STRIKE ZONE

 

            “Good morning, sir,” Alfred greeted Bruce Wayne as he walked into the breakfast nook.  “Another action-packed night for your alter ego?”

            “How’d you guess?”  Bruce asked as he dug into his scrambled eggs.

            “According to the Globe, ‘Dynamic Duo Stop Gang Brawl.’  That must’ve taken some doing.”

“Ever heard the story of the Hatfields and McCoys?”

“Weren’t they the very definition of ‘family feud’?”

“Exactly,” Bruce said.  “Around Gotham, their counterparts are the Blades and the Muggerz.”

Alfred frowned.  “Lovely names.”

“They crossed paths last night near the Industrial Avenue warehouses.  By the time Tim and I got over there, both sides were fully involved, but we only had to neutralize a few of them before word spread.  In five minutes the streets were clear, except for the ones who needed an ambulance.  The Blades had the upper hand, so it’s inevitable the Muggerz will try to get revenge, probably tonight.”

“Hopefully, the police can ensure that you won’t have to make a repeat appearance.”

“With those gangs?  That, my friend, is wishful thinking.”

 

Sadly, it was.  By the time Commissioner Gordon turned on the Bat-signal that evening, a tragic and unexpected escalation had occurred.

When Batman and Robin appeared on the police rooftop, their first words were, “The gangs again?”

Gordon looked as grim as the pair had ever seen him.  “And worse.  There’s been a massacre.  About an hour ago, a small army invaded the Blades’ territory.  They opened up on anything that moved with semiautomatics, shotguns, submachine guns….  Those kids didn’t stand a chance.”

“The Muggerz don’t have that kind of firepower,” Batman commented.

Gordon switched off the signal.  “I know.”

“Any survivors?” Robin asked.

“One sixteen year-old.  He’s on his way to Gotham General with bullet wounds in the arm and leg.”

“If it wasn’t the Muggerz,” Batman said, “then who?”

Referring to his notepad, Gordon replied, “The boy was able to give us a description of the man in charge of the raid.  Caucasian, six foot two and stocky, with closely cropped blond hair and a patch over his left eye.  Ring a bell?”

Batman nodded.  “Joey Visconti, Rupert Thorne’s enforcer.”

“Why would Thorne’s mob want to wipe out a teenage gang?” Robin wondered.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” Gordon answered.  “It’s not like the gangs pose a threat to his business, though they’ve been known to dabble in organized crime.”

Batman folded his arms.  “This kind of brazen attack isn’t Thorne’s style.  He wasn’t wiping out competition, he was sending a message.”

“To whom?” Gordon asked.  “And what, exactly, was he saying?”

“We’ll investigate,” Batman said.

“Thanks.”  The commissioner adjusted his glasses.  “My guys are getting nothing on the streets.  Nobody wants to talk, not even our usually chatty informants.”

Batman turned to leave.  “If I were you, I’d put a lot more officers on patrol tomorrow and get prepared.”

“For what?”

“A reply.”

 

That answer came twenty-four hours later.  Troops in paramilitary fatigues materialized out of the darkness to surround the Muggerz’ home turf.  Silently, they moved in and with precision killed every gang member they could find.  They pursued and eliminated those who fled.  When the slaughter was over, the commandoes boarded a line of gray vans and drove off without a trace.

Half a mile away, the phone rang in an idling limousine.

“Yes?” a gravelly voice answered.

“Done.  No loose ends.”

“Excellent.  I’ll meet you at the office.”  Hanging up, the passenger straightened his tie and looked at the driver.  “Back home.”

“Yes, sir.  Good news?”

“Very good.  After tonight, Rupert Thorne will think twice about moving in on Black Mask.”

 

“He did what?” Thorne yelled.  The mobster hated midnight wake-up calls, even more so when they were bad news.

“I’m serious, boss,” Joey Visconti said.  “They wiped out the entire gang.  If there’s a Mugger left alive, he’s hiding under his mama’s bed in the ‘burbs.”

“Dammit!  Who does that skull-in-a-three-piece think he is?”

“Boss, you wiped out the Blades.  What was he supposed to do?”

“Crawl back to the hole he came from, that’s what!” Thorne growled.  “The main reason I eliminated the Blades was to show him who the real power is in Gotham.”

“Apparently, he’s a little slow on the uptake.”

“He’s not slow, Joey, he just doesn’t think I’m any kind of threat.  We have to make him understand he’s bitten off more than he can chew.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Thorne thought for a moment.  “If he wants a fight, we’ll give him one.  Who’s the lawyer that did all those property deals for him?”

“Rodenstein?”

“Yeah.  Take care of him tonight...while he sleeps.”

“I’ll get my best guys right on it, Mr. Thorne.”

 

Less than thirty minutes after the murder of Amos Rodenstein, Black Mask retaliated by killing Thorne’s accountant.  A mob war was on.

Gordon put all officers on high alert and imposed a curfew for the rest of the night, with Mayor Brandenburg’s approval.  At four a.m., the Bat-signal flashed across the overcast sky.

Batman came alone this time.  “Long night for both of us.”

Gordon shook his head pessimistically.  “I thought we’d seen the last of these days a long time ago.”

“A battle-royale in the mob means trouble for the entire city.”

“Tell me about it.  Do you have anything on the connection with the gangs?”

“Yes,” Batman answered.  “You know the Blades and Muggerz have been at it for years.  As the Blades got more powerful, the Muggerz felt vulnerable and went looking for protection.”

“From Rupert Thorne.”

“For a hefty cut of the gang’s profits, Thorne agreed to back them up.”

Gordon nodded.  “They get muscle, Thorne gets another revenue stream.  Like a business acquisition.”

