Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

All Fall Down

Acknowledgement: Stevens, Serita D. and Anne Klarner. Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons. The Howdunit Series. Cincinnati: Writers Digest Books, 1990.

The overturned and smoking van was emblazoned with the legend, 'Gotham City Boys' Preparatory: A School of Excellence.' The van driver had been left for dead, lying face down in the middle of the deserted road. He'd been shot six times. Several cigarette butts found behind a large tree on the side of the road indicated that whoever ambushed them had been waiting for a while before the van appeared.

The amount of spent cartridges found along the side of the road showed that the attack had been both swift and vicious. The side of the van was riddled with several bullet holes.

Commissioner Gordon watched as the critically injured and unconscious driver was loaded onto the ambulance. He'd been the only witness, and the prognosis didn't look good. It was miracle he was still alive.

He looked around the wooded lonely stretch of road located just inside the city limits. This had been a well-planned attack. The school van had been waylaid in a relatively desolate area with heavy tree cover.

He had Sgt. Lopez running a check with the school, to see if any of the children might be missing. She walked up to him.

"The school's calling all the families of the children who rode the van today," Lopez reported. "There were only six students in all. They'll be getting back to me in a couple of minutes." Gordon nodded at the report.

"Driver's name is Dean Haddock," she continued. "He's been employed at Prep for almost twenty years as a jack-of-all-trades--handyman, groundskeeper, van driver. Has a wife and four kids. No priors."

Gordon sighed. He didn't look forward to having to contact the family.

"Sarge!" Lopez hurried to where another uniformed officer had waved her over. Curious, Gordon followed after her. One of the crime scene investigators was crouched over something lying on the overgrown underbrush.

"What do you have, MacNally?" she asked. A police photographer was quickly snapping pictures of whatever MacNally was pointing to. Once satisfied, MacNally took a pair of tweezers and gently lifted a glass syringe from where it'd been carelessly tossed and dropped it into an evidence bag.

MacNally stood up slowly, holding up the plastic baggy. "Doesn't look like it's been lying here long," he said. "I'll run it through the lab, just to be sure."

"You think that maybe they used drugs on their victims?" Gordon asked. MacNally shrugged.

"Anything's possible, Commissioner."

"Commish!"

"Keep me posted, MacNally, Gordon said hurriedly. "And good work." He then turned and made his way over to the back of the van where Lt. Bullock, his lead investigator on the case, was sifting through some of the still-smoking debris.

"What do you have?" Gordon asked.

"I think it's a kid's schoolbag! Here, it's caught under the seat. Give me a sec--! Got it!" Bullock stepped out into the early afternoon sun. His usually rumpled suit was even more wrinkled than normal and covered with black soot.

Bullock quickly checked the bag's contents. Inside were several schoolbooks. Gordon took one out of the bag and opened it to the inside cover. It read, 'This book belongs to Richard J. Grayson, Gotham City Boys' Preparatory.'

"Lieutenant Bullock!" Another detective called from the front of the van. "I've got something!"

"What is, Logan?" Bullock growled. He and Gordon made their way over to where Logan was climbing out of the driver's side.

"What've you got?" Gordon asked. Logan, wearing surgical gloves, held up a cassette tape that had been left in the van's tape deck. A note had been scrawled on the white adhesive label: 'Bruce Wayne.'

Gordon and Bullock exchanged glances. Logan placed the cassette in a plastic baggy and handed it to Bullock. Bullock, in turn, passed it on to Gordon who took it and quickly made his way to his official sedan.

He loaded it into his vehicle's cassette deck. The tape hissed momentarily. Abruptly they were startled by what sounded like a tinny music box. A child's voice started sing-songing:

"Ring around the rosies,

A pocketful of posies,

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down…"

A deadly silence followed for several seconds. Gordon felt a cold fear grip him. What the hell was that all about? Suddenly, an electronically enhanced voice began to talk. Gordon's eyes widened, as he checked his watch. It was 3:45 PM.

It was almost too late!


Bruce glanced at his watch for the sixth time in two minutes--3:47. The Board of Directors' weekly afternoon meeting was dragging on longer than usual. Today was the third Thursday of the month. Alfred's day to volunteer at Doc Leslie's clinic, and Dick's day to spend the afternoon with him at the office.

Bruce admitted privately that it was a day he looked forward to each month. Dick was a personable kid who'd quickly made friends with just about everyone in the building. Bruce was amazed at how soon the boy had gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the private lives of Wayne Enterprises' employees.

Before Bruce even realized it, he knew about 'Debbie in Personnel' who was expecting her first child; 'Brian in R & D' who had a sick mother; 'Cindy in Security' who was getting married next month. And the list went on.

He checked his watch again. 3:50.

Dick should be here already, Bruce thought restlessly, and then grinned privately. Dick was probably visiting with the girls in the steno pool while he waited. The heir to the empire was turning out to be a regular Prince Charming, a veritable ambassador of goodwill between management and labor.

And he's only thirteen, Bruce thought, smiling. Imagine what an asset to the company he'll be when he gets his MBA. Bruce caught himself in the next instant.

Take it easy, Bruce, he said to himself. Dick hasn't said anything yet about what he wants to be when he grows up. And rock star doesn't count, he added. All boys want to grow up to be in a rock band at one point in their lives.

He scowled darkly. I've got to have a long talk with Ollie about Roy. That boy keeps putting these wild ideas in Dick's head.

The door to the meeting room suddenly opened. It was Maggie, his executive assistant.

"Mr. Wayne, there's an emergency call for you, sir," she said, her voice serious. Bruce immediately felt his heart stop. The last time Maggie had interrupted a board meeting, Dick's school had been overrun with terrorists. "Commissioner Gordon," she added.

Bruce hurried to the nearest phone. "Wayne speaking!" he said sharply. He listened intently, his handsome, tanned features suddenly going pale. He swallowed before replying. "Are you sure he was in the van?"

The others in the conference room watched as their CEO and head of Wayne Enterprises suddenly leaned on the desk for support. Lucius Fox jumped up and instantly went to Bruce. He didn't know what was going on, but realized it was serious.

"I'm on my way," Bruce said hoarsely. He hung up and turned to face the others. "Dick's been kidnapped," he croaked. "I have to get home immediately. Commissioner Gordon and Lt. Bullock are meeting me there." He stopped looking lost. "Alfred and Leslie--I've got to get word to them--"

"Bruce, I'll take care of that," Lucius offered. Bruce shook his head.

"No," he said. "I should be the one to tell them." He gave his friend a haunted look. "It's my fault. I should've anticipated something like this--"

"Bruce, don't start beating yourself," Lucius urged. "We'll get him back. Gordon won't rest until he does. You know that." Bruce nodded. Then without another word, he crossed over to his private office, hating the phone call that he was about to make.


"He's exactly what Master Bruce needed, I believe," Alfred said. He was putting away the supplies that the Wayne Foundation had donated to the Wayne-Thompkins Clinic. Looking over the manifest carefully, he conscientiously checked off the exact quantity received.

Leslie looked up from the reports she was filling out and smiled. "Dick's a wonderful boy. He reminds so much of--" she stopped. Alfred looked down at her and smiled.

"Yes, he does, doesn't he?" Their smiles abruptly turned pensive. "Too much so at times," he added regretfully.

"But he's so different, too," Leslie added. "He's such a bright presence, Alfred. And he makes Bruce smile. Something very few people have ever managed to do."

Alfred nodded. The two old friends exchanged meaningful looks, and then, without warning the old sparks flew between them. Both instantly ducked their heads in sudden embarrassment, turning back to the work before them. Leslie's cheeks colored prettily.

Sneaking a peek at Alfred, she smiled to herself, a warm feeling suffusing through her. Their love for and loyalty to the son of their slain friends had sustained them through the years. Because of it, they'd also laid aside their own needs and desires. Thinking of Bruce and his endless war, she felt no regrets over her choices in life.

She was just happy that she was able to share in his life in this small way. The phone rang in the outer office. "I'll get it," she told Alfred. "Wayne-Thompkins clinic." Alfred listened to the soft, contralto from the next room. "Doctor Thompkins speaking." She paused. "Bruce! To what do we owe this pleasure?"

