen, waving her hand in front of my face.
It was a good thing we were no longer driving or my daydreaming could have been dangerous.
“Sorry” I said, unbuckling my seatbelt. “I was just thinking.”
“You’ve been spacing out a lot lately; work isn’t getting to you, is it?”
I shook my head. “Just have a lot on my mind?”
She nodded. “How are things with Onyx?”
Onyx and I were doing good. Aside from all my nocturnal activities, training with Onyx was definitely keeping me busy. You’d think with everything on my plate---training, Bat activities, schoolwork---I’d be burned out. But I was able to find a balance between it all that worked nicely. I had a few hours after training where I was able to do schoolwork; then I hit the nights for a few hours before coming home and going to bed. But I could definitely use a vacation. It was nearing the end of November now. The Talent Show was a week away then there were two more weeks before mid-terms and Winter Break. I’m not usually one to celebrate things like that, but I could definitely use that Break. Most of my friends already had plans---Jen was going skiing in Aspen, Arnold was going to visit his grandparents, even Henry was going somewhere.
Jen frowned. “You work too hard.”
I sighed then smiled. “But not today I’m not, today I’m all yours.”
Gotta love Saturdays, right?
We were a whirlwind after that. Jen had finally gotten into the shopping spirit. Before, it was hard to get her to go into any of the stores I wanted but now she was the one dragging me to them. I think she liked that I was now a real girl. Not that I wasn’t before but I had been a little self conscious about some of the places. Like Victoria’s Secret for instance, I never would have gone in there. Now I didn’t even bat an eyelash when we went inside. It was the same with the other stores that I was uncomfortable going in to. Before I felt like an interloper but now, I felt like I belonged there.
The two of us spent two good hours shopping---mainly window shopping but it was still fun. We went from one store to the next, browsing the wares. We were having so much fun that I was bound to not pay attention to what I was doing. I had dragged Jen into a motorcycle supply store. I’d been thinking about it a lot lately. I was convinced that my Focus was hardly a vehicle to be driving around as The Bat. It was actually Babs who suggested I think about maybe a motorcycle. I suppose it made sense---it was fast, could get into places that cars could not and seemed to be a favorite of other crime fighters. Apparently, a certain green clad archer drove one, so if it was good enough for her then it was good enough for me too.
I was browsing through the aisle of motorcycle jackets when I bumped into someone. He groaned and winced. I looked up to apologize when I found myself face to face with Tim.
“Watch where you’re….” he started but stopped when he saw me. “Oh, Stephanie”
“Tim” I said with about as much enthusiasm as he had just shown me.
“What are doing in here?”
I glared at him. “Shopping.”
He looked really confused. He opened his mouth to say something else but winced. At first, I thought I hurt him when I ran into him. But there was no way walking into him would have done that. I looked him up and down. He was clutching his side, trying to hide it but not doing a very good job. When he saw me looking, he dropped his hand but the damage had already been done.
“Did you do something to your side?” I asked with genuine concern.
He shook his head. “It’s nothing. I took a spill on the bike the other day.”
I looked closer. I could tell it wasn’t nothing. There was strain in his voice. “It’s not nothing.”
Jen decided to come up behind me just about then. “Wow, you don’t look so good” she said, noticing him wincing and how pale he looked. “You should go see a doctor.”
“I’m fine,” he said, trying to push past the two of us.
We stood our ground.
“You’re not fine,” I said as I grabbed his arm and dragged him out of the store.
Jen followed closely on our heels. I dragged him the few blocks back to my Focus. I forced him into the backseat against his protests. He was more worried about his stupid motorcycle then his own safety. He refused to go anywhere until Jen agreed to stay behind to look after it. With that settled, I got behind the wheel and drove him to Leslie’s. When I pulled up in front of the clinic a few minutes later, I felt kinda bad. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been here. It wasn’t that I was avoiding the place but I’d been so busy with everything that I just didn’t have the time to come anymore. Not that she needed me anymore anyway. I ran into Holly a few weeks ago and she told me how well Leslie was getting on with the new help she had. Between Holly and the new girl, Leslie was doing well. That still made me feel bad, though.
When I pushed open the door and dragged Tim inside, the place was deserted. Well when I say deserted, I mean there were no other patients. Leslie was sitting at her desk; I’m not sure where Holly and the new girl were. She looked up when she saw me and a huge smile spread across her face. I’d talked to Leslie a lot on the phone---she didn’t know about my nocturnal activities---but she knew I’d been keeping myself busy with training and things like that. Though she thought the training was self defense---I felt bad lying to her but she would have strangled me if she knew what I was really doing.
“Stephanie” she said, standing up and coming around the desk. “What a surprise? Is everything all right dear?”
“I’m fine,” I said as I pushed Tim over to one of the exam tables, forcing him to sit down. “It’s him.”
Leslie frowned. “Timothy what have you been up to now?”
It surprised me that she knew him. I looked at him. “Been in here before?”
He didn’t answer but Leslie did for him. “Tim comes in here just about every week now. He’s always doing something stupid and reckless. What is it today, Mr. Drake?”
He frowned. “It’s nothing. I just got a little banged up that’s all.”
Leslie nodded then looked from me to him. “Stephanie be a dear and help him with his shirt.”
I turned about six different shades of pink. “Me?”
Leslie smiled. “You still know how to treat someone don’t you?”
I nodded. Then I quickly instructed him to hold up his arms. He did so with a bit of pain and I pulled his shirt quickly over his head. The first thing I noticed was how ripped it was. Tim definitely worked out. My heart skipped a beat until I noticed the second thing. His body was covered in scars and old bruises. I’d never seen so many. It was like he deliberately went out and put himself in bad situations. I found myself absently reaching forward, tracing my finger along a rather large scar on his chest. He didn’t seem to notice but Leslie did.
“Mr. Drake here thinks he’s a hot rod. He does a lot of street racing. He’s in here all the time with cuts and scrapes. It’s a wonder he’s even standing with all the marks on his body.”
Tim blushed. Then looked at me, realizing I what I was doing. “I got that one the day my Dad died.”
I pulled my hand back quickly. “I’m sorry.”
He grabbed my hand. “Its OK, it was a long time ago.”
My heart skipped another beat. I looked up into his eyes and saw a different side of him. This wasn’t the same jerk who used to pester me all the time. There was a sadness in those eyes today. The face that looked down on me was the face of someone that I wanted to hug and comfort. I inwardly groaned at that thought. Did I just think that? Did I just admit I wanted to comfort Tim Drake? Yuck.
I recovered quickly. “What does Ariana think of all these scars?”
He sighed. “She hasn’t seen them” Then he quickly added. “And she won’t ever get a chance to…we’re done.”
My heart skipped a beat again. Oh crap, stop it.
“I’m sorry to hear that” I said softly.
Leslie interrupted up us then. She gave me the materials I needed to tend to Tim’s latest “battle” scar. It wasn’t really a scar, most like a wicked looking bruise. I went to work without saying a thing. I didn’t really do much to it besides putting some ice on it, packing it tightly. Then I wrapped it as tight as I could, causing him to wince. When I tied him off, I put it in a little bow. I put all my bandages that way, it was like my signature. After that, he put his shirt back on. Then he sat and listened as Leslie and I talked a bit. I half expected him to leave but he waited until I was done. We left together and I took him back to his bike. Jen grumbled a bit when we finally showed.
“Took you long enough,” she said, standing with her hands on her hips.
“Leslie wanted to catch up a bit.”
Tim climbed out of the back. “Thanks for the help” he turned to Jen, who handed him his helmet. ‘Thanks for looking after the bike.”
She nodded. “Anytime Mr. Gloomy.”
He didn’t respond to that. Instead, he walked over to it and climbed on board. Before he started the engine, he turned back to me. “You and Bruce need to get over whatever it is that’s been eating away at the two of you; it’s kinda lonely in the mansion.”
I opened my mouth but he didn’t wait around long enough to hear my reply. He gunned the engine and took off. I hated that about him. I’m fumed, furious at him for being so sweet before and a jerk now. That man pissed me off. If I ever saw him again, I was going to kick his ass for sure.
“We done for today?” asked Jen.
I shook my head. “Nope” Then more cheerfully I said. “This is a girl’s day out; we still have a few hours to kill before I have to go.”
She smiled. “Good because I saw the cutest dress that you need to try on.”
I laughed and allowed her to drag me down the street.
“I hate the snow, you know that,” I grumbled, wrapping the cape around me.
Babs laughed. “Hey you know my stand on your freezing.”
“I’m seriously thinking about taking you up on that offer.”
We had actually talked a little bit more about it. There was someone she had in mind, someone willing to design a new suit for me. I didn’t really know any specifics, other than that it was one of Babs’ contacts. Or rather one of Oracle’s. It was all hush hush but it was kinda cool. I’d been thinking about it a lot lately. In the last few fights I’d been in, I’d been stabbed at least three times and shot at more times than I can count. It might be nice to have something bulletproof protecting me; hell, even stab proof if there is such a thing. I even talked it over with Jen the other day, telling her about “Oracle’s” offer. I wanted to make sure that it wouldn’t upset her if I decided to wear something new. She was cool with it; in fact, she said she always thought this costume was going to be short-lived to begin with.
I tried to focus more on the situation at hand though. Daydreaming got me in trouble; I lost Dr. Fright the last time because of it. I wasn’t going to make that same mistake twice. Not that this had anything to do with that. Tonight we were on a different “case”.
Someone was breaking into electronics stores, smashing up the places and looting them. It was probably a bunch of kids but it was worth looking into. Babs was able to discern a pattern in the robberies and traced it back to a small apartment on the East Side of the Narrows.
I shifted, adjusting my body. I was on the apartment building across the street, hiding among the TV antenna and chimney stack that was there. It was only lightly snowing tonight but it had to be thirty degrees. When I took a breath, I could see it in front of me. I wish I’d been smart enough to at least design something to cover my mouth. The lower part of my face was the only flesh of mine exposed to the elements and it was so cold I could barely feel it. But that was the least of my problems. I could see clearly into the apartment across the way. The robbers were inside; there were at least six of them. Not much of a problem usually but there was something about them that felt off. For one thing, they were just too organized. I’d read some of the police reports. They were smash and grab jobs but they went out of their ways to bust up everything, like they were trying to make a statement. And even now, looking at them there just seemed to be something that didn’t feel right.
“Nice night for a stroll in the snow” said a voice as someone slipped into view beside me.
I turned to Red Robin and frowned. “Took you long enough.”
He sighed. “I ran into a mugging.”
I looked at his left hand as he flexed his fingers. He wore black gloves like me but unlike mine, his were both splattered in blood. I frowned.”Is that what I think it is?” I asked, coldly.
“It got complicated.”
“Everything always is with you.”
Don’t get me wrong, I loved all the help he could provide but his tactics were starting to get to me. I didn’t like that he resorted to such brutal means. It wasn’t just taking out Thrill Seekers either---that I understood. It was how he handled everyone. The other night I had to pull him off a purse snatcher. He tried to beat the guy’s head into the ground. Two nights before that, he actually started to strangle a car thief. There was a fine line and unfortunately more often than not, Red Robin danced around it quite a bit. No amount of talking to him about it seemed to help. Babs even texted him on occasion, telling him to take it down a notch but he completely ignored her now. He was a loose cannon and it scared me to see what he might be capable of.
I narrowed my eyes at him. He sighed. “I’m sorry, OK, it got out of hand. He had a gun, tried to shoot me in the face.”
“There are other ways.”
“Save me your Zen bull, at least for tonight.”
I sighed. I didn’t want to argue. We had a job to do. I decided to concentrate on that. “We have six perps, lightly armed. I’ve been tracking them all night; they’re responsible for a string of electronics store robberies.”
Red Robin sighed. “Let the cops have them.”
I grit my teeth. “What, afraid to go up against someone who might fight back for a change?”
It was a low blow, even for me. Anger flashed before his eyes and even before I knew it, he reared back and jumped off the roof. He glided across the small gap between buildings. But he didn’t go for the roof like I would have done. Instead, he went right for the window. It happened so fast. I cursed as he smashed through the glass. There was a muffled thump and a lot of shouting. I cursed again then jumped myself. I was a lot more nimble than he was. It felt like I floated across. I went through the same window, landing in a roll. When I came up, Red Robin was in the midst of a fight. His opponent was the biggest in the room, like he had something to prove. The guy was huge but didn’t stand much of a chance. I moved to offer assistance but had my own problems.
