Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 
Choices Chapters
1: Prologue

2: Robin & Huntress

3: The JSA

4: The JLA

5: Starfire, Robin & Batman

6: New Members of the Family

7: At The Manor

8: The Stake-Out

9: New Friendships

10: The Titans

11: Facing The Past

12: Shattered

13: Confrontations

14: Flying

15: Conversations

16: Hitting the Streets

17: On the Trail

18: Face To Face

Choices

Chapter 16: Hitting the Streets

by Marilee Stephens

The moon brightly lit up the surrounding landscape as Dick sped along the highway leading into Gotham. However, his mind was not on the passing scenery, but on what could possibly have caused the police to summon their Dark Knight into town. In a way, he hoped that it would be something not related to the situation he found himself in. Frankly, a good old-fashioned burglary, or an escaped felon or a rash of muggings would be nice for a change, given all the emotional upheaval of the last few days.

He did have to admit though that he liked the feel of the wind rushing past his face. Riding a bike did have that one advantage. The blast of air allowed the worries and doubts to be swept from one's mind, clearing it to concentrate on the task ahead.

Pulling into town, he navigated the streets to where he was sure the main police station would have to be. He rode by the building quickly, just to make sure. And the solid façade that he had been used to seeing as a kid was right where it was supposed to be. Again, he was amazed at how some things could be so different on this earth, and yet others were exactly what or where he thought they should be.

He parked the bike in the shadows of a deserted alley a few streets over from the station. Reaching the rooftop, he found two men waiting beside the large beacon. One was an uniformed cop, while the other was wearing a long trench coat. However, it was the plainclothes man that surprised Dick slightly. He was expecting to see Jim Gordon. But it definitely wasn't the Commissioner who was turned away from him, waiting just beyond the light source. No, despite the familiar style of coat, though this one was more rumpled than Gordon would ever wear, the man's size and shape was wrong. And his hair was mostly dark, though he could pick out a very large number of strands of white peppering it. It was only when the man spoke that Dick recognized the voice.

"Give it 5 more minutes. If Bats doesn't show up by then…"

Harvey Bullock had turned to address the policeman standing by the power switch to the bat-signal. His raspy voice grated over the night air as he pulled a drag from the ever-present cigar hanging from his mouth. Dick wasn't sure if he was surprised or not to find this man up on here. It wasn't that it was all that unexpected. He just hadn't thought of the man.

He leapt out from the shadow that he had concealed himself in. His actions caused the two other men to whirl in his direction, firearms drawn.

"It's okay, Bullock. I'm here to help." He gave a smile as he raised his hands to show that they were empty, even as he was taking in more of the other man's appearance. Yep, while older, and if possible, even more rumpled, this was definitely Harvey Bullock.

For a moment, it looked as if Bullock was going to lower his gun and even started to indicate to the other cop to do likewise. But as Dick emerged even more into the light cast by the signal, Harvey tensed up and raised his gun again.

"Is this a joke or sumthin'? Who the hell are you?"

Dick could hear a slight hint of confusion in the older man's voice, even as Bullock made a show of putting up a stern front. He wasn't really worried about Harvey actually taking a shot at him. He knew enough about Bullock to know that he wasn't the type of fire due to stress. However, the younger man by the big light was another matter. Who knew how green he was or how he'd react to an unexpected situation.

"Listen, I'm sorry to just show up announced. I'm Nightwing and I …"

"No, you ain't. I ain't stupid, kid. You may look sumthin' like him, but youse is too young and the costume's off. Now give me a straight answer, or I'm haulin' your butt downstairs."

Dick tensed. He knew that neither man could actually catch him if he decided that he didn't want them too. Still, he didn't want to actually have to turn this into any sort of confrontation. He had just needed something to take his mind off his troubles. Still, if he couldn't convince them to give him the slightest bit of trust…

"It's okay, Chief. He's with me."

An almost audible sigh of relief seemed to sweep over the small group with the introduction of the familiar deep voice. Not taking his eyes off the other men's firearms, Dick could sense the taller man move up beside him. A strong hand coming up to rest on his shoulder helped to relax the muscles that had tightened up a moment ago.

"He's with you, Bats? Okay. I can handle that." Bullock did lower his weapon this time, and with his action, the younger cop did as well. Addressing the young man, Harvey added, "You can turn off the light and head back down, Gonzales. I'll deal with the Bat-guy and his little pal here."

Gonzales nodded and did as his superior requested. After he had headed back into the lower floors of the police HQ, Harvey turned back to the dark duo beside him.

"So the kid's 'Nightwing', huh? What's happened now, Bats? Some freakin' time-travel nonsense or is this just a new age-defying formula youse have come up with?" Bullock flicked a bit of ash off the end of his cigar in a slight sign of irritated nonchalance that didn't hold up too well.

"Something like that, Harv."

"Man, you know I hate that sort of stuff, Bats. Makes my head hurt."

Dick listened with a slight sense of amusement to the exchange between the two men. For all the apparent irritation Bullock was displaying, there was obviously respect between the two men.

"I take it that the Commissioner doesn't know about this little meeting."

"Ya know it. He's out at one of those fancy gala things he loves going too."

"The announcement and fund-raising party for the new Robinson Youth Center. Yes, I believe the Wayne Foundation is hosting it."

