Gotham Central was heaving; I could barely see the main desk for the mob forming in front of it, from the aggressive hum of noise I could hear as I approached, it looked like they were all trying to make complaints or report crimes. Active officers were at an all-time low while arrests were at an all-time high, leaving more cops buried under paperwork than out on the streets.
Barbara had pulled some strings with her father to get a job behind the front desk three months ago, deciding that she wanted to be closer to the action in the hopes of obtaining additional information throughout the day. Jim was just happy for the extra help. Staff were resigning daily it seemed, and he had to spread officers thinly across various precincts.
Over the angry heads, I spotted Barb with a phone pressed between her shoulder and ear while she tried to type with both hands on her keyboard. She spotted me and gave a quick wave and a smile. It was still weird, being friends with her, she was my first love, at one time centre of my universe. My overriding goal was to keep her safe - even though she didn't need it. I'd never admitted it to her, but she was way tougher than me.
Bruce objected to our relationship at first, calling it a weakness to be exploited, but my determination won out when he saw Barbara and me, Batgirl and Robin, fighting side-by-side for the first time. He didn't admit it until years later, but he was in awe of our synchronicity. It was something we'd never lost, our ability to fight together, like a rhythm we just stepped back into whenever the situation arose.
After joining the Titans, and becoming their leader, my priorities shifted again, and I began to drift apart from Barbara and Bruce. The latter shifting into a sort of resentment which eventually pushed me to put aside the Robin identity for good and become Nightwing, the name of a Kryptonian God, suggested to me by Superman. It wasn't long before I was swept off my feet by an alien princess, crazy as it sounds. Kori, or Starfire to the rest of the world, opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities before leaving Earth for good to save her homeworld.
Her leaving brought me back to Gotham. Bruce invited me back to the mansion, where I lived with Bruce, Alfred and Jason. But an uncomfortable tension was brewing between Bruce and I. He was bossy, controlling, acting like I was still Robin, still his sidekick. We reached a boiling point. And the night we lost Jason, when we needed each other the most, I cracked. I said things, and he said things, things we were too proud to admit we regretted right away. I took my motorcycle and moved into an apartment on campus where I'd signed up to go to college. If I could go back to that night... Take back everything that was said, say I was sorry... I'd do it in a heartbeat.
Barbara popped out of a door to the right of the front desk; she'd been relieved while I was lost in thought. Shuffling her coat on, she grabbed me by the arm and led me to the staff exit.
"I wish you'd answer that phone once in a while," Barbara said, leading me down the stairs to the parking lot beneath the station.
"Good day at work?" I said with a grin, ignoring her remark.
"A nightmare, as usual," She replied, "I can barely keep up with all the reports, I was supposed to clock off an hour ago, but I couldn't get off the phone."
"The city is falling apart around us Barb, but we might just have a lead on this serial killer," I explained.
"Keep your voice down," She snapped, "Wait until we're in the car, this is a police station."
I put on an insulted look and gestured to zip my mouth shut as we strode the length of the parking lot to Barbara's car. The footwell of the passenger side wouldn't have looked out of place in my apartment, fast food wrappers and a couple of empty soda cans littered in the bottom.
"Don't say a word, I've seen what your place looks like," Barb growled before I could even mumble.
I sat down and fastened my belt, "Can I talk now, boss?"
She nodded, "Go on," And started the car.
I explained everything Bullock had told me about the kid witnessing the assault in the park, and the stolen phone which belonged to the victim.
"… And Bullock is going to give you the phone?" Barbara asked.
"Yeah, so that we can hack into it and find out who the victim is."
"Bullock could lose his job if he gets found out."
"It's worth the risk if it gets us closer to the killer. No one has even reported the poor girl missing, and if the kid was telling the truth, she was taken two weeks ago."
"That's how we ID'd the previous victims, right?" She asked me, turning the car out on to the street.
"Yeah, there wasn't a shred of evidence on the first two, their families had to identify them. Bullock thinks the brand is some kind of taunt."
"Do we know anything about the symbol?"
"Nothing, it's not religious, it doesn't belong to any known organisation, criminal or otherwise. It's just... a pattern I guess, in a circle," I explained, not giving the best description but it really was that simple.
"How does this guy go from clean murders with no witnesses or evidence to this?"
"My guess would be, he messed up, let's just hope the phone can give us something," I said with a shrug.
"Once we get to the cave I'll start setting up the program, do you know what kind of phone it is?"
"Bullock said an iPhone, didn't say what model," I told her.
"Should be easy enough to crack," She explained, "I'll test the software on my phone first and make sure it doesn't damage any of the files."
We drove out of the city limits towards Wayne Manor, Barbara explaining to me the whole way the intricacies of dealing with police admin work and petty crime reports. It was so enthralling that I nearly fell asleep, of course, Barb noticed right away and flicked me on the ear.
