Chapter 11: Endgame

Batman stood on the roof of Wayne Enterprises. He hadn't fired the grappling hook. He wasn't even seeing the magnificent cityscape before him. He simply stood. And he stared. And he tried to work out how he had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

He had won. It was that simple. The information network was shut down. The mole was discovered. A host of corrupt politicians and executives were forced to resign. Checkmate, Ra's. It was over and Batman had won.

So why did victory taste like ashes?

From Ra's al Ghul's point of view the Endgame would have played out like this:
Ulstarn failed to report in… Hmm.
Nethal failed to report in… Oh-Oh. He'd initiate contact with Gotham then.
The Chinatown base failed to respond… He'd call his puppets at City Hall, at WishStar, at Larraby Chemicals.
No one would take his call.
Then they'd hear the first news releases: Resignations. Everwood. Johanson. Brownley. Wickershaw. Feldman. One by one, all his puppets.
And finally… Selina's touch… the crate. Nethal shipped back to his masters in the same container that smuggled him in.

He had won. Batman had won…. So why did it taste like ashes?

Once they'd learned about the webcam, it was easy. Once they learned the underground network distributed their information through a website, it all became so easy.

It was an ingenious plan, typical of Ra's: A website for a seemingly innocent neighborhood association… Gotham's Chinatown, how picturesque… with a webcam trained on a random storefront, the curio shop… The arrangement of the merchandise in the window was a code. Subscribers to Ra's service were told how to decipher it: Display of a certain Noh mask meant the Gotham Stock Exchange, another was Who's Who, another the front page of the Gotham Times…. Next to the masks, the number of figurines directed the viewer to a specific page, name, or column… Prices, sale signs, everything displayed in the window had a meaning. It was brilliant. And it could be accessed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from anywhere. It was BRILLIANT… as long as no one knew what it was.

Once they'd learned it was a website, it all became simple.
Oracle hacked their server and implanted a virus that sent her the IP of any computer visiting three times in one week. It was thought this was necessary to avoid tagging casual visitors – as it happened, there were no casual visitors to this site.

Within a week they had a complete list of Ra's buyers. Bruce Wayne spent a day making sure the SuperCorps could survive the resignations before Batman spent the night delivering his ultimatum. By the time the D.A. opened the bulging envelope with a blazing bat insignia, she had fourteen voicemails from people listed inside it – all begging to cut a deal.

It was a victory. It was a total victory. So why did it taste like ashes?

The first thought was to go through Jack Drake. Drake Industries was almost as big as Wayne Enterprises, and its founder was perfectly credible as a potential buyer of Ra's information. Except since Ra's knew Bruce Wayne's secret, there was a better than even chance he knew Tim's. So Jack Drake was tainted. But the discussion brought Tim into the loop, and Tim had the solution. It was he, after all, who first identified the underground network. And he did it when the people some of his friends interned for had information they shouldn't logically have. One of those friends was Randy-Quad, working for his father…

"Randolph Larraby III, or as he likes to be thought of around the office, God Almighty," Tim quipped.

Bruce could've kicked himself - the plans from Larraby Chemicals! It was under his nose almost from the beginning. Dick's "contact," Nathan, supplied blueprints of the old Ace plant from Larraby Chemicals.

And Bruce just happened to have an invitation to another of Mrs. Ashton-Larraby's benefits sitting on his desk.

"What! Were all the good diseases taken?" Selina muttered when told they had to go to a fundraiser for Periodontal and Craniofacial Research.

"I will admit it's not one of the most pressing problems in the world," Bruce hedged.

"It's gum disease," she interrupted.

"Pretend she's a rogue who's M.O. is stupid parties and humor her, okay?"

"I will humor split personalities with a fate complex, photosynthetically-crazed ex-botanists, and even a masochist-enabler in tassels taking time out from her obsession with Psycho Clown to run off to Paris with my old boyfriend! But I will not humor that social climbing blue-hair trying to pass off citrines as canary diamonds at a benefit for gum disease!"

She relented of course. When Bruce's powers of persuasion were exhausted, Batman took over – and Batman, Selina would be the first to admit, didn't fight fair.

"I don't know how I let you talk me into this," she muttered as they entered the stuffy ballroom.

"Yes, you do," Bruce insisted through a frozen receiving-line smile, making his point with a playful, well-placed, pinch that make her squeak as she reached her hostess's hand.

"HEEY-llo, Mrs. Ashton-Larraby. Hello. So good to see you again."

