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 Post subject: You Know My Name: A Tale of Gotham Nights PostPosted: 2008-01-17 08:27pm
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Bailamos

It was not the weather that seemed to cast a pall of gloom over the city; no, Gotham City never seemed to need the elements' help to achieve that effect. It seemed to have an atmosphere of desolation all its own, come rain or shine. Was it the city's distinct aesthetic — an eclectic blend of old Gothic cathedrals and Art Deco skyscrapers — or was it something more ephemeral? No one could say.

The sun dipped into the evening and the skies burned, a moody red and orange with just a hint of purple. A cold autumn wind was blowing, kicking up the litter that lay strewn on the streets. The streets seemed to empty themselves — and with good reason; it was not safe to walk the streets of Gotham after dark. There were things that went bump in the night.

A black Cadillac DTS limousine pulled off 34th Avenue into an Old Gotham parking lot and came to a halt. The chauffeur came about and opened the car door, bringing his heels together with a click as Oswald Cobblepot emerged from the aft compartment, donning his black silk top hat with a Churchillian scowl. Cobblepot was not a good-looking man; he was short and portly, with thinning black hair that had long-since receded from his forehead, a long aquiline nose and a somewhat peculiar gait that had often been uncharitably described as a waddle. It was with good reason he was known — near universally — as the Penguin.

His black umbrella — as permanent a fixture of his wardrobe as the monocle screwed into his right eye socket — tapped a steady rhythm as he walked toward the door, trailing two bodyguards. Another small group appeared at about the same time, led by a tall man in a striking black and white trenchcoat. Striking, because it was bifurcated down the middle: Black on the left, white on the right. Striking, but not as striking as the man's face, lean, flawless and handsome on the right, and hideously scarred on the left. If there was a good reason for Cobblepot's nom de guerre, there was an even better one for Harvey Dent's.

"Two-Face," the Penguin said, nodding in greeting. There was a peculiar bond among some of the more colorful elements of Gotham's criminal underground; a sort of thrawn camaraderie that united them. Some of them could even be described as friends.

"Gonna be a cold winter," Two-Face said, turning up his coat's collar. Even his leather gloves yielded to his obsession with duality. His black fedora wasn't bichromatic, but it did sport a white silk band, just for good measure.

"All the more reason to feather one's nest," answered the shorter man, drawing a long draught of smoke from the cigarette jutting from the long black holder fixed between his teeth.

Two-Face snorted and flipped the double-headed silver dollar in his right hand. He'd long ago mastered the skill of flipping it even while wearing gloves. A small victory for obsessive-compulsive disorder. He watched its gleaming, glittering flight and descent with rapt attention. What would it be? Virgin, whore? Compassion, cruelty? What face would justice wear? Pristine and merciful? Scarred and draconian? It always fascinated him, how Chance — the most impartial judge of all — could decide between civilization and barbarism. When you got down to it, after all, weren't they just two sides of the same coin?

"On the plains of hesitation lie the blackened bones of countless millions," the Penguin quoted, scowling again, "who at the dawn of victory lay down to rest, and in resting died."

Two-Face snorted. "Thank you, Adlai. What, no Shakespeare? 'Screw your courage to the sticking place and we'll not fail' too cliché?"

The Penguin's face seemed made to scowl. The cigarette holder made a soft clicking noise as it shifted from one side of his mouth to the other. He gestured to the door with his umbrella. By mutual agreement the two men moved forward, their bodyguards trailing behind a respectful distance. As he drew nearer to the door, it opened, a thin-mustachioed man in a cheap-looking suit stepping out to greet him. They were the last to arrive.

Inside the guests milled about uncomfortably, the smoke in the air almost as thick as the suspicion. Business in Gotham had settled down okay for the first six months or so after the war, but things were tense again and looking to get worse. The new capo di tutti capi — he'd actually insisted on using the title — had discovered that his grip on the business wasn't quite as solid as he'd thought. Sure, he'd absorbed the Odessa, the Escabedo Cartel, the Lucky Hand Triad, the Gotham Yakuza, and Scarface's syndicate, but despite what the media reported, that hardly made him the overlord of all Gotham organized crime. The Arañas (formerly the Latino Unified Gang), the Hill Gang, the Five Families, and the Burnley Town Massive remained outside of his control. And then there were the rather more dangerous outfits like those belonging to the Penguin, the Great White Shark, and Two-Face. Things could get ugly.

That was the purpose of this meeting. The most powerful crime lords still operating in the city had been invited to a conference to reach a settlement. Unlike last time, this one was very clearly arranged. There would be no repeat of the disaster that had brought about the war.

"Gents," said a rough voice in the accent of a 1930s movie gangster, "please follow me."

He was a familiar face to the few bosses who'd survived the war. A timid-looking man with thinning white hair and thick glasses, always dressed conservatively in a dark suit with a black bowtie, always holding a wooden puppet decked out in a blue zoot suit with a white fedora and a miniature Tommy gun. The man's name was Arnold Wesker, but his name wasn't what was really important. Wesker was a mediocre ventriloquist whose dissociative identity disorder was even more severe than Two-Face's; it was the dummy in his arms that really mattered. Called Scarface for reasons every bit as obvious as Two-Face's and Penguin's monikers — namely, the stylized scar running down the dummy's right cheek — , the Ventriloquist's fetish had long acted as boss of his own outfit. These days he was first lieutenant to the new boss of bosses.

The guests followed after him, leaving their bodyguards behind as they trailed into the handsomely appointed conference room. Scarface set the example by checking his Tommy gun at the door — miniature though it may be, there was no one present who kidded himself that it wouldn't put ten grams in you if you were on the business end. Two-Face shrugged and handed over both of his custom-made .45 automatics, one gleaming chrome with ivory finish, the other dull black with ebony. Nobody ever accused him of lacking style. The Penguin offered only a scowl when one of the doormen insisted on taking his umbrella. Plenty of men had gotten nasty surprises from the Penguin's favorite accessory.

"Welcome, gentlemen," said their host, Roman Sionis, seated at the head of the conference table. He had his chair pushed back with his feet up on the table, a cigar in his white-gloved hand, ash falling carelessly on the expensive carpet. Despite his wealth and power, he'd never been able to dispel the air of the thug that hung about him almost more stubbornly than the smoke. His suit was well-made, but something about him always made it look cheap, like he'd found it for a hundred dollars off the rack somewhere. He was quite possibly the only man in Gotham who could look at Harvey Dent and say how well he'd kept his looks. Sionis was so horrifically disfigured, so badly scarred and mutilated that most people thought his soubriquet "The Black Mask" referred to his face.

The chair to his right was empty, meant no doubt for Scarface and the Ventriloquist. To his left was seated his second lieutenant, Alexandra Kosov, the former head of the Russians' Odessa Mob; she'd been the first boss to join the Black Mask during the war. Her rank relative to Scarface was a matter of seniority, not a question of ruthlessness or power. She may have been a relative newcomer to the big table, but she'd more than shown in the past year that she was ready and able to play in the big leagues — even if her jeweled false eye and expensive business suit were not quite as exotic as some of Gotham's more colorful criminals.

Seated next to Kosov, hands steepled in front of him and grinning like a Cheshire cat, was Black Mask's chief enforcer, the ill-favored Jervis Tetch, dressed as always in a strangely proportioned top coat and oversized bowtie. From his large teeth thrust forward by his prominent overbite to his broad, beaklike nose, to his sandy, unruly hair, to his black top hat pinned with a large note marked "10/6," Tetch looked every inch the Mad Hatter. The fact that he was both psychotic and the Eastern seaboard's foremost master of mind control did nothing to dispel the air of bizarre menace about him.

Only one bodyguard stood in the room, near the curtained windows, a tall man with a thick mustache.

"Please, please, have a seat," said the Black Mask, his voice like fingernails on a chalk board. The damage to his lips and throat had left him unpleasant to hear as well as to see. "I bet you all know precisely why I've invited you here, so let's cut to the chase, eh? Nobody here wants another war. War is bad for business. Every soldier out fighting is a soldier not attending to business. Loss of revenues. Nasty. But I don't have to tell you boys that, do I?"

He was gloating. Reminding everyone who'd come out the big winner in the last war, reminding everyone of the loss of people, the loss of property, the loss of money. The Black Mask had lost nothing at all in the war, and quite a few of his guests were the third or fourth to take over their outfits since the war had started.

The meeting continued in much the same vein. The host went down each side of the table, reminded each of his guests of his or her vulnerabilities. Nobody wanted a war, after all. He pointed out the advantages of rearranging their affairs. It wasn't so much a meeting as it was a sales pitch, and even that with a certain unstated threat behind it.

The Penguin glanced at his pocket watch and grunted. The Black Mask turned, annoyed. "Am I boring you, Cobblepot?"

"My dear fellow," the Penguin said languidly, pausing to draw a long draught from his cigarette and exhaling leisurely, "your amateurish antics have been boring me since you last reared your ugly head yet again."

"What the hell did you just to me, fat man?" Black Mask's mangled lips drew back into a snarl. "I'll have your guts for garters for that, you old — " He reached under the table to grab for the pistol he'd hidden there —

— and found nothing. "What the hell?"

"A conference," Two-Face snorted. "To iron out our differences. Not another power grab at all."

"My little girl died in the war," said one of the other bosses, the head of the Five Families. "And you really think I'm going to sit here and listen to you threaten me again?"

"Nobody threatens Mr. Scarface and gets away with it," added the supposedly faithful Ventriloquist, a frown on his face. .

The Black Mask was no fool; he knew the look of a plot when he saw one. So Scarface was a traitor, was he? Well, that was fine. The Black Mask knew how to deal with traitors. "So that's how you boys want to play it, eh? Fine by me — " he looked at his enforcer and snapped.

The Mad Hatter grinned at him. "Oh, I've got something special in store for tonight," he said. "I arranged with our friend in Arkham to let our last guest come join the party."

The Black Mask frowned. He hadn't told the Hatter to arrange any deals with the Great White Shark. Nobody was supposed to come out of Arkham; he liked keeping those lunatics in their padded cells where they stayed out of his way. Unless...

... unless the Mad Hatter was a traitor, too.

"Will you, won't you," the Mad Hatter said loudly in a sing-song voice. "Will you, won't you? Will you, won't you — "

Somebody started laughing, a low noise that changed timbre as it grew louder. The bodyguard near the window made a gargling noise and slumped to the ground as the laughter's owner stepped out from behind the curtain. His clothes were clearly tailor-made, cut along classic lines from expensive material but colored in a jarring mishmash of purple, orange, and blue, giving the whole ensemble a kind of bizarre elegance. His skin was chalk white, his hair green, his eyes coal-black and cruel; his ruby lips twisted into a rictus grin as he fixed the Black Mask with a predatory glare.

"— won't you join the dance?"



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world

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 Post subject:  PostPosted: 2008-01-18 11:39am
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EDIT: Thanks to Lonestar for suggesting the chapter title.

--------

Chapter Two: Paint It Black

Tim Drake should have been at home finishing up his term paper on Douglas MacArthur's five years as American shōgun of postwar Japan. It was not customary for a boy his age to don cape and costume and crawl along rooftops at night as a masked vigilante, certainly not on a school night. But the cape-and-cowl routine had become such an established part of his life that Tim no longer gave it much thought; he had grown accustomed to functioning (or rather, attempting to function) on only a scant few hours' sleep a night. It barely even registered to him that he was dressed somewhat madly in a black cape, a red cuirass and green leggings with a domino mask. Occasionally he wondered whether his nom de guerre came from the literal red-breasted robin, or after the bandit hero Robin Hood. Strangely enough, he'd never thought to ask.

Once upon a time he'd lived a normal life. Well, a kind of normal. His father was a well-known archaeologist... of sorts. A somewhat less athletic, less exotic version of Dr. Henry Jones (one of the first men to have proven that truth quite often is stranger than fiction). Perhaps normal was a bit of a strong word. But his life had been forever changed that day his parents had taken him to the circus, that horrible day he'd seen the amazing Flying Graysons plummet to their deaths... that day he'd first set eyes on the Dark Knight of Gotham. The day he'd first seen the Batman.

Ever since that chance sighting, Tim had been fascinated by superheroes; he'd devoured every book the library had on the subject by the time he was ten. From the amazing exploits of Henry Jones and Clark Savage it had been a short leap to the thrilling true stories of the men of mystery like the Shadow, the Spider, the Green Hornet, the Crimson Avenger, the Sandman, the Phantom... It had seemed unfair to his childish mind that New York City had practically had a surplus while poor crime-riddled Gotham City had only had one or two. Gotham's only famous man of mystery was the Grey Ghost — and he was a fictional character, not even based on a true story like Zorro had been. I

His excitement had been virtually impossible to contain when he'd heard the stories that the "urban legend" had taken on a protégé, the daredevil Robin, the Boy Wonder; there were no words for how he'd felt when he'd seen video footage of Robin performing a quadruple somersault maneuver that reportedly only three people in the world could do (one of the little bits of obscure trivia that he hoarded like a miser with gold). From there it had been a matter of detective-work-by-numbers to identify Robin with the similarly-aged and raven-haired Dick Grayson, sole survivor of the Flying Graysons and ward of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. In retrospect, it was almost a rehash of old Diego de la Vega and Percy Blakeney. One of the oldest ones in the book, and somehow it never got old.

It was this bit of detective work that had eventually earned him the right to don the domino mask after Dick Grayson had moved on to become Nightwing. Just imagine! Not too long before it had been his boyhood fantasy to be Robin, to leap rooftops fighting evildoers alongside the Caped Crusader. And then there he was, for real. His childhood idol had become the big brother he'd never had. The Dark Knight had become his mentor. It was like a dream come true.

Of course, it wasn't all fun and games. He'd become Robin after his immediate predecessor, a street urchin named Jason Todd, had been murdered by Gotham's deadliest rogue. His own mother had been poisoned and died; his father had been confined to a wheelchair. He'd seen more death and violence than most career soldiers. And that was before this past year, before even more deaths... two of his closest friends, Connor and Bart... his father... and even —

Tim cleared his throat. He tried not to think about it. At least his friends and his father had, at least, died quickly. Relatively painlessly. Not like... not like she had. Bruce had been mercifully vague about the specific details. By the time he'd seen her body, she'd already been prepared for the viewing. The bruises and cuts had been disguised; the morticians had contrived to restore the face he'd adored. Laying in the casket, she'd been beautiful. Her short blonde hair and fair skin were flawless. But there was no mistaking that lifeless shell for the girl he'd fallen in love with. The tranquil expression on her face wasn't the real Stephanie; and though Bruce's money had bought her a dignified repose it couldn't erase the knowledge that she had been brutally tortured by the Black Mask, that she had suffered agonies he could scarcely imagine.

Stephanie Brown had been his girlfriend for years. Like Tim, she'd been a masked vigilante, calling herself the Spoiler. She lacked the training and equipment that Bruce had afforded Tim, but she was strong, stubborn, and enthusiastic. She'd done all right for herself, built up a solid reputation on her own turf, over by the North End stretching into Widowstone Creek. Nothing remotely as formidable as Bruce or Dick or even Catwoman, but respectable for a self-trained high school girl. She'd even supplied her own costume; Tim grinned every time he thought about her never-ending campaign to convince people that it was eggplant, not purple ("Purple would've looked stupid," she'd insisted). She'd been — Oh, God. He couldn't do this. He couldn't think about her. It hurt so much. Thank God almighty Bruce hadn't put up a trophy case for her in the Batcave. Tim didn't think he could've taken seeing her uniform every time he was there. One of Bruce's rare concessions to human sentiment.

He glanced at the sun dipping beneath the horizon, burning the sky a moody red and orange with just a hint of... just a hint of purple. God. Eggplant, he thought to himself, swallowing hard.

"Twelve o'clock," said one of the shadows. Thank God. Tim had never been more grateful for Bruce's obsession with sneaking up on people. Thankful for the interruption to his train of thought, Tim raised his miniature binoculars to his eyes and scanned the streets in the direction suggested. Everything looked clear; very likely the worsening weather had driven all the casual skels indoors. Not that he blamed them; it wasn't exactly comfortable out.

"I don't see anything."

"On top of the warehouse. Investigate and report back to me."

Tim took no offense at the brusqueness of the order. That was simply how Bruce was when he was wearing the cowl; everything about him changed, from the way he stood to the way he spoke, even down to his voice, a harsh noise somewhere between a growl and a stage whisper. The Batman persona was not supposed to be pleasant or friendly; it was supposed to terrify criminals, whom Bruce had always considered to be a cowardly and superstitious lot. Nobody had ever doubted its effectiveness — he even intimidated other good guys.

Tim moved out, just as Bruce had trained him; quick, quiet, methodical. There was a quiet whuff of compressed gas as his grapnel gun went to work, and Tim efficiently made his way across the rooftops with ease that came from many, many nights of practice. It would have been amazing, how easily he did this sort of thing these days. Would have been, had he actually thought about it. Bruce considered that you weren't properly trained on something until you could do it perfectly while exhausted and disoriented. His exacting standards had literally saved Tim's life on more than one occasion.

"Oh, Jesus..." Tim breathed as he arrived at the rooftop. Even for someone who'd seen as much as he had, it was...

The Black Mask had seen better days.

He was a coughing, wheezing mess. His suit was in tatters, leaving more than half of his body exposed to the elements. The skin and some of the muscle on his left hand had been torn off leaving bone exposed, and his right hand had been left a scorched remnant with third degree burns all the way up to the shoulder. His left leg was missing below the knee, and some of his ribs had punctured through his chest; his skin was broken, bruised, and bloody. Based on the way his blood was smeared on the rooftop, it looked as though he'd been dragging himself along somehow. His already disfigured face was twisted into a rictus grin, and there was a strange quality to his wheezing, almost as if...

...almost as if he were laughing.

"Batman," Tim reported into his throat-mic, "it's Black Mask. Massive polytrauma, critical condition. He's been exposed to Smilex." The so-called Clown Prince of Crime's signature toxin induced increasingly painful fits of laughter as it progressively shut down heart and brain functions, and resulted in a characteristic contortion of facial muscles into a death's-head grin. A horrible way to die; nobody knew how many victims had succumbed to Smilex in the long and infamous career of Gotham's most notorious criminal. The mass-murdering psychopath had a known body count in the quadruple digits — including Jason Todd, the second Robin — , and was reckoned to be the most prolific serial killer in North American history.

Tim was amazed to discover he felt absolutely no sympathy for the latest victim to join that number.

Black Mask was wanted in connection with more than a hundred murders; his gangland dealings had destroyed God only knew how many lives. But one of his crimes stood out in Tim's memory. Black Mask had tortured and murdered a blonde girl who insisted her uniform was eggplant.

"I'm on my way," came the response, a hint of urgency in the raspy voice. Bruce knew the rage and pain that came with the loss of a loved one. He knew the lust for revenge.

Movement. Thinking it was Batman, Tim didn't turn. That was a mistake; the blow caught him across the back of the head and carried him off his feet. He rolled into the fall and came back up in a crouch, and looked up in time to see a figure dressed in a black bodysuit not very different from those the family used; like the family, he was wearing a utility belt festooned with pouches, with the addition of a Sam Browne belt and a dark red hooded cloak. Whoever he was, he was well-trained, that much was clear — Tim had barely heard him before the attack, which meant he was certainly no amateur. Tim brought his telescoping bo staff up just in time to deflect a volley of three shuriken, and was surprised to find that his adversary nimbly leapt over a swipe of his staff. His surprise was compounded by the other man's speed; a right hook that felt like a bowling ball connected with his jaw and took him down.

Tim had been in far more than his fair share of fights, but not too many people had ever hit quite like that. Before he had a chance to get up, the other man turned and drew a wakizashi from a scabbard hidden somewhere within his cloak and skewered the Black Mask cleanly through the left eye before pulling the blade up and away; given the design of the cutting edge, this pulling motion sliced the top of the gangster's head in half. His work accomplished, the figure in the red hood dropped a smoke capsule and beat a retreat from the scene. It had all happened so fast that it was over before Batman had arrived.

"Robin!" he hissed. "What happened here?"

Tim shook his head to clear it; that had really been some roundhouse right he'd taken. "I think Red Riding Hood just killed the big, bad wolf," he managed.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


Last edited by Publius on 2008-01-25 09:07pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Chapter Three: The Worst That Could Happen

The office was surprisingly small for a man of his position. Most people expected that the Commissioner of Police rated something more... well, bigger, more impressive. He was, after all, head of a professional police force of over thirty five thousand officers — the GCPD yielded nothing to the NYPD in size, if not in funding. A dozen years ago that had actually been the case. And even if not for the size, the office was certainly not one would expect from one of the city's senior officers; maps and files were scattered everywhere, and the desk had not been clear in more than five years. That, too, had not been the case in the days of Loeb and Grogan. But then, they'd bought their peace of mind with bribe money. When Jim Gordon had taken the job as commissioner, he'd cannibalized the executive office suite into working space and relocated himself to a much more modest office in the corner of the top floor of Gotham Central. Few people realized at the time that he'd made the move not just out of pragmatism — and he really didn't see the point in having a huge office — but also for its proximity to the service stairwell leading to the roof. He'd found a use for the antiquated Klieg searchlight permanently mounted atop the building twenty-five years before.

Gordon was still at his desk, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour. A styrofoam cup half-full of day-old coffee was perched at arm's reach, next to more than a dozen of its brethren. Thankfully, the unceremonious killing of Black Mask had not resulted in another war. That didn't mean the gangsters weren't keeping him at his desk twelve hours a day, in addition to the usual deluge of felonies and misdemeanors that were Gotham's statistical claim to fame. 'Show me a man in Gotham with no police record,' went the old saying, 'and I'll show you a Metropolitan on an hour layover at the airport.' To say nothing of the traditional seasonal gesture of recidivism — Victor Fries had escaped from Arkham. Again. The revolving door. What was it Doodlebug had spray-painted on the monument that one time? 'Gone to Arkham,' he'd written. 'Be back after lunch.'

It wasn't that Jeremiah Arkham was bad at his job, you understand; God knew the man was doing the best he could with the limited funding he had. The General Court seemed to think that the exorbitent cost of keeping Gotham's worst under wraps in the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane was an engraved invitation to slash the budget. Damned penny-pinchers never seemed to understand the correlation between Arkham's dwindling budget and Gotham's ballooning crime rate. Rocket science, apparently. They'd even seen indications that some of the staff at Arkham were on the dole, working for mass-fraudster Warren "Great White Shark" White, who'd quickly carved a niche for himself as yet another of Gotham's mob bosses, from inside Arkham, no less. Of course, nobody was willing to work with the GCPD to prove it. The only stoolies had been rubbed out by a hitman calling himself the Tally Man. No proof the Great White had been involved. Of course. What did you expect from a city that had acquitted the so-called "aristocrat of crime" Oswald Cobblepot more times than he could count?

Wesker was out free and clear. They'd have to round up another string of witnesses to testify against him before they could send him back to Arkham. Hadn't had much luck there lately; apparently he'd been having a good run at bringing back omertà. The Scarecrow, Dr. Death, and Poison Ivy were locked up tight in solitary confinement, thank God. Mr. Freeze and the Mad Hatter were on the loose; nobody knew what precisely had become of Killer Croc after the gang war. Gordon had seen enough "missing, presumed dead" men turn up to wreak more havoc that he'd issued a policy directive that until and unless an autopsy report was on file, all perps were "at large, presumed armed and dangerous."

Fortunately the coroner had been very, very clear that Roman "Black Mask" Sionis was very, very dead. Cause of death, puncture wound directly to the brain. Even had his head not been cleaved nearly in half, it was a toss up whether he'd have died of the massive polytrauma, loss of blood, or lethal Smilex overdose.

Smilex. Gordon removed his glasses and rubbed tiredly at his eyes. Part of him wished there'd be another gang war so he wouldn't have to deal with this.

The Joker was loose in Gotham City.