Alfred continued stacking shelves in the other room, meticulously inventorying as he went, when something in Leslie's tone made him stop. He walked over and stood in the doorway, listening with growing dread.

"What?" Leslie gasped. "Oh, my God! Have you heard anything?" She paused. "We're on our way!" She paused again. "What? Wayne Manor? But--" She stopped and listened. "Very well, we'll meet you there." Pause. "No, don't worry about us, we'll be fine," she insisted. "Bruce, how are you doing?" she asked quietly, swallowing nervously as she listened. "Okay, Bruce. I won't hold you any longer. You'd best be going. And Bruce…He's going to be all right. You have to believe that."

She hung up. By then Alfred was standing next to her. She turned and faced him, her face stricken.

"What is it, Leslie?" he asked. It was a rarity that he addressed her by her given name. And usually only under stress because of mutual worry over their two charges.

"It's Dick," she said. "He's been kidnapped. His school van was apparently attacked. The driver's in critical condition at Gotham City General. Dick's missing."

Alfred didn't say anything, just grabbed both their coats and quickly escorted Leslie outside to the waiting Bentley. He opened the rear door for her, which she took without her usual protest, and he quickly jumped into the driver's seat.

"Bruce said that he'll meet us at the Manor," she said.

Alfred nodded. "And where is Master Bruce now?" he asked.

"He's on his way home. Apparently, the kidnappers left a tape in the school van addressed to him. Bruce says that Commissioner Gordon told him that he has to be at home by a certain time or he'll miss the kidnappers' call." She paused, valiantly fighting tears. "If he misses the call, they said they won't phone a second time and we'll never see Dick alive again."


Bruce drove through the city like a maniac, running several red lights and causing at least one, multi-car pileup in his wake. Once he left the city limits, he gunned the convertible Porsche to suicidal speeds, taking the sharp twists and turns on the two-lane county road leading towards Wayne Manor at over 120mph.

He couldn't remember the actual drive, just an abiding sense of urgency pushing him beyond even his extraordinary limits, the chill November wind biting as it struck his exposed cheeks. As fast as Bruce had driven, Gordon and Bullock still beat him home.

Bruce brought the Porsche to a sudden screeching halt on the graveled driveway, a plume of rocks spraying up from underneath the front and back wheels. He leaped out, not bothering to open the door, and ran to the front entrance.

Gordon and Bullock had been pacing as they waited impatiently for Bruce's arrival. As he ran up to them, Gordon pointedly looked at his watch. Bruce glanced at his--4:21!

"We have about nine minutes before they call, Bruce," Gordon said without preamble. "Let's go into your study so that you can listen to the taped message." Unlocking the ornate front door, Bruce nodded distractedly and hurriedly led the two men into his study.

Nine minutes, Gordon had said. How long did Dick have, Bruce wondered?

He took the tape from Bullock and quickly loaded it onto the tape deck. The next few minutes were the longest of his life. The child's jingle left him feeling shaken, its import of impending death not lost on him.

Then, with each word transmitted by the electronically enhanced voice, Bruce felt a knife stab relentlessly into his heart.

//THIS MESSAGE IS FOR BRUCE WAYNE. WE HAVE YOUR KID. AT 3:00 PM WE ADMINISTERED A LETHAL DOSE OF ATROPINE INTO HIS BLOODSTREAM. DEATH FROM ATROPINE POISOINING USUALLY OCCURS WITHIN 6-12 HOURS. YOU WILL DELIVER 500 MILLION DOLLARS TO A LOCATION THAT WE'LL DISCLOSE TO YOU AT EXACTLY 4:30 PM AT YOUR HOME NUMBER. WE WILL NOT CALL A SECOND TIME. YOU WILL HAVE UNTIL 7:30 TONIGHT TO DELIVER THE MONEY OR YOU WILL NEVER SEE YOUR SON ALIVE AGAIN.//

Bruce stood with his hand on the fireplace mantle, the portrait of his deceased parents smiling down at him. He stared long and hard, without seeing into the cold, dark hearth. It was a reflection of how he felt inside. Cold. Dead.

"I'm sorry, Bruce," Gordon offered. It was the first time he'd been able to say it. Until now, he'd been running strictly on adrenaline. "The lab boys checked the syringe found at the scene." He glanced quickly at Bullock and then back at Bruce. His eyes looked hollow. "It was atropine."

Bruce turned his back to them both, his body language saying he wanted to be left alone. He brought his hand up to his eyes and rubbed his face with stiff, jerky moves.

At Gordon's words, Bruce's mind coldly ran down the symptoms and side-effects of atropine poisoning: intense thirst, blurred vision, delirium, possible hallucinations, rapid pulse and respiration, fever, convulsions, and coma.

He closed his eyes against the dispassionate voice relentlessly detailing the poison's effects in his head. Eventually, the circulatory and respiratory systems of the victim collapsed, causing death.

"He's going to help out at Leslie's Thanksgiving soup kitchen next week," he said quietly. "He's really excited about it, Jim. Especially since Barbara said she'd be there, too." He gave a short laugh, struggling to keep his voice light, but knowing that he was failing miserably.

"He's had a crush on her since he was nine." Bruce's voice caught and he had to swallow several times before he could continue. "I can't believe he's already a teenager. He'll be driving before I know it."

By now, Bruce couldn't keep the tears out his voice. He held his closed fist to his mouth, desperately holding onto his pent up emotions.

"Master Bruce!" Alfred called from the doorway. Hearing Alfred's voice undid him.

"Alfred!" Bruce barely managed to choke out the name. "They're killing my son!"

With a cry, Leslie immediately ran to Bruce and took him in her arms. Alfred stood protectively near, offering his quiet support, shielding him from the prying eyes of the two police officers.

The sudden jangling of the phone made them all jump.


Dick lay huddled in the dark. He could tell that he was handcuffed to a cot. He didn't know how long he'd been there. He remembered the men with the guns and then the van turning over. He must've blacked out for a few minutes, because the next thing he knew he was being dragged out of the van.

He'd suddenly kicked out, managing to surprise whoever had him, connecting solidly with the guy's middle. Before he could follow through, he'd been tackled to the ground. Once again he managed to slip through his captor's clutches when suddenly something or someone struck him--hard!--from behind.

He didn't remember anything after that until he woke up here. His head was pounding. He felt the back of his head gingerly. His hand came away sticky. Blood. He felt suddenly nauseated.

"Cut it out, Grayson," he whispered in a dry croak. "Stop being a big baby." But the feeling of nausea wouldn't go away. He was a little lightheaded. Probably due to the blow to the head, he figured.

Dick swallowed, his throat parched. He was trying to think of the things that Bruce had taught him, but he was having trouble concentrating. He was burning up and noticed that he was sweating heavily. He wondered if they were planning on killing him.

"Don't be stupid. They're kidnappers, remember?" he whispered. "They need you alive to make their ransom demands." He closed his eyes against the pounding in his head. Suddenly, he remembered the van driver. As he'd lost consciousness the final time, he'd heard another burst of gunfire and saw the driver being thrown bodily against the side of the van, and then slipping down onto the pavement.

"I wonder if Mister Haddock will be all right?" he asked, feeling the tears start to threaten. Haddock was a real friend to the boys at Prep, and Dick had been fond of him. He usually kept a lively conversation going with Dick on the Thursdays that he dropped him off at Wayne Enterprises. On those days, Dick was usually the sole student remaining to be dropped off on the van's regular route.

"Please, take care of Mister Haddock," he prayed silently. Blinking rapidly, Dick reached into his pockets with his one free hand, feeling for anything useful. As Robin, he'd been in tight spots before, but Batman had always been near to pull him out of trouble.

This time, he didn't have Batman, but he had his training. His fingers closed around his ballpoint pen. He stopped, gasping for air. It was hard to breathe. Dick blinked, trying to get some of the salty perspiration out of his eyes.

What was wrong with him?

Dick knew that he had to do something fast. Sometimes, kidnappers didn't let their victims live.


Bruce forced himself to wait while Alfred answered the phone. He'd wanted to yank the phone off its base, but Gordon waved him off, until Bullock was ready to record. On the third ring, Bullock nodded curtly and Alfred calmly picked up as always.

