The Salem Protocol
Prompt: Writer's Choice (Protect and Serve)
Thanks to Kathy and Debbie for the beta! Thanks to Char and Sara for general advice!
Warning: Contains MASSIVE spoilers for Batman #678. Written before Batman #679 came out and will become an AU in less than a month.
"It Must Have Happened," written and performed by Mary Chapin Carpenter, The Calling (Zoe, Why Walk Music, 2007).
Can't remember seeing all my hopes
Going up in flames
I can't remember reaching
For the closest thing to dull the pain
I can't remember feeling
I could be healed by a stranger's hand
--Mary Chapin Carpenter, "It Must Have Happened"
Chapter One: By A Stranger's Hand
At first, the police commissioner had wanted to believe that the man was undercover. It would explain the shabby clothes, the eyes that had met his and looked away without a flicker of recognition, hell, the fact that they'd even been able to keep him in the holding cell. Something had seemed off, though. It had taken awhile before the Gordon had been able to put his finger on it, but when the realization had come, it had been in a moment of blinding clarity: the disguise was too sloppy.
Always, in the past, Jim had been taken in—by all the costumes except the one most commonly used. Sometimes, he'd been permitted a glimpse behind the façade. The other man's gaze would suddenly shift. Facial muscles would contract. And he'd say something like, "my name is Stone. I work the night shift." 'Night shift'—said with a particular emphasis.
And Gordon would relax, knowing that he wasn't alone in whatever crisis he was currently facing. Batman was out here with him. All was well.
Except tonight, the man who had been in the holding cell—the delirious, panic-stricken man whom they had rushed to Mercy General hospital when it was clear that whatever was wrong with him went beyond a normal person's apprehension at being in custody—hadn't been in some impenetrable disguise. He'd been Bruce Wayne in shabby clothes, with five o'clock shadow and a glazed-over look to his eyes, which had seemed all too real. Jim wondered that nobody else seemed to have made the connection. People saw what they wanted to, he supposed. He frowned. He definitely hadn't wanted to see Bruce like… that.
He debated the matter for a few minutes. It was still possible that this was all a ploy on Bruce's part—and that Jim had just gotten to be a little too good at seeing though disguises. If the man needed to get out of holding without staging a breakout or dropping his cover, Jim supposed it was easier to escape a hospital than the GCPD lockup. A traitorous voice spoke up in his mind.
Nobody's that good.
And then, an instant later, Batman is.
Nobody. And anyway, what did he gain by being here? You saw the security cameras. He didn't try to talk to the other prisoners. He didn't even look at them. He…
He still might have found what he needed.
Gordon sighed. There was one way that he could know for sure. He could contact the hospital. He reached for the phone, and then stopped. Since when did the commissioner of police take such an interest in a John Doe? He considered his options, for a few minutes. Then, he smiled and reached for the phone again.
"Barbara? Are you at… work, right now? Good. I need you to check on something for me. Discreetly."
It was only a few minutes later that Barbara called back. "Your John Doe tested positive for heroin and crystal meth, Daddy," she said. Her voice was calm, even chipper, as though she had no clue who the patient was. Gordon knew better.
He hesitated. "We ran his prints. We're still waiting for the results to come in, but I imagine that when they finally do, we'll be no closer to a valid identification?"
Gordon heard it: an unmistakable sigh of relief. Then, his daughter asked, quite matter-of-factly, "how long have you known?"
"Long enough to know that there's no way in hell that he'd have willingly put that junk into his veins."
"I couldn't agree more." Her tone became more businesslike. "He's all for submerging himself in a role, but he wouldn't go that far." There was a pause. "And he's not experiencing any withdrawal symptoms—which means he can't have been taking the stuff for very long, since…" She laughed. "Why am I wasting time explaining this to you? You've been a cop in Gotham long enough to know how addictive meth is!"
Gordon chuckled softly in response. "So, what happens now?"
"I've been trying to reach the others." She paused. "Do you know… everyone?"
"Let's say I do," he replied. "But let's not mention civilian names or places, just in case I don't."
"Okay. I tried ringing the house and there was no answer. Which is weird, because there's always someone home. And if someone isn't, the home phone forwards to a mobile number. Plus I had a communication from Robin earlier, saying that B," the nickname sprang automatically to her lips, "wasn't answering his calls." She paused again. "'Wing is also missing, now. The boys were supposed to rendezvous, but he never made it to the checkpoint. You… you didn't hear any reports of…?"
"Nothing." He took a breath. "If I do, if it's serious, I'll try to make sure you hear it from me instead of the news feeds."
"Thanks. So… he's at Mercy, now?"
