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Chapter Three

It was no accident that Batman's mind filled with maritime metaphors when he thought of the Connection. In this day of fiber optics and instantaneous communications, a good shipping line was still the best way to move contraband. Jet planes were faster, of course, and these days could carry just about anything if the need was great enough, and the buyer cared nothing about cost. Big planes, however, needed big runways and left big blips on radarscopes around the world. Refined drug operations, with their worth-more-than-gold cargoes, made good use of short-takeoff planes. But the Connection moved contraband by the ton, and for that an interchangeable string of rust-bucket freighters, casually registered in Liberia or Panama, and crewed by a motley assortment of nationless sailors, was a necessity.

Batman wasn't ready to leave the city for his cave and computers. Getting a lead on the Connection with pure legwork, prior to doing data research, was a long shot, but the night was young and his perambulations hadn't taken him along the waterfront in over a week. He made his way toward Gotham's deep-water harbor---one of the largest and safest in the New World and still a place where an isolated ship could come and go virtually unnoticed. He detoured briefly, cutting the corner of the East End and sating his curiosity behind the now-deserted and damp ruins of the abandoned building. A swift, but thorough, examination of the alleys revealed the bloodstained impression of a body dropped from above and the muddy stomping of the EMS crew that carted it to the street. Catwoman hadn't lied. He could put that out of his mind completely, and did.

The harbor's glory days were behind it now. Most cargo---legitimate or not---traveled in sealed containers that were hoisted from ship to truck or railroad flatcar at the massive new mechanized Gotham City Port Authority Terminal some twenty miles away. No one used the oceans for speed anymore. The great passenger ships and fast freighters had all been chopped up and turned into cheap, Asian cars. The lumbering oil tankers belched out their contents at oiling buoys anchored on the three-mile limit.

The big piers and wharves were crumbling mausoleums of days gone by. None of the ships riding beside them shoved identifying funnels above the rooflines. Batman climbed a rickety harbormaster's tower to get a better view, because things still moved here. These old docks were the biggest cracks in the system, and if the Connection were bringing something into Gotham City, the men working the night shift along the waterfront---the last of the stevedores---would have heard about it.

Expectations were rewarded. Midway along the dark line of piers, a dome of light marked the place where cargo was being manhandled with ropes, hooks, and shouts. Leaving the tower, Batman took an open path toward the activity, moving past the deep shadows, rather than through them, inviting a stranger to approach.

Contrary to common wisdom, there was no honor among thieves or any other criminal type. They were always eager to sell each other out, especially if they thought he---Batman---could be distracted with someone else's misdeeds. Word of his presence should have spread like wildfire, and since it was just about certain that somebody here on the waterfront was doing something he shouldn't he doing, it was equally certain that somebody would scuttle up with a tattletale rumor.

Mountainous bales of old clothes and musty newspapers stood in line, waiting for the crane to hook their rope-lashed pallets. Removing a small cylinder from his belt, Batman shone a finger of light across one of the bales. He recognized the logo of a respected international relief organization, and a series of destinations, in several languages and scripts, starting in the Bangladesh port of Dacca and continuing on to Kabul in Afghanistan. Feeling suddenly lucky, he returned the cylinder to his belt.

There must be six million worthy souls in that misbegotten corner of the world willing to put to good use those things Americans had used once and thrown away. There were also a half dozen different insurrections operating there, and Batman could practically smell the armaments packed---unbeknownst to the relief organization---in the middle of each bale. Although the Connection didn't transship through American ports, he'd certainly want to know if someone else was. When Batman spotted the silhouette of a solitary man leaving the pier area at a brisk pace, he gave chase.

Batman caught up with the walker in the concrete fields beneath the waterfront highway. Not wanting to stage the confrontation in the open, he circled wide and waited until his quarry was striding down a deserted warehouse block. Batman didn't say anything. The mask, the cape, and his thou-shalt-not-pass stance spoke louder than any words.

He got a good look at the man he'd been following. Dark-haired and powerfully built. About thirty, give or take a handful of years. The stevedore's age was hard to guess; his face was puckered with a series of long, thin scars. Because of where he'd been earlier in the evening, Batman's first thought was that the man had been mauled by a big cat, but he rejected that thought. The scars weren't quite parallel, and there were at least six of them. Somebody'd worked this fellow over with a steel whip.

"I got nothing to do with you," the scarred man said with a sneer. "You ain't king of the jungle around here."

Batman wasn't entirely surprised that his quarry was unimpressed by appearances. It took a certain kind of man to live with scars like that; it took a certain kind of man to survive the getting of them. "You were working on the pier. Loading that freighter for Bangladesh?"

"No, I was checking my yacht for a friggin' regatta." He took a step sideways; Batman moved with him. "We don't keep regular hours," he explained, as if talking to an exceptionally dense child. "The boats come and go with the tides. That one's going to leave about four A.M.---if that's all right with you, I suppose."

"I'm looking for someone who ships a lot of freight to places like Bangladesh---places where the people are poor and needy and the customs inspectors are conveniently blind---"

"Don't know what you're talking about." He veered the other way; again Batman stayed with him.

"Let's say I'm trying to make a certain... connection."

