The raw air washed over him, stinging the exposed skin of his face. Jason Todd waited in the shadows of McKinley Street, hood up and eyes down. In the distance, he could hear laughter, the pulse of music, shrieks and screams cut short. A car rumbled down the street ahead of him. Its headlights shone over damp roads, grimy dumpsters, weeds peeking through pavement. And then it was gone, and the night was dark again.
Jason smiled to himself. Nights like these were ripe for the taking. A good thing too: he hadn’t had a solid job in days. Hunger was scratching at the inside of his throat, a real, fierce hunger that left him feeling hollow. All he needed was an idiot with a couple of twenties in his wallet, and he’d be set for the week.
First lesson of the streets: play the hand you’re dealt .
“Shitty hand,” Jason mumbled. Empty pockets, a dead junkie for a mother, an incarcerated loser for a father. In the books he stole from the library (second lesson: education is liberation ) he read stories of parents who fought heaven and earth for their children, who sang them lullabies and cooked them breakfast, who never shouted or screamed or did jobs for wicked men—
The scars on his shoulder blades began to itch. Don’t think about them . Stop . There was no use in wishing for a childhood he would never have. Jason had his game, and that was all that mattered now.
It only took a few months after his mother’s overdose to learn the craft. Jason knew which marks were easy and which would leave him bruised—or worse. He knew how much he could lift before the security guards or bouncers or whatever began to notice. He knew which street corners were safe, and which belonged to the men who would put a bullet in his brain, not caring that he was a) thirteen years-old, and b) fairly innocuous, as far as thieves go.
At least, he hoped to be.
Not that anyone would really notice if Jason started knifing people. His turf consisted of the six-ish blocks in the East End, adjacent to McKinley Street and not for fram Scurvy City and Hell’s Crucible. AKA everything around and including Crime Fucking Alley. It was a sorry little kingdom in Gotham, and he was its sorry little prince. His subjects were thieves, addicts, whores, pimps, murderers, all sorts of crowds united by the deathly grip of poverty.
Well. Jason breathed sharply in place of a laugh. “Subjects” might be a bit of a stretch.
The sound of footsteps turned his attention to the street. Two figures were approaching, wrapped in scarves and thick parkas. Though the light was dim, Jason could see the tension in their shoulders, the way they stepped hesitantly over plastic bags and gawked at jars of piss. Bingo . Residents of the East End were never so frightened of shadows. But these people, these people wouldn’t know not to carry cash or rings or watches. These people wouldn’t know not to trust a kid like him.
As the figures came closer, Jason saw that one of them was a woman, middle aged. Double Bingo . Those types ate his act like they were starved.
Still hidden in the shadows, Jason reached into his pocket and pulled out a vial of fake blood. He already had a bruise from the hotshot thug who claimed Jason disrespected him, but bruises don’t come off on fingers. Blood is unavoidable. He squeezed a few drops above his lip, then a few more along the arch of his eyebrow. Tepid liquid dripped down his face and came to a stop along the curve of his jaw.
It was almost ridiculous, how simple it was.
Inhale, exhale. Show time.
“HELP!” Jason screamed, emerging from the shadows. He fell to his knees and clutched his face. “Oh god, oh god. Help!”
The people in front of him jumped but did not run away. When he screamed again, the man approached him slowly, then ushered for the woman to follow.
“What happened?” the man asked softly.
Feigning shock, Jason shook his head, tears spilling down his bloody cheeks. Hyperventilate. Stare at the pavement. Quiver with fear .
“Oh,” the woman said. “Oh, baby.”
Jason knew what they saw: an injured child, frightened and trembling like a lost lamb. Maybe they had children of their own, and were projecting little Johnny’s face over his.
“The big man—he’s—” Jason gasped for air.
The woman crouched down to examine his face, though Jason knew she wouldn’t be able to describe him to the police. The closest street lamp was ten meters away, not to mention the fact that he was bloodied and filthy and his hair, jet black and shaggy, shaded his eyes from view.
“Hank,” she said. “He’s bleeding.”
“Blood?” Jason muttered.
The man, Hank, offered his hand. “Here.”
One mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi. Look up. Grab hand shyly. Fall into his chest. Look shocked.
