Someone in the CIA thought Edward Vaniel was responsible for the Wayne murders.
I stood there staring at two words and a question mark scrawled in the margin of a newspaper clipping. I had seen that headline and that grainy photo so many times. Only one thing was different this time. That scrawl of red ink.
I peered at the handwriting, sifting through all I knew and all I could deduce about the man who had written it. This was a CIA investigator, one with enough experience and standing in the agency to be assigned to the task force building a case against the most powerful crime boss in the city. And experienced law enforcement operatives are used to scum like Vaniel.
That was my first assumption. But as we began sorting through paper files copied at the agency, and as Oracle refined her search using the names, dates and places those hardcopies provided, a very different picture began to emerge.
There’s a kind of rat-cunning that passes for smarts in the gutters. Every wiseguy-turned-snitch comes up with a variation on the same dumb idea, but for some reason he thinks it’s a brainstorm and he imagines he’s the only one to ever dream up such a brilliant plan. It’s hard to imagine why they think they’re clever. Their “strategy” is laughably transparent: they’ll demand blanket immunity for anything they say in court, and once they’re sworn in, they’ll confess to everything they’ve ever done, making them untouchable for the rest of their lives. It doesn’t work. Rat-cunning only impresses other rats. DAs, federal investigators and state attorney generals consider it a minor annoyance.
Vaniel was like all human refuse, he thought he had a brilliant plan. At some point in the earliest meetings, he began insisting the immunity package absolve him of anything in his past. He said there were things he’d done that weren’t pretty that had nothing to do with Falcone and the mob, and he didn’t want any of it coming out in any trial they had planned. The agents were floored. The sheer gall of it was almost impressive. Vaniel wasn’t trying to trick them into immunity beyond the scope of his testimony, he was demanding it outright. He refused to give specifics, he volunteered no information about his past other than some of it “may have been high-profile” and that it happened in Gotham.
One of the agents looked into it while the others went through the motions, continuing to meet with Vaniel and his son about his eventual testimony against Falcone.
Oracle soon identified the agent delving into Vaniel’s past. It turned out to be Nick McDonough. I remembered his bio and wasn’t impressed. This was a man for whom Gotham was nothing more than a pit stop. He got himself assigned to the task force because nailing Carmine Falcone would help his career. A promotion and reassignment to Washington would make his eventual move into private security a far more lucrative endeavor.
McDonough apparently found the same kind of information we had from Carmine Falcone, witnesses who’d heard Vaniel bragging, etc. The ambitious moron thought he could guarantee Vaniel’s cooperation against Falcone by blackmailing him about the Wayne murders.
If only Edward Vaniel wasn’t such a hateful creep. I’d seen how he behaved with his son. I’d seen the disgusted contempt with which his former cronies spoke of him. I could easily guess how a man like that would behave with federal agents, especially if he thought he held all the cards. I could easily guess how McDonough and the others must have hated him. And so, even if they didn’t have enough, shall we say, evidence to hold over him, McDonough tried putting the screws to him anyway. They would make the smug bastard tow the line.
They confronted Eddie without his son present, and he went silent. He alluded to the immunity package, “if it were true, it wouldn’t matter because…”
They told him this was too big to be covered by any immunity deal.
He gave them nothing, walked out, and was never heard from again.
McDonough was transferred to Pittsburgh, not Washington; no promotion, and when he left the agency a year later, he could do no better than chief of security for an aluminum manufacturer—which subsequently went out of business.
“It sounds like it wasn’t exactly his ‘unreliability as a witness’ that killed things,” Selina observed when Bruce finished piecing it together.
He looked up sharply, a flash of venomous anger in his eyes and an acid retort on his lips. But it flickered out a moment later, and he returned his attention to a debriefing memo attached to Special Agent McDonough’s resignation. They’d returned to the cave and were gathered around the conference table again, the new files appropriated from the CIA arranged in neat, orderly stacks.
“Yeah, it’s not exactly accurate,” Dick agreed with Selina. “But it’s a concise and diplomatic phrase in a report your boss is going to read. Better than saying ‘Nick bluffed with a pair of threes and we lost the family farm.’”
