Batman frowned. He didn’t like such tactics. However, Ellison was doing what he had to. Once the child knew he’d witnessed his parents’ murder his life would change forever.
A darkness crept over Batman. Instantly, he pushed his bubbling emotions back. If he was to seek justice for the child, he had to keep a clear head.
The vigilante glanced toward the boy but couldn’t see him. He was surrounded by those who cared. If Dick Grayson was indeed a witness, Batman needed to talk to him but that was impossible here. He’d have to bide his time and be content with questioning a few of the roustabouts and performers for now.
Gordon flashed his badge as a matter of habit, despite recognizing the young officer. “Where’s Detective Ellison?”
“I’m not sure, Sir. Sergeant Bullock is inside the tent conducting interviews.”Gordon nodded. He’d been heading home when he’d heard of the circus tragedy on the radio. He knew a lot of high profile people were in attendance and had decided to see if there was anything he could do to help.
Gordon glanced back over his shoulder at the crowds of people looking shocked… and at the media ‘circus’ going crazy snapping photos. They were all witnesses and by the look of it were being held until they could be interviewed. It was going to be a long night for Ellison and his team.
The police captain entered the tent and spotted Bullock trying to calm a hysterical woman. Bullock was well named. He was only a few years younger than Gordon but was built like a brick chicken house. He was square-jawed, square-shouldered and his personality was delightfully square. A good man - one of few on the force Gordon actually trusted. At the moment it was difficult to know who a cop could trust his life with. The mob had infiltrated every section of the city, the force included. It hadn’t always been that way. When Gordon had first joined the force, Gotham’s boys in the blue had been the best in the country.
Bullock looked up, excused himself, leaving the shrieking woman in the hands of another officer. “Sir, are you taking over the case?”
Gordon shook his head, his eyes drifting to the main ring where he spotted two human-sized lumps covered with sheets. “Heard it on the radio. What can you tell me?”
Bullock scratched his stubbled chin. “We’ve got a whole heap of celebrates who’ve been inconvenienced. A whole heap of media who want a story… and see that broad squealing over there, she says Bruce Wayne is here but she can’t find him and he’s afraid of the dark.” Bullock rolled his eyes. “Where do these nutters come from?”
Gordon smiled. “And the crime?”
“Husband and wife trapeze artists fell to their deaths when the trapeze fell apart.”
“Any sign of foul play?”
Bullock shrugged. “According to our boys the most likely reason the trapeze fell was because the two nuts holding things in place came loose or were missing. The guy responsible for the rigging swears the nuts were new and everything was in place. Apparently as part of their safety procedures, two other guys independently checked it and they say everything was right. Still, these circus people are a bit of a closed crowd. They’d probably cover for each other.”
Gordon pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Maybe.”
Bullock lowered his voice. “Captain, according to some of the circus people I’ve spoken to, they’ve been already been interviewed... by Batman. Could just be crap, but... Why would he be interested?”
“You and I both know Batman doesn’t exist. The commissioner says so,” Gordon muttered.
Bullock snorted. “The police commissioner wouldn’t know the truth if you shoved it up his ass and lit it on fire.”
Gordon grinned. “So, no witnesses?”
“A whole tent full. About 500 people witnessed the victims fall, including our illustrious Mayor.”
“No, I meant to anyone tampering with the trapeze. If it isn’t an accident and the trapeze was intact, stands to reason it was tampered with.”
Bullock’s face blanketed with discomfort. “Apparently the deceased’s kid saw the circus owner threatened and swears he saw the same guy exit the tent just before the show started.”
“A little fella. He saw his parents...”
Gordon grimaced. “Where is he?”
Bullock inclined his head toward an annexed area. “Ellison’s interviewing him and some of the other performers. Sir, I think...”
Gordon’s phone buzzed. He pulled out the cell and peered at the screen.
Accompanying the text was the Bat symbol.
“Bullock, where are the animal enclosures?”
“Hey, where are the animal enclosures?” the sergeant yelled to one of the roustabouts waiting to be interviewed.
“Far end behind the fence.”