“Whoa there,” Hank said.
“Don’t hurt me!” Jason backed away from the man, his arms held over his face. “Don’t!”
“We’re not going to hurt you,” the woman replied. She extended a gloved hand, beckoning him like a lost puppy. Her concern made him sick.
“No! No! Get away!”
But Jason was already gone. He ran down the street, dodging shopping carts, trash, sticky puddles of god-knows-what. The wind whipped at his clothes. It stung his face. Then, when he was sure the couple could no longer see him, he turned sharply into Crime Alley.
The couple didn’t follow him. Figures. Everybody wanted to be a hero but no one wanted to work for it. It would be easier for the two of them to go home and forget.
Until they realize what they’re missing , Jason thought, pulling a pair of wallets from his pocket. He counted at least one twenty before pinpricks dug into the back of his neck.
Someone was watching.
Stuffing the wallets back into his jeans, he turned around, ready to tear past whoever had followed him into the alley. But there was no one. Nothing.
Disappear , the streets told him.
Heart pounding in his ears, Jason took off in a sprint before someone bigger and meaner could take from him what he had earned.
(Third lesson: you can never be too careful )
As he climbed the fire escape of a condemned apartment building, Jason wondered if his home even qualified as a residence, much less a home. He lived on the third floor, where he could no longer smell the booze and shit of the streets, where he had a clean view of the clinic and the dark-haired woman who patched up both the innocent and the guilty. His neighbors were termites and asbestos, and his furniture was about as luxurious. Bags and blankets and a few things that loosely fit the definition of chairs. A few flashlights to see. A crate to store clothes.
But hey. Anything beat sleeping on a trash heap in Crime Alley.
Jason grabbed a rag from the bathroom sink and, wetting it with a splash from a water bottle, wiped the fake blood off his face. It stained his skin pink where it had dried, but he knew from experience it wouldn’t last. Besides, he could dress up as Mother-Fucking Wonder Woman and no one would bat an eye. If it didn’t directly concern them, the residents of East End didn’t give a fuck.
“Assholes,” he snapped at no one in particular.
There wasn’t a lot of cash in the wallets. Fifty-eight bucks between them, plus a coupon for office supplies and a department store gift card. One drivers license that showed him the woman's name was Mollie. How old-fashioned of her.
He used to regret stealing from strangers. The first time he ever lifted a wallet, he had half a mind to run back and plea for forgiveness. After all, the rich never strayed into East End. Those who came, they were only slightly higher up the totem pole. Poor but not impoverished. Struggling, but not homeless.
It made him remember something his father once told him when he was shit-faced and rambling. “There’s no real decency out there, Jase,” he said. “It’s you against the world, and you gotta do whatever it takes to keep you alive.”
Once he was really, truly on his own, Jason found that the old man was right. It killed him to admit it, but there was truth in the bastard’s words. His only options were to steal or die. An ugly game, living on the streets.
Besides, if they didn’t want to be robbed, they shouldn’t have come to the East End. Play with fire, get burned.
Draping himself over the pile of fabric he called a couch, Jason dug around for his book before settling into a comfortable position. He had read Peter Pan twice already, but the people at the library had set up a new security system and it was getting harder to sneak books out the door. Most of the time he would settle for staying within the library walls. He’d take an early morning walk to the Gotham Public Library and spend an entire day on one of the comfortable pleather chairs, a pile of books by his side. But he had to account for nights, too.
Squatting in an apartment without electricity could be kind of boring.
Peter Pan was good enough. Jason liked the idea of lost boys who didn’t need a mother or a father, not really. The Lost Boys never went hungry and never had to break a window to steal a wallet; a radio; a watch. Their biggest worry was pirates, and even then the pirates were hardly evil compared to the men Jason met in alleyways and on the docks. The pirates of Neverland only wanted Peter dead , and hardly gave a shit about the Lost Boys. They didn’t beat them, whip them, snuff out cigarettes on their skin. They never shoved greasy hands down their pants and mocked their cries for help—
Lost Boys. Ha! They were hardly lost, compared to him.
