Living as a dead man is the ultimate irony, the cruelest joke. For one Boston Brand there was no departing these earthly confines once his body turned to dust. His spirit has been remanded by Rama Kushna to atone for his sins. He has lived a profligate life and payment is due. Why he was chosen as a means of salvation haunts his thoughts. Prospects are grim for a heavenly future, if one believes in that.
Then there's his murder. A man with a hook was involved, left hand or right remains unknown. Answers are needed. Some may be found nearby while others sought in the hidden city of Nanda Parbat in the far reaches of Tibet. If Deadman's search is to find result he has distance to travel. His twofold quest has just begun.
Now other concerns command his attention. He is again drawn toward an uncertain course, this time Gotham City and Haly's Circus, two names linked to one individual. Haly's was home to the Flying Graysons, a trapeze act felled by murder. The parents of Dick Grayson, former Boy Wonder and present Nightwing, thrilled there until their untimely deaths.
Young Grayson is also back. What started as a journey of discovery has become entangled, governing not just his daytime notice but nocturnal as well. While opposites the two shared the same vocation with equally dire results. The Graysons' killer was uncovered, Deadman's was not. Is that the connection and cause for summoning? He has learned his journey weaves in mysterious ways. Whether reclamation or redemption hazard he must, though this time personal impact might arise.
There are ventures from yesteryear that struggle in current times. Circuses bear that regrettable honor. They require vast funds to operate, requiring vast crowds to attend, a troubling situation for a business aimed at children. Today's youth prefer tech toys to the big top. Haly's manages to stay afloat though barely. They use shrewd planning with a loyal staff willing to work for modest wages to remain solvent.
Their two week engagement in Gotham is critical, though even a strong turnout may not suffice. Dick Grayson is aware, one reason for his return, a return tinged with sadness. He has thought greatly about offering support. His relationship to Bruce Wayne has provided considerable means, but the decision is not easy. Rumors spread of conflict with some favoring closure. While trying news it's merely the tip of the iceberg. A secret lurks capable of destroying the entire circus. For all concerned dark days loom ominously on the horizon.
Gotham City is an urban nightmare, a backdrop befitting a Deadman. His non-corporeal status and parallel demeanor do not complement sunlit environs, nor do the missions he partakes. The souls he encounters are withstanding some form of crisis with Brand yet comprehending his role. The thoughts of an individual are no simple matter. Their minds dance to a different beat borne of their unique character and experiences, with no one able to affect change.
The moment of entry is like plunging into an abyss. The jolt is both frightening and enlightening. It's eerie invading someone's head, a body snatching akin to voyeurism. The takeover is immediate with the poor fools never knowing what hit them.
Deadman too endures confusion though brief. For one averse to learning he could lecture on cognitive functions. Who needs school when you can leap from mind to mind. Forget neurons and synapses. It's nature, nurture and sensory perception. Depending on whose body he hijacks he may become fluent in another language or acquire the skills of a scratch golfer, a correlation to their mental and muscle memory.
Despite everything he's learned to function within the host body, even those of the opposite sex. While the circumstances and demands vary, the question is the identity of the victim this go round. That answer is moments away.
It's not easy returning to the site of your childhood, even one as itinerant as a circus. What's that saying, you can never go home again. Can Dick relate. Under the best conditions it's taxing, but when death intrudes emotions heighten. Add the problems of the circus and the erstwhile Boy Wonder endures considerable wondering indeed.
Naturally this is all part of adulthood facing unpleasant situations. Even his reunion with boyhood sweetheart Raya Vestri has him aquiver. His hormones flare at the thought. Alas time waits for no man for there by the grace of god stands she.
"Hi, Dick. Long time."
"Too long. Look at you. You're gorgeous."
"You always were a charmer, even as a boy. Now you're all grown up, a man. You must have to fight them off."
"Now who's the charmer."
"We missed you."
"I've missed you, greatly, thought about you. How you were, how the circus was doing."
"Yet you stayed away."
"Too busy to see your old friends, your old family?"
"It's not that simple. There are things you're unaware of, plus the pain runs deep."
"I know, and I understand, but that's what friends are for."
"How is everything?"
"Bad. We've had tough times before but this is different. There are things you're unaware of."
"I've heard talk."
"I don't know everything myself. The circus is divided. We've always been tight but people have changed. If it's time to close fine, but not like this."
