Too Many Long Boxes!
   
    THIS ISSUE:
  • Table of Contents
  • Bottle City of Candor
  • Letter Column
  • The Elongated and Winding Road
  • Midway City
  • Vlatava: Jewel of the Valley
  • Off The Road
  • Something of a Stretch
  • Comic Book Movies
  • Never Discuss Politics
  • Elastic Wars
  • Dixonverse Annual
  • Farewell to Dannell
  • Trivia Quiz
  • Art Challenge
  • Writing Challenge Results
  • Musee de Bivolo
  • Long Stretch
  • The Evil Stepmother's Manifesto
  • Burning Over
  • The Case Of The Really Dead Waiter
  • Half Empty Bowl, Half Full, Part 3
  • Echoes
  • Deconstruction of a Tragedy
  • Oracle's Files
  • From the Bookshelf
  • The Mount
  • If I Ran DC
  • Scattershot
  • Back Cover
  • Best of Fandom Award
  • Farewell


  • End of Summer
     

    Deconstruction of a Tragedy

    by "Blinky the Tree Frog"

    The Denouncement

    The Batman stared at the body on the slab.  It was impossible to guess what he was thinking.

    Commissioner Atkins cleared his throat.  He didn't want to seem callous but...

    "So...  ahem...  Do you recognise..."

    "Yes.  He's one of mine."

    "Ah."

    The Batman turned away from the body and the Commissioner silently replaced the sheet.  He didn't know what to say.  James Gordon had recommended that he use the services of Gotham's Darkest Knight, and he had been trying.  He was hardly close to the man though, barely knew anything about him.  To have to talk to him in these circumstances was... uncomfortable.

    "I'm sorry."  A feeble gesture, and they both knew it.

    "There's nothing you could have done to prevent it."

    "Perhaps.  But I will do my best to find his killer, I promise you."

    He could swear he saw the Batman's face crease momentarily with emotion, and then the implacable mask was back.  That was surprising in itself, but his next words were frankly astonishing.

    "There's no need.  It was suicide."

    He blinked.  It was what?  "Look, I don't like to say this but I'm not sure whether that could be possible."

    "It's possible."

    "Yes, but the wounds..."

    "Were self inflicted."

    "Self inflicted?  I'm sorry, but that's quite obviously impossible.  If you'd seen..."  

    He trailed off.  The Batman looked at him, his cold eyes narrowed.  It was...unpleasant.

    He spoke softly, but the Commissioner could hear the rigidity behind every word.  

    "It...  was... suicide."

    He swallowed.  His mouth had suddenly gone dry.

    "If... you're certain of this...  I need to know how."

    The cape spun around him like a shadow as he turned towards the door.

    "There will be an e-mail sent to this station with all the details."

    "We'll need a name..."

    "All the details."

    "From the Batman?"

    "From the Oracle.  A much better source of information."

    The Commissioner took at deep breath and followed him out the door.  

    "I'll understand if you don't feel up to helping with the other matter I discussed with you."

    Ahead of him up the stairs, the Batman stopped dead.  Atkins stopped as well, peering through the gloom at the ominous shape before him.  What had he said?  Surely the man couldn't take offence at a simple concession like that?

    "I... Are you..."

    The voice was like steel when it came, and it sent shivers up his spine.

    "You'll receive an e-mail about that as well."

    And he blinked, and suddenly the Batman was gone.


    The Scene Before That - The Darkest Knight

    Commissioner Atkins shivered and rubbed his hands.  Damn the man and his ridiculous methods of communication.  Did the police in Metropolis have to sit for half an hour in the freezing cold next to a ludicrous signal device to talk to their resident hero?  And for god's sake, he wanted to talk to him about something that pertained directly to the man's own activities.  He was trying to help the damn Bat, curse his soul, and...

    "What's wrong?"

    He jumped two inches into the air and spun around.  A shadowy shape detached itself from the nearby darkness and walked towards him.  Good lord, how did he do that?

    "Do you have to do that?"

    "A good surprise gets the blood pumping."  The voice held not a trace of humour.

    "How wonderful."

    "I'm not here for small talk..."

