“…there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the note orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to harken to the sound and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale…“Edgar allan poe • the masque of the red death
“Mister Saturn will be making ‘appearances’ in areas of the city that will be very visible this weekend,” said Alfred Pennyworth, pouring a cup of coffee and handing it to Bruce Wayne. “As for you, Mister Bruce, you’ll need to be making high profile appearances of your own. Establish and re-establish the alibi.”
The air in the cave was cooler than outside, but equally damp. April’s rain was relentless and unpredictable.
“Gelio’s not going to stop. If he hasn’t figured it out, Gordon has. And that doesn’t even account for Saturn setting the bar a lot higher than we can maintain,” Bruce said. The coffee was overextracted and bitter, and he took another sip.
“I’ve tried to be clear of what he should and shouldn’t do, at least in any way that would be directly evident,” Al explained. “I’ve arranged for a date for you for the council president’s Black and White ball tomorrow evening, though Doctor Rose was, alas, unavailable.”
“Her and the commissioner have become something of an item.”
“Speaking of Dr. Rose, you’re scheduled for a tea and tour of the new outbuildings on Monday. Not just you, of course; Lucius and Mr. Cobblepot will join, and the mayor is likely to be there as well. It should, at the least, provide an opportunity for you to compare the state of things to last night’s ’survey,’” Al finished.
Bruce finished his coffee, and set it down on a work surface.
“And the samples?” Bruce looked up at Alfred.
“They’ve been sent, but it may be a week before we have anything conclusive.”
“‘Administrative leave’ Lil’,” said Johnny, and Lilian Isley felt something like sadness. She’d spent years building up a wall of scar tissue to keep from getting hurt again. And with baby steps, Johnny had been making his way through the scars that he’d created for months. Persistent, patient, smart. And then something changed. His preoccupation with supermen felt like a play for more resources and recruiting at first, but it had devolved into an obsession. Now, it was like the curtain being swept from the Elgin Marbles, only to see great, violent cracks traveling across the length of the masterpiece.
It wasn’t sadness. It was pity. Loss.
“Everything’ll be okay, Johnny,” her response was automatic and meaningless, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time. “Commissioners have done worse. Recently, even.” Maybe if you’d taken the time off when you were supposed to, this would’ve gone smoother.
“I don’t think this is the kinda botch job you come back from, Lil’. ‘Administrative leave,’ sounds a lot like ‘severance’ to me.”
“At least you’re not out on the streets, Johnny.”
Johnny scoffed, dismissing the thought with a wave of his good hand.
“Is there anything else I can bring you?”
“You’re not staying over?”
“I really wish I could, Johnny,” Lily lied, “but we suddenly have a bit of a mess on our hands, and Harriet and I have a lot of things to rearrange before this big presentation on Monday.”
“The car will be around to pick you up tomorrow at 6:30.”
“I don’t know if I’m in a mood for a party, Lil’.”
“I’m not gonna tell you how to live your life, Johnny Gelio, but if you don’t want Gordon moving in on your gig on a more-than-temporary basis, you could do a lot worse than coming to a party for orphans. A party, I’ll remind you, where you can say you’re sorry to the poor little rich boy. Everyone makes mistakes, and in public, he won’t have any choice but to be graceful in accepting your apology.”
“Fine,” Johnny conceded, and Lily offered him a bright smile, and wished she’d accepted Alfred’s invitation earlier.
Barbara Gordon looked stunning, if she said so herself. The black dress clung to her in a manner that married “tasteful” and “scandalous” without effort. The necklace glittered in the flashing lights of reporter’s cameras, and she suspected that the matching necklace and bracelet were worth more than she could imagine. Charcoal black diamonds set in flawless white diamond bezels. The glamour of the jewelry was entirely outside of the picture of herself that she held in her mind, but for the first time, she understood the appeal. Barbara hadn’t always enjoyed these kinds of events, but, she figured, this could be a nice, low-pressure way to see some people from the campaign. Alfred had made it sound like a favor to him and to Bruce, and although she had to think about it, she was currently very happy to have said “yes” when she returned his call.
For a long time, almost any time she saw Bruce, she’d tried not to dwell on whether he remembered their embarrassing first encounter, but by October, she felt so at home with Al and Dick and Bruce that it felt more like an awkward-but-funny family memory. Bruce had never brought it up until tonight:
“I have to tell you,” Bruce said with a beaming smile when they were just moments from the Gotham Opera House. “I’m very glad Alfred asked you to join us this evening. I’ve never been rejected so loudly before, and I don’t know if I would’ve lived through the embarrassment a second time.”
“Well,” Barbara began, letting her guard down, “I guess it’s too late to back out now, but I was told that my date was Batman.” At the joke, Bruce added his laughter to hers.
“Who is she?” Said Ella Worthing. She was Alfred’s date tonight, a kind widow who Barbara had met many times at Wayne Manor. Barbara looked around, seeing her father and Detective Kyle together. The uniform does her no favors, Barbara thought. “And how is she here alone?” Ella continued.
Bruce and Alfred stood as the woman approached the table. Dr. Lilian Rose, the president of Rose Botanichemical, was dressed in a green dress so dark that it was indistinguishable from black in anything less than the brightest light. Somehow, the almost-black dress brought out her emerald green eyes. Another woman, younger, and in an off-white dress with a matching shoulder cape hurried behind Dr. Rose, revealing a similar dark-green lining beneath the fashionable accessory. Her hair was blonde, and she wore it in finger waves, but her eyes were the exact same verdant jewels as Dr. Rose’s.
