Post by Admin on Jun 21, 2018 22:58:31 GMT -5
Issue #29: “Cut Off, Flipped Off, Ticked Off”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy and Debbie
Edited by Mark Bowers
Five o'clock, he's the last one
Out of the gate
And he gets cut off, flipped off, ticked off
Out on the interstate
And he wonders why this world won't
Leave him alone
Till he hears that little voice holler
—Gary LeVox, Neil Thrasher, Michael Dulaney, “Things that Matter”
Bruno Mannheim had many irons in the fire. As the leader of Intergang, he oversaw activity in Metropolis, New York City, much of New Jersey, and Illinois. Until its destruction in a Chemo attack, he had also maintained a small but active cabal in Bludhaven. Gotham was on his radar, although the local vigilantes had been putting obstacles in his way for the better part of the decade he’d had his sights set on the city. He was just happy that in Metropolis, Superman tended to deal more with meta-powered threats. Sure, they’d crossed paths with the Blue Boy Scout—Darkseid had bankrolled them for a while and Mother Box technology had garnered the Man of Steel’s attention on more than one occasion. However, since they’d begun sticking to street level tactics and more conventional weaponry, Superman tended to take a step back and let the police handle things. That suited Mannheim fine. He owned several officers in key positions and knew that he could easily acquire several others for the right price.
When it came to Gotham, though, the active vigilantes considered organizations such as Intergang and the 100 to be primary targets. As such, his inroads in that territory had been negligible. That was the only reason that he bothered responding to the message he received from the kid his brother had suggested he send out on reconnaissance and hadn’t heard from in over three months. The silence hadn’t been surprising. He’d specifically told the kid not to bother checking in unless he had something worth reporting. He’d thought it would get the guy out of his hair; he distrusted overeager, overambitious tyros. He distrusted seasoned lieutenants too, but at least he knew them well enough to predict their tactics.
Queen Elizabeth I had dealt with troublesome courtiers by sending them to Ireland. Mannheim had been thinking somewhat along those lines when he’d ordered Mr. Fixx to Gotham. Hearing from the young man now was unexpected. He debated letting him stew for a time, but he’d been looking for a way into Gotham’s markets for too long to risk letting an opportunity slip by. He called the man who’d relayed Fixx’s message. “I trust you had a good reason for disturbing me with this.”
On the other end of the line, O’Malley swallowed hard. “Fixx believes he has a way to neutralize any...” he paused meaningfully, “...Bat-interference in our Gotham activities.”
Mannheim frowned and settled his bulk more comfortably in his padded office chair. “I’m listening.”
“He’s requesting Intergang’s help to corroborate his findings—”
Mannheim fought down his annoyance. “That isn’t the agreement, and you and Fixx both know it. He said that he could hand us Gotham without requiring any outlay from us whatsoever. He’s delivered nothing, as yet, and I don’t see an incentive to advance him any assistance with no proven results.” His voice grew colder. “I suppose this sort of inattention to detail is to be expected in a neophyte, but I’m surprised to hear it from you.”
O’Malley paused on the other end. “Are you familiar with the name Elliot?”
“Doctor Thomas Elliot?” Mannheim’s ears pricked up but he kept his voice neutral. “I know of him.” He’d considered recruiting him, in fact, but he was waiting to see whether the doctor was back in the game after over two years in Arkham. There was no point in making overtures to a washed-up has-been until he’d demonstrated that he was as capable as ever.
“It was on Elliot’s suggestion that Fixx approached me. I heard him out and I think you should, too. If his theory bears out, I think we can all but guarantee an open playing field in Gotham going forward.”
Mannheim glowered at the telephone. “As you said before. All right. I’m still listening.”
“There’s reason to believe that Wayne has a young daughter.”
The Intergang leader’s eyes widened involuntarily and a smile creased his face. “Go on.”
“Any attempt to corroborate the theory appears to have been intercepted and rerouted, which makes Fixx think...”