“Essentially.”

“Then the Blades saw what was going on and made a similar arrangement with Black Mask….”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t this how World War II got started?”

“It’s an apt comparison,” Batman said.

“Mind telling me how you learned all that?”

“It wouldn’t be admissible in court.”

“Of course.”  Gordon scratched his head.  “We’ll have to find another way to bring down Thorne and Black Mask.  If there is one.”

“There’s always a way, Commissioner.  Al Capone went to prison for tax evasion, not organized crime.”

 

With so many additional cops out in force, the mob violence subsided by daybreak.  After a quick trip home for a shower and breakfast, Gordon headed straight for the office of Gotham’s first African-American District Attorney, Mark Jackson.

“Morning, Jim,” the DA greeted him.  “I had a feeling you might stop by.”

Gordon unbuttoned his overcoat and sat down.  “How much hard stuff do you have on Rupert Thorne?”

“I got a lot of ‘stuff.’  Your boys are always good about sending evidence along, and Judge West knows we’ve been trying to build a case.  But I don’t have anything that’s gonna to convince him to make Thorne stand trial.”

“What about Black Mask?”

“Even less.”

“Let me throw a few new tidbits at you.”  Gordon relayed the information Batman had given him.

Jackson leaned back in his chair and sighed.  “Jim, you got my hopes up for a moment.  Then you had to spoil it with the ‘B’ word.  If only your source was an informant or a wiretap.  You know the minute I say Batman, Judge West is gonna show me the door.”

“Facts are still facts.  The gangs have become an arm of the mob, for all practical purposes.  That’s a huge expansion in the structure of organized crime.  If we can somehow link Thorne to the massacre of the Blades via his relationship with the Muggerz….”

Jackson’s eyes widened.  “We can get him on capital murder and conspiracy!  Now that would definitely send a message and help weaken this resurgent mob activity.  So, how do we do it--without Batman?”

“The one surviving Blade gave us a description of the man who led the operation.  If it wasn’t Joey Visconti, it was his twin.”

“I didn’t know there was a survivor, Jim.”

“We’re keeping it very hush-hush.  He’s under twenty-four hour guard at Gotham General.”

Nodding, Jackson said, “If he’ll agree to testify it was Visconti, I’ll file a felony complaint today.”

“That’s a huge ‘if,’ Mark.  From what I hear, his mother won’t even let him talk to our investigators.”

“I’ll make you a promise, Jim.  You get me that witness, and I’ll get you Thorne.”

 

Since the hospital was only two blocks from the DA’s office, Gordon decided to pay a visit to the young survivor of the Blades in hopes of getting his cooperation.  Flashing his badge to the two heavily armed officers outside the patient’s room, he slowly walked in.

Felipe Santiago was sitting up in bed watching cartoons and smiling.

“Felipe?  May I come in for a few minutes?”

“Are you a doctor?”

“No,” Gordon answered.

“Then pull up a chair.  I can use some company, but they won’t let nobody else in.  All I get are doctors and nurses.”

“You may not like me any better.  I’m a cop.”

Felipe stared at his visitor.  “I’ve seen you, on TV.  You’re the chief, right?”

“Commissioner James Gordon.”

“Whoa, El Queso Grande himself.  Not sure if that’s bad or good.”

“I’ll let you decide after I’m done.  How are you?”

The boy waved his hand back and forth.  “Okay, for being shot twice.  The docs say I can go home tomorrow.”

“I hear your mother isn’t letting you talk to my men.”

With a laugh, Felipe asked, “That filtered all the way up to you?  Yeah, Mama swears if I tell you guys anything, you’ll drag me off to jail for being in a gang.”

“Where is she?”

“Had to go back to work today.  Lucky for you.”

Gordon took some photos out of his pocket.  “On the night you were shot, you gave us a good description of the man who did it.  Look at these four pictures.  Do you see him?”

Felipe studied the mug shots, then handed them back.  “Maybe.”

“Maybe what?”

“Maybe I see him, maybe I don’t.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gordon asked gruffly.

“Uh, I’m feeling a little exposed, you could say.  If I ID this guy, he might come back and finish the job.”

“The reason I’m asking you to identify him is so we can put him away where he won’t hurt you or anybody else.”

“Go ask Tito or Paco.  They aren’t afraid.  They’ll ID him for you.”

“Felipe, I don’t know what your mother’s told you, but you’re the only one who survived the shooting.  Every other member of the Blades who was there is dead.”

Gordon’s word hit hard, and the young man began to cry.  Quickly, though, he dried his tears and put on a brave face.  “Mama didn’t say anything.  ‘Course, she wasn’t happy about me being in the Blades, and she definitely didn’t consider them my friends.”

“But you did.”

“Hell, yeah.  I didn’t have no friends in the neighborhood, except for Paco.  He introduced me to Tito and the others.”

“How long were you in?”

“Almost a year.  They accepted me and treated me like familia, ya know?”

“Is your father around?”

“Whoa, Chief.  Now you’re getting personal.  I haven’t seen my old man in six or seven years, and that’s fine with Mama and me.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.  What do you like to do in your free time?”

That drew a big grin from the boy.  “Beisbol.  Paco and me were on the team at our school.  He pitched, I played shortstop.”  He closed his eyes for a moment.  “I can’t believe he’s gone…they’re all gone.”

“Felipe, you have a golden opportunity to help us take down the people who murdered your friends.  Please.”

“What do you want me to do?”

Gordon handed him the pictures again.  “Tell me if you see the man who did it.”

“This one.  ‘Mr. Malo’ we were calling him before the shooting started.  Bad-looking dude.”

“His name’s Joey Visconti.  He works for an ever badder man named Rupert Thorne.”

