Disclaimer: I do not own any part of the Batman universes. *Sigh*
The Penguin stared down his nose at me with an air of superiority. Some hired muscle had forced me to slouch into a fur settee that still stank like the animal it was made from. I was kept pinned down by one strong hand, while the man's boss sat opposite us with only an antique coffee table to separate me from that pointy smile.
I saw the powerful gleam of triumph in the Penguin's small, dark eyes. Overall, his appearance could almost be comical, but I knew this man wasn't a man to laugh at. His bejewelled and fleshy fingers rested upon a dangerous umbrella. In his other hand, he held my cane.
It was the only weapon I had, if it could even be called that.
Fighting or running was out of the question. I knew I was physically incapable of escape. My only choice seemed to be to comply.
"In fact, Miss Albright, you can see yourself as my guest here if you wish. Visit my gallery, peruse my library, just so long as you remember that you're not my guest," the Penguin sneered. "You're my bargaining chip."
I swallowed, even though my throat had gone completely dry. I felt my head begin to spin, the heat and the blood preying on my focus. Fainting wasn't an oddity to me, but I didn't want to, not here in front of this man.
The ordeals of the night proved too much for me, however. It was only when I woke up that I remembered reliving the events of the last few hours.
The graduation caps flew into the air like a flock of birds. A cheer ascended with them and then fell again as they came down. I couldn't help but smile, catching mine with one hand.
As my fellow law graduates began to disperse, I found myself mingling among the crowds, something I was usually averse to. I had to force myself to cling on to the edge of small conversations, listening and laughing even though I gave no input. That was my version of socializing. Some mistook me for reserved, perhaps even stuck-up, but that wasn't the case. Just standing around so many people made my lungs seize up.
I could perform speeches fine, I could speak out to defend a case with vehemence, but when it came to standard talking…I was definitely not a conversationalist.
An excellent example of this was when someone who I regularly attended the same lectures as turned and tried to chat.
"What are your plans for the summer…uh…" he trailed off as he realized he didn't know what to call me. He probably knew my work, my reputation and my GPA, but I would never have expected him to know my name.
"Becky," I told him.
"Right," he nodded awkwardly.
"I was…well, I mean, I was considering an impromptu holiday," I said, wondering if I would be judged for not immediately finding a job.
"You've got the money for that?" he laughed in disbelief.
"I've, you know… got some saved up and stuff," I swallowed.
The weak excuse for a conversation dissolved and he turned back to the others, probably assuming they were more interesting to talk to. Rightly so.
I disappeared after that, finding a place where I could change into more casual attire. I headed away from Gotham State University and caught the evening train to the apartment block where I had resided for the past year. The landlord had thought that a splash of yellow paint on the concrete walls would cheer the place up.
The graffiti had murdered such a sweet idea.
Like on all of Gotham's street corners, suspicious character lurked in the shadows. It was only natural for me to avoid such places, taking the brightly lit route to my apartment. Even then, I was extremely conscious of my cane tapping on the pavement, my bag rustling against my brown overcoat. I listened for anyone following.
A strong flapping of wings startled me.
I flinched, keeping away and thinking, inexplicably, that it was a bat of some kind. It wasn't. The flapping had come from a bird, big and black.
Just outside the tower block, there was a desolate little courtyard with a dying tree at its centre. The bird settled in the tree and watched me with its liquid gaze. I breathed out, slightly relieved, but I didn't take my eyes off it.
It was a crow.
As I passed the dying tree, my cane lashed out and struck it. The crow squawked, ruffling up its dusky feathers. It refused to move.
I walked on, still watching it as it watched me.
The crow reminded me of something that I didn't like to be reminded of. Something I had moved home to escape from.
After I had shut myself inside the old-fashioned elevator, I felt slightly safer. The journey up to the fourth floor calmed me down. Stepping out on to the open walkway, I spotted another shady character lingering nearby. This one was a neighbour. I had come to feel that, after staying in this tower block for long enough, I had become a part of a strange and unspoken community. I knew I would never be troubled here, not by the other residents.
I kept my business and they kept theirs.
I couldn't help but peer over the edge of the balcony, to see if the bird was still in the tree. It was, until I locked eyes with it, and then it launched itself into the air.
A strange feeling wormed its way into my stomach.
Pulling a simple brass key from my pocket, I unlocked my apartment door and shut it behind me. I didn't bother to draw the bolt across. I didn't bother to flick the lights on either, but if I had, it would've illuminated a small but homely little place with a ridiculously thick carpet. There was plenty of stuff crammed into this apartment, but it was all neatly arranged and organized.
I discarded my bag and cane, before switching on the laptop that rested on my desk. It was quite possibly the most expensive thing I owned.
Its bluish light filled half of the room, casting eerie shadows into the corners and off the walls. I wasn't scared of the dark, though. There was nothing in this place other than myself.
That was what I thought.
