Post by Admin on Nov 2, 2017 13:38:54 GMT -5
Issue #25: “Falling In”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy and Debbie
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #25: “Falling In”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy and Debbie
Edited by Mark Bowers
...even if the walls come fallin' in.
You know I don't mind doin',
A little heavy liftin'.
I'm always givin',
Even when I'm hurtin',
I keep on workin'.
—Boyd Houston Robert, George Teren, Rivers Rutherford, “Heavy Liftin’”
Sgt. Fochs looked up at the angry note in Joyner’s voice. “Come on in, Trin. I figured you’d be popping by as soon as you read the report.”
Sgt. Trinity Joyner didn’t need to be told twice. Although she had barely passed the Academy’s minimum height requirement, at this moment, righteous indignation made her seem larger. “Look,” she snapped, “I know Jandt’s getting a lot of resentment, but with Wayne’s background and the way things generally go… do you think there’s a chance your rookie’s just looking for a chance to make himself look better by running one of my rookies down?” Before Fochs could answer, she waved a hand impatiently. “Scratch that. He’s not that big an idiot. Jandt’s about the only thing sparing your guy from being the lowest man on the totem pole and Wayne has to know it.” She slumped into the padded swivel chair in front of Fochs’s desk. “Mind if I sit?”
Fochs spread his hands in a ‘be-my-guest’ gesture. “I’m not sure something like that would matter to Wayne, to be honest,” he mused aloud. He looked at the coffee-maker on the ledge behind him, noting that the pot he’d started was just about ready. He waved toward it. “Care for a cup?”
“I’d rather have a smoke,” she admitted, “but it’s too cold to go outside for it. Yeah, sure. Hit me.” She watched as Fochs got up and poured out two mugs. “Black, one sugar.”
Fochs nodded, reached for the Styrofoam cup of sugar packets, and tore one open.
Joyner sighed. “It’s the damned waiting. How long do you figure it’ll take to wrap up the investigation?”
Fochs added two creams to his own mug. “My guess is that IA’s been on this for at least…” he checked his watch, “an hour, hour-and-a-half. Probably more enthusiastically than usual, for reasons you said yourself: there are a lot of personnel around here who have it in for him because his brother pulled strings to get him in.”
“That’s not official,” Joyner countered, but with no real heat. She cupped her hands around the mug and brought it close to inhale the fragrance. “And this is why I pop in here, instead of heading out to the break room,” she drawled.
“Knock yourself out,” Fochs replied good-humoredly. “No, but it’s the perception. And if Wayne’s report is accurate, his brother is trying to keep the whole incident quiet, which means that IA is going to try extra-hard to blow the lid off. Internally, if they can help it, of course.”
Joyner scowled. “The vetting didn’t turn up his drinking problem. Jandt’s,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
“Yeah, well, the vetting isn’t infallible,” Fochs replied. “If the guy genuinely doesn’t believe he’s got a problem, and the backgrounder doesn’t ask the right questions, it’s very possible to slip through.”
Joyner tilted her head to one side. “No, sir. I don’t have a drinking problem. I drink; I get drunk; I fall down. No problem.” She rolled her eyes. “Saw that on a t-shirt when I worked security at a gaming convention once. It seemed a lot funnier then.” She made a face. “You probably called it. About the backgrounder not being thorough enough. Jandt’s was Lashley.”
“Ouch.” There was no need to elaborate. Most backgrounders were extremely thorough. Others were not. And Lashley was emphatically in the second category.
She sighed. “Well, thanks for letting me bend your ear. Guess I’d better go review my files. Better make sure I fix my typos before MacInnes asks for them.”
“Good idea.” Fochs smiled tightly. “He requested mine while we were talking.”
“Great.” She shook her head. “I knew having the Bat here was going to be exciting. Wish I hadn’t been right. Later.”
