Present Day… New York…
Batman had watched and listened to the exchange between Agent Burke and Nightwing with a measure of both curiosity and respect. This was the man who had spent years of his career chasing down and eventually capturing his lost son, who had eluded so many other pursuers. Many in the agency would’ve just put another notch in their belt, saw their quarry sent to prison, and then moved on to the next case to build their careers on. Not Burke. Rather than just write him off as a lost cause, the agent seemed to have taken a personal interest in Neal and had been working hard to turn him away from the life of crime that had, unfortunately, come so easy to him.
Peter Burke cared about Neal, and for that Bruce Wayne would be eternally grateful. He didn’t want to think too hard on what might’ve happened to Tim if he’d been simply sent to prison, alone and forgotten.
Still, despite being thankful that Tim had fallen into Burke’s hands, Batman was wary of the agent. This was clearly a very intelligent, clever man who had the skills that could easily take him up the chain of command in the FBI if he were given the opportunities. His mind was quick, and his deductive skills were razor sharp. For the first time in years, Bruce was not entirely certain they would be able to keep their identities a secret from a specific individual.
Inside the conference room, after brief initial introductions, the focus of the three men turned squarely upon locating Neal Caffrey.
“Security footage here,” Peter said, bringing up the video on the large display screen at the head of the room. “Shows Neal receiving a call late last night. Unfortunately, there’s no audio, so there’s no easy way to know what’s being said, but clearly the caller tells him something to spark his interest in a major way. His expressions go from skeptical, confused, suspicious, surprised, and then finally to determined.”
“Have you attempted tracing the call?” Nightwing asked?
Peter shook his head. “We’ve tried, but no dice. Whatever phone this person used was heavily encrypted, and the incoming call itself was bounced through so many towers around the country that we can’t get a bead on where it originated.”
“If you give me the records, I know Oracle track the call back to its source.”
“I’ve heard of Oracle. Is he as good as they say?”
Nightwing smirked with a touch of pride. “Your tech support is good. Our tech support is the best.”
Peter noticed that as he and Nightwing were speaking, Batman was staring intently at the security cam footage on the screen. He gave the younger man the files he requested before moving to stand next to the elder. “What do you see?”
“Can you zoom in on this quadrant?” Batman drew a square on the screen, focusing on Neal’s head and upper torso. After Peter complied, he started the video over from the beginning and watched the man on the screen speak. “I know what he’s saying.”
“Lip reading?” Nightwing said as he was waiting for the file transfer to Oracle to complete. Batman nodded.
“What’s he saying?” Peter asked, turning his attention to the video as Batman began speaking.
“Hello,” the dark knight started, pausing as Neal listened to the caller’s voice. “Who is this?… No… No, you can’t be Kate. Kate’s dead. Who is-“
“Wait!” Peter exclaimed, interrupting Batman. Not used to being cut off like that, he glared warningly, but the look glanced off the agent without effect. “Are you sure that Neal said ‘Kate’? Is that the name that came out of his mouth?”
“Positive,” Batman said grimly. “Who is she?”
Clearly Agent Burke was not happy at all with this revelation. “Neal’s girlfriend, but she was murdered several months ago.” He stared at the screen with concern and suspicion.
Batman felt his hackles rise. He did not like the direction this situation was taking. Rather than say anything more, he turned his own attention back to the screen and continued voicing Neal’s words.
“Who is this? Who the hell are you?”
Behind the two older men, Nightwing grimaced at the expression on his brother’s face. If that look was any indication, Tim had loved this woman, and was still grieving his loss.
“Stop lying. The plane exploded right in front of me.”
Batman watched Neal’s lips as they formed around another word, then paused the video himself. “Who is Fowler?”
Peter’s expression darkened. “Garret Fowler was an FBI agent from the Office of Professional Responsibility. He came into these offices under the covert pretense of recruiting Neal into a program called Operation Mentor. Supposedly, the program would work as one part witness protection, one part covert ops. Fowler promised Neal the chance to run away with Kate and with new identities, so long as he worked for him. The price Neal had to pay to get into the program was to steal a rare amber music box that was rumored to have once belonged to Catherine the Great.”
“Where is he now?”
“He went into hiding after Kate’s death. OPR of course denies the existence of any Operation Mentor. The agency has been searching high and low for him.”
“He was working for someone outside the agency?”
“That’s my theory, but I have no leads on who that could be.”
Batman had a potential lead in mind already, but he kept it to himself and shifted focus. “What’s so special about this music box?”
“Not certain, aside from its rarity and history.”
The dark knight nodded to himself, then returned his gaze to the video.
“If you really are my Kate, you need to prove it to me. I need to hear something only she and I would know. Something personal.” There was a long moment of silence as the three men studied Neal’s expression. It was painful to watch his face as a desperate hope began to take shape. There was so much grief, love, and skepticism warring with one another in his expression. “If you could’ve answered?”
With a stoic tone, Batman voiced the rest of Neal’s words. The others just listened, lost in their own thoughts and observations until the video ended. It was Batman who finally broke the silence.
