BROTHER’S KEEPER

 

            “Hey!  Bring that back!”  The middle-aged man turned and ran after the speedy pickpocket who had just lifted his wallet.

            The teenage boy in a red shirt and jeans crossed the street and dashed down a dark alley, tossing the wallet away after removing the greenbacks inside.

            Knowing he would never catch him, the man stopped and picked up his billfold from the asphalt.  At least the credit cards were still inside.  With an uncomfortable feeling, he looked over his ominous surroundings.  It isn’t worth it…you could get killed out here, he told himself.  This is not a good place to be at nine o’clock on a Friday night.

Without cash, he’d have to seek female companionship from the safety of his hotel room.  Fortunately, escort services always take plastic.

 

            When the young thief realized he was no longer being followed, he slowed down and began counting his take.  “Three hundred fifty?  Excelente!”  But his celebration was short-lived.

            A large shadow suddenly fell over him.  He looked up and saw a figure with wide black wings rapidly descending.  Panicked, he dropped the money and tried to run.  He didn’t get far, for the winged creature reached out and grabbed hold of his hoodie.  He froze in fear when it lifted him off the pavement.

            “What’s your name?” it asked in a deep, gravelly voice.

            “R—R—Ramon.  Please don’t kill me!” he begged.

            The dark figure let him down gently.  “I won’t hurt you...if you do what I say.  Now, when I let go, you don’t run, and you don’t scream.  You sit right there like a statue until I tell you to move.  Understood?”

            The boy nodded repeatedly.

            “Good.”  The mysterious being released its grip.

            Ramon sat down and fixed his eyes on the stranger.  “Who are you?”

            “I’m Batman.  And I’ll ask the questions.  How old are you?”

            “Fifteen.”

            “Where are you from?”

            Ramon hesitated.  “Well, I, uh….”

            “Where are you from?” Batman asked insistently.

            “Blüdhaven.”

            “How long have you been in Gotham City?”

            “A couple weeks.”

            “Why’d you run away?”

            Ramon frowned.  “Hey, I never said I was a—”

            “You’re a runaway.  It’s obvious.  If you weren’t, you’d know better than to be in this part of town after dark.”

            Sighing, the teen looked down.  “So I ran away.  Big whoop.  My old man’s a drunk who beats the crap outta me.  My mom smokes tons of weed to dull the pain of having to live with him.  Who wouldn’t want to leave?”

            “So you decided to come here and be a pickpocket?”

            “A guy’s gotta eat.  Say, are you a cop?”

“No.”

“Are you gonna take me to the cops and have ‘em send me back home?” Ramon wondered.

            “Do you want to go home?”

            “Hell, no!  Not until my folks get it together.  Which will never happen.”

            Batman said, “The streets of Gotham are no place for you to live.  Of all the cities you could’ve run away to, you picked the worst.  Get up.  I’ll take you someplace safe where you can stay and get help until you have things sorted out.  It’s called the Mercy Street Shelter, and it’s only a few blocks west of here.”

            “Mercy?  That’s a funny name for a street.”

            “In this town…definitely.”

 

            After a twenty minute walk, Batman turned Ramon over to the good people of the shelter.  As he was leaving, he noticed a vaguely familiar man carrying bags of donated clothing into the back of the building.  “Eddie?  Eddie Hanson?”

            The man stopped.  “Batman!  Yeah, it’s me.  Whoa…this is a surprise.”

            “I could say the same thing.  The last time I saw you—”

            “I was handcuffed in the back of a police car, ten years ago.  You have a really good memory.  So what are you doing here?”

“I brought in a runaway kid from Blüdhaven.”

Eddie put down the bags he was holding.  “I know you’re busy guy, but do you have a minute?”

            “What for?”

            He reached out and shook Batman’s gloved hand.  “I want to thank you.  I never thought I’d get the chance.  Seriously.  Those four years I spent in prison for armed robbery turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me.  I was headed down the wrong road, and it sure straightened me up.  When I got out, I went back to school.  Now I work here as a counselor to help other boys not make the same mistakes.”

