Paper Hearts, part 22

by Chicago

Disclaimers in "part 0"

A needle in a haystack. Somewhere in this foul armpit of a city, Nightwing was being held captive by a man who by all accounts would not hesitate to kill him if it suited his interests. And the nature of those interests? Entirely opaque to Robin, and to judge by the conversation over the telepathic link, to the rest of their team as well.

Not that the interests really mattered, Tim reflected, casing yet another derelict warehouse. Right now it was just urgent that they find him before Torque's interests changed.

"Finally!" Barbara announced. "I've got the West Exeter blueprints. And you're right, Batman - external and internal dimensions do show a lot of dead space."

Dead space - for a secret escape route from the penthouse. Laekowan - the penthouse's owner - was as dirty as Cobblepot. Torque's history with the BPD made it likely that he knew that - and knew the ins and outs of the building the man called home.

"Torque probably exited almost as soon as he had Nightwing," Batman determined, "and put the explosive on a timer." He continued aloud, although his voice echoed on the telepathic link. "J'onn, was there a sense of movement when you picked Dick up before?"

Negative - even subsequent flutters have suggested he is stationary. I just can't get any kind of lock.

"Guys, I've got a police report coming through. They just pulled two of the firemen off the 14th floor sans coats and helmets." Barbara's tone was grim.

"That's how he got out, then. Oracle, any odd reports of lost victims?"

Robin saw what Batman was getting at. Nightwing could have been carried out as if he were an injured firefighter; the confusion and chaos of the scene even before the explosion was enough that someone could have slipped away with him into the crowd.

"Checking." There was a long pause. "Negative on the report. Although..."

"What is it?" Batman asked sharply.

"Bingo. Fifteen minutes before the explosion. The video feed from the news report shows a glimpse of two firefighters leaving through a side exit carrying someone."

"Two," Batman repeated, and Tim knew his thoughts were echoing Tim's own. The extra hostage must have been an accomplice - which suddenly made Nightwing's capture make sense.

Oracle's voice came back on line. "I'm calculating fifteen minute radius on foot or in a vehicle."

"That rules out downtown," Batman decided, not waiting for Oracle's calculations. "Robin, I'm almost to your location. What's the status?"

Tim landed lightly on the roof of another warehouse, moving toward the grimy rooftop windows. "I'm mid-block of Langley. I've been checking abandoned sites furthest from anyplace with third shift activity. Nothing so far."

"Oracle, anything in Torque's history that would suggest a link to any particular warehouse?"

"More like any shady undertaking he _didn't_ have his fingers in," Barbara replied, frustration evident. "Robin's strategy makes as much sense as any. I show he's swept three and a half blocks - seven warehouses."

"Yeah," Robin confirmed. "And better make that eight." Not a sign of anyone below, or of any recent activity. Infrared turned up no heat signatures. He readied his jumpline to move on.

"I'm coming in from the opposite end," Batman reported. "Oracle-"

Oracle had to leave for a moment, J'onn interrupted over the link.

Situation? There was an anxious edge to Batman's terse question as he abandoned the com-link. Robin wondered if he had intended a private conference, or if Batman sensed that J'onn was cuing them away from audible conversation.

We'll handle it, J'onn returned firmly. Then abruptly, Robin, stop.

Tim finished his swing and dropped softly, holding his breath.


Batman, are you on rooftop yet?

Just going up now.

You wait too.



The tense silence felt much longer than it was. Then, Robin, mentally backtrack your route. Recreate exactly what you just did as best you can remember.

I just-

Do it, Robin. The Bat growl, somehow even scarier without the actual voice behind it.

Robin closed his eyes and placed himself back on the last warehouse he had checked. He had scanned toward his next target, already eliminating three possibles as being too close to active work sites. He'd shot off a jump line, swinging two buildings at a diagonal, then deployed a second -

There. That small boat house.

Boat house? As quickly as he thought it, J'onn projected a replay of his final swing, making his mental eye focus down at the ground rushing by, down at the small building tucked in the shadow between two larger waterfront structures. He sensed you. Some - gap? - between walls and roof.

Robin was already moving toward the site as J'onn continued. You blocked the light for just a split second. He was trying to will you back...

Wait for me, Robin, Batman ordered, his rapid approach clear even over the link. J'onn, what's Nightwing's status?

He's cut out again. Robin, he means it.

Robin was already in the alleyway. I've got to-

Robin! You may check the site if you can do so unobserved, but you will not engage. Am I clear?


I will be there in three minutes. DO NOT ENGAGE.

Tim scowled, but he knew Batman was right. They needed to have a clear plan, especially if Torque had an accomplice.

Still, he could investigate. Down at ground level, the faint guttering of candlelight was obvious from within the boathouse - unobservable from the heights. How long would it have taken them to find this building without J'onn?

Don't think about it, he ordered himself, pressing his body to the wall of the building and peering through one of the spaces between the wall planking.

He managed not to gasp, although he felt his blood boiling. He's here, he ground out.

Dick had been completely stripped, including his mask. His hands were bound and pulled over his head, the binding apparently looped over a boat hook from which they had suspended him. His ankles were chained and weighted down by an outboard motor. His head lolled forward, his mouth covered by a strip of duct tape. A trickle of blood ran down the side of his face.

It was all Tim could do not to rush in to free him, well aware of the impossibility of exhaling adequately when so hung. Had Torque just left him to asphyxiate? He shifted slightly to view more of the one-roomed building. A blond man leaned against one wall, his eyes on the door and a gun in hand.

Batman, he doesn't have much time, Robin pleaded, knowing he could take out this lone guard, knowing -

A hand clapped firmly on his shoulder, and he felt cold metal press against his temple, freezing him in place. "Tad," a cruel voice called, "it looks like we caught us a birdie."

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