“...that the Bats are monitoring searches of this nature and diverting them,” Mannheim nodded. He’d learned something of manipulating the flow of information when Darkseid had been providing their technology. He hadn’t been savvy enough at the time to understand how to use that technology, but he’d been able to appreciate the potential, even as he’d opted for a more brutal approach. “You’ll probably have better results if you search for a paper trail instead of an electronic one.” He considered. “All right. We have a man in Gotham whom you should contact. I’ll see that he’ll be expecting your call. His fee is on your dime. Intergang will reimburse you if your theory bears out. And O’Malley, the next time you contact me, ensure that it is with something solid and verifiable. I’m not making a habit of funding hunches, no matter how reasonable they may appear on the face of it. Test me at your peril.”
The Class D uniform had a utility belt. It was nowhere near as well-equipped as the model that Bruce was used to, but the idea was certainly familiar. Instead of a batarang pouch, the Class D belt sported a magazine pouch. It bothered Bruce that he no longer flinched when he thought about that. Where he would have carried his grappling line, there was a baton ring. Next came the chemical agents: mace and pepper spray. He rarely carried those, but his knockout sprays were usually on the other side of the belt. He considered that when he returned to the cowl, he might find it easier to change that. The next item was the one he really hated: the holster. The handcuff key and cuffs completed the array. He’d made the switch to zip-ties a few years ago, but when he’d carried cuffs, they’d hung on his old belt in a position rather close to where they hung now. So much was similar, he mused, but too much was different.
A whistle blast from Farnham broke into his reverie. Together with the rest of his class, he broke into a run across the field to the firing range, found an empty target, and discharged his pistol. Around him, most of his classmates followed suit. Unfortunately, Laramie’s boot came down on a patch of slick mud and he slipped, landing on his hands and shins. There was some muffled laughter.
“Get up and find your target, Cadet! We don’t have all day,” Farnham bellowed.
Red-faced, Laramie complied.
When all guns had been discharged, Farnham collected the paper targets and handed them back to the cadets, one by one.
“Not bad, Cadet,” Farnham rumbled as he handed Bruce’s back.
Bruce clenched his teeth. Twelve shots had found their mark. Three were close.
“Thank you, Sir,” he managed hollowly, feeling for a moment as though he would vomit.
The moment passed. The sick feeling in his stomach persisted.
It didn’t get better when they returned to the locker room to change for parade drills. Most of the others avoided him pointedly, gathering in small knots in different corners of the room. Again, they murmured about Jandt and the inquiry.
“You know,” Laramie drawled, his voice carrying over the murmurs, “I was just thinking back to this poem I studied in high school called ‘The Barber of Ripon and the Ghostly Basin’. It’s been on my mind for the last week or so for some reason I just can’t put my finger on... Anyone know the one I’m talking about?”
Blank looks and denials greeted the question.
Laramie grinned. “I just can’t seem to get the opening lines out of my head,” he continued in an all-too-innocent voice. “It goes like this.”
He took a step back from the group, placed his hands behind his back, thrust his chest out and recited:
“Since ghost stories you want, there is one I can tell
Of a wonderful thing that Bat Pigeon befell!”
Bruce fought not to react as a wave of laughter crashed over the locker room. He was glad that he had his back to them, even as his hands involuntarily curled into fists.
“Knock it off,” Brenner said in a low tone.
“Excuse me?” Laramie swung over in the other cadet’s direction.
Brenner swallowed hard. “I said, knock it off,” he replied. “Wayne just did what we all should have done if we’d been there.”
“Yeah?” Laramie demanded. “You’d actually snitch on a fellow officer, knowing he’d get kicked out for something that happened on his own time? The way I heard it, the guy wasn’t even in control when he got behind the wheel. Hatter had him. You think it’s fair Jandt’s facing expulsion for that?”
“Whether Jandt gets expelled isn’t Wayne’s call,” Kotsopoulos spoke up.
“It wouldn’t be anyone’s call if Wayne hadn’t filed a report,” Laramie snapped. “Of course, just this once, Wayne decided he was just going to follow orders, am I right?”
“That’s what we’re supposed to do,” Kotsopoulos answered, sounding a bit unsure. “Isn’t it?”
Laramie spun furiously to face him. “Really, Steve-O? You think it’s fine to blow the whistle on a fellow cadet? Or a fellow officer? Man, your sergeant is going to be rushing to hold a ticker tape parade for you, if you try that.”
