The Apprentice, part 15

by Chicago

Disclaimers and other information in "part 0"

"Damned needle in a haystack," Barbara muttered, picking up a file and dropping it back to the table with irritated vehemence.

Cassandra's arm moved swiftly to prevent disarray of the stack of papers in front of her, but she did not lift her eyes from the pages she was scanning.

Barbara sighed. "Cass, I don't see what you're going to pick up that the search engines haven't. The government just has too many agencies stockpiling this combination of chemicals. And Gotham is too central to too many operations to-"

"Masters," Cassandra stated, still not looking up.

"What?"

"Masters." Her mouth tightened into a scowl. "David Cain."

"Cain - Cassandra, what are you reading?" Barbara reached across, snaking the paper out from under Cassandra's eyes. She was half-surprised to realize it was the same transcript she had set Cassandra down with three hours earlier.

Only half-surprised, though. She had given the file to her out of sympathy; she could see the weight of blame Cassandra was carrying. Both Spoiler and Robin had, to a certain way of thinking, been taken out on her watch. Cassandra's rudimentary reading skills meant she was something less than an asset in this kind of work, but the girl needed something to do. And given that Batman was playing lone ranger, someone had to be there to give Cassandra something to do.

Barbara stared at the transcribed page. The words "masters" and "David Cain" appeared nowhere on it. It was a weird transcript to begin with, captured from a known shadow frequency but seeming to be about mundane matters. Given they were reduced to reading shipping orders, Barbara had printed it out along with dozens of other transcripts in her "miscellaneous" file.

"Cass?"

Cassandra's face still wore a faint scowl. Her finger reached out to poke the middle of the page. "Seven under par."

Okay, Barbara conceded, that was there.

"About me," Cassandra said.

Barbara looked at her blankly. "Gonna have to help me out here, Cass."

"Masters said that. When I stop him."

Masters. Suddenly it clicked into Barbara's mind. The rogue agent Cass had put away, the one who had gotten the tape of Cass in action without her mask, who had ordered the death of the sharpshooter Cass had saved.

Barbara looked at the transcript with new interest, phrases jumping off the page. "Must run in the family." "Blood thicker than water." "Never liked that crowd she ran with." Her eyes darted up to the upper right hand corner of the page where the date was printed. Last July. Before they had caught David Cain sneaking into the Batcave. She resisted the urge to curse at a missed clue in a case already resolved. And another uneasiness began to eat at her.

"Masters figured out your connection to Cain?"

Cassandra dropped her eyes.

"Cass?"

bedeeep

Barbara sighed. "We're not done," she warned, turning to her laptop and slipping a headset over her ear. "Oracle."

"Hey, babe. It's me."

"Just getting off shift?'

"Twenty minutes ago. En route to Gotham now."

Barbara glanced at the computer clock. 8:30 pm. "Great. You can swing by here and pick up Batgirl before-"

"Babs, hold up. That's part of why I'm calling."

Barbara raised an eyebrow, aware that Cassandra was now watching her closely having heard her name. "Keep talking," she prompted.

Dick sighed over the line. "I'm thinking maybe there's somewhere else I need to be tonight."

Barbara nodded to herself. "You're heading straight to the Manor?"

"Yeah."

"He might not be happy about that."

"I'm not so sure. He sounded like he wanted me out there yesterday."

"You double check that since last night?"

After a beat's pause, Dick's voice came back with a hint of irony. "I haven't exactly talked to him since yesterday. But based on what Tim was telling me this morning, I don't think I'm going to give him the chance to tell me to sit this out."

"Understood. So you'll check in again when you get to the Cave?"

"Yeah. Love you."

"You, too."

"And Babs? I'm sorry I'm not coming by there tonight. It's just-"

"I understand, Dick. Just don't get in a stupid pissing match with him, okay?"

"I'll try. Nightwing out."

Cassandra was watching as Barbara pulled the headset off. "Nightwing going to Batman?"

"Yeah."

Cassandra gave a satisfied nod. "Good."

"Good?"

But Cassandra only shrugged, her eyes wandering the room in a studied way. Barbara pursed her lips in irritation. While she was glad that Cassandra was making strides toward more normal human interaction, she could live without the teenage moments.

"So looks like you and me do more detective work until we get word from the boss," Barbara announced pointedly. "Which means now I want an answer on why you think Masters figured out your connection to Cain."

Cass scowled a little. "Is stupid."

"Cass."

"Cain had contract on me."

Barbara sat back in her chair, blinking. "What?"

"When decoy Batman, at Hanford Island." Cassandra set her hands on top of the papers in front of her and stared at them. "Cain send satellite feed to distract Batman, make him think Cain offshore."

"He was here."

