Flash By Northwest (4/14)
a Justice League story
by dotfic and mtgat
Disclaimer: DC Comics and Warner Brothers own the characters and situations. No infringement on their property is intended or should be inferred.
Continuity/Spoilers: Takes place after JLU "Destroyer" and the events of the flashback in "Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker"
Thanks to amilyn for her beta on this work. Special thanks also to xffan_2000 and billa1 for editing above and beyond the call of duty on the final draft. All mistakes that may still be found herein are ours alone.
Pairings: Lots. If it was canon, if it was implied in canon --- heck, if we just thought it was amusing at the time --- it's in there.
Summary: The Big Seven (plus one) are trapped inside a fantasy world created by a magical artifact. As the body count rises, familiar faces hide deadly secrets and it's up to Flash to save them.
Alfred appeared at the door when Clark rang. Clark thanked him, observing as much as he could of the man without being intrusive. People he'd encountered thus far had been different from their originals in small ways. Some alterations could be accounted for by the change in time period, though not all. Lois, Jimmy, Perry, everyone was off in the ways they walked, the things they did. Clark swore he'd seen Perry's hand on Lois' butt twice, though as soon as he'd checked to make sure, the hand had been gone and Lois' expression hadn't invited questions.
He was noticing more than just that, though. Every face he encountered was familiar, if only distantly so. Old friends from school, people he saw on the Metropolis streets every day, and each of them just that much wrong that it itched him between the shoulder blades and made him want to mumble a hello and hurry by.
Alfred was perfect, and this was a welcome relief as he ushered Clark into the room from last night. The others were waiting, with tea and coffee and fancy cookies; Flash was already making a big dent in the latter.
As soon as the door closed, Bruce said, "Tell us you're innocent."
Clark frowned. "I'm not sure I am. I've got a motive." He felt the weight of the thin manila file in his hand, and set it down. He counted heads. "Where are John and Shayera?"
"Not coming," Bruce said. "They're already the chief suspects."
"I'll bite," said Wally. "The spouse is always the first suspect, but why her?"
"They've been having an affair."
"What about the rest of us?" asked Diana. "All I've been able to discover is that Mari and I were supposed to have been old friends." Clark winced.
Wally added, "And I'm not sure I ever even met her."
J'onn cleared his throat. "You may not have. I've been siphoning money from her for quite some time and making loans. I believe I have extended one to you. Perhaps you couldn't pay it back?"
Diana smiled. "If the state of our office is any indication, I'd take that bet."
"'Our?'" Clark said.
"Diana's my secretary," Wally said with a grin that evaporated under a laserbeam stare from Diana.
Bruce said, "Rumor has it that I was having an affair with Vixen."
Clark asked, "Were you?" and tried not to notice how closely Diana listened to the answer.
"I'm not going to disregard any possibilities."
"Fine," said Diana. "You killed her because she was going to break up with you?"
"I didn't kill her. I checked the ballistics, as much as I could. Barbara and I were standing in the wrong place, and while I can't prove it, I think John was too close."
Clark nodded; he'd take Bruce's word for it. He picked up his folder and handed it to Diana. "I found these in a locked cabinet at work. There was a note in there too."
As Diana opened the folder, Bruce asked to see the note. Diana's eyes widened, and then she blushed. Clark knew his own blush had returned and was already headed for his neck.
"Whatcha got?" asked Wally, trying to take a look and Diana snatched the pictures away.
Bruce read aloud: "'You've received your last paycheck, Kent. M.' This is Vixen's handwriting. Were you blackmailing her?"
"He was," Diana stated. The laserbeams had turned up and were aimed at Clark now. That didn't make what he had to say next any easier, and all of a sudden he was uncomfortably reminded that he wasn't invulnerable anymore.
"Look through all of them."
She turned back to the photographs, moving them up away from where Wally was still trying to see until J'onn finally smacked him on the back of the head.
Diana's eyes narrowed and this time the setting was dialed up to "thermonuclear." "Why," she asked in a misleadingly calm voice, "am I in some of the pictures?"
Bruce covered his mouth with his hand, while Wally's hung open.
"I'm a photographer, among other things. The quality isn't the best on these, so either I took them when I was young, or bought them from someone who did."
