The Ugliest Man in the League
Stephen Anselm

Disclaimer: Standard disavowal of ownership of all nonoriginal material, especially that of DC.
Summary: What starts as a simple favour for a colleague doesn't always stay that way. Huntress/Question.
Historian's note: JLU continuity; early season 5.

"You really are ugly, you know."

There was a pause. Major downside of compressed burst transmission used by League-style comms: very narrow window in signal frequency and amplitude. So you couldn't hear a sudden intake of breath, or a quiet sigh, or a suppressed chuckle. Made it hard to tell what someone was really thinking.

And with some people you needed all the help you can get.

"So I'm told," said the voice in her ear.

Kick to the knee of the closest one, hard enough to break the cap. Probably not so hard he shouldn't walk again: the sound before he screamed was more a snap than a crunch. The intermittent light from the street gaslamp would let her know if he tried to get up, so she didn't bother to watch him fall.

Drop and crouch-roll to the right, towards the other two. The bigger one was holding something shiny that he'd picked up while she dealt with the first guy -- too small to be a crowbar, too big to be a tire iron: radiator pipe? -- and started to swing.

Why does every alley in Gotham always have something heavy at hand for these guys? This was the city of lunatics: couldn't there have been a Mad Recycler sometime?

Instead of stepping away she moved inside, her back to him. Her left elbow to his stomach, his right hand released the pipe on cue, she'd catch it an--

Down, right now, and push Pipe-Man away. There was suddenly a gun in Number Three's hand. He was smaller than the other two, so it made sense he'd be more of a weapons guy. Still, it was annoying: he should have shown it earlier if he'd had it.

Making sure to stay between her previous target and Three, she caught the metal before it fell. There was enough time for one well-aimed throw, so she made it, and turned on the ground, reaching toward her bow as a fallback. Then she heard the happy, scratchy bounce of gunmetal skipping across the broken pavement, and Three's sharp cry as he pulled back his hand.

On second thought, supervillains with streetcleaning obsessions sound more Central City. They grow their bad guys pretty mild out there. I should ask the Flash next time I see him.

Whenever that is.

Several textbook punches, a quick confirmation glance at her first attacker, and it was done. Now to deal with their cowering boss hiding beside the van.

"Come on, you know I wasn't talking to you, Q," she said to the air. "I was talking to this piece of work."

And the guy really was ugly. Mostly it was the sneer, which he clearly used so much he couldn't stop even when he was scared. She grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him up against the wall, holding her arm across his neck. Her mask and cape cast a very batlike shadow behind him, and her mouth quirked at the image.

"That wasn't as much fun as I was hoping. So to make this evening worth my while, I want the contact protocol. Names, locations, times. Passwords, if there are any."

She pulled her arm back slightly to let him speak. He tried, at least; had to give him that. "Forget it. You can't do nothing worse than the guys above me would if I talk. You League guys are all bark."

"Think so? Then I've got some news for you," she said.

"I'm not with the League any more. They kicked me out. And it wasn't for being too soft."

She watched him consider this, and tried to ignore his too-loud aftershave. Wrinkling her nose would ruin the effect she was going for.

"I'm guessing you hadn't heard that yet. You see, we had a little disagreement about what counts as justice. And you know what?" She nodded her head towards his broken guards, half-conscious and moaning.

"I don't think it's fair when the hired goons get thrashed and the leader walks away without a scratch."

She brought her knee up forcefully, and he groaned.

Several minutes later, when she'd learned what she needed, she released him and he fell bonelessly. Every would-be syndicate had its weak spot, usually the lowest guy on the upper levels. Someone knowledgeable has to handle the paperwork, and sign off on the boring details the men at the top can't be bothered with. Find him after a few days' digging, and you've found your way in.

"You get that?" she asked into the quiet.

"Most of it."

She looked around, satisfied, and walked off, shaking the dust off her cape. She hoped she'd remember to do the laundry. "Then it's time to bail."

"I'm sure he appreciates it."

