The name told me everything that I needed to know. The Wayne Manor had burned down, amid all the chaos that had overtaken the city. The most prominent man in Gotham, the owner of billions, had died mysteriously of a heart attack. But Richard Wayne? Now that… that was someone else entirely. Perhaps a son? I caught a train across the city, wrapped in a heavy trench coat that I’d borrowed from one of the Blackgaters. It was early morning, and the only people sitting across from me were shivering businessmen and the odd half-conscious homeless guy with just enough money to catch a ride across the city.
One of the guys across from me suddenly spoke.
“Hey, you want to see a magic trick?”
The randomness of it caught me off-guard. “Sure.”
He pulled a pack of cards from his pocket, and then rapidly sifted through them. I watched his hands carefully, looking for an unusual movement. He fanned them out in front of me and nodded at them.
“Take a card.”
“Mechanic or Hindu force?” I asked quietly.
He froze, and I grinned at him.
“Oldest trick in the book, man. Or one of the oldest.”
“How…?” He shook his head. “Guess it’s useless, then?”
I shrugged. “Depends.”
I held out my hand for the pack of cards. He raised an eyebrow, and then handed them over. I glanced over the cards, before handing them back to him, motioning for him to pick a card. He sifted through the deck, found a card, and looked up at me.
“Got it in your mind?” I asked him.
He nodded, and I took the cards back from him. Then I curved them in my hand, fountaining them into the air. Then, when they’d all fallen to the ground, the guy looked at me in confusion, a derisive grin on his face.
“Just what was that supposed to be?” he asked.
I nodded at the chair between his legs.
He looked down, and flinched, swearing and jumping backwards. His card, the card that he’d chosen from the deck, was impaled into the soft foam by my switchblade. The guy looked completely astonished, and pulled the knife free, looking up at me in astonishment.
“How the hell…?”
“Now that’s a magic trick,” I told him.
“How’d you do it, though?” he pressed.
The others were staring at me now, completely taken aback.
I just grinned infuriatingly at him. “Magic.”
Of course, it’d been a little simpler than that. The window behind him was reflective, and it’d been child’s play to see exactly what card he’d picked. From there, all I had to do was retain the card, shoot the others into the air as a distraction, then attach said card to my knife and send it thudding into the seat close to what he valued most. The train pulled to a stop, and I nodded at the guy who was still staring at me in astonishment.
“What’s your name?” I heard him ask.
“JJ,” I told him, before getting up and stepping off the train.
The station was packed with people, and as I moved into the busiest, business part of the city, it wasn’t too hard to blend. My coat was a little off-putting, since it was about three sizes too big for me, but I could’ve passed for a homeless kid, maybe.
I asked around, looking for Wayne Manor, and a guy selling hotdogs on a corner told me where to find the place. I paid for lunch at his cart, and then made my way through the business district. The city swarmed with life – high-end cars were piled up for miles through the streets, humanity in a swarm of suits, trousers, blouses and skirts moving in an ocean around me. The air was filled with the hum of human life. I crossed a street, moved down a side alley, and as I walked, I noticed something flit in and out of sight of the corner of my eye. An elusive shadow, faintly green, if my vision wasn’t failing me.
The Green Arrow Girl.
Casey Laughlin, she’d called herself.
I wondered whether she was watching me specifically, or simply the people around me, stopping muggers dead in their tracks in alleyways. Chances are, she wouldn’t know what I looked like anyway – in the half light of my apartment, she would’ve had problems making out the features of my face. I was surprised that she’d lived this long. The criminals of this city were heartless, and the amount of murder I’d seen over the years was enough to convince me that Gotham was easily one of the worst places to live. And yet here I was, following the orders of a dead man. My father. I grinned humourlessly at the thought.
Nice to know that there was still those who would dedicate their lives to the cause of right.
Finally, I found Wayne Manor.
It took me most of the morning, but I finally found it – a sweeping area that I’d almost mistaken for a park. The tall, wrought-iron gates were bound with police tape that was peeling off. I climbed the fence, and then walked up the drive. The trees were still in excellent shape, and the grass was still very well trimmed. Did someone still live here? With this kind of care, there had to at least be a caretaker. Gravel crunched under my feet, and the smell of freshly-cut grass filled my nose. It almost felt homely, and I wondered what it would’ve been like to live here. As I came out of an avenue of trees, I saw that what had once been a soaring manor was now burned the ground – an ugly black spot on otherwise beautiful parklands. Something thudded behind me.
