The Big Story
Chapter NineIt was dusk when I finally exited the library. I felt light-headed and shaky, but I managed to look steady on my feet as I started down the stairs. The streets had more-or-less emptied of the daytime business crowd, the intense focus of work replaced by people seeking entertainments. It changed the atmosphere, and waves of diffuse human thought lapped up toward me on the library steps.
I paused half-way down, struggling with the clamor. I hitched my hip onto the handrail protruding from the concrete wall beside the stairs and squinted west at the lingering colors of sunset. My hand slipped into my jacket to find my flask.
I stopped myself. I had not had a drink in six hours. For the first time in two years, my system was empty of alcohol. For the first time in two years, I let the voices in my head speak unhindered.
They didn't sound like fire. Not the way they had.
I heard the clank and grind of a zippo snapping open at the top of the stairs and long schooled instincts turned my face away. A second later, the scent of cigarette smoke curled down to where I sat. I felt myself getting noticed, and steps tracked toward me.
"Pretty night, isn't it?" a voice asked at my elbow.
I glanced over at Iris West. She was leaning against the handrail beside me. "Yes," I agreed, watching her drag smoke into her lungs and then lower her cigarette hand to her side.
She turned her head to blow smoke away from me, then looked at me curiously. "Do you mind if I ask you something?"
"You can ask."
She smirked. "Yeah, I figured you'd say that." She took another drag of her cigarette, and I could hear her thinking, realized suddenly that she knew who I was, that she remembered the stories and rumors of two years ago.
A sense of dread curled in me. "What did you want to know?"
She was silent for another moment. There was uncertainty in her, a carefulness of phrasing waiting to be voiced. Finally she said, "When things go south like they did for you, when it's all that bad, what can the people who love you do?"
I was startled, catching a mental image of a blond man and a scent of intent behind her question that had nothing to do with me. She wasn't looking at me, and I watched the horizon with her. I answered honestly. "I don't know."
She nodded, still not looking at me. The thumb of her left hand was running over the back of her ring, and I knew he hadn't been able to answer her either. She crossed her arms under her breasts, bending her elbow to take another puff of her cigarette. She dropped the butt and stepped on it. "Evening star," she pointed out, nodding toward the horizon. "You should make a wish."
I shook my head. "I don't believe in wishes."
Iris West stepped back, settling her purse more firmly on her shoulder and looking at me. "Probably for the best," she decided. "It's not a star anyway. It's a planet." She tossed her dark hair and turned to go. "Good luck, Mr. Jones," she said. "I hope you find what you're looking for."
I didn't watch her go. Instead, I stared at the reddish evening star for what felt like a long time. When I finally turned to head for the subway, it was full dark.
The ride back to Uptown took a little over an hour, and I passed it lost in my own thoughts. It was an old feeling, to think in the now and know it was my own thinking. I thought I had forgotten how to do it, how to keep the stream of myself free of the other noise in my head.
Clark Kent began working at the Daily Planet less than a month before the tabloids first reported the heroics of a "mysterious stranger." Something about that had something to do with why Bruce Wayne had engaged in his bidding war with Lex Luthor for the ownership of the Daily Planet.
Lois Lane said Clark Kent always disappeared shortly before Superman made an appearance.
If Clark Kent was in league with Superman, setting up heists to make Superman look good, what could the motive be? The Metropolis police had learned to depend on Superman; could it have something to do with weakening the city's infrastructure? For providing cover for other heists, never to be solved?
Another thought struck me, made me grip the subway strap with white-knuckles. Did any of this explain why Superman had never appeared the night of the fire?
I forced my mind away from that speculation, recognizing I had more questions than answers and certainly not enough to form conclusions. I was almost calm when I stepped out of the train onto the Cotton Street el platform in Uptown.
The stairs from the platform let me down onto Cotton Street, and I made my way toward my office under the trestles, the sound of the departing train vibrating through the old steel. It was an ill-advised habit, and I felt predatory eyes on me. One shadow made an aborted move in my direction, pulling back when the light from an apartment window fell briefly on my face.
I was as bad a kind of luck in Uptown as I was in Midtown, but the residents here knew better than to touch a pariah.