Gordon nodded his thanks and went in search of the boy. He had no intention of taking him to meet Batman but he needed to gather some information for the vigilante. His relationship with Batman was a two way street. He didn’t know why the likes of Batman would be interested in something like this. Jim snorted. What a stupid thought. Why would a man dressed as a bat be interested in anything?
As Gordon entered the dressing room annex, he took the scene in. The circus performers were collected in one group, in the centre of which was a dark-haired boy. Every person shared the same look of stunned horror. The child’s face was stained with tear tracks but he was talking to those around him, his eyes alive, his expression defiant, and if Gordon wasn’t mistaken, he looked relieved. Not at all what he’d expected.
The officer near Ellison tapped his shoulder and Ellison looked up. Spotting Gordon he excused himself. “Jim, what brings you here?”
“Was just passing. How’s the boy?”
Ellison shrugged. “It took some fast talking but I convinced Haly to assure him his parents will be fine. It worked.”
Gordon screwed up his face distastefully. That explained the look of relief on the child’s face.
“I don’t like it either but it was the only way I was going to get anything out of him.”
“He’ll need to be told.”
Ellison cursed softly. “Yeah, but we’ll wait until we’ve cleared this place. I thought telling parents their kids had been killed was hard. Telling a kid his parents are dead... that’s a new low for me.”
Gordon patted the other man’s back. Only a few months earlier he’d had to inform his niece her parents were dead. It wasn’t something he’d wish on his worst enemy.
Ellison flashed Gordon a look of thanks. “The boy’s adamant he saw a guy called Tony Zucco come out of the tent as he and his parents came in to prepare for their act.”
“Zucco. I know that name,” Gordon murmured.
“He has a rap sheet a mile long. Petty theft, that sort of thing. Seems he’s graduated to a protection racket.”
“So the boy’s a witness.”
Ellison turned to study the child who was repeating his story to those around him. “To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Kid knows this Zucco threatened the circus. He needs someone to blame.”
“So he’s lying?” Gordon pressed.
“No, I think he’s just a kid who’s putting two and two together and ending up with something that approximates four. Hell, he’s younger than my girls. I can’t imagine... if they had... ”
“I know what you mean.”
“He has no one, Jim. According to Haly, there isn’t any other family.”
Gordon grimaced. That would mean social services, orphanages and foster care. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Thought I heard on the radio you had your hands full with the mob and witness protection debacle.”
Gordon smirked. “I heard that on the radio too. If there’s anything I can do, let me know. You don’t mind if I ferret around while I’m here?”
“Be my guest.”
Gordon passed through the gate splitting the circus town in half. There was limited light in this section and the roar of voices from the crowd of witnesses was dulled by distance. The police captain wondered how Batman had known he was here... or how the vigilante had arrived so quickly himself.
To Gordon’s left, the shadows moved... merged... and then took shape. Batman materialized out of the darkness like some supernatural being, his long strides almost completely soundless, his cape swirling behind him.
“Batman.” Gordon offered his hand which the vigilante accepted. “You got here quickly.”
“Tony Zucco threatened the circus owner this afternoon. Was witnessed by the Graysons’ son. From what I’ve been told he saw Zucco exit the tent this evening. I need to speak to this witness.”
Gordon shifted uncomfortably. “He’s very young. I’ve spoken to the detective in charge. He believes the boy has convinced himself it’s Zucco because he saw Zucco threaten Haly. In the kid’s mind it has to have been Zucco so he ‘saw’ him in the tent. He’s a child, Batman. His ability to separate fantasy and reality isn’t as developed as adults. I know. I have kids of my own. Kids see things in black and white. Zucco is a bad guy therefore he is responsible for this bad thing. ”
“You’re certain this is just a case of the mind creating a solution?” Batman’s voice had a strange quality. It was so deep and authoritative, yet soft. In some ways, barely above a whisper yet, so penetrating it almost echoed.
“No, I can’t be certain,” Gordon admitted.
“I can be, using a simple memory technique. Bring him to me. Let me check.”
“With all due respect, he’s just witnessed his parents fall to their deaths. Seeing you will only scare him.”
