Disclaimer – Teen Titans is the property of DC Comics and Warner Bros and is used without permission.
After the third and fourth murders Robin realized the lack of a pattern was in itself a significant pattern. He reviewed the reports, his frown becoming a harsh scowl as he poured over the evidence.
Victim one: Cassandra Winters, twenty years old, white. The pretty daughter of wealthy business executives, attending her third year at Jump City University. She had been found three blocks from her off-campus apartment, sprawled face-down on the sidewalk, her throat cut ear-to-ear. She still had her purse, jewelry, cash and credit cards. She had not been raped. Someone just walked up behind her and slit her throat with a switchblade or gravity knife. Death was estimated to have occurred between 11pm and midnight – she had been walking home from a party thrown by a friend. The neighborhood was considered very safe. The police canvassed the area for witnesses and found none.
Casandra Winters had died twenty-one days ago. Robin rubbed his jaw as he recalled that he and the Titans had fought Control Freak that day. The idiot had invaded the film set of Trek Wars, protesting the reboot of the popular science-fiction franchise as a 'travesty and abomination'. While the Titans wasted their time on the fool a real monster had slipped into Jump City to prey on the helpless.
Victim two: Anthony Morecelli, forty-nine years old, white. A decorated veteran of the First Gulf War, and for the past ten years a homeless transient, the devastating combination of a moribund economy and his own demons having thrown him on the streets. Morecelli had been found in a back alley, head crushed by a brick. Forensic evidence indicated that his murderer had held him down by stepping on the back of his neck. Morecelli had died seventeen days ago, the night the Titans had been chasing after Johnny Rancid, wasting time on another damn moron.
Victims three and four: Stephen and Adeline Munroe. Both forty-four years old, African-American, affluent and successful. Mr. Munroe owned a prosperous carpentry company and held interest in three popular night clubs. Mrs. Munroe was a lauded and popular English teacher at White River Academy, a private high school. Their only child, Lakaila, was out of state, attending Brandeis in Massachusetts. The Munroe's house had been invaded. Mr Munroe had been found in the kitchen, dead from multiple blows to the back of his skull, most likely from a hand gun. Mrs. Munroe had been smothered in bed with a pillow. The bedroom had been ransacked, with Mrs. Munroe's jewelry and the couple's wallets missing.
The Munroes had been murdered four days ago. Robin distinctly remembered saying then that the evening had been pleasantly quiet.
Four murders, the victims of varying sex, race and status, all unrelated to each other, killed in different ways for surmised different reasons. A thrill-kill; an altercation between transients; a burglar gone blood-simple. The police had not announced a connection between the murders, had probably not even guessed there was one.
Robin fired up his laptop, linked it to his gauntlet-portable OS and tapped into the Jump City surveillance system. Once in he started to scrub through footage recorded in the areas of the murders, covering a combined radius of twenty miles – tedious work, even with the aid of the search programs he and Batman had developed, but he was inured to it.
After four hours he took a quick break to see to the demands of the body. He had gotten a water from the mini-fridge when someone knocked on his door. "Come." The door whispered open, revealing Starfire smiling on his threshold.
"Robin," she said sweetly, "you have missed breaking your fast, and the lunch hour is passing. Will you be joining us soon?"
Robin shook his head. "I'm sorry, Starfire. I don't have time right now. I'm working on something that can't wait."
Starfire's full lips pursed into a slight frown. "You should not neglect yourself so. It is unhealthy."
"I know, Star, but this is really important. I gotta work on it."
Her frown deepened. "Does it concern Slade?"
Robin took a breath. Even a month after his defeat, Slade was still a touchy subject. "No, it doesn't. I swear." Starfire looked at him closely and nodded, her frown relaxing.
"Very well," she said. "I will leave you to your labors." She paused a moment and gave him a disconcertingly direct look. "You will be joining us for dinner." Her tone was gentle, but brooked no argument.
Robin laughed, despite his grim mood, and scratched the back of his head. "Of course, Starfire." She smiled brilliantly and shut the door.
She returned five minutes later, surprising him by floating in with a plate of sandwiches and a bottle of apple juice, setting them on his work desk. "Thank you, Starfire," said Robin, feeling grateful and a touch abashed. She smiled at him, briefly touching his shoulder before leaving. He stared after her for a few minutes before forcing himself back to work.
