Once safely away from the Manor, Batman pulled the car over to the side of the road.
"Why are we stopping?" Dick asked.
"I have some information we need to process. A name. If it turns out to be what I think it is, I don't want Alfred or your friend nearby."
Dick started to ask another question, then thought better of it. Batman was implying that he had a strong lead on the person who ordered the murder of his parents. He didn't want Alfred around because of the fatherly bond he shares with Bruce. No father should see his son degenerate into a vessel of pure vengeance. And Donna… Dick could only guess that Bruce thought Donna might have the power to stop him. That meant Bruce wasn't sure he wouldn't be out to kill someone.
The only thing giving Dick hope at that point was that Bruce hadn't left him behind, as well. Maybe Bruce wanted him around to keep him emotionally grounded and accountable, Dick thought. But maybe...
"I need to know if the name Oliver Martel came up in your investigation."
Dick hesitated. Batman only wanted whatever information Nightwing could provide. Dick wasn't sure in that moment if Bruce Wayne was even in the car with them. "We're doing this together, right?" he asked tentatively.
"Answer the question."
Dick relented. "Okay, yes. Martel's name came up. But before we go any further with this, you need to know right now that I'm coming with you, no matter what." He locked eyes with his mentor, as if daring him to say otherwise.
Batman's jaw tightened as he turned to look out the windshield. Both hands gripped the steering wheel, and Dick could hear it giving way under the pressure. Finally, Batman replied in a seething whisper, "Fine. Now tell me what you know."
"Insurance records. Martel's name was on some insurance papers tied to Hadley from way back. Oliver Martel was big in corporate finance at one time. Hadley was listed as a security guard for his firm for about eight months in '71. That Martel's name was on Hadley's medical and life insurance records back then didn't raise any flags with me."
"So you didn't investigate Martel or the connection between them," Batman said.
"Oliver Martel. Born February, 1930. Decent upbringing, nothing that'd raise an eyebrow. Too young for World War II and his folks had enough pull to help him avoid Korea. So no history of violence, no time spent in the service or in prison. Graduated from Emerson in 1952 with a degree in business. Made a decent living until he found that creating tax shelters for the mob paid better. Moved up to laundering in '65, and that's where he made his fortune. The rest reads like a how-to book on white collar crime.
"His personal life is another story. He always had a taste for things he couldn't have. It didn't take much effort to tie him to things like art theft; hiring cat burglars to steal pieces he could brag about. He was definitely big on ego…"
"What about women?" Batman interrupted.
Nightwing shrugged. "Not a lot to go on. Lifelong bachelor, known to be a bit of a womanizer, but it's not something you can do much research on. Tabloids weren't such a big thing back then," he replied. "What did Alfred give you?"
Batman put the Batmobile back in gear and threw the throttle forward, rocketing the one-time partners back into motion. "He liked his women like he liked his art. Not interested unless they belonged to someone else."
"Rebuffing his advances was something of a tradition for my mother. Alfred doesn't remember exactly when, but it wasn't long before they died. Martel made a game of it. Alfred always felt that he seemed more interested in making my mother uncomfortable than anything else. My father hated it, but still never took the man seriously," Batman responded coldly.
"Did it ever come to a head?" Dick carefully inquired.
"I don't know. My parents were very proper people. This type of thing just isn't something you discuss. But there was a rumor that he made a pass at my mother at the Hillcrest Country Club one afternoon when my father wasn't with her. My mother wasn't raised in Gotham High Society…"
"So without your dad around, maybe it was finally time to nip things in the bud," Dick added.
"Rumor was she slapped him. It had to be at least somewhat public, and you know how loud the socialites around here whisper."
There was a long pause. "Martel was all about ego and appearances. He lives a life where he's hired to do the mob's financial dirty work. After a time, he starts hiring other lowlifes to do his dirty work. If you hire someone to steal a priceless portrait, why not hire someone to kill the woman who tore into your public reputation?" Nightwing supposed.
"It may not have been a murder for hire. He could have just hired Hadley to scare and rob them to make them look like weak victims around town. But my father fights back and Hadley pulls the trigger."
The Batmobile barreled down the dimly lit road at speeds surpassing 100 miles per hour. Nightwing had made the same drive hundreds of times, but never at that speed, even on his faster and more maneuverable motorcycles. "It's not a solid case, Bruce. We have to do some more digging."
"Martel's rich, but he's still a two-time loser. You helped Gordon take him down the first time with the rest of the Russian gangs ten years ago, and then once on your own four years later. He's old, Bruce. He won't want to die in jail, not as proud as he is," Nightwing argued.
