Shutting Doors III

It was hard to check myself out, perched as I was on a pair of crutches. At least I wasn't trying to buy a pair of jeans. I tilted my head and considered the image I saw in the mirrors. "I can't tell."

"Oh, here." Davy sounded exasperated. He was in town for the winter holidays; he and I had been bumming around Gotham for the past week whenever he could get away from his folks. It's amazing how a couple years can make a difference because Davy had changed a lot -- mature, responsible, and three months out of his second long-term relationship. I still teased him about having gotten over me so easily. In all the important ways, though, he was still Davy. Fun to be with and I could talk to him about anything.

Okay, I did have to tell him I had had a wreck on my bike to explain the cast. But other than those masked things, I could tell him anything. He was the first one after Al and the only other one that I'd told about Bruce and me. I grinned at Davy's reflection as he moved behind me and put one hand on my waist while he grabbed one crutch and set it aside. I let him balance me while he got rid of the other, then I let my arms fall to my sides. I re-considered my image in the mirror.

"Looks great!"

"It does," Davy agreed. "Are you going to get it?"

I glanced back at him. "What do you think?"

"I think Bruce is going to notice you've absconded with his credit card."

"Technically speaking, it's my card." I took the crutches back as Davy handed them over. I left the leather jacket on.

"Who pays it?" He gave me one of his knowing looks.

I grinned. "I do." I laughed at his expression. Heading away from the mirrors, I tried to decide if I wanted to check out anything else while we were back here. Morey's has a great array of cool clothes, but my shoulder was starting to hurt. It had only been out of its cast for a couple of weeks, and I was under strict orders not to overwork it. Bruce said if I didn't follow doctor's orders they'd leave the cast on my leg an extra month. I was too glad to finally be on my feet to risk it -- I was slated to lose this last cast in twelve more days. "You wanna go get something to drink?"

"Sounds good." Davy grabbed my old jacket and headed with me to the cashier.

I watched as the kid at the register exchanged lecherous glances with Davy; I gave him a nudge with my elbow. "Hey, none of that. We don't have time."

I got the dirtiest glare I've ever seen... from each of them. The kid smiled though when he saw how much I was spending. Davy kept glaring until we left the store. "So what's up with you paying your own bills? Doesn't Bruce believe in keeping you properly?"

I headed us towards the closest cafe, just four stores down from Morey's. The sidewalks were recently cleared of slush, which I appreciated. "Well, it was his money originally." My shoulder twinged more incessantly and I picked up the pace. "Remember last year, he gave me that chunk of money to learn how to make investments and stuff?"

"Yeah, you said he was teaching you how to be a business tycoon... or was it 'tyrant'?"

If I'd had a spare arm.... "Twit. I've been doing pretty good the last few months. Bought a few companies here and there, and I set myself up a small account to play with."

"Have you bought my Christmas present yet?"


"Remind me to be nice to you." He shook his head.

"Wow... some people have to go to college for four years to learn how to make money." We reached Fulio's; Davy held the door open for me.

"I thought people went to college to drink beer and have sex."

"That too. Did I tell you about Abraham?"

"Yes," I headed directly for a chair and handed him some cash. "Get me a coke."

"Live to serve." He bowed and took the money. I looked around at all the people; most had several shopping bags at their feet. Several looked tired and ready to call it quits. Two guys caught my eye. They were sitting alone near the far wall, huddled close together over their table. At first I thought the obvious, that they were just having a tete a tete. Then I realized what was weird -- not only did they not have shopping bags, but they didn't have any dishes. No drinks, food, nothing. If they weren't shopping and weren't eating... why were they here?

Maybe Bruce has been a bad influence on me, but I got a sudden shiver. Davy came back with our drinks and sat down. "So if I told you about Abraham, did I tell you about Louis?"

I glanced at Davy. "Yes. You told me about Travis and Robert and Steve. You told me about the guy in your physics class who you never managed to talk to but just drooled over. You told me about the guy on the plane, and the cover of the magazine you saw--"

He laughed. "There's no need to be grumpy, just because you became monogamous at an early age."

The two guys were still talking, and from their manner it didn't look like they were having a romantic conversation. I was really getting paranoid because if I'd had to guess I'd say they were planning something.

"What are you looking at?"

"Huh?" I turned back to Davy. "Oh, I was just... you see those two guys back there?" I didn't point, and didn't look while Davy did.

"Yeah? So? The blonde's okay--"

"What does it look like they're doing?"

Davy gave me a look that said it all. I was nuts. I knew that, I just wanted to know what those guys were doing. "Talking? Is this a trick question?"

"They don't look weird to you?"

"They look a little boring, if you ask me." He looked again. "Huh. They're wearing the same coats."

Interesting. I hadn't been able to see that much of the blond to notice that. "I'm headed to the bathroom. Be back in a sec." I stood up and grabbed my crutches. As I carefully maneuvered myself around the chair, Davy smiled.

"More like ten minutes, at that rate. Hope you don't have to go bad."

I didn't have to go at all. But I'd have to walk past the two mystery men to get to the bathroom. I wended my way through the room, apologizing to the occasional bumped customer. They were nice about it, nothing like crutches to make people sorry for you. I headed past the table, glancing carefully down and around so I wouldn't step on anything, and made my way past.

When I reached the back hallway I pulled out my cellphone.

"Gotham Police Station 113, how may I direct your call?"

"I'd like to report a robbery in progress."

True, they hadn't started yet, but if I told the cops I'd seen two men talking suspiciously with guns under their coats, they'd put me on hold.

"Let me put you on hold."

Hell. I waited three seconds then dialed again on the second line.


"Hey, lover. You wanna leave work early today?"

I heard him smile. "I can't, I have a meeting with--"

I interrupted, because I really didn't want to know. "I may be overreacting here, but I think there's something about to go down."

"Where are you?" All business. I love that about him. Sometimes.

"Fulio's. Two guys are here, and I swear they're planning to use the guns they have stashed under their coats. Maybe not immediately, right now they're just sitting here talking. But it sounds like they're planning something -- maybe they should be deterred?"

"Keep an eye on them as long as you can. Stay out of the way and don't do anything except watch. I'll be right there."

He hung up and I checked the first line. I was still on hold.

"I thought you'd never get back. Have any trouble?" Davy was teasing and worried, a little.

"Nah, no trouble." The two hadn't moved, still talking. They hadn't looked up as I'd gone back past. I'd overheard enough of their conversation to know that it could have been perfectly innocent, setting up a meeting with friends. But the goosebumps on my neck were telling me otherwise. I settled back in my chair, sipping my coke slowly, and kept an eye out.

"You're staring at them."

"No, I'm not." I wasn't. Just making sure I saw if they left.

"Which one are you not staring at, then?"

"I'm not--" I gave him a grin. "The dark-haired one."

"Hmm..." Davy started to look over, just as obviously as he could. I grabbed his coat sleeve.

"Stop that. I'm just enjoying the view, okay?"

"I could go invite him over and you can enjoy the view close up."

"Try it and I'll break your leg."

"I knew it wasn't a motorcycle accident! Boy, he gets jealous, doesn't he?" Davy grinned. I sighed and shook my head. There's something to be said for friends. You can strangle them and the cops don't mind.

We talked for about fifteen minutes; Davy got us an order of onion rings and tried to act like he didn't know I was keeping an eye on the two men. I knew Batman would be in the area in another minute or two -- so naturally they stood up to leave. I asked Davy to get us refills to go. As he went up to the counter I stood and headed for the door, slowly, but I managed to reach the sidewalk just a few steps after the two men. I didn't bother looking around for Batman. If he were around I'd never see him as he tailed the men. I watched them move into the crowd, taking a few steps after them then stopping where I could see, but appear as if I were just waiting for Davy.

They moved rapidly down the street, and I realized there was no way I could have kept up. Maybe Davy could-- something hit my cast. I looked down and smiled, reaching down quickly to grab the mini-batarang. I stuffed it in my pocket only a moment before Davy stepped up beside me, holding out my coke.

"Uh... how are you going to hold this, genius?" In reply, I batted my eyelashes at him. He scowled. "Don't make me dump this on you. I'm not holding it."

"Let's just grab a taxi."

"Sounds like a plan." Davy hung onto our drinks while I headed for the sidewalk, waving a crutch and yelling for a cab. I'm telling ya, there's nothing like a pair of crutches. A taxi pulled up ten seconds later and we piled in.

"Where to, gents?" He pulled away from the curb, happy to just drive aimlessly while we decided.

