Batman: Ornamental | Issue 4 – Understudy, Part 2 by Drew Van Dyke

Image source: Jose Molestina. (His Instagram handle is @journeystudios, his Twitter handle is @JoStudios, and his website is www.journeystudios.net.)


Fear is a salt-wind storm – swirling rain, beating your nose and your eyelids heavily downward; uncomfortably raw between your arms and your legs; soaking, and visibly shimmering long past the claps and the light and the invisible hands that touched you in every place…

“Ya money!”

You can’t stop the rain, they told me. You should never be able to stop the rain…

“Wallets! Watches! I want it, now!”

You can’t stop the rain, Bruce

“I want all of it!”

“My word!”

In my mind, an angel falls to the ground.

…But can stop the rain.

Her wing crumples and deviates. In my mind, it shatters before it can pull up and away from this world.  

I can—…

Shatters, and scatters like loose necklace pearls.

…I can…stop it.

I am the Batman. This is my power.

If I can move my hand, I say, I can move my arm. If I can move my arm, I can move this body. And if I can move this body, I can move that fear. 

I can make it go away.

Bouncing pearls.

But some storms…

Each connection with the pavement, a louder, coalescing thunder crack.

…Some just blow us away.

I am not Batman in this alley, outside this theatre – again. Out here again.

Dammit.

Out here, I am Bruce Wayne: billionaire playboy.

I have a butler.

I am wearing cuff links to a Cineplex matinee, for God’s sake.

I am the furthest thing from a rain-dancer. And this deluge starts, so heavy from the barrel of a gun that it blots out all color in my world. It snaps at the reeds. Smells of sourness and dirt. Is freezing cold…

My word…

“Wasn’t…there,” comes an echo from the gun, “a kid, here?”

A …kid?

The phrase strikes me as pleasant ringing from some bell – a sailor’s light in this hurricane’s silent eye.

Some kid.

No. 

The kid. 

Jason Todd.

A verbal shine. 

And in the wind-flutter movement overhead, first, the sun is gone, and then, the clouds come free, and it is hot, and it is bright. I turn my head just off to the left.

In my periphery, only spilled popcorn white.

Gone.

He is gone.

A smile.

“No.”

“You’re smiling,” comes the trunk of the barrel – the bag of coats, their scraps, and thinning fur; less large. “Stop smiling.” He takes a step. “I said, stop SMILING!” Another.

One…more…

With a rattle of rusting, hollow metal, the man hits his mark just as Jay leaps from the overhead fire escape.

“Pardon me, sir!” he says. “He’s only smiling because he already knows the punch-line!”

Heh.

Jay’s coat whips out behind him, sun in a scarlet halo across his cheek, and the sole of his loafer connects with the back of the man’s skull, throwing the eye directly for my chest.

My fists clench. My arm moves; this body…moves.

I punch that storm directly in its face, and in a whirling pirouette, it – the fear – is entirely gone. The gun spins like a smooth top as it dashes across the alley, and into the trash. In a heap of unconscious mat, the mugger lies on the cold ground.

Jay has to step over the man’s body to get to Alfred and me. I reach out to take him in my arms, but just before he crosses the threshold, he stops, and he turns back to the man on the ground. Kneels down, and whispers in his ear. He pulls something from his pocket and shoves it up the man’s right nostril, then stands and comes, as so, back our way.

“I was asking if he got the joke,” he says.

Alfred buries us both into his chest. I ruffle Jay’s hair.

“Delta Maneuver?” I say.

“Delta Maneuver,” the boy replies.

“Smart,” I say.

“Works better with boots.” He stretches his legs, still smashed between the two of us. “These fancy shoes make kicking criminals hurt my feet.”

I laugh.

“My word, you two!” Alfred says. “Can you speak of nothing more than violence at a time like this?”

“Calm down, Penny-One,” Jay chuckles. “You still sore that I drank the last of your pop?”

