DC Comics is celebrating the 75th anniversary of Batman this month.
Here’s a short story in honor of three quarters of a century of the masked crusader and his colorful cast of villains.
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The Laughing Man sits in the empty control room of the radio tower, waiting. With one outstretched foot, he kicks the swivel chair beside him so that it spins around and around, until the corpse it seated falls out in a slump on the floor.
There are only a few minutes left until midnight, and his old nemesis has yet to arrive. It wouldn’t be much of a New Year’s Eve party without the guest of honor. He smirks at the thought, but doesn’t laugh. It’s not that funny.
He turns, not at a sound, but at the well-trained sense of someone else’s presence in the room. Or perhaps just the familiarity of routine; they’ve done this dance so many times before. Night Justice is perched in the metal framework overhead, the reflection from his goggles shining out of the shadows.
The Laughing Man nods, smiles amiably, and offers him the now empty seat beside him. Night Justice remains in the shadows. “Its over, Laughing Man.”
“Yes. It is.” The Laughing Man looks out the window at Fool’s Harbor, the city lit with holiday celebrations. “I’ve killed the appropriate number of innocents, you’ve saved an acceptable number of hostages…” He raises his hands in mock fealty. “The gods have been appeased. I thought we could dispense with the third act tonight.”
“I’m taking you in. No more tricks. No more escapes.”
“No more,” Laughing Man agrees. He pulls a cigarette out of his pocket and lights it, sticking it through the grin in his rubber mask. “I thought the clock tower would have been apropos, given the occasion, but it’s just too damn loud. I wanted to have a chance to talk.” Night Justice does not move from his perch. Laughing Man sighs and pops the cork from a bottle of champagne. “Come on, Robert. Have a drink with me.”
Even in the dim lighting, he can see Night Justice tense at the reveal of his civilian identity. Then the tension flows out of him, his body visibly letting go of a secret held for far too long. “Who told you?”
“Nobody told me,” says Laughing Man. “I’ve known for years.” He peels off his mask and drapes it on the control panel, his trademark grin deflated and deformed by the console’s dials and buttons. There’s no smile under the mask. “Just like you’ve always known who I was.”
Robert finally drops down from the ceiling, easing into the chair. “To tell the truth, Milton, it’s kind of a relief. All those city council meetings, sitting across from you, playing out the same charade. You pretending you don’t know, me pretending I don’t know…”
Milton nods. “Otherwise you have to bring me in, try to make charges stick, watch the local economy collapse as my investments fold…and then I have to escape, kill your family and everyone you’ve ever loved…leaving the ruse in place was just easier, wasn’t it?” He takes another drag. “Let’s face it…eventually you would have had to kill me.”
“I don’t kill.” Robert’s voice returns to the gravelly register of Night Justice, before he catches himself, and quietly repeats in his own voice, “I don’t kill.”
“You don’t kill me,” Milton says, nodding. “Still, I always wondered about all those ‘accidents’ that kept happening to your former nemeses. Quizzer Falls Victim To His Own Puzzling Deathtrap! Sea-Lion Lost At Sea! Cheshire Cheat Proves Cats Don’t Have Nine Lives! Villain after villain falling prey to their own hubris…so the papers said, anyway.” He shrugs. “Always seemed a little convenient to me. Not that I’m judging.”
Robert pulls off his Night Justice cowl and sets it next to Laughing Man’s visage. With the mask on, he looks alert, prepared, dangerous. Under the mask, he looks worn. Understandable. Milton is tired too, and Night Justice had a decade’s head-start on The Laughing Man.
“If I was going to kill someone, why wouldn’t I kill you?” Robert asks.
“Because I think you finally figured out what’s going on.” Milton takes another drag and offers the cigarette to Robert. “Smoke?”
Robert frowns. “No thank you.”
“Come on, I know you’ve already scanned everything in this room. You know it’s not explosive or poisonous.”
“I don’t need scans to tell me it’s not tobacco, either.”
Milton smirked. “Billionaire playboy, and you expect me to believe you’ve never mellowed out?”
Robert’s eyes move back and forth from Milton’s face to the joint between his fingers, takes it and inhales a quarter of the remaining length.
“Haha!” For the first time that night, Milton lets out a laugh. “The unflappable hero of Fool’s Harbor, corrupted at last by the powers of darkness and peer pressure. I should have become Ganja-Man. My job would have been so much easier.”
“Don’t go taking all the credit,” says Robert, passing the joint back. “You try growing up a wealthy orphan without picking up a few bad habits.”
“Or going to Catholic school.”
“What? No. Really?”
Milton crosses himself with the joint. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.”
“World without end,” Robert finishes.
There’s a moment or two of silence.
“Do you believe in God, then?”
Milton ponders the question, runs it over his teeth. “I believe in…Something. Something orchestrates all this. There’s too many coincidences, and not enough loose ends. Everything’s so neat. What about you?”
“I don’t know. My parents were Jewish, but they weren’t really around long enough to instill me with any kind of…what’s so funny?”
“I’m picturing you chasing me across the rooftops in a yarmulke.”
Robert slaps him on the shoulder, but not unkindly. “Asshole.”
