Post by Admin on Mar 23, 2014 1:31:39 GMT -5
Issue #3: “Playing With Matches”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Art by Kevin G
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie, and PJ
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #3: “Playing With Matches”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Art by Kevin G
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie, and PJ
Edited by Mark Bowers
Author’s Note: For the purpose of this Alternate Universe, Barry is back and Wally hasn’t gone anywhere. Wally’s identity is still publicly known. Barry’s is secret. At present, both men are sharing the Flash role, although Barry tends to handle more JLA-type business and Wally works closer to home. The general public is not aware that there are two Flashes. The current Aquaman in this Alternate Universe is Arthur Joseph Curry (he had a brief cameo in The Way Back, which was written prior to Orin’s return in DC canon).
When you set a match to your heart, fueling it with bitterness and doubt
That's the place that once it starts, no amount of tears can put out
I know you're scared, but no one's spared when you play with matches
—Mary Chapin Carpenter, “Walking Through Fire”
“You are not helping,” Bruce muttered darkly, as Selina giggled.
Helena whimpered and struggled to get out of the high chair. The tray before her gave ample testimony to what she thought of mashed parsnips and carrots: in her eyes, they might qualify as an art supply, but not a foodstuff.
“I’m sorry,” Selina gasped. “It’s just that somehow, I never thought that the scourge of Gotham’s underworld would find himself powerless to defeat a nemesis who hasn’t even celebrated her second birthday yet!”
Bruce turned to face Selina. “What exactly would you like me to do?” he asked wearily. “It’s not like I can dangle her over the side of a building until she promises to eat her vegetables.”
“No, she seems to like heights,” Selina nodded sagely. “But seriously, I wish I had a camera rolling.”
“Frankly, I’m glad you don’t,” Bruce rejoined, hoping that she’d forgotten about the...
“Oh, that’s right! You’ve got the entire house under surveillance. I’ll have to check out the footage later. You can burn a copy to disc, right?”
Damn. He only hoped that she didn’t plan to show it to anyone else, but knowing her, if he brought up the subject, he was only guaranteeing that she would.
The gate intercom buzzed.
Bruce frowned. “Are you expecting anybody?”
He shook his head. “Get Helena into the Cave,” he said. “If I don’t come down in ten minutes, take a car and get out of here.”
Selina looked at him for a long moment. “Unless assassination-by-intercom is a thing, now, I don’t think I need to hide in the basement quite yet.” All the same, she held out her arms for her daughter.
Bruce lifted Helena out of the high chair and handed her over. There was an orange stain gracing the shoulder of his navy blue pullover.
The bell rang again. He went to the vestibule and checked the camera at the front gate. Selina followed. There was a slight figure standing there in a non-descript quilted jacket and jeans. Bruce couldn’t be certain whether it was a man or a woman, but whoever it was they were glancing nervously over their shoulder and trembling. “Yes?” he asked.
“Please! You gotta help me.” The voice was young, female, and decidedly frightened.
“Who are you?” he asked calmly, hoping to steady the caller at the gate.
“M-My name’s Muriel Wake. The name on the sign... This is the Bruce Wayne who’s Batman, right? I mean... I mean there wouldn’t be two of you, oh shi—I’m sorry, I’m babbling, but I’m in real trouble and I can’t go to the cops. Please... they-they’re tailing us. Me and my sister. I don’t think I have more than a ten minute lead. I...” there was a coughing, followed by loud panting as Muriel tried to catch her breath.
Bruce hesitated. He turned away from the intercom and looked at Selina. “She sounds like she could be legit,” he said in a low tone. “But...”
“Bruce!” Selina said sharply, “sometimes you’re just too paranoid for your own good. She’s alone, she’s in trouble, she’s scared, and frankly, even if she does turn out to be Poison Ivy in disguise, I think you can handle her.”
“And if you’re wrong, I won’t be the only one in danger.”
“And if you’re wrong, and something happens because you wouldn’t let her in... What are you doing?” she demanded, as Bruce tapped some buttons on a console by the intercom.
