Too Many Long Boxes!
   
   

End of Summer
 

Part of the Game

by Dannell Lites

Prologue One

Hey kiddo, how's it going? This is your big brother Dick, talking.

Me? I gotta tell you the truth, Brucie. It's going pretty lousy. But then, I guess you already know that by now, huh? You taking care of Dad like you should, little bro? Showing him all the ropes and everything? That's good. Mom always told me you were the greatest kid, ever. Alfred, too. Used to make me jealous as hell. No matter what I did, how many sports trophies I won, I was never you. You might have only been six years old when you died, Bruce, but you made a big impression.

Look at me. I never even met you. Joe Chill shot and killed you in Crime Alley almost sixteen years to the day before I was born. I love old movies, but I've never seen "The Mark Of Zorro" and I probably never will. I never heard your voice or saw you smile or ducked one of those water bombs Dad Wayne said you were fond of dropping off the third story stair landing.

But I've spent my life trying to replace you.

You don't have to tell me how crazy it is ... I *know*.

Kiddo, I know we haven't talked in a long time and I'm really sorry about that. But I've gotta talk to you now, okay? It's about Mom and it's pretty important so you've got to listen carefully, bud. I'm

trying hard to take care of Mom, but it's not easy. See, these days she thinks I'm you. She's a little... confused ... since Dad was killed, I guess. God, things are such a freaking mess. How did I let it come to this? Damned if I know.

I mean, *look* at me. Here I am, Richard John Grayson-Wayne, adopted son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, pillars of Gotham society, youngest guy ever to win an Olympic gold medal in the decathlon ...

Hey, the medal makes it official. I'm The World's Best Athlete. I can still hear her voice, whispering in the dark ...

<"Are you the best there is, Dick?">

God, the lazy arrogance in my voice makes me cringe now. That, and the desire in hers.

<"Best there ever was ... best there ever will be ... ">

Oh God, God, God! Why Bruce, why? Why did Dad come barging into my hotel room at *that* moment? Why then? She meant to shoot *me*. Me, not him! And not even my World and Olympic record of 8.32 seconds in the hundred yard dash was enough to save him, was it? I'll never forget the look of utter surprise on Dad's face when the gun went off.

And Babs and Wally! Oh Christ, what she did to *Babs* ...

Publicists won't leave me alone. More than ever, now. Nothing makes money faster than a sports icon as the victim in a scandal, does it? Read this! Sign here! Kellogg's wants to put my picture on a box of Corn Flakes! Can you *believe* that? Universal Studios says they'll make me a star with a big budget action blockbuster this summer. "You're a natural kid," Roy Eisner told me, sporting a smile about as phony as a three and half dollar bill, " ... sign here."

All this fame ... and what am I doing?

I'm getting ready to start parading around in a grown-up version of the last Halloween costume you ever wore. Mom says she and Dad had to peel you out of the damn thing every night for weeks until ... until ... Well, they even buried you in it; that's how happy it made you and that's how happy you made them, playing in it.

Somehow, I don't think I'm going to be able to say the same, kiddo.

But I've got to do this. I can't stand the nightmares anymore. Every time I close my eyes, I see that smile on her face, hear her voice. And the sound of gunfire I'll take with me to my grave. Sometimes I think I'll go crazy if I don't silence that roar, rolling constantly through my head. Heh. S'funny. I guess some people might say I already *am* crazy.

Bruce, I need you to understand, why I'm doing this; why I *have* to do this. Please God, let somebody understand.

Please.

 


 

Prologue Two

Three months earlier

Dermont Nasswell studied his image in the bathroom mirror, smiling. With his thumb and forefinger he briefly formed an invisible gun, aimed it right between the mirror image's piercing blue eyes and pulled the trigger.

"POW!" he thought to himself, broadening his smile until his face

ached. He'd practiced that smile for hours in front of mirrors like this one before he ever unleashed it on an unsuspecting public here in Gotham City. Lowering his hand, he ran his fingers through his thick wavy black hair, then tied it back in a lush ponytail.

"Smokin'!" he exalted. The babe in the next room was definitely in for a treat. Definitely.

Dermont was celebrating. This was his first night in his new home town, after all. He'd worked hard all day long, posing with the coaches, answering stupid questions from the sports press, and now it was time to play. And not on a football field, either. He'd earned it, he thought.

SUPER JOE SIGNS $20 MILLION DOLLAR CONTRACT WITH THE GOTHAM KNIGHTS! the banner headlines screamed the Knights' good fortune for all the football fans of Gotham City to read.

"You want Super Joe, it's gonna cost ya. Big time. Money speaks. So talk to me, babe! Talk to me." he told the franchise owners.

They "talked" to him pretty loudly, too. Damned old parasites. Like to see them carry a football down the length of a field past the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. He winced then rubbed his knee. Those last surgical scars were almost healed, now. Barely an unpleasant memory. Freaking Metropolis Giants played rough. But, everything was fine. In fact, everything was goddamn *great*, wasn't it?

Especially the groupie lusting for him in the adjoining bedroom. She ought to be just about primed and ready by now, too. It was high time he introduced her to Super Joe. The smile was back and the gun formed itself again.

"POW!" said Dermont Joseph Nasswell, softly, the light glinting off the burnished gold of his Super Bowl ring.

As soon as he stepped confidently into the bedroom he knew that something was wrong. Very wrong. The groupie was standing by the window, framed by the bright red and orange light of the dying sun, her long blond hair turned to flames by the waning brilliance. The inviting champagne magnum was sweating profusely, untouched in its silver chalice. "Nothing but the best, Mr. Nasswell," the manager of the Gotham Hilton assured him. So why did she ignore it? She reached out to stroke her reflected image in the window glass and Dermont

frowned. Definitely weird, man. Suddenly uneasy, the football megastar shifted from one foot to the other nervously.

"You, okay, girl?" he asked, not much liking the sudden uncertainty in his voice. She didn't answer him, just stood there still as a statue, staring off into the approaching darkness as if it held the answers to some very important questions. Dermont started to gulp, then caught himself. Damnation! What was wrong with him anyway? Relieved, he saw her smiling as she turned to face him and began a toothy smile in return.

Until he glimpsed her eyes.

"Joe?" she asked softly, "are you the best football player there is?" His answering smile was blinding, just like he'd practiced in all those mirrors.

"You got *that* right, babe," he laughed.

The gun surprised completely.

Seconds later, Dermont Joseph Nasswell, heir to the gridiron glory of Joe Namath, Joe Montana, and a dozen others, the unquestioned best professional football quarterback in the world, went flying back across the large room, the force of the bullet from the .357 magnum killing him instantly. Ironically, and to his immense disgust if he'd known of it, "Super Joe" was destined to sail blithely through Eternity with a look of almost childlike surprise on his dark, handsome face.

 


CHAPTER ONE

One month later ...

"Jesus!" I heard the cameraman cry out as he slammed hard to the ground. Ignoring him, the roller bladed figure whizzed away, the $20,000 camera he'd just snatched from out of the surprised cameraman's grasping hands held tightly to his chest.

"Cut! Cut!" shouted the red faced director.

"Hey! Somebody stop that guy!"

"What the hell -"

"He kipped the pro-cam! Christ! Why didn't somebody *warn* us about Gotham City?"

"Did anybody get that on tape?"

"No, dimwit! He stole the *camera*, butt-munch!"

"Oh yeah ..."

"Is Grayson, okay? God, the insurance is gonna kill us ..."

At the sound of my name, I left off charming the pretty young script girl long enough to whirl around, looking for the source of all the noise. The erstwhile thief was a blond blur as he sped hastily on his way toward the door and freedom with his ill-gotten prize.

"Hey!" the script girl cried when I grabbed the full, unopened Soder Cola can from out of her small hands. Aiming carefully, as if I were on a baseball field or a basketball court, I tossed the heavy can at the escaping would-be snatcher's feet and watched as he lost his balance and went crashing to the ground. Momentum pushed him forward until the mook went crashing into the wall. Before he could move or regain his feet, I loomed over him, peering down with a tight smile stretching the corner of my mouth.

"Hey pal, I know a hundred ways to make you regret this," I said. Still smiling, I drew back my foot in warning.

"Pick a number." I invited him, cheerfully.

The thin, blond youth listened to the futilely spinning wheels of his roller blades for a moment and then to the heavy footed approach of the set's burly Security policeman. Blinking, the thief gaped up at me and paled. He must have realized that I was serious.

Still huddling miserably on the floor, the guy reluctantly gave up the expensive camera. I watched as the rent-a-cop hauled him away. Taking a swashbuckling bow, I acknowledged the cheers of the assembled crowd. Gathered to watch the debut of one of Gotham's favorite sons in a national TV commercial, they'd gotten more than they bargained for and they were all happy campers, now. Good. That makes *me* a happy camper, too. I'm always happy when I'm being adored. There really isn't any other reason for an athlete to put up with all this garbage, is there? They chuckled at my bravado and a lot of them saluted me with bottles or cups of the free Soder Cola dispensed to the crowd. Feigning horror, I fell back several steps.

"Never touch the stuff myself," I grinned at the many displays of the famous red and white symbol. "I'm a Sugar Bubble Cola dude, actually. 'Twice the sugar!' 'Twice the caffeine!' Oh YEAH!" I pumped my arms back and forth in joy and then leaned forward, conspiratorially.

"Shhhhh!" I whispered to my audience sotto vocce, finger covering my lips, pleading for silence, "Don't breathe a word, okay?"

"Titans forever!" cried one of my fellow students.

"Nike sucks!" opined another.

"Dick, I love you! Marry me!"

"You the man!"

"Hunka, hunka burnin' love!"

Most of the time I'm pretty good at following direction. But I get so much of that, that sometimes I just gotta rebel, know what I mean? I was not in a good mood when the profusely sweating, harassed director pulled me off to the side seconds later. I could feel the frown take root at the corners of my mouth and grow from there. I was getting a little tired of constantly being told what to do, what to say, even where to stand.

"Part of the game, kid," I'd been told.

"You'll get used to it," they assured me.

Well, not yet I hadn't, that was for sure, and it was starting to really grate on my nerves. Don't I have enough coaches for that crap? Track coach, field coach, baseball coach, basketball coach, gymnastics coach ... the list is endless and getting longer all the time, too.

Coach Allen was already pissed enough about this whole commercial thing, anyway. Great track coaches don't come along all that often; I don't want to lose him. Even my parents were a little leery. "Just be careful, Dick," advised Dad Wayne, through a wreath of pipe smoke, pointing with his Meerschaum for emphasis. "Just don't lose your head, son."

Damn! Babs seems to be the only one who understands at all. Thoughts of Barbara Gordon are apt to paint a huge smile on my face and this was no exception. It was almost enough to make me forget the damned director. For a few minutes anyway.

"Look," our esteemed director, Basil Karlo, wiped his brow with a large silk foulard, "I'm gonna call it quits for the day, babe! Hell, might as well," he mourned, "the cops are gonna be swarming all over my tuchis any minute now whatever I do." He swore luridly. "Unless you want to spend the rest of the day cooling your heels talking to them, too, you'd better get the hell outta here! But be back first thing in the morning. Eight o'clock sharp, got that? And don't be late! We got a contract, baby!" I was about to tell him where he could stuff his contract but, before I could ungrit my teeth he was gone.

"Now there's someone in more dire need of a blow job than any white man in history," cracked the familiar voice of Roy Harper at my back.

"Harper, don't you ever think of anything but sex? There are other things in the world, you know," demanded an exasperated Wally West.

"And those would be?" inquired Roy, his hands spread wide ready to embrace any sensible answer. Wally rolled his eyes heavenward.

"Says the man who had dates with *three* babes last night!" snorted a disdainful Roy.

"Hey!" retorted a smug Wally, "I *am* 'The Fastest Man Alive' .. the medal says so!"

