“GUESS WHOS BACK!”
Wally winced, and raised a hand in front of his face to block out the booming voice of the young man standing in front of him with a huge grin on his face. “Easy, Jervis. I can see you standing right in front of me.”
“Sorry, I’m just so pumped to be back!” Jervis Tetch strode energetically into Wally’s room. He was a tall student with a round, good-natured face, a noticeable potbelly, thick black glasses and long hair swinging loosely and wildly from his scalp. “I just got back to my dorm. Dumped my bag in my room and came straight out again to celebrate. This is going to be the best year of my life. What’s up, Kyle?”
Kyle raised a hand in greeting, and winced as Jervis gave it a resounding smack. “Hey, man. Good to see you.”
“What do you mean, the best year of your life?” Wally asked, closing the door and turning to face Jervis.
In response, Jervis thrust his hand into the pocket of his jacket and took out a pen drive case with a dramatic flourish. “This is why. Come on, let’s go over to Dalton and I’ll tell you all about it.”
“Well, sure, I could do with a drink.” Kyle agreed, rising to his feet.
“Let’s go.” Wally nodded, once again opening the door.
The three made their way out of the hostel and towards the university offices. It was still very early in the semester, and the students walking around them had the unhurried post-holidays saunter.
“Bruce!” Wally called out to a student walking several yards in front of them.
Bruce, who had been walking alone towards the opposite direction on the other side of the road turned, and nodded back to Wally. He came over and fell in step with the other three. “Where are you all going?”
“Daltons.” Kyle replied. “Jervis has some big reason to celebrate. Where’s Clark?”
Bruce shrugged. “I haven’t seen him all day. He and John went to visit his father.”
“She’s gone with Arthur to New Genesis.” Wally volunteered. “She told me in the morning.”
“Well, looks like it’s just us, then.” Jervis said brightly. “And we’re gonna make a night of it at the bar. At least until my money runs out.”
“So are you gonna tell us what the celebration’s for?” Wally asked him.
Once again, Jervis took the pen drive case out of his pocket. “This pen drive contains a piece of software called Top Hat, and it’s going to revolutionize the internet marketing industry.”
“What is it exactly?” Bruce inquired, taking the case and opening it. He peered inside at the tiny blue drive lodged within.
“See, I’ve been working on the top hat project for the past two years.” Jervis explained. “This was actually the reason I got a full scholarship to university. I sent the initial test module to Professor Emil Hamilton. He liked my idea and offered me a seat here if we could develop it together. And that was so great because there was no way I could’ve gotten to this point on my own.”
“Hamilton’s that guy who works in Star Labs, right?” Kyle asked. “I thought he was a professor of biology.”
“That’s his official post.” Bruce said. “He’s got a mastery over half a dozen scientific disciplines on the side.”
“Exactly.” Jervis nodded fervently. “The man’s a genius! I’ve been working on the last legs of Top Hat over the summer. That’s why I arrived late this term. But it’s finally finished, and I’m waiting for Professor Hamilton to get back to his office so I can give it to him.”
“So what does Top Hat do?” Bruce inquired, handing the drive case back to Jervis.
“Basically, it’s a form of AI that studies your internet habits.” Jervis said, pocketing the drive. “The sites you visit. The videos you watch. The comments you leave on social media. It compiles every single piece of information about you available online to create a psychological profile of your habits and inclinations.”
“That doesn’t sound very different from all the other programs that pull information off the internet.” Bruce commented. “Facebook and Google have been doing something like that for years.”
“But that’s just phase one.” Jervis said, his voice growing more excited. “What sets my program apart is what happens in phase two. Once the profile has been created, Top Hat starts showing the user ads. But they’re not just any ads that relate to your internet searches, which is what happens nowadays. No, these are ads that carry words and images that are specifically designed to appeal to your subconscious, and make you want to buy the product.”
“The subconscious?” Bruce’s voice was deeply skeptical. “Sounds like that trick mentalists have for making you think of a specific number for them to guess. And that technique has a very low rate of success even when the options are in low numbers. How do you apply it to the hundred and thousands of products that sell online?”
“By exponentially increasing the number of suggestions!” Jervis’s voice was almost cracking with excitement now. “I’m not talking about one ad running once. I’m talking about multiple ads that run one after the other, each geared specifically to a single user’s taste’s and triggers, for as long as it takes to have them make a purchase. You’re right, the mentalist’s method has a very low chance of success. But I’ve been running Top Hat’s beta version for the past week, and it has a success rate of over thirty-five percent!” His eyes were gleaming with excitement. “Can you imagine that? Every company on the planet would kill to get that kind of conversion rate on their sales. I’m talking about a twenty times sales increase at the very least!”
