The Connection watched the procession of digital readouts on the control panel beside him. They were independent of the holograph and transmitted data continuously. Tiger had never guessed their existence. The street brawler always tipped his hand while he stood in the van's cab, waiting for the holograph to fill the back area. Telemetry couldn't read thoughts. That was and probably would remain impossible: a man's thoughts were too idiosyncratic to be worth deciphering, but emotions were simpler and universal. The Connection had been chipping away at the physical code of emotions, and if the telemetry could be believed, his lieutenant was a contradictory mass of dread and hope.
He punched a button that would save the readings for later study, then a second button to initiate the holograph transmission. One of the many monitors facing him flickered to life and filled with a reconstruction of an otherwise anonymous face the Connection had plucked out of a crowd several weeks earlier. Beams of ruby-red light touched the Connection's face and hands, establishing the feedback loops that controlled the holograph. Speakers hissed to life with engine and street noises, then Tiger stepped into the fluorescent illusion.
The first thing the Connection noticed was that Tiger's hands were empty, but they were also behind his back, the technological wizard played dumb. "Well, let me see it," he said amiably.
Dread spiked but, interestingly, hope did not diminish. In human beings, emotions were not zero-sum phenomena.
"The sheepherders struck out, boss. They showed, but they didn't give it over."
"They refused to give you the package?" The Connection tapped a switch with his foot. The laser beams ceased. The holograph was on auto-mimic as the Connection's fingers raced over a keyboard. "Tell me what went wrong?" He initiated a subtle strobe sequence. Tiger would not consciously perceive the flashes, but he would feel the cumulative effect as stress and anxiety.
"Almost everything, before I got there. The sheepherders got hit by a drive-by. They drove up fast and blind, jumped out, and started firing, then jumped back in and drove off again. Maybe one of the southside gangs---who knows---I didn't recognize their colors, but they knew what they were looking for and they hit hard. I was too far away to make a difference---" Tiger shuddered as if he'd just received a mild electric shock, which he had.
"Do you intend to tell me that a handful of punk thugs has my icon?" The mimicry circuits kept the holograph's bland features calm and reposed, but the Connection's lips had twisted into a sneer. He had only agreed to this risky, hare-brained deal because of the icon. None of the players, especially the hopelessly naive and fractious Bessarabians, understood the true value of the articles they offered to trade for arms.
There was sweat on Tiger's upper lip and moving along the ridges of his scarred face. "No." Another shudder. "No, I don't know. I couldn't see what happened to the box. I was too far away."
"You said it was a drive-by. The Bessarabians got hit. The box was with them when you inspected the bodies or it was with the drive-by gang."
"Or maybe the Bess-arab sheepherders double-crossed us."
The telemetry went wild. More importantly, the monitor attached to the Connection's keyboard came to life as he opened a back door into the Gotham Police telex. The cursor flashed rapidly, the screen divided, and data began streaming on both sides, in opposite directions.
"Why would the Bessarabians double-cross us? What could they gain? They'd have nothing to show for it, would they? The Seatainers are moored five miles off shore. Those guns and Stinger missiles might just as well be on the moon for all the good they'll do our little friends. The Seatainers are moored safely, aren't they?"
Tiger's nod was quick, emphatic, and confirmed by the telemetry. That part---the easy part: enough munitions to sustain a small rebellion for a number of weeks---of the operation was under control, but the other more important part, involving the antique Russian icon, destined for an Asian collector's very private gallery and from which the Connection expected control of two percent of the Golden Triangle opium trade, was very clearly out of control. The split screen continued to stream data.
"There's something you're not telling me, Tiger." The Connection adopted a parentally cajoling tone while he divided his attention among his many monitor screens. "What went wrong, Tiger? Tell me."
"The Bess-arabs ran, boss. They scattered like---like the sheep they are. I couldn't follow them all. One of them could've taken the box. Or maybe it wasn't a drive-by. Maybe it was a planned hit. Maybe the Bess-arabs do have enemies here. How should I know. There isn't one of them who speaks English worth shit."
Telemetry indicated that the truth had been uttered, but not---as television was apt to say---the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Random violence wasn't unique to Gotham City. The Connection's line of work took him, or his minions, into the world's worst hellholes. He'd had other deals go sour in just this way. It was part of the cost of doing business. You scrambled, you recouped, you put the squeeze on one drug gang after another until they did your dirty work and produced the stolen property.
Tiger knew this.
Then one side of the split screen hailed. The Connection cleared and refocused the screen. He watched in realtime as a transaction began its journey to the central memory: Gotham Memorial Hospital. Ten minutes ago a twenty-one-year-old Soviet immigrant admitted in serious condition with gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen. The patient had been brought to Gotham Memorial by Batman, who advised that another body---another Soviet national---remained at the scene. The police had been notified and a meat wagon had been dispatched to the address: 208 Broad Street.