“Sending voice and visual to the analyzer in the Cave. Take Helena down there and check the results. Meanwhile, I’ll let her onto the grounds, but not into the manor, until you give me the all-clear.”
Selina gave him a hard look. “Fine,” she snapped. She shifted her hold on Helena. “Come on downstairs, Honey. Daddy’s being an overprotective ass again.”
Bruce ignored her and spoke again into the intercom. “I’m opening the gate for you now,” he said. “You can come up the drive to the house, but wait in your car. I’ll come out.”
The response was a near-incoherent babble of thanks.
“Stay in the car—both of you. I’ll be out momentarily.”
He switched off the intercom, walked into the hallway, and waited a few minutes before turning on a different intercom. “Selina?
“Hang on,” she muttered. I can’t believe I’m doing this. “Okay, her face and voice aren’t in your database, and close-ups show no evidence of make-up, latex, or any other methods of disguise. She looks like she’s in her mid-twenties. Another woman’s in the passenger seat—looks about the same age, and facial recognition software’s drawing a similar blank. Now, are you going to help them, or do you want them to stew a little longer while you put on a bullet-proof vest?”
“Don’t think I haven’t considered it.” He ignored her snarl. “What’s Helena doing?”
“Right now? She’s making a mess in the play area. I mean, I’m sure you’d say she’s experimenting with the stackability of Beanie Babies, but I’m just calling a spade a spade.”
Bruce nodded. “Watch the cameras.” He closed the connection and walked to the front door. There was a beat-up Impala parked on the front drive. As Bruce approached the car, the front doors opened and both women came out.
“I’m Muriel,” the driver introduced herself. “And you,” she gushed, “are a lifesaver. While we were waiting for you, we saw the car that’s been following us drive right on by without stopping! Thank you so much!” She held out her right hand for him to shake.
Bruce smiled. Selina had been right. He had been acting a bit over-cautious. “That’s quite all right,” he said magnanimously, reaching for her hand.
That was when she brought her left hand forward and pressed a folded sheet of paper into it.
“What’s this?” Bruce asked sharply as the second woman held up a camera and snapped a photo.
Muriel smiled. “Congratulations, Mr. Wayne. You’ve just been served.”
Ten minutes later, Selina walked into the den. Bruce was slumped on the sofa with a stunned expression, still holding the paper.
“I put Helena in the nursery,” she said softly. “What... what happened? Who was that?”
Bruce didn’t answer. Selina took hold of the paper and tugged. For a moment, Bruce held on. Then, with a sigh, he relinquished it. “Process servers,” he said in disbelief.
“Excuse me?” Selina gaped at him. She read the page hastily. “Bruce... this... this is...”
Ron Chester was out of his element. Give him a new product, regardless of how esoteric or how ridiculous it appeared, he could find some way to spin it. At the tender age of 22, when he was still working in the garment trade, he had (in his then-boss’s exact words) single-handedly saved their women’s coat line when a production error had left them saddled with 15,000 short-sleeved full-length minks. While his higher-ups had been staring open-mouthed at the monstrosities, Chester had raced over to the accessories section and liberated a pair of fur-trimmed evening gloves with a matching roller hat. He had then dressed a mannequin in coat, gloves, and hat, and presented the finished look to his bosses.
The head of marketing had been non-committal, but they’d been desperate enough to try his idea. The coats had sold. In fact, the coats had sold so well that they’d had to produce another 5,000, just to meet demand. His bosses had regarded him as a marketing genius, and by the time he was 30, he’d been targeted by several headhunting firms. He’d accepted WE’s offer and served as their VP of Marketing for over a decade now. There were few negatives he couldn’t downplay or turn into positives... in a marketing context.
Unfortunately, his current predicament had all the earmarks of a disaster, and he didn’t think he’d be able to solve it with a pair of evening gloves!
He gaped at the woman seated next to him in the car. “Y-you what?” he gasped, when he finally found his voice.
