Matthew 4:19, 20 – “And he saith unto them, Follow me, and I will make you deeply regret it. And they did not heed his warning and followed him.”
Three days. Sixty-seven hours to be exact. That’s how long it’s been since I noticed someone following me. Whoever it is, they’ve been keeping their distance, sticking to shadows. Any move to identify them would give away the fact that I know they’re there but being watched without permission is…well it pisses me right the hell off. I feel like a damn lab rat. But Bruce used to say that you should gather as much information as you can, whenever you can. And who am I to disagree with the world’s greatest detective?
First and foremost, I can eliminate the entire Bat Family. If it was Batman, I’d have no clue. Not to mention I noticed my little shadow while taking care of the Russians. No way he wouldn’t have intervened. It’s not Nightwing either. He did secretly promise Bruce that he’d help keep an eye on me – how they think I don’t know this is beyond me – but the truth is he’s going through something of a quarter life crisis. Ever since Bludhaven was destroyed, the guy’s been pretty withdrawn. Anyone else either wouldn’t be able to stay hidden this long or wouldn’t care to trail me in the first place. It’s also safe to say my shadow wasn’t hired to kill me. I gave them plenty of opportunities to try, and they didn’t take a single one. So, what is this? Why the observation? Are they assessing me? Waiting for some sort of sign? I’ve saved lives and I’ve taken them, so what else do they hope to see? This can’t simply be to figure out who I am. No one’s that interested in the Red Hood, and there are easier ways to go about it. Maybe it’s my frustration talking, but I’ve come to a new conclusion: whatever their interest is, they’re hanging back because they’re not sure they can take me. And you know what? I’m pissed enough to draw them into the open and find out.
I’m pursuing a mark. No one special, but he and I have some unfinished business. He’s a slippery bastard though, so I’m on foot. Less chance of spooking him that way. While I’m pursuing him, my tail is still pursuing me. I can’t see them, but I can sense them slinking along somewhere from the rooftops. Yet another thing Bruce instilled in me: Be aware of everything, even the things you can’t see. Funny enough, I’m pretty sure my mark knows he’s being followed, but he’s playing it safe much the same way I’ve been doing. I pick up my pace, steadily closing the gap. Eventually he glances back, and when he sees me, he darts into an alley. I don’t want to lose him, so I run after him. It’s only seconds, but I emerge from the other end of the alley and he’s somehow gone. Like I said, slippery. I take a brief moment to consider my next course of action, before ultimately deciding to head back to my makeshift hideout. I’m still being silently followed from the rooftops, and it’s a bit unnerving. It doesn’t matter though, because there’s no longer anyone in the area…and they’ve been following the wrong Red Hood.
“So you’re the one who’s been following me.” Stealth isn’t exactly my preference, but it’s still a part of my arsenal. Seems my pursuer was too focused on the ground and didn’t notice when I made my way up a fire escape…. I’m on the rooftop, and not even 10 feet in front of me stands a female Talon – an assassin for the Court of Owls. She doesn’t say anything, and I can’t see her face thanks to her mask, but her body language says that she’s confused and maybe just a little afraid. Good. Her head quickly whips between myself and my doppelganger below. “Go ahead. You can ask.”
She tilts her head towards the ground. “…Who?”
“They call him the Human Target. He’s a master of disguise…and he owed me a favor. We made the switch in the alley.”
“…I’m not here to—”
“My turn. Why have you been following me for the last three days?”
“It’s been five days.”
Okay. As a man, I can admit that hurt my pride. Three days means she tracked me from Solo Santi back to the outskirts of Gotham. Five means she tracked me from when I left Gotham in the first place. I completely forget my original question and rush in for the attack, immediately putting her on the defensive. I throw a straight right, which she ducks. I use my momentum to launch a wheel kick, but she backflips out of the way. I push the assault, but she’s difficult to land a blow on. Even through my rage I can tell she fights differently from the other Talons. Most of them are strictly offense, relying just as much on aggression and physicality as their skill. This one is more lissome and evasive – reminiscent of Batgirl. My barrage starts to get through, and I land a blow to her ribs before following up with a back elbow. She recovers quickly and manages to connect with a kick to my head, then springs forward with her clawed hands. I read her move though, simultaneously grabbing her wrists and moving backwards, using her momentum to flip her over my head onto her back. I quickly straddle her, throwing repeated strikes to her face, but she grabs my arm and pivots her hips to throw me off. When I get up, she’s brandishing dual swords, and suddenly I’m the one on the defensive. She’s swinging, but her intent feels less than deadly. It’s like she’s more concerned with keeping the distance between us.