Bruce then greeted Mrs. Ashton-Larraby and the two began chatting like the two biggest airheads on the social register, while Selina moved on to Mr. Larraby - Randolph Larraby III, who, like every other time she'd met him, seemed wholly incapable of making eye contact. He would greet her, chat about the weather, the theatre, the stock market, the traffic problems created by the new Gotham Plaza, Bruce's new plane, a line of software Wayne Enterprises was launching, and his own upcoming cruise to Alaska…all without once raising his eyes above her cleavage.

"You're gonna pay for that one, Lover," Selina assured Bruce at the first opportunity, referring to the pinch.

"Take your best shot, Kitten," he answered, "then I'll take mine. Meantime, let's do what we came for."

A short while later, Selina separated herself from the party and wandered onto the terrace. She appeared to contemplate the cityscape until – predictably – Randolph Larraby trotted out to follow her.

"I'll bet Bruce doesn't have a view like that," he began, "Wayne Manor is, what, all the way out in Bristol."
Having pointed across the river towards Bristol, Larraby's hand should have returned to its side, but it came to rest instead on Selina's shoulder.

"You know what else Bruce doesn't have?" Selina said sweetly. "A wife."

She slipped away, leaving Larraby alone on the terrace—or so he thought. But as he turned to rejoin the party, he found his way blocked by a huge mass of black.

"You're buying dirty information," Batman growled. "You'll tell me. You'll tell me everything you know about this network. Or there'll be consequences… for you, for your business, your personal fortune, your position in society - not to mention your health."

Larraby spilled. The whole thing: about the Chinatown shop, the webcam, how the information was distributed.

A total victory.

So why did it feel so much like defeat?

Ulstarn, Ra's al Ghul's neurotic mess of a lieutenant. He'd reacted exactly as Batman expected. Already paranoid about the sixth man removed from his charge, he'd imagined his rival's scheming in the most trivial occurrences. It took only the lightest touch to set him off. When his obsessive fears boiled over, Ulstarn went to confront his antagonist. Batman followed him straight to Nethal… the missing sixth man was located at last.

Batman had feared he might have to step in if he was to benefit from the discovery: he didn't want Ulstarn killing this guy. Fortunately, like most paranoids, Ulstarn was cowardly and passive-aggressive. He didn't have the gumption to strike at his rival in any meaningful way. He only played games with the lights, killing the power, and broke a window, probably by tossing a rock with some poorly worded threats.

It ended. Ulstarn left. And Batman was free to follow Nethal.

And follow he did. Followed him straight to Nightwing. Batman's heart broke as he lurked over a dark alley and listened. Nethal was Nathan, Dick's wonderful new source. Grayson Associates's ace in the hole was an agent of Ra's al Ghul.

The next day when Bruce told him, Dick's reaction was just as predictable as Ulstarn's:

"I don't believe you're doing this! Christ, Bruce, this is so TYPICAL of you! You never give me any credit! I'm doing well, I'm making a name for myself in your precious city, so it just has to be a setup, is that it? From Ra's al Ghul, no less!"

"Ra's is very subtle, Dick; he's a master manipulator. I'm not surprised you didn't see what was happening."

"Oh, please. Not only is it a foregone conclusion that any success I have must be a sham, you're not surprised! Dick is a mark, but that's to be expected, is that it?"

Bruce was losing patience. Other than actually using the phrase "let me be my own man," Dick was completely reverting to behaviors that…

"Why can't you accept that I'm my own man now? WHY?"

"Dick! Enough." This was the breaking point. It was time for economy of language. Make him understand. "This is a setback. You're disappointed. Lashing out at me won't change the facts: You're being used, Richard. You're being used, and you won't see it."

It hurt. Like all the bat-family, Dick responded to hurt in one way: he quickly fashioned the deadliest weapon he could from whatever was handy and hurled it with brutal efficiency to cause maximum damage.

"'You're being used and you won't see it'," he mused, "Gee, Bruce, where have we heard THIS tune before in relation to the DEMON crowd?"

Batman's fiercest stare was the only answer.

"You can leave now," Dick said in tones that left no doubt how little he cared about Batman's ocular modes of expression.

"There is a line even you shouldn't cross," Batman's voice graveled.

"You crossed a line when you walked in here, Bruce. It's six feet behind you. You can cross it again on your way out."

Batman stood on the roof of Wayne Enterprises… He hadn't fired the grappling hook… He wasn't even seeing the cityscape before him. It had played out perfectly. Ulstarn led to Nethal, Nethal to Larraby, Larraby gave them the webcam, the webcam gave them the client list, the network was shut down, corrupt execs removed, and Ra's even had his nose tweaked in the inauspicious return of Nethal. A total victory. But it tasted like defeat.

©2002, Chris Dee

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Heard the Latest?
Bruce & Dick are at it again. Expect this and other
Gotham relationships to be dissected at length
in the next gossip-driven outing:
What's New Pussycat?
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