            “I commend you for that.  Most of the people I apprehend don’t turn their lives around.”

            “No kidding.  Just look at my younger brother,” Eddie said.  “Remember, Joe drove the car that night.  I wanted to protect him so I just said the guy at the pizza joint owed me money and we were stopping to collect.  But when he saw me come out holding the gun, he realized the truth.”

“What was his sentence?”

“Two years.  When he came out, instead of getting on the straight and narrow like I did, he moved deeper into the criminal world.  Ironic, huh?  He served less time but was more messed up afterwards.  He got in with the wrong crowd and ended up acting as lookout for another robbery.  Because of his prior conviction, he served five years that time.  Which hardened him even further.”  Eddie shook his head sadly.  “It’s downward spiral.  I saw it coming and turned away.  I wish Joe had.  I warned him….”

“It’s hard when you want to help someone, but they won’t let you.”  Batman thought of the times he had tried to save Harvey Dent from life as Two-Face.

“I hoped—really hoped—after a second stint in prison, he’d gotten the message.  But no.  In the two years since, he’s turned to drugs and booze to cope.  He’s had other scrapes with the law, hasn’t been able to hold a job, and is such an angry, bitter guy.  It’s so unlike the sweet kid he was growing up.”

Batman gave him a pat on the arm.  “Maybe the best thing you can do for him is to keep being an example.”

“I tell him there’s another way, and it works.  I’m living proof.  But he doesn’t listen.”

 

            Four weeks later, Batman was patrolling nearby when an odd light hit his eyes.  He took binoculars from his utility belt and zoomed in on the source.  Somewhat bemused, he saw it was a makeshift version of the Bat-signal emanating from an upstairs window at the Mercy Street Shelter.  He remembered his conversation with Eddie and glided down to investigate.

The man working security at the shelter was a retired Gotham police officer.              “Batman!  Long time no see.  What’s going on?”

            “Carl, I’m looking for Eddie Hanson.”

            “He was here a minute ago.”  Carl looked over his shoulder.  “Oh, there he is.  Yo, Eddie!  You’ve got a visitor.”

            Eddie trotted over to meet them, relief clearly visible on his face.

            “I saw your message,” Batman told him.

            With a sheepish grin, Eddie said, “I figured if it worked for the PD, it was worth a try.  I’ve been trying to reach you all week.”

            “What do you need?”

            Eddie ushered Batman inside to an unoccupied office and locked the door.  “It’s about Joe.  I got a call from him, and he said he’s planning on returning to Gotham to, as he put it, ‘set some things right.’  At first I was encouraged, but as he went on, it became clear he was talking about revenge, not reconciliation.  I casually mentioned that I’d run into you.  Big mistake.  He blew up and said you’d be the first person to die when he gets back.”

            “Me?”

            “He blames you for his troubled life.  He was only the driver--I did the actual crime.  If you’d let him go, he wouldn’t have ended up in prison and turned into ‘such a monster,’ as he put it.”

            “I appreciate your concern, but it sounds like he’s just blowing off steam.  I wouldn’t worry.  Besides, I’m pretty good at taking care of myself,” Batman added in understatement.

            “I don’t know…no offense, but you didn’t hear him.  He sounded very disturbed.  And he’s been hanging out with some downright nasty thugs he called his ‘friends.’  Guys with arrest records as thick as a phone book.  He mentioned coming to town with them.  Think about it.  Who wouldn’t want to be known as the tough dudes who took down Batman?”

            “It may be prudent to watch out for them whether they target me or not.  Men like that can still be a threat to other people in Gotham.  Thanks for the information.  Keep me updated if he contacts you again.”

            “Just watch for the signal.”

Batman nodded.  “I will.”