"He. Will. Confess." The Batman growled.
Dick opened his mouth to protest once more, but was interrupted by the Batmobile's sudden, screeching stop. They had apparently arrived at the Martel estate. Batman was out of the car in a blink. Nightwing got out and ran to catch up, seized Batman by his cape, forcing him to stop.
"Listen to me, Bruce! The last time he went in, Martel flipped on a lot of nasty people. This place is gonna be crawling with armed guards."
Batman jerked his cape free of Nightwing's grasp and started marching again. He didn't get two steps before his protégé flipped over him and landed effortlessly in his path. Nightwing placed a hand firmly on Batman's chest to get him to stop.
"Look at me, Batman," Nightwing pleaded to no avail as Batman's gaze remained firmly on the path ahead of him.
"Look at me, or I swear to God I'll hit the JLA emergency beacon," Dick threatened at the top of his lungs.
Batman lowered his head and met Nightwing's eyes.
"I don't want to stop you, Bruce. I know you have to do this. But I'm coming in with you. I'm tired, and my body's close to quitting on me, but you know I can't let you go in there alone. I've got your back, and I'll probably need you to have mine."
"Fine. Let's move," The Dark Knight ordered as he stepped around Nightwing and began his approach.
Nightwing followed. He honestly felt fine, at least physically. But he figured if he could get Batman to focus at least a little on him in the coming fight, he had half a chance of keeping his fury in check. In short, Nightwing hoped that Batman's fear of losing another loved one was greater than his need for vengeance.
Oliver Martel's estate was nothing to write home about in Bristol County standards. It was perhaps a quarter of Wayne Manor's size, Nightwing guessed. The outer wall didn't even serve as a minor deterrent as the duo cleared it without breaking stride. Inside the estate wall, the grounds teemed with life, even at such a late hour. Perhaps even especially so, Dick thought.
Armed guards were positioned in predictable locations, and Nightwing found himself little more than a spectator as The Batman tore through them with savage precision. They would typically strike to incapacitate the opposition, but Batman clearly had something else in mind. Broken limbs and mangled faces became the order of the day as Batman moved toward the house. Thirteen men fell in the space of two minutes.
Then another twist. Infiltration was The Dark Knight's specialty. This was a man who could stand over the sleeping form of the President of the United States without throwing a punch or setting off a single alarm. Yet the idea of stealth was discarded at once as The Batman kicked down the front door of Oliver Martel's home.
"MARTEL!" he screamed, daring any and all comers to try to stop him.
At that moment Nightwing took the point, throwing himself into the first four men to enter the foyer from a nearby hallway as Batman made his way to the stairs leading to the upper bedrooms.
The men in front of him were clearly no match for Nightwing, but he pulled back and allowed them to land some costly blows. He kicked one attacker square in the jaw, then purposely pivoted into the butt end of a rifle that forced him backward, colliding hard with the carved, wooden banister. Nightwing cried out in pain, finally catching Batman's attention.
At once, Batman was over the rail and on top of Martel's men. Eight men now stood over the three Nightwing had dropped. They moved to train their weapons on Batman, but never got the chance. Nightwing intercepted one and dealt with him quickly, but when he turned to assist his mentor, he found himself of little use.
By that time, Batman had already knocked two men unconscious and was literally tossing the others into each other with abandon. Every punch or kick they threw was caught by the Caped Crusader. Not blocked. Caught. Each intercepted blow turned into a fluid aikido throw, then each attacker was rocked into unconsciousness as they attempted to scramble back to their feet.
Two more men entering the room quickly turned on their heels and ran in terror. Batman let them go, and the room went quiet. He stood stock still for a long moment, waiting for any sign of anything that might try to stop him from completing his mission. None came.
"Go easy, Bruce," was all Nightwing could say as Batman stalked up the stairs. He followed quietly from a distance. There was nothing else he could do.
Martel's bedroom door literally shattered as Batman entered the room. From where he stood, Nightwing couldn't tell if the door had broken from a punch or a kick. The stench of violence in the air suggested that it may simply have surrendered to Batman's unbending will without being touched at all.
Oliver Martel was yelling into a hand radio for help as they entered the room. When he took in the sight of The Batman slowly walking toward him with a razor-sharp batarang in his fierce, menacing grasp, he fell silent and immediately lost control of his bladder.
Nightwing stood off to the side. His mind raced, trying to choose which weapon to ready in case he needed to stop Batman from killing the cowering man. His arms ultimately fell to his sides as he realized that nothing could stop fate.
