Batman: Ornamental | Issue 3 – Understudy, Part 1 by Drew Van Dyke

Image source: Lana Dragičević (http://pileofsith.tumblr.com/ / https://www.deviantart.com/teq-uila)


It is a show I have already seen. 

But the boy wants to see, too; so see it, we shall. One in darkness, one with terror and monsters. Vengeance. The shadows – not only shadows – climbing; left only in the occasion of a gun-strike flash. 

Our faces, some masks of unflinching resolve, absorb the brunt of the whiteout assault. The peril…our lookout…

…rife Boogeymen.

I blink. Shake my head. Am brought back.

On my word, I brought him here. Against better judgment, I told him we would go, and now—

“I say, Master Jason! Stop taking my popcorn! You have your own box of candies!”

{GOTHAM THEATRE. MATINEE.}

Alfred’s whisper is sharp on Jay’s other shoulder, and I have to chuckle when I spot the old man’s clever hand sneak a Juju Bean from said box as the boy looks up at me in protest. The screen ahead serenades us with calls to “return to the lobby” for more snacks, to the beat of a warped marching band of various personified beverage cups and sweet and salty treats, drum-majored by that bag of ever-exploding kernels.

I reach across them both and pull a massive handful from his bucket – instantly feel, on my palm, the grease and grain of Alfred’s only (known) indulgence: the over-seasoning.

I drop half in Jay’s lap and ruffle his hair with the other hand. He laughs and pulls away, swatting at my hand. I stuff my own cheek with the rest.

“Don’t I pay you enough to share, old friend?” I say, mid-chew, as the opening credits begin to play us over.

“Apparently not enough to teach you proper etiquette,” he grumbles, and takes a loud sip of his Dr. Thunder. This, too, makes Jay laugh. He takes a bite of popcorn, then throws in a couple of candies to mix the flavours.

Smart.

He looks over at Alfred, sulking in his seat, and looks down at his candy box. He reaches it up to the butler.

And kind. I smile.

In the dark, Alfred notices the gesture not immediately, but soon. I see the whole thing. His sharp edges round. He reaches for (another) candy.

Jason pulls back the box.

“A thief knows a thief, Penny-One,” he says – a whisper, and he winks at him, as he tosses another bean into his mouth.

I sigh.

And, perhaps, still a bit rough.

“Too right, sir,” Alfred laughs. “Too right.” He offers him a sip of his drink. Jay dumps some candies into Alfred’s hand in return.

It’s a show I have seen before.

I have missed this show…

*     *     *

{SOMEWHERE DOWNDOWN…}

It is a sound of chains.

            Rattle-tat. CLINK rattle-tat.

            Your world. 

And the bars – when they cascade, it isn’t in soft waves, so warm, as imagined cascades should be; but in the etching kind, the breaking kind, hard and metallic and not the lesser solid when they come in a blood rapture upon your skull and your elbows.

            But, love, you cannot move. Not with the numbers in limbs and trunks – the scalps – pressed to your dirt skin. In filth or sweat, you may slip, but like cattle packing, single-file, for the stockyard, you never fall.

You would not want to move, regardless – to draw more attention to the position where you hold your bit that is left of you; because the chains, and the bars, and some bodies: they are nothing to your “heaven.”

“To heaven,” he coos, a-rattling the bars. “Another angel! Another lord!”

Then thick, Boston: “Aye, make ‘er real sweet this time. The only thing yer good fo’.” 

But the two voices then fade away, arguing half-heart with one another about that particular wording.

Some days, women. Some days, not quite. Some days, babes, crying, “mommy” or “teddy” or “heaven,” because those are the only words they know, they’ve been here so long, and from so young.

And only some days do they take you. 

Make you lacy. 

Give you wings. 

Blow you full, like pulsing birthday balloons.

Beautiful.

“The chains are heavy, lord.”

Rattle-tat. CLINK rattle-tat.

You think, “Maybe today, for you, I would like to float.”

*     *     *

{THE BATCAVE. EARLIER TODAY.}

It’s a horror flick. Jay wanted to see something scary, but he initially turned up his nose when I told him Room of Death was back playing in the oldtown cinema.

“What of who?” he had said to me. “Never heard of it.”

“Really? It’s a classic!” I said. “Alfred snuck me in once when I was about your age.”

“It’s that old?”

He scoffed. I’d expected as much. Dick never scoffed. But Jay isn’t Dick. “Flying Grayson” isn’t the horror movie type. Would have just flat-out refused.

Matter of fact, he did.

On several occasions.

Recently…

But Jay is more like me. He loves the chase. He loves the tension. And the intrigue…

So I played my ace in the hole.

“It’s a Karlo flick.”

