In the great cavern under Wayne Manor, two slim, athletic figures slowly circled each other on a padded practice mat. Each of them held a pair of wooden dowels in their hands, and each watched the other with a wary eye. Suddenly, the smaller of the two made his move, sweeping low with his right stick as his body followed the motion, turning to move backward into his opponent. His left arm pulled in close to his body, raising the stick over his head and bringing it down at his opponent’s head.
The taller figure turned, deftly blocking the leading attack even as he ducked low in anticipation of a follow-up. It played right into the smaller figure’s attack, giving him room to swing the upraised stick down. The impact was absorbed by a padded helmet, but it was nevertheless felt by its target.
“Yow! Nice shot, Jason! Not what I was expecting at all!” Dick Grayson dropped even lower, letting his hands flatten over the escrima sticks as they lay on the ground. Shifting his weight to his hands, he swept out with both feet, catching the legs of Jason Todd.
Jason let his legs relax and flow with the kick. He rolled over Dick’s legs, regaining his feet to square off against his older opponent. “Come on, is that all you’ve got, old man?”
From off to the side, they heard a barely audible sniff, followed by laughter. Ignoring their audience as best they could, each tried a new attack. Jason turned, his shoulders perpendicular with Dick’s body. His left hand stabbed out and down, trying to drive the end of the stick at Dick’s thigh as his right hand came up to block an anticipated strike at his head. Meanwhile, Dick was stepping back, his right foot dropping at an angle into an L stance for stability. This caused Jason’s strike to miss and gave Dick an opening. He crossed the two rods and drove them forward as he stepped back up into position. The crossed sticks caught Jason’s upper arm, threw him off-balance, and left him vulnerable to a hooking kick that caught him right in the midsection. As Jason hit the mat, they heard applause from the shadows.
“Very good, Master Dick. Master Jason has been working out with these escrima sticks for a few months, but I wasn’t aware you had used them.” Alfred Pennyworth stepped out into the lighted part of the workout room, leaning very slightly on a walnut cane. He was followed by a tall, slender woman with flowing, pale blonde hair.
“That did look good, guys. You make it look like fun.”
“Oh, sure, Silver. Lots of fun, if you don’t mind waking up in the morning with a couple dozen bruises.” Jason was dusting off his pants as he stood up. “Nice thing about Judo — no contusions!”
“Aw, and here I thought you might let me play.” Silver looked at Alfred with a glint in her eye. She reached for his cane, which he willingly gave up as he stepped back away from the mat. “Shall we?” she asked.
It was Dick who caught on first. Quickly, he brought the escrima sticks back to a defensive posture. Jason followed his lead and moved to flank the attractive woman. Dick feinted once with his left, and Silver shook her head. She knew it wasn’t a real attack. Jason figured that she’d been distracted, at least a little bit, and lunged. The hardwood cane swung to her left, blocking his swing. Dick made a move to attack, and Silver reversed her grip and brought the cane up horizontally to block again. Under the long, flowing skirt she wore, her feet moved, and she twisted around, backing into the space between the two younger men. The hooked end of the cane caught one of Jason’s sticks, pulling it from his grasp. A flick of her wrist had the free rod whirling at Dick’s head. When he raised a hand to deflect that, Silver reached in and gave his nose a twist. When his head pulled back, she brought her cane around to tap him lightly on the neck, enough to know that he would have been put out of the fight if this had been for real. Turning her attention to Jason, Silver twirled the cane like a majorette twirling a baton. The angle of the spinning cane changed a few degrees, and the cane caught Jason on the knee on the upswing. As he dropped to the mat, applause again was heard from the sideline.
“Very nice, my dear. Very nice.” From the shadows, Batman stepped forward. His cowl was pulled back, revealing a smiling Bruce Wayne. “Though I have to ask you — what happened to your ankle?”
“My ankle? It’s fine,” replied Silver, slightly embarrassed to be caught sparring with Nightwing and Robin by her lover.
“It is now. It wasn’t when you learned to use a cane like that.”
“Oh. I sprained my ankle about two years ago. I didn’t like the area in Memphis where I had to walk to work, so I thought it best to learn how to defend myself. One of the security guards recommended this, and he knew a teacher I could take lessons from.”
“You learned well.” Bruce reached up and pulled the cowl on. “It looks like a quiet night, but I’m going out for a while. Either of you with me?”
“Not me. I’ve got to catch up with those quotes for the Park Row project. Lucius tells me that another company is starting some big redevelopment projects, too.” Dick placed his escrima sticks in a bag hanging over a chair and headed for the shower.
“I’d like to, Bruce, but tomorrow’s the first day of school. I’m getting a full night’s sleep tonight.” Jason followed Dick out of the workout room.
