Batman: Ornamental | Issue 8 – Echoes by Drew Van Dyke

Image source: Miguel Blanco, of the Phillipines. (His work can be found at www.inprnt.com/gallery/themimig/.)


“…Take care.”

*     *     *

{GOTHAM CENTRAL PARK. NOW.}

Moments before the flashbang, a snapping anaconda – her whip-chord – wraps my torso, pulls back, and the tip, the head; I watch the forking end stare me back, slow down, sway, back and forth, sneaking, closer, closer, before it chooses to bite my flesh – skip over my lesser-shelled belly. Then comes the hard heat. Then comes the yank.

As Catwoman pulls me free of the trap cart, the folder leaves my fingers, the logo for Wayne Enterprise is consumed into brown paper, into black paper, embers, flying and assimilating to that, and I find myself racing the blastwave, out-flying it like some climax to a poorly-made action movie; flying full force, until I am pulled in two. Something of my body…breaks. The world around us is disappearing in scarlet and tangelo burn, and I am useless.

I am useless.

I realize, I am useless.

I hit her arms, and she covers my crackling puppet limbs in the scorched grass. Instead of eating at just one, the explosion takes us both.

We don’t hear the first crack when it comes to the ground with us (ruptured eardrums?), but we feel it kicking, then the shake of the second, and the third, like firecrackers on a slender wick, and one-by-one, the circle is consumed by flame and shake and painful hot. I wrap my arms around her – my love – and she, pressing me down, holds me. We are low, but soon comes the smoke, a death-sought ghoul, choking us and painting us inside and out.

“I’m…sorry,” I mouth to her.

“You’re,” she coughs, “Batman.” Smiles.

I muster a sputtering laugh. I rest my head onto her.

She feels the click more than she hears it. Springs a bit, but has no time to react before the grapple line launches, snags on a nearby tree. She screams when I let her go – when I let my loosened utility belt (now her own, in a backwards fasten) go — and she flies up by it, clawing and kicking the whole way, but free from this hellish ring of fire.

I got her, I think, as the walls of heat close in.

I finally got her.

*     *     *

“I’ll take care…”

*     *     *

{WAYNE ENTERPRISE BUILDING. FOUR YEARS AGO.}

The room was so hot, for a place built of cold. I distinctly remember the warm air rising for the skylight as I peered through; how it fogged the glass – forced me to brush the grey stain clean.

I tapped the side of my cowl. Night vision took the blackened space to green shade.

For the past three days, Dick had tracked unwarranted high energy spikes at the Wayne Enterprise Building, and suggested I put in a call to an electrician.

‘Holy personal stakes!’ and all that, you know…

As I’d suspected, they found nothing. On the fourth night, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

Traced the power grid to this room – this abandoned room – on the 12th floor; a former penthouse. Suspected someone was squatting, unbeknownst to current…ahem…ownership.

Timestamps had the spikes occurring between guard postings: 2:34 a.m., right on the nose, each time – two minute blasts, three of them, four minutes apart. Providing time for set-up, the individual was in and out in 20 minutes, tops.

Familiarity with security protocols. Check.

Awareness of access points and area vacancies. Check.

Precision. You got it.

All signs pointed to a professional. And, likely, a longtime employee of some sort…

*     *     *

“I’ll take care of it.”

*     *     *

{GOTHAM CENTRAL PARK. NOW.}

Crumpling the remains of a nearby burning cart, the Batmobile careens to the left, throws its nose into the ground, shakes its tail and comes backward. Selina is wailing, running back toward the fires. The car cuts her off like some mimicking animal, follows her every move. In the smoke, the hood comes back and up. For a moment, she has hope; lets herself stop.

When Jason rises up from the seat, though, her legs give way, and she is on her knees in the smoke-thick grass.

“What…happened?” says the boy, a searing silhouette, peering about. He coughs. “Where’s…?” He sees her holding the belt. Sees it shimmer in the coming dark – in the embers’ afterglow. Sees how tightly it is pressed to her chest.