"Now you know how you knew her," J'onn said in the world's best deadpan.
Bruce said, "Barbara told me Vixen was going to make an announcement at the party, but didn't get a chance. Maybe she was going to come clean about the pictures. She's an established star here, one of the biggest names in the movie industry. Maybe she thought she could finally get out from under your thumb."
"That's what I was thinking," Clark admitted. Then he risked looking at Diana again. "But if that was her announcement, your reputation would have been damaged, too. You might have killed her to keep your name clear."
Bruce rubbed his face. "Great. I was hoping we'd come back with reasons no one had a motive, and it turns out we all do."
"I dunno," said Wally. "Sounds like my motive is more for killing J'onn." He flashed J'onn a wide grin, which J'onn returned.
"I'll watch my back around you, then."
There was a gentle rap on the door. "Yes?" called Bruce.
"Sir," Alfred said, stepping inside gracefully, "I hate to interrupt your discussion. However, I believe I may be of some use."
The others shared a glance. How much had he overheard? "Go on."
Looking flustered, Alfred sidled over to his employer, and with great delicacy, placed something in his hand. "I found this as I was cleaning up this morning."
"The police let you clean up the crime scene?" Bruce held the item up to the light: a green matchbook.
"Certainly not," Alfred said. "However, they were precise in their area of interest, and I must say, the hall needed a good sweeping."
"And you found this?"
Alfred nodded. "I thought it might be, well, a clue, sir."
J'onn asked him, "Why didn't you give it to the police?"
Alfred stared at him in polite incomprehension. "The police?"
"It's their investigation," said Bruce, though he didn't give it back.
"Mr. Jones, perhaps you have not had occasion to deal with the Los Diablos police force?"
"Assume I have not."
"Ah. Then let me assure you that they are the finest men money can buy, and the Mayor pays them handsomely to overlook his many less-than-favorable qualities."
"You don't like the Mayor?" asked Diana.
"I have no opinion on Mr. Queen." He nodded to Bruce. "Should you need me, sir, I will be in the kitchen. Shall I prepare a meal for your guests?"
"No, that won't be necessary. Thank you, Alfred." When the door closed, Bruce examined the matchbook more closely. "The Emerald Parrot. Hm."
"'Mayor Queen?'" Wally said incredulously. "Ollie? No, seriously, Ollie?! Who'd put him in charge of a city?"
"It's a lead," said Bruce. "This has been stepped on and I've touched it, so fingerprinting is going to be out of the question." He handed it to Diana. "You two. Check it out."
Diana didn't hide her glance at her partner before she said to Bruce, "Come with us."
"I can't. Alfred told me I have a film opening tonight, and if I cancel, it'll make more problems. But I want this checked out. Wally's the detective. Go detect. Diana, watch his back when he does something stupid."
"What about us?" Clark asked.
"Search through the back archives of the paper, as much as you can without rousing suspicion. Start with the last couple of years, looking for anything about any of us, and especially anything about Vixen. See if you've got any snitches in your pocket and ask what they've heard. J'onn, I want you to fill in John and Shayera on what we've discovered so far. Tell them to lie low and stay out of trouble, and if the police ask them anything, tell them to make sure they've got lawyers. Then follow the money. You were Vixen's accountant; go talk to her lawyer. Find her will if she has one. See who benefits from her death. Money isn't always the prime motive for murder, but it's a big one. Everyone report back to me if you can, but don't leave messages with Alfred."
Wally asked, "Don't you trust him?"
"With my life," Bruce said, absently, "but I don't want to get anyone involved in our investigation who isn't real."
"Come on," said Diana. "If we're going to check out this club, I'm going to need to change. Oh," she said, "and one other thing." Without looking, she threw the pictures into the fireplace, where they caught and burned.
"That was evidence," Bruce growled.
"Now it's kindling," Diana snapped back, though her anger was still directed at Clark. Note to self: don't be alone in a dark alley with Diana for a long time after this. "Come on, boss," she said to Wally less than kindly. "If we're going out tonight, I need a change of clothes. And a shower."
J'onn followed them out, and Bruce placed a hand on Clark's elbow to hold him there.
"'The quality isn't the best?' How long did it take you to examine them?"
