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Discussion in 'Comic Books & Genre RPG's' started by Batman, Mar 22, 2017.
The All-New One Universe RPG
"What is history but a fable agreed upon?"
-- Napoleon Bonaparte
The American Dream is a lie.
I don't mean that in the quasi-socialist, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp plight-of-the-working-class way.
I mean it never existed. This nation wasn't founded with egalitarian ideals in mind. It wasn't founded because of high taxes and low representation. It was founded to be a kingdom for those with the wealth of kings, but no land to rule. The New World would be theirs for the taking, a compact sealed in the blood of the settles of Roanoke. And that was decided before the first shots were fired in Lexington and Concord, before the first treaties to the king, before the first chest of tea got thrown into the Boston Harbor, and even before the first anchor dropped off the coast of Plymouth.
Thirteen Families in all. They've been here since the very beginning, watching and controlling from the shadows. They are the Bushes, the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Rockefellers, and the Vanderbilts all rolled into one. They are the oldest of the old guard, the powers that be, the keepers of the status quo.
And they use some real bastards to enforce their will.
Prairie Rose Indian Reservation
Dash Bad Horse waited half a second before he kicked the rickety door with his boot. The shot, aimed just below the door's cheap knob, splintered the wood at the doorjamb and sent it swinging back on its hinges.
Dash came through the door with his shotgun raised, a flashlight mounted on the barrel and shining a light for him. The living room of the house was a sty. Overturned furniture with burn holes in them were cluttered around the room with trash and old styrofoam food containers.
In the next room, the kitchen, Dash found the cook site. Bottles, both plastic and glass, sat on a plastic card table with hot plates, chemicals, and syringes. What had been a simple warrants check for Jody Two Feathers had become something much more.
Dash turned when he saw movement out the corner of his eye. Jody Two Feathers, wearing nothing but a pair of stained tighty whites, blinked at him with a confused look on his face.
"What the fu--"
Jody's question was cut off by the butt of Dash's shotgun. He went down on the dirty linoleum floor, spitting blood and teeth and cursing unintelligibly.
Five minutes later, Dash had Jody Two Feathers handcuffed in the backseat of his car and was calling for backup to remove the meth making equipment inside the house. He walked back into the house and found a sandwich bag of crystal meth from the kitchen table and pocketed it before going back outside.
Even though it was miles away, Dash could see the lights from the casino blinking on and off in the night. The Crazy Horse. It hadn't even existed back when Dash left the rez. A lot of things had changed since he'd been gone. The Army. He'd enlisted and been gone, served some in Afghanistan and Iraq before coming back home.
That's what he told everyone, and that's what he knew had happened. Yet... it didn't feel right. He'd wake up from his dreams in the middle of the night and see images from a life entirely different than what he knew. Dreams of guns and violence and sex and money. Men in immaculate suits and beautiful women in dazzling suits sitting together at a long wooden conference table. A woman with tears in her eyes, begging him to not pull the trigger.
The sound of a siren snapped Dash back to reality. Franklin Falls Down pulled up in his cruiser and got out. The six member staff that made up the tribal police were a mix of crooks and humps; half of them got their job because they knew someone on the tribal council while the other half were just bullies looking to flex. But not all of them were like that. Falls Down was the one good cop among them. For his part, Dash figured he fell close to the bully category. Three excessive force complaints in his six months on the job, something of a record even among the brutish tribal police.
"Hazmat stuff is in the bank," said Falls Down. "Let's slip it on and box that crap up."
Dash nodded, his eyes drifting back towards the lights of the casino. Something wasn't right. There was a thinness to everything, his current situation and his life in general. Something lurked beneath the surface, something dark and foreboding. Dash knew that whatever it was down there, it involved the people in the fancy dress, the guns, and the crying woman asking him not to kill her.
"Dash?" Falls Down said. "You with me?"
"Yeah," said Dash, shaking his head. "Let's get to work."
Center City, WA
Linda Flynn and her girlfriends walked down the sidewalk on unsteady feet. The group of four girls swayed and bobbed on their big high heels, clinging to each other as they walked. All four wore expensive and tight cocktail dresses and heels that were just a bit too big for them. They didn't care how gaudy they looked. They were young, they were rich, and they wanted the whole damn world to know it.
"Denise, you are such a ****," one of them said in a drunken slur. The rest of the pack broke out into a fit of giggles.
"You're the ****," Denise countered. "I saw you with that guy, just grinding on him. He looked so ****ing ugly! You're such a ****."
The girls looked up at the sound of a roaring engine. A large black van raced down the road and skidded to a stop beside them. Two men in balaclavas jumped out with pistols in their hands. The girls let out screams of horror as the two gunmen zeroed in on just one of them. They took Linda roughly by the shoulders and shoved her into the van. The three remaining girls tried to reach out to their friend, but were pushed back by the kidnapper. He aimed his gun at them and put a finger to his lip.
"Tell her father, we'll be in touch," the masked men said. "Tell him if he goes to the cops, she ****ing dies."
The two men jumped into the van, slammed the door shut, and the van peeled off into the night, leaving the drunk and hysterical young women to cry and panic for their kidnapped friend.
It was the middle of the night, but Tracy Lawless was wide awake. He sat on the edge of the bed, smoking a cigarette and staring through the darkness at the city outside. Sleep was something he no longer seemed to need much of. Years in the military had taught him how little he actually needed to function. No more than five hours a night and he was good until another twenty-four hours.
The woman in his bed stirred and he looked back at her. Gennelle was her name, or at least her stage name. She was one of the strippers at the club he managed for Hyde. It was stupid, taking her home that night after they closed... but Tracy's base biological functions had been gnawing at him for the past few weeks. He needed to clear the works out, so to speak, and Gennelle with her long legs and rich coffee colored skin was just what he needed. He should have just went to a bar and picked a woman up, or even better bought a call girl for the night. Sleeping with one of the girls would no doubt cause some sort of trouble back at the club.
The cell phone on the dresser across the room rattled as it vibrated. Tracy stood and padded towards it. A blocked number was calling.
"Yeah," he said softly.
The voice on the other end was recognizable enough. John Galston, some lawyer type Hyde just recently started to use as a go-between for him and all the people he dealt with. It made Tracy wonder why he set up the stop-gap. Maybe he was getting paranoid in his old age?
"He needs some work done," said Galston. "Get to his office right now."
"Okay. I'll be there."
Tracy hung up without another word. He walked towards his closet and started to dress. When he was done, he took a key off his ring and placed it on the nightstand beside the sleeping woman. He left her a note, asking to lock up after she left. Tracy tucked his piece, a Smith & Wesson compact .40, into the shoulder rig he wore under his coat and left out of the apartment before the morning sUn had a chance to creep up over the horizon.
To look at Sebastian Hyde's office, you would think he was a college professor or some well to do businessman instead of the kingpin of Center City. There were books, shelves and shelves of books on the three office walls. The lone wall not loaded down with books had an entire long pane of glass that stretched across the wall in a window that gave off a pretty impressive view of Center City. The books were all random as hell. Everything from Gibbon's six-part series on the history of Rome to Danielle Steel. Tracy doubted very much that Hyde had even cracked open one of those books in his library. The man didn't care about books, and he didn't care about his impressive view. The books and window were all a show to anyone who came into the office. It was projecting power. Look at how many nice things I have, it said, look at the entire town that I sit above like a king. All of that boiled down to a simple message: Do not **** with me.
"Tracy," Hyde said as he came in.
Tracy stood and wordlessly greeted the old man as he walked towards his desk. Hyde wasn't in his usual three-piece, but he still wore dark slacks and a collared shirt. Tracy remained standing until Hyde sat down behind the desk.
"It's late, let's skip the usual ********, son. Do you know Thomas Flynn?"
"Rings a bell. Does he owe you money?"
"No, unfortunately not. Flynn owns a good deal of the industrial park here in town. Supposed to be worth half a billion. He keeps his nose mostly clean, as clean as anyone worth that kind of money can be. Early this morning, his daughter Linda was kidnapped by some masked men. They called the house a few hours ago, demanding five million dollars for her safe return. They also demanded no cops be involved. Flynn wants security and he's afraid to go to the police... so he came to me. For a nominal fee, I'm guaranteeing her safe return. For a cut of that fee, you'll provide the service."
Hyde working for money didn't jive true to Tracy. He had more than enough money than he or his kids would ever spend. But what was left unsaid Tracy knew all too well. Flynn was asking Sebastian Hyde for a favor. All it took was for Hyde to get his foot into the door and he owned you. Flynn thought it was a simple transaction, money for goods and services, but it would be so much more than that. For Hyde to get in good with a man like Flynn would give him something much more valuable than money. Flynn got you connections, contracts, businessmen, and politicians. Influence, a half a billion dollar's worth of influence Hyde could call on.
"Do I just watch over the deal, make sure it goes down smoothly?"
"Very much so. And when the deal is over, it is expected you find the kidnappers and liquidate them. These ********ers are operating with impunity in my city, son. I will not let that stand."
"And the money from the ransom?"
The old man's eyes lit up and his eyebrows arched as he smiled.
"You know how it is, son. Things sometimes go missing. If Flynn can't recover that money, it's a small price to pay for the safety of his family."
Message received. Tracy nodded and stood, heading towards the door. He hated when Hyde called him son. He made a mental note that when he got his revenge on the old prick, he would hit him in the balls for every time the old man had called him his son. After tonight, Tracy's count was up to 219.
The gates opened and Parker walked out a free man. He wore the same shirt, pants, and jacket he'd been picked up in six months earlier. The bullet holes in the shirt were still there even though his own wounds were long healed. He eyeballed the idling car and walked past it, opting instead to hoof it into town. The car followed him down the road. It was a black sedan with windows so darkly tinted you couldn't see inside. The electric window whined as it rolled down.
"Want a lift?"
"Go to hell," said Parker.
"Always the hard case, huh, Parker?"
That stopped Parker in his track. He'd been incarcerated under the name Ronald Kasper. The only people who knew to call him Parker were people who were in the Life. He looked into the car and saw and old man with sunglasses on, a slightly amused look on his face.
"How do I know you?" asked Parker.
"From a past life," said the man. "My name is Graves."
"Don't know you."
"Well I know you," said Graves. "And I know all about you and Mal."
Parker felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
"I know how to find him, too."
Parker climbed into the car with Graves. They rode in silence for a few minutes before Graves spoke again. He told Parker to look in the backseat and get the case. Parker reached back and got the attache case. He popped it open and looked inside. Resting in the case was a file folder with the words RESNICK, MALCOLM stamped on them. Beside the folder rested a glock and a cardboard box of ammunition with the word 100 written on its top.
"Inside that folder, Parker, is the location of Mal Resnick. The gun, as well as the bullets, are untraceable. Any investigation into the crimes you commit with the gun and ammo immediately stops once they're run through ballistics investigation. You have carte blanche to do what you need to do."
"Why?" asked Parker.
Graves lit a cigarette, using the act to create a pregnant pause inside the car.
"Because Mal Resnick double crossed you on your score, shot you twice, and left you for dead. Because I know you're a man who takes betrayal seriously."
"No," said Parker. "Why are you doing this? I got sprung after only six months in the clink, that had to be you. Then you give me this gun and bullets and the means to find Mal. What did Mal do to you?"
"He hurt you," said Graves. "That's enough to provoke my ire."
"And what am I to you?"
"An asset," said Graves. "Something that needs protecting."
Graves pulled into the city bus terminal and found a parking spot.
"They still give cons enough money for bus fare?" he asked.
"Barely," said Parker.
"I'm sure you'll manage. You're a survivor." Graves flicked his cigarette out of the window and turned to Parker. "Do what you want to do with the case, Parker. The choice is yours. That's all I am offering you. The means to get your revenge. You are uniquely situated, Parker. You have something that almost no one has."
"The power of choice," said Graves. "The freedom to right your personal wrong... or not. There's power in that choice, Parker. Never forget that. Now take the case and happy hunting."
"You're dead, Superman!" snarls the eight-foot-tall tangle of mismatched cybernetics through the mouth of its chrome-silver skull, his words nearly drowned out by the groan of collapsing steel as the dump truck hoisted over his head sags under its own weight. "Today, we finally put you in the trash where you belong!"
Before Metallo can hurl the several-ton truck at me, I let loose with a pair of white-hot beams of heat from my eyes, slicing through the truck almost instantaneously. Bright orange molten slag splashes down across the cyborg's face, before the dump truck splits open and buries him under a mound of garbage.
"I don't talk trash, Corben," I say, unable to resist a grin, "I just take it out."
Joking aside, Metallo's an extremely dangerous opponent. His human body almost entirely replaced with various technological enhancements, he has made himself into a veritable Frankenstein's monster of human and alien technologies, immensely strong and loaded to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons-- most notably the Kryptonite shard that powers his frame. Most of the civilians in the area are taking shelter, but he's still got the potential to kill hundreds if I don't subdue him quickly.
What's worse, though, is that he's not working alone.
"Oh-ho-hooooooo, did you hear that, Metallo?" gurgles a raspy, guttural voice from behind me. "The big blue stick in the mud actually tried to make a joke!"
I turn and see a pair of withered, claw-like hands lunging towards me. I dash backwards and see the skeletal figure of the Parasite, loose purple skin hanging off of his long, spindly limbs, thick strings of bright green drool hanging from the black, hooked teeth that ring his leech-like mouth. Capable of draining the energy of anything he touches, the creature that was once Rudy Jones can kill a normal human with the slightest touch. Even I don't want to make contact with him for more than a second or two at a time.
"Well, I've got one for you," Parasite says as he pounces towards me again, nearly able to catch me as he's far faster than I expected. "How many innocent bystanders does it take to catch up to a Kryptonian?"
I try to fly upwards and get clear of him, but a cold, vice-like grip crushes in around my ankle.
"About thirty-six, apparently," he hisses, contorting his maw into a grotesque approximation of a smile. Instantly, I feel my strength being sapped from my body. I feel light-headed, my arms and legs feel like lead weights, and it's a genuine effort not to lose consciousness.
With his stolen strength, Parasite slams me down hard into the pavement, before grabbing me by the cape and whipping me through a storefront window.
"You're a monster, Parasite," I spit between ragged breaths.
"Oh, like I haven't heard that screamed at me a few hundred times before," he chuckles as he drags me back out into the street. "But don't worry; we're gonna take our time killing you, so you'll have plenty of opportunities to come up with something more original."
Parasite hurls me down the street towards Metallo, who intercepts me with a massive blast from his central core. A wave of searing green plasma hits me like a freight train, and instantly I'm overcome with crippling nausea. Every nerve in my body is screaming in protest as the Kryptonite-powered blast launches back up the street, towards Parasite.....
....who gets caught in the blast with me.
My senses reel for a moment, close to blacking out. Between the sickness, weakness, and pain of their attacks, it'd almost be a relief, if not for the fact that the city's still in danger.
"Nnnnnnnghhh.......watch....where you're aiming....you idiot!" I hear Parasite growl as he pulls himself up from the wreckage of an overturned sedan. "I don't....just get his powers....I get his weaknesses too!"
"Now you tell me, Metallo shrugs, closing the Kryptonite chamber and reconfiguring his arm into a cruel-looking mace. "Well, we've got him on the ropes; keep draining him and I'll keep hitting him, and then we'll-- hey!"
While the two are bickering, I make a break for it, launching myself away from them and up into the air. I need a few seconds to recharge, get above cloud-level and absorb enough direct sunlight to--
A million needles prickle and poke all over me, and my muscles spasm. Even as fast as I am, I can't outrun a bolt of lightning.
"Ohhh, you're not going anywhere, Supes!" Livewire laughs as I fall back down towards the street. Just what I was afraid of.
Rudy Jones, John Corben, and Leslie Willis-- now collectively calling themselves the "Superman Revenge Squad." It's not the most creative name, but it gets the point across. Three extremely powerful, unhinged killers, all with a grudge against me for putting them away. Individually, each one has come close to killing me in the past. Working together, they may very well get the job done.
"So Parasite," Livewire says, her hands crackling with hundreds of thousands of volts as she touches down on the pavement over me, "How do you want your meat done? Bloody, medium, or burnt to a crisp?"
"Ohhh, make him sizzle," he says, a long, slobbering tongue licking his lips as he looms behind her. "I wanna see if it's true that your eyes boil with high enough voltage."
"Not for humans," she says with the disappointment of someone who's tried it. "For aliens, though, who knows?"
The air crackles and buzzes as Livewire charges herself up to deliver the killing blow. Parasite gapes hungrily at the power she's wielding.......which gives me just the inspiration I need.
With every bit of strength I can muster, I clap my hands together, the pressure wave knocking Livewire off of her feet and sending her tumbling backwards into Parasite.
For a few seconds, both of them writhe and scream as he unwittingly drains her electrical powers, arcs of lightning skittering outwards from the two. Before Parasite can regain his composure, I lunge for a nearby fire hydrant and crack it open. A torrent of pressurized water spills out into the street, and I bend the top of the broken hydrant to direct the water towards my downed enemies, drenching them.
For a few seconds, there's a series of loud pops and sparks, and then Livewire and Parasite go limp, the electricity completely shorted out. Which leaves just Metallo.
"You.....you....." Corben stammers before brandishing his mace-arm. "I'll kill you!"
"No you won't," I say simply as I slowly get to my feet. I'm still weakened, but now that I only have to deal with one of them, I can focus and end this.
Metallo rushes towards me and brings the mace to bear with a huge overhead swing. As he goes high, I go low, clipping his knee with a shoulder tackle that sends him tumbling head-over-heels. While he recovers, I grab a manhole cover from the center of the street, whipping it like a frisbee straight towards his chest and lodging it into the opening where his Kryptonite core is stored.
He stumbles back, taking a moment to reconfigure the mace back into a hand, and begins to pry the manhole cover away. Metallo can tear through steel like tissue paper, so I don't have long to act.
I rush towards the mechanical maniac, bringing both fists up with an axe-handle blow that catches him under the jaw, launching him into the air. Following him upwards, I pour everything into my speed to catch up to him, throwing another big punch just as he's about to recover and sending him further skyward.
My muscles burn with exhaustion as I follow up with a second punch, and a third, and a fourth, until finally we're above cloud level, and I feel the sun's rays fill my body with energy again.With all my strength returning to me, I wind up, and really let him have it....
LATER THAT EVENING....
"No way," Jon says, wide-eyed. "You punched him into orbit?!"
"Well, not a true orbit," I say with a slight shrug. "He'll probably make about three full rotations around the planet before re-entry, and with any luck, he won't be in much of a mood to keep fighting when he lands."
"Still, you took on three bad guys by yourself, and whooped them!" my boy says, barely able to keep in his seat. "Why does anybody even bother trying to fight you, Dad?"
"Because some people don't know any better," Lois says as she sets down a big plate of meatloaf and vegetables at the center of the dining room table. "And some people have that 'whooping' coming."
"Don't get the wrong idea, Jon," I say, helping myself to my wife's cooking as I heap a huge helping of meatloaf onto my plate, "That wasn't an easy fight. Those three were really strong and really dangerous. The only reason I won is because I've been doing this for a long time. Even with my powers, I've got to rely on my experience and training to take on people like that. And that doesn't come easily."
"So when am I gonna get to start training?" he asks. "Am I gonna get to meet Batman?"
"Not until you're thirteen," I say, shaking my head.
"What about Wonder Woman?"
"Not until you're eighteen," Lois answers as she loads up our son's plate.
Having a family dinner once a week is one of the few luxuries Lois and I are able to allow ourselves between our hectic schedules. The Planet has been as busy as ever, and Lois is currently knee-deep in an exposé linking the Senate Majority Leader to Bruno Mannheim's syndicate. With her dodging mob bullets and myself fighting villains more frequently in the city, it makes me that much happier that we bought this farm several miles outside of Metropolis just before Jon was born. Bruce can have his Cave; this is the kind of place I'd like to retreat to any day.
"And anyway, Jon," I say between bites, "you've still got plenty to keep yourself occupied before you have to worry about fighting super-villains. When's that science test again?"
"Tomorrow," he shrugs. "Mr. Clayton's class is really hard; I just don't get a lot of what he's talking about."
"Well, lucky for you, you happen to be descended from a brilliant Kryptonian scientist," Lois says to cheer him up, "and I hear his son knows a thing or two about it himself."
"And where'd you hear that?" I say as I stand up and put my arms around her.
"I have my sources," she says with a wink, while Jonathan makes a yucky-face.
"Okay, okay, Jon," I say, "Go get your textbook and your notebook and I'll help you study, okay?"
"Can we go flying after?"
"If it's not too late."
Jonathan quickly polishes off his plate, hopping up to take his dish and fork to the kitchen sink, before running out of the kitchen and out to the main hallway, then up the staircase towards his room.
Outside, Krypto begins barking.
"Seriously, though, Clark," Lois says, her tone changing, "You took on Livewire, Parasite, and Metallo all by yourself? Why didn't you call for some backup? Kara and Conner would've been there in seconds."
