Tonight, Richard Ellsworth is Batman. It's Halloween in Las Vegas, right before twilight turns to neon night, right before the steady trickle of customers pouring into the strip clubs along Industrial Road becomes a flood. Mixed with the usual khakis and sport coats are wizard's robes and straw-stuffed scarecrow rags, strippers wearing cellophane angel wings, while the staff at the Painted Lady are kitted out in rented superhero costumes and Richard is checking IDs at the door. He turns away a werewolf because he's underage with an obvious fake, and then a dark-skinned man in a suit with an Arabic passport just because he can. The guy doesn't protest. How could he? It's Batman.
Carl, the manager, needed more security so he moved Richard from bartender back to his old job for the week even though the owners are worried that he'll put a customer in the hospital with a broken nose for calling him Rich or Dicky, or otherwise create yet other excuse for the authorities to stop by more frequently. Carl is dressed as Captain America. Carl and Richard are both ex-Army, but Richard knows that even with that bond he's on a short leash, so he's carrying a flask of Absolut Citron in his utility belt to level out his mood and ease the pain from the titanium screws in his leg.
Unlike Carl, who earned a Silver Star in Fallujah, the closest Richard ever got to the action was a rotation to Camp Arifjan, south of Kuwait City, where the MPs played traffic cop to an endless series of tanks, trailers, and trucks. He never got a chance to be a hero for his country before he was rolled out for bad behavior and a busted leg, and that was almost six years ago. But tonight he's Batman, the Caped Crusader. And with the flask half gone, he knows that before the evening's out some drunk piece of shit is going to be starting something, and the Dark Knight is going to be there to finish it.
As luck would have it, Raven shows up fifteen minutes before her shift, earlier than the rest of the ten o'clock girls. Richard and Raven were a couple during the 110 plus degree days of late summer, but aren't anymore. She's snapped one of the elastic straps on her wings and is looking for another pair. Batman stops her at the door.
"Guess who I am," he says, pitching his voice low, leaning in close and touching her bare arm. Raven is wearing a semi-sheer black halter dress, and Richard can see the silvery top and g-string sparkling underneath it. Richard's costume is cheap polyester, not Lycra, over a sleeveless tee and gym shorts. He's an old-school Batman in yellow and grey, from before the movies and the sculpted body armor.
"Richard. You've been drinking."
"I'm millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. We should go out later, and celebrate," Richard says as Raven starts to pull away towards the dressing room. He's still got his hand on her wrist, and his grip is tight. He knows Raven likes it rough, but tonight she doesn't need saving. She twists her arm free, and he lets her go.
"We'd be Batman and Raven," he says, smiling.
"I get it. What would we be celebrating?"
"I'm back on security. Fighting the good fight." Richard wants her to feel safe.
"Didn't you make more behind the bar?"
"I'm Batman," he says, hoping she'll understand.
"Don't let Carl see you drinking," she says before heading into the dressing room. Richard doesn't think they'll be going out tonight, but this time he doesn't get mad. Even millionaire playboys get turned down sometimes, and Richard doesn't really mind. He knows now how easy it is to get distracted from the mission, whatever that mission might be. If they hadn't broken up he might not have started drinking hard again, and then he'd still be working the door every week.
Three hours later and now it's after midnight, technically All Saints' Day as the DJ points out to the room full of sinners, must of whom don't understand. Nothing serious has happened yet, but the Halloween crowd is only getting started. One of the girls calls for security, she says a guy tried to bite her nipple during a lap dance. Batman's on it, practically flying from the door to collar a spiky-haired kid, but it's nothing. The kid is crying as he apologizes, says he's from Wisconsin and didn't know, so all Batman does is point one gloved finger and the guy's out the door. Too easy. After that the flask is empty again, so Richard has Spider-Man at the bar fill it up when Carl goes out to the lot to pay a couple of cabbies for steering customers their way.
A bathroom break and a long pull from the flask later, Richard notices through the hanging smoke four guys made up as zombies in camouflage jumpsuits who've taken over one of the small tables next to the main stage. They're loud enough that he can hear them calling for drinks over the music, and he sees the leader of the zombies has a gang-style neck tattoo that spells out somebody's name, and Batman thinks, this is how it starts. But he's supposed to be spending most of his time at the door, so instead of sticking around inside he finds Raven between dances.
"Let me know if those zombie jokers try anything," he says, and Raven laughs at something he didn't intend to be funny and says "Sure thing, Batman," before heading over to the high-backed booths where the real players sit and she can drum up some more dances. He sees that her wings, repaired with packing tape, are beginning to droop and he takes that as a sign. Batman's on his own tonight.
So he drifts over to the entrance and checks some IDs, then has another sip from the flask before going back to the floor and circling the zombies' table. The DJ sees him and plays a few seconds of Prince's "Batdance," and the zombies notice and fall over themselves laughing. They're drinking beers and shots of something dark that looks almost black in the cigarette-hazed pink and purple neon, black like the fake blood spattered across their clothes from their fake wounds. Richard's pretty sure that one of them, the guy with the neck tattoo, says something about him so he goes up and jerks on the back of the kid's chair, remembering words someone famous once said: criminals, by nature, are a cowardly and superstitious lot.
"What did you say, punk?"
"Jesus Christ, what's wrong with you?" the kid says, and he's leering up at Richard, and Batman looks into the kid's half-open eyes and sees that he isn't afraid of the mask. He's not just wearing camouflage fatigues and white makeup but he's got a set of plastic dog tags around his neck, plastic, not aluminum, so Batman knows he's playing at being a dead soldier and he punches him in the face for all the real dead soldiers, and the kid's nose begins to bleed black. The DJ cuts the music and calls for security, but Batman is already here.
Soon the other zombies stand up. The one closest to Batman is six inches taller and a foot broader than he is, with a triangular shaved head and a fist like a catcher's mitt covered with gold rings. The big zombie punches Batman hard in the side of his face below his left ear, at the edge of the vinyl mask, then again, even harder. Batman hears bones break in his jaw, and maybe in the kid's hand, too, and before he even has a chance to defend himself, to strike a single blow for justice, he falls to the floor, his head bouncing off the edge of the table. Someone kicks him in his bad leg.
The femur shifts on its screws, and behind his closed eyes he sees himself jumping for the moving Humvee back in Camp Arifjan, playing the terrorist for the rest of his unit to hunt in an improvised, alcohol-fueled, nighttime field exercise. Bored out of their minds, they were training for saving the world, and instead he ended up losing his stripes in a hospital. He missed the bumper, hit the asphalt, and his buddy drove across his leg. His origin story. It hurt more then than it does now. It still hurts, but he's earned this pain, and on the floor a smile breaks out across his face.
Unknown seconds pass and Batman is barely conscious but he opens his eyes when he hears Carl yelling, as Captain America sails into the melee. Moments later he sees a red, white, and blue striped body fall beside him as another hero goes down, the big zombie on top clawing for Carl's throat with both hands. Even though the house lights are up now the red still looks as black as a starless Middle Eastern night, and maybe he passes out a second time before waking up to see the lights reflected in thick Lucite platform heels that kick at the zombie again and again until it lets go. He thinks it has to be Raven flying to the rescue; Raven coming back to him like he always knew she would, but it's another girl, the short one from Vietnam that calls herself Dixie, child of yet another war that came and went before his time.
"I'm Batman," Richard says to the floor.
BIO: Stephen Dorneman workshops his writing at Boston's Grub Street and with the Bay State Scribblers. His stories have appeared in Weave Magazine, Cricket Online Review, Juked, Prime Number, and other publications.