“The truth is you can be orphaned again and again and again.
“The truth is you will be.
“And the secret is, this will hurt less and less each time until you can’t feel a thing.”Tender branson, survivor
This Must Be The Place
Greathorn Diner, Ashburton 5:58 a.m.
“You two can follow me in if you don’t mind sittin’ in the dark for a minute, hon,” the waitress said, her breath hanging in clouds in the November morning air.
Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth did just that, removing their hats and coats in such synchronicity that George Gershwin would’ve had half a mind to consult the duo for choreography.
Taking seats on opposite benches in a booth by the window, the two men wore polite smiles. Not a trace of nervousness could be detected, as the pair had discussed alibis, cover stories, and potential purposes for Clark’s requested parley on the drive over.
The lights flicked on and the waitress appeared at the table side with a silence that impressed even these two veterans of stealth.
“First cup of coffee should be ready in two,” she said. Then, examining Bruce’s face more closely, “Daily Planet?”
“Two please,” Alfred replied with a bright smile. “We’re waiting on one more,” he added. The waitress retrieved the newspapers and soon after, she was filling their mugs with steaming black coffee.
Alfred and Bruce unfolded the papers, scanning for articles of interest, and both earmarking a story featuring Lex Luthor, philanthropist businessman’s pro-Superman advocacy.
“What do you make of this, Al?” Bruce motioned to the headline and raised an inquisitive eyebrow.
“I wonder if you’ve read the guest list? Notable is who didn’t attend.”
“‘Gotham City Mayor Basil Karlo, and his appointed Commissioner of Police, Johnny Gelio, were unable to attend due to a former commitment…” Bruce muttered through, scanning the text and reading aloud under his breath with intensifying scrutiny, “…the funeral for Dick Grayson, the populist candidate who opposed Mayor Carlo in the mayor’s race. Grayson, 22, was slain just days before the Midterm Election in the violent Fatal Friday massacre.’” Bruce furrowed his brow.
Alfred thought about yesterday’s service.
“Is it possible we missed them?”
“Not a chance,” Bruce snapped. “Sorry, I’m just – Luthor even made time to send flowers. We had an usher for public officials.”
“And the mayor absolutely would’ve wanted to say something, whether we would’ve let him or not.”
Bruce let out a long, dark sigh, and removed his glasses, pinching at the bridge of his nose.
“There’s more,” Alfred dragged his finger across a line more than a paragraph down, “‘Mr. Luthor said that he would meet with Mayor Karlo and Commissioner Gelio, who are seen as the architects of so-called CAPE laws, privately in the coming weeks to further his case for Superman.’” The server refilled his coffee cup, and Alfred thanked her with a nod.
“Don’t be so anxious Mr. Bruce,” Alfred was reserved with the instruction. “You’re clenching your jaw again.”
Bruce’s face relaxed, and Alfred took a sip of the coffee as the door to the diner opened, inviting in the chilling outside air and a demigod in a wool hat.
Alfred rose and crossed the booth to sit next to Bruce, offering Clark Kent a handshake as he joined them.
“Alfred, it’s nice to see you,” Clark shook Alfred’s hand sincerely and pushed his glasses up on his nose, sliding into the booth. “Bruce, Alfred. It was a lovely service yesterday, and I wanted to offer my condolences to both of you.”
Bruce offered Clark a soft smile, and Alfred thanked him for attending. There was a volley of small talk, and the waitress found her way to the table to fill Clark’s cup with coffee.
“Do ya know what you’d like to eat?” She asked, and after a time, she brought two orders of steak and eggs and a bowl of grits for Clark to the table. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”
Clark inclined his head. “I work with Lois Lane at this newspaper,” he offered, pointing at Alfred’s copy of the Daily Planet.
“He was here with me a little over a month ago,” Bruce said, and the waitress appeared to accept it and went about her duties.
“I’m glad you could both be here, because I’ve been doing some thinking.”
Neither Bruce nor Alfred betrayed a thing, each wearing the perfect mask of curiosity about what Clark began to tell them.