Bruce nodded slowly. “If you really have managed to do that, it would be pretty revolutionary. WayneCorp would pay an arm and a leg for that technology.”
“I’ll be sure to offer you a discount.” Jervis laughed.
“Well, I can’t say I’ve understood everything you said just now. As far as I can make out, you’re going to use google to control people’s minds somehow.” Wally remarked. Jervis laughed again. “But congrats anyway, man.” All three of them shook Jervis’s hand as they came within sight of Dalton.
“Thanks, man.” Jervis chuckled. “This really is going to be the start of something incredible.”
The four entered the bar known as Dalton’s. It was frequented mostly by college students who lived within walking distance, and was largely empty.
“A pitcher of your finest beer.” Jervis declared to the waiter as the three found seats around a table in the corner of the room.
“So what are you going to do with Top Hat now?” Kyle inquired as the four settled themselves down comfortably.
“Now comes the task of actually finding some investors to turn the prototype into a saleable product.” Jervis said. “There’s licensing, then there’s the people we’ll have to chase down just to book an appointment with investors. It’s a long road ahead yet.”
“Let me know if you’re looking for investors from Gotham.” Bruce said as the beer arrived. “I might be able to get you some useful contacts.”
“Thanks, but the prototype belongs to the university’s research lab.” Jervis said, pouring everyone out a generous measure of the beer. “The professor will probably want to focus on Metropolis investors for now.”
“To the Top Hat.” Wally declared, and the four raised their glasses for the toast, while Jervis grinned broadly and bowed his head.
The night wore on as the first pitcher was replaced by a second. By the end everyone was feeling pleasantly light-headed, but the most profound effect seemed to have been on Jervis. He was hiccupping frequently and swaying around in his chair. He talked rapidly and incoherently about a range of subjects, staring at the other in glassy-eyed earnestness. Finally he stood up and declared his intention to go to the bathroom. The other watched him make his way extremely unsteadily to the end of the room, falling down twice in the process before finally reaching the bathroom door.
“So what’s going on with you, Bruce?” Wally asked as the three turned back to their glasses after having watched Jervis’s progress with interest. “The group hasn’t had much of a chance to get together ever since Clark came back. Is Diana still not talking to him?”
“Yeah.” Bruce drained the last of the beer from his glass. “Three days and not a single word to him.”
“Clark looked pretty unhappy about it.” Wally commented. “I still don’t get what happened with those two.”
“Yeah, what is this whole thing about?” Kyle added. “Why is Diana so mad at Clark?”
“He didn’t call her all summer.” Bruce said briefly. “He’s been dodging her calls ever since her birthday party.”
“Why?” Wally stared at him in surprise. “I thought the two of them would be an item by now. I thought they would’ve sealed the deal over the summer.”
“I went with Clark to Diana’s birthday party in the summer.” Bruce said. “Ever since then Clark’s been acting funny. He didn’t seem to have enjoyed himself there.”
“Was this party really stuffy?” Kyle asked shrewdly. “Was it stuffed full of diamonds and billionaires wearing those diamonds, and did the whole place look like something out of Vogue magazine?”
“It was just a regular party, really.” Bruce shrugged. “Nothing special.”
“A regular party for Bruce Wayne is a trip to Mount Olympus for us ordinary mortals.” Wally remarked. “I can see why Clark would feel uncomfortable. But are you telling me he was so intimidated that he got scared off of asking Diana out?”
“I don’t know.” Bruce said slowly. “Whether or not they go out is their business, but they need to at least start talking to each other again. I hate having to be the chatty one when we’re all together.”
“Good luck getting someone as stubborn as Diana to talk first.” Kyle remarked, taking a swig from his glass. “One way that they taught us to resolve conflict in the corps was by focusing both parties on a mutual enemy. So maybe try being a dick to both of them at the same time.”
Jervis returned from the bathroom, still looking extremely unsteady. “Oh man.” He said, slumping down on his chair and putting his head on the cold table surface. “I am totally wasted. I’mma need you guys to take me back to the dorm. I don’t trust my legs right now to take me where I need to go.”
“Yeah, let’s get going.” Wally waved to their waiter for the check. Jervis waved his credit card limply towards the waiter while his head stayed glued to the table.
“Why don’t I pay for this right now.” Bruce rose and followed the waiter to the counter. He paid the bill and came back to see Wally and Kyle helping Jervis to his feet. Leaning heavily on the two, Jervis made his way to the door with Bruce bringing up their wake. The cool night breeze was a refreshing change from Dalton’s stale air conditioned atmosphere.