“Why?” she says. “Why did he…?”

“No,” he says. “Nononono…”

“We could have both…Why…?”

On his chest, Jason’s costume’s bright yellow “R”-scrawl starts to flash in a constant sequence – a feature he has never seen of it before. He reaches down with his gloved fingers. Touches it. Selina looks up, notices it, too. Looks back down, then out into the flames. In the distance, Jason hears sirens wailing. From where, he has no clue.

“Get in the car,” she says. The flashing on his chest begins to slow.

“No, but—” Jason begins, “what about Br-…What about Batman?”

She stands up, now, arms still clutching the shimmering belt. But her eyes are so far away. They are just so very…gone – they do not meet his own. The glow on his chest grows less and less, until it is but a solid sheen – a cutting, jagged yellow line in the dark. 

“Get in the car,” Selina says again. She walks past him and clambers up over the side, into the driver’s seat. “We need to get back to the cave.” 

“We need to…? Are you crazy, lady? Where’s Batman?” He turns around in a circle. He looks up into the trees. Through the smoke. Past the flaming circle of exploded circus cars. The brilliant “R” lights the grass like the wake of a dark, massive ocean wave.

“H-…home,” she says – gulps through an obvious sob. “He’s at home. Come on!”

The engine roars to life again, and Jason looks around once more. Looks into the dark. Flips backward, into the car.

The entire ride home, he can feel, now, not a soul looking back at him.

*     *     *

{WAYNE ENTERPRISE BUILDING. FOUR YEARS AGO.}

When the door came open, I did not expect to see a custodian; but in the custodian came – his mustache went around the entry door – back, forth, and back again, like he was crossing a street – then in stepped his jumpsuit, followed by a second man in what appeared to be a matching hooded sweatshirt and -pants.

Interesting…

An I.D. badge bobbed from his neck. I watched it flick in the moonlight.

The Wayne Enterprise logo.

Bingo.

I had reversed the night vision and awaited manmade light of some kind, a switch that only partially illuminated the space when it came, but was more than enough to give me what I wanted.

“Got it, Batman,” Dick said through the staticky headset, taking remote control of the cowl’s vision enhancement features via the Bat-computer. He zoomed in on the picture on the badge – a balding, middle-aged black man in thin wire frames. The clarity adjusted as he moved to and fro.

“Steady, Robin,” I said, clutching the side of the building tighter.

“Got it.”

“Steadyyyyy.”

The badge swung just so, and I heard the click in the com.

“F-R-E-E—” He stopped. “No, wait. “F-R-I—…it’s an ‘I’… –E-S. Holy Condiment King! It’s ‘Fries,’ like the French kind, Batman! First initial, ‘V’. Ring any bells?”

I shake my head.

“Run it,” I say.

*     *     *

“Bruce, I’ll take care of it.”

*     *     *

{NOW.}

The light from his chest doesn’t stop shining. Not when they reach the downtown. Not when they are on the highway toward Wayne Manor. Not when the cascade of faux waterfalls pummel the car, nor when the afterburners come down from their screaming rev to a pindrop stop in between the range of rising stalagmites and a pair of matched glowing symbols that meet them there in the dark.

Jason, as he was taught, readies his hand at his belt.

Nightwing and Batgirl rush for the car door. It, again, offers no one sign of relief. Jason sees Dick’s shoulders slump over the glowing blue “V” when “his successor” is the answer to “who’s in the car?” – pull back when Selina is the one he finds behind the wheel. The dual escrima sticks grow up out his arms, from behind his back, twirl once, catch hard in his leatherbound fists. Barbara’s hand goes up to her mouth. When she notices the belt in the silent woman’s lap, she reaches a hand for Dick’s chest – holds him back.

Jason looks around. There is no Batman. No Bruce Wayne. Not in this cave.

“Why are you here?” he says.

“Quiet, Little Wing,” Dick says. “I need you to get out of the car.”

“Well, it’s my seat, so…”

“Boys.” Barbara gently pushes off from Dick and reaches out her hand for Selina. “We came as soon as we could. Is it…? I’m guessing the park fi—?”

