Dentist : Shall I use gas?
Patient: [nervously] Well, gas or electric light. I’d feel nervous to have you fool around me in the dark.The Dentist (1932 Film)
The Man Who Laughs
“You better be careful out here, it’s getting late, Dick,” the woman warned with a gentle smile.
“Mrs. Givens,” Dick returned the smile, “You’re the last young woman I have the pleasure to visit today, and, well, when I saw your name on my list, I didn’t want to miss a chance to say ‘hello.’” (Barbara tried not to visibly roll her eyes or audibly groan when he called the sexagenarian a “young woman.”) “Please give Henry my best, and tell him that me, Bruce, and Alfred all wish him a speedy recovery, and we’ll be by for a proper visit just as soon as Al returns from Atlanta.”
The older woman’s eyes moistened, and her smile broadened. She wrapped her arms around Dick Grayson’s neck, swaddling him in a grateful embrace. Dick’s eyes shot to Barbara’s, he seemed to be assessing whether she understood that this could take a while, and that it was okay; of course she did.
As Barbara and Dick had spent more time working together, they developed a familiarity with one another. It was obviously not the seemingly-telepathic connection that Dick shared with Bruce and Alfred, but Barbara was able to observe and respond to Dick’s idiosyncrasies in a way that made her deeply talented at managing
“Oh, Dick, I can’t believe they did that to Henry! He looks something awful, and he had those papers, and, he had everything he was supposed to, and…” Paula Givens drifted off into sniffling sobs, burying her face in Dick’s shoulder.
Following the institution of Gelio’s Curfew, Wayne Enterprises had almost immediately instated a sweeping, universal curfew-documentation policy: any worker who worked shifts past the curfew was issued papers on company letterhead indicating as much, and were, furthermore, given the option to change to an earlier shift or take temporary leave until the curfew had concluded. The documents included the shift, the nature of the work, and contact information for multiple team members (including Lucius Fox’s home phone number) in case Gotham Police needed to verify that this person was reporting for or returning from a shift. There were all hands trainings for workers about their rights and expectations in the event they were detained by officers, and those trainings included significant funds being redirected to purchase additional retainer from counsel, in order to represent workers who were potentially falsely arrested or detained without charge.
The reasoning was at the very ethos of Wayne Enterprises: Use your resources and the privilege of positive public recognition to set such an overwhelmingly thorough example that a potential abuser will have to think twice.
And none of it seemed to matter to the goon who had beaten Henry Givens to the point that he needed to be hospitalized.
Henry Givens worked as a part-time floor inspector on the evening shifts from 3:00p.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. He’d worked at Wayne Enterprises for twenty years, starting fully a year before the company became a cooperative. He’d been hired personally by Thomas Wayne, and was eager to show that a man who’d made mistakes as a kid was worth a second chance. And he’d been worth so much more than that, spending his days off volunteering in his neighborhood, caring for his grandchildren, and reading to old-timers at the library.
After lengthy moments, Paula Givens apologized for keeping Dick and Barbara out so close to curfew, and Dick and Barbara both assured her that she had nothing to apologize for. When they’d left, and walked maybe a half block in the direction of the car, Barbara marked the Given’s support on her clipboard, and she felt a pang of guilt about it.
At the car, Dick and Barbara exchanged a meaningful look, and Dick took a deep breath.
“–You don’t need…I mean…I already know what you’re gonna say,” Barbara said before Dick had even decided how to say anything. “I…well, I mean, are you…all things considered…are you okay?”
Dick looked angry, but a different kind of angry from the smoldering clarity that he usually had when something upset him. It looked like he was thinking before responding.
He explained that he knew the Givens family fairly well, and he had been upset when he learned what happened to Mr. Henry, but seeing a woman who had worked at the foundation – a woman he’d known for most of his life – seeing her break down like that hurt him.
“This just makes it feel so real, ya know? Gotham hasn’t been in great shape, but it felt like the company was helping people, protecting them from this kinda…” Dick trailed off.