Three more hours of searching eye-straining film finally confirmed his surmise. The footage was uniformly grainy, with clean-up and amplification doing little to clean it up, but Robin now knew he was right. The bastard had been careful but surveillance had captured him four times in the areas of the murders – a tall, rangy man in a dark coat and knit watchman's cap. Spotting him the first time, Robin felt his gut clench in unpleasant recognition, but continued scrubbing footage – he was not infallible; there was a possibility he was mistaken. The other three incidents clinched it – Robin could not make out the man's face, but recognized his gait, his posture, the way he kept his hands close to his coat pockets.
"I've got you," Robin muttered. "I've got you, you bloody son of a bitch." He closed his laptop, powered down his gauntlet-portable and left his room for Ops.
The rest of the Titans were hanging out there – Raven reading quietly in a corner, Cyborg and Beast Boy messing with the gamestation while Starfire watched with interest. She noticed his entrance first and happily called out his name. Cyborg glanced over his shoulder and grinned. "Yo, Rob. 'Bout time you crawled out of your cave. Grab a controller and join in – maybe you'll make the game interesting."
"Sorry Cyborg, I can't. Something's come up and I have to go out."
"What's going on?" asked Raven, closing her book.
Robin hesitated a moment then shrugged. "Just a personal project. I'll be gone for a while, so don't wait up for me."
"You will be missing dinner, then?" Starfire asked softly. Robin managed not to cringe from the gentle reproach in her voice.
"Probably, Starfire. This may take a while." He scratched the back of his neck, made uncomfortable by her gentle frown and Raven's searching gaze. The sorceress shrugged and returned to reading. Starfire nodded slowly. "Very well," she conceded.
"Yeah, no biggie," said Cyborg. "I'm cooking jambalaya tonight. I'll save you a bowl."
"Call us if you need us," said Beast Boy, his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated on the video game. Robin nodded and left Ops. He was waiting for the elevator when he heard Starfire call his name. He turned to watch the golden-skinned girl float down the hallway and land before him.
"Robin, you are tense. Is everything all right?"
"Yeah, Star. I'm okay. I just want to finish up this project."
"It is what you were working on in your room all this day, correct?" Robin nodded. "What is it?"
Robin frowned and looked away. "It's personal."
"What you do, will it be dangerous?"
"It's nothing I haven't handled before," he hedged.
"You evade," said Starfire, eyes narrowing. "I do not like it when you do so, Robin. I do not think you should complete this project alone."
Robin pursed his lips tightly. He was being a stubborn idiot about this, and worse he knew it. Bringing the Titans in on this would make capturing the murderer easier. But this was a foul wind, blowing from his past in Gotham City. He knew his friends were no innocents; though he did not know the full details, he was aware each of them had experienced tragedy and horror. But all that knowledge did was reinforce his need to shield them from the senseless cruelty that for six years had been his nightly stock-in-trade. He looked directly into Starfire's bright-green eyes. "No," he said sternly. "I'm taking care of this by myself."
"End of discussion, Starfire."
Starfire's eyes flashed. "Very well," she said stiffly. With a regal lift of her head she turned on her heel and stalked back to Ops, anger radiating from her in palpable waves. Robin watched her moodily until she was out of sight then swore. Another mark on the score the murderer was going to pay when he caught up with the bastard. Robin descended to the garage, mounted his R-Cycle and drove off through the underwater tunnel leading to Jump City.
The bastard may not have a set pattern, but he did have certain habits – one of them being he preferred to do his hunting on foot, not using a vehicle and avoiding public transportation. Thus he should have a hideout relatively close to the murder scenes, narrowing the area Robin needed to search considerably. He left the R-Cycle locked down and cloaked in a parking lot and went airborne, traversing Jump City via roof and cornice. He patrolled for hours, a brightly clad ghost prowling through the haunts his quarry favored, crumbling tenements and run-down hotels, and finding no sign. Robin also tapped his observation programs into the city surveillance network, having them hunt for the figure he had noted, ready to alert him through his gauntlet-portable.
