Stay out of the light,My chemical romance, “I never told you what I do for a Living”
Or the photograph that I gave you,
You can say a prayer if you need to,
Or just get in line and I’ll grieve you,
Can I meet you,
Another night and I’ll see you,
Another night and I’ll be you,
Some other way to continue,
To hide my face
Good Kid, Mad City
The Man of Steel floated above the yard, arms crossed in front of him. He looked down at Alfred like he’d looked down at Bill Bunson those many weeks ago – as if he were an annoyance, or a minor mischief to which he had to attend.
“Mr. Clayton,” spoke the god, and Alfred-as-Elias feigned the surprise of someone feeling a mix of shock and honor of Superman remembering his name. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
Alfred took the last step out of the storm cellar, and the darkness of the very early morning cast something like a desaturating effect on Superman as his feet touched the ground, soundlessly. Superman made no move to step toward him, he uncrossed his arms and sighed.
Alfred didn’t try to say anything. He wasn’t afraid, not exactly. His prepared story for this eventuality was…well, it was some version of the truth. As far as anyone could tell, Superman generally followed the law of the land, regardless of how abhorrent those laws might be. De-arresting Elias Clayton would’ve been a major headline if it had happened in a major city, but in Smallville, where Superman was, at least anecdotally, more common, it was brushed off as a “teachable moment,” that didn’t require further investigation.
Alfred had considered the rock-paper-scissors effect of Superman’s de-arresting of Elias with the sheriff – Martha’s overconfidence that Superman would intervene led to her escalating the situation, which in turn led to the sheriff’s reactionary escalation, which itself led to Superman’s necessary intervention, which, while probably saving Elias’s life, would further fuel Martha’s overconfidence.
“Please step out of the way of the cellar door, Mr. Clayton,” Superman instructed. “I’ll be right back. Don’t leave. I can find you.” Alfred did as instructed, and in a blur of dull red and blue, Superman headed into the storm cellar. Alfred couldn’t hear much, and a brief peek into the darkness didn’t provide any additional information. Superman reappeared, floating out of the open door with a thin strip of grey metal. He snapped the rope holding the door open, and closed it gently, then pressed the metal to the cut Alfred had made.
“Stand back just a little more, Mr. Clayton,” and he did. Two soft red dots appeared on the metal, which maintained its dull grey color, but softened and melted, steam pouring off of the substance. That it didn’t glow suggested to Alfred that it was lead. That Superman was heating metal to its melting point just by looking at it was not a power of his that had been previously reported.
“Heat vision?” Alfred muttered the question, mostly to himself.
Then the alien took a shallow breath, and exhaled onto the soft metal seam, covering the whole door in a layer of frost which sparkled like tiny gemstones in the dark. The hulking Kryptonian turned and faced Alfred.
“That’s a good name for it. Easy to remember,” said Superman, who closed the gap between himself and Elias. “There are clearly some things you haven’t told me, Elias.”
Alfred put one finger in the air, as though he was about to explain a complex theory to a classroom. He opened his mouth, but Superman interrupted before he could speak.
“I’m very good at determining lies, you know. I’ll be able to tell if you’re lying to me.”
The assertion was so matter-of-fact that Alfred thought it must be an attempt to determine the level he was playing at.
“I’m going to ask you some questions, and I’d just like you to answer them honestly, alright?”
“Would you be more comfortable if we sat down?” Superman added.
“Would you?” Alfred replied.
“Sure. Let’s have a seat at the table.”
The two men sat directly across from one another at the picnic table.
“There are obviously some things that you know that you’re not supposed to know. Things that I’ve gone to great lengths to protect. Tell me what those are.”
“Superman, I don’t want to challenge you, but that’s very vague, as questions go.”
Superman just looked at him.
“I know that you’re Clark Kent. I know that you’ve been here, on Earth, for quite a while longer than you’ve told anyone,” Alfred turned his head left, breaking eye contact with Clark for just a moment. “Either that, or…well, it’s terrible to think about, but either that, or the real Clark Kent died, and you assumed his identity, holding his mother hostage to your secret. But…but I don’t think that’s the case. Although tonight, it occurred to me that there’s a possibility that Martha is also an alien, but if that’s true, she’s done a far better job than you of keeping her secret, and a much worse job of helping people.”
