briarwood: Batman B&W Comic image (Batman2)
Morgan Briarwood ([personal profile] briarwood) wrote2016-07-25 09:05 am
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The Memories That Haunt Us (1/5)

Chapter 1: In The Aftermath




Paris


Diana drew in her breath slowly, stretching her arms upward with her fingers clasped together, a simple parvatasana pose. She held the pose for six breaths then sank gracefully into mudrasana, her body folded, her palms flat on the thick pile carpet.


Abruptly, the power cut out: lights went dark, the gentle music went silent. Diana rose, not hurrying, and walked to the window. It was dark everywhere. As suddenly as it went out, the power returned. The lights flickered and then steadied to normal.


The television came on, all white noise and a weird motley of black and white. Diana crossed the room and reached out to turn it off.


“You are not alone.”


The voice was harsh and distorted but distinctly male. On the screen, words flickered in and out of view, the same words as had been spoken.


“You are not alone.”


Diana’s heart raced when she realised the words were not in French, but in her own native tongue, an ancient dialect that had not been used outside Themyscira for a thousand years. Was this meant for her, then? She moved toward the screen, cautiously, as if the screen itself might be the speaker.


“You are not alone.”


Diana, still not sure what was happening, spoke aloud. “Who are you?”


“My name is General Zod. I come from a world far from yours.”


“Why are - ” Diana began, but the voice went on as if she had not spoken.


“...For some time your world has sheltered one of my citizens. I request that you return this individual to my custody.”


It was a one-way message, perhaps a recording, Diana decided, somewhat relieved. But the implications were staggering. She crossed the room and picked up her Blackberry as the voice droned on. The same message emanated from the cell phone, perfectly synchronised with the television.


“To Kal-El, I say this,” the voice of Zod concluded, “surrender within twenty four hours. Or watch this world suffer the consequences.”


It was impossible! How was the world to locate a single individual among six billion? An individual who would obviously be trying to hide? Zod had provided no clues that might help. A gender, yes, but that narrowed the pool only by half and perhaps not even that. There was no way to guess what continent he might be on, what race he might resemble, not even his age. What if Kal-El were a child? Even if this person could be found, how could people know the right thing to do? Was this Kal-El a criminal? If so, extradition laws might be said to apply, but what if he were a refugee? There were laws about that, too, which said he was entitled to protection. Would the leaders of the world hold to their values, or betray them in the face of this threat?


Memories of war crowded into Diana’s mind. The horrors the trenches and the smell of mustard gas. The hopelessness of a generation lost, lives of youths ruined and for what, in the end? They celebrated the end of the “war to end all wars” but Diana only saw them repeating the same old mistakes. The heartbreak of her own failure, a century before, had been more than she could bear.


She had withdrawn from the world after that. She left love and pain behind. Memories of Wonder Woman faded into legend. Legend became myth, and eventually, myth became fiction.


“You are not alone.”


With four shattering words, Zod had all but guaranteed it would all begin again. If this Kal-El were not found, in twenty four hours the world would face a war that would span the entire globe. It was a war the people of this world were utterly unprepared to fight.


There was a brief buzz of electricity and suddenly everything was bizarrely normal again. The phone in Diana’s hand went blank. The television turned itself off.


But Diana, and the world, was forever changed.


She could not be outside this when the entire world was under threat. No matter what the personal cost, it was time for her to return to the world. She would find this Kal-El.


The only problem was, Diana had no idea where to begin.


 


 

Metropolis


Even now, the day after, the air was full of dust. His eyes itched with the airborne grit and when he drew a breath there was an odd sensation in his mouth. He almost tasted the strangeness in the dust. He covered his mouth with his sleeve to breathe more comfortably. It was good to see so many volunteers here, ready to help, but he wondered how many of them would suffer for their generosity in years to come: how much damage this dust might do to lungs, eyes and flesh. There was more in the air than concrete dust.


He reached the front of the line and bent over the sign-in sheet, barely looking at the woman co-ordinating the volunteer effort.


“You’re Bruce Wayne!” she announced, the words muffled by the protective mask over her mouth and nose, but just clear enough for those surrounding them to hear. Heads turned, voices stilled.


Bruce winced. “Not today. Just send me where I can help.”


She pulled her mask down and spoke more quietly. “There are other ways a man in your position could help, Mr Wayne.”


“And I’m doing them,” he insisted. “But I...” he gestured vaguely to the right, where eighteen hours before there had been a busy street, “I was here when it happened. I need to be here today. And you need all the help you can get.”


She nodded. “We do.” Her tone became more business-like. “Do you have any skills I should know about? Any medical training or expertise in construction or demolition?”


Bruce shook his head. “I know more first aid than most, but I’m not a medic. As for construction,” he offered a self-deprecating shrug, “I always hired others to do that for me.”


She smiled and made a notation on the sheet beside his name. “Look for the yellow van. They’ll give you some safety equipment and you can join one of the digging teams. Please remember to return here and sign out before you leave. We need to keep track of everyone - ”


“In case the rest of the building falls down,” Bruce finished for her. “I understand. Thanks.”


“Thank you.” She raised the mask back over her face and waved him on.


Digging through the rubble was hard, back-breaking work. The search-and-rescue experts had divided what was once the financial district of Metropolis into sectors and they were screening each sector in turn, looking for survivors and assessing the safety of the remaining structures. When an area was declared safe, volunteers were deployed to assist the professionals. The volunteer team Bruce joined wasn’t digging for survivors. They were looking for bodies.


With a protective mask covering most of his face and dust settling on his hair and clothing, Bruce was unrecognisable. He wanted it that way: a kind of anonymity very different from his other mask. This wasn’t about the Gotham billionaire reaching out to the victims. It was certainly no place for the Batman. It was about being human and doing something real. On this day, he was just a citizen, no different from those working around him.


Bruce was no stranger to death, but this was something else. The first thing he uncovered, after two hours of work, was an arm, still partially encased in a sleeve. A watch on the wrist was still working. When the building collapsed, sheets of glass fell. One had sheared through flesh and bone like a hot knife through butter. He saw no sign of the rest of the woman’s body, but it seemed unlikely she had survived this injury. Bruce carried the severed limb to the place where other workers were cataloguing the human remains and then returned to digging.


The rest of the day grew steadily worse. Human bodies, whole and in pieces. Most of them had at least died quickly, skulls and chests crushed by the weight of the collapsing skyscraper. Worse were the ones who had lived long enough to know they had no chance. He found one woman in a blood-soaked business suit, her polished fingernails broken, her fingers bloody from her struggle to get out in spite of fatal injuries. She must have fought, perhaps begging for help, for hours before she bled out.


They ran out of body bags long before the end of the day. Some of those on the team Bruce joined had already left by then and been replaced by other volunteers. Bruce blamed no one for giving up; this was the kind of work that no one could do for long unless, like him, they had already survived worse. Bruce kept going, though, forcing himself to keep working through the physical strain. It was just a different kind of battle. Almost every dead body he uncovered was someone young, a life full of potential, cut short. He did his best not to think about that.


Near the end, as the search and rescue professionals were winding up for the day, Bruce carried the body of a man to the makeshift morgue that had been set up some distance from the worst of the damage. He expected to see some kind of shelter, but when he reached the place, there was just a big, open space.


There were buildings here two days before. The LexCorp building, the Metropolis Transport Authority building with its famous coffee house underneath and the HQ of some Swiss insurance company; they were gone. Not rubble, not like the Wayne Finance building a few blocks over or the one Bruce had been digging through all day. No, these three were directly beneath that alien ship when it began doing...whatever the fuck it had been doing. And they were simply gone, the ground scoured clean and flat, like the skyscrapers were never there.


And the empty space where they had been was now filled with rows and rows of corpses. The bodies nearest to Bruce were in body bags, but there had not been enough. Bodies found later had been wrapped in plastic, and some found after even that had run out, lay exposed on the broken asphalt.


Bruce stood there, unable to move or look away, his arms full of death. It was almost too much for his mind to accept. Hundreds of dead. So many he couldn't help. Very few of the bodies would have been identified. It was too soon. Families didn’t yet know their loved ones were here. Many might never know.


“This way!”


Bruce turned toward the speaker and followed her directions through the rows of bodies. At the far end there were more people, some working on the bodies, others working nearby. He laid down the man he carried and straightened up, pulling the protective mask down as he did so. He needed to breathe unfiltered air. The dust was less here and the smell wasn't bad yet. That would come later.


“Are you alright?” the medic asked.


Bruce shrugged. “I’m doing better than them.” It was all he had. His fingers throbbed with pain and every muscle in his body ached.


“You aren’t the only one who can’t make sense of it.”


Perhaps the words were meant to comfort; Bruce couldn't tell. What they did was fan the flame of rage that had been growing in him all day.


It was an alien invasion. Alien, for fuck’s sake! It was one thing to accept the logical probability that there was life on other planets. It was something else to have alien ships in the sky broadcasting demands and threats. And that demand was terrifyingly specific. Bruce didn’t know how the situation got so out of control or why Metropolis became the epicentre of the destruction. But he was going to find out. Oh, yes, he was going to find out.


“There is no sense in it,” he said aloud. Unconsciously, his voice had dropped to a low growl. “But for every person lying here, every senseless death...someone has to answer for it. There has to be a response. It can’t be meaningless.”


A movement to his right caught Bruce’s eye and he whirled that way to see a camera being lowered. Instinctively he took one step toward the photographer, but then caught himself. Not now. Not while he was this angry. Instead he forced himself to turn his back on the photographer and walked away.


That photograph, destined to win a Pulitzer Prize, first appeared on the front page of the Daily Planet and by the following day it was on front pages worldwide. It depicted Bruce Wayne as the world had never seen him before: ragged and dirty, his face covered with dust except where the mask had protected his nose and mouth. Where his skin was clean, the hard line of his jaw and the fury in his eyes were clearly visible. And his irises reflected the endless rows of the dead.


 


 


Bruce groaned as he stripped off his shirt. He was very fit, he had to be, but his body was not accustomed to the kind of hard, manual labour he had been doing all day. He was too exhausted to face the journey back to Gotham; he couldn’t safely drive and the no-fly order was still in effect so he could not go by chopper. He was lucky his Metropolis apartment wasn’t one of the buildings that had been turned to rubble.


His sweat glued the fabric to his flesh so he had to peel it away from his skin. The shirt joined his pants and boots in a large trash bag. He rubbed at his shoulder, digging his fingers into the muscle behind his collarbone, feeling the ridges of old scars.


He removed the rest of his clothing and stuffed every stitch into the trash bag before knotting it tightly. He intended to analyse that dust, right down to the quantum level if necessary. While digging, it had been easy to put it out of his mind, but there was something in that dust which caused a mild reaction in his skin. He could still feel it: a slight tingle, particularly around his eyes. Most people would dismiss it or not even notice, but Bruce wasn’t most people.


He stepped into the shower and turned the water on as hot as it would go. He scrubbed his skin from head to toes, then did it twice more until that odd tingling went away. After washing his hair just as thoroughly he turned the water off and grabbed a towel. He was fastening the towel around his waist when he heard Alfred’s knock.


Bruce emerged from the bathroom and saw Alfred setting a tray down. He hesitated in the doorway, keeping one hand on the towel. The tray held a plate of chicken, rice and vegetables, and a tall glass of fruit juice. His stomach churned, rejecting the meal before he’d even smelled it.


“I don’t think I can eat,” Bruce said apologetically.


Alfred turned to him, giving no sign he noticed that Bruce was practically naked. “Try,” he insisted. “Then you should get some rest.”


“There isn’t time.” Bruce reached back into the bathroom and grabbed a second towel from the rail. He used it to scrub at his wet hair.


“What can I do?” Alfred asked.


“Do we know what happened yet?”


“Things are somewhat clearer than they were this morning, Master Wayne. I have the file from General Swanwick. They are still assessing but the video of his conversation with the alien is quite revealing. I copied it to your tablet so you can watch when you’re ready.”


“Good. I want you to extract some of the dust from my clothing,” Bruce nodded toward the trash bag, “then dispose of the rest as HazMat. Send a set of samples to the lab. I’ll analyse another set myself.”


“Very well, sir.”


Bruce draped the wet towel over his shoulder. He felt his bones pop as his spine straightened as if he’d automatically come to attention. When Alfred called him sir in that particular tone, he knew he was in trouble.


He sighed. “Alright. What?”


Alfred picked up the trash bag of clothing. “I do not believe the Batman can be of much help out there tonight.”


“Batman?” The Bat had been the last thing on his mind. Bruce replayed their brief conversation. He had said, there’s no time. “That’s not why I’m hurrying,” he explained. “I need to call a board meeting to get Wayne Enterprises on the reconstruction before LexCorp can buy out the key tenders. I need to organise some help for the rescue workers. Being there today was important but they’re under-equipped. They need HazMat, water and snacks for the workers, better lifting equipment. Protective gear. Helicopters to airlift survivors out of there.”


Alfred nodded gravely. “I can do all of that while you rest, Bruce.”


From sir to Bruce in mere seconds, and Alfred had not questioned the need for HazMat. Bruce knew he was beaten. If he didn’t promise to eat and then at least try to sleep, the next tray would be milk and cookies. Probably laced with a sedative.


“Alright, I’ll rest,” he conceded, then added quickly, “for a little while.”


He was rewarded with Alfred’s brief smile. “Thank you.”


 


 


“It wouldn’t be much of a surrender if I resisted.” The alien looked entirely human, if you ignored the Halloween costume he was wearing. He seemed very relaxed and confident. Invulnerability could do that to you, Bruce guessed. What was odd was how relaxed the woman appeared to be. When a powerful alien being appears in the sky above a secret military base and demands to speak to you, a few nerves would be appropriate. But she was all but flirting.