"I didn't want to put them in danger," I say defensively. "You know they're not experienced enough to fight someone armed with Kryptonite yet. They still need training to--"
"And how much training are you going to be able to give them if Parasite kills you? And what if it's not some half-organized team of losers next time, what if it's Luthor, or Brainiac, or whoever else baiting you into a trap?" she says. "We've had this discussion before, Clark. No more stupid risks like that, not with Jon to look after. You call in the cavalry the second things start getting hairy. Understood?"
I look down, my face hot with embarrassment. Outside, Krypto's barking gets louder, and he begins snarling angrily.
".....understood," I finally say.
"Good," she says, pulling me close. "For the record, though? You kicked ass out there today."
As we kiss, the air goes suddenly cold. For a moment, the world feels....wrong, like a million invisible insects are crawling all over everything. The color drains from the room, and for a split-second, I'm painfully aware of the fact that I can't move.
there's a loud CRASH as Krypto launches himself through the kitchen door, barking like mad and bounding into the hallway.
"Krypto!" I shout, chasing after him. "Get back here, boy! Get--"
The dog ignores me, rounding the corner and charging up the staircase, and I follow him upstairs....
....towards Jon's room....
Krypto finally comes to a halt at the doorway, and I push my way past him into the room.
I blink a few times, thinking for a moment that I'm not seeing correctly. But the room is just....gray. All of the color has been drained away. And Jon.....
Frantically, I search around the room, my eyes filtering through the entire electromagnetic spectrum. I see through the walls, focusing my vision for miles for any trace of him. I don't find anything.
It feels like my heart has been replaced with ice. I'm shaking so badly I can hear the furniture rattle. I'm......I'm afraid. Genuinely afraid.
My son is gone.
SHIELD Medical Facility
Steve held his breath and could feel his heart thumping against his chest. He had fought against the greatest evils this world had ever faced time and time again, but he was never as nervous as he was then. The bright, antiseptic light felt like the one of Hydra’s energy weapons blasting down on him. It was intolerable. This was the moment that was going to define the rest of his life, and he wasn’t sure what that was going to mean.
Next to him, Sharon gripped his hand harder than she ever had. He looked down at her and smiled reassuringly. Neither of them ever expected to be here. In their line of work, it was never a guarantee they’d see each other the next day, let alone get to plan a life together. Yet they had defied all expectations and made it.
“Well?” the doctor asked. “Are you ready?
They looked at one another and nodded.
“Give it to us straight, doc,” Captain America smiled. “We’re ready.”
“It’s a girl.”
A girl. They were going to have a baby girl. The words felt alien as they rattled around in the old soldier's brain. When he was in the war, he dreamed of a day like this. The men in the trenches around him had girls and kids back home. His sickly frame before he became Captain America made that unlikely. But here he was, a dad-to-be.
“I so told you!” Sharon yelled with joy and punched Steve in the shoulder. “Carter-Rogers one million, Rogers zero.”
Steve leaned in and gave his wife a happy, passionate kiss before saying, “Come on, I think I deserve more than zero.”
“Maybe if I was Hydra. You haven’t beaten me yet,” Sharon responded slyly.
“Pretty sure you said you weren’t the marrying type back in the day,” Steve smirked. It wasn't a lie. When they had first met, Sharon was about as ferocious in a fight as he was, except she didn't have super powers to back it up. If their past selves could see them now, they'd be shocked.
“Fine, you get that one,” Sharon grumbled.
Before either of them could say another word, a knock came at the door. It swung open and in walked Sam Wilson, Steve’s best friend and fellow hero. He smiled as he caught a glimpse of the sonogram, “Sorry to interrupt, but we have a situation. Fury wants you to suit up.”
“Duty calls,” Captain America sighed and looked at his wife. He leaned in, gave her a kiss on the cheek, and whispered, “But not for much longer.”
********** SHIELD Command "Bout time you showed up," Fury rumbled as Captain America and the Falcon stepped into the SHIELD Command center in their full combat gear. Cap's shield caught the light as he entered the room, and it glistened like a firework on the Fourth of July. Agents in the room that had seen the shield hundreds of times still couldn't help but stare. "How'd it go?" "A girl," Steve still had a dumbfounded grin on his face he couldn't seem to wipe away. "We're having a girl." Fury slapped him on the shoulder, "Congratulations. Next time we get an opportunity, I owe you a beer." "You know that wouldn't do any good," Steve chuckled. "Would you stop being Captain America for one dang minute?" Fury shook his head. "Seriously, man. Come on," Sam added. Cap shrugged, "What's the situation?" After a few key strokes on his console, a holographic video appeared in front of them. Some sort of guarded compound was suddenly rocked by an explosion. From outside the frame, a figure leaped into view, dropping an RPG to the ground as he walked through the smoking hole he had just created. "Batroc," Captain America seethed. "I thought he was in Stryker's Island." "He was," Fury responded. "Until this morning. Batroc, Swordsman, and Sportsmaster all disappeared this morning." "Meaning someone wants our attention," Falcon surmised. Cap cracked his knuckles, "Then let's give it to them. What's the facility?" "STAR Labs in Baltimore," Fury responded, pulling up the file in front of them. "They're working on some experimental energy source." "Anything that could be used to hurt civilians?" "Nope, no radiation or fallout possible," Fury answered. "Could just power a city with a plant smaller than a laptop if they can get it working." "That could go for a pretty penny on the black market," Falcon whistled. "Then let's make sure it doesn't get there," Cap nodded to his partner. "You and I can take care of this. No reason to call the others in." "Just like old times," Sam smiled. "I like it."
The St. William's Gotham Church Bells echo across the night's sky, signaling midnight and bringing me out of a moment of solitary contemplation. I peer down at the building ahead, noting it's vivid Catholic imagery as it stands in stark contrast against the darkly lit surroundings. Almost the perfect spot for a killer, but so far, everything's been quiet - which worries me more than anything. I've already made a sweep of the area so far, and nobody's come in or gone out in the last thirty minutes. Despite that, I feel as though my hunch was on the level. All evidence of the other attacks I'm following have a single common thread, and it's the fact that they've each taken place in either the local churches or other places of worship. If the killer is as locally based as I suspect, then this is the last possible location for him to make his next attack in the East End. Harvey Bullock disagreed, which is why he and his fellow officers are stationed on a stakeout across from a synagogue in The Narrows.
In truth, I'm almost relieved. The killer's been smart enough to avoid capture for weeks, and any police presence would likely dissuade him from attempting to move in on his next target until another night. But as far as he knows, nobody's casing this, making it prime for his deranged fantasies to be carried out without interference. What he'll realize soon enough is that he's wrong - and that he made the mistake of operating in my city.
"Red Robin.", I state, activating the comm-links. "Report."
"Nothing on my end. Perp's been silent so far, even though her target's out in the open. You?"
My eyes narrow. Tim's been hunting a similar perpetrator for as long as I've been stuck with this. His 'Bloody Mary' killer, who's been targeting her own former psychiatrists. Unfortunately, it's that time of year again. The 'Career Criminal' season, as the media takes some pleasure in calling it. The same period of weeks in Gotham that the crime rate spikes to the point of creating a more colorful cycle of scum, with almost each one looking to be the next Joker or Two-Face. For the vast majority of them, it's about the infamy. They fetishize the idea of being locked up in Arkham after a lengthy trial, thinking it'll turn them into some sort of legend. Most of them wind up in the hospital with broken ribs, an IV attached to their arm and babbling incoherently in a poorly tailored leotard. Those, I never worry myself over.
"The same, more or less."
"Right. I'll keep the channel open if anything changes."
It's the legitimate ones. The ones that were bred to become like Scarecrow and The Riddler, without intention or the motive to do so. For example, the perp that I'm anticipating now. Seven men and women have wound up in intensive care after having a select organ forcibly removed. Some priests, others simply there at the wrong time to pray, establishing that the attacker doesn't have a preference and that he targets these specific places either out of religious delusion or convenience. And were it only a series of non-fatal attacks, I'd be content to pass the information I've collected onto Gordon and resume my nightly patrols of the rest of the city.
Nine individuals weren't so lucky. While the major organs between the living victims have varied between a spleen or a kidney, easily replaceable with the right donor, the dead have been missing parts not so readily forgotten. One woman was missing her left eye and died from shock and blood loss. Another man was found without his heart. Were the method of removal more savage, I'd suspect this were done to sell the parts on the black market. But these killings were precise and deliberate. There's a personal purpose to them.
Days ago, I finally managed to identify the culprit: a man named Henry Parks, formerly employed by the Wayne Memorial Hospital. He was a morgue attendant for thirteen years and a devout follower of the Church of St. Dumas. Relatively unremarkable with a clean record, droplets of his blood were nevertheless isolated from the blood of at least three victims. Virtually untraceable by conventional CSI methods, The Batcomputer only barely managed to distinguish the difference. And Parks has been reported as missing since shortly before this spree began, making his involvement more than apparent.
The Gotham Globe have started calling him 'The Ghoul', based upon the grim nature of his work and a mistaken association with a recent series of graverobbings. The victims of that are unconnected with the men responsible, who were caught and arrested weeks ago, but leave it to the press to sensationalize wherever they can.
Alfred remarked the other day about how he misses the days where the most you could expect out of this city was a mob hit and a few muggings. While I don't necessarily categorize these types of crimes in that way, I can't help but agree. The years have changed Gotham for the worse, and it makes me start to question where my place really is.
There, through the top window. Movement coming from upstairs, despite the lights being long since turned out. The infrared lenses of my cowl just picked up a faint body heat emanating from the top floor, moving fast. My hand clasps against the handle of the grapple gun as I remove it from my belt. I'd be willing to bet the Wayne fortune that it's Parks.
"It seems I may have spoken too soon. Close the channel for now."
With any luck, this madness can come to an end tonight.
"Commissioner, this just came back from the lab. You might want to take a look at the results."
Across Gotham City from his office in the GCPD, James Gordon looks up from the paperwork on his desk to see Lieutenant Max Eckhart hurriedly shoving an evidence bag in his face. His brow furrowing as he takes the piece of paper attached to the bag, Gordon adjusts his glasses to read the barely legible handwriting from the lab technician's assessment. Inside the bag is a reservation card for The Morrison Suites, a luxury five-star hotel usually reserved for guests like Oliver Queen, Tony Stark, and the rest of the visiting members of high society staying for charity fundraisers.
The GCPD received the card nearly three hours prior, inside of a manilla envelope stamped with a Joker Card insignia. Knowing what this could potentially mean, but also aware of the high probability of it being a simple prank, Gordon himself ordered that the card be analyzed for fingerprints, hair fibers, and anything that could potentially tie the card's delivery with the actual Clown Prince of Crime. What was particularly notable about the card is that the reservation read for 12:30 AM that night, making the identification of the card's sender all the more vital if it was intended to be an omen of something sinister.
"Wait,", Gordon mutters, his eyebrows arching. "What in God's name?"
The results don't indicate that the sender of the card was The Joker. They indicate that the fingerprints, which were the only identifying marks left on the card, belong to Roman Sionis. The Black Mask.
"Yeah. They didn't believe it, either.", Eckhart shrugs. "You want me to send out a squad, just in case?"
"I'll handle that, Lieutenant, except there's one problem.", Gordon replies, getting up to grab his coat. "Black Mask has been dead for three years. Bullet to the head, his killer never identified. I watched his body get cremated myself."
"With all due respect, Commissioner, it's not like it's uncommon."
Gordon looks back, confused, placing his signature hat on his head.
"I mean, we said the same thing about Superman. And Captain America. And that archer guy from Star City, a few years back.", Eckhart explains. "Hell, wasn't The Bat considered dead for a brief spell?"
"There's a hell of a difference between men like Sionis and people like The Batman, Lieutenant.", Gordon sharply warns. "I'd advise you to remember that if you want to think about a future in this town."
Eckhart apologetically takes the envelope back as Gordon rushes out the door.
"Hey, I was just sayin'..."
Commissioner Gordon ignores him, making his way towards Major Crimes to gather a few of the men and women that he can trust to help him handle this. There was no doubt in his mind. This was no prank.
This was a threat.
"I'm beginning to grow weary of these quarrels of ours," says an unsettingly smooth voice from a grotesquely muscular body. "Eventually one tires of repeatedly having to buy new furniture for one's penthouse."
He jabs with a fist the size of a whole ham, his calm demeanor belying the murderous intent in his eyes. I twist my upper body to the side just enough that the fist slips past me harmlessly, not even needing to take a step to avoid the blow.
"Well, maybe if you'd cut it out with the extortion, drug smuggling, human trafficking, and murder, maybe I'd be a little less inclined to break all of your things," I say, bobbing and weaving around colossal punches that could cave my skull in if any of them ever connected.
He used to go by the name Roland Desmond, a petty criminal whose genius chemist brother was involved in another one of those "dangerous experimental formula to create the perfect soldier" rackets and became a brain-addled mongoloid called 'Blockbuster.' Eventually Roland followed in his brother's footsteps and became the new Blockbuster, and after a deal with the demon Neron to have intelligence that matched his strength, became one of the most dangerous crime bosses on the Eastern Seaboard.
Dubbed 'the Brute with the Billion-Dollar Brain,' Blockbuster sees himself as the next Kingpin.....although I doubt he'd ever say that to Wilson Fisk himself. He played it smart and set up shop here in Blüdhaven, where he wouldn't have to deal with rival super-criminals or pesky capes while he established his criminal empire.
Unlucky for him, about three years ago I found myself in the need of a change of scenery and had a lot more free time on my hands, so I've taken the liberty of slowly but surely dismantling everything Desmond has set up, keeping him from expanding out past Blüdhaven and into New York and Gotham--like those cities don't have enough trouble to worry about.
As Blockbuster winds up for another crushing punch, I flick a trio of small glass beads I'd palmed in my left hand up and towards his face. With a series of small pops, they burst, coating the behemoth in a thick cloud of inky blue smoke.
"*kaff*....really, child?" he says, peeling back his lips in a sneer to reveal teeth like yellow cobblestones as he emerges from the smoke, "That's-- *kaffkaff*-- that's your best shot? Cherry bombs?"
I shrug. "Something like that, yeah."
Desmond doesn't seem amused, as his sneer turns into a scowl.
"Three years," Blockbuster growls, snapping the legs off of an antique oak chair without effort, the broken ends forming thick spear-like stakes that he thrusts into the place where my face was a fraction of a second earlier. "Three long, miserable years you've been a thorn in my side. For three years I've had to deal with you disrupting my operations, setting back my plans, robbing me of my most capable soldiers."
"Ugh, don't remind me," I say, pulling my escrimas from over my shoulders and parrying another thrust from his stakes, "I should have been able to bring you down in two years, but you know how things keep popping up."
Irritated, he lunges, but this time I roll back, towards the large bookcase on far wall. Blockbuster presses the attack, thrusting low, but by the time the wooden stake rips into the carpet I've turned my roll into a hand spring, vaulting up on top of the bookcase. The wood creaks and begins to crack under my weight, and I lean forward, which is all I need to tip the entire thing over. There's a loud crash and a cacophony of noise as the case collapses on him, kicking up a cloud of dust and spilling hundreds of thick leatherbound volumes all over the floor.
For a normal man, that much weight falling on them could be potentially lethal. For Blockbuster, it's a momentary annoyance. But it's more than enough for what I need.
A pair of bolas whip through the air just millimeters off of the ground, wrapping themselves around Desmond's ankles. Off-balance, Blockbuster wobbles for a moment, then falls on his face.
"You think this is over now?" he snarls, struggling in vain against the restraints--he's big, but he's not big enough to snap through reinforced carbon-nanotube cables.
"No, it's not over now," I say, the playful sarcasm replaced with a hard edge. "This fight was already over before it even started."
When you've been in the superhero business since before you started puberty, you know better than to take on someone as dangerous as Blockbuster without a game plan. He's incredibly strong, fiendishly smart, and extremely resilient. I doubt even hitting his pressure points with all of my strength would do much more than annoy him.
So, then, the game plan is to take him out without even throwing a punch.
"Those 'cherry bombs' weren't just smoke and sound effects," I say as he tries to pull himself up, suddenly realizing his strength was failing him. "That smoke was laced with an extremely powerful sedative and muscle relaxant. Based off of a formula developed by SHIELD specifically to subdue Hulk-level metahumans. And as tough as you are, Desmond, well, you're no Hulk. You should be feeling numbness in your limbs right about now. Loss of consciousness within the next thirty seconds. And you'll be out for hours; plenty of time to get you safely behind bars."
"...whuh.....I...." he slurs, his head beginning to wobble.
"I was trained by the best in the world, and I've had three years to put together everything I need to take you down, Roland Desmond," I say, standing over him as his eyes start to roll back. "You never stood a chance."
I leave Blockbuster to be brought in by Blüdhaven's "finest," since the police force and I don't exactly have the best working relationship-- I swear, all the scum and corruption that Jim Gordon drove out of the GCPD just went a few miles down the road and picked right back up here. Knowing how screwed up things are in this city, I fully expect Desmond to be back out on the street in months-- maybe he'll pressure the jury into a not-guilty verdict, maybe he'll bribe the prosecutor into taking a dive, maybe the mountains of incriminating evidence will vanish in a puff of smoke. Hell, maybe he'll plead guilty and get an early release by serving on the Suicide Squad.
But tonight, I put the fear of God into him, and it'll take ages for him to put his operation back together. And when you do something as stupidly futile as dedicate your life to waging war on crime itself, you take your victories when and where you can.
Turning in for the evening, I climb down the fire escape and through the window into the humble, dilapidated, flea-bitten, rat-infested, one-bed one-bath apartment I call home. Stripping off my costume and tucking it away for the night, I go to the bathroom and tend to the night's cuts and bruises before changing into some boxers and a t-shirt and crawling into bed.
Looking over at my nightstand, I see a blinking blue light coming from inside the drawer. I pull the drawer open and see the small unmarked 'burner' phone has three missed calls on it.
The caller's number is blocked, but there are only two people in the world who know this phone number. And Bruce wouldn't have Alfred bug me at this hour without contacting me directly over my earpiece.
Taking a deep breath, I close my eyes and then return the call.
Time to get awkward again......
Miller Harbor, Gotham City
Ten Years Ago....
It takes me a minute to catch my breath. I normally don't get this exhausted without a major fight breaking out. I'm practically drenched in sweat, which makes the night air that much colder on my bare skin.
Even in the summer heat, the rough concrete rooftop is freezing cold....but the girl lying on top of me, panting and sweating just as much, is soft and warm. As she runs her fingers through my hair and kisses my neck, I find myself not minding the scrapes and scratches on my back and butt so much.
She pulls back, clearing the long flowing red hair away from her face and looking down at me with those piercing green eyes. I suddenly feel an urgent need, a need to say something important, as important as if our lives depended on it.
"I love you," I blurt out, my face going red as soon as I say it.
For a second, she puts her hand over her mouth and looks away, her body shaking as she halfway laughs and halfway cries. Finally, she looks back at me.
"Shut up," she replies, rolling off of me to a seated position.
"Barbara, I'm serious," I say as I sit up. "I mean, if....if you don't feel the same way, I--"
"Dick. Seriously," she cuts me off. "Do you really think I'd do this with you if I didn't love you too?"
And this time I'm the one who can't tell if they're laughing or choking back tears.
About a year ago, Bruce and I started hearing reports of a 'Bat-Girl' running around making life difficult for Two-Face. At first, we sought her out to dissuade her, make sure she didn't get herself killed. But she was persistent. And on top of that, she was good, an absolute natural for the job.
Bruce was frustrated for weeks trying to unravel the 'mystery' of the Batgirl's secret identity. Not me. Those eyes, that hair, those freckles across her nose.....I'd had a crush on Barbara Gordon since I was twelve, when Bruce dragged me along to a charity fundraiser for her dad's precinct. I'd recognize her anywhere.
About six months ago, Bruce let the two of us start taking unsupervised missions. After we took down the Ratcatcher together, I worked up the nerve to steal my first kiss. A few days later, she stole it back. Since then, we'd been.....well, I don't know if 'dating' is the right word for it, since jumping across rooftops and cracking criminal skulls isn't exactly the same as going to the movies. The point is, all summer, this absolutely perfect summer, I'd gone out on patrol with her practically every night.
But life moves fast when every night might end with you getting shot. Before either of us knew it, summer's almost over. Tomorrow, Barbara's packing up and going off to college. And I've still got another year at Gotham Academy.
So tonight's our last night together for a long time. Patrol was quiet, which allowed the two of us to have a very long and very intimate talk. And that talk led to a very long and very intimate kiss. And that kiss led to, well.....everything else.
"God, my dad would kill me if he ever found out about this," Barbara says, whether to me or to herself I'm not sure.
"Come on, he wouldn't do that," I answer. "He'd kill me first."
We both laugh for a bit, before she looks up into the night sky and her smile fades.
"So....this is really it, isn't it?"
I shake my head.
"It doesn't have to be," I say. "I mean, Hudson University isn't that far. And there's still winter and summer break, and....we can make it work, right?"
