Then I remembered that I was sleeping alone tonight. I don't like to do that, you know? It can get pretty lonely all alone in this huge, antique brass bed. Babs likes to call my bed "Grayson Acres". Damn! I fumbled for the phone and dropped it from sleep befuddled fingers. Almost fell off the bed reaching for it. Not a great way to start the day.
"Dick?" came Donna's strained voice, distorted by the lousy campus phone connection. "Dick you'd better get over here. Now. It - it's Wally ... "
"Wally? Wha 'bout Wally?" I mumbled groggily, fighting to stay awake. I glanced over at the clock on the bedside table. 4:37 AM the luminescent LED readout flashed at me accusingly. I sat up with a groan. "If he's locked himself out of his apartment again, you put him up for the night ..."
I could have sworn I heard a strangled sob from the other end of that phone. "Dick ... Wally ... Oh God, Wally's dead ... How quickly can you get over here? Linda's hysterical and I've got my hands full. I could really use your help, Boy Wonder." Donna must be the last remaining person on Earth who still remembers that Dick Grayson was once billed as "An aerial Boy Wonder!" before he was adopted by the Waynes.
I'd like to say that the trip to Wally's apartment was a nightmare. But I can't. The truth is, I don't remember it at all. The trip, I mean. I remember *being* there. Climbing stiffly out of my car. The flashing red and amber lights of all the police black and whites surrounding the small, aged building. My ears brought me with crystal clarity the sound of the deep boredom in the voice of the cop pushing back the crowds. As if he spent every night of his life keeping guard on the lifeless body of my best friend. It was a large crowd. Campus violence was becoming a big issue with both the students and the city politicos, so they were restless, straining, rubbernecking, to see and hear what was going on. I could almost smell the tension in the chill early morning air.
But getting to Wally's apartment? It's a blur. A strobing, changing kaleidoscope of rain slick streets, passing headlights and flashing neon from the cheap bars and liquor stores lining the way to Wally's small apartment. It's not in a good 'hood. Jeezus. I'm just lucky I didn't wrap myself around a tree or something, I must've been so out of it. That's providing, of course, that there were any trees in this part of town.
Numbly, I looked around for Donna or someone else I knew. I wanted to sigh with relief when I spotted Couch Pratt. But I couldn't. I wondered what he was doing here. Wally was never a member of the GU boxing team, the "Justice Society". So why was the team couch here, now? I figured he had to have been the only one of the athletic coaches at GU who could be reached at this time of night. Lucky me.
"Up And Atom" Al Pratt, doesn't much like me. Guess he feels cheated that the GU track and field team, The Titans, get most of the funding and all of the attention around here. Atomic Al isn't the forgiving sort, believe me. I took a deep breath and waved for his attention. He spotted me right away, trotted right on over. But he was frowning. Not a good sign. But, then, you don't get many good signs from Coach Pratt.
"What the Hell are you doing here, Grayson?" he demanded.
"Donna Troy called me," I replied, trying to keep the rising hysteria out of my voice. I guess I must have succeeded. Atomic Al didn't punch out my lights.
The hard look in his eyes softened at the mention of Donna's name and I knew I was home free. Everybody has a soft spot for Donna. Even crusty old garrulous ex-pugs like Al Pratt. He waved me forward with a sharp gesture of one hand.
Inside it was a madhouse. I ducked under the bright yellow tape sealing off the door to the apartment and was instantly set upon by two uniforms bent on hustling my buns outta there, post haste. They might have made it, too. See, I froze when I saw the chalk lines on the hardwood floor. Blinding white, they seemed to glow with an unholy bright light. I closed my eyes to block out the sight of them.. It didn't help. Those brilliant white lines, outlining the fallen body of my best friend in the world, were seared into the underside of my eyelids. I wasn't ever going to get rid of them. Never. I'm sure I'll take them to my grave.
But they were all that was left of Wallace Randolf West, The Fastest Man Alive.
Wally must have died quickly. It looked as though he ended up sprawled on his back. The impact must have picked him up and tossed him across the room like a kid's toy. And there was blood ...
