Chapter 2: Masks On
"Shit, shit, shit!"
Zed darted from the bush that had provided such wonderful shelter, just in the nick of time. A second later, that bush was inundated by a hail of fire.
He ran forward, aiming for the nearest piece of cover—a particularly magnificent specimen of oak.
Unfortunately, his foot caught a not-so-magnificent root that had the indecency to stick out of the ground. There was a brief rush of air around him just before he got a self-inflicted mouthful of earth.
Spitting out dirt, pebbles and who knows what else, Zed scrambled to his feet. Looking around, he saw his gun lying on the ground. He bent down, scooped it up and started to run again.
"Zed! Over here!"
Without bothering to look, Zed immediately altered his course. It was only after he started building up some steam that he started to pay attention to his surroundings.
The other Zs had holed up in a small two-story shack. Zoiks and Zowie were on the rooftop, using their vantage point to spot any enemies a mile away and direct Zound and Zooks accordingly.
By the time Zed registered what he was seeing, he was almost at the shack's door. Subconsciously, he started to slow down so he didn't run Zooks over.
"Ow, ow, ow, DAMNIT!"
Zed stumbled into the shelter of the team's chosen hidey-hole, his shoulder ablaze with pain. Zound ran over and gave him a quick once-over.
"You're still in the game," he said.
"What're you talking about," Zed asked incredulously. "I got shot! Four times. I friggin' felt it!"
"Yeah, but none of the paintballs exploded," Zound replied. "So technically, you didn't get hit."
Zed rolled his eyes. "Great. So I got hit and bruised for nothing."
"Stop whining," Zooks snapped. "I got hit behind the ear! Bruise is swelling like a goddamn balloon."
"I thought we weren't allowed to take headshots," Zed frowned.
"Not on purpose," Zooks grunted. "But the DEMONs are real trigger-happy for a bunch of pirate-playing, Cadaver-loving clowns. And they got piss-poor aim."
No wonder they were on the other team.
"Uh... somebody? A little help here? Please?"
Zoiks and Zowie hurried over to help Zed. He'd just returned with several bags worth of supplies for Scarecrow's Joker lair. One trip down, lots more to go.
"Glue, glitter, more glue, still more glue, confetti, more glitter, ice cream—ice cream?" Zoiks looked up.
"Yeah. 'Half Baked' for Joker, 'Cherry Garcia' Frozen Yogurt for Harley. Didn't know what Scarecrow likes, but I can always make another trip."
"That's a lot of ice cream," Zoiks observed.
"Well, duh," Zowie rolled her eyes. "It's Ben and Jerry's."
Zowie was about to roll her eyes again when Zound and Zooks walked in. "Finished," Zooks said cheerfully, making a beeline for the fridge. He scooped up the ice cream on the way, shoved it in the freezer, then opened the fridge compartment and yanked out a six-pack of beer.
"Boys, brawn and beer," Zowie murmured. "Three things that go together and they all start with 'B'."
"How 'bout brains?" Zooks asked, handing cans to Zoiks and Zed.
"Yeah?" Zound grinned, taking one for himself. "What about brains?"
"Ever hear the phrase 'one of these things doesn't belong?'" Zowie smirked.
"Guess Zowie doesn't want—" Zooks stopped as Zound tossed a can over. He sighed. "Zound, you're such a softie."
Zoiks cleared his throat. "If we're done handing out beverages, perhaps we could hear which site you picked for the lair."
The Zs looked at the remaining supplies still scattered on the floor, shrugged and moved over to the kitchen table.
"Out of the original list of ten, five didn't make the short list and two are slated for demolition within the week," Zound started. "As for the remaining three, the first is on 42nd Street and Leary Road. Typical abandoned warehouse, three stories. Solid construction, still has access to power and water. Still has lights, furniture. Even has working toilets. We'd just need to add the Joker lair tweaks and it's done."
"What Zound isn't saying is that it's smack in the middle of the East End," Zooks interrupted.
"Well that scratches that out," Zowie sniffed.
"I think we should keep it in the files, but I agree it won't be our first choice," Zound nodded. "There's bound to be someone who wouldn't mind having a lair there just to piss Catwoman off, just like Mr. Nygma did several months back. Besides, it's still a perfectly good location."
"Damn straight," Zooks declared. "If you need a roof over your head, you can't always be picky."
"What about the other two?" Zoiks asked.
"Second choice used to be a start-up tech support company outside Chinatown," Zound continued after taking a sip. "Two stories, ready for Joker lair tweaking." He paused to pull out a schematic of the lair. "We might be able to use the schematics from the last Joker lair," he added, grabbing the relevant printout.
Zowie shook her head. "Not before tearing down the walls here and here and put up walls right over there," she pointed out with a finger.
Zed took a closer look at the schematics. "There's a chance that we'd rip out some key wires with that much renovation. Still, it's doable."
Zound and Zooks exchanged a look.
"What?" Zoiks asked flatly.