“When I learned who Alfred was, we had a long chat. It was about a great many things, but he told me that he thought I might break,” Clark took a deep breath, and Alfred wondered if it was just for show.
Did Superman breathe? Did he even have lungs?
“I asked him, directly, if he intended to kill me. And he said that he would kill me if he had to,” a beat. “The two of you are the only people alive who know, aside from my mother,” Clark paused, not saying anything for what felt like an eternity. “My mother couldn’t do it if she had to.”
Alfred and Bruce both leaned back in unison.
“What are you saying?” Bruce asked, and Alfred wanted to jump in but waited to see what else the Man of Steel would say or do or show them.
“I’m saying I think we should get the check,” came Clark’s answer, and he set two small, leaden boxes on the table with a heft that rattled their breakfast dishes. “Is there somewhere in your home that’s more private, maybe an outbuilding?”
Alfred looked at Bruce, and both men knew without words what came next.
“We have an old airplane hangar,” Alfred responded.
Rose Residence, Ramapough 6:47 a.m.
The doorbell rang, and Lilian Rose was not expecting company.
Roger is never this early, Lily thought, dismissing that it could be the postman. She was up, of course, but she’d just stepped out of the shower, having only moments ago come in from taking notes on the pollination experiments with her Tacca chantrieri. It was a passion project, to be sure, but one which made cleanliness essential. The flies weren’t pollinating the plants – a hypothesis she thought to be stupid to begin with – but it would be something of a novelty to let her sundews feast upon the vile pests.
Lily vigorously shook her vibrant red hair in a towel, wrapping it into a terry vase above her head, and tied her bathrobe closed, descending the polished wood of the stairs to the door as the bell rang a second time.
“Coming,” she called out, still annoyed at the intrusion.
She unbolted the door, and pulled it open with a scowl which wouldn’t be improved by her caller.
“Lilian,” said Johnny Gelio, commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department. “I was hoping we could talk.”
“Meet me around back in five minutes, I need to make myself decent,” she commanded.
Having made him wait for more than fifteen minutes, Lily Rose opened the door to her backyard, walking out onto her overgrown terrace.
“Took you long enough, Johnny,” Lily said in announcement.
“Look Lil’ I,” Johnny paused, his right eye twitching in the same way it did when he’d first asked Lily to go on a date with him more than a decade ago. “I…ma’s getting worse, and this whole city’s on fire, and the timing just never seemed right. Anyway, I’m sorry.”
“Well I’m sorry about your mother, Johnny, but you’ve been back in town almost a year and I haven’t heard a peep from you. You’ve got some nerve if you think I shouldn’t be sore with you.”
“You’re right,” Johnny agreed. “And while I hope you can find your way to forgiving me, I’m afraid this isn’t a personal call.”
Lily did what she could to keep the confusion off of her face, but her outrage was not putting up the fight she’d hoped it would.
“You have an employee – Tetch – goes by Jeremy, but also known as Jervis; I’d like to know what you know about him.”
“I know enough,” Lily said, rolling her eyes. “I know about his past, I know that he got an unfair shake of things in New York and then again with Wayne. I know that he was never found guilty of anything, and I know–”
“–Kidnapping, Lil’,” Johnny interjected. “Kidnapping. You know how screwy the courts can be. They found a missing kid in his apartment when he was working for Roosevelt. You think that’s worth the risk for one of your charity cases?”
“World could use more charity,” Lily shot back. After a moment of quiet: “And frankly, it could use fewer children.”
Johnny helped himself to a seat at a small cast iron table on the terrace. Grass and clover grew through the paving stones which made Lily’s backyard look like a garden party that had been consumed by a swamp. An echo of something classy in a life past.
“Fewer children?” Johnny sucked his teeth three times in rapid succession. “That’s a little bit west of crazy, ain’t it?”
“Is it? How much better off would the poor be if they didn’t have children? How many orphans are running the streets of Gotham? You think those brats in the park selling stolen newspapers are going to grow up to contribute to society?”