"Yeah, that's the one. Ya know, Bats, I think my boss prefers the smoozin' and carryin' on that goes with those type of wing-dings than doing the actual grunt work of being a cop." Dick was amazed at the amount of vehemence towards the Commissioner that he could hear in Bullock's voice. They couldn't be talking about James Gordon, could they? If they were, then this earth's Jim Gordon was absolutely nothing like the one back home.

But his unspoken question was answered by Batman's response. "He's not Jim Gordon, Harvey. We just have to remember that."

"He ain't fit to clean Jim Gordon's feet, let alone fill his shoes. Course, neither of the others were either."

"Harvey, we've discussed this in the past. I don't want to get into it with you again, but you have to try to get alone with O'Neil. No, he's not Jim, but the mayor obviously thought enough of his skills when he recruited him for the job. We might not agree with the way he does things, but he has helped raise the police profile in the community, and that can only be a good thing for the most part."

"Says you."

"Harv," Dick heard a very slight note of irritation enter Batman's voice, "I know it's rough, but you've got to put your personal animosity aside here, even as I've had to do. As chief, the other cops are going to follow your lead here."

Dick hid a quick smile. Bullock was chief?!? That was unexpected. Sure, the Bullock on his earth was a damn fine cop for all his annoying habits, but Dick wasn't sure he would have seemed to have wanted the responsibility of being the head of the day-to-day running of the department.

Even as Dick contemplated this bit of news, Batman was continuing his discussion with the Chief. "Most of them still remember Gordon sitting in the chair, and as long as you show them your disapproval of this man, they're not going to go along completely with him. And that won't be good for the force as a whole, regardless of anything else."

Bullock sighed heavily as a frown settled on his rough features. "Yer right, Bats. I just wish you were wrong in this case."

Batman didn't react to the older man's last statement. Instead, he shifted the direction of the conversation. "Why did you call me?"

Bullock gave a very small start, as if the original reason for lighting the signal had slipped his mind. However, his demeanor immediately shifted into a professional one, as his back straightened and his voice took on a slightly less intimate tone. Reaching into an inner pocket on his coat, he pulled out a long white envelope encased in a plastic bag.

"This showed up for you tonight. It was just dropped off at the front desk while the gal on duty was busy dealing with a couple of other people. She didn't see who exactly left it, but as soon as she saw your name on the envelope, she put it in the bag. Figured that you might want to test for finger prints or sumthin'."

Batman reached over and took the bag from Bullock. Reaching gingerly inside, he pulled out the envelope. Beside him, Dick could make out the typed words:

Batman

c/o Gotham City Police Department

Gotham City

No zip code, no return address. If the envelope had been dropped off though, that sort of information wouldn't be required.

Sliding the flap open with minimal contact with the paper, Batman then drew out a single sheet of paper. On it was pasted in a rather hap-hazard manner the words:

"First there was two, both perfect to see,

Then they were shattered, ruined and torn,

Now one is fixed and the other is not,

This must be undone, a duo reborn."

"Someone's obviously a pretty bad poet, eh, Bats?"

"Or someone's in a lot of trouble, Harvey. Thanks for calling me. If the desk sergeant's available, I'd like to talk to her."

"Sure, Bats. I've got her waiting downstairs in case you did. I'll call her up here."

Bullock walked over to a phone mounted on the wall of the small structure that housed the stairs down into the lower reaches of the building. Picking up the handset, he quickly gave an order to send a "Murphy" up.

As they waited for the officer in question to arrive, Batman and Dick quietly discussed what the note could mean.

"What are your initial impressions, Wing?", Batman inquired.

"Well, it's a poem, but it's also a bit of a riddle. That should give us one clue as to which lead to first follow up on."

"If you're implying it's the Riddler, I couldn't disagree. It does fit him M.O.. But I hate to think that it's Edward. He's worked too hard to go straight to have this bad a relapse."

"A relapse? I didn't know…" Just as Dick was about to question Batman as to what he meant, a late-thirty-something year old uniformed cop appeared through the door. After a quick word with Bullock, she headed over to where Batman and Dick were standing. A quick confused look entered her eyes when she saw Dick, but she didn't say anything. Instead, seeing the items in Batman's hands, she got directly to the point.

"I'm afraid I can't tell you much, Batman. I was dealing with a rather distraught shop-owner who had hauled a couple of kids in on his own for spraying graffiti on the back wall of his shop. One minute, the spot on my desk where I found the note was empty, the next it wasn't."

"That's okay, Sergeant Murphy. I understand how hectic it can get. What I'd like to know is what you remember of the people in the main foyer of the building at the time."

"I thought you might. I've been trying to picture in my head what I can remember."

"Take your time, Murph… Better to give Bats accurate information than guesses", Bullock encouraged the woman.

"Okay. Here's what I definitely remember. The area was not overly busy, but it wasn't empty either. We had a couple of parents, forty-ish, well-off, in who had posted bait and were picking up their kid. Fifteen year old, she'd been caught doing some petty shoplifting. There were a couple of uniformed cops hanging out for a few minutes shooting the breeze before heading back out on patrol. There were a few other uniforms hauling in a couple of dealers they had picked up on the docks. Both have a couple of priors on their records, but generally small time stuff. There was the storeowner and the two kids he had dragged in by the scruff of their necks. He was early 50's, they were 12… 13 tops. He was babbling on about 'citizen's arrest' and such. A few detectives were passing through discussing a homicide case they were working on. A homeless man wandered in, trying to snag some free coffee and maybe a doughnut or two…"

"A homeless man? How did you know he was homeless."

