In the countryside outside Gotham City, winter mornings had a silence all their own. For miles around, nothing stirred in the early, post-dawn hours. The wealthy who made their homes in these hills were not the early risers who left for menial jobs before the sun if fully risen, and the only cars that traversed the winding tree-lined roads were the occasional truck and the small, sputtering car of the newspaper carrier.
In this silence, any sound was sure to be noticed, and on this morning, the quiet was disturbed by the harsh rasp of metal on concrete.
Birds flew from their nests and small animals dashed away from the frightening sound. The sound was repeated, over and over, interspersed with the sound of heavy breathing. Then there was another sound, the sound of a heavy door opening.
“Alfred! What are you doing out there? It must be ten below!” cried a young voice.
“Oh, Master Jason! I’m sorry if I woke you. Master Bruce is expecting company this morning, and I didn’t think the yard and garden service would be here early enough. I laid some rock salt down on the circle, but these steps have to be cleared by hand.”
“Well, then let me do it!” Jason Todd slid out the door, pulling on a wool coat and a pair of gloves. “I was going to work out in the Cave for a bit, but this will give me some exercise.”
Alfred Pennyworth handed over the wide-bladed shovel. “That is most kind of you, Master Jason, though to be totally truthful, I normally could not allow you to do this.” He stopped to rub the back of his head. “However, I took a bit of a spill when I first came out here. I’ll accept your offer of assistance and retire to the kitchen to finish preparations for breakfast.”
“You know, I don’t want to be disrespectful or nothing, but you really should try to take it easy a bit, Alf! Leave the heavy lifting to Dick and I, you know?”
“As much as I appreciate the sentiment — and the help — I have no intention of relinquishing any of my duties here, Master Jason. If I were to do so, I fear that I might start to feel my age.” The older man opened the door and started to go inside, then turned back to his employer’s young adopted son. “Keeping up with Master Bruce, Master Dick, and yourself is the very best way I can think of to occupy my waning years, sir.”
Jason started shoveling in earnest. “OK,” he said between swings of the shovel. “Whatever floats your boat, I guess!”
Stepping into the mansion’s large foyer, Alfred quickly removed his long woolen overcoat and galoshes, then strode back toward the kitchen. Stopping to straighten his clothes in front of a mirror, he started. For just a second, before he truly focused on his image in the mirror, he could have sworn he saw a pale, misshapen face glaring malevolently back at him.