If she didn’t know any better, Barbara would say that Gotham City had been planned, designed and built with the sole purpose of looking at its best when viewed from above in the twilight. She loved the city like anyone loved their home city: loyally and irrationally, but it definitely wasn’t flattered by bright sunlight, highlighting the ever changing landscape of litter and graffiti in all but the most upmarket of neighbourhoods. And the city’s population of architects had long been caught in the grip of an obsession with the gothic, placing far too much emphasis on intricately carved grotesques and overly grand rooftop designs that could only really be appreciated when the roofs are at eye level.
Preferably, she would add, being viewed as one swings past them at fifteen miles an hour. But she’d concede that might be a personal opinion. Everything looked better when viewed through the eyes of her Batgirl cowl as she flew over the city, just her and the wind rushing through her hair.
She wouldn’t be up here for long. Eventually she’d see something that would need the attention of Batgirl, and then she’d swing into kicking-butt, taking-names action, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the patrol while she was in it. Sometimes the patrol felt like the best part of the night.
“You look like you're having fun.”
There were only two people who could swing up behind her like that, matching her trajectory with the kind of ease and skill that would allow them to approach, instinctively falling into her blind spot so she wouldn't notice until they let them. Only one of those two people would then chat at her cheerfully like that.
Robin. Dick, Barbara reminded herself, the name still unfamiliar enough that it didn't attach itself to the voice the way “Robin” did. Dick Grayson, orphaned ward of billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne.
Robin, the Boy Wonder. Batman’s partner. That made more sense. Especially when, as now, he was swinging alongside Barbara - Batgirl – in her patrol over the city.
“A girl's allowed to have a bit of fun of an evening, Boy Wonder,” she told him lightly. “Where's your bigger, darker shadow tonight?”
“Off with the Justice League,” came the answer. “There's a thing on Mars. With robots. Or possibly one big robot. It'll be on the news tomorrow, probably.”
“The Justice League,” Barbara repeated back to him. One other thing she wasn't one hundred percent used to. Sure, she'd teamed up with Black Canary, and she thought nothing of partnering up with Batman and Robin, whose very existence is on the 'urban legend' level to those whose Dads weren't captains in the GCPD. But to think that right this second Batman was in space, rubbing shoulders with Goddesses and aliens and Superman... well, Barbara was going to have to get used to it, wasn't she?
“So it's just you and me, protecting the city?” Not that she had anything against Bruce, not now she knew the weight he carried on his shoulders, but Barbara allowed herself a second to feel glad about this. The one thing Robin brought to the venture was one of the things Barbara liked best about the work – he made it fun.
“Just you and me. Robin and Batgirl.”
“Batgirl and Robin sounds better, I think.”
Robin swung ahead of her quickly, letting go of his cable long enough to curl into a somersault in mid air above the city, something he did only for the second he was facing backwards towards her, sticking his tongue out like a petulant child.
“So what's with the croak, Pixie Boots?” Barbara continued. “Are you compensating for Batman's absence by trying his scary voice?”
“Oh yeah, like I could ever manage that voice,” Robin replied, and started laughing at his own joke. It was only the start of a laugh, however, as it rapidly degraded into a loud, very un-Batlike coughing fit.
With a tug on her wire, Barbara disconnected her grapple and swung to a halt on a rooftop, turning to look at Robin as he landed.
“Okay, Boy Wonder, what was that?”
“What?” The kid scratched the back of his neck, turning his masked gaze to the nearest gargoyle. “Just a cough.”
“Just a cough? You could have woken the neighbourhood with that cacophony.”
“So? I've got a cold.”
He was so evasive about it that Barbara's suspicions immediately rose, but she figured he was probably all right: a cold was just a cold.
“Anyway,” Robin continued, “at least I haven't got it as bad as Alfie. He's actually taken a sick day today. Alfie never takes sick days.”
“This doesn't really reassure me.”
Just below his mask, his nose wrinkled, and she worried he'd sneeze before he came out with a retort, except he was then interrupted by a buzzing noise from the region of his scaly short pants. Barbara could feel one questioning eyebrow raising at him, and was about to say something further about the lack of reassurance, but Robin had already whipped a small electronic device from somewhere under his cape. His costume didn't have visible pouches, like Barbara's own or even Bruce's, and the sentence on the tip of her tongue changed instead to something highly inappropriate about not wanting to know where he kept all his gadgetry.