“No. He’s seen the worst thing he’ll ever see in his life. Nothing will ever truly scare him again.”
Gordon blinked. What a strange statement. He stared into the other man’s eyes. There was fire in them. Anger, determination... it was hard to put his finger on exactly what the emotion was. What was clear was passion. Gordon saw it every time he met Batman. He was a man driven by something powerful. “Look, I...”
“Captain, I know the boy believes his parents to be not only alive, but that they will be fine. I need to speak to him before he learns the truth. We must determine if he is truly a witness or simply a traumatised child. The sooner we can, the more likely we are to catch those responsible and the quicker this boy can be surrounded by extended family so he can deal with his grief.”
Gordon licked his lips. “I...” He didn’t like it, but he owed Batman. He owed Batman a great deal and he did trust the man. “All right, but if the child shows any fear, you’re to disappear. Agreed? I won’t allow you to traumatise the boy.”
Batman’s chin bobbed once.
Batman waited as Gordon led the child toward him. His heart-rate increased. Years of training had enabled him to control his emotions, but this was all too close to home. He had walked in this child’s shoes. His own tragedy had birthed the vigilante that now consumed his life.
The little boy’s eyes were wide, his pupils dilated. Clearly he was in deep shock but there was an inner strength there as well - the strength of believing the two rocks in his life were still alive.
Batman’s heart twisted. It was wrong. The child deserved to know the truth but if Batman was to achieve justice for the Graysons, he needed to preserve Ellison’s deception.
“Dick, this is...um... this is Detective Batman. He is going to ask you some questions. Is that okay?” Gordon asked, crouching so he was level with the child. “There is nothing to be afraid of.”
Dick gradually tilted his head back, staring up at Batman. Batman waited for the reaction he received from every living being when they first met him, but it didn’t eventuate. The child looked surprised and curious, not afraid. “Why are you wearing a costume?”
Batman felt a bolt of admiration. This boy was the first who had ever seen him for what he really was - a man in a costume. Others saw a creature of the night, some sort of supernatural demon – exactly the perception Batman worked hard to cultivate. However, make-up and costumes were a part of this boy’s world. He had an intimate understanding of make-believe and performance. When the costumes came off, all that was left was a human being. Thank goodness Gotham’s underworld didn’t see things as this boy did.
“I am told you saw someone threaten the circus owner.”
The child nodded and his eyes flashed with anger. “Tony Zucco. He threatened Pop and Pop threw him out. He was...”
“Enough,” Batman ordered. The child jumped, startled. “I’m not interested in your hysterics. I want you to give me only the facts. Do you understand?”
The boy titled his head to the side in confusion. Batman was surprised. There was still no sign of alarm. The child didn’t scare easily. He was brave but such courage was likely drawn from the security he had in his life. That would be shattered the moment he learned the truth about his parents.
Gordon patted the child’s shoulder. “Batman, ease up.”
Batman stepped closer and stared down on the child from his great height. “You want the people who hurt your family to pay for what they did. So do I, but I need your help. Tell me exactly what you saw when this man exited the tent, Dick - the facts only.”
The child’s brow furrowed and he looked down and to the right. Batman’s heart lifted. Looking to the left would have indicated creation and thus lies. Looking to the right showed the boy was trying to recall a memory. He was telling the truth. He had seen Zucco.
“You need to concentrate hard. Empty your mind of everything but that man. Close your eyes and picture the man you saw.”
Dick glanced at Gordon who nodded and then the child looked up at Batman for a few seconds before closing his eyes.
“Picture the man. Think of nothing else. Look at him in your mind. Can you see him?”
“Yes,” Dick whispered.
“Look at his face... look at what he is wearing... Open your eyes! Describe him. Don’t think, just describe.”
“He was wearing old clothes... not the suit he wore when he threatened Pop. He had an old cap on.”
Batman glanced at Gordon. “Go on, son. What else can you tell me?”
“He was wearing a tool belt... he had a handkerchief tied around his hand. It was blue.”
“Why did you look at him?” Batman asked.
