Post by Admin on Aug 17, 2018 15:26:16 GMT -5
Issue #30: “Trouble”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy and Debbie
Edited by Mark Bowers
My heart started pounding in my chest
Like a runaway train
I felt my hands start to sweat
And my knees start to buckle
A shiver down my spine
And I knew I was in trouble
—Paul Brandt, Josh Leo, Rick Bowles, “Chain Reaction”
Once upon a time, if a friend of hers had been in danger—perhaps missing, perhaps hurt—Barbara wouldn’t have thought twice. She would have suited up, cast a grapnel, and gone swinging out to look for them. And even though, as Oracle, her tracking methods were far more thorough these days, she missed that time when she could have searched in person. There was something satisfying about investigating at street level—a certain sense of accomplishment, of excitement that just couldn’t be matched sitting at a computer. Yes, the computer was usually faster, but it wasn’t the same.
Right now, though, the computer wasn’t faster. It was useless. Frustrated, she replayed her recording of the live news coverage of the parking lot outside the medical center. Scattered across the lot was an assortment of blackened, twisted, and melted... material, which Barbara could only assume had once been car parts. The outside of the medical center appeared dingy, streaked with soot and ash. There were several other cars in the lot and all bore dents and cracked and shattered windows. According to those who had witnessed the explosion, one of the parked cars had gone up like a fireball, showering debris. Thus far, rescue crews had not been able to determine whether anyone had been inside or nearby. They hadn’t even been able to identify the make or model of the car, though they believed that at least one of its fenders had been blue.
Barbara pulled up a file. Bruce owned three blue cars: a Camry, a Subaru, and an Aston Martin. He also owned a number of green, grey, and black ones, and a fire-engine-red Porsche. Selina hadn’t mentioned which one she’d planned to drive when they’d spoken earlier.
Her phone rang and she glanced at the caller display. “Daddy?” She was grateful that he knew about Oracle. She didn’t have to pretend she wasn’t frantic.
“I just got your message,” Gordon rumbled. “What’s going on?”
Barbara took a steadying breath. “The other day, I received a tip that some of the wrong people knew about Helena. I don’t know how much they found out, but since Bruce has been trying to keep her existence under wraps...” She was rambling. Her father disliked rambling. Forcing herself to stick to the facts, she tersely related her efforts to contact Bruce and Selina, her earlier conversation with the latter, and the breaking news about the explosion. “I don’t even know,” she concluded, “which doctor Selina was going to see or whether that was her car that exploded, but I’ve been trying to reach her cell phone since I heard about the blast and she’s not picking up.”
“It was in the East End?” Jim didn’t wait for her response. “That’s Fourteenth Precinct. I have some contacts there. Let me make a few phone calls. I won’t find anything out right away; not while CSI is still at the blast site, but I should be able to learn a few details they won’t share with the public so quickly.”
Barbara exhaled. “Thank you.”
“Meanwhile,” Jim continued, “keep trying Selina. If she’s all right, you’ll probably find that out before I get anything out of Fourteenth. I’ll... let Bruce know.”
One more burden eased. She closed her eyes. “Thank you.”
“One thing I’ve learned from watching you people,” Jim added, “is that you’ve got ways of beating odds and expectations, more often than not. For now, let’s work as though we know they’re both okay and search for evidence to back that up. That being said, I won’t tell you not to worry, because you are and you will until you hear that they’re okay. Just don’t let that worry paralyze you into inaction.”
He was right. She knew that. She forced herself to smile, knowing that the expression would come through in her voice. “I won’t.”
“And keep me posted if you do hear anything.”
Their lives had been saved by a gust of wind and an automatic car door opener. Selina had activated the device from fifteen feet away when the wind had blown the appointment card out of her hand. She swallowed a curse—Helena was beginning to parrot back more words these days and there were a few that Selina didn’t want her to learn quite yet—and took off after the card. It touched down between two parked cars and she’d been stooping to pick it up when the sound of the explosion filled the air. With reflexes honed by years of survival and of operating on both sides of the law—with all the dangers that implied—she’d unsnapped Helena’s shoulder straps, pulled her daughter protectively onto her lap, and lifted the stroller over her head to shield them from the rain of fire coming down upon them. When a spark ignited the canopy, she tossed the stroller aside and made a run for it. She had to move now. Whoever had set that bomb might still be nearby.
