Batman: Ornamental | Issue 12 – The Tie That Binds by Drew Van Dyke

Image source: Instagram user Lets_toy. They are originally from Michigan, but currently live in Tennessee, in the United States. (You can find more of their work at https://instagram.com/lets_toy.)


“Aye.”

The pressure is building.

“Aye.”

Harder now than before.

“Aye.”

Pushing me.

“Aye.”

Pushing us…over the ledge.

I lock eyes with Jason. Those terrified eyes. Look out onto my city.

BATMAN: ORNAMENTAL

You can see everything. God, it seems a mile up in this sky…

ISSUE 12 –

“Aye.”

Pushing…shattering…

“It looks like the ‘ayes’ may have it for you, my friend,” says Boris Karlo.

And when the glass breaks, I recognize each and every hand upon my back…

THE TIE THAT BINDS

“NAY!”

The Cheshire taut of Alfred Pennyworth’s cry rings about us like a saving church bell strike. Just as we hover over the splintered precipice, he makes from his hiding place, up through the stairwell door from whence I just came. His knees bent low, he is standing like Tony Montoya’s Scarface – weighed heavily in both arms, he holds one of my grapple guns.

Nothing like the last minute, old friend…     

Caught tight in Clayface’s suction torso, our bodily pendulum suddenly reaches its apex, and we aren’t teetering, anymore. Suddenly, we are falling. Myself. Jason. Karlo. Each of the brainwashed Wayne Enterprise board members shoving at our backs starts the slow plummet over the side of the building.

Hope…this…works...

But I’ve calculated the angles to perfection. Know them by heart. Each and every one. The physics of them all. The reaction times and points of contact needed for perfect execution. Each possible scenario, by now.

That’s what the stair climb up was for.

I’m smiling. Jason looks up at me, even more frightened, now. Karlo recognizes the grin, mask or no. I can feel it – the way he begins to squirm away from me.

Or maybe that’s just the gravity of our situation talking.

Heh. Now if everyone just does their part…

Like toppling blocks, or as dominos, the moves come, one by one. Chess pieces, one by one (if blocks can fall in any planned order).

From either side of the rooftop comes the duet of Barbara and Dick, swinging on their ropes in perfect unison. A death-defying show, of itself, they catch the first two board members on the outside, just as they make over the lip.

Civilians over teammates. This was the only part I was worried about. The only true test. If either had chosen, instead, to reach for myself or for Jason, we’d have a dead body on our hands.

Probability of successful execution: 87 percent.

The Flying Graysons…

They both pass with flying colors.

I see Dick’s lips move (Surely some pun to cover his apparent fear of the situation at hand.), but the roar of the Bat-wing takes his voice away. We fall through the frontal indent – the mass of Jason, Karlo, and I – through the plane’s sculpted bat ears, just as Selina is able to pilot the craft up to catch the remaining members of the fallen board atop its hood.

Probability of successful execution: 98 percent.

I struggle to keep the thing level in open air; but for Catwoman, it wobbles not an inch.

That’s my girl.

We are now but a single falling beast, the three of us – thrown out from the window, and roaring exponentially closer to the ground, though the time feels as though it might be at a stop.

“WE COME BACK, BRUCE!” my villain is yelling.

But I take advantage of Karlo’s moment of superstition and fear – when he pulls away from my smile, as the rocket winds buffet out bodies, and the bright glow of this glass tower in the sunlight makes us blind; wipes us clean from the view of this earth – I dig my hand so deep into the pit in his chest; into the great maw of humiliation and despair he wanted of me, moments before my demise, and his demise, and the demise of my boy within him. I take that moment of hubris from him, as I always do. In that viscous prison, I find Jason’s hand, and I close it up within my own. I turn my head back up to Alfred, who is now teetering on the edge of the building, staring us down through that single, pinprick hole, pointing the grapple gun over our shoulders.

He has to make a one-in-a-million shot.

Probability of successful execution? For not only the former classically-trained Shakespearean actor…but also the finest sharp shooter in the history of the British Army?

The line zips by my left ear.

“BATMAN!” I yell, to the villain.

100 percent. Every time.

            My other fist is planted into the gauze tied ‘round my side. I rip it free, and, using the bundle as a buffer, snag the chord as I shout for Jason to execute, “OMEGA MANEUVER!”

