Monthly Archives: December 2021

Chapter 15

6 Months Later

Batman Springs His Trap

Bruce’s alarm rang. He opened his eyes and was instantly flooded with Bane’s perspective. It finally happened. He’d killed again. It turned out to have been the unfortunate Mr. Mackelray after all. Bruce knew just what he was going to do, but first he sent up a prayer to those who were probably listening: “No more death. From now on we stop it before it happens. I’m serious. That’s what I want.”

He’d already planned where he was going to make it happen. He’d installed floodlights there. It was far enough removed from populated areas that there wouldn’t be anyone to interrupt him. Unfortunately he would have to miss school — he’d come up with some excuse. He’d been waiting a long time. He knew he’d have to be ready for it.

A few weeks ago his trainer Candace had allowed him to bring the jetpack/gliding contraption, which resembled wings when the electric system extended them, home from Applied Sciences. She’d judged him capable of operating the machine on his own. He packed the equipment into a duffel bag along with the fully charged electric gloves. He wore the body armor under his clothes. It was hot. He quickly worked up a sweat, but comfort was not his first priority. He would only get one chance. He had to make sure he got it right.

He took the train downtown then the subway to the street in North Park where Mr. Mackelray had met his end. He found the garbage can where Bane had deposited his bloody knife and gloves. Bruce had a knife of his own: a Swiss army knife. He used it to pick the garbage can’s lock. They’d told him how to do it. It was easily accomplished. And there they were, the material he needed to convict John Banneman. Careful not to leave his own fingerprints on them, Bruce put the knife and gloves in a large padded envelope which he then sealed. The parcel had a name and address on it: Detective Stark of Gotham P.D. Homicide. He went to the phone booth and called a bike messenger service. Twenty minutes later the messenger arrived and Bruce gave him two packages: one to be left at Gotham P.D.’S downtown front desk, and one to be hand delivered to John Banneman at his place of employment, the Commerce Way branch of Empire Bank.

Bruce paid the messenger and watched him leave. That was it. The wheels were in motion. Now it was time to get his head right. Going to school of course was not an option. He wanted to practice first, think things through, prepare his nerves. He’d been anticipating this day for a long time. He wanted it all to have a certain poeticism. So he took the subway back to the train station and bought a one-way ticket upstate to Niagara Falls. It was as good a place as he could imagine. Besides, he liked flying. There was something cleansing about it. He wanted there to be plenty of it in his future.

He stared out the window at the passing urban, then suburban, then wooded landscape.

This is it, he thought, this is how Batman meets the world. He did not want to disappoint, and he didn’t think he would. He imagined the timing of it all would be just about perfect, and would come with it the requisite amount of mystery: Bruce too, after all, had no idea how he knew the things he’d been told. Perhaps it would be a long, fruitful correspondence. Gotham City, after all, needed all the help it could get.

John was, undeniably, all nerves. He noticed the bike messenger as soon as he came into the bank, but such characters were common at any bank.

The pace of business was slow. There was no one in line. Imagine then the little thrill of shock that ran through him when he saw the messenger speak to one of the attendants who turned and pointed at John himself. All at once he knew he’d made a mistake. He never should have killed Terrence Mackelray, even if the presence hadn’t been there for months. He must have missed it. He must have been found out.

The messenger approached him and produced a manila envelope.

“John Banneman?” the messenger asked.

John nodded mutely.

“Special delivery.”

The messenger handed him the envelope, then seemed to linger, as if expecting a tip.

“What, you want money?” John burst out. “Get the fuck out of here!” and he pointed heatedly towards the front door.

The messenger left, but now John’s co-workers were eying him humorously.

“It’s nothing,” he announced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude.”

Hands shaking, he opened the envelope. Inside there were only two items: a letter and a photograph. The photograph he instantly recognized as the one he’d seen the presence take when John had tried to confront him. There, after all, was John Banneman himself, alone in the middle of a night time street.

“It’s him,” he muttered, and the prospect of discovery exploded in his mind. He hadn’t even sent a photograph to the papers this time. Too much exposure. He’d been too daring, less than careful. He should have just quit while he was still ahead.

Sweat beading on his forehead (he felt like he was overheating, a mean red flush consuming his whole body), he turned his attention to the letter. This is what it said:

Dear Mr. John Banneman,

I found the knife you used to kill Mr. Mackelray, along with the gloves you were wearing. By this time tomorrow every cop in Gotham will know who you are and what you’ve done. It’s too late. There’s nothing you can do about it. However, if you have any questions for me, how I did it, why I did it, or who knows what else, you’re more than welcome to meet me tonight, 8:00 PM, at a warehouse at 3226 Water St just South of the port. I’ll be waiting. I very much hope to see you so I can pulverize you myself.

Sincerely, your lifelong enemy,

   Batman

A haze fell over John, a veritable bloodlust.

“I’ll see you there,” he said. “What you might not know is I’ll be packing heat.”

He could already imagine himself holding his .357 Magnum to Batman’s head and forcing him to be before he pulled the trigger, destroying a face which John may or may not find familiar. Had he ever met this person? How was it possible? Indeed, he had plenty of questions to which he would require answers. A rendezvous on Water St sounded like just the thing.

He still ha three hours before his shift ended. The time passed tortuously.

Bruce found a bench with a good view of the crashing, calamitous water. He let himself relax. He took deep breaths and let the calm before the storm wash over him. His psychic handlers had been absent all day. Fuck them, he didn’t need them. Besides, he liked imagining Bane’s confusion and fear himself. If the two met tonight, and Bruce believed that they would, it might become the perfect catharsis to his grief, which sometimes still felt fresh. Bane might never know he’d killed Batman’s parents. Maybe Bruce’s visit to the bank, so long ago, might occur to him at some point, but who would listen to him? Bruce would just deny it. He imagined the hole into which the justice system would plunge John Banneman would be far too deep for his recollections to matter.

The sun was beginning to set. The view was incredible. He was alone at this portion of the observation deck. He went into his duffel bag and took out his wings and jet pack. He took off his civilian clothes so now he wore only his body armor.

He approached the fence dividing him from the fall bellow, and put on his equipment. He threw the duffel bag and his clothes over the side. He activated the electricity to extend his wings, and revved up the jetpack’s engine with the handlebars he held in both hands. Bruce began to lift off. He couldn’t be sure, but he thought he heard someone scream when he went over the side.

He swooped down towards the water, air beating his face, then righted himself and came up. He pulled a figure-eight just for the hell of it, then headed South East. He imagined it would be an hour and a half or so to reach the warehouse on Water St. Therefore he had plenty of time. He could already almost taste his victory, though, of course, there was still one thing to do: catch the monster who had killed his parents himself.

John arrived at the rendezvous one hour early. It looked to be just another abandoned warehouse in a neighborhood full of them. The whole time he waited there he saw no sign of life: no foot traffic, and not even a single automobile. Batman, then, like, Bane, decided on his surroundings with care. It was unnerving. It made John feel like he was being outsmarted. And what a strange name for himself he’d come up with. John craved a better look at him.

Apparently an hour’s head start had not been enough. The hands on his wristwatch approached 8:00. John didn’t know what else to do but follow his tormentor’s instructions.

He came out of the shadows and approached the warehouse. When he got close enough he saw an answer to a question he’d generated for himself some half an hour ago: whether or not the door would be locked. Indeed there was a deadbolt above the doorknob: there was also a key in it. The door was locked when he turned the doorknob, but when he turned the key in the deadbolt above it the door swung open. Beyond the threshold was further darkness. Bane stepped into it.

“Close the door,” came a booming, amplified voice from all sides.

Bane spun around, looked at all sides, one hand still in his jacket pocket with his Magnum. He saw no one and nothing.

“Close the door. I’m only telling you once.”

“Okay, fine,” John said and closed the door. As soon as he did the warehouse exploded with light. There was a system of floodlights on all sides, all aimed at John. But, crucially, no Batman.

“I just took some more pictures of you, John. One way or another this is your last night of freedom.”

“I know,” John said, still pivoting, looking to all sides, “I just thought maybe I’d get the chance to take you with me.”

“Take my advice. Look in front of you.”

Unable to resist the power of suggestion John did as the voice bid. Indeed there was something there, some kind of pedestal with some object upon it. Not requiring any further impetus, John slowly approached it.

“It’s… some kind of mask,” he said. He drew near it. It was black. Indeed it called to mind an animal, perhaps even a bat.

“It is a mask. It’s my mask. And that’s as close as you’re ever going to get to touching it.”

Then something fell on him and John realized his mistake: while he’d looked to all sides, he’d failed to look up.

It was a net. He found himself instantly fighting for mobility, but finding little. Its sides must have been weighted. And then Batman himself descended upon him, pummeling him, knocking him down with kicks and punches that felt somehow especially painful.

With some difficulty Bane took his gun out of his jacket and tried to gain enough distance from the apparition to point it at him, but the thing struck the Magnum’s muzzle and deflected it, and the shot rang out harmlessly. Bane was now on the floor, and Batman’s heavy boot was on his wrist, and then his painful fist knocked the gun away. It skittered away across the floor, and the fists and kicks kept falling as John found himself beaten down and immobilized, pain all throughout his body as the blows kept coming, helpless, so quickly and easily defeated. He curled into a ball and tried to put his arms over his head. The hits kept coming, and Bane felt the fight completely beat out of him, and then some more.

It must have been several minutes later when Batman stopped hitting him. Through his fingers which were tented over his eyes, Bane watched the thing approach the pedestal, take the mask, and put it over his head. Then it turned to face his captured prey. All Bane could tell was that it was thin, and that it had brown hair. Now its image was complete: some dark, winged thing with indeterminate identity.

Bane began to cry. There was no denying that he had been bested. What with the net and the pain inflicted on him he was afraid to even move.

Batman knelt at John’s side and rolled him onto his stomach.

“Stay still,” he said. “If you move I’ll kill you.”

He grabbed one of John’s wrists and pulled it to the small of his back. He straddled John’s body, which was strangely tingling and numb.

“What did you do to me?” he asked.

“You’ve been hit with electric shots. It’ll wear off in time. I only wish I could be there when it does so I could hit you some more.”

John couldn’t be sure but he thought Batman was doing something to his hand. He did this for a little while, then he did it to the other hand.

“Who are you?” Bane asked.