“Go on,” said Superman.
“I’m sorry Clark, but I’m going to need more than that. In my opening move, I’ve just told you quite a lot. I need you to at least be more specific.”
“How long have you known?”
“That’s not really an important question. I could’ve known long before I came here, or I could’ve learned it when you arrived in this rather conspicuous fashion tonight. I will say that you need better security on your identity. A sealed storm cellar, in Kansas? I’m not the first farmhand that your mother has allowed to stay in the house. Anyone with half a bit of sense would know y’all were hiding something in there, and I suppose that any man my age would look for work on another farm unless they knew who you were.”
“I keep planning to move it, but then things come up and…I suppose you’re right.”
“Take it with you tonight.”
“The closer I am to it, the more bright it gets. I can’t afford to attract that much attention to the farm, not on a clear night like this.”
“So it didn’t warm up when I touched it as a signal to you?”
“No. It signaled my arrival.”
“How were you planning to reseal the cellar if you hadn’t been caught?”
Alfred cocked his head. Was Superman this…stupid? Or was he just simple in the way an immortal god could afford to be?
“I have some dark epoxy that more or less looks like the door. I could use that as a temporary seal, and had planned to leave before anyone was all the wiser.”
“My mother really liked you, you know. She trusted you. I trusted you, too.”
“I don’t know that it makes any difference at all, but, as stubborn as she can be, Martha’s a good woman. And I don’t know if I think you’re doing everything you could be doing, but…I more warmed up to the idea that you were trying after our lunch.”
Superman half-heartedly smiled.
“Your heart is beating faster, Elias. I can hear it, but I can see it too. You’re lying to me, or you’re afraid.”
“You said ‘liked,’ and ’trusted.’” Alfred sighed. “Until that, I didn’t think you were going to…”
The god had a confused look on his face. “I–no. No. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but I’m not planning on hurting you. Not unless I have to.”
Alfred looked back at Clark. The younger man must’ve seen the moisture in his eyes.
“Who are you? Why did you come here? Who are you working for?”
“Not working for anyone. And I’ll admit I’m a bit offended that you don’t know who I am.”
Alfred pulled the pen from his pocket, holding it on his upper lip like a mustache. Clark tilted his head like a puppy watching a magic trick. Then, realization spread across his face.
“Alfred,” he corrected.
“Alfred. Without the mustache, I – I couldn’t even tell.”
“You wear glasses to hide your identity. I was relying a little bit on the inability of…certain people to distinguish black men from one another.”
“So, Bruce Wayne knows about this?”
“Clark, we live in a city with a superhuman, too. And before that, there were vigilantes. For the most part, they never arrest people, they just stop crimes in progress, and help people understand that there is a better way.
“Gotham has a reputation as one of the most dangerous cities, but the truth is that we are on the verge of being the greatest turnaround story in American history, because when people are at their absolute worst moments, our supermen have acted with compassion. It’s how Lucius Fox came to run the largest worker cooperative in America. Prison doesn’t give people a second chance. It doesn’t heal what’s wrong with people.”
“But the Batman is a terrorist. And he’s wanted for murder. Multiple murders. Of children.”
“This is an election year, and our tough-on-crime mayor is funded by a criminal kingpin,” Alfred spat. “They’re trying to manufacture a scapegoat.”
“Then he should go to court. The evidence would exculpate him.”
Alfred laughed, a little too loudly for the hour.
“Bruce was at the mayor’s fundraiser when the Batman blew up Falcone’s house, wasn’t he? You’re telling me he’s okay with that?”
“I don’t know everything about the Bat. I don’t know what he can and can’t do. But I think that if he displayed the raw power that you’ve displayed, that Bruce and I might be more compelled to feel threatened by him, too.”
“I would never hurt anyone. I’m not human in the way that you, or Bruce, or my mother is, but I was raised to know that there is value in human life. I haven’t ever been hurt physically, but I know what pain is. Why are you afraid of me if you’re not a criminal?”