            He braces for an impact. Karlo’s eyes are wild, unbelieving.

 They never believe…

When the jolt comes – when my grip tightens, and Jason and I bounce from the end of the line, he peels from my boy’s body like skin from a banana. The sound is sickeningly wet. His inertia carries him the rest of the way down.

We volley off the side of the building in our own sweeping arc – collide, and then come back, and collide again, as they have, rightfully, anchored the gun to the building’s supports. My grip loosens on the rope for but a moment, as I absorb the brunt of the blow, but it never comes away from Jason’s arm. To that, I hold fast.

Not this time… Not after all this.

            Alive.

            Probability of successful execu—

            Below us, a cement mixer rounds the corner (I remember: The man with the blueprints from the lobby!), and parks dead center of the target of Clayface’s fatal plunge. Tumbling head over shining, damp shoe-toe, the screaming man doesn’t even see it coming when he lands amongst the turning drum – is enveloped by the quick-dry powders and water. Assimilates to building block, himself.

            Huh.

            Jason watches the whole ordeal, too. Looks up at me. I grip his arm tighter; pull him closer.

            “You never drop me,” he says, as the line clicks – smiles at me, the first natural smile I have known from him – as it begins to slowly reel us back, closer to the sky.

            “Never-ever, Chum,” I say.

The false winds of a GCTV-5 news helicopter suddenly throw our hair about – divert our eyes in a tear-inducing sting, as their cameras take us in. In the back seat, I see Vickie Vale recounting the scene mad-dash to her live television audience on a second recorder screen. I wink to her, and she drops her notepad as we fly up, up, and away.

*     *     *

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

In her apartment,

            on TV

            Harleen Quinzel can only

            see

            the bits and pieces of the scene

            unfolding at Wayne Enterprise.

            But with a smile,

            and then, a laugh, she throws her fists through her

            punching bag; no yoga this week.

            She changes the channel

            with tears pulling mascara

from her

eyes.

*     *     *

{THE WAYNE ENTERPRISE BUILDING.}

When we reach the lip of the penthouse, multiple hands pull for us through the blanket of sharded glass. Still gripping tight to the cable, I lift Jason up into them first. James Gordon, held forward off the back of his trenchcoat by Nightwing and Batgirl, takes me under my armpit and yanks me free of the open air; stumbles as we both awkwardly come back through the abyss, and into a semblance of normalcy – my now-disheveled board room.

            “Jesus,” he says through his vertigo, and he sits down, staring at my half-naked, bloodied torso. I scramble to sit in the chair next to him, and we are suddenly, again, overlooking our broken city’s skyline. I offer Dick and Barbara a nod of silent thanks. “Care to…phew…explain yourself, Mr. Wayne?” Gordon says. They nod back, and begin pulling board members from atop the still-hovering Bat-wing.

Gordon wipes his brow on a handkerchief from his pocket – stares in disbelief at the scene.

            “Vacation,” I say, with a grin. “Just…swinging back into town, Commissioner.”

            “Awful high up for a swing, don’t you think, son?” he says, breathlessly.

“A lot further up than it could have been, thanks to Batman,” I say. Kick playfully for the grapple chord that is still anchored through the penthouse floor by its handle. It suddenly heaves free, and plummets over the side. Gordon’s eyes bulge, as do mine. “You’ll find Clayfa—…Boris Karlo… chasing pavements below us,” I continue. “He tried to kidnap my family while I was away. I came home to find he was holding my company as ransom for them. Bewitched my board, somehow, too, it appears. Hey, Gary.”

I wave at the unconscious man propped up in the far corner of the room.

“I…see.” The police commissioner raises an eyebrow and quickly divulges this information to the radio limply riding his collarbone. Directs a pair of officers also somewhere on the scene to investigate the construction area outside. “And you,” he says, turning back to me, “didn’t know that half of this town has been looking for you for at least the last week?”

“No idea, sir,” I say.

“Uh…huh. And you,” he says, “decided it would be a good idea to forgo calling the authorities to…what, now? Get rid of Mr. Karlo via,” he peers over the edge, “zipline?”

I shake my head in faux-disbelief.

“More like he pushed us over the edge when he found out he wouldn’t be getting what he wanted,” I say. “But I suppose that’s one way to look at it, Commissioner. It’s just a good thing Batman was here to save us.”

