Present Day… Gotham City…
“Do you have a visual yet on Tim?”
Barbara’s voice reached Stephanie through her earpiece as Batgirl perched herself on a gargoyle overlooking the still unfinished skyscraper. She scanned the streets, looking for any signs of her target. “Nothing. Do we have anything resembling an ETA?”
“Sorry. We have no clue how Tim left the scene he staged to lose Jason. He could’ve taken a cab, gone on the subway, or is heading there on foot. All we know for certain is that the DiDio Building is his target, and he’ll be coming in from the southeast.”
“There’s something else, Steph.”
“He’s got a hold of one of Jason’s guns, and whoever he’s meeting at that building might be someone he intends to kill.”
Stephanie felt an icy chill shoot through her spine. She had been with Damian when his mother revealed the truth about what was, for all intents and purposes, a subconscious self-destruct trigger buried inside Tim’s mind.
“Bruce has given the order,” Barbara continued. “As soon as you spot Tim, he needs to be taken down, hard and fast. He cannot be allowed to enter that building under any circumstances.”
Wiping away the tears that pricked at her eyes, Stephanie nodded. “I understand, O. Batgirl out.”
As she patrolled around the southeast quadrant of the unfinished building, Stephanie thought about the last time she saw Tim, seven years ago.
He’d just returned to Gotham City after trekking the globe as Red Robin. Unfortunately, a world of trouble had followed him home. Tim hadn’t been at all happy to discover Stephanie had returned to uniform and vigilante work, although to her credit she had only promised him that she’d stop wearing the Spoiler costume. She’d only been Batgirl for a few months, but with Barbara’s help she was picking up the ropes fairly quickly. It was a good thing that she had been a quick study, because he ended up needing her help almost as soon as they’d reunited.
The hours they’d spent together, while short, was all it had taken to remind Steph of everything she and Tim had once had. When they had been young teens, still barely kids, they had been the Spoiler and Robin. He worked with Batman, she worked alone. Their paths crossed from time to time and sparks usually flew. It had only been a matter of time before the two of them became more than just occasional crime fighting companions.
They’d fallen in love, and for awhile all was well. Then their lives went to hell and their relationship became a casualty. Hearts were broken. Lives were ended. Trust was betrayed. Circumstances far beyond either of their controls drove a wedge between them that no amount of time or effort could bridge.
After Tim returned to Gotham, they went through their routine. They squabbled. They saved a few lives. They stopped a few bad guys. And then he did something unexpected.
“I treated you horribly, I know, and I’m sorry. We’ve both made mistakes, but maybe we both can have a second chance…”
When he’d said it, to Stephanie at least, it had seemed like an invitation. Something to look forward to after they were done saving the world and their lives regained what passed for normalcy for them.
However, there would be no second chances. Not for them.
Stephanie didn’t have to wait long there on her perch. Her heart nearly leapt out of her chest when she saw her target step out of a yellow cab that had just pulled up to the unfinished building.
“I see him!” she exclaimed, quickly rising to her feet and pulling out her grappling gun. Before she could fire it, though, the glint of several fast moving objects caught her eyes. She leapt onto the gargoyle behind her, watching as several gleaming shurikens embedded themselves deeply in her abandoned perch. “Aw h*ll!”
“Looks like I’ve got company up here,” Steph told Barbara as she moved onto the rooftop and surveyed her situation. “I’ve got eight assassins here who don’t want me getting anywhere near the DiDio building.”
“Backup’s incoming,” a young man’s voice cut in. Gliding in out of the darkness of the night sky, Robin swooped in, taking out an assassin before leaping back to Batgirl’s position. The two of them stood back to back as the remaining attackers began to circle them.
From the jet Damian had just ejected from, Batman and Nightwing watched the youngsters tear into the assassins. “There’s no doubts now about who’s behind everything, are there?” Dick asked his father.
“Do you think Ra’s is in the building himself?”
“I’d be surprised if he wasn’t.”
Dick looked down and scanned the exposed rafters of the unfinished skyscraper. He could already see hints of a welcoming party waiting for them. There had to have been at least a dozen or more lurking in the shadows.
Then, to his surprise, one of them suddenly dropped in an explosion of blood!
“What the h*ll?” he gasped as he watched the assassins scramble for cover just as another one of them dropped in the confusion.
Bruce’s jaw tightened. He punched a code into the com link system. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“What does it look like?” Jason’s voice crackled over the intercom. The sound of the Red Hood’s sniper rifle was loud in the cockpit of the jet, and a second later another assassin was killed.