Three of the others came at me at once. They tried to come from different sides, boxing me in. I jumped in air, scissor kicking my legs. I caught one in the face, the other in the chin. When I came back down the third brandished a knife. He swung wildly, the blade sinking into the fabric of my cape. I moved slightly, rolling my body. I pulled the knife from his hand and then rolled some more, moving close so I could drive the back of my hand into the bridge of his nose. He fell back, I slammed my heel into the top of his foot and down he went. The other two in the room went for Red Robin. My partner had his back to them so he never saw them coming. I launched myself across the room, going in high. I reached out and grabbed their heads, slamming them together before I fell on top of both of them, driving them to the ground with me. Red Robin turned back slightly with a smirk. That’s when his opponent took the advantage. I’m not sure what happened exactly. The big guy saw an opening and slammed his fist into Red Robin’s left side. The color drained from Robin’s face, he gasped and crumpled. The big guy started pounding on him as soon as he went to the ground.
I threw myself at the big guy. It was a mistake.
He swung a hand out quicker than I could react. It hit me in the side of the head, sending me spiraling. I hit the floor hard. He drove his foot into my back, knocking the wind out of me. Hey, I’m a good fighter but even the best get knocked down every once in a while. I tried to get up but he slammed his foot on me again. He brought it down for a third time but I rolled. His foot hit the floor with a thud, breaking the floorboards. That’s when Robin slammed into him, there was a snap and the two of them crashed into the far wall together. There was a flurry of blows, all coming from Robin’s direction. The man was clearly down but Robin was an animal.
I scrambled to my feet and managed to barely pull him off the guy.
“He’s down” I said, pushing him away.
I put myself between the two of them.
Red Robin was clutching his side, panting heavily. “What the hell was that?”
“You could have killed him,” I said, pointing to the groaning man on the floor.
“Better him than me.”
There was a groan from the other side of the room. Red Robin moved to intercept the man but I was quicker. I grabbed him by his coat, lifting him off the ground. As I did so, a Chipmunk mask dropped to the floor. I groaned, another damn set up. The man looked at the mask and then at me. For a second his eyes were unfocused until he saw the Bat on my chest. Then the color drained from his face. He tried to struggle out of my grasp but I wasn’t letting go.
“Where is he?” I asked, in my cold tone.
He shook his head. “I’m not telling you anything.”
Red Robin came up behind me. “Tell us or I’ll turn you into a bloody pulp.”
My perp eyed the guy on the floor and gulped. “We never met him. The False Faces never meet the boss. He sends someone, usually a woman. She was the one who told us to knock over those stores, said it would get your attention.”
“Another trap” Red Robin spit. “I’m starting to get tired of this shit.”
“Where do you meet the doctor?” I asked, ignoring my partner’s comment.
The man shook his head. “Usually here.”
Damn it. I pulled him close, my face inches from his. “Tell your boss if you see him that I’m coming for him.”
I let him go, tossing him slightly. He landed awkwardly and then took off, running through a doorway and out into the hall. I listened to his scurrying feet before turning to Red Robin. I was so pissed off at him. I was ready to chew him out until I saw how bad he was. He was no longer standing next to me; instead, he was on the ground. I dropped down next to him. He wasn’t clutching his side anymore but the fabric there was torn. There was some blood but nothing too bad. I looked through the gash in his uniform to see a bandage underneath. He barely paid attention as I poked my fingers through, feeling along his side. He did wince when I touched him. I parted the cloth to take a better look. What I saw sent ice water along my veins.
The bandage was fresh, probably done earlier today but I knew that. I knew that because I put it there. I looked up into his face, really looking this time. He had the same piercing blue eyes, the same chin and mouth. I’m not sure why I hadn’t seen it before but it was so clear to me now that I nearly toppled backwards in shock.
“Tim?” I asked, not believing the name that came out of my mouth.
His eyes opened wide. He was just as surprised but he recovered quickly. He jumped to his feet, wincing as he did so. He ran for the window and would have gotten there if I hadn’t been faster. I reached out and grabbed his arm. He snapped around, smacking me in the face with the back of his hand. He paused after the blow, just as shocked and as afraid as I was.
I snapped back to face him, sighing. “You are Tim, Tim Drake aren’t you?”
“How do you know that name?”
Well all gloves are off I guess. I took a deep breath and grabbed the top of my cowl, giving it a good tug. I usually held my hair in place with a few bobby pins. When I pulled the mask off, they went with it, bringing my blonde locks cascading down around my face. I threw my head back, my hair with it. I stood before him, unmasked, ready to face him with my true face. I took a deep breath and waited.
“Hi” I said, smiling.
The look on his face said it all. For a moment, he was shocked maybe surprised. He smiled for only a second then that quickly vanished. What he did next I’ll never forget. He turned and jumped out the window. As soon as the momentary shock wore off, I ran to catch him. I got to the window a second too late because he was gone. It didn’t stop me from staring though, as my heart pounded in my chest.
Tim Drake was the Red Robin.
Tim is Red Robin.
I sat on my bed, my legs pulled up to my chest. I was done crying though. As soon as I got home, I cried. How could you not. It was Christmas time and seeing Santa putting presents under the tree. You run into the room, jump into his arms, so happy to see him. Then when he speaks and you recognize the voice, tugging on the beard and seeing someone you don’t expect. In my case, it was my father. I was five years old and the fantasy was ruined. I felt like a five year old again. I detested Tim so much and to find out I’d been making out with him all this time made me sick. OK, so sick was a harsh word but as soon as I left the apartment building I bawled my eyes out. What girl wouldn’t? I was certain I was falling in love with the mysterious Red Robin---to say I was shocked was an understatement.
Tim is Red Robin.
It rolled around in my head as I tried to digest it. When I saw the bandaging and the look on his face, I nearly lost it there. I couldn’t help but think about all those scars on his body, the wound I bandaged earlier today. There were so many of them. I felt like an idiot for not seeing it sooner. How long had I known Tim, a couple of months at least? I used to see him almost every single day. How did I not notice the two of them were similar? They were the same height, the same built. Both had the same chin and sparkling blue eyes. They had the same voice. I was an idiot for not catching that. Ok so maybe Red Robin’s voice was a little huskier, a bit sexy in fact but there was no mistaking that they were the same. The only thing I did have a comparison for was the kissing.
I reached up and touched my lips.
I would have never in my life thought that kissing Tim Drake would have been so good. I shook my head. No, not Tim Drake. Red Robin was not Tim. Ok they were the same person but they were so different. Tim was all angst and sarcasm and Red Robin was dark and mysterious. OK so RR was a little violent and a bit of a loose cannon but he was sexy too. Tim was arrogant and annoying. Red Robin was kind and sweet---at least he pretended to be. The two of us had laughed together, we fought together, we fooled around together. We kissed. Oh God did we kiss. When I was kissing him, it felt like the whole world was on fire. I don’t really have anything to compare it to but I’d have to say kissing him was the best thing in the world.
I can’t imagine what kissing Tim would be like. I groaned at that thought. They’re the same person. I shook my head. No, not the same. Tim was a jackass. I groaned again. But what did that make Red Robin? I mean seriously. They were the same guy. Red Robin was a costume that Tim put on, a secret cloak just like The Bat. We both played a part. But whereas I could differentiate between the two, I couldn’t help but wonder if he could. We talked today, probably the first time we’d had a conversation that long. Tim hadn’t been a dick today. In fact, when he opened up a bit I kinda liked him. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was the real Tim. I couldn’t also help but wonder that maybe Red Robin is the real Tim too. Which meant Tim Drake was the mask?
I groaned again. The phone rang, breaking me from my thoughts. I quickly snapped forward and picked up the handset. “Steph’s room”
“You sound like someone ran over your cat”
“Babs, he’s Red Robin.” She sighed heavily on the other end. “Did you know?”
She didn’t say anything for about a minute. I think her silence was all I needed. “Sweetie I swore I wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“You could have given me a little hint.”
“I did tell you to stay away from him, remember?”
I nodded even though I knew she couldn’t see it.
She continued. “For what it’s worth, I didn’t tell him who you were either.”
She laughed. “When you first showed up on the scene. He wanted to know who the pretender was.”
I frowned at that. But I guess it made sense. He lived with Bruce, so it was a possibility that he knew Bruce’s secret too. I sighed. “Honor amongst heroes huh?”
She laughed. “Something like that” She went quiet for a few seconds. “Are you going to be all right?”
“I think I might have been in love with him.”
“No. Red Robin.”
She laughed again. I was getting annoyed with her laughing at my expense. “They’re the same person sweetie.”
I sighed. “Not in person.”
The two of us talked a little more about it. Babs wanted me to tell her why I thought they were different so I told her. She laughed a few more times. I almost hung up on her in frustration. But she did help me understand a few things. She also told me what to do next. She seemed to think it was essential that the two of us---Tim and I---sat down and talked things through. Clearly, I shocked him earlier and he reacted badly. Now the ball was in my court, according to her. After talking for about ten more minutes or so, she told me to go to bed. I was only happy to oblige her.
I was asleep even before my head hit the pillow.
“Are you sure you’re getting enough sleep?” asked Uncle Jim as the two of us sat at the kitchen table.
I looked up from my pancakes and nodded. It was a rarity to see my uncle lately. It seemed like the two of us kept missing each other. What with the Thrill threat making him go into work early and stay real and me with my nocturnal activities. We were like two ships passing in the sea. When I woke this morning and smelled pancakes, I nearly jumped to the ceiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had such a good breakfast. The pancakes were done when I got downstairs after my shower. When I called Uncle Jim a stranger I think he realized that the two of us needed to spend more time together.
“How’s your schoolwork?” he asked as he set down the paper.
“Good” I said happily, forking a piece of fluffy goodness.
He made the best pancakes in the world.
School was going really well for me. In fact, I thought about trying to graduate in January. I had enough credits for it. I’d been looking into college in my spare time too. I know it was the end of November, probably too late to enroll anywhere but it didn’t hurt to look. I loved high school but I felt like it was passing me by. I was already way ahead of my classmates and was finding it difficult to stay interested. I didn’t need Gym because I got all my credits for that the year before. The only thing I did need was my uncle’s say so. He needed to sign off on the idea. I actually discussed it with him on the phone the other day and I had the paperwork. The filing deadline for early graduation was two days away. I’m just glad it didn’t need Dad’s signature.
“How’s work going?”
He smiled at that. “Much better thanks to a certain someone who shall remain anonymous.”
I smiled at that. No Uncle Jim didn’t know about what or who I was. But I was happy to hear that he wasn’t like everyone else. The Mayor and the DA were both after The Bat. It was like some citywide manhunt. They thought I was a menace and wanted to lock me up. I think the real reason that wanted to get me because they were jealous that I was doing a better job. Tim and I had the city pretty much cleaned up. Yes, there was still crime but criminals were now too afraid to try anything except in The Narrows. Thrill was still a dangerous threat but most of the Parks were gone, the police were seizing shipments left and right thanks to my intel and the dealers were running scared. Now all I needed to do was get my hands on the man behind the black mask and Thrill was done. Of course, I’d have to find him first. Babs was still convinced Dr. Fright might be able to help with that. Of course, that meant finding her too. Babs was checking her resources, calling in favors. Detective Gage was doing a search for her as well---through legal means. She was already on the city’s most wanted list. It was only a matter of time before someone caught her.
We talked a little bit more; I tried to remember the last time the two of us had talked like this. Today was Sunday and he wanted to know if I had any plans. I had to smile at that. Today I was helping with the Talent Show. The actual Show itself wasn’t until Wednesday night but Jen had volunteered the two of us to help set up. At first, I was surprised until I went to the first Set Up Committee and saw her reason: his name was Derek. I never saw Jen more smitten but it was cute. The strangest thing was that he kinda had a thing for her too. That was even cuter. I was happy for her. It was much better than my messed up love life. I was in love with one guy who happened to be two and I hated the other one. How crazy is that?
I finished breakfast and left. Uncle Jim said he’d be home for the rest of the day. Apparently, The Bat was finally giving him some time off. That made me feel good. I couldn’t help but think about it as I drove to the school. When I started this whole thing, Bruce had already done a good job establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. I wasn’t trying to steal his thunder, if anything I was adding to it. Tim thought I was some kind of pretender---at least at first. Now I’m not saying I was trying to steal Bruce’s spotlight but for the time being it made me feel good that at least I was making a difference. As soon as Bruce got on his feet again I was more than happy to hand things over. He was the Bat; I’m just the girl taking over for the time being.
When I got to the school, I pulled around back. The Gym had two exterior entrances, one leading right into it, the other leading into a small foyer next door. I went into the foyer entrance. Usually we met in a room upstairs but seeing as we were so close to the actual show itself we were meeting in the Gym. The Show would be in the Auditorium but there was hardly room there for performers to practice. When I got there, people were twirling batons in one corner, signing in small groups near the bleachers and doing an assortment of other things. I found the Committee on the bleachers, the five or six of them talking amongst themselves. Jen and Derek were sitting awfully close. I was the last one to arrive, which might have been holding them up slightly.
