“Look up, Bruce,” his mother had once said, during the Time Before. She held his hand in hers, sticky four-year-old fingers against Italian leather gloves, clicking down Park Row on her kitten heels with an umbrella and a box of French pastries under her arm.
“Don’t look down,” she’d said, pointing her umbrella to the sky, a raindrop perched perfectly on the tip like a jewel. “The city is beautiful, Honey. There’s so much more to see if you look up.” His concentration then, however, was on the ground, stomping puddles with gleeful violence.
Decades-older Bruce Wayne strode down the Gotham streets and agreed with his mother. The towering buildings drew your eyes upwards, away from the dark piss-stained backstreets and broken bottles, and towards the stars, just like the vaulted stained glass windows in a cathedral drew your eyes upwards to Heaven. A trick of architecture. From the ground, looking up, the city was beautiful.
“Beauty can be wherever you choose to see it,” his mother once said, from Before.
But Batman, who saw the city from above, knew that if you took a left from the designer watch shop on the corner and walked two blocks, there was an alleyway where a mid-level mob boss and his family had been murdered by a rival gang. The blood on the pavement would remain until the next good rain. He knew that two miles due west was an ugly sprawl of abandoned warehouses bearing the logos of long-extinct companies, serving nowadays as a mafia market for buying and selling anything under the sun, no matter how perverse. Posters of naked, stretched-out women adorned the walls of underground cellars while men sat around poker tables and talked prostitution and illegal arms, flesh and death, and chased sin down with scotch. He knew that prostitutes wandered the eastside with switchblades in their garters and haunted looks in their eyes, poison running through their emaciated bodies.
And he knew that Lizzie Stride, the face and name on the MISSING poster flapping in the breeze from the corner telephone pole, had been found dead a week after disappearing on her way home from visiting old Nana Stride. She was found hung naked, swaying like the condemned, from a clothesline looped double around her neck. The newspapers reported that she had died of strangulation. Only certain local lawmen (and Batman) knew the additional disturbing details. That her nails were found freshly painted, a blotchy job that spilled over her fingertips and knuckles, most likely done without her consent. That sometime during the week of her captivity, someone had shaved her. Legs, underarms, and groin. That sometime before death, a thick smear of lipstick and silver dollar discs of rouge had been applied to her face. That her body bore clear signs of rape and sodomy.
Bruce shoved his hands deeper into his coat pockets and walked faster. 9 o’clock and it was freezing, a dark starless night. It matched his dark mood. Morose, because of the three voicemail messages he’d left on Clark’s phone.
Hey, it’s me. I got here a little early. Meet you at our usual table.
Hey Slowpoke, did you get caught up? Call me when you get a chance. I… call me.
Hey… where are you? You aren’t answering your texts. Listen, if this is about earlier today… I meant what I said, you know. I meant every word. You can tell me the truth. There’s no pressure. Just… call me. Come see me. Or let me come see you. I… just need to hear your voice.
Morose, because Lizzie, eternally young, eternally beautiful, and eternally dead Lizzie, was the third of a string of murders that had popped up in Gotham. Serge Marko, found partially skinned and toothless with a gummy rictus grin on his face, had been hanging off the bridge from his neck by his own belt. One testicle missing. Mouth smeared with red lipstick. Alex Chapel, found hanging from a tree in Midtown Park. Burn marks and signs of torture. Signs of forced sodomy. Mouth smeared with red lipstick.
All humiliatingly, publically displayed, meant to be found soon after death. No witnesses. No evidence linking back to the killer. Or killers. Even Batman had no leads, despite the number of people he’d dangled from heights in the past few days.
Lizzie Stride, Serge Marko, Alex Chapel. He repeated their names in his head until they buzzed loudly in his ears, like an accusation.
Bruce passed by a store display of TV sets, the sickly light of the monitors washing over him. Garish cartoon animals chased each other across the screen, an aproned housewife smiled maniacally at a new blender, a weatherman nodded earnestly at next week’s forecast. He sighed. The club sandwich he’d eaten alone was turning sour in his stomach.
He should call a car, instead of wandering the streets. Get dropped off at the lake house. Coffee. See Alfred about the new upgrades to his gear. Get changed. Come back as Batman. Pursue a new lead that seemed promising…
He felt it a second before it actually happened, an electric tingling in his gut, a premonition that crackled like static. All at once, every electronic screen on the street blacked out. The hoard of storefront monitors went dark next to him. The giant HD screen on the tallest building in Gotham went from advertising fruity pop drinks to going completely dark. Even the little TV screens in the passing taxi cabs blinked out.
Some people murmured uneasily, most just looked confused and kept walking.
“Is that a power outage?” a woman remarked to no one in particular.
Then, very single screen snapped on again and crazed laughter filled the air.
Bruce froze. It can’t be…
The Joker’s face blazed across every screen in Gotham. It leered down at Bruce from the heights, smirked at him from behind glass showcases, peered at him from mobile tablets.
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, fellow monsters and inmates! It’s me, Gotham’s most beloved comedian!
It couldn’t be. Joker was locked securely back at Arkham. There had been no reports of a break-out.