Clark watched the others safely out in the hallway. "Diana's going to kill me, isn't she? We're going to get home, and she's going to find a chunk of kryptonite, and she's going to shove it up my nose."
"Yes. And then she's going to tell Vixen."
"I'm a dead man."
J'onn told Lantern as simply as he could what they'd discussed. Lantern nodded as he spoke, until J'onn reluctantly mentioned the photographs. Normally, he would be well aware of the emotional state of his friends; now he had to rely on mere words and gestures. He prepared himself for an outburst which never came.
"Dirty pictures? Seriously?"
J'onn nodded. "I can only assume from Superman and Diana's reactions, but almost certainly so."
"But you didn't see them."
"No. Diana burned them."
"She was apparently in some of them with Vixen."
The Lantern's face went blank. Again, J'onn tensed for an emotional display. Instead, Lantern said, slowly and after some thought, "That's an interesting mental image." He glanced at J'onn again. "Burned them, you said?"
Lantern sighed. "You know, it's funny. I've spent all last night and all of today trying to find something to tell me why someone would want to kill Mari, but all I've found are pictures of her. They're on the walls, they're in books. Clark even seems to have a few," he said, quirking his mouth. "This is all out of our heads, isn't it?"
"That would coincide with what Zatanna indicated." He tried not to think of his wife.
Lantern reached over and picked up a photo album, opened it. Photographs of Vixen, held in place with small tabs, looked up from the page. "I'm not sure I'm going to like what's in my head."
Metamorpho gave J'onn the information for Vixen's lawyer, and Lantern promised to call and ensure J'onn would have access to all her documents. J'onn left him there in his home, surrounded by her image, and went to find Shayera.
She didn't live far, merely a few miles down the road in the same small house whose deed he kept in his safe. Two cars were parked out front, he noticed as he approached, and he went on his guard just in case.
There was no answer to his first knock, nor his second. Deeply concerned now, J'onn was about to break into the house to make sure Shayera was still alive, when the door swung open and she stood there wearing only a loosely-tied robe. Her hair was mussed as if she'd been asleep.
"Did I wake you?" The possibility seemed unlikely, considering the dappled afternoon sunlight through the palm trees.
"Wake?" She blinked, and then she yawned. "Just getting a little rest, yes." Alone among the aliens he knew, she'd always been a subject to read from speech and movement instead of thought, and J'onn had belatedly learned to tell when she was lying through her teeth.
"May I come in?"
"Come in? Sure," she said, a bit loudly. She stepped aside, and gestured him through the cluttered kitchen into her small living room. He sat down on the couch.
"The rest of us, save you and Lantern, met earlier to discuss what we've found so far. Unfortunately, the news isn't good. I ... "
She held up her hand. "We can't discuss this now, J'onn."
"I'm afraid we must. Everyone had a motive. I was stealing from her. Super---" Her hand went in front of his mouth.
"I said, we can't discuss this now." Her eyes went past him, and he turned his head to see Carter Hall come out of the bedroom and lounge against one wall. He wore an unbuttoned shirt and a pair of shorts, neither of which he'd been wearing a few minutes ago, if J'onn was any judge.
"I didn't realize you had company."
"Joe," she said, "have you met my friend J'onn J'onzz?"
Hall, or Joe as she was calling him, stretched out a friendly hand. "Mr. Jones, nice to finally meet you."
"Yes," said J'onn, shaking his hand.
"Joe, I noticed there's an orange tree not two minutes' walk up the road. Think you could go get us a few while I talk to J'onn, so he can leave?"
Joe smiled, though the friendliness was gone. "You sure, honey?"
"I'll be fine. Go on."
The door shut behind him, and J'onn turned back to Shayera. "You know that isn't Carter Hall."
"Joe Gardner here. It was his name before he changed it, I think. Anyway, I know."
"But how can you even think of having relations with someone whose mind isn't there?"
"J'onn, I'm not using him for his mind." She waved a hand. "Anyway, he's been telling me things I need to know. I'm good at intelligence gathering. This just happens to be a fun way of gathering it."
There were layers to that statement, he knew, but he didn't have the time to explore them. "I've been stealing money from Vixen. Part of it has been with Lantern's blessing, to take care of you."