Tapping away, I wrote an e-mail to my mother announcing my graduation. I didn't expect a reply for the next five months. Anything sooner would've been peculiar.
I stared at my blank screen for a long time after that, a familiar idea gnawing at my resolve. What I did next, I probably shouldn't have done, but I couldn't resist. Who was there to judge me? My fingers danced over the keyboard, typing in a familiar link. Following the Masks.
That was the name of the weblog I had begun following. It was run by a small, anonymous group of people who tried to keep track of Gotham's most notorious criminals. I had first come across the site last year, joining thousands of Gotham citizens who were concerned for their welfare. Although the heated debates over its articles could be highly amusing, it acted chiefly as a free, online newspaper which victims of certain super-villains' crimes could write for.
I had made my own contribution many months ago, posting a recount of the Greenvale Fear Epidemic…that was how people referred to it.
The memory of the bird outside flickered behind my eyes, and with it came the masked face of a scarecrow. The Scarecrow.
My cursor hovered over the section of the website dedicated to his many breakouts and previous plans. I had been following his actions for around a year. For personal safety, of course.
No, I told myself, crossing off the page and immediately shutting down my laptop. The lid was slammed shut and it cast my apartment into darkness. I sat there, staring at it, trying not to think until the whirring finally stopped.
That was when I heard the breathing.
It wasn't mine.
Fear and adrenaline shot up my damaged spine, bringing with them a familiar ache. My fingers reached for my cane, propped up against the desk.
I felt the intruder move more than I heard him. I managed to ram the end of my cane into his shin before my head was slammed forward on to the tabletop.
My attack had little effect.
Great splinters of light shattered my vision and when they left, my head was reeling and fizzing and unthinking. I didn't have time to recover before I was hauled from my chair and dragged towards the door. Physically, I was drained within moments of trying to defend myself. Any attempt to pull away and run would be utterly futile.
I hated being so powerless, but I had little choice other than to let myself be taken. I wouldn't have made it far without my cane, the cane which my attacker now held in his right hand.
He gripped me by my collar, as though he were carrying a mongrel pup from the scruff of the neck.
We left my apartment, the door closing behind us. I struggled feebly once more, even though I knew it was no use. Shouting for help wasn't an option. No one would come to my aid and I would just receive worse treatment from the man now towing me towards the old-fashioned elevator.
My head stopped spinning and I finally caught a decent glimpse of my assailant. He was a lackey, there was no doubt about it. Thickset and vertically challenged, he walked with a swinging gait and held a look in his eye which made it clear he had only one intention. Following an order.
Normally I would've been opposed to judging a stranger on their appearance, but for this one man I made an exception.
Stepping into the elevator, I tried to pull myself up straighter. Without my cane, however, I was sadly dependent on the lackey.
"What do you want with me?" I braved a question.
"I don't want nothing from you," said the man in deep baritone. "It's the boss who wants something from you."
"Who's your boss?"
"Well, you're just full of questions, ain't you?" smirked the man.
"I asked two," I mumbled.
All of a sudden, my face was being rammed into the elevator's rigid metal grating. The cold edges sank painfully into my skin.
"I know you're smart," spat the man holding me. "But don't try to be sharp with me, bitch, or it won't end well for you. Take the hint and shut the hell up."
My face was taken away from the metal grate, just as my capturer pulled it open once more. We had reached the ground level.
I did take the hint and remained silent as we crossed the soulless courtyard to the street beyond. If anyone was observing from the shadows of the poorly lit tower block, they didn't react. The crow from earlier was long gone. Even having its liquid black gaze on me would've felt like a witness to my case.
Parked illegally on the curb was a stereotypically black car. I could just make out the silhouette of a driver at the wheel. The door to the backseat was opened and I was forced inside. Immediately, I slid across the beige leather and tried to get out through the door opposite. My fingers fumbled with the handle, but it was to no avail. They had a locking system in the back.
I heard my capturer snigger as he climbed in after me. My cane was still in his possession.
"Don't think that'll work," he said. He tapped the headrest in front of him. "Drive."
The engine started up and with it came a rawer, more primal sense of fear. It pounded through my bloodstream, making my thoughts melt together. Outside, there had been options and space and time. Trapped in this car, I had none of those things. I forced myself to quell the rising waves of panic.
Idly tapping my cane, the man in the seat beside me seemed oblivious to my inner fright, the way my eyes flicked anxiously around me.
I tried to follow which directions we took, but the driver went on an obscure, roundabout route through parts of the city that I didn't recognize. At one particular junction, my capturer leaned over and shoved my head between my knees, so all I could see was the shadows in the footwell. I lost my sense of location.
"No peeking now, missy," said the man.
I couldn't have, even if it would've been useful. The man's hand was stronger than a vice over the base of my skull. The grimy orange streetlight stopped filtering into the car and so my vision was filled with black. Eventually, I heard the car's tyres hit gravel as opposed to tarmac. I was allowed to raise my head once again when we had finally arrived at our destination.