“You can’t expect us not to take precautions,” the doctor’s voice said. “You could be carrying some kind of alien pathogen, or...”


The alien interrupted him. “Been here thirty three years, doctor. Haven’t infected anyone yet.”


Thirty three years. That would narrow the search a lot.


This was the part of the recording that Bruce kept replaying. The part where the alien stood up. He drew his hands apart, the gesture entirely casual, almost accidental, and the steel link holding the handcuffs together snapped. The faint ping was clearly audible.


The alien moved toward the one-way glass. “You’re scared of me because you can’t control me. You don’t, and you never will. But that doesn’t mean I’m your enemy.”


The implied threat was chilling. I'm not your enemy...yet. For all his fine words, the broken city spoke for itself. He seemed sincere when he said he was worried about Zod but there was deception underlying the whole scene. Like the way he let them handcuff him when he could snap the steel as easily as Bruce could snap a dry twig.


Superman, they were calling him. The moniker seemed bitterly ironic. He wasn't a man at all.


The woman, though. His interaction with her was interesting. It would be easy to dismiss her as an airhead flirting with a hot guy, but Bruce knew better. Lois Lane was an award-winning journalist and airheads didn't win Pulitzers. He stopped the playback and ran a search for her name, excluding results from the Daily Planet. He didn’t want to read her work, he wanted to read about her. The first article he found described her first encounter with the alien, who apparently saved her life when she was attacked by something aboard an alien ship discovered beneath a Canadian glacier.


Aliens. Fuck. He still couldn't quite wrap his mind around that.


He had been fighting a war in Gotham all his adult life. The scale of that war had suddenly become galactic. Exactly the right word. Criminals warring on the streets, even international wars were now small. Now the people of Earth had experienced their first interplanetary war.


Bruce did not sleep that night. He slept as little as possible these days, and could function perfectly well on a couple of hours sleep every two or three days. Instead, he studied Lois Lane. The alien had rescued her from the ship in the ice, and he surrendered himself to the military, apparently for her sake. Lois Lane would lead him to the alien.


Around midnight, Alfred appeared once more. He told Bruce that he had organised the meetings for the following morning and had arranged for supplies to be flown in for the rescue efforts. He had reached out to FEMA offering further aid from Wayne Enterprises. He added that LexCorp was unlikely to be bidding aggressively for the reconstruction contracts. It appeared Lex Luthor was among the dead in Metropolis. His son, Alexander Luthor jr, would inherit his father’s empire, but the boy was very young.


“How young?” Bruce asked, suddenly still. He remembered a gunshot, and a rain of pearls on the sidewalk. His father’s last whisper, Martha...


“Not a child,” Alfred answered, understanding. “He’s twenty, I believe.”


“Thanks.” Bruce made a mental note to reach out to young Lex Luthor. Just because the father was a vile, manipulative snake, didn’t automatically make the son bad.


“Good night, sir.” Alfred picked up Bruce’s discarded supper tray and glided from the room.


Bruce went back to work.


Nearly four hours later, Bruce rose and walked out onto the balcony of his penthouse apartment. The ache in his back and shoulders had eased and he arched his back, stretching as the chill air surrounded him.


From the balcony, Bruce could see Gotham City across the bay. He had a spectacular view of the distant city lights past the shadows and broken skyscrapers of Metropolis. Bruce would do what he could to help Metropolis, but Gotham City, across the bay was his home and his burden in a way no other city could be.


He heard sirens in the streets far below, and from across the bay the distant sound of a helicopter. When he looked toward Gotham he saw a searchlight cutting through the air from the helicopter. Out of long habit he turned his gaze upward to the clouds above the city. Of course, he saw no sign there. The old Bat signal still existed, but it was rarely used any more. Not since the Joker fell, leaving chaos and a broken hero in his wake.


The cold air seared his lungs and Bruce shivered. He rubbed his bare arms and gazed at the empty sky for a moment longer before he turned to go back inside.


That was when the flash of light caught his eye. Bruce’s breath stopped. From the towers of Gotham, a beam cut through the air. The cloud above the city reflected the great circle of light with the shadowed bat in its centre.


 


 

Gotham City


The woman standing beneath the searchlight wore a long, black duster. Her red hair lifted in the wind and she raised a hand to tuck a few wayward strands behind one ear.


“I was beginning to think you wouldn’t come,” she said, without turning around.


The Batman took a single step out of the darkness. “I was occupied. What do you need?”


She turned to face him. “There’s a crime scene you should see. It’s on the corner of Mason near the railway bridge.”


“Why this scene?” Batman asked. He knew the location and it was not near Crime Alley or the docks, his usual haunts.


“You’ll know why when you see it. You don’t have long.”


That was cryptic, but good enough. Without another word, the Batman stepped up to the edge of the roof and then off. His cape billowed out as the air caught it, spreading like wings. But he wasn’t flying this time. In a move so practiced it was automatic, he caught the waiting slackline with a grapple. The jerk as the cord took his weight shocked his already-strained muscles but the next moment he was sliding smoothly down the zip wire. He landed lightly in the alley and vanished into the darkness.


The vehicle he thought of as “the fast car” but the Gotham press had dubbed the “Batmobile” roared to life as he hit the gas.


“Alfred. Corner of Mason where the rail tracks cross it. Is there anything in my way?”


Alfred answered at once. “Mason Square has been sealed off as a crime scene. Multiple homicides. GCPD are on the scene.”


Bruce turned the car toward the overpass. He could circle round and approach from the east. If he went up to the museum roof he would have a good vantage point and could drop in from above.


“I recommend approaching from the museum roof,” Alfred suggested.


Bruce permitted himself a momentary smile as Alfred echoed his own plan. “Good call. Are we clear?”


“All clear as long as you take the surface streets.”


In minutes he steered into the delivery tunnel under the museum building. He spun the car so it was facing the right way for a quick exit. He fired a grapnel upward and flew swiftly to the roof. The museum was a modern building and the roof was covered with solar panels. They provided cover for him as he crossed to the space above Mason Square. He snapped a power-vision visor over his eyes and looked down into the square.


Yellow tape cordoned off a large area below him. Police vehicles formed a wall just outside the tape: six patrol cars, three vans and two plain vehicles with blue lights flashing. Half of GCPD had to be there, but Batman saw no sign of CSU. He wondered if the crime scene techs had been delayed deliberately to give him the first look at the scene.


He had seen more than enough death in the past twenty four hours. What he saw below him was more familiar, and yet nothing he had seen before. There were three bodies lying on their backs, carefully arranged on the asphalt. Two were male, one female, a fact made obvious because they were clothed only in blood. They lay with their feet together like the hub of a wheel and their arms outstretched to shape a macabre hexagon...or should that be circle? Little lights encircled the bodies: coloured lights, like the kind you see on Christmas trees. It was a bizarre detail.


The visor zoomed in on the scene. The woman was white and her long, blonde hair had been spread out around her face like some kind of halo. Her eyes were open, staring at the sky. Almost perfectly between her eyes was the dark hole of a bullet wound. Someone should have closed her eyes, damn it. He saw a gleam of gold at  her neck: a pendant. The second victim was male, darker skinned. Batman could not see his face but his body-type and hair suggested he was hispanic. His torso had been sliced open from ribs to cock. The third victim was African American. Batman could not see what had killed him, but the pool of blood suggested a wound to the upper torso inflicted from behind. It wasn’t easy to stab a man from behind and hit the heart, but it could be done. If he wanted to know for sure he would either have to get closer, or hack the coroner’s system later.


He knew why Barbara wanted the Batman to see this. It was the work of an equal-opportunity psycho, perhaps, but still a psycho. The Christmas lights suggested something more. Why did these crazies always need some kind of weird calling card?


“What do you see?” Alfred’s voice interrupted his thoughts.


“Three dead. I’ve never seen anything quite like this, but it’s familiar, too.” He realised that didn’t make much sense. “I’m sending some images through, but you don’t have to look. It’s pretty bad.”


“Receiving. You don’t often feel the need to warn me about...oh, I see.”


He thought he actually heard Alfred gulp. The scene was carefully crafted to send a message. But a message to whom? And what was the message? Most likely if he could uncover one answer the other would become apparent.


“Are you going to hunt?” Alfred asked.


“Not tonight. That scene is too meticulous. He won’t have left anything to track. I’ll see you back at the cave.”


There was no reason for the Batman to risk getting in the face of so many cops, and it was close to dawn. But there was one thing he could do before he left.


The Batman rose and stood at the very edge of the roof where the rising sun would make him visible. He kept his gaze on the scene below until someone happened to glance upward. The cop did a double-take and slapped the shoulder of the man beside him. Both men looked up, then a third.


They saw the Batman. A dark shadow against the lightening sky. They knew why he was there and that he was on the case. He vanished from the roof as the first rays of the sun struck the roof.


Bats only come out at night.


 


 

Smallville


“Are you alright?” Lois asked in a soft voice.


Clark half-turned, looking back over his shoulder. Lois stood on the pathway about halfway between him and the ruined house. The light of the setting sun turned her hair to flame and her skin to a golden glow. His smile was entirely genuine. “Better for seeing you,” he answered candidly.


Lois smiled back, but her expression quickly turned serious. “I know you’re dealing with a lot.”


In just a few days Clark had discovered he was the last hope of a dead planet; had spoken with the ghost of his biological father; had seen the world he called his home invaded by others of his kind. The last survivors of Krypton wanted the Earth for themselves and they wanted something from Clark himself that he still didn’t entirely comprehend. Forced to choose, he fought them, a powerful but unskilled boy compared to those highly trained warriors. He killed them, the first of his kind he had ever known, the last of his kind who existed. He killed the last of them, Zod, with his bare hands while begging him to stop. Yes, it was a lot to deal with.


He could say none of this to Lois, but he didn’t need to. She knew.


“Are you going to stay?” Lois asked.


“Here in Smallville?” Clark shook his head. “No, it’s a small town and too many people saw what happened here. I can’t stay and be...Superman.” That name felt very strange.


“Then you’ve decided at least one thing.”


Clark sighed. “Yes, but...I’m not sure I know who Superman is, either.”


“He’s the man who saved the world.” Lois said it as if there were absolutely no doubt.


“And destroyed a city,” Clark said.


“I’m more responsible for that than you are, Clark, and I’m struggling with it, too. I don’t know how I can ever...”


Clark moved instantly to take her into his arms. “No, no, Lois. None of this was your fault.” He held her against his chest and stroked her hair.


Lois pulled back. “Then why can’t you believe that of yourself?”


Clark grimaced. “Because they came for Kal-El, Lois. Whatever else they chose or I did, it started because I am here. Because of me.”


“You shouldn’t feel responsible,” she insisted, “but if you do, maybe that’s the place to begin.”


Clark tucked a strand of Lois’s hair behind her ear. “Walk with me,” he suggested.


As they walked, Lois curled her fingers around his, warm and reassuring.


“When I was a boy, I didn’t know why I was different. I thought that I had these abilities for a reason. I wanted to help. My Dad was afraid of what that would mean.” Clark led Lois to the side of the house where three upturned barrels still stood: his childhood playground. “Because he wanted me to, I tried hard to hold back when I saw people...in trouble, or in danger. You know about the bus crash, don’t you? It was one of the stories about me you tracked down.”


“When you were a schoolboy, yes.”


“Dad was angry that I saved everyone, because it made it much harder to deny what I could do. He told me to remember I didn’t owe them anything.”


Lois squeezed his hand. “That’s a bit harsh.”


“He meant well,” Clark demurred. “Mom overheard, but she didn’t say anything at the time. A couple of days later, when Dad was out working the farm, she sat me down and told me Dad was right, I didn’t owe anyone my help. Then she told me that helping because you feel you owe someone is the worst reason to do it. I should do what I think is right, because it’s right. No other reason.”


Lois smiled. “So, that’s who Superman is.”


“I think...that’s who he should be. I don’t know if I’m up to it.”


Lois stopped walking and tugged on his hand a little. “Clark, how quickly can you fly to Metropolis?”


He raised his eyebrows. “Pretty fast. Why?”


“Can you take me with you?”


He hesitated. “Uh...I could, but the cold and the air pressure at speed...I don’t know if that’s safe for you. Why do you want to fly there?”


“There’s something I want to show you,” Lois shrugged. “I can just tell you, but I think seeing it will mean more.”


Clark considered. He would have to fly much more slowly than he usually did, and be careful not to go too high, but he would be holding her and could monitor her body to make sure she was okay. It could work. He kissed her lightly. “Well, then, we both need to get changed. Dress for cold weather.”


 


 

Metropolis


“Lois,” Clark breathed. For once, he was completely lost for words.


One wall of Lois’s apartment was full of the stories she had collected after their first encounter. Organised in chronological order and marked on a map, she had followed him backwards from the Canadian glacier all the way around the world and back to Smallville. He was amazed by how much she had found. There were incidents documented here that even he had forgotten. She truly was a brilliant investigator.


“All these people you helped,” Lois said softly. She moved closer to the wall. “Six men on a fishing boat that capsized off Alaska.” She touched the handwritten note she’d made when she spoke to the men he rescued. “This woman you saved from what would have been a horrible beating. She left him after that and pressed charges. This little girl you saved twice. You saved her life when you pulled her from the car, but you also saved her future by getting her father to the hospital. If you hadn’t been there, she would have been an orphan. Instead she’s about to graduate from high school.”


“You found all of them,” Clark marvelled.


“There were a few times when you couldn’t save everyone,” Lois went on. “The oil rig...three men died in the explosion before you got there. But in all of this, Clark...” She moved closer to him and looked up into Clark’s eyes. “There is not one death that you caused, not by action or by failing to act. Not a single person I spoke to said you were anything less than a miracle. That’s who you are.”