Felipe frowned.  “If you know these dudes, why don’t you arrest ‘em?”

“There’s a thing called evidence, and Thorne’s mob is pretty good about not leaving much.  We don’t have anything to tie Visconti to the massacre.  Except for you.”

“You’re welcome.”

Standing up, Gordon said, “I appreciate your time.  I’ll probably be back again later with the DA.  He may have some questions of his own for you.”

“Uh, I don’t know about that, man.”

The commissioner smiled.  “Relax.  He’s not going to charge you with anything.  He’s got much bigger fish to fry.”

“Like that dude Visconti?”

“Yeah.”  As Gordon opened the door, he looked back.  “Tell your mother she has a very good son.”

Felipe nodded in satisfaction.  “You’re alright, Gordon,” he said softly.  “For a cop.”

 

Gordon returned with Jackson just after dinnertime.  The moment they walked in the room, Rosa Santiago tried to push them out.  Arms flailing and bracelets jingling, she shouted, “No!  No cops!  Vamos!”

“Mama, it’s alright.  That’s Commissioner Gordon.  He came by this morning.”

The spunky woman whirled around and wagged an accusatory finger at her son.  “Felipe Alonso Santiago!  You disobeyed your mama?  I told you, no talking to the cops.  They find a reason to put you in jail.  Aye, Madre de Dios!”

It’s okay, Mrs. Santiago,” Gordon said calmly.  “Your son is not in trouble.  In fact, he was very helpful when I talked to him earlier.”

She shook her head.  “I told him this would happen if he gets involved with that gang.  Do he listen to me?  Noooo.”

“Mrs. Santiago, I’m District Attorney Mark Jackson.  If I could talk to you and Felipe for a moment, I may be able to set your mind at ease about some things.”

“Call me Rosa,” she said hesitantly.  “And you have five minutes.  Then you get out.”

“Thank you, Rosa” Jackson said.  “What happened to Felipe and his friends was much more than a gang battle.  The gunmen are part of a large organized crime outfit.  The one Felipe identified for Commissioner Gordon is a known employee of mob boss Rupert Thorne, and being able to place him at the scene of the massacre is a huge piece of evidence in the case we’re building against Thorne.”

“So my Felipe is a hero?” Rosa wondered.

“I guess you could look at it that way.  But we need to ask one more favor from him…and you.”

Felipe gave Jackson a skeptical look.  “And that would be…?”

“Testify at a preliminary hearing that Visconti led the men who shot you and the other Blades.”

Raising his eyebrows, Felipe recoiled.  “Testify in court?  You mean, like, out in the open?”

“Yes, but it would only take a short time.  We just have to show the judge that there’s enough evidence to try Visconti and Thorne.”

“Then you’ll need me for the trial, right?  No way, man.  They nearly killed me once.  What do you think they’ll do if I show my face and rat on ‘em in court?”
            “We can offer you protection.”

Felipe sneered.  “I’m not going to school with a cop chained to my arm.  Thanks, but no thanks.”

Rosa scurried to the door and opened it.  “Out, out!  You heard Felipe.  He’s not gonna do it, and I’m not gonna let him do it.  Your five minutes are up.  Go!”

“Felipe, we really need your help,” Jackson said.  “Gotham needs your help.  You have the power to put Thorne and his thugs in prison, or force this city to endure more mob violence.”

“What about Paco and your other friends?” Gordon asked.  “Don’t you want to see them get justice?”

“What good is justice if you don’t live to enjoy it?  I got a second chance, man.  I want to get healthy and focus on baseball.  Coach says I got a good shot at getting a college scholarship.  I understand what you’re sayin’ about Paco.  I do.  But he’s gone.  Me testifying against those dudes won’t bring him back.  It’ll just get me dead, too.  Sorry, Chief.”

Deeply disappointed, Gordon reached into his pocket and pulled out a business card.  “Keep this,” he said to Felipe.  “If you change your mind, or maybe just want to talk, give me a call.  That’s my direct number.  No secretary or voice mail.”

Felipe saw the look of defeat in his eyes.  “Okay, Chief.  But don’t hold your breath waiting.”

The two lawmen nodded at Rosa on their way out.  “Good night,” Jackson said.  “Thanks for letting us talk to your son.”

“Don’t come back,” she said, shoving the door closed behind them.

 

As they walked to the hospital garage, Gordon asked, “What do we do now?”

Equally discouraged, Jackson answered, “Pray he changes his mind before the judge sets a hearing date.”

 

Thorne did not like being on the defensive.  Every time he made a move against Black Mask, greater retaliation followed.  And the body count continued to grow daily.

So far, no innocent civilians had been killed.  However, everyone at City Hall knew it was only a matter of time, and the pressure on Gordon and Jackson to make some major arrests grew stronger.

Two of Thorne’s hired guns got picked up after the particularly bloody execution of a banker with ties to Black Mask.  Bit by bit, the mob boss began wondering if he was losing the war.

As he nursed a glass of brandy and looked out at the moonlit skyline, he asked his enforcer, “How does he do it, Joey?  We don’t know his name, we don’t know where he gets his men.  How can someone that mysterious get so much power and use it so effectively?”

“Wish I knew, boss,” Visconti answered.  “You know, they say that’s his real face.  It isn’t a mask you can take off.”

“When do you think he’ll come for me?  That’s where these things always end up.”

“Don’t be so depressed.  You still got a lotta respect among the guys on the ground and the dockworkers.”

“Honor among thieves, eh?”

Visconti’s cell phone rang.  “Excuse me,” he told Thorne.  “Yeah.  What?  Where’d you hear that?  You’re sure he ain’t snowin’ you?  Fine.  No, that’s very helpful.  You tell him he earned his pay this week.  ‘Bye.”