“I heard about this program you’re running with Wayne, Lily. It doesn’t sound like the type of thing that you do if you believe that people are hopeless.”
“Surely you understand the difference. The potential fight for environmental resources that children who have their whole lives ahead of them possess, but which adults have largely expended. What’s another thirty-five or forty years compared to another seventy?”
Lily didn’t join the commissioner at the table, instead very purposefully wandering in sharp angles around the perimeter of her patio.
“Children are an ecological cataclysm waiting to blossom. I don’t think that Mr. Tetch has anything to do with the dead children that you’re no doubt asking about. But I don’t think that a car full of kids being murdered is any worse than what your people did during the curfew with impunity.”
“Lily, come on,” Johnny begged, “desperate times and all. And your people are done working well before curfew, this didn’t affect you.”
A lock of damp red hair crept from under the towel on Lily’s head and in front of her eye, and a geyser of her warm breath shot up from her lower lip to displace it.
“I could spend the next several hours trying to explain to you why it’s worse, but I actually have things to do today, Yiannis.”
Johnny let himself be bothered at the sound of his Greek name, just as Lily knew he would.
“I came here to ask you about Tetch, Lilian, and to give you time to prepare, because he’s a person of interest in the Peter Pan case. He’s the person of interest, in fact.”
“You’re a goddamned idiot, Johnny,” Lily spat. “What’s to keep me from telling him?”
“You don’t care about this guy, Lil’. He’s a mark. You got what you needed from him, and I’m giving you the chance to put some space between you and your company and your project and him.
“We got the warrant this morning.”
Johnny stood up and buttoned his overcoat, running his hand through his sleek, wet-looking coif.
“I’ll get outta your hair Lil’,” he said, taking a half dozen steps toward the side gate. “I’m sorry this visit wasn’t a personal call, honest, I am,” the commissioner broke eye contact, and Lily tucked the out-of-place strands back under the towel. “You should come by sometime. It’d be nice for ma’ to see you again.”
Johnny let himself out without looking back.
Lilian Rose needed to make some phone calls.
Wayne Manor, Silverwood Barrens, 7:15 a.m.
Bruce slid open the hangar-cum-garage door while his adoptive father and an alien journalist looked on.
Rows and rows of automobiles, all meticulously kept, were parked before them with numbered, empty spaces denoting cars that either hadn’t yet been purchased, or that were currently elsewhere.
“Lotta cars,” Clark said.
“We have doubles of the cars, some of ‘em. That way we know we have a pristine one in here. If an employee needs to borrow one, and it gets scratched,” Bruce shrugged, “we don’t care.”
Clark cocked an eyebrow, and Bruce imagined with a smirk that he was puzzling over the cryptic comment. Then the reporter again produced the two small boxes, handing one to each man and holding up a hand to indicate that they wait while he took an oversized step backwards.
“I’ll ask you both not to open these until I say so,” Clark instructed. “I’d like to tell you about what this is first.”
“It’s a vulnerability,” Bruce said. “Something that could kill you, or, at least weaken you, maybe make you human.”
“From your ship?” Alfred added.
“Lead boxes, the step backwards. You really take your immortality for granted,” Bruce set the jewelry box on the hood of a Chevy. “But what is it?”
“It’s – it’s an element from Krypton, or at least, it’s not something that can be found on Earth,” he began. “As far as I can tell without endangering myself, it supplied the power for my ship, as Alfred deduced, and it has the curious effect of making me feel a little dizzy, nauseous, or downright weak depending on proximity and quantity. You can open the boxes now.”
Bruce and Alfred each opened his small, lead jewelry box, and Bruce snapped the lid closed immediately, cocking his head in Kent’s direction.
“Is this radium?” He demanded. “Things don’t tend to glow like that without being radioactive.”
