As soon as Dick freed himself and stood up, he spotted his Nightwing costume on the metal table. He grabbed it and quickly began shrugging into his top and bottoms, dressing faster than ever before.
"At least I won't cause a scandal throughout the superhero community by being caught with my pants down," Dick said ruefully. He quickly pulled on his boots and gauntlets, finishing his transformation into Nightwing in near record time. The only item missing was the mask.
"Oh, joy! Batman will be really happy about that!"
The voices outside were closing in! Nightwing looked quickly around the room looking for a hiding place or a way out. He looked up at the ceiling...
The door flew open as Mikey and Tommy both stormed in. Tommy hesitated at the door. He hated to come into the Punishment Room. When Tommy saw what Mikey could do when the blackness within him awakened, Tommy cringed in fear of his brother.
Mikey stopped midway. "Where is he? He's gone!" Mikey ran to the shackles lying open on the floor. He whirled on his brother, his eyes smoldering embers.
Tommy saw that Mikey had a wild, crazy glint in his eyes...Just like Daddy!
"I told you to make sure the cuffs were locked!" Mikey raged. "I TOLD you! CAN'T YOU DO ANYTHING RIGHT, YOU WORTHLESS PIECE OF SH--"
"--MIKEY! WHAT ARE YOU SAYING?" Tommy cried out, grabbing his brother by the shoulders. "Bro...What are you saying?"
Mikey stared at his brother, his eyes filling with tears. He began crying in wrenching, heartbreaking sobs. He began speaking quietly, almost singsong. Tommy realized with cold dread, that Mikey sounded just like Mommy used to before she locked them up in the basement.
"I try to be reasonable...I cook...I clean...I pick up after you..." Mikey's voice was steadily rising in volume and pitch. "All I ask is FOR A LITTLE SUPPORT!!" Mikey suddenly and powerfully backhanded Tommy, catching his brother by surprise, sending him crashing across the metal examination table. Everything went toppling over in a resounding crash.
"NOW SEE WHAT YOU DID!!" Mikey screamed. "NOW I'M GONNA HAVE TO REALLY PUNISH YOU!"
Tommy tried crab crawling backwards, but he was too terrified and mesmerized by his brother's sudden transformation. Mikey grabbed a razor sharp ten-inch carving knife.
"No! Mikey, please! Don't! You're my brother...I love you, bro. I love you..." Tommy whimpered.
"Don't you know that you always hurt the ones you love?" Mikey asked, smiling kindly.
Tommy lost his self-control, wetting himself. It was Mommy! Mommy had come back!
"NO, MOMMY! NO! I'LL BE GOOD...I PROMISE!" Tommy screamed, retreating.
Mikey looked at the spreading wet stain in Tommy's pants, and shook his head, tsk-tsking.
"Awww...has widdle Tommy wet his widdle pants?" Mikey shook his finger at his brother. "Naughty, naughty. I'm afraid that I'm gonna have to put you in the closet."
Batman heard the bloodcurdling scream from four floors away! Nightwing! He ran towards the fire doors at the end of the hallway, and slammed into the safety bar with his momentum. The door didn't open and Batman was thrown back with a force that was equal to his forward momentum. The door was either blocked or locked from the other side. He had to find another way up!
He was about to run back to the other end of the hallway, when another animal-like scream echoed through the empty corridors. No time! Batman spun around and kicked in one of the apartment doors that lined the hallway. He made his way quickly through the empty rooms until he found a window.
Batman hurriedly climbed out, shot a jumpline, then proceeded to make his way up the next few floors. As he flew up, Batman tried not to think about the person who might have cried out in such raw terror. When he passed the floor he believed the scream came from, Batman stopped his ascent. He took out a strange looking instrument from his utility belt: it was comprised of a suction cup, which adhered easily to the windowpane, and a glasscutter.
Batman cut a circle through the pane, carefully removed it, then reached his hand in and unlocked the window from the inside. Batman silently opened the window and quietly made his way through the empty apartment. He opened the door into the outer corridor, checked it quickly, then crossed with no more than a whisper to the fire doors. Approaching the safety doors with a little more care this time, Batman pushed at the safety bar and was gratified that it opened into the adjoining staircase.