Nobody knew who he was, not really. His fingerprints had been burned away somehow, probably by chemical treatment. His biometric records matched no one in any police database, up to and including the FBI and INTERPOL. He spent most of his time in police custody in a state of near-catatonia, unless he was up to something — then the bastard could be whatever the situation called for. Maudlin? Sure. Witty? Absolutely. Charming? Plenty of women had fallen in love with the lunatic. Including his psychiatrist. But most of all, he was a killer. The worst serial killer in known history. A grinning, guffawing, clown-faced angel of death. Once every couple of years he'd escape from maximum security detention and carve a bloody swathe through Gotham, a killing machine that mocked everything decent and good. Hideous as it sounded, Gordon counted the city as lucky if the Joker only killed a few dozen people before being captured again. God knew the lunatic was capable of so much worse. He'd once nearly killed the entire UN General Assembly. Hell, he'd once nearly wiped out all of Gotham City.

It was the Joker that had shot Gordon's daughter in the spine, crippling her for life. And it was the Joker that had shot and killed Gordon's second wife, Sarah. When Jim Gordon had nightmares, they wore the garb and grin of that white-faced horror. If ever there'd been a reason to bring back the death penalty....

"I've heard about Mr. Freeze," came a granite stage whisper, startling Gordon into looking up. One of the shadows was alive.

"Oh. It's you." Gordon sighed. He hadn't even heard his visitor opening the window from the outside. "Freeze isn't really a priority with the Joker at large."

"Agreed. I'm bringing Nightwing up from Blüdhaven for additional muscle."

"That boy's a grown up now, old friend, he's got his own problems to take care of," Gordon said, thinking of how things had turned out with his own daughter. "You can't keep him at your beck and call forever."

"He's a good soldier," the shadow replied. Coming from him, that was high praise indeed. Just a hint of paternal pride in the way he said it. Still, his tone of voice when he'd said it had also made it clear this wasn't something he particularly wanted to talk about.

Gordon replaced his glasses and leaned back into his chair, exhausted by the long day's work. "No sign of him, not since the bank on 3rd and Grand. Interrupted a robbery in progress, stabbed all three robbers to death and then gassed the place. Ten civilian fatalities."

"I located one of his Smilex stockpiles." He placed a typewritten index card on Gordon's desk and retreated back into the shadows. "I've disarmed the booby traps. It's safe to send in MCU to dispose of it."

"I'll have them get right on it." He paused and brought his chair back to the upright position. "Listen — "

"I've ordered Robin and Batgirl to steer clear," he interrupted. They both had reason to be fearful for the children; the Joker had already killed one Robin and crippled a Batgirl. "Standard procedure."

"Right." Gordon nodded. "Meanwhile, it looks like a power struggle's brewing in Black Mask's syndicate. Scarface and Kosov have reached a modus vivendi, but it's anyone's guess how long that'll last."

"The Joker didn't escape from Arkham, Jim," the shadow said. "He was released."

"Right, but by whom? And why? Misdirection to cover for a power grab? The timing's certainly right for it. But then who was this guy in red, this 'Red Riding Hood' character your boy Robin says actually killed Black Mask? And who in his right mind would try to use the Joker, anyway?"

"Someone not in his right mind," the shadow said. "Both the Riddler and the Penguin have done it, several times."

"Penguin certainly stands to gain from Black Mask's death. We've been trying to keep an eye on him anyway, but you know how slippery he is. Riddler's locked up in Blackgate," Gordon answered. "I know it's possible to plan scores from inside; Cluemaster Brown did it, and he's not half the skel Nigma is. I had the Chief call down and move him to a new cell, with additional security."

Edward Nigma, alias the Riddler, was one of the smartest men in North America and one of city's most skilled robbers. And to make matters worse, his heists inevitably involved very public humiliation of the GCPD. It was tempting to take him lightly, since he wasn't much of a killer and certainly not as dangerous as a walking WMD like Mr. Freeze or the Joker. In fact, his reputation as a lightweight was one of the reasons he'd become one of the most successful thieves in the Eastern seaboard.

Gordon grunted. "You know, with the salary that comes with this job, a lot of people can't understand why it's so hard to find someone willing to take it. There's never a shortage of would-be commissioners in New York, sure, but what's the worst they deal with? They haven't had problems like this since the '40s. Here we've got nightmares like the Joker, Bane, Scarecrow, Dr. Death, Hush, Rā's al — "

And he stopped abruptly, smiled ruefully, and shook his head. The shadows were silent. He was talking to himself.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world

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Thanks to Lonestar for the title of this chapter.

--------

Chapter 4: Sharp Dressed Man

It had been two weeks since the death of Black Mask. Two long weeks; with the Joker on the loose, Gotham had taken on the air of a city under siege. It was nothing new for the beleaguered denizens of America's most ill-favored metropolis; long years of crime and misfortune had left Gothamites with a certain grim fatalism seldom found outside war zones. Once there had been a time when simple mobsters had ruled the streets. That was in the old days. The days before the appearance of the man who laughs. The days before the Long Halloween and the fall of the Roman's empire. The days before the rise of the freaks.

One of the upshots to the Joker's latest killing spree was that it helped to keep a damper on things in the powder keg that was Gotham's mob scene. The Clown Prince of Crime had little sense of discrimination when picking his victims; he'd murder goombas as happily as coppers. Nobody wanted to have to go to the mattresses and worry about the Joker. So instead, the maneuvering was much more low key, much subtler. It was still there, of course; the boss of bosses' chair was empty, and there were plenty of candidates who had in mind to fill it. Nor wind nor sleet nor snow nor psychopath would stop that.

The odd thing about it was that two years ago the situation wouldn't have even existed.

Gotham's organized crime scene had long been atomized; there was no overall boss of bosses, hadn't been since the death of Alphonse "Big Boy" Caprice back in the late '30s. The closest anyone had come since then had been the power-sharing agreement between Carmine "The Roman" Falcone and Salvatore "The Boss" Maroni — and that had been brought to an end by their deaths in the Long Halloween thirteen years ago. There had been one serious attempt by corrupt businesswoman Celia "Athena" Kazantkakis to quietly take control of Gotham — she had even succeeded in having herself appointed CEO of Wayne Enterprises — before her Network was dismantled by coordinated action of the whole family. Black Mask had been the first to truly succeed where all others after Big Boy Caprice had failed, albeit briefly. He had filled a much-needed vacuum, if the expression could be pardoned.

Now he was gone, and there were quite a few parties grooming themselves to take his place.

Bruce had decreed that Tim was to focus on monitoring the situation with the mobsters and stay away from the Joker; he and Dick, his first and greatest protégé, would handle that case. There was no surprise there; it was Bruce's SOP that "journeymen crimefighters" — as though the family were some kind of tradesman's guild — were hands-off when the Joker was loose. Tim didn't exactly mind being quarantined; he'd dealt with the Ace of Knaves once when Batman had been... indisposed... and was not eager to repeat the experience. Certainly his predecessor as the Boy Wonder had not been so fortunate in his own encounter. There was a granite headstone and a glass monument case to attest to that.

Tim raised his binoculars to his eyes and scoped the scene. Your basic handoff scenario here, the goods being moved from production to the distributor. Nothing terribly complicated. In the past three and a half years he'd handled this kind of thing with roughly the same kind of regularity that other kids his age had handled varsity basketball practice. Nothing weird about that.

It was far too dangerous to leap into action without first reconnoitering the situation, especially for a youth like Tim; he lacked both Bruce's raw physical strength and Dick's inhuman agility. Unlike the family "masters," Tim could not rely on his superior athleticism to overwhelm adversaries; while he was no slouch as a martial artist, the fact remained that he was a seventeen-year-old kid. He had greater need for careful preparation and tactical planning than they did. No surprise there; Bruce had been donning cape and cowl almost as long as Tim had been alive.

One of Sūn Zĭ's rules of war was to know the terrain; it was also Tim's first rule of engagement. Barring a life-or-death scenario, he never initiated action without reconnoitering the scene first, identifying fields of fire and possible cover. It made it possible for him to herd skels into disadvantageous positions without them realizing what he was doing. It also enabled him to plan his attack ahead of time, striking when they did not expect it (another of Sūn Zĭ's prescriptions, as it happened). Rule number two was to hit hard and fast, take advantage of surprise to break the skels' decision loop and take them out before they had a chance to regain control of the situation.

The fact that he only entered a fight after he'd already planned how to win it meant that he was rarely in the combat zone for more than a few minutes. The swiftness of it meant that the skels rarely had a chance to see him clearly, to size him up; more often than not, they didn't know what hit them. They'd wake up in police custody, with only a vague awareness of having encountered... something... that had caught them by surprise. It fed the urban legend, and kept their kind afraid. It also kept Tim alive. The way he saw it, it was a win-win scenario.

He scoped the terrain, he scoped the players. Dick liked to refer to it as Tim's 'crunching the numbers' routine. It was not altogether inaccurate, but it would be more accurate to call it 'counting cards.' Tim wasn't exactly a sporting pugilist; he liked to be sure the deck was stacked heavily in his favor.

Once he had balanced the figures to his satisfaction, Tim went to work.

A pair of Bird-a-rangs intersected at high speed with the two most dangerous-looking skels' faces, catching them hard between the eyes, followed closely by two flash-bangs and two smoke capsules. Hit them hard, hit them fast. Give them no chance to react. Break the decision loop.

A telescoping bo staff connected with a man's jaw. Another Bird-a-rang flew straight and true. If it were a dance, it were strictly ballroom. Everything by the numbers.

He could have sworn he almost heard the record scratch.

"Oh, sh—! He's wearing red!"

"Shoot him! Shoot him!"

Shots rang out, as shots were wont to do. Ten grams whistled past his ear as he dived behind one of the cars. The skels, confused, frightened, panicked, continued firing. There was a heavy thud as one of them caught a stray in the shoulder and dropped to his knees.

Since when did I get a rep like this? Tim wondered, readying another pair of gas capsules. Not even Bruce provoked such a panicked, mindless response, not generally. Strange.

But there was no time to dwell on the matter. The idiots were still shooting, and someone could get seriously hurt, even killed. Tim finished a secondary reconnaissance of the scenario and mutatis mutandis, finished his work. Hit them fast. By the numbers.

One of them was still conscious. Mr. Zzz. A hulking ox of a man. Professional henchperson. Rap sheet that read like a Who's Who of Gotham crime. Two-Face. The Ventriloquist. The Scarecrow. Dr. Death. Certainly not a made man. Probably on the distribution side of things. Hired muscle. That was his M.O., anyway.

He'd taken ten grams to the shoulder. He was applying pressure to the wound with his good hand, a scowl on his face. He looked a bit like the Penguin like that. He grunted as Tim knelt and began to apply first aid. Number one cause of death in gunshot injuries was desanguination. All gunshots were medical emergencies. Tim had already used the comm suite in his belt to summon the police and an ambulance. He only had to keep Zzz from going into shock long enough for first-responders to arriv — and then it was back into the all-concealing shadows.

"Zzzugh," Zzz said. Something like a smile ghosted across his thick lips.

"What?" Tim's 'working voice' wasn't nearly as effective as Batman's death-rattle rasp or Nightwing's mellifluence, but the voice distorter built into the gorget helped.

The skel chuckled softly, and grimaced at the movement. "Zzz gld 'z yw," he said. "Wrung hudde. Rbn hudde vzz rd riddin hudde. Heh. Mm mzzztik."

That was all Tim got from him before it was time to leave. Mr. Zzz was notoriously difficult to understand. Now he knew what Sam Catchum felt like, bringing Mumbles in for questioning. He keyed his throat-mic and called in for cerebral artillery.

"Go ahead, R," came the feminine voice over a secure channel. Oracle. Once Barbara Gordon had donned a cape and cowl as Batgirl, second member of the family. She'd been good, but there was no denying that her true asset was her formidable intellect. 'Brain-fu,' as Tim and Dick jokingly referred to it.

She didn't crawl rooftops anymore. A chance encounter with the Clown Prince of Crime had seen to that. It had seen to a number of others things, too. Like part of her spine.

"Has anyone else had a problem with ridiculous overreaction lately?"

"This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with shots fired at Kane and West 66th, would it?"

Tim made a face, half-suspecting she knew he was making it. "They seemed pretty freaked out to see me. Any idea why I'm suddenly the terror that flaps in the night?"

"Could be related to the increase in gangland killings lately."

"I've only heard about disappearances so far." He frowned. Bruce and Dick were better at scouting out what skels were talking about than he was. Partially because they could don disguises that would let them hang out in bars. Between the two of them, they accounted for roughly a dozen professional henchmen in Gotham City alone. "About standard for low-level jockeying for position, what with Black Mask's death."

Wait a minute, Tim thought suddenly. Of course.

"Wait, O," he said. "One of them said I was wearing red."

Of course.

Tim remembered reading that one of the old school New York private eyes, Archie Goodwin, had become adept at repeating lengthy conversations word for word, and that this skill had helped him catch details later on that he hadn't caught the first time around. It was a neat trick, and one he'd spent years developing.

Mr. Zzz had been saying something to him. 'Zzz gld 'z yw.' Allowing for his characteristic slur and the shock of gunshot trauma, that could be pretty reasonably taken for So glad it's you. 'Mm mzzztik.' My mistake. They'd seen red and mistaken him for someone else. And what had he said then? 'Wrung hudde.' Wrong hood.

"I think I've got it," he said aloud, half as much to himself as to Babs. "Mr. Zzz said something before the police arrived."

'Rbn hudde vzz rd riddin hudde.'

He'd called Tim Robin Hood.

"O, I think I know who our gangland killer is."



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


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Chapter Five: The Sound of Silence

Time passed. The snows came. Still the hunt for the Clown Prince of Crime went on.

Tim watched as each passing day the obsessive need to find the mass-murdering clown gnawed away at the Dark Knight, a cancerous tumor that grew and grew, disrupting his life ever more. He rarely remembered to shave more than once a week; Bruce Wayne the billionaire playboy went into another of his bouts of seclusion. The bodies were piling up, and still Batman and Nightwing were unable to put a stop to it. It was easy, Tim knew, for people to take for granted that Batman would catch the Joker. After all, he always did, right? It made it far too easy to forget that the lunatic was a criminal genius, and perfectly capable of laying low for months on end between murderous sprees.

Still, he refused to allow Tim to get involved. Which was fine, actually — Tim had problems of his own to keep him busy.

The gangland killings had gone on unabated. Whereas earlier the trend had been subtle enough for him to miss it, it was clear enough now. Red Riding Hood — for lack of a better name — had gone after the organized crime syndicates systematically and with clinical precision. Underbosses and capos had been particularly hardest hit; tactically, it was equivalent to sending a sniper after the enemy's field grade officers.

No war had broken out, after all. The lower and mid-level crooks were too busy worrying about getting killed to give much thought to the power struggle, while the bosses continued their quiet maneuvering. The usual suspects were still at it, with a new addition: a tough, no-nonsense Kurd named Omar Salih, whom the street toughs had taken to calling 'The Mullah.' Privately, Tim wondered where they'd gotten the word.

Tracking Red Riding Hood had proven next to impossible. Whoever he was, wherever he'd trained, he was good. It was like trying to track one of the family. He wasn't great at swing-lining — the fact that he had a grapnel gun at all was interesting in and of itself — but he was fast, and his roofcrawling was as good as Tim's, if not better. Not to mention he'd turned out to be far more difficult to predict than Tim would have ever imagined; his success ratio at anticipating the Masked Red Death was only recently as good as one out of six. Not good.

So here he was, on a Thursday night, perched atop the Sprang Mission in the East End, hoping he'd get lucky. Salih's men had recently started up a protection racket in the neighborhood, which had run afoul of Catwoman, the East End's self-appointed protectress. Word on the street was that the Mullah himself had put a serious hurt on the Feline Fatale. The fact that he'd been man enough to lead from the front went a long way toward solidifying his rep, especially in Gotham. The days of the mob boss who never, ever got involved on the street level were long over. Sometimes a man had to get his hands dirty, especially if he wanted to compete with the likes of Two-Face, the Joker, and their ilk.

Movement. Behind him. Tim reacted, almost too slowly; but Bruce had trained him well, and he was not caught by surprise. His brain kicked into analysis mode instantly. Strange. Red Riding Hood never came after him.

An instant later, he knew his mistake.

This was not Red Riding Hood.

His assailant wore a brown trenchcoat, nondescript. There must be a million of them in Gotham alone. He was built like a tank, a stout man with a grip like a steel vice. Medical bandages covered his face.

Hush.

A man motivated entirely by hate. Hate for his once and former friend, Bruce Wayne — the Batman. Once he had nearly brought Bruce to utter ruin with a web of deceit and manipulation. But then his schemes had been masterminded by the Riddler, a genius; the man himself was far from capable of such artifice by himself. And so he had turned to a less elegant but equally effective method of hurting his enemy.

Striking at those dear to him.

"Youths are in a condition like permanent intoxication," he whispered, attacking savagely. He moved like a panther, his speed fueled by seething rage. Tim was more than a match for most men, but Hush was no ordinary man. "For youth is sweet, and they are growing."

It was, perhaps, inevitable. From the moment the encounter had begun, Tim had been on the defensive. There was only so much he could do to evade the other man's grasp, and once that steely grip locked around his throat, Tim was in serious trouble. The reinforced gorget of his cloak pressed tightly against his larynx. Seconds passed. He could feel the oxygen starvation begin to kick in. Dimly, he heard Hush begin another line from Aristotle — intellectual pretentiousness; the man felt a compulsion to advertise his refinement — when abruptly he heard something else.

It sounded like cloth tearing.

The grip loosened and Tim dropped to the floor abruptly. Hush had turned now, and Tim could see he'd been slashed across the back; a shallow wound, but still enough to make him bleed.

The new assailant crouched low, a short blade held at the ready. He wore a black bodysuit, a utility belt and Sam Browne, and a blood-colored cloak.

Red Riding Hood.

Hush wasted no time. It had been a mistake to slash at him rather than stab him; at their current range, there was nothing at all keeping him from using his deadliest skill: Marksmanship. Twin automatics appeared from within his trenchcoat, and gave utterence to their thunderous voices. Tim made his way to his feet and deployed his telescoping bo staff, snapping it across the back of Hush's kneecap with such force he could hear the crunch of things that shouldn't.

Hush turned and fired at him, but the abrupt shift in his balance sent the shot wide. Tim alone may not have been a match for him, but faced with the combination of bo staff and wakizashi, the bandaged man was in trouble. He was at a further disadvantage: Tim had far more experience at rooftop encounters, and the typical topography of Gotham rooftops suited the prepared combatant. A maze of pipes, chimneys, and ventilation machinery provided him the cover he needed to rob the marksman of his advantage at range.

Still, it wouldn't due to underestimate him, even if he were superficially injured. Hush was a formidable adversary in any state; his twin .45s were perfectly capable of putting an end to Tim Drake regardless of the state of his back or kneecap. The rapid bursts of thunder were doing a fine job of keeping the Boy Wonder and the Masked Red Death at bay, even if they did have an advantage: Hush had to run out of bullets some time.

Strange. Why had the Hood saved him? Up to this point, he'd only turned up long enough to kill someone. Then again, all of his victims were gangsters. Was the Hood an overzealous vigilante? Hardly unprecedented. There was the Spider and the Reaper, after all; even the Shadow had killed, and he had been Bruce's biggest inspiration.

The report of the twin automatics was growing sporadic. Tim edged around to get a look, drawing a cornerview device from his utility belt and putting it to use. There he was, breathing heavily and moving sluggishly, listing to his right (no doubt in compensation for the injury to his left knee). Not surprising; the encounter had now run to nearly twenty minutes, and the adrenaline was starting to give way to fatigue. Still, a man in Hush's physical condition shouldn't have been quite that winded...

Wait. That wasn't the breathing of a man merely winded... That was dyspnea.

Red Riding Hood was drawing closer now, blade at the ready. It was the first time Tim had had a chance to get a good look at him. The bodysuit and mask concealed every inch of skin, and the cloak did a good job at concealing body language. Still, he could see the Masked Red Death was built more slightly than he'd thought; now that he saw him standing rather than crouching or running, it became clear that he was only slightly taller than Tim himself.

"Stop right there," Tim said, stepping around the corner, a razor-edged Batarang at the ready. "You're not killing him."

There was something strange about the Hood's aspect as he tilted his head. "Of course I am," he said — first time Tim had heard him speak; a harsh rasp that seemed incongruous with the man's lithe build (a voice distorter, perhaps?). He shrugged. "I already have."

Hush was wheezing badly, both guns having clattered to the ground. There was something clearly wrong with him, as he tried to say something as he collapsed to the ground.

"What the hell did you do to him?" The bandaged man was clearly in trouble.

Red Riding Hood was silent. Hush was sputtering now, trying desperately to speak. "Te—te—"

Tim kept the Batarang at the ready as he keyed on his throat-mic to call for the paramedics. "Stay where you are," he repeated, even as Hush continued to struggle against his traitor body.

"Tetr—" he managed, practically on the verge of suffocation. He was showing signs of convulsions. "Dot—x."

Dyspnea. Paralysis. Convulsions. And then it clicked. Beneath Hush's bandages was the face of Thomas Elliot, a respected surgeon from Philadelphia. A man of medical training. His desperate attempt to speak was in fact diagnosis.

Tetrodotoxin.

Red Riding Hood's wakizashi must have been coated in the deadly neurotoxin — it was fast-acting and there was no known antivenom. Hush had been in mortal danger from the moment he'd been slashed... and that was before he'd gotten his heart rate up from a twenty minute rooftop battle.

As realization dawned on Tim, it must have shown on his face. The Hood started, and Tim let fly the Batarang. His bodysuit caught most of the impact, leaving a superficial penetration in the shoulder. In an instant Tim was on him, catching him with a flying tackle that carried him cleanly off his feet. They hit the ground hard, but the Hood rolled with it and soon it was degenerated to a tangle of cloaks and scrabbling gloves, each trying to find some kind of purchase.

The Hood was strong, but for the moment Tim had the advantage of being on top. As he reached for the Hood's mask, he experienced an abrupt and unexpected rapid cranial-masonic intersection.

That is to say, Red Riding Hood hit him in the head with a loose brick.

Tim fell over with a grunt, cursing — not for the first time — the state of building maintenance in Gotham. The blow bought his adversary just enough time to beat a retreat; Tim watched helplessly as a flutter of red relayed the escape of the Masked Red Death. Even if he had been forced to leave the wakizashi behind, it was difficult to count it as anything but another setback for the Boy Wonder. Some wonder — he'd been ambushed and missed his chance to unmask his quarry. He got to his feet and hurried back to where the bandaged man lay, as a fresh dusting of snow began. He'd wasted the paramedics' time.

Hush was dead.

And Robin was no closer to solving the mystery of Red Riding Hood.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


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Chapter Six: Suspicious Minds

Night fell in Gotham City to the sound of the city's millions taking a deep breath. Chthonic terrors that lurked deep within man's collective psyche elsewhere were much closer to the surface in Gotham; the perennial suggestion for the city's official motto was "Here there be monsters." Not to say that night was a symphony of horrors for all who called Gotham home; by no means. Some monsters donned top hats and tail coats, and traded their seedy lairs for exclusive clubs. There were many such monsters in Gotham City; first and foremost among them was their emperor, the Penguin.

As he stood at the soundproof two-way mirror that separated the VIP room of the Iceberg Lounge from the main room, the aristocrat of crime savored the moment — and the view. His guests included some of the oldest and most respected names in the state; judges, city councilmen, men of affairs. It hadn't always been this way. Their kind — the athletic, handsome sons of old money — had belittled him, sneered at him, practiced their petty little jokes at his expense. And why not? What had they to fear from the fat, awkward boy with the aquiline nose? As though a Cobblepot would forget such insults. He descended from the bluest blood — the Cobblepots of Oxfordshire had money older than most of the countries in Europe. How many of his boarding school fellows were third in line to a dukedom? How many of them could boast of a lineage that included men like Field Marshal Sir Oswald Spencer-Cobblepot VC?

But the cretins had paid no mind to that. Well, that was all right. Let them sneer. Vengeance was his; he would see to that. As Sulla had once boasted, there was no friend or enemy whom he'd not repaid in full. Every valley exalted, every mountain laid low. Now he was here, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in Gotham, to whom the elite of the city paid court. And the pranksters from school? Dead, every one of them. If you had to go — well, go with a smile.