I wanted to go after them, tell the cabby to tail the two guys. I couldn't do much in a cast, but if I were there at least I could do something if the opportunity presented itself. I could shout a distraction, send Davy for the cops, I could sit down and throw rocks if need be.

Except that if I did, Batman would be as worried about me as he would be concentrating on the guys he was now following. With his attention divided he'd be more likely to get into trouble. More likely to let them get away.

Davy looked at me. I shrugged with one arm. "Actually, I'm ready to call it quits and go home."

"Shoulder getting sore?"

"Yeah. You want to be dropped off someplace?"

"I think I'll head home, too. Mom probably would like to see me once while I'm here." He grinned, then leaned forward to give the cabby his address. We changed directions at the next intersection.

It didn't take long to drop Davy off and head out to the Manor. The cabby was suddenly more than happy to speed up when I asked him to, once I gave him my address. I wanted to get home and down to the cave to find out how Batman was doing. I hated sitting on the sidelines, hated seeing him go into dangerous situations without me to back him up. We got home quicker than I hoped; I tipped the guy twice what I'd planned. He helped me out of the taxi, even helped me with the front door. As soon as I locked it behind him I headed for the lift we'd put in a couple months ago.

Al was sitting at the monitors.

"How is he?" I looked up at the screens, so far there wasn't anything more than the records of the two men I'd spotted. They were small-time crooks, looked to be more into con games than violent stuff. I checked the batcam Batgirl was carrying, but all I saw was Buffalo Street, about three blocks away from Fulio's. No sign of Batman.

"Simply surveillance at the moment. He says the two men you encountered do appear to be planning something; it is not yet clear what that might be."

"Did he say how long they'll be watching?"

"No, he did not."

"Do you need me for anything?" I swear I sounded casual about it, not like I was desperate to be needed and useful, but Al gave me a very direct look.

"He asked that you go over these records, and finish researching these two and their known associates."

"Yeah, I know the drill." I sat down as he vacated the chair. I realized I might have sounded a bit too curt, so I shot him a half-grin. "Thanks, Al."

He didn't seem at all perturbed. "You're quite welcome. If you'll excuse me, Master Richard."

"Yeah, sure," I nodded, already turning back to the screens and reading fast. Malcolm Forrest and Stuart Clayton had been partners in crime for over seven years according to police records. Always going after small, easy payoffs, they'd never served more than a few months at a time in jail for various misdemeanors. No felonies, not even suspected of it according to the notes of those cops who'd been assigned to their cases. Nothing to suggest these two would be up to anything particularly nasty.

With the exception of the guns they were carrying. There was no mention in any of their records that they'd ever used weapons before. Either they had always carried them and never needed them, or there was something new in store. Either way it wasn't a waste of the Batman's time -- a criminal who carried a gun used it, sooner or later. It always worked out that way. Batman and Batgirl would stop them before they could hurt anyone but themselves.

I started researching their known associates, past and present, and found that Malcolm and Stuart worked almost entirely alone. The police only had three names of associates, two other grifters and one penny-ante fence. I checked their current whereabouts and found nothing suspicious -- nothing more than the usual. I put them on the list of things for Batman to check and moved on. Pulling their known and suspected residences, I compiled a list of neighbors and started the computers checking for police records. Next I ran a search of all city records for recent instances of either man's name, any of their aliases, and any variant of their names and aliases. This would keep me busy the longest: checking into each and every registration, license application, and bureaucratic whatnots for signs of suspicious activity and cross-reference. Fortunately the computer would do most of the work, I just had to look at it all and decide what looked suspicious.

Batgirl called in while I was waiting for the program to finish and gave me some addresses to add to my list, places Malcolm and Stuart had visited that afternoon. She also sent a picture of a man they'd talked with. Hopefully it would help me triangulate my searches through the city records and pin down what they might be up to.

I started plugging it into the computers and was struck by the impression that this was just another minimum wage job, punching buttons and making machines do all the work. Machines and other costumed heroes. Trying not to dwell on that, I told Batgirl it would be a while then asked, "Is Batman there?"

"I'm here."

I found myself smiling. "I've got a lot of information here. So far none of it adds up to anything unusual."

"They're definitely planning something. These two haven't decided to lead honest lives. I just hope it isn't anything major."

Yeah, like Batman had time to bother with petty cons. I suddenly felt bad I'd bothered him with this -- I could have done what I was doing now, checking them out to see if there was any reason to worry, before ever bothering Bruce. After a moment, I said as much into the mike.

Batman sounded surprised. "Don't apologize. I prefer stopping the criminals before they have a chance to cause trouble."

"I know...." I still should have done this first.

"When you saw them, did you know they weren't about to use those guns they're carrying?" Batman's voice was low in my earpiece, sounding like he was right behind me.


"Then there's nothing to be sorry for, Robin."

I blinked, startled by the use of my name. Out of costume and punching keys didn't feel like crimefighting. "I guess." Telling myself to leave it alone for now, I said, "I'll let you know if I come up with anything interesting."


I couldn't tell from his voice if he realized how I felt. Batman's voice rarely sounds anything but spooky and threatening, or spooky and reassuring. "Be careful out there, will ya?"

"Always, Robin." He clicked the radio off, and I sat there in front of the computers feeling warm and mushy inside. He rarely sounds anything but spooky... except when he sounds like he loves me. I pulled the chair around to face the smaller monitor where the ID program was running on the photo Batgirl had sent. When it came up I added the man's name to the first search to see if I could come up with any correlations.

An hour later I called Batman again.

"I've only found one thing so far that you might consider interesting. One of their grifter buddies, card shark by the name of Forbes, had a roommate named Josh Tanner. Tanner was admitted to Gotham City Hospital Westside about a week ago; he'd been beaten pretty badly. Died a couple days later. The cops have nothing, no clue as to who did it or why. They've got the case file open but from what I found in the Gotham City News it doesn't look like they think they're gonna get anywhere on it. Forbes was questioned but he's got a great alibi -- he was doing the second of three days in the county jail when Tanner was attacked."

"Where is he now?"

I rattled off the address, then asked, "Do you think Tanner got caught in the middle of something?"

There was a pause, then he answered, "That's a possibility. We'll know more when we find out who attacked him."

"I pulled his file. There's nothing there. He'd never even been picked up for shoplifting. He was a student at Davis Community Vo-Tech; he'd been rooming with Forbes for about two years. I haven't found anything to suggest Tanner was ever involved with any of Forbes' con games."

"We'll check him out. Keep digging."

"I will." I waited a moment then heard the radio click off. I don't know what I'd been hoping he'd say. With a sigh, I looked back up at the monitors. It was going to be a long night.

I stayed there for nearly three more hours. I sent Batman every new name and address I uncovered which appeared to be connected to Malcolm and Stuart's new sting. The man they'd met at one of the Biltmore Garage locations was Sandy Dan, a well-known card shark. That had led me to a whole list of associates, whom Batman and Batgirl were checking on for any sign of activity. I sifted through city records while they flew around Gotham, looking for useful clues. Finally, feeling as if I'd much rather be horizontal on something soft, I had every bit of data compiled that I could find given what we already knew.

I still needed to go over it again, because I wasn't sure if what I'd found made sense. But I'd do that tomorrow with Batman and Batgirl. They'd been unable to find Forbes at his apartment or usual hang-outs, but had found several of the other names. So far they'd been doing fine, just tracking down people and gathering clues. Batgirl was doing a great job backing Batman up although they hadn't encountered any real resistance. A couple people easily scared into talking, not a single punch thrown or threat made. I closed down my search programs and pushed the chair away from the monitors.

"Headed upstairs, Master Richard?"

I spun around, banging my cast on the desk. "Ow... yeah, I'm calling it a night. I can't do anything more until they come in, and I need some sleep. It's hard to stay awake when you're just sitting here staring at computer screens." They wouldn't be needing me anymore tonight. Might as well sleep.

"Would you like some assistance?"

"No, I can manage." I stood, gathering up my crutches.

"Shall I bring you something warm to drink?"

I gave Al a smile. Sometimes he's like a grandma, wants to make sure you have everything you could possibly need, before you know you need it. That's what Davy says, anyway -- I don't know any grandparents. "No, I'll be asleep before I hit the pillow." I hobbled past him to the lift. "Thanks anyway, though."

"Good night, then, or should I say, good morning." Al nodded as I hobbled past. I heard him move into the chair I'd vacated.

I took the lift up to the third floor. My bedroom was off to my left but I headed the other direction. Batman would be heading home in an hour or so and I wanted to see him when he got back, or talk to him, or just snuggle for a while. I could take a short nap until he got back. Luckily I didn't really need a shower, I wasn't sure I could manage balancing on one good leg -- difficult enough keeping my eyes open as I hobbled down the hall. My cast had grown a lot heavier in the last few hours.