Is it my fault that all my friends are jocks, I ask you? And the answer has to be a resounding, "No!" Who has time for anything else, anyway? I even met Babs when she tried out for the gymnastics team. Sports gets to be an athlete's life after a while, I guess. Wally and I are the stars of the GU track team, the Titans. His uncle Barry Allen is the assistant coach in what little spare time the Gotham City Police department gives him. Forensic chemists are in big demand these days. Some unkind turkeys say that's how Wally keeps his scholarship. They do kinda have a point. Wally may not be the brightest guy to come down the pike, but he's not stupid. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he can run the 100 yard dash in eight seconds flat on a good day, either.

Roy *is* the GU archery team. Unfortunately, he knows it, too. Everything I know about being arrogant, I learned from Roy. We call him "Speedy" because he's so fast on his feet running after all the women he can find.

We all three came back from Atlanta with gold dangling from our necks and the strains of "The Star Spangled Banner" still ringing in our ears.

"Save it for the girls, Fleetfeet," I grinned. "What are you and the Bow Slinger doing here anyway?" I looked around. "And where's Garth?" I waved a hand in self defense, almost too late as I saw Roy open his mouth to answer, revealing strong white teeth. "No, no, don't tell me! Let me guess. He's still practicing, right? Christ on a retro-rocket! Does he *live* in that flamin' pool or *what*? Wally nodded sagely.

"I think I saw gills the last time I looked, " he pronounced ominously.

"Garth Curry is definitely gonna be the next Mark Spitz, if *he* has anything to say about it," agreed Roy. He smirked. "And Greg Louganis better watch his butt, too," he advised. "I saw Garth giving a diving platform the evil eye yesterday ... "

And so it went. Lunch was the order of the day, so we adjourned to Ramon's Tacqueria on Fulmont for most of the rest of the afternoon and I began to relax a little. That's starting to be rarer and rarer these days and I'm not sure I like it. Not sure at all.

We have a lot in common, the four of us. More than you'd realize at first, actually. More than just the jock thing, too. It's kinda eerie when you think about it. I mean, what are the odds of four Olympic caliber athletes -- three of whom are orphans -- with adoptive parents richer than God? Pretty slim, right? But there it is.

My folks were circus people from day one, the Flying Graysons. I was learning to fly on the high trapeze before I could walk, almost. I was only nine years old when I watched them plunge to their deaths in that freak accident. The wires broke, that's all. One minute they were flying high above the matinee crowd on a Saturday afternoon, costumes flashing, smiling brilliantly, and the next ... they were laying broken on the ground sixty feet beneath me. No one was to blame.

And I was alone.

I'd still be alone if it weren't for Thomas and Martha Wayne and the Bruce Wayne Memorial Children's Foundation. The Waynes were in the audience that night as sponsors of the charity Haley's Circus was benefiting in Gotham City. When I was shunted aside and forgotten by one and all in the hubbub of my parents deaths, I can still remember Martha Wayne's soft voice as she hugged me to her breast. "Oh you poor little boy," she cried. "You poor little boy! Thomas, I won't hear of him going to one of those awful juvenile facilities! Can't we do something for him?" They took me home to Wayne Manor and I guess I've never really left.

I heard them talking one night just before they formally adopted me. I've always had a talent for snooping around, seeing and hearing things I shouldn't. Both my Moms claimed it's one of my special gifts. I think they're right.

"Are you sure about this, Martha?" I heard Thomas Wayne's gentle voice inquire. "I love Dick, too, dearest, but ... are you certain this is entirely ... healthy?" Even at the age of nine I knew exactly what he was talking about. No one had to draw me an Esso road map. I'm not blind, after all. That big portrait of Bruce has been hanging over the fireplace in the Main Sitting Room at Wayne Manor for a lot longer than I've been there ... and Dad Wayne wasn't the first one to point out how much like Bruce I look.

Or the last.

They never mentioned it to me and never discussed it again, as far as I know.

Roy was orphaned when he was about two by a huge forest fire in the Four Corners area of the Navajo nation. That's where he learned to use a bow. It's also where he learned to feel like an outsider all the time. I guess that long red hair did kinda stand out there amongst all the dark haired Navajo. Brave Bow did his best for the son of his friend and savior, but in the end, when he was dying, he had to let Roy go. If you ask me, the old shaman could have picked a better foster father for Roy than Oliver Queen, though. It's a good thing that Ollie has Lucius Fox to manage Queen Industries for him or he'd be broke for all the attention he pays to his business. Or to Roy, for that matter. You can always tell when Ollie disappears into the glitz of Monte Carlo or the Costa del Sol ... Roy gets jumpy and way irritable. Sometimes when it's really bad he drinks. I worry about Roy. He can be incredibly reckless even for a dumb jock.

Garth? No one knows anything about Garth at all. His adopted dad, Arthur Curry, found him abandoned on the beach of one his Hawaiian estates one day. I guess it's natural that Garth loves the water. Jeez, he'd *better* ... They don't call Arthur Orin Curry 'The King of the Seven Seas' for nothing, believe me. If you've ever sailed on a passenger liner or transported anything by sea, then you've dealt with Arthur Curry. He's the richest shipping/salvage magnate on the planet. Compared to him, Onasis was a pirate and a pauper. He's also an arrogant son of a gun with all the business scruples of a shark. Dad Wayne doesn't like him at all. Neither do I, really, but he does love Garth and I guess that makes up for a lot. Not for all those bruises, though. Funny how Garth, so graceful in the water, is often clumsy walking down stairs or through a door ... Especially when he's at home with Arthur. Yeah ... real funny. . . He *says* he got those scars over his left eye while he was reef diving as a kid, but I wonder. I'm pretty sure he's lying.

Nobody talks about it, of course. What's to say? There isn't anything anyone can do. Anyone except Garth. And he won't. "I'm an accident looking for a place to happen," he quips. But the lost look in his sad purple eyes makes me angry every time I see it. Yeah, his eyes really are that color; it's not a photographer's trick. Weird, huh? I'm afraid for Garth. I think one day he's going to have a really bad "accident" ... a fatal one.

Either that ... or *Arthur* will ...

Personally, I'm hoping for Arthur.

Now, Wally is refreshingly normal in all this rampant insanity. He's the odd man out here in our select little group in more ways than one. His middle class parents probably couldn't afford to send him to GU without his scholarship. I've meet his Mom and Dad and they're great people. Down to earth, home-grown Midwestern blue collar people from the Bible Belt, that's Rudolph and Mary West. Wally doesn't know how lucky he is to have them, I sometimes think. Their son is just like them. Joe Average ... expect for those flying feet that can out race the wind. And his Uncle Barry is one of the greatest guys around. Not to mention one of the best track and field coaches in the business. Yeah, Wally is luckier than he knows all right. When I'm really down it makes me feel good to know that people like Wally and his family exist, ya know?

I lingered for a while at Ramone's, not really wanting to let go of the glow of good company and greasy food. I took a perverse delight in the thought that all my coaches, and Dad Wayne, would be *appalled* at how badly I broke my training that afternoon. Good! But then I remembered Babs and rushed outside for my car.

I spotted the blond lounging by my Jag, waiting like a spider in her web. Call me paranoid, but after awhile you get to recognize the signs, trust me. She was a looker, though, I'll give her that. Long, shiny blond hair, bright blue eyes that watched me with approval as I approached. She had an athlete's body, long tanned legs, sinewy and strong. That made me think I must remember her from somewhere, but I couldn't recall where offhand. I'd seen that face before, I knew. But where? Not that it mattered a whole lot. Glancing down at my Rollex, I frowned. I was gonna be late picking Babs up at the library if I didn't hurry. I had no time for dancing the ol' soft shoe with a groupie.

"You don't remember me, do you?" She sounded both amazed and hurt at the same time. Got to hand it to her ... she was *good*. But once you've heard that come on line for about the thousandth time it starts to wan, it really does. Still, I tried to be polite. I smiled. I've gotten pretty good at this ingenious smiling thing while being disingenuous enough to make Lucifer Morningstar blush with shame. It's all part of "the image", right?

"'Fraid not," I admitted. Why couldn't I remember? "But you *do* look familiar." She laughed and mimed lobbing a tennis ball deep into an opponent's court. Smacking the heel of my hand onto my forehead, I made a frightful face.

"Tennis!" I cried genuinely embarrassed, now. Way to go Grayson, I thought sourly. One of the only female athletes worth mentioning at Gotham U and *you* can't remember her. I'd only seen that face smiling back at me from a hundred sports magazine covers, a thousand TV sports broadcasts. Publicity like that happens when you're a top seeded Wimbeldon winning tennis pro. I tried contriteness; maybe that would work.

"God, I'm sorry! Bette Kane, right?" Her answering smile would have

graced the Mona Lisa.

"Now you've got it, tiger!" she chuckled.

I breathed a sigh of great relief to discover that she wasn't a groupie after all, but a fellow athlete. And then I remembered. It was in all the papers, after all. Most of the sports mouthpieces were still calling it one of the biggest sports scandals of the century. I have to admit it isn't every day that you see a sports icon attacked in the middle of a game on world-wide television. Me, I'm not a tennis fan, but I must have seen the damn thing in reruns a thousand times in the months that followed before it was resolved. Now I'm not quite convinced that Jennifer Capriletti *paid* to have it done, even if the International Olympic Committee thought so. But facts are facts and Bette Kane's right knee was smashed any way you look at it. Oh, she can still play tennis ... but she was last seeded about 110th in the field before she dropped out of the game.

Unconsciously, I shifted my weight and looked away. One of the surest ways I know to make a pro athlete sweat is to start talking about knees. Not a safe subject. For a minute I thought I should say something; tell her how sorry I was. But then, I caught a glimpse of

the look in her eyes and decided it wasn't a very good idea. Everybody tells me I'm pretty much an open book, that anyone can read what I'm thinking right off my face. I guess they're right. Bette Kane certainly knew what I was thinking if the hard set of her jaw was any sign, and I think it was. But seconds later, a dazzling smile flashed across her lips.

"So, Mr. Grayson," she laughed like tinkling wind chimes, "are you up for dinner sometime soon, my treat?" She waved a Psch101 notebook under my nose in despair. "I hear you're aces at this stuff and I'm totally lost. What do you say? Help out a grateful damsel in distress?" Her blue eyes sparkled to let me know just how "grateful" we were talking here.

Damn. I should've seen that coming. You'd think after all the practice I've had lately at this kinda thing I'd have it down to a science by now, wouldn't you? But nooooo. Ol' Stumblemouth Grayson walks into the field of fire yet again. I ran my fingers through my hair and tried to sound sincere.

"Uh ... I'm really flattered, but ... " I could see the muscles of her neck tense but she didn't say a word as I tried hard not to look her in the eye. "But ... well, I'm - uh - I'm kinda involved with someone right now," I muttered. Her bright eyes lost their warmth all at once and her full lips thinned in ominous reflex. For just a second I thought I caught sight of something dark and chill as it passed over her face. But when I blinked she was smiling and laughing.

"Well, why didn't you *say* so," she tossed her long blond hair back and fixed me with a gaze mocking at sternness. She sighed wistfully. "Why are the cute ones always taken? Can't blame a girl for trying, though." Blushing, I flashed her a quick smile.

Pulling out of the crowded parking lot I could still feel her eyes on me as I raced out into the street, heading for the GU Library and Babs.

And when I fell asleep that night, nestled next to Babs on the cool silk sheets of my large brass bed, it wasn't her emerald green eyes that stared back at me, haunting my restless sleep. These eyes were blue ... blue as glacial, arctic ice and just as cold.

But by the time the morning light came streaming in my window, I'd forgotten all about them.

 

End Chapter One

 


 

Sometimes my life is too damned busy, did you know that?