The Connection rubbed his eyes and returned his undivided attention to his lieutenant. He could guess what had happened with a high degree of confidence, but it was always better to get a confession.
"One of the Bessarabians could have taken the box, or the gang, or someone else. Who else, Tiger? Who else could have taken the box with the icon in it?"
The Connection fingered a dial. A readout showed that the strobe flashes were quicker now, and even more intense. Tiger's pulse quickened immediately and his blood pressure soared. Veins throbbed across his forehead and temples.
"They're telling me, boss."
The telemetry fell like a rock. True confession time had arrived, and Tiger was experiencing the exaltation of truth. But the words weren't anything the Connection wanted to hear.
"The guiding forces are measuring my worthiness. I told you how somebody had been inside my place while I was gone. The inner door had been forced---these big scratches all across it---but none of the outside security had been breached. And when I went inside, they had all turned and went looking at me. And I called you because I was real pissed, because I thought someone had been inside my place, messing with my stuff. And we were talking, and you said 'what about Rose?' Like maybe the bitch had come back. And you told me what I had to do. And it hit me when I walked out of the room: bright flashing lights, and the cat. A big, black cat. It called my name. I didn't understand, not at first. I thought something was wrong, but then, while I was going down to Broad Street I heard them inside my head, saying: Are you the one? Are you the Black Tiger? Are you worthy?
"It's a test, boss. I'm right on the racer's edge. There's so much power around me, waiting for me when I become the Black Tiger. And when I saw the Batman there. Like, why would he be there if the Tiger hadn't drawn him? Then I realized: He's part of the test. Batman's part of my test. I faced him down once already. Now I'm going to beat him---"
The Connection cursed once, mightily and silently, that he had failed to discern his lieutenant's previous encounter with the costumed character. The men and women, heroes and villains, shadow seekers and spotlight gluttons who faced the world in aberrant clothing were beyond the Connection's comprehension. He could predict them, when he had to, but understand them? Never. He didn't want to try. And although the moniker and holographic disguises he used might seem to place him within the men, villain, shadow-seeker category, Harry Mattheson resolutely refused to make the connection.
His moniker and his disguises were legitimate business precautions, not flights of fancy---like Eddie Lobb's unfortunate notion of tiger spirits. At times the brawler seemed to forget he'd gotten his distinctive facial scars from a car antenna after failing behind in his gambling debts. His faith in tiger spirits and transformations was appallingly sincere. And while the Connection did not understand the arcane processes that produced those costumed characters whose talents did in fact lie outside the normal human range, he was quite certain Tiger was not destined to be any more than the punk he'd always been.
Mattheson wrote Tiger's name on a piece of paper, then embellished it with question marks. The scarred man was still giving his interpretation of events and the inevitability of his transformation.
"It was that box you gave me. It pushed me over the top; the tiger spirit came to see if I'm worthy, but I made the mistake of giving the box to that bitch instead of putting it with the others. But I'm over the top now."
Tiger was over the edge, not the top. The scarred man was writing his own death warrant.
"Batman's my test, my final exam to see if I'm worthy to call myself the Black Tiger. When I've taken care of Batman, see, everybody will know I'm worthy."
The Connection tapped his pen on the paper. He wanted to believe everyone who wore a costume was as deluded as his lieutenant, but a man couldn't always have what he wanted. Batman was real. Batman considered Gotham City as his personal domain. Batman was near the top of the list of reasons why the Connection was careful to keep his hands clean and his face hidden.
He weighed his options. He could fry Tiger where he stood, pull back from the deal, and quietly accept his losses. Or he could give Tiger a bit more rope and let Batman hang him instead. He depressed the foot switch. The lasers struck his face and the holograph became directly animated again.
"I don't care about Batman or black tigers. I found you dying in a gutter, Eddie, and I can put you right back where I found you whenever I want. You have a job to do for me: get me that icon. Do whatever you have to do: double-cross the Bessarabians, find their mysterious enemies, squeeze the gangs, fight a duel with Batman---do whatever you want, but get me that icon."
The telemetry began flashing. The telltale tension of betrayal and deception had been detected. Well, that was hardly a surprise. A man who believed he was destined to become the Black Tiger would scarcely imagine that he'd spend his life working for someone else. It was hardly a threat, either.
"Monday morning. In the usual place, Tiger."
The Connection tapped the escape sequence into his computers and Tiger was alone.
Batman saw the police officer get off the elevator and head his way like a bear to honey. They made eye contact. Batman made a quick side-arm gesture, and the officer waited where he was. The surgeon to whom Batman was listening missed the entire transaction as he continued his recitation of the young Russian's injuries and prognosis. He'd lost parts of a lung, his liver, his intestines, and his stomach.