It was hard to move fast while bent over, but Selina had no intention of poking her head higher than the hoods of the cars she was using for cover. Her purse caught on something and she tried to jerk it free. She heard a loud crack. It could have been a secondary explosion. It could also have been a gunshot. And whatever it was, it was uncomfortably close to her position. Selina slid her purse strap off her arm, whispered a quick reassurance to the wide-eyed little girl in her arms, and ran.
Ten minutes later, she knocked on the brown-painted steel back door of a local greasy spoon. It seemed like an eternity before it opened. “Yeah, what is it?” Then the man took a good look at her face. “You?!”
Selina smiled weakly. “I’m calling in that favor you owe me, Santiago. We need a place to crash.”
Immediately, Santiago opened the door wider and she sighed in relief. She should call Bruce and let him know that she was all right. She reached for her purse and then realized that she’d left it—and her cell phone—in the parking lot. That was when the stress of the last fifteen minutes began to tell on Helena. The little girl started to wail and all thoughts of her cell phone temporarily fled as Selina tried to soothe her agitated daughter.
Bruce didn’t check his cell phone messages until he’d parked his car in the manor’s garage, but when he did, he bolted upstairs, his heart in his throat. He’d heard about the explosion in the lot on his way home, but he hadn’t connected it with... He raced into the house and nearly tripped over a wooden block. The manor was silent. He wanted to shout Selina’s name, but to his horror, his voice came out as a croak.
In the hall, his phone was flashing to indicate voice mail. He waited impatiently as he heard Barbara’s voice asking him to call her. There were four hang-up calls, all from an unlisted number. That didn’t mean anything. Barbara’s main contact number was unlisted. In all likelihood, when he hadn’t called back, she’d kept phoning but hadn’t bothered leaving additional messages.
“Bruce, Barbara’s been trying to reach you. If you haven’t called her yet, knock on my door. If you have,” Jim’s voice was weary, “I hope you’ll call on me anyway.”
Selina. Helena. Bruce’s heart was pounding. He had to find them and he didn’t want to drive aimlessly up and down the city streets. There had to be a spare costume in the Cave. Dick couldn’t have removed all of them. He’d settle for the old version with the blue trunks and the yellow circle around the symbol if he had to, but there was no way that he could sit here waiting for news. He had to get out there and find them. He knew he’d as good as promised Selina that in circumstances such as these, he’d sit out and put someone he trusted on the job. He didn’t care. His daughter and the woman he loved were missing and he wasn’t going to stay on the sidelines. He—
“Bruce, it’s me. I know I should have called your cell phone, but I never memorized that number and it’s written down in my purse... which I don’t have on me. Long story. Anyway, in case you haven’t already heard, we’ve had some excitement. We’re fine. Both of us. But... we won’t be home tonight. I don’t think the manor is safe right now. Whoever did this had to be watching it. I’m going off the grid for a few days. I’ll get word to you through Oracle as soon as I can. And Bruce? I know you will anyway, but I have to say it: do not blame yourself. This wasn’t your fault. Don’t twist it around until you’ve convinced yourself that it is. I’ll talk to you soon. Love you.” A moment later, the tone sounded to indicate that the message was over.
Bruce exhaled. They were alive... no thanks to him. His jaw hardened as he headed down to the cave. No, he wasn’t going to risk the costume if they were safe, but he did mean to check the perimeter security logs to see if he could get a glimpse of whoever had the manor under surveillance.
When Selina awoke the next morning, it took her a moment to remember where she was. Through the sunlight that filtered in via dusty gray venetian blinds, she could see that she was lying on a foldout sofa. The mattress was better than several she’d had occasion to crash on in the past, but it was a dismal second to her bed at the manor. She turned her head to one side and saw Helena sleeping peacefully on a second mattress on the floor. She tiptoed cautiously to the door and eased it open. From another room down the hall, light snores reached her ears. She smiled. Jorge Santiago’s restaurant rarely closed before two in the morning and he still had to stay for over an hour most nights, cleaning up. It wasn’t even seven yet. Let the man have his sleep. Meanwhile, she and Helena needed to be well away from here before the city fully awoke.
