Title: Little Boy Lost Author: Syl Francis Email: efrancis@earthlink.net Part: 1/1 Rating: PG-13 (for language and situations) Word count: 37,493

****

Summary: After the murder of his circus aerialist parents, Dick Grayson is taken from the circus and everyone he has ever loved and placed in a "temporary" shelter while waiting for a foster home to become available.

Acknowledgement: I'd like to thank Cat for her assistance; her encouragement kept me going when I thought I'd just shuck it all and quit.

Disclaimer: All the characters are owned by DC Comics and Time/Warner; this is an original story that does not intend to infringe on their copyright. Feedback is welcome! Copyright 1999

**** Little Boy Lost By Syl Francis

"What's done to children, they will do to society."--Karl Menninger

****

Prologue

The day following the murder of his parents, the Gotham State Child Welfare Services arrived to take Dick from the only home he had ever known.

"I'm afraid, Mister Haly, that Richard John Grayson, a minor child, has been declared a ward of the state," Dr. Cunningham said. "Gotham State C.W.S. feels that an itinerant circus is not an appropriate place for a child, and therefore Richard will have to be removed from here and placed in the first available foster home."

Dick, still clearly in shock after having witnessed his parents' plunge to their deaths, clung desperately to Pop Haly. He couldn't understand why he had to be taken from the circus and everyone he loved.

"No! Please! Pop, don't let them! I want to stay with you! Please don't let them take me away . . . Please!"

Haly hugged Dick closely to him, ready to fight if necessary to keep his godson. Unfortunately, the CWS agents came prepared. Cunningham gestured casually, and immediately, a squad car that Haly hadn't noted before flashed its blue lights. Two uniformed police officers got out of their car and walked up to the small group.

"Is there a problem, Doctor Cunningham?" A policeman with sergeant stripes spoke.

"I don't think so, officer," Cunningham replied. "*Is* there a problem, Mister Haly?"

Feeling like a traitor, Haly shook his head.

"No, officer . . . no problem," Haly said regretfully. Kneeling down so that he was eye level with Dick, Haly continued, "Dicky . . . son . . . listen to me, boy. You've got to go with these people . . . do you understand?"

Dick set his jaw stubbornly and shook his head.

"The law says that you have to go with them . . . Please, Dicky, I'm sorry. But I promise that it will only be for a short time . . . I promise you, son, that I'm going to do everything in my power to bring you back home . . . Do you believe me?"

Head and eyes downcast, Dick nodded mutely.

Later, his few possessions packed, and clutching Elinore, his stuffed elephant, Dick said good-bye to his extended circus family. Haly promised again that he would do everything in his power to get him back, but Dick had already given up hope. Mom and Dad were dead, and now the circus had abandoned him, too. He had no one left.

**** Chapter One

The nightmare is always the same . . .

First, he watches helplessly as his Mom and Dad fall forever.

Then *They* come, the mysterious nameless powers that be, and take him away from Pop Haly whom he loves like a grandfather. *They* say that a circus is no place for a boy. So *They* bring him here to this place.

Dr. Cunningham (overheard): "The Gotham State Juvenile Detention Center is for the most incorrigible juvenile offenders in our justice system. The Center includes several education and job-training programs intended to reduce recidivism. Furthermore, because of a current shortage of foster families, we must also temporarily house a small number of minor children who are awaiting foster homes."

He wants to ask what "incorrigible" means, but a grim JDC aide gives him a threatening glare.

JDC Aide: "No questions, juvie. You'll be told everything you need to know. Lock down is at nine forty-five p.m.; reveille at oh-six-hundred. Don't be late . . . you won't like the consequences." His door slams shut behind him, and he hears a bolt being thrown into place. He tries the door handle . . . locked. He's a prisoner. Why? What did he do? He's not sure, but it must have been something really bad. He curls up on the bed alone and frightened, hugging his stuffed elephant.

Maybe he shouldn't have told that policeman about overhearing Mr. Zucco threaten Pop Haly. Maybe he wasn't supposed to have been eavesdropping, but he hadn't meant to. He'd gone to Haly's trailer to ask if he could ride in the circus parade on the real Elinore, the circus's star elephant. That's when Zucco stepped outside and almost tripped over him on the trailer's stoop.

Pop Haly (waving an angry fist): "Get off the grounds, Zucco, or I'll have you thrown off!"

Zucco (threateningly): "Pay up, Haly, or someone's going to get hurt . . . real bad!"

He stands mutely by while Zucco threatens Haly. He's too frightened and upset to remember why he's there. Zucco walks off still spewing threats.

Haly (noticing him standing there): "Dicky, you're on in another few minutes, son. You'd best go on home and get ready."

He nods and hurries to his trailer. The familiar logo, "The Flying Graysons," gives him a warm welcome. He tries to tell his Mom and Dad about the man, Zucco, but they are too busy getting ready for the act.

Dad (ruffling his hair): "Get a move on, champ! We're almost on."

Mom (giving him a light peck on the cheek): "Come on, little Robin. It's almost show time."

Less than an hour later, John and Mary Grayson are dead; their trapeze wire has been sabotaged as a warning to others who fail to pay for protection. He kneels between them where they fell in center ring. The Flying Graysons hold a captivated audience one last time.

The rest of the dream is lost in a haze. A shadow swoops out of the darkness, a frightening figure in the form of a man-sized bat; surprisingly, instead of a terrifying voice, the monster's tones are remarkably gentle.

The memory begins to fragment . . . bits and pieces echo in the night: the police, doctors, photographers . . . lots of questions he can't recall as soon as they're asked . . . lots of flashing lights that blind him temporarily . . . insistent voices masked in false kindness . . . asking . . . demanding . . . "Do you remember anything?" . . . "Just one more question" . . . "Can you describe him?"

He shakes his head, no, but is unable to do much else. He starts backing off; his instinct is to run as far away as possible. The voices follow . . . "Just one more question" . . . Eventually he cries out and awakes.

**** It was morning . . . he'd just survived his first night at the Gotham State Juvenile Detention Center, or JDC. As he slowly came to awareness, he felt his senses being assaulted by the smell of disinfectant and other vile odors that reminded him of the animal cages before they were cleaned out.

Dick looked down at Elinore. The stuffed elephant had been his constant companion since the day he was born, a gift from Pop Haly, proud godfather and surrogate grandfather. The countless numbers of hugs she'd been subjected to, and wet tears that her soft, fading gray material had absorbed down the years showed in several worn spots. Some of her stuffing peeked through, threatening to escape. Dick had always confided in her and told her his deepest secrets. He turned to her now for comfort. He allowed his tears to come and pressed his cheek on Elinore's head. He told her of his pain and loss in soft whispers and asked her advice.

Elinore's black button eyes looked solemnly back at him. No answers were forthcoming. At nine and a half, Dick's childhood had ended abruptly when his parents' trapeze wires broke. He was alone now; he had no one on whom he could depend. Whatever happened, he only had himself to rely on.

Dick began to feel a cold, hard anger settle in his stomach. His parents had been murdered--probably by that rat, Zucco! And *he'd* been put in jail! He had to get out of this place and find Zucco. Dick wasn't sure what he'd do when he found his parents' killer, but he knew that he'd never rest until he did.

"Okay, Dick . . . let's see what you learned from Uncle Carl."

Uncle Carl was The Great Carlo, star magician and escape artist. He'd taken Dick under his wing and taught him several of his tricks. A quick study, Dick's favorite lessons had involved the art of escape. With each succeeding lesson he'd been able to escape from greater and more complicated traps. Uncle Carl's regret was that his best pupil was someone whom he'd never be able to include in his act because he was already spoken for.

Dick got out of bed and stood in the middle of his small, darkened cell. His internal clock told him that reveille was still about a half-hour away. He and his parents were normally up way before now and well into their morning routine.

He studied his immediate surroundings, searching for weaknesses in the room's security. He carefully ran his fingers lightly along the walls, feeling for cracks or soft spots. He found a pipe that disappeared into the shadows in the ceiling. He'd have to wait until the lights came on before he could continue. The almost imperceptible illumination from his room's sole window told him that dawn would be breaking shortly.

"Might as well do my workout while I wait," he said.

Dick went down into the classic push-up position and quickly knocked out a hundred; he immediately followed this with a hundred crunches. Next, he jumped up and grabbed hold of the windowsill. He took a deep breath, released slowly, and then began to pull up. By dawn, Dick had finished as much of his morning workout as his primitive conditions permitted.

"Use it or lose it," he said, echoing his Dad.

To his dismay, as the sun's rays began to peek in, Dick saw that the window was barred. Scratch that exit, he thought. His eyes then followed the heating pipe up to its point of entry in the ceiling. No good. Dick couldn't make out a seam, much less a possible way out. No convenient air vents to crawl through. His only hope then would be to leave through the door, but it was locked from the outside. His eyes narrowed as he studied the problem. He went to his small carryall and quickly searched its contents. Because of his state of mind at the time, Dick hadn't packed his own bag; therefore, he wasn't sure if he'd find what he needed.

He ran his fingers along the lining of his carryall. Yes! He carefully extricated a three-inch metal sliver with irregular, perforated edges: a skeleton key. It was graduation gift of sorts from Uncle Carl. Dick had successfully executed one of The Great Carlo's death-defying escapes in less than twenty seconds.

He walked over to the door and inspected the handle mechanism. After a few fruitless minutes, Dick leaned back on his haunches. No go. The locking device was accessible only from the other side.

Uncle Carl's words rang in his head: "There's always a way, Dick. You just have to know where to look."

"Well, if *I* can't open the door, then I'll have to wait until someone else does it for me." Dick allowed himself small smile.

****

During the next two days Dick waited for his chance. Each morning he closely observed the reveille procedures: First, the lights came on. Then, the door buzzed and the lock clicked as it was thrown open. Immediately outside in the hallway, there were several closed circuit television cameras mounted along critical junctures. Two JDC aides posted at opposite ends of the corridor reinforced the security.

Getting out of the room is easy, Dick thought facetiously. Getting off the grounds . . . that's the challenge! Too bad Uncle Carl's not here to give me any suggestions . . .

By the third day, Dick had the inmates' routine down.

Mornings began with reveille. This was closely followed by personal hygiene, breakfast, classes/study period, and lunch. The afternoons began with a one- hour outdoor recreation period, which was soon followed by afternoon classes/study period, personal time/visitation hours, the evening meal, then a combination personal time/hygiene period.

Lockdown was at 9:45 p.m. and Lights Out followed promptly at 10:00 p.m. Both were strictly enforced.

There was little opportunity to slip away during the day. The JDC aides were placed in prominent positions throughout the facilities. The classes always had a teacher and two aides as monitors. To cap it off, the facilities had CCTV cameras placed at regular intervals throughout.

Dick decided that he had to learn about the operation of the facilities themselves, such as, pick-up and delivery schedules . . . alternate routes that led to the outside . . . JDC aides who were most likely to slack off on the job . . . anything that might provide a chance for escape.

Dick moved silently among the other JDC inmates, a small, inconsequential addition to the population. He avoided direct contact with anyone else, preferring to observe his surroundings from the sidelines. During the outdoor rec period, while the rest of the inmates, or "juvies," hung out with their friends, joined pick-up games, did weight training, or just milled about bored, Dick worked out on a small jungle gym.

As soon as he saw the jungle gym sitting in the cool October afternoon on his first day, Dick moved quickly towards it. None of the other juvies were particularly interested in it; most probably thought of it as a child's activity. But Dick's spirits immediately soared.

He leaped to the highest bar, then proceeded to execute what to his fellow inmates appeared to be a miraculous feat. He pulled himself over the bar, released and went flying to the next bar. He caught it one-handed, brought his feet up, and released his hand while effortlessly catching the bar with his ankles.

Eventually, Dick ended positioned straddling the bar on his hands. He smoothly split his legs, keeping a perfect gymnast form, then slowly brought his body up into a handstand. Dick brought his legs over and behind his head until his feet and body were in perfect alignment along the one-inch bar. He stood easily on his toes, his arms out to maintain his balance. Then he quickly executed three back somersaults, and as he reached the edge of the jungle gym, dismounted with a flourish . . . a triple tucked spin.

The other juvies applauded--an unusual occurrence in itself. Several came up to Dick to slap him on the shoulders and back, but soon the excitement faded. By the second day, no one paid any attention to the intensely concentrating young aerialist, although, he'd earned a nickname, "Acrobat."

It seemed to Dick that no one but a few went by their given names here. A nickname was almost a badge of honor. Dick could only shake his head chagrinned. So much for not being noticed.

Dick soon realized that the JDC inmates were divided into the hunters and the prey.

This division among his fellow juvies helped to graphically illustrate to him the meaning of the word "incorrigible." The more vicious ones terrorized the others, and no one on the staff did anything to stop them. Indeed, Dick noticed that some of the JDC aides actually enjoyed the fights that often broke out between the boys.

To Dick's annoyance, a young pickpocket, Jamie (Fingers) McEwan, decided to make him his new best friend.

"Hey, Acrobat!" Dick looked up, saw McEwan and instantly looked for a way out. He was in the cafeteria sitting alone in a corner table.

McEwan plopped himself next to Dick effectively cutting off any hope of escape. He had a mop of brown hair that constantly fell over laughing brown eyes that always seemed alight with a secret merriment. He was wearing his trademark Gotham Knights leather jacket.

"How many times do I gotta tell ya, kid? We indies have to stick together . . . we're pals, remember? Safety in numbers, see?"

An "indie" or an "independent" was a juvie not aligned to any gang. Ironically, McEwan was a sort of "indie leader"; he kept trying to recruit the nonaligned juvies for mutual protection. Dick was just the latest; so far, McEwan had managed to form his own underground network of sorts. It was comprised of the more timid amongst the juvies--dweebs, nerds, and losers mostly, but useful nonetheless.

Dick kept on eating.

If I ignore him, Dick thought hopefully, maybe he'll leave me alone. Dick grimaced. The JDC food was worse than lousy--sawdust would taste better--but he had to keep his strength up in order to escape. That is, if he didn't throw it up first.

McEwan kept on talking. He blithely ignored Dick's efforts to ignore him. Almost seventeen, this was McEwan's third (and last) time here at the JDC. Any further arrests or convictions would result in a stay at Blackgate Prison. He had three long months left on his current sentence. If he survived. So far, McEwan had done everything possible to avoid the local juvie kingpin, a dangerous young sociopath called Blade; however, he knew that it was only a matter of time before Blade found out he was here.

Twelve months ago, Blade's gang the Vigils had been strong-arming the good citizens of Gotham's crime alley. One night, just as Blade was about to waste some immigrant Korean shopkeeper for failing to pay protection, the Bat showed up and interfered with his business transaction. Blade found out that a certain loser pickpocket known as "Fingers" had been the stoolie who'd called the cops.

Blade swore revenge on the day of his sentencing, and McEwan didn't doubt the gang leader's sincerity. Blade had reason to violently dislike McEwan, and McEwan knew that Blade would take extreme pleasure in showing his dislike. McEwan admitted that Blade and his goons terrified him. He'd seen what they were capable of doing, and he didn't want to be found face down in the shower one morning, his blood streaming down the drain.

A pickpocket, McEwan had never carried a weapon of any type in his life. Rather, he'd relied on his wits and skills for survival--a regular Artful Dodger, he thought wryly. Yeah, yeah, yeah, so he picked the pockets of the rich, the naive, and the unwary. He figured he was doing them a vital social service. Sort of a teachable moment on the mean streets of Gotham with him acting as professor emeritus.

Once McEwan gave his "students" a hands-on demonstration of what could result after a single moment of carelessness--i.e., lost wallets, billfolds, money clips, jewelry--McEwan felt confident that they'd learned their lesson and would never fall victim to "Fingers McEwan" or his kind again.

Heck, he'd heard that corporate America paid millions a year in order to help educate their executives on how not to be a victim. And here *he* was doing it practically free of charge! Wayne Enterprises should hire me as a personal security consultant, McEwan thought proudly. McEwan originally attached himself to Dick because scuttlebutt had it that the kid was just one of those overflows from the foster program, and therefore, in need of protection. Furthermore, Dick was someone McEwan could maybe talk out of joining a gang. Besides, Dick reminded him of his little brother, Bobby.

"So, how about a friendly pick-up game to work off this delectable meal, buddy?" McEwan waggled his eyebrows in a Groucho Marx imitation. This more than anything else broke through Dick's defenses and he finally laughed--his first since his arrival. John Grayson had had a love of old movies and he'd passed that love onto his son.

"Hey, that's all right, Acrobat. You'n me, kid, we're gonna be great pals together!" He stuck out his hand. Dick took it, and they shook.

That afternoon, McEwan finally ran into Blade.

Dick had observed the brutish seventeen-year-old Blade and his gang from the sidelines. He'd known that this was one depraved psycho he needed to avoid at all costs; he'd also known that their eventual meeting was inevitable. Blade liked to prey on the small and weak, and Dick was currently the smallest resident of the JDC. To the unobservant, he might even appear as the weakest.

They were in the outdoor recreation area. What had been a friendly basketball pick-up game was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Blade and his goons.

"McEwan, I thought I warned you to keep your bony butt out of here?" Blade stood on the tarmac, his gang members on either side of him. Dick watched from the sidelines. "Didn't I tell you what would happen if I ever laid my hands on you? "

Instantly, everyone cleared an area around McEwan. He found himself completely isolated, facing his worst nightmare.

McEwan smiled disarmingly. "Blade . . . ! Buddy . . . ! Long time no see. How're things going?"

Blade snapped his fingers. Two of his followers suddenly broke away and grabbed McEwan from either side. Blade gave him a thoroughly evil grin, flexed his fingers dramatically, and then punched him in the solar plexus. McEwan doubled over. Blade followed through with a right cross to the chin, instantly dislocating McEwan's jaw then jabbed an elbow to his nose.

Within minutes, Blade had McEwan facedown on the playground's tarmac. He slowly circled McEwan, viciously kicking him, first in the rib area, then in the abdomen. McEwan cried out and grabbed his stomach. He was bleeding profusely from a number of places; his nose was broken, and he had some possible broken ribs. McEwan wasn't sure, but he was probably also bleeding internally.

Dick watched hidden in the crowd. Why didn't the JDC aides *do* something? He looked at the watchtowers. Blade methodically stomped on McEwan's right arm. The sickening sound of bone breaking could be heard all the way over to where Dick stood. The watchtower guards were grinning down at the spectacle. They were actually en*joy*ing this!

"Please . . . don't . . . " McEwan moaned weakly.

Dick searched desperately for the aides who were supposed to be on duty down here on the rec grounds. Blade laughed. The sound sent a chill down Dick's back. The aides had disappeared. Dick couldn't believe this! No one was going to *do* anything.

"Why don't I just put you out of your misery?" Blade said. He produced a switchblade from a hidden wristband. The sunlight glinting on the metal blade snapped Dick out of his indecision. He couldn't stand by any longer. "Let him go, Blade," Dick said quietly. Blade looked up and dismissed the boy quickly.

"Get lost, pretty boy," Blade said, looking down at McEwan with anticipation, "or you'll be next."

"Let--him--go!" Dick's tone indicated that he meant each word.

Surprised that Dick would challenge him, Blade placed his heavily booted foot on McEwan's back. He turned methodically and faced Dick, quickly sizing up his new opponent: Fresh meat. Blade grinned suddenly, looking forward to seriously cutting the new boy. He purposely allowed the switchblade to flash in the afternoon sun.

"Okay, pretty boy, you want some of this? You got it! Napalm!" Blade addressed one of his followers. "Watch my new toy." He indicated McEwan. "I'm not done playing with it!"

Blade began advancing towards Dick, his deadly intention obvious. Dick retreated in slow, measured steps, not taking his eyes off the larger boy. Great going, Dick, he thought ruefully. Now what? Dick soon bumped into something cold and metallic: the jungle gym! It was his turn to smirk in anticipation.

Okay, Godzilla, come and get it!

Dick waited patiently for Blade's inevitable attack. As Blade slashed out at him, Dick's acrobatic instincts took over. He leaped straight up, grabbed an overhead bar, gracefully swung his body under and over the bar, then used his momentum to propel himself feet first at Blade.

Both boys went down, falling in a tangle of arms and legs. Dick recovered first. He broke away from Blade and executed a back flip that took him out of harm's way of the deadly knife. He landed crouched and ready, facing his opponent. Blade didn't stay down for long. He stood up, and in a fit of rage, put his head down and charged at Dick, a steam locomotive bearing down at full speed. Dick waited. At the last instant, he grabbed Blade by the wrists, fell back on the tarmac, simultaneously bringing his feet under Blade's stomach, pushing him up and over. Blade's own momentum provided the necessary impetus to send him flying.

Blade landed--hard--on his back. He sat momentarily stunned, the wind knocked out of him. A transformation suddenly came over him. Up until now he'd been playing with the little punk. It was time to get serious. Blade stood in a smooth catlike motion, assuming an almost feline stance. He proceeded to circle Dick in lethally graceful steps, a panther stalking his prey. Each rotation brought him closer to his target.

Pretty boy was dead meat!

Blade began a cat and mouse game, lunging and falling back. Dick's acrobatic skills kept him safely away from the deadly blade, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before Blade connected. He had to take matters into his own hands.

Dick suddenly leaped and somersaulted in midair; then, seemingly defying gravity, he kicked straight out, explosively connecting with Blade's jutting chin. The gang leader went down, bleeding from his mouth and nose.

Blade recovered in a fit of fury and started to get up. Not waiting, Dick went airborne, and almost faster than the onlookers could follow, spun and kicked out, landing his sneakered foot squarely in the gang leader's right temple. Blade fell backward as if shot. He went down and was out for the count. Dick quickly turned to face Blade's goons.

At this moment, the JDC aides, who were on outdoor rec duty, finally reappeared and intervened. The crowd fell back and sullenly gave way.

"Okay, you juvies, break it up! Outdoor rec's over! Back inside!" The JDC aides' voices could be heard over the murmured grumblings of the juvenile inmates.

The goon that Blade had referred to as Napalm called out to Dick. "This ain't over, pretty boy! Cross paths with Blade and you cross all the Vigils! Better look over your shoulder!"

"I said . . . Break it *up*, Napalm! You and the rest of the Vigils back to your quarters!"

As the juvies began a slow, resentful shuffle back inside, Dick hurried over to McEwan. He looked bad. Dick called out to the JDC aides.

"Please . . . we need help over here! Fingers is really hurt . . . hurry, please!"

One of the aides rushed over, took a cursory look at McEwan's condition, and promptly called for assistance.

"Hey, we need a medic here! Get your butt in gear, Fitzhugh! Get the doc out here, stat!"

"Acro . . . bat . . . " McEwan whispered, struggling to the get the words out.

"Don't try to talk, Fingers . . . Help's on the way . . . you're gonna be fine . . . " Dick tried to sound upbeat, but his voice wavered as he fought back tears.