"Wh-what do you w-want with me?" Martel stammered as he shrank to his knees.
The Batman slowed to a stop in front of this pitiful excuse for a man and stared daggers at him, but said nothing.
"I-I'm clean now! I swear it!" Martel pleaded.
Batman held his body perfectly still and his gaze did not waver. He held the batarang so tightly in his left hand that its edges cut through his glove and skin. Blood dripped from his clenched fist to the ground. The sounds of the crimson fluid hitting the floor were all that broke the silence.
Oliver Martel flinched with the impact of each drop as he watched the blood fall. He raised his head to look into the face of the demon that stood before him. The man, if he was a man, didn't appear to breathe.
"P-please! I'll give you anything you want! Anything!"
Very slowly, The Batman reached down with his right hand and pulled Martel to his feet, forcing him to stand. When he let go, Batman raised his hand to his face.
"No…" Nightwing whispered inaudibly in disbelief.
In one smooth motion, The Batman pulled his cowl back to reveal the grim countenance of Bruce Wayne.
Martel looked on wide-eyed as the wraith unmasked himself. It took him a moment to recognize the man in front of him, and when the truth finally struck him, he took a full step back and raised both hands to cover his mouth in shock.
"You. Y-you're Bruce Wayne. Oh God! You're Bruce Wayne!" he shrieked.
Bruce remained perfectly still as his eyes bore into Oliver Martel, yet he still said nothing.
Martel began to shake his head. "I had n-nothing to do with it. I swear!"
Bruce Wayne's eyes went wide and his brow furrowed. His left hand raised slightly, his tortuous grip on the batarang now causing blood to flow freely from his fist to the floor.
"I-I only wanted to sh-shame her! I didn't t-tell him to kill anyone!"
That was it. The confession hung in the air, and Nightwing moved quietly to stand behind Martel.
"I swear to Jesus, Mr. Wayne! I never wanted anyone hurt! Please don't k-kill me…" Martel begged.
The haggard old man looked nothing like the beast Bruce Wayne fought in every nightmare he'd had since his parents' deaths. This man was diminutive and weak. Cowardly and ignorant. Pathetic and small.
Bruce realized in that moment something he had never truly considered before; that sharpened steel was perfectly suited for cutting flesh. The skin and veins would offer no resistance. It would require no force; actually little more than a flick of the wrist. And then he wondered what it would feel like to drain the life from someone. Would he feel guilt? No. He wouldn't. No guilt, no remorse, no regret. It might even feel good.
With every breath he drew in, his clarity of purpose became stronger. It wouldn't be justice, but it wouldn't be vengeance, either. It wouldn't serve a purpose at all, other than knowing once and for all that it was finally over. One flick of the wrist, a moment of steel on flesh, and the nightmare would end.
Martel fell to his knees again. He looked down at this shadow of a man and saw hate personified. His lips were moving, but Bruce couldn't hear his pleas for mercy. All Bruce Wayne could hear was the rush of blood through his veins, urging him onward, begging him to set things right.
Something drew his gaze upward, and he found himself staring at the visage of Dick Grayson. The look on his face was one of concern, but he said nothing. The rush of pumping blood ceased in that instant, and he heard the batarang fall to the floor at his feet. His eyes remained on his adopted son, and a long minute passed in absolute silence.
Dick flinched when Bruce finally spoke.
"Finish it," he said quietly as he turned and walked out of the room.
Nightwing felt the tension of the moment drain from his body as he reached down to help Oliver Martel to his feet. He spun him around gently to face him.
"You're going to call the police now, Mr. Martel. When they get here, you're going to ask them to read you your rights, and then you'll tell them that you ordered Simon Hadley to rob Thomas and Martha Wayne. You will waive your right to a lawyer and make a full confession, answering any and all questions they ask you truthfully. I have my suspicions about Roger Maitland, Charlene Edwards, Freddie Baxter, and Amanda Smith, too. Hiring Hadley to 'shame' people wasn't a one-time thing, so be sure to mention them to the police, as well. Do you understand me?"
Martel hesitated. "I-I will not," he said indignantly. "If you try to force me, I'll tell the world who he is."
Nightwing considered Martel's threat for a moment, then bent over to pick up Batman's dropped batarang. Then, in a single, fluid motion, he grabbed Martel by the throat, forced him hard into the wall behind him, and drove the batarang deep into the wall millimeters from his left ear. Nightwing moved in closely as he held Martel steady. He stopped with his left eye two inches from Martel's and began to whisper forcefully into the cowering man's ear.