Sometimes Jason would look out the cracked, water-stained window of his apartment and watch the people of East End filter in and out of view. Thieves, addicts, whores, pimps, murderers: all of them bound by their vices to a mockery of the biorhythm. Thieves become addicts and whores, who are indebted to the pimps, who become murderers. And then, when they are all dead or imprisoned, their children take their places.
(Fourth lesson: you will either go to prison or go to hell )
Jason wouldn’t end up like them. He promised himself that he wouldn’t be like his mother, dead on a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm and bile on his lips. And he sure as hell wouldn’t be like his father, stealing and henching and dealing until he’s shoved into a cruiser with cuffed hands and a target on his back.
He was going to make it out. He had to.
Holding his book above his head, Jason flipped through the pages of Peter Pan , trying to work up the energy to keep reading. Education is liberation , but reading the same, quasi-racist book three nights in a row was getting kind of boring. Besides, it was a book for children. Despite his age and height and appearance, Jason hardly qualified for that category anymore. He’d have to “borrow” something else. Like Tolkien or Morrison or Faulkner. That’d be a trip.
He sat up, discarding the book to his side. The busted-up radio clock he stole from a Chevy told him that it was a little after two. He would have to wait until morning to eat—at this hour, the more violent criminals were beginning to haunt the streets. No matter how painful the ache in his gut, instant noodles and granola bars weren’t worth a bullet in the brain.
Better get some sleep, then.
Jason turned on the radio to drown the silence of his apartment. He couldn’t stand sleeping without it.
“ — suspect that the Batman is responsible for the apprehension of seven masked men believed to be — ”
Batman. Jason scoffed. Now there was a joke. How was the caped crusader protecting people like Jason? All Batman and the GCPD did was prolong the inevitable. Two to three years later, and the criminals they locked up would be back on the streets, raining terror down on the rats of East End. Hell, even the fucking Joker and Bane and Two-Face made it out eventually, angrier and more brutal than before. And people like Jason were the ones who suffered for it.
He switched the channel. Bitterness and sleep don’t mix well.
Soft jazz poured through the crackling speaker, spilling over Jason as he settled into a comfortable position on the floor. He breathed in deeply, noting how the scent of mold and rot hardly bothered him anymore. Gunshots echoed from somewhere off the street. A siren whooped after them.
But it only took him a few minutes to fall asleep.
Jason brought twenty bucks with him to the library and stuffed the rest in the hole behind the sink in his apartment. On the way he bought the cheapest, largest burger he could find, and washed it down with sixteen ounces of protein shake. The shake was gritty and didn’t taste at all like strawberries, but to him it was heaven.
Hunger abated, he walked slowly along the streets of Gotham, kicking the rocks in his path. The morning was gray and sluggish, hungover after whatever hell had occurred the night before. Jason liked mornings. Mornings were safe, mostly.
Still, he kept both a knife and a tire iron in his backpack. Of course, the iron was mostly for ripping off tires, but it made for a good weapon when needed.
He hoped he wouldn’t need it any time soon.
His agenda for the day was simple: take shower, eat, get new book, get rid of old book, lift a new pair of shoes and maybe some jeans. Maybe he’d rip off some car parts if he had time. Then he’d get to use the iron.
As for the shower, he had walked right into the gym by the Regal and dropped into the locker rooms before anyone even realized he shouldn’t be there. The trick was confidence. Tunnel vision. When he acted like he belonged, he faded into the background, anonymous.
(Fifth lesson: never stand out )
Shower, check. Food, check. Time to move on.
He flipped his hood over his head so that passerby wouldn’t see his face. The fake blood was gone, but the bruise remained, a fat, purple splotch that stretched over the pale skin of his jaw. After two days, it had faded a bit in color, but it would still attract the attention of people who thought they could help him.
Help me my ass, Jason thought bitterly. All they’d do is ship him off to foster care and pat themselves on the back for their good deed. Like the Gotham foster care system wasn’t full of people like his parents. Like he wouldn’t end up right back where he started from.
The only person who could help Jason was Jason.
When he got to the library, he slipped the copy of Peter Pan back into the return bin, then grabbed every book that piqued his interest. He read until his eyes felt heavy, until his fingers could barely grip the pages between them. How much sleep did he get? Four, five hours? Not enough, that’s for sure.