"Lisss . . . sen . . . to me . . . kid . . . " McEwan whispered, his voice insistent. He weakly grasped Dick by the shirt with his good hand. "You . . . you've . . . made . . . some bad . . . en . . .en . . . emies . . . " McEwan closed his eyes suddenly, exhausted by the effort. "Hit . . . the guard . . . do it . . . be . . . fore . . . it's too . . . late . . . ." McEwan couldn't go on, and slipped into unconsciousness.

"What? Fingers?" No good . . . McEwan was out. What had he said? That he wanted Dick to *hit* the guard? It didn't make any sense. Or did it? Dick sat back on his heels and surreptitiously studied the JDC medical staff as they arrived and began to check McEwan and Blade, working quickly and efficiently.

The medtechs examining Blade were busy calling out medspeak over their radio: "Victim breathing but unconscious . . . BP eighty over one-twenty . . . scalp . . . open laceration . . . left lower back of head . . . enlarged left pupil . . . possible concussion . . . multiple facial contusions and discoloration . . . lower jaw . . . break or dislocation . . . Ready to transport . . . "

McEwan was in much more serious condition: "Simple fracture of the humerus . . . multiple facial and torso contusions and lacerations . . . possible fractured lower ribs . . . possible internal injuries . . . possible broken nose . . . " McEwan also had to be taken to the infirmary, and perhaps, even require evacuation to Gotham City General Hospital.

While everyone was occupied with the two injured boys, Dick closed his eyes and thought, "Here goes nothing!" and suddenly exploded in a fit of fury. He charged the JDC aide who was bent over McEwan.

"It's all *your* fault!" he screamed. "All of you! You could've stopped it . . ! But you vultures were too busy enjoying yourselves!"

Dick launched himself at the startled aide, and began pummeling him with his small fists.

"I *hate* you . . ! I hate *all* of you . . !"

Caught by surprise, the aide fell back on the tarmac, and immediately felt like he was being mauled by a wildcat! "Hey! Get him off me! Get him off me!"

"Up you go!" the aide named Fitzhugh said laughing. He'd picked Dick up by the belt loops on his jeans and was holding him at arm's length. Dick kept kicking, his rage growing with each futile attempt to squirm out of Fitzhugh's firm grasp. "Looks like we got us a tiger by the tail here, Jenkins. Whaddaya say we cage it until it cools off?"

Of course, it came as no shock to anyone involved that Dr. Cunningham decided to punish Dick for his part in the fight and for his later unprovoked attack on the JDC aide, Jenkins. He was confined to his room and allowed to see no one except the aide who brought him his meals. He was given a restroom break every four hours and allowed to shower once a day, after all the other juvies had completed theirs.

Dick understood that confinement was the safest course of action for him, which is why McEwan had insisted that he attack the guard. Nevertheless, Dick still felt not only abandoned, he felt his heart breaking all over again.

The only friend he'd made here had been badly hurt with possibly life- threatening injuries. He'd made enemies of the most vicious gang of teenaged predators in the JDC. And worse, the staff took a sick pleasure in watching the inmates beat each other's brains out. It seemed that no one cared about him anymore . . . no one except Elinore. He held her closely to him, again confiding his deep sorrow and pain. It was hard being nine and a half.

"Dad said once that a man has to do what he thinks is right," Dick reminded her. "I just wish that doing the right thing didn't hurt so much."

At least McEwan was still alive. On the second day of his confinement, Dick received a message informing him that McEwan had been evaced to Gotham General for emergency treatment; that had been two days ago. Yesterday, his JDC babysitter informed him that McEwan was back in the center's infirmary recovery room. Dick also learned that Blade had been evacuated to Gotham General at the same time as McEwan; however, a few hours after his transfer to the recovery room, Blade had knocked out an orderly, stolen his hospital whites and walked out the emergency room entrance.

So, Blade wasn't coming back. Dick smiled. The day was looking brighter.

*****

Chapter Two

Dick's confinement was lifted the following day. He began his return to JDC society by trying to force down his lunch without noticing the sickly gray- tinged meatloaf. He sniffed suddenly. What was that smell? He looked suspiciously at a dark, runny mess that the cook had called *greens*. He grimaced and suddenly put his fork down. He wasn't hungry anymore.

"Hey, Acrobat!"

Dick's downcast features brightened considerably as he turned towards the sound of McEwan's voice. The pickpocket was a sight for sore eyes. The two boys greeted each other like long-lost brothers. McEwan's face was still swollen and discolored from his beating; his right arm was in a cast. Furthermore, his movements showed that he was still in obvious pain, but he was alive and looked in high spirits.

"Hey, bro . . . all hail the conquering hero . . . " McEwan said smiling. He spoke with some difficulty through only one side of his mouth.

"Hi, Fingers, I'm glad to see you're okay . . . How've you been holding out?"

Dick looked meaningfully at the older boy. The Vigils were still around terrorizing the other juvies. It was only a matter of time before the gang came looking for them. McEwan put his good arm around Dick's shoulders and moved in closely.

"You mean aside from the two broken ribs, broken arm, multiple cuts and contusions, slight concussion, and possible damage to my spleen? Never been better!" Both boys grinned. "Come on, kid . . . let's talk outside."

With a stiff jerk of his head, McEwan indicated he wanted Dick to follow him. Then added sotto voce, "This place ain't safe, kid."

The two boys stood outside near the area around the fence known as the DMZ. This was a ten-meter strip that ran immediately inside and along the perimeter fence. It was clearly marked with a one-meter high single strand of barbed wire. At regular intervals, a small sign with the letters DMZ hung from the strand, swaying in the crisp spring breeze.

The DMZ had clear line of sight with the thirty foot manned guard towers, which were posted on all four compass points of the outer fence. The DMZ was a shoot to kill zone. Dick had to remind himself that he was incarcerated with some of Gotham City's most vicious juvenile delinquents.

"Okay, Fingers, what's up? I don't like being this close to the DMZ . . . gives me the creeps . . . I can almost *feel* a set of crosshairs on my back." Dick looked up at the guard towers nervously.

"Hang loose, Acrobat . . . Rumor control has it that Blade's segundo . . . his number two man . . . is making his play for the numero uno position." McEwan's expression looked grim. "Guess who he's gonna try to take out in order to prove himself worthy of the title?"

Dick swallowed.

"Me?" His voice was a dry whisper. How could he be making enemies? He wasn't even old enough to walk to the corner drug store by himself. An icy hand clutched his insides. McEwan nodded grimly.

"Blade ain't too thrilled about your continuing soundness of body, either . . . you made him lose face in front of the Vigils. He may be out of here, but the grapevine says that he's pretty much still calling the shots from the outside, and there're are still several Vigils here who no doubt want to publicly prove their personal loyalty to him. You've become a human target, kid . . . a walking dead man. We've gotta get you outta this joint . . . the air here ain't healthy for a growing boy."

"That's all I've been thinking about since my first day, Fingers! But, there's just too much *security* here." Dick's dark blue eyes ruefully indicated the guard towers and nine-foot fences with rolls of razor wire on top. "Uncle Carl taught me all he knew about being an escape artist . . . Unfortunately, all of his tricks were really just illusions . . . you know . . . everything was set up to ensure that he *could* escape!"

Dick shrugged his shoulders helplessly. He shoved his hands into his jean pockets and scuffed his sneakered toes on the tarmac, a picture of abject forlornness.

"He never showed me how break out of a *real* prison with *real* stone walls!"

"Hey, not to worry! You know what they say," McEwan said smiling expansively. "Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage . . . I guess we'll just have prove 'em right."

"That's about the *dumbest* thing I've ever heard, Fingers!" Dick scoffed.

McEwan's smile broadened, and he held out his left hand as if to fend off an attack.

"I beg to differ, kid . . . It appears to me that the stalwart words . . . 'Let him go, Blade!' . . . uttered by a certain junior-hero-in-training . . . might just go down in the annals of the dumbest things ever said!" McEwan placed his arm on Dick's shoulder. "Although, I must admit . . . those were just about the sweetest words that *I've* ever heard. Kid, you saved my life . . . I owe you, and I always pay my debts."

Dick shook his head.

"Fingers, it's too dangerous for you to be seen with me. I think it'd be better if you just kept your distance until this is over . . . there's no sense in the both of us going down."

"Sorry, Acrobat, there's just too much noise out here. I can't make out what you're saying!"

"Fingers, really, I don't think--"

"Sorry, kid, you're coming in garbled!" The buzzer ending the outdoor rec period sounded.

"Come on, play time's over. We've gotta go back in. Besides, there're some friends I want you to meet."

The two boys began the long walk back into the relative safety of the detention center.

*****

"It won't be easy."

"Now that's a revelation," McEwan said. "Tell me, Jay Dee, do you have any more pearls of wisdom?"

The other members of McEwan's underground network looked at each other then turned their eyes to the boy who'd spoken first.

"I'm only trying to make sure that the Acrobat here understands the risks," he said shrugging. McEwan had introduced him as Jason (Jay Dee) Dieters, a computer-electronics whiz kid.

He made Dick extremely uncomfortable. The overhead lights reflecting off of his glasses made him appear almost eyeless. His scraggly blond hair looked like he hadn't washed it in about a month; indeed, the whiff that Dick had inadvertently inhaled when he initially passed by Jay Dee confirmed it. Compared to him, the circus stables had smelled lemon fresh.

McEwan walked over and stood behind Dick, placing his good hand on the younger boy's shoulder.

"Risk? Why our young Acrobat here *lives* for risk. He *thrives* on risk! Risk is his business . . . Dick laughs in the face of--"

"--Yeah, sure . . . and he hides in the shadows from the Vigils . . . " Jay Dee said wryly.

Dick lowered his head and blushed furiously.

" . . . as do we all!" added McEwan, giving Jay Dee a warning look. Jay Dee had the grace to look abashed.

"Sorry, kid . . . nothing personal," Jay Dee said apologetically. "I mean, you *did* mop the floor with Blade . . . saved McEwan's butt . . . and lived to tell about it . . . that's more than any of *us* will ever do. At least in *this* lifetime." Jay Dee's outstretched arms took in the other members of the Network.

"Okay, back to business," McEwan said impatiently. "We've got to break the Acrobat out of JDC before he's either killed or maimed or both! He's being targeted by Blade, who's out for vengeance, *and* by Napalm who wants to move in on Blade's territory."

"And I believe that that's just about as close to a near-death experience as anyone can get and still be walking," Jay Dee said dryly.

"You are just full of helpful little aphorisms today aren't you, Jay Dee?" McEwan said growing annoyed. "Look, do you have a problem with the job?"

Jay Dee looked surprised at the unexpectedly harsh tone of voice; he set his jaw stubbornly.

"Is it too much for you?" McEwan pressed.

Jay Dee crossed his arms and shook his head no.

"If you want out, let me know now, 'cause when we start the ball rolling there'll be no turning back," McEwan warned. "I'll expect a hundred and ten percent from you and everyone else involved. Clear?"

Jay Dee stared at Dick for a long moment, holding his eyes as if gauging the younger boy's worthiness then slowly nodded his head.

McEwan's hard glare took in the others.

"That goes for all of you. If there's anyone here who wants out, now's the time . . . no questions asked." He paused, allowing each of the young men to hold his own counsel. After a few minutes McEwan's smile returned with a tinge of pride.

"Okay . . . Thanks, guys, I knew you wouldn't let me down . . . First things first . . . Acrobat, let me introduce the rest of the . . . Network." McEwan smiled enigmatically. He indicated the boy seated immediately to Dick's left. "Roger--"

"--Call me Montana," the boy in question interrupted, offering Dick his hand. They shook.

" . . . Davis." McEwan finished.

"Are you from Montana?" Dick asked. The others burst into laughter.

Montana smiled sheepishly.

"No, I just like horses."

"Oh, you ride?" Dick's eyes lit up excitedly. "I was taught some really cool tricks by the Donner Twins . . . they were the circus trick riders--"

"No, kid," McEwan said. "Montana doesn't ride . . . he's never even been *near* a horse!"

"Hey, Officer O'Brien let me pet his horse that one time, remember? Over on Gotham Central Park?" Montana protested.

"You mean after he caught you pocketing candy bars from the sidewalk vendor?" Jay Dee said, smirking.

Dick looked confused.

"I don't understand . . . If you're not from Montana, and you don't ride horses . . . then why . . . ?"

"Why do I want to be called Montana?" Montana shrugged. "I saw a picture of it once in a _National Geographic_ magazine . . . it had open sky . . . beautiful mountains with streams and rivers and forests . . . and best of all, it had herds of wild horses called 'mustangs' . . . I guess Montana must be the most beautiful place in the whole world!"

Montana stared off into space lost in his thoughts momentarily. Abruptly, he snapped back, then grinned embarrassed. "Anyway, soon as I get out of here, I'm going there . . . and when I do, ain't no one ever gonna make me come back to this dump!"

Dick didn't know what to say. He looked to McEwan for assistance. McEwan rolled his eyes.

"Don't worry, kid . . . he's been on his way to Montana for as long as I've known him! But he's the best locksmith I know, so I put up with him."

McEwan walked over to a blond, blue-eyed giant who looked like a cross between a linebacker and Captain America.

"Next, we have Daniel Goulet . . . called the Ghoul 'cause he's so frigging ugly!"

Ghoul grinned broadly, completely unperturbed by McEwan's unflattering description. Dick noted that "the Ghoul's" all-American good looks made him seem more like a matinee idol than someone who'd break mirrors.

"It's a curse, kid . . . the jealousy, I mean . . . but guys like you'n me . . . babe magnets, y'know . . . ?" Ghoul glanced over at Dick who clearly didn't understand what he meant. The others looked away to hide their smiles. "Well, anyway . . . guys like us, kid, we just gotta learn to live with the blessings that the good Lord has given us and forgive those who would covet our--"

A sudden assault of flying paper wads stopped Ghoul in mid-sentence.

"Shaddup!" "Somebody gag him!" "Excuse me while I throw up!"

"Hey, cut it out! Come on, guys . . . " Ghoul yelled helplessly from under the barrage of paper.

"Ghoul's a bit immodest, but he's a *big* help when we have to move heavy objects," McEwan said dryly. "Next, everybody's favorite sycophant and gadget guru. . . Eddie Lucca."

"Hey, everybody calls me Lucky," Lucky said, giving Dick a friendly wave. Dick liked him instantly.

"What's a syco . . . synco . . . what Fingers said?" Dick asked.

"Ignore him, young Acrobat," Lucky said dismissively. "McEwan simply attempts to cast unfounded aspersion upon my unsullied character."

"Huh?" More big words. If Dick hung around these guys much longer he'd need a dictionary!

"Last but not least," McEwan said, ignoring Lucky, "Jason . . . Jay Dee . . . Dieters . . . resident electronics whiz kid and all-around cynic."

Jay Dee gave Dick a wry salute.

"All right, now that the introductions are out of the way, let's get down to business."

*****

Chapter Three

"I think it'll work."

Jay Dee looked up from the monitor he'd been working on for well over an hour. He and McEwan exchanged self-satisfied smiles.

The Network was in the so-called computer lab. Jay Dee explained to Dick that the local corporate giant, Wayne Enterprises, had donated the necessary equipment and software for a job skills training program that the JDC was supposed to have implemented over eight months ago.

Except for the sole terminal that Jay Dee had managed to assemble (without the knowledge of the JDC staff) the computers still lay inside unopened boxes which were sitting here collecting dust. The computer lab was little more than just a storage room.

After four days of aborted attempts, Jay Dee had finally managed to access the JDC Personnel and Security System. To avoid detection, the boys had limited their computer use to a few hours a day. Today had been the longest single session they'd attempted.

While Jay Dee played with his computer, Lucky sat on the floor on lookout duty, his forehead pressed against the door. His methods were more old-fashioned. He'd installed a peephole two days ago setting it at knee-high level in order to minimize detection. He grinned suddenly. The JDC shop teacher, Mr. Benson, hadn't understood why Lucky was so determined to make *kaleidoscopes*, of all things. In truth, he'd been making periscopic sights specifically for the computer lab; however, he'd also strategically installed a few "peep holes" throughout the JDC in order to increase the Network's surveillance capabilities.

Lucky took out a special ninety-degree attachment and screwed it into the socket. Instant periscope! The micro-instrument had special mirrors angled inside it that allowed the operator to rotate his line of vision 360 degrees. He looked through it and quickly began to adjust the sights.

Hmm-m. Needs fine-tuning, he thought. Lucky absentmindedly began searching his pockets for his jewelers' tools. His right hand bumped into something hard in his inside pocket. Oh-oh! Almost forgot!

"Yo! Jay Dee! Got that thingamajig you asked me for! . . . Here!" Lucky turned around and tossed Jay Dee a palm-sized instrument without warning.

"Hey!" Jay Dee reacted too late. To his horror he saw his hands miss the homemade electronics gadget as it continued on its arc to smash against the floor. Time appeared to stop . . . the boys caught in mid-tableau.

In a blink, a small blur crossed in front of Jay Dee and suddenly a young voice cried out in triumph.

"Got it!" Time resumed.

Grinning broadly, Dick held up the instrument in his hand. Jay Dee carefully took the small unit from him then slowly exhaled. His eyes targeted daggers at Lucky who squirmed guiltily and turned back to his work.

"Like I said," Jay Dee continued, "it should work . . . Of course, Montana and Ghoul will have to do some split second timing, but unless Jenkins and Fitzhugh suddenly have an attack of intelligence, we should be able to pull it off."

"Montana . . . Ghoul . . . you guys up to playing decoy?" McEwan asked.

"You kiddin', Fingers? I get to bash up Ghoul and he *lets* me? Who do I have to pay?" Montana was grinning in anticipation.

"Hey, you just watch the face!" Ghoul wasn't too happy about being a punching bag. He shrugged and smiled weakly. "I mean, you don't want to be the instrument responsible for breaking the hearts of hundreds of Gotham women, now do you?" Ghoul looked expectantly at Montana for reassurance. When none was forthcoming he repeated his question. "Well . . . do you?"

McEwan shook his head in mute disgust. Ghoul's looks were his Achilles' heel . . . the main reason he was part of the Network. He was so afraid of being hurt or disfigured that he literally cowered in the face of any serious threat. McEwan's Network provided the big guy with a sense of self-esteem . . . of belonging; unfortunately, he wasn't dependable under stress.

"Oh, I don't think that there will be all *that* many hearts broken, Ghoul . . . and it *is* for a good cause," Jay Dee said. He was studiously checking his fingernails.

Dick noted that the tips looked in need of clipping, not to mention cleaning. He turned away in disgust. I just hope he doesn't bite them! Jay Dee calmly proceeded to do just that. Oh, God. I'm gonna be sick, thought Dick.

"Fingers . . . ?" Ghoul's eyes looked panicky.

"Don't worry, Ghoul," McEwan said reassuringly. "Montana won't touch your face . . . Can't let all those babes down now, can we?" Ghoul smiled gratefully. McEwan was the nicest guy he knew; the only one who had never laughed at him.

"Lucky, see any ferrets?" McEwan used the juvie derogatory term for the JDC aides.

"Nope . . . they're probably all catching z's . . . I heard the Dragon Lady was out for the day . . . some kinda custody hearing or something." Lucky caught Dick's eye. "Hey, Acrobat . . . maybe it's about you. You've sure been here a whole lot longer than most of the other foster kids."

Dick, who was sitting on top of the stacked boxes, nodded and yawned. He had no clue what Lucky was talking about and was too tired to ask. He wished that they would be done soon; he didn't know how much longer he'd be able to stay awake. That stunt had taken the last vestiges of energy that he had.

If he could just close his eyes for a few minutes, he'd be okay. He valiantly fought off sleep for several minutes, but finally succumbed to his exhaustion . . .

*****

McEwan found Dick a few minutes later, curled on his side and sleeping soundly. He removed his Gotham Knights leather jacket and covered the small boy. He shook his head in disgust over a system that would place such a defenseless kid in a place like this . . . for his *own good* no less.

The little Acrobat sure reminded him of Bobby, his younger brother. He would've been nine . . . no ten . . . last May. McEwan's memory replayed the sounds of screeching tires and gunfire from that night so long ago. The taunting laughter of the gang members as they drove away still rang in his ears.

His mother's screams still echoed . . . "BOBBY! . . . BOBBY! . . . My, God NO!"

McEwan later found out that his house had been targeted by mistake. The gang had meant to hit the house across the street. McEwan closed his fist in silent rage.

Bobby was dead because of a frigging mistake!

The incident changed him. McEwan didn't admit it openly; he didn't even admit it to himself. But from that moment on, he was changed. Whereas before that night, if he'd witnessed any gang violence or activity, McEwan would have just looked the other way, now he called the cops. He never identified himself, choosing instead to leave anonymous tips; nevertheless, he placed the call.

Oh, McEwan was no angel. He still managed to relieve the occasional mark of his or her valuables; he still eluded Detective Bullock and his boys down at robbery and bunco. Business as usual. But in between, he kept his eyes peeled and phoned in his tips.

Before long, the gangs knew that a stoolie was operating in their turf and began taking measures. At first the gangs escalated their violence against each other; however, when the police obviously responded to attacks from either side, the gang leaders finally wised up, realizing that the informer had to be an outsider. A civilian. A concerned citizen.

The gangs' tactics changed. They became focused on terrorizing the neighborhoods, subjecting innocent bystanders to random violence. McEwan almost lost his resolve, but one visit to Bobby's graveside restored it.

"I swear, little brother, that I'll never let you down . . . I swear that I'll never quit until I bring down all those responsible!" He didn't care if he ended up lying next to Bobby; at least he'd be able to face his brother should they meet again . . .

*****

"Got it!" Jay Dee cried out triumphantly.

McEwan snapped back to the present. He looked on Dick's peaceful countenance. His features softened momentarily. "Don't worry, little Acrobat," he whispered. "I won't let you down, either." McEwan turned his attention to Jay Dee. "What have you got? And keep your voice down. The kid's asleep."

"The codes, baby . . . I've got the security codes!" Jay Dee kept his voice nonchalant but held up his hand for a high five. McEwan slapped it.

"Yes!" McEwan said. "How fast can you set it up?"

"Gonna take sometime, Fingers. I mean, it took me the better part of two hours to find the security files. I'm downloading now. It'll take a coupla hours to complete the download, then a couple more to decode it . . . and it's almost time for lockdown."

"Damn! Well, there's no helping it . . . we can't screw it up now . . . can this thing finish what it's doing without us?"

"Sure . . . but if anything goes sour . . . or if the ferrets on monitor duty actually do their jobs . . . the first time in this century . . . we could be in trouble." Jay Dee shrugged fatalistically.

"Well, let's think positive . . . nothing will go wrong . . . but if it *does* . . . " McEwan mirrored Jay Dee's shrug ". . . we won't be here to get the blame." He turned to the others. "Okay, group . . . it's almost time for bed-a- bye . . . Look around your immediate areas. Make sure you don't forget anything . . . Remember, if it doesn't have a layer of dust, then it probably doesn't belong here! Ghoul, pick up the kid . . . hey, be careful, King Kong! He ain't no sack of potatoes!"