    "No, you're not.  In actual fact I need to talk to you about a fairly serious and... distasteful matter..."

    "Really?"  He didn't sound at all curious.  But then, it was really impossible to tell what the man was thinking.  

    "I tried to contact you yesterday about a different problem, several murders connected with an arson case."

    "I was... unavailable."

    "Out of town?  Working with the Justice League?"

    "Why would I want to do that?"

    "I heard about that problem in Ohio..."

    "I think the Justice League is perfectly capable of dealing with 'problems in Ohio' themselves."

    "You don't really expect me to think..."

    "You're wasting my time, Commissioner.  Do you have something to say to me or not?"

    Fine then.  He'd been trying to put this off, ridiculously, but...

    "I'm afraid I do.  I...  My officers have been investigating a murder and they came across some... unusual evidence."

    "Unusual?"

    He took a deep breath.  "Yes.  It was a costume, in fact.  And we believe the victim may well have been one of your allies."  


    The Scene Before That - Cutting to the Heart of the Matter

    "Well, the cause of death is fairly obvious."  

    Detective Crispus Allen stared down at the corpse with a look of slight distaste.  The victim was lying on the only bed in this small, shabby apartment, eyes staring upwards and one hand flopped casually over the side of the bed.  The expression on his face was almost... contented, his lips curled into what was nearly a smile.  He would have looked almost peaceful, were it not for the multiple stab wounds in his chest.  Behind Allen a few local police discreetly worked on the crime scene, taping off and searching the apartment.

    Detective Renee Montoya gave him a look.  "Nice to know that your detective skills are still going strong.  Now I'm going to make my own intellectual deduction and say that the bloodied dagger lying on the floor next to the bed is probably the murder weapon."  

    "Very sharp."

    "I'm a finely honed detecting machine.  How about we cut the cruddy banter now and start trying to solve this thing?"  She raised an eyebrow to her partner and he gave her an annoyed look.

    "I was actually trying to make a serious observation."

    "So let's make some more."  She leaned forward and carefully studied the apparent murder weapon, being careful not to touch.  "Is it me, or does the angle of the guy's hand in relation to the dagger almost make it look like it dropped from his hand onto the floor?"

    Over her shoulder, Crispus frowned.  "What are you suggesting, that he did this to himself?  There are at least four stab wounds in his chest, Montoya.  I doubt the guy was alive after the first one, never mind after four."

    "Okay, so maybe the murderer put the knife in this guy's hand after the murder.  Tried to place the knife in the victim's grip, couldn't quite get it, and both the hand and blade fell."

    "Could be, but I've got to wonder why the perp would even bother.  It wouldn't matter what he did, this isn't going to look like suicide."  

    "Hmm...  It's an unusual weapon, too.  Weird style of blade..."

    "It's a Bundi dagger, Detective."  One of the locals, Officer Griffin, had looked up from dusting for fingerprints.

    She turned to him.  "You know something about it?"

    Griffin looked slightly sheepish.  "I'm a blade collector.  It's a bit of a hobby..."

    Allen frowned.  "A Bundi dagger.  That's an Indian weapon, isn't it?"

    "That's right.  It's also sometimes known as a Katar.  Distinguished by a broad, triangular blade attached to a crossbar handle, so that the blade seems to protrude from the wielder's fists.  It can be incredibly lethal when wielded by an experienced fighter..."

    Montoya found herself smiling despite herself.  "A bit of a hobby?"

    He blushed.  "Actually quite a lot of a hobby..."

    "In that case I'll borrow from your expertise.  Would you say that it's a rare blade?"

    "Not so much in India and Pakistan, but here?  It's definitely not the kind of thing your average guy on the street carries for protection."

    "I think we got that." Allen turned to Montoya.  "You thinking this could involve Gotham's Indian community?"

    "Could be, although he doesn't look Indian.  About as far from it as you can get.  Could be some guy who wanted something different in the way of weapons.  Could be a collector, like Griffin here.  Could be any number of things."

    "We can narrow down the most likely possibilities, howev..."

    "Oh shit!"  