Most of the time, he tried not to think about the things that he was missing. So what if he didn’t have a bed or a mattress or a pillow?
My back hurts , he thought. That’s what.
Fuck. He really was too old for his age. Jason leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head. Closing his eyes, he pictured the bed he would have once he made it out of East End. Memory foam, two, no, three whole pillows, blankets so soft they would practically melt in the heat of his skin—
He didn’t realize he had fallen asleep until a voice disturbed him.
Talk about an adrenaline rush. His nerve seized; his heart raced. Jason looked up, expecting to see someone with a weapon and cold, steely eyes. But it was only a librarian: a tall, older man with square glasses. The nametag on his lanyard showed that his name was Marc.
“Can I help you with anything?” Marc asked.
“No,” he said.
“Do you want me to reshelve any of your books?”
Jason handed him the Baldwin novel he had finished, and the mystery novel he didn’t care for. “Thanks. Bye,” he said, itching to slink away from the man’s gaze.
Marc tucked the books under his arm. “I’ve seen you here a lot. Where do you live?”
“Culver street, you know, in Burnley. The house with the purple flowers out front. My mom hates them, but my dad says that they’ll attract bees and that bees are good for the garden out back. ‘Course, the garden’s all dried up now, except for the fucking tomatoes.”
(Sixth lesson: the crazier the lie, the better the lie )
“Oh.” Marc looked as if he had intruded in some sacred space. “I see. What happened to your face?”
He almost said, some drunk asshole punched me and left me in a heap behind a strip joint . But somehow, Jason didn’t think that would fly with stupid, nosy Marc.
“I can’t catch baseballs for shit.”
If Marc didn’t believe him, he hid it well. But Jason knew that he did. The lie was more comfortable than the truth.
“That’s too bad,” Marc said. “Baseball is a fun game. You take care of yourself.”
Jason gave the man a curt nod and watched him disappear around a bookshelf. Once he was sure that the librarian would not return, Jason slipped a copy of Fahrenheit 451 into his backpack, and walked toward the entrance. He stopped by the DVD section to grab a few more popular movies, then slipped those in his bag as well. DVDs, he learned, are good for five bucks and easy to pawn.
As he walked through the doors, he casually passed his bag behind the pillars that held the magnetic sensors. Success. No alarms raised.
The streets of Gotham were past dark, shrouded by a thick blanket of fog that not even moonlight could break through. Shit . He must have been sleeping for a while. Really puts a damper on his plans.
Looking down, Jason studied his shoes. Tears split the fabric, and the soles had worn away after months of running away from marks, pimps, gangsters. Not to mention the fact that they were way too tight. In a mere three months he had grown almost an inch, and his clothes were feeling it.
He checked his watch. Eight o’clock.
“God damn it,” he hissed. The later it got, the more anxious stores became. Security got tighter. Clerks more suspicious. It’s not that he was afraid of being caught—not that he would, anyway, he was quick as a hawk—but why work harder when he could work smarter?
Fuck me fuck me fuck me .
He was three blocks into East End when he heard the police cruiser. The muscles in his legs tensed up. It was an instinctual, involuntary reaction. No matter when or where, policemen were not his friends. They looked at him and saw a tramp, a punk, someone who would grow up to be like the boys they nail for drug slinging and homicide. Someone like his father.
Once, during the early days on his own, Jason made the mistake of reporting someone who had pointed a gun at an old man and threatened to shoot. It seemed like the logical thing at the time. The police take away the bad guys. The police are on his side.
Except when he approached them, they pinned them to the cruiser and told him he was under arrest for dealing, even though he had never touched drugs except to remove them from his mother’s unconscious hands. When he wrenched himself from their grasp, he ran and ran and threw up behind a dumpster.
Jason could feel the cruiser approaching. Headlights shone over the wet asphalt, stirring anger and unease inside his chest. He ached to strip the vehicle of its tires, smash the windows, steal whatever he could find inside.
Don’t look. Just keep walking. Don’t make it worse.
The cruiser passed, as he knew deep down it would. Like would ever Marc call the police over a stolen Bradbury novel and some DVDs. Still, he ached to smash the headlights.