A half hour later, she and Helena were on a bus bound for Cathedral Square. She knew that Bruce had a safe house less than a block away. Helena looked about curiously, but kept silent. Selina suspected that yesterday’s upheaval and the current unfamiliar surroundings had contributed to her daughter’s unease. She rocked the little girl gently, making soothing noises. After a moment, Helena snuggled closer and popped her thumb into her mouth. Another time, Selina would have removed it, but the last thing she wanted was for Helena to start whimpering, perhaps drawing the attention of the other passengers. She tried to relax and peered out the window as the neo-Gothic facades of the Old City Hall district yielded to red-brick Romanesque styling, a sure sign that they were nearing the cathedral. She got off amid a crowd of passengers, many of whom were attending morning mass before starting their workday, and hurried across the square and down a stairwell beneath a sign indicating subway access. On the second landing, she stopped before a steel door with a ‘No Admittance’ sign prominently displayed. After making sure that there was nobody approaching from either direction, she punched a four-digit code into the keypad panel and tugged at the iron handle. The door opened with only the faintest of creaks. “Bruce, you need to oil this,” she murmured as she stepped into the passageway beyond.
A moment later, an irritated man in a rumpled suit made a phone call. “I think I lost her in the subway. Once I got down the stairs, I couldn’t spot her. One possibility: as I was coming around the bend in the stairwell, I believe I saw a maintenance door close. It could have been her or it could have been a worker. I don’t know. We’ll have to hack the security tapes to find out what happened.” He listened to the voice on the other end. “Yeah, I’ll hang around for a bit and see if she turns up, but I don’t believe she will. At least, not now...”
Despite his concern for Selina, Bruce was at the academy on time the next day. The meditation techniques he’d studied in his youth helped him to suppress his worry and direct his attention to his classwork.
He had something else to take care of as well. Instead of eating lunch in the cafeteria, he’d stuffed two energy bars into a paper bag on his way out of the door that morning. He devoured them on his way to the administration building, disposing of the wrappers in the trash as he walked in. He took a moment to wash his hands before proceeding to MacInnes’s office.
“Come,” the captain said in response to Bruce’s knock. His eyebrows lifted when he saw who it was. “Cadet Wayne. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
Bruce took a deep breath. “Sir, it’s with regard to the Jandt situation.”
MacInnes kept his face impassive. “Having a rough time of it, are you?”
Two could play at poker. “With respect, sir, that’s irrelevant.” Now Bruce saw a muscle twitch in the Captain’s cheek as he fought to conceal his surprise.
“Why are you here, Cadet?”
“Captain,” Bruce said, taking another breath, “I would like to speak on Cadet Jandt’s behalf at the inquiry.”
“Why?” It wasn’t a question so much as a demand. “From all accounts, the two of you are hardly friends.”
“Respectfully again, sir, that’s not relevant. It isn’t right for Cadet Jandt is to be held accountable for infractions or crimes committed while under the Mad Hatter’s control. Sir.”
MacInnes busied himself with a folder on his desk. “Have you mentioned your concern to your RTO?”
“I have, sir.”
“What did he advise you?”
Bruce kept his tone even. “Sir, he told me that the matter was not my concern.”
“So you’re going over his head.”
MacInnes sighed. “You can drop the ‘sirs’, Cadet. Explain yourself and make it good.”
Since the captain hadn’t told him to stand at ease, Bruce remained at attention. “Captain, as I said, my personal feelings regarding Cadet Jandt aren’t relevant. What is relevant is that as a police academy cadet, I have a responsibility to look out for my fellow officers and cadets. As a squad leader, the responsibility is even greater. I had a further obligation to report the incident I observed, but that shouldn’t negate my other responsibilities. Cadet Jandt should not have been drinking to excess. That goes without saying, sir. However, it’s my understanding that while DWI is grounds for expulsion, mere drinking to excess does not carry this penalty. Cadet Jandt does not have a history of driving drunk. I firmly believe that he would not have got behind the wheel had the Mad Hatter not been controlling him.”
MacInnes grunted. “One. Judgment has not yet been rendered in this case. Two. This is currently an Internal Affairs matter. As such, I’m not at liberty to discuss how it’s being handled. You’d be better served directing your concerns to the Independent Police Auditor.”