Night came, and with it bitter winds and cold, spitting rain. Robin lurked on a roof-edge, cape wrapped about him as he gnawed on a granola bar, sour in mood. The street below was deserted, street-lamps casting dim islands of light. He finished the bar and got ready to move on when he heard faint footsteps. The fine hairs on the back of his neck prickled in premonition as he waited to see the approaching pedestrian. A figure manifested briefly at the edge of a pool of light – a tall man, wearing a navy blue knit watchman's cap, head bowed and hands thrust in the pockets of his dark coat.
Robin leaped from the roof, snapping his cape rigid, gliding silently down. Some sixth sense warned the man, making him turn and look up just in time to see the Boy Wonder descending. Robin kicked him square in the chest, the impact knocking off his hat and sending him rolling down the street with a loud grunt. Robin landed gracefully and sprang after him, but the man was all ready up, lizard-swift, a gravity knife flashing in his hand. He made a pass at Robin's throat; Robin jumped back, bringing his hands up in guard. He could see the man's face clearly now, loathsomely familiar – a gaunt, narrow visage, with sharp cheekbones and a tapering chin, his eyes small and dark, his scalp shaved. On his broad, pallid brow were carved an ugly row of hashmark scars.
"Victor Zsasz," said Robin, hissing the name as if it were an obscenity.
Zsasz leered, wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his coat. "Robin," he whispered, "how good it is to see you again. It's been years! I knew you had flown the nest for this city, but never imagined you'd spare the time to look for me. I'm so flattered – you make me blush to my bones!"
"I'm taking you in, Zsasz," said Robin. "It's your choice whether it's under your own power or laid out on a stretcher."
Zsasz laughed breathily. "An enticing invitation, Boy Wonder, but I'm afraid I must decline. I have so much to do, so many zombies to free from the shackles of illusion. Au revior." He had something palmed in his free hand; he threw it down on the street where it exploded in a flash of light. The lenses of Robin's mask were polarized, but he was still blinded for a second, and a second was all Zsasz needed to kill someone. Instantly Robin flipped backwards, simultaneously launching a birdarang in Zsasz's direction. Zsasz's thrown knife chopped through the air, missing Robin by scant inches. The birdarang clanged loudly against a distant car, setting off its alarm. Robin dropped into a three point stance, drawing another birdarang. His vision cleared; Zsasz was out of sight. Rapid footfalls receded down a nearby alley.
Swearing, Robin drew his grapnel and propelled himself up to the roof of the three story tenement that formed one side of the alleyway. Once on high ground he ran close to the roof's edge after Zsasz, glancing down in search of him. Robin had crossed three-quarters of the building when something arced up and out of the alley, clattering off to one side. Robin's eyes widened in recognition and he threw himself off the roof, snapping his cape open to glide. The grenade exploded, and though he was at its periphery and slightly shielded by the building the blast rocked him, turning his descent into an uncontrolled tumble. Robin desperately launched his grapnel, planting it into a cornice and slowing but not stopping his descent. He hit the pavement, falling hard across a dirty back lot, sliding to a stop before a chain-link fence. He got to his feet in a daze, swaying as he tried to clear his head, and Victor Zsasz barreled into him, checking him into the fence. Robin fell to the ground with a shout, shouted again when Zsasz kicked him in the ribs. He tried to scramble away but Zsasz landed on him, forced him on his back, and wrapped knotted hands around his throat. Robin clawed at Zsasz's wrists but could not budge them. Thumbs bore down viciously on his windpipe with crushing force. Zsasz brought his face close to his; the killer's breath was redolent with sour decay.
"Relax, little Robin," Zsasz crooned. "It will be over soon. You will be free, and I will carve a memorial to you in my flesh."
Robin let go of Zsasz's wrists and punched him, striking him in the hinge of the jaw with a short, sharp right hook. Zsasz gasped, his dark eyes crossing. Robin punched him again, feeling bone crack beneath his knuckles. Zsasz rocked back, releasing his choke. Robin readied a third punch when in a blast of heat and green light Zsasz was hurled off him.
