“The Last Days of the Batman...”
"The end days were upon us, Allen..."
I saw my father die.
Can you imagine? You run up the steps and you see him there and you think--
Well. Lots of things.
To be honest, he was already dead.
In my memory, he clung to life a bit longer, his eyes hung open for a second before he went. So he got a good look at me. Even though I'm sure it didn't happen that way.
I guess I could be pretty angry about what happened to him. You know, some no-account kills your dad with a boomerang, it kind of kills your spirit.
I had spent some time prior to his death wondering how much longer I could keep this going. How much longer I could keep living the life I had. There were so many transitory things in those days. In my life. As it turned out, life floated on a dime. Things changed. And in a very short time I found myself living a different life. Like an out of body experience: who was this skinny kid in the Robin suit, and why was he so unhappy at his lot?
As it turned out, I'm not sure it was ever my life to begin with.
And I am writing this to figure out why.
I had this friend once. Maybe you know him. Brilliant kid. A journalist by heart and now by occupation. He would say he didn't understand people, but I disagree. He knew damn well. Knew his way in and out of people, except for one. Knew what he wanted. And how to get it. He was an investigator. You know. A digger. We met on a whim, a cosmic anomaly of crossroads. Years ago at a Knights game, his seat a row ahead of mine, our dads comparing stats in their programmes, he and I sneaking around the park at Seventh Inning. Sneaking snacks. Sneaking autographs. Adventures.
We kept in touch. He was in Metropolis, I was in Gotham. We were a couple of over-intellectual teenagers. Inflated egos and diminishing returns guiding our lives. But. You know. That was then. Allen and I grew apart the way people do. As it turns out we both found our way into sterner stuff and authority figures. But. Oh those Knights games. Oh those days. The golden days, the good old days—
I've been reading these articles Olsen puts in the Living section of the Daily Planet.
The good old days. So he says. The good old days.
Not so long ago.
We used to have heroes.
If you're reading this, Allen, it means I succeeded in sending it. And it means I am also most definitely dead. And Gotham with me. Don't worry, I'll tell you how.
I'll give it to you in three sentences or less.
One. I was thirteen when I saw John and Mary Grayson die. Two. I spent a year tracking down their only living son, so I could become like him and in so doing save the Batman from himself. Three.
Three is I failed.
So if you're reading this, Allen, you have to know why. You deserve to know why. Who. What. Where. When.
All your Journalism questions.
Wherever we go from here, Allen, we go together. I was not the best friend a man could ask for. As it turns out I was pretty piss poor. I should've helped you when you asked for it. I cannot apologize enough for that. I can't turn back time. But I can offer you a chance, and I hope you take it.
A chance to learn or maybe just see why that age of heroes started dying in Gotham City. Why we couldn't save it. Or ourselves.
I'm so sorry for this. But. If we're being honest, then the masks are off. Effective immediately.
First one is the easiest. My real name is Timothy Jackson Drake. But I'm actually called Robin. The Teen Wonder. You knew this years ago at the LexTower. And since you knew it then you've probably pieced the rest together too. Including this:
I knew what you thought. I knew where your feelings were on the subject. I knew where you stood. But it was my choice. And his.
Even becoming Batman was a choice. His choice. Even if it was the only one he could make at the time he made it. Even if you get to a point, far out there, where reality is unreal and the rules aren't rules anymore, they're shackles, and the only choice anyone has is no choice at all.
He didn't have a choice. I don't know why I'm defending him but I am.
I am. Because. He's my father. The father I never had.
First difficult truth out of the way. The next one.
Batman is Bruce Wayne.
And. You know. Given your relationship to a certain Metropolis Mogul, I think you might already know.
One more thing. The fact that you're reading this also means I am truly desperate to have sent it to you, Allen. The fact that I did means—
That they're probably all dead too. People I'd trust with my life, before I'd trust you, any day of the week. Dick Grayson. Barbara Gordon. Even Harvey Bullock. Yeah figure that one out, you met Bullock once, remember?
I remember Olsen.
Not so long ago.
We had heroes.
And if you want to know why we don't? Keep going, Allen. And if not, then. Then.
Then in five minutes if you don't type in your full name, the command line in this program will wipe this document and all data on this computer till there's nothing left but a blue screen of death. A fate worse than DOS.
I can't say I trust you to do the right thing, Allen, because that doesn't exist anymore. And because I needed to put this out there. I need to write this. The only thing I could ask, and it would speak only from my heart, would be this:
Once you're done with this, do something with it. Make it something. Make yourself something. Change the world. Change our world. Earn this, Allen. Earn it. I'm begging you.
Life is a gift.
So here it is.
The end days were upon us, Allen. We didn't know it. No one ever does.
You know. People are unknowable.
And because of that, there are a few variations on when it all started. Bart disagrees with me but here's what we came up with. The proverbial Here's How:
When Harvey Dent became the Arkham Home's last living inmate, through no fault of his own.
When Thomas Elliot returned with a rotting face, determined more than ever to erase Bruce from history.
When the Demon's Head beheld Algol in the East and wiped Bialya from the face of this earth.
When Edward Nigma got his second terminal cancer diagnosis, and on his deathbed would only speak to Bruce.
What we learned...was that they were all connected. Personally? I think it started when a sick man named Jervis Tetch killed Barbara Gordon.
I could be wrong.
"Tell me about the life you were going to have..."
Edward Nigma died on a Tuesday.
He'd been sick for some time. He'd even beaten cancer once before, after a fashion: the life-giving properties of the Lazarus Pits cured him of the tumor pressing on his cerebellum. But they also drove him insane. Crazier than usual. And in the throes of the worst insanity of his life, he figured out who Bruce Wayne was.
It was then that Thomas Elliot had walked into his life having known the same thing.
Naturally they became friends. And set to destroy Bruce.
And then, during a super-criminal raid on Metropolis, Edward'd had his clock cleaned with a mace to the head. He spent the year in a coma and promptly forgot Batman.
Standardized case history painted Nigma's particular behavior as obsessive compulsive, a high functioning sociopath with zero understanding of his fellow man, a crippling complexity addiction; occasional demonstrations of a borderline personality disorder. The genius was in there, somewhere, but buried under pathos and symbolism and childish need. Clinically, Nigma varied from, say, the Joker's accepted psychological makeup, which presented more aggressively.
And because of—
Or in spite of these things—
He was no murderer.
Which meant that when it broke he was dying, the responses were different. There were no picket lines outside the Metropolitan Hospital, Thomas Wayne's first residency by the way, calling for justice for his victims. No protestors, and no talking heads on GCN or WLEX talking about a career criminal, a deviant, who deserved this last bit of punishment the universe had to offer. No judgement. No scorn. And no pity, either. Imagine that.
He was just an ill man at the end of his time. For some reason it resonated. People noticed.
And when he finally died, they stopped what they were doing and were very silent.
A mighty tree had fallen.
Bruce went to see him. Not as Batman, either.
In a rich brown houndstooth, in calfskin leather gloves, a tweed suit, Schonenfeld's finest for a harsh November day, the wind barreling down Moldoff and making you hug yourself so tight to protect from the elements that it hurts, same as the cold in your lungs hurts. Bruce Wayne strolled into the Metropole, head high and proud despite the circumstances. Asked the desk nurse in an easy, hypnotic voice where Edward Nigma's room was and she said forty forty eight, and up the great glass elevator he went. Around the corner from the elevator bank and through the ward. Forty forty eight was at the end of the hall, facing the exterior wall made of glass and staring out at Snyder Park.
He pushed the door open gently. Shut it behind him as gently. And looked at Nigma.
He looked contorted and corpuscular. A skeleton lying under starched sheets, tubes and wires going in and out of him. An aquiline nose almost all that was left of his face, the rest all sunken and blanched.
He frowned. His heart sunk.
He's lost so much weight, Wayne thought. He was never a bruiser, but he was healthy. This.
He noticed Nigma's arms, laying on top of the covers, strained and sagging and bony spindles for hands, and.
I can see his joints.
Nigma was sleeping. His face sort of molded into place. Frowning or grimacing. If he was in pain he was—
His eyes opened slowly and he focused on the room and on Wayne. Slowly. Dementedly. His head bobbled on his neck. Wayne knew the movements well. Struggling to stay awake.
"Ah," Edward said. Hardly any air behind it. But he heard it all the same. "Bruce Wayne."
Then Nigma smiled a bit. Weakly, sadly, thin lines in his face drawing it up at great effort. He was so old and so tired and so—
"I knew you'd come," he said. "I just knew it."
"You asked for me. Here I am."
Nigma relaxed and looked at the ceiling.
"I remembered," Nigma said. "Who you were. Years afterward, you know. Blunt force trauma...you know. Not a long term cure. Much the same you could say for my current predicament."
"Why not use the Pits this time?"
Edward made a face and looked out the window. His mouth turned down. "You know the answer to that," he said and it was hardly a whisper. "You know the whole story."
"They cured you once before."
"And here I am anyway." Bitterly he said, "Sunrise sunset."
"They've got this...tube feed in my stomach. Giving what's left of my stomach nutrients it can't even..."
"My organs are. Failing. You're talking to morphine."
He brought a hand up and covered his face. Cried. Shivered and sighed and said, "oh damn."
Out of nowhere an idea came to Bruce. He'd had it years before and dismissed it. When Tommy cut out Selina's heart, Michael Holt had commented on the technology Elliot had used to keep her alive. Victor Fries could save Nigma. Luthor could. If he would. If the Batman strolled into LexCorp-
"I know people who could help."
He was silent. Then he said, "What?"
Nigma spoke up. "What do you do, Bruce. When. When you're closer to this line. Than to that one."
"You," Bruce said. "Don't stop fighting."
Nigma chuckled, and it turned into a sick, wet gurgle. "The kids..."
"Your boys. What of them."
"They'll find a way. They always have."
Nigma frowned. Creases in his face went deeper, the skin sagged. "I hope so. I hope they're not wasting their lives. For you."
Bruce made a face. Then he thought better of himself and said, "I...don't think they are."
Nigma scoffed. Half turned in the bed and looked out the window. Far below, the Sprang River twisting through town, hedgerows and trees flanking it on either shore, Snyder Park on the far side, the Opera shell there just waiting for the Summer Arts Series to come round again. If it ever could, if it ever did, who could say, who knows. Who. Knows.
Nigma swallowed. Shifted lamely in bed and Bruce half-stood to help him. Nigma chafed and hushed him up. "I have. Ow. Hours. Left."
"...You do know. Don't you."
He sniffed. Once. Quickly. "Will you stay with me?"
Pulled a chair up to the bedside and sat. He looked at Nigma's heart monitor, his stats, gave the IV bag a quick visual check. Blood pressure might as well have been zero over zero, the beats of his heart few and far between.
Then he looked at Nigma, lying there near the end and dying and terrified. And said, "You know, I actually enjoyed the Englehart Trap."
"The electric. Water tank?"
Bruce said yes.
"Hh." Nigma chuckled. "A simpler time. What was I thinking?"
Nigma looked at him.
“I've made so many mistakes, Bruce. Have...have you?”
Bruce looked right back.
Nigma asked again.
Bruce thought about it all too briefly, all too rashly. Of course. Every day and every night for years. For an eternity. Sarah and Jim and Jason and Selina. And Tommy, poor wayward Tommy. And two good people named Thomas and Martha. Taken from him by chance and by stupidity. Yes he thought about them. Every minute of every day. Since. Since the beginning. Eight years old in an alley in Park Row. Since the source.
Of everything Bruce Wayne was, and everything he would be.
Nigma smiled and relaxed.
"Then you answered the riddle."
Nigma closed his eyes. His breathing slowed.
"The riddle," Nigma said. "Of your life. The only one worth solving."
"What," Nigma said. Closed his eyes and spoke slower. "My father. Broke my legs once. Your father. Fixed me.”
Wayne waited a moment. Then:
"Yes," he said. "My father."
Nigma chuckled again. That flat, wet gurgle. "Tell me about your family, Bruce."
Wayne raised an eye.
"Tell me about the life...you were going to have."
And Wayne did. To his credit. Without malice or fear, without regret. He honored this poor dying man's last request. He told him the highlights. The good times.
He told him of Thomas Wayne and his first residency, in this very hospital. Of summers spent funding the Arts Series in the park. Of winters in Metropolis, sighting the Icicle and Alan Scott, of mischief with Tommy, of meeting a little Lutheran named Clark Kent on a cross country trip. Of the loves of his life: Silver and Julie, Vicki and Vesper. Of the Wayne Foundation Arbitrary Scholarship every summer for the company intern that happened to be in the right place at the right time. Of the idea he had to turn the Manor, on the occasion of his death, into a home for wayward youth. Of the Justice League of America and the true friends there. Clark and Diana and Arthur and Wally.
Of three brave boys he had the honor to call sons.
And of Edward Nigma. The last criminal the Batman respected.
They talked into the evening. Even as Nigma's strength faded to nothing. Even as the nurses came in—
He stayed with him until his time came.
And when it had come and gone, he stood and put his hand on Edward Nigma's dead shoulder and patted it. Not cruel or cowardly, not forceful or rude.
He sat there even as Doctor Tsongas pronounced the time of death. As the orderlies wheeled the body out and down to the morgue. Then. Alone in the room, staring out the window, Nurse Rigorelli changing the sheets out behind him.
I hope, Nigma had said. They're not wasting their lives. For you.
He thought of something Tommy had told him years before. Better days. Sometimes, Tommy said, there are no answers.
And of course it was all so mechanical. Real human interaction did not number among the talents of either Bruce or Tommy. Growing up the way they had, you were expected to behave better than the rest. The Wayne fortune was expected to create Thomas Wayne's kind of social responsibility. No fast cars or fast women. No frivolity. Only seriousness. And Bruce was expected to carry this forward, beyond his parents generation. To use his wealth and his responsibility, his social chair, to improve Gotham.
He failed. As grossly as Tommy had in his appropriation of the ancient Elliot money.
They failed together.
Gotham was no better off for Bruce's efforts. It was this that kept him up at night. His own worth.
What his city could look like.
Without a Batman.
He imagined his father. In the room with him, his face as permanently stone and focused in death as in life.
Bruce your assumptions are facile. You know what it is to be a man. Your wealth and your status mean nothing without the honorable behavior to substantiate it.
He kept thinking of Tommy. His partnership with Nigma, on the occasion of discovering the Batman's true identity.
Why he had been so damaged over what Tommy did. Masquerading Basil Karlo as Jason. Bribing Crane to profile the Batman's enemies. Even though it's been years. Even though no one's really left to care.
He thought of his old crew team at Princeton. What would Old Rike, his eighth, think of this.
Wayne you old so and so. Gentlemen of Princeton do not kill their parents for the insurance money. And they certainly don't scramble about Gotham's rooftops in search of pyrrhic victory.
Bruce, there's been an accident. My mom and dad.
Tommy, I'm sorry.
Yes. Yes he swore.
And he thought, here, now, in this moment.
The Batman. Always over-delivering. Always saying too much. Even as Bruce Wayne. Even as a child.
It was almost a superpower. Almost.
Sad old man. Like Nigma. Like.
Tommy there's been an accident. My parents.
Bruce I'm sorry I wish I could be there but Mother you know...
Yes. Yes I understand.
And he had understood all too well. The burden of responsibility. The value of maturity. Thomas Wayne's values. As he lived and died.
And now here was Wayne. Decades past that boy grieving silently over his parents. Decades past the angry, beleaguered Thomas Elliot.
Here. Now. In this place.
Bruce Wayne looked into the night sky. Striated clouds chopping into the bottom half of the moon. A cold breeze flowing through him from nowhere.
And then he was gone. Out of the hospital room. Through the ward and to the great glass elevator. Down past the Sundollers in the lobby. Out to the Elise, far across the parking lot.
To his father's house.
“A great run...”
If not for the death of his parents, Bruce might not have become the Batman.
If not for the loss of her legs, Barbara Gordon might not have become Oracle.
One of his most invaluable assets in the war, she wasn't always confined to a wheelchair. Once she could walk. She was young. And beautiful. Full of life and optimism in a way Gotham itself.
When she got older she became Batgirl. And she became even more useful in the war. Together with The Batman, she fought the Cavalier, and stopped the Killer Moth in his tracks. She fell in love with Dick Grayson. And with Gotham. And with Batman.
Maybe, more than anyone else, she understood his mission. Being an academic she even made its necessity into a working theory about order, chaos, her and Batman and Robin standing on the threshold between the two and doing their best to stem the tide.
She had a great run. A magnificent career.
The Joker came.
The son of a bitch who put a bullet through her spine, just to prove an insane point to the Batman and Jim Gordon.
And he failed.
She lived. Gordon didn't go insane. And the Batman put the Joker back in prison. Again.
But. Before all that. Before the dark times, before Batgirl, she was just Jim Gordon's daughter.
And during that time, one Halloween when the Batman was seen to be chasing the Scarecrow one hour and the Penguin the next, a sick man named Jervis Tetch kidnapped her and drugged her.
Oh, Batman saved her. Like always.
But Tetch never forgot the insult. His Alice had been taken from him.
Born out of childish need, he determined to take her back.
It took him years. But he got her. Not on his own, because he could never do anything on his own. First and foremost he was a failure in life and in crime. Which meant whatever crimes he tried to eke out were pointless. Simple. Stupid and violent. Blindly harmful.
And it's the simplest freedom story of all, how Tetch got out of Arkham and found himself free enough to hunt down an old score.
Doctor Jeremiah Arkham had made the facility whole again. He fired the old staff summarily, en masse one day. Called them into Amadeus Arkham's old office in the Mansion, the ancient fireplace burning brightly in the gloom, the oil painting of Elizabeth Arkham staring at terrified orderlies from a gilded frame. He handed them their pink slips one by one and told them the days of their own little Teapot Domes were done.
It was actually because of an intern.
Doctor Arkham was tall and gaunt. Messy grey hair on a strained body, glasses dangling from his nose. One of the interns once confused him with Crane, and as a result found himself in need of a new doctoral programme. Not Arkham's finest moment but he could hardly be seen to be running a sound, or revamped, campus if his interns were confusing their administrator with their bogeyman.
Hence the current mission. Tear down what was. So you could create what would be.
So he steadied himself. And spent what was left of his family fortune, insane old Amadeus' last bonanza, to refurbish the Asylum.
And he told the incoming staff this:
"I will tell you all what I once told the Batman. Quackery has no place within these walls. No longer do we tolerate a lenient hand, or the slippery slope on which lives nepotism and declining standards. You are here because you come highly recommended. Because you were the tops of your classes. This in turn tells me you did not waste your time with foolishness, and the pursuit of destructive habits. So. I promise you this. Today is zero year. For all of you, for me, for Doctors Nybakken and Bartholomew, and for this facility. These are not the days of Doctor Cavendish, I'm pleased to say. Toolery, exploitative behaviors and hucksterism are grounds for prompt dismissal. I will not drag my family's name down anymore than this city has already.
"We are here to help those who cannot help themselves. To create a peaceful and meaningful atmosphere which promotes the very best aid the mental health profession can offer. Now. With that, it's an honor to hereby rename this facility: the Elizabeth Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled."
That was day one. Zero Year, as he kept calling it. Of the old regime, he retained only Scott Nybakken and Timothy Bartholomew.
Five years. Long time to rebuild.
And the process worked to great effect. If for no other reason than the previous so called 'special interest' cases became non-factors only weeks after Arkham's dismissals. Pamela Isley retreated to Robinson Park as she'd done during the No Man's Land, and even the illustrious Mayor Garcia was persuaded not to touch her.
Live and Let Live, said Vicki Vale and the Gazette.
Drop The Issue, said Living Monthly.
Forget About Her, said Engel and the GCN pundits.
So Garcia did.
And Arkham moved on.
The city did too.
Killer Croc had been captured years before on Moldoff, remanded to Waller and DEO, and never heard from again.
And the rest, well, they faded. They faded away so fast and so far that by the time the facility had only two patients to its name, they could be said not to exist at all. In any practical form.
Except for Jervis Tetch, sitting quietly in his cell with copies of Seventeen and Tiger Beat to satiate his paraphilias-and Harvey Dent, alone in the old Penitentiary, staring at an old Dungeons and Dragons dice like he didn't know what to do with it-
The facility was mostly empty.
And as for Nybakken? He never admitted it to anyone but Jeremiah, but-
He feared the Joker.
The clown had escaped years before without so much as a peep. Days later still there had been no threats to the city. Nothing to indicate escape or even, Nybakken eventually claimed, survival.
"Here's what keeps me up at night, Jere."
"He's here. Still, I mean. Hiding in the treatment plant or the old sewers, where Sharp used to keep Jones."
Arkham smiled a bit. "The old regime, Scott."
"Smile all you like," Nybakken said. "But I sincerely doubt the Joker ever really escaped this island."
Arkham said he'd take it under advisement. That he'd talk to Gordon and Bullock and see what could be done. "With the understanding, Scott," he said, "that probably no one will find out anything."
"I think it's important."
Arkham regarded him. And simply said, "Alright."
And that was that.
"Now what else is on your mind?"
"The Wright stuff," Nybakken said and cracked a smile at his own joke.
"Oh right, uh, Luthor's client," Arkham said. "How's he coming?"
"Surprisingly open," Nybakken said. "He's had such a tough life, you know, normally these types are inaccessible. It's tremendously interesting to me to see how and why he's open about it."
"Hiding in the light is a popular method," Arkham said. "Most cases tend toward Pollyanna. Outwardly agreeable but still tortured. Personal or the professional?"
"So far personal. Keeps bringing up a boy he used to know at university."
"About the boy, definitely."
Nybakken shook his head. "It's mentor-student. His history with this boy he knew is...deeper."
Arkham nodded. "Any conclusions?"
"Nothing publishable yet," Nybakken said.
"Keep me posted," he said. "Sounds fascinating."
Nybakken left Arkham's office. Strolled down the hall. Through the ward and its single occupied cell.
When Nybakken crossed his periphery, Tetch spoke up. Looked up from his UNO cards with a narrow leer.
"Your patient in the city, Doctor Scott? I do wonder what he's got."
Nybakken stopped and looked sideways at Tetch. "Decided to interact today, eh?"
Tetch kept the grin. "Your little boy of blackened hair is he, wonder you what he thinks of thee? Speaking plainly as a cow, back to Lex his report flies now."
Nybakken produced his mobile and dialed the orderly. In the interim he got close to the glass wall separating him from Tetch.
He spoke and belied his own fear. For Tetch to know about events on the outside-
"And you're close to Fifth Avenue yourself?"
"Aye a fraternity's well and true," Tetch said. "When life hands you lemons it's Greek letters to see you through."
"Whatever you think you know-"
Tetch launched from his chair. Matched Nybakken's pose.
"I'll tell you all I know. There's little to relate. Your kingdom you think safe, is under eye from Irving's schoolmate."
"Now, now, very now," Tetch said. "The god of fear is in the city of Law, returning, returning, to join your flaw."
Then he dropped the rhyme. And his voice. He barked and grinned and spit on the glass. Howled and cackled and fell to the floor, tickled at his own magnificence. Not quite a mad dog, Nybakken thought. But getting up there, getting up there.
"You're all going to die," Tetch said and Nybakken was fleeing down the hall, shaken and surprised at his own weakness. "You hear me, Doctor Scott?! The end is nigh!"
When Nybakken was gone from the ward, only Tetch and his echoing madness remained.
"I think you should kill it..."
You could stop this.
You could stop this anytime you wanted.
This kept me up at night. Tossing and turning across a King mattress, stretching everywhere, frustrated and sweating, stressed and edgy, Gotham in the throes of Indian Summer. Ripe and invasive, infuriated citizenry waiting desperately for it to break so they can get on with October like the rest of Kane County.
I hated it.
Lying under silk sheets I didn't buy, in a house I didn't own.
Living someone else's life.
It was Bart who first suggested all this to me. Bart Allen.
He was, once upon a time, the Kid Flash. His mentor, Wally West, was the Flash after Barry Allen died saving the universe. Barry Allen was Bart's grandfather, who had created the people who would create Bart while on retirement in the future. The thirtieth century, maybe twenty-fifth, I couldn't remember.
That's what was important to Bart. And to Barry when he was still around. And to Wally, so lately robbed or so we all heard, of his unborn children. Robbed by a psychotic in a yellow suit trying to make him better.
I keep coming back to this.
Maybe because I have none. My father dead, my mother long dead.
I have Bruce. And Dick. And Alfred.
But it's not the same.
Bruce took me in after my father was killed. Adopted me. Gave me access to the endless Wayne wealth. Trusted me.
Dick is a soldier, and my brother. But not really. He's already so far away in Blüdhaven that he's functionally not part of the family anymore as it is. He's got his own thing going on. He helps when he's needed but. But. It's not the same.
And Alfred. The grandfather none of us had, curing us. Cuts and scrapes aren't the biggest wounds and not necessarily the most painful, you know. Life gets to everyone, the very strong and the very weak, and it hurts where it can.
All of these people are in my life. And they're doing wonderful things. But they're not family. They are and they aren't.
I don't know anymore. After No Man's Land. After what Elliot did to Selina. The Joker escaping.
I don't have the answers anymore.
If I ever did.
I can't tell you how horrible that makes me feel. These people took me in. When there was nowhere else to go. Because that's what you do when someone needs help.
That's just the sort of people they are.
Flying out to Keystone to see Bart. A lot lately. He's mostly given up the Kid Flash role, same as Wally has moved on from being The Flash. These days Bart's got a band, nothing to boast of, but creative and lucrative and the perfect outlet for his natural peacock tendencies. Because you see, he's a showman at heart. Before he's anything else, Bart Allen is a people person.
The thing about why this all started:
It all started with an idea.
That. You didn't need Gotham so much. Anymore.
And so when Bart messages me on the old Titan frequencies that haven't worked since.
When Bart answers my message and says of course, come on out I'm playing at Loches' tonight, just tell the doorman you know me, he's cool.
The thing about this:
It's all contextual.
Crime had, maybe not so inexplicably, died down in Gotham after the Joker's last great escape. And after that, few weeks at best, came Tetch bursting into the Clock Tower with a Colt Python and putting twelve slugs into Barbara.
It was gruesome.
Next day, The Gazette ran a full page spread of the crime scene, tipped off and paid off by Corrigan no doubt. Barbara's body laying there bloody and gory. A five by seven of the commissioner staring at the scene and looking like a lost little boy.
We got there too late.
She had already bled out.
Tetch was on his knees crying and laughing.
Bruce broke his hands. His legs.
I remember that too, Allen. It was all so mechanical.
And he shouts Never! Never again! Too far!
And he pulls up a fist and he's ready to make Tetch into an obituary.
–And he looks at me like a lion over a kill and he says, You're Calling Me That? In Front of Him?
He's a sick old man, I tell him, he doesn't matter.
He Killed Barbara!
And killing him doesn't change it.
Too Far, he says and now he's throttling Tetch and Tetch is squirming and choking under him. Too Far.
Then leave him be. Let's take him to Gordon. It's out of our hands please. And he doesn't respond and then I'm actually begging him.
I take off the domino mask.
He looks back at me. Over one shoulder. Still bestial.
"Don't you remember," I tell him and I'm crying as much over Barbara as over life itself, "don't you remember what I told you. All those years ago." And I sigh and wipe some tears and I say.
"Batman needs Robin. He needs him, to remember what he used to be."
He looks back at Tetch and Tetch's eyes are stuck on him. Terrified. Every synonym there is for that.
He stands. Hoists Tetch over one shoulder, fireman style, and says Let's Go.
We take Tetch straight to Central, to the squad room, the MCU. Batman throws him into the center of the bullpen and the night shift, confused, just stares at us.
Batman says, "Tell them what you did."
Tetch stops, weeping, and looks at Batman.
Batman grabs him by the hair and barks.
Tetch sighs and gulps and speaks and his voice is shattered glass.
"I'm Jervi—ah, Jervis—Tetch I killed—I just killed Barbara Gordon—I'll kill again arrest me now before he gets me oh god oh God no—I never I wasn't he put me up to it I oh god—“
Then he loses it. Breaks into a million pieces, a weeping mess there in the middle of the squad room.
We leave before Gordon comes out. Before Batman feels the need to explain what happened.
We watch from across the street, atop the Lacey Towers building, as Montoya and Bullock eventually escort Tetch to a squad car.
And Batman turns away and says, "Home."
It was days before we spoke to each other, or to Alfred. You could take a chainsaw to the tension.
Alfred made the phone calls. First to Dick in Blüdhaven. "Arrangements pending," he said, "but if I were you I would make all efforts to get here soon, young Master. I think none of us wants to be alone with his thoughts right now."
So Dick did. He was up by the afternoon.
Few days after, Helena came out to the Manor with flowers and apologies. She and Barbara had been on the outs, I guess was the word for it, during the No Man's Land. They disliked each other. Intensely. But, she said, all that's passed now.
"Yeah," I told her.
She asked if Bruce was in and taking visitors. I told her no. I didn't tell her that I hadn't seen him in days either and was terrified to go into the Cave. Terrified to see what he was doing.
Helena frowned and then caught herself. Put on a brave face and a polite smile and said, "Okay. Will you tell him, Tim. From me. Just, uh. Tell him I'm sorry. For everything."
She hugged me. And then she was gone.
I stayed at the front doors for a while, watching her Harley weave it's way down the drive and back to the City.
Dick came out a moment later and patted my shoulder.
We watched her until the tree-line blocked her from us, half a mile down the lane.
"She's gonna be okay," he said. "She's a fighter."
I looked at him.
"What about you?"
He smiled. That gee-whiz, seen it all, carny smile. "I'm always alright."
I nodded and went back in.
Downstairs. To the cave.
You've never been there, Allen, so I'll try to describe it to you.
The steps circling down into it from the library entrance, the grandfather clock, are stone. Native limestone and so easily hewed out, or so Bruce told me long ago and far away. They're also permanently damp and kind of mudded over. You walk down and the steps are stony and wet and you might slip and fall, and then you hear a crashing far off but it's only the waterfall, and there are utility lights everywhere but even so they don't really light up the place so well.