Maury Chiarello didn’t have many friends in the GCPD. Most of the ones he did have were in Internal Affairs. He couldn’t say he was surprised when the faces of his former colleagues—men he had once known in his early days with the force—went flat, eyes shuttered and lips tight. It still annoyed him. “Where… is… the BAC… report?” he repeated.
The desk sergeant waved vaguely at the counter behind him and the multiple piles of paperwork. “In there,” he said in a bored tone. “Somewhere.”
“I’d suggest doing some digging,” Chiarello said evenly. “Paperwork isn’t something restricted to Fourth Precinct. I need to file it, too. And I’ll be sure to stress exactly how helpful you’ve been in my investigations.”
A muscle twitched in the sergeant’s cheek. Then he took a deep breath. “Santini!” he called.
Atop the low cubicle walls, an olive-skinned face poked up. “Sir?”
He took a deep breath. “Get over here.” He sighed. “Got a job for you.” He looked at Chiarello. “Satisfied?”
Chiarello’s lips twitched. “I’ll be satisfied when I have that report. Which should be within the next 24 hours, right?”
The sergeant nodded grudgingly. “You’ll have it.”
When Bruce reached the corridor outside the criminal law classroom, he noticed that most of his classmates were talking among themselves. He heard Jandt’s name mentioned and caught more than a few furtive looks in his direction. He pretended to miss them.
Kotsopoulos approached. “The rumor mill’s working overtime,” he said. “Supposedly, you saw Jandt driving a Ferrari through the Wayne Foundation gala on Saturday night?”
Bruce sighed. “Don’t believe everything you hear.”
“Well, what did happen?”
He fought back a wave of irritation. “You know I can’t discuss that,” he said sharply. It had been drilled into them at orientation: treat all police business as confidential and do not discuss open investigations with uninvolved parties, including fellow officers not dealing with the matter. Or, in other words, his usual taciturn silence was not only acceptable in this case, but mandatory.
Kotsopoulos took a surprised step backwards. “I’m not asking for details about the investigation. I just want to know how much of what we’ve heard is true.”
Bruce shook his head. “I’m sorry. I can’t go into it.”
“Can’t blame the guy for trying,” said a voice from the crowd. “After all, Wayne’s already spilled the beans once. Why expect him to keep his mouth shut now?”
“Hey!” All at once, Kotsopoulos whirled about. “Lay off. It’s not like we weren’t all placing bets about how long Jandt would last before he was out on his ear.”
“Yeah, but that didn’t mean Wayne had to turn him in.” It was Laramie talking. “It was a Saturday night, everyone was outside campus, and I’ll bet Jandt wasn’t the only one kicking back with a few beers. He was just the only one unlucky enough to be in Wayne’s presence.”
“But if he was driving drunk,” this from Peter Norton, “then—”
“Except we don’t know that he was,” Dawson spoke up. “Supposedly, Wayne reported it, but how many other witnesses were there? I mean, maybe Jandt was on his way out, but what if Wayne saw him have a drink or two and jumped to conclusions. Maybe Jandt got behind the wheel, legally sober, had a fender-bender, and Wayne saw a chance to make his move?”
“In that case,” Sgt. Calhoun’s voice cut through the buzzing conversations like a scalpel, “the truth will come out in the investigation.” Her gaze swept over each cadet in turn, lingering longest on Bruce. “As I understand it, the investigators looking into the matter are quite thorough and more than capable of spotting a frame-up. The matter is under review and will be resolved presently. Meanwhile, since you all appear to have sufficient energy to indulge in conspiracy theories, you evidently have enough to expend on two hundred push-ups.” She paused for a moment to allow her words to sink in. “NOW, Cadets! We don’t have all day! Move it!”
As he hastened to comply, Bruce acknowledged mentally that it looked like the start of another fine Monday at the Gotham City Police Academy.
“You made better time last week, Wayne!” Craigie bellowed as he watched the cadets running on the track. “Just because Sawyer has a soft spot for you, doesn’t mean I do. Step it up!”