"I know," she nods. "It's just....not gonna be the same. It's not like Batgirl can just suddenly show up in the same town I'm living in without someone getting suspicious. And I feel like....I don't know, like you and Bruce are going to be so far ahead the next time I get a chance to put the costume on. And, I mean, you're still going to be on that Titans team with all of those other superhero girls and--"
"Hey, seriously, Barbara," I say, putting my hands on her shoulders, "I'm not interested in any other 'superhero girls.' Starfire, Raven, Wonder Girl, Shadowcat? As far as I'm concerned, they don't exist. I'm here, now. I'm gonna be here when you come back. This isn't a superhero thing, I don't love Batgirl. I love you, Barbara."
She smiles, and my heart melts.
"Okay, seriously," she says, blushing nearly as red as her hair, "We should really cut it out with the real names while we're out here in public. Someone might hear us."
"We're in the harbor at 4 in the morning," I say with a laugh. "Everyone's gone home for the night. And even if they do hear us, so what? We're just two idiot teenagers who can't help ourselves, right? So let 'em hear us!"
I hop to my feet and stand, still stark naked, on the edge of the rooftop, cupping my hands to my mouth.
"ATTENTION, GOTHAM CITY!" I yell as loud as I can. "MY NAME IS DICK GRAYSON, AND I! LOVE! BARBARA GORDON!!!"
Barbara laughs, nearly rolling over onto her side, before standing up.
"Well, you're right about one thing," she says, ruffling my hair as she pulls me down from the ledge, "At least one of us really is an idiot teenager who can't help themselves."
Before I can respond, she leaps up onto the ledge, and shouts out.
"ATTENTION, GOTHAM CITY! MY NAME IS BARBARA GORDON, AND I! LOVE! DICK GRAYSON!!!!"
She spreads her arms and trust-falls backwards into my arms. We laugh, and as the laughing starts to fade, I can't look away from those bright, piercing green eyes.
She parts her lips and leans in, and we kiss for what feels like forever. It's not the energetic, frantic kisses from an hour before by two horny kids who are eager to keep going. Every second of it, we try and make last as long as we can.
Because despite everything we just said, despite what we just declared to the world, both of us know we're kissing each other goodbye.
"Oracle, it's.....it's me," I say when she answers the line. "It's Nightwing. Ummm........hi."
".......hi," she answers. "You're, erm, you're probably wondering why I called."
"Yeah, I, erm.....I assume something's up?"
"It's Gotham, Nightwing, something's always up," Barbara answers. "But it's something that might involve you, specifically."
"For the last couple of weeks, I've been tracking gang activity in the city," she says, able to speak without stammering when it's about the job. "There have been about a dozen territory grabs in the last fourteen days, all by what appears to be the same organization. They haven't made it clear who they work for now, but they're mostly ex-Penguin goons, highly trained and heavily armed."
"That's....interesting, but why call me about it?" I ask.
"Well, it's not the gang itself that's concerning me," she says. "It's what places they're taking over. Giambroni's Pizza, the Purple Olive Club, Lombardi's East End Casino, the Heights Park apartment complex......do these sound familiar?"
As she reads off the list of territories, my blood starts to run cold.
"....yeah," I finally say. "Those were all fronts that used to be owned by Tony Zucco."
Someone's setting up operations in the exact same places as the man who murdered my family.
"I can get Red Robin and Batgirl on it if--"
"No, this is.....this is someone calling me out," I say, cursing to myself. "Whoever's doing this knows who I am, and is probably going to just escalate things if I don't show up. I'll head out on the morning, and I should be in Gotham tomorrow afternoon."
"I'll, erm....I'll let Batman know you're coming," she says.
"Thanks," I manage. "Um, while I'm in town.....you wanna, I dunno, grab some lunch and catch up before I dive into this case?"
There's a long pause over the phone while the question hangs in the air.
".....we'll see," Barbara answers before hanging up.
I flop back down onto my bed, and spend the rest of the night staring at the ceiling. I don't get a wink of sleep.
A pane of stained glass above the front entrance of the Church shatters underneath my boot, giving way to an entrance far more expedient than the front doors themselves. I can already see that time is of the essence by the time that I land squarely in the center of the main chapel, startling a nun and priest enough to send them both running without a second's hesitation. The nun even screams something rather blasphemous, clearly believing me to be the Devil himself. There was a time when I'd had to have warned them of the impending danger, but Gotham's citizens have become unfortunately accustomed to the reality that if The Batman appears anywhere near them, something must be terribly wrong. It's the burden that I have to carry every time that I make myself less than scarce. I originally set out to frighten criminals. But more often than not, it's the people who have nothing to fear of me that are forced to go running.
My eyes immediately start scanning the darkest corners of the labyrinthian room ahead, as I switch the lenses from infrared to night-vision. "The Ghoul" is close, judging by the proximity of where he was hiding to begin with. If I didn't already hear the nun and priest who saw me burst through the back entrance, I'd almost worry that he'd escaped. The more pressing concern for me, right now, is whether or not there are any other members of the Clergy still remaining in the building. If Parks is anything like the state of his prior victims indicate, he won't want to leave the Church without his kill. He's too methodical, probably having planned this for weeks.
I don't intend to allow it to last for another moment.
"I already know you're there.", I call out to the shadows. "You have a choice. Surrender now and you'll be delivered to the GCPD unharmed. Don't, and you'll wish that you'd chosen the first option."
The ultrasonic microphone in my cowl picks up some sort of fabric rustling under panicked hands, and I brace myself for a struggle. I knew it was futile to offer him the easy way out, as very few criminals ever seem to choose the wiser option. Guess I shouldn't have been so optimistic about my reputation proceeding me enough for at least one to reconsider.
"No. This is wrong. All wrong."
Before I can react, a large blade whistles out from the darkness at blinding speed, catching me off guard. I backflip out of the way, just barely avoiding it as it embeds itself into the ground where I once stood. To say that was unexpected is an understatement - the sort of toss that could bypass my reflexes would have to be performed by a trained professional, of which a man of Parks' record never indicated. He's had military training, but only with firearms and close quarters combat. And that was over a decade ago.
Given that I still can't see him, I vault forward and toss a few smoke grenades and flash bombs out into the shadows. Like a cascade of fireworks, the flash grenades immediately reveal a lone figure standing in the farthest corner of the room. The smoke hisses and billows beneath his feet, and he calmly takes a step forward, revealing himself in full: dressed in dark clothing with a large leather jacket over him, he's wearing a mask that I immediately recognize from Gotham Plaza's "Day Of The Dead" parade from last year. It seems that he's taken his media-given denomination to heart and given into his delusion entirely. Henry Benjamin Parks might aswell not even exist right now.
"You're not supposed to be here."
Despite the flash grenades and smoke, he only barely inches closer, as if in a trance-like state. That barrage of light should have disoriented him, and yet he seems entirely unphased. There's something off about this.
"Neither are you, Henry.", I counter. "I know what you've been doing. The body parts you've stolen. The people you've killed. And I'm putting a stop to it one way or another."
"Henry?", he asks, inquisitively. "Henry is who I was, but Henry was damaged. Damaged from the inside. He was created wrong. God created him and he was defective."
"I don't care.", I growl.
"You will. Once you're apart of me, too."
Without warning, he produces another blade and effortlessly tosses it. From his trajectory, I don't have enough time to dodge. So I do something entirely foolish and attempt to catch the blade in my hand. The speed of the blade forces me to use both just to stop it from cutting into my face. My eyes widen as he lunges for me, two large blades in hand, having anticipated my reaction. This definitely doesn't add up: He's trained for this.
Fortunately, I've had a bit of training myself.
"Don't fight it.", he says, his tone void of emotion. "I didn't want to kill them. I only wanted what they didn't need. I needed to purge what was bad in me. What didn't fit. Henry was broken. I needed to start over. Remake Henry."
With every word, he takes another violent swipe, forcing me to dodge before I can even attempt to attack. Bits of wood go flying as he takes out entire chunks of the front row seating. I allow one of the blades to lodge itself into the fortified area of my gauntlet, digging itself only far enough to loosen from The Ghoul's grasp ever slightly. With a twist, I kick down into his left leg and palm-strike him in the jaw, knocking him back.
"You need professional help.", I remark, removing the blade from my arm. "It's clear to me that you're suffering from a mental disorder. And based on your medical records, you never received the treatment that you should've been given long ago."
"There's nothing to treat. Only replace. All of it... needs to be replaced."
As he's moving to get up, I notice a drop of blood on the floor between us. Studying him closely, my eyes narrow at the spot of his jaw that I struck. It's bleeding profusely, far more than a simple impact should against the jawbone. Almost as if...
"You're stitching's loose."
Before I can further question him, he lunges at me again, catching me across the sigil of my breastplate. Were it not for the armor plating beneath it, he'd have made a clean slice. I elbow him hard in the face, spin and drop kick him in the chest, knocking him into the wood panelling of the confessional.
"You really did it, didn't you?", I ask. "That's why you're wearing the mask. You've already begun replacing parts of yourself with the stolen organs. You don't just need help, you need medical attention."
Parks struggles to get back up, and I start to see drops of blood begin to seep out of his clothes, originating from the chest area. Grabbing him hard by the shirt, I lift it to reveal a horrifying sight: a several hundred stitching pattern embedded across his entire abdomen, almost in a spider-web formation. Concentration was clearly put into his stomach and chest, from when he stole the liver, spleen, and heart, but this is professionally done, even if completed less than a day ago. He couldn't have pulled this off himself, and there's no working medical professional alive that would be able to take the time to pull something this extravagant off.
"Like I said.", he whispers. "Henry was broken. Needed to be replaced. Everything was backwards. Felt wrong. It all felt wrong."
Before I can interrogate him over who provided him with the surgeries, he plunges a large bowie knife into my shoulder. I drop him and grunt in pain, stumbling back to immediately begin trying to remove the weapon from my flesh. Either the sight of what he'd allowed to be done to himself distracted me just enough for him to gain the upper hand, or I'm starting to get slower in my age. Half of my brain does all that it can to stop the other half from instantly defecting to the latter. I've been doing this for far too long to be surprised by anything anymore.
"But now it's going to feel right."
"Now I'll finally feel complete. Once I have your eye, everything will be whole again."
I sneer back at him as I painfully rip the serrated steel from my shoulder, spilling enough of my own blood to more than make up for the fact that he's still wounded. Got to end this quick, or we'll both bleed to death before either can gain the upper hand.
"Henry. This is your last chance. Put down the knife."
He raises his arm, ready to strike, and I move to try and take him down.
When out of the rafters above us, something moves and strikes him in the head, knocking him off of his feet.
My eyes dart upward to see Cassandra, in her 'Orphan' attire, silently crouched and perfectly blended in with the shadows. She immediately throws down a Bat-line and slides to my level, preparing the Bat-cuffs to subdue Parks with before I can say anything.
"Looks like we arrived late to the party."
I turn to the front entrance, where Tim - Red Robin - is already making his way in.
"Damn,", he notes of my shoulder wound. "That looks rough. You gonna be okay?"
"Fine.", I reply, plugging the laceration with a momentary field dressing. "Truth be told, I didn't expect either of you to arrive. Last that I checked, you were hunting your own serial killer."
"Yeah, about that.", Tim awkwardly states. "Seems that Orphan's been pulling a few all-nighters on us. By the time I caught up with my 'Bloody Mary', she was already strung up to a lamp post. And Little Sis, here, was already on her way to your location. Figured I'd tag along to see what the big hurry was."
"Distractions.", Cassandra interjects. "Needed to end this. You were taking too long."
I raise an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"
"Oracle. She has an assignment, emergency. For all of us."
Tim and I look at eachother as Cassandra motions for us both to re-open the communication lines. Tapping the side of my cowl, I begin to make my way towards the front doors as Cassandra finishes with The Ghoul. Tim follows, curious.
"Oracle? Orphan's telling us that you're..."
"Oh, thank God! I've been trying to reach someone for the last twenty minutes!", Barbara hurriedly exclaims. "Bruce, there's been an attack. Someone's taken the Morrison Suites hostage. It's... chaos, absolute chaos. Dad's already down there with the MCU, but they need Batman and anyone else that he can spare immediately!"
While Barbara's sense of danger is generally heightened whenever a crime scene involves her father directly, I've never heard her act this wildly animated about a hostage situation before. She's usually very adept about hiding it, at least.
"We're on our way.", I reply sternly. "I have Red Robin in tow. We're about ten minutes out from the scene. Keep trying for anyone else in the area."
Turning towards Cassandra, I point towards Parks' unconscious body as she lifts him above her shoulders.
"Get him to the GCPD and rendezvous with us at my location."
She nods, making her way past us.
"Jesus. I've never heard her like that. What's got Barbara so spooked?"
Making my way past Tim, I lead him out into the open and prepare the grapple. I'll have to cauterize my wound whenever we get to the rooftops, since it seems there's no time for me to return to The Batcave for Alfred to see to it.
"Jim's down there."
He gives me a knowing glance, firing his own grapple.
"What have you got so far, Montoya?"
Ten minutes ago, Commissioner Gordon stepped past the Police Tape covering the scene and placed a handkerchief to his nose as he looked upon the scene ahead of him, with equal parts concern and disbelief. Captain Renee Montoya shared the same gaze, with one hand clutched to her face as another remained attached to her service revolver, both keeping themselves at a great enough distance from the undoubtedly toxic green gas that hovered around the entrance to the once populated skyscraper. The Morrison Suites house nine stories worth of luxury hotels and penthouse suites, but if you were to look at the site of the building now, you'd see nothing but a tower of broken windows and the fumes of an unknown chemical. Clearly a terrorist attack of some sort, but in Gotham City, it's hardly a rare occurrence.
"We're awaiting word from SWAT to make their way in. Hazmat's on their way, but we haven't sighted a perp.", Montoya replies. "I've got maintenance on the sidelines from the hotel. Still being questioned, but they each say they didn't see anything on the monitor whenever the gas hit. No mention of gunfire from the guests that made it out."
Gordon looks to the ambulances already at the scene, treating the infected - if they truly are infected and not the unfortunate casualties of a bizarre prank. If it were The Joker, either would be likely. But The Commissioner had already made the call to Arkham on his way over. The clown was in his cell, rocking himself with laughter over a joke only he could hear. He hadn't escaped, nor had he even made the attempt.
This was someone else. Someone who'd somehow gained access to Black Mask's fingerprints, despite the man's body being ash. Which meant that they were dealing with an unknown person or persons entirely.
"I want the footage of those CCTV cameras given the runaround. And these people need their blood samples sent to the labs at the station before they get to the hospitals. We need to know exactly what we're dealing with."
"Already on it, Jim. But there's something else."
Montoya hands the Commissioner an envelope. Same type as before, but this time stamped with a question mark.
"Christ. First Joker, now Riddler.", Gordon frustratedly asserts. "Let me guess. You've already sent off the prints?"
"The lab already called back. Computers got an instant match. They belong to Anatoli Knyazev."
Gordon's eyes widen.
"Another dead patient of Arkham."
"The envelope we received earlier, the one with the Joker Card? It had the prints of Roman Sionis, the Black Mask.", Gordon explains. "And now this one indicates The Riddler's involvement but has KGBeast's prints on it. Knyazev took a nasty fall off of a roof whenever Harvey Dent was acting as the town vigilante during Batman's year long absence, awhile back. His body was shipped out to Russia for burying."
"Then someone's screwing with us.", Montoya says. "You think it could be Clayface? Or that one from New York, The Chameleon? A shapeshifter could mimic the prints."
Gordon looks back at the envelope.
"Has anyone opened this?"
"No. And I wouldn't."
Gordon looks back at her, giving a slight look.
"...unless I were the Commissioner of Police, I'd wager."
"You'd wager correctly, Captain."
Peeling off the top of the envelope, the Commissioner tips it over and finds another card. But on the back of it isn't a reservation listed like before. Instead, a message is written over a blank white backing:
Just as Gordon catches the message in question, he and Captain Montoya immediately turn to a series of blood-curdling screams behind them, followed by the rustling of leather that cracks along with the thunder in the growing storm above them.
Several freshly dead police officers and ambulance technicians fall to the ground, simultaneously, as a cloaked figure dives directly for Commissioner Gordon.
Before Gordon can even comprehend what's going on, both he and Montoya begin to open fire on the attacker.
"JIM! GET DOWN!"
Matt walked down the streets of Hells Kitchen. He was dressed in a ratty trench-coat in a pair of sweats as a light rain was covering the streets. It made use of his radar-sense much easier and somehow it fit his mood. He was far from very cheerful he was sullen and angered that he allowed himself to be seduced back into the world of long painful nights and violence. Maybe if he had sought out the council of Father OBrien more at St. Lukes he couldve found a better way to deal with his grief other than putting on the suit once again. Curt Connors was right that this would eventually end up killing him. Either some lucky punk or the radiation that had been slowly poisoning him for years would catch up to him.
It didnt matter anymore the death of Karen and Mary was enough to pull him back into a world he had sworn never to return again. Matt turned down a darkened alley by an abandoned store. The store belonged to a Mr. Chang whom Matt helped on several occasions and in return Chang allowed Matt to store his extra Daredevil gear there. Matt had allowed Karen to destroy the suit he had been wearing for years as proof that he was done. He walked down the alley and stopped at a side door. Matt gave it a swift and the door opened. He walked into the building and closed the door. Matt then walked to the back of the store and felt along a wall. He pressed an intention and then turned it slightly. The shelves moved aside quietly as Matt stepped in and pulled the shelves close.
Matt walked down a set of steps as he heard rats scurrying away. He stood in front of a safe and spun the lock. He waited for it to spin three times. Using his hearing Matt could hear the tumblers lining up. Matt stopped it on one, and then he spun it again stopping it on twenty six, Matt spun it one last time stopping it on sixty eight. Matt opened it and felt his costume and pulled it out. He said, Well lets hope it still fits. Matt put on the costume and as he did he said, I know I said that I was done, and I did everything possible to fulfill that vow. We had a good life together and for the first ever I was happy. He paused for a moment and remembered that horrible night when Matt lost them both in a drive-by shooting in the middle of the park in the suburbs. They were supposed to be safe there. Far from the crime and scum but on that day Matt learned nowhere was safe. Somewhere crime would always find him. Matt continued putting on his costume and said, Then it all changed, and now
Matt slipped on his mask and said in his hoarse grating Daredevil voice, So have I. Its time to balance the scales of justice again.
With that Daredevil exits the building through a secret passage. He stands on the roof, fires his billy-club, and swings off into the night.
"By birth, certainly, they were not prepared in any way to achieve their desires. They were not the smartest kids in the neighborhood. They were not born the richest. They werent even the toughest. In fact, they lacked almost all the necessary talents that might have helped them satisfy the appetites of their dreams, except onetheir talent for violence."
-- Nicholas Pileggi
New York City
When he didnt get any answer the second time he knocked, Parker kicked the door in.
He came in gun first through the tiny studio apartment. It took him all of thirty seconds to clear the place of any human life. He slid the piece back in its shoulder holster and did a quick inventory of the surroundings. Bare walls and cracked wallpaper greeted him. A scuffed hardwood floor was obscured by stacks of garbage and filth. The place stunk to high heaven and Parker had to hold his nose as he went into the little bathroom nook.
From the window he looked out across the city. New York's lights were ablaze in the early darkness of dusk. A movement below him caught his eye and he looked down. A fat man in a ill-fitting suit was running down the fire escape for dear life. Parker yanked the window opened and gave chase, racing down the rickety, rusty stairs after him.
The fat man was off the stairs and running down the alley by the time Parker got to the bottom of them. He leapt the five feet down to the pavement and pulled his gun from its holster. The fat man was at least forty yards away when Parker drew a bead on him with the gun's iron sight. The gun jerked just once and the fat man crumpled to the ground.
Parker kicked the fat man over and made sure he was dead. A neat little hole in the back of his head wasn't nearly as neat when it exited just under his left eye and took out what little brains he had with it. A quick search revealed a wallet, a cellphone, and a half brick of heroin tucked in the man's suit jacket.
The wallet had a driver's license made out to one Henry Carter with matching debit and credit cards. Parker pocketed the wallet and dope into his own jacket and held on to the phone as he walked out the alley towards his car. The rental was parked down the block from the flophouse he'd just went in to. This part of town was filled with rundown apartments and no-tell motels so he knew he'd be able to leave the area at his own pace before anyone found the body.
He drove to a parking lot three blocks away and let the engine idle while he inspected Henry Carter's phone. The man didn't make many phone calls -- but who did in the age of texting -- Most of the calls were either from contacts listed a HOME or SARAH. The texts revealed Sarah to be Carter's wife or girlfriend or something. Parker didn't remember seeing a wedding ring on Carter's pudgy hand. Most of the text were mundane stuff from Sarah and friends, but one number jumped out at Parker.
M -- number 914-202-6005 -- never called Carter nor did Carter ever call him. But they texted. Every two weeks, M would text Carter the word 'Package' and Two weeks later, Carter would text '$' The last such text was a package one from M a week ago. Parker pocketed the phone and started the car. He pulled out into the street with a few ideas on how to proceed next.