 

Later in the Batcave, he decided to research Joe Hanson’s criminal record in detail, and he began to understand why Eddie was so apprehensive.  During his second imprisonment, Joe regularly associated with members of the ultra-violent Steelclaw gang, who were notorious for committing almost as many crimes behind bars as they did on the outside.  Though he never became a member, the gang had a strong influence on his attitudes while he was incarcerated.

Noting the subject matter on the computer’s large screen, Alfred asked, “Battling gangs again, sir?”

“No.  Actually, I’m trying to avoid the fate of Goliath.”

“That would seem fairly easy, since you’ve always been more of the David type.”

“Pride goes before a fall, so they say.  I busted this guy and his brother ten years ago.  The brother’s now a model citizen.  He, on the other hand, apparently wants to return to Gotham and kill me.”

“And you’re afraid if you underestimate him, he might find a way to take you down.”

“Exactly, Alfred.  However, if he’s just mouthing off, I don’t want to make him into something bigger.  I hope his brother has enough influence to persuade him to drop the vendetta—if it’s real—and begin making something of his life while he still can.”

 

Only three nights passed before Batman saw Eddie’s makeshift signal again.  This time, Eddie was watching for him.

“Another call from Joe?” Batman asked.

Eddie nodded and led him away from a group of other workers.  “It was strange.  And very one-sided.  I guess he thinks I have your private number, because he asked me to give you a message.  In two days, he wants you to meet him by the pizza place at midnight ‘to face justice.’”

Batman showed no reaction.

“I hate to say this about my own brother, but he’s crazy.  It must be the drugs.  I mean, he’s gotta know that you could take him down like a gorilla stomping an ant.  If I were you, I’d stay away.  He’s too far gone.”

“I’ve battled the Joker.  I know what ‘too far gone’ is.  Your brother’s not even close.”

“You aren’t seriously thinking about meeting him, are you?  Don’t dignify his threats.  Surely you have criminals to catch, or something.”

“‘Justice’ includes giving him his day in court, even if that’s a street corner in deepest darkest Gotham,” Batman said.

“He got that, and he was convicted—just like me.”

“If he feels I wronged him, why not face my accuser?”

“Because you shouldn’t be on trial.  And it’s obviously a setup.  He’s not thinking mano a mano.  More like an ambush.  He’ll probably bring his gang pals to do the dirty work.  And besides that, you just don’t reward bad...”

 

“…behavior with attention,” Robin emphasized.  “He’s a hotheaded thug who’s only interested in blame-shifting.  Definitely not worth your time.”

“Why is he worth less than Two-Face or Scarecrow?”

“They’re actual threats.  Duh!”

“Ignoring him will only increase his anger,” Batman replied.  “That might push him to the point where he does become a real threat to others.  Agreeing to meet could help defuse the situation.  If I hear him out instead of acting like I’m too important, maybe I can pull him back from the edge.”

“Or…he and his friends could kill you, like he promised.  I don’t understand it.  If you met with every junior hoodlum who has a grudge, you’d never get anything done.  And while you’re walking into his revenge trap, some innocent gets mugged with no one around to help.  Why do this?  Why him?”

“Robin, we try to get criminals and dangerous psychos off the streets so they can be locked up for as long as possible.  Eddie Hanson is a man for whom the system truly worked.  I’m betting his brother is enough like Eddie that it can work for him, too, regardless of the bad choices he’s already made.”

“Well, if you must go, you’ll definitely need me for backup.  No telling how many gang punks will be there with him, or what they’ll be armed with.”

“I’ll meet him alone.  You had nothing to do with Joe’s arrest.  But don’t worry, I have no intention of being shot down like a dog in the street.”

“All the more reason why you shouldn’t go by yourself,” Robin argued.

“Your objection is noted.  And overruled.”

“Doesn’t my opinion count for something?”

“This isn’t a democracy,” Batman said firmly.

“You’re right about that!”  Robin turned to the butler, who was trying unsuccessfully not to listen in while he worked.  “Alfred, will you talk some sense into him?”

“I learned long ago that is an ability I seldom have.  I’m afraid arguing with him is a waste of breath.”

