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A Hand in the Dark

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William-oh, her mistake, ‘Big Bill’, oh, please, this isn’t a cheap adventure novel-Dust can be described in many ways. Dove’s preferred one? Ratbag, not that she’d say that to his face. Even if it is true.

Today, though, she might have to come up with a new one-he’s…acquired…a boy. A scrawny, filthy boy with wide eyes and quick reflexes. Said reflexes are currently keeping him out of range of Dust’s sledgehammer of a fist, but he’s backing himself into a corner.

“What’s going on?” She’s out of the cab before it’s come to a complete stop. “Mister Dust, what is the meaning of this?” The boy looks from her to Dust and back again, clearly confused. “Never mind. I’ll take this. When I get back, you’d better have that money or Mister Cobblepot will have to come down here himself, do I make myself clear?”

She gets a derogatory snort, but she lets it slide in favor of beckoning the boy over. He comes, slowly and clearly frightened, and she shoes him into the cab.

Poor thing. He’s a mess-grimy and hollow-eyed and thin. No different than any of the street urchins, really, but it’s easy to forget how rough it can be until you’re staring one in the face.

“My name is Dove Marquis, I work for Mister Dust’s…employer.”

“The Penguin,” the boy mumbles, and that’s no Gotham accent. Shit, if Dust’s kidnapped a boy they’ll have to send him back, Cobblepot has his limits and kidnapping is one of them- “He said so.”

“That’s right. Do you have a name?”

“Richard Grayson, but ev’ryone calls me Dick.”

Grayson…where has she…oh. Oh. She remembers those headlines-six months back, a terrible accident.

Well. Supposedly. There were whispers…negligence, police failings…but for his sake, she hopes he buys into what the papers said.

“Good to meet you, Dick.” She gives him a smile and gets one back, a little wobbly, but there. “Where’d he pick you up, huh?”

“I ran away from the workhouse.”

She can’t blame the boy, really. She remembers the insides of those places well enough. Nobody lingers for long, not if they can help it.

“Well, let’s get you cleaned up a bit, get some food in you, and go from there. Sound good?”

“Why? What do you want?”

Well, at least he’s learned Life Lesson Number One: you don’t get something for nothing.

“At the moment? To make you into less of a mess.”

* * *

She hands him off to Olga, who takes one horrified look before marching him upstairs. Dove considers telling her not to drown him, but refrains. Olga’s formidable at the best of times-she used to work in body-snatching before Penguin hired her on-and there’s no reason for Dick to start panicking that she’ll do it out of spite.

Besides, Dove’s not entirely sure that near-miss with the strychnine was an accident. Mostly sure, but not entirely.

Dick is returned, a little wet, and with decidedly shorter hair, but unharmed and only minimally traumatized, about an hour later. Olga abandons him in the kitchen, muttering darkly about eels, and vanishes to the attic, feather duster in hand.

“Much better,” she says brightly, and he stares at her with the biggest, saddest eyes she’s ever seen on a human being. “That didn’t hurt…oh, really, stop it. You’re fine.”

“I think there was blood on those clippers.”

“Nonsense.” Truth. Olga lopped off part of somebody’s ear once. On purpose-the man made a smart remark. He doesn’t make them anymore. “You hungry?”

“You’re not gonna shove me in the oven for Penguin, right?”

“Where’d you get that idea?”

“Doesn’t ‘e eat people?”

“No…” Children. Children are a strange, strange set of creatures. “How’s about a scone, huh? They’re lemon.”

“’Kay.” He clambers into a chair and looks at the set of knives on the counter. “You’re sure ‘e doesn’t eat people?”

“Really sure.”

“Mister Dust says ‘e does.”

It’s a toss-up as to whether or not Cobblepot will laugh at that or go on a rampage.

“Just a scary story.” She slides a plate of scones over to him and puts the kettle on. “So how’d you give Matron Maeye the slip, huh?”

He grins and just like that, she can see a hint of the circus boy he’d been before-the show must go on.

“So there was a window that was too high for us ta reach, right? Jus’ a decorative one or somethin’…”

* * *

Penguin is less than enthused to find a nine-year-old boy in his house that afternoon. Well. For all of two minutes, until he has a Thought. Dove sees it hit him-the scowl turns pensive, and then it turns upside-down, and then it grows, the rather unsettling smile splitting his face like a Glasgow.

“How would you like to do some work for me, Mister Grayson?”

Dick doesn’t look thrilled, but he straightens his shoulders and lifts his chin and his voice only shakes a little when he says, “What kind?”

“Nothing serious. Just a little listening.”

“Listening?”

“Mm-hmm.” Gentle nodding, and the boss limps forward, lurching a little without his cane, and puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “That’s right. Just a little listening. You see, Mister Grayson, my position is a precarious one, and there’s always a vulture or two circling above me.”

“Um…”

“But you might be able to weed out those vultures if you just…hang about the shipyards and see what you pick up.”

“I can try.”

“Excellent.” He pats the boy’s head and moves towards his study. “Don’t worry about finding me, I’ll find you.”

Cobblepot has a lot of skills. Children-skills are not among them. Dove sighs and starts clearing the dishes.

“He won’t hurt you, chéri. Don’t worry.”

Dick doesn’t look convinced, but he brings his cup over to her anyway.

“What if there’s nothin’ to pick up?”

“Then there’s nothing. He’ll pay you regardless, honey. Yours to keep, not to hand over.”

“An’ ‘e’s not gonna eat me?”

Will he ever let that go?

“No. Now come along, your boss owes my boss money.”

THE END