“I told you already. My name’s Batman.”

“How…? What…?”

“It doesn’t matter. The police will be here soon. I’m going to make this as easy for them as possible. I’ve just finished taking your fingerprints, which will match perfectly with the ones on the knife that is now in police custody.”

A bit more time passed and then the thing stood up. Bane found his wrists and hands, still numb, were now bound together. Next Batman did the same to his ankles, leaving Bane trussed up and dressed like a Christmas present.

“See?” Batman said, dangling a piece of paper before Bane’s eyes. “Those are your fingerprints. See? I know what I’m doing, don’t I?”

Bane was still crying. There was nothing else he could think to try to accomplish.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I wanted to, that’s why.”

Then Batman kicked him in the ribs.

“The police will be here eventually. What are you going to tell them?”

“Huh?”

Batman kicked him again.

“What are you going to tell them? Who did this to you?”

“I don’t… I don’t…”

“Fucking say it you worthless sack of shit!”

He kicked Bane again, and again, and then grabbed the back of his head, pulled the head back, and slammed it into the pavement.

“Batman!” Bane shouted. “Fucking Batman did this to me!”

“Very good, John Banneman. Tell them that. Some day they’ll love to hear it.”

Batman pressed John’s face hard to the floor a little while longer, then he stood up.

“Goodbye, Mr. Banneman. I don’t believe I’ll ever see you again. You better hope that’s true.”

Bane was still crying as he heard footsteps leaving him. Then the lights went out. He heard the door open and close, leaving him in total darkness.

The phone was ringing at the Gordon family’s apartment. Jim answered it.

“Hello?” he said.

“You will find Bane, true name John Banneman, gift wrapped for you at a warehouse on Water St. Do you have a pen?”

“Huh?”

“You heard me. I called you once before but apparently I hadn’t been convincing enough. This time there’s no mistaking it.”

Indeed, Jim recognized the voice, which, in keeping with the last time he’d heard it, didn’t sound like much more than a kid.

“A pen?” he said dumbly.

“Yes. Write it down. 3226 Water Street, just South of the port. You got it?”

Gordon scrambled a moment to find a piece of paper and he wrote down the address.

“Gift wrapped?”

“Hog tied and everything. I even took his prints for you.”

Jim had already received notice that they’d received a promising tip about the Bane murders. Every cop in the city was on the lookout for a big, hulking ex-military man named John Banneman, though last Gordon had heard the man hadn’t returned to his apartment.

“Do you want to tell me your name?” Jim asked.

“Ask Bane. He’ll tell you.”

“You sound pretty young to me.”

“I am, but I won’t be forever. I don’t think this is the last time you’ll hear from me. I’m sort of in training.”

“Not even a hint?”

“Just another crazy I guess, but me, I like to call myself Batman.”

Then the line terminated.

“Batman,” Jim echoed. “Interesting.”

Jim hung up the phone. He walked into his bedroom and put on a coat. Then he gathered his cuffs, badge, gun, and flashlight.

“I’m going out,” he said to Celia.

He walked quickly down the stairs and got into his car. He fought the moderate nighttime traffic East. Twenty minutes after he left his apartment he arrived at the address on Water St. He was glad he’d thought to bring his flashlight, because it was a ill-lit area indeed. Like Bane had before him he found the key already inserted in the locked door. He opened the door and clicked on his flashlight. It didn’t take him long to find John Banneman’s inert form.

“Mr. Banneman?” he asked. He received no answer, but, as he got closer, he found that the man was crying.

There was a slip of paper on the ground next to him with a full set of well-applied, labeled fingerprints. Whoever Batman was, he didn’t seem willing to take any chances.

“Who did this to you?” Gordon asked.

John Banneman only seemed to shake his head and cry harder. Whoever it was had done quite a number on him.

“Batman?” Gordon asked.

John nodded.

“You’re Bane aren’t you?”

“Am I arrested?”

“I should say so.”

“Some nut in a costume. He had wings. He put on a mask. He said his name was Batman.”

“Batman. How very strange.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll tell the papers all about it. Credit where credit is due.”

Somehow, it made Jim Gordon smile. They’d had no leads whatsoever on catching Bane. Finally, a good guy. Just what Gotham needed. How was it possible?

Over the ensuing days the newspapers asked the same question. Like many others, Gordon turned the thought over in his mind. He wondered why it had been he that the apparition had contacted. But there was no denying a certain celebratory relief in the city to know that the serial killer that had been terrorizing them was finally caught. And the captor’s name had been Batman. Maybe, just maybe, exactly what Gotham needed.

Chapter 14

Sarah Stadler’s Office (2)

“I went to stop him the other night,” Bruce said.

“You mean Bane?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“It was the third time I did this, but it was the first time he noticed me. I stood very still down the block from him. I don’t know when he saw me, but the guy he wanted to kill passed right in front of him and he didn’t do it.”

“Did your visitors tell you who this man was?”

“His name is Terrence Mackelray, another rich guy. He lives West of Uptown and sometimes walks home at night. Bane’s been watching him for a while. He’s become more careful.”

Sarah made a note in her notebook.

“Like I said,” Bruce continued, “he noticed me. When he started coming towards me I took a picture of him. The he ran towards me. I hid in the next block over and he didn’t see me. Then I went home, and the voices told me I had to wait for him to kill again before they would tell me how to get him. They said there were fingerprints on the knife he was going to use.”

“Bruce,” Sarah said with some feeling, leaning forward, “you know what you’re telling me isn’t possible.”

“I know. What, do you have an explanation?”

“I think you’re creating these things with your mind. Don’t you find it convenient that Bane also happened to kill your parents?”

“He said so himself in the newspaper. He said ‘you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.’”

“It’s just not possible.”

“So you think I’m making it up?”

“Well, I don’t think you’re lying, but…”

“But what?”

“But… I don’t know. I think you wish you could have protected your parents, and that’s something you will always carry with you.”

Bruce slouched a little into his chair. His eyes were locked with Sarah’s, and his had much fire in them.

“I’m going to get him some day, Sarah. Then you’ll see for yourself.”

“But not until someone else dies.”

“That’s what they said. It might not be for a while. I can’t tell them to help me more, can I? I just have to wait.”

“How does it make you feel? That they’re going to let another person die?”

“Feel? It makes me feel rotten. In fact I think I already hate them.”

“But there’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Right.”

“So what, in your mind, would be ideal? If you could have the voices tell you exactly what you wanted to hear, what would it be?”

“How to catch him in the act. How to stop him and trap him and get him for myself. I’m not going to kill him, but I am going to catch him.”

“And then what?”

“And then… I don’t know, maybe to keep doing it. Gotham’s such a scary place. Everyone’s always afraid. Maybe I can help somehow. Why else would I be taking the boxing and flying classes?”

“Why do you want to do this?”

“Honestly? Because I think I’d be good at it.”

Sarah took a sip of water, then leaned back and put her feet on the ottoman in front of her chair. She found herself smiling. Bruce always had a way of making her believe in him, improbable as that could be.

“Sounds like a lot of responsibility.”

“I know I’m still a kid, but who knows when the next Bane or Joker might come around. Maybe I’ll be old enough. I want to be ready for him.”

“I understand you’re speaking with a lot of passion. Since I don’t think I can dissuade you please promise me one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“That you’ll be careful.”

Bruce nodded and thought for a moment.

“It depends on what happens,” he said. “If it’s dangerous…”

“Of course it’s dangerous. If you’re right about all this you’re pursuing one of the worst killers the city’s ever seen, and that’s saying something.”

“I know, but how can I help it?”

Sarah paused.

“You’re saying you won’t promise me,” she said.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I can’t promise anything.”

“You won’t be doing your parents any favors by getting yourself hurt or God forbid killed.”

Bruce nodded slightly, then: “Well, I’m going to do my best. I’m going to be Batman.”

“Is this the character you’ve been drawing?”

“Yep. It took me a while to realize he was me. He was always in the background, watching. If he’d been there he could’ve stopped Bane and his friend. Once I grow up he’ll be anywhere he’s needed.”

“That’s mighty brave of you.”

“I think it’s going to be fun.”

Sarah took another sip of water.

Bruce went on: “And I promise you some day you’ll find out for sure that I’m not crazy. Once I catch Bane everyone’s gonna know about Batman. Don’t you think they’ll like that? Finally someone who doesn’t want to kill them?”

Sarah almost laughed. It was such a strange conversation.

She checked her watch. They were almost out of time.

“You know I have to tell the police if someone’s going to die,” she said.

“That’s the whole point. If it were up to me no one ever would.”

Sarah sighed. She had to admit her training was failing her.

“You’re so very young, Bruce,” she said.

“I know. I can’t wait to grow up.”

“We’re out of time,” she said, standing up. “I’ll see you next week. I hope your schoolwork and Batman training goes well.”

“Thanks. I’ll be as careful as I can be,” he said, then walked past her out of her office.

She closed the door behind him. To call herself intrigued would have been an understatement.

Chapter 13

The First Encounter

After Bane’s fourth kill many in East Park began demanding a stronger police presence in their besieged neighborhood. The city did its best to comply, but it wasn’t enough. Another killing happened, complete with photographs in the next day’s Gotham Globe. So, up in arms, they held a community meeting and agreed to pool their resources and hire a fleet of 50 private security officers. Still, come evening time, the wealthy enclave’s streets became depressingly devoid of life. No one went out any more after the sun went down. It was this reason, as much as the heightened security, that Bane himself decided he would have to find his victims elsewhere. He’d come to choosing them at random, pacing the streets in search of opportunely lonely civilians on ill-lit streets, particularly those that bordered the. Now, it seemed, those days were behind him. This was frustrating. He only wanted to kill those he envied, but he very much still wanted to kill, right up until the very day of his arrest, the more the merrier. On the opposite side of the park was another wealthy area, West Park, though it wasn’t quite as glitzy as its counterpart. Maybe he should go there next. That or he could pick out another target from those that visited his bank, none of whom, however, had enough profile to equal Ghislaine Maxwell’s. He also believed he knew better than to, proverbially, shit where he ate. In other words, Bane decided to plan his next move more carefully. A period of months passed without a new set of photographs. Eventually though he picked out a customer who came in once every couple months to deposit checks into his IRA. The unfortunate’s name was Terrence Mackelray, vice-president of an advertising agency on 12th Street. He lived in a penthouse in Uptown, an entertainment district North of East Park. Bane began to stalk his fresh prey. Mr. Mackelray lived alone, but he had several adult children. He worked most weekends, and usually commuted on foot, since his company was based not far from his residence. While for the most part his routine involved heavily trafficked areas, there were a few blocks in which the deed could probably be accomplished. Bane began to wait there for the moment to come, knife, gloves, and Polaroid at the ready. Imagine his surprise, then, to gradually believe he was not doing so alone.