"He had the look. Unkempt, rags for clothing. Hair could have been brown or black, but it was so matted and dirty it was hard to tell. Could have been thirty, could have been fifty. Asking for change and/or food. Wasn't one of the regulars, but with the way people show up and then disappear…"

"A clue, Bats?"

"I'm not sure. But it does open an avenue of possibilities that I can look into. Continue, Sergeant."

"Okay. There were a couple of kids, two boys, again 12 or 13 years old, who wanted to put up a poster of their missing dog. Oh, and my fave. Call came in from Smiley who wanted someone to sing him a bed-time song."

Dick couldn't stop himself from asking, "Smiley?"

Bullock cocked an eye at his query. "C'mon, you know… Smiley. Everybody's favorite drunk. Everytime we think we've got him off the booze and on the wagon, he falls back off again." Harvey shook his head in an almost affectionate despair. "If only he wasn't such a happy drunk, it would be so much easy to get mad at him."

Batman steered the conversation back to the topic at hand. "Anyone else you can think of, Sergeant Murphy."

"Not off-hand, Batman. I'm sorry I can't be of more help."

"You did fine, kid. As good as I could have done." Bullock reassured Murphy enthusiastically.

"Yes, Sergeant. You've given me the possibilities of a few leads. Now, if possible, I'd like a list of the names of the people you remember. That included the people in filing complaints and/or requests, and the officers you remember seeing."

"I already have it for you, sir. The Commissioner… That is, the old Commissioner… trained us pretty well in what you might want to know." Reaching into her shirt pocket, the woman pulled out a thin sheaf of paper. "I've got the names that were available, as well as addresses for the ones that we had on file."

Batman gave the woman a dazzling smile. "Excellent work, Sergeant Murphy. This is exactly what I need."

"Good going, Murph. I'm proud of ya."

"Thanks, Chief." But Murphy didn't stop to bask in her boss's praise. Instead a slightly worried frown formed on her brow. "Still, Batman, I might not have seen everyone that came in at that time. That shopkeeper was pretty upset. I might have missed something."

"I know. But you've done what you can. I'll take it from here. If you remember anything else, tell the Chief here. He'll get the information to me."

"Thank you, sir." With a quick tilt of her head towards the door, and a glance at Bullock to get his permission, Murphy turned and headed back downstairs.

"Ya need anything else, Bats?"

"No, Harv. I think we can take it from here." Batman turned and indicated to Dick that they should leave. But he broke stride to turn once more back to the Chief. "And Harvey, please try to get along with O'Neil."

"Yeah, all right. I'll give it a go. Still don't know why you're pushin' this, Bats, considering his opinion about you."

"Harv, his opinion about me shouldn't affect how the force operates."

"Yer kiddin', right? Of course it affects how the force works. Sure, I know that he admits that ya done some good work and all for the city. And he hasn't come out and out said or tried to shut you down. But he don't like you all that much, Bats. And he doesn't like us callin' you in for help."

"That's because he can't control me, Harvey. You and I both know that. Unfortunately, when Jim was in charge, we got too complacent about how the force and I interacted. You know we've had times in the past when Jim wasn't the Commissioner and I wasn't the most welcomed person around. Like when Hill was mayor, years ago. It passed. This will too. The new Commissioner and I have come to an understanding. He knows that there are certain times and certain crimes and criminals that I'm better able to handle, or at least help you with. We'll work together as needed. No, it's not like before. It hasn't been that way for a couple of years now. But we'll do what we have to so it works. All right?"

"All right. I get ya." Bullock obviously decided that it was time to let the matter drop. Dick didn't know what was going through the man's mind, but he appeared to want to get out of the rather tense situation that had arose. "Now stop all this jawin' and naggin' and go find out what's going on. I've got other work to do."

With that, Bullock turned and lumbered off towards the door, waving a hand in either farewell or dismissal. Dick wasn't quite sure. But his mind quickly turned to other matters as he cast his line out and swung after Batman across to another building. They were generally silent as they moved swiftly across the city, such that within a few moments, they were at the entrance to an old abandoned warehouse. Producing a key, Batman entered the building, with Dick following like a shadow behind him.

"Where are we, exactly?" Dick broke the silence almost reluctantly. It was obvious that Batman was very deep in thought, though Dick wasn't sure what exactly about. He imagined that it was most likely about the letter Bruce had received, but after the discussion up on the roof, he had to wonder if it might be about some of the apparent tension with ranks of the police force.

"This way. The warehouse is the vehicle entrance and exit to the Bat-cave I maintain here in the city as a backup to the main one back at the manor. I set it up back when I lived in the Wayne Tower penthouse. It doesn't get used as much anymore, and it's been downgraded in size and equipment, but it's handy access to the information on the main computers back in the big Cave."

As Batman had been answering Dick's question, they had moved through a large, heavy steel door and down a darkened tunnel. Dick decided that he needed to clear up a few questions before they got right down to the manner at hand.

"So, Jim Gordon's left the force?"

"Retired. Two years back. I guess it wasn't totally unexpected, but it has caused some headaches. Don't get me wrong. I'm happy for him that he now has the time to enjoy life. And much as Barbara was sad to see her dad leave the job, I think she's happier about it in the long run. Frankly, he was working too hard and getting up there in years. And the stress of the job was finally getting to him. He'd had a few health crises over the years and finally, one day he ended up taking a bullet that could have cost him his life. That caused him to slow down and do some re-evaluation. And I think he decided that he wanted to have a few more years with his daughter and grandchildren. Lord knows, over the years he had sacrificed and given up a lot for his position. I know something about what that's like. He earned his retirement."

