A low hum filled the air of an unusual cavern under downtown Gotham City, causing the conversation in the chamber to slow as the occupants turned to see the next arrival.
“Carol and Hal. That’s everybody.” Clark Kent raised a hand to push his glasses further up his nose. “We can start assigning your exit points now.”
“Wait a sec, Clark. I know Zatanna was known to have dealings with the Wayne Foundation Charities, and she doesn’t have a secret identity, anyway, so she’s arriving on her own.” Oliver Queen looked around the assembled members of the Justice League of America in their civilian identities. “But what about Wonder Woman and J’onn J’onzz? They’re not here.”
“That’s right,” agreed Shiera Hall with a shake of her long mane of red hair. “And neither of them has a secret identity to speak of, anyway, do they?”
“Neither do I,” said Aquaman, looking uncomfortable in a gray suit, white shirt, and dark red tie. “I mean, sure, I was born Arthur Curry, and I’ve used that name on occasion, but it really isn’t me, if you know what I mean. But J’onn told me that they would meet us at the Cathedral before the service and not to be surprised when we see them.”
Over in one corner of the long-abandoned subway tunnel turned high-tech crime-fighting headquarters, an older man stood off by himself. He was approached by a younger man with reddish-brown hair.
“Are you all right, Martin? I know it’s an awkward time, but you don’t seem yourself.”
“I appreciate your concern, Raymond. It’s just that, well, I really don’t know any of these people, and most of them have no idea who I am or why I’m here.” Martin Stein pulled a handkerchief from the breast pocket of his dark tweed jacket and started cleaning his eyeglasses. “When Ronald and I combine to form Firestorm, I am nothing more than a voice in his head.”
Ray Palmer smiled. “We really should do something about that. Perhaps if you and Ronnie spent more time as your individual selves on the satellite during meetings and such. Then you might feel more like a part of the team.”
“I will discuss it with Ronald and see what he thinks of the idea.”
“I’m sure he’ll agree. He’s a little wild and impetuous at times, but underneath that, I think he’s a pretty smart and agreeable kind of guy.”
“Just between the two of us, I believe you’re right. Now, before we have to leave, might I have an opportunity to meet this charming wife of yours that I’ve heard about?”
“All right, as illustrated here,” said Clark, pointing at a large video screen, “there are six different exits from the cavern that lead to inconspicuous points in the city. We’ll split up as listed here, and use those exits so we don’t appear like a mass of tourists from Kansas lost in the big city.”
“Easy for you to say, Supes. You might be from a small eastern town, but you’ve got the Kansas routine down to an art form.” Wally West grinned at his own joke, and he was joined by Ronnie Raymond, Hank Heywood III, and Adam Cray.
“Green Lantern and I can assist you to the exits to save time.” The bald man who spoke held one hand out in front of him, palm facing outward, a short blonde woman and an olive-skinned young girl at his side. A whirlwind formed, lifting the young foursome. “Unless someone has another destination in mind for these young men?”
“Did I just hear a joke from you, Red Tor — I mean John?” Carter Hall’s face tipped slightly to one side. “That was a joke, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, Carter, it’s a joke. John has been trying to learn more about humor. I’ve been helping him.” Hal Jordan looked around. “So, who’s ready for the power ring express?”
“All right, Mick, I guess he’s all right. But there ain’t no places for him to stay, so he’ll have to crash with you.” Five days earlier, those words from Vince Speech had worried Mick. For half a year, he had enjoyed his solitude. Still, he couldn’t argue that he had more room than anybody else in the tiny hamlet of Isolation, Alaska.
Now, he was glad of the company. The stranger he had found on the journey back from picking up supplies proved to be a quick learner. The first job they had tackled had been the making of a special fuel compound of Mick’s own design.
“By combining gasoline, propane, and the petroleum gel that I invented, we can heat this whole settlement for five months with two months’ supply of propane.” The stranger seemed impressed, and also proved adept at handling the chemicals with the necessary caution. “I’ve dealt with a lot of folks who worked with, uh, questionable chemistry, and I’ve never seen one who was as careful as you, Tom. If I was inclined to head back south, I know some guys who would love to put you to work.”
“Maybe after a while, Mick. Right now, I’m not looking to go anywhere.”
Now, five days later, Tom had settled in and was helping Mick run the heating plant that served all of the buildings in Isolation and the dining hall that fed most of the settlement. Contrary to the name of the settlement, Mick found he enjoyed having someone around to talk to, particularly someone with the intelligence to understand his rather peculiar inventions.