    The other local officer had been searching through the apartment's meager furniture.  Now he was staring into the closet with a look of disbelief.

    The partners hurried over.

    The closet was as shabby as the rest of the apartment.  The front held a small assortment of cheapish clothes.  The back...  The back held a costume.

    "I was just feeling around in there when I realised it had a false back!  I didn't expect... Geez, do you recognise it?"

    Allen frowned.  "I don't."

    "I think I might."  Montoya was wincing, flicking her gaze back between the dead man and the costume, as though trying to confirm something in her own mind.  "I think this guy...  Damn!"

    "You think you recognise the suit?"

    "I think he might be an ally of the Bat."

    Allen rubbed his temples.  He was beginning to get a headache.

    "Well, that's just great."


    The Scene Before That - What You've Seen and What You are About to See...

    "Sorry for taking so long, Atkins wanted a chat.  So, what are we going to here?"  Detective Montoya dropped herself into the passenger seat next to her partner and slammed the door.

    Allen started up the car.  "Straight homicide.  Neighbour found the door slightly open and when she went inside, she found the guy's corpse lying on the bed with multiple stab wounds.  Local police are in, they say he looks like he's been there since at least yesterday."

    "Oh wonderful.  Just enough time to start that vomit inducing smell."

    He raised an eyebrow.  "Uh, yeah.  It's not a good neighbourhood and the apartment's pretty squalid, could be a gang thing..."

    "They ID the guy?"

    "They're searching the apartment but they haven't found anything with a name on it so far.  The neighbour was no help.  She'd seen him around once or twice, even talked to him, but she didn't actually know the guy.  She thinks that he didn't stay there regularly."

    "Illegal immigrant?"

    "Could be.  The neighbour said the guy talked with a mild accent, though she didn't know where he was from."

    "That's the problem nowadays.  No one gets to know their neighbours."

    "Do you know yours?"

    "Kathy Heyson, hairdresser, on one side.  Michael Johns, schoolteacher, and family on the other."

    "Impressive."  He paused, not sure how to proceed.  "So, are you...  You're okay?"

    "Okay?  Why wouldn't I be?"

    "How about because you got the envious job of seeing the aftermath of the arson murders while I had my day off?"

    "You're worried about me seeing bodies?  That's a little ironic considering where you're taking me now, Allen."

    He scowled.  "I'm not worried about you seeing bodies, Montoya.  I'm just... Look, they're saying this is one of the worst ones they've seen for years.  You know what that means?  We're talking about Gotham City here!  And I saw some of the photos.  Hell, I'm not being condescending, I'd be feeling pretty queasy too..."

    "Hey, calm down!  Look... I'm sorry.  That came out wrong, and I know you were being serious.  It was... it was pretty bad.  And I admit it's not a memory that I enjoy having stuck in my brain.  But I just get on with things.  That's... how I cope.  It's how a lot of cops cope."

    "But some of them like to talk it out, too.  I just wasn't sure what type you were."

    "Yeah, well, we haven't exactly been partners for long.  Two years from now we'll know all this shit back to front."

    "Right."

    "I appreciate the gesture though, I really do."

    "Got it."

    "It's nice to see you making the effort."

    "Uh-huh."

    "Honestly though, I lived through No Man's Land, I'll get through this."

    "Alright, I got it!  God, I was just trying to be friendly..."

    "Aww... beneath that annoying exterior beats a heart of gold..."

    "Okay, now I'm just getting pissed..."


    The Scene Before That - Inspecting the Scene of the Crime

    "Detective Montoya!"

    The officer hurried up to her as she parked the car in the warehouse car park, near the taped off crime scene.  She recognised him, had worked with him a couple of times before.

    "Sergeant Hayward?"

    He gave her a strained smile in response.  "That's me.  So where's your new partner? Slacking off already?"

    "Could be.  Off sick, apparently with the flu that's going around.  So what's happening?  You look a little stressed."

    "Make that queasy.  I warn you, the crime scene's... pretty messy.  I've had to send even my more experienced officers out for some fresh air."

    She took a deep breath.  Wonderful.  "Okay, so let's walk and you can give me some details while I psych myself up."