“It’s not. As far as I can tell, it’s not harmful to humans. It doesn’t emit any detectable radiation using devices available here – aside from the glow, of course – before Pa died he kept a shard in a box in his nightstand, and in the storm cellar, to use like a flashlight. That was before we knew it was causing things like blurred vision and headaches for me, but it was years of him sleeping next to that nugget and he was as strong as an ox when he passed. And, before you ask, he died due to complications from diabetes.”
That didn’t make Bruce feel particularly comfortable. And he suspected that Alfred was evaluating the alien similarly, albeit with a bit more empathy. Even if this was truly an alien element, the universe has rules – it would be likely that a Geiger counter would detect the radiation if it were dangerous – but, in some quantity, this was able to power space travel over a distance that suggests (at least) approaching light speed, and it could possibly kill Superman?
This does too much, Bruce thought. Just like him, and we know he uses shortcuts when he doesn’t understand his own powers –
“Why a ring?” Alfred asked, breaking Bruce’s train of thought.
“Mine isn’t a ring, it’s a rock.”
“Alfred has more experience with close combat,” Clark answered. “You’re in good shape, Bruce, but strength alone doesn’t make you a fighter.” Bruce smirked. “I figure you can cut and polish that into a slug for a gun.”
“I guess it’s been a while since I took a boxing lesson.”
“I won’t ask you not to experiment with it, because I don’t think you could resist. I will ask that you don’t tell anyone what it is, and that it doesn’t leave the property unless…” the reporter looked down and away, his meaning implicit in the silence.
In the quiet, Bruce pondered.
“How deadly is this stuff to you?” He finally asked.
“I think a bullet might kill me. Or a knife, but it’d be difficult to get close enough. Proximity in general makes me feel like I need to throw up, and I go a little off-balance, too. But I don’t think it would kill me without penetrating my flesh. As far as I know, my internals have the same invulnerability as my skin and hair, but if, say, I were holding a crystal, you might be able to harm me with conventional weapons.”
Bruce still felt confusion at the situation, and the explanation only served to broaden the feeling.
“Why? Why are you giving us this? Why not give it to the President, for example?” Bruce demanded.
“Because I don’t have anyone I can really, truly trust, not for something like this. And let’s be clear: A lot is going to have to go right if you want to assassinate me. This is just a chance. I wouldn’t want the military to have this. What if it can be duplicated? What if scientists found a way to use it as a power source? No. I can’t be personally responsible for the technological advancement of humanity, writ large. My interventions here have to be objectively good.”
“Can you prove it?” Alfred offered the question that Bruce would’ve asked next. Clark grimaced and took a step forward.
“Bruce, if you’ll hand your box to Alfred,” and Bruce did, and Clark looked for all the world as though he was holding his breath. “Alfred, I’m going to hold my hand out. You can try to cut me with the sharp part of the crystal.”
Alfred removed Bruce’s crystal and stepped toward Clark – toward Superman – and the glow of the rock became more bright and intense. Both men winced when Alfred dragged the jagged corner of the green stone across the back of the alien’s wrist. The skin seemed to tear as easily as wet paper, with deep red blood weeping from the scrape almost immediately.
Clark withdrew his hand, and a sickly yellow vomit consisting of a bowl of grits and whatever approximated stomach acid for a Kryptonian hurtled toward the concrete floor with enough force to crack it. The alien staggered, and braced himself against a Chrysler Imperial, crushing the front fender and flattening the two front tires. Bruce couldn’t tell if Alfred was reeling because he’d harmed Clark, or because one of his favorite cars would need an embarrassment of bodywork.
“I hope this is one of the ones you have doubles of,” Clark said. “I’m sorry.”
En Route to The Narrows 8:24 a.m.
Detective Selina Kyle didn’t like the way the commissioner drove, but figured that riding shotgun in his car to an arrest was better than waiting at her desk on Jim, who was still at the dentist.
Johnny didn’t talk while they drove, he just breathed deeply, and let an unnerving grin deform his face into an exaggeration of emotion, like a film funny character. Fifty miles per hour on tiny residential streets that would be crowded if not for the sudden outburst of mob violence, this was the one place he let his guard down?