Oh, God ... so much blood.
From the neatly traced circle of the head came a slowly spreading tide of crimson, soaked into the unpolished hardwood, now, filling the close air of the tiny apartment with the heavy smell of salty metal.. Nothing was ever going to remove it.
"Dick! Thank God you're here! Officer, please ...let him through. I called for his help ... please ... "
Donna's voice shook me back to reality. Instantly, I wished it hadn't.
Donna was sitting on Wally's beat up dilapidated old couch that clashes with the rest of the so called "decor". Wally loved that damned ratty old thing. And how many hours had I spent sitting there, scarfing down illegal beer and pretzels, watching the Gotham Knights once again get their tails whacked?
Too many to count.
Donna was clutching a weeping Linda Park, soothing and comforting her as best she could. A nervous EMT tech was hovering nearby, a needle discreetly in hand. The uniforms let go of my arm and I made my way though the maddening crowd to Donna's side, sitting carefully beside her on the couch. Linda was crying so hard that she could barely breathe between sobs. Her frail shoulders shook and trembled like an earthquake.
Linda is an ace Journalism student. She's covered campus violence before. Lots of times. But I guess all that necessary journalistic detachment just flies right out the window when violence happens to someone you love. I had a feeling that the head of her department, Professor Kent, would forgive her. There still a lot of the Kansas farm boy in Clark Kent despite his three Pulitzers and his Edgar Award for the Best Mystery Novel of 1996. I've read "Under A Yellow Sun" and it's a really fun book. Professor Kent is a great guy; everybody likes him.
Linda called herself Wally's "fiancee". And Wally never denied it so I guess it was true. They were going to wait until they graduated, of course, before they got married. Wally was kind of frightened by the whole idea of matrimony, actually. We spent a lot of time talking about it, just the two of us. Marriage is a big step and Wally wasn't sure he was ready for it. I guess that's what all those other girls were all about, huh? Wally's way of trying to torpedo his commitment to Linda. It was one freakin' mess, is what it was.
The EMT finally got the needle into Linda and Donna called her parents in Central City. They were due in Gotham on the redeye special at 7AM. Donna ran her hands through her long black hair and collapsed back onto the couch. Resting her head on my shoulder, she held onto me for dear life. I held back, unashamedly. I don't quite know how, but some way or the other, the two of us got through the rest of the early morning.
Fortunately for us, the cops just sort of ignored us after a while. They were busy with other things, of course. Christ they even dragged the Commissioner out of bed at such an ungodly hour for this. I suppose the murder of a star Olympic athlete rates that kind of thing. Jim Gordon polished his horn rim glasses repeatedly and combed his white walrus mustache with his fingers, looking grim. He had the place jumping inside of five minutes of his arrival. Nothing like the Commissioner of Police to light a fire under the lethargic butts of lazy Homicide Detectives, I guess. Jim Gordon is a top cop. Wally was in good hands.
"Bullock!" Gordon growled. "Has anybody questioned the neighbors yet?"
Harvey Bullock heaved his considerable bulk to Gordon's side and smashed out his foul smelling cigar beneath one booted heel. Dad Wayne has been trying to get Jim Gordon to quite smoking for years. They tried a pipe even. Nothing seemed to work. They're down to using Nicoderm CQ, now, I think. The Commissioner's nose twitched to the familiar, desperately sought odor of nicotine flavored air. He took a deep breath in a futile effort to haul as much of it into his starved lungs as he could.
Bullock took a bite of his dagwood sized sandwich, splattering the mayo and mustard leaking out of the side of the huge concoction onto his already none too clean trench coat. Cursing beneath his breath, he dabbed at the stain futilely with his hand, driving it even deeper into the coat to escape him. Gritting his teeth, he consulted his dog eared notebook.
