graphic violence • gun violence • violent death
“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”Mao Zedong • August 7, 1927
The sun was setting in Gotham City, casting the college campus in vibrant magenta, violet, and tangerine light that glittered off the calm waters of the Gotham Harbor.
There was something of an amphitheater set up here. There was hardly any slope to the hill, with just enough to make it easier to get a view of the stage, which had a concentric semicircular shell to provide for better projection of the performers. The area was located to the left of a standing placard that read:
Fondly remembering Martha Wayne, a fierce advocate for progress
There were so many people here. More than at this morning’s press conference.
Approaching the stage, Barbara Gordon recognized a reporter from the Gotham Voice.
“I’ll be right back,” she told one of the volunteers. “See if he needs anything?” and with that, she dashed away from Dick to try to get the reporter’s attention.
“Ms Vale? Barbara Gordon. I’m Dick’s campaign manager,” Barbara was confident, and felt as good as she could about the campaign they’d run. She’d (often with the candidate’s resistance) put Dick in a position to win. Now they just needed to win the debate. “I wanted to let you know that Dick will be available for comment immediately after the debate.”
“We’ve met, Barbara. A couple times,” Vicki said, then quickly added, “Sorry, I didn’t want that to come off accusatory. I just wanted you to know that I remember you.” Vicki smiled.
“Oh! Wonderful. Well, I hope we can catch up after this?”
“That would be nice. And Barbara,” Vicki leaned in close. “Off the record: The Boy Wonder has my vote. I’m rooting for you both.”
Barbara smiled and thanked the journalist, jogging back to the place where Dick stood shuffling through note cards, attended by his pair of campaign volunteers.
The stakes were higher than Barbara anticipated, but that’s why they practiced.
“Even if it’s just three reporters and campaign staff, pretend it’s a packed auditorium,” she had advised Dick of this more than once, and could actually see him improve at the method each time they’d done a mock debate.
And it was a good thing; with this many people in attendance, there were many more opportunities to win (or lose) votes. They couldn’t rely on press coverage alone.
Mayor Basil Karlo strode out onto the stage to polite applause. A moderator, who Barbara learned was none other than Skip Freeley, host of the Gotham Gossip and the Superfans radio shows, announced the mayor from a table in the center of the stage. The mayor crossed to Skip’s setup, turned to the crowd and waved with a bright smile that even Barbara had to admit made the mayor seem likable.
Freeley’s not nearly as handsome as I pictured him, Barbara shook her head and looked at Dick, who was straightening his tie, and thanking the volunteers with handshakes.
“This is it,” Barbara said, a mess of nerves and adrenaline.
“Thank you, Barbara,” Dick smiled, turning toward the stage, and took a step just as Freeley invited him out.
“Please welcome the challenger, Dick ‘The Boy Wonder’ Grayson!”
The applause for Dick was similarly polite, with a random cheer or shout from the crowd. Dick met the mayor at center stage, shaking hands first with Skip Freeley, then with Mayor Karlo, and both candidates moved behind their lecterns as Freeley explained the format.
“We received more than one hundred questions from voters,” Skip held a stack of maybe twenty-five white envelopes in view of the audience. “These questions have not been reviewed by either campaign in advance of this forum, nor has The Gotham Gossip looked at them.” Freeley melodramatically pointed to himself with a thumb. “Each of you will get one minute and thirty seconds to answer the question. And we will continue until our event concludes in ninety minutes. Each of you will have two minutes to tell us about yourselves before we get underway. As the challenger, Mr. Grayson has allowed Mayor Karlo to go first.
“Mr. Mayor, are you ready?”
Karlo nodded, loosening his tie, and placing both hands on the podium.
“I’m Mayor Basil Karlo, and I hope that tonight, you’ll understand why I am the best choice to continue Gotham’s successes. Every day, I get to say that I am the mayor of the greatest city in America. When I decided to run for this job all those years ago, I saw a city that was in desperate need of real leadership. A city that needed to support its people and the amazing industries that our best and brightest have built from the ground up.”