"I got that part," she said, playing with the hem of her robe. "Go on."
"Superman has been blackmailing her. Diana may have killed her for what he was blackmailing her with. Batman may have been sleeping with her, although he says the angle of the shot was wrong for him to be the killer."
"He'd know. Batman knows everything," she said dramatically. "What about Wally?"
"I loaned him money, but it was Vixen's money. He may have wanted to see his loan permanently forgiven. We don't know."
"John would inherit everything if she died."
"I'm checking on that next. And then there's you."
"Yeah. I inherit John." She firmed her jaw. "To hell with that. Carter? Joe, I mean? Apparently I've been seeing him on the side. You know, when my 'boyfriend' hasn't been around. If there's a place in this stupid story for the Other Woman to run off with her good-looking sweetheart, sign me up for it."
"We need to focus on finding the killer, so we can escape and rescue Vixen. Not play 'house' with the images of the others we know here."
Her eyes flickered. "Speaking of, is Ming ... "
He nodded. "I sent her away. It's not her, and I cannot imagine being with someone who isn't."
"Lecture's over, J'onn. I'll stay focused. And I'd like to point out, this is even though I'm finally somewhere that everyone doesn't hate me on sight. It's a nice change."
"It's not real," he said, but he placed his hand atop hers, just as Hall returned. "I will keep you updated."
"Thanks," Shayera said, and her smile came back. "Those look great, dear." She tossed one to J'onn. "Little snack for you."
"Thank you," he said, and even as he let himself out, he noted that her attention was already back on Hall. He sighed.
At least she would stay indoors and out of trouble.
Clark had just set foot back in the office when Perry stormed out and yelled, "Kent! Lane! Fire over on Twelfth! One of the rat-traps is going up. I just got the call. I want you there. I want names. I want pictures." The cigar in his mouth moved from one side to the other. "You think you can handle that, Kent?"
"Sure, Perry," Clark said, grabbing his hat. Lois' hat was already in place, two hatpins holding it primly. "Though do you really need both of us there?"
Perry rolled his eyes. "You still hung over from last night, Kent?"
"Then stop askin' stupid questions."
"Come on," Lois said, grabbing his arm. Clark had no idea where Twelfth was, though fortunately Lois was too busy leading him to notice. They dashed through the streets, walking boldly through traffic, Clark trying to keep up with her brisk pace.
A driver honked as it screeched to a stop. "Where's the fire, lady?!"
"That way," Lois said, not looking back, and as they turned the corner, Clark saw the smoke climbing into the sky.
Firefighters were already on the scene, wearing old-fashioned yellow outfits with hoses that were far too powerless to reach the top story of the building. A few policemen stood in front of the onlookers, pushing people back and away while the rescuers tried to do their work. With his heart sinking into his feet, Clark saw small figures in the windows of the top floor, and the ladder was two stories below.
Lois pulled out her notebook and began writing. "Flames engulfed the building at the corner of Twelfth and Vine," she muttered.
"We have to help them."
"Good one, Kent. Can you snap some pictures already?"
The camera was in his hands, and he pointed it up. Small figures, yes, and unclear in the heat distortion from the fire. If he was himself, he could change and fly up and save them and blow the oxygen away from the fire to extinguish it.
*click* He took another photograph. Someone, desperate not to burn, jumped from a window, accompanied by screams from the crowd. *click*
The fingers operating the camera were numb. His heart was numb. Beneath the shouts, he fancied he could hear the scratch of Lois' pencil on her notepad, etching out dramatic statements to delineate the end of lives.
They're not really there. They're not really dying. This isn't real.
More screams, and then he'd had enough. He shoved the camera at Lois. Ignoring her shocked look, he pushed his way through the crowd to the entrance to the neighboring building. Inside, he ran to the front desk. "Maintenance closet! NOW!" The receptionist, who looked so much like Lana Lang that it hurt to see her quiver away from him, pointed down a hallway. Clark thanked her hurriedly and then ran, wrenching open the door.
There was a ladder.
Clark huffed and strained it up the flights of stairs, refusing to acknowledge the surprise and suspicion on the faces of the people he pushed out of his way. At last he reached the floor across from the one where he'd seen the trapped victims, and he pushed away the gawkers staring out the window.