Two additional cars followed them, each with cherry-red lights rotating on their roofs. No sirens, just lights. One marked Gotham City Police Department, and a newer model Ford that was painted a dark royal blue with a single gold pinstripe with no department indicia.
Henchmen. Selina knew the pinstriped car was filled with agents from Henshaw Allied, actually filled. There were five men in that car, and each of them was a mongrel in his own right.
“Sir,” she began, breaking the hush of their squad car’s cockpit. “Do you really think it was a good idea to bring five of them? Aren’t they kind of…aggressive?”
Johnny’s head turned to her, the rictus smile still pasted on his face, and then back to the road. The smile faded quickly, and he contorted his expression into something more presentable.
“We don’t know anything about this sicko,” Johnny stretched his neck, and didn’t slow down nearly enough for a sharp left turn. “Better safe than sorry!”
Safe for who?
They arrived at the dilapidated building. The sign originally read SIMONS PARTISAN, but it had fallen into disrepair, and now the letters spelled out SPARTAN.
Selina thought she used to know somebody who lived here, but couldn’t remember who exactly. Exiting the squad car, Selina thought the henchmen looked like drooling hyenas – all five of them had their service weapons in hand, and the commissioner hadn’t even told them the plan yet.
Johnny exited the car, or more, his long legs exited the car, one at a time, and his body followed. There was no evidence of the cartoonish expression of the car ride, just a look of consternation and a mouth consisting of a perfectly straight line. He took in the scene, and though he wanted Selina by his side, she kept a healthy distance.
“We need to bring this sex-pervert in by the book,” the intensity of his words echoed in Selina’s mind. Peter Pan might have had some kind of sexual motivation, but none of the coroner’s reports suggested that the boys were…Selina shuddered. “He shouldn’t be a threat to us, because we’re adult me–police. Leifeld, Stanos, and Wisniewski will go up first, followed by myself and Kyle, followed by the officers Hurt and Finnegan. Agents Mitchell and Filipelli, you stay down here on the door. No one comes in until we’re out, and if any kids come out before we do, detain them if they’re say, younger than thirteen.”
Nods from the squad affirming their assignments.
“4C,” Johnny said, and he swung the door open for the onslaught.
The smell immediately kicked Selina in the face. Urine, and alcohol, and mold. Two vagrants were sleeping by the mailboxes on the floor, and they treaded up the stairs to the fourth floor.
At the unit, Selina pulled her sidearm and flicked the selector away from “safety,” and Johnny unfolded the warrant from his coat pocket. He approached the door, flanked by the three agents and Selina, then flexed his hand, made a fist, and pounded hard.
“Jeremy Tetch! Gotham City Police! Open up! We have a warrant for your arrest!”
Selina could hear mumbling from the other side of the door, but nothing she could make out. The door was paper thin, low quality plywood with mismatched shades of brown paint that was chipping away in most places. Johnny pounded again.
“I’m coming, one moment please,” a trembling, meager voice, like a child’s, came from within, and Selina clicked her gun back to “safety,” and whispered for the others to at least take their fingers off the triggers.
“Tetch, you’re going to unlock the door, and then you’re going to come out with your hands on your head, do you understand me?” The commissioner barked, and the sound of a chain sliding out of its slot could be heard before the door slid open of its own accord, revealing a short man, with small eyes, large teeth, and doll like, flaxen hair that peeked out of the sides of a ratty, patched porkpie hat. Johnny lowered the warrant, and grabbed the man by the wrist, twisting his arms behind his back, and slapping handcuffs on them. “Jeremy Tetch?”
“Y-yes, sir,” the man stammered in a voice that was less childlike on this side of the door, but still had the color of whimsy, like he’d just stepped out of a fairytale.
“You are under arrest for the murders of Alan Fries, Gus Harper, Jr., Mario Falcone, Arnold Overlea, Jason Todd, and the newsboys known as Extra and Joey.
“What? I would n-never!”