Huntress climbed onto her cycle, and revved the engine twice as distant sirens wailed, the police and ambulance on their way. She'd called before the fight, and was surprised they hadn't arrived yet. Must be a busy night. "I doubt it. Gratitude's not his thing. Besides, I didn't do it for the Bat."

She smiled, though she knew the Question couldn't see it. "He wasn't the one who asked me."

He turned at a sudden movement, but it was only his reflection in a mirror over a sink at the other end of the room. It was a standard mid-tech setup; a half-dozen lab benches were covered with the usual assortment of devices. Looked like some decent assaying equipment: a high-end mass spectrometer and a Haines chromatograph.

Seeing the 'graph set off some irrelevant memories. The Haines logo was the old one, without the triangles, so it must've been purchased before the buyout. The acquisition took place after a suspiciously low predicted earnings report: he suspected that MDH had promised Haines' major clients a better deal if they delayed renewing their annual procurements for a quarter. The stock price drops, a front company shorts the stock mostly held by the owners, and MDH uses the increased cash-in-hand to sweeten the takeover bid. Clever, and not entirely unethical. Use money you take from Haines to buy Haines at bargain-basement prices, because now they're desperate. But why would a company specializing in business-to-business middleware services want to own a chemistry supplies producer in the first place?

Well, that would have to wait. He had work to do tonight.

A brisk survey revealed that he might have wasted his time breaking in. The place had been swept, and everything seemed in order. The machines were clean, but not antiseptic: they'd been smart enough to run something innocuous through the systems a few times afterwards, to flush out any traces left in the tubes. It'd be inconvenient if that trick caught on.

This lab hadn't been sanitized by amateurs.

There were a few more rooms to check. He could catch a break yet, but it wasn't likely.

Walking towards the door, he saw himself in the mirror at the cleaning station again. Long blue overcoat over deep blue jacket, yellow shirt, and black tie; old-school fedora, also blue; and, as always, his face covered by the featureless beige mask.

"You really are ugly, you know," she said over the com.


The drain was worth a glance: might be leftover particulates. But it only took a second to recognize the weak lime smell, and he spotted the popular and effective solvent on the soap shelf below the mirror. Useless.

"So I'm told," he replied.

End of a long day. You want to get home to the kids, but first you have to wash up. You're tired and sloppy. Now where's your mistake?

He pushed the faucet handle to the upper right, and after a moment the cold water poured over his black gloves. He checked for sprayback on the faucet head, but no luck. The sink had been scrubbed, there'd be no help there.

You wash your gloves, then throw them in the disposal bin, then wash your hands, and leave.

The bin was four feet to the right with an obviously new bag inside. Need to think harder.

"Come on, you know I wasn't talking to you, Q," she said. "I was talking to this piece of work."

You wash your gloves, then you take them off, and then you t—wait. You have to take them off one at a time, probably peel the left one first.

The throw's a bit awkward with your right hand. It's a bad angle, you'd have to turn half-way around.

So what if you don't toss the glove out yet? What if you set it down for a moment instead?

He pushed the various bottles of cleaning fluids around on the shelf until he found what he was looking for. There was a tiny depression, a slight forest-green discolouration on the imitation wood. He took out a knife and small clear container from his jacket and carefully scraped some samples. After that he took pictures of the solvent labels so he could distinguish the sample sources later.

And there's the mistake. Who thinks to clean the cleaning supplies?

"You get that?" she asked him.

"Most of it." He hadn't really been paying attention to the litany of whens and wheres that the logistics guy Huntress was tossing had been chanting, but earlier he'd set the comlink to record.

"Then it's time to bail."

"I'm sure he appreciates it," he said, giving the room a final once-over. The Dark Knight didn't often request favours. So when he asks you to look into something, you look into something, and wonder about his inscrutable motivations later.

For the sake of completeness he'd check the other labs, but he probably wouldn't find much else. Almost done for the night.

"I doubt it," she said. "Gratitude's not his thing. Besides, I didn't do it for the Bat. He wasn't the one who asked me."

He felt himself smile. No change showed in the mirror except for a slight shift in the ears, barely noticeable. She would've caught it, though.

"See you soon."