Robin didn't give her the chance to say anything, his easy totally-well-and-not-sick-shut-up smile having vanished and replaced with something altogether more Battish.
“Robbery at the GNB on Fortieth and Dixon,” he said curtly, already racing towards the side of the building. Only has he was plummeting down the side, Barbara behind him, did he ask:
“Have you got your bike nearby?”
“A couple of blocks,” Barbara said, turning around and firing a grapple to the roof to slow their descent. “I could get to it in...”
Heaven knows how he'd managed it. Either Robin had a number of motorcycles stashed around the city for emergencies, or he'd deliberately engineered their rooftop jaunt to end on the building just above where he'd left his vehicle covered in a tarp, surrounded by trashbags.
Probably, she reflected, both. Be Prepared, like the world's weirdest Boy Scout.
Robin hopped onto the seat and Barbara swung up behind him At first, she tucked her hands under the seat in textbook form for a motorcycle passenger, but after a moment, thought better of it and wrapped them around his waist, leaning forward against his cape, her head close enough to his that she felt comfortable yelling at him above the roar of the engine.
“That gizmo’s new, isn’t it?”
“First field test Monday night,” he yelled back. “We’ve got you to thank for it! Your scanner doodad.”
Barbara’s ‘scanner doodad’ had been a miniaturized version of a police scanner, small and portable to fit into her utility belt, designed to vibrate on certain key phrases or with heavy use. She’d spent the best part of a week in her room, taking apart and redesigning a radio ‘borrowed’ from her Dad, and had only just managed to return it before worry gave way to actual suspicion.
“What did you do to it?”
“Tied it into the panic buttons in the major banks of the city! Direct hotline! No need to wait for the signal, we hear when the police do!”
Barbara thought that this was excellent news. Not only did it mean they could respond quicker to crimes, but it drastically reduced the chance she’d ever have to stand on the roof of the GCPD and act in front of her Dad.
“When do I get one?”
“Christmas is coming up! Have you been nice, Batgirl?”
He timed it perfectly, as before Barbara could answer, they were slipping into an alleyway off Dixon within clear sight of the bank. The GCPD hadn’t arrived on the scene yet - they really had managed to respond quickly, but Barbara had seen the lights on their approach.
“We’ve got about four minutes before the cops arrive”, she estimated.
“Let’s get it sorted before that, then,” Robin replied, and Barbara suddenly realised he was a disembodied voice, saying that, until she spied a flash of yellow by a grotesque above the bank’s door. Quickly, she fired a zip line up and followed him through a vent under a second floor window, into the air conditioning system and then down onto a vent in a first floor ceiling.
Barbara knew the layout of the inside of the bank because she once spent an afternoon cataloging blueprints in the GCPD archives. Robin, she assumed, didn’t have her particular quirk of memory, so he must have spent much longer memorizing bank layouts, to know which window let you in here.
She would believe that of him, as well. They were probably printed in the Weird Boy Scout Handbook.
Below them, on first floor of the bank, a robbery was in progress. The thieves must have turned up just before closing, threatened the tellers and forced them to lock up the telling floor as normal, before one of the staff could activate the panic button. Staff and security were huddled in the entrance way, guarded by two women, both holding shotguns, both in their late teens, possibly early twenties.
And neither, Barbara was surprised to realize, was wearing a mask. Even amateurs tried to cover their faces in some way, if they wanted to get away with the money afterwards. Not bothering to cover their faces meant that either these were the most reckless bank robbers she had even seen, or that they had no intention of letting their hostages go.
She glanced at Robin, and he met her eye with a grim look on his face. The same thing had occurred to him.
They didn’t say anything else to each other, and left the prisoners there, as they investigated further, following their vent until it opened out, just enough for the two of them to fit side by side, if they breathed in, and looked out into the darkened main hall of the bank, where two more girls were standing guard at the entrance to the vault, lit by the light coming behind them.
Barbara stared down at them. Same approximate age, same lack of masks, obviously the same gender. One was short, dark skinned, hair in a straightened bob, dressed in comfortable jeans and a tailored blouse. The other was white, her hair short and carefully styled, her dress and high heels more suitable for partying than bank robberies.
