Eyelids beginning to lower for the third time in less than a minute, Diana shook her head in vain and let out a long yawn. She blinked wearily at the dozen hi-def screens in front of her and stared blankly at the monitor focused on Wayne Tower.
It stared back at her equally nonplussed.
Perhaps you should call it a day, Diana.
She flinched guiltily at J'onn's gentle suggestion and spun her chair away from the monitoring station that had consumed so much of her time these past several days. Various live feeds from Gotham continued to cycle throughout the city, keeping it under constant surveillance. The Amazon princess watched her friend gradually descend from the command post and offered him a humorless smile.
"I can't, J'onn. Tim Drake is still missing. It's been almost three weeks, and we still don't---"
"Diana," The Martian Manhunter interrupted firmly, "If you keep this up, I will have to remove you from active status. You need some rest before it impacts your readiness for League operations."
The Martian's crimson eyes revealed nothing. He simply continued to look at her impassively.
"You would," She accused him.
"Diana, please. As a founding member, you are expected to set an example for the others," He began counting on his fingers, "Clark cannot be here all the time. John is on sabbatical with the Corp. Arthur is now a reservist due to his Atlantean responsibilities. Bruce is becoming more and more reclusive. Shayera intimidates the rank and file, when she is not simply bellowing at them. She almost brought Booster Gold to tears this morning."
J'onn paused, and then grew an additional finger, "And Wally, well Wally is not the mentoring type."
He gestured toward the various screens, "You had no sleep in almost three days. Would you truly expect me to ignore that and possibly endanger the success of a mission?"
As she began protest, J'onn cut her off and continued.
"After the fiasco with Cadmus, we all voted to overhaul our procedures and regulations. As you humans say, run a tight ship. Mandatory rest after 36 hours. No exceptions. You voted in favor of it along with the rest of the founders." The Martian grinned, "Or did you forget?"
Diana shot him a dirty look and opened her mouth to mount a counteroffensive.
She closed it a few seconds later when she realized there was no way to refute his logic.
Then she sighed and shook her head in surrender. "You're right, of course. I'm sorry."
She turned her chair back to the monitors for one final look before standing up.
"It's just that he asked for my help. He never does that anymore."
She took a few steps over to one of the viewing ports and looked down at the emerald-blue orb slowly turning hundreds of miles below. She spent the next several minutes absorbing the planetary vista while lost in thought.
"Can you imagine how scared Bruce must be in order for him to do that?" Diana finally said.
J'onn nodded, joining her at the reinforced window.
"Bruce has always kept the League at arm's length. Of all of us, only you and Clark have truly managed to know the man underneath the cowl," he put a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder, "And with this matter, he came to you. That is no small thing in itself. In fact, I would consider it an honor."
Diana smiled wanly, "I just want to help him, that's all."
She squeezed his hand and walked away towards her quarters.
J'onn watched the Amazon leave and then sat down in front of the monitors.
"As do I," he whispered.---
The leopard seals roared in frustration as bodies fell everywhere except where they could reach them. The carnivores thrashed fervently through the frigid water, hauling themselves up upon chunks of ice in vain attempts to get closer to potential prey.
As Batgirl finally took down the last of Penguin's skanky bodyguards, she glanced downward into the large exhibit that dominated Cobblepot's nightclub. For a mere front, he had certainly spent enough coin on the decor. And she would know, having experienced Penguin's over-sized fish tank from pretty much every vantage point over the years.
"Whew!" She panted to herself, resting against the display's railing for a few seconds, "That took way too long."
"Fear not, my pulchritudinous interloper! Your demise will be swift and short!"
Barbara instinctively vaulted to the top of the railing and dove to the side as gunfire echoed throughout the club's cavernous dining chamber.
Her ears were still ringing as she took refuge behind an overturned table.
Which was perforated an instant later like so much Swiss cheese.
Fortunately, Barbara was now two tables over and still moving.
"Stand still, blast you!" Penguin roared as he attempted to draw a bead on her with his umbrella gun.
"I don't think so, Oswald!" she shouted with more bravado than she felt.
How much ammo can that thing possible hold?
Barbara dove for a nearby banquet table and disappeared below its ornate tablecloth. She scrambled underneath it for several precious seconds as the beautiful lace behind her was shredded into Gotham's most expensive tissue paper. She felt her short cape take a few shots before she somehow managed to reach a support column and get behind it.
She prayed it would hold as she struggled to catch her breath.
God! This used to be easy!
As the hail of bullets began to turn the column into kindling, Barbara looked around franticly for somewhere, anywhere she could go.
Geeze! Of all the bad guys, I never thought the Penguin would be the one to off me. How embarrassing.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
"Waugh!" Penguin wailed in exasperation.
Barbara pounced on top of the banquet table, Batarang in hand. A flip of the wrist and the projectile shot towards her foe.
Only to be knocked aside as Cobblepot opened his umbrella into a makeshift, but effective shield.
"I'm afraid your dexterity is no match for my cunning, my pugnacious beauty." The umbrella began to split into sections and spin, lifting the villain off the floor. "And now, I fear, I must bid you adieu!"