Lois ran her fingers over the S on his chest. “That’s who Superman can be. Will be.”


Clark let out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. He might never be able to live up to her vision of him, but he wanted to, he wanted that desperately. He would try and never stop trying. Superman could be that hero. And Clark Kent? Perhaps he could be...


He looked into her shining eyes and kissed her, long and deep. He held her close and Lois slid her hands up his back, pulling him even closer. He lost himself in the kiss, in her, and for a few seconds he was able to forget the death and destruction he had left in his wake. The kiss lasted for a very long time.


When Lois broke the kiss, there was something very different in her smile. “You can’t hide much in that suit,” she teased.


Clark swallowed, embarrassed, but he said, “I don’t have anything to hide from you.”


Her hand slid down his spine, drawing a small, unexpected sound from his throat. She cupped his buttock. “The bedroom is that way,” she whispered.


He carried her there.


 


 


Since learning that his power came from Earth’s yellow sun, Clark had found that he didn’t really need sleep. He slept, but more out of habit than need. Lois, on the other hand, needed to sleep, and he slipped carefully from her bed.


Someone had pushed a copy of the Daily Planet under her door with a terse note: Where the hell are you? Clark picked up the newspaper and stared at the photograph on the front page. The anger in that man’s eyes seemed to burn off the page.


“For every person lying here, every senseless death...someone has to answer for it. It can’t be meaningless.” The quote, attributed to Gotham billionaire Bruce Wayne by the Daily Planet article, was a real gut-punch.


The day after his battle with Zod, the people of Metropolis had rallied. Hospitals overwhelmed by the injured had implemented strategies to cope. Rescue efforts began among the rubble of fallen buildings. City leaders issued calls for able citizens to assist and thousands responded. And where was Clark? Hiding in the wreck of his childhood home in Smallville, struggling to come to terms with what he had done.


One consequence of coming out to the world in such a spectacular way, was Clark could no longer afford to have human weaknesses. There could be no more such self-indulgence. If he was going to be the hero Lois deserved, he had to start here, in Metropolis.


He had an hour until dawn. Clark dressed once more in the blue suit and cape. He wrote a short note to let Lois know of his plan and left it on the pillow beside her. He was fairly sure that disappearing from her apartment right after they slept together would not get him on her good side, but he could only hope she would understand. Metropolis was her home, after all.  Lois stirred in her sleep as he silently left the room and he glanced back, so very tempted to rejoin her. Another time. He hoped there would be many other times.


Clark flew high above the city and studied the damage he and Zod wrought in their battle. The scout ship containing the genesis chamber would never fly again; it had crashed in the harbour and was still there. Clark saw with no surprise that the military had taken control of that crash site and were guarding it. The scout ship could still be a threat to Earth, but for the time being it was probably safe in military custody. Zod’s original ship was gone, of course, sent back into the Phantom Zone along with those of his people who survived. They had escaped the Phantom Zone once, and Clark didn’t know nearly enough about the technology to be sure they couldn’t escape again. It was a worry, but like the scout ship, not an immediate one.


The ground that had been beneath Zod’s ship when the singularity formed had been razed clean. More than just the ship had been drawn into the Phantom Zone. Everything nearby had gone with it. Clark’s mind reeled from the horror of that, and the worse horror of knowing there was nothing that he, even with all his power, could do about it. Those people, human and Kryptonian alike, were gone. All he could do now was help those he could still help.


That thought sent him toward the site of his final brawl with Zod. He knew the damage was bad: that had been Zod’s intention. For this, though, Clark was equally to blame. He didn’t think about it, not during the fight. He was too caught up in battling his enemy, too focussed on stopping Zod to understand that Zod wasn’t the only one who needed to be stopped. The skyscraper that had been cut in two: he caused that. The other tower they smashed through hard enough to weaken the structure so it fell in on itself: that, too, was on him.


The people of Metropolis had achieved a lot in just one day, but he could see there was a great deal of work ahead just to clear the site so reconstruction could begin. Clark flew lower, examining the structure of the damaged and fallen buildings, looking for the stresses and weaknesses that indicated danger to the people working to clear the rubble. That was when he heard a heartbeat. And another. There were still people alive in there!


Clark turned in the air, ready to plunge into the broken building. Then a second thought held him back. Perhaps it was a bit late to be considering the consequences of his actions, but this time he would wait and be sure that he could save those people without endangering others.


He circled the building, checking from every angle, and then went to work.


 


 


“Is someone there? Help! Please, help us!”


“I’m coming!” Clark called back. “You’ll be alright. Just stay still.” Three heartbeats reached his ears and two more voices: one person crying, the other whispering prayers.


He was working as quickly as he safely could, reinforcing the structure as he tunnelled his way in, to ensure the building wouldn’t collapse any further. He could have punched his way through, but that would have made the structure unstable. When he broke his way through the last slab of concrete in his way, he found himself looking down into what had been an open-plan office. The space was dark to human eyes, but he could see well enough to reconstruct what happened.


As the building crumbled, the floor had sloped to a sharp angle, and everything in the room - desks, computers, chairs - had slid down the slope. Some of it fell through the shattering windows, until the ceiling on that side met the floor, closing the gap. Then the falling debris formed a wedge between the floor and the collapsing ceiling. These three survivors - a man and two women - had found relative safety on top of that wedge. The elder of the two women was badly injured. The other two were weak and scared, but their injuries were superficial.


There was no way they could climb up to the hole he had made, so Clark floated easily down to them.


“You’re safe,” he said.


“Like hell!” The younger girl moaned.


Clark knelt beside the injured woman. She was still praying, whispering the words. Clark took her hand in his as he scanned her body. Three broken bones. A slow internal bleed that wasn’t serious yet, but would be very soon.


“I’m going to get you all out, but I have to take this lady first. She needs hospital care quickly. Can you both hold on a little longer?”


“You’re going to leave us?” The younger woman had a hysterical edge to her voice.


Before Clark could answer, the other man reached out to her. “It’s okay. We’ll be okay. They know we’re here now.”


Clark bent over the injured woman. “When I lift you, it’s going to hurt, but I promise it won’t be for long. I’m going to get you help.”


“Thank you,” she whispered.


He took that for consent and gathered her up as gently as he could. He flew up to the tunnel he had made. The tunnel was crooked but wide enough for him to carry her without risk of bumping her on the walls or causing her any more pain. He flew, to make the journey smoother.


As he emerged into the light, two people in protective clothing stumbled back out of his way. He flew clear of the rubble and the wind lifted his cape as he floated down toward the nearest open space.


There were voices all around him.


“What the hell...?”


“Isn’t that the one who...?”


“...on TV...”


“...Kal-El...”


“...caused all this...”


One man walked purposefully into the space where Clark was about to land. “Who the hell are you?” he demanded.


Clark looked at the woman in his arms. “She needs help right now,” he insisted, ignoring the question.


The man lifted a radio and barked into it. “I need medevac in sector D. Now!” He never took his eyes from Clark. “Who are you?”


“I’m here to help. Are you in charge here?”


“In this section I am.”


Clark laid the woman gently on the ground. “You’ll be okay now,” he said.


She touched his face, a brief caress of thanks.


Clark turned back to the man in charge. “I’m happy to answer your questions but there are two more survivors in there. I’m going back for them first.” He took off without waiting for further discussion.


When he returned with the others, carrying them both against his body, one on each side, he was not surprised to see a small crowd waiting. There was also an ambulance, so Clark flew over the heads of those waiting to drop the two survivors at the ambulance.


“Thank you,” the man said. The woman was just staring at him.


Clark simply smiled. “I’m glad I could help.” He moved away from them, walking this time. The crowd parted to let him through and he could feel their fear of him. Not all of them were afraid, but enough. This wouldn’t be easy.


“Do you have any idea how dangerous that was?” the supervisor demanded.


Clark looked up at the broken building. “It’s a bit more stable now. I was able to fuse some of the girders on my way in.”


“You can’t - ”


“Yes, I can. I’m here to help.”


The man gazed at him for a moment, taking in the flowing cape, the symbol on his chest. Then he nodded. “It’s my job to decide how each volunteer here can best contribute. If you’re one of them, you follow my directions.”


Clark hesitated only for a moment. “I’m strong enough to lift that entire building. I can’t be killed. I can be hurt but I heal so quickly it doesn’t matter. I can see through walls and I can fly. How would you like me to help?”


He laughed. “Holy shit. Did God send you, or the Devil?”


“Neither one, I hope.”


It broke the ice. Clark knew he would have to prove himself. He and others like him had done a lot of damage and if people were afraid of him, they were justified. They had dogs and equipment to locate survivors in the wreckage, but Clark’s vision was better. That was a place to begin.


 


 


Late in the afternoon, he heard Lois’s voice among the crowd of media gathering on the perimeter. He had been aware of the media there all day: cameras filming as he and the others worked, a steady stream of voices as correspondents broadcast live reports and sought interviews with anyone who came close enough. Clark simply stayed away, letting them film and photograph him from a distance but concentrating on his tasks. Now Lois was among them.


He asked Roy, the supervisor, if he could be excused for a few minutes.


“You’ve been working ten hours without even a bathroom break,” Roy pointed out. “Go.”


Clark headed toward Lois’s voice. Flashbulbs and video cameras turn his way. Questions were fired from all sides.


For most of the day a part of Clark’s mind had been working on what he needed to say and how to handle the press aspect of this. He located Lois in the crowd and made eye contact. She smiled, and that alone was enough to send his spirit soaring. He raised his hands, turning toward the thickest part of the crowd, and waited for quiet.


Slowly, the babble of questions ceased.


Clark raised his voice. “I know you have a lot of questions. I want to answer them, but there is a lot still to do here and I think it’s more important right now that we save as many lives as possible. I hope you can be patient.”


He saw Lois carefully pushing her way through the crowd, making her way to the front.


“I don’t have any words that are enough for what happened here. It wasn’t my choice, but I am still responsible. I can’t change it, but I’m here to do what I can to help.”


“What do you have to say to the families of those who died here?” A woman journalist thrust a microphone toward him.


A male voice yelled, “Are you going to turn yourself in?”


“Lois Lane, Daily Planet.” Lois pushed the woman with the microphone aside as she reached the front of the crowd. “They are calling you Superman. Is that your name now?”


She couldn’t have asked a more perfect question if they had planned it. Lois had given him the angle he needed to take back control of the story. He gave her a grateful smile.


“The entire world knows my name,” he answered, looking at her. He rose into the air slightly, just enough to let them all see. “General Zod came here looking for Kal-El. But I chose the people of this planet over my own, so perhaps I no longer have a right to that name.” Clark let his gaze roam over the other journalists. He met each pair of eyes, briefly but long enough for each to know he had noticed them.


“‘Superman’ was the code name the US military used for me during the invasion. If I need a new name, it should be the one I was given here.” He turned to the first reporter who had spoken. “What can I say to the families of the dead? No words will help, or bring back the people Zod killed in his search for me. Do you want me to say sorry? I am. I feel the weight of every one of them, and if I could change it, I would.” Clark looked for the one who asked if he would turn himself in. That was a trickier question. “It’s not for me to decide if there’s a crime to answer for here. I have lived among you for a long time, as an American citizen, and I respect the laws and constitution of this country. If I am charged with a crime, I will answer for it, like any other American. I won’t be hard to find.”


Clark sought out Lois again. She smiled and mouthed the word Later. Clark rose a bit higher into the air. “Now, if you will all excuse me, I must get back to work. There are people still trapped in there.”


 


 

Paris


The photograph on the front page of Le Monde seemed to sum up the tragedy in Metropolis. It was a close-up of one of the volunteers who had spent the day digging through the rubble. A protective mask that had covered his lower face was pulled down to his chin and the clean skin around his mouth stood out in stark contrast to the thick layer of dust that clung to his hair and clothing, that filled the lines around his eyes. It was the eyes that the photographer had captured so perfectly it almost had to be digitally altered. Those eyes, dark windows into a soul filled with rage, caught the light in just the right way for the photographer to capture the reflection in the cornea: the endless rows of dead bodies the unknown man had spent the day extracting from the rubble of Metropolis’ tallest buildings.


Diana studied the photograph for a long time before reading the accompanying article. She understood the man’s anger when so many people had lost their lives, but the depth of his rage, with no sign of accompanying grief, troubled her. The man was a stranger to her, but something about him seemed familiar. She knew him, because she understood with perfect clarity the kind of man he was.


The world was still reeling from the impact of the alien incursion that leveled Metropolis. It was too big for Diana to ignore, in spite of her vow to stay out of wars. She had been at Charles de Gaulle airport, waiting for a flight from Paris for the United States when it became clear the battle was over. Truly, she hadn't expected it to end so quickly and had been preparing herself for a lengthy war.


Her intervention was no longer needed, but the article made clear that she might still have a role to play. Now, she had a destination. She would fly to Metropolis within the hour. At the very least, she wanted to find out more about this alien whose presence so endangered the world.


 


 

Metropolis


When Clark reached Lois’s apartment that night, he felt almost spent. The emotional toll of seeing the devastation he helped bring to the city weighed on his soul, but it was more than that. He felt physically drained, tired to the bone. And that was not normal for him. It wasn’t normal at all.


He raised a hand to knock on her window.


Lois appeared at a dead run and flung the window open. “I thought you were never coming! Clark, I have a great idea!”


He flew inside and dropped to the floor, absurdly grateful for gravity. He collapsed to his knees.


“Clark?” Instantly, Lois was beside him. She pulled his cape aside and wrapped her arms around him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”


“I’m...I don’t know. I’m tired.” Clark leaned into her embrace. “Just give me a moment.”