“Just play the damn tape,” the Catwoman whispers, not looking up from the console.

Jason looks between the two. “Tape?”

“Like I said, Little Wing—”

“Don’t call me that.”

Dick sighs, defeated. “—I need you to get out of the car, now.”

Jason stands up – backs up against Selina. His hand brushes the belt – the slick cold makes him jump. He turns from her, but realizes his back is now to Dick. Turns again.

“Why are you all acting so weird?” he says. “Where…?” he chuckles, unsure, “Where’s Daddy Wayne-bucks?” He knows, but still, he asks, as children do; and he – the youngest child – begins his crying when he asks. “He was sick. Scarecrow made him sick, and I was going to tell him that. He’s just–…he’s just sick. Where is he?”

“We know, hun,” Barbara says. “We’ve been reviewing your testing. You did good.”

She looks to Dick, who nods.

“Alfred told me—he said—” Jason’s voice drifts off. “He’s not…” 

Barbara points to her glowing chest. “Heart—”

“—monitors,” he says, quietly. Wipes his nose on his sleeve. “I…put it together in the car…” 

“Smart boy,” she says.

“Let’s…get it over with,” Selina whispers.

Dick walks over to the wall-to-wall computer screens and taps a sequence of buttons on the keyboard below.

The screens go dark all at once. Then, they hit a hushed static burr and illuminate – become amalgam, legion – become the face of the Batman.        

Comes his sandpaper voice over the speakers, to surround them all: “This is my last will and testament. I am not myself, and for that, I am sorry…”

Jason hangs his head.

“Always one for the dramatic,” Selina sighs.

“Cat, I know you’ll hate that opening. I hate that I’m not there to see how you take it.”

Her composure leaves her – a laughing whimper, wet and sad.

“I’ve carried a ring for you every day for the last 10 years.” A glint in his eye. “It’s locked up pretty tight. If you can find it, you can keep it…”

She runs her hand over the bright yellow belt. Pets it, like a beloved. Says, “yeah…”

“To my youngest—” Jason wraps his arms about his stomach. “—I am sorry to have built you so tall, but to then not follow through.” He looks off a bit. Cannot manage to bring back his discomfited gaze. “You deserve better, Chum, and I don’t think I ever told you so. This place…it is always your home, if you want it to be.”

Jason nods at the ground. 

“And to my middle—” Barbara leans against a nearby rock. “You were never really mine at all.”

She chuckles, “Damn straight.”

“I hope that you give your old man hell enough for the both of us,” he says. She wipes a single palm across her cheek, but no more. “You are my strongest. You are my best. All of this knowledge—” He gestures about the cave in his background. “—it is yours. Do…better with it than I did.” Her eyes grow wide. She stands up a bit taller.

“Boy Wonder.”

Dick and Jason both lift their heads at the same time.

Batman grins. “Not you. The other one.”

“Yeah,” Jason mutters, “but what if I didn’t just lift my head, huh…?” 

The specter ignores him from the screen.

“I…I want you to take this, son.” There is a low rustle, and then a mashing of hair and skin into the microphone, before the cowl comes free of his head; and there is Bruce Wayne: billionaire playboy. His dark hair is smartly unkept, and his mask is no longer that, but just a fading grin and some small, remaining droplets of charm. He holds the dark, dagger ears out for the camera lens. The whites of the eyes reflect back, glassy, the keyboard below it. His hand shakes, like some bit of fear has overtaken him. “I…I am scared I have lost you,” he says. And his voice breaks – something that turns all of the heads at once. “Since that night in the snow…I have been afraid, because I don’t understand it. This was always supposed to be yours – this legacy we built for you, and I am…I am sor—”

Dick slams his finger into a button on the keyboard, and the mask freezes – a perfect shadow traced along his dead mentor’s cheek.

He says something indiscernible into the staleness of the cave.

“What’s that?” Barbara says. Her boots ricochet timid clicks off the pave as she steps over to the man standing over the console. “Richard…?”