Feeling a disapproving bat-glare, Dick glanced up guiltily—and saw the glare was far more hostile than he expected. Bruce’s frustration had increased exponentially since they’d returned to the cave… And it was easy to see why. First Falcone’s bluster that everybody confessed to the Wayne shooting back when the case was news, then that “unreliability of the witness” notation in the CIA file. It was looking more and more like they could write Vaniel off as a pathetic, lying or delusional kook. But when they found that newspaper—“Possible connection” to the Wayne murders—it seemed to change everything. But now… now it turned out the “Possible connection” was nothing more than what Bruce and Dick had already learned… It was beyond “frustrating.” Every answer was just a doorway to more questions.
“Of course, most cops are scrupulously honest about these things,” Dick said quickly. “And I certainly learned early that no fibbing of any kind is ever acceptable in a log or report, and to do so undermines the very tenets of trust and teamwork.”
Since Bruce’s eyes had now returned to the file, Dick turned to Selina, pointed, and mouthed “it was you, your fault, museum, you know the time, worst Zogger-beating of my life after that. And I got grounded for a month.”
She stuck out her tongue, and then picked up a different file.
“Okay, so CIA is into CYA,” she murmured. “A little misdirection, a little creative reframing of the facts. ‘We botched it with a witness who might have been useless anyway; we never really got to find out.’ As intriguing as this whole minidrama has been and as deep as it goes, it really doesn’t tell us a thing about the…” she glanced at Bruce. “The case we care about.”
Bruce looked at her and tossed his file back onto the table with a violent snap of the wrist. David Vaniel’s name appeared prominently at the top of the page. Not for the first time, Selina wondered about his focus on the son’s involvement.
“Maybe we’re looking at this backwards,” Dick said suddenly. “We’re trying to find evidence that he did it. Maybe we should go the other way. Reasonable doubt, just like in court. Assume it’s not him. What reason would he have for lying about something like this? Why would someone want to claim responsibility for a crime on their deathbed if it wasn’t true?”
“There are too many reasons to list,” Selina said impatiently, her temper fraying almost as much as Bruce’s. “Maybe he’s a victim of his own Big Lie: he’s bragged about it so much over the years that he’s come to believe it himself. More likely? Bruce is a face and a name. This guy is less than nobody, he’s got a couple hundred victims over a quarter of a century that are all nobodies too. He wants to confess on his deathbed, unburden his soul or whatever, who’s he gonna call? The Nameless Victim Hotline?”
“A surrogate,” Bruce growled.
It fit with the gross selfishness of the confession. There was no virtue in the act, no remorse and no concern for what he’d done, either in butchering my family or calling me to his bedside to confess. There was nothing but pride and willful concern for his soul. Did that make more sense, or less? If Bruce Wayne was nothing more than a proxy, a stand-in for all those Edward Vaniel had hurt?
Selina continued her laundry list of reasons Vaniel might have lied, but I started listing my own as I thought back to that hospital room, the particulars neither of them knew of that… confession.
Maybe it was one last jab at the world he’d envied and despised his whole life, to get back at those “Ivory Tower sacks of shit” once and for all. Or maybe he was looking for a way out; his own body was failing him, he was no longer that tough street soldier he’d always envisioned himself to be. A thug like “Easy Eddie” wasn’t supposed to die rotting away in a hospital bed like thousands of other rubes in this city; he should go out in a blaze of glory. So he could have devised the ultimate con: he convinces Wayne that he’s the killer, Wayne kills him in anger (ending his slow, painful descent into death), and the whole of Gotham City is turned on its ear when its prince, one of those hoity-toity bluebloods, is nothing more than a… a mindless, soulless killer.
And given my violent reaction…
It was pointless. All of it was pointless. There were countless reasons why Vaniel might lie. He was a sick, evil toadstool; since when does that sort need a reason? Dick was wasting our time and so was Selina. I was wrong to get them involved, they didn’t begin to understand…
I looked at the files on the table: the folder with the newspaper clipping was closed, but I knew it was in there and it was just the same as if I could see that wrinkled, yellowing headline.
Why Vaniel would lie on his deathbed was a pointless question.
The real question was: of all the things Vaniel could confess to, why this?