At length I reached the narrow one-way of Ascot Drive, barely wide enough for a single lane of traffic. The only working street light was at the other end of the block, and the bulb over the scarred door at the front of my office building was shattered. It didn't matter to me; I didn't need light to find my key and let myself in.
The stairway was darker than the street outside, and I let my fingers trail along the crumbling plaster of the wall as I climbed. Glass crunched under my shoes on the second landing, but light filtered down from the third floor by that point. I paused, hearing the soft hum of a radio from somewhere on the second floor. I wasn't the only person who slept in my office in this part of town.
The fourth floor was silent when I opened the door out of the stairway and into the hall. The wall sconces on this level were still intact, although still inadequate as lighting went. Three of the four were lit, leaving wide pools of shadow between them. The threadbare carpet looked better in the shadow, and I suspected its riotous colors had never looked good, even when it was new.
I stopped in front of my office at the end of the hall, once more reaching into my pocket for my keys. There wasn't so much a sound as a flutter against my mind, and I made a show of fumbling for my keys. I cocked my head to one side, leaning drunkenly on the door frame as I concentrated. I had a harder time than I had to with the lock, and when I finally crossed my own threshold, I didn't bother to turn on a light.
I closed the door softly behind me and stood in front of the pebbled glass panel, letting the light from the hall silhouette me. My eyes were fixed on the windows behind my couch, left open to catch whatever breeze might find its way along the el tracks between my building and the one across the way. "Come in, little bird," I whispered.
A few minutes ticked by, long enough that another man would have doubted himself and decided he was imagining things. I stayed where I was, waiting.
Another couple of minutes, and I could feel the indecision on the other side of the wall. Flee or confront? Both impulses were undercut by a sense of youth. I still waited.
There was barely a whisper on the air when he finally slid in through the window, lithe and clad in dark colors. He stepped away from the silhouetting window into the deeper shadows beside the couch, and I could sense he was faintly unnerved that my eyes followed him unerringly.
We stared at each other for a little while, until I said, "I'm just going to sit there at my desk, if you don't mind. Feel free to continue glaring at me." I crossed easily to my chair, settling into it and angling the chair to face him. He had shifted a little, keeping me firmly in sight.
"I'd offer you a drink, but I don't think the old man would like it, and I've just quit," I said conversationally, my mind open to his reaction. It was a mix of surprise, concern, and anger. He still didn't say anything.
"All right, then," I stated, "I'll just go on about my business." I began emptying my pockets onto the desk. I felt him stiffen when I opened a drawer, and I raised my flask toward him. "Just putting this away," I reassured, "since I've quit."
He didn't relax, but he didn't speak either. If I were not so aware of the tangle of his thoughts, I could almost forget he was there. I opted to make a show of ignoring him for the moment, sorting through the day's receipts and looking through my little notebook using what light filtered in from the hallway and the street. I raised my head only at the warning rumble through the building of the approaching el train.
His youth and relative lack of experience betrayed him in that moment. The glare of the train's headlamp and the strobing light thrown by the sparks arcing from the wheels brightened my office dramatically, and he was a touch too slow in retreating with the shadows. I got a split second study of him, dressed in a skin-tight body suit of black and blue, a stylized domino mask across his eyes. As the building shook, I felt myself caught up in the long repressed memories of a dead man, memories of this same boy, years earlier, smiling and bright.
I gave up ignoring the boy. I waited until the train passed, then said, "He didn't put you in those colors."
"He's dead." The words were spat, unexpected, from the shadows, tapestry-thick with interwoven and conflicting emotions.
I picked the wrong night to stop drinking. I wanted something to do with my hands. I leaned back in my chair and tipped my hat back. "Yes," I agreed, keeping my voice even, "he is. But not in your mind."
I could feel the scowl radiating at me from the shadows.
"Well," I finally said, "as much fun as this has been-" I leaned forward to pick up the receiver of the phone on my desk. I caught a flash out of the corner of my eye and withdrew my hand as a *thunk* sounded behind me. It was followed by the pebbly rattle of plaster shaking loose inside the wall and trickling down behind the lathing. I glanced back to see the shuriken embedded in the wall at the precise level my wrist had been. "That's not very neighborly," I remarked.