"You really don't get it, do you, you stupid son of a bitch? You created The Batman, Oliver. You made him what he is. For fifteen years, he's wreaked untold havoc on every twisted criminal mind in Gotham City. The number of psychopaths that want him dead number in the hundreds, Martel. And what do you think those psychos will do to the man that created him? What do you think The Joker or Two-Face or Killer Croc will do to your family and friends? Do you have any idea what every inmate in Arkham Asylum will want to do to you, the man that unleashed The Bat?"
Nightwing released Martel and let him fall to the ground.
"No, I think Batman's secret is perfectly safe with you, Oliver. You breathe one word of it to anyone and you'll have signed your own death warrant. They'll kill you slow and they'll relish every precious moment of it. There's nowhere you can run where they won't find you and no amount of money that'll make them go away. The only thing in the world that could possibly stop them is the only man they fear, and I'm willing to bet that Batman will have better things to do when that day comes," Nightwing said, bitter disdain punctuating every syllable.
With that, Oliver Martel began to sob uncontrollably. Nightwing picked up the phone from the nightstand and placed it on the floor beside the broken man. "Dial."
Nightwing stayed until Martel called the police, then left the house in disgust. He returned to the Batmobile, but Batman was nowhere to be found. He moved the car so it wouldn't be seen and spent the next hour lurking in the shadows, making sure Oliver Martel gave the police his confession as ordered.
The sun had begun to rise over Bristol Township by the time Nightwing started his drive back to the Manor.
Donna Troy and Alfred Pennyworth were in the BatCave when Nightwing returned. They approached as he pulled the Batmobile to a stop and climbed out.
Nightwing removed his mask and looked at them. Tears welled in his eyes, but his expression remained strong and impassive.
"It's over, Alfred," he said simply.
Alfred's face was downcast. "Did he… Did…"
"No. Of course not. Martel is in custody. He gave a full confession."
"Where is Master Bruce now?" Alfred asked with concern.
Nightwing shook his head forlornly. "I don't know, but I'm sure he's okay. He just needs some time."
Donna closed the distance and placed a hand on his cheek. "Are you okay?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine. At least I will be." He opened his arms and hugged her closely. "I'm just glad it's over, Donna."
Alfred straightened and made his way to the staircase. "I'll leave the two of you alone. Bedrooms have been prepared for both of you. You need your rest."
The embrace lasted another long moment before the two old friends parted. "I should really call Babs. Meet you upstairs?"
"I'll be there. Take your time, but Alfred's right about the rest," Donna replied with a smile as she headed for the stairs.
Dick walked over and took a seat in front of the Crey. He pulled up the paging routine for Oracle and waited for her reply.
When Barbara Gordon's face appeared on the large monitor before him, a wave of relief washed over him. "Hi, Babs," he said quietly.
Her eyes widened in surprise when she saw him, and the shock lingered as she took in the sight of his beleaguered condition. He could see the anger flash in her eyes momentarily, then breathed a soft sigh when her expression changed to one of compassion and concern.
"Are you okay?"
Dick nodded weakly. "As good as can be expected. It's a really long story, and I don't know how much of it you already know, but it's over now. Everyone's in one piece." He paused for a moment. "It's just really good to see you."
Her expression softened a bit more. "You look terrible, Dick."
"Yeah, well you'll have to look good enough for both of us for the next couple weeks," he smiled in reply.
"You know you're in trouble for not calling?" she asked.
"For making me worry?"
"And you'll never do it again?"
"I swear I won't."
"And you know there will have to be some kind of punishment?"
Barbara paused and took another long look at him. As beat up and exhausted as he was, he still managed to call her before collapsing, she thought.
"And you know I love you?" she asked with a sincere smile.
"I do. I love you, too, Babs."
"Good. Now go get some sleep. I'll be here when you wake up," she said.
Dick managed a weak, sleepy grin. "What a coincidence, cuz that's where I'm gonna be when I wake up," he said as he closed the connection.
Late the following afternoon, Alfred descended the staircase to the foyer of Wayne Manor after a nap of his own. Hearing a voice, he headed to the kitchen where he found Donna Troy finishing a phone call.
"Hi, Alfred," she said as she hung up. "How was your nap?"
"Fitful, but sufficient, Miss Troy. I trust everything is well?"
Donna shrugged absentmindedly. "Dick got some sleep. He went over to Barbara's about an hour ago. I just finished bringing the other Titans up to speed. No word from Bruce yet, I'm afraid," she said sadly.
"I assure you there's no need to worry. Master Bruce will be along in his own time."