"Yeah," he said, glancing down at the small pad. "Montoya talked to a Mrs. Lipinski, next door. Says the West kid came in at about 2.30AM. Woke her up, according to her is why she remembers it so well. West was always doing that, she claims. Coming in late and waking her up. She was keeping a record. Gonna call us and report the kid, eventually, once she had the 'evidence'. Says he was with a girl, as usual. Didn't get a good look at the girl, she says. They were all alike according to her. She remembers that this one was pretty tall, well built. They stood outside the door and smooched for about ten minutes, then they went inside. Mrs. Lipinski went back to sleep. About half an hour later she was awakened again by a loud noise. She didn't know what it was, but it was really loud. She called 911 to complain. When the officers on the scene got here, the building Super had to let them in. They found already dead on the floor and called it in."
Harvey Bullock folded his notebook and took another bite of his sandwich.
Jim Gordon scowled at the mess and pushed his horn rimed glasses further back on his nose with a grimace. "Did anybody call Essen?" he demanded and Bullock swallowed his bit of sandwich with a quick gulp before he shook his greasy, disheveled head in consternation.
"Well why the hell NOT!" Gordon roared. "Mother of God! Isn't she the one working of the Nasswell case? That football star that was shot and killed earlier this year?" Bullock nodded hasty assent. The Commissioner set his teeth and growled, "Don't tell me that I'm the only one to see a connection between the murders of two star athletes, for God's sake! Get Essen down here! NOW! Have forensics compare those bullets! And ... GET THESE PEOPLE OUT OF HERE! Hop to it, Sergeant!"
I got Donna home and I spent the rest of the night on her couch. I think she was glad to have someone to coddle or maybe just someone else in the apartment. It wasn't a night for being alone. Neither one of us slept a wink, I can tell you that. I didn't close my eyes even once. Because ... because, if I did, I *knew* what I was condemned to see, okay? As the sun was rising, turning the world all golden and ruby in its dawning light, I heard the sound of soft sobs wafting from Donna's bedroom.
I threw off the restraining covers and rose from the comfort of Donna's plush sofa bed. Stumbling into her bedroom, I took her in my arms, crawled in beside her and held her again. I was doing a lot of that lately. That suited me just fine. My throat tightened almost closed and I had to struggle really hard not to join my tears with hers.
I didn't make it.
The next day was declared an "Official Day of Mourning" at GU. Classes were suspended and they flew the GU flag at half mast for Wally. There were at least a dozen marches and demonstrations against campus related violence. The President and Vice President of the Student Council met with the Dean in an official capacity to discuss the problem. Speeches abounded.
All of which did exactly spit to solve the real problem.
Wally West was still dead.
I started not to even show my face on campus. I just couldn't handle the continual parade of "Hey man, sorry to hear about your friend ... " and "Oh how horrible about Wally!" that I knew would be waiting for me there. But Donna was in no shape to drive, way too exhausted, and she had a meeting with her department Chairman that couldn't be put off. So I ended up giving her a lift and waiting for her to finish. I also took the opportunity to check up on Garth. Dad Wayne had done a bang up job of taping those cracked ribs. But that didn't mean that Garth was all right, if you take my meaning. I needed to be sure. I'd already lost one friend today. I wasn't going to lose another. Garth and I were going to talk. Oh, yeah. We were going to talk all right ...
Since the Grayson luck was running true to form, which is to say mostly bad, who should I run into?
Why, Jean-Paul Valley, of course.
It had to figure didn't it?
The very last mook on the face of the planet that I ever wanted to see under *any* circumstances, so, of course, he ambushes me waiting for Donna in the Student Union.
Which is pretty much the sum total of all the French I know except for some come on lines that I carefully memorized for the femmes at the European Nationals a couple of years ago. That was before I got really involved with Babs, of course.
Somehow, I really doubted that they were going to stand me in good stead with Jean-Paul.
Can I be honest here? Heh. Guess I'd better since it's only me and thee here and right now I not too sure about thee.
I come as close to hating Jean-Paul Valley as I do anybody on Earth. And it's jealousy, pure and simple. Painful as it is to admit that, it's true. Christ, I might as well be honest with myself, right? When I took gold in the decathlon at Atlanta guess who took the silver?