“We’ll just swing by Star Labs on the way.” Jervis’s speech was slurred, even though he was able to walk on his own, albeit unsteadily. “Hamilton might be there to check on the lab. He was supposed to be back this afternoon.”
They made their way back into the university. The roads were far less crowded now, as the group made their way to Star Labs, an imposing and futuristic looking building located in the north side of campus. They were nearing the entrance when they saw a man exit the building while strapping on his backpack.
“Professor Hamilton” Jervis called out excitedly. The man stopped and looked around for the source of the shout. He spotted Jervis and raised a hand in greeting.
“Jervis.” Professor Hamilton was a middle-aged man with a balding head and thick round glasses similar to Jervis’s. The eyebrows behind the glasses were raised in surprise at the moment. “Have you been drinking?”
“Just a little bit.” Jervis said, his speech no longer slurred. “I was out celebrating. I did it, sir. Top Hat is working perfectly!”
A broad smile spread across the professor’s face. He did not even bother to glance at the other three boys. “That is excellent news!” He took the pen drive case that Jervis had thrust towards him and rolled it between his fingertips. “You were much faster than I had anticipated.”
“I’ve been busting my ass all summer. I… I’m sorry, I meant I’ve worked very hard.” Jervis looked embarrassed, but the professor was not paying attention. He had opened his brief case and taken out his laptop.
“Hold this for a moment.” Professor Hamilton told Wally, thrusting the laptop in his hands. Opening the top, he pressed the power button while Wally held the laptop up patiently.
The professor opened the case and extracted the pen drive. “We finally have something to show for two years of research.” He inserted the drive in his computer and clicked on the single icon that showed up onscreen. Instantly, a screen opened and a row of commands appeared in front of the group.
“Beautiful.” Professor Hamilton breathed. “I see you finally decided to use the sonix program to create the loop functions.” He scrolled carefully down the list of commands, nodding with satisfaction. “Congratulations, Jervis. It looks like you have a fully functional Top Hat at last.”
“I couldn’t have done it without you, sir.” Jervis said, smiling broadly as he plucked the pen drive and inserted it back in its case. He handed it over to the professor. “You were the best mentor I could ever have asked for.”
“It was my pleasure.” Hamilton smiled, unsnapping his briefcase and sliding the case inside. “And now we can finally start talks with companies on behalf of the university’s research office. I have to get back home now, so I’ll see you tomorrow, Jervis.” He nodded to the other two and hurried down the road.
“That’s one headache off my hands.” Jervis sighed. “Well, I should get back to my hostel. Tonight was really fun, guys. Let’s do it again sometime.”
“Absolutely.” Wally agreed, as He, Jervis, Bruce and Kyle continued down the road on their way back to their hostel.
The next day, Bruce found him sleep broken by a hammering on the front door. He jerked awake and stared at the clock. Six AM. The hammering started again.
“Who is it?” Bruce called out sharply.
“Officer Turpin.” He recognized Dan Turpin’s guttural voice.
“Open the door, Bruce.” Came Wally’s voice next. “It’s urgent.”
Bruce jumped out of bed as the last vestiges of sleep shook themselves out of his brain. He crossed over to the door and opened it to see Dan Turpin standing outside with Wally at his side, and Jarvis standing in the background with another young man.
“We have a situation.” Jarvis spoke up, his voice rising rapidly in excitement. “Someone broke into Emil Hamilton’s house and stole the pen drive. You have to help us, Bruce.”
“Seems like you two know a thing or two about this top-secret project.” Officer Dan growled. “I was on my way to Star labs with Wally, Jarvis and Dylan. I’ll need you to come along, too.”
Bruce nodded, his mind swiftly adapting to the new situation. His brain was already working on two separate tracks simultaneously. He got dressed at top speed, and soon, the four boys were following Officer Turpin out of the hostel and towards Star Labs. A few brief introductions confirmed that Dylan was Jervis’s roommate.
The lab was a different place from what it had been in the night. Various personnel rushed in and out of rooms, and several police officers were also on the scene. Officer Turpin ignored everyone and led the other three straight to the main office.
Professor Emil Hamilton was sitting at his desk, a look of great distress on his face. He was speaking to an officer, who saluted in front of Turpin and moved back as the other entered the room.
“These are the three boys you spoke to last, professor?” Officer Turpin asked.
“Yes, yes, that’s them.” Professor Hamilton nodded. “Jervis is my student and my intern, but I’m afraid I don’t know the other two very well.”