I made it to Bruce's bedroom without hitting anything. Bracing myself against the wall, I pulled off my sweatshirt. I dropped it on the floor and managed the last few steps to the haven of Bruce's bed, leaving the light off. I dropped my crutches as soon as I could, and fell onto my side on the mattress. It was wonderful. My shoulder hurt, and I felt more tired than I ever did after fighting off twenty goons. I lay there for a moment, enjoying the sensation, then rolled over and bent down to untie my shoe. The castshoe I had left in the cave, taking it off to wiggle my toes nearly two hours ago. I thought about trying to get my sweatpants off, but it would take more energy than I wanted to spare. When Bruce got home I'd get ready for bed. For now I just wanted to close my eyes.

I pulled myself up towards the pillows, and tried to get the blanket out from under me. After a minute I gave it up for lost and rolled onto my side. The room was warm enough without the blankets. Surprisingly I didn't fall asleep immediately so I stared at the shadows for a while. Batman was out there. Somewhere in Gotham, he and Batgirl were hunting for Forbes. Maybe I'd made a mistake, coming to bed so soon. Maybe they would need me....

Right, Robin. What would they need? An emergency copy of somebody's library card? Go to sleep.

I closed my eyes.

At some later point I woke up. The room was slightly lighter; the sun was up but the curtains were all drawn. I was in exactly the same position I'd fallen asleep in -- only now the bedclothes were pulled over me, and there was an arm draped over my middle. Bruce was spooned up behind me, sound asleep. I could tell he was sleeping because I could hear him breathing. When he's awake he's utterly quiet, even spooned like this and breathing in my ear. Right now I could hear the soft in and out of his breath, warm against my neck.

I smiled and went back to sleep.

When I opened my eyes again Bruce was gone. It had to have been near noon; Bruce doesn't keep a clock in his bedroom so I couldn't be sure. I thought about staying in bed for a while but I had work still to do. Had to give Batman and Batgirl everything I'd found so they could go find out who had killed Tanner and what our two grifter friends were up to. I swung out of bed, pushing to my feet by using the momentum to leverage myself up. I stood still for a moment, blinking and realizing that I'd stood up before I'd woken fully. Then I looked around for my crutches so I could head for the bathroom.

Somehow they'd lain themselves against a chair next to the bed. I didn't remember doing it, but picked them up anyway figuring the fairies had probably done it.

"Good morning."

I turned, smiling at the warm, welcome voice. "Hi, Bruce."

He walked over from the bathroom door, wrapped in a black terry robe. I wanted to wrap myself inside it -- with him -- but unfortunately I knew he'd want to get back to work right away. I waited until he came close to give me a kiss and I brushed his chest lightly through the robe. He smiled at me but kept heading for his closet. I balanced myself on my crutches and let him go, taking a step towards the bathroom. As soon as I did I felt my shoulder protest -- I stopped and leaned all my weight on my good leg. I hadn't made a sound but Bruce was suddenly behind me, holding me up with arms around my waist. "Are you all right?"

"Yeah... I didn't think I'd worked my shoulder that much yesterday; it wasn't hurting when I went to sleep, just sore."

"How bad is it?"

He was standing close enough that I could feel every curve and muscle pressing against me. I wanted to lean my head back and let him hold me all day... or forever. "Not too bad, it just caught me off guard. I think I just need to get it loosened up."

"A hot shower will help that," his voice was right in my ear. I wriggled a little bit where he was touching me. He laughed. "Do you need some help?"

"Oo! Can I?"

"Not that kind of help. I was thinking of putting a chair in the shower."


He kissed me on the neck and I felt goosebumps all over my back and arms. "I'll wrap your cast for you."

As he moved to assist me into the bathroom, I sighed, "You always say the most romantic things." He gave me a brief glare, then put my good arm over his shoulders and half-carried me to the shower. We propped me against the counter and he took a large piece of semi-adhesive plastic to wrap around the cast. It was air-tight, so I couldn't leave it on for long, but it kept the water out nicely. It's the same stuff we used to seal the seams of our costumes. Bruce tells me it's used for other things as well, but I don't really keep up with Wayne Tech applications. I don't tell Bruce that, though.

Bruce got me ready for my shower, stripping me down and ignoring everything I did to convince him to take a second shower. Finally I was sitting half under the spray of hot water, watching him leave the bathroom. Bummer. I had a hell of an erection, too.


A moment passed then he walked into the bathroom. "Need a hand?" He was fully dressed, casually, for working at home.

"I can't stand up without slipping." I'd tried twice before giving it up for stupid. I was not breaking my arm in the shower.

"Sorry about that." He had the door open and was helping me stand before he finished apologizing. As he got me out of the shower he gave me a curious look. "How have you managed before now?"

"My shower's smaller... and the times I was in here I had a shower buddy to help me out."

Good lord, he blushed. I hadn't meant it as a double entendre, either. Granted, we had helped each other out during those showers. I gave Bruce an innocent smile and accepted the shirt he handed over. He smiled back, but I could tell he wasn't buying it. I was really gonna have to work on that. Bruce unwrapped my cast, then pulled a clean pair of sweats on me. That made at least three lost chances for quick morning sex, and then I was on my crutches and heading for the kitchen with Bruce.

Barbara and Al were there, just getting breakfast on the table as we came in. Okay, so it was after 12 p.m. but it was my first meal of the day. I don't know what anyone else's excuses were, but we were having waffles. I like waffles. My shoulder was feeling better so I was under my own power -- and it was a good thing, because Al is a much worse mother hen than Bruce is, no matter what Bruce thinks. I sat down and let them serve me a plate of waffles. We had time to eat the first helping before anyone mentioned work.

Bruce started. "Forbes knows something. He knows why Tanner died, possibly even who killed him. He hasn't been seen since last Sunday, but everything that we've uncovered points to Tanner's death as the precipitating factor for whatever is going on."

He sounds a little bit like Batman when he talks this way. It gave me shivers -- I know I've mentioned my obsession with my lover's voice, have I mentioned Batman's voice does it for me, too? I accepted a refill of juice and recalled the reams of data I'd pulled last night. "We can definitely say that Sandy Dan is in on it, as well as a host of other grifters whose specialty is gambling in one form or another. Malcolm has arranged for the power to be on at a station that's been closed for a year that's owned by Biltmore Garages, Incorporated. He paid cash, but had to sign a work order with Gotham Power -- used 'Matt Dunners' which is one of his usual aliases. The approval for the order, by the way, is forged. The handwriting analysis program identified it as Malcolm's work. The tech who's turning on the power is a kid named Hal Rogers. This is interesting because Rogers is not a grifter -- he's a student at Davis Community Vo-Tech. He has classes today in fact, until four."

Bruce and Barbara were looking at me, I could tell they were both ready to hit the streets and find this kid. "I wonder what his interest is." Barbara said, giving Bruce a glance.

I gave them the rest of it. "I pulled Rogers' file. He doesn't have any police records, but he had a couple of classes with Josh Tanner, so they probably were friends. It looks like Rogers is helping Malcolm and Stuart because of Tanner -- which suggests that whatever those two are planning, it's about revenge."

Bruce leaned back, his second plate of waffles completely forgotten. Mine were still warm, so I attacked while Bruce was thinking. Finally he spoke up. "I believe you're right. We still need to talk to Forbes, and now we should add Hal Rogers to the list. Barbara, I want you to go down to the Vo-Tech this afternoon. Don't go as Batgirl, you'll be able to track Rogers down easier posing as a student."

"Go undercover as myself, you mean?" She smiled. I smiled back, Bruce didn't.

"I've got his schedule downstairs," I told her, meaning, of course, the cave.

Bruce continued. "It's possible they are setting up whoever killed Tanner."

"But that doesn't make sense." I put my fork down again. "If they want revenge on someone for killing Tanner... why set up a poker game? That's what it looks like, anyway. Biltmore's notorious for hosting illegal games, and almost everyone Malcolm and Stuart has dealt with recently is a card sharp of one sort or another. Unless they're just using the game to lure someone in to kill -- but why go to all this trouble if there's not going to be a game? Unless the target is one of the other grifters who thinks it's just another sting?"

Bruce -- actually it was Batman -- looked at me. "We'll have to ask them, won't we? You said 'almost' everyone is a card sharp. Who're the exceptions?"

