Paper Hearts, part 8

By Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"



"The altercation took place at the corner of Finger and Eastern," Batman reported grimly.

Nightwing let out a low whistle as he settled on one of the cathedral parapets. Finger and Eastern. Two blocks kitty corner from the Monarch Theatre. "You think he's calling you out." That would make sense. Scarecrow had gotten a peek at some of Batman's fears - not enough to suss out his identity, but enough to recognize a connection between the old theatre and his arch-nemesis. And Jonathan Crane was not stupid - he would let a place do part of his work for him without any hesitation.

"Okay, what am I missing here?" Sasha blurted, still pacing as she had been at least since Nightwing had arrived, and probably before. She gestured toward Batman. "He said the same thing. Why the hell-?"

"The Monarch would make a reasonable hideout since the reconstruction has been stalled," Batman overrode, pointedly ignoring Sasha's outburst. "It would be wise not to read too much into it."

"But he does have a beef with you since that last escape." That one hadn't been pretty - for all its brevity and lack of damage. It would be the last time Multigon would pull such a stupid stunt, but it had dangerously sold Scarecrow on the idea that Batman was dogging his every step and needed to be put down. Oracle had reported that it had become part of his routine ravings at Arkham.

Batman nodded. "Noted. The Monarch is our first target, but do not assume he will not be elsewhere. Nightwing, flank the building once we get in the neighborhood, and keep your eyes and ears open. You've got anti-toxin?"

Dick reached into his gauntlet and pulled out two ampules of the serum, handing them to Batman. He kept the anti-toxin on hand as a matter of course after Blockbuster had hired Scarecrow in an attempt to break him, but the emergency dose would not be enough if they had to deal with other Scarecrow victims. "Restocked Unit 42 and doubled up in case-" He glanced significantly at Sasha.

She halted her restless motion to glare at him. "I didn't fail belt-stocking 101."

Batman turned, fixing her with a hard look and stepping toward her so that he loomed over her smaller form. Nightwing felt a hint of sympathy, half regretting provoking her. Still, she needed the lecture; she was too new to this. "this will not be like your first encounter with Crane. He has clearly had time to plan this. Undoubtedly he's cooked up some more potent toxin - or more specific one." Batman reached out to press one of the ampules into her hand. "It's entirely possible that even this won't counteract the effects of his poison. There may be civilians affected in an uncontrolled environment. There are no Arkham guards waiting to help us secure him. He may be gunning specifically for me - and anyone with me. A misstep will be fatal, for you or for one of us. This is not an issue of pride."

Batman spun away, cape snapping, and put his hand to his cowl. "Go ahead, Oracle."

Nightwing watched as Sasha stared for a moment at the phial in her hand, then wordlessly put it into her belt. Good. There wouldn't be time to explain or clarify orders in the heat of battle. And while Batman would prefer to keep her out of the line of serious fire, there were too many uncertainties here. There wouldn't be the luxury of thorough briefings, which he knew from previous experience the "cover" tended to want.

"That confirms our suspicions," Batman was saying. "We're heading out." He turned back toward Nightwing. "Batgirl found Tetch still in his cell."

Nightwing nodded his understanding. That didn't render Hatter innocent, just increased the likelihood that he was working in concert with Scarecrow. Not a comforting thought.

"They've identified the Crime Alley deceased," Batman continued. "One of them is Jorgy Encarnacion."

Damn. Known Scarecrow henchman. Which meant Scarecrow had time to coordinate some kind of team. Nightwing frowned. "There's be lookouts. Maybe hostages."

"Agreed. Approach with extreme caution. Cover and I will take a stealth path to the front entrance."

A slower path, Nightwing understood. "Got it." Dick turned to the roof lip and paused. "I'll signal you when I get in position." Then he dove off the rooftop, shooting his jumpline from freefall and deriving a moment's satisfaction from the gasp he heard from Sasha as he made his leap. Batman would chastise her, but it was still good to hear her inadvertently acknowledge the reminder of her rookie status. She needed to realize viscerally that she had to rely on orders if they were going to make it through the night, no matter where those orders came from or the tone in which they were delivered.