“The contact information is in your handbook, along with a description of the powers and responsibilities of that office. Is there anything further?”
Bruce hesitated for a fraction of a moment. “No, sir.”
Bruce saluted smartly and exited. MacInnes watched him go and shook his head with a faint smile. Just when he thought he’d taken the cadet’s measure, something happened to make him reassess his opinions.
The rest of the day passed without incident. Bruce was walking back to his car when his phone vibrated, indicating receipt of a new text. He pulled out the phone.
Bat Cave 3 sensors detected Selina and Helena as of 0759 today, Barbara’s message read. They didn’t try to make contact. Lie low. Remember, Selina suspected that the manor was under surveillance. You may be, too. They’re okay.
Bruce let out a long breath. As much as he wanted to drive downtown now and pick them up, he recognized the need for caution. If he was being watched, the last thing he wanted to do was lead his enemies to one of his bases of operation. They were in a safe place. They were fine. He just wished that they’d report in.
Acknowledged, he typed back. Keep me posted. He hesitated for the briefest of instances before adding one more word. Thanks.
Even if he hadn’t been working on recognition and appreciation with Alex, Bruce was certain that he would have recognized in Barbara’s message something for which he could be grateful.
“You wanted to see me, Mr. Fox?” At Lucius’ mock glower, Dick smiled self-consciously. “Sorry. Lucius.”
Lucius Fox’s face relaxed into a smile of its own. “I’d hoped you’d be used to it by now. Sit down,” he gestured toward one of the two padded armchairs before his desk. “I’ve received some information about what happened at the gala and I’d like to know your thoughts.”
Dick’s expression turned serious. “I’m listening.”
“One of our junior executives approached me last week and admitted that he was responsible for those seating arrangements. He claims that it was Paxton’s idea.”
Fox’s phrasing gave Dick pause. He leaned forward, frowning. “You doubt him?”
“I’m not sure,” Lucius admitted. “You see, the junior executive just happens to be the one who noticed that creative accounting trick you pulled at the time that all of this trouble started. Back then, he couldn’t wait to rush to Paxton with his findings.”
“Back then,” Dick said thoughtfully, “how secure would you have considered Paxton’s position with WE? PMWE,” he amended, but Lucius just smiled.
“I liked it better the first way,” he replied. “And back then? Paxton was virtually untouchable. He had the full confidence of the board and the shareholders. Many analysts went so far as to credit him with keeping our stock values high after Bruce’s troubles.”
“And now that his star is on the decline someone’s rushing to you with more mud to sling at him.” Dick gave him a crooked smile. “Why am I thinking of rats and sinking ships?”
“The same could be said for most of Paxton’s camp,” Lucius said mildly. “The real question,” he continued, his gaze direct behind steel-rimmed glasses, “is whether the executive in question was merely privy to Paxton’s scheme, or whether he was involved. It wouldn’t be the first time that a... minnow got the idea of saving his own skin by shoving a bigger fish toward the hook.”
“What do you think?”
Lucius sighed. “I don’t know. It’s possible that Paxton did cook up the whole thing and just took the junior exec into his confidence. If that’s the case, honestly, I don’t think we need to take any further action. Paxton is in plenty of hot water already. There’s no need to add another kettle when, if you’ll excuse the expression, his goose is already cooked. But if he was working with the exec... or if the exec was actually the instigator...”
“I can’t help noticing you’re leaving his name out of it.”
Lucius nodded. “I haven’t got a shred of proof that the exec is anything other than a loyal employee who developed some well-founded suspicions about his mentor’s behavior. I want to stress this. We don’t know that he’s done anything wrong.”
“Mr... Lucius,” Dick corrected himself, “I understand. But you wouldn’t be telling me any of this if you didn’t have some reason to think otherwise.”
Lucius nodded again. “Call it a gut feeling. Or call it an innate distrust of anyone who talks too smoothly. Or,” he frowned, “call it an automatic dislike for people who like to give a little extra shove to someone already on the way down. I don’t know.” He scribbled a name on a block pad and ripped the top sheet off. “I’m not even sure if it bears investigating, but consider this a friendly warning about being on your guard should you talk to him.”