“Some good news for a change?”

“Your snitch at police headquarters hit paydirt.  There was a survivor from the Blades.  Word is the DA’s filing charges against us and asking the punk to testify.”

“An eyewitness?  Must be, for them to keep the information so secret.”

“Boss, we shot anything that moved,” Visconti said nervously.  “Twice.”

Thorne gave a chuckle.  “Don’t worry, Joey.  You did your job.  Now I have another one for you.  Find out who the kid is and where he lives.”

“You want him eliminated?”

“With extreme prejudice.  I don’t care how you do it or who else gets hurt.  If we take away the DA’s witness, we take away his case.  Simple.”

 

Just before sunset two days later, a navy blue Lincoln slowly cruised down Crandall Avenue.  “There it is.  Three-eighteen,” a man in the back said to the driver.

“That brownstone?”

“Yeah.  Kid lives on the first floor, south corner,” another passenger said.  “Lights are on.  Good.”

The driver slowed down, then stopped in front of the building entrance.  Carrying AK-47s, the other two charged out and ran up to the corner windows.  Firing at point-blank range, they raked the apartment with a withering hail of bullets until both clips were empty.  Then they took Molotov cocktails from their overcoats, lit the wicks, and hurled them inside before scampering back to the car.

Doors shut, the driver sped away just as two balls of flame blasted from the broken windows.

 

When the call came in about a drive-by shooting and bombing, Gordon asked the dispatcher for the address.

“Three-eighteen Crandall, sir.”

“Oh, my Lord!”  A bitter, sick feeling rose in his stomach.  “I’m going down there, Sergeant.”

 

The fire was out by the time Gordon arrived.  Only wisps of smoke and steam drifted up from the charred south corner of the brownstone.  Firefighters were bringing out stretchers with the victims.

He walked up to Detective Renee Montoya.  “How bad is it?”

“So far, two dead and nine injured.  You think this was another mob hit?”

“I’d bet my retirement pay it was Thorne’s goons.”

Montoya’s radio crackled.  “This is Rescue One.  Over.”

“Go ahead, Rescue,” she replied.

“We’re bringing out another deceased, from the point of origin.”

“Roger that.”

Gordon stepped around the firehoses and equipment to wait for the gurney.  As the paramedics made their way down the stairs, he motioned for them to stop.

“This one’ll have to be identified by the ME, sir.  Badly burned female with multiple gunshot wounds.”

“I think I can tell you who she is.”  Gordon lifted up the sheet and saw two gold bracelets on the victim’s right arm.  He closed his eyes and turned away.  “Rosa Santiago.”

Montoya saw his reaction and walked over.  “Are you okay, Commissioner?”

“What do we know about the other two deceased?”

“African-American couple, lived in the apartment upstairs.  Is there someone you’re looking for?”

He pointed at the ambulance loading Rosa’s body.  “Her son.  Sixteen year-old Hispanic.”

“I don’t recall seeing anyone like that among the wounded.”

“I hope to God he wasn’t there.”

 

Felipe figured he’d get an earful from his mother for coming home so late.  Because it was his first day back at school, he met with the baseball coach after class to set up a strength and conditioning program.  He wanted to get back to 100% and miss as few games as possible.

When he turned the corner at the cross street, he saw two fire engines and half a dozen squad cars congregating outside his building, which was bathed in an unearthly flashing red glow.  He also saw the police barricade and neighborhood residents milling about.

Fearing the worst, he dropped his backpack and dashed towards home.  As he reached the barricade, he saw that his apartment was now a charred black hole adorned with yellow crime scene tape.  “NOOOOOOOO!!”

 

Gordon heard the pained scream and looked as Felipe pushed across the barrier and struggled to move past the guards.

One officer grabbed him by the collar.  “Hey, get back!  This is a restricted area.”

Lunging forward, the young man cried, “That’s my home!  Mama!  Mama!”

“Listen, you—”

Gordon intervened.  It’s okay, Lieutenant.  Let him through.”

Felipe tried to go up the walkway, but Gordon and Montoya gently held him back.  “Mama!  Mama’s in there!  I’ve got to save her!  Mama!”  He stopped struggling and collapsed in wrenching sobs.

The commissioner choked up and walked to his car.  He needed some time alone.

Montoya did what she could to console Felipe and motioned for one of the paramedics to assist.  She wondered why Gordon was taking the incident so hard.

 

In all his years of law enforcement, Gordon could recall only one case sadder than this night: the murder of young Bruce Wayne’s parents.  It vividly reminded him why he continued to dedicate his life to fighting crime: the sheer misery it caused its victims.

As he polished off the leftover coffee in the cupholder, his cell phone rang.

“Jim, I’m watching the news,” Mark Jackson said.  “What’s going on?”

“Thorne must’ve found out about Felipe Santiago somehow and put a hit on him.”

“Damn!  I got word a couple of hours ago that Judge West set a hearing date for Monday.”

“The boy’s alive, thank God, but they killed his mother.  One of my officers is with him right now.”

 

The paramedic had given Felipe a mild sedative, and it helped him regain some emotional control.  When he calmed, he found it easy to chat with Montoya, who treated him like a younger brother instead of a teenage troublemaker.

“Do you have any other relatives in the area?” she asked.

“Not in Gotham.  My aunt lives in Nueva York.  I guess I’ll have to live with her family.”

“That would be good.  Get away from here and the bad memories.”

“I hate to leave my school.  The coach really believes in me.  He thinks I might play in the majors someday.”

“Maybe your new coach will feel the same.”

“Have you ever worked with gangs, Officer Renee?”

“A little.  The ones who get out say it was the smartest thing they ever did.”