"But it's caused you some problems."

"Not as many as Bullock would make out. Frankly, it's been a bit of adjustment for all of us. Any change is. Didn't help that the first guy that was brought in to replace Jim was a bit too… Well, let's just say he wasn't totally on the up-and-up. He decided to use his new position to cover some dealings of his own. Needless to say, he didn't last very long. Than the next guy that was brought in didn't have the diplomatic skills needed for the position. He was a good cop, but he didn't know how to play the politics, and as a result, the mayor thought he could use the department for his own purposes and the Commissioner followed along blindly. Things got really bad there for awhile. O'Neil's new to the job. And regardless of how Bullock might portray him, he's actually a good man. He knows the game and how to play it and keep his head on straight. But he has certain opinions and ways of doing things that clash with how things were done before. Nothing's wrong with that. An adjustment period should be enough to straighten that out. But everyone's got to learn to use that time to adjust. Bullock, O'Neil, myself… And it hasn't always been easy. It'll work out."

Dick wasn't so sure about that. It sounded like there was more to the situation than Bruce was admitting to. Still, regardless of the fact that this Batman operated differently from his own, he instinctively trusted him. And, he decided, at the moment it wasn't their top worry.

Considering the reason they had gone to HQ, he realized that he needed to an explanation to something else that had come up with their short discussion up on the roof. "You said something about the Riddler going straight earlier?"

By this point, they were emerging from the tunnel into a large open area. Moving away from him, Batman pulled down a lever and lights flooded the room. Dick looked around, taking in the surrounding. Yes, there was an initial resemblance to the cave back under the Manor. But this one was more sparsely occupied. There weren't the trophy displays and the computer set-up wasn't as extensive. Still, there was enough equipment available to them to do most of the tasks that he thought would be required.

"Funny, I thought Helena and Richard told me that you were going over my files about various criminals and their current whereabouts", Batman commented off-handedly.

"I was. I guess I just hadn't made it up to the 'R's yet?", Dick shrugged in response.

Batman moved over to the computer terminal, sweeping off his cowl at the same time. He powered up the screen before he started to seriously answer Dick's question.

"I haven't had a whole lot of luck with actually helping some of the more persistent criminals I've confronted over the years. I've tried with so many of them, but some, like the Joker, seem to be beyond help. But Edward… The more confrontations we had, the more I realized he didn't necessarily really want to steal. That was more a means to attract attention, to give him a forum to show the world that had ignored him for so long what he perceived his worth to be. Think about it. If he really just wanted to just steal things, why send the police or me riddles that served as clues. He wanted to prove that he was smart enough to outwit us."

"Yes. My Batman realized that too. But the Riddler's obsessed with outsmarting him."

"True. But what if he was given the opportunities to try and out-think me without having to include criminal activities to do so?"

"Huh?"

"It was really quite simple when I really thought about it. Ed wanted the chance to show the world that he was so smart that he would outwit not only the police, but also me. So I decided I would give him the chances to do so, as long as they don't involve crime."

"I don't see…"

Bruce turned to the computer console and started pulling up some files. "During one of Ed's prison stays, I visited him. I wanted to try and talk to him, to show him that his life wasn't what it could be. He is very smart, but by using crime to show his intelligence, he was really being very stupid. If he thought about it, there was so many ways he could use his talents to help mankind."

"No offense, Bruce, but I've always thought that a lot of the reason that some of these people do what they do is for the risk involved. Not only are they obsessed, but they get high on the danger involved."

"And I agree for the most part. So, I made Ed an offer. Once he got out of prison, I wanted him to try and go straight. In doing so, I would be his… "mark" so to speak. He could still try to outwit me using riddles or games or such, but not necessarily though criminal activities. At first, some of the scenarios he came up with were pretty elaborate and, I admit, were a pain to spend a lot of time figuring out. But I also provided the means for him to use his skills in other directions."

"How so?"

Bruce typed rapidly into the computer keyboard even as he talked. "Batman got his good friend Bruce Wayne to allow Edward Nigma a job with a think-tank/trouble-shooter unit that Wayne Industries has."

"You're joking… Right?"

"No. If I wanted this to work, I had to give him a chance. The think-tank handled a lot of problems that arose in the various departments and factories I own or use around the world that couldn't be solved by anyone else. Still, we weren't stupid. For the first few years, we didn't allow him to work on the more confidential material. But as he's proven his worth, we've given him more trust and freedom. He did immediately take to the encryption problems, of course. But I think that had to be expected. Still, if anything, having him on board has been a big help. He tends to give the group ideas as to how someone might try to break into the system that the more… ethically inclined members might not think of."

"I don't believe this."

"What's not to believe. I've given him a chance to still have the opportunity to test his wiles on me, while also providing a stimulating atmosphere where he can use his brains to a better use. In fact, his work with the unit has him so occupied nowadays that he doesn't tend to send riddles all that often to me anymore and they're not as complicated when he does. Way I see it it's all worked out for the best. That's why I hate to think that this message could somehow be related to him. I'm not going to discount him, but I'm going to hope that it isn't him."