"Wayne residence." He sounded as if talking to kidnappers were an everyday occurrence. "Yes, he's here. Might I ask who's calling, please?" Gordon had instructed him to try to keep the kidnappers talking as long as possible. "I see…Very well, sir. Please wait. I shall get him promptly."

Bruce immediately reached for the handset, but Gordon held him back. He signaled with his hand, counting down. Angry, Bruce nonetheless cooperated with Gordon. They had to keep the kidnappers on the line. When Gordon reached 'three,' he pointed at the phone, and Bruce picked up instantly.

"This is Bruce Wayne," he gasped, as if he'd been running to reach the phone. "Where is he?" he asked without preamble. "I want to speak with Dick!"

The electronically enhanced voice at the other end laughed. "You'll have to take my word that your kid's still alive Wayne. But he won't be for long, if you don't follow instructions."

Bruce looked over at Bullock and Gordon. Gordon was talking quietly and rapidly into his own hookup. They were running a trace on the line.

"I'm listening," Bruce said. "Please, just don't hurt him."

"You're to come alone to the old, abandoned dress factory located on West and 94th," the voice said. "You're to drop off the money in the trash can located outside on the northeast corner of the building. And Wayne. Come alone. We'll be watching. If there are any signs of cops in the area, you'll never see the kid again."

"Please!" Bruce knew he was begging and falling into the kidnappers' trap, but he didn't care. "Please, let me talk to my boy. I've got to know that he's still alive--" The line went dead. "No!" he yelled. Frantically looking up at Gordon, Bruce waited to see what Gotham's top cop had.

"Lopez!" Gordon spoke into his headset. "Are you in position yet?" Pause. "Go!" He waited, glaring into space. Bruce started pacing, hating not being part of the action.

After a couple of minutes, he cried out, "What's keeping them?" Gordon held up his hand, listening. His tense expression slowly changed to one of disappointment. He looked up at Bruce, regret written across his face and shook his head.

"Nothing. The place was set up like a boiler room," he said. At Leslie and Alfred's looks of puzzlement, he explained. "Several phones were basically daisy changed to each other in a complicated relay. We have the phone company trying to run a trace on the point of origin of the call, but it'll take awhile. I'm sorry, Bruce."

Bruce nodded stoically. Feeling the achingly sympathetic gazes from both Leslie and Alfred, he felt his personal resolve begin to dissipate. He finally collapsed on his desk chair, his hand covering his face.

"He wouldn't let me talk to Dick." Bruce spoke quietly, chair turned away from others. He stared out the windows onto the immaculate manor grounds. He could see several police officers walking outside.

"I didn't even see him this morning. Left for work before he came down for breakfast. I knew that I was going to see him this afternoon, so I didn't bother to wait long enough to say good morning."

"Bruce," Leslie said soothingly, coming up behind him and placing her hands on his shoulders. "Don't do this to yourself, sweetheart. Dick knows you love him."

"Does he?" he choked. "When was the last time I told him? When he was nine? Ten? I can't remember--"

Alfred and Leslie stood by him, a solid wall of strength for him. But what would they do if they never saw Dick alive again?


"Greg, you promised that no one would be hurt!"

"Shut up, Sheila!" Greg yelled. "I've gotta figure out how we're gonna get that rich boy to deliver the goods without a buncha cops in the way. I can't think with you yapping in my ear!"

"You know Sheila's right, Greg," another voice spoke up. "If that driver dies, then we're not just up for kidnapping, we're facing a frigging murder charge. Cops are gonna be crawling all over the place. The Feds are probably on their way already."

"Listen to Dave!" Sheila hissed. "You've got to get out of here. The whole city's gonna be looking for this kid. You think they won't figure out that stupid 'Ring around the rosie' jingle? They'll find out about that other kid in Gateway City. Bruce Wayne's one of the most powerful men in this town! He practically owns it. And Gordon, too. The cops aren't gonna lay up until they get his kid back!"

"I said shut up!" Greg screamed, backhanding Sheila across the face. She toppled over backwards from the force of the blow, landing on the floor by the kitchen cabinets. A trickle of blood appeared on the side of her mouth. Frightened eyes staring at Greg, she wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.

"And you keep out of it!" Greg yelled, pointing at Dave. "Between the two of you, I can't think!" Greg stomped around the kitchen, picking up and throwing anything at hand. Dave and Sheila watched their volatile partner as he exploded, enraged. Dave with his signature sardonic grin, Sheila horrified.

"If that idiot driver hadn't tried to put up a fight, we wouldn't be in this hole. It's all his fault!" Greg said.

"Sure, it is, Greg," Dave said ironically. "But what about the kid downstairs? He's already seen our faces. He's an eyewitness. Whadaya say we forget about giving him the antidote?"

Sheila gasped. "No, you can't--!" she said. "Greg, you promised! He's just a kid!"

In the blink of an eye, Greg was holding his gun to her temple. "If you don't shut your face, Sheila," he said quietly, his hot breath on her, "I swear I'll blow you away. You know I'll do it, too, don't you?"

Sheila nodded, terrified.

"You said you wanted in," he continued. "So you're either all the way in--or you're O-U-T--out!" He snapped the firing bolt back dramatically. "Got it, babe?"

Tears streaming down her eyes, Sheila gasped as he pressed the gun harder to her temple. Nodding rapidly, she managed to say, "Yes!" before Greg finally removed the gun from her head and stuck it inside his belt.

"Good girl," he said, gently patting her face.

"What's going on?"

Sheila glanced up, relieved towards the sound of the new voice. "Jimmy," she managed, crying. "Please…tell him--" she begged.

"Tell him, what?" Jimmy asked. "What are you bawling about now, Sheila?" He looked at the other two.

"Your girlfriend and Greg have just had a difference of opinion," Dave said blandly. "Sheila believes that we should leave without killing the Grayson kid. Greg explained the necessity of eliminating all possible hostile eyewitnesses."

Jimmy stared at Greg and then at Dave. He walked over and stood over his now hysterically blubbering girlfriend. Without a word, he suddenly kicked her viciously in the stomach.

Sheila screamed. "Jimmy!" she shrieked, helplessly crawling on the floor like a wounded animal.

"You trying to mess this for me?" he shouted, punctuating his sentence with another kick. "I told you that this was my ticket outta here! And you're not going to ruin it!"

With that, Jimmy stomped on the now barely conscious girl, until he'd grown too tired to continue with the pounding.

The other two simply watched, not lifting a finger to help her. Once done, Jimmy stood over the limp body of his deathly still girlfriend, breathing raggedly from the effort.

Dave looked at the lifeless body and shook his head. "Man, Jimmy, you sure did a job on her. I think you killed her."

"Get her out of here, Jimmy," Greg said disgustedly. "Good riddance."

Jimmy kept staring at Sheila, not believing what he'd just done. He tentatively reached down and gently brushed her blonde hair away from her bloody and bruised face. He started crying.

"Now see what you made me do, babe," he said. "I didn't want to hurt you. But you were always causing trouble. I warned you, didn't I? Time and again, I warned you. But you wouldn't listen. Why wouldn't you listen?" He fell on his knees and wept over her body, finally bending down and lifting her in his arms.

Standing he started to walk outside.

"Make sure you dump her far enough so that she can't be traced back to us," Greg said with casual coldness. Jimmy nodded and stumbled out the backdoor. "Dave?" Greg said.

"Yeah?" Dave looked up from the gun he'd been meticulously cleaning.

"Check her medical bag. See if she prepared the second syringe like she was supposed to."

Dave nodded and went into the other room to find Sheila's medical bag. He brought it into the kitchen. The leather carryall had her initials, 'S.T.B.,' Sheila Teresa Braddock, followed by 'P.A.,' Physician's Assistant. Dave rifled through the bag and then pulled out a small metal case.

Opening it, he found three syringes. Two contained the necessary antidote, physostigmine salicylate. The third was another even stronger injection of atropine. It would ensure that their young guest never recovered.

Greg gave his partner a dark look.

"Bruce Wayne has until 7:30 to cough up the dough. If he doesn't follow instructions to the letter, then we'll sort of forget to administer the antidote and instead give the kid a second dose of the atropine."