McEwan hurried over annoyed at Ghoul's clumsiness. He absentmindedly brushed back a stray lock of raven hair from Dick's forehead. The boy slept on oblivious to the rough handling.

"Sorry, Fingers . . . he's just so *small*, y'know?" Ghoul looked nonplussed. Shaking his head, McEwan rolled his eyes upward. He turned to Jay Dee.

"Jay Dee? Almost done?"

"Almost . . . " Jay Dee typed in a few more commands, took out the palm-sized unit, plugged it into one of the CPU's comports, then typed some more. To McEwan it seemed that about a million characters suddenly scrolled down the monitor in a split second. Instantaneously, Jay Dee's mysterious unit beeped twice. Jay Dee sighed in satisfaction. "Okay, it's cooking now. When it's done, the system will go into sleep mode until I reactivate it . . . with this!"

"Lucky, what exactly *is* that thingamajig anyway?" Montana asked. "Is that why we broke into the Dragon Lady's lair that last time?"

Lucky shrugged.

"Hey, I just built the thing. Jay Dee wrote the specs!" He turned to Jay Dee. "What is it, Jay Dee? I had to rummage through almost half the boxes in here for some of the electronics; but most of the circuits weren't small enough, so Montana an' me sorta relieved our favorite Director of the use of her personal laptop."

"You broke into Cunningham's office and stole her laptop without clearing it with *me* first?" McEwan asked, stunned.

"Hey, Jay Dee said you cleared the specs . . . that translates to *whatever means necessary* in *my* book!" Lucky said defensively. "Besides, I didn't say we *stole* her laptop. I said we relieved her of her use of it. I needed some micro-components, so . . . I scrounged."

"I sometimes wonder why I bother with you guys!" McEwan looked close to hitting somebody. "Do you know what could've happened to you if you'd been caught?"

"Yeah, they would've arrested me and sentenced me to six months in the JDC . . . Geez, what could I have been thinking? Oh, wait! I'm already here! Man, what's your problem anyway?" Lucky folded his arms, his body language exuding attitude.

"Chill, Fingers," Montana broke in. "We were careful, man, and we weren't caught . . . Look, I promise that next time I break into the Dragon Lady's lair, I'll clear it with you first. All right?"

McEwan nodded reluctantly. He didn't like it, but it was done already. Somebody tell me again how hanging with these boneheads is a good thing? He sighed.

"Let's get outta here." The others nodded in agreement.

*****

Chapter Four

Dick's restive thrashing finally awoke McEwan. He felt a knifelike pain shoot upwards from the rib area. Dick must have hit him by accident while he was tossing about. McEwan reached across the bed and gently held the younger boy until he finally quieted. Every few minutes Dick would mumble something unintelligible then fight restlessly with the covers.

McEwan hadn't had the heart to leave Dick alone that night. He'd just looked so small and helpless in Ghoul's arms.

Bobby, if only it'd been me instead of you . . . Can it, McEwan! You can't change past pains . . . but the future is paid for by the present . . . therefore, you have to choose your debt wisely . . . Okay, McEwan, stop obsessing . . . What's the point in worrying about the future? It'll get here soon enough!

Dick's cries interrupted his silent musings.

"No! Mom . . . Dad! He's here . . . he said he'll hurt someone . . . that's him! . . . Zucco! . . . He's the one! . . . Dad! Mom! . . . Your lines! Please check your lines! Please listen to me. . . ! No . . . .! Don't . . . !"

"Zucco?" McEwan whispered shocked. *Zucco* was involved in the murder of the kid's parents? Then the Acrobat was in even greater danger than any of them had suspected. The Vigils were soldiers in Zucco's army of enforcers. They were still small potatoes; the real heavy stuff was left for Zucco's professional goons. But what the Vigils lacked in experience, they made up for in vicious exuberance. Blade and his boys took extreme pleasure in enforcing Zucco's policies. Getting paid to bust heads was an added bonus.

If Zucco got word that Dick could identify him as the guy who'd offed his parents, the kid's life would be measurable in seconds. While getting Dick out of the JDC had been urgent before, McEwan realized that it had just reached critical mass. He checked his watch. 2:45 a.m. What was keeping Jay Dee? The program should be done by now.

McEwan looked down at the fitfully sleeping boy next to him. Dick wrapped his right arm protectively around Elinore; proximity to his stuffed elephant seemed to sooth his restlessness. McEwan reached over and tucked the covers a little closer around the boy's shoulder. Elinore's black button eyes looked unblinkingly at him. McEwan felt that she was watching his every move, assessing his motives.

That's right, Elinore . . . trust no one.

*****

The sound of the deadbolt being thrown back startled him awake. This was quickly followed by the whoop-whoop-whoop of the facility's alarms. McEwan leaped out of bed and ran quickly to the open door. The room and the outside corridor were pitch black. No lights! They'd done it.

"What--? What's goin' on?" Dick was sitting up dazedly. He was rubbing his eyes trying to adjust to the unexpected darkness.

"Come on, kid . . . up and at 'em. You'n me . . . we're outta here." McEwan's light tone belied the urgency of the moment. He quickly ran back to the bed and hurriedly tossed back the covers while urging Dick out. He searched for and found Dick's sneakers, thankful that he'd thought to place them within easy reach. Dick quickly put them on, but then had difficulty tying them.

"Come on, you two!" Jay Dee's impatient voice called them from the door.

"I can't tie my shoes," Dick protested sleepily, as he fumbled nervously with the shoelaces.

"For crying aloud, give the kid a hand! Obviously, I can't!" McEwan hissed, indicating his injured arm.

"Oh, for the love of--" Jay Dee hurried over and quickly tied the younger boy's shoes for him. "Let's go! Montana and Ghoul are heading towards the rec room and'll be set in about three minutes. Lucky's meeting us at the rendezvous point!"

As the three boys rounded the first corner of the corridor, Dick suddenly stopped.

"Wait! Elinore! I forgot her!" He started running back to his room. "I can't leave her!"

"No, kid! Wait!" McEwan grabbed Dick by his shirt collar. "We don't have the time! We've gotta go. I'm sorry!" Dick struggled to free himself.

"I won't go without her! I'm all she has!" He looked at McEwan desperately. "She's all *I* have! Please!" McEwan looked at the boy's stricken face and relented.

"Jay Dee! Take the kid," he said. "Don't worry, Acrobat . . . I'm a sucker for a damsel in distress. I'll get Elinore; you go with Jay Dee! Now!"

"Come on, kid! This way!" Jay Dee said insistently. Dick looked back as McEwan's form disappeared into the darkened corridor. He became aware of the sounds of confusion. JDC aides' threatening voices raised in anger! Inmates' voices responding in kind.

"YOU! JUVIE! BACK TO YOUR CELL!" "MAKE ME, SCUMBAG!" "We have a Code Red! I say again . . . CODE RED in the rec room!" "Where the hell is the response team? . . . Well get them the hell outta bed and OVER HERE!"

Dick ran through the endlessly darkened hallways, confused, and frightened not daring to stop, not daring to take his eyes off Jay Dee's back.

"Where are we going?" he gasped out. Dick was thoroughly confused by the many twists, turns and backtracking that they'd taken. They ran down several flights of stairs, through a long damp corridor that Dick instinctively knew was subterranean. Its dampness was coupled with the echoes of their running feet and the sounds of steam being pumped through pipes. Dick felt hopelessly lost. Where were they *going*?

Finally, Jay Dee slowed to a halt.

"Come on, kid . . . this way," Jay Dee said, entering another darkened room. "Lucky? You here, man?"

"Sorry, Jay Dee," an ominous voice said from the shadows. "Lucky couldn't make it." Light suddenly flooded the room, blinding them. Lucky lay deathly still in a corner of the room, his shirt saturated by an expanding dark stain of his own blood. "I guess his *luck* ran out!" Napalm and another of his goons stood in the middle of the room; both were grinning at his cleverness.

Napalm held a switchblade in his right hand; his companion stood with a baseball bat at port arms.

As Dick's eyes adjusted to the unexpected brightness, he realized that they must be in the laundry room. The building that housed it was located about one hundred meters outside the perimeter fence! The place was surrounded with hampers loaded with sheets, towels, uniforms, and other pieces of linen and clothing. His eyes widened when he saw that Lucky wasn't moving.

"Lucky!" Dick made a move towards him, but was held back by Jay Dee. "We've gotta help him! He'll die!"

"Too late, pretty boy," Napalm said, holding out his switchblade. A bright red sticky substance--Lucky's blood--covered it. "And guess who's next?" He saw Dick's eyes widen in fear and grinned with an almost exquisite anticipation at the thought of extinguishing the light that seemed to radiate from the young boy. Napalm turned his eyes to Jay Dee. "If you live, loser, remind me to thank you and Fingers for delivering the package." Napalm indicated Dick with his chin. "Mister Zucco will be *real* grateful."

*Zucco*? Jay Dee wondered. What did *Zucco* have to do with the kid? He instinctively stood in front of Dick protectively, and could only feel shame at his decidedly visceral reaction to the sight of Napalm's switchblade.

"Hey, kid," Napalm said, "nothing personal . . . I don't know why the Boss wants you flat-lined and I don't care, but orders *are* orders." He addressed his partner. "Gunner, the kid's mine . . . take care of Jay Dee."

"You work for Zucco?" Dick managed to whisper. At Napalm's sneering nod, Dick's uncontrollable fury suddenly overwhelmed his entire being. These creeps worked for the monster who'd killed his Mom and Dad! Nothing else mattered at this point. He could only think about striking back.

Dick exploded into action. He executed two somersaults in rapid succession, and while still on his hands, he pushed straight up, kicking out with his powerful legs. His right heel slammed into Napalm's groin, while his left struck Napalm's right wrist. Napalm's numbed fingers immediately dropped his switchblade while his knees buckled from the sudden pain shooting up from his crotch area.

"You little son-of-a-bi--" Napalm managed to squeak. "I'll *kill* you . . . !" He reached out weakly to try and grab Dick as the young acrobat literally flew over him. Jay Dee, seeing his chance, followed suit by savagely kicking Napalm while he was down.

Meanwhile, Gunner was busy swinging at Dick with his baseball bat. Dick managed to duck and roll under Gunner's deadly swing. Gunner recovered and began to methodically stalk the smaller, frightened boy. Dick backed away, barely avoiding being clubbed. His retreat was stopped by something hard behind him--a countertop!

Gunner grinned in anticipation. He quickly brought the bat up behind his head and swung it down with all of the power he could muster. The bat struck the countertop where Dick had been standing a split second before. It broke in half from the force of the blow. With a roar of anger, Gunner recovered and threw the now useless bat handle on the floor.

He then proceeded to slowly follow Dick, who was standing, cornered with no place to run. Jay Dee saw that Dick was in trouble and promptly gave Napalm one final kick to the head and started running across the room towards Gunner.

As Dick watched Gunner approach, his quick mind kept looking for a means of escape. Finally, he remembered one of his favorite tricks, which he used to pull on Jacques, the Haly Circus strong man. When Gunner was about ten feet from him, Dick suddenly ran towards him, leaped and flipped over Gunner's head, using the gang member's own shoulders as his springboard. Dick landed behind Gunner, but didn't recover in time.

"Acrobat! Down!" Jay Dee yelled. Too late! Gunner struck Dick a hammer-blow from behind. Dick literally saw stars as the world suddenly reeled underneath him. He looked up in time to see a blurred figure go flying over him and heard a grunt, as something slammed hard into something else. The last thing Dick heard was the faint sound of fighting as awareness slowly left him.

****

A cold wetness on his forehead dragged him back to the pain. Voices faded in and out in garbled whispers that streamed by him, faster than he could follow. The universe continued its wild carousel ride, while the insistent throbbing that began behind his eyes mercilessly pierced through his brain to the base of his skull. He flinched from the cold wetness.

"Fingers! He's coming to!" Jay Dee?

"Thank God!" McEwan, sounding relieved. "Hey, little Acrobat . . . buddy . . . can you hear me? Come on, kid . . . wake up." Dick struggled against the ice pick that was relentlessly trying to pry his head open.

"Uhhnn . . . " Dick swallowed. "What . . . hap . . . pened . . . ? His voice was a dry croak.

"Ghoul, get me a glass of water!" McEwan's voice sounded abrupt. Then his tone became mild, quiet. Dick felt gentle fingertips brush his hair back. "Hey, little guy, don't try to talk now, y'hear? We're getting you outta here. Just hang on a sec--Oh good, thanks!"

Dick felt a hand carefully lift him to a slight sitting position. Something hard was placed on his lips. A glass! The cool water felt refreshing inside his cottonmouth. He swallowed painfully at first, then eagerly.

"Take it easy, buddy . . . slowly now . . . that's it. Okay, that's enough for now." The glass was removed from his lips. McEwan's voice sounded calm yet insistent. "All right, Acrobat, open your eyes, kid . . . come on now . . . open sesame." Dick struggled to comply with the request. He knew how to open his eyes. All he had to do was . . . what? . . . All he had to do was . . . .

Slowly, his eyelids fluttered, until they were slitted against the light. His eyes began tearing against the brightness. He brought his hands up defensively.

"Oww-ww . . . " he groaned. "It hurts . . . "

"I know, kid . . . I know. You're doing great. You're a very brave kid, Acrobat. Did you know that?" McEwan's voice sounded encouraging. Dick finally managed to open his eyes all the way. McEwan's worried face greeted him, a wan smile struggling to reach his eyes. "Hey, that's the ticket, kid. Welcome back." Jay Dee, Ghoul, and Montana smiled and waved, their relief obvious on their faces.

"What happened?" Dick whispered. He was lying on a hard surface, probably the countertop he'd backed into earlier. Someone had wrapped him in a white sheet to keep him warm.

"Gunner happened, kid. Kicked you from behind 'cause he was too chicken to take you face to face." McEwan's smile widened. Dick's eyes smiled in return, then faded.

"Lucky?" he asked. McEwan's eyes dropped and he shook his head sadly.

"Lost too much blood. Sorry, kid." Dick turned away stricken. Lucky was dead because of him. He was dead because he'd tried to help him. "Acrobat, we've gotta get out now. The ferrets are incompetent and stupid, but sooner or later they'll find their way here. I know it's gonna hurt, but we've got to move you. D'you understand?"

Dick nodded, his head still turned away. He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder, then release.

"Ghoul! Come on. You've got to carry the kid," McEwan instructed. "And be careful, for Chrisakes! No telling if he's got a concussion or not."

"I can walk," Dick protested, struggling to a sitting position. "I'm not a baby!" The earth moved. Dick fell back suddenly, his breath coming in short gasps. What had just happened?

"Let that be a lesson to you, kid. Doctor McEwan knows best. You've had a severe kick to the head. Now, I happen to know that these guys wouldn'ta felt nuthin' 'cause they ain't got brains enough to fuss over. But you're not like that. You're a bright kid, and that kick to the head has managed to scramble your brain around a bit. Don't worry. As soon as you even *look* like you can walk again, you're on foot. Deal?"

Dick nodded. "Deal!"

"Okay. Ghoul, haul away! And try to be careful with him." Ghoul nodded earnestly.

"Sure thing, Fingers. I'll be extra careful, I promise," Ghoul sounded sincere. "Let's go, Acrobat!" He lifted Dick gingerly, mindful of his head injury. "Ready, Fingers."

"Hey, what about *us*?" Everyone turned to the speaker. Dick saw that it was Napalm. His face was puffy and beginning to turn a sickly purple and green. His lips were already two sizes larger than normal. Both he and Gunner were tied with strips of sheets. "You can't leave us like this!"

"Watch me," said McEwan coldly. He saluted goodbye and began to head towards the exit. Napalm's voice followed him with a string of unrepeatable expletives. He called McEwan several names, then began on his lineage. McEwan stopped in his tracks. He slowly turned to Napalm, raised a single eyebrow, and headed back. "You're right, Napalm. I *can't* leave you like this. So . . . I hope you *appreciate* this!" He pulled back suddenly with his left fist, then punched Napalm--hard!

"Damn, that hurt!" McEwan yelled, shaking his hand. "Hell, Napalm, why'd you have to have such a hard chin?" Not waiting for an answer, McEwan kicked him instead. "Now, what were you saying about my mother?"

Napalm's voice became entreating.

"No, please, Fingers . . . I was just following orders! You can understand that! Mister Zucco calls the shots . . . said he wanted the kid erased. I'm a soldier . . . I follow orders!"

"Yeah, you're a real hero!" McEwan grabbed Napalm by the collar. "You get word to your Vigils . . . you mess with the kid, you mess with me."

"Heh, I'm shaking in my boots, Fingers," Napalm said derisively. "Word on the street is you never carry a piece . . . nothing! What are you gonna do . . . talk us to death? Zucco *owns* the streets, wise guy! And the Vigils are the peacekeepers. You don't know who you're messing with!"

"Oh, I know exactly who I'm up against . . . The question is . . . do *you* know who *you're* up against?" Napalm's eyes widened. "Jay Dee . . . Ghoul . . . take the kid. There's no need for him to see any of this. Montana, you'n me are gonna *interrogate* the prisoners."

"Fingers!" Dick called out weakly. McEwan looked down at Napalm a few more seconds, then walked over to Dick.

"What is it, kid?" McEwan asked quietly.

"You . . . you're not going to hurt them, are you, Fingers?" Dick's young features had taken on a much too serious expression.

"Hey, now would I do anything like that, little Acrobat?" McEwan's smile didn't quite reach his brown eyes. "Oh, hey, kid, I almost forgot . . . Montana!" McEwan snapped his fingers. "Got it? Thanks." He turned back to Dick. "Look what I got here . . . Elinore . . . and she's all safe and sound, just like I promised." His smile grew wider when he saw the obvious joy in Dick's face at being reunited with his friend.

"Elinore! Thanks, Fingers, you're the best friend *ever*!" Dick hugged his stuffed elephant closely to himself. Then obviously struggling to stay conscious, he continued insistently. "Promise . . . promise you won't hurt them."

"Acrobat, I promise I won't hurt a hair on their heads," McEwan responded. "Now you let Ghoul and Jay Dee here take you out of this place . . . and try to get some rest. I'll be right out." McEwan waited for them to walk out before he returned to Napalm and Gunner. "And now . . . for something completely different," he said ironically.

"Hey, you promised that kid . . . !" Gunner protested.

"Sure. I promised I wouldn't hurt a hair on your heads . . . and I won't. It's certain other parts of your anatomy that I intend to inflict pain on. You and your Vigils . . . all you know is how to hurt others. You killed my brother . . . hospitalized me . . . killed Lucky . . . and now you're trying to kill the kid. Tell me *why* I shouldn't kill you . . . or at least, why I shouldn't hurt you?"

Gunner spoke in a panic. "Because I can tell you how to find Blade . . . and Zucco!"

"Shut up, Gunner! Are you *crazy*? Zucco'll have us *both* killed!" Napalm hissed. McEwan looked at Montana and jerked his head slightly. Montana obliged by kicking Napalm in the rib area.

"I think you should worry more about what *I'll* do to you right now, than what Zucco will do to you later." McEwan spoke quietly, but it was the very quietness of his tone that frightened his two prisoners even more. McEwan squatted down on his haunches in front of Gunner. "Now, punk . . . what were you saying about Blade and Zucco?"

"If I tell you, what guarantee do I have . . . ?" Gunner began.

"Oh, there are no guarantees, Gunner. What do I look like? A bank or something?" At Gunner's confused look, he added. "Oh, all right. You tell me what I want to know, and I won't let Montana here kill you, fair enough?"

Gunner nodded pathetically, eager to please. "The docks at Gotham Harbor . . . Zucco owns a warehouse down there . . . Pier Four . . . uh . . . Forty- something . . . I'm not sure exactly." He panicked when he saw Montana edge in closer.

"Should I help him remember, Fingers? Gunner looks like he could use a boot up his--"

"No, wait! Pier Forty-three! He keeps a warehouse at Pier Forty-three. Last I heard they were expecting a big shipment in another day or so from his major suppliers in Colombia!"

"Shut up!" Napalm interrupted him. "Are you *crazy*? You've just signed our death warrant!"

"Aw, you shut up, Napalm!" Gunner's voice had turned whiney. "I'm really getting sick and tired of you and Blade ordering me around! How's Zucco gonna find out that we told them about the warehouse? *You* gonna tell 'im? He'll kill you before you're finished! There won't be enough left of us to fill a sandwich bag!"

"Oh, you don't have to worry about Zucco finding out," McEwan said smiling. "I won't tell him if *you* won't. Of course, Zucco has a way of finding things out regardless. So, if I were you, I'd confess to Lucky's murder. You'll need the protection of Blackgate Prison to keep Zucco and his peacekeepers from getting you. 'Course, last I heard . . . he had people there, too. Better watch your backs, punks . . . atmosphere here ain't safe for rotten scum like you." He held Napalm's eyes a little longer. "Let's go Montana. These two obviously want to be alone for a few minutes."

"This ain't over, punk!" Napalm yelled behind them. "You *hear* me, Fingers! It ain't over! You'd better not close your eyes at night . . . You're a dead man! DEAD!"

"Want I should render him unconscious, Fingers?" Montana asked politely.

"Naw. I figure that if he keeps this up, he may just do us all a favor and give himself a heart attack."

****

Chapter Five

The van was waiting for them where she said it would be. McEwan and Montana quickly climbed in through the back cargo doors. As soon as the doors were closed the van drove off. McEwan quickly checked on Dick. Ghoul was seated on the driver's side wheel well; he was still holding Dick who was sleeping soundly on his lap. Ghoul watched McEwan as he wordlessly studied Dick, his expression inscrutable. McEwan abruptly got to his feet and headed towards the front.

McEwan squeezed into the passenger seat. He put on his shoulder harness, turned on the radio, searched for a news station, then finally settled down.

"It's all over the news, if that's what you're looking for." His companion broke the silence first. "I don't get it, Jamie! You already have three strikes against you . . . another arrest and you'll be tried as an adult! You won't be sent back to the JDC--!"

"That's bad?" McEwan asked sardonically.

"--You'll be sent to Blackgate!" His companion finished exasperatedly. "Although, I think you're definitely demonstrating Arkham Asylum tendencies!" McEwan grinned.

"Yeah, but you love me anyway, right?" McEwan studied her angry profile. As always he felt himself catching his breath when he gazed upon her. Some would say that perfection was an impossibility in another human being, but they had never seen Katherine Evans. She'd been called "Heavens" Evans by the cheerleading crowd she'd hung out with in high school; however, somewhere along the line she came down with the "Stupidity" virus and fell in love with him.

McEwan still shook his head in amazement. The pickpocket and the Homecoming Queen, like something out of a fairytale. And here he'd gotten her involved in this. Great way to show your love, he thought.