"A shotgun at that range does quite a bit of damage," the surgeon concluded unnecessarily.
"But he's likely to pull through?"
The green-clad surgeon winced and looked uncomfortable. "We've done a lot of work. We think we've repaired the worst of the damage and stopped the bleeding. But the risk of infection is high. We'll know better in a day or two." He backstepped, effectively ending the conversation.
The police officer started moving again. Batman promised that he'd call in the morning. He blamed himself for the Russian's sorry condition. In his effort to gain more information and land bigger fish, he'd allowed a crime to progress beyond the point where he had it stopped. He'd needlessly exposed a young man---an ignorant and naive and therefore innocent young man---to the naked danger of the streets. And, in the end, he hadn't learned anything.
"Batman?" The officer had stopped just beyond conversation distance. He was clearly uncomfortable with his assigned duty. "The Feds came and took the body, before we could identify it. They chewed up Commissioner Gordon pretty bad. Now Gordon wants to meet with you in his office. We've got to hurry. We had trouble finding you, and we're going to be late."
Gordon's office wasn't any place Batman particularly wanted to be, but to refuse the officer's invitation was to endanger a long-standing, but always delicate, relationship.
"Let's not be any later than necessary," he said with more enthusiasm than he felt, and followed the officer through the hospital.
He followed in silence. He held little hope that the meeting with Gordon would be productive, and that little was squashed when he saw a quartet of unfamiliar faces waiting with the Commissioner.
Gordon rolled his eyes as if to say he was powerless in this situation and that Batman had brought it on himself. Then the bureaucratic bloodletting began. Bruce Wayne knew when he became the Batman that many of the people he was trying to help---the regulated, publicly funded, overworked agents of law enforcement---would stand in his way at every opportunity. He accepted their resentment and their small-minded insults as part of the price he paid, but after the Fed chief began his fourth or fifth diatribe about "Besserb counterinsurgency" Batman lost his patience.
With tight-lipped politeness he explained that the corpse they had appropriated had been a Gagauzi while he lived---a Turkish-speaking Christian from the central highlands of Bessarabia. The young man in the hospital was an ethnic Russian whose grandparents had been relocated to Bessarabia by Josef Stalin in 1940. The drive-by shooting had probably been an unfortunate coincidence, but if it wasn't there was a good chance it had been engineered by Rumanian-speaking Moldovan agents whose interest in preventing the consummation of the icons-for-arms deal was intense and personal. There were, therefore, three discrete factions, all of whom lived in an area politicians referred to as Bessarabia, but none of them thought of themselves as Bessarabians.
The Serbs, Batman added, were fighting in what remained of Yugoslavia.
One of the Feds had the decency to take notes; the other three folded their arms in obdurate silence. Gordon tried to break the stalemate with levity.
"Oh, for the good old days of East versus West and one-size-fits-all black hats."
The Fed chief, who was not the one taking notes, wiped his hands together as if they'd come in contact with something unclean. "You've compromised a major international counterinsurgency operation, Mr. Whoever-you-are-in-there. I'm not at liberty to tell you the initiatives involved, but we had our operatives in place, ready to interdict, when your grandstanding blew the whole thing sky-high. Now we're back to ground zero. The transfer never took place. We've wasted our time and the taxpayers' money. We're stuck up here hoping that the Besserbs"---he pointedly did not change his pronunciation---"will reestablish contact before they head back up to Canada and we've lost them."
Operatives in place? Catwoman? Catwoman a federal operative? Catwoman a spy? The notion was ludicrous, and yet she was the only one at the scene whose motives remained unclear. It made precious little sense, but, then again, the whole situation made precious little sense.
Batman stoically endured the scorn and veiled threats until the Feds had tired themselves out and left. Then he turned to Gordon. "I've got to stop them," he said flatly, without elaborating on which "them" he had in mind.
"I know, you did your best." Gordon sighed. "Not even you could be expected to unravel this mess in time. It's a whole new world out there, and we're just trying to keep the peace in Gotham City. The Feds are claiming preeminent jurisdiction. I'm ready to give it to him and just hope that there isn't more bloodshed."
"No, Gordon. I can get to the bottom of it---at least here in Gotham City. I've got the key." He thought of the icon sitting in the Wayne Foundation vault. "I can lure all the parties into one place, and when I have them there, I'll let you know."
Gordon started to argue, then thought better of it. "You know how to reach me. Be careful. To the Feds you're just another amateur vigilante. If they can't catch these---who did you say they were, Ga-Ga-somethings?---they'll be just as happy putting you out of business."
Batman thanked him for the warning and left.