He was sitting at the Bat-computer, head buried in a comic book – come to think of it, also horror-related, if I recall correctly – but dug his way out long enough to offer the glimmer I knew as stymied interest. Just the slightest quiver of it before our eyes locked, and then he tried to play it off. Swept those overly-long bangs up his forehead.

But I saw it.

Gotcha.

Boris Karlo?” he said.

“Yep.”

“Clayface?”

I chuckled. “The one and only.”

“You mean, ‘the blob and only.’”

And in some ways, he and Dick are exactly the same…

 “Could use some work. I was thinking more like, ‘the mud and loamy.’”   

He giggled, then straightened back his face. I turned to my monitor.

3…2…1…

“So…um…this movie?”

A smile. Bingo.

“Yes, old chum?”

“Guessing it’s a hard-R?” he said. “Will I be putting my stealth skills to use, getting in?”

It wasn’t even PG-13. Not then. Not now. Life is the scary part. The reality of it. Or the unreality, if you know my meaning.

You don’t need gratuity for scares, I always say. Just a good build-up. And I built this movie up for Jason.

But I didn’t tell him it was the first movie I saw after my parents died.

Three years later.

I didn’t step into another movie theatre for three years. And when I did, I demanded it be something scary.

I was tired of playing the victim.

Cowardly.

Superstitious.

I rarely left the house in those years…

That movie was more to me than just a teenager’s night out at a scary movie. It was a new beginning, of sorts. It was a start to my healing.

It was a fond memory with a dear friend.

And I just hoped he would like it so much.

*     *     *

{GOTHAM GOLD BANK.}

Five minutes to close.

They always come in five minutes to close, the woman thinks. She sticks her nose into the computer screen, and doesn’t take it away. Lets her periphery judge the room.

Never fails. Fridays. Five minutes to close, and the goddamn bank tellers are all five-deep with goddamn patrons. Should call them “Never-Goddamn-Fails Fridays.”

“Welcome to Gotham Gold. How may I assist you?”

“Yes, I’d like to make a withdrawal?”

Of course, sir. Withdraw from the building.

What should I fix for supper tonight?

“Welcome to Gotham Gold. How may I assist you?”

“How much do I have in my account? Need me some spending money…”

Need me some of that leftover linguine I left in my fridge at home…

“Welcome to Gotham Gold. How may I assist you?”

“Deposit.”

Can appreciate the brevity, sir or madam…

Is it even technically linguine? she wonders. Starting to think that wasn’t a linguini noodle I used…But people still call linguine, “linguine,” even if they don’t use those noodles, right…?

“Welcome to Gotham Gold. How may I—?”

“Tetrazzini.”

“—help…you? ‘Scuse me?”

She looks up, and sees only air.

What…?

A grumble.

“If the source of the voice is what you seek, cock your head down and take a peek.”          

The woman looks for the floor. All that stares her back is a tall, green top hat. Slid into the brim strap is a label, which reads, “10/6.”

“Fear not my dear, you’re nearly done. I’d love to chat, but I must run. I see your mind, thus how I can know that you have no linguine waiting for you at home.” She looks around, and realizes everyone else is currently lying face-down on the bank floor, parallel boards, save for the tellers, who are all cautiously speaking with masked men in various colored apparel.

The man continues: “Now, I’ll be needing some change to fund our helotry. Here, take this bag—” A small, gloved hand reaches up, and passes one to her. It is bright rainbow tie-die. Another works around the hat’s brim, grip explosion-tight to the trigger of a long-barrel pistol.  

Never-Goddamn-Fails Friday…

“—Give me all your money.”             

*     *     *

{GOTHAM THEATRE.}

In the tense dark, there is a buzzing on my hip.

Frightens me more than the jump-scare I know is coming – the one that follows it by less than a second. My premature start causes Jason, and then Alfred, and then a smattering of nearby audience members, to jump in sequence. Showers of popcorn, just like in the movies.

At the movies.

Ha.

Every head turns for us. Every head turns back.

On the screen, several skulls rise in sequence around their leader; rise from within the dark. It’s eerie. First, their white outlines are all that is coming; pierce the shadows, then they spread like a live bacteria – spread as moss on a tree trunk, or water pouring up and out from a drain that is fully brimmed – rise up until they fill the screen; until the white is the terror, instead of that standard inky black. A fright of known over unknown.

I slowly lift the Bat-pager, and it glows opalescent green. Bright. Fills a segment of the theatre.

Every head turns for us. Every head turns back, save for Alfred’s and Jason’s.

The commissioner’s line…

I cover it with my hand to hide the glow, and to provide greater clarity of the message.

Three words: “Gotham Gold. Hatter.”

I reach over Jason’s lap and tap Alfred on the knee.

“We need—”

“Shhhhh!”

I turn to the crowd behind me, searching for the voice. Find a dapper young man in a vest staring hatefully back.

I wave to him. Offer a jovial smile.