“Because Cazos aren’t meant to be in the Big Top once the chairs have been set out.”
“Casual workers. Only performers are allowed after 4:00. He saw me and I saw him.”
“You recognized him?”
“Uh-huh. And he recognized me. I could tell. He was angry with me.”
“You’re sure it was him?” Batman checked, deliberately raising the volume and depth of his voice.
The child held the vigilante’s stare without flinching, earning more of Batman’s respect. “I recognized him. He wears perfume like my mum. I smelt it outside Pop’s trailer and I smelt it when I saw him coming out of the tent. It was him.”
“Did he say anything?” Gordon asked.
Dick shook his head. “But I saw him.”
“And he knew you saw him?” Batman clarified.
The boy nodded.
“Thank you. I believe you,” Batman stated quietly.
“I told my dad and he started to chase him, but my mom said we had to get ready and...” Tears welled in Dick’s eyes and then began to trickle down his cheeks. “My mom and dad are okay. Pop said they’re hurt but they’re going to be okay. It was a big fall but their bird protectors protected them. Dad said they would. He was right.”
Gordon patted the boy’s back.
“Can I see them now? Please. Pop said I could as soon as the doctor finished checking them.”
“I’ll take you back now,” Gordon stated, shepherding Dick toward the gate.
A lump swelled in Batman’s throat. He had great respect for this little boy and his heart bled for him. “Dick.” The child glanced back. “I give you my word, Zucco will pay for what he did.”
Dick nodded and whispered, “Thank you.”
Gordon opened the gate. Batman spotted Sergeant Bullock waiting on the other side. Bullock was a straight shooter.
“So, Batman doesn’t exist, huh?” Bullock growled at Gordon.
“I won’t be a moment,” Gordon ordered, spinning around and returning to Batman. He lowered his voice. “You believe him?”
Gordon scowled unhappily. “So do I. Damn it. He’s just a boy. A boy who believes gypsy protection birds saved his parents’ lives.”
“He’s a witness and if Zucco knows the boy saw him, his life may well be in danger.”
Gordon ran his hand through his hair. “Yeah.”
“See if you can pick up Zucco and check his hand. Look for some sort of injury. And have all of the circus people check to see if anyone is missing a tool belt. Zucco may have stolen one.” Batman’s thoughts returned to Dick. “So what happens to the boy now?”
Batman grunted with dissatisfaction. “Not the safest place.”
“He’ll be fine. Only mob witnesses are in danger and this doesn’t have anything to do with the mob,” Gordon declared.
“Zucco is the nephew of Anthony Thelmann and Thelmann is a mob heavyweight.”
Gordon’s eyes widened.
“You must take over this case or this boy will die,” Batman stated.
Gordon shook his head slowly. “This morning he woke up and all was right with his world and now...” Gordon peered through the darkness to where Bullock was crouched speaking to Dick. “Apparently he doesn’t have any other family. Just the circus people and there’s no way they’ll be granted custody after this is cleared up. He’s alone in the world. He’s going to end up in the system.”
The words struck Batman like physical blows. He’d assumed the child would have extended family. Someone to love him. It hadn’t occurred to him that... The fire of rage ignited.
Gordon rejoined Bullock and the boy. As the moved off, the child paused and glanced back at Batman briefly before disappearing with Gordon.
The chords in Batman’s neck swelled and stuck out, fuelled by the burning ache in his soul. He hadn’t just failed to protect the Graysons, he’d allowed another child to be left without family. He’d sworn to himself he wouldn’t allow this to happen to anyone else. Bruce Wayne’s own hellish life of grief, nightmares and loneliness had begun for another.
Batman balled his hands into fists. The agony of his failure and of the pain he felt at that moment was overwhelming. Flashes of the night his parents died entered his mind transposed with memories of the young trapeze artist smiling with the purest of joy. Bruce Wayne knew the child would never smile like that again. He had just witnessed the last moments of the child’s innocence.
“I swear on my parent’s graves, I will get justice for you Dick Grayson... and I promise you will NOT face this alone. I will not fail you again!"