In downtown Gotham City, Robin had jumped from the church into free fall, plunging over ten stories before the line went taut in his hands. He bent, legs parallel to the ground, and gently kicked off the side of a glass-walled tower. He swung back and forth across the road until he reached the limit of the line. He landed long enough to retract the silken cord and re-launch it, starting another swing that brought him to within a block of the shelter. As the wind rushed past his ears, he was still able to hear the sound of sirens converging on the same point. Below him, he saw several police cars racing through the streets. He swung up to land on a taller building across the street from the homeless shelter to scout the situation.
In the street below, police cruisers were lined up in an arc facing the shelter’s main entrance. The officers were crouched behind the cars, weapons in hand. Robin reached down to his utility belt and thumbed a control. The earpiece under his loose-fitting hood crackled, then came to life with the police department’s emergency situation band.
“Four gunmen, sixteen hostages. Mixed reports, ranging from five to twelve people down inside.” Robin recognized the voice of Harvey Bullock. “Talked to a couple of folks who slipped out just after the shooting started. They say the shooters are all regulars in the shelter, been on the streets for a couple of years. Never showed any signs of trouble before, but tonight they wake up, pull rifles out from under their cots, and start plugging away.”
“Bullock, people don’t just find guns under the mattress in a shelter and start killing people. Something’s weird there.” Robin also knew the second voice, that of Commissioner James Gordon.
“I know, Commish, and as soon as we can get in there, we’ll find out what’s really happening.”
“Commissioner, Lieutenant, this is Robin. I’m up on the Lazlo Building across the road, and there’s a rooftop maintenance access door on top of the shelter. If these guys are just spur of the moment, they won’t have it guarded. I’m going in.”
The Boy Wonder took a few steps back away from the edge of the roof, then turned and ran toward the edge. He jumped and tucked himself into a series of somersaults that increased his forward momentum. His feet struck the gravel on the roof with a faint scuffle, and he looked around to be sure he was alone on the roof. He dashed to the hatch set into the roof. He stood to one side of it and lifted the handle. It didn’t budge. He reached once more to his belt and pulled out a black cartridge from which he pulled several inches of coated string. He wound it around the latch and waited ten seconds. The string burst into blinding flame that lasted for about five seconds. Robin extended his bow staff, flipped the door open, and listened for signs of movement in the stairwell below. Hearing nothing, he crept quietly down to the bottom, where there was a steel door. On the other side, he could hear two men talking.
Out in the suburbs, a quartet of black-clad criminals stood in a large, sparsely furnished room. “Will ya look at this place? Looks like a museum, but that’s no painting! That’s a car ad that I remember from when I was a kid!” He pointed to a framed image of a happy family in a large yellow convertible. “My dad had that same car.”
“Everybody’s dad had that car, Frankie. That’s how old man Stevens made his money; he was an ad man. One of the best in the biz. That ad sold a whole mess of cars, and the ad won awards. So did that one over there for Libell’s tomato soup, and those overhead runway shots that Christian Chanoir still uses for selling dresses.”
“And the original artwork for these ads is gonna net us a fortune, right, Sammie?”
“You betcha, Max. Now, you and Al can–”
“Can just freeze right there.” Four heads whipped around to see a great, bat-shaped figure in the double windows. Two hands reached for guns, only to be knocked aside by a whirling batarang. “Have it your way.”
The room erupted in a flurry of blows as the Batman moved through the room. Max was still rubbing his hand when a foot connected with the back of his head, sending him sprawling on the floor, unconscious. Al reached for him with great ham-like fists, only to have his target drop below them and slam a fist into his solar plexus. The thin Frankie tried to dodge between two of the pedestals on which Stevens’ award trophies sat, but an ebony fist seized his ankle and pulled him back. He was lifted high and thrown into Sammie as he tried to slip through the door. Al swung wildly and connected with a punch to Batman’s shoulder. Thrown off-balance for a second, the Caped Crusader flung his cape up to hide his next move. Al threw two more punches but only struck the flowing cape. He knew then that he was in trouble and started to back away. Not quickly enough, however, as a foot kicked out through the cape and caught him across the throat. He fell back, knocking several pedestals over as he dropped to the ground. Batman straightened up to see Frankie and Sammie facing him by the door. He was about to make his move when the door burst open.
