Chapter 6: Arrivals
Nethal entered the United States like most DEMON agents: as cargo. The crate provided for him to hide himself was not sent to a bonded warehouse to await customs inspection like the other crates, for the label it bore, marked “TOMIC: May not be opened outside the presence of ARGUL-licensed technician” was discolored and emitted a faint odor. Whatever was in there causing that smell and discoloring that label, the dockworkers were not going to touch it.
At nightfall, Nethal emerged from the crate. He remembered to take the
aerosol can labeled “new car smell” with him but to leave the rest of the
crate’s contents untouched.
He made his way to the Chinatown address on foot and steeled himself for the
presentation to his new master, Ulstarn. It was common knowledge among the
followers of Ra’s Al Ghul that a posting to Gotham City was a punishment, and
Ulstarn was the reason. They said he ate his mother. They said he
would have his father burned at the stake if the mighty one, Ra’s Al Ghul,
wished a blaze to light his cigarette. They said he was bitten by a snake
once—and it died. Such stories could not be true, Nethal assured himself.
But the telling of them said much about the kind of man Ra’s Al Ghul would
entrust with his operations in the heart of his enemy’s city.
It was known that a posting to Gotham City was a punishment. And Nethal was, indeed, being punished. He had given a hungry man food against his master’s interests. It was right that he should suffer. Omal was one of The Mighty One’s food tasters. It was decreed that no food pass his lips outside what he ate from the master’s table. For it was important that any poison be absorbed quickly into his system and dispatch him in time for the master to save himself.
The food taster, Omal, smoked
cigarettes—which was permitted. He decided to quit—which was also
permitted. Such was the munificent freedom Ra’s Al Ghul granted to his
loyal servants. In quitting smoking, Omal became struck with strange
appetites he described as ‘the munchies’ and begged Nethal to share his bowl of
fried noodles. Nethal did so. He was reported, and was now sentenced
to six months’ penance in Gotham City.
Joker paced his cell like a tiger at feeding time.
Dr. Bartholomew’s investigation had him pissed. Investigation! Who did he think he was, the scum-lapping headshrinker. Joker was King Madman at Arkham and everyone was supposed to know that. If he chose to have his staff bring him to session early in order to score a few minutes alone with Harley, that was surely no one’s business but his own—and surely not of interest to the hired help.
But more troubling than the investigation itself was the information it brought to Joker’s attention. For as Bartholomew questioned staff and inmates alike, news that hadn’t made it to the high security wing was now reaching Joker’s ears:
Bruce Wayne sent a get well bouquet to Two-Face while he was laid up with Poison Ivy damage! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! It was the funniest thing he’d ever heard. God how he loved that man! What a sense of humor!
Scarecrow had got his ass kicked for attacking Wayne. Well and good. The nerve. Attacking poor Brucie with fear toxins. What an idea! Attacking that wonderful man who took Catty away from Bats!
And then the blow had fallen:
Scarecrow was brought in with cat scratches—and
in Bat cuffs. She went back to the Bat!
NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. It couldn’t be. It mustn’t be. She and
Brucie must have had a quarrel or something and the sniveling fatman moved in.
The bastard. The lowlife bastard. The rabid lowlife winged rat!
This was Joker’s opinion, and he didn’t
shirk from saying so. For that, Harley threw Kool-Aid in his face!
Harley said she was sick of hearing his ranting about Selina leaving Bruce
Wayne. Why Joker didn’t care that much if she
came or went. Well of course he doesn’t, she should know that by now!
And Bartholomew was no help. Joker had tried to explain in this morning’s session: This was a crisis! He wasn’t being selfish, he was thinking, as any king should, about his people. What about the other rogues? They were all so fond of Brucie! Now they would all have to choose sides. It was so unfair. A Broken Home! Who will get the children!
This must not be. He simply could not stand by and watch Brucie, that wonderful man, lose Catty to Batman. He would put on his thinking cap and a find a way to get them back together. He had to think of some way to make Brucie more appealing. The guy had so little going for him. Not much of a smile… Joker briefly considered a how a little SmileX gas could improve that. But alas, Catty simply did not appreciate the manly charisma of a JokerGrin. He’d tried, pre-Harley. Nothing. If she didn’t go for the original on Joker’s own delectable puss, what chance did a stiff like Brucie have with a chemically induced knock-off.
Not that Brucie was the problem here. Catty was. Just look at what she goes for—tall, dark and dour. She goes for Batsy, for pity's sake! How do you reason with a woman like that?
Hey, that was an idea - get her to think
Bruce Wayne is Batman!
He was starting to sound like Hugo Strange.
He’d been in Arkham too long.
Time to leave.
Two hours later, Joker sat in a Starbucks
near the HA-HAcienda East, cuffs stained with blood and cappuccino.
“Now, where was I?” he asked the twitching
body of the night clerk. “Oh yes, Hugo Strange, that’s right. At one
time, Strange actually thought Brucie was Batman. Maybe Selina could be
convinced of it too—women aren’t very bright, after all.”
Nethal had presented himself at the White Tiger curio shop in Chinatown. He met his companions in service in this dreaded city and found them surprisingly tolerant of the sin which led to his posting here. Ulstarn had required a blood oath of unquestioning loyalty to himself no less than as would be yielded to the Demon’s Head himself. He cut deep, as was proper, high on the forearm, and Nethal found the wound difficult to bandage himself. His new companions assisted him, then took him “out drinking.” They told him the tales of their own transgressions, similar to his own: serious but not so serious as to warrant death.
They told him there were those in this city who believed fantastic propaganda about The Demon’s Head. They thought raising one’s eyes to the Great One would elicit a death sentence, that to speak out of turn meant one would be ordered to slit one’s throat with one’s own blade. They told him a man could live well, among such people, if one let these impressions remain.
