Dick Grayson's instructions had been: wear something scruffy; bring the old Pontiac; drive to the Coney Island Diner and follow Bruce's lead.
As a rule, Bruce didn't let Dick drive if he could help it. Dick thought he was a pretty good driver for a sixteen year-old, but that wasn't good enough for Bruce. Alien invasions and sea monsters and cities wired to explode, those were fine, but God help him if Dick went a little too fast around a turn.
The Pontiac was one of Bruce's shittier cars. The paint was worn and rusted and in some places the metal had holes right through it. It coughed and sputtered and kicked, and at anything faster than sixty it shook like a leaf that had just seen a ghost.
Dick still kind of loved it. All those things just added to the aesthetic, added character. Made it feel like a project car, like he was the kind of guy who'd spend time out in the garage fixing it up. He might, too, if Bruce would let him. But Bruce didn't need more restored cars; he needed cars at varying levels of garbage, paid for in cash with doctored plates.
He pulled up to the diner, all old chrome and blinking neon lights. There was a small crowd gathered in the parking lot next to cars in only slightly better shape than the Pontiac. Dick rolled the window down as he slowed to a stop.
"There he is!"
Dick didn't recognize Bruce until Bruce pointed at him. He was slouching, and it made him look smaller than he really was, shorter and narrower. He was wearing jeans that didn't quite fit right, holes in the knees. A threadbare turtleneck the color of pea soup, a suede jacket with small holes and scorchmarks from cinders fallen astray. His hair was a mess, his right eye was in a perpetual squint, and he was pointing with an unlit cigar.
"There he is," Bruce said again, with a voice Dick didn't recognize but found oddly familiar. Didn't sound exactly like dairy-ish, but it was about halfway there. "That's my nephew, right there," Bruce said to the bald man beside him with the scar over his eye.
"That's your famous nephew, eh?" he asked, nudging Bruce with his elbow. "The football player."
"No, no," Bruce said, waving him off. "You're thinking of my niece."
"So dis here's da nephew wit' da tuba," said a man in a tattered baseball cap and denim jacket.
"No, no, different nephew."
"You got too many nephews," complained a man with a large gold hoop in one ear. "How d'you keep 'em all straight?"
"Well, for one thing," Bruce said, "they're not all straight." A roar of laughter went up. "What'd I say that was funny."
"Your uncle's a riot, kid," called the man with the scar toward Dick.
"Yeah, he's great," Dick called back, still not getting out of the car. He was trying not to grin too much at Bruce.
"Sweet kid, isn't he?" Bruce said. "Lookit that car, he bought that car himself, yanno."
"It's a good car," said a man wearing a Journey t-shirt with no sleeves. "You oughta be real proud of that car, kid."
"I am," Dick said, tapping on the door with his knuckles.
"You want some help gettin' that thing fixed up, you come on down to Goodman's," he said, pointing to himself.
"Gee, Mickey, you don't have to do that," Bruce said, sheepish.
"Don't you listen to him," Mickey said to Dick. "I've known this guy almost ten years, never let me do a damn thing for him, at this point I'll take any Malone I can get."
The man with the scar laughed and tousled Bruce's hair. Dick was grinning ear-to-ear. "That's real nice of you, Mr. Goodman," Dick said.
"That's Mickey to you!"
"He's a real sweet kid," Bruce said again, "real respectful." Bruce started patting down his pockets with a frown. "Say, I don't suppose—"
"Yeah, I've got a match," said three different men at once. They all laughed as Bruce scratched sheepishly at the back of his head. The man in the denim jacket gave Bruce a zippo; Bruce lit up his cigar, and started to put the lighter in his pocket before he was stopped.
"Ain't havin' ya lose annudda one o' my lighters, Matches."
"Aw, you know me, Bobby," Bruce said, puffing on his cigar. "I'm just forgetful's all."
"Yeah, yeah, we know all about it."
"I oughta get goin', my wife's expectin' me for dinner."
"When do we get to meet her, eh?" asked the man with the scar.
"I'm tryin', Joey, I'm tryin'. She's got a busy schedule, you know, with her work and the clubs and all that volunteerin' she likes to do. Did I tell you about her book club?"
"Only about a hundred times. Get goin', now, before you forget you're leavin' again."
"Geeze, I'm sorry, you know how it is, I get to talkin' and I just—"
"Yeah, we know."
"You call my cousin, now," Bruce said, pointing at Joey with his cigar. "You remember the number?"
"You wrote it down for me," Joey reminded him.
"Right, right. Don't lose it. You call him first thing tomorrow mornin', he'll get you the job."
"Don't you be getting my hopes up, Malone."
"C'mon, now, would I do that? When've I ever let you down?" Bruce opened the passenger door to the Pontiac, cigar held in his teeth; Dick wrinkled his nose at the smell.
"See you in a couple months, Matches," Mickey called after him.
"Stay away from the Tequila," someone else shouted, and everyone laughed at a joke Dick was not privy to.
Within the first block, Bruce was rubbing at his eyes like he had a headache. They made it two blocks before Bruce put out the cigar, and another one before Dick asked.
"Okay, Bruce: what the hell."
"The evidence we need was hidden in a shipment of clothing catalogs," Bruce said, his voice back to normal. "It was loaded onto a cargo ship called the Virginia Blackbird, it will be leaving for Australia tomorrow morning." The car smelled like cheap beer and cigar smoke and onions.