His tense readiness was palpable. "What are you?" he hissed.
"I am what I am," I said wearily. "Are you going to leave now, or are you going to let me call the old man to come and get you?"
"I have questions."
"You have bad manners. You've had plenty of time to ask, and instead you try to maim me."
"Not maim," he defended almost automatically.
I glanced back at the shuriken.
"It wouldn't maim," he maintained. "Not unless I wanted it to."
He was still in the shadows, trying to wear an air of quiet menace that I could tell often succeeded. "You do want to hurt me," I pointed out.
He didn't answer. His emotions curled through the room, seeping out against his effort at tight control.
"If he were here now, he would send you home," I began quietly. "You would be angry, but you would obey. He would lecture you later about staying cool headed, whether in a fight or an interrogation or a stake out. You won't listen to me, so I won't try the same lecture."
"You killed him."
My own sense of guilt surged, and an echo of smoke curled through my mind. I fought the reaction, focusing on the shadow the boy occupied and tasting his emotion on the air. "Under different circumstances, I might agree with you. But you know better."
"You know who did."
I shook my head. "I know what happened. That's not the same."
"You lied about it."
I stared hard into the shadow, for the first time really challenging the angry youth hiding there. "Do you really believe the truth was an option?"
The room felt suddenly airless as this question entered the boy's consciousness. I readied myself for his rage and considered the possibility that he would flee. I was almost relieved at the choked voice that finally emerged from the silence. "He made me stay home."
I nodded a little, giving him space to continue to talking.
He didn't take it.
"It wouldn't have mattered," I finally said, the words falling heavily between us.
"You can't know that." There was an undercurrent in his tone of a head that knew I was right and a heart that was too invested in anger and guilt to believe me.
"I was there," I reminded him. The flames were already licking at the edges of my mind, flaring up from memory. I could see Hortense, rushing out from somewhere, beating on the fire with her coat, crying. I had tried to get up, to fight through the fire, to protect her, but Canberra was already pulling her away, pressing the gun to her temple.
I had staggered forward, my mind full of screams, my vision clouded by fires from another time, another place, reaching out with my mind to fight Canberra's trigger finger...
"Tell me." The short command from the shadows dragged me out of the past. I was still in my rat hole of an office in Uptown, sitting at a desk across from a barely-old-enough-to-shave adolescent hiding deep in the shadows.
He was angry, and for the first time, I actually heard him shift in the darkness, checking some reaction. His voice emerged, flat and lifeless from the dark, "The coroner said he was partially crushed. Multiple fractures. Broken rib fragments had punctured a lung and severed a vein, which were the two injuries determined to be fatal. There was surprising little evidence of smoke damage to his lung tissue. The coroner attributed this to his being trapped low to the ground and to the fact that he would likely have had difficulty breathing, given his injuries."
I listened to this catalog of pain, fighting my mind's desire to relive it, to feel against my arm the desperate heaves for air from Bruce's chest and to hear again his gasping final orders. I wondered if my own effort at control was as obvious to the boy as his was to me. "Morgue? Or police headquarters?" I asked him, knowing he would understand the question.
"Both," he answered, a menacing quality in the single word. He could infiltrate either place at will, he was telling me. Alfred Pennyworth spoke of trying to save the boy's soul. I understood suddenly how dangerous this no-longer child could be if Pennyworth failed. "The lack of smoke was because he had a rebreather."
It was not a question, and he apparently had decided I knew this much already. "He did," I confirmed.
"He let you use it."
"No." When Bruce had burst through the warehouse skylight, he knew what I was. "When I took it, he was dead."
"You took it?"
I closed my eyes, and Bruce Wayne's dead hand once more yielded the rebreather he had removed from his own mouth. He had already known he was going to die, and I would owe it to him to preserve his secret.
I opened my eyes again and glared toward the darkness where the boy still hid. "I do not appreciate the shadow interrogation. Your mentor died trying to save lives. Likely to make the world a safer place for you, among others. I know he didn't mean for you to take his training and hunt down his killer."
