“There is no shortcut to achievement, Life requires thorough preparation—veneer isn’t worth anything.”George Washington Carver
That’s Something We Could Test
Wayne Manor, The Library
The first time that Bruce Wayne read The Hound of The Baskervilles, he thought it was the best thing he’d ever read.
When Bruce Wayne was a child, his parents would read to him. He became, in turn, a voracious reader and seeker of knowledge. The bookshelves of his family’s ancestral home were packed edge-to-edge with texts; tomes from academia and collected works that previously were published as pulp stories.
There was almost no genre of fiction or nonfiction that Bruce didn’t have a favorite book within.
By far his favorite books were mysteries, but Sherlock Holmes had fallen out of his preference in favor of detective stories where the reader could actually solve the mystery.
Two months after the murder of his mother and father in a robbery-gone-wrong, Bruce, formerly a playful and spirited boy, had become a brooding, traumatized young man.
During a re-read of Hound, Bruce became crestfallen, almost to the point of tears. He put down the volume and relayed the source of his disappointment to nobody-in-particular.
“Impossible. There’s no real way Holmes could’ve known these specific details. This isn’t ‘elementary,’ it’s magical.”
“Magical, Mister Bruce?” Replied Alfred Pennyworth, Bruce’s adoptive father.
It was always a surprise, though not always a pleasant one: the way Alfred could just appear in a room. At the time, Alfred explained the “trick” as “the tendency of white folks to ignore colored folks,” but Bruce knew in his gut that there was more to it than that. It would be years before he found out the truth.
“Holmes, Alfred,” replied the grim boy. “He always has the correct answer, but –– you’ve read Hound of the Baskervilles –– Holmes doesn’t show his work. He even goes so far as to have to construct an entrapment scheme to nail down Stapleton, and that only works because Lestrade witnesses the plot from a dark vantage point. And then Stapleton dies.
“Is that Justice?” Bruce asked with the faint glisten of moisture in his eyes.
“I see great empathy in you Mister Bruce,” replied Alfred. “I’m afraid the things you believe you enjoy will absolutely destroy you if you apply such an unforgiving judge to them as The Truth.”
“I suppose,” the boy conceded. “I’ll just have to enjoy this as the pulp that it is, and ignore the nagging thought that ‘this-isn’t-how-things-work’ that pokes me in the back of the mind as I read them? Fun and function will need to remain separate.”
“I didn’t say that, Mister Bruce. As long as you’re holed up in dark rooms full of books, why not create the stories you’d want to read? Write an improved Sherlock Holmes.”
“But how? I don’t know the first thing about writing a story like that. And I read that Doyle is a physician, he’s smart enough to write a character who knows these things, but I’m not.”
“Ah, Mister Bruce, that’s where you’re wrong!” Alfred excitedly produced a leather folio containing a notepad and an expensive looking fountain pen, handing them to Bruce. “The reason you found this story unrealistic is because you’re smart enough to know that the blanks that Doyle leaves for the reader can’t be filled in. The wages of a detective like Holmes versus the wages of a pulp writer like Doyle don’t even compare; wouldn’t Doyle just become a great detective if he was so knowledgable about the qualities that make up a Great Detective?”
Bruce thought about this for a moment. Then he thought longer.
“Where do I start?” Bruce asked.
“They always say write what you know,” replied Alfred with a somewhat exasperated sigh. “But I’ve found that too many people don’t know anything useful. So how about we instead start with a list?”
The twitching of a smile that was forming on Bruce’s face relaxed into a look of confusion.
“A list of things you need to know, or to learn. A collection of all of the characteristics you believe a truly great detective needs. You can even start with Holmes. What do you like about him? What does he do that seems important to being a Great Detective?”
“Um,” Bruce bit his lip as he thought of an answer. “He’s a great fighter. And it seems very useful, but I’m not sure if that’s because a real detective needs to fight all the time, or if it’s because Doyle writes him into situations where he becomes entangled in fisticuffs.”
“Well let’s put that down anyway. ‘Number One, he should be a great fighter.’ not because he should fight all the time, but perhaps because he should be prepared to fight at any time.”
Bruce began to scribble, and Alfred vanished from the room, reappearing with two pairs of well-used boxing gloves.