“Yeah, what does he mean by ‘that night in the snow’?” Jason says.

“It’s the night he left, Jay-Bird,” Selina drones, uninterested.

Dick turns, and there are hot tears in his eyes. Angry tears. Pouring, angry tears.

“The reason I left,” Dick corrects her. He points back up at the screen. Puts his eyes directly into those of Bruce Wayne. Scowls. “And I just told him to keep his goddamn mask.”

*     *     *

{WAYNE ENTERPRISE BUILDING. FOUR YEARS AGO.}

I retracted the vision a bit. The custodian patted Fries on the shoulder cordially – pointed to the clock on the far wall, then stepped out of the room as he nodded back once.

The inside of the room was fairly barren from my angle – a few exposed ventilation ducts and white-cloth-covered furniture – ghosts of prior lives. Fries raised a watch to his face; pressed a button on it.

I started my own. There goes the time…

“Victor Fries,” Dick said. “African-American male, late-40s, 6-foot-2.”

“Hmm.”

Fries made for the far wall – glided between the furniture like a figure skater, gracefully, preordained.

How many times have you done this, Victor?

“Geneticist – one of the few still on the Wayne Enterprise roster.”

“Downsizing,” I said. “’94 was a bad year.”

He kept on: “Company man. Been here for over 20 years. Part of a joint-funding venture with Gotham Academy, now. Alma mater. Seems like a nice enough guy. And must not be too bad at what he does…Where’s he going?”

To check all my boxes, I thought, with a grin. Why are you here, though, Victor?

“What else?” I said. I tried to recall Fries from one of my company visits. Genetics hadn’t been high up on my priority list in a while…

At the furthest end of the penthouse, I had to duck back to find his feet beyond the frame of the skyline. I leaned down so that I was on my stomach on the tarry roof. Checked my watch.

One minute, 37 seconds. I wiped the glass anew.

Here come the fireworks…

I thought the object was an old couch – the one he stopped before. But he just stood there, in reverence of this long, covered thing. Stood there for so long, watching it like a holy altar – like a man who hadn’t been to church in some time, and needed to work up the nerve to approach it again.

“Oh, hey,” Dick said. “I do remember this guy a bit from the papers…”

From the pocket of his hoodie, Fries retrieved a long, slender object that fit into the palm of his hand. It was glowing blue; electric. He looked to the left. He looked to the right. I didn’t see his other hand, but it, somewhere, yanked back the cloth on the object before him.

My god…

It wasn’t a couch…

“Remember, the guy? The one with the—”

Fries inserted the blue tube into a port on the side of a horizontal metal tank. Adjusted a knob by his left hand. Threw a nearby switch with his right.

“—sick—”

A strong bolt illuminated the ghost from within. Shocked her corpse into frenetic dance. Made the waters about her bubble…and live

“—wife?”

*     *     *

“Care…”

*     *     *

{NOW.}

“…Dent’s task force was already at the penthouse, too, though,” Dick says. A pair of opposite heads raise at that. He grimaces. “Lit the place up like a freakin’ birthday cake…”

“Wait…what?” Jason says. “Two-Face…?”

Dick nods, then thinks better of it. Shakes his head.

“Before the accident in the courtroom – back when he was still just the Gotham D.A.. He also did some pro-bono consultations for Wayne Enterprise on the side. Turns out, Bruce and Harvey are…” He looks to the belt in Selina’s arms. Down at his own glowing chestplate. “…were old classmates back in the day. Real chummy. Anyway, somehow, Harvey got a tip-off that Dr. Fries would be in the penthouse the same night we did. How, you may ask?” He runs his hands back through his hair. “Here’s the kicker: I’d found out that he and Bruce met up for coffee earlier that day…”

“Stop it,” Selina says, still not looking up.

