Chapter 1: Dusk
Bruce hadn’t been able to convince Jeremiah to leave the stage, to follow him and Harvey to where Jim had radioed to say he was waiting. Even though dusk had become full darkness, Bruce couldn’t bring himself to emerge from behind Jim and Harvey.
Jerome, lifeless beyond any shadow of a doubt, was splayed bloody and motionless atop someone’s car.
Jeremiah, having followed after all, approached from the opposite side. He looked to Jim first, seemingly for reassurance, and then to Bruce. He gave his brother a swift glance in final acknowledgment, adjusting his glasses before passing them by.
Bruce wondered where Jeremiah intended to go, what when he had no driver’s license on record under either of his names, let alone a vehicle at his disposal. He turned and caught Jeremiah’s eye before it was too late to offer comfort, however cold.
“Mr. Valeska,” he said, relieved when Jeremiah stopped to listen, “I meant what I said about your work being of importance to this city. Let Wayne Enterprises fund your work with a grant.”
When his first attempt at speech speech failed, Jeremiah shook Bruce’s hand. “Thank you.”
As Jeremiah turned his back and kept walking, the tightness in Bruce’s chest was reinforced by the sudden sting of tears. He didn’t feel loss for his own sake—but for Jeremiah’s, keenly.
“Captain,” Bruce said with grave, sincere regret, not even bothering to wait for Jim’s response.
Jeremiah was easy enough to catch at an urgent dash, what with as plodding as his steps had remained for less than a block. He stumbled and looked up when Bruce touched his elbow, the streetlamp’s glow reflecting off his lenses before catching in his startled glance.
“You said earlier that you wished we had met under better circumstances,” Bruce said, pushing through his unaccountable onset of nerves. “Today didn’t start off poorly, it…” He shook his head, guiding Jeremiah back into motion. “I was pulled away from celebrating my birthday by this evening’s events. Would you join me for dinner?”
“I don’t understand,” Jeremiah said, using their forward motion to ease out of Bruce’s gentle, but insistent hold. “Surely you were in the middle of a party. Shouldn’t you get back?”
“If you can call the only two people in this world that I call family a party, then I suppose,” Bruce agreed reluctantly, “but I told them not to wait.”
Expression unreadable, Jeremiah curtly nodded. “I can’t offer much in thanks, let alone a gift.”
“Your presence is enough,” replied Bruce, with a rueful smile. “I’ve enjoyed your company.”
“I doubt it,” Jeremiah said, fixing his eyes straight ahead. “You heard Jerome. No one ever—”
“If you think this is pity on my part,” said Bruce, wryly, “please consider who’s begging whom.”
Jeremiah looked at him the same way he had earlier, expression lit with some indefinable spark.
“Then it’s misleading,” he ventured, “what I’ve seen on the news? What media says about you?”
Bruce stuck his hands in his pockets, shaking his head. “It didn’t make me happy,” he confessed.
“I’m sorry,” Jeremiah said with regret. “I guess those people didn’t turn out to be true friends.”
“The less said about that, the better,” Bruce reassured him. “So, where would you like to eat?”
“I’ve had take-out from wherever Ecco found most convenient to my preferences, at least when I wasn’t cooking for myself. I have no idea.”
Bruce couldn’t shake the feeling that more than grief was fueling Jeremiah’s cautious restraint. “I’ll choose if you won’t,” he warned mildly, indicating that they were going to cross the street.
Jeremiah slowed as they reached the far curb. He balked when he realized that Bruce meant for them to enter Chez Vous without a reservation.
“The firm sent me a gift certificate once,” Jeremiah protested, standing between Bruce and the door. “This place is pretty steep. You’re already awarding me a grant, so I shouldn’t—”
“Did you use it?” Bruce asked, raising his eyebrows at his increasingly befuddled companion.
“Yes,” Jeremiah said. “I had Ecco bring the meal to me like she’d do with any other. Why?”
“Did you like the food?” Bruce went on, hoping that he was using a sound line of reasoning.
Jeremiah’s expression went almost pained. “It was superb, but I don’t see why it’s…ah.”
“Stop arguing about what it’s going to cost,” Bruce said reasonably, “and get the door.”
