“Barbara! How good to see you after all this time!” Several noon-time diners in Phoebe’s Cafe turned as Barbara Gordon rose from her table to greet a short, slender woman with jet-black hair.
“Ashley, I’m so glad you could come!” Barbara took hold of Ashley Kotlarz’s hands for a moment before they sat down. “I can’t believe it’s been, what, ten years?”
“Twelve since we graduated. I remember reading about your election to Congress when I was living in St. Louis. I always figured you would go far.” Ashley laid a slim handbag on the table as she sat, long, slender fingers arranging first the bag, then her water glass and silverware. “I thought of looking you up when I moved back to Gotham, but I’ve just been so busy, what with starting my new job and trying to find a place to live while they’re trying to rebuild after all that mess last summer.”
A waiter arrived to take their drink orders, and the two women spent the next five minutes or so catching up on what they had heard of old friends and their own careers.
“Rehabilitory therapy? I didn’t even know GSU offered that as a program of study when we were here.” Barbara sipped at her glass of chablis, carefully studying Ashley Kotlarz, trying to discern if the other woman held any secrets.
“They didn’t. I was Pre-Med, remember? I didn’t go on to medical school right away. I had to go to work for a while to make money in order to continue. I got a job with a medical products company, and they transferred me to St. Louis a year after I graduated. They offered me the chance to get my Masters degree in Rehabilitation, and I worked with them developing prosthetics and therapies for people who had lost limbs.”
“Wasn’t your brother in Pre-Med, too?” asked Barbara.
“Oh, God, yes. All Hank ever wanted was to be a surgeon. He had hands that could pluck a single thread out of a ball of yarn.” Ashley tapped a well-manicured nail against her martini glass. “He should have stuck to surgery instead of getting mixed up with that sports medicine project.”
“I heard that he had some sort of reaction to a drug or something.”
“A reaction? More like the damned stuff destroyed his nervous system. A week after they started the trial, he started losing fine motor control. Within three days, he couldn’t speak, couldn’t walk, couldn’t feed himself. My folks got him transferred to a clinic near Boston, but he only lasted a week after that.” Anyone could see the bitterness bordering on outright hatred on Ashley’s face as she spoke about the project that cost her brother’s life. “Mom and Dad were devastated. Dad started drinking, and a couple of years ago they were killed in an accident.” The cause of the accident went unspoken, but both of them knew what it was.
The rest of the lunch passed as such things normally did, and by the time they parted ways, it was as if months had passed since college instead of years. That feeling bore down on Barbara hours later as she studied the surveillance tapes from the murder at GSU.
“Did you get any pictures of Branson’s ex-wife yet?” she asked, studying the freeze-frame shot of the killers.
“Right here.” Dick Grayson slid a pair of eight-by-ten pictures across the desk. “Anna Kotterman — five-foot-four, slender build, long black hair.”
“Of course. If we could easily rule one of them out based on physical description, there wouldn’t be any challenge, would there?”
“It get’s better. Anna Kotterman has a boyfriend about six-two, broad, muscular build. Could be the other guy on the tape.”
“What about the others?” asked Barbara, standing and pulling her cowl up to cover her face. “We need to keep an eye on them.”
“Robin’s watching one of our potential victims, and Man-Bat’s watching another. Your dad tells us that the third one is out of the country.” He pulled his own cowl up and started toward the garage area of the Batcave. “Let’s get out there with them, and hopefully we’ll get lucky.”
“How does it look so far?” The voice was quiet, barely above a whisper.
“Quiet. And you already knew that. You’ve been up there for the past ten minutes.”
There was a rustle of silk, and Batman dropped down onto the ledge next to Robin. “What gave it away?”
“The breeze didn’t change direction, but the sound of the air currents above me did. I figured it was either you, Batwoman, or one freakin’ big bird.” Robin looked down from the fifth-floor ledge. “And that’s not Sesame Street down there.”
Batman raised a pair of binoculars to his eyes and looked toward the rooftop across the street. “Dr. Wright’s condo faces out only on this side, and the front door is wired to ring on our belts if anyone touches it between now and seven AM. So if anybody wants to get in, they have to come through the balcony on this side, right?”