“About time” said a girl name Brittany---the Head of our little group---as I approached.
I shrugged. “Late night.”
I climbed the bleachers and took a seat next to Jen. She smiled and squeezed my hand. She could see it in my face. She gave me a confused look but I mouthed “later” to her. I was distraught last night; I didn’t even bother to call her. I’m not sure I wanted to either. Yes, she was my best friend in the whole world and we talked about everything but I didn’t think it was right to tell her about Tim. She knew about my semi-relationship with Red Robin but I’m not sure how she’d react if I told her he was Tim. She thought Tim was cute but like me, she shared a mutual dislike of him.
Brittany frowned at my comment. Then she gave me a once over with her eyes. I think she was trying to decide if I looked like a girl who’d stay out all night. I smirked at her, which only made her eyes open a bit. Let her think what she wanted, the way I figured it I wouldn’t be in this school much longer.
After she was done giving me the evil eye, Brittany decided to tell us what we would be doing. Each of us had a job for the Talent Show. Jen and Derek were happy to collect tickets. I got roped into handing out programs at the door. After that I only half paid attention as she laid out the schedule for the night. It’s not that I didn’t care but I still couldn’t stop thinking about last night. Tim was invading my thoughts. In my mind, I saw him standing there as himself and then the Red Robin costume slowly formed around him. I knew it was him underneath but every time I envisioned the costume on him, he became a different person. I closed my eyes and saw the same thing. Why couldn’t I get him off my mind?
“Stephanie” snapped Brittany, trying to exert some control over the situation. I opened my eyes and frowned at her. “Am I boring you?”
I debated telling her off but that wouldn’t solve anything. Instead, I opened my mouth to say “No” but then I looked out into the Gym. Everyone was still practicing their acts for tonight. Near the door, Arnold was sitting in a chair, doing his dummy routine. I looked at him for a moment and we locked eyes, sharing a smile. But my eyes quickly lingered over to the door and the familiar figure standing in it. I gasped. What the hell was he doing here? He was just standing there, looking like he owned the place. Our eyes locked and he nodded his head slightly, indicating he wanted to see me. He didn’t wait for me to say anything; instead, he disappeared out the door.
I sighed then turned to Brittany. “I wasn’t paying attention actually,” I said, causing Jen to laugh slightly. Brittany opened her mouth to say something but I was already on my feet.
I ran down the bleachers. She shouted something at me but I didn’t hear her. I ran through the Gym, weaving between the performers. When I got to the door, Arnold looked up from his dummy. I smiled at him as I slipped out the door. I scanned the parking lot, looking for Mr. Mysterious himself. I found him leaning against my car, his arms crossed in front of him. He was dressed like usual, his red leather jacket hardly suitable for this kind of weather. I took a deep breath and slowly approached him. My heart was beating in my chest and my hands were sweaty. I’m not sure why. This was Tim after all, I detested Tim. But he was the Red Robin too and him well…let’s just say I didn’t hate him so much.
When I finally got to him, he uncrossed his arms. He didn’t look pissed like I thought he might be. He smiled slightly if only for a second. “You and I need to talk.”
I nodded. “I’m sorry about last night, I didn’t mean to out you like that.”
He shook his head. “I don’t care about that.”
He sighed. “I did at first but I thought about it a lot. I knew there was something familiar about her but I just couldn’t place it. When she pulled off her mask last night and I saw it was you, something just clicked.”
So he thought of us as two different people as well. “I felt the same way once I realized who you were.”
The smile came back but it disappeared just as quickly.
I opened my mouth to say something but he spoke again. “Do you want to take a walk with me?”
I nodded numbly. He reached out and took my hand. I didn’t protest. We didn’t say a thing to one another as he led me toward the football field. It was a combination football stadium and track field. The track ran along the outer rim of the field. It didn’t take the two of us very long to get there. For a few minutes, we walked in silence. I should have been annoyed that he was holding my hand but it felt kinda nice. It did surprise me though. This was the most affection I’d ever seen him show. With Ariana, he hadn’t even been this affectionate. They were all about lust. Now holding his hand and looking up at him felt right for some reason. I know I’m supposed to detest him but I couldn’t help but feel that maybe this was the true Tim.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner about who I was.”
“Why would you have a need too?” he said “its not like I was rushing to reveal myself to you. When Oracle refused to tell me who you were I knew she had a reason to protect you.”
“She’s my cousin,” I said, he nodded.
We didn’t say anything for a few more minutes. We just walked. Finally, he cleared his throat and sighed. ‘My parents were murdered.”
That surprised me. I could tell he was building up to it. I squeezed his hand tightly. “I’m sorry.”
He smiled weakly. “My Dad was a cop. He and Mom were out to dinner when the brother of someone he put away gunned the two of them down. I was spending the night at my friend’s”
“That’s horrible,” I said then added a moment later. “How did you end up with Bruce?”
“He was a friend of Dad’s. After being kicked around a bit from one foster home to the next, he took me in. I was twelve at the time. After that he became like a surrogate father to me.”
“And Red Robin?”
He smirked. “He came about after Bruce got hurt. I knew the city needed someone to pick up the slack while he was recuperating so I volunteered my services. Bruce had spent quite a few years teaching me how to fight but he refused to let me go out with him. He said I’m too angry” He sighed. “He’s right but if he wasn’t doing it then someone had to.”
“Then I came along”
He nodded. “You’re amazing by the way. I’ve never seen anyone move the way you do and your fighting, it’s incredible. You’re really skilled.”
I smiled. “I have a good teacher.”
He nodded. We walked in silence for a little while more. He was thinking things over for a bit. I could almost see the thought process rolling around in his brain. Something was bothering him. It was clear that he didn’t come here to talk about himself. He was here on a mission and I was pretty certain he was building up to it now. It took him a few more minutes to finally speak and when he did, I was surprised by what came out of his mouth: “I think you should quit.”
I stopped walking, pulling my hand from his. “Excuse me?”
He stopped and turned toward me. “It’s getting too dangerous”
I smirked. “I can take care of myself in case you haven’t noticed.”
He took a step toward me and took both of my hands. “Run of the mill thugs are one thing, Steph, but we’re getting closer to the boss man. I’ve done some checking up on this guy and he means serious business. He’s dangerous.”
I opened my mouth to say something but instead of speaking, he pulled me close. Even before I knew what was happening he leaned down and pressed his lips against mine. I half expected a forced and aggressive kiss. But it was soft and gentle. I may have thought of them as two different people but Tim and Red Robin kissed exactly the same. At first, I protested but then I started to melt in his arms. It felt so nice, so good, so right. I got lost in the moment if only for a second. After that second was over, I realized what he was trying to do. Anger flared up inside of me and I pushed him away.
“You think kissing me like that is going to change my mind?” I asked, the anger boiling to the forefront.
He got a bit angry too. “You can’t keep doing this.”
“Why because it’s dangerous and I’m a cute little girl?”
“Yes” he said then quickly added. “No” when he saw the look on my face.
“I don’t need your protection. I think it’s sweet that you want to be my big bad protector but I don’t need you to protect me.”
“They’re getting closer,” he said, fighting to control that temper of his. “It’s only a matter of time before they set another trap for you and you walk blindly into it like the last one.”
That pissed me off. “You think I blunder around?”
“I didn’t say that. I just think you need to be more careful.”
I groaned, pushing him further away from me. I didn’t even give him a response. I started to walk angrily away. I got a good twenty feet or so before he ran to catch up. He grabbed my arm but I shrugged off his hand. But he wasn’t taking no for an answer. I knew he’d try to pull something like this. He thought he could protect innocent little me because I was a girl. He was nothing but a sexist pig just like the Tim I knew and hated. That pissed me off. If his mocking wasn’t enough when I hated him but know he was thumbing his nose at me when I actually thought he was sweet. The bastard lulled me into a false sense with a gorgeous smile then went in for the kill.
“Stephanie, wait,” he said, grabbing my arm again.
I reacted without thinking. I grabbed his wrist, twisting into his body. I pulled him over my shoulder and slammed him on the ground in front of me. It was an instinctual reaction, one I didn’t mean. Lying on his back, he looked up at me dazed for a second. He recovered quickly, jumping to his feet. For a second I saw pure rage flash across his face. He clenched both fists at his side. I thought he was going to hit me. Instead, he took a deep breath and unclenched them.
“I was trying to keep you from getting killed,” he said angrily, shoving his hands in his pockets. “But I can see I was just wasting my time. If you don’t want to listen to reason then I guess I’ll have to take care of things myself.”
Before I could say anything, he turned and walked away. I took a step forward but I was too damn furious to follow him. I was bound to say or do something just as stupid. So instead, I stood there and watched him walk away.
I cried myself to sleep for the next few days. No amount of cheering up from Babs or Jen seemed to help either. They both tried though, taking me on shopping trips to the mall and trying to do things with me to get my mind off him. But no matter how much I tried to forget him I couldn’t. So instead, I tried my hardest to work. First, it was on the Talent Show. I chipped in wherever I could, even going so far as being a mock audience for Arnold. He had a good act, probably one of the best there. He had this great routine I think everyone would love. If it wasn’t the Talent Show, it was college prep.
My application to graduate early came through. So in January, Stephanie Brown was going to officially be a high school graduate. I threw a lot of my free time---when not training or patrolling---into finding the perfect place to go. I think I was going to go to Northwestern like Babs. She said I could room with her but I kinda liked the idea of living in a dorm. My transcripts were already in order---Jenet was able to pull some strings with the legal stuff, getting things changed to fit my new gender. I suppose the government is good for something. I talked to her for a while on the phone the other day. I think she was interested in seeing how I was adjusting. I didn’t tell her about my extracurricular activities, of course but I did tell her how I’ve gotten a grasp on my powers. We talked for a few hours about them. She wanted me to come see her as soon as I got some time. I kinda liked the idea of showing off a bit and told her I’d try to find some time for her. When I told her about my college plans, she was only too happy to help. She said that if I needed anything that she had some pull.
When not working on college stuff or Talent Show stuff, I stayed in my room. I couldn’t help but think about Tim when I was alone. I tried calling him after I got back from the school but he was gone. I tried numerous times but he wouldn’t answer. Babs tried too, both as herself and as Oracle. She was unsuccessful. It annoyed the hell out of me that he was playing things so childishly like this. We had a fight; it didn’t mean it was the end of the world. But after Sunday it was like he walked off the face of the planet. I even went so far as to call the Manor. I talked to Al for a few minutes, told him what happened. If Bruce knew who I was and what I was doing, so did Al. He didn’t seem at all shocked when I told him about my nocturnal activities. According to him, Master Tim had not been home since Sunday either.
That got me worried a bit. Aside from crying and training, I spent Sunday and Monday nights looking for him. But he was nowhere to be found. I threw my frustration into the job. I broke up a small scuffle, getting a little too into it. I didn’t hurt anyone real bad but I was a little more violent. When I left the goons tied up for the police to find I stayed around in the shadows to make sure they were all right. None of them were seriously injured.
Wednesday came before I knew it. I was in a funk during the whole day. It didn’t help that Jen was still trying to cheer me up.
“Derek and I are going to get something to eat after the show tonight; you’re more than welcome to tag along.”
I smiled but shook my head. I didn’t want to spend the night watching my best friend and her boyfriend play footsie all night.
“You two go and have a good time.”
Jen frowned, looping her arm through mine. “Tim is a dick.”
I sighed and nodded. I only lied to her a bit about what really happened. I told her he came to talk to me and things went in a direction I hadn’t expected. She still didn’t know he was Red Robin but I told her about the kiss and how he treated me afterward. I’m not sure if she got why I was so mad but she was my friend and would stand by me no matter what.
When school ended, we only had a few hours before the talent show started. Instead of driving home, I went to the Morgan’s house. Her grandparents still treated me like I had the plague but at least they were a bit nicer. I think they realized that I was no longer a boy pretending to be a girl. Jen tried to explain the whole Meta thing to them but her grandmother was still convinced I got a sex change operation. When she thought I wasn’t in earshot, I heard her call me “that boy” on more than one occasion. I guess you can’t please everyone. Jen and I spent the few hours getting ready in her room. Even though neither one of us was participating, Brittany thought it would be a good idea if everyone working the show dressed up nicely. So I donned a good blouse and skirt, Jen wore a pink dress. When we were finished, we drove in my car. Jen tried once again to get my mind off Tim and it helped some. She started pointing out to me all the flaws he had, the reasons I hated him in the first place. Before I would have joined in but now I wasn’t in the mood. As much as I hated him, there was a small part of me that liked him. I knew the truth or at least part of it. If I’d been through what he’d been through, I’d be kind of a dick too.
