Author's Note: I figure this happens about a month after the ending of The Dark Knight. All scenes happen in the same night.
Gotham's Tarnished Knight
The headlights of the patrol car probe through the rain. It's just a light drizzle, so visibility is fair, even at this late hour, and the car's occupants have no difficulty in making out the form of a man dangling from a lamppost. Whether the poor fellow is still alive is an open question at first glance, however.
Both cops get out. Officer Briony Higgins moves in close for a look while Officer Walt Pereira hangs back, scanning the shadows for any sign of an ambush. Pereira spots nothing; Higgins finds the man is securely bound and gagged—and apparently unconscious—but seems otherwise healthy. The rope holding him above the sidewalk is looped under his arms; no danger of strangling his neck. There's a large plastic bag tied to his left ankle. It contains many smaller bags of a white substance that she really doesn't think is sugar. Of course a lab test will settle that point.
The main problem with this scenario is that there's also a slip of paper pinned to the man's jacket, over his heart, with a bat-shaped symbol printed on it. No other message.
Higgins calls back to Pereira, describing what she's found. He finally moves in closer to see for himself, then says dryly, "Yeah, I had a hunch. In the days before you graduated from the Academy, I must've seen this sort of thing six or eight times. Sometimes it even led to a conviction. Now it's useless."
"Even with a few kilos tied to his ankle?"
"You don't seriously think he tied that there himself, do you? Or that a jury would be dumb enough to believe he did?"
She shakes her head.
"Couple of months ago, if we took him in and booked him, it might've stood up in court as a righteous arrest. But you know and I know Batman was the one who left him here, so now there's a serious credibility problem. We take this guy into court and say we figure the drugs are his because a wanted serial killer possibly caught the guy dealing and strung him up from a lamppost, you think we'll even get the indictment? You think the new D.A. wants to have the media mocking her for trusting her predecessor's killer to provide good evidence of other people's alleged crimes?"
"No," Higgins admits.
"Unless . . . we wanted to say we caught him all by ourselves, saw him trying frantically to get rid of those drugs as we closed in, and the Bat was never involved, no matter what this lowlife later says to confuse the issue . . ." He lets the suggestion trail off.
Higgins looks at Pereira speculatively. "No," she says again. "That wasn't why I became a cop."
He smiles faintly. "Just checking. So instead we cut down this presumed-innocent citizen, the 'obvious victim' here, and take a statement from him regarding how his civil rights were flagrantly violated by the Bat-freak. Then we wish him well as we wave him on his way. The drugs, at least, we can impound. Tommy won't argue; he'll swear he never saw them before in his life!"
Higgins grimaces, then added: "'Tommy'? I couldn't help noticing you weren't exactly in a hurry to actually cut down Mister 'Innocent Bystander' here . . ."
"Aw, go ahead and take his gag off. I'll get a cutting tool from the car. But you're right," he added as he turned back toward their vehicle. "I recognize him. Tommy Laria. Been busted on dealing and/or possession several times. I'd say it's about a hundred-to-one that he's not innocent this time either . . ."
"Mister Wayne, it's being kept out of the news for the time being, but Frederica Westcott, six-year-old daughter of software baron Zachary Westcott, has been kidnapped."
"Send me whatever you've got on it, Lucius."
There are advantages to being a rogue crimefighter with money to burn. You don't worry much about wiretapping laws. You don't have to wake up a judge to ask him to sign a search warrant before you enter an apartment. You have leading-edge equipment to reconstruct partial fingerprints and voiceprints and so forth from such faint traces of evidence that most CSI types would just throw up their hands in despair. And you have a much better computerized, fully integrated database of "usual suspects" in the Gotham metropolitan area than the Gotham police can afford to maintain, making it faster to narrow the field once you have any thin lead to work with (such as a muffled voice on a telephone, demanding a ransom from the anguished parents of a missing child).
All of which helps to explain why Batman is now standing on the roof of an apartment building, right arm extended, holding Oscar Falkenheim out beyond the edge and threatening to drop him.
"Your brother-in-law. Vance Redding! Where is he staying? Where would he hide?"
"I don't know!"
Oscar is lying, of course. Somewhat to his own surprise, given that he doesn't have a death wish. He knows he is not the bravest man in the world, but everyone knows Batman slaughtered poor Harvey Dent a few weeks ago. Accordingly, Oscar finds he's highly reluctant to put the finger on his wife's brother so this murderous lunatic (he thinks he's a flying rodent—how crazy is that?) can go hunt Vance down and probably kill him. How could Oscar ever expect Julie to forgive him after a thing like that?