Dick read the name and frowned. He knew Derek Powers slightly and he agreed with Lucius’s assessment: the guy was slick. It didn’t necessarily mean he was bad news, though. “Thanks,” he said, pocketing the paper. “I’ll keep it in mind.”
“How are things going with Sal Fiorini?”
Dick smiled. “Great.”
Cassandra Cain nervously approached a cosmetics counter at Killinger’s department store and stared at the vast array of lipsticks, colored powders, and bottles of liquid in various shades of beige and brown. Her heart began to pound. How on earth was she to know what she needed?
She tried to remember the rare occasions that she’d worn make-up. She’d never really got beyond black mascara. She’d tried eyeliner with poor results—she’d drawn the line too far below her eye and ended up looking like a raccoon, or so Stephanie had told her at the time. And the one thing she knew was that purple lipstick was out. She panned the lipstick display and gave a mental groan. There were probably two hundred shades on the counter and she’d only managed to eliminate around fifteen!
“May I help you?”
Cass looked up to see a sales attendant standing on the other side of the counter, looking across. She took a deep breath. “I... never wear... this.” She spread her hands wide over the entire display. “I... How do I... start?”
The attendant smiled. “It can get a little overwhelming. Are you looking for something for day or night?”
She blinked. “It matters?”
The attendant seemed startled, but Cass noted that she hid her surprise quickly. “It can,” she said. “If you don’t mind my asking, if you don’t usually wear make-up, what made you decide to start today?”
Cass sighed. “Date. I... have a date.”
“Oh! Well, congratulations!” Her face relaxed in a genuine smile. “Okay. Do you know what you’re going to be doing or where you’re going?”
Cass nodded. “Concert.”
“Okay, what kind of music?”
“Classical.” She thought for a moment. “In evening,” she added. “Seven PM.” If the time of day made a difference, then she might as well get it right.
The attendant’s body language relaxed. “Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. It’s an evening event, probably dressy-casual... you want to look great, but you don’t really want to go flashy, especially since it’s very easy to overdo your make-up if you aren’t used to wearing it. Here,” she beckoned Cass over to a triptych mirror with numerous light bulbs surrounding the frames. Then she came out from behind the counter to stand behind Cass. “With your coloring, I think...” Her voice trailed off as she paused for a moment, considering. Then she reached for a tester bottle, unscrewed the cap and shook a small amount of a light golden brown powder into it. “I’d recommend going with a natural look. This,” she picked up a brush and touched it gently down into the cap, “is called ‘Golden Ivory,’” she said. “Let me brush a little bit onto your wrist so that you can see what it looks like on your skin...”
“It’s her,” Mr. Fixx confirmed, looking at the security footage. He zoomed in on the computerized keypad with a frown. “I can’t make out the code she’s punching.” It didn’t really matter. He hadn’t expected that they’d be able to sneak into whatever hidey-hole she’d managed to reach. They wouldn’t be able to seize her unawares.
“Send a team. Six agents and enough explosives to take out a steel door. If you can’t take them alive, don’t leave any bodies behind.” As long as it couldn’t be proven that they were dead, he still might be able to keep Batman dancing to his tune for a little while. Long enough to gain Intergang the toehold it had been seeking. With confirmed deaths, on the other hand, he knew that Batman would never rest until he had taken out the parties responsible. No, while he preferred to keep them alive, if that couldn’t be managed, he had to ensure that Batman and his people wouldn’t learn otherwise until Intergang had consolidated their position.
“Copy that,” Batman said. “We’re keeping an eye on Port Adams at the moment; Montoya tipped us off that a shipment of crystal meth is expected to arrive at some time this evening. The welcome wagon is already assembling, so it shouldn’t be too much longer. Police are standing by; we’re here in case things get ugly. Once that’s over, we can head over to Three and check on Selina.” He surveyed the water, glad that he had an infra-red scanner for this fog.
“Acknowledged,” Bruce’s voice came through clearly over his comm-link. “How well-provisioned is that facility?”
“Hang on.” Batman turned to Harrier with a frown.
“Have you had to resupply out of Cave Three at all in the last few months?”
The younger vigilante thought for a moment. “I may have needed an Ace bandage or the odd energy bar, but not much more than that.”
“Same.” He opened his comm-link again.
“Sorry about that, Bruce,” he said. “I was just checking with Harrier. Everything should be pretty much untouched.”