Robin forced himself up to one knee, gasping for breath as he watched Starfire descend into the lot, her lovely face pale with fear and anger. "Robin, are you all right?" He tried to answer but could not, his voice grinding painfully in his throat. He noticed movement out of the corner of his eye. Zsasz was up, whipping a knife over his head, aiming for Starfire. She had not noticed his recovery, her attention and concern focused completely on Robin.
Robin tackled Starfire, taking her down as Zsasz threw, the knife a silvery blur as it cut through the air above the two Titans. Starfire gasped and Robin felt his blood go cold – if not for his quick actions Zsasz's knife would have pierced Starfire's throat. He knew that the Titan's risked their lives every time they went against super-villains, but the thought of Starfire dying at the hands of Victor Zsasz... a just God would not allow such an obscenity to happen. Ferocious anger burned away the coldness of his blood. He vaulted back onto his feet. Zsasz was charging forward, another gravity knife drawn. Robin rushed to meet him, hard-blocking the knife out of his hand then snapping the weighted edge of his cape into the killer's eyes. Zsasz instinctively covered his face and Robin attacked, launching a flurry of blows, his fists blurs of green hammering Zsasz's ribs and stomachs. Zsasz's eyes bulged and his gaunt face paled and twisted as Robin forced him back to a wall. Robin finished his assault with a crushing strike to the heart and Zsasz slid slowly down again the wall to a sitting position, staring up at his enemy, gaze vacant and glassy. He twitched, trying to rise, but his body refused to obey. His thin lips quivered. "Eeeeee!" he cried, tears running down his cheeks. "Eeeeee!" He buried his face in his hands and rocked back and forth, wailing like a beaten child.
Robin looked at Zsasz in disgust. He forced the killer on his stomach roughly, bound his wrists and ankles with zip-ties and performed a swift and thorough frisk, discovering a second grenade, three more crude flash-bangs and over a dozen knives of various designs. He piled the weapons away from Zsasz, whose sobbing had subsided; he was pressing his face against the dirty pavement, eyes closed tightly.
Robin pulled out his communicator and switched it on. "JCPD," he spoke, voice a harsh croak. "This is Robin calling for Thomas Gregson, captain of Homicide. I have apprehended the serial killer Victor Zsasz. Repeat, Victor Zsasz. I have him restrained and in custody in a back lot off of Wolfman Street. I believe him responsible for the recent string of murders here in Jump City. Over."
A brief pause then a voice crackled back to him. "Roger, Robin. Captain Gregson and officers en route. ETA five minutes. Over."
"Confirmed. Robin out." He put away the comm and sagged, exhausted in a way he had not felt in over a year. He grimaced and brought a hand to his throat. He had forgotten how strong Zsasz was, and nearly paid for it with his life. Worse yet, Starfire could have died. If he had been a fraction of a second slower... he closed his eyes, the thought intolerable.
"Robin," Starfire said softly. He opened his eyes and turned to her, feeling oddly reluctant, almost ashamed. She walked to him, her expression gentle. She raised her hand and carefully touched his cheek. "You are injured.
"It's not so bad," he said, wincing at the hoarseness of his voice.
Starfire looked at him skeptically. "Raven needs to tend to you."
"Soon. We have to wait for the police." Starfire nodded. She stepped back and turned away from him, wrapping her arms around herself and bowing her head slightly. Robin started to say something but stopped, thinking better of it.
The Jump City police soon arrived. Captain Gregson, silver-haired and stern, took one look at Robin and grunted. "You look like you went ten rounds with Cinderblock." He watched Zsasz being carried off, hanging limply between two armored officers, then looked at the pile of weapons another officer was sorting through. He shook his head sharply. "We'll take it from here. Go home and get patched up – I'll take your report tomorrow."
Robin nodded gratefully and turned to Starfire. "I have the R-Cycle-"
"I will fly you to the Tower," she interrupted.
Robin frowned. "But-"
"Your cycle has auto-pilot, does it not?" she asked.
"Then command it to drive itself to the Tower. You are not leaving my sight until Raven tends to you." Her expression, her stiff-backed posture, warned Robin she was immovable on this. He said nothing, made no argument, simply sent the return command to the R-Cycle via his gauntlet-portable.
Robin closed his eyes as he and Starfire flew through the night sky. He was not looking forward to explaining his actions to the other Titans.