"I want to help anyway I can."
"Dick, you can't just waltz here after all this time, flash your money and play the hero. Despite your intentions some will resent it, maybe even me."
"I don't mean to imply the circus can't handle its own problems. I want to help. If my resources can do that so be it. I can't think of a better way to use them."
"We'll see. I'll talk to them, slowly. Now I have to prepare for tomorrow's opening. You will be there?"
"I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Good, and thanks. It really is great seeing you."
"It's almost like we're kids again."
"If only. Until tomorrow."
For Deadman the time is now. Tingling decrees contact is imminent, a blind date uncommon in the annals of relationships. He can see the victim, a man arranging tent construction. His looks are unfamiliar. No surprise. He has yet to encounter anyone he knew in his previous life. What's this guy's story and what's his sorrow.
Here we go, Magic Mountain baby. Ugh, I hate this part, the disorientation. Now where was I? Oh yeah, the circus. It's becoming clearer, things are becoming quite clear. I'm in the body of a man at Haly's Circus. Thoughts are flooding in, some intense, others trivial. It's the former that matter. I need to wade through the crap to get to the core, who he is and why I'm here.
I'm seeing a pattern, thoughts about the circus, about staying in business. About the competition, especially the competition. About their performers, one particular performer. An acrobat in a costume, a trapeze artist. A trapeze artist going by the name of…..Deadman. Deadman! My god. This man knows who murdered me.
Dick's reunion with Raya went well. Trepidation subsided once contact was made, eye contact especially, and while part of the conversation conveyed regret it was mostly caring. One objective went unrealized though. He did not uncover anything new on the circus's plight. Indeed the lack of information was dismaying, including Raya's vagueness. Her position would make her privy to all manner of facts and hearsay. It pains him to think she was not completely forthcoming with her comments.
One thing made clear was his return is deemed unwelcome by some, meaning Dick Grayson's role in this mystery has run aground. Fortunately he has other options, his evening persona Nightwing. Evening's when the facades fade and the snakes slither, plus he can exert more influence. While his interrogation technique pales to Batman's his vigilante status provides an edge. Though anchored to sadness he could embark under the pretense of new extortion charges. He's familiar with a few employees who might provide leads. With the right persuasion….
It takes a few moments for Deadman to collect his thoughts, difficult since they now coincide with a stranger. This is where the lines blur, two becomes one, dichotomy becomes synchronicity. Synchronicity suggests harmony, a dubious inference far from accurate. How does one maintain self when you're part of another? Are his perceptions his own or that of the host? No acid trip could produce this blend of psychotic effects.
What he does know is this man is obsessed with him, Deadman, the once lively but now lifeless circus performer. Images of the shooting flashed as if shown from a kaleidoscope. Brand knows no footage exists of that night. The only way he could retain that tableau is if he saw it. He just witnessed his own murder, a surreal Zapruder film screened within a man's mind.
One observation was the angle of the picture. Given what he knew about the killer's location and this man couldn't possibly have pulled the trigger. But he was there! Did he sanction the hit? Did he want to see the job done first hand? Alas the images fade when a yawn occurs. He's been up since sunrise demanding sleep. Unless his slumbering dreams provide insight into his waking nightmares Deadman will have to wait before exploring anew.
It's evening and most of the crew has retired with the big day pending tomorrow. There's nothing like opening night as Dick Grayson can attest. The joy of anticipation, the thrill of risk, all enhanced by familial love. The bond between them was magical. Despite the fate befallen his parents he has fond memories of those days. However a mature Dick Grayson, in the guise of Nightwing has less peaceful thoughts. Some mystery requires his services, a mystery mired in the past.
A perusal of the tent reveals few people, mostly security. Right then a man bothers just by his presence. Though seen from afar he's recognized. This is Jonny Flame, a hired gun available to anyone who pays. Nightwing has found his break. Unfortunately it comes with an escalation of danger.
"Well well, a real live vigilante. What do you want, hero?"
"What's a punk like you doing here?"
"If you must know I'm conducting business, not that it's any of your concern."
"What kind of business could you have with a circus?"
"You'd be surprised. By the way there are no outstanding warrants for my arrest."
"You haven't answered my question."
"In this case I'm a messenger. Someone hasn't done their job, and someone isn't happy about that. Sometimes people just need a reminder."