Robin put his hands on his hips and glowered at his caped mentor.  This is not over, he told himself.

 

Neither of them raised the subject again in the next two days.  One hour before the meeting, Batman took Robin’s motorcycle keys and placed them in a small digital safe to which only he knew the combination.  After arming himself with a variety of Batarangs, smoke and gas capsules, and restraining cuffs, he ignited the Batmobile’s turbine and sped off.

 

“He’s gone now,” Alfred informed Dick ten minutes afterward.

The two went downstairs to the Batcave.  Dick suited up, then began searching around.  “Have you seen my keys?”

“They’re not where you normally store them?” Alfred asked.

“If they were, I—”  Robin noticed a cylindrical canister with a pulsing green light.  “Nooo, he wouldn’t dare.”  Picking up the container, he shook it and head a muffled jingle.  “Ohhh, crap!  It would take a week to try every possible numeric combination on this lock.”

“Haven’t you a spare set?”

“Uh, where would I get one?  Ah, wait a second….  I have something just as good.”  He unfastened the cycle’s hinged seat to reveal a tiny recessed compartment in the frame.  Pulling its cover back, he pressed a red button inside.  The engine roared to life, and he smiled.  “Ignition bypass switch.  Installed it last year.”  He fastened his helmet.  “One of my little secrets.”

Watching him zoom away, the butler quietly said, “I’m afraid not.”

 

“He’s on his way,” Alfred radioed to Batman.

“Thank you.”

“Sir, wouldn’t it have been easier to just let him accompany you, instead of going through all these machinations?”

Batman thought for a moment.  “Easier?  Yes.  But not better.  He still has things to learn.  The resourcefulness he’s showing in trying to outwit me.  Persistence in spite of discouragement.  Determined pursuit of what he knows is right.  Those traits will serve him well.”

 

Robin thought the three-story building directly across the street from the abandoned pizzeria offered the best view, so he concealed himself behind a large electrical utility box on the roof.

As he awaited whatever was going to occur, he took stock of the area.  None of the buildings he could see were presently occupied.  Broken windows, peeling paint, and faded signs seemed to be everywhere.  He had to ask himself, what happened?  He’d seen lots of run-down sections in Gotham, but this neighborhood-that-time-forgot was like an urban ghost town.  He made a mental note to suggest a certain billionaire consider renewal investment there.

 

Gino’s Pizza was long out of business, having subsequently been a Greek restaurant, an Indian restaurant, and a tattoo parlor.  It was emblematic of the street’s dismal decay.

At midnight, Joe Hanson stepped through the store’s open doorway and out into the street.  Unshaven with tousled sandy hair and weary lines on his face, he perfectly complemented the setting.  For a minute he strutted around like a general, trying to spot the man he had come to meet.

“Batman!” he bellowed.  “Where are you?  Show yourself!  Or are you hiding in your cave, afraid to face the truth?  You ruined my life!  Do you think I’ll just quietly go away if you ignore me?  I’m not some insignificant little bug you can step on and wipe off your boot without a second thought.  You—hurt—me!  It’s time to pay for the damage you did!”

Having heard enough, Batman leaped off the roof of the former pizzeria and landed a dozen feet in front of him, striking an aggressive stance.

“What kept you?” Joe sneered.

“I was taking down your goons behind this building, in the shop next door, and by the dumpster over there.”

Joe was annoyed, but showed no reaction.  “You missed one.”

A shot ricocheted off the pavement to Batman’s left.

The Dark Knight didn’t flinch.  “Doesn’t matter.  Robin can neutralize him.”

“He knows I’m here?”  Robin saw the shooter barely eight yards away on the roof, so he hurled a gas capsule.

It exploded at the gunman’s feet, knocking him out.  His rifle tumbled harmlessly to the street below.

Batman confidently folded his arms.  “Now, what do you want, Joe?”

