Part Of The Game
A Titan's Elseworlds Tale by Dannell Lites
Hey kiddo, how's it going? This is your big brother Dick, talking.
Me? I gotta tell you the truth, Brucie. It's going pretty lousy. But then, I guess you already know that by now, huh? You taking care of Dad like you should, little bro? Showing him all the ropes and everything? That's good. Mom always told me you were the greatest kid, ever. Alfred, too. Used to make me jealous as hell. No matter what I did, how many sports trophies I won, I was never you. You might have only been six years old when you died, Bruce, but you made a big impression.
Look at me. I never even met you. Joe Chill shot and killed you in Crime Alley almost sixteen years to the day before I was born. I love old movies, but I've never seen "The Mark Of Zorro" and I probably never will. I never heard your voice or saw you smile or ducked one of those water bombs Dad Wayne said you were fond of dropping off the third story stair landing.
But I've spent my life trying to replace you.
You don't have to tell me how crazy it is ... I know.
Kiddo, I know we haven't talked in a long time and I'm really sorry about that. But I've gotta talk to you now, okay? It's about Mom and it's pretty important so you've got to listen carefully, bud. I'm trying hard to take care of Mom, but it's not easy. See, these days she thinks I'm you. She's a little ... confused ... since Dad was killed, I guess. God, things are such a freaking mess. How did I let it come to this? Damned if I know.
I mean, look at me. Here I am, Richard John Grayson-Wayne, adopted son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, pillars of Gotham society, youngest guy ever to win an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon ...
Hey, the medal makes it official. I'm The World's Best Athlete. I can still hear her voice, whispering in the dark ...
<"Are you the best there is, Dick?">
God, the lazy arrogance in my voice makes me cringe now. That, and the desire in hers.
<"Best there ever was ... best there ever will be ... "<
Oh God, God, God! Why Bruce, why? Why did Dad come barging into my hotel room at *that* moment? Why then? She meant to shoot me. Me, not him! And not even my World and Olympic record of 8.32 seconds in the hundred yard dash was enough to save him, was it? I'll never forget the look of utter surprise on Dad's face when the gun went off.
And Babs and Wally! Oh Christ, what she did to Babs ...
Publicists won't leave me alone. More than ever, now. Nothing makes money faster than a sports icon as the victim in a scandal, does it? Read this! Sign here! Kellogg's wants to put my picture on a box of Corn Flakes! Can you believe that? Universal Studios says they'll make me a star with a big budget action blockbuster this summer. "You're a natural kid," Roy Eisner told me, sporting a smile about as phony as a three and half dollar bill, " ... sign here."
All this fame ... and what am I doing?
I'm getting ready to start parading around in a grown-up version of the last Halloween costume you ever wore. Mom says she and Dad had to peel you out of the damn thing every night for weeks until ... until ... Well, they even buried you in it; that's how happy it made you and that's how happy you made them, playing in it.
Somehow, I don't think I'm going to be able to say the same, kiddo.
But I've got to do this. I can't stand the nightmares anymore. Every time I close my eyes, I see that smile on her face, hear her voice. And the sound of gunfire I'll take with me to my grave.
Sometimes I think I'll go crazy if I don't silence that roar, rolling constantly through my head. Heh. S'funny. I guess some people might say I already am crazy.
Bruce, I need you to understand, why I'm doing this; why I have to do this. Please God, let somebody understand.
Three months earlier ...
Dermont Nasswell studied his image in the bathroom mirror, smiling. With his thumb and forefinger he briefly formed an invisible gun, aimed it right between the mirror image's piercing blue eyes and pulled the trigger.
"POW!" he thought to himself, broadening his smile until his face ached. He'd practiced that smile for hours in front of mirrors like this one before he ever unleashed it on an unsuspecting public here in Gotham City. Lowering his hand, he ran his fingers through his thick wavy black hair, then tied it back in a lush ponytail.
"Smokin'!" he exalted. The babe in the next room was definitely in for a treat. Definitely.