Dave grinned.

"That's what I like about you, Greg," he said. "You're so evil, you even give 'evil' a bad a name."


"No!" Bruce said. "You heard what they said. I make the delivery alone, or Dick's dead. Jim, I won't risk him." He looked at the mantle clock. It was 5:43. Time was running out. Why were they all still here doing nothing, he raged silently. They should be out on the streets looking for Dick.

The place looked like a military operations center. Cops running in and out in full SWAT gear. Detectives dressed in long, black overcoats looking for all the world like Secret Service Agents with their earpieces and wires running inside their coats.

Stressed by the inactivity, he finally exploded. "What's the point in all of you being here?" he asked. "The kidnappers said they're not going to call again! You should be out there looking for them--looking for Dick!" He glared at Gordon, and then turned away. "I should be out there looking for him, too."

Sgt. Lopez and Inspector MacNally were intently listening into a pair of headsets. They paused momentarily at Bruce's outburst, and then returned to the job at hand. Bruce knew that they were trying to separate background noises on the tape. He paced restlessly. He had to get these people out of here so that he could disappear and go out to hunt.

Another pair of investigators, Logan and his partner, were talking on the phone running down leads. Bruce felt trapped. He couldn't slip out with half the GCPD camped in his study and throughout the Manor grounds.

Gordon stared at his younger friend for a long moment. He knew how Bruce felt. He'd feel the same way if it were Barbara being held hostage. But it was his duty to offer Bruce the best assistance--and allowing him to meet with the kidnappers alone was tantamount to suicide.

"Bruce, if you go alone, then I'll end up with yet another victim. You know that I have to you advise against this. It's foolish! I have several teams standing by. We'll have lookouts situated throughout the drop-off point. I promise. There'll be no interference. We'll simply follow the kidnappers after they make the pickup. They'll never know we're there."

Bruce shook his head emphatically. "Absolutely not--!"

"Commissioner!" Logan called. "Sir, we have a problem."

"What is it?" Gordon asked instantly alert.

"FBI, sir. We got a lead on another kidnapping with a similar M.O. The kidnappers left a tape with 'Ring around the Rosie' as part of the initial instructions."

"Good work, Logan!" Gordon said excitedly. Logan's worried look told Bruce that there was more.

"What is it?" Bruce asked. "What's wrong?"

"The kidnappers' were never caught," Logan said. Looking up at Bruce, he held his gaze steadily. "The victim, a fifteen year-old boy, was also poisoned ahead of time. The FBI set a trap for the kidnappers. They must've had a leak or something, because the perps never showed up at the drop site. Three days later, the Gateway City police department received an anonymous call, telling 'em where the kid was stashed." He dropped his eyes. "He was already dead. Atropine poisoning."

"Were the kidnappers ever identified?" Gordon asked. Logan nodded, holding up his hand as he listened. After a few more seconds he nodded and hung up the phone. Logan looked up at Gordon.

"The FBI got an ID on one of the kidnappers, sir. Greg Madoc--a real piece of work. Has a rap sheet a mile long. They're faxing me his photo." As if on cue, the fax machine suddenly beeped and began to spew out a page. Logan jumped up and rushed over.

"Got it!" he called. Gordon took the likeness of Madoc while Logan collected the follow up information on the kidnapper. Bruce stood next to Gordon, committing the face to memory. Even through the relatively poor quality of the fax, Madoc's eyes appeared ruthless.

Bruce felt the cold fear that had been gripping his insides escalate to rage. He turned to speak to Gordon, but the commissioner was in the middle of addressing his officers.

"Logan, I want this picture copied and distributed to everyone," Gordon said. "I want all the roadblocks to have a copy--yesterday! Move!"

"On it, Commissioner!" Logan said, heading out.

Bruce watched with growing impatience. He grabbed Gordon by the arm to get his attention. "Jim, I neither want, nor need your help. I'm handling this on my own. I want you and your officers to stay out of it. Do you hear?"

"Bruce--" Gordon began, but was interrupted by Alfred.

"Master Bruce," Alfred said quietly. "Mister Fox just phoned, sir. The transactions are complete. He'll be on his way with the armored truck and the ransom money within the hour."

Bruce nodded his thanks and then turned back to Gordon.

"Please, Jim. Dick's my son and this is my choice. Leslie says that there is no set amount of time for atropine poisoning. The symptoms develop quickly and it kills within six to twelve hours. But the victim can succumb sooner. There's just no way to judge it." He stood firm. "These people killed before because the drop went bad. I won't let that happen to Dick."

"Commish!" Bullock called, bulldozing his way into the room. "Just got a call from the hospital. The van driver--Haddock--just died. He passed away without ever having regained consciousness."

Bruce and Gordon stared at each other. With their only witness dead, Dick's only chance now was the ransom money.

Leslie had been sitting quietly in the study watching Bruce and Gordon argue for the better part of the past few minutes. She knew that part of Bruce's frustration was knowing that he should be out looking for Dick. However, because he was one of Gotham's leading citizens, Dick's kidnapping was elevated to that of a high profile case. Therefore, he couldn't leave and do what he was best at.

Her heart went out to him. She'd seen him distraught before, but not like this. Bruce was acting more like a caged animal, ready to explode. Alfred again stepped into the study.

"Doctor Thompkins," he said in his dulcet English tones, "there is a call for you." She looked at him a little surprised, but got up and picked up the phone in Bruce's study.

"This is Doctor Thompkins," she said. She listened curiously for a few moments. "Yes, Miss Braddock does work part-time for me." She paused, looking concerned. "Where are you taking her?" Pause. "No, wait. Gotham General is too far. Please transfer her to the Gotham Heights Family Clinic as my patient. I'm on my way."

She hung up. Bruce was watching her from his spot by the mantle. "What is it, Leslie?" he asked. She smiled at him. His heart was tearing in half and yet, he could ask her about her own problems.

"One of my part-time P.A.'s, Sheila Braddock was found up in the hills, by the side of the road.. She's been severely beaten, and was either left for dead, or managed to escape her attackers. She managed to identify herself and asked for me before she lost consciousness."

"Is she all right?" Bruce asked, concern for the woman who'd helped raise him obvious. Leslie shook her head.

"I don't know," she said. "Her vitals don't sound good. I'd better go."

"Doc, I'll have one of my officers drive you," Gordon volunteered. "We'll need a statement from her once she regains consciousness, anyway," he added quickly before Leslie could protest. He gestured at Lopez to accompany Leslie, and they both left quickly.


Dick kept stopping to rest. He'd broken the pen down to its separate components and was now working on the handcuffs. He knew how to do this. He could do it in his sleep.

"Then why am I still handcuffed to this cot?" he muttered. His hand slipped, his fingers feeling shaky. He rolled onto his back and closed his eyes momentarily against the incessant pounding in his head.

"What did they do to me?" he wondered, exhausted. "So tired…" He fell into a troubled sleep, haunting visions from the past disturbing his dreams…


~Wake up, little Robin!~ Mom? he wondered.

~Dicky! You have to wake up!~ Dad?

Dick struggled to wake, his heavy lids refusing to comply with his commands to open.

"Mom?" he whimpered. "I don't feel good."

~I know, little Robin. But you have to do as Mommy says. You must wake up. Now!~


Dick's eyes snapped open. He felt momentarily confused.

"Mom? Dad?" he croaked. Where was he? The sounds of automatic gunfire and tearing metal as the van overturned came back suddenly. He was locked up and handcuffed, he remembered. He had to get away.

Fingering the metal pieces from his ballpoint pen in his free hand, he got back to work.

He blinked away at the sweat that kept pouring into his eyes. He was alternately hot, then cold, experiencing some violent chills. He didn't want to think about what his kidnappers might've done to him, but he knew that he didn't want to wait around for them to finish the job.

Bruce would be trying to find him. He knew without the slightest trace of doubt, with the absolute confidence of someone who knows that the sun will rise in the east, that Bruce wouldn't rest until he found him.

"Won't hurt to meet him halfway," Dick croaked. In the next instant, he was rewarded by the satisfying ~click~ of the handcuffs falling open.


"Where'd you dump her?" Dave asked, his mouth turned up in his usual smirk.

