“I don’t believe this!” the masked man bellowed. His face, projected on the six-foot-high television screen, showed his eyes in vivid detail; they were wide with rage, and the bottom of his mask fluttered with the force of his breath as he bellowed. “I thought I was hiring professionals — super-villains! And what do you tell me? Two of you got beaten up and chased away by an ordinary woman!”
“I still have theories about that,” the Calculator said, but a glare from the Crumbler cut him off.
“Boss, boss,” Funky Flashman said, making calming gestures with his hands, “let’s retain our calm and composure here! I admit there’ve been setbacks–“
“Setbacks?” the masked man roared. Darklight winced at the giant face shouting at them, and marveled at Funky retaining his cool, speaking to this apparition as though it were a normal person. “Is that what you call it — setbacks? How did you describe the Vietnam War, Flashman? A difference of opinion?”
“I take your point, my estimable employer,” Flashman said. “But if we employ an unemotional analysis of the situation, I think we’ll find we haven’t really lost that much ground.” Before the masked man could reply to that, Flashman began ticking off points on his fingers. “Item the first: the crusading commissioner only knows that he was the object of an unconsummated kidnapping. He has no idea why he was wanted, and in fact is likely to believe it had something to do with his bombastic buddy Batman, not the Caped Crusader’s once-and-former aide de camp. Item the second: before Signalman and Darklight got interrupted by the unpredictable appearance of two hitherto-unknown derring-doers, they had determined there wasn’t sufficient data to accomplish our ends, anyway.”
“And my dark-projector got ruined for nothing,” Darklight pouted.
“I think I know where I can get it fixed,” Signalman said. “There’s a guy in Gotham who works on the equipment for all the super-criminals. He’s a whiz with electronics.”
“Really?” Darklight brightened. “You really think he can fix it?”
“Therefore,” Flashman continued, a bit louder to be heard over his colleagues, “if you examine the items aforementioned, you’ll see that, while we are no closer to our goal, our setbacks have brought us no further away from it, either. We have gained naught but have lost naught.”
“I’m more concerned with ‘gained naught,'” the masked man snarled. “You swore to me that you were able to do the job I hired you for, Flashman. I’m starting to have serious doubts about the veracity of that statement!”
“Please, sir, patience,” Flashman said. “You’ve waited this long for your revenge on the titanic teen. Will waiting a little longer make the revenge any less savory?”
“Accent on ‘little,’ Flashman,” the masked man growled. “I’m going to be standing over a corpse by this time next week. If it’s not Robin’s, it’ll be yours!” And the screen suddenly went black.
“Touchy,” the Calculator said.
“He’s right, though,” the Crumbler pointed out. “We’re no nearer finding Robin now than we were before! I’m for giving this up as a bad job.”
“Bite your tongue, my crooked colleague!” Flashman admonished. “Where’s the team spirit? Where’s the morale? Where’s–?”
“Where’s the beef, Flashman?” the Crumbler said. “It ain’t here, that’s for sure!”
“My friends, I understand your feelings at this juncture,” Flashman said. “But I ask you to have faith. I have given considerable thought to our problem, and I believe I have a solution.”
“What?” Signalman asked, simply.
Flashman turned on a dazzling smile. “I’ve hired a specialist.”
“A what?” the Calculator said, goggling.
“A specialist,” Flashman repeated. “A malicious mastermind who knows Gotham City’s stalwart protectors inside and out, a genius who can shed some much-needed light on this mystery.” Just then, a knock was heard on the newly replaced door. “Ah, and there he is now!” Flashman crossed to the door.
“How did he do that?” Darklight asked Signalman in a whisper.
“Probably rehearsed it,” Signalman said, shrugging.
“Lady and gentlemen, I give you the pinioned purveyor of perfidy, the bold bird of banditry–” Flashman flung the door wide open. “The Penguin!”
An egotistical smile on his face, the diminutive criminal waddled into the room.
“Waugh! Greetings, my estimable colleague,” the Penguin said, extending his gloved hand. “I am honored, sir, honored to be consulted on this perplexing matter before you.”
Flashman wrung his hand heartily. “The honor is ours, sir, to be working with a living legend in the annals of costumed crime! Why, the very name of Penguin is synonymous with arch-villainy the world over!”
“Oh, you’re too kind, my verbose vanguard, too kind!”
“Sheesh,” Darklight whispered to Signalman. “We have to listen to two of them?”
Signalman did not reply. He had tensed up instantly the Penguin entered the room. More so than almost anyone else, the Penguin was, inadvertently, responsible for the direction Phil Cobb’s life had taken. More than the Riddler and Two-Face, and nearly as much as the Joker, the Penguin had set the tone of the underworld in Gotham City — the underworld that, to join, Phil Cobb had to become the Signalman.
“I have given cogitation to the conundrum confounding you,” the Penguin said. “I believe I have the answer you seek. But before I expound further, there is the matter of my fee–?”
“Of course, of course,” Flashman said, producing an envelope from his inside jacket pocket and handing it to the Penguin. “A certified check in the amount of fifty-thousand dollars, as agreed upon.”