“I wish I’d never joined.  It’s cost me too much.”  He wiped away more tears.  “I’m gonna stick with baseball, no matter what.  I will become the best player I can be, for Mama.  That would really make her proud.”

 

Thorne was sitting in front of his TV, the remote in one hand and his phone in the other.  “Joey, from what I’m hearing, it looks like your men missed the boy.”

“Maybe he wasn’t home.  They definitely got his old lady.  Put enough lead in her to shield a nuclear reactor.  That might shut him up, if he’s still alive.”

“You’d better hope so, Joey, because if he doesn’t get the hint, you will have to finish the job yourself.”

 

Gordon returned to the crime scene and was surprised to see Felipe animatedly discussing baseball with Montoya.  He took the boy over to a squad car and leaned on the fender.  “I want you to know I am so sorry about your mother.  I feel absolutely terrible that this happened.”

Felipe looked down.  “Thanks.  You were serious when you said these are really bad dudes.  Why…why would they do that to Mama?”

“They were after you, to keep you from testifying against them.”

“But I wasn’t going to!”

“They didn’t know that.”

Panicked, Felipe asked, “How did they find me?  Nobody knew—I mean, you guys were keeping it a secret.”

“Obviously, we have a leak somewhere that needs to be found and fixed.”

“Too late.  They know who I am, man.  No matter where I go, they’ll follow me.  I’m cabrito meat!”

“Another reason why the DA and I want your testimony.  If we send them to prison, you won’t have to look over your shoulder at every turn.”

“I’d love to see those guys locked away to pay for what they did, but I’m scared.”

“Don’t let fear keep you from doing what’s right.”

“Sounds like something Mama would’ve said.”  The young man looked Gordon straight in the eyes.  “Tell you what.  If you can guarantee my safety a hundred percent, I’ll testify whenever and wherever you want.”

Gordon grew irritated.  “Felipe, there are no absolute guarantees in life.  We can keep you in a safehouse, where I’m certain you’ll be fine.”

“If they found where I live, they can find your so-called safehouse.  Especially since you got a ‘leak.’  No, you find me a place they have zero—ZERO—chance of getting into, or I’m not saying a word.  That’s my deal.  Take it or leave it.”

“You’re asking the impossible.  There isn’t a place like what you—wait a minute!  I just thought of something….”

 

“I don’t do babysitting, Commissioner,” Batman said, his windblown cape partially blocking the Bat-signal.

“I wouldn’t ask it of you if we weren’t so desperate.  Thorne wants him dead, and I can’t guarantee his safety because of that leak.”

“How long?”

“The judge scheduled the hearing for Monday.”

“Four days.”  Batman thought it over for a moment.  “Okay.  This once.”

“Thanks.  I know you want to nail Thorne as much as we do.”

“Where’s the kid now?”

“In my office,” Gordon answered.

“Meet me at the east side entrance in five minutes.”

“Will do.”

“About your leak.  You’ve got a dirty cop taking money from Thorne.”  With that, Batman leaped off the roof.

 

“Man, this is one cool ride,” Felipe exclaimed when he climbed into the Batmobile.

Gordon leaned over and looked at Batman.   “Are you saying one of my men is on Thorne’s payroll?”

Batman handed him a computer disk.  “Yes.  This tells you everything you need to know.”

“Thanks…I think.  See you Monday morning at the rendezvous point.”

Batman closed the canopy, and the car zoomed into the night.

Felipe said, “Awesome, four days with El Hombre Murcielago!”

The Dark Knight looked at him disapprovingly.  “Let’s get a few things straight.  The Batcave is not a resort, and I’m not a party host.  You aren’t a prisoner or a guest, so expect to be treated somewhere in between.  Robin has a video game console to help you pass the time.  If you get bored, and you probably will, I’ll be glad to bring you back here.  But ask yourself one thing: would I rather be bored or dead?  Now, put on that blindfold.”

Felipe did as he was asked.  “You don’t have to be such a sourball, dude.”

Batman switched on the comlink.  “Oracle, are you there?”

“Always.  Whatcha need?”

“We’re going to have…company for a few days.”

“Upstairs or downstairs?”

“Down.  You should probably keep a low profile.”

“My rent check bounced, and you’re kicking me out, huh?” she joked.  “No, I totally understand.”

“Tell Robin he’ll have someone to play Nintendo with.”

 

When the car came to halt, Batman told Felipe, “You can remove the blindfold.”

“Whoa!” was all the young man managed to say as he gazed around at the Batcave’s technological marvels.

“I’m Robin,” the Boy Wonder said, extended a hand in friendship.

“Felipe Santiago.”

“Felipe will be staying until Monday,” Batman explained.  “He’s a key witness testifying against Rupert Thorne, and Commissioner Gordon asked us to keep him safe in the meantime.”

“So someone finally had the courage to stand up to Thorne and his goons,” Robin said.  “Good for you.”

“They killed my mother tonight.  Gordon said they were after me.”

Robin gave him a pat on the shoulder.  “I’m really sorry.  I lost…a close relative to crime, too.  That’s kinda why I’m here.”

Batman said, “Take him down to level three, and show him his room.  I understand he likes baseball.  That should give you two something to talk about.”

Robin guided Felipe to a small elevator which quickly descended.  The doors opened to reveal a sparse, barely furnished white room.  To the left were a chair, sleeping bag, and television.  Off to the right, a toilet, shower, and sink.

“Kinda small,” Felipe commented.

“Batman probably told you we don’t have visitors.”

“Did he!  Dude needs to lighten up.”  Felipe walked around the room.  “How secure is it?”

“You’re two hundred feet underground.”  Robin pointed back to the elevator door.  “One way in, one way out.  Can’t get more secure than that.”