“Agent Burke,” he said. “Do you believe Kate could have survived whatever killed her?”
“I saw her on the plane that blew up,” Peter said. “Nothing could have survived it.”
“It was recovered from the wreckage, but had been damaged beyond recognition. It was only from dental records that her identity could be confirmed.”
Nightwing frowned thoughtfully. “In our line of work, deaths are frequently faked in similar manners. Dental records are not a foolproof method of determining identity. Far from it, in fact.”
Peter regarded Nightwing’s observation thoughtfully. Could it really be possible that Kate was alive?
Batman tapped the computer screen. “When he leaves this room, is there footage of where he goes from here?”
“Yes.” Peter pulled up the file. They watched the security feed of Neal leaving the conference room, heading straight towards the closed door of Peter’s office, but hesitating just shy of touching the doorknob. The agent noticed Neal’s lips moving slightly. “Can you tell what he’s saying?”
Batman peered at the enlarged area of video. “He says, ‘I’m sorry, Peter.’.”
Peter took a step back, running his fingers through his hair as he sighed with frustration.
Nightwing kept his eyes on the video, watching as Neal turned away from Peter’s office and made his way out of the camera’s line of sight. “In this video, he’s using a different phone than the one in the conference room.”
“It’s probably a burn phone,” Peter said. “There are no outgoing calls on his personal cell in the records from last night.”
“Is there video of the conversation?”
The agent shook his head. “Neal knows where all of the cameras are in this building, and all the blind spots. I’m certain when he decided to make plans to run off, he became very conscious of the fact that I’d be going through these videos with a fine-toothed comb.” He shrugged though. “I have a pretty good idea of who he might be calling.”
“Fortunately for us, the list of close associates he is in regular contact with is extremely short. To pull off his disappearing act, there’s only one person who he’d trust to help him. He’s a local con artist-slash-information broker known by the name of Mozzie.”
Batman frowned. “So why isn’t he in custody now?”
“Because he’s an extremely intelligent man who is suspicious of anything related to any government, and he fully believes Big Brother is always watching. He’s figured out a way to live off the grid in this city of all places, and leave behind no digital trail of any sort. We haven’t even been able to discover any of his current aliases, so there’s no way to find him.”
Nightwing gave Peter a sidelong glance. “What if I had a possible name for you to trace?”
Peter looked at him with undisguised surprise and skepticism. “You have an actual name… For Mozzie?”
“First and last.”
The agent looked at Nightwing skeptically. “What’s the name?”
Peter pulled up a search engine for the FBI database and typed up the name as it sounded. He hesitated on actually sending it through the system, staring at the two words long and hard before an amused expression crept up on his face.
“What’s so funny?” Nightwing asked.
“I think your source got played,” Peter said with a chuckle.
Considering who Nightwing’s “source” was, the masked man did not find the statement very amusing. “Why do you say that?”
Peter turned the laptop screen to the two vigilantes. “It’s an anagram,” he said simply.
Nightwing puzzled over the name, but he was never strong at that type of word play. Batman was, though. Years of dealing with The Riddler made deciphering those a piece of cake. After a minute, when he realized what the name was an anagram of, it took a great deal of self control not to snicker himself. Instead, he indulged only in shaking his head.
“What?” Nightwing asked as he stared at Batman’s reaction.
The dark knight looked pointedly at his son, the barest quirk of a corner of his lips visible only to the younger man. “Invisible Man.”
Nightwing blinked. “Invisible- Oh for the love of-” His face fell into his gloved palm. “How did you catch that so quickly, Agent Burke?”
Peter smiled. “The Daily Jumble is an addiction in my house,” he said. “My wife hides it from me if she gets to the paper first, just so she can figure it out before me and taunt me with the answers.” Suddenly, Peter got an idea. His smile brightened. “I think I know how we can get a hold of Mozzie.”
When Peter got to Neal’s apartment and slipped beneath the crime scene tape, Batman and Nightwing were already there and waiting for him.
“So you think Neal has extra burn phones for Mozzie hidden here?” Nightwing asked.
“I’d honestly be surprised if he didn’t,” Peter said as he started making moving along the perimeter of the apartment. “One phone per call, because as soon as their conversation was over, I’m certain Mozzie’s paranoia about leaving a digital trail would force him to ditch the phone he used, thereby making the phone and number Neal used obsolete for contacting him.” He paused at a small painting on the wall next to a full length mirror and moved it aside, revealing a hidden wall safe. “Neal only thinks I don’t know about half of the secrets in this place.”
“Secrets?” Batman said.
“This building used to be a speakeasy back in the Prohibition days.” The wall safe was already unlocked and empty, so he glanced around for the next place to check. “There are some hollow books on those shelves,” Peter said as he walked towards a closet that was in the dining room. Once inside, he felt around the back of it carefully, searching for the latch that would open the false panel. He smiled with a measure of self-satisfaction as he found it and slipped into the hidden room behind the fireplace, which sported a two way mirror over the mantle. It was here that the FBI agent found the extra burn phones he’d been looking for. Turning on one revealed that the only name on the contact list belonged to Mozzie… or at least belonged to a Count Y. Ginogi. His prize in hand, Peter looked through the mirror to the living room beyond to see if the two vigilantes were still searching.
