DON'T FEAR THE Z by Random Equinox


Chapter 5: All Your Lair Are Belong to Us

Gotham Post, August 25th

THERE'S A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN—JOKER FOILED BY FELLOW ROGUES!

After holding Gotham hostage with his insane shenanigans, the master criminal and psychopath Joker has finally been apprehended. In a surprising twist, the culprits responsible for taking down the infamous mass murderer were not Gotham's Finest, nor the masked vigilante known as the Batman, but a conglomerate of 'Rogues.'

Calling themselves the 'Injustice Force of the Western Hemisphere,' this group of ne'er-do-wells—whose roster includes the Catwoman, Riddler, Penguin and Poison Ivy—stormed the Wayne Animal Sanctuary, where Joker had taken billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and several Wayne Foundation board members hostage. After an intense firefight involving AK-47s, lightsabers and Sinestro's power ring, the self-styled Clown Prince of Crime was taken into custody and returned to the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane.

The fledgling criminal syndicate is currently being sued by the Injustice League and the Injustice Society for copyright infringement. Spokesperson Waylon 'Killer Croc' Jones was unavailable for comment.

Zound rolled his eyes and threw the rag down on the table, regretting that the subscription to the Gotham Times wouldn't kick in until next month. Hard to imagine that he'd spent the past several months subsisting on the Post, CNN, Fox News and whatever news stories he could find on the Internet. So much time had passed. Thankfully, Joker and Scarecrow had been captured and everything was back to normal—relatively speaking—which meant the Zs could move back to their usual hideout and get back to business.

Speaking of which, Zound glanced at the table, where a fellow Z was nervously gulping down some chow mein. To say Zed had been traumatized by his second encounter with Catwoman would be an understatement. It had been a month since the Incident. Zed was now capable of leaving his room for more than a couple minutes without running back, diving under the blanket and assuming the fetal position. He had stopped staring into space and muttering "The claws... the claws..." And he had gradually divulged, in fits and bursts, what had happened during that fateful evening. Still, he wasn't quite himself yet.

Which made it quite surprising when word came through the grapevine about who their first client was.


"I wasn't expecting you of all people to hire us for a job," Zound admitted.

"Life is just full of surprises, isn't it?" Catwoman replied.

The meeting had been set at the Iceberg Lounge. Catwoman was already there when Zound arrived, finishing off a conversation with Jervis Tetch. Zound's Hatter-to-English translation skills were a little rusty, but he got enough to understand that Edward Nygma seemed to be experiencing a round of bad luck. Bad luck meant no successful heists, which meant a lean pocketbook. Zound mentally scratched him off the list of likely clients for the immediate future.

After a few minutes, Tetch left. Zound sat down at Catwoman's invitation and ordered a beer. They suffered through the obligatory chit-chat about the weather, the state of the economy, the weather, the latest gossip according to Tetch, the weather again and how nice it was to have Joker back behind bars.

Eventually Zound got tired of beating around the bush. "So what do you want?" he asked.

"How's Zed doing?" she asked instead.

"Reveling in all the luck he has when it comes to meeting clients," Zound replied coolly. "Like the first time. That was with Joker. Best we can figure, it ended up with Zed tied to a chair, watching a loop of Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton music videos ad nauseum."

Catwoman winced.

"Second time was our first encounter with Scarecrow's habit of dosing us with the same toxin he uses as 'henchmen insurance.' It kicked in when Batman dropped by and scared the crap out of us. Naturally his antidote didn't work on Zed. He'd won the genetic lottery, apparently. It took two days before he got it out of his system. Thankfully he stopped screaming after the first hour. Mainly because he'd damaged his throat from screaming himself hoarse."

Catwoman winced again.

"And the last two times were encounters with you. Both of which scared the crap out of him." Zound leaned forward. "I'd say you should see how bad it is, but that would destroy any progress he's made so far. You've really messed him up. As far as I'm concerned, you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us."

"Look—"

"On a more professional note, this is the second time you finagled information on our business dealings. If we had any other rules on how we do things, that would be it. And you broke it. Twice."