His comlink pinged in his ear as he somersaulted onto the Emory Building. "Hey, Oracle," he answered.

"Watch your butt tonight, flyboy," she ordered. "I've got Batgirl investigating the Arkham situation, and I really don't like the looks of this."

"You think they're in cahoots?"

There was a silence. "They could be, but it doesn't make sense. Scarecrow is pretty straightforward if all he is after is Batman, but why go after Bruce Wayne? Unless Scarecrow is supposed to distract Batman"

"You think the shooting was motivated? Not just a 'pick a random restaurant patron'?"

"The latter makes sense, but my gut doesn't like the feel of it. I'm not sure if I'm more worried that they are working together and I'm missing some crucial key to the case, or that they have nothing whatever to do with one another and I'm not looking hard enough at individual motives."

Nightwing began working his way along the tall row houses that bordered Gotham Park, tacking a jumpline route along the alleys. "What's Batman think?"

"Not enough data."

"And J'onn?"

"I'm reluctant to -"

"Call him," Nightwing interrupted. "He'll have insights, and I know he's not exactly comfortable with being left out of the action. He'll go along for Bruce's sake, but-"

"Yeah."

"Radio silence zone, babe," Nightwing reminded her as his jumpline caught the corner of new construction and swung him across the boundaries of Crime Alley.

The answer was a click of sign off as he began a more careful path through the neighborhood. He clicked the button on his gauntlet which would scramble his GPS signal as he moved swiftly through the darkest shadows. It was unlikely Scarecrow had lookouts this far out, but they didn't know how much advance planning he had done. No sense taking chances. And while radio silence wasn't strictly necessary, he needed his focus. Two minutes later he had touched down on the half-finished condominium complex behind the Monarch Theatre.

There was a faint, tell-tale glow at ground level, where the basement level windows of the half-rebuilt theatre were inadequately covered. No sign of anyone higher.

Nightwing tapped his comlink twice to signal Batman and was answered by a short series of taps. They were five minutes out.

He tapped again - confirmation that the Monarch was somehow involved and his intent to look closer.

An acknowledging tap, and he moved to the street side of the condominium complex to upsail down to the unfinished picture windows and carefully pull the plastic away from the frame the workmen had hung it in to keep wamth inside the construction site. Half a minute more and he was down to ground level and finding a gap through which to watch for activity in the building across the alley.

There was at least one guard - his shadow crossed in front of the light. Interior shadows were less distinct - he guessed at least two inside, but that was imprecise at best.

A double tap came across his comlink - Batman and Sasha in position. A few minutes for them to case their angle, and then quietly take out the guard and-

"Nightwing!" Barbara's voice hissed urgently in his ear.

He clicked his link three times significantly.

"You don't need to answer, just listen," she replied. "I've just got a report from Bludhaven. Torque has taken hostages in the West Exeter Apartments. He is threatening to kill one an hour until you show - and he means it. They've already got one dead."

What the hell? He sent a quick series of taps. Advise?

"Nightwing, go." Batman's voice, firm in his whispered order. Oracle must have opened the channel to both of them.

He frowned. He couldn't let Bruce try to storm the Scarecrow's hideout alone - not with an unseasoned partner. He clicked his radio again.

"We've got this," Batman replied. "Go."

What was it Dinah had said? Something about crappy Valentine's Days? Had February 15th been declared official villain attack day?

He retraced his path back to the top of the condominium complex. "I'm on my way to the 'Haven," he whispered as he began the careful rooftop route away from the Monarch. "Babs, give me the GTA schedule."

"Red eye express comes through in 15 at the Sprang Bridge," she replied. "He started the clock to his next victim about 10 minutes ago."

Cutting it close. But it still made him uneasy to leave Batman.

"I'll call in reserves if they need them," Barbara said quietly as if reading his thoughts.

"I know you will," he answered, clear enough now of Crime Alley to make good time southward. "I just hope they don't need them."

"Me, too, Hunk Wonder. Me, too."



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