"There're three - Hal Rogers, Harper Dugs, and Felice Torrent. Dugs is a buttonman for Gerry Maccino -- he and his partner Rudy deliver payments to Maccino's boss, Tony "The Legs" Caliachi. Dugs and Stuart have crossed paths a few times, looks like they're friendly. Stuart once saved The Legs from being scammed out of a few million dollars, so he's probably on the 'do not touch' list. You might look into it, though." Any time a small con crosses up with Gotham Mafia, you know something's up. Caliachi might not be involved, but Maccino might well be. "Tanner's death doesn't look like something Maccino was involved in, not his style of execution and if it were supposed to be just a warning we'd have found a dead buttonman by now."

"I'll go talk to Caliachi." Batman was leaning forward, elbows on his knees. I had to force myself to remember what I was doing -- and that we had company. Someday, I told myself, I was going to jump the man in that mask. I already knew the quickest way to get him out of the costume.

"That leaves Felice Torrent. Who's she?" Barbara distracted me.

"She's a lady friend of Sandy Dan's, who works what is commonly known as the 'love con'. Has a real nice apartment on 24th paid for by an elderly widower who didn't survive his marriage to Felice. Had a heart attack in bed." I hid my grin. "She was cleared of any suspicion and from what I saw on the evidence reports, I'd agree. She doesn't seem to be mourning, though... she was picked up again a month afterwards for trying her stuff on a new mark who happened to be a Houston cop here on vacation."

"I wonder what her role in this is?" Barbara asked.

"Who knows? We'll have to find her and ask her." With that, breakfast was over. We had reached that point of the case -- we needed someone to tell us something before we could really get any further. That or find a body floating in the river, but that wasn't my favorite option. Neither was it Batman's. Batman stood up, and I tried to remind myself that once they had found someone to spill what he knew, I'd have work to do again. Instead I just felt left out, watching Batman and Batgirl headed towards the stairs. I looked over. "Want some help with the dishes, Al?"

Al's great, he really is. He understands being left behind. "Of course, Master Richard. You can dry." He gave me a smile, and patted me on the back as he went past. I felt a little better. While we cleaned up we talked about my rehab, for when I got rid of my last cast. What I want to know is how he knew I was planning on going hang-gliding as soon as I got out of plaster?

I sat in the cave waiting for someone to call. Batman was still tracking down Caliachi, Barbara had found Rogers an hour ago and was working on him. It was after four; Al and I had finished with the kitchen and he'd headed off to take care of the rest of the house. I came down here because it was the only thing I had to do.

That's not exactly true. I could have called Davy and spent the rest of the day hanging out. Or I could have gone up to the library to read, or even to the garage to tinker with a bike. Might even have logged onto StockWatch and found out how my little holding company was doing. There were a hundred things I could have done, some of them even sorta important. But I stayed here in the cave, just in case. Batman might need my help.

I knew I'd already done plenty -- every case we had involved some kind of research and we usually did it together, coming in to prowl the computer banks before going back out to prowl the streets. This time we'd gone through the routine faster and I suppose I should have been grateful that we had saved several hours. Truth was, though, it scared the living hell out of me.

Settled down in front of the BatComputer and staring at the flickering screens, I had nothing to do but think. What if Batman decided we worked better this way? What if he believed that I would best fight crime by sitting at home, surrounded by computers, instead of in costume at his side? I felt my throat tighten and it was all I could do to keep from screaming. I didn't dare ask, to get his reassurance that it wasn't what he had in mind. What if he hadn't thought of it yet?

What if he had and the answer was yes?

I closed my eyes, leaning forward against the desktop. I could see his face in my mind, looking at me with that solemn, no-arguments expression, hear his voice telling me that I would be bound to this chair for as long as Batman flew the skies. It would be perfect for him -- he would have his information as fast as he needed it, and I would be kept safe, out of harm's way. He'd never have to worry about me being hurt, killed, or even threatened too harshly. It would be perfect.

I wouldn't be able to stand it. I wouldn't do it of course. Batman has lost that argument several times already, since the first time I handed Al Robin's suit to hang beside Batman's. I just didn't want to go through it all again, not after I had finally -- or so it seemed -- convinced him that I could be his partner, be responsible, and that I'd stop doing those things he called foolhardy. Falling off a wall had done wonders for knocking some sense into me.

I still think he had been overreacting some of the times he'd yelled at me for running into the thick of things. I'll admit, now, that sometimes he hadn't been. When I'd told him that I'd seen relief in his eyes. He even believed me, although I hadn't had a chance to prove myself yet. After this case he might decide not to take the chance, and I did not want to argue with him again. I didn't want to hear him say he didn't want me with him. I looked up at the screens, saw that one had finally finished its program tallying all the known associates and activities of the two Mafia bosses and the courier we'd uncovered last night. We didn't know that we'd need the information, but it was foolish not to get it while we could.

I scrolled through it, but found nothing that seemed to tie in with Malcolm and Stuart's current operation. They were up to their usual stuff; none of it touched the grifters or Tanner, at least not that I could find. Their paths crossed somewhere, else they wouldn't have been talking to Dugs -- unless of course it was a totally unrelated matter and we were chasing ghosts. I didn't need to worry about that, though. We didn't know enough yet to start ruling anything out.

"Hey, Robin."

I sat up, wiping any sign of boredom from my voice as I answered, "Batgirl. How's it going?"

"Great. I have something -- Rogers told me quite a bit. Turns out Josh played poker with Rogers and a few of the other students every other Wednesday. Last week someone else was sitting in, the only name he gave was 'Sticks'. Rogers said Sticks cheated, Josh caught him, and the game broke up. They made Sticks give back all the money he'd won. Rogers didn't actually say so, but he thinks Sticks is the one who beat Josh up. It makes sense -- Josh was found about an hour after the game ended, behind the dorm where they were playing."

"Rogers really spilled his guts, didn't he?" I was impressed. I know Batgirl isn't as intimidating as Batman.

"All I did was smile."

"Uh-huh." That would do it, I guess. It wasn't fair, though. What did it leave me with? I wasn't intimidating or pretty. "I'll look for the name 'Sticks' in what I've pulled so far."

"I'm coming in to change into my costume, then. Maybe when I get there you'll have another lead for me."

"I hope so. Otherwise this could get boring, real fast." I said it like I was teasing her. It wasn't boring, exactly.

"Don't worry, Robin. You'll be back on the streets soon. Be glad -- you get to eat scones while you're working."

"Al told you about that?"

"I saw the tray," she laughed. "Save me one, okay?"

"Maybe." I grinned, and she clicked the radio off. I scooted towards the keyboard and began typing. A simple word search through the records we'd already pulled took about ten seconds. "All right!" Right there in the records I'd just pulled was the name David "Sticks" Calhoun, employee of Gerry Maccino. I read quickly, knowing I should probably call Batman before he talked to Caliachi. Sticks was even lower on the totem pole than Dugs, busted a dozen times for petty theft and assault. There was little chance Maccino would know much about what Sticks got up to in his spare time, and less chance Caliachi would even know the name, unless Sticks had managed to get himself into serious trouble.

I flicked the radio to beep Batman. A moment later his voice was low and sweet in my ear. I have got to do something about that someday. "What do you have for me?"

Oh, the things I wanted to say. I bit my tongue. "We found Tanner's probable killer. David Calhoun, also known as 'Sticks'. He works for Maccino, he's one of the lowly peons. Arrested for theft and assault several times, served a few months now and again. Looks like he beat up Tanner when Tanner caught him cheating at a poker game some students at the Vo-Tech hold every other week."

"Good work. I'll see what Caliachi knows about it. I'll call you back."

I started to say 'okay' but he clicked off. He'd probably just found Caliachi, then. I really wanted to be out there with him. Busting in to question one of the major Mafia bosses wasn't ever a safe thing, even if we weren't actually after the guy. Batgirl wasn't there to help this time. I sat in the chair and tried to tell myself this was what Batman was best at. Sneaking in, sneaking out, never being seen and only being heard by the one he spoke with. He'd be fine.

I stared at the computer screens not seeing a damn thing.


I jumped. "Right here." Did I sound nervous? I tried not to. Would he call me on it?

"Caliachi was happy to talk. He's never heard of Sticks. I believe him."

"Great. So at least we're not going to tangle with the mob." Batman would, of course, like to take down every gangster in Gotham.

"I'd like to talk to Maccino but if he is involved I don't want to tip him off just yet."

"Won't Caliachi warn him?"

"Then he'll be nervous when I don't show up right away. We'll keep an eye on things for awhile. If Malcolm and Stuart are setting Sticks up, it might not even touch Maccino."