    "Sounds fair.  We think we've got a pretty good idea what the motive for the murders was, mainly because we were about to arrest the victims for it."

    "The arson at the new clinic, right?"

    "Right.  I'll take it from the beginning as if you didn't know anything, okay?"

    "Go ahead."

    "It goes like this:  St. Michael's was a free medical clinic for the homeless and poverty stricken that opened soon after Gotham crawled out of No-Man's Land.  It was set up in an old church and funded by donations, a large portion of them from Wayne Enterprises."

    "No surprise.  Wayne funds half the charity organizations in Gotham.  Don't know what we'd do without him, frankly."

    "Tell me about it.  I don't think it's likely to be relevant anyway, but I thought I should mention it.  In any case, St. Michael's was known for taking in pretty much anyone in need, regardless of circumstances.  Unfortunately it seems that it's just that kind of charity that made it a target.  The clinic had two members of the Manic street gang at the clinic and was treating them for knife injuries.  There's apparently a massive feud between the Manics and the Eightballs at the moment."

    "So the Eightballs burned down the clinic."

    "All the evidence points to it, yeah.  There were 35 innocent people in the clinic at the time.  Only 15 got out."

    "I saw the report.  Bastards"

    "I'd almost say they deserved what they got, but..."  He paused and looked uncomfortable.

    Montoya felt she needed to prompt.  "So anyway..."

    "Right, yeah.  So we investigated and came to the conclusion that the Eightballs were responsible.  Luck and an anonymous tip gave us here as their hideout, so we went in for a raid this morning."

    "But someone had got there first."

    "Oh yeah.  And it was someone who wasn't happy with the Eightballs.  You ready?"  Hayward paused by the warehouse door and looked to her.  Montoya nodded and he opened it.

    She sucked in a breath.  Dios.  This was...  My god.   They hadn't been killed.  Killed wasn't a strong enough word for what had been done to them.  They'd been slaughtered.  

    The Eightballs had been a tough gang, comparatively speaking.  The Eightballs hadn't had a chance.  Their leader's remains were nailed to the wall, his eyes gouged out, his hands mutilated into bloody stumps, but at least his body was whole.  The others had been hacked apart.  Body parts decorated the warehouse interior, feet, arms, tongues.  Blood...  there was blood everywhere.  Blood painted the walls.  Entrails painted the floors.  The smell of death was pervasive.

    She stared, unable to look away.

    Hayward cleared his throat.  "There... there is evidence that many of them were still alive when some of the body parts were cut off.  Most of the legs are broken.  We think that the killer disabled them and... well...  He started small... fingers, tongues..."

    "He wanted them to die in pain.  My god."

    "Yeah.  That's pretty much it.  This is pretty hellish stuff.  I mean, these guys were killers, but..."

    "I know."  Montoya took a calming breath, rubbed her fingers over her eyes.  "I know what you mean."

    "Ahh, so I...  Shall I leave you to take a better look?"  

    She looked at him sympathetically.  She couldn't blame him for wanting to leave here, it sounded like a good idea to her as well.  But she had a job to do.  She was a homicide detective.

    Tune it out, just like you always do.  Don't think about it.   

    "That'll be fine.  I'll get back to you in a sec, okay?"

    "Sure."

    She turned from him and walked into the killing grounds.


    The Scene Before That - The Killer

    He could still see the blood.

    It was ridiculous, of course.  The water had washed away the blood.  There was no more blood.

    But he could still see the blood, and he could still hear their screams.  

    There had been a lot of screaming.  All of them, they had all screamed.  Screamed for mercy, screamed for his blood, screamed in pain.  

    So many screams...

    And he had listened, and he had enjoyed them all.

    He stared at himself in the mirror.  A line had been crossed.  He knew it.  He had listened to their screams, and he had enjoyed them.  He had wanted to kill them.  There was no mistake.  There was no loss of control.  He had been in control.  He had wanted them to die.  He had killed them.

    He was a killer.  He couldn't go back.  There was no going back.

