Batman #14 – A Serious House – Part 3
Batman #14: A Serious House – Part 3
Arc: A Serious House
A dark alleyway. A shot rings out, then another and another. Thomas and Martha Wayne lie dead on the street and their son, Bruce, runs into the night. But this is not the world you know – there are no Wayne billions and no butler to raise young Bruce Wayne. Surviving the streets, Bruce travels the world, learning and growing, forging himself into a weapon, before returning to Gotham and destroying the crime families that had crippled his city. To do this, he became the Batman.
Patrolling the streets, a random street crime led Bruce to Arkham Asylum, where he discovered that all was not as it should be. Not trusting Dr Crane and his assistant Dr Nocturn, he went undercover, which nearly cost him his life, but instead gave him the clues to see the corruption at the heart of the Asylum. With Commissioner Gordon’s help, he learned of Venom, the compound being used by Crane to twist the minds of men and began to prepare to return to Arkham, to shut down Crane once and for all.
Part One – A Calling.
The phone rang twice before he picked up and barked a single word at me. “Gordon.” It had been years since he’d quite smoking, but the old rasp had remained, leaving him a rough rumble that carried authority when he was distracted, or in a hurry.
I paused, this was supposed to be the call to arms that he had been waiting for, to prepare his men for an assault on Arkham, but… but I stopped and the words didn’t come.
“Well?” He was impatient now. If he hadn’t already, then he’d be glancing down to see that the incoming number on his phones display was missing and that would only further confirm to him that this was the call he had been expecting for the last two days. Not many men had a phone system that could refuse to give a return number to the police systems.
It wasn’t Gordon who was making me pause, though, it was Alfred, or rather something he had said. Both Dick and Alfred had been keen to call in one of our new ‘friends’ to help with Arkham, but I had refused to allow it. There was too much unknown to use brute force – turning on a light in a dark room will only cause cockroaches to scatter, much as ripping off a roof will; sometimes you need to get your hands dirty in the dark.
I’d insisted that it remain in the Bat family, but then Alfred had surprised me. “It’s not a family without her.”
He was right, but she was recovering, making a new life for herself in her new adopted family. Barbara was still adapting to life in a wheelchair and had shown no signs of wanting to come back… although I had made no effort to reach out either. Now I was speaking to the one man who saw her daily and I no longer wanted to speak to him as the Batman, but as Bruce Wayne.
I coughed, clearing my throat and pulling away the small voice changer that was pressed against my Adams apple. “Jim, sorry, Bruce Wayne here, I didn’t expect you to pick up so fast and I was pouring a Scotch.”
Now it was his turn to pause, perhaps surprised, but he recovered and his voice softened considerably. “Mr Wayne. It’s a…. it’s something of a surprise to have you call me here. On my direct number. That I don’t give out.”
I chuckled softly. “I’m discovering that wealth can buy more than a nice bottle of Johnnie Walker Gold Commissioner, it opens all sorts of doors.”
There was a touch of scorn in his voice. “Indeed Mr Wayne, so what can I do for you tonight?”
There were at least six conversational routes to get to the information I wanted, some more and some less convoluted, but as I contemplated each, it seemed exhausting, when I knew what I wanted to ask. “Uh, honestly Jim, I was calling to ask about Barbara. I’ve… been worried about how she’s settling in.” I surprised myself with my honesty.
I heard him suck in a breath, the air whistling past his moustache, and for just a moment I assumed he was about to shout something and pulled the phone an inch from my ear, but instead he let loose a peal of laughter, deep and genuine.
After a moment he composed himself. “Jesus Bruce…” He caught himself. “Sorry, Mr Wayne…”
“Bruce is fine.” I cut in.
“Mr Wayne, I apologise, but when one of Gotham’s titans of industry takes the time to track down my direct number and calls me up in the evening, well, it’s normally because they want to complain about one of my officer, they’ve been caught drunk driving, or honestly, often both.”
Suddenly I saw how absurd it must be from his point of view. Despite its Wayne name, I made little mention of the orphanage in public, letting Alfred be what little public face was needed. Now I was calling him up out of the blue asking about one of my adopted orphans.
The situation snapped into focus and I felt exposed and out of my comfort zone. I had intended to call as the Bat and instead I was here exposing my personal life to the Chief of Police. My emotions were still raw and stretched since my dose of the Crane’s gas and despite rest and my own protestations, it had a linger effect, perhaps that was what had caused me to behave like this.