"Is he coming or not?" There was a distinctive scrape of skin against metal as the coin went flying into the air. Heads or tails? Virgin or whore?

"Really, Harvey, must you persist in that incessant flipping?"

"Are you really asking me that, Pengers?"

"I've told you not to call me that," he growled, turning around. Honestly, the man could be insufferable sometimes.

"Have you? Have you told me that as many times as I've told you not to call me Harvey?" Two-Face sat in one of the room's luxurious leather chairs, nursing a glass of port with a hand-rolled cigar tucked between his index and thumb. "You didn't answer my question," he said, bringing the cigar up to the side of his mouth, on the still-handsome right side of his face. Once upon a time he'd been a good-looking man, a veritable Apollo. People had believed in Harvey Dent.

"Asking about it won't make it happen any faster," said the dark-skinned man standing by the window. In such colorful company, he was practically non-descript, dressed in an unremarkable if well-tailored white suit coat with a black collarless shirt. Ordinarily he wouldn't have been permitted to set foot in the Iceberg Lounge dressed like that, but he wasn't there as a guest. Somebody had to speak for the Great White Shark, to keep an eye on things on his behalf. So he had sent his best killer — after all, who better to mind the Ps and Qs than the Tally Man?

"He's a man of punctuality," said the Penguin. "If he said he's coming, he's coming."

"Pfeh." Given the mangled state of half of Two-Face's lips, the dismissive raspberry had a decidedly strange quality to it. "Forgive me if I don't share your confidence. It's nearly time, and there's neither hide nor hair of him."

"Nearly time," Tally Man began...

"But not yet," said the raspy voice of their visitor. "I am always on time, Two-Face. Not early, and not late."

"No, indeed," said the Penguin, smiling thinly at his pocket watch with the cigarette holder jutting from his teeth. "On time, precisely. Welcome, my friend. We have much to discuss...."


* * * * * * * *


"Things are gettin' out of hand." They were staring at one another from opposite ends of the conference room table, as though even sitting near one another were intolerable. They would have made an odd couple, anyway: The Ventriloquist and the jewel-eyed tsarovna.

"Nothing I can't handle," she said dismissively. "I am in complete control of my part of the outfit."

"Tell that to Gully Carson," snapped the dummy gangster. "He was one of our gest heistmen, and now we can't even find his head."

"Carson was freelance," Kosov retorted. "He wasn't family. He was only a henchmen." The business in Gotham had been pretty evenly split for a decade now between the made men of the crime mobs and the freelance henchmen of the freaks. Not everyone was in agreement where men like Arnold Wesker and his dummy Scarface belonged.

"The point stands, lady," Scarface said, jutting a hand in her direction. "We're losin' our gest field men, and it's getting harder to run the crews. The take is goin' down, it's goin' down hard, an' don't kid yerself — it's goin' down on yer side o' the line as much as mine."

"I don't hear any suggestions out of you, Scarface," Kosov said, feeling ridiculous. If only there were some way to have this conversation with her erstwhile partner without having to talk to this dummy... But there was no denying that, when he spoke in Scarface's voice, the Ventriloquist was a ruthless man.

"I told you already, ya dumb groad!" the dummy said, throwing up his hands in disgust. "This is the Long Halloween all over again. It's Holiday. Targetin' the outfit, real systematic-like. Goin' after the hinges so you can push just push the door down."

"Not that again." Kosov rolled her good eye. "Alberto Falcone is dead. And even if he weren't, the Odessa had no quarrel with the Roman, and neither did your family."

"Dead, huh? Do you have any idea how many times Rā's al-Ghūl's been 'dead'? Or Clayface? How 'bout Poison Ivy? Or even Joker's dame, Harley Quinn? Christ, lady, just last year they said Crime Doctor'd been offed!"

"I am not having this conversation with you again," she said, standing. "This is ridiculous. How can I trust you to run your half of this outfit when you're worrying about a man who's been dead fifteen years?"

"Uh, ma'am, I don't think — "

"Shaddup, you," Scarface growled, interrupting the Ventriloquist's timid attempt to speak. The puppet's head cocked to the side and regarded the Russian with what was surely in Wesker's mind a menacing glare. "Lady, you think I can't handle this job, you think you got the stones, gy all means, please start somethin'. You really think you can go ten rounds with Mohammed Scarface?"

"This is ridiculous," she repeated. "I am not arguing with a dummy."

"I got very little patience, toots," he said. "And yer treadin' on my last nerve."

The truce between Black Mask's top two deputies had been in steady decline almost from the moment it began. Between the Joker and Red Riding Hood, the outfit had taken a beating. As the body count rose, each was sizing up the other; with each outline drawn in chalk, Scarface and Kosov were revising their figures, recalculating the odds, each reviewing the latest estimate as to the other's strength. It was a deadly game they were playing, each coiled and ready to pounce once the pendulum swung just far enough.

To make things worse, the realignments following Black Mask's death had added to the instability. As each vied for power, the other bosses showed no hesitation in throwing their weight around. A key alliance with one of the big players could make or break Scarface's or Kosov's control of the whole outfit. All it might take was one meeting, and then the Penguin or the Great White or one of the others could tip the scale in their favor. And the pressure from the new contender, the Mullah, was getting harder and harder to ignore. Yes, it was a deadly game, indeed.


* * * * * * * *


"May I offer you some tea?" Jervis Tetch grinned benignly at his friends. Well, not truly friends, but friends of convenience. Pish tosh. A friend in need is a friend indeed, eh?

"Let's just skip to the point," one of them said. Impatient fellow, by the name of Lucky Jimmy O'Neill.

"Why the rush, my dear boy? Are you late, late, late? Have you got a very important date?"

"Look, Hatter, I can't say as I much like it here, either," said Little Italy, a mid-level professional hencher. "Can we get on with this?"

The Mad Hatter drew his teacup to his lips and took a sip of some very gratifying Earl Grey. "Of course, old sport, of course. To put it simply, fellows, it is a question of trust. Do you truly trust the poor, harried Mr. Wesker to keep you safe, boys? He's not been doing very well at it, I'm afraid. His half of the outfit has been hit hard."

"Scarface's done right by me," said Tony "The Knife" Burton, a defector capo from one of the Five Families. "I've got no love for the Russian, I'll tell you that."

"My dear boy, it's a brave new world," the Hatter smiled again. "Scarface can't protect you. With this new cape in town, it's protection you want. It's protection that I'm offering you."

"Protection? No offense, Hatter, but your protection hasn't done too well so far. Kosov's guys ain't exactly been safe lately, either."

"Pish, tosh. That was yesterday, my boy, today's a brand new day. The kid gloves are off, you see; Miss Kosov has brought in the big guns."

"Yeah? Who's she got? Bane? Mr. Freeze? Dr. Death?"

"Firefly? Mr. Zsazs? Shrike? Zeiss?"

The Mad Hatter grinned. "Me."

"You?" Lucky Jimmy snorted. "You? You gotta be joking."

The Cheshire grin widened. "My dear boy, I'm always serious about my work."

The Mad Hatter was not a large man. He stood around four feet and eight inches tall, weighed 149 pounds. He was hardly a threatening figure.

"Right. Ok. Fine." Lucky Jimmy stood. "You guys can stay here and waste your time with this freak. I got better things to do than listen to this crap. Yeah, sure. Mad Hatter's the big guns. What're you gonna do, offer Red Riding Hood tea? What can you do?"

The Mad Hatter's grin grew wider still, taking on what looked like impossible proportions. "What can I do? Ask not what I can do for you, my boy," he said, running his right hand along the brim of his oversized top hat, "But what you can do for me."

Lucky Jimmy began to tremble, and then trembling gave way to tremors. His face turned red. Slowly, mechanically, his reached forward to the table setting and retrieved a butter knife.

"Wha— What're you doing, O'Neill? Hatter, are you doing this?"

"I think our friend's incredulity demands an answer, don't you, friends? You'll be happy to know that I'm a team player, and I think we'll have a vote. Who here thinks our friend Mr. O'Neill should provide a demonstration of why I can protect you?"

The others looked at him, and looked at Lucky Jimmy's struggling against his own body. The butter knife was steadily coming closer and closer to his face, on what might be described as an intercept course.

"All right, friends," the Mad Hatter said, a Cheshire grin stretching from ear to ear as he doffed his hat in a mock-salute. "I think the eyes have it."



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


Last edited by Publius on 2008-02-23 07:55pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Chapter Seven: A Hard Day's Night

Tim Drake rubbed his eyes tiredly. A glance at the clock told him he had better get to bed soon if he planned to get any sleep at all. Roofcrawling on a school night was one of the worst aspects of the cape-and-cowl gig. He indulged in a yawn and a stretch, and tenderly touched at the bump on his head from the brick Red Riding Hood had hit him with. Just once, he'd like to find a cape who reacted to him with even a little of the paralyzing fear the Batman inspired. Then again, he supposed it would be a bit more difficult for the Boy Wonder to inspire fear like the Dark Knight of Gotham, even after the costume change from early in his career.

At this Tim glanced over at the glass case. Well, he thought, if nothing else, at least I get to wear long pants.

It had been a long night. He'd spent a few hours on surveillance duty in the East End while waiting for the Hood to appear, and then there'd been the drawn-out encounter with Hush. While he'd been a relative lightweight in terms of scheming — nowhere near masterminds like the Riddler or the General or Rā's al-Ghūl —, Tommy Elliot had been a powerhouse in terms of pure physicality. Half an hour's worth of fisticuffs with him had taken more out of him than most nights of patrol did. Then there was the fact that he'd had to wait around for the police investigators to secure the scene, and then he'd had to sneak into the precinct evidence room and 'borrow' the wakizashi for analysis.

It had turned out that Red Riding Hood was a careful killer — he'd obviously worn gloves every single time he'd handled the wakizashi. Considering that the blade was liberally coated with tetrodotoxin, Tim couldn't exactly say this was a bad idea; even a minor cut could be dangerous, and there certainly wasn't anything like an antivenom. There were no identifying markings, nothing like a trademark or serial number. Traces of chemical cleaning; probably it had been bought on the black market and then carefully sterilized, removing any traces of former or current owners. Not much of a market for edged weapons like this; most skels wanted firepower. He'd have to check the database to see who in Gotham would carry such exotic merchandise, but his gut was saying it was one of the Penguin's black marketeers.

He decided he'd look into it tonight, and then groaned. He was already making plans for tonight, and he hadn't even been to bed yet. He still had to make it through Friday at school.

Unbidden, the thought came to mind that dating Stephanie had been impossibly lucky for him — where else would he find a girl who could actually deal with his schedule? He closed his eyes and tried to will this thought away. He didn't like to think about her. It still hurt too much. Concentrate on the work at hand. Thank God Bruce hadn't put up another glass case.

He'd found the Batarang he'd hit Red Riding Hood in the shoulder with. It had been discarded a few rooftops away from the scene of their fight with Hush. He could have sworn he'd seen it penetrate, but when he'd found it there were no traces of skin or blood on it — and analysis had revealed only traces of the Nomex/Kevlar armorweave the family used for their bodysuits. That was disappointing in the extreme. He'd hoped he'd be able to find something on it to check against the Bat-computer's extensive databases.

Unrewarding. A very long and frustrating night. And now he was going to have to come up with an excuse for the brick-related injury on the side of his head. He was pretty sure his pen pal out in Neptune never had to deal with this kind of thing. Why did crooks have to be both smart and dangerous? Why couldn't there be more pushovers like Killer Moth, or the Baffler, or the Condiment King? Just two months ago the worst menace he'd faced had been 'Abd-al-Führer ibn Clausewitz Freiherr von und zu Damaskus, an eyepatched-and-monocled Syrian Nazi warlord. Riding a donkey. No, seriously.

He rubbed his eyes again and looked back over the chart he'd been working on. If nothing else, at least he'd been right when he'd predicted the Masked Red Death's next hit. It had taken a lot of logarithm-crunching to mathematically confirm it, but he had predicted it. Much of the Mullah's meteoric rise (stupid phrase; meteors fall, he thought randomly) stemmed from his reputation for toughness and his ability to hurt whomever got in his way; he stood to lose more than the other bosses if it began to look like he couldn't keep his deputies alive. To some extent, his ability to put fear into his would-be rivals and enemies was key to his rapid success. Catwoman, after all, had put the fear of God into the Falcone family, and he'd given her a pretty brutal pummelling not seen since the Penguin's men had gotten hold of that comedian in '93.

The Mullah's rise to power was a pretty clear threat to both Scarface and Kosov; it remained to be seen how much longer the Black Mask syndicate would hold together under the strain, especially with Red Riding Hood taking out mid-level management on a weekly basis. To say nothing of the Joker. Apparently he'd firebombed Kosov's penthouse tonight while Tim had been busy with Hush and the Hood.

He heard the crunch of heavy black tires on the paved driveway leading into the Batcave, and looked up. The Batmobile was rigged for near-silent running ("Sound is the byproduct of bad design," Bruce was fond of saying), with bleeding-edge technology built into every square centimeter of its powerful engine. Looked like he'd taken the BM6 tonight; it was Tim's favorite, with its sleek lines and 1,200 horsepower jet engine. Dick still preferred the older BM3 hot rod design, but then, he'd been the one who'd designed the original Robin costume, yellow cape and green shorts and all. Sometimes Dick's sense of aesthetics left something to be desired.

There was a slight hiss as the air-tight seal on the cockpit broke and the windshield slid open, allowing the Batman to emerge. His uniform was in tatters — no mean feat, considering the strength of the N/K armorweave they used — and his face was smeared with soot and perspiration. He wore a fiercer scowl than usual, and he held a sealed evidence bag with a torn strip of cloth in it.

"I hate clowns," he said to no one in particular, peeling off his cowl. "What are you still doing awake?"

"I was doing — "

"I see that," he said shortly, then frowned. He looked worn out. "You need to get more sleep. It does you no good to work yourself sick."

If he appreciated the irony of his remark, he certainly gave no sign of it.

"How long has it been since you've slept even an hour at a stretch, Bruce?"

"Don't change the subject," he said shortly. He handed the evidence bag to Tim, who winced despite himself on seeing it was purple. "As long as you're up, run a scan on this. Joker was hiding out in the water treatment plant. See if there's any other chemical residue on his jacket."

"I take it you've been to Kosov's apartment?"

"I almost had him," Bruce said, anger etched clearly into his face. People who didn't really know Bruce thought he was an unforgiving martinet; they didn't realize that the man he held most responsible for things that went wrong around him was himself. "He'd brought a hostage with him. High school freshman. Pushed her out the window before I could cuff him."

Tim didn't ask if he'd rescued the girl. The fact that he was merely angry and not in a smoldering rage told him she'd survived. The Joker wasn't particularly picky about his murder victims, but he did have a tendency to target young females and children for his hostages. The man seemed to grasp that it had more of an emotional impact on males to see a girl threatened. Just like the Joker to understand enough about society and perceived gender roles to use it for the purposes of general mayhem.

"Where's Dick?" Tim was already setting up the equipment to do a full analysis of the cloth. Hm. Strange —

"Something came up. He had to respond to an emergency. Man-Bat was sighted in the vicinity of Tricorner."

Tim looked down at his hands. He was wearing a pair of disposable gloves. Well, of course. That was SOP — all evidence should be handled with gloves to avoid contamination, but it was especially important when dealing with the Joker. He had apparently built up an immunity to his own chemical agents, so he had been known from time to time to impregnate his clothes and effects with nasty surprises.

He was handling everything with gloves. No prints. Handling something possibly contaminated with a deadly toxin. Didn't he just leave this party?

Red Riding Hood was following the same SOP.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world

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Chapter Eight: Smooth Criminal

Long day at school. Kept catching himself dozing off at inappropriate times. In the middle of conversations. Nearly face-faulted into a bowl of soup at lunch. Strange, that — he didn't do that much anymore. His body had become accustomed to the long-term sleep deprivation that came as a side-effect of being a nocturnal crimefighting vigilante. If he was slipping back into non-clinical narcolepsy, it must mean he'd been putting far more time and energy into this case than he'd thought. Perhaps he had more in common with Bruce than he'd care to admit. At least Tim could remember to shave.

Tired. But nice to see a friendly face. The way she smiled — remarkable. The tiredness seemed to melt away. Long day. Well, that's all right; they had all night. Like magic, really; she made him feel alive. He loved her smile; more than anything, the way her smile filled her face. The gleam in those crystal-clear, beautiful blue eyes. He liked seeing her happy; it made him happy. A virtuous circle. Being with her was like being whole.

Funny, he thought, most people don't think sparring is romantic.

She was working on her aikidō, and definitely getting better at it. Well, she certainly ought to be. She'd been spending at least an hour sparring with Cass every day for the past three weeks; it almost made him blush to notice the... uh, how to put it delicately? firming... effect the rigorous workout had been having on her already trim figure. Not that he was looking. Really. It was just... kind of hard not to notice. Especially when she had him in a pretty good choke hold. Not aikidō, really, but a bit more her style. She seemed to like choke holds. Connor had made an off-color joke about it once. He'd pretended not to hear.

She was kind of distracted. Not that he blamed her; there was a case she'd been following lately, dealing with quite possibly the most formidable member of her modest but respectable (and slowly growing) rogues gallery. He'd made the mistake of snickering when she'd first mentioned the Abdominal Snowman to him. He'd heard about it for two months straight when she'd had to extract him from an ice cube following a chance encounter with the very same Abdominal Snowman. He'd felt pretty stupid when he'd discovered it hadn't even been a shipment of Incan gold; the box had been full of tacos for some reason. She'd tried to explain it once, but gave up when she realized not even she could tell that part of the story without laughing.

He'd offered to help track the Snowman down, but she was working on her sleuthing, and didn't want to cheat. Thing was, it meant she was distracted. And her grip was coming loose right... there.

A hip toss, and she was rolling to her feet. She'd gotten a lot faster at the recovery, true — but how many times had he tried to tell her to break that habit? She always rolled on her right shoulder after a hip toss. She said it was muscle memory from years of gymnastics. That may well be true, it made her predictable. It was never good to be predictable — he caught her with a leg sweep just as she was coming back to her feet. He always knew where she'd end up, he said (not for the first time). She always rolled on the right.

He reached down to help her up. She smiled as she took his hand... and before he knew it, he was on the ground. Chokehold. Again. She smiled and gave him a peck on the cheek. He always tried to be polite to girls. It made him predictable.

He grinned. Dick always said he grinned like an idiot around her. He didn't care. She was smiling. He was smiling. Life was beautiful. Her grip loosened. The chokehold was broken. She had a different kind of hold on him, anyway. It was funny, how people could embody such contrasts. Her fists felt like steel, but her lips —

Tim Drake awoke with a start. He screwed his eyes shut and his hands found their way to his face. His breaths came in long and slowly. If men cried, one might call it a silent kind of sob. Men didn't cry, of course. Not even for things like — No. He wanted none of that. None of that. He didn't think about that. Not when he was awake, not when he had a choice. His subconscious could betray him, remind him of what had... of what had once been. But not when he had a choice.

Perhaps he had more in common with Bruce than he'd care to admit.

The computer was blinking at him. He exhaled slowly, letting all the... memories... drift away. Focus on the work at hand. He examined the computer readout; he'd tasked the Cray with identifying possible sites for Red Riding Hood to have acquired tetrodotoxin. He was trying to put together a profile on the perp. The unglamorous side of working in the Batman family: Homework.

Item one. Red Riding Hood used shuriken. Oh, his shuriken were unremarkable, and not laced with tetrodotoxin. Three-pointed, but there was nothing terribly noteworthy about that. Trips were the most common arrangement found on the black market in the tristate; apparently they were a big hit with the local ninja community. There was still enough of a teenaged role-playing game geek in Tim to think it was awesome that he could refer to something like "the local ninja community" and be completely serious about it. Like the wakizashi, there were no prints on them anywhere. But the fact that he was using shuriken at all was useful enough; it indicated a certain level of training. It was surprisingly difficult to throw shuriken with any degree of accuracy. Most of Gotham's skels and a hefty fraction of the masks couldn't do it. The Joker threw razor-edged playing cards, but he was the only big name to really go for it consistently. There had been a case some time ago, however, in which Steph's dad the Cluemaster had worked with Dragoncat to train up street toughs into somewhat more capable heistmen. Dragoncat fancied himself a martial arts master; he might have resuscitated the crime school concept. Worth looking into, at least.

Item two. Red Riding Hood used a wakizashi. He'd already earmarked a few black-marketeers to check out for this somewhat more upscale weapon. He didn't do too much actual swordwork with it, at least not that Tim had seen so far. Enough to show he wasn't just swinging it like a baseball bat. Not enough to peg him as a swordsman, though. That was... unfortunate. Tim couldn't think of anyone that really fit that profile. Still, depending on what turned up on the black market, he might be able to determine if the wakizashi had been bought (which might give some indication as to the level of logistical support and networking he had) or stolen (which might indicate a lack of supply, or perhaps a background more on the larcenous end — if that were the case, he might check with sometimes-enemy, sometimes-ally Schrödinger's Catgirl to see if she knew any thieves that fit the profile).

Item three. Red Riding Hood was a gearhead. For starters, he wore a Nomex/Kevlar impact suit. That certainly pointed to a certain minimum level of logistics. An N/K bodysuit didn't necessarily have to be custom-made, but there was definitely some customization necessary to ensure a proper fit; all told, the suit typically cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $2,500 or more. If his cape were N/K armorweave too, that was probably around another $350. He had a grapnel gun, which meant he was using de-cel jumplines, which ran at around $40 per yard. Even without looking at the utility belt, he was looking at several grand in overhead. Financing of that kind either demanded a fair amount of theft or some kind of backing. Could theft explain the deliberate targeting of mafiosi? It seemed unlikely, given that (like Tim himself) the Masked Red Death used speed as a force-multiplier. Obviously he'd left the scene immediately when he'd had run-ins with Tim, so there was no theft going on there. He hadn't seen any indications that he was looting his victims when not interrupted by Robin the Boy Wonder, but then, it wasn't like the mob was going to report missing large sums of ill-gotten money.

Item four. Red Riding Hood was using tetrodotoxin. This perked up Tim's attention. Gotham killers, especially the ones with poisons as their M.O. — q.v. the Joker, Dr. Death, Poison Ivy, Gas Bag, etc. — usually went for something exotic. Well, tetrodotoxin was relatively exotic, he supposed. Everyone knew pufferfish could be deadly, even if they didn't know the name of the venom (of course, Tim thought of the blue-ringed octopus and Pfeffer's flamboyant cuttlefish first, having written a paper on them for his AP Biology class — that, and the fact that he'd once had a rather surprised blue-ringed octopus thrown at him). It displayed traits of preparedness (there was no known antivenom, ensuring that even a minor cut could be deadly) and a flair for the dramatic (using a more obscure venom where a better-known one would suffice hinted at a desire for distinctiveness, a desire to be noticed).

Item five. Red Riding Hood was systematic. He'd consistently had a clear escape route designated for each of his hits, and he'd taken steps to conceal his identity, confound pursuit, and cancel-out forensics. In short, as Tim had realized that morning, he'd been following the family's SOP. Part of that may have been simple paranoia — Tim was feeling pretty exhausted lately, and most skels knew to avoid leaving evidence like fingerprints. The Hood had been thorough, though; he'd not left any kind of identifiable evidence yet, including having taken the time to spray Tim's Batarang with some kind of chemical agent to erase any possible traces of skin or blood. And there was something unnerving about the Hood, something familiar that he couldn't really put his finger on... yet, anyway.

Item six. Red Riding Hood was well-informed. He was clearly targeting key mid-level leadership of several syndicates, which meant he knew who the key mid-level leadership was. He'd been taking out capos from both Scarface's and Kosov's halves of the Black Mask syndicate, as well as going after the Five Families and the Shah's outfit, the XYZ. So far, the Mullah's people had been only lightly hit; the same was true of the Penguin,Two-Face, and the Great White Shark. Why?