When the task force arrived at the three exits in the underground garage, MacCauley split them up into three groups: Two groups of two and one group of three. MacCauley and Winters, joined by another officer, Detective Fontana, moved cautiously down the endless corridors.
They were being meticulous in their search, checking each apartment. When they first began, MacCauley and Fontana made a great show of approaching each door with extreme caution, then taking turns kicking it down. As they entered the empty apartments, MacCauley would assume a standing firing stance, covering the left, while Fontana would kneel and cover the right.
Shortly after the fifth door they'd broken down, Winters discovered that the doors weren't locked. In fact, they discovered that the knobs were all missing the locking mechanisms. MacCauley and Fontana scratched the backs of their heads in embarrassment.
From there on, everything sped up. They cleared the first floor in record time, then proceeded to the second. They were halfway through the third floor, when a scream that by all rights should only be heard in a drive-in theater froze them momentarily in their tracks!
All three officers looked up as if by shear force of will, they could see through the interconnecting ceilings above them.
"Let's go!" MacCauley said, snapping out of his momentary shock. The three officers quickly ran to the end of the corridor and the fire doors. MacCauley didn't slow down as he approached the safety doors. Instead, he allowed his forward momentum to push the bar, and he the others seemed to fly through the door and up the stairs.
The first door Batman tried, once he entered the converted apartment, was locked. Taking out a mini-cutting flare, Batman quickly melted through the door's locking mechanism. Opening the door, Batman moved like a wraith, disappearing into the concealing shadows within the room.
"Who's there?" a frightened, young voice called. Batman adjusted his NVGs and instantly saw a small figure huddled on the far corner of the bed. Billy Grady! Not stopping to think, Batman quickly crossed over to where the little boy was shackled to the bed.
"Who is it?" Billy's voice sounded close to hysteria.
"A friend," Batman said. When Batman approached the bed, the boy screamed at the sight of an even greater horror than Mikey or Tommy had ever seemed. Billy started panicking, kicking out with his legs, anything to avoid falling into the hands of this new monster!
"Billy," Batman said surprisingly gently. "Son, I'm here to help you. Billy, please, let me set you free."
"NO!!" Billy screamed in panic-stricken terror. "Stay away from me! I want my mommy! I WANT MY MOMMY!"
"Maybe I'd better handle this!" Batman spun at the voice behind him. Winters was standing uncertainly in the open doorway. "He's too young to understand that you're a friend, Batman. I'm afraid that symbol you've selected to wear is a double-edged sword. It may frighten the criminals you wage war on, but it also frightens the very people you wish to help. This is the result."
Winters pointed with her chin at Billy's tiny, cowering figure. Batman looked at the small boy for a few moments, remembering another little boy whom he'd frightened at first. Another bloodcurdling scream rang through the apartment complex. Startled, both Batman and Winters turned in the direction it came from.
"Take care of him, Doctor Winters," Batman said and rushed out the door.
Winters watched as Batman moved out, a dark shadow flitting through the darker recesses of the human soul. A brokenhearted sob caught her ear and her heart, and she hurried over to the small child who'd already suffered more horrors and frights than anyone ever should in a single lifetime.
As Batman ran down the corridor, his enhanced vision picked up something on the floor, which caused his blood to run cold. Nightwing's mask!
MacCauley and Fontana were searching the rest of the converted apartment when they heard the scream. It came from several doors down! Weapons drawn, they ran out into the darkened corridor.
...Watching from between the ceiling tiles, Nightwing waited for his chance. He was about to jump through the tiles when the Gunthers rushed in, but noticing that something strange was happening, he held back. To Nightwing's increasing astonishment, he watched as Mikey transformed into an entirely new personality.
Mikey's voice went up an octave, and he suddenly turned on a terrified Tommy with a ten-inch blade. Rather, than fighting back, Tommy simply cowered on the floor, waiting for the inevitable blow.