I spent an hour before the show at the front door with another girl. I don’t know her name but she was dressed very similar to me. The two of us handed out brochures until we ran out. It was good timing too because as soon as we were done, the first act started. I didn’t really pay attention to most of them. They were good but the only reason I was here was to see Arnold perform. It was about an hour into the show when someone walked on stage, leaving behind a stool. A minute later, Arnold walked out carrying Mr. Scarface. He was dressed in a white button down shirt with a bow tie. Mr. Scarface was dressed in his usual 1930s gangster clothes, complete with fedora and plastic tommy gun. When Arnold sat down, I smiled.
Arnold cleared his throat, looking nervous. It was a part of the act though.
“Hello Ladies and Gentlemen, my name is Arnold Wesker and this is Mr. Scar…”
A gruff voice with a New York accent interrupted as the dummy’s mouth moved. “Shut up Dummy, I’ll be doing the talking tonight”
This got some chuckles.
“Sorry, Mr. Scarface” stuttered Arnold, playing the part well.
The banter went back and forth like this with Mr. Scarface dominating the act. Arnold played the stuttering, simpering Ventriloquist well. The act was good. It got a lot of laughs, more than some of the other stuff tonight. The audience seemed to enjoy it. I smiled, I couldn’t have been happier for him. About half way through it though, I felt a vibrating buzz. I cursed and slowly got to my feet, apologizing as I made my way down the row and up the aisle toward the exit. When I got into the main foyer of the school, I pulled my cell phone from my purse and flipped it open. On the screen was a black background with a flashing yellow Bat, like the one on the chest of my costume. It was our own little “Bat Signal”---the call that Babs used to tell me if something was wrong.
I groaned and pushed the talk button. Why couldn’t I have one night without any problems?
“This better be real urgent” I said, annoyed.
Babs sighed. “I found Dr. Fright.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, sitting in Bab’s apartment.
She was at her computer desk, typing away furiously at the console. When she called and told me she found Dr. Fright, I couldn’t get out of the school fast enough. In fact, I almost got a speeding ticket while trying to get here. I might have thought this before but it was about damn time. I was so sick and tired of following this damn woman all over the city. I knew I couldn’t raise my hopes too high, though. After all, we almost had her before and she led us into a trap. What’s to say this wasn’t another one of her tricks? This woman had already tried to rub me out, twice now. If this was another one of her little games…I didn’t finish the thought.
Instead, I sat there. I took my time looking around Babs’ place. I’d been here once before, back when she was moving in. She was able to rope her cousin “Steven” into helping her move boxes. It was one of the only times that Dad actually gave me permission to be with her. I might have mentioned this before but Dad didn’t like Uncle Jim or Barbara. I think he thought they were going to take me from him. I’m not sure why that mattered so much to him anyway because it was clear he didn’t want me in the first place. But he once told me I was “his” and no one could take me without his permission. Talk about a selfish, evil bastard. I sighed, trying to remember the last time I even thought about him. Uncle Jim updated me on him the other day, they were moving him to Blackgate---no that’s not its real name but it’s what the locals called it. It was a high security prison, apparently, Dad turned in some crucial piece of info to them and they were trying to protect him.
I shook my head, drawing my attention back to the room.
The apartment was small. It had one bedroom, a small living area and an even smaller kitchen. Babs always told me it was good enough for her. But I couldn’t see how she moved around in this place with her wheelchair. She didn’t have a lot of furniture, just the chair I was sitting in. She didn’t even have a TV. What she did have was computers, yes as in more than one. There were three in fact; they took up most of the room in the place. When not in school, she ran a lucrative computer technician business or something. It was all a bit technical to me. I just know that it required her to have all these fancy computers. At least that’s what I used to think. Now I knew that these computers were there for other reasons too.
“Earth to Barbara” I said, getting a bit annoyed that she was still ignoring me.
“Sorry” she said a few seconds later, “I was just making sure.”
I dragged my chair over so I was sitting next to her. “So are you certain this time?”
She nodded. “After our first attempt, I knew there was something wrong. I just couldn’t figure out what. So I asked a friend to do some digging and found something shocking.” She paused for dramatic effect, I rolled my eyes. “They bugged our Bluetooth.”
She smiled. “Not really bugged it, more like hacked it. Don’t ask me how they even know where to look. But my friend was able to find a small spike in the network; someone was definitely listening in on our conversations.”
I groaned. We weren’t exactly discreet. “So they know who we are?”
"We only ever used first names and I garbled out voices so there’s no way they can track us”
"That’s good because I definitely don’t want to open the door and see some crazed nut with a gun standing there” I winced when I realized what I said. “Sorry, I didn’t…”
She shook it off. “Don’t worry about it” She was quiet for a second then continued. “My friend used it against them though. We were able to follow the hack back to its source, reversing the bug; we got a location out of it”
“And what if it’s another trap?”
“They didn’t know we were there.” Babs groaned, running her fingers through her long red hair. “I can’t believe I was stupid enough to use those for communication”
I squeezed her arm. “You’re only human, we make mistakes. We’ll be better next time.”
She smiled. “Well there isn’t going to be a next time until I get something worked out. Until then you’re going to be on your own out there, do you think you can handle that.”
I smiled. “I think I can handle that”
She filled me in on the location. I suppose it made sense. If someone really wanted to hide that was definitely the last place I would have looked. But we also had a small window. Dr. Fright was apparently planning to leave the country tonight. She was in a bit of a rush too, according to our secret friend. Babs refused to give a name but she did let slip it was a woman. That intrigued me more than anything. I tried to press her for more info but she wouldn’t budge. So instead, I grudgingly donned my suit and left.
I stood in the gloom and the dark. Spread out in front of me was a sprawl of gray warehouses, their roofs covered in a thin blanket of snow. Everything about the day seemed dark and gray, including my mood. As soon as I left Babs, I cursed. It had snowed quite a bit, so much so that I couldn’t get my car out. So I tried the next best thing, I called Tim. But of course, he didn’t answer. It wouldn’t be the first time since our fight. I tried calling multiple times for him in the last day or so. But each time I got either his Voice Mail or nothing at all. If he was deliberately avoiding me, he was being more childish than I thought. He was being ridiculous as far as I was concerned. We had a fight, people fight all the time. OK, so not many girls throw their potential boyfriends over their shoulder in those fights but he caught me off guard. Potential boyfriend? Well I did an awful lot of crying over him so I guess that’s what he was. Though it was still hard to imagine me being a girlfriend to him.
Then again, a few months ago I never would have imagined myself sitting here now---on the edge of a building---overlooking the docks.
I sighed and reached for my belt, pulling out my phone. Without the Bluetooth, Babs and I had to communicate the old fashioned way. But this time she was prepared, fitting my phone with a scrambler so no one could trace it or hack into it. I dialed her number, waiting a few seconds for it to be rerouted all over the place before she finally picked up.
“Oracle” she said.
I smiled. That was another new rule: no more referring to each other by our real names. She was now Oracle and somehow she dubbed me “Batgirl”. I guess it was better than nothing.
“Batgirl here” I said with a groan.
“Don’t knock it,” she said. I could almost see her smirk.
I let it slide for now. “I’m at the location we talked about. Which building is our target in?”
I could hear her tapping away at the keys. “According to the piggybacked signal, it should be the one on the far left. I can’t give you any more specifics than that though so you’re going in blind.”
I nodded even though I know she couldn’t see it. “I am a bat after all.”
Oracle laughed. “Be careful, you don’t know what’s waiting for you there.”
“Will do, BG out.”
I clicked off the phone and slipped it back into my belt pouch. After it was secure, I took a deep breath. Then I leaned forward and dropped off the building. It was a vertical fall, three stories to the bottom. My body was straight the whole way until I hit the ground where I bent my knees slightly. I didn’t feel a thing. It took me only a few seconds to fall. After that I ran across the open space between my building and the next, pulling my night vision goggles into place. The dock warehouses were not like the ones in the warehouse districts. These had curved roofs and no access from the top. They were about five or six stories high and so jam packed with large metal cargo containers that one could barely move in them. There were three of these large buildings; the rest of the area was filled with the containers, creating a large metal maze.
When I approached the building, I pressed my back against the wall and waited. When I first got here, I spent twenty minutes getting the lay of the land. Besides the maze of towering cargo containers and warehouse buildings, there were three guards who walked the ground. Each wearing a different animal mask and each carrying a submachine gun. I studied their patterns just so I knew where and when to move. Every five minutes one of them would walk around the warehouse buildings and the other two wove their way through the container maze. In order for me to proceed with caution, they’d all have to go.
The first guard came into view about five minutes after I pressed against the wall, just like clockwork. I waited until he was walking in front of me before I struck. I lashed out, grabbed the side of his head and slammed him into the wall next to me. He crumbled to the ground as soon as I let him go. I grabbed his gun, pulled out the magazine and disposed of them both in a nearby garbage can. If the bastard did wake up in the next hour or so, he’d have to scramble to look for his weapon. With him out of the way, I could move freely around the buildings. I crept slowly along, making sure to keep in the shadows. The side of the building I moved along came right alongside the first row of giant metal containers; it also brought me in line with the second guard.
I smirked. He was just coming into view now. I reached into a pouch and pulled out my new toy. It was a gift from Onyx, something she thought might aid me a great deal. Whereas Bruce used bat shaped throwing stars, she thought I might like to use something a little less lethal. So she had a foldable boomerang designed specifically for me, shaped just like a bat. I had to wonder if Onyx and Jen were trying to tell me something. I just knew as soon as the latter saw it she would try to name it a “batarang” or something. So I unfolded my new toy, aimed for the bastard’s Hippo masked head and let it rip. It soared in an arch and hit him just below the collar, dropping him like a sack of potatoes.
The boomerang then raced around and came back to me. I caught it and ran over to the thug. He was groaned on the ground. I dropped on him, delivering a silencing blow to his Hippo face. As soon as I did so, the final guard came into view. I slipped into the shadows. He saw his friend and came running. I stood there and watched as he bent over the man and checked his pulse. He sighed and raised his Gorilla mask to wipe his brow. He did so setting his gun aside. I smirked and waited as he stood up. As soon as he did so, I drove my elbow into the space between his shoulder blades. He dropped onto his fallen friend. He groaned and tried to get up, reaching for his gun. I dropped on him, driving my knees into his back as I did so. Doing so knocked the wind out of him and allowed me to slam his head on the nearby pavement, taking him out of the picture too.
Three guards, three unconscious fools.
I stood up and made my way back to the buildings. I wove through them cautiously as I made my way to the one on the left just in case there was a guard I missed. Thankfully there wasn’t. I reached the left building, finding an unlocked side door. I pulled it open and slipped inside. The room was shrouded in darkness or would have been if I didn’t have my goggles. For me everything was bathed in green. There were a lot of metal containers and wooden boxes. I slipped along them. I looked above, seeing a metal framework, solid metal beams that held the ceiling in place. I sighed when I judged the height, realizing there was no way I could jump that high. I needed a rope or something. Maybe a grappling hook.
No, climbing would have to do. I turned to the nearest container and scaled it quickly. When I got to the top---three containers stacked on one another---I looked around. There was several more containers like this one and a small office on a second floor, a light on inside. I smiled, that had to be where the doctor was hiding. I jumped up, grabbing one of the metal beams. Now that I was on the containers, I was high enough to do so. Thank God for rigorous training. I pulled myself up easily then crouched on the beam, gauging the distance to the office. I jumped to the next beam and the next. My Meta power left me graceful like a cat and thanks to Onyx’s training, I didn’t make a single sound. After a few more jumps, I reached the office.
It was a boxed in structure that looked a little sturdier than it should. When I jumped from the metal beam above it onto its roof, I did so without making a sound. The structure was metal too, except for a small section that was glass. It was like a little skylight. I pulled off my goggles because the light was on inside. I bent over it, peering down inside. The woman below was on the phone, passing back and forth. It was clear from her body language that something was frustrating her. It was also clear that this was in fact Dr. Linda Friitawa. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I knew her enough to be certain. The doctor had some distinguishing characteristics; chief among them was the fact that she was an albino. Her shock of white hair and pale skin were hard not to ignore.
I pressed closer to the glass but couldn’t hear a thing. I didn’t really need to hear because it was clear that she was pissed. She raised her voice more than once but the glass and the metal walls muffled her sound. I looked around me, realizing that if I wanted to hear a thing I needed to be inside. I left the glass and crept along the roof, dropping down on the opposite side. The office was mainly glass windows but each of them had the blinds down. I moved silently along the outside wall, stopping only to come across a thick cable leading inside. The power to the office. I smiled and removed a pair of wire cutters from a pouch. Time to use those scare tactics I learned so well.