“Red Hood, you need to—”
Instead of backpedaling further, I move into her space, grabbing her at the forearms and headbutting her. It’s enough to stagger her, and I follow up with a knee right under her chin. Whatever this was about, I’m done. I pull out my pistols intending to finish her off, and even though she scrambles out of the way, a bullet still manages to catch her leg. She lets out a sharp grunt, and…something doesn’t feel right. She’s too defensive, and she’s using her swords more like a barrier. Talons are physically enhanced – low tier superhumans – yet she hasn’t been able to keep up with my speed, strength, or stamina. And despite the healing factor she should have, that bullet to the leg really seems to be bothering her. Now that my anger’s fading, I finally notice that something about her seems familiar. Assuming I’m right…
“I’ve read about you. You’re Strix.”
“Yes. I wasn’t here for a fight.” She visibly relaxes.
I slowly lower my guns. “Right. That’s what you were trying to say before. Then why are you—Wait, since when can you talk?” I’ve located and read as many files on Talons I could. This particular one, Mary Turner a.k.a. Strix, was too close to an explosion when she was a kid. Her face was horribly scarred, and her vocal cords were damaged. She hasn’t or at least shouldn’t be able to talk. I wait for a reply but don’t get one. Instead, she readjusts her stance, taking the weight off the bad leg, and takes off the signature owl themed mask. I honestly wasn’t prepared for what I see. Dark skin, short, curly, black hair that just passes the base of the neck, soft facial features, amber eyes, and…not a scar in sight. Her face is perfectly fine. What in the hell is going on here? I raise my gun again.
“Start. Talking. You can speak, coherently at that, your scars are healed, and you definitely weren’t the fighter your file made you out to be – no offense.” I see a slight look of annoyance at that last part, probably because we both know I meant nothing but offense. She takes a deep breath before finally speaking again.
“A lot…has happened.”
“No shit. Explain.”
“You know I left the Court. After that…The Birds of Prey.”
“Batgirl’s team. And if my sources are correct, you spent some time with the Secret Six after that, right?”
I can’t tell if her short, broken speech pattern is from not using her voice over the years, or because of the leg wound, but I can see her discomfort, and I pull a salve from my jacket lining. It’s not much, but it should dampen the pain and the blood flow.
“For your thigh.”
“No problem. So, the Secret Six – Catman and the crew. How did that work out for you?” I see her stiffen again, and she casts her eyes downward. Not a good sign.
“Fine…for a while. But there was trouble. A.R.G.U.S. agents. Amanda Waller caught me… She placed me in Task Force X.”
And now I’m completely on edge. Amanda Waller is something of a wildcard. She has the resources to rival just about anyone, the government’s full backing and support, and balls so big even Bruce has to respect her. To top it off, her morals are even worse than mine. On one hand, she really does care about national security. On the other, she’s not above using her Director position to further her own goals. Actually, she uses every opportunity to do so. And Task Force X? Well that’s about the worst position you can find yourself in. They’re basically a bunch of hardened criminals, usually metahumans, who go on impossible missions just for the chance to take a couple years off their sentence. They have another name – The Suicide Squad. And the prerequisite for joining? A tamper-proof bomb at the base of the neck. Waller does not play around.
“Okay, so sometime after the Secret Six, you end up on the Suicide Squad, which isn’t much better than a death sentence. And yet you’re here. In front of me. And you’re not having your head blown off. Which means that for some reason Waller set you free. Why?”
She still refuses to meet my eyes as she speaks, and I can hear the anxiety in her voice. “…Waller saw me on missions. She saw me heal, and she was…curious. Learned about my past…”
“You mean the fact that you’re eighty-plus and you barely look old enough to drink?”
“She offered me a deal. Took me to a secret site. They could reverse all the damage from my childhood. Take away my scars; give me back my voice. And she would let me leave. In exchange, she wanted what made me, me.”
“NO. Please tell me you’re not saying what I think you are. You could NOT be that stupid.” She finally looks up, and I can see the guilt in her face. You idiot.
“I let her extract the electrum from my body. Physically…I’m just a normal girl now.”
Amanda Waller now has access to a compound that if used right, can make a person stronger, faster, and just about impossible to put down permanently. Electrum can resurrect the dead, and it’s now in the hands of a woman with her own personal strike force. Of metahumans. Wonderful.
“I should kill you just for being that dumb. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?! Waller was a handful before—”
“Calm down!” She throws her hands up defensively. “I don’t think she knows how to use it. Her…scientists seemed confused. It’s too complex for them.”
“You underestimate her. It’s only a matter of time before she figures it out.”
“She’s…not our concern right now.”
“Our concern?” She ignores my distinction entirely and presses on.
“I caught wind of something else. Something…dangerous. A sect calling themselves the Wildflower Druids. It’s why I’m here…I need your help.” Something about the slight way her eyes widen and the hint of desperation in her voice tells me that she’s scared. And I can’t shake the feeling that maybe I should be too.