DON'T FEAR THE Z by Random Equinox


Chapter 3: Hours of Operation

"I'm bored."

Zoiks sighed and looked up from the issue of National Geographic he was perusing. "You could read a book," he suggested.

"I've read them already."

"How about the newspaper?"

"All we have are old copies of the Post," Zed whined.

"Watch some TV."

"They're all re-runs."

"You could go on the computer."

"And do what? You disabled the internet router so no one could track us by our IP addresses, remember? Which means no Web-surfing, no e-mail, no Facebook—nothing."

"Call of Duty over the LAN network we set up?"

"I still can't close my eyes without seeing Zowie's victory dance every time she beats us."

"N00b," Zowie piped up on cue.

"Of course, you could just go out for a night on the town like Zooks did," Zound called out.

Zoiks frowned. Zooks shouldn't have done that. The whole point of setting up a hidden base with all the comforts they could think of was so they wouldn't have to go out, risk bumping into Scarecrow, and find out whether he still wanted to give them all heart attacks as part of his 'payment.'

At that moment, Zooks came strolling through the door, a swagger in his walk.

"Let me guess," Zound said dryly. "You got lucky."

"Damn straight," Zooks winked. "You guys should've come."

"And see you make a fool of yourself?" Zowie snorted. "No thanks."

"Hey, I managed to get some action," Zooks protested. "Got to tap a pair of real hot babes, if you know what I mean."

"Two of them?" Zed's eyes bulged. "This isn't fair," he muttered enviously.

"Oh, don't be jealous," Zound reassured him. "I'm sure he didn't last long."

"Hey!"

Zowie muttered inaudibly. Something about men and measuring things.

"I'll have you know that my stamina was just fine," Zooks said hotly.

"And off we go into the land of 'too much information,'" Zowie groaned.

"Plus I got us another job."

"You WHAT?"

Everyone jumped. No one had ever heard Zoiks yell before. Not until now.

"What part of 'Keep a low profile and stay off the radar' didn't you get?" Zoiks snapped, jumping to his feet. "Do you want someone tracking us down and spraying us with fear gas? Or getting arrested?"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Zooks protested, raising his hands in a placating gesture. "It wasn't like that. Double Dare just—"

"Double Dare?" Zoiks roared. "As in the twins? Are you nuts? When are you going to start thinking with your head and not your dick, you idiot? Building another themed lair will bring the heat on us—"

"That's just it," Zooks interrupted. "They don't want a themed lair. They just want a bare-bones operation. Bed, fridge, something to cook on, working toilets. That's it. No theme. No 'extra expenses.' Just—"

"But that's what we do," Zed pointed out. "We do themes. We do 'extra expenses.' That's our thing. That's what our clients want."

"Our clients normally want something set up so they can put their latest scheme into action," Zooks said. "Akiki and Margot—"

"You're on a first-name basis with the clients?" Zound raised an eyebrow. "How nice."

"They don't want that," Zooks continued, as if he hadn't been interrupted. "They just want something in Gotham where they can hide."

"Hide?" Now Zoiks looked more confused than angry. "Hide from who? The cops?"

"See, that's what happens when you don't get out," Zooks sniffed. "Ya miss out on all the gossip. Word on the street is Scarecrow wanted a Joker lair 'cuz he wanted to spring Joker outta—"

"He what?" Zowie burst out.

"Will you let me finish?" Zooks cried.

...

...

"Thank you," Zooks said sarcastically. "Anyways, Scarecrow busted Joker outta Arkham. Seems the doc finally realized everyone's scared shitless of Joker, so he thought he'd pick up a few tips. Well, Joker didn't exactly play ball. Clown's gone outta control. He's running around, ripping off everybody else's themes and takin' them for a spin. The twins're freaked that he'll kill someone soon, and they don't wanna be the ones singin' 'Goodnight, Gracie.' So they're looking for a place to hide until Bats drags Laughing Boy back to the loony bin."

Zed scratched his head. "But we don't do that."