“That’s the theory, boss. And it’s about to be put to the test.” Batman looked down to where Robin was pointing. As they watched, the smaller of two masked figures jumped up to grab hold of a second-floor balcony and flipped up and over the railing. A rope with a loop in it was tossed over the railing, and the larger figure stepped into the loop. “Why doesn’t he just sheath the swords and climb up?” The first one pulled and lifted the second up to the balcony. The process was repeated for the third floor balcony and the fourth.
“A little late for a visit, isn’t it?”
The woman in black and brown turned, jerking back just quickly enough to avoid the brunt of a kick aimed at her head. Batman let his momentum spin him all the way around so he was looking directly at her. The black bodysuit and cowl was accented with brown striping, with an amber-tinted visor covering the upper part of her face. The ponytail that came up through the cowl was jet black. As she ducked, her right hand drew a slim rapier from a sheath hanging at her left hip, and her left hand darted down to a band around her left thigh, coming up with three small blades held between her fingers. Batman jumped, grabbing a strut for the balcony above with one hand, the other reaching to his utility belt and plucking out three folded batarangs.
At the other end of the balcony, Robin alighted on the railing as the bigger swordsman started toward Batman. “Ah, ah, ah,” said the Boy Wonder, swinging his staff around and down to strike the bigger man at the juncture of neck and shoulder. He responded with an inarticulate roar.
“Take care of Robin, Hack! I’ve got Batman!” Her left hand twitched, and a line of red appeared on Batman’s leg. He swung his body as his right hand let the batarangs all fly in one movement. “Missed!” she cried as she launched another flechette at the fast-moving Dark Knight. This one sliced through his cape but missed his body.
“Hack, eh? What’s your girlfriend called, Slash?” Robin dropped to the floor, ducking under a horizontal swing of the sword in Hack’s right hand. He brought his staff up and struck the underside of Hack’s wrist in an attempt to disarm him. Again, his effort was met with a roar from the big man, who retained the grip on his sword. “Not much of a talker, are you?”
Batman swung out and dropped to the floor behind Slash, raising his arm to catch her blade between the scallops on his gauntlet, then twisting his arm to drive the point of her sword down to the ground. As his arm moved down, the opposing leg came up, driving into the side of her head. She turned away from it, her body bending over the railing. Batman reached for her, only to receive a lightning-fast kick to the chest that sent him sprawling on the floor of the balcony.
Hack swung with both swords at Robin, swinging both of them up and over his head. As he did, Robin realized that the blades weren’t held as one normally held a sword. Instead of extending at an angle from the line of the forearm, both of the katanas seemed like an extension of the bigger man’s arms. As he watched the bigger man, he analyzed his techniques. No finesse, just large, wild swings. Not much coordination to his footwork, either. Twice he watched Hack stumble for no apparent reason in the close quarters. The two blades rose again, this time swinging together in a diagonal path. Too late, Robin realized he was backed up against a railing with no room to move. He ducked as much as he could, but it wouldn’t be enough to evade the heavy blades. Just as he thought the swords would strike, he heard the splintering of wood and felt the railing behind him give way. He fell back into space, his mind quickly running through his short list of alternatives.
Batman heard the sound of glass breaking and screams from people inside. He started to follow Hack and Slash into the condo, then thought better of it. He sprang to his feet and looked over the edge of the balcony, where the railing was broken away. “You all right there, kiddo?”
Below him, Robin gripped the line on which had originally swung over from the building across the street. “Not a problem! They inside?”
“Not for long. I already heard Hack go through the door.” Batman leaped for his own line, and they reached the ground together. “Was it me, or did he check his swing to miss you?”
“That’s what it looked like to me. I’ve got a feeling they aren’t the best of partners, partner.” Robin ticked off points on his gloved hand. “One of them, most likely Hack, has been carving a name into the victims for us to find. Two, he moves like an automaton, slow, unsure of himself, almost clumsy. Three, he could have killed me, but instead he gave me an out.”