The cave is impossibly huge, blackness on blackness stretching out forever in every direction. Stalactites and stalagmites everywhere, a constant chill breeze soaking you to your bones. Bats chirping and flying all around you. This isn't a place to leave your coat, it's a place to leave.
But we're here.
He is here.
And in the middle of all this is a giant computer, hopelessly, hilariously large and black, and a man sitting there staring at ten screens at once, six of them are just news feeds, GCN, WLEX, GNN, The Nightly Show, Fox, CNN. One is video loop surveillance on Jervis Tetch, currently in holding at the Robert Schreck Tri-County Penitentiary. Another is video loop on Central and Gordon's office. Another is Garcia's office in City Hall.
Bruce was working through the remaining one. A black screen, full of command lines that were names of people we knew. I saw Corrigan's name and Montoya's and Bullock's. Gordon. Doctor Arkham.
I slowed down. Approached him slowly. I was afraid. I remember.
"Helena was by."
"She brought flowers. She says she's sorry."
"The funeral's tomorrow," I said. "Are you going?"
"So we're not going to talk about this? At all?”
"Get your suit on. I want to see Jeremiah Arkham. I want to know who freed Tetch. And I want to know who's wearing my face."
He stood and headed for the suit vault.
I stayed still.
He looked at me.
I looked around. Sighed.
"What is the point? Go beat up Arkham because he might know something? Feel better about ourselves?"
His eyes stayed on me. "Something like that. Let's go."
I said no. "Bruce. Come on."
"Barbara was a soldier. This is what she would've wanted."
"Bullshit. She loved you."
He shook his head and made for the vault. Called back to me: "Are you coming or not?"
I said no.
He pivoted in place. He was angry, I could tell, but he had a masterful way of containing it. So you never really knew just how enraged he could be.
I shook my head.
"I don't know who you are anymore."
And I turned and went up the stairs.
He called after me, asking where I was going.
Nowhere, I said. Looks like I'm going nowhere.
As it turned out I went to the garage. Took the Elise and left.
I just left.
For Keystone. For Bart. And something...something else. Something different.
And sitting in The Lichfield Club on the river, two whiskey sours deep and watching Bart down there headlining some open mike night folk band Coldplay covers—
I told him all this. After his set, when he came up to the balcony seating and plopped down and started in with the fifth degree.
"Well," he said when I was all done. "I think you shot yourself in the foot Tim but it's okay because you know what you have another foot okay so I think you should apologize but I also think he was wrong too you know its a group failure do you find that most failures are group failures?"
I told him yes.
He nodded fast and smiled and toasted me. "Thanks for coming out Tim you're a good friend."
"You too," I said.
I looked at him.
He had been going so fast and so long that now, sitting here he blurred in place. He was tapped into his Speed Force even subconsciously. All the time. I looked at him and breathed.
He must've known something was up because he slowed down then. Came into a single vision. Slowed.
"So where do you go from here," he said. "I mean it sounded like a pretty cut and dry, you know, dissolution."
"I don't know. Figure out my situation, I guess."
"You've been kind of thinking of leaving Gotham for a while now. Why not pull the trigger?"
"Because you can't just up sticks and go, Bart. I have roots there. Bruce is there. Alfred is there."
"But they're why you're leaving. Aren't they? Can I venture an opinion?"
"You've got this beast growing inside. Anger and sadness and depression, which is like anger just on sedatives, you know, and it's killing you. You could-Tim...I don't know how you do it. But all these things that are happening. Or. Have happened. They're just building up. Turning you into this monster. So. You want to know what I think you should do? To this big green rage monster?"
He leant across the table. Put both hands on either side of my face. Got close, pressed his forehead to mine.
He said, "I think you should kill it."
We looked at each other.
"Then it's dead and you bury it. Busy life, keep swimming. You've been trying to get out for a while. Here's the chance."
"What if it's a mistake?"
"Then make the jump, Tim. Make the mistake."
Finally I said, "I don't know how."
He sighed. Kissed my forehead and sat back.
"I wish you could be happy, Tim. There are ways. You can come out here to live. Aunt Iris said so. We can protect the Cities. New Titans or whatever. Or we can just live. You know. Together. You don't need this."
Silence still. Seemed like years. After it all I spoke. Quiet and withdrawn.
"I was upset," I said. "For a long time. Over a lot of things. And they're just gone, Bart. I feel. Lost.”
Bart made a face.
"You know," he said. "We both turned twenty one this year. Can I just, uh...it's weird for me because. I'm twenty one years old. Centuries before I'll even be born, Tim. Heh. I had this. Theory once. That I'd use the treadmill to jump ahead. You know. Jump ahead and watch myself being born. It's like a self-actualising exercise. See where I came from. To maybe see where I'm going."
"You ever do it?"
He shook his head, overacted, and said, "Heck no. Thing is, Tim, whenever I get nostalgic like that I like to, like, look around and see what I have here. Things the thirtieth century doesn't have. For whatever reason. You know, it's. It's simpler here. It's quieter."
"But your time is still coming," I said.
He smiled. "You don't watch a lot of sci-fi, do you, Tim?"
"Hey," I said and smiled. "I discovered Heinlein at a young age. Sci-fi is doing me just fine."
"Okay," he said. "Anyway. I was heading for a Doctor Who reference. You know. Time bring rewritten. All that stuff."
Bart made a face. "Number of the Beast, though, what the hell was that?"
"Oh my god, I know right? So weird."
"You ever read The Door Into Summer?"
"Nah, Double Star is my jam. That or the Moon."
"Too rich for my blood. You ever read Haldeman?"
Together: "Forever War!"
And we laughed.
And I started to feel better about myself.
"Oh," Bart said. "I'm glad you came out, Tim."
"So," he said and finished off his sour. "What are you gonna do?"
"Go back, I guess. Apologise for being an asshole."
Bart nodded. "You skipped town because he pissed you off so badly. And that means you missed the funeral too. Am I right?"
I was silent. Staring at the cherry still floating there in my sour. "Yeah. I was."
"Angry," he said. "It's okay."
But it wasn't. I finished the drink and got up. Walked to the bar and ordered another.
Bart sidled up next to me, leaning against the bar so he could stare out at the room and the throng.
He was quiet when he spoke. Looking at his phone and the crowd and thinking. He was never this quiet.
"May I ask you a personal question?"
"Sure," I said. The bartender brought the replacement sour and and I finished it in one go.
"Is this what he does to you Robins? Makes you. Like this?"
I was silent. I stared at the bar and the shelves in the wall. The mirror behind all the booze. Across the room, on the stage, another skinny scenester took stage, started into a Pet Shop Boys cover.
Tell him the truth, Tim. Tell him how you started out years ago with hope and nobility. Saving the world alongside the Batman and saving him from the worse angels of his nature. Save the Batman and in so doing save Gotham.
You were going to be so much more.
"Yes," I said. "Dick got tired and moved on. Jason—had an unhappy life anyway. Then of course he died."
Another pause. The band moved from Neil Tennant to a guy on an acoustic, butchering Wish You Were Here.
"Whose life are you living, Tim? Who is this Tim Drake? Marching to Bruce Wayne's beat. No one I know."
I looked at him. And looked away.
"I don't know what's going to happen, Bart. Bruce will never admit it, but seeing the Riddler die really shook him. He's still messed up over what Elliot did to Selina. And no one knows where the Joker is. And now all this with Tetch and Barbara. I'm worried he's heading down a dark path."
Bart thought about it. "And you don't think Robin can save him from this one."
"I'm worried," I said. "That he doesn't want to be saved."
Thomas Elliot was accomplished. And what was more, he knew it. Relished it. He had everything he could ever want. Anyone could ever want.
And it wasn't enough.
His father, the alcoholic wastrel drinking his days and the ancestral Elliot fortune away, obsessed over The Way Things Used To Be, his carefree youth spent in a kinder gentler Gotham where the sun would actually shine.
His mother, the uptight skinflint who came from nothing and so remained with Roger the Tyrant because she'd irrationally determined that she could use his money to build a certain comfortable life, and to milk him dry. Secondarily, to provide an opportunity for Thomas, to become more than his own father ever would. Or could.
The best home. The best clothes. The best education.
And all of these things, feeding the psyche of a boy too embittered and too righteous to care. He didn't want their money, their wholly undeserved reputation, The Elliots, the Very Model of Distinguished Old Money Not Like Those Waynes.
Frivolously wasting their fortunes on social improvement. Ha.
Thomas was six when he first heard of Thomas Wayne's plan to revitalise the failing city. Through grants and loans and new programmes meant to inspire even the least among human society.
Six years old. Watching the television and thinking, This Fool is Terribly Deluded.
Two years later Thomas had met Bruce at school. And then he'd met Thomas, heard all about the cause célèbre. He still determined to fixate on the Wayne family and his best friend Bruce, as the focus of his irrational dislike.
The Elliot family.
Old as time. Old as Gotham. Old as dirt. His great grandfather, Lincoln Elliot, had been Mayor once. The Elliot side of the family had the money. Mother's side, the March family, had.
Something. Maybe nothing.
He found out years later why she had been so pathologically terrified of losing money. Terrified that on the occasion of her abusive husband's death by physics-a car accident, and a telephone pole to the face-The March family had also been in Gotham since before there was a Gotham. They controlled, or so Elliot's conspiracy nuts at the Hall of Records believed, a secret society that had run Gotham since the fire and the wheel. His mother had been part of it.
And then she wasn't.
Excommunicated. Forcibly divested of all access to the endless March family coffers and their society.
And so. Mother had nothing. Except her pearls, her beloved cherrywood jewellery box with gewgaws from time untold locked in it. And her disapproval.
Of everything he did. Everything he was.
Eight years old.
The next determination was to wipe them out. Mother and Father. The biddy and the drunk.
After that, Peyton Reilly. The mob daughter. Sociopathic. In love with Thomas and willing to follow him anywhere.
After that, med school.
Then scheming with Crane and Nigma to destroy Bruce.
And then, other things happened.
Made a fool of by the Joker. Left to die by the Batman.
And then. One day.
He got even.
Aristotle tells us A is A. Elliot spent years formulating this into a suitable personal revenge philosophy: if A was A, then life was an eye for an eye. This for that. That because of this. Equanimity in a hostile environment. All things being the same.
He felt really rather good about it. Striking at Bruce because of a promise fallen through: he had sworn one thing, and reality delivered another.
Mother had clung to life
Not Bruce's fault. Not really.
But Elliot also clung to life. And to rage. That impossible emotion strangling the grief.
Were poison in his veins.
And so his anger was all he had left. It had governed his life ever since then. Ever since Bruce swore.
Hey Tommy they'll be okay.
Promise. Stick a needle.
As it turned out, hopelessly, hilariously, Bruce Wayne spent the rest of his life breaking promises.
And so after the last great fight, after Elliot had successfully removed the Cat, Selina Kyle, from Bruce's life-
After Elliot spent months recuperating and getting his house back in order—
After he killed seventy four vagrants in Crime Alley alone just to harvest the best features from all in order to restore his face to a perfect surgical simulacrum of Bruce Wayne's-
After he heard the Riddler was dying again.
After he heard the Joker had gone off the radar.
Thomas Elliot decided that enough was enough.
He walked into Arkham Asylum dressed like Bruce, looking like Bruce, speaking in Bruce's easy and free baritone.
He went to see one of the facility's last remaining inmates, the genuinely ill Jervis Tetch, once the sometimes-legendary Mad Hatter and now just a shell of a man and so much more interesting for it.
He walked up to Tetch's cell.
And said, "It's time."
"The very first lesson…You taught me that."
"I can stay if you want."
They were alone together in the cave. Near the eastern cavern there was a single slim promontory, a smooth outcropping, a natural balcony staring a thousand feet down at the tributary and the Batboat moored along the sand.
Bruce was standing on the very edge. Staring.
A thousand miles from here or anywhere.
Bruce turned slowly. He looked at Dick, standing there in civilian clothes, a smart brown Moto jacket and jeans and boots caked with mud. His face wearing that easygoing and worrying look it always did.
Dick chuckled and joined Bruce at the edge. Clapped a hand on his shoulder. And said, "I haven't said this yet, but given everything, well."
"I'm sorry." Then he hugged Bruce tightly. "For Barbara. For Selina. For everything."
Bruce was silent. Dick released the hug and they looked at each other.
Bruce shook his head. His voice was shattered glass, empty and toneless. "It's not your fault."
"I know," Dick said. "It's not yours either. Okay?"
"Please," Dick said in a stolid voice. "Please don't let this consume you."
Bruce looked back at the precipice. "I don't know how."
Dick wiped away a tear. "I love you, Bruce. And we all loved Barbara. I'm begging you. Tetch is in prison, about to be in the electric chair for what he did. It's are you thinking about?"
Bruce sighed. Looked up into the blackness that, eventually, became the foundation and further up, his father's house.
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I'm going back to Blüdhaven. My flight leaves at six."
Bruce looked at him. Brows furrowed, mouth slack. Eyes glassed and staring vacantly not at Grayson, but just beyond him.
Dick gave a slight chuckle through teary eyes. "Because you don't need me anymore. Because I've got my own life and you've got yours. Because there is someone else you need, and he needs you too. Tim is incredibly bright, Bruce. And incredibly hurt by all this. He'd never admit it, because he still lives and dies in your shadow. But...maybe it's time to change. Maybe for all of us."
"Did you change?"
Dick smiled. "Never stopped."
Bruce was silent for a long minute.
"Dick," he said. "I."
"Will miss me. I know. I'll miss you too. But you know where I am. And you know what's got to be done to get you back to being you, Bruce."
Dick frowned. This unfocused tenor was new. And yet:
"The very first lesson," Dick said. "Crime cannot be tolerated. You taught me that. You...taught me everything I know."
In that moment Bruce changed. He straightened. His face hardened again. The Bruce he used to be, or always was.
"Dick," he said.
"Was I. Was. The mission, I mean. Were you..."
Dick smiled, a boyish, authentic affair. "It was the best time of my life. Barbara's too. Believe that."
And then Dick Grayson was gone. Back to his city. Back to his life.
Bruce remembered Ducard. Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live.
There is more.
He looked back at the precipice but only once. And only briefly. He turned and stormed for the suit vault. For the car beyond it. For the city.
My city, he thought.
“That's what life is.”
Tim and Bart.
We were running.
The winter storm from hell followed Indian Summer, and buried the city in mountains of snow. Bart nicely ran a path through on the Cambridge Road, itself barely paved and winding northwest past the Manor, up to the Goodwin, a running path in the subarctic chill. It became a routine in the days and weeks after Barbara's death. Running. Two a days, five miles up, five miles back. Routine, you know, is not something you do to pass the time. It's what you do to create good habits, your better self. And create walls. Guards against the dark.
I had spent most of the month in Keystone, then went home the week the cold came. The week they started Tetch's trial. Bart came with me, and we moved into the old equerry house, the converted stables, far back on the Wayne estate.
Garcia shut down City Hall for a week to give government employees, already overcorrupt and underworked, the beauty of Nonessential Personnel Time Off. The plough trucks hit the bricks in record force. The supercell covered the Bay Area and cast residuals up to Metropolis and down to Blüdhaven. PS 120, defending state wrestling champs forty years running, put their wrestlers out on 5 am runs thrice a week up the Cambridge road. Those guys, hale and hardy and in the primes of their lives, found themselves bundled against twenty degrees and freezing rain.
Like I said. Bart and I had taken to running just ahead of them in the mornings. You should have seen him, Allen, trying his level best not to tap into his Speed Force and zoom past them, in the process mocking their routine. Between a couple of guys, not to mention the aggressive type-A kinds of guys they were, it's just not something you do.
So there we were, I in my hoodie and sweats, Rocky by any other name, the wrestlers a few yards back in similar get ups. And Bart. Vibrating in place next to me, normal in his own time but a super fast blur to me. He slowed down at mile seven and jogged at my pace. Backwards. Staring at the wrestlers behind us. Neither hot nor cold, insulated I suspected by his Speed Force and it's weird feedback, he forewent sweats for high and tight running shorts, no shirt, knee highs and a ratty set of PF Flyers.
"I'm gonna do it."
"No." Huff. "You're. Not." Huff.
"Getting winded, young man?" He smiled.
I smiled back. "Not as young as you."
"Hah! Few hundred years, give or take."
Huff. "How they doing?"
He sneered at them and they shouted obscenities back.
"I'm gonna do it," he said.
"No you're not."
"What's with the testosterone?" Huff. "You're gonna emasculate a bunch of High Schoolers by going Flash-fact on them?" Huff. "Good luck."
He frowned. Circled around to my other side and kept the pace. "I'm still gonna get them."
"Not worth it," I said. Huff. "We shouldn't remind them that giants walk the earth." Huff. "The faster we go, the longer they can't catch us. I've been running this stretch of road since I was eight." Huff. "Those guys. Make the same boast?"
"I dunno, Tim, some of them look tough. They might take my lunch money. Or my virtue."
I said, "if you had virtue to give."
He slapped my arm and said Shut Up.
We ran more.
Eventually, few weeks into the runs, they did catch up. We became friends. They ran the gamut, poor and rich, freshman to senior, scraping through the PS system or coasting gracefully on teacher credit, bribing parents or actual talent. We never did figure out which.
It was a good group of guys.
I don't mind telling you now, Allen: They don't survive.
The change in weather meant a return to the way things used to be. Cold weather was normal for Gotham—the heat wave was an aberration on the Eastern Seattle, as the Gazette called it. The snow was just a bonus. And with it people retreated back to their homes, their fires and their families.
As for me? I had the equerry house, with Bart. We went over to the Manor a few times but always got Alfred. Bruce was always gone, or down in the cave. And I didn't bother to go down.
Slowly and surely, I think I was starting to realise-
Well. That we were growing apart. Or had already. Or at least that an event had occurred that had caused a reaction in me and in Bruce. That there probably would be no going back to the way things were. That people change. The wheel keeps spinning.
People move on.
And sometimes that's the best the universe gives you.
But I was vacillating. Between being done with him and wondering. In my heart of hearts. It all seemed so easy looking back. Just be done with him and don't see him. Move on. It's clear he's moving on, has moved on, has no apparent space for you, so why keep carrying the torch. Why trap the albatross and hope for rapprochement?
Bart finally let me have it one night.
"He probably doesn't even know you're back. He hasn't contacted you, you haven't contacted him but that's chicken or egg, so whatever. Why are you so upset about this?"
I didn't have the answer.
I could have told him anything. I suppose. Could have told him that it was a Cold War between two damaged people over the death of a third. That it was about our shared inability to deal with what had happened to Barbara. That we barely got along to begin with, and now it's all becoming hopelessly, hilariously, obvious.
Bruce and I.
And I felt bad for Alfred. Being in the middle of this. "Does he talk about me?" I'd ask. "I'm sad to say he does not," Alfred said. "But then, there's little these days he talks about."
"Has he seen Gordon?"
Alfred made a face, and said, "Ah."
We were all silent for a moment. Finally I said, "And everything else? Tetch? The Joker?"
"He does not speak of them," Alfred said. And looked sad for it. "Not any longer."
Weeks, he said. Weeks I spent in Keystone being pissed off, being rudderless. Being a child.
I guess I was pretty upset. At myself. Maybe at Bruce.
A few things happened, or were happening, by the end of November.
They hauled Jervis Tetch in front of Judge Surrillo on Black Friday.
The news trucks traded parking in Schonenfeld's lot to question the nature of consumerism for squatting in the Diamond District to question the nature of man. And of Batman.
The trial of the decade, or so all the television stations would have you believe. Not since Harvey Dent blew a hole in Judge Harkness' floor ten years prior-disappearing with decades of court history in his hands and a complicit District Attorney, the very lovely Janice Porter, to kill-had there been such a spectacle, said Engel and the GCN gang.
Here's the other thing: it was a month after Nigma had died, too. And all the sheep that had reserved their judgments of The Riddler brought them out for the Mad Hatter. Willingham and the crew at the Gazette turned Tetch into a monstrous paedophile. The Intelligencer made him a super villain worthy of Dent or the Joker. From Metropolis, the WGBS media engines directed the sum of their resources to ending Tetch's life. Morgan Edge went on the David Endochrine Show to evangelise his hatred. And other jackals came out. From Metropolis, NewsTime Editor Colin Thornton derided Tetch and Gotham as products of the system, of the wicked city, of their own lessened selves. Tautologies of failure. Respected Private Citizen Lex Luthor directed his Sunday editorials in the Daily Star toward slander. He was seen to visit the very acidic, very self assured District Attorney Byrne weekly, and then broadcast an impromptu ViewTube speech about the trial, demanding sympathy an justice all in one breath for the Gordon family. Condescending and heartsick all at once. A legal equivalency. Forgive them, Your Honor, they know not what they do.
And, you know, the headlines.
"Trial for Tetch!"
"Tetch for the Boys."
"Tetch for the Girls!"
"Tetch was my Secret Scoutmaster!"
"My Affair With The Hatter!"
Allen. You wouldn't believe it. You really wouldn't.
Out the press came. GCN. GNN. WGN. CNN. Fox. Every affiliate from every network from Derry to Happy Harbor, Boston to Atlanta, and parts beyond.
They blocked traffic on Wall Street for weeks while the trial sped along. Pitched their tents and threw up their broadcast towers. Grant Park and the City Hall district around it became a madhouse.
I spent a lot of nights watching from the roof of the Sprang Auction House, a block down and across from the Courthouse. Not the dilapidated Solomon Wayne courthouse, either. That had been torn down years previous-after repairs to the floor bankrupted Public Works. Funny enough they hauled the entire department in front of Harkness for corruption charges from here to eternity. The city engineer is still serving ten years on embezzlement.
So no. The new courthouse was in the City Hall District, round the corner from the Hall of Records and peering into Grant Park. Modern and sleek, Herman Miller in juridical form, courtesy of Lex Luthor during the No Man's Land and standing vacant, waiting for its new purpose until they tore down Solomon Wayne.
Like I said. A lot of nights watching television vans come and go from Wall Street, police cars coming and going. I never saw Gordon. No paper or station reported him being at the trial.
I didn't see Bruce, either.
One day I took a page from his book. Dressed down into a nameless, faceless hipster, skinny jeans and bleach blonde hair and aviators loose on my nose, Chuck Taylors and a country plaid shirt all scraggy and messed. I slithered into the Courthouse, sat in the back row and tweeted Bart while I watched the kangaroo court do it's voodoo.
Makes you think. Watching a man, even Tetch, fight for his life. If it were anyone else, maybe Nigma or Harvey Dent, there would be no circus. No talking heads making a mockery of his life, or war crimes of his deeds. No armchair clinicians passing judgment on humanity because of the failings of one man. All the synonyms.
Years ago we came up with a detailed case history for Tetch. For all of them, really. Once a brilliant mathematician at Hudson University, then an actuary at the Novick Life and Casualty Company. Good with numbers, terrible with people. A model citizen if a slightly eccentric one at that. The only oddity in an otherwise brilliant career was the lack of what Bruce's old mentor, Ducard, called an inciting trauma. Something that happened, some random life event that caused a change in the person experiencing it. An emotional response shifting a priori behaviours to new space.
And they all had it. We all did too.
Thomas and Martha Wayne: Dead.
Jack Drake: Dead.
John and Mary Grayson: Dead.
And, you know, who knows what happened to the Joker.
I thought of Dent. Surely he was sitting in Arkham watching all this happen. Maybe he was missing it. Or dismissing it out of hand-his own efforts of course would have been better legal sport. Maybe he was turning a critical eye to all this. After all, in his day, in the days before the Batman, Gotham was different. The public officials were worse than the criminals they pretended to prosecute. And so Dent had fought.
He had gone after the last remnant of the Falcone Crime Family in open court. He was good at his job. A brilliant, overworked, underappreciated man. Doing his best.
In a system that hated your best.
And still does.
Dent had walked into that maelstrom thinking he was cock of the walk.
Well. As it turned out he was cock of nothing. Salvatore Maroni set out to prove it.
And it cost Dent everything.
Sometimes I wonder if that's what this town does to you. Breaks you down. Makes you into something else.
So that if you live. If you survive the change.
You become something else entirely.
Like I said. Inciting trauma.
That's what life is.
Change. On a dime.
I wondered who was watching all this. Maybe Dent. Maybe you, Allen. Maybe the Joker was watching, from some hidden place.
The Courthouse was insane. Packed to the opposite end of the avenue with gawkers, rubberneckers, hangers on. People who wanted an obsessive glimpse at Tetch or Gordon or the Batman. Normal people with small lives trying desperately to tap into something bigger. To see a celebrity. To witness.
We were all witnesses. We just didn't know it yet.
SWAT pulled Tetch from their truck bright and early, all grey and sagging in his prison issues. Barely mobile, sickly weak, staring blindly at the asphalt, then the concrete steps, then the hardwood floors beyond as they led him into the courtroom.
He was broken.
He'd never been broken in his life. Not this bad. Tetch was never Snidely Whiplash, never swore he'd get us someday. When we defeated him he took it poorly-more than most. And he went to prison broken. Every time.
But this was worse. Infinitely.
All the light had gone out of his body.
He was just sick. And old. And lonely.
Somewhere deep inside, a fire of sympathy flickered. I buried it. And kept burying it. I imagined it had a voice. Like Bruce's.
This man killed our friend. You cannot let that pass. You cannot give him clemency he did not give Barbara. We do not meet them on their terms.
The oldest lesson: crime cannot be tolerated.
Yes sir I understand sir.
Criminals thrive on the indulgence of society's understanding. An understanding we must not have. Do you know why, Tim.
Because understanding breeds forgiveness. Acceptance. And we will not tolerate, we cannot accept, their understanding.
Most of them are harmless. Others are not.
It was our job, Batman and Robin's, to figure out the harmful ones and to remove them from society. So they couldn't hurt anyone else. For years this was a suitable analytic approach. You approach something as a theoretical construct and it spares you having to actually think about it.
Spares you caring. And spares your pain.
About anything except the mission.
I think even that's beginning to ring hollow.
So the people you profess to fight for become shapeless simulacrums of themselves. And therefore not entirely real.
This scared me. Terrified me.
What are we if we're not real?
Another question without an answer, Allen.
I slouched down in the back pew.
The trial went on.
“The very best of intentions.”
You get to Arkham one of a few ways. One. Route 33 rounds Arkham Island from the rear, the west, fresh off the Brown Bridge and through a narrow corridor of fast food chains, hourly motels, and subhuman housing. You follow Route 33 through the jaunt, and the road narrows down to two lanes, a steep grassy hill, the island itself, on one side of you and a guardrail and a sheer drop and the Finger River on the other. The speed limit doesn't slow down either; the estimable and now very dead Mayor Krol decreed in the mid Nineties that there would be no speed limit around the Asylum-this to mitigate the chances of Good Samaritans slowing down to pick up escaped inmates masquerading as hitchhikers. No mayor since Krol has repealed the statute.
So you speed around the island to the front gates. And it lies to you. A wooded frontage, pine trees and a simple black wrought iron fence stretching in both directions from the gate as far as you can see, and beyond the simple wrought iron gates with a Gothic double-A crafted into them, a cobblestone road leading up the mount in switchbacks. Near the top lies the Mansion, with a brick parking lot laying down the front slope and two buildings flanking it. The Intensive Treatment Ward, in another life a tuberculosis ward, lies north at an angle and looks into Newtown. The Penitentiary, modest and industrial, watches over Otisburg. Both buildings hung empty these days.
In the time of Jeremiah's great reformation.
The Mansion itself stares vacantly at the East End, into the red light district and Oldtown. Worst of the worst, and crazy old Amadeus' inheritance glaring out at it all from a mile high perch. Gabled roofs and crouching gargoyles, impossible stonework and an immense clock tower in Tiffany glass turned burnt orange. Quiet and peaceful and mad and imposing.
Or, if you're still coming off the Brown Bridge, you take the Dairy Lane, a dirt road that forks sharply to the left and runs up to the smattering of buildings at the low rear end of the Island. Power plant, water treatment, groundskeeping, and the asylum post office. From there the brick road snakes up to the Mansion.
This asylum you see, was everything and nothing. All twists and turns. Inexplicable. Nonsensical. But so much is about Arkham that you almost hate to say it. In it's way, that was commentary enough on this town.
Ah but the face of it. That implacable Gothic majesty the Mansion had.
Thomas Elliot was not impressed.
In his youth he'd never even heard of Arkham, let alone its dubious reputation. Reasonable enough, he imagined. The city was six million living and breathing in his youth, and the only issue of the ancient Elliot family was not expected to know about the looney bin up on the hill. And so on returning to the City of Night as a man he was neither scared nor disappointed in it. It simply was there. Once more he thought of Aristotle. A is A. Arkham is Arkham, no better or worse than the rest of these hideous shacks in this hovel people call a city. In existences they call lives. Only cynical people would call them that.
Little people, he thought. And stepped out of his Ferrari. And walked up the great stone steps to the mansion doors. And pushed one hopelessly ornate oak door open.
In he walked, wearing Bruce Wayne's face: a surgical recreation thereof composed this time of the facial features of forty different indolent men and boys he'd lured to a slum behind the Solomon Wayne, abused, tortured, and killed. Culled from the slums, the lost and forgotten. Lost souls no one would miss.
Not even the Batman.
This time, he thought.
More faces. More vagrants dead at his hands. No, more homeless youth. Their skin was softer, more pliable. Better.
More, he thought again.
He couldn't stop killing.
The nurse at the front ward said, "Oh good afternoon, sir." And Dr Arkham there standing next to her, one hand in a lab coat pocket, the other fumbling some keys around idly. A blank look on his face, capped by a bowl haircut and coke bottle glasses.
"Mister Wayne, hello. Didn't expect to see you quite yet."
"Excuse my lateness," Elliot said. "Vanessa runs my schedule tightly."
"Not at all," Arkham said. "She said you're interested in a tour of our old new little facility here?"