If Jeremiah understood that Bruce intended to use this as a means of investigation as much as a gesture of goodwill, he didn’t object. His taste in wine, when prompted to choose, was as schooled as Bruce would have expected given his adoption into wealth.
After two glasses each, a shared appetizer, and extravagant entrées, Jeremiah finally opened up.
“I owe Captain Gordon for more than just solving my mother’s murder,” he said, pensively swilling the scotch Bruce had ordered for them in lieu of dessert. “He and Detective Bullock would’ve been well within their rights to arrest me.”
“Why?” Bruce asked. He took a swallow of scotch, cheeks heating in response to the intense burn. “You could say the same about me right now. They didn’t card either of us, and I didn’t offer to dispel the notion that we’re both of drinking age.”
Jeremiah snorted and took a long swig. “Between 1973 and 1980, the drinking age in this state was eighteen. I don’t think anyone’s gotten the memo that the law changed.” He squared his shoulders and sat back, both anguished and annoyed. “Did they tell you I had Ecco bring him to me? That I put him in a purpose-built room, that I intended to…” He wiped his mouth and set down the napkin, preparing to leave. “Not that I expect you’ll accept this as justification, but I felt responsible. No one else had dealt sufficiently with the issue—not the GCPD, not Arkham.”
Before Jeremiah could rise, Bruce poured him some more scotch. He’d drunk far less than Jeremiah, and he intended to keep it that way. Still, his inhibitions were sufficiently lowered that he could admit nothing he’d heard was either incomprehensible or unforgivable.
“I understand your actions better than you think,” Bruce said, fighting his impulse to reach across the table and touch Jeremiah’s hand. “I tracked Jerome to your uncle’s diner because I felt responsible. I didn’t do the sensible thing. I should’ve...dealt with it when I had the chance.”
Jeremiah glanced at Bruce’s fingers as they twitched, his eyes behind his glasses sad, but clear.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” he said with fierce, unabashed relief. “That means the world to me.”
“You don’t have to keep calling me that,” Bruce said, deciding he had nothing to lose, not when they’d already shook hands. “You’re welcome.”
Unexpectedly, Jeremiah turned his hand palm-up as Bruce reached for it, his fingers splayed.
“It’s strange,” he said, voice wavering as Bruce laced their fingers to comfort him, “but he was the first person to lay a hand on me in years.”
“I’m sorry it was with violent intent,” Bruce said, brushing his thumb across the underside of Jeremiah’s wrist. “You deserve better.”
Jeremiah released Bruce’s fingers, eyes lowered, withdrawing his hand with abrupt diffidence. He dipped it beneath the table as if to set it in his lap, and then lifted it again as he met Bruce’s concerned gaze. He held a business card between his index and middle fingers.
“Call me as soon as the paperwork is ready, please,” Jeremiah said with a smile. “I’ll come to you.”
Bruce might have taken a moment to say he was impressed by the improvised sleight of hand, but the nature of the looks they’d been trading for most of the day gave him pause. He wanted Jeremiah to see him as desperately as Jeremiah wanted to be seen.
“No, that’s…that’s all right. I can order us a ride, if you like, and take you home first. That way I’ll…” Bruce stared down at his hands in turn, struck by delayed realization. “I’ll know where to find you,” he finished assertively, deciding to commit to whatever this was.
Jeremiah was studying Bruce’s face with the same bewildered intensity as he had hours before.
“I’m afraid we’d need to drop by the precinct to get my things, those models and schematics you saw earlier,” he said. “You’re sure?”
Removing his wallet, Bruce left an indiscriminate sheaf of bills on top of their itemized check.
“Very,” he said, rising, and reached for Jeremiah’s hand a third time. “I look after my interests.”
Chapter 2: Dawn
Jeremiah didn’t know where he was or how he’d gotten there. He was duct-taped to a chair again, and Jerome—white as a sheet, blue-lipped, bloodied—had a straight-razor to his throat.
“Yeah, about that,” Jerome sighed. “Our little chat yesterday didn’t go so great. There’s some stuff I forgot. That Jim Gordon, so inconsiderate. You can always count on him to interrupt, am I right?”
