The dictionary states that Time is "the general idea, relation, or fact of continuous or successive existence". And in most places, this would be a completely accurate description. But, like most things, in Gotham City the definition of Time becomes somewhat skewed.
Continuous existence? What about Time travel? If Time is running in a straight line, and someone finds a way to skip backward, can Time really be said to be a line anymore? What if Time is a line to some, and a plane to others, and a cube to yet another group? In the end, wouldn't it be simpler to just throw your hands up, declare that Time is a magazine, and go fishing?
Consider the fistfight that is taking place in a back alley deep in downtown Gotham. In many ways, it is a very typical example of the kind of justice that gets delivered by Bats. Basically, it involves a lot of very fancy martial arts moves that invariably end by connecting hard with bits of vulnerable criminal anatomy.
There is something else about this fight, though...something that just isn't right. It could be the alley, which is somewhat filthier than usual. It could be the strangely outdated Batsuit wrapped around the Batman. Perhaps, though, it is the pale, skinny little freckled criminal, who is wearing an eye-searingly bright yellow caftan paired with an enormously floppy red half-afro, which is currently doing double duty as a handhold for the Bat.
"Hey, man," the thug was protesting, "I didn't take no Bug! You crazy, man?" In answer, Batman grabbed the man by the loose collar of the caftan and slammed him up against the wall. Clearly the answer was yes. "Okay, now, be cool, be cool," the man stammered, bare feet kicking in empty air. "I took the Bug, yeah, but I didn't touch that cat in the backseat, man! He was like that when I got there - don't get zappy now, man, I didn't do it!" He gulped as the Batman's eyes narrowed.
"Someone killed him," Batman pointed out in a low gravelly growl.
"It wasn't me!" The man's eyes rolled frantically to the sides, searching for help that wasn't there. "Look, I said I took the Bug, didn't I? Just...just hand me over to the pigs-erk!" The man wheezed to a halt. A forearm pressing hard on your trachea will do that.
"What was that?" Batman graveled.
"Cops!" the man squeaked. "Police!" The forearm began to ease away. "The boys in blue, the-"
"-officers of the law," the young man continued, sweat beginning to trickle down from under the brim of his fedora. His spats swayed feebly in the evening breeze. "The..." He blinked. "What was that?"
The Detective had felt it too, an odd kind of pulse beneath his feet paired with a surprisingly chilly wind across the back of his neck, just above the hem of his trenchcoat. He'd look into it later. What mattered now was this interrogation. "Who killed that man?"
"I'll be on the level with you," he muttered quietly. "The fella that bumped off the guy was a torpedo name of Rex." The insistent pressure on his windpipe indicated that the Detective was not done listening. "He...he...Nickels caught 'im with the coffin varnish! He was gonna rat him out to the bulls, so he iced him! Honest!"
Well, anyone that was willing to turn in a bootlegger would have been an easy target for the gangsters of Gotham. The Detective dragged him to the curb and left him cuffed to a lamp post.
The little criminal sighed as the Detective zipped away in his shiny black car. His hips wriggled against the lamp post as he eased the packet of lock picks out of his pocket. He figured that he had about ten minutes before the Detective found a phone and called in his location, which meant he'd better be quick with the picks so he could go tip off Nickels.
Batman's cave was surprisingly clean. Visitors - if there had ever been any - would have commented on how difficult it must be to keep all that equipment from getting dirty, particularly since a horde of bats roosted nearby. And if they had seen Alfred, down on his hands and knees, picking at a particularly stubborn bit of melted rubber on the floor, they would have been surprised that Batman was such a hard taskmaster.
He wasn't. He wouldn't notice if the cave was clean unless it interfered with his work. This was not to say that he wasn't in some way responsible for the tireless efforts of his butler.
Alfred had found himself in a very unexpected role on that hot night in June so many years ago: fatherhood. Oh, Thomas Wayne would always be Bruce's father - nothing short of a total mindwipe could take that away from Bruce - but a dead man cannot help with homework, or make a sandwich, or cradle a frightened boy in the night when nightmares wake him screaming and crying. Dead men make lousy parents, and so Alfred had stepped in to fill those urgently needed and recently vacated shoes.
He had thrown himself heart and soul into the task of parenting this young little orphan. There were times when he doubted if he'd done a good enough job - well-brought-up young men do not look out the window and proclaim "I shall become a bat!", after all - and ever since the first night that Batman had left to terrorize the underworld, he'd stayed at home and worried. Like most parents, he found it difficult to split the image of young Bruce whimpering over a skinned knee away from the image of adult Bruce coming home with a split lip. There was always the urge to go and scold the other boys for playing rough, even when the other boys were convicted felons.
Work clears the mind. Work calms the soul. At the risk of sounding too Orwellian, work is the ultimate way to keep people from thinking. And so we should not be surprised that while Bruce was out pummeling and being pummeled, Alfred was on his hands and knees distracting himself by scrubbing down every surface in the cave and keeping a careful eye on the tracking monitors. They blipped and beeped as Alfred worked, telling him with every blip that Bruce was out there, safe.
Until they stopped. Alfred sat up and squinted at the monitors. They were dark.
Oh, this was bad. This was very bad. Normally, when parents worry, they have the luxury of probabilities to comfort them: it's unlikely that Billy crashed his car. There's never been a murder in this neighborhood. Jack's never been in a fight in his life, so why would he be en route to the emergency room? Alfred, however, knew all too well that danger lurked in the darkness of the city and that Bruce homed in on danger like a mongoose homing in on a cobra. It was likely that Bruce was laying dead in an alley somewhere. It was almost certain that he was injured.