Alfred had come and gone with coffee. Dick was still reading the CIA transcripts, digging for more information on where the negotiations had broken down. Bruce picked up Vaniel’s affidavit again and began searching through it intently. Selina was staring into space.
“Pearls,” she said softly. “You said he had a real chip about wealth and status. I was just thinking… pearls have a definite ‘old money’ aura…”
Bruce’s head popped up from the folder and he stared at her. “Could I speak to you in private,” he said evenly.
He walked her back to the trophy room, the file still in his hand, and for a moment, Selina thought “speaking in private” might be an excuse for him to visit the safe again. Instead, he turned to her and spoke in a harsh whisper.
“More and more arrows are pointing to Vaniel being the one, but there is too much at stake not to be sure.”
“Seems reasonable,” Selina said carefully.
He grunted and walked away. Selina remained where she stood, shocked for a moment, and then followed him back to the table.
“I keep coming back to the motive,” Dick was saying, shaking his head. “The original confession. Why would Vaniel be making this up on his deathbed? He’s not asking for money, he’s got no reason for revenge or spite. What’s the upside? What would he gain?”
Bruce said nothing, he just looked at Dick for a long moment then dropped the affidavit on the table and sat.
“Actually, there’s a different motive to consider.” He glanced at Selina returning to the table then back to Dick. “What did you think just now when I got up to speak to Selina in private?”
“Uh,” Dick began hesitantly, “I… figured you wanted to tell her something you didn’t want me to hear.”
“Like a few minutes ago, when you told her how you got in trouble once for falsifying a log entry after Catwoman jumped you at the museum. You did it silently when you thought I wasn’t looking, because you assumed I wouldn’t appreciate the levity at a time like this.”
“Can you think of another reason?”
Dick’s mouth dropped open slightly, he glanced at Selina and then rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Maybe if you wanted to ask her something private? If it was a personal question that might embarrass her or you. Or if another person in the room might keep her from answering candidly.”
Bruce nodded, thoughtfully, thinking back to the night before when he’d done just that, sending Nightwing to drive back from Falcone’s alone so he could question Catwoman privately in the Batmobile.
“Can you think of another reason?” he asked again.
Dick shook his head but Bruce kept pressing. Dick suggested every possibility he could think of. Each time Bruce would consider it for a moment, grunt, then reclassify it as a variation on one of the original two: either Bruce didn’t want Dick to hear what was said, or Bruce thought Selina wouldn’t want him to hear.
“Can you think of any other reason?” Bruce asked again.
Dick slammed a file—he didn’t know which—down on the table. Bruce’s frustration was becoming contagious.
“I don’t know,” he spat, “You’re the one that did it, why don’t you tell me?”
Dick expected a retort as harsh as his outburst, or at least a disgusted glare, but Bruce simply turned his attention to Selina.
“Why did you think I did it?” he asked in Batman’s sharpest interrogation tones.
Her eyes widened, and she took a low, startled breath at the implications of the question—and what he must know her answer might be.
“You do have an answer that Dick hasn’t thought of,” he demanded.
It was so wrong. It was like… if he’d pinched her ass instead of threatening to arrest her in the Sotheby’s vault. Or made a needless allusion to secret identities in front of Randolph Larraby at the Country Club.
Selina said nothing at first, merely staring into that ferocious rooftop batglare. He couldn’t want her to mention the safe in front of Dick… Then, slowly, she regained her feline composure, and she raised a knowing eyebrow.
“I have an answer,” she said in Catwoman’s cool, easy confidence. “Dick, would you give us a minute?”
“Never mind,” Bruce said instantly before Dick could react. “You have an answer but you won’t say it in front of Dick.” He turned away from her and back to the table, motioning for her to take her seat. “Your reason is wrong, by the way, as were yours, Dick. I asked to talk to Selina in private to gauge the reaction and to see the dynamic from that perspective.”
“What do you mean?” Dick asked, following Bruce’s eyes back to the table and the Vaniel name on top of a witness deposition.
“Back at the hospital,” Bruce reminded them ominously. “Vaniel sent his son out of the room. Why?”
“Wh- Why does it matter?” Dick sputtered.