"Quite so. I'm curious to see how the Family money is being spent these days, particularly on Dr Nybakken's new model therapy. My father always said we had a social chair, a responsibility to use our wealth for the betterment of the city. Tell me, Doctor Arkham, how is that coming?"
Arkham didn't lose a beat. He said, "actually very well. As you may or may not know most of our patient clientele has fallen off. Either deemed fit to rejoin society by new NAMI standards, or through the new model you mentioned. Really quite spectacular. Your secretary intimated you wanted to see a positive before we provide you with a negative, yes?"
"That'll be fine, Doctor. Lead the way."
"Of course," Jeremiah said and strolled ahead of Elliot.
"Now, what of the extreme cases, if you don't mind me asking. The Joker, for instance."
Arkham's courtly politeness dimmed a bit, he looked at Elliot pretending to be Wayne and said, "We liaise with various departments to locate the Joker. So, uh, so far nothing's come about."
Elliot nodded and said. "Okay what about Harvey Dent?"
"Mister Dent is one of our last patients. Here since what he describes as his last great break, after, apparently, Batman returned from the East and decommissioned him as the city's interim protector."
Interim protector? What in God's name had Bruce been up to?
"Busy life, isn't it?"
Arkham shrugged. "Doctor Nybakken has taken on Mister Dent's therapy for the past seven years. Thanks, I might add, to a rather generous research grant from the Wayne Foundation. I'm told you were once friends with Harvey?"
Elliot made a face. Arkham must have noticed it because he stopped and raised an eyebrow. Ever the clinician.
Quickly Elliot covered his ignorance. "Ehh, well, what good is a staff if it's not a funded one," Elliot said. "Now, what else can you tell me? History of the facility? You know I don't find myself actually walking through every building in Gotham, let alone one of its most famous."
He cracked a smile. Together they kept a leisurely clip through the library.
"Well," Jeremiah said. "Where do we begin?"
"Oh," Elliot said. "Amadeus."
"Not at all," Jeremiah said. "As you know this building is the failed life's work of Amadeus Arkham, a city father in his own right and my dear Uncle as well. It opened its doors on the thirtieth of April 1901. At the time most of the land on the island was undeveloped and so my antecedents built the dairy barn at the rear of the property, brought cattle in from the generous fields of your great grandfather for milk and for slaughter. Later we added the power plant, as well as a small victory garden and hedge animals at the facility's frontage.
“This infrastructure allowed the early Asylum to remain nearly self sufficient until the Sixties when a grandfathered land-contract between Uncle and the Gotham University came due and we were forced to deed parts of the island to the university for their capital projects. Prior to that, however, the grounds allowed the third generation inmates a sense of autonomy, duty, and mending. Uncle was a believer of the Kirkbride method: that buildings were therapeutic ends in themselves and that patients might self-medicate by tending to the flower beds, beekeeping, and the like. To re-acclimatize them to decent society was the aim. And I don't mind telling you, Mister Wayne, we've recently re-embraced and reestablished that sense of purpose."
"Impressive," Elliot said. "I'm pleased at the regime change. And yet I sense there's more, Doctor?"
"Very nearly," Jeremiah said. "As I said, I mentioned the doomed nature of Uncle's undertaking. I use the term 'failed' because of how he ended up. Imprisoned within in the very walls he built to convalesce the broken elements of society. Driven mad by the loss of his family to become something more terrible than even he imagined."
Elliot knew the type.
Jeremiah was quiet. "He died screaming. Carving runes into the floor with his fingernails. Singing the Star-Spangled Banner at the top of his lungs. Imagine it," Jeremiah said. "The best of intentions and it all goes so very wrong. Makes you think, does it not?"
They kept waking. Down the main concourse, through the second ward.
Elliot rubbed the face that wasn't his. Subcutaneous stitches shifted and snapped. He made a face and readjusted. Went through the north transept.
Jeremiah stopped at the door. An ornate oak affair with brass studs nailed to it in crosshatches.
"I'm afraid this is where I leave you, Mister Wayne. A rule of my own making: don't talk to the patients. Patients under juvenile-affective psychosis often deride authority figures and reduce any headway made in therapy. Jervis Tetch is a notorious recidivist. Lieutenant McQuaid will guide you through the rest of the process."
Elliot forced a smile. "Understood. And thanks for your help, Doctor Arkham. I'll get with the Board and we'll take another look at the Ongoing Infrastructure Grant, yes?"
"I'm very grateful, Mister Wayne," he said and shook his hand.
Tetch's cell lay at the far extremity. A single pane of glass with conversation holes in it, six by six for conversation or idle threats. What have you, really.
Elliot got close to the glass. McQuaid from QRT appeared from nowhere and stopped him.
"House orders," Elliot said.
McQuaid nodded and swiped an access card through the reader. A green light above the cell turned red. The glass hissed, slid back and into the walls. Elliot stepped through.
Distorted over the radio, McQuaid's voice came: "Okay, Mister Wayne here we go. There are now eight inches of glass between you and me. You will not raise your voice to the inmate. You will not approach him or threaten him or otherwise intimidate him in any way. Do not agitate, intimidate or otherwise threaten the inmate. I will not get to you in time if he takes physical action against you. There is a chair for you to sit if you so desire. There is to be no disrobing while in the view, and no sudden movement. This facility, the city of Gotham, the county of Kane, and the state of New Jersey are not responsible for anything that happens to you during your visit, nor on your way in or out from said visit. Do you agree and understand."
Elliot cocked an eye. "You couldn't tell me this before I walked in the cell with a serial molester?"
McQuaid said thickly: "Just answer the question."
Elliot waved a hand and said yes he agreed dammit.
"Okay," McQuaid said. "Knock on the glass three times for exit."
Elliot nodded. He knew damn well guards couldn't stand right outside prison cells any more. Something about violating the rights of the condemned and attorney-client privilege. Part of a series of institutional reforms headed by the now ex-President Luthor.
Elliot waited for McQuaid to go. Then he turned in place and smiled at Tetch. A sad little man in prison oranges, huddled on the bed, hugging his knees, nearly weeping.
Tetch looked up slowly. His eyes narrowed and his lips pursed. Putting something together.
"The walrus and the carpenter,” Tetch said and it was a low murmur. “Were walking close at hand. They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand.”
Elliot scowled. More loose stitches.
"I've read your files. Apparently you rhyme in order to cope with the world outside. It feeds your pathology.”
Tetch stared. His face turned slowly to a wretched scowl. An angry child being corrected.
"Figured it out yet?" Elliot said.
Elliot got close and stopped at the bedside. Put one hand on a sagging lifeless shoulder, looked straight into Tetch's eyes. And said, "it's okay. I know who you are. Or were. I only want some information."
"Tell me. I'm given to understand you had one or two decent hits. You messed up the Boy Wonder in a big way. But who hasn't. And you almost had the commissioner's daughter. Am I right?"
Tetch looked dumbfounded. His eyes glassed and he looked around he room. Not himself. Separated. Fascinating. He was mouting words and not speaking and then finally, came: "Daughter..."
"Yes. I've read the Batman's case file. The so-called Haunted Night. He fought the Scarecrow in the power grid and the Penguin atop Wayne Enterprises. And he fought you. You who were kidnapping little preteens for your tea parties, chief among them a girl named Barbara Gordon. Weren't you? It's all right, you can tell me. I know a little something about luring people to their doom. How else do you suspect I'm wearing this face?"
Tetch's eyes widened. In a sneering, savage voice he said, "You! You're the clever one! Crane spoke of you!”
Elliot's eyes narrowed.
"Tomorrow you'll be released. Now do you want to make something of yourself at last, or do you just want more Alices and March Hares? Little bitches, right? That's what you called them once. Young bodies you can play doctor and dress up with? Answer me, you diseased maniac."
Tetch was silent. Staring at the bedsheets beneath him. Sniffling and sobbing like his children.
"Look," Elliot said. "All of our lives mean different things now. The Batman is getting very old, and very sad. And very tired."
Tetch eyed him curiously.
"Hasn't the time come?" Elliot asked. "To talk of many things? Of shoes and ships and sealing wax. And if the Bat has wings?"
Tetch cracked a thin smile.
Elliot held out a slip of paper.
"Little Barbara Gordon. She lives at the address on that paper. I think it's time she fell down the rabbit hole again. What do you say to that?"
Bruce and Selina.
He knew there were other worlds.
He'd seen them. Been to them on a thousand adventures with the League and others. Those fantastic people with fantastic powers that allowed them to see such things and such places. Other planets, other universes, other Gothams. Eventually, other versions of himself. He never paid the idea much attention until now.
A gang of Bruce Waynes out there in the multitude, each of them like him but not really. And maybe they all shared the same story, or maybe not. Like everything else, commonality stopped at initial conditions. Lightning never struck twice, luck was fool's gold to be lost as expediently as you had found it in the first place. You never could step foot in the same river twice.
Best then to focus on what was. On what was here. This world. This time.
And so he did not pursue the foolish idea that, out there in the multitude, there was a world where things were different. Or at least different in any meaningful way. A world where Bruce Wayne never became Batman. A Bruce Wayne who never had to make that decision. Even if it was no decision at all.
There was a world where his parents—
She was in a hospital bed at Saint Marks, downtown. Wires and tubes running in and out of her.
He had just come from fighting Tommy.
Horrifying. Elliot had removed his own face, that handsome windblown look, and replaced it with a surgical effigy of Bruce Wayne's. All in an effort to discredit and destroy the man. Elliot'd conspired with the cryogenecist-turned-criminal Victor Fries to kidnap Selina Kyle and together they cut her heart out of her chest. Preserved it in a self sustaining Dynamo chest. To entice the Batman into the chase and to give him something to hope for.
And something to lose.
All that had happened before.
Michael Holt, Mister Terrific in the JSA, was standing next to him. Bruce leaned against the door frame, wrapped in a rich black leather trench coat, a scarf tight around his neck, his hair waved back over a high forehead and a sharp widows peak. He was staring at her. He looked at Holt and asked for a minute. Holt nodded and stepped out.
Bruce stood in the doorway for another moment. Then he was at her bedside.
He knew there were other worlds. And maybe. On one of them.
She would have lived.
On one of them, The Batman would have arrived in time. Would've stopped Tommy in time. Would've saved Selina in time.
Now, matters were worse. Time, time, time. Slipping away.
They said there was time travel in the old days. The days of the League. The age of superheroes. Time travel. The mean to go back on your own timeline. To change whatever you wished.
All those years spent fighting supervillains, mad gods, Kings, despots, world conquerors. Gods of fear, gods of war. Power hungry billionaires, trappers of time. So many things to fight. And here he was, trying to be all things to all people.
All those years. All those adventures.
Look at us now, Father.
"Selina," he said to the corpse. And waited.
What to say. What not to say. Didn't matter now, he supposed, but still. There should be more to this.
And yet there wasn't. No great meaning for them. No fond farewell. No last words. Not for her. Not for Thomas and Martha.
He breathed deep.
And thought of Tommy. Poor wayward Tommy.
Once upon a time. Tommy and Bruce:
Bruce, there's been an accident. My parents.
Hey it'll be okay.
Yes. Yes I promise, Tommy. I still promise.
He wished he could have helped him.
They were friends. Once.
Look at us now.
He looked at Selina. She was always thin. For and slim and in shape, a perfect frame to scramble over the rooftops of Gotham. And a perfect, beauteous slender shape to move among the wealthy and elite. Statuesque, stunning. And well aware of it.
He remembered the first time he met her. Neither of them knew it at the time, only years later.
His own stupidity and hubris had taken him to the East End. Worst of the worst.
Trying to stop a pimp from abusing a child prostitute. Thirteen years old. If that. That same pimp, or maybe it was the girl, sticking a knife in his leg. And then her.
A shadow had fallen across him. There she stood. In black top to bottom, stilettos and a corset, black hair in a buzzcut, that permanent scowl.
And she got in. She found a way into his heart. Where so many women had failed before.
To this day. He didn't know how. Perhaps he'd allowed her in or she'd allowed him in.
"Selina," he said again. "Tonight I looked into a mirror and saw an ugly distortion of myself. A demon consumed by jealousy and greed. I thought. I thought. I never...wanted you to come to any harm. Least of all because of me."
He remembered Julie. That sweet, innocent woman caught up in his mission, eventually destroyed by it and on the other end of the country just to be rid of it.
"There's only ever been one woman who's held my heart. Only one."
He remembered Silver. That intrepid, beautiful woman digging deep to find hope for both of them. Finding it eventually and then leaving him as soon as she'd come, out of fear and misunderstanding.
He remembered Vicki. That dedicated, brilliant woman yearning for the truth. And dismissing him on learning it. Fleeing from it.
The instruments and machines next to Selina's bed were silent. He sat there for an hour. In silence.
Julie. Silver. Vicki.
Through them all, all the heartbreak and tumult, he remembered. And stewed. All the necessary lies and deceptions-the preservation of the Batman at the expense of Bruce Wayne, and for what? What purpose was there to that endeavour?
He wondered. He never believed he had one without the other but at some point the two became mutually exclusive. Batman but not Bruce. Bruce but never Batman.
Look at me now, Father.
The roots of all our lives go very deep, Father, and mine took hold around four people. A psychopath in a clown suit. A psychopath with a bandaged face. A remarkable boy orphaned by time and fate, and meant for better things. And her.
"Selina," he said. "I will always love you."
“...A special case.”
Batman and Two-Face.
He decided to take Dick's advice. To get back to doing what was necessary. His good work. All the synonyms. Put the Batman back on the trail to discover what exactly had gone wrong in his life lately. All these grave missteps, and bodies piling up because of it.
He needed to know. And so he began prioritizing. First step was Arkham, as ever. All roads led into and out of the Home, and it usually held answers, however cryptic they were. Second step collecting intel from the facility—doctors, its last inmate, public officials. Anyone who's lives were about to become very difficult thanks to Batman on the warpath.
And he was.
For the first time in years.
He felt a fire in his chest.
So Arkham it was.
"I need to know what you know. About The Mad Hatter. About the Joker. And I want to know now, Harvey."
"Whichever part you're comfortable with."
They'd been going at this for hours now, Nybakken and Dent, with progressively fewer results. Harvey Dent was the Batman's first stop on the road to discovery. Harvey Dent. Still the delusional madman called Two-Face. Still unwilling to accept responsibility for his actions or the actions of others. A complete pawn. At his own game.
The Batman kept watching as Dent, in the interrogation room, leaned back in his chair.
Dent wasn't sure.
What he was sure of, was that Dr Nybakken cared.
Yes, cared, he—
Dr Nybakken was young. Really, only a few years or so behind Dent, but young just the same. Like so many young men Dent had seen come and go in his own life, Nybakken's youth, his pomposity, his grandiose self-regard, was a sham, a—
He put his hands at either temple and closed his eyes.
"Harvey," Dr Nybakken said. "Come now."
"I can't," he said.
He opened his eyes briefly. Saw Dr Nybakken make a disappointed face, analytical and frowning. Staring through him to the beast below.
Beast. You clown—
And you're an old man and a fool, Harvey and he's going to—
"I want to speak to Harvey Dent," Nybakken said and leant forward in his chair. His voice went down into a rehearsed scowl. "Not the monster controlling him."
"He's not a monster, he's helping me."
"But Two-Face's brand of help is diminishing returns, Harvey. You know it. Put him back in his cage. I want to talk to Harvey Dent."
"Do it,” Nybakken said. “Now!”
Dent took a breath. Looked up. Lowered his hands back to the armrests. He looked at Nybakken. His mouth slacked and he was going to say something. Maybe.
"I'm sorry," Dent said and slouched back in the chair. "That was rude."
Nybakken stood and offered Dent a hand. Pulled him up and said, "It was better."
Dent made a face.
"Better," Nybakken said. "Than what we've been doing. Streets ahead of shouting matches and throwing bodily fluids at me."
Dent touched a hand to his forehead.
"It's fine," Nybakken said. "Let's call it a day, yes? I'll see you tomorrow."
Nybakken looked behind Dent and nodded at the mirror wall. The reflection shut off and showed a circle of observers. Dr Arkham, Dr Bartholomew, Mayor Garcia, and the Bat-Man.
Nybakken made a face, too.
He patted Dent on the back. Dent, hunched and withdrawn into himself, nodded and mumbled something ethereal.
McQuaid from the QRT came in, shoved the steel door open and grabbed Dent's arm gently. Led him out like a retiree to shuffleboard. Put his other arm around him. Asked him if he was okay.
Nybakken followed them out, stayed dutifully two paces behind Dent, and then when McQuaid had led him far enough down the hall, Nybakken slithered into the observation room.
Handed his notes to the STNA. Took off his glasses and pocketed them. And looked at the circle of observers.
Garcia: "Diminishing returns, huh?”
Nybakken opened his mouth to speak, only for the Batman to interject: "This therapy has been diminishing returns, Doctor. I need to know what Dent knows."
"I understand your position, but I will not carve the information out of him. It has to come in its time. Harvey Dent is a special case. He always has been."
"You didn't ask about the Joker."
Nybakken frowned. He of course had his own misgivings about where the Joker was. But he pushed those feelings deep. Rallied. And put on his brave face for the Dark Knight. "I get it. I really do. You have a maniac of your own needs finding, who knows where, and you've decided that it's going to be Harvey Dent who helps you out. For the record, I must protest."
The Batman turned around. Stared at Nybakken like he was staring through his soul.
"They were close. For years."
"But they never got along," Nybakken said. "We have records dating back to before the No Man's Land. Dent and the Joker breaking into each other's cells. I somehow doubt fifteen years and shared enmity have done much to change that. If he knows where the Joker is now, he's doing a fine job concealing it."
"Dent had knowledge. Means. And the money to support it."
Arkham sighed and cut in: "We're all well aware of the conspiracies. I'm telling you he's a broken man and there is little you'll get from him. To be quite honest, Batman, we were humoring you here. We can't just trot out the inmates for questioning every time you have a gut instinct. We have a responsibility to help him.”
"Don't talk to me about responsibility,” the Batman said. “He knows damn well what he's doing, and he always has. The coin is an excuse. Insanity is an excuse, and you all allow it. I'll beat the information out of him if I have to."
Dr Arkham stepped up. "You will not. This is my facility, Batman, and we dispensed with draconian measures long ago. I will not have you abusing the mentally ill. However much you'd like to."
Batman and Arkham locked eyes. To his credit, Arkham didn't flinch. He merely said, "Now, I think you've got what you needed. Go on down to Blackgate now and see if they have any answers. We've a patient to treat."
Batman scowled. He turned to leave and his cape flew out behind him in a grand flourish.
It was Nybakken who spoke up.
"Batman," he said.
Batman stopped and cocked his head. "Yes?"
"Instead of leading a fifty-two year old has-been of a villain down a dreary Jungian hallway…why not spend your time chasing something of worth?"
"What did you have in mind?"
Bartholomew spoke up: "Front desk has the security tapes of Bruce Wayne in this very building last month. Talking to the Mad Hatter."
Garcia: "I've talked it over with the doctors here and we want you to take a look at that information. When you do, maybe you want to tell me what Gotham's wealthiest man was doing posting bail for a convicted murderer?"
Batman turned around. Their newfound tenor was.
"Why would your people let him in?" Batman asked.
"He had his credentials," Bartholomew said. "And a letter, which we've now found out to be a forgery."
"A forgery," Batman said.
Garcia made a face. "Uh. Watermark. We tracked it to a counterfeiter in Metropolis."
"I'll look into it."
Garcia said good, and the Batman was gone.
“No powers required...”
Tim and Cameron.
Cameron Chase was a bitch.
The long overdue product of a government family doing government jobs for successive generations, a brilliant intelligence and mannish demeanour the end result of it, governing her every thought and deed, guiding her towards stern authority and an overriding if sublimated desire to out-man the men in her professional competition; a personality which although friendly and appropriately feminine none the less lent itself to a hard demeanour, a surly personality, which alienated the same men she quietly determined to overcome. Passionate only about results at any cost, even to herself. A hater of superhumans, stemming from unresolved childhood trauma, and all the pricklier her behaviour for it. A dedicated agent of a dedicated department.
The Department of Extranormal Operations itself was tasked with finding the superhumans in the population, to monitor them and, if so, remove their dangerous element from a society that was hopelessly, hilariously, ill-equipped to deal with its heroes. Even now. A decade and a half past Superman's first appearance, saving the proto-shuttle Constitution from human error and physics. Even now, the government and those people without powers, in positions of power, determined long ago that the superhuman population needed watching. People like Lex Luthor and Dr Veronica Cale. Humans thinking themselves superior over other humans
Because in her heart of hearts, Chase determined to be one of those normal people. That normalcy was all that mattered in a life. Not to be a wallflower, always stuck on the fringe and watching life pass you by, a sad Bildungsroman way to exist. But to be something that was your own. Her own. A life of its own merit.
No powers required.
Which meant that whenever she encountered superbeings, usually as part of her prescribed duties, she did so with a vaguely disaffected look on her face and a practised apathy.
When she finally met Bruce, years after his debut, they got along about as well as you'd expect.
The dark side of ambition is what she was, Allen. Another forensic file of the Batman. He had this one made up the same day he met her. You should ask Luthor about her sometime: she used to work for him. Obtusely, to be sure, but under his wing nonetheless.
The Department oversaw her. In a few ways she was its greatest tool. The superhuman hater who did her job with such rigor that you could say it was a hobby. Find what you love, after all, and never work a day in your life. Or so I hear.
Trial for Tetch continued unabated.
So there I sat in my skinny jeans and Chuck Taylors, a scraggly knit shirt, a leather cuff watch, bleach blonde hair, Buddy Holly glasses loose on my nose, watching Jervis Tetch's defence attorney try to make something of himself and his client. An unimaginative and flimsy disguise, but sufficiently generalised that it wouldn't raise eyebrows in the courtroom. And here came Chase in a length black leather coat.
She sat next to me, the few inches of open space on the pew. Ruffled her coat a bit, got comfortable. I knew her the moment I saw her. Out of the corner of my eye.
I was tweeting back and forth with Bart. He was down at Lohnes' trying to get on at the lunchtime karaoke roundup on a Kenny Rogers song and failing miserably.
We were both silent. Both watching the trial go on, if passive in our attention. After a while, Chase cleared her throat. Obnoxious. She leaned in and whispered, "quite an experience to live in fear, isn't it?"
I didn't look up from my phone. "Yup."
She smirked. "Nice phone."
"Thanks. It's a dinosaur but it works."
"Can't argue with that," she said and lulled something from her coat. I glanced over. She popped a Pez in her mouth and held the dispenser out. "Pez?"
I looked at it, a plastic mockery of Superman's head, then back at her. "No thanks. I think they taste like soap."
She shrugged and put it back. Slouched down in the pew a bit.
On my phone, Bart was getting antsy:
DrakeHotel: Come downtown for lunch?
DrakeHotel: okay. Slow down.
DrakeHotel: oh you know. Giordano's?
DrakeHotel: cool I'll see you there.
I pocketed the phone. Looked back up at the trial.
"Quite an experience to live in fear," she said. Regarding the trial ahead of her with a distant and clinical look. The same look Bruce gets when he's on a hunch.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Mm. Tetch fighting for his life up there. Quite an experience."
I looked at Tetch. Shrunken and insignificant against his own tapestry. "Yeah."
I saw Chase pull her phone out. She typed something out and held it out to the side for me to see:
I Know Who You Are.
I looked at it, and her. And mouthed, Likewise.
She typed, Step Outside?
We went out and found a bench down the hall.
"Tim Drake," she said. "Cameron Chase. I'm DEO. The people you people should love, but don't."
"You know who I am. I point and laugh at government oversight.”
She gave an easy sneer. "Let me ask you something. If there's a robber breaking into your house, you call the police. If there's an active shooter at your school, maybe you call your buddy Gordon or the QRT. If there's a completely insane superpowered asshole burning the Pioneer's Bridge into the bay, who do you call? You think your mentor can be everywhere at once?”
“Why, are you planning on attacking us?”
She smiled. “It was a hypothetical. You think he's going to do this forever? That he'll keep going up to the Moon with the League to fight starfish aliens and whatever the hell a Kalibak is? Or The Joker? What's the Batman going to do when Dent snaps. Again."
"He'll fight and win. You know that. You've watched him long enough."
"Okay," she said. "And then suppose something else. Suppose I'm not here for the Batman?"
"Then I'd ask why the posturing. Because I don't suppose that the great Cameron Chase didn't do her homework and learn everything about me before showing up. So drop this G-man bullshit and tell me the truth.”
She cocked her head. “I needed to see if what I've been told was accurate. My standing mission is to gauge your focus on this. So you're not focused on other things. Believe me, I'm not taunting you. But that's what it sounds like. Character defect I suppose."
"Oh now I'm in trouble,” I said.
She chuckled and said, "Now that is interesting. All the Intel we have on you says you're the serious one."
I made a face. "What Intel."
I stood and moved away. Looked at the ceiling and sighed. "Who sent you."
"You really don't want to know. But I'll tell you this. I've been authorised to have a conversation with you. Nothing so glamourous as distracting you while the Task Force breaks Tetch from prison—he doesn't rate that high.”
“But I do?”
I shook my head. "You're talking in circles. You know, Nigma is dead."
"I know," she said. "My condolences."
"Intel again," she said. "The data I have suggests Nigma was the last one the Batman respected. Aside from Luthor."
I laughed. "You really don't know Luthor then, do you? Last I heard, he was a sad old recluse churning out penny dreadfuls for a failing newspaper."
Chase was silent. Looking at me quietly, clinically, those baby blues trying their best to get through. "And your information is solid, Boy Wonder?"
"Let me ask you something else."
I looked at her.
She waited. Then: "Did you think that when the Luthor Administration fell all those years ago, the rats honestly fled the sinking ship?"
"It occurred to me. I was there."
"I know," she said. "You broke into the White House to save your super-dad from the big bad wolf."
"Hey, we won. What happened to you."
She made an irritated face. "You sure you want to know?"
"Jesus, just tell me."
"Hm. DEO was reorganised after the so-called Infinite Crisis, in favor of a more clandestine unit. Something no one knew existed and which answered only to an internal logic. No regulation, no outsiders."
I let out a little cackle.
"After the Crisis,” she said. “We started collating all the old intelligence Luthor had acquired on superhumans. Identities, addresses, astrological signs, oh...ex-boyfriends. Do you know what he did once he got it all together?"
I shook my head. "What."
"If I told you, Tim, it would break your heart.”
"Luthor," I said. "He sent you. Didn't he. It's alright, you can tell me. You stink like he does. A little person thinking they're something they're not. God. What's he want now, buy out Wayne Enterprises? Spring bail for Tetch?”
She rolled her eyes. "He doesn't care about some no-name like Tetch. He cares about you.”
“There is no stopping it.”
Edward and the Doctor.
He was a million miles away. Staring through a great glass window at downtown Gotham in all its life. Infinite lives down there in the maelstrom. Going about their affairs in infinite majesty, he thought, like apes. Like sand. In an hourglass.
He thought bitterly upon his own life. Kind of a hard life, and all his failures mounting up there.
He turned forty last year. Cycled through his fifth parole hearing. Seventy fourth green suit since public debut and the Englehart Trap.
Seven hundredth failed crime.
Fifty seventh missed opportunity, where opportunity was defined as the chance to determine the identity of the Batman.
The only riddle worth solving at this point in his life.
He was forty.
Over the hill.
Past his prime.
What do you do? When you wake up to that.
There he sat in Dr Tsongas' office. Pondering his new lot, or at least what he was sure would be his new lot. He knew Tsongas would say it.
"I'm afraid it's terminal," Tsongas said.
Edward heard him. And straightened in his chair. Stared out the window.
And went to a different place. A harsher, dangerous place where he looked back at a version of himself he wasn't sure existed. There he hovered, a few feet above himself, watching himself. Whose life was he watching, and why? He often wished he could have gone and warned his childhood self. Watch out for your father, the breaker of legs and of dreams. Watch out for the Batman, the breaker of other hopes and dreams.
And so on.
He wondered when he lost his fervour. When he turned into this sullen wreck.
He swallowed a bit of saliva at the back of his throat. Looked at the sky, cool, cruel blue, up there mocking him.
Tsongas' voice came stronger this time.
"Edward, what's bothering you?"
He smiled. A lie, and Tsongas didn't even get it.
"Tell me, Doctor," he said. "What's it like to tell people they're dying."
Tsongas made a face. "Most people take it fairly well. Treatments have improved. Of course depending on the type of cancer, reaction can mirror diagnosis. So it runs the gamut. Mostly, people are different and so are their coping mechanisms."
"But you don't take it at all personally? If someone blames you? Or, oh...God."
Tsongas' gaze narrowed. "Divinity has never been my purview. And the hospital offers some substantial counselling programmes. Dr Nybakken from the Asylum visits biweekly for an outreach seminar. I can slot you in if you like."
Nigma gaped. His eyes widened and his jaw set strong in his face. He took a deep breath and chose his words carefully.
"I will not speak to that man," Edward said. "He's a bully. No thank you."
"You're in your forties and you still worry about bullies?"
"What an acerbic response," Nigma said. "Does the AMA let you talk to me that way?"
"I think it's the only method you respect.”
“Know me now, do you, you addled, overcompensating, thirty year old anachronism?”
"What do you respect," Tsongas said. "Are the stories true and it's the human brain? Is that it, Edward? A collection of nerves and impulses guiding our behavior to unknown ends."
Nigma smiled out of nowhere. "Is it random?"
"We're not doing this, Edward."
"Then what are we doing?"
Tsongas leaned in. "I'm trying to assess your competency. You're a ward of the state. It's not hyperbole to say you have less than zero rights. If you want to return to your minimum security vacation and not Supermax at the Schreck—where the very lovely Mayor Garcia is longing to put people like you-then you've got to meet me halfway."
Nigma was silent. His head bowed. Eyes sullen and trained on his twiddling thumbs.
"What happened to you," Tsongas said. "This is not the Riddler I was led to believe existed. May I venture a professional guess?"