"That was not what I was asking."
"Was it not?"
"Why were you just doing a Columbo impression?" Dick almost wouldn't have recognized it. Before his time, but after the era of black and white that Dick made a hobby. He only knew it at all because Bruce sometimes left the television on for background noise, and his preferred television shows had a general theme that was easy to identify.
Columbo. Diagnosis: Murder. Murder, She Wrote. That Sherlock Holmes show from before Dick was born. Anything based on something written by Agatha Christie. He insisted it was because anything newer would be distracting, but Dick was pretty sure he was actually just a secret grandma. He even kept hard candies around the house.
Bruce sighed. "It's a long story."
"Were you pretending to have a glass eye? How would that even work?"
"It's not hard," Bruce said with a shrug. "Just squint and don't let that eye move." To demonstrate, Bruce rolled his eye. His left eye. Just his left eye.
"Don't do that!" Dick said, torn between staring at his guardian in horror and watching the road.
"What, this?" Bruce's left eye pointed left while his right eye remained still.
"Augh! No, stop, that's horrifying. How are you even doing that?"
Bruce blinked, getting his eyes back together where they belonged. "Can you not do that."
"No one can do that! Except chameleons."
"Huh. Slow down."
"I'm five miles under the speed limit. Explain the Columbo thing."
Bruce rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "It was an accident."
"How do you do that by accident?"
"It's a long story."
"The way you're making me drive, it's going to take five hours to get home anyway," Dick said. Bruce did not respond. "You've been doing that for ten years? I thought Batman started six years ago."
"It did. He said almost ten years. I was nineteen."
"You started going undercover as Columbo when you were nineteen?"
"It was an accident."
"You keep saying that like it explains anything," Dick huffed. "You're the worst at telling stories, you know that?"
"I'm not telling a story, I'm answering questions. You're bad at cross-examining."
"Don't try to make it my fault that you suck at this."
"I was home from Yale over winter break," Bruce sighed. "Missing person case. Someone I knew. Police weren't taking it seriously, so I thought I'd be clever." Bruce reached over and set a hand on Dick's shoulder. "I did find her."
"I found her. You looked worried. I thought I should let you know."
"So you told me the ending? You do suck at this."
"Use your turn signal."
"There's no one else on the road."
"There's a saying about a man's character and what he does when no one else is looking."
"I always thought that was a saying about why you shouldn't touch yourself."
"That's because you're sixteen."
"You were investigating a missing person?" Dick prompted.
"Yeah." Bruce ran a hand through his hair. "I was down at the docks poking my nose into someone else's business when Joey found me. I already had the cigar, so I just... said I was looking for a match."
"Why did you have a cigar?"
"I felt bad throwing it out. It was a gift."
"Old man with a fruit cart."
"Why did he give you a cigar?"
"Congratulations for the baby."
"See, this is what I mean," Dick said, huffing with frustration again. "You're the worst at telling stories."
"I don't hear anyone else complaining."
"That's because they're scared of you," Dick scoffed. "No one wants to ask a follow-up question. 'Hey Batman, why are you being trailed by a spectral alligator?' 'Well I couldn't leave it in the hot air balloon.'" Dick's impression of Batman involved lowering his voice as far as it would go and puffing out his chest, brow furrowed. "No one knows what the hell you're talking about and no one ever wants to admit it."
"That's their problem, not mine."
"We both know you do it on purpose." Bruce didn't respond to that. "Forget the cigar. An accident only explains it the first time."
"Joey's a nice guy," Bruce said. Dick laughed. "He is. He really liked me, I don't know. Introduced me to his friends, took me out drinking — God, so much drinking."
"I just said Malone. Just call me Malone. The Matches thing, that was all them. Because I kept..." Bruce gestured vaguely.
"Asking for matches?"
"And you haven't run into a single person who watched Columbo?"
"A couple. I tell them I don't like to watch TV because I'm paranoid about subliminal messaging." Dick laughed again. "They think it's a coincidence, I don't know. After that first case I wasn't planning to do it again — obviously — but then every time I was back on break it seemed like I'd be running into someone. Hey Matches, Matches where ya been, wait'll ya hear this Matches, Matches you'll never guess what Bobby did..."
"And now you're getting Joey a job?" Dick teased.
"He's a nice guy, Joey, he's got two kids — three now, he adopted his wife's son—"
"You're doing the Matches voice again."
Bruce cleared his throat. "Right. Anyway. He's good with heavy machinery, we've always got openings in warehouses. Did you just run a red light."
"It was yellow."
"Yellow means stop."
"Yellow means if you go fast enough you can beat it."
"Richard," Bruce warned.
"Matches," Dick shot back.
"This is why I don't let you drive the Batmobile." Despite his complaints, Bruce yawned, crossing his arms and leaning back in his seat.
"I once saw you go one-sixty down a sidewalk," Dick said, slowing down and being careful that his driving wouldn't jostle him.
Bruce yawned again, closing his eyes. "There are no red lights on sidewalks."
"I feel like these aren't the lessons you're supposed to be teaching an impressionable teenager."
"You want a lesson? Here's an important life lesson: never pick a cover story you're not willing to be stuck with for the rest of your goddamn life."