“Seriously, you’ve been doing the altruistic hero thing for this long without a tight-assed religious background? You’re the kind of guy they make religions about. What was it you always used to say? Every time you stopped me from blowing up a dam or whatever?”
Robert makes an exaggerated gesture. “’Good will always triumph over evil in the end!’”
“Still believe that, do you?”
Robert shakes his head. “Maybe in some other universe, but not here…I’ve kept count. Good doesn’t win any more than evil does. Balance wins. The only constant is conflict.”
“It’s like one of those drinky-bird toys.” Milton seesaws the joint back and forth in his hand. “Now good’s winning, now evil’s winning, now good’s winning, back and forth, back and forth. And if one of us dies, there’s a vacuum. And you know what nature has to say about vacuums.”
“So someone new arises to fix the imbalance,” says Robert.
“Yes, but there’s always escalation. One villain robs banks, the next one bombs them. One hero roughs up criminals, the next one fractures their arms. I mean, you think I’m bad? I shudder to think what the universe would replace me with. Why do you think we never killed you?”
“Your old rogue’s gallery. Those of us who are left. Did you know Missile Master is out now?”
“Out of jail?”
“Out of the closet.”
“Oh. Oh! Oh.” Robert frowns. “Well, that makes a lot more sense now.”
“Which, the bare-chested V-necks or the short-shorts?”
“More the fact that every time he captured me, he’d tie me to a bright pink V-2 rocket, but…yeah, that too.”
“He never tied the knots very tight, though, did he?”
“No,” Robert admits. “I always managed to get away a few minutes before launch.”
Milton puts out his hands in a there-you-have-it gesture. “Yeah, you’re hard as nails, but you’ve got rules, a code to live by. The next you’d probably chase us around with a bazooka and a machete. Whatever we’ve got…at least it’s stable.”
“Maybe. We’ve changed, though,” says Robert. The weed had brought out a lighter side of him, but that side fades now behind the thick veneer of solemnity he’s grown into over the decades. “Slowly, perhaps, but we’re not the same people we were ten years ago. I’ve lost my naivete…my compassion, maybe. Even that code you were talking about, I feel like that’s eroding too.” He brings the joint to his mouth again, and his fingers are trembling. “I broke a kid’s legs yesterday.”
“He was maybe 20. Pushing heroin in some nightclub on the East side. 21 and over, but you know most of the kids there are still in high school. Three or four of them strung out, huddled around him in a half-naked clump. I kicked him off a balcony. I could hear the bones snap over the sound of the music. I expected him to pull out a gun, cuss me out, swear his undying vengeance…he just sat there, in his blood, tears, and piss, hands over his head, begging for mercy.”
The words seem to hang in the air like a physical presence, until the night carries them away. A familiar song rises from the people of the city. Night Justice and the Laughing Man can see them now, gathering around the base of the clock tower across the way. The tune is familiar; the words, as always, opaque. We two have run about the braes, and pulled the gowans fine…
Milton stares at his mask. He hooks the bottom lip of the mouth and stretches it into a cartoonish smile. “I don’t laugh like I used to. Not like the old days. There used to be something funny about all this. Even you used to crack a smile every now and then. But these days…all I can think about is their wives and kids and what they would have been doing if they hadn’t run into me. It’s just not funny any more.” Milton sighs, looks out the window at the night. “I’ve got a daughter, did you know that?”
Robert blinks. “No shit?”
“Yeah. Only seen her once. The mother keeps her away from me. The kid hates my guts. Heh. Good for her. Cute, though. Smart, too. Eh, she’ll be okay.” Milton nods to himself. “She’ll be okay.”
The two men sit there in silence, watching as the distant clock tower counts down the last few minutes of the year.
Robert breaks the silence. “How long are we going to keep doing this?”
“I don’t know. I’ve thought about removing myself from the picture…” Milton slowly draws a revolver out of his pocket. Robert hardly even flinches. Milton sets it on a small table between them.
“But there’s the issue of balance,” Robert finishes for him. Milton nods.
“I don’t want to keep going, but I don’t want something worse to take my place. Take one weight off the scale, and another has to take its place.” The pause is one of a pin dropping, waiting to hit the ground. “Of course…if you remove both weights at the same time…” Milton withdraws a second gun and sets it next to the first.
There is a long moment of silence. Another verse of the old song echoes to them from the city. And there’s a hand, my trusty friend, and gi’ us a hand o’ thine…
Milton searches Robert’s expression, wordlessly, then looks down and away. “Forget I said anything,” he says, retrieving the bottle of champagne. He sets a pair of glasses next to the revolvers and pours a good-sized portion into each. “It’s just the holidays, I expect. They always bring out the worst in me.”
“I’m sure we’ll be back in proper form by tomorrow.” Across the night, the clock sounds the first chime of midnight. Milton raises his glass.
“Should we have a toast?” asks Robert.
Milton thinks for a moment. “To good triumphant,” says The Laughing Man.
Robert raises his glass. “To evil eternal,” says Night Justice.
The two clink glasses and drink. The clock tower in the center of town solemnly tolls the hour. Between the eleventh and twelfth chimes, two gunshots ring out, close enough they might be one, but the reports are lost in the sound of the city cheering in the new year, and the tune of Auld Lang Syne.
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If you enjoy depressing superhero fiction, you might also enjoy Drinking Solution.