"Unresolved childhood trauma," Tsongas said. "Resurfacing now at a critical time in your life. Why don't you tell me? Sexual abuse? Locked in a closet?"
"Then what. The Riddler used to giggle his way through crime. You were a mastermind. Quite naturally brilliant if not for your childish need. Your newfound tenor is...less so. Tell me why you're refusing treatment? Why are you choosing to suffer through this.”
"Better to tough it out."
Tsongas took his glasses off.
Rubbed his temples.
And said, "You will die, Edward. Slowly. Painfully. At its current rate the tumor will spread down your spine and into your lymphatics. Your immune system will shut down and you'll die of something pitiful like a cold. Or it'll go to your stomach, wrap itself around that until you won't be able to eat and then you'll die of starvation. It will metastasize anywhere and everywhere, and by the end of all this, you'll be in complete organ failure. Dehydrated, barely cognisant, unable to move. In a hospital bed, moaning for morphine or OxyContin or anything you think will stop the pain. There is no stopping it. There is no other way. It's too far along. So you tell me."
"The end," Nigma looked off again. That thousand yard stare. He looked back at Tsongas and smiled weakly. "Radiation?"
Tsongas didn't miss a beat. "Then I'd like to prepare you for the end, Edward."
“Grief...demands an answer.”
Batman and the Demon.
The trail led next to Bialya. Smaller than Delaware and nestled in the northern wastes, where life ceased and death began. It was here all those years ago where the Demon's Head began his programme of terror and genocide. It was here now where the Demon's Head resided in his dotage.
The Batman knew the history. He had made the history.
The League of Assassins. A dark and terrible society pervading humanity's deepest roots and inspiring them toward Overthrow. In the name of purity.
Nonexistent. Now only a name, without shape or purpose. A historical oddity, and a bogeyman. Sold out and liquidated by its leader, the very lovely Talia Al Ghul. The Daughter of the Demon. Long dead, although, with this family, ancient upon ancient, who knew?
Leaving only the Head. Without body. Without movement. Atrophied and wasted upon itself. Reduced to life as an ourobouros, feeding upon his own sustenance, feebly surviving. Ascetic and silent in the wasteland. Surrounded by only basest remnants of his empire.
Ra's al Ghul.
He was old even in his youth. Now deep time in the form of a man. Beyond ancient. Beyond good. Beyond evil. So old he'd forgotten his true age. Probably it was that he came out of Egypt in the days of Ramses, put a target and a vengeance upon Western civilisation and the pinnacles of its decadence. A portent and a storm, a word of violence and death and in his wake came destruction and misery. He wandered for dark centuries across the dunes. Sowing his mission, his glorious purpose, where he willed. He beheld the Barbary Pirates at the dawn of an earlier age, and claimed to have watched Scipio destroy Carthage. He doted in Phoenicia and retired for a century in Tehran. He rode with the Golden Horde and stood in judgment upon Alexander. He loaded trade ships with plague rats and watched London burn. And when it was done and London was ashes, he stood before Whitehall and declared, "It is as Iliupersis." And when his companion asked him what that meant he stabbed the young Jacobite through the heart and said to the corpse, "A change. In everything we are. And all we shall become."
This was Ra's Al Ghul. Ancient and mystic. Master of the League of Assassins. King of empires. A prophet of balance. And of course so much had happened for him since then. Rise and fall.
Withered eyes closed in their meditation opened slowly and rolled around seeing the night. Feeling the air. The heat, even among the night sky. He breathed deep, with his whole body, held it. Released.
And spoke, and it came free and clear. From a man unencumbered.
“I knew you'd come.”
"My family is dying. What do you know about it.”
"Detective," the Demon said. "I have lived so long, and so intensely, that my own dead are less than memories. Echoes of lives lived before your world was made. Undeserving of the basest sentimentality. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
The shadow produced a batarang and angled for the Demon.
From nowhere assassins came. Martyrs and killers in old military uniforms from countries not their own. Carrying weapons not theirs.
Dinosaurs. Living fossils. Decrepit exhibits of an earlier time, now without memory or meaning.
"These men would kill you," the Demon said. "If they could. If I wished it."
The Demon stood and turned to face the shadow. A strong and lean body, ancient muscles ripped tight over sinew and bone. Stark grey hair smooth on a high, patrician skull.
The shadow looked at the killers around him. They lowered their rifles. Kneeled before the Demon and averted their eyes.
The shadow, just the hint of a face, pulled back its cowl and stared at the Demon like a man.
"Someone," the Batman said. "Is plotting against me, and I need to find out who. I'm running out of time. You have the means, and the resources."
The Demon scoffed. "Resources. You see my resources. A handful of loyalists who still believe in bringing balance to this doomed world."
"An observation," he said. "My latest skirmish with your world left my forces at a pittance."
"You carpet-bombed Bialya."
"Oh come now," the Demon said. "Do not sit in judgment upon me, Detective. Not when you are in a position of need."
The Batman looked away.
The Demon breathed and looked at the night sky.
"Somewhere up there lies Algol," he said. "An ill omen. Casting doubt on us all, Detective. You do not seek answers. You seek solace. And you turn to me."
"Your enemies are moving. Disappearing. Why? Why do you feel strange about this? Do they excite you? Do they define you?"
"No," the Batman said. "I know who I am."
"Then why do they vex you so? As I see it you have only one riddle left. So tell me, Bruce. Why can you not solve it?"
The Batman was silent for long moments. The night was cool and vibrant in the wasteland. Even here he felt alive. Perhaps more than he ever did at home. Perhaps that was what justified all his years overseas fighting the Demon.
"Grief," he said at last. "It demands an answer, Ra's. Someone is killing my family. The rest are...alienated. Batgirl—Barbara—she died believing in the mission."
"The mission," the Demon said. Slow and measured. "To save your city?"
The Batman nodded.
Ra's breathed deep. Looked up at the night sky. Again.
"And what other lost souls can you conscript, Detective? How many lives must you ruin, just think—how many have died for you. And for your parents."
The Batman flew into a rage at that. He launched into the air, slammed a fist into the Demon's nose and pinned him to the ground. He produced a batarang for each of the assassins and whirled them around—the killers and martyrs falling limply unconscious seconds after impact.
It all took a scant moment.
He scowled and punched Ra's in the face.
Through the pain and the blood, his eyes clouded.
He throttled the Demon and squeezed. And frowned.
Deep inside Bruce Wayne, the fire rose. That impossible anger...strangling grief.
That worst of emotions. That inner pity.
Was unlivable. Untenable.
Because grief means forgetting. Forgiving.
So he met the fire and pushed it back down. There was a job to do. A duty to himself and to Thomas and Martha.
A knot to tie even Alexander's ingenuity.
Ra's was smiling. A proud, thin smile.
The Batman released his chokehold.
"You..." The Batman's voice was ash. "You..."
"Bruce," the Demon said and coughed up blood. "Listen to me. All will perish, in time, and be as dust upon the wind. Cities like Gotham will burn. This world will die, struggling for breath. Man's mistakes will nail the coffin shut. There will be no stopping it." .
Finally the Demon stood, wiping the blood from his mouth. "But there is a better way. For all our differences, you know you still have a home here. Cast aside any thought of Gotham or the past. Live here, and carve out a glorious new future. Help us save the world. Bring your boys if you wish. They have earned this happy ending, Detective."
The Batman changed. His body language, that famous bravado.
"Enough," he said. "I can't join you. You know I can't."
"It is the only way to complete your work," the Demon said. "Your father's work. Did he not imagine better things for you? A life beyond your dreadful cave.”
The Batman looked up. Wondered if Algol was looking down on him too.
"Look at us now. Our worlds were once so much more, now nothing at all." He sighed. "You did not come for information alone.”
"One of my enemies killed Batgirl. He was provoked into it. It's causing a cascading effect. Judicial systems and personal reactions are clouding our lives and my judgment. This killer will strike again. And so I'm running out of time."
The Demon frowned.
"A familiar refrain," the Demon said. "Beware the man who strikes at a distance." He looked at the Batman: "Who in your life lacks the dimensional thinking that so characterises your clown or the others among your mentally ill cohort? Who is so desperate to prove a mad point that they would go through your family to do it."
"An act I regret, as you well know."
"I'm given to understand he leads from the trenches. Conspiracy is not amusing to him."
"My spies in the Asylum indicate he's too broken to be of use here."
"Possible, however unlikely."
"How do you know?"
"He is engaged with other matters," the Demon said. "He believes the Batman is beneath him."
"Possibly, but he relishes the shadows too much. You must understand your vexation is your target: this man who seeks to destroy you, what is he to you? What does he satiate by killing you. Alternatively, removing the Batman Myth from the collective consciousness, or perhaps serving a perceptive need to excise the torment that you by existing provide him. Who is he, this man, and why does he wish ill news upon you.”
The Batman began pacing.
"It would have to be someone old doing something new. Or someone new."
But there were so few new someones these days. So.
Someone old. Doing something new. Except it wasn't something new at all. Ra's was right. Whoever it was, whoever made Tetch murder Batgirl and possibly even sprung the Joker—
Whoever he was. two-dimensional thinking. Old school.
So who among his enemies lacked that flexibility? That rarest blend of planning and improvisation that makes for a truly terrifying foe.
Someone who planned to excruciating detail. Someone who lays the very best of plans. Who completely loses any tactical advantage once those plans are upended.
Such a person would have to know the Batman's own tactical edge and know how to use it. They would have to know there was a genuinely ill man under treatment at the Arkham Home, and that they could manipulate him through his illness and compulsions to commit an act so grave that it would naturally split the Batman's so-called family in pieces as they attempted their emotional response.
Who had no family of his own. Who couldn't and didn't understand the invisible strings that tie people together.
That we all live here. That it's just us in here together. And we're all we've got.
The Batman thought bitterly upon his own life.
Clark had understood this. Wally. Diana. Arthur. That in order to meaningfully serve mankind you had to do so from inside it. You could not save the sinking ship from the lifeboats, and you could not redirect if you weren't at the helm. If you didn't have anchors. People in your life.
To remind you of what you used to be. What you needed to be.
What you still could be.
It had to be someone who didn't understand this. Who never could.
Any of this.
Someone who knew the Batman's weakness and that such a weakness was his family. That impossible, fantastic group.
Someone totally alone. Tactically brilliant. One-dimensional but driven. Insane only in the most clinical sense of the word and so hence the overall lack of gimmicks surrounding all of this.
About Bruce Wayne. About Batman. About everything.
His mind stayed on that.
It burned within him. Someone who knew. Someone who knew not just Jervis Tetch and even Barbara. Someone who knew Bruce, and Tim, and Dick, and Alfred so much—
So damn well—
That this person correctly predicted everyone's reaction to the murder of their closest friend, their lover, their friend—
Someone with means, and opportunity, and motive.
Someone whose obsessive need to plan—
Someone whose own issues stemmed from unresolved trauma. Someone who had a bad day once and has spent the rest of their life trying to make up for it. A planner. A relentless planner for whom chaos was unlivable. And for whom planning was essential to breathing.
A planner. A digger. A thinker. Someone who meant to attack Bruce carefully, thoughtfully.
The Batman looked at Ra's Al Ghul. They locked eyes.
"Elliot," he said. "It's Thomas Elliot."
- 14 -
“This town...it changes you.”
Bart and the Boy Wonder.
When no one was looking and so when he couldn't feel weird and soul-searchy about it.
He slowed down.
While Tim was in and out, in town with the trial and home domesticating and trying to make sense of a life that no longer worked, Bart went running. His idea on their return from Keystone.
Up the Cambridge road that passed Wayne Manor and the estate—
Equerry house far back on Solomon's ancient farm.
Beyond even the old Drake home where no one lived these days.
Fourteen miles up the Cambridge Road to Archie Goodwin International Airport and the strings of no-tell motels that littered its extremities
This town, he thought. It changes you.
Which is why he'd stayed away for years. There had never really been a Flash/Batman team up. At least not of the kind he knew his grandpa regularly had with guys like Green Arrow. With Superman.
He wondered where Superman was.
he might be doing these days.
And so he wondered also what this town could be like if it had a Superman.
He ran until the Cambridge Road expanded into three lanes, at which point it switched back down a slope until it became the Mooney Bridge and went over into Dorset and, beyond, Archie Goodwin. He stopped at the perimeter fence, simple chicken wire waving in a strong breeze, far out from the terminal where the real estate gets bleak and residential. Wrapped frigid fingers through the tines and laid his forehead into it.
Huffing and puffing.
His lungs burned. His chest was bare and frigid, the fire from the run singing into his bones, his arms, his legs.
He hadn't used the Speed Force.
He'd passed his and Tim's running buddies the normal way. The PS 120 irregulars.
Graham and Schlatter and Jordan and Jordan-twins and all the more annoyingly competitive for it-and Ignatius and DeSales. Wrestlers all of them, skinny to meaty to just plain fat. Running into December headwinds and dropping their tonnage before weigh-in in January. Then.
Wrestling season. Controlled diets and three-a-days and sweats and heats and rounds and Nelsons. On and on. And for what.
He knew the type. Keystone High School was the state champion in his wheelhouse, and it looks like these desperate overbearing guys, too soon old, too late unhappy, were aiming for the same thing.
He turned around and saw them in their flock.
Running like pack animals, Schlatter in the lead, up to the single lane leading off to the FedLex outpost.
He was wondering lately what the point was.
And he was thinking about Tim.
He was fairly certain he was in love with him.
It explained an awful lot. Why he'd come back with Tim from Keystone for one. Why they were cohabitating in Bruce Wayne's rustic cabana, for two. He loved him.
That brilliant soul. That mind.
He looked at himself and thought some more. When had he become like this?
Life used to be simple. Stupid. Not a care in the world.
He thought about it. It was so simple you almost hate to say it. Like the nose on your face.
That simple stupid life went away when a cycloptic moron shot him in the knee. Made Impulse into this.
Being wounded...being in hospital. It changes you.
Everyone dies. He knew that and accepted it.
Everyone gets sick. Even the flu makes the strongest guy into a crying girl.
But this was different. Slade Wilson shot him in the knee to prove an insane point. To make him grow up.
He frowned as he lay down on the grass, cool and crisp and frost bitten underneath him. It bit at his bare legs and torso. He lay down in frosty grass, staring into the clear morning sky.
How do you say these things?
Words not coming.
I've been everywhere.
Furthest reaches. Up and down my own timeline. Up and down others. I was born centuries after my own grandfather and I will outlive him into the thirtieth century. Until the Legion of Superheroes all die fighting the Time Trapper at the Source Wall in 3000 AD. I have seen this a thousand times, I've danced and died across millions of years. I have seen things no other human has.
I know all there is about life and death.
Words not coming.
How do you say these things?
I've seen more than anyone should have to see.
I've been everywhere and all I want to do is go home and have dinner with Tim.
I love you.
I wish I didn't.
This town, he thought and looked back at Archie Goodwin Airport. Gothic spires for air traffic control, gambrel roofs for terminals, sad and grey against a sad and grey landscape. A blasted heath.
This was not Keystone. This was not a home, or a place to leave your coat. This.
It was a place to leave.
He shed a small tear and stuck his finger in his eye, regarded it weirdly.
He wishes Tim was here. He really does. He wishes Tim would have bounded out of bed after him this morning and that they could race the wrestling team again and win again.
He also wishes they didn't have to be here. He remembers what he told Tim back at The Lichfield Club in Keystone.
We could retire. Live happily in the twenty fifth of thirtieth century. Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live. And in the thirtieth century, in my home, we don't have those things, Tim.
Words not coming.
He's never had to.
He's never loved anyone. Not as much as he's loved Tim.
He wishes he could be with him. He wishes Tim would have come running this morning.
Because it is love that Bart feels.
What else could make us behave so badly as to leave the man we love every morning and evening. Leave him to run five miles up and five miles back. To exercise his demons and wish his feelings away.
What else could make us behave so selfishly, so unreasonably, so blindly and so devotedly as love.
Blind love. Unconditional love. Boundless, end of time and back, lift you up from death itself love.
He wishes Tim would show up.
But not really.
He smiled. Schlatter and the Jordans and Ignatius and DeSales walk up to him and one of them offers his hand and he takes it and whisks him upright.
"Good run this time," Schlatter said and smiled. "Minute above the pack. Nice to see you're not cheating this time. "
"Cheat, nothing," Bart said. "Running normally is the cheat, Dustin."
Schlatter made a face. Behind him DeSales had a shiteating smile. "He wants to race back to the Wayne house," DeSales said. "Fair and square."
Bart huffed, still winded and playing it up. "What's the prize, Francis, your girlfriends?"
DeSales puffed his chest out, flexing every available muscle even though his sweats covered him and kind of ruined the effect. He made an angry face and stepped out to hit Bart.
"Oh just drop it, Fran, come on you do this every time, you know he's just messing with you." That from Jordan Number One. Jordan Number Two chimed in with some appeal to cooler heads. DeSales lit up. Graham pulled a Twinkie from his back pocket and when Schlatter barked, "really?!" at him he just said, "Hey I gotta get up to weight, shut up.”
Well then it was all downhill. Hyperthyroidal type-A guys in a low-grade pissing contest. Bart chuckled a little bit and it occurred to him that this was what he and Connor used to be like. When he was certain they were all distracted into each other, he propped one leg into the grass and took off.
DeSales was saying, "No he's a little shit and he has been since day one. Why hasn't anybody put him in his place?"
Bart took off a second into the word No—
Knocked on Wayne Manors door by the word Day—
And was back by Schlatter's side by the word Place.
"You guys wanna race?" He said. "I just did. Right now Wayne's butler is wondering just who knocked on his door and here I am. You didn't even notice I was gone. You guys have been trying to catch me for months. Unsuccessfully. You wanna race, let's go."
Schlatter looked at Bart. "Where did you go?"
Bart smiled and tapped the Lightning bolt ring on his hand once.
And his Kid Flash suit whirled out of it and onto him in less time than it took DeSales to comprehend it all.
And then there he stood in his suit. The last living Flash.
DeSales said, characteristically, "the fuck, Allen."
"The new fastest man alive," Bart said. "The rest are gone. You don't care why I'm here so let's just skip that. Now which one of you guys wants to beat a superhero at his game?"
The Jordans smiled. DeSales, Ignatius, Graham, finally Schlatter.
Bart pulled his mask off. "I'm on your schedule," he said. "Dustin, take us out. First one to Wayne Manor gets what, guys?"
Ignatius said, "Don't say something stupid like respect, okay?"
"Hundred bucks," DeSales said.
"That's not bad," Bart said.
"For each of us."
Bart made a face. And then: “Fine, but the joke's on you guys.”
A moment later, they set off.
None of them noticed a white van hiding in a hedgerow just off the airport access road. Hiding in plain sight. So obvious that you'd be stupid not to notice it. And yet there was brilliance there. After all, she had to admit, the best place to hide was in sanity. So there the old Econoline sat. Just behind the sign pointing to the FedLex Outpost. A blonde number in the front seat, pert and attentive and dressed as a Court Bailiff. Some binoculars stuck to her face, she whispered, titillated, into her shoulder radio.
"Puddin," she said and smiled. "It's him."
- 15 -
“The world that's coming...”
Tim and Chase II.
I met Cameron Chase halfway through Tetch's trial and we watched together as the circus I thought was going to happen—never did. It was better. A system, a razor. Precision itself. I had sat through years of trials involving Bruce's mentally ill criminal buddies and all of them diminishing returns after so long. Their own kind of farce, debasing into wild spectacle, so much so that before long you started to wonder what the point of the system was.
But not this.
I imagined Gordon was pleased with the results so far. If he was tuned in to it all. If he would. If he could.
And I thought of Barbara.
That impossible, beautiful woman who believed in the Batman's mission. To save this city from the evil that infests it. The evil that took the lives of two people who did nothing wrong.
I wondered when it was exactly that I had started thinking like that. Like Bruce.
I sat there on a bench outside the courtroom, down the hall from massive oak doors leading into Chambers, hunched forward, holding a Sundollers vente in both hands between my legs, nursing the coffee and staring not at the cup or the floor, but just beyond it. Staring at nothing. I told Chase about the first day I met Barbara:
“It was days after Bruce and I stopped, uh, some scheme of Dent's—at the time, the first of many as I came to learn. So there they were in the cave. Batman sitting like King Lear in his chair, you know, and there's Alfred standing close to him, and there's Nightwing doing a handstand on the counterbalance. And here's Batgirl, this woman in a Batman suit except she's got heels and hair flowing out behind the cowl, and she's got this killer smile and she looks at you and you can look back but she's already into you. Looking right through you.
“She looks at me and I'm standing there in some lounge pants and a Harvard Crew shirt and she smiles. Batman looks at me. Nightwing flips down and stands normal.
“'Hey," I say and scratch my eyes and point at her and say, 'who's this?'
'Tell him,' Bruce says and pulls off his mask. Nightwing takes his mask off too and smiles. Those human eyes, happy and sad at the same time. 'Did you mean what you said. Batman needs a Robin?' 'I meant every word.' He looks at Bruce. I feel like I know where he's going, so I say, 'I'm not Jason Todd.' He makes a face. He says, 'This world is doomed," Bruce says. 'You know this by now. Plagued by worse than gangsters and killers. The only thing keeping it alive is us.'
“'All of us,' Nightwing says.
“So Batgirl looks at me. 'You know who I am?' She pulls off her mask, and I say yes. 'My name is Barbara Gordon. We haven't met. I'm a librarian. My father is the Commissioner of Police. But mostly I'm called Batgirl.' I told her it was an honor.
"'He told me what you did,' she says. 'That's a very brave thing, standing up to Two-Face.' I keep my eyes on her. 'I know.'
“Bruce looks away. Thinking a moment, then he stands: 'Tim. You're not Jason. So you say. And if you're truly serious about this. About being Robin. Helping us bring this city back.'
“He holds out one hand. Flat. The other stuck up like he's swearing the truth. He asks me, 'And you're sure I can't change your mind?' I look him in the eyes. 'No.' Then he takes deep breath and says, 'Batman.'
“'I put my hand on top of his. 'And Robin.'”
Chase sat there and watched me for a minute.
I looked away.
Thinking about all this. Thinking of Barbara. And Bruce. And Gordon. And Dick. And Bruce. And Jason. And Bruce.
Batman forever, I thought out of nowhere. Batman eternal. Through all of this. All the moments of our lives. Jason Todd. Dent. Joker and Crane and Bane and Ra's and Jean-Paul and No Man's Land and Nigma and Luthor and Joker.
Ever since I was a kid.
I used to idolise Bruce.
Where did it all go so awry? When—
I thought of Tetch. Sitting there on display. Knowing that the world was watching him.
Judge Surrillo presiding, Donna Gugina for the Defense, DA Kate Spencer and her ADA Janet Van Dorn for the City of Gotham, County of Kane and State of New Jersey. On the other side of this wall all those moving parts were colliding in infinite majesty over the life of a nobody. A would-be criminal with nothing to show for all his strength, his magnificent brain. Here at the end of his days...what did Jervis Tetch have?
I sat there nursing my coffee. Wearing a vacant face. Attentive but not. Present but not. That was the face I wore when I interacted with Chase. Truth was a little harder.
It was getting old. Coming down here daily to see Tetch cry his eyes out. See Spencer rake him over the coals. See Surrillo up there listening to it all.
I told Chase as much.
"Let me ask you something."
"You act so disaffected. Why are you still doing this?"
"What, coffee with you?"
"Robin," she said and took a drink. Lowered the mug and looked attentively at me.
I cracked a smile.
"Nothing," I said. "Luthor asked me the same question. Long time ago."
"I know," she said. "I've been briefed on his conversations with you."
I waited. Regarded her with a cool and narrow look. "He likes me," I said. "Doesn't he."
Chase said, "Yes. For some reason."
I looked away. "Did he tell you I didn't answer his condescending question?"
"And I'm not going to answer yours."
Chase looked at me again. Scoffed and said, "okay."
"Why all this interest in me and Bruce?"
"No reason," she lied. "I'm just curious where your heart is."
I rolled my eyes, looked up and down the hallway, the bailiff on guard outside the courtroom staring ahead, betraying nothing. "Agent Chase."
She looked at me. Drank her coffee and said, "Okay, the truth."
"That would be nice."
"What I told you earlier was true."
"In a minute, or in a day or two, the jury's going to walk back in there with a verdict and you're the one that's going to have to live with it. It won't be the verdict you want. You came down here to bear witness, Tim, witness this. Watch your institutions fail to do their jobs."
I looked at her. "I've been fighting the man since I was twelve. You want to know why I'm here? You want to know why I still do it?"
She smiled. Thin and satisfied.
"Because I honestly believe in it," I said. "Because for once I want to see someone get what they deserve. For taking my friend from me. I want to see that he gets his. So shut up about things you don't know, Agent Chase. Okay?”
She looked at me. The smile was gone.
Then: "Is this what Bruce made you? I'm talking about your life choices and you're burning ants with a spyglass."
know how it is," I said. "Arkham. Blackgate. Even the
Schreck. People break out. Mistrials happen. Crime goes unpunished.
The Joker escapes and where is he now? What's he doing?" I
looked at her. "We were hunting him when Barbara died. Did you
know that. We were so close, Chase. So close that he was on his last
hideout. So close we could taste it. And then this happens—and
distracts us from what we should be doing.”
“Whatever! You know what I meant.”
She looked at me. Those eyes staring at and through me.
"And you think that if the Mad Hatter goes to jail for killing your friend, if that happens and he stays there forever, then she gets avenged and you get vindicated. For all your trouble, and for all the good it would do you. That one criminal finally gets what he deserves when so many others have fallen through the cracks. You think that if Jervis Tetch goes to jail, your life will finally have meaning and all your time spent with the Batman will finally amount to something. Instead of a bunch of freaks troubling you and again and again until you're all dead. Yes?"
Silence fell upon us.
I looked at my coffee. Not at her. Not in this moment. Not now.
"You were never going to save your father," she said. "You were never going to save Batgirl. Or Superboy. What happened happened. And it made you...like this."
"Jesus," she said. "That's it. Isn't it. All that bluster and intelligence serving a lesser master and look where that got you. Oh, this was meant to be. You so desperately want something better than what you have, but you're such a nice kid that you're afraid to tell him. Because you don't want him to hate you. And because you love him."
I was quiet for a long time. Staring at the floor. What were you going to tell her, Tim?
"One more thing," she said. "After this trial, what happens? You and Bruce go back to normal? You keep being Robin. And you just...sublimate your feelings? Keep silent forever, or until you turn thirty and wonder where it all went wrong? What kind of life is that?"
She looked at me and reclined a little in the bench. "Alright. This conversation and my presence here has been a test." Then she reached into her coat and pulled out an envelope. Handed it to me.
"There is another way. You want change? You want free of this town and that man, here you go. Open it."
I did. Inside a single sheet of paper stared back, with a stylised eye in a rounded design. Beneath, the DEO masthead in a block flourish.
"What is this?"
"The world that's coming," Chase said. "A seat at the table."
"Jesus, what is—“
"You're the most qualified by far. Luthor and the others believe you have distinctive insight. So. What do you say."
I read it through in an instant. Again and again.
Looked at her and said, “Cameron—“
And then the universe reached out to both of us for one last cruelty. Her phone beeped.
Chase pulled hers out first. Read it. And looked at me.
"The jury is coming back in."
- 16 -
“These were his streets...”
The Joker and the City.
Often, when It was very dark and the city was quiet. Quieter.
He would walk.
Up and down the Cambridge Road and staring at Wayne Manor distantly, like he didn't know what to do with it. Thinly and narrowly at Archie Goodwin Airport, jealously, longing for escape.
Or he would walk through the city. It's vast and twisting alleys, hell breaking up through the sidewalk and continuing into the sky. He knew the cliches well. Down past City Hall. Through Grant Park. Or through the Diamond District, window shopping at Schonenfeld's and wondering how many licks it would take with like a mannequin arm or something to get to the centre of a guy's skull.
So he would walk. Leaving one of a number of nameless hideouts, safe houses or abandoned homes around the city. Clad in his trademark suit, his very finest, solid purple with a striped green waistcoat and a yellow silk shirt underneath, a silk bowtie pinned neatly on a neck that was barely skin and bones. Or he would slum it. Put on peach-coloured face paint so no one would catch on, put on a pair of ratty jeans and a destroyed Carhartt, some cowboy boots with the heels worn down good and ratty mesh trucker's hat. And find some random woman or random stray to feed to a newspaper vending box and see how it took him to laugh.
A thousand different names. One for each occasion. Any occasion. Given time, and space, and disguise enough-not to mention the opportunities, and in a city like this those were never ending-he could enter himself among any group. Any system.
From the inside out.
These were his streets after all, and none knew them better.
Drug dealers on Burnett Road knew him as Clem Rusty, a thinning specter of a man who pulled up to their street corner every Friday night with a backpack full of cigarette cartons, sandwich bags stuffed with cocaine, marzipan joy-joys, the kind in the silver foil or the hazelnut in the red wrappers, dime bags packed with marijuana, or a syringe or five full of mystery barbiturates, or other times it was gummy worms and candy cigarettes, and when the junkies got pissed about that he'd shoot them dead in the street for not laughing at such a great bit.
In the East End where Selina Kyle's generation had fled after her death and so where the Joker was allowed to reestablish himself, he called himself Jack White and enlisted a small army of child prostitutes and their middle aged masters, holdovers from the days of the Catwoman, to exercise some moral-physical jokes on a bunch of humourless old farts. He made the child hookers sidle up to aldermen, ward bosses, charity heads, the local lieutenant of the Salvation Army and promise favors. Favors that for twenty years and as far as he could remember he had never really followed up on. Still, the fear was useful and pretty funny too.
In Otisburg the homeless and indolent knew him as Ivar Loxias, once a great stage magician and now reduced to poverty, scraping out cheap acts for food. He practised street games and hustled fools from their money with fake shell games and rigged two-card-Monte, and when it was all said and done he gave the poor their due of stolen pocket money and kept some for himself, and told the children among them that one day he might need a favor and that he could come calling.