That's true of most people these days, I guess, but even more so for an athlete with delusions of grandeur like me. We finished filming the commercial with no further hassles, thank God. Karlo was slick as snot and just full of praise for my every move. I think he had his mind on a movie, starring yours truly. Hell, I'm positive of it. To tell you the truth, I wasn't all that enthusiastic about the idea, really. Sure the crowds and the adoration were fun, but Christ, filming is hard work. And don't let anyone ever tell you differently. Take it from me. By the end of a day on the set, I was as exhausted and wrung out as an old limp dish rag, as if I'd spent the day running hard on the track or training on the field.

And, of course, I couldn't help but think of all those athletes turned actors. A pretty big crowd to fight your way through, even with an Olympic medal dangling from your neck. And, frankly, I've

*seen* some of those films and things. Pardon me while I upchuck. Just because a guy or a girl is a great (or even not so great) athlete and nice looking is no guarantee that they can act. Not in the least. Fact is, most of us can't. So unless the film is some mindless piece of action or fluffy eye candy that doesn't demand a lot of skill, the chances are pretty good that it sucks.

Okay. If you're thinking that I didn't want to embarrass myself like that go to the head of the class, gang.

And who could find the time, anyway? I was still snowed under with all my various training regimens. So, it's no wonder that I wasn't paying much attention, huh? I saw Bette Kane hanging around on the edges of my life for days afterwards, but I didn't really think much about it. What was to think? She had a right to the training fields and the exercise equipment, too, didn't she?

Even when Tula mentioned her, I didn't think much of it.

Tula smiled in that fierce, protective way she's got. Usually she's protecting Garth, who needs it, but sometimes she can spare the rest of us a thought or two. To emphasize her point she did something painful but vital to the muscles of my calf and I yelped satisfactorily.

"Got a new admirer, Dick?" she teased.

I groaned. "Jeez, weren't you paying attention in those Anatomy and

Physiology classes, Tula? I thought that was your Major. I don't think that joint is supposed to *do* that! Some Sports Medicine doc you're gonna make!"

She grinned, raised one exotically beautiful eyebrow at me, and her Maori heritage came rushing to the forefront. Fierce people, the Maori. Ask the Aussies about that. People figured she was a shoo-in for at least one swimming gold at the upcoming Sydney 2000 Games in a couple of years. She and Garth. Swimming's answer to Bogie and Becall. In the meantime, she was training here in the US from her native New Zealand and studying Sports Medicine. Earning a few vital extra dollars as a P&A therapist for the Titans along the way and learning a lot from Dr. Charles McNider, the team doc. "Doctor Midnight" may be blind but he's the best. He kept Tula pretty busy most of the time but she and Garth always seemed to find time for one another. God knows where.

She continued her "therapy". But she fell so quiet that I was worried after a minute or so when she didn't speak. She's not chatty or anything like some girls. Fact is she's pretty quiet most times unless she gets angry for some reason. Trust me. You really don't want to make her angry. She'll rip you a new body orifice before you can even take a breath. But I know Tula pretty well and this just didn't feel right, somehow. I turned over and stared up at her.

"Tula?"

I was really glad that she took her hands off me just then. Tula is amazingly strong for a woman her size, believe me. And if the fire in her brown eyes was any indication of her mood ...

For a heartbeat she didn't answer. I thought I was going to be ignored. But then -

"Garth came home from Maui a couple of days ago," she said almost matter of factly, no preamble, no build up, no *nothing*. Just tell it bang and shame the devil. "He didn't want to make love. Would even let me take off his shirt for a massage. Made a big joke about it. 'You're going to wear me out, girl!'" I closed my eyes and my stomach took up queasy residence somewhere down around my ankles. I had a pretty good idea of what was coming. I was right.

"At first I thought he was just tired. Long flight and all that," she continued in that quiet, somehow disturbing voice. "Didn't press him. I walked in on him when he was undressing for bed, though. He was covered in bruises. All over. I examined him as closely as he'd let me. I think one of his ribs is cracked. He won't see Doctor McNider. Begged me not to tell him. Won't see a doctor at all. Jesus, Dick, what am I going to do?"

"*I'm* gonna kill Arthur freakin' Curry, is what *I'm* gonna do!" I exploded. "Damned sadist! Why can't he find another punching bag for Christ's sake!"

Tula's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You'll have to stand in line," she told me, still in that awful voice. "Not if I get to him first, you won't kill him."

The trouble is this: I won't swear that she was exaggerating.

Quickly, I grabbed her hand and squeezed it lightly in comfort. "Hey, Tula ... it's cool ... it's cool. Chill, okay? Please? We - we'll think of something, I promise! I - I'll talk to Garth, okay? We'll work this out."

Jeezus. Listen to me. Ol' Gonna Save The World Grayson. But ... how? I didn't really think that talking to Garth would help. Lots of us have talked to Garth, one way or another. Hasn't yet done any good. So how was I gonna find a fairy tale happy ending in this blasted mess?

Didn't have the slightest idea.

Tula just nodded. Didn't say jack. I'm pretty sure she was far from convinced. So was I. Believe you me, I was still plenty worried when I left her sitting on the edge of a massage table, staring off into the distance, lost in her emotional turmoil.

So you can see how the subject of Bette Kane just sorta got lost in the fray, right?

The only thing I could think was: Donna. Maybe Donna could help.

Finding Donna Troy wasn't as easy as you might think, either. Student teachers don't have offices. Especially not in the Classics Department. That's not a department that gets a lot of attention in the first place. Not at Gotham U, anyway. These days there aren't too many students who're interested in learning about Classic Greek, Roman, or Egyptian literature, history and mythology. Too bad.

Donna Troy was definitely a God save for Professor Prince. Seeing Donna Troy and Diana Prince together was like looking at sisters, although as far as I know they're not related except by adoption. Diana's mother Hippolyta Prince adopted Donna when she was just a baby. Donna says she's got a lot to live up to in her family background. I guess so. It isn't every girl who's mother was once a reining monarch. Or whose sister is a retired United Nations Ambassador. Okay. So Themiscyra is a tiny little Greek island in the Cyclades island chain in the Aegean. It's still an independent nation, by God. Diana caused quite a stir among the stodgy, ancient Ambassadors at the UN. Do you know any other UN Ambassador who ever had their very own pin-up poster, hmmmm? Diana was furious, of course. Had the thing off the market so fast it could've made your head spin. Today that poster, when you can find it, that is, is worth a bloody fortune.

I still have mine.

I finally tracked Donna down to The Student Union. She likes to live dangerously so she eats there. It's also cheap. Teaching Assistants don't make much cash. Not even ones like Donna who speak six languages and whose doctoral thesis set the Classics world on it's collective ear. Rewriting parts of "The Iliad" will do that for you, I'm told. And she refuses to sponge off her mother or her sister. I gotta say, I admire her for that. A lot.

She smiled at me when she first saw me until she spied the look in my eye. Her fork she lay down carefully at the side of her unfinished salad and sugarless (yeah, I know her well enough to know that without having to see it) ice tea. Studying me, she was already trying to fathom my problem. Donna is like that. She's, like, mother hen to the entire world. Especially one beleaguered jock named Dick Grayson. Donna is like the older sister that I never had. I can't tell you how many hours I've spent, curled up on her couch after a fight with Babs or one of my coaches, how often I've bent her ear with my problems. And she always listens. I've lost count of all the baklava and moussaka I've scarfed down at her table over the years. God, she keeps me sane.

Right now she was waiting patiently for me to say something, anything.

I bit my lip and began. "It's Garth ... "

When the tale was told in all it's ugliness, Donna didn't waste a second on useless anger or rhetoric Oh, she was mad, all right. Her deep onyx colored eyes sparkled with her wrath. But that was for later. Now, we had to try and help Garth. As usual she cut right to the heart of the matter, like a surgeon with his scalpel.

"The first thing we've got to do," she declared, "is get him to see a doctor. Any doctor will do. How about your Dad, Dick? Think you could convince Dr. Wayne to see to Garth and then to be discreet about it? As a favor to you, perhaps?"

She searched my eyes for an answer. I whacked my forehead sharply at such gross evidence of my own stupidity. "Christ!" I moaned. "Paint me red and call me an idiot! I should have thought of that! Of course! Dad!"

She managed to smile at me. God, she has the most beautiful smile in the world. Next to Babs, that is. "That's all right, Short Pants," she reassured me. "Sometimes it's hard to see the forest for the trees, I guess."

I blushed at the use of her private nick name for me. I'm never gonna live down those knickers that came with the school uniform for Gotham Prep. Never. Not in *this* lifetime, at any rate. Guess I might as well get used to it. And it's not so bad. You don't wanna *know* what she call's Roy. I got off easy, trust me. Well, the nickname's not too awful when Donna uses it, anyway. Anybody else calls me that and it's knuckle city.

I gathered her slim hand in mine. "Does Mr. Terry Long know just what a lucky man he is?" I inquired, softly. At the sound of her fiancee's name Donna brightened, her face aglow with pleasure. And, despite myself, I was jealous as Hell. There's no doubt about it. She really loves the guy. Diana is happy for her, but the rest of the administration of Gotham U isn't so understanding. Terry Long *does* teach for a rival university, after all. They're both Classics profs. That's how they met. Terry has tenure at Empire State. Donna doesn't.

She grinned. "There's a rumor going around to that effect, yes," she admitted blithely.

"Any truth to that rumor Miss Troy?" I quipped.

Sternly, she pointed to the bank of phones near the entrance. "Go!" she ordered. "Phone your Dad! Now!"

Sheepish in my embarrassment, I rose and bowed low. "Yes, Oh She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed! At once, My Queen!"

I ducked just in time to avoid the crouton she threw at me with unerring accuracy and scurried away.

The phone rang twice before Alfred answered it. "Wayne residence. Alfred Pennyworth here. How may I help you?" God, I love that man. Alfred is like the rock upon which Wayne Manor and its household rests. We'd all be lost without him. Me, most of all.

"Alfred? Is Dad home? I need to speak to him. It's kinda urgent."

"Ah, Young Master Dick!" he murmured, glad to hear my voice, I could

tell. Christ I ought to get home more often. "One moment, Sir. The doctor is ... in his study ..."

I had to grin. " ... in his study ... " Heh. That's AlfredSpeak for "He's upstairs with your Mom, makin' whoppie!"

In fact, Dad Wayne was still kinda breathless when he finally answered. "Dick, son? Is everything all right, my boy?"

I closed my eyes and rested my forehead on the cool metal surface of the public phone. Kept me from falling down, I guess.

"No, " I whispered, "they're not. Look, I need a favor, okay? A - a really big favor ... "

Half an hour later, I hung up the phone, pale and more than a little shaken . Dad Wayne had agreed to help Garth. He wasn't happy about the secrecy involved, no. Not by a long shot. But he understood. In the end, he'd decided that the only way to help Garth was on Garth's terms. I guess he'd dealt with enough runaway kids and street people in his free clinic to realize how important secrets were to some. But I was pretty sure that The King Of The Seven Seas, his self appointed majesty Arthur Curry, was headed for trouble. Big trouble. Dad Wayne owns a lot of stock in a lot of different companies. And he knows a bunch of people in the health care industry all around the world. Not to mention a whole gang of state officials across the US and Europe. I had the definite feeling that a long overdue investigation into Garth's home life was about to mysteriously take shape.

I hoped they french fried the scum sucker.

And they, did, too. The press got hold of the whole incredible mess and crucified the bastard. Today, at his own request, Garth Curry is an "emancipated minor", and Arthur isn't allowed to come with a hundred yards of him by court order. He's broke but he's happy. Thank Christ something good came out of all this horror. One of the only good memories I have of this time is the shy smile on Garth's face when he thanked me. That almost made the whole thing worth while.

Almost.

Donna welcomed me back to our table with open arms and that lovely smile; I suddenly felt much better than I had in what seemed like ages.

Bette Kane was the very last thing on my mind.