"Still doesn't make sense. They want to get revenge on Sticks, so why a poker game? Poetic justice? Take all his money then kill him? I think we're missing something."

There was silence for a moment. "How much money does Sticks have?"

"I dunno. Hang on a sec." I looked up his bank records. "Not much, a few thousand. He might have a stack of cash under his mattress, but I don't think Maccino pays him that much. He doesn't do anything important."

"Yet Malcolm and Stuart are setting up a poker game. All of the people they've met with are known for playing high stakes cons."

"So if they want to cheat him out of the money first, they're planning to get a lot. How?"

"I want Batgirl to tail Sticks. Find out if he has any money we don't know about."

"Okay. She'll be here in ten minutes." Unless she was caught in traffic, which I doubted. The way she drives.... "What about you?"

"I'm going to look for Forbes and try to verify that Sticks is the one they're after."

"Sounds like a plan, then." What about me, though? I didn't say it out loud. If he wanted me for something, he'd tell me.

He didn't say anything. He closed the radio and I started clearing up some of the programs I'd run. Al came down with a tray a few minutes later. "I've brought you some dinner, Master Richard."

I couldn't help smiling. "Thanks, Al. Barbara'll be in soon to change and go back out. Maybe we should have a sandwich for her."

"She called to let me know she picked up something along the way. Now if only he would stop long enough to eat something...."

I laughed. "The BatMobile doesn't fit through the drive-through lanes. Did he tell you? I tried it -- I really wanted some fries. The auto-pilot kicked in and wouldn't even let me up to the microphone."

"Well, then perhaps we should have pizza delivery meet him somewhere."

"Oh! That's a great idea! Only problem is, I don't know exactly where he is. If he--" I looked up as Barbara came down the stairs.

"Hi, Uncle Al. Hey, Robin. Do we have anything?"

"Yeah. Batman wants you to follow Sticks around. We need to know if he has enough cash to make a poker game con worthwhile."

"Do you have any idea where he is?" She headed over to the costume rooms to change.

"No. Was I supposed to?"

She peered around the edge of the door and glared at me. I tried my innocent look. Didn't work on her either.

I relented. "I do have a list of likely addresses. Half a dozen places, you should be able to find him, or someone who knows where he is."

"Thanks." She came back out, dressed to the hilt. I didn't even try staring because Al was right there. He might not appreciate that I was just enjoying the view. He knows I wouldn't cheat on Bruce, but she's his niece. I've never had the chance to see him react to someone leering at Barbara but I'd guess he's the protective type. Proper decorum and all that. I wonder who designed her suit, though? I watched her leave and turned back to my dinner. Al headed back upstairs. With me down here he didn't have to hang out waiting for someone to call, which left him free to get his own work done.

"Stop it, you're going to get yourself depressed again." I frowned at my sandwich. I didn't need to start obsessing on being left behind for the rest of my career as a crimefighter. It wasn't going to happen, so there was nothing to worry about. I didn't seem to believe it, though, from the way my nerves were screaming. I called up a net connection on one of the computers and headed over to StockWatch. My companies were all tagged and it didn't take long to get reports on each of them. Looked like I was doing pretty well, although one of them was floundering a little. Wouldn't have bothered me except it had been floundering off and on for a couple of weeks.

I made a phone call, asking for a report on what its problems were. It felt very strange, remembering that in my other life I was a businessman -- had my own secretary and everything. Normally it felt pretty cool. I seemed to be doing a fairly good job with my holding company, making a small profit from the second month I had it. The first month all I did was buy and sell, trying to build my stocks as much as I could. Didn't take me long to figure out I could do a better job if I actually invested in things I knew about, or cared enough to learn about, and find out what the problems were before dumping something that wasn't making money.

It was a piece of advice I'd picked up from watching Bruce, from the times he let me tag along with him to the office. He wants me to be able to run Wayne Corp, or so he's threatened, which is why he gave me the initial investment in the first place. He never lectured or anything, but by watching him I picked up a lot. I know that was his intention, but I'm not proud enough to resent it. I didn't know anything about business before he started teaching me, and now I kind of enjoy it. The first time I asked for a report on a company that was failing, instead of selling it, I realized what I was doing. What I could do. It was a paper plant, and they'd had problems with their supply. Termites, or something, had infested a warehouse and they'd lost almost a quarter of their raw source.

I visited them, talked to the Plant Manager, and we came up with a plan to convert half of their plant to using recycled pulp. They'd had the plans in the works already, just needed the right contacts and money to get it started. I had the money, Bruce knew where to find the pulp. Now, six months later, they were opening up that part of the plant again and were ready to roll. All of the forecasts said it would do fantastically. They were even gearing up to hire a couple dozen more people.

If I'd sold them off, chances were they'd have had to let some employees go for a few months until the next crop of logs could be delivered. Not to mention the impact they'd make now from using recycled pulp instead of trees. When I had received the quarterly report last month, it felt like Robin had swooped down and saved somebody.

Maybe he had.

I sat back to read through the other stocks, then opened my email. There was a list of new prospects to go through, to either invest in or purchase. I wasn't ready to add anything to my collection yet, so I set the latter group aside. It didn't take me long to realize I couldn't concentrate well enough to evaluate the others, so I ignored the rest of the list, as well. I was just trying to distract myself, not actually get some work done.

I waded through the little busywork emails, messages from my employees -- I have employees -- asking for my input or approval, or just catching me up on things. I've never asked them what they thought of working for me -- barely twenty years old and already president of my own company. Granted, I didn't build it from scratch, and all of my employees were Wayne Corp. transplants. Hell, they probably thought Bruce had just given me the whole thing to keep me occupied.

He had, though. I mean, yeah I was supposed to be learning how to do this, and I did own the thing outright so if I needed to I could support myself without Bruce's money. But it wasn't like it sounded. It wasn't like I was being kept, and this was just a toy for me to play with. It wasn't like I couldn't have made it without Bruce....

Oh hell, now I was getting really depressed. I banged my head on the desk beside the keyboard. I had never resented his taking care of me, not since the first couple of days anyway. I had never thought he was just placating me, or 'keeping' me no matter how often I joked about it with Davy. I didn't need to start creating new obsessions, now. I knew what Bruce was doing, and why, and I enjoyed it. He wasn't keeping me, he had given me the means to keep myself, to be independent from him as much as I wanted.

So maybe I should stop protesting, and get back to work. I looked at my inbox and saw there were 50 messages. I needed to spend some time being president of my company for awhile. I might be young, and I might still be learning, but I had responsibilities. I didn't have an assistant like John to take care of everything in my absence. I had to take care of things, and do them properly, or they wouldn't get done at all. That wasn't something Bruce taught me. It was something I learned the first time Dad told me I would be catching my brother.

Twelve years old, finally strong enough to do more than just fling myself around. Dad took me up on the trap and taught me how to watch, how to catch, how to hold on. It took me about a week before I did it right, before I caught my brother. I'll never forget that feeling. I'd long since known how it felt to feel my Dad's hands grab my wrists, holding me safe above the net. The first time it was me, holding my brother up, all I could think was -- I stopped him from falling. Me. Little Dick Grayson, barely a teen, scrawny as hell and still having trouble with the fractions Mom was trying to teach me. I was the only thing keeping him from falling.

I learned about responsibility years before I met Bruce.

That in mind I realized it didn't matter what anyone thought about why I owned the holding company. I did own it, and I had work to do. I scrolled back through my inbox and began answering my mail.

I was considering a request to hire another warm body for my finance department when Batgirl called in. I continued typing as I answered. "Find anything?"

"Haven't seen Sticks yet. I went by his place and searched everywhere. I didn't find any stashes of money and from the looks of it I'd say he doesn't spend very much -- at least not on clothes, food, or entertainment, legal or otherwise. If he has a lot of money he's spending or hiding it somewhere else."

"Okay. Keep looking for him, and let me know if you find anything interesting."

"I found a Harley Chief 1940 on Debonaire Street."

"Buy it."

"Already tried, the owner wasn't interested. Well, not in selling the bike anyway." She sounded very amused. I had the sudden urge to find this guy and hang him off the side of a building... maybe Al isn't the only protective one. Granted, Batgirl could take care of herself just fine. But she shouldn't have to.

"Do I wanna know?" I asked it very casually.

"Nah, he's not my type. His friend was cute, though."

I laughed. "Give me his name and I'll run a check on him for you."

"You're on! Dallas Shuster, hangs out at Benny's Cycle Repair on Debonaire. Dark brown hair, green eyes, a curved scar on the back of his left hand. I'd say 5'10" and 175 pounds. Scrumptious."