    "I am a killer," he said to the mirror, and he saw the darkness swirling behind his eyes triumphantly.  The darkness thought it had won.  The darkness was complacent.  It knew that the line had been crossed, and it thought that it had finally made him into what it had always wanted him to be.  It thought there was no way he could fight back, nothing more that could be done.  

    But it was wrong.

    Carefully, and deliberately, he stood up, reached for the dagger, and walked over to the bed.

    There was one more thing that could be done.  And after that, there would be no more fighting at all.


    The Scene Before That - The Fire of Dying

    "Oh shit.  Shit."

    Mikey Finnus hissed to himself as he ran through the darkness.  He was going to die.  Damn it, Jesus, there was a maniac here, killing them all and he was going to die.

    He had to get to the door.  Get to the door, and then get out of here and then...

    He'd need protection.  The cops, he'd go to the cops.  Normally that would be out of the question.  He was an Eightball.  He was tough.  He didn't want the cops; the cops wanted him.  Right now, though...

    Get the door, open the door.  The stupid damn door, why wouldn't it open!?

    This guy had taken two seconds to leave half the gang lying bleeding on the ground.  Not Mikey though.  Mikey had dived behind the crates at the back of the warehouse.  Mikey had spent the last ten minutes crawling towards the edge of the darkness and trying to ignore the screams and the crunch of bones as his friends died in agony.  Then he ran.

    God, this stupid, stupid door!  He couldn't bash the thing down, that would make noise.  He had to get out quietly.  A window, he'd try a window, he'd...

    The darkness lit up.  He screamed involuntarily and spun around and there were flames.  He couldn't see much else.  He couldn't do anything but stare at the flames.  

    "Shit, God, Jesus..."

    "Quiet!"  The voice was dark, and dangerous, and cut through the air.

    "Please, please don't kill me okay?  Just..."

    "You will die."

    "Anything, I'll do anything, I swear..."

    "You will die slowly."

    "God please.  Why the hell are you doing this?  What the hell do you want?"

    "Killer!"

    "What?  What?"

    "The clinic.  The clinic you burned down.  Innocents died.  Killers, all of you."

    "Oh geez...  Oh shit...We didn't mean...  We didn't want no innocents... I swear.  It was the guys from the Manics.  We didn't want no innocents to die..."

    "It was a clinic.  It was a medical clinic."

    "Yeah, but I didn't...  we didn't..."  

    "You did."

    "I'm gonna die."

    "Yes."

    And the screaming began anew.


    The Scene Before That - Just Outside of the Inferno

    Sergeant Hayward screeched up in the squad car and swore.  The place was a disaster zone.  What had once been St Michael's free medical clinic was now an inferno.

    The fire trucks were already there, unravelling hoses and preparing themselves to fight the blaze.  He could hear the sirens of ambulances in the distance.  Two or three squad cars had already arrived and they were hustling people back from the site.  Everything was happening as it should.  Now he just had to find out what the hell was going on.

    Witnesses, that's what he'd need.  Gazing over the crowd, he focussed on a likely looking woman who stood frantically on the fringes.

    "Hello Ma'am.  Are you okay?"

    She jumped and swung around, relaxing slightly when she saw the uniform.  "Officer!  It's terrible!"

    "Were you here when the blaze started?  Are you unhurt?"

    "Oh!  Yes, yes...  I'm okay...  I'm... My name's Sarah Ellis.  I was, I was working there earlier in the day... I volunteer and I live nearby and then I just looked out my window and there was just fire.  Oh god!  There were people in there... I know Cathy was on tonight and I haven't seen her and Roger was and Bryan!  Bryan lives there...  I can't see..."

    He talked calmly, took her shoulder, and looked in her eyes.  It was a trick he'd learned early in his career, seemed to make people calm down more.  "It's okay Sarah.  All the authorities are here and they're doing what they can.  May I ask you a few questions?  You work here?"

    She gulped and looked a little more composed.  "I volunteer a few days a week.  I'm studying to be a nurse part-time; I thought I could be useful.  I left at about three this afternoon for a lecture and I just got back to my apartment half an hour ago and I looked out the window and came running."

    "So you didn't see the blaze start?"

    "No, I...  Cathy!  Omigod Cathy!  You're okay!"