"He's a kidnapper!" the pointy-eared freak rasps in his unnatural voice.
Once upon a time Oscar might have believed that if Batman said it—Vance is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and he's been involved in shady schemes before—but that was when Batman was still sane. Or at least seemed to be. Now only an absolute lunatic would take another lunatic's wild accusations at face value. Oscar wants to say: And you're a psychotic killer, so stop pretending you have the moral high ground! But that would probably just make the Bat-freak angry enough to drop him. No future in that.
Then the sound of police sirens comes closer and closer—someone in a nearby building must have looked out the window, seen the pointy-eared silhouette on this roof, and called 911, which they probably wouldn't have done a month ago in the same circumstances—and Batman swings Oscar around onto the roof and lets go of him so that he collapses harmlessly onto the concrete. Oscar closes his eyes and prays silently—and when he finally looks, the freak is gone. By some miracle Oscar has survived his first face-to-face encounter with the most dangerous criminal in the city! (Well, the most dangerous one running loose, anyway. It's at least possible that Joker is even worse, but he's locked up tight, so that hardly counts.)
Oscar hurries down the stairs to his own second-floor apartment and grabs a phone. He's got to call Vance and warn him there's a delusional costumed psycho looking for him.
(It does not occur to Oscar that Batman might have anticipated this reaction, and might have slipped a microminiaturized bug into Oscar's clothes while threatening to drop him off the roof.)
Seven digits he punches in. One ring comes from the receiver—and then the phone line goes dead. Oscar is just starting to think about worst-case reasons for that fact . . . when the other item planted by Batman is remotely detonated. The sleeping-gas capsule pops in Oscar's breast pocket and he slumps down, barely manages to rest his head on his forearms on the table before he passes out.
Touch-tone phone. Batman heard each digit via the audio bug. Now he knows a local number which is connected to one of the men he's already tabbed as Very Likely Suspects in this case. A resourceful man can do a lot with that . . .
The police have not yet made a connection with Oscar Falkenheim, but they have not been idle tonight, either. And the kidnappers, frankly, are pretty stupid. Eventually conventional detective work finds another lead to a certain address.
When the SWAT team takes down the door and charges into the main room of the little apartment, they are startled to see a couple of guys already sprawled on the floor, eyes closed, presumably dead or stunned. (Just stunned, as will later be established—pummelled into unconsciousness, but they will recover to stand trial.) In a plain wooden chair in a far corner, little Frederica Westcott is bound and gagged—and standing next to her is Batman with a blade glittering in his gloved hand. Clearly the cops got here in the nick of time! No telling what sort of torture the monster was about to inflict upon that terrified kid if they hadn't interrupted his fun and games!
Considering that he is already a wanted murderer and currently brandishing a deadly weapon at a kidnapped minor, it would be justifiable to shoot him on the spot—but Batman's proximity to a child makes the point man hesitate to open fire. He starts to yell, "Freeze! Drop it!" instead—and then Batman triggers a smoke bomb.
Unable to see Batman now, the point man still twists his barrel to the left, following the sound of heavy footsteps running away from the little girl, and fires on instinct at where he knows the nearest window is—and although he can't tell this at the time, his aim is excellent; two shots strike Batman in the upper back. However, since the masked vigilante is wearing his usual outfit, the impacts only shake him for a moment rather than drawing blood. Then he's bursting through the glass, three stories above the pavement . . .
By the time the smoke is clearing and two SWAT officers have rushed to the window to peer out into the dark street, there is no sign of the pointy-eared psycho out there. At least they managed to protect the girl from him . . .
Bruce Wayne—having stripped off his cowl and gauntlets, and covered the rest of his dark outfit with a loose trenchcoat—returns home in a nondescript car that he had left two blocks away from the place where the kidnappers were keeping the Westcott girl. After he has removed the rest of his suit, he collapses into a chair at the dining table.
Alfred knows how those nights of crimefighting burn calories. He hands his employer a plate with a foot-long sub sandwich on it. Bruce devours half before saying, "Those kidnappers were dumb, Alfred, but they were still sane enough to know a live hostage could finger them later. When I went in, they had just finished having her record a taped message to her father to prove she was still alive, and then they were psyching themselves up for the kill now that they didn't need her any more. The cops would have arrived too late to save her."