Lois ran her fingers through his hair. “You’ve been working all day. It’s not surprising you’re tired.” She kissed his cheek. “I’ll draw a bath for you. Okay?”


“That sounds good. Thanks.”


Clark stripped off his suit. It was as dirty as his skin, covered with dust from the rubble. The Kryptonian fabric, designed to last, was undamaged. He rubbed at his shoulder to ease the ache and walked, naked, into Lois’s bathroom.


She had drawn the water very hot and added a sandalwood-scented oil to the water. The hot water was soothing. He leaned his head back on the rim of the tub, and sighed. “This is nice.”


He felt Lois’s fingers caress his shoulder under the water. “Just relax,” she murmured against his ear.


He turned his head to kiss her. “Lois, something’s wrong. I don’t get tired. Not like this.”


Her smile vanished. “Clark, are you sick?”


“I don’t know. Maybe.” He reached for her, cupping her face with his hand. “It was a tough day, but physically, I’ve done things much harder. I mean, you know better than anyone what I can do.”


Lois frowned. “You were sick aboard Zod’s ship.” She dipped a sponge in the water and added soap, making it foam up. “Lean forward,” she instructed.


“I’ve been on Earth for so long my body adapted to Earth’s atmosphere. I couldn’t tolerate what’s normal for my people,” Clark recalled. He leaned forward and Lois ran the soapy sponge over his shoulders.


“Is it possible that’s why you’re feeling ill now? Maybe you caught the Kryptonian version of a cold, or...I don’t know. Pollution from the ships? Something that affects you more than us?”


“It could be,” Clark agreed.


“Then maybe you shouldn’t go back.”


“I have to, Lois. I made this happen. I have to do what I can to help.”


“And you need to take care of yourself.”


“I will.” He took the sponge from her and turned around, kneeling in the water to scrub himself down. He felt better already. “You said you had an idea?”


“Yes!” Immediately, Lois was all smiles again. “I’m going to interview Superman.”


Clark raised his eyebrows. “Uh-huh. In the bathtub? Isn’t that a little risquée for the Daily Planet?”


Lois laughed. “Well, whatever works. No, I mean, a series of articles, focussing on Superman, who he is, why he’s here. We work on it together, to introduce him to the world properly. What happened here is making people afraid, but if people understand what you did and how much worse it could have been, they’ll start to see you as you are.”


Clark knew they were afraid of him. He’d spent the day experiencing that, and it was horrible. But he thought he’d made a start with the people he worked alongside.


“So, you want to be Superman’s PR manager?”


Lois made a face. “Call me that again, I’ll wash your mouth out with soap! I’m talking about journalism. We don’t lie. We just tell your story, the good and the bad. I already spoke to Perry and he loves the idea. What do you think?”


Clark smiled. “I like it. As long as we can keep Clark Kent and Smallville out of the story. When all this settles, I want to be able to live some version of a normal life. With you.”


“I want that, too.” Lois’s expression turned to puzzlement. “Can that suit of yours be washed? I never thought about it before.”


And at that, he couldn’t help laughing. “Well, it stood up to bullets, fire and the equivalent of a nuclear blast. I don’t think water and detergent can harm it.”


“In that case, I’m going to clean it. If you did pick up some kind of pollution we don’t want it on your clothing. Then we’ll start work on that interview.”


 


 

Gotham City


Bruce turned on the electron microscope and studied the image of the dust sample that appeared on his screen. Most of it was exactly what he should expect to find: brick and concrete, a little glass, some steel. But there were also small particles of something he couldn’t identify. Something with a crystalline structure, green like an emerald. But emeralds got their green hue from traces of chromium; this looked nothing like that. Geology wasn’t Bruce’s field, and while the equipment in the Batcave was good, there were limits.


The second set of samples was already in the WayneTech lab for analysis. It was too late to call them, but he added it to his growing list of things to do in the morning. Whatever those green particles were, he had a feeling they came from the alien ship. He needed to know for sure whether they were dangerous.


He downloaded the data so he could show it to the scientists at WayneTech and turned his attention to his other problem: the murders in Mason Square.


The preliminary autopsy reports were in and two of the victims had been identified. Bruce ran a search on the names and started digging.


The woman was Gina Mannix and she was from Metropolis. She was reported missing after the invasion and her name was listed with the many other dead and missing of the city. She worked for LexCorp, but then half of Metropolis either worked for LexCorp or was related to someone who did. Gina had a sister who lived with her, a married brother who lived in another city and parents, also in Metropolis. So what brought her to Gotham, and why had she not contacted her family after the invasion? Wouldn’t she want to know they were okay, and let them know she was, too?


The first of the men had been identified from his fingerprints, which meant he had a police record. Bruce called that information up and found himself looking at a rap sheet that painted a very familiar picture. Firearms offences, assault, breaking and entering, but the only charges that stuck were the minor offences. His lawyer was familiar to Bruce. The same sleazebag who always showed up when one of Luthor’s goons got arrested.


They both worked for Lex Luthor. A coincidence? He needed to identify the other male victim to be certain.


Lex Luthor was dead. His business empire would continue under the existing LexCorp board, at least until the details of inheritance were sorted out. But his criminal empire would not transition as quickly or as easily. The death of a mob boss always shook things up in the criminal underworld and it was likely such a shake-up would involve deaths. Bruce didn’t care if hoods slaughtered each other in their scramble for the scraps from Luthor’s table. But the nature of these murders wasn’t something he could ignore. Anyone who mutilated and displayed bodies like that was someone who enjoyed it. That wasn’t someone Bruce was willing to tolerate in Gotham City.


He checked the time, confirming it wasn’t too late to make a phone call, then dialled a number. The phone he used was untraceable. It routed the call through twenty different exchanges and if anyone could trace that path it would end in a VOIP exchange on the dark net. There was no possible way to confirm the call even came from the USA; it certainly couldn’t be traced to an estate just outside Gotham City. The phone also modified his voice in the same way as his suit.


The call was answered quickly. “Hello?” It was a man’s voice.


“It’s me, Jim. I need to talk to Barbara.”


There was a hesitation before Jim answered. “I’ll get her.” Bruce heard a thunk as the receiver was set down. Police Commissioner (retired) Jim Gordon had never been one for small talk.


A few moments later he heard Barbara’s voice. “Batman?”


“Who is the lead detective on the case?” he asked. He already knew the answer, but it was the simplest way to begin the conversation.


Barbara answered at once. “Janet Cavendish.”


“I need to meet with her. Tonight.”


Barbara drew in her breath audibly. “I’ll do what I can. Watch the sky.”


“Always.” Bruce ended the call and went to suit up.


 


 


He knew Barbara Gordon wouldn’t fail him, so Batman was already waiting on the roof that held the Bat signal when she arrived with Detective Cavendish. He didn’t reveal himself, but watched as Barbara turned on the great searchlight, painting the clouds above Gotham with his sign.


Sometimes, it was good to remind everyone that the Bat was out there, so he let them wait, just for a little while before he emerged from concealment.


“The victims were all connected to Lex Luthor,” he said, announcing his presence.


Barbara had known he was there, but he saw the other woman startle before they both turned to face him.


“We know one of them worked for him,” Detective Cavendish said, her voice steady.


“Luthor was killed in the invasion. Someone’s cleaning up his organisation.” Batman wasn’t quite certain of this yet, but he didn’t know Cavendish well enough to show her anything less than absolute certainty.


“Who?”


“I’m working on that. If I’m going to catch him, I need something from you.”


“It’s my job to catch him, not yours,” Cavendish snapped.


Barbara put a hand on her arm. “Janet...”


Batman simply looked at them both.


After a silence, Cavendish sighed. “Tell me what you need.”


“When more bodies show up, and they will, you call me first. No one touches the scene until I get there.”


“You know we can’t do that,” Cavendish objected.


“I know that if you don’t, this will get out of hand, fast. This isn’t a usual mob killing.”


“I know,” she sighed, and her whole demeanour changed. She appeared defeated. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”


“I have,” Batman said, moving forward. “The precision of the display was meant to frighten all who hear of it. This killer wants to provoke terror and...” He broke off, his mouth dry as the nagging familiarity of the scene suddenly burst into terror in his mind. Not Christmas lights. Carnival lights. He swallowed, hard. “...And chaos,” he concluded. “Don’t give him what he wants.”


“He will help, Janet,” Barbara said quietly.


It was clear she didn’t like it, but she nodded. “Is there a faster way to contact you than shining a light in the sky?”


Batman looked at Barbara. The secret was hers to tell, not his.


“My dad,” Barbara said without hesitation. “The signal only works by night, obviously. But if you call Jim Gordon, he can get a message to Batman at any hour.”


Barbara’s unhesitating trust made Batman feel more confident about trusting Cavendish himself. He drew a small flash drive from his belt and held it out to her. “This is what I have on the victims. I think Mannix is your best lead. If you can find out why she came to Gotham, it may lead you to the killer.”


She took the drive from his gloved hand. “I’ll look into it.”


Batman nodded to Barbara and retreated back into the darkness.  


 


 

Metropolis


Very few private funerals require a police presence, but this one was attended by nearly all of the wealthy and prominent citizens of Metropolis and the surrounding cities. The security presence was discreet, but comprehensive. Both police and private security were there to protect the endless parade of men and women in sombre black.


Lex didn't mind the parade. He knew how important it was to be seen in all the right places and this certainly qualified as an essential event to be noticed attending. What Lex hated was that so many of them wanted to talk to him. They were compelled to express their hypocritical condolences, these vultures who probably wanted his father dead almost as badly as Lex himself. They had to say how very sorry they were, lies spoken through poker faces or barely concealed smiles. They expected him to thank them for their lies and he, like a well-trained puppy, complied...when what he really wanted to do was murder the lot of them.


After this day, Lex vowed, he would never again play the role other people wanted him to play. He would be true to himself, and damn what polite society demanded.


At the graveside, he endured the speeches about what a wonderful man his father had been. Lex Luthor sr., now deceased, was a great business man (of course he was, because money and power were the only things that mattered to him). He was a great patron of the sciences (naturally, because patents were worth a fortune; no scientist whose research was funded by LexCorp ever benefited much from their own work) and of the arts (funding opera and theatre let him rub shoulders with the rich and powerful and funding other media was about controlling it: control the entertainment of the masses and you control their thoughts) and a great philanthropist. That last was not true at all: LexCorp under Lex Luthor senior donated to endeavours that benefited Lex Luthor senior. Generous contributions to causes like the Metropolis Police retirement fund helped encourage some to look the other way when certain shipments came in. Discreet campaign funding served a similar purpose. These brown-nosing hypocrites had no idea who Lex Luthor really was.


More interesting, to Lex, were the people who chose not to speak. Familiar faces: LexCorp board members, cronies and henchmen who had plenty to say while his father was alive, but now were silent and watchful, vultures waiting for their chance to pick over the corpse.


Wait your turn, Lex told them silently. This lion will have his share before the vultures move in.


When it was finally over, Lex remained beside the grave as the other “mourners” slowly filed away. It wasn’t out of respect, and it certainly wasn’t grief. He just wanted to avoid any more conversation. Tomorrow, he would find out what was in his father’s will, and would have to deal with that. He wouldn't be shocked if the bastard had left him with nothing. If he had...well, that was a problem for tomorrow.


Footsteps on grass make very little sound, but Lex stiffened as that quiet shuffle interrupted his thoughts. He closed his eyes, feigning grief - he was getting very good at that - but whoever it was didn't leave. He wasn't coming closer, either, just patiently waiting. For what?


Lex turned abruptly, ready tell his unwanted companion to fuck off, but he bit back the words when he saw who was there.


“Are you okay?” Bruce Wayne asked him. Oddly, he actually seemed sincere.


Lex shrugged. “Just peachy,” he answered sarcastically.


Wayne gave a quick smile. “Yeah, it’s a stupid question. I know you must be sick and tired of hearing it.” He gestured toward the road, where most of the cars were rumbling toward the cemetery gate. “Can I offer you a ride home? The paparazzi will be waiting to mob you as soon as you’re outside the police cordon. If you ride with me it’ll throw them off.”


Lex hesitated, but whatever Wayne’s motive, he couldn’t see what he had to lose from accepting the offer. He shrugged again. “Okay.”


“I’ll wait in the car. No need to hurry if you’re not ready to leave.”


Now that was insulting. “I’m ready now.” Lex allowed himself one final glance at the coffin. He wanted to open it up and drive a stake through the old bastard’s heart, just to be certain. But of course there wasn’t really a body in there. LexCorp tower vanished into the black hole Superman created, leaving nothing to find. Even if they had found a body, it would likely be in unrecognisable pieces. Lex turned away from the grave and fell into step beside Wayne as they walked, slowly, back toward the cars.


Wayne made no attempt to engage Lex in conversation as they walked. Lex wasn’t sure what to make of that. He knew Bruce Wayne only by reputation. His father sneeringly referred to Wayne as the Prince of Gotham, unworthy inheritor of generations of wealth backing a business empire even larger than LexCorp. From the media, Lex knew that Wayne had never married but was never short of women to hang on his arm in public. In private...well, that was hard to know. It wasn't important.


The car was a sleek, black limousine with dark windows. Wayne let Lex enter first and he sank into the soft leather seat, relieved when the closing door shut the world out.


“Did you want to go home, or is there somewhere else you...?”


Lex interrupted. “Home. Please.”


Wayne touched a panel to give his driver the instruction and the car began to move. It was a quiet, smooth ride and the silence was relaxing. Perhaps too relaxing, as Lex allowed his guard to slip a little. He sighed, letting his head fall back against the seat.


“I know how overwhelming it is,” Wayne said, after a long silence.