“Yes, Sir!” Bruce acknowledged the order and kept going. The frenetic pace of the Academy was beginning to take a toll. He was in great shape, but he did have limits and the constant physical activity was leading him to reach them all too quickly.
You give me everything you have. Then you give me more. He’d said that to Tim years ago. The irony wasn’t lost on him now.
“What’s the matter, Wayne? Sprain an ankle running to file your paperwork? Being the commissioner’s pet doesn’t earn you any points with me, Cadet. Keep moving!”
Bruce remembered the stoicism he’d perfected in Arkham, the retorts he’d bitten back at society dinners, the monologuing he’d had to ignore when he’d gone undercover as one of Joker’s or Penguin’s minions. Craigie was trying to get a rise out of him and if he had the strength to rise to the bait, then he also had the strength to put on another burst of speed.
He hadn’t been that surprised at the murmurs and comments from his fellow cadets. Talebearers were rarely well regarded, even when their actions were justified. Craigie’s jibes about Sawyer’s protection were a different matter. Although he generally wasn't interested in politics, outside of an election year, Bruce tried to keep aware of trending stories in the current media. Even before he’d met Neal Jandt at the gala, he’d known that the politician had hopes of one day taking Sawyer’s place as police commissioner. If Craigie’s attitude was anything to go by, it appeared that he had his supporters.
Bruce hated municipal politics. However, he had to admit that it might be in his best interest to start following them a bit more closely. He didn’t think that any other commissioner would ever compare favorably with Jim Gordon, but he had found much to respect in Maggie Sawyer. He was less than optimistic that he would find the same in Neal Jandt.
That evening, Derek Powers sat in his home office and weighed his options. He’d known that sooner or later, Lester Paxton would outlive his usefulness. Was it now? He considered. He was still a very junior executive. Paxton had the contacts, the finances and the business expertise. Until a few short weeks ago, Powers would have been content to bide his time and continue to act as Paxton’s protégé indefinitely. Now, though, he wasn’t so sure. Oh, he hadn’t yet learned everything that Paxton could teach him, but, Derek reflected, his mentor’s sheer hubris had brought them both to a precipice.
Derek rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. It was obvious by now that Paxton wasn’t prepared to back away. Ron Chester, a man Derek had always taken for a simple corporate flunky, had somehow grown enough of a spine to walk away early and his position now was stronger than it had ever been. People who had dismissed him as an affable lightweight now saw him as some kind of visionary. From what Powers remembered from researching Chester’s past, it wasn’t the first time. Meanwhile, Paxton was now in disgrace, his name dragged through the media, and a court date on his horizon. And still, Derek knew his mentor saw it as no more than a temporary setback, soon to be rectified.
Powers’ expression hardened. His association with Lester Paxton was a matter of record. He’d made the man godfather to his own son, even named the boy Paxton after him—and how he wished now that he’d chosen differently on both counts nine years ago! For now, that association was becoming a greater liability every day.
They were at the precipice—handcuffed together—and Lester Paxton still couldn’t acknowledge that there was any danger.
Which left Powers with several options. He could continue to trust Paxton, until the moment that his mentor lost his balance completely and pulled them both over the edge. He could back away now and drag Paxton back. He could cut the chain and walk away, as Chester had already done. Or… he could cut the chain and give Paxton a push.
There was still the matter of the gala. Lucius Fox had been as good as his word. He was already looking into what had transpired with the seating arrangements. Powers knew that, sooner or later, his own involvement would be uncovered. Despite his measured assurances to Paxton, he was far from certain that he’d get out of this with his skin intact, unless he handed over a bigger fish to fry.
That realization decided him. He reached for the telephone. “Mr. Fox,” he coaxed some deliberate apprehension into his tone. “This is Derek Powers in accounting. I’m sorry to bother you outside normal business hours, but I think I need to talk to you. All I ask is that you hear me out completely, before you say anything. It concerns the gala last Saturday and… and Lester Paxton…”
MacInnes waited for the buzz of chatter to die down before he rose to call the meeting to order. “By now, unless you’ve locked yourself out of your email and been out of your office for the last thirty-six hours, I presume you all know about an incident that happened this weekend.”