“The whys are everything in this case,” Bruce declared. “There’s no physical evidence, no one has any credibility, everyone has an ulterior motive. ‘Why’ is the only way to separate what makes sense from what doesn’t. Edward Vaniel sent David out of the room before he would talk to me. Why?”
“Because it’s his son,” Dick pointed out, like it was obvious.
Bruce shook his head.
“Not enough. Vaniel wouldn’t give a damn what David thought of him, he made that abundantly clear. It wasn’t about sparing his son’s feelings.”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t about him sparing yours,” Selina countered.
“So if it wasn’t for David’s sake and it wasn’t for mine, it was for his own. He wanted David out of that room…” he trailed off, his fingertips tapping the top of the deposition. Suddenly, his fingers stopped.
“It wasn’t because David is his son, but because his son is a lawyer,” he concluded, his eyes popping up from the file and jumping back and forth between Selina and Dick. “David Vaniel knows there’s no statute of limitations on murder. And all of his efforts, everything we’ve seen in these files about the agency negotiations, seem focused on reducing the penalties for his father’s crimes, not avoiding them altogether. This wasn’t just any lawyer, he was an ADA and he has strong personal convictions about right and wrong. That was enough for a rat like Vaniel to be cautious. If he confessed to two murders in front of his ‘feeble, doughy-headed son,’ then dying or not, he could be put on trial for murder. And he’d perceive his son as just enough of a ‘goody-goody’ to turn him in.”
“Oh, this is fucked,” Selina murmured, stunned. “These people are just… fucked.”
“Not the way I would have phrased it, but yeah,” Dick agreed. “So, what does this get us? I mean, what does it mean for the case?”
“That David doesn’t know anything about it,” Bruce growled, his fingers closing into a fist. As usual, the more they discovered, the less they knew.
“Which means that the only one who does… is Edward,” Dick concluded softly, glancing apprehensively at Bruce. “I think it may be time to pay him another visit.”
“No,” Bruce said instantly.
“There’s too much we don’t know,” Dick insisted. “And if all this running around has shown us anything it’s that the only person who does know is Edward Vaniel. C’mon Bruce, you know scum like that, he’s no match for Batman and Nightwing. We push him on a couple of these inconsistencies, we’ll make him crack.”
“No,” Bruce repeated.
“I don’t mean literally go in costume,” Dick pressed. “I mean—”
“I know what you meant and I said no.”
Batman had spoken. With the calm, quiet authority of the man who makes the final decision he said no. They would not return to the hospital, they would not question Edward Vaniel again.
There was a long, tense silence. Batman had spoken. And Batman was wrong.
“What other option do we have?” Dick asked.
“Bruce…you know that I’m right.”
“Bruce, you’re the one who taught me this. You’re the one who showed me a police report and said you have to start with the facts, start with what you know, start with the information. We do not have enough inform—”
“I don’t know what will happen if I go back in that room,” Bruce said evenly.
It was said with quiet resolve and calm acceptance—belied by a burning Hell Month ferocity in his eyes.
The Bentley turned onto the 10th Avenue Bridge and then slowed to the crawl of late-morning traffic inching towards the city. I tuned out the hum of the car, the warmth of Selina’s leg pressed against mine, and a rhythmic metallic thk. Dick sitting beside her, fidgeting with the window controls.
“You won’t be alone this time,” she’d said in the cave. I’d almost forgotten she was there. But before I could turn to face her, let alone process her words, Dick was nodding along. “Damn right.”
Somehow it was decided. Somehow the two of them—that kid from the circus and the catburglar with the naughty grin—had willed the decision it into being: We were going back to the hospital, all three of us. Dick would talk to David, see if the boy knew anything at all, and Selina… Selina would be with me. I knew Vaniel wouldn’t want to talk with another person in the room, any other person, but Selina does know how to push a man’s buttons. She’d honed in on Vaniel’s class envy and dressed to provoke it: Chanel sweater, Hermes scarf, diamond earrings, pink sapphire. It was smart. His hate would override his caution. A man like that, driven by hate his whole life, it would take over. Blot out everything else until—
“Bruce? Bruce, we’re almost there.”
Selina. Whispering. And… sliding her finger into my palm? I realized I was making a fist and she was trying to ease it open. I pulled my hand away… At least she was discreet. Neither Dick nor Alfred had noticed.