“I have hurt people, Clark. I’ve killed people because I was told by the government that those people represented a threat to all of Europe – all of the world. And none of those people ever called me a nigger, Clark. I’m not saying colored folks got it much better in Europe, but I killed because a government that doesn’t give two licks about me told me I had to. I’m afraid of you because I don’t know who gives you your orders. I don’t understand how you make your decisions. If a bus full of children was gonna crash into an old lady’s car, I don’t know who you’d save if you could only save one. And I don’t know whether there’s a series of decisions you could make that would turn you into an autocrat, or if there’s a way to manipulate you into making those decisions while thinking that you’re actually doing something good.
“I’m afraid of you for the same reason you hide your identity, Clark.”
“But that’s to protect others. To protect my mother, and people here in Smallville. People in Metropolis. L–logically, bad guys would be more inclined to go after those people if they found out who I am.”
“Exactly. A series of choices in my life led to people being killed, Clark. I made a crystal clear decision to complete the mission, just to get home. But it almost broke me, Clark. And if you’re half as human as I think you might be, it’ll eventually break you, too.”
“Mr. Clayto–Alfred, I don’t hurt people. I won’t break.”
“How many people have died since you came here and started talking to me, Clark?”
“That’s not a judgment. You can’t be everywhere at once,” Alfred tried to comfort him, even if only a little. “I don’t know what brought you home tonight, but I know there’s people suffering that you aren’t tending to. What if one day you decided that the best way to prevent death was to lock every man woman and child in their homes and just make food drops every few days?
“People are being riskier because you’re around, I reckon. That would minimize those risks and probably save you a load of time and effort, too.”
“That’s not fair,” Superman protested. “I’ve never done anything that suggests that I would make people into prisoners like that, or at all. And you haven’t answered my question: Why did you come here?”
“I needed to know for certain that you were who I thought you were. And then I needed to know who you really were. Are you just a Farm Boy from Kansas, or an Alien Dictator? Are you Good, or are you just doing what you think Good would do?”
The span of several heartbeats passed, and the Man of Steel blinked. He looked like he hadn’t considered any of this. Like he hadn’t read any of the editorials or academic papers. Like he didn’t understand the difference between doing Good and being a do-gooder.
“I wanted to know if this place held an answer to, what I estimate, is the most important question ever since you made yourself known.”
“And what is that question?”
“If you go rogue, or decide to be the supreme potentate of this world, or if some government figures out how to turn you into a weapon to be used against The People, how do we stop you?”
“You came here to find a way to kill me?”
Alfred nodded gravely, and neither man said anything for long moments. Owls, crickets, and katydids sang in the silence.
“Would you kill me if you could?”
“I’ve never taken any pleasure in killing, Clark. I’d kill you if I had to, but it’s a moot point, isn’t it?”
“Would you regret it?”
“There’s a difference between feeling regret and feeling sorrow, Clark. You can’t do something you regret a second time. But sorrow doesn’t stop you from making the same choice again and again until it breaks you.”
“I’ve been trying to decide what to do from here, Mr. Pennyworth. Alfred?”
“Just Alfred is fine, Clark.”
“My mother is a trusting woman, and I don’t think you’d hurt her, but – you’ve betrayed my trust and I don’t think I’m comfortable with you remaining in Smallville for much longer.”
“But you don’t want your mother to be alone, either. You don’t want her to feel like she can’t trust people.”
Clark nodded agreement. “And now, I’m left in the precarious position of having to trust a man who, at least was looking for ways to kill me with my most important secrets.”
“It’s quite a pickle, isn’t it.”
“What was your exit plan?”
Owls, crickets, and katydids continued their songs.
“Clark, you’ve known my exit plan since the day we met.”
Carmine “The Roman” Falcone had asked the commissioner to station armed men at the coroner’s office.
The commissioner didn’t explain to Dr. Victor Fries why he needed two distinct shifts of armed gunmen, comically wearing heavy expedition parkas with fur-lined hoods over their uniforms.
The men didn’t talk to Victor, or each other. They just stood watch.
“If you’re going to darken my doorway, could one of you get me the journal from my desk and a pen?”
The men looked at each other, and Fries sighed, his frustration visible in the chilling air of the morgue.
“I’m having another look at little Mario, and I need my journal.”
The men fell over one another to get the journal for the coroner.