Dick nodded. He supposed that he could understand Bruce's feelings. If this was one of the few people Bruce had really had a chance to rehabilitate, he probably wouldn't want to think that the Riddler had "fallen off the wagon", to use Bullock's term for the "Smiley" guy from early. Still, he also didn't feel that they should throw E. Nigma out as a suspect.

"Maybe we should just approach the problem by what the message says, and not how it might relate to any one specific person?"

"Already working on that. From the contents of the note, we're dealing with a pair of people or things. A pair that has undergone extensive damage. We could be dealing with a set of human twins, or animal twins, or sets of matched objects. I've fed search parameters into computer to see if there's any significant showings of matched sets or special pairs of people in Gotham right now."

"The 'damage' part has to be a key clue."

"Already fed that in as well."

A beep emanating from the computer cut the stillness of the air. Reaching over to flip an audio dial, Batman smiled as a slightly slowed mechanical voice came over the airways.

"You rang, oh great and glorious leader."

"Good evening to you too, Prophet. Practising our 'Great Gazoo' impression, are we?"

"Give me a break, Batman. It's 3:00 in the morning. I gotta rest sometime. I need my beauty sleep or I'll never get a date."

"Sorry for disturbing your nap then, but I need you to run some names and addresses through your files, as well as monitor a search I've got going on at the moment."

"Something big?"

"I don't know yet. We're still working on that part." With that, Bruce outlined to the unseen helper at the other end of the communication line what details they had.

"I'm sending you the list of names and addresses that Sergeant Murphy gave me, as will as the link to the search I set up."

"Sure, no problem. As soon as I find out anything, I'll contact you. Give our newest little bird-boy my regards". Even though Dick knew it was impossible for the tinny voice to convey emotion, he could swear he heard a slightly teasing tone enter the other's voice.

"Following up on us, Prophet?" Bruce asked the question even as he was transmitting several files over the link.

"Nah… Just that I monitored a cycle leaving the vincinity of the Manor to go to the city, as well as your car. When I contacted the cave, both our Nightwing and Robin, as well as the Earth-2 Robin were somewhere in the Manor. Figured had to be our newest member of the family out for a joy ride."

"Joy ride my…", Dick muttered under his breath. Still, he wasn't really that upset. Not only did Bruce seem to trust this person, but he had just been included in the "family". It was a nice feeling.

"See what you can do with the information, Prophet. I'll get back to you in a few hours if I don't hear from you before then."

"Copy that… Roger… Over and out." With that tongue-in-cheek send-off, the line closed.

Bruce looked wryly up at Dick even as he shook his head slightly. "Prophet sometimes has a bit of an off-beat sense of humor. We just play along when we can."

"Sure. I understand it coming from him. But the Great Gazoo?!?"

"What can I say. I sometimes get suckered into watching old cartoons with the kids. Mike thinks the Flintstones are great."

Dick just raised an eyebrow at that. Seeing his expression, Bruce dead-panned back, "Don't look at me. They're not my kids."

He then turned serious once more as he headed towards the lab portion of the cave. "While Prophet runs through those lists, I want to analyze the paper and envelope the message came in. If you can go over the envelope, I'll work on the message itself."

With that, both men set to work. A companionable silence spread throughout the cave as they worked steadily on each of their tasks. Dick took the time to look for any distinguishing marks on the envelope, as well as examined the typeface and size of the font used to print the address. He determined the weight of paper used in manufacturing the envelope and though a long shot, he analyzed the glue used in the sealing for the flap, though that hadn't been used, just to see if he could determine where the envelope might have been produced. Finally, on the very off chance that a fingerprint smudge or two had been left, he dusted the paper, though the nap of it might not of held a clean print.

When he was done, he turned to Batman to give him the results. "It's a plain, bond-stock envelope. No distinguishing marks. Could have been picked up in any stationary store. The font is a 12 point Courier and was produced by a computer printer, not a typewriter. Laser-print, not dot-matrix, and slightly low on toner. No prints to pick up."

"I didn't think there would be. Obviously wore gloves. The message doesn't provide much more. Whoever put this together cut the words out of magazines. Used a very sharp pair of scissors. Elmer's glue to attach them to the page. No prints on any of it either. Paper's standard stock, again from any regular stationary store. And Bullock was right. Whoever wrote this is obviously a very bad poet."

"Which means it's probably someone who's not used to using that type of message to convey information."

"Or it means that whoever sent this might be trying to lead us off the trail by suggesting he or she wouldn't be good at it."

"That wouldn't make sense. Why send a clue at all if you don't… Wait, forget I mentioned that. Provide a misleading clue as to send us looking in another direction." Dick could have smacked himself for not thinking of that before he opened his mouth.

"Or we could be overanalyzing the whole thing and the writer really just is a bad poet."

"So now what?"

"We'll leave Prophet to do the computer work. You and I are going to go check out another possible lead."

"Which one?"

"Sergeant Murphy mentioned the homeless man who came in around the time the message was delivered. I have some contacts that might be able to help us in that direction. I just hope that I can contact one of them at this hour of the night. C'mon, I've got the car here. We'll go and try to hook up with one of them."

With that, Batman picked up the message and slipped it back into it's protective plastic covering, then replaced his cowl. Dick followed him back towards the exit to the cave, where he saw the Bat-mobile sitting in the shadows.