None of them understood, this wasn’t just about what happened in that alley all those years ago. It was about what happened in the hospital only forty hours before. It wasn’t just my father’s blood spattered on my shirtsleeve while Officer Cure typed up a witness statement, it was that bloody foam on Edward Vaniel’s bedsheets after I’d pressed my thumb into his trachea with no conscious thought but to squeeze.
“You wanted to but you didn’t need to,” Selina had said. Like it was “I don’t look at it as stealing as much as ‘observing practical socialism.’”
“You wanted to but you didn’t need to.”
Like that subtle semantic distinction would matter to Edward Vaniel when compression of the carotid arteries on both sides of his neck cut off the blood flow to his brain, when the less efficient—but more satisfying because it required more force—method of compressing his windpipe stopped the flow of air into his already rotting lungs. When…
“You wanted to but you didn’t need to.”
I’d known rage before. But there was always something—an instinct, a voice, a… something that would watch, that would know… a something that would not permit it to go too far. But with Vaniel… Just keep choking.
“You wanted to but you didn’t need to,” Selina said. How would she know? How the hell would she know? “I don’t look at it as stealing as much as observing practical socialism.” Does she know how angry I was that night? Does she begin to grasp what real rage is? The passion that burns in true hatred, the control you need to keep it in check?
Just keep choking.
Was there any other thought at all in my mind at that moment?
… or did I just not hear?
The elevator doors opened onto the Oncology Wing at Gotham Memorial Hospital, and Bruce was assaulted by a barrage of sense memories from his earlier visit. The antiseptic odor that filled the hallway, the trio of signs at the reception desk forbidding smoking, cell phones, and detailing visiting hours. The same nurse sat at the desk—but this time it wasn’t necessary to ask her to find David Vaniel. He was standing right there.
It seemed unlikely and, for a moment, Bruce questioned his perception. But sure enough, David Vaniel was walking up to them, looking utterly shocked.
“Mr. Wayne! I… didn’t expect, I mean, after the way you left… I assumed, that is, I never imagined that you would be back…”
Bruce felt himself detach from the situation. He made the introductions on autopilot—Selina Kyle. My son Dick—while the Detective part of his mind latched onto details, not for any purpose, just as an unconscious instinct. David’s eyes were bloodshot, the flesh beneath them dark and puffy, his voice a bit hoarse. Lack of sleep would account for the dark circles and the voice. The rest looked like crying.
To his surprise, the next thought that slammed into Bruce’s mind was filled with acidic disgust: What the hell did Edward do him now? That wasn’t the Detective, he realized; it was another corner of his brain entirely. An angry one.
Once the introductions were complete, Bruce looked at him evenly. “I had some more questions for your father,” he began, then trailed off.
He’d concealed his feelings in a polite businesslike manner, so he couldn’t quite understand what was happening. David’s eyes had shifted to the expression felons have when Batman surprises them—a discreet ping at the nurse’s station was the only sound for several tense seconds while the blood drained from David Vaniel’s face—What’s happening here? that angry corner of his mind asked furiously.
“Oh,” David said after another uncomfortable beat. “Um, I’m sorry. He, uh… he’s gone. He… he took a turn for the worst last night, fell into a coma. He died about uh… um, it was uh, about two hours ago.”
Bruce barely registered the light gasp that came from Dick and only subconsciously noted Dick and Selina’s heads turning in his direction. His mind reeled.
“What?” he heard his voice asking.
Vaniel jolted slightly at the strange timbre of Bruce’s voice and started to babble. After the way Bruce had left the last time he’d just assumed… he didn’t even think to contact Bruce when Edward deteriorated…
That wild, red fury surged through Bruce’s muscles again, into his hands, his fingers, his nerve endings, contorting into the tightest fist, ready to slam this—this—animalcriminalthing into the wall and squeeze the answers out of it.
He fought to keep himself from shaking, fought to keep the rage from boiling over as he looked into David’s eyes—
Red—The boy’s eyes were red. Bloodshot. The flesh beneath them dark and slightly puffy. His voice a bit hoarse.
Before they arrived, David Vaniel had been crying.
Because his father was dead.