“Fortunately, I do.” Officer Turpin said. “I’ve worked with Bruce and Wally in the past, and I believe their presence can aid us in this investigation.” He turned to Bruce, Wally and Jervis. “So first, let’s catch everyone up to speed. Mr. Tecth, you gave a pen drive to Professor Hamilton last night that had some sensitive information on it, correct?”
“It’s a project we’ve been working on for the past year.” Jervis spoke up excitedly. “You have got to find it, officer! It’s a new form of loop back programming framework that is designed to make choices based on statistical probability for a set of variables-”
“Yes, yes, fine.” Turpin put up a hand. “We needn’t go into all that. The information on the pen drive was worth money?”
“It would have been, once it was coded into search engines.” Prof Hamilton said wearily. “It would have been potentially worth tens of millions. But the real world testing phase was still a long way off.”
“How many people knew about the Top Hat program?” Wally asked.
Preffesor Hamilton shook his head helplessly. “It is impossible to keep a project like this completely under wraps. There were many industry experts I need to confer with, and those who provided us with the resources to carry the program forward. But they were all men of impeccable reputation. I cannot imagine any of them resorting to stealing a fellow scientist’s work.”
“You’d be surprised what the prospect of millions of dollars can do to people’s ethics.” Turpin said dryly. “Let’s go back to last night. Please tell us what happened right from the beginning exactly as you remember it. Don’t leave out any details.”
“It’s all such a mess in my mind. I woke up from my sleep completely disoriented. And I keep remembering things like they happened backward. I could swear I smelt the burning before I heard the window break. But the thief had to break in through the window and then plant the bomb, so how is that possible?” He lowered his head into his hands. “Everything is jumbled up together. If only my head would stop aching for a minute…”
“Let’s try talking about the things you clearly remember.” Turpin prompted. “What is your first definite memory from that night?”
Hamilton paused, thinking hard. “When I got downstairs.” He said finally. “It was a clear night, and the moon was shining quite brightly. I could see the room clearly by that point. I saw the smoke coming out of the suitcase, and I felt the breeze coming from the broken window. Then again I smelled a fresh wave of that horrible burning smell. I turned on the lights, and that’s when I saw my briefcase. Its casing had been burnt away. All my papers kept inside had been ruined. The case of the pen drive was lying broken open, and the drive itself was missing.”
“It was a chemical bomb.” Turpin supplied to Bruce. “No explosion, no loud bang, but the objects placed in its proximity get destroyed all the same. Our analysts are still looking into its exact makeup. So there you have it. We’re dealing with a criminal who wasn’t simply satisfied with stealing a valuable pen drive. He also had to completely ruin the suitcase, which is the most risky and bizarre way I’ve ever seen of getting rid of evidence. Then there’s the fact that there absolutely no prints of any kind to be found. Not on the suitcase, not on the brick, not anywhere in the house and nowhere in the garden. Not to mention the fact that the whole operation was carried out in record time. Oh, and also don’t forget the fact that the thief was polite enough to close the window latch behind him after he left. Those are the facts as we know them. Now can you make head or tail of this whole business?”
“A couple of points do present themselves.” Bruce said slowly. “I think there might be a lead we can follow that might yield some result. But I can’t do it alone. I’ll need the others with me.”
“You mean that whole team of yours?” Officer Turpin’s eyes narrowed. “How about letting me know about your leads, and I’ll follow it up?”
Bruce smiled blandly. “I’m afraid I was being too optimistic when I called it a lead. It’s more a hunch than anything, and it’s not a matter that will respond well to police questioning. It’d be best if me and my friends tackled it.”
Officer Turpin stared at him for a long moment before finally nodding. “Fine, I guess your past work have earned you a chance at least. You can do this your way, but I want a full report at the end of the day of exactly what you’ve been up to.”
“Thanks. I’ll also need my team to get the day off from classes.” Bruce said.
“You can have it.” Professor Hamilton put in fervently. “I’ll talk to the dean and explain everything. Work with the police, work with the media. Work with the military if you have to. Take as much time as you need, just find me that pen drive!”
“I’ll try my best.” Bruce said. He nodded to the professor and the officer, and left the room, Wally and Jervis right behind him.
“Your team?” Wally spoke up. “So we’re in an episode of ‘Bruce and his Sidekicks’?”
“Don’t get hung up on technicalities.” Bruce said. “We need to call all the others. Call everyone and get them to meet up in the caféteria.”