“The company is helping people, Dick,” Barbara’s response hadn’t come quickly, but Dick didn’t notice. “Would you mind dropping me off at the station? I’m staying at dad’s tonight, and…”
“Sure,” Dick responded.
Gotham City proper tended to be bathed in fog at dusk, dawn, and twilight. The hazy, washed out look persisted inside of the Gotham City Police Department’s Central District Headquarters; the new lighting being installed cast everything in a sickly yellow, to which Barbara’s eyes never quite adjusted. In the light of these harsh new mercury lamps, she couldn’t imagine how anyone would look attractive – she could see wrinkles and liver spots on her father’s face that she’d never noticed before. The silver flecks which dotted his burnt orange hair added a flattering distinction in his apartment. Here, they looked like wisps of smoke in the embers of a dying fire.
“What now?” Barbara’s father looked up from his desk. “Pumpkin,” he smiled.
Barbara’s own smile broke through while she wrinkled her face in disapproval. She sat down in the chair opposite the lieutenant. His desk was cluttered with paperwork and stationery. A mug filled maybe a third of the way with cold coffee, a light iridescent film refracting the harsh like a prism. He chewed on a piece of burnt toast, and set it down on his inbox.
“The new lighting is just so unflattering,” Barbara explained.
“Mm. You ever think that maybe your old man is just getting old?”
Barbara rolled her eyes.
“Look, Barb,” she hated when people called her Barb, and her father only did it if he was about to disappoint her. She braced herself. “I’ve got a lot more to do tonight,” he lowered his voice into a more conspiratorial tone, and she looked over her shoulder to confirm that the door to his office was closed. “I can walk you to my apartment, and I think I can have dinner with you, but I’ll need to come right back afterward.”
All in all, this wasn’t the worst that he could’ve said.
“I’ve got all of these new–” he looked around anxiously “–task force guys who I’m supposed to train, but they don’t work for me, not exactly. They work for the task force. I don’t know where he found these guys but they’re brutes, sweetie. Absolute animals.”
Barbara thought back to Paula Givens weeping on her front stoop, and her hospitalized husband.
“Rookies? From the academy?”
“They’re not really police. They’re from a private security outfit. Called Henshaw Allied International.”
“Well that’s vague,” Barbara was half-flippant, not with her father, but with the department for putting all of this on her father’s shoulders. “Why are they here? Why are you training them if they’re from a private service?”
Her father scanned the room again, like he was paranoid that someone was watching.
“The mayor wants us hunting supermen. The commissioner says we need more people on it. The council says we can’t afford it. So then, whaddaya know – some wealthy patron says if we’ve got the ability to train these clowns, that they’ll recruit and finance all of them.
“But that’s the rub,” her father’s eyes shift rapidly again. “These guys know how to fight. They’re all scrappers; hell, even Bullock’s convinced he’s locked one or two of these guys up before and he hasn’t made an arrest in three, maybe four years. There’s absolutely no chance these guys would’ve been allowed to come through the academy.”
Someone rapped door to her father’s office, which lazily swung open a heartbeat later.
“Lieutenant,” it was Selina Kyle, the partner, or protégé, or…Barbara had trouble recalling the details, but she felt some kind of pride that her father was training the first woman detective. Her father brushed some errant crumbs out of his mustache and off of his tie, and half covering the mostly eaten toast with a handkerchief. “Oh, I’m sorry, you must be Barbara, Ji– er…Lieutenant Gordon’s daughter?”
“Ah, well, Detective Selina Kyle, this is Barbara Gordon, first woman campaign manager in Gotham’s race for mayor. Barbara, this is Detective Selina Kyle, first woman detective in Gotham.”
The women shook hands.
“I don’t know whether that’s true,” Barbara said, “about being the first woman campaign manager, that is.”
The detective smiled at her, then seemed to remember why she’d interrupted them in the first place.