Barbara scanned the audience, and there were people nodding along with Karlo. Dick was always so matter-of-fact about how unpopular the mayor was, and Barbara hoped that he was paying attention; Karlo’s nickname was “Clayface” because the guy knew how to work an audience.
“Tonight, with the election looming less than a week away, you are faced with a very serious choice: Do we build on the experience, success, and safety that my mayoralty has built for almost a decade, allowing competent Gothamites who heed the call of constituents to remain in their positions, with victory in our sights?
“Or do we risk everything we’ve worked so hard to achieve for the pie-in-the-sky promises of someone who has never run so much as a lemonade stand? Now I’ll admit, when I was his age I believed that we could achieve a better world overnight! I was a starry-eyed idealist. But I believed in America, and I trusted in our country to do what we’ve always done so well – reward hard work with health, wealth, happiness, and safety; that’s the American Dream!”
Speeches were powerful. Karlo’s certainly wasn’t flawless, and Barbara could see people telegraphing their cynicism at some of the mayor’s boasts, but great oration had always been a reliable way to mobilize people.
“We have come through one of our darkest times, and we’ve emerged stronger and more cooperative than ever before. Gotham has a renewed sense of purpose as defenders of Humanity, and opponents of chaos, crime, and division. Tonight, I ask you to throw off the chains of division, and embrace the future! A future where you, and your family will thrive along with all of Gotham. I am Mayor Basil Karlo, and, if you re-elect me as they mayor, I am committing to you that over the next four years there will be no better place to make the American Dream a reality, because Basil means business!”
The applause was not overwhelming, but people were clapping with more vigor than just cordiality, and it took a moment to fade out.
“Basil means business” is clever. It’s easy to remember, Barbara noted, scribbling some thoughts into her notebook.
“Thank you Mr. Mayor. Mr. Grayson?”
Freeley keeps calling Karlo “Mr. Mayor,” or using that title. Barbara thought. We knew he was a donor, but it seems like he’s trying to reinforce an association in people’s minds between “Karlo” and “Mayor.” Barbara jotted more down on the page.
Dick smiled and detached the microphone from its stand, walking out from behind his lectern. It wasn’t something they’d rehearsed, but Barbara loved the visual, it was dynamic and energetic.
“Good evening. I’m Dick Grayson, I’m a son of Gotham City, and I am proud to call it my home. You may know that I was orphaned at a young age, and I was extremely fortunate to be taken in by such a charitable family. Being the son of Alfred Pennyworth and the little brother to Bruce Wayne has afforded me fantastic opportunities through my life, and I am here to tell you that I believe that all of us deserve those opportunities.”
Barbara cringed at “little brother.” Not only was he going too far “off book,” he was solidifying the picture that Karlo had painted of him as a starry-eyed kid with a lemonade stand.
“I have personally knocked on more than ten thousand doors, and spoken to thousands of Gothamites who have told me that they are ready for change. I remember talking to a woman named Carlotta Mason, and she loved the big ideas that our campaign has brought to Gotham.
“Now Ms. Carlotta is a lot like many of you. She’s a widow, and she works at the post office, she has two sons, and she just wants their lives to be better than hers has been. I told Ms. Carlotta that change is hard and do you know what she said to me? She said ‘Dick, I’ve been working my whole life. I’m ready to do the work to make things better for all of us.’”
People were relating to the story, showing agreement with their body language as they connected Ms. Carlotta’s story to their own.
“You see, Ms. Carlotta knows that Gotham is at a fork in the road. One way is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild Gotham City for families, for the poor, for the sick, and for the working class. The other way is to continue to maintain the status quo. Mayor Karlo likes to say ‘Basil means Business,’ but it’s more like ‘Basil means Business as usual.’ A vote for me is a vote for an improved Gotham. A Gotham that is better for all of us is better for all of us.
“So I’m asking you to join me. Join Ms. Carlotta, and the thousands of people who aren’t afraid of rolling up their sleeves and working hard to make Gotham a more healthy, wealthy, and wise city. A city of solidarity. A city for all of us!”