At first it was an uncomfortable feeling he couldn’t account for. When his grandmother used to say her “ears were burning,” upon her return to a room where the rest of the family had been talking about her, she was usually right. It wasn’t a supernatural ability, but rather an example of heightened intuition. And as John tried to account for this uneasiness, checking over his shoulder and around the darkened streets more carefully, he realized one night that there was, in fact, a presence: a dark shape in the shadow on the very block John occupied. It was there on Thursday, and Bane didn’t make his move. It was there again on Saturday. It was very still, almost lifeless. It could have been mistaken for a statue. It seemed to be wearing a mask, and some kind of cloak.

John sat on the bus stop bench and watched it as Mr. Mackelray walked right in front of him. Had his ears not been burning John could have done the deed right then and there. Instead he decided this to be the right time to instigate a confrontation.

He stood up and began to cross the street, which was otherwise empty of life now that Mr. Mackelray had passed through it. Maybe the presence would serve as an adequate substitute. But as Bane began to approach it it came to life. It was indeed a person, and on the slim side, maybe easy pickings.

John was perhaps 30 yards away from it when there was a flash: a camera! Perhaps a Polaroid like John’s! There was a flash, then the figure turned and ran, cloak billowing in the air.

“Hey! Hey you!” John yelled losing himself in the moment. “Don’t you run from me!”

But the thing was fast indeed. It turned left at the next intersection. John hastened to catch up. There was a space of time perhaps five seconds long where John lost sight of it. Then, when he followed it around the corner, he found himself facing an empty street: no presence to be found. But his ears were still burning. How had it disappeared? It couldn’t have gone far, could it?

John spun around, ran a ways down the street, spun around again, but his reconnaissance was unsuccessful. The thing was gone.

Was it possible he’d hallucinated it? Couldn’t be. And the flash. Now there was evidence somewhere that John had been in the place Mr. Mackelray was to die. It was disturbing to say the least. A short while later John decided to leave, and entered the closest subway stop he could find. At least it wasn’t the police. That was something, but it certainly begged a perplexing questions: what, on Earth, was it, and how much did it already know?

Bruce got home some two hours later. The picture he’d taken had been ill lit. You couldn’t make out the subject’s features, couldn’t tell who it was. But Bruce was reasonably certain that if he hadn’t been there Bane’s new target would have met an untimely demise.

No one saw him come in. Alfred was probably asleep.

There was still adrenaline pumping through Bruce’s veins. He shed his costume in his parents’ room then brushed his teeth and went to his own. He got into be though he wasn’t tired, and spent some time staring at the ceiling in the dark. Then, as he’d hoped they would, his strange supernatural handlers came back. He was looking through John Banneman’s eyes. He had made it back home too. He was shaken up. He poured himself a double shot of brandy to calm his nerves, then he sat at his meagre kitchen table, still wearing his gloves, handling the knife he’d almost put to use. Bruce wondered if there were fingerprints on it.

There are, Bruce heard, their ghostly whisper.

Bruce observed John’s thought process. He was wondering whether or not to continue to pursue Terrence Mackelray.

Do you see? Bruce heard. He’s frightened.

“Who are you?” Bruce asked the empty room.

You’ll know in due time, came the response. Think of us as allies if you want.

John went to his refrigerator and got a can of Diet Coke to chase the brandy. His hands were shaking.

You see the problem, don’t you? The voice asked. You’ve scared him away. You’ll never catch him if you keep doing that.

“What else could I do?”

Wait for him to kill again.

“Again?”

Just keep doing what you’re doing. Keep training. Larry thinks you’re a good pupil. So does Candace.

Those were, respectively, Bruce’s boxing instructor and the Applied Sciences employee teaching him to operate the flying equipment.

It’s our own fault. We wanted to whet your appetite. You might not hear from us for a little while. He has to kill again, then we’ll give you what information you need to nab him. Keep the photo. That was a good idea.

“You’ll let him kill someone?”

Yes we will. It’s for the better, ultimately.

“That’s not right.”

Beggars can’t be choosers, Bruce.

Bane’s hand was on his kitchen table, fingers drumming a staccato. Somehow Bruce knew he was bathed in a cold sweat.

Be ready when the time comes. We promise he won’t get away with what he’s done.

It didn’t sit well with Bruce, the concept of letting another person die. A recurring problem he had with his psychic handlers: he highly disliked them, though he had to admit the thought of catching Bane himself was a highly appealing one.

Bane’s eyesight gradually faded away and Bruce heard no more voices. Eventually he fell asleep, and the next thing he knew Alfred was knocking on his door to wake him for school. Bruce continued on in his routine as if nothing had happened.

Chapter 12

Lucius Fox and Applied Sciences

Bruce got up early the following Saturday. He went into his parents’ room and then into his mother’s purse where he found the cash he needed to catch the train. Wayne Manor was too far south of the city center, so to get to Applied Science’s campus required a train ride downtown and then a transfer to the subway. Alfred had breakfast waiting for him, as per usual: eggs, bacon, and coffee. Bruce ate quickly, hugged Alfred and left. The commute was uneventful. Bruce always liked the train, particularly looking out the window at the passing scenery. The subway was grittier. The cars were heavily graffitied and often chock full of unsavory characters. Wayne Enterprises had, once upon a time, invested heavily in the system. Now it had largely fallen into neglect, though it was still the most comprehensive public transit network in the country. It made the sprawling city just a little less baffling. Applied Sciences itself took up several acres North of Central Park. It was sandwiched between a relatively glitzy shopping district, a poorer area to the North, and a few blocks of run-down factories to the East. He found Lucius waiting for him in the lobby.

“Hello Mr. Wayne,” Lucius said.

“Morning, Lucius.”

Bruce was wearing jeans, a blue parka, and a backpack. He and Lucius regarded each other a moment. Bruce guessed that Lucius might consider this a chance to feel him out, young as he was, to decide whether or not he was worthy of the same kind of respect his father had earned over the years. Bruce didn’t want to disappoint him.

“Well, where should we start?” Lucius asked.

“From the beginning I guess.”

“Yes, I guess so.” Lucius motioned with his hand. “Follow me.

Bruce followed Lucius out of the lobby into a well-lit corridor with doors and windows on both sides. Looking into the rooms they passed Bruce thought they looked like laboratories, with many strange looking cubicles, glass menageries, and intensely lit dirt beds.

“You could say,” Lucius began, “that your father’s company had its fingers in a lot of pies. We have a lucrative partnership with Gotham University. We do infectious disease research, bio-engineering, and foods. You know, rice, wheat, maize breeds that grow more quickly and produce higher yields. Famine reduction. That’s what you’re seeing here.”

There were plenty of lab coat-wearing techies at work. None of them seemed to notice Bruce and Lucius.

“Is this the kind of thing you’re interested in?” Lucius asked.

“Well, I think it’s interesting,” Bruce answered.

“Is there anything in particular  you want to see?”

“I’ll know it when I see it.”

They came to the end of the corridor. Lucius opened a door and the two went outside into the sunlight. Before them was a vast pavement with lanes and cones. It reminded Bruce of an airport’s tarmac. He noticed, on the edge of the tarmac, a line of automobiles that looked like crosses between civilian cars and military tanks.

“I guess I’m too young for these,” Bruce said.

“Come back when you’re sixteen and we’ll talk.”

“This is your Pentagon business isn’t it?”

“That’s right.”

“I’d love to see it all. The stuff you said about superheroes.”

This struck Lucius as unsurprising coming from a teenager, but he kept this observation to himself.

They walked past the tank/cars and approached another warehouse with a closed sheetmetal door. Lucius unlocked a smaller  entryway to the side of this. On the other side he turned on the lights and Bruce’s eyes lit up. There were neatly organized aisles of shelving, coatracks laden with what looked like suits of body armor, and weaponry. Except there were no guns. None anywhere. This was absolutely fine with him.

Lucius stood to the side and watched the boy approach the merchandise. Oddly enough, Lucius’ impression was of someone who knew what he was looking for.

“Is this body armor?” Bruce asked.

“It is. It can stop a bullet, but it was also made for paratroopers to stick a heavy landing.”

“You jump out of planes with these things?”

“You do.”

“Can you make one for me?”

“Well… sure we could”

“I want you to.”

“You do? Why?”

“Because I asked you to. It’s all mine anyway, isn’t it?”

The two stared at each other.

“No rush,” Bruce continued. “I want to be trained how to use it too. I’m doing this project, okay? I’m telling you it’s really important. And it’ll be fun too, okay?”

“Well…”

“Just let me keep looking. I’ll tell you what I want.”

“As long as it’s not dangerous.”

“With the right training it won’t be, right? I know I’m just a kid but I’m responsible for my age, I promise.”

Lucius couldn’t help but laugh.

“What on Earth could the point be?”

“I don’t know why that matters. I’m really responsible for my age. I know why it sounds weird, but it’s a hobby, okay? I want to keep looking, I’ll tell you what else I want.”

“If you say so, Mr. Wayne. I’ll let you browse.”

Bruce continued down the aisle. A few yards later he pointed again and looked at Lucius. What he’d found were pairs of thick gloves fortified with metal and wiring.

“These are close combat enhancements,” Lucius said. “You deliver electric shocks with each landed blow.”

“Yeah, these. Definitely these.”

They continued through the warehouse. Bruce didn’t point to anything else until the end.

“You can fly with these, can’t you?” Bruce asked.

Lucius came to his side. He hadn’t expected so purposeful an appraisal. He didn’t know what to think about it, or what Bruce’s parents would think about it. But Bruce had been right to say it all belonged to him anyway. Lucius couldn’t rightly refuse him.

“Yes, this is flying equipment. It’s a combination of a jetpack and hang glider.”

“It looks so cool. It looks like a cape.”

“You don’t wear it to make a fashion statement.”

