Alfred flicked his gaze to the rear view mirror. Bruce and Antoinette were arguing in the back seat of the limousine. The butler, come chauffeur, smiled. This young woman was good for Bruce. She didn’t treat him like a millionaire or a prize. She certainly didn’t throw herself at him or try to impress him. They were equals and there were few in Bruce’s life who felt equal to him.
Antoinette was an only child and thus sole heir to her father’s fortune. While she was spoilt and a touch on the selfish side, she was intelligent and very well-educated, her father insisting on her going to university to get degrees in business and management. Bruce trusted her judgement and welcomed her opinion, often using her as a sounding board for Wayne Corp. decisions.
However, the major reason Alfred wanted Net to stay in Bruce’s life was because around her, it wasn’t all an act. More and more, Bruce was showing her who he really was. The cheesy smile of the playboy was tamed a little. As a matter fact, around Net, Bruce didn’t really play the playboy at all. Then again, he wasn’t himself either. It was a combination of the two and that was the healthiest thing Alfred had seen in a long time.
“Enough,” Net ended. “You’re wrong and you know it.”
Bruce huffed. Net grinned.
For a few moments there was silence. “Aren’t we a little old to be going to the circus?”
Net shook her head. “Nope. You’re never too old to go to the circus, you old fuddy-duddy. Isn’t that right, Alfred?”
“As you say, Miss Antoinette.”
“Besides, apparently that actress Paula Gosling will be there.”
“Now the truth comes out. So, you don’t want to be upstaged,” Bruce chuckled.
Net elbowed him. “Not nice. Will you come for lunch on Saturday?”
“I don’t think I have anything on. Alfred?”
“Nothing you can’t change,” Alfred commented.
Bruce shot Alfred a look which Alfred spotted in the rear view mirror. The butler smiled.
Net looped her arm through Bruce’s. “I’ve had mommy invite three movie stars so the media will focus on them and not us.” She tilted her head onto Bruce’s shoulder. “I really missed you when I was in Monte Carlo.”
“I missed you too.”
“That he did,” Alfred offered.
“Alfred, you are not indispensible,” Bruce muttered.
Alfred grinned. It was a standing joke between he and Bruce. Both knew Bruce would not survive without him.
“So you missed me?” Net checked.
Bruce nodded uncomfortably.
Alfred had been surprised. Bruce had missed her. He had commented on her absence several times and that said a lot.
“I think our relationship is evolving.”
Alfred glanced up and spotted Bruce had stiffened. Commitment was something that terrified the young man.
Net sighed, clearly having sensed his tension. “Relax, Bruce. I’m not asking you to marry me.”
“I thought that was supposed to be my line,” Bruce murmured.
Net snorted and sat up. “I’ll be old and grey if wait for that, Bruce. I’m not ready yet either. All I’m saying is I think things are beginning to change between us. I used to think of you as a... a buddy. Now... well, now I think of you as my boyfriend.”
Bruce cleared his throat but said nothing.
Net kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t worry, Bruce. I know you need your private time. I’m the same. I know you aren’t the playboy you seem to be. You’ve let me see that. I’ve let you see that I’m not just that spoilt rich bitch. This afternoon Alfred told me about the panic attacks. It explains a lot.”
Again, Alfred made eye contact with Bruce in the rear view mirror. Net had mentioned wanting to go on after the circus because they never went out at night and so Alfred had explained going to the circus itself, considering the act would finish after dark, was a huge step for Bruce.
“Don’t worry. I’ll stay with you and the moment you want to leave, we do.”
“Thanks,” Bruce whispered. “Alfred, any media?”
“I’m afraid so, Sir. Six cars were waiting at the gate and have followed us. I believe one is Haysted from “Celebrity Magazine”, one is Channel Eight and another is Miss Vale from the Gotham Mail.”
“Oh, you mean that trollop who said Bruce was gay. I’ve got a few choice words for her.”