"Look, Kat, I want you drop us off at the old hangout, then forget you ever saw us. I should never have asked you to do this!"

"It's too late for that, Jamie. I'm already involved. What's going on anyway? Why did you break out? Who *is* that little kid? Where's Lucky? I thought you said he was coming with you?" McEwan waited for Kat to finally pause for breath.

"The kid's the reason we broke out. The Vigils were trying to kill him . . . Zucco's orders." He explained succinctly.

"Zucco? What does *that* rat have to do with it?" Kat asked.

"It's a long story, Kat . . . I'll fill you in later. As for Lucky . . . Napalm and his pal Gunner knifed him. He's dead. I'm sorry." Kat drew in a sharp breath.

"Lucky--?" she whispered. "Ohmygod! What'll we tell his Mom? He's all she had."

"I don't know, Kat . . . I just don't know. I sent him ahead to open any exits that the electronic security system couldn't take care of. Napalm either followed him, or he was waiting for him. Anyway, by the time Ghoul, Montana and me arrived, he was already dead. Jay Dee was fighting with Gunner . . . and losing badly. He's lucky we arrived when we did, or we'd've had two dead friends . . . Not to mention the little Acrobat would probably be dead, too."

"Acrobat?" Kat asked.

"The kid."

"I see. So why do the Vigils and Zucco want him dead?" Kat asked. "You're going to explain *every*thing now, Jamie, or I pull over and throw you all out. Understand!?" McEwan looked at her determined profile. He sighed; he was too exhausted to argue, so chose to explain instead.

*****

"Hey, sleepyhead . . . are you going to sleep all day? Rise and shine!" The soft feminine voice sounded maternally insistent. Dick turned on his side, burrowing deeper into his covers.

"Ten more minutes, Mom . . . please?"

"Sorry, little guy . . . but it's time to get up. Come on . . . I got you some breakfast." Dick's awareness suddenly snapped him awake. Not Mom! Mom was . . . he couldn't complete the thought. Where was he? Fingers! Dick sat up and immediately pushed himself as far from the strange girl as he could.

"Who *are* you? Where am I? Where's Fingers?" Dick's blue eyes were as big as marbles, and he clutched Elinore tightly to himself. The girl was beautiful, but looks could be deceiving. Mom had always told him to never talk to strangers. His heart rate was elevated; his breathing rapid, like he'd just finished a double matinee performance. He felt himself breaking out in a cold clammy sweat.

Okay, she's just a girl, Dick reassured himself. You held your own against Blade and Napalm. Gunner, too, for a little while.

"Hey, kid . . . don't panic, now. I'm Kat . . . I'm a friend of Jamie's." At his suspicious glare, she explained, "Fingers. You *do* know his real name, don't you?" Dick shook his head at first, then nodded yes.

"I forgot," he admitted.

"Well, that's understandable. Sometimes I forget he's got a real name, too," Kat said softly, smiling. "By the way, what's *your* name?"

"They call me Acrobat," Dick said. At her encouraging look, he added, "But my *real* name is Richard . . . Dick . . . Grayson."

"Well, I'm mighty pleased to make your acquaintance Mister Richard Dick Grayson," Kat said. "And *my* name is Katherine Evans, but everyone calls me Kat." She gave him a friendly smile, which Dick returned a little uncertainly. "Come on, now. Do you think you can stand? Jamie told me you'd been hurt. Do you feel any dizziness?"

"Uh-uh," Dick said, shaking his head for emphasis. Kat smiled.

"Is that *uh-uh* I don't think I can stand; or *uh-uh* I don't feel any dizziness?" Dick returned her infectious smile.

"I don't feel any dizziness."

"Good. Do you feel hungry?" Dick nodded enthusiastically. "Great. Come on. Let's go in the kitchen."

"Where *are* we?" Dick asked curiously.

"We are in what was once the Gotham City Lights Night Club. Now, it's just an abandoned building that the boys sort of took over a few years ago. Between Lucky and Jay Dee they were able to restore some of the utilities into the building, without the knowledge of the Gotham City Utilities Company, of course."

She smiled suddenly at a memory. "Those two! Jamie used to say that they were like two guys sharing one brain. Jay Dee would come up with these wonderful and seemingly impossible ideas on paper; Lucky would turn the ideas into reality." At Dick's questioning look, she explained. "Jay Dee would draw up the engineering specs for . . . say a gadget . . . then Lucky would build it." She dropped her eyes in grief. "I can't believe he's gone."

Dick walked up to her and took her hand. He looked up at her with profound understanding. "He was my friend, too. If he hadn't agreed to help me, then maybe--" Dick couldn't go on. Kat placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.

"Come on, Dick. Let's get you some breakfast." Dick nodded.

*****

Chapter Six

"I cooked . . . you clear," Kat said.

"Aw gee . . . you sound just like--" Dick stopped. He was about to say *Mom*. Instead, he mutely began to clear the table. He couldn't see what difference it would make, though. He hoped he wouldn't be around when the hygiene police arrived to ticket them. The whole place *looks* contagious, Dick thought disgustedly. Jay Dee should feel right at home.

He heard the sound of running water and turned to see Kat filling the kitchen sink. "Here, I'll take those," she said, indicating the breakfast dishes that Dick had collected. "You dry." Dick nodded. He noticed that there were more dishes already piled and ready to be washed. These had obviously been recently used, probably by McEwan and the others.

"Where's Fingers?" Dick asked. He took a chipped plate from Kat and dried it carefully. He then placed it on a towel that was spread out on the countertop. He turned for the next dish, a drinking glass.

"He and the boys went down to the piers for an early morning recon."

"What are they reconning?" Dick asked curiously.

"Apparently Jamie got word that someone he wants to talk to will be there today," Kat answered, purposely vague. She didn't want to upset Dick by letting him know that McEwan was actually looking for Zucco. Still, Dick seemed like a nice kid and she didn't feel comfortable about trying to mislead him. Dick nodded seemingly satisfied.

They finished the rest of the breakfast dishes with no further conversation.

"Done!" Kat said, helping Dick dry the last of the pans. "Are you interested in going for a walk?"

"Sure." Dick shrugged.

"Great, we have to buy you some necessities. Let's see, I have a list here: toothbrush, change of underwear, socks." Dick felt himself blushing over the *change of underwear*, but tried not to let on. Kat pretended not to notice his discomfort. "Let's go."

***** McEwan and the rest of the Network waited in the shadows. Pier 43 had several warehouses located on it. Most were abandoned, but a few looked like they still conducted dockside business. McEwan dispersed his team to maximize their surveillance. There'd been no sign of Zucco or the Vigils so far.

"This is all a waste of time," Jay Dee said behind him. McEwan jumped, startled. He gave Jay Dee an annoyed glare. Jay Dee grinned unperturbed. "After the scare you and Montana put into him, Gunner probably lied just to save his own skin." McEwan didn't reply. He was afraid that if he acknowledged the statement, he'd end up agreeing.

They had to find Zucco tonight and find out what he was up to. They had to discover some way for the cops to arrest him so he'd leave the kid alone. McEwan and Jay Dee suddenly heard the sound of a truck backing up.

"Sh-h!" McEwan held his finger to his lips. He jerked his head indicating "Follow me." Jay Dee nodded. Keeping to the deeper gloom of the buildings' shadows, the boys moved quickly in the direction of the sound. Rounding the corner of the warehouse, McEwan pulled up suddenly. He dragged Jay Dee back into the shadows with him. Spying a fire escape on the side of the building, he quickly ran towards it. Jay Dee looked up and sighed. It went clear to the roof.

"If I'd known I was gonna be out with the *Batman* tonight," Jay Dee said sarcastically, "I'd have remembered to work out more at the JDC." He followed reluctantly. McEwan turned to him.

"Go get the others. Stay in the shadows. I'm gonna try to get inside and see if I can learn anything. Jay Dee, don't take any chances . . . and if anything happens to me, take care of the kid. Oh, bring down the ladder; I'm still walking wounded." Jay Dee rolled his eyes but did as requested. He watched McEwan climb for a couple of minutes to ensure that he safely made it up to the first landing. Satisfied that his friend wasn't going to break any more bones, Jay Dee left to find the rest of the team.

***** As the shadows lengthened in the late afternoon, Dick and Kat made their way down the street. The rundown section of the city in which they were located shocked him. He knew that they were holed up in an abandoned building, but nevertheless, the neighborhood was still a place his parents would have never brought him to, much less walked through.

Several storefronts were boarded over; others were open and advertising wares that he instinctively knew his Mom would've heartily disapproved of. They passed several disreputable looking pawnshops and liquor stores, as well as a few burned-out and gutted buildings. The people who inhabited the neighborhood didn't help matters.

Several of the men they passed leered at Kat; one even made openly lewd gestures at Dick. Dick looked at Kat nervously, but she passed by the onlookers without concern. And the women! Most looked sickly and sad. Some scowled at him. All had heavily made-up faces. Their cheeks and mouths were heavily rouged, giving them almost clown-like masks; however, unlike Harry the Clown who'd always managed to make Dick laugh, the ladies of the night frightened him.

Finally, they arrived at a small drugstore advertising a two-for-one sale on a national brand name of laxative. "Everyday low-prices!" Chu's Drugs proclaimed. "We will *not* be undersold!"

"In here, Dick," Kat said, steering him through the doorway.

"Kat! Kat Evans!" a young girl's eager voice greeted them from behind the counter. "It's been ages! How's it going?"

"Mi-Hyun!" Kat greeted in turn. The two girls hugged each other. "It's so good to see you! How're your Mom and Dad?"

Mi-Hyun's face immediately took on a worried countenance. She shook her head. "It's not good, Kat. Dad was visited last night by--" her voice dropped to the barest whisper, "--Blade and some of his Vigils . . . They gave Dad until tomorrow to come up with two thousand dollars . . . for protection. Otherwise . . . " Mi-Hyun's self-control suddenly slipped. "Kat, they said they'd put us out of business unless we pay . . . and to make matters worse, Dae-Jung's gone out and bought a gun! I'm so frightened, Kat. I don't know what we're going to do!"

"Mi-Hyun, did your Dad call the cops?" Kat asked, knowing the answer. Mi-Hyun just shook her head. This was typical, Kat knew. The Vigils had the citizens of Crime Alley so frightened that no one dared call the police when threatened. McEwan had been the only person willing to stand up to the Vigils and look at what happened to him. The cops thanked him by arresting him. "Mi-Hyun, I want to help . . . I'll let Jamie know . . . you know how he feels about the Vigils."

"Oh, Kat, if only you could . . . but Blade said that if we told *any*one they'd--"

"If we told anyone, they'd torch the store." Kat looked up to see Mi-Hyun's brother, Dae-Jung. "That's why, thanks but no thanks, Miss Homecoming Queen. We Korean immigrant storekeepers don't need charity help from rich society folk like you who like to slum here in our neighborhood."

"Oppa, that's not fair!" Mi-Hyun protested. She'd addressed him in the traditional Korean nickname used by a younger sister for an older brother. "Kat's our friend . . . !"

"No, that's okay, Mi-Hyun," Kat assured her. "I understand. Look I came here to get a few things we need." She handed Mi-Hyun her shopping list and Mi-Hyun quickly helped her fill it. Mi-Hyun smiled down at Dick, but didn't ask any questions. She'd heard that there had been a breakout at JDC and that Jamie McEwan was one of the juvenile inmates who'd been reported missing. Along with McEwan had been a young boy, who fit the description of Kat's young companion.

Kat added a bag of cookies and hard candy to her purchases before she finally settled her bill at the counter. Before they left, she took Mi-Hyun's hand and held it for a minute. "I promise to help, Mi-Hyun. Try not to worry." Mi-Hyun smiled her gratitude. Kat turned to Dick. "Let's go."

*****

McEwan climbed in through a broken window and paused to get his bearings. He took out a red-filtered pen light. No telling when a known pickpocket and escaped juvenile delinquent might decide to take up burglary, he thought. Okay, McEwan, you can add breaking and entering to the long list of charges the DA is gonna file against you. He took a careful look around. The room had filing cabinets, a desk and other office furniture.

He crossed the room and carefully tried the only door. It was unlocked. He opened it a crack. It led to an open catwalk immediately outside. McEwan crouched down, and remaining low he moved stealthily to the edge. A huge open bay spread out below him. The cavernous room was brightly lit with magnesium floodlights.

Movement caught his eye. What seemed at first to be an almost frenzied activity to McEwan finally began to take on a semblance of organization. Several goons in Vigils leather jackets were moving boxes from the truck to waiting pallets. Two men, nattily dressed in dark Armani suits, were directing them. Zucco's lieutenants, McEwan thought.

A crash suddenly startled him back to awareness.

"Hey, you bozos! Are you *crazy*? You want to blow us all up?" Armani Number One yelled angrily at the butter-fingered Vigils who'd dropped the case they'd been off-loading. That caught McEwan's attention. The rest of the Vigils all stood frozen in their tracks, as if not daring to breathe.

"Blow them up?" he said to himself. "What the hell is *in* those crates? TNT?"

"Yeah, that's right, punk . . . too bad you won't live long enough to tell anyone." The threat was accompanied by the sound of an M16A1 rifle bolt being locked back.

***** The return trip to the abandoned nightclub was uneventful until Dick and Kat were about a block from home. As they rounded the corner to their street, they ran into two of the *skankiest* looking men Dick had ever laid eyes on. Snake tattoos twisted their way from the base of their skulls to the crown of their shaved heads, where the head of an attacking cobra with its jaws fully extended was centered.

Kat pulled Dick to her immediately.

"Let us through, please," Kat said. Dick detected a note of something close to fear in her voice. This quickly sent his heart rate racing.

Both punks looked to be in their mid to late twenties and were dressed identically: nouveau Mad Max. Black leather with silver studs. Dick noticed that one of the men had a nose ring on his right nostril, while the other had one on his left. Both had pierced upper lips and tongues. Both had studded dog collars around their necks.

Ugh! Real tasteful, thought Dick.

Right nostril kept opening his mouth and wagging his tongue tauntingly, first at Kat then at Dick.

"Oh-h, Momma, you're gonna get a feel of this in a place you'll really enjoy! And lookit the pretty boy . . . Mikey here *likes* pretty boys . . . don't you, Mikey?"

Mikey nodded.

"Sure do, Tommy." The grin Mikey gave Dick sent chills down the younger boy's spine. Dick didn't know what they meant, but Kat's gasp told him all he needed to know. These men intended to hurt them both somehow and were therefore dangerous.

"You leave us alone!" Dick said.

"Ooh, Mikey, your little doggie's barking," Tommy said, grinning. "Maybe you should put a leash and collar on him . . . train him to . . . *please* his master." Mikey returned the grin and began to advance threateningly on Dick. Kat suddenly grabbed Dick by the shoulders and began pulling him back the way they'd come.

"RUN, DICK! RUN!" She screamed.

**** McEwan spun around. A third Armani suit stood there training an M-16 semi- automatic weapon on him with an almost casual businesslike attitude. McEwan instinctively knew that this only made Zucco's henchman all the more dangerous. McEwan slowly held out his hands to show that he was unarmed.

"Let's go," Armani Number Three said. McEwan stood, keeping his hands visible, his self-disgust evident. He'd allowed himself to be made in less than five minutes. Even Ghoul would've lasted longer, he thought exasperatedly. Okay, burglary wasn't his strongpoint, but this was ridiculous. Oh well, at least the other guys were safe. He knew that Jay Dee would take care of Dick.

"Yo! Lansky!" Armani Number One turned. "Got us a live one here!" Armani Number Three shoved McEwan with the barrel of the M16. McEwan moved forward sullenly. Lansky walked towards them.

"Good going, Boomer," Lansky said. He studied McEwan carefully. "I've seen you someplace before. Who are you, punk? Why are you spying on us? Who sent you?" McEwan didn't respond. He didn't even look at Lansky in the eye, preferring to concentrate on a point directly above his shoulders. Lansky's right cross to the chin got McEwan's full attention.

"I asked you a question, punk." McEwan fought to clear his eyesight and concentrate on what Lansky was saying. He gave Lansky a lopsided smile (or the closest that his mouth could form).

"Actually, you asked several questions." McEwan was rewarded by a punch to the ribs. He gasped at the sudden searing pain; he could feel his already cracked ribs give way. That was real intelligent, Fingers, McEwan thought.

"You must have a death wish, punk . . . Now I'm gonna ask you again . . . Who are you and why were spying on us?"

McEwan shook his head stubbornly. Lansky sighed. "Take care of him, Boomer . . . no mess, nothing to tie him to us."

"Don't worry . . . by the time I'm done, there won't be enough left to get a DNA match!" Boomer's voice sounded like he took a decided pride in his profession.

Lucky me, McEwan thought sardonically. I get the mook who enjoys his work.

"Yo! Slick! Gimme a hand here!" A Vigil looked up from where he was carefully placing his crate, nodded and hurried over. "Let's get 'im to the car outside . . . We're goin' for a ride." Slick nodded.

****

Kat urged Dick on beside her. He was so much smaller than she that he was having trouble matching her stride. We'll never make it! She thought panicking.

Dick ran as fast as his legs could carry him. He knew that he was holding Kat up, and to make matters worse, Mikey and Tommy were closing in. It was time for action. As he ran, he looked ahead for an opportunity, something that he could turn to his advantage. In a few seconds he saw it.

Quickly, slipping from Kat's grasp, Dick suddenly leaped onto the roof of a parked car, somersaulted, flipped and grabbed onto a metal light pole. His momentum swung him counterclockwise, and timing his revolution to the second, he slammed into Mikey an instant later. Mikey staggered under the unexpected attack. Meanwhile, Dick released his hold on the light pole and went flying at Tommy.

"Hey! Watch it! You little--" Dick went down on his opponent and purposely slammed into him all the harder. Instantly, Dick sprang out of the way, and landing on his feet, took off at a dead run. Tommy was out. He must have struck his head on the concrete sidewalk when he fell.

In the mean time, Kat had watched in growing horror as she realized what Dick was up to and that she couldn't stop him. Opting to help, instead, she grabbed a garbage lid, and as soon as Mikey went down after Dick's attack, Kat went after him with it. She struck him desperately on the head, knowing fully well that an aluminum garbage can lid would never inflict enough damage.

Still dazed from the blow that Dick had struck, Mikey awkwardly fended off her attack. When she saw that Dick had finished with Mikey's friend, Kat began running. Stopping and turning suddenly, she threw the lid like a discus, striking Mikey on the temple. He went down on his knees, holding his head. Kat caught up to Dick, grabbed his hand, and they took off once again.

Soon Dick realized that someone was closing in on them. Risking a look back he saw it was Mikey. "Mikey's back!" he yelled at Kat. Quickly slipping out Kat's grasp once more, he yelled, "We've gotta split . . . go on!" Not waiting for an answer Dick looked around quickly, saw that Mikey was almost on top of them, and hoping his mother couldn't hear him, he called Mikey the worst obscenity he'd learned at the JDC.

Without bothering to look to see if he'd goaded Mikey into chasing after him, Dick raced across the street.

*****

As Slick dragged him into the shadows where the car was parked, McEwan did a mental assessment of his life. There was so much he regretted, but there was also a lot that he was proud of. Still, he wished that he'd been able to make sure the kid got away safely. The little Acrobat was just such a good kid; he would've liked to have seen him get into a good foster home. Jay Dee will take care of him, McEwan thought, in an attempt to reassure himself. He will.

The next few moments in McEwan's life would always seem to be a blur. Boomer was saying a few profound words about the challenges imposed on his disposal team by all of the new technological innovations being implemented by the police department.

"Used to be that a guy like me could get rid of one or two stiffs a week without breaking a sweat. There was always a new building going up that needed a new cornerstone . . . you know, where we could entomb the remains. Now today, you wouldn't be able to get away with it . . . what with special chemical lights that can spot blood spatters, DNA fingerprinting that can positively identify the dearly departed. Me and my boys have to find ways--"

McEwan would thankfully never have to find out the means that Boomer had devised to dispose of him, because at this moment, something big, black, and hard came flying seemingly out of nowhere. It struck Slick on the forehead, ricocheted in Boomer's direction and smacked him on the wrist.

Slick went down, unconscious.

Boomer reflexively dropped his weapon. "Son of a--" he yelled surprised, holding his wrist.

McEwan, meanwhile, didn't wait for a second chance. As soon as Slick had been struck, McEwan dove and rolled under the car. He quickly made his way to the other side, emerged and started running at a crouch.

Boomer spun around in the direction of the unexpected attack, ready for anything. A light tap between his shoulder blades almost made him jump out of his skin. He turned, then blanched. He stood facing the stuff of his worst nightmares. A creature who came for the damned after their deaths; a creature whom he feared more than any other because of all the evil he'd committed in his life. Boomer had always known that there would come a day of reckoning; he just hadn't expected it so soon.

"My God! What *are* you?" His voice squeaked involuntarily. Boomer was afraid he was about to wet his pants.

The monster didn't say anything. He just drew back his arm and punched him with a powerful fist. Boomer went down without another sound. A crash from between the buildings caught the creature's attention instantly. Moving without the slightest whisper, the mysterious caped and cowled figure disappeared into the blackness of the night.

McEwan stopped to catch his breath. What had just happened? One minute he was about to become shark bait, the next he was playing hide-and-seek with an unknown pursuer. Furthermore, he was unsure about the exact status of the newcomer: Friend or Foe?

"Where are you going, Fingers?" The gravelly voice, barely above a whisper startled McEwan out of at least a decade of life. He involuntarily placed his hand on his chest to catch his breath. It took several tries before he finally found his voice.

"Who's there?" he managed to croak. The dark, sinister figure emerged out of the deep shadows into the relative gloom from a lone security light. McEwan's heart almost skipped a beat. Standing before him was a figure who inspired fear and awe in the criminal element (and just about everyone else, thought McEwan). A supposed urban legend that was believed to have been concocted by the police force in order to strike terror into criminals, the Batman, as McEwan had discovered was all too real.

"Where's the boy?" Batman said. His voice carried even more than his usual undercurrent of menace. McEwan shook his head.

"Uh-uh, Bats," he said, terrified. His knees were actually knocking, he noted almost clinically. "No deal. That little kid's *not* goin' back to the JDC if I can help it." Batman suddenly slammed McEwan hard against warehouse wall.

"*Tell* me. Where's the boy?" Batman asked again. This time, however, he was holding McEwan by the shirtfront and McEwan found himself flopping like a fish out of water.

"Look, Batman," McEwan managed to squeak out. "While you're messing with me'n the kid, you're letting Zucco's bozos get away with off-loading a whole cache of explosives and weapons! This is our chance to start closing down that rat!" It almost seemed as if the Batman actually hesitated. McEwan gave himself a mental headshake. He must've imagined it, he told himself.

"I'll worry about Zucco . . . you tell me where the boy is . . . and Fingers, he better be all right!" Batman's voice was like an icy hand gripping his heart.