“I know. I’m just screwing around. I want to learn how to use it.”

Lucius decided it was no more than a kid looking for a fun way to impress his friends. Except… well, there was probably no point in reading to much into it.

“Okay Bruce, follow me and we’ll get you set up.”

Bruce tailed Lucius out of the warehouse and back into the main building.

“I’m signing up for boxing lessons,” Bruce said, as if thinking out loud. “I’m gonna do that on my own for the electric gloves. But I definitely want to learn how to use the flying equipment.”

“No problem. But be careful, okay? These aren’t toys we’re talking about.”

“I know. I promise I’ll take it all really seriously.”

In Lucius’ office thy mad plans for Bruce to visit Applied Sciences twice a week starting this Wednesday afternoon. Lucius had to admit to himself that he couldn’t quite get a bead on the company’s heir apparent. To be truthful he’d acted like a kid in a candy store. Maybe it was just because learning how to box and fly sounded like fun. What else could it be, after all?

When the two parted it was with a handshake and a shared smile. Bruce, walking quickly down the sidewalk to the subway, was rejoicing that he believed he’d found exactly what he was looking for.

Chapter 11

Bruce’s Twelfth Birthday

Many of the adults who came to the funeral also came to Bruce’s twelfth birthday party, in addition to perhaps twenty of Bruce’s friends and classmates. This one, Bruce knew, he couldn’t sit out. It would be the first large gathering he’d been to since. He was afraid he’d changed. What with his ambitions and his strange dreams he knew he had a lot on his mind.

Alfred set up the grill to the side of the pool, where one of the staff would be in charge of the hotdogs and hamburgers. It was unseasonably warm, so a lot of the guests brought their swimsuits. There was also an inflatable bouncy castle, though Alfred suspected that after this year most of the children would be too big for it. Lastly was the long table where Bruce would open his gifts. By 1:30 it was already crowded with them.

Claire Emory and her family made the trip from Chicago. They occupied a few guest rooms and were going to stay the weekend. Bruce had already seen her. From a single look she’d been able to tell he’d changed.

He came down into the party at around 2:00. He found John Aaron near the pool, and Maria soon materialized at his side. Already Bruce found himself pleasantly relieved: If there was something to be afraid of here Bruce couldn’t initially find it. No one asked anything of him, nor appeared to expect anything. They were simply glad to see him. As the afternoon passed he even began to smile. Since he was in his swim trunks he jumped in the pool and floated around for a few minutes. A memory came to him, that of his last birthday, and the sight of his parents laughing on each other’s arms. Thoughts such as these were often unavoidable. But Bruce didn’t choke up. When he got out of the pool he found a towel and approached Alfred, who was in conversation with Lucius Fox, a Wayne Enterprise bigwig from some division or another. They were having an adult conversation, something to do with Fox’s responsibility over something called Applied Sciences.

“Sure, we’ve got a lot of irons in the fire,” Lucius was saying, noticing Bruce, “but if there’s one investment Thomas never shirked from it was here. We’ve got dealings with infectious disease research at Gotham University, and contracts with the Pentagon.”

“The Pentagon?” Bruce asked.

“Yep. Arms manufacture and the like. Not everything catches their attention, but we’re creative.”

“What kind of stuff do you make?”

“All kinds, my young friend.”

“Have you an interest, Bruce?” Alfred asked.

“Sounds interesting.”

“You should come take a visit some day then. We’re located in North Park.”

“I know I want to learn more about the company.”

Alfred said: “Arms manufacture is a very lucrative element at Wayne Enterprises. Body armor for active duty soldiers, air transport.”

Lucius: “I think your father’s imagination sometimes got the best of him. Soldiers don’t often moonlight as superheroes after all.”

Alfred watched in Bruce what appeared to be a thought process.

“I’m very interested,” Bruce said. “How about next weekend?”

“It’s a date, young sir.”

Lucius went into his pocket and produced a business card. “Take this. Just give me a call and I’ll show you around.”

“Thanks,” Bruce said. “I guess I’ll go see my friends now,” then he drifted away.

“Seems like a sharp kid,” said Lucius.

“I think very highly of him,” Alfred agreed. “At some point he will have to learn about the company. When and how I suppose he’ll have to decide for himself.”

“Tall for his age too.”

“That he is.”

Then the conversation went on to more pertinent topics.

The party went on into the evening. Bruce opened his presents. He received a lot of clothes, books, Super Nintendo games, and movies on VHS. Most prominently Claire had bought him a bow and arrow, and, through coordination with Alfred, a haystack with a packet of paper bullseye targets. He and a few of his friends had fun with that one for a while. As the sun set some of the guests left, particularly those with children. When it got dark the assemblage moved indoors into Wayne Manor’s main dining hall. Some of the adults were inebriated. Though he’d gotten a stern look from Alfred, Bruce had had a few drinks himself. He made sure he got some for John Aaron and Maria too. The three of them were in the home theater room watching a Gotham Knights baseball game. They were playing the Red Sox and winning. The noise throughout this part of the mansion was plentiful. For Bruce it was a little tiring, but he was having fun. Initially, though, and especially as he drank (a lightly mixed gin and soda), melancholia threatened to overtake him.

“Good party, Bruce,” John Aaron said. “They really let you do what you want here.”

“I have to be responsible,” Bruce replied. “Alfred’s easy on me, but I have to my own mom and dad now.”

“I bet you miss them, huh?”

“Yeah, I do. This is the most people I’ve been around in a long time.”

“Hey, whatever happened between you and Clorous?” Maria interjected. “He never got back at you, did he?”

“Well you didn’t see it, did you?”

“I guess not. But I was surprised. Usually he’s the one doing the beating up.”

“I don’t know, I guess he dropped it. We had a conflict mediation meeting with Barbara and she had me tell him I was sorry, even though I wasn’t. He said he was sorry too. I didn’t even have to ask him.”

“Yeah, no one wears those stupid masks any more anyway,” said Maria. “He deserved it.”

“I think he agrees with you.”

“You sure did a number on him though,” John Aaron said, laughing.

“I did my time,” Bruce went on. “I was out of school for three days. I’ve been drawing a lot. That’s mostly what I did.”

“You should show me some time,” Maria said. “I’d love to see how good you are. You’re good in art class anyways.”

“Sure, just remind me. I need to learn more about the company too. We’re setting up some homeschool sessions for me.”

“Only weirdos do homeschool,” said Maria.

“What, you think learning about the company is less important than learning geometry or algebra? I have to be my own mom and dad. I should be spending my time learning things that I actually need to know.”

Maria smiled and patted his arm. “Don’t worry, I’m not calling you a weirdo. We would all miss you, that’s all.”

John Aaron again: “You’re really lucky Clorous and his brother didn’t decide to beat you up.”

“What, you wouldn’t have my back?”

“Well, for what it’s worth I guess I would. I don’t think I’d last five minutes.”

Maria: “Stop talking about Clorous! Everyone knows he had it coming. Those damn masks. No Joker any more, now we just have to worry about Bane.”

Bruce coughed. “Bane?”

“Yep. He killed another one the other day. Sent more pictures and another letter to the newspapers.”

“He says he only kills rich people,” said John Aaron.

“Well I guess that’s me.”

“Pretty scary city we live in,” said John Aaron.

Bruce: “At least no one’s putting on Bane masks.”

“I think everyone’s afraid of him,” said Maria. “I have a cousin who’s a cop. He says it’s usually hard to catch serial killers, and Gotham’s police aren’t making any progress at all.”

“What Gotham needs is someone who can,” said Bruce.

“Where would we find someone like that?” asked Maria.

“I don’t know. Someone who cares,” said Bruce. “There are so many angry people. There’s so much suffering. That’s why they put on those masks to begin with.”

Bruce finished the last of his drink.

“I kind of want another,” he said.

“You ever been drunk before?” asked Maria.

“This is officially my first.”

This made them all laugh.

“This is my second,” said Maria.

“First for me too,” said John Aaron.

“You guys want more? Maybe you can sleep over.”

“Get me another red wine,” said Maria.

“I’m a little behind here,” said John Aaron.

“Can do,” said Bruce. “I’ll be right back.”

Bruce took Maria’s plastic cup and left his friends. He navigated through the still thick crowd of adults to the bar and poured himself more gin and soda, then filled Maria’s cup with the first red wine he saw.

“Hey little buddy, take it easy there.”

Bruce looked up and saw Claire smiling at him.

“Really though,” she went on, “you drink too much you might be foolish and regret it tomorrow.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever been drunk.”

“Fun, isn’t it?”

“It is. I’m having a good time. I’m so glad I’m having a good time.”

“It’s nice to come and visit. I love Gotham.”

“So do I.”

Now Bruce didn’t know what to say. He’d never known Claire that well, though she was the only family he was aware of aside from his parents.

“Sorry,” she said. “You go back to your friends. Maybe we can all go out for breakfast in the morning.”

“Okay, that would be awesome.”

Then Bruce left her and returned to Maria and John Aaron, who mostly seemed to be awaiting his return. When he gave Maria her drink their hands touched briefly, and Bruce saw that she was looking at him. He’d heard about that happening when you drink too much. The three of them went on talking for another hour or so until Maria’s parents came and collected her. Bruce and John Aaron watched the rest of the baseball game. When his parents came he asked if he could stay the night and they said he could. But please, they added, don’t drink too much more. John Aaron promised he wouldn’t. Soon enough the party began to dissipate. After the game was over (the Knights won), they played Super Nintendo games for a few hours then went to sleep, both of them on couches in the home theater room. In the morning the lot of them went out for breakfast, then they took John Aaron home. Bruce felt extremely relieved to find himself in good spirits. Maybe there wasn’t too much to be afraid of after all, at least not amongst his friends. He found himself thinking more about Maria. That might be an interesting bit of something. Yet there were so many bigger things he knew he had to worry about.

He did some more drawing that afternoon, then he went to sleep, and, once again, was visited by the frustratingly inarticulate dreams. Bane had already picked out a new target, and, no matter how much Bruce wished otherwise, he was absolutely powerless to prevent it. All he could do was what the dream people suggested: to make himself ready. That he would continue to do.