Dermont was celebrating. This was his first night in his new home town, after all. He'd worked hard all day long, posing with the coaches, answering stupid questions from the sports press, and now it was time to play. And not on a football field, either. He'd earned it, he thought.
SUPER JOE SIGNS $20 MILLION DOLLAR CONTRACT WITH THE GOTHAM KNIGHTS! the banner headlines screamed the Knights' good fortune for all the football fans of Gotham City to read.
"You want Super Joe, it's gonna cost ya. Big time. Money speaks. So talk to me, babe! Talk to me." he told the franchise owners.
They "talked" to him pretty loudly, too. Damned old parasites. Like to see them carry a football down the length of a field past the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He winced then rubbed his knee. Those last surgical scars were almost healed, now. Barely an unpleasant memory. Freaking Metropolis Giants played rough. But, everything was fine. In fact, everything was goddamn great, wasn't it?
Especially the groupie lusting for him in the adjoining bedroom. She ought to be just about primed and ready by now, too. It was high time he introduced her to Super Joe. The smile was back and the gun formed itself again
"POW!" said Dermont Joseph Nasswell, softly, the light glinting off the burnished gold of his Super Bowl ring.
As soon as he stepped confidently into the bedroom he knew that something was wrong. Very wrong. The groupie was standing by the window, framed by the bright red and orange light of the dying sun, her long honey blond hair turned to flames by the waning brilliance. The inviting champagne magnum was sweating profusely, untouched in its silver chalice. "Nothing but the best, Mr. Nasswell," the manager of the Gotham Hilton assured him. So why did she ignore it? She reached out to stroke her reflected image in the window glass and Dermont frowned. Definitely weird, man. Suddenly uneasy, the football megastar shifted from one foot to the other nervously.
"You, okay, girl?" he asked, not much liking the sudden uncertainty in his voice. She didn't answer him, just stood there still as a statue, staring off into the approaching darkness as if it held the answers to some very important questions. Dermont started to gulp, then caught himself. Damnation! What was wrong with him anyway? Relieved, he saw her smiling as she turned to face him and began a toothy smile in return.
Until he glimpsed her eyes.
"Joe?" she asked softly, "are you the best football player there is?" His answering smile was blinding, just like he'd practiced in all those mirrors.
"You got that right, babe," he laughed.
The gun surprised him completely.
Seconds later, Dermont Joseph Nasswell, heir to the gridiron glory of Joe Namath, Joe Montana, and a dozen others, the unquestioned best professional football quarterback in the world, went flying back across the large room, the force of the bullet from the .357 magnum killing him instantly. Ironically, and to his immense disgust if he'd known of it, "Super Joe" was destined to sail blithely through Eternity with a look of almost childlike surprise on his dark, handsome face.
One month later ...
"Jesus!" I heard the cameraman cry out as he slammed hard to the ground. Ignoring him, the roller bladed figure whizzed away, the $20,000 camera he'd just snatched from out of the surprised cameraman's grasping hands held tightly to his chest.
"Cut! Cut!" shouted the red faced director.
"Hey! Somebody stop that guy!"
"What the hell -"
"He kipped the pro-cam! Christ! Why didn't somebody *warn* us about Gotham City?"
"Did anybody get that on tape?"
"No, dimwit! He stole the camera, butt-munch!"
"Oh yeah ..."
"Is Grayson, okay? God, the insurance is gonna kill us ..."
At the sound of my name, I left off charming the pretty young script girl long enough to whirl around, looking for the source of all the noise. The erstwhile thief was a blond blur as he sped hastily on his way toward the door and freedom with his ill-gotten prize.
"Hey!" the script girl cried when I grabbed the full, unopened Soder Cola can from out of her small hands. Aiming carefully, as if I were on a baseball diamond or a basketball court, I tossed the heavy can at the escaping would-be snatcher's feet and watched as he lost his balance and went crashing to the ground. Momentum pushed him forward until the mook went crashing into the wall. Before he could move or regain his feet, I loomed over him, peering down with a tight smile stretching the corner of my mouth.