"Don't you *see*?" McEwan tried again. "Zucco *is* the problem! He's trying to get the kid iced! Me and my friends busted him out of the JDC 'cause the Vigils already had orders to off him! Lucky was even killed in the process by Blade's number two man, Napalm. The Vigils all work for Zucco . . . you *know* that, Batman!"

When the masked vigilante didn't reply to his pleas, McEwan continued his voice close to desperation.

"Look! The JDC is no place for a little kid who's just lost his parents! I *couldn't* just sit by and watch him get killed. Not again . . . I just couldn't." McEwan remembered his mother's screams the night Bobby died. He suddenly stiffened and looked defiantly into Batman's cold eyes. "Besides, I owed the kid . . . he saved my life. Batman, you'll find enough evidence in that warehouse to lock up Zucco and his henchmen for a long, long time. Do what you want with me, but I'm not letting you or that witch Cunningham take the little Acrobat back to jail!"

The sounds of angry voices interrupted them. Zucco's men had discovered the unconscious bodies of Boomer and Slick.

"I'll handle this. *You* take care of the Grayson boy . . . and Fingers, I *know* where to find you." With that the Batman just disappeared into the shadows. McEwan felt his knees begin to buckle. Suddenly the prospect of being shark bait didn't seem quite so frightening. He swallowed, took a deep breath, then limped back to where the van had been parked. McEwan didn't really expect it to still be there, however. His friends weren't exactly known for courage under fire.

To his delighted surprise, the van was still parked where they'd left it. He knocked on the back doors and was immediately hauled in by welcoming hands.

**** Mikey was almost on top of him. Whatever Dick was planning, it had to be done now! He leaped, caught the building's awning, swung up and over, and ran down the canvas awning until he reached the end. He jumped again, somersaulting in mid-air, gaining momentum with each flip, and caught a sign proclaiming "Fine Foods Served Here!" Not stopping, Dick continued his leapfrogging from building to building until he saw that he'd lost Mikey.

Finally, Dick managed to climb to the roof of a hotel that advertised hourly, daily, and weekly rates. The Fairfax Hotel claimed to have "clean rooms, a helpful staff, and HBO!" Dick was no expert, of course, but privately he thought that Fingers' abandoned building looked more inviting. Hiding in the shadows afforded by the building's facade, Dick surveyed his surroundings.

The night had settled on Gotham City's Crime Alley like a shroud. Soon he became aware of the seamier denizens of the night. The colorfully dressed and overly made-up *ladies* he'd noted earlier began parading up and down the street in an endless promenade. Sometimes a car would stop and one of the ladies would saunter over boldly and talk sullenly to the occupant. More often than not, the car would drive away, but sometimes the lady would climb in.

Dick shook his head. He couldn't understand adult behavior. His Mom and Dad had always warned him against getting into a car with a stranger. Although he couldn't be sure whether or not the ladies down below knew the occupants of the cars they were climbing into, on a gut level Dick *knew* that they were strangers. Furthermore, he had the feeling that the ladies didn't really want to get in the cars, but that they somehow had to.

A slight step behind him caused Dick to whirl around. Mikey! Somehow he'd managed to follow him to the building's rooftop! Seeing he'd been discovered, Mikey started walking towards Dick in measured steps. In desperation, Dick looked around for a way out. Below him the hustle and bustle of the night crowds continued unabated. He was trapped! Mikey stopped and began toying with him.

"Here, puppy . . . come on, puppy . . . Daddy's not gonna hurt you. No sirree . . . Daddy only wants to play with you." Mikey's voice had a tonal quality that frightened Dick. He began edging sideways, never taking his eyes off Mikey. Mikey meantime knew he had Dick cornered and savored the moment. He loved it when his prey's eyes took on this frantic quality. It made the capture all the more exciting, and his own arousal all the more exquisite.

Let Tommy play with the boy's babysitter. He preferred his conquests to be prepubescent and male. Even more so, this boy's raven hair and blue eyes had seared themselves into his psyche. Watching his acrobatics had only made Mikey want him all the more. The boy would soon be his; he could afford to bide his time.

Trapped, Dick noticed that the building next door was separated by a narrow alleyway. His professional instincts measured the distance almost to the inch: ten feet. He'd need a take-off velocity of at least five steps, two somersaults while in midair, then . . splat? No, he could *make* that jump! Piece of cake! Dick looked at Mikey; he was ready to pounce. Time to turn the tables. Remembering his earlier tussle with Gunner, Dick repeated his actions.

Dick ran towards Mikey, executed a handspring, leaped up and over his shoulders. He caught Mikey flatfooted. Dick landed, turned and kicked out, clipping the back of Mikey's knees. Mikey yelled in outrage.

"You little--! When I get my hands on you--!" But Dick was already gone.

As soon as Mikey had gone down, Dick had taken off. He leaped from the building, executed two somersaults in midair, struck the opposite building's wall with both feet, pushed off and flew back towards the first building, repeating his actions. In this manner, Dick descended from the building's roof without a safety line or a net. Mikey stared in awe from above. The kid was a regular Batman, Junior! He watched as Dick dodged passersby, eventually disappearing around the street corner.

****

Chapter Seven

Batman made short work of Zucco's mooks. Within minutes they were trussed up with plastic tie wraps, waiting for the GCPD to pick them up. There was enough evidence inside the warehouse to send them all away for a very long time. Unfortunately, none of it could be tied directly to Zucco. The loss of the weapons shipment was a serious setback, but Zucco's organization was too firmly entrenched to be successfully stopped for long. Batman left the men for the civilian authorities. He had more pressing matters to attend to--namely, a frightened nine-year-old boy whose face had haunted his dreams for the past two weeks.

He'd never forget the horror of watching the Flying Graysons' fall to their deaths or the empty look in the boy's eyes as he stared into space, deeply in shock. Billionaire Bruce Wayne had been in the audience that night, but it was seven-year old Bruce who'd witnessed the double murder, reliving his own parents' deaths. Unconsciously, his heart had gone out to the boy, and he'd been looking for Zucco ever since.

Batman had assumed that the boy had been allowed to stay with the Haly Circus; he'd observed how all of the performers cared deeply for the boy, and how they'd all been devastated by the double loss. Furthermore, he'd seen how much the owner, Pop Haly, loved the boy. Why in the world had the Youth Authority been awarded custody? Why in the world hadn't he, the World's Greatest Detective, been aware of the fact until the boy had actually run away from the Juvenile Detention Center?

As Batman zoomed back to the cave, he wasn't sure in whom he felt the greater disgust: himself or Dr. Cunningham, the Director of the Child Welfare Services. Well, Bruce Wayne still had some influence in this town, and he was about to start cashing in some chips.

As he stepped out of the Batmobile, Batman's demeanor seemed even grimmer than usual. His butler Alfred raised his right eyebrow with urbane aplomb. Something certainly had his master in a snit lately. It was probably the fate of that young Grayson boy; ever since the terrible accident at the circus two weeks ago, it seemed as if Master Bruce had entered a living hell. He hadn't eaten or slept for almost four days straight now, and Alfred was seriously contemplating slipping him a sleeping draught in his coffee.

"Good evening, sir . . . good hunting tonight?" Alfred asked. He didn't really expect a reply and almost dropped the tray he was holding when his employer responded.

"Stopped a weapons shipment at the waterfront. Zucco's goons. I also found Jamie McEwan, the juvenile pickpocket who escaped yesterday from the JDC, but had to let him go. He claims to have the Grayson boy in his protective custody." Batman paused. "We were right. Zucco has a contract out on the boy. I've got to find that monster before he--" Batman stopped, a wave of dizziness washing over him.

Alfred immediately lay down his tray, and helped his unwilling employer to a chair. "You *must* take some sustenance, Master Bruce. I in*sist*, sir! You're no good to that boy or to yourself if you pass out from lack of food and sleep! Please, Master Bruce . . . a few minutes will *not* make a difference in your endless war!"

Batman nodded, too exhausted to argue. He slipped off his cowl, the seemingly simple act transforming him into his public persona of Bruce Wayne. Not yet thirty, he felt like he'd lived a dozen lifetimes already. Alfred was right. He wouldn't do that Grayson boy any good if he collapsed from fatigue. If he'd only *known* about the boy being sent to the JDC! How could he have allowed such information to slip by him?

He reached absentmindedly for the dinner that Alfred had so painstakingly prepared for him. Delicious! Wayne's ravenous hunger took over. He wolfed down his dinner, much to Alfred's alarm, but still felt hungry once he'd finished.

"Alfred, I don't suppose you have any more of . . . whatever I just ate, do you?" Alfred smiled and nodded.

"Of course, sir. Right away, Master Bruce." Alfred took the empty dishes, and quickly returned to the Manor. The master requesting seconds was a rare enough occasion that Alfred felt he'd best hurry before he changed his mind. Or before the Batsignal called him away on some new emergency.

Wayne stepped into the uniform vault, feeling a little better. He changed into a pair of sweats, and walked over to his command console. He quickly began running several search engines.

"Zucco . . . Zucco . . . Where are you hiding, you sewer rat? I'll find you if it takes the rest of my life!"

Wayne turned at the sound of a soft step behind him. Alfred stood there looking respectful, yet profoundly sad at the same time. He held a tray laden with second helpings. Wayne looked at the man who'd raised him since his parents' deaths, and felt a sudden rush of gratitude for his loyalty.

"Thanks, Alfred . . . I'll take that. Why don't you go on ahead and turn in? I promise I won't go out again tonight. I need to be at Wayne Enterprises tomorrow. I have an early morning meeting with Lucius Fox about one Richard John Grayson."

Alfred raised a single eyebrow in silent query.

"I've decided to try to adopt him, Alfred." Alfred looked nonplussed, but recovered immediately. "I know . . . I know . . . What are the chances of a rich playboy being allowed to adopt a lone boy, when the people who love him the most weren't given custody, because the state found *them* unsuitable?" Wayne shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know if I'll win custody, Alfred, but I know one thing . . . if I *don't* try, I'll never forgive myself. But even if *I* can't gain custody, then I'm putting the full force of Wayne Enterprises behind an effort to ensure that he's never returned to the Juvenile Detention Center!" Wayne gave Alfred a rare smile. "What do you think, Alfred? Are you willing to become a nanny at *your* age?"

Alfred smiled in turn.

"I'm already a nanny, sir," he replied. "I have *you* to look after, remember?" Without waiting for a response, Alfred left his employer to his dinner and silently retired for the night.

**** When the boys returned to their hangout, they found an extremely upset Kat sitting alone in the kitchen. McEwan rushed to her side.

"Where's the kid? Kat, where's Dick? What happened?" Kat threw her arms around McEwan's neck, unable to reply. She felt so ashamed; she'd let them all down.

"They took him . . . we were on our way back, when these two men stopped us. We fought them off, but they . . . they . . ." At this moment, they heard a noise from the front entranceway.

"Hey, anybody home?" The crowd in the kitchen froze in place, exchanging startled glances. Dick! As one they all rushed to the front.

"Acrobat!" McEwan held his good arm out in welcome.

"Fingers!" Dick rushed happily relieved into his friend's arms. He hugged McEwan completely unselfconsciously and squeezed his sore ribs a little too enthusiastically. McEwan withstood the sharp pain stoically. Kat rushed in and hugged Dick to her. She was openly weeping in relief.

"Oh, Dick, I was so worried! When Mikey took off after you . . . I lost track of you! What happened? Oh, why did you run away from me?" Dick struggled against the fierceness of her hold.

"Hey, I'm okay! I got away from him . . . no sweat." They all looked at him with obvious questions in their eyes. Dick shrugged. "I led him to the rooftops, then gave him the slip. Hey, heights are my friends . . . I learned to *walk* on the high wire! Dad used to say I was too young to have any fear and too dumb to know what it was."

He grinned, then dropped his eyes.

"I guess I know what fear is now." He looked up at McEwan. "I don't like how it feels, but I'm not gonna let it stop me. You've helped me, Fingers . . . all of you have. I owe you more than I'll ever be able to repay, but I can't stay here any longer. I only came back to let you know that I was all right. I'm returning to the circus. I belong there . . . it's my home."

McEwan nodded. "I agree, Acrobat; you belong . . . home . . . a kid belongs with his family. But there are some things you don't know. Come on, kid, we've got to talk."

McEwan led Dick into the back room where he'd spent the night. He indicated that Dick sit on the bed, then sat down next to him. He didn't know where to start, so he stalled instead.

"You hungry? Thirsty?" Dick shook his head no. McEwan nodded, then looked away. How to tell him? Sighing deeply, McEwan finally began to talk.

"Dick, you'n me . . . we're pals, right?" Dick nodded. McEwan's hesitation was beginning to bother him. "Kid, this guy Zucco--" at Dick's startled look, he hurriedly explained, "You talked in your sleep . . . mentioned his name." Dick dropped his eyes, ashamed that he'd tried to keep secrets from McEwan. "Kid, the Vigils, Blade, Napalm, Gunner, all of them . . . they all work for Zucco. He's bad news, kid . . . a real psycho, the kind who wears human molars for cuff links." He gave Dick a meaningful look. "Anyway, Zucco's responsible for firebombing several local businesses . . . You probably noticed a couple of gutted buildings when you were out walking today?"

"Uh-huh," Dick said, nodding.

"Zucco's work," McEwan explained. "Some were still occupied." Dick's clear blue eyes widened in shock. "See, he forces the business owners to *pay* him insurance money. Only this insurance money isn't for them to collect payment in case something bad happens to them; it's to *prevent* something bad from happening! In other words, if these people don't pay off whatever Zucco wants, he'll see to it that their businesses suffer some kind of an accident."

"That's what he told Pop Haly! That if he didn't pay off, someone was going to get hurt!" Dick yelled. "Zucco *did* kill my Mom and Dad! He threatened that something bad was going to happen, and Mom and Dad's lines broke! Dad *always* checked our rigging before a show. Zucco must've done something to the ropes *after* Dad had checked them!"

"Yeah, kid, it was Zucco all right . . . it's his M.O. all the way. Anyway, there's another thing you need to know." McEwan paused not sure how to continue. "The Haly Circus . . . kid, the circus left town a coupla days ago." At Dick's startled look, McEwan said placatingly. "Look, Jay Dee found out that Mister Haly submitted a formal adoption request about a week ago and was turned down flat. Child Welfare Services claimed that a circus was not a fit place for a minor child. We checked with some of our sources downtown and discovered that almost all of the money that the circus performers raised to file the petition was eaten up in pre-court costs. They didn't have the resources to fight a long custody battle."

Dick nodded, his head bowed. The tears that he'd managed to hold back these past few days began to spill over. He'd known that CWS didn't want Pop to adopt him, but somehow he'd always felt confident that Pop would win and take him home. How could Pop have *left* without him?

"Look, kid, if it's any comfort, I don't think that your Pop Haly has abandoned you. Remember that he has other responsibilities to the circus, and Zucco's still a very real threat. Maybe he's just moved them to a safe place before he can return for you."

Dick nodded not really believing it.

"Kid, there's one more thing you need to know. There's this guy around town . . . a masked dude who calls himself, Batman . . . have you ever heard of him?" Dick shook his head no. "Well, he's interested in you. Stopped me tonight . . . asked me where you were. I wouldn't tell him, 'cause he's like this straight arrow law and order guy, and I was afraid that he wanted to return you to the *proper* authorities. On the other hand, maybe he can help you. If anyone can track down the Haly Circus, it's Batman."

Dick shook his head.

"No, they don't want me. Nobody does. I guess I'm just gonna have to go back to the JDC." Dick sniffed forlornly feeling abandoned. He turned away from McEwan and lay facedown on the bed. He took Elinore in his arms and hugged her tightly.

"Hey, kid--" McEwan began.

"Please, leave me alone," Dick sobbed.

McEwan looked on helplessly. There was little he could do right now. It was probably best that Dick got some rest anyway. "Okay, kid. Get some sleep. But if you need me, I'll be right outside." Dick didn't reply.

****

Chapter Eight

"Mi-Hyun said that they'd torch their store tomorrow night if her father didn't come up with the money. Oh, Jamie, it's just too much! Zucco's after Dick and now he'll destroy the Chu's business. How can one man be so evil?"

"He's not evil, Kat . . . just misguided," Montana broke in facetiously. McEwan and Kat just looked at him. Montana swallowed his laughter and slinked off to bed. "No sense of humor. Sheesh!" The backroom was filled close to overflowing. The boys had set up enough army cots and sleeping bags for each of them, plus the bed that Dick currently occupied.

Dick listened quietly as Montana crawled into an empty cot. He heard a sleeping bag being zipped up accompanied by the muffled sounds of Montana settling in. This was soon followed by slow measured breathing as he fell asleep. As soon as Dick was sure that Montana had fallen asleep, he crawled slowly out of bed. He grabbed Elinore and studied her in the room's dark shadows for a few moments.

It would be hard to take her with him, but he couldn't bring himself to leave her. She'd been with him all of his life. She was all he had from before. No, he wouldn't abandon her. Setting his jaw in grim determination, Dick tucked her inside his jacket. It made for a snug fit, but it was doable.

Dick moved silently across the room. He paused at the door and listened carefully. Low voices. McEwan and Kat were talking sotto voce. Dick slowly opened the door and checked the hallway immediately on the other side. Empty. The voices were coming from the abandoned nightclub's kitchen area. Dick crouched low and moved in a bit closer.

"But what will you do with him, Jamie?" Kat asked. "He's only nine. He needs a home . . . parents . . . people to take care of him."

"I can take care of him," McEwan protested. "I've taken care of him so far, haven't I?"

"Oh, sure," Kat scoffed. "This is the perfect home for a little boy. An abandoned building in the middle of Crime Alley . . . a real high class neighborhood populated by hookers, drug addicts, and perverts . . . Yeah, Suburbia USA!"

"So what should I do, Kat?" McEwan asked. "Return him to the JDC? That would be *real* smart! Why don't I just hand deliver him to Zucco and cut out the middlemen?" McEwan sounded angry. "Don't you see? The little Acrobat's life is in danger every day that Zucco and the Vigils are allowed to run free. And nobody cares! The system is too busy giving orders and telling the kid's circus people that they're not *suitable* to take care of him. That it's too dangerous for a kid to live in a circus. Meanwhile, no one's paying any attention to the fact that they've locked him up in a cage with predators who are more dangerous than any lion ever found in a circus!" McEwan paused. "I *can't* abandon him, Kat. He's got no one left . . . no one except a stuffed elephant for crying out loud. The kid *needs* me, Kat. *I* need him."

Dick was sitting on his haunches on the other side of the wall separating the front room from the kitchen. He felt himself near a breaking point. If he waited any longer, he'd start crying again. No! He wouldn't cry . . . He was almost ten years old. He wasn't a baby anymore. He liked McEwan . . . a lot! . . . but as long as he stayed with him, McEwan, Kat, all the others were in danger. He *had* to leave.

Haly Circus might be gone, but he knew that their next location was the LexDome in Metropolis. Their first show was a scheduled charity benefit for the LexCorp Foundation. The Flying Graysons were supposed to be the opening act. Dick didn't know who would be in center ring now, but the show must go on. Dick reflected on how he felt about it. Intellectually he accepted it . . . that's show biz after all. But he knew that in his heart, he'd never be able to face going on without his Mom and Dad. After all, they had been The Flying Graysons- -a family act. At the moment, he didn't believe that he'd ever be able to go on as a solo.

Maybe Pop Haly would let him stay on as a roustabout, he thought hopefully. He shook his head sadly. No, to return to Haly Circus would only place them *all* in peril. No matter where he went or with whom he stayed, as long as Zucco was after him (he recalled McEwan's explanation about the gutted-out buildings), anyone who gave him shelter was in mortal danger.

The best thing for everyone involved would be for Dick Grayson to simply disappear. As Dick began to move stealthily to the entrance, the voices from the kitchen stopped him.

"Jamie, I know how you feel, but Dick isn't Bobby. No matter what you do, you'll never bring Bobby back. You're not being fair to Dick, Jamie. Your guilt over Bobby's death is only hurting Dick's chances of ever finding a decent home!"

"That's not true, Kat!" McEwan replied in anger. "You *don't* understand. You couldn't! Your family doesn't live in a neighborhood that resembles Beirut . . . a war zone! None of your family has ever faced anything more frightening than a ruined dinner party! When those gang members *accidentally* killed Bobby, I discovered that Zucco was behind most of the gang activity in my neighborhood. I swore then that I'd do everything in my power to stop him. If stopping him means helping the little Acrobat, then that's the way it is! That kid's a direct line to the Vigils, and from them, Zucco!"

Dick swallowed a sudden lump in his throat. So that was it. He was just a means to an end. McEwan was just using him. Well, he'd show him . . . he'd show them all. He didn't need anybody. He could take care of himself. Hadn't he proven it time and again that he could hold his own?

"I'm outta here!" Dick whispered fiercely.

Unknown to Dick, as he left the abandoned nightclub, Kat and McEwan kept on talking.

"Jamie, if I thought for a minute that what you just said was true, I would've taken Dick and left long ago. You're not using that boy to get back at Zucco. You're helping him because that's the kind of person you are. You're always helping people in trouble. If I didn't know better, I'd say you were some kind of vigilante do-gooder. But I don't think you have the butt for spandex tights." She added the last part with a smile.

"Oh yeah? Says who?" McEwan replied with a suggestive smile. "Wanna test out your theory?" At her answering smile, he took her hand and pulled her to him. "This isn't exactly the Gotham Hilton, but I just happen to have a sleeping bag for two."

"Hmm-mm. 'Just happen,' huh?" Kat said. Without another word, McEwan kissed her fiercely. Not yet seventeen, their relationship had crossed the line months ago. They were always careful, but even so the newness of the experience still hadn't worn off. McEwan turned from her and quietly crossed over to the back room to retrieve the sleeping bag.

On impulse, he walked over to the lone twin bed to check on Dick. McEwan's heart stopped. The kid was gone! He threw the sleeping bag on the bed and rushed out of the room.

"He's gone! The kid's gone!" McEwan's voice was on the edge of panic. "I'm going out to search for him. If I'm not back in thirty minutes wake the others." He faced Kat, his eyes agonized. "What if he heard us? What if he heard what I said about--?" He couldn't finish. Not waiting for a reply he quickly left.

****

"Good morning, Mister Wayne. Everyone's already waiting for you."

"Thank you, Maggie. Hey, is that a new hairstyle? Looks good!" Wayne smiled pleasantly at his executive secretary. Maggie's heart fluttered for the umpteenth time.

"Down girl," she muttered as Wayne stepped into the executive conference room. "Bruce Wayne is *not* looking for love in his own backyard! Or in his front office for that matter," she added.

The atmosphere in the conference room became electrified as soon as the head of the largest corporation on the East Coast walked in. Lucius Fox grinned to himself. The secret behind Bruce Wayne's success was that everyone saw him differently. The men and women sitting around the conference table saw him as an enigma, a brilliant financier and futurist whose ability to read the market and anticipate future trends kept Wayne Enterprises on the forefront of business and the cutting edge of technology.