He drove with one hand on the wheel, the other on the gun Graves had given him five days ago. The piece felt good in his big mitts. He liked the weight and feel of it. It wasn't fancy but it got the job done. Parker could visualize putting the barrel right in Mal Resnick's face and pulling the trigger until it clicked.
The job that led to here was supposed to be a pretty straightforward one. The small town of Susanville, California had two banks that were merging. In the middle of the night, all the cash from one bank would cross town in an armored car with a police escort and deposit it into the other one. Parker and two other guys -- Mal and Joe Wilson -- ambushed the car at the halfway point with an honest to god rocket launcher that Joe Wilson had somehow gotten his hands on.
The front end of the armored car went up like a roman candle when the rocket hit. The blast was pure shock and awe, a good enough cover for Parker, Mal, and Joe to overtake the cop escort and the guards and crack open the back of the armored car.
Fire trucks were hauling ass to the scene as Parker and company fled into the night in a SUV loaded with three quarters of a million dollars. Joe Wilson drove them north to Cedarville, an even smaller town that was spitting distance to the Nevada state line.
The plan was to lay low in a small house there, split up the take three ways, and go their separate ways after a few days of hiding out. Parker made sure the house was stocked with water and sandwich supplies. Mal, apparently, had other ideas.
The last night of their hideout, Mal stabbed Joe Wilson to death in his sleep and came for Parker. Lucky for Parker, or unlucky for Mal, Parker was a light sleeper and struck out when he saw Mal at the foot of his bed with a knife. Parker's gun was close by, but Mal's was in his other hand and he drew down, hitting Parker twice in the torso.
The gunshots drew the cops, who got there in time to save Parker from bleeding to death but not in time to intercept Mal or the cash as he drove off into the night. Parker woke up two days later handcuffed to a hospital bed. Cops from Susanville, State Police, and even feds sweated him about what had happened in that little house. Parker didn't say a word and they couldn't prove he robbed the armored cars. So instead he got charged with Joe Wilson's murder while he healed from gunshot wounds. Parker was still awaiting trial for murder when he was magically released by someone. Graves, whoever the hell he was, had serious pull.
He wasted no time getting to New York after the file on Mal put him in the city. A few quick cons and paper hangings got enough cash in his pocket to get across the country and into a cheap motel in Jersey. From there he staged his hunt for Mal. The dossier put Mal in Manhattan, working as a wholesaler of Big H. The bastard had taken Parker and Joe Wilson's shares of the loot and paid off some big debts to the Outfit and then set up shop as a supplier. Carter, the man Parker had just killed, was one of the people Mal supplied. Parker pulled into a parking spot on the Upper West Side and dialed M's number.
"What the f--"
"Mal," Parker said in his most panicked voice. "I-I-I-It's me!"
"We don't talk on the ****ing phone, you--"
"We need to meet! Something's gone wrong, it's all gone wrong. I don't know what to do!"
"Chill the **** out," Mal said with some force behind his voice. "And stop talking over the phone about this, oaky?"
"What do I do?"
"Meet me at this address --" he fired off some address in Brooklyn. "Got that?"
"Okay. I'll be there in an hour!"
Center City, WA
Tracy's charger cruised slowly through the posh suburbs. Hunter's Creek was just a scant thirty blocks away from downtown Center City, but it may as well have been on another planet. There was no trace of the old junkies on the corner, doing the dope fiend lean as they shot up and fried what little brains they had left. No sign of the hookers who walked the streets, selling their bodies to feed themselves and their children. No dilapidated buildings with its copper piping and electrical wiring ripped out by money hungry fiends looking for a quick payday.
He felt uneasy surrounded by these big lawns and big houses shining in the early morning light. Tracy was just white trash from the city, something that would never change. The people out here were tantamount to American royalty with their fleets of cars, jets, and boats. His destination, the Flynn mansion, loomed on the hill above it all. Guys like Tracy and his boss Hyde were called criminals for no other reason than the types of crime they committed.
Hyde peddled drugs, the guys who owned the houses out here peddled Democracy to any third world country with finite natural resources to exploit. They robbed pension plans and left retiring employees penniless. Society condemned guys like Tracy, saying they were the problem with America, all while the people out here overthrew governments to pay fifty cents on the dollar for exports. The only difference between Hyde's empire and the empires of business were that those criminal enterprises were deemed too big to fail by the government.
Tracy ended up stopped on the edge of the big manor by an armed guard. His car idled outside a big iron gate while the man gave him the stinkeye and double checked Tracy's identification. Tracy had to hand over his gun before parking his car and being led into the big house by another guard. He wasn't too impressed by the large courtyard and expansive corridors. The place was small by House of Windsor standards. The guard showed Tracy into an office somewhere on the third floor and left him alone. He walked up to a wall that looked like a shrine to the home's owner. Three different photos of Thomas Flynn shaking hands with the last three US Presidents, one of him in New York ringing the stock exchange bell, a cover of a financial magazine with a younger looking Flynn on the cover. Photos of family accompanied the ones of achievement, but Flynn was always in the middle of whatever was going on. That didn't surprise Tracy. A man like that had to be center of attention in everything he did. For guys like Thomas Flynn, if you weren't first you might as well have been last.
"Are you the man Mr. Hyde sent?"
Tracy turned and saw Thomas Flynn enter the room. He was just a few inches shorter than Tracy, but lean and trim in a bathrobe and pajama pants, slippers covering his feet. If not for his white hair, Tracy would assume the man was closer to his age than the sixty some odd years he was supposed to be. He strode forward and shook Tracy's hand.
"Thank you so much for coming, Mr..."
"Tracy, just Tracy."
"Right," Flynn said with a nod. "Have a seat, Tracy."
Flynn took a seat behind the large mahogany office desk while Tracy took a chair from across the desk. He watched Flynn as he settled into the chair and leaned forward, both palms flat on the desk. He had a stern look on his face that read too stern for Tracy. It seemed more like a put on than anything.
"They said they would call again at noon to confirm I have the five million dollars they're asking for. Details for the hand off will follow."
"Will you be able to get the money that fast?" Tracy asked. "I know that a lot of rich people don't have that kind of cash on standby."
"I have enough bonds and stocks I can liquidate quickly once trading opens up on the Asian markets. I'll have to be quick about it since it's Friday and there won't be a chance to do it for the weekend."
"Hyde wants me to also look into who may have kidnapped your daughter. Mr. Flynn, can you think of anyone who might want to do this?"
"Take your pick," Flynn said with a wave of an arm. "You don't get where I am in life without pissing people off. Rival capitalist, politicians, labor unions, even my own employees, you name it and I have stepped on their backs to get ahead. You don't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
"Right," said Tracy. "Anything recently?"
"Not at the moment, no. At least nothing obvious."
"Did you daughter live here? Would it be possible to look into her room?"
"As you wish," Flynn said with a nod. "I'll have a guard escort you."
Linda Flynn's room screamed trust fund brat. Expensive furniture in the big room with an ornate four-poster bed in the center. A walk-in closet held a wardrobe that cost as much as many people's homes. What Tracy thought was another closet turned out to be a whole room just to house Linda's jewelry. The guard shadowed Tracy while he searched the room. He found drugs in the dresser, a little bit of pot with a fair amount of coke and X. The CDs in her room were all electro club crao. Tracy pegged her as a club kid. All the rich kids with nothing to do but sponge off mommy and daddy all hit the clubs.
A pink laptop on a desk was password protected. Tracy tried the usual common passwords, 1234 ABCD, but couldn't crack it. He settled for the consolation prize beside the computer. A post-it note had a phone number scribbled on it with just a single letter above it: X. It Linda Flynn was indeed a party-hard club girl, she would need her X if she wanted to party right. Tracy pocketed the number and headed out the room with his guard in tow.
Crazy Horse Indian Casino
"**** you, Redman!"
Dash Bad Horse resisted the urge to pound the drunk's face into the casino bar. Instead, he popped his knuckles and flexed his muscles, showing off his Tribal Police uniform as a warning to the man.
"It's time for you to go, pal."
Dash grabbed the drunk by the scruff of his neck with one hand and started pushing him through the casino with the other. A few of the gamblers on the playing floor stopped to gawk at the big Indian manhandling the little white man with the big mouth.
Outside, Dash tossed the drunk across the parking lot. He banged against the pavement and slid up against a parked car. Dash brushed his hands off and looked down at the dazed drunk. "You're ****ing banned, white boy. I see you in here again and I'll beat the **** out of you along with half my tribe. Custer's Last Stand, mother****er."
He turned away from the prostrate man and headed back towards the casino. The bright neon lights of the place lit up the prairie night for miles. he went back inside and back to work. The crowd tonight wasn't too bad, a few dozen gamblers out on the floor and giving their money to the Tribe. Most of the people at the Crazy Horse went for slots over cards and dice.
"Bad Horse to management," the PA system announced. "Bad Horse to management.'
Lincoln Red Crow the head of the Lakota Tribe, looked down his large Roman nose at his Dash. It was a bit amazing to Dash that Red Crow was as old as he was. His hair was still pitch black, but a shock of gray ran through the middle. His body was still muscular, but it was at the point where muscle started to become fat. He had a slight double chin that was becoming more prominent as the years passed.
"Bad Horse, have a seat."
Dash complied and sat down in one of the plush chairs facing Red Crows's desk. The older man pulled a cigar from the box on his desk and offered Dash one. He politely declined as his Red Crow lit up.
"I know you're busy, but I needed to talk to you about something before I go home."
Red Crow blew smoke rings above his head. "I need you to get two guys from the PD for me. The meanest ones, just for show."
"What's going on?"
"We're having a sit-down meeting in Minneapolis with some people, Asians and various businessmen. Also your buddies from the Horde."
The Horde. ****ing trailer trash on bikes. Dash had a scar above his left eyebrow because of a pair of brass knuckles from one of those redneck *******s. That attack had put the Tribe on the precipice of war with the biker gang two years ago, but Red Crow managed to negotiate a truce with their president. Now the Horde stayed away from Rez, and the Tribe stayed on their land.
"What's the play?"
"Negotiations" was all Red Crow said.
"Anything else you feel the need to clue me in on?"
"No," Red Crow said as he blew smoke rings towards Dash. "Just do as your chief says, Dash. As head of the Tribal Police Force--"
"Nominal," replied Dash. "It's an honorary title."
"I'm the reason you're on the TPF," said Red Crow. "Never forget that. You, Shunka, and a few others are gonna take a drive tomorrow morning. So get some rest."
The Amazing Spider-Man
"What do you mean you're going to be late?" Mary Jane's voice was calm, but Peter knew better. The emotion behind the words was unflinching, hot rage. She knew how to hide it well. MJ wasn't shy about her emotions. It was one of the reasons he loved her. But she did try and hide it when she was mad he was off saving the city.
The nerve, Peter thought sarcastically to himself as he swung through the streets of Manhattan, following a line of cop cars toward the Shocker's latest crime scene. The new villain had managed to elude him up until this point, but that ended today.
Peter fired another webline and sighed, "It's the Shocker. I've got him this time."
"That's what you said the last time," MJ mumbled. "Can't Miles take care of this?"
"He's with the Young Avengers," Peter responded. Besides, Miles was still training. This guy had eluded Peter twice already. He wouldn't risk sending Miles after him.
"Just...try to be on time, please," she pleaded. "I'm going in for makeup in a few. Be safe. I love you."
Even with the frustration she was feeling, there was no forcing that last part. She did love him, and he loved her.
"Love you too, babe," Peter replied as he neared the crime scene. "I'll be there."
Spider-Man landed on a street light across the street from Shocker's newest bank heist. It looked the same as all the others. Front blown in by concussive blasts, and plenty of collateral damage. He hasn't killed anyone yet, but it seems like it's only a matter of time before that happens.
"Where are you?" Peter whispered to himself.
He got his answer when his Spider-Sense sent alarm bells echoing through his head. He jumped out of the way as another concussive blast tore through the building, flipping cop cars and knocking over the streetlight he had been sitting on.
Spidey landed deftly, and looked up to see...a guy dressed in a quilt. Shocker was garbed in a red and yellow jumpsuit that honestly looked like a quilt.
"Seriously? You're the Shocker?" Spider-Man couldn't help but blurt out with laughter. He was rewarded by Shocker trying to mow him down with another blast, that seemed to have come from the high tech gauntlets he had on each hand.
"Back off, bug!" Shocker yelled in a familiar voice.
"Wait...Herman!? Herman Schultz!?" Spider-Man laughed again. "Someone's playing with the big boys now!"
"Would you stay still!" Shocker yelled in utter frustration. He fired another shot of concussive energy from his gauntlets towards Spider-Man, who again easily hopped out of the way. "GRAAAAAAAAH! I hate you!"
"Geez, Herm," Spider-Man sighed in a sarcastic fashion, "you need to calm down. This cannot be good for your blood pressure. You're doctor's gonna have to give you some pills!"
Herman Schultz had been a two bit safe cracker and thief the last time Peter Parker had come across him. Of course, that was before someone gave him these high-tech gauntlets. He had spent the last three weeks tearing through Manhattan financial institutions, stealing all he could. Today was the day that Spider-Man finally caught up with him.
Great, Peter thought. Now I have to put him away and find out who gave him those. Just what I needed.
But that would come later. For now, Peter had to stop Shocker. He had already torn up the avenue they were on. A few cop cars were on their hoods behind Spider-Man, and for all he knew the officers inside were injured. Schultz was firing wildly with his gauntlets, not worrying about collateral damage.
Spider-Man backflipped out of the way of another blast, and let loose with two streams of webbing as he did. Each found their mark, connecting with both of Shocker's gauntlets. With a flick of the wrist, he made Shocker's hands slam together. The resulting vibration shook the gauntlets apart, neutralizing the Shocker.
"Wah...how!?" Schultz screamed. "How!? I had you this time! I had you."
"Sure you did, buddy. Sure you did," Parker responded, webbing the villain up completely. "You just need to visualize better. You'll get there."
He glanced down at the time display on his webshooter, "I can still make it...barely."
As Spider-Man went to swing away, he felt an odd tingle roll through his Spider-Sense, almost as if it switched off for a second. Swinging through the air, Spider-Man craned his neck, looking for the source. When nothing caught his eye, he continued towards the theater.
Peter took his seat as the lights started to go down in the theater. He sighed with relief. If he had missed this he'd have been in the doghouse for weeks, and rightly so.
"Bout time you got here, buddy," Harry leaned in from behind him and whispered. "Thought you'd be sleeping on the couch from now on."
"You know me," Pete smiled back, "always perfectly on time."
"I have a lot of tardy slips that say otherwise," Aunt May said from beside him, causing him to jump.
"I didn't know you'd be here."
May's face scrunched up, "You really think I'd miss this?"
"Yea, Parker," Flash Thompson added from the other side of Aunt May. "Get with it."
Pete smiled and sat back in his seat. During his first few years as Spider-Man he never would have expected he'd have this many friends, and a girlfriend who completely got what he was going through. But here he was.
Mary Jane stepped onto the stage and began a monologue he had heard her practice hundreds of times. She had auditioned to be the understudy for the lead in this play weeks ago, believing it would be the first step to really making it on Broadway.
To see her, up there, doing what she loved filled Peter with pride. She had always been the most beautiful woman he ever knew, but also the most driven. He could see it in her piercing, intense green eyes up on the stage. She wanted this, and she was going to get it.
Peter got comfortable, and lost himself in Mary Jane's performance.
"Would you hurry up?" Jack hissed at his partner as he was shoving jewelry into a bag. "It won't be long before one of those costume freaks show up!"
"We'll be fine!" Bobby shot back. "They're never in this neighborhood."
[BLACKOUT]"Well, usually not in this neighborhood," [/BLACKOUT]an unnatural, pitchy voice responded. The crooks turned to find what appeared to be Spider-Man hanging from the streetlamp outside. A black suit seemed to swirl around the hero's body, and a black strand of web extended from his hand. Spider-Man dropped down to the concrete, almost like a hunk of slime falling from a cave's roof. He prowled towards them, like a lion stalking its prey. [BLACKOUT]"What do we have here?"
"Waste 'em!" Jack yelled in a panic. Both of them emptied their shotguns into the chest of the hero, who barely flinched. "What the hell? You're not bulletproof!"
[BLACKOUT]"Things change," [/BLACKOUT]Spider-Man responded in that horrible voice. His hand then shot out and grabbed Bobby's wrist, snapping it with a quick wrench. Bobby screamed in pain and Jack ran, not looking back.
As he disappeared, he thought he heard Spider-Man laughing.
"And you're sure this business model is viable?" asked his investor, a skeptical eyebrow raised from the other end of the video call.
"No, it's just a coincidence that the last seven start-ups I selected for you are now worth a hundred-mil apiece," a snide Lex Luthor responded. "Any old Tom-Dick-and-Harry can just fall into a penthouse at the top of their own personal tower at the heart of a multinational private empire, from just a few lucky guesses, right?"
"...I-I didn't mean it like that, Lex, I--"
"Mister. Luthor. Please and thank you," Luthor corrected him coldly.
"Mister Luthor, sorry, I just..." the investor stammered, "I didn't mean to doubt you, I've just....never seen strategies like this."
Lex rolled his eyes, stopping just short of throwing up his hands.
"Of course you haven't seen anyone do business like me, because nobody on this planet is like me," He said, his tone becoming more condescending. "That's the whole point of being a 'revolutionary' and a 'visionary,' right? Seeing the world in a way that nobody else can. If my vision isn't appreciated, I'm sure your competitors will be more than happy to--"
"N-no, no, Mister Luthor! That won't be necessary," came the panicked reply Lex was hoping for. "I'll s-see to it that w-we put your plans in action by th-the end of the day."
"Get the wheels turning within the hour or I take my ideas elsewhere," Lex said with a triumphant dismissal, ending the call before his investor could respond.
Luthor leaned back in his chair and kicked his feet up on the desk, satisfied with himself. LexCorp was, of course, the largest and most powerful technological firm on the planet, with subsidiaries in everything from telecommunications to the defense industry all the way to fast food and big-box retail. Thanks to years of aggressive bargaining, unconventional tactics, and cleverly-selected investments, if it was a franchise with more than fifty locations within a single country, statistically there was a 57% chance it was at least partially owned by Lex Luthor.
And that was just the part of his empire that was legal. As Bonaparte once said, the surest way to remain poor is to be an honest man.
Still, there was always more to be done, more worlds to conquer. And today--
Lex heard the distinct crack in the air, the unmistakable noise of a human-shaped object entering the atmosphere at hypersonic speed. Someone was in a hurry today.
"Mercy," he called to his assistant, "make a note to see what--"
The window to Luthor's penthouse office all but disintegrated as a blur of blue and red slammed through it, a gale-force blast of scorched air knocking Lex out of his chair.
There were no words to be spoken between Lex and the alien. The entire exchange would only last a few seconds. But in those few seconds, Luthor saw everything he needed to see.
The white in the alien's knuckles, the hard set of his jaw, the granite-like furrow of his brow. He was angry, maybe angrier than Lex had ever seen him.
But his eyes....normally when he got mad, the alien would begin firing up his Heat Vision, the glowing red making for an intimidating show of power. This time, though, they were still that bright sky blue, wider than normal, and....bloodshot.
He wasn't just angry....he was afraid.
The tension all over his body, the urgency in which his eyes darted across the room, scanning every floor of the LexCorp Tower down to the subatomic level....he was looking for something, desperate to find it. What could get under the alien's skin this badly?
It looked Luthor in the eye, and visibly withdrew a few inches. Despite layers upon layers of defenses in his building and hundreds of plans to destroy the creature, Lex genuinely didn't see this coming. He hadn't done anything recently to invoke this kind of reaction--even his most radical 'destroy the Superman' schemes were purely in their conceptual stage at this point.
The alien knew that whatever he was looking for, it wasn't here. He was acting rashly, out of fear and panic, and merely hoped having a familiar enemy could help him get his miniscule mind around his situation.
What could it be, then? Luthor had targeted the alien's loved ones before. His allies in the Justice League, that idiot photographer from the Daily Planet, the alien girl and the hybrid clone, even his old flame the fearless reporter.
The fear, confusion, and anger in the alien's eyes and body language was something....primal. Like an animal who'd been separated from--
.....from its young.
Luthor's eyes widened. Impossible. Humans, even metahumans, were genetically incompatible with the alien's species, and unless he had taken a turn for the incestuous, it should be impossible for him to procreate. And yet.....
As the spark flashed in Lex's eyes, the alien saw it, and began to shrink away, realizing he had tipped his hand. That confirmed it. Luthor didn't dare speak, or crack a smile, or attempt to stop the alien from doing whatever his panicked state was driving him to do. Once again, Lex thought of Bonaparte: never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.
Just as quickly as the intruder had burst into his office, he was gone, a red-blue comet streaking out across the Metropolis skyline, kicking up glass and debris in his wake.
"Mercy?" Lex once again called down to his assistant, "Have the maintenance crew up to my office to replace a window. Yes, the big one. And hold my calls for the rest of the day-- I'm going to be in my parlor. I have some very serious thinking to do...."