            “You keep saying that,” Gordon says, and he moves on, now, to wiping the panes of his wide-frame glasses slowly; meticulously, with the same handkerchief, “where is the Caped Crusader? All I see here are a couple sidekicks, a butler, and an ex-con in an airplane.”

            We look over at Alfred, who is swinging a protesting Jason in his arms like a rag doll in the far corner of the room.

The top hatch of the Bat-wing hisses as it pulls away from the hull, and I see Catwoman’s ears – Selina’s endless eyes – come up above that line.

            “Your guess is as good as mine, Commissioner,” I say, but my voice is no longer in the room. It is so very far away.

            “Right,” he says. Pulls a notepad from his breast pocket. Clicks his pen. He seems to think better of it. Puts it back. “I’ll need statements from everyone else present. Perhaps we’ll talk again soon, Mr. Wayne.”

            “I’m sure of it,” I say, standing up.“And I’m sure that you and your family have a lot of…catching up to do…as do myself and Mr. Karlo.” He turns, and he walks back out the stairwell door. The orange glow of his lighter striking a fresh cigarette follows close behind. “You’re a lucky man, Mr. Wayne,” I hear him call back, just as Selina pounces onto my chest. She slaps my face. Holds on to me so tightly that I fuse to the chair we fall back into.

“We’ll talk…about this later,” she hisses.

“So,” I say. “Dinner…?” 

*     *     *

{HOT RODS AUTOMOTIVE REPAIR SHOP.}

Mr. Freeze.

Mr. Freeze.

Eats chili soup and

Nestle’s

Tollhouse chocolate chip 

cookies,

all

by

himself.

*     *     *

{WAYNE MANOR. LATER THAT NIGHT.}

“Karlo’s plot was two-fold,” I say, offering up the steaming pot to the long-waiting manor kitchen table. The only thing I can make on my own: macaroni and cheese with hot dogs slices. Selina and Alfred turn up their noses after a quick hover over the rim of the slimy concoction. Both Dick and Jason are drooling. I still can’t read Barbara. 

Perhaps she is just being polite. 

I feel like I owe them the meal, though – that, if nothing else. Or, that, and, as I explained to them while still at the crime scene, an explanation. Why we had arrived where we currently are. Why I had done what I had. Just how important their work had been. Hence, our mealtime. Our wrap-up. The conclusion to all of our mystery’s little mysteries. And, in this case, an actual family dinner at this rather underutilized table place. 

“First, he wanted revenge for what he saw as an injustice in our system.” I sprint back into the kitchen for a wooden spoon, which I have to avoid falling into Jason’s grasp before it plunks into the thick, gooey cheese. “Har—…Two-Face’s vice squad undercut a problem that I should have taken care of myself,” I say. “A problem of my own making, really.” My boys acrobatically fight back and forth over the piling plates before them – a contest to see just who can get more to stack up before it comes tumbling about in faux yellow avalanche. “His inability to re-assimilate into normal daily life after his convictions for the crimes he committed as Clayface led to him taking an employment and societal opportunity that he felt was below him. When he did, it just so happened to be at Wayne Enterprises.”

Alfred declines the spoon that is next passed to him. Selina gives him a scoop anyway, though, then makes herself a plate of the salad she brought with her from home.  

“From there, he met Victor Fries, who was trying to develop a biological component that could successfully reanimate his frozen wife, and heal her fatal malady in the process. The two struck up a friendship – Karlo, being the janitor, allowed Fries, the scientist, access to his hidden laboratory after company time – something Dent and I threatened when we discovered the unexplained power surges. The night of the explosion that created Mr. Freeze, it was suspected by many that said explosion was caused by a chemical reactant that Freeze, himself, had mishandled. That is not true. ‘Perhaps it was Dent’s team, taking justice into their own hands to put an end to a problem they did not know how to solve.’ I’ve heard this excuse, as well. It is, also, not true. ‘Perhaps it was…Batman.’” I stop, the macaroni spoon in my own hand, now. Look away from them all.

No, Bruce. I wipe my eyes with the back of the other hand. Not here. Not like this.  

Dick clears his throat. “Bruce,” he says. “I…was wrong. To have said that? I was wro—”

“No,” I say, back again to normal. I lift a scoop of sticky noodles onto my plate. “You were following the clues where they led you.”

