“And why are we working Blüdhaven again?” Jason asked. So far Tim had refused to answer, but persistence tended to pay off.
It turned out that the fifth time might be the charm, in this case. Jason could feel the irritated glare from behind the lenses of Tim’s domino. “He’s out of town on personal business. His personal business, none of ours. Got it?”
“Got it,” Jason said mildly. “So you don’t know either, then.”
Tim made an irritable noise in his throat and pulled out his grapnel, not answering. Dick tended to leap and then shoot, but Tim preferred to have his line attached before he stepped off the edge. It was common sense, from his point of view. Besides, Dick the born aerialist was perfectly comfortable flipping around in midair at ridiculous heights, so it didn’t matter so much to him whether he attached his grappling line before he jumped, or after his second somersault.
Jason knew how to use a grapnel, but he didn’t usually carry one. He covered the same distance with a single bound and landed sure-footedly beside Tim. When he’d started training, a landing point as narrow as the parapet he’d touched down on would’ve made him nervous, possibly enough to make him lose his balance, but a summer of Bat-tutelage and three years of running with them had given him more confidence. Besides, Jason knew for a fact that if he fell from this height, only the sidewalk below would get hurt.
Tim referenced his scanner; they were following the frequency of an unobtrusive tracking tag attached to a target’s coat. Dick had placed it—at the target’s dry cleaner, after hours—and then there’d been an unexpected wait for the target to pick up his clothing. But now they had a reliable locator on one of Two-Face’s top lieutenants.
This particular man had begun to operate within Gotham’s neighboring city, Blüdhaven, more than in his boss’ usual turf, and Dick had wanted to monitor him in case he represented a possible expansion attempt. Jason didn’t know that much about their target, really. Tim had the specs, Jason was just providing the invulnerable muscle and the x-ray vision on this trip in case something went wrong.
Not that Tim hadn’t brought his own ways of seeing more than the human eye. When they came to a stop, careful to conceal themselves, he adjusted his lenses for infrared, scanning the dark street for body heat. “Target plus two more,” he murmured.
Jason quickly found the same men. The two their target was meeting were tall and broad-shouldered, looking like thugs hired for their intimidation factor. Tim aimed a small directional microphone at them and listened intently. Jason’s hearing was good enough to pick up a few words, but he was paying more attention to body language anyway. So far this looked like a cordial meeting; no one seemed especially tense.
And then their guy got into an SUV with the two men he’d met. Time for more leaping and grappling—they likely weren’t going far. The initial meeting had probably been in the open to insure that both sides didn’t bring any extras, and now the real business would be conducted somewhere more private.
“Who do the other two guys belong to?” Jason murmured when they paused again, the SUV below them waiting for a traffic light.
Tim shrugged one shoulder. “No leads. Could be anyone. One of the local families here, or one of Gotham’s rogues trying to do business without the rest knowing. My money’s on the latter, but it’s just a hunch.”
“It could even be someone from outside the area looking to make contacts,” Jason said, half to himself, and Tim turned his head sharply, scowling. The thought made the hair on the nape of Jason’s neck stand up. “We keep hearing about this Injustice Society, after all.”
“The last thing we need is for the villains to get organized,” Tim growled. Below them, the light turned, and they leaped in unison to the next rooftop.
“Maybe they’re just trying to get group health insurance,” the Super joked, but his best friend glared at him. Jason sighed. “Seriously, Tim. The League and the Titans hold together in spite of all the drama because we trust each other; because at the end of the day we share the same goals. You really think these guys can pull off the same thing? Maybe in the short-term, yeah, but they’ll be stabbing each other in the back inside of a month.”
“Some of them are charismatic enough to make it work, for a while,” Tim said curtly.
Eventually they ended up at a small bistro, and Tim dropped a couple of listening devices into the airshafts to record the muted conversation of the three men. Unfortunately no one mentioned their bosses; this seemed like an initial meeting, and anything important would be decided later based on impressions made here. Tim was decidedly displeased with the lack of solid intel.
“We found one of their regular meeting places, though,” Jason told him, not liking the set of his friend’s jaw. “And we still have the tracker on our target.”
“True,” Tim said, with a hint of lightness in his voice. Jason decided to take that as a good sign.
Dick Grayson had called ahead to let her know he was coming over, but when he got to Donna Troy’s apartment, she didn’t answer the doorbell. He knew there were a dozen likely explanations, but he couldn’t help the way his heart dropped into his stomach. Not Donna, please. She’s had enough already. Not Donna, not again.
Luckily he had a key, and let himself in, well-trained gaze scanning for anything out of the ordinary. Everything seemed in its place … then his eyes lit on a mug on the coffee table. Dick picked it up; about a sip’s worth of tea in the bottom, and almost room temperature. It had been sitting for a while, then.