In Old Bristol they knew him as Oberon Sexton. A coffeehouse intellectual raging from his hole at the back of a dilapidated Sundollers in the rough part of town. There he sat at a moldering wooden table sprouting half assed theology: the cheapest, the most discredited pseudoscience to eager hipsters, dope smokers, new libertarians, young communists, urban evangelists, Campus Crusaders for Christ, and the green crowd. They hung on his every word: of the greed of Gotham, of the dictatorship of the police and the tyrant Commissioner Gordon and his little attack dog, the Batman.
He was Bob Gray in Miller Harbor, and it was the there that he took over the drug dens, sicced Bruno on the holdouts, and made the dealers and their middlemen pinky-swear to deliver to their regular haunts and to Arkham and the rest to him, and he just flushed it all down the toilet in front of a group of them. The junkies and dealers stared at him while he was doing it and some got pissed, and he just clicked his tongue and told them, "What can I say, fellas, I'm just high on life!"
This was pretty much true. No schadenfreude, no angst or sturm or drang or other freaky German words. No silliness, except silliness. No way except his way.
After all, masquerading with a new face for a new place, any face for any place, had a little more value to it than the same old paleface routine. Everyone knew the Joker. No one knew or cared about a crippled Marxist spouting insanity from a hotbed. That was insignificant. Unnoticed. Normal. And the Bat wouldn't dare touch someone unless they knew the Joker. And now, for months by now, no one knew the Joker. No one except Harley, and she certainly wasn't telling anyone. He could hide out Oberon Sexton for years and the Bat would be none the wiser. It was an odd thought for him to have, especially at this point in his life where honestly couldn't remember a time when the playing field seemed to be so wonderfully, fatuously open.
The sky wasn't just the limit. There was no sky anymore. Nothing he couldn't do.
He decided to do it all.
He persuaded Harley to honeypot the Superintendent of City Schools for the fun of it, and it was through the old fat-ass that he learned PS 120's prize possession and sole earner of state grant money was the championship wrestling team, with a season short to begin.
He just sat back and giggled like a little girl when he put it all together.
Harley asked him what was so darn funny and he said, as he routinely beat her around with Boo-Boo the rubber chicken, "it's the kiddies all over again, toots!"
She made a face through a bruise and said, "huh?"
"I took their rassafrassa babies once!" He belted out. "Now the little nutknockers are all grown up and I can take them again! Hahaha! Don't you get it, Harley?"
"Yeah!" She lied. "Yer the Pied Piper a-Gotham, puddin!"
He screamed at her to shut up and slapped her in the ribs with Boo-Boo: "It's more than that! It's my next big hit! I haven't released one in years, you know, he'll be expecting a shiny new LP to go triple diamond and make tons of bucks! You watch, Har, I'll get em good."
She spit out some blood and asked him how, and he said, "The same way our wingnut, no-talent, no-humour friend does! He watches! He stalks his bad guys to the dark places and then makes em squeal."
Then he turned from his frenzied thoughts and actually looked at her. Clasped his hands together and cackled, his best Vincent Price.
"These star wrestlers, these, uh, lunkheads who so clearly just need a teen movie to show em that the nerds really run the world, they must stay in shape, right? For their phony-baloney friends and some ridiculous sense of belonging, right? Can we use that?”
"Sure, Puddin," she said.
He stuck one authoritative finger in the air and made a stern voice. "Then by Jove that's it, my sweet girl! We'll get these so-called meatheads and bring em around to our way of doing things, eh, Har? Get some new meat in the gang and then go sock old Batsy on the jaw, eh? Eh? Eh? Say eh!"
"Fabulous!" he squealed and planted a big sloppy kiss right on her bloody lips. The he pressed two spindly hands into her temples and squeezed. His voice went deep and his eyes narrowed, looking at Harley and through her. She chilled in her bones and it excited her.
"Now," he said and it was breathy and greedy and addictive and mad. "Go win me that festival!"
- 17 -
“Something more than what you are...”
Thomas and the Boys.
In addition to running around Arkham as Bruce, which was probably the riskiest part of all this, Elliot had taken to stalking, kidnapping, murdering and then impersonating the guidance counsellor at PS 120, Mark Stevenson. A dowdy retiree of a man, long past his prime. Elliot knew him ancestrally: from years past, running with Crane and the psych-crowd.
He had been at it for some time. Long enough for his latest simulacrum of Bruce's face, the one he'd worn to Arkham and posted bail for Tetch under, to break down. Falling apart at the seams. He was displeased about this, the lack of return on his effort, mostly; coming as it had from seventy four different vagrants, men and boys, that he'd lured to a hovel behind the dilapidated Solomon Wayne in Park Row. Oh well, he supposed. Nothing lasts forever.
So he needed a new one.
It wasn't Stevenson he needed either—not primarily; the man was fifty-seven, old enough for the elastin in his skin to break down, old enough to have the wrong luster, the wrong feel. He didn't need a retiree's face, he needed Bruce's. That young, vital face. Thirty eight in real life but in all actuality it had the appearance of a twenty one year old. He knew Bruce's skincare routine, however coöpted it regularly became because of his nightly stupidity. The man kept his body in top shape, including his face, necessarily, and Elliot knew it.
It was the students Elliot needed. Young faces. Young bodies.
In the realm of complicated surgery it was fairly pedestrian. Rather like an organ transplant wherein the greatest risk was infection control. Even after removal the skin would maintain the necessary shape for suitable transfer. Necrosis had never been an issue in younger samples, neither had shrink. Ages twelve to sixteen worked best-before certain hormonal releases began to wreak havoc on the dermis, compounded by salicylic acid masquerading as cleansers.
He needed youth. He kept thinking it.
More particularly he needed a group of wrestlers the real Stevenson had been counselling on the particulars of college entrance. Easy marks. Popular and easily missed. The kind of loss that created vigils and college scholarships and tee shirts in their names. And all the years of their lives would come to nothing at all as he murdered them like dogs. Popular students, apex specimens at the height of their lives.
He smiled. Allowed himself the pleasure of hate. For these boys. For Bruce. For the universe that allows smug men like these to exist and to thrive.
A universe that needed someone like him to restore balance.
In another few days he would complete his good work. Ignatius and DeSales he already had, safely bound and in various states of decomposition in the hovel. Next he would take Schlatter, he was already halfway there, while Quinn got the Jordans and Graham.
From the best among them, probably DeSales and the Jordans, he would make a new face. Abuse the rest, and then he would give Quinn what was left. For her sadistic lover to make his obscene statement with.
By then the time would be right. And the Batman would be unable to stop him.
Uncharacteristically, Elliot found himself awash in the unfamiliar, and joyful for the feeling. This was a job for his mentor, Crane, but the man had been off the map for years, gone to who knew where. Yet Elliot felt a thrill in this new arena. Scientific joy. He was no therapist but then, he did not have to be.
He needed only to endear himself to Schlatter. To create a situation whereby the boy would let down his defenses so Elliot could get close, could trust him. And then.
Schlatter and Jordans and Ignatius and DeSales and Graham. Not to mention the Jordan twins, scions of a state senator. Guilty wasps living guilty lives in guilt suburbs. Far away from undesirables they argued were reducing their quality of life and their property values. Paradoxically disdaining their upper class decadence and their parents' money through the magic of social media and their glittering social circles. Luxuriating in self-centred tragedies they called lives, and none more so than Schlatter.
Elliot snorted when he thoought them all through.
Any of those things they worry about. They worry about them like they matter.
He felt a swell of pride.
Only the mission.
The sudden kidnapping of a gaggle of young promising athletes, certainly the only things carrying Gotham's public education system into national attention, created the perfect opportunity to make himself known.
If Bruce wasn't already onto him. If the man hadn't already figured it all out.
If he ever could. If he ever would.
There he sat in Stevenson's office wearing Stevenson's face, pretending to be the old man himself, a notepad in one hand, listening to Schlatter's sad privileged life. A scholarship he wasn't sure he wanted. A girl he wasn't sure he loved or even acknowledged as existing.
Elliot might have had sympathy for the kid at some point. If the boy's disdain wasn't so painful and obvious. Money was money after all, and to have some irrational guilt over possessing it was an irrelevant thought. Sadness of earnings is the sentiment, he thought, of the newly wealthy, lottery winners who fall backwards into money and the examined life, and find themselves quickly bereft of both. Old money, he thought, the coffers for instance of the ancient Elliot family, was a castle, a Norman fortress against the world and all its little commonness. New money was a house trailer falling off its blocks. A high-school shithead, he thought, whose parents got rich without trying and squandered the station that befits wealth with their ill-gotten pride.
Elliot knew the idiom. He was the idiom. Nevertheless, he pressed his advantage.
"We are not that," he said to Schlatter. "We were made better."
"What do you mean?"
"This school has existed in its current form while the community around it grew more and more affluent with each generation. We live in the shadow of an economic boom that allowed your family to live the life you have. Your father and his consultancy, your mother and her company car. You and your shiny new Lexus, Dustin. Why do you despise these things so much?"
"Why do you sound like Doctor Doom," he asked.
Elliot smiled. Stevenson's face shifted. "Okay, then, let's be informal."
"May I ask you a personal question."
“This all reminds me of a conversation you and I had before about med school. You had indicated interest. I happen to know some top notch graduate programmes at Hopkins and Penn. Would an internship or something like it be something to stoke your interest?"
Schlatter said, "I dunno, I guess. I mean, I kind of wanted more. You know?"
"More than your parents? Your family, your life?"
"What about the athletic road, a wrestling scholarship. I heard Lock Haven was after you."
Schlatter smiled. "Yeah they are. But like, is that like all there is? Jump from accomplishment to accomplishment until you die?"
Elliot looked around. "...Yes."
Schlatter looked away. "Huh."
Then a long pause came. Schlatter shifted around in his seat. Elliot winced through Stevenson's failing face
"What are you thinking about, Dustin?"
Schlatter was silent. Holding his hands in front of his face and staring off. "I want more. I want my life to have meaning. In a few years none of this will mean anything. These trophies. My friends. I mean. In ten years am I gonna be the same person?"
"Then why am I doing this?"
Elliot was silent. He tried not to move: Stevenson's face was already losing it.
"You fear death," Elliot said. "Or obsolescence. They can be the same thing sometimes."
And Schlatter was quiet. He looked at the floor. "Yeah."
Elliot cracked a smile. "I believe I can help you, Dustin."
The boy looked up. Elliot leaned in and smiled.
"How would you like to become something more than what you are?"
- 18 -
“She trusted you.”
When he slept he didn't dream.
Not about Chicago, or his son or his ex-wife. Not what they might be doing these days or how old little James must be by now and what kind of man he was becoming.
Not about Sarah, his wife, brave and headstrong, his rock in his most desperate times, dead these long years because of a maniac. Not the way her hair fell when she laughed, or the way or the smell of her. Tobacco and Chanel.
Not of the Batman, or who he was or how he came to be.
It was in his waking moments that he dreamed.
He dreamed of Barbara.
Walking in Robinson Park. The greenery close in all around them, cobblestone paths through hedgerows of yew and juniper, pines and oaks and elders, and in a grove by Pinkney Fountain a half-circle of apple trees. The summer sun shining through golden leaves.
He sees it now. In his mind's eye. As clearly as he's walking into the Clocktower now. As clearly as he's in a drab blue elevator going up to an apartment that used to be his. And used to be his daughter's.
He dreams of walking with her. Following the west path far enough to come upon the Twelve Caesars statues. A generous donation from eons past, or so he heard, from one of the Waynes who founded the city and believed life lessons could be best gleaned from men who lived two thousand years ago in another country. All twelve: Barbara explained it to him once. First there was Julius Caesar, a man who having been given power never gave it up. And the rest. Augustus, Claudius, down to Domitian, the final failure.
They stand there looking at Augustus.
He tells her he never understood all this stuff. His education had been different, you see. Hardness and violence and situationalism. First in the Army and then Chicago. Now here. He tells her he envies her brain. That magnificent intelligence that he did not have. Or maybe he did. Maybe it was a different kind. He asks her. "I don't know," he says, "what do you think?"
She cocks an eye and says, "you're the smartest man I've ever met, Dad, don't sell yourself short."
He wondered now if he had. If it had been years of lessened self-presence. If he'd...if he'd lowered himself in order to fit in. To match himself to Gotham. To this town.
The elevator dinged open.
Police, his own officers, lined the hallway.
He dreamed of his life and the way he was living it these days. He thought about his early days in this town, young and angry and full of righteous fervour. Trying to prove something to himself or to someone. Trying to keep it all together in a town that was determined to rip it all apart. Piece by piece. He remembered that first year.
The valiant efforts of the Batman, and of Harvey Dent, and Gordon himself—to change this town. To remake it. He thought about those people. People that didn't matter anymore. The Falcone crime family and how Dent had systematically murdered all of them but one. The Maroni family, a victim of the crossfire as much as an instigator. How Dent was the only one left standing at the end of it all, and how that violence, that brutal end to the way the world used to be, had put them all in their present positions.
He misses the good old days.
He really does.
He misses Barbara.
God help him, he even misses the Batman.
He walked over the threshold, held up the crossbar police tape and slid under. DeFilippis and Weir standing there waiting for him. They were older now, they were just kids in earlier time. In another life. Before all this, when there was a No Man's Land over this city, they were two young officers, good police, stuck here and in love and they had survived. And now they had made a life.
They were among his most trusted officers. Here to do a final forensic sweep of the apartment in case the trial required something new to use on Tetch.
Because something nagged at him.
He didn't know art, he wasn't an interior decorator. But he knew he liked Barbara's apartment. All natural colours, dark blue and green in sort of French strands, an antique shop if antique shops looked lived in. And yet not. Like it was its own museum.
It had always looked very clean, he thought, or not really very lived-in at all. He admired it: her tenacity, that magnificent organisational superiority she had.
She had a good life, he thought.
He looked to one side in the den: a tufted leather davenport with a plaid throw over one arm. Copies of the New Yorker and NewsTime stacked upon a cushion. Toile curtains pulled back across a bay window and staring down at Grand Avenue.
DeFilippis coming up behind him. "Sir."
He turned to him and said, "yes?"
"Uh, we found something."
Gordon frowned. Followed DeFilippis back and down the long hallway past Barbara's bathroom, twin guest rooms, into the master suite. A king bed in a tufted leather headboard. Oak bookcases on either side.
"Here," DeFilippis said. He went to one case and flipped Moby-Dick forward. "CSI didn't want to touch anything until you had a look."
Gordon breathed deep when the bookcase spun on its axis. DeFilippis jumped out of the way.
What lay beyond was ingenuity too much for even him to imagine. A bank of computers and monitors, a central HDTV with a floating logo he didn't recognise in the centre. An array of keyboards beneath each. A bankers lamp on top of a small bookcase to one side, a PowerBook on the shelf next to it and open to the GCPD main intranet page. Four monitors across the top, surveillance footage on each one of places he didn't recognise.
He stepped forward into a beam of light.
He heard DeFilippis, but did not understand.
He frowned. Those harsh cop features set into stone. His mustache turned down. His eyes narrowed.
What were you doing?
The central monitor changed: the logo faded into a computer desktop. He looked at it. The cursor scrolled over a full screen of icons with names he didn't recognise—he managed to make out "Luthor," "Drake," "Wayne," and "Elliot" before the arrow settled and double clicked on one called "In Case of Emergency.”
He looked at DeFilippis. "A minute, Andy?"
DeFilippis nodded and left.
Gordon looked back at the screen. The desktop icon became an open video player.
Barbara on the other side. Young and beautiful. Her glasses low and loose on her nose, a wisp of hair covering half her face. She moved it away. Looked at him.
She smiled and choked and looked around.
He touched the monitor.
She looked around for another minute. Took her glasses off and wiped her eyes. Put them back on.
He thought of himself in this moment. Stupidly. Selfishly.
About how he had kept it together through this whole.
Finding out she had been killed. Identifying the body. Learning it was the Mad Hatter. Of all people. Learning through newspaper clippings that Tetch would face trial. Refusing hand over foot to Surrillo and Spencer and Garcia—refusing to testify. Refusing to give Tetch or the media the time of day. Taking leave of absence to avoid such things. Avoiding the Batman, or maybe the Batman was avoiding him. For a month.
All things considered, he was doing a pretty good job of keeping it together.
Standing here. Seeing this new side of her. Whatever it was.
Barbara spoke. Finally.
"Dad. I need to be honest and clear. I'm Batgirl. In another life I was Barbara Gordon. These days I'm called Oracle.
"This existed before. Something I'd typed up on an ancient word processor during the No Man's Land. Then, it was meant as a chronicle of the times. And, in case we didn't survive, a lifeboat. For everything we were and everything we were going to be. It covered the fall and rise of some pretty extraordinary people. And some pretty ordinary people. Most of these people aren't even alive anymore and if they are they're so faded in importance that they might as well not exist at all. But. As it turned out, it was ordinary people who ended up saving Gotham from worse than thieves and murderers.
"People like you. Like Sarah. Like the Batman.
"People who saved this city, Dad. To this day I can't believe it. And I can't imagine what would have happened if we'd failed.
"If Gotham had slid into oblivion. If. The eternal ifs.
"What I am sure of is that I love you, Dad. Forever. And so this letter serves as a warning. Because everything on this computer is everything I am. It tells a story, Dad. Of the second greatest family I have been a part of, and the remarkable men who have sacrificed their lives to save this town.
"And yes, Dad, one of them is you.
"So here goes nothing. Once this video ends, the software will open Documents. There will be a list about five years long in there of everything you need to know. I need you to read it, and to understand it. And if you don't right now then maybe you will. Someday.
"And so what I said was true. This letter existed before. But I deleted it. Because we had come back from the edge.
"And I've spent the last few weeks rewriting it, along with everything else that's happened since. The history of Gotham ever since No Man's Land. Up to and including the recent disappearance of the Joker. The son of a bitch who put this bullet in my spine.
"I rewrote it all because I wanted you to know. Because I love you enough to tell you. Because I've lied to you for years, and because the truth hurts less than that. Because the Joker hasn't been seen in months and because that scares me. So I'm going to end this now. And I'm going to find him.
"And uh. If something happens, then I needed you to know all this. I needed you to believe, and I need you and Batman to work together. To find this man. To put an end to it all.
"I love you. Forever.”
He looked at the ceiling. Breathed in and willed the tears away.
The video ended. The window closed. The cursor moved over to Documents and it came open. The first document was labelled "Batman."
And started reading.
He started at Bruce Wayne, the early years, and wound his way fast through the rest. Things he'd lived through. Others he didn't know had happened at all. Or happened differently.
His life. Her life. Through other eyes.
He checked his watch. Looked back at the screen.
He became aware, disturbingly and quietly aware, that he was alone in the apartment. The dull roar of police activity out in the apartment was gone.
He heard breathing that wasn't his own.
Turned his head a bit.
From behind him, the shadow spoke. "Because she trusted you." Then it paused. And said, "The way you trusted me."
Gordon looked at the shadow.
"Jim," the Batman said. "Let me explain."
"Save it, Wayne," he said.
"Five minutes on her computer told me everything."
The Batman waited.
The Batman was silent. Motionless.
"She wasn't supposed to be part of this."
"She died believing in the mission, Jim. She was a fighter."
Gordon leant forward and covered half of his face with one hand. Then he looked up, tears in his eyes: "You tell yourself that. Don't you?”
Gordon stood. Started pacing. And said, "Bruce Wayne."
Gordon breathed. "…We had this conversation during the No Man's Land."
"I was angrier then."
Gordon said, "You do, don't you."
Gordon looked at him.
"She was my daughter."
"And my partner," Batman said. "The most dedicated partner I've ever had."
"Because all the others left?" Gordon said as his voice shattered. "I hope it was worth it. I hope she didn't..."
The Batman frowned. And remembered Nigma's final words. Was it worth it, Bruce?
More. Will it ever be worth it.
And Ra's. Asking the same question a different way. How many more, the Demon had said. Just think. How many.
"I hope," Gordon said. "She didn't waste her life for you."
"I don't believe so. She loved it. And she loved you."
"I would've supported her."
Gordon stared blankly at the floor.
He looked to one side and pulled the cowl off. Underneath lay Bruce Wayne. Cool and cruel and old. A thin black carpet of stubble, scars bisecting it all in small places, spade black hair slicked back from a sharp widows peak. Harsh, deep eyes. And yet. A tired and sad boy. Somewhere in there.
Bruce regarded Gordon.
"Look at me.”
Gordon frowned. "I never cared. Who you were or…"
"I didn't trust you before, and Barbara died because of it. I'll spend the rest of my life making up for failing her. And failing so many others.”
"What do you mean?"
"I know who got Tetch out of jail," Batman said. "I believe I can find him. And put an end to…all this. As Tetch was entering this building, Robin and I were hunting the Joker."
"We were going to find him and put him away for good. We were close."
Gordon looked at him. "How close?"
"One safehouse left. Which means he's probably already there."
"Now," the Batman said. "We are all out of time. Grief and my personal failings have eaten up valuable time. I interrogated any of my old enemies who may have had knowledge, and came up wanting. Mostly."
"As you know, Bruce Wayne or someone that looked like him managed to free Tetch from Arkham so he could kill Barbara. That someone was Doctor Thomas Elliot."
Bruce nodded. "You remember."
Gordon made a face. "I knew you couldn't have sprung the Hatter."
"Elliot. Tetch. The Joker. For some bizarre reason they're all working together. And I think they know the ground is shrinking beneath their feet."
Gordon looked at the computer.
"Jim," he said. "Tonight, we can end it. But it's going to take everything we have."
Gordon stifled some tears, and thought of those statues again. And of Barbara walking with him. Walking. Using what that madman had taken from her.
"Tonight," he said.
Gordon looked at him.
And then his phone beeped. He flipped it open and said, "Yes?" Pause. "What?" Pause. "Found him where?"
- 19 -
“A full-on, no-bullshit, twilight of the superheroes.”
Tim and Chase III.
Our phones beeped together. One after the other. We looked at them in unison. The message was even the same.
Chase's came from her plant inside the courtroom. Probably Spencer.
"The jury is returning. Come back inside now."
We looked at each other. Sighed without meaning to. Stood.
Made for the doors.
She flashed her DEO badge at the bailiff outside and checked a thumb between herself and me. He nodded and pushed the door open for us. I remembered what she said. Quite an experience to live in fear.
That's what it is to be human.
We sat down in the back pew.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion:
The bailiff stepping forth and telling us all to rise. Spencer looks over one shoulder at us. At Chase. That practised attorney look betraying nothing.
Surrillo coming up and rapping her gavel twice and saying Be Seated.
Two deputies leading Tetch in. He looks at Spencer with this sad, distant look. Like he's here but really a million miles away. Who could blame him. In the last five years there's been fascinating work in criminal psychology about dissociation-that million miles away look that typically only the most heinous of offenders develop as their trials near conclusion and transition into sentences and prison terms. A man named Aristotle Rodor wrote the book on it.
He posited that partaking in what he called a transformative self-event, actualised murder for instance, caused the conscious mind to dissociate from itself-either as coping or culpability. To close off and shut up, disparate parts of the mind in order to achieve a goal-in most clinicals, murder itself. To think two thoughts at the same time. What a remarkable thing.
Even as Tetch sits down and faces the bench. I keep thinking of that look on his face.
And I start double thinking it. Was he put up to it? Was he in control of himself. Did he know.
"He said someone put him up to it."
Chase looks at me. "What?"
"When we took him to the GCPD. Tetch said, 'he put me up to it.'"
She gets this focused look and glances around and says, "Who?"
I don't answer.
I work it through.
Someone looking like Bruce was able to remove Tetch from Arkham. Sign him out or something.
A Clayface would be easy but unlikely. Hagen's been dead for years. Preston Payne disappeared a decade ago with his wife and son in tow, and Basil Karlo—
Basil Karlo hasn't been seen since.
Since Elliot's first scheme—
I look at her. "Too fast for my own good. How many of us do you have files on?"
She makes a face. "All of you. Name one."
"Doctor Thomas Elliot."
"We need to get to Wayne Manor right now."
I start to stand and she forces me down.
"What are you—“
"Sit. First things first."
I look ahead. Surrillo looks to one side.
A door opens. The jury files in, a tall and slim man in a pressed Izod and coke bottles for glasses, the foreman, ends the row and stays standing while the rest sit. He holds that all powerful slip of paper at his belt buckle and stares at Surrillo. He doesn't even need to read it. I can tell. He memorised the verdict and he's just all too proud to finally deliver it.
"Mister Foreman," she says. "For the people of Gotham City versus Jervis Tetch, on the charge of manslaughter in the first degree, how finds the jury?"
"We find the defendant guilty, your Honor, of murder in the first degree."
"The court thanks you, Mister Foreman, please be seated."
Tetch shrinks into himself.
Gugina starts thumbing through her files.
Spencer and Van Dorn sit back in unison.
The gallery stirs. No one is surprised. There are whispers and hands over faces and gossiping. Thoughts and opinions and nothing that matters anymore.
"Bailiff," she says and takes her glasses off. "Please remove the defendant from the court so we can schedule sentencing."
Then she raps the gavel. And it's over.
Tetch looks at the floor and shakes his head.
Then all the players take their roles.
A bailiff is upon Tetch. Standing him up and leading him out of the room.
Surrillo stands and leaves. Gugina next, in a huff, then Spencer and Van Dorn and Spencer says to Chase right before she leaves, "this good with you?"
Chase says nothing.
We go out together and the hallway is a storm. A gaggle of reporters and journalists, scrambling for a sound bite from Spencer or Van Dorn.
Chase looks at me and says, "Outside." And outside we go, pushing through the throng and exiting onto the side street.
The press has been squatting here for weeks through miserable December and now January weather. By the time we have it outside they're already on their feet broadcasting. A row of them right at the bottom of the steps and talking to their cameras. I look at it all too briefly. Then Chase pulls me aside. And I'm back in reality somehow.
"You know," I said. "I've been to these before. You don't need to chaperone me."
"What's that, sass? I finally warrant sass?"
"Look," I said and pushed away from her. "I have to help Bruce. So either help me or get out of the way."
"Suddenly you have to help Bruce? Obligation over choice? So much for your reticence, Tim."
I shook my head. "I don't have time for this."
I got halfway down the steps before she called to me. "I would."
I turned. "You would what?"
I looked at the bank of reporters and their cameras. Back at her.
I walked back up the steps. "How."
"The Joker. When you find him...I'm saying DEO can be at your disposal."
"Luthor wants him gone that bad?"
"Luthor," she said. "Wants everyone gone. A full on, no bullshit twilight of the superheroes."
"Fine," I said. "Whatever. Agent Chase, it's been a pleasure. Tell your boss—“
"That you're thinking of an answer to his question," she said with this smugly smile. "Aren't you."
She pulled a pack of Lucky Strikes from her coat and lighted one. "The offer stands. The next step is yours and I hope you take it. Or don't. It's your choice." And she turned and walked away.
I made a face. Maybe it was a frown. A disappointed one. I breathed and looked back at the street.
The SWAT van was pulling up to the curb. The media spread out, roaches in the light. From the side entrance came a host of deputies and Tetch, in shackles at the wrist and ankles. Still staring at the ground.
I watched them load him into the back of the van, chains and all. Watched a million cameras and phones flash in the throng. Watched the backdoors slam shut on him.
Watched the driver roll the window down—
Blow a kiss to one of the deputies.
I looked at her. Right at her.
She said something. I could read her lips.
Buh bye Boy Wonder.
Then she threw the van into gear and sped off.
I pulled my phone out. Dialled Bart.
"It's me. Come get me."
"I'm downtown," I said. "They just booked Tetch. Come get me."
"Oh hey congrats!"
"Quinn was impersonating SWAT, she just kidnapped him!"
"Bart are you there?"
I looked up the street. Where—
"Hey," he said. Right next to me. Wearing plainclothes. "Sup?"
I put my phone away. "Home," I said.
"Okay but I gotta hold your head."
"Whiplash," he said. "Hold on."
"You know," I said. "I haven't said it before, but I'm glad you're here."
He smiled back at me. "Yeah yeah."
And then it was all a blur.
- 20 -
“One option left.”
The Joker and Harley.
There was only one option left.
The Bat had shut down the rest. One by one, piece by blessed piece.
Except this. The Ace Chemical Plant, nestled tightly in between Park Row and the Bowery. Not the plant itself, that lay further south: this was a substation, they called it. A tall, claustrophobic industrial spire, all gantries and catwalks, cold and unexciting steel architecture inside, and himself sitting at a steel workbench with his trusty sidekick, Boo Boo the Rubber Chicken Surprise.
He hated it and loved it.
He was doing a pretty good job not thinking about it all, but whenever he did, whenever a reminder of his current refugee status popped back into his head, he got pissed off and took it out on Harley.
Once, he had more. Now. Less.
And it was pretty difficult to get a laugh out of all of it.
He told as much to a pile of corpses that used to be some high school wrestlers.
"I mean, really," he said and patted one of their dead decaying dead butt cheeks, all flabby and pasty but not for long because you know that's dead bodies for you. He thought this one was DeSales. The good looking one, the strapping one with olive skin and brown hair all matted, bloody, over to one side. Maybe it was Jordan? Who even cared? "It's not that I don't care, Slick, I just. Don't care."
He pulled the scissors out of a spot between Boo Boo's legs and began twirling them idly on one finger.
He laid down flat and matched the kid's stare. Smiled a little bit.
You're just not being sporting.
He made a fist and punched the poor sucker.
Disappointing is what it all was. Escape from Arkham all those months ago, give McQuaid and the boys the best run of their lives, and now here he was hiding out in the old Ace factory and for what. A bunch of half baked plans that came to nothing, Harley jumping in with Hush, and old Tetchy getting slap-handed in court.
He knew the next big thing was coming. But waiting. That was killing him.
There he sat staring at the kid's dead eyes.
"You were really gonna be something weren't you, baby?"