To his great curiosity, neither of the masked men were actually searching very hard. Nightwing had located a photograph of Neal and Kate on the bookshelf and had taken it down. He was looking at it very intensely. Even though his domino mask hid his eyes, it couldn’t mask all the emotions on his face. There was worry and longing radiating from his features.
Peter watched as Batman came up behind him and placed a comforting hand on the younger man’s shoulder in what appeared to be an almost uncharacteristic show of genuine comfort and concern. Oblivious to the fact that they had an audience, Batman seemed to break character completely and spoke in a paternal tone. “We’ll find him,” he reassured Nightwing quietly.
The younger masked man shook his head and whispered back. “We were so close. Just a few hours earlier, and he would be home now. Safe.”
“We can’t help him worrying about the past. Focus on the present. Working with Agent Burke is going better than I’d initially anticipated.”
“He’s going to figure things out.”
“You don’t sound too worried.”
“If it’s the price that needs to be paid to get him back-” Batman said as he took the photograph from Nightwing’s hand and placed it back on the shelf. “-then so be it. Besides, I think he can be trusted, if worse comes to worst.”
“He reminds me of Jim.”
Nightwing smiled a little. “You got that vibe too?”
Peter was sorely tempted to stay longer in the hidden room and listen to more of their conversation. Everything that they said was intriguing and started wheels turning in his mind. However, he knew if he lingered any longer in the closet, they’d wonder about him. Also, time was of the essence in finding Neal. He did make it a point to be a little noisier in leaving the closet.
“I found a phone,” he announced as he closed the closet door behind him. “I’m putting it on speaker, but I request that neither of you say anything while I’m talking to Mozzie, if we get a hold of him. He has a hard enough time dealing with ‘suits’, as he likes to call people like me. I’m not sure how well he’d handle being in the virtual presence of ‘capes’ or ‘bats’ or whatever diminutive nickname he’d give you.”
After dialing the number and putting the phone on the table between the three of them, they listened to it ring three times before a connection was made and a voice familiar to two of them spoke up.
“No, but I’m looking for him.”
“Please tell me you’re not surprised, Count Ginogi. Where's Neal, Moz?"
"I take it Neal’s anklet hasn’t come back online yet?”
Peter frowned. “What do you mean by that? He cut his anklet.”
“Ah. But he hasn’t.”
“Mozzie,” Peter said impatiently. “If you are any friend to Neal, you will start explaining things right now.”
“I don’t know,” Moz responded hesitantly.
“Do you know who the League of Assassins are?”
Peter could hear the catch in Mozzie’s voice. “Of course, which is why I still breathe today. People like me give people like them a wide berth.”
“Well Neal doesn’t have that luxury. He’s in their crosshairs and he doesn’t know it yet.”
“The League is after Neal?” Mozzie’s voice got quiet, and the three of them could hear him softly cursing under his breath. “Damn… This could really be a trap…”
“Tell me what I need to know, Moz. Time is of the essence.”
There was a moment of hesitation. “Neal didn’t cut his tracker. He didn’t want to. Right now he’s using a device I created to jam the signal. He thought that if he came to you first about Kate, you either wouldn’t believe him or you’d ground him behind bars for his own protection while checking things out yourself.”
Peter had nothing to say to that. Neal was probably right.
“So,” Moz continued. “He’s jamming the signal until he finds Kate. When he does, he said he’ll turn off the device so that you can track his signal again and find where the two of them are.”
“So where is he now?” Peter asked. “Where did he go? Even if I don’t know his exact location, I want to be in the area when his signal comes back online.”
“He went to Gotham City. That’s where he says Kate is.”
Something clicked inside of Peter’s head. “Thanks Moz,” he said as he turned off the phone. “That’s it…” he murmured thoughtfully. “The commonality. Neal is being lured to Gotham City… The two of you personally on this case to take him into protective custody… The shooting last night while Grayson was visiting him… Grayson..?” Peter’s eyes widened as a startling realization came to mind. Mental comparisons between Grayson and Nightwing flashed through his thoughts. Their similar statures and facial features. The hair colors matched as well. The concern he saw the masked man exhibiting while in the secret room. Pieces of the puzzle fell into place, and the picture it revealed was one he hadn’t been expecting at all.
Peter looked up, turning to speak to Nightwing, only to find that he wasn’t there at the table anymore. Neither of the masked men were. While he’d been lost in thought, they’d slipped away without a sound. It didn’t even look like the balcony doors had been disturbed.
“How the hell did they do that?”
The moment of being impressed with their stealth skills passed quickly. Peter was annoyed that the two vigilantes decided to return Gotham without him. However, he wasn’t about to let that stop him from going to the city himself. He’d be there one way or another.
Things are starting to come together. Chapters from here on out will probably be at least this long, if not longer. A lot will be happening, as next chapter migrates the story over to Gotham City. Batman-verse has spent enough time in NYC. Time for the pendulum to swing the other way.
Oh… and Peter knows…