Nods and grim expressions confirmed his assessment. “The matter is currently under investigation. Until the facts are determined, I’d like to remind everyone that Cadet Jandt is still enrolled as an Academy Cadet. I can confirm at this time, however, that he is a patient at Gotham General, expected to be there at least until Friday.”
Joyner put up her hand. “Was he drunk, sir?” she queried when MacInnes acknowledged her.
MacInnes’s expression grew stonier. “That’s unconfirmed. You’ll receive the findings when the investigation closes.”
“Jandt’s been trying to make trouble for Wayne,” Craigie rumbled. “Slacking off when Wayne’s over him, deliberately trying to get him penalized. I can’t help wondering whether, with the kinds of resources Wayne must have available … being Batman and all, I mean… maybe the guy had about all he could take and hit on a way to get rid of a thorn in his side.”
His comment was greeted by a few derisive looks, a number of nods, and a lot of startled glances. MacInnes’s expression didn’t change in the slightest. “We’ll be looking into that, too,” he stated, “although I do feel the need to point out that, if Wayne were the vindictive sort you’re painting him out to be, I think I can make out a few of us who might suddenly find ourselves facing similar allegations. Last I heard, Cinar wasn’t up on charges.”
“Now that’s a shame,” Farnham drawled.
MacInnes waited for the ripple of amusement to fade before he continued. “Furthermore, if Wayne were out to settle scores, I could point out that Jandt isn’t one of the people dealing out laps and push-ups. Anyone here find a drop gun in your locker recently?”
This time, the laughter lasted longer, but MacInnes had made his point.
“Meanwhile,” he continued, “carry on; business as usual. You’ve got squad leaders now. Use them to lighten your loads. Next order of business…” He raised his eyebrows. “Who keeps depleting the cream cake supply in the staff vending room? And are you actually eating them or have you started a side business?”
“I had a thought,” Paxton announced without preamble when Powers picked up the phone.
He fought the urge to make a sarcastic rejoinder. There was still a chance that Paxton could be useful; no point in jeopardizing the relationship until he knew otherwise.
“Are you there?” Paxton asked sharply.
“Yes. Sorry, Lester. My mind must have been wandering. What was that again?”
There was a long-suffering sigh. “Honestly, Derek, I was hoping you’d pay closer attention if you’re as intent on climbing the corporate ladder as you claim. Dreamers seldom amount to anything.”
Says the man who hired a penny ante impersonator to try to frame Batman when he was wide awake. What’s worse, Lester? To dream and never do… or to have it all and watch it slip away? He concentrated on the obsequious tone that Paxton expected from him. “I’ll remember that, Sir.” …Along with every other condescending remark you’ve ever made. I can’t believe I once looked up to you, you overbearing imbecile. “You were saying…?”
Paxton chuckled. Once more, he spoke in the genial tones of a man in complete control, just as though the last month hadn’t happened. “I think we underestimated Wayne’s tolerance for humiliation. Anyone who’s ever witnessed his behavior in board meetings would have to acknowledge that he barely understands when he’s being insulted. The gala probably seemed like old times to him.”
Ah. So you’re still trying to convince yourself that Wayne really IS a fop. All evidence to the contrary, of course. Well, I suppose old fantasies CAN be hard to outgrow. Still, I can’t help but be amazed by your ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel and not realize that it’s an oncoming train! Aloud, all he said was, “You could be right, Lester.”
“Oh, I know I am. The subtlety of our attack went right over Wayne’s head. He didn’t perceive that there was any cause for offense, therefore he wasn’t offended and your ploy barely rattled him.”
You’re very sure of yourself for someone who wasn’t even in attendance, Les. Now that he realized that it was nearly time to dissolve their partnership, he was finding it harder to tolerate the smug idiot. Hold on just a little longer. He may still be of SOME use. “Mmmm,” he grunted noncommittally. “So, what did you have in mind?”