"Hey pal, I know a hundred ways to make you regret this," I said. Still smiling, I drew back my foot in warning.
"Pick a number." I invited him, cheerfully.
The thin, blond youth listened to the futilely spinning wheels of his roller blades for a moment and then to the heavy footed approach of the set's burly Security policeman. Blinking, the thief gaped up at me and paled. He must have realized that I was serious.
Still huddling miserably on the floor, the guy reluctantly gave up the expensive camera. I watched as the rent-a-cop hauled him away. Taking a swashbuckling bow, I acknowledged the cheers of the assembled crowd. Gathered to watch the debut of one of Gotham's favorite sons in a national TV commercial, they'd gotten more than they bargained for and they were all happy campers, now. Good. That makes me a happy camper, too. I'm always happy when I'm being adored. There really isn't any other reason for an athlete to put up with all this garbage, is there? They chuckled at my bravado and a lot of them saluted me with bottles or cups of the free Soder Cola dispensed to the crowd. Feigning horror, I fell back several steps.
"Never touch the stuff myself," I grinned at the many displays of the famous red and white symbol. "I'm a Sugar Bubble Cola dude, actually. 'Twice the sugar!' 'Twice the caffeine!' Oh YEAH!" I pumped my arms back and forth in joy and then leaned forward, conspiratorially.
"Shhhhh!" I whispered to my audience sotto vocce, finger covering my lips, pleading for silence, "Don't breathe a word, okay?"
"Titans forever!" cried one of my fellow students.
"Nike sucks!" opined another.
"Dick, I love you! Marry me!"
"You the man!"
"Hunka, hunka burnin' love!"
Most of the time I'm pretty good at following direction. But I get so much of that, that sometimes I just gotta rebel, know what I mean? I was not in a good mood when the profusely sweating, harassed director pulled me off to the side seconds later. I could feel the frown take root at the corners of my mouth and grow from there. I was getting a little tired of constantly being told what to do, what to say, even where to stand.
"Part of the game, kid," I'd been told.
"You'll get used to it," they assured me.
Well, not yet I hadn't, that was for sure, and it was starting to really grate on my nerves. Don't I have enough coaches for that crap? Track coach, field coach, baseball coach, basketball coach, gymnastics coach ... the list is endless and getting longer all the time, too.
Coach Allen was already pissed enough about this whole commercial thing, anyway. Great track coaches don't come along all that often; I don't want to lose him. Even my parents were a little leery. "Just be careful, Dick," advised Dad Wayne, through a wreath of pipe smoke, pointing with his Meerschaum for emphasis. "Just don't lose your head, son."
Damn! Babs seems to be the only one who understands at all. Thoughts of Barbara Gordon are apt to paint a huge smile on my face and this was no exception. It was almost enough to make me forget the damned director. For a few minutes anyway.
"Look," our esteemed director, Basil Karlo, huffed, and wiped his brow with a large silk foulard, "I'm gonna call it quits for the day, babe! Hell, might as well," he mourned, "the cops are gonna be swarming all over my tuchis any minute now whatever I do." He swore luridly. "Unless you want to spend the rest of the day cooling your heels talking to them, too, you'd better get the hell outta here! But be back first thing in the morning. Eight o'clock sharp, got that? And don't be late! We got a contract, baby!" I was about to tell him where he could stuff his contract but, before I could ungrit my teeth he was gone.
"Now there's someone in more dire need of a blow job than any white man in history," cracked the familiar voice of Roy Harper at my back
"Harper, don't you ever think of anything but sex? There are other things in the world, you know," demanded an exasperated Wally West.
"And those would be?" inquired Roy, his hands spread wide ready to embrace any sensible answer. Wally rolled his eyes heavenward.
"Says the man who had dates with three babes last night!" snorted a disdainful Roy.
"Hey!" retorted a smug Wally, "I am 'The Fastest Man Alive' .. the medal says so!"