Burnley Freight Yards
Street lights splashed a harsh orange across the faces of closed businesses and condemned buildings, reflecting up into the night sky to drown out the stars and wash the air in a dull brown haze. Billowy dark clouds rose from factory smokestacks a few blocks away, the working poor up all hours to scrape together their meager livings. In the distance, a lone police siren wailed, barely audible over the rumbling of a passing freight train. Somewhere, a dog barked.
It was the closest one could ever get to silence in this city.
Far from even the dull illumination of the street lights, a single figure walked along rows of unattended shipping containers, his head down, his hands buried in the front pockets of his crimson hooded sweatshirt. Though plainly visible to anyone who may be watching, the figure stepped lightly, his footfalls near inaudible even with the heavy steel-toed boots he wore. He wished to be seen, but only by the few he had instructed to look.
Rounding a corner towards a mismatched stack of containers, a second figure emerged in front of him, face obscured by an all-black mask.
"We are trapped in this horrible machine," the masked figure said in a rasping whisper.
"And the machine is bleeding to death," the hooded one responded.
For a moment, the two stared holes into each other, each sizing the other up in the event of trouble. Finally, the masked figure stood aside, opening the door to the shipping container. The hooded figure entered, disappearing into the shadows.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, but even blinded by the shadows, he could sense other figures moving around him, encircling him like pack hunters. He paid them little mind, knowing his own skill was more than enough to handle them.
There was another monster lurking in these shadows, however, around whom he would have to be very careful.
"Despite what you say, you have much in common with him," came a voice darker than even the shadows. "You have his bravado, and his flare for the dramatic."
"Don't compare me to him," he spat. "I'm not here for us to take turns trying to scare one another. I need to know if your assets are ready to move in on their targets."
"When the time is right, my men will deliver death to anyone I choose," the voice in the darkness answered. "However, I have my doubts on the wisdom of your targets. So many of them are....ancillary to our primary cause."
"Your cause is the same as mine," he said defiantly. "And the method is sound. If you fight a man larger and stronger than you, you don't try to overwhelm him. You isolate a weak spot, and you hit it with everything you have. The eyes, the knees, the groin, the fingers. Fighting the Bat isn't just fighting the man; you're fighting an idea that's gotten larger and stronger than any of us. So you fight it by isolating and destroying its legacy."
"Then why choose the prodigal son first? Why not one of the children who remained loyal?"
The hooded man paused a moment, collected himself, contained his anger.
"Because he was allowed to leave," he answered. "He was allowed a life beyond Gotham, to grow and flourish as the Bat's greatest success. We have to take that success from him. Take the one good thing he ever did and drag it through the mud. Break him into shards, and drive the sharpest one straight into the Bat's heart."
The monster in the shadows considered this.
"For all of your talk, I wonder," the voice said, "if you truly have the stomach for what needs to be done."
The hooded figure felt one of the lurking shadows move in behind him, heard the quiet rasp of a blade being drawn. With brutal efficiency, he stomped down and backwards to snap the attacker's shin, and without taking his eyes away from the monster in the shadows, whipped a hand around in a lightning-fast arc. The attacker didn't have time to even see the knife flicking from up his sleeve, let alone dodge or intercept it, before it opened the attacker's throat.
He felt the warm spray of blood spatter against his hooded sweatshirt, heard the body crumple to the floor as its life spilled away.
"Before this is over," he said with a cruel determination, "Nightwing, and everyone he has ever loved, will be dead."
Deliberately turning his back on his shadowy ally, the hooded figure stepped over his would-be attacker's corpse, pocketing his knife once more, and disappearing into the night.
By the time that I arrive, the scene is nothing short of absolute chaos.
Were I able to spare the seconds, I'd probably waste them blaming myself for not getting here sooner. As we left the church, I found myself having already mentally debated over not taking The Batmobile, or even having Alfred remotely send for The Batwing from the cave, in order to get Red Robin and I across Gotham City in half of the time it took for us to travel over the rooftops. Were I to crunch the numbers and factor in the traffic for the car, or the wait for the plane to travel to us, I'd have likely found there to be half a second's difference. Because judging from what I'm looking at now, this was heavily premeditated without room for delay: disorientation, attack, distraction, and execution. Whoever the culprit is, they definitely succeeded on all accounts.
Tim follows my lead as soon as I signal for us to move from our higher position to the ground level. I've already scanned the area for signs of a secondary ground attack or ambush, and there's no one. The police blockade of the area ensured that any civilians are kept far away, and there are only two heat signatures coming off of the area: Jim, who's mercifully unharmed, and Captain Montoya --- who isn't. Gordon's got his coat over her shoulders and she's on her back, nursing some sort of trauma to her left arm, face, and abdomen. The abdomen is bleeding.
"Red Robin. See to the Captain."
"On it, Batman."
He nods towards me and rushes to her side, taking over for Jim, who hesitantly backs up to give them space.
"Don't worry, sir. I've got her from here."
"That... that's fine, but don't move her unless you have to. She took a hell of a beating for me, son. Anything happens to her, it's you and your mentor's asses."
Gordon turns to me and immediately begins to approach. My eyes are already locked on the building. Green chemical-based smoke, a thick sheen. Thick enough to disorient my infrared lenses. I can't possibly discern who's in the building or how many people are trapped. Nor can I pinpoint where the attackers fled and which direction, which I suspect was the point.
"And I mean that, Batman. She lives through the night, or I'm holding you personally responsible. Look around you."
I'm still scanning the building as he speaks.
"Jim, I need you to stay calm. Believe me, I understand how you feel..."
His tone is loud enough to catch me off guard. I switch off the lenses and give him my foremost attention. He's angry, clearly, but there's a staggering amount of emotional trauma stemming from behind it - I can see it in his eyes.
It's the same look a small boy once had just after losing his parents, a lifetime ago, just a few blocks from here.
A look of unbridled, unchecked pain that can never be easily put aside.
"These were my men. Each and every one of them were my hire, and I know every one of their names. Their families. Some of them had wives, husbands, children... "
Gordon and I have seen our fair share of loss in this war, some even more personal than either of us would dare admit. Years ago, The Joker shot his wife at point blank range, ending her life during the No Man's Land event. That same maniac put a bullet through his daughter's spine in a bid to prove that he was as susceptible to madness as anyone. His son, ironically, now sits in a cell at Arkham after attempting to murder Barbara in a deranged state of psychosis.
This may not have hit him as close to home as a member of the family, but as I've come to understand the policeman's code over the years, it's still damned close.
"Christ, some of them have even been in my home, at my dinner table. And the man who did this managed to end each and every one of their lives in a fraction of a second, so don't you ever presume to tell me to stay calm or that you understand how I feel, because..."
I take a step forward and grab him by the shoulders. Forcible rationalization is the only way I'm going to get answers out of him in this state.
"What do you mean, 'the man who did this'? There was only one perpetrator?"
Gordon narrows his eyes.
"You're damn right there was, but this wasn't an ordinary perp. I got a good look at the bastard in action whenever he attacked Renee. Done up to the hilt in a green cape and mask, with horns, kind of like yours. Fought like you and your partner do, too. Quick, hard, and effective. But deadlier, if that weren't obvious enough."
Green cape and mask. I make a mental note of it, looking back at the smoke. A deliberate calling card? Another 'theme' criminal?
"Haven't started giving out lessons, have you?"
I look back at him, unamused. He sighs, lifting up his hands in defeat.
"Alright, I'm sorry. I know I'm being hard on you and you're just trying to help. It's just... you're the expert on this kind of thing, so tell me what the hell happened. How could he have done all of this while Renee and I had our backs turned? Is that even possible?"
"It... shouldn't be. But there's more to this than what meets the eye."
I point towards the smoke, which I've noticed is being dispersed on a continuous upwards pattern. Not directly upwards, mind you, but zig-zagged, billowing into pairs of trails that connect. It's an old Brazilian Ops technique for camouflage over massive amounts of land in order to break up rioters, but executed vertically over the front of the building. This sort of setup requires considerable skill and planning, meaning that our man in green spent at least a few weeks systematically adding the method of dispersal to the immediate area and remotely set it off at once.
"This isn't something that could've happened spontaneously, Jim. He wanted this to unfold in a very specific way, and planted the smoke methodically. You'll want to utilize the traffic cameras and security monitors to track unusual activity over the last few weeks."
"That's it? All this death and destruction was, what, some sort of grand distraction?"
"No. It was the beginning of something else."
Reaching into the back of my belt, I remove a face-shield rebreather unit and snap it over my lower jaw. Clean oxygen is electronically fed into my lungs as I take a breath, readying myself to head in. I already cauterized the stab wound that I received earlier and covered it with a makeshift bit of protection, cut out of a thick swatch of my cloak. The lining in that and the lining in the rest of the Batsuit should keep me protected from whatever chemical agent is being released in the smoke.
"Whoever attacked Captain Montoya and killed your men doesn't want anyone to see what's happening inside of the building."
Red Robin approaches us, having wrapped his cape around Montoya in addition to Jim's coat.
"Medical and EMT are dead, too. Batman and I saw the traffic on the way over and it's too heavy for another ambulance. I'm gonna have to take her to a hospital myself."
Gordon shakes his head.
"No, dammit. I'm fine, I can handle this. And besides, I'd rather take my chances with my car than with you carrying her thirty stories above ground."
Tim looks to me for an answer, and I give him a stern nod.
"Leave her to the Commissioner. You're to stay out here for recon. I need a second pair of eyes to pick up on anything I've missed."
"What about Orphan? She's still on her way from dropping Looney Tunes off at Gotham Central. Do you want me to tell her to resume patrol?"
Tim's eyes go wide as his attention is focused towards the skies.
"Hold that thought! Look up at the roof!"
Jim and I share his gaze, and are both stunned at the sight above us. Whenever I stated that the killer premeditated this to the very last detail, I apparently made a grave understatement.
"The Bat-Signal. Or a duplicate, at least."
I sneer, reaching back into my belt and producing a grapple gun.
"It's coming from the roof of this hotel. He's up there."
Red Robin reaches for his own grapple, but I motion for him to put it away.
"Well, yeah. And he's goading you into fight him, or walk into a trap, or whatever he's got in mind. We need a plan of attack."
"No. I need a plan of attack. If I'm covering him, you need to head inside to see whatever he's trying to hide."
"You two do whatever you have to. I've got at least one cop that I'm making damn sure survives this."
As Gordon moves to grab Montoya, Tim moves closer to me, out of earshot.
"None of this makes any sense, Batman. He leads them all here, kills the officers, waits for you to arrive, then he lights up the signal? Why the show of force? If he wanted to call you out, he could've used the signal alone."
Firing the grapple gun, I momentarily put aside the boy's questions - however valid they might be. Right now, there's a madman up there that's using my symbol to enact death and disorder in my city. Whatever he may have heard about Gotham before now, he's about to learn that there's always hell to pay for that.
"I'll be sure to ask him. Now go."
Without another word, I ascend up the building and make my way towards the image of this Bat-Signal's projection glistening off of the clouds. The jade smoke whizzes past me as I build momentum, licking at the costume. From the readout that my cowl lenses are giving, there's a mild toxicity to it, but nothing serious, proving that this was never meant to be a chemical attack. As I suspected, it was all distraction. Feeding his egotistical need to call me out. Like another Riddler, or Bane, or Two-Face. They're all the same.
And they always fail, which is something I'm going to have to keep in mind. Whoever this person is, they're evidently skilled enough to take down at least thirty men and women in the span of seconds. I haven't encountered a fighter capable of that since my training with Stick, years ago. A young woman of Greek descent, if I recall. And I sincerely doubt that she's behind this.
Reaching the roof, I break the line and land just a foot away from the lit Bat-Signal in question. It's been manually soldered into the rooftop, as recently as this evening, implying that my opponent also possesses a degree of metahuman or mutant strength. What's even more curious is that it's a perfect replica of the one stationed atop GCPD, even down to the switch. But what frustrates me is that there's absolutely no sign of the man who turned it on. Could he have already fled?
Doesn't matter. I need to shut this off and pick up a trail.
"Batman? You're not gonna believe this. The bodies in here... it's... there's no way this could've just be done by one man. I'm counting at least ten DOA in the lobby alone."
I feel my fists clench as I reach up and grab the manual lever, slamming it down to shut off this absurd mockery of what I've established. This man has the nerve to use my symbol, my image, to keep me distracted from an entirely different set of murders being perpetrated inside. If I could only discern the motive, it might clue me in on the identity of...
Wait. The 'Bat-Signal'. There's a faint noise coming off of it. Grabbing the edge, I heave and eventually push the spotlight itself upwards, so that it moves on a swivel. To my surprise, there's a sonic emitter attached to the undertow of it.
The glass. It's...
I barely have enough time to shield myself with the cape as an explosion of glass flies out at me, destroying the Signal's base in the process and decimating the Bat attached. An obvious taunt, or perhaps a warning, but it works to my opponent's advantage. Fire ignites off of the damaged circuitry, causing me to step back.
As I do, I instinctively assume a defensive pose as a figure descends from beyond the roof. Green cape, green horned mask, golden trim. Very clearly the man that attacked Jim and injured Montoya, if not also the man who killed the police officers. He goes in for a surprisingly fast mid-air jab, and I avoid it, rolling along the glass-covered concrete. Cuts into the outer layer of my suit, but it doesn't do any damage.
He wants a fight and is eager to goad me. I'm not giving it to him immediately.
But it's certainly coming.
"I assume you didn't appreciate my invitation."
His voice is distorted behind a heavy vocal modulator, not too dissimilar from the one I used to utilize in my early days as Batman, before I began practicing a more natural baritone. His costume is a similar tri-weave material as mine, judging by the look of it. And the lenses covering his eyes are almost too similar to Wayne Enterprises tech, giving off the same glow as mine. Evidently, I have an admirer. A murderous, psychotic one that's responsible for the deaths of plenty of good men and women.
Can't underestimate or overestimate him. For the moment, I'll have to play his game. He made sure that the roof is covered in glass, limiting my mobility. The fire was probably deliberate aswell, given it's starting to spread more rapidly than anticipated. None of this phases him.
"Who are you?"
He tilts his head.
"Ah, of course. An old habit of yours. You always have to give your 'villains' a name. Helps you disassociate them with their humanity, if I recall. Very well."
My mystery attacker leaps into the air and moves to strike down for another punch. I brace myself to defend. This is not going to end how he thinks, and I'm going to make sure he regrets ever pulling the trigger on this macabre scenario.
"For now, you can call me... Lazarus."
Rain stings my face. It echoes off the canopy, the branches, and the dead leaves underfoot. I'm charging straight into the darkness, twisting this way and that as the jungle closes in around me. The wet ground provides an uncomfortable suction as it sinks beneath my feet. Misplacing a step, I wince through a stab of pain as hard, jagged rock presses against my callused sole. I stumble forward, find my balance, keep running. Besides the rain and the rhythm of my breath, I'm accompanied only by the jostling of my arrows inside their quiver. A twig snaps behind me, and instinct compels me to look; not that I can see anything through the dense curtains of greenery on all sides. By the time I swing my head back around, it's too late. The precipice races forward to meet me, and momentum sends me tumbling over the edge. The last thing I see as I close my eyes are the churning waters of the river below...
I snap awake, finding myself not on Lian Yu -- as I often expect -- but rather in my own bed in Star City. Sunlight streams through the floor-length windows of my penthouse, warming my face and chest. Sitting myself up on my palms, I close my eyes and allow for a few moments of silent contemplation. All these years later, and the dreams haven't stopped; perhaps they never will. Sighing, I rub my face, squeezing at the manicured tufts of hair on my chin. I swing my legs around the side of the bed and hunch over. On the nightstand, my cell phone blinks impatiently. Sleeping in like this, I'm sure I've sent my entourage into quite the tizzy. I stare at the device a moment longer before electing to let the messages wait until after breakfast.
Rising from the bed, I saunter over to the bathroom, curling my toes as the soft skin meets cold tile. I often realize that I'm not built for this... Egyptian cotton sheets and Italian tile floor... On Lian Yu, I slept on palm branches and felt dirt between my toes, and I almost wonder if I wasn't better off for it. Modern comforts can ruin a man; perhaps that's why Star City was in such dire straits when I returned. It's gotten better, of course -- in no small part due to my efforts, if I can toot my own horn -- but there's still a ways to go. The work never finishes. Splashing water on my face, I gaze at the man staring at me in the mirror. Have I always looked so tired? I know I've always felt it, but now it's been etched into hard lines and dark circles around my eyes. I force a smile, watching the dreariness momentarily melt away. Listen to yourself, Oliver. You keep this up, and pretty soon they'll be confusing you with Wayne...
Suddenly, there's a clatter from elsewhere in the penthouse. My hand snaps to the faucet, killing the tap before reaching for the first thing I can grab. I tiptoe out of the bathroom and snake towards the bedroom door. With the most delicate touch, I wrap my fingers around the doorknob and twist it gently; the door swings open silently as my hand flexes around my chosen tool. I lunge through the now open doorway, pressing my back to the far wall as I inch towards the corner. The sounds are clearer now: an occasional footstep, the soft creak of pantry doors being opened and closed. I take my first look into the kitchen, but my view of the intruder is obstructed by the open refrigerator door. I begin making my approach when a shock of blonde hair pops into view. Dinah stands at her full height, one arm resting atop the door, as she sighs. "Net worth of six billion dollars, and you can't keep your fridge stocked." Her eyes dart to me, evidently unfazed by my attempt at stealth.
"I'm going to have to have a word with Mr. Diggle about penthouse security, evidently," I think aloud.
Shaking her head, Dinah takes one last forlorn look at the refrigerator before pushing the door shut. She turns on her heel and picks up a bowl from the counter. Slinking across the kitchen, she beelines for the silverware drawer and collects a spoon. As she plunges it into the bowl, she cocks her head and asks, "Seriously, Ollie, all that money, and it'd kill ya to spring for some fresh milk?"
I fold my arms. "There's a corner store two blocks from here," I suggest. "What's a gallon going for these days, buck-fifty?"
She rolls her eyes. "Somehow, you're even more out-of-touch than you were on that island." As she takes her first bite of cereal, she rounds the corner of the kitchen island and leans back against the counter, facing me. Her eyes drop to my hand, and she smirks. "Were you planning on doing something with that?" Looking down, I see that in my haste to find a weapon, I evidently grabbed my... toothbrush. Sheepishly, I let my grip relax.
I take a step forward, closing the space between us. Shifting my shoulders, I add, "By the way, I think it's up to seven billion now." Dinah peers at me over the edge of her bowl. "My net worth. You were using the Forbes number, but that was from 2015." I'm close enough to smell her shampoo now. Lilac. Memories percolate just beneath the surface. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this unannounced visit?"
Dinah holds my gaze for a moment, but -- as ever -- her expression is entirely unreadable. She reaches behind her, snatching something off the counter. With a little "oof!" I feel something pressed into my chest. Taking it in my hands, I see that it's a copy of the Star City Sentinel; the headline reads, "QUEEN ANNOUNCES MAYORAL BID." As I lower the paper, I'm met by a cocked eyebrow.
"I trust I can count on your vote?"
"You've really lost it this time, haven't you?" Dinah replies with a shake of her head. When I fail to respond in the appropriate time, she gives a bitter chuckle and plows ahead. "Running for public office, Ollie? Are you out of your mind? Why don't you just save yourself a lot of time, schedule a press conference, and unmask in front of the entire city? You're right; you do need to talk to Diggle about security here. Because when they find out -- and they will find out -- you're gonna be greeted by much less friendly faces than mine, I'll tell you that."
I snort, as if to suggest that's unlikely, then respond, "They won't find out."
Her eyes widen in disbelief. "Oh, that simple, huh? Well, far be it from me to suggest that a political candidate might be subjected to just a little public scrutiny. Politicians' skeletons don't stay in the closet, Ollie. You should know that; hell, you've exposed more than a few of them!"
"All the more reason why this city needs someone honest and decent, rather than another slimeball who just wants to line his pockets!" I fire back. Dinah's gotten my blood up, as only she can. "And don't think for a second that I don't see through this little 'Good Samaritan' act. I know what you're really worried about! You're worried that if they dig up the dirt on me, it'll only be a matter of time before they follow the trail back to you."
Mouthing "wow," Dinah sets down her bowl before turning her gaze back to me. "Well, I guess you've got me all figured out, then," she says, tone dripping with venom. "Only in it for myself, huh? No possibility that maybe -- just maybe -- I actually care about you and don't want to see the next headline say, 'Queen found dead in penthouse'!" Her words ring throughout the kitchen. Brow still furrowed, Dinah's eyes dart to my arm. Tersely, she says, "You're bleeding."
I look down. Sure enough, the bandages wrapped around my bicep have begun to run red. Cursing, I step past her towards the kitchen sink. As I start unwrapping the bandages, I mutter aloud, "Little jerk surprised me with a knife. I would've been fine if I had seen him coming." As the last wrap falls, the damp bandage lands in the sink basin. I begin splashing warm water against the wound, the blood now streaming down my arm.