Jeremiah glared at him, refusing to say a word. Whatever the game, he didn’t intend to play.
“I don’t have long,” Jerome continued, pacing. “There’s a present inside the present. Find it.”
Shrugging in exasperation, Jeremiah hit the end of his tether. “Are you going to kill me or not?”
“Nah, but you and Bruce might as well have killed me,” Jerome chuckled. He stopped in front of Jeremiah, folding the blade shut. “Speaking of, nobody ever gave you the Talk, huh? Trust me when I say he’s out of your league.”
“Why me?” Jeremiah asked, chasing an ominous recollection. “Any one of your followers—”
“Because,” Jerome said calmly, tucking the razor in Jeremiah’s pocket, “two Jokers in a deck.”
Gasping, Jeremiah woke up. He could blame his pounding headache on what he’d drunk at dinner last night—but the relentless prickling of his skin, so intense it burned? He couldn’t.
Sitting up amidst skewed sheets explained little other than that he’d dragged himself to bed fully-dressed at some point after the driver Bruce had hired dropped him off. That much, he remembered. He slid off the mattress, scarcely managing to stay on his feet.
The fire beneath his skin intensified with each step. He rushed dizzily from the darkness of his bedroom through the low-lit hall, shedding his blazer and waistcoat as he went. His sense of rising anxiety was inexplicable.
Jeremiah removed his tie and unbuttoned his shirt, struggling to open the bathroom door. His fingers didn’t work the way they should, not with the searing static that coursed through—
His fingers appeared to shimmer as they grasped at doorknob, ghostly in the insufficient light.
Hitting the light-switch too swiftly was a mistake. The fluorescent bulbs over the sink blinded him—so excruciatingly bright that he squeezed his eyes shut and staggered back against the wall.
All he could think of as his pulse spiked was Bruce. Had they been poisoned?
Was Bruce suffering, too, even now possibly dying, was he—
Jeremiah opened his eyes. He blinked so rapidly at what he saw in the mirror that the erratic strobe-effect shot every last shred of coherency from his agitated thoughts. Too easy, to assume the specter with bleached-out skin and dead-pale eyes was his brother’s vengeful ghost.
Approaching the mirror, Jeremiah touched its cool, unyielding surface with both hands. He stared at the backs of them, at his wrists where they vanished beneath cuffs that accentuated the pallor of his skin.
Momentarily abandoning his reflection, he clawed at the buttons of his cuffs and pushed them up to his elbows one at a time. The paper-white flesh of his arms goose-pimpled instantly.
Unnecessary examination, what when the mirror showed—thanks to the fact that he’d left his shirt hanging open—that his skin from throat to collarbone was the same. Even from his chest to the sudden heave of his belly as he pressed both palms flat against it.
Retching violently, Jeremiah clutched at the sink’s edge until his guts felt hollow. His shaking hands, when he eventually managed to set them on the taps and run water, hadn’t changed.
Neither had his face, not even when he splashed it with freezing water and rested his forehead against the mirror. He ran his fingertips from temple to jawline, but found no scars. From this close, his irises’ eerie twin reflections gleamed like nothing earthly he could name.
Transfixed, Jeremiah realized only once he’d spent an interminable while registering every detail—from the raw, vivid shade of his lips to the sunken, pinkish cast to the skin around his eyes—that his head wasn’t pounding anymore. It had gone starkly clear.
Even the crawling sensation beneath his skin had faded to something like a half-recalled itch.
Attempting to trace his steps between stumbling in from the chilly spring twilight to waking with his now-receding hangover, he snagged on the memory of pouring himself another drink.
Jeremiah closed his shirt and wrapped his arms around himself, fighting a renewed sense of unrest as he strode from the bathroom to his workspace. No, he told himself. If something had happened only once he’d returned home, then Bruce was safe—
Bruce with his rare, radiant smile; Bruce with his eyes too dark-seeming for their shade of blue.
No sooner had Jeremiah gathered up the wrapping paper and tag he found on the floor next to his desk than his phone rang. He swore and hauled the entire thing off the desk, gathering the cradle into his lap as he fumbled the receiver to his ear.