“Before we decide on anything else that a great detective needs, I’m going to teach you to fight, Mister Bruce. And I’m going to do it by punching you until you’re able to stop me from punching you. Let’s go out into the backyard.”
Alfred didn’t say anything else. He had seen his share of tragedies and traumas. He didn’t think Bruce was sad. He believed Bruce was lost. He believed Bruce needed, more than anything, to feel something lest he retreat into this numb void of despair completely.
Bruce put down the pen, stood from his chair, and began unbuttoning his shirt.
He took the smaller pair of boxing gloves from Alfred –– they smelled like his father: Mahogany, leather, and the rough salt of old sweat.
“You’re on,” said the boy, never breaking eye contact with the man.
And thus concludes the story of how Alfred Pennyworth used the promise of repeated punches to his person to convince the young Bruce Wayne to leave the house for the first time in two months to enjoy a sunny summer day.
Wayne Manor, The Library
Misses Ella Worthing delivered various newspapers directly to Alfred Pennyworth every morning. Some were high-quality papers of record, and some were…not.
Some of the papers were for Bruce, who liked to keep abreast of news across the United States and internationally. Alfred’s stack of papers included the three major papers that were owned (at least in part) or operated by Wayne Industries: The Gotham Voice, The Daily Planet, and The Chicago Wind.
Bruce Wayne chose at that moment to simply appear in the library, with a mug of steaming coffee in each hand.
Alfred didn’t even look up as he held out his hands, to relieve Bruce of one of the mugs and hand off Bruce’s stack of papers.
Both men dropped a number of papers to the floors beside them in their chairs, removed pens from their breast pockets, and started reading the front page of The Daily Planet.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH THE MAN OF STEEL
This was it. The first interview ever given with “Superman,” the mysterious metahuman that Bruce had been tracking had leapt from urban legend to reality in the span of a couple weeks.
Alfred and Bruce began underlining relevant quotes in the interview, scribbling notes, and intermittently muttering to themselves as they read.
It made reading the news a time-consuming affair, but it was a better way to catalog important things.
Human memory was notoriously unreliable, and it was important to be able to reference data as they were, not as you remembered them, at least whenever that was possible.
When Alfred folded his paper and placed it on his lap, they began to compare their observations.
“An alien from a dying planet,” they both remarked almost in unison.
“He says here that he has super-hearing,” Bruce was incredulous. “In addition to being a stupid name for it––“
Alfred smirked at this, remembering a time in the not-too-distant past when a certain urban legend became obsessed with bats, even going so far as insisting on styling his shuriken as bats, and calling them batarangs.
“––it doesn’t make any sense,” Bruce sighed, a bit performatively. “Sound dampens over distance. The energy dissipates. Creatures like –– cats –– that have far more sensitive hearing than we do don’t just hear things farther away. In fact, the farthest distance any mammal can hear with any reliable acuity is something like ten miles?”
“Cats? Don’t bats have famously powerful hearing?” Alfred snickered.
“You’re not planning on letting me live that down, are you?” Bruce relaxed for a moment while Alfred finished laughing. “The point is that you can’t just hear things happening on the other side of the planet. You can’t just hear conversations fifty miles away. If you could, you’d go deaf as a post. Anyone speaking in the same room as you, at a normal volume, would sound like an explosion going off right in your eardrums. How could he discern a discussion two towns over from, say, his own thoughts?”
“Perhaps he can tune in to certain words. Maybe he’s trained himself to listen for words like ‘fire’ or ‘help’ and he can largely ignore other words and phrases.”
“That’s something we could test, you know,” Bruce responded, scribbling something into his notebook.
“I was just thinking the same thing, Mister Bruce.”
August 7, 1920
It took a full week before Bruce Wayne could defend against any of Alfred’s punches. When considering that Alfred refused to punch the thirteen year old in the head, or their differences in height and even factoring for reach, and for assumptions about the speed of a military-trained covert operative in his early thirties compared to a boy starting his journey into pubescence, that still seemed to Alfred like a long time to learn the principle of “you don’t need to let yourself get hit.”
After their very first session, Miss Margaret, who Bruce somewhat suspected Alfred was seeing, brought the pair a pitcher of lemonade that she’d kept in the icebox.