Fox saw him as a loyal friend and employer. There were those who saw Wayne as "that zany zillionaire," as a certain Gotham gossip columnist had once referred to him, but Fox knew better. Wayne had a mind as sharp as a surgeon's scalpel, and as brilliant as the brightest nebula in the sky. In short, if Wayne was believed to be a careless playboy, it was because it suited him. There were many a business rival who'd underestimated the "Boy Billionaire" and had ended up the loser.

"Gentlemen, ladies, good morning," Wayne greeted. Fox stood and offered his hand. Wayne shook it warmly. "Lucius, thank you for agreeing to meet with me on such short notice."

He placed his briefcase at the head of the conference table, but instead of taking his seat immediately as Fox had expected, Wayne hesitated. He looked at the assembled group. In addition to Fox, his right hand man, two men and two women, la creme de la creme of Wayne Enterprise's corporate lawyers, looked back at him. Finally, he took his seat.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I called you here today for a personal problem . . . by personal I mean, something that affects *me* personally . . . not Wayne Enterprises." He paused to allow it to sink in. He saw several looks flash across the faces of his lawyers and almost smiled. Their looks showed that whatever they thought he was going to talk about, it was something that his mother would have highly disapproved of. Well, sorry to disappoint them, he thought.

"Two weeks ago, I attended the charity circus benefit given by Haly Circus. While there, I witnessed a heinous crime as it was being committed . . . the murder of John and Mary Grayson, the circus aerialists. The Flying Graysons left a son . . . you might remember him from the news programs . . . a nine- year-old boy and a brilliant aerialist in his own right. In fact, he'd just wowed the crowd with his quadruple *Death Drop* spin prior to his parents' fatal plunge."

At their nods, Wayne continued.

"What you may *not* be aware of is that the boy was not allowed to remain in the custody of the circus owner, Mister Harrison H. Haly, AKA Pop Haly, who also happens to be the boy's godfather . . . nor was he placed in a foster home. Richard John Grayson, a boy of nine, a boy who'd just witnessed the murder of both of his parents, was remanded to the custody of Child Welfare Services and placed in the Juvenile Detention Center, until I understand, a suitable foster home could be found."

The hardened lawyers gasped in shock. "Outrageous!" "How awful!" "How could something like this happen?"

Wayne looked at Fox. Fox nodded and stood. "Ladies and gentlemen, please . . . may we return to the topic at hand?" The lawyers quieted, although Wayne noted that one of them looked particularly upset. "There's a little more. Mister Wayne has called us here today to draw up a petition in Family Court requesting that custody of Richard Grayson be granted to him." The news was greeted by shocked silence. You can hear the conference room clock ticking, Wayne thought sardonically.

"But, Mister Wayne," Jayne Dover sounded apologetic. "Sir, you're unmarried . . . Family Court will never award custody of a minor child to a bachelor."

"Never say never, Jayne," interrupted Bob Stevenson. "There is precedent here. Especially, if Mister Wayne offers to legally adopt the boy, *and* make him his heir?" Stevenson looked towards Wayne for confirmation. At Wayne's nod, he continued, "What judge in his or her right mind would deny *that* kind of opportunity for an orphaned child?"

John Hawkins jumped in. "The media circus alone would guarantee a legal victory--"

"NO!" Wayne's raised voice startled them all into silence. "I will *not* turn this boy's tragedy into a media event! I called you in because you've proven in the past to be the best! I want the best legal defense to help me adopt this boy; but if the court decides against me, then I want the best possible defense to help place this boy in a loving home. I *don't* want to see him sent back to the JDC!"

"Excuse me, Mister Wayne." Wayne turned to Mary Margaret Scott who'd spoken for the first time. She was an older woman, who'd graduated from law school summa cum laude at the age of forty-five. She'd joined the Wayne Enterprises' legal staff six years ago, and had proven her worth time and again. She'd also been the one who'd earlier looked deeply affected by the boy's predicament. "I thought I'd heard in the news that the boy had run away from the JDC. Has he been returned?" Wayne shook his head.

"No, currently the boy's whereabouts are unknown. But that's neither here nor there, Mary Margaret. I want the petition done in absentia if necessary. I'd like the boy to see that there's someone out there who cares about his health and welfare; someone who wants only the best for him."

"I understand, sir . . . and may I add that I'd be proud to lend whatever assistance is necessary. You see, Mister Wayne . . . *I* was adopted as a child. CWS had tagged *me* as unadoptable. I was the child of an unmarried welfare mother hooked on heroin . . . father unknown . . . I was believed to have suffered brain damage from my mother's addiction." She paused, then smiled. "My adoptive Mom said that the moment she laid eyes on me, she couldn't stop thinking of me. She and Dad had gone to the orphanage to adopt a baby, and instead they left with me. I was five. I'd been hiding underneath the stairs all day. I can't remember why . . . I just remember being scared for some reason and wishing that my new Mommy and Daddy would hurry up and come get me. They did." She smiled, her eyes tearing up. "Whatever help you need, Mister Wayne, you've got it."

"Thank you, Mary Margaret," Wayne said quietly. The rest of his staff looked around uncomfortably.

"Mister Wayne," Hawkins spoke up. "I apologize for my earlier crack about a media circus. Sir, if there's any way I can help you get custody of that little lost boy, I will." The rest of the corporate lawyers murmured their support. Wayne nodded and thanked them all.

It was a subdued group of fast-tracked, high-priced lawyers who filed out of the executive conference room.

"Lucius, can you wait a moment?" Wayne's quiet voice stopped Fox before he left. Fox nodded and returned to his seat. Wayne poured himself a glass of orange juice and raised his eyebrow at Fox.

"No thank you, Bruce." Wayne nodded then gulped down the contents in a single swallow.

"Twenty years ago, Lucius, my parents were murdered in front of me. I've never forgotten. It's a pain I live with every day, a loss I've never been able to put aside." Wayne spoke quietly, staring at the empty glass. In his mind, he heard his mother's laughter as they left the Monarch Movie Theater. He felt his father's warm hand on his shoulder. He suddenly saw the gun flash . . . his mother's pearls falling in slow motion onto the pavement below. His mother's screams rang in his mind. It was an old black and white 8-millimeter tape on continuous replay.

His mother's screams were replaced by the Flying Graysons' terrified cries as they plunged down to center ring. Their little boy's frightened *NO!* echoed over and over. Wayne ran a hand surreptitiously across his eyes.

"His face haunts my dreams, Lucius. Each night before I finally fall asleep, I see him kneeling there in the spotlight between his parents. I see him . . . I see myself." Wayne looked up at Fox. "I can't let him down, Lucius. I can't let this 'little lost boy' believe that there's no hope . . . that there's no one left who cares what happens to him."

"Bruce, whatever I can do . . . " Wayne nodded and stood. He walked over to the great picture window that overlooked the Gotham City skyline.

"Thanks, Lucius. I want this matter handled quickly and efficiently . . . all *I's* dotted and *T's* crossed . . .all *whereas's* and *wherefore's* in the appropriate places. You know the drill . . . I want Jason Bard Private Investigations brought in on this. Tell Bard I want him to personally find out if the boy has any living relatives that the authorities might have missed. I want everything humanly possible done to help this boy, Lucius . . . and then I want the *im*possible . . . Give me a complete report first thing tomorrow . . . Oh, and have Maggie check on the status of the remains."

Wayne dropped his voice.

"It's been almost two weeks now, and I understand that there hasn't even been a funeral yet."

Fox nodded and stood. As he opened the door, Wayne's quiet voice stopped him.

"And Lucius, I owe you." Wayne heard the door close quietly behind him. He stood looking out on the panoramic view. Somewhere out there was a small, frightened boy. "I know how you feel, son . . . your world has come to end . . . and it seems that no one cares. I swear on my parents' graves that I'll do everything possible to show you that there *is* someone who cares . . . someone who wants to help. Stop running, son; let me come to you tonight . . . let me bring you home."

Wayne didn't realize how prophetic his statement was.

****

The lengthening shadows told Kat that it would soon be sunset. They'd been searching for almost fifteen hours now, and there was still no sign of Dick. She looked over at Jamie. He'd been too distracted to drive, so she'd forced him to sit on the passenger seat. He looked worn out. The others had fanned out and were combing the streets on foot. She and Jamie must have questioned over a hundred people. No one had seen one small, blue-eyed, dark haired boy. Or, at least, no one claimed to have seen him.

Kat pulled over to the curb.

"What are you doing?" McEwan asked. "We haven't searched this neighborhood yet!"

"Yes, we have! Oh, Jamie, we've searched it twice already. And the next street over, and all the streets after that!"

"Then we'll search it, again, dammit!" McEwan yelled. "He's gotta *be* someplace. A kid can't just disappear!" Kat burst into tears. The pressure had become too much. The worry, coupled with the guilt that somehow it was her fault, finally took its toll.

"It's all *my* fault!" She yelled. "Go on, say it! You've been thinking it all day long! If I hadn't pushed you, last night . . . if I hadn't made you say those awful things, he might not have run away . . . it's all my fault." Kat began crying in loud brokenhearted sobs. McEwan couldn't believe it. He'd been kicking himself all day for Dick's disappearance; apparently he'd been so busy blaming himself that he hadn't noticed the pain that Kat was going through at the same time.

"Hey, Kat, don't . . . please don't cry. Of course it isn't your fault. If anyone's to blame it's me. I'm the one with the big mouth remember? I'm sorry I yelled at you . . . I'm just scared. Zucco's people . . . the Vigils . . . those men you mentioned earlier . . . any one of them could've bagged him . . . even . . . " No! McEwan wouldn't say it; he wouldn't even think it! The Acrobat was all right . . . he was just lost, but he was all right. I have to believe that, McEwan thought fiercely. I have to believe that Dick's still alive.

"Jamie, he's so completely alone now," Kat sobbed. "What are we going to do? We need help . . . we can't do this alone! Please, Jamie, we need to go for help! For Dick's sake!" McEwan nodded. *Going for help* as Kat put it, meant going to the police, which meant going back to the JDC.

"Let's go," McEwan said.

****

Chapter Nine

As they rounded the corner to their abandoned nightclub, McEwan saw Ghoul frantically waving them down.

"Kat! Pull over!" Before Kat had fully parked the van McEwan jumped out. He ran towards Ghoul. "What is it, Ghoul? Did you find the kid?" Ghoul shook his head.

"No, Fingers," he said agitated. "I didn't find the little Acrobat, but I found this!" Ghoul held up the mud-splattered and tattered body of Elinore.

"Elinore! Where'd you find her?" McEwan asked excitedly. "Where?"

"A back alley about ten blocks south of here, on Claremont Avenue and Abbey Road."

"Show us! Quick! In the van!" McEwan said anxiously. The three piled back into the van and took off. McEwan was driving now. He quickly pulled an illegal U- turn, narrowly missed two cars, and took off tires squealing.

"Turn here," Ghoul said several minutes later. McEwan instantly banged a left, then came to a screeching halt. All three jumped out of the van and Ghoul hurried over to where he'd found Elinore. He pointed to a spot behind a dumpster. "Right here, Fingers," he said. "This is where I found the little Acrobat's stuffed elephant."

"I don't understand," Kat said. "Why would Elinore be behind a dumpster in an alley?"

"That's a good question." All three youngsters spun around, startled by the menacing voice. "Where's the boy, Fingers? You said you had him under your protection." Kat gasped in fear.

"Who *are* you?" She asked, terrified. McEwan sighed and shrugged his shoulders. He'd already been beaten too often in too short a time for it to bother him any more. It looked like another beating was on its way.

"Kat . . . Ghoul . . . meet the Batman!" McEwan said by way of introductions. "Batman, these are my friends, Kat and Ghoul." Kat and Ghoul nodded in greeting. Ghoul smiled and moved as if to shake hands, but McEwan stopped him. "Batman doesn't do handshakes."

"Where's the boy, Fingers?" Batman repeated. He looked like the angel of death as he moved towards them. McEwan swallowed, shrugged, and shook his head all at once.

"He ran away some time last night. We've been looking for him ever since. We've searched every inch of the neighborhood and--" Batman slammed him against the dumpster. "Oww-ww! What's that for?" McEwan asked slightly dazed. He felt his knees giving way and would've collapsed in a heap, except that Batman was holding him by the collar. McEwan's felt his feet being literally lifted off the ground.

"What happened, Fingers? Why did the boy run away? And Fingers, this better be good!"

McEwan swallowed. His gave Batman a stricken look, then turned away unable to face him. He shrugged helplessly and shook his head.

"My fault, I guess . . . 'cause I'm such a jerk . . . " Batman's grip tightened around his collar. He looked like he was about to slam McEwan again when Kat grabbed his arm.

"Stop it! Stop it! What are you doing? Dick ran away . . . it wasn't anyone's fault . . . or maybe it was all our fault! But Jamie's done everything possible to help him from the start! You can't blame him . . . you should be helping us find Dick! Not taking out your anger on Jamie. Why don't you slam us *all* around? Why don't you slam that bimbo Cunningham for placing Dick in the JDC instead of in a foster home?"

Batman held on to McEwan a few moments longer and then abruptly released him. Caught off guard, McEwan immediately crumpled where he'd been dropped. Kat crouched next to him.

"I'm all right, Kat. Just gimme a hand up, okay?" Kat nodded and between she and Ghoul, they had McEwan on his feet shortly. McEwan leaned on Ghoul for support. He felt like one big bruise. There were damage reports coming in from all quadrants: ribs, jaw, head, limbs. McEwan shook his head. Concentrate on what Batman's saying, he admonished himself.

"You say he ran away last night," Batman said. "About what time did you first notice him missing?"

"Around four a.m.," McEwan replied instantly. "I ran out as soon as I discovered him gone and I've been looking ever since."

"After Jamie left, I waited about thirty minutes, then woke the others and we all joined the search. I took the van, found Jamie, and he and I continued to search together," Kat said.

"Me and the other guys spread out through the neighborhood and looked on foot. We stopped people on the street and questioned them. No one reported having seen a little boy who fit the Acrobat's description," Ghoul added.

"Jamie and I had just decided that it was time to report it to the authorities when Ghoul here flagged us down," Kat added.

"Yeah, I found Elinore here behind this dumpster," Ghoul explained, "so I hurried back to the nightclub to report it to Fingers."

"Elinore?" Batman asked. McEwan held out the stuffed elephant. Batman took it. He studied it carefully, noting the stains, tears, missing left button eye, and escaping stuffing.

"It's the kid's . . . He's real attached to her. She's all he has left." McEwan felt tears begin to sting the backs of his eyes. "He's even more alone now, Kat . . . What'll he do without her?" McEwan finally broke down. Kat took him and held him in her arms.

"We'll find him, Jamie . . . I promise. Won't we, Batman? . . . Batman?" They all turned to where the Batman had been standing not a second ago. He was gone. Kat felt a cold fist clutch her heart. She hadn't known he was metahuman. "He's disappeared," she whispered. McEwan smiled . . . the Bat does it again.

"Come on," he said. "Let's go to the nearest precinct."

"No." They all spun around, again startled out of a year's growth. "I need you on the streets . . . in case the boy returns--" Kat angrily interrupted.

"He has a name, you know!" She said sharply. "His name's Richard . . . but he goes by Dick. That's what his parents called him . . . Dick! So why don't you big bad men stop calling him by these non-names you've all made up? He's *not* the Acrobat, the kid, or the boy! He's Dick . . . and as soon as you start to realize that he's a *person*, the sooner that maybe we'll know how to find him!" They all stared at her in mute shock. Kat felt her momentary anger dissolve quickly. McEwan smiled and held her to him.

"We'll do everything necessary to find . . . Dick . . . Batman," McEwan began. "Just tell us what to do." Batman nodded.

"First tell me everything else you know," Batman ordered.

"Like I said earlier, Zucco's placed a contract on the ki--" McEwan looked guiltily at Kat, "--on Dick's life. The Vigils and the rest of Zucco's goons are out looking for him." Batman nodded.

"Is there anything else?" McEwan began to shake his head, but Kat interrupted.

"Yes, Jamie. Remember those two creeps who tried to kidnap him earlier?" Kat turned to Batman to explain. She told him about the attack earlier yesterday by Mikey and Tommy.

"Mikey and Tommy?" Batman asked. "Shaved heads? Attacking cobras centered on their skulls? Nouveau sleaze look?" Kat nodded. "Michael and Thomas Gunther, two sexual deviants. Tommy has two priors for rape, and Mikey . . . Mikey is a known . . . pedophile." Kat gasped.

"Oh my God!" she cried.

"They were both released on parole from Blackgate a few weeks ago. Apparently, they were considered rehabilitated and therefore paroled for good behavior." Batman looked enraged. "Fingers, I want you and your friends to comb the streets . . . concentrate on Zucco and the Vigils. I'm going to track down Mikey and Tommy." Before McEwan could reply, Batman disappeared.

*****

Alfred cleared his throat politely.

"Your dinner, sir," he said, placing the covered tray on the table behind Batman. To Alfred's dismay, Batman didn't acknowledge the announcement. Alfred sighed and began climbing the stairs that led back to the Manor.

"Thanks, Alfred," a quiet voice said behind him. Alfred paused in mid-step and smiled. Not turning around, he murmured, "You're most welcome, young man," and kept climbing.

Batman paused a moment from his scrutiny of the electron microscope to take a bite from his dinner. Delicious as usual, but he barely noticed. There! What was that on the elephant's outer cloth covering? Batman quickly adjusted the powerful instrument to a higher magnification. Not satisfied, he pushed a few more buttons and tied it into the Batcave's Cray Supercomputer. As he waited for the Cray to run an additional spectrum analysis, he took another bite of his dinner.

While he ate, Batman again ran over in his mind the site where Elinore had been found . . .

****

After the kids had left, he'd returned to the scene and inspected it closely. No footprints . . . no scuff marks . . . no disturbance of any kind. If the boy . . . if Dick, he silently amended, had been taken, it hadn't been from here. Batman looked up. He fired a grappling hook. Seconds later, he was on the roof of a long-abandoned pawnshop.

Batman reached up and put on his night vision goggles, the latest equipment in his crime-fighting arsenal. More advanced than the old military grade starlight scopes, the NVGs literally turned night into day. Batman flipped the on-switch and the night turned green. As he studied the area immediately above the spot where Ghoul had found Elinore, Batman adjusted the NVG's magnification.

There! Definite scuff marks where the pebbles that littered the roof had been displaced. Batman reached up and touched another button on his NVGs. The miniature imaging digital camera prototype that the nascent WayneTech division of Wayne Enterprises had designed began taking NASA-quality photos . . .

****

Batman again studied the photos while he waited on the spectrum analysis to be completed. The scuff marks showed clear signs of a struggle. The boy . . . Dick . . . hadn't gone without a fight. He noted the dark spots that he'd already determined were bloodstains. But whose? he'd wondered. It was O-positive, same type as Dick and the Gunthers. DNA analysis quickly eliminated it as the Gunthers'. It was Dick's. In sudden fury Batman slammed his fist on the table, rattling his dishes and knocking over his glass of Perrier.

"God, don't let me be too late," he whispered.

"You aren't, sir," Alfred said above him, clearing the dinner dishes. "You must have faith." Batman slowly looked up, and nodded imperceptibly.

At this moment, the Cray indicated completion of its analysis. Batman projected the findings to the wall screen and studied his findings. There was an unusual chemical compound on the cloth that could only be found in a one-quarter mile radius of Gotham City, over by an abandoned housing development located on the grounds of the old Thorne Chemical Plant. Apparently, there had been so much ground leakage from the factory that the area was saturated with an abundance of poisonous chemicals too dangerous for humans, or any other lifeform.

The Environmental Protection Agency declared the grounds an environmental disaster area and ordered it closed off over five years ago. Rupert Thorne had been indicted on Federal charges for toxic waste dumping. The ongoing Federal EPA Superfund for toxic waste disposal was supposed to have cleaned up the mess, but 175 million dollars later, the area was still polluted. Today it was considered a dead zone . . . the chemical equivalent of a Chernobyl nuclear disaster! If the Gunthers were holding Dick there, they were *all* in danger!

Batman immediately started for the Batmobile.

"Good luck, sir," Alfred said.

"Thanks, Alfred." Alfred stood there long after the roar of the Batmobile's powerful engines died out.

"Bring young Master Richard home, sir."

****

"Okay, guys, this could be real dangerous . . . so, if you want to back out now, do it. Staying means any one of us could wind up dead . . . like Lucky." McEwan reflected on Lucca's nickname. In the end, his luck had run out. "Ghoul, you in?"

Ghoul looked away, ashamed. As always when anything dangerous came up, his first instinct was to run and hide. But he had to help the little Acrobat. He'd carried him twice now. He'd never had a little brother and taking care of Dick had been real special. He was such a great little guy.

"Fingers . . . I--" Ghoul hesitated. McEwan dropped his eyes disappointed, but nodded his head in understanding.

"That's okay, Ghoul. I understand. Look, would you mind continuing to look for him? I mean, avoid the Vigils and Zucco's zoot suits, but keep an eye out for Dick?" Ghoul nodded his head. The single overhead bulb cast an almost reverent halo around his blond head. His handsome features made him look like a recruiting poster for the Avengers. Just give him a red, white, and blue costume and shield, McEwan thought. The Return of Captain America!

Montana spoke up.

"When do we leave? The sooner we do this, the sooner we get Dick back!" McEwan smiled gratefully. Count on Montana to want to get into a fight.

"So, where do we start?" Jay Dee asked. "We've been searching all day and no sign of the kid--" He caught Kat's look. "--uh, I mean, no sign of Dick. So--?"

"I think Kat knows where to start, don't you, Kat?" McEwan asked. Kat looked confused and shook her head. "You said it yourself . . . Blade threatened the Chu's that he'd torch their drugstore if they didn't pony up the money. It's still early . . . there's a good chance that the Vigils haven't made their scheduled appearance yet." He looked at the others who were nodding in agreement. "Let's go!"

****

Chapter Ten

The smells were what finally forced him to wake up. Where was he? He couldn't open his eyes; it hurt too much to think. He felt sick, woozy. What happened? How did he get here? The overwhelmingly noxious odors gagged him. He couldn't breathe without fear of losing his lunch. He sat on something hard and cold . . . the floor? . . his arms and hands were held back behind him. He seemed to be leaning against something long and hard . . . a pole? Cautiously Dick slitted his eyes open. He was sitting on the floor in the middle of a room the size of the Haly Circus big top, and his hands were handcuffed behind a pole.

A series of large paned windows ran above him at almost ceiling level. Just below the ceiling area was a series of catwalks and girders. Directly above him, a ceiling skylight allowed the silvery beams from the newly risen moon to peek through. He must be in a factory, probably abandoned.