Gordon nodded. "That's right. Bail's likely to be set at a thousand. I have it…"
"My men brought him in for assault and resisting arrest." He grimaced. "Patrol car in Crime Alley saw a fight going on and called in backup. From the report, it seems he was in the thick of it. When he ignored an order to stand down, they used pepper spray—"
Barbara snorted. "He must've loved that."
"He would've loved being charged with assaulting a law-enforcement officer a lot less. I hear it took four of them to get him into the squad car. Anyway, when I read the report, I wanted to have a look at the guy who caused that much trouble." The humor in his voice died. "And after I did, after I saw the shape he was in, I got him transferred to hospital and called you."
He heard the smile in her voice. When she spoke again, though, the professional tone was back.
"You can't post the bond, Daddy. For the same reason you couldn't call the hospital: it'll make people wonder why you're showing such an interest. Leave this with me. There are a couple of people I can call in. I'll phone you back in an hour."
Gordon nodded slowly to himself. "Alright." He chuckled. "Nice to finally be able to work together officially after all this time."
"Well… unofficially officially, anyway."
They laughed and hung up.
In Platinum Flats, California, Barbara Gordon opened a new video chat session and pulled up two contacts.
By the time Barbara had finished relaying her information, both the blonde woman and her surrogate son were frowning.
"If Batman's in that kind of trouble," Dinah said slowly, "is it fair to assume that the manor's been breached? I hate to bring this up, but considering that one break-in gave R'as al-Ghul detailed plans on how to take down the rest of the League… Let's just say I'm concerned."
"That's taken care of, actually," Barbara replied. "You know he went away for a year. Before he left, he emailed me his access codes. I know," she continued quickly. "It shocked the hell out of me too. And the accompanying message? Two typos. From Bruce. You know how out of character that is? All I can think is, that between that business with the Protocols, the mob wars a couple of years back, and OMAC, he decided he needed to work on his trust issues. So he took a step. A huge one. But he did it almost on impulse before he could change his mind. Anyway, his systems haven't been compromised."
"Unless he didn't send you all his codes," Roy said. "Or unless someone was messing with his head before he got picked up by Gotham's finest and he just told them what they wanted to know. And before you ask me if I really think Bruce would do that under any circumstances, you want to tell me how anyone got close enough to inject him with Smurf dope? No way all his bats were in the roost when that happened."
Barbara nodded. "Alright. It's a possibility. So, let's recap. First, we need to get Bruce out of the hospital before someone recognizes him. Second, be prepared for the possibility that he won't recognize you. Daddy said he was really out of it. Once he's with us, we can try to figure out what's going on and how to fix it. Third, we need to secure the manor." She bit her lip. "Normally, I'd say 'forget the manor, find Dick and Alfred'. But right now, we have no idea where either of them is, and the first place to start looking would probably be the house. Alfred could be there. Bruce may have communicated with Dick from the cave—if so, we can try to get a fix on his last location. And if the cave has been compromised," she bit her lip again, "with all Bruce's files—not just on the League, but on civilians—cops, witnesses, leads…" She shook her head. "If I have to take the caped community to DEFCON 1, I need to know it as soon as possible."
Dinah nodded, her expression grim. Roy seemed about to say something. "If any of them were here, they'd be telling us the same thing," she interrupted. Once the manor and cave are secure, we start looking for Dick and Alfred—if they aren't at the scene. Then… we see. If Bruce needs our help taking down whoever did this to him, we give it to him. If he can handle it, we let him."
They nodded. "Looks like I'm the go-to person for drug issues," Roy said lightly.
"Actually," Barbara smiled back, "I need you more for your covert ops skills. Work with Tim, check the situation at the Manor, and see if you can locate the others. I'll monitor communications bands from here."
She looked at the other half of her monitor. "Dinah, if it comes to that, Bruce isn't going to go through a real withdrawal, but I know you've had some experience with…"
On the screen, Dinah nodded. "Helping people get through some of the side effects." She turned to Roy. "Barbara's right. I can do that part of it. I guess I'm posting the bond?"
"You got it."
Dinah gave a mock salute. "Okay, Roy, looks like we've got our marching orders. I'll meet you at JLA Headquarters—we'll use the transporter to get to Gotham. Be there in five." She grinned. "We'll do this, Red. You can put money on it."
"I did," Barbara smiled back. "Where do you think the thousand is coming from?"
The other woman laughed for a moment. Then, she sobered. "The League looks after its own. This guy—whoever he is—is going down soooo fast..."
"Call me when you arrive. And let my dad know first—he hates being cut out of the loop."