I snipped the wire, plunging the office in darkness.
I waited for a few moments then heard the door open. A beam of light cut through the darkness as the doctor stepped outside. I caught sight of her as I peered around the corner. She started walking in the opposite direction, away from me. I slipped around and went into the office, pulling my goggles back on. It was a rather spacious place considering the size. There was a small couch, a potted fern, a desk and some file cabinets. I went to the cabinets first, pulling open the top drawer. Sloppy doctor, not locking your stuff up. I rifled through the files. I pulled one that said V-10 and laid it on the table, pulling out my little spy camera and quickly taking a shot of each page. I replaced the folder quickly then started looking again. I’m not sure exactly what it was that I was trying to find but I knew I had to try.
Rifling through the files again I came across another one that looked interesting. The tab said “Project Alice”. I pulled the folder out and flipped it open. I only got a second to take a look before I heard Fright coming back. I cursed, shoving the folder back into the cabinet and closing it before slipping into the dark. I was only able to pull two words out of it, one of which was a name: Mind and Wilson. What the hell did that mean? I made a mental note and filed them away.
Dr. Fright came back into the office, talking angrily into a walkie-talkie. “Gorilla, Hippo, Fox, report in?”
Clearly, she was trying to raise her guards. She tried a few more times as she walked over to the desk then she angrily slammed the radio onto it.
I took a step forward, pulling off my goggles. All I needed was for her to blind me with that flashlight. I watched as she sat at the desk, sighing heavily. Then I spoke in that dark voice I learned to use so well: “I’m afraid you and I are alone, Doctor.”
The look on her face when I stepped forward even farther was priceless. Her flashlight dropped to her desk and she went for the drawer. I knew exactly what she was going after but I was faster. I made it across the room in seconds. I caught her arm and slammed the drawer on her wrist, causing her to scream and drop her gun. I held the drawer shut while she wiggled in pain. I’d say the color drained from her face but seeing as she didn’t have much pigment to begin with, well, you get the picture. Between her wailing and sobbing, she cursed me several times in a language I didn’t know. I assume it was her Native one.
I finally opened the drawer, allowing her to pull her hand out. There was no gun in it. She clasped her hand to her chest panting. “You broke my wrist.”
“Physician heal thyself.”
I reached into one of the pouches, took out a roll of gauze and threw it at her. It hit her in the chest but she didn’t bother to retrieve it. Instead, she stared daggers at me, which looked absolutely diabolical with those red eyes of hers. I reached toward the flashlight and turned the beam on her. She flinched from the light. Just enough to sweat her a bit.
“What do you want with me?” she stammered, the pain in her wrist most likely unbearable.
“You know what I want.”
She shook her head. “He’ll kill me if I tell you.”
I took a step forward, moving close. She flinched. “The way I see it doctor, you have two options. Deal with him later or deal with me now. What’s it going to be?”
She didn’t say anything for the longest time. Finally, a tear rolled down her cheek. “I…I…I…”
“Start with a name.”
“His real one” I interrupted, annoyed.
She shook her head. “I don’t know it.”
I narrowed my eyes. I leaned closer to her, my face inches from hers. “Start with what you do know then?”
Unbeknownst to her I pulled a small recorder from one of my pouches and hit the button.
She nodded. “We were partners. I created the drugs and he got them out to the populace. We were supposed to split the profits, fifty fifty but he’s been holding back lately. Thrill is a lot bigger than either of us could have imagined. We were making a fortune off of it. Then you and that Roving Ravager character came along. You busted things wide open. First, I was able to produce more to keep up but the demand got too high and I wasn’t able to supply it fast enough. He got me loose a few days, after our second attempt to stop you failed.”
“How much is left?”
She shook her head. “There’s a warehouse. Everything I produced---the last of it---is stored there.”
“And the Black Mask?”
She sighed. “He won’t be far from it. He’s been very paranoid lately. He doesn’t want to let his cash cow out of his sight.”
She shook her head. “He’s practically got an army. You’ll never get to him.”
“Do I look like someone who scares easily?”
She didn’t say anything to that. Instead, she reached down and grabbed a pen with a good hand. She quickly scribbled an address down on a piece of paper, leaving it for me. I grabbed it and folded it into one of my pouches. The doctor eyed me suspiciously. It was the split second she needed. She pulled open the drawer with her good hand and retrieved the gun. She thought she was fast. I snapped my leg up, then back down, bringing my heel down on her other hand, the one holding the gun. The force of the blow caused the gun to go off which drowned out her scream and the snapping of her forearm. I snatched the gun away, tossing it into the corner. While she cried in agony at another one of her useless, broken limbs, I slipped away.
I didn’t take out my cell until I was clear of the warehouse. I didn’t call in until I was on the building from before, overlooking the scene. Several police cars were already on the scene. I called Babs. “Did you call in the black and whites?”
“I thought you might need some backup.”
I smiled. “There were only four this time, including the doctor.”
“Did she give you what you wanted?”
“I’ve got an address. Let’s end this thing.”
Déjá vu. I’d been to this place before. Well not exactly to this particular one but the same area. It was the same warehouse block that I followed my Dad to, the same place where all of this started. Of course, back then I was Steven Brown and I had no idea what I was doing. Now I was The Bat or rather the Batgirl. I wasn’t a scared “girl” in her favorite purple hoodie and a black mask. I couldn’t help but smile as I thought back on it. That was only a few months ago and I’d already come so far. My father was in jail, I was living with Jim, I worked for Bruce, started my career as a vigilante and now have a semi-boyfriend. If I went back in time and told my September self about what might happen in November, I don’t think I would have believed it.
But here I was, living proof of all those things and more.
I took a deep breath. I was about to step out of the shadow I was hiding in when my phone vibrated. I cursed and pulled it out; knowing who it was without even thinking. “BG” I said when I answered.
“I’ve been able to hack the outside cameras and it doesn’t look good,” said Oracle with a sigh. “Fright was right, this place is surrounded. There’s no way you can take all of them at once.”
“What about you know who?”
She let out another heavy sigh. “I’ve been trying but he won’t answer.”
I cursed. “Of all the times to be a stubborn jackass.”
“Where are you now?”
“Across from the place where I nearly burned to death” I said, looking at the burnt out remains of the place that might have been my burial tomb.
Oracle didn’t say anything for a second. Then I heard her typing away. Finally, she said. “I thought that address sounded familiar.”
“Do you know anything about this area?”
There was more typing. “When I was still free lancing, Bruce asked me to look into his competitors’ businesses, just to get a leg up. Nothing illegal I swear. In fact, if anything he was the only legit one working in this city.”
I remember reading about Ballard. He got himself involved in illegal gambling and a plot to assassinate the President. Booster Gold busted all that up.
Oracle continued, still typing. “This particular warehouse block belongs to Sionis Industries; they were Bruce’s chief competition for a while. But after both Warren Sionis and his wife were tragically murdered, the whole company passed to their son, Roman. He drove it into the ground within a year. Bruce only had me check up on it to see if he could buy off any of the property still owned by Sionis. This warehouse block was one such place he thought about buying. But he could never complete the deal because Roman fell off the face of the planet.”
That name sounded familiar. Why did that name sound familiar. I shook my head. Then I got an idea. “Maybe he didn’t fall off the planet; maybe he just switched his business.”
Oracle caught on. “You mean to drugs?”
I nodded even though I she couldn’t see me. “This Sionis, maybe he’s the Black Mask.”
Oracle. “You really shouldn’t go in there alone.”
“Keep trying Red Robin, don’t stop until he answers.”
“Ok but what about you?”
I smirked. “I’m going to unmask a drug dealer.”
Oracle tried to say something but I clicked. Sorry Babs but I’m too close to stop now. I took a deep breath, returned the cell to the pouch and stepped out of the shadows. I slipped on my goggles and searched the area. The first thing I saw were the goons, there were a lot of them. At least three standing around doing nothing, two more patrolling. All of them were wearing Monkey masks. I pulled out my batarang and let it fly. I know it wasn’t very stealthy of me but tonight I couldn’t rely fully on stealth. As soon as the batarang hit the first goon in the face, I was on the other two. I jumped on one of them, putting my hands on his shoulders while kicking the other in the face. I dropped to the ground, still holding the guy by the shoulders, which allowed me to throw him over my back and into the wall. The batarang came back to me, which gave me a second throw.
I went right at the patrolling guards. The batarang hit one in the back of the head. He went down and his partner turned around. There was only a split second for him to react before I leapt the distance between us. He didn’t even get his gun up when I slammed into him, pinning his shoulders while I brought him to the ground. I punched him the face then rolled off him, onto my feet. The batarang came around to me and I caught it.
Less than a minute and five goons down for the count.
I stepped over the one at my feet and made my way for the warehouse. I opened the door and slipped inside. It was set up just like the one in September but shrouded in darkness. I crept along the wall of wooden boxes, trying to stay as quiet as I could. Somewhere in this place was the man I’d been searching for. As soon as I got my hands on him, I could finally end all of this. My heart was pumping a mile a minute my chest and I was sweating like crazy. I took deep reassuring breaths to try to calm myself. It was just as Onyx taught me. I needed to control my breathing and concentrate. It took everything I had to do so now. I was so close I could taste. I was slinking along, my back to the boxes and somewhere he was hiding. I’m sure he was waiting too. On my way over, Dr. Fright’s arrest was already on the radio. The Black Mask knew she was out of the picture and probably also figured he was next on the menu. I’d be an idiot if I didn’t expect some kind of ambush.
I moved slowly along the crates until there was no more in this row to hide behind. I peered around the corner. There was a large open space. I frowned, scanning the green haze. There was nothing. I took a deep breath and stepped out from behind the boxes. I hadn’t gotten it wrong, this was the address. Oracle double checked it. Things fit too perfectly. The names, the locations, the fact that my Dad came here in September. I looked at one of the nearest boxes. Then I walked over to one and pulled off the lid. Inside was straw, which I knew also packed the V-10 vials? Everything was exactly where it should be except Black Mask.
Realization dawned on me. It was another set up. Dr. Fright played me for a fiddle. I cursed. Son of a bitch; I walked into it again. Some great detective I turned out to be. I stepped away from the crate and started back the way I came. This was ridiculous. How many times was this guy going to screw me like this. How many times was I going to fall for this crap?
I was half way to the door when I heard something. It was a faint buzzing sound. I turned around. It was coming from behind me. I turned and walked back in the other direction, back toward the center of the room. I knew it was stupid but the sound seemed to be calling me. I pulled out my batarang and cautiously took a few steps forward. The buzzing got louder and louder. Had it always been there? I walked further and further into the room until I saw something. It was small and flat, lying in the center of the room. I walked over to it and saw a cell phone, vibrating on the cement. It was the source of the buzzing. I took a deep breath and bent to pick it up. When I saw the display, my heart skipped a beat: ORACLE.
I pushed the button. “We have a problem,” I said, realizing who’s phone I was holding.
“Damn it” said Oracle “get the hell out of there now!”
I clicked off the phone and dropped it. She didn’t have to tell me twice. I started to move back the way I came when the lights in the room snapped on. The brightness overwhelmed my goggles and I screamed, dropping to my knees. I pulled them off, tossing them away. It was so blinding. I crawled about, my eyes shut, watering from the pain. There was laughing, lots of laughing from all around me. It was men, lots of them. When I got close, someone stepped on my hand. I didn’t feel it of course. Then someone kicked me in the face. I stumbled away from the blow. Arms grabbed me underneath my shoulders and lifted me up. Someone held me while someone else took a couple of hard shots at my stomach.
“It’s a girl,” said a voice. “The Bat is a little girl”
There was more laughing.
The last blow forced my eyes opened and everything started to come back, all be it a bit hazy.
A Wolf was punching me in the chest. No not a real wolf, someone wearing a wolf mask. I gasped as blow after blow hit me, one of them in the face. Finally, after several blows, I was dropped to the floor. I coughed and gagged, blinking back tears. My vision slowly started to right itself. I didn’t feel any pain from the punches, well not any real pain. I staggered to my feet and got a good look at my surroundings. Dr. Fright was right, he did have an army. There had to be at least twenty masked monsters all around me. I scanned all the animal faces, trying to find the one I was looking for. But he wasn’t there. I didn’t see him until I made a complete 360 of the room.