"Ouch," I said, rubbing the wound.
"Am I really that boring," She asked jokingly.
"You? No. Your story? Well..."
"Ha. I'll remember that next time you want to tell me what you learned in class."
I laughed awkwardly; she didn't know I'd dropped out of college. But she did know me, and when I was keeping something from her.
"What is it?" She asked, "You've been going to class, right?"
"I..." I began.
"Dick for god's sake, how long haven't you been going?"
"I never went back. After Crane," I admitted.
"That's why you've been avoiding me. Alfred and I asked you to come and live at the manor, and your excuse was that you needed to be closer to the campus!" She snapped.
"I'm sorry, I needed time to myself, the two of you were driving me crazy - begging me to put on the cowl."
The car halted suddenly, and Barbara turned to look at me venomously, "Only because you said you hadn't made up your mind! We would never force that responsibility on you if you said you didn't want it!"
"Oh yeah, and you don't think the city would be better off if I put on the mask? You don't think it's all my fault?"
"How can you ask me that? Of course, I don't blame this mess on you. It's all at the feet of Crane and those damned Owls," She insisted, placing a hand on mine, "If you need to stay at the apartment, if you think that's best, then I won't mention staying at the manor again."
"But, I can't believe I'm saying this, maybe you should invite Roy to stay again or something? Just for a little while, I don't think you're coping as well as you want us to think you are."
"I'm coping just fine," What did she know, "And I haven't heard from Roy since he arrived in Vegas. He's off the grid."
"What about Steph? It might help her training if you're under the same roof?"
"Drop it, Barb," I said coldly, "I'm here because I need your help with a case, just because I'm not going to class it doesn't mean I'm not coping."
"Then why did you drop out?" She pressed.
"Because my professor was a psychopath. Simple as that. He was a terrorist and a madman and it kind of tainted the whole experience if I'm perfectly honest."
Barbara started the car again and began to drive. She remained silent for a minute or so.
"OK, I'll drop it," She said finally.
"Thanks," I replied.
"If," She continued, "You promise that if you need to talk, you'll pick up the phone."
I nodded, "I promise."
Something was rattling as I sat to the large dinner table, Barb had her head buried in her laptop, but something was audible over the sound of tapping keys. Alfred entered the room with a tray of tea and biscuits; his hands were trembling.
Placing the tray down he handed me a cup and saucer and put one in front of Barbara who didn't look up from her laptop, her eyes darting back and forth as she hammered at the keys.
The old butler poured tea shakily into my cup, "Milk, Master Grayson?" He asked.
"It's alright, Alfred; I'll deal with it, why don't you sit down?" I said, pulling out a chair.
Alfred coughed and patted himself on the chest, "I appreciate the offer, but I really must get back to the kitchen, I'm in the middle of a stew."
"You don't sound so good, at least let me help you out?"
"With respect, sir, you'd just be in the way," He said with a smile before walking out of the door.
I tapped the back of Barb's laptop, and she looked up at me.
"How long has he been like that?" I asked.
"It came on a week, or so ago, I've had Leslie look him over, with protest of course. She said it's a chest infection, he's on antibiotics," Barb explained.
"Well as long as you're keeping an eye on him."
"I am, don't worry."
"Also, should he be preparing food?"
"He's been wearing a mask and gloves into the kitchen," She laughed, "He won't let me anywhere near."
"Sounds about right," I said, "How is Leslie? I haven't seen her since the funeral."
"She comes over for dinner a lot; she seems fine. But don't we all?" She sighed, the shifting to a more upbeat tone she said, "You know she went on a date with my dad?"
"No way," I said, "I didn't know your dad even had a social life."
"I think that's the problem, they had a great time according to her, but she can barely get him on the phone to arrange another date. I try not to bring it up when I see them though, feels a little icky."
"They have a lot in common, I guess," I thought aloud.
"Divorced workaholics with demanding professions," Barb said with a nod.
"I wonder if she'll make you call her 'mom'"
"Shut up," She laughed.
"What does your dad think about you staying here?" I asked.
"He thinks it's a little weird that Bruce Wayne needs a house sitter while he's travelling," She said with a shrug, "But he's happy to have me out of the city at night. If only he knew."
The night drew on, and the three of us sat down to eat Alfred's famous stew. The butler humorously sat at the far end of the table, which was a compromise for him insisting he'd eat in the study that Barb has dubbed his 'Quarantine Zone'.
We spent a while reminiscing about old times and telling stories about Bruce, which was nice because we'd struggled to talk about him in the past, but it was almost as if a fog was lifting and we were ready to remember the good times. Every now and again, Alfred would pause to let out raspy coughs; I couldn't help but feel I wasn't being told something. They'd treated me like a porcelain doll ever since Bruce's death.