“Relax, Net. Let me deal with her.”
“Oh, and how are you going to do that? Sleep with her to prove it!”
“Nettie,” Bruce scolded. “I’m having lunch with her tomorrow... and only lunch.”
“Can I come?”
Bruce shrugged. “If you want to. Of course, that may provide her with a really big story.”
Net pouted. “I hate the media.”
Ahead, Alfred spotted the circus. Cars lined the streets, people parking wherever they could. There was a clear police presence, several uniformed officers milling amongst those waiting to see the next celebrity arrive. The annual opening night often attracted high profile visitors because the circus was uncontroversial. Political figures and celebrities could be seen here without anyone hinting at scandal. Of course, collectively they still didn’t attract half the attention a young, handsome billionaire bachelor did.
Alfred weaved between the cars and pulled into the clearly signed drop-off zone. Without a word, Alfred climbed out of the car and opened Miss Antoinette’s door.
“Thank you, Alfred.”
Bruce climbed out after her.
“Sir, I shall park a few blocks away should you need me.”
“What will you do all that time?” Net inquired.
Alfred smiled. “I have the paper with me. I’ll be back at this spot at 8:30pm. If there is a change, just call.”
“No,” Net disagreed. “Not here. Over there right on the entrance.”
“Miss Antoinette, there is nowhere to park there.”
“But there will be more light once the sun goes down.”
Alfred smiled. She was thinking of Bruce and his supposed fear of the dark.
“Just pull in and Bruce and I’ll jump in.”
“As you wish, Ma’am. Sir, I’ll leave you in Miss Antoinette’s capable hands.” Alfred winked at Bruce and disappeared just as Bruce and Net were attacked by the paparazzi.
Bruce pulled his ‘playboy’ smile on and noticed Net had done the same thing. Like him, Net was experienced at dealing with the attention of the nation’s media. He felt comfortable around Net mostly because she didn’t expect him to talk and be happy. She liked to spend moments alone and understood his need for the same. He was actually very fond of her... but love? He wasn’t sure. His mind darted to Selina Kyle – the Catwoman. They had shared an instant sexual attraction but such a liaison was out of the question.
A dozen people were calling his name and asking questions. Bruce turned toward the voice of the reporter with whom he hoped to create a professional relationship. Vicki Vale smiled and stepped out of the horde of reporters and photographers.
“Hello, Vicki. Covering the circus tonight?”
Vicki smirked. “Like everyone else, I’m covering you. So you’ve bowed to pressure and entered the social set? The Mayor, three actresses and some high profile business men are here tonight.”
“Really? I’m here because a certain young lady wanted to come.” Net sidled up to Bruce. Flashes went off in a frenzy. “Vicki, this is Antoinette.”
Antoinette turned away. “Come on, Bruce. I want to look at the animals before the show starts.”
Bruce nodded politely to Vicki and allowed Net to pull him in the other direction.
Net was jostled by two photographers as she tried to proceed. Bruce immediately addressed the paparazzi. “Ladies and gentleman, as you know, I always make time for the media but Net has just been pushed and I won’t have that. So, here’s the deal. We won’t call our body guards to hold you all a twenty feet away from us, if you all take three large steps back now and give us some breathing space.” No one moved. Bruce took out his cell phone. Instantly, the paparazzi shuffled backwards providing a six foot circle around Bruce and Net. “Thank you. Net.”
The pair continued. A clown squeezed between the people and entered the no-go zone. It walked directly next to Bruce, mimicking him. The paparazzi roared with laughter and flashes went off in a frenzy. Bruce held his smile in place.
He really, really hated clowns.
The BigTop appeared empty. A simple length of rope was stretched across the two openings with signs hanging from them saying ‘Keep Out’. Tony Zucco shook his head. He’d thought it would be more difficult to gain access but he’d simply put on an old pair of jeans and a smudged t-shirt, stole a tool belt from one of the caravans and lifted a security pass from one of the roustabouts. Then he’d just slipped under the rope.