"Got it. You go find Sticks while I work."

"Funny." She clicked off and I entered Dallas into the computer. There were ten Dallas Shusters in the Gotham City metro area, but only two met the physical description. I dug a little deeper and found one of them had paid Benny's for purchases and repairs several times over the last seven years. He had no criminal record, no voting record, and tended to return his library books and rental videos one to ten days late but he always paid his late fees. Never married, no birth certificates with his name as the father, rented an apartment in a fairly decent building on Chesire, not far from Benny's. He seemed like an okay guy. I saved the whole thing and emailed it to Barbara's personal account.

Batman never said we couldn't. I erased my search from the logs anyway and went back to work. I had just finished emailing Jason, my office manager, about the new employees he wanted when he called. "I'm here, Batman."

"I've spotted Forbes. He and the others are at the Biltmore Garage. Looks like the game is tonight. I've called Batgirl; she's on her way here now."

"What are you planning to do?"

"Watch, for now. If they're setting him up for something we'll be able to stop them. Right now, though, it just looks like they're going to play poker."

"Is everybody there?"

"No. Dugs and Felice are missing. Stuart mentioned Felice, said she was 'on her way'. No idea where she's on her way to."

I bit my lip. I had almost asked if he wanted me to hunt her down. I frowned at my cast and said nothing.

"I'll keep in touch, Robin."


Again I was left with nothing to do, to help. Batman and Batgirl would be keeping an eye on our grifters, and with the game already in motion there wasn't much need for any new research. It wasn't like I could tap into Maccino's security system and -- I am an idiot. Granted no one else had thought of it, either. But someone should have, why else did we build the darn things in the first place?

With a shove, I sent my chair backwards towards the estate screens, the security system for the Manor. I had no idea what the range of our floating cameras were, but I had nothing else to do but find out. I called up the specs and started reading as fast as I could. If Batman just needed an extra pair of eyes, I could give him that. Look for Felice, or Dugs, or even Maccino if it came to that. All I needed was a shielded satellite connection to the camera, so I could direct it throughout Gotham without any signal interruption.

According to the specs they couldn't fly very long -- electric powered, they had to return to base to recharge once every hour. I grinned, and selected three of the spares to head for the cave. There was space on the outer casing where I could strap on a battery and increase their flying time to nearly four hours. Bruce hadn't done it before, because the battery was large enough to make the cameras difficult to hide which defeated the purpose of a hidden security system. It wouldn't matter so much for my purposes, because the cameras were still smaller than a person in costume. Anyone Batman or Batgirl had been following, I could follow as well.

Almost as well. I would only be able to see directly ahead of the camera and pick up audio. I couldn't melt myself into the shadows to remain hidden, but on the other hand if anyone spotted me they wouldn't know who it was that was watching. It might not even matter. I spun in my chair as the cameras approached.

Oops. The engineering lab was down a set of stairs. I looked down at my broken leg and flicked on the intercom. "Al, could you come down here and give me a hand?"

"Certainly, sir."

He'd probably have to help me modify the cameras, as well. Good thing Al has a degree in engineering. I stood up and made my way to the top of the stairs leading down to the labs. The cameras were floating above the tables already, staring at each other as they waited. It looked a little creepy, like they were having a discussion. Wonder how they'll feel about becoming superheroes? Maybe I wouldn't ask.

It wasn't five minutes before Al showed up and helped me navigate the steps. I could have done it had there been a railing of some sort to hang onto. I'll have to talk to Bruce about making the Cave handicapped accessible. "Thanks, Al," I said as soon as I was standing on flat ground again. I headed for the tables, explaining what I wanted to do, and soon he was gathering tools and equipment. I settled down on a drafting chair and grabbed the first camera.

It took us an hour to get all three ready. Batman called in once during that time to let us know nothing unusual was happening. They were just playing poker, slowly but surely conning Sticks of his cash. What was odd was that Sticks appeared to only have a few thousand dollars, yet the other players were geared up for much more. Maybe he had a wad stuffed down his shirt, I don't know. At least I didn't have to worry about having wasted Batman's time -- by now he was intrigued, and would follow things until the mystery was solved if only so he would understand what was going on. I didn't blame him -- this wasn't making much sense and I wasn't sure I'd be able to sleep soundly if we didn't find out why they'd picked a poker game as the method to get their revenge.

I didn't tell him about the cameras. I wanted to be sure they would work before letting him know I could help keep an eye on things. No point in mentioning them yet if they turned out to need another week's worth of tinkering. I could still get points for being brilliant, though, when I did tell him.

When they were ready I let Al help me back up the stairs. I put the cameras through a few test runs, directing them around the Cave while I checked the radio pickup and feedback. I had to bring one back for some adjustment but the other two did great. I could send them out one at a time, and be good for twelve hours or send them all out in different directions. Al took the malfunctioning one back down to the lab and I called Batman.

"I've got something." I couldn't help grinning. It felt so good to be useful!

"What is it?"

"Three remote control cameras each with a four-hour flight time. I can track down Felice or Dugs, or help keep an eye on Sticks if you want."

There was silence for a half-second. Then, "Excellent. Send one after Dugs and the other after Torrent. Save the third until we need it."

I looked over my shoulder and saw Al heading over. I gave him a thumbs-up and a grin. He'd said it was excellent! Who-hoo! "Understood, Batman." I quickly checked the locations of the two individuals -- we'd bugged them earlier so we could check up on them whenever we wanted. Tiny, subcutaneous, organic transponders which would be dissolved by the body in another two days had been shot into Dugs and Torrent with small darts while they'd been tailed. I think there was another Wayne Tech patent pending on those.

I found them and told Batman, "Got 'em. I'll be at their locations in thirty minutes - the cameras don't fly as fast as you do." He didn't laugh. I didn't expect him to. I checked the cameras one more time, then sent two of them sailing down the tunnel towards Gotham. I hung onto the one Al had fixed in order to triple check it -- again. It seemed to be working as well now as the first two. Apparently the connections to the battery had just been loose, making the motor uncertain as to whether it really had power.

I shut it down and left it lying on the ground near the tunnel entrance. The other two cameras were doing fine; I checked the video and audio feedback and got a picture of flying over the trees. Not much to hear except wind. The power readouts gave me clear readings of each camera's reserves. The radio connection was strong, and with my tapping into one of the Wayne Industries satellite links I should have no problem with any interference. I tried not to bounce in the chair; with one leg in a cast I didn't really have the leverage to do so. I was going to get to see and hear what was going on instead of sitting at home doing nothing!

I didn't worry that neither Torrent nor Dugs might not be doing anything worth knowing about. Though the game was happening now, we still had no real idea what was going on. While the cameras were headed for their targets I re-checked their locations, calling up the city map and researching the locations. Torrent was at a motel in a mid-low-class area of town -- the type used by classy prostitutes and poor working class as they passed through Gotham. This particular motel, the Green Parrot, was often used as a meeting place for people who didn't want anyone to know where they were and what they were doing. No hourly rates for this place, but according to their books they often got keys back the same day they handed them out.

It was likely Torrent was up to something. She was too far away from the Garage to be of immediate use to our grifters, but a conman like her had moved beyond places like the Green Parrot years ago. Dugs, on the other hand, was at work. He was at a bar called the Dusty Rose, one of several hang-outs for Maccino's men where they waited for someone to need their services. I wasn't surprised; Dugs usually worked Wednesday nights, hanging out at the Dusty Rose, leaving only to stand guard over someone who needed the escort. Thursdays and Fridays he ran interference at one of a dozen different operations, weekends he helped with collections. Mondays and Tuesdays he had off.

You can learn a lot doing research.

I reprogrammed the camera headed for Dugs to stop 50 yards off his location. I didn't want to alert Maccino's mob that someone was spying on them. Unless Dugs was standing around bragging about his role in the grifters' con, I wasn't likely to learn anything from him anyway. Dugs didn't seem to be that stupid. Depending on what happened to Sticks, Maccino might object to Dugs' involvement -- besides which, buttonmen who casually discuss things they were involved in didn't last long in the Organization.

There's one guy, name of Libiorne, who runs part of the docks. In his mob there's a standing rule that anyone who talks to the cops gets left hanging by his balls in a junkyard and left for the dogs. Anyone who talks to Batman just gets shot. I've always wondered what will happen when I get the chance to talk to one of his people. Actually, I think Batman should go talk to Libiorne himself. Would his people shoot him? I've told Bruce he should try it, but he just glares at me.

