The sound of the evening traffic drifted up from the street below the clock tower on the crisp night air. The breeze coming off the river was cold enough to cut through the thermal weave in his cape, but Robin wasn’t really feeling it. They were letting Keller out. Somebody somewhere had screwed up, and that twisted bastard was going to walk free two years after killing Steph. It wasn’t like he had gone to Arkham with its revolving door of insanity. He was spinning out. He knew he had to pull it together but it was as if someone had pulled the door off a crypt somewhere and all those old nightmares he’d laid to rest were coming out to play again. The arterial spray on the wall of the alley where Steph had died. The endless funeral with familiar faces coming and going and speaking to him as if from a great distance. Keller’s face twisted into a rictus Joker grin on the way to the emergency room.
“I brought you hot chocolate.” Cassie stepped into view around the corner of the heating unit he’d been sitting against for warmth. She held out one of the mugs she was carrying for him to take. Tim nodded his thanks and took a long sip as she plopped down next to him and jabbed him with sharp elbows until he scooted over and gave her a fair share of the warm heating duct. “Are you okay?” she asked.
“You know, I’m really not,” Tim sighed. “I don’t know why this is throwing me so much. Babs goes through this every time the Joker breaks out, and she doesn’t lose it. Bruce flips out a little, but he doesn’t let it mess him up like this.”
“It’s because Babs is woman,” Cassie said gravely. “Woman’s nature is flexible; she accept what she has to and try to turn it to something better. “Her brow furrowed in concentration as she tried to tried to explain her thoughts with the limited vocabulary available to her. She made a vaguely Tai Chi like gesture. “Is hard for men to accept. It’s just how you are. Keep trying to be strong enough to make things how they should be. Bruce tries to keep every child from losing parent. Always try every night. Could not be Batman if he didn’t. You’re the same, Tim. Is too much about Stephanie you can’t change, and it hurts you. Can’t take back things you said to her. Couldn’t save her. Still feel guilty that you were going to kill him.”
Tim’s head whipped around to face her, shocked. Cassie’s eyes were sad, and held no blame within them. Tim was forced to remember that for all that Cass could be sweet and insightful and had a mischievous sense of humor that could sneak up on you; she was the only member of the Bat family that knew what it was to take a life. “How did you know?” he asked.
“I saw practice dummy in cave.” She held up her fist with the knuckles extended for a focused strike. “I recognize move. Shiva uses it to kill.”
Tim exhaled slowly. “I wasn’t practicing. I was just… I was so angry. I was angry and guilty and so frustrated with Bruce keeping me out of the loop, and I kept seeing it in my head, imagining how it went down. Did she have time to suffer? Was she afraid when she died? I killed him in my head so many times, and I knew if I didn’t do something I was going to lose it when I found him. I was trying to get it out of my system. But the thing is I crossed that line, even if it was just in my head, even if it was just for a little while. I let Bruce down. I let all of you down. I couldn’t even look Superman in the eye that night.”
Cassie reached over and gently tipped Tim’s chin up forcing him to meet her eyes. “Problem with being me is I see everything. Don’t always understand, but I see. You think you disappoint everyone that night? Nobody liked what happen. But every one of them understood. Even Superman.”
“You know I kill someone.” A strangely vulnerable look had entered Cassie’s eyes.
“That wasn’t your fault” Tim insisted firmly. “You were just a kid. With the way Cain raised you, you never stood a chance.”
“That isn’t point. You know what I did, but you still like me. You trust me. You think I am good person. So maybe you should cut some slack.”
Tim’s’ response was cut short as his Oracom came alive with Barbara’s voice. “You guys better get down here. Bruce and Selina are stuck in Budapest running down 50 liters of stolen VX gas and Nightwing won’t be back in time. If we’re going to deal with Keller we need to do it now.”
While he wasn’t the biggest fan of the military, Mike Kowalski tried to take a page from some of the better leaders that institution had produced. He never asked the interns to do something he hadn’t done often enough himself. He tried to lead by example and two or three times a week, he was the first man in and the last man out. This was one of his days to let the others go home on time while he held down the office just in case some judge finally got around to calling them back after giving them the runaround all day. There was a lot of hurry up and wait at the coalition, but it was hard to complain when people’s lives and freedom were at stake. He dropped his feet up on his desk, and reached for his coffee mug, willing the phone to ring. Fifteen minutes. Fifteen more minutes and he was out of here, judge or no judge.