While Zucco didn’t like heights, this was worth it. He had climbed the ladder and reached out to where the high tensile wires of the trapeze were attached. He’d removed the nuts that held the wires in place, the two thick strands now precariously looped around the pegs with nothing on top to stop them rising and ultimately coming off. The moment there was tension on the wires the end loops would ascend the pegs. Enough weight on the wires that held the trapeze in place - something like the combined mass of an adult male and female hanging from the same swing - and the loops would slip up over the pegs completely. The trapeze ropes and anything attached to them would plummet to the ground below.
All the posters said the Flying Graysons performed without a net. How unfortunate for the Graysons... and how fortunate for Zucco. This was going to send a very big message not only to Haly but to anyone else who considered crossing Zucco in the future.
Zucco smiled and wrapped a handkerchief around the deep cut on his hand caused when tampering with the trapeze. This would show that old man. The smile fell and Zucco’s anger at the circus owner rose. If it got out that he’d been tossed out by Haly, Zucco would lose street cred... for what it was. Basically, Zucco was a low level mobster. His uncle was high up in the mob organisation, but Zucco himself was small fry. He wanted action of his own. Thus, he had started his own protection racket and it was going well. He now employed two thugs to do his dirty work but he’d wanted to do this job himself. This was between him and the old man.
Zucco started down the ladder, ignoring the discomfort from his palm.
Vicki made her way through the circus. She was determined to get a good position in the tent so she could photograph Bruce and his ‘date’ while they were watching the show... perhaps even snap a kiss between them in the dark. Let the other reporters capture the snobbish witch feeding the monkeys. “One ape feeding another ape,” Vick muttered.
Antoinette Noble looked down her nose at people. That really rubbed Vicki the wrong way. She couldn’t see what Bruce saw in the other woman.
Vicki paused to study the live displays outside the BigTop. Some of these acts would perform in the main show. Each was on a circular raised platform about two feet off the ground with a backdrop naming the act. There was Big Tom, the circus strong man who was holding a huge weight in one hand and a child in the other so the boy’s parents could take photos. A few feet from Big Tom was Denny the Elastic Man - a contortionist who had his legs over his shoulders. Children were taking turns climbing up onto the platform to have their photos taken with him. On the next wider platform was a team of jugglers, then a dog balancing a ball on its nose.
At the very end were two adults and a boy, but unlike the other performers, there was a rope around this small stage preventing people from getting nearer than six feet. Why?
Vick moved closer and read the backdrop. ‘The Flying Graysons’. These were the trapeze artists. A family by the look of them. The trio was dressed in skin-tight lycra, standing smiling for those who were snapping pictures. Vicki took a single photo herself. There was a story here. Husband, wife and child by the look of it. Nice personal interest article.
“Hello,” she called to them. The boy waved. “I’m a reporter. I was wondering if I could interview you for a story in the Gotham Mail?”
“Of course,” the man answered. “All publicity is good for the circus.” He had a thick accent. European, Vicki guessed.
“So, you are a family?”
“That’s right. The Flying Graysons. My wife, Mary. My son, Dick.” The boy grinned widely. “And I’m John. I’ve been a trapeze artist since I was ten. Mary took it up late... when she was eighteen. Dick here, started when he was three. Dick is one of only two people on the planet who can do a quadruple summersault so watch out for that.”
Vicki scribbled down notes. It was clear John Grayson was used to doing such interviews. “How long have you been with Haly’s Circus?”
“Me, almost ten years. Mary, almost fifteen. Dick was born here.”
Vicki lowered her gaze to the child. “What’s the best thing about living in a circus?”
The child grinned. “Everything. The animals. The people. Being able to fly.”
Vicki smiled. “What about school?”
“I do my lessons online. Mom won’t let me forget.” He glanced up at his mother who winked.
“Thank you,” Vick nodded to them and moved off.