“My soda, sir,” Alfred says, then grows quieter, “is just fine…” He’s still holding the cup in his hand, and, realizing this, goes for a draught. The straw hums with wet emptiness and crackling ice. He hangs his head, and suddenly, his shoulders are heaving, the straw still in his mouth, and he pulls us both even closer. I feel his wet face on my neck. 

“There was nothing I could do,” he says. “My boys—…I’m here to take care of—…and I should have done—…but there was nothing I could do…”

“Alfred…”

            “It was just like that night – the night…”

            “Penny—…Penny-One?” Jason’s voice falters – shaken more by Alfred’s reaction than the situation. The boy reaches up for his hand on the cup.

            “The night…”

            I move so my arm comes around my butler, and I begin us on our way down the remainder of the alley; back to the street, and to the car on its curb out front. Into the setting sun. Into the slow flicker of too-early streetlight bulbs, and the ever-glowing reds and vertical periwinkle theatre signs.

            As we pass the man on the ground, I look down just long enough to catch his fur-matted face. Just long enough to catch the rolled $20 bill protruding from his nose.

            I grab Jay’s other hand.

            “I know, old friend,” I whisper. “I know it…”

As I drive us home, Jay takes the middle seat, next to Alfred’s, in the back, and will not leave his side until we cross the Wayne Manor gate – until we are past the heavy front door, through the trees, and down the mechanical shaft that winds crag and shaved stalactites to the underground garage adjacent the Batcave. In the rearview, I watch in the coming and going swing of pathway lights as they practice making hollow groans with the cup’s straw, pulling it up and then pushing it back through the plastic lid to varying, unknown melodies.

My sweet street boy.

That gentle old man.

I smile.

            Fear is a salt-wind storm…

…And sometimes, all you need is a little something to hold onto, to wait out the squall.

*     * *

{GOTHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT. LATER THAT NIGHT.}

“Batman.”

“Commissioner.”

“Commissioner.”

“Er—…” Gordon looks over the heavy top-wire of his horn-rim glasses. The boy steps out from behind the black, billowing wing spears of my cape, bright and bold. “—Robin. Have you gotten…shorter?”

Robin adjusts his mask. “Maybe you’ve finally,” he pauses, “grown up, sir.”

Gordon laughs.

“Maybe so.” He motions us with a chess-pawn index finger. Sacrificial. Stiff. The digit doesn’t move. Just his hand, with the finger outstretched. “Maybe so. Regardless, good to see you again. It’s been a while…”

We lift the yellow tape and take the back stairwell from the roof – the one closed off due to “construction.” Walk and talk. Robin looks over the topmost rail. Spiraling squares down into the pit.

“Figured you might show up at the crime scene,” Gordon says.

“Already been there,” I say. “When things were a little less—” I hold up a stale, balled hamburger wrapper from a local dive. One side is striking reflective tin. The other, smeared with bits of brown, pinguid wet. In the other hand, the sharded bottom portion of a green-tint glass bottle.

Gordon sighs; that noise of a disappointed parent.

The lone, airy heart.

“Dammit, Bullock,” he whispers. Straightens up. “Fair enough. I’ll talk with him.”

The stair lights flicker, and for a moment, we are no longer there. Jim hits his Zippo. The cigarette paper pops as it’s lit – orange, a cascade of pleasant bursts, like crunching leaves underfoot in autumn. It’s quiet for a while, with only that sound, in and out.

Old technique: Eager rabbit.

He’s waiting for us to play our hand…hmmm… 

Eager rabbits have a twitch, though.

He’s ahead of us, now – has taken that position on his own; to hide his own.

The paper crinkles again.

I don’t twitch.

On occasion, Gordon shifts his head to the side, like he’s looking at the wall signs; but I know he’s just trying to listen, or catch a Hail Mary from his periphery. His eyes don’t stray enough to be reading the words – not past the foot or so ahead of him, anyway – and he’s doing it only slightly more often than he should in a building he could map out for me if I gave him a pen and enough paper. There are places here he knows that even I don’t.

…Probably.

Another tell: His ears rise a couple centimeters each time he turns his head, and when he does so again, I notice the cigarette shift under Gordon’s mustache. I know he hates the quiet. He wants answers he doesn’t have.