The shorter one was humming - actually, both of them were humming, but Barbara couldn’t recognise the tunes - if they were separate tunes, that was. A glance at Robin didn’t help much there, either. He was frowning hard when she looked over, but the frown quickly vanished. He glanced up, over the hall.
The vent they were in didn’t go any further: it let out near the top of a wall, above a narrow plaster molding running all the way around the walls. Barbara glanced at them and sighed, drawing back into the vent next to Robin. Was it too much to ask that Gotham’s architects apply their notorious love of the grotesque to interior decoration, she thought? Apparently so.
The room scoped out, it just took a quick and quiet application of a screwdriver for Barbara to remove the cover from the exit. As she used a cable to lower the grate silently to the ground, Robin squeezed past her and dropped to the inch wide molding below them. Turning his feet parallel to the wall, so just the edge of each was holding his weight, he walked along the railing, far above the eyeline of the guards below. He might as well be strolling down the sidewalk, for all the ease he seemed to take with it.
That is, until suddenly one foot slipped from beneath him, and suddenly there was a yellow and green stone dropping into the hall.
What happened next happened in less than a second. Barbara threw herself out of the vent, somersaulting in the air to right herself and landing right next to Robin, who had also managed to land on his feet, but not with anything like his usual grace. Barbara wrapped her cape around him and they rolled together, automatically switching into motion to avoid the expected shower of bullets.
But no bullets came.
A single scream came from one of the robbers, and she raced towards the door, past Barbara and Robin. She was followed close behind by her companion and then two more sets of footsteps. Barbara looked up in time to see all four women run out, and through the door, the original two guards followed, making six in total.
“Wait!” she called after them, but was kept from given chase by Robin. Or rather, by the lack of Robin at her immediate side. When Barbara turned to him, she found him slumped against the wall, what was visible of his face white with shock.
He hadn’t made it to his feet after his fall.
“Go!” he said quickly, his breath short through his teeth.
Barbara didn’t need another thought: the cops would arrive at any moment, and they couldn’t find him there. She wrapped her arm under his shoulder and hauled him up to her.He tried to protest, weakly, but she ignored him, firing a grapple back up to their vent.
Back in the alley by the bank, they had a second in the dark to inspect the damage. Robin had landed just slightly off after his fall; she couldn’t find anything broken, but his ankle had been twisted nastily, and was refusing to take his weight.
“It’ll be okay...” Robin was saying, and Barbara was inclined to agree.
“Only if you rest the heck out of it now,” she said, and helped him up and onto the back of his own motorcycle. “I don’t need to ask if you have a Bat-ice pack back in the cave, do I?”
He grinned at her. “Actually I call them Bat-cold-packs.”
“Yeah yeah.” He was behind her, so she put the eye roll into her voice for him to hear. “You know this wouldn’t happen if those pixie boots had ankle support, Boy Blunder.”
Hospitals were out of the question, so Barbara turned the Batcycle towards the Batcave.She officially knew two entrances to the Cave by now, but now she knew where the cave was, a few days ago she worked out that one of the original sewer pipelines must open out under there somewhere. She hadn’t tested this idea yet, and went for the old Carmine Tunnel. Closed down by the City decades ago, the tunnel looked like it ended in a landfall just a few yards in, but take the right turns, remember which rock is just a well hung curtain, and you could ride right down into the cave under Wayne Manor.
(Wayne Manor. Again, Barbara tested the thought in her mind. Yep, still getting used to that.)
If the name was still new enough to seem strange, the Cave at least was becoming familiar territory. Occasionally a case that she’d be working on with Batman and Robin would come up on a dead end, or produce some piece of evidence that would require closer examination, and they’d all come back for a session in the part of the cave that doubled as a forensic lab. There were training sessions, too, usually just Barbara and Robin in what she cannot stop thinking of as Batman’s Very Special Playroom. Their playdates included live bullets.
This was the first time Barbara had come in here to use the medical facilities, though. The first time she had ridden in with Robin’s hands tight around her waist, squeezing her uncomfortably when his ankle twinged. As she brought the Batcycle to a halt, he sneezed loudly, a noise that ended in a squeak of pain he only partially succeeded in suppressing. Barbara didn’t mention it as she helped him off the back. He shook her off, however, when she tried to help him walk, and stubbornly limped the rest of the way.