“What in the world is going on in here?” cried a thin, older man with long, graying hair combed over a balding head. Frankie grabbed him and held a gun up to his head.
“OK, Batman, here’s the deal. We’ve got a van in the drive below. You’re gonna carry Al and Max down there and toss them in the back; Sammie and I, along with my new friend, here, are gonna get in the front, and we’re going to drive away. When I’m sure you aren’t following us, we leave him in the van and hoof it away. You mess up, I mess him up. Got it?”
The Batman got it. He crouched down and hefted the two large men to his shoulders.
Downtown, Robin burst out of the stairwell, diving along the floor and tucking into a roll that carried him across the room. Gunfire erupted over his head, bullets flying wildly around the room. As he rolled, he looked about as best he could. He spotted two gunmen, both of them shooting at the door that was just swinging shut. He planted his feet and made a low sideways dive that took him behind a counter in what was apparently a cafeteria serving line. The guns swung around after him, the bullets striking battered sheet metal with high-pitched pinging sounds. Oh, man, I hope this thing is made of steel and not aluminum, thought Robin as he kept moving. His hand flicked out, and a batarang went spinning through the air. One gun fell silent as it was knocked from the shooter’s hands.
One down, three to go, thought Robin. He braced his shoulders against the wall and kicked the wheeled counter away from him. It plowed into tables and chairs, and he heard shouts as people were pushed over by the mass of steel and glass. The young daredevil extended his bo staff and vaulted over the counter, landing on one of the tables. He looked around and spotted a disheveled old man swinging a rifle around at him. Robin jumped at him, knocking him to the floor and wrestling the gun away before a single shot was fired. He snatched up both of the rifles, ejected the magazines, and pocketed them before moving on to the next room.
Frankie and Sammie kept well away from the Batman as they watched him carry their comrades down to the drive. Both knew better than to give the guardian of Gotham a chance to plant a bug on them, and they were quite sure that such a transmitter was already on the bodies of Max and Al. Once the bodies were loaded, they directed Batman to stand away from the van as they got in with their hostage. They drove off, sure that, despite their directions, they were being followed.
Five miles out of Gotham, the back doors of the van opened. Three large objects were dropped out of the van without slowing down. The doors slammed shut, and the van sped off into the night. One of the forms stirred in the road, crying out weakly. The van traveled another mile before coming to a stop. Frankie and Sammie jumped out, split up, and ran off into the woods.
The Batmobile came upon Darrin Stevens, still struggling to get to his feet and babbling incoherently. Batman jumped from the car to assist him.
“Lean on me, Mr. Stevens. I think you injured your knee when you fell.” Batman helped the older man to the car before checking on the others lying in the road. When he did check, it was as he had suspected: the two criminals were dead, shot through the head. Batman reached for the radio control on his belt. “Nightwing, have you found it yet?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” came the voice of the Batman’s former sidekick. “Deserted. How many hooks did you toss in here?”
“Damn. None of them caught.” In the cab of the van, Nightwing looked down at the handful of tiny, barbed transmitters. “Infrared is already fading, but it looks like they split up. What about the other two?”
“Dead. They’re cold, calculating, and they don’t take chances. You have a kit with you?”
“On the bike. I’ll dust and get pictures of any prints I find. Meet you back at the cave?”
“I’ve got to see how Robin’s doing downtown, then we’ll head back.”
In the big common room that served as community center, counseling room, and sometime-dormitory at the Endora Mysteria Homeless Shelter, two shabbily dressed men stood by the heavy front door, their rifles barely moving as they covered their hostages. Several people were crying on their cots, not understanding why these men, long in the same circumstances they themselves were in, should suddenly turn against them. In one corner, an elderly woman was tending to two men and a small child who had been wounded in the initial assault. She looked over at the two gunmen.
“What do you want? Is it money you’re after or drugs from the infirmary? You’re out of luck either way; there’s no money here, and Dr. Jenkins takes all the drugs home each night.” Leslie Thompkins finished wrapping gauze around the arm of the small girl sitting on the bench with her. When neither of the gunmen answered, she continued. “Look at what you’ve done! This girl’s mother is lying in the other room dead. Six others in there as well. Now the police are outside, and you’ll probably wind up dead as well! And you can’t even say why?”