“Thank you,” he said. The guard-cum-messenger didn’t even acknowledge Dr. Fries, he just fell back into his position at the door.
Fries tore out a page in the notebook, and began to scribble.
He looked over his shoulder at the foolishly-garbed men. They watched the door, not the doctor.
Victor folded the note, and hastily monogrammed the outside of it with a scrawled bat. He tucked it into the armpit of Mario Falcone’s corpse.
It was night in Gotham City, and Batman was gifted with clear skies and a gentle, but persistent breeze.
Sufficient paranoia meant living in constant acknowledgement that an alien-masquerading-as-a-newspaper-reporter might be watching you. At every thrust of night air, Batman looked to the skies.
Batman’s theory on the actual way that Superman’s so-called “super hearing” worked made adrenaline a risky proposition. That wasn’t a problem for Batman – who went to great lengths to train himself for calmness in high pressure situations, but it put a clock on his interactions with civilians.
Ever since the body of Mario Falcone had been recovered from Gotham Harbor, armed men (possibly police officers) had been conspicuously placed just inside the entrance to Gotham City Morgue. A near-miss when Fries was working late one night was the exact kind of mistake that might cause his whole investigation to go sideways.
Gordon had virtually disappeared from the rooftop at Gotham Police Department, which Batman calculated to mean that he wasn’t a great liar. Fries had left the coroner’s office hours ago.
Two overworked cops with guns was a simple enough puzzle to solve, but if they worked directly or indirectly for Falcone – well, they might be stupid, but they would not be asleep on the job.
I need to take a look at the body, he thought, and loaded fresh cartridges into their receivers. Moments later, a shadow leapt from an inhuman height, landing with a roll onto a lower rooftop.
He descended the fire escape to ground level, remaining veiled in shadows as he moved closer to the courthouse. The shadow peered into a caged window, where harsh lighting revealed his good fortune; the night that Mario’s body was recovered, the guardsmen must’ve got cold, and that led to them wearing thick parkas that looked more suited to arctic exploration than “standing in a cold room.”
Batman entered the courthouse through his favorite ingress, an unlocked window on the second floor. Judge Drake Maillard’s office, and made his way in silence to the stairway which led to the morgue.
The first tinkling of breaking glass wasn’t enough to draw out the men, but the sudden darkness followed by a bright flash and billowing smoke was.
“He’s here,” one whispered to the other.
“You’re just paranoid,” said the other.
“What was that then?” Asked the first, putting his hand on his sidearm.
“Shh! Cover your mouth. Don’t breathe that gas in, could be dangerous!”
Both men covered their mouths with their coats, trying not to breathe deeply as the grey smoke filled the entryway to the coroner’s offices.
Each took the first step up on the hard marble staircase, one hand shielding their face, and the other wildly pointing his firearm in no particular direction other than “in front of them.”
“You okay, Roger?”
“Yeah, just tripped. Where the hell is the breaker?”
“Hell if I know, Rodge, let’s just get the front door open and I can radio from the car and grab the flashlights.”
Batman dragged the bodies of the two men to the first landing in the stairwell, with little regard for the harm he might be inflicting by being more efficient.
He handcuffed the men to the bannister, disassembled their 1911s and pressing his rebreather to his face in a single motion. And like a ghost, he slipped into the chilly air of the morgue and Fries’ office.
Scanning the coroner’s desk, he found the file he needed, taking the extraneous copies of the report without reading it, and folding the paper and a few photographs into a pouch on his belt. To the icebox he crept, and slid open the cabinet where Mario Falcone’s corpse was kept.
You have a minute, tops until they start to come to and scream or start panicking.
The body was barely recognizable, and he’d need to look at the report to get a feel for the state of decomposition when it was removed from the harbor.
He surveyed the corpse, noticing serious bruising on the knuckles of one hand, and a nasty cut on the knuckles of the other.
The sound of crinkling paper drew his attention as he lifted the arm to inspect the bruises further, and he retrieved a folded page from within the boy’s armpit. His concentration was broken by the sound of coughing from the stairs. He shoved the note into another pocket of his belt.
Time to go.
Up the stairs in great bounds, Batman passed the two stirring officers, one of whom screamed “It’s him!” followed by great, heaving coughs as he passed.