"That's the point," Zooks pounced. "No one'll suspect us of building these things, even though we got the know-how, because 'we don't do that.'"

"That could work," Zoiks said thoughtfully. "I still say you shouldn't have gone out, Zooks. You put us all at great risk. But it would quell the cabin fever that has been rising around here."

"Our savings won't last forever," Zound added in a similar tone. "A little bit of extra income would help us stretch things out."

"This is still kinda weird," Zed frowned. "I mean, hiding from Joker, that's a no-brainer. But to give up your theme? And all the major comforts of home?"

"They're circus performers-turned-thieves, not Rogues," Zound pointed out. "They don't have a theme to give up."

"Plus, they have a certain familiarity with spartan and substandard accommodations," Zoiks added.

"Which means it'll be easier to set something up," Zooks finished.

Zowie shook her head. "I have a bad feeling about this."


Zooks started the coffeepot going, citing that he was 'exhausted' after the busy night he'd had. Of course, it was only a coincidence that this took him away from Zowie and her efforts to wheedle someone—anyone—into playing Call of Duty with her. Eventually, Zed caved in.

While Zowie and Zed turned on the computers, Zound went over to see what Zoiks was doing. He had put aside his National Geographic and was rapidly tapping away on his laptop.

"I am starting a search on possible hideout locations," Zoiks said, answering Zound's unspoken question. "It is harder than it looks."

"Especially without any themes to narrow the list down," Zound sympathized. "What have you done so far?"

Zoiks motioned for Zound to sit down. "So far, I've been eliminating locations based on size," he began as Zound grabbed a nearby chair. "Not too big—as Double Dare won't want or need room for torture chambers, money bins or storage for theme-related paraphernalia."

"We'll also need somewhere that's as close to move-in ready as possible," Zound suggested.

Zoiks sighed. "That search parameter will not get us as far as you'd think. I am afraid that the information on our sites is not as extensive as I would like. That is why we have to visit each site in person before transforming it into an actual lair."

"True," Zound conceded. "But our info does distinguish between 'move-in ready,' 'work-in-progress,' and 'desperately in need of a complete overhaul.'"

"We really must come up with better names for those categories," Zoiks observed.

"Yeah, but 'Level 1, 2 and 3' lacks a certain panache," Zound said. He snapped his fingers. "Oh, before I forget: since we have to do an inspection, we'd better make sure this place is as close as possible to bring in any amenities that are lacking."

"But not so close that any idiot will be able to track us back here," Zoiks added, his fingers typing away. At last, he hit the 'Enter' key. Zoiks and Zound waited for the results to appear.

They were quite surprised by the program's findings.

"One location?" Zound said.

"I may have put especial emphasis on the criteria of size and location," Zoiks admitted.

"Whaddya guys doing?" Zooks asked, coming up with a cup of coffee. "Ooh, we got something," he answered his own question, leaning over to see the details. "Huh. Over on 11th and Murphy. This could work. Now we just need someone to check it out."


Zooks looked both ways once, twice, three times. Then he quickly dashed across the street.

According to Zoiks, it was his turn. Zooks had no idea how he had determined that. Maybe it was from the same place that spawned that kick-ass lair program of his. Or maybe he pulled it out of his ass.

Besides, he figured, he might as well buy himself another meal while he was out. He wouldn't go club-hopping or pub-crawling, of course. Much as he hated to admit it, Zoiks did have some reason to chew him out. But there was no reason why he couldn't go grab some fish n' chips, with a nice glass (or two or three) of beer to wash it down. Maybe grab some take-out to take back to the Zs. Or steak.

Then he looked up ahead and saw Poison Ivy walking down the street. Normally he didn't mind checking her out. Green skin wasn't his thing, but all that exposed skin, coupled with a pair of truly yummy knockers, more than compensated. But if she saw him, it would cause all sorts of problems. Plus, Zoiks would never let him hear the end of it.

So he did an about-face, walked back a few steps and opened the nearest door.