“But they were…wrong,” he says.

“Sometimes, they just are, though, Dick,” I say. “Believe me…after all this.” I wave my hand in the air about us. “I’m sorry. I didn’t trust you more, and I am sorry, because to receive trust, you must, first, give it. Of anyone, you deserved it the most.” 

“Rude,” Barbara says. Picks the hot dogs out of the pan, and only eats those.

“I was just afraid of…of…”

“Oh, Holy Hell,” Dick says. “You didn’t do anything, Bruce. Any of this. You didn’t.”

“Indeed,” Alfred says.

“Exactly,” Barbara says.

“Yeah,” says Jason.

And Selina says, “Darling,” and “Go on.”

“Clayface planted the bombs,” Jason says.

“Correction,” I say. “Boris Karlo planted those devices. Boris did. If I’ve learned nothing else in all this, it is that we give too much credence to idea that ‘once someone, always someone.’ People change. He tried to change. I wholeheartedly believe that. But we painted him into a corner, and then expected him to still be outside that corner. We didn’t trust him to live for himself.”

“Hear, hear,” Dick says.

“Oh, Holy Shut Up, Grayson,” Jay says, and he takes a spoonful from his predecessor’s plate with a nimble utensile juke. “Why don’t we talk about how old Pennywise over here kidnapped me, and someone still had the gall to sit him Right. Next. To. Me.”

He sidles in his chair away from Alfred, which brings him a bit closer to Dick than Dick seems comfortable with. Alfred glares at the boy, then sighs.

“We…must remember that I was under the influence of…of Mr. Clayface at the time, my boy,” the butler stammers.

“Uh huh…and who’s to say that you still aren’t…HUH, TRAITOR?!” He waves his butter knife betwixt the two of them. Alfred’s look is one of great hurt.

“Says me,” I say, and I reach over the table to lower the boy’s hand. “It is true: at some point in the past week, Karlo did just what I…ahem…went under the radar to assess.”

It is Selina’s turn to glare now. I feel it white-hot on the side of my face.

“I…er…could not figure for the life of me which direction our then-unknown villain was intending to take. I knew that it was to be something big, though, and I knew that he or she likely knew at least of our secret identities, and was planning on using said information to ignite said…large indiscretion.”   

“Bomb,” Jason says.

“Yes, um,” I say. “It turns out, he was planning on using his ties to Project Understudy to take control of those remaining of our family – likely, to help both push through, and continue the appearance of, his assisted takeover of the company, via Jason. With me out of the picture, brought upon by an admitted deal struck between Karlo and the Scarecrow in return for immunity for the later from the former’s long-range plan (which we shall get to shortly) – said deal being to inject me, during a break-in at the Maxwell Lord Museum of Art several weeks ago, with a more…prolonged version of his fear toxin, in hopes of the side effects dulling my senses and judgement—”

“Which they did,” Jason says.

“—to tip the scales more in favor of unexpected assassination. Alfred was, then, the first of our family members to be overtaken. And rightly so, considering his significant…sway over our inner circle.”

I smile at my old friend.

Jason looks flabbergasted.

“He used promises of ice cream to try to abduct me!” he says.

“Try?” Barbara says. She stabs a piece of hot dog with her fork. Scrapes the cheese off with her spoon. “I think he was pretty successful, if you think about it…” 

Jason turns his knife on her, now.

After some time, “I was classically trained in the art of espionage, Master Jason,” Alfred calmly states.

“I’m sorry,” Jason says, twirling the knife in a circle, until it is pointed back toward the butler. “Is that French for ‘the art of luring little kids into cars through the use of sweet, delicious treats’?”

Dick, like an enthralled movie-goer, is glued to this scene, eyes trailing back and forth between the two knife-pointed assailants over his heaping helping of mac and dog. 

“The point I am trying to make,” Alfred says, and he deftly removes the knife from the young boy’s hand before he can even see what is happening, “is that I was unable to help how proficient I was, regardless of whether or not I was in control of my own faculties. It’s like…reflex.”

“This is pretty neat,” Dick says.

“ANYWAY,” I say, in hopes of diffusing yet another bout between my young protégé and a member of our immediate entourage, “Alfred, under the control of the Tetch nano-implant, kidnapped Jason (who Karlo must have assumed, in his celebratory state, would not be with myself, who was supposed to be dead, when he performed the actual art of the kidnap).”