Alfred abandoned the mess and scurried to the computer, tapping frantically on the keyboard. The tracking devices in the cowl, the car, and the little one that Bruce didn't know about in the heel of his boot weren't responding. The video link in the car was down, too. Oh, this was bad.
"Master Bruce?" Alfred asked, activating the microphone embedded in the wall under the vast monitor. "Master Bruce, are you there?"
Static. He was dead. He'd failed as a guardian. Bruce was dead and how was he ever going to explain this to Thomas in the afterlife? "Yes, I let your son dress up like a giant bat and seek out the most dangerous criminals in the city. Why didn't I try to stop him?...well..." Thomas would kill him. Well, they'd both be dead, but he'd find a way to kill him on top of that, and since he was a doctor, he'd probably be able to un-kill him enough to re-kill him again..."Master Bruce! Are you there?" Alfred said urgently into the microphone.
The speakers crackled with static. "I'm here, old friend."
Thank God. Relief lent sharpness to a tone that didn't dare let it slip how happy it was. "And where is here, exactly?" he said. "In the middle of a lead-lined tunnel, perhaps?" Well, it might explain the signal failure, and it certainly was possible, particularly since Lex Luthor had been in Gotham before. The man had to have put several lead manufacturers' children through college by now with the rate that he bought the stuff.
"No, I'm down on the corner of Third and Market," Bruce's voice crackled. Alfred rapidly tapped the speaker, trying to fix the static. "I pinched a sap who spilled about Nickels' bootlegging operation. I'm on my way there now."
Alfred's hand slowly tapped on the speaker once more. "There hasn't been a bootlegger in this town for seventy years," he said slowly.
"Tell that to Nickels and his speakeasies."
Alfred blinked at the speaker. "Master Bruce, are you quite certain that everything's all right?"
"Everything's swell, old friend."
Alfred passed a hand over his eyes. Well, it had finally happened. One of them had gone completely mad. He was surprised that it had taken this long. "Master Bruce, there's an urgent matter that requires your attention at home."
"I need to move on Nickels first-"
"An urgent matter," Alfred repeated, "and you need to-" He slapped the microphone off. Nothing sparked worry like a sudden disconnect after mentioning an urgent need for someone. That would get Bruce home, and then...well...what did you do when your employer/son went a little crazy?
Call in for reinforcements! Alfred hurried upstairs. Dick was down with a broken foot, sulking in front of the television. But even with a broken foot, he would still be able to knock some sense into Bruce. He hoped.
In the car, the Detective thumped his little radio speakers. "Alfred? Alfred?" he bellowed. There was no answer. He smacked the dangling fist-sized microphone that hung like a grapefruit from the ceiling of the car. "Alfred!"
The modified Fleetwood Cadillac screeched around the corner and headed north, zigzagging around a rusty Model T and a bulbous trolley that had bumped together and gotten stuck.
The Detective breathed a sigh of relief when he crossed into the jumble of houses that marked the outskirts of Gotham. Just a few more miles and-
-and Batman would see what Alfred wanted and why it was more important than catching those bootleggers...
Waaaaaaaait a minute. The Batmobile skidded to a halt. Bootleggers? What had he been thinking? And there had been that weird pulse again. It had shaken the car like a baby's rattle.
The car! He'd been driving a Cadillac, he was sure of it, but he didn't own a Fleetwood. And where had that antique microphone come from?
Anxious fingers played over his face. Well, at least his mask was back...back? Oh, hell, that little guy had seen him without his mask!...and how had that happened? He hadn't taken it off, he was sure of it, and it couldn't have just disappeared!
This was accelerating right past Weird into Highly Disturbing. Alfred could wait a minute. Batman threw the car into reverse and backed into the city-
-and tapped the antique mic hanging beside him in wonderment. Where had this old microphone come from?...why did he think it was old? It was new, built in 1931 at the cutting edge of technology. He pushed his black fedora back and scratched his forehead. Well, maybe Alfred would be able to - Alfred! What was he doing, sitting in the middle of the road when Alfred needed him? He gunned the motor and raced forward again.
The car squealed to a halt. He was leaving more tire marks on the road than a kid with new brakes on his bike. The car had changed again, back to that Cadillac! His cowl had turned into a normal hat! And his thoughts had changed, too, something was making him really believe that he was in the thirties.
He slid the top of the car open and swung himself out. The lights of the city glimmered in the distance...but now Batman could see that the lights were too few, too far apart, and too dim to be modern. Somehow Gotham of the thirties had been neatly transplanted into today.
But no, that wasn't right either, because he'd started the night with trailing that gang through the alleyways...and that boy with the afro clearly didn't belong to the thirties. So Gotham of the 1970s was there too, somewhere...
Batman climbed back into the car and roared toward the manor. All other things being equal, the simplest solution is the best, according to William of Occam. (William had obviously never been to Gotham.) In this case, the simplest solution was that one of the rogues had taken it into their heads to mess with humanity. Again.
He needed to find out who among the rogues' gallery was currently in Arkham. Since Arkham was just inside the city limits, and since they were unlikely to have the internet, computers, or surveillance systems if they'd been thrown back to the thirties, he'd have to pay the Rogues' Gallery a visit in person.
But first, he needed a better disguise. If the Bat-mask disappeared when he was face-to-face with any of the rogues...No, he'd have to go as someone else.
A brief, grim smile flitted across his face. Maybe, just this once, it would actually be safer to fight crime as Bruce Wayne.
(to be continued)
Author's Note: I know it's confusing. Stay with me, folks.