“We can talk down at the station,” Johnny said. “You have any weapons on your person, sir?” Leifeld had begun the pat down, stopping at Tetch’s ribcage, and giving the commissioner a look. “What’s in your pockets Mr. Tetch?”
“I don’t – n-nothing? Certainly not any weapons.”
The man was terrified, and Selina holstered her piece. She noticed her eyes darting upwards and around, and glistening with fear and panic.
“Bag o’ candies,” remarked Leifeld, who had inspected the coat pockets. Commissioner Gelio snatched the bag, inspecting the sweets closely with a sneer.
“What’s with the treats, Tetch? This how you lure the little boys to come play?”
“They’re from work. I usually have a few to spare for the children in the park. They’re starving, you know?”
“Get him in the car, I can ask Ms. Rose about the candies myself. Wisniewski, you stay here, wait for Gordon to relieve you. Nobody gets past you without a badge, got it?”
Agents Leifeld and Stanos took turns pushing and pulling Tetch down the stairs, but the doll-haired man was cooperative and compliant. Johnny looked back at Selina.
“Psst! Kyle, get a move on.”
“Sir, I’m going to peek around in here, give me five minutes?” She held his eyes while asking, optimistic that he would grant her that much.
“Not now, Kyle, we need to get this animal booked. You and Gordon can snoop around to your heart’s content later on. Let’s go.”
Wisniewski chuckled. “Love to watch you le–“ he began.
“Agent, that sentence ends in a hospital bed,” Selina snapped, and the man was silenced.
She arrived at the car just as Finnegan was shoving Tetch into the back of his squad car.
Selina got in the passenger seat, and slammed the heavy door, waiting for the commissioner.
“Good work de-escalating in there, Kyle,” the praise was faint, and cold, but Johnny’s recognition was a good thing in Selina’s estimation. “These Henshaw boys mean well, but they need polish.”
Selina nodded in acknowledgment, and said nothing.
Gotham Public Library, Harborview 9:16 a.m.
Barbara Gordon, former manager of the Dick Grayson for Mayor campaign, was mounting a campaign of her own. It took everything she had to leave her apartment this morning, but she forced herself to go outside for a walk every morning so that the fear of it all didn’t rule her.
Barbara didn’t know if it was working, because she was still scared, and the disturbingly more common sounds of gunshots in the streets of Gotham didn’t help. Each one was a flashback to Fatal Friday, each one a private trauma. But she needed to research.
Laid out in front of her were typewritten returns from the election by district, the precinct map of Gotham City, and clipboards and note cards full of contact information of each of her precinct and district captains. Red checkmarks next to the people that she and Bruce and Alfred had called on Monday, just to ensure that people still voted for Dick – maybe he couldn’t be mayor, but someone other than Karlo could. Not every change was an improvement, but in order to make things better there had to be change.
She started making tally marks directly on the map, and started in the South Islands – Nanticoke Island, The Narrows, and Arkham Island. Their volunteer base was exceptionally strong in the district, and population was low enough that she could do the math in her head.
“I knew it,” she whispered to nobody with a final tally.
Simons Partisan Tenement, The Narrows 10:11 p.m.
There was only one agent at Tetch’s apartment, and he – Wisniewski – was walking down the creaking stairwell to take another cigarette break.
The “Spartan” had been less so than most days, with Gordon and Kyle in and out of the apartment, digging around for clues. But no one else came or went, no one even left their apartments. Aside from the men camping in the stairwell, no one was stirring in the building.
No one but the Batman.
He’d rappelled down from the roof to the fourth floor fire escape, the one at Jeremy’s window was rusted out and missing a ladder.
Buy this building. Start a co-op. Help them fix it up. No one should have to live like this.
The window was closed, but not locked. Painted shut. Using a batarang to break through the paint and pry the window open, he was able to slide his gloves under the seam and pull it the rest of the way up with very little resistance.
He clicked on his flashlight – the humming streetlamp directly facing the window flickered chaotically – and began to look around the room. There were clothes everywhere, and the mattress was tattered, laying directly on the floor with a sheet clumsily spread across it. In spite of the disarray, the smell was generally not unpleasant: Galbanum, caramel, orange blossom, lemon. Not unlike a candy shoppe in a flower market.