“I’m… sorry Commissioner, I should have run this through Alfred, I understand that you’re a busy man and…”
“Please, no.” It was his turn to interrupt. “I’m just about to head home Mr Wayne,” I found that unlikely, knowing he worked late most nights, but said nothing, “Why don’t you join my family for dinner, in say an hour? My wife makes a fine pot roast”
This situation had already spun strangely out of control and it was time to end this, to close the conversation off and leave it for Alfred to pick this up. Barbara had been given time to adapt and now he could take it forward to bring her back into the fold, to reach out and make that connection again, it didn’t have to be me, it didn’t have to be tonight, with so much to do and so much to…
“That would be lovely Jim, I’ll see you in an hour.” The phone clicked into the cradle before I realised the words I had spoken. Below, Alfred and Dick were prepping the car, preparing for a war I had told them was coming; I was going for pot roast.
Part Two – Someone’s Coming For Dinner.
“You have a lovely home Mrs Gordon.” The hallway was small, but warm and I was happy to let her take the heavy coat I had worn against Gotham’s biting night air.
She smiled and the hung the coat on a peg next to the assorted jumble of other coats. It stood out as new and expensive against the other well-worn ones, including at least one that I recognised as Barbara’s.
Alfred kept buying me new clothes and new shoes as Wayne Enterprises grew and I was forced to spend more time in the business world, but they made me feel awkward and out of place. I had been born into one life, my parent’s world, but had grown up in the gutter and that was the place where I felt most at home.
“Please Bruce, call me Barb.” I was pleased that she didn’t even think about using anything other than my first name.” Now that we have another Barbara in the house we find it easier that way.” She guided me along the hallway and into the warmth of a small kitchen, where Gordon sat, shelling peas. “The alternative was that one of us go by Barbie and I don’t think either of us liked that much!” She laughed gaily and then was gone, moving across to stir something on the stove, leaving me standing waiting.
I placed the bottle of wine I had brought on the table along with a small box of chocolates, leaving time for Gordon to stand and extend his hand. “Welcome to our home Mr Wayne, can I get you a drink?”
“Just a water please.” I took a second to look around the kitchen. The oven and sink made up most of one side, with a table filling much of the rest of the room. Every surface was covered with some form of food, enough to feed a dozen back at the orphanage, but here it seemed to be just for us.
Gordon was watching me with some kind of wry amusement. “Not quite what you’re used to Mr Wayne?”
I smiled. “Again, it’s Bruce.” He inclined his head in agreement. “Actually, it’s not dissimilar to the kitchen at the orphanage, it’s just on a larger scale there and if you had so many delicious dishes sitting unguarded, then you’d find sneaky hands stealing handfuls before it ever made the table.”
Gordon popped the last of the peas, then walked to the stove and poured them into a pot of boiling water. “I’ve wondered about that before Mr… Bruce. Do you take much of an active part in the day to day running of the orphanage?”
“He’s been known to be around from time to time.” I swivelled at the voice and found Barbara, her chair pulled up closer than I would have imagined she could get without making a noise. An inspection of her chair, later, would show that she had been busy, making improvements and modifications.
I stepped forward. “Hello Barbara”. For a moment I was unsure and then she reached up to me, giving me permission to reach down and hug her.
Babs voice floated across the room. “You’ve about five minutes until dinner is on the table if you want to talk.”
I glanced back, but both the Gordon’s had turned their backs and so I followed Barbara through to the Gordon’s back room, which was slowly being made into her bedroom.
She moved herself confidently, even after just a short time in the chair she was adapting to it. “You look well.” I hesitantly ventured.
She turned and fixed me with that analytic look that I had seen many times. “Why have you come Bruce, it’s not your style to make personal appearances?”
I slowly perched on the arm of a chair and sighed, trying to organise my mind. “Alfred says you’re doing well, but you’ve not been in touch much? He said you’d started at a new school?”
Barbara fiddled with a button on her shirt, before meeting my eye. “It’s closer,” she began defensively. “Jim starts early most days and it’d be too difficult to get all the way over town to the Orphanage with the…” She paused and then visibly steeled herself and continued. “Too difficult to get across town with the chair.”
I considered for a moment and nodded. “I can understand, but I know that if you ever had the time that a lot of the kids would…”
“Why did you come Bruce?” She repeated and this time there was a steel behind her words.