"Bumped into a pal of mine," Zooks admitted.
"He means 'hooker,'" Zound butted in. Zowie snorted.
"Hey, don't put her down just 'cuz of her job," Zooks protested. "She's damn smart. Talented, too. She does this thing—"
"Anyways," Zound interrupted, "Zook's 'pal' confirmed that there tends to be a lot of Bat activity around Chinatown."
"All thanks to that damn Ra's guy," Zooks muttered. "Keeps attracting the Bat and his kids like moths to a flame, beating the crap out of the DEMON folks and shipping them off. Shame. They ain't all a bunch of stupid religious loonies. Some of them are pretty decent."
"But they still don't know how to talk to ladies," Zowie sniffed.
"I don't see any ladies around here. Do—ow!" Zound broke off and rubbed his shoulder, glaring at Zowie.
Zowie smiled sweetly. "Oops. Hand slipped."
Zooks finished his beer and grabbed the last can. "Third choice is a house in the residential district, 'bout ten blocks north of the ol' LexCorp offices," he said. "Quiet neighbourhood, well off the Bat's radar. Used to hold a marijuana grow-op."
"And that's the problem," Zound said sourly. "If it didn't get burned up to a crisp, it got re-routed and tangled into a complete mess. Plus, excess heat had mold growing everywhere, so they had to gut the basement and the ground floor."
"So we either set up in the East End, risk Bat trouble, or face massive renovation," Zoiks summarized.
"Yep. Pretty much," Zooks nodded.
"Maybe not," Zound said thoughtfully.
The rest of the Zs looked at him. "What do you mean?" Zed asked.
"Well, the last site would require more manpower and know-how than the five of us can handle, so we'd have to bring in specialized help, right?"
"Yeah," Zowie said.
"So why don't we go the extra mile and hire a professional crew to do the work for us?"
Zooks raised a hand. "Don't you need, like, a buncha forms and permits and crap?"
"Not if their computer records say we've already got them," Zound smiled.
A grin slowly spread over everyone's face.
"That won't take too long at all," Zoiks nodded.
"Good," Zound replied. "'Cuz I got an idea on how to spend some of that free time we suddenly have and generate some extra expenses for Scarecrow."
"How did you get the other guys to join us for this paintball game?" Zed asked, rubbing his shoulder.
"We needed a minimum of twenty people to rent the paintball field," Zound shrugged. "Duo, Ditto, Frankie, Raptor and Tremor jumped at the chance to fire guns without actually killing anyone. Plus, we're all going out for drinks afterwards."
"And the other team?"
"Hodge-podge of DEMONs from Chinatown and a couple bottom-feeder henchmen who worked for Hugo Strange."
"So that's why you split up the teams the way you did," Zooks approved.
"Seemed to make sense," Zound said. "By the way, Zed, I take it that things are going according to plan?"
Zed nodded. "Fnd'ly snagged our flag a couple minutes ago. There were three or four other guys with him."
"Zoiks, Zowie—how many guys have you taken out so far?" Zound called out.
"Five," Zoiks called back.
"Should've been six!" snapped Zowie in frustration. "Stupid gun jam!"
"How did you know they'd all go for our flag like that anyways?" Zed asked curiously.
"Anyone who'd willingly jump to their death without a second's thought, just because their boss said so, wouldn't just sit by and guard the flag," Zed replied. "And Hugo's crew are too stupid to do anything other than follow orders. Even if they're stupid orders."
Zooks snorted. "Especially if they're stupid orders."
"And you're sure they'll follow the main path to take our flag back to their base?" Zed pressed.
"Pretty sure," Zound nodded.
"Still," Zoiks said, coming down the stairs. "It's time to spring the trap. Which means we should get going."
Fnd'ly was enjoying himself.
He didn't expect that. After all, how could a warrior such as himself have a good time with such a decadent game, so typical of these corrupt Western civilizations? How could a warrior such as himself have fun playing with these flimsy toys, rather than shed blood and tears in the name of the great and powerful Ra's Al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the West, Apex of the age of Oneness through One Rule by the most worthy Demon's Head, Anointed of Anubis and Osiris, Chosen of Ra, whose greatness is not desecrated nor destroyed by death or grave, he who dies not but arises phoenix-like from ashes to rule again, whose dominion is Yea the entirety of the world of Man?
Despite all odds, he was enjoying himself. He had led his men in glorious battle, setting an example for his fellow DEMONs and the corrupt underlings he had been saddled with. He had single-handedly captured the objective, though he still didn't understand how a plain blue cloth could be so important. And he was halfway back to his assigned base, prize tightly gripped in hand.
Then he saw the message, pinned to the branch of a small tree.
He slowed down, trying to read it. The words were too small to understand at a glance. Fnd'ly was reluctant to delay his impending victory, but his curiosity overcame his desire for glory. Just one minute, he told himself.
Reaching up, he pulled the message off the branch.
"What does it say," Gb'sn asked.