“You know, Mick, based on that engineering book you had stowed in your trunk, the only thing that should be capable of generating this much heat is a nuclear reaction. This — as you call it — compressed plasma is remarkable.” Tom twisted a knob on a regulator and watched as the gauge on the dining hall’s heating unit climbed. “That should get things warmed up before folks come in for breakfast. Sell this idea to someone, and you could make a fortune.”
Mick reacted with a harsh laugh. “I’m sure the Patent Office would love to see an application from me. Probably take them all of five seconds to send it to the FBI.” Seeing the puzzled look on Tom’s face, Mick explained. “Look, most of us here in Isolation are here because we’re not exactly welcome in polite society, y’see? Me, I spent most of the last fifteen years running around in a goofy costume, trying to make life miserable for the Flash.”
“Flash?” The name sounded familiar to Tom, like it was someone he should know.
“Yeah, one of the super-heroes. You remember anything about them? Guys with fancy powers and costumes and stuff?” Tom just shook his head. “Well, there’s the good guys, the heroes, and there’s the bad guys. I was one of the bad guys.”
“Why?” A single word, yet a difficult question.
“I’ve asked myself that question hundreds of times, buddy. Usually when I was sitting in Iron Heights, the prison outside of Central City. I’ve always told myself it was because of the time I got locked in a freezer. Gave me such a fear of the cold that I spent the rest of my life setting fire to everything around me.” Mick sat at one of the dining hall tables and lit up a cigar. “But I guess a big part of it was the thrill of matching wits with the Flash. He was one smart cookie, and when he died a couple years ago, it just wasn’t the same.”
“OK, I follow most of that, I think,” said Tom. “Except for this: if you had such a fear of the cold, what the devil are you doing here?” He waved a hand to indicate the frozen wasteland that surrounded the settlement.
“Punishment.” Mick’s head dropped, and he stared at the floor for a moment. “See, about a year ago, I decided to try a change of locale. I went out west to Santa Fe. Since nobody there knew me, I tried going legit. Rented a room from this lady on the outskirts of the city and got a job installing swimming pools and sprinklers. For six months, I had something like a normal life. It was nice, actually. Emily and I — that was my landlady — we even went out a couple of times, and her kids, man, what a great couple of kids she had! Abby was a little cutey, and P.J., he was smart as a whip. He got hold of some of the valves and fittings I was using in my job and figured out how they worked all on his own.” Mick’s voice trailed off into silence.
Tom sat next to the bald man and laid a hand on his shoulder. “What happened, Mick?”
“I still had my old gear stored in a work-room behind the carport. Locked in a cabinet, and the work-room was locked up. I was sure it was locked up.” Mick glanced over at the big heating unit. “Couple tanks of the plasma, two of my costumes, and a couple variations on flamethrowers and plasma cutters. I came home from work one afternoon and found the fire department there. The house was–” Mick’s voice caught, and Tom realized that the other man was blinking back tears. “The house was gone, blown apart. I lurked around the firetrucks and heard them say that they found three bodies. I got the hell out of there after that.”
“And you came up here, to the frozen Arctic, to punish yourself?”
“Right. I’d heard about this place from someone at the Heights. Came up here and tried to forget. Tried to forget Emily and the kids, and tried to forget about my life as Heat Wave.”
“But it didn’t work, did it?” The silence gave Tom his answer.
“So you tried to go back and change things?” Oliver Queen shook his head as he and Dinah Lance walked alongside Clark Kent and Kristin Wells. “Didn’t you tell me something once about not being able to travel back to a time when you already exist?”
“Right — a person can’t exist in two different places at the same time. But, I thought, I could at least figure out what actually happened.”
“And the spook stopped you, eh?”
“Excuse me, Mr. Kent? I’ve been waiting to meet you.” Clark Kent turned to see a tall, black-skinned gentleman standing at his elbow, clad in a thin-lapeled black suit. Next to him, a statuesque, coffee-skinned woman was watching him with a bemused expression.
“I beg your pardon?” Clark halted as he was walking into Gotham Presbyterian Cathedral with his fiancé. “I’m sorry, but I really can’t–”
“Kal-El. It is I.”
“Jean St. Jean, actually. Late of the Dominican Republic, I have recently relocated to New Orleans to represent the Wayne Foundation’s interests in the artistic community. Most especially as their agent for Ms. N’bila Milayi.” He indicated the woman to his side.
“Incredible,” whispered Ollie Queen. “When did this come about?”