“We might be able to bring pressure to bear on Wayne through other sources. Why don’t you do some digging, Derek? Find out who he’s currently close to. I’m sure that someone around him has some skeleton in their closet that they’d hate to have bandied about. Maybe one of his allies would be the best person to talk him out of planning a comeback.”
Derek could feel the wheels clicking as they turned in his head. While he didn’t really care whether Wayne returned to PMWE or not, and while, after yesterday’s phone call to Fox, Paxton himself might be due for early retirement, he couldn’t see how it would hurt to have something he could hold over Bruce Wayne. “Interesting,” he smiled. “I’ll get on it.”
“Good. Keep in touch, Derek. Tell me what you turn up.”
Derek was still smiling when he hung up the phone. There was nothing like a little ‘Bat-insurance,’ if a man of his ambition wanted to operate in Gotham. Not that he’d necessarily need to use it. In fact, he hoped he wouldn’t have to. If he played his cards right, he was probably going to come out of this mess looking like a loyal employee with the gratitude and trust of both Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox. Give him a few more years and he might be running the company in all but name—and all legally and above-board. No, the information Paxton wanted him to acquire should prove helpful, but there was very little sense in playing a trump card this early in the game. He was signing on for the long haul.
The library was nowhere near as quiet as the stereotype would paint it. Without trying, Cass could make out the murmurs of five or six conversations, the hum of the HVAC system, the whirrs and whines of two inkjet printers, the clicking of numerous keyboard buttons, and the odd cell phone ringing. All sounds, however, paled in comparison to the scratch of Dr. Arkham’s pen as he reviewed her latest essay. Finally, he handed it back to her. She frowned as she tried to puzzle out his handwriting.
He was printing—and she was grateful for it, since reading cursive was another exercise in torture for her. She’d borrowed some of Barbara’s old books to practice her reading, and well recalled her horror when she’d opened up The Travels of Babar to find that the letters in each word had been joined together, and that some of them were so different from the letters she knew that she’d nearly wondered whether she was looking at another language altogether. When Barbara had explained about ‘cursive,’ Cass had only been able to think that the style was aptly named: she’d felt like cursing its inventor. After Barbara had told her that most people used that style when they wrote by hand, though, she’d wanted to cry. “So… I can read… books,” she’d struggled to say, “but not… notes? Messages?”
“Most people type nowadays,” Barbara had reassured her. “Of course, you might find leet-speak even worse…”
Barbara had shaken her head. “Concentrate on the GED first. And stay out of chat rooms until then.”
It had been easy enough to agree with that instruction; she’d never gone into one in her life. Whatever this “leet-speak” was, she had no problem avoiding it for the foreseeable future. She had enough to struggle with already. Case in point: Dr. Arkham’s cramped, angular, printing.
Arkham peered at her over steel-rimmed glasses. “Do you understand my comments?” he demanded in a harsh whisper.
He seemed to be the only person left in the library who actually was whispering.
She bent over the paper again. “Is it… better?” she ventured. “Maybe?”
“In some areas, yes.” He frowned. “You cannot read my handwriting.”
She lowered her head in defeat. “Not all.”
He sighed. “I suppose I should have expected that.”
“You have nothing to apologize for… Cass.” As always, he spoke her name as though it was an effort for him not to add the extra syllables that Barbara had told her made up the long form of her name. Cassandra. Nobody had called her Cassandra since Alfred. She sensed that Arkham would have preferred to call her thusly, but she knew why he wouldn’t. When she’d encountered him in Saint Swithin’s Rehabilitation Center, he’d been addressed as “Jerry” by virtually every staff member and volunteer. She had been the only one who had asked him if that was his preference, and had never forgotten to call him “Dr. Arkham,” once he’d made his wish known. She’d introduced herself as “Cass” and he’d extended her that same courtesy.