"Out by the old quarry on the 'Haven highway," Jimmy said. He sighed, feeling lost. "What'll I do without her?" he asked no one in particular.

"You'll find another girl, Jimbo," Dave reassured his friend. "Women are a dime a dozen. And once we collect the ransom, you'll be loaded. You'll have your pick of dames. Real lookers, know what I mean?"

Jimmy nodded, not particularly mollified, but feeling a little better nonetheless. "I guess you're right. Sheila was getting to be a real pain anyway." He sat down, heavily. "Still…if she didn't work part-time at the clinic, she wouldn't've gotten to know that doctor."

"And we wouldn't've have known about the Grayson kid's once-a-month trip to his daddy's company," Dave added. "Or gotten the idea about snatching him." He smiled sardonically at Jimmy. "Yeah, Sheila had her moments. Too bad she was such a pain the rest of the time."

At Jimmy's look of angry protest, Dave held his hands up in mock surrender. "Hey! I don't mean nothing by it! Chill, man!"

Jimmy glared a moment longer, and then deflated looked away. "Okay," he said. "Just don't bad mouth her, okay?"

Dave smirked his acquiescence.

"Got it taken care of?" Greg asked from the doorway. He'd just returned from running an errand in town. The city was crawling with cops. He'd been stopped at a police checkpoint and asked to show his ID and registration. He'd casually asked what the matter was, but the cop had been terse and waved him on.

Jimmy nodded. "Yeah, she won't be bothering us anymore."

"Good," Greg said curtly. "We'll have to move to the second site earlier than we planned. The state cops and Feds are moving in. The news is all over the place--the major networks--everywhere. There's news helicopters, vans, antennas coming out of the wazoo!" He told them about the police checkpoints.

"We'll have to risk moving the kid. Commissioner Gordon announced that they're starting a house-to-house near the place where we had the phones daisy chained."

Dave looked a Greg curiously. "But we're no where near that place, Greg," he said shrugging. "Why risk the move?"

"I'll just feel better once we're closer to the final drop off point. I don't like being here in the city. I feel caged up. Need elbow room, okay?"

"No prob, bro," Greg said easily. He stood, jamming his handgun snugly into the small of his back. "So, what're we waiting for? Let's grab the kid and go!"


Dick tried to stand, but immediately ended up on his hands and knees, the world spinning crazily around him.

Drugged! They'd drugged him. That's why he felt so sick. He'd been fine before the accident. A head injury wouldn't make him feel like this--burning one moment, shaking with cold chills the next. His throat was as parched as the sands of the Sahara, but he was soaked to the skin from sweating profusely.

As these thoughts worked their way fuzzily through his muddled brain, Dick crawled slowly on the floor. He had to find the door. Even from down here, the room continued to spin crazily.

"Have to get out," he gasped. "Have to…" He fell over on his face, hitting the concrete foundation with a resounding ~smack~! Dick lay still were he fell, his eyes closed, trying to will his arms and legs to move.

"Have to…get up," he whispered, his breath disturbing a layer of dust around him. "Have to…"


He awoke in mid-flight. He was falling…falling…falling…into the endless darkness below, tumbling out of control. He had to straighten himself, but how?

A strong hand grasped his wrist.

"I've got you, Dicky!"

"Dad!?" Dick cried.

"Good work, little Robin!"

"Mom?" Dick looked up. She was waving from the platform.

"I'm sorry, son," Dad said regretfully. "But your mom and I can't stay."

"You must let go, Dicky," Mom said sadly. "You can't stay here. Little Robin, you know how to fall…"


Dick woke with a jerk. He didn't know what he was doing on the floor. It was too hard to think.

"Bruce--? Alfred--?" He wasn't sure if he'd actually said the names out loud, but he suddenly felt like crying. Why weren't they here? Why hadn't Bruce come for him yet?

"Bruce--!" he sobbed. In the next moment, he was blinking away the tears and stiffening his chin.

~"You must let go, Dicky…You can't stay here. Little Robin, you know how to fall…"~

"Must let go…" Dick muttered. Eyes closed, he started dragging himself forward. "Can't stay here…Can't stay…"

Abruptly, the room was flooded with light as the door at the top of the stairs opened. Dick blinked against the sudden brightness.

"What the--?"

"Jimmy, I told you to make sure the handcuffs were on right!"

"I did, Greg! I checked them carefully."

"Then how do you explain this?" Dick's wrist was suddenly grabbed, his arm raised roughly and dropped unceremoniously.

"Uhhhnnnn…" Dick groaned. "…Must let go…" he mumbled.

"What?" the voice named Jimmy asked. "What'd he say?"

"Who cares?" the other voice asked disgustedly. "Put the handcuffs back on him and get him out to the van!" The voice was moving away from them, Dick realized. Struggling to open his eyes, Dick fought against his blurring vision, seeing a shadow come up to him.

"Can't stay…" he whispered. As the shadow loomed over him, Dick felt rough hands grabbing him. "Got to let go!" his mind cried, echoing his father's words.

Pulling his arms down suddenly, he slipped out of the shadow's grip and then chopped up, caught the shadow by surprise. The gurgling noise from the black shadow told Dick that he'd successfully struck him across the Adam's apple.

Bringing his legs up, he wrapped them around the shadow in a scissors lock, pulling him down. Desperately kicking out with his powerful legs, Dick connected solidly three times with the shadow's head. When the shadow stopped moving, Dick stopped kicking.

Looking up to the light at the top of the stairs, Dick climbed to his knees and started crawling toward the foot of the staircase.

"Can't stay…" he muttered. All around him he heard the eerie echo of the Haly Circus calliope music announcing the Flying Graysons. Creeping hand over hand up to the light, he was suddenly spotlighted in center ring as he climbed up the rope to the waiting trapeze. A shadow standing in the light reached out to him.

Dick blinked, trying to clear his blurring vision.

"Dad--?" he called, reaching out.

"Give me your hand, son," Dad urged. "I've got you!"


"You're a useless idiot, Jimmy!" Greg raged, slamming the van door. "I can't believe a kid who can barely crawl on all fours managed to knock you out. It's a good thing he's so out of his head, he crawled right into my hands."

"He's stronger than he looks," Jimmy whined.

"And to cap everything off, you lost the keys to the handcuffs!"

"I'm sorry," Jimmy said in a small voice, his eyes lowered.

"Let's go, guys," Dave said, impatiently. "We got 'im back, Greg. That's all that matters."

Greg spun on him. "Stay out it, Dave!" he said, his voice threatening. "Jimmy, this is your last chance. Pull your weight, or you'll be joining your girlfriend. Got it?"

Jimmy felt an overwhelming fear clutch his insides. He nodded wordlessly.

"Let's go," Greg said, climbing into the van without a backward glance. Jimmy and Dave did likewise. Jimmy checked the van's cargo hold. To the casual observer, the rear cargo hold appeared empty, however, Jimmy knew that the kid was currently squeezed into an 18" x 46" compartment built between the seat and the cargo hold.

Greg checked the time. 6:11. They'd be cutting it close, especially with all of the roadblocks. Still. He had his ace in the hole. He turned on the radio and put it on a news station. As the announcer's solemn voice reported the latest details about the kidnapping, Greg grinned with grim satisfaction.

It was short-lived.

"And in other news," the announcer said. "Police report finding a local woman, Sheila Braddock beaten and in critical condition left along the south-bound lane of U.S. Highway 61. If anyone knows anything that can help the GCPD on this case please call their local hotline at 1-800-555…"

Greg whirled in his seat and glared at Jimmy. Jimmy stared back with wide, terror-filled eyes.

"Greg--!" he whimpered. "Please--!"

Greg continued to glare at Jimmy a moment longer, and then without a word abruptly turned back to face the front. Jimmy could be heard sniffling softly in the rear.

"This isn't over," Greg finally muttered. This only made Jimmy's muffled sobs more audible.

Dave continued to drive, not saying anything. He looked in his rearview mirror. Jimmy was covering his face with his jacket, trying unsuccessfully to stifle his whimpering. Dave shook his head in derision. With Jimmy out of the way, there'd be more money for him.

This gig was looking better all the time.


