3

I hop off the crate and take several careful steps back. He doesn't seem to notice, just keeps looking despondent and rambles on.

"I didn't mean to. I just... it was worse than now... I couldn't... I just felt like a puppet... like I was on the outside looking in while the system just... just made me..." he shakes his head and trails off.

Okay, previous hallucinations and now he's confessing to carving bat symbols into people. I think I can officially class this guy as a loon. Which makes me wonder why the hell Batman would...

Wait a second. Bat symbols? Why would he...? Unless...

Oh, you've got to be kidding me. There's no way he could be...

But still, there's no harm in asking, is there? After all, the most he can do is flip out completely and tear me apart. Sure, no problem.

I watch as he pulls himself to his feet and goes through another demented martial arts routine. Then it's back to hugging the floor.

Definitely too much adrenaline. And possibly too much homicidal mania.

"Still feeling like hell?"

"...yes. I... yes."

Oh, what the heck. "So, can I ask a small unrelated question here? Ought to keep you distracted if nothing else..."

Again the head snaps up, and his eyes narrow in a very disturbing way. "It depends."

"Still cagey about revealing too much about the big boss? You are a good little soldier."

The expression on his face is not one of amusement.

"But you're not exactly the most stable guy on the block, are you?"

Silence. His face is absolutely emotionless and focused steadily on me. It's... distinctly creepy.

"Did he know that when he asked you to take over for him two years ago? That was you, wasn't it?"

I'm actually really curious to see what his response is to that, so it comes as a bit of a disappointment to me that he doesn't get to reply. It's at this point, you see, that the wall behind him explodes.

"Fuck!" I really wasn't expecting that. I snap into "survival mode" and throw myself into the nearest shadow. Harder for the bad guys to hit you if they can't see you. Damn it all! Who the hell is this and how did you find us? I was keeping an eye out for tails and I'm not an amateur! Some kind of tracking device? Or just a guy who's really good at following old trails? Damn, damn, fuck!

Safely hidden in the shadows at the edge of the gym, I look towards the jagged gap in my warehouse and assess the situation. There's a gaping hole in the wall on the seawards side, giving us a nice view of the docks. Looks like explosives of some sort, maybe someone tossed a grenade down the side. Azrael's covered in dust and small bits of rubble, but he looks okay. Heck, to be honest he looks better than he was before. Alert, focused and looking towards the source of the disturbance. It's hard for me to tell that this is the same guy who was curled on the floor whimpering thirty seconds ago. Weird.

The dust settles and...there's nothing. No triumphant bad guy striding through the rubble, no team of crack troops appearing with guns blazing. Which can only mean that this was meant as some kind of...

"I recommend that the both of you keep absolutely still. These guns may look small and inoffensive, but I assure you they pack a punch that you won't survive."

...distraction. It was a distraction; the guy set the explosives and then went around the back way. And I fell for it! Idiot, idiot!

"Slowly turn around and put your hands up. Both of you! And get out of the shadows, kitty-cat, I want to see you properly."

My mind races, but right now the only thing I can think to do is bide my time. The guy's tone is that of a professional and he's watching me like a hawk. I could run for better cover but...

Not worth the risk. Reluctantly, I put my hands up and step forward. At least I can get a good look at the attacker now. He's an odd one, decked out like a guy from Victorian London with a mask that looks like it came from a masquerade ball. I don't recognise him.

But Azrael does.

"The Tallyman!" The voice has gone deep and scary again. Standing in the rubble, perfectly still, he hasn't put up his arms and doesn't look like he's inclined to. Great. Just great.

"You know my name, how gratifying. Now put them up!"

"Azrael does not obey criminals."

Third person? Why the hell is he talking in the third person? Good grief, this guy is a lunatic.

"You think so? Well right now I think that Azrael would do well to remember who has the upper hand here. You're not dealing with my incompetent goons now." His brow creases in annoyance. "I should never have left your interrogation in their hands. Something was bound to go wrong."

"They attempted to harm me. They paid for that transgression."

"That doesn't matter. I'm an assassin; I work better alone anyway. I don't know why I even hired them."

"You knew that you could not take me down alone. You are weak."

Tallyman's eyes narrow. "Considering your position, I don't think you can make any comments."

"Weak and cowardly! Hiding behind a gun. That will not save you."

Ho boy. I think it's time for me to butt in now, before sweet little Azrael manages to tick off this guy enough to make him shoot. Because quite frankly, I'm the most disposable one here and I'm not at all thrilled with that idea.

"Excuse me, Tallyman, is it?"

"The Tallyman."

"So sorry. The Tallyman. You want to give me some kind of clue as to why you've busted into my building and threatened to shoot me?"

"You know why! I want him."

"Well, fine, whatever. Take him. Just leave me out of this!"

He looks somewhat surprised at this. "You went to all that trouble to rescue him and now you're willing to let him go?"

That's it, pay attention to me. Azrael dearest is wound up like a spring; he's going to try to pounce sooner or later. I think we've both got a better chance of living if he catches you by surprise.

"I rescued him because there wasn't much risk to it. Your "incompetent goons" live up to their names. I'm not willing to take a gun shot for him, though. Take the bastard, and let me walk away. I won't stop you, and if you kill me you'll have a whole bunch of my allies to deal with. It's not worth the headache."

Yeah, like there's a crowd of people willing to avenge my death. A little white lie here and there never hurt anyone, however...

He looks like he's considering it. He also looks like he's let his attention stray. Now if I can get the Angel to take advantage of that...

"I'm not sure if you..."

And he doesn't get any further, as the Angel swoops in for the kill. The Tallyman roars with rage and fires with both guns, but I'm already dodging behind the nearest piece of junk, and in any case, his aim is thrown wild when Azrael lands on him from a ten-metre long jump. Good one, Choirboy. Go get him.

I'm not a coward, but I do think these guys are perfectly capable of sorting things out for themselves. It's not like it's my fight, for heaven's sake. And if the Tallyman isn't quite professional enough to deal with what he's stirred up, then that's just too damn bad. I dodge from shadow to shadow and then dive into the other room and wait for the sounds of combat to stop.

I have to say, this is turning into one hell of a night.

************

TBC