Alfred took Bruce to the smaller garage, where he explained that he often used the space for calisthenics, though he didn’t dare bring up the subject of workouts with the late Mr. Wayne. On some level, Bruce almost remembered watching the two men spar when he was much younger.
The younger man noted punching bags, but before he could make his way over to them, Alfred bid him remove his gloves, and handed him a rope to skip.
“Constant Motion, Mister Bruce,” the elder instructed, rolling up the sleeves of his sweatshirt and producing a skipping rope of his own. “A racing heart feeds a keen mind.”
Bruce stared on in amazement, Alfred was almost completely inaudible but for the sound the rope made as it cut through the air. He didn’t hear his shoes as they briefly bounced against the concrete, nor did he hear the expected sound of the rope hitting the ground as Alfred jumped over it.
The man seemed almost to float up and down in space.
After a time, Alfred looked Bruce in the eye, and said “if you can punch me, or if you can skip rope for two minutes without me hearing it, you’ll be allowed full use of this space. Until then: practice being silent with your skipping rope.
Each day, Alfred would wake Bruce Wayne and take him outside, first thing in the morning to spar.
The dew of the morning would stain his boots, and many times, especially as fall began to approach, it was still dark when they would leave the manor for the grounds.
Bruce did it without complaint, never commenting on the soreness or bruises on his body.
Alfred would teach the boy as they sparred, or jogged around the property’s expansive campus, or laid on their backs in the dewy grass to do sit-ups, or throw a leather medicine ball at one another.
Every so often, Bruce would crack a smile at some new fact Alfred taught him, or some new technique he wanted to try out in their next spar.
More often, Bruce would have completely unprompted breakdowns. Falling on his hands and knees, weeping and lamenting the loss of his parents.
In those times, Alfred would always kneel down beside him, and embrace him.
One particularly painful incident involved Bruce being overcome with the guilt of his parents’ murder, tearfully throwing a haymaker, hitting only air, and physically falling to the ground.
Alfred knelt beside the boy as he wept, almost uncontrollably.
“Why do you think we fall, Mister Bruce?”
Bruce backed out of the hug, wiping his red eyes with his wrist, sniffling, and brushed some of the dirt from his shorts, beginning to stand.
“To get back uhh––“ he began grimly.
“–– Because sometimes, we need to,” Alfred interrupted him, and the boy collapsed back into Alfred’s arms and sobbed for a very long time.
The day that Bruce Wayne would finally hit Alfred would be a cool morning in middle September.
By then, Bruce had learned much about the history of the Wayne and Kane families.
He had learned that it was important to challenge everything. Especially authority, but including, perhaps most importantly, the things he believed to be true.
He’d learned that, though Maryland was a slave state in the Civil War, it was critically important strategically, and thus was a part of the Union. Maryland became a throughway of sorts for men and women who’d escaped enslavement, and that the Underground Railroad had important historically significant sites throughout the North, but, for Alfred Pennyworth, the house and property in Gotham, New Jersey that would later become Wayne Manor was the most significant, because the now-abandoned argentiferous galena mines beneath the western acreage of the homestead are where his family sheltered for a number of years, it is where his mother was born, and it was the place to which she returned when she and his father learned she was with child and they needed to find work.
It was the day that Bruce learned that the police weren’t going to help solve the murder of his parents, and that they would never be the allies of people seeking Justice.
And it was the day that Bruce learned that Alfred Pennyworth had reason to believe that his parents weren’t arbitrarily murdered in a mugging-gone-wrong, but that they were assassinated for their political beliefs.
Prospect Hill Memorial Park (Gotham County Limits)
The 1883 Krakatoa eruption in the Dutch East Indes ejected something like six cubic miles of stone and sediment. The explosion could, at least anecdotally, be heard as far as 3,000 miles away in Australia.
The center of Gotham City proper was only fifty-eight miles away from downtown Metropolis, and all signs pointed to Superman having a significant preference for ending American distress, and most of those signs pointed to him having a preference for Metropolis, specifically.
Since the Industrial Revolution, Gotham City had been one of the economic engines of the United States.
It was, for a brief time, number one on the list of most productive cities in America.