Looking around, he was surprised to see himself in a church. One of those old ones, with the tall arches and the stone and the stained-glass windows. Kind of thing you don't see much these days. A priest came out to greet him, all decked in black with that funny white collar thing. Zooks prepared himself to say hello and maybe face a couple minutes on how he really oughta come over on Sunday. Blah, blah.

He did not expect the priest to wag his finger at him like a naughty kid.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk. You're late, young man. The meeting's already started."

What meeting?

"Oh, this is your first time, isn't it? Well, better late than never. Right this way, please."

What the hell? Er, heck. What the heck.

Before Zooks knew it, the priest was hauling him down the hall towards a flight of stairs, their footsteps echoing throughout the church. That wasn't the only thing he heard, come to think of it. As they approached the stairs, he could hear a couple people talking.

"I... I can't deny it any longer."

"It's hard, I know."

"We have to take inventory..."

Sounded like the church was overdue for some spring—summer?—cleaning. Guess at least one person was in denial about the whole thing, draggin' their heels up 'till now and all. If that was the case, then hey, it's a free country. Their business and all. But why drag him into this sh—um, silliness.

The priest started marching up the stairs, his hand still on Zooks' arm. The voices were getting louder, but he still couldn't make out everything. Too much echo.

"...what we see... say... hear... stays here. Nothing leaves this room."

Yeah, yeah. And what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Yeesh. Soundin' like some kinda goddam—uh, gosh darn conspiracy. Maybe that Dan Brown guy was onto somethin'.

They walked down the corridor and turned left into a large room. On a table near the door, Zooks could see coffee and cookies. Not exactly what he was going for, but free food and drinks was always welcome. Especially since it wasn't just the cheap crap—um, crud. It wasn't crud. If the smell wafting from the coffee pot was any indication, this was the good stuff. And the cookies—man! Each one five or six inches wide, loaded with chocolate chunks the size of a quarter. Zooks had never been closer to being converted.

Unfortunately, the priest wouldn't let him stop to pick up anything, too intent on hauling him towards the center of the room. There were ten or twelve people there, sitting in chairs that had been pulled up in a rough circle.

Wait a minute.

The priest plopped him in an empty chair, sat beside him and beamed.

"Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Sorry I'm late, but I found a new soul in need of salvation."

This looked familiar...

"Let's go around in a circle and introduce ourselves."

Like some kinda...

"My name is Philip, and I'm an alcoholic."

Oh.

"My name is Jim, and I'm an alcoholic."

Fuck.

"My name is Jack, and I'm an alcoholic."

Um.

"My name is Betty, and I'm an alcoholic."

Fudge. Yeah, that's better.

"My name is Shane, and I'm an alcoholic."

Though the swear word seemed more appropriate somehow.


It took almost two hours to get out of that thing. Then Zooks needed another hour or so to get to the site and look it over. Plus a stop by Taco Bell to grab some fast food. As a result, it was almost ten o'clock by the time he got back.

Zooks took another look at his watch. 9:58 pm. He cursed.

Over the year or so that the 'core group' of Zs got to know each other, Zooks had basically established a rep for two things: knowing the best places to go for food and drinks and always being the guy who put beer on the shopping list. As such, he knew that when he got back and explained why it took him so long, there was no way the others would let it pass. No way in hell.

He was not mistaken.

"Always thought you had a problem, what with that beer belly that keeps threatening to pop out," Zowie teased. "Never knew what the ladies saw in you."

That was a lie. He had washboard abs, not a beer belly, and was damn proud of it.

"Nah, Zooks wasn't going there for an AA meeting," Zed laughed. "He went there 'cuz he found religion."

"Found or founded?" Zound asked.

"Ha! I can see it now," Zowie snorted. "The Cult of Zooks."

"All hail Zooks!"

"Bow before Zooks!"

"In Zooks we trust!"

"Funny! Real funny!" Zooks snapped, stomping to the fridge and reached for a beer. After a moment's thought, he pulled his hand away and grabbed a Coke instead.

"Did you have a chance to evaluate the site after your impromptu effort to become sober?" Zoiks asked, always on business.