“Bruce’s last gift, you might say. He made the arrangements for new identities for N’bila and myself about a month ago. After all, I really have had no need of an identity since I returned to Earth a few years ago.” Jean looked around. “We can discuss this more later, but I’m afraid we are holding things up here.”
Behind them, people were lined up waiting to enter for the memorial service. Together, Clark and Kristin, Ollie and Dinah, and Jean and N’bila walked into the great stone sanctuary.
On Fox Street, along one side of the cathedral, a gray Mercedes pulled into a space marked off and kept open by police officers. The two front doors opened, discharging a pair of young men who both made their way to the passenger-side rear door. The younger, red-headed teenager who had been in the front passenger seat opened the door.
“Really, Master Jason, this isn’t necessary. I–”
“Alfred, Dr. Dundee told you, you have to take it easy. You shouldn’t even be out of the hospital, but, well…” Jason Todd took Alfred Pennyworth’s hand and supported the older man as he stood. Dick Grayson quickly opened the trunk and pulled out a folding wheelchair. He held it as Alfred sat down.
“Jason’s right, Alfred, and you know it. I’ll be watching you throughout the service, and if it looks like you are having any trouble, any trouble at all, I’m taking you back to the hospital.”
“Mr. Grayson! Mr. Grayson!” Dick turned to see a familiar red-haired woman coming toward him, followed by a grizzled older man with a video camera. “Just a moment, please!”
“Vicki, this really isn’t a good time.”
Vicki Vale turned to the cameraman. “Turn it off, Nick; drop it to your side.” Turning back, she looked up at Dick. “How about off the record, Dick? I just want to know — is it true you’re taking over all of Bruce’s business?”
“That hasn’t been determined yet, Vicki. Because of his lifestyle, Bruce was prone to long stretches where he wouldn’t be heard from. Therefore, his will–”
“His will is under specific instructions that it not be opened for a period of thirty days after his presumed death.” Vicki’s green eyes flashed. “I heard all about it from Mr. Fox at the Wayne Industries offices. But I want the real lowdown. Who else but you is in a situation to know what’s to become of his holdings?”
“You know, Vicki, given the history you and Bruce had, I really didn’t expect you to be circling like a buzzard after his death. Is that all he was for you — another of your big news stories?”
“Now look here, Mister, I don’t know who you think you are, talking to Miss Vale like that, but she don’t have to put up with that kind of talk.” Nick moved to interject himself between Vicki and Dick, but they both held up a hand to stop him.
“It’s all right, Nick. Mr. Grayson,” she said, her voice making it clear that she hardly considered Dick worth addressing as an adult, “apparently thinks that we can all drop our responsibilities when personal tragedy strikes.”
Vicki and Nick turned and walked off, leaving Dick, Jason, and Alfred at the car.
Meanwhile, at the front of the cathedral, a sleek white coupe pulled into a space marked with orange cones topped by signs declaring the space as reserved. A silver-haired man in a dark suit stepped around to open the driver’s door.
“Good morning, Ms. St. Cloud. Mr. Grayson called me this morning and asked me to tell you that he would meet you inside. He thought it wise to enter privately, what with Mr. Pennyworth’s condition.” He stepped back as a slender woman got out of the car, her pale blonde hair drawn back in a severe bun under her black hat. Her simple black dress fell to her calves, and she pulled on a pair of black gloves as she listened to the funeral director.
“Thank you, Mr. Jenkins. I take it everything else is ready for the service?”
“Of course, madam.” He offered his arm to escort her into the cathedral.
As they walked toward the door, Silver St. Cloud spied a woman whom she had never met, but who was nonetheless familiar to her. “Excuse me, Mr. Jenkins, but I see someone that I need to talk to,” she said as she slipped her arm out of his and started toward the tall woman with the long, lustrous black hair. “Excuse me, but aren’t you Selina Kyle?”
Selina stopped in mid-stride, taking in the sight of the woman in front of her. Next to her, Anna eyed the stranger with suspicion, then looked over at Selina to see how her mentor was going to react.
“You must be Silver.” There was a long, awkward pause, as if neither woman knew what to say next. I heard that you and Bruce had gotten back together again.”
“Yes. I realized I made a mistake years ago and decided I should try to fix it. I just wish I hadn’t waited…” Silver’s voice faded out with a small sob.
Tentatively, Selina reached for her. “I know it may seem hard to believe, especially if you know my, um, history, but I understand.” As Silver fell into her arms, her body shaking, Selina added, “Perhaps more than even I realized.”