“Aww, all by your lonesome tonight?” asked Silver as she stepped up and wrapped her arms around the Caped Crusader. “Don’t be out too long, OK? I’d like to give you a little bit of a workout myself tonight.” Her lips met his.
“How about two hours?” he murmured into her lips.
“So long as you give me two hours after that.”
The car prowled the streets of Gotham City, dark windows obscuring the identity of its lone occupant. Most who managed to catch a glimpse of the car knew who it was, though. After all, how many black and midnight-blue customized cars could there be in Gotham, especially ones with no external markings except the barely discernible silhouette of a bat on the hood?
The Batman pulled the car into one of several front properties that he owned. Automatic doors closed as he turned off the engine. A silent generator continued to run in the trunk of the car, providing power for the electronic relay equipment that kept him in touch with the computers and communication equipment at the Batcave. He quickly climbed up to the top floor of the building and fired a grappling line up at the spire of the First Lutheran Church. He launched himself into the air, falling for an eternity before his weight caught on the thin line that he held in his gloved fist. His body swung in an arc, traversing several blocks before he arrived at the apex of the swing. His first and only planned destination of the night lay below. He let go of the line and tucked his body in a series of aerial somersaults that ended when he landed soundlessly on the roof of an apartment building. He felt a very slight thrumming at his waist. He pulled a small device from his utility belt, glanced at a reading on a small LCD on the slender device, then tucked it back into the belt.
“Of course, you would have alarms up here. The question, of course, is why,” he said very softly as he found a rooftop entrance to a stairway and descended to the third floor of the building.
Inside apartment 3-E, a bulb on a makeshift instrument panel lit up. The sole occupant of the apartment smiled. It had been nearly three weeks, and he had expected this. He opened up a drawer and pulled out the gift he had prepared for this particular visitor.
In the third-floor hallway, Batman stopped in front of the door to apartment 3-E. He raised a hand and knocked once. He thought he heard one of the other doors opening and prepared to retreat to the shadows of the stairwell, but before he could move, the door in front of him opened.
“Batman. I hope you don’t mind my saying that I’m not surprised. Though I must say, I expected you to drop by sooner.” The apartment’s occupant pulled the door open wider and stepped back. “Please. Won’t you come in?”
“Thank you, Professor Crane.” Batman stepped inside, and Jonathan Crane closed the door behind him. He looked around, taking in details with a glance. It was a modest apartment, low-priced, yet with sturdy furniture and several bookcases half-filled with books. On one wall, a punch board instrument panel hung in clear sight. “I hope you don’t mind the late hour, but I saw your light was on.”
Crane stepped away from the door and motioned his guest to sit down even as he himself lowered his tall, thin body into a rocking chair. “Not at all. I’ve been expecting it, in fact. I had little doubt that you would want to speak to me sooner or later.” He saw where Batman was looking. “Yes, I do have the place wired. After all, with the research I’ve done, I am a target for other criminals who might wish to make use of the knowledge I have gleaned, both psychological and chemical.”
Batman nodded, understanding well the need for such precautions. “Batwoman filled me in on the events of last month. I was, of course, aware that you were due to be discharged from Arkham. I didn’t expect you to come out and become one of Gotham’s defenders, however.” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See Batwoman: Counterstrike Gotham.]
“Truth to tell, neither did I. Tell me something, please. Does it always feel that way? That thrill of knowing that you may have affected the lives of dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands of people?”
Batman was a bit taken aback by the question, and even more so by the look on Jonathan Crane’s face. It was a look of pleading, as if he were begging for the Batman to verify the feelings he’d had. “It fades a bit, or maybe it’s better to say that you get used to it. But it never goes away completely. Thinking of sticking with it?”
“No. If there’s a major problem, or if I happen to be in a position to help, then I most certainly will do what I can. But I’m afraid I will be rather busy with my new job.”
“New job?” asked Batman.
“Yes, I start work next week as a research associate with the Gotham Central Library. After all, Gotham University wouldn’t allow me back on the faculty.”
“Able to indulge your love of books and knowledge. I think it’s a good fit for you.” The Batman smiled. “I hope it works out for you.”
“I’m sure it will. Batwoman helped to arrange it. She has been most, ah, supportive during my transition back to normal life.” Something like a sigh escaped his lips. Most other men would never have noticed it, but to Batman it stood out clearly from his words. The man once known as the Scarecrow stood and moved to pick up the package he had set out earlier. “I have something for you, Batman. All of my notes, on my own formulas and others that I have encountered that produced similar effects, and all known antidotes and counteragents. A compendium, if you will, on chemically induced fear.”