“Batman said you like video games.”

Robin shook his head.  “Nah.  I love video games.  I’m quite the gaming whiz, I should warn you.”

“That’s okay.  I’m unbeaten at Mountain King.  Ever played it?”

“Sure.  I’ve even got the Japanese Bonus Pack.”

Felipe’s jaw dropped.  “No way!  What else you got?”

Spring Training III.  He said you’re into baseball?”

Grinning, Felipe told him, “I play short on my high school team.  You’re looking at the next Cal Ripkin, Jr., man.”

Robin frowned.  “Cal was really good, but nobody beats Ozzie Smith.  Thirteen Gold Gloves, fifteen All-Star appearances, and a .978 fielding percentage.”

“Dude, Cal had nineteen All-Star games, Rookie of the Year, and a 98.5 per cent Hall of Fame vote….”

 

The “four day weekend,” as Robin called it, passed faster than either young man would’ve imagined.  They lived and breathed baseball, in the process forming a genuine friendship and mutual respect.  In another time and place, they might have been teammates.

On the streets of Gotham, though, there was no letup in the clash between Thorne and Black Mask.  Businesses were robbed, associates murdered, and warehouses torched.  The victims included Thorne’s favorite chef and the sister of Black Mask’s top lieutenant.  Neither side showed any intention of backing down.

Against the backdrop of continuing citywide violence, Felipe tried to prepare himself for his court appearance.  Not really sure how it would be, he had a final chat with Robin on Sunday night.  “When you’re out fighting baddies like the Joker, do you ever get scared?”

“A little bit, sometimes.  But not nearly as bad as I used to.  I guess I kinda know what to expect now.”

“I wish I did.”

Robin said, “You’ll get on the witness stand, and the DA will ask you questions about the night of the slaughter.  Just give brief, factual answers.  I know that’ll be hard for you with the guys who did it sitting twenty feet away.”

“No kidding.  Man, I can’t wait until it’s over.”

“Thought about what you’ll do next?”

Felipe shrugged his shoulders.  “Not much choice.  I’ll stay with Aunt Elena in Nueva York, go to a different school, and hopefully make their team.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

“Yeah,” Felipe said without enthusiasm.   “It won’t be the same playing without Paco.  He was the best.  We used to joke that when you batted against him, you entered The Strike Zone.  Nobody liked to face him because of what he could do to you.”

“A lot of criminals feel that way about Batman.”

Felipe chuckled.  “I can see why.”  Yawning, he added, “Well, I guess I should get to bed now.  He’s supposed to turn me over to Gordon around six a.m.  Way too early.”

“For Batman, that’s pretty late.  Guess it depends on your perspective.”  Robin walked to the elevator.  “It’s been neat getting to know you.  Hope I see you on the field one day.”

Felipe smiled.  “Me, too.”

 

Batman had the boy up, dressed, and in the Batmobile by 5:40.  As the car rocketed onto Gotham’s streets, he said, “Stay awake now.  Commissioner Gordon will give you something to eat, then get you ready for court.”

“Why do I have to wear a tie?”

“Because.”

Felipe rubbed his eyes.  “Where’s the meeting at?”

“In front of Blackgate Prison.”

“What?”

“Can you think of a less likely spot for Thorne’s men to hang out?”

“Good point.”

 

The earliest light of dawn was creeping over the horizon when the Batmobile met Gordon’s unmarked car outside the prison gates.

“How have you been, Felipe?” Gordon asked.

Doin’ good.  Me and Robin are like this now,” he answered, crossing his fingers.

Gordon ushered him into the car.  “I brought along someone to keep you company.”

“Hola, Felipe.”

“Officer Renee!”

Closing the door, Gordon turned to Batman.  “Thanks for the information on that disc.  I’ve suspended Sergeant Giles, and Internal Affairs is investigating.”

“Bank records don’t lie.”

“Once again, I’m in your debt.”

Batman pointed at Felipe.  “Just go the extra mile for him.  He’s learned from his mistakes and wants to get on the right track.”

“One way or another, we’ll make sure he’s looked after.”

 

Following breakfast at police headquarters, Felipe spent time with the DA working on his testimony.  At 8:45, he was back in the car with Gordon and Montoya for the trip to the courthouse.

Gordon entered the parking garage and drove to a reserved spot near the secured entrance.  “Jackson should be ready for you by the time we get upstairs.”

As Felipe got out of the car with Montoya, an officer approached them.  Smiling, he grabbed his service pistol, fired three shots into the boy, and sprinted away.

“Nooo!” Montoya screamed in disbelief.

“Stay with him and call for help,” Gordon yelled as he drew his revolver and took off in pursuit.

The gunman leaped over a security barrier and zigzagged between rows of cars, heading for the exit.  He paused long enough to take a shot at Gordon, but missed.

Gordon returned fire, hitting a concrete pillar as the man dashed by it.

The phony cop tried to wipe cement dust from his eyes and turned around for another try at Gordon.  He didn’t see the prison van entering the garage right behind him.

The impact knocked him under the van, which screeched to a halt and skidded into a parked Mercedes.  Scrambling out, the driver ran back to the body.  “Oh my God, I killed a cop!”

Gordon trotted up and holstered his gun.  “That’s no cop, mister.”  He turned the body over and was shocked.  “Gus Brownlow?  He works for Black Mask….”

 

Four officers and a physician responded to Montoya’s emergency call.  The doctor took one look at Felipe and the crimson pool surrounding him, then shook his head.  “There’s nothing I can do.  I’m sorry.”

Her own uniform covered with blood, Montoya tearfully nodded as she cradled the dying boy.  She finally found her voice and looked up at one of the officers.  “Somebody get word to the DA .”