It was displaced by a sprawling, ever-growing cosmopolitan city less than sixty miles away across the Delaware Bay. You could get to Metropolis in less than two hours on a good day, and you could do it in your car thanks to Sisters Ferry, so-named for the Sister Cities of Gotham and Metropolis.
Metropolis in 1934 had been the most economically productive city in the country for more than a decade. Gotham had been as high as second place again since Metropolis passed it, but had then fallen, year after year until settling in a virtual tie for fourth place.
The Gotham Renaissance of the late 1910s did a lot to help Gotham stabilize –– Gotham spent quite a long time looking rather bleak before that, but Metropolis surged.
Bruce stood something like twenty feet away from Alfred.
“The experiment is begun. Assuming that he can’t hear us,” Bruce called from across a stone walkway with a centerpiece fountain to Alfred, “what results would almost certainly not happen; what would surprise you?”
Alfred smiled a bit to himself, and then, his face fell. He cleared his throat, rather dramatically. “I think we should head back to the car.”
Bruce crossed the distance to his adoptive father, brandishing a notepad, writing WHY? in large letters across the page.
Alfred took the pen and pad, and started to write out a message, then turned it toward Bruce:
If he can hear us, he already knows about this. We need to be more paranoid.
“Paranoid” was circled multiple times.
The two men strode, enjoying a completely forgettable conversation, got back into the car, and drove back to Wayne Manor in near silence.
September 13, 1920
If Bruce hadn’t been seated, he probably would’ve experienced a dizzy spell and fallen to the ground.
He had trouble believing what Alfred had said about his parents; it was in this confusion that Alfred had been training him: recognize your confusion, question inwardly, and, if you are reasonably sure you are safe, question outwardly. to question outwardly, and especially to question those that assert themselves as authorities.
“Why would someone want to kill them‽” Bruce was cold and grim again, but even the gathering moisture in his eyes seemed to reveal something darker.
“Note what you feel, Mister Bruce. Write it down if you need to. Don’t let your anger get the better of you, but be angry. I’ve found that I often am able to achieve exceptional clarity-of-thought when I am engaged in anger.
“Take two full minutes to consider this information, and write down any other questions you might have for me. When two minutes has passed, I’ll tell you what I believe, and why I believe it. And then, I’ll try to answer your other questions.”
Bruce wanted to hit the man. Bruce could hit the man. Bruce considered that Alfred had never really held back in their training, aside from never hitting him in the head, he never let Bruce win. When Bruce had finally hit Alfred for the first time, he’d earned it.
Bruce considered Alfred’s advice: spending two full minutes considering the information, noting his feelings, writing down his observations. Alfred, for his part, was looking at a watch, and doing everything he could to avoid the young man seeing the tears that were welling in his eyes.
The son of Gotham began to write furiously:
- Why can’t I trust the police?
- Have the police been lying?
- Why can I trust Alfred?
- Am I in danger?
- Is that the reason we’ve been training?
- If not, what is the reason we’ve been training?
- What can we do?
- What can we do?
- What canwedo?
Bruce took a deep breath and started cataloguing his emotions, what he was feeling. What did those feelings suggest? What had materially changed about the way he understood the world? What was the utility in being angry and why had Alfred insisted he lean into it instead of shying away from it?
He looked down at the page and noticed that he’d just written “MAD!” “ANGRY!” “CONFUSED!” and myriad other synonyms among the margins around his list of questions.
“Well, Mister Bruce,” began Alfred, using the back of his forearm to wipe his eyes. “Let’s begin.”
Wayne Manor, The Study
“If it’s quite the same to you, Alfred, I’m going to spend some time on my correspondence.”
“Actually, Mister Bruce, I have some letter writing of my own to catch up on,” replied Alfred. “I’ll be in my office.”
The two men walked into the study, sitting behind the twin desks, and began to peck away at the keys on the black Remington typewriters.
If we assume that he cannot hear us, I think we are leaving far too much to chance. It is exceedingly difficult to prove a negative, in any case. If we assume that he can hear us, then he already has, and he knows we’re conducting an experiment. In either case, we have already potentially jeopardized any kind of sterility in our experiments.