"Yep," Zooks replied, plopping down on an empty chair. He cracked open his Coke, took a gulp, and started chomping away at the first of his three burritos.

"Is the site suitable for a hideout?" Zoiks continued.

"Pretty much," Zooks shrugged, propping his feet up. It looked like the other Zs had also gotten some take-out—sushi, by the looks of it—and had finished it while watching a Star Wars movie. One of the prequels, where that annoying whatsisname kept yapping away and making an ass of himself. "No leaks or cracks. Running water and power. Got two beds, a table and a mini-fridge. Throw in a couple chairs and a hot plate, and it's ready."

"We don't even need chairs," Zowie pointed out. "Just use foldable stools instead. Easier to carry, and we've got a bunch in the back room."

"Nice," Zound nodded. "So who's gonna bring 'em over?"


Zound was, as it turned out. Apparently, it was his turn. Somehow. At least Zoiks was willing to wait until the morning, so he could try to get some rest. 'Try' being the operative word. For some reason, sushi, ice cream, popcorn and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace turned into a nightmare where Queen Amidala was getting it on with Jar Jar Binks. Needless to say, he did not have a good night's sleep.

Zound slowly tossed four stools into the back seat of the Z's van, hopped in and started the engine. He noticed immediately that the gas tank was almost empty. Apparently the last Z to take the van out for a spin neglected to fill it up. After a moment's thought, he scowled, cursed, and slapped himself on the head.

Scolding himself, he took a right instead of a left and headed for the nearest gas station. He made it there and got his gas, but not before dozing off once or twice. Or three times, if the blare of horns was any indication. Clearly he needed something to wake up. And it didn't look like he could last until he got back to the hideout.

So off he went to Starbucks. Found a place to park through some aggressive manoeuvring, beating some red-faced broad to the prize. Only downside was the fact that it was half a block away. Not that that was a bad thing. There was nothing like walking through the streets of Gotham to drive home what a beautiful, vibrant city it was.

Of course, normally he wasn't trying to avoid being seen by capes, Rogues, henchesor anyone who might recognize him and what he did for a living.

He had almost reached the site, debating whether to get a regular coffee or an espresso, when he spotted someone. He didn't need to see the henchmen flanking the man, looking all tough and intimidating. Nor did he need to see the custom-tailored, expensive tuxedo. The distinctive waddle was enough to tell Zound that Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. the Penguin, was five seconds away from seeing him.

It took only three of those seconds to dive into the nearest shop. As a tinkling bell gently announced his entrance, he sidestepped behind a conveniently placed tan structure, placing it between him and the trio he was trying to avoid. One with some curious strips of red.

As his breathing slowed, his brain caught up with what his eyes were seeing. His heart sank. Slowly, he turned around.

The refuge he was hiding behind was a mannequin. It was tan because that was the color of its ersatz skin.

And the strips of red were certain articles of clothing that preserved its modesty. If it cared about such things.

"Well, hello there!"

Zound's heart sank even further. Slowly, he turned around.

A matronly-looking woman greeted him with a warm smile. A warm smile and... Zound forced himself to look the employee in the eye, silently musing that a fifty-something old woman had no business wearing see-through blouses. Or low-cut, push-up bras.

"You know, we don't see many men in here. Unless they're shopping for their significant other. That's why you're here, isn't it?"

"Um..."

"To buy some sexy lingerie for your wife?"

"Um..."

"Or maybe you're just trying to spice things up with your lady friend."

"Um..."

"Well, don't you worry. I'll help you find just the right thing to help you get 'lucky,' as you boys like to say."

The woman clamped her hand on his arm with a grip that would make Batman proud. As the delightful lady began her little spiel, Zound stifled a groan. This trip was going to take a bit longer than expected.

"Now, then, do you know what cup size your lady friend wears?"

"Huh?"

"You know, how big are her breasts? Or boobs, you young men call them now. Or—"

"Ah, ah, no, no, I—I don't know how big, er, they are," Zound hastily stammered, thinking to himself that women old enough to be her mother shouldn't know so many ways to describe certain aspects of the female body.