"Oh, so that's where it comes from," Dinah smirked. "Talk to you soon."
Both channels switched off.
Barbara smiled. "Soon."
"You're good to go, buddy." The orderly held open the door to the room and gestured to the hallway outside.
The man on the cot blinked slowly. "I am?" He pushed back the blanket hesitantly.
"We've had word from Central. You made bail. And seeing as you're no longer tripping and you came in with no ID, and no proof of insurance, it's time you were moseying."
The man blinked. "No… insurance?" That couldn't be right. He had to have that. He was… His memory hit a wall. Who was he? Honor had called him 'soldier', but that wasn't a name. Then… what was it? The furthest back he could remember, Honor had woken him up in an alley. He'd been filthy, sick as a dog, with no idea who he was or how he'd gotten there. There were clues, though. He spoke an educated polished English, devoid of the slang and profanities that had laced his new companion's speech. The clothes he'd been wearing, though torn and dirty, had been of high quality. His hair had been recently cut, and by a professional.
He frowned. "Are you sure?"
The orderly shrugged. "That's what they tell me. Your clothes are on the chair. I'll come back and check on you in ten minutes."
The other man sat up and looked to where the orderly was pointing. "And then, where do I go?"
"Wherever you want to, buddy." He paused. "You really don't have any idea, do you?"
The patient shook his head. "I don't remember anything that happened more than… two days ago."
The orderly sighed. "I'll get you the addresses for a couple of shelters when I come back. Best I can do." He was out the door before the other man could thank him.
The leggy blonde seated on the bench outside the hospital leaped up as he walked by. "Bruce! Over here!"
Automatically, he turned at her call. "Do I know you?"
The smile on her face froze, but her voice didn't waver. "It's me, Dinah! I…" She hesitated, seeing Bruce's agitation. If he didn't recognize her then… "We… We've worked together in the past. Barbara asked me to come in." She forced herself to speak more calmly. "For now, though, all you need to know is that I'm the one who posted your bond—and I've got a place where you can stay."
He absorbed that. "You called me 'Bruce'. Is that my name?"
She nodded, but the smile dimmed another fraction. "You don't remember?"
"No." But it sounded right. Bruce. He felt a puzzle piece fall into place. "Who's… Barbara?"
"So you say." He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I appreciate your setting bail for me… and I'd go home… except that since I don't know where I live, my choices appear to be one of the shelters on this list," he held up the paper, "or to go with you." He frowned. "Why should I trust you?"
Dinah shrugged. "If my intentions were hostile, I wouldn't have posted your bond."
"I've only your word that you did that."
"My word, and this paperwork." She thrust a folded sheet at him.
He scanned it quickly. "Dinah L. Lance." That name also resonated. He still didn't know whether she was friend or foe, but apparently, she was telling the truth when she said that he knew her. Still… "Could I see some identification?"
Dinah grinned. "Suspicious as ever, even without your memory." She reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. "Drivers' license good enough?" She asked, passing it over.
He glanced at it. The name and signature matched. The photo wasn't perfect, but fell well within the proper parameters. Satisfied, he handed the paperwork back to her and caught a sparkle and a gleam of gold on the ring finger of her left hand as she reached for it.
His hand froze. "You're married."
She nodded. "Something wrong?"
His mouth suddenly felt dry. "Not… to me?"
Dinah laughed. "No, no. Not to you." She grinned. "Though there was a time…"
Bruce exhaled. "Good. I… if I was married to you, I think I'd want to remember."
She laughed again. "I'm parked over here. Come on."
He followed her; his suspicions still present, albeit allayed somewhat.
"Alarm's off," Robin said, as he keyed in the punch code to the kitchen door. "Doesn't mean the special security isn't on, though."
Red Arrow nodded. "Alfred's not here to let us in. That's warning enough, in my book."
Robin's answering nod was grim. "Cave's this way. Let's check the security tapes. But be careful. Whoever took out Bruce might still be…"
The youth flung himself to the ground instantly as a red-fletched arrow hissed through the air. He heard a shriek from above him and something fell past his ear to clack to the floor. As he turned his head to the side, he saw polished black shoes beneath white pant-legs that were festooned with… black pompoms? On the floor next to the shoes was something that looked like a short skipping rope with two wooden handles—a garrote. "So much for sneaking in," he muttered as he rose again to his feet.
It looked like Roy's arrow had pinned his attacker's sleeve to the wall. A bright red dot welled up through the fabric. Tim judged that it was only a graze.
Without a moment's hesitation, Red Arrow slammed the man's head into the wall twice. Beneath the white face makeup, eyes glazed over, rolled back, and finally closed. "You know this… clown?" he asked.