Leslie checked the chart and then took one last look at her sleeping patient. She was about to leave the intensive care unit when a soft sound from her patient's bed caused her to go back to her.

Lightly brushing the severely beaten woman's forehead, Leslie spoke softly.

"Sheila?" she called, checking the monitors for indications that Sheila was regaining consciousness. "Sheila, dear, can you hear me?"

A barely audible sigh escaped Sheila's lips. Leslie leaned in closer.

"Les…lie…?" Sheila whispered. Leslie smiled, her relief washing over her.

"Yes, dear. I'm here," she said. "You're going to be fine, Sheila. Can you open your eyes? Open your eyes for me, Sheila."

As if on command, Sheila's eyes fluttered open. She gazed up, unseeingly. After a few moments, she focused on Leslie. Abruptly, her face contorted as the tears and sobs started.

"There, there…You poor thing," Leslie said soothingly. "It must've been terrible. But try not to think of it right now, my dear. We've got to get you well, first."

Sheila shook her head, and grabbed Leslie's hand. "No-no-no," she repeated between sobs. Leslie brushed the weeping woman's hair back in a motherly fashion.

"Don't upset yourself, Sheila," Leslie said gently. "There's plenty of time for this." Sheila shook her head, insisting that she had to talk. Leslie nodded. "Very well. If you feel you must. Sgt. Lopez of the GCPD is waiting outside to take your statement."

At Sheila's emphatic nod, Leslie sighed and stepped outside to call Sgt. Lopez. When they walked in, Sheila was still too agitated to speak coherently. However, after several tries, she finally managed to get herself under some control, and began to talk, softly and brokenly, stopping every few minutes to catch her breath.

"…Leslie, you have to believe me. They weren't supposed to use the atropine on the boy. They were supposed to leave the vial on the side of the road to frighten Mr. Wayne into paying the ransom." She looked at Leslie with pleading eyes. "Please…I'm so sorry--!"


Lucius jumped out of the armored van and ran to meet Bruce and Gordon. The three men shook hands quickly and hurried to the back of the van. The guard unlocked the back and opened the doors to reveal two large, stuffed duffle bags.

"Bruce, this is crazy!" Gordon insisted. Bruce waved him off.

"It's all there, Bruce," Lucius assured him. "I counted it myself." Bruce nodded impatiently.

"Let's get them loaded onto the Porsche," he said.

"Yes, sir," the guard said, hauling both duffle bags out and tossed one into the relatively small space behind the two seats. He tossed the second bag on the passenger side.

"Bruce--!" Gordon continued exasperated, but was interrupted.

"Commish!" Bullock called, running out to where they stood on the graveled driveway. He stopped, gasping and out of breath from the exertion. "Commish, we got a call from Doc Thompkins. That girl that was found by the side of the road?"

"What about her?" Gordon asked impatiently.

"She was the girlfriend of one of the kidnappers. She knew about the kid's monthly visits to the Wayne building from listening to the doc and Alfred's conversations."

Bruce had walked up to where Bullock was standing next to Gordon. "Where are they?" he demanded. "Do you have an address?"

Bullock nodded. "I've already dispatched the SWAT team. Hanson's just radioed. They're on the way. ETA to the address, two minutes."

"Get him on the horn for me," Gordon ordered. Bruce checked his watch. 7:02!

"I've got to get going," Bruce said. "I'm supposed to be at the drop in less then half an hour. Keep me informed of what's going on!" he added as he jumped into his Porsche.

Gordon nodded and waved him on. He was speaking into the car radio presumably to the SWAT commander.


As Bruce drove through the quickly fading, late-autumn day along the familiar country roads that bordered his estate, images of the last few years kept flashing through his mind: his parents murder followed by his relentless training. The start of his mission shortly following his return to the States after being overseas for the greater part of his schooling.

The fateful performance one night at Haly Circus. The Flying Graysons' plunge to their deaths and a second boy left orphaned. Dick's first few weeks at Wayne Manor. Bruce wondering what he'd gotten himself into. The boy's heartache reflected in his dark blue eyes, stabbing at Bruce's own heart.

Waking up one morning and finding the nine-year-old Dick curled up next to him on his massive bed, looking at peace for the first time since his arrival. Bruce's own growing attachment for the boy, until before he knew it, he had something else besides his one-man war to care about.

The pillow fight on a Saturday morning. Ice-skating in Robinson Park. An afternoon spent blowing bubbles. Days and nights in the Batcave training, mentoring, and laughing.

Dick hugging him good night for the first time.

"I love you, Bruce!" Dick's fierce words, spoken in a moment of impulse, echoed in his head as he found himself near the city limits. Had he ever returned the words in kind? He couldn't remember.

His cellular phone rang. He picked it up immediately.

"Bruce Wayne," he said curtly.

"Bruce, this is Jim," Gordon replied. "No luck. The place looked like we'd just missed them. There was a cot in the basement with a pair of handcuffs still attached to it. I'm tightening the roadblocks all around this area. Bruce, the city is locked down tight. We'll find them."

Bruce nodded, feeling deflated. He hadn't realized how much he'd been hoping against hope that Gordon's men would succeed. He nodded. And then realizing that Gordon couldn't see him, he spoke.

"Thanks for letting me know, Jim," he said quietly. "I'm almost at the drop off point."

"My men are standing by, Bruce. I promise, we won't do anything to jeopardize Dick. You have my word."

"Thanks, Jim," Bruce said. "I'd better go. I don't want them to see me talking on the phone. Out here."

Almost as soon as he'd hung up, the phone rang again. About to ignore it, he changed his mind at the last moment.

"Yes!?" he said curtly.

"Wayne?" The familiar electronically enhanced voice sent a shiver down Bruce's spine. "There's been a change of plans, Wayne. I have a new location for you. So listen carefully. I'll only say this once--"

"No!!" Bruce shouted, bringing the Porsche to a screeching halt. "You listen to me! You let me talk to Dick or you can just forget about collecting the money! You hear!?"

"Wayne, you know by now that we've done this before. The other time we were double-crossed. We didn't get our money, but then that fink didn't get his son back either. Just a dead carcass!"

Bruce almost faltered, but squared his shoulders determinedly, his jaw clamped in a grim, straight line.

"No! You don't scare me anymore. Unless you give me proof in the next five minutes that my son is alive, you can just kiss the 500 million good-bye! Got that?" He hung up and immediately reached into his glove compartment.

"Okay, now we play by my rules."


Greg pounded the dashboard with his fist. They were parked almost ten miles outside of the city limits in a heavily wooded section off north bound US Hwy 61.

"I'll kill him!" he raged. "I'll kill the both of them!" he added, meaning both Dick and Bruce.

"Greg, take it easy," Dave said. "We still got the kid, remember? So, let Wayne hear the brat's voice if that's so important to him. Once he sees that the kid's alive, he'll agree to deliver the cash, and you can ice his kid anyway. We get the money, and Wayne gets a dead kid."

Greg turned slowly to look at Dave. His eyes alighted with admiration.

"I like that, Dave," he said. "It'll sure teach that rich guy that he can't mess with us."

Dave nodded, grinning sardonically.

"Jimmy, get the kid out!" Greg ordered. Jumping at the sound of his name, Jimmy pathetically hurried to do as told, trying his best to please Greg. He soon had Dick out of the small, dark space between the back seat and the cargo hold.

"He's out cold, Greg!" he reported nervously. Greg and Dave came around to get a better view of their pale and barely breathing passenger.

"Dave, get some water," Greg said sharply. Dave quickly complied, handing him a bottle of spring water. Greg brought the bottle to Dick's lips and started slapping him roughly on the face.

"Come on, kid, wake up," he urged. "Come on, Dicky. You're daddy wants to talk to you, kid. Wake up!"

Dick's eyes fluttered open, blinking against the van's weak dome light, gagging against the water that was being forced down his throat. He rolled over instinctively, retching helplessly onto the backseat.

"Hey!" Jimmy cried out. "Awwww…man! Why'd he have to do that?" he complained, knowing whose job it would be to clean it up. In the next instant, his fears were proven correct.

"Clean that mess, Jimmy!" Greg yelled. "I ain't driving all night in a van stinking of puke!" He grabbed Dick by the collar and dragged him to sitting position.