If you guessed Jean-Paul Valley then go to the head of the class and give yourself a gold star, babe.
So, I won gold and Jean-Paul had to settle for silver. God is in his Heaven and all's right with the world, right? Well, not quite. The truth is that until Atlanta I always came in second to Jean-Paul. Every damned time. It was like a curse or some freakin' thing. First Place = Jean-Paul Valley of France. Second Place = Dick Grayson, USA. I'd never beaten him before and I haven't beaten him since. And I would even have lost that Olympic gold to him if it hadn't been for ... been for ...
How do I explain this? Well, see, the final Decathlon event is traditionally always the 100 meter dash. And the 100 meters was scheduled to be run on a Sunday ... the Sabbath ...
Jean-Paul Valley refused to run on the Lord's Day.
The French officials were furious. They threatened him with everything from expulsion from the Games to revoking his citizenship. It was like beating a rock. And about as useful. He wouldn't budge an inch. The Bible forbade working (running) on the Sabbath and that was the name of that tune. They even tried arguing with the Olympic officials to try and persuade them to reschedule the race on another day. No dice. The race would be run on Sunday.
Without Jean-Paul Valley.
He was an official "no show", a scratch, from the 100 meters. I won by almost 4/100ths of a second. A new Olympic record, I might add. I also won the Decathlon. By the skin of my teeth. He went home in disgrace and I became America's sweetheart.
Somehow, that just didn't feel right, you know? I wanted to beatwith my own two feet, my hands and my body; not some stupid technicality or because he was a stubborn fool. That rankled. Unmercifully.
So what happens? He left France and came to Gotham U as a Divinity student, of course. More rotten Grayson luck. Hell, I didn't even know that GU Divinity School.
Yeah, that's right. He's going to be a priest. That's why they call him The Angel. But .. behind his back they call him Azrael. Azrael, the Angel of Death and Destruction because you do NOT want to met him on an athletic field. He'll eat you alive without even thinking about it twice. On an athletic field he isdeath and Destruction. The Death of all your Dreams. The Destruction of all your hopes.
It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen. It's almost as though when he puts on those golden running shoes he turns into another person or some damn thing. Off the field he's so quiet you'd hardly notice him. He doesn't give interviews. He hates having his picture taken. And as far as girls go forget it. He turns a brilliant shade of crimson and runs away as fast as his long legs will carry him. Which is pretty damned fast, come to think of it. So, of course, women flock to him in droves. And he blushes and stammers his way into their little hearts. And, no, he's not gay. I saw a guy come on to him once in the locker room at the European Nationals. He didn't even notice, I don't think. Missed it completely. Nope, as far as I can tell he's not gay. He's just ... not ...
But when he slips off those mild looking little round professorial glasses of his and ties on those shiny gold custom made Nikes, it's another story entirely. THEN your butt is toast. You just don't know it yet, is all. There are all kinds of rumors about him and his training techniques. Everything from undetectable anabolic steroids to hypnosis. And I almost believe them. His trainers and coaches just called it "the System" and refused to discuss it. So does Jean-Paul. I've seen him so shaky and spacy after a race that he didn't know his own name. Whatever they do to him to make him win, I don't think it's a lot of fun.
I've also seen him on his knees praying before every event. He takes a lot of flack for that. He ignores it and just keeps right on winning. If' I'd let myself, I think I could admire him for that. Sometimes ... sometimes I think it must be nice to have that kind of faith, to be that sure of *anything*. God, that must feel good to be so secure. We're certainly not friends or anything, but I once helped him stumble off the field after another race that I lost to him. I mean, I was the only one close enough to catch him when he fell. I couldn't just leave him laying there, could I? He's even taller than I am, damn his eyes. Okay. It's not his fault that he's 6'3" and I'm 5'10". Damn it, I was *supposed* to be six feet tall. At least. I know it! His trainers tried to hustle me out of the room, but he wouldn't let them. He collapsed onto a massage table, breathing hard. I didn't think it was from the race, though. I brushed the blond hair from out of his eyes and stared down into those haunted sapphire depths.