“The ‘espionage’,” Jason says, with great pride.

“The point I am trying to make, Master Jason,” Alfred says, “is that—”

“Knowing what I do about your most recent visit with Pamela Isely, Bruce, I have a pretty good idea of where this story is headed,” Barbara says. Selina looks at me side-eyed. “Karlo sent Alfred to stop you in the stairwell, didn’t he?”

I grin. My best, indeed.

“That he did,” I say. “Thankfully, I was a bit cut up at that point. The neuro-toxin she had used to subdue me with when I was gathering information,” I smile sweetly over to my Cat, “was also laced with the same chemical compound she had discovered could (fairly harmlessly) disable the brainwashing devices. By inoculating me, she—”

“Essentially made your blood into a highly diluted acid!” Barbara says, excitedly. “Knew it. Ha, Richard. Ha.”

Dick takes out his wallet and slides a $20 bill across the table to her.

“’Fairly harmless’, Master Bruce?” Alfred says. He rubs the back of his neck. “Speak for yourself. I may be on bedrest for at least, oh, a couple of weeks…”

Jason gets up on his knees in his chair and leans over to Alfred. Pulls the collar away from his neck, to reveal the chemical burn mark where the implant had once been.

The boy winces. “Better make it at least a month!” he giggles.

The tension that has been keeping Alfred more bolt-upright than usual throughout the entirety of our meal is suddenly released, and his shoulders sink into themselves with exhaustion and relief. He takes Jason up onto his lap, and he pats the boy’s arms. Ruffles his hair.

“The point that I am trying to make,” he says, “is that I do not know when this incident occurred that caused me to do these things—”

“Likely that grocery store run you made to try and hide the fact that you were keeping Bruce’s undead uncorpse from us,” Barbara says. Alfred looks over at her, unamused. “I’ve seen your acting before, Uncle Alfred. It’s good, but it’s not falling-down-the-stairs-in-sadness good.”

“THE POINT,” Alfred says, and he directs his attention back to young Jason, “is that I would never, and could never, do anything to harm the likes of you – the likes of any of you (sans Miss Kyle, if you don’t mind my saying so)–” She nods, understanding. “–of my own volition. I hope you will come to accept my sincerest apologies, and know my utmost shame in regards to putting you in such danger. I—…I love you very much.” He hugs the boy. Looks over him, across the table, to us. “I love you all, very much.” Selina smiles.

Jason pats the old man on his back a couple of times, such as is routine, and then pulls himself away. Holds Alfred’s cheeks between his hands. Looks him over, very seriously.

“I am willing to move past this, Penny-One,” he says, “ but only if you promise…”

“Yes?” Alfred says, eagerly.

“…to…”

“Uh huh?”

“…let me finish this measly, untouched plate of yours.” 

He doesn’t wait for a response; just vaults around Alfred like an Olympic pommel horse – grips his plate, and (much to the distain of Dick “Hey, I was gonna ask for that!” Grayson) dives into his portion without so much as a single piece of cutlery.

*     *     *

{SOMEWHERE NEAR THE PORT OF GOTHAM.}

In hues of fern and fauna,

in her lab

in the dark,

Poison Ivy fills a beaker

dumps a little; and,

split apart,

she feeds the first splash to a potted plant,

the second to a man

who, from his chair, screams “Mercy! Mercy!”,

but instead of mercy gets

a hollow root, imbedded through his mouth

imbedded through his tongue and

down his throat, in search of food,

the tied-down rapist unbecomes.

And as he thrashes in the hues of fern and fauna

(one of many)

in that lab

(one of many)

in the dark,

on the radio, turned up loud for sound,

“a briefing on the incident taking place downtown.”

Pam adjusts her glasses.

Eyes her subject. Weighs her guess.

Puts her results in writing, then pulls up her latex gloves

to clean out the wondrous mess.

*     *     *

{WAYNE MANOR.}

“Miss Kyle?” Alfred says, after a tick. “You wouldn’t happen to have any more of that absolutely divine-looking salad lying about, now, would yo—?”    

Jason shushes the butler with a single cheesy finger, planted firmly upon the man’s petrified lips. “Let Bat-Daddy finish telling us about how Karlo was playing Manimal with the vet clinic,” he says.