“Put the seven of hearts on that eight of clubs over there”, the voice came out of the darkness behind him.
Mike swore vociferously, tipping over backwards and sending his coffee mug flying. A black gauntleted hand shot out to catch the mug, impressively spilling only half the coffee on Mikes’ pants. He scrambled away, coming to his feet with his back to a filing cabinet brandishing an electric pencil sharpener.
“Whoa, take it easy there buddy” the vigilante known as Robin held up his hands. “How about you put that pencil sharpener down nice and easy and we can talk this out.”
“Careful Robin, he’s not bluffing. He not afraid to use it.” Batgirl stepped into the light and stood next Robin, still holding his coffee mug.
“Oh you guys are just hilarious” Mike muttered, “You should take this act on the road. Right now. Before I call the police.”
“Try the waitress and tip the veal” Batgirl was grinning cheekily at him from beneath her odd mask. Mike had never expected to meet any of Gotham’s costumed vigilantes, and this was nothing like he had imagined.
“The police know how to get in touch with us Mr. Kowalski. They call us whenever dangerous criminals escape from prison.” Robin was not smiling. Not even a little bit.
“Is that’s what this is about” Mike asked straightening himself out and putting down his pencil sharpener. “I clean up your mess, and you show up to what, rough me up a little, tell me to back off”?
“That’s not how we do things Mr. Kowalski, well, Batman might. Terrifying people is how he says hello. Right now we’re operating under the theory that you’re a well meaning social activist, who was duped by a cunning and vicious serial killer into helping him escape to kill again, but then Batgirl and I are optimists.”
Mike had just about had enough. Who did this self-righteous punk think he was coming in to his office and talking to him like that? “Joseph Keller is innocent. I have sworn testimony from a man named Cyrus Dufresne that he killed Stephanie Brown. He testified to things that only the killer could have known. That’s right, you and Batman screwed up. You nearly got the wrong guy killed. Cost him two years of his life. Maybe when he sues the city they’ll finally put a leash on you nut jobs.”
“Show me.” Robin gestured at Mikes’ computer. “If you’re right, and we messed up, then we should know how. If you’re wrong, then you’ve helped to free a man who kills women for sport, and the next one’s blood will be on your hands. So I think it would be best if you showed me everything you have.”
“Fine” Mike growled turning to his laptop a digging through his case files until he found the Defresne deposition, “but then I want you and your little friend to get the hell out of here and never come back.”
The video file opened to full screen and Robin firmly moved him aside and turned the volume up to its maximum setting. He watched it through twice, then rewound it again and listened to several key parts of testimony closely, all is stony silence. He turned to Batgirl asking”What do you see”?
“He’s lying”, she said. “He’s telling story. Two times have to stop and think back to get it right. Took him even longer when they ask him question he wasn’t expecting. Also he’s happy about something and trying to hide it. He has secret and is proud of tricking lawyers.”
“Of course you’d say that. “ Mike insisted. “Do you have any kind of proof beyond this girl’s say so?” Batgirl merely snorted and turned her back on him.
“Her name is Batgirl, and she’s probably the best lie detector in the world. If she says he’s lying, you can take it for fact.” Robin reached into one of the compartments on his utility belt and produced a flash drive, quickly copying the contents of the Dufresne file.
“Why would he lie about that?” demanded Mike. “What, he isn’t serving enough time; he has to get another life sentence tacked on? What possible reason could he have for taking the blame if Keller did the crime? It’s not money, Joseph Keller was a bartender.”
Robin seemed to ignore him, scrolling through the background the coalition had put together on Cyrus Dufresne. He paused when he came to the rap sheet, the exhaled heavily in disgust. “It’s Strangers on a Train. Why do these idiots always think they’re the only ones who ever watched a Hitchcock movie?”
“What are you talking about?” Mike asked, trying to see what scrap of information Robin might have pulled from the criminal record.
“It’s from a Hitchcock movie. Two men who don’t know each other meet on a train and decide to take each other’s murder so they both get away with it. Look at Dufresne’s record. Everything about it indicates a violent obsession with his ex-wife. Domestic disturbance, domestic disturbance, assault and battery, mandatory AA meetings and anger management, on the day he was arrested he broke her arm, shot her new boyfriend and two of the cops who answered the 911 call. He was never going to get out of prison. Keller may be an FBI suspect for a number of missing girls, but he’s only in prison for Stephanie Browns murder. They haven’t been able to prove the rest yet. Dufresne takes the blame for Keller’s murder, and Keller kills Dufresne’s wife for him after he’s released. Criss Cross.”