"You're getting slow in your old age," Dinah announces, only a hint of the anger left in her voice. She watches me tend the wound for a few moments more before she relents with a sigh. "That needs stitches." She stands up straight and starts making for the bedroom.
When she doesn't return right away, I call out, "The kit's in the--"
But she's already re-emerged, first aid kit in hand. "I didn't forget." As she opens the kit, she hands me a cloth. I keep it pressed to the wound as she takes out the needle and thread. Though the argument has been put on hold, there's still a clear tension in our silence; I consider breaking it, but she's already got the needle ready by the time I open my mouth. "Turn around," she instructs. I put my back to the sink and give her access to the appropriate arm. I flinch only slightly as she begins.
Three stitches in, I say, "I'm sorry." She takes her eyes off her work for only a second. "I didn't mean to imply..." I trail off, opting not to reiterate it. Instead, I simply repeat, "I'm sorry."
Her expression tightens, though whether out of concentration or consideration I couldn't say. When the last stitch is threaded, she looks up at me again. "Just because we're not together right now doesn't mean I suddenly stop caring about you," she explains. She ties off the thread and examines her handiwork. Straight and clean, as always.
"This is why we make such a good team: you're so good at patching me up."
"And you're so good at needing to be patched up," she smirks. She hands me a clean bandage to place over the stitches as she cleans up the excess thread. A few seconds later, the first aid kit is neatly packed away, and I feel like a million bucks. Or seven billion, I suppose. Dinah tucks the kit under her arm as she looks at me. She smiles. "For what it's worth? You're right; Star City deserves someone like you."
Parker sat in the rental car and kept his eyes peeled on the street traffic. Middle of the night, there wasn't much going on but Parker still watched the cars that passed and the few parked on the street with him. The piece Graves gave him rested on his lap.
Lights flashed across the windshield as an SUV turned a corner and pulled on to the street. Parker ducked down to avoid lights hitting him and watched the SUV idle for a few moments in the street. The windows on the car were dark, but Parker saw movement inside. Several figures inside the car were moving. The back passenger window rolled down slowly. Parker saw Mal Resnick, fatter than he remembered, squinting out in the dark. Mal said something to someone in the car and rolled the window back up.
The SUV's tires squealed as it sped off. Parker counted seconds. At thirty, he started the car and whipped around in the street to follow the fleeing SUV. He caught up with the SUV as it turned on to the highway. Parker slowed and followed from a distance as Mal's car headed into the city.
Center City, WA
Tracy walked through the darkened dance floor of the nightclub. Even though it was eight in the morning, a dozen people writhed in time with the strobe lights and thumping electronic music. It was too dark for Tracy to see their faces, but he was almost certain they would all have the pinned eyes that came with a coke high. The clubbers all gave him a wide berth as he passed through them on his way to the VIP. The club was called Elysium and one of Hyde's guys ran it.
The guy in question was sitting in the VIP section in the club's rear. Fat Ricky Fat was rail thin with spiky black hair. Elysium's clientele ran towards the college crowd, the trust fund type that blew all mommy and daddy's money on drugs and danced the night away. From what Tracy gleamed, that was the type of kid Linda Flynn was.
"Tracy Lawless," Ricky said in that thick, fake ghetto accent he liked to put on. "Sup, dawg?"
Ricky sat in a booth in the VIP section's far corner. Cash and drugs were scattered across the table, the drugs in little baggies and the cash in hundred dollar bundles. Speed, weed, X, and coke were among the varieties of **** Ricky pushed to the kids who frequented his club. Tracy saw a pair of high-heeled feet sticking out from under the table. Scumbag Ricky always liked to exchange blow for getting blown.
"What brings you here? I be paying Hyde his dues. I be paid up this month, he ain't got no cause to **** with me."
Tracy didn't say a word until he was sitting across the table from Ricky. He pulled a photo out of his jacket, it was Linda Flynn with her parents. He slid it across the table to Ricky and let him look at it in the dim light.
"She had your number in her room. You know her?"
"I be knowing her," he said before groaning. "Damn girl, do that **** again... uhh..." He looked at Tracy and nodded. "Yeah, this ***** be coming into my club and dancing and coping."
"She come in last night?"
"Yeah, I saw her with a couple of *****es. They left pretty early."
"You ever do a trade with her like you're doing now?"
"Nah, dawg. That be for the girls who be lacking funds. I wanna hit it, but that ***** always be paying, even when I offer to trade. I don't wanna stick it, I wanna lick it."
Ricky flicked his tongue at Tracy. A second later, Ricky gripped the table and shut his eyes as the girl under the table finished her work. Tracy felt his annoyance growing as Ricky rode out his climax and the girl came up out the table. He tossed the girl a baggie of coke and pointed towards the door.
"Bathroom be down the hall, *****. Wash your ****ing mouth out."
She scampered off as Ricky zipped his fly up. He looked at Tracy and shrugged.
"What the ****? I told you what I be knowing, dawg. The **** else you want?"
"I want you to tell me what you know," Tracy said slowly. "And I want you to speak properly. Stop the ghetto talk, Ricky. You're Asian, and from ****ing Portland."
"Man, **** you! I ain't know a goddamn th--"
Tracy came up over the table and grabbed Ricky by his thin neck with one hand while the other went into Ricky's mouth and pulled on his tongue. Ricky squealed as Tracy pulled on his tongue and shoved him hard into the table surface. His head banged hard against the table and he bit his tongue, drawing blood.
"Goddamnit!" He shouted, reaching for something in his pants.
Tracy had his own gun out and pointed at Ricky before he could even get close to his own piece.
"Give, Ricky," Tracy said calmly. "Give right now or I shoot you in the heart, pull out your tongue and shove it up your own ass."
"Okay, okay!" Ricky sobbed, trying to catch the blood dripping from his mouth. Tracy noticed the ghetto accent was gone. "Look... I... there were these Russian that came to me last week. Mean son of *****es and they... they asked about that girl, okay?"
"What did they ask about?"
"They wanted to know how often she came to the club and she was with and what times she came. They gave me a number to call the next time she came in. They gave me ten thousands dollars to do it. I called them last night."
"Give me their names and the number you called right now...," Tracy said before he added. "Dawg."
Parker pulled into a parking spot across the street from the high-rise apartment. He'd trailed Mal's car to the place and watched from halfway down the block while Mal and three goons got out the car and went inside the building. Parker drove around the block and scoped the area out. The building's front door was the only access point and it was guarded by a door man who probably had a panic button near by.
A man walked down the street toward Parker's car. He watched him warily. His suspicion turned to disbelief when a street light shone on the man's face.
"No ****ing way," Parker said as the man stood beside the driver door.
"Yes ****ing way," said Agent Graves. "Wanna grab a cup of coffee, Parker?"
The sun crept through the blinds of the room, striking Peter in the face and rousing him from a deep sleep. He opened his sleep-clouded eyes and began to toss and turn. He flipped over to find Mary Jane already wide awake, reading over her script in bed. It wasn't a surprising situation. There were plenty of nights he caught her studying it after coming home from a patrol. She knew it inside and out, but it was still glued to the nightstand.
"I think after last night we don't have to worry about you knowing the script, huh?" he mumbled sleepily. "You didn't make any mistakes."
She looked up, her flaming red hair pulled back in a pony tail, and her eyes narrowed, "Well luckily for you, you were there to see it."
"I told you I'd make it," he confidently put his hands behind his head. "The Amazing Spider-Man always delivers."
"Oh please," she rolled her eyes. "A few years ago you could barely remember to eat and be Spider-Man in the same day."
She wasn't wrong. Peter was once completely aimless when it came to his life outside of superheroics. His relationships with friends and family deteriorated as Spider-Man monopolized more and more of his life. Aunt May told him she barely knew who he was. MJ would barely give him the time of day because of how unreliable he was. Harry and his other friends would barely bother inviting him places. Eventually he woke up, and realized without them, there was nothing to fight for. It took a while to realize that, and to realize why he was pushing them away.
"Peter..." Aunt May's voice called from the other side of his bedroom door. "I understand if you don't want to talk, but if you do..."
"I don't Aunt May," he responded in an emotionless, monotone voice. Gwen Stacy had been his best friend, and now she was dead. All because the Green Goblin found out who he was. His greatest enemy knew his identity. Spider-Man...Peter Parker had gotten Gwen killed.
How could he ever live with himself?
Peter wiped the sleep from his eyes and flipped on the TV. The Daily Bugle Network popped on, and J Jonah Jameson was on the air, which was surprising. As much as Jameson loved to be the center of attention, he mostly stayed off camera in recent years. He told Peter it was to "ensure the company ran smoothly", but Parker suspected more it was because Spider-Man had become such a loved figure in New York.
"This is yet another example of vigilantes gone wrong, New York!" Jameson yelled at the screen. "Spider-Man's so-called protege goes rogue and kills a man in cold blood! Criminal or not, we have a thing called justice in this country! The courts decide, not a super powered prowler!"
Peter shot up in bed and grabbed his phone. He quickly searched for what Jameson was talking about, and it wasn't hard to find.
"Peter...what is he talking about?" Mary Jane asked, worried.
Peter read the summary of the incident, "According to a man who was involved in a jewelry heist early this morning, a black-suited vigilante, believed to be Spider-Man's protege Scarlet Spider, attack his accomplice. While the man escaped, the accomplice was found dead at the scene from blunt trauma. Authorities believe he was beaten to death by someone unnaturally strong."
"Miles didn't do this," Mary Jane whispered in a horrified tone.
Peter knew that. Miles was green, but he was the most decent person Peter knew. He wouldn't murder some guy for stealing some jewelry. But it's clear someone wanted people to think he did.
"So much for my day off," Pete sighed. "I'm gonna go find Miles. He should be back from his Young Avengers training. And I'm sure he's terrified by this."
"I didn't do this," Miles said over his coffee, fighting back tears. "And whoever did needs to be found."
Peter smiled at the younger boy. Miles had gained his powers through a similar accident, and Pete decided to make sure he knew how to be a hero. Parker knew how hard it was to be a young kid with more power than he could imagine. It turned out that Miles didn't need all that much help, but he welcomed Peter's tutelage anyway. Both of them needed one another, and Pete wasn't about to let some villain turn this city against his young comrade.
"I know, and you're right," Peter told Morales quietly. "But I don't want you going after whoever this is. Leave it to me to find them. I'll make sure you're involved after I do, but I know what these kind of people want. They want you to make a mistake. So leave it to me."
Miles wasn't happy about that, but that was expected. He shifted uneasily in his chair, "This guy is going after me, Pete. I should be involved in all steps of the process."
"I'm not sure he is going after you, Miles," Parker sighed.
When he first read the news, that's what he figured. The more he thought about it, however, the more Peter thought of it the more he thought of another terrifying possibility. This might have been a move to try and divide and conquer. If this villain made the city hate Scarlet Spider, it cuts off one of Spider-Man's supports.,
Yes, this might have been a move against Spider-Man more than Miles. It could be the Goblin all over again.
"Stay out of this one for now, Miles," Peter insisted. "And try and keep a low profile. We're in the dark for now, and that's not a good place to be."
Daredevil stood on top of St. Mark's Catholic Church in Hell's Kitchen. He couldn't begin to count the number of times he stood on this perch among the gargoyles. If he were feeling nostalgic he would say that this felt like, but for what he was about to do Daredevil was standing at the gates of Hell. There were case of nerves in someways after all getting back into this wasn't like riding a bike. Unless that bike involved being shot at, beaten, having to struggle to focus your senses on just one thing, and jumping off of roof tops. Daredevil heard the all too familiar cry for help in an alley way. He stood up and said, "Time to punch in."
With that he leaped off the roof and fired his billy club cable. Swinging through the night sky and landing on another roof top he began to sprint, and without any hesitation he leaped over the side of the building. Daredevil landed in the alley in front of a woman and man with a gun. He glanced back to the woman and said, "Run!" The woman scared out of her mind blinked twice and Daredevil growled, "NOW!" The woman ran off screaming and Daredevil turned his attention back to the man with the gun. The man asked, "Who the hell are you?" Daredevil replied, "Hell's gatekeeper." Daredevil could hear the man pulling the trigger, and flipped over him as the bullet whizzed by. He landed behind the man and slammed in the back of his head with his billy club. Daredevil picked up the unconscious crook and using a piece of cable tied him to a fire escape ladder. Daredevil disappeared as he heard sirens approaching.
The police arrived to see the crook dangling from the fire ladder with a note attached to him was a note that read, "The Devil has returned! -- DD"
The first rule of close range combat: allow your enemy to believe they have the edge. Work them over, test their limits, and see how far they're willing to go. Take a beating if you have to, even if you have to allow them to experience the euphoria that they might win, but always take every opportunity to educate yourself. Each fight begins as it's own study into the psychology of the opponent.
I learned all of this abroad in Tibet, when I was 20 years old. Still young and full of hatred for a world that had helped birth the criminals that were starting to infest Gotham, I nevertheless found an outlet for that rage in the mountaintops of Everest. A former master of the martial arts who'd fallen into training me, and others like me, watched as I attempted to dole out my raw aggression against his fellow students... only to inevitably find myself face first in a foot of snow. The old man would never mock or scold my efforts, because he was implementing the same method he'd eventually teach to me. He wanted to learn who I was as a fighter before he could determine that I was worthy of his teachings. Eventually, he decided that I had the potential.
Of course, I'd learn other things from there. That the old man wasn't "old" so much as ancient, and was far from a former master of anything, having lived an extended lifespan of over six centuries with a sense of youthful energy that surpassed even me. His name used to be Henri Ducard, but that was before he was driven mad by the very methods of maintaining his immortality that he'd spent his life clutching onto. As I returned to Gotham and embarked on my mission to become Batman, he similarly started to cultivate fear in the hearts of his enemies by claiming that he was The Head of the Demon himself. His students, the ones that remained faithful, eventually became members of the widely feared League of Assassins.
The point being, I'm not facing an acolyte of Ra's Al Ghul. He wants me to believe that by invoking a specific color scheme, implementing some of the same methods of theatricality that Ra's taught me, and even the codename that he's chosen for himself that I'm supposed to prepare myself to fight a highly trained and exceptionally motivated member of the League. But I see through this charade almost immediately. Students of Ra's Al Ghul don't feel the need to telegraph that they're assassins. They simply assassinate.
This "Lazarus" wants something else. And after killing a number of cops in my city, he's damned sure not about to get it. In a move that my former sensei might disapprove of, I go in for the counter attack first and disperse a smoke grenade to even the playing field. Lazarus' cloak goes up, defensively, signaling that I've caught him off guard. And there's the tell. For all of his bravado, he's no more an assassin than I am a proud champion of The Demon's extremist idealogy.
"I don't have the need for any more 'villains'."
Moving to catch him off guard, my approach is thrown slightly whenever he emerges from the smoke without so much as a cough held back. His mask must be insulated against such an attack. He may not be all that he appears, but he's at least prepared. I throw up my forearms in a defensive stance and block as he levels a high kick towards my head, following it up with a spin and elbow to the ribs. His reflexes are faster than I anticipated, knocking me back. Should've known he'd be ready. The glass scattered across the roof keeps my movements impossible to keep silent. The fire keeps me on edge, straying my focus between him and my surroundings.
The play is smart, but he's hardly the first person I've faced with a pre-meditated vendetta. All of this was clearly designed to get me here for a face-off, and I willingly indulged him. Now he's trying his best to prove that he's either the superior fighter or the man who took The Batman down, once and for all, for the whole of Gotham to see as he does it. It's a setup I've come across a hundred times, and this does nothing to stand out. If I let him get overzealous, he may hand me the fight before it's even over.
"Hh. I almost believed you."
Leaping high into the air, he performs a series of calculated strikes to my neck and chest while simultaneously diving above me, changing positions. I whip around and throw the edges of my cape into the air, temporarily blinding him to any potential attacks against my body that aren't directed at my head. Surprisingly, he relents, staring me down. He was expectant, I'd guess, of my attempt to bait him into a counter attack.
"Then again, I wonder if I was the one you were trying to convince."
We circle eachother slowly, neither daring to provoke the other into attacking first. I mentally catalogue some of his earlier methods of attack. He's clearly a student of Jiu-Jitsu and Hapkido, possibly with some Krav Maga thrown in. All of them are close-range styles benefitting fast and hard offensive strikes. Interestingly, if that's true, he had plenty of openings to hurt me even further. Which tells me he's holding back. But why?
"I know what you're doing. Sizing up my strategy, waiting for an opportunity to end this quickly. That's why you won't attack first. You don't want any further bloodshed, when the terrible truth is that you're already too late."
It's a bluff designed to goad me. Of all my secrets, perhaps the most poorly kept is the fact that I refuse to allow death to perverse Gotham whenever possible. I hold all life sacred, perhaps to an admitted fault. But it's the path that I chose long ago, even at the expense of some of my---
"Oh, and that isn't a bluff, if that's what you're thinking. Just ask the boy. He'll be sure to inform you of the work that's went into tonight."
Lazarus points to the side of his head, directly where the keypad in my cowl is hidden to link me to The Batcomputer's private server. He... knew exactly where that was, despite there being no visible design implemented in the mold of the costume. I almost reactively reach up to call Tim just to see if he's lying, but it would only affirm his knowledge of the cowl's inner-workings. And I can't be sure if that is knowledge or merely a blind guess.
"And what 'work' is that? Murdering police?"
"Sending a message to the man who believes himself above them."
I sneer at that.
"This was more than a message. You've cost innocent people their lives tonight."
"I'm aware of that. And I take no pleasure in any of it, but I'll kill even more if you make it absolutely nessescary for me."
"You're not getting that chance."
"Why? Because 'Batman' might throw me in jail? Or the godforsaken Asylum?"
Before he can finish that sentence, I finally decide to engage him. He's getting too comfortable with this scenario, and I can't allow him the opportunity to entrap me in whatever else he has planned. Charging at him, I throw a hard jab towards a pressure point in his shoulder. He blocks that, then goes in to sweep my legs out from under me. I jump over that attempt, spring myself off of the concrete with both palms, and thrust the weight of my body toward his chest.
Lazarus rolls and dodges that, producing something from the capsules lining the side of his hip. Not unlike his own variation on my utility belt. He throws it down and a green mist separates us, though curiously not to give him a chance to escape. He simply stands there, watching me with an almost chilling amount of serenity.
"It's true, though. What do I really have to fear from you? You won't kill a homicidal clown that's taken some of your closest friends away from you, so what are a few bodies from me? Where does it become too much?"
I've heard that criticism before. All too many times, infact. He's of course referring to The Joker, who's managed to inflict untold amounts of damage upon the people of Gotham and me personally in all the years he's been active. And even if it was more of an assumption than a statement of fact, I can't say that Lazarus is wrong.
The Joker beat Jason Todd, the second Robin, with a crowbar and left him to die. It was once considered my greatest failure until Jason rose back up from the dead to assume the mantle of The Red Hood. He then incited my wrath even further by shooting Barbara Gordon in the spine, paralyzing her for life. Dick Grayson, my first partner, has yet to forgive me for allowing it to happen. Years later, Joker would kill Sarah Essen, the wife of Jim Gordon. The clown was even implicated in the murder of a childhood friend, Thomas Elliot, before that was revealed to be apart of an even larger conspiracy.
Through it all, I allowed the clown to live. That decision has drawn it's share of commentary from all sides of my life, from Harvey Dent in his days as District Attorney, to all of the subsequent Robins, Barbara herself, Alfred and Leslie Thompkins, Catwoman, and even members of the Justice League. They all have an opinion of whether or not I should have just ended The Joker's reign of terror years ago.
Most understand the reasons why I haven't, while some have used the fact that I didn't to illustrate a perceived weakness. But the truth is that whatever the answer may be, I have absolutely nothing to explain to a man who openly crosses the very same line that could be attributed to the clown. Murder is an indefensible act, and it immediately shuts down any desire I have to reason with people like this.
"When you make the choice to kill, it's always too much."
"And yet, you offer no viable repercussions. You've effectively done nothing to change the law of Gotham."
"The courts are still corrupt beyond repair, the police are inefficient, Arkham Asylum is a revolving door, and you're there, watching it all happen. Waiting for it to change, just because you hit them with your fists."
I raise an eyebrow. Not at the level of sincerity in his statements, but because this all seems strangely familiar. Like I've heard it worded that way a thousand times before, but am unable to attribute it to a specific voice.
"It's in your head."
Angrily, I launch myself at him through the mist and attempt to deliver a hard right hook. He grabs it as it comes, twists, and slams me directly across the jaw with a hard jab. Before I can recover, he kicks me hard in the knee and brings me down a level, readying me for a vicious attack. Before it can connect, I grab a set of miniature Bat-tasers from my belt and plant them on his arm. They immediately detonate, and I expect him to succumb to nerve paralysis.
Instead, they seem to do nothing, shorting themselves out and falling to the ground.
He continues his delayed attack and knocks me to the ground with a vicious uppercut.
"You were wondering, 'where have I heard that before'? It's in your head. You've had that discussion with yourself a hundred... no, perhaps a thousand times, at this point."