Dick felt strangely pleased that he'd been able to assess his situation correctly. He tried to slow down his breathing, but it only made him want to take deeper breaths, which he immediately regretted. Everything started coming back. His overhearing of McEwan and Kat's conversation. His running out of the abandoned nightclub and his headlong rush into the nighttime sidewalks of Crime Alley.

He remembered running without thinking, without looking where he was going, without being aware that he was being followed. Eventually, common sense had prevailed and Dick had done what he did best. He'd taken to the higher elevations . . .

****

Dick spotted a fire escape in an alleyway and ran towards it. He jumped and reached it easily. He climbed to the rooftop of the building, then began moving swiftly and quietly above the crowded streets below. He eventually came to a momentary rest over an abandoned pawnshop. He stood and watched the street below for a few minutes, then feeling an utter sense of loss over having cut his last remaining ties to people whom he'd grown fond of, he sat down on the roof of the building.

Dick pulled Elinore out from where she snuggled inside his jacket and held her to him.

His inner voice rang chastisingly.

"Yeah, well, you heard Fingers . . . he was only using me to get back at Zucco," he replied.

Dick's inner voice said ironically.

"Aw, cut it out . . . what do *you* know? Nobody wants me. Mom and Dad are gone and I don't have anybody. I'm gonna go somewhere where I can be left alone!"

"I know that, but why didn't he come back for me? Why didn't he tell me? Why did he just leave?" Dick's emotions finally spilled over into tears, and as he'd done since he was a baby, he held Elinore to him and cried into her soft cloth exterior.

"Because he doesn't love you like I do." The deceptively mild voice startled Dick. A shadowy figure began taking measured steps toward him. At last the light from a lone street lamp caught him: Mikey! Dick jumped up and began to edge towards the location of the fire escape. "Come on, Dicky . . . that *is* your name, isn't it? Don't be afraid. I just want to show you how much I can love you."

His heart pounding, Dick made a break for it! He never made it. He was grabbed from behind by Tommy. "Let me go! LET ME GO!" Dick shouted, struggling helplessly. As he fought with his much larger and stronger opponent, Dick accidentally dropped Elinore. Tommy almost immediately stepped on her with his muddy combat boots, ripping her faded outer covering and popping out her left eye.

"Mikey, come on, willya!" Tommy yelled exasperatedly. "He's harder to hold than a slippery eel! Hey! Watch it! Ow-w! You little . . . I'm gonna . . . " Dick had finally calmed down and thinking quickly had slammed the full force of his feet into Tommy's stomach, causing him to momentarily loosen his hold.

That was all Dick needed. He landed in a ball, did a shoulder roll, picked up Elinore, and ran to edge of the building. As he neared the edge, he mentally prepared himself for a power leap. At the last possible moment, he was tackled from behind. Elinore went flying over the edge in a graceful arc. Dick's hands were expertly cuffed behind him and he was hauled unceremoniously to his feet. Mikey's cruel features smiled suddenly; he then slapped the back of his open palm across Dick's face.

The smaller boy immediately went down on his knees in a daze. He huddled awkwardly in a small tucked ball, forehead and knees on the roof. As he felt the world stop spinning, he slowly began to sit up. Looking down, he noticed bloodstains on his jacket, and red splotches dripping periodically below him. He was bleeding, probably from a nosebleed. He thought he was going to be sick.

"Puppies need to learn to love their masters. Now I already told you, Dicky, that I love you. And I want to show you just how much, but if you disobey me, and do bad things like this again, well you'll give me no choice except to punish you. Do you understand?" Dick *didn't* understand, but nodded nevertheless.

"Go on, give him the highball," Tommy broke in. "We can't transport a screaming kid across the city, and we've got to lay low all day! You *know* what they'll do to us if we're found with a kid!"

"Chill, Tommy! I *know* what I'm doing." Mikey paused to admire his acquisition. He caught Dick's chin between his thumb and forefinger and lifted gently. "Just look at him, Tommy. He's absolutely beautiful! Hair the color of the night . . . eyes the color of the daytime sky . . . and his complexion . . . so smooth and creamy . . . this boy is the embodiment of pre-Raphaelite perfection, even *with* a nosebleed. And you should *see* him fly!" Dick didn't know what they were talking about, but he had no intention of finding out.

Now! he thought. While they're occupied with what they plan to do with me.

Dick was on his feet instantly, and before Tommy and Mikey could react, had executed three quick back somersaults. Unfortunately, because his hands were handcuffed behind him, he was unable to maintain his center of gravity, and on the final flip, he landed awkwardly on his right shoulder. Mikey got to him first, but before he could grab him, Dick swept his would be kidnapper's feet out from under him and quickly rolled out of the way. As he struggled to regain his feet, Tommy again brought him down from behind.

"NO! LET ME GO!" Dick screamed in frustration. He'd been so close.

"Shut up! Just shut up," Tommy yelled. "Mikey, the highball . . . now!" Mikey hurried over. He pulled out a syringe, adjusted the dose, then stabbed Dick in the upper arm. Dick's eyes widened in fear. Drugs! Ohmygod! No! He felt the night swallow him whole . . .

****

And now here he was . . . Wherever *here* was. He closed his eyes against another wave of nausea. "I must be near the sewers or the sanitation department," he muttered to himself. "Okay, Dick, got things to do and places to go . . . let's see if these cuffs are anything like Uncle Carl's. Dick ran his fingers as best he could around the metal bracelets holding him prisoner. Hmm-mm . . . they *seemed* familiar. Well, only one way to find out, and the quicker the better.

Dick knew that some of his nausea wasn't being caused by the smells around him. Mikey's eyes still haunted him. The hunger Dick saw in them sent cold shivers down his spine. Okay, Dick, Master Contortionist . . . Master Acrobat . . . Junior Escape Artist . . . let's see you reach your pants' pocket. How did Uncle Carl say to do it? Let's see . . . move the hips like so . . . twist the shoulder this way . . . ouch! Hey that hurts! . . . Of course, it hurts, Stupid! God didn't intend your shoulders to bend like that! Almost there . . . just a little bit more . . . There! Got it! Dick thought triumphantly as he held the skeleton key in the palm of his hand. And not a minute too soon, for Mikey and Tommy chose this moment to walk in.

"Ah-h. I see our guest of honor is awake!" Mikey said. "Welcome back, Dicky. Tommy and I have been waiting all day for you to rejoin us. Are you hungry? Thirsty?" Not waiting for Dick to respond, Mikey continued, "Of course, you are. You haven't had anything to eat or drink all day, and that highball I gave you always makes my pets a little dehydrated."

Mikey stood smiling broadly in front of Dick.

"Tommy, why don't you bring our young guest something refreshing to drink?" Tommy nodded and left. "You know, Dick, that pole must be getting mighty uncomfortable. We've set up a room especially for you down the hall. If you promise not to try to escape I can release you and let you sleep over there tonight." He paused and gave Dick a questioning look.

Dick looked away, refusing to fall into the trap that the all-too friendly smile and demeanor were trying to set up. These creepos had kidnapped him! He was darned if he'd play along with them! He didn't know exactly what they wanted with him, but he knew that grown-ups didn't steal children just to be nice to them. For the first time since he regained consciousness, Dick was frightened.

Mikey sighed. "Okay, be stubborn. But don't take too long. I become impatient easily and when I do . . . well, I end up having to teach my puppies lessons in obedience. Most of them learn obedience after only one lesson, but some get all broken. You're kinda small . . . smaller than most of the others, but strong . . . maybe you won't get broken right away . . . but you'll learn obedience sooner or later. I hope it's sooner, 'cause I'd hate to hurt those exquisite looks of yours." He turned to leave.

A crash from the ceiling caught him flatfooted. Dick looked up in shock. The same bat-like creature who'd haunted his dreams soon after his parents' deaths came swooping in. Dick sat frozen, unable to move. He thought his heart would stop. When the creature suddenly descended on Mikey, Dick felt himself galvanized into action.

Fumbling awkwardly with the skeleton key, he immediately tried to free himself. In his haste and nervousness, he dropped the key! Oh, God! No! Quickly looking around, he spotted it about two feet away. Scooting his legs around, he was just able to reach the key with his feet; he quickly nudged it back to where he could he reach it with his hands.

Tommy, alerted by the sounds of battle from the warehouse, ran in, semi- automatic weapon drawn. Spying Batman and Mikey in the middle of a hand-to-hand contest, he tried to get a bead on Batman but was afraid he'd hit Mikey. Movement from the center of the room caught his attention. The kid . . . he was up to something! Tommy immediately concentrated on their prisoner. He couldn't let Dicky escape . . . Mikey had been almost impossible to live with these past few weeks before they found the boy. Tommy was afraid that if Mikey didn't get his opportunity to show Dicky just how much he *loved* him, then he could return to doing *bad things* again.

Tommy shivered. He couldn't go through *that* again. The last time Mikey had done something *bad* the authorities had only found a pinky to identify the missing child. Tommy was a rapist, and he knew that he, himself, was considered a sociopath by the authorities. But Mikey was a *real* sicko, and Tommy knew it. No, he couldn't allow Batman to take Mikey's new toy.

Dick saw Tommy running towards him, and closing his eyes, he concentrated intently on the job at hand.

"There's no audience, Dicky," Uncle Carl's melodious voice rang soothingly through his head. "There's no one here, except you, the locks, and the key . . . concentrate, Dicky . . . you can do it . . . Bravo! You did it!" Triumphantly, Dick held out the handcuffs, saw Tommy coming, kicked up with both feet, and connected solidly with Tommy's chin. Not waiting, he then leaped straight up from his sitting position, caught the pole, and keeping his body in a perfect L-shape, he climbed to the ceiling girders using only his hands and arms.

Batman saw the boy climbing to freedom, and not having to worry about his safety anymore, turned his full savagery on the Gunther brothers. Several kicks and straight jabs later, Mikey and Tommy were handcuffed to the same pole where they'd held Dick captive just a short time ago. Batman searched the ceiling girders . . . where was he? A small shadow crouching beneath the skylight caught his attention. Batman's normally grim looks softened momentarily. The boy had grit.

Dick stood watching the mysterious figure from the relative safety of the ceiling girders. What would he do now? Was he a friend? Dick didn't think he could ever trust another person again. He was startled by the sound of something like a small pistol shot going off followed by a soft whirring sound. The unmistakable clink of metal striking metal came soon after. The next thing he knew the bat-creature was swooping up towards him!

In seconds they stood facing each other. Dick held his position precariously. He hadn't escaped one set of kidnappers for another.

"Stay away from me!" Dick warned. "Stay away or I'll jump! I mean it!"

"Dick, listen to me, son. I know things look pretty bad right now, and I don't blame you for not trusting any grown-ups, not after Tommy and Mikey. But if you can just bring yourself to trust someone one more time, please, I only want to help."

"How do you who I am? Who *are* you?"

"I'm a friend."

"You're that Batman guy that Fingers talked about the other night," Dick suddenly realized. "He said that you wanted to send me back to the JDC. Well, I *won't* go back! I haven't done anything wrong! I *won't* go back to jail!"

"Dick, I promise you, I won't make you do anything you don't want to do. I know Fingers is your friend, but he doesn't know everything . . . and he doesn't know me. But I know *you* . . . I know what you're going through, son. Believe me, I know very well what you're going through."

"No you don't. Nobody does . . . nobody can . . . Everything was perfect with just me and Mom and Dad . . . and now everything is all wrong! Nobody wants me . . . only Mom and Dad loved me . . . and I loved them." Dick began crying. "I want to kill that monster Zucco for what he did . . . I want *him* to die!" Holding onto one of the vertical bars that crisscrossed the ceiling, Dick slowly crumpled in grief and anger.

While Dick had been talking, Batman had been surreptitiously inching himself along the steel girder to his side. Finally, as Dick collapsed, Batman gently lifted him into his arms.

"I *do* understand, son. Believe me, I know *exactly* how you're feeling at this moment. Let me take you home." In the distance, he heard the sounds of sirens already on their way. Batman fired off a jump line, and in the weak light afforded by the half moon, Mikey and Tommy witnessed the eerie sight of a man-sized bat creature fly out of the warehouse.

****

Lights off, the dark van slowly pulled up the alleyway across from Chu's Drugs. Kat shut the engine. The ensuing silence seemed deafening.

"So what's the plan, fearless leader?" Jay Dee asked. He was crouched behind the passenger seat. He looked up at McEwan. McEwan sighed and looked away. He had absolutely no clue. His arm was still useless. He and his friends did not use weapons of any kind, and he could bet on one thing: the Vigils would be armed and dangerous.

"I say we call nine-one-one," Kat said immediately.

"I second that," Montana said. "All in favor that the Network inform the police of these dirty doings, say *Aye*!"

Jay Dee, Kat, and Montana all chimed in together, "Aye!"

"The *Ayes* have it, Fingers," Montana said. "You want I should find a pay phone or something?"

McEwan looked at his friends annoyed. "Cut out the games, people. This is serious business. We've got to do two things tonight . . . stop the Vigils from torching the Chu's Drugs, *and* capture one of the creeps so's he can tell us what he knows about Dick. And since most of them can barely spell their own names, we need to concentrate on grabbing Blade. He's the only one who'll know if Zucco's got the kid."

"So who's kidding about calling the cops?" Jay Dee asked reasonably. "They're here to *protect and to serve*, right? Well, let them *protect* the Chu's and *serve* as our assault force. The Vigils won't be able to withstand the GCPD SWAT team, and when they scatter like rats, we spring our trap."

McEwan had been only half-listening, but then something clicked in his head. That was it . . . Jay Dee had actually thought up of a viable plan. Why shouldn't they use the SWAT team as their personal assault team? That *was* what they were here for, right?

"Jay Dee, I think you may have something there!" McEwan answered excitedly.

"What? What did I say? Hey, Fingers, I was only kidding! Honest . . . hey, don't kid, man! You're making me nervous!" McEwan smiled impishly at Jay Dee's discomfiture.

"Who's kidding? . . It's a great plan . . . come on, people, we have a phone call to make!" McEwan opened his door and jumped out eagerly. By the time the others had caught up to him, he was halfway to the nearest pay phone.

****

Chapter Eleven

Wayne had only been home about an hour when the special upstairs lamp that indicated the Batsignal was calling him went off. For the first time in ages, Wayne did not immediately experience the surge of adrenaline that usually accompanied his call to battle. He'd wanted to stay with Dick until the boy had fallen asleep.

Batman had explained to Dick that he was leaving him with a good friend, Bruce Wayne, and had dropped him off with Alfred at the entrance to Wayne Manor. He'd promptly driven the Batmobile to the cave, parked it a little more impatiently than usual, hurried to change into civilian clothes, then had literally run upstairs.

By the time Alfred had placed a bowl of steaming soup in front of Dick, Wayne made an appearance in the kitchen. He noted immediately that Dick's face was freshly scrubbed. Alfred's eyes had flashed his outrage when he'd first seen the dried blood on the boy's face. Dick ate shyly at first, but as soon as he tasted Alfred's tomato basil soup, he practically inhaled it.

As soon as the introductions were made, Dick began yawning uncontrollably. Wayne gave him a half-smile. "I think it's bedtime for you, chum. Alfred?"

"Oh, most certainly, sir. One can only imagine what this poor boy has been through if Batman had to rescue him tonight! Let's go, Master Richard . . . I'll help you get ready for bed."

"Ready? What's to get ready?" Dick asked confused. He normally removed his clothes, climbed into bed, and fell asleep!

"Oh, dear," Alfred tut-tutted. He obviously had his work cut out for him.

A half-hour later, Alfred led the exhausted boy (who was wearing a too-large tee shirt in place of pajamas) into the bedroom. Alfred had already turned down the bed for Dick.

"Up you go, Master Richard . . . There's a good boy."

"Where's Mister Wayne?" Dick asked anxiously. "Batman said that I was supposed to stay with Mister Wayne . . . Where is he?"

"I'm right here, chum," a quiet voice said from the shadows. Wayne slowly stepped into the warm circle of light afforded by the small bedside lamp. They'd put Dick up for the night in Wayne's old nursery. Much of the furnishings were child-sized, so Alfred felt the boy would feel a little more comfortable here.

An old Rocking Horse still sat patiently in the corner of the room, where Wayne had left him all those years ago. His train set, which was the last Christmas present his parents had ever given him, still waited for the train conductor's "All Aboard the Gotham Special!" Wayne felt strange, as if past ghosts were haunting him.

At first startled by Wayne's unexpected appearance, Dick slowly felt his body start to relax. Wayne's powerful presence was comforting . . . almost like his Dad. Wayne sat down on the side of the bed, and absentmindedly began to tuck Dick's covers a little tighter around him. Dad used to do that, Wayne mused sadly.

"Dad used to do that," Dick said, smiling sleepily. He succumbed to his exhaustion and fell promptly asleep.

Wayne sat a moment longer studying the sleeping boy. He'd been shocked when he'd seen him trussed up helplessly, covered in dried blood. He'd been even more shocked when Dick had managed not only to free himself, but also to escape almost entirely on his own. The boy had layers of strength that ran deeply. Wayne's heart had been pierced by the anger and hurt that the boy had espoused while on the ceiling girders.

Maybe Bruce Wayne can do more than just provide Dick Grayson with a home, he thought. Maybe, he can provide him with an outlet for his anger. Wayne reached up and lightly brushed a stray lock of hair from Dick's forehead. The boy mumbled in his sleep, then settled back again. On sudden impulse, Wayne walked over to the child-sized desk by the window and picked up the tattered and torn Elinore. He walked back to the bed, and gently placed her on Dick's pillow next to him.

As he passed Alfred on the way out the door, he noticed that his normally poised butler looked like he was about to have an apoplexy. Wayne raised his eyebrow in silent question. Alfred stepped outside with him, and promptly shut the bedroom door.

"What *is* that filthy-looking creature you just placed on Master Richard's immaculately clean pillow sheets?" he demanded. Wayne smiled holding up his hands as if to fend off an unexpected attack.

"*That* is Elinore, Alfred. Elinore is Master *Dick's* stuffed elephant. I don't have the complete story yet, but apparently, she's very important to him. I thought that maybe if she were on his pillow when he woke up in the morning, he wouldn't feel quite so . . . lonely." Alfred stared at him mutely. Wayne shrugged. "Pretty dumb, huh?"

"On the contrary, sir," Alfred replied, "it is quite an astute observation." He smiled at his first charge. "Don't worry, Master Bruce, I shall ensure that everything is in order by your return."

"Thank you, Alfred," Wayne said. "I'm late . . . I'd best go."

****

The only appropriate equivalent to the scene below was Pandemonium, John Milton's vision of Lucifer's realm. Fire trucks and other emergency vehicles seemed to be haphazardly parked, but the caped figure who looked down from the roof across Chu's Drugs knew that the vehicles were actually placed in a pattern that allowed them the maximum ease to move in quickly when the need arose. Blue, red, and yellow lights flashed brilliantly in the night, causing weird shadows to grow and shrink in a strange strobe-like effect.

The GCPD SWAT hostage negotiator had set up his command operations center slightly to the side, away from the direct line of fire afforded by the drugstore's large plate glass window. SWAT teams were dispersed on the ground around the building, as well as on the neighboring rooftops. Four feet away and unaware of his presence, a SWAT sniper held his weapon ready to fire. The Dark Knight faded deeper into the shadows.

"What do you have?" The low menacing voice made Captain Gordon jump. After almost three years of working with the mysterious Batman, you'd think he'd have gotten used to this. Gordon took a moment to catch his breath and turned towards the sound of the voice. Nine times out of ten, he wouldn't be standing where one would expect him to be. But then, there was always that ten percent chance when he was. Probably just to be perverse, Gordon groused privately.

"We received an anonymous call about a possible arson threat . . . Apparently the Vigils threatened the owners of Chu's Drugs that the building would be torched unless they paid protection money. The attack was supposed to go down tonight, but thanks to the tip, we were able to muck up their plan. Unfortunately, they have high accelerants with them . . . and several hostages."

"How many hostages?"

"We're not sure, but it looks like the four members of the Chu family, and some friends of the children. We're not certain how many . . . it could be as many as six hostages."

"It's eight." Both men whirled at the sound of the voice. Ghoul stood looking stricken in the strobe effect from the emergency lights. "Fingers, Kat, Montana, and Jay Dee. Also, Mister and Missus Chu, Mi-Hyun, and Dae-Jung." He paused then said guiltily, "I should be in there with them, but I was too much of a coward to come with them."

"Don't kick yourself, son," Gordon said. "It's not being cowardly to avoid impossible odds that you've no hope of winning against. If you *had* come with them, then we'd have *nine* hostages to worry about, and not eight. Thanks to your being out here, we now know how many people they're holding. Believe me, that's more than we knew a few moments ago, right Batman? . . Batman?" Damn! He did it to me again!

"Does he do that *all* the time?" Ghoul asked. Gordon nodded wearily.

****

He entered from the rooftop access. These old buildings' security was a joke at best, nonexistent at worst. The rusted lock didn't even require that he pick it; he simply grabbed it in his hand and pulled. It easily broke into two pieces. Batman shook his head. He descended the stairs swiftly and noiselessly, a shadow moving among shadows.

He walked into the upstairs apartments. The place was deserted. That meant that they were probably all downstairs in the store. Good, he could get Gordon's people in here then, but not yet. First, he had some civilians to pull out of danger, especially McEwan and his friends. Batman felt a slight twinge of conscience at the thought that his admonitions had probably caused those kids to place themselves in harms way.

Batman had had run-ins with James "Fingers" McEwan in the past. The juvenile pickpocket tried to play both sides of the fence. While maintaining his own personal illegal activities, he also reported any and all gang operations that he might receive wind of. Batman knew of the boy's personal vendetta against the gangs due largely in part to his younger brother's murder in a drive-by shooting.

Batman could understand the sentiment. However, he could not approve of McEwan's penchant to rob others of their personal property, even if the boy believed himself to be a sort of modern Robin Hood, who stole from the *Haves* to give to the *Have nots*. Batman was aware of the many people whom McEwan and his odd bunch of teenage anti-heroes had helped. He was even more aware of McEwan's personal crusade to keep young kids out of gangs.

There had to be a way to focus that type of energy towards slightly more legal endeavors, he thought. Perhaps Wayne Enterprises can come up with some means to help. I think that Bruce Wayne is going to have to have a talk with Lucius Fox about a Youth Center here in Crime Alley, he decided. But first things first. Let's free these hostages and stop Zucco's teenage strongmen once and for all.

Reaching the store level, Batman pictured the building schematic in his head, then found the fuse box. Too easy, he thought sardonically. That's why Zucco used these kids for the torchings. Although unbearably vicious against their victims, they were only amateurs; therefore, they were little more than cannon fodder in Zucco's war against Gotham's law-abiding citizens. Zucco sent them into the frontlines to do the dirty work, then if they were caught, there was no evidence to tie them to him.

Batman pulled the plug.