"I don't like the sound of that."
"It's the direct approach. That way there's no misunderstanding."
"Of course you always conduct your business at night."
"I've never been a morning person, I'm sure you relate. Besides you meet a better class of people at night, don't you agree?"
"Who you working for these days?"
"That'll have to remain secret, but trust me. We have the best interests of the circus at heart."
"I'll decide what…"
"What's going on?"
"Saved by the lady in red. I told you you'd be surprised."
"Ms. Vestri, we're you expecting him?"
"Yes. You're Nightwing, aren't you. I'm not sure how you know my name or why you're here, but this is a private matter, so unless one of us is under arrest please leave."
"Hero, if you could see the look on your face."
"Flame, let's make sure there's no misunderstanding between us. I'll be watching you. As for you, Ms. Vestri, you have no idea the company you're keeping."
"I'm afraid I do. Good night."
Deadman can only wait while his host sleeps. For a spirit beset with time patience is no virtue. The anticipation is driving him batty. How fit an analogy in Gotham. Is this another joke on Kushna's part, making him link with his killer's colleague? How is this synergy of sinners supposed to balance the cosmic scales. Salvation has long since left the building. If punishment's the goal send him packing down the infernal highway. Purgatory can't possibly be this bad.
He has put his time to good use. His host has a name, Frank Sands, courtesy of his driver's license. Alas the name matches the face. They're both unknown. While never the sharpest student when alive he displayed an aptitude for philosophy. Kismet, providence, destiny, what goes around, comes around. Hardly profound but point taken. He never guessed karma constituted such a kick in the groin. He's painfully learned payback's a bitch and its name is Rama Kushna.
Nightwing's recovering from the latest development, Raya Vestri associating with a gangster. It's been a tough day all the way around. In the span of hours she has instructed both Dick and Nightwing, in so many words, to butt out. When one returns home to their youth they don't expect to be thought an intruder, unless that too is intrinsic in Wolfe's quote.
Her intent is awash in grey, a common palette in woe, and while no innocent bystander Flame is more a symptom than the cause of the circus's ills. The relationship they share seems mutually beneficial with no coercion involved, none initially. The problem is still internal. He knows most of the employees which doesn't absolve anyone. It's the others who comprise the variable. One man in particular stands out, a grifter with a rap sheet pages long, whose perfidious past rings raucous warning bells. His name is Frank Sands.
The big day has arrived with all the pomp and pageantry one would expect from opening night in Gotham City. The significance cannot be overlooked. Not just livelihoods but actual lives are at stake. The cast of characters buoyed by faces of flesh and oil are preparing. For Deadman the night of unrest is over only to be hampered by further delay. His host has been in conference since dawn, his mind too preoccupied with upcoming events to think the desired thoughts.
Brand's unease is palpable. He senses anxiety in Sands too, a tension not borne from work duties. It runs deeper, extending clear to the bone. He has felt it before in others once a decision's been made, one with little recourse. Or perhaps the opposite, when the realization hits that all options have elapsed, and with them whatever hope remained. The answers this man holds must be revealed tonight or there may be no other chance.
Dick realized there was little point talking to Raya again. Whatever malaise infects the circus her mind is made. She will not abide interference from childhood friend or obtrusive hero. A barrier was established long before his return. Preemptive measures were unsuccessful though hardly deterring his efforts. If his mentor taught him anything it's to proceed forthright and persevere. That his efforts will continue is certain, the only question is which of his two personas will attend tonight's show. An ominous feeling precludes any choice. The stage is set, the players cast. It's now how the cards play out and may fortune favor the bold.
The turnstiles are open. A large turnout is assured. Haly's hasn't performed in Gotham in years when they were still withstanding the Grayson deaths. The circus suffered greatly from it and never truly recovered. It's been a long road back and one much welcomed judging by ticket sales, a greater feat given the lack of a star attraction. The irony's not lost on Deadman. In his prime he alone could draw the crowds, providing the thrills and chills they paid good money to attend.
The reason for his murder eludes him. Was it eliminating the competition. Strictly business, nothing personal. Was it just about money and if so how much? It's not everyone who learns their life's worth in monetary terms. How much did you pay to have me killed, Frank Sands, I want to know.