My eyes widen, realizing that he's right. He's just vocalized my own self doubts in times of weakness, where I haven't been as loyal to the idea that my methods can save Gotham. I've since come to terms with the way things are, but to hear them so literally spelled out causes me to momentarily question what I'm facing rather than who. There's no shortage of telepaths in the world, especially with mutant rampancy, so is it possible that my mind was read at one point? Could he be reading it now?
The words come out between painful gasps, as I realize that this fight has already begun taking it's toll on me. Were it not enough that I'd already fought a deadly psychopath who managed to stab me in the shoulder, I'm starting to feel the pain rise up in my chest and in my bones. That sickly chill that I've been feeling for months. I've been doing this for many years, perhaps too many. And the evidence of that couldn't have come at a worse possible time.
"That one sounded even less convincing. But I'll admit, you are a stubborn piece of work. I should know that better than anyone."
Pushing myself to get up, he kicks me hard in the stomach, causing me to roll. Were it not for the protective lining in the Batsuit, I'd be suffering significant cuts to my body due to the glass. That, I could handle. The fire makes it significantly less bearable to stay up here, as the smoke starts to weigh down on me, making it harder to breathe. He's already proven that he has sufficient ventilation, which may be the intent. He may want to weaken me.
Throwing everything that I have into a rising elbow, I manage to connect it with his sternum and knock him backwards. With a heavy breath, I finally make it to my feet and produce the grapple gun. I've been giving him too much control of the elements for this fight, and there are plenty of rooftops surrounding us, signifying that it may be time to shift the odds in my favor. Firing a line over his head, I begin to ascend with it as it goes taut, reaching out to tackle him over the railing of the roof.
"Nice attempt, but we're not finished."
To my astonishment, he produces what can only best be described as... a batarang. Though simplified in it's design, it's otherwise an exact copy of the ones I carry, down to the pigmentation of the steel. He tosses it with pinpoint accuracy and severs the line to the grapple before I can react. As I tumble and fall, I spread my cape and roll, dodging another kick.
Unfortunately, he's good. And knows a few more methods of combat than I initially gave him credit for. That throw could have only been accomplished by another student of Shurikenjutsu, and only a few select people in the world have trained to throw that specific projectile. I know that because I've trained all of them. Dick, Jason, Barbara, Tim, Cassandra, Stephanie, Jean Paul-Valley. Hell, even Damian had some training with them whenever he was with me.
But I intrinsically know that there's no possible way that Lazarus could be any of them. Even with the costume hiding most of his features, he's physically a man somewhere between his early to mid-thirties. Athletic build, if a bit on the muscular side. He carries himself like a warrior, complete with all of the accommodating stances. Is there a possibility that I was wrong? Was he trained by Ra's Al Ghul after all? It's not completely out of the question, but...
"You've proven your point. You're clearly no ordinary criminal."
I ready my fists, showing him that I'm not about to back away from the battle.
"But you are one, just the same. And I will put you down."
He shakes his head, almost mockingly.
"There you go again, with another empty threat. But let me ask you one simple question. And be honest."
Through his actions, he's done comparatively little to catch me off guard that my body hasn't already done to itself. But the next words that come out of Lazarus' mouth are enough to throw me completely.
"When are you going to stop letting your parents down?"
"Clark, this isn't helping," I hear Kara's voice in my earpiece. I barely listen.
My son has been abducted. Right out from under my nose. There are only a handful of people on Earth who could pull off something like that, and even fewer who'd have the guts to actually do it.
Most of the super-villains, crime lords, and other black-hats of the world aren't really afraid of fighting the people on our side, because they know that even as powerful as we are, we hold back. Ninety hundred and ninety-nine times out of a thousand, excessive force is off the table. Even Bruce, who made his reputation being the 'dark horse' of the League, has lines he doesn't cross.
You mess with a man's family, though, and all bets are off.
The top on my list of suspects was Lex Luthor. I came up with less than nothing-- as much as I distrust him and as much as he openly despises me, he seems to be taking his 'reform' to heart, at least for now. But confronting him in my current state, I'm worried I gave him a foothold-- he may not know about Jonathan, but now he's got the idea. That's a battle for another day, though.
Intergang was next, and again I came up empty-handed. Mannheim's had access to alien weaponry for a while, but even their most powerful devices barely slowed me down as I scattered them to the wind. I looked through their books, pored through every piece of data they had. Jonathan wasn't there.
The Ultra-Humanite is still locked up in Stryker's Island. There's been no trace of Phantom Zone activity, which rules out Faora or any of Zod's other followers. And the deactivated remains of Brainiac are still in deep storage in a classified SHIELD facility, with a strict ban on any internet-capable device within a fifty-mile radius.
"You know I'm right," Kara says, as she continues her own search on the other side of the Earth. "We don't have any leads, so you're just lashing out and hoping you find something. That's only going to make things that much worse for us. Sure, the bad guys are always going to keep coming. But this? You're risking starting a war, Clark."
The sky above me is dark and overcast, like it always seems to be on this corner of the world. For centuries, the country's mountainous landscape made it nearly impassable on land, keeping foreign armies from going through the trouble of invading, and thus ensuring that its worst enemies were always internal.
One of those enemies took it upon himself to become an enemy of mine as well, and one of the greatest constant threats to humanity itself.
"I'm not going to pick a fight, Kara," I respond, feeling a low burn of annoyance. "I'm just going to ask some questions."
"And what if you don't like the answers?" she asks. "Clark, I'm just asking you to take a second and think about this. You're frustrated. You're panicking. Has it occurred to you that whoever did this might want you acting like this?"
Looking down at the intricate Gothic castle below, I grit my teeth and try to put down the burning in my gut. How can she be taking this so lightly? Every second we spend 'thinking about this' is a second that Jonathan's in danger. If there's a direct way to finding my son, I won't stop until I've found it. Even if that means kicking in a few doors, or getting into a few more scrapes.
"This won't take long," I assure Kara, my hands balled into fists so tightly it hurts. Before the nigh-impenetrable labyrinth of defenses detect my presence, I charge downward with full-force, shattering glass and masonry in my wake before touching down on a plush red carpet.
I stand in the center of a long great hall, the high vaulted ceiling supported by rows upon rows of columns and buttresses. The centuries-old stonework belies an intricate web of extremely advanced technology hidden just below the surface, everything from automated particle-cannon turrets and force field generators to nigh-invisible lighting fixtures that illuminate the hall far greater than the medieval-looking torches and braziers would manage.
At the end of the hall, seated on a black throne atop a raised dais, he looks down on me. He doesn't seem remotely surprised by my arrival. I'd bet he knew I was coming since my visit to LexCorp.
The look in his eyes from underneath the cruel metallic mask that hides his face tells me I may have been wrong. Just by being here, I'm picking a fight. And we both know it.
"I had thought the terms of our entente were clear, alien," says Victor von Doom in a calm voice that nonetheless thunders throughout the hall. "You are not welcome here."
Doom has an entire nation bent around his little finger. Everything in this country is shaped into his image, and everyone in it lives in worship and fear of him. He's used to being surrounded by people who treat him like a god.
I just see another sad, insecure little man who puffs himself up because he can't stand the idea that there are people who are better than him.
"Spare me the theatrics, Doom," I say, my feet leaving the ground as I approach the throne, raising myself just that much higher than him in the air, "and tell me what you know."
I can see right through the mask that covers his expressions. I can hear his pulse, and more, I can look right at his brain and see which parts of it are active, like a CT-scan in real time. I may not be able to read thoughts like J'onn, but I can literally see when a person is lying, when they're hiding a secret, or when they're preparing to attack.
Doom, however, gives me nothing. His poker-face puts even Bruce to shame.
"Is this how the great and powerful 'Superman' conducts himself?" he answers in an indignant tone. "By coming to my domain unannounced? Making demands of me? Attempting to intimidate me with a childish show of force?"
I barely have time to notice the near-imperceptible gesture he makes with his left hand before bolts of pale blue lightning lash out from columns on either side of me, each one rivaling a full-powered blast from Livewire. My body spasms as pins and needles stab into my every nerve.
As I struggle against the lightning net, Doom stands, raises a plate-armored gauntlet, and blasts me out of the air with a jet of superheated plasma.
"I do not know what you came here to find, nor do I care," he states, both gauntlets now radiating with deadly energy. "But if shows of force are all you understand, then Doom will be happy to oblige..."
The Kent Farm
Thirty miles west of Metropolis
"Thanks, Jimmy," Lois Lane-Kent said, managing a smile as she took the steaming hot cup of gourmet coffee from the red-haired photographer at the front door. "I was getting tired of the cheap instant stuff we've got in the pantry."
"Hey, least I can do," Jimmy Olsen shrugged as he stepped inside the farm house, smiling back weakly. "You guys are basically my family, so if there's anything I can.....I mean, yeah, I'm not exactly a master detective, but.....I can at least handle coffee."
Lois sipped the piping hot drink gratefully, before rubbing her eyes for the tenth time in the past five minutes. It felt like years since she'd slept. The police turned the house inside-out and of course found nothing; thankfully, they'd done a good job of keeping all traces of Clark's extra-curricular life out of the house. The League were supposed to be sending people soon to look for traces of supernatural involvement or alien technology, but given how many crises there were around the world at any given time, it was hard to say when they'd be available.
"How's Clark holding up?" Jimmy asked.
The silence that followed lasted too long for comfort.
Clark was probably the most powerful man on the face of the Earth. But he was also rash and bull-headed, and when people he deeply cared about were in danger, he could stop thinking straight altogether. The reality of Jon's disappearance had barely sunk in for either of them before he had suited up and started shaking down anyone who'd had a history with them.
"Clark's.....out looking for leads," Lois sighed. "I think he's trying to cope by making it part of his job. You know how he can be."
Jimmy nodded, not knowing even the half of it. Olsen was smarter than he let on, but even after all this time, he never really put two and two together when it came to the Kent family's big secret. Then again, given all the crazy things that had happened to him over the years, it wasn't too much of a stretch for him to think the same sort of craziness just happened to fall on Lois and Clark all the time too.
"And how about you?" he asked with genuine concern.
"Honestly? Not much better," she answered as the two walked up the stairs to the second floor. "It's one thing to put your own life in danger for the job, y'know? I always figured LexCorp and Intergang and SHIELD would come knocking on my door one day, and I would've been fine with that. Making powerful enemies comes with the territory. It's what makes me good at what I do. Same with Clark. But this.....this is something else entirely."
Lois drifted back into her son's room, where she'd spent nearly every waking minute poring over to find any trace of what happened to Jon. While Clark was off searching the globe, she had to limit her search for answers at the scene of the crime.
"I can only imagine," Jimmy said, "I mean, I'd be scared too if--"
"Scared?" Lois said with an incredulous chuckle. "Jimmy, I'm not scared. I'm angry. My son's been taken from us, my husband is already on the warpath, and my nerves are shot. Whoever did this to my family? I'm going to find them. And when I do, I'm going to nail them to the damn wall."
It was a moment before Lois realized her hands were shaking, spilling hot coffee on the carpet.
"Sorry, it's just....it's been a really rough time," she said. "Thanks again for the coffee."
Jimmy looked up to try and avoid Lois's tear-stained glare, searching the room for something to look at. The walls were covered in posters-- Star Wars, baseball players, dinosaurs. The desk at the far wall was littered with pencils and papers, including Jonathan's still half-finished homework. Action-figures poked out from the overstuffed toy box in the corner. Model airplanes and spaceships hung on fishing wires from the ceiling, a perpetual freeze-frame of what Jimmy imagined was a spectacular aerial battle.
Above the model planes, Jimmy saw spider-web cracks in the old plaster of the ceiling.
"Huh," Jimmy shrugged. "That's kinda weird."
"What's kinda weird?" Lois said, perking up.
"The cracks in the ceiling," he pointed out. "If you look at them the right way, the almost make letters. Check it out: there's a T......an N.....and an E....."
As Jimmy slowly pointed out each letter, there was a dull thump followed by a small splash as Lois's coffee dropped to the floor.
"Lois? Are you--"
Lois's eyes were wide, and her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.
".....no....." she said to herself.
Above them, cracked into the ceiling of her son's bedroom, were definite letters. Letters that formed a doorway that only one person could use.
(NOTE: This takes place the morning after MB's current scene with Lazarus. Please excuse any hiccups in continuity)
Alarm at six A.M., up with the dawn.
Pull oneself out of bed, into the restroom to bathe and wash hair. Egg white omelette, an apple, and a cup of black coffee. Get dressed, check the computer for any alerts missed during precious few hours of sleep, get ready to head out into the city. Physical therapy in one hour.
The morning routine was part of how Barbara Gordon kept herself centered. It was one of the few times in her day that she felt completely in control.
"--identity is still unknown, but the Gotham City Police Department is still out in force searching for the perpetrator of last night's attack, which left dozens dead. Commissioner James Gordon commented on the attack, stating--"
Barbara turned off the news stream, not wanting to hear Summer Gleason's half-informed interpretation of the night's events. The attack had left everyone shaken, and her father once again being in mortal danger from an unknown threat hadn't done her nerves any favors.
If I could have been there, she found herself thinking, her fingers digging into the armrest of her wheelchair, before she forced herself to stop. Self-pity was a destructive line of thinking, one that she couldn't afford to lapse into when there were people who depended on her. What mattered was doing everything she still could do, and while her days of leaping across rooftops may have been over, her skill set had expanded tremendously in other areas. In many respects, Oracle was ten times the boon to Gotham than the original Batgirl ever was.
Securing her laptop in a satchel bag and adjusting her cushion to prevent pressure sores, Barbara left her apartment across the street from the old Clock Tower, and made her way to the bus stop.
"Twenty more seconds," Doctor Simone said, standing over the stationary cycle. "You've got, this Barb!"
"I've.....I've got this," she repeated, her breath puffing as she forced herself through the exercises.
Therapy was, as always, a frustrating mix of small successes in the face of enormous challenges. She still did plenty of exercises at home, and had kept her upper body and core in peak condition, but in this environment, even with doctors and other members of her support group cheering her on, it was difficult not to feel powerless.
Thanks to her time here, as well as a series of reconstructive surgeries paid for by generous donations from the Wayne Foundation, Barbara no longer had to worry about the danger of further spinal trauma, the muscle spasms were far less frequent, and the neuropathic pain that was often blinding at first had been reduced to a dull ache.
Even more promising, a few months ago they had begun a course of electrical stimulation treatments, connecting electrodes to nerve endings near the damaged ones in the hopes of resuscitating them over time. She'd regained most of the feeling in her pelvic region, and with the electrodes active, she could move her legs.....slowly and with tremendous effort, but now she was able to turn the pedals of a stationary bike while the treatment was active.
Barbara was realistic about the extent of her recovery. The most optimistic projections indicated that if she continued the expensive electrode therapy and exercise for several years, she might be able to walk a dozen or so steps, with the help of crutches. Wayne Medical had an experimental prototype of a surgical implant that could in theory restore functionality to her lower body, but it was still years away from clinical trials, and even then, its battery life was only for an hour or two at a time. Besides, the procedure would cost as much as a brand new fleet of Batmobiles, and it would raise too many questions if the unassuming policeman's daughter could suddenly afford that kind of treatment. It was the same reason she couldn't simply ask one of the dozens of wizards and spellcasters in the superhero community to just magick her spine back together; it could expose her, and by extension, expose Bruce, Dick, Tim, and everyone else in the family.
Barring some form of divine intervention, the chair would be a part of Barbara's life forever. Still, if there was one thing she had learned from her father, and from Bruce, it was that just because it may be a losing battle, doesn't make it not worth fighting.
"Three.....two....one.......aaaand you're done!" Dr. Simone said, hitting her stopwatch and patting Barbara on the shoulder. "You did great today!"
"Thanks..." said Barbara, wiping the sweat from her forehead as she caught her breath. "I still think I can do more, though. Maybe turn up the resistance or-"
"You don't want to push yourself too hard," the doctor stated, shaking her head. "You could end up doing more harm than good. Remember, this is a game of inches."
"I know," Barbara sighed, nodding. "I'm just....not where I want to be yet."
"But you're closer than you were the day before, remember that."
"You're right.....thanks," she said with a smile as she lifted herself off of the stationary bike and back into her chair. "Same time on Friday?"
"Looking forward to it," Dr. Simone said as Barbara wheeled out of the workout room. Checking her phone, she saw she had a new text message.
Just got into town. Lunch?
Barbara paused for a moment, feeling her pulse quicken a bit. She knew him being back in Gotham could be.....distracting, especially while Bruce and company were dealing with this new threat. On the other hand, she hadn't gotten to see him face-to-face in ages, and since he was here for business, chances were there wouldn't be much time to catch up. Besides, there was no way he was going to stay any longer than absolutely necessary; he hated Gotham City more than a lot of the guys who had tried to blow it up.
She shrugged, and sent him a response.
My place in an hour. Bring Chinese.
After sending it and reading what she'd typed, her face went hot with embarrassment, so she quickly added:
Don't get any ideas.
His response, as always, was quick and snappy.
Wouldn't dream of it. Not at this time of day
Barbara shook her head and laughed. It'd been a good long time since she'd gotten herself into something stupid with Dick Grayson.
Amusement Mile, Gotham City
Nine Years Ago
"And so then Spidey starts looming over Mad Mod, going 'They're coming for you, Mod, my spider army. Millions of them, any second now!' I've never heard a grown man scream that high-pitched," Robin laughed as he effortlessly flipped over a knife-wielding thug, landing on his hands to mule-kick him into a hot-dog cart.
"Wait, can he actually do that?" Batgirl asked, nimbly ducking under a punch from another goon before lunging upward and driving her elbow into his ribs.
"Hah, no, but it was a great bluff," the Boy Wonder answered, whipping out a bola from his utility belt to snare the legs of two fleeing thugs. "Turns out Mad Mod's kind of a total wuss when it comes to bugs. Between Spidey and Beast Boy, they actually made him wet his pants before the police took him away."
"Do you mind?! I am trying to terrorize the city here!" yelled the Condiment King indignantly, brandishing a canister of deadly mustard-gas.
"Sorry," Batgirl apologized as she swept the legs out from another goon, "Robin and I haven't seen each other in a while, and we're just trying to ketchup."
"Did you just--"
"She may-o may not have," Robin quipped as he tumbled overhead, deftly plucking the mustard-gas canister out of the Condiment King's hand. "But without your poison gas and with all your goons taken out, I'd say you're in quite the pickle."
"Stop it, just STOP IT!"
"Oh come on, you don't relish the opportunity to get in some good banter?" laughed Batgirl, flinging a pair of Batarangs that caught the pauldrons of the inept would-be villain's cape and pinned him to the side of an old funhouse.
"You....you will pay for this!" the rather pathetic enemy sputtered.
"Eh, I think I've mustered all the jokes I can from this," said Robin, casually strolling up to him and cracking his knuckles. "You never had a chance going up against some seasoned veterans like us. Maybe pick a city with fewer heroes to stop your a-salt, and you won't find yourself in such a jam. Maybe go out west, find a nice ranch, where you can spend some time without getting peppered with-"
"Oh my God, will you please just knock me out already?"
Robin glanced over at Batgirl, shrugged, then cracked the Condiment King across the jaw and let him slump to the ground.
"Seriously, though, those were getting really annoying," she said, aiming her grappling gun up towards the top of the Ferris wheel as police sirens grew closer.
"Anyway, that's been my whole semester," Barbara said as they sat hundreds of feet up at the top of the closed-down Ferris wheel, looking off into the distant moonlight. "My Criminology teacher still wants me to cite my sources for my term paper, but I can't exactly say 'Batman told me.'"
"Well hey, you still made the Dean's list, that's awesome," said Dick. "Honestly, between my cases with Bruce here and adventuring with the Titans, I'm kind of amazed I passed my senior classes at all. I barely got accepted into Gotham State. I dunno, maybe you were right about turning down the offer to join the team and focus on your future."
"Well, that, and I'm only going to be a 'teen' for another year, and I wouldn't want the Titans to have to change all their logos," Barbara joked.
"Seriously, though, I think you'd really like them," Dick said. "Cyborg and Beast Boy are a blast to hang out with, and Raven--well, I mean...I know she can be hard to get along with sometimes, but....once you get to know her, she's really cool."
"I'll bet," Barbara said under her breath. She had briefly met the Titans before, and her interactions with Raven were....less than warm. She knew the witch-girl was close friends with Dick, but didn't seem to be interested in extending that friendship to Batman's other protégé.
"I wish you could've been there for some of crazy stuff we've done," Dick continued. "And for some of the weirdness here in the city. Like when Mister Freeze put a giant cryo-bomb in the Harbor and.....Barb? You okay?"
Barbara blinked a few times, realizing she'd been staring.
"Sorry, it's just, y'know..." she stammered. "It feels like it's been forever since we've gotten to do this. I just....I really missed you, y'know?"
"Hey, I missed you too, but..."
Barbara moved closer to Dick, closed her eyes and pursed her lips, leaned in to kiss him....
.....only to feel him pull away.