Then he sat up and laughed. A full belly laugh. Genuine amusement.
He knew there were other worlds. On one of them, one of countless others in the multitude, this kid didn't end up a victim. This kid grew up and had a happy life, with a family, and lots of great stories, stories that ended happily and took place under trees with picnics and noodle salad. Maybe on one of those worlds this kid would've survived and been part of that happy little memory.
He laughed again and slapped his knee and started weeping, that overloaded crying that only comes with the best bits.
Now this kid was nothing at all.
He opened the scissors.
Slid one of their blades in on one side of the kid's mouth and started carving. Not a slash, no, that was a bad joke, too trite, too on the cuff. This was a slow and easy check mark. The kid must have taken care of himself, his skin was so soft. Smooth. Easy to cut.
The Joker looked down his nose and applied a little pressure, finally the fat and elastin and skin gave, almost all together, and he got a good deep cut. Blood trickled out slowly, lamely. Joker stuck his tongue out. Put one finger on top of the cut and his thumb below to hold it all and kept going.
It didn't make a sound. Come to think of it, he couldn't say any of them had ever made sounds.
Certainly some did. Some had to! He just wasn't paying attention. Which could also be true, y'know, after so many it all starts to run together.
The one Robin didn't make a sound, or maybe the only sound in that room was the crowbar making this sweet, wet thump every time it hit home.
The girl, the redhead, what's her face, she didn't even scream either.
It was a disappointment is what it was. All these years later.
They never scream.
He made a face. Pagliacci.
Wondered if maybe. Just maybe. He was starting to lose something. Then he stood rapidly and preened himself and said, "Bah! I can't keep denying the world my extra greatness!"
Then he looked down. Dead kid's dead eyes.
He frowned. Then it became a scowl.
He growled and kicked the dead kid in his pasty, slashed face.
"You think you're better!? Stand up like a man and tell me that! Come on!"
He kicked him again. Again. Again. Again.
"Get up! Come on, you vicious bastard!"
By this point, Dead Kid was unrecognisable. A muddy mess of a face that used to be, now blood and flesh and bits of bone.
The Joker breathed deep and rubbed his hands together.
What followed was on cue almost, and too hilarious for him to even contemplate. Somewhere behind him a steel door fluttered open, the old managers office, and out came a shambling mess of a body. A person, bloodstained and filthy, poorly hobbling on a broken leg. Not a man, nothing so self-sure, so innately strong. No. A boy, what a boy to be sure, but a boy no less. Naked except for a pair of boxers as bloodied and destroyed as the rest of him. Strong arms and shoulders and a broad perfect chest, riddled with burn marks and open wounds in irregular patterns and various states of disrepair. His face, bruised and unknowable. One eyes swollen shut, sweat and grime all over him, blood pouring steadily from his mouth. He was breathing strangely, heavily. One good eye he had left, and as he fell to his knees in front of the Joker he started weeping like a baby for his mother.
Joker crouched down in front of the boy. Touched one hand, gloved in crushed purple velvet, to this kid's ruined face.
Through his babbling and tears came one thing: "wh."
Joker lifted the boy's face and looked straight at him.
This kid was in pain. In need. He could see it in his eyes. This one longed to be different, to be more than what he was, and now here was, a poor victim.
Slightly Alive Kid started crying again.
Joker grabbed Boo Boo and stood, slid the scissors back inside it. "Don't you just look like you've had an adventure. Who are you. If I may, of course."
"Please," the boy said. "Please just let me go I won't I won't call the police I promise I oh God please ahhhhummm..."
He moved over to the desk and the PA unit on it and tapped the button. "Harleen Quinzel to the principal's office, please and thank you!"
Then he turned back. Gazed idly upon the guy.
"Muh. Mister. Please just. Where. Uhhh. Where. Please help me sir I oh god I saw what they did to Jim and Jeff I oh god."
More babbling. More crying.
Joker pulled a gun from his jacket. Pressed it into the kid's forehead.
"What's your name, Spanky?"
"Shu...Schlatter. I oh god I was with Mister Stevenson where is he is he okay?"
"No," he said. "He died."
Then he shot the kid.
Schlatter's corpse snapped back and fell to the ground with a sweet thump.
Joker giggled and said to no one in particular, "He fell funny."
From the garage at the far end of the corridor she came cartwheeling. She finally came to a stop and faced the Joker. Huffing and puffing.
"What's wrong, puddin?"
He stepped to one side and pointed at the boy's dead body, twisted on the factory floor.
Her eyes went wide and her mouth slacked open. "Uh."
"He said he was one of the wrestlers?"
"Schlatter," she said. "Uh. Elliot told me to bring him back. That he needed him."
Through the frown, Joker somehow manage a smile. His eyes narrowed while his mouth curled into a Grinch smile. "Guh. This is what happens when we give the kids the keys to the car, my dear."
She was breathing heavy. "Oh he's not gonna be happy."
He kept up on her and grabbed the scissors out of Boo Boo.
She looked at them, and him, and started backing away.
"You said they were all dead, Harl. That we were done with boring old Doctor Elliot. And then this clod comes walking out. So tell me sweetheart, what else. What else don't I know."
She was against the wall now, a bank of computers and printers spewing old dot matrix papers behind her.
He growled and throttled her. Choked velvet fingers into her neck.
"Be a sport and tell your Uncle Joker. Now."
She started crying. Said, "I brought Jervis back too..."
Surprise wasn't quite the look on his face. He didn't get surprised. Not anymore. But he stopped in his tracks, kept the death grip on her and said, "Where?"
She said nothing. Looked to one side. Down the long hall to the garage.
He scowled and let her go. Backed up and breathed and moved toward the garage.
She stood there, one hand on her chest as if to control her breathing. Looking absently at the floor, dazed at the confrontation that was.
She didn't see it coming. Didn't see the Joker turn around and flip the scissors up.
She didn't even feel it when the scissors went into her neck. Right into the jugular.
She felt hot. And surprised.
He stared at that surprised, stupid little face, petite and skeletal under the greasepaint, and pushed the scissors in deeper. Her eyes widened.
He smiled when she made a sound. Finally. A sound. A little pop, barely vocal, from the back of her throat.
He breathed. Yanked the scissors out.
Watched her fall to the floor in a slump.
He wiped his slobbering mouth with the back of his hand and stared at her. And she stared right back with her stupid dead eyes driving him insane those stupid eyes and who did she think she was to bring all these ass-
Then he lost it.
Started kicking the shit out of her. Pulled the gun out and wasted what was left of the clip on her torso.
Then he strolled down the hall. Replaced the clip as he went.
Rounded the corner and there sat the SWAT van backed into the bay, the back doors open, and there was Tetch sitting idly, patiently, surrounded by a group of the boys, good strong guys in super duper purple tanks and plaster clown masks.
Tetch looked up at him. That characteristic worried look turned into a bright and sickly smile.
"Joker! Thank God you're here!"
Joker shot him in the head.
Then he was on top of the corpse, another set of dead eyes looking at him, poking the barrel of the gun into the bloody crater in Tetch's eye socket.
"You," he called Tetch. "No one gets Batgirls but me."
Then he looked up at his boys.
"This place has lost its retail value, gang. Time to abandon and look for a studio apartment, something nice and modern, don't you agree?"
Slowly the group all nodded.
"Fabbo," he said. "You all know what to do, then! Rocko! Telephone!"
A stocky clown jogged up to him and held out a Blackberry. Joker snatched it up and dialled quick.
"911," said the wage slave. "What's your emergency?"
"I'm at the Ace Chemical plant." He looked at Tetch, dead on the concrete. "The Mad Hatter is down here with a troop of Boy Scouts naked as a jaybird and believe you me, you do not want to see what kind of merit badges he's giving out!"
He hung up before she could respond.
- 21 -
“What have you got for me this time?”
Batman and Gordon.
Oddly enough, they drove separately. Gordon in his squad car, Batman in his car. The sleek tank Dick Grayson called a Batmobile in earlier years.
Uncharacteristically, the Batman had an emotional moment there in his car. Barrelling up Moldoff Avenue. A mile and a half north lay the Bowery and slightly beyond it, an old amusement park that had seen better days and was now barely a memory. Still, like so much else in Gotham it carried the memory of those days on its name. The Amusement Mile. Sometimes it was the Miracle Mile.
Not uncharacteristically he thought of his childhood. Days spent in the downstairs library studying, staring through a great Gothic window into the city. A faint and glittering cityscape from far up in the hills where pine forests hid the Manor from view. Staring.
At the Amusement Mile. Those magnificent lights, a tilt-a-whirl spinning madly in the distance, the carousel's calliope belting out that sweet chortled music, you could hear it from miles off. A Ferris wheel with a six point star on the side.
He used to love it.
Now here he was, Bruce Wayne, in a Batman suit, driving his Batmobile to a crime scene. Thinking of the good old days.
He misses them. He really does.
Not that he'd ever admit it. Everything about him has become so compartmentalised. So procedural and so closed off that even the slight smile on his face now, that gentlest of reminders of the blissful boy he used to be, gets quickly overtaken with a Batman scowl. The scowl he gets every so often, when he gets like this, having remembered something great and then forcing himself back to reality as penance for feeling it.
Because as much as he might miss that mirthful boy he was in another life, the fact remained that it had been another life. Before Zorro. Before a broken man with a gun. Before.
He slammed the car into fourth gear. Roared into the Bowery, all shuddered windows and abandoned buildings, the Cyrus Pinkney Museum hanging empty over the desolation. Urban rot. It had taken an act of Congress, quite literally, and several millions of Wayne Enterprises dollars to prevent foreclosures and construction crews from removing the blight. And of course Bruce would have none of it: history lived here and was worth keeping. His history. Half a mile down the street lay the Monarch Theatre and behind it a switchback alley where his parents had died.
He kept telling himself it was worth preserving.
His history. No one else's.
He hung a hairpin turn and stayed in fourth and the car screamed, brakes shuddered and compensated and inertia threw him into the side panel and then he slammed on the brakes. Squealed to a halt a foot from the plant's front doors.
Ancient oak doors, out of place on the rest of the building's hideous visage, hung open. Inside, GCPD uniforms scurried about. A bar of caution tape over the threshold. Squad cars up and down the block, the Coroner's van parked upon the curb like he'd spun into a stop too.
The Batman slid out out of the car and stalked toward the door. Swiped the caution tape aside like a nuisance. Stopped just inside.
There was Tetch, or what was left of him.
Twisted into a ball, a pool of blood around his head from a wound in one eye. Untouched yet by CSI, surrounded by police tape and a shameless chalk outline of his putrescence. DeFilippis and Montoya and some uniforms he didn't recognise standing around. Waiting for something.
He started a crime scene in his mind.
He had been doing mental crime scenes for some time now. Having eschewed formal crime scenes some years ago, he developed these instead, based on an old conversation with Ducard. Found they kept him sharper, and allowed for a more free exchange of ideas in a less linear and therefor more stimulating manner. Not his idea originally, but after a few preliminaries he had come to see its value. It allowed both internalisation and deeper analysis than pure forensics alone. There were after all so many variable to any crime scene and to take time to account for all could result in a maddening loss of time.
So here he was. Kneeling in the threshold. Looking at Jervis Tetch's corpse, twisted on the floor leading to the factory beyond. He smelled acrid smoke and ammonia. Cleaning chemicals. Concealing chemicals. The kind you use when you have tracks to cover.
Footsteps behind him.
There was something else.
He stood. Breathed.
The uniformed officers went around him quietly and averted their gaze. A quirk to be disregarded, or a leper to be avoided for what his contamination might bring. He looked to one side. Corrigan, Medical Examiner to the corrupt stars, standing there smoking a Parliament, giving a snotty look. Batman looked away.
He walked further in. Slow. Quiet.
The dull roar of the factory. No. Not even a dull roar. Something less than that.
The building itself waiting.
Tell me, he thought. What have you got for me this time.
It was Gordon coming up behind him. Cigar smells wafting up too, which meant Bullock alongside.
"Well," Gordon said. "Any ideas?"
"No," Batman said. Turned and walked into the plant. "You're sure the Joker was here?"
"No," Bullock said. "Anonymous tip's the best lead we got. Maybe if you'da included us in your little clown hunt to begin with," Bullock said, "We wouldn't be here."
"Where else would you be, Detective?" Batman asked. Tapped one ear on his cowl and kept walking. "Home with a beer?"
The Batman made a sound.
Gordon said, "What?"
The Batman frowned. "I've tuned the scanner to Quinn's DNA. If it hits positive, we know she's at least been here. A strand of hair or blood should be enough."
"Little clownette was here too?" Bullock said.
"That's a needle in a haystack," Gordon said. "Don't tell me you found something already?"
"Actually, yes," Batman said. "Here."
And he crouched at the top of a landing, corrugated steel stairs descending away from him. He touched two fingers to a smear on the top step and brought it close to examine.
Bullock relit his cigar. "And?"
"It's partial. Quinn and someone else."
He stood and said, "Not on file."
Gordon said, "Okay. Where next?"
Batman looked at the stairs. Over the railing. They terminated a floor below in a bank of file cabinets and a hideous parquet floor. "Where do these stairs go?"
Bullock looked over the railing. "They go down."
Batman looked at him.
Bullock glared right back.
"Something you want to say, Harvey?"
"Nah," Bullock said. "After you."
Batman led the way. Stalking down the steps, in great strides, his cape billowing behind him. Gordon and Bullock some paces behind, their weapons drawn. On guard. Ready for anything.
Then Batman stopped.
"Your men didn't come down here?" he said.
Bullock said, "No. Called in Tetch first and put everyone on standby till youse got here."
White noise, from far off. Or distant. Barely recognizable.
Batman walked through the office. A slim hallway around the bend, lined with file cabinets, flickering lamplights in the dark, cobwebs and quiescence. No sign of man. Not for a long time. Moldering wooden desks with papers and ancient files stacked upon them.
"Huh," Bullock said. "I thought Ace was, you know, a functioning business. What's with the backlog."
"Deception. Dummies within dummies," Batman said. He picked up a random pile as he strode, and did not slow. Thumbed through it. Paperwork from years past. Personnel records. Disciplinary actions. P & L's. Financial records. Everything the company had on everything it did. "Probably running under our nose for years."
"Or the Joker wants us to see this," Gordon said. "Maybe he killed the staff weeks ago. Kept the place running to keep up appearances."
The hallway ended into another office. Dark cherrywood tables, ancient dining chairs in a semi-circle facing one wall. Dark purple curtains hung over one side of an instrument panel. A bank of instruments along one wall, a circuit breaker with the all this breakers flipped up. Gages in the wall consoles seized and jerked around on overdrive. An old operation hub turned into the Joker's den. A gramophone on the desk, dark cherrywood with a burnished bell, tiny piano notes trickling out of it. Soon the piano joined strings, instruments in a quiet and haunting melody.
Gordon said, "What's that, Louis Armstrong?"
"Ray Noble," Batman said. "And his orchestra. Nineteen twenties."
Bullock said, "La de friggin da. What's behind the door?"
"The music," Gordon said. "Is it significant?"
"No," the Batman said.
The gramophone limped along:
Midnight, with the stars and you / Midnight...and a rendezvous / Your eyes held a message tender / saying I surrender / all my love to you…
Batman looked ahead to a sturdy oak door, ornate baroque designs carved into it. A mottled bronze mail slot in the center. He looked at Gordon.
Then he kicked the door in.
Midnight brought us sweet romance / I know / all my whole life through
There sat Quinn, contorted and dead in a wooden chair. The kind they keep in waiting rooms. The kind Bullock chained his perps to.
I'll be remembering you / whatever else I do / midnight with the stars and you
They stared at her for long moments.
The chorus drifted into a waning instrumental.
Batman kept his eyes on hers. Bullock sighed, said, "Shit," and turned away. Gordon bowed his head.
She leant against the chair-back. Head cocked to one side. Glassy eyes staring at Gordon and beyond. A mat of her greasy blonde hair laying across her face, a messy Glasgow smile carved into her face, across smeared white greasepaint. Harlequin as abattoir. Her hands had fallen limp at her sides, legs splayed in a lazy indian-style. Her uniform, a buxom nurse get-up, was cut open down to her navel. A Welcome to Gotham postcard tacked into her left breast: "B- Hey! I'm in the Steel Mill! Or am I?!"
Bullock read it and said, "Geez, Someone's gettin lazy." `"Nothing left to fear," Gordon said. "He'll be waiting for us."
Bullock pounded one fist into an open palm. "A'right, so let's go kick his ass."
"No," Batman said.
Bullock made a face. "What?"
Batman craned his head to match the angle on Quinn's. Kept staring. Behind him, Gordon said to Bullock, "Give us a minute," and cocked his head back down the hallway. Bullock put his hands up, made a face, and left.
Gordon laid his hand on Batman's armoured shoulder.
"What is it?"
"Too many people are dying because of me."
A moment passed.
Gordon's radio squawked to life. "Commissioner?"
"DeFilippis here, sir. Bullock said we could resume the search?"
"Well," he said. "We're in the garage. Uh. I think you should get up here sir."
"What is it?"
"We found more bodies."
Batman stood and turned. Grabbed the radio from Gordon's hand and said, "How many?"
"Uh. Six? They're in a...pile. By the garage door. Weird thing is. Uhm. They all have ID's."
Gordon said, "Library cards, what?"
"Give me the names," Batman said.
DeFilippis waited, and then spoke in a stilted way, reading the names from some list: "DeSales, Francis. Schlatter, Dustin. Jordan, Jeffrey. Jordan, James. Graham, Will. Ignatius, Gunnar."
Gordon said, "Oh my God."
Batman growled into the radio. "Andrew. Are they any identifying markers on the cadavers? Anything you can think of."
"Yes," DeFilippis said. "They're all...arranged. They're, uh, positioned to be holding their licenses-one of them has a learner's permit-they're holding them on their chests. Hands together.."
"What else. Think, man."
"None of them have faces. We assumed the licences corresponded to the bodies. Sir, you really need to get up here."
Gordon said, "On our way."
Batman scowled and handed the radio back. Turned and stormed away.
Gordon chased him. "What?"
"He wanted us to see all this."
"Hey!" Gordon shouted after him.
Then he sprinted up to catch the Batman and clapped a hand on his shoulder.
"Dammit talk to me!"
Batman stopped. Faced Gordon.
"It's all come together," Batman said. "Quinn springs Tetch but it's not on Joker's orders, and when he finds out he kills her and Tetch both. Flees to his last safe house and leaves her as a breadcrumb."
"What about the others?"
"Victims of Elliot. Looks like he's back to harvesting corpses." The Batman paused. Looked at Gordon. "And none of your uniforms had any missing persons they were working on? Athletes, male, between fourteen and seventeen."
Gordon shook his head.
"A group of them used to run up the road by my house every other morning. Recently they were running with Tim."
"Sorry," Gordon said. "Not the time."
"I suspect Quinn kidnapped these boys. Last few days or even few hours, judging by your sergeant's description."
"If you're right..."
"Then we were all blind," Batman said. "And now it's worse."
Then Gordon steeled himself. "So," he said. "Now we know what we have to do."
"Question is," Gordon said and gave the Batman a stern and focused look. "What do you want to do?"
The Batman waited for a moment. "I want to see these bodies he left for us." Then: "And I want to show you something."
- 22 -
Batman and Family.
The story was all rather quaint by now. Here was Alfred Pennyworth, watching his master live and struggle amid all their current tumults, pushing seventy-five, and reliving the death of Thomas and Martha as much as he knew Bruce did.
Watching them die. At the tender age of eight. At twenty. At twenty-eight. At thirty-five, and thirty-six and every day and moment in between.
Over and over again.
And Alfred could not help, even all these years later, reflecting somewhat bitterly on the whole affair. Reflecting on the boy he'd raised out of darkness, out of the murder of his parents and all the sadness and rage that accompanied that dreadful occasion.
What had come of it.
It was some issue of ethics he had spent years thinking on, never to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion. He wrestled with it as much as Bruce had wrestled demons of his own: whether to support the Master's mission, his crusade, or attempt to stop it. To stop the Batman from saving this city and the iniquity into which it had fallen as a result of two people dying.
The finest people Alfred had ever known. Taken from them both by chance and stupidity.
As mercurially as they had been in the world, as wondrously as they had lived and dutifully as they had served this city, they died in its streets. They and their family had built Gotham from brick and mortar, and as surely as they lived they died. And then they became legends. Stories at first, remembrances of days gone by which the people that knew them in life told after their death as memorialism. A funny thing about time, and life.
As years roll on memory becomes faulty. Gaps appear.
The center cannot hold, he thought. And these days there were so very few people left who remembered what Gotham used to be, or that good people indeed lived here once, and none better than Thomas and Martha Wayne.
So very few people were left to remember those days. Before the dark times. Before crime had come and gone, first organised and then so dearly and terrifyingly disorganised. Men and women, mobsters and Catwomen and bifurcated District Attorneys clamoring for their place on the mountain. And once there, finding it all to be rather diminishing returns, and murdering each other in the recognition of their failed work. Leaving tears, and death, and a shattered city behind.
Children who had grown up in a shining, hopeful Gotham were in middle age now, and well-accustomed to the meagre offerings of this city, which took more and more from life as the years rolled on. Thomas and Martha became as urban myths. Even the city's old monsters, the Batman himself, to say nothing of Harvey Dent and the extinct Maroni and Falcone families—symptoms and causes all in one—were as legends. Yes, the Batman was active and yes crime had gone down exponentially. But the fire.
That inner drive.
It no longer existed.
Men became as gods. Worshipped once, and now forgotten. Cast aside, as playthings by callous plebians.
Lives became as stories. Told fast and loose, as interchangeable as the clothes on their backs, and twice as dispensable, in the end.
A funny thing about stories-
There are so many good ones. And very many poor ones. But once in a while, if all was luck and one carried himself with the boon of fortune on his shoulders, the stories he knew, and which were about him, became legends.
And legends, Alfred well knew, did not die but possessed life everlasting.
He stood there thinking about this all. Staring at the cave beyond. Once it had been different. Now, different still. Among gardens of stalagmites and stalactites, amid sepulchral gloom that no lighting or trinket of old villains could take away, there sat the Cave. Retractable steel walkways here and there, roads to roads, levels to levels, with training facilities, libraries, top of the line criminological technology, laboratories, vehicle garages and nostalgic displays of the Dark Knight's early days. A stone island platform bridging opposing sides and upon it sat that magnificent multi-array Cray supercomputer system which Dick had years ago called a Bat Computer.
Beyond time, and memory.
And every last inch of it serving the Batman's war.
He thought about Bruce, once young and now old. And yet both.
The Last Wayne.
Alfred breathed deep.
He wished Bruce was here now.
Because it was love that he felt.
What else but love could encourage Alfred to allow Bruce to continue his work all these years. Patiently, kindly. The love of a father for a son. The love of a mentor for a pupil. Of an adult for a child still finding his way. If it was a failure, if the years of both their lives had led to this current state wherein Bruce had closed himself off from those he loved most dearly, then Alfred wondered, uncharacteristically selfishly, what it mean for his attempts at raising the boy.
He was, he supposed, all of these things to Bruce. And none.
He was no father.
Yet he had tried his best.
To let Bruce find his own way.
He frowned and stared down into the cave. the tributary and the river beyond leading out to the bay. And beyond, Gotham. A city screaming.
Nearly twenty years had come and gone since the Batman's first outing in the East End.
Alfred was no closer to a moral imperative now than he had been then.
He misses Bruce.
There he stood by a dormant supercomputer, staring into a vast cave filled with tokens of the life his son has chosen. A life of pain. And tribulation.
He stood, and waited.
Waited for one young man and one young woman to answer the calls he has made. And for two other young men in the study above to come to terms with themselves.
Before rising one last time to face the ultimate evil.
This was not hyperbole. It was the sad truth of their lives.
The messsage, he thought. The message he hoped they would answer:
"He needs you. Gotham needs you."
He looked to one side: the exit ramp a level below and cockeyed away from this central platform. A garage for Batmobiles and leading away from it a stone street that became a tunnel that became a holographic facade of a cliff face.
An engine roaring towards him. He heard it perfectly. As clear as day. As clear as his thoughts.
He allowed himself a smile.
Headlights came into view, matching the engine roar. Then the shape. That sleek impossibility. Coming to a stop on the platform. The cockpit canopy sliding open.
And the man in the shape of a Bat climbing out of one side. Slowly. Walking up a gentle spiral stair. Removing his cowl and staring at the supercomputer in a blithe way. Walking toward Alfred and meeting his eyes and all that exhaustion, all his inborn rage, subsiding. And behind him, in a loose brown trench coat, eyes roving ahead of him on the supercomputer, the giant penny, the giant dinosaur. All manner of newness.
Alfred dissembled expertly: righted himself, hands behind his back, right over left, head straight, eyes forward.
"Dinner for two, sir?"
Bruce Wayne smiled and patted his shoulder. Stood to one side and looked between Alfred and the Commissioner.
"Jim," he said and smiled. "This is Alfred Pennyworth. You've met."
"It's a pleasure," Gordon said and stuck his hand out.
"Commissioner," he said and met the handshake. "May I offer you some coffee or tea? Perhaps a light snack, given the lateness of the hour?"
Gordon gestured, half a shrug, half a smile, and said, "Coffee sounds great. Very strong, thank you."
Alfred nodded, glanced at Bruce, and was gone. Back up the great stone steps to the Manor beyond.
They both watched him go.
Gordon spoke first. "Well, it's all starting to make sense now."
"I imagine so," Bruce said.
"Were you always this open? With Barbara?"
"Yes," Bruce said. "I wanted you to see what my life is like. What it was like for her. I'd give you the tour but time is short."
Then Gordon was quiet.
Bruce sat at the computer and brought up his revolving usual account of CCTV circuits. The front door at Arkham, the secretary's desk. The GCPD squad room. He regarded them all and did not speak. Behind him, Gordon stood at the edge of the counterbalance. Looking and listening.
Bruce said, "The others will be here shortly."
"We're already here," came a voice from up the stairs.
Bruce turned to see them.
And he smiled. A slow and sure grin across that weathered face.
Tim Drake and Bart Allen behind him.
All in plainclothes.
They came to a stop at the landing of the great stone stairs.
He remembered each of them in turn.
Dick Grayson. The first Robin. Thirty-two going on eleven: the spritely gleam of youth in his eyes. All the time. A carefree man, despite all that's happened to him. He had been Robin for years and eventually outgrew the role. Moved to Bludhaven down the coast to become his own man. Nightwing. And he had done an exemplary job of it. Coming back now as he had was a symbol of better times past. Maturity. On both their parts.
Helena Bertinelli had been the Huntress. A gangland product, star of her mafia don father's eye, only to see him and the rest of the family gunned down before her very eyes. In older times the Batman had reserved his sympathy, for he both knew and was the type, and judged her on her rage which he deemed unfruitful. She had embraced the Huntress identity as a means to exact vengeance on her family's killers and when that was complete and bloodlust was still on her mind, the Batman shut her down. Now, things were different. They were both so much older, so much more different now. Certainly, she had never gotten along with Barbara—they were enemies in life, enemies of philosophy and opinion. Huntress had always gone too far. Was always willing to make the hard choice which Bruce had successfully taught the others as being out of the question. Helena was able to do what none of the rest could. To take a life, Bruce thought. To make that decision. The last decision that person would ever know.
Such an alluring and forbidden thing.
He looked at Tim. The Boy Wonder. At his side through everything. Through Bane, through the Final Night. At his side while Superman died and returned. Through the mad schemes of Ra's al Ghul. Through cataclysm and contagion: watching Tim fight for his life as the Gulf-A virus tried to kill him. Through No Man's Land. The worst of humanity alongside the very best.
There was Tim.
There they all were.
Through all the disagreements and tumult. Through all the pain. And the triumph.
Batman and Robin.
Bruce Wayne stood.
In a clear and frank voice, he spoke:
"I am sorry. I have made decisions that I believed to be right, and have found them to be devastating to us all. I stood by, while one of our friends was murdered, and allowed my personal failings to consume me. I have failed each and every one of you more times than I can count. Certainly more than you deserve. I believed I could do all this alone. I was wrong. I am wrong. I should know better by now.
"Knowing that, then, I would have understood if you refused the call. You would have been within your rights to do so. The fact that you all are here now only underscores what I have always known.
"You are the very best this world has to offer."
And then he was finished.
Somewhere in the distance a colony of bats stirred, their screeching echoed through the gloom.
Dick spoke first. He smiled slow. And said, "Apology accepted."
Bruce looked at Helena.
She was standing in her usual authoritative way, legs apart, arms crossed, a forced scowl on her face. She said, "Finally believed in me, huh?"
Bruce smiled. Looked at Tim.
"What about you?"
Tim waited. Looked like he was going to say something. At his side, Bart Allen grabbed his hand and held it tight. Tim sniffed. Breathed. Then an incongruous chuckle. A smile and a modest nod.
Only for a moment.
Tim took a deep breath and said, "I'm with you."
Bruce said, "Then tonight we have a mission. The last mission I'll ever ask of you. What Barbara would call a sacred trust. I assume, Helena, Dick briefed you on everything that's happened?"
"Good," Bruce said. "Commissioner Gordon and I have just come from the Ace Chemical substation. There have been some developments."
"Such as?" Helena asked.
"Anonymous 911 call," Gordon said. "Said Tetch was in the plant, which of course he was. We found his body first."
"Jesus," Dick said.
"And more," Bruce said. "Down the hall we found Harley Quinn strapped to a chair."
Helena said, "You get anything out of her?"
Gordon waited for a moment. "She was dead. Stabbed in the neck and left to bleed out."
"Now you know," Bruce said. "The situation is worse than I imagined. Forensics point to Joker having killed Quinn. He's uninhibited and on the run. And there's only one safe house he's got left. The old Sionis Steel Mill on the Magnificent Mile."
Helena stepped forward. "What about Elliot?"
"I believe he'll be with the Joker. He wants to send a message. In fact, he already has."
Tim said, "Oh?"