Sharon Ryerson grinned. “I went downtown and filed a restraining order against Bruce Wayne,” she repeated cheerfully. “If he can’t get within five hundred feet of me, he can’t come to the gala if I’m there, so he stays away, the dinner goes ahead, and everything’s good. Right?”
Ron’s mind worked furiously as strangled sounds came out of his throat. He wanted to explain to her that restraining orders didn’t work the way she seemed to think they did, that she had just opened a massive can of worms, that... he didn’t even know what, but something other than what he was doing, which was opening and closing his mouth like a codfish!
“Are you choking?” Sharon asked, suddenly concerned.
He took a deep breath. “Have you told anyone else about this?”
Sharon shook her head. “Nope. I was afraid they’d try talking me out of it. Bureaucracies take forever,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Go here, go there, fill out this form, no that one, sign here, initial there...” She laughed. “If I’d known it was going to take that long, I probably would have lost my nerve and given up, but...”
“But you didn’t,” Ron said with forced cheer.
“Nope. The paperwork is in the system, and a temporary order should go out today or tomorrow. So? Brilliant or what?”
Ron’s smile might have been painted on. “Let me get you to Sheldon Park,” he murmured. “I’ll be sure to let my associates know what you’ve done.”
And hopefully, they’ll know if there’s any way to clear the area before this hits the fan!
“But what do you think?” Sharon asked eagerly.
Ron sighed. “I think that this could be something major,” he said, trying hard to smile.
Only the fervent hope that perhaps one of the other Board members would see a way to turn this series of events around kept him from throttling her. He had to call Les Paxton as soon as possible. Damage control... there had to be some way out of this, he told himself. Somehow, there had to be a way to spin this.
“Eight days?” Detective Maury Chiarello blinked. “You’re asking me,” he drawled, “to complete a background check in eight days. For someone like Wayne.” He shook his head. “You know who I should be inviting to come down and talk to about him? Superman. Aquaman. Flash. And all the other capes.”
Maggie regarded him with a steady gaze. “Yes, exactly. And?”
“No, Commissioner. Please. Don’t give me that ‘I-don’t-understand-the-problem’ look when you know damned well this isn’t going to go off without a hitch. I don’t know if you realize it, but I can’t exactly find the JLA’s phone number at four-one-one-dot-com.”
“They have a public number.”
Chiarello groaned. “So does the White House. Ten to one, if I needed to phone the President, he’d get back to me twice as fast. Actually, scratch that,” he went on. “Half of eternity is still eternity, and that’s how long I’ll probably be waiting for anyone to... what’s this?” He blinked as Maggie slapped a lined sheet of yellow paper on his desk blotter.
“Don’t lose it,” she replied. “I had to give a lot of assurances to secure this information—including a promise that it would not be kept in any database, and that we would destroy it once the investigation was complete. Don’t make a liar out of me, Chiarello.” She smiled to take the sting out of her words.
“What is it?”
“According to one of my predecessors,” Maggie said, “it’s the contact number for the JLA’s...dispatcher. Actually, this individual handles some other associations as well—so if you need to speak with anyone in the JSA or the Titans, for example, this number is your first step. If the party at the other end can’t help you directly, they’ll try to hook you up with someone who can.”
Chiarello took the paper, folded it hastily and put it in his breast pocket. “Most of these people,” he said with considerably less heat than he had a minute ago, “they... even if I can get in contact with them, you know how they are. Always running off to deal with some disaster or other... it’s hard to pin them down for any length of time. I mean, I guess if it’s a choice between saving the universe and coming down to the precinct, I can see where their priorities are going to be, but...” He shook his head. “You’re really not giving me much of a timeframe.”
Maggie smiled. “Call the number, Maury. I think you might be pleasantly surprised.” The smile became a smirk. “I’ve been told that some of these people are actually pretty friendly compared to a few of our locals...”
“So when they call...” Barbara was saying.
Her computer monitor was subdivided into 64 squares. A different face looked out at her from each one.