****

McEwan sat next to Kat, hands and feet bound. He was still mentally kicking himself for allowing her to come along. As if I could've stopped her, he thought sardonically. He'd told her to stay in the van, and she'd promptly ignored him. Some leader--I get no respect. He looked around at the others. Jay Dee still lay in a crumpled heap. One of the Vigils had clubbed him on the back of the head.

Montana sat next to Mi-Hyun. At least she'd finally stopped crying. She'd been huddled on Montana's shoulder for the past hour, terrified of the Vigils and what they intended to do to them. The police arrival had only heightened her fear.

"*You* did this!" Blade had screamed at McEwan. "You're nothing but a lousy snitch! I should've taken care of you long ago!" He snapped out his switchblade.

"Blade! Wait!" another Vigil stayed Blade's arm. "The *cops* remember? If they think we're killing hostages in here, there'll be nothing to stop 'em from movin' in! Ya've gotta chill, man!"

"I'll chill all right, Rat . . . I'll chill this guy into the next plane of existence."

"You're crazy, man!" Rat said. "All they've got on us right now is extortion! If you ice this guy, it'll be Murder One! I ain't going down for no murder rap, man!"

"You'll go down anyway if you don't take your hands off me," Blade said. Rat's eyes widened in fear, and he immediately dropped his hands. Blade coldly held his eyes a bit longer, but nevertheless resheathed his switchblade. McEwan let out his breath. He hadn't realized that he'd been holding it. That had been almost an hour ago.

The lights suddenly went out! Everyone was momentarily stunned into total silence, and then they all began yelling at once. McEwan quickly bumped deliberately into Kat.

"Come on!" he hissed. "Let's get under cover!" They both began crawling in the direction of the counter. Lying on his side, McEwan first gathered his knees up to his chest, then digging his heels in, he pushed. In this snake-like fashion, he managed to round the corner to the other side of the counter.

"Quick," he whispered. "Back to back . . . the ropes!" He heard Rat panicking in the background.

"What the frigging hell are they *doing*?" he screamed. "Don't they know we can blow up the whole place and take all of these people out?"

"Shut up, you idiot!" Blade yelled. "I can't think with you screaming in my ear! They've gotta know that if they try anything all of these people are dead, so--" he stopped, startled by a sudden noise. "Hey! What's that?"

McEwan stopped what he was doing. What's what? Then he heard it. The unmistakable hissing sound of *gas* being released. He turned to Kat, tried to mouth a warning, then promptly began to feel the world start to spin. He felt himself falling as if from a great height and as he slowly succumbed to the powerful sleeping agent, he heard the others in the store begin falling as one by one the gas took effect.

****

Chapter Twelve

A raging tempest pounded the ancient windows of the Gotham City Family Courtroom.

Today was Monday--court day.

Today a total stranger would decide his future. Dick wasn't sure what he wanted anymore. He'd wished so long and hard to be allowed to return to the circus, but now he didn't know what he wanted. The short time he'd spent with Mr. Wayne and Alfred had been the best. Alfred had even fixed Elinore for him. She'd been waiting for him on his pillow, newly patched and freshly laundered, the morning he woke up.

Mr. Wayne had scared him a little bit at first, but not anymore. Mr. Wayne understood. He'd lost his parents a long time ago, too.

Dick sat at a large table with a nice lady who'd introduced herself as Mary Margaret. Across from them sat Dr. Cunningham and a bespectacled man in a gray suit. Mr. Wayne, Alfred, Mr. Fox, and Pop Haly all sat directly behind Dick. Several members of his circus family also sat in the audience.

Trixie and Bitsy Donner smiled and waved at him. They kept looking over where McEwan and his friends were sitting and would occasionally burst into giggles. Dick wasn't sure, but he thought that they seemed to like Montana and Ghoul. Margie the Tattooed Lady sat quietly with her knitting. Occasionally she'd nod to herself as if she'd just thought of something profound. Uncle Carl sat alone, looking supremely elegant. Dick wasn't sure who looked more dignified, Uncle Carl or Alfred.

The world outside suddenly exploded in a brilliant flash of lightning; an earsplitting thunderclap answered almost instantaneously. The courtroom's dim lights flickered, threatening to go out at any moment.

"God forbid that the wheels of justice might come to a grinding halt," Dick said sardonically. Mary Margaret looked down at him and smiled from behind her glasses. Dick looked away. He was still bitter that he'd been forced return to the JDC. Wayne had done everything legally possible to stop it, but Wednesday morning Dr. Cunningham appeared at Wayne Manor and took him away . . .

****

The following morning a stern JDC aide came in to wake Dick at 5:30 a.m. Dick recognized him as Jenkins, the aide whom he'd *attacked* that day seemingly so long ago. To Jenkins' surprise, Dick was already awake. The aide silently escorted him to the JDC Director's office, told him to sit, and followed suit by throwing himself casually into one of the stuffed chairs in the lounge. Neither said a word while they waited. Eventually Dick began to make out murmured voices coming from within the Director's office. A couple of times he could tell that the voices were raised in anger.

Dr. Cunningham stuck her head out. She frowned sternly at Dick, then dismissed the JDC aide.

"That'll be all, Jenkins." Jenkins nodded and left. Cunningham addressed Dick. "Wait here, Richard. It'll be a few more minutes."

Dick nodded his head mutely. The wheels in his head started spinning. The door from the Director's office led to a short entryway, which led directly to the outside. From there one only had a relatively short walkway to the outer gates and freedom! Maybe he could *blitz* it!

As he began to mentally map out his route, Dick suddenly heard a deep voice shout out in anger from behind the Director's closed door. Dick's eyes widened momentarily. That sounded like Mr. Wayne! What was going on? The door suddenly opened and a dignified African-American man, whom Dick had never seen before, stepped out. He nodded and smiled at Dick.

"Son, would you please step in here for a moment?" Dick swallowed nervously, his escape plans temporarily set aside. Head down, Dick followed the gentleman into Cunningham's office.

Dick hadn't known what to expect, but he wasn't prepared for what awaited him in the room. Bruce Wayne, looking possibly like the sternest man he had ever seen in his life, was seated across the desk from Dr. Cunningham. His black hair and dark blue eyes gave him an aura of immense power, and Dick could see that Dr. Cunningham, despite her best efforts, was intimidated.

Dragon Lady Cunningham scared? No way!

Dick swallowed again.

Facing Mikey and Tommy had been a snap compared to this. Dick took a calming breath and met Wayne's eyes unwaveringly. He was a Flying Grayson after all; defying death was a family trait. To his surprise he saw the big man's eyes give him a surreptitious wink.

Wayne rose to his feet. To Dick he seemed to just keep on going up . . . up . . . and up. Raised in a family of aerialists, Dick was actually used to much smaller adult males. The smaller the aerialist, the easier he was to catch. Dick noticed that his mouth was open and closed it immediately, remembering his manners.

Wayne raised a meaningful eyebrow at Cunningham. She quickly made the necessary introductions. "Richard, you already know Mister Bruce Wayne, one of Gotham City's foremost businessmen." Dick nodded yes. "This is his associate, Mister Lucius Fox."

Wayne solemnly held his hand out to Dick. "I'm pleased to see you again, Dick," he said as they shook hands. Dick nodded, unsure about an appropriate response. He then shook hands with Fox.

What was going on? Why was Mr. Wayne here?

"Okay, now that that's out of the way," Cunningham said without preamble, "let's get down to business. Richard, please take a seat. Mister Wayne here has some questions for you."

Dick sat down in the only vacant seat. He felt uncomfortable in the presence of the three adults. The fact that his feet couldn't reach the floor also left him at a psychological disadvantage. Dick became aware that Wayne was studying him intently, then noticed that Wayne was trying to give him some kind of secret message. Dick watched him uncomprehendingly.

"Dick, do you know why you're here in these facilities?" Wayne's voice was gentle, but Dick detected a subtle edge to it.

Shrugging his shoulders, Dick shook his head, no. "I guess I'm being punished." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cunningham close her eyes involuntarily as if a sudden headache was coming on.

"I see . . . and just why do you believe you're *being* punished?" Dick thought he saw a sudden hard glint flit across Wayne's dark eyes.

Dick dropped his eyes and shrugged. "I don't know, sir . . . I guess I must've done something bad." The three adults could barely hear the boy's whispered response.

"Doctor Cunningham?" Wayne's voice held an underlying cold fury. "Just why do you suppose Dick believes he's being punished?"

"I assure you, Mister Wayne, we've never given the boy cause to believe that his stay is anything other than temporary until we can find him a foster home. I admit that he *did* get into an altercation with one of our juvenile inmates once and he *did* run away; however--" Cunningham gestured helplessly. "You must understand. We've always had only the best of intentions for Richard."

"So your best intentions mean keeping him here at the JDC instead of releasing him to the custody of Mister Haly, the boy's godfather, a man who's known Dick since the day he was born." Wayne's tone could have frozen Gotham Harbor.

Cunningham nodded mutely. She was beginning to feel like one of Wayne's employees on the receiving end of a severe reprimand.

"Mister Fox, would you please . . . ?" Wayne deferred to his right hand business partner. Fox opened his briefcase and took out several papers.

"Doctor Cunningham . . . Dick . . . we have here a court order remanding custody of Richard John Grayson, to the custody of Mister Bruce Wayne until such a time as appropriate foster care facilities may be found. I'm sure you'll find the documents in order, Doctor Cunningham. As you can see, they've been signed by Family Court Judge Marie DuBois."

Fox handed the documents to Cunningham. She quickly scanned them. Everything seemed in order . . . yet it didn't feel right. What would Bruce Wayne, a billionaire bachelor . . . and one with quite a reputation with the ladies . . . want with one small boy?

"Okay, Mister Wayne, Mister Fox . . . I agree that all the paperwork is in order; however, it doesn't answer the question, 'Why'? I mean why are you interested in taking Richard in? You're not a blood relative . . . you never even met the boy prior to two days ago. I'm afraid that I don't understand."

"I don't believe that you have to understand, Doctor Cunningham," Wayne said arrogantly. "As you said, the papers are in order . . . signed by a sitting Family Court judge. I believe that that is all of the authorization we require."

"Then you have been grossly misinformed, Mister Wayne," Cunningham said. Her voice was dripping ice; she was in *her* element now.

"Gotham State Child Welfare Services has the last say in the placement of any minor children. Should we feel that the placement would not be in the best interests of the child we are obligated under law to file a protest and immediately stop the placement. I happen to know Judge DuBois. She has a certain infatuation with . . . let's just say . . . big money and the power that comes with it. I can call my own judge and have my own court order countermanding yours in less than an hour. Now, why don't we play nice, Mister Wayne? Tell me exactly why you want custody of Richard?"

Wayne looked at Cunningham, and held her eyes, assessing any weaknesses. He found none. He raised his eyebrow in mock salute, steepled his fingers and nodded slightly.

"Richard, will you please wait outside? This shouldn't take much longer," Cunningham said. Dick nodded his head and walked out of the office. He was beginning to feel like a door prize. Dick had been frightened by Wayne's anger. He seemed like a completely different person than the one he'd met the other night. Dick had felt like cowering in his chair in the Director's office and making himself as small as possible. He'd been too terrified about the prospect of going to live with Mr. Wayne to say anything in protest to the adults. He'd felt the tears in the back of his eyes threatening to spill.

Cut it out! Dick said to himself. Remember you're almost ten. You're not a baby anymore. Why did that rat Zucco have to kill Mom and Dad anyway? They never *did* anything to him.

"Good morning, Master Dick." Alfred was sitting quietly in the outer office. Dick looked at him wordlessly. "You mustn't be frightened of Mister Wayne. I've known him since he was a little boy. I assure you, his bark is much worse than his bite."

The older gentleman smiled encouragingly.

"Why is he so mad?" Dick whispered. His dark blue eyes, red-rimmed as if from crying, stared beseechingly at the impeccably dressed gentleman.

"Because he doesn't believe that a little boy who's just lost his parents deserves to be sent to a place such as this, and he would like to do something about it." Dick stared uncomprehendingly at Alfred.

"I don't understand, sir," Dick said.

"Mister Wayne would like very much for you to come live with us in his house," Alfred explained. "How come?" Dick asked.

Alfred smiled. "Because he has a very large house that needs a little boy just like you to turn it into a real home."

"I don't understand," Dick said shaking his head. "Why doesn't he get married so he can get a little boy of his own? He's awfully old . . . just like Dad was, before . . . " Dick stopped unable to go on.

Alfred smiled inwardly at the boy's description of his youthful employer as "awfully old."

"I'm afraid that currently Mister Wayne has no plans for matrimony, and except for myself, he has no one." "That's too bad . . . he must be awfully lonesome. We always had lotsa family in the circus: Pop Haly, Uncle Carl, Harry the Clown, Margie the Tattooed Lady, the Donner twins . . . the real Elinore . . . and just about everybody else. I miss them a lot."

Dick turned anguished eyes to Alfred.

"Why can't I stay with them, Alfred? Why can't I go home?"

"I'm sure I don't know the answer to that one, Master Dick." Alfred looked profoundly sad when he answered. The boy's heartbreak and brave front reminded him so much of another small boy from long ago.

Dick suddenly felt the tears begin to spill. Alfred and Wayne had been the first adults who had shown him the slightest compassion since his parents' death. It only served to remind him just how much he missed the love that had surrounded him since birth. Dick had tried so hard not to think about that, but now he was finding it almost impossible to think of anything else . . .

Mr. Wayne apparently wanted to take Dick home with him, and Dick wasn't exactly sure how he felt about that. He didn't really know Mr. Wayne, and his Mom had always warned him about getting in cars with strangers, and after meeting Mikey and Tommy, Dick thought he finally understood why. Now, here was Mr. Wayne wanting him to come stay at his *house*. Dick wasn't sure what his Mom would've said.

Dick studied Alfred's kindly demeanor; he seemed nice. Maybe everything would be okay. Anyway, he'd be out of this place, and it would make finding Zucco much easier, he added to himself. Batman might have stopped the Vigils, but Zucco was still at large.

Dick could overhear the conversation going on behind the closed doors. At first, Dr. Cunningham said "No," but then Mr. Fox reminded her that the judge had said "Yes." Dr. Cunningham finally said, "Well okay, but it says only until more suitable accommodations can be found."

"Fine," Mr. Wayne said coldly, opening the door, "but at least he won't be in the same place as the most violent juvenile offenders in the system. The boy's parents were murdered in front of him, for God's sake. He needs compassion, not jail!"

"I assure you, Mister Wayne, our boys receive only the best care available in the juvenile system."

"Doctor Cunningham, if your comment wasn't so ludicrous, I'd cry!"

Fox followed Wayne out the door. Wayne turned to him and shook his hand.

"Thanks, Lucius. That'll be all for now. Our session in Family Court is for ten a.m. Monday morning. I'll see you and Mary Margaret then."

Fox nodded and left.

Dick stood as Wayne turned his attention to him. He felt his neck keep going farther and farther back the closer Wayne approached. Dick couldn't remember ever having met anyone this huge before, except perhaps Jacques, the circus strong man. Or Batman, he amended. Wayne smiled gently, then lowered himself to one knee. He held Dick's eyes intently.

"Dick, I'm sorry that you were brought back here after Batman promised that you wouldn't be. But most of all, I'm terribly sorry about your parents. I know that there isn't anything anyone can say that will ever make you feel better, so I won't try. Dick, I want you to know that the judge has said that you may come and stay with Alfred and me until they can find you a more permanent home. You don't have to agree, though. There is absolutely no pressure here. What do you say? You ready to break outta this joint, kid?"

To Dick's amazement, Wayne's somber voice took on a playful tone, punctuated with a poor imitation of James Cagney. Despite everything, Dick found himself nodding and smiling in response . . .

****

That was then; this is now, Dick thought. What if the Judge says I *have* to stay in the JDC after all? What if I have to go a foster home with people I don't even *know*? What if I never see Pop Haly or Mr. Wayne or Alfred ever again? Dick felt a little surprised that the thought of never seeing Bruce Wayne or Alfred again made him feel so sad. He'd been so scared and lonely for so long, and the few days he'd spent with them had seemed so comforting, almost as if he'd arrived home.

It had made his return to the JDC all the more painful. Dick turned and looked over his shoulder. Alfred gave him an encouraging smile; Pop looked sadly at him, but managed a smile nevertheless. Wayne just looked at him intently, then suddenly his mouth quirked unexpectedly in his half-smile. That suddenly seemed to fill Dick with the courage to face whatever fate had in store for him.

Why did Mr. Wayne just seem to inspire him so? Why was it Mr. Wayne to whom he kept turning to for approval? He didn't really know, but there was something about him. He just seemed to radiate strength . . . just like his Dad used to.

That was it! Even though Mr. Wayne and his Dad were almost nothing alike on the surface, underneath they were both exceptionally strong men, able to exude confidence. That's why Dick had never been afraid on the trapeze; his Dad's confidence just blazed outwards and enveloped him in its web. He was never afraid because he knew that his Dad would always be there to catch him. Mr. Wayne had the same aura surrounding him. Instinctively, Dick knew that if he went to live with Mr. Wayne, his new guardian would always be there for him.

Dick looked towards McEwan and the others. They were all dressed neatly for court; the boys were all wearing ties and Kat was wearing a lovely sweater and matching skirt. Ghoul looked like he was going to burst out of his sport jacket. His tie looked ridiculous on his huge neck. Montana and Jay Dee looked like themselves only cleaner. Jay Dee had even tied back his hair into a ponytail. McEwan wore his signature Gotham Knights leather jacket in lieu of something dressier. He still looked better than the other guys, thought Dick.

McEwan's warm brown eyes broke into a rakish smile, and he gave the younger boy a thumbs-up. Dick noticed that McEwan's arm was no longer in a cast. As if reading his mind, McEwan suddenly stretched and bent his formerly broken arm. Dick smiled back at him. He was really glad to see that his friends were all safe. He'd felt guilty that he'd caused them to jeopardize their lives when they went looking for him, but McEwan had laughed it off . . .

" . . . Hey, Dick, we got so used to lookin' after you, that we wouldn'ta a known what to do without you! Besides, that's what friends do, remember? We take care of each other . . . "

Dick suddenly felt warm and happy. No matter what happened, he had friends and family, people who loved him and cared what happened to him. What more could a kid ask for?

Judge DuBois' pronouncement almost came as a denouement. "Having considered all of the petitioners' arguments, this Court must take into consideration first and foremost what is best for the child in question. Therefore, this Court awards custody of Richard John Grayson to Mister Bruce Wayne of Gotham City. Mister Wayne, you are being afforded one of the most challenging duties that is the privilege of this Court to give . . . that of a parent. This means that the needs, both physically and emotionally, of this child are now your responsibility. I do not award this privilege lightly. Dick's testimony of his treatment and his personal feelings based on his brief stay at Wayne Manor decided it for me." She paused then addressed Pop Haly.

"Mister Haly, I can only commiserate with what you may deem to be a second loss; however, it is not the Court's desire to be either cruel or unfeeling in the handling of your petition. Mister Haly, as the child's godfather, you are awarded visitation privileges, the terms to be determined later." Judge DuBois gave a dramatic pause. "This Court is adjourned!"

"All rise!" As soon as the Judge exited the chambers, Alfred and Bruce reached across the railing and shook hands with Mary Margaret.

Pop Haly sat still a little longer, looking resigned and disappointed. Dr. Cunningham might not have been happy about Bruce Wayne's petition, but she knew she couldn't win against his vast resources; however, she fought like a wildcat in her determination to keep Dick away from the so-called *evil* clutches of the circus. She accused Haly of only wanting the boy for monetary gain. He looked up at Dick and reached across the railing to hug him closely.

"Dicky," Pop Haly said fiercely, "you know that no matter what, we'll *always* be family. If you *ever* need me, just call or write, and I'll be on the first plane to Gotham City. Promise me that you'll call me if you're unhappy . . . promise me."

"I will, Pop. I promise," Dick said, hugging the man he thought of as a grandfather, fearing that it could be for the last time.

Soon Dick was surrounded by well wishers. His circus family had been subdued by the fact that he wouldn't be coming home with them, but they were nevertheless happy for him that he'd become the ward of one of the world's wealthiest men. The Network came over and also wished him well. Kat hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. Dick blushed furiously and looked down at his feet in embarrassment.

"Well, Dick, I guess this it . . . you've got a new home, and we . . . well, we have to return to our *old* one!" McEwan said sardonically.

"The JDC! But Fingers, you helped me! You helped the police! Why do you have to go back? Mister Wayne can't you help them?" Dick looked at Wayne beseechingly.

"As a matter of fact, Mary Margaret here is *already* doing just that, aren't you, Mary Margaret?"

Mary Margaret smiled at her young client. "I most certainly am, Dick. Mister Wayne has decided that Wayne Enterprises has enough corporate lawyers on the payroll, so he's setting up a special division of the Wayne Foundation to serve as pro bono legal aide to the community." At Dick's uncomprehending look, she explained, "Free legal help." Dick's eyes shined with pride.

"That's great! Did you hear that, Fingers? Mary Margaret is gonna be your lawyer . . . and she's *really* good!" McEwan grinned at Dick's eager endorsement.

"I heard that all right, Dick, and believe me, the guys and I will take whatever help we can get to get out of JDC. Oh, one more thing. Mister Wayne is also going to offer us positions with Wayne Enterprises when we're all finally released." Wayne raised his eyebrow silently. McEwan cleared his throat. "Well, maybe not exactly with Wayne Enterprises, but we're gonna be setting up a youth center in the old neighborhood, to give kids an alternative to gangs." He smiled at Dick. "And because you're the guy who's largely responsible for it, I want you to have this to remember me by."

McEwan removed his Gotham Knights jacket and put it around Dick's shoulders. Dick's small frame looked lost inside it. Dick looked at McEwan horrified.

"Fingers, I can't take your jacket! It wouldn't be right!"

"I *want* you to have it, Dick . . . Please, it would make me real proud to know that you were wearing it. And don't worry, little Acrobat . . . you'll grow into it!" Dick threw his arms around McEwan's neck and held him tightly.

"I'm gonna *miss* you!"

"Hey, who says I'm going anywhere? Like I said . . . me and the guys are gonna be running a youth center in our old neighborhood. Who's to say you can't come visit us now and then?"

"Can I? Mister Wayne?" At Wayne's nod, Dick gave him a smile that lit up the gloomy courtroom. Everything was going to be all right after all.

****

Epilogue

As they drove up the long, winding road to Wayne Manor, Dick reflected on everything that had happened to him in the past few weeks. Despite the pain and tears, there had been moments of laughter and happiness, because there were people who loved him. Dick knew now that he wasn't alone.

Alfred pulled the limo up to the front door. He stepped out and opened the rear passenger door. Wayne emerged first. He was closely followed by the newest addition to Wayne Manor. Alfred quickly closed the limo doors then hurried up the front portico to the Manor. He reached the door before his employer was even halfway there.

As Wayne and Dick stepped through the front door, Alfred cleared his throat, then quite formally announced, "Welcome home, Master Dick!"

The End #### 12