As they started out into the darkness, Dick noticed that they were turning towards where the slightly more destitute part of his Gotham had been located. Down near the docks and the factories, where various criminals and people of uncertain past and possible no future would congregate. Of course, in his Gotham, current the entire city was like that, following the earthquake. For a few long minutes he wondered how his Gotham, and more so, Bludhaven, were making out without him.

They quietly and slowly cruised the not-so-deserted streets, though some people were careful to take the time to avoid the black vehicle as it crept along the darkened alleys. Batman was obviously looking for someone.

The night sky was just starting to give way to the palest blue-pink of morning when he apparently spotted who he was looking for and pulled the car over into a darkened alleyway. A few minutes later, Dick noticed a man somewhat saucily sauntering over towards them from the entrance to the alley. But for all his apparent nonchalance, he still occasionally looked back over his shoulder, making sure no one was watching him.

"Top o' the mornin' to ye, Batman", the man brightly but quietly greeted them. He was dressed in the slightly decrepit older clothes of the homeless, though it was obvious that he had tried to maintain a certain amount of decorum in his apparel.

"Morning to you too, Shamrock. Streets pretty quiet."

"Aye. Nary a peep the whole night. Is something botherin' ye? Do ye need ol' Sham for something?"

"I might need yours and the others help, Sham. Can you get them to meet me as Bess's in two or so hours? Tell them I need to hear of any strange doings about twins, or bad poetry, that they might have picked up on."

"Sure, laddie. 'Bad poetry', ya sae… Poet's not going to like the sounds of that."

"No, he won't. I'll talk to you all then."

Dick watched the whole exchange with a touch of bemusement. Batman had greeted the man with a great deal of respect, even given his apparent situation. And this 'Shamrock' obviously felt a great deal of affection for Batman. It wasn't the type of reaction he was used to seeing the Batman getting from many street people. Most of them tended to back away from him, ever if they did encounter him.

As they watched the man leave the alley in the same somehow easy-going, somehow wary way of his, Dick turned to Batman and asked, "We're going to meet him with whom where?"

"C'mon… We have a couple of hours. I feel like seeing if the streets are as quiet as Sham said they were." Locking up the car tight, Batman threw a line up and started to climb. Shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head, Dick made to follow.

For the first few minutes, they simply moved from rooftop to rooftop, listening for any signs of distress and looking down to see if anything was happening. But finally Batman broke the silence as they paused to look out over the city skyline for a few moments.

"That was Shamrock. He and some other street people have over the years taken to being part of my eyes and ears out on the street. I can't be everywhere at once, and people will say things in front of them, considering them not even worthy of worrying about, that they would never say in front of me."

"You've got civilians involved."

"Didn't plan on it. In fact, given what happened with Jason's parents, I actively discouraged it for awhile. But they wouldn't go away. It's a long story."

"Seems like we have some time."

"You're persistent."

"Had a great teacher."

"Hhmmm… It all started years and years ago. I had a case where a homeless woman who went by the name Ballerina was murdered. Gold coins were left on her eyes, as if to pay her way out of pergatory. A few street people who had known her provided me with some background information and provided me with some clues. Shamrock, who you just met, was my initial contact, but there was also Slugger, and Poet and Good Queen Bess. They were the ones that took down the guy who was behind the killing. He was just a really screwed up man, though. In his head, by killing them, he actually though he would be helping them. They didn't take to the idea at all. They might have been street people, but they have as much honor and self-worth as anyone I've ever met. They just hit some rocky times. Anyways, they were the core group to begin with. There's been a few more added over the years, though they keep themselves pretty exclusive. They seem to like the idea of being on my 'team'. Any ways, since then, I've gone to them for information, though I try to do it not too often, and never in a way that could jeopardize them."

Batman sighed heavily at that. "I've tried to help them out on several occasions, and through various means. Either as Bruce Wayne or Batman. But they're also very proud. They don't want charity. And they think they're providing a service to the city by being out there, gathering information for me. It gives them a feeling of accomplishment."

"I can understand that. But the danger involved…"

"I've argued that with them. But they won't listen. They say that if I'm willing to go out night after night and lay my life on the line, like I did for them, and for the rest of the city, then they were willing to keep their eyes and ears open. And that's another reason they won't accept a lot of the aid I've tried to give them over the years to get them off the streets full-time. What use to me would they be if they weren't out there? As it is, Slugger did die on the streets a few years back."

Dick started at that. "You see. It's too dangerous for civilians…"

Batman raised a hand to stop Dick from continuing, even as he nodded in agreement. "That would have been an argument I could have used, except he died in his sleep of an apparent heart attack. It wasn't unexpected. He'd been on the '48 Gotham Giants baseball team. He was getting older and had had a rough life. As it was, he didn't die literally on the streets. He was found in a bed at one of the shelters that the Wayne Foundation had set up around the more affected parts of the city."

Dick fell silent at that. He didn't know how he felt about what this Batman was telling him. It all made sense in one way. If someone wanted to help them out, they should readily accept the help. Yet, somehow, it seemed wrong. They were trained to do what they did. These people obviously didn't have that.

Batman seemed to read his thoughts. "I know that I'm not totally comfortable with the situation, but frankly, as they once bluntly told me, it wasn't my decision to make. They chose to do what they're doing. And, to tell the truth, they can get information in ways that I can't."

"Besides, I have been able to help them out. I make sure that they get food, shelter. Hell, I even got Bess to move into a set of small, subsidized utility apartments Wayne Enterprises built specifically for the homeless population of the city."