Is it my fault that all my friends are jocks, I ask you? And the answer has to be a resounding, "No!" Who has time for anything else, anyway? I even met Babs when she tried out for the gymnastics team. Sports gets to be an athlete's life after a while, I guess. Wally and I are the stars of the GU track team, the Titans. His uncle Barry Allen is the assistant coach in what little spare time the Gotham City Police department gives him. Forensic chemists are in big demand these days. Some unkind turkeys say that's how Wally keeps his scholarship. They do kinda have a point. Wally may not be the brightest guy to come down the pike, but he's not stupid. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he can run the 100 yard dash in eight seconds flat on a good day, either.
Roy is the GU archery team. Unfortunately, he knows it, too. Everything I know about being arrogant, I learned from Roy. We call him "Speedy" because he's so fast on his feet running after all the women he can find.
We all three came back from Atlanta with gold dangling from our necks and the strains of "The Star Spangled Banner" still ringing in our ears.
"Save it for the girls, Fleetfeet," I grinned. "What are you and the Bow Slinger doing here anyway?" I looked around. "And where's Garth?" I waved a hand in self defense, almost too late as I saw Roy open his mouth to answer, revealing strong white teeth. "No, no, don't tell me! Let me guess. He's still practicing, right? Christ on a retro-rocket! Does he live in that flamin' pool or what? Wally nodded sagely.
"I think I saw gills the last time I looked, " he pronounced ominously.
"Garth Curry is definitely gonna be the next Mark Spitz, if he has anything to say about it," agreed Roy. He smirked. "And Greg Louganis better watch his butt, too," he advised. "I saw Garth giving a diving platform the evil eye yesterday ... "
And so it went. Lunch was the order of the day, so we adjourned to Ramon's Tacqueria on Fulmont for most of the rest of the afternoon and I began to relax a little. That's starting to be rarer and rarer these days and I'm not sure I like it. Not sure at all.
We have a lot in common, the four of us. More than you'd realize at first, actually. More than just the jock thing, too. It's kinda eerie when you think about it. I mean, what are the odds of four Olympic caliber athletes -- three of whom are orphans -- with adoptive parents richer than God? Pretty slim, right? But there it is.
My folks were circus people from day one, the Flying Graysons. I was learning to fly on the high trapeze before I could walk, almost. I was only nine years old when I watched them plunge to their deaths in that freak accident. The wires broke, that's all. One minute they were flying high above the matinee crowd on a Saturday afternoon, costumes flashing, smiling brilliantly, and the next ... they were laying broken on the ground sixty feet beneath me. No one was to blame.
And I was alone.
I'd still be alone if it weren't for Thomas and Martha Wayne and the Bruce Wayne Memorial Children's Foundation. The Waynes were in the audience that night as sponsors of the charity Haley's Circus was benefiting in Gotham City. When I was shunted aside and forgotten by one and all in the hubbub of my parents deaths, I can still remember Martha Wayne's soft voice as she hugged me to her breast. "Oh you poor little boy," she cried. "You poor little boy! Thomas, I won't hear of him going to one of those awful juvenile facilities! Can't we do something for him?" They took me home to Wayne Manor and I guess I've never really left.
I heard them talking one night just before they formally adopted me. I've always had a talent for snooping around, seeing and hearing things I shouldn't. Both my Moms claimed it's one of my special gifts. I think they're right.
"Are you sure about this, Martha?" I heard Thomas Wayne's gentle voice inquire. "I love Dick, too, dearest, but ... are you certain this is entirely ... healthy?" Even at the age of nine I knew exactly what he was talking about. No one had to draw me an Esso road map. I'm not blind, after all. That big portrait of Bruce has been hanging over the fireplace in the Main Sitting Room at Wayne Manor for a lot longer than I've been there ... and Dad Wayne wasn't the first one to point out how much like Bruce I look.
Or the last.
They never mentioned it to me and never discussed it again, as far as I know.