She nodded her understanding, even if it was somewhat forced. "I made some tea."
"I see that," Alfred replied as he politely helped himself to a cup and took a sip. "Excellent. I cannot tell you how helpful you have been during this ordeal. I know it may not appear to be the warmest of homes, but please know that you are always welcome here."
Donna gave the kind older man a reassuring smile. "That's sweet. I can't imagine not feeling welcome with you around."
Alfred acknowledged the compliment with a kind nod. "As for that bit of business between you and Master Bruce last evening… You have known him quite a long time, and I'm sure you understand a great deal of what motivates him. His behavior toward you last night, however, was unforgivable. Trust me when I say that is not typical of him, and that I know he thinks very highly of you."
"Oh, I understand, Alfred. I know there's a fiercely emotional man beneath that gruff exterior. Given what he was dealing with last night, I don't blame him at all for letting some of that emotion show."
"I'm glad. You are very kind, Miss Troy," Alfred replied.
"And you're one of the greatest men I've ever met, Mr. Pennyworth. They're lucky to have you," Donna said with a wink. She leaned over and gave Alfred a peck on the cheek. "I should head back to New York. Do you want me to help you find Batman before I go?"
Alfred patted her hand gently. "No, that won't be necessary. I know precisely where he is. Thank you again for being here. Have a pleasant trip home."
Alfred walked along the Manor grounds, reminded of a time in his younger days when he once helped tend to them. A few short years after the deaths of young Bruce's parents, Bruce left to travel the Orient in search of physical and intellectual knowledge. Alfred knew the journey was equally about getting away from the bitter memories that haunted Wayne Manor, but allowed his young charge whatever comfort could be found in distance and denial.
In his absence, Alfred was left with little to do and thus began his rose garden there on the eastern grounds. He would spend hours tending to it and one other area nearby. It was there that he'd often found Bruce alone soon after his return to Gotham and in the many years since.
The Wayne valet had once questioned the wisdom of burying Thomas and Martha so near to where Bruce lived. He feared the headstones would serve as a constant reminder of something Bruce so obviously needed to put behind him. It ultimately proved a blessing, for in his adult years it became the one place on the Wayne estate where it seemed Bruce did not feel alone.
So it came as no surprise to Alfred when he found Bruce there, sitting atop the graves of his parents, but staring away from them at the setting sun. Bruce couldn't see him approach, but knew he was there.
"You cannot stay out here like this, Master Bruce," he said quietly.
"I'm sorry, Alfred."
"It's quite all right. Come inside and have something to eat."
Bruce turned to look at him. "No, I mean that I'm sorry about last night. And before that, too. I don't know why I've been so difficult. Everything just seemed so complicated and too far gone."
Alfred nodded his understanding. "And in the light of what has transpired since yesterday, you're beginning to see things with more clarity," Alfred added.
"Yes." Bruce got to his feet to properly address Alfred. "He saved me last night. Did he tell you that?"
Alfred shook his head. "Master Dick told me only what you would have wanted him to. That it was over. That the man responsible had confessed and was in custody. Nothing more."
"I wanted to do it, Alfred. If he hadn't been there, I would have done it. There's no doubt in my mind," Bruce confessed. He hung his head as though he expected to be scolded for the sinful admission.
"Left alone with the man, I likely would have done the same. Master Dick did not save you, nor would he have saved me." Alfred stepped closer, forcing Bruce to look him in the eye.
"Richard reminded you that you still have much to live for, Master Bruce, that's all."
Bruce considered Alfred's words. "Perhaps," he said as he looked back at the setting sun. "Did you know that I come out here a lot?"
"That I talk to them?"
"As I have, on occasion," Alfred responded as he knelt down to brush some debris from the headstone of Martha Wayne.
"I usually talk about the work, regrets, and lives lost. The frustration and guilt that comes with it all. I don't think I've ever come out here and told them about the good things I've done, or about Dick or Tim or Jason… the good things that have happened to me. I never talk about you…"
Alfred nodded sadly. He'd always hoped Bruce had taken solace in this place, and it pained him to learn that he'd come here to take his place beside them; to bury himself in guilt and regret.
"And today? What did you tell them today?" he asked.
Bruce looked down at the graves of his parents. "I told them about Dick. How he came here to their home and saved me from myself. How proud of him they would be. And how, because of Dick, they can finally rest in peace after all these years…"
Alfred placed his hand on Bruce's shoulder and led him back toward the Manor. "I'm certain your parents are very proud of Richard, Master Bruce. Just as proud as they are of you, I would imagine."