"Well—"

"I'm willing to let the first time slide. It was ages ago, and I'm willing to say the statute of limitations on that has passed by now. I am reasonable, after all."

"I'm glad—"

"And the second time did involve Joker, who was acting crazier than usual," Zound continued without pausing. "If that's even possible. His antics were scaring potential clients into hiding, which was bad for business. "

"That's—"

Zound still hadn't finished. "But that's not enough to wipe the slate clean. You broke our rule. Twice. That stops now. No more sweet-talking, scaring, or pummeling any information related to our business. From any of us. Understood?"

Enough was enough, Catwoman decided. She could concede that Zound had a legitimate reason for his grievance. And she certainly didn't want to traumatize anyone, even if it was unintentional. But letting someone just sit there and dictate what she was expected to do? She wouldn't let Batman get away with that, let alone one of the Zs.

"I never intended to cause Zed so much grief," she said at last. "Which is why I wanted to call this meeting." She slipped over a package wrapped in shiny wrapping paper. Not purple, Zound noted. "To give you this."

"Which is?" he asked.

"Something that Jervis was sure you guys would enjoy. Specifically Zed. Which is the main point, since this is kind of a gesture of apology."

Zound was silent for a moment. "This is probably the moment where I discover that my foot's in my mouth."

"Probably," Catwoman agreed.

"Well, on Zed's behalf, thank you for the peace offering. Whatever it is."

"You're welcome."

"Regardless, you understand that everything I said about not extracting information on us still stands?"

"Just as long as you understand that cats don't take kindly to orders," Catwoman smiled. "Or threats."

To his credit, Zound didn't pull the whole 'that's a statement, not a threat' crap. He just gave a small smile of his own. "Just consider that we routinely add 'extra expenses' to our clients' bills for the sheer fun of it. Sometimes it's even an afterthought."

"And your point is?" Catwoman prompted.

"Do you really want to find out what we could do if we got pissed enough to put our minds to it?"

"That almost sounds like a challenge," she purred. "Shame I've got other fish to play with... for now."

Zound smiled again, said his goodbyes and left. Catwoman finished her martini and left soon after. She sauntered out of the Iceberg, her hips automatically swaying in a hypnotic beat, as if nothing had happened. She walked half a block down to where she'd parked her 'Catmobile.'

A Catmobile which had developed a curiously regular pattern of bumps in the last hour.

As she got closer, Catwoman saw those bumps were chocolate. Someone had partially melted a bunch of chocolates on the hood of her car, just enough so it adhered to the metal. A bunch of chocolates that spelled the words 'Strike 2,' though the number looked more like a 'Z.'

Message received and understood.

Out of curiosity, she scraped some of the chocolate with one of her claws and tasted it. Hazelnut chocolate truffle. Yummy.

Life is just full of surprises, isn't it?


"For me?"

"That's what she said," Zound confirmed.

"For me?"

"Probably why she didn't bother wrapping it in anything with cats," Zowie guessed. "Or purple. She didn't want to cause you any more grief."

"For me?"

"For god's sake, open the damn thing already!" Zooks demanded.

Zed complied. His eyes bulged. The other Zs ran over to look.

"Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty," Zound read.

"Collector's Edition," Zed added.

Zoiks scratched his head. "You know, I was planning on getting that game for us. Even worked out a hack so we could play it over a LAN network."

"Awesome!" Zed said, grinning for the first time in weeks. "Anyone up for some PvP?"

"Huh?" Zooks asked blankly.

"'Player-versus-Player,'" Zowie interpreted. "Sure, I'm in."

"You sure?" Zound whispered to her. "Zed's the Starcraft champ amongst our crew, remember? And from what I hear, the game mechanics in Starcraft II are pretty damn similar."

"Zed needs a good time," Zowie replied. "Besides, how bad could it be?"


Fifty-two minutes and four games later, Zowie regretted those words.

She'd kept up to date on Starcraft II ever since Blizzard Entertainment announced it in Seoul. She'd drooled over the gorgeous cinematic trailers—partly because of the graphics, partly because the guy had some impressive muscles. She'd devoured every rumor, teaser, tidbit and gameplay video just like everyone else.

Apparently that wasn't enough.