"Why do you do it, man?" I asked softly. "If it hurts like this .. why do you do it?"
He smiled like an Angel.
"Because it brings me closer to God," he whispered, closing his eyes against the pain. "When I run, I see Him."
I was staring once more into those same bottomless depths, now. Beneath the plain shirt he wore, pressing against the expanse of his broad chest, I could glimpse the outlines of the silver cross hanging around his neck. I don't think he's ever worn the Olympic Silver Medal he won, not even in publicity photos, but he's never without that cross. At least I've never seen him when he wasn't wearing it.
"I was sorry to hear about Wallace," he said quietly. "He is in the Hand of God, now. Happier, I think."
I bit back a sharp retort. 'Don't be a jerk Grayson,' I castigated myself, angrily. 'He's just trying to make you feel better, that's all. The best way he knows how. And ... who knows? Maybe he's right, who can say? It would be nice to think so wouldn't it?' It still kind of threw me, though. See, Wally is one of the only runners who've ever beaten Jean-Paul. In a charity race for UNESCO or the World Health Organization or somedamnthing or another. The UN lined up six of the best runners in the world and sold tickets. Between the global film and broadcast rights, the merchandising, and all the rest, they netted about a cool forty mil. That's a lot of hungry people fed. A lot of sick people made well.
And Jean-Paul Valley, for the first time in his career, came in second. He didn't seem to mind but I was still surprised at the truth of his sadness. He had no reason to be especially fond of Wally. Jean-Paul is a generalist, like most decathletes, as opposed to being a specialist like Wally. Wally was the best there was at running, but give him a discus or a javelin, or a vaulting pole and he was likely to just stand there and stare at it with a puzzled look on his face. The trick to being a decathlete is simple: you have to be pretty good at everything. The truth is, Jean-Paul and I are about the only two decathletes I know who are good enough to compete against the specialists when we want to.
"I will pray for him," he offered. "And for you."
I closed my eyes. "T-thanks," was all I could manage in a strangled voice. A hand lightly touched my shoulder in comfort and then was gone as if it had never been. The thing is, I did feel better. It's so strange. Of all the people in the world who might try to console me about Wally's death, who would have thought that Jean-Paul Valley would be the one to succeed? When I opened my eyes again there was no sign of Jean-Paul. But the feel of his compassion lingered for a long time after his departure.
Oh, yeah. He's gonna make a hell of a priest. He's got the touch, all right. I suddenly realized that he was a lot like Dad Wayne in a way. He really cares. He truly does. He's got a long hard struggle ahead of him, though, I think. The idea of some poor backsliding sinner facing Azrael is more than a little frightening. But if he can overcome Azrael, then Jean-Paul Valley has a great future ahead of him.
Feeling exposed, I rose to leave and go in search of Donna. Less chance of meeting someone else if I waited for her outside of Professor Hall's office, I decided. Carter Hall and his wife Shiera share the Chairmanship of the Classics department. Okay, I'll admit it. I don't like the guy. He may be a world famous ex-archeologist and the planet's leading expert on Egyptian history, culture and literature but he's still an anal retentive jerk, as far as I'm concerned. I tossed money onto the table to pay for the Sugar Bubble Cola that I didn't drink, that was slowly warming to room temperature, stuffed my wallet back into my jacket pocket, and slammed almost directly into Joey.
Joesph William Wilson is a transfer student from Gallaudet University in Washington DC. You know, the only college level institute of higher learning in the United States geared toward teaching deaf students? But Joey isn't deaf. No, he went to Gallaudet because he can't speak. Joey has to use Amslam, American Sign Language, the language of the deaf, to communicate. The ugly, ridged scar slashing across his neck goes a long way towards explaining why, I suppose. Joey doesn't talk much about the accident that robbed him of his voice. He was only five when his parents car went careening out of control on that mountain road and crashed. His larynx was crushed, but not his spirit.