Batman rose and accepted the package somberly. “I’ll be sure to check it all over carefully.” His voice dropped a half-octave. “And I will be watching, Professor Crane. I know about your little lapse in California, and yes, I do accept the explanation that you gave Batwoman. (*) Just the same, though, I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See Superman: Sick Leave.]
“I — I hope you do, Batman.” Seeing Batman’s puzzled look, he added, “My greatest fear, now, is slipping back into the madness that consumed me for over a decade. My love of knowledge was twisted, corrupted by an irrational jealousy and hatred. I would hope that I never return to that.”
“Not if I can help it, Professor. Not if I can help it.”
Blocks away in midtown Gotham, three men gathered in an office. The office didn’t belong to any of them, nor did any of them rent the space. A sliding glass door leading to a balcony, with a neat circle removed, explained how they had gotten into the office. Now, they were setting up a tripod with an ungainly weapon mounted in it. It was pointed down at the floor.
“See, Tim, I told ya it would be simple. The vault is right below us. This sonic drill that we got from the old man will work perfectly, and after we fence the gems that Brittany’s has in the vault, we should be among the richest men in Gotham.” The leader of the group, a heavyset man with heavy eyebrows that met in the middle, made an adjustment to the drill. “Got them headphones, boys?”
They all donned heavy earmuff-like headsets, and Marco pressed a button on the drill. The cone-shaped protrusion at the bottom lit up bright blue, and the room was filled with an extremely low-pitched noise. It only lasted about two seconds before it was interrupted by the sound of breaking glass.
“I can’t say much for the intelligence of people who would allow such a low-security office over their vault, but that’s not going to matter to the judge.” The words were lost on the burglars, as they still had their headsets on. Having failed to gain their attention, the cloaked figure that had come through the balcony door raised his left arm and pointed it at the drill. Suddenly, the drill was rocked by a trio of explosions along one side, which knocked it off the tripod. The blue light dimmed, and the noise faded as the drill dropped to the floor. Marco and his companions ripped off the headsets.
“What the–? Batman couldn’t have found us this quick!” cried Marco, reaching for a pistol.
“Don’t know about Batman, but I happened to be in the area tonight.”
Again he pointed. With the noise of the drill gone, one could hear a faint whut, followed by a popping sound. A small cloud of gas erupted in front of the face of one of the crooks as a small pellet burst upon impact with his chest. He took two steps forward before collapsing on the floor.
“Don’t know what you hit him with, chump, but you’re gonna regret that!” Tim Delancey, the larger of the remaining two, bounded up onto a desk, then made a leap toward the masked man. His momentum was enough to bridge the distance, but he didn’t count on his left arm being grabbed by his target. The cloaked man dropped onto his back, pulling Delancey over him and slamming the bigger man into the wall. Rising quickly to his feet, he saw the glint of a pistol in Marco’s hand.
“That’s it — keep your hands where I can see them.” Marco moved cautiously toward the door as his opponent raised his hands up over his head. “Tim and Frank ain’t got no idea where I live, so I got nothing to lose by leaving them behind. You just keep your butt right there.” He reached for the doorknob with his left hand. As he did, he heard a faint popping sound. Before it fully registered in his mind, there was a small explosion, and pieces of the fiberglass ceiling tiles went flying throughout the room. Marco raised a hand to shield his eyes. As he did so, the other man jumped at him, wrestling him to the floor. Three swift punches, and Marco was knocked out cold.
“Not bad.” The voice was calm, steady, non-threatening. Nevertheless, Prototype whirled with both arms poised to fire from the wrist-mounted weapons that he wore. When he saw the bat-shaped silhouette framed by the shattered balcony door, he relaxed.
“How long have you been out there?” he asked as he pulled a coil of plastic line from a pocket on his belt and bound Marco’s wrists and ankles.
“Long enough,” replied Batman. He stepped into the room and bound Frank Planty in a similar manner. “You must be the man that Batwoman and Robin have been talking about. Prototype, I believe they said your name was.”
“That would be me.” Together, they bent to tie up the last of the criminals. “I was damned impressed with both of them out at the Park. The boy, especially, he surprised me with his grasp of the realities of war.”
“He’s seen his share of horrors,” replied Batman with a frown. “At times, that’s an advantage. Other times…” The thought was left hanging in the air between them.
“Ah, look, the Gotham P.D. isn’t quite familiar with me, yet. Would you mind calling this in, however you handle these things?”
“Sure. And I’ll see what I can do about that, too.”
“Yeah, sure. I guess you’re pretty good at pulling strings and all.” Batman could not see the other man’s face through the black scrim that hung within the cowl — that and, he deduced from the distortion of Prototype’s voice, another mask underneath. Nevertheless, if asked, he would swear that the newcomer wore an expression of dislike at the moment.
“Is there a problem or something you’d like to discuss?”