“That’s not fair!” Norton broke in.
“It’s not fair,” Laramie retorted, “that we all get slapped with push-ups and ab crunches because some people show up to class a couple of minutes late, but we do it because we’re a team. We’re supposed to watch out for each other, not report things that could get a fellow team member kicked out.”
There were murmurs of agreement and a few muffled “Yeah”s.
“I mean,” Mazzucchelli broke in, “it would be one thing with someone who goes by the book on everything. But when a guy with a rep for making his own rules suddenly toes the line...”
“Like we’re all supposed to,” Norton interrupted.
“Kid,” Laramie snapped, “if you’re going to act like that in the field, I pity whichever officer gets saddled with you as a partner. It’s a whole different ballgame in real life.”
Bruce checked the clock. They had less than five minutes before the next class started. More than anything, he wanted to make one of his patented disappearances while the others were distracted. Still, something made him say, “Four minutes,” without turning around.
“Hear that, guys?” Burns asked. “Bat Pigeon is reminding us that we’ve got to fly.”
Bruce ignored the jab and headed for the exit. Norton fell into step behind him. “Jerks,” he muttered.
Bruce sighed. “You’re not doing yourself any favors interfering,” he pointed out.
“Ehhh...” Norton shrugged. “They’ve been ribbing me since day one when I messed up in front of Calhoun. If I’m damned whatever I do, I might as well do what’s right. I mean...” His face reddened and he broke into a quick trot, pulling a few paces ahead of Bruce.
Bruce let him, even as a smile ghosted across his face.
“Keep the line, Cadets!” Captain Alanguilan ordered. “Parsons, you’re out of step. Rein in!”
Red-faced, Parsons acknowledged the command and did her best to pull her mare back in line with the other mounts. Once they had completed a full circuit of the dressage ring in perfect synchronization, the captain blew his whistle.
“Take ’em around at a canter this time,” he called. “And keep the line.” A moment later, his voice rang out again. “Cadet Brenner! I said a canter, not a trot! Get with the program... Are you galloping, Brenner?”
“I... I don’t know, Sir!” yelped the wide-eyed cadet as he raced past. “Just make her stop!”
“She’s your mount, Cadet!” Alanguilan yelled. “Steady those hands and sit up!”
“Lower those hands, Cadet!”
“Brenner!” Parsons called. “She’s got to know who’s boss!”
“She knows!” Brenner yelled back. “Trust me!”
Bruce nudged Shilling into a trot, cutting across the ring to head off Brenner and Taupe. Moving closer to intercept, he relied on the press of his calf and the shifting of his body weight to urge Shilling forward. With little maneuvering room, Taupe slowed to a trot, leaving Brenner bouncing painfully on her back. Bruce drew up alongside and caught hold of Taupe’s bridle. “Whoa,” he ordered, bringing both horses to a halt.
“Cadet Brenner,” Alanguilan called, “are you fit to continue?”
Brenner gulped in a fresh breath. “Sir! Yes, sir!”
“Commence cantering when the others reach you,” he gestured to where Parsons and Norton were completing the lap. “Nicely done, Cadet Wayne.”
Bruce released Taupe’s bridle. “We’ll work on this later,” he said.
Brenner nodded miserably.
When Bruce didn’t respond to her text message after twenty-four hours, Barbara called the manor directly. She knew that Bruce was still at the academy, but Selina needed to know the situation as well.
When the call went through to voicemail after four rings, she bit back a growl of frustration. “Selina? Or Bruce. Please call me back. This is important.”
She hung up and dialed her father’s number. His voicemail message came on after the second ring. “Hi, Daddy. I think there could be a situation developing and I can’t reach Bruce or Selina. Can you call me when you get this? Thanks. Love you.”
She hung up with a sigh. She knew that her father wasn’t tied to the manor grounds. In fact, now that she remembered, today was one of his swimming days at the Y. Everything was probably fine. At least, for now.