With each step, he made careful effort to avoid displacing anything that might draw attention to his presence. He expected Wisniewski to return to his post before his investigation was complete, but the agent was unlikely to check the inside of the room (and if he did, well, disappearing was easy enough).
The discovery of Joey’s body bade poorly for any defense of Jeremy. He’d tried not to unfairly promote Jeremy as a suspect, but that became increasingly more difficult with the detective’s ability to interrogate the corpse of a victim so close to its discovery. Someone Jeremy had access to, whose trust he’d worked to receive, and who might not be missed if he disappeared.
Only two of the victims didn’t fit the profile, Alan Fries, and Mario Falcone, but Tetch would likely have some level of access to all of the children in Gotham, he was a candy vendor.
The Batman’s heart skipped a beat when he thought of the potential extrapolation: Psychotherapists analyzing serial murderers had recently gained a prolific case study in Earle Nelson, called “The Dark Strangler,” who brutalized and killed more than twenty women and girls. More and more of the doctors have written that they suspect that serial murderers eventually start to leave clues as to their identity, some part of their subconscious mind wanting to be discovered, or thinking of killing as a game, or just out of a sense of arrogance – believing that all their intellectual prowess so outmatched the people assigned to the case that nothing short of a signed, sworn confession could result in their capture.
And Jeremy is a smarter than average, to be sure, he thought. How many orphans died without pomp or circumstance before he decided he wanted to be caught?
The detective drew a sharp breath when his train of thought was interrupted for the second time that day.
Stay focused, you need to get more sleep.
The rummaging noise that he’d chalked up to a cockroach or mouse happened again, and the Batman clicked off his flashlight, and turned toward the source of the sound: the tiny, half-opened closet.
Batman could feel the creaking of the stairs and was sure that the guard was returning from an overlong smoke. The caped crusader pulled the door open with a squeak that he hoped Wisniewski couldn’t hear – no shadow yet under the doorway to signal arrival at his post. A cursory scan of the closet netted nothing, but a second look suggested that a pile of flannel blankets were breathing.
The rats in this city, Jesus, he thought.
And then, he heard a rhythmic, muffled murmuring.
Gently, carefully, quietly, he pulled at the pile, revealing a runt of a boy whose eyes were moist enough to reflect the ambient light in the room. The boy’s face was disfigured, a cleft palate that hadn’t properly healed. And he closed his eyes tight, continuing his whispered devotion.
“I’m not going to hurt you, but we need to get out of here,” the Bat whispered.
“You’re him,” the boy whispered back without opening his eyes. “Your the Jabberwock.”
Batman lowered into a squat, and extended a gloved hand to shake.
“My name is Batman, what’s your name?”
After a breathless pause, “Pockets,” came the boy’s voice, and he shook hands with Batman.
“Pockets, I want to help you, but we have to get out of here. Will you come with me?”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go,” the boy said. “Shelter’s locked by now.”
“I know a place where you’ll be safe, and there will be other children your age, too.”
Tears started to stream down the boy’s cheeks.
“They too-took Mr. Jeremy.”
“He can’t hurt you anymore, I promise.”
The boy pulled back from the Batman’s hand.
“Mr. Jeremy never hurt us kids. He gave me a roof to sleep under, and read me stories, and food…”
Batman raised a single eyebrow, not that the boy could see the inquisitive expression.
The groan of floorboards in the hallway marked Wisniewski’s return, and the Dark Knight’s finger went to his lips.
“Shhh,” and the duo stared at one another in anxious silence for more than a minute. The detective craned his neck out of the closet to see the silhouette of Wisniewski’s feet unmoving.
“I’m hungry, do you have any food?” Pockets asked, breaking the stalemate.
Batman looked at the floor beside the boy, it was covered in wax and foil paper candy wrappers. The child had been subsisting on Lily’s candy for the better part of a day. Certainly not long enough to lead to malnourishment, but how many times had the boy eaten less in a day?