Dick and Selina watched Bruce, not knowing what this new information would mean—for him or the situation, but sensing the shift in intensity that went beyond Batman or Psychobat into a new dimension of Bruce Unknown. They traded a quick glance, both silently questioning if one of them might need to step in and deflect, diffuse, or… something.
But suddenly, the tension disintegrated—it didn’t fade or evaporate, it simply didn’t exist any more. A strange calm seemed to settle; both Selina and Dick returned their attention to Bruce and saw his face slowly soften.
David was still talking, babbling really. “…tors did everything they could, but it was too late. I mean, he had been declining for months—we all knew it was coming—but at the very end, it was so fast… it all happened so…”
Bruce reached out and touched David’s shoulder, which abruptly ended his ramble mid-sentence.
“I’m sorry,” Bruce said sincerely.
David stared at him questioningly for a moment. His eyes watered slightly and he stammered out a light but sincere “Th-thank you.”
A quick sniffle and David blinked away the moisture in his eyes. He was suddenly hit with a rush of apologetic embarrassment. “Oh god, you came all the way down here and he’s gone, so you didn’t have the chance to—”
“That’s not the most pressing issue at this moment,” Bruce said, as he would defer a topic at a board meeting.
David wanted to apologize again, but something in the look of finality on Bruce’s face stopped him. He took a deep breath and a wave of exhaustion crashed down on his shoulders.
For the first time since they arrived, Bruce glanced at Dick and Selina. He didn’t seem to even register the confusion and shock on their faces, he merely nodded toward a small waiting area down the hall.
David looked meekly at Bruce, Dick and Selina as the three of them ushered him toward the water cooler in the corner. After shakily drinking a proffered cup of water, David finished his confused ramble, about Superman of all things.
“…I know it sounds weird, but it’s four in the morning, and you’re in this little room with nothing but the sound of the heart monitor, man’s in a coma, TV is on without sound. One of those 24-hour news channels and I was just watching the crawl go by. And I notice it’s a twenty minute loop. Every twenty minutes, they start this same footage with Superman. And every twenty minutes the night nurse looked in to see how I was doing. I started to think how funny that was, like maybe she had the same station on out at the desk and when Superman shows up, that’s her cue to get up and walk the halls…”
Bruce could see they were the first “People” David had talked to, apart from hospital staff, since his father’s death, and probably for hours or even days before. He was still finding his balance again. Finally, when David seemed himself again, Bruce asked the question.
“Your father never told you anything about our meeting, did he?”
“No, he refused to talk about it,” David sighed. “I tried to get him to tell me, but… well, that’s just how he is—was. I’m sorry. I might know something, if you wanted to tell me what it was about…”
“No,” Bruce responded after a moment. “He obviously wanted it kept between us, and I think we should respect that. It doesn’t matter now.” His face darkened slightly before he added, “Some things are better left alone.”
“I’m used to it,” David said candidly with a light, breathy chuckle. “Probably better that way. My dad was always good at leaving a lot of unanswered questions in his wake. It’s fitting that’s all I have left to remember him by. Questions and bad memories and a healthy dose of debt. I guess this is the last time I have to worry about that… god, the bills. Funeral, hospital…”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll take care of it,” Bruce said, automatically, like shooing a fly.
He only realized the import when he perceived the triple waves of shock emanating from David, from Dick, and from Selina.
“Oh no, no please,” David blanched. “That’s not necessary, I— I wasn’t looking for a handout. I was just complaining out loud. Mr. Wayne, you don’t need to do that.”
“No, I don’t need to,” Bruce said, quietly glancing at Selina. “But I want to.”
A priest who had never met Edward Vaniel recited the same eulogy he gave at all such funerals, inserting the name of the bereaved (“his son David”) in the appropriate passages, along with that of Edward’s late wife Karen, his mother Joan, and similar details gleaned from a death certificate and a ten minute conversation with David the day before. The cemetery caretakers knew the speech well, and the winch operator began lowering the casket on cue, so it touched bottom just as the priest opened his bible to read the 23rd Psalm. The bible was only a prop, the psalm recited from memory. The two mourners said their good-byes. The caretakers paused only a few seconds, sensing this was not one of those occasions where long, somber delays were expected. They began shoveling dirt onto the casket at once…
Bruce stayed for a moment and watched.