Lex's eyes flew open. “I’m fine,” he snapped, an unguarded reflex.


“No, you’re not,” Wayne contradicted gently. “But that’s okay, you’re not supposed to be. Lex... Or is it Alex?”


Lex narrowed his eyes. “Lex is fine. Bruce.” The name came out harshly, like an insult. Lex mentally kicked himself. He was giving too much away. He was supposed to be in mourning.


Wayne didn’t flinch. “Lex, Wayne Enterprises and LexCorp are rival companies, but that doesn’t mean you and I have to be. There will be a lot of people around you in the coming weeks, people who expect something from you, or want things.”


“What do you want?”


“Nothing at all. That’s my point. I lost my parents when I was young, too.” Suddenly Wayne looked different, as if a mask had fallen. What Lex saw underneath his mask was pain.


“Don’t pretend you know how I feel.” The only pain Lex felt was sheer boredom with everyone who thought he was sad about his father’s death.


“I don’t know how you feel,” Wayne admitted, speaking more truth than he knew. “No one can. But there are not many people who have experienced what you’re about to go through - this coming into an inheritance that’s more than most people can imagine. There will be a lot of pressure on you to become what other people think you should be. It’s...” he hesitated, as if had changed his mind about what he wanted to say, then concluded, “It's not easy to be your own man.”


“And what, you’re offering advice? Like you said, you have a vested interest here.” And you have no idea how much my own man I'm going to be.


“I don’t, really. I mean, my company has a presence in Metropolis, and we invest in some of the same sectors as LexCorp but our interests are much more aligned than in conflict. But I don’t want to talk business today. What I'm offering is...well, just an open door from someone who has been through it. I won’t be insulted if you choose not to take me up on it, either. I just want you to know the offer is there.”


“I’m not sure what that means.”


“Right now, it means if you call me, I’ll take the call. If you drop by, I’ll make myself available. No strings.”


“Why?”


“Because it might make a difference,” he said cryptically.


Lex wanted to probe that, figure out what was really going on here, but he also saw an opportunity. An open door was a door that could be exploited. He would not risk shutting it until he understood what Wayne’s bleeding heart might get him.


So instead he gave the same could-care-less shrug he had been giving all day. “Thanks,” he muttered.


 


 

Arkham Asylum


Five miles outside the Gotham City limits stood the maximum security and highly specialised institution known as Arkham Asylum. Rebuilt and upgraded with funding from the Wayne Foundation, the asylum’s outer wall was now four metres high and almost a metre thick. Inside the wall was an electrified fence. There was only one gate. The asylum itself still had its original shell: a Gothic building, topped with turrets almost like a castle. But now all of the windows were filled with bullet proof glass and covered with steel bars. Most did not open. Security was tight; it had to be. Arkham held the most dangerous criminals Gotham had ever known.


Jeremiah Arkham, director of the asylum for nearly thirty years, was working late. The cup of coffee at his elbow had long since become cold. Beside it, a plate held the crumbs of the sandwich he had eaten for supper. He signed a report with a flourish, added it to the pile and reached for the next.


He heard a gentle knock on his door and set the report down on the desk. “Come in,” he called.


His secretary opened the door, but didn’t enter the room. “Doctor Arkham, I’m leaving now.”


“That’s fine, Rachel. Have a good weekend.”


“Goodnight, Doctor.” She closed the door quietly.


Jeremiah rose from the desk and crossed to the window. It was dark outside so there wasn’t much to see out there. Only shadows.


Something slammed into him from behind. He just barely avoided a broken nose by turning his head to the side a split second before his face hit the glass. Pain exploded around his eye and he shouted involuntarily. Something very solid pressed against his back, holding his body against the window.


“Where is he?”


The voice, a distorted growl, sent a chill through Jeremiah. He wanted to say something, but it was taking all his concentration just to breathe.


“Where is he?” the voice demanded again. Jeremiah felt the pressure on the back of his neck increase.


“Who?” he gasped.


His back slammed into the wall, all the breath left his lungs and he found himself looking into a black mask. “B- b- ”


Where is he?


Jeremiah no longer needed to ask who “he” was. Only one resident of the asylum could provoke this man like this. He took a breath, trying to steady himself. “He’s in his cell. The same place he’s been for eight years!”


“Are you sure?”


For a moment, Jeremiah felt a spear of doubt, because surely the Batman would not be here, would not be asking this question, without reason. Instead of a simple yes, he said, “Do you want to see for yourself?”


“Yes,” the Batman said.


“M-my access key is in the desk drawer.”


The Batman released him and stepped back, allowing Jeremiah to move. He crossed to his desk and unlocked the drawer. His hands were shaking. There was an alarm an inch from his fingers. It would have security here in two minutes, police in fifteen. If he tried to raise the alarm he would be dead in two seconds.


He extracted the access card and held it out.


“Show me,” the Batman insisted.


Jeremiah didn’t argue. The Batman followed him through the asylum hallways, a silent shadow at his back, until they reached a solid metal door. Jeremiah opened the door by swiping his card and typing in a code. They went through that door and two more like it, to finally emerge into a room full of monitors, each displaying a view of a different cell. The guard watching the monitors looked up as they entered. Jeremiah gestured, touching his eye and then his ear: see no evil, hear no evil. The guard turned back to the screens without a word.


Each screen showed an image of one of the cells, dimly lit because it was night. Most of the inmates slept, but not all. One man sat on a bed, his back to the camera, rocking back and forth. Another had a pack of playing cards and was placing them one by one on the floor.


“You can go in if you want to,” Jeremiah offered.


He detected the barest hesitation before the Batman moved to the final door.


Jeremiah nodded to the guard, who unlocked the door and then locked it behind the Batman. Jeremiah watched the monitor. There was no doubt which cell the Batman intended to visit. The Joker.


The Batman stayed only long enough for the Joker to notice him and for them to exchange some words. The guard let the Batman back through the door and sealed it.


Once again, they walked the dark and silent hallways.


“You thought he escaped,” Jeremiah said cautiously. “Why?”


“A triple homicide last night. It reminded me of his work. I had to be sure.”


“Of course,” Jeremiah agreed.


“Have you had any escapes? Or releases?”


“No.”


“What about deaths?”


Was he serious? Did he think a dead man had killed people in Gotham? Jeremiah stopped walking. “We did, as it happens. Edwin King died a week ago.”


“What can you tell me about him?”


“That he’s dead.”


The Batman gripped his arm. “Tell me anyway,” he insisted.


Jeremiah thought hard. “He was seventy six when he died. He was committed here twenty years ago after he killed eight people and sent pieces of them to the police. He claimed he was saving them from devils.”


“I want his file.”


“Anything you need.”


 


 

Metropolis


Treading lightly through the house was a hard habit to break. Even though he had just come from burying the old bastard, as Lex passed the door of his father's room he still tensed for the man's voice, the summons that would end in seething anger, humiliation, pain. He still breathed a sigh of relief when he passed the door unheard by the phantom within. And then felt a wave of fury at himself. He was Lex Luthor now. His father was dead. Gone. Buried in a closed casket because what was left when they found his remains in the rubble was barely recognisable.


Impulsively, Lex returned to his father's door. He pushed the door open. The room was dark. In the light from the hallway, the painting above the faux-fireplace stood out. Lex hated that painting. Angels vs demons, but his demon had always lived here, in this room. He heard his own breath hitch and hated himself for letting this get to him, even now. His questing fingers found the light switch and flipped it. His breath steadied.


He crossed the room to the sideboard and poured himself a large glass of his father's Kentucky bourbon. Just because he could.


He sat in his father's chair - a Victorian-style leather armchair - and sipped from the glass, pulling a face at the unfamiliar burn. It wasn't unpleasant, though, and he drank some more. He leaned back into the chair and ran the fingers of his left hand over the studs in the leather in a conscious imitation of his father’s habitual gesture. The studs were warm under his fingers.


He felt a sudden sharp pain and jerked his hand away, sloshing bourbon over his other hand. He looked at his fingers. Blood welled from pinpricks in his first and middle fingers. Lex stared at the blood. The injury was nothing compared to some of the hurts he had sustained in this room, but it was strange. How could there be sharp edges on this chair?


A rumbling sound came from deep within the wall. Lex frowned and looked toward the fireplace. The painting he so hated slid upwards. The false fireplace split in two, revealing a dark space behind.


Holy shit, Daddy had a secret passage! Lex laughed out loud. He swallowed the remaining bourbon in a single gulp and headed toward the opening.


Lights came on as he entered, illuminating the passage. When he crossed the threshold the fireplace-door began to close. Lex turned back, afraid of being trapped. In the wall behind him he saw a panel with a glowing hand print. Tentatively, he reached out and fit his own hand into the outline. The fireplace swung open again.


Awesome. Lex grinned.


He headed down the passage. The ceiling was low, but the passage surprisingly wide - two people could easily walk side by side. At the end of the passage he found an elevator with two destinations: up or down. He pushed the button for down, the door slid closed and it began to descend. It was hard to tell how quickly the elevator travelled, but it felt like it descended a very long way before it finally came to a stop.


Lex was underneath the estate, perhaps miles below the house. The elevator doors opened into a large octagonal room with a vaulted ceiling. In the centre of the room was a U-shaped desk with six flat screens and a large bank of computer drives. There was a single chair.


Oh, Daddy, what do we have here?


Lex sat down at the desk. Instantly the screens came to life. He examined the computer. There was a standard keyboard and mouse, but there were other devices, too, including a palm-scanner much like the one back at the fireplace-door.


Lex looked at his fingers where the chair had pricked him. The blood had dried on his skin. Blood, he thought. DNA. The door had opened for him because it recognised him as a Luthor. He doubted the computer would be so easy. His father had no respect for him: he would not have intended for Lex to find any of this.


He had to start somewhere, so he placed his palm on the scanner. He was unsurprised to see words appear on the screens:


ACCESS DENIED


Well, he couldn’t dig up his father’s hand, but Lex wasn’t deterred. He was a skilled programmer and hacker, better than his father had ever known. He would get in. He just needed time.


Beginning with the obvious, Lex disconnected the palm scanner. The screens flickered and new words appeared:


ENTER ACCESS CODE:


There was no indication of how many characters the code might be. That would be too easy. His father wouldn’t have chosen something obvious. This needed some thought.


Let’s see... His father was a meglomaniac with delusions of empire. He admired conquest. Lex typed veni vidi vici.


ACCESS DENIED


ENTER ACCESS CODE:


Lex sighed. He hadn’t expected to get it right first time, but at least there didn’t appear to be a limit on the number of attempts. He knew his father well. He would figure this out.


After ten attempts, Lex realised the code would not be in English. His father’s first language was German. And with that thought, it was obvious. He typed nicht Wahrheit Sieg: Not truth but victory. Dad liked to quote Hitler, as long as he was sure the listener wouldn’t know the quote.


ACCESS GRANTED


“Woo!” Lex crowed.


Immediately the screens filled with different directories and images. Lex stared, a smiled spreading across his face. It was all here. Everything his father had kept from him...everything.


Knowledge was power, and Lex liked power.


 


 

Gotham City


The umbrella Detective Cavendish carried was poor protection against the driving rain. She had to fight the wind with every step she took as she climbed the steps in front of the Gotham Opera House.


Batman watched her from the shadows between the gothic pillars. When the wind blew her umbrella inside-out and she turned around to catch it and wrestle it back into shape, Batman stepped forward. It was a very simple trick of timing so that when she looked back he would apparently have appeared from nowhere.


She cursed when she saw him and lowered the umbrella, shaking the rain off it in a futile gesture. She hurried up to where he waited. “It’s inside,” she said.


“Thank you for calling me.” Batman led the way into the opera house.


Gotham Opera House was closed for some major refurbishment so there wasn’t even a show in rehearsal. The only people with access to the building were builders and security. The lobby was very far from its usual ornate splendour: the carpet had been torn up, tools and timber lay everywhere.


“It’s not very public,” Batman remarked. The murder scene in Mason Square was meant to be seen, a very public message. The next scene should have been in a similarly public location. A closed theatre didn’t have the same cachet.


“Not like the square, you mean?” Cavendish indicated the sweeping staircase that led to the circle and private boxes. “No, I think this time the message is more private.”


He had walked up these steps many times as Bruce Wayne. He came here as a boy with his parents and now came often to the opera as a patron of the arts. He had never before climbed these steps as Batman.


“You’ll get the best view from the circle,” Cavendish said as they reached one of the entrances.


Batman entered ahead of her. He strode past the rows of seats to the front of the circle. As soon as he saw the stage he understood Cavendish's abrasive attitude. He wondered if he was here as detective, or as a suspect.


There were two bodies this time, male and female, posed side by side on their backs with his feet beside her head and vice versa. As before, both were clothed only in blood. Both bodies had been sliced open: the woman through the rib cage, with the bones pulled apart to expose her internal organs; the man’s stomach open from ribs to genitals. The stage lighting had been set up around them, bathing the scene in red. But it was the prop suspended above them that drew the eye and explained why Cavendish called him so promptly. He recognised it, actually, because it had appeared in the previous season’s performance of Faust. It was a flying demon, but from where he stood, with a single spotlight illuminating the wings from below, it looked like a bat.


The first message was public. This was meant for him.


“Tell me you know who did this,” Cavendish said from beside him.


“I don’t,” Batman growled, “but I’m going to find out.” The first three victims were unknown to him, but the woman lying on the stage seemed familiar. He needed a closer look to be sure. “How long since they were found?” he asked.


Cavendish checked her watch. “Eighty seven minutes.”


“And how long until we have company?”


“Haven’t you seen enough?”


“I’m not here for tourist thrills, detective. I need to go down there.”


“You know I can’t let you contaminate the scene.”