I put each camera's video and audio display on adjoining screens and waited. Fifteen minutes later Batman called in again.


"Right here." I turned down the audio control for the cameras. It would be another ten minutes before they arrived.

"Something interesting -- Sticks has just pulled out a small bag of bills. Small bills, wrapped in equal sized stacks. If the denomination is all the same I'd say it amounts to $20,000."

"Whoa! Where'd he get that kind of money?"

"Perhaps Torrent or Dugs can answer that question."

"I'll keep an eye out. At least now we know why everyone was geared to play for big bucks."

"Sticks acts like he expects to win... so far they've only played one hand since he pulled the money out. I'll keep you posted."

"Cheating him out of $20,000 would certainly go a long way towards getting revenge on Tanner." It didn't sound completely right, but it at least made things begin to make sense.

"Hopefully we'll find out what they're really up to before they do any permanent damage." With that Batman clicked off again. I glanced back up at the monitors, thinking. Where would a guy like Sticks get $20,000? If he had won it in a game, he'd already be out spending it. Maccino didn't trust him near even a fourth that amount of cash, so he couldn't have walked off with it.

Unless, of course, he'd borrowed it without permission. That showed an incredible amount of stupidity because if he lost it -- and it looked like he was set up to -- Maccino would kill him.



"Yes, Robin?"

"I think Maccino is going to kill Sticks after he loses the money."

There was silence for nearly five seconds. "I'll have Batgirl track down Maccino and tail him. I'll stay with Sticks. Do you have Torrent or Dugs yet?"

"Not yet. Five minutes."

"I wonder how our grifters plan to avoid Maccino's revenge, once he learns what they've done?"

"Maybe they'll return the money afterwards and hope Caliachi will protect them from retribution?"

"Maybe. Chances are Maccino will still go after the others to set an example. He's not the sort to let something like that slide, even if the money is returned."

"Stuart and Malcolm might not know that."

"I suspect they are aware of the nature of the players involved... their past schemes have shown a high level of preparation and care. They're not likely to make mistakes."

"But they've never done anything like this before, they might be -- hang on, I've got our missing friends." I glanced at the one hovering outside the Dusty Rose and tucked it out of sight. The other was hovering outside the window of Felice Torrent's motel room. The curtains were drawn but there was enough of a crack at the bottom to position the camera. By turning up the audio pickup I was able to hear what was going on.

Didn't take very long to figure it out. She had some guy in bed and they looked like they were going to be occupied for quite some time. If this was Torrent's job then that meant this guy needed to be out of the way for a good reason. I kept the camera focused until I was able to get a shot of his face, then I ran it through the BatComputer. I told Batman was I was doing, and turned my attention to the second camera.

I found a spot by one of the air vents where I could listen in; there was no place to see in where the camera itself wouldn't be seen. It took a while to single out Dugs' voice, and once I did all I heard was his opinion on the hockey game the Gotham Panthers had played a few hours ago. They'd won by two goals, and Dugs was a fan of the goalie who'd played the last half, Charles Walker. I left the camera rolling, recording the conversation, and checked back on the identity program.

I'd placed it on a narrow search first going through the records we'd pulled before, anyone who had a connection with any of the players we'd already identified. It only took two minutes to identify the man. Rufus Delvecchio was one of Maccino's deliverymen. He took cash payments, a portion of those paid to Maccino, and delivered them to Caliachi. That explained the $20,000 -- just the right amount for a mid-month delivery -- but it did not explain how Malcolm and Stuart were planning to get out of this alive. If they cheated Sticks out of money intended for Caliachi....

"Batman? I don't get this."

"What did you find?"

I explained about Delvecchio. From the ensuing silence I knew Batman didn't get it yet, either. It made my head hurt -- either we were still missing something, or Malcolm and Stuart were playing a dangerous and stupid game. "Maybe that's why they're carrying guns? To defend themselves when Caliachi or Maccino come after them?"

"It wouldn't work for long. There's something missing, something we've overlooked."

I heard that tone -- he was sitting there in the shadows, thinking through every clue we'd uncovered, every scrap of information we'd found. I turned to the audio pickup outside the Dusty Rose, and did a quick scan for anything interesting. Still hockey. Torrent and Delvecchio were still in bed. According to Batman, Sticks was starting to lose the money, but not so quickly or so much that he seemed worried. Batman was still silent. I was tempted to call Batgirl and tell her what I'd found out about Dallas, but Batman might think we weren't concentrating on what we were supposed to be doing.

All I could do was wait for him to figure things out, or for Dugs or Torrent to drop me a clue. "Robin, bring the third camera here to the Biltmore Garage."

"Got it." I powered the last one up and sent it flying towards Batman. There was nothing to do then but wait -- Torrent and Delvecchio weren't saying anything informative and Dugs was still talking about hockey. Batman watched as the grifters slowly and skillfully con Sticks; they'd let him win once or twice then make him lose, varying how much he won and lost so he'd feel as if he just might win the whole thing, and keep playing.

When my third camera arrived I saw the final hand. Sticks didn't know it, of course, but everyone else did. He'd just matched someone's $10,000 raise and was raising it again. One more raise and he'd had everything on the table. I waited, tense in my chair as I watched the screen, glancing once over to the others and seeing nothing new. The player on Sticks' left, Marco Rollins, raised another $3000. The other players saw the raise and finally, as the play came around, Sticks bet the rest of his -- probably Maccino's -- money. When they laid the cards down I wasn't surprised when Sticks looked like he'd just killed himself. Malcolm had a full house, beating everyone else quite soundly.

Batman kept us in the shadows as we watched Sticks try to beg for a loan so he could win some of the money back. The others weren't listening, and they dealt him out of the next hand. I watched as Sticks jumped up and grabbed Malcolm, demanding his money back. Stuart stepped up then and manhandled Sticks out of the garage.

All in all, it was over pretty quickly. Batman took off after Sticks when the man left and I stayed to watch Malcolm and Stuart and friends through the camera. They kept playing poker for two more hands, acting like nothing unusual had occurred. Batman called to say Sticks was running, heading south towards his apartment and two of his hangouts.

That's when the game broke up. One of the grifters, Marco Rollins, pulled out a cellphone. I dialed up the audio and listened in.

"Yeah, I wanna leave a message for Mr. Maccino. No, it ain't. Look, just tell him I think he lost something."

I called Batman and fed the audio pickup into his radio.

Rollins continued after a short pause. "I was sittin' in on a game, and one of his guys was there. Lost a lot of money -- and I know this guy, he ain't never had that much money to lose."

I hated that feeling in my stomach. I'd been right, they'd set Sticks up to get him killed. Why they were risking their own necks, I didn't know.

"I just thought Mr. Maccino might wanna know. In case he comes up missing anything." Rollins hung up and gave the others a grim smile. I was leaning forward, ready to jump down and grab him -- then I remembered I wasn't really there.

"Robin, stick with Malcolm and Stuart when they leave Biltmore."

"Will do, Batman." I stared at the screen. It was weird, there I was all pumped with adrenaline and all the guys were doing was cleaning up. The money was split up -- they counted everything out and returned unequal amounts to everyone. I realized they were getting back the same amounts they'd all started the night with -- the $20,000 was split up between Forbes and Sandy Dan. No one complained about not getting their cut, and no one mentioned the wisdom of hanging onto money that belonged to Maccino.

Sometimes crime fighting makes my head hurt. While the grifters cleaned I thought it over again. Everything made sense, everything was accounted for... except Rufus Delvecchio. Why keep him out of the way if they were just gonna call Maccino and tell him Sticks lost the money? Rufus was the one who usually delivered the money to Caliachi, so how did Sticks get a hold of it in the first place? Rufus wasn't going to hand over a delivery to someone like Sticks, even to spend the night with a beautiful woman.

I opened the radio again. It was late, and Batman was better at this than I was.

"If Delvecchio delivered the real cash to Caliachi but Sticks was asked to make what was actually a fake delivery it would explain why the grifters aren't worried about Maccino or Caliachi finding out who took the money from Sticks. Delvecchio was kept out of the way so he couldn't report back that the money had actually been delivered. Maccino will believe, for a short period at least, that Sticks has lost his cash."

For a moment I just sat there, and thought back over what he'd said. How he'd figured it out I didn't know. He'd probably been doing nothing but dwell on it since Sticks pulled out the cash. It did make sense, though. Give Sticks a fake delivery, make him lose it, tell Maccino. Maccino kills Sticks, then finds out the real delivery was made and presto, everything's fine. Maccino might not be thrilled about being tricked into offing Sticks but he probably wouldn't be that big of a loss, from Maccino's point of view. Chances were he'd never find out who set Sticks up, and if he did, Stuart could just call in a favor from Caliachi.