Cassandra nodded. "Had contract on me."

"You knew."

"Suspected. He missed."

"Missed. Wait, he targeted you and missed?" Barbara felt her blood rising in anger. This had all happened before Shiva, before Cass had dealt with the deathwish that hung over her during her first year as Batgirl. Cass had been targeted, shot at, by a top assassin - by her father...

Barbara shook off her train of thought, reminding herself the moment was over. A lecture wouldn't help now. "What makes you think that Masters knew-"

"They stole Cain's tapes. Of me." Cassandra lifted her eyes finally. "Cain try to frame Bruce because of me."

Barbara considered for a moment. Masters had been trying to track down Cassandra, somehow knew about her connection to Cain, and had apparently known something about the plot to frame Bruce Wayne. No. Her eyes traveled back over the transcript. There was nothing there to suggest that this conversation was linked to frame attempt. She was reading backwards from what she knew. Bad form. But...

"Masters might know Cain's daughter is Batgirl."

Cassandra met Barbara's eyes, and there was something desperate there.

"Shit." Barbara wheeled back from the table and headed toward her war room. She was going to need the big computers for this. "Cass, this could be really bad. If he figured that out-" She cut herself off. From the look in Cassandra's eyes, she had realized the implications. No sense making her feel worse. But the timing of this, when they were trying to find out what was going on with Du Bois - the whole thing set her mentally cursing.

She pulled up to her workstation and powered up the Crays. First things first - find out where Masters was now. Cass - Batgirl - had taken him down well over a year ago. Shit, why hadn't Barbara realized then. And this transcript was newer. If-

The search engine took less than three seconds to give the answer. Barbara stared at the screen.

"Dead?" Cassandra asked, recognizing the general format of the death certificate.

Barbara glanced at the date. August. After the frame attempt. Probably Luthor cleaning house. "Looks like," she confirmed, wondering if she should believe her eyes. Dead, or just disappeared? She set her fingers over the keys again, starting a search for fingerprints, DNA, known aliases, anything. That would take longer. She minimized the search window and turned her chair back towards Cassandra.

"Okay, we need to think." Barbara closed her eyes, the transcript Cassandra had been reading pulling up in her mind. There was more there than she was realizing. Not just a discussion of David Cain and his connection to Cassandra. For that matter, why was he talking about Cain in the first place?

Her photographic memory zeroed in on a comment that had appeared near the top of the page. "You'd think free lance would pay better."

Masters had hired Cain. Had -

The computer beeped, and she turned back to see her searches had turned up zero. She enlarged the parameters, looking for business holdings, stocks held. Masters. What had Batman said before he allowed Batgirl to go after him? "I'd been waiting, watching him, wondering if he's part of anything larger..."

The tapes Masters had made dated back two years. Batgirl had destroyed them not long after that, reclaiming her anonymity before going after Masters. Cain's contract on Cassandra had brought him back to Gotham 18 months ago. Masters was ... her fingers flashed over the keys ... not in restrictive custody very long. She began running her collection of captured transcripts for matching speech patterns.

"Barbara?"

She glanced over her shoulder at Cassandra, who was hovering a half a step behind her chair. "I think your man Masters links up to the current case," she explained. "I can't say for sure, but-"

The computer beeped again, and a list of files containing the speech pattern in the July transcript began scrolling in a new window. Barbara stopped the scroll and looked for the first hit after Masters' release back to active duty. November. Almost a year ago.

Almost exactly the day of Konstantin du Bois had been hired by Arkham Asylum. "Bingo," Barbara breathed.

"What?"

Barbara's fingers flew back over the keys as her search engine popped up Masters' holdings. Their distribution was consistent with typical posthumous patterns for business holdings. "I think Masters set Du Bois up with Scarecrow." Transcripts were popping open in rapid succession, Barbara's eyes scanning them for key phrases. "Seven under par is you. And-" Her eyes narrowed and she pulled up a new transcript. "Crap. Cassandra-"

"Yes."

Barbara highlighted a bit of text. "Straw. Straw is Du Bois. And look-"

"Straw's m-messed up," Cassandra read haltingly. "My c-cou- cougar is not happy?"

"February 15. The day we caught Du Bois. And the cougar-"

"Cain." Barbara felt rather than saw Cassandra reaching for her cowl. "He want Batman dead."

"Hold up," Barbara ordered, opening a line to the Batcave. "Motive doesn't tell us where - "

"Oracle."

It wasn't Batman's voice.

"Nightwing? Where's Batman?"

There was a grimness in Nightwing's tone. "Not here. Alfred said he left half an hour ago and forbade him to tell us. I can't raise him."

Barbara bit her lip and glanced at Batgirl. "This is not good."

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