“So that’s the deal.” Bruce concluded half an hour later. He was sitting in the cafeteria with Clark, Diana, John, Arthur, Wally, Kyle and Jervis. He had been bringing the others up to speed on the case. “The pen drive needs to be found as quickly as possible, and the police has agreed to give us the day off from classes to look for it. Any questions?”
He stared around the table. Everyone at the table had been listening to him intently, except for Clark, who had been staring at Diana, who was pointedly ignoring him.
“When exactly did you find out about the robbery?” Arthur asked Jervis.
“We got the news a couple of hours ago.” Dylan said. “Jervis had a wicked hangover and had been sleeping like a log ever since he got back to the room last night. His phone rang and I picked it up. It was from Professor Hamilton.”
“Next thing I know officer Turpin is hammering on my door.” Jervis put in. “I couldn’t even understand what he was saying at first because my head was throbbing so much. Oh god, all that work down the drain.” He buried his head in his hands with a grain.
“Don’t lose hope yet, we still have a chance of finding the drive.” Wally said. “Bruce has a plan, right Bruce?”
“Yes, we’ll need two teams.” Bruce said. “Me, Clark, John and Diana in team one, and you, Arthur, Kyle, Jervis and Dylan in team two. I’ll need team two to carry out some investigations around the university, while team one takes my car and checks on some contacts in town that might give us a lead.”
“I shall stay with the team here in the university.” Diana said stiffly.
“No, I’ll need you with me.” Bruce said. “One of the contacts I mentioned lives in New Genesis. You’ll need to be the one to talk to him. And it’s not a conversation to have over the phone.”
“I’ll stay back.” Clark said awkwardly, looking at Diana. “I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable because of me.
“I am not uncomfortable.” Diana said, sitting rigidly in her seat and staring straight ahead.
“Either way, I’ll need you there, too.” Bruce told Clark. “We’ll probably need to take a trip to your father’s office.”
Clark nodded pointedly towards Diana, then frowned at Bruce. Everyone else was also sitting in uncomfortable silence. Clark shook his head slightly at Bruce.
“Yeah, we’re not going to start playing charades right now.” Bruce said irritably. “Need I remind everyone that we’re talking about a multimillion dollar piece of tech that Jervis spent years working on. The sooner we get on with the case, the better our chances of finding it.”
Everyone at the table nodded and finally rose. The group split into two, with Wally and his team heading back to Star Labs, and the other team heading towards the parking lot, Diana marching at the front with her nose in the air and Clark bringing up the rear penitently.
Two hours later the three seemed to be no nearer to finding the pen drive. They had traveled all over Metropolis in Bruce’s car, from one location to another, to no avail. Bruce did not seem too perturbed, but almost seemed to be enjoying himself. He and Clark sat in the front while John sat in the back, with Diana sitting next to him in stone-faced silence.
“You think we should call Scott free?” Clark asked. “He might know something about the people who deal in that kind of stuff in Metropolis. We haven’t spoken for a while, but I’m sure he’d help us out.”
“Sure, that could work.” Bruce said vaguely. The energy that he had displayed back at the university had ebbed considerably. He did not seem to have a very clear idea about the plan of action for the day. He only paused in his driving to occasionally send out messages and receive brief calls. They had already visited the police station.
“Scott Free can’t help us with this.” Bruce said. “I always liked to drive the car on this particular highway. It has the best stretch of road in Metropolis, I think.”
“What about the pen drive, Bruce?” Diana asked impatiently. “What is your plan?”
“Well, I’m afraid I was a little too optimistic in front of Jervis.” Bruce said. “There’s a very real chance we might never find the drive again. I’ve made a few calls that will hopefully get us some answers soon.”
Bruce brought the car to a stop in front of a bustling bazaar packed with shoppers and tourists. He got out of the car, and the other three got out as well.
“This is Paling street.” Bruce announced. “It’s home to many individuals of ‘questionable repute.’ There’s a man who lives here who knows every criminal in Metropolis who can make something like a chemical bomb. Problem is, he has no fixed address. We’ll need to wander around for a bit until I spot him or one of his accomplices.”
And so they set off. The narrow lanes of the bazaar uncoiled endlessly in front of them. Shops had been erected on every available, with several spilling out onto the road all around them. All the shoppers were on foot, and there were no vehicles passing through the area.
“How much further?” Clark demanded fifteen minutes later, wiping a drop of sweat off his brow.
“Just a bit.” Bruce said, striding forward serenely. “I’m pretty sure we’ll get to him soon.”