"NO! MOMMY, I'LL BE GOOD! I PROMISE!" Tommy sobbed. "DON'T HURT ME AGAIN, PLEEEASSSE!"
Mikey's only response was an almost gentle crooning in a singsong lullaby, all the while brandishing the ten-inch blade. "You've been naughty, Tommmmeeee! I'm gonna have to punish youuuuu!" Mikey approached his brother with loving tenderness. "Tommy, don't cry...I'll take care of you. Remember, you only hurt the ones you love."
Tommy let out a bloodcurdling scream that chilled Nightwing's bones.
Tommy turned on his side, and started crawling weakly away. His legs seemed to be frozen by his fear, unable to move. He couldn't get up; all he could do was attempt to pull himself slowly out the door by his hands.
As Mikey came up to his brother, he raised the knife high, then brought it down with all the force he could put into it! As the knife began to come down, a steamroller barreled into Mikey, knocking him down and jarring the knife from his hands. Tommy turned at the last moment and saw the superhero kid slam into Mikey.
Nightwing didn't hesitate. Mikey was extremely dangerous...Nightwing grew up fighting insane fiends like the Joker and Two Face. Mikey was acting like a close copy. Leaping, spinning, kicking, and punching, Nightwing did not let up his relentless attack on his dangerous opponent. Unexpectedly, he was suddenly struck from behind between the shoulder blades.
Nightwing felt the earth weave crazily, then settle down again.
"Don't hurt my brother!" Nightwing spun out of the way, just as Tommy swung the baseball bat through the empty space that Nightwing's head had recently occupied. "No one hurts my brother! No one!" Tommy yelled, swinging at Nightwing.
"Mikey!" Tommy yelled, never taking his eyes off Nightwing. "Are you all right, bro?" As Tommy called to his brother, he kept his deadly swings aimed at Nightwing.
Nightwing kept ducking and rolling out of the way, glad that he didn't have Tommy's full attention. He was still a little light-headed from the earlier blow to the head.
Mikey sat up from where he'd crumpled under Nightwing's assault. He blinked several times to clear his eyes. He saw that Tommy was currently occupied. His eyes narrowed at the sight of his naughty brother.
"All I ask is for a little support," Mikey muttered. "I cook..."
Mikey slowly stood up.
Mikey picked up the knife.
"I pick up after you..."
Mikey started walking slowly up behind Tommy, who solidly connected with Nightwing's hurt ribs. The young vigilante went down on his knees, gasping at the searing pain, trying to clear his head. Nightwing looked up.
"Why can't you be good?" Mikey asked, sounding hurt and tired.
Nightwing's eyes widened. "Look out!" he warned.
Too late! In a frenzy, Mikey lunged at his brother and repeatedly stabbed him.
Tommy screamed! He couldn't understand why he suddenly felt as if someone were running a white-hot poker through his body. His face assumed a look of hurt shock.
"What hap--?" Tommy gurgled, choking as his lungs quickly filled with his own blood.
Mikey, who was standing behind his brother, holding the bloodied knife in his hands, caught Tommy gently in his arms, and began to rock him. "There, there, Tommy," Mikey crooned. "Don't worry, little brother...I'll take care of you...Haven't I always?"
"Why...?" Tommy choked, pink bubbles escaping from the side of his mouth. "Why...?"
"Because, Tommy," Mikey explained patiently, "how many times do I gotta tell you? You always hurt the ones you love?" Mikey began rocking Tommy gently. "Shhhhh, little brother. Don't worry. I'll take care of you..."
Nightwing gently, but firmly removed the knife from Mikey's hand.
He reached over and checked Tommy's pulse. He was gone. Mikey kept rocking his little brother and crooning quietly to him. Nightwing wasn't exactly sure what he'd witnessed, but he was certain that whatever monsters had haunted him all of these years, the Gunthers' personal demons had been much worse.
Nightwing wasn't a psychologist, but he was fairly sure that Mikey belonged in a hospital, not in a prison. He heard the sounds of running feet coming up the corridor.