The light on the empty street came from a single halogen lamp at the far end of the block. But Batman was angling for a reaction, so he was watching when the dark eyes lost focus and pulled sharply to one side. He didn't need a polygraph to know when a man was getting ready to lie. He began feeling very, very lucky.

"What kinda connection? There's things come into port sometimes. Maybe I hear about them. Maybe I don't. It depends." The scarred stevedore shrugged his shoulders and slipped a hand under the waist ribbing of his wool sweater.

Batman knew what was coming, and how he'd react: carefully. Whoever this guy was, he looked to be useful. "What's your name?" he asked on the off chance that an answer would be forthcoming along with the knife.

"Call me Tiger."

It wasn't a knife, but one of the hooks stevedores used to maneuver cargo pallets while they were swinging through the air. An ordinary hook could puncture a man's lungs. This one had been filed and sharpened, and Tiger whipped it through the air like a pro.

Dodging the first two sweeps, Batman took the measure of the man and his weapon before closing in. His costume protected him from things inherently more dangerous than eight curved inches of sharpened steel, but his partially exposed face was open to mistakes and punishment. It didn't pay to be careless. Nor would it pay to disable his attacker. Batman employed his forearms constantly in contact with Tiger's, making his slash wide and pushing him steadily backwards until his back was against a proverbial wall.

As soon as Tiger felt brick behind him, his eyes glazed. He put all his strength and effort into a mighty sweep at Batman's jaw. The masked man expected just such an overcommitment of energy. He got his weight underneath Tiger's, shoving upward slightly, outward mostly, and getting his gauntleted hand over the haft of the weapon just before Tiger went flying along the pavement.

He landed on his butt, with both palms flat on the ground beside him and a dumbfounded expression twisting his face. He saw his weapon in Batman's hands, and confusion transformed to white-hot rage. Batman took a stride forward, closing the fight distance before Tiger could launch an attack.

"Don't be a fool, Tiger," Batman said, darkening the man with his shadow.

Tiger scrambled backward before getting to his feet. "You got nothing, Bat." He glanced over his shoulder getting ready to run---but not, Batman noted, toward the pier.

"Tell me about the Bessarabians, Tiger." Batman played his ace in the hole, just to see what would happen.

"Don't know squat about the Bess-Arabs. Screw you and the sheepherders, too." He spun quickly on the balls of his feet and took off down the street.

Batman let him go. His mind was already chewing on new information. He hadn't expected a direct hit. Tiger had been smart enough to fudge his response to the Connection question, but he'd left himself wide open on the Bessarabians. The Bess-arabs. Maybe they were Arabs. Maybe they were sheepherders. The world was just beginning to wake up to the knowledge that the Islamic cultures were tribal, not national, and eager to fight among themselves in the absence of an infidel enemy.

He listened to Tiger's footfalls after the man rounded the corner, then heard the sound of a midsized diesel engine and jogged down the sidewalk himself in time to see the receding taillights of what appeared to be an express parcel delivery van---complete with a satellite dish and antenna mounted on the roof.

Tiger caught his breath on the metal steps leading up to the driver's pedestal-seat. The encounter had been his first with a bona fide Hero. He felt he'd handled the occasion well, all things considered. A boy couldn't grow up in Gotham City without seeing Batman and his cronies---even if that boy grew up as Tiger did, on the East End streets where a television was something you watched in front of a pawnshop window. Of course, a boy like Tiger grew up knowing that for every Batman, there were a dozen villains. He knew all their name, where they were, what had happened, which few had never been brought down.

He studied their failures, because he was never going to make their mistakes. The time was coming when there'd be a new name front and center in all the media. The Tiger. Him. It was his life's ambition---the only thing that had sustained him during the lean years before he met the man in back. When he had tried too hard, rather than smart, and ran afoul of a no-name bookie with a coil of razor-wire and a grudge. Those days were behind him. If Tiger had had any doubts, he purged them while he chiseled his encounter with Batman into his memory, enhancing the good parts, smoothing over the bad moments until they were gone.

He was Tiger. He'd been rousted by Batman---who only rousted important guys. He hadn't cracked, not the way some punks did, spilling their guts the moment they saw that mask and cape. He'd told the Bat off, fought him to a draw, and left in the time and manner of his own choosing. He'd lost his weapon. That was hard to enhance or smooth over, until he decided that a hook wasn't a weapon, it was a tool, and tools were designed to be discarded once their usefulness was gone.

The man in back had taught him that.

The driver wheeled the van onto one of the uptown avenues. He used its tanklike bulk to commandeer the middle lane and picked up speed to get in synch with the traffic lights. They were bouncing through the potholes at about twenty-five miles an hour when the van erupted with an earsplitting whine. Gripping the wheel one-handed, the driver wrestled bright yellow foam earmuffs over his head. Tiger ground his teeth together, winced, and held on for dear life as the van bucked and shook.

It took thirty seconds to acquire the signal, thirty seconds that lasted a lifetime. Then it was over, reduced to a barely perceptible vibration beneath Tiger's sweat-slicked palms. The driver left his earmuffs on. Tiger grabbed ahold of the sliding door and stepped into the bright fluorescent light filling the back of the van.