They continued their journey, although it seemed increasingly certain Bruce was not sure where he was going. He would frequently take sudden turns seemingly on a whim, and they had still not seen any sign of characters of a ‘questionable repute’.”
“Bruce, I think we should be getting back now.” Clark said pointedly after twenty more minutes had elapsed. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“Just a bit further.” Bruce said. “Are you too tired to go on?”
“It’s not me.” Clark said in exasperation. “I’m worried about Diana… I mean…” he looked deflated as Diana turned to meet his gaze with a frown.
“Why are you worried about me?” She demanded. “Do you think I am too weak to walk for a bit?”
“No, it’s not that.” Clark had a slightly hunted expression on his face now. “I was just thinking, we’re not getting anywhere with this trek, so maybe you’d be more comfortable in the car-”
“Thank you, but I’m fine.” Diana cut in curtly. “I can keep walking all day if it means finding that man.”
Clark looked abashed and fell silent. The group continued walking in silence through the crowd of shoppers and shops.
“Besides,” Diana spoke up again twelve seconds later. “Now is a little late to be worrying about my health, Clark.”
“What?” Clark stopped walking. “What does that mean?”
“I mean you spent an entire summer ignoring me when I called you repeatedly.” Diana said, turning to face him again. “It never occurred to you then to call back and make sure I was fine or not?”
“I knew you were fine.” Clark said. “I always called Bruce or one of the others to check up on you and make sure you were fine.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?” Diana’s voice was rising in anger. The heat and body fatigue was only adding to her anger. John and Bruce were standing mutely to the side, watching the exchange. “That you would need a middle man to check up on me because you didn’t want to talk to me directly?”
“I did want to talk to you.” Clark said in a low voice. “There was just this thing I needed think about first…”
“What thing?” Diana demanded.
There was a pause, while Clark stared over her shoulder into the distance. “It’s private.” He said at last.
The frown on Diana’s face deepened. She turned wordlessly and set off down the road.
“Diana, wait.” Clark grabbed her arm. “I really didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I didn’t think you’d think I was avoiding you for something you did.”
“What was I expected to think?” Diana demanded, shaking his hand off her arm. More than a dozen bystanders were now watching the unfolding drama with interest. “For a whole year we go everywhere together. I invite you to my party. To meet my friends. To meet my mother. And then suddenly you start acting like I don’t exist.”
“I wasn’t doing that.” Clark snapped back. The long walk had taken a toll on his temper as well. “I just needed some time to think. I needed some alone time. To think… to think about us. Going to your party made me realize some things. I needed to figure out where I fit in with you. I needed to…”
Clark’s voice trailed away. He turned away from Diana and stared into the distance, oblivious to the gaze of the nearby pedestrians.
“I’m sorry, Diana.” He said as he turned around to face her again. His voice was no longer angry. “I’m sorry I never called you. And I’m sorry I dodged your calls.”
Diana stared back at him. “I just want to know why, Clark. Why did you lead me on to… have expectations, and then spend all summer ignoring me?”
“Because going to your party made me realize how out of my league you are.” Clark said.
Diana stared at him, caught off guard. “I don’t understand.”
“Diana, I’ve known you for over a year now.” Clark said. He no longer looked troubled or angry, but simply tired as he spoke in a matter of fact tone. “And in all that time you were just one of us. I never thought of you as anything other than a college student. I knew you were rich, but I never really thought anything of it. Going to your party made me realize how far apart we are. I was born and brought up on a farm. I helped my father milk cows and shovel manure ever since I could walk. I wore my father’s old clothes all through high school. We still have just one car that everyone uses. My father may be the mayor now, but I’ll always be that guy who needed to collect money for a year doing odd jobs on other farms just to buy a cycle when I was fourteen.”
“And you, Diana? You’re a princess. You’re on the same level as Bruce. Ever since I got the invitation to your party, I’d been obsessing over what kind of a gift to get you that you’d remember as something special. And then when I finally got to your party I realized that there was no way I would ever be able to buy you something which can even begin to compete with what all your other friends got you.”
“Clark…” Diana seemed to be struggling to work through her surprise. “How could you think any of that matters to-”
“I’d wanted to ask you out on a date in the past.” Clark cut in quietly. “But see, a date for me back in Smallville used to mean going to the local diner for a coke. I can’t take you to a fancy restaurant like Bruce did. I can’t buy you a diamond necklace. I’d have to borrow money from Bruce and Arthur just to rent a car, and even then-”
The rest of Clark’s speech was cut short by Diana striding up to him and punching him on his arm.
“Ow!” Clark exclaimed, taking an involuntary step back and clutching his arm. “What the hell was that?”