Chapter 10

Sarah Stadler’s Office (1), Three Months Later

There was a picture on Sarah Stadler’s office that always captured Bruce’s attention. It was dark, black with shades of grey, that seemed to emulate, in its curves and lines, a kind of pregnancy, though the curled legs and round midsection lacked a face or arms. You could look at it and get lost in it. Anyway it was often easier than looking straight at Sarah, whose eye contact never broke. Bruce guessed this was one of the most important elements of a therapist’s training: if someone was never afraid to look you in the eye they kept a natural advantage.

“My birthday’s coming up,” Bruce said. “I’ll be twelve. We’re gonna have a party at my house. Everyone from school and Wayne Enterprises will be there. I don’t know what to think about it.”

“Do you think it will be fun?”

Bruce said nothing at first. His eyes strayed to the painting.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I used to have my friends over a lot. I just kinda stopped after what happened, you know? I haven’t seen any of them outside school since.”

“Since the deaths?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s scary. I’m all alone now, and I know I have too much money. I don’t want to be taken advantage of.”

“It’s very cruel, what happened.”

“Don’t I know it. I think this girl Maria likes me. She call me sometimes and we talk on the phone. I think I could have a girlfriend if I wanted one.”

“What’s keeping you?

Bruce said. “I think I’m afraid. What if something happened to her too?”

“It’s very natural to feel that way. But being with friends might be good for you. You’re good here with me. Very attentive. You might be thinking too much about it.”

“I hate him so much.”

“The man who did it?”

“I wish I could get him myself.”

They’d returned to a topic Bruce believed made Sarah uncomfortable: his dreams. He thought she didn’t know what to make of them.

“I had another one last night,” he lied. It had been a week ago.

“Another dream?”

“Yup. Seeing through his eyes, hearing his thoughts.”

“What happened?”

“He was in East Park again. He’s found another one. He looks at them for a while before he does it. He’s getting ready. But it’s like I know just enough to know it’s happening but nothing I could pin on him. I don’t even know the person’s name or if he’s a guy or a girl. I’ll find out in the paper. I’m always afraid, looking in the paper, but the dreams haven’t turned out to be wrong yet.”

“Bruce, you know what you’re saying is impossible.”

“Well how do you explain it? Soon enough you’re going to see that I’m right, again, which is just what I keep seeing.”

Sarah didn’t answer. They were looking at each other, but, like always, her expression didn’t change. She could be quite inscrutable.

“Don’t you think it’s convenient that you don’t know anything concrete?”

“I don’t know what to think. It’s like someone’s testing me or something. Seeing what I do about it.”

“And isn’t that just what you want? The opportunity to take this man on in person?”

“More than anything.”

“Well there you go.”

“But what about the earlier ones? I’m not lying to you. I saw him get them before I saw it in the papers.”

“So you’ve told me.”

Another pause.

“I might try to intercept him,” Bruce said.

More silence.

“Except if I do it I want to do it right. The dream people told me to prepare myself. When the time’s right I’m gonna do it. Seems like the cops aren’t up to the job themselves.”

“You’re so young, Bruce.”

“Almost a teenager.”

“Be careful. Think before you do anything rash.”

“What, like go back to his bank? No I won’t do that. I don’t want him to know it’s me. But I also don’t want him to kill again. It’s like the dream people are teasing me. I want to clean their clocks too.”

“If they’re real you must admit it’s very reprehensible what they’re doing to you. You shouldn’t have to think of it as your own responsibility.”

“Well, it’s like I’m grieving for my parents my own way. Imagine how good I’d feel if I did ever actually get him, pin it all on him, have him arrested.”

There was a slight smile on Sarah’s lips. Bruce believed she thought highly of him.

“Your first job should be taking care of yourself,” she said. “Even without the dreams you’re being forced to take on a lot of responsibility. If you ask me you’ve handled it swimmingly. But you should try to make yourself happy. Your friends and this girl Maria might be able to help with that.”

Bruce nodded but didn’t reply at first.

“I like that painting,” he said. “Who did it?”

“A cousin of mine actually. It’s his hobby.”

“It makes me think about pregnancy.”

“Does it? I’ll tell him one of my patients said so.”

Bruce thought about telling her about the idea that had been growing in his mind, coinciding with what the dream people might want of him. The dark protector. He’d spent hours in his mother’s studio working on him. But he decided this was a secret he wasn’t yet willing to divulge.

“Seems like we’re out of time,” Sarah said.

“Okay. I’ll see you here next week.”

Sarah smiled. Bruce left. She put the questions of the dreams out of her mind. The best she could do was remind herself that inexplicable things happened sometimes.

Chapter 9

East Park

Bruce hadn’t had the dreams in almost three weeks. The last he’d seen the monster had sat waiting in a park across the street from his new target’s brownstone, watching the lights in her window. Sometimes she walked her dog at night. That was when he was going to do it.

Bruce found himself in something of a panic. He thought that Alfred had begun to notice his young charge’s interest in the daily newspaper. But what could he do? Alfred still wasn’t sure he wanted Bruce riding the subway by himself. He was just a kid, but the woman was probably in mortal danger. He had no proof, and to try to make a move without any would be entering fully into the world of adults, dealing in matters of life and death. Bruce didn’t feel yet ready to make such a leap.

This was the night. Bane had come prepared with gloves, knife, and Polaroid camera. The police had neglected to tell the world the message he’d left behind when he’d killed Burke. This time he would make sure there was no mistaking.

Sometimes she walked her dog at night. Her boyfriend never went with her. If she did it tonight it would be the last thing she ever did.

The lights were on the second floor of her brownstone. There was little traffic, foot or automobile, on her street. It was one of the city’s wealthiest, located in East Park, which was about one hundred square blocks between the edge of the park and the ocean. Bane would wait another few hours, and if she didn’t show he would leave.

Bruce had just said goodnight to Alfred. He was in bed with the light on reading Watership Down when, like a flash, he was transported elsewhere, into John Banneman again, waching Ms. Maxwell walk down her front stairs to 3rd Street. Bruce felt a terror rise into him when John Banneman stood up from the park bench he’d been seated on and approach his target from behind.

It was over quick. John caught up to her, put his hand over her mouth, and passed the knife across her throat. As she struggled weakly in his arms he lowered her to the ground.

With her blood he wrote the same thing he’d written before: “Bane was here.” He took a picture of his message, then he walked away, throwing his knife into the park.

That was it. The vision ended and Bruce was back in his warm bed with a book in his hands, gape-jawed, horrified, but also angry at what he’d just witnessed.

“Who are you?” he yelled.

You have nothing to be afraid of, something whispered. At least not yet.

“How can you just let him do these things?”

What, you want to do something about it?

Am I crazy? Bruce wondered. Is this really happening?

We’re going to leave you for a while, Bruce, but we’ll be back. If you want to get him yourself, make yourself ready. If you succeed it would be a sight to behold, wouldn’t it?

The picture he’d drawn the day of his parents’ funeral crossed his mind: the hulking thing observing the Joker and Bane at a distance. He would do something about it if he could. But who was it? It couldn’t be he, Bruce, himself, could it?

Prepare yourself, the voice continued. The next time we contact you we expect to have something important to talk about.

Having discarded his knife Bane next deposited his gloves in a sewer drain. He had no blood stain on him. His heart was beating a mile a minute.

Well you’re into it now, boyo, he thought. Now to give the newspapers what the police wouldn’t.

When he got home he sat before his typewriter a few minutes then put the page he’d printed and the pictures he’d taken into an enveloped addressed to the journalist who’d written the story on Burke’s death. Two days from now Bane was going to be famous.

He didn’t sleep that night. He knew what he had become.

4 Days Later, Front Page of the Gotham Globe

GHISLAINE MAXWELL’S KILLER PUBLISHES MANIFESTO

Columnist Alex Jacobs received the following letter, along with the accompanying photos:

My name is Bane. I’ve killed before, but the police chose not to include my message. I’ll do your job for you from now on, by submitting photographs of my work. It is quite simple: Bane Was Here. Tim Burke was my third kill. The first two you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.

It’s a project I’m undertaking, to make the rich and powerful fear me. Some day you might catch me, but not before the whole world knows my name and what I signify. I’m going to be careful, I’m going to be persistent, and I’m going to go down in history. Consider yourselves warned.

Officer Jim Gordon and his wife and son were watching the evening news when the telephone rang. Celia gave him a look.

“What?” he said. “You know it’s gonna be for you.”

“I know no such thing.”

Gordon sighed, clapped his hands on the easy chair’s armrests, and lifted himself to his feet.

“I’m not even going to say ‘hello.’ That’s how sure I am that it won’t be for me.”

Neither wife nor son responded.

Gordon crossed the living room of their apartment to the kitchen and picked up the phone from its wall mount. Just as he’d promised he said nothing.

“Hello?” he heard. It sounded like a child’s voice. Okay, must be for Andy.

“Is this Officer Gordon?” the voice asked.

“Yes, this is Jim Gordon.”

“I have something to tell you. I know who’s doing the killings.”

“Excuse me?”

“Bane. I know who he is.”

“How do you know this?”

There was a slight pause. There was strange feeling in the child’s voice. It took Gordon a moment to identify it as anger.

“His name is John Banneman. He works at a bank.”

“If you have something to say you should call the homicide division.”

“I know, it’s just, I have your number.”

“How do you know this?” Gordon repeated.

“I can’t tell you. I don’t think I’m going to say any more. His name is John Banneman. He works at a bank. Please catch him before he does it again.”

Then there was a click followed by dial tone. Whoever it was had hung up. There had been passion in what he’d said. It had sounded like he’d meant it.

“Jim?” Celia called out. “Who is it?”

Gordon walked slowly back to his easy chair and sat down.

“Who was it?”

“I don’t know. They didn’t say.”

He decided he would tell Detective Stark about the phone call. It was probably worth a mention any way. Thought-provoking if nothing else.

It was about 11:00 AM the next Saturday, and John’s shift at Empire Bank was passing much as they always did. John noticed the tall, lanky boy waiting in line, and also saw that the boy seemed to have noticed him. In fact he was staring. In fact he looked flushed, angry even, as if he knew John and already hated him. Indeed, John couldn’t place it, but there was something familiar about him.

The boy’s turn in line came. John was busy with another customer, though he couldn’t stop sending glances the boy’s way. He was making John uncomfortable.

There were three tellers servicing the line. John noticed the boy decline to see another teller, and the person in line behind him walked past.