Item six merited some consideration. The Penguin was an aristocrat of crime, and he had the money and resources to prove it. His men tended to be by far the best equipped in the city, probably due to his controlling share of Gotham's gunrunning market. He'd done well for himself throughout No Man's Land and then in the gang war, because he was the only boss in town who had the money, the hardware, and the networking to make himself almost totally untouchable. The clincher there had been the Joker's apparent fondness for the man himself; the Clown Prince of Crime had once beaten a man to death with a bunch of bananas for having insulted the Penguin. Two-Face — the crusading district attorney turned ruthless crime lord — was one of the most dangerous men in Gotham; he was a criminal mastermind of the first rank, and some of his more elaborate plans had seen him controlling nearly the whole first tier of Bruce's rogues gallery: Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, the Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter, Solomon Grundy, even the Joker himself. Two-Face was not a man to take lightly. Steering clear of him was always a good strategic decision. The Great White Shark lacked Penguin's wherewithal and Two-Face's raw power, but he made up for it with quality. The Shark was a corrupt businessman turned influence-monger, and he had friends in high places. Despite the best efforts of the Arkham Asylum administration, he controlled nearly a third of the facility's guards and staff, and there was more than one judge who owed him favors. Not for him control of street crime; probably that kept his people out of the Masked Red Death's sights.

Then there was the Mullah. A relative newcomer to the mean streets of Gotham. Omar Salih was a relative unknown to the Bat-computer, which had only the skeleton of a background on him. Apparently he'd been born somewhere in the vicinity of Mosul, and was reportedly a generally indifferent Sunni (which made the street nickname "The Mullah" all the more inappropriate — he was neither Shi'ite nor Persian nor particularly devout). There were conflicting accounts of his activities during the '80s and the '90s. INTERPOL believed he'd been some kind of shadow agent working for the Saddam Husayn regime, but the FBI's files said he'd been working as a hitman in the Eastern bloc at the time. Then again, both files were filled with internal inconsistencies and a few factual errors. Apparently he'd crossed paths with the Peacemaker a few times; the Bat-computer's file included a few notes from him on the subject. Why had his people been spared for the most part so far? Was it his relative newcomer status? If the Hood had been targeting known targets first and foremost, the Mullah's outfit simply may not have registered on the radar yet.

Ultimately, item six brought him back to item zero: Red Riding Hood was killing mobsters. Why? If he were stealing from the mob (and Tim didn't think he was), then it was pretty sure it was to finance his operation. That was circular; it came back to killing mobsters. If theft wasn't the motive, what was? Retaliation for something that had happened during the war? That was certainly possible, but where had the resources come from to start the operation in the first place? And the training? He was good. Not great, mind you — Tim was pretty sure he was better in a straight-up fight, but the Masked Red Death had been pretty good about avoiding one so far. Not great, but he was good. Where did one go about acquiring any kind of experience at swinglining, even if only enough to be so-so at it? Was he a hitman? If so, who was he working for?

Tim stood from the terminal and stretched his arms, suppressing a yawn. Time to suit up. He had some people he wanted to ask a few questions, namely, had anyone acquired a liberal amount of tetrodotoxin in the recent past?

He'd radioed ahead to Dick and arranged to meet him on the way out. It'd been a while since they'd gone roofcrawling together — the Joker case had kept Dick busy, since he was simultaneously providing Bruce with backup and responding to emergencies Bruce would normally handle but were unwelcome distractions from stopping the Joker. It'd be nice to get someone else's input on the Red Riding Hood case. A fresh perspective might help. There was something about the case that was bothering him, and he couldn't put his finger on it. Something he should have noticed, something like an elephant in the room. He had a suspicion, but he wasn't ready to air it. Not yet.

He rubbed his eyes. He was tired, much more tired than usual. That was probably why he couldn't quite make the breakthrough he needed. Not yet, anyway. He was pretty confident it would happen. After all, he'd figured out who Batman and Robin were. The time would come. He donned the domino mask and his cape, and headed toward his motorcycle. For some reason he hadn't felt like driving the Redbird lately. Well, he had places to go. Robin headed out into the night. There was work to be done.



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Chapter Nine: Kiss from a Rose

The snow was falling with gusto now. It was a heavier winter than had been expected, but nothing extraordinary. As any city this far north, Gotham had always had its fair share of bleak and dreary winters. Indeed, there was something charming about Gotham in winter — something indescribably picturesque about the gusts of falling snow dusting the Dark Deco ramparts. It suited it somehow, as though a cold and forbidding climate were the most perfectly suited to the city whose heart was always cold and forbidding.

Tim pulled his cape more closely around himself. He'd donned his winter uniform before heading out for the evening, but that didn't mean he didn't appreciate the little bit of extra warmth afforded by his flame-retardant cape. A glance over at Dick, who seemed relatively undisturbed by the elements, prompted a question he'd been meaning to ask for some time now.

"So, seriously. What was the deal with the short shorts?"

"Hm?" Dick looked up, evidently surprised. "What, you mean the old Robin outfit?"

"Unless there was an intermediate Nightwing suit I didn't know about. I bet Babs would — "

"That's enough out of you, shortstuff," Dick said, grinning wryly. "I don't know. I designed it when I was twelve. So sue me."

"Yeah, that's not a really good excuse. How old were you when you stopped wearing it?"

"I think I was sixteen, seventeen," he said. "I don't know. Why?"

"So, did you, what? Shave your legs? And the pixie boots? Seriously?"

"Har-har. You're awfully uppity for someone whose rogues gallery includes the Mighty Endowed."

Tim chuckled. "Oh, like yours is any better. You had, what? Crazy Quilt? And who was that guy that always wore the Eisenhower and Nixon masks?"

"Oh," Dick said, trying to suppress a laugh — and failing. "Oh. It wasn't just Ike and Nixon. He had all of them. His Reagan mask was actually really good. Oh, man. The President Select. That guy was awesome."

"Whatever happened to him, anyway?"

"Oh, man," he shrugged, still laughing. "I don't know, honestly. I only tangled with him a couple of times. The guy who really had to deal with him was... well, you know."

Tim did know. The President Select had been a foe primarily faced by his predecessor as Robin. The late Jason Todd.

"We never really talk about him," Tim said after an uncomfortable silence.

"It's..." Dick frowned. "Well, you know what it's like. He was a good kid, honestly. He really was. He just had... he'd had a rough life, I guess. It was hard for him. Following Bruce's orders, I mean."

"He was about my age, right?"

"Yeah," Dick said, looking Tim over. "I never really got to know him very well. I guess he was about your build, too. I remember Bruce had to get an entirely new set of uniforms for him — he was too big to fit mine."

"So you guys really made him run around in the short shorts and pixie boots?"

"Hey, I don't think it ever occurred to him to ask for a different uniform." He shrugged. "I guess he just thought that was how Robin was supposed to look. I can't help that I made it look good."

Unbidden, the thought occurred to Tim that the original Robin outfit would've looked terrific if Steph had — Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.

"Ok, serious question," Tim said. "You didn't really wear the short shorts on nights like this, did you? You wore long pants, right? Right?"

"Seriously, what's with the obsession with the shorts all of a sudden? Are you trying to tell me something?"

Tim made a face. "Nice, Dick. This from the man with the decidedly phallic nickna— did you see that? Bandit, eight o'clock."

"Eight o'clock?" Dick raised a pair of miniature binoculars to his eyes and scanned the horizon. "Yeah. Nice catch. That is definitely our friend."

A pair of grapnel guns made their way out of utility belts and were put to use. They'd both accumulated enough experience at swinglining for it to be a straightforward exercise, moving from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss. One of many skills Tim had accumulated that he would never be able to put on his résumé.

And there he was, large as life, emerging from a newly-burgled jewelry store. A hulking tank of a man. He made no effort to conceal himself; he never did. There was a distinctive whirring of mechanics as he moved. Sheathed from head to toe in protective armor, his physical strength augmented by waldoes that enabled him to crumple steel in his hands, a veritable man of steel with a heart of ice. Snow fell all around him. How appropriate. Life was always a bitter winter for Mr. Freeze.

Driven mad by his wife's degenerative MacGregor's Disease, Victor Fries had placed her into cryogenic stasis while he searched for a cure. A freak lab accident had radically altered his body's biochemistry, leaving him a fragile shell of a man whose skin would blister at room temperature. But neither madness nor transifguration had robbed him of his genius intellect, and he had designed a formidable suit of armor to protect himself and regulate his internal environment, in the process making himself into a humanoform armored car. But it was not his armor that made him a person of mass destruction; rather, it was his deadly freeze gun, a marvel of engineering decades ahead of its time. When he required money or resources he could not simply take — and to his mind his wife's cure justified any cost — the man who came in from the cold contracted his services to the highest bidder. They were few and far between that could survive a visit from Mr. Freeze.

They hit him hard without warning. Freeze's powered armor gave him the raw strength to tear a man limb from limb, but it did not afford him any great measure of speed. Fighting him was a dangerous game of too-close, too-far: Get too close and risk falling into his deadly grip, stay too far and become an easy target for his devastating freeze gun. The key was to keep moving, and give him too many targets to effectively track.

Dick moved in on a 'strafing run,' razor-edged Wing-Dings slicing into the vulnerable joints in the armor. Freeze batted at him, missing and smashing through a lightpost. While he was thus distracted, Tim swung in from the front and connected with a dual-footed kick directly Freeze's sternum, knocking him back and throwing off his aim. He withdrew immediately after deploying a pair of gas capsules. No danger of Freeze being incapacitated by regurgitants or tear gas or anything like that — he wore an airtight composite dome over his head, and breathed specially-cooled, carefully-filtered air — , but reduced visibility would always work in their favor.

Tim's usual 'by the numbers' routine didn't really work on Freeze. He'd tangled with the family too often to be discombobulated by a sudden attack, and his armor meant that virtually no alpha strike was going to take him down right out of the gates. It was grueling work, taking the fight to this walking tank. If he got his hands on you for even a second, it was over. He could quite literally disarm a man in a heartbeat, and his patience and sangfroid meant he was perfectly capable of fighting for hours on end. A man that does not hesitate to walk directly into a hail of bullets is not to be taken lightly.

The worst of it was that Freeze, while schizophrenic, was not stupid. He could not be goaded into losing his temper, because he was in rather advanced stages of anhedonia and blunted affect: he barely experienced emotions at all. He certainly had lost none of the mechanical genius that had led to the creation of his armor, and continually updated and improved the design. No longer were the air scrubbers and cooling mechanisms exposed on the outside; too many instances of Batarang strikes had prompted their removal to the armor's interior, where they were far better protected.

The enter street front was practically covered with ice now and strewn with wreckage and debris, and the snow was still falling heavily. Mr. Freeze was not in the least bit slowed by the weather, while Tim had to deal with his cape getting progressively heavier as it was coated generously with the stuff. Dick had gone in and was hammering at Freeze's protective dome with his escrima sticks. Tim reached into the compartment on his utility belt near the small of his back and retrieved a capsule he'd been meaning to try. No time like the present.

He unclasped his cape and let it fall free, giving himself a little more mobility with the loss of the extra weight. Sprinting now. He mounted a smashed car and took a flying leap directly at Freeze's back and managed to scrabble on almost like a piggyback ride. Freeze immediately tried to shake him off, grabbing for him. Tim dodged each grasping claw as if his life depended on it (which, as it happened, it more or less did). Good thing he'd discarded the cape. Raising his hand with the capsule still in it, he brought it down against the dome directly in front of Freeze's face as hard as he possibly could.

Freeze grunted in annoyance — annoyance being an intellectual response, and one of the few emotions he still felt — and managed to grab Tim's utility belt. He made a casual toss, and the Boy Wonder went flying like a ragdoll. He managed to roll with it and avoided all but a few scrapes and bruises when he came tumbling to a halt, only to see Freeze elevate his arm, freeze gun in hand. Aiming directly at him.

Dick's escrima stick connected directly with the dome where Tim had burst the capsule. A spiderweb fracture appeared in the dome, and Freeze rocked back in surprise. Tim grinned. Success.

The corrosive agent had been initially created by Steph's father, the Cluemaster. He had a fondness for corrosives and epoxies, and had often used some surprisingly creative varieties in his heists. Tim, who'd always enjoyed chemistry, had long since taken to tinkering with some of his formulae, eventually creating an agent for just this kind of scenario. Freeze's composite dome was bulletproof, but he'd figured out a chemical that could render the dome brittle and vulnerable to pressure.

Freeze was backpeddling now, keeping Dick at arm's length — keeping his sticks away from his suddenly vulnerable dome. Tim was still grinning. Showtime.

He retrieved a Bird-a-rang from his utility belt and took a running start. Freeze saw him coming and fired off a burst from his freeze gun, but Tim easily dodged it. He'd always enjoyed a good dramatic moment, so he indulged in one. As he cleared the burst of impossible cold, he let fly with the Bird-a-rang as hard as he possibly could.

Bullseye.

Freeze's dome shattered and he immediately made an incoherent noise. It was not merely a question of temperature; it was actually cold enough out that Freeze could survive outside his containment armor. Rather, it was the fact that Gotham air was simply not clean, plain and simple. Freeze's altered body chemistry wasn't capable of dealing with it. The air itself was practically poisonous to him.

Freeze took a knee, coughing and wheezing. Dick drew closer and gave him a complimentary dose of knockout gas. He looked up at Tim, who was retrieving his cape. "Nice work," he said.

Tim was about to reply when he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Movement at the rooftop level. A flutter of red.

"Nightwing — " he said.

Dick nodded. "Go. I'll take care of Freeze."

A burst of compressed gas. The whine of de-cel line. The rush of cold air. Tim was in the air and soaring. The crunch of snow beneath his boots. Red fluttering further ahead. His quarry was near.

The chase was on.



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Chapter Ten: I've Just Seen a Face

Of the air and soaring. The wind rushed past his face. He adjusted his grip, let the line go slack. His boots landed on the roof with a muffled thud. Thanks to the heavy snow, the noise didn't carry very far. He kept his eyes on the prize. There. Up ahead. The red cloak was moving. The game was afoot.

Running, now. To the edge. Rigorous training had made this whole process automatic. The grapnel came up of its own accord. His aim was steady and true. Red Riding Hood may be a cunning foe, but he was only so so at swinglining. Tim had years of experience, and would soon overtake him. It was time to end this hunt. Very close now. The adrenaline was pumping. Almost there....

Red Riding Hood did not know he was being followed. He moved quickly, methodically, to the edge of the building, overlooking a large parking lot and a warehouse. A glance around told Tim they were over in Five Corners, currently disputed territory. Who was he targeting? The XYZ and the Mullah had both set their sites on the area, putting a lot of pressure on the Five Families. At the time of their last encounter, the Hood had been going after the Mullah's people in East End. Was he here to finish the job?

Something was happening below. Tim was almost there. Almost. He reached the same rooftop now. He was almost there...

The Masked Red Death raised his hand and threw something from the roof. There were some muffled pops and a few loud bangs. Smoke began to waft up from below. And then he was gone, a flutter of blood red over the side. Tim was too late.

He leaped over the side of the building without a moment's hesitation. No time to crunch the numbers. He had a chance to stop the Hood this time, to prevent any more deaths. He was going to take it.

It looked like the Hood had hit a fencing crew coming out of the warehouse. There was a lot of smoke. The Hood must have dropped gas grenades before launching his attack. There were shouts and the report of firearms. The burst of flash-bangs. A glance around told him little. Nondescript men in cheap suits. That ruled out the Burnley Town Massive and the Maroni family, who rarely wore suits. They were using 9mm pistols, it looked like. Well, that didn't help identify them, either. Shuriken were flying almost as regularly as eight grams. Idiots. The gunmen were frightened and confused, and more likely to shoot each other. They never learned. It was practically the cornerstone of his by-the-numbers routine.

He had already donned his gas filter, and the enhanced lenses in his mask allowed him improved vision even in the chaos of smoke and snow. There. The flutter of red. Interesting — the Red Death had acquired a new wakizashi. Time to stop him before he put it to use.

Tim was halfway in the process of throwing a Bird-a-rang when he heard a very distinct roar over the din.

The steady rhythm of automatic fire. Deafening. The rounds tore into the cars, into the street, into the walls, into the goombas. The Red Death leapt for cover, and so did the Boy Wonder. The barrage continued. And suddenly —

The guns fell silent. As abruptly as it had begun, the onslaught ended. Smoke filled the air. The men who had been hit were groaning, blood flowing easily from the wounds. It had happened all too quickly for Tim to even begin to guess at what had hit them. He took advantage of the pause to tap his throat-mic and sent an automatic alert to the local police precinct. One of the nice things about his communications suite was it allowed him to send specific messages with the throat-mic equivalent of hot keys. The police would receive a specific tip noting automatic fire in the vicinity, and wouldn't be coming in blind. He retrieved a reflective device from his utility belt and used it to peer around from where he'd taken cover.

The silence was perforated by the delicate sound of a 1918 silver dollar flipping into the air.

Oh, sweet Jesus, Tim thought, his eyes going wide beneath the mask. There, at the other end of the street, flanked by four other gunmen, stood the man in black and white, a still-smoking military model Browning Automatic Rifle resting on his shoulder. Smiling and frowning at the same time.

Two-Face.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are," he said, flipping the silver dollar again. Virgin/whore, happy/sad. Good/evil. Mercy/justice.

One of the goombas tried to draw a bead on him, and received a thirty-aught-six between the eyes for his trouble. "My, my, my. What have we here? I come down to inspect my territory, and what do I find?" His rough, gravelly voice cut through the cold air like a knife. He was walking now, drawing closer. There was a sound of thunder as he saw to another one of the goombas who looked like he might still be in fighting order. "My territory," he growled, kicking one of the men directly in his open wound. "My territory!"

The silver dollar cut into the air again. "You lousy ——s think you can just come down here and take what's mine?" He turned and fired a burst in Tim's direction, where Tim had been readying to make a move. "You stay where you are, boy!"

Wonderful. The man knew he was here.

Two-Face had turned back to the man he was kicking. "I've got a message for Aquista," he growled, his eyes alive with hatred. "I want you to tell him for me. This is my territory. He thinks he can take it from me, he's welcome to try. He thinks he can play in the big leagues, he's got another think coming. Tell him to stay the f— out of my territory. I won't ask nicely again."

He turned. "And you," he said, as he let a few rounds go in Tim's direction, as if to punctuate just who precisely he was talking to. "You've got a lot of nerve coming here, kid. I've got half a mind to— "

Flash. Bang. The hiss of a pair of shuriken. Two of the gunmen went down, their throats torn wide open. A flutter of red. The Red Death was going straight for Two-Face.

It was too late to stop him.

The BAR smashed into the wakizashi with the force of a speeding car, knocking it easily out of the smaller man's grip and coming back around just as hard. It caught the Hood across the jaw and sent him tumbling back. The man in black and white threw the rifle aside and planted a heavy kick directly into Red Riding Hood's ribs, then grabbed him by the throat. Tim had felt those hands often enough to know they felt like a steel vice and were certainly a lot less friendly.

"I thought I told you to stay where you are!" Two-Face whirled and his ebony .45 roared, driving Tim back under cover. An instant later the same weapon cracked across the Hood's face. Nobody in Gotham pistol-whipped quite like the man in black and white. It was like being hit in the face with a bowling ball.

Another burst of .30-06 kept Tim pinned down, too busy not being ventilated to do much of anything to stop the brutal beating in progress. Two-Face still had two gunmen left.

The smaller man was thrown against a nearby car like a ragdoll. The windows cracked on the first impact. The third broke them altogether. The Hood was coughing heavily and tried to push himself back up from the ground. Another kick to the side was his reward from Two-Face. "Kids," he growled. "How many times do you stupid kids need to be told?" Impact. "How many times do I need to tell you?" Impact. "When will you learn to leave the adults to their business?" Impact.

Strange, Tim thought. Sounds like he's crossed paths with the Hood before.

Sirens. The police were finally responding. The sound provided that split moment of distraction Tim needed. The gunmen went down hard, a pair of Bird-a-rangs finding their mark. He moved fast, not giving Two-Face the chance to bring his .45 to bear. The tune of ten grams flying past his head told him it wasn't for lack of trying. The ebony peacemaker's ivory-handled partner joined the symphony. Tim let loose a Batarang and missed. Two-Face tended to have that effect on people.

The man in black and white roared in anger.

The Batarang was jammed into his side, just below the armpit, sliding past the ribcage. When he'd turned to deal with Tim, Red Riding Hood had managed to get to his feet, and retrieved Tim's misspent Bat-ordnance. He certainly seemed to have learned his lesson, because he was beating a hasty retreat into a nearby alley, while the police Quick Response Team was within visual range now. Two-Face paused for a moment, bleeding pretty badly from his newly-acquired wound. Hesitation was written across both halves of his face, and he jammed the black .45 under his other armit so he could retrieve his decision-maker.

Virgin/whore? Mercy/justice?

Mercy.

As abruptly as he had arrived, the man in black and white left. The police would be too busy dealing with the carnage at the site to track him down, and Tim certainly wasn't going to — the man obviously had transportation, since his main base of operations wasn't even in Five Corners. The vagaries of fortune had left Tim free to pursue his original quarry. He quickly headed down the alley, taking care not to be seen by the arriving QRT.

The Hood was moving much more slowly now. There was no surprise there; he'd taken a pretty savage beating from Two-Face, a man who had long since completed post-graduate work in the dealing of violence. He was headed in the direction of the harbor; the question now was whether he'd even get there. He'd only been so so at swinglining under optimal conditions, and post-Two-Face was never optimal conditions.

Tim could feel the adrenaline wearing off now, and fatigue began to set in. He hadn't slept much last night, and then he'd already tangled with Mr. Freeze before chasing the Hood across town. His quarry may have taken a beating, but Tim was plain running out of juice. Wasn't that just great? He finally had Red Riding Hood in a position to be cornered, and he was too tired to be sure he could do it.

They stumbled steadily closer to the harbor. The docks were just ahead. Had to stop him. Tim's legs felt like cement. He was running on empty. The snow was so heavy. It kept falling. Why was his side so sore?

The Hood was just ahead. He'd reached the docks. There was no reason he should have made it this far. How could he still be ahead? He'd had the tar beaten out of him, and he wasn't as good at roofcrawling as Tim. His side hurt. The snow was heavy. His head was spinning. The Hood was stumbling on ahead, up to the edge of the wharf.

"Wait," Tim shouted hoarsely. To his surprise, the Hood turned back and looked at him. His mask was torn; the fabric had probably caught on Two-Face's .45. Tim tried to close the distance between them. The Hood turned again and stumbled over the side of the wharf. There was a muffled splash. The snow kept falling. Tim was too late.

He stood there for a moment and kept looking at where — seconds before — the Masked Red Death had stood partially unmasked. The snow was so heavy. It was making his cape heavier, and his side already hurt. Why did his side hurt? Tim looked at his cape and was surprised to find a hole in it.

Tim had been shot.



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Chapter Eleven: Send in the Clowns

Jim Gordon was having a lousy winter. The Joker was still loose — one of his longest sprees on record. The gangland killings were picking up pace, and the whole situation was within spitting distance of critical mass. Jane Doe had vanished again. Mr. Freeze had been wrapped up, thank God, but Killer Croc had finally turned up on another rampage, and Hugo Strange had escaped custody, taking Prometheus, Deadshot, and the Calendar Man with him. And there was a serial killer on the loose over in the North End. He almost felt bad thanking God it seemed to be 'just' a 'regular' serial killer. The Chief of Detectives said they were pretty close to putting paid to that case. Thank God.

The power struggle was coming dangerously close to boiling over. The Mullah had rapidly risen from near total obscurity to being a major contender, and there were plenty of the more established crime families that were not happy about it — and that was without even playing the race card. Organized crime was one of the most racist communities in the United States; it was still common for non-Italians to be rejected for 'made' membership in a mafia family on the issue of nationality alone. Hell, that was one of the reasons the Penguin had never been accepted among the Five Families — not because he was a blueblood, but because that blood was English. With the rise of the 'freaks' in Gotham's mob scene, such narrow distinctions of national origin had become much less rigidly enforced, but that didn't mean they were gone. There was still plenty of bad blood between Italians, Irish, blacks, Japanese, Chinese, and Russians. It went without saying that the more 'traditional' families were overtly hostile to the idea of an Iraqi-born Kurd running a city-class outfit. And even that didn't take into consideration that the man was a Muslim.