An angry hiss came from the shadows, but I ignored it.
"You want to know how he died? Canberra shot him. The armor held, but it stopped his heart anyway. The crash to the floor restarted it, but it also did the damage in the autopsy report. He regained consciousness. There was a fight. Canberra lost. I tried to help Bruce. I half-dragged him toward the entrance to the warehouse. He told me to take his armor and hide it and leave his body. Then he died. Okay?"
My rapid-fire narrative seemed to rattle through the room, empty of the emotion that it was stirring for both me and the boy. It was a very young voice that finally said, "Oh."
I could hear him wrestling this new information into his understanding of what had happened. After a long pause, he asked tentatively, "Canberra's body was - did Bat - did Bruce -?"
I was deeply relieved that the dark figure intruding in my life cared about how Canberra had died. I was more deeply relieved to be able to say, "No, Batman did not kill him. Canberra got caught in the same fire he had set. Had he any strength left, I think Batman might have tried to save him."
There was a sound in the shadows, choked off but recognizable for what it was: a swallowed sob. I listened to Dick Grayson struggle with his emotions and rediscover his self-control. "He trusted you," he finally observed.
"We had something on one another."
"He trusted you," Grayson repeated adamantly, having clearly come to some decision. He said more softly, "So does Alfred."
"Pennyworth made a promise to let me be."
A new kind of anger flowed from Grayson, something more adolescent and less complicated. He surprised me by stepping forward and resting a gloved hand heavily on the back of the client chair in front of my desk. "Lois Lane hired you."
I considered him blankly. Did he mean back then, or now?
"You don't have to confirm it," he continued after a pause. "You already know that's how I found you. She was the first lead I had on your whereabouts since you dropped off the map two years ago. Of all your known associates, she's the one who contacted you."
"She's Lois Lane," I dismissed.
His eyes narrowed behind the mask. "The last time she contacted you was to hire you to figure out why Lex Luthor wanted to buy the Daily Planet."
"That's a big leap."
"It was in Batman's notes. It was why I knew to track her."
He couldn't decide if he was warning me or threatening me. Neither could I. "Why are you telling me this?"
He took a moment to compose his answer. His voice was hard when he spoke, as if he had forced distance between what he was telling and who he was. "When I was eleven years old, Bruce Wayne told me he was going on a boring business trip to look at a property he wanted to buy. It was supposed to be a couple of days. It turned into a couple of weeks. He called every night. We made plans for my birthday. It turned out to be a good day for a funeral."
I forced myself to keep my eyes open, to meet Dick Grayson's uninflected gaze. "I'm sorry." It was inadequate, but there was nothing more I could offer.
"He never told me why he got into a feud with Luthor. He never explained that it was a case, that Batman was on the job as much as Bruce Wayne. He gave Alfred information and made him promise never to tell me." He paused significantly. "At least I knew why my parents died."
Now I couldn't look at him, had to close my eyes. I balled my fists against the echoing cries in my mind, against the desperate call of "Papa!" and the more resigned, "J'onn." The fire blossomed in shades of orange and yellow and white and blue, the smoke smudging my vision, making my eyes stream with tears I would need later. "There isn't always a why," I said.
He was so quiet in response that I finally made myself open my eyes again. He was still standing behind my client chair, watching me intently. The grim set of his mouth and jaw had softened, and I sensed the child he had once been, a boy with his arms thrown wide to the world, trying joyfully to catch it all. A deep capacity for love was shuttered into his much abused heart, and I ached to see it.
Something happened in the silence between us, some understanding reached below the threshold of consciousness. The rumble and squeal of the el pulling into the Cotton Street stop echoed into my office.
He stepped back a little, creating more distance between us. I could feel a calm in his mind that had not been there before. The train had started again, its approach almost loud enough to drown his words. "There is a why this time," he said. "I will expect to hear from you when you discover it."
Then the room was bright again, and without warning, he dove through the open window. I did not need to look to know he had dropped onto the roof of the inbound el.
I continued to sit in the dark for a long while after the final whistle of the train traveling down to street level was forgotten on the night air. The salt of drying tears prickled my cheeks.