"Dave! Get me the phone! The sooner we make this call the sooner we can ice 'im!"

Dave immediately got the phone and handed it to him.


Reaching into his glove compartment, Bruce took out a pocket-sized organizer. He ran a couple of jumper cables from the handheld computer to the cel-phone and the on-board global positioning satellite uplink.

By-passing the WayneTech GPS system, Bruce typed in a special passcode and accessed the Batcomputers. Within seconds he'd hacked into the Central Bureau of Intelligence ultra-secret network, and a few keystrokes later, he'd accessed the CBI's spy satellite. Next, Bruce changed the satellite's normal footprint over the Middle East, zooming it in on the Mid-Atlantic seaboard.

A smile half-smile played on the corner of his mouth. "Someone's having a heart attack just about right now," he murmured. However, by the time the CBI ghosts investigated the multiple false trails he'd left around the globe, he'd have Dick back home, safe and sound.

He glanced at his watch. The seconds were relentlessly ticking down. Four minutes since he'd cut the conversation. Had he taken too big a chance with Dick's life? A sense of dread began to descend on him. What could've possessed him to play Russian roulette with his boy's life?

Hubris? The belief fueled by his personal arrogance that Batman could win any game of chicken?

"Oh, my God…Dick? What have I done?"

The phone rang. His heart leaped in his excitement.

Bruce gave a silent prayer of thanks, and with an outward show of calm answered on the third ring.

"Yes?"

"Wayne? I've got someone who wants to talk to you!" The electronic voice abruptly cut off.

Bruce waited impatiently, hearing nothing except rapid breathing. "Hello?" he called. "Is anyone there?" As he talked, he quickly typed into this handheld organizer. A digital map of the United States popped up onto the screen.

"Hel--lo?" a soft voice said tentatively over the phone. Bruce's fingers froze over the keypad. Shaking himself, he continued his search.

"Dick?" he called anxiously, trying to keep the voice on the other end talking. "Dick? Is that you?"

A digital map of Gotham quickly overlaid that of the U.S. As he typed, a series of three separate blinking rectangles appeared before him. A few keystrokes later, the three rectangles joined into one.

As he typed, the small, hoarse voice tried again. "Hello? Br-Bruce?"

The map zoomed inside the single rectangle. Instantly, three new rectangles formed and started moving around, searching.

"Dick!?" Bruce yelled. "Dick, are you all right?"

"Wh-Where…are you?" Dick asked.

The three rectangles combined into one, and the map again zoomed into the new search grid. The search repeated again. And again.

"Dick, you've got to hold on!" Bruce called. "I'll get you home, son. I promise!"

And again.

"C-Can't…hold on…t-trying…"

And again.

"That's all you get, Wayne," the voice said menacingly. "Now, pay close attention…"

But Bruce had stopped listening. He put the Porsche in gear and roared into the night. The military spy-satellite was locked on and transmitting a real-time image of the van as it moved through the back roads near the old fairgrounds.


Dave parked just inside the tree line. He turned to face Greg, a knowing look in his eyes. Greg opened the glove compartment and took out the small metal box containing the syringes.

"Jimmy, get the brat outside," he said. Jimmy nodded, eager to please. He carried the boy to a sitting position under a tree. "Dave and I are gonna do the pickup," Greg said, handing Jimmy the syringe. "Give the kid this while we're gone. It's the antidote," he added.

Jimmy nodded, happy to be an accepted member of the gang again. "Sure, Greg. Be happy to. What do I do with him after I give the antidote?"

"Drag him just outside of the tree line. We want them to find him, see?"

"Yeah, that makes sense," Jimmy agreed. "And, uh, what about me?"

"Don't worry, Jimmy," Greg said reassuringly. "Once we make the pickup, we'll come back for you."

"Thanks, Greg," Jimmy said gratefully. "You're a real pal, man."


Bruce pounded his steering wheel in frustration. The van had disappeared inside the tree line. The satellite couldn't pick it up underneath the heavy foliage. There was just too much ground interference. Still, he knew where it had gone in and--

"Hold it!" he said with grim satisfaction. "I got you now!" And gunned the Porsche to even higher rpms.


"Any contact?" Gordon spoke worriedly into the microphone. He was standing-by near the original drop-off point.

"No, sir," reported Bullock. "And there's no sign of Wayne, either."

Gordon was leaning with one arm on top of the open car door. In frustration, he dropped his head onto his forearm.

"We've been had, boys and girls," he said tiredly. "They must've changed the drop point. Bruce Wayne is on his own now." He closed his eyes momentarily. "Lt. Bullock, put out an APB for Wayne's Porsche. I think we're going to end up with two victims, now."


Bruce parked the car about 200 yards from where he knew they were waiting at the top of the bluff overlooking the side branch of the Gotham River. They expected him to deliver the money directly below them. He had other ideas.


"Hey, kid," Jimmy called softly. "I have something for you. Gonna make all the pain and suffering go away, just like tha--"

A powerful leg came up suddenly, knocking the syringe out of his hand. A second kick, this time to the temple, followed. The boy rolled away, tumbling head over heels down a steep incline. Jimmy just caught a glimpse of a pale face at the bottom of the ravine where the frightened boy had come to a sudden stop.

"Hey!" Jimmy protested. "I'm trying to help you!" He searched around desperately for the syringe in the dark. "Now see what you've done. That was the antidote, Einstein!"

A glint in the pale autumn moonlight announced the syringe's location. Shaking his head with relief he bent down to pick it up. Greg had ordered him to administer the antidote, so that's what he intended to do. He didn't want Greg mad at him for letting the kid die.

Wiping the syringe with his shirt, Jimmy held it carefully and started climbing down towards the still form below.


"Where the hell is he?" Greg muttered. "He's late!"

"Take it easy, Greg," Dave soothed. "He'll be here. Idiot rich boy probably got lost." He added this last with a derisive snicker. Despite himself, Greg grinned in return.

"Yeah, you're probably right," he said. "Man, what I'm gonna do with all the money. South America, here I come!" He laughed softly. "Always wanted to be one of those--whatchacallit?--'Ugly Americans'!"

Dave smiled, for once his usual sardonic smirk missing.

"I know what you mean," he said. "Me, I'm heading towards Baja. Know a little senorita there. She's got the blackest hair and eyes you've ever seen and a figure that don't quit." He looked at Greg speculatively. "If you ever change your mind about South America, she's got a sister."

Greg flashed him his neat row of teeth. "I'll think about it," he said. Dave noticed that for the first time since he'd hooked up with his volatile partner, Greg seemed almost relaxed.

"Hey, Greg, mind if I ask you a personal question?" Dave asked tentatively, ready to back off if Greg's mercurial mood changed directions again.

After a slight pause, Greg finally answered. "Sure, Dave. What do you want to know?"

"You know that 'Ring around the rosie'? What's that all about anyway?" Dave felt Greg's sudden withdrawal and mentally kicked himself. He should've left well enough alone.

Greg let out a short, breath in a whoosh. "My old lady," he said. "When I was a kid, she had this music box, see? When she wanted me to go to sleep, she'd play it." He paused. Dave waited without saying anything.

"If I didn't go to sleep right away, she'd beat the crap out of me. She or whoever her boyfriend was at the time." His voice became a dead monotone. "One day, I just lost it, man. I blew her and her boyfriend away." He gave a short laugh.

"The shrink at the juvie center said I suffered from 'anger control issues,' which were 'manifested by an intense hatred of women.'" Greg looked at Dave, his eyes derisive. "I told him that I was angry all right. But that my anger was 'manifested' by my intense hatred for that friggin' jingle!"

Dave burst into laughter, which he quickly suppressed. "What'd he say?"

"That I wasn't seriously committed to pursuing a cure for my anger. So, I told him where he could shove his friggin' theory and punched him in the teeth. I got another five years tacked onto my sentence, but it was worth it just to shut his face up!"

Dave laughed softly, keeping his eyes on the drop point below. "Remind me not to get on your bad side," he said. Feeling a sense of camaraderie with his partner for the first, Dave turned in time to see Greg suddenly reach his hands up to his neck as if he were strangling.