Enough was enough, she vowed. She'd lost the last three games, but this time would be different. This time, her army had made it all the way to Zed's base. This time, her army was strong enough to crush Zed's defending forces and start dismantling the bunkers protecting his base, bit by bit. Seventy-eight Marines, twenty-two Marauders and seven Siege Tanks to lay one hell of a smack down on anyone who tried to mess with her. Five Medivac shuttles to heal any organic units who took some damage. And a pair of Battlecruisers, just for kicks.

Zowie watched in satisfaction as some of Zed's forces showed up—no doubt called back from an attack of their own when she started her onslaught. They attacked from the rear, trying to distract or split her army's focus. Silly Zed—she'd taken that possibility into consideration when she built her forces. She was ready for that. She was ready for anything he could throw at her.

"Nuclear launch detected."

Except for that.

Giving a silent thanks for the game's automatic warning systems, she immediately panned the screen over to her base and started scanning for the little red laser dot that marked ground zero. Nothing. She moved over to her secondary base. Still nothing. So where was Zed's little nuke going, exactly.

Zowie's stomach dropped as she suddenly figured out the answer. Moving back to her forces, she saw how her army was effectively pinned between Zed's bunkers up front and his cannon fodder in the rear. Just before not one, not two, but three nuclear missiles dropped down and vaporized it in a trio of ersatz mushroom clouds.

"Base is under attack."

Crap.

"Nuclear launch detected."

Double crap.

It took a second for Zowie to assess the situation. A dozen Reapers, easily identified by their jet packs, had merrily bypassed the defences of her primary base and were demolishing her infrastructure, building by building. And her secondary base? Already demolished, thanks to Zed's newfound obsession with blowing stuff up.

Swearing again, she typed 'GG' to Zed and logged off.

"'GG?'" Zooks asked as she stood up.

"'Good game,'" she replied, somewhat testily. "Come on, you must know this stuff. Didn't you wonder what I was saying whenever we played Call of Duty?"

"That was you?" Zooks asked blankly. "I thought it was the game."

Zowie rolled her eyes.

"So I was thinking we could go out for dinner," Zound said, glancing at Zed. "Applebees, Olive Garden..."

"Actually, there's this pub a few blocks north of here," Zooks mused, relieved to talk about something other than gamer lingo. "Burgers aren't half bad, but the beer's great. Don't go for the steaks, though—they're always too tough. If we hurry, we can beat the dinner rush."

Zed's face lit up. "Burgers and beer sound good."

"Well then," Zoiks said, clearly as relieved as everyone else to see the old Zed back. "We'd better get going."

As the Zs started to get up one by one to leave the room, Zound caught Zowie's eye. Getting the hint, she lingered behind.

"You know when I was delayed setting up Crane's Joker lair because I had to dodge Penguin?" Zound started.

"Yeah," Zowie nodded. "You were a bit vague on the details, as I recall."

"Long story."

"Give me the Cliff Notes version."

Zound complied. Zowie managed to keep a straight face. Barely.

"So how did you get away?" she asked curiously, after she managed to stifle her laughter. "Did you buy something?"

"No," Zound shook his head. "But I did get a 50% off coupon." He held it out to her.

Zowie raised her eyebrows. "For me?"

"It's either that, or buy something with it and charge the full price to our next client," he shrugged.

The two looked at each other for a second. Two. Three.

Then Zowie swiped it and stuffed it in her jeans. "If you ever ask to see what I got, I'll tell the others what you suffered through," she warned.

"Lips sealed," Zound said solemnly.

"Hey!" Zooks called out from the garage. "You guys coming or what?"

"Yeah, just hang on," Zound called back. "We'd better go," he told Zowie.

"Right."

The two of them headed out. "So you were thinking that some Rogue might wanna buy some lingerie for their lair?" Zowie asked casually. "Theoretically, of course."

"Exactly," Zound replied. "Theoretically."

"So should we start putting out feelers and see if Professor Strange is in the market for a lair?"

"For the love of God, don't go there. Please."

"But he could get some slinky outfits for his mannequin."

"What part of 'Don't go there' do you not understand?"

 

 

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