The front door of the courthouse opened with a bang and closed with a slam as the two officers finally managed to crack the wood of the bannister. They gave pursuit, tethered to one another at the wrists, and kicked open the door with a war cry.
There was no one on the street in either direction.
Batman slipped through the window in Judge Maillard’s office.
The apartment building where Arnold Overlea once lived with his family was owned by the people who lived there and their families: workers of the cooperative of Wayne Enterprises. This wasn’t a company town, though – if you left the co-op, or moved, any equity built in the time spent as a resident was split with the cooperative. The model was, more or less, a community land trust – housing within the building is priced significantly below the “market” value, and in exchange for more affordable housing, residents agreed to split the equity with the Trust, and give the Trust the right of first refusal to purchase the unit back at a model-moderated price.
The solution allowed people to build up equity for a down payment into a bigger home, and to remain in a comfortable, well-maintained home that wouldn’t destroy their ability to save money while they did it.
If we left Gotham, thought Billy Overlea, looking at the most recent unit note, we’d barely have anything to show for it. Work ain’t good for black folks anywhere else. Billy shook his head. He and Etta both felt trapped, and their marriage was being tested. Etta rarely left the house most days, and Billy found himself called by the vices he’d spent so much time beating: gambling and women.
You just need it for a little while he said, staring at the business card. See if they have something to help you cool off and keep busy, just until Etta starts being herself again.
He cut the sandwich in half, and put the plate on the breakfast table, where maybe Etta would find it, if she decided to eat today. He approached Arnold’s room, it was closed, of course, and knocked on the door.
“Etta, baby,” he paused, and waited for an answer that didn’t come, then, “I left a sandwich on the table in case you get hungry. I’m going up on the roof to think for a spell.”
Billy wasn’t much of a drinker before Arnold was killed, and he wasn’t much of a drinker now. But he woke up with a lot more hangovers this year than any year he could remember.
On clear nights like tonight, he tucked the bottle of Amaro into his back pocket, climbed out to the fire escape, and up to the roof. Bily pulled himself to the catwalk of the last story, and hopped down onto the roof, making his way to the jury-rigged seat where he liked to “think:” a wooden crate marked “Borden’s evaporated milk, 48 tall cans” that he’d leaned against a chimney.
The crate was surrounded by an audience of empty and broken bottles and scattered litter.
One day you’ll have to clean these up, he acknowledged the mess even while he pulled cap off of the fresh bottle and took a deep swig.
It wasn’t his favorite brand – a little higher proof and more syrupy than Billy liked, but it scratched the itch for the bitter digestifs that were his preference.
It was a cool, clear night in Gotham City, and Billy Overlea, a man who was built like a granite statue, was at home among the gargoyles. He sat down, took another pull of the bottle, and dug into his pocket for the business card.
“It’s an invitation, Bill. You need one to get in,” Fred had explained. “Only a member can give you an invite.”
“And they let you join?”
“There’s plenty of coloreds in the club, Billy. Our money spends just as good as theirs. And it’s nice. The guy who runs it knows a thing or two about luxury.”
Gotham was never a formally segregated city, but private clubs usually only allowed patronages of one race or another.
“We’ll see Fred. You know I don’t really play the ponies these days. And how good could it be on the West Side?”
“They got more than ponies, Bill. Anyway I’m not pushing, I just thought you could use a distraction. And the guy who runs it, I don’t know maybe he’s taking a loss, but it’s a classy joint. If you come by, maybe throw on a jacket.”
The Iceberg Lounge.
Billy turned the card over in his hand, and took another drink.
You’re stronger than that, Billy, he thought, and he dropped the card, letting it flutter to his feet. Billy closed his eyes, and tears rolled down his face. Maybe you ain’t so strong.
He opened his eyes and leaned down to retrieve the card, when his eye was caught by something he hadn’t noticed before: a white envelope, adorned only with a black bat.
Billy scooped the envelope up and stood from the milk crate, looking around the roof.
How long was this here? He turned it over, the envelope wasn’t sealed, and without the trepidation of sobriety, opened it, finding a typed note.
I’d like to ask you some questions.
Billy looked around the roof again. The access door, a vent, the storage closet, behind another chimney. If the note was really from The Batman, he could be anywhere.