Cheers and more than a few wolf whistles broke the momentary silence of Dick’s opening remarks. Barbara had winced a tiny bit at the direct attack on the mayor, but the extemporaneous “business as usual” line landed well. Dick returned to his lectern, and Skip Freeley fumbled with one of the envelopes, tearing it open, and pulling his microphone in close.
“Thank you Mr. Grayson. Now our first question will be directed to Mayor Karlo, who will have ninety seconds to answer, followed by Mr. Grayson who will also have ninety seconds. Here we are, from Gus Shuler on Nanticoke Island. Gus writes: ‘Back when it started, I thought we’d be out of this curfew by Christmas. Now, I don’t know. What are you doing to end this curfew, and with supermen becoming a part of our everyday lives, how will we prevent more curfews in the future?’ Mayor Karlo, you have ninety seconds.”
Karlo fiddled with his microphone, as though he was considering removing it to move around the stage like Dick, but then reconsidered. He wrinkled his face up first, then smiled that disarming smile of his and began.
“Gotham is a city where news travels fast, but in case you haven’t heard, we have apprehended the child-killer who calls himself Batman, and the City Council voted unanimously to end the curfew. I had my own concerns when Commissioner Gelio first told me his idea for bringing in this vicious killer, but I trust the police, and I trust Commissioner Gelio. Under my leadership, we have brought a dangerous murderer into custody, and we have put laws in place that will protect innocent Gothamites from costumed aggression, with harsher punishments for so-called super humans. Gotham City has made it known loud and clear – our priority is humanity above all else. Humanity above insanity. If you find yourself wanting to put on a costume to prevent crime and enforce the law, might I suggest joining our police department, the finest group of officers to wear a uniform in all of America, led by visionaries like Commissioner Johnny Gelio, Lieutenant Jim Gordon, and the nation’s first woman detective, Detective Selina Kyle. These are the real heroes, folks, let’s give them a hand!”
Pockets of enthusiastic cheers burst into existence with half-hearted acknowledgments from others, and Dick began without needing an invitation from the moderator.
“Gotham City has been through a tragedy that is incomprehensible. Losing a child is a devastation that is felt by more than the parents, the brothers and sisters, the aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. It’s a loss that’s felt by the whole community. I know this because I saw it first hand. I’ve attended memorial services for too many sons of Gotham in these last months. And I know first hand the way that fear has gripped this city.
“And that fear was exploited and turned into power by Mayor Karlo, by his chief of police, and by the city council. Men and women who we are told to trust betrayed that trust, and they have battered anyone bold enough to point it out. In a dark and tragic year for Gotham a ruthless and brutal police department has made it darker and more tragic. They’ve gone unchecked by a local government that was willing to sell your freedom for their job security. How many people have the Gotham Police Department and their contract agents killed in just the last month? The ‘solution’ provided by the police and the mayor killed more of us in October than the so-called Peter Pan murderer ever did!
“The only thing that separates Commissioner Gelio from a serial murderer is that a serial murderer will be put on trial before a jury, and Commissioner Gelio will remain one of the most powerful men in Gotham. As mayor, I would prevent more of these curfews by making a city that is more just. A city that relies on the strength and trust of our neighbors instead of giving police the power of judge, jury, and executioner. As mayor, I’ll never use a curfew, because we never needed a curfew in the first place.”
Barbara was beaming. She wasn’t totally sold on the police-as-working-class-traitors bit, and her father was still her hero, but when she began looking for the abuses of police power, especially by the commissioner, she started to see the evidence everywhere. Even her father was less and less likely (or able) to rationalize it away, and she could see his faith in the institution being tested, even if he was still the guy they always pointed to as an example of the consummate “good cop.”
Karlo was still smiling, but it was clear he was becoming flustered. People were moving around in the crowd, surely trying to get a better view for a debate that was already proving to be a barn-burner.
“For our next question, we are going to Mrs. Priscilla Scuggins, of Keaton North. Mrs. Scuggins says ‘My son Doug used to be mixed up with the Pennypincher Boys.”