Naturally, the Batcave was fully equipped. There was even a cot set up in a corner for emergencies just like this. When sitting on it, Robin leaned forward to pull off his boot, and paused on his way down.
“Whooo boy,” he said. “Haven’t had a headrush like that in a while.” Barbara gently pushed at him so he was lying down on the cot, and removed his boot herself.
“It’s not broken,” she said, and heard him sigh in relief. “It’s a pretty bad sprain, though.”
Below a drawer of bandages and another of organised pill bottles, Barbara found a small freezer dedicated to the storage of ice packs and...
“For burning the midnight oil after Alfie’s gone to bed.”
Barbara gave the invalid a pint of Neapolitan and a spoon as she bandaged the swelling on his ankle using an ascending spica pattern, wrapping an ice pack between the layers.
“You’ve done this before,” Robin remarked between spoonfuls.
“Not once,” she answered. “But I have read medical textbooks. Photographic memories are useful sometimes.”
“Batman says eidetic memories don’t exist,” Robin said conversationally, passing a pillow from behind him to Barbara, who used it to prop up his ankle. “Says he’s only known one person to have a real photographic memory, and he’s an alien.”
Barbara shrugged, not exactly sure whether she should be angry at this. “Batman is full of opinions about what I can and can’t do. Here.”
She swapped the ice cream for an antiinflammatory and a carton of juice, which Robin obediently downed without protest. Something about this whole scene made him seem very young to Barbara.Sometimes she forgot he was only just out of middle school. After further thought and further rummaging, she added a vitamin C tablet and a decongestant to his little cocktail.
“He also says there isn’t a thing you couldn’t do if you wanted,” Robin said lightly, the weight of his words somewhat diminished by the almighty sneeze that followed them, echoing through the cave and sending a flurry of bats off their perches far above the two of them.
Barbara pretended it meant nothing to her. “Well what I want to do right now,” she said, “is to find those bank robbers from today, and stop them before they try again.”
Robin was thinking the same thing. “You better take the Batcycle back out,” he said. “If you patrol the major banks in the city you might be able to catch them again.”
“And leave you to start turning cartwheels and tear your ankle open? Not a chance, Boy Wonder. I’ll have to catch them from here.”
His head tilted heavily to one side, his eyemask twisting as he raised an eyebrow. “How are you going to do that?”
Barbara shook her head sadly. “Call yourself a Detective?”
The nearest thing to a wall in this huge echoey cavern was the centerpiece of the entire cave: a wall of computer screens bigger in area than any one of the walls in Barbara’s house. The chair in the center of the setup was high backed, leather lined, and perfectly ergonomically designed for someone nearly a foot taller and one hundred pounds heavier than Barbara. And it wasn’t even adjustable.She curled her legs up underneath her and fired up the Batcomputer.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” That was Robin, still back on the cot.
“It’s a computer, Pixie Boots. I always know what I’m doing with these things.”
It wasn’t exactly the truest thing she could have said at that moment. Not compared to what she was thinking, which was No, but when has not knowing what I’m doing ever stopped me in this business? Sometimes you just have to throw yourself off the building and wing it all the way down.
Majoring in Computer Science, Barbara had studied systems and set ups and machines from around the world. She’d anonymously submitted improvements to a new retrieval system being developed in Tokyo. She’d gone on a field trip to London and operated the newly finished reconstruction of Babbage’s Analytical Engine. She honestly and immodestly believed that computers could no longer surprise her.
She had never seen anything like the Batcomputer before.
It took a couple of attempts just to log on: Obviously anyone who came down here without Batman’s permission usually wouldn’t be welcome cracking into his files, but after just a moment’s thought - and without asking Robin, on the principle of the thing - Barbara discovered that he’d set up a user account just for her:
“When was he planning to tell me about this?”
Robin had started to lie back on the cot, his voice now sounding kind of distant, even more nasally than before. Barbara looked around the back of her chair and saw his head jerk up, as if he’d caught it dropping forward. The poor kid was zoning out.
So she turned her own attention back to her work, exploring just what had opened up to her through this computer. Just a few moments digging pulled up the connection between the bank’s panic button and Robin’s beeper-me-whatsit, and through that connection she discovered she could access and pull up the footage recorded by the bank’s security cameras tonight. All six bank robbers had been unmasked, and all six faces had been caught on camera.