There was no chance to answer, as the door leading into the dining hall was flung open. Leslie saw a flash of yellow, arcing up into the air. As Robin slowed, she saw his staff flicker out and strike one gunman just below the ear. He dropped to his knees, then fell forward, the rifle clattering to the ground. Robin came to a halt in front of the other, the staff held in two hands.
“Ready to wind this up?” he asked as the other man fired. Robin dived to one side, the staff swinging out to push the gun barrel upward. The shooter stepped to the other side, pulling the gun down and taking aim at the Boy Wonder. Robin planted one end of the staff on the ground and vaulted, kicking out at the gunman with both feet. He flew back toward a window, crashing through and falling backward into the street.
In the silence that fell over the room, Leslie was the first to speak. “Get the EMTs in here now! I’ve got three people down, and I have no idea what’s happened in the other room!”
Police officers and medical personnel were milling around the shelter when Batman arrived. He didn’t see Robin among them and was about to radio his partner when a pale-faced Lieutenant Bullock caught his attention. “You lookin’ for the kid? He’s in the back with that Thompkins lady.” Discerning the cowled hero’s quizzical look through the mask, he stepped closer and lowered his voice. “I think he got a little shook up when he got a look at the main bunk room. Tell ya the truth, it didn’t do my gut a whole lotta good, either.”
Stepping into the small administrative office, Batman found Robin and Leslie sitting together at a desk. She had an arm over the young teenager’s shoulder, and Batman was struck by how young and frail his partner looked. He closed the door quietly but just loud enough that he was heard.
“It’s about time you got here,” said Leslie in a quiet tone. “I insisted he stay; he’s in no shape to go flitting about the streets right now.”
“What happened?” asked Batman as Leslie got up and came over to stand with him near the door.
“Horror, that’s what happened,” said Leslie. “He took out the four men with the guns easy enough, but then he got a look at their handiwork. He’s hardly said a word since. I can’t blame him, either. They weren’t satisfied with just killing people; they used those damn guns to rip them apart.”
“Do you have any idea how they got them? The police report said they just pulled them out from under their cots.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. Nobody could hide something like that, because all the cots get picked up each morning and stacked around the walls. Nobody sleeps in the same bed twice in a row.”
“Are the cots still in there?” She nodded. “Can you show me where the four were sleeping?”
Moments later, in the main dormitory, Batman knelt beside a cot. “I think this is the one Jeff was on. That’s his backpack underneath.”
The Darknight Detective pulled something from his utility belt that looked like a pair of folding binoculars. He scanned the cot with the device, then pulled a razor from his belt and slit open the thin mattress in two locations. Near the middle of the cot, he pulled out a wide, thin box with a needle sticking up. Near the head of the cot, he pulled something that looked like a small transistor radio.
“We’ll find something like this in at least three other cots — a pressure syringe and a tape player with, yes, an endless loop tape. There was a wire connecting them, probably to switch on the player once the syringe was activated.”
Batman snipped the wire and twisted the ends together leading to the player. Holding it to his ear, he could hear a low, even voice repeating, “Take the gun from under the cot and kill them. The people around you are planning to take all you have. Take the gun from under the cot and kill them.”
He untwisted the wires. “It didn’t matter who laid down here; they would have been drugged into a suggestive state, then this would give them their orders, so to speak.”
“That would explain why they didn’t seem to know why they were killing people,” said Leslie. “They really didn’t know.”
“I’ll talk to Bullock about taking one of the other cots back to examine,” said Batman. “I think the doctors at Arkham will agree that those four gunmen weren’t responsible for their actions. With any luck, they won’t even remember what they’ve done. I’ll see to it that they get any help that’s needed.”
“I know you will. It’s too bad most people will never know everything that you do for this city,” whispered Leslie.
“Well, that seems to be what’s causing a lot of deaths right now. Someone has it in for people who are successful in their own right, and who have tried to give back to the community.”
“You mean something happened to Darrin Stevens, also?”
“Just as it was all blowing up here. Stevens is hurt, but not too badly. Two of the crooks are dead, and the other two got away.”
“Do you have any idea who’s behind it?” asked Leslie as they walked back to the office.
“Nothing definite, but I’m starting to get some ideas,” replied Batman as they walked in to find Robin looking better than he had before.
“Then let’s go get this bastard before he sets off another mess like this!” exclaimed Robin, smacking his right fist into his left palm.