Take the carrot…

“We’ve been tracking a string of kidnappings in the area,” he finally says.

“The ‘Ornamentals’ case,” I say. “We know.”

He looks back at me, still walking.

“How do you—?”

“Commissioner,” I say. “Just because you don’t tell us doesn’t mean we aren’t listening. You should know that by now.”

He blows us into a deep puff of grayscale, some wave that keeps coming until it’s just a thin string hanging onto a balloon of nicotine over his tongue.

“Doesn’t ever make it any less jarring,” he mumbles. “Well…what have you got?”

“Age before beauty,” Robin says.

“Then why are you asking me?” 

Gordon chuckles, but that leads him to cough. Our steps are soft, but in the quiet of the abandoned stairwell, they and the hacks ricochet like rubber balls from the concrete and brick – grow and fade like the toothpick shadows passing ‘round us on the corners – they lead us and follow, sinking, ever-downward.

“Tetch?” Robin says.

“Seems,” Gordon coughs, “so.” He throws the half-smoked cigarette butt down harder than needed. Crushes it with his slick-polish shoe. The only nice things he owns. 

Frustration. 

More embers. I always remember him in embers… 

“I should just toss the whole goddamn bundle of these,” he says. “Jesus…Barbara hates it. Think it’s why she avoids this goddamn place as much as she goddamn does…”

Robin and I exchange looks behind him.

He sees it, though – that periphery, paying off – and he turns back and stops, dead center, spread between two stairs. When he isn’t wearing the trench coat, the brown suspenders pull his torso up so he looks stretched and just thinner than is healthy.

“Sorry, I—” His eyes continuously shift over to Robin, then down to the ground. His shoulders fall. I catch his meaning. “That was unprofessional of me…”

I reach out my gloved hand and steady it on his shoulder. He keeps looking down until he no longer can without it being obvious he’s avoiding our gaze. When he looks up, the blades on my gauntlet miss his congealing stubble, but just barely.

“Not at all, Jim,” I say. “Robin?”

The Boy Wonder comes up onto the stair rail beside us – balancing there just by the balls of his feet.

“Bat—,” he says, turning over and doing the same on his hands, “—man?” 

It gives the commissioner a weak smile, at least. I avoid one as much as possible. 

Will have to have a talk about the showmanship…

“Can you go ahead and get the forensics we came for from the crime lab? Third floor?” I look back to Gordon. “If that’s alright by you, Commissioner?”

He stands up a bit, but is still tired when he reaches for another cigarette. “Don’t assume me saying ‘no’ will have any bearing, now, will it?”

I chuckle and shake my head: It won’t.

“But that’s where we were headed before,” Robin says. “Can’t I just tag along with you guys?”

…And the backtalk. But we can make this work. He just wants to be needed

“Something’s…come up,” I tell him. “We need to expedite the process, and I need you to double-up and man the scanners for signs of Tetch while I get everything the commissioner knows. Hit up the labs with your wrist radio on, then meet back at the Batmobile in oh-one-hundred.”

He is squatting on the rail, now, and looks me dead in the eye. Life on the streets makes you immune to untruth. It’s the weirdest thing. Almost like the comforts of life make them alright to be. 

I keep the contact. I’m not lying.

He keeps the same. I know.

Then he lifts his arm above his head and shoots up a line of cable – a snake that coils, unfurls, straightens like a board when it strikes. The hook audibly gouges the brick ceiling overhead. 

Gordon winces.

“I’ll check in and let you know when I find anything, Batman,” Robin says, now hanging in midair. The cable spins his vertical body slowly back and forth, clockwise, then counter-, until it comes back to absolute zero.

“Let me know first thing,” I say.

“Commissioner,” he says. Then he salutes and releases the hold button on his grapple gun, and the line begins toward a scream as he falls, with great immediacy (still saluting) through the very center of the stairwell. “ALWAYS A PLEASURE!” he yells up.

“You as well, son,” Gordon says, peering over the rail; and he stays there, white-knuckled, until he hears soft boots click on metal once more below us. He turns to me. “He’s a good kid.”