I glanced back to the door and considered closing it, but instead I lowered my voice. “There has… there is an ongoing incident at Arkham. I found evidence that Dr Crane is using the inmates to test some sort of gas that enhances the inmates and send them insane. They call it venom. It interferes with their minds and makes them…” A moment washed over me, as if talking about the gas had brought it back to my system. “he’s weaponsing Arkham Barbara.”
She cocked her head to the side, puzzled. “Are you sure? I mean, I remember that he was checked and seemed clean on his appointment, maybe it’s some kind of treatment, or an accident of some kind.”
I was momentarily surprised, unsure if Barbara had ever directly questioned me when I had told her something as a fact. “I’m sure. I’ve been inside, I’ve felt what the gas does.”
“Okay, but, well, I don’t see what that has to do with me. I mean, if you need help then why not call up Superman, or Kara, or any of the dozens who could just fly in and lay them out cold?”
I stepped forward, she was trying to push me, by questioning everything I said, that was clear now. “Have you already forgotten so much of your training Barbara? Crane isn’t working alone, he’s got an outside contact and the moment a pair of tights flies in, that all disappears. I don’t need help beating him up, I need help stopping whatever he’s doing and then stopping whoever is supplying him and the one after that and the one after that until the whole damn chain is gone and poses no more threat to Gotham.”
I caught myself looming over her, my face flushed as anger came too easily to me. I stopped, embarrassed. “I… I’m sorry, it’s the after effects of the gas… it… my emotions are hard to control.”
A palm impacted into my sternum and I found myself stumbling back, winded. I crashed into a low bookcase and immediately Barbara was on me, wheeling herself forward and smacking into my legs.
A fist came up and hit me, but there was no power behind it and it simply turned my face. Tears of angry impotent rage had sprung to the corners of her eyes, but they refused to flow, sitting like hot bullets, waiting to fly. “Forgotten? All I can do is think about everything I’ve learned, everything you taught me. But that life is gone now, that world is gone.”
She slumped back in her chair and the momentum wheeled it back a few feet, her feet scraped along the floor until it came to a stop. After a second I pushed myself up again. “You can still be a part of the family Barbara; your skills have always gone beyond fists and feet. We need you.”
She looked up at me and shrugged. “Maybe, but this life I have now Bruce… it’s not the one I was born to live, it’s not the one I was meant to have. That life is dead.”
She looked down and avoided my eyes and the room fell silent. For a long minute it stayed that way until at last soft steps approached the room and Gordon stepped inside the room and found us, silent.
He looked between us and at last a single tear found its way down Barbara’s face. He saw it as I did and for a moment I saw him flush with anger, but he suppressed it almost immediately. “Dinner is ready.”
She didn’t look up; the message was clear. I stepped forward and around Gordon, muttering softly as I passed him. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have come, please pass my apologies to your wife.”
Before he could reply I was past him, down the hallway and out of the front door. Behind me the warmth and smells of cooking were receding and the cold chill of Gotham’s night embraced me.
I’d left the coat behind, but I was almost pleased to be rid of it. Dick wore it more than I did anyway, in fact it was probably the first time I had worn it at all. He enjoyed the finery, while I would have been happier just blending into the crowd.
Part Three – Making Preparations.
Neither Alfred nor Dick commented as I returned, early and alone. Perhaps they’d known how my evening would go, or perhaps they read me clearly as I pushed through the kitchen and made a sandwich with the remains of that night’s dinner.
I ate in silence and then, as the last of the light crept from the sky, I walked through the courtyard and descended into the basements of the orphanage, to inspect the preparations that Alfred and Dick had been making.
Over the years I had accumulated a significant stash of weapons, equipment and oddities and it seemed that they had laid out much of what I had stored in preparation for the assault, but there were only a few things that were necessary and which I signalled to be loaded into the car.
For Dick and me, we would require a full load out on our suits. We brought extra zip ties, to bind hands and legs, along with numerous ways to non-lethally neutralise anyone we encountered.
Key to this mission though, was some specialised equipment specialised equipment – two masks that had once belonged to the SBS, the British Special Boat Service, an equivalent of the SAS from within the Royal Navy and every bit as specialised, trained and well equipped. These masks would mould to the head and offer an air tight seal and oxygen supply for up to two hours, protecting against any gas, while allowing for a full range of vision.