But Dick kept on: “Turns out, the penthouse wasn’t the only place Victor had been leeching power from. Police were investigating several instances of similar utilities fraud citywide, and Harvey (in an election year, nonetheless) couldn’t resist putting his own name in the paper one more splashy time for stopping it… with Bruce right outside…on a night when he stuck me back in the cave.” He holds up his two sticks. Puts them together in one hand. “Two birds, one stone. Tit-for-tat. I…” His voice trails off. Silently, disgusted: “I watched them try to take the guy down through a goddamn camera lens…”

“You idiot,” Selina says. “He wouldn’t—”

Dick raps his sticks together in pent-up anger, an odd cadence that ripples the air in the cave to silence. “Yeah, well, I didn’t think so either, but he did,” he says. “Tit. For. Tat. I saw him try to intervene when it got out of hand – or, at least, pretend to – but Freeze was ready for them. And once he was caught, the good doctor was gone in the wind…

“As soon as he crashed through that skylight, I saw Bruce’s eyes go to the floor – he saw it shine; he noticed the discarded bottles, and I knew.” Dick struck the sticks together.  1… 2… 3… 4… 5 times.  Sheathed them. “I counted to five. He’d already thrown two of the nearest officers and that old two-faced bastard out into the hallway and was back up on the roof when the place blew, and the coms went out…”

“Waitwaitwait,” Jason says. “You’re telling me Two-Face tried to blow up Mr. Freeze in Wayne Enterprise with Batman outside…and Freeze escaped that?”

“It was the first night he tried to freeze the city over,” Barbara says, quietly. “He was so distraught…He just lost i—”

“The first…? Wait…I was living out there when he did that!” Jason points out into nothing, meaning the streets of Gotham.

“I know,” Dick says.

“Watch it,” Jason says.

“No, not—” He points up and down Jason’s torso. “—that.” He grins. “I tried to find out for the longest time where I’d seen you before. Because the very first night I met you wearing my old costume, I just knew I knew you from somewhere. And it bugged the hell out of me, this idea that maybe that wasn’t true, but I was just seeing a younger me in you again or something dumb like that. But that wasn’t ever it.”

Jason rolls his eyes. “Thank God.”

“But the more I sat on it, the more I realized…it was then,” Dick says. “You were that kid who led the group of folks who helped dig me out of the snow that night we first fought Freeze.”

Jason shakes his head. “I only remember some geezer in a dinged-up old Cadillac…” He stops. A look of recognition come over his face. “Nooooooo!” he says, in disbelief

“Yep. I told you, he’d denied my bike access that night, and I had to get out there somehow…”

“You stole it?”

“Alfred gave me the keys, so technically I borrowed it, but…”

“Boy-Scout Dicky Gray—” Jason stops short.

Selina rolls her eyes. “I already know,” she says.

He sighs, relieved: “—son, stole that crappy old car?”

Dick nods.

“I tried to steal his tires once!”

Dick nods. “That was when I first saw you, Little Wing.”

“Cool, but still don’t call me that.”

Dick laughs. “You were my hero that night, kiddo. Just being you. When I remembered that—”

“Oh, and Shoehand Sam?” Jason says. “And the garbage pails? That was my idea.” He turns to Barbara and Selina. “We used those to scoop the drift away…and then we hid under them, and—”

“All of it,” Dick says. The words – the admonition – comes quickly around sudden broken pieces in his throat: “I knew he’d made the right choice.”

Under the mask, Jason smiles back at him. They nod to one another.

After an extended silence: “Soooo…you gonna finish that video now, or…?

“Wait,” Selina cuts in. “You said he looked down at something…?”

“What?” Dick says. Breaks the gaze.

“On the ground? Bruce looked at something? Back at the Freeze raid?”

“Right…right! The floor was wet. Investigation turned up some sort of flammable—”

“Flammable liquid…uh huh…” she mumbles off into the dark.

“Come again?” Barbara says.

“It’s nothing…just something I…” Selina keeps staring out into the dark – lets its emptiness cool her smoldered parts.

Barbara keeps her eyes on Selina, who holds the belt closer to her chest. Motions to Dick. Snaps her fingers at him. “Of course…OF COURSE! If the cowl has cameras, it probably has video. Pull up his feed from earlier tonight!”