There were the rumors, of course – That the Batman was Peter Pan, or he was a vampire, or a superman. That he was a demon, or that he was The Devil.
A shadow. A ghost. A living nightmare.
Billy wasn’t afraid anymore. Not of men in costumes, at least. And one demon couldn’t be worse than the demons he was wrestling with. He reviewed the note again. In a past life, Billy had been called Billy Brickhouse, and he worked security for some bootleggers. That was before the ghosts got to him, and he turned his life around.
I’d like to answer your questions. Nothing happened.
“I’d like to talk,” he spoke to the night air.
“Have a seat Mr. Overlea,” the night air whispered back.
Billy dropped his jaw in shock, as the shadow emerged from beside a gargoyle not six feet away from him.
“How long you been hiding there?” Billy became angry at himself for finishing so much of the bottle. He could feel his thoughts come into contrast and then get muddled again. He slapped his own face, hard, trying to coax the alcohol away.
“You’ve been here a lot this week,” answered the wind. “I saw you climb the fire escape, and –“
“I’m getting sloppy,” he said, standing up and rolling his head on his shoulders. “I used to be careful about setting into patterns.”
“Hm,” Batman acknowledged the remark. “I don’t know what you and Mrs. Overlea believe, but I’m trying to find whoever killed your son and these other boys.”
“Etta’s lost right now. Completely lost. Me, I don’t know what to believe, but…no, I just don’t know what’s up and down anymore. It’s like an occupation down there, though. Guns everywhere, curfew.”
“How well do you know Arnold’s friends?”
“A few of them live in the building, but I don’t know all of ‘em. Might know ‘em if they were in front of me though.”
“What were his favorite things to do?”
“He spent a lot of time in the park. He and his little gang would chase the ducks sometimes. Just kid stuff, you understand.”
“Mm. Did he say anything strange in the days leading up to…”
Billy took a look at the bottle, but thought better of it. “Not that I recall, well…no, he did start saying he was going to see the newsboys when he went to the park, but I think that’s just what he called the uh…well the orphans who I guess they would quarrel with.”
“Quarrel? Anything serious?”
“No, no, no. Nothing like that. Just the nature of young boys. ‘Frogs and snails,’ y’know?”
“Have there been any adults that he sees regularly? Or older boys?”
Billy stopped pacing and thought for a moment.
“No, only Pastor Perry, but he wouldn’t know anything that we don’t.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I sang in the choir, too. I was always with Arnold for rehearsal and services.”
The Batman nodded.
“Do you have anything? What do I call you? ‘Batman?’ ‘The Batman?’”
“‘Detective’ is fine,” he answered. “I wish I could say I did, Mr. Overlea. I’m very sorry for your loss.”
“Well, detective, it feels like the cops ask us questions every other day,” Billy said after a moment of quiet. “They ask if we’ve ever seen you. Reporters come around, too…sometimes. What do you want me to tell them if they ask again?”
The lights of Gotham City’s skyline reflected off of Batman’s eyes like a wild animal’s.
“If you want to speak with them, I won’t ask you not to.”
“What if one of his little friends come around, or I figure something out?”
“Leave a note under the box. I’ll check it on occasion. One more thing, Mr. Overl–”
“Billy,” he said. “Name’s Billy.”
“Billy,” The detective repeated. “Was Arnold a good kid?”
A good kid?
“He was ten! Of course he was.”
“I didn’t mean to offend, Billy.”
“Well you did – no, no, I’m just feeling a lot of different ways about all of this.” Billy could feel his body temperature rising. Of course Arnold was good. As good as you could be in Gotham, anyway. Billy tried to calm down, and turned away from the detective. “He didn’t get into any trouble at school, but some of those kids he ran with were troublemakers.”
Billy turned to look back at Batman, who moved his head in a way that Billy thought was a nod. He looked back down at his feet.
“Find the asshole who did this,” a plea from a man on the verge of breaking.
“It doesn’t get any less painful, but it does get easier,” said the night wind. “You’ve done a lot to make a better life for yourself, Brickhouse. Hang in there.”
Billy snapped to attention. “Wai–“
Billy Overlea was alone on the roof.