Bruce twisted the top off a bottle of water and took a long swig. He recapped it, tucked it under his arm, and gave Shilling’s neck a gentle scratch. The horse whickered in pleasure. “I know you’d rather have a full brushing and a meal,” he said in a low tone, “but I’m afraid you and I have a bit more work to do first. You’ll need to help Taupe show Brenner how it’s done.”
Shilling snorted and tossed his head. Bruce allowed himself a smile as he took the reins up once more and walked the horse slowly around the dressage ring. “Just keep moving, boy,” he added, noting with satisfaction that Brenner was doing the same, several yards ahead.
“Is this where you’re hanging out, these days, Wayne?” a familiar voice asked.
Bruce glanced over his shoulder to find Luisa Ortega leaning against the fence. She was wrinkling her nose a bit and Bruce realized that the wind was blowing over her from the direction of the stables.
“Hello, Ortega,” Bruce maintained his smile. “I’m sorry, but I can’t stop.”
Luisa nodded. “That’s okay,” she said, keeping pace with them from her side of the fence. “This won’t take long. I was just wondering about the defensive driving module.”
Bruce waited for her to continue.
“I was wondering,” she said again, “well, I need practice. And I was wondering...”
Bruce raised an eyebrow and asked himself how many more times Ortega was planning to wonder before she got to the point.
Ortega looked down. One boot scuffed the muddy ground, while her left hand toyed with the Squad Leader band on her right arm. “I was wondering if you had a place where I could practice without worrying about someone seeing me drive like a maniac in an empty parking lot and probably crash into a pedestrian island. I was,” she made eye contact briefly before looking back down at the ground, “wondering whether you had a practice area for that. Plus, my regular sitter’s busy this weekend and I was wondering if maybe Samantha could play with Helena again. I mean, if she’s going to be with you this weekend?”
“I believe she is,” Bruce nodded, “although I’ll need to verify.” He’d intentionally been vague as to whether Selina was in permanent residence at the manor and he was gratified that Ortega wasn’t assuming anything. The fewer people who knew the truth, the better. And he did have an outdoor training course for the Batmobiles, well-secluded from the neighbors’ prying eyes. He was fairly certain that was what Ortega had been hinting at. “Shall we say, Saturday at one?”
It was nearly time to start the additional drills. He called a warning to Brenner, who waved acknowledgment.
“That would be great,” Ortega smiled. “And I was—”
Bruce held up a hand. “You can stop wondering,” he said flatly.
“Right,” Ortega said with a nervous laugh. “Saturday at one.”
Bruce was glad that it was only a short drive from the academy to the manor. Although the road was generally smooth, with the winter snows melting and the natural erosion, early spring frequently brought with it a new crop of potholes.
After having spent nearly two hours on horseback, Bruce could feel every one of them. It didn’t matter that he was in better physical shape now than he’d been in years. The muscles he needed for riding weren’t the same that he needed for combat. He was beginning to wish for a car without a driver’s seat. The drive home wouldn’t be nearly as painful if he could stand up.
He cracked open the window to allow a bit of the night air inside. Soon, he told himself, he’d be out there again, making a difference. And he wouldn’t need to be stuck in a car either, particularly not in the city.
It had been too long since his last leap from the top of the One Gotham Center. At 110 stories and standing 1,368 feet high, it was the tallest building in the city, overshadowing Wayne Tower by more than 300 feet. The cornices jutted out gracefully over the street below. If he wasn’t on a case and the signal wasn’t up, Bruce usually preferred to start his patrol standing on the northern wall of the building, between the two central gargoyles. With no pressing business at hand, he had the luxury of closing his eyes and letting himself feel at one with his city. Its pulse became his pulse; its heartbeat, his. He’d stand like a high diver, the toes of his boots hanging just over the edge, as he waited for the moment when all felt right. Then he’d ready his grapnel and leap.
The exhilaration of those first seconds of freefall never got old. If it did, perhaps it would be time to think about retirement, but it never did. At the right moment, he’d release the grapnel, letting it loop around a vertical flagpole and then he’d swing out, to land on a rooftop several yards away. The city was a jungle, but at night, he was a lion. And he would protect his territory with his life.
Despite his aching muscles, Bruce smiled. It wouldn’t be much longer.