“What do I want?  You think it’s that simple, you give me some token and everything’s fine…I leave happy...the end?  You can’t possibly give me anything to make up for what you did to me.  I want my life back, the life you wrecked ten years ago.  But we both know that’ll never happen.”

“I didn’t ruin your life, Joe.  I caught you and Eddie in a car that matched a vehicle seen leaving the site of an armed robbery, and I turned you over to the police.  That’s it.”

Joe gasped in frustration.  “You—could—have—let—me—go!  I was only driving.  I just turned eighteen three weeks before.  Eddie actually robbed the guy.  I would’ve been fine with one of your sanctimonious lectures about staying away from crime.  But no, you had to tell the cops I was guilty, too.”

“In the eyes of the law, you were.”

“So?  What about showing a little mercy to a kid who found himself in over his head?  Do you really think it was justice to send me to prison for two years because I drove the freaking ‘getaway car’ for Eddie?”

“That’s not for me to say.  I wasn’t the judge,” Batman said.

“Yes, you were!  You became one the moment you gave me to your police buddies.  And I haven’t been the same since.  My life went in the toilet.”

“Because of your actions, Joe.  Adult behavior gets adult consequences.”

“So it does.”  Joe pulled a 9mm pistol from his jacket and pointed it at Batman.  “It’s time for yours.”

The Caped Crusader was unfazed.  “Better make it on the first shot.  You won’t get a second.”

Joe told him, “Such irony.  I drive my brother, he robs a guy of five hundred bucks, and nobody gets hurt.  What’s my punishment?  Two years in prison, where I learn to be a better criminal.  You do this vigilante thing, destroy people’s lives, and inflict serious injuries.  What’s your punishment?  Permission to violate the law every damn night.

“Are you so dense you can’t see the injustice in that?  Or are you too self-absorbed to care?  I mean, have you ever given one single moment’s thought to what your actions do to ‘little people’ like me?  We get shipped off to prison and come out worse than when we went in.”

“How will extracting your pound of flesh from me help you?”

“It won’t,” Joe said.  “But it’ll keep you from hurting anyone ever again.”

“Joe!” a voice shouted.

“What the—”

Eddie Hanson slowly walked out of the building across from the pizzeria.  “Joe, enough already!  I’m sick of your finger-pointing and excuses.  I love you, brother, but stop it!  Man up and take responsibility for your actions.  They got you into trouble.  Your choices are what derailed your life, not Batman.”

“Eddie, how can you say one word in defense of this self-righteous zealot?”

“Please, listen to me, Joe.  Listen to me!  When you got out of prison the first time, you could’ve taken advantage of the opportunities that were available to turn your life around…like I did.  If there’s one thing I was sure of on the day of my release, it was this:  I didn’t ever want to spend another minute in jail.”

“Neither did I!”

“But you were so bitter, you couldn’t accept that what happened, happened and leave it in the past.  When life handed you lemons, you threw them back like grenades and only succeeded in hurting yourself.  From then on, it was always someone else’s fault, never yours.”

Joe began to choke up.  “But—”

“You know, if you need to blame someone for what happened to you, blame me.  I’m the one who pulled you in.  Do you remember?  I begged you to drive me.  You wanted to stay home and watch the game.  I was afraid if I drove myself, I wouldn’t get away fast enough if something went wrong.  Pretty crappy thing to do to your brother, huh?  That’s on me, Joe.  I’m so sorry.”

Batman took advantage of the distraction and smoothly flung a Batarang, which knocked Joe’s gun away before he realized what happened.

Cursing and clutching his painful hand, Joe dropped to his knees.

Eddie rushed over to embrace him tearfully and kicked the gun out of reach.  “I’m sorry, bro.  I’m sorry.”

Joe’s ten years of inner pain burst out in an agonized scream, wracking his body with uncontrollable sobs.

Eddie looked up to thank Batman but saw that he and Joe were alone.  He hugged his brother tightly as they cried together.  “It’s gonna be alright, Joe.  I’m here, now and always.  It’s gonna be alright.”