The detective stood, reaching both hands downward, an invitation to Pockets to join him on his feet. Batman lifted him, noting that the boy was seriously underweight, and cradling him around his neck.
“You need to hold on tight, Pockets,” and the orphan held tightly to Batman’s neck, with an audible yawn. A gloved hand swept like a blur in front of the newsboy’s mouth, the other hand delivering the hush sign yet again.
And then came the sound of aching wood in the hall.
Did Wisniewski hear that? Can’t be seen. Need to talk to Gordon first.
A beat, and then Bat and the boy slipped toward the window. A couple tugs at the cord hanging above, and the grapnel loosed, falling into Batman’s palm with a soft pat.
He tested the railing of the fire escape with his foot, and it had more give than he wished to risk, but the bat rope only gave him about twenty feet, and the street was at least thirty feet below.
“Pockets,” came the whisper, “take a deep breath, and hang on tight.”
He sprang from the window sill gripping the fifth floor fire escape, and lifted himself and the newsboy enough to wrap the grapnel around the railing above, pulling on it to secure it, then slid down the rope as the boy’s eyes went wide at the thrill and horror of it all.
Simons Partisan Tenement, The Narrows 10:37 p.m.
Wisniewski was sure he’d heard something that time, and he started fiddling with the loose doorknob to enter Tetch’s room.
He crossed the mess of clothing and refuse in clomping footfalls.
“Whacky dame left the goddamn window open,” he said aloud.
Little Italy District Border 11:13 p.m.
Pockets had never rode on a motorcycle before. It wasn’t like an automobile, which never felt as fast on the inside. No, you could feel the speed of a motorcycle, and he could hear it. The growl of the engine, the whipping of Batman’s cape, and the whooshing of parked cars and buzzing streetlights behind them.
The ride covered a distance in a matter of minutes that it would’ve taken Pockets hours to have walked on foot, and he learned that Batman could drive any motorcycle he wanted. This one wasn’t anywhere near Mr. Jeremy’s building, it was a few blocks away, parked in an alley!
Pockets’ wild ride slowed to a halt in Little Italy. Not a place he wanted to be after dark anymore. Where before, you could fish out some day old bread from behind one of the many restaurants, the place was a mess of mustaches these days; dark haired men in expensive suits who he knew in his gut he shouldn’t try to scam or pickpocket. Most of ‘em didn’t speak English, and they all carried pieces, out in the open, and nobody said nothin’.
Batman and Pockets sneaked through alleyways and kept to dark side streets, leaving the dull black bike parked at the edge of the neighborhood. Whenever they heard someone, they’d stop, and shelter in the shadows.
Some time later, they stopped at a church. San Girolamo, Home for Lost Children. Pockets sounded out the words in his mind. An orphanage?
“I’m going to have to leave you here, but they’ll open the door for you, and I’ll have one of my friends come and talk to you soon, to help Mr. Jeremy.” The whispers were distinct, but Pockets’ tired mind wasn’t racing in the way it had on the motorcycle, and his need for sleep was catching up with him. He had trouble processing the words all at once.
They walked up the steps together, and Batman shook his hand again, then made a motion to take back the too-big leather helmet and goggles that Pockets had worn on the motorbike, and the orphan held them tight to his head, imagining Mr. Jeremy doing the same with his old porkpie hat.
For a dracula, Batman wasn’t so scary anymore, and he gave Pockets a look like a smile, and patted him on the head.
“My friend’s name is Lieutenant Jim Gordon. He’s a detective. Don’t talk to anyone about Jeremy before you talk to him. The other grown-ups might not like Mr. Jeremy, and they might not want to help him.”
“Gordon,” Pockets nodded.
The Batman closed his hand into a fist, and beat on the tall wooden door four times. Pocket’s overlarge helmet slipped down over his eyes, and when he pulled it back over his head, Batman had vanished.
When he believed the coast was clear, Pockets had vanished, too.