Selina nods. Passes the bowl across the table. 

I look over, surprised, at the boy with the very full mouth.

“I didn’t know you had…”

“Pre-ey” he says, “ob-vous.”

I chuckle. “Suppose so?”

“Ssss—” He doesn’t look up from his plate, which is currently emptying exponentially faster than any of the rest at our table. “—pose.”

“He’s right,” I say, to several rather questioning looks. “See, Karlo’s friendship with Mr. Freeze wasn’t really just some sort of chummy Odd Couple-esque comradery. The bombs Boris planted were two-fold. He’d noticed the D.A.’s office scoping the building earlier in the day, so there was that angle. But he also wanted to get his hands on—”

“Fweeze’s fowmuwa,” Jason chokes.

“Perhaps, Master Jason,” Alfred says, “I can teach you the art of chewing, so we don’t have to execute a death-defying Heimlich Maneuver off the side of your chair?”

Jason gulps loudly. We all laugh.

“But it was, indeed, Mr. Freeze’s formula that Karlo wanted,” I say. “The lynch-pin of this whole operation was Clayface getting the respect he so desperately believed he deserved. To do so, though, he needed a weapon. A powerful weapon. A weapon more powerful than a giant laser-powered balloon, or some vat of acid shaped like an ostrich, or robots from the future who only know how to pronounce consonants.” Nobody at the table bats an eye.

Bats. Heh.

“He needed fear,” I say. “And he needed it from not just the police and members of our extended super-family. He needed it from everyone. Heroes and villains and non-participants, alike. See, Karlo perceived himself as a laughing stock to the community, whether or not that was rightly so being up for debate. He was legitimately terrified of the monster that his…incident…had changed him into; but he was also afraid of that persona being mocked to no end. He felt that he should be rather powerful, taking on any form that he wanted, but no one else seemed to see him as more than just a miserable hired grunt. Really, he made the perfect foil to his many beloved on-screen horror roles because of this.” I take a bite of my own mac and dog – my first (lukewarm) bite of the night. “His cure to all that, though?”

I point over to Jason, who begins to vibrate with excitement at the opportunity.

“Pass it on,” the boy says. 

Dick blinks. “Pass…what on, Jason?”

            “No,” Jason says. He switches his plate out with Dick’s and says to his astonished predecessor, through a newfound mouthful, “Karlo. Karlo passes himself on.”

  “Much rather, his abilities to transform his appearance,” I say.

            “My god,” Barbara says. “You mean, like…a weaponized biological superpower?”

            “Indeed,” I say. “After synthesizing the genetic anomaly that led to his current position using Freeze’s technology, Boris was also able to evolve it.”

            “Into…?” Selina says.

            I hold out, for but a beat. (Dramatic effect and all that…) “It first came to me when we were at the Trillian Lysander wagon circle—”

            “Oh, yeah!” Dick says. “We still have to find that guy, too! How was he inv—?”

            “Honey,” Barbara says. She takes Dick’s hand. “Lysander was Karlo.”

            “Oh…”

            “Yes,” I say. “In his foremost trailer, amongst the many copies of his Wayne Enterprise stock trading portfolio, there were also multiple adoption records from Gotham City’s various animal shelters, for pets that we couldn’t — following my…ahem…incident–”

            “Blowing up,” Jason says. “You blew up, Bruce.”

            “–When,” I say, “Jason and I went back over the records, and cross-referenced them with the pets under Lysander’s ‘care’, the breeds did not line up, but—”

            “—the numbers did.” Barbara drops Dick’s hand, her mouth agape. “Bruce, don’t tell me they lined up…”

“Wait,” Dick says. “If the numbers line up, but the breeds don’t…does that mean that…they were…?”

            “Test subjects,” Selina says. Here voice is ice cold. I nod, hesitantly. It melts when she asks, “But Fr—…Frankenlouie…?”

            “Karlo initially must have come across a Janus cat somewhere, because he was able to…” I stop. This is too much. I should stop… She shakes her head, that I should not, though. “We’re not sure where. We think, best guess, that Frankenlouie was one in a line of animals he was able to collect insurance moneys for upon their deaths…but that he was initially a perfectly normal Persian shorthair named—”

            “Frankenlouie,” she says. “His name is Franken—”

“—Alf,” I say.