“This is not sound,” Nethal objected, “to kill one’s followers for no cause, the master is not so foolish. We are not worthy to live if we displease, it is true, but we pledge our lives, we are trained, we serve. To exterminate us for no reason…”
“You don’t have to recite that ‘not worthy’ stuff here, Nethal, not unless The Ulcer is listening.”
“Ulstarn. If he’s not around you can talk like a man. Of course old man Ra’s isn’t going to off you for looking at him funny. It’d take twenty years to breed a replacement and then he’d have to train him—that’s another five years. The old man’s not stupid.”
“The old man?”
“Ra’s. Don’t worry about it, you’ll catch on. Here’s all you got to know: We got a good thing here. Just keep your head down, do your work, and steer clear of the Bat.”
“The Bat… not,” Nethal lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper, “He Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken.”
“Batman!” his companions chanted in a loud voice, raising their mugs.
“You’re not in the compound now, you’re in Gotham City. It’s okay to say it here.”
“But the master…”
“Look. We all know we’re supposedly here because this city is the center of western commerce, headquarters to a hundred corporations, and ‘The Detective’s’ presence has no effect whatsoever on our operations, no special measures are taken, yadda yadda yadda. But c’mon, you think he’d send a walking hemorrhoid like Ulstarn here for any possible reason except…”
“But, but, Master Ulstarn is The Mighty One’s most trusted lieutenant, entrusted to run his affairs in the heart of the enemy’s own—”
“No. Look kid, to hear Ulcer tell it, he’s a trusted lieutenant, ‘more highly esteemed even than the late bodyguard Ubu, for while Ubu protected the master’s person, Ulstarn runs operations in the enemy’s stronghold,’ etc. etc. The truth is, ‘Master Ulstarn’ is a toxic personality and Old Man Ra’s doesn’t want him waiting outside the shower to hand him a towel. He wants him half a world away making Batman’s life a living hell. Except Batman’s not around, so he makes our lives hell. Get it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. And you’re buying the next round.”
Dick tipped the cabbie an extra fifty, ostensibly for carrying the luggage up to the apartment, but in reality because he sensed the strained silence from the airport was more uncomfortable for the stranger than it was for him and Barbara.
The quarrel began during the First Class pre-flight beverage service, and
continued for nine hours and however many thousand miles. When they
couldn’t speak frankly, they typed on her laptop and slid it back and forth.
Nine hours and however many thousand miles
later, he still couldn’t believe it. How could she just assume—without so
much as a word’s discussion—that he would leave Bludhaven! How could she
just assume he’d leave his job, his cover job and
his real job, his apartment, and his city and relocate to Gotham.
She told him about her RASPBERRIES OR STRAWBERRIES
quandary for the FRUIT CUPS at the reception!
(Didn’t care about his input, mind you, but she at least told him the plan) But
WHERE THEY WERE GOING TO LIVE, THAT was supposed to be so universally understood
she didn’t think to mention it!
“Your apartment,” she told him, “is not
wheelchair friendly.” “Nor,” she typed on the laptop, “is it equipped to
house several million dollars worth of computer hardware with trace-proof
“But it’s my city,” he insisted.
Then she got nasty. Nightwing was not as big a deal as Oracle. JLA and her Birds of Prey operation outranked the Titans. Gotham outranked Bludhaven. Plus, her Daddy was the old commissioner, so if he wanted to augment the real work (the real work!) with being a street cop…
She was worse than Bruce! She was,
this was... unreal!
Dick threw the last bag onto the sofa. It was a softside duffel and it
hit a plump overstuffed cushion, but it was still enough noise to warrant a look
“I’m going for a walk,” he said simply.
Okay, yes, one of them did have to
relocate. And there were several valid points in favor of it not being
Barbara and not being Oracle. But to just assume, without bothering to
If he went along with this—and by the time the elevator reached street level he realized he would be going along with it—there would be conditions:
1. He would not abandon Bludhaven. He could reverse the “Family
Dinner” plan: one night in Bludhaven, the rest of the time in Gotham.
No arguments, no guilt, no talk of divided loyalties. It would be thus,
and anyone who didn’t like it could talk to the batarang.
2. He would not become a cop in Gotham. 2a) His father-in-law was
the former police commissioner, that was unacceptable. 2b) Batman would
consider Officer Grayson his own private mole. 2c) Joining the force was
necessary in Bludhaven because of the nature of the city’s corruption.
Gotham was a different proposition. It was a corporate center, an arts
capital, a publishing center, a fashion mecca, home to a dozen embassies.
It was the hub of a hundred subcultures and self-contained microcosms… It would
take more than a beat cop’s connections to get inside it.
3. He would not become an Agent of the Bat. Gotham was all those
things he’d said, and one thing more: it was Batman’s city. When he left,
it was because he needed to break away, to be his own man. If he came
back, Bruce (and especially Batman) needed to accept that he was his own man.
Yeah, right. What were the chances of pulling that one off?
But what was the alternative?
Dick blinked. Lost in thought, he’d
been wandering the streets aimlessly, or so he thought. But looking at a
bench in a parklet-courtyard across the way... THAT
WAS TIM! Dick’s “aimless” wandering had taken him straight to the
courtyard outside the Wayne Building. Was that a sign or something?
The old subconscious trying to tell him something? Gotham was all those
things he’d said “and one thing more,” yes, all true. But it was still
one thing more after that: it was home.
Gotham City was still home.
Filing that sticky thought away for later, Dick walked up to the oblivious
Tim and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Buon giorno, Signore Tim! Come stai?”
To be continued...