For what good that did. If Barbara hadn’t seen some of these faces with her own eyes, she would never have recognized the grainy blobs on the footage. As it is, even with her memory being what it was, she had no idea who these girls might be.
“Okay, we have got to get the GNB security cameras with a better resolution,” she said for Robin’s benefit. “I can’t do anything with these.”
“Can’t you clear up the fuzz?”” Robin asked, sounding as fuzzy as the pictures.”Enhance them or something? There’s facial recognition software on the...”
He bounded suddenly out of bed, landing lightly on his toes. It was a typically impressively agile move for a fraction of a second, then his ankle buckled and he yelped in pain, falling back on the cot again.
“Idiot,” Barbara snapped at him. “You could tear a ligament that way Just stay still, alright?”
Robin scowled and got back up, this time balancing on one leg. Bending that knee, he hopped into the air and turned over into a handstand, sticking his tongue out at her like he was four, rather than fourteen.
“Sit your butt back down, Boy Blunder,” Barbara said, unimpressed by this display. “You’ve got a sprained ankle, and what I strongly suspect is a rapidly approaching case of the ‘flu. There’s no one here to impress so quit it.”
Turning back to the computer, she muttered, loud enough for him to hear: “Should have got your shots, all three of you. Prepared for anything, my butt. You’d think Bruce Wayne would have health insurance...”
She was being petty, and she knew it, but she was feeling out of her depth over here,not to mention the fact that she was merrily working on Batman’s computer. Batgirl authorization or not, Barbara couldn’t shake the feeling that she was trespassing where she shouldn’t. The very fact of the Batgirl account meant he was almost certainly tracking her activity, and when she thought of that, it sent ice running up her spine. Barbara hated public and shared computers.
But for now, she had to concentrate on finding the girls. They had been all about the same age - maybe they knew each other through high school or college or something? Barbara disabled all the tracking software she could find on the computer and remotely logged into her account at the library. Last year, she’d visited a bunch of high schools in the Gotham area to give workshops on digital archiving, and as a bonus had managed to secure scans of a number of yearbooks for the last few years for the Gotham City Public Library. It didn’t seem much at the time, but it was information, and you could never get enough information.
She pulled up the scanned pages of class mugshots and started flipping through the images, comparing each photo with the bank robbers from earlier.
“You didn’t recognize any of the robbers, did you, Robin?”
There was a pause before he spoke, and Barbara imagined a slow, quiet shrug taking place in the gap.
“I dunno,” he said finally. “I guess they looked familiar, but I’m pretty sure it’s not from school. I know most of the girls at school.” He sniffed. “I dunno though. Golly, it’s hard to think. What did you put in those meds?”
“That’s not the drugs, Boy Whiner,” said Barbara. “That’s the ‘flu.”
She would have added more, except Just at that moment she recognized one of the girls. Jennifer Murdock - recent graduate of Gotham Heights High School. A violinist in the school orchestra, voted Most Likely to Play the Met, a reserve on the field hockey team. Barbara looked carefully through that yearbook, but found none of the other robbers in there with Ms. Murdock.
Pulling up the grainy footage from the cameras, Barbara quickly threw together a program that would cross check the other faces with the available image while she tried to follow this one lead.
“How about her, Robin?” she asked. “You recognise her at all?”
There was no answer from the cot. Thinking he might have dropped off for a healing nap, Barbara looked over towards him, only to find Robin hunched up on the cot, hugging his knees and staring at one pixie boot, and one bandaged foot.
“What?” The surprise hit Barbara’s voice before the concern, worrying her that she might sound more impatient than she wanted to. “Because I snapped at you? I’m sorry.”
She meant the apology, but would admit to being confused about needing it. They’d thrown worse insults at each other in the last few months. Maybe he was being super sensitive because of the ‘flu.
“No,” he said, after a heavy pause that made her wonder if he was going to answer at all.
“Because I called you Boy Whiner?”
He mumbled so low she could hardly pick it out: “...blunder.”
She’d kind of liked that name, herself. After glancing back at the computer, she reluctantly let it get on with its search, and left it to come and sit on the cot, next to him. As she did so, she pulled her cowl off her face, letting him see her properly.
“That’s not it.” She hazarded. “It’s because we’re stuck in here, isn’t it? I get that. I’d rather be out there, too.”
