Friday, March 8, 2013

Prince and Pauper: Part I

I found a student learning computer science at Central University.  In exchange for full tuition, he wrote an application for my cell phone that plays games for me.  Basic idea: I run the app, then run a game, and it plays the game.  You may wonder why I’d pay seventy grand for something like that.  Simply put, it lets me look like I’m playing games while I’m actually paying attention.

“Mister Wayne,” Lucius says for the hundredth time.  “Are you paying attention?”

“Yes, yes,” I say, pretending to concentrate on killing a pig with a bird.  “Wayne Electronics is posting a quarterly loss.”

“No, Wayne Medical has higher than expected profits.”

I look up for a moment.

“Well, that’s good isn’t it?”

He sighs.

“Yes, Mister Wayne, it is.”

“Excellent.  Then, let’s open the free clinics 24/7 from now on.  We can afford it.”

I hear a gasp from Stanislav, who directs WM.

“But…  But we just cut back the free clinic hours.  That will eliminate all of the profits this quarter!”

I’m back to pretending I’m playing.  He sputters and tries to get my attention, but I ignore him and he sits down.  Bruce Wayne just made another idiotic decision that, somehow, doesn’t scuttle the company, and thousands of poor Gothamites will get help.

There’s a beep from my phone, a sound that makes my heart leap, and I stand up.  Forcing a blas√© smile on my face, I turn to the board.

“Sorry to dash, gentlemen,” I say, buttoning my jacket (Brooks Brothers, $2500 plus tailoring fees).  “I’m late for my weekly shiatsu appointment.”

I walk off, feeling their eyes on me as I go.

“He has a weekly shiatsu appointment?” I hear someone say.


* * * * *


Half an hour later, I’m in the cave, staring at a map of Gotham City: Three hundred square miles of streets and buildings.  Eight million residents.  All under my protection.  I’m responsible for every life, every inch of this city.  It’s an impossible burden.  I’m Sisyphus with three boulders to push up a hill.  I’m the Little Dutch Boy standing before a tsunami.  I’m the Batman.

I’ve had help.  Robins.  Clark.  Nightwing.  The Gordons.  Sometimes they ease the burden.  Sometimes they make it worse.  That’s why I had a new program designed (under six different shell companies in three countries) to find problems before they happen.  It’s similar to the predictive policing software Gotham PD uses, only mine wasn’t built by a committee of corrupt bureaucrats trying to shield themselves from investigation.  The computer indicates a three square mile area near Port Adams.

“Problem with the Bat Computer, sir?” Alfred says behind me.  It’s his idea of a running joke.  He insists on calling everything “bat this” and “bat that.”  Last week he painted a bat symbol on the bathroom.

“Lack of a problem, really,” I say, pointing at the screen.  “There hasn’t been any crime in this area today.”

He arches one eyebrow at me.

“Well, that certainly seems like a job for the Dark Knight.  Good thing you caught it in time.”

“With one exception, there hasn’t been any crime in that area on this day for nine years.”

He turns serious and looks at the screen.

“Organized crime meeting?  They clear out the area so they don’t attract attention?”

“Maybe.  Something is certainly scaring people away.”

I call up the records of the last victim.  Chapin Donnels.  Two years ago, he was a small-time thug with sixteen priors for assault and pickpocketing.  Then he was found maimed and bloody in the area.  The police report says he insisted his injuries were self-inflicted, but it’s hard for me to believe anyone could cut off his own fingers and leg and stab out his own eye, as the medical report says.  Now he’s living on public assistance on the West Side.

“Prep the cycle, Alfred,” I say, slipping the cowl over my head.

“The Bat Cycle, sir?”

I sigh.

“No, the Irritating, British Butler Cycle.”

“That may have a bit more horsepower than you can handle, sir,” he says, walking off.


* * * * *


One hour later, I’m crouching in the shadows in the kitchen of a studio apartment.  It’s rank, musty, and it clearly hasn’t been cleaned in months.  Four cats slink around me, staring up curiously and trying to rub themselves against my legs.  I’m trying to shoo them away (where’s Selena when you need her?) when the lock clicks door opens.  Mercifully, the cats run off to greet their owner as he enters.

Chapin is as much of a mess as his home.  He’s dirty, wearing third-hand clothes, and barely managing to hobble in on a crutch.  I watch as he fumbles with the lock -- making due with his one good hand -- then reaching down to pet his cats.

“Hello, sweeties,” he says with a soft voice.  “Miss me?  Ah, you’re hungry.  One minute.”

He hobbles my way, and I realize he’s moving by feel.  His vision is bad, and he stumbles over the garbage (stacks of newspapers, plastic trinkets, broken pots) littering the floor.  He manages to get to the kitchen area and reaches out in the dark to find a can of food.  I hand it to him.

The reaction is, as always, immediate.  He gasps and tries to back away, but forgets he needs a crutch and falls, hard.  He scrambles backwards, knocking away cats and garbage as he tries to get away from me.

“I didn’t go back!” he said.  “I stayed away!  I promise.  Please!”

“Stayed away from what?”

He stops and stares at me with what I assume is his only good eye.

“Not him,” he says, the fear falling from his voice.  It’s a new experience for me.  Most people collapse in terror when I appear out of the darkness.

“I’m not who?”

“Help me up.”

I watch as he fumbles on the ground until he finds his crutch and gets painfully to his feet.

“Who did you think I was?”

“Who do you think?” he says, holding up his fingerless hand.  “This nut case.  I wasn’t born this way.”

He hobbles over to a threadbare recliner and collapses on it.  A cat jumps on to one of the arms, and he pushes it off.

“Where were you,” he says, “when that butcher was chopping me?”

“What happened?”

“I went in the dead zone.  ‘S what he called it.  ‘The Dead Zone.’  Not like I hurt nobody.  Just needed change for coffee.  Made a grab.  Nice and clean.  Nobody saw.  ‘Cept him, of course.  Got me coming through an alley.  Told me I broke the law.”

“A cop?”

He scoffs like I’m an idiot.

“Not the law.  His law.  Nobody does nothing around the children’s hospital before eight.  Came at me with a meat cleaver.  Never had a chance.  Still see him when I sleep.  That creepy smile.  That white skin.  That green hair.”

The Joker.  I’m running before he can say any more.  I’m three flights above where I hid the cycle.  The Gotham Pediatrics Center is on the other side of town.  I have half an hour until eight.

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