He pauses, then adds judiciously, "Although only late by a couple of minutes, as it turned out. The kidnappers must have been even dumber than I thought if they left another trail to that apartment besides the one I followed. I didn't expect SWAT to arrive so soon. I was about to cut the little girl's bonds when the door came down and I had to retreat."
He works on the rest of the sandwich for a minute.
When that's gone, Bruce says reflectively, "I interrogated a man . . . Oscar Falkenheim. Related to one of the kidnappers. Oscar has no serious record; I don't think he was part of this. If he'd believed I had my head screwed on straight, if he hadn't feared I was going to kill them when I caught them, then he might have cooperated . . . and I might have gotten to their lair several minutes sooner, and been in and out well before the police arrived. And if I got there sooner, the little girl's chances of survival would have been that much better. It was uncomfortably close, as was."
He pauses to swig down a glass of milk, and then stares at the crumbs on his plate for awhile. Alfred waits, simulating patience, confident that Master Bruce will share his thoughts sooner or later.
Finally it comes: "Alfred . . . I've been thinking. It's just . . . remotely . . . possible . . . that framing myself for a few murders wasn't the best way to handle things."
"Yes?" Alfred asks politely, exercising every iota of willpower to keep his tone reasonably neutral, and particularly to prevent himself from adding: I told you so.
Which he certainly had done, right after it happened. Went in one ear of Master Bruce's head and out the other without making contact with any brain cells along the way. Alfred had been painfully reminded of a lesson he'd thought he'd learned well before Bruce Wayne was even born—sometimes you just have to wait for a headstrong lad to figure out on his own that he's made a prize fool of himself. Rubbing his nose in it will simply cause him to get his back up and argue, argue, argue that his behavior was perfectly reasonable under the circumstances . . . (even though it obviously wasn't).
Many Gothamites listen to WGTH on their way to work, and so they are privileged to hear the following item repeated at regular intervals, beginning well before the sun rises.
"The SWAT team reported seeing Batman at the scene where Frederica Westcott was found. Police believe he was struck by at least one round as he fled, but he was wearing his usual body armor and somehow disappeared once he had exited the building. Has the madman formerly known as 'the Dark Knight of Gotham' finally stooped to kidnapping children? If so, why? How could he rationalize this as part of his so-called 'war on crime'? Tune in at nine p.m. to Dead of Night, ladies and gentlemen and miscellaneous others, and you'll hear noted psychiatrist Dr. Hugo Strange discussing these questions with our own Jack Hemp, the hanging talk show host!"
Author's Note: Back in 2008, I sat in a theatre and watched The Dark Knight on the big screen. After it ended with Batman insisting on framing himself for murder in order to maintain the faith of the common people of Gotham in the image of Harvey Dent as the incorruptible crusading reformer whom even The Joker couldn't push over the brink, I muttered as the final credits rolled: "Well, that was one depressing movie." (I'm so profound!)
Later, as I gave it further thought, and engaged in an occasional bit of online discussion about the ending of the movie, I found myself thinking: "Okay, taking the rap for Harvey Dent's crimes, so as to preserve the legend that a White Knight is still capable of cleaning up Gotham nice and legal-like (if only he doesn't get killed first), might make some amount of sense . . . if Bruce Wayne intended to soon afterwards fake 'Batman's Death' as an encore so that the people of Gotham would be sorry the Dark Knight had gone completely psycho, but would be comforted by the knowledge that, in the end, Justice Was Served and that pointy-eared lunatic got what was coming to him and would never kill any of Gotham's 'real heroes' again!
"However, if Bruce seriously thinks he can still function effectively as Batman for any great length of time after Batman's been publicly branded as a wacko serial killer . . . then he's delusional!"
This story was written to illustrate some of the problems I saw with that latter scenario—since I strongly suspected that was how Bruce intended to do things in the foreseeable future.
P.S. About twenty years ago there was a story arc in the Detective Comics title that introduced a character called Jack Hemp of the Dead of Night program, a local radio talk show in Gotham City. He had a sharp tongue and a disrespectful manner, and apparently his listeners loved him for it. I know most of my readers probably never heard of him before, but I just felt like throwing out a quick reference to the guy when I was giving you a sample of how the Gotham media are handling Batman's "fall from grace." (They are assuming the worst and milking it for all it's worth, in other words! What else did you expect?)