“Did it hurt?” Diana demanded.
“Of course it hurt!”
“Good.” Diana stepped back and stared at Clark. “And I’m going to punch you even harder if you ever call me a princess again. I get enough of that fucked up ‘Princess’ bullshit at home.”
John and Bruce’s eyebrows shot upwards. Clark looked scandalized. None of them had ever heard Diana swear before.
“You know what I loved about coming to Metropolis?” Diana asked Clark. “The fact that no one here gave me any special treatment. No one knew who my mother was, or cared about my family wealth. And the best part was that I met a group of people who accepted me on my face value. And now you are being so unbelievably infuriating with your ‘Out of my league’ garbage. Is Bruce out of your league? Is Arthur? When did you suddenly started measuring people’s worth based on their bank balance?”
“I never said that’s what it is.” Clark protested. “I just didn’t know what to say to you after I saw that Mastrokalis douchebag hand you a diamond necklace!”
“Did you see me swoon over the necklace?” Diana demanded. “Did you see me enter into paroxysms of joy over that gift? Have you ever even seen me wear such an ostentatious piece of jewelry? I can’t stop people giving me things, Clark. But that doesn’t mean I attach value to an experience based on price tags. Alexander Mastrokalis did not go to New Genesis with me to visit Millie. I did not stand beside Alexander when we were trying to put a stop to Qlak Khent and his goons. And my mother’s rich friends aren’t here with me right now when we’re trying to track down a criminal. I do all those things with you and Bruce and Wally and the others, because this is where I feel I belong. Not stuck in the tallest tower of some medieval castle waiting to marry a prince like you seem to expect of me!”
Diana stopped talking abruptly and stood breathing hard. There was another long silence. The bystanders had finally started getting bored and were beginning to move away from the scene.
“I’m sorry…” Clark began, trying to decide on the most important point to apologize about, and then stopped. He tried again. “Look, I never meant to imply you were a spoilt rich girl or anything like that. I know you’re so much more than your money. But I just meant to say… I’m not… Diana, I can’t compete with-”
“Who is asking you to compete?” Diana stamped her foot in frustration. “When did I ask you for an expensive present? When did I ever ask you to take me to an expensive restaurant?”
“If I may.” John broke in gently. “The problem here isn’t what Clark thinks of Diana, or what Diana thinks of Clark, but what you both think of yourself. Clark does not consider himself impressive by any of the usual indicators of social standing, while Diana has a chip on her block about her rightful place in the world. Both these problems are equally valid based on your life experiences, but neither will be resolved through one day of shouting. Neither should it be the reason for a broken friendship. Clark, do you realize now how much you hurt Diana’s feelings through your recent behavior?”
“Yeah, and I’m really sorry.” Clark hung his head. “I didn’t think it through, Diana. You have every right to be mad at me.”
“And Diana, you realize Clark’s behavior was a result of him struggling with his own self-esteem issues rather than anything you did?”
“I suppose.” Diana muttered. “It was still very hurtful.”
“Yes, it was.” John agreed. “The question is, is it hurtful enough to stop talking to him? All the dangers and obstacles you two have faced together. All the problems that seemed more bearable when you were tackling them together. Surely a simple misunderstanding should not be the reason to throw all that away.”
“I suppose.” Diana muttered again.
Bruce sidled up next to John. “I knew keeping you in team one was a good idea.”
Clark was staring pleadingly at Diana. “I’m really sorry, Diana. John’s right. I was dealing with my own issues all summer. It had nothing to do with you. I promise I’ll work on them.”
“I am sorry, also, for punching you.” Diana said stiffly. “I was taking my anger at other people out on you.”
Clark opened his arms tentatively. “So what do you say? Friends again?”
“It depends.” Diana said coldly. “Will you ever call me the ‘P’ word again?”
“Absolutely not.” Clark said solemnly. Diana hesitated for a moment, but then she stepped forward and allowed Clark to engulf her in a bear hug.
“You’re an idiot.” Her muffled voice arose from somewhere near Clark’s shoulder.
“Oh, I absolutely agree.” Clark was smiling broadly as he released her. “But I’m a slightly wiser idiot now, thanks to your punching ability.”
Diana smiled back at him. The last few bystanders, realizing the scene was at an end, resumed their activities again.
“And now.” Clark turned to Bruce. “We can set properly about finding that pen drive. Where do you think your guy is, Bruce? What’s our next step?”
“We should probably be heading back to the university now.” Bruce remarked.
“What?” Diana stared at him in surprise. “But what about the pen drive?”