"Urk!" Greg gagged, helplessly grabbing at the rope that had inadvertently appeared around his neck. Without warning, he was pulled backwards, disappearing in the night.

"Greg!" Dave yelled. The next instant, he had the gun in his hand, and he was nervously pulling back the bolt. "Greg!" he called.

His cries were met with absolute silence.

Dave got unsteadily to his feet, his gun pointing in the direction that his partner had disappeared.

"Wayne?" he called, his voice shaking. "Is that you, Wayne?" Silence. He crept towards the nearest tree, stood with his back to it, gun pointing up. "This isn't the way to get your kid back, Wayne! You have my word that if you let me go, I'll return your kid in one piece."

He heard a slight noise to his right. Grinning, he continued talking. "I promise, Wayne. No hard feelings. Let me drive out of here, and I'll personally drop your kid off near a hospital--Urk!"

A vice-like grip suddenly cut off all of the air supply to his lungs. Dave found himself suddenly disarmed and tied up as well. The next instant, he was gasping for air when his neck was unexpectedly released. Someone had him by the collar and was slamming him viciously against the ground.

"Where is he!!??" a harsh, angry voice was screaming in his ear. "Where's the boy!?" When he didn't answer right away, something tight clamped around his Adam's apple, once again cutting off his oxygen supply.

"Tell me!"

Dave choked against whatever was strangling him. He could feel his tormentor's hot breath on his face.

"Please--!" he gagged. "Can't--breathe!"

The chokehold was released slightly, enough to let him gulp in a little bit of air.

"Where's the boy!" the voice growled menacingly. Dave opened his eyes and gasped at the monster that was glaring down at him.

"B-B-Batman?!"


"Dick! You can't stay here, Dicky--!"

Dad…?

"You know how to fall, little Robin--!"

Mom…?

"You've got to hold on, Dick--!"

Bruce…?

"Bruce--? Got to hold on…Can't stay…got to hold on--" Dick rolled over onto his stomach and started crawling through the wet, muddy ground.

He heard sounds behind and above him, like someone thrashing through the woods: twigs snapping, fallen leaves rustling, loose rocks falling.

"Hey, kid! I'm trying to help you! Where are you?"

Dick pulled with whatever reserves of strength he had left. "Can't stay…" he muttered. "Got to hold on…"

As he crept along, away from the approaching noises behind him, Dick suddenly felt an empty space before him.

"You know how to fall, little Robin--!"

"Yes, Mom…know how to fall--"

Dick weakly reached both hands out to the edge and pulling himself forward, fell headlong into the endless darkness below.


He punched the necessary keystrokes on his organizer and kept driving up the dark, hairpin turns leading to the old amusement park grounds. While still a few miles out, he pulled over without warning and waited, looking up expectantly.

A black shadow swooped out of the black night and then hovered slightly above him. A rope ladder dropped down and to Batman's amused eyes, Alfred started climbing down. As soon as the faithful friend was on the ground, Batman tossed him the keys to the Porsche and started climbing up.

"Bring him home safely, sir!" Alfred called.

Once he was strapped in, Batman gave Alfred a curt salute and the Batwing banked away.


"Aw, hell, kid!" Jimmy whined. "Why'd you have to go and that for?" He squinted against the darkness below him. He shook his head in frustration. Greg would kill him for sure now. He thought about running away. This option was quickly tossed out.

Greg would find him. And then he'd kill him, but only after he made him suffer. Jimmy knew that. He'd seen Greg do it once before. A bookie had tried to stiff Greg out of his winnings. Greg hadn't been too happy about it, so he'd tied the guy up to a chair and--!

Jimmy closed his eyes against the image.

After Greg was done with the poor mook, the guy had begged Greg to kill him. Which he did, one bullet at a time.

Jimmy shook his head. No, he couldn't quit until he found the kid. Sitting down with his legs hanging over the edge of the small bluff, Jimmy tentatively started lowering himself, feeling around for a ledge.

The next thing he knew, someone had grabbed him by the ankles and he was pulled backwards.

"No!" he yelped, frantically trying to find a handhold without letting go of the syringe. He was soon rolling and tumbling, faster and faster, down the steep incline like an out-of-control, runaway train. He slammed into a boulder, his momentum stopped.

He lay in daze for several minutes, trying to understand what had happened. He looked up from his precarious position. Up above him, he could just make out a small shadow in the weak moonlight, lying quite still on a narrow ledge.

Jimmy felt a strange, burning sensation spreading outwardly from his chest. Just before a cloud moved across the moon, blocking out its silvery sheen, he caught the barest glimmer of something glossy sticking out from him--the syringe! It had plunged into his chest during the fall.

Jimmy started to laugh softly.

"The joke's on me, kid," he croaked. "But I still get the last laugh. 'Cause Greg doesn't get to win this one."


"I'll have you home shortly. Like I promised. You have to hang on, son."

Bruce…?

"Have to…hang…on…" he whispered.

"That's right. You've got to hang on. Just a few more minutes and we'll be home."

"Bruce--?" It was the whisper of a dry leaf fluttering in the chill autumn breeze.

Setting the automatic pilot, Batman pulled back his cowl and reached across to the co-pilot's seat where he'd strapped Dick in. He quickly unstrapped him and pulled Dick in close to him. Dick weakly leaned on Bruce, his hair matted down filthily from sweat, mud, and other debris.

Bruce didn't care. He held his boy to him, offering what strength and comfort he could.

When Batman found Dick lying so still on the ledge, he thought he'd lost the race. He quickly checked him over and was gratified to find a weak pulse. He immediately administered the antidote and without a downward glance, picked Dick up and grabbed the waiting rope ladder.

"Knew you'd come…" Dick whispered. "Had to hang on…"

"You did, Dick. You did hang on," Bruce felt a single tear spill. Too close. It had been too close. "I love you, son," he choked, the words torn from his very soul. "I love you!"

Dick's young face relaxed as he fell into a deep sleep. "I know…"


Epilogue

The last member of the media had long-since left. Most of the police equipment had already been removed from the house. Even Leslie had finally gone home. Only Gordon and Bullock still remained. Bullock was talking on the radio, and Gordon was waiting for him to finish before they took off.

Bruce walked up to Gordon.

"Thank you," he said simply. "For all you did."

Gordon gave a short, sardonic laugh. "You're welcome. For all the good we did." His tone was ironic. "I'm just glad Dick's all right, Bruce. For both your sakes."

Bruce nodded.

"Commish!" They both turned as Bullock walked up to them. "That was HQ. The boys in uniform picked up two of them--Madoc and his partner, Dave Allman--up by the bluffs outside the northeast side of town."

"What about the third man," Gordon asked. "Jimmy something-or-other?"

"Jimmy Sloan," Bullock said, filling in the name. "The chopper guys spotted him from the sky. He'd fallen into a steep ravine over by the fairgrounds. Apparently, he injected himself with a full dose of atropine. The M.E.'s doing an autopsy, but it looks pretty cut-and-dry. Death by accidental, self-inflicted poisoning."

Bruce had gone completely still when Bullock gave the location of the recovered body. That's where he'd found Dick. Because of the dark, heavy foliage cover, he'd completely missed the man. He'd probably been lying a just few meters away from Dick.

He wondered if Sloan had been trying to kill Dick and had instead ended up killing himself. As the two police officers pulled away, Bruce quickly walked back inside. He hurried upstairs to Dick's room.

The boy's pale, pinched features were the only sign of the suffering that he'd been put through. Bruce walked across the room on catlike feet. It was late, almost dawn. He sat down carefully next to Dick, on top of the covers, his back against the headboard.

He wanted to be here in the morning when Dick's eyes opened. Looking down at the peacefully sleeping boy, Bruce felt his throat catch. He remembered his desperate declaration on the flight back, wrenched from his heart when he feared he might lose his boy.

"I love you, son…I love you!"

Followed by Dick's simple acknowledgement.

"I know…"

Bruce felt the fear that had gripped him in its cold clutches throughout this ordeal at last begin to let go. Gently brushing back a lock of hair from Dick's forehead, he leaned down and spoke into his ear.

"I love you, son."

In his mind, he heard Dick's answering whisper, "I know…"

The End

 
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