Roy was orphaned when he was about two by a huge forest fire in the Four Corners area of the Navajo nation. That's where he learned to use a bow. It's also where he learned to feel like an outsider all the time. I guess that long red hair did kinda stand out there amongst all the dark haired Navajo. Brave Bow did his best for the son of his friend and savior, but in the end, when he was dying, he had to let Roy go. If you ask me, the old shaman could have picked a better foster father for Roy than Oliver Queen, though. It's a good thing that Ollie has Lucius Fox to manage Queen Industries for him or he'd be broke for all the attention he pays to his business. Or to Roy, for that matter. You can always tell when Ollie disappears into the glitz of Monte Carlo or the Costa del Sol ... Roy gets jumpy and way irritable. Sometimes when it's really bad he drinks. I worry about Roy. He can be incredibly reckless even for a dumb jock.
Garth? No one knows anything about Garth at all. His adopted dad, Arthur Curry, found him abandoned on the beach of one his Hawaiian estates one day. I guess it's natural that Garth loves the water. Jeez, he'd better ... They don't call Arthur Orin Curry 'The King of the Seven Seas' for nothing, believe me. If you've ever sailed on a passenger liner or transported anything by sea, then you've dealt with Arthur Curry. He's the richest shipping/salvage magnate on the planet. Compared to him, Onasis was a pirate and a pauper. He's also an arrogant son of a gun with all the business scruples of a shark. Dad Wayne doesn't like him at all. Neither do I, really, but he does love Garth and I guess that makes up for a lot. Not for all those bruises, though. Funny how Garth, so graceful in the water, is often clumsy walking down stairs or through a door ... Especially when he's at home with Arthur. Yeah ... real funny. . . He says he got those scars over his left eye while he was reef diving as a kid, but I wonder. I'm pretty sure he's lying.
Nobody talks about it, of course. What's to say? There isn't anything anyone can do. Anyone except Garth. And he won't. "I'm an accident looking for a place to happen," he quips. But the lost look in his sad purple eyes makes me angry every time I see it. Yeah, his eyes really are that color; it's not a photographer's trick. Weird, huh? I'm afraid for Garth. I think one day he's going to have a really bad "accident" ... a fatal one.
Either that ... or Arthur will ...
Personally, I'm hoping for Arthur.
Now, Wally is refreshingly normal in all this rampant insanity. He's the odd man out here in our select little group in more ways than one. His middle class parents probably couldn't afford to send him to GU without his scholarship. I've meet his Mom and Dad and they're great people. Down to earth, home-grown Midwestern blue collar people from the Bible Belt, that's Rudolph and Mary West. Wally doesn't know how lucky he is to have them, I sometimes think. Their son is just like them. Joe Average ... expect for those flying feet that can out race the wind. And his Uncle Barry is one the greatest guys around. Not to mention one of the best track and field coaches in the business. Yeah, Wally is luckier than he knows all right. When I'm really down it makes me feel good to know that people like Wally and his family exist, ya know?
I lingered for a while at Ramone's, not really wanting to let go of the glow of good company and greasy food. I took a perverse delight in the thought that all my coaches, and Dad Wayne, would be appalled at how badly I broke my training that afternoon. Good! But then I remembered Babs and rushed outside for my car.
I spotted the blond lounging by my Jag, waiting like a spider in her web. Call me paranoid, but after awhile you get to recognize the signs, trust me. She was a looker, though, I'll give her that. Long, shiny blond hair, bright blue eyes that watched me with approval as I approached. She had an athlete's body, long tanned legs, sinewy and strong. That made me think I must remember her from somewhere, but I couldn't recall where offhand. I'd seen that face before, I knew. But where? Not that it mattered a whole lot. Glancing down at my Rollex, I frowned. I was gonna be late picking Babs up at the library if I didn't hurry. I had no time for dancing the ol' soft shoe with a groupie.