“We’ll be there,” Superman confirmed.
It took her a moment to realize who was speaking. “Hi, Barry. It’s been too long.”
Flash smiled. “It seems like just yesterday you were telling me all about how you were planning to run for Congress and...”
“Yeah, time flies.”
Barry shook his head. “You have no idea. Anyway, to put it bluntly, who’s going to be more of a help? Barry Allen the police scientist, or the Flash?”
Barbara considered. “Well... I think they only need one Scarlet Speedster.” She thought about it a moment longer. “Wear the suit. It’ll avoid all the questions about how a cop in another state can know him so well. Besides, they’re going to be calling for ‘The Flash’. So unless you’re planning on outing yourself...”
“Some of the things he’s done,” Clark spoke now. “I know that the investigators are going to be expecting full disclosure. Which, as I’m sure you can appreciate, would normally fall under betraying a trust. From what you’re saying, in this case...?” He left the question hanging.
“We’ve been telling him... my father’s been telling him, anyway... that full disclosure is the way to go.” She hesitated. “What Bruce is going to do once they’ve got him under the microscope may not be as cut-and-dried as all that.” She brought a hand to her forehead and pushed back her bangs, making a mental note that it was time for another haircut. “Guys... if you really want to know... maybe you could ask him.” And leave me out of it, she added silently.
“How many of us are they going to want to contact?” Roy asked.
“I don’t know, but be ready if you’re one of them.” A light began to flash on her console. “Hang on. Incoming call. This could be it.”
She blanked out the array, set the voice scrambler, and accepted the call. “Yes?” There was a pause. Then a slightly-hesitant voice posed a short question. Oracle smiled. “Yes, this is. I’ve been expecting your call, Detective Chiarello.” She fought to keep her voice neutral. It had been less than 24 hours since she had found out that the detective who had interviewed her for Dick’s background check four years ago was now doing the same kind of work in Gotham. She straightened her shoulders and continued briskly. “Do you have a number at which you can be reached? Very well. If you give me the names, I will ask those individuals to contact you. If they fail to do so within two hours, please do call this number again. May I have your list please?”
She listened, frowning. “My apologies, Detective. I regret to inform you that the individual currently using that name began his tenure as Aquaman less than two years ago. To the best of my knowledge, he and your candidate have never met. That is correct. The individual to whom you likely wish to speak is deceased.” Although she knew that he couldn’t see her, she lowered her head and closed her eyes as Chiarello stammered condolences. “Thank you.” She took a deep breath. “May I have the next name?”
A few moments later, she ended the call and restored the array. “Okay. So far, he wants to talk to fifteen of you—or rather fourteen,” she corrected, “although he thinks otherwise. I’ll explain in a second. He may want to talk to more before the investigation’s complete. I’m transmitting his phone number to the people he’s chosen now. Let me know if you don’t receive it momentarily. In alphabetical order: Arsenal, Batgirl, Black Canary, Black Lightning, Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow. Harrier? He’s asking specifically for both you and ‘Robin’. Up to you if you want to publicize your... evolution or wear your old suit to the second interview. And try to make sure that whether you’re ‘Robin’ or ‘Harrier,’ you and Tim Drake aren’t scheduled back-to-back, seeing as once Chiarello’s done talking to capes, he’s going to start on civilians.”
Barbara took another breath. “Hawkman,” she continued, “Huntress, Looker, Plastic Man, Superman, Wonder Woman. The rest of you,” her gaze slowly panned the array, “think of yourselves as being on standby. The investigator is working against a deadline, but within the confines of that deadline, he’s going to follow up with everyone he can. As for the names I’ve just read off,” she smiled, “I told him you’d be calling within the next hour or so, so snap to it.”
Roy brought two fingers to his temple in a brisk salute. “Ma’am! Yes, Ma’am!”
Barbara grinned. “Thanks, guys,” she said, dropping the stiff pose, “Oracle out.”
“Repeat that once more, Chester,” Les Paxton said icily. “I’m not sure I heard you correctly.”