“It’s not my first day. If you stay here, you’ll be able to see everything I do. I will touch as little as possible but I need to understand the message here.” He didn’t wait for further discussion, but jumped over the safety rail to the stalls below.


The smell hit him first, before he reached the stage. The stink of death: old blood, meat and human waste. Another change in MO: that smell suggested they had been killed here. In Mason square the victims had been killed elsewhere and brought to the place where they were displayed. Then he got his closer look at the woman’s face and got the message loud and clear.


It was Lucy Dane, the assistant district attorney who had been working with him to build a case against Lex Luthor. There was that connection again. He moved to the man and again felt a frisson of recognition. He wasn’t sure of the man’s name, but he was a private detective who had occasionally done work for the DA’s office. Had Lucy brought him in on the Luthor case?


Damn it. He could find the killer, but it was looking more and more like Luthor was behind this. And Luthor was dead, beyond Batman’s reach.


He looked out into the auditorium. With the way the spotlight was rigged, it was difficult to make out details, but he could see Cavendish watching him. Then he saw movement behind her, no more than a flicker in the shadows. He drew breath to shout a warning. An arm reached around her. A blade flashed.


No! His mind screamed, but he had too much self control to let his voice echo the denial. Instead, one of his batarangs leapt into his hand as he exploded into motion. The blade flew, his grapnel wrapped around the safety rail of the upper circle balcony and he flew upward, his cape billowing behind him.


Cavendish fell.


Batman was there as she hit the ground. Her assailant was gone. It took three seconds for Batman to make certain she wasn’t in immediate danger. She wasn’t carrying a radio - it must be in her car - so he pulled the phone from her pocket instead. He hit speed-dial one.


“Dispatch.”


Thank god she wasn’t a mom!


“Send EMT and backup to the Gotham Opera House. Detective Cavendish is down.”


“Who are - ”


“Send them now!” Batman dropped the phone. He had wasted enough time. He took off after her assailant. It had to be the killer. He saw a flicker of movement and took off in pursuit.


For some reason it was hard to see the man he was following. Yes, it was dark in the theatre - the only light came from the macabre display on the stage - but Batman lived in the dark. He owned the darkness, and rarely had trouble seeing. But his quarry seemed to vanish into the shadows, invisible. Batman followed as much by following sound as by sight.


They ran out of the auditorium, through the empty bar where patrons mingled before performances, through a narrow passage which led to the boxes. For a moment Batman thought he had lost him, then he caught the click of a door catch engaging. He dived through the door.


The figure was a dark silhouette against the bloody light of the stage. He was crouching on the edge of the opera box, balanced on the rail. One hand was on the rail, the other outstretched for balance. As Batman lunged for him, he sprang from the rail. He jumped like a skydiver - arms outstretched like wings, body extended - an insane way to jump such a short distance. Batman threw a grapple, determined to catch this man.


What happened next was impossible. Batman saw it clearly.


The grapple went through the man’s back. His body faded like a ghost, and he vanished before he could hit the seats below.


Shock made him hesitate, but only for a second before he shook himself and jumped over the rail himself. He could figure out the impossible later. There was only one place the killer could have gone from there without Batman seeing him: the orchestra pit. Batman landed awkwardly on the stall seats. He got up and plunged into the orchestra pit beneath the stage.


It was too dark under there even for Batman. He snapped the visor over his eyes and immediately its display made it easy to see the uneven rows of chairs and music stands used by the orchestra. He saw the exit, too and ran that way, through the door and into the underbelly of the opera house.


His quarry was nowhere to be seen. He followed instinct, through doors into changing rooms and store rooms with their rows of weird costumes and props. He found stairs and followed them down into a basement, damp and dank.


As his foot left the last step, he felt the invisible wire catch his boot. Too late to stop, he fell, headlong, twisting in the air to take the impact on his armoured back instead of his face. He heard a ping and a hiss and adrenaline flooded him, every instinct screaming at him to run when instead he was sprawled on the floor. The visor showed him the cloud of foreign gas filling the air, a trap triggered by the wire. An instant later his suit alerted him to a toxin. Batman struggled to hold his breath while the adrenaline pushed him to breathe, breathe, breathe! He found the emergency air filter on his belt and covered his mouth. He drew in a breath, soothing his burning lungs, then cautiously got to his feet.


His quarry was gone and that poison gas told Batman the man had been prepared for him. He was up against more than he knew, and there could be more booby traps. He reluctantly conceded this round to his opponent.


There were noises coming from the theatre above. Hopefully they were cops and EMTs. Batman headed back that way and climbed the steps to the circle level instead of returning to the stage. The lights were on and the opera house seemed much more welcoming in the light.


When he entered the circle, Batman saw Cavendish sitting up. She had a blanket around her shoulders and a medic was taping a bandage at her throat. Blood didn’t show on her dark clothing.


Batman crossed to where she sat. “Detective.”


Cavendish looked up tiredly. “You lost him,” she said hoarsely.


“This time,” he admitted. “Are you alright?”


“This time,” she echoed.


The medic answered, “The knife missed the vital artery. We’ll take her in, get it patched up properly. She should be fine.”


“Can we have a moment?”


“Absolutely not!” the medic protested.


But Cavendish said, “Just two minutes. Give us some space.”


When they were alone, Batman said, “The connection is Lex Luthor.”


Cavendish frowned. “You should follow the news, Batman. Luthor is dead.”


“I know. He set this in motion before he died. I will send you a list of potential targets. Can you protect them while I find this man?”


“I’ll do what I can.”


“You’ll need to do better than that.”


 


 


Bruce stopped the car outside the Gotham Grand Hotel. He climbed out and tossed the keys in his hand once before passing them to the valet. He walked through the white and gold marble lobby to the more dimly lit bar.


“Good evening, Mr Wayne,” the bartender greeted him. “What can I get you?”


“Cognac,” he said, abruptly abandoning his plan to drive home. He badly wanted a drink.


“Coming right up. Will there be anything else?”


“I’m meeting someone but I’m not sure if we’ll be eating or just talking over a drink. Could you reserve me a table just in case?”


“Of course. Enjoy your evening.”


Bruce accepted the drink and selected a table from which he could see most of the lobby. He drank some brandy and set the glass on the table before pulling the tablet computer from his jacket. He was early; he may as well fill the time.


The files he took from Arkham were of little help. It made no sense to connect a dead inmate to the recent murders, and he knew that even as he demanded the file. Seeing the Joker unsettled him and he was afraid of repeating past mistakes. But Jeremiah Arkham had included something else. He was a clever man. He had not asked the Batman to explain his peculiar demands, but he had guessed that there was more to it than a murder. So he added an article that gave him an alternative explanation.


The article, from a psychiatric journal, suggested that in certain circumstances otherwise normal humans could develop superhuman (or “meta-human”) abilities. It described two case studies: a girl who could hear the thoughts of those around her and a pyrokinetic boy. In both cases, their abilities caused them to self-harm. The boy died in his own fire. The girl lived in isolation, unable to be around people. There were two additional articles cited and Bruce was downloading them when the person he was waiting for arrived.


Lex Luthor was dressed in white: white slacks and jacket, white shirt, casually unbuttoned, white shoes. Funereal black had looked better on him, Bruce thought, but perhaps that only reflected his own taste: he was wearing a charcoal suit and dark grey shirt and tie. Bruce turned the tablet off and signalled to a waiter as Lex headed his way. He could see at once that something was wrong with the young man. Lex was struggling to compose himself, to fix a mask in place. Bruce had seen Lex’s father do the same thing and it always presaged something bad. The son lacked his father’s skill, however.


“Thanks for meeting me,” Lex said in greeting.


Bruce offered a friendly smile. “My door is open.” He turned to the waiter. “Another cognac for me, please. Lex?” He made the offer before he remembered that Lex was still a few months shy of 21.


Lex didn’t miss a beat, although his eyes betrayed his surprise. “Bourbon. No ice.” The words were clipped and angry.


Fortunately, the waiter raised no objection. It wasn’t likely anyone would demand ID from Bruce Wayne’s guest, whether or not they recognised Lex, but it was a relief to avoid the embarrassment. With the anger simmering under Lex’s mask, a refusal might have pushed him over whatever chasm he was currently staring down.


Bruce shook his hand warmly. “Would you like to eat? The restaurant here is excellent.”


“I think I’d rather talk here,” Lex answered, taking a seat.


“Okay,” Bruce agreed easily. He sat and finished his first glass of brandy. “Bad day?”


“You could say,” Lex agreed sullenly. He slumped back in the seat, a gesture that seemed to Bruce just a little exaggerated. Lex sighed. “I wanted to ask your advice, but now I’m here it seems like a bad call.”


Bruce had to be careful. He reached out to Lex at the funeral because he felt some empathy for the young man’s situation, and because he thought there was a chance Lex could be a better man than his father. That didn’t mean Lex had no agenda. By all accounts, young Lex Luthor was a prodigy: highly intelligent and with the education and opportunities that a wealthy father could give him. Right now, Bruce had to play the role of mentor. Maybe he really could steer Lex in the right direction.


So he kept his tone light and answered, “That’s up to you, Lex. I’m happy to tell you what I think. I can see something’s bothering you.”


“My father’s will.” Lex spat the last word like an obscenity.


“Not what you hoped for?” Bruce guessed, beginning to see what made Lex so angry. Lex was the sole heir of his father’s estate, unless there was some illegitimate child the tabloids didn’t know about, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be unpleasant surprises in the legacy.


“He left the company to me but tied up in trust. Another way of saying I don’t get to run LexCorp.”


Well, that made sense. “In trust until when?” Bruce asked carefully.


“Until I’m twenty five.”


The waiter returned with their drinks; Lex took his and drained half of the glass quickly. It wasn’t a good sign.


Bruce left his glass untouched. He leaned forward. “Do you really want to run the company? When I was your age, the last thing I wanted was to run Wayne Enterprises.”


“I’m not you,” Lex said curtly.


“You’re angry with your father.”


“Of course I am! He just told the whole world how useless I am!” The words carried.


Bruce couldn’t imagine how awful it must have been having Lex Luthor as a father; that little outburst gave him a hint. “Lex, I think you should remember that your father wasn’t old or sick. He had no reason to think he was about to die. That will was probably drawn up when you were a child, not capable of running a company.”


“What’s your point?”


“Only that his will isn’t an indication of how he regarded you as an adult.” Bruce reached for his glass.


Lex nodded slowly. He drank more whiskey, but apparently it was helping. He seemed a little more relaxed. “Maybe,” he agreed.


Bruce swirled the brandy around the glass before taking a sip. “Do you want my advice?”


Lex had a sullen look, but he leaned back in the chair. “Sure. I’m all ears.”


“Is your income from the trust fund generous?”


“Well, yes.”


“Then maybe you should think of this as a gift. You’re twenty years old, Lex. See the world. Go skiing in Austria or dive the Great Barrier Reef. Party in Thailand. Get laid. Drive fast cars. Learn to fly a plane. Find the thing that gets your motor running. With a generous income and no real responsibilities, the next few years can be amazing for you. Don’t waste them. LexCorp will be there when you’re ready.”


Lex finished his whiskey. “What if,” he asked, “LexCorp is the thing that gets my motor running?”


Then I’m wrong about you, and you are just like your father, Bruce thought, but he answered much more carefully. “LexCorp is just a company. If it’s business that gets you going, why not take some of that trust fund and start one of your own? Show them all that you can.”


“Oh, right, that’ll - ” Lex began, then broke off abruptly. A new light came into his eyes. “That’s not a bad idea, but I think I’d rather...” He smiled suddenly. “Excellent idea! Thank you, Bruce.”


Bruce almost said, You’re welcome, but he had a feeling he was going to regret having made that particular suggestion. He would need to keep a very close watch on Lex Luthor.


 


 


Diana stood in front of the full length mirror, scrutinising her appearance. In the world of men, appearance was so very important. She had chosen a blue satin dress with a high neckline that left her shoulders and arms bare. Her long hair was swept up into a French twist and she wore simple diamonds in her ears. She wanted to make an impression, but not to look like she was trying. Satisfied, she slipped her Blackberry into a matching purse and left the hotel room.


The hotel bar was quiet, but the man she had seen on her way into the hotel was still there, having drinks with another, younger man. She walked to the bar and knew he was watching her as she passed. She ordered a glass of wine, then sat on a bar stool and took the Blackberry from her purse.


Diana was prepared to be patient, but she did not have to wait for long. The two men parted shortly after she sat down. They walked out of the bar together but the elder of the two, the man Diana had recognised, returned. He made a brief call on his cell phone and then approached the bar.


“Are you driving tonight, Mr Wayne?” the bartender asked him, setting a fresh brandy snifter on the bar.


The man laid his phone on the bar between them. “That was the plan, but I just called my driver. You’re safe.” He did not sound intoxicated.


The bartender poured him a brandy.


Mr Wayne slipped the phone into his pocket and lifted the glass. His eyes turned to Diana. “Are you drinking alone?” The question was casual, an offer of company, not an intrusion.


Diana set her Blackberry down. “As you see me,” she answered, and offered her hand. “Diana Prince.”


He took her hand. “Bruce Wayne. I’m very glad to meet you, Diana.” His smile was all laid-back charm and confidence. “Are you staying in Gotham for long?”


“A few weeks,” she answered, “perhaps longer.”


“Business or pleasure?”


“My business is in Metropolis,” Diana answered. “After the recent incident I decided to stay here and travel to Metropolis by day.”


“Incident is a poor word for what happened.” Bruce’s voice took on a hard edge that warned her she had touched a nerve.


Of course, she knew that. Diana lowered her eyes in contrition. “You’re right. There is no good word for what happened.”  She looked up again and met his eyes. “I recognise you, Bruce. From the photograph. That was you wasn’t it, the day after?”