“Bruce, Alfred,” Dr. Rose extended her gloved hand to the two men. “You’ve of course met Dr. Harriet Isley.”
Dr. Isley demurred, lowering her eyes and shaking their hands. Barbara stood to greet the women, overhearing Bruce as he said “I’m sorry that the commissioner couldn’t make it.”
Shortly after dinner was served, before anyone could possibly have been expected to have finished, Bruce and Alfred excused themselves to join Council President Mick Mosley on the dais.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of Gotham,” the council president started, and almost everyone looked up at the man. “Tonight, it is my great honor to welcome you to the fifth annual Black and White Gala. Although it’s only the second consecutive gala, I am grateful to President Roosevelt and the people of this great nation for coming to their senses. Booze is, after all, the only reason half of you are so generous with your checkbooks.”
Scattered, but genuine laughter.
“Tonight we have raised more than fifty-thousand dollars to ensure that young people in Gotham are growing up with the best opportunities.”
The council president continued to speak for another few minutes, making announcements varying from “modernizing the Gotham Elevated Trainway to connect more of the city” to “professionalizing the career of teaching to pave the way for better schools.” Barbara noticed that it didn’t feel like he was campaigning, and realized that, at some point, a shortcut had been established in her mind that said to, cautiously, trust politicians who Alfred and Bruce trusted.
Al and Bruce each shared remarks, culminating in Bruce committing to matching the funds raised at the event, including donations which hadn’t yet been made.
The doors to the banquet hall opened, and the lights cut out with the loud knock of a stage production. A single blue spotlight shone on the open doors, and a towering ice sculpture carved to look like the Gotham Bank tower was rolled in by white gloved men in tuxedos. Council President Mosley spoke more, letting everyone know that cash donations could be accepted, and that the men tending to the sculpture would be passing around their literal hats to collect additional “generous gifts.”
The sound of a gunshot rang like a cathedral bell in Barbara’s head, and she could hear plaster hit the ground near the doors. She also heard shocked gasps, and the sounds of furniture being repositioned to provide places to take cover.
The lights came back on with a similar knock and many more men in matching tuxes flooded through the doors, each of them wearing white gloves and black domino masks. Each of them with a gun and a top hat.
Barbara looked around the hall and saw that mostly everyone had taken cover. At some point, seemingly without conscious direction, she noticed that she was standing in a ready stance; her hands balled into fists, and her feet planted firmly.
She removed the borrowed jewelry and put it into her handbag, then asked the people at her table if they were alright, instructing them to keep low.
Her father and Kyle both had their pistols in their hands, when a half dozen rapid shots were fired in a single burst. Barbara could now see the gunman: Another man in a black mask and tuxedo. In one gloved hand, he held a Thompson submachine gun pointed at the ceiling.
“What’s black and white and red all over?” the gunman said in a booming voice. “This party if you don’t come offa your jewels, your cash, your watches, and your car keys! Some of Gotham’s hardest working union men will be around to collect your donations to our premiere jobs program: The Mandatum! Mr. and Mrs. Lieutenant Gordon, if you could drop your guns and kick them in this direction, we wouldn’t want to go make a mess of your wonderful ––AHHH!”
The tommygun practically vanished from the man’s hand as he writhed in pain, pressing his hand against the ice sculpture which released visible steam.
The lights went out again, and the sounds of fear and surprise filled the hall again, joined by the labored grunts of human effort and the stifled groans of pain. There were intermittent flashes of gunfire, which disappeared too quickly and too quietly, leaving only the smell of gun smoke where echoing racket should be.
Metal screeched and cried as if steel were being bent and torn, and Barbara could see him: the Batman was a blur of incredible speed, and he was moving throughout the masked men, disarming and immobilizing them. His darkness so unassailable that he was almost vivid in the dim hall.
Someone took her hand, and she pivoted, throwing a confident hook with her free hand. Her punch was caught at the wrist, and she could smell the familiar scent of Bruce’s aftershave when he pulled her in close, protectively, and then down behind the table with their table mates.
“Where’s Al?” She whispered.
“He’s safe,” Bruce replied.
“Batman!” She whispered again.
When the lights came back on, the Batman was gone, and almost twenty men in matching tuxedos were joined at the ankle with chains that had been improvised at impossible speed out of materials in the room.
Barbara could hear approaching sirens. Bruce wasn’t holding her anymore, and he offered her a hand to help her to her feet, which she politely refused, helping Mrs. Worthing up in turn.
Across the hall, Barbara saw her father and detective Kyle taking inventory of the would-be robbers.
Lex Luthor opened the small lead cigarette box, awing at the glowing green splinters. He closed the container, and returned it to the drawer with the false lead-lined bottom.
The research and development of Kryptonite presented the potential for many different paths forward. A long-term path where humanity leapfrogged the next ten generations technologically and colonized the galaxy. Practical use cases which would lead to the advancement of humankind.
This path could only be realized if Lex could use Kryptonite to destroy the single threat which would prevent man’s achievement.
Which meant that the nearer, and incalculably more important path was to destroy Superman. And that path was so critical to the survival of humanity that Lex would try anything, regardless of how impractical, to ensure it.