“You don’t,” he said shortly. “You don’t get that. You think it’s easy to sit still.”
She wouldn’t have called it easy, but it did make Barbara realize something about Robin - about Dick. Come to think of it, she’d never really got properly used to thinking of him as Dick. When Bruce let her into his secret, he took her to his parents’ grave, let her know the personal nature of his mission, made her take a vow.
Dick had always just come along with Bruce, in her mind. Batman was Bruce Wayne, so of course Robin was his ward Dick Grayson. But Barbara had never really thought about Dick Grayson a a person in his own right. She knew his history, of course, but she hadn’t made the effort to contextualize it. She’d never made the effort to get to know him.
It was stupid of her, she realized now. Unbelievably stupid.
She leaned over, and cheekily poked his good foot in the side of the arch, making him draw it back quickly.
“So what’s with the pixie boots, anyway?” she asked, as if there was nothing to do in the moment than make idle conversation. “I know it’s not for the protection and support they provide.”
Dick lifted that foot and poked her back, hitting her square in the palm with his big toe.
“Dexterity,” he said simply. “Rather be able to move it than have it trapped in armor. Anyway,” he added after a second, “my parents wore boots like this.”
“I remember them.”
His parents. John and Mary Grayson, aerialists with Haly’s Circus, murdered some years back by Tony Zucco, who would later die of a heart attack outside his own bar. She’d known about the accident when it happened: her Dad had been involved in the case. The Flying Graysons hadn’t exactly been a household name, but they’d been well known in the right circles, for pioneering a number of exciting and dangerous stunts. Dick himself, she remembered, had been the youngest performer to perform a quadruple flip in the United States.
“Never saw the show, sadly. But I did read the promotional material when they came to town. That’s why the yellow, then? Pretty sure you didn’t pick it because of how well it blends into the night.”
He looked up at her, and wrinkled his nose to acknowledge the insult, without answering it.
“So why Robin?” Barbara continued.
Dick finally managed a smile. “Mom called me that. ‘Cause I’m always bobbin’ along.”
Barbara always choked back a laugh, and Dick’s smile tightened into a self-deprecating smirk. “I was a kid, okay?”
It made sense, of course. The costume was his parents’ costume, his own. Not Batman’s. No wonder he got annoyed when people called him Batman’s junior buddy, or his son or whatever. Dick wasn’t trying to be a mini-Bat. He wasn’t just the good cop to Bruce’s bad, not just a partner in Bruce’s mission. He was an orphan himself, with a mission of his own.
Even out there, wearing a mask, he wasn’t hiding, he was being himself, a Flying Grayson.
And tonight, he couldn’t fly.
Just as Barbara was fishing for something else to say, there was a loud beep from the Batcomputer, and she bounded away from the cot in the middle of the conversation. The cross-checking of all the photographs had finished, and four of the six girls had been identified: three from two different high schools in the city, and one a freshman at Gotham U.
Behind here, Dick frowned at the clearer photos.
“You know, a couple of them do still look familiar...” then he broke off in a coughing fit.
Other than Dick’s vague memory, and apart from all having or working towards a high school education, Barbara still didn’t see any obvious connections. After reading what the yearbooks had to say about each of them, she left the computer again and opened the cupboard she’d found the juice and medicine in earlier. Just as she remembered, two tins of chicken soup had been stacked carefully against the side. she particularly liked the Post-It note that read in round, legible cursive: You’re never too busy to microwave soup. She followed that advice as she thought.
Even the two from the same high school were only there together for a year - when Bethany Knight, now a senior, was a freshman in Lin Park’s final year. Bethany had been a member of the Honours Society, but Lin didn’t seem to be involved in any formalised clubs. And this still did nothing to link either to any of the others.
She could look them up in the phone book, of course. Maybe she could leave Dick long enough to pay one of her named perps a home visit.
Barbara stared at the soup revolving around the microwave, trying not to imagine it calling her an idiot for not solving this case any quicker. But when the microwave binged, it was followed shortly afterwards by a louder, more urgent noise from the Batcomputer.
She looked over sharply: she hadn't left anything running that should come to an end and cause an alert like that. For a second Barbara expected to see a Paperclip in the corner. ("You look like you're chasing bank robbers. Do you want any help?")