People in the audience almost all intoned recognition.
The Pennypincher Boys had been a gang of ill-fated bank robbers with a strange proclivity for only stealing rolled or bagged pennies. Their leader, who called himself Joe Coyne, claimed that pennies were “impossible to trace” and “in wartime, copper was more valuable than gold.” Having a gimmick made them easier to predict, but there was a period of about six months where you couldn’t get pennies if your life depended on it.
Skip paused and looked at both candidates, adding “I think we all remember The Pennypincher Boys and their calamitous copper capers,” to nods of agreement in the audience. “Mrs. Scuggins continues: ‘If it weren’t for the reformed convict work program, my son might be dead. How will you ensure these important programs remain in place?’ We’ll go to you first, Mr. Grayson.”
“You know that’s a great question, and while I haven’t spoken to Mrs. Scuggins or her son, I believe in these kinds of reform programs because they work. They are the kind of programs that my family has championed for more than a decade. In fact, we’ve just funded the Project ALICE program with Rose Botanichemical to support getting more women, colored folks, and immigrants into fair-paying careers in science and engineering.”
There was less movement in the crowd, and this felt like a strong answer from Dick. Barbara attributed it to the fading light, but she wrote something down just the same.
“And you know what? These programs are good for all of us. They shouldn’t exist at the whim of the wealthy. They should be something that we, as leaders of the city, make a priority. The only way to do that is to make it a line-item on our city budget, because a budget is a list of our priorities. It is a clear, concise notice of what our government believes should come first. Programs that create jobs, educate our residents, and help people who have fallen on hard times will be the lion’s share of any budget over which I preside.”
Barbara’s gut reaction was to push Dick away from words like “preside” which might not be obvious to some in attendance. The enthusiasm among the spectators visibly waned, and Barbara wondered if it was because Dick didn’t take a swing at Karlo. She scribbled another note for review later, and started crafting a quote to give Vicki Vale on the topic:
My goal tonight wasn’t to embarrass the mayor. It was to point out that he isn’t embarrassed, and to ask why not? How do you slash money for schools, for utilities, for public health, and for veterans, and then have the guts to look people in the eye and ask them for their vote?
“Not bad,” Barbara whispered, scanning the quote and tapping her pencil against her lip.
“…strengthening our police, who have shown us true innovation in these troubling times,” The mayor was answering the question about the Pennypincher Boys, to somewhat anxious approval from the gathered.
Twilight quickly became night, and people shifted around even more under cover of darkness. The stage and candidates were easy to see, but people were leaving or arriving or just swaying in place and it was impossible to tell which with any clarity with this lighting. Barbara put her pencil into her pocketbook, and focused on the men on stage.
“Thank you Mayor Karlo,” Skip licked his index finger and pulled at an envelope, lifting it into his hand, and tearing it open theatrically. “Our next question comes from Mr. Salvatore Sciacallo. Mr. Sciacallo begins…”
At the reading of the name, there was an audible rustling from enclaves in the audience. Whispers and stirrings within the crowd, and movement – inscrutable movement – from without.
“…’The Mayor of Gotham has failed us. He has failed to protect our children. We promised him blood and jackals in the streets of Gotham City, and here we are.’ Well, as we said, ladies and gentlemen, we didn’t review these before receiving them, so let’s just try another question, shall we?” Skip picked up another envelope and –
A gunshot rang out from somewhere.
Gore and bone blew through the back of Skip Freeley’s head, which fell, lifeless onto the desk.
Terror erupted in the crowd as bright explosions and deafening blasts signaled shots firing from multiple different gunmen.
Barbara ducked low, shoving a volunteer down to the ground as she did and telling him to cover his head and stay low. On the opposite side of the stage, Mayor Basil Karlo was squatting behind his podium. Gotham Police Department officers were fighting – literally punching and kicking their way through the roiling sea of people trying to scatter or find safety.