It felt different. It felt… Even after the Chill case, he never felt this. Bruce would never be at peace with his parent’s murder. He would always want to know the truth. But for the first time in his life, he felt… he felt that he didn’t need to know. If this fresh grave and all the unanswered questions that led here was all there would ever be, life still had meaning. The smell of grass in the air was still sweet and the sun still felt warm on his skin.
He left the caretakers to their work and walked to the Bentley where Dick and Alfred were waiting. Both, predictably, asked if he was okay.
Bruce glanced across the gravestones to a point further down the drive where David Vaniel was getting into his car.
“I’m fine,” he said simply.
Alfred accepted the statement and opened the car door. Dick hesitated.
“I don’t understand, Bruce. I don’t understand why you’re here today. I really don’t understand why you paid for it. The hospital bills, the coffin, the tombstone. Why? What happened at the hospital, Bruce, why would you possibly—”
“Because I could.” He pointed to the car. “Let’s go home.”
Bruce said little on the drive home, his mind replaying the whole twisted tale that had brought him here. The rage, the pain, even that vacant nothingness he’d felt that night after the first meeting with Vaniel at the hospital—it all seemed so far away now. Distant. Foreign, even. All the things that seemed so important at the time appeared pointless, even trivial now. He found himself seeing different details, subtle flickers that he’d been too wrapped up in his own mind to really see as they were happening. To his surprise, his hindsight seemed to focus on the others. Alfred. Dick. Selina.
They’d refused to leave. They’d never left his side for a minute, working with him every step of the way instead of leaving him alone to do it himself. It had been so frustrating, so maddening. All he’d wanted was to handle this on his own, but they wouldn’t let him.
The only time his memories let them fade into the background, the only time he locked again on his own pain was when he remembered that second trip to the hospital, the intensity of that moment still burned in his psyche. The pain and frustration he’d been holding inside had reached a fever pitch and when David told them his father was dead…
It was all gone—he’d come so close to finding the truth, to finally getting the answers and it all came crashing down with two little words: “He’s gone.”
How was it possible? He couldn’t just DIE? He couldn’t get off that easy! He couldn’t just escape forever out of reach with all the answers. HE COULDN’T!
Rage, Pain, and Batman all screamed that Bruce could still get the answers: his whole life becoming Batman, all the training, all the sacrifice, all the grueling hours honing his mind and his body, deduction, hypothesis theory, karate, judo, jiujitsu—it had to be good for something! He knew how to get the truth from someone and if that someone was gone, then he could always get it from the next best source—This pawn in front of him saying there were no answers, the answers died two hours ago. He would sear the truth out of the monster’s soul with the sheer force of his hate—he would—
He would what?
He’d met David Vaniel’s eyes, the eyes of an innocent caught in the crossfire between his father’s past and a stranger’s rage, and suddenly everything was very clear.
David wasn’t an extension of Edward Vaniel, he was an innocent. And Bruce did not prey on innocents. It went against everything he believed, everything he was… He could not thrust his rage onto the son any more than he could have taken the life of the father. Those words of Selina’s that night in the costume vault suddenly sounded very different to him. He wouldn’t have killed Edward because he didn’t kill. It sounded so ludicrously simple when she’d said it. Now it felt… exactly that simple.
As the car serpentined through the cemetery, Bruce looked back at the caretakers methodically shoveling dirt into the grave and a strange calm settled on him again. It wasn’t just Edward Vaniel’s body being buried down there but Bruce’s hatred of him was as well.
Then he turned to Dick. He’d accepted the brief, somewhat dismissive answer to his question, although he clearly didn’t understand it. Bruce thought how often that must have happened over the years.
“To be honest, Dick, I’m not one hundred percent sure myself why I decided to pay for the medical bills and all the rest of it.” He paused for a second, as if trying to think of how to continue. “For a moment, I wanted to punish David, for everything. Not just because of his father, but for being there, in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong DNA. But you said it yourself back in the cave: He had no answers and… he wasn’t to blame. He was an innocent man who had dealt with the worst of society all of his life. There was no way I could strike out against that.”
They drove on, Dick wanting to accept the answer he’d been given but clearly not understanding.