"Help me!" he ordered the largest men standing there, two guys he'd known on the Smallville High football team. They levered open the window and pushed the ladder out towards the burning building. Here he could make out their faces, small and scared, covered by hands as they coughed.
"Get down! Under the smoke!"
He wasn't sure they heard him, but they did scrunch down out of sight as Clark and the others pushed the ladder.
Too short. A good ten feet too short, and it took all of Clark's strength not to let it fall on the people beneath them. As he stared out, unable to do the least thing to help, he saw a larger figure loom into the window, and scoop up the smaller ones from the floor.
"Nice try, mister," said a woman standing near him. Clark just nodded, and pulled the ladder back inside.
After he'd slowly carried it back downstairs again and apologized to Lana, he made his way back to where he'd left Lois. She was chatting amiably with a soot-streaked fireman who looked a lot like John Irons.
"There you are, Kent," she said. "Take a picture of my friend here. Fireman Irons just saved two kids from the top floor."
"Just my job, ma'am," said Steel, and he smiled for Clark's camera. Clark would make certain the caption for the photo included the word "hero."
As a reporter in Los Diablos, Clark figured he'd better get more familiar with the city and its people. He knew Metropolis inside and out, he knew the names of city clerks, the entire structure of city government, the name of the guy who ran the cash register at the deli across from The Daily Planet, which hot dog stand had the best sauerkraut, who the corrupt cops were, how to find a place to change in the middle of a busy downtown street on a sunny afternoon.
The paper he worked for here was colorful but not useful. Half of what was in there had to be lies. Clark put the paper down and rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses. The scratchy wool couch in the office was worn with an indentation in the shape of his body; he doubted this Clark Kent often slept in a real bed. Certainly Lois hadn't appeared surprised when he'd hung back while she and Jimmy and the rest had gone home for the evening.
From the desk a lamp sent out a triangular cone of light, blacking out the windows, making them reflect himself and the room. Clark thought he looked comfortable, as if he fit with the simple furniture. He liked the typewriter for aesthetic reasons but found it beyond frustrating to type on it. Even when he didn't type using his powers to go super fast, he was a crack typist, almost as fast as Lois. The keys of this typewriter kept getting jammed up on him. He imagined Wally might be having the same problem. Although Wally was a private eye here and they didn't need to type, somehow Clark doubted that Diana would ever agree to do his typing for him.
He blinked a few times, then returned to his reading. He could fact-check what he'd read with a little leg work later. At least by reading this rag, he was learning names, the general lay of the land. Like Pa walking the fields before planting time, looking for rocks. Sometimes the walk turned up arrowheads, bits of pottery left behind by pioneers, other interesting artifacts. You never know what walking the field might turn up.
A name leapt out at him from the page.
"Deputy Mayor Luthor said yesterday that ..."
Clark flung the newspaper across the room, knowing it was childish. He'd just have to walk across the room and pick it up again to keep reading.
He'd wondered. Lex had crossed his mind but so far he hadn't surfaced. But there he was, one heartbeat away from one of the most powerful local political posts in the country, at the entrance to a road that could lead him to governor, and then ...
Sighing, Clark got up and walked across the room. He bent over, picked up the crumpled newspaper, smoothed it out, sat back down and kept on reading.
Barbara smirked and giggled and cooed from his arm as the usher led them to their seats. Too many reporters had been waiting outside the theatre, shoving notepads into his face with questions about Mari.
Above them on the marquee as they'd walked in, Bruce had read her name. The party last night had been a pre-premiere party, celebrating the opening of her twentieth film with him, and she should be here tonight, grinning for pictures with John at her side. Instead, Bruce saw Matt Hagen waving at the crowds and that was all.
Vixen's death hadn't dimmed the excitement of the crowd. The streets were packed for blocks around, as people craned to see Bruce, stood in line for sold-out tickets. Everyone wanted to see her last movie, and take a little piece of her home.
He thought he'd left the psychopaths back in Gotham.
The crowd inside the theatre hushed as the lights dimmed and then rose again. Babs nudged him. "Aren't you gonna say anything?"
Say? They expected him to stand up and introduce the film?