"I am," he said.
Then he looked around. At Gordon and at Tim.
"Tim," he said. "A word upstairs?"
Together they left the group and went upstairs, Bart on one side of Tim and Bruce in the lead. They walked up the great stone stairs. Out of the cave into the den, a sparse and eclectic marvel, clawfoot end tables and a low oaken coffee table under a natty plaid runner, catalogue displays of life perfectly situated among book-strewn coffee tables and walls that were bookcases.
Bruce stopped and sat on the Eames footstool.
"We found other bodies in the plant."
Bart and Tim looked at each other. Bart said, "Who?"
Bruce regarded them for a moment longer. "I need to know if these names are familiar to you."
"Jim and Jeff Jordan. Gunnar Ignatius. Dustin Schlatter. Will Graham."
Tim froze. Stared at the floor. Next to him, Bart was humming. Not quite actual humming, but crying. Shaking. Disturbed by the news, and vibrating in place. His Speed Force at work, overcompensating the pain with speed, with action. Hiding him in plain sight. Breathing hard through crying eyes, covering his mouth.
Tim leant over to comfort him. And he just turned away.
"I'm sorry," Bruce said.
"They were my friends," Bart said and his voice was a quiver. "They..."
Bruce was quiet.
A long and painful moment passed.
"Gunnar had offers," Bart said. Staring at the floor and through the floor. Staring a thousand miles off. "Five different schools were after him. Mm. Full ride. The whole..." He looked at Bruce. "They had futures."
"I'm sorry," Bruce said.
"I never should've come with you," Bart sobbed and buried his face in Tim's shoulder. "Why did…"
Tim hugged Bart close and allowed him his grief. For their friends.
For lives destined for much more. For boys that were going to be something. Now they were nothing at all.
Tim looked at him. "Who did it."
Then Tim's face twisted from determination into a terrible scowl. A glower. Something there wasn't really a word for. Rage. In the shape of a face. A face on a boy too hopeful to fear. Too wise to play stupid.
"I knew it. He got Tetch out of Arkham."
"Yes," Bruce said.
"Is he with the Joker?"
Then the fire slunk away. Somehow it voided Tim entirely. He looked blithely at Bruce.
"Then all of this," Tim said. "Has been what? A smokescreen?"
"I don't know," Bruce said. And felt the pain of his words in his bones.
He let himself feel.
For the first time in a long time.
The weight of all his failures came upon him. His shoulders slumped and he let out a terrible, laborious breath. All his failures. All those people he could not save, and who fled from him. Or this life. Or this city. And what it does to people.
He looked at Tim, sitting there on the footstool, still comforting Bart. And around the den. At all of his trinkets and books, his little materialism. Markers of the well-heeled and what was the point of it all, he wondered. He knew he could take none of these things with him. And yet here they were, to be buried alongside him like Ramses or sold off to compensate the estate. What ignominious ends these things would come to. Monuments to a life that no longer served a purpose. If it ever did.
Those boys, he thought. Robbed of what might have been. By a broken man with a weapon.
How very sad.
They sat there in silence for ages. Moments upon moments until it all ran together.
Bruce had supposed some years ago that most people have moments like these. In their lives. When it all comes crashing down. Or seems like it does. And when that happens. When it goes black, and direction is lost. When there is no other move to be made, or choice to be had.
When you're blind.
When you need saving.
Who cares for you?
Bart looked up at Bruce with drawn and plaintive eyes. "What now?" he asked
He doesn't understand it.
It's not Keystone.
It's not Metropolis.
I wish they were not part of this.
So I could spare them the pain.
There has been so much of it in their lives, Father. Why must I add to what's already been taken?
I wish, Father.
That I could tell them both. That it's not too late to leave us. Forget about us. Go home. Back to your family, Bart, back to Keystone, a city that makes sense, and take Tim with you. Give him the chance I could not give myself.
Because no one should have to face compulsory ends.
We should live and die on no terms but our own. With our choices in our hands.
Here, now, there is so little choice.
Give him that choice.
Bruce looked at them both. Masterfully dissembling. No expression at all on his face. Except.
A disease, Father. A disease is upon my city, one that would send it screaming into hell.
He remembered. Years ago. Thomas imparting life lessons from boyhood scrapes.
"Bruce. Why do we fall?”
One of a million aphorisms like it. Your stock in trade, Father: to rise, to learn, to—
He stood and went to the bookcase.
Tim said, "What is it?"
Bruce didn't answer. His fingers danced over the spines.
Somewhere on the third shelf, buried between Melville and-
He plucked out a slim hardback. Flipped through it. Found the page. Glanced over it quickly, raveningly.
Tim turned and looked at him. "What?"
"You remember this?" Bruce said and held it up.
Tim said, "Yeah. Tennyson."
Bruce handed it to him.
"What is it?" Bart asked.
Tim looked over the page, moldy and yellowed and fine with age, and read the very last of it. Slow and easy.
"'To strive, to seek, to find.'"
Tim looked up at him. Closed the book.
"'And not to yield,'" he finished.
Bruce gave an uneasy smile.
"You were saving that for a special occasion," Tim said.
Bruce nodded. "A story about an old man looking for his last adventure. Who does that sound like?"
Tim set the book down gently. Looked at it and kept his eyes on it. Dissecting it, trying to pull it open again, and know it, and bring its mystery close to his heart.
Not looking at Bruce-looking at Bart, holding him close and barely keeping the tears away-he said, "I quit."
A moment. Tim looked up at him. "It's not because of you."
"I know that, too," Bruce said and patted Tim's shoulder. "But right now they're out there. And we've got to go to work."
- 23 -
Tim and Bart.
Bart had me back at Wayne Manor about thirty seconds after leaving the Superior Courthouse.
Down the Courthouse steps. Through town. Finally, at the Manor. That stately gothic expanse staring down at the Amusement Mile through lambent hedgerows and a cedar-ridden state park on the other side of the Cambridge Road, blocking it all from the city.
Something about Bart. And about the Speed Force.
I've encountered it before. Been part of it before, if that was the word for it. It's this energy field. Extradimensional, variably sentient or so Bart says. The Speed Force is what gives the Flashes—Bart, Wally, and before them both, Barry Allen—their power.
He uses it to be the Kid Flash.
And I'm sure he's used to it by now—he's had years, centuries really, to hone it.
I'm not used to it.
He put his hand on my neck and said, "Whiplash."
And we were off.
The world slid away.
Time slowed down. Funny enough.
Think of anything.
The speed of life. All the days of our lives go by so fast and we can't even slow down to look at them, Allen. We can't even appreciate what we get. Even if we beg, it's still not enough. If it ever could be. If it ever would. We beg and scrape for more and we think it will keep us happy. And then all our illusions come crashing down. The house of cards collapses. And what do we have. Reality. And rage.
I thought of Luthor, sitting in his tower with Chase. And. Maybe he was thinking about me, too.
I thought about Bart. What he must think of. All this.
The two of us sitting in the Lichfield Club in Keystone. Something he said at the time. Come live with me, he said. I kept thinking about it.
Is this what he does to you Robins?
Holding onto Bart at the waist. And him holding onto me.
The first time he ever took me into the Speed Force, I closed my eyes. It was a rollercoaster, but. More. Here, now, I kept my eyes open.
Time slowed. The world slid into smooth lines. Like warp speed. Like hyperspace. Like a time vortex.
This. Glittering world he dives into, every moment of every day.
I watched a vulture swoop down on some roadkill in this slow, morbid majesty. I watch cars and buildings and human detritus pass us by at glacial speeds. The blink of an eye. The flap of a hummingbird. And I knew that however fast we were going, their lives were slower still.
This is how he sees us.
Makes you think.
I waited. There in the Speed Force, only seconds away from home. Seconds, and years.
Time. Time. Time.
Slipping away. For us all.
Alfred met us at the door.
"He is not here," he said.
And we waited. Lounged in the study, for some word from Alfred that Bruce was back.
I was staring at Bruce's grandfather clock. Sitting against the opposite wall, some distance from the fireplace, above which hung an oil commission of Thomas and Martha Wayne.
I kept looking at the damn clock.
Ancient, magisterial wood from sixteen different kinds of trees. I was there when he bought it. Skinny little idiot following Bruce around. All those years back. Seemed like an eternity now. Watching him throw down twenty thousand dollars on this. Like it was nothing.
There it was.
I stood there for only a moment, one hand balanced on the hour-hand. Thinking about all this.
What we used to be.
I turned around.
Bart sighed and shook his head. "So we wait?"
I looked at him. I breathed. And told him I didn't know. But that we would talk to Bruce. See what move could be made from.
From all this.
I thought of Thomas and Martha, looking down at us from that oil painting.
I thought of Barbara.
I thought of Dad.
Having learned that his son was the Teen Wonder and then trying to steer me away from that. Murdered in his own home by an occasional supervillain trying to become meaningful again, one Dad himself had managed to fatally shoot before dying. Twin death. That nobody, George Harkness, an enemy of Barry Allen in better days gone by, then reduced to a whispered joke. Trying to become something better.
They shared death, Jack Drake and George Harkness.
I thought of my mother. Reduced to a shell of herself after Dad was killed, and learning the truth about me. Taken away to a sanatarium in Bludhaven, only to be vaporised months later when the Secret Society of Supervillains blew the city to hell.
Stephanie. Inciting a gang war to impress the Batman. Failing miserably. Dying poorly at the hands of Roman Sionis.
Conner Kent. Superboy. A genetic clone and simulacrum of Superman himself, sharing genes from both the Man of Steel and Lex Luthor. Fighting and dying against other-dimensional monsters and the Secret Society during the Infinite Crisis of Man and the Multiverse.
And where was I.
Bruce told me something once.
We are supposed to protect them, he'd said.
Look at us now.
Now, only memories.
I had moved across the room. From the great mirror to the southern wall which was all windows. Outside, the cedar forest across the road, between the Manor and the city swayed in the January breeze.
The study door slid open. In came Alfred with a teapot and two cups on a silver platter.
He set it on the coffeetable, a low clawfoot affair in front of a tufted leather sofa.
"Thank you," I said and it came from far away.
He smiled and nodded. And was gone.
Bart was still in the Eames. He watched Alfred go. Looked at the teapot and poured himself a cup.
"You want some?"
I looked at him as I took a seat on the sofa.
He made a face, smug and cocksure. "I'm having some."
I watched him pour it into the teacup. Blow into the reservoir and drink it slowly, daintily.
"Are you okay?"
Bart put the cup back on the saucer and looked at me.
"Do you really want to know?"
He scoffed. A single airy derision. Sipped his tea and sat back in the chair. Looked out the window.
"I meant it," he said. "The, uh, the speech I gave you back home. Coming to Keystone with me."
He looked up. "See, I don't know that you do. Barry and Wally...and me. We just tried to help people. With a minimum of pathos. All this other stuff, this sturm and drang he pulls you into. Who needs to live like that?"
I waited. Looked out the window and wondered if DeSales and the rest were out there running.
"Why did you come back with me?"
I looked at him.
He looked around, unawares for a moment. "Because...you asked."
"I know. But."
He sighed and made this laborious face, like he was, or about to be, at pains to say something. He leant forward in the Eames.
"Because," he said. Looked at the footstool. Cocked his head. Scoffed that single breath of air again and looked at me. Had this kind of sad look on his face. Drank the last of his tea and held one hand up, and had this fake smile, about to speak. Then it just fizzled out and meandered there. He said it plainly.
"I love you."
We were quiet.
"Uh," I said.
"I know," he said. Looked away and scratched his head. "Probably not the best time to say that."
I looked around.
"I uh. I don't know what to, uh."
"Yeah," he said. "You don't. Have to say anything." Then he frowned. "I just wanted to say it, I guess."
I sat on the footstool. Inches from him.
"Okay," I said.
"I'll go back with you."
He rolled his eyes and slumped back into the chair.
"I'm being serious," I said. "You. You're my best friend. You've been there for me ever since Conner died. You're a nice guy. You-"
"Look," he said. "Okay, I'm sorry. Just forget about it. It's unfair of me to say it. Just forget I said anything."
I looked away.
Glanced up to see him looking at me.
"I don't even know," he said. Then he was standing and pacing across the room.
"I'm not joining the DEO," I said. "Agent Chase doesn't run my life."
"What about Bruce?"
"He runs it even less." Then a thought occurred. "Is. Is that what this is about? Losing me to Bruce?"
"Jesus Christ," he muttered.
"Sorry! I just."
"Oh come on!"
He looked at me square.
"You're my best friend," he said. "You. Conner died, Tim. And there was nothing. The Society came, and he died. And we all went our separate ways." Pause. "I didn't think I'd ever see you again. And then. One day. You showed up, alone and in need and I said okay, yes, Tim, I'll help you. And now here we are and I don't even know why I'm saying this."
Tell him something, Tim. Tell him he doesn't get to run your life, either.
I looked beyond him. He was standing in front of the fireplace. And above it:
Thomas and Martha Wayne in dark red paint. Staring down at us all.
He made a face and turned around. Looked at them.
"I hate this town," he said. "I hate your air. I hate your bad guys. I hate what this city does to good people."
We both breathed.
"But I love you," he said. "Whatever that's worth."
I found myself at his side. Staring at Thomas Wayne.
After a while, I said: "The point of Batman...was that what happened to Bruce wouldn't happen to anyone else. That criminals were cowardly and superstitious, and that he could remove them from society. The point of Robin...was to keep him from becoming monstrous in the process."
"But?" he asked.
"I got older. So did Bruce."
I looked at him.
He looked at me.
"Priorities change," he said.
"Truth hurts," he said.
"Ah, but it shall also set you free," came a voice from behind us.
And behind him, Dick and Helena.
"Guys," I said. "What's up?"
Alfred smiled. "He is downstairs," he said. "Waiting for you all."
Bart looked at me.
He looked back at Alfred. "Wait, we've been in here the whole time, I thought this was the only entrance to the cave?"
Alfred chuckled and walked past us. Set the hands on the clock to ten forty-seven and pulled the left-most weight. The wall hissed and recessed, slid back upon itself, and the great stone stairs spiralled down into the darkness.
Helena passed us, patted my shoulder. Smiled at Bart.
Dick grabbed me in a full hug, lifted me off the ground. "You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," I said and suppressed the tears.
Dick went down the stairs.
Alfred slid past us.
We stood together at the top of the great stone stair. Looking into the Cave.
"Well," Bart said.
"There's a man down there I haven't seen in two months," I said. "I don't know what I'm gonna do."
"It'll be okay," he said. "I promise."
"What about us," I said.
He thought about it for a moment.
"Would you like a cliché?"
I said, "Hm. Once more into the breach?"
"Out of the frying pan?"
"Look before you leap?"
He kissed me.
And said, "One step at a time."
I grabbed his hand.
And we started down the stairs.
Towards Bruce. Towards darkness. Towards the Joker, and Elliot and all sorts of monsters in between.
And to war.
We just didn't know it yet.
- 24 -
“Saving what cannot be saved.”
Batman and Alfred.
He was driving.
He had returned from the Far East only hours ago. Quick housekeeping and new armor and one of the older Batmobiles later he was on the road again. Towards the Clocktower. Towards Gordon. To face certain fears, and to be held accountable to the laws of men. Night was falling fast on Gotham. And the irony was not lost on him.
Ra's had laughed off their conversation.
"You will do as you will," he said. "Saving what cannot be saved, and for what reason? You used to understand this. The futility. May I ask what has changed?" The Batman said, "you might," and then he turned to leave. To get onto the autogyro, parked a mile and a half away, and that would carry him across to Gibraltar and then he could find his way to Lisbon and board the WayneTech 750 and then come home. No one must know, he thought, and kept thinking. Let them think Bruce took one of his random month-long vacations to Monaco again. Let Alfred think what he likes. Let Tim—
It had been months since he and Tim had spoken. Alfred had given them the run of the equerry house, far back on the estate and essentially unused. He never did go see the boys. Or invite them into the cave. There was a mystery on, and it needed solving.
He told Ra's as much.
"And you believed you could not use their assistance?"
"I started this alone," he said. "I can end it alone."
Ra's frowned. "You'll end nothing, and you know it."
The Batman looked at him.
"Why is this one man so important," Ra's said.
"We were friends. We grew up together. He knows me in ways my other enemies don't."
Ra's scoffed. "You have no enemies left, or so you say. Perhaps they learned their lessons. Decided the Batman was no longer worth the aggravation."
"What are you saying?"
"Only this, Detective, and then you may depart from my sight: the fight is not over for this Thomas Elliot. The question is, is it over for you?"
The Batman looked at him. "We'll see."
A shadow fled across the desert.
And here in the car now, he was relaying this all to Alfred over vox.
"And so you believe him?" Alfred asked.
"I don't know. There's something else."
"As if it were right in front of you the entire time?"
"Yes," Batman said. "Tommy wanted to be found. He knew I would be focused on other things."
"He knew you were you."
Batman thought about it.
Bruce said, "I'm almost at the Clocktower. I'm going to explain things to the Commissioner. And then...I'll be home. Call them."
Alfred smiled moved in toward the screen. "With pleasure, sir."
- 25 -
“One always wins.”
Robin and Nightwing.
I was dying.
Not now, not in this moment. But once. Years ago when a version of the Ebola virus tore through Gotham. Death all around us, the Babylon Towers burning to the ground. A materialist effigy for Nineties excess. Bruce, Dick, Gordon, Helena and I at the centre of it. The estimable Mayor Krol, now very dead, obstructing us. Gotham behind us, some kind of backdrop, screaming.
Ebola Gulf-A does the following things to the human body: first off, it's not even really Ebola, some idiot in the Babylon Towers just started calling it that and it stuck. It incubates in your body for forty-eight hours. Presents initially as flu-like symptoms. Transmission airborne. Hemorrhage begins thereafter, liver and kidney functions cease and eventually you start leaking blood from orifices you didn't know you had. Gulf-A dessicates the muscles, shrinking and deforming them inside you, while you writhe around on the floor, begging for Oxy or morphine or anything else you think will stop the pain. But there is no stopping it.
And eventually you die choking on your own blood because you're too paralyzed and deformed to do anything else.
And there I was laying in a hospital bed in the Cave, with bandages over bleeding eyes. Hallucinating Dad and Stephanie and Ariana. Roads not taken. Choices.
You'd think I wouldn't remember that stuff.
But I did. I do. I thought about that a lot in my quiet moments. When no one was around. When there'd be no one to ask me what was wrong. I wasn't even sure.
Here. Now. I thought about it again. You think about it, life and death, at the weirdest times. It pops up from nowhere and all you can do is fixate on it, like a math problem to be solved.
At least, you think, it gives you something to do. Think about one thing.
So you don't have to think about another:
We had assembled in the Cave, with Bruce and Gordon. Bruce told us all what had been going on. The parts I didn't know. Joker and Elliot and my friends, corpses in the Ace Chemical Plant, sick jokes from a man to whom sick jokes were a true calling. Misery and chaos were his hobbies. And everywhere he went it was the same.
The disease infecting this city. One older than time, and memory. Just a man, but something more.
Now about to become nothing at all.
When the devil is loose and staring you in the face, you stare back.
And you don't slow down.
So there we were.
Gordon had prepped us. "Steel Mill is at the terminus of Industrial Access," he said. "The rear of it empties into Miller Harbour. Shipping and Receiving. Shallow but could be an escape route. Coastal patrol will cover there while airborne support, QRT, and the MCU will meet me on 315 South, at Schwartz. The Bypass cuts from Otisburg that way. It's the likeliest place for a mass assembly. He'll see us coming."
Bruce said, "Stay safe, Jim. Alfred is waiting upstairs to take you in."
Then Gordon was gone.
Then Batman looked at the rest of us. He said, "Suit up," and we did.
I could tell you all about our suits and what they were made of and how nothing the Joker could throw at them would stop us.
But, you know, Allen, it's never been about that. Not about the suits or the tools or the science. It's always been just about the man. The Batman.
And his criminal enemies. Dying one by one.
And the five of us going to fight the ones that were left.
I had to smile. The suit felt good. But.
This was also the first time I'd worn it since Bruce and I discovered Tetch in Barbara's apartment.
I felt sad. And strong.
And other things. That rush of emotions you feel right before diving into something truly unknown.
And yet how right it felt, Allen.
I felt at home. In the suit. In the cave. Batman and Nightwing and Huntress by my side.
Nightwing and Huntress chose their rides, twin Batcycles from an array near the Batmobiles of dozens, and I chose one too.
Bruce chose one of the roadsters. The version eighty-nine. Slim, low, with batwings over the rear tire wells. A truly magnificent afterburner. And twin machine gun wells behind the front tires that popped up from under breakaway panelling. I asked him about this one years ago and he said, "rubber bullets, honest," and that was that.
We assembled on the turntable, around the eighty-nine Batmobile with scowling eyes for headlights. He looked at us all and the cowl shifted ever so slightly. A smile. A frown.
All these years and I still couldn't tell.
He slid into the Batmobile and the cockpit canopy slid shut over him. The afterburners exploded to life and off he went. Then Dick, popping a wheelie on his cycle and tearing out of there. Then Huntress. Finally, me.
Bart stood next to me in his Kid Flash suit. Yellow from the waist up, bright red below the waist with stylised boots. A half-cowl connected at the neck with wide holes around his eyes. Brown and beautiful. His hair flowed naturally and twisted away close to his ears. He looked at me and tightened his gloves.
"Last ones in," he said.
"Yup." I stuck the cycle in neutral and revved it up.
"When was the last time you were on that thing?"
"Three months," I said. "Long time to wait."
Bart looked into the blackness. Then at me.
"Tell me this'll make a difference.”
I leveled with him. "I think it will.”
And then he was gone: yellow lightning burned on the asphalt in his wake.
We think we're so big in the eyes of the universe. We think we have a good bead on things. That we run the planet. Fact is, Allen, we know so much more than we understand. But we understand so little. You go through life thinking you're something. That it'll all line up and you just have to be there. Must be present to win. Then something else happens that reduces you. And you're ruined and you have to try. Have to do the work.
And what if you fail.
We're so small. In the end.
Small enough that I could stop this. I could stop it any time I wanted. I could walk away from Robin. From a role that no longer fit me.
I was twenty-one and still Boy Wondering. Still, as my last surviving best friend encouraged me to do something else with my life—with him. As six of our friends lay dead in a GCPD morgue because they had the bad fortune to know me.
But I could do something.
I could live.
I sped out of the Cave. Down the dirt access road towards the Cambridge Road. Toward Gotham. Above the sky was clear and cold, the full moon a silver dollar shining down on us.
You think about them at the weirdest moments.
Life and death, I mean.
And one always wins.
- 26 -
Batman and Family.
There on the 315 Bypass stood Jim Gordon and the entirety of the MCU. Every off-duty, every beat cop and parking enforcement officer, parked alongside the road, cars slotted lazy into the berm. A bitter cold breeze scouring them and freezing them to their bones, even under standard issue bomber jackets. All except for Bullock who looked lazy and bored with it all, in his typical grey trenchcoat, hideous yellow shirt smeared with pizza grease and a frumpy tie from twenty years ago loose around his neck. He stared and kept staring into the distance even as cops came and went around him, asked him for a light or how it was going. He kept his eyes on the dull glow in the distance.
He was tired of waiting, that was for damn sure.
Montoya was next to him, and next to her huddling in their coats with frozen fingers around Sundollers coffees were Allen and DeFilippis, fresh from the Ace plant.
Ahead and behind them the united lights of a hundred patrol cars lit up the sky in brilliant reds and blues. The moon came out from behind a cloud and everything lit up almost as clear as day. Almost.
The police milled around while Gordon stood at a gap in the highway. Alfred had dropped him here an hour before and he'd immediately gotten Montoya and Bullock to close the highway. Divert traffic down to Lower Fifth and to Lake Shore so the GCPD could, according to Nightwing's plan, shoot straight at the Steel Mill and kick the Joker in the ass.
He beckoned Montoya and Bullock alongside him, and went out into the middle of the highway, climbed on top of the concrete median. Pulled his jacket close as the wind howled around him, and cupped both hands around his mouth. "Everybody!'
The milling cops kept milling.
Bullock said, "ah geez," and called over to DeFilippis. "Andy! Little help?" DeFilippis nodded and ducked into his patrol, and the siren beeped loudly, obnoxiously.
The cops stopped and looked at Bullock.
Bullock said, "Not me, ya idiots," and pointed at Gordon.
"Everybody," Gordon shouted. "Gather up."
Slowly, they shuffled into a close semicircle around him. huddling for warmth and sharing coffees and donuts and waiting rapturously for Gordon to speak. When he did, they stopped shuffling and became fine-tuned machines.
"Folks," he said. "Tonight we have the opportunity to take the fight to the Joker and end his operations. This represents our last tactical strike against a major super-target within city limits. Ever. If any man or woman here feels they can't do this tonight, please step out of the circle now. I'll give you a moment."
The moment came.
None of them moved.
"Think they got you, Commish," Bullock said.
"Then get ready," Gordon said to the group. "We wait for his signal."
That was half an hour ago.
Gordon stayed close to his car and close to his radio, waiting for the Mayor or the Governor to get on and excoriate him for what amounted to an unauthorized and unprecedented show of police force. He worried about it by the minute. As the frigid air bit at every inch of him.
He wished he had a smoke.
Bullock was at his side with a coffee. "Any word?"
"No," Gordon said. "And thanks."
"Yup," Bullock said. Looked ahead at the empty freeway. "Ramirez called. They're good to go. Airborne's already closing in."
Gordon nodded. He frowned. Looked up into the night sky. Even in the dark, light pollution from the city let him see the clouds. A grey rounded edge sweeping toward them from the west. "We need to move. Before the snow hits. Get them up."
Bullock nodded. Turned on his heels and went back toward the loitering crowd and started yelling orders.
Gordon smiled and drank his coffee. DeFilippis came up to him. "Sir?"
"It's—it's him, sir."
Gordon took the radio from DeFilippis' shoulder and whispered into it.
"I'm here," the Batman said. "I'm on my way."
Gordon frowned. Looked at DeFilippis again.
Then it came.
A shadow sped through the parked police force. past Gordon and DeFilippis. Through the center of a barren highway.
Gordon watched it barrel past him. A thunderous engine underneath reflective black paneling. Low scowling headlights and a bright, savage afterburner trailing it.
Three other motorcycles.
Finally, white lightning in the shape of a man.
They all raced past Batman, but as they did Gordon swore he saw Batman inside the Batmobile. Inside, and looking at him, and then racing through.
Gordon looked at DeFilippis and shooed him into the car and quickly fell in line behind the Batman. Behind them the hordes of the GPCD formed up, sirens blaring, lights blazing, into loose columns that took up both sides of the highway. On they went down 315 South, and eventually they came upon Gotham itself. Tall lighted spires stretching from dark earth into blackened sky.
Gordon took it all in. He looked out the window. Watching three police zeppelins turn into formation, pointing their noses towards Industrial Access. The radio crackling with overlaying conversations among squad cars. DeFilippis's death grip on the wheel. On the Sprang Bridge, Airborne Support finally joined the GCPD retinue: seven helicopters with floodlights on full, lighting the way.
Ahead of him, the Batmobile thundered on. Inside sat the Batman, stoic and motionless. Outside and flanking the Batmobile came three Redbird cycles, smaller version Dick Grayson had used in earlier years.
They sped down the highway, the police at their back, the freeway rumbling underneath them, until they came upon Industrial Access and slowed. The Batmobile came to stop just after a cloverleaf that led to parts beyond—the East End, Otisburg, the far end of Miller Harbor. The Redbirds stopped, and the Batman's allies dismounted. Gathered at the control box for the drawbridge, a dilapidated corrugated steel shack on one side of the berm. Batman stood alone at the head of the group. Then Nightwing was at his side.
The Batman spoke and kept his eyes ahead.
The drawbridge was lowering.
"There," the Batman said.
"He's getting anxious," Nightwing said and smiled.
"Snipers." Batman said.
"Laser sights," Nightwing said. "Pretty pedestrian."
"What else do you see."
Nightwing made a face. "Well, if they're qualified, they'll grab their guns and clump up like a JV soccer team by the gate there. Once the bridge is down and we're through, we can take them."
The bridge was down. Two halves connected with a dull clamor.
From behind them, Kid Flash said, "Better idea."
Batman looked at him and said, "What?"
"This," he said, and sped off.
Batman and Nightwing watched him go. Robin came up and stood by Batman.
"He'll get himself killed," Batman said.
"Nah," Robin said "He's better than that."
Even at this distance, Batman judged, forty or fifty meters from beyond the gate, came the screams. Whelps and yips of men and thugs caught off guard. Standing there in their supreme glory, armed to the teeth and read to take on the world for their sick boss, they did not see him coming. How could they. Some decided to fight back, to shoot back, and promptly stopped in their tracks as they watched the lightning in the shape of a man dance between their bullets and then rip their guns away.
Snow started falling.
He ran back to Batman's position and skidded to a stop, holding an AK-47 in each arm.
"There," Kid Flash said. "All clean."
"Irresponsible," Batman said and stalked toward his car. "They have reserves."
"So do we," Kid Flash said and cracked a smile. He looked at Robin: "Typical?"
The Batmobile roared to life. The afterburner exploded and it was off. Across the bridge.
Twin panels on the hood blew open and up came twin machine guns blowing holes into the chicken-wire fence and the gate, and the rusted iron rails criss-crossing it. It sparked and clanged and flew open with such minimal prompting. Then it was on.
The Batmobile was inside. It thundered in and skidded in a donut to a stop just before the empty cistern. Two building ahead the goons were falling back, running away towards the dry dock and the manager's office.
Batman scowled and stepped out. Nightwing and Robin and Huntress and Kid Flash joined him.
"Sitrep," Batman said.
Before anyone could speak, a jingle came over loudspeakers. In another life they had been used to coordinate workloads and shipments among disparate buildings. Now, they were the Joker's private fun lines.