Robin nodded slowly. "Pierrot Lunaire. I fought him last night."
"Not hard enough, if you ask me." He snorted. "You know, if he were about a half-inch shorter, and his build were a little bit narrower, he could pass for the Wingster."
Tim eyed the unconscious man critically. "I guess. Hard to tell under that face paint. Okay. No Alfred, and this creep was coming after us. We were quiet, didn't trip any alarms, so they must have been watching the security cameras. I guess we were right about the cave being compromised."
Roy scowled. "Lovely. Can we take it back?"
"We have to. Until we know for sure that Alfred isn't down there, we have to assume that he is. And we have to get him out."
"What do you suggest?"
Tim told him…
The instant the lift doors opened, a floodlight switched on, bathing the upper half of the elevator car in brightness. Fortunately, both young men were crouched on the floor at the time.
"Looks like your hunch was right," Red Arrow snapped, leaping forward. "What else've we got to look forward to?
Robin tumbled and rolled in the opposite direction, dodging a hail of rubber bullets. "These, for one thing. Also, non-lethal shocks, flash-bangs, nets, shuriken…"
"Great. So nothing here will actually kill us… just keep us busy so someone else can." He slid under a laser beam. "Ow! Damn, that stings!"
"Cover me," Robin said grimly. "I need to get to the next level. And wear ear—" A flash-bang went off directly in front of him. The youth cursed. He had to do this fast—especially if whoever had engaged the cave's defenses had figured out how to disengage the safety interlocks. Here's hoping nobody moved the furniture, he thought. He fired off a line to where he was sure the opposite railing would be. It felt right. He gave it an experimental tug, and was relieved to find it securely anchored. Quickly, but carefully, he hoisted himself over the catwalk railing and stepped into empty air. Gauge it. Rate of downward acceleration, number of meters descended… swing and jump to next level… NOW! He released the line and sailed once more through the air, this time without the benefit of an anchor. He sprawled heavily on metal deck plating and offered up a silent prayer of thanks. He'd made it… but he wasn't out of the woods yet.
This was the ancillary nerve center of the cave—roughly analogous to auxiliary control. Slowly, painfully, he got to his feet. "Computer, voice identification code: Robin Gamma-Jack-Redbird-Three acknowledge! He could only hope that the computer had complied. His ears were still ringing. "Computer, implement Salem Protocol, authorization: OMAC-Babel-Wargames-Initiate!"
This time, he heard it. A chime and a dulcet tone. "Salem Protocol has been initiated. Standing down from condition alpha." Robin breathed a sigh of relief. He nearly jumped as a hand gripped his arm.
"What the Helsinki was that?" Red Arrow demanded.
"The Salem Protocol. It's Batman's failsafe. He gave us override codes in case he was ever possessed, brainwashed, or went rogue. Basically, it lets us—Nightwing, Alfred, or myself—neutralize the cave defenses." He swiftly keyed new codes into the computer. "Data's locked down." There was a cry from below. Robin chuckled. "It also shorts out the main computer consoles." He turned to face the other crimefighter. The spots were beginning to recede from before his eyes. "C'mon, you knew Batman came up with his protocols against the League. It never occurred to you that he had a couple for himself?"
Roy just stared at him.
Tim sighed. "Later. Come on, let's see if we can find Alfred."
"Find him?" A harsh voice cut through their conversation. Both men turned as one. "He's right here!"
Below them, before the central computer, a tall, austere man wearing an archaic but familiar costume stood. Behind him, a white-masked man in a blue business suit, of all things, was massaging his fingers in obvious pain. Off on the periphery, they could see other costumed interlopers. Bound to a chair before the computer, was a bruised and disheveled Alfred.
It was all Tim could do not to rush down to the next level. Alfred! And he recognized the costume—Bruce's father had worn it long ago to a fancy-dress ball. He remembered Bruce telling him that, in a sense, Thomas Wayne had been the first Batman. And this guy had just waltzed in, smashed the display case… Bruce was going to kill him.
At a gesture from the ersatz Batman, the others started forward.
"Here they come," Roy cautioned. "All six of them."
Tim readied his bo staff. "Can we take them?"
Roy considered their options for a split-second. "Can you turn the defenses back on? Make them ignore us?"
Tim stared at his older companion. "I can turn them back on… They'll ignore me… but I haven't got time to get the computer to recognize you as a friend."
"Do it. I'll deal. While I'm dealing, get down there." He frowned. "Put your earplugs in. I got an idea."