He turned and caught Hagen's eye in the back. "Matt, why don't you say a few words?"
Hagen shrugged, pecked his date on the cheek, and loped to the front of the theatre. "Hi, everyone, and thanks for coming out tonight. I know we're all still reeling from the news. Mari was a great gal, and I think I speak for us all when I say she'll be missed. On my own behalf, let me just say that I'd like to dedicate this film to her. Mari, you were one in a million."
Barbara clapped as soon as he finished, and Bruce took up the applause. Hagen sat down to cheers with a smile, just enough of a twinkle in his eye to let Bruce know he hadn't meant a word, and then the movie started.
The plot was thin: boy meets girl, the War starts, boy goes off to fly planes against the Germans, girl stays home and carries a torch, boy is shot down and reported dead, girl almost dies in her grief and then agrees to marry her best friend (played with surprising talent by Eel O'Brian), boy comes home, they are reunited just before she says her vows, the end.
Beside him, Barbara sniffled through the last two reels, dabbing at her eyes with a hanky. Bruce cringed at the worst of the dialogue, and took mental notes of the familiar faces who played the smaller roles: Kory Anders as the seductive nurse, Jefferson Pierce as the hero's best friend who died in the third act, Ted Grant as the grizzled squadron commander.
He paid closest attention to Vixen whenever she was on screen, but her performance was consummate and he saw nothing of Mari Macabe in the character. Nothing useful, just another dead end.
As the cab pulled up to the curb outside the nightclub, Wally tried to think of a good plan for getting inside. There were two broad-shouldered, heavyset men in tuxedos guarding the door, complete with red carpet and velvet ropes. It was midnight by his pocketwatch, and a long line of men and women dressed to the nines stood outside. Another tuxedoed employee rotated a spotlight back and forth, strafing the crowd with it, then aiming to the sky, and back again. Every time the thick wooden doors opened, big band music drifted out.
"Nice dress, Princess," Wally said.
Which it was. It was long, graceful, and black, covering one of her shoulders with some kind of fabric he didn't know the name of, leaving the other shoulder bare.
"Thank you. I found it in the closet," she said and when Wally opened his mouth to say something smart about women using the phrase oh, this old thing?, she added, "No, Wally, it was just hanging in the closet. Actually, I own many similar gowns at home."
"There were two tuxedos in my closet. What kind of P.I. keeps two tuxedos around?"
"You, apparently." She opened the door and stepped out of the cab. Heads swiveled to watch her.
Wally paid the cab driver, then slid across the back seat to climb out after Diana. He followed in her wake onto the sidewalk and the soft red carpet. The spotlight brushed them as it completed another sweep. The lights of Los Diablos were hazy in the misty fog, which made everything around the nightclub seem brighter and sharper by comparison. The building itself was three stories tall, a simple box shape ornamented with balconies at the windows on the second and third floors. The ground floor had no windows.
Next to the doors a large poster card almost as tall as Wally displayed a black and white photograph of a light-haired woman in a sparkling, strapless black dress. She wore elbow-length black gloves, and her fingers lightly held the long stem of a microphone stand, her mouth open in mid-sing.
Her face was familiar.
A legend ran diagonally across the image: Only at The Emerald Parrot! The Black Canary!
Wally shook his head. This whole thing felt like the type of dreams he often had. But he didn't bother pinching himself or trying to wake up; he'd tried that at least a dozen times since they'd first seen Mari lying dead on the floor at Wayne Manor.
No, it wasn't a dream. They were trapped in a book, and if they lost a limb here, that limb was gone, at least according to Zatanna. If one of them got killed, they stayed dead, unless the murder was solved.
A few people in line eyed them resentfully as Wally and Diana walked right up to the tuxedoed guards. Diana was just putting on a charming smile, opening her mouth to speak, when one of the guards spotted Wally.
"Mr. West!" He stepped over and unhooked the velvet rope. "Haven't seen you around in a while."
"Oh. I ... I've been, uh, busy."
Diana's astonishment was gratifying, although he wondered why the P.I. was in so good with the nightclub people.
"Well, you and your lady friend can go right in. Mr. Queen mentioned he had a few things he needed to discuss with you."