“Apologies,” I whisper. Then I turn back to Alfred and Jason, and throw my thumb back, saying, we’ve got to go.

To their credit, both just nod.

*     *     *

{GOTHAM GOLD. POST-ROBBERY.}

“Bullock—”

The large man groans. “Not now, Jim,” He scratches his beard and looks up from his place, spread like butter over the chipped gold-fleck and marble bench in the center of the Gotham Gold atrium. Greasy. Thick. “I’m resting my liver. Try Smith, Jim. He doesn’t look like he’s resting his liver.”

 “Harvey, you’re on the clock.” Commissioner Gordon adjusts his glasses and looks about the overturned scene. Drags his cigarette. Soaks in it. Sour, like old milk.

Clean…it’s too clean in here.

Shiny, like the floors were just freshly waxed.

And…symmetrical? It’s too much “same,” only cut by that thin yellow tape.

You wouldn’t know an armed robbery was just committed here in the last half hour if they didn’t tell ya. 

You wouldn’t believe it. 

I don’t believe it.

Something…stinks.  

“I wasn’t on the clock when you called me back on the clock, Commish,” he says. Gordon leans down and folds the collar of his friend’s brown-stain trenchcoat – smooths some wrinkles, then pats his cheek hard.

Well…that explains the smell…

“Allow me to welcome you back,” he says, smiling through the butt.

Bullock just groans again, and rolls his eyes and stands and saunters off.

Gordon sighs, and throws his hands in the air. “Can I please get an update, someone?”

Officer Smith comes to Gordon. 

Magnetic. 

He doesn’t have to go to him. All he has to say is “update” with the new ones; and the GCPD has a lot of “new ones” lately, they all say.

The new ones listen. They want him to notice that. They still believe that matters.

I still believe that matters, he tells himself. Listening…

“Sir.”

“What have you got, Smart?”

“Um…Smith, sir…?”

Gordon smiles. 

Good. “Don’t mind me, Smith. Old man. Old memory. Tell me about this place – the case, I mean. My, wrong word! Looks like I did it again.”

He sees through the stunt the two tells he is searching for in the young man’s face.

First, a look of skepticism.

Then, one of sympathy.

Good…

“Five armed men – witnesses report they were in multicolor outfits…um, rainbows, you know? – approached the teller counters and demanded large bills, only. Were very polite, if not a bit odd, I think Miss—…–Creston over here, said.” Smith points with his notepad to a woman in a long skirt, hair tied back, blanket over her shoulders. She notices the point, and looks up from another officer, who is corroborating stories between a group of five well-dressed individuals, split from a crowd behind another line of tape in more a spattering of plain clothes.

My god, this place is too big…

She waves. Gordon crosses his arms and waves back from that position. Smith turns the page and continues.

“We’ve…um…just reviewed security footage of the incident, which seems to fit that – save for the uniform colors. The tapes were in black and white, you see?” Gordon nods. “Um…as this is happening, though, Commissioner—”

“Call me ‘Gordon,’ Smith. It’s quicker.”

Smith double-takes from the notepad to Gordon.

“I…um…no thank you, Commish—” he says, in horror, “…sir.”

Gordon chuckles. “’Sir’ will do, then. Keep going, Smith. You’re doing fine.”

That seems to make his shoulders rise a bit. “That’s where it gets strange, sir,” he says, quickly shooting his eyes over to see that he is still in the right. “A…um…small man in a large top hat approaches the sixth teller counter—”

“Tetch,” Gordon says.

Smith smiles big, like he has accomplished a great wonder. “Exactly, sir!” he says. “The Mad Hatter! I think so, too! So, he approaches the sixth teller – doctoral student over at Gotham U., blonde female, no priors, working part-time for rent money. Starts talking to her about something, but we don’t have audio on the tapes, so—”

“She talked to Tetch?” Gordon says. Bingo. He looks around. “Where’s she at, Smith? That could be some valuable intel—”

Smith flips his pages, and grumbles a bit.

Gordon looks to the crowd of tellers. Counts them.

1…2…3…4…5…

“Smith, where is the sixth teller?”

“That’s…um…sorta why we called you in, sir,” he says. “After they talked, she just kind of…” Oh, no… He looks at his feet. Oh, no… “…left with him.”

Oh, no.

“WHAT?”

“Yeah…”

Gordon waves down Bullock, who has melted into the opposite corner of the room from him. Seeing the urgency on his face, Bullock quickly walks the space between.

“Not just…a robbery,” Gordon says, meeting him halfway.

“Yeah, Jim. Hatter. I know—”

“No, Harv. Kidnapping,” he says. “Another woman.

Bullock squints his eyes. Thinks. Catches. The horror of knowing. “Right…RIGHT.” Picks up his pager and types a quick sequence. Sends it.