“Find out if she needs anything,” Bruce ordered. “In fact... the Bru-Bakery should be open through the night. Pick up something fresh. Rolls, croissants... something better than the three-year-old crackers in the cave stocks.”
“Which would be anything.”
Harrier nudged him then. “Showtime?” he asked, pointing to a dark shape in the water drawing steadily closer.
Batman nodded. “You got it. Later, Bruce. We’re up.” He closed the comm-link again and readied a batarang.
Selina opened a can of ravioli in sauce, poured it into a ceramic bowl and popped it into the microwave. “Supper will be ready in a minute, Helena,” she said, sighing as she watched her daughter clutch one of the supporting legs of the vaulting horse and spin around it, laughing. “Don’t get dizzy,” she cautioned.
Unlike the cave under the manor, this facility was far from childproof. Selina was just happy that her daughter had found something to amuse herself in the training area. The equipment was solid and the floor covered in mats. She’d taken the precaution of draping the free weight racks with sheets she’d found in a medical bay supply closet and using several of the fifty-pound weights to hold them down. She was more worried about the stacked weight machines. Helena could probably lift about twenty pounds. Most of the machines used racks of ten-pound weights. Selina could easily picture Helena lifting the top weight in the rack by hand... and then losing her grip and having it fall on her fingers. So far, Selina had been successful in keeping her daughter away from the machines, but dreaded the times when she had to turn her back for a moment.
Sooner or later, though, they were both going to have to sleep. And if Helena woke before she did, and decided to explore, there were just too many hazards in here. She sighed. She was going to have to improvise some sort of secure play area. Unfortunately, most of the equipment that was too solid to be knocked over was also too heavy to move. Or it involved electrical cords, delicate electronics, sharp corners, or other problems that made it unsuitable.
The microwave dinged and Selina set the bowl on the counter to cool. She debated calling the manor, but Bruce probably wasn’t home yet.
The fact that someone had been keeping tabs on her had her rattled. Could whoever it was be tapping Bruce’s phones? Normally, she would have dismissed the idea as ludicrous, but Bruce was spending long hours away from the manor. If she and Helena were out, there were stretches of time when nobody was home and a clever intruder could theoretically get in. She felt a cold sensation in the pit of her stomach. She’d forgotten about the cleaning staff. Jim had hired them from a reputable agency. For the most part, they did their work quietly and unobtrusively, and then left just as quietly and unobtrusively. However, if one of those employees had somehow been compromised, they could have bugged a phone in an out-of-the-way spare bedroom or study. She shook her head, knowing that her thoughts were verging on paranoia. It was possible, though. And after having her car blow up only a few yards away from where she’d been standing yesterday, maybe she was right to be paranoid.
Selina frowned. She’d told Bruce that she would reach him through Oracle. The problem was that she didn’t know Barbara’s telephone number. There were very few that she had memorized. In general, she relied on the contact list in the cell phone that she no longer had on her. She sighed. While she had no doubt that the information was stored here in this cave, she had no idea what password Bruce might have been using three years ago. She also had no idea what sort of alarms she might trip if she guessed wrong. She resolved not to worry about it tonight. Bruce knew that she and Helena were safe. That was enough. Tomorrow, she could call PMWE and ask for Dick’s extension. He could give her Barbara’s number or pass on a message. And if he wasn’t in, perhaps Directory Assistance would come through with Helena Bertinelli’s contact information. Dinah and Zinda probably had unlisted numbers; their identities were publicly known. After Dick, Helena was her best bet.
She placed two thick medical textbooks on an ergonomic desk chair. It wasn’t an ideal booster seat but it would do. “Helena,” she called. “Supper. Come wash your hands.”
Hopefully, she’d be able to pass her concerns on to Barbara tomorrow. Meanwhile, she still had to think about the best way to childproof part of the cave.
Although Intergang no longer used Apokoliptian technology, they were well-equipped by most standards. The six-man team assembled before the locked steel door was decked out in full riot gear and carried a variety of automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
“All clear above,” advised the gunman standing closest to street level on the narrow stair.
“All clear below,” returned the gunman nearest the subway entrance at the bottom of the stair.
The leader nodded and motioned to the other three men. “Aim for the lock and the hinges,” he ordered. “On my mark...”
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