John counted his current customer’s money and gave him the receipt.

“Have a nice day,” he said, and watched as the tall boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years old, approached.

“Can I help you?” John asked.

“I know who you are.”

“Excuse me?”

“I told the police about you. You’re going to jail, John Banneman. Or should I say Bane?”

The boy wasn’t talking loudly, but John felt an instance of panic any way. He didn’t know what to say. He became afraid that a red flush instantly rose up from his shirt collar.

“I’m going to get you some day. I wanted to tell you. I’m watching.”

“Look, I don’t know what you think you know.”

“I know you killed my parents. I know you killed that lady in the park. I just want you to see my face, because I’m going to get you. Watch your back, Bane. Killer. You killed my parents and some day I’m going to get you.”

Then the boy left. John looked all around his immediate surroundings and was reasonably sure no one had noticed the interaction, but he was hyperventilating anyway. He needed a moment to collect himself before he could take care of the next customer.

Parents? Who could it be?

And then it hit him. Bruce Wayne. Bane had, indeed, killed his parents. That’s why he was familiar. But no one had done anything. He’d been wearing a mask. Bane had thought that one at least safely over and done with. Apparently it wasn’t.

The next customer came forward. Bane spent much of the rest of the day futilely trying to forget what had happened. After all there wasn’t much else he could do. From here on out he would have to be more careful. He told himself unexpected things could happen. After all, he’d already told the world what he intended. He wouldn’t be so easily dissuaded. No, he was locked in. He would just have to be more careful from here on out. You never know who might be watching.

Days passed, then weeks. The police never showed up. Bane was almost able to imagine the interaction had never taken place at all. But that, too, would be foolish. Just grow eyes on the back of your head. That was the best that could be done.

Chapter 8

Arthur Fleck on 60 Minutes

[Ed Morris seated next to twin photographs of Arthur Fleck: his paint-faced mugshot, and his natural look taken the day of the interview].

“Six months ago America’s most populous city was seized with a brief but violent spasm of unrest. When the smoke cleared the next morning ten had died, two at the hands of the police, five due to confrontations with the mobs, and three by one Arthur Fleck, whom the people of Gotham and the newspapers had already come to call the Joker. Many in the crowds wore clown masks or white face paint, emulating the Joker’s weeks earlier killings of three Commerce Way stock brokers, a clear rebuke to the forces of law and order that often have a very difficult time keeping Gotham’s streets safe. Among those dead were perhaps one of Gotham’s most prominent citizens: Thomas and Karina Wayne, owners of Wayne Enterprises. I spoke with Arthur Fleck at his new home in Arkham Asylum.”

[Shot of plain-faced Arthur Fleck speaking].

“If there’s anyone carrying more shame over what happened I’d like to meet him.”

“Are you saying you’re sorry you killed those people?”

“What I’m saying is I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t raised right. My mother was abusive she used to beat me and lie to me. You’ll notice you’re speaking to me at a funny farm rather than death row. My public defender had the easiest job in the world: insanity plea. I have acute schizo-effective disorder, and I was three weeks off my meds. Why was I off my meds? Because they cut the bleeping program. Shows the failure of underfunded public services, doesn’t it? If I’d had my pills I don’t think I would have done what I did. But if it hadn’t been me to set everyone off there’s no doubt it would have been someone or something else.”

[Shots of Arkham Asylum from outside, then patients socializing, reading magazines, playing ping-pong, seated in the outdoors green area].

“Arthur Fleck lives in the secure wing at Arkham. He shares the space with thirty other patients. He has a room to himself, but he spends much of his days in the green area outside, reading or simply soaking up the sun.”

[Shot of Dr. Lauren Willbur].

“He’s actually one or our best patients. He does what he’s told, eats his food, takes his meds, and he doesn’t fight, with us or any other patients.”

“Do you believe him when he says he’s remorseful?”

“Well I guess so. He sure seems to mean it anyway.”

[Ed Morris speaking to Arthur Fleck again].

“Why do you think the things you did struck such a chord?”

“Because something is seriously rotten in Denmark. Because people were, no, are, hurting. A lot. Something had to give. I guess killing those guys got everyone’s attention. You know, it wasn’t like I planned it. It was totally spontaneous, but everybody hates those guys, who think the world is their little playground. But then also how quickly it went away. Murray Franklin… my God, the Waynes? It was terrible. But now look, the mayor got help from the Feds, they’re training people for jobs, giving people the services they need. I guess it just takes things like this to get people who otherwise wouldn’t to give a bleep. It’s awful, yes, but it’s just how it happened.”

[Ed Morris voiceover with images of a young Arthur Fleck and the neighborhood he grew up in].

“Arthur Fleck, born of Greek emigres in August, 1970, lived much of his young life in a West Gotham public housing project with his single mother, Penny, who, mentally unsound herself, often insisted Arthur’s birth was on account of an affair she’d had with Thomas Wayne himself while she was working as an administrative assistant at one of Wayne Enterprise’s infectious disease research labs. She too died at Arthur’s hands on the day of the riots.”

[Arthur Fleck].

“She used to beat me, curse me. Once they found me chained to a radiator. Yes, I killed her too. You think I won’t forgive myself? I couldn’t help myself! I never knew how much rage I had in me. She was not a shining example of parenthood, but she was the only family I had. I moved back in with her about four years ago. She needed someone to take care of her and I needed to live low-rent. We were not happy together. I’ve never been happy anywhere.”

[Ed Morris].

“After graduating high school in 1988 Arthur worked odd jobs around the city until 1990, when he was hired as a clown to perform at birthdays and schools, or to spin signs on the sidewalk.”

[Arthur and Morris].

“I mean, Gotham is a rough place, there’s no getting around it. I used to get beat up a lot growing up. There’s so much anger out there, just looking for a way to express itself.”

“There’s no denying what you did had ramifications.”

“I guess not. I hope it doesn’t happen again. Of course they’ll never forgive me, the victims’ families I mean, and it’ll probably piss them off to learn that I’m even happy here, at least more than I’ve ever been before. It’s a pretty simple life I lead now. I’m even writing a book.”

“You’re writing a book?”

“I am.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s a novel, kind of a modern staging of an urban Robin Hood. It’s set in Gotham. I guess it’s a romanticized take on what I used to think the city needed.”

“What, to steal from the rich and give to the poor?”

“Exactly.”

“Do you think it’ll ever be published?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. If it’s good enough. I’ve sure got the profile now. You’re proof enough of that. And I think it’s safe to say my homicidal clown days are gone.”

[Ed Morris speaking to the camera].

“Arthur Fleck is right when he says the violence he inspired garnered political attention. Mayor de Cristo might be the first to tell you so. While the scourges of crime and poverty remain stubbornly persistent, it’s fair to say that the culture of Gotham has changed, after having reached some kind of reckoning. Indeed, the clown masks that were so briefly omni-present all throughout the city’s many and diverse neighborhoods, are now nowhere to be seen. The Joker himself no longer wears them either. However, based on the focus already applied to him, a kind of connection between himself and the citizens of Gotham, the glowing reports of the Arkham staff that looks after him, and his own as if inadvertent penchant for self-promotion, it’s probably fair to say that the world has not heard the last of Arthur Fleck.”

Chapter 7

The Funeral

The mourners began to gather at Hillside Cemetery at around 2:00 PM the next Sunday. These included friends of the family, professional associates, and a wide array of Gotham City luminaries. The Wayne family itself was not expansive. Neither Thomas nor Karina had any siblings. Bruce had a cousin named Claire Emory on his mother’s side who was a practicing lawyer who lived in Chicago with her family. She, her husband and their two daughters had already been to see him shortly after the murders. They came back for the funeral.

The coffins were transported in the back of a black hearse. It drove slowly up the cemetery’s main avenue to the plot where Bruce’s parents would spend eternity. Before it was a sweeping view of the city. On a good day you could even see the ocean.

Some of Bruce’s friend came too. These included Maria and John Aaron and a few more classmates. They seemed to naturally gravitate to the still visibly unhappy young boy, as if to form a protective shield. Bruce, having been suspended for his altercation with Clorous, had not yet been allowed back to school. That would be tomorrow. It couldn’t be said that the school administrators, and everyone else, didn’t sympathize with him. Clown masks had quickly and decidedly become things of yesteryear. No one ever wore them any more.

Maria stood at Bruce’s left shoulder as they walked up the hill.

“Are you coming back to school tomorrow?” she asked.

Bruce nodded. “Yeah, they’re letting me back.”

“You didn’t miss anything.”

“I can fill you in,” said John Aaron. “You should’ve seen him though.”

“Who?”

“Clorous. He looked all banged up.”

Bruce sighed. “Yeah. I have to talk to him. That’s what they said, that we have to mediate or something. I guess it’s a good idea. I think he’s got an older brother, I don’t want them to beat me up.”

“They won’t do a thing. Everyone agrees with you anyways.”

“I’ll still probably tell him I’m sorry.”

“Don’t,” said Maria. “He knows what happened to you.”

“He knows now. I wish he’d known before it happened. Then no one would have died and I wouldn’t have been suspended.”

Joe Springer, another classmate, put his arm around Bruce’s shoulder. It was a welcome gesture. They walked the rest of the way to the service in silence.

There were about 50 attendees altogether. There were chairs set out in front of the grave which were soon occupied. A crew of orderlies took the coffins out of the hearse and placed them on the pullies that would lower them into the ground. Though the Waynes had not been religiously inclined Alfred had enlisted Pastor Chamberlain, a well-respected Methodist, to deliver the eulogy. He stood to the side of the coffins and began to speak.

Bruce was in the first row. As soon as the words began to flow from the pastor’s mouth he let out a loud groan and lurched out of his chai. All at once he’d become afraid. All at once  he felt alone. It might have been because of the sermon. Since his parents’ death he’d heard a ceaseless litany of sorrow and regret from both public and personal interactions — people who felt the need to extol the many virtues of the late Thomas and Karina: their kindness, their capability, their importance, as if it were everyone who’d lost something and no one knew why, as if it had been some strange collective spasmodic episode, leaving behind Bruce, an 11-year-old boy, completely alone with his name, the company, and the sprawling manor that bore it. He’d seen, in so many eyes, the question as to whether or not he would be able to live up to the challenge of growing up, of taking on his parents’ awesome responsibilities. Indeed, Bruce had little choice in the matter: he would grow up, and he would do it sooner than he would have otherwise. Beyond that were the people who had done this to him, evil men like the Joker and the man he’d been dreaming about, continuing their lives as if nothing had happened, as if they’d recovered from something they’d had no control over. Bruce hated them. He didn’t want one more person, who may or may not have been wearing a clown mask, to tell him how sorry they were. He got out of his chair and lurched off out of ear shot, and when Alfred caught up to him and put his hand on his shoulders Bruce wondered suddenly if he was trustworthy, or if he just wasn’t after Bruce’s money. Alone, utterly alone. That’s what he was. He would never feel safe again.