She has been staring off, out the window as I have been speaking up until this point. A grin cracks the corner of her mouth when I say that name, though, and she turns to look me deeply in-eye. “Little Alfie,” she coos. Jason gives our butler three quick jabs to the shoulder, and repeats the same. Alfred rolls his eyes from across the table; stabs the salad in his bowl with great malice. Then, suddenly, as quickly as her happiness had come, Selina’s face is again very innocent and sad. “Does…did it…hurt him?”

I sigh. “It’s…hard to tell, Cat. The man we found – the clear-faced Harvey Dent? It appears that individual was Karlo’s first documented human test subject – a member of Dent’s recently-missing vice patrol, DNA tells us—” Dick takes out his wallet again. Slides Barbara another $10. “—and the police reports say he seemed more afraid than in pain when they came across him, if that is any small comfort. There was also an individual who looked like Jay, who I met in the stairwell. I’m guessing that’s missing vice number two.”

“Like…ME?!”

Jason whips his head around from pestering Alfred.

“Yes, but obviously a very-poorly-made replica,” I say. “He didn’t even know that it was Monet who did water lilies, and not van Gogh.”

“Um…van Gogh did draw those once,” Jason says.

Oh…

“He didn’t have your sparkling personality, though,” I say.

Selina giggles – leans her head into my chest.

“So,” Alfred says. “That clears up that little mystery. Also explains how Karlo was able to amass such a small fortune, too – by way of fraud…”

And why all of Gotham’s crime lords were in such a panic over Karlo’s rise to power,” Dick says. “Why they were so eager to help you take him down…”

“Exactly,” Jason says. “Now you’re catching on. It’s why they all decided to buy into that nutso Project Understudy brainwashing thing, too.”

“Of course!” Barbara says. “If he can make you be anyone, and do anything, Karlo could put his own puppets into positions of power all over Gotham! Hell, all over the country, if he wanted to! Nobody would know who was next, and nobody would know the difference…”

The room suddenly grows eerily quiet, as we all look about us with great discomfort.

“Also explains why we weren’t able to more easily track the Gotham Janes, or their post-op sidekick counterparts,” Dick says. We lock eyes. He grins, sheepishly. “Can’t rightly see a person when they are completely erased, can ya, Bruce?” Again, I nod.

“So, it was rather more an Invasion of the Body Snatchers narrative,” Alfred ponders, “than it was a…what did you call it, earlier, Master Jason?”

Manimal,” Jay says. “Still relevant. I’ll swipe you a couple’a recordings sometime, Penny-One. You’ll see.”

“Now, there really is no need for that,” the butler says. “We have a membership to the local library…”

“But we got the formula,” Selina says. She looks around. The room grows silent again. “Bruce, you got Karlo’s formula, didn’t you? Found all of his stockpiles, or synthesized an antidote from the man in the morgue who looked like Harvey or something, right?”

I slowly shake my head. Around the table, the remaining heads follow my lead.

“The change is permanent,” I say. “At least, physically, it is. The implant dots on the back of the neck would be a good giveaway of possible stragglers, but Karlo made sure, when he was moonlighting as the coroner—”

“That too?” Dick says. “Man, that guy must have a stockpile of caffeine pills, too, somewhere…” Both he and Barbara yell “DIBS!” at the exact same time. Jason yells it a second too late. Alfred calls “seniority.”

“He could have, and likely did, destroy much of the physical evidence that could lead us back to the root of his genetic mutation,” I say. “As for his stockpile, well…the police say they still haven’t been able to properly recover his remains from the concrete mixer. For all we know, the secret may die with him.”

“Or someone else could find it and use it to their advantage,” Selina whispers. “A villain’s treasure trove…”

Or that, I think, somberly. Or maybe that…

“In the meantime, we just have to keep our eyes peeled,” Dick says. “All of us. Together.”

I see the night coming for us, then – moonlight slipping through the pane glass bringing our meeting to a close. Before they go, I strike my wine glass, to lift a toast to these people, this home. A promise: “To us,” I say. “But mostly, to you. Many happy returns.”

“Here, here!” one says.

“Here, here!” says another.

And Jason complains about being the only one not allowed to drink. 