 

In the third floor courtroom of Judge Henry West, the preliminary hearing was already underway.  Looking at Jackson, West said, “Counselor, you may proceed.”

“Your Honor, on the night of April 18th, a group of armed men conducted a military-style operation against the members of a street gang known as the Blades.  This operation resulted in the deaths of fifty-five gang members.  As detailed in the criminal complaint filed with the court, we intend to show that this operation was sanctioned by Mr. Rupert Thorne and carried out by his associate, Mr. Joseph ‘Joey’ Visconti.”

The accused mobsters sat impassively next to their attorneys and showed no reaction.

Jackson looked around the courtroom, but did not see Felipe.  “I intend to call as a witness the only surviving member of the Blades.  Due to a recent attempt on his life, he is being brought to court by a police escort, but they have not yet arrived.”

West looked down at him over the top of his glasses.  “Counselor, I assume the Gotham Police were informed of this hearing’s scheduled time?”

“Yes, Your Honor.”

A police sergeant entered the room and motioned to Jackson.

Seeing him, the DA said, “Please excuse me for a moment, Your Honor.  There seems to be a development.”  He rushed over and met the officer half way.

The sergeant whispered briefly in Jackson’s ear and handed him a note before leaving.

A shocked look covered Jackson’s face, and he choked back tears as he read the piece of paper.

“Counselor?  The court is waiting,” West said.

Jackson tried to gain his composure.  “Your Honor, I’ve just been informed that my witness was murdered in the parking garage by someone posing as a police officer.”

Gasps and murmurs spread through the courtroom.  Thorne turned and gave Visconti an inquisitive look.  Visconti shook his head and seemed just as surprised.

West banged his gavel.  “Order in the court.  That is most disturbing news, Counselor.  Would you like to request a postponement?”

“Permission to approach the bench?” Jackson asked.

“Granted.”  West leaned forward

Still shaken, Jackson said, “Your Honor, that eyewitness was the centerpiece of our case.  Without him, I’m not sure I can proceed right now.”

“I understand, Counselor.  You know that means I’ll have to dismiss your complaint.  In view of this development, however, I will leave you the option to refile in the future if evidence warrants.”

“Thank you, Your Honor.”

When Jackson returned to his table, West asked, “Will counsel for the accused please rise?  The prosecution has informed the court that it is unable to go forward with its case against the accused at this time due to the death of their witness.  Therefore, I must dismiss the prosecution’s complaint due to insufficient evidence.  It is so ordered.  The accused are free to go.”  West hit his gavel twice, signaling an end to the hearing.

 

Thorne was all smiles as he left the courthouse, still a free and unindicted man.

“Mr. Thorne, your reaction to the judge’s decision?” a reporter asked.

“It reaffirms my faith in the justice system.  Checks and balances on an overzealous prosecutor trying to score political points.”

“What about the boy who was killed?”

“I had nothing to do with that,” Thorne answered firmly.  “It was probably connected to this terrible rash of organized crime killings.”

A seething Gordon confronted him at the bottom of the steps.  “Proud of yourself, Thorne?  How convenient that a witness dies minutes before he’s supposed to testify against you.”

“Commissioner, neither I nor Mr. Visconti were involved in that tragic death.  Complete your investigation and you’ll see.”

“What I see is that you found a way to wriggle off the hook like the worm you are.  For now.”

Ignoring the taunt, Thorne and Visconti got into a waiting limousine and rode off.

 

“Are you positive it wasn’t any of your men?” Thorne asked Visconti.

“Absolutely.  We had no idea where the kid was.  It’s like the earth swallowed him up for four days, or something.  Boss, if one of my guys had known where he was gonna be and when, he’d have said so.  They don’t go Lone Ranger on me, that’s not how they work.”

“Then who did it?”

“I dunno.  I don’t guess it matters, really.  I mean, why look a gift horse in the mouth?”

“Because sometimes those gifts have strings attached.”

 

Gordon went back to his office, where Detective Lon Sawyer was waiting.  “Talk to me, Lon.”

“I pulled the jacket on your shooter.”  Sawyer handed him the file.  “You were right on the money.  Gus Brownlow, small-time triggerman.  Recruited by elements of Black Mask’s organization eighteen months ago.  No indication that he switched sides.”

“It doesn’t make sense.  If I’m Black Mask, I want Thorne out of the picture.  Killing a witness that could put him away is the last thing I’d do.”

“Especially with the way they’ve been going at each other.”

“Well, stay on it.  How’s Montoya?”

“She looks terrible but seems to be holding it together.  She’s keeping the boy’s body company until the next of kin arrive from New York.”

 

In Black Mask’s office, his top aide was finishing a phone call.  “Yes.  Thank you.”  Taking a deep breath, he pocketed his phone and turned around.  “The hit on the boy was successful.  However, the gunman died at the scene.”

“No matter,” Black Mask replied.  “He accomplished his mission.  Everything’s going according to plan.”

“With all due respect, I still don’t understand.  Why eliminate the boy?  His testimony might’ve sent Thorne to prison for years.”

“Despite all his posturing and menace, Rupert Thorne is weak.  He’s grown complacent and no longer holds the power he thinks he does.  Weak men, when indicted, tend to talk.  I can’t risk him turning state’s evidence against us to save his own skin.  Killing the boy provides leverage.  Now he owes me.”

“Very smart.”

“I’m calling a meeting to discuss terms.”

“Of a truce?”

“Of his surrender,” Black Mask said with a note of satisfaction.  “I want you to deliver a special message to him.”

 

Heavy rain showers moved in during the afternoon.  It made for a soggy, dreary night near the docks as Thorne’s limousine drove up to the back of a corrugated steel building once used as a cannery.