I spun, and I felt something slice my face open, hitting me like a baseball and rocking my head back. I got my balance and saw a figure in dark blue and black melt out of the shadows of the trees, two more black projectiles already racing for my head. I ducked, something whipping past my ear, and then raced forwards, towards the guy.
Nightwing reacted instantly, suddenly producing two baton-like weapons and jabbing one into my chest. There was a crackle of electricity, but it didn’t affect me for some reason, and I knocked it aside, going for my Rossi. My hand went numb as Nightwing clubbed my wrist, and I leaned back, narrowly dodging a swing that would have dislocated my jaw.
“Can we talk?” I asked, stepping back. “I’m not here for a fight.”
In reply, a foot drove into my gut and sent me to the ground.
Right, so that was how we were going to play it.
I rolled, avoiding a stomp kick, up and onto my feet again, and kept my distance, circling Nightwing. He saw my wariness and feinted once or twice, keeping his eyes firmly on mine. I grinned, knowing that it always took people off guard. It was a lot easier to see him in the daylight – he had dark hair, cut short, with blue eyes that were hidden behind a fright mask that drew attention away from the shape of his face.
I knew that he was committing my face to memory, too.
Finally, I broke the impasse. I ripped off my trench coat, and as he came at me while my arms were trapped, I pulled a crazy jumping kick. He barely got his arms up in time, and I heard something click in his wrist. Nightwing cursed, dropped one of his batons, and jabbed at me again. I deflected it with the thick coat, twisting it around his arms.
He changed tactics, driving a kick towards my shin. I slipped it – just – and twisted harder, bringing him in close. I smashed in a headbutt, got an elbow free and hit him in the ear with it, before driving in a knee shot with made him wince. He finally got an arm free of the coat, and caught hold of my neck with a grip like a vice. It was his bad hand, though – I rolled my neck, and his sprained wrist forced him to let me go.
“We can keep doing this all day, or we could actually talk it out,” I told him.
Blood was dripping from his face, and he grimaced, trying to wrench his arms free.
I kept hold of him, though. He tried a punch with his busted hand, but I slipped it and wrenched downwards with the coat. Nightwing had no choice but to release his weapon, and I flicked the Blackgater’s overcoat up into his face. He thrashed it out of the way, but the half second that it took him to get it clear of his vision gave me all the time I needed.
I thumbed the hammer back on the Rossi as I levelled it with his skull.
He saw the set of my mouth and stopped short.
“This would’ve been a hell of a lot easier if you’d just shut up and listened to me.”
Nightwing wiped blood from his mouth. “You haven’t exactly given me proof that you’re trustworthy. Escaping police custody, hitting me with five thousand volts?” He shook his head. “You’re getting to just the same as your predecessor.”
“He left me a job to do. I need to know what it is before I can stop it,” I told him. “Between the two of us, you’ve had more experience with the Joker. You honestly think that if I just get up and move away things are going to change? We don’t have to be enemies.”
Something smashed into my hand from the left, battering the Rossi from my hand. Instinct had me duck backwards, but someone caught me under knee, and in a second I was on my back. A boot came out of nowhere and rested on my throat, pinning me to the grass.
A girl in green grinned at me. “Miss me?”
“So you were following me,” I muttered. “Perfect.”
“Nice work, Arrow.” Nightwing walked into my field of vision, and grimaced, clicking his wrist back into place. “I take it that you both already know each other?”
“We’re… acquainted,” I said. “So you’re cosy with Nightwing? That’s cute.”
Her foot ground just a little harder into my throat. “Quiet.”
“I need him talking,” Nightwing told her.
She shifted, suddenly dropping a knee to my chest and driving the air out of my lungs. I cursed, and she grinned, kneeling on my chest. She had an extendable fighting staff in her free hand – she’d used that to disarm me – and a smug grin on her face. Nightwing waited a few moments for my breath to come back, and then crouched by my head.