The woman cooed in admiration. "Oh now, isn't that sweet? Playing the waiting game, getting to know that special someone before the big night. Girls do appreciate that sort of thing, you know. Especially since it's so rare. Seems all men know these days are 'wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am.' What a shame."

Zound's eyes were starting to bulge at this point.

"In that case, might I suggest some slinky lingerie? Silk is always a classic. It feels so good on a woman's body, not to mention how it feels when you're taking it off. For both sides, of course."

He really didn't want to know how she knew that, Zound reflected. Ignorance truly was bliss.

"And when all those annoying clothes are out of the way, and all that skin has a chance to breathe, then the fun can begin," the woman continued, utterly oblivious to how her disturbingly frank and detailed knowledge was causing all sorts of internal torment in her customer. "We won't go into all the various positions you and your lady friend could assume—"

Oh thank GOD!

"—but there are several toys you could use to make things more, shall we say, arousing. Like handcuffs."

Zound's eyes were definitely bulging now.

"Oh, don't worry," the woman reassured him, misunderstanding the look on his face. "We're not talking about the 'bad-time' handcuffs the police use, dear. These are 'fun-time' handcuffs!"

A strangled squawk rang out. It took a second for Zound to realize it came from him.

"Now, our handcuffs are all padded with faux-fur, so as not to harm our dear animal friends. They come in just about every color imaginable. Except white. We stopped carrying that color after receiving customer feedback. They kept getting dirty and stained, apparently."

There wasn't anything Zound could say to that. There really wasn't.


"What took you so long?" Zed called out when Zound got back. He and the other Z's were watching a re-run of House. An old one, Zound noted absently, as House was encouraging his henchmen to poke the patient of the week's spine for some test or other.

"Almost bumped into Penguin. Had to take a detour to avoid him," Zound replied simply. He decided not to go into the specifics, knowing he'd never hear the end of it.

Zowie glanced up and stared at him suspiciously. She had the funny feeling that he wasn't telling everything. Call it female intuition.

Nobody else did, though. Maybe it was her imagination.

"Did you deliver the stools?" Zoiks asked.

"Sure did."

"And the hot plate?"

...

"Oops."

"Great," Zed sighed. "Another trip. Who's going to go this time?"


Zed didn't like going out on business. He never liked it before. He didn't like it now. Especially when he was supposed to be keeping his head down.

He much preferred staying at home or merrily working away at some lair. That's why he didn't voice a single peep of protest when Zoiks announced his plans to have the Zs bunker up. Even if there was nothing to read. Or watch. There were computer games, after all. And since he was the only one willing to get slaughtered by Zowie's hands in Call of Duty, he could always use that as leverage to get her—and anyone else he could rope in—to play something he was better at. Like Starcraft.

But now the Zs were back at work, when they were supposed to be lying low. Setting up this lair— hideout, Zed corrected himself; it was too plain and discrete to warrant the moniker of 'lair'—had only taken two days. A new record. It would've taken less time if Zooks had remembered to take the hot plate with him. Instead, the Zs had to make an extra trip.

Still, things were going well so far. He'd made it to the lair, dropped off the hot plate, double-checked to make sure that they had remembered everything, and then left. He looked furtively around. No one.

So he started to sneak down the street to the nearby parking lot, where he'd left the van. He was about halfway there when he heard a honk from behind him.

He turned around to see a sleek Lamborghini pull up. And not just any Lamborghini. It was a Reventón. Carbon-fiber exterior. 6.5 L V12 engine. 6-speed manual transmission. 0 to 62 mph in 3.4 seconds. Maximum speed of 221 mph.

Normally, Zed was all over details like that. Hell, he'd even printed a glossy poster-sized copy of one for his room. For once, though, Zed didn't notice any of that. Instead, his attention entirely occupied by the color of the car.

Purple.

Shit.

It was purple.

Shit.

And that meant...

Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit!

 

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