“Smith.”

Having caved back in upon himself, a terrified Smith looks up at the pair in action. Gordon grabs his shoulders firmly.

“You’re alright, son,” he says. “You’re doing alright. This is very important, though. I need you to show me those tapes. And Harv—”

He turns to Bullock. “A.P.B. Tetch, and I need one on this woman. Name’s—?”

He turns back to Smith, who furiously flips through his notepad. Back and forth, shaking hands until he lands on it. Pauses, like he’s trying to sound it out in his head, first.

“—Harleen Quinzel, sir.”

*     *     *

{SOMEWHERE DOWNTOWN…}

Rattle-tat. CLINK rattle-tat.

That’s how she wakes up, in the heat. In a mold. Wet. A ball of human dough, and the woman in her ear is just finishing the story again to her, saying, “You think, ‘Maybe today, for you, I would like to float…’”

Can just barely move her neck – throw her eyes toward the sun, where it should be; where there is only the cascading bars and a dim brown glow. All around her, stacked limbs writhe like a pit of serpents, brushing her ankles and her stomach and elbows, but they are just more women and more children and more who are just right in between.

“Another angel!”

The brown light reflects off a pair of mirror lenses. They grow – two stars in the earthy dark — they come closer, closer, closer. They are a face. They are two faces. One large. One small. Like skulls, rising up from the shadows.

“Ay, dolly,” comes another voice. Thick, Boston. And as he talks, there is a very distinct sound of sticks hitting themselves – wooden claps, like the parts to a country chime set to spirit by wind. “Yer new in town,” he says. “Whaddaya say you’z and I go to the fair? Ride a tilt-a-whirl? Get ta know each othah a little getter, sweetheart?”

Harleen Quinzel wriggles her shoulders and pushes her body on all sides, outward, to loosen the contain. To climb upward, for those bars. Like quicksand, though, this only causes the other bodies to try and pull her down more.

Instead, she just says, “Sorry, puddin’,” defiantly. Rattle-tat. CLINK rattle-tat. Then, follows that up with, “I ain’t much for circuses.” 

*     *     *

{GOTHAM THEATRE.}

Skipping our share of knees and ponytails, we butt our way from the middle of the theatre, out to the side aisle. “EXIT” – crimson red, it points us right, guides us slowly toward the front of the room, in a reverie of white eye balls, training like those false frames in the old detective stories; then we are going left, because we don’t see them, to the door.

The world is temporarily blinding, even at the dusk prelude. Even when I leave the cave. Even when I’m in the car. I’ve always wondered if that is worse for me, as much night as I see; but I cannot remember a moment when I did not feel that way at first, when approaching day from not.

This day is no different.

No, that is wrong…

Because there is another flash of color, and with it, we jump in time – give the appearance of a jump in time – so suddenly, I am there again, on my knees, alone.

That terrible white fades to mottled bricks around me and below me – red, red, some other red; we’re in that box. I’m back in that alley by the theatre – it is Crime Alley – with my mother and with my father, with their bodies, and I am asking them to leave, because I am afraid.

Suddenly, I am afraid.

I am afraid.

The gun clicks – a gun clicks – metal tube shrinking to just a black hole in the air. Black, heavy, with so much mass, and my breath falls out and into it.

God, no… 

This is not real. This cannot be real.

“Your money,” he says. He is a bag of coats, their scraps, and thinning fur, so large. “Wallets, watches. I want it. I want all of it.”

This is the past. This is the light, and it shall fade…

But then I hear Alfred saying, “My word.”

So, Alfred is here. And Alfred wasn’t…there.

Jay is here. And Jay wasn’t there.

My family.

The black hole is rising. Deafening. The man’s mouth is moving, and I can no longer hear.

I see the shot crack in my past. His gun is still lifeless metal, but I swear that black hole is always alive. I have no power over physics. I keep replaying that scene.

We are cornered. I am between them. Between their bodies.

Step forward, I say.

But no, I do not.

You are a coward, I say.

I say nothing. I am not Batman in this alley; not with this man, in this coincidence, on this dusky prelude.

Here, I am young Bruce Wayne again.

This is a show I have already seen.

And my god, I cannot move…

TO BE CONTINUED…

in BATMAN: ORNAMENTAL 

Issue 4 – Understudy, Part 2


C.D. DyVanc currently lives in the Midwestern United States. He is an award-winning journalist, and, in his free time, enjoys jumping out of airplanes, reading comic books, and being the epitome of the living dad joke with his wife and stepson. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Rue Scribe, Dream Pop Press, and Five:2:One’s #thesideshow. His chapbook, rhi(n.)oceros, won the 2017 Midwest Chapbook Contest, and is currently available through Greentower Press. You can find his horrible use of GIFs on Twitter (@CDDyVanc), if you’d like. 

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