"Ring-ring!" The Joker's voice was clear and obnoxious, pitched and modified through the ancient speakers nailed into the sides of the shanties around them. "Guys! It's great to see you! I hope we get the chance to work again real soon."
Huntress swung her bo-staff out and said, "What the hell is he talking about?"
"Bats, you know, this little islet here isn't natural. It's man-made like that airport over in that country no one cares about! And I've planted some bombs down in the sewers and if you or the Miagani Jaycees there try to go down after them, I'll blow this place sky high!"
Above the wasteland and the belching smoking fires of the Sionis Steel Mill, three GCPD zeppelins hovered and shone their light down, casting the area round the car and the cistern in blinding white, even now, even in this midnight gloom. The fires from the mill glowed inside the building. All was calm. Deceptively calm.
Batman looked at Kid Flash.
"Do a sweep. Find the bombs and get a total, then report back."
Kid Flash nodded and was gone.
Robin and Nightwing looked around. Next to Nightwing, Huntress flipped her bo-staff from its holster at her waist and twisted it around one hand, telescoping it out to maximum extension and slamming it into the ground. She looked ahead to the dry docks, far back across the courtyard. In another life this had been a legitimate business, with all tis branches in different buildings. Administration here, finance there, management in humble offices inside the main plant.
"Something I don't get," Huntress said and watched a corrugated steel door far back on the dry dock building slide open. "Why here?"
"One of his first hideouts," Nightwing said. "After he dragged Sionis out. It's been abandoned ever since."
"Overlooked," Batman said and tightened his gauntlets, one after the other. In the distance the door was open and out came the goons. Heavyset men in cheap clown suits, ratty fatigues, assault rifles in their hands and fake scowls for faces. Bodybuilders. Professional hitmen. Bad guys. He tuned the scanner for ident, and picked up fifty-seven prior offenders. And more. He saw a twenty-something he had busted for petty larceny at Schonenfeld's months before. Teenagers serving juvie time for spray-tagging public buildings, eager to get revenge and all too ready now with that gun in their hands. Every loser, scumbag, ex-con, parolee and escaped mental patient he could muster in a twelve mile radius.
Children, Joker. You're recruiting children to fight for you. It's a nice tactic. Too bad it doesn't work.
"Couldn't come out here himself, could he?" Nightwing said. He flipped his escrimas and tapped them, and electric blue danced across the leads. He smiled and crouched and readied himself.
The goons were almost upon them.
The Batman readied himself.
Robin flipped his bo-staff out and swung it around.
Huntress scowled and grabbed her bo-staff tight.
The goons gathered in a loose circle and pointed their guns at them. Assault rifles slung low on arms, high on shoulders, singlehandedly; handguns levelled on their sides in the fake gangland style. Shotguns, ARs, ancient Remingtons, saturday night specials, girl guns and derringers and he was pretty sure he even saw a Blunderbuss in one of the idiots' hands.
The circle parted and out they came.
Two of the Joker's premier goons whom Batman had fought ancestrally. The first one was Bruno. A transsexual neo-Nazi who ran Millar Harbor. Joker's drug dens. Six foot five and two hundred and eighty pounds, every inch of her muscle, topless except for red swastika pasties over her double-D's. Clacking along the broken cobblestone path in ebony jackboots and matching jodhpurs. A clean, sculpted face, a lantern jawline. She wore a magnificent high-top fade, her blonde hair shining in the moonlight. She slid around the AK from her back and held it pointing down with both hands, and as she spoke to the Batman she did not smile.
The other was Bob. A relic from Joker's earlier days, this one was shorter, and hung in Bruno's shadow. Disheveled, a rambling hobo in a purple bomber jacket with the Joker's embroidered face on it, wearing a ratty fedora over stringy hair and a ravaged, vacant face. He pulled a nine-mill from his jacket and pointed it at Batman's face.
"Well," Bruno said. "You ready to pack it in?"
"Oh please," Nightwing said. "These jackasses again? Bring it on."
The Batman kept his eyes on Bruno.
She was never a patient one, and after only seconds she started to crack. The affected stern visage turned into a quivering rage, and she shook the AK at him. Still, he did not move.
"Do you wanna die, old man?! We'll rip you apart!"
"We'll do it, man!" Bob said
Nightwing laughed again. How did this guy manage to hang around the Joker for so long?
"No," Batman said. "You won't."
She sneered. "Tell me something you don't know, you fa—"
Then she was on the ground rubbing her face. Something had slammed into her and kicked her on her ass.
Kid Flash appeared next to the Batman.
Batman was holding Bruno's AK and cracking it in half.
"Now?" Nightwing said.
"The bombs?" Batman asked and looked at Kid Flash.
"Oh, they're already defused," he said. "Who's up for Chinese?"
Batman looked at Bob, still standing there in his ratty Joker coat and holding a knife in one hand and in his nine mill in the other.
Batman put one hand up and beckoned him.
Years ago, the last time Batman did that, Bob ran.
He ran again this time.
Then the horde opened fire.
The Batman back flipped into the air and in one fluid motion flung batarangs into the front row's knees. Concentrated tranquilisers in the tips, depending on the insertion site they guaranteed threat neutralization in less than two seconds. Two seconds was all he needed to complete the flip and wipe out the main group as he landed on the cistern's edge. Huntress and Nightwing and Robin dove into the horde. Kid Flash ran the perimeter in a blink, and Batman imagined he could see all Bart was doing in slow-motion.
On the edge of the horde, confused thugs yelped as their legs fell out from underneath them. Watched their AKs fly from their hands, unable to do anything except watch in terror as the man in the ball of lightning destroyed them.
He flattened a pocket of skinheads and took one of their rifles, and used it as a bat. He slammed it upside one's head and watched the guy fall to the ground into blissful unconsciousness, then he pivoted in an impossibility of moments and jammed the butt of the AK into another skinhead's abdomen and sent him flying across a gap into some other bikers Robin was beating on. The Kid Flash slowed enough to become real-time at this point, and he almost didn't notice the skinhead behind him getting ready to bean him with a rock. Almost. He leaned in and the rock flew past him. He pivoted on the ball of one foot, whirled around and kicked the guy in the chest and sent him flying too. Then he smiled, and was off again.
Some meters away, Nightwing was in the middle of a gaggle of goons, heavyset biker types in leather coats with bats and chains who just wanted to fuck him up. They hooted and yipped and he danced and beat them in acrobatic sweeps. He landed in front of one, stocky in a denim vest and a picklehauben helmet, and jammed an escrima into the guy's crotch and smiled when he fell to his knees yowling. He flipped back away from the man and stood as Huntress followed through with a boot to the book's face that knocked him out. They exchanged a fond look, then she dove over Nightwing and he ducked under her. He piledrove a pocket of goons about to gang up on Robin and flipped two of them over his shoulder like firemen, before roundhousing the last one in a grand flourish. He nodded to Robin, who dove off to the next gang of criminals, and then turned around.
The Huntress stood her ground. She found a gap among a gaggle of shooters and kicked them from underneath their own legs. When more came with baseballs bats and stun batons, she stood and extended the bo-staff and flung it around her head in a wide circle. Into it the Joker's gang of idiots flew and promptly back on their asses when the bo-staff clipped their eye socket and knocked them out or hit them in the throat and shocked them and they fell away in surprise or in pain.
Batman fought his way through the horde like a raging pugilist. No room for theatricality and deception in such close quarters. Nightwing seemed to find a way to do it, but he was a different man: a slender build allowed him the dance, and he released it. Flying and flipping and tripping dozens of armed idiots with his well-earned acrobatics. One was lunging for him in a lazy haymaker: Nightwing somersaulted over the guy and jammed his nightstick into the goon's spine, and the goon slammed into the cistern's concrete wall. The Huntress was flipping around and atop her own bo-staff, hitting the skinehads and drifters upside the head with it and cackling when they fell like sacks of guts. Robin, the Boy Wonder used low sweeps and combo'd the bo-staff to shock and awe the skinheads. He tagged out with Nightwing and with the Batman himself to finish off the huskier goons. Swirling in and about the furore, too, was the man in the ball of lightning. Removing stray bullets before they could hit their mark, yanking goons out of the way, and hitting others, setting them up and moving them into the waiting arms of Batman or the Huntress or the Boy Wonder himself. Saving lives. Together the heroes kept up their fight.
On the edge of the fight, near the cistern, a flabby goon in a hot pink tank top and shattered clown mask was pulling himself along on broken legs. Grunting, moaning, crying. He glanced around surreptitiously, terrified one of them would come back for him after crippling him and leaving him here, and glanced around madly every few seconds. Through the tears, the blurred vision and his own mad blubbering, he didn't hear the Batman coming.
Didn't hear the stonework crumble and crunch beneath the Batman's boots, or feel the sweep of cold air coming upon him. He didn't even see the shadow.
He screamed holy terror when he felt the Batman haul him one-handed.
"Where is he! Talk!"
A thunderclap from somewhere beyond them.
The mook's eyes went wide and his face exploded onto the Batman's in the next second. The rest of him slumped to the ground as the Batman released him. Stared at him. And then up. Ahead. Above him.
The gantry, running from the main plant to the heat plant on the islet's edge, shone in the moonlight. Everything seemed to. and on it stood the Joker with a rifle in one hand, his suit ratty and ill-fitting, even from here Batman could tell. He smiled madly and beckoned the Batman.
The Batman scowled and freed a grapnel. Rappelled up to the roof. And landed. And stalked toward the Joker, there in the middle, holding the railing on both sides and giddy with himself. The Batman scowled, and forgot who he was.
And then he was upon him.
A jab here, a pressure point there. You know them all, Joker, even if you don't really understand their martial significance. You know how to leverage a weakness is all. It's your superpower, you degenerate. Probably, the only one you've ever really had.
Since your last escape, Joker. Six silent months. Waiting for you. Looking for you.
He landed a haymaker perfectly on the side of Joker's face and felt the orbital bone fracture beneath, and still the man laughed and fought.
Distantly, the Batman heard sirens. The GCPD having secured the perimeter, now moving into the district proper.
They're coming for you.
Can you hear them, Joker, no of course not.
But you hear me.
The Batman jammed one closed fist into the Joker's nose and blood sprayed out in a magnificent flourish. The clown stumbled backwards and Batman readied himself for another blow. The Joker wiped his shattered nose with the back of his hand and cackled, and before the Batman could strike again he dove over the railing.
Fell twenty feet to the floor below, landed in a sweet thump, and was up and gone.
He was always fast.
The Batman scowled and surveyed the gantry and the building it ran alongside.
A weak point in the exterior wall.
He pulled the clip of explosive gel from the back of his belt and sprayed it fast on the wall.
He stood there and flipped the switch on the remote, and the wall shattered before him.
Then he was inside.
- 27 -
“We were kids.”
Batman and Hush.
He came upon Tommy in the Smelting Chamber. Barren inside except for the central platform and a walkway halfway up walls so high they disappeared into the darkness above. All was warmth, that slow orange burn that sometimes accompanies the sunrises Batman wishes he didn't see.
Tommy was in his trench coat, his old Hush uniform, tattered at his feet, facing away from the Batman. He was leaning against the railing and one hand clasped his abdomen gently. The other Batman saw held a nine mill.
Something had injured him.
The Batman stopped. Took it easy.
He turned slowly.
And Batman saw his face.
It was human, or used to be. Now only strips of flesh, as broken as the rest of him. Barely clinging to bloodied bandages, wet and loose and falling from his face.
"Bruce," he said and stared. A whisper, a struggle.
The Batman steeled himself. What to say. What not to say. He settled for—
"They were kids, Tommy. We were kids."
Tommy turned and stared at the Batman. Dying eyes went wide and bloodshot. He puffed his chest and righted his posture, and brought the nine mill up to the Bat-logo on the armor. He matched Bruce normally pound for pound, and they were of even height. Neither was a slouch. Neither was really intimidated by the other.
Yet it was sadness Bruce felt at Tommy's lot, and to some extent his own. Sadness and no small amount of fear. Fear that he'd never been able to shake, even after all these years. Bruce lot his family to time and chance. Tommy lost his to violence and intention. They were different. And yet. And yet. So alike. So alike that it frightened Bruce to even see him, here and now. So alike that Bruce was terrified of going over that last line. To weigh a life. Any life. To judge it worthy of ending or continuing, by your hand alone. Such an alluring and forbidden thing.
"Don't remind me," Tommy said and glowered.
Batman waited. Tommy lurched but kept the gun on him.
The Batman was silent. When he spoke it came as silently. "You couldn't just kill me. You had to settle for innocents. You used me to get Tetch out, didn't you. How many bodies for my face this time?"
Tommy nodded. "Fifty," he said. "I think."
"Five hundred thousand dollars posted on his bail?"
Tommy nodded. "Your mother's old endowment, if I recall. Got him a weekend pass. A weekend was all he needed."
Tommy shook his head and spit blood. "No. Made you feel it though, didn't he? All the years of our lives. Look at us now."
"You had anything you ever wanted. I could have helped you."
"Oh, that's enough," Tommy said. He groaned and righted himself and spit some more blood. "You stupid son of a bitch. You think people want your life, don't you? Be the night. Ha! Be the Batman. Ha! None of this would've happened if you'd had wits to see."
"I see you, Tommy. I see a man with a gun who needs—"
"No," he barked and fired into the Batman. The bullet slammed into the yellow emblem in the centre of his chest. The Batman grimaced and stumbled back.
Tommy said, "Stop. Fucking. Talking."
He fired again and it glanced off Batman's shoulder. Fired again. Again. Again.
The dark knight fell to the ground.
"Always talking," Tommy said. "Talking down to me."
"Tommy," Batman said through gritted teeth. He got to one knee. Everything.
Tommy put the gun to Batman's forehead. "I know this won't kill you. But maybe it'll knock you out. And then."
Then he kicked the Batman in the face.
Batman thumped on his back as the world shook for a moment. His vision went dark and then came back. He tried to make words and they came as delirious slurs.
Then Tommy was crouching over him. Pushing the gun into the soft tissue under Bruce's chin. He could smell Elliot's breath. Listerine and whisky.
"I'll carve your face off, and leave you dead in the gutter, Bruce, and if your fucking father was here to see it he'd cheer me on. What do you think of that,? Hm?"
"You and your goddamn money and your dead parents and your bullshit mystique—"
Tommy stopped. "You—"
"I ruined your life. I was wrong." He choked. Spit up blood as he spoke. "I'm sorry about your mother."
"Don't," Tommy barked. His finger quivered on the trigger.
"No," Bruce muffled. "I'm sorry she lived. She made you into this. I'm sorry I lied to you."
Tommy stared at him. Wide, savage eyes. He took the gun away. Stared at the Batman, prone and wounded there on the steel plating.
Batman propped himself up on one elbow. Looked at Tommy. "It doesn't have to be this way. We can stop him. Together. And then...sort this out later."
In that moment, Tommy's rotting face, barely human, crept into an unsettling glare. Like he didn't know where he was or who was talking. He breathed faster. Batman stood, pressing on his chest and wincing through the pain.
He held out one hand.
Tommy regarded it. Brought his hand up to do something. Maybe something he hadn't done in—
His head snapped back. Somewhere behind him. No—
A tree branch, someone stepped—
The world got red and hot and painful. His eyes blurred.
And he imagined he was falling.
Batman dove to catch him but they both fell to the ground anyway.
Tommy's eyes closed slowly. Batman laid him on the corrugated flooring and looked at him. A pool of blood seeped from the base of Tommy's skull. The gun fell from his hand.
Bruce stared at him for an interminable moment.
Across the Smelting Chamber stood the Joker. Again. With an assault rifle loose in one hand. Smiling. Always smiling. A cheshire cat. A great white shark.
He lowered the rifle and smiled.
"Darling," he said. "Shall we?"
Then he dropped the assault rifle. Turned and fled. Kicked open the access door into the conveyor room, and was gone. But not for long.
Soon the Joker was gone, and convinced the Batman was shortly after him. Through the conveyor room. Through the access hallway and past the freight elevator where barely conscious henchmen cowered in fear of the passing clown who had employed them. In the Loading Dock, at the front of the plant and below the Manager's Office, the Joker stopped. Cackling, no longer in control of himself, he leant against the generator and thumbed his gun. He tittered and shushed himself and reading the gun and wondered where Harley was.
The room was quiet.
He quieted. Looked around in a daze.
From outside he heard the wind howling, rattling the building. Distant fires. Gunshots. Screams.
He scowled. Loaded up the gun and pushed himself off the generator.
Ahead of him the dock doors blew apart in wild thunder. The force of it threw him back into the generator and his head bounced off the casing. His vision blurred. He dropped the gun.
He touched a hand to his forehead. Looked up.
Through the fire came the Batman.
And the unholy hordes of the GCPD behind him.
The Joker screamed at him, but started backing away.
The Batman stopped meters away, and pulled something from his belt. Something the Joker couldn't see. But he just stared.
The Batman threw the bundle.
The Joker watched it in slow motion. He knew it intimately.
The explosive gel plunger. With whatever remaining compliment of gel he had stuck onto its front.
His eyes went wide and he ducked out of the way.
Behind him, the generator exploded.
The building shuddered.
The far wall quaked and collapsed behind where the generator had been, and sent out a plume of smoke and ash that covered the Dock.
The Joker fumbled and laughed incoherently and stumbled to one knee. He couldn't see anything in the chaff, but he felt himself up and eventually pulled a pocket knife out. He looked up and saw a shape, man-shaped darkness, coming towards him in the gloom.
He threw the knife lamely, and the Batman batted it aside. Kicked him in the knee and blew it out. The Joker stumbled around, crippled and rummaged his pockets for anything. He threw change at the Batman and got a big kick out of that. A wadded up slice of American Cheese. Boo-Boo the Rubber Chicken, previously stuffed into the back of his pants. Another pocket knife, one of those multi-tools you get at Lowe's with the screwdrivers that make such a good sound when they get squeezed into an earlobe, yeah that would no he just batted it away too.
The Batman grabbed him up by his lapels and barked into his face.
"You!" he said and it was so loud and crazy and rude that all the Joker wanted to do was cover his ears and go sit in the corner. The Batman shook the Joker, shook him like a nanny possessed and only backed off when the Joker kicked, with his one good leg, the Batman right in his armored balls. The dark knight yelped and released, and the Joker beat on him with his own scrawny arms some more. Laughing his ass off, striking blindly, wildly, neither of them could tell.
Finally, the Batman struck the Joker's bad leg, forced him back and, laughing through the pain, the Joker leant upon a defunct generator at the base of the stairs. He panted and waved one hand and watched the Batman stand.
"You," Joker said. "You really brought, ha, the, ha, varsity, hahahahaha"
Then he saw the Batman's mailed fist coming at him again, all in slow motion. That mannish body in black armor, vaguely humanoid if you asked him and probably deformed underneath, the window of the man or just his chin visible and screaming manly rage at him. Much testosterone, very bad.
The Joker braced himself and made a childish sound, and Batman connected with the Joker's jaw, which shattered on impact. Blood flew out. He pulled it back out with a grunt and said something the Joker couldn't hear and stumbled for a minute. The Joker hobbled on a broken leg and one that was about to be broken. He started laughing again.
The Batman leapt at him and forced him to the ground. Started pummelling him.
Back down the passage way the Batman's explosion had created. Back down the passage way that led to the sourcing area for the great furnace. The molten pool into which the Steel Mill's workers poured raw materials for conversion.
They fought the length of the passageway. Hand in hand. Fist to fist. Screaming and bellowing.
Nothing more by this point. No grand fight to the finish with the Dark Knight.
No great exit for the Clown Prince.
They fought until they reached the edge of the molten pit. Trading blows and lazy haymakers, lazy form exhaustion, all their rage come to nothing here at the end. Until they were locked in stalemate and the Joker's last trump card, the poison posey, failed him. Until the Batman ripped it off in a fit of rage and grabbed the Joker by his bowtie and pummeled him even as the clown tittered and dangled on the precipice.
Until the Joker swept his foot underneath the Batman's. Or maybe until the Batman did it to him.
Until they fell.
Over the edge.
Lost to this world.
And to all worlds.
- 28 -
Tim and Dick.
I had seen Bruce follow the Joker inside, but got caught up in another gaggle of idiots with guns and by the time that was cleaned up I'd lost track of them. The factory itself was empty. Eerily quiet. I strolled in through the hole in the receiving dock doors, among uniforms handcuffing goons and the dull roar of their back east small talk. I looked at the far wall, a crater in the stone and a dim glow far inside it. I looked around. None of the cops were going near it.
I started in.
I followed the bombed out path until it turned into the molten pool.
Saw bootprints in the dirt, in the muck. A men's boot-tread, a pattern I recognized from Bruce's suit. And a men's dress shoe, a Cole Haan. Light imprint. Slender profile. And then—
A crumpled posey on the edge of the stonework. And over the edge, the molten pool.
I stared at the posey.
And the skid mark in the dirt.
And two dark spots on the lava's surface.
I don't know how much time passed.
While I stood there and stared and felt my face burn just from the radiation.
I thought of Jason. And Barbara.
But mostly I thought of Dick.
I always thought Dick had lived in Bruce's shadow. That he wanted to honor Bruce's life and work. But that he also wanted to be his own man. That he couldn't reconcile the two and because of that, he left. Or Bruce wouldn't allow it, and so he left as rebellion and became his own man anyway.
But I was wrong.
It was simple. He settled those issues years ago. He moved on. And when he came back to help, it was on his terms.
And then he was standing there with me, staring at the glow on the central furnace. The molten pool. I asked him what do we do. What do we now.
He looked at the molten pool.
"He told me you quit."
He sighed. Turned. And walked away.
"I'll talk to Gordon about this."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
He stopped and turned around and faced me. "Look," he said. "There's a system for this. Bruce and I came up with it years ago, and I have to enact it."
"He called it Knightfall. Who to contact. Specific instructions."
"He wouldn't do that."
"He had to," Dick said. "After Bane. The No Man's Land...we had to be ready for anything."
"You could have consulted me," I said as my voice cracked.
"No," he said. "But we couldn't."
"Because of the instructions he left for you."
That steeled me a little. "Whatever you need. I can talk to the Mayor. Agent Chase—“
He grabbed my shoulder. Looked me square in the eyes. "No," he said. "None of that matters anymore."
"Go," he said. Plaintive and pleading. "Go have a good life, Tim. That's the mission now."
I waited. Sniffled.
I asked, "What's gonna happen to you?"
He smiled slow. "You're gonna be alright, Tim. And so will I."
We exchanged a brief, curt look, and kept walking.
Back up the passageway until it became the receiving dock. Cops and forensics still littered it. Corrigan and his boys swabbing the floors while uniforms picked up the unconscious goons and carried them out.
It all seemed so mechanical. Corrigan staring at us. The cops milling around. Outside the receiving dock was a courtyard with patrol cars parked, lights blinding. Snow drove across the scene in great sheets.
In the middle, in a gap between the cars, was Gordon, with DeFilippis and Montoya.
They were huddled for warmth, cigarettes on their mouths had bright tiny cherries in the coming blizzard.
Gordon and DeFilippis looked up at me and Nightwing; Chase glanced at him, dispassionate but still vested. Gordon looked between us both and he must have sensed something was wrong because his jaw slacked ad the cigarette dangled on the edge of his lip. His eyes got narrow. Figuring it out.
Nightwing at least seemed to understand. He shook his head and patted Gordon on the shoulder as he explained it him. To all of us. Batman and the Joker fought. They fell into the pit. They're gone.
Gordon looked at DeFilippis and gestured toward the building, and then followed Nightwing back inside.
Maybe they were going to make a crime scene of the molten pool. Good luck, I thought.
I looked at Chase. Snow danced across her face.
I looked at the ground and then at her.
In the next moment, Bart was at my side. He had been off cleaning up the goon remnants. Now he was here. Listening to me and to Chase. I imagined he knew about Bruce already. His eyes darted between us.
I asked, "Did you report to Luthor yet?"
"Yes," she said. "He says he's sorry, too. If there's anything he or I can do..."
I made a face.
"He's not that bad," she said. "He cares about you."
At that point I walked away. I heard Bart fall in behind me.
"Tim," she called out to me.
I didn't answer.
We always try to do things on our terms, and as soon as we try the universe snatches that choice right back from us. Events spiral, become unmanageable.
Sometimes, bad things just happen.
Bart looked at me.
I looked at him.
I waited. Then.
And that was it, Allen.
Like I said. It's all so mechanical. So simple you almost hesitate to say it. We get so wrapped up in what ifs, waiting, thinking. So hesitant that we forget to just.
Because it started with an idea.
That you could leave whenever you wanted. You can change. We are not rafts on a river. We can change.
So we did.
We left that night. We drove out of town and I got lost staring at the ocean of skyscrapers. Eventually that ocean became an expanse of green. That rolling New Jersey countryside that eventually fell into Delmarva, and tidewaters, and beyond. I wondered what would become of it all. What would become of Harvey Dent, now Arkham's last inmate. What of his doctors and their great reformation. What of Gordon, now truly alone. What of Lucius. What of Alfred.
What of the people in that town who eventually would come to forget the Batman and Robin. Their children would not know a world with heroes. Or villains. Maybe that was a good thing. Gotham no longer needed a Batman. It was going to have to live with that.
The Joker and Dent and Falcone and Crane and Luthor and Ra's. They had all swore the world deserved better, doable only in their own ways. And now their ways were nothing at all. The world would move on despite them. And despite us.
Despite all of us.
It's yours now, Allen.
Don't waste it.
I'm going to stop writing this. At which point I'll send it to you in Metropolis, and I hope you get it.
But first I'm going to tell you how it ends.
- 29 -
Tim and Bart.
The Flash Museum is on the Keystone side of the Missouri River. A low glass horseshoe, five stories up and jutting out into the bay; if you were on the first level, the Golden Age exhibits, you could see wax statues of Jay Garrick fighting the Turtle. Propaganda reconstructions of Jay and the Justice Society socking Hitler on the jaw, Per Degaton and the Spear of Destiny and the Nazis on one side of the grand display, Jay and the Hour-man and the rest of the Society on the other side. Challenge of the Justice Society, the banners read. You could see the display through the glass. From across the river, even.
We broke in.
The entrance was two floors up, in this great winding esplanade. A trio of revolving doors sat motionless. Bart looked at me. "Lockpick?"
"I really have to protest this, Bart."
"It's all good," he said. "We'll be long gone by the time they get here."
I handed him the pick. He fumbled it into the tumbler. Stuck his tongue out and rolled his eyes and made an overacting pained look. Finally the thing popped. "Ha!" he said, and slid it forward. I stepped into the bank behind him.
Then we were inside.
The Front Gallery had only four statues in the center, all in dark bronze. The first was Jay Garrick. That wizened old face, smiling, running at you, good strong arms swinging forward and back. Such a simple costume. Blue jodhpurs and a red shirt with a lightning bolt on it, and a Mercury helmet with accent lightning bolts for ears. A chummy smile on his metal face.
Then the statue of Barry. Same cheesy smile. This statue was running too, one arm in a fist, swinging forward. The other raised, waving at you. At everyone. Anyone.
Then Wally. In a low stretch, like he was going to swing around or overtake Barry. Whoever the sculptor was they did a man's job. All three looked amazing. And different. Three men. From different times, and because Flashes tended toward time-travel, from all times. All-Flash, I thought out of nowhere. All Flash. For all time. Every time.
I stared at the fourth statue. Bart himself, again in solid bronze. Some determined manly look on his face, both his arms stuck out at his sides, flexing and propelling him forward.
"Did you pose for that?"
"Actually yeah," he said. "They wanted real life."
"What's it supposed to be from?"
"Uh, Rogue War, I think. About two seconds before I punched Zoom in the face."
"Yeah," he said and walked away. "Except he punked me about two seconds later, so, y'know."
"Well, at least you're not torn up about it."
Bart looked back down the stairs at me. Made this cocksure grin.
"I want to show you something," he said and kept going.
"You know," I said. "I've been here before. You don't have to give me the tour."
"I know," he called back. "I just like to show off."
We stopped at the fourth floor landing.
"The Silver Age," he said. "Science, Technology, and Barry Allen, I think, is the exhibit. Here." He strolled across the exhibit, a wax statue of Barry towering over some other wax statues of the old Rogues. Captain Cold and The Top and Heat Wave and—
"Wow, really?" I asked and pointed at the Rainbow Raider statue.
He looked back and rolled his eyes. "Yeah, I dunno either, man. Come on."
He lead me into a piazza off the main exhibit. A sign above the opening read 'The Cosmic Treadmill: A Path to Tomorrow'.
Behind lowly red stanchions, there it was. A normal treadmill on first glance, but so much more. a time machine. Steel and chrome throughout, with a slim horizontal platform on one side and a slim, smooth control panel above. I looked at it for long moments. The cosmic treadmill. A tool for speedsters to time travel. To run along the timeline, any timeline. And stop bad guys. And see the universe. Other times, other places. Eventually, other worlds. Other versions of themselves. Out there in the multitude.
I looked at Bart.
"I know for you it's thousands of years in the future," he said. "But for me, it's already happening and I don't want to wait another minute. I've enjoyed it here. With...the Titans, with Conner. With you."
He let go of my hand. Walked over to the treadmill and pressed the controls. I watched him.
He waited for a moment. Just a moment. Looked back at me.
"Are you coming?"
I didn't know what was going to happen. Who ever does?
I stepped onto the treadmill. Onto the steel platform next to the control panel. Bart looked into my eyes. I hugged him close, at the waist. And. I kissed him.
He smiled. Got on the tread and started running, normally at first. Then he sped into a blur.
The hard angles of this world slid away into a vast whiteness. A lightning storm all around us.
And Bart, at the center of it.
Tennyson had said push off.
For my purpose holds—
—To sail beyond the sunset—
Somewhere out there was the thirtieth century. His home. Where mankind lived in peace and happiness. Where love occurred without pain or sadness.
–and all the western stars—
Where a global city was our future.
Chase called it the World That's Coming.
The future. The undiscovered country.
Until I die—
Beyond good, and beyond evil.
And all our wildest aspirations.