"Oh no you don't, Penguin!" She reached for her utility belt for another Batarang.
Nothing. She was out.
"Damn it!" She spat, Get it together, Babs!
Penguin's laughter echoed around her as the ceiling's acoustics surrounded his ascending form.
Her eyes darted in all directions. Plates, cups, bowls, utensils, centerpieces, food---nothing she could use.
Hold on a sec. That might work.
Oswald Cobblepot was almost to the skylight and freedom when a circular serving platter doing its best imitation of a discus sliced perfectly between the handle and blades of his umbrella copter. The cane was no match for the projectile and the corpulent villain found himself plummeting towards certain death at the tender mercies of his ravenous pets.
Barbara dove off the table and lunged for the rim of the exhibit.
This is going to hurt.
She twisted in mid-air, hooked her legs between the topmost and middle bars of the railing, and reached out for the Penguin's falling form. She managed to snag Cobblepot's waist coat, which promptly tore in half. But it bought her enough time to grab the belt underneath with her other hand.
Then the full force of the Penguin's weight nearly wrenched her from the bars. Her legs screamed, but that sensation was quickly muted by the searing agony of a dislocated shoulder.
Barbara gasped in pain. Somehow in the intervening second she managed to get her other hand on the belt before her left arm gave way completely, hanging in the air like so much dead weight.
"Ouch," she whispered softly, but her voice was drowned out by the Penguin's incessant shouting.
"Get me out of here, you insufferable malcontent! How dare you sully my personage with your pedestrian machinations! You philistine! You imbecile! You---you chiropteran cretin! You low class, malicious---""
"For the love of God, shut the hell up, Oswald! Or so help me, I'll feed you to those bastards!"
Stunned silence met her, broken only by the eager splashing of the marine mammals not all that far below.
She took a few deep breaths, trying to ignore the throbbing of her arm. How am I going to get out of this mess?
"Well, there's no need for such vulgarity, my dear," the Penguin finally muttered.---
If he hadn't added several eyestalks to his head he would have missed it.
One of the monitors had picked up some motion on a rooftop and had zoomed in.
J'onn absorbed the extra eyes as he resumed his customary human-like appearance and hit a button to enlarge the screen.
Sure enough, two large men dressed in matching court jester outfits were carefully maneuvering a large gift wrapped box onto a rooftop.
He thumbed a few keys and the satellite imagery software isolated their faces and translated them into a three dimensional composite. Then he deftly sent the file to the League's face recognition program. Ten seconds later the results came back. The two men were known associates of the Joker.
"Finally, a lead," J'onn murmured absently.
He activated his com-link, "Martian Manhunter to Batman. Acknowledge."
The reply was crisp and almost immediate, "This had better be important, Manhunter."
"We---uh, that is to say, Diana," he lied, "has spotted known henchman of the Joker planting a package of some kind on the top of a building. Southwest corner of Kane and Dixon."
"On my way."
"Do you require assistance? We share your concern about Robin."
"Stay out of it. Batman out."
Somethings never change. Still . . .
He began another scan, this time looking for something very different.---
The monocle dangled from the torn waist coat, swinging back and forth like a pendulum. Until a particularly large seal leapt up to snatch it between its sharp teeth and bite through its golden chain.
"This is getting to be a bit too adventuresome for my taste," the Penguin remarked as the carnivore disappeared back beneath the waves with a tremendous splash, "I give you leave to commence ascending, my dear."
"Easier said than done, Oswald," she growled through gritted teeth, vainly trying to get her damaged arm functioning, "What are you up to now? Two fifty? Two seventy-five?"
"A man of my station enjoys fine cuisine," Penguin retorted, clearly annoyed by the insinuation.
"Yeah, I'm sure Blackgate's cafeteria has the best bologna in the state."
"Crassness is quite unbecoming in a young woman such as yourself."
"Shut up and let me think."
The minutes passed, but no solution presented itself. Gradually her good arm began to ache and she felt her fingers start to lose purchase.
"Well, Oswald, it looks like we're about to take a swim. Hope you've fed your pets lately."
Penguin blanched, "I already told you, I don't know anything about young Robin's whereabouts! Killing me isn't going to change that fact!" He began to flail about.
"Stop struggling! I'm not trying to kill you, damn it!" She felt her grip slipping, "We're in real trouble here! STOP IT!"
The belt slipped from her grasp.
She fumbled for her grapple, but her spent fingers wouldn't respond to her commands.
Barbara girded herself to plunge after him even with only one arm working. She would wait for the splash and then drop down on the first seal to attack, hoping to spook the others and buy them some time. After that, she had no idea.
Only there was no splash. Penguin hung there, less than a yard above the surface while the nearest leopard seal was plucked out of the water and hurdled clear to the other side of the massive tank.
"May I be of assistance, Batgirl?" Martian Manhunter inquired as his faded into view.---
Five minutes later, the Penguin was bound to a support column and Batgirl was flexing her fingers experimentally.
"Wow, that didn't hurt at all, J'onn. Totally different than the last time I had to pop it back in place."
