by Starsky Hutch 76 and Martin Maenza
“OK,” Dick Grayson said as he sat across the table from the man who claimed to be John Gnarrk. Seated to his left was Lilith Clay, still visibly shaken but very concerned about the sudden reappearance of her ex-fiancée. Next to her, comforting her, was Donna Troy Long. Mal Duncan sat at the other side of Grayson. Roy Harper stood in the back of the room by the door, and Wally West paced the floor every now and again at super-speed.
“One more time,” Dick said. “From the top.”
Gnarrk let out a deep sigh. “You’re kidding, right?” He jangled the wires attached to his arm. “Ain’t this lie-detector told you all you need to know? How many more times I gotta go over this with you?”
Dick stared at him, unyielding. “As many times as it takes for me to be satisfied,” he said sternly. “Any time you’re ready.”
Gnarrk let out a deep sigh. “OK, fine. From the top as you requested.
“My name is John Gnarrk. I was born on February 23rd, 1965, or at least that’s the date you set up for me, Bat-boy, on my faked-up birth certificate. I was really born in the prehistoric past. Lived with the rest of my fellow Cro-Magnon man all nice and content until the Kid Flash and Mal, here, showed up. They ended up killing one of the tribe in an accident that somehow altered the flow of history. They came back again, this time righting the wrong they did before.
“But their trip home had an extra passenger — me! I ended up back in the year 1979 with the rest of you. Loren Jupiter, the inquisitive money bags that he is, thought it might be a good thing for you guys to try and educate me. Figured maybe if you traveled back in time once more, you might muck something else up again that couldn’t be fixed.” Gnarrk chuckled to himself.
“Continue,” Dick said, watching the man’s every move and listening to his voice inflections.
“Anyways, you guys started schooling me. When I witnessed a payoff between some criminal types and a city big-wig, you needed to step up the pace to make me a believable witness in court. Lilith and I started becoming close then. She was so sweet, taking care of me and hiding me out.” He smiled at the red-haired woman. She averted her eyes, feeling mixed emotions about this whole situation. “When Lilith got hurt, I went nuts! I took those thugs out like they were nothing! In the end, I had my day in court and helped nail that crooked councilman. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “A Mystical Realm, a World Gone Mad,” Teen Titans #32 (March-April, 1971) and “Less Than Human?” Teen Titans #33 (May-June, 1971).]
“Lilith continued to work with me on my studies. I liked that a lot. She even got me a job at the Forbes Foundation, some social research place. But I lost the gig when they found out I was in fact a caveman from the past. Some folks are real close-minded. Jupiter asked me to join you guys on some trip to visit some Indian tribe. (*) After that, Lilith and I decided to head out to California to start ourselves a new life together. By this point, she loved me as much as I did her. We got engaged shortly thereafter.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Awake, Barbaric Titan,” Teen Titans #39 (May-June, 1972).]
“Another year or so went by. We were happy living a simple life. I’d gotten a job as a mechanic. She was back in school part-time while working the other part. We were doing just fine. Then came those crazy disasters! Next thing you know, it was teen hero central! Hawk and Dove, the blonde Bat-Girl, Beast Boy, the Golden Eagle — and my sweet Lilith got caught up in it all, thanks to her special psychic abilities. I agreed to go along with them to visit the rest of you back east, figured it was the best way to keep an eye on her. Especially around that goody-goody smooth operator, Don Hall!” (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Titans East, Titans West, and Never the Teens Shall Meet,” Teen Titans #51 (November, 1977) and “When Titans Clash,” Teen Titans #52 (December, 1977).]
Dick turned to Donna, who nodded to him silently. He glanced over at Roy and Wally, both who gave him nods as well. “OK, so what happened after that?”
“Oh,” Gnarrk said. “You know what happened next. I was killed on the Golden Gate Bridge by Chronos! You guys contacted those of us out west to help you round up members of the Injustice Gang. Lilith and I were joined by the brothers Hall to face down that clock-faced creep. I charged the guy, and he shot me with some device from his wrist. The projectile looked like two big black hands of a clock. Right in the chest!” (*) The man pulled open his shirt to expose his hairy barreled chest. “If you want, you can inspect the scar. It’s still there.”
[(*) Editor’s note: See DC Comics Presents: Superman and the Teen Titans: Times Past, 1984: Times of the Titans, Chapter 2: 1982.]
Everyone passed on the offer for the moment.
Gnarrk smiled. “Yeah, thought as much. Anyway, there I was, shot in the chest by the costumed creep. Then I simply died in Lilith’s arms. Poor honey. That’s not how I wanted to go out.”
Dick turned to Mal, who had been monitoring the polygraph’s output. The readings remained steady as they had the three times previously. If the man were lying, he was really, really good at it. Dick knew these machines could be beaten; Batman had trained him on how to do just that. There was an outside chance that this man could be who he claimed to be. Still, for the safety of his good friend, he needed to be sure.
“All right, Gnarrk,” Dick said, emphasizing the name slightly to indicate his still-skeptical opinion. “So what happened after that?”
“What happened after that?” Gnarrk repeated the question. “How the hell should I know? I was dead! My memory stops after that. I assume you guys had some kind of funeral or something for me. You tell me!”
“John,” Donna interrupted. “How is it that you’re alive, then?”
“You got me there, Wonder-chick,” he said with a shrug. “I honestly can’t tell you. Maybe that Chronos guy’s weapon had some kind of particles or something on it. You know, something that, instead of killing me, put me into some kinda funky suspended animation or something. Stopped my heart and breathing, enough to fool a coroner or anyone else. I don’t really know for sure. Ain’t there any tests you can run? I’d be happy to submit to them to prove myself to Lilith.”