    Sarah broke off from his grasp and went running towards a dazed-looking woman who was being tended to by a paramedic.  The fact that she was covered in ash seemed to indicate that she'd come from the fire, but unlike all the others Hayward had seen being dragged out, she looked mostly unhurt.  Ah, good.  He followed Sarah and had a quick talk with the paramedic while the two women hugged and cried.

    She wasn't hurt badly and could probably answer some questions before being taken to the hospital.  Even better.

    "Excuse me Sarah, but I was wondering whether I could have a talk to Cathy?"

    Sarah looked up at him and then turned quickly back to her friend.  "Cathy, this is the police officer who's trying to find out what happened.  If you just wanna talk to him..."

    Cathy nodded.  "That's okay.  I'll be... I'll be fine.  Mark... Mark was being loaded into the Ambulance over there.  I think he got burned.  Go look for him...  make sure he's okay..."

    Sarah nodded and hurried off and Hayward sat down next to Cathy.

    "So you are?"

    "Cathy...  Cathy Hastings..."

    "You okay?"

    "I'm okay.  I wasn't in the middle of the building or anything and I got out.  But it went up so quickly...  I think they put chemicals on it or gas or something...  the others didn't..."

    "Wait, wait a second... They?  You think you know who did this?"

    "It was the gang!  It must have been.  I told Bryan, I told him..."  Her voice sounded frantic.

    "Please, just calm down for a second, tell me this from the beginning."  

    "I'm sorry, I'm sorry.  I just..."  She took a deep breath.  "Okay...  Bryan Brian is the guy who runs the clinic..."

    "Right.  What's his last name there?"

    The snort of laughter was utterly devoid of humour.  "That is his last name.  That's his name, Bryan Brian.  Only the first one's with a Y and the second one's with an I, you see?"

    "Ahh.  Sorry.  That's very... different."

    "Uh huh.  So Bryan's really into this whole 'Anyone can be redeemed', 'No-one's completely bad' thing.  And there's a gang called the Manics that hangs around here.  You heard of them?"

    "Oh yes."

    "Well there were two of them that came in tonight.  They had knife wounds, and they were really bad and...  I guess they couldn't find anywhere else to go to.  They asked to stay here and get treated.  I told them to go off to the big hospital but they said they wouldn't, even though they were dripping blood on the floor...  I think they were afraid that the police would pick them up there."

    "Bryan let them stay?"

    "Yeah.  He made them promise no violence and then he fixed them up and put them out the back.  I told him not to.  There's a full on street fight with the Manics and the Eightballs at the moment.  We can't deal with that kinda shit.  I told him."

    "So you think the Eightballs did this..."

    "There's a full on fight going on, there really is.  That's probably how they got cut up in the first place.  They're all crazy assholes, all of them...  Oh geez...  Jean Paul..."

    It took him a few seconds to realise that she was addressing the last comment not to him, but to whoever had walked up behind him.  He turned around.

    Jean Paul was tall and well built with glasses and long blonde hair.  He was looking at the building, utterly horrified.

    "Jean Paul!  Oh shit, I'm sorry.  I don't know where Bryan is.  I don't know whether he got out..."

    Hayward flicked his eyes back to Cathy.  "Who's...?"

    "Jean Paul, this is a policeman who's trying to find what happened..."

    "Sergeant Hayward."

    "Right...   This...  JP is Bryan's friend.  He helped set up the clinic and he comes around sometimes..."

    JP hadn't taken his eyes off of the conflagration.  "It's all gone..."

    Hayward looked.  It was indeed almost all gone.  The blaze had been quick and ferocious and it seemed now that the only thing left of what had once been the clinic was the flames and the water spray as the fire fighters tried desperately to put it out.

    "I'm sorry.  I'm really sorry JP."  There were tears in Cathy's eyes.  "He was right in the clinic, right in the middle.  I haven't seen anyone from in there.  I don't think...  I don't think he got out...  I'm so sorry."

    Finally, the eyes turned towards them.  Hayward almost flinched.  The despair in them was almost palatable and...

    There was something else.  Something almost frightening.