Dick watched the reporter go. She was the only one so far. Normally, he and his parents attracted media attention on opening night.
“Where are all of the reporters?” Dick asked. The smile on his face didn’t falter, the art of speaking while smiling one all performers learn quickly.
“Not sure,” his father replied... his smile not moving. Families continued to take photos of them. “Opening night in Gotham always attracts a lot of famous people. Media are probably focusing on them.”
“Sandy told me about you encouraging Dick to take chances,” Mary whispered.
“What do you mean?” John asked.
“Dick doesn’t see danger in anything.”
“I’m standing here. I can hear you talking about me,” Dick stated.
“Not talking to you,” his mother scolded without losing her smile.
“Honey, you know the moment a trapeze artist starts seeing danger it puts them in danger,” John responded.
“I don’t want him to see danger, I want him to respect it, John.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to him.”
“I’m right here,” Dick complained.
“We’re not talking to you,” his father stated, elbowing him playfully.
Dick was about to respond when he spotted a media frenzy approaching. There were photographers, cameramen and reporters with microphones. The families facing the Graysons turned to investigate the ruckus.
“I don’t know. Must be someone famous. Get ready. They may come over here. Looks like there are some national TV stations. Let’s see if we can get Haly’s on TV.”
Dick tensed as the crowd came closer. Without warning, they parted and two people walked toward the Graysons. Dick didn’t recognise them, but they looked very normal.
The man smiled at the family and then he and the woman moved off to look at the other acts.
“Who are they?” Dick whispered.
“That’s Bruce Wayne. Rich as God apparently.”
Gradually, the mob moved off and the families returned to snapping photos of the Graysons.
Abruptly, a very young child darted under the rope and raced toward Dick.
“Timmy!” a woman shrieked.
The boy peered up at Dick. “Hello. I’m Timmy.”
Dick stepped down off the platform and crouched in front of the child. “Hi, I’m Dick.”
“I’m...” Timmy held up three fingers.
Dick held up eight fingers. “I’m eight.”
“Are you a clown?”
Dick grinned. “No. I’m a trap... I swing on a swing at the top of the tent. It’s really high.”
“Oh. I want a puppy for Christmas.”
“I want a motorcycle.” Dick glanced at the boy’s parents.
“Can we have a photo?” the boy’s father asked.
“Sure. Smile Timmy.” Once the photo was taken, Dick took the little boy’s hand and walked him back to the rope. “When the Ringmaster says look up at the Flying Graysons, you look up and I’ll wave to you, okay.”
Tim grinned and walked back under the rope without ducking. “Mommy, Dick is going to wave to me.”
The woman smiled and mouthed the words ‘thank you’ as the family walked away. Tim turned and waved before he disappeared into the crowd.
Dick sighed and returned to the platform, immediately pulling the smile back in place for the cameras. “Dad, why can’t I have a little brother?”
“You’ll have to ask your mother about that. It’s probably time we expanded the act.”
Dick chuckled as his mother elbowed his father.
“Alright. That’s fifteen minutes. Let’s go and limber up,” Mary ordered.
“Folks, that’s it for now. We’ll see you during the show,” John announced as he led his family toward the Big Top.
A Cazo exited as they were entering. John Grayson shook his head and grumbled, “You aren’t meant to be in here now. It’s off limits to everyone except performers.”
The man kept his face down and grunted ‘sorry’. He lifted his gaze enough to meet Dick’s as he started to move off. The sweet smell of aftershave tickled the boy’s nostrils. For almost two full seconds they stared, each recognising the other. Dick’s stomach dropped, the coldness of the other man’s expression cutting him to the quick. “Hey!”
Zucco darted into the crowd.
“What?” John asked.
“That man,” Dick yelled, pointing as Zucco disappeared. “That Cazo threatened Pop this afternoon.”
John took a few steps in the direction the man had gone. Mary grabbed his arm. “John. No.”