“Oh please!” Mike exclaimed. “That’s pure conjecture. You can’t keep a man in jail on some crazy theory that he might have done something you saw in a movie once. No one would believe that.”
“I think you’re right about that. “Robin replied. “The judge you took this to has the highest release rate in the state. That’s why he’s at the top of your rolodex. Even if I discredit Dufresnes' testimony, he’s introduced enough doubt into the case that your Judge can set Keller lose with a clear conscience, and when Keller kills again he’ll justify his mistake by saying he erred on the side of compassion and couldn’t possibly have known what kind of man Keller was. No if I’m going to keep Joseph Keller from killing any more women, I’m going to have to find another way.”
Mike was startled to realize his back was to the filing cabinet again. For all the cold formality of Robin’s words, Mike could almost feel the anger coming off of him in waves, and Batgirl was…going through his refrigerator. Mike winced as she retrieved a bottle of iced tea from inside that Andy had clearly labeled as his and took a swig.
“I’m taking this; for evidence” she announced, tucking the bottle somewhere inside her cape.
Robin pinched the bridge of his nose. “This is why Batman never takes us to nice places. We’re done here Batgirl, time to go.” He retrieved his flash drive from Mike’s laptop and returned it to its compartment in his belt. Batgirl had already faded into the shadows near the door that let out on the back alley.
“Wait” Mike said suddenly, “I won’t get this chance again, so I have to ask. What makes you people so much better than the rest of us? What gives you the right to wear mask and ignore the law?”
Robin turned back to face him. “It’s not about rights, Mr. Kowalski, or thinking we’re above the law. It’s about responsibility. If your neighbor’s house was on fire, you would go inside and get his kids out wouldn’t you? Even though you weren’t an officially sanctioned fireman with a badge and a big red truck? You’d do it because it needed to be done, and it was the right thing to do. We just live in a rougher neighborhood. We do what we do because it’s right, and it’s necessary, and if we didn’t do it people would die. Sometimes millions of people. Doing what is right will always supersede what is merely legal.”
“Is that what Batman tells you?” Mike asked.
“Not Batman, Gandhi,” responded Robin “It’s written on the poster behind you.”
Batgirl twisted the gunman’s wrist a little harder and he dropped the pistol with a howl of pain. “Are you done yet” she called over her shoulder to Robin, “How long can it take to disarm a bomb?”
“It’s a binary liquid explosive with a cell phone trigger and a redundant pressure switch beneath a timer…which just activated. If you’re bored, you could finish your guy off and come drive the bus while I handle this.”
Score! Batman never let her drive the bus. She drove a sharp jab into the gunman’s solar plexus then caught him in the chin with her knee as he doubled over. He went down like a sack of bricks. She climbed over the unconscious driver and grabbed the wheel, stepping on Robin no more than was strictly necessary.
“What are we going to do about Keller?” she asked.
“Here hold this” Robin replied from beneath the seat, waving a screwdriver in the air until she took it from him. “Even if we tell the judge what we know, I don’t think it will be enough. Unless we find a way to tie him to those other murders the FBI believes he did, I think he’s going to walk. That’s easier said than done. The Feds might not be Batman but they’re not idiots, they went over those cases with a fine tooth comb.” He patted her thigh, opening and closing his hand. “Screwdriver”
Batgirl wrenched the wheel over hard to the right and stomped on the brake, drifting the city bus around a corner. Robin slid into view briefly to glare at her over her knee, and then disappeared beneath the seat again.
“I think we need to get a look at everything the FBI has on these cases. More than a look, we need to go through all their evidence with our own equipment,” Robin continued as if she hadn’t just tried to wedge his head beneath a gas pedal. “Wire cutters.”
“How are we going to get that much evidence out of the Federal Building without getting caught?” Batgirl swerved to avoid a taxi and took the bus onto the sidewalk wincing as she took out a Three Card Monte table and a rack of knock off handbags.
Robin finally pulled himself to his feet holding the remains of the bomb. “I think we’re going to need a man on the inside. We need Agent Whitfield.”
To be continued...