“And well-trained, Jim,” I say. I give him a reassuring smile. The grapple releases its hold, and a thick portion of brick caves down with the cord, just past our heads, and begins to ricochet off the handrails, off and off and off another, all the way down to the ground floor, where I hear it shatter some tile.

Gordon’s left eye ticks after each blow.

“Robin to Batman, over,” Jay’s voice comes in, over the com. “Did you guys just hear something?”

Gordon lights his cigarette and keeps walking. I clear my throat. Follow.

“Where were we?” I say.

*     * *

{HARLEEN QUINZEL’S (FAIRLY NORMAL) DAILY LIFE: MONDAYS.}

            Yoga with the girls she’s met.

            One’s, Selina. One is Pam.

And then she

            must get off to class.

All day long she stays in class.

*     * *

{SOMEWHERE DOWNTOWN.}

She can barely stand. 

She can barely stand; and still, when they finally pull her up from that sweaty, screaming hole in the ground, she musters all the strength in toward her kneecaps, so that they will lock in place, and she will be able to stretch all the way up and out, past her fingertips, in a presentable manner. But they push her forward, and Harleen Quinzel falls onto her face, onto green turf grass. It’s all over the floor. It just keeps going.

She gets up quickly, but they still drag her body. They grab her by her hair, and pull her numb-stupid feet forward.

It’s long, her hair is – down her back, when it isn’t tied up for work. 

God, she loves her long, thick hair.

*     * *

{GOTHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT.}

“You know about Ornamentals, huh?” 

Gordon is curt. Understandably so. Not really the way he intended this exchange to go down, I’m sure.

“Only what I’ve heard,” I say. “Fill in the details.”

He kicks at a stray piece of brick debris.

“We’ve been following a string of kidnappings – women and children, only. Vulnerable individuals.”

“I know some women who would strongly disagree with that sentiment, Commissioner,” I say.

He shakes his head.

“Yeah, same here,” he says. Blows smoke. “Figure of speech.”

“Find another figure, then.”

“Just recounting the report, Batman. ‘Individuals of a weaker persuasion?’”

“Still not great,” I say. “Keep going.”

Another sigh. “Fine. But like I say, it’s been going on for months. Kids and their moms, or just young females, college-age to mid-30s; loners – pretty ones—”

“Jim.”

He glares at me. “—just up and go missing. From work. From school. From home. Off the streets. Doesn’t matter. No pattern to it (what I just said, aside). No similar areas. No relationships we could establish. Random disappearances…they’re the absolute worst. Kills your first-48 just finding out who they were. And there was never a sign of struggle…” He scratches his head with the cigarette hand. “Take it back, this started over a year ago.” 

I nod. 

“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” he circles the air with his glowing hand. “But then,” dots the center, “we found one…”

*     * *

{HARLEEN QUINZEL’S (FAIRLY NORMAL) DAILY LIFE: TUESDAYS.}

            Spin and homework. Homework, spin.

            A late shift at the bank, and then,

            it’s straight to the shelter, to feed the puppies.

            Maybe then – and if she’s lucky – she’ll just make it back,

            back to her couch for

            reality singing: the results show announcement.

*     * *

{SOMEWHERE DOWNTOWN.}

They push her into a room. She realizes she keeps saying “they.” “They” could be ghosts for all she knew. She can’t make out the faces. They don’t say many words.

“Stand by the wall, please.” It’s that meek voice, again – the one that argues with Thick Boston. He’s more precise. Jovial. “I need to take your measurements.” Like your local eye doctor, or a dentist. Forced, to the point of feigned idiocy. Upticks at the end of each sentence.

“My…measure—?” She steps through the dark, into a single shining light from above. It is much, much too bright. In its afterglow, she can just make out the two round lenses. The shining head. The cheeks. Their fullness. “Listen, I don’t really want—…what for?”