He was just putting his car in the garage when his cell phone rang. Remembering that around this time yesterday, it had been Neal Jandt on the other end, he checked his Caller ID first. One eyebrow shot up when he recognized the name. “Rachel!” he said warmly. “This is a surprise. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
As he listened to her reply, a genuine smile creased his face. His hearing date was set for the first week of July, less than four months from now. Suddenly the night when he’d be able to take his next leap from the roof of One Gotham Center looked a lot closer...
Barbara tried not to gush, but she was fighting a losing battle. She’d never thought that Cass wanted a social life outside of the family, but she should have. It was just that Cass was usually as driven as Bruce and between patrol and study, Barbara hadn’t thought that she even noticed anything that wasn’t part of either mission.
“A date?” She grinned. “You’re going out with someone?”
Cass scuffed her shoe along the floor. “Just concert,” she said. “Music. Won’t have to talk. Much.”
Barbara nodded. “This is true. So tell me about this Doug person. What’s he like?”
“Um...” Cass kept her eyes on the floor too. “Nice. Likes manga. Likes music. Nice.” She frowned. “For concert... for date... is this,” she patted her sweatshirt and jeans self-consciously, “okay?”
Barbara hesitated. “Well, it’s a bit casual,” she pointed out.
“Not necessarily,” Barbara said. “But it might be an idea to wear something a little dressier.”
Cass frowned. “Dressier... how?”
Barbara smiled. “I’m bringing up Killinger’s online catalog,” she said, typing a line of text into a search box. “Let’s check out their women’s fashions. Did you have any kind of look in mind?”
Cass’s frown deepened. “No...”
“Well, let’s see if anything grabs you. Pull up a chair.”
Lester Paxton left his lawyer’s office in a worse mood than he’d entered it. Cliff Maxwell had not been encouraging.
“Les, you hired a known criminal to try to frame one of the most powerful men in the state for a TRO violation!” Cliff liked to talk with his hands and they had been flapping so wildly that Paxton had half-expected him to fly around the office. “The guy had your phone number on him, he identified you positively, and Ronald Chester is testifying for the prosecution.”
Paxton glowered. He hadn’t spoken to Chester since the night that everything had started to go sour.
“False Face might be taking the stand as well,” Maxwell continued. “His lawyer is trying to negotiate a plea bargain, contingent on his testifying against you.”
“That lowlife?” snarled Paxton. “Who’s going to believe his word over mine?”
“Let’s hope the jury doesn’t,” Maxwell retorted. “But it doesn’t look good for you. The police subpoenaed your cell phone records. False Face called you less than a half hour before he was arrested. You spoke for about three minutes. He also called you from holding.”
“He had a wrong number,” Paxton snapped back. “Honestly, Cliff, you can think of these things, too.”
“I did,” Maxwell said. “And maybe that would work. If there hadn’t been a series of phone calls between the two of you in the week before the arrest. Three calls from your phone to his. Two from his to yours. Each one lasting between two and ten minutes. That’s a lot of time to be on with a wrong number.”
Paxton’s glower deepened. “Very well. So, in a worst case scenario, what am I looking at? Community service? A fine?”
“Five years in prison.”
His jaw dropped. “I beg your pardon, Clifford?”
“Five years,” Maxwell repeated. “Since it’s a first offense, you might be out in half that time, but framing someone for a crime draws a five year penalty.”
“That’s preposterous!” Paxton bellowed. “That’s worse than Wayne would have gotten if he’d violated the damned TRO!”
“That’s the law,” Maxwell said. “I’m sorry, Les. I get that you’re upset...”
“Upset?” Paxton snapped. “UPSET? I’m appalled! I don’t deserve to be treated like some criminal on the stand and I am NOT going to jail. You are NOT going to allow that to happen, Clifford.”
Maxwell ignored the outburst. “I get that you’re upset,” he repeated levelly, “but yelling at me isn’t the way to go. I am going to prepare the best defense I possibly can for you, Lester. I can attack witness credibility. I can certainly point out reasonable doubt. However, you have to recognize that this is not going to automatically go in your favor. Prison time is a real possibility, and as much as I’m going to try to keep that from happening, you need to be prepared for the eventuality.”