Gordon took a small drink of coffee as he examined the map spread out on the table. The low-intensity maneuvering that had been standard since the death of Black Mask was starting to taper off into outright fighting. Two-Face in Tricorner and Penguin in North End had both been expanding their territories, often at gunpoint; more than once Two-Face had demonstrated his willingness to break out the heavy guns, like the extermination of a Maroni fencing crew over in Five Corners. The Mullah's expansion was more by annexation, including assimilating entire crews whole; he'd made huge in-roads among the Burnley Town Massive. Henry Aquista had been more or less solidified as the boss of bosses of the Five Families in Old Gotham, a development nobody would have ever thought possible before the gang war. The Great White Shark's outfit was less infrastructure-oriented, not really dealing in territory in the traditional sense; that left them difficult to monitor, so it was anyone's guess what he was up to. The Arañas and the Hill Gang had been relatively well-behaved, probably because their leadership was... somewhat loosely affiliated with Gotham's most industrious concerned citizen.

Ultimately, what it came down to was the Black Mask syndicate itself. Unlike the other outfits, the syndicate was not homogeneous, leaving it particularly vulnerable to power struggles. The fact that it was by far the largest outfit in the city meant that by sheer probability it was going to suffer the most from the seemingly random killings of both the Joker and Red Riding Hood; the pressure on the syndicate's leadership was incredible. The power-sharing arrangement between Wesker and Kosov had never been particularly stable in the first place; it was showing signs of imminent collapse. If another gang war was coming, Gordon knew, that was where it'd start. The syndicate's bosses were living in a powder keg, and giving off sparks. The slightest thing could set them off. The situation was just waiting for something to go wrong.

Gordon sighed as he rubbed his eyes. This was Gotham City.

Something always went wrong.

* * * * * * * *

"... and by that point, the kids' dog was wearing the jetpack."

"I must say I can see why you neglected to tell me about this when it happened."

"Well, Donna and Wally accused me of making the whole thing up. Especially the name of the van. Roy said something similar'd happened to him, once — but I'm pretty sure he was just being a copycat. Just like his mentor, the poor man's Batman."

Things sort of swam back into focus for Tim, who was only partially aware that he was laying on a rack in the infirmary area of the cave. It sounded like Dick and Alfred were talking about... something involving a dog and a jetpack, but he wasn't sure how much of that was true and how much was grogginess. His side hurt like hell, and he was pretty sure he'd been out for a while. His first impulse was to try to sit up, but he quickly dissuaded himself from the attempt.

"Welcome back to the stage of history," Dick said, appearing in Tim's field of view.

"You are such a dork," he said weakly.

"Is that the kind of gratitude I get for saving your keister? You kids could learn something from your elders. What would Reagan do, huh?"

"Unless memory fails, Master Dick, President Reagan also forgot to duck." Alfred's voice came from somewhere outside Tim's view. It was a bit disconcerting.

"What happened?"

"Well, I'm not hip to all the gory details, but basically you got shot at some point. I'm guessing from the caliber and proximity to the scene you were at the scene of the Five Corners killings?"

"I got shot? What?"

"Yeah, you're lucky as hell, too. Looks like you caught a .30-06 slug right in the ribs."

"Jesus," Tim winced. "I didn't think my cuirass was rated to stop one of those."

"It isn't," came a third voice. Tim started despite himself. Bruce had a nasty habit of sneaking up on people. "You're luckier than you have any right to expect to be. The round passed through four layers of your cape first. The impact still destroyed your cuirass and did some nasty work on your ribs. How do you feel?"

"Like Judge Doom," Tim said, rubbing his face and trying again to sit up. The third attempt actually succeeded.

"Who?"

Tim was greeted by the site of Dick covering his face with his hand. "I thought you were reviewing your pop culture file, Bruce." Little known fact: The Batman maintained a detailed file on current memes, fads, and crazes. This included memorizing the lyrics of popular songs, and reviewing clips of the latest wardrobe malfunctions and nationwide laughingstocks. The reason? With men like the Riddler, Egghead, and the Cluemaster, it was vital to be able to catch references to this kind of thing.

Unfortunately he approached it much the same way he approached the periodic table of elements. Bruce was great at Twenty Questions, but he didn't actually integrate the knowledge. He knew facts, but didn't really know the material.

"Nevermind. What's my prognosis?"

"You're off the streets for at least two weeks. After that, we'll see." Bruce's tone did not invite discussion. Tim offered it anyway.

"I don't think that's such a good idea."

"I didn't ask, Tim."

"Look, I know you're the boss and all, but really, Bruce, let's be realistic. You and Dick are the only masters in the family, and have been ever since Babs has been in the chair. Cass is the only other full-time op we have, and with you two busy with the Joker, she's not really enough. You've got, what, King Tut, Calendar Girl, Clock King, and Baby Doll all unaccounted for? Not to mention Red Riding Hood — "

"Two weeks, Tim. That's final. You've been pushing yourself far too hard for weeks on this Hood obsession of yours. You need to rest and recover."

Tim could see the writing on the wall. He didn't bother mentioning Bruce's own Hood obsession — rumor had it that the man who would later become the Joker had been previously known as the Red Hood.

Wait a minute. The Red Hood?

* * * * * * * *

"Isn't it... rich? Aren't we a pair?"

"Ahhh, dat's the stuff," said Scarface, drawing a lit cigar to his lips. There was a sucking sound as he inhaled, but of course the cigar itself was unaffected. It was being smoked by an inanimate wooden puppet, after all.

The penthouse was quiet. That was good. It'd been a long week, and Kosov — that pampered, too-big-for-her-britches tart — had been on edge ever since her place had been firebombed. She hadn't exactly taken it with good grace. Scarface, well, he just rolled with it. He'd been in the business in Gotham long enough not to sweat the small stuff. It was all small stuff once you got down to it. Your place got firebombed by a freak with a flair for the dramatic? Price o' doin' business in Gotham, pity to say. Couldn't tell you how many of his places had been ransacked or gutted. No sweat off his back, he could tell you that.

That was why he was on top, y'know. He knew how to roll with the punches.

"Isn't it bliss? Don't you approve?"

Things had been rough lately, sure. Between the Joker and that uppity Iraqi mook, the outfit was havin' problems. That without mentionin' the Red Riding Hood killings. Well, that was fine. Give him a chance to reorganize his half o' the outfit, see? Yeah, that was the ticket. Black Mask may have been a helluva supervillain, but the dumb mook wasn't so hot at actually runnin' a business. Hell, that was how he'd gotten started in the first place — he'd run his company into the ground with his lousy business sense. The syndicate he'd created after the war? A mish-mash of existing outfits. No finesse, that dumb goat. Like makin' a tapestry with a couple o' quilts and a staple gun.

Well, turns out that Kosov tart wasn't much better. She was a helluva businesslady, sure. Knew her stuff like Black Mask never did, and in a good fifteen years she mighta been ready to sit at the grownups' table. Problem was, she didn't have fifteen years, and she was sittin' too much in his sun right now. He'd have to deal with her, and that was gonna have to happen soon. She was crampin' his style somethin' fierce.

"Just when I stopped opening doors..."

So, sure, there were problems. There was pressure. But pressure is what makes diamonds, you know. Scarface, he was a diamond. He shined under pressure.

* * * * * * * *

The elevator ride was long, but he didn't lack for amusement. Oh, no. Not him. Not ever. It was all so f—in' hilarious.

He kinda liked the song they were playing. It had a twist of muzak to it, but it was catchy. It had a rhythm, and you could dance to it.

The doors chimed, and they opened promptly. Top floor. Ladies and gentlemen, please take your seats. The evening's main attraction will be starting momentarily.

* * * * * * * *

Tim glanced over at the memorial case. The shoulders were about the right breadth. Difficult to say on the legs, but Dick had said they were about the same height and size.

Age was about right, too. It would explain the experience in martial arts, and the experience at swinglining and roofcrawling.

Jason Todd had been killed by the Joker, formerly known as the Red Hood. It wouldn't be the first time someone had returned inexplicably from the dead. Tim had seen enough in his time not to discredit the idea out of hand, no matter how much it repulsed him. It would explain a lot, especially why the case had been bothering Tim so much. Members of the family spent a lot of time around one another, picked up physical mannerisms. Moved in ways that were at least broadly similar. The Hood's body language had always seemed familiar somehow.

God, how could he talk to them about this? How could he share his suspicions without offending them horribly? Bruce had practically idolized the kid. He was the Good Soldier, the idée fixe of the cost of the war on crime. How could he tell Bruce the truth? And what if it wasn't true? What if Tim was wrong? What if it wasn't really him? He'd have slandered the memory of one of Bruce's children.

It was... God, this was horrible. He hoped and prayed he was wrong. But it didn't feel wrong.

"Hey, Alfred," Tim said quietly.

The manservant looked up from the terminal where he was updating some of the family's case files. "Yes, Master Timothy?"

"It kind of occurs to me," Tim said, trying not to make himself sound morbidly depressed by his recent all-too-close brush with a bullet. "I don't think I ever really knew what Jay looked like."

"Ah," Alfred frowned and sat back into his chair. "Master Bruce does not keep pictures of the late Master Jason, as you know. His resemblance to Master Dick was close enough that many never realized he was not the same Robin they'd previously known."

"Yeah, I know that much," Tim said, biting his lip. He hated dragging up painful memories and not even letting Alfred know what he was really getting at. "But, even with all the facts I know, I don't really feel like I know anything about him. I mean, I don't even know what color his eyes were."

Alfred frowned again. "It isn't really the sort of detail one often thinks about, you know. Unless my memory fails me — "

Tim tensed despite his best efforts to appear nonchalant.

" — Master Jason had blue eyes."

Tim felt things begin to click in his head.

There, on the docks, he had caught a glimpse of Red Riding Hood's face unmasked. He had not seen much, but one detail had been very clear.

Jason Todd had blue eyes.

So did Red Riding Hood.

* * * * * * * *

Walking down the hallway, pushing the cart. Smelled wonderful. Had to hand it to the crazy ol' coot. He had good taste.

The door was just ahead. Please silence your pagers, cell phones, and watches that chime. Wouldn't want to ruin the experience for the rest of the audience, after all.

Knocking at the door.

* * * * * * * *

"Making my entrance again with my usual flair..."

Scarface relaxed, as the poor spineless Wesker dope poured him a drink. Yeah, it'd been a long week, but nothin' a fine drink, a fine cigar, and some classic Ol' Blue Eyes couldn't cure. Long week, sure, but things were lookin' up. Nothin' could wreck his mood tonight.

There was a knock at the door. Room service. Scarface had ordered up some steak. One of the bodyguards went to check the peephole.

Smelled delicious. He loved a good steak. Nights like this, nothin' could go wrong.

* * * * * * * *

Thank you for your patience, ladies and gentlemen. The wait is over.

Showtime.

* * * * * * * *

"But where are the clowns? Quick, send in the clowns."



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


Last edited by Publius on 2008-03-24 02:18pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Chapter Twelve: Do You Realize?

Two weeks was a surprisingly long time. Tim knew this, because even one week was killing him. Fortunately for his sanity, Red Riding Hood had also been laying low, licking his wounds from the beating Two-Face had given him. That left him only the problem of the brewing gang war to deal with. From a desk.

The Black Mask syndicate was in an uproar, as Kosov moved to solidify her control.The lesser bosses were scrambling to pick up new crews and territory in the wake of the fall of Scarface. Allowing for old rivalries and unpaid debts, that meant anybody who didn't want to work for Kosov had some pretty limited options — nobody who'd worked for Scarface was going to be keen on going to work for Two-Face or the Penguin. There was too much bad blood there in the recent past. Thanks to the recent rash of killings, the most marketable service a boss could offer potential soldiers was protection.

The end result was that of all the bosses benefitting from the defections from the syndicate, it was the Mullah who'd come out ahead... and the fact that his new outfit was being swelled with recruits who'd left the syndicate out of hatred for Kosov set things up for a nasty showdown between the Russian and the Kurd.

Lovely.

In the meantime, he was here nursing some badly bruised ribs. At least he'd been able to convince Bruce he should be allowed to leave on reconnaissance duty, provided he not engage in any actual street work. In this particular formula, Bruce had clearly and carefully defined "street work" to include any sort of direct engagement, except where his intervention might save a life. Given the workload of late, it simply didn't make any sense to keep him off the streets entirely. He'd already worked out a 'spotter' arrangement with Cass. Tim did the work to track the skel down, and then called in the artillery strike. So far they'd already captured Jane Doe, Hugo Strange, and Prometheus. He'd worked up some leads on Calendar Man and Calendar Girl, who at last report were working together, and he was working up some intel on Clock King and Baby Doll.

But the truth of it was, his heart just wasn't in it. He'd been tracking the Red Riding Hood case since the beginning, and the truth was that Bruce was right. Tim was obsessed. Ever since that fateful night when he'd witnessed the death of Roman Sionis — and try as he might, he still couldn't arouse even a flicker of sympathy in his heart for the man's brutal death — , there was something about this case he couldn't get out of his head. Even now that he was pretty sure he'd figured it out, something was still bothering him. He felt like he was missing something, and something big, at that.

The enforced recovery period was killing him. Making sure his ribs were properly taped, Tim donned his uniform, including a brand new cuirass — the one he'd been wearing had been thoroughly wrecked by the gunshot wound. Turns out that a .30-06 will do nasty things even to body armor. No wonder Two-Face was so fond of his M1918A2. Not really surprising, though; Gotham City's criminal element was a decidedly nostalgic bunch when it came to weapons. The old M1911A1 .45 automatic and the Thompson submachine gun were staples of the mean streets of Gotham, the fact that they dated to the early part of the previous century notwithstanding.

One of the conditions of his parole — which is precisely how Tim thought of his being allowed to do some light duty during his recovery time — was that his motorcycle was impounded. That was all right, he supposed; it'd been a while since he'd used the Redbird, anyway. It'd be nice to take the ol' girl out for a spin. He had some appointments he needed to keep, and then he'd planned something special for the evening. There was someone he wanted to ask a few questions.

* * * * * * * *

Alexandra Fyodorovna Kosova — her birth certificate said "Kosov," but she thought of herself in the Russian, anyway — was having a good week. A mere two years ago, she had been a junior member of the family, her brother Viktor Fyodorovich the head of the Odessa mob in the West End. Poor Viktor had been killed in the same massacre that had claimed the heads of the Latino Unified Gang, the Escabedo Cartel, the Gotham Yakuza, the Harbor outfit, the Lucky Hand Triad, the Burnley Town Massive, and the Five Families. That was a shame — Alexandra had genuinely loved her brother. But at the same time, she was her father's daughter, and he'd taught all his children that feelings should never interfere with seizing the moment. She'd stepped up to take her brother's place. She'd briefly allied with Scarface's outfit during the war, and had been the first boss to join the Black Mask. She'd been rewarded with the role of second lieutenant in the organized syndicate after the war.

Now both Black Mask and his first lieutenant, Scarface, were dead and gone, and it was Alexandra Kosov who was the boss of bosses, only the second since Big Boy Caprice. Oh, there were other outfits she didn't control, certainly, but the Black Mask syndicate controlled nearly two-thirds of all organized crime in Gotham City — and that was more than even the Roman had been able to claim in his day. Capo di tutti capi... well, she didn't particularly care for the title itself, even if she did rather enjoy the power it represented. It was just so... Italian. To be expected, really; Black Mask had been Italian, as had the Roman and the Boss, and all the way back to the Big Boy himself in the old days. She'd have to see to that, as soon as she thought of something appropriate. The word on the street was that she was already being called the Crime Czarina.

Typical Western ignorance. The distaff form of czar was czaritsa, not czarina. Well, at least "Crime Czarina" was closer to the truth than calling that uppity Kurd "The Mullah."

The Joker had ensured she'd been in need for a new place anyway, and she'd been unable to resist the symbolism of acquiring the same suite once occupied by the Roman himself. The new penthouse was appointed in the best finery she could afford — and it went without saying that the boss of bosses could afford quite a lot. It was a suite fit for a tsar. Which was only appropriate, no?

She turned her chair from the window, with its vast panoramic view of her city below, to face her guest across the huge oak desk she'd appropriated for herself. As far as the city's freaks went, he was relatively mild, even if his fetish for hats was more than just a little offputting.

"Report," she said brusquely.

"Scarface's half of the syndicate is still hemorrhaging street-level people," said the Mad Hatter. "It seems quite a few aren't willing to dance to your tune. I've been able to persuade — " here he grinned a Cheshire grin — "many of the underbosses it is to their advantage to remain loyal."

"Good. The remaining underbosses?"

"I have a list of those who won't dance at all," he said. "They will be... seen to. The remaining mugwumps will be joining me for tea tonight."

"And you will see to it they are properly advised of their options?"

He smiled again. It was never a pleasant expression, not on that man's face. It was all teeth and cruel intentions. "Ms. Austen is not the only one to know a little about persuasion," said the Mad Hatter.

Kosov rolled her eye. She'd never had any use for these freaks' fetish for banter. "I want it made clear that anyone who leaves my service without my express permission will be punished."

The strange little man doffed his tophat and did a mock courtly bow. "Milady, I am at your service."

* * * * * * * *

Of course the meeting had to be in Five Points. As far as convenient meeting places went, Gotham's Little Fallujah had plenty of possibilities. He'd selected a condemned apartment building with all the doors and windows boarded shut. Tim had no idea how he'd even gotten in, only to find him in a room on the fourth floor that was appointed in surprising comfort, seated behind a desk that was far too large to have fit through the doors. It was, on the balance, entirely typical. He did this kind of thing to indulge his superiority complex, to leave his visitors wondering how he'd managed to do something. The truth was, he was a genius, but he was also a cheater. Like any magician, there was a trick involved.

"What can run but never walks, has a mouth but never talks, has a head but never weeps, and has a bed but never sleeps?"

Years of experience with the Batman had left him rather more skilled than most at knowing when he was no longer alone. He was difficult to sneak up on.

"A river," Tim answered from the shadows. "What is it that the maker does not tell, the taker does not know, and the knower does not want?"

"Counterfeit money. How many times can you subtract five from twenty?"

"Only once. After that, you'd be subtracting from fifteen."

"Well, well, well," said the man with a smile, hands steepled in front of his face. "To what do I owe this singular honor?"

He wore a green smoking jacket and bowler, a black shirt, and a purple domino mask. His silk necktie was plain purple, except for a single green question mark.

"I think you already know why I'm here," Tim said, deliberately staying back in the shadows. It was a game they played, each trying to force the other into showing his hand first.

"I cannot help but find it amusing," chuckled the man, "For all your sleuthhounding, when you've lost your sleuth you come to the Riddler."

"Think of it is as a compliment," Tim offered, amused at the Riddler's deliberate flaunting of his knowledge: he'd been unable to resist pointing out the etymology of sleuth. "We acknowledge your intellectual girth."

"You value my information, you mean." The Riddler leaned back in his chair. "And what is it you want from me this time?"

The Riddler was one of the most accomplished thieves on the Eastern seaboard. Over the course of his career, he had stolen more than a billion dollars' worth in cash and valuables. He was also one of the most intelligent men in the whole of North America, whose crippling superiority complex and obsession with riddles compelled him to leave clues as to his latest heists. Were it not for these clues, not even the Batman would have been able to keep up with him. He had recently secured his own release from prison after spending a week in Blackgate's library, having found some law books in the inventory. The ensuing legal chicanery had left even his attorney confused.

Despite his decidedly criminal background and occupation, the truth was that the Riddler was also one of the best-informed men alive when it came to Gotham's underground. Black market sales ledgers, blackmail files, organizational relationships, who was paying whom for what... all of it was filed away in the Riddler's head. He had never served a full term of imprisonment, always finding some means of plea-bargaining his way back onto the streets. The district attorney's office considered him one of their most valuable — if maddeningly unreliable and uncooperative — sources of information.

"Red Riding Hood," Tim said.

"Ah, yes," said the Riddler, tapping his chin with his index finger. "Curious as to who lurks behind the mask of the Red Death, are you? Well, you know I demand payment."

No such thing as a free lunch. The Riddler never gave away information for free; even if there was no fee involved, there was always a price. Tim produced a sealed envelope and handed it over.

The Riddler looked at the envelope, and then looked at Tim. "Is that what I think it is?"

"Maybe, and maybe not. You have my word that it's fair payment."

"But I'd have to open it to find out."

"Of course. I don't have to tell you that opening it would mean you'd accepted it."

The Riddler looked at the envelope again, and smiled. "Well played, Boy Wonder. Well played, indeed. The payment is fair. A riddle for a puzzle, then. Cui bono?"

"Cui bono is neither a riddle nor an answer," Tim said, resisting the urge to frown.

"I wasn't finished," the Riddler said, placing his hands flat on his desk. "Children. You worry so much about your toys and never think about what makes them. When is the virgin like Miss Muffet?"

"That's your final answer?"

"Are you deliberately trying to insult my intelligence?"

"Not at all. I'm just trying to be sure I've gotten my money's worth."

The Riddler smirked. "You have my word that it's fair payment."

* * * * * * * *

Tim mulled over the Riddler's words as he turned the car back toward the cave. Like the Batmobile itself, the Redbird was not so flashy that it draw undue attention while driving down Gotham's streets, despite its many illegal features. The windows were sufficiently tinted that nobody outside the car could see that the driver was dressed like a bird. So it turned out that Dick had said the name Robin was in fact a reference to the bird, while the original tunic and pixie boots had been his father's design, deliberately invoking the aesthetic of Robin Hood.

Cui bono? To whom the good? Who was benefitting from the gangland killings? All of the bosses and underbosses who hadn't died, in the general sense. In a narrower sense, the big winners were the Mullah and Kosov. With so many poison pills left over from the antebellum days, it would have been difficult or impossible for the relative newcomers to secure their power bases so quickly, whereas they were now among the most powerful bosses in the city. Was that intentional? Was that what the Riddler was saying? Was Red Riding Hood working for one of the bosses?

The Joker had been deliberately released from Arkham, that much was clear. Bruce's own investigation had revealed the hand of the Mad Hatter in that, part of the plot to overthrow Black Mask. But then the Joker had promptly gone on a rampage, killing gangsters as often as civilians. And then there had been the arrival of the Mullah, which had been every bit as unexpected as the Joker's killing spree had been unpredictable. If someone had been working a scenario, it must have been nearly wrecked by that development. Omar Salih, who had benefitted quite possibly the most from the Red Riding Hood killings, had started out with the least infrastructure. He didn't have the resources at first to be backing the Masked Red Death.

Nevertheless, somebody was backing him, that much was clear. The material resources required to keep him equipped and the information he needed to select his targets ruled out a solo campaign. The Batman's war on crime was backed by the Wayne fortune, one of the largest in the Western hemisphere. Who was paying the bills for Red Riding Hood's kanly war of assassins?

The truth was that Tim was not as ready for returning to duty as he'd like to believe he was. He was already tired, and his side ached. He was having a hard time focusing. What was it the Riddler had said? "When is a virgin like Miss Muffet?" What did he mean by that? The Virgin — Mary, Mother of God? Sir Richard Branson? Queen Elizabeth I? The constellation Virgo? Miss Muffet — what was that a reference to? Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, a kind of three-legged stool — Tricorner? The Triumvirate? The XYZ? A troika? Curds and whey — the Condiment King? The Milk Man? Along came a spider — the Spider, the 1930s man of mystery? Tarantula, the Blüdhaven vigilante and now leader of the Arañas? That blue and red guy from New York that Bruce occasionally crossed paths with?

Dealing with the Riddler was never a straightforward affair. He had only the Riddler's word that the riddle was worthwhile. Then again, the Riddler had only his word that the envelope had contained something worthwhile. It was a game they played. Tim shrugged. He turned on the radio.