 


The phone shrilled in my ear and shocked me out of the arms of Morpheus. Which was too bad, since that was one heck of a dream I was enjoying. Blinking back sleepy torpor, I lay there resentfully and waited for Babs to answer the damned thing just as she always did. Babs is one of those people who simply *cannot* let a ringing phone alone. She *has* to answer it. I pulled the pillow over my head to shut out the sound. I murmured, "Babs?" before I reached out to gently prod her. My hands closed upon cold, empty sheets barren of even so much as a trace of Babs' warmth or the fragrance of her hair.

Then I remembered that I was sleeping alone tonight. I don't like to do that, you know? It can get pretty lonely all alone in this huge, antique brass bed. Babs likes to call my bed "Grayson Acres". Damn! I fumbled for the phone and dropped it from sleep befuddled fingers. Almost fell off the bed reaching for it. Not a great way to start the day.

"Dick?" came Donna's strained voice, distorted by the lousy campus phone connection. "Dick you'd better get over here. Now. It - it's Wally ... "

"Wally? Wha 'bout Wally?" I mumbled groggily, fighting to stay awake. I glanced over at the clock on the bedside table. 4:37 AM the luminescent LED readout flashed at me accusingly. I sat up with a groan. "If he's locked himself out of his apartment again, *you* put him up for the night ..."

I could have sworn I heard a strangled sob from the other end of that phone. "Dick ... Wally ... Oh God, Wally's dead ... How quickly can you get over here? Linda's hysterical and I've got my hands full. I could really use your help, Boy Wonder." Donna must be the last remaining person on Earth who still remembers that Dick Grayson was once billed as "An aerial Boy Wonder!" before he was adopted by the Waynes.

I'd like to say that the trip to Wally's apartment was a nightmare. But I can't. The truth is, I don't remember it at all. The trip, I mean. I remember *being* there. Climbing stiffly out of my car. The flashing red and amber lights of all the police black and whites surrounding the small, aged building. My ears brought me with crystal clarity the sound of the deep boredom in the voice of the cop pushing back the crowds. As if he spent every night of his life keeping guard on the lifeless body of my best friend. It was a large crowd. Campus violence was becoming a big issue with both the students and the city politicos, so they were restless, straining, rubbernecking, to see and hear what was going on. I could almost smell the tension in the chill early morning air.

But getting to Wally's apartment? It's a blur. A strobing, changing kaleidoscope of rain slick streets, passing headlights and flashing neon from the cheap bars and liquor stores lining the way to Wally's small apartment. It's not in a good 'hood. Jeezus. I'm just lucky I didn't wrap myself around a tree or something, I must've been so out of it. That's providing, of course, that there were any trees in this part of town.

There weren't.

Numbly, I looked around for Donna or someone else I knew. I wanted to sigh with relief when I spotted Couch Pratt. But I couldn't. I wondered what he was doing here. Wally was never a member of the GU boxing team, the "Justice Society". So why was the team couch here, now? I figured he had to have been the only one of the athletic coaches at GU who could be reached at this time of night. Lucky me.

"Up And Atom" Al Pratt, doesn't much like me. Guess he feels cheated that the GU track and field team, The Titans, get most of the funding and all of the attention around here. Atomic Al isn't the forgiving sort, believe me. I took a deep breath and waved for his attention. He spotted me right away, trotted right on over. But he was frowning. Not a good sign. But, then, you don't get many good signs from Coach Pratt.

"What the Hell are you doing here, Grayson?" he demanded.

"Donna Troy called me," I replied, trying to keep the rising hysteria out of my voice. I guess I must have succeeded. Atomic Al *didn't* punch out my lights.

The hard look in his eyes softened at the mention of Donna's name and I knew I was home free. Everybody has a soft spot for Donna. Even crusty old garrulous ex-pugs like Al Pratt. He waved me forward with a sharp gesture of one hand.

Inside was a madhouse. I ducked under the bright yellow tape sealing off the door to the apartment and was instantly set upon by two uniforms bent on hustling my buns outta there, post haste. They might have made it, too. See, I froze when I saw the chalk lines on the hardwood floor. Blinding white, they seemed to glow with an unholy bright light. I closed my eyes to block out the sight of them.. It didn't help. Those brilliant white lines, outlining the fallen body of my best friend in the world, were seared into the underside of my eyelids. I wasn't ever going to get rid of them. Never. I'm sure I'll take them to my grave.

But they were all that was left of Wallace Randolf West, The Fastest Man Alive.

Wally must have died quickly. It looked as though he ended up sprawled on his back. The impact must have picked him up and tossed him across the room like a kid's toy. And there was blood ...

Oh, God ... so much blood.

From the neatly traced circle of the head came a slowly spreading tide of crimson, soaked into the unpolished hardwood, now, filling the close air of the tiny apartment with the heavy smell of salty metal.. Nothing was ever going to remove it.

"Dick! Thank God you're here! Officer, please ...let him through. I called for his help ... please ... "

Donna's voice shook me back to reality. Instantly, I wished it hadn't.

Donna was sitting on Wally's beat up dilapidated old couch that clashes with the rest of the so called "decor". Wally loved that damned ratty old thing. And how many hours had I spent sitting there, scarfing down illegal beer and pretzels, watching the Gotham Knights once again get their tails whacked?

Too many to count.

Donna was clutching a weeping Linda Park, soothing and comforting her as best she could. A nervous EMT tech was hovering nearby, a needle discreetly in hand. The uniforms let go of my arm and I made my way though the maddening crowd to Donna's side, sitting carefully beside her on the couch. Linda was crying so hard that she could barely breathe between sobs. Her frail shoulders shook and trembled like an earthquake.

Linda is an ace Journalism student. She's covered campus violence before. Lots of times. But I guess all that necessary journalistic detachment just flies right out the window when violence happens to someone you love. I had a feeling that the head of her department, Professor Kent, would forgive her. There still a lot of the Kansas farm boy in Clark Kent despite his three Pulitzers and his Edgar Award for the Best Mystery Novel of 1996. I've read "Under A Yellow Sun" and it's a really fun book. Professor Kent is a great guy; everybody likes him.

Linda called herself Wally's "fiancee". And Wally never denied it so I guess it was true. They were going to wait until they graduated, of course, before they got married. Wally was kind of frightened by the whole idea of matrimony, actually. We spent a lot of time talking about it, just the two of us. Marriage is a big step and Wally wasn't sure he was ready for it. I guess that's what all those other girls were all about, huh? Wally's way of trying to torpedo his commitment to Linda. It was one freakin' mess, is what it was.

The EMT finally got the needle into Linda and Donna called her parents in Central City. They were due in Gotham on the redeye special at 7AM. Donna ran her hands through her long black hair and collapsed back onto the couch. Resting her head on my shoulder, she held onto me for dear life. I held back, unashamedly. I don't quite know how, but some way or the other, the two of us got through the rest of the early morning.

Fortunately for us, the cops just sort of ignored us after a while. They were busy with other things, of course. Christ they even dragged the Commissioner out of bed at such an ungodly hour for this. I suppose the murder of a star Olympic athlete rates that kind of thing. Jim Gordon polished his horn rim glasses repeatedly and combed his white walrus mustache with his fingers, looking grim. He had the place jumping inside of five minutes of his arrival. Nothing like the Commissioner of Police to light a fire under the lethargic butts of lazy Homicide Detectives, I guess. Jim Gordon is a top cop. Wally was in good hands.

"Bullock!" Gordon growled. "Has anybody questioned the neighbors yet?"

Harvey Bullock heaved his considerable bulk to Gordon's side and smashed out his foul smelling cigar beneath one booted heel. Dad Wayne has been trying to get Jim Gordon to quite smoking for years. They tried a pipe even. Nothing seemed to work. They're down to using Nicoderm CQ, now, I think. The Commissioner's nose twitched to the familiar, desperately sought odor of nicotine flavored air. He took a deep breath in a futile effort to haul as much of it into his starved lungs as he could.

Bullock took a bite of his dagwood sized sandwich, splattering the mayo and mustard leaking out of the side of the huge concoction onto his already none too clean trench coat. Cursing beneath his breath, he dabbed at the stain futilely with his hand, driving it even deeper into the coat to escape him. Gritting his teeth, he consulted his notebook.

"Yeah," he said, glancing down at the small pad. "Montoya talked to a Mrs. Lipinski, next door. Says the West kid came in at about 2.30AM. Woke her up, according to her is why she remembers it so well. West was always doing that, she claims. Coming in late and waking her up. She was keeping a record. Gonna call us and report the kid, eventually, once she had the 'evidence'. Says he was with a girl, as usual. Didn't get a good look at the girl, she says. They were all alike according to her. She remembers that this one was pretty tall, well built. They stood outside the door and smooched for about ten minutes, then they went inside. Mrs. Lipinski went back to sleep. About half an hour later she was awakened again by a loud noise. She didn't know what it was, but it was really loud. She called 911 to complain. When the officers on the scene got here, the building Super had to let them in. They found West laying dead on the floor and called it in."

Harvey Bullock folded his notebook and took another bite of his sandwich.

Jim Gordon scowled at the mess and pushed his horn rimed glasses further back on his nose. "Did anybody call Essen?" he demanded and Bullock swallowed his bit of sandwich with a quick gulp before he shook his greasy, disheveled head in consternation.

"Well why the hell NOT!" Gordon roared. "Mother of God! Isn't she the one working of the Nasswell case? That football star that was shot and killed earlier this year?" Bullock nodded hasty assent. The Commissioner set his teeth and growled, "Don't tell me that I'm the only one to see a connection between the murders of two star athletes, for God's sake! Get Essen down here! NOW! Have forensics compare those bullets! And ... GET THESE PEOPLE OUT OF HERE! Hop to it, Sergeant!"

Bullock hopped.

I got Donna home and I spent rest of the night on her couch. I think she was glad to have someone to coddle or maybe just someone else in the apartment. It wasn't a night for being alone. Neither one of us slept a wink, I can tell you that. I didn't close my eyes even once. Because ... because, if I did, I *knew* what I was condemned to see, okay? As the sun was rising, turning the world all golden and ruby in its dawning light, I heard the sound of soft sobs wafting from Donna's bedroom.

I threw off the restraining covers and rose from the comfort of Donna's plush sofa bed. Stumbling into her bedroom, I took her in my arms, crawled in beside her and held her again. I was doing a lot of that lately. That suited me just fine. My throat tightened almost closed and I had to struggle really hard not to join my tears with hers.

I didn't make it.

 


 

The next day was declared an "Official Day of Mourning" at GU. Classes were suspended and they flew the GU flag at half mast for Wally. There were at least a dozen marches and demonstrations against campus related violence. The President and Vice President of the Student Council met with the Dean in an official capacity to discuss the problem. Speeches abounded.

All of which did exactly spit to solve the real problem.

Wally West was still dead.

I started not to even show my face on campus. I just couldn't handle the continual parade of "Hey man, sorry to hear about your friend ... " and "Oh how horrible about Wally!" that I knew would be waiting for me there. But Donna was in no shape to drive, too exhausted, and she had a meeting with her department Chairman that couldn't be put off. So I ended up giving her a lift and waiting for her to finish. I also took the opportunity to check up on Garth. Dad Wayne had done a bang up job of taping those cracked ribs. But that didn't mean that Garth was *all right*, if you take my meaning. I needed to be sure. I'd already lost one friend today. I wasn't going to lose another. Garth and I were going to talk. Oh, yeah. We were going to *talk* all right ...

Since the Grayson luck was running true to form, which is to say mostly bad, who should I run into?

Why, Jean-Paul Valley, of course.

It had to figure didn't it?

The very last mook on the face of the planet that I ever wanted to see under *any* circumstances, so, of course, he ambushes me waiting for Donna in the Student Union.

Merde!

Which is pretty much the sum total of all the French I know except for some come on lines that I carefully memorized for the femmes at the European Nationals a couple of years ago. That was before I got really involved with Babs, of course.

Somehow, I really doubted that they were going to stand me in good stead with Jean-Paul.

Can I be honest here? Heh. Guess I'd better since it's only me and thee here and right now I not too sure about thee.