The charming smile was completely gone now. “Yes, it was. One of the buildings that came down was mine. I thought being there was the least I could do.”


“Your building?” Diana repeated. “So you’re an architect?”


He laughed. “No, I’m...” Bruce met her eyes and his laughter faded abruptly. He lifted the glass to his lips, but his eyes remained focussed on her, laser-sharp. “My name meant nothing to you, did it?”


“Should it?” she asked archly, knowing very well from the question that he was accustomed to women knowing exactly who he was and admiring him for it.


He relaxed and his smile returned. It seemed genuine this time, and Diana found his unconscious charisma more compelling than the practiced charm.


“My family name is too well known in Gotham,” Bruce explained. “I’ve come to expect it.” He sipped his drink. “You’ve done me a favour tonight, Diana. I’d like a chance to repay it some time.”


She smiled. “That’s very flattering, but I don’t mix business and pleasure.”


“But you said your business was in Metropolis. What’s stopping you having some pleasure in Gotham?” He was back to turning on the charm, a well-rehearsed word-play smothering the brief glimpse of a genuine person.


Diana slipped the Blackberry back into her purse and stood; she had piqued his interest, and satisfied her own curiosity. That was all she needed from this first encounter.


“I suppose that depends on how my business proceeds. You can reach me through the hotel, Mr Wayne. That is, if you can recall my name once you sober up.” She smiled to take the edge off her words and touched his hand briefly. “Goodnight.”


As Diana walked away, she could feel his eyes on her. In that respect, at least, Bruce Wayne was like any other man. He was not her reason for being in Gotham and she arrived with no intention to look for the angry man from the photograph. Yet, she been in the city less than an hour, was just checking into the hotel when she spotted him in the bar and immediately recognised him. It was too much of a coincidence, so she decided to make contact.


And their brief conversation was illuminating.


Diana had no doubt that he would call. She was also certain she had not yet met the real Bruce Wayne.


 


 


It kept circling back to Lex Luthor.


Every victim was connected in some way to the dead criminal magnate. Bruce was wary of making that connection. Most, if not all, of the organised crime in Gotham could be traced back to Luthor, one way or another. He needed more evidence than that.


His initial working theory that someone was cleaning up Luthor’s organisation in order to take over no longer worked. Lucy Dane didn’t fit that pattern. She was a threat to Luthor himself, but far less so to the underlying organisation.


After hours digging through the data he had collected on Luthor and his network, Bruce had a new working theory. Lex Luthor had known that someone in Gotham was working to bring him down. Before he died, he had made several moves to protect himself, to increase compartmentalisation of information and to sever the weakest links. Bruce couldn’t tell whether he had known his adversary was Batman. Oh, Batman got in Luthor’s way as often as possible, but that wasn’t the same as the long game Bruce had been playing from the shadows. But Luthor must have known the Batman’s history with the organised crime families of Gotham. He took down Falcone in his first year wearing the mask. When the Maroni family filled the power vacuum, Batman took them down, too. So it would make sense for Luthor to suspect Batman was the one working against him, even if he didn’t have proof.


So maybe this wasn’t some rival clearing a path to power from within Luthor’s organisation. Maybe it was Luthor himself cleaning house. He could have issued the hit list before he died, and his super-powered assassin either didn’t get the memo or was continuing with the job regardless.


Looked at that way, the events of the past week painted a different, more disturbing picture.


Alfred read through the list of names Bruce had compiled for Detective Cavendish, displayed on the screen closest to him. “These are all the people who could help bring down Luthor?”


“Not even close. Just the Gotham City citizens most likely to be on Luthor’s list.”


“I think there’s a name missing,” Alfred commented dryly.


Bruce turned away from the computer display to look at his oldest friend. “Five people have been murdered to send me that message, Alfred,” he pointed out unhappily.


“Then why occupy the police with this list?”


“Because I don’t know that I’m the only target. As closely as I can figure it out, Luthor somehow got wind of the case Lucy and I were building. Two ways that could have happened: a leak in her office or a hacker good enough to get through the encryption software I gave her. Right now, I don’t care how it happened. Luthor put together a hit list of everyone who could threaten him. Gina Mannix worked in LexCorp shipping. She must have known something or given Luthor reason to think she did.”


“You mean she was a potential whistleblower,” Alfred said, peering at the list again.


“The two men in Mason square worked for Luthor’s criminal network. Both of them are in Lucy’s file. I don’t think they were good witnesses but it looks like Lucy thought they would be. But what this tells me is that the list could be very long. Those two hoods might have been on the list but they wouldn’t have been high on it.”


“So, there’s no way to know where he will strike next.”


Bruce sighed. “Yes...and no. I think the first scene was staged the way it was to make all of us react exactly as we did. It was shocking enough that the cops called me in, when that light in the sky has been dark for over a year. And I showed up, got involved. Then the opera house was staged with bodies I would recognise to let me know why.” Bruce frowned. “I think I was supposed to die in that trap. Since I disappointed him, he’ll try again. I know that.”


Alfred nodded, understanding. “You believe he will stage another scene to call you out?”


“I’m certain of it, because this son of a bitch loves doing it. And I think I know where. If you want to call the Batman - ”


“You shine a light in the sky,” Alfred said, his eyes widening. “Can it be that simple?”


“It’s a guess, but I hope I’m right because it’s my best shot at getting ahead of him.”


“Master Wayne,” Alfred began, then, his voice gruffer than usual, “Bruce. That’s not getting ahead of him. You do understand that?”


Bruce closed his eyes. He understood exactly what Alfred meant. Alfred was the closest thing Bruce had to a father and knowing he was disappointed tore Bruce apart inside. But he saw no alternative to this plan. If he had any idea who this killer was, if he could predict his next target...but he had nothing. So for Bruce to have any chance of ending this, one of two things had to happen. Either the killer had to make a serious mistake, which didn’t seem likely, or someone else had to die.


Bruce knew it, and hated it and did not want to discuss what he knew was an indefensible plan.


“There’s another thing, too.” Bruce shifted the list of targets to a different screen and opened the file Jeremiah Arkham gave him. “Have you ever come across this? The ‘metahuman thesis’?”


Alfred gave him a look that spoke volumes, but he leaned closer to the screen and remained silent while he read the brief report. After a few moments, Bruce moved aside so Alfred could see the screen better. He picked up one of the gadgets laid out on the work table and turned it over in his hands. He pulled on the high-tensile rope and watched it reel back inside the casing.


“There have been people who claimed to have paranormal abilities for centuries,” Alfred said eventually. “That’s not new. There is something different about these recent stories.” He reached for the computer controls and brought up a search screen. “I remember something in Central City...yes, here it is.” A newspaper article popped up on the screen.


Bruce set the gadget aside and glanced at the article. “Yeah, I remember that. A red streak zipping through the streets fighting crime. It reads like something from the pulps.” He hadn’t given the story much credit when he first read it. He wondered if he should have looked into it more.


“The man I chased at the opera house...it was as if he was a ghost or a shadow. I couldn’t see him in the dark and a grapple passed right through him.”


“You think he’s a metahuman?”


“Either that, or I hallucinated.”


“Unlikely.”


Bruce smiled at Alfred’s confidence. “Here’s the problem. I have to stop this man, but I don’t know what he can do. If something like my grapple can go through him, can walls hold him?”


“Hm. I see the problem. You are thinking of Arkham?”


Bruce nodded. Arkham Asylum didn’t hold only the insane. There were also facilities for people who needed to live in specialised conditions; people like Victor Fries, whose cryogenic experiments had left him unable to survive in temperatures above zero celsius. Those inmates were patients, not prisoners, and some of them were very unusual indeed. Jeremiah Arkham would be able to devise something to hold this killer. But only if Bruce could tell him enough about what the man could do.


Preferably before he killed again.


 


 


The next few days were some of the most difficult of Bruce’s career as Batman. His preparations could not be rushed and GCPD might find more bodies at any moment.


First, Batman met with Detective Cavendish to give her his list of potential targets. He knew GCPD didn’t have the resources to protect all of them and he told her that. He carefully did not mention that the actual list was much longer.


“Two more things,” Batman said when she pocketed the list. “If you can block his access to his next victims, it’s possible he’ll come after you instead. He marked you at the opera house.”


Cavendish’s hand went to her throat where the edges of a white bandage were visible. “I noticed.”


Cutting someone’s throat from behind wasn’t as easy as the movies made it look. Very few people will just stand still and let it happen. It took training and practice to get it right. Cavendish had been lucky. Batman didn’t think she would appreciate him saying so.


She said, “And the second thing?”


“Until this man is stopped, I want this signal left dark.” He tapped the spotlight with one gloved hand. “If you need me, or if any more bodies show up, call me through Jim Gordon instead.”


“I can do that, but why?”


“I want him to know I got his message.”


Following that meeting, Bruce cancelled every business meeting and social engagement in his diary for the next two weeks, including dinner with the woman he met at the Gotham Grand Hotel. He did manage to get a raincheck on that date, though. It wasn’t that he had any difficulty getting a date when he wanted one, but meeting a woman who was interested in him before she knew he was a billionaire was rare enough that he wanted to see Diana again when this was over.


Bruce instructed Grace, his private secretary at Wayne Enterprises, to tell anyone who asked that he had the flu and would fire anyone who tried to call him or visit. That freed him to concentrate on the case.


By night he set up surveillance around the Bat-signal, searched the city for other, similarly powerful spotlights and made sure he could monitor them, too.


By day he researched, planned and prepared. Alfred helped him to recall every detail of the encounter in the opera house and tease out the facts about the killer’s apparently paranormal abilities. That led to a plan, but as they worked through the details it became clear that Bruce needed help. Even with Alfred remote-piloting the plane or car, Batman could not do this alone and be certain of success. Since failure meant the body-count getting even higher, that wasn’t an option.


There was really only one person Bruce could call for that kind of help. He didn’t want to do it. The thought of leading another friend to his death... But there was a reason he was Batman. When it came down to it, Bruce put his city before himself every time.


He called his former ward, Dick Grayson.


“It must be bad if you’re calling me,” Dick said bluntly.


“Who else would I call? Besides, this guy’s acrobatics in the opera house made me think of you.”


“What’s the plan?”


Bruce explained the outline of his plan.


“Sounds like fun. And I have access to a vehicle that might work when we catch him.”


“Great. How quickly can you get here?”


 


 


Bruce woke with adrenaline flooding him and the sound of the Batcave alarm blaring through the cabin. He sat up in bed, trying to dispel the nightmare image of Barbara Gordon’s body clothed in her blood and decorated with Christmas lights. He glanced at his wristwatch and saw it was less than an hour since he he let Dick and Alfred cajole him into bed.


Bruce had not slept for three days. He wasn't going to sleep now. That alarm could mean only one thing.


Alfred met him with coffee. “The alarm was triggered at the GCPD building.”


“Cops?”


“I don’t think so, Master Bruce,” Alfred answered bleakly.


“Where’s Dick?”


The younger man swung onto the computer platform right on cue. He was already in costume, all but the mask. As a teenager, he had been “Robin”, the first to wear that costume and fight beside Batman. Dick’s parents were circus acrobats and he had begun learning their skills almost as soon as he could walk. When his parents were murdered Bruce Wayne took the grieving child in as his ward and Batman trained the boy to fight. Dick’s acrobatic skill made him a natural. They fought together as Batman and Robin until Dick left Gotham to finish his education. But leaving the mask behind had been impossible for the young man. Now, Dick Grayson was Nightwing, a hero in his own right, protector of a city some miles north of Gotham. Bruce couldn’t be more proud of him.


His costume was black with dark blue accents; skintight and flexible in contrast to Batman’s armour. He fixed a mask over his eyes. “Showtime,” he said with a familiar grin.


Bruce downed the coffee quickly. It would be enough once the adrenaline kicked in.


He suited up quickly then went to the computer console to see what had put that bleak tone in Alfred’s voice. When he saw, he said only, “This ends tonight.”


“Arkham is ready,” Alfred said.


“So am I,” Nightwing agreed. “I can’t wait to try the new plane!”


Bruce fastened his helmet in place. “Leave controlling the plane to Alfred. He’s a hell of a drone pilot and with the new rig she’ll be tough to handle.”


“Go on, old man. We’ll be there before you.”


 


 


On most of the nights when he headed for Gotham as Batman, the drive helped to steady him and focus his mind on the task ahead. The speed, the control, the sheer rush of driving a vehicle a formula one driver would envy... On this night, it only increased his tension. There were too many unknowns here, too many things that could go wrong, and the stakes had become very personal.


He drove fast through the streets, weaving recklessly in and out of traffic on his headlong rush toward the GCPD building. In the sky above, his signal reflected off the clouds, indistinct but recognisable. Tyres squealed as he turned the car into the basement parking lot of the next building.


“Report,” he barked into the comm.


“Plane in position,” Alfred reported. “Target on radar.”


“Van in position,” Nightwing added. “I’m ready. Where are you?”


“On the ground. I’ll be on the roof shortly.” Batman rapelled up to the roof of the building across from GCPD. The opera house had taught him to be wary of traps. The killer had not had time to set up anything complex over there, not like the opera house, but there would be something. Batman was going to turn an ambush into a trap.


The signal light was streaked with red. It wasn’t blood: the heat from the light would have burned blood dark, but it was clearly meant to look like blood. He saw only one body, tied over the top of the spotlight with its head hanging down over the top so the light illuminated it like a grisly halo. Batman could make out short hair and the shape of the jaw. It wasn’t enough to identify the victim, but did let him eliminate Cavendish and Barbara Gordon. His worst nightmare had been finding either or both of them dead on this roof.