He glanced at Diana, who shrugged as delicately as Diana could shrug. They stepped inside as the sound of piano, trumpets, and drums grew louder. The doors shut behind them.
At one end of the entrance hall was a coat check, manned with charmed grace by a girl who looked a lot like Stargirl. Stairs with a gilt-edged banister led to the second floor. Wally's shoes sank into the thick green carpet. Ahead of them, wide double doors were open. Four steps led down into the vast, high-ceilinged room of The Emerald Parrot's dance floor and dining room.
"What now?" Diana whispered in his ear. She hooked her arm around his.
"I guess we go find Ollie ... uh ... Mr. Queen," he whispered back.
Together, they walked down the steps. At one table there was a petite girl in a blue dress, her blonde hair swept up into a chignon, grinning mischievously as she watched her companion, a dark-haired guy in a tux, doodle on a cocktail napkin. Wally's steps faltered. Kara glanced over and noticed him staring. She pursed her lips in amusement but showed no sign of recognition.
He walked on, saw other faces in the crowd seated at the tables, some familiar, some not. Couples filled the dance floor, waiters hurried to and fro. A microphone stood lonely in the middle of a circular, small elevated stage in front of the band.
As they walked along, he heard a familiar laugh. Wally had only met Dick Grayson a few times, once in passing, several times at some gathering or other. They'd ended up drinking beer in the kitchen at the real Wayne Manor once, both worn out by the society scene at one of Bruce's charity parties. But he always seemed like a nice guy with more of a sense of humor than most of the Batfamily. Dressed in a black tuxedo, Dick leaned on a set of crutches near a large table at the center of the room, joking around with another guy in a tux. Although they were kidding around, he saw Dick scan the room repeatedly, as did the other guy, who Wally thought he should recognize but couldn't place just yet. Bodyguards.
Among the men and women also at the table Wally spotted another guy with a familiar face and red hair a few shades closer to brown than his own, face a little less happy than everyone else at the table. But Roy lifted his glass and knocked it against Ollie's as the latter raised a toast, nodding acknowledgment of whatever had been said.
Dick spotted them approaching and nudged his partner, who then lightly touched Queen on the shoulder.
Oliver Queen looked up, then rose smoothly to his feet. "Well, Mr. West." He clapped Wally on the arm hard enough to make Wally stagger. "I thought you said you'd rather -- now what was the phrase you used? 'Be trampled alive by rabid baboons'? -- than come back here."
"Well, uh," Wally fumbled. "We all say things in the heat of the moment."
"That we do. All the time, in fact," he said, and there were agreeable chuckles around the table. Even Roy smirked.
"And who might this be?" Queen's voice turned to a purr as he took Diana's hand and kissed it. "Wait, I recognize you. Weren't you in THE BACHELOR AND THE SHOWGIRL?"
Diana hesitated just a second. "Why, yes, I was. How sweet of you to remember me. It wasn't a very large role."
"It's not the size of the role that matters, dear lady, but how you play it. Isn't that what they say?"
"You're very kind." She extracted her hand gently from Queen's.
"What brings you back here, West? You come to lecture me again about pulling this city down into the quagmire while you're trying to bring it back into the light? Or maybe you're not that drunk yet."
"I have some business to discuss." Wally felt like he was being pulled down into a quagmire himself. It reminded him unpleasantly of his ninth grade play when he forgot all his lines.
"You will excuse us?" Queen bowed to the table, then turned back to Wally. "Let's go somewhere more private. Your lady friend is welcome to take my seat," he said, gallantly pulling out his chair. "Order whatever you like. The most expensive thing on the menu."
"She works with me," Wally said.
"Oh, I see." The way Queen's eyebrow quirked caused Diana to glower beside him. Wally squeezed her arm to remind her to stay in character. Then Queen nodded to his bodyguards. Dick Grayson followed them across the dining room, moving swiftly despite his crutches. Wally suspected they might be an act. There did seem to be something wrong with his leg but he looked like he was in perfect shape. He could use the crutches as a surprise weapon.
As they followed Queen towards the stage and past a thick, heavy velvet curtain, Wally tried to plan out what he would say. Obviously there was some kind of history here. Maybe Wally West, P.I. had his hands dirty at one point. Maybe he'd done some scurvy work for Queen once to make some extra money and regretted it later. Maybe he had something on Queen or vice versa. Maybe they were blackmailing each other. Either way, it seemed that Wally had once been a regular at The Emerald Parrot.