I come as close to hating Jean-Paul Valley as I do anybody on Earth. And it's jealousy, pure and simple. Painful as it is to admit that, it's true. Christ, I might as well be honest with myself, right? When I took gold in the decathlon at Atlanta guess who took the silver?

If you guessed Jean-Paul Valley then go to the head of the class and give yourself a gold star, babe.

So, I won gold and Jean-Paul had to settle for silver. God is in his Heaven and all's right with the world, right? Well, not quite. The truth is that until Atlanta I always came in second to Jean-Paul. Every damned time. It was like a curse or some freakin' thing. First Place = Jean-Paul Valley of France. Second Place = Dick Grayson, USA. I'd never beaten him before and I haven't beaten him since. And I would even have lost that Olympic gold to him if it hadn't been for ... been for ...

How do I explain this? Well, see, the final Decathlon event is traditionally always the 100 meter dash. And the 100 meters was scheduled to be run on a Sunday ... the Sabbath ...

And Jean-Paul Valley refused to run on the Lord's Day.

The French officials were furious. They threatened him with everything from expulsion from the Games to revoking his citizenship. It was like beating a rock. And about as useful. He wouldn't budge an inch. The Bible forbade working (running) on the Sabbath and that was the name of that tune. They even tried arguing with the Olympic officials to try and persuade them to reschedule the race on another day. No dice. The race would be run on Sunday.

Without Jean-Paul Valley.

He was an official "no show", a scratch, from the 100 meters. I won by almost 4/100ths of a second. A new Olympic record, I might add. I also won the Decathlon. By the skin of my teeth. He went home in disgrace and I became America's sweetheart.

Somehow, that just didn't feel right, you know? I wanted to *beat* him. With my own two feet, my hands and my body; not some stupid technicality or because he was a stubborn fool. That rankled. Unmercifully.

So what happens? He left France and came to Gotham U as a Divinity student, of course. More rotten Grayson luck. Hell, I didn't even know that GU *had* a Divinity School.

Yeah, that's right. He's going to be a priest. That's why they call him The Angel. But .. behind his back they call him Azrael. Azrael, the Angel of Death and Destruction because you do NOT want to met him on an athletic field. He'll eat you alive without even thinking about it twice. On an athletic field he *is* Death and Destruction. The Death of all your Dreams. The Destruction of all your hopes.

It's the weirdest thing I've ever seen. It's almost as though when he puts on those golden running shoes he turns into another person or some damn thing. Off the field he's so quiet you'd hardly notice him. He doesn't give interviews. He hates having his picture taken. And as far as girls go forget it. He turns a brilliant shade of crimson and runs away as fast as his long legs will carry him. Which is pretty damned fast, come to think of it. So, of course, women flock to him in droves. And he blushes and stammers his way into their little hearts. And, no, he's not gay. I saw a guy come on to him once in the locker room at the European Nationals. He didn't even notice, I don't think. Missed it completely. Nope, as far as I can tell he's not gay. He's just ... *not* ...

But when he slips off those mild looking little round professorial glasses of his and ties on those shiny gold custom made Nikes, it's another story entirely. THEN your butt is toast. You just don't know it yet, is all. There are all kinds of rumors about him and his training techniques. Everything from undetectable anabolic steroids to hypnosis. And I almost believe them. His trainers and coaches just called it "the System" and refused to discuss it. So does Jean-Paul. I've seen him so shaky and spacy after a race that he didn't know his own name. Whatever they do to him to make him win, I don't think it's a lot of fun.

I've also seen him on his knees praying before every event. He takes a lot of flack for that. He ignores it and just keeps right on winning. If' I'd let myself, I think I could admire him for that. Sometimes ... sometimes I think it must be nice to have that kind of faith, to be that sure of *anything*. God, that must feel good to be so secure. We're certainly not friends or anything, but I once helped him stumble off the field after another race that I lost to him. I mean, I was the only one close enough to catch him when he fell. I couldn't just leave him laying there, could I? He's even taller than I am, damn his eyes. Okay. It's not his fault that he's 6'3" and I'm 5'10". Damn it, I was *supposed* to be six feet tall. At least. I know it! His trainers tried to hustle me out of the room, but he wouldn't let them. He collapsed onto a massage table, breathing hard. I didn't think it was from the race, though. I brushed the blond hair from out of his eyes and stared down into those sapphire depths.

"Why do you do it, man?" I asked softly. "If it hurts like this .. why do you do it?"

He smiled like an Angel.

"Because it brings me closer to God," he whispered, closing his eyes against the pain. "When I run, I see Him."

I was staring once more into those same bottomless depths, now. Beneath the plain shirt he wore, pressing against the expanse of his broad chest, I could glimpse the outlines of the silver cross hanging around his neck. I don't think he's ever worn the Olympic Silver Medal he won, not even in publicity photos, but he's never without that cross. At least I've never seen him when he wasn't wearing it.

"I was sorry to hear about Wallace," he said quietly. "He is in the Hand of God, now. Happier, I think."

I bit back a sharp retort. 'Don't be a jerk Grayson,' I castigated myself, angrily. 'He's just trying to make you feel better, that's all. The best way he knows how. And ... who knows? Maybe he's right, who can say? It would be nice to think so wouldn't it?' It still kind of threw me, though. See, Wally is one of the only runners who've ever beaten Jean-Paul. In a charity race for UNESCO or the World Health Organization or somedamnthing or another. The UN lined up six of the best runners in the world and sold tickets. Between the global film and broadcast rights, the merchandising, and all the rest, they netted about a cool forty mil. That's a lot of hungry people fed. A lot of sick people made well.

And Jean-Paul Valley, for the first time in his career, came in second. He didn't seem to mind but I was still surprised at the truth of his sadness. He had no reason to be especially fond of Wally. Jean-Paul is a generalist, like most decathletes, as opposed to being a specialist like Wally. Wally was the best there was at running, but give him a discus or a javelin, or a vaulting pole and he was likely to just stand there and stare at it with a puzzled look on his face. The trick to being a decathlete is simple: you have to be pretty good at *everything*. The truth is, Jean-Paul and I are about the only two decathletes I know who are good enough to compete against the specialists when we want to.

"I will pray for him," he offered. "And for you."

I closed my eyes. "T-thanks," was all I could manage in a strangled voice. A hand lightly touched my shoulder in comfort and then was gone as if it had never been. The thing is, I did feel better. It's so strange. Of all the people in the world who might try to console me about Wally's death, who would have thought that Jean-Paul Valley would be the one to succeed? When I opened my eyes again there was no sign of Jean-Paul. But the feel of his compassion lingered for a long time after his departure.

Oh, yeah. He's gonna make a hell of a priest. He's got the touch, all right. I suddenly realized that he was a lot like Dad Wayne in a way. He really *cares*. He truly does. He's got a long hard struggle ahead of him, though, I think. The idea of some poor backsliding sinner facing *Azrael* is more than a little frightening. But if he can overcome Azrael, then Jean-Paul Valley has a great future ahead of him.

Feeling exposed, I rose to leave and go in search of Donna. Less chance of meeting someone else if I waited for her outside of Professor Hall's office, I decided. Carter Hall and his wife Shiera share the Chairmanship of the Classics department. Okay, I'll admit it. I don't like the guy. He may be a world famous ex-archeologist and the planet's leading expert on Egyptian history, culture and literature but he's still an anal retentive jerk, as far as I'm concerned. I tossed money onto the table to pay for the Sugar Bubble Cola that I didn't drink, that was slowly warming to room temperature, stuffed my wallet back into my jacket pocket, and slammed almost directly into Joey.

Joesph William Wilson is a transfer student from Gallaudet University in Washington DC. You know, the only college level institute of higher learning in the United States geared toward teaching deaf students? But Joey isn't deaf. No, he went to Gallaudet because he can't speak. Joey has to use Amslam, American Sign Language, the language of the deaf, to communicate. The ugly, ridged scar slashing across his neck goes a long way towards explaining why, I suppose. Joey doesn't talk much about the accident that robbed him of his voice. He was only five when his parents car went careening out of control on that mountain road and crashed. His larynx was crushed, but not his spirit.

Joey is an art student. Now, I don't know jack about art, except that I know what I like. And I know that I like Joey's art. But, if Professor Rayner, chief honcho of the GU art department, is any judge, though, Joey is a fantastic artist. He's been trying to get Joey to let him arrange a Gallery showing at The Carlyle in New York for him for a long time. Joey keeps insisting that he's not ready yet. You couldn't prove it by me.

And the music department would like to get their hands on Joey, too. Professor Rathaway has tried everything he can think of to lure Joey to his department, but, so far, no luck. I don't care if they do call him the Pied Piper thanks to his skill with a flute, Hartley Rathaway wasn't leading Joey anywhere he didn't want to go, evidently. Professor Rathaway's TA, Mal Duncan, hasn't had any better luck. He's young and hip and, man! He can make that horn wail like Gabriel calling the Last Trumps, but still, no juice. Joey is very devoted to art.

Joey is a terrific guitarist, though. Whoa, he can really make that Gibson Hummingbird Special of his *sing*. He calls her Lucille, after Muddy Waters famous guitar. In fact that's how I met Joey. Through Roy. Our resident headbanger is waaaaay into music as well as archery. I'm not sure he's got much of a future, though, to be honest with you. Anybody who would name their garage band "The Great Frog" is either headed for some serious psych time or instant stardom. I haven't quite decided which. But the music that Joey wrote for The Great Frog is absolutely gorgeous. And Roy *can* sing. I'll give him that.

Joey was almost a Titan, even. His mom and dad were big Army Top Brass so they made sure that he could defend himself, if necessary. Yeah, Colonel Slade "Deathstroke" Wilson made sure of that, all right. Especially after Joey's older brother Grant was killed in the Gulf. Hell, if Sensei Dragon and his assistant Miss Lance hadn't snatched him up for the Martial Arts team he'd have been a natural for the Titans as a long jumper or discus thrower. But you've got to get up pretty early in the morning to move ahead of Richard "Kung Fu Fighting" Dragon and Dinah "Black Canary" Lance. Rumor has it that they call her that because she can sing like a beautiful bird ... but she only does it after she's beaten you to a pulp on the mats.

But I don't think Joey much likes fighting. Not even in controlled competition. Hell, I *know* he doesn't. He hates it, really. But, after he left home and broke with his mom and her private security agency, Searchers, Inc, that Athletic Scholarship for the MA team was just the best way he could find to allow him to study art. Joey lives and breaths art. It's his life. Everything else is just an interruption.

He didn't say anything. Not even in Sign. He gazed at me with those gentle, expressive sea green eyes of his, took my hands in his long slender fingers, and filled them with the pleasant weight of a carefully rolled up piece of heavy cream colored art paper.

I unfurled it slowly, thinking to prepare myself. It didn't work. No way I could have been ready for *this*. My eyes widened and I gasped. I couldn't seem to catch my breath. My fingers trembled and Joey gently enfolded them with his longer, finer ones. My eyes misted. I remember thinking that I really should roll that paper back up to keep it safe. God knows, if I was going to do something stupid like cry I didn't want to do it on *this*.

For there, on the paper, enshrined in tones of brilliant scarlet and bright gold was Wally West. Wally running. His long legs stretched out before him, his auburn hair flowing behind him like a victory banner in a high wind. Wally, his face transported with beatific joy speeding triumphantly, bursting headlong into the arms of something wondrous.

Suddenly, looking at this incredible piece of art, I knew exactly what Jean-Paul Valley meant about seeing God when he ran.

So did Wally.

Wally used to talk sometimes about something he jokingly referred to as "The Speed Force". How it was out there just waiting to claim him if only he could run fast enough to join it.

I clutched at the precious gift in my hands. "Hey Wally," thought through my gathering tears, "you made it, man ... You finally made it. Save me a seat in the Winners Circle, okay, pal?"

"Oh God, Joey, it's beautiful," I choked. "It's so damned beautiful.."