What she saw wasn't that much better: a large Bat logo had appeared, under which was proclaimed: MATCH FOUND.
"Match where?" She wondered out loud, and as she was giving Dick soup at the time, he replied:
"It runs background searches for any search terms. Those names must have been in our records already. Guess they are repeat offenders." He winced when the soup was too hot, blew across the mug. "Funny, you'd think I'd remember a gang of girls like that."
"They're not showing up as offenders, Robin," Barbara said. "They're showing up as victims."
And there they were: Jennifer Murdock, Bethany Knight, Lin Park, Hannah Goldblum, Louisa Jones and Tatsu Kamei, all showing up in a total of three different cases over five years; all victims of one kidnapper, hypnotist, master criminal: Jervis Tetch, the Mad Hatter.
Barbara glared at the face on the screen above her, a mugshot taken on Tetch's last arrest, his thin hair plastered against his head with grease and the pressure of a recently removed stovepipe hat, the wearer squinting in the flash of the camera.
He controlled people. Made their actions not their own. Took away their ability to act for themselves. The thought of it made her wince. Barbara couldn't think of a worse crime.
"But Tetch is in Arkham, isn't he?" Barbara wondered out loud. "I remember Dad talking about it."
"Yeah," Dick confirmed. "Last year. I put him away myself. No way he should be out yet."
Just to be sure, Barbara pulled up the most recent records she could find for Arkham Asylum and searched the relevant newspapers. As far she could tell, Jervis Tetch was safely behind bars, where he belonged.
“Is he controlling them from the Asylum? Can he have got to them again?” She brought up the security footage and watched them again, as another, more important question occurred to her “Of all those victims, why them?”
“Hey.” Dick slurped his soup noisily and swallowed. “What was that song they were humming? It was driving me to distraction at the time.”
Barbara hummed it for him, remembering it note for note. As she did so, she watched Dick’s frown deepen.
“That’s where I remember it from,” he said. “I guess I didn’t make the connection before you said Hatter. He pumped music through hats to control people. That’s the tune.”
That would explain why only victims from certain exploits were included - Tetch varied his mind controlling devices and only twice had he been caught using music. Once the device used to kidnap had never been uncovered, which Barbara figured must have also been the same song. Tetch had piped the song through headphones and hats and used it to control his victims.
“But they weren’t wearing headphones,” she said out loud, thinking of the six girls from tonight.
“Maybe they were wearing tiny earpieces we couldn’t see,” Dick volunteered.
“No,” she said thoughtfully. “I don’t think so. The technology doesn’t really exist for that, yet.” Even the earpiece used in her cowl to talk to Batman and sometimes Alfred was big enough that she’d see it if someone was wearing neither hat nor mask, like the girls had been.
It was frustrating, to know who was behind it, but not how, or even why - unless Hatter was somehow engineering them to deliver the proceeds to him in Arkham. Barbara had run into Hatter once herself - for all his psychological and technological genius, she didn’t credit him with enough tactical sense to be masterminding crimes from Arkham. So what was going on.
She started digging for more information on the girls, and it hit her so suddenly she almost swore out loud.
“Of course,” she said, “how could we not see it?”
She brought up Lin Park’s college transcript and showed it to Dick. “A sudden decline in grades the the end of her first semester, followed by taking the second semester off and retaking. Quoted medical reasons.”
“So, look. Louisa Jones has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s on her school records because she was diagnosed as early as first grade and it was seriously affecting her childhood.”
“And you think that’s what happened to Lin?”
“Look, Dick.” Barbara switched back to the footage from the bank. “See the way Hannah Goldblum is biting her nails? And there - she sucks on her finger afterwards because it’s bleeding. She’s bitten it to the quick. And see those gloves Bethany is wearing?”
“Lots of criminals wear gloves, Batgirl.”
“Do many criminals scratch under them this often, Robin? And...” she was grasping at straws a little, but it made sense finally, “Tatsu has a loyalty card for CVS. Do you want to see how many cleaning products she’s bought in the last year?”
“You can find that out?” Dick leaned forward with interest before he caught himself getting distracted. “But what about Jennifer?”
“Oh Jennifer,” Barbara said dismissively. “Jennifer’s a musician.”
He gave her a blank look.
“Look, Boy Wonder,” she explained. “You ever have a song stuck in your head?”