"The last thing I need is to be caught without my mask," he muttered. Leaping up in a single fluid motion, Nightwing grasped a ceiling beam and pulled himself up. He quickly covered over the ceiling tile, leaving a tiny crack.
"Aw, jeez," MacCauley muttered, taking in the scene. It looked like something out of Dante's Inferno. There was blood everywhere! On the floor. On the walls. On the ceiling tiles. And sitting in the middle of the floor almost entirely covered in blood were the Gunther brothers. One was holding the other closely to him, rocking him back and forth.
And the smell!
MacCauley felt himself gagging!
"My God--!" Fontana gasped, awe-struck.
Both veteran officers stood silently by as Mikey rocked and crooned his little brother to sleep.
Nightwing watched for a few minutes, then made his way carefully on hands and knees through the crawlspace to another apartment.
"Good thing these projects were never finished," he said sarcastically. "These false ceilings would've been a great way to break into your neighbors' homes."
"You're right, but with a little redesigning and improved specs, who knows, they could solve Bludhaven's housing shortage problem."
At the first words, Nightwing almost fell through the ceiling tiles into the apartment below.
"You know," Nightwing squeaked, "I think you really enjoy doing that!"
"..." Nightwing looked nonplussed. "Aw, never mind," he said holding his head in his hand. "I'm just doomed to go through life with a twitch, I guess."
"By the way," Batman asked. "Did you lose this?" Nightwing turned around carefully. He could've sworn he heard a smile in Batman's voice. Just like...where had he heard something like this before, he wondered?
Batman was holding out Nightwing's mask. Sheepishly, Nightwing took it back.
"Did they see your face?" Batman asked. Nightwing sighed.
"Yeah, and just about everything else." He quickly explained his state of undress when he'd first awakened, and then recounted all of the events since. "So, I don't think my secret identity is any trouble. Mikey isn't going to be saying anything that anyone is going to believe for a very long time."
The scene below was one of organized chaos. Dozens of emergency vehicles with blue, red, and yellow lights flashing had converged on the abandoned apartment complex. As soon as word spread that Billy Grady had been found alive and the child serial killers captured, reporters from every major news outlet began arriving.
Nightwing crouched easily on the edge of the roof. He was monitoring the police band for any further news on the injured police officers. Hearing what he wanted, Nightwing finally looked up and gave his mentor a relieved smile.
"Sergeant Jennings just reported that both Corporal Roberts and Officer Kelp are gonna make it."
"I'm glad to hear it," Batman said simply.
Sudden activity below them caught their attention. A three-car police motorcade came pulling up to the police line. The crowds were forced to open up and make way for the vehicles. There was a sudden stillness in the air...almost as if a director had yelled "Cut!" and everything on the set had come to a halt.
The rear door of the middle cruiser opened, and two people emerged, standing uncertainly in the center of the crowds around them. Suddenly, from the rear of one of the EMT vehicles, Doctor Winters climbed out, calmly carrying a small bundle in her arms. She began walking slowly to the waiting couple who stood seemingly unable to move.
"Mommy! Daddy!" Billy's voice called out to them.
With a sudden cry, Deana and Ted Grady ran towards Winters, and eagerly took their son into their waiting arms.
Watching from the sidelines, MacCauley smiled at Winters. "Sometimes, everything seems worth it, Doc. The long hours, the lousy pay..."
"Yes," Winters agreed. "But the suffering, David...especially of the children...the ones we couldn't save..." Winters stopped, unable to go on. She felt emotionally drained.
In answer, MacCauley placed his hand gently on her elbow, and began steering her towards his cruiser.
"Come on, Doc. I'll buy you a drink..."
"Will you be you heading back tonight?" Nightwing asked.
"My job here is done. I'm not needed anymore," Batman replied quietly.
"Bruce?" Nightwing stood, looking up his mentor. "Thanks for coming." When Batman didn't say anything in reply, Nightwing dropped his eyes and stood uncertainly. Feeling a warm pressure on his shoulder, Nightwing eagerly looked up and almost blinded his mentor with a nova-bright smile.
"Like I said...What are fathers for?" Batman replied.