“Jason? Are you… helping us?” Dick asked in disbelief.
Red Hood made a derisive noise. “Don’t even go there, golden boy! I just can’t stand the idea-” Another shot was taken. “-of the League of Assassins thinking they can just stroll into my city and start stirring up sh*t whenever they feel like it!” Through his gun sight, Jason aimed for the head of another target. “If it just so happens that you have business in the building they’re holed up in, well that’s your own too damn bad! Try to stay out of the way of my bullets on your way in. Ammo for this rifle ain’t cheap.”
Batman’s reflexive desire to scold Jason for his blatant use of deadly force, while still present, was far weaker than it usually was. Perhaps it was the fact that Tim’s life was in danger. Perhaps it was knowing how much Tim suffered at the hands of the League’s leader. Whatever the reason, the lives of the merciless cold-blooded killers employed by Ra’s al Ghul seemed almost insignificant compared to getting his son back safe and sound. A quick glance over at his eldest son confirmed that the sentiment was shared.
Oblivious to the Batgirl who had nearly intercepted him and the Batmen who were now storming the unfinished rooftop, Neal crept through the construction yard of the DiDio Building. He paused at the sound of distant gunfire, but didn’t think twice about its source or targets. This was Gotham City, after all.
It took several minutes to get to the specified floor. Though the power seemed to be off in most of the building, one lone elevator, its doors open wide and inviting, illuminated the hallway with its light.
“Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,” Neal practically heard Mozzie’s voice whisper in his head. Everything about this set up smelled like a trap. His instincts told him that his best course of action would be to just turn around and walk away. At least, that was the course of action which had the best chance of ensuring he’d live to breathe another day.
Rather than follow his instincts, Neal instead chose to blatantly disregard them. Once inside the elevator, he steeled himself as he watched the doors slide shut with an air of finality, like that of a noose being adjusted tightly around the neck.
The elevator slowly dragged him upward. It finally released him on the twenty-second floor only to direct him to another waiting elevator. If he recalled correctly, the sign on the outside of the construction yard said there’d be grand total of ninety-six floors in this building when it was completed. Neal was finally released with no further direction upward on the fifty-fourth floor.
His footsteps echoed loudly in the hallway he traversed down. Neal’s eyes strained in the darkness, and almost instinctively he gravitated toward a path that would lead him to the only source of light in the otherwise pitch black surroundings. The light was dim at first, but of course the closer he got, the brighter it became.
Before Neal stepped into the large, spartan room where the light came from, he lurked in the doorway to survey the environment. Though the far sides of the room were saturated in shadows, a large floor-to-ceiling window made up the wall directly opposite the doorway. Icy claws raked his spine as Neal got an ominous sense of deja vu. If it weren’t for the sound of Kate’s shaky voice, he might’ve finally given in to the voice in his head screaming at him to leave this building and Gotham entirely. Seeing the skyline through that window was like looking at something from a dream he barely remembered having…
Or a nightmare.
Kate’s frightened voice snapped Neal back to reality. He squared his shoulders and stepped into the room with a mask of false confidence.
“Neal!” As soon as she saw him, dark haired, blue eyed Kate tried to lunge forward to go to him. He tried to rush to her too, but both of them were brought up short when the tall, menacing man directly behind Kate grabbed her roughly by the shoulder and hauled her back to him.
“Let her go, Fowler!” Neal growled as he glared venomously at the man restraining the woman he loved. He could tell by the way she was standing that Kate’s hands were bound behind her back, either by zip ties or handcuffs. He figured the latter if the metallic sounds he heard as she struggled were any indication.
“Not until you hear my offer,” Fowler insisted, to which Neal scoffed.
“Well if it’s about the music box, you can forget all about that. The feds have it, and after my little disappearing act today, I doubt Peter will ever let me get anywhere near it. It’s probably halfway to some dusty forgotten shelf in the basement of some FBI storage bunker by now.”
Fowler shook his head. “This isn’t about the music box. This is a new offer, directly from the man I work for.”
“Oh really?” Neal eyed Fowler suspiciously, though his gaze also darted to Kate as well. Though she was clearly restrained and giving Neal looks that wavered between fear and hope, she looked otherwise unharmed, which was a small relief. If she had been hurt, Neal doubted that he would’ve let Fowler live long enough to deliver his message. “So what does your boss want from me?”