Dick turned to his parents. “I have to tell, Pop.”
“Not now,” Mary insisted. “They’ll be opening the tent in a few minutes. We need to stretch and limber up.”
“You heard your mother,” John stated, though he was still looking for sign of the man. Finally, he spun around, patted Dick’s shoulder and coaxed him toward the annexed dressing room.
The roar of the crowd... boom of the music... dazzle of the lights.
Dick’s heart raced. This is what he lived for. Below, the clowns were finishing their act. Any moment the ringmaster would announce the star act... “The Flying Graysons”. Then, Dick would fly. There was nothing like it in the world. His father said that flying was the epitome of freedom. While Dick didn’t know exactly what that meant, he was certain his father felt the same exhilaration as he released the bar and for a few seconds soared through the air.
Dick glanced up at his mother. She smiled, reached down and traced an ‘R’ on his chest. It was an old gypsy custom passed on from his father’s family. The ‘R’ symbolized Dick’s protection animal, the robin. His father’s was the petrel and his mother’s the dove. Every aerialist from the Grayson family had had a bird guardian that protected them when they flew.
“Ready?” Dick’s father asked.
“As ever!” Dick responded.
Bruce’s mind drifted. Tonight he would follow the casino lead and see if he could trace it back to some mob heavy weights. Taking on the mob was a delicate business. Attacking head on was out of the question, so Batman was content with taking the structure down piece by piece. With Gordon’s help, he was sure that in time, they would dismantle the mob.
Bruce glanced toward the circus tent opening and noted the sun had finally disappeared. Thankfully the boring performance was almost over and soon he would take Net home and then go hunting.
The billionaire’s thoughts were dragged back to the show, not by the music or the crowd noise but by the lack of both. There was an eerie sense of silent expectation. Bruce noted that all had their eyes raised to the centre of the big top. There he saw a small boy swinging on the trapeze.
Bruce frowned. What sort of parent would endanger their child for cheap thrills? True there was a net, but Bruce knew first hand that it took skill to fall. The very first part of his aerial training in preparation for becoming Batman had been learning to fall to avoid injury. Even the best sometimes fell awkwardly. The difference between a sprained shoulder and a broken neck was in the skill of the ‘faller’.
Bruce took out the mini binoculars Alfred had insisted on stuffing into his coat pocket so he could ‘enjoy’ the show. He adjusted the focus and watched the child release and flip before being caught by his father. Bruce was impressed.
Each successive stunt required a higher level of skill. Unlike those around Bruce who were ‘oooohing’ and ‘ahhhhhhing’ and crying out ‘amazing’ and ‘incredible’, Bruce didn’t see a boy wonder. He saw an extremely well-trained aerialist. The child had genuine skill which had been expertly honed.
Bruce’s brow furrowed and he marvelled at the trust the child had in his mother and father. Batman was an accomplished aerialist but he depended on no one. When the boy let go, he appeared to have complete faith in his parents to catch him.
“Incredible,” Bruce murmured.
“He’s so young,” Net commented in awe.
Bruce shook his head as the boy was caught by his mother and the pair swung back to the side and dismounted. The crowd cheered.
“Ladies and gentlemen. For Dick’s final act he will perform a stunt only one other person in the world can do – the legendary quadruple summersault. That’s right! He will flip four times. This requires great concentration so I ask everyone to be very quiet.”
Bruce adjusted the focus so he could clearly see the child’s face. There wasn’t even a hint of fear. All Bruce saw was excitement. This little boy was in his element. There was an exchange of words between mother and child and then the boy reached out for the swing. He gave some sort of signal to his father on the opposite side of the trapeze and the pair both mounted swings.
Instantly, silence descended over the crowd. Bruce watched fascinated as the pair swung back and forth adjusting the height of the arc so their timing would be perfect.
Dick’s father flipped upside down into catching position.