“What for, what for?” the gentle voice sings. But then it cuts itself short on the last bar, and that is the most jarring part of its coming. “Everyone asks ‘what for?’ and ‘why?’ these days. No one just does what they’re made for; lets the Lord work. No one just does what they’re told.” The air outside the hole is more pleasant than it should have been, but that quickly evaporates in the heat of that blinding overhead lamp.

“DO WHATCHA TOL’!” shouts Thick Boston, who suddenly comes to her from the room’s opposite corner. “OR. ELSE.”

“You again?” she says – the defiance of before, returned. “Do I have to show you how disinterested I am?”

She turns to look him down and finds, sitting upon a simple wooden stool, an awkward form of the tiniest man propped up by the wall; a pinstripe suit; limbs rolling in upon themselves; head lolled off to the side.

A…dummy. 

A ventriloquist’s dummy.

Not real.

“What…?”

But the wooden figure is perfectly positioned to take her directly into his eyes, the neckless head-tilt giving a distinct impression, under his flat-brim fedora, that it is she who is in need of questioning. From his lap pokes, long, the guts of a resting machine gun stock.

“Show me, gay-gy,” it says. “Show it all ta me.” 

And she feels a sudden closeness enveloping her.

In skittering confusion, when she turns back for the other man, his hollow round lenses have already, silently, come up on her – are up to her breasts. She is looking down at balding middle-age, inches from her being, and when she starts at his immediate proximity, he takes her arms in his slick, fatty hands – they are so warm and wet – and pushes her back to the wall, into the light.

“No, no,” he says, so sweetly, after she kicks his stout knee – makes him topple over on to her, imbalanced, but not letting go. She looks back to the dummy, and comes, again, to wriggle and struggle. “No, no,” then he releases one wrist, and she swings it, but her body tenses and does not respond. She is shaking, and tastes the world of pennies. 

When he pulls back the long stick cattle prod, she can feel the fight, again, going away from her. She tries to speak. Gags.

“Pay no mind to Mr. Scarface, there, and just do what you’re told, now,” he says gently, and he removes her Gotham Gold name badge; carefully slides the pin out, and all the way across the glistening silk of her low-neck blouse. Patiently guides the point. 

Her eyes follow its every millimeter.

He looks at the badge, confused.

Picks it up. Holds it close, and is trying to read her name.

Is only slowly succeeding.

He throws it away. “We’re going to make you an angel, Harley,” he says. From his pocket comes a tape measure. He begins it, extending, past her incapacitated line of sight.

Slowly moves down… 

When she tries to scream, she is still only gagging on fat tongue. 

“The loveliest angel,” he sings, “you never knew you could be…”

*     * *

{GOTHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT.}

“You found…a woman, right?”

Jim nods.

“By that point, we had begun to put together something of a shape to the kidnappings, but it was only bare-bones. A list of names with the same tells in their disappearances. Little sign of struggle. Locked doors and running cars. Food on counters. Cash drawers left open. Garden hoses not turned off. Missing persons we thought might be associated. The ‘Gotham Janes,’ we called them. Made for one helluva database – that thin lead. And a helluva pin board…” 

The cigarette in his mouth flashes bright orange.

“Yeah, one of them showed up. She wasn’t alive, though…”

*     * *

{HARLEEN QUINZEL’S (FAIRLY NORMAL) DAILY LIFE: WEDNESDAYS.}

Laundry day. Blot away.

Half-hour wash. Two-hour dry.

It’s when she re-reads Austen,

and eats her favorite: Tzin-Tzin Grill stir-fry.

*     * *

{SOMEWHERE DOWNTOWN.}

It’s the humming that wakes her. Mechanical, clicking reverberations; and this time, she can move, but only so far as the ropes will allow her from the kitchen chair.

When her hair begins to fall in heavy plops upon her lap – that is the first time she allows her captors to see her cry.

*     * *

{GOTHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT.}

“You ever wonder if it’s,” Gordon frowns, “I dunno…too much?”

I ask him if he means the villains. The crime, and its heartache. 

He says he doesn’t. 

“Elaborate, then, Jim.”