“The master wants you to work for him.” Fowler had a look on his face that clearly conveyed that he didn’t like this idea, but he wasn’t about to go against his boss on the matter. “You have a set of skills that he has a great need for, and he’s willing to pay handsomely to acquire them.”
Neal regarded Fowler with blatant suspicion and naked hostility. “You have some nerve,” he hissed. “After everything you and your master have put me through… After everything the two of you have put the people I care about through… Do you honestly believe I’m in the mood to contemplate anything you have to offer?”
Fowler sighed and glanced to the shadows behind him. “I told you he wouldn’t listen to a word I said.”
“It was to be expected,” another voice said. An old man in about his mid sixties stepped casually out of the darkness. He had a distinguished Arabian appearance, with a neatly trimmed goatee and dark gray hair accented by swatches of pure white at the temples. The man was in what looked like an extremely expensive tailored suit. However, instead of a gentleman’s overcoat, he wore an exotic and regal deep green cloak, which sported a high stiff collar and was trimmed with gold embroidery on the edges. “My name is Ra’s al Ghul, and I have been following your career for some time, Mr. Caffrey.”
There was more than a trace of irony in the old man’s voice, but Neal did not hear a word of it. As soon as he saw the man’s face, as soon as he made the confusing realization that he recognized him, it was like a switch had been flipped inside his mind. While outwardly he gave no impression of anything being wrong, inwardly a woman’s voice that sounded familiar for some odd reason began speaking into his consciousness.
“The demon stands before you.”
Images flashed within his mind’s eye. Brief fragments of the old man. Of Ra’s al Ghul. The demon.
“Remember how he tortured you…”
A veil of darkness pushed itself back, and select forgotten memories began to extract themselves from the shattered remains of the mind of his youth…
Horrible memories of being trapped in hell…
“Remember how he hurt you…”
Endless nights of agony…
“Remember how he murdered you…”
“Remember how he brought you back to life just to kill you again…”
Rebirth… Terrible, terrible rebirth in a pool of glowing green water…
“The demon has come to reclaim you!” the woman’s voice said, jolting something deep within Neal’s soul.
“You have to kill him!”
“Kill the demon before he kills you!”
“Nothing else matters now!”
“If he lives, you will die!”
Outside the turmoil that was Neal’s inner mind, neither Ra’s nor Fowler knew anything was wrong at first. Ra’s was still explaining the finer points of his offer. He wanted Neal to work for him, to go out and collect certain priceless treasures and artifacts for him and the League. In return, he’d allow Neal the freedom to be with the woman he loved, and the freedom from the bitterly short leash the FBI kept him on. He’d be able to work his trade with the full support of Ra’s and his organization. If Neal had been in his right mind, it might’ve been a very tempting offer.
“So what do you say, Mr. Caffrey?” Do you accept my offer?”
Nothing could motivate a person into doing something they would never consider doing better than fear. That motivation became even stronger when the danger the person was afraid of was very, very real possibility. The fragments of memories forced to the forefront of Neal’s consciousness were nowhere near close to his complete collection of lost memories and identity, but they were enough…
They were enough to make murder seem like an extremely good idea.
“A gun?” The demon’s voice insinuated itself back into Neal’s focus. The younger man realized, with a start, that he’d unconsciously pulled out the pistol he’d stolen earlier and was now pointing it squarely at the well dressed monster in front of him. Ra’s observed him with a bemused expression. “Oh please, detective. We both know that using a gun is something you simply do not have the stomach for.”
Fowler didn’t seem quite as certain as his master. He tightened his grip on Kate, causing her to whimper loudly with pain. “Put the gun down, Neal! Put the gun down now or Kate suffers the consequences!”
Neal didn’t move. He didn’t even acknowledge the existences of either Kate or Fowler anymore. He simply stared hard at Ra’s, the gun steady in his hand, finger cradling the trigger comfortably. Only then did the old man realize that something was amiss. Something wasn’t right in the young man’s eyes.
Those stark blue eyes were full of recognition… and fear… and deadly intent. Then Neal’s lips parted, and a single word escaped them.
Chapter 27 took a great deal longer to write than I originally thought it would. The importance of this sequence of events in relation to everything that came before and everything that will come afterward had me writing, deleting, re-writing, and re-deleting more times than I really care to admit. Truth be told, I cut about 1500 words from the end of this chapter and transplanted them to the beginning of Chapter 28 because this seemed like a better ending point for this particular part of the story.