When I got to look behind me, I gasped. Someone was pulling a chair out of the darkness. In the chair, tied and barely conscious was Tim. I say Tim because his mask was missing and someone had done a number on him. I bit my lip, forcing back the urge to run to him. The chair was left in the middle of the room. The man dragging it was a giant, dressed in black leather. His mask was different, it looked like a dominatrix one except there were spikes all over it. Real freaky. He took one look at me then stepped aside, allowing the real freak to take center stage. That’s when I saw him finally, face-to-face. The man wearing the black pinstripe suit and the strange black skull mask. The man I’d been looking for, the man who at this very moment I wanted to pound to a pulp.
`”I believe we found something you’ve lost, Miss Bat,” he said, his voice a dark sneer.
“Black Mask” I said, then added a second later. “Or is it Roman Sionis?”
If he was shocked, he didn’t show it. Instead, he waved his hand as if I was some kind of annoyance. “Take her quickly but make the beating last as long as possible”
He turned and walked back into the shadows, disappearing.
There was a low roar of chuckles then as one the goons charged me. I gulped and held up my fists, it’s going to be one of those nights. The goons came as one. I prepared for the worst but right when they were about to get me, there was loud pop, followed by another. There were two big lights overhead and suddenly both of them exploded in a shower of glass, leaving the room in complete darkness.
Now the real fun starts.
For a moment, I panicked, well not just a moment, more like several moments. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and the only thing I could hear was the pounding of my own heartbeat. I was outnumbered twenty to one and they were so much bigger than me. In most of my other fights, it was all about speed and being able to get my opponents before they saw me coming. I prided myself on it; it made me look mysterious and dangerous. The Bat takes you out even before you know what hits you---at least that’s what the word on the street was. I had a reputation of taking out the trash in such a way that criminals were running scared from their own shadows. Now in those scant few moments I had a crisis of conscience. Yes for once in my very short superhero life I actually feared that I might not be able to get out of this one alive.
That is until I remembered that I trained for this.
When that realization dawned on me, I controlled my breathing and stopped listening to my own scared heartbeat. Instead, I listened for theirs. Twenty guys and they were as scared as I was. I took another breath---this one without fear---and opened my eyes. It was still pitch black but it was far from scary anymore. As soon as the lights went out there was an overwhelming panic in the room. There had been murmuring and whispering but now all that was silent. OK, so not really silent. After I stopped listening for my heartbeat, I started listening for theirs. The first one was real close, almost on top of me. I couldn’t see him but he was making sound nevertheless. He was breathing heavily and wheezing. I could tell he was afraid because he was shifting around a bit, moving from one foot to the other in agitation.
He never saw it coming. Two well placed blows and I dropped him.
After that, I moved onto the next group. There were three of them together, panting and shifting with just as much fear as their fallen friend. I took them all out too. When I moved onto my fourth goon, that’s when they started to realize I was moving among them. That’s when they started talking too.
“Where is she?”
“Do you have her?”
Then they started calling out names and responding, except those that I took out. When the five names didn’t respond, that’s when the panic started in. They started to move about, running into one another. That started some of the fighting, which I couldn’t have timed better myself. I didn’t see any of it, of course, but I definitely heard it. One of the guys panicked---probably running toward the door or where he thought the door was. He must have slammed into a group of his friends because the next moment there was shouting, someone called “she’s here” and there was a lot of commotion. You could tell they were beating the hell out of one another. Fear can do that to you. The group fighting got a bit bigger as others rushed into the fray. I stood back and waited, listening for the outcome. It didn’t take very long. I’m not sure how many went into the fight but there were only about four standing when it was done. I attacked then. I grabbed two stragglers first, pulling them down from behind, driving my fists into their faces for quick takedowns. Another one I moved in quickly and swept his legs out from under him with a low kick. The last one must have realized what was going on because he screamed. As soon as that ended, I pounced on him, knocking the wind out of him.
I slammed his head on the hard cement, knocking him out cold.
“Who’s there?” someone close by stammered.
I turned to the sound of the voice. The guy was panting heavily and moving. I stepped toward him. There was definite fear in the way he was moving. His breathing was rapid and his heart was beating a mile a minute. He kept backing up---I recognized the sound of his shoes scuffing backwards. He was trying to get away from me. He didn’t get very far, finally running into a wall of crates behind him. As soon as he did so, he panicked. I heard him fumble for something inside his coat and then the click of a gun. Anyone who was stupid enough to shot blindly in the dark was stupider than I thought. He squeezed off a couple shots, screaming as he did so. The bullets were nowhere near me but I did hear a thud, meaning I had one less goon to worry about.
He continued to fire until he emptied his clip then he shouted.
“WHERE ARE YOU?”
I moved in close so my face was right next to his ear. “Here” I said softly.
I could smell his urine before I knocked him out with a couple of kick blows. I stopped and listened after that. The room was deathly still. But I waited a few minutes nonetheless. I needed to know for sure if I got them all. When I was certain I walked over to where I thought I threw the goggles. I had a pretty good idea where they landed because I heard them hit something metal. It didn’t take me long to find them---even in the dark. But it helped that I pulled out my little pen light to search for them. They were exactly where I thought they were. I picked them up and slipped them on, the darkness disappeared when I activated them, replaced by the green. I scanned the room and sure enough, there were twenty goons lying on the ground. Most were unconscious---one was dead but all of them were out of commission.
Then I looked over at Tim. He was still tied to the chair in the middle of the room and he looked pretty bad. I rushed over to him, grabbing his chin as I bent down. I looked him over. His face was battered and swollen. There was a nice cut above his left eye and it looked like someone pulled out a tooth or two. He was barely conscious but managed to register me when he saw me. He smiled and then groaned.
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he said softly.
I found myself crying. “You shouldn’t have done this either” I said angrily then wrapped my arms gently around him. “What the hell were you thinking?”
“I couldn’t let them hurt you.”
“So you ran off to be the big brave hero?” I wanted to punch him but instead I kissed his forehead gently. “You don’t need to protect me, I told you that.”
He nodded. “I know but I couldn’t have lived with myself if something happened to you.”
I didn’t say anything to that but my heart was dancing. I wanted to squeal like a little girl. Instead, I looked around for something to cut his ropes. I wish I brought a knife or something. Instead, I went for the broken glass of the lights. I started sifting through it to try to find a good piece but then I found something better. My hand froze over it for a second. I stared long and hard at it then snapped around. I looked up into the rafters but there was no one there. How in the hell? I looked back down at the bat shaped shuriken. It was his; there was no doubt about that. My heart started pounding in my chest at the implication. He was here; he was the one who took out the lights!
I snatched up the little metal bat and ran quickly over to Tim. I started cutting his ropes but he grabbed my hands, shaking his head.
“There’s no time, Sionis is still here.”
“What? Are you sure?”
He nodded. “I overheard him earlier, they’re moving everything tonight. They have a container ship, he’s going to run.”
I bit my lip. “I need to get you to a doctor.”
He shook his head. “I’m fine. You need to go get that son of a bitch before this starts all over again somewhere else.”
I nodded then leaned forward kissing him long and hard. “This conversation isn’t over. As soon as I get back, you and I are going to have a long talk.”
He smiled. “I look forward to it.”
I left him to cut his own ropes with a piece of glass---I might need the shuriken. I ran off toward the door that Sionis and his spike-headed goon must have escaped through. It led right outside. The air was cold and biting. It was snowing, too. There was a long line of tracks leading away from the warehouse, going toward the docks. By the size of them, it was a large truck, probably like the one that did those deliveries. I cursed, realizing I was too late. I bit my lip and looked around. There had to be something. Then I saw it, half obscured in the shadows, Tim’s bike. They must have dragged it back here when they caught him. I ran over to it, noticing the keys were still in the ignition. There was no helmet but I didn’t need it. I hopped on, gunned the engine and took off.
It took me a bit to get used to it but I got a handle on it. As I swerved and skidded in the snow, I realized that whoever suggested that I have a motorcycle was wrong. What I needed was an armored car or a tank. Something fast---maybe with a jet engine or something. Anything was better than a motorcycle. I could barely control it. But luckily, I didn’t have very far to go. The warehouses and docks were fairly close together. I followed the tracks and saw the outline of the truck up ahead. I slowed down as I approached. As soon as I stopped, I saw the truck clearly. The back was open and two pig-masked goons were unloading a large wooden crate. Behind them, I could see the large looming presence of the container ship.
I pulled out my batarang and let it fly. It spun through the air, clipping one of the pigs in the head. He dropped like a ton of bricks. His companion couldn’t hold the heavy box by himself and dropped it on his foot. I ran forward, catching the batarang as it came back around to me. He saw me coming and reached into his coat. I jumped on the crate, causing him to scream. I cut him off quickly with a hand over his mouth. His eyes widened and teared up as he struggled from the pain.
“Your boss, where is he?”
I didn’t move my hand but his eyes pointed toward the ship.
I punched him in the face, using the batarang so it must have hurt like hell. He fell forward unconscious and I left him there. I crept along the side of the truck, moving toward the front of it. I looked at the ship. There was a long wooden gangway leading up to it and a pig-masked guy at the top, holding a machine gun. I let fly the batarang. It hit him in the side of the head. He careened forward and fell off the boat, landing hard on the ground. I grimaced and moved on. I ran up the wooden platform, moving without making a sound. There were two more guards patrolling as soon as I got on board. I took them out with a split kick. I’m not really up on all my boat lingo so don’t knock me for not knowing where I was going. I moved along the side, making my way toward the front of the ship.
About halfway along the side of the little structure in the center, Mr. Metalhead stepped out of one of those large circular openings---gangways maybe. He didn’t see me at first but as soon as he turned out, his eyes opened. I moved fast, throwing a first at his face. But he saw it coming, throwing his arms up to block me. He was huge, at least six five so he towered over me. He was all muscle too apparently. I could see it through the outline of his black leather outfit. It was clear that he was the muscle behind this operation. It was also clear that he wasn’t going to go down as easily as the others.
I threw another punch, hitting him low. He staggered back and I kicked him in the side. He caught my foot and pulled me toward him, right into his fist. Suffice to say his fist was about as big as my head. When my face slammed into it, it hurt like hell. But I had barely anytime to think about it. After punching me, he pulled me close and lifted me off the ground by the front of my costume. I was like a rag doll in his arms. He tore me over his shoulder and tossed me hard into the deck. Hitting it at that speed hurt like hell. It knocked the wind out of me. But he wasn’t done. He came at me as soon as I was on the ground. He kicked down at my chest. I rolled away just in time.
I rolled to my feet, wincing from the pain but still able to stand.
“You’re the great Batman, I’m not impressed,” he said with a laugh.
I rolled my eyes. I was tired of correcting people but couldn’t he see the boobs? I decided to skip the small talk. I waited for him to come. My training was all about using your opponent’s strength against him. He came hard and fast just like I predicted he might. But unlike my predictions, he didn’t get close. All his blows were from far away as if he was anticipating that I might try something. He was a skilled fighter, better than me in fact. Every punch I threw at him he seemed to be ready for as if he was reading my moves. It was starting to get taxing. I knew what he was doing. He was trying to get me out of my comfort zone and try something stupid but I wasn’t going to fall for it. I was also getting tired of playing fair. If I didn’t do something fast I was sure he’d eventually get the upper hand.
So I cheated.
I reached into my pouch and pulled out my penlight. He took a quick jab which I dodged then I shined the light in his face. It caught him off guard enough for me to go in for a nice blow. I caught him under the chin. He staggered backwards then I drove my knee into his chest. It was dirty but if I hadn’t done it, I would have been here for hours. But even with those two blows, he staggered back to his feet. I wasn’t about to let him get at me again though. I punched him across the chin again then grabbed a hold of one of his head spikes. I pulled him around, swinging him like he did me then let him go. He staggered and stumbled right toward a wall of crates. He was going too fast to stop and crashed into them headfirst.
The wall toppled and the crates fell on top of him, pinning him to the deck. He didn’t get up after that. I smirked and let out a huge sigh of relief, glad that this was finally over. Now all I had to do was get Black Mask and end this thing once and for all. I turned my head, looking at the stairs that lead up into the cabin. As I started to go toward them, a shot rang out and a bullet hit the ground in front of me, inches from my left foot. I looked up and saw him standing at the rail on the flight desk, holding a pistol. He fired again---near my right foot. I took a step back.
“That’s far enough little girl” he said with a stern voice.
But there was something familiar about it too. I’d heard that voice before. It took me a second but finally it came back to me: it was my Dad’s boss. The guy from the warehouse, the one who tied me to the chair and tried to burn me with the red-hot crowbar. The one I ended up burning instead. That’s why I recognized the name Roman; his goons had called him that. I groaned inwardly. I wondered if he was wearing the mask to hide his burned face.
“It’s over, Sionis,” I said, not taking a step but looking at my options.
There was no way I could get up there without being shot. So that left only one other option. I slowly reached into my pouch and took out the boomerang---my batarang. If I could distract him and get a clear shot, I might be able to take the gun from him. It was a long shot but it was worth a try.