He looks over the rail again. We’re coming up on the floor where Robin was to have stopped off. He keeps looking over there, even as we round the corner to the next set of stairs. Then the next one. 

“You know why we started calling them the ‘Ornamentals’, right, Batman?” he says. “The Gotham Janes?”

I’m silent.

“Well, this moment – when we found the woman? – was when that started.” He suddenly looks so very old. “After that first find. Rhiannon Lahey. That was her name. Body was found in the rubble of the Iceberg Lounge – the first one – when you took in Cobblepot that one time.” He waves his arm, trying to pull up more words. “The structure collapse? Ring any bells?”

“I don’t recall any civilian casualties in that incident, Jim,” I say.

“Don’t play coy,” he snaps back. “It doesn’t fit you so well just now.”

I narrow my eyes at him.

“She was…Little Blue?” I murmur.

“His sidekick?” Jim says. Tosses down the spent butt. His voice is pulled Velcro. “Yeah. She was one of ‘em…”

One of them?”

“Yeah. One of seven or eight. I forget now. Mostly women. Couple older kids in there.” He shakes his head. “You honestly didn’t notice them changing each time you brought the bird back in?”

I try to remember. The faces. The costumes. They are all…one.

“They always acted the same,” I say. “I…” I’m stumbling. “I didn’t pay them much mind…”

Gordon looks back over the rail. 

Ornamental, then” he says. “There ya go.”

*     * *

{HARLEEN QUINZEL’S (FAIRLY NORMAL) DAILY LIFE: THURSDAYS.}

            Busy day. Busiest day.

            Gauging morning studies at the

            Juvenile Center,

            talking to kids – how to make their lives better

            than Gotham allows. Than “locked up” allows.

            Then it’s bank,

            then it’s writing,

            then it’s late class

            and deciding that it’s girls night.

            So dressing. And dancing.

            And dancing.

            And dancing.

            And dancing…

*     * *

{SOMEWHERE DOWNTOWN.}

“Doctor Tetch,” says the Ventriloquist, when the door comes open.

            “Mister Wesker,” is the response. Drawn-out loathing – a high speech pattern that Harleen recognizes almost immediately as the top-hat from the bank.

            The man who took her away. The man in her mind. 

She quakes.

            “You’re done,” he says, to Wesker, tersely. “Be gone. He says he wants to see you now. Clean this one up, and then let yourself out.”

            Wesker is in front of her again; uses the backs of both hands to gently brush off long strands from her lap. Takes out a tissue from his vest pocket, and dabs at the smeared mascara drying tight stripes from her eyes, into her mouth, down her chin. She just glares at him the whole time, as he smiles sweetly into her face – licks the cloth, and wipes again.

            “Aren’t you just a sight?” he finally says, and stands back to admire his work. “Just the shade of pristine every man wants. Virginal, don’t you think, Doctor? What every mother wants for her son.”

            She snickers.

            “Aren’t you just sad?” she mocks him. “Don’t forget your doll, doll. It’s the hardest wood you’re ever likely to have…”

           But Wesker is very still, in front of her, grinning timidly. There is nothing behind his eyes. No recognition. Just the smiling, and light shining off lens.

“Please don’t—” he starts.

“Say that to my face, you little gitch,” comes the dummy’s voice from the corner. “And I’ll show you just how hard it gets…” The Ventriloquist’s mouth doesn’t even twitch.

“Gee, hope it does more than just talk my needs away,” she mumbles.

            The Mad Hatter, who has taken a clipboard from the table where Wesker was sitting, chuckles to himself as he takes off his large blue overcoat, then hangs it over the back of a nearby chair. He flips through the detailed notes. Scratches his head beneath the top-hat still cradling his vast crown, but does not remove it. Pretends to ignore the scene. Sensing the stare-down going nowhere, though, he soon clears his throat, and their attention, both, comes his way.

Mister Wesker,” he says, “I thought I told you to disappear. What the hell are you still doing here?”

“Hey,” says the dummy. “What am I? Chopped liver, over here?”

“Yes, yes, you,” Hatter says, waving a dismissive hand in that general direction, “please, dear Scarface: Get out, too.”