“What can I help you with, detective?”
“It’s him, lieutenant.” Detective Kyle pushed her fingers into her cheeks and pulled them up into a rictus grin. “Commissioner Serious is planning a press conference about the investigation, and needs you to pick out five of the Henshaw people to showcase.”
“Should I step out?” Barbara offered, feeling like there was something urgent happening between the lines.
“Give us two minutes, sweetheart,” her father said with his mouth set in a straight line, and Barbara excused herself to the hall outside of her father’s office, jotting down quick notes to bring up with Dick later.
Pockets was woken up by a nun, and without remembering that he’d slept in a bed.
His eyes tried to focus, and he tried to wave the woman off, not wanting to continue to sleep, but to remain in the bed of this home which was the most comfortable bed he’d ever slept in.
The woman in the habit was old, and she impatiently shook Pockets for a second time.
“Child, we have hot cereal for you before you leave. God blEH! God bless.”
Pockets was familiar with this kind of reaction. Someone sees a precocious child who has been ignored by the world, and then they see why he has been discarded.
It still hurt when people recoiled at seeing his scar.
Pockets got out of bed, pulled on his shoes, and headed into the line for the kitchen.
The oatmeal was lukewarm and thin, but it would do. Times had been leaner in Gotham than usual because of the curfew. Pickpocketing might earn you barely enough for a meal, and none of the free children’s shelters had available beds.
Maybe I could find Mr. Jeremy again, he thought.
Pockets was very clever, and he used his cleverness to work out that Mr. Jeremy must be very rich, because he had money to take Pockets to a restaurant, and to the library, and he worked for the candy company, and peddling sweets to children must be terribly lucrative.
Mr. Jeremy wants to help. And he never looks away from you.
Pockets finished his porridge and gulped down his glass of milk, and hit the streets of Gotham City.
“You think she’s pretty, don’t you?” Barbara asked, and her father snapped out of the paperwork trance (the effects of the trance: he kept saying “just one more minute, pumpkin,” and then finding something new that needed to be reviewed).
“I suppose I do,” he admitted.
“Why don’t you invite her over for dinner?”
“Well first of all,” he said curtly, “because we work together. But also, because I’ve only got the two steaks.”
“And, because I’ve already asked her to dinner,” he confessed, blushing.
“Dad! Ohmigod, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that, well don’t worry about it, there are plenty of fish –“
“– Pumpkin,” he interrupted, “I mean that she and I have had dinner before. She’s been to my apartment.”
Now Barbara was blushing. She mostly meant it to tease him, but she didn’t know that he’d started dating again.
“I hope you made her more than just toast.”
“It’s nothing too serious, but we have a drink or a meal together once in a while,” he sighed. “Mostly it’s just nice to have company.”
Barbara wanted to know more, but she didn’t want to set up a situation where they were interrupted by the woman again, right in the middle of talking about her, so she searched for a change in topic.
“What are you two working on anyway?” Barbara asked, even knowing that it was the Peter Pancase. Her father put an index finger to either temple so they protruded above his head like rabbit ears: Batman.
“The case…” he lurched forward with faux ferocity, “…of THE EASTER BUNNY!”
Father and daughter both burst into fits of laughter.
A spindly shadow appeared behind the frosted glass of the office door, turning the knob. Her father straightened his face and stood. Barbara just turned in her chair, still smiling.
“Commissioner Gelio,” the man was taller in person than Barbara had expected. Rangy, almost, but strong, with sharp angles and perfectly coiffed dark hair. He was handsome, in a forbidden way, but he cast an air of intimidation into the room. Barbara almost felt compelled to stand, just to decrease the distance between her head and his piercing, dark eyes, but she felt something almost concerning. “This is my daughter, Barbara. Barbara, this is the commissioner, Commissioner Gelio.”
His hand slithered through the air like a snake, not with the speed of a strike, but the rhythmic, primal movement that was itself a warning. Barbara finally managed to stand, and offered her hand back.