Selina looks up.

“Can’t,” Dick says, from the monitor. “Locked.”

“Give me that,” Jason says, and pushes him out of the chair. Cracks his knuckles for flair. Begins typing.

She sighs. “Anything?”

“Can’t,” he finally says, from the monitor. “Locked.”

Barbara groans and walks over to the console – pulls up the files she wishes to access. Pushes the boys aside and easily bypasses the firewalls that have stuck them in a few simple keystrokes – a master pianist on prime Bach; but then she comes upon an encryption that dismisses her session – sends her back to the home screen on reboot.

Comes the start tone: NaNAnaNA. “Welcome back…Batman.”

Dick and Jason exchange somber looks.

“Sonofa—”

“Your daddy wouldn’t like that mouth,” Selina says. She is suddenly by her side.

“He’s the one who taught it to me,” says Barbara, through gritted teeth. She begins the processes again, looking for some form of compliance she has missed. Performs a sequence of code. Pauses before striking “return.”

NaNAnaNA. “Welcome back…Batman.”

“Dammit!”

Tries it for a third, even more trepid time. Lingers on it. Stares at each green block letter on that black screen for what seems an eternity.

“Come on, girl,” Selina says.

“Don’t rush m—”

Jason hits “return.”

NaNAnaNA.

“NO!”

“Welcome…back…”

“My…word!”

The chest lights all face up from the grinning shadow face of Bruce Wayne on the screen – up from the depths of the Batcave, toward the top of the staircase, leading into the main house. A single brown grocery bag topples from Alfred’s unsuspecting arms, rings and yawns down the steps like a broken accordion, scattering yellow apples and a loping dented can of sweet and condensed milk.

The Bat-computer cuts him short: “Voice recognition accepted.” 

Jason groans. “Again with this?”

“Codenames: Penny-One—”

“No…” Alfred’s voice is a breath in miles. He falls against the sidewall – knowing – supports himself on the nearby handrail and a chunk of sandwiched limestone.

 “—Robin—”

Jason takes a quick step for the old man.

“—Nightwing—”

“It’s not a codename, Computer” Dick sulks, walking with purpose past his protégé. “It’s my…er…name-name…”

“—Batgirl—”

Barbara gulps audibly. 

“—and Catwoman.”

Selina cuts Dick off with a simple hand on his shoulder. Pulls herself affront him, and takes that long walk up the staircase to the disheveled old man. She sits on a stair by his head, and she takes it onto her lap.

“Welcome to EchoLocation,” tins the computer. “Pulling up current investigation.”

Several photo clips hover up over Bruce’s eyes and his mouth on the screen from ground level, accompanied by date- and time-stamps. Several are marked as “evidence”…including side-by-side photographs of a wet gauntlet finger from earlier in the night, and the damp floor of the Wayne Enterprise Building’s 12th Floor Penthouse, seen four years prior. Another pair shows the folder bearing the Wayne Enterprise company insignia found inside of Trillian Lysander’s trailer, a case file signed by Harvey Dent, and the name badge of a one Dr. Victor Fries. 

“’World’s Greatest Detective’ for ya,” Selina coos down to Barbara, stroking her fingers through the butler’s wispy white hair like a mother to her child. “Even at his worst, looks like he still saw what we did first…” 

*     *     *

{FOUR YEARS AGO.}

Two men sit in a breakfast bistro. The wall’s painted purple. The tablecloth’s green.

“But really…what are my legal options, here, Harvey?”

Harvey Dent flags down the waiter.

“You’ve got…enough on your plate, old sport.” The D.A. drains his glass, mid-sentence. Holds up his fingers: Two more, please. “I’ll take care of it.”

“And you’ve had enough to drink already. You really don’t have to do that. I just need to know how to—”

“Bruce,” Harvey says. Grins up one side of his perfect face. Raises his two fingers higher. “I’ll take care of it.”

TO BE CONTINUED…

in BATMAN: ORNAMENTAL 

Issue 9 – Catwoman and Robin


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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