Thorne and two bodyguards emerged and were escorted inside by a man wearing a Kabuki mask.  Several of Black Mask’s troops, their faces also concealed, patrolled the deserted area looking for any sign of trouble.

They did not notice the eyes of the Dark Knight and Robin watching from the warehouse roof across the alleyway.

 

Thorne and his men were taken through a winding corridor to a sparse, well-lit room, where Black Mask sat behind a folding table.  Flanking him were his own pair of bodyguards, garbed in theatrical comedy and tragedy masks.

Thorne was told to sit at the table, opposite his foe.

“Thank you for coming, Rupert,” Black Mask said coldly.

“You got my attention,” Thorne replied, unnerved by the grinning black skull visage.

“If I had merely sent a note, you might have ignored me.”

“So you sent it with Visconti’s severed head.”

“It worked.  You’re here.”

“You mentioned a cease-fire in the letter,” Thorne said.

“Yes.  I did you a huge favor this morning by getting rid of the boy who was about to testify against you.”

A knot formed in Thorne’s stomach.  You don’t do favors.”

“You’re catching on.  There’s a price for my help, non-negotiable: a complete cessation of hostilities by everyone in your organization.”

Thorne realized he’d been outwitted, outmaneuvered, and set up.  “What if I refuse?”

“Your organization will be systematically wiped out, and sooner or later, you’ll end up like Visconti,” Black Mask said smugly.

Thorne felt a kind of fear he hadn’t known in years.

“In addition to the cease-fire, any other street gangs on your payroll will now work for me.  Any informants you have in the police, the unions, or at City Hall also become mine.  In short, Rupert, I own you.”

“Nobody owns me, Mask!  I should’ve sent my men to kill you, instead of those gang brats.”

“Too soon old and too late smart.  Now, to the matter at hand.”

One of the bodyguards shoved a paper in front of Thorne and gave him a pen.

Black Mask said, “This formalizes the agreement.  Sign your name where indicated, and our business will be concluded.”

Thorne balked.

“Sign it, and you’ll leave here untouched.  You have my word.  Don’t sign it, and you won’t leave here at all.”

To emphasize Black Mask’s point, his bodyguards aimed their semiautomatics at Thorne’s sweating head.

Realizing he had no choice but to comply, Thorne scribbled his name and flung the pen at Black Mask.  “You’re a vulture!”

A lookout stuck his head in the room.  “Mask, the Batman’s nosing around!”

Black Mask pocketed the signed document.  Like roaches in the light, he and his men vanished, leaving the thoroughly humbled Thorne behind.

“Sir, we need to get outta here, too,” one of his bodyguards said.

Thorne palmed a concealed pistol and looked at his men.  “Go check the rear entrance.  Make sure there aren’t any ‘bats’ in our way.  I’ll be right behind you.”

“No problem.”

Before he walked out, Thorne searched around the room for evidence he might use to even the score with Black Mask.  He came up empty, yet wasn’t surprised.  His opponent was nothing if not careful and thorough.

Retracing his steps, he hurried to get out of the building.  “Bobby?  Luke?  Where are you guys?  Is everything okay?”  When he got no answer, panic set in.

He found the back door and stepped out in the rain, only to see his guards had been neutralized.  One was upside down inside a trash barrel.  The other lay on the asphalt with his right wrist and left ankle handcuffed behind him.

“What the hell…?”

Amid the sound of the rain, he heard breathing and looked up.

Yelling a guttural war cry, Batman leaped off the overhang and drove him to the ground with a splash.

Frightened and soaking wet, the mobster searched for his dropped pistol and attempted to crawl away.

Batman’s lips curled in anger.  He picked Thorne up by the coat and slammed him into the metal wall, making a dent.  “It’s justice time, dirtbag!”

“For what?”

Batman grabbed his double chin and shoved his head back.  “The murder of Felipe Santiago!”

“It wasn’t me, I swear!  It was Black Mask.  He—he just told me.”

“I know.  I heard every word of your little conversation.  But you tried to assassinate him last week, and you did kill his mother.  Consider this your indictment!”  Batman punched him hard in the belly.

Thorne groaned from the pain and doubled over.  Wha--what’s it to you?”

Batman slugged his jaw with a right hook.  “That boy had a bright future.  Unlike you!”  He followed with a hard jab to the nose and another belly punch.

His face bleeding badly, Thorne slumped and fell in a muddy puddle.  “Please, no more,” he gasped.

“I’m not through, you scumhole!”  Batman pulled him up and kneed him in the crotch twice.  He then connected with a vicious right cross to the chin, sending the crime boss straight down into the flowing stormwater.

Thorne lay there for a minute, his body hurting in places he didn’t know he had.  When he sat up and looked around, Batman was nowhere to be seen.  Cold and muddy, he staggered over to the limo, climbed inside, and locked the door.

He gazed at himself in the rear view mirror.  Staring back was a doubly humiliated man stripped of all power.  Fearing a return visit from the Dark Knight, he started the engine and drove off.  His bodyguards would have to fend for themselves.

 

Sheets of rain continued pouring as Batman watched Thorne speed away.

Robin joined him atop the Gotham Fisheries building.  “You’re letting him go?”

“Once the DA gets that recording of his meeting with Black Mask, neither of them will be free for long.”

A clap of thunder rumbled across the black sky.

“This is the most depressing case I’ve ever been on,” Robin said bitterly.  “Such a waste.  Felipe, his mother, those gang kids… all dead.”  He choked up as tears rolled down his cheeks.  “And for what?”

“Sometimes, everybody loses.”

Robin couldn’t tell if it was just the rain in Batman’s brooding eyes.