One of Ollie's bodyguards took point up a narrow flight of stairs. The bodyguard wore a garish suit that was close to fuschia, and his tie clashed, yellow and green. Wally finally realized who he was. He looked different without the domino mask, but that was no excuse since he wasn't allowed to wear it in the hospital anyway. Wally bit back the urge to ask James if he'd taken his meds.
Grayson followed last; Wally felt his stomach twitch nervously. There was no room to maneuver here at all; and while Grayson may have been a nice guy back home, he had no idea what sort of person he was here.
Or what sort of person Oliver Queen was, either.
"Please, both of you, have a seat," Queen said when they reached a low-ceilinged office that was lushly furnished with leather chairs and an oriental carpet. He went over to the mahogany sidebar and picked up a carafe of some dark liquor. "Would you care for a drink?"
"No thanks," Wally said.
"No," said Diana.
Queen shrugged, then nodded at his bodyguards, who stepped out of the room, no doubt taking up positions on either side of the door.
"I'd been hoping you would come back someday, West," Queen said, sitting down at the big oak desk. "One of my boys is in some trouble. Stupid man got caught doing some petty larceny, not worth it, not worth it at all, and I thought given your unique abilities in dealing with the PD, you might be willing to recover a few items for me." He took a swallow of his drink. "Before this minor situation gets out of hand, you understand."
"You're asking me to steal evidence?" Wally's stomach flipped again. "Why would I do that for you?"
Queen laughed. "Oh, come on, West. Pure doesn't become you. Or are you trying to forget your old friend in his time of need? I helped you get on your feet, don't forget that. If not for me you'd just be an ex-beat cop with a bad record. Was a time you were happy to take my help, or offer it."
"Things change, Queen."
"Of course." He sat back and swirled the dark liquid in the glass. "And buried secrets have a way of rising to the surface."
Wally didn't like the direction this conversation was headed. "We're here to ask you a few questions," he said, jutting out his jaw and trying to make his voice rougher. "You can talk to us, or you can talk to the police." He coughed. Keeping up the tough voice wasn't easy.
"Are you threatening me, West?"
"No, just curious why a matchbook from your club would end up at the scene of Mari Macabe's murder." Wally pulled the book out of his pocket, flashed it at Queen for a moment, then quickly pocketed it.
"Any number of guests may have dropped it. This is a popular nightclub," he said with pride. "I was at the party. Possibly I dropped it." He leaned forward. "Are you accusing me of murder?"
"No. We're checking leads, and there is a connection between this club and the night of the murder. Maybe you could give us a list of your patrons?"
"I don't think so." The man's voice went hard, an edge to the joviality.
"We can do this the long, hard way or the easy, quick way," Diana said suddenly, and Wally stared at her. "We can give the matchbook to the police, they'll get a warrant to search your club, and you'll be forced to turn over the list." She leaned forward, crossed her legs, and tapped her fingers on the desk. "In the process of searching this place I'm certain they'll turn up a number of interesting items I'm sure you'd rather remain hidden. Or, you can give us the list. No police, not yet. Giving you time to move your secrets elsewhere. Your club is connected to the murder of Mari Macabe somehow. We're investigating. That's all. She was a friend. We want justice done."
"I'm sorry, I can't help you." Queen rose to his feet. "And don't bother threatening me with the police, because if you do I can tell them many interesting facts about Mr. West. If you'll excuse me, I have guests waiting for me."
He walked around the desk and surprisingly, he held out his hand to Wally, who stepped away. "No hard feelings, West, eh? Maybe you'll drop by sometime. I could use help from someone like you now and again."
"I don't think so."
"My dear." Queen turned to Diana. "Enchanting to meet you." He didn't try to take her hand, only bowed. Her eyes narrowed.
Grayson and James escorted them out.
"What do you think?" Wally asked as they walked along past the darkened store fronts, away from the crowd and lights outside the nightclub.
"I'm not sure he's connected or not," Diana said. "But he's a powerful, dangerous man here. I think it might have been a mistake confronting him."
To be continued...