“Oh, believe me, you will be tested,” Dick said coolly.
“Are we gonna actually swallow a story like that?” Roy interjected.
“Always the loud-mouth, Harper,” Gnarrk said. “Such a caring kind of guy. Hard to believe anyone had a kid with you!”
“Why, you–!” Roy started to rush him angrily.
“Easy,” Wally said, holding his long-time friend back. “Let’s not fight. Gnarrk, just tell us anything more you can.”
“Yes,” Lilith said, speaking to him for the first time since his arrival. “Tell us, please.”
Gnarrk softened upon hearing her voice. His eyes sparkled as someone who was truly in love. “I really don’t know. I suddenly found myself awake in my coffin, six feet under the ground! I reacted as anyone would, with panic! I busted my way out and clawed my way through the dirt to the surface above! I needed air. I needed to breathe. I was alive again, and I wanted to live!
“Once I made it out of the ground and brushed myself off, I realized where I was. The tombstone was a big clue, though. I next sought a paper to find out how long I’d been gone. Five years. Ain’t that a kick? Then I spent some time trying to find out where Lilith was. Using a private investigator type, I finally tracked her here to where you guys hang out. And I arrived just in time, I would guess! Can’t have my girl marryin’ some purple-haired Cassanova!”
Dick looked around at his friends in the room. These were some of the people he trusted the most in the world. He valued their input. He would need to have a long discussion with each of them, but there was something else he wanted to do first. “OK, I think we’ve heard enough for now,” he said.
He motioned for Donna and Mal to join him in the corner of the room where he could converse with them in a whisper. “What do you think?” Donna asked.
“Not sure yet,” Dick replied. “I don’t want to make any hasty decisions, for Lilith’s sake. We need to keep an eye on him and her, to make sure no harm comes to her. We’ll have to watch Azrael, too. I don’t know how long he’ll go before he explodes.”
“I agree,” Mal said. Of the three, he had known Lilith the longest. “Anything my crew can do to help?”
“As a matter of fact, there is,” Dick said.
Nightwing had flown the Titans jet for a good portion of the night. He needed to head out to California anyway, so he offered Mal, Karen, and Charley a lift back to San Francisco. After contacting Loren Jupiter to let him know what was happening, they accepted the offer.
The time gave Nightwing a chance to get Mal’s reactions to all this. He really valued Mal’s opinion. There was a time when the team hadn’t treated Mal as an equal member, but the man had proved them wrong time and again. The way he was leading the new Titans West team was very admirable. Nightwing was proud to call him a friend.
After they dropped off their friends, Nightwing and Arsenal continued down the coast. They landed the T-Jet on a hill overlooking a small cemetery, grabbed a pair of flashlights, and made their way down.
“I appreciate you coming with me,” Nightwing said to his friend.
“No problem,” Arsenal replied. “Raven said she’d watch Lian for me, while Donna and the rest of them keep an eye on Lilith and Gnarrk.”
Nightwing nodded. They approached an small wrought-iron fence that was easy enough for the two veteran heroes to vault. They started down the gravel path, shining the lights across the tombstones.
“So, could he really be alive?” Arsenal asked.
“I don’t know,” Nightwing replied. “We’ve seen stranger things in our time. But we owe it to Lilith to be sure.” They continued down the path until they found a section near the back. “This way.”
The two costumed men crossed the grass, working their way toward some trees in the back. There, just past the base of a large oak, was a grave that had been disturbed. The tombstone had been knocked face down, and the ground was torn through by an upheaval of some sort.
Nightwing shined his flashlight down the hole in the ground. His keen vision scrutinized what he saw. He bent down on one knee, examined the opening further, and got a closer look at the damaged coffin in the ground. It seemed to match the story they heard.
“Hey, check this,” Arsenal called. Nightwing stood up and joined his friend. Together, they raised the fallen tombstone easily and turned it about. There, inscribed in the marble was the name John Gnarrk, with the dates 1965 and 1982.
“It’s his, all right,” Nightwing agreed.
“So, where does that leave us?” Arsenal asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Nightwing replied.
The two rode back toward Titans Tower in an uncomfortable silence. Both were troubled, but for different reasons.
Nightwing’s mood was deep and pensive. As much as he didn’t like unanswered questions, the ones that were answered too easily were often even more vexing. Usually, those were false answers.
Arsenal’s mood was one of agitation and concern. People were about to be deeply hurt, even more than they already were hurting. He had never really taken to Azrael and often referred to him as the most whipped individual he had ever met. Still, he’d take him over Gnarrk any day. Part of him hoped that it was an impostor, and he felt ashamed for that. Impostor or the real deal, either answer could be devastating in its own right.
“So what’s the story, Dick?” Roy asked, finally breaking the silence. “Does what we’ve seen actually prove anything?”
“Because the body was missing?” Nightwing said. “Hardly. ”
“Yeah,” Arsenal said. “Anyone could’ve dug up the body.”
“Well, no…” Nightwing sighed.
“Huh? But you just said…”
“From the positioning of the dirt and the condition of the coffin, someone clearly clawed their way out and then up. This was no grave robber.”
“Oh, man,” Arsenal groaned.
“There’s still the chance this could all be some elaborate ruse,” Nightwing said. “We’ll just have to do a lot more digging.”
“Bad choice of words considering where we just were,” Arsenal said.
“Yeah,” Nightwing agreed with a pained laugh.