“Leave me alone, Alfred,” Bruce said. “I can’t take it. I miss them too much.”

They were perhaps 20 yards from the service. Bruce was facing away from Alfred, and he was crying, his thin shoulders heaving up and down. Alfred didn’t know what to say. He knew he wasn’t family.

Bruce shrugged off Alfred’s hands and kept walking.

“Where are you going?” Alfred called after him.

“Home,” Bruce yelled back.

“We can wait with the cars if you like.”

“Can’t you see I’m afraid of them?” Bruce said. “I don’t want to wait for them. I have money, I’m gonna catch a cab.”

“Just let me come with you. You’re too young to be on your own.”

While this was perhaps not quite true, the sentiment behind it was honest. Bruce stopped and stamped his feet and pumped his fists in frustration.

“You’re not my parens, Alfred,” Bruce said.

“I won’t say a word. Let me just make sure you get home.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Barely, my son. Barely.”

After a moment Bruce kept on walking. Alfred followed at a safe distance. The two walked through the cemetery this way, with Bruce in front and Alfred close enough so that Bruce could hear his footsteps. They reached the main gate. I was two more blocks down Hudson Road to the busier Pleasant Valley Ave., where cabs were common. Alfred helped Bruce hail one, and then they got in the back seat.

“Bruce,” he said. “I just want you to know that I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’m still going to try and help you in any way that I can.”

“I know. It’s your job.”

“It is. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have your best interests at heart.”

This struck Bruce as honest. It was good to hear, but did nothing to help him with his grief. The fear? Well, Alfred had helped a little. In his way, Alfred was trying to assuage his loneliness. Still, Bruce couldn’t force himself to stop crying.

About twenty minutes later they reached Wayne Manor. They got out of the cab. Alfred paid.

“Okay, now leave me alone,” Bruce demanded.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know. None of your business. I have to be alone.”

With that Bruce broke out into a run. He reached the main gate and unlocked it with a key Alfred didn’t know he had. On the other side Bruce kept running, and Alfred soon lost track of him. Bruce disappeared through the front door of the towering, palatial mansion that was Wayne Manor. There were plenty of places for him to hide within. Alfred had no hope of being able to find him, so he went to the kitchen, where a few of the caterers were hard at work preparing for the wake.

Alfred poured himself a cup of coffee and sat in the closest dining room. The guests wouldn’t be that much longer. He would do what he could to entertain them.

Wayne Manor was huge. There were empty rooms everywhere, galleries displaying the Waynes’ art collections, consisting of original Picassos, Eschers, and Dalis. There was an out door pool. There was a huge home theater where Bruce watched TV and played Super Nintendo. His friends, of course, liked his house best. He had about four or five of them, and many of his classmates attended each other’s birthday parties. Some of them had been at the funeral. Girls were still something of an abstract concept. Maria seemed to like him. The thought crossed his mind that maybe she could help him feel better, but not now. Now he needed to cry, alone. Somehow, he needed to become strong enough, because even though he was still just a kid he knew well enough that people often treated each other badly, selfishly, and that they might be jealous of him. He had no parents. That meant he might be a target, or even a liability to his father’s company. So many things could go wrong if he ever lost himself or made a bad decision. He would have to be able to look them in the face and tell them what he needed, what he wanted. If he didn’t he might never get it. Even Alfred. He’s an employee. If Bruce was too mean to him he might leave. Self-control and self-mastery would be paramount, lessons few eleven-year-olds need to live up to. That’s what made Bruce’s situation different, difficult, but probably not insurmountable. Bruce’s coming of age would just have to be a few, seven or eight, years ahead of schedule.

Bruce didn’t know where he was going while he thought these things. He careened down the marble passageways, up the stairs to the third floor, knocking into walls, opening doors, whistling and clapping his hands.

He was in the West wing, where his parents’ quarters were. There was also a studio where Karina used to make her pastel drawings, a hobby of hers.

Upon finding this room Bruce walked into it and looked at what she’d done, and what she would never do again. He remembered the absorbed, thoughtful look he’d seen on her face when she was drawing and, wishing so much to hug her, he burst out into tears. He thought of John Banneman, and all the evil Bruce wanted to do to him. He wondered if anyone else was having dreams like his. Gotham was a big city, after all. Bruce couldn’t explain the occurrences in the slightest.

Before he knew what he was doing he took his mother’s unfinished painting off the easel, revealing a big white sheet of paper.

He started to draw. He had never before used it as a way to express himself, but as soon as he started he found it therapeutic.

He drew in dark colors: black, grey, and blue. Before long he realized he was drawing his parents dead on Broadway, with the Joker standing over them, gun drawn. Bruce had seen his picture plastered all over the newspapers: purple suit, white face paint, dyed green hair. John Banneman was there too; he was the more diminutive gunman, because there had been two of them, one who’d done the killing and one who’d stood at his side. Bruce wasn’t in the picture when it was finished, but something else was, something lurking in the background, a hulking, heavy presence wearing a cape and a mask. Bruce couldn’t account for this new thing, which was as terrifying as the Joker and John Banneman in its own right. It just wasn’t ready. If it was it might have intervened to save his parents’ lives, something Bruce had been unable to do.

There was a noise outside: the gates of Wayne Manor opened. The mourners had arrived. Bruce wanted nothing to do with them. They probably wouldn’t find him if he hid here in his mother’s studio. At some point he would have to face them, but not today. He wanted to revel in silence, and to think and cry where no one could see him. Over the rest of the afternoon and into the evening he did plenty of both. He waited until the last car had left the Manor’s grounds, when he felt it safe to go downstairs and get some food from the kitchen, which he took to his room. After he ate he went to sleep. Unfortunately, it was not restful. The dreams came to meet him:

He’d been turning an idea over in his mind. It was a bit ill-formed, but it didn’t need to be concrete. He imagined the best killers throughout history thought similarly: that they didn’t know for certain why they were doing it. All John Banneman knew, sitting at a Central Park lake as the sun set, was that he’d struck upon a way to make himself truly consequential, and he thought he would be good at it.

Burke should be here any moment now. There were no humans about. All respectable citizens, those with Rolexes on their wrists and money in their wallets, made themselves scarce in the park once evening fell. At night this place was for creatures such as John Banneman, creatures of the night who, when happening upon a citizen with something to lose, might make them regret having lived a life that made themselves such a target. John Banneman? He had nothing to fear. Ever since his discharge from the Marines he’d never worked a job that paid above minimum wage. He lived in a housing project in North West Gotham, in a building filled with spics, wops, niggers and Irish. He hated his job and the people he serviced. Especially her, who seemed to look through him as if he wasn’t there. Her name was Ghislaine Maxwell. She came in once a month to deposit her allowance. Her father’s name was printed on her checks. As heir to the Choc-o-Max candy bar fortune, she would never know what it was like to be anything but a socialite. And she was pretty too. Very pretty.

John knew where she lived. Still, the thought was ill-defined. He’d liked seeing the Waynes’ names in the paper. It had felt like he’d made a mark. Perhaps, with Ghislaine, he would make another one.

But, first thing’s first: Burke was going to meet him here. John knew better than to trust a junky, after all.

John liked looking at the ducks gliding across the water. The sun was all but set. There was no sign of humanity. It would be as good a place as any.

Pretty. Big blue eyes. Long blonde hair. How she might look at him when he did it, as if, by his actions, he’d come to matter more than her. But he would have to be careful. You never know who or what might catch you by surprise.

Presently, he heard footsteps. They were coming down the path that led to the bench he was sitting on.

“John? That you?”

Burke.

“It’s me. Come on over here.”

Burke cautiously approached. John could smell him already: unwashed, layered in dried sweat. He was twitching spasmodically. John wasn’t familiar with the vice Burke favored: that is, methamphetamine. Is this what they look like when they’re high or when they’re jonesing? Soon it wouldn’t matter. One of John’s hands stayed in his jacket pocket.

“Does anyone know you’re here?” John asked.

“Nope.”

“No one saw you come?”

“Man, what do you want? I know you think I’m gonna tell about what we did. You don’t have to worry about me.”

Burke sat down on the bench next to him.

“But what if you can’t afford your next fix? What’ll you do then?”

“Man, I don’t even know why I came to meet you.”

“I do. Because you’re afraid of me.”

“Afraid?”

“And you should be. Because since no one knows you’re here, no one’s gonna find you ’til the morning.”

Burke was staring at him with what John knew to be beady, blood-stained little rat eyes. His intuition, if he had any, failed him. Fatally.

John reached out and grabbed the back of Burke’s neck with his left hand, and stuck the knife into the unfortunate junky’s Adam’s apple. He didn’t even have the chance to scream. Blood came flowing out of him as he collapsed to the pavement the bench was fixed to.

Taking care not to get any blood on his hands John wiped the knife on Burke’s sweater. Now the circumstances of the Waynes’ deaths were known only to himself. He and the child they’d left alive.

It had gone well. John was about to leave. He stood up, but then was struck with an idea.

He knelt by his former partner’s twitching body and dipped his index finger in a pool of blood, then drew these words next to Burke’s head: “Bane was here.”

He wondered as he walked away if those words expressed some sub-conscious wish to be found out some day, so he could tell the world to its face the mistake it had made in making an enemy of him. Who’s to say? It seemed inevitable now that everyone would one day know his name.

Two days later Bruce got the newspaper from the front gate. He took it to the kitchen and opened it to the local news. Sure enough, there it was: “Man found slain in Central Park.” Cause of death: Stabbing. Witnesses: None.

Bruce wished he could explain it. It was as if someone had decided to test him, to see how he would take it. Indeed, as he turned it over in his mind, it felt more and more like some kind of an opportunity. An inside look at his mortal enemy. He found himself very, very interested.