Ron Chester swallowed. “She had Wayne slapped with a TRO.”
Paxton nodded, his expression grim. “Very well. We know that if Wayne is smart—and past appearances notwithstanding, it’s fairly plain that he is—he’ll consult with a lawyer and attempt to contest. At that point, the Temporary Restraining Order will be overturned and Ms. Ryerson may find herself the victim of a defamation lawsuit.” He sniffed. “I’d certainly file one.”
“She doesn’t deserve that,” Chester said uneasily. “She’s not thinking clearly. She blames Wayne for her husband’s death, and she made a stupid move. But she’s also trying to make ends meet and raise a teenage son she barely sees because she’s out working two jobs to support him.”
Paxton held up one hand. Then, deliberately, he rubbed the tip of his thumb against the tip of his index finger. When Chester looked perplexed, he began to hum a tune that sounded vaguely classical.
“Les? Are you all right?”
Paxton smiled. “I’m just playing the world’s smallest violin for her.” His voice dropped to a stage whisper. “Listen! Can’t you hear it? Can you not see the deep sympathy etched into the lines of my face, oozing out through every pore? Can’t you?”
“NO!” Paxton bellowed. “BECAUSE... IT’S... NOT... THERE! Now listen to me, you weepy, whiny sonovabitch! That woman’s ill-advised action stands an excellent chance of rebounding on us and landing us in the middle of the media frenzy we’re trying to unleash on Wayne. Only we won’t get a couple of weeks in the tabloids and a few pictures on the society page. Oh, no. No, if she spills the wrong words to the wrong people, this could reflect on us very, very BADLY! Unless...”
Chester blinked. He didn’t like Paxton’s smile. Not at all. “Unless?” he stammered.
“She’s filed for a restraining order on what grounds? Harassment?”
“So when Wayne goes to fight this, as he almost definitely will—if he doesn’t, that’s almost all the proof we need that he’s incompetent right there—when Ryerson is unable to produce evidence that Wayne has had any dealings with her, the judge will overturn the TRO on the spot.”
“Well,” Paxton said slowly, “what if there was evidence?”
If scowls were audible, Bruce thought he might have heard Rae Green’s over the other line. Instead, her intake of breath sounded suspiciously like a snarl.
“Have you had any kind of contact with her since her outburst at your hearing? Have any of your... colleagues?”
“No,” Bruce said quickly. “And no. I verified with them before I called you. Her neighborhood isn’t one of the places that I or my people have had cause to patrol since the Rebuild. Until I saw the address on the TRO, I didn’t even know where she lived.”
Rae gave a noncommittal grunt. “I’ve never even heard of ‘Wrightson Way’ before,” she added. “Where is that?”
“Ah.” The area was one of Gotham’s true successes of urban reclamation. It had been one of the city’s worst slums until the Cataclysm, but since the end of the No Man’s Land, Battergate had shown marked improvement in virtually all socio-economic indicators. Today it was a quiet blue-collar area with clean streets and parks, safe schools, and an active neighborhood association.
There was a moment’s pause. Bruce could hear the sound of fingers tapping on a keyboard. “The TRO should specify a date and time for a hearing. Does it?”
Bruce gave it.
Rae exhaled. “Fine. You and I will both attend that hearing and get this overturned. It shouldn’t be too hard, unless,” her voice grew stern, “she is able to prove that you have directly or indirectly harassed her. Indirect would be harder to prove, but a judge might still accept the argument. Therefore, between now and the hearing date, it is essential that you abide by the terms of the TRO. Avoid Battergate. Tell your people to let the police handle any incidents that might take place there. Do not call her to try to ‘settle things amicably’. Do not write her an apology letter or send some belated condolence card. Do not make a donation to Victim Support in her late husband’s name. And try to make sure that there are others in your vicinity that can corroborate your presence at any given time.”
Bruce bristled. “I’m hardly an amateur, Rae.”