He laughed. “You think you’ve stopped me because you shut down this little operation of mine. I have business deals in several states and a big overseas market. You haven’t beaten me you just slowed me down. As soon as I dispose of you---my little nuisance---I continue right where I left off.”
“The police have Friitawa in custody, Thrill is done.”
He looked mildly surprised for a second but recovered quickly. “Thrill may be over but there are other drugs, much more potent ones.”
The sound of sirens in the distance was the distraction I was looking for. It caused him to turn his head and I let fly with the boomerang. It soared through the air right toward him. He turned and fired, blasting it out of the air. He laughed but that’s what I wanted. He lowered his gun in his laughter and that’s when I let fly with the shuriken. I figured he’d pull something like that. In fact, I counted on it. The bat shuriken whipped through the air and hit him in the hand, taking the gun from it. He screamed in pain and I charged the stairs. I took them two at a time, racing up to the top. When I got there, he was pulling Bruce’s “batarang” from his hand. He saw me and panicked. He made a run for the wheelhouse door, throwing the bat at me before turning and pulling it open. I caught it in midair and threw it back just as quickly, hitting him in the back of the leg this time.
He screamed in pain again and crumbled to the ground, halfway in the wheelhouse.
“Stay away from me” he whined as he crawled into the wheelhouse.
I walked slowly behind him, driving my foot into his back. He gasped as I knocked the wind out of him. He didn’t try to crawl away after that. I flipped him on his back. He was panting but he was still conscious. I bent down, grabbed the front of his shirt and lifted him off the floor. He stared wide eyed in horror from beneath his terrifying black skull mask. Terrifying to him but not to me.
“What the hell are you?” he gasped.
“I’m the Bat,” I said and head butted him, knocking him out cold.
I dragged him over to the railing and zip cuffed him to it to leave for the police.
The police arrived a few minutes later; it looked like the whole police force. I pulled out my cell phone and called Oracle. “It’s done,” I said when she answered.
“Good now get out of there.”
I clicked off the phone and slipped into the shadows, moving down the stairs in the dark. I stayed in the shadows as the cops stormed the boat, guns drawn. There was too much activity going on for them to notice me so I managed to slip away in it. I found Tim’s bike, got on it and went back to the warehouse. When I got there, it was swarming with police too. They already had a lot of the goons in custody, dragging them outside. I slipped in through one of the open doors and looked around. Tim’s chair was empty, the cut ropes lying nearby. I sighed with relief, though I was sure he was going to be ticked when he saw his bike was gone. I’d worry about that later.
I started to walk away when I caught sight of Detective Gage. Why he was here and not at the ship was beyond me. He was bent over near the pile of glass and it took me only a second to realize what he was doing. When he stood up, he had the second bat shuriken in his hand. I sighed and took a step toward him. When he turned around I was standing there, he jumped about ten feet. After he recovered, he let out a big sigh.
“I could have shot you,” he said, his hand on his gun.
“You would have missed,” I said, plucking the shuriken out of his fingers. He didn’t even flinch.
He frowned at that. “I take it all this was your handiwork then?” he asked, waving his hands around the warehouse.
“The Black Mask is done. If you follow your men to a cargo ship on the docks, you’ll find him tied to the flight deck.”
Gage sighed in relief. “So it’s over then”
I nodded. Well maybe for him and Black Mask but not for me. He started talking some more but my mind was elsewhere. He turned around but I was already slipping away into the shadows. I didn’t want to stay around and wait for his guys to show up with cuffs for me. Like it or not, I was still breaking the law doing what I was doing. I think it was time for me to make a clean getaway. As I walked toward the door, I looked at the bat shaped thing in my hand. I was ready drop after the night I’d just had but there was one more place I had to go before I called it a night.
I headed for Tim’s motorcycle and smiled.
I ended up driving the motorcycle to the Manor. I was going to ditch it in the alley where I parked my car but the car was gone. It seems that Tim liberated my car like I did his bike. I guess it was only fair. But I was glad to see he at least got out of there before the cops showed. I couldn’t help but think about him the whole way to the Manor. He did all of that for me and as much as I wanted to kill him for it, I thought it was the sweetest thing in the world. Stupid beyond all measure but very sweet. After our fight the other day I was convinced he wanted nothing more to do with me. When he refused to take my calls, I thought that was the end of things. I cried so many times over it. But it turns out he didn’t call because he couldn’t. I guess that brought me a tad bit of solace. But that still didn’t mean I wasn’t angry at him. As soon as I dealt with Bruce, Tim was next.
I pulled up in front of the Manor twenty minutes later, my cape flapping in the breeze. I wondered if I would have to climb the gate but as soon as the bike pulled up to it, it opened. It was clear that I was expected. I drove on through and around the side to the garage, the door opened for me. When I pulled inside, I saw my Focus. I sighed in relief again. I wasn’t sure he had taken it but I was glad he did. I pulled the bike into the only empty spot and got off. I went to my car instead of directly into the house. I opened the truck and took out the large duffel I kept there. I usually kept my costume in the trunk and my clothes in the duffel. I looked around to make I wasn’t being watched by any cameras then stripped out of the black leather suit. I groaned and winced as I did so, feeling tonight’s many bruises. When I got home, I was in need of a good soak. I tried not to think about it as I pulled on a pair of sports tights and a loose t-shirt, the clothes I usually wore after a night of crime fighting. Then I made my way for the stairs, carrying my sneaks and socks as I did so.
I went straight for the tower. Halfway there, Ace found me. He nearly bowled me over when he jumped up to lick my face. I dropped to my knees and wrapped my arms around him, surprised that I missed him so much. I was actually surprised that I missed this place so much. It felt like a second home to me for the time that I spent here. It was warm and welcoming, not at all scary like I first thought it was. I felt comfortable here, more so than even at home which was strange.
When I got to the tower, Alfred was waiting for me. He had a silver tray in his hand, a steaming hot cup of cocoa sitting on it. I smiled as I approached him. I took the cup and took a sip. It was made with melted hot chocolate, it was delicious. “How did you know I needed that?” I asked as I set the cup back on the tray.
He smiled. “Master Bruce likes a nice hot cup of tea after a long night. I figured this might be more appropriate.”
I smiled then nodded toward the tower. “Is he up there?”
Alfred smiled. “Yes and he’s been waiting for you.”
I smiled and kissed his cheek then made my way up the tower stairs, Ace at my heels. I took the stairs slowly, one at a time. When I got to the locked room, I fought back the urge to try the door. I knew what was on the other side. Knowing that and the last time I was here, put a fire in my belly. I took a deep breath and stormed up the rest of the stairs to the rooms up there. I threw open the door to the parlor, expecting to storm through it into Bruce’s room and chastise him for tonight. What I didn’t expect was him sitting there waiting for me. He dressed in a pair of blue silk pajamas, a cane rested across his lap. He smiled at me, stopping me dead in my tracks.
“Hello Stephanie” he said as if we’d never had an argument at all.
I stared at him wide eyed for a few seconds. I wasn’t expecting this at all. I’m not sure what I was expecting but it wasn’t this.
I was speechless for a few seconds until I finally found my voice. “You have some nerve,” I said angrily.
I pulled the shuriken out of my pocket and threw it at him. The plan was to make it stick in the back of the chair near his head. But Bruce snatched it out of thin air like it was made of paper. He twirled it around his fingers lazily and then it disappeared. Poof just like that. I hadn’t realized sleight of hand was one of his tricks.
He smiled. “I studied with an illusionist for a few months when I was about your age or so.”
I frowned. “Cheap tricks aren’t going to stem off how pissed I am at you right now.”
He smiled some more. “Neither is that smile of yours?” I added quickly.
He nodded. “I imagine you’re not really sure what to make of what’s going on. A month ago I was bed ridden and tonight---you already know by now---I was throwing these things” He flashed the shuriken in his hand. “Into lights. I haven’t been entirely honest with you.”
I crossed my arms in front of my chest. “You think?”
He smiled and grabbed the cane. He stared at it for a few seconds then used it to push himself to his feet. I looked at the cane and wondered if it was for my benefit or for his. He seemed to know I noticed but he didn’t get rid of it. He winked though which meant it was a fake. He walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He held it there for some time and then sighed. Then he brushed some of my hair out of my face. “I was trying to keep you safe from harm,” he said finally.
I pushed away from him. “What is it with men in this house and thinking they have to protect me? I can handle myself.”
Bruce laughed. “I’ve noticed.” He looked at the shuriken. “You definitely proved that tonight and every other night for that matter. I’m really proud of what you’ve accomplished in such a short time too.”
I smiled. “I had help.”
He nodded. “Barbara and Onyx have been keeping me well informed.”
I frowned at that even though Babs told me Bruce was keeping tabs. “So what’s all this been then, some kind of fun for you?”
He shook his head. “On the contrary. When I first started allowing you to do this, I thought about you as a replacement. I’d given up after my accident. But after you showed me how much you cared about the people of this city and you and Tim tried to take care of it in my stead I realized that this was much bigger than me. I forgot why I got into this in the first place.”
I nodded. “So that’s why you helped me tonight?”
“Yes” he said and then smiled. “That’s why I want to continue to help you too.”
Now I was confused. “What are you talking about?”
“Onyx has taught you everything that she can. If you’re going to continue this---if we’re going to continue this---then you need a new teacher.”
I was shocked. “What are you saying exactly?”
“I’m saying that if you’ll have me, I want to teach you everything that I know.”
He held out his hand. I took a deep breath. I wasn’t sure what to do or say. I wanted to take his hand but at the same time, there were so many things I wanted to do with my life. Did I want to spend all my free time stalking the city, looking for bad guys? I only did this because he refused to help me and now here he was extending his hand to me, asking to help me. It was all a bit daunting. But exciting too. This is what I wanted; this is what I’ve always wanted. Here was my chance, a chance to become the person that maybe I was meant to be. I was scared out of my mind when I looked at his hand but at the same time I was more excited than I’d ever felt in my entire life.
I took a deep breath. I can do this I think. I reached for his hand and stopped. “If I do this there can’t be any more secrets, understood?”
He nodded. “No more secrets, I promise.”
I smiled. “Then you’ve got yourself a deal”
I shook his hand and in doing so felt like I was finally where I was meant to be.
“Miss Stephanie is on her way home sir,” said Alfred as he walked back into the room.
I smiled at him and nodded. Alfred didn’t smile back. I knew that look on his face, he was criticizing my actions. He’d been giving me that look every night since Stephanie came into my life. He thought I was being too standoffish, too secretive with her. He wasn’t far off. She was so much like her mother that it sometimes hurt to even look at her. Even when she was a guy in girls’ clothing, she looked like Crystal. Not that Stephanie was ever a boy. Now that she was physically a girl she had really blossomed, even Tim could attest to that. Before there was this unhappiness about her that seemed to bring the mood of everyone around her down with her. That sadness was gone now and in its place was a young woman that would have made her mother proud to see.
I sighed as I stood up from my chair. After agreeing to be my student, she and I talked for a few hours. I knew I was being selfish but I didn’t want her to go. Each night after work, ---before she got mad at me---I had a hard time letting her go. It broke my heart when she walked out of the room and went home. Especially when it was to that bastard. Every time she walked out that door, it was like her mother dying on me again. Even now, that’s all I could think about. When I closed my eyes, I could see Crystal’s smiling face and it hurt so much. It hurt as much as losing my parents. When Crystal died, the world fell apart. I felt horrible not being there for her daughter when she needed me, not being there when I should have been.
“Wallowing in the past again, sir?” asked Alfred.
I smiled. “You know me too well, old friend,” I said, looking down at the cane in my hands.
I tossed it aside and went back to my room. I stripped out of my pajamas and put on some normal clothes. I was tired of the pajamas. They were for Stephanie’s benefit not mine. I was still mending when she first walked through my door but just barely. In truth, I was about ninety percent but I kept up the charade so she would come every day. It was necessary to see if she was like I thought. I suspected there was something different about her mother after only a few times with her. She was the brightest, smartest person I ever met. It crushed me when she met Arthur. Arthur wasn’t good for her. He was only attracted to her looks, not her mind. Crystal had a great mind though. She could solve complicated math problems at the drop of a hat and the rate at which she could absorb information was phenomenal. Back then there was no such things as Metas---I didn’t actually hear the term until I was off on my own.