Partly by my own self-isolation, and partly because Alfred and Barb acted like I was a child, I was starting to feel at a distance from them. I hoped as Barbara, and I made our way to the cave, that working together on the butcher case would bridge the gap again.
"Selina Kyle is back in Gotham?" Barb asked, shocked as the elevator to the cave juddered from side to side. Bruce had forced Selina to leave a few years ago in the aftermath of Jason's death, as the Joker seemed to be going after known associates of the Batman.
"Yep, and back to her old tricks," I explained, "But I think I've gotten her onside for the time being."
"The butcher case," Barb said, nodding with a knowing smile, "She's a lot of things, but if there's one thing she cares about, it's women being mistreated by men."
"That's what I'm counting on," I said, wobbling slightly as the elevator came to a hard stop, "The sooner we can catch this asshole the better."
The doors opened, and the lights in the cave flickered to life as we stepped into the sensors.
"You should have brought Steph with you," Barb said, "She'd benefit from shadowing us on this. How's her training going?"
"So so," I replied, "She gets the fighting side, and she's fearless. It's just the more delicate aspects we're having trouble with."
"She's just like her mentor then?" Barb jabbed.
"You are too funny..."
Barbara sat down in the main chair in front of the Batcomputer; I pulled one alongside her. She took out her phone and connected it to the central computer tower via USB. Typing something so fast I could barely see, a string of code appeared on the screen.
"This program should give us full access to the unencrypted partition of the phone, I'll test it by trying to get into the contacts first," Barb explained.
"So this would never be able to get into the information we store regarding our extracurricular activities?" I asked.
"In theory, no. I used military grade software with a few flourishes of my own to upgrade the phones. But this'll be a good test," With a few more strokes of the keyboard, a loading bar appeared on screen, "Once that's full we should have access to the phone."
"It's that easy?"
Barbara flashed a smile, "It's that easy."
What followed was a very long ten minutes. We watched eagerly as the blue bar crawled across the screen on its hands and knees. Neither of us spoke until the action had completed.
A list of contacts popped up onscreen including a few that I knew.
"How come you have Nate's number?" I asked in an accusatory tone, wondering why my buddy Nathan's number was in her phone, had she been checking up on me?
She laughed, "We work together now."
"Oh, of course," I replied, the facts clicking into place, Nate was an officer in the GCPD, assigned initially to Precinct 06. He was shot in the mass breakout at Arkham Asylum last year and had been assigned to desk work at Gotham Central upon his return to active duty.
"I'm not spying on you, Dick," Barbara insisted, "If I wanted to do that I'd just ask Steph."
"Sorry, I know, I'm just..."
"Maybe, I've not been getting a lot of sleep lately."
"Go and see Leslie if it's causing you trouble, she could prescribe you something."
"I'll think about it," I said, knowing full well that I wouldn't, I didn't need drugs, "At least we know the software works, I just need Bullock to get me that phone."
The bunks in the Batcave were more comfortable than I remembered, but I couldn't get any sleep. I tossed, turned and all manner of other squirming movements to try and find a position to drift off in the dark for hours before giving in and clambering to my feet. I pulled on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt and strolled to the vault, flicking through my phone as I did.
Batman's many suits were stood before me in glass cases, staring accusingly at me, the masks were expressionless, and yet they were speaking to me. Telling me I was to blame for Bruce's death and for the cancer spreading through Gotham. All I had to do was put on the mask, and it would fix the rot that had taken hold of the city.
The voices were growing, swelling, put on the suit. Put on the suit. PUT ON THE SUIT.
I punched the glass in front of me, then again, and again, and again until my hands were bloody and cracks had formed where my fists had pummelled the surface. A metal chair behind me became my weapon; I hurled it with full force at the partly broken glass which shattered.
The towering black suit lurched forward and fell from the alcove in the wall, landing face first on the ground. The voices stopped, I was alone again, sweating and panting as I stood over the suit.
But was I alone? I felt a prickle on the back of my neck and turned, a figure seemed to flash past the door to the vault. I gave chase and ran out into the main area of the cave. I looked left and right, up and down. There was no one there.
"Barbara?" I called out. Nothing. I called out again, "Alfred?" There was no response.
I ran over to the Batcomputer and hammered at the keys to open the security logs, a series of windows opened up showing all of the cameras within the cave including the ones in and outside the vault.
The camera within the vault showed me beating the glass case and smashing it with a chair. I thought for a moment about what Barbara would say when she saw it. I'd never hear the end of it. The camera outside the vault showed nothing. There was no one there.