She shook her head, acknowledging his words, but knowing better. “I’ll practice.”
She looked up. Was that… kindness she saw in his flinty eyes? “Doctor Arkham?”
He sighed. “Cass. Why are you requesting special accommodation when you write this test?”
She blinked. “You told me…!”
“Yes. But why?”
“You said I needed. It,” she finished lamely.
She wasn’t a mind-reader! “You said… you said… because my reading wasn’t… good.” At least, that had been his meaning, if not his exact words.
“Correct. You have a learning disability which makes reading difficult. In case you were wondering, it is not a reflection on your intelligence. It is simply a fact. However, since you do have a reading problem, I should have taken that into consideration before writing down my comments for your review.”
She blinked. “Audio?” It was more than she could have hoped for. “You’d… do that?”
Arkham sighed. “If I had the time and the necessary equipment, I would consider it, yes,” he replied. “However, as I do not… Bring your paper back to me. We will review it now, verbally. If your memory is reliable enough, that may suffice. If not,” he smiled thinly, “I would presume that you’ve developed various means of recording and retaining information over time to compensate for your inability to keep written records. Feel free to employ them now.”
She smiled. That was easier said than done: her retention techniques involved training katas and pattern dances. She could just imagine his reaction if she broke into one of those routines here in the Gotham Public Library. More to the point, she could imagine her family’s reactions if she demonstrated her martial arts prowess in front of Dr. Arkham and anyone else in the vicinity. “I’ll… remember,” she stated quickly. She’d have to.
She handed her paper back to Dr. Arkham and quickly got up and walked over to his chair. Together, they bent over the page once more.
That night, it was an apologetic Harrier who awaited her atop the central gargoyle of the Church of Saint Francis Xavier Cabrini. “I talked to Oracle,” he said in a low voice when she touched down next to the sculpture. “She read me the riot act.”
“I think that’s my line,” he countered. “You were right about the essay. I was steering you in the wrong direction.”
Under her mask, Batgirl smiled. “Oh.”
“Yeah. You know what you’re doing.”
Warmed though she was by his words, she couldn’t let him believe an untruth. “I know what they want,” she said. “HOPE I know how to give.”
Harrier grinned. “I can tell you this much,” he said. “Your speaking has been getting a lot better since you started working on your writing.”
He’d noticed. She felt her smile widen. “Yes.” Then she realized that she was reverting to type and nearly laughed.
“Harrier. Batgirl. You out there?” Oracle’s voice came clearly over their comm-links.
“Here,” Batgirl replied. “What? Um… is it?” she finished, feeling like a fool. But if Tim was paying attention to the way she was talking, she knew he wanted her to add more words, just like they all did. Even Bruce.
Oracle was silent for a moment. Then the comm-link crackled to life once more. “Batman thinks he knows where Hatter might be holed up,” she said.
Harrier’s voice turned dry. “Does that mean you’re finally going to use that knockout spray on him?”
“You know better,” Oracle rejoined. “Inspiration can always be passed on. Now, if I catch him sneaking off to one of the caves…” she trailed off meaningfully. Almost immediately, she continued in a businesslike tone, “Check out the old Apex Broadcasting Building. Apparently something Batman found the other night gave him reason to think Hatter’s holed up there.
“On it,” Batgirl said. She was already casting her grapnel. “Thanks.”
It was nearly midnight when MacInnes received the IA findings. His expression soured as he read them. It appeared that Jandt’s Blood Alcohol Content report was buried somewhere in a mountain of evidence waiting to be sorted. Although they were trying to locate it, neither he nor IA doubted that they were looking for a needle in an ever-growing haystack.
He supposed he shouldn’t be too surprised: most crime labs were hopelessly backlogged and Gotham City’s was no exception—over five hundred cases behind the last time he’d looked at the statistics, and more evidence rolling in daily. Even though he, and Sawyer, and IA wanted to resolve the current situation quickly, he couldn’t fault the police scientists for their priorities. There were violent criminals—dangerous repeat offenders—whom the DA’s office wanted to see safely incarcerated. Enough of them were represented by tough lawyers who would be only too happy to see their clients’ indictments dismissed on grounds of denial of a speedy trial.