“Yeah,” Dick says. “That stupid Jingle Bells variant for one. ‘Egg’ doesn’t even rhyme with ‘away...’ wait. You think this is what’s happening?”
Barbara nodded. “See, OCD has been time and again linked to the occurrence of pervasive and distracting earworms, sometimes completely out of the blue. And musicians are also known to get them worse than other people.”
Dick said nothing, but gave her his best skeptical look. She shrugged at him. “You got a better idea, Pixie Boots?”
“But if they’re just acting under the influence of songs in their head,” Dick said, “what happens if the earworm comes back?”
It was as if he’d summoned it: the buzzing from his belt accompanied by a louder siren from the computer. Barbara spun back in the chair and followed the alarm back to the second bank, where she was able to pull up the security camera footage.
“Could the computer always do that?” Dick asked.
“It probably couldn’t earlier. It can now,” she said.
The CCTV system in this bank was a little more upmarket than the last: this time there was sound, and they could hear the same six girls humming the same song.
“I think that they’re just making each other worse,” Dick suggested, and Barbara was inclined to agree. “Hey, Batgirl,” he added suddenly. “These are innocent victims. If the police try and stop them, someone could get seriously hurt.”
“Luckily,” she said, not looking up from her keyboard, “I know how to stop this.”
A few seconds later, she was triumphant: the Public Announcement system in the bank, and therefore the speakers in the Batcave, were filled with the energetic, unavoidable strains of Julius Fucik’s Entry of the Gladiators. On screen, the girls instantly broke their trances, and this time dropped their guns as they backed out and then ran.
Hearing a sound behind her, Barbara ducked, and felt Dick’s pillow thud harmlessly into the high back of her chair.
“Hey,” she protested, “at least it wasn’t Jingle Bells.”
EPILOGUE ONE - Gotham Academy of Music, Freshman dormitories. (And five other locations across Gotham City.)
Jeni had been humming the clown song all morning, and it was beginning to drive Bex crazy.
“If you don’t stop that, I’m going to break your bow, Jen,” Bex said, waving the mail threateningly in her roommate’s face. “I’m not kidding.”
“Sorry.” Jeni winced. She’d had a terrible night: some sort of sleepwalking ending up in a bank twice, and she’d slept terribly afterwards. The lack of sleep on top of her starting to remember, again, the kidnapping incident of Sophomore year had her watching the clock, waiting for 9 am so she could phone her therapist for a new appointment. A distraction - any distraction - was welcome. “Anything for me?”
“Yeah, actually.” Bex shot Jeni a toothsome grin and pulled out a flat square parcel from the pile of junk mail. “You’ve got a mysterious present.”
Jeni paled at the sight of it. There was no reason to be particularly suspicious, but unmarked gifts had been the problem the last time round. Bex’s smile immediately vanished. She hadn’t known Jeni for long, but she’d picked up that there was something in her roommate’s past that she didn’t want to talk about, and whatever was on her mind this morning, Bex figured it was related.
“You okay? Want me to call security?”
Jeni shook her head quickly. “No, no it’s probably nothing,” she said, and sat down on her bed with the envelope in hand. It flexed when she bent it - a thin, square paperback or a magazine of some sort. Bex sat down next to her, shuffling up so they were sitting hip to hip as Jeni tore it open.
It was a book of crossword puzzles..
A piece of yellow paper fell down to the girls’ feet and Bex scooped it up, smiling when she saw it. “Wow, Jen. Bet this is worth a fortune.”
The note was written in careful, round hand, with the black outline of a Bat drawn at the bottom. The rest of it merely said:
For the prevention of earworms.
EPILOGUE TWO - Star City.
The crash was resounding, and still left echoes ringing in the ear by the time a pair of green fluffy slippers shuffled into the kitchen, where they met little resistance from the coffee and mug remnants now awash over the linoleum. They were never quite the same color of green again, though.
“‘M goin’ to kill him,” Dinah muttered, through the blockages in her nose. “I’m going to get well, and I’m going to break every bone in his body.”
Oliver opened up his arms and wrapped her in half of the blanket draped over his shoulders, pulling her tight to him. She was still muttering: “Coming to space and infecting the lot of us. Greatest Detective my foot.”
He didn’t contradict her, just kissed the top of her forehead.
“Yeah, me too. Me too. Come to bed, Pretty Bird.”