As I rubbed away the crick in my neck, my kidnapper stepped from the car and then went round to open the door on my side. The driver had kindly disabled the locking system.
"Get out," I was ordered. "No funny business."
"I need my cane," I argued. I could stand and walk without it for a short period of time, but the man in front of me didn't know that. There was a pause as he thought.
He stuck out his empty hand, reluctant to give me any kind of weapon, and I didn't have much choice but to grip his forearm.
The car drove away once my door was shut. I looked at my surroundings.
I was being taken towards a stately home, its architecture grand and classic and refined. The manor was illuminated by floodlights. Each of its windows glared yellow beams back into the night. Above me, the sky was pitch black. I figured we were on the very edge of the city.
I had nowhere to run to, even if I could have run.
A small flight of broad, stone steps disappeared underneath my feet and then the grand double doors to the residence split open. I was swallowed by the great yellow light on the other side, emerging into an opulent foyer. It was high and wide, complete with a crystal chandelier and twin, sweeping staircases.
I was led deeper into the manor house, passing more elegant furnishings and many henchmen that looked at me with a dark curiosity. My own wonderings were starting to get the better of me. Fear for the unknown summoned a million and one questions inside my head. I needed to know where we were going, why I was here, when I would be leaving.
At the end of my journey was a single room, large and grandiose like the rest of the house. It was here that I was made to sit on a horrid, animal-skin settee. The man who held my cane pinned my shoulder down from behind. That was all it took to stop me moving.
Moments later, the Penguin strolled into the room. With a maliciously smug expression and a sophisticated umbrella in his grasp, I recognized who he was instantly. There was no mistaking him. He tipped his hat in my direction.
"Welcome to my humble abode, Miss Albright," said the Penguin. The typically welcoming words came out nasty and sinister. "I've been planning to make your acquaintance for quite some time."
"What do you want with me?" I asked, folding my hands in my lap to steady their shaking. Like usual in these situations, the rational part of my brain was doing well to fight for supremacy. My question was coherent, even if my nerves were twitching. I knew they would need only the slightest inclination to move my whole body.
"You're part of my little plan," explained the Penguin. He decided to make his statement while perched on a matching settee in front of me, twirling his umbrella merrily on its tip. He turned slightly to address the lackey behind the sofa. "Say, my boy, what have you got there?"
"It's her cane, sir," the deep baritone voice had gone respectful in the presence of authority.
The Penguin gestured to it, the other man passing it over my head. After scrutinizing it against the light, the Penguin seemed satisfied that it held no secret weaponry and ordered the henchman to leave. His condescending glare returned to me.
Now the lackey had left, I could finally sit up straight, stretching out the ache in my spine.
"I'm certain, Miss Albright, that you'll want to hear the explanation for this," the Penguin began as the door shut. "Earlier this year, I hired the services of the Scarecrow, but he abandoned his work after making the absurd accusation that another of my scientists, who he worked with closely, was trying to mutate his DNA." The Penguin's mouth forced its way into a smile. I could tell the accusation he referred to wasn't as absurd as he made out. "Any attempt to reconcile the arrangement since then has failed, so I have resorted to this. To you, Miss Albright. You are my ace, so to speak. When the Scarecrow knows I have you, he'll come running."
The idea sounded so ridiculous, I almost laughed in surprise. My body suddenly felt exhausted and a faint pounding had begun against my brain. It resonated from where the man had slammed my forehead into my desk earlier. My breathing became rapid.
"You're wrong," I managed to say. "I don't have any influence over…the Scarecrow." It felt strange to say his name out loud. It had been in my head for the past year, but I hadn't uttered it since convincing the press to leave me alone.
"You can't tell me otherwise," insisted the Penguin. "I had to do a fair amount of enquiring, but eventually I found something. Rumours about an obsession with a fearless young woman."
I wasn't fearless, not by any stretch of the imagination. I was scared right now, sitting in this stranger's house with no way to escape and no chance of rescue. My mind reeled with possibilities, all leading to a dead end. My situation appeared hopeless, unless I could convince the Penguin how useless I was.
"The last time we met, he tried to kill me," I told him. "This plan of yours won't work."
"It will!" the Penguin spat suddenly, anger rising in his face. "You can't tell me otherwise!"
His sudden change in temper was only half registered by my spinning thoughts. I was about to pass out and I knew it.
"What do you expect from me?" I asked, breathless. The Penguin seemed completely unaware of my deteriorating condition.
"Just your co-operation," he said, slightly more composed. "In fact, Miss Albright, you can see yourself as my guest here if you wish. Visit my gallery, peruse my library, just so long as you remember that you're not my guest. You're my bargaining chip."
His voice only just made it past the loud thumping of my heart.
Then the world faded away and I heard nothing.