He's finally alone. Images appear in his mind. Unfortunately they don't involve Brand. Another man is the focus. Sands seems set for a confrontation belying his stature. Despite a gruff exterior he's hardly a physical man, likely hiring another to do his dirty work, a correlation to what transpired those many years ago. At that moment he looks at his watch, scowls, and walks toward an alcove. The moment is here.
Nightwing has set up shop above the rafters, a vista he's enjoyed often. For Dick it's wondrous being back under the big top, even under adverse conditions. Looking down provides a splendid sight. How he'd love to savor the moment. The tent is full. Haly's return has been met with profound interest, plus there's nothing like the freedom this viewpoint bestows, though tonight it serves a practical purpose.
Still reflection must wait. Pressing matters abound. His intuition tells him disaster is looming, a threat so severe it could topple the circus again. One man figures prominently. Jonny Flame's appearance is no happenstance. Where there's smoke there's fire. A more apt analogy could not apply. If that's the plan make it now. As if on cue a man is seen striding toward a back corridor, none other than Flame. The moment is here.
In a side room like two raging bulls Flame and Sands converge. They convey emotion simply by the look in their eyes. This meeting bears all the hallmarks of urgency. Meanwhile a spectral spectator hovers above.
"You've been avoiding me."
"The circus takes all my time, you know that. What do your bosses want? I've done everything they've asked."
"The circus shouldn't be here. What the hell are they doing in Gotham?"
"What did you expect me to do, kill again? I'm still haunted by that. I swear I feel the ghost of that bastard everywhere I turn. You know Vestri. There's no reasoning with her, and threats don't work. The last thing your people want is the police investigating this whole setup."
"They'll decide what they want. You were to follow orders. You think I like being here? That damn Nightwing already read me the riot act. The only thing saving your ass is I'd take the rap."
"I'm tired of this. I never wanted to get in this deep. If I didn't know that drifter with the hook…."
"You're in and you're staying in. The plan is the same. We want this circus shut down, understand!"
"Tell me more, Flame. Why do you want this circus shut down?"
"You set me up!"
"I had no idea he was here, now keep quiet."
"Stand back, hero, or I'll put a bullet in his head."
"Drop the gun and let him go. This ends now."
"The hell it does."
At that moment Flame runs toward the nearest exit, and while doing so fires two shots at a propane tank. An explosion ensues felling Sands. Nightwing has no choice but to attend to the fallen man. Alas it's too late. He's gone. Alerted by the noise a guard appears only to be overtaken by Deadman's spirit.
"Why did you have to get involved? Why did you have to get involved?"
"Are you okay?"
"I was so damn close! Why?"
"What's going on? Who are you?"
"This was my last chance."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Boston Brand. Most people knew me as…..Deadman."
"I don't know what's going on, buddy, but this isn't funny."
"I told you. I am the spirit of Boston Brand."
"You expect me to believe this?"
"I was a trapeze artist, just like you. Yes, I know who you are, Dick Grayson."
"The name is familiar. I've heard of you. You were killed while performing. They never found the killer."
"This man knew who murdered me. He was there. Now whatever he knew is...gone."
"How do you exist in another body?"
"My spirit has been confined to this plane, to atone. I exist in a void. This would have provided some closure."
"I've seen many things, but this is hard to believe."
"I'm paying penance for a life deemed unworthy. That is why I needed this, to have something to hold on to. Now I'm back to nothing."
"Is there anything I can do?"
"Live a righteous life."
Again untethered Boston Brand is free to roam the ether, still yearning for answers. He has found the afterlife wanting, void of magnificence, more meaningless than when alive. Is that the point, that there is none? We search for direction through philosophy and religion, becoming willful sheep of ecumenical creed only to avoid miasma of the soul. It makes a deal with the devil soothing in its release from obligation and uncertainty.
Perhaps Rama Kushna, with all her praises and censures, is tendering a pig in a poke. We're all given one shot at this game called life and if we drop the ball we're toast. There's no road map or instruction booklet. It's up to the grey matter and a thing called conscience, though in life's balance sheet debits and credits rarely even out.
Whether spiritually rich or morally bankrupt it's all over once the reaper comes calling. Heaven, hell, they're just man made concepts designed to appease the unwashed masses during their mortal sojourn. While not devout by any means Deadman desires a resting place, even one of nothingness, the bliss abyss. Regardless of musings one thing remains constant. He's being beckoned anew.