“Charmed, I’m sure,” spoke the man attached to the serpent; his overly sweet tone dripped like poison honey. The commissioner offered a mild, strained grin which, just briefly, seemed to smile itself, elongating in a way that looked painful and spasmic. “Lieutenant, if this work is important to you, then you must pace yourself. I need you fresh for our new recruits for this evening’s patrol. Why don’t you and your daughter go and have dinner? I know that you’re more capable than most, but I don’t want these tradesmen to think it’s alright to show up at less than one hundred percent – I know you’re good, but I need you to be a good example, too.”
Barbara’s assessment of the commissioner shifted. He was stern, but this was an argument that would get her father to actually listen. And maybe she was judging him too harshly because of Dick and Bruce. He did have a kind of charisma, even if she couldn’t put her finger on what it was.
“Ms. Gordon,” he said, focusing again on Barbara, “please, take your father home. Just for a few hours. A man cannot live on bread alone. And dinner with family is long overdue, don’t you agree?”
Barbara offered a tender smile, looking at the man’s forehead instead of directly into his eyes. He was right, and she was getting hungry.
“Dad, let’s go. It sounds like an order anyway.”
Gelio winked, mouthing the words “thank you” as she and her father walked out of the office.
When they reached the street, Barbara finally felt ready to speak freely, but her father spoke first:
“He’s not happy.”
“Really? He seemed a little creepy, but I might not think that if you hadn’t told me about him first…and if it wasn’t for that twitch thing.”
“I mean he wanted me out of there. He thinks I’m holding out on him with the Easter Bunny,” he looked at his daughter with a defeated smile.
“Dad, level with me – is The Batman even real? What does Selina think? This feels like the typical chippy one-upmanship that we’re always trying to do with Metropo–“
Her father’s smile quickly faded.
“– He’s real alright. And it’s tetanus, by the way, the twitch. It’s unnerving.”
The look in his eyes told Barbara that this was something he knew. Something he’d experienced, or something that someone he trusted experienced.
“Who?” She leaned in, whispering.
More shifting eyes, more looking around, more huddling, and whispers:
“I tried to arrest him on the roof. I hit him, my best stuff. He didn’t even flinch. He literally never blinked. His eyes were like a wolf’s they reflected the light. And he’s so dark, and he may be able to turn himself invisible or teleport through doors or something.” He took an anxious breath, it seemed like he was reliving the experience in the moment. “The only times I hit him were when he let me. He didn’t even move. My best stuff.”
“Oh my god, daddy, when did this happen? Have you told anyone else? Did he hurt you? Are you alright?”
“It was the other night. And I’m fine. Just a little shaken up; I busted my own ass, he just used my momentum against me. But he was lightning fast. He could’ve killed me. He didn’t want to.”
“So Peter Pan is a superman?”
“No, or, I don’t think so, I mean, I don’t think he’s Peter Pan. He seems to want to help, and –”
“– Dad, did you talk to him?”
“Yeah. We had a chat over a cigarette after I finished beating myself up. Look, I know this is exciting, but, hm,” he stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, put his hands on his hips, and drew himself up into the very picture of an authoritative father. “Pumpkin, you can’t talk about this at work. You really shouldn’t talk about it at all,” then he muttered, “hell, I shouldn’t be talking about it. But I needed to tell someone.”
“Of course not, dad.” Barbara looked up at her father, and hugged his arm tightly. “So how did he help?”
The pair started walking again, daughter clutching affectionately, but also, protectively to her father.
“You said he –The Batman – wanted to help.”
He sighed, almost laughing at the thought.
“He told me to find the real killer, and get some sleep.”
The commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department was confident. He was good with talking to people, but it had been a process; Johnny struggled while he learned how to account for the lockjaw when engaging with other people. He spent the first year wearing a goldenrod scarf his mother made for him to try and hide his absurd contortions.