It was nearly two o’clock before Selina picked up Barbara’s messages. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized. “I usually do check voice mail, but I got in from patrol late the other night and then Helena got me up early and Bruce is dealing with...” She shook her head. “Enough with the excuses,” she interrupted herself wearily. “What’s going on?”
As Barbara explained, Selina began to swear. “What are my options?” she demanded when she’d finished.
Barbara sighed. “Be careful. I wish I had something else I could tell you. I mean, if you want a bodyguard, I can contact a JLA reservist or two. There are a couple of people based in Gotham who would probably be willing. Onyx, for one.”
Selina was already shaking her head, even though she knew it was pointless when Barbara couldn’t see it. “I can’t live like that,” she said.
“You know, they can be discreet. It’s not like anyone has to be right on top of you. They can shadow from a distance.”
“I’ll know they’re there,” Selina sighed. “Look, as soon as you find out anything, even if you aren’t sure, tell me. I’m not as paranoid as Bruce, but I’d rather you didn’t wait until you were a hundred percent certain of your facts before filling me in.”
“I understand,” Barbara’s voice was reassuring. “And they won’t find anything in Maine. We got rid of 99 per cent of it last summer and I took care of the last one per cent yesterday. It’s still there,” she added. “I was worried that a remote hack to delete a file might be detected, but renaming and misfiling the data wasn’t as risky.”
There was a pause. “Selina?” Barbara ventured, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but you might want to stay close to the manor for the next little while. Just until this all blows over.”
Selina sighed. “I know. You’re right. Starting tomorrow.”
Selina took a deep breath. “Remember that smallpox scare when I took Helena to the Solomons?”
“I do,” Barbara replied heavily.
“Well, Helena missed her last DPT immunization. She should have had it by twenty months, but I had to cancel and reschedule. With everything else that’s been happening since we got back, that wasn’t the last time. We’ve got an appointment at 4:15 today, and the doc’s office said that if I miss this one, they’re firing us as patients. I’m just going to get Helena up from her nap in about ten minutes and we’re heading off.” She swallowed hard. “I’ll be careful.”
There was a sad smile in Barbara’s voice as she responded. “I know.”
There was a note from Vivi on the mantelpiece in the study when Paxton got home. There was an emergency meeting of the ladies’ auxiliary at church and she didn’t know when she’d be back. Paxton frowned, wondering what kind of emergency there could possibly be.
He tried to remember the last time they’d sat down and really talked about what was going on. They used to talk once, he recalled. But since his arrest, Vivi seemed to be spending more and more time out of the house.
It was Thackeray’s day off, not that he would have confided his concerns to the butler. Not that the butler would have cared.
He opened his desk drawer and took out the tobacco tin. He removed the lid and set the tin on his desk, allowing the aroma to permeate.
The phone rang and he picked it up hurriedly. “Lester Paxton.”
For a moment, there was silence. Then came a dry chuckle and a smug voice greeted him. “Lester! Is life treating you as well as you’re going to be treating me?”
“What do you want?” Paxton demanded.
“Information, Lester,” False Face replied. “I’d like you to tell me a bit more about Bruce Wayne. In fact, I’d like you to tell me everything. The more you come up with, the less I’m likely to recall when they get me up on that witness stand at your trial...”
At 5:00 that afternoon, Barbara was following up on a data search for the JSA. The radio was on the local pop-rock station, providing some background music. A chime announced the hour.
“You’re listening to WBAH-FM, 98.7 on your dial. I’m Mona Maleev. It was five o’clock at the tone and here’s what’s making news. A car has exploded in the parking lot of an East End medical office. Police and emergency crews are on the scene. We’ll keep you informed as the story develops. On the GSU campus, a practical joke went sour when...”
Barbara turned off the radio abruptly. There had to be dozens of medical offices in the East End. There had to be thousands of cars. She repeated those sentences over and over in her head as she hit the speed-dial for Selina’s cell phone.
We’re sorry. The Scott Telecommunications customer that you have dialed is not available. At the tone, please record your message...
Fighting a tide of rising panic, she took a deep breath. “Selina, please call...”
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