The boy reached the top of this arc and... Bruce’s mouth parted in admiration as the child released and his tiny body spun at high speed. Four rotations were completed with ease providing ample time for him to stretch out. The adult’s hands clamped around the boy’s and the crowd roared as the boy dangled precariously but very safely in his father’s grip.
Through the binoculars Bruce witnessed the happy smiles exchanged between father and son. Love shone between them like a beacon and Bruce felt a flicker of envy.With a wink, the father released his child. This was all just ‘another day at the office’ for them. As the child returned to the side to stand with his mother, Bruce rose from his seat and applauded with the rest of the audience.
“He is fearless,” Net cried clapping.
“He is a master of his craft,” Bruce explained. “Naturally gifted and incredibly well-trained.”
An innate sense of happiness radiated from the child that was felt by all. The boy waved to his adoring fans, a beaming smile on his face.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the ringmaster boomed. “To coin a phrase, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Please be seated as the Flying Graysons perform the most dangerous aerialist stunts ever performed.”
Bruce sat down wondering how the show would top what they’d just seen.
“Husband and wife will now perform without the safety of a net.” The crowd began to mutter. “Mary’s life will be totally in the hands of John. If they misjudge, Mary will plummet to her death.” The word ‘death’ echoed melodramatically as the safety net dropped to the ground.
Bruce pursed his lips thoughtfully. Surely performing without a net was an unnecessary risk. Then again, Batman performed without a net every night and if Mary and John Grayson were as well-trained as they appeared, the chances of falling were slim. Besides, circus’, like any other business in these hard times, were vying for an angle over their competitors.
Net gripped Bruce’s arm tightly.
A hush fell over the crowd as the Flying Graysons took to the swings. Bruce flicked his attention momentarily to the boy who stood so many feet above the ground. Dick looked totally relaxed.
To the gasps of the crowd, Mary Grayson flipped and was caught by her husband. Thunderous cheers ensued. Then, the aerialists were falling - both of them.
Bruce blinked. His mind tried to make sense of it for they had completed the stunt successfully. Then he saw. The trapeze itself was plummeting. For a split second he wondered if it was part of the act. Horrified, Bruce flashed his attention to the child. His heart froze. The terror he saw on the boy’s face was a mirror of his own thirteen years earlier.
The boy screamed.
The Grayson’s plummeted.
Bruce could not tear his eyes away from the boy.
John and Mary Grayson hit the ground.
The boy’s scream halted abruptly.
The crowd erupted in horror.
Bruce’s world closed in on him. It had happened again! The death of two innocent people and no one had leapt from the shadows to save them. Bruce’s soul screamed in agony. The plague of helplessness washed over him.
The boy grabbed a rope and began to descend.
“No!” Bruce cried, leaping to his feet. Before he knew it, he was vaulting the people in front of him to intercept the Grayson boy. Dick couldn’t be allowed to see his parents this way. The mask of death was hideous and no child should see that on the face of his parents.
Before Bruce reached the ring, the circus people had converged on the Graysons. The strongman and the woman who had worked with the horses grabbed the child. He struggled against them, then a grey haired man appeared and enveloped the boy in his powerful arms and shepherded by others, they headed toward the side of the tent and into the dressing annex.
Bruce started breathing again. The child was safe. Only then did the billionaire look to where the Graysons lay. He recognized the man leaning over them as a Gotham doctor he’d met at some function. It was clear from the doctor’s body language and lack of urgency that the Graysons were dead... and their child was now an orphan.
Bruce squeezed his eyes shut, his head swimming. He had trained all his life to stop this ever happening again.
Gradually, logic moved in and replaced the horror. The Graysons hadn’t simply fallen. Bruce lifted his eyes to the trapeze that was secured on the left but draped and dangled to the ground, no longer attached on the right. Something had gone wrong with the rigging. His instincts told him this was no accident.
Bruce set his jaw and pulled out his phone. “Alfred. I need my night clothes, immediately!”