"You were late. You almost missed us."

The light wasn't natural. It radiated from the walls, the ceiling, and the floor. Coming in from the night, it made Tiger's eyes water. He squinted and sniffed, and waited for his vision to clear.

"But I didn't," he asserted.

The Connection remained blurry behind his massive black desk. A soft-featured man on the far side of fifty, with pale hair the same color as his pale skin. Tiger's heart skipped a beat---he thought he recognized the face. He did---a congressman from Nowhere, North Dakota, who'd just resigned his seat in disgrace. The Connection's idea of a joke.

The simple fact was, it didn't matter if Tiger's eyes ever got focused. Nothing here was real. It was all souped-up, high-tech gadgetry. The Connection never looked the same, sounded the same two times running, because the Connection wasn't here. God only knew where the Connection was when he beamed his holograph into the van. God only knew what he really looked like.

"Might I remind you that I despise arrogance even more than I despise carelessness?"

It didn't matter what the Connection looked like---or what he did to his voice. Tiger knew he was in the presence of his boss, and that was all that mattered. For now. Until he was The Tiger and ready to take over.

"We were shorthanded. I was working myself to get the stuff in the hold where it was supposed to be. Better to do it right and be a few seconds late." He jutted out his chin, faintly defying the holograph to disagree. He'd come up with an easy explanation if the metal detectors spotted that he didn't have his hook in his belt; it'd gotten stuck in the last bale and he'd left it behind. There was no need to tell the boss about Batman.

"You'll shorthanded all the way through this next deal. I don't want any extra bodies nosing around, and no one on that ship who's not completely expendable."


"Is everything progressing according to the plan?"

It had to be a trick question. The Connection knew more about the plan than Tiger himself. But like all trick questions, it had to be answered correctly.

"Yeah, yeah. No problems. The Bess-Arabs are in town. I collected their collateral---two shit-painted pieces of wood in cheap gold frames. Who pays for this stuff, boss?" he asked rhetorically, not expecting an answer. "Anyway, I put 'em in the vault. I fly out the day after tomorrow; the ship picks me up tomorrow night. The merchandise is all sealed up already and waiting for us. I make sure it gets loaded on, then, ten days from now, I drop it over the side, put a radio buoy on it, and, bingo, I'm back in town to collect that third piece of shit. Eleven days and the deal's history."

The holograph nodded and shuffled papers, looking for one in particular, which it found. The effect was entirely the paper he held up was blank and faintly translucent.

"You're nervous, Tiger. Why?"

"I ain't, boss."

"We're bringing Seatainers of top-quality USArmy hardware---guns, ammo, and Stinger missiles---to Gotham City's front door and you're not nervous?"

"Yeah. No. It's like... Yeah, I'm nervous about it, but the plan's under control, so... No, I'm not. It's like that."

A considerable distance away, behind a real desk, in a real room filled with unique electronic and communications gear, a real hand fingered a real piece of paper. Three high-definition television screens provided an in-the-round view of Tiger swaying from side to side as the van bounced along its preset route. A cockpit full of telemetry displayed everything that couldn't be seen, from the absence of his favorite weapon in its sheath beneath his sweater, to the temperature gradient between his cold-sweating hands and his hot-sweating face. Even the way his gut was churning.

Tiger was nervous---exceptionally so---and lying about it. The Connection made a mark on the paper. Then again, Tiger was usually nervous. He wasn't as tough as he thought he was, or as smart. But he was tough enough, smart enough to have been a useful tool these last ten years. The Connection took a paternal interest in his employees; good men were hard to find in his line of work. They were all flawed in one way or another. He took it upon himself to see that the flaws didn't get out of control.

"How is Rose? Has she been behaving herself?"

The image on the television screens nodded. Telemetry showed that his pulse was skyrocketing and his gut was hard as lead.

"Yeah, yeah. She's okay. I'm the man. She's my woman. No problems."

Another mark on the paper.

"We were approached the other day by our contacts in Hong Kong. It's a small deal, but the exchange rate was interesting. It would appear that one of the Manchu emperors shared your passion for Panthera tigris and the Imperial collection has somehow survived. I've taken the liberty of selecting one of the choicer specimens."

The telemetry jittered before settling at much lower levels: visible proof that a man could be bought.

"It's in the desk. Take it with my thanks, my gratitude---for the good job I know you're going to do."

Tiger thrust his hands into the holographic desk. They struck something hard and fur-covered. He grasped it eagerly and withdrew a box cunningly constructed from a silver-gray tiger's skull. The excitement he felt holding it was spiritual and sexual, and transmitted to the Connection in his distant lair.

"I thought you would like it. How many do you have now?"

"A hundred and thirty-nine," Tiger said dreamily, stroking the stiff fur. "Any day now. Any day now the Tiger's gonna come."

The solid flesh of the real Connection shaped itself into a scowl that was not transmitted to the holograph. Tiger had been waiting ten years for his namesake. Someday he'd realize there was no Tiger spirit. Someday the Connection would have to kill him. But not quite yet.

Chapter Two | Catwoman - Tiger Hunt | Chapter Four