“So he was innocent, he didn’t know anything—which means he was just a guy who happened to be involved. So why did you… that still doesn’t explain why you’re here today or why you reacted the way you did at the hospital, offering to pay and everything.”
Bruce smiled lightly. “At that moment, he wasn’t ‘just a guy,’ Dick. He was a man who’d lost his father. He was a son. In pain.” Bruce laid a hand on Dick’s shoulder and looked him straight in the eye. “And that’s something I know a little about.”
Dick stared back for a long moment, Bruce’s words causing a knot in his throat, but soon a return smile crossed his lips.
“Is that why you offered to pay for all of it: the hospital bills, the coffin, the gravesite?” Dick’s grin threatened to turn mischievous. “Guilt?”
There was a faint grumble deep in Bruce’s chest that sounded like the beginning of a disapproving grunt, but his smile stayed in place.
“Actually, that’s too easy an answer. Why did I really pay for all of it? Because I could. David was in trouble, caught in dire straits due to circumstances he couldn’t control. And that was something Bruce Wayne could easily fix.”
Bruce expected a sarcastic remark about talking about himself in the third person, but instead, Dick’s face grew serious.
“Bruce, I’m sorry,” he said meaningfully. “I wanted so much for this to be it. I wanted to help you finally resolve this, once and for all. I feel like we failed.”
Bruce shook his head.
“We didn’t fail. We just didn’t find all the answers.”
“Semantics,” Dick grumbled.
“No. No, it’s not.”
Dick thought for a moment as the car turned onto the Wayne property, then slowed to stop in front of the manor’s main entrance. Bruce got out, knowing Alfred planned to drive Dick back to the city. But instead of closing the door right away, Dick waited, clearly wanting to say more.
“And you’re okay with that? With not finding all of the answers?” he asked solemnly.
Bruce looked out in the direction of the cemetery, thinking of Edward Vaniel’s grave.
“I will be.”
At the funeral, standing over that pitiful grave that no one would ever visit again, I had come to an understanding. As I thought through all that happened in those two weeks since the letter arrived from David Vaniel, “writing to you at the behest of my father…” I realized that distinction between wanting and needing was very real indeed: I had a choice. I could spend my life suffering over the family I lost or enjoying the one I have now.
And I would honor my parents better by doing the latter.
Edward Vaniel was a miserable piece of filth. That he was born human at all was probably some cosmic mistake. He was a horrible husband, a brutal father and an all around worthless human being. The world should have danced a jig on his grave, celebrating the death of a monstrosity. And yet here was this boy, whom Vaniel beat, abused, harassed and did unspeakable things to his entire life—the one person left in the world who should be celebrating the most—and instead he was upset that Edward was dead. Despite everything, Edward was still his father. And when your father dies, you lose a little piece of yourself…
I have a son. I would never want Dick to define his life by loss. I would never want Dick to spend his life suffering. I would never want Dick to choose hate and sorrow and emptiness.
Maybe someday I’ll find new evidence. Maybe one day more information will surface that reveals what happened that night.
But if it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter as much anymore. Being Batman was never about solving my parents’ murder, it was about preventing such a thing from ever happening again. I could spend the rest of my life, devote all my resources to finding out what happened in that alley and still maybe end up with nothing.
And if I did, whether I found the truth or not, what then? What satisfaction could I have knowing more innocents had died because I was obsessed with hunting down a single killer. That’s no way to honor my parents.
The best thing I can do for them is what I have always done, to keep preventing these tragedies from befalling others.
The way to honor their memory is to keep defending innocents. The way to honor their memory is to keep being Batman.
The bat Walapang perched low over Workstation One, just as always. Bruce still wore the suit he’d worn to the funeral, although he’d removed his jacket and tie. He filled in the final notes on Edward Vaniel’s confession and tested the link to his parents’ casefile and the cross-reference to the Falcone/CIA connection. Finally, he attached electronic copies of Edward Vaniel’s final medical records and death certificate. He scrolled back up to the file header and stared for a moment:
He typed rapidly on the console keyboard, glanced back up at the file, and gave a light, satisfied smile.
Case Status: CLOSED, PENDING FURTHER EVIDENCE.
To be concluded…