“No,” Rae’s voice was kind but firm. “However, you are a person facing a false accusation. You wouldn’t be the first one to think that because they haven’t done anything wrong, the whole thing is a simple misunderstanding and easily cleared up. You remember the outburst she made at your hearing? That was just the tip of the iceberg. She protested when you were remanded to Arkham instead of being forced to stand trial. She’s created numerous online petitions calling for you to be permanently locked up.”
“How many signers?” Bruce asked, stunned.
“Not many, but that’s beside the point. The woman needs help—I’m not denying that. I am telling you that the offer of said help cannot come from you or any of your... people. If she’s like this when you legitimately aren’t trying to approach her, imagine what she’ll be like if you do.” She took a breath. “As your lawyer, I am counselling you to leave her alone until the hearing. As your friend... I’m begging you.”
Bruce closed his eyes. “I understand, Rae. Thanks.”
“See you at the hearing.”
Maury Chiarello knocked briskly on the commissioner’s door. “I have to hand it to you, Ma’am,” he admitted with a wry smile. “That contact was gold.”
Sawyer smiled. “I thought you might find it that way,” she said.
“Pardon my asking, but do you know who...?”
“No,” she said shaking her head. “And I don’t care to. I’m more interested in their assistance than in trying to puzzle out who I’m dealing with. That particular mindset tends to make my dealings with the Capes a good deal less frustrating, as I’m sure you can understand.” Her expression turned serious. “Detective, have you given any thought as to where you’ll be conducting the interviews?”
Chiarello blinked. “My office, I guess. Why?”
Sawyer shook her head. “Use the empty one across the hall from mine. It’s accessible from the roof, and the window overlooks the alley. It’ll make your contacts’ entrances and exits more... discreet.”
Understanding flowed between the detective and the commissioner. “I’ll let that dispatcher know,” he nodded. “Thanks, Ma’am.”
“Don’t thank me,” Sawyer shot back. “Thank them. They’re trying to accommodate us. The least we can do for them is keep things as painless as possible.”
On the way up the elevator to his office, Ron tried hard not to let his nervousness show. He’d always known that Les Paxton was a dangerous man to cross, but until now, he’d never thought his colleague would suggest something so patently wrong. Wrong, he reflected. Not just illegal, but wrong. Because, after all, legality and morality didn’t always have to intersect. There were many business practices which were perfectly legal, but which on some level offended his sense of right and wrong. There were other laws—designed to penalize large corporations and level playing fields—that made him gnash his teeth in frustration. He was never surprised when Paxton found loopholes in those laws. He wouldn’t have been shocked to hear that his colleague had paid off the right politicians at the right times so that various projects could get green-lighted without municipal interference. But he had never thought he’d see the day when he’d hear Les Paxton talk quite coolly about framing an innocent man for a serious crime.
He swallowed. Things were out of hand. Something needed to be done. Because if Les could do this to get someone like Wayne out of the way, Ron had no doubt that one day, Les would cook up some similar way to dispose of him.
With these thoughts in his head, Ron turned the knob of the door to his office. His eyes opened wide, even as his heart plummeted to his shoes.
“Ron!” Bruce Wayne bounded off the couch and pumped his hand energetically. “How have you been keeping, you old dog? You look great. Have you been hitting the slopes at all, this winter?”
Ron tried to find his voice. “B-Bruce,” he managed. “How are you?”
All at once, he became aware of soft laughter coming from behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to behold Les Paxton standing in the doorway. “Is it a good likeness, or what?” Les said, shutting the office door. He strode forward and placed a fatherly hand on Ron’s shoulder.
Ron blinked. Then he looked back to see that the man he could have sworn was Bruce Wayne was pulling off a latex mask. Beneath the mask was a scarred visage, capped by a mop of unruly brown hair. “What,” he began weakly, “what’s going on?”
Paxton’s smile turned nearly feral. “Ron,” he drawled, “this gentleman is the solution to our little problem. Ron Chester, I’d like you to meet...“
The stranger grinned back. “You may address me as ‘False Face’.”
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