He was driving through Chinatown half-listening to a press statement from the White House, something about President Ryan and Prime Minister Kerslake responding to the latest demands by Red Claw, when he noticed a flutter of red at the rooftop level. The radio was quickly muted and he checked the on-board computer... Yes. He had reports the Mad Hatter was meeting with some underbosses on Kosov's behalf somewhere nearby. And Red Riding Hood was at last back in action.

Well... Bruce had said he could get involved if someone's life were at stake. And the Red Death had been targeting underbosses the whole time, so....

Tim pulled into an alley and reached for his grapnel gun.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


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Chapter 13: I Don't Want to Miss a Thing

The Mad Hatter's tea parties were like those occasions no one really wants to go to but everyone attends, for fear of missing an important opportunity to put in an appearance and for fear of offending someone important. It was not necessarily the Hatter himself — his reputation in Gotham was suitably ambivalent for some to regard him as a big time player and others to regard him as a dangerous curiosity. The knowledge that other underbosses would be there made attendance more or less mandatory. Gotham's underground was a lot like high society (and by extension, high school) in that it was vital to see and be seen. Networking had been the key to success long before the Internet and modern business seminars had made it a buzzword.

Tonight's party-goers were a motley crew of Triads, Yakuza, Irish mobsters, Cartel men, and some of the syndicate's Mafiosi defectors. Their only common bond was that they were currently part of the syndicate, and they were all considering doing away with that common bond. The Mad Hatter, once again the chief enforcer for the entire syndicate, had invited them all to tea.

He smiled — as usual, the expression put no one at ease, regardless of how friendly he tried to make it. He made his sales pitch, complete with thinly-veiled threats of retribution should they leave without the Czaritsa's permission. Frank opinions were exchanged and the situation discussed. It was all very friendly. Very friendly.

"Friends, all I wish to say is that protection is what truly matters these days. Who can offer you better protection than the Czaritsa?" He grinned. People no longer questioned what the Mad Hatter could do for them... or to them. The late and unlamented Lucky Jimmy O'Neill had seen to that... with his good eye.

"Nobody doubts that you can kill businessmen," said one of the Escabedo men. "But let's face it, Kosov's people were hit as hard as Scarface's these past months, and that was with you on hand already."

"There's a certain amount of risk in every endeavor," the Mad Hatter said, running his gloved finger along the rim of his tea cup. "But I hardly think — "

The skylight shattered into a million jagged fragments and smoke grenades plunged the room into confusion and chaos. There was a flash and a bang, and then a flutter of red, and the Red Death was among them.

He was fast, there was no doubt about that. The shuriken found their mark, disarming the already-disoriented underbosses who'd had the presence of mind to produce their guns. And then the blade...

"That's quite enough out of you," the Mad Hatter said through a feral grin, his hand going to the brim of his top hat.

Red Riding Hood slowed noticeably, clearly struggling with the Hatter's mind control. A well-placed shuriken drove the Hatter to dodge, affording some relief from the overwhelming psychic pressure. An inconvenient truth: The Mad Hatter's control was not entirely irresistible when it was broadcast without a receiver. When his victim was not wearing one of his hats or price tags, there was always the possibility that willpower could overcome the mind control waves.

More smoke grenades. Apparently it was well known that the broadcast method was most effective with a clear line of sight. The blade was out again, and slashed at a few of the underbosses who had not yet found a place to take cover. But the Mad Hatter was keeping the Red Death back, limiting the range of his attack. Like the chess queen, he dominated the board so long as he was in play; Red Riding Hood could not venture far from his protective smoke screen without falling prey to his mind control once again.

All things considered, he couldn't have arranged a more effective demonstration of why staying with the syndicate would be a good career move.

The Hatter advanced on the Hood, his left hand firmly affixed to the brim of his hat. His teeth were gritted, but his lips twisted into a nasty grin. He'd not had such fun in ages.

"One, two! one, two! and through and through," he said in a sing-song voice, "The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!"

The Hood retreated, the wakizashi out and at the ready but his body language clearly showing signs of struggle. The Hatter was close enough now that he simply deflected a flash-bang with his free hand, letting it tumble back to bamboozle some of the hapless underbosses.

"He left it dead, and with its head," he said nastily, drawing a pistol from his pocket — Red Riding Hood was backed up against a window now —

The hammer fell, the thunder sounded. Red Riding Hood shuddered. Again. Again. The window shattered, and the Red Death fell with the glass.

The Mad Hatter doffed his hat and swept it around, the pistol still smoking as he turned back to his audience with a flourish and a bow, grinning from ear to ear: "He went galumphing back!"

* * * * * * * *

Tim was, at this point, willing to admit that his recovery had not been as thorough as he'd liked to think. Red Riding Hood was (he repeatedly reminded himself) only so so at swinglining, probably as a result of having been "dead" for so long. There was no reason the alleged Boy Wonder should have been so far behind in tracking him.

He'd arrived at the scene of the attack after it had already come and gone. The Mad Hatter's guests were not in terrific shape; about five of them were dead, more were bleeding. All, however, were suitably impressed that the strange little man had fought off the Masked Red Death. Nothing terribly impressive about that, Tim harrumphed, when you considered that he'd only recently had the tar beaten out of him by Two-Face. Since no lives were in imminent danger, Bruce's edict on Tim's inactivity applied. He observed the scene for a few minutes, deployed a listening device, and set out to try to find the now twice-chastened Red Riding Hood. He'd double back and scope out the crime scene later.

Pursuit was surprisingly straightforward. It hadn't snowed tonight, so the Hood's footprints were crisply preserved. Given that he was only so so at swinglining, it made it a lot easier to follow his tracks; he was more likely to require frequent stops to re-position and re-orient himself. Which was good, really; Tim's side was already aching.

There — just up ahead. The Red Death was heading to the edge, where there was waiting for him what looked like a powered glider. Interesting. His movements were sluggish, and it looked like he was having some breathing problems. Not surprising at all; he'd just suffered a two storey fall, and if the scene of the attack was any indication, he may well have been shot. Tim was in an unfortunate position to commiserate in that regard. Being shot did not feel good, even without the penetrative trauma.

"That's a pretty sweet rig you've got there," Tim said, narrowing his eyes.

The Hood turned slowly and eyed him, apparently sizing him up. He was definitely breathing hard, hunched over. It looked as though the fall had scraped off some of the paint on his bodysuit. From the looks of things, he was in no condition for a fight. Well, that was good — neither was Tim.

"I've got one like it," he continued. "Where'd you get yours?"

The Hood turned back and continued to don the glider, having evidently decided that Tim was no threat. He made some kind of noise deep in his throat, and paused to rub at his temples.

"Something wrong, Jason?"

The Hood's breathing increased its pace; it sounded like he was almost strangling inside his mask. "Stay back," he rasped. "I... don't want — You're not on my list."

"So you have a list, then," Tim said warily. He was careful not to draw any closer. "Where did you get it? Same place you got all your gear? Who's paying for all this?" He hesitated. "Who's making you do this, Jason?"

"You... you don't know anything," the Hood said, finishing with the glider. He turned back to face Tim. "Stay away. You're not on my list."

"Why are you doing this?"

The Hood was silent for a long time, staring at him through his unchanging mask. "It is who I am now."

"Is it really?" Tim shook his head. "It doesn't have to be. You have a choice."

The Hood shuddered, his breathing increased, and he rubbed at his temples again. "It is who I am," he repeated, his voice growing harsher. "Now."

"That's the second time you've said that," Tim said, narrowing his eyes again. There was something not right here. The elephant in the room. "I don't think this is who you are. Not really. Someone is making you do this. Who?"

"It is who I am!" His body language was getting hostile.

"No," Tim shook his head emphatically. "Jason, please listen to me. I know this isn't you, not really. Let me help you."

"You don't know anything."

"I know this isn't — "

"Stop following me. You don't know anything. It is who I am."

"Do you even know who you are anymore?"

"You're not on my list," the Hood said again, visibly straining. He seemed pretty out of it. The Mad Hatter must have hurt him pretty badly; internal bleeding, probably. "Stay away. This is who I am now. Stop following me."

"It doesn't have to be."

"I don't want to hurt you," the Hood said, one hand firmly clasped to his face, covering one eye. Tim would have to scrounge and see if he'd had a history of migraines.

"Then don't," he said. "Who did this to you? Why are you doing this?"

"It is who I am," he hissed, a strangling noise in his throat. "I have no choice. It is who I am."

"Tell me who is making you do this. I can help you."

"You don't know anything. Stay away. You're not on my list. I don't want to hurt you." It was like talking to a computer. He was repeating himself.

"I don't understand," Tim said, shaking his head. "Why are you doing this?"

"You know who I am," said Red Riding Hood, his voice like a cold wind on a tombstone. "You know my name."

He turned and jumped.

And then he was gone with the wind.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


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Chapter Fourteen: Here's to the Night

It had been a grueling few months, but the payoff was worth it. All the maneuvering, the killings, the untidiness. It had been decidedly unpleasant work, the Czaritsa decided, but then, what is easily gained is prized cheaply, and easily lost again. Anything worth having is worth working for, and her throne as the empress of the Gotham undergound was very much worth having. She now controlled or had direct influence over two-thirds of all organized crime in the city. And unlike her immediate predecessor, the Black Mask, her syndicate had not been haphazardly thrown together from existing parts, a Frankenstein's monster of crime; no, thanks to Scarface's preliminary work and her own further edicts, along with the Mad Hatter's assiduous efforts at enforcement, the syndicate was now a thoroughly modernized, organic business. Even if the syndicate's size did not translate directly to absolute control of two-thirds of all the territories, it did mean that she was the undisputed most powerful crime boss since the death of Big Boy Caprice in 1938.

It was no small achievement for a woman who'd grown up in the shadow of her big brother Viktor, whose ambitions had never extended higher than being some day the boss of the whole of the Odessa mob in the West End of the city. As she stood at the expansive windows of her huge office, overlooking the city below, she saw that it was good. As she stood at the windows of what had once been the office of Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, who had once been the most powerful boss Gotham had seen in decades, but whose power was much less than her own, she saw that it was good. She smiled. It was good to be tsaritsa.

The Gotham she now ruled — or at least dominated — was different from the Roman's Gotham. That had been back in the Cold War, before the great changes that had re-shaped the world. Many of the new outfits had either been modestly-sized operations subservient to the Five Families, or else had not existed at all. The Gotham Yakuza, the Burnley Town Massive, the Escabedo Cartel, the Latino Unified Gang... None of them had even been on the map back then. Nor had there been any of the freaks in those days, with the exception of Albert Wesker, whose severe personality disorders had not yet become so acute. The Five Families had been the alpha and the omega of organized crime, and the Roman had been a giant among men — but even then he'd had to share power with Sal "The Boss" Maroni. Today it was a different world, and a different Gotham; the Czaritsa was a giant among giants. The stakes were higher — the players much rougher — than ever before. And yet she had triumphed. Comparing her to the Roman was like comparing Stalin to Mussolini.

"Your car is ready, Alexandra Fyodorovna," said one of her bodyguards, a man who had served her family since before she was born. It was for this reason she permitted him to call in such familiar terms. Business was one thing, but one had always to look after family.

She smiled and allowed him to help her with her coat of luxurious mink fur. It was good to be tsaritsa.

The ride to the parking garage was uneventful; her personal security detachment was well-paid to ensure that it was always uneventful. Likewise the car ride. No one in Gotham had a more extensive or better financed corps of bodyguards — no one, not even the mayor, not even the corpulent 'aristocrat of crime' Oswald Cobblepot. It may be good to be tsaritsa, but she certainly had no illusions of imperial sacrosanctity. She knew all too well what had happened to the last Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias.

The Czaritsa was not a terribly devout person, but she'd been raised Russian Orthodox, and much like the Italian mafiosi and the Roman Catholic Church, a part of her retained that lifelong obedience. Only part, of course — her religion did nothing to regulate her business practices, but she was a believer and she gave generously to the Church. Every year, in addition to the usual solemnities and occasions to be seen, she made her way down to the St. Athanasius's Cathedral in the West End — built with Kosov money — to mark the anniversary of her father's death. This year would be no different. The regularity of the trip made heightened security a priority.

The arrival, as so much else, was uneventful. It was a truly beautiful church — easily on the same scale as St. Thomas Aquinas's, the Catholic cathedral downtown. That was important. The Romans had to be reminded of their place every now and then. She headed to the analogion near the iconostasion, where she was to meet her spiritual father. The Romans would call him a confessor.

To her great surprise, it was not her spiritual father who arrived.

"How did you get in here?" she demanded.

"I walked through the door," the man said in accented Russian — accented, but nevertheless quite fluent. "Knock, and the door is opened. That is what you believe, is it not so?"

"What do you want?" she was decidedly angry at this unexpected turn of events. Her head of security was going to receive a visit from the Mad Hatter. "Where is Father Grigori?"

"He is in good company. I am here to talk business."

"You profane this church with your — "

"Please. Do you often lie before your God? I am no more profane than you."

"You are not even Christian!"

He shrugged. "How often do you wash before you pray? If my presence offends you so much, why don't we step outside?"

The Czaritsa snorted. "And be gunned down by your men? I think not."

"If I wanted you dead," he said, his breathing coming in steadily and with a strange rasp to it, "I would have killed you already. As you said, I am not Christian. This building is not sacred to me."

She glanced at her personal bodyguard, the man who had been with her family for decades. He was looking at her visitor with surprise and outright hostility. She waved him off. As he said, if he'd wanted her dead... "Very well. We will go outside. But not the door, no. Come. We will go upstairs. There is a balcony on the third floor."

He followed her up the stairs, making no comment as they walked. He was all business, no fuss. There was a kind of steely charisma to him, an aura of naked power. It was easy to see why he had done so well in the last few months.

"Your Russian is excellent, for an Iraqi," she said casually once they'd reached the balcony. "Where did you learn?"

"Leningrad, 1979. Are you done with small talk?" All business, indeed.

"What do you want?"

"I want the killings to stop."

"And I want President Ryan to die a humiliating death. We do not always get what we want."

"Do not insult me by feigning ignorance, woman," he said, his voice as raspy as ever. "This Joker, this Red Riding Hood. Both were inflicted on us by your man. I have endured their outrages as long as I will endure them. Seven times they have made attempts on my life. They have threatened my men. They have threatened my business. It stops. Now. Or I will show you pampered Americans what war is."

"Pampered? American? If you think — "

He grunted. "You are American citizen, with American rights, and American comforts."

"My... dear sir," she said, her anger solidified into an icy ball in her stomach, "If you think you will intimidate me, you are mistaken. If you think me ill-equipped to settle accounts with you, by all means, please try."

They glared at one another, each calm, confident, dangerous. Despite the drastic differences in age, gender, nationality, and culture, they were distinctly cut from the same cloth.

He shook his head slightly. "I have said what I came to say. The killings stop. Or the killings will start in earnest. It is your — "

The shuriken came in at lightning speed, carefully aimed directly for his throat. But the man's reflexes were fast — far faster than anyone the Czaritsa had ever seen; what should have torn his throat wide open instead was deflected by the sleeve of his coat.

She had her pistol out in an instant, scanning the horizon for — there! A flutter of red, a figure dressed in black. The Masked Red Death, here? A whuff of air as the grapnel gun latched onto the wall just above where they stood. It would be only seconds before the killer was among them.

"Faithless drab," he hissed, as his fist crashed into her side, just beneath the ribs. Her chic business suit offered no protection from the blow.

"What the hell are you doing?" she demanded, scrabbling away from him and trying to straighten herself out. "He's coming, you idiot!"

He plucked her pistol from her hands.

"I come in good faith," he growled, his face an ugly mask of blackest anger, as he. His white leather glove closed around the pistol's grip. "And again you send your killer! Again you send your Red Riding Hood after me! No more. I warned you."

The last thing Alexandra Fyodorovna Kosova, Czaritsa of Gotham, ever saw was the barrel of her own pistol being pressed against her good eye.

* * * * * * * *

The door of the executive suite in the Iceberg Lounge swung open with unaccustomed speed as the raspy-voiced man entered, and eyed his fellow tetrarchs. Well, strictly speaking, two of his fellow tetrarchs, and the third's representative. The Penguin, Two-Face, and the Tally Man, representing the Great White Shark. Together they represented less than one-third of Gotham's organized crime. At the same time, however, they represented the best-funded, best-organized, and best-equipped networks in the tristate area, and what they lacked in quantity was more than made up in quality. Not for them the gaudy shows of power that befitted a Black Mask or a Czaritsa. Let them run Gotham; this shadow tetrarchy owned the city itself, and the county, and more beyond. Let the boss of bosses intimidate the mayor; this shadow tetrarchy now owned the speaker, the governor, four congressmen, and both senators.

"Peace be upon you," said the Penguin in Arabic, the cigarette lighter making its way from one side of his mouth to the other as he spoke. The Mullah had been surprised to find that he spoke surprisingly literate Arabic, as well as a fair amount of Turkish, Kurdish, and Farsi. It should have not been surprising, in retrospect; the Penguin was nothing if not a man of culture. His family had conquered Qurac for the British Empire, after all.

"And upon you be peace," he said, tossing a pair of white leather gloves to Two-Face. "A souvenir," he rasped. "If anyone was less fond of her than I, it was you."

Two-Face took a generous puff of his cigar as he examined the gloves. "This is blood," he said.

"Sometimes a man has to get his hands dirty," said the Tally Man, examining one of the bottles he'd retrieved from the mini-bar's exquisitely stocked inventory. "De la Vega '42? Who'd you have to kill to get ahold of this, Penguin?

"As you say, Tally Man, sometimes a man has to get his hands dirty," the aristocrat said, wiping his monocle on a silk handkerchief and screwing it back into his eye socket. "I take it your meeting with our beloved imperatritsa was infelicitous, effendi?"

"There is no honor among the Russians," he said, shaking his head.

The Penguin arched an eyebrow at this. "Some things never change, my friend." Long ago, Oswald Cobblepot had been refused military service in Viet Nam due to his weight, despite the plethora of letters of recommendation from general officers from six different countries. He had instead served as a spymaster for the CIA across the Iron Curtain, covered as the third secretary in the American embassy in Markovia. Perhaps more than any other among the first rank of Gotham's criminal elite, he understood the Mullah's hostile opinion of Mother Russia.

He held up his coat sleeve and pointed to the tear in the fabric from Red Riding Hood's shuriken. "She brought her pet assassin. It is fortunate I have learned from other men's mistakes. No doubt the weapon was laced with poison."

Two-Face removed the cigar from his mouth and regarded the Mullah with a wry look. "I take it this is not your blood, then."

"What is it your Marion Barry said? B— set me up."

The Tally Man allowed a thin smile. "For a man who hasn't spent much time in America, Salih, you seem to know an awful lot about our culture."

He shrugged. "I have had reason to become familiar with it."

Two-Face stood and turned so he was actually facing the other three. "Well, gentlemen, as glad as I am to hear that jewel-eyed tart won't be bothering us anymore, that doesn't solve our immediate problem."

"Do you think the Hatter will take control? Or another of Kosov's inner circle?"

"Difficult to say. The Hatter is definitely responsible for some of the troubles of late. He's one of us, though. If possible, he should be spared."

"If possible," Two-Face agreed, exhaling smoke. "Ball's in his court on that one."

"I disagree," said the Mullah. "As he sows, let him reap."

"Two in favor, one against. Tally Man?"

"My employer feels the Hatter is too valuable to lose, if the loss can be avoided."

"Very well. The question before us, then, is twofold. Who will succeed Kosov, and what shall be done about the killings?"

"This Joker is your friend, Oswald bey. Can you not speak to him?"

"A friend of sorts, I'm afraid. You know what he's like. He has done the courtesy of sparing Two-Face and me too much trouble," said the Penguin, ejecting his extinguished cigarette from its long holder. "He won't extend the courtesy to you or the Great White, nor will he tell me what he's up to. Notoriously difficult man."

"We should kill him and be done with it," said the Mullah.

"Not a good idea," the Tally Man said, shaking his head. "The last time someone deliberately tried to rub out the Joker... well, they're still finding pieces of him all over the city."

"It's usually best to leave him alone," Two-Face said, gesturing vaguely with his cigar. "The bat'll get him eventually."

The Mullah grunted. "'The bat.' I am not impressed."

"You haven't met him yet," the Tally Man shook his head again. "Just wait. You'll see."

"Keep your eyes on the prize, boys," Two-Face interrupted. "Leave the clown to the bat. Kill the kid in the red cape. Agreed?"

"Agreed."

"Inelegantly phrased, but nevertheless I concur."

"Agreed."

"And the syndicate?"

"We need more information before we can act," said the Tally Man. "My employer is uneasy with the lack of actionable intelligence in this matter. The Hatter is our only lead."

"I haven't got anything," said Two-Face. "The street's still talking about that Holiday garbage Scarface was touting."

"To that end," said the Penguin, walking to his magnificently-appointed desk. "I have taken the liberty of inviting a guest to join us for tonight's session." He touched a switch to activate the intercom. "Please find my guest and show him in, Miss Horton." The Penguin's mild language did nothing to reduce the absolute power in his voice. For a man of such corpulent build, he contained a surprising amount of steel.

"And who's your guest?"

"Come, Two-Face, do you really have to ask? Who, indeed?"

The door opened and the guest entered, bowler and cane in hand. "Riddle me this, gentlemen: When is a door not a door?"

The Riddler grinned. "When it's ajar."



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Chapter Fifteen: Hips Don't Lie

There was a whuff of compressed air as Red Riding Hood fired his grapnel gun at the cathedral's balcony, clearly intent on finishing the job. The Mullah would die, whether by shuriken or by wakizashi. One way or another. He was on the list.

Before he could so much as shift his weight, the razor-sharp Batarang sliced through the jumpline like a hot knife through butter. Tim may have been too late to stop the shuriken, but he certainly wasn't going to let the Hood take a second shot.

The Red Death's pattern had simplified tremendously of late, and had come to focus quite heavily on outskirts of the city — not coincidentally where he was more likely to strike at the Mullah's growing outfit. The pattern had also taken on an increased attention on the upper levels, to the point he'd actually made several attacks on the Mullah himself. Like Catwoman and others before him, he'd learned not to underestimate the Kurdish boss. Though the Mullah himself had proven impervious to the assassin's attacks thus far, he was one of the few; the attacks had been coming quickly and almost regularly, creating intolerable pressure.

And so Tim had realized that he could track Red Riding Hood's movements and attacks much more closely if he cross-referenced the movements of the Mullah and his underbosses. Thus leading him here, to St. Athanasius's in the West End. The bulwark of the Odessa mob, where Red Riding Hood had made yet another attempt on the Iraqi Kurd's life.

The Hood turned to face him, partially crouched, his weight evenly balanced on the balls of his feet. Whatever he'd said before about not wanting to hurt Tim, his body language was definitely hostile. There was the sound of a gunshot, and the Hood shifted his attention slightly. That moment's distraction was all Tim needed.

The flashbang caught him by surprise, and Tim's fist found its way into his gut. The Hood's immediate response was to retaliate in kind, driving an elbow blindly into Tim's sternum — only to find it protected by his cuirass. The lenses in the Hood's mask must have been pretty good, because the flashbang's disorientation didn't seem to last very long. Tim caught a second punch to the ribs — Sweet fancy Moses, that hurts! — and repaid him with a jab to the jaw.

The Hood retreated a few steps, then advanced with a feint to the right, and a sidekick from the left. Deflected, and riposted neatly. Tim's attacks were mostly probing at this point; he hadn't yet had occasion to engage in too much hand-to-hand with the Red Death, and needed to sound out his defenses first. He had fists like steel and a mean sidekick, and his posture showed definite signs of a few different martial arts; it was a bit unclear as to which one was dominant. There was a scrape of metal against leather, and the envenomed wakizashi made its appearance.

"What happened to 'I don't want to hurt you,' Jason?"

"Stop calling me that."

"Or what?"

The Hood made no response, slashing at him without hesitation. Tim's earlier suspicions were confirmed; he clearly knew how to handle the blade, even if he wasn't using a formal style. Unfortunately, he was also fast.