It’s my very great joy to tell you: I’m cured! No longer mad! Arkham has released me, though they were so sad to see me go. I’m as sane as any one of you. And you’re all just as sane as I am. He paused to cackle, head thrown back. When he composed himself, there was a dangerous, homicidal glint in his eye.
Oh, it’s been a long time. But what do I find has happened in my absence? No respect. My allies, disbanded. My holdings, gone. My eastside investments, gone. My slice of the pie, gone gone gone!
He turned out his pants pockets, comically holding out the empty pouches with a forlorn look on his face. After serving my time in the loony bin, I come out to find myself bankrupt. Broke. Bust. Belly up. Financially fucking insolvent!
Joker’s voice rose to a scream. In rage, he swung both fists at the camera, which tilted, wobbled, then righted itself. The empire I’ve lovingly built with my own two hands, gone. What good is money without power? Gotham is mine. And I mean to have what’s mine.
Bruce’s blood ran cold. Joker’s fit of pique had left the camera at an angle, exposing a bowed figure in the background. A bare back and shoulders.
I’m sure by now, the trained monkeys that call themselves the Gotham police have found my… presents. Well, that was just a teaser. The setup for the real punchline.
The camera re-focused on the figure in the background. It was a man, kneeling on what looked like a bare warehouse floor. Naked, stripped, with a bag over his head and hands tied.
“No,” whispered Bruce. His mind blocked out the Joker’s insane rambling, blocked out the frightened murmurs of the people on the street. It can’t be. It couldn’t be. But his eyes told him the merciless truth. He knew that body. Even through the grainy image, he knew. He knew the slant of those hips, that curve where his hand rested so naturally, like it was made for him. He knew that birthmark on the right shoulder, those slightly asymmetrical collarbones.
Clark… It couldn’t be. Clark was safe in Metropolis, safe and far away from this shit-stained, blood-stained city.
His blood felt like ice in his veins. He felt his hands clenching and unclenching, grasping at nothing. What was the last thing Clark had said to him? He couldn’t remember…
In a moment of weakness, he stumbled, fell into another guy, “Hey buddy, you alright?”
That moment passed quickly. Weakness turned into cold, murderous, fury. He drew the phone from his pocket and snapped it up, hitting speed dial. “Alfred, are you seeing this?” he said, his voice like steel.
“Unfortunately, Master Wayne, I am.”
“Find out where it’s broadcasting from.”
The Joker was removing the bag now, revealing a face that Bruce already knew, smeared in clown’s makeup with black-rimmed glasses carefully perched in front of dazed, drugged-looking eyes.
“Transmitting the location to you now, sir.”
Bruce looked down at his phone. It was no more than half a mile from his location, towards the docks. He pushed through the crowd, heading off at a dead run, turning his back on the image of Joker pulling Clark up by the hair, tilting his head up, kissing his mouth so that red greasepaint smeared over Clark’s face like blood. Licking his lips.
Impossible. It was impossible. The thoughts ran through his head like mice in a maze as he pelted down Midtown Gotham. Joker was in Arkham. He couldn’t have had anything to do with the murders. Batman had checked, in person, after the first murder had been discovered, and then again when Lizzie Stride had been found. The clown had been sullen and spiteful, but secure behind bars.
“Master Wayne, I understand your haste, but perhaps it would serve you better to rendezvous back at the-”
“Not now, Alfred,” he panted, as paved concrete gave way to cobblestones beneath his feet. “He’s right there, I can get to him.”
Clark… He had to get to Clark. Like a horror film that he couldn’t close his eyes to, the image of Clark dead, naked, and strung up like the others invaded his mind, made him crazy. No, no, no…
“Master Wayne, you have no weaponry, no equipment-”
“I don’t need weapons to break Joker in half.”
What was the last thing Clark had said to him? Bruce remembered now, as the damp wind tore at his clothes and the smell of wet sewage assaulted his nostrils. Clark hadn’t said anything at all. The last thing he’d given Bruce wasn’t words, but a kiss that tasted of double espresso (Clark always drank a double espresso when he had field work) and sweet relish.
“It’s ok,” said Bruce, folding Clark’s fingers over the ring. “You don’t have to say anything. In fact, don’t say anything at all. Just think about it, ok? Tell me tonight, if you’re ready. I’ll wait for you, at our usual place. Our usual table.” A breathless smile from Clark, which slowly widened into that familiar 1000-watt grin. Arms flung around Bruce. No words, just a kiss.
Bruce swung the pipe as hard as he could, broke the rusted chain, which clattered to the ground. Almost as an afterthought, he wrapped his Rolex around his knuckles. Kicked down the door to the warehouse. Ran in.
“Alfred,” he croaked, “there’s nothing here.”
“You’re right on top of the signal, sir.”
He whirled around, seeing nothing but an empty room, with one naked bulb swinging from the ceiling. Nothing, except…
“Bruce,” Alfred’s voice crackled urgently over the comm. “Get out of there. I think it’s a trap.”
He’d already started sprinting for the entrance at “Bruce.” He’d just reached the threshold at “trap,” when the bomb went off.