Robin bit his lip as he fumbled for the soft pieces of rubber. "Computer: Initiate…" For a moment, nothing happened. Then, the man in full Roman battle dress and the woman in battle armor screamed as the newly electrified stairs sent currents surging through them. As Red Arrow grimly fitted an arrow to his bowstring, Tim attached another de-cel cable to the railing and began his descent to the main control area.
"That's far enough," The masked man's lips formed the words as Robin touched down. He was holding a wicked-looking dagger against Alfred's neck. Robin recognized it from the trophy room—it had once belonged to Ned Brann, a former member of the original Red Hood gang. Alfred sat unmoving, his head bowed.
Robin froze. "What do you want?" The man's voice was muffled, thanks to the earplugs, but Tim's lip-reading skills had been honed by years of training.
"I've already taken it, Timmy," he said mockingly. "His cave, his home… his very existence."
He barely registered the use of his real name. "What have you done with him?"
"Is this the point where I'm expected to give you some sort of cryptic clue, or simply reveal my secrets outright? I don't think so. Stand your ground, or I'll test the keenness of this blade on—"
An arrow buzzed past them to thunk into the computer console behind them.
"That was stupid," the man spat. "Do you think I'm bluffing? Do-aaaaagh!" He fell to his knees, hands pressed to his ears in pain as the blade skittered to the floor.
Robin smiled slowly. A sonic arrow. That was why Roy had told him to wear the earplugs. He glanced over and saw their other assailants lying about in various degrees of consciousness. With a sigh of relief, he deactivated the cave's defenses once more.
Red Arrow joined him a moment later. "How is he?"
"Hurt. It looks serious." Robin swallowed. "Help me get him into the medical area, and then we'll—"
A car door slammed. Tires screeched. And a Batmobile sped away with the ringleader visible in the front passenger seat. Biting back a curse, Roy nocked another arrow. Tim stayed his hand. "We can track it through GPS later. Alfred needs help, now."
Roy nodded slowly. "That clown from upstairs was at the wheel."
Alfred groaned faintly. Immediately, both crime fighters set to work on the ropes. First things first.
Tim watched the medical monitors nervously. "Why's his breathing so shallow?" He asked.
Roy shook his head, even as he placed a supportive hand on the younger vigilante's shoulder. "That's what happens when someone shoots you up with sedatives," he said evenly. "I've seen it before with recovering addicts—sometimes they need to be kept under to get past the worst of the withdrawal symptoms."
"Will he… be okay?"
"Probably," Roy said. "But he should be in the hospital—which is going to be a problem, because that's not the only thing wrong with him." He gestured angrily at the figure lying on the sickbay cot. "Good luck explaining away those bruises… unless you feel like faking a robbery and making like the crooks beat him up. Hell, it's close enough to the truth."
Tim shook his head. "No time. And we don't really want them crawling all over the place. What if they find one of the cave accesses? Plus, if they suspect an inside job…"
"It was just a thought." Roy smiled, then. "Guess JLA membership's good for something then." He strode over to the cot and scooped up the elderly man. "Doc Mid-Nite'll take good care of him," he said, as he carried Alfred toward the transporter. "I'll be back in a few."
Tim nodded, and opened a channel to report to Oracle.
"…And then Roy took—"
"Hold on one second, Tim," Barbara interrupted. "You're sure Pierrot Lunaire was at the manor?"
"Yeah, or his eviler twin."
An image flashed on his console. "This guy?"
Tim cocked his head in exasperation. "Oracle, what's the matter?"
There was a long pause. "Yesterday afternoon, about an hour or so before you were supposed to meet Nightwing, Pierrot Lunaire was admitted as a patient to Arkham Asylum. And he's still there. But if you just fought him…" Barbara took a deep breath. "If someone dressed Dick in an outfit like that… with that make-up…"
A loud expletive made Tim jump. He hadn't noticed that Roy was back. "I do not FREAKING believe this! Thanks for the tip, Oracle. C'mon, Tim. We'll get him out if I have to…" He broke off suddenly.
"Robin," he said with an odd smile on his lips, "did I hear Black Glove call you 'Timmy', during the fight?"
Tim went cold. "He did! Oh… my… G—" He stopped. Why was Roy grinning?
"So, they already know," Roy said. "Not just about Bruce, but the rest of you. Which means that if we were to…" He sputtered and took a deep breath, trying to hold back his laughter. "Oh, G-d, this is perfect! Grab a car, 'Timmy'! This is going to be fun!"
Robin's thoughts were spinning. Dick was in Arkham, the Club of Villains knew their secrets, and Roy thought this was a good thing? "But…"
Roy was still laughing as he clasped an arm around the younger man's shoulders. "Trust me!"