The natural inclination was to call out, but Titans didn’t necessarily operate under ordinary rules, and Bats, never. Hyper-aware, Dick moved through the apartment, alert for any intruder or any signs of Donna herself. In the back of his mind ran a little pleading mantra to match the sick churning of his stomach.
Only one door in the whole place was closed: the spare bedroom. Suddenly Dick knew exactly where Donna was, and his heart gave a funny little skip at the realization.
Dick sidled up to the closed door, listening. From within came the muted sounds of soft jazz, something low and relaxing. He could picture the little alarm clock radio Donna had; it was a goofy gift he’d given her years ago, a bright blue fuzzy cube with an adjustable-brightness display. That had been the chief quality he’d sought, that and the red glow of the numerals.
Another sound came to his ears then, very faintly: dripping liquid.
Elise had no idea how much time had passed. There were no clocks, her watch was gone, and there was no exterior light in the room. Hours, at least, alone in the close darkness. Long enough for her throat to feel dry and raw from screaming for help. Long enough to wonder if her captor was ever going to return. Long enough to realize that probably no one had any idea where she was, and that she might not even be missed for several days, until her next date with Corrin. Long enough to try and remember how many days it took for a person to starve to death, and then to realize she’d die of dehydration long before then.
Long enough for her to come to the extremely uncomfortable realization that she really, really needed to pee. Amazing how such trivial discomforts could overwhelm everything else.
When the door behind her creaked open again, Elise let out a tiny little shriek even though she wanted her captor to return. Anything was better than the endless waiting and the torture of not knowing what was coming next. And yet, she didn’t want to sound too eager. So Elise called out in the most caustic voice she could manage, “Hey, just so you know, I drank a quart of water on the way back to my room. So it might be a good idea to let me out of this chair and tell me where the ladies’ room is.”
“That sounds like a personal problem,” the distorted voice replied, seeming faintly amused. The mechanical whirring moved around the room until Elise was sure her captor was right in front of her. She heard a faint tapping sound.
Light burst into being, Elise squeezing her eyes closed with a pained yelp. After so long in the dark, that single bulb above her head hit her retinas like a runaway pulp truck. Muttering curses under her breath, she was eventually able to slit her eyes open … only to see the vaguest silhouette in the shadows before her. “What’s wrong with you that you won’t show yourself?” Elise challenged. “What, are you uglier than Two-Face or something?”
Low laughter greeted that, the voice digitizer rendering it inhuman. “You’ve got spirit. I admire that. But I think we’ve established that insulting me only earns you unpleasant consequences. If a time-out isn’t effective, I may have to resort to stronger measures. Do you understand?”
Fear coiled low in Elise’s gut, but she couldn’t let it show. She had to keep up a tough façade, keep this bastard guessing, and above all not give in, long enough for someone to find her. So she shot back sarcastically, “Yeah, yeah, I’ve seen enough slasher flicks to get it. Tell me, do creeps like you—oops, sorry, guys like you, I wouldn’t want to wound your delicate ego—do guys like you really do the thing where you show your helpless victim a tray of torture implements to intimidate them? I always wanted to know if the movies got that right.”
The answer was perfectly level and calm. “No. People like me don’t do that sort of thing. We just figure out the best place to apply leverage, and then do so, until we get the results we want.” Somehow that cold answer was spookier than some greasy leather-face killer crooning over a table full of saws and scalpels.
Elise swallowed, her dry throat making an audible click. “Right. Okay. I understand.”
The digitized voice seemed to have expected that. “Good. Look to your left.”
Another light came on, revealing a series of car batteries wired together … with more cables snaking around toward the back of Elise’s chair. All of a sudden she realized the cuffs holding her were smooth and cold. Metal? Like an electric chair? “Oh shit,” Elise whispered, struggling all the harder to get loose.
“Don’t do that. You’ll only hurt yourself. Trust me, you’re very securely bound.” Again that mechanical whir, and the voice added, “If you cooperate, I won’t have to shock you.”
How much voltage was in those batteries? More importantly, how much amperage? And how much was fatal? This wasn’t fair! She’d been having a normal day at college, headed back to her room to study, and then suddenly this. “What do you want?!” Elise shouted, hating the rising shriek of panic in her voice.
“Something simple. Superman’s name.”
Oh, shit, Elise thought despairingly.
Roman Sionis—better known as Black Mask—surveyed his legal team. “Whaddya mean, eight to ten? I’m not rotting in Blackgate for a damn decade!”
“Mr. Sionis, let me appraise you of the situation,” the first attorney began. “First of all, it’s an election year, and everyone in the justice system from the judges down to the assistant D.A. is keen to show their best face to the public. It’s going to be extremely difficult for us to have the charges reduced and the sentence lowered to the level I mentioned. Now, with good behavior you might….”
“No, let me appraise you of your situation,” Mask snarled. “I am paying you to get these charges dropped. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care whose arm you have to twist. But I guarantee you, pal, if I hafta do ten years because your fat ass spent more time knocking back martinis than blowing holes in the prosecution’s case, I’ll be damn sure to figure out a way to get you locked up with me. Understand?”