“Fifty-thousand dollars?” the Crumbler hissed to the Calculator. “For that waddling gob of lard?”
“Hey, we haven’t done so well without his help so far,” the Calculator whispered back. “What’s fifty-thousand, if it gets us closer to the million?”
“Then he gets it out of your share,” the Crumbler growled. “Not mine.”
“My thanks, friend Flashman,” the Penguin said, taking the envelope. After holding it up to the light to examine the check within, the master criminal placed it in the inner pocket of his own coat. “And now, to the business at hand. You want to know what’s become of the original Robin. Speaking as someone who has battled the brat for years and years, and I say this with all possible respect — you’re all idiots!” The Penguin shouted the last three words at the assembled villains.
Funky Flashman’s jaw dropped in a gape of surprise. Astonishment, indignation, and anger played on the faces of the other villains. Before they could sufficiently recover their wits to reply, the Penguin plunged on. “I’ve met some thickheaded villains in my time; I once worked with a bloke called Ibac that made a cabbage seem intellectual. (*) But you! Robin the Teen Wonder, leader of the Teen Titans, drops out of sight. Weeks later, there’s a new hero leading the Teen Titans, with the same abilities, the same fighting style, the same height and build, even the same hair color. Work with me, people! Can you add two and two?”
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Crisis in Eternity,” Justice League of America #135 (October, 1976).]
The villains turned their heads to stare at one another; then they looked at Flashman, whose eyes were wide with recognition. Then they looked back at the Penguin. Signalman broke the silence.
“Are you telling us that Robin became–?”
“Nightwing!” the Penguin finished. “Yes, Nightwing! The lad outgrew his play clothes and adopted a completely different identity! Is that so hard to believe, Mr. Blue Bowman?” Signalman had no reply to that.
The Penguin turned to Funky Flashman, all smiles and joviality again. “Well, once again, my thanks for consulting me, sir.” The villain smugly patted his chest over the spot where the check resided for this five-minute consultation. “Anytime you find yourself in need of expert advice in the future, feel free to call upon me again.” The Penguin turned then, tipped his hat to Darklight, and waddled out of the office.
For long moments after the door closed, an awkward silence held in the meeting room. Rising to her feet, Darklight finally broke it. “Well, so long, people,” she said. “It’s been fun working with you.”
“Wait!” Signalman cried, getting to his feet also. “You — you’re not leaving?”
“Believe it,” Darklight said. “You heard him! The guy we’re after is Nightwing — leader of the Teen Titans! I’ve fought them before; I know what a hopeless job that is! And they’re even more powerful now than they were then!”
“So go,” the Crumbler snorted. “Who needs you, if you turn coward first thing?”
“Watch your tongue,” Signalman said ominously.
“Oh!” the Crumbler snapped. “Oh, I should watch my tongue, should I? Why’s that, Signalman? You don’t like me talking back to your little girlfriend?“
“Have a care, Crumbler,” Signalman advised sternly. “You’ve had a chip on your shoulder the size of Plymouth Rock since you first set foot in this office! I, for one, can only take so much!”
“Oh, I’m so scared!” the Crumbler mocked, rising from his chair. “I’m being threatened by Captain Colorblind! Who designed your costume, anyway — Ray Charles?”
“Oh, that’s rich,” Signalman sneered, pointing at the Crumbler’s red kerchief mask. “I’m getting fashion tips from the Lone Ranger!”
“Why, you outdated, overblown has-been!” the Crumbler snarled.
The Calculator sat on the edge of his chair, figuring out how far Flashman would let the confrontation go before he stepped in to stop it.
“Gentlemen, please!” Flashman cried, stepping between the two super-villains with his arms outstretched. “Let us reserve our vigorous violence for the costumed crime-busters, and not each other! Surely we can settle our differences amicably?”
The Calculator settled back, a smile on his face; he’d predicted it within two seconds. “He’s right, guys,” Darklight said, laying a hand gently on Signalman’s shoulder. “Fighting each other isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
Signalman and the Crumbler continued to stare each other down for another half-minute, then both looked away without saying a word.
“Now, I admit our luminous lady here has a point,” Flashman said. “The problem does become a bit thornier with the awesome assemblage of the titanic teens in the equation.”
“True,” the Calculator said. “If I may put a word in here, Flashman, equations are my specialty.”
“The floor is yours, my calculating codswallop,” Flashman said with a small bow.
“Thank you. Friends, Flashman hit the mark when he said the Teen Titans are a problem as long as they’re in the equation. The answer is, simply, to take them out of the equation.”
“That’s your brilliant plan?” the Crumbler scoffed. “OK, Mr. Wizard, I’ll bite. How do we do that?”
“Simplicity itself,” the Calculator said. “We lure Nightwing away from his fellow Titans. If we can get him alone, we can overcome him.”
“As simple as that,” Signalman sneered.
“I admit it sounds good,” Darklight said. “But how can we be sure to get him alone?”
“That,” the Calculator admitted, “is a part of the equation I’m still working on.”