"You built that?"

"Wayne Enterprises did. Batman may be able to make a difference in people's lives by helping to combat the crime level, but in some ways, it's Bruce Wayne's philantrophic efforts where I'm able to have the more long-term effect on this city. Any ways, we should get going. I want to scout around some more before we have to go to Bess's."

With that, he took off again. Dick followed, but he was lost in his own thoughts. Obviously this version of Bruce Wayne took as much pride, if not more, in what he had accomplished as Bruce Wayne as he had Batman. It was something to think on.

They were heading in the direction of the park when they both stopped at the sound of a scream.

"Let's go."

Reaching the area where the cry had come from, Dick made out the figure of a woman struggling while a group of men surrounded her, almost casually tossing her from one to another. Dick was about to throw himself into the group, almost feeling the need to let go with a few flying roundhouse kicks, when Batman indicated for him to stop and listen for a moment. From the jeers and shouts, apparently the "boys" had been out carousing for most of the night and had decided to top it all off with a little fun. They didn't seem like the mean sort for the most part, but had had a little too much to drink during the night to realize just what they were doing.

Looking over at Batman, he could almost see the disgust crossing the older man's lower face. In a stern tone, Batman quickly threw a few of the men out of the way so that he could reach the woman's side.

"Just what do you… gentlemen think you're up to?" he admonished in a harsh tone.

"Hey guys, look. It's the Batman", one of the drunks woozily informed his friends. "Batman, care to join the party."

"I don't believe so, fellas. I don't think this young lady was really enjoying her time with you all that much."

"Aaawww… shure she's wash, Batshman", spoke another of the men, who Dick realized were probably no more than his own age. The speaker then managed to stumble up against another of his comrades, who almost fell with the push.

"No, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure that she wasn't having a good time at all. In fact, I'm pretty sure that all of you frightened her. Not the sort of thing I like happening. I don't like it at all, in fact." The stern tone that had been in Batman's voice before had changed, mutated into that of ice-cold steel. Dick decided that someone could freeze water in the vicinity of Batman's voice, the air temperature seemed to drop so much even as he spoke. This sounded much more like the Batman he was used to.

But obviously some people couldn't take a hint, even when it came up and threw a hard enough punch to smack them onto their back. As such, one of the more intoxicated young men came back with, "Stuff this… We were only having some fun."

"How about the next time you want some fun, you allow your pals here to paw you instead."

A stunned silence greeted that pronouncement. As Batman drew the young woman away from the group, who had gone strangely silent, Dick could just make out his quiet undertones to the woman. "Are you all right, miss?"

"Yes, sir… I mean, Batman. I mean…"

"It's okay. See my young friend here", Batman's head nodded towards Dick. "Go with him and he'll keep an eye on you while I make sure these young men understand that their attentions weren't all that wanted." If Dick didn't know better, he could have sworn he heard an almost paternal inflection in the older man's tone.

"Thanks, Batman…"

"Are you sure you won't need my help." While the young men had fallen silent, Dick still wasn't sure that they wouldn't cause more trouble.

"No, I'll be fine. I don't think any of them are in any real shape to hurt me, even if they wanted to." In a whisper, Batman added, "Make sure that the girl isn't more hurt than she appears. We don't know what really happened before we got here."

With that, Batman turned back to the group of young men, who just seemed to be coming out of the somewhat subdued silence his last statement to them had provoked. Dick led the woman a hundred yards or so away from the group. Far enough that she wouldn't feel threatened anymore, but close enough that he would still be able to see if things started to get rough for Batman.

Lowering his voice, he gently questioned the young woman. He could see that she was still slightly in shock. Her pupils were a bit dilated and she seemed to be focussing somewhere else. He knew he couldn't push her. So he went with something easy to begin with.

"Can you tell me your name?"

"Kate… Katherine Richmond."

"Thanks… Kate. It's okay if I call you 'Kate', isn't it?"

"Yes… And you're…?"

"Nightwing."

"Nightwing… You work with Batman sometimes, right?"

"Well, it would appear so." He hoped the light tone in his voice might draw her out a bit more. She appeared to be still slightly dazed, and she was giving him an odd once-over.

"Yes… Yes it does." The woman slightly shook her head and sighed. A trembling hand lifted to her brow to push her bangs off her forehead. "I'm sorry… I can still feel their hands…" Her arms wrapped themselves around her body as she shivered slightly.

Dick knew that he had to get some answers from her. He decided to use the opening that she had just given him. But he had to do it gently. Speaking very softly and moving a bit closer to her, though not touching her, he asked, "They didn't… They only grabbed you, right?"

But even asking as delicately as he did, it wasn't soft enough. "*Only* grabbed me?!? What the hell is that supposed to mean?" But even as the light of anger flared in Kate's eyes, it quickly died and they fill with tears. "I'm sorry… I'm sorry… I know what you were asking… I just…"

"Ssshhh… It's okay. My fault. Of course 'only grabbing' you is way more than any of them had the right to do. Still, if it makes it any better, I really don't think they intended to actually hurt you."

"I… I know. I don't think they were either." Kate didn't seem to be excusing any of them, but she did seem to be calming down a bit and the talking seemed to be helping to draw her out of her shock. Still her voice quavered as she continued. "They seemed to think it was some sort of game. But there was so many of them and every time I thought I had talked them into letting me go, one of them would start in again. That's why I screamed. But none of them actually tried to do anything more than kiss me, or give my rear a few pinches. I was probably more frightened than anything." She took a long shuddering breath and drew herself upright. "I'm sorry…"

"Stop saying that. You have nothing to be sorry for. I'm sorry I caused you to cry."