The blade made a distinct snap as it collided with Tim's bo staff. "Ceramic-coated magnesium alloy. Don't bother trying to cut through it, Jason," he said.

"You don't know anything!" The Hood hissed. He slashed again and again, with increasing vigor. Even with Tim's advantage in reach, it was by no means easy to hold him off.

"No?" He seemed to react badly to being engaged in conversation. "I know you had Poison Ivy produce the tetrodotoxin you've been using to kill people, for starters."

No response. Even with his N/K bodysuit being proof against most cuts, Tim needed to get rid of the wakizashi, and fast. Even the slightest cut could be potentially deadly.

"I know you've been deliberately targeting the Mullah and his goons," he said, wiping aside another blow. The Hood's grip was — unsurprisingly — quite strong. Didn't seem like knocking it out of his hands was very likely. "I know you and the Mad Hatter faked the attack in Five Points — the whole site was littered with .45 and 9mm shells, but wouldn't you know it? I found three 2mm Kolibri shells. Now I know for a fact that none of the Hatter's guests were carrying pieces chambered for 2mm cartridges, and I know for a fact you were shot precisely three times. Do you think I missed anything, Jason?"

"Stop calling me that," he repeated, his voice definitely sounding angry. The wakizashi flew like a silver sheet of fire. "You don't know anything."

"Really? I know you're wearing a suit of Nomex/Kevlar armorweave that happens to have the same structural makeup as mine. I know your bodysuit can take 2mm rounds. I know you use gas grenades and flashbangs to disorient skels the same way I do. And I know you throw shuriken the same way I throw Batarangs. I know you use I know a lot more than you think I do, Jason."

"Stop calling me that! You know my name!"

"That is your name, you lunatic!" Tim caught yet another attack and wiped it aside so that it slashed into the masonry nearby. The Hood's carefully considered and reasoned response was to tear it away violently and clock Tim in the side of the head with the pommel of the blade. He stumbled back and dodged another blow. Well, mission accomplished. Red Riding Hood was definitely losing control.

"Stop following me! I don't want to hurt you!" he shouted, his voice distorter starting to show signs of strain.

"You make that really hard to believe when you're trying to kill me," Tim managed, scoring a glancing blow on the Hood's temple.

"You're not on my list! Stay away from me!"

He lunged suddenly, and only years of experience fencing with Bruce saved Tim. The value of training; as Bruce and Dick had done a thousand times to him, he now did to the Red Death. While his foe was thus extended and off-balance, Tim leaned in and struck at the pressure point in the Hood's wrist. A deft movement later, and the deadly wakizashi was at last out of his hands.

The Hood's reaction was... not quite what he'd expected.

He screamed incoherently and went directly for Tim's throat with both hands. It sounded like the voice distorter was malfunctioning.

"Jesus, Jason, what the hell's wrong with you?" Tim used the Hood's imbalance to throw him forward, stepping back and away.

"STOP CALLING ME JASON!" the Hood roared, lunging at him again. "YOU KNOW MY NAME!"

Tim turned to roll —

Oh Jesus

The Hood had inadvertently kneed him directly in the ribs, where he'd been shot. Even now, he was still tender there, and it hurt like hell. In fact, it pretty much incapacitated him altogether for a few seconds, resulting in the Red Death colliding with him rather gracelessly.

"YOU KNOW MY NAME!"

"Fine, Red Riding Hood! God, what are you, a kindergartener?" Tim managed with a tremendous amount of effort to throw him off, and managed to get back to his knees before the Hood was back, tackling into him from the side. Apparently he'd figured out that Tim was favoring his ribs.

Red Riding Hood was on top of him now, going straight for his throat, his fingers like steel vices. Tim's reinforced gorget had been torn open by an unfortunate blow, and the fact of the matter was that he wasn't terribly keen on being choked to death by his predecessor, now fortuitously alive and unfortuitously completely insane. He grabbed wildly at the Hood's utility belt, finally grabbing the Sam Browne near the hip and yanking him to the side. Inelegant, but at least it bought him some air.

Only a brief respite. A heartbeat or two and they were locked again in mortal combat, Red Death and Boy Wonder. Oddly, both of them were gargling inarticulately; the one raving, the other choking. Left with little choice, Tim plucked the 'R' from his breast and jammed it as hard as he could into the Hood's wrist. The resulting scream was... off, somehow. It certainly didn't sound right. Tim was sure he'd be able to place the irregularity with more oxygen in his brain.

But once the Hood had lost the advantage, it suddenly became a much more equal contest. Tim struck at the 'R' shuriken lodged in the Hood's wrist, and caught him with a jab to the jaw. Suddenly they were once again in the same place they'd left so long ago atop the Sprang Mission in the East End, a breathless struggle, each trying to find purchase and deny it to the other, each trying to defend himself and beat his opponent senseless.

Tim found himself straddling the Hood, his fist cocked for a knockout blow — when it suddenly occurred to him that he seemed to have found purchase where there really shouldn't have been any. He looked down and discovered to his great shock that his left hand was gripping rather tightly on a... er... protuberance.

Red Riding Hood was a girl.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


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Chapter Sixteen: You Know My Name

Tim Drake froze.

Suddenly a lot of things started to make sense. That was why he'd been unable to line up anybody who fit the profile and MO of the Red Death; simple cognitive bias. He'd assumed that, er, she was a he, and he'd been screening for a male. When he'd noticed peculiar or confusing body language, he'd written it off as his own exhaustion. That was what was wrong with his — her scream when he'd stabbed her wrist; it was a girl's scream, not a boy's. For God's sake, he'd just spent months thinking a girl was a boy. What a ridiculous, elementary mistake. Stupid! It destroyed everything. Red Riding Hood was a girl. Jason Todd was not a girl. Therefore, Jason Todd was not Red Riding Hood.

Well, just who the hell was she?

And while he was at it, did that mean he'd just been punching the hell out of a girl?

While he thus pondered the implications for his manliness, she took the opportunity to retaliate, catching him across the jaw with a roundhouse right that nearly took his head off.

Tim stumbled back, and had the presence of mind to take the opportunity to finally put some distance between them. Somehow, he managed to make it back to his feet. "Jesus, I'm sorry, lady," he said, somehow feeling bad about hitting her. Even if she was a serial killer, there was something hardwired into him against hitting girls.

"You know my name." Well, at least if he was a she instead of a he, he or she still had the same six lines of dialogue.

She was trying to advance on him, but he kept the distance between them, wiping blood from his mouth and nose. "Ok, I give up. If you're not Jason, then who the hell are you?"

"You know my name!"

All right. Even if she was a she instead of a he, she was still prone to repeating herself even when it didn't make sense.

"Look, I already called you Red Riding Hood," he said, sidestepping a very unfriendly-looking punch.

"You know my name!"

She came in again, and he caught her, turned his hip, and turned her own weight against her. Elementary hip toss. She was already recovering, rolling on her right shoulder —

Oh my God.

She'd rolled on her right shoulder.

She always rolled on her right shoulder.

"Oh my God," Tim managed, his throat threatening to choke him all on its own. His heart was racing. His mind was racing. No. No. It was impossible.

She always rolled on her right shoulder.

She was... oh, God. Oh, God. He was frozen completely. It was like his whole world had just been shattered.

You know my name.

Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, God.

The bodysuit, utility belt, and Sam Browne. The wakizashi. The mediocrity at swinglining. The aikidō. The roundhouse right. The familiar body language. The blue eyes.

You know my name.

"St—Stephanie?"

Red Riding Hood screamed, a heart-wrenching wail as both her hands went to her temples. It sounded like something was tearing her soul apart.

"God damn it, Tim, stay away," her voice finally came out, tiny and weak, between sobs of agony. Whatever had been done to her, she had broken through, however briefly, and at whatever price. "Stay away from me. I don't want to hurt you. God, please don't make me hurt you."

She was crying. He was crying, too.

"I have no choice. It is who I am now."

She screamed again, and whatever control she'd regained was gone. A moment later, she was gone, too.

Tim felt the strength drain from his body, dropped to his knees. His mouth trembled, his whole body trembled. Tears fell down his face freely.

He'd spent so long trying not to think about her. He'd struggled mightily to keep her from his thoughts. It hurt so badly. He had trained his mind to stop seeing her, to stop reminding him of what he'd lost. He'd seen the costume, basically a color swap, and ignored it. He'd seen the wakizashi — the same weapon he'd given her, and trained her to use — and refused to recognize it. He'd seen the martial arts training he'd helped her hone, and written it off as obtainable anywhere. He'd felt the roundhouse right — her favorite attack — and pretended not to know it. He'd seen the way she moved, and never really thought about why it seemed so familiar. He'd seen the crystal blue eyes and wondered what color Jason Todd's had been.

The first time they'd ever met, he'd tackled her, thinking she was a boy. He'd pulled off her mask and been so surprised to find a beautiful girl that he'd left himself wide open. She'd hit him in the head with a brick.

Then she'd done it again on top of the Sprang Mission.

And he'd refused to see it. He had worked so long, so hard not to think about her, that when he was looking right at her, he didn't see her.

But it was there. It was her. The elephant in the room. He finally saw it. Everything about her. It had been there all along. It was her.

You know my name.

Red Riding Hood was Stephanie Brown.



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Chapter Seventeen: I Can See Clearly Now

Tim was a blur as he paced up and down the cave. He hadn't slept in two days. Every time he closed his eyes, all he could see was — But no. She was alive. She was alive! He didn't know how, he didn't know why. But she was. There was no mistaking that now. It was her, it was really her. Once he'd actually opened his eyes and seen, he'd known it without a shadow of a doubt. He'd heard her voice — her real voice — he'd seen her body language, the way she moved. There was no question. It was really her.

His brain tried to rationalize his failure to recognize her. True, he'd once mistaken her for a boy. In fact, so had her father. That was one of the effects of her cape and cowl; it helped conceal her more feminine attributes. As a matter of fact, she was frequently mistaken for a boy until she'd taken to wearing her hood down, with her ponytail hanging from the back of her mask. It must have been a thrill for her as Robin, with nobody ever questioning what gender she was.

But that was all excuses. He should have seen it from the beginning. Her mix of martial arts and lack of a dominant form was characteristic of family members, even if her training had never advanced nearly as far as his or Cass's or Dick's. For God's sake, she'd been pretty much wearing her old costume. He'd even seen some of the black paint scraped off after the Mad Hatter had shot her and she'd fallen through the window.

He'd attributed her body language to having just been shot. It was becoming increasingly clear that she'd been struggling against the Mad Hatter's mind control. That explained the apparent migraines and the bizarre quality of her voice. Her answers had been attempts to warn him away, to tell him the truth. He screwed his eyes shut and rubbed at his forehead. How much more obvious did she need to be? She warned him that she had a list of victims, and he wasn't on it. That was how she'd gotten away with not trying to kill him. He'd called her Jason, and she'd said he didn't know anything. She'd practically managed to tell him she was being mind-controlled.

The Riddler's tripartite answer. Part 1: Cui bono? To whom the good? At first he'd been inclined to think the Czaritsa and the Mullah, but with Stephanie in the thrall of the Mad Hatter, the real answer had become increasingly clear. When the Red Death cut Black Mask's head in half — he'd not coincidentally been the murderous bastard who'd tortured her to death — it had created a vacuum in leadership, primarily filled by Scarface and Kosov, the Hatter serving the latter as her chief enforcer. As the killings had continued, the syndicate had tightened its control of its operations, and eliminated much of the slapdash organization left over from Black Mask. The fall of Scarface at the Joker's hands had left Kosov in control, with the Hatter as her éminence grise.

Kosov hadn't known about Red Riding Hood, he was pretty sure about that. The Mad Hatter had staged a meeting with wavering underbosses, and 'fought off' the Hood after she'd killed those underbosses whom he'd determined wouldn't play ball. He was engineering his own rise to prominence by manufacturing a bogeyman. Cui bono? The Mad Hatter.

Part 2: Children worry about their toys, not where they come from. The Riddler must have known, somehow, that Red Riding Hood was a teenage girl, hence "children." Tim had been focused so much on trying to find the Hood's suppliers; he didn't pay enough attention to the Hood herself. He'd been looking at shuriken and wakizashi and jumplines without looking at what they were coming from — a teenage girl wearing a utility belt and a Sam Browne — for God's sake, a Sam Browne! she always wore a Sam Browne! — and wearing a hooded cloak. Tim was worrying about her toys, but not where they came from. The toys he'd given her in the first place. The toys he'd helped train her to use. Once he'd taken a good look, it had been the elephant in the room. Red Riding Hood was Steph, had been Steph all along.

Did the Riddler know her name? He'd certainly known her father, having alternately tried to kill and worked with him. The fact that he'd never acted on her true identity didn't mean he didn't know it; Tim was pretty sure Edward Nigma knew the Batman's secret identity, but had certainly never acted on that.

God. No wonder the man was always smirking.

So he knew now that the Mad Hatter was controlling Steph as part of his game. But why? This was definitely not the Hatter's usual modus operandi. The last time something this bizarre had happened, it had all turned out to be part of a plot by the Riddler himself, with the help of Hush. Was the Riddler up to his old tricks? Tim didn't think so. There was still the last riddle to solve.

Part 3: When is a virgin like Miss Muffet? Who did he mean by 'a virgin'? When is a virgin like Miss Muffet? When she's a girl? Well, yes, but that couldn't possibly be right. He didn't know who the Riddler had in mind for 'a virgin,' but it certainly wasn't Steph. An historical reference, maybe? Queen Elizabeth I, the so-called "Virgin Queen"? The Commonwealth of Virginia, named for the same? Religion, maybe? The Blessed Virgin Mary? Artemis, the virgin of the hunt? He was covering old ground. None of it had made any sense then, and it still didn't make any sense now. Virgin. Untouched. And little Miss Muffet? Where did she fit into this? Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet. A tuffet is a three-legged stool. The First Triumvirate? The Second? The XYZ? Tricorner? Eating curds and whey. The Condiment King? The Milk Man? None of this was new.

He was a bustle of nervous energy. He consigned the Riddler to the flames of perdition. Why couldn't the man ever come right out and say anything? When is a virgin like Miss Muffet? Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet... sat on a tuffet... When she sits around and does nothing? Catwoman had only recently resurfaced after the Mullah had broken both of her arms. No, that didn't make any sense. What did that have to do with anything? Eating her curds and whey... along came a spider... hm. A spider. The Spider, Master of Men, perhaps? No, Richard Wentworth was long dead by now. Tarantula, the Blüdhaven vigilante and leader of the Arañas? Well, that didn't make any sense either. And he'd already been over all of this.

Along came a spider, who sat down beside her... Is a virgin like Miss Muffet when she's snared in a web of conspiracy? Steph? No, she wasn't a virgin. Also, Miss Muffet had never been touched by the spider's web. She'd fled. Untouched. Is a virgin like Miss Muffet when she runs away untouched? No, that's pointless. A virgin is like a virgin when she's untouched? That's idiotic; it'd be like repeating the definition of the first term. Then again... Tim knew Steph wasn't a virgin, but did the Riddler? Still further calumnies upon that man's head.

Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Curds and wh— Oh, Jesus.

And just like that, he'd solved it.

The Riddler had not asked when is a virgin like Miss Muffet, he'd asked when is the virgin like Miss Muffet. That narrowed it down tremendously. Ask any classical Athenian and you'd get only one answer. The Virgin? The temple's right over there. The Parthenon — Temple of the Parthenos, that is to say, Temple of the Virgin. Who is the Virgin? Athena.

And that brought him to Celia "Athena" Kazantkakis, the corrupt businesswoman who'd attempted a quiet takeover of part of the Gotham underground. She'd used her agent provocateur (The Tracker) to apply pressure to an existing power structure (The Rossetti family, an affiliate of the Falcone crime family), leading to her stalking horse (The Suicide King) gaining credibility and influence as he rose within the very power structure he was infiltrating. She'd engineered his rise by making him the solution to the problem she herself had created in the first place. Sound familiar? Substitute Red Riding Hood, the Black Mask syndicate, and the Mad Hatter for the previous terms, and it made perfect sense.

Athena had the money and the resources and the intelligence to arrange the whole plot. She'd previously manipulated Steph into playing an unwitting part in her schemes. She must have come looking for her old catspaw, and not finding her, snooped around. Gulliver Carson, a professional heistman now working for the syndicate, had known Steph's secret identity. He couldn't begin to guess at what had happened next. All he knew was that Steph was alive, and enthralled by the Mad Hatter. It wasn't the first time someone had returned from the dead. They must have recovered her stash of gear, including at least one N/K bodysuit. No wonder he'd been unable to find a supplier. It had been Bruce himself who'd provided the suit; it had merely been painted black.

And Gully Carson had been one of the earliest victims of the Red Death. Coincidence? Unlikely. He'd known too much.

That was it. Athena and the Mad Hatter had arranged the Joker's release, somehow convinced him to play along. Not unprecedented. Two-Face and the Penguin had both done it on a number of occasions. There had been a few sightings of the Phantasm lately; maybe that tied into it somehow. Something for Bruce and Dick to look into. That was their case, anyway. Then again, the Athena connection explained how the Joker was able to elude Bruce for so long this time, despite being quite active: He had a great deal more logistical support than normal, not limited to just his gang members.

It was so clear.

Omar Salih, the Iraqi Kurd, was not part of Athena's scenario. He'd simply arrived and started building his outfit, carving it from the syndicate and whatever else was available. He was a tumor, a cancerous growth that needed to be excised for things to work properly. The Hood had made repeated attacks on the Mullah himself, entirely out of proportion to the kind of attacks other bosses were seeing. He'd been a thorn in the Czaritsa's side, and had probably wrecked the scenario altogether when he'd killed her on top of St. Athanasius's.

Gotham had narrowly escaped a full-on gang war when the Joker had seen to Scarface. That was two freaks fighting; happened all the time. But now one crime boss had killed another. And a ruthless old woman's best laid plans had been disrupted. This could get ugly, and fast. He turned to the Bat-computer and brought up the file he wanted. Yes. Oh, yes, indeed. From the look of things, it was about to get very ugly.

From the look of things, there would be blood tonight.

And it had all been there in the Riddler's riddle. The Mad Hatter. Red Riding Hood. Athena.

When is the virgin like Miss Muffet? When she has Kurds in her way.



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


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Chapter Eighteen: Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me

It had not been easy, not by any stretch of the imagination. The death of the Czaritsa had set the whole underground into a flurry of motion, much of it aimless, mindless. In all that movement, it had been almost impossible to track down the Mad Hatter, who was now the top pick to run the Black Mask syndicate. That had not been in the scenario, Tim was sure of that. He himself had nearly missed the Mullah's appearance at the cathedral, and he had far better surveillance resources than anyone else in the city. He had the family business at his disposal.

The Hatter had slipped away from the hotel and headed to the harbor. Of course, the harbor. When Two-Face had beaten Steph half to death, she'd made a bee line for the harbor; there must have been some kind of exfiltration site there.

Tim surveyed the area through his miniature binoculars. The Hatter and his driver were there; the driver was wearing a derby with an oversized white price tag in the band. A thrall. He wouldn't talk. There were a few other men standing nearby. He increased the resolution on the binoculars. Hm. One of the other men was wearing a white cloak over a black and red bodysuit. The Suicide King. No surprise there — he'd been a member of the Network the first time around, and had showed his face in Gotham on occasion since then. Probably he'd been left behind to see after Athena's residual interests. One of the other man looked like... yes. Mr. Fun. Another of Athena's operatives, her pet assassin. A dangerous and pyschopathic killer, but a really nice guy other than that.

"O, this is R," he said, keying his throat-mic. "Three positives. Mad Hatter, Suicide King, and Mr. Fun."

"Roger, R," came Babs's crisp reply. "I'm routing reinforcements your way."

There was a small boat approaching the docks, quietly. As Bruce was fond of saying, sound is a product of bad design. Three occupants debarked. Tim recognized them immediately: Freeway, the martial artist and infiltrator; Dr. Excess, the so-called "doctor of human potential"; and Athena herself, the matronly gangster who'd ruined more lives than Tim could count. She'd made a career out of destroying companies in order to loot their assets, and had come to Gotham to plunder Wayne Enterprises as well as taking revenge for the death of her lover, Lorenzo Rossetti, a mafioso who'd been killed at his own father's orders after stealing from a rival family. She'd lost her son in the process, and blamed Batman personally for it. It was a good explanation for her return to the city of crime and punishment.

The Hatter was saying something to her. He was turned away; Tim couldn't read his lips. She frowned, then started to answer. Something about a radical change in plans. It would be necessary to —

Movement on the boat. Ah, that would be her spymaster, the voyeuristic Bugg. He wore a mask that obscured his face. Athena turned back and started barking out orders. Call for reinforcements. She was naming names. Suicide King and Mad Hatter were moving into action.

"O," he said. "There's something up. They're calling for muscle, and lots of it. Any luck with those leads I gave you?"

"That's a roger, R," said the Oracle. "You were absolutely right. They're making a move and in a big way. I'm calling up all operatives and sending them your way. Stand by."

Tim frowned. Things were moving faster than he'd anticipated, but he'd been right. He waited and watched.

People were starting to arrive. The syndicate's soldiers. Whole crews. Enforcers. And then there were freaks. The syndicate's muscle was getting ready for a fight.

This was going to be messy.

* * * * * * * *

It was to the mattresses, then. The word was passed. Weapons were made ready. The striking forces were assembled and given their orders. They were already on their way.

Between Two-Face and the Penguin, there was a surprising amount of muscle available beyond the simple gangsters with guns. Bane. Deadshot. Philo Zeiss. The Angel of Death. Firefly.

The Cadillac DTS was ready to go. Two-Face, the Mullah, and the Tally Man climbed in, each having already seen to his weapons. The first of the night's surprises climbed in after them, his teeth clenched tightly around a long black cigarette holder.

"You're coming with us?" Two-Face frowned. "You haven't been out on the streets in years."

"It isn't every day an outsider tries to make a fool of us all. Sometimes," said the Penguin, a Churchillian scowl on his face, "Sometimes, a man has to get his hands dirty."

* * * * * * * *

Gentlemen, start your engines.

* * * * * * * *

"O, this place is getting thick. You'd better get those reinforcements out here ASAP."

"ETA five minutes, R."

"I don't know that you're going to have that long, O," Tim said, grimacing. "What's the word on the other mobs' striking crew?"

"Not good. Some of them — "

There was an explosion. Looked like a rocket-propelled grenade. One of those party favors the Penguin liked to distribute to his men for special occasions. There was a reason the smaller third of Gotham's underground was still a threat to the larger two-thirds. The sounds of gunfire soon joined it.

"Too late," Tim swore. "The police?"

"QRT is scrambling already."

"You'd better warn them," Tim said with a grimace. "It's getting ugly already." He was surprised at how quickly the situation had degenerated already.

War at last.

* * * * * * * *

"Unacceptable," said Athena, her voice like iron shrouded in velvet. "How did they know where to find us in the first place?"

They were moving with all possible dispatch to the nearby warehouse, the better to take cover in. A cadre of goombas surrounded them, a precaution entirely warranted in the rather blistering firefight that had suddenly developed.

"The Riddler," came the answer. Bugg shook his head. "It had to be the Riddler. I don't know how he found out, but he's the only possible source. The man knows far too much."

"He'll be dealt with." Athena was a woman with nerves of steel. She wasn't going to let something like a rapidly blossoming gang war prevent her from making plans for the future. "Jervis, I want this situation contained. Find out where the bosses behind this attack are, and deal with them."

"That... may prove difficult, milady," he said. "I've an intimation of a feeling that leads me to suspect the hands of the Mullah and Two-Face. The girl has not done a good showing against either."

"Don't be fatuous, Jervis," she said, as they entered the main enclosure of the warehouse. "I didn't say to send the girl. If she cannot deal with them, send the clown."

"Yes, by all means," came another voice, a voice that sent chills down the spine. "Send in the clowns."

They turned to see the voice's owner emerge from the shadows. Green hair framed a broad forehead over coal-black eyes blazing against white skin; skin that was as white as bones, as white as a shroud. Blood-red lips twisted into a rictus grin. "Don't bother," he said. "They're here."