Chapter 6

Put It On

It was Bruce’s first day of school as a sixth grader. Alfred knocked on his door and made sure he was awake, then went downstairs to make breakfast. This was in keeping with their routine in years prior. It was two weeks since his parents’ murder, and he and Alfred had already had the discussion: if he didn’t feel up to going to school he didn’t have to. Bruce, however, had assured him that he was. He’d spent much of the last two weeks alone. As far as Alfred could tell he hadn’t left Wayne Manor and hadn’t seen any of his friends. Alfred thought that if there was one word to describe Bruce’s mourning process it would be ‘stoicism. He seemed to want privacy, but he could still take care of himself and didn’t ask for special treatment. But there was another discussion Alfred thought they should have: that of entering Bruce into some kind of counseling. Who knows what trauma he might be working through? To attempt to forge through it without help would surely be ill-advised.

Bruce came into the kitchen and sat at the table.

“Almost ready, sir,” Alfred said.

Bruce coughed into his sleeve.

“You have your backpack ready?” Alfred asked.

“Yep.”

“I made some fresh orange juice for you.”

“Thanks, Alfred.”

Alfred placed the plate of eggs, sausage and toast in front of him, and then the orange juice. Bruce ate quietly, how he did most things these days. His backpack was indeed resting at his feet. Alfred resisted the urge to check for himself for the notebooks and binders it should contain. To take on so fully the role of parent probably wasn’t advisable either. He knew the boy better than anyone. The care Alfred felt for him was genuine, but Bruce would have to step up a bit and take on more responsibility for living himself, just as Alfred was.

A few minutes later they were ready to go. They got into Alfred’s car, a Volkswagen minivan, and started the short drive to Powell Elementary. Bruce leaned against the door and stared out the window. He’d had the dreams again, the third straight since the night. They were so vivid. Looking through the eyes of his parents’ killer, and hearing his thoughts. Bruce knew he worked in a bank downtown. His name was John. He’d already done the business of killing before he’d done it to the Waynes. He’d served in the Gulf War. It was quite possible he would kill again. Some of his profoundly evil thoughts suggested as much. What was Bruce supposed to do with this intelligence? It wasn’t really real was it? Was it? It couldn’t be. Since the night Bruce had never felt more alone. These strange dreams were of no help whatsoever.

They reached Bruce’s school. Alfred pulled to a stop behind a school bus that was offloading its cargo.

“Here we are my boy,” said Alfred.

He put the car in park and looked over. Just as he was afraid it would, his heart came into his throat when he saw that Bruce was crying.

“Oh Bruce,” he said, then reached over and stroked his hair. “You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

“No, I do, I do. It’s just…”

His shoulder heaved and he seemed to try to take control of himself.

“I couldn’t help them,” he managed to cough out. “I didn’t do anything.”

“There’s not much you can do against a pair of full grown men with guns.”

“I wish I could help them. I wish I could kill him.”

“Look, I’m going to take you home. Sixth grade can wait.”

“No!” Bruce shouted, then took several deep breaths. “I want to. I should. I can’t let him win.”

Bruce then put on a smile. He knew Alfred was his employee but he also didn’t know what he would do without him.

“I’m fine Alfred. I have to. If I can’t I’ll call you, but I have to try.”

They sat a few more moments. The school bus pulled away in front of them and disappeared into the morning traffic.

“I’m fine. Really. I’ll see you this afternoon unless I can’t control myself.”

With that he opened the door and left the car.

Alfred watched him join the crowd of miniature commuters. There was nothing more he could do for him. Still he would make sure he was never far away from a phone. Beyond that he had to accept the fact that he wasn’t family. He wasn’t sure but he thought Karina had a cousin somewhere out there. It might be well advised to get in touch with her. He drove back to Wayne Manor with plenty to think a out. Bruce really was an admirable young man. But boy were the cards suddenly stacked against him, and at such a young age.

Powell Elementary, a private school with a generous scholarship program, was composed of a network of one-to-two room buildings connected by pavement or wood walkways, growing up the side of the hill off of Broadway Terrace. Bruce had been coming here since kindergarten along with most of his class, who in effect grew up together. Fourth through sixth graders attended the same homeroom, which was provided over by two teachers named Pam and Francesca. The line Bruce joined formed against a wall and was nearly complete when he arrived five minutes before class was to start. There were two sisters ahead of him, Puerto-Ricans he didn’t know very well. He saw a friend of his, a short white kid named John Aaron a bit further on. They waved at each other. John Aaron looked happy to see him. He was seen as a bit of a dork, a bit awkward and good at his lessons. Bruce himself was a bit on the popular side. Still, he hadn’t seen most of the kids here for several months.

Bruce was afraid it was obvious he’d been crying. He wiped his eyes and nose with his sleeve. He hoped, if nothing else, that being back at school would take his mind off darker things. But, almost instantly, he was rudely disappointed: he saw that one of the kids was wearing a clown mask. It was a black kid named Clorous, who was something of a bully who disliked most of the white kids. Clorous hadn’t seen him. He was about halfway up the line from Bruce, and Bruce couldn’t take his eyes off him. By the way Clorous seemed to survey the population around him Bruce began to venomously suspect that his classmate’s fashion choice wasn’t being well-received.

Pam was walking down the line, saying hello to the kids. Bruce watched her stop at Clorous. There was a look of unmitigated disgust on her face. A little while later the young boy took of his mask and put it in his backpack. Then, probably by chance, Pam’s eyes met Bruce’s and it was impossible for her not, for a moment, to look apologetic.

Bruce felt bile in his throat and dropped his glare. He tried to get his breath and heart rate under control. It was just the kind of thing he should have been prepared for. At least it seemed to have been a freak occurrence. It was no secret, after all, that plenty poor kids resented their more well-off classmates.

Pam passed him. She had already corrected her expression to one of neutrality and welcome. She took a whistle that was hung around her neck and blew into it.

“Okay class, let’s get started. Your seating assignment is on the projector. Let’s start the year on the right foot, so please, follow the seating instructions.”

The kids filed through the doors and mostly followed instructions. Bruce found himself at the same four-desk cluster as John Aaron, and another friend of his, a Puerto-Rican named Maria.

“Hey Bruce,” she smiled. “Back from summer, huh?”

“Hey Maria,” Bruce answered, but didn’t know what else to say. He couldn’t say it had been a good summer, could he?

He took a notebook and pen out of his backpack. His mind was still dully red from what he’d seen in line. He never could have imagined how heavy grief could be. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, not even John Aaron. He waited for class to start. He would try to pay attention. He felt a pervasive thud living in his chest and behind his eyes. Maybe he shouldn’t have come, but you can’t just let them win, let them end your life, right?

Pam and Francesca stood in front of the blackboard and called the class to attention. Quiet soon followed and the day began. It was easier for Bruce to focus on the lessons than on his classmates. At least nothing was expected from him there but obedience.

Time passed and Bruce listened and did his work. A sort of emotional normalcy established itself in him as he learned that this year he would learn about Gotham state’s colonial history, about fractions, pre-algebra and a few select literary classics. There would be art class three times a week, just as had been for fourth and fifth grades, and computer lessons. There would be a science fair in a few months. Pam and Francesca, alone with about forty pre-teens, would have their work cut out for them, which already became apparent in the first hour by the frequency with which they had to raise their voices.

Bruce allowed himself to be quiet. He hardly felt singled out at all, but, sometimes, he couldn’t take his eyes of Clorous. During lunch he decided not to join the rest of the kids outside, but instead ate at his desk. Francesca briefly visited with him and asked why he didn’t want to join everyone else. “I don’t want to,” he answered simply. Of course she knew what had happened to his parents. Her suggestion had been gentle and well-meaning. She let him be, as did everyone else for the rest of the day. Before he knew it the final bell rang ad he went back across campus to Broadway Terrace to wait for Alfred. There was a line of oak trees planted in a slim line of grass that some of the kids sat under while they waited for their parents. This had been tradition ever since Bruce’s first day of kindergarten, except, of course, now he was waiting for Alfred’s car instead of his mother’s.

Bruce sat on the roots of one of the tees. He supposed the day had gone by okay. He wondered how long he would feel this way, anxious at his own feelings. He wondered which of his classmates had donned a clown mask over the last month.

Then he saw Clorous, sitting on the grass a ways down the black. And there went his heart, leaping into his throat and thumping in his chest. He knew instantly what he had to do.

He looked around at the ground for a moment, then picked up a rock about the size of his fist. He left his backpack behind him and stalked toward his quarry.

He arrived at Clorous’ back and cast a shadow over him. Clorous turned and looked up, squinting into the sun.

“Put it on,” Bruce said.

“Huh?”

“The mask. Put it on.”

Clorous recognized something dangerous in Bruce’s eyes, though in the years that they’d shared classes he’d never known him to be anything more than mild-mannered, and certainly not a threat. But then he seemed to remember who Bruce’s parents were and what had happened to them.

“What you talking about?” Clorous asked.

“I’m not asking you any more. Put it on. That freak that tried to kill me.”

Clorous turned more fully toward him and began to stand, but he proved too slow, and lacked the fight-or-flight instinct that might have helped him as Bruce pulled back his arm and swung his fist-rock down on the side of Clorous’ head

“Damn!” Clorous shouted as he was knocked down and onto his side.

The rock fell out of Bruce’s hand, luckily, as he went right on swinging his fists. Clorous had been caught totally off guard. A circle of laughing kids formed almost instantly around them, chanting “Fight! Fight!”

“He killed my parents! He killed my parents!” Bruce was yelling through his tears. He kept repeating it and punching and kicking until he felt a pair of strong adult arms grab him and pull him away.

“Stop, Master Bruce! Stop!” It was Alfred. He took Bruce through the crowd and shoved him into his minivan. Bruce was still crying as Alfred pulled out onto the street, silent and grim-faced. A school administrator saw them leave, then went to help Clorous, who was bleeding and bruised in several places.

“That’s not the way, Bruce, that’s not the way,” Alfred said.

“He killed them Alfred! Right in front of me.”

“I know he did, Bruce.”

It wasn’t until a little while later that he and his butler realized that in the tumult they’d forgotten the child’s backpack on the grass. For one night, then, Bruce would have to do without it.

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