“I will not stand for this typa dis-ruh-spec’!” Scarface shouts. Wesker looks back and forth between the two, nervously. “First the groad; and now, this college-edu-ma-cated dolt? Wesker, I tried the carrot! Now it’s time for the stick! Come pick me up!” His hollow voice is roaring, now. “Wesker!” Wesker begins to sweat. “Come pick me up!

“I…I think,” he says, “it would be best if we just—”

“Shut up! Tellin’ us how to do our jog.” Wesker kneads his hands. Especially the left one, which he begins to take so hard, his knuckles are popping. “Wesker! Come get me! Think you’re smarter than me, huh? Get yer head out of a gook every now and again, and try livin’ in the real worl—”

Before Wesker can move for Scarface, the Hatter takes three steps, and has grabbed the dummy by a single leg. He pulls him upside down, holds him out and away from him, like a bag of someone else’s garbage. The limp creature reaches both hands for the ground, giving the appearance he is in mid-cartwheel, and his face never leaves Harleen Quinzel’s.

“You don’ let me go righ’ now, Dr. Seuss, I’ll—!”

But when the Hatter reaches the doorway, he simply turns the handle and tosses the dummy outside. When the door closes behind him, the dialogue is cut off completely, midstream.

“Uh!” he says, dusting off his palm on the leg of his pants. “Seuss? Really, Seuss? What a waste of space. What an illiterate spruce…”

“Oh, God,” Wesker says. “Oh, God.” And he kicks through the pile of hair at his feet in a shuffling pace toward the door, still grinding his meaty hands to burger. “That was very unwise, Doctor. That was very unwise, indeed. Not part of the plan. Not at all…Oh, God. We’ll have to have a word about this…”

“My mistake!” says Tetch. “My, yes! The plan – the plan! But you’d better go fix it while you still can!” When the Ventriloquist reaches the entry, the Mad Hatter swings open the door one last time, to a scream of “cuuuuuuuuuuck!” from the dummy, and then slams it with a final bit of pizazz behind the pair, who are huddled on the green turf ground. 

Again, he hits the lock.

And then, again, she is alone.

Again, she is all alone…with him.

Him.

She remembers walking out of the bank. The back of his head. The card in his cap. How his sideburns were uneven from behind; shaggy, parted off to each side in tufts by the tight band over his ears. How she had noticed that, even when she was gone…

Again, come the tremors from deep within her chest cavity, and she tests her mind for any possible faults. Isn’t even sure still – is it still her mind that has been through all of this? 

Harleen searches for memories she can hold to that are hers and only hers. 

She remembers yoga. 

And Tzin-Tzin’s. 

That she had picked Taylor Hicks to win American Idol, season 5.

Heh. Joke’s on you, Daughtry.

Hatter loses no time in closing the distance between them once they are alone. Circles her, tied to the chair, like a jungle cat.

“You’re funny, my dear,” he murmurs. “What you said to Wesker, there? It—”

“Wasn’t trying to be funny,” she says, in retort. “Was telling the truth. He’s a sad little man, just like you’re a sad little man. Guess that means the joke’s on all of us.”

“And your wit is quick,” he says. “But from where you sit, you have no right to judge—”

“I know,” she says. “I just said that.”

His teeth clench. “—but you really are a beauty, Alice, even though you seem a bit begrudged.”

“Really…?” she leans forward in the chair – looks up into his hovering eyes for the first time since the bank. “Because I think I look a hell of a lot like Joan of Arc right now.” She smiles at him. “And since she had actual opinions on things, seems like you and your little holier-than-thou cult, here, might not like that so much.” Then she giggles like a chorus of rising foam, and falls back into the chair. Doesn’t lose the smile. Not one bit.

Neither does Jervis Tetch, though. Neither does the Mad Hatter, as he reaches into his pocket, and pulls out a small, plastic bag. Shakes it, playfully. Holds it up to her nose. Holds it so close to her face, in fact, that she can see inside the bag, where there only appears an amalgam of many black dots, swirling and writhing and forming, anew, with each tiny flick of motion.