Barbara tried to keep an eye on Dick, but he was lost in the audience, trying to shepherd people to cover. More shots cracked through the confusion, and she found the second volunteer, who she pulled violently down to the ground by his belt.
“Stay down!” She shouted, handing the younger man the keys to the pickup truck. “Get away from the stage, and then run until you get to the truck, then get back to Wayne Manor! We’ll be meet you there!” She shouted at the hyperventilating twenty-something.
Dick Grayson was back on the stage, duckwalking in a low crouch toward Barbara.
“Get down Dick!” Barbara screamed, and Dick laid flat on the stage, speedily crawling to her. “Let’s get the hell outta here!” she huffed, “We have to go!”
Machine gun fire spat a flurry of bullets in a sweep through the audience.
”Get out of here!” Dick yelled back, barely audible in the madness. “I’ll be fine!”
Even in this chaos, he smiled in a way that made Barbara feel like he knew what he was doing, which was always, always a red flag for her.
“Why Dick? This isn’t your fight!”
“Saving lives is my fight, Barbara!”
Barbara gasped, “The mayor!” and pointed at Karlo, who was cowering behind the lectern. She knew that a wood podium provided barely any cover from submachine gun fire. Dick nodded and did an acrobatic leap toward the moderator’s desk, ducking behind it and pushing it over to provide some kind of shield from stray bullets.
She could see Dick hesitate, try to shout at the mayor, and then tuck and roll toward him, splinters of wood exploding on the surface of the desk that was facing the chaos.
Dick looked back, nodding to indicate that he had things under control, and turned back toward Karlo.
The sound of ricocheting bullets and spent shell casings hitting the ground contributed to the confusion, but Barbara felt strange hands suddenly gripping her by her hips, and pulling her decidedly away from the stage. In front of her, she saw a spindly shadow, all jagged points and sharp angles grab at Karlo and pull him backwards at the same time as she was swept away by the phantom hands.
As she was dragged backward, two objects that looked like medieval morning stars hit the stage in a clang and bang of cast-iron on hardwood.
“Barbara! Come on!” the unmistakable voice of her father cut through the cacophony, and she turned around to see her hero, and the two of them were spontaneously diving backward as burning heat suddenly welled behind her back.
The Granata di Baldari stick grenade was extremely analog in its operation. The fuse had to be lit by hand, but it had the benefits of more accurate throws, and, in a pinch, being used to bludgeon an opponent in close combat.
When two such grenades hit the stage directly behind the overturned desk, Dick made the mistake of investigating instead of running toward his campaign manager (who was, presently, being either rescued or kidnapped).
Dick didn’t see the sparkling flare of a safety fuse. He kicked the desk as hard as he could, springing backward and upward into the air as the desk slid, dragging the grenades with it into the back wall of the stage.
The explosion happened as Dick was mid-flip, sending shards of wood and metal, and waves of concussive heat to meet his airborne body. Dick had been shot before – it was a pain he could handle – even if it was the most excruciating physical agony he’d ever felt.
He’d leapt away from an exploding building before and lived through it. He was a Flying Grayson, goddammit, and more than that he was The Batman.
The first shard of metal entered through his posterior deltoid, and burst through the anterior deltoid like a visceral comet with a tail of blood and muscle tissue.
Dick Grayson’s whole world was pain as his backflip was turned into a corkscrew by the assault of splinters and shrapnel. He felt the devastating heat of the explosion singe his eyebrows and eyelashes into nonexistence just as two jagged fragments ripped through his stomach and thigh followed by dozens more opening ragged tunnels through his torso, neck, and back.
He hit the ground flat on his face, breaking his nose and fracturing the orbital bone of his right eye.
Dick Grayson’s body tried to inhale to cough, but only made a gurgling sound as velvety crimson liquid pumped flaccidly from the dozens of wounds in his body.
As his left eye fluttered closed, Dick could only hear the high pitched ping of tinnitis in his ears. He saw blurry bursts of machine gun rounds and then saw them abruptly stop as an angel blacker than darkness itself descended from heaven, folding a belligerent like a paper doll.