“Jeremiah? It’s Bruce. I’m sorry to bother you so soon, but I wanted to check in. Did you get any sleep?”
“Enough,” Jeremiah said tersely, perceiving his voice as if it had come from elsewhere. “You?”
“Not a lot,” Bruce replied. “I made it to the office, though, and discussed terms with the Board. It took most of the morning, but they’ve agreed to the amount. You can sign today if you like.”
Jeremiah set the phone-cradle aside, and then picked apart what was left of the purple wrapping paper. When all that was left in his hands was the white ribbon, he stared at the tag.
FROM: Wayne Enterprises, it read. Why hadn’t he remembered reading it last night?
“Did you send me something?” Jeremiah asked, struggling to keep the receiver trapped between his head and his shoulder. “Some kind of onboarding kit, or—” he glanced to one side, spotting what looked like a jack-in-the-box with its crank-mechanism tripped “—gift?”
“No, why?” Bruce asked, sounding as confused as he was concerned. “The Board will, but…”
Jeremiah flung the ribbon and tag aside, closing his eyes against the terror closing in on him.
“No reason,” he managed, running his fingers through his disarrayed hair. “There’s a package here I don’t recognize, is all. Ecco must’ve brought it in while I was in protective custody.”
“Jeremiah…” Bruce swallowed audibly, exhaling a defeated sigh. “I want to see you again.”
Jeremiah closed his eyes, his intensity of feeling all at once unbearable and a giddy, heady thrill.
“Give…give me a few days. I know you said that you’d bring the paperwork, but—” he breathed harshly, wanting nothing so much as to ask Bruce to come to him “—I need some time. It’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be, it’s…”
“No, don’t apologize,” Bruce said. “You’ve lost the only family you had left. I understand.”
“Bruce?” Jeremiah ventured, shifting onto his knees. He knew he’d need to investigate the rest of the mess and make himself presentable.
“You’d let me know if there was a problem, right?” asked Bruce, with such warmth it stung.
“Yes, Bruce,” Jeremiah rasped, pressing one damp palm to the flutter in his chest. “I would.”
“I have to go,” Bruce said, shuffling what sounded like papers in the background. “Call soon?”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday,” Jeremiah replied, too desperate to wait any longer. “Come tomorrow.”
“I will,” Bruce promised. “Ten o’clock in the morning, unless that’s too early? Would noon—”
“Nine,” Jeremiah pressed. “I’ll even get started on the schematics for mass production, if—”
“Great,” Bruce cut in breathlessly. “You don’t sound well. Get some rest? I’ll see you then.”
“Tomorrow,” Jeremiah said, feeling utterly alone as the connection went dead. “Bruce.”
After slamming the receiver back in its cradle, Jeremiah crawled toward the puzzle’s last inexplicable piece. He picked up the toy, which appeared to be broken beyond repair. No matter how he tried to shove the clown doll back inside and slam the lid shut, it refused to comply.
When he noticed the nozzle protruding from the doll’s mouth—and what it meant, everything he could now remember in brutal detail—he hurled the toy as hard as he could at the floor.
The fragile, tooled tin of the box split along its bottom seams, spilling its spring and cardboard tube. Something else that had been placed inside slid a foot or so beyond the wreckage.
Jeremiah fetched the defaced black notebook, staring at it as he got to his feet. The ice-cream-cone sticker briefly made him wonder if it had belonged to a child, but the six letters and ghastly faces drawn on some of the heart stickers disabused him of that notion.
Flipping methodically through, Jeremiah felt possessive fury flare in his chest every time Bruce’s name appeared. It didn’t take him long to get the flawed gist. Every plan had room for improvement.
Or an entire overhaul, if the core of it called for disposing of the one person whose presence would give the execution meaning.
Jeremiah dialed his proxy’s number, knowing full well that she would already be up and about.
“Ecco?” Jeremiah said when he heard her pick up, not even waiting for a greeting. “Something’s happened. I have a specific shopping list in mind. I’d prefer that you didn’t ask questions.”
“When do I ever, Mr. J?” she asked, her habitual, fond salutation oddly laughable. “Fire away.”