    "They killed him.  The...  the Eightballs, you said..."

    Hayward coughed.  "We don't actually have any proof of that yet, Mr..."

    "Valley.  Mr Valley."

    "He might be okay, Paul.  I don't know.  He might have gotten out..."

    "But he's probably dead."  The voice was hollow.

    "I'm so sorry.  I told him, I told him.  But he was so good, so good to everyone no matter what they'd done, or what they were involved with..."

    "Yes.  He was.  He was... always..."  Jean Paul's face crumpled slightly.  "It's not fair..."

    Hayward looked at him with sympathy.  "I'll do everything I can to make sure we catch whoever did this."

    An undecipherable expression crossed his face.  "Will you?"

    "I'll make sure they're punished."

    And then...  it was kind of weird; Hayward had to admit.  The guy just went all... sharpened.  Posture, facial features, eyes.  And the voice...

    "Punished."  He said, and he abruptly walked away.

    Hayward shook his head.  'Very weird', he thought, and he turned back to Cathy.


    The Prologue

    "It's nice to have you back in town, even it's just for a while."  Bryan Brian carefully filled the lunchroom kettle and plugged it in.  It was one of the nice new electric ones, but then, a lot of the stuff in the clinic was new.  They'd received several large donations soon after they'd decided to start up.  Most of the staff had no idea where they'd come from, but Bryan was fairly certain that Jean Paul's unofficial sponsor had something to do with it.  Not that he'd pry, when the Batman was involved he wouldn't dare.

    "The Batman called on me.  He's..."  Jean Paul frowned and quickly scanned the room to make sure no one was listening.  "He's going to be out of town for a few days," he added in a quieter voice. "Justice League business.  He's asked all his allies to keep an eye on things.  And I thought that I may as well catch up on some things while I'm here."

    "Catching up on old friends?"

    A smile.  "Catching up on any friends.  I don't exactly have a busload of them."

    "Are you okay for accommodation?"

    "Yes thanks.  I'm staying in my old apartment; I sometimes do when I'm in Gotham.  I mean, it survived the earthquake, it's still there and it's still mine, so I figured I might as well get some use out of it."

    "And fair enough, I suppose."  He fumbled through the cupboards.  "Hmm, doesn't look like we've got much in the way of biscuits.  Would you like some cake?  Mary brought some in yesterday, she's doing a cooking course and she can't eat all the results herself."

    "Lucky for you guys.  I'll have some.  It looks nice."

    He looked up as the door opened and a woman stuck her head in.  "Hey Bryan, do you know where the iodine got to?  I'm trying to... Oh, hi JP.  When did you sneak in?"

    He smiled shyly.  "Just trying to surprise you, Cathy."

    She grinned back.  "Consider me shocked.  Hey, can we get you to help out tonight or are you out on the town?"

    "I might be able to help tomorrow, but I wanted to get a bit of sleep and then...  I'll be pretty busy, unfortunately."

    "Ah well.  Look forward to seeing you tomorrow then.  Bryan?"

    "Last I saw, it was in back room."

    "Oh great.  Just where I wanted to go."

    "Cathy, please.  If you want to talk..."

    She held up her hands.  "I'm fine, okay?  I'm just fine, it's your decision, I'll be going now."  She closed the door just a little too hard as she left.

    Jean Paul blinked and shot an enquiring look at his friend.

    He sighed  "It's nothing much.  A couple of gang members came in a few hours ago and I've got them recovering in the back room.  Cathy didn't want me to take them, apparently there's some kind of feud on the streets between them and a rival gang.  I couldn't just push them out, though.  They were obviously hurt and I honestly think they would have rather let themselves bleed to death rather than go to the larger hospital and be reported to the police."

    "Are they wanted by the police?"

    "I've no idea.  Perhaps.  Probably.  It's my job to heal, others can deal with that."

    "Very pragmatic."

    "I've learned that in spades while working here.  Not that I'd give it up for the world."  He smiled wistfully.  "I actually feel like I'm doing some good here.  It's really rather refreshing."

    "I'm glad you're happy, I really am.  Look, do you want me to stay around tonight?  Just in case of trouble?"