"That is because I took the liberty of mentally suppressing your pain receptors. It will gradually wear off. I fear you will be needing that arm tonight. There will be plenty of time for pain tomorrow."
Batgirl arched an eyebrow, "You've got a lead? How?"
J'onn shook his head, "The same way I found you; Watchtower satellite cameras. But there will be time for details later. Batman is already on his way to the site, and I believe it would be best if you were there as well."
"Okay, but there's no way I'll get there in time unless it happens to be next door."
"That won't be an issue," He put a hand to his ear, "Watchtower, emergency override. Lock on my position and teleport Batgirl to the preprogramed coordinates."
The Martian gestured toward the Penguin, "I will wait for the authorities. Good luck."
"Wait! What did you---" Batgirl's voice cut off abruptly as she disappeared.
J'onn looked around at ruined night club and then hovered out over the exhibit. The variety of wildlife on Earth fascinated him.
"My good man," Penguin said, interrupting his study of the aquatic mammals, "Someone of your obvious talents could be of significant aid to my organization."
J'onn turned to look at the secured felon.
"I could make you a very wealthy . . . whatever it is you are."
J'onn's eyes flashed.
A second later twin holes melted clear through the column less than an inch above Penguin's head.
He was silent for a moment, and then spoke in hushed tones.
"I'll take that as a no."---
The man in the fedora was nothing if not a patient man.
Living in a world drowning in conspiracies required such patience.
The patience of a saint, actually.
One couldn't expect the Free Masons, Templars, and Illuminati to divulge their secrets overnight. The Council on Foreign Relations, Area 51, and U.S. shadow government were not going to be brought into the light over the space of a few weeks. The true designs of the Vatican, Atlantis, and Easter Island wouldn't be deciphered in mere months.
And Richard Grayson was not going to be found within a single year.
No, Mr. Grayson had consumed almost 15 months of his precious time.
He worried about that sometimes. Wondered what he might have overlooked during his pursuit of the former partner of the Batman. Would he have been able to track down Elvis's new life in Witness Protection? Could he have discovered the clandestine government directives for 9/11 in the secret vaults of the Library of Congress? Should he have spent that time tracking down the party adding the nanites to Girl Scout cookies?
That last one particularly gnawed at him. He couldn't figure out the purpose behind such machinations.
And he loved the Thin Mints.
He knew most of the League thought he was odd. Some considered him to be crazy.
But he had been right about Cadmus. And that had bought him credibility.
At least for the time being.
The man sighed as he moved from the small living room of the rather dingy apartment to the kitchen. He began to systemically search the cupboards. Grayson's sudden disappearance had been somewhat out of character. Perhaps he'd been eating Girl Scout cookies.
Ten minutes later, he was convinced that wasn't the case. No cookies of any kind, in fact.
He carefully used a single finger to slightly part the curtain and looked down at the street from three floors up. The hustle and bustle of the busy Singapore waterfront district below continued unabated despite the fact it was 2:13 in the morning.
He shrugged and moved to the fridge.
Yes, he had let far too many balls drop over far too much time.
But what choice did he have, really?
Helena had asked him to find Grayson.
And that was all the motivation he needed these days.
He began to rummage through the fridge, cataloging its contents for clues into his quarry's current state of mind.
"See anything you like?" a voice called out from behind.
He frowned. Fortunately, the mask covered his features. It appeared Grayson had lost none of his stealth.
Still, he was a professional and had managed to avoid any kind of involuntary reaction.
He calmly stood up, closed the door, and turned to face his target.
"Good evening, Nightwing."
Now it was the dark-haired, well-built man in the doorway's turn to frown. He took in his quarry's appearance. No costume, no mask. Unshaven. Hair in need of a good trim but not long enough to get in his eyes. Wearing a leather jacket over a black T-shirt, gloves, jeans, and boots. The type of clothing that wouldn't limit his movements, while still providing a modicum of protection. Judging by the stains and tears, as well as the Escrima sticks currently being brandished, he was still in the game, just with a lower profile.
"I don't go by that name anymore."
The man in the fedora shrugged, "It's who you were, and that's all that really matters in the end."
"How did you find me?"
"It wasn't easy," he admitted, "But ultimately you just have to ask the right people the right questions. And that's something of a speciality of mine."
"Did He send you?"
"No. He did not." That seemed to surprise Grayson, and so he pressed his advantage, "I need you to come with me."
Grayson tensed, "Not likely, Question."
"You know me?"
"I know who you are and what you do. A half-insane conspiracy theorist with mediocre martial skills. In short, I'm not impressed."
He paused. Judging by what he had determined of Grayson's diet during his search and the physique he could readily observe now, fisticuffs would probably prove counterproductive. But this man had caused Helena much pain and suffering in the not too distant past. She had told him little, but he was very adept at reading between the lines. This man had hurt her. Badly.
It didn't matter that he had eventually reaped the rewards of that relationship's demise. He felt compelled to defend his lady's honor.
And he'd be damned if he wasn't going to do everything in his power to fulfill Helena's request.
He assumed a combat stance.
"I'm afraid I must insist."