He tore his eyes away from the body. That was the bait. Where was the trap?


The visor over his eyes gave him good night vision but it was limited. He touched a control on the visor and it scanned on different wavelengths, scrolling through its settings from infra-red through to ultra-violet.


“Nightwing?”


“Right here, Bats.”


The nickname lifted his spirits, but he remained focussed on what lay in front of him. “There’s a net of some sort over the GCPD roof. I don’t see the target.”


“I’m in position. Can’t see him, either, but the radar says he’s there. Want me to spring the trap?”


“No. Be ready.” Batman stepped up onto the roof ledge. He took a cylinder from his belt and attached it to his chest plate. Then he reached for a grapnel and launched himself into the space between the buildings.


As he flew across the space he triggered the cylinder to spray its contents into the air ahead of him. It coated the net with viscous, sticky chemical. A lot of it ended up on his armour as well because he flew through the spray cloud. A moment later, he hit the net himself.


The net gave as Batman’s body ploughed into it, tearing in places, wrapping around him and sticking to his armour as if he were an insect hitting fly paper. Had he done this unprepared for the net, it might well have been a fatal error. Even knowing it was there, Batman struggled. His weight brought the net down and he rolled in it, struggling to bring his gloved hands together. He twisted his left hand and pulled the blades on his forearm through the net, tearing it as he hit the roof hard, on his back. Then he struck the heel of his right hand into the palm of his left, triggering an electrical charge over the outer surface of his armour. It ignited the chemical he had sprayed over the net. It burned, magnesium-bright and very hot, destroying the net and, for a few seconds, turning the Batman into a beacon that lit the entire rooftop brighter than the sun.


Revealing the man he hunted.


Batman's eyes were protected from the light and his body from the heat, though he felt it on the exposed skin of his face as one hell of a sunburn.


His quarry had no such protection. Batman had the briefest glimpse of bright eyes against dark skin before the man whirled away, turning his back on the painfully bright light. Even with his back to the light, he covered his eyes. His body shook convulsively and he doubled over as if in pain.


If Batman hadn't still been caught up in the net, he could have taken him in that moment, easily. But the burning net slowed him. He shrugged off the last strands as he moved forward ready to seize the man. Fury and triumph surged in his blood.


He was barely a single step away when the light burned out, plunging the rooftop back into darkness. Batman kept moving, certain of their relative positions, but momentarily blind as his visor adjusted. His hand swept through the space where the killer stood. He heard the scuffle of feet, the unmistakable zing of metal on metal, saw the knife plunging toward him as his vision returned and he instinctively blocked the blade. He swept out with this foot as the blade struck his armoured forearm, and felt his foot connect with flesh and then impossibly pass straight through, his momentum pulling him off-balance for a moment. He swept the cape around him, used its weight to help him regain his balance, and struck out again.


No longer trusting his vision, against this opponent, in the dark, he instead relied on other senses. Even with the Batplane moving closer to the roof, Batman heard the man's breath, the motion of his feet and though he still saw nothing he took off after the footsteps. He remembered the opera house and knew what was about to happen.


"Nightwing!" he snapped, and saw the shadow of his quarry as he dived off the roof into the alley below.


He saw Nightwing leap from the plane. He used no safety line or grapple but caught the fire escape with one hand, using it both to check his fall and spring across the alley, an acrobatic feat Batman could never have matched. When he was sure he wouldn't get in Nightwing's way, Batman took his own leap off the roof, sliding down the zipwire to the mouth of the alley.


With perfect timing, Batman blocked one end of the alley, Nightwing reached the ground at the other end and the plane flooded the alley with light, revealing their quarry once again. This time the light wouldn't burn out.


Together, they closed in on their quarry.


This had to be fast, because lighting up the alley next to GCPD was going to attract all the wrong kinds of attention. But they were fast.


In the floodlights from the plane, Batman could now see him clearly. He was black: clothing, hair and skin, but not black as in a person of African ancestry. True black, not a human skin colour. His eyes showed a little white, and Batman caught a glimpse of white teeth, but that was all.


As on the roof, the man reacted as if the light caused him real pain, but this time he rose above it. A weapon appeared in his hand, not a knife this time but something like a mace, a club with spikes, but a mace was usually heavy and the man swung this as if it had very little weight. His gaze focussed on Batman.


Batman reached him a moment before Nightwing. He blocked the mace with a casual sweep of his arm and struck with the other. Nightwing took a running leap to strike the man with both feet just below his shoulders. The man fell into Batman's next blow as Nightwing flew over their heads, curling his body into a ball. The man cried out and fell to one knee. As he fell, he struck out with the mace and this time it connected. Batman felt the impact shudder through his shin and knee. His armour protected him from the crippling spikes but not from the blunt force of the blow. In the moment, he was too high on the adrenaline to pay attention to the pain, but he would feel it later.


Batman whirled with all his weight on the injured leg so he could strike with his other foot. The blow should have been the coup de grace. But as he turned, Batman's cape billowed out, blocking for a moment the light from above. His foot didn't connect with anything solid. Fresh pain shot through his knee.


It was the shadow, Batman realised, and understood, too, in that moment that he could not win this fight. The cape was too much a part of his fighting style, and it gave his opponent the advantage.


“Nightwing!”


It took no more than that. As Batman backed off, Nightwing attacked. He ducked a blow, bounced up, landed two kicks and backed away, on his toes with fists up, like a boxer. That gave Batman the opening he needed to fling a grapnel, wrap it around the man's weapon and yank. The man tried to hang onto his mace, so he fell. Nightwing clipped him on the chin. It was over.


 


 


It was inevitable that cops would get in their way. The takedown went so well they almost got away with it.


The van was a heavy security transport, the kind used to transport bullion or gems, but refitted to carry people. The rear was windowless but well ventilated and in the Batcave they installed lights and reflective surfaces. The compartment was isolated from the cab and had an electronic lock so that, once closed, it could be opened only with the correct code.


Batman brought the van to the alley and Nightwing opened the back. They bundled their unconscious prisoner inside, but Batman knew they were running out of time. He could hear the cops gathering from the GCPD HQ.


One thing Batman would not do was kill cops.


“You’re driving, Nightwing,” he said. “Go on my signal. If that means you leave me behind, I’ll catch up.”


“Whatever you say, Boss.” Nightwing jumped up into the cab.


Patrol cars now blocked both ends of the alley. The plane still hovered above, its light flooding the alley. Too much light.


“Kill the lights and fly her back to the hangar,” Batman instructed.


Immediately the alley was plunged into darkness. The van was still brightly lit within, and Batman was a dark silhouette against its light as he turned to face the police.


Dealing with street cops was always a gamble. When Batman began his crusade, GCPD was so corrupt he knew they were the enemy. As the department slowly cleaned itself up he found a kind of truce - the police did their best to stay out of his way, and a few, like Jim Gordon, learned they could call on him for help and he would answer. Over the years, his good relationship with the police had fractured, through his mistakes and theirs. Now, he could never be sure what type of cop he was facing: one who would let him do his work; one who might help; the dirty, or the ones who wanted the glory of unmasking the Gotham Bat.


Batman ignored the guns. He ignored the shouted orders.


One officer, braver or more reckless than his fellows, approached him.


“Contact Detective Cavendish in Homicide,” Batman instructed, before the officer could do anything as idiotic as try to read him his rights.


The officer hesitated. “Why?”


“She knows why I’m here.”


The officer lifted his radio. “Dispatch, is Cavendish of Homicide in the building?”


Batman heard the radio crackle an affirmative reply.


“Tell her to get her butt down to the side of the building. On the double.”


Cavendish arrived three minutes later, at a dead run. She took one look at the scene and demanded a report from the officer.


Batman waited, knowing she would not make this easy. It wasn’t in Cavendish’s nature. She worked with him on this case because she recognised the necessity, but she didn’t like it. She was one of those cops who would arrest and unmask him if she could. Not for the glory, but because she believed in the law.


When Cavendish turned to face Batman, her expression was determined. “You know how this works. You can’t leave here like this, with a prisoner.”


“Can’t?” Batman repeated. It was a threat. Just a little one.


“There are rules!” she protested. “Due process. A little matter of evidence.”


“The body on the roof should be sufficient. Get CSU up there before the scene is contaminated and you'll find the evidence.”


Cavendish was stubborn. “Alright, let’s say there’s no doubt. Do you expect me to stand by while you make him disappear?”


Disappear. Batman understood her fear. “You have no idea how much I want to do just that, Detective, but whatever you think you know about me, I’m not a murderer.” He chose the word carefully. He was a killer, yes, in defence of others and when he saw no alternative, but he had never committed murder. It was a fine distinction, a razor’s edge of difference sometimes, but a line he had never yet crossed.


“Then let us arrest him.”


Batman took a step toward her, spreading his hands in an open gesture. “That’s my intention, but not here and now. If you take him now, you won’t be able to hold him. Start trusting me, Detective.”


He saw her certainty falter. “So, what are you going to do?”


“I’m taking him to Arkham. I’ll release him into the custody of the director, who has facilities that can hold him as long as necessary. You can initiate your due process there. Arrest, phone call, interview. Whatever you want.”


Her eyes narrowed. “Why Arkham? Is he insane?”


“I could argue that no one sane could do what he has, but I’m not going to stand here and discuss it. We are leaving. Follow us if you want to. Get those cars out of our way or I will.”


Without turning around, Batman slammed the rear of the van closed. Just before its light vanished he saw her turn pale.


As he jumped into the cab beside Nightwing, he heard Cavendish shout. “Stand down! Get those cars out of the way. Move!”


 


 


“I have a unit prepared for your prisoner,” Jeremiah Arkham said. “If you - ”


“The police are on their way here,” Batman interrupted. “Let’s make this fast. You have a sedative for him?”


“Of course.” Doctor Arkham gestured to his staff and Nightwing opened the van.


The prisoner was conscious, but only just. One of the orderlies injected him. Working together with practiced efficiency, they strapped him into a straightjacket. Neither gave any sign of surprise at the prisoner’s strange appearance. They carried him into the asylum on a gurney.


Batman and Doctor Arkham followed, with Nightwing bringing up the rear. Batman felt pain with every step. His knee was swelling inside the armour but the night was not over yet. He did his best to walk normally but knew Nightwing, at least, would notice his struggle.


“White light seemed to cause him pain,” Batman said, “but he cannot be allowed darkness or even shadows. Soft light at all times. Yellow, I think. Blue is too close to shadow.”


“We’re prepared. Should I expect an attempt to remove him to face justice?”


“He has killed six people that I know of, but given the nature of his abilities it will be difficult to prove. With your cooperation, I think I can ensure this doesn’t come to trial.”


“Are you asking me to...?”


“Only to do your job, Director. I don’t need to pressure you to make the right decision. I do need one thing.”


“And that is?”


“Your assistance with the police.”


 


 


Arkham allowed them to use an office on the ground floor to talk with the police. It was a comfortable room, wood panelled with leather seats and a wooden desk. Cavendish sat behind the desk, and placed a recording device in plain view, making it clear this was on the record.


Batman had no problem with that. He couldn’t testify in a courtroom, but it was possible his evidence could be of some use, so he told his version of events with as much detail as he could recall.


“...The first time I saw him, when he attacked you at the opera house, I had lights shining in my eyes. I didn't see him until it was too late. I chased him and he led me into a trap. But before - ”


“Trap?”


“Tripwire and poison gas.”


“You didn't tell me that.”


“You had other things on your mind that day, Detective. What I was saying is before that happened, I saw him take a dive into the stalls that should have broken his neck.” For the first time in the interview, Batman turned to Nightwing. “You remember the opera house layout. He dived from the front of the circle balcony, face first, as if there was a pool down there.”


Nightwing knew what Batman wanted without him asking the actual question. He always did.


“I could do it with a safety line, maybe,” Nightwing answered. “But without something to catch me, I would land on the seating below. Head first? I don’t know, Bats. I might be able to grab the seat backs and flip, but then I'd just crash into the next row. Either way, broken bones.”


Cavendish frowned. “So you’re saying he’s an acrobat?”


“No,” Nightwing said firmly. “We’re saying that an acrobat - like me - couldn’t have done what Bats saw him do.”


“He turns his body into shadow.” Batman announced. “Insubstantial. He didn’t hit the seats, he went through them.”


Silence.


Finally, Cavendish said what Batman knew she would say. “That isn’t possible.”


“It happened,” he insisted. “After the opera house, I deduced enough to take precautions tonight, but I didn’t fully understand what he can do until we fought. Possible or not, when in shadow or darkness, he becomes something else. You only have to look at him to see that he’s more than human. That’s why he has to remain here. Arkham has experience of this kind of thing. If you remove him, he will escape.”


“What do you expect me to do? He will have to be moved for arraignment. For trial.”


“It doesn’t have to go that way. Ask yourself, when you look at what he’s done, do you want to risk losing him?”


“I have to follow the law.”


“The law doesn’t say he must go to trial. There are two ways - legal ways - you can avoid that. You let Arkham declare him insane and keep him here. Or you make a deal. Or both.”


“A deal?”


“He was hired by Luthor. His organisation didn’t die with him. This man could help you start to bring them down.”


Cavendish’s frown became thoughtful. “It has possibilities,” she admitted.


“Ask the DA for access to Lucy Dane’s files. If he blocks you, I’ll see you get copies.” He moved to the door, flanked by Nightwing.


“Alright,” Cavendish agreed, but she still sounded uncertain. “What about the prisoner?”


“That’s up to you now.”


Batman was halfway out the door before she called after him. “Wait. Who are you, under that mask? Why do you care so much?”


He caught Nightwing’s smirk as he turned back and answered both questions with two simple words:


“I’m Batman.”


Read Chapter 2



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