Apart from the masks, if we were to be hit with the gas, our only hope would be a counteracting drug that Alfred had made synthesised, based on early analysis of trace amounts of the gas. He had included two fast infusion injectors in strong aluminium cases, but without testing or analysis it was impossible to know if they would offer any help at all, or even if they would make things worse.
We loaded the chosen equipment into one of the newer cars we had been working on. Dick had a vision to one day create a stylised ‘Batmobile’, and I had reluctantly agreed to let him start work, so long as it didn’t interfere with his studies at Gotham university. Until then, we had multiple cars we had rebuilt, using custom chassis, Detroit muscle and German handling, to have cars that produced a startling turn of speed, while handling like a sports car and hitting like a tank. All, of course, painted black.
It wasn’t the equipment that was worrying me though, it was the unknown elements that still faced us and there was too much for my taste. My main frustration came from simply not knowing where the connections lay and where they led out to. I’d spent some time working my way through their computer systems again, looking for anything that could give me a clue, but there was nothing new.
I decided to take one final look and with Dick in tow, I moved to the Clocktower and began working my way through their file system once again. It was frustratingly old and slow. “I’m missing something here Dick, I just, I just don’t see it.”
I pulled back my cowl and rubbed my temples and then started slightly as Dick suddenly clicked his fingers. “See it! That’s it! How do they see?” My mind ached as I tried to understand what he’d worked out, but he continued with his thought. “What’s missing from their systems, what are we not seeing?”
I looked blankly and Alfred cut in. “Perhaps this isn’t the moment for a riddle Dick.”
“No, it’s not a riddle, I mean we’re not seeing them. There are no cameras in this system at all, surely Arkham has a security camera system.” Dick beamed triumphantly.
My fist thumped down. “God damn you’re right. No wonder we can’t find anything good on their system, they must have a secondary one on site, air-gapped to prevent anyone from being able to access things like security cameras. It was in all the cells, but they won’t risk anyone getting access for fear of what it’d show.”
Dick beamed as Alfred cut in. “Perhaps sir, you might reconsider calling up one of your friends, after all, they were most useful when gaining access to Mr Luthor’s systems?”
I thought back to the ripped steel and smashed doors. “No, more than ever this stays in the family.”
“Then you’ll need a little help.” Barbara wheeled forward into the Clocktower. Pushing her chair Commissioner Gordon followed, his face dark and grim.
Part Four – Unexpected Visitors.
I might have expected Dick to react first, but instead it was Alfred who leapt to his feet and shot forward. “Barbara, what have you done!” There was genuine anger and rebuke in his voice.
Gordon stepped back, his hand reflexively going to his holster, then stopping half way there, but Barbara didn’t even flinch, her face staying blank.
“Alfred.” My bark made him pause, midstride and half turn to look back at me. By then Dick had begun to move and I had to turn and lay a hand on his arm too.
There was silence in the room as everyone adjusted and then Gordon let his hand drop and pushed Barbara forward again. “She didn’t give away any of your secrets.”
I nodded. “I know. When did you work it out?” I stood and gestured for him to come into the room. He moved forward, looking around, much as I had when he had invited me into his own home.
He took a seat with his back to a wall and sat awkwardly. “I’ve been a cop in Gotham for a long-time Bruce. I heard the rumours of a masked vigilante long before you completed your disguise, back when you were just a shadow. Most of the GCPD dismissed you as a hoax, or some kind of bogeyman man that the criminals would tell each other about, but I kept my own file open and began to work the case.”
A let a wry grin play on my lips. “You make it sound like working it out was easy?”
He slowly shook his head. “No, not easy, it’s only recently that I was finally able to put the pieces together and only lately I’ve been certain. Too many coincidences connecting to old dots.”
I nodded. “Still, you’re the first.”
He seemed pleased, but pained and then blurted out. Honestly, I wasn’t certain until tonight, when you said you would come for dinner and then hung up without asking my address.”
I smiled wryly. “That was the final piece of the puzzle?”
“Yes… well, no.” He reluctantly slipped an object from his pocket and tossed it over, it was a batarang. “I found this in the pocket of the coat you left behind.” I shot a look to Dick, who suddenly found every part of the ceiling fascinating.
Somewhere in the background Alfred had recovered and the room was filled with the noise of a kettle being boiled and loose tea being carefully measured into strainers. Dick had moved across and helped Barbara set up at one of the main computer consoles. If you ignored the handles on her chair, it looked almost like it had a thousand times before.
“So, what now?” I watched him carefully, looking for any reaction, but there was nothing, not even a change of his pulse.