"Yeah, that's, um.....that's something I wanted to talk to you about," he said, uneasy and sheepish. "You know how, back when we went out on New Year's Eve, you said you wanted to take a break from things, go your own way for a while?"
Dick looked away, a hint of shame on his face.
"Well....I kind of....went my own way, too," he said. "Starfire and I, we've been--"
"Oh," Barbara said, her eyes wide. "I didn't think....I mean, it's--"
"I mean, if I knew you were still--....I can't just--"
"Nonono, you don't have to, I just thought--.....I......I'm sorry."
"No, I should've told you before," Dick said, kicking himself. "I'd been so caught up in things that I just....I thought you knew."
Down below, some of the amusement park lights were coming back on, opening up again after the GCPD were certain Condiment King's rampage had been cleaned up.
"So.......are you happy?" Barbara asked.
Dick took a moment to consider it.
"With Star? Yeah.....yeah, I am," he finally answered.
She took a long breath, and smiled.
"Then I'm happy for you," she said.
"Thanks, that...that means a lot," Dick said. "And listen, I know things have been different since you went to college, but I still--....care about you, y'know? I'm still here for you, whether we're together or not. You know that, right?"
For a long while, the two looked in each other's eyes, searching for the magic they'd had the previous summer. With a cough, Dick looked away, the roller coaster on the other side of the park catching his eye.
"Looks like they re-opened the Colossal Comet," he said, pointing to the thrill ride, "Want to take a ride before--.....Barb?"
Turning back, Dick saw only the empty air next to him. Barbara had already disappeared into the night.
"Hey," said Dick, that same old sheepish grin on his face as Barbara opened the door for him.
"Hey yourself," she said, beckoning him inside. "What'd you get us?"
"Beef and broccoli with fried rice, or General Tso's with lo mein," he said, holding up two cardboard cartons as he stepped inside. "Compliments of Chow Lin's Chow on 151st Street."
"Oh wow, I haven't been to Chow Lin's in years," Barbara said as she closed the door and followed Dick to the living room-slash-dining-room-slash-kitchenette that was the majority of her modest apartment. "There's a really good new Hunan place just around the block that I go to most of the time these days."
"Ah, cool, I, erm, I didn't know about that one," he said, feeling out of place as he placed the cartons down on a TV tray. "Anyway, it's good to see you again, you look.....really good."
"That took you a second, Grayson," she said with an eyebrow raised.
"Well, I mean, erm...it just....looks like you didn't get much sleep last night," he sputtered.
"I didn't," she admitted. "Last night was a pretty rough one. There's a new guy in town, and Bruce has his hands full dealing with him."
"Think it might be the same guy who's calling me out?"
Barbara shook her head.
"Whoever your guy is, he's being subtle," she said. "Bruce's guy, his methods are....messier."
"....oh," he said. "Well, erm, I hope you guys stop him."
"Thanks," Barbara said, not wanting to push the issue further. She never found out the details on exactly what ended things between Bruce and Dick, other than it ended badly. The two of them hadn't spoken to each other directly in three years.
"So...." she started again, opening the carton of beef and broccoli, "Where are you going to be staying while you're in town?"
"Ehhh, I hadn't really made any arrangements," Dick shrugged. "I'm probably going to just crash in a motel for a couple of nights."
"Well, I mean, you don't have to," she said, her eyes peering out over the rims of her glasses.
"I'm not gonna bug Alfred to set up a guest room for me," Dick said irritably.
"That's, erm, not what I meant," Barbara said.
Dick looked back at her, and for a second, the two of them caught each other's eyes again. Only for a second, though, as Dick's eyes drifted slightly upward.....
.....and his face went white.
"Barbara, GET DO--
Barbara felt more than saw the flash of the red laser-light that had been playing across her face before she heard the crash of broken glass....
.....felt something smack the side of her head.....
.......felt nothing, heard nothing, saw nothing, as everything went to black.
Mal Resnick rolled off the woman with a sigh of contentment. He'd needed to get laid badly. And the ****e beside him had been good for that and then some. She was blonde and shapely and the looks were important, but she did more than that. She made Mal feel like her whole world was about Mal and pleasing him.
For Mal, that's what you paid hookers for. Not for the sex, or the looks, or even the leaving; but for the attention. Every other broad he screwed in his life wanted something out of him. Money, drugs, stability, etc. And yeah, the hookers wanted money, but there was no illusions and they were damn fine actors that was for sure.
"You were great," he wheezed to girl as he went for his smokes on the nightstand. "Thanks for meeting me on such short notice."
"Don't thank me," the girl said quietly. "Not yet."
Mal didn't understand what she meant by that. He turned away from the nightstand and was about to ask her when he saw it.
He saw him.
Parker, coming through the goddamn fire escape with the raised window sill in one hand, a pistol in the other.
Four Hours Earlier
Parker stared at Graves from across the table. The old man calmly added sugar to the steaming cup of coffee in front of him. Parker didn't say a word, his big mitts in between his own hot cup of coffee.
"How goes the Mal hunt?" Graves asked, blowing on his coffee before taking a sip.
"I think you know," said Parker. "And I still haven't figured out what Mal Resnick has to do with you. You part of the Syndicate?"
"Do I look like I'm part of that group?" asked Graves. "And if I was, I could certainly have Mal Resnick taken car of by someone closer to him than you, Parker."
"So what's your game?"
"What if I told you three things, Parker?" Graves ticked points off with his fingers. "One: Mal Resnick has an attraction to high-end call girls, one of whom is on the way to a rendezvous with him as we speak. That rendezvous is away from the secure building, bodyguards watching the front, but an easily accessible fire escape."
"Then why am I still talking to you?" asked Parker.
"Two: Mal's double cross of you was intentional, Parker. He was in deep with some Syndicate people and your would-be murder would wipe away his debt and then some."
Parker shook his head.
"Why would anyone in the Syndicate want me dead? It's ridiculous. I've always been an independent operator. Never pulled a job for them."
"It's not the Syndicate," said Graves. "It's the people behind them. The Vasco Family."
"Never heard of them."
"Yes you have," Graves said with a smirk. "They own this city and half the Eastern Seaboard. They're behind the Syndicate, they're behind the governor's of sixteen US states, they're behind GE. Crooks, businessmen, and politicians all in one neat little package. And they're after little ole you, Parker."
Parker stood up and started towards the door before Graves grabbed him by the wrist.
"Where are you going?"
"Somewhere the hell away from your crazy ass."
"It's true, Parker. They want you did. Not for anything you've stolen from them as a heistman, but what you did to them as a Minuteman."
Parker frowned and looked down at the old man.
"That's the third thing, Parker," said Graves. "Croatoa...."
The word seemed to slide from Graves' mouth and it echoed through Parker's skull. It pounded inside his head. He heard drumbeats, he smelled saltwater and heard seagulls.
The Seven Minuteman.
Parker's knees buckled and he blacked out.
Center City, WA
Tracy Lawless sat in his car and watched the comings and goings at the deli. Mixed in with the usual patrons seeking out chopped liver and sandwiches were hard men who went straight to the backroom and would emerge without having bought anything from inside. Belyakov's Delicatessen served as the base of operations for Center City's ROC contingent. Russian Organized Crime moved into town about five years ago and had been spreading its tentacles ever since.
They started in LA after the Cold War ended and the Russian Mafyia consolidated power in the former USSR, their idea of American colonization. The gangsters succeeded in American penetration where Marx, Lenin, and the KGB had failed. Like a snake, they slithered up the west coast through the big cities until they arrived in Center City. Hyde watched their movements with a wary eye. For now, ROC paid up like the rest of them but they were growing stronger each day. Time would come that Hyde would have to cut them down.
If Tracy's information was good, that time appeared to be now. The names Ricky Fat gave Tracy all matched members of ROC, the number he dialed last night was that of Belyakov's Deli. It appeared to Tracy that ROC committed an unsanctioned kidnapping in Center City. If Tracy knew Hyde like he thought he did, there was only one solution to this problem. But that would come afterward. For now, getting Linda Flynn back safely was priority one.
"And you're sure about this, Tracy?"
"As sure as I can be."
Thomas Flynn leaned forward in his chair and spread his arms along the rich wood surface of his desk. Tracy saw the gears in his head turning, he could practically hear what Flynn was thinking. Which is why it was no surprise what he said next.
"I don't want to pay the ransom," he said softly. "I love my daughter, I do... but her stupidity and weakness has cost so much. If daddy keeps bailing her out, she'll keep doing it again and again. She needs to pull herself up by her own bootstraps."
Tracy's neutral look did not betray the thoughts he had in his head. He used to think Sebastian Hyde was a cold son of a *****, but now Thomas Flynn was the standard bearer when it came to that regard. Teeg Lawless had been an abusive, hateful man, for sure. But if Tracy or his brother Ricky had been kidnapped, Teeg would have moved heaven and earth to get his boys back. He wouldn't leave his sons to the wolves, and he certainly try to justify it with bull$*** conservative rhetoric.
"Who runs these Russians?" Flynn asked.
"Konstantin Belyakov. He owns the deli where they congregate at and a half dozen other front businesses in the city."
"Does he work for... you employer?"
"Not exactly," Tracy said with a shrug. "He pays a cut to my boss like everyone else does, but he doesn't work for anyone but himself."
"Tracy," Flynn said slowly. "These people will be calling me within the hour with ransom demands. They want five million dollars that I don't want to give to them... but what if we had something they wanted?"
Mal Resnick, nude and fighting for his life, smacked away the pistol in Parker's hands. That was okay with Parker. He needed to do this by hand. After what Graves told him, that was the only way he could do it.
"Parker..." Mal stammered as he tried to take a swing at Parker. Parker blocked the shot and slammed a big fist into Mal's solar plexus. The shot made the chubby fat man fall to his knees.
Parker got his big hands around Mal's neck and squeezed. He imagined that Mal was Javier Vasco, Medici, and anyone of the Thirteen Bastards who'd done this to him. Not only had they taken his life away from him, but Vasco had made a move against him in this new life and that brought it all back crashing down.
Mal Resnick let out a little gurgle as Parker broke his windpipe. He let Mal's spasming body fall to the floor. He looked at the naked woman who eyeballed Parker with a frightened look on her face.
"Put on some clothes," was all he said as he picked the gun up off the floor.
"And give me the keys to your car."
For better or worse, Parker was back.
Center City, WA
Tracy Lawless' Charger raced down the street towards the Phillips Park. Plenty of families were out and about in the noon hour. Inside his car he had two of Flynn's security guards, wearing plainclothes and masks. Tracy didn't wear one. He wanted them to know who he was. He jumped the curb and rode on the sidewalk. People scattered and ran for cover as Tray skidded on the grass beside a swing set.
He and the men jumped out of the car and headed towards the swing set. Two men by the swings were reaching for something in their jackets, but were stopped when the two guards smacked them across the face with nightsticks. They kept beating the bodyguards while Tracy scooped a young boy up off the swings and pushed the woman beside the boy down into the dirt.
"Tell Belyakov now we have something he wants," he said coldly. "If Linda Flynn dies, we ****ing kill his son."
The woman screamed bloody murder as Tracy shoved the confused kid into the backseat. She called for help when Tracy and the other men climbed into the car and sped off with the boy in the backseat calling for his mother in Russian.
STAR Labs Advanced Energy Lab
Steve overlooked the STAR Lab facility and tried to work the situation through. This didn't match up with Batroc and his crew's normal MO. Batroc and his brigade were more often than not snatch and grab thiefs when they pulled a job like this. They usually didn't want to be seen, let alone inflict this much collateral damage. Something smelled wrong, and he didn't like it.
"Falcon," Cap adjusted his shield on his back, "I don't like this."
Sam was in position on a billboard overlooking the site. When he responded, Steve could tell he felt the same way, "I know what you mean. This doesn't fit the normal."
A small grin curled on the side of Steve's mouth. The two of them had been working together longer than Steve had worked with anyone besides Bucky. In many ways, Sam had become an even better friend than Bucky had been back in the day. Sure, he had grown up with Buck, but being the shrimp he once was, Bucky was as much of a protector as a friend. Sam, on the other hand, was an equal. The two of them were almost always on the same wavelength, moreso than any of the other Avengers. It always annoyed Stark to no end. That made Steve appreciate Sam even more.
"I think we should deploy Redwing," Steve responded. "Just to make sure no one sneaks up on us."
"10-4," Sam agreed. He pressed a few buttons on his gauntlet, and a small drone popped out of the wingsuit on his back. The invention was something Iron Man had come up with, and it was something of a genius marvel, Steve had to admit. It looked like a hawk in flight, and it even flapped its "wings" while it was in the air. In reality, it used Tony's repulsor technology to stay aloft, but from the ground you'd never know that. It was invisible to radar, and was invaluable during scouting missions and recon. Redwing was a valuable part of the team, even if he wasn't alive.
"I'm going in. You know what to do," Cap said. He took the shield off his back and broke into a sprint towards the hole that Batroc had blown into the side of the building. With his enhanced speed, he made it there in a flash. Sam was going to infiltrate from the roof, as he normally did. They went over a battle plan in the Quinjet on the way, and there was little need to plan contingencies. The two of them were good at improvising. It wouldn't be a problem, especially considering Batroc was never all that much of a problem, assuming there wasn't a nasty surprise waiting for them.
Steve vaulted easily over a fence and landed deftly in the STAR labs parking lot. The smoke was still thick around the blast radius, and it stung his lungs as he passed through it. As he did, two small visors came out of his cowl and allowed him to see what was on the other side. There were two men directly inside the building. Lackies, no doubt. They were smaller than Swordsman and Sportsmaster, both of which would be closer to Batroc. Cap moved quickly between them and slammed their heads together, knocking them out almost instantly.
"Sorry, boys," he mumbled before opening the comm up. "I'm inside."
"Same," Falcon responded. "Looks like the Brigade brought some friends with them."
"Yea," Steve mused, "wonder who's funding them this time."
"No identifying markers," Falcon added.
"Well, let's find their bosses," Captain America pushed further into the building. "They'll be able to tell us everything we need."
He watched as Captain America entered the lab. The hero was just as advertised. Fast, powerful, and impressive were the first words that came to mind as he watched the red, white, and blue clad metahuman enter STAR Labs without hesitation. He was the perfect specimen. He was the perfect soldier.
At least that's what everyone had told the Winter Soldier.
What he saw was the perfect farce. Steve Rogers may have been the perfect soldier at some time, but victory had turned him into nothing more than a hollow figurehead. He could fight against low level threats, but anything higher than that he required his friends. There was nothing special about Steve Rogers, not any more. Now he was a fancily dressed clown.
"He went in," Winter Soldier reported to his handlers.
"You know what to do," the Red Skull responded with a sneer. "Wait for Batroc to make his escape. Then take care of the target."
Captain America was nothing without his friends. So it was time to take his friends from him.
Episode One: Flight of The Scarecrow
Part OneIf you would have asked me just a few moments ago, I’d have told you that the moon is my only visitor, religiously keeping to our nightly conjugal visits. But I knew something was amiss when the time for sunset came and the moon did not. I sit all day and all night in this cell, I know exactly what time it is based on the stature of the sky--just a consequence of spending years looking out of this window, really. It’s just about the only thing that keeps me sane. They keep me in this damned straightjacket, but they can’t even see the real danger in order to restrain it. I’ve made sure of it.
No. The real danger of Arkham is not the inmates. Inmates come and go here. You're wondering what else would the danger would be. Nononono, don’t ask what. Ask who the danger would be. Rumor has it that Arkham wasn’t ever supposed to be a mental institution for the benefit of the living. It’s always been a playground for the vengeful dead, for the evils that pervade the world, the ones that get their kicks out of bringing Hell to Elysium. Arkham is not of this world. Never was.
First, Zsasz told me so, but he makes no pretense about being a superstitious cretin. Then, Jones told me so, but I heard his brain is as dry as his skin. Even the goddamn Joker told me so, but he probably verified it on Encyclopedia Dramatica. Then I heard it from The Black Mask. I’m out of here.
You see, they really should replace the straightjackets more often if they want to keep us in here. I swear, it’s like they literally want us to escape. The cloth on mine is literally years old, the only reason I never ripped it apart before is because it’s the only thing to keep me warm at night next to this open window. Against my might, it comes apart like piss-drenched toilet paper. Smells like it too.
A pair of eyes silently materialize in front of the slit that they slip my slop through.
””open the cage, freddy.”
””you know what happens to faculty who think they run the place. don’t you? don’t you remember what you yourself said before the cat got your tongue? The inmates run the asylum.” The eyes disappear for a moment, but then his entire body enters my view. He tries to say “yessir”, but that stump he calls—my bad—called a tongue won’t comply.
”good stooge. now let’s get out of here.”
He doesn’t help me to my feet. He’s been trained well. You don’t help anyone in Arkham but yourself. It works best for everyone involved that way.
My bare chest is wet and I can’t help but shiver as I enter the hallway, residual cold always leaks into my room from Freeze’s. Freddy walks behind me, just in case I need to threaten his life for anything. Nothing comes to mind yet, but it will. There’s always something, sometimes a cigarette, sometimes a weapon of mass destruction. We walk down the hallway, past guards who pretend not to see me, who pretend not to worship my nude figure as I strut past them.
Past them and up to her, the dark-maned receptionist. Twenty-two years old, libidinous, smexy. She figured that Arkham would make a good part time job while she goes to college for her associates degree. The job pays well, has nice benefits, perks for days. But I am hardly the only former faculty member that resides within these walls.
”if you’d be a dear and get me my things, you can rest assured that i’d reward you handsomely, like i do everything else.”
Jean DeWolff sat smoking on the roof of the precinct building, waiting for SPider-Man to show up. She knew he would. After the apparent attack by his protoge, she'd be one of the first people he'd come to talk to. It was a blessing and a curse, if she was being honest. She had become his go between with the police department after they worked together to take down a criminal known as the Chameleon who was trying to kill the mayor of the city and take her place. Because of this, Jean was a crucial part of the police department. This also meant she had a target on her back. It wasn't fun to be a cop with a target on your back.
Still, it was good to keep tabs on the metahumans in the city. Considering the fluctuating public opinion on their activities, having ties was invaluable. Especially if the day came where something needed to be done about them.
Hopefully that day never came.
"Well hellow there, Captain," the voice of Spider-Man announced behind her, causing her to jump. "Whoa, sorry about that. That was definitely more of a Batman introduction, but I was downtown for some pizza and figured I'd visit with my favorite police officer."
He leaned in and whispered, "Don't tell anyone else. I don't want them to get jealous."
DeWolff had to stifle a laugh. Spider-Man was nothing if not cheeky. The man had no shame, seemingly, but then again if she dressed in red and blue spandex she probably would be too. He was known for joking at times of great stress, which could rub something wrong way. Jean figured it was probably a defense mechanism to say sane in such a crazy way of life.
"I'm honored," she responded sarcastically. "So we obviously need to talk."
"Oh, that's never a good sign," he deadpanned back.
"Enough of the games. You know what this is about."
Spider-Man shifted uneasily on the edge of the building, before taking a seat on the ledge. He sighed, "You know Scarlet Spider didn't do this, right?"
DeWolff shook her head, "I don't know what to think, to tell you the truth. The perp matches his description and power level. I trust you. I can trust him. But people are on edge, Spidey. People in the department are starting to wonder if the state of the world is starting to get to you."
Spider-Man shook his head incredulously. It had been a rough year for the superhero community. People were starting to tire of the constant collateral damage and danger that their fights brought. It weighed on Spidey as well. Sometimes he wondered if his very presence invivted super villains. But he knew he was needed, deep down. Even if he didn't feel like it sometimes.
"It wasn't him," Spidey was defiant. "I'll prove it, but I need some time to take care of that."
"I can try," DeWolff took one last drag of the cigarette and stamped the butt out with the heel of her shoe. "But like I say, we're getting nervous. Find this out soon. If there's another attack, we're not going to be able to keep Scarlet Spider off our list."
"Understood," Spider-Man stood and fired a webline. "Good talk."
As he swung away, DeWolff turned, wondering if she'd see him again in a friendly setting.
"So she didn't really give you much, huh?" MJ said as she placed the pizza box down on the coffee table. She grabbed a slice and sat herself next to him, putting her head on his shoulder. "They didn't know anything?"
"I didn't even have to ask," he replied before taking a big bite of his own slice. With his mouth full, he continued, "She said they thought M-w-iles was the one behind it. It's too much evidence, supposedly."
"So what's the next step?" Mary Jane tossed a pepperoni slice into her mouth before it fell to her plate. He smiled at her, as her eyes stayed transfixed on the TV as Parks and Rec played on Netflix. It was moments like this he loved the most.
"I guess I just keep up with my patrols and hope I catch up with whatever or whoever this is that's trying to frame Miles," he figured. It was all he could do, really. There were no leads on this person. All he knew was that they had similar powers as him, and dressed in black. It was Emo Peter Parker, shudder the thought. He'd have to get luckily with finding this person. Either that or wait for them to come to him.
MJ looked up and planted a kiss on his cheek, "Well, be careful."
"Always," he returned her kiss and leaned back into the couch.