“You really want to play hardball, JJ?”
“Depends, Richard. Do you?” I asked.
He froze, and I laughed. Holy crap, I’d actually nailed it. I thought that it was just a little too neat that Nightwing happened to be around the Wayne Manor just as I came looking for Richard Wayne. He was tall, had dark hair… it was a long shot, I had to admit, but one that had paid off. His pause had clarified everything – I know knew the identity of the late Batman’s sidekick. Of course, the logical step here was to silence me, but I knew their codes. They wouldn’t kill. It was their one rule.
And now Green Arrow Girl was his sidekick?
This was ridiculous.
“Who’s Richard?” Nightwing demanded.
“Too late, Wayne,” I told him. “Waaayy too late.”
Casey glanced at Nightwing.
“Ah, come on. You’ve got nothing on me, guys. Let me up and we can talk this out. I’m looking for something kind of important…” My words were cut off as Casey hit me.
Jeez, she had a punch, that girl.
I came to in a dark cavern, my hands bound behind me. My clothes were gone – under the trench coat, I’d still worn Joker’s suit – and the only thing I had to comfort me was that Nightwing had granted me the dignity of my trousers. Every weapon that I’d had with me was gone – the Rossi, Joker’s joy-buzzer, my switchblade, the syringe… dammit. I’d practically forgotten about that. What had Joker said about it? It’ll be good if you need a decent distraction. Well, I needed one now. Badly. Although, to be honest, I probably could’ve done with another willing pair of hands and a bolt cutter. The chains digging into my wrists were cold as ice and uncomfortable as hell.
“Well, that was unexpected,” I said to no-one in particular.
“Mix it up with us, and that’s what happens,” said a familiar voice.
I rolled my eyes. “Arrow? Seriously? You can’t think of something better than that?”
“Better than Joker Junior,” Casey sneered in the dark.
“Hey, my name terrifies people.”
“Only because you’re the bastard of two genocidal psychopaths.”
I grinned. “Now that’s just plain mean.”
“What did you come here for?” she demanded.
Her voice reverberated around us. I couldn’t see a damn thing, but that was probably because they’d wrapped something around my eyes. Felt vaguely like elastic.
“Actually, I came to pick up Joker’s car. You know, last will and testament.”
Nightwing’s voice joined the fray. “That purple…? Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Yup, that’s Joker’s. You took it off a Blackgater in a game of poker, remember?”
“And what makes you think that I’m going to just go ahead and give it to you?”
“A couple of things,” I said.
“Like what?” Arrow asked derisively.
“Like the fact that I have a thermonuclear device in my stomach right now,” I lied, “and you’re going to seriously regret it if I happen to have one of my people trigger it.”
I heard a sharp intake of breath from towards my left. Casey, probably.
“You’re bluffing,” Nightwing said.
“I’m the Joker’s son,” I reminded him. “You seriously want to find out?”
“You’re not a functioning lunatic. You’re not that insane. And I combed your clothes for a transmitter. What makes you think that you’re going to be able to contact ‘your people’ and tell them about it in the first place?” Nightwing asked coldly.
“Tooth mike,” I told him, grinning. “Feeds in through the jaw.”
I knew that he couldn’t tell if I was lying or not. One of the advantages of having grown up on the streets of probably the most criminal city in the world – you got good at lying really fast. “How about you unchain me and we can talk like human beings?”
“How about no?” Casey offered.
I shrugged. “That’s cool. But I’ll warn you – I’m not really a patient kind of guy.”
Something triggered on a nearby computer, beeping at a high speed. I heard footsteps on metal, and then Nightwing cursed. Something hard and cold pressed into my gut, and I felt a faint electric tingling. Suddenly, the blindfold came off my eyes and I was blinded momentarily by harsh light. A second passed, and my vision cleared. I could see a screen in front of me, showing the ghostly blue internal organs. A heart throbbed at the same time as my pulse. So Nightwing had scanned my guts.
Something made me stop short. My bluff, my lie… it was legit.
A metallic device that was implanted in my stomach.
Holy. Freaking. Crap. OK, that wasn’t even slightly funny.
There was a bomb sewn into my insides.