I met a man. He was rough and rugged on the outside but very fair. I trained with him for a few months. I knew something was wrong when he didn’t get tired like I did after every sparring match. I didn’t discover his secret until I accidentally cut him during a sword fight. I watched in amazement as his wound healed. It was the strangest and the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. He could have lied to me then but he didn’t. He told me what he was and how it was important not to tell anyone else. I gave him my word but that didn’t stop him from leaving the next morning. I moved on from there but I couldn’t help but wonder if there were more like him out there. I never suspected Crystal of being one but it was clear there was something different about her. Her twin sister didn’t have any extraordinary gifts but Crystal was so wonderful that she had to be different. I never pursued it though. When I met Stephanie for the first time, things started to go into perspective. Metas were out in the open now and they were cropping up all over the place. I’d met quite a few of them myself, helped them in some cases, even fought with a handful of them. Stephanie was like her mother. She had that same spunk, that same spark.
When she came back after her father was arrested, Leslie confirmed it for me. Stephanie was a Meta just like I suspected her mother might be. To say that I was thrilled was an understatement. I’d long given up on my crime fighting. Not because I wanted to but because I lost the passion for it. I was no match for the Metas out there. When I saw Stephanie, saw how passionate she was for these kinds of things I got fearful for her. Tim had already started taking up my mantle as the city’s protector. He came home each night with numerous bruises. I couldn’t help but see Stephanie with the same and it pained me a great deal. So I put her through her paces when she first got here just to see if she could do it. She surprised me but then again she was her mother’s daughter. But when she found my equipment and came to me asking for me to help her, I couldn’t do it.
I was scared to lose her like I lost her mother. Like I lost my parents.
But she went and did it anyway. There was no stopping her. That’s when Barbara suggested we help her without her knowing. So I called Onyx---an old friend, and we started. Stephanie didn’t know I was behind it all and I liked it that way. When the press dubbed her the Bat, I let her go with it. I was curious to see how she developed. She surprised me. She did more for the city than I ever did. She destroyed Thrill, took out a powerful drug dealer and befriended one of the city’s finest. She did it with style too and charisma, enough to make anyone proud. She also put a fire in me again. Hearing about her in action, secretly watching her training sessions with Onyx, I realized why I started all this in the first place. It was never about me, it was about helping people and making sure no one ever had to feel the pain I felt.
I’m not sure where I lost that drive but seeing Stephanie do what I should have been doing got me to find my drive again.
Alfred cleared his throat. “You’re staring off into space sir,” he said with a smile.
“Just thinking about whether I did the right thing or not.”
“About Miss Stephanie?” he asked and I nodded. He chuckled.
“Take it from someone who knows. If a young person gets a crazy enough idea in their head, there’s nothing you can do to stop them.”
I smiled at that. “You sure tried.”
“May I make a suggestion sir?”
“Since when have you had to ask?”
“The lies sir” he said as if I didn’t make my remark. “You told her you weren’t going to lie to her anymore and yet you kept the greatest one from her.”
I frowned. He and I had had this conversation before, a hundred times in fact. It never got us anywhere. “I’m protecting her.”
Alfred frowned. “You’re a fool that’s what you were. That young woman is marvelous; you don’t give her enough credit. But to make her think that that man is her…”
I cut him off with the raising of my hand. “It’s not time. When she’s ready…”
Alfred frowned. “It’s only going to get harder as time goes on.”
I nodded. I wasn’t home when Crystal announced she was pregnant. I didn’t come home when she had the child either. I was so busy trying to get revenge that it clouded my judgment. She and I left on bad terms. She was dating Arthur and I hated him. I wanted her to leave that jerk and run off with me. There was some nasty words exchanged on both our parts and I ran away. It was that argument that led me into becoming the man I am today. If not for Crystal I would still been that lonely boy waiting for his parents to come home. She helped create the Bat in her own right and I was forever thankful for her. When I finally got back into the city, the baby was grown and her mother gone. It hurt so much to know that the last conversation I had with the woman I loved was with such anger.
I opened my mouth to respond when there was a knock on the door. I didn’t even get a chance to say come in before the door opened. Tim was standing there, shirtless. His body was wrapped in gauze, his bruised face severely swollen. He looked like he’d been hit by a truck. When he stumbled out of Stephanie’s car, I feared the worst. He was so battered that he collapsed in Alfred’s arms. Thankfully, my old friend was a field medic in the army or else Tim would have been in a lot worse shape than he was. I definitely didn’t want Leslie here if I could help it. She didn’t agree with my nocturnal activities at all. She didn’t like the fact that I dragged Tim into it either. Not that I had much of a choice in the matter. When he found out what I was doing, he wanted to be a part of it. He said he owed it to his family too. So I trained himself myself.
He was leaning against the doorframe. “Did Stephanie leave?”
“About five minutes ago” I said and saw the look of disappoint on his face.
When I saw him show interest in her at first I was a bit peeved. There was no way I’d ever let him anywhere near her…anywhere near my…Tim was a good kid but he formed attachments that were too strong. He’d date a lot of girls on the side but he always found one that he loved above all others. Ariana was a fling, something I knew he did to make Stephanie jealous. But there was another girl he’d been serious about and loved her a great deal. She broke his heart when she left and he went into a dark place. Tim had a lot of dark moods. That was one of the reasons why I didn’t want him to do what I did. He was too brash, too violent and head strong. When he started donning his own costume, skulking about in the night, I didn’t have the strength at the time to stop him. But as I started to mend, I realized that I needed to curve him. So I suggested Oracle. She helped him, aiming him in the right direction. He was still brash but he had a purpose. He felt that if he could pick up where I left off---looking into Thrill---then he might prove to me that he could be the hero that I was. Then Stephanie came into our lives and I saw that same look of longing in his eyes. That same passion. I knew what would happen if he fell in love with her and she didn’t return it.
He did too. But to my surprise, she did as well. It was a little rough at first but I came to accept it. Not that I liked it but I understood Tim would pursue her even if I tried to stop it. So I was letting it go for now. Stephanie was a smart girl and I trusted her judgment. Tim was a good kid but he needed discipline and maybe she would be the one to give it to him.
“Master Tim you should be resting” said Alfred as he walked over and helped Tim to a chair.
My battered ward was currently hobbling with a limp.
Tim waved Alfred off as he sat. “I hate lying there and doing nothing, Al”.
“You’ve done enough, Master Tim.”
He frowned at that. I could tell he knew he was in for a scolding. Not from me though. As much as I wanted to chew him out for going off half cocked like that, I was done lecturing. Alfred on the other hand didn’t share my reluctance. I sat with an amused smile as my oldest friend in the world berated the young fool. It went on for a while and Tim took it without saying a word. But his posture told me everything. His head was hanging low and his shoulders slumped like a child who knew they’d done something wrong. It was the first time I’d seen something like that in him. I couldn’t help but smile and realize that maybe Stephanie was the best thing for him after all.
“Stephanie is coming back tomorrow after school” I said, Tim’s head perked up. “I’m taking over her training. If you were to show up in the Gym I wouldn’t refuse you as well.”
He smiled. “I won’t screw up this time.”
“You better not because this is the last chance I’m giving you.”
He nodded and with that, he stood up. I held out my hand and he shook it. Then he nodded to Alfred and hobbled out the door. As soon as he gone, I looked at my watch and cursed. Alfred turned and frowned.
“Really sir, you’re just like Master Tim.”
“I’m sorry Alfred but I have a meeting.”
He looked at his own watch. “It’s nearly four am.”
I smiled. “The person I’m meeting with has strange hours.”
“I’ll bring the car around” he groaned and left the room.
I smiled. Out of all the people in my life, he was the most reliable.
The meeting was in the Narrows in one of the locations I recently procured from Henry Ballard. I say procure but the truth in the matter was I took it in a hostile takeover. Now that Ballard was in prison---for a very long time---his company was in shambles. It didn’t long for me to acquire it. Most of his property was like the one I was currently standing in front of. He had a lot of old real estate, claiming to have purchased it to develop into high-rise condos. But the truth in the matter was that he ran illegal operations out such places. When I got his company, I got a look at his books and found that Ballard had had his hand in a lot of this mess. When Booster Gold took him down---with my help---things were cracked wide open for the world to see.
“Are you sure this is the place?”asked Alfred with a shudder.
It was clear he didn’t like where we were. How could he. The place was dark and dank, the buildings all close together with tight shadows in-between them. It was the perfect place for an ambush. It was also the perfect place to meet someone who didn’t fit in well in a boardroom. It was my choice to meet here not theirs. In fact, when they first contacted me with their proposal I wanted nothing to do with it. The technology they were offering didn’t interest me in the least. But after my run in with Diego, the world had changed for me. After wallowing in pity for a long time, I realized that if I still wanted to continue then I needed to step up my game. So I made some calls and came to a beneficial arrangement. It was a onetime deal and it cost a fortune but it was worth it in the end. I got what I wanted and my “friend” got a lot of money.
“This is the place,” I said, sticking my hands into my overcoat pockets.
Alfred glanced around wearily. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll wait in the car. This skulking about in the dark is your business.”
I chuckled. “Suit yourself; I’ll only be a minute.”
I left my fearful butler outside as I made my way in. The building was falling apart. It was old and worn down. At one time, it had been a part of a series of fine upscale apartments. But that was back fifty years ago. When the city started to develop further this part was completely abandoned. It was on the darker side of the Narrows where few dared to tread. Ballard bought the whole block from Carmine Falcone, who knows where he got it from. When Ballard was arrested, Falcone tried to buy it back from me but I’m not the kind of guy who does business with mobsters. I respectfully declined and he went back under whatever rock he crawled out from. Now that Sionis was out of the picture I was fairly certain Falcone would move into his territory anyway. I still owned most of that area but having been out of the game for several months now, it was teeming with scum. Stephanie and Tim had helped to clean a lot of it up but without constant enforcement, it wouldn’t be long before it filled up again.
I guess I was going to have to change that.
I found a flight of rickety stairs that led up to the top floor. I climbed them cautiously and made my way down the narrow hall to the last room on the left. When I got there, the door was already open and a small table was set up. I stepped into the room and closed the door behind me. As soon as I did so my “friend” stepped out of the shadows, half of them still hidden, the other half partially visible in the light shining through the window. I saw long legs encased in black leather and knee-high boots.
“You’re late Mr. Wayne,” said a purring female voice.
I smirked. “I had some other business first.”
The person shifted and her leg disappeared. “Do you have the money?”
I reached into my coat and took out a pen and my checkbook. I walked over to the table and filled out the check. I ripped it off and left it there. “I’ll leave you to fill in the name, Miss…”
“That’s not important,” she said, taking a step forward.
She placed a large metal case on the floor in front of her. I stared at the case before taking a step toward it. I picked it up and carried it over to the table. As I was doing so, she stepped out of the shadows fully for the first time. She was tall and leggy, dressed all in black. She was a very beautiful woman but most of her features were obscured in shadows. She picked up the check and purred. I watched her with interest. Then she walked around the table. She swayed her hips as she approached me before putting her hands on my shoulders. She leaned in for a kiss and I didn’t resist. We held it for a long time before she pulled away then licked my cheek long and slow.
When she done she smiled. “It was a pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Wayne”
She waved a bit and slipped back into the shadows.
I stood flabbergasted for a long time, staring at the dark. What a woman!
After I recovered, I opened the case and took a look inside. I smiled at what I saw. She did good work. I took off my coat, unbuttoned my shirt and slowly started to put on everything that was inside. Ten minutes later, I was down. I opened the window and jumped down to the street. When I landed, I didn’t feel the impact at all, the suit absorbing everything. It felt absolutely wonderful. In fact, it was better than wonderful. She did really good work. Alfred turned around and jumped slightly. He took a step back and then sighed, finally realizing who it was.
“So this is what all the secrecy has been about?” he asked with a frown.
“It was necessary to keep up the secrecy so as not to worry you my friend,” I said, the new tone of my voice amplified by the suit I was wearing.
“So is this truly the course you want to take?”
I nodded. “Stephanie and Tim have been holding down the fort very well. But I think it’s about time that I get back into the swing of things.”
“So in other words, I should expect you home at odd hours for a while now?”
I nodded. “Yes just like old times.”
He rolled his eyes. “Here we go again.”
He turned and walked back to the car, opening the door and getting inside without saying another word.
Me I went to the nearest building and climbed up it without a problem. The suit was amazing, having enhanced my agility and strength. When I made it to the top, I stood on the edge and stared out at the Narrows, my black cape billowing in the cold breeze. I stood and stared for a long time. It felt good to be here again, it felt right. After a minute or two, I tapped my left pointed ear, activating the radio inside of it. I made sure it was patched in to where I wanted it to go. “Oracle, do you copy?”
A few seconds later, her voice came on the line. “Bruce, is that you?”
“Not Bruce, not while I’m dressed like this.”
She sighed. “I know the drill. So what do I call you then?”
I smiled. “The Batman.”