“Fuck you,” he muttered, tugging on the strings of his hood.
Continuing his walk, he imagined his feet in looser shoes. A pleasant fantasy, but it didn’t last more than five minutes.
He turned. A large man lingered on the other side of the road, his fat forefinger pointed at Jason’s face.
Jason ignored him. Not in the mood.
“Hey! Fucker! I’m talking to you!”
“Sorry,” Jason called. “I don’t know any ‘fucker.’ You got the wrong guy.”
“What’d you say, bitch?” As the man crossed the street, Jason could smell grease and booze. “You talking back to me?”
“Talking down to you, actually.”
“Oh yeah?” The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a knife. “How about now?”
“I don’t have any money,” Jason said flatly.
(Seventh lesson: fear digs a deeper grave )
“Oh yeah? Empty your pockets.”
He did as the man commanded. “Told you,” he said, showing him a piece of gum and seventy cents’ change. “You want these? You can have them.”
The man motioned with the tip of his knife. “The bag.”
Jason stared at the man. His grip was loose, his vision scattered. No way was this guy good enough to catch him, let alone knife him.
“I don’t have any money,” he said again.
“I don’t believe you.
This was a waste of his time.
Just run , the streets said. He won’t follow.
Jason turned on his heels and obeyed without second thought. Over the rush of the wind, he could hear the man screaming obscenities. His backpack thudded against his spine. He ran faster.
At some point he passed the cruiser, lying dormant at the side of the road. No no no no no , he begged. Please no.
His prayer went unanswered. With a shriek or the sirens, the red and blue lit up the night.
The PA system broke through the fog. “ Stop ,” it said. “ Go to the side of the road. ”
Like hell he would. Jason forced his legs to keep moving. He ducked down one street, crossed another. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. Don’t stop.
The roar of an engine filled his head. He can taste the exhaust in the air, feel the friction of the tires against the street.
“ Halt! ”
Left, right. Duck. Climb. Jump.
Jason fell from the height of the chain-link fence, tearing open a knee and taking the skin off his palms. But the cruiser was trapped on the other side.
He could not rest. It was best to keep moving, before the cops get out and brandish their guns.
In an instant he was gone.
When he could hear nothing but the sound of his own gasping, he let himself catch his breath. Stepping into the shadows between two buildings, he bent over his knees and panted. Blood dripped down the front of his shin. His heart threatened to beat out of his throat.
In, two three four. Out, two three four. After a moment, he straightened and looked around. He was in Crime Alley; of that he was sure. Before this moment, he thought that he knew every inch of his turf, every discarded needle, every broken window. But now...he didn’t recognize a thing. It was as if he had stumbled into some hidden pocket of Gotham.
As he searched for some recognizable landmark, Jason couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.
“Come out,” he growled, keeping his voice deep and dangerous.
He took a step back into darkness. Another. No one appeared. He was truly alone.
Sighing with relief, Jason flexed the muscles in his hands. He ran his hands through his hair, pushing the dark strands out of his eyes, and tried to quell the pounding in his chest. In, two three four. Out, two three four.
That’s when he noticed the car.
It was sleek and angular, much too clean to have been parked long. The body of the car was black, so black that Jason didn’t blame himself for not noticing it against the deep, dark shadows of the alley. A car like this...he had never seen a car like this before. The tires alone would be worth a grand. Two, even. And if he could cut the plates and catalytic converter…
Fuck. He was going to this, wasn’t he? He had to do this.
Looking around, Jason approached the car slowly. He placed a hand over the hood. Still warm. Whoever parked here, they wouldn’t be returning anytime soon.
He smiled to himself. Idiot . It was probably some shithead loaded john, looking for a pleasure among the lowest of the low. And now the dumbass would be trapped here, alone and exposed and afraid. Well. Mr. John wanted to experience the East End life, didn’t he?
It was going to be a good night after all.
Reaching into his backpack, Jason retrieved the jack and tire iron he stored in the second-largest pocket. He made quick work of the lug nuts and hauled the front left tire to the side of the alley. It was almost a game, at this point. How fast can he rip off tires? His record was eleven minutes, though he was shorter and weaker then. Now that he was older, he could probably do it in nine.