    "I'm sure there'll be no need.  The boys have actually been remarkably polite for members of the feared Manics, and I haven't seen any sign of trouble."

    "If you're sure..."

    "I'm sure.  You look like you need to get some sleep before you set off on your nightly adventures, in any case."

    "Azrael does not need sleep."

    "That may well be so, but Jean Paul looks quite out of it.  One lump or two?"

    "One will be fine."  He reached forward to take the cup, and for a minute or two they sat in comfortable silence while they drank.

    Finally, Bryan set down his mug.  "So...  How have things been between you and the angel?"

    "I'm really not sure whether he can be classed as an angel, you know."

    A small smile.  "Perhaps, but it does sound better than asking how things are between you and your homicidal multiple personality."

    He started to laugh halfway through a sip and nearly choked.  Bryan thumped him on the back, looking amused.  "Hey, hey.  That's no way for the mighty Azrael to be felled.  Choking on a cup of coffee?"

    "I'd never live it down," he managed to splutter, and took a deep breath to steady himself.

    "Uggh.  And to think I once admired your sense of humour!"

    He smirked, and then looked more serious.  "Things are going... okay, I guess.  Much as normal, I suppose.  I still don't exactly have total control when Azrael takes over, but I haven't lost control, or gone nuts or anything.  I'm just my normal screwed up self."

    "As much as we can ask for, I suppose.  And you're physically okay?"

    He shrugged.  "I've taken a few cuts and bruises, a couple of broken ribs.  It's not serious though.  I'm an Azrael, it'll take a lot to kill me."

    "It may not be a good idea to be so glib.  Your father managed to die simply from a few armour piercing bullets, remember."

    "Six of them, to the chest, and even then he managed to walk halfway across town before he died.  I'm tough, Bryan.  And I'm not stupid.  I do know my limits."

    "I know, I know.  And I worry all the same."

    "That's why you're such a good friend."

    "Of course."

    Jean Paul looked at him seriously.  "I'm not just being glib about that, you know.  You are a good friend, my best friend.  I... I'm not always around, I know, but you don't know how much it means, knowing that you'll always be there if I need you.  It's comforting.  I don't know what I'd do if you weren't there."

    Bryan smiled at him as he looked back.  "Thank you," he said.  "It's been a pleasure."


    The Epilogue

    /Ashes to ashes/

    /Dust to dust/

    The funeral was small, very small, and unassuming. The police had been discreet about his identity and Jean Paul Valley had few friends.  

    Most of the ones he did have were dead now anyway.

    Bruce Wayne was there, however.  He came in disguise, and most of the people there never knew it was him.  Barbara Gordon knew, and she knew he'd be there.  She knew Bruce better than almost anyone in the world, which is why she knew that it would be best not to approach him until after the ceremony.

    When the speeches had finished and the coffin had been lowered, she wheeled herself over.  The rest of the mourners were leaving, but he stayed, stared at the coffin and the tombstone.  She waited.

    Finally he spoke.  "It shouldn't have happened."

    Her look was sympathetic.  "No, it shouldn't have."

    He turned to her, anger in his eyes.  "It wouldn't have happened if I had been there!  If I'd been there... I would have taken him in before he killed himself.  Or I would have talked him down from that... massacre.  Or I would have stopped the fire in the first place.  So many people have died because of this!  And I could have stopped them all."

    "So could I, Bruce!"  The voice was tinged with anger.  "Do you think I don't feel guilty?  But Bruce, we were busy saving the world.  We were stopping a much bigger tragedy..."

    "...And so we didn't have time for such a small one."

    "You can't stop everything.  You can't predict everything that's going to happen.  You can't know what will send everyone over the edge."

    Silence.  And then:  "It doesn't mean that I can't wish I could."

    "You always will, Bruce.  That's what makes you, you."

    "..."

    "It's not your fault, Bruce.  Jean Paul chose his own destiny, in the end.  And you're right.  It was a tragedy."

    For a few seconds he looked... old.  Old and weary.  "It was."  And then he turned and walked away.

    She took one last look at the grave, and then she followed.

    The End

     
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