I scrubbed the footage back and forth and noticed the image didn't change. I did it again to see if the footage hadn't just stalled. Once again, the picture didn't change; I never stepped out of the vault on video. I matched the timestamps exactly to my exit within the vault. The camera outside was broken.
"Who's there?" I shouted, spinning around and readying my fists.
Something dropped from above, a shroud of darkness. It struck me on the head, and that same darkness consumed me.
My head was spinning. I gasped and clutched my chest as if I'd just been revived from death. Barbara shot backwards as I sat up sharply. I was on the floor; Barb had been knelt over me.
"What the hell happened?!" She exclaimed, "Are you alright?"
"Someone was here, Barb," I explained breathlessly, "He dropped down from the..."
I looked around; I wasn't in front of the Batcomputer anymore. I was sat on the floor of the dojo; the assailant had moved me.
"Dick?" Barb said.
"I was in the vault, I chased him, and he knocked me out in front of the Batcomputer. He must have dragged me in here," I said, rubbing the back on my head where I'd been struck, surprisingly it no longer hurt.
"Dick, whoever he was, he wiped the security tapes," Barbara explained, "It looks like he stole a whole bunch of equipment."
"Miss Gordon," Alfred said, peering around the door, "I'm afraid our intruder was able to do serious damage to the contents of the vault before the fire suppression system activated."
"Damn it!" I exclaimed, pulling myself to my feet, "How the hell did someone get in here!"
Alfred stepped forward and reached out to give me something, "Your mobile phone, sir; it was on the floor by the computer."
"Thanks, Alfred," I said, taking it and looking it over. It wasn't damaged, but I had four missed calls and a voicemail from an encrypted number. The message, which I played out loud, was an expletive-laden rant from Bullock, insisting that I call him back right away.
Barbara and I ran out to the Batcomputer which had been tampered with to an extent we weren't yet sure of. She typed in the name of a security protocol, and several slamming noises followed, echoing through the cave and disturbing the bats who began to flutter around.
"I've locked down the cave, looks like the security measures are all still in place," Barb explained, clicking another item which brought up the live feed to the cameras, "The cameras have all been physically destroyed."
"I was looking for him on the cameras," I told her, "That's how he knew where they were."
"That doesn't explain how he did this," She said, pointing to the screen, "He's infected our mainframe with a virus."
"What kind of virus?" I asked.
"It's completely eradicated our back up drives; he must have known the security footage transfers to an off-site server, so he got rid of it."
"I didn't even know that, how the hell did he?"
"The virus was one of ours too, from Wayne Enterprises R&D department. It was developed for intelligence operations in order to isolate files to a single location; it erases backups so that information can be ransomed. We had a copy in the cave. He could have found that out from the computer archives and used it against us."
My head dropped into my hands, we were utterly unprepared, and now someone had compromised our entire operation.
"Whoever did this knows who we are," I said, falling back into a chair, "Did Bruce have a contingency plan?"
"There's only one I can think of that wouldn't have been on the Batcomputer. But Alfred and Bruce are the only ones who can initiate," Barbara explained.
"Well let's do it, and fast."
"There's a second 'cave' in the city that Bruce set up way back when he started out, we'd move operations to there, and this place would have to be dismantled entirely."
"The Ratcave," I said with a nod, "That's what Bruce called it. I only ever went to it once; it's under an apartment complex on Founder's Island. It has rats."
"Hence the creative nickname," Barbara sighed, "Suit up, we need to sweep and make sure our intruder isn't still here. Assuming we don't find him, I'll get Alfred to give us access to the 'Ratcave', and we can start tearing this place apart."
Whoever attacked the cave was gone. We spent the next eight hours combing every inch of the cave, finding nothing and jumping at shadows. When Barb finally released the lockdown, we'd decided to initiate the moving protocol. It would take several days to harvest the Batcomputer in its entirety and at least two weeks to completely seal off the cave.
Due to lack of space at the Ratcave, we would have to destroy most of the vehicles in the Batcave and bury the remains in concrete. The vault, dojo and other areas could be easily torn apart and scrapped without damaging the cave system itself.
I felt suddenly sentimental about the juddering elevator as I rose alone out of the cave. Barb had insisted she deal with the first phase of the protocol by herself while I returned Bullock's calls.
"You tell me to call you and then when I do you don't even pick up the goddamn phone," Bullock snarled.
"Have you got the phone?" I asked.
"What? When can you..."
"It was frickin stolen from evidence before I could get to it," He interrupted, "Some son of a bitch walked right through the door and walked out with it."
"The only people allowed in and out of that room are cops, I've got a goddamn traitor in my station."
"Do you know who?" I asked.
"I don't know yet, but I'm gonna find out."
He swore again as he hung up the phone. I felt like throwing mine against a wall.