“Oh, that.” Bruce waved his hand airily. “Never mind that. It’s been dealt with.”
The others stared at Bruce, who stared blandly back. “Arthur and Wally found the pen drive half an hour ago.”
“What! Where?” Clark asked.
“Where it’s been all along.” Bruce shrugged. “Inside Jervis Tetch’s cupboard.”
Again, the three stared at him. “What are you talking about?” Diana demanded.
“I mean Tetch was the one who stole the pen drive.” Bruce said. “Although stole is the wrong word, considering he never handed the pen drive to Hamilton in the first place.”
There was another short silence while the others stared at Bruce.
“You will need to help us out here, Bruce. When did you know Jervis had the pen drive?” John finally asked.
“About ten seconds after Turpin told me about the case.” Bruce shrugged. “Two points about this incident had struck me right from the start. The first point had actually occurred last night. Jervis had told us he needed our help getting back to his dorm because he was completely wasted, but then he was able to function in a perfectly normal manner during our meeting with the professor. That pointed towards the fact that he was clearly less drunk than he wanted us to believe. It made me suspect that the main purpose of asking us to accompany him back was to have us bear witness to his meeting with the professor and his return to the hostel with us. This was done so that if suspicion was to ever fall on him, he would have the testimony of two people that the authorities knew and trusted backing him up. We were to provide him with an airtight alibi.”
“And the second point?”
“That Professor Hamilton smelled the chemical before hearing the window glass break. The police didn’t pay much attention to that fact, because they were thinking in reverse. They had already decided that this was a case of a break-in and burglary, and they were trying to force the facts to fit around that theory. But Hamilton’s testimony was conclusive proof that the bomb exploded inside the house first, and then the glass window was broken. It was a time delayed chemical bomb. The kind of bomb that operates on the basis of a chemical reaction. The reaction can be delayed from being completed depending on the amount of separation between individual chemicals. In this case Tecth had two pen drive cases with him that night. One that contained the actual pen drive, which he showed to us and to Professor Hamilton to prove his invention, and the other case, which he handed over to Hamilton, which actually contained the bomb.”
“Tecth did all of this to make it seem like the theft occurred at Hamilton’s home instead of at the university during a time when Tecth was provably nowhere near the house.”
“But Nathan said he’d been with Jervis in their dorm the entire night. So who broke the window?”
“Just some hired help, is my guess. The kind that can be reached by placing a simple ad on Craigslist. He didn’t have to do anything much. Just stand on the street in front of Hamilton’s house and, after getting the signal from Tetch in the form of a phone-call or sms, hurl the brick at the window. He never even had to set foot on Hamilton’s property to carry out his job. Hence the lack of footprints or fingerprints anywhere on the Professor’s property. The only problem was that Tecth miscalculated the time of the chemical reaction by a few seconds, so the brick was thrown too late, and broke the window sometime after the chemical reaction set off the bomb.”
“If Jervis just wanted to sell the technology on his own, why didn’t he just do so before? Why go through this whole charade?”
“He had signed a non-disclosure agreement, which meant he would have gone to jail if he had tried to sell the tech on his own. His best bet was to make it look like the pen drive was stolen, and then a few months later, sell off the technology under a different name. This way he keeps his reputation intact and makes millions of dollars in profit. It was a good plan. But not good enough.”
There was yet another pause as the other three stared at Bruce, while he gazed back with a self-satisfied smirk.
“So, there never was a guy to find here?” Clark finally demanded. “You had us all go traipsing around all day just so Diana and I could work things out?”
“I was trying out some advice Kyle gave me last night.” Bruce said. “I didn’t fancy spending the entire semester having you look guilty and apologetic and Diana glaring at everyone.”
“I never glared at anyone.” Diana protested. “And I had to miss my morning classes because of your ridiculous ruse!”
“The gains justify the inconvenience.” Bruce shrugged. Clark mouthed ‘Thank you’ to him, something Diana noticed, causing her to turn her glare onto him.
“Oh come on, I can bear missing a few classes to get you to talk to me again.” Clark said with a grin.
“It was not I who stopped talking in the first place.” Diana reminded him quietly, and the grin slipped from his face.
“You’re right, and once again, I’m sorry.” Clark gave her another quick hug.
“Now that everything is settled, perhaps we should be getting back.” John said as the two broke apart. “Unless Bruce wants to send us on another wild goose chase?”
“One was enough for today.” Bruce said with a smirk as the three turned to head back to his car. “Hopefully, we’ll be back in time to see the look on Jervis’s face when finds out we have the real pen drive…”