I tend to agree, but I wonder how much information “Big Red” leaked in the interview in order to build his legend? If he’s truly an intergalactic alien, then it stands to reason that, even without his superhuman strength and powers, he would have access to technology that would outclass us in ways that we can’t even begin to fathom.
Alfred considered this for a moment, then took to typing again:
There are certainly more mundane concerns for example. He could know about your advocacy work. He could know about all of it.
Bruce wrote back:
Our data won’t be as reliable or as clean as either of us want, but it will be something. I propose that we take some time to really develop some experiments and in the interim, maybe we can talk to our friends in Metropolis.
Alfred looked Bruce in the eye and nodded. He continued to type.
Wayne Manor, The Study
September 13, 1920
Alfred Pennyworth was a man who often minced words. Whether this was because of his experience in subterfuge as an enlisted man, because his parents had both been servants to inconceivably wealthy people, or some combination of those factors was not easily observed. But Alfred often sugarcoated information if he thought it to be too much to take in.
“Your mother was a Revolutionary, Mister Bruce. It’s important that you understand that this is not some politicized word that I’m using to describe her more radical policy positions; I mean that she was a Revolutionary. Your father made Gotham a welcoming place to Neo-Bolsheviks and radical labor organizers when he unionized Wayne Enterprises.
“And those same people knew he was serious when he gave up his position as the CEO and allowed the company to become a worker cooperative. Martha –– your mother –– did a lot to push him in that direction.
“Your mother was running for mayor because she thought that her name recognition and her worker-centered policy proposals would prevent the violence of a New American Revolution that she believed to be coming. A win for the working class by a high profile, wealthy heiress could convince other wealthy people that they could do more good by helping than by hoarding,” Alfred paused. He was speaking of Martha fondly, like an aunt that he missed.
“Some of us, myself included, believe that someone connected to Spencer Stagg’s campaign, possibly Stagg himself, used connections he had within Gotham Police Department to identify an accused hitman, and to send the same to kill your parents, and to make it look like a botched robbery.”
“Alfred, I need you to stop,” Bruce had been trying to figure out how to ask the question, but decided to just come out with it: “are you and I in danger?”
“Not immediate danger, no ––“ a beat. “–– the truth is the truth. The likelihood of someone coming to find and hurt you or me didn’t just increase because you know it.”
Alfred continued to explain, answering the young man’s questions, and, on occasion, surreptitiously massaging his ribs, where Bruce had hit him hard enough that he expected that if he were a lighter skinned man, bruising would become quite apparent.
When Bruce seemed satisfied with his answers, Alfred encouraged him to second guess those answers. To do his own research.
After some time, the pair walked back out onto the property where Wayne Manor was built, both doffing their shirts. Bruce threw wild haymakers at Alfred like he had on the first day that they had boxed together. Alfred paused the fight.
“Use the anger, Bruce. Allow it to enhance your focus.”
Alfred put many bruises on Bruce’s body that day. By the end of their sparring, both man and boy were winded, sitting in the grass, removing their gloves with their teeth.
“I don’t mind telling you to search for more information for yourself,” Alfred broke the silence first, “because the truth is immutable. If I’m wrong, I want to know it. If the truth is that we’re both safe from a clumsy, moneyed, and ruthless conspiracy because that conspiracy doesn’t exist, then that’s what I want to believe.”
“But if there is a clumsy, moneyed, and ruthless conspiracy? What then?” the boy asked, his chest rising and falling in great heaving breaths.
“Well,” said Alfred after a thoughtful pause. “I hope that we’ve just taken a good first step on the path to making you into a better detective. Now what else do you think a detective needs?”
Bruce thought about the question, but his mind wasn’t supplying an answer. He kept thinking of Holmes, but he no longer believed that Holmes was a Great Detective as much as a powerful magician, capable of magically producing answers from the ether.
Neither broke the silence as the older and younger man walked back to the house.
Their conversation had turned into new questions that Bruce wanted answers for. And then it hit him.
Bruce walked into the library, and over to his folio, which sat closed on his desk, paged back to the top of the notepad, where the phrase “A great fighter.” was written beside a bullet point.
He unscrewed the cap of the pen, and put the nib to the pad, creating another bullet point, and wrote.
“He gets answers.”