The man, new to the team, blanched at the threat. The rest of the lawyers didn’t. They were well aware of the sort of man they worked for, and threats didn’t move them. They knew Mask was neither stupid nor shortsighted, though he did have a nasty temper.
Some of these men had worked with him for years, and knew that the street-rough language concealed his origins. Sionis was as blue-blooded as that featherhead Wayne, if a good deal smarter. It just pleased him to sound like a gangster. He felt it was a truer measure of his nature than the polished mask he’d been reared to present.
While the attorneys talked amongst themselves and batted terms like ‘plea bargain’ and ‘reasonable doubt’ his way, Mask contemplated his legal team. Gotham’s gangsters had their own elite legal teams; Dent’s were the best, of course, but the Falcones had one hell of a consigliere who’d been a D.A. in some other city, plus a team to back him. Mask’s legal boys weren’t quite up to that par. Until recently, he hadn’t needed them. If that goddamned Red Hood hadn’t screwed him over….
Oh, that cheeky little bastard. Black Mask still wanted to get a hold of that arrogant smart-mouthed boy with all his tricks and his rockets and beat some sense into him. Or just beat him bloody, if it came to that. Either way would make him feel better. He’d had to throw away a small fortune on bail just to maintain his present freedom. He’d be damned if he let them lock him up. And to do it without tasting Red Hood’s blood? Hell, that was cruel and unusual.
He chuckled to himself at the thought of making that argument in court, but the humor quickly turned bitter. Hood had fucking used him—the biggest gang boss in Gotham, the undisputed master of the street, and Hood had made him a pawn. All to get Batman where he wanted him. The kid’s brilliance and audacity had won him some grudging admiration, but Mask couldn’t get around being all-out furious with the young maniac. Dammit, this wasn’t a game, this was real life, and Hood had set him back five years in his own plans. More, if his hotshot legal team couldn’t get him off the hook. Hell, the damn kid might even sink him for good if he had to do time over this.
Mask could feel his blood pressure red-lining, and suddenly he wanted nothing more than to take a knife to these suit-wearing chumps who were nattering on about his case like it was some interesting academic challenge. “Boys,” he snapped, and they all turned to him—the newest one wide-eyed, the rest calm. “We all know I’m not gonna take the stand. My lovely mug isn’t gonna win over any jurors. So you might as well go somewhere else to debate. I’ve got calls to make.”
With the flock of lawyers scattered, Sionis ground his teeth thoughtfully. Maybe if he gutted one of his own defense attorneys, they’d send him to Arkham instead of Blackgate. It was a fallback plan, anyway. In the meantime, he had an idea.
Picking up his office phone and dialing, Mask waited until it was answered and then said in what passed for his most polite voice, “Let me talk to Cobblepot.”
The usual runaround for a few minutes, and then that arrogant little tit’s voice came on the line. “Roman. Such terrible news. I trust you’re dealing with it as best you can? Chin up, and all that?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m handling it,” Mask said. God, how he hated the bird-boy and his affected manners. Oswald Cobblepot should’ve stuck with his nickname. Penguin was a goddamn freak like all the rest of them. The difference was, he tried to deny it, cigars and monocle and fine champagne. He should’ve just choked down a live goddamn herring in front of a camera, show the world what he really was. The fucking bird puns were enough evidence of a deranged mind. “What would really help me, in my hour of need, y’know, time of trouble and all that, is a little peace of mind.”
Penguin chuckled richly. “Whose mind, and how large of a piece?”
“I was being figurative,” Sionis ground out. “Listen, Oswald, they say you know everything and can get anything, for the right price. I wanna give you a chance to prove that’s true.”
The answer came back oozing with oily cheer. “I’d be delighted. What are you seeking, Roman? Perhaps … a certain red helmet, very limited edition? Because that would be very expensive indeed.”
“Oh, no,” Mask laughed. “If I add that to my collection, I wanna pick it up myself. No, all I want is information. This Red Hood character. Who is he, where’d he come from, how’d he get so good that the goddamn Bat can’t catch him?”
“Ah, now that is a challenge,” Cobblepot said with what sounded like pleasure. Twisted little freak. “I’ll see what I can find for you, Roman. And I hope you remain free to take advantage of my research.”
“I hope so too,” Mask replied, and then hung up after the expected pleasantries. He stretched his neck, hearing a dry pop somewhere. Tension headache coming on. Dealing with the crooks who thought they were upper-crust always managed to piss him off.
Sighing, he rose from his chair. It was time to go see about his operation—what was left of it. Red Hood again. It wasn’t enough to steal the merchandise and interrupt the schedule and take over the turf, no, he’d had to kill some of the best operators Mask had. Vicious little bastard.
Only imagining that stupid helmet with a bleeding stump hanging out of it could soothe Sionis’ rage.