“Adds up to an unwitting accomplice for Ashley Kotlarz.” Batman nodded. “Oh, yeah, it’s definitely her under that mask. The big question is, who is Hack?”
“It’s a crazy idea, but I think I know.” Behind them, Batwoman strode up out of the shadows. “You sure they won’t bother anyone else in there, or do you think they’ll bolt?”
“Frankly, I thought they’d come out by now.” Batman glanced over at the door. “That’s the only way in or out of this side of the building, but if they haven’t come out by now, we’d better check.”
Together, the three of them moved into the building as Robin filled Batwoman in on his observations of Hack and the identity of Slash. On the third floor, in a wide foyer that served both the stairway and the elevator, they found their quarry.
“Give it up, Slash. You aren’t getting out of here,” said Batwoman, flinging a batarang at the shorter woman.
“You think so?” said Slash, batting the projectile away with her thin blade. The blade flashed out, striking Robin’s shoulder. He responded with a pair of gas pellets at her feet. A billowing cloud of greyish mist rose up around her, obscuring her vision for a moment.
Batman took advantage of the brief advantage, tackling Slash and driving her to the floor. Hack moved in behind him, but Robin stepped between them.
“Hack! You don’t want to do this. I know you don’t.” Working to keep the trembing from his voice, Robin held his staff, extended to its full length, horizontally before him at waist level. He was prepared to raise it to block a sword strike. He knew it couldn’t stop the blades, but he hoped it would absorb enough force to turn a fatal blow into a mostly harmless one. “Let them end it. I know what you tried to do. We can stop it without anyone getting hurt.”
Hack lowered his swords to his side. As he did, Robin saw what he had suspected: the swords were mounted into metallic plates where a person’s wrist would normally be. Behind him, he heard the sound of multiple blows, followed by silence. He glanced back to see Batman and Batwoman lifting Slash’s unconscious form between them.
“Hack, can I take off your mask?” asked Robin. The big man nodded. Robin pulled the amber visor up and over his head, pulling the black and brown cowl with it. As he did so, Batwoman gasped.
“Dear God! Hank? I thought you were dead!”
“She’s really gone ’round the bend, hasn’t she?” asked Jason Todd two hours later, as he, Barbara Gordon, and Dick Grayson sat around a kitchen table at Wayne Manor. “I mean, she faked her brother’s death, then turned him into a killing machine!”
“I don’t think she realized that Hank’s mind wasn’t affected by the drugs. It was his coordination and his speech centers. He can’t talk, and he has no fine motor control, but he isn’t stupid. He’s writing out his full story in a sandbox at Police Headquarters. They have to take pictures every few minutes of what he’s writing with his swords.” Barbara took a drink from a mug of hot chocolate.
“I don’t understand why she did the bit with the swords, though,” said Dick. “I mean, I know he couldn’t hold onto a sword on his own, but to amputate his hands and mount the blades to his wrists?”
“Ashley always had a thing about blades. Still, I never thought she’d do anything like this.”
“The Wayne Foundation is going to try to help Hank out, of course. There’s a couple of speech therapists up in Boston that we’ve worked with who might be able to teach him how to speak again. The swords can be replaced with more conventional prosthetics.”
Jason got up from the table. “Well, it’s been real, folks, but I have to get up for school in a few hours. G’night.” He left the kitchen, placing his mug in the sink as he passed by.
“You know what, lover?” asked Barbara, getting up and coming over to sit in Dick’s lap. “For the first time tonight, I actually forgot that it was you behind the mask, instead of…” Her voice trailed off.
“Is that a good thing or bad?”
“Neither, I guess. Just so long as I know it’s you under here,” she said, her hand sliding beneath his robe.
Far away, a child lay awake in the night, listening to the howling of the Alaskan wind outside. Snow sifted through gaps in the boards that made up the walls. Elsewhere, he heard the cries of the younger children down in the rooms below where it was warmer.
Above him, a loud crack shattered the night stillness. The temperature around him dropped, and snow swirled around his bed. Pulling the blankets with him, he ran from the bed and down the stairs, calling for others to follow him.
To Be Continued in Batman: The Return