Joey is an art student. Now, I don't know jack about art, except that I know what I like. And I know that I like Joey's art. But, if Professor Rayner, chief honcho of the GU art department, is any judge, though, Joey is a fantastic artist. He's been trying to get Joey to let him arrange a Gallery showing at The Carlyle in New York for him for a long time. Joey keeps insisting that he's not ready yet. You couldn't prove it by me.
And the music department would like to get their hands on Joey, too. Professor Rathaway has tried everything he can think of to lure Joey to his department, but, so far, no luck. I don't care if they do call him the Pied Piper thanks to his skill with a flute, Hartley Rathaway wasn't leading Joey anywhere he didn't want to go, evidently. Professor Rathaway's TA, Mal Duncan, hasn't had any better luck. He's young and hip and, man! He can make that horn wail like Gabriel calling the Last Trumps, but still, no juice. Joey is very devoted to art
Joey is a terrific guitarist, though. Whoa, he can really make that Gibson Hummingbird Special of his sing. He calls her Lucille, after Muddy Waters famous guitar. In fact that's how I met Joey. Through Roy. Our resident headbanger is waaaaay into music as well as archery. I'm not sure he's got much of a future, though, to be honest with you. Anybody who would name their garage band "The Great Frog" is either headed for some serious psych time or instant stardom. I haven't quite decided which. But the music that Joey wrote for The Great Frog is absolutely gorgeous. And Roy can sing. I'll give him that.
Joey was almost a Titan, even. His mom and dad were big Army Top Brass so they made sure that he could defend himself, if necessary. Yeah, Colonel Slade "Deathstroke" Wilson made sure of that, all right. Especially after Joey's older brother Grant was killed in the Gulf. Hell, if Sensei Dragon and his assistant Miss Lance hadn't snatched him up for the Martial Arts team he'd have been a natural for the Titans as a long jumper or discus thrower. But you've got to get up pretty early in the morning to move ahead of Richard "Kung Fu Fighting" Dragon and Dinah "Black Canary" Lance. Rumor has it that they call her that because she can sing like a beautiful bird ... but she only does it after she's beaten you to a pulp on the mats.
But I don't think Joey much likes fighting. Not even in controlled competition. Hell, I *know* he doesn't. He hates it, really. But, after he left home and broke with his mom and her private security agency, Searchers, Inc, that Athletic Scholarship for the MA team was just the best way he could find to allow him to study art. Joey lives and breaths art. It's his life. Everything else is just an interruption.
He didn't say anything. Not even in Sign. He gazed at me with those gentle, expressive sea-green eyes of his, took my hands in his long slender fingers, and filled them with the pleasant weight of a carefully rolled up piece of heavy cream colored art paper.
I unfurled it slowly, thinking to prepare myself. It didn't work. No way I could have been ready for this. My eyes widened and I gasped. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. My fingers trembled and Joey gently enfolded them with his longer, finer ones. My eyes misted. I remember thinking that I really should roll that paper back up to keep it safe. God knows, if I was going to do something stupid like cry I didn't want to do it on *this*.
For there, on the paper, enshrined in tones of brilliant scarlet and bright gold was Wally West. Wally ... running. His long legs stretched out before him, his auburn hair flowing behind him like a victory banner in a high wind. Wally, his face transported with beatific joy speeding triumphantly, bursting headlong into the arms of something wondrous.
Suddenly, looking at this incredible piece of art, I knew exactly what Jean-Paul Valley meant about seeing God when he ran.
So did Wally.
Wally used to laugh sometimes about something he jokingly referred to as "The Speed Force". How it was out there just waiting to claim him if only he could run fast enough to join it.
I clutched at the precious gift in my hands. "Hey Wally," thought through my gathering tears, "you made it, man ... You finally made it. Save me a seat in the Winners Circle, okay, pal?
"Oh God, Joey, it's beautiful," I choked. "It's so damned beautiful .. "
'So was Wally," he Signed. "Like the wind is beautiful ... "
End, Part Three