*     *     *

{ARKHAM ASYLUM.}

Here at the Asylum,

it isn’t all that bad:

Wesker’s one hand reads the paper,

while his other mutely claps

along to Dr. Tetch on piano,

accompanying Dr. Crane,

who sings in crystal clear

vibrato, “WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS,

MY FRIEEEEEEEEEEND!” 

*     *     *

{WAYNE MANOR. LATER.}

We are scrubbing the pots and the dishes, side-by-side – my Cat and I; and it is very quiet, now that it is just the two of us. The sponges lap over glass and metal – the soft, porous masses whining high-pitched under pieces of hard-stuck cheese.

            “We come back,” I whisper.

            Selina drops a spoon back beneath the waves of distorted, soapy water. Keeps scrubbing there, for better leverage. “Hmm?”

            “That’s what he said to me, Selina.”

            “Who?”

            And I go to say, “Clayface,” but then I must stop myself, and again, instead, be careful to call him by his real name: to call him “Boris Karlo.” 

“Up in the sky,” I say. “He told me: ‘We always come back.’”

            “He’s crazy, darling,” she says. Examines the spoon. Tosses it into my rinse water. “It was a line – one of his superstitious, cowardly lines…” She reaches back into the sink for her next piece of silverware.

            “It feels…right, though,” I say. “Doesn’t it?” She stops moving. “Like, sometimes, maybe, those people we need the most just seem to show up again, even when they’re gone? Or, maybe, when we’re gone? My mother told me a long time ago—” I choke on my words. Am squeezing the sponge so hard that it wrings dry, its contents spilled out upon the cherry red hardwood floor at our feet. “She said, ‘We must never overlook the littlest things, Bruce. And even when we do, there is always time to fix that.’ These people…this place? Us? What if I haven’t been looking at—…could I have…?”

            She smiles up at me. “’Crazy’ doesn’t always mean ‘wrong’, my dear,” she says. Takes my dripping hand in her own. “You may be the World’s Greatest Idiot and Ass, Bruce Wayne; but look at you: you might just be able to learn something, after all.”

            “I shouldn’t have left you,” I say. “Not even for this. I…I won’t again.”

            “You’re damn right,” she laughs. “I’m a helluva catch, darling.”

            “No, Selina,” I say. And I get down on one knee, right there, on that wet, dirty kitchen floor. “I mean I won’t…ever.”

            She is immediately down on her own knees, though, and her lips of velvet are pressed so hard to my lips, that I must grab her cheeks – I must take her into my hands, and hold her there, because it is a feeling of wholeness and reality that I cannot remember having for some very long time. I do not wish it to ever fly from here. Her smell. Her taste. The tears all about our faces. To my surprise, when we come apart, our feeling does not flee.

“Well, this is awkward,” she says. Laughs. Sincerely, laughs. “Because, I already told my friends we were getting married…”

*     *     *

{EPILOGUE.}

…And on a cliff in the park, on a crisp spring day – me in a vest, she in some shade of fine white – with our family and our friends (and Clark) by our side, that, we most certainly did. 

Our plan for a new Gotham came just before that, though. 

It was called “Karlo’s Pledge” – a way of less forgetting – and it included, for every petty criminal within the city limits who completed rehabilitation training, guaranteed job offers through Wayne Enterprise’s expanded Citizens Board (Barbara Gordon asked to oversee that little start-up, with the help of a certain Police Commissioner, of course…), and paid legal counsel to assist in the expunging of criminal records through the Wayne Foundation. 

With the help of the Gotham Gazette (in partnership with GCTV-5’s own Vicky Vale), we featured written and televised personal profiles, documenting individual tragedies and turnarounds for all of our public to see. 

And as further incentive for their efforts: The first class to complete their restoration were sent handwritten invitations to what was dubbed as our little “Wedding of the Century” from Selina and myself. They became our guests of honor, and were seated, side-by-side with our family of heroes, in the front-row. We had spent so much time with many of them (in other fashions, of course) that it only felt right to have them along. The whole country watched as it became their party, too. Their coming-out party. 

Their coming back party.

In the tree by the altar, I tied my up mother’s porcelain Christmas angel. It was Selina’s idea, and its mended wings shone brilliantly in the sun for the first time in so very many years that day. 

There was no more running. And it was easy.

I was very happy that day; and, perhaps, sometime, I will tell you all about it.

 THE END.


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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