His mistake was this: he lost track of his surroundings. Jason felt so at ease around cars, so loose, that he missed the hiss of breath. The tremble of footsteps. The clicking of a cocking gun. It wasn’t until he felt the blunt pressure against the back of his head that he came back to reality.
(Eighth lesson: never lose track of your surroundings )
“What’s this?” a voice hissed in his ear. It was deep and wet, filled with a poison that froze the blood in his veins. “Tell me kid, were you dropped as a baby or were you born stupid?”
The Voice pressed the gun harder against his head. “Shut up.”
Jason’s grip around the tire iron tightened until his knuckles were white as paper. Could he swing before the Voice fired? Surely he wouldn’t be expecting it, which would give Jason the advantage of surprise, but guns were unpredictable, impatient.
There was only one way to find out.
He threw himself to the side and lashed out, hitting the Voice behind the knee. A bullet tore through the night, exploding in his ears. Jason clamped his hands over his head but it was too late. The sound bounced around his head, ringing and buzzing painfully. And the Voice—where was the Voice?
Tight arms wrapped around him, pinning his arms to his chest. “You little shit!” the Voice growled.
Jason kicked. He threw his head into the Voice’s jaw. He screamed.
“Get off me! Get off me! Fuck!”
The Voice squeezed harder.
The air flew from Jason’s lungs. Something in him began to crack. No! he tried to scream. Please! I’m just a kid! He started kicking again, his feet thumping weakly against the Voice’s shins. Once, twice...
His vision began to slip away. Oh god, oh god, oh god , he begged, until his words became a prayer.
He did not want to die.
“Sears! Release the boy.”
At once the pressure lessened. Jason fell to his knees, gulping down air.
The Voice, a middle-aged man with a full beard, limped forward, favoring the leg that Jason had not struck. He wore a black suit jacket and tie, as did the men who had appeared before them. Most of them, at least. The one in front wore a white, pin-striped suit and an intricate, skull-like mask over his face.
Whoever he was, Jason had him to thank for his life.
“You were right about him, sir,” the Voice said. “He—”
“I have eyes, Sears.”
The masked man stepped toward them, tilting his head like a wolf inspecting its prey. As he came closer, Jason realized that the seizing in his chest was fear. He had never felt so vulnerable, not when his father was beating him, not when his mother lay dead on the bathroom floor, not when cops and drunk men accosted him on the street.
“Do you know who I am?” the masked man asked.
Fear digs a deeper grave .
“Judging by your getup,” Jason replied, “I’m guessing you’re some nobody gangster. Trying to get attention from the big man himself with your fancy costume.”
There was a crack, and his face lit up in white, blinding pain. Jason yelped. Sears had struck him.
But the masked man was laughing. “You’re a foolish one to be so brave in the face of death. Brave, but foolish.”
Jason touched a hand to his nose. It came back red.
“Sears here,” the masked man continued, gesturing to the Voice, “he never misses. Either you’re one lucky bastard, or you’re worth more than you realize.”
“According to the world, I’m not worth shit.”
“Oh, I think you’re worth a lot more than that.”
Jason scrambled away from his extended hand. “I don’t do that. I’m not—”
The masked man laughed again. “Please. If I wanted to sell you, I wouldn’t waste time on chatter,” he said. “Someone like me, I could use someone like you. Consider yourself an... investment .”
“I’m not a criminal.”
“The facts say otherwise.”
“I’m not a criminal like you .”
“Who says I am? You were damaging my property. Sears responded as any loyal man would. I can’t help that he’s a little...passionate.”
Jason opened his mouth but could not find the words to say.
The masked man offered his hand again. “Come with me, and I’ll make you the hero of Gotham.”
“I don’t want your help.”
‘Very well.” The masked man motioned to another one of his men, who retrieved his gun and aimed it between Jason’s eyes. “Leave your mark on history or on the pavement. The choice is yours.”
As he stared down the barrel of the gun, Jason wondered if he would be better off dead. No more hunger, no more fear. The world would be rid of yet another brat it never wanted.
Or he could live. Get out of East End. This was what he wanted, wasn’t it?