"You don't remember me, do you?" She sounded both amazed and hurt at the same time. Got to hand it to her ... she was good. But once you've heard that come on line for about the thousandth time it starts to wane, it really does. Still, I tried to be polite. I smiled. I've gotten pretty good at this ingenious smiling thing while being disingenuous enough to make Lucifer Morningstar blush with shame. It's all part of "the image", right?
"'Fraid not," I admitted. Why couldn't I remember? "But you do look familiar." She laughed and mimed lobbing a tennis ball deep into an opponent's court. Smacking the heel of my hand onto my forehead, I made a frightful face.
"Tennis!" I cried genuinely embarrassed, now. Way to go Grayson, I thought sourly. One of the only female athletes worth mentioning at Gotham U and you can't remember her. I'd only seen that face smiling back at me from a hundred sports magazine covers, a thousand TV sports broadcasts. Publicity like that happens when you're a top-seeded Wimbeldon winning tennis pro. I tried contriteness; maybe that would work.
"God, I'm sorry! Bette Kane, right?" Her answering smile would have graced the Mona Lisa.
"Now you've got it, tiger!" she chuckled.
I breathed a sigh of great relief to discover that she wasn't a groupie after all, but a fellow athlete. And then I remembered. It was in all the papers, after all. Most of the sports mouthpieces were still calling it one of the biggest sports scandals of the century. I have to admit it isn't every day that you see a sports icon attacked in the middle of a game on world-wide television. Me, I'm not a tennis fan, but I must have seen the damn thing in reruns a thousand times in the months that followed before it was resolved. Now I'm not quite convinced that Jennifer Capriletti *paid* to have it done, even if the International Olympic Committee thought so. But facts are facts and Bette Kane's right knee was smashed any way you look at it. Oh, she can still play tennis ... but she was last seeded about 110th in the field before she dropped out of the game.
Unconsciously, I shifted my weight and looked away. One of the surest ways I know to make a pro athlete sweat blood is to start talking about knees. Not a safe subject. For a minute I thought I should say something; tell her how sorry I was. But then, I caught a glimpse of the look in her eyes and decided it wasn't a very good idea. Everybody tells me I'm pretty much an open book, that anyone can read what I'm thinking right off my face. I guess they're right. Bette Kane certainly knew what I was thinking if the hard set of her jaw was any sign, and I think it was. But seconds later, a dazzling smile flashed across her lips.
"So, Mr. Grayson," she laughed like tinkling wind chimes, "are you up for dinner sometime soon, my treat?" She waved a Psch101 notebook under my nose in despair. "I hear you're aces at this stuff and I'm totally lost. What do you say? Help out a grateful damsel in distress?" Her blue eyes sparkled to let me know just how "grateful" we were talking here.
Damn. I should've seen that coming. You'd think after all the practice I've had lately at this kinda thing I'd have it down to a science by now, wouldn't you? But nooooo. Ol' Stumblemouth Grayson walks into the field of fire yet again. I ran my fingers through my hair and tried to sound sincere.
"Uh ... I'm really flattered, but ... " I could see the muscles of her neck tense but she didn't say a word as I tried hard not to look her in the eye. "But ... well, I'm - uh - I'm kinda involved with someone right now," I muttered. Her bright eyes lost their warmth all at once and her full lips thinned in ominous reflex. For just a second I thought I caught sight of something dark and chill as it passed over her face. But when I blinked she was smiling and laughing.
"Well, why didn't you say so," she tossed her long blond hair back and fixed me with a gaze mocking at sternness. She sighed wistfully. "Why are the cute ones always taken? Can't blame a girl for trying, though." Blushing, I flashed her a quick smile
Pulling out of the crowded parking lot I could still feel her eyes on me as I raced out into the street, heading for the GU Library and Babs.
And when I fell asleep that night, nestled next to Babs on the cool silk sheets of my large brass bed, it wasn't her emerald green eyes that stared back at me, haunting my restless sleep. These eyes were blue ... blue as glacial, arctic ice and just as cold.
But by the time the morning light came streaming in my window, I'd forgotten all about them.
End, Part One