“Do you know what it is we actually do here, Miss Quinzel?” he says. “Do you know why they call it ‘Project Understudy’, and not something else?”

She gulps. “Theatricality?”

Outside, a sound of thunder claps, and the power momentarily flickers. Then, the building begins to rumble in the stormcloud aftershock.

“Something like that,” he says. “Rather…a trick of the mind.” From the table behind him, Hatter retrieves the handle of what soon grows into the shape of a rather large implant gun. The needle protrudes some inch and a half from the barrel. A thick needle – it glistens like Wesker did in the heat of the overhead lamp. 

She…penetrable. 

“See,” he says, “you don’t need opinions when you’re just reading lines…” 

*     * *

{GOTHAM POLICE DEPARTMENT.}

“And you caught onto Tetch… because of the dermal implants?” I say.

Another nod from Gordon.

“We were looking for anything, really. Up to that point, we had bodies…lots of bodies…but no smoking gun to connect them all. Like I said, thin lead – all missing people, but the missing people kept showing up…ahem…working,” he stretches that word, “as henchmen for the likes of the city’s criminal underlords. Cobblepot, Freeze, Sionis…hell, I think even Maroni had one or two—”

“All male crimelords, then?”

“No,” he says. “No, not necessarily. We did follow that for a bit. I think Ivy had one or two, though. But that was the tie. We just couldn’t figure out the why. Why would all of these people – these different individuals – up and leave their lives, all to work for these…scumbags? Good people. School teachers. Nannies. Volunteers, for crying out loud! Why would you leave that for a life of crime?” Gordon scowls. “Finally, one day, our forensics guy, Talbot, starts to notice the same blemishes showing up on the backs of each victim’s neck. A mole – would you believe it? Checked them out and—”

“The mole wasn’t a mole at all,” I say.

“Bingo. Neural implant. Nanotechnology.”

“Imbedded brainwashing,” I say. “Tetch certainly fits the modus operandi.”

“The bank earlier today was the first time we had that theory confirmed, though,” he says. “Tetch, actually on film.” He adjusts one suspender that has flipped itself. Runs his fingers all the way down it, to even out the bend. “Just the networking alone that it would require to pull this off in secret tells me that he’s not the only one involved, here, Batman.”

“Agreed.”

“But he’s a start, at least,” Gordon says. “And he’s getting bolder.”

“Escalation,” I say. “Good for us—”

“Bad for the victims.” We hit the ground floor. “Right.”

My com goes static: “Robin to Batman, over.”

I touch my ear – not necessary, but letting Gordon know I’m on the line.

“Think I’ve got a hit,” Robin says. “Sending it to you now.”

The pager at my waist flashes green.

“Roger, Red Bird. On my way. Sit tight.” I launch my cable up through the square cutout of the stairwell. “We may have something, Jim,” I say.

“Really?” Gordon says. “We’re on the ground floor. Just walk out.”

“Not my style,” I say. And as I get ready to release the gun’s hold, I don’t know whether the Commissioner yells to me, “Wayne” or “wait.” It bothers me. I don’t know which it was that he says. But he says one of them, and then:

“Remember: You’re not the only one this all can hurt.”

After that, it is only the zip of the travel, up and up and up. The thunder rattles us, a storm on its way, and there goes Gordon’s disappointed face, his mustache, until it is only the ember light of his cigarette.

*     * *

{HARLEEN QUINZEL’S (FAIRLY NORMAL) DAILY LIFE: FRIDAYS.}

            Some Friday’s she’ll wake up – not

            know where she is. Afraid.

            Find a t-shirt. Usually his.

            Find her keys and a taxi. Kiss him “good-bye.”

            Call her mom on her lunch break,

just to say “hi.”

Then she’ll go study. Go to the park.

Listen to rainbows. If you’re lost, you can look…

Run, to some Lauper,

until it all just eventually 

goes dark.

TO BE CONTINUED…

in BATMAN: ORNAMENTAL 

Issue 5 – Understudy, Part 3


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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