"It's not you. Really. I just don't know what I would have done if you and Batman hadn't shown up."

"Hey, it's our job. Take down the bad guys and save the damsels-in-distress. We got to earn the big bucks somehow."

His light joking didn't cause her to laugh, but it did draw a lovely, though small, smile from her lips.

Turning slightly, he noticed that Batman seemed to having absolutely no trouble down the way. If anything, most of the young men were hanging their heads, as he appeared to be giving them some sort of lecture. Turning back to Kate, he knew he had to ask the next question. "Do you want to press any charges?"

She was silent as she too took the time to observe what was happening over where the others were. Finally, after a few long minutes, she shook her head. Her voice, when it came, was still slightly shaky. "No… I don't think so. Getting a talking to from the Batman will be more effective at preventing them from doing it again than a fine or a night in jail would."

"Are you sure?" Dick wasn't sure if he agreed with her about not pressing any charges, though he did agree that getting on Batman's bad side was enough to prevent most sane people from doing it ever again.

She met his eyes directly as she spoke in a firmer tone. "Yes, I'm sure. Besides, if everything I've heard about the Batman is true, he'll be watching those guys for awhile to make sure none of them try anything like this again." A slightly confused tone entered her voice as she continued, "But you work with him. You must know that."

"Of … of course I do. It's not so much what I expect Batman to do. I just want to make sure that this decision is right for you."

"It… it is. I'm sure." While she seemed to think she was sure, Dick wasn't so sure. Still it was her decision. Even as he was about to question her about it a bit more, he saw Batman walking towards them and waving them over. The group of men in the background didn't move.

Reaching them, Dick quickly introduced him to Kate. Batman made a point of then asking her how she was. "I'm… I'm going to be okay, Batman. Thanks."

Quickly and quietly, he then told Dick, "I've given them a long talk about respecting other people and their rights. Also about how they might want to cut back a bit on the alcohol the next time they're out partying. And I got their names and addresses in case we need to follow up."

"Kate… Ms. Richmond doesn't think she wants to press charges, Batman."

Batman slowly nodded at the information. "All right. But I'll do a follow-up on them just in case. To find out if any of them have been involved in this type of activity before. If I find out any of them have, would you re-consider, Ms. Richmond."

"If any of them have tried this on other women, Batman, you'll bet that I'll press charges, Batman."

"Thank you. Now, I do believe that these men wish to extend to you an apology, if you're willing to accept it."

"Gladly."

Dick watched in slight amazement as Batman led Kate over to the other men. While still somewhat obviously under the influence, they were all able to express, in varying degrees of understandability, their remorse at frightening her. He had to admit, the man was very effective. While his own Batman might have just tied the men up to let others do the follow-up on, this one took the time to really connect with the people he was aiding.

As the final man said his piece and Batman nodded that they were free to go, the young men slowly withdrew from the scene. Once they were all gone, Batman then inquired of Kate, "Is there some where we can escort you?"

"I… I was headed to my favorite all-night bakery to pick up some cinnamon buns for my boy friend's breakfast. It's not really all that far. I like getting there really early when they're just out of the oven. He was still asleep when I left."

"Well, why don't we go with you to the bakery, and from there you can phone your boy friend to come meet you or get a cab for the ride home."

"That… That would be great, Batman. Thank you."

With that, Batman made a move with his arm to indicate that she should precede him. For a few moments, they walked silently side by side. Dick noticed that as they walked, Kate seemed to lose a bit of the tension that had been gripping her. He guessed she felt safe with both of them beside her.

After a mere couple of blocks, they reached the front of the bakery. She turned to thank them again.

"It was nothing, Ms. Richmond."

But Kate wouldn't let Batman shrug his actions off. In a serious tone, she countered, "No, Batman… It was everything. You don't know how much your presence in the city means to all of us. Thanks to both of you, and all the others… Well, you're very special people."

With that, she unexpectedly reached up and planted a peck on Batman's cheek. Even as Dick was recovering from the sight, she planted one on him as well.

"It was really great getting to meet both of you. Thank you again."

"Ms. Richmond… Kate. Go in and get your cinnamon buns and call your boy friend."

A very slight smile crossed her lips at Batman's remark. "All right." But even as she started to push the door open, she turned back and looked at Dick quizzically for a moment.

"I finally realize why your appearance seemed odd to me, Nightwing… For some reason, I thought you were older." Shaking her head slightly, she continued through the door. "Oh well… Learn something new every day."

Dick turned with a confused look back to Batman. "She seemed to recover awfully fast, don't you think."

"No… Because she hasn't recovered at all yet. Right now, she's probably operating on adrenaline, and maybe even slightly giddy that she got away in as good a shape as she did. That's why I want her boy friend to come get her. It will all hit her again shortly, and she'll need someone that she's totally comfortable with then. I'm sure he'll be much more suitable for comforting her then than either of us would be."

"Of course. You're right."

"And we better hurry. We're going to be late for our meeting."

Dick quickly followed in the Batman's wake. The meeting… with Shamrock, and this Bess person and these others. He had to admit, this could be interesting…

… to be continued…

 
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