At last he shrugged. “You’re a criminal Bruce, but since you began your… crusade, you’ve rid the city of the old Families, destroyed street crime and now you’re tackling the new wave of criminals that are trying to take over this city.” He spread his hands. “You and I want what’s best for the city and so far, we’ve done pretty well when we worked together.”
Alfred finally returned with a tea pot and a plate of biscuits, one of his particularly strange and British selection that looked and tasted strangely similar to a coaster. “Now that we’ve got that sorted, I think it’s time to get back to planning tonight.” He lifted the pot. “Now, who wants sugar?”
Barbara moved with dizzying speed through the military interfaces, jumping from system to system as she masked her route and obfuscated the origin of orders to a dozen branches of the United States Air Force. Across the world, a dozen teams launched more than fifty drones on missions that would take them over many of the world’s most dangerous cities, as well as eight of the largest US metropolitans, but it was only the one that would be circling high above Gotham and streaming back live video that had a real mission.
At a command from Barbara, the drone team in Creech air force base were no longer in control of their drone and instead began piloting what was in effect an air craft simulation, while she made the real drone dip and spin down towards the outskirts of Gotham, enabling its powerful cameras to pick up even greater detail.
After a time she finally pointed to the screen, freezing and enhancing a part of the picture. “There.” She had highlighted a small section of the outside wall, where a loop of wire connected to a small surveillance camera and then ran along a wall and suddenly plunged over and disappeared into the ground. “That’s why they don’t need the internet, they’ve run their own hard wires to whoever they are working with. That’s the only place I can find a connection and that’s where we need to be if we want in.”
I pulled up the wider plan of the grounds, the area Barbara had indicated was on the distant side of the compound, at least six or seven miles from the main entrance, down small dirt tracks. “It’ll need someone to complete the hack, someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Dick tapped the map confidently. “No problem, you do the tap, I’ll make an entrance. I’ll keep them busy enough that they’ll not have time to think about their network. You can join me when you have the intel.”
“No Dick, it’s too dangerous and it’d take too long to get to you if something went wrong. We go in together.”
There was a long pause and Gordon eventually looked from face to face, but it was Barbara who broke the silence. “Okay.”
“Okay what?” Gordon echoed. “Wait, what did you agree to?”
I turned and spoke carefully. “We don’t have another choice, someone needs to make the tap while we enter. It’ll be a long way away from any of the action and Barbara is the only one who can do that successfully.”
Gordon’s mouth opened and closed a few times before he was able to speak. “Are you serious? What if someone sees her, what if something happens?”
Now it was my turn to shrug. “Sounds like she’ll need someone there to look out for her.”
Part Five– Return to the House on the Hill
“Team two, do you copy? We are ready to breech.” In the darkness, I could * feel* the excitement radiating from Dick. He lived for these movements and, I had to admit, to an extent the same could be said of myself.
We’d gained access to the grounds easily, avoiding the scattered guards and security cameras and then making our way through the dark gardens to the front of the building and carefully applying a generous line of plastic explosives to the wall we had chosen. Normally I would have cautioned Dick to use only the absolute minimum, but tonight… tonight I was happy to let him be a little heavy handed.
As a final check, I reached over and felt the seal around his neck, ensuring that the SBS mask had closed perfectly, so that there was no possibility of the gas being used against us. He looked up at me, only his eyes were visible, but they held a smile and a slight weary tolerance of my worry.
The radio hissed and then Barbara’s voice came through. “We’re attempting the patch now, Nightowl is in position and… okay I’m in.”
I waited for a minute, letting her get into the system and start looking for any intel that might help us. My finger was resting lightly on the trigger, but instead of pressing I passed it over to Dick, who took it happily and waited for my signal. Two minutes had passed with no signal, she had three to notify us of anything important she had found before we went in, every minute we delayed carried the risk of being discovered. Time, at last, was up. “Team two, we are beginning the breach. Team One out.”
I looked across to Dick and nodded. He held up the trigger and pressed, just as the radio hissed with Barbara’s breathless voice. “Wait, team one, wait, there’s…”
Her voice was lost in the explosion as the side of the building erupted outwards, brick and stone raining down across the gardens, light spilling out from inside, beckoning us forward. The noise faded and all that was left was Barbara’s voice, repeating again and again. “Do not breach, do not breach…”
No need to wait this month, it's a double Batman month – read the next part right now!