* * * * * * * *

" — roger that, O," Tim acknowledged. "I see him now."

He held the binoculars up to his eyes. "It looks like — "

"He rocks in the treetop all day long..."

Tim froze immediately.

He'd know that voice anywhere, the singsong tone she'd often used when gloating about something.

"R? R, are you there? R?"

She was there, on the roof behind him, her body language decidedly hostile. He could almost see the feral smile beneath her mask.

There was a scrape of metal against leather.

She lunged —



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world

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Chapter Nineteen: Shake, Rattle and Roll

"What are you doing here?" Athena's voice did not waver, showed no signs of the fear that normally confronted the man who laughs.

He chuckled, a low rumbling noise that set men's nerves on edge. "I happened to be in the neighborhood and thought I'd drop by," he said.

The others were wary, hands on whatever weapons were handy. He'd been a part of Athena's scenario from the very beginning, but that didn't make him one whit less dangerous. Field marshal of crime that she was, she did not let his sudden appearance derail her train of thought. "Jervis and Justin," she said, addressing the Mad Hatter and the Suicide King, "You have tactical command." She turned to Bugg and Freeway: "Hector and Terence, you have strategic command and control. Mr. Fun, stand by. You two," she said to two of the most loyal gunmen standing nearby, "with me."

She collected the gunmen and walked over to join the white-faced nightmare, who'd slunk back into the shadows again. "What do you want?"

His breathing had a strange quality to it, the way he inhaled and exhaled heavily through his nose, leaving his mouth affixed into that ghoulish smile. He looked like death warmed over.

"So if an old friend I know drops by to say hello," he said in a mournful tone, "Would I still see suspicion in your eyes?"

"I don't have time for nonsense," Athena answered quite flatly. "If that's why you've come, then be on your way. There are people I want you to kill."

And then suddenly his smile changed — the lips remained the same but the look in his eyes shifted abruptly, giving his whole physiognomy an entirely new quality to it. It was a remarkable transformation. "I heard a story through the grapevine," he began, his eyes fixed steadily on hers; he produced a deck of playing cards from within his sleeve and began to shuffle them. "About a boy named Lorenzo. Cesare Rossetti's kid — maybe you've heard of him? Seems Enzo was a scrapper, stole a lot of mob money and fled to Europe. When the going got tough, the tough got getting."

Athena's lips pressed together a bit more tightly. It was a safe bet she cared for neither the topic nor the double entendre.

His grin remained steady, but his eyes grew far colder, manipulating the cards in ways that seasoned stage magicians would have killed to be able to imitate. "You made the beast with two backs with Enzo Rossetti and you spawned a little brat. A little brat that came to Gotham with you and played at your scam. A little brat that died of a radical vertical impact — " that is to say, he took a long fall with a flat stop — "And a little birdie tells me you pinned the blame on my bat. Have I missed anything so far?"

"I owe you no explanations," she said in a Siberian tone.

"I think you'll find," he said, drawing the cards out into a fan and then collapsing them suddenly, "that you do."

It happened so quickly that there was no warning at all. First the cards were in his hands, and then they'd materialized in the gunmen's throats, slashing them open with appalling ease. Now you see them, now you don't. By the time the others in the warehouse had any inkling something had happened, he had seized Athena and pulled her toward him, spinning her around so she faced the rest of the warehouse and stood between her enforcers and her erstwhile ally. His right hand was clamped around her jaw like a mechanical vise; his left hand held the queen of hearts to her throat.

"Perched and sat on a bust of Pallas above my chamber door," he said in a husky voice, his breath falling heavily on the side of her face. He looked up at the wall of guns pointed at him. "I suggest your boys put away their toys," he said nastily, "Or else quoth the raven, 'Nevermore.'"

To accentuate his point, the playing hard pressed ever so slightly against her throat. She could feel the razor edge begin to scrape skin.

"Do as he says," she said in an admirably steely voice.

Hesitantly, begrudgingly, the weapons lowered. There was a chuckle in her ear that suddenly gave way to a forceful voice laced with equal parts venom and madness.

"You've been away from Gotham for a long time, sweetheart, and the rules have changed since you grew up here. You're a reasonable woman, and I'm a reasonable man, so I'm going to explain something to you. This is my world. You're just living in it. All the world's a stage, and you can play your act, but never forget who is the star. The bat is the perfect foil, you see, and he belongs to me. To me, do you hear? To me! Mine, to torture and maim and kill, as I please. Do not presume to pad your part, sweetheart, do not think to upstage me. If you so much as harm one hair on his head, I will wreak unforgettable harm on you and everything you have ever loved."

He leaned in closer still, his ruby lips nearly touching her ear. Of all things, his hot breath smelled of cinnamon and sugar. "Do not test me," he whispered in a sepulchral tone, "When the freaks want to scare each other, they tell Joker stories."

The lights suddenly extinguished and the skylight of the warehouse shattered into a million scintillating shards as a great black nightmare descended, its enormous cloak spread out like the wings of some nameless eldritch horror. There was panic. There was shooting. There was mindless fear. It was there, among them, moving like a living shadow, shifting, roiling, ravenous. Paralyzing, chthonic terror gripped them as this great and terrible thing preyed upon them. Shots rang out, half-thought-out orders were barked, but still it prowled, still it pursued, still it ravaged. Silently. Perfectly.

For it was vengeance.

It was the night.

Batman.

* * * * * * * *

The docks of Gotham harbor had been trasnfigured by blood and fire into a war zone the likes of which had not been seen in America since No Man's Land — and before that, the Civil War. The tensions that had been rising ever since the first gang war had at last boiled over, and there were accounts to be settled. And Gotham City had no shortage of rough men standing ready to settle accounts. Some of North America's most vicious gangsters and deadliest freaks were numbered among the combatants. Whole city blocks were already being embroiled in the fighting.

In any other city in America, a gang war might mean a feud to be settled with hitmen and drive-by shootings and car bombs. In Gotham City, it meant precisely that: war. With all the destructiveness a flourishing black market in guns and ordnance could muster. There were not merely submachine guns and pistols; there were belt-fed machine guns, mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, everything that North America's largest and best funded criminal underground could get their hands on.

The police were already on the scene, but it was far too much for the Quick Response Team to handle alone. All units were being scrambled.

But they were not alone.

There were others among them, others who donned masks and did not go gentle into the cold and lonely night. The whole of the extended family was among them: Nightwing, first and greatest of the Dark Knight's allies, dashing daredevil acrobat and zenith of human physical prowess. Batgirl, martial arts in human form, hand-to-hand combatant without peer. The Huntress, mob princess turned vigilante. Black Canary, international agent of espionage and sabotage with a lovely singing voice. Lady Blackhawk, ace pilot with fists of steel and a heart of gold. The Question, tireless searcher for truth. Onyx, assassin turned bodyguard, now leader of the Hill Street Gang. Tarantula, agile and cunning vigilante and leader of the Arañas. There was even a black-coated visitor from New York, whom Tim Drake would have given an arm and a leg to have met.

It would have been glorious had it not been so terrible.

"Report, Mr. Matthews," the Penguin said, as he surveyed the scene. He had not made the least effort to take cover or even reduce his target profile. With his dazzling white waistcoat, bowtie, kid gloves, and distinctive black silk top hat, it was almost as though he were daring people to shoot at him. The same was decidedly not true of his caddy, cringing behind the surreptitiously armored van the tetrarchy crew was using for cover.

The mob crew leader thus addressed jerked a thumb in the direction of a barricade hastily thrown up by the syndicate soldiers. In the chaos of No Man's Land, Gotham City residents had become disturbingly skilled at throwing up barricades. "They got a pretty good chokepoint set up, boss," he said, as bullets whistled by. "Uh, shouldn't you duck, sir?"

"Nonsense," he said, his jaw working as he clenched the cigarette holder between his teeth. "They are less than bourgeoisie, and aim very badly." He examined the barricade with a critical eye. "Two-Face, Mawlay, make ready for a breakthrough along 26th Street, near the Dixon," he said into a convenient radio. He gestured to the Tally Man, who was directing fire not too far away. "Stand by," he said, somehow making himself heard over the cacophany of gunfire without resorting to shout.

His caddy drew near with the golfer's bag full of umbrellas. The Penguin examined the bag with inhuman sangfroid as rounds screamed past his head. "Ah," he squawked, a thin smile on his lips, puffing generously on the cigarette. He removed an umbrella from the golf bag, frowned, then replaced it and selected another. He squawked again in approval, and turned to the crew leader. "The Tally Man will take charge here. Make ready to move once I've disposed of that barricade."

"Uh, boss?"

"O ye of little faith," he said with an indulgent smile. It was not for nothing that the Penguin was not merely a mob boss, but also a member of the Batman's rogues gallery. Though he had not taken to the streets in years, he had not gotten to where he was today by writing checks. In his right hand he held an umbrella that was chambered for .30-06 Springfield with a muzzle velocity of well over two thousand feet per second. He hooked the handle of the umbrella in his left hand around his foot, and it telescoped immediately, exposing a surprisingly complex mechanism. "Up, up, and away," he said with a carnivorous smile, as his single-man helicopter took flight. Hasty barricades were not generally thrown together with the intention of repelling air raids.

There was a great deal to be said for combining the arsenal of the Penguin with the resources of the Great White Shark and the ruthlessness of Two-Face and the Mullah. The tetrarchy was successfully holding off the police and slowly but steadily pushing back the syndicate.

* * * * * * * *

In the docks of Gotham harbor, a war was raging. It was terrible, it was fierce, and it was loud.

And so it was that no one heard the steady tick, tock, tick tock....



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world


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Chapter Twenty: Rockin' Robin

Tim Drake had never fought so hard in his life.

It was not that she was the most skilled adversary he'd ever fought — far from it, in fact. Although she was no pushover — relative to the large majority of the civilian population, she was in fact a human wrecking ball — the simple fact of the matter was that compared to him, she was still disadvantaged by a significant deficit in both training and experience. She was actually a lot stronger, yes, a little bit faster, and even more agile (years of experience as a gymnast, which he lacked), but the race was not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. In absolute terms, Tim was a significantly more accomplished combatant in nearly every practical measure.

The problem was that he was trying very hard not to hurt the love of his life, while she was trying every bit as hard to kill him.

It seemed he was finally on her list.

The Mad Hatter must have ramped up the mind control after the fight at St. Athanasius's; gone were the veiled warnings disguised as threats, gone was the struggle against the endless psychic pressure. Gone, in short, was the vestigial presence of Stephanie Brown. In her place there was only Red Riding Hood, she of the envenomed short sword and the fondness for gas grenades and shuriken. Every time he tried to open the distance between them, she let loose with a veritable hail of the vicious little trinkets, more even than Tim could deflect; they were lodged in his cape, in his gauntlets, in his cuirass. His face was cut open and bleeding.

He kept her at bay as best as he could, his telescoping bo giving him the advantage of reach at close quarters, which was a definite plus. Her wrist movements were definitely slower — a result, no doubt, of the shuriken he'd embedded in it during their last encounter. He winced despite himself, hating the knowledge that he'd done that to Stephanie. He'd hit her, he'd stabbed her. How could he do that to the girl he loved? Despite the weakened wrist, the odds for a successful repeat of disarming her weren't good, as she seemed to have learned from their previous encounter: her wakizashi was now attached to a lanyard around her wrist. Well, nuts. It was just his luck that she'd start being really clever after being brainwashed into a ruthless mafia hitgirl.

She was slashing at him fast and furiously, with all the single-minded viciousness she'd displayed when going after the underbosses on her list. She was content to aim at just about anything — fingers, elbow, neck, ears. The liberal coating of tetrodotoxin on her blade would take care of the rest. It was actually frightening, knowing that it was her that was trying to kill him. He couldn't hit her, not now that he knew who it was beneath the Red Riding Hood's mask. It was all he could do to hold her back; he gave ground freely, trading space for time to think.

Well, think, damn it, he swore at himself. Think of something. Anything.

He withdrew as best as he could. She lunged, and he felt something impact against his side. He spared a glance —

Flashbang.

He stumbled back, dazed, and tumbled over the side of the roof, landing on a fire escape. Tim only barely managed to roll away in time to avoid a shuriken where his eye had been, and beat a hasty retreat down the rickety metal frame. She followed, moving with a kind of liquid grace made of curves that made it difficult to think. Years of gymnastics had their advantages. What the hell was wrong with him? She was trying to kill him. This was no time for a libido to kick in.

Think.

She moved more like Dick than like him, a product of her background as a gymnast; he'd developed his fighting style ex nihilo rather than by modifying an existing like they had. He knew in theory all kinds of weaknesses in the way she would move, the way she fought — but those were from sparring practices, when he'd been teaching her. She hadn't been trying to cut his head off or envenom him with a horrible nerve toxin.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little bat," called a voice, two parts whimsy and one part malice. "How I wonder what you're at. Having problems, Boy Wonder?"

The Mad Hatter.

Tim sidestepped another slash, and discarded the thought of a tangler grenade; the last thing he needed was to improve her grip on that stupid wakizashi. He didn't know where she'd gotten her new one, but he found himself wondering why he'd ever given her the first one in the first place. He leapted up and grabbed the ladder from the fire escape, bringing it crashing down in time to catch her thrust. A burst of inspiration, and he'd tangled her wrist with a length of line.

"Personally, I don't know her from Adam — well, Eve, as it were — " called the Hatter, drinking from a cup of tea, "But she does seem to have some kind of discombobulating effect on your lot, doesn't she? That's why we chose her. That, and she's easy on the eyes, after all. Lovely girl. All curves."

"If you've touched one hair on her head — " Tim snarled, surprising even himself with the wrath in his voice. To his disappointment, she'd already used one of her old crescent-shaped shuriken to slice through the line he'd used to lash her to the fire escape.

"Why so uffish, I wonder?" the Hatter said, taking another sip. "Do you really think I'd molest a little girl?" He paused, and mulled that over for a moment. "Well, I wouldn't. Seems you don't like the idea, eh? Hit a sore point, have I?"

He stood there, at the end of the alley, calmly observing the fight. "Magnificent, isn't she? Give her a few years, and she'll be perfect. Oh, what a frabjous day that'll be. I must say, a rather like having my very own red queen. You have no idea how many people I've killed with her hands. I don't know why I never thought of it, myself. You've been a real nuisance, you'll be glad to know. I went ahead and added you to the list. Quite an honor, you know. You're in distinguished company."

Focus, Tim told himself. He's just trying to distract you.

She lunged again, and he gave way. Again, and he gave way. She dropped another flashbang, and then did something he didn't expect at all: when he moved to avoid the flashbang, she threw down a Spoiler capsule — filled with one of her father's signature concoctions. This time, a slick. He lost his footing and went down hard. She made a bee line straight for his head.

Tim kicked out and swept her legs out from under her, then hastily backpeddled and got to his feet. In the process, he seemed to have dropped his bo. Wonderful, he thought. On the plus side, I can definitely take her in a hand to hand fight. On the minus side, it's not hand to hand when she's still got that damn short sword.

"I don't think she's the chivalrous type, my boy," the Hatter called, clearly enjoying this little show. "Why don't you just take the fight to her, eh? Distracted by her nubile young body? Will 't be manxome beauty what slays the frumious bird?"

She came at him again, and he whipped his cape up to catch the blow. One of the advantages of the N/K armorweave: The capes were durable and, with lead weights sown into the tips, could be pressed into service as a makeshift weapon if need be. As it happened just then, need be'd. Her blade off center, he whipped around the other end of his cape and entangled her in it. While she was thus disposed, he snatched the 'R' from his breast and sliced the lanyard attaching the wakizashi to her wrist. She was almost free; he sacrificed precious seconds to retrieve a corrosive capsule from his utility belt — again, another concoction of her father, that clever if misguided chemist the Cluemaster — and deployed it on the blade, directly where it attached to the hilt.

Realizing that her weapon was lost, she released it and immediately locked him into a choke hold. Of course. She had him dead to rights, locked in, pressure directly on the carotid artery. He had only seconds before he'd black out. He should have seen it coming.

In fact, he had.

"Forgive me," he whispered hoarsely, before striking at her still-injured wrist as hard as he could. She screamed and loosened her grip. He turned his hip, caught her, and tossed her. She rolled on her right shoulder —

— exactly as he'd known she would.

By the time she came back up, he'd reached out and snatched off the mask of the Red Death.

For the first time in more than a year, Tim lay eyes on the girl who was the love of his life. The golden blonde hair, cut short in a pageboy bob. The pearly white teeth. The flawless, creamy skin. For only a brief instant he saw the beautiful, crystal-clear blue eyes as they rolled back into her sockets and she passed out.

Tim looked down at the mask in his hand, and to his satisfaction saw that it had been impregnated with the Mad Hatter's mind control circuitry, a particularly advanced suite that showed signs of a recent upgrade. In his hands was the tool by which she had been controlled, the slave's yoke by which she'd been forced to commit God only knew how many murders. It was shaking. It took him a few seconds to realize that the mask wasn't moving. Rather it was the hand that held that was trembling. It was not fear that caused it to tremble. It was volcanic rage.

He looked up, and slowly turned to face the head of the alley, his blood-sticky face painted with an altogether darker expression.

"Oh," said the Mad Hatter. "Sh—"



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world

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Finale: Fly Me to the Moon


Tick, tock. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

* * * * * * * *

"I suggest you stay away, Batsy," called the man who laughs, still holding Athena in a death grip. "I have to say, my nerves ain't what they used to be. Why, the slightest jolt could give me such a start, and then it'd be curtains for Granny here."

"Listen," Athena said in a voice that was surprisingly calm given the madhouse the warehouse had degenerated into, "Why don't you release me, and we can leave before he finds us? I have a boat at the dock that — "

"Don't insult my intelligence, sweetheart," he interrupted, sotto voce. "You'd have left in the boat already had that been an option. Pengers has far too much ordnance on the waterfront for that to be anything but suicide."

He was maneuvering them slowly further into the warehouse, no doubt toward the very route he'd used to gain access in the first place. "Don't get any funny ideas, either. Comedy's my department, and I don't like people stealing my schtick. Try anything clever and I'll put a smile on your face."

There was two figures standing nearby; a glimmer of moonlight came through a window, revealing them. The first was a black man with a black leather coat and a fez bedecked in a yellow, black, and green pattern. The second was a white man wearing suspenders and a power tie, with a pair of wire-rimmed glasses perched atop his nose.

"Ah," Athena said, "Freeway. Mr. Fun. I wonder if you'd be so kind — "

They both slumped forward and fell gracelessly — and face first — to the floor.

"I'll be honest," said Nightwing. "I've met tougher men. But not many. You know one of them, I think."

"Celia Kazantkakis," said the shadows, in a pale cold voice like dead leaves on stone. "You have a great deal to answer for."

"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Batsy," said the grinning psychopath. "She's the hostage, in case you hadn't — "

One of the windows shattered as an anthropomorphic object was thrown face first through it, to land in a crumpled and moaning clutter. It resembled the Mad Hatter.

"Well, well, well! The gang's all here. Well, boys, not that this isn't fun, but — "

He didn't finish that thought; it was a simple trick, breaking off at an unnatural point in a conversation to steal a few precious seconds. Athena was shoved roughly at Nightwing as razor-edged playing cards ripped through the tulgey darkness.

A weapon appeared in the old woman's hands, pointed squarely at the living shadow, the dark avenger who'd stalked Gotham for all these years. "For my son," she said in a cold voice, her finger squeezing the trigger —

— it ejected a short flagstaff with a banner marked 'BANG'.

"What in — " She chuckled. And chortled. And then a look of horror crossed her face; she ran her hand across the thin scratch on her throat, where he'd held the playing card. "But — we had a deal!" She laughed. She laughed until tears streamed down her face. She laughed until it hurt.

"What can I say?" came the answer, as he grinned from ear to ear. "We did, we really did. We totally had a deal. But I'm afraid you already played the hand we dealt. It's a new hand, toots — and this time, the Joker's wild."

* * * * * * * *

Tick, tock, tick

* * * * * * * *

The explosion ripped through the warehouse with a sudden fury that dwarfed the fighting outside. The whole building shuttered, and more than a quarter of the structure collapsed straightaway.

"Oops," said the man who laughs. "Did I do that?"

"Nightwing! Robin! Get these people out of here!" The Dark Knight was on the move already, going after the hideous white-faced ghoul who had already done far too much.

"Better hurry, Bats!" he shouted with glee. "I've got a baker's dozen all over the harbor." As if to punctuate his words, a second blast rocked the warehouse, and the fire was already spreading. "Oh, it'll be a hot one, in the old town tonight!" Laughter. Hysterical laughter. It was all so f—in' hilarious.

He was running now, headed a side exit he'd carefully concealed when he'd first arrived to place his party favors. Suddenly he became aware that the exit was blocked by a shadow where there shouldn't have been one. A shadow that drew itself to its full height, a silhouette that was all too familiar.

"Oh," said the man who laughs. "Well, that isn't funny at all."

* * * * * * * *

Boom. Another bomb went off, this time in another warehouse down the street.

"Nightwing!" Tim shouted, as he hoisted Mr. Fun over his shoulder in a fireman's carry. "Where's Athena?"

* * * * * * * *

She stumbled out the side entrance, coughing and unable to see clearly in the thick black smoke already pouring from the warehouse. Another bomb went off down the street. That maniac was trying to kill them all. She never should have trusted him in the first place.

Well, that wasn't an entirely accurate description. Not that she had trusted him, exactly. More accurate to say she never should have used him.

The measure of her trust had come from the chemical cocktail Dr. Excess had cooked up for the occasion.

"I'm not sure this antidote will actually work," he'd said at the time, handing her the small jet injector. "For obvious reasons, it should only be used in case of an emergency."

Well done, indeed. To her great surprise — and everlasting gratitude — the stuff had actually worked. Perhaps it was the fact that she had only been grazed. She wasn't terribly concerned about that. Her whole body ached, and she needed to escape —

There was a series of clicking noises she immediately recognized as the hammers of unfriendly metal things. She looked up, squinting; her eyesight wasn't doing very well at the moment. There, standing about three yards away, were the four people she least wanted to see in all the world.

Well, three of them. The fourth had only sent a representative.

"Ah," she said hoarsely. "Very well, then. Good evening, gentlemen." She straightened out to her full height. "Of course. How utterly proper."

* * * * * * * *

Tim looked into the inferno that had been the warehouse. He would not leave someone behind in this blazing hell.

"That's everyone, Robin!" Dick shouted from further back. "Let's go!"

Boom. A third bomb caught them by surprise, far closer than the others. The concussive force knocked them both down, throwing Dick out of the warehouse altogether, while it knocked Tim against a column of packing crates that collapsed on him. He weakly pushed the debris off himself and struggled to his feet.

What was left of the building was collapsing all around him. The ceiling gave way. Was that the noise of another clock running?

He wasn't going to make it.

Just as the fourth bomb exploded, he felt someone leap into him, pushing him clear of the building before it collapsed altogether. The last thing he saw before he blacked out was a flutter of red —

* * * * * * * *

As Tim slowly came to, the first thing he became aware of was the sound of his earpiece tracking police progress reports. It seemed the tetrarchy forces had withdrawn, leaving the disorganized and mostly leaderless syndicate forces to the police. The media were already reporting the record busts that had taken place tonight, including quite a few men on the FBI's Most Wanted list. Careers were being made out there.

The Joker had been captured, the reports noted. No mention of the Batman, of course; he was strictly an urban legend. The policeman passing the report to headquarters did note, however, that the lunatic appeared to have beaten himself completely unconscious and manacled his ankles to his wrists behind his back, after having thoughtfully removed all the hideously dangerous articles in his pockets.

As he opened his eyes, his first suspicion was that he'd died. That was, after all, the natural explanation for the angel smiling at him.

"Hi," Stephanie said.

"Hi," Tim answered weakly.

"Can you move at all?" she asked.

A smile worked its way across his lips. "Move? You're alive. If you want, I can fly."



God's in His Heaven, all's right with the world

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