Fnd'ly didn't answer; too busy trying to translate the message. It was in English, which was not his native tongue. However, the excellent education provided by the Demon's Head, supplemented by the propaganda services he occasionally deigned to peruse since arriving at the city of He Who Must Not Be Named, overcame that minor setback.
"Thanks for stopping to read this," he said at last. He paused before reading the last few words. "Look out."
He never had the chance to read it again and confirm the accuracy of his translation, as the world suddenly exploded in splatters of pink and purple.
Zound's plan had worked. He had predicted that the opposing team would charge for their flag. He had predicted the route they would take to get there and back. He had predicted where to place the Zs to pick off some of the stragglers, where to place a scout to provide 'resistance', and where to ambush them. He had predicted that the element of surprise would outweigh any poor aiming on their part.
He had not predicted that one of the team would continue firing long after the opposing team had been eliminated.
"That's for shooting me four fucking times!" yelled Zed, finger pressed firmly on the trigger. Judging by the way paintballs were pouring out like water from a fire hydrant, he had left his paint gun on automatic. A moan was all Fnd'ly could offer in reply.
"And that's for stealing my seat on the bus yesterday, you prick!" Zed continued, turning his wrath on Gb'sn.
"That's for knocking my drink into my lap last week!" Zed howled. By this point, he was just jumping from target to target, all of whom were writhing on the ground.
"That's for pushing me into the wall, asshole!"
"That's for chasing me down the street, you piece of shit!"
"That's for locking me in the bathroom!"
By this point, the henchmen Zound had signed on to join the Zs were nervously inching away. Zoiks was frowning thoughtfully. Zooks was starting to sweat, and not from the heat and exertion of running around in layers of loose clothing. Zowie was grinning from ear to ear.
And Zound? Zound had one eye on Zed and another eye on the fat slob of a judge, who was shuffling towards them. "Hey!" he yelled. "That's enough! Game's over!"
Zed ignored him.
"Hey, punk, you hear me?" the oblivious idiot continued. "I said—"
They never got to hear what he was about to say, as Zed abruptly turned around and unloaded a full round of paintballs into his crotch.
As the judge crumpled to the ground, Zed paused and looked around, a confused look replacing the mask of vengeance that had gripped his face for the past minute. "Where was I?" he asked.
"Yam fries," Zowie supplied helpfully.
"Thanks," Zed nodded. Turning back, he opened fire again. "That's for stealing my yam fries! And that's for..."
"Twenty sets of professional paint gun gear. Used," Zound said, checking the items off his list. "One vintage Donkey Kong machine. And—Zooks? Hey, Zooks! Have you set up the pit yet?"
"Just finished," Zooks confirmed.
"Then we are done," Zound pronounced happily.
Zoiks came in through the front door as he checked off the final item. "That was Scarecrow," he reported, pointing to his cell phone. "He's ready to wire the payment over as soon as he inspects the lair."
"When's he going to get here?" Zowie asked.
"Tomorrow, some time after ten."
"Good, that gives us time to christen that barbecue pit and beat Zed's high score at Donkey Kong."
"Barbecue?" Zooks said quizzically. "I thought it was for—never mind."
"He thought it was a death trap," Zowie laughed.
"Psyche!" Zed grinned.
"So who brought the steaks?" Zoiks asked.
"Got 'em," Zound said, producing an ice chest. "I got buffalo, ostrich and elk."
Four sets of eyes blinked at him.
"What are we, mountain lions?" Zowie asked finally.
"There's an exotic meats place just opened up on 23rd. Thought I'd give it a try."
Four sets of eyes blinked again.
"It's supposed to be good for ya. Very lean."
"What you guys don't like to try new things?"
"On Scarecrow's dime?"
"He does have a point," "Well, yeah," "That is true," were said in unison. Only Zoiks shook his head.
"Save the receipt and we'll charge it to the next job. If we put it on Scarecrow's tab he's liable to think it's food for the hyenas and expect to find it in the freezer."
"Adrianas was not perfect," the cold, suave figure on the flatscreen TV intoned and Zed, Zooks, Zowie, and Zound recited in unison. "It was perfectly planned." They all waited for the silent beat and then… "But it was executed with Neolithic incompetence."
The TV switched off to a communal groan.
"Ninety minutes," Zoiks announced.
"It's the best scene," Zound objected. "Best 'I'm so cool, blame the henches' in the history of American film, dude!"
"Ninety minutes to Scarecrow, dude," Zoiks warned.
"He's right," Zooks agreed. "If we don't wanna get gassed, we better get movin'. Got a nice hideout for us already. Shame to let it go to waste."
The others nodded in agreement. One by one, they left the lair.
"Coming, Zowie?" Zound asked.
"Yeah," she sighed. "It's just... it'll be a while before we can pull off another job like this."
"True," Zound admitted, turning to leave. "Of course, if you want to stay here, go ahead. We can always play Call of Duty without you."
"And miss the chance to headshot the lot of you?" Zowie hurried to join him. "In your dreams."