'So was Wally," he signed. "Like the wind is beautiful ... "

 


 

Ramon's Tacqueria was a really lousy place to hold a wake, if you ask me. Nobody did, of course. The atmosphere sucks. Still, I guess, it was sort of appropriate. It was Wally who found the place, of course. Trust the ol' Flasheroo to find *the* most disgusting greasy spoon in Gotham in which to regularly break his training diet. Never could figure out how he did it, actually. Must've been some kind of trick metabolism or something. Hell, if I ate like Wally did, I'd be as big as the side of a barn.

Roy had Climaxx blasting on the juke when Donna and I got there. Garth looked like he wanted to cover his ears or slide under the table to get away from all the noise. But, as usual, he was too polite or shy to say anything. Passing by, I "accidentally" unplugged the damned thing with my foot, cocking a grim smile. Garth smiled at me in return, those strange purple eyes of his flashing gratitude my way. Tula did the same.

"Hey!" cried Roy, nonplused. "What's with *you*, man?"

I didn't say anything. And, thank God, neither did Roy. I'm not sure what I would have done if he had. I wasn't really in much of a mood to deal with anything just then. Too tired and sad to fight, too angry not to. Angry at the world for being without Wally West, angry at the sicko who murdered him, even angry at Wally for letting it happen. For leaving me. Just like my parents did.

I sat back and listened. Listened to Donna's tales of Wally and all the friendship that passed between them. To Roy's mirthful stories of Wally's misadventures on the Romance front. I listened to them all, each in their turn, one by one. And when my turn rolled around, to my horror, I discovered that I had absolutely nothing to say. No sad ballads or humorous ditties to bring a smile to anyone's lips or a tear to the eye. I - I wasn't ready to talk about Wally. Not yet, anyway. Not even with the other Titans. I - couldn't. It was Garth who saved me.

He lay a quick hand on my shoulder. "It's all right, Richard," he told me in that soft voice of his. He always calls me Richard, my actual name. He's the only one who does. "We understand. You must mourn Wallace in your own way, your own time."

Damn him! He wasn't going to make this easy, was he? Why did he have to be such a nice guy, anyway? Why couldn't he be more like the rest of us, huh? Sometimes petty and irritable and all that? Why did he have to be so peaceful and calm, like a deep, still mountain lake, so blasted understanding, so, so ... so *Garth*?

Outlined beneath the loose shirt he wore I could catch an occasional glimpse of the bandages holding his cracked rib in place. For a moment I wondered how he had explained those bandages, missing practice and pool time, to his coach. Coach Dorrance wasn't a slave driver, or anything. Not like some. But he certainly did believe in discipline and practice. That's how he won three Olympic gold medals. Dane Dorrance, the "Sea Devil", was the scourge of pools everywhere from sunny California to Australia in the early 60's. Now, he's one of the best swim coaches in the world. I stared at those bandages.

And just that suddenly, just that thoroughly, I realized *exactly* why Garth was so always so calm and peaceful. He had to be. Surrounded, engulfed, by his adoptive father's rage and abuse, he could either force himself into the quiet scholls of peace and acceptance ... Or he could respond in kind with more rage and even vengeance.

A descending epiphany struck me blind side and I knew in my bones that I did *not* want to see Garth angry. Instinctively, I sensed that if Garth ever did lose his temper, I wanted to be far, far away.

Like, maybe, in the next solar system.

One day all that pent up rage and suppressed fear was just going to explode like a star going super-nova. And either Garth or, worse, Arthur Curry was a dead man. I'd known that for a long time, really. It took Wally's death, I guess, though, to finally galvanize me into action. One friend was enough to lose. I wasn't going to lose another. No way. I just had to hope that Garth didn't grow to hate me for what I was about to do.

Offering up silent prayers, I forced myself to wait until the others were gone. I caught Tula's eye and nodded imperceptibly. She nodded back in perfect understanding. She lingered over her iced tea just long enough.

"Garth?"

I tried to keep my voice casual and friendly. I swear to God I did. But I don't think it worked. I was just so damned *angry*. Garth jumped as if he'd stepped on a jellyfish laying on the beach, his head jerked guiltily up and he stared at me. He knew. Oh, yeah. He knew what was coming. And I let him have it with both barrels.

"Buddy," I demanded, "how long are you gonna let Arthur use you for a punching bag, huh?" I pointed to the bandages peeking like shy children from between the buttons of his shirt, my hand rock steady, thank God. "Look at you. Trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey!"

Quickly, he averted his eyes. I knew from the instant the words left my lips that they were a mistake. A big mistake. Oh, hell. Sometimes my mouth lives a life of its own, totally independent of the rest of my body, you know? I guess that's one of the reasons that I'm always so willing to overlook Roy's laser zap mouth. Even when he lays it on *me* Which he frequently does. I understand what drives him; why he does it. He doesn't really mean it. The guy Roy is toughest on is Roy.

But, right now, this moment, what *my* brainless ire meant was that I had lost any chance I ever had of actually *talking* to Garth.

Which only made me angrier, of course.

"Christ on a Cruise Missile, Garth!" I exploded. "How long is this gonna go on, anyway? Until one or the other of you is dead? Are you going to let the son-of-a-bitch kill you, Garth? Is *that* what it's gonna take, huh?" Mom Wayne would have washed my mouth out with soap for that. She and Dad Wayne refuse to let me curse in their presence. So I don't, usually. But right now I didn't give a damn. I was fighting for a life here. And I had no intention of losing.

Garth looked away. "He's my father."

Honest to Christ, the words were past my clenched teeth before I could stop them.

"No, he's *not*! He's *not* your father! He's just some guy who found you on a beach! That's all!"

I discovered, then, just how right I was about not making Garth angry.

I went crashing across the room, sailing headlong like a small, light ship caught in the grip of a sea storm. Swimmers can surprise you with how strong they are. Those long lithe muscles can easily fool you. Garth is about the same height as I am, true. But size isn't everything, believe me. The strongest guy on the planet is a Turkish flyweight weightlifter. His name is Naim Suleymanoglu. I met him at the Atlanta Games. He's five foot three inches tall, weighs one hundred twenty-one pounds, and he's the only man in the world who can lift *three* times his own body weight. They call him "Pocket Hercules".

I certainly never suspected that Garth was this strong. Or fast. Jeezus, he was fast. Almost before I could snatch a painful breath or clumsily lever myself to unsteady feet, he was on me again. The really scary thing was he wasn't snarling or red faced with wrath. Not in the least. He was cold as arctic ice. I saw his eyes. I *know*. They were as clear as a bell when he hit me, again and again, pounding me into the hardwood floor. Faintly, as I fought to push him away, to get him off me, I heard the owner, Mr. Gardner, yelling at him to stop. Guy Gardner has a loud voice, so even disoriented as I was, it was hard to miss.

But Tula was the one who finally dragged him off me. Don't ask me how. I was a little busy at the time, myself. I took several ragged breaths, drawing much needed air into my starved lungs and then I heard him coming for me again.

But this time I was ready for him. I braced myself, grabbed his reaching hands and sent him flying over my still prone body. Thank God, Garth doesn't know jack about any kind of fighting or I could have been in serious excrement here; a world of hurt. Hey, I don't advertise the fact that I've been studying the martial arts since I was a kid, so not many people know it, okay? In fact, Sensei Dragon is an old teacher of mine and he'd love to get me on the MA team. He'll have to stand in line for that. Right behind the football coach, the basketball coach, the hockey coach, and the gymnastics coach. To name just a few. I started studying when I was four years old because my parents thought it was great exercise for a flyer. Not to mention a good thing for a Rom circus brat to know in an emergency. Townies get nasty sometimes.

I leapt to my feet just in time to see Garth, his eyes flashing angry purple fire, come charging across the room at me yet again. God, it was almost a relief to see him angry, now. Anything but that chilling *emptiness* I'd sensed in him before. Anything but that. That scared the crap right out of me, frankly. This, I could deal with.

But, as it happens, I didn't have to.

Tula intercepted Garth, slipped her slender body between the two of us before anybody could stop her. I would have yelled at her to get out of the way but I knew she wouldn't listen.

She reached out and grabbed Garth with those deceptively strong hands of hers. "Garth, stop it!" she commanded. "Stop it!"

It was as if someone had bathed him in a sudden chill wave from a Winter cold sea. He hauled himself up short and for an endless moment they just stared into one another's eyes. Then she gathered him in with easy strength and held him tightly, protectively against the world and its pain.

Against *me*.

He rested his midnight dark head on her breasts and closed his eyes like an exhausted child. They slipped soundlessly to the floor and Tula stroked his hair, kissing his eyes, still embracing his quaking shoulders.

"Shhhhhh," she soothed. "Shhhhhh. Shhhhh. It's all right, lover; it's all right. Dick - Dick didn't mean anything. Of course Arthur's your father. He adopted you, didn't he? That means he wanted you. Wanted you enough to adopt you." Garth murmured a plaintive answering something in a musical language, all liquid vowels and consonants, that I couldn't follow and Tula whispered a reply in the same tongue. Probably Hawaiian. Or maybe it was Maori; I don't know.

I collapsed into a nearby chair and buried my face in my hands. "Garth, I - I ... ." I breathed in harsh gasps. " ...Oh, God ... I'm sorry ... I'm so sorry .. "

Tula looked up at me and nodded, still stroking Garth's hair. "He knows, Dick," came her soft reply. "He knows. You were only trying to help. Thank you for that. But ... Dick? I think right now you'd better go, okay? I'll call you later, I promise. right now ... just go."

Stiffly, I rose and fled. Fled from Garth's anger, fled from Tula's

unexpected understanding, but most of all I fled from my own stupidity.

'Way to go, Grayson! Why didn't you just stab him again while you were at it, huh? He was still twiching!'

I remember stumbling into the parking lot, and leaning up against the cool metal roof of my Jag. I love that car. Usually when I'm in a pissy mood, I just pop behind the wheel, peel out, and *voila*! Everything's all better. It's like magic, man. Good for what ails me. But no hotrodding it in front of Mom or Dad Wayne, of course. Hey! Do I look that *stupid* to you? Don't answer that. Right now I certainly felt that bone, stick stone dumb, I can tell you that much. As for the car ... I didn't think it was going to work this time.

I was right.

Fumbling in my pockets for the keys, I barely felt the hand that came to rest so lightly on my tense shoulders. Which really should say something about my state of mind. Just what that might be isn't very flattering. I must have jumped a foot into the air. And if later events are any indication, I guess I never really came down, did I? How else can I explain what happened next? There's no excuse for it. None. So I don't make any.

"Dick?" Her voice was low and throaty, brimming over with its own sadness. I think that's what got to me. The sadness. As I was sad. And she sounded so alone. Just as I was alone. God, the echoes of myself that enveloped me with the sound of that mourning voice were eerie. It was like seeing myself in a mirror ... darkly.

I recognized her voice immediately. When I spun around to face her I wasn't at all shocked or surprised to find myself staring into Bette Kane's wide, crystal blue eyes. I felt as if I were peering right through her, down into the place where *Bette* hides from the damning world that keeps hurting her. And I think I was.

I just wasn't peering far enough.

I just couldn't bring myself to even try and smile. I know I said *something*, but I have no idea what the Hell it was. Something inane and stupid, I'm sure. I guess I was hoping that she might just go away and leave me alone if I played dumb enough. Or ...

Maybe not.

I honestly don't know.