The Jandt situation was important. It wasn’t important enough to risk having mob hitmen, serial killers, and rapists walk free on technicalities.
Once the evidence they had on Jandt surfaced, they could conduct their tests. Meanwhile, MacInnes had no intention of waiting around for it to turn up. Jandt might be done with the Academy and into field training by then—if he wasn’t on his individual assignment. There was a way to speed things up, not to mention a way to still any internal rumblings that the GCPA was giving Wayne an easy ride. Before this was over, he wouldn’t be surprised if Jandt and Wayne withdrew from the program. Part of him would actually be relieved by that prospect. It would probably cause a lot fewer headaches for all concerned. Neither man would think kindly of him for this. Then again, he was only mildly interested in what either man thought of him in general.
It was time to set things in motion. He opened his email and began composing a new message.
The building was too quiet. True, it was supposed to be deserted, but as they made their way down the stairwell, both Batgirl and Harrier grew increasingly uneasy. They should have heard something besides their own breathing and the sound of their footfalls. The wind, the hum of electrical generators, mice in the walls... but there was nothing else. Harrier hated times like this. If he could hear his own movements, he was sure that everyone else could too. Despite years of stealth training, sometimes he still felt like a robin in a wind-chime factory. Batgirl seemed less disturbed; he had no idea whether it was because she knew that they weren’t making as much noise as he thought or whether she just hid her concern better.
His night-vision lenses picked up a faint trail and he held out an arm to hold Batgirl back. “Dust,” he signed. “Shows footprints.”
She nodded and held up four fingers.
He checked again. He could only make out the imprints of three different shoe styles, but he knew that Batgirl was more experienced at this sort of tracking. A moment later, he saw what she’d spotted: there were two people wearing the same type of shoe. The footprints were identical. The lengths of the strides were different.
Moving even more quietly now, they followed the tracks as they led them down two more levels, to an area where the walls they brushed against were covered in heavy plush fabric. The floor was carpeted, but, although the individual tracks were no longer discernible, the dust and mud that they’d picked up were easily spotted and followed. Harrier realized that the wall coverings meant that the area was probably soundproof. He was tempted to try his comm-link and make sure that the signal was still working, but risking blowing their cover unnecessarily didn’t seem wise.
He frowned when he saw the trail suddenly end against a blank wall. There had to be a hidden area behind it, he knew. Automatically, he began running a gloved hand up and down the wall, hunting for a switch. One spot seemed to have a bit more give to it and he pressed it.
There was a harsh grating sound, deafening after the silence, and both vigilantes instinctively clapped their hands to their ears.
Something settled over them and brought them crashing to the floor. Harrier struggled to break free of the weighted net, but only succeeded in becoming more entangled. He could feel Batgirl’s attempts to get loose. With every move she made, the mesh enveloping them seemed to tighten.
The lights came on and a short man in a green top hat and tails pranced forward. “Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!” he chortled in his joy. He wasn’t alone. Flanking him were several burly men. Each sported a brown felt derby and a vacant expression
Harrier groaned inwardly. “Let us go, Hatter!” he snapped.
The Mad Hatter took another step forward and bent down so that he was at eye level with the captive vigilantes. “Let you go? To meddle in my business? You should mind your own, my boy. If everybody minded their own business, the world would go around a great deal faster than it does.”
Cass tilted her head. “I don’t think...” she began dubiously.
“Then you shouldn’t talk!” retorted Hatter.
Harrier sighed. “Fine. You got us. Five points for Slytherin. Now what?”
“No, no,” Hatter chuckled, wiggling his hands a bit. “The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.” His smile turned sinister. “And the two of you are about to have quite the adventure.” He snapped his fingers and his henchmen started forward.
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