He stared, hating himself, in the mirror, waiting for the twitches, the sudden, involuntary, distressing smiles. He learned what to expect, the warning signs of a tic, and the indicators of its severity – when to fight against it and when to look away – he practiced, and practiced, and practiced until he learned how to harden his face and counteract against the vast majority of his facial spasms.
“Γιατί τόσο σοβαρός?” His mother had once asked him, perhaps sad that her last living child wasn’t the happy, optimistic cherub she’d raised, mostly on her own.
“Κανένα θέμα γέλιου!” he spat back, wrapping his scarf around his face and slamming the door in his mother’s.
These days, Johnny only smiled when he was angry, or when he could let his guard down. The latter was almost never.
Commissioner Johnny Gelio was in his office, considering his remarks for the task force patrol that was merely an hour from now.
It was the formal commencement of a manhunt for a dangerous criminal, and, thanks to the generous contributions of one of Gotham’s foremost businessmen, Johnny Gelio had the manpower he needed, with new recruits whenever he asked. All it took was a phone call.
Falcone was on a leash (for now, at least), and it grew shorter each time they interacted, and Johnny was converting that control into trust: trust from the mayor, trust from the recruits, and trust from The Roman himself.
Shuffling footsteps outside his office door, followed by a lazy rap on the glass.
“Hey boss, Gordon’s back,” Detective Harvey Bullock was not part of the Superhuman Task Force. He lacked the locomotive skills required to keep pace with supermen. But he was doing a serviceable job of demonstrating his loyalty, and Gelio had kneecapped his more obvious extortions by keeping the man by his side, busy with menial reports like this one: status updates on lieutenant Gordon and his feminine Friday.
“Thank you, detective,” the commissioner didn’t even make eye contact with the man.
“And the henchmen are here, too,” Bullock chuckled.
“Henchmen?” Gelio questioned, annoyed at Bullock’s smug amendment.
“Henshaw. Henchmen,” Bullock explained the quip, and smiled again, a toothpick hanging stupidly from his mouth. He was so self-satisfied. “Just a little joke around the bullpen. It’s the same sound. Get it?”
Johnny felt the infinitesimal precursor to a twitch, and forced his face into a Shakespearian frown to avoid any misconception about whether he thought his subordinate’s wordplay was humorous.
“I know what they call me, detective,” Johnny turned his back on Bullock, stroking his chin.
“You know what I’m talking about, Harvey. The nickname. It’s alright. I’m not mad.”
“I have a sense of humor, detective,” Gelio turned around. “You ever see ‘The Dentist,’ Harv?”
Bullock covered his mouth momentarily then shrugged.
“Hysterical picture. W.C. Fields plays a dentist who cheats at golf and abuses his patients. He drills without any painkillers. It’s a riot, Harvey. You really should see it if you need a good laugh.”
“I-I’m missing something, chief,” Harvey was measurably older than Johnny, and had never made it past detective. In the commissioner’s estimation, he frequently missed things.
“I’m able to laugh at myself. I love a good laugh. Ha! HA! See?”
Bullock unbuttoned his collar and loosened his tie. He laughed, nervously.
“What’s the uhh, point, sir?”
“There are two, detective.” Johnny crossed the room so that he was within arm’s reach of the incompetent detective. He placed his hand on Bullock’s shoulder. “The first is this: I enjoy humor, and I can laugh at myself. So if I don’t laugh at work, you need better jokes. Wouldn’t you say?” The commissioner started cackling again in a mockery of natural laughter, forced, and obviously so.
“Secondly,” Gelio removed his hand from Bullock’s shoulder, and leaned in close, whispering directly into the man’s ear, “you’re really abusing my patience.”
Harvey puzzled over it for a moment, then took a step backwards, feeling for the doorknob behind him.
“I’m sorry boss. I’ll uhh, I’ll tell the guys. Better gags.” His sweaty hand finally found purchase on the door, pulling it open and leaving without another word.
The Joker rolled his eyes and returned to his seat.