I didn't want to be alone. I knew that much with sudden, illuminating clarity. I was beginning to think it was pretty important that I *not* be alone, in fact. The trouble was, I couldn't think who I wanted to be with. Donna? Of course, I did. Donna fixes everything. 'Yeah, right, Grayson,' I growled at my own selfishness, 'as if Donna doesn't have enough to worry about with Linda. Just what she needs right now, *another* basket case on her hands.' Roy? No. I just wasn't ready for that *mouth*. Not right now, anyway. Garth? I closed my eyes in pain and didn't let myself think of the damage, the soul deep hurt, I'd just done to one of the few people in the world who didn't deserve it in any way. No, not Garth. Babs? I would have loved to. But Babs, truth to tell never really approved of Wally's womanizing. Guess it's hard for a woman to understand that kind of thing. She'd console me and pet me and that would be nice. But her heart wouldn't be in it. My coaches? The only one of them all who might understand was Coach Allen and he had his own grief to deal with right now. Mom and Dad Wayne? For a second I brightened at the prospect. I had always been able to talk to them about anything. Anything at all. They never failed to listen and comfort me; always willing to help. But ... But - damn it! I was a grown man, now! I couldn't go running back to Mommy and Daddy every time I had a boo-boo, for Christ sakes! I just ... couldn't.

Bete Kane melted into my arms, embracing me tightly, as if she were drowning and I was the only thing keeping her afloat. "Oh, Dick!" she sobbed into the hollow of my unresisting shoulder, "it's just so awful! How could something like that happen here? How?" Her tears moistened my shirt, soaking through the thin fabric until it reached my chill flesh, anointing it with her fear and grief. She clung to me, shaking like a leaf.

"W-what if the killer comes after someone else, next?" Her voice trembled. "W-what if he comes after *me*?" I'll never forget the terror that lurked in her voice, like the monsters that lurk in all closets when you're a small child, watching, waiting ... *pouncing* when you least expect them. That's what makes them so monstrous.

She clutched at me with frantic, demanding hands. "I didn't sleep a wink last night. I keep seeing his face! The-the man ... the man ... the man who .. h-hurt me ... " In my arms her body shook. "He kept coming after me and coming after me. Dick, I'm so scared. So scared."

And like a White Knight on his destrierre, I came riding to her rescue. Or at least that's what I told myself. I realize now, with 20/20 hindsight, that I was really riding to my own rescue. Bette was just the excuse I used is all.

Neither of us wanted to be alone. Sometimes a relative stranger is easier to talk to than someone close to you, you know? But that's an excuse and I said I wasn't going to make any of those. So we ended up at the Gotham Towers in one of their suites. I paid cash. But, then, most illicit deals that go down are paid for in cash, right? The ride there was in almost complete silence. Neither of us really had anything to say, I guess. We both knew the score. Or so I told myself. All the way over, though, she lay her hand on my thigh, stroking the long muscles there and leaned into my shoulder.

We tried to slip in unnoticed. And I thought we succeeded. The sunglasses I wore apparently didn't work. "Is that Dick Grayson, Olympic gold medal decathlete, behind those Foster Grants?" More stupidity. They were Gucci's, anyway. Didn't fool anybody, I'm guessing. Thank God. I grabbed the key and fled onto the elevator, Bette in tow. When we reached the suite, I tipped the bellboy lavishly, a c-note, for no reason. Well, I suppose it was to keep his mouth shut more than anything else.

I didn't put it all together until a lot later, of course. Too much later. Until it was all over and it was too late. Christ, it was so perfect. Like a row of dominoes standing in a line, waiting for the first to fall. If just *one* of those dominoes hadn't fallen, or fallen only a little off center ... Things would have been so different. So damned different. But things came down the way they came down, so the GCPD was finally able to lift a clear set of prints at Wally's place. Off Wally's body, in fact. Bette stroked his cheek with an ungloved hand before she left him. They put out an APB on her, but they couldn't find a single trace of her anywhere. Then somebody remembered that she'd been seen hanging around me for the last week or so. That put the fear of God into them, let me tell you. The way they had it figured she was setting me up to be her next target. Well, they were right about that, weren't they? So they started looking for me.

When they went to Babs' apartment to question her about my whereabouts ... that's when they found her. Babs answered the door and took a bullet from a .357 Magnum at close range through her spine. The doctors still call her survival "a medical miracle". The Police must have just missed Bette by minutes when they arrived. They rushed Babs immediately to the hospital and the doctors were able to save her. She'll never walk again, but she's alive. I'm still tempted to fall to my knees and pray like JP whenever I think about that.

They couldn't find me anywhere, either. They called, then went by my apartment, asked a ton of questions on campus. No dice. But then some brilliant Detective or another at the GCPD got the bright idea of calling Dad Wayne to see if he might know where I could be He didn't, of course. He told them that, as far as he knew, I was at my apartment in the City. Naturally, he demanded to know what was going on. He was worried, and who could blame him? I mean, how many times do the Police call *you* asking about someone close to you, huh? That would rattle anyone, including yours truly. Dad Wayne was always on my case to be more careful, to be more cautious. Especially after Atlanta, the medal, and all the publicity. I just figured that he and Mom considered it tasteless to flaunt yourself like that. They were like that; very old style, very old money. Me? I'm still a Rom circus brat at heart, sometimes. Sawdust and the urge to be "on stage" gets into the blood, I guess. So I just smiled and went along my merry way. I should've listened to him

Oh, Christ! If only I'd listened to him ...

The GCPD were forced to tell him that I might be in danger. Dad thanked them politely, hung up and then took matters firmly in hand. He went looking for me on his own.

Dad Wayne knows a lot of people. One of them is Michael Jon Carter, owner, manager of the Gotham Towers. In fact, Dad was the one who first nicknamed Carter "Booster Gold" back in their frat days, for his wealth, his long golden blond hair and his boastful nature ("booster" ... get it?) So when "Booster" called to chortle over Dad's cell phone about his "philandering son", Dad was all ears.

The rest is history, I guess. Dad came barging in just in time to take the bullet Bette meant for me. She escaped, then disappeared with the GCPD hot on her trail. I watched them zip the only father I could really remember very well into a canvas body bag and haul it away like one hundred and eighty-five pounds of used garbage.

That was also when I found out what had happened to Babs.

I don't remember too much for about the next week or so. Until the doctors were able to tell Jim Gordon and I that Babs would recover. I cried in his arms like a baby. He did the same. God help me, I wasn't even there when they told Mom about Dad. The next time I saw Mom she called me "Bruce" and tried to feed me one of little Brucie's favorite peanut butter and "smashed nanner" sandwiches. I hate bananas, but I ate it anyway.

The next few days are a blur, really. I don't remember very much about them at all. I was numb. I couldn't let myself think about much of anything. So I just existed. Waiting. Waiting for the doctors to tell me little bits and drabs of information about Babs.

"She's out of surgery, now. It went fairly well," I remember a tired young doctor telling me after almost eight hours of surgery.

"It all depends on her, now," Leslie told me. I recall that part with perfect clarity.

"She's never going to walk again, Mr. Grayson. You have to understand that. Barbara will need all the help you can give her, now."

I remember Jim Gordon's wasted face; his tired shoulders slumped in loss and exhaustion. I don't think either of us said a word to the other in all the time we were there. Speaking was too much of an effort, I think. We just sat there.

Waiting ...

I lived on caffeine from the coffee I filched from the nurses station and candy bars from the vending machines. I think I ate every single last Choco-Bar they had in the whole hospital. And then I started on the Twisto Snackees. A cute candy stripper brought me a sandwich from one of the machines, still wrapped in plastic. At the time I thought she was trying to hit on me and I got pretty angry. I told her what she could do with her blasted sandwich. Now, I guess, she was just trying to be a nice person. I apologized. That's the way it went for almost a week. I somnambulated from chair to chair in the waiting room, from place to place like a ghost haunting the place where they died. I guess I was kind of pathetic.

God, I was so lost. I didn't know what to do. The world just didn't make any sense anymore. I was terrified that it was never going to make sense again. Ever. I broke out into a cold sweat trying to think what I'd do then, if it never sorted itself out. Nothing came. I couldn't sleep. Every time I closed my eyes I saw her again, pointing that gun. I'd hear the sound of gunfire in my dreams and wake up screaming. I think the people at the hospital started to worry about me. I'm almost sure they called somebody.

Every time I heard them call a Code Blue over the hospital intercom I froze. When it was over (and it didn't turn out to be Babs, after all ... ) I'd stumble into the nearest bathroom and heave my guts up.

I think it was the second or maybe third time that happened when I felt strong gentle hands hold me tightly, brushing my hair back to keep it from the foulness. A warm, soothing cloth laved my hot, flushed face and I melted into the secure arms and deep, compassionate sea green eyes of Joseph Wilson.

I began to notice, then, that I wasn't alone. There was always someone there with me. Donna. Garth. Tula. Roy. A coach or two. Someone spoke to me softly in a musical French accent. So Jean-Paul must have been there, too. I supposed they must have talked to me, but I don't really remember it.

Things didn't come into clear focus for me again until Leslie guided me gently into an empty office and laid the whole thing on me. Babs was past the crisis point. She would survive. God, I'm glad it was Donna with me and not one of the others. She's used to seeing me cry. I just fell into her arms and wept. I have no idea how Donna does it. She's strong enough for any three other people I know. And she's certainly strong enough for the two of us when she needs to be. Thank God for that. I was a wreck. I completely fell apart. Days and weeks of fear and tension just flowed out of me like a river and I didn't think I was ever going to stop crying. But eventually the tears ran out, dried up like a stream in the summer heat. Between Leslie and Donna, God bless them, I was in good hands. Leslie wanted me to understand that Babs was going to need a lot of support in the coming days. Her physical therapy was scheduled to begin in about a month or so and that was going to be pure Hell. I vowed to be there for her. Always. Like a drowning man clutching at an overhanging tree branch, I began to pull myself together. I had to. For Babs. I had to be strong for Babs.

And I thought about Bette Kane. I thought about her a lot in the days that followed. I couldn't stop thinking about her.

She was still out there. Still at large. The GCPD had no leads, no idea where she'd run to, I discovered. The current theory was that she had fled the state, maybe even the country. I didn't think so. She had unfinished business in Gotham, after all. My blood ran cold at the thought. Somehow I just knew, then and there, with absolute clarity, that as long as she was free, I was never going to be. That as long as Bette was unpunished for what she had done to Dad Wayne and to Wally and Babs that I going to be haunted. I still couldn't sleep. I'd wake up screaming and Alfred would be there. He almost never left me alone. I don't know how he did it. Doc Leslie was taking care of Mom Wayne, but Alfred took care of me.

Upon occasion, I'd fall asleep from sheer exhaustion. It was during one of those times that the solution to my problem came to me in a dream. Yeah, I know how crazy that sounds but it's true.

The problem was finding her. I woke up in a cold sweat tangled in the soaked sheets of my bed, breathing like a steam locomotive and I knew *exactly* how to find her. I could almost hear Coach Allen quizzing me in that calm, penetrating voice of his.

"What's the first rule of the track, Grayson?" he demanded.

"Make the enemy come to *you*, Coach," I whispered, hugging my knees to my chest. "Don't play their game. Make them play yours."

I lurched into the bathroom on unsteady feet and bathed my face in cold water. Then I looked up into the mirror and smiled.

Oh, yes. I knew just how to draw Bette out of her snug little hidey hole.

"Hello, bait." I said. "Nice to met ya. Start wigglin' that ass, boy."

For the next couple of weeks I was a very busy lad, indeed. I must have hit every seedy nightspot in Gotham, every hotel or motel of note in the City. Each with a different woman on my arm. God knows what everybody thought. I try not to think about that. I couldn't let anyone know what I was doing, of course. I think everyone went to a lot of trouble to see that Babs never found out. For that I am more grateful than I could ever say. At least I don't think she ever knew. Well, if she did she never spoke about it and I guess that will have to do, huh?

I think Donna figured it out all on her own, though. She tried several times to talk to me but I just kept blowing her off. She finally stopped trying, thank God. And, oddly enough, I think JP knew, too. Because he *didn't* talk to me. I kept expecting him to come and preach to me all about my wayward ways and the Road To Hell and that sort of thing. But ... he never did.

Yeah, I think he knew, all right. And understood.