I sat for a moment, then asked, "Where does that leave us?"

"I'll pick up Sticks and drop him off with the police. Hal Rogers can testify to his killing Josh Tanner."

"And Malcolm and Stuart?"

"Where are they now?"

"Just heading out. They act like everything's over and done with. Hang on," I sent the camera closer so I could pick up their conversation and listened for a moment. "They're planning on laying low for a couple weeks, then getting back to business as usual so no one figures out they had anything to do with it."

"Batgirl, have you found Maccino?"

"I'm just getting on his tail now. He's really mad about something."

Batman relayed what he'd figured out, and told her leave him. While we didn't want to stand by and let someone get killed, there was no point in helping Maccino out. He could figure out what happened on his own, and if he lost a little sleep then that was fine. Batman had her head back to the cave, and said he'd met us as soon as he delivered Sticks to the closest station.

That's when I realized it was over. I blinked, once again realizing I was sitting in the cave watching everything on the monitors. The screens on Torrent and Dugs hadn't changed, and Malcolm and Stuart were in Stuart's car, headed east.

That was it? I shook my head. Where was the fight? Where was the sailing down on the cables, swooping in just in time to catch the bad guys and avert crime? I rested an elbow on the armrest of the chair. There had to be more to it. There just had to be.

I was way too pumped up for it to be all over. I left the cameras on just in case and waited for Bruce and Barbara to come home. I did get to see Delvecchio say good-bye to Felice and head out, acting like there was nothing wrong in the world. I stayed on him instead of Felice, to verify Batman's guess about the cash delivery. Maybe we were wrong and there was still something afoot.

Batman called and said he'd left Sticks in good hands; the investigating officer was apparently glad to close the file on Tanner's death. He got an update on Malcolm and Stuart's location and went to wait for them. Something about convincing them not to try something like this again. I didn't ask -- I knew. You walk into a dark room in the middle of the night and find Batman there, telling you to behave yourself. See what you do. Batgirl came in and headed off to shower and change. I waved at her but stayed in my chair. If something else happened I would be the only one to see it. Admittedly I didn't know what would be left.

"It's not the first time this has happened."

I looked up, startled by Al's voice. "Huh?"

He smiled. "An easy end to a rather complicated case. This isn't the first time you've caught the criminals by outwitting them instead of out-fighting them."

"Yeah, I guess..." I gave him a grin. "It just doesn't seem like it's really over unless we've got a few bruises, though."

"I would appreciate it if you got used to it, Master Richard. The cost of bandages these days...."

He let it go at that, since he didn't really want to remind me of the medical costs I'd just gone through. Not that we couldn't afford it, he just wanted to remind me that cases like these were better than nearly getting killed. "I hear you, Al. I'll be grateful." I leaned back in the chair and stretched. "I'll be more grateful when I get to bed."

"Do you need some assistance?"

"Nah. I'm just gonna wait for Bruce."

"Very well, then."

Al headed back up the stairs. I watched him go, flashing briefly on how close we'd been to losing him not too long ago. I shook my head. The adrenaline was slowing down and I yawned. Batman would be coming in soon, and then we could go upstairs and wind down. I'd wind down, Bruce would just put his costume away. I've never seen him really relax.

On the screen Delvecchio was heading for home and Dugs was standing at the bar, drinking soda and talking with the bartender about saving up to buy a home. They were discussing interest rates and loan companies -- those connected and those not. Malcolm and Stuart were in the car, talking about plans for a new game, debating the merits of another card con or running a few petty cons to tide them through until it was safe to set up another big score. They were headed for home, where they'd be finding a surprise waiting. I figured they'd end up packing up and heading for parts unknown.

I collected the records I'd compiled on them and faxed it to the Feds and to over two dozen police stations around the country, all likely places for conmen like them to go. Wherever they ended up, they'd find it hard to get back to their usual games. I could track them down later and make sure their new hometown knew about them, what kind of people they were so the cops could keep an eye on them. Life was back to normal.

I looked down at my cast. Normal. I remembered all my fears about Batman benching me, and stood up. Grabbing my crutches I headed off the platform, frustrated at needing to run up to my room when I was so hampered, slowed to a mere crawl. I wanted to throw my crutches across the room but knew I'd lose them if I did and then I'd be stuck explaining how they'd ended up at the bottom of the cave. Maybe I could just wait here and distract Bruce, let him drag us off to bed before either of us had a chance to mention it. I might have been able to do it if I'd been in one piece. As it was, by the time we got me upstairs I'd have lost any seductive momentum I'd have worked up.

I know: I tried it four times, three weeks ago. Never failed to fail. Maybe if I left now, I could get upstairs and be waiting for him. But who knew what frame of mind he'd be in if given the chance to head up at his own pace. He might take the time to think things over, figure out how he was going to tell me I was through. Right now he would be concentrating on scaring Malcolm and Stuart but once that was done he'd have only me to think of. He'd have all his arguments ready before he ever came upstairs.

If I waited down here I'd catch him early, maybe before he could convince himself his arguments would work. The problem was I couldn't avoid it at all, if I did. I sat back down in the chair and looked down the long tunnel where he'd be driving up. If we fought about it now, at least we'd get it over with. With a glance at my cast, I realized that wasn't true. Bruce could keep arguing about it until I was back on my feet and ready to show him I was still capable.

That would take weeks. I didn't want to fight for weeks.

I heard the BatMobile coming. I looked up, watched it pull in. Batman got out of the car and headed over, pulling his mask off. I needed to know but I didn't want to risk asking. I should just ask him if he's ready to head upstairs, ask him if Sticks gave him any trouble and tell him everyone else was off to bed. He walked up and looked at me, confused. I didn't want to say anything. I didn't want to know.

"Are you going to keep me here?"

"What?" He looked surprised.

I was shaking, but I'd gone and said it so now I had to repeat it. "Are you going to keep me here? When I'm out of the cast and I could go back out with you... am I gonna have to stay here doing your research while you and Batgirl do all the work?" I wasn't sure how loudly I'd said it. It felt like whispering, in my own ears it sounded like shouting.

He didn't ask me what I meant. He knew exactly what I was talking about and I tried to turn away. I didn't want to hear him say it.

"Dick, look at me." I couldn't stop myself. I looked back and he was still standing there. He didn't look like he was about to apologize. "What you did tonight, yesterday, all week in fact has been important. We couldn't have stopped Maccino from killing Sticks if you hadn't figured out what was going on."

//Oh god.// I closed my eyes and begged for him not to say it. I felt hands on my arms and looked up to see Bruce's face, concerned and almost affectionate. Huh?

"I never planned on keeping you here. It wouldn't be fair--" He stopped, and watched me gaping at him. He started to smile.

"You weren't?"

"No. I'll admit the idea occurred to me, and it does - did -- appeal. It helps a great deal to have someone here doing the research while we're out there, putting the information to use. But -- correct me if I'm wrong -- if I suggested it you'd simply refuse and follow me."

"Yeah... but I figured you'd argue with me about it first."

"I wouldn't win."

"So?" I didn't think that would have stopped him.

He shook his head. "It wouldn't help. And... I don't want to hurt you by trying. I love you."

I counted back. "That's five."

"Five what?" He looked at me like I wasn't making sense.

"Five times you've said it." I didn't mind, don't misunderstand. It's just that he only says it when he really needs me to know.

He looked uncomfortable, like he was trying to figure out a way to explain and apologize. I reached out and grabbed his hand, holding the crutch under my arm so I wouldn't lose it and interrupt this. "Is that enough? I mean, are you gonna be happy with me going out there again when I could be here, safe and secure?"

Bruce didn't say a word at first. He looked at me, gauging, thinking, and I wondered if we might have to argue about it after all. I didn't think so, and when he finally answered I knew it would be okay. "I need you safe, out of harm's way. But I also need you with me. I can't have both...."

"Not until we retire."

He smiled briefly. "I'll never stop trying to keep you out of danger."

"I know. It won't stop me from running into the thick of things."

"I know."

We stared at each other for a moment. I kept expecting something to happen -- theme music or something, cueing up the big kiss and the fade into black. Instead Bruce gave my hand a squeeze, said nothing, and waited. I grinned.

"Wanna hear what I did with the records I pulled?" We headed for the lift, and I explained how I'd sent the records to every law enforcement agency within the tri-state area. When I finished, he just looked at me and nodded. He approved.

Sometimes I feel like I can fly.

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