If Bette had waited just a little bit longer, I might have done something really stupid like lower my guard. But finally, on a wild Saturday night, it happened. Just as I knew it would. I paid off the bimbo of the hour, slipped her out the back door, arranged the bed convincingly, and settled back in the quiet darkness to wait. I didn't have to wait for long.

I heard her jimmy the lock on the door clumsily and fell instantly still, scarcely breathing. She tip-toed her way over to the bed and stared at it for a moment. Briefly, I was terrified that her eyes might adjust to the dimness and she would see through my little scam. Then I saw the metal gun barrel flash in a ray of silver moonlight and I relaxed. She fired six shots into the bed and then turned to leave. Even in the ghostly glow of the pale moonlight I could see her smile as she trod for the door and freedom.

"Hello, Bette."

At the unexpected sound of my voice, she spun around and I heard the futile click-click-click of a trigger striking an empty chamber. I smiled.

"It's empty, Bette. I counted. Five rounds in the chamber, one in the barrel. You'd have been better off with the .357, sweetheart."

With an inarticulate scream of rage, she threw the useless gun at me. I didn't even bother to duck. It struck the wall about a foot to my left, fell to the berugged floor, and discharged loudly. My grin

was predatory this time.

"Oooops." I said merrily. "Why, I must have miscounted. Heavens to Murgatroyd! Silly me!" I braced myself against a wall as she rushed me. "Don't believe everything somebody tells you, babe." I advised, reaching for her.

"You bastard!" she screamed at me. "You bastard! I'llkillyouI'llkillyouI'llkill you!"

I used my greater weight to bear her down and ground her face into the stained floor rug. "You had your chance for that, Bette. And you blew it. You keep missing the target, honey. You've got to shoot straight."

She heaved and bucked beneath me, screaming and fighting me with every breath she drew. Grimly, I hung on, trying her hands behind her back with my belt. Then she unnerved me completely by bursting into frantic tears wailing like a lost child.

"You bastards," she sobbed. "You bastards ... you always win ... you always win. You always hurt me ... you always hurt me ... " She curled into a fetal position, weeping from the heart. "W-why do you always hurt me?"

For a moment I remembered her very real terror when she spoke of the man who'd injured her, ending her tennis career. And I thought about how many others must have laughed at her desperate attempts to make a comeback. I closed my eyes. So much pain ... so very much pain ...

But I didn't let that stop me. My hands were absolutely steady and so was my voice when I dialed the GCPD and told them where to find Bette Kane, the Championship Killer.

 


 

Epilogue

Hey kiddo. It's me again. Yeah, your big brother Dick. So, how's this Heaven gig going, huh? Look, I know I haven't talked to you in a long time, little bro. Sorry, but I've been kinda busy, you

know? Wally getting along okay up there? Brucie, you're really gonna

like Wally. Make him show you how to run the 100 in eight seconds flat, why don't you? He'll like that. But, I've gotta warn you, kiddo. Better watch out for water balloons dropping from off the Pearly Gates. Wally's sense of humor is kinda juvenile. You two should get along just great. Don't let the ol' Flasheroo get you into any trouble with The Big Guy Upstairs, though, hear me?

God ... I miss him.

The costume is beginning to feel natural. I'm not sure if that's good or not, Brucie. What do you think? It's kind of confusing, I guess. I mean, on the one hand, The Batman is really doing some good here. There's no way that one man can clean up the bloody streets of Gotham, that's for sure, but I've got to try. I *have* to. I can't let what happened to Dad and Wally and Babs happen to anybody else. I just can't. Not even if I die for it. And I guess I just might.

On the other hand, I don't want to lose *me* in all this craziness. It would be easy to do, you know. To submerge myself, drown myself in The Bat. Hell, I could even call myself altruistic, a selfless hero when I did it. I'm kinda scared here, Brucie.

But I'm not alone. The Batman has a new friend. Commissioner Jim Gordon. That was kinda scary at first, let me tell you. I grew up with Jim Gordon and his family. They were frequent guests at the Manor, you remember, I'll bet. The first time I ever met with him off the record, I was terrified he'd know who was lurking beneath the Suit, sneer at me and demand: "Dick Grayson take off that ridiculous costume right *now*, boy!"

But he didn't.

I'm not sure if he knows or not. Sometimes I think he does, or at least suspects. But then, other times ... Jeezus, I'm sure he hasn't got a clue. If he saw through The Voice, that phony, deep tone I use when I'm Batman, I couldn't tell. So, if he knows, he's not saying anything. That's good, right? I knew that I had to make an ally of him right from the start. This masked vigilante of the night thing would be almost impossible without his cooperation. He still smokes too much, but now he knows that he has a friend, someone else who loves this damned city as much a he does. Gotham City and justice. So he keeps his mouth shut tight and his hands open. He lets me into the files whenever I want and he's even come up with this thing he calls The Bat Signal. It's a freakin' big spotlight sitting on the top of One Police Plaza that the authorities use to summon The Batman when they need

him. Jim's idea. Damned thing must cost the city a bloody fortune in electricity to use. Alfred! Kiddo, you wouldn't believe Alfred. That's right. Alfred. The Wayne family retainer is a vital part of The Batman. Christ, I wouldn't know what to do without him. How did he know? Don't ask me. They're starting to call me The World's Greatest Detective, but I haven't got a clue about that. He just *knows*.

Alfred was the one who showed me the cave. You know the one full of bats that you fell into when you were about five and broke your leg, little buddy? Alfred says that it inspired that Halloween costume of yours that I'm wearing now. We brought some WayneTech construction people in who cleaned out the place and installed all the comforts of home. Alfred calls it my "Bat Cave". 'Course, he's usually rolling his eyes when he does but I kind of like the name. I think it's gonna stick.

Installing the DSL lines and all that electronic stuff for Babs' Crays was a real pain, I've got to admit. She calls them The Bat Computer. Yeah, Babs' is involved in this mess, too. Up to the rim of the wheels on her wheelchair, in fact. It was touch and go with Babs for a while. She's still in physical therapy. But she's doing fine. And she's found a great way to put all that training in research and computer science to work.

She calls herself Oracle these days and she's almost as well known as The Batman. Babs tackles a project, those Crays hum and BINGO! Out comes the solution! It's like magic. I love to watch her fingers fly over that keyboard. Especially the one with that four carat perfect blue white diamond sparkling on it. Officially, Babs says that the ring is ostentatious. That she never expected anything that expensive for a wedding ring. But personally, I think she was secretly pleased. Babs has promised me that we can name our first kid after you. Would you like that, Brucie?

Mom Wayne... isn't getting any better. I'm sorry little bro, I wish I had better news for you about that, but I've got to be truthful with you. If it weren't for Doctor Leslie I don't know what I'd do about Mom. Dad's old medical partner has moved into the Manor to take care of Mom. Oh, she still has her Free Clinic. Couldn't blast her out of that place with a pocket nuke, I don't think. But she devotes most of her time to Mom, these days.

Me?

Well, like I said, I'm pretty busy all things told. Between my "night job" as Batman and being Chairman of the Board of Wayne Industries, I don't have a lot of spare time, anymore, I'm afraid. The sports career had to go by the boards. Wanna hear something really funny? I don't miss it. Well ... not most of the time, anyway. Flying over the rooftops of Gotham is such a kick! God, I haven't had this much fun since I was a Flying Grayson. I sorta forgot what that was like, I guess. But Batman reminds me every night. And, hey! With the lifts built into the Suit, I'm finally six feet tall! So, I'm a happy camper.

The Batman is the new media darling of Gotham's press corps. Rumor has it that he's an Urban Legend. Urban Legend, my batarang! But everything isn't all hearts and flowers, though, I gotta tell you. Some odd people are starting to give me some pretty bizarre looks, kiddo. And I'm not sure what to do about it, to be honest with you. Not sure at all.

It started with Roy. Yeah, ol' "Speedy" Harper. Can you believe it? Well, I couldn't. Now, don't get me wrong, Brucie. I love Roy like a brother. Sure, he's a jerk sometimes, but he's got a good heart, you know? And he's probably my best friend now that Wally is up there with you, racing through the Golden Streets. But this? I just don't know, little bro. I mean, for God's sake, I don't think Roy's ever had a serious thought in his entire life! And now he wants to join me in this costumed vigilante gig? How do I make him realize that this is for real? That he could *die* out here on these streets? That it's not a game? That this isn't just for *fun*?

Especially when I'm having so damned much fun myself.

Well, I can't really stop him if he's determined to do this can I? Hell, I sure didn't ask anybody's permission before I put on the Suit. Roy doesn't need my blessings. And ... and ... damn! I could really use some help out here, you know? That bow of his could come in *real* handy. And it's for damned sure I could trust him to watch my back. Hey, he's even got a lot of pretty nifty ideas for some truly strange non-lethal arrows, too.

And then there's Jean Paul ...

Yeah, I'm talking about The Angel, all right. The truth is, he's an important part of my life, now. I'll bet you never thought you'd hear me say *that*, huh? When I gave up the sports thing, I found that I'd let go of a lot of extraneous baggage that went along with it, somehow. Including my feelings of resentment and anger about Jean-Paul. Sloughed it off like a snake sheds its skin. I'm a lot better for it, I think. Another favor that I owe him. The fact is, when Babs and I were married, Jean-Paul performed the ceremony. We still have the picture Donna snapped when Babs made sure that he kissed the bride. The look on his face was priceless and Donna captured it exactly. She's a good photographer.

He's fully ordained, now. Taken those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The only fly in the perfection of the blessed ointment is a young nun named Lilhy. Yeah, believe it or not, The Angel has Fallen. He's fighting really hard, though. It's way up in the air (no pun intended!) what's gonna happen.

In the meantime, he's stuck in the arse end of nowhere. I mean, okay, the Tricorner district isn't the end of the world ... But you can see it from there. He's the assistant pastor of St. Jude's, serving under Father Mongahan. Tommy is a good guy, but, well, let's just say that St. Judes is appropriately named and leave it at that, okay? Yeah, the patron Saint of lost causes, all right.

All this courtesy of Monsignor Caspian, the Bishop of Jean-Paul's diocese. Judson Caspian was a good friend of Dad Wayne's so I know him pretty well. He's a tough old bird. Jeezus. Tough? Heh. That's the understatement of the millennium. They don't call him "The Reaper" for nothing, believe you me. And he doesn't much like Jean-Paul. Doesn't approve of all that running. Too worldly. And Jean-Paul won't give up his "link to God". So Jean-Paul is assigned to St. Jude's and he's likely going to rot there before Bishop Caspian changes his mind. What a freaking *waste*.

JP doesn't complain, of course. I think he sees it as just punishment for his feelings about Lilhy. That's pretty sad if you ask me. Nobody does, of course. I don't think JP is very happy. He's searching around for something, *anything*, to help his parishioners. And himself. He looks around him and sees all the poverty and crime in The Cauldron and wants to do what he can to stop it. Most of his parishioners are stuck in The Cauldron. They can't afford to live anywhere else. The elderly, the disabled, the poor, and the forgotten. The ones who have nowhere else to go. The ones no one cares about. He wants desperately to help them.

And, through me, he thinks he's found a way.

But do I have the right to ask him for that help? If he follows me into this never ending night, into the deepening shadows, he'll lose his battle with Azrael. He'll lose *JP*. The Angel of Destruction will take over completely. And what happens to Jean-Paul Valley when he does?

Even better question: have I got the right to refuse him? I mean, what if I'm wrong, huh? What about that, kiddo? Should I have more faith in Jean-Paul's strength of will? Maybe ... maybe this is exactly what he needs to put Azrael to rest for good and all.

I don't know, little bro. I just don't know. I wish I did. Can ya help me out here, kiddo? Hey, I know. Pretty heavy stuff for a six year old, huh? But Mom Wayne always said you were the smartest kid she ever knew. So maybe you've got the answers. Jeezus, I hope so. 'Cause I sure as Hell don't.

Please God, you've got to have the answers. Somebody's got to have the answers.

 

The End

 
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