CREATURE AND SERVANT
 
On the night he will die, I bring the Master his supper. My footsteps echo through the cave, but the thousands of tiny creatures that live high in its recesses do not wake. The cavern walls are lit by the pale glow of a dozen screens. The Master seems not to notice as I approach. But of course he notices. He notices everything.

I realize I am slouching slightly. It has been a long day, full of unusual challenges, but that is no excuse. I correct my posture and announce what may be the Master's last meal. "Your supper, sir."

He is watching the children die. Over and over again on those panes of glowing glass, he is watching the children die in the Mad Clown's death trap. The children killed when he made the wrong choice. The children killed by the cowled Creature's anger and arrogance.

"Put it there," says the Master, his eyes still on the monitors.

He sounds more like the Creature than himself. He is not usually so curt. On most days, he remembers his pleasantries. On occasion he calls me old friend. But now the Master is thinking.

What matter that one has spent hours preparing boeuf bourguignon, when great men are thinking? My work is frippery in comparison.

I set down the filigreed silver tray. The quiet hum of machines surrounds us. "Are you quite alright, Master?" I ask before withdrawing.

"I'm fine," he says, and now there is no trace of the Creature in his voice. "Just...tired."

I served the Master's father. He was a good man. The best of men. The sort who comes along very rarely to bless mankind. Though I am no papist, I thought of him as the city's patron saint -- and was not alone in doing so.

Then the Master and his wife were slain, and I served the Young Master. There were challenges at first. The old Master's shoes seemed impossible to fill. But the Young Master came, in time, to be every bit the man his father had been. And more.

Perhaps, truth be told, too much more, though it is above my station to say so.

The Master grew into a good man. A bit oblivious to the realities of the world, despite his powers of observation. More than a bit spoiled, truth be told. But a good man. Kind. Generous.

When the Master decided to embark upon his career, I was of course dubious. Perhaps -- and this was my failing -- irreverently so. The costume struck me as particularly ridiculous, made for some tawdry stage, not for a great man of the master's fibre.

Some believe that those of high station are inevitably eccentric, and that these eccentricities must be indulged. I disagree most vehemently. A servant must never presume too much, nor rise above his station. But just as we must remember our stations, it is incumbent upon us to gently remind the great men we serve of theirs. A distinguished family's name is tarnished by outlandishness and scandal, and the social order suffers.

Despite this, I have long indulged the Master's eccentricities. Indeed, for years I acted as his chief accomplice. This was not due to the Master's station, however, but rather to his genius. For he is one of the most brilliant men the world has ever known. An American Da Vinci. And though, as is only right and natural, he has used this genius to increase his own fortune, his first aim has always been to save this city. From others and from itself.

Those who condemn him have forgotten this -- how terrified this city was before he became the Creature. I tremble at the thought of what the city will become when he is gone.

Over the years, how many reporters and detectives and madmen in masks of their own have tried to rip that cowl off? To learn the Creature's secret identity? What they never understood is that the secret is the Creature's identity. That there is no Creature once the cowl and the shadows are torn away.

The Creature did things the Master never would. The Creature broke laws and broke limbs. I once saw it dangle a man -- a boy, really, just old enough for university -- from a thirty-story building until the lad soiled himself. In order to send a message.

Afterward the Creature, in a voice like crunching bone, had said only "I didn't drop him."

Still, for years the Creature kept this city safe. And while the Creature made the Master do dark things, the Master remained a good man. A great man. Indeed, though it may sound unseemly, it would not be an exaggeration to say that I love him.

Yet even the best of men can be devoured by darkness.

Again the scene replays on the screens that surround us. The bridge. The bomb. The bright yellow bus. The Mad Clown shows the Creature his white hands, a garishly painted joy buzzer in each. A choice. Vengeance versus rescue. Justice versus humanity. A murderer's freedom versus innocent lives. The sort of dilemma that a dozen maniacs have posed before, only to be defeated by the Creature.

But this time is different.

This time the Creature makes the cold-blooded choice. On all the screens around us, it jabs a dark-gloved finger at the bright green button cradled in the Mad Clown's right palm. It chooses hate over hope.

Why? On television, some call it a botched ruse -- a plan to save the children and to capture the Clown gone sour. Others say that darkness has finally consumed the Creature. That the Mad Clown's killing of the Creature's young squire snapped something.

All agree that the Creature must be brought to justice.

The monitors don't provide any answers. They only show the explosion.

When he sees what he has driven the Creature to, the Mad Clown cackles, horrific in his exaltation. Then he stops, glances at the smoking ruin of the schoolbus, and takes a long look at the Creature. He looks terrified at what the Master -- pardon me, the Creature -- has become.

And then the fiend twists out of the Creature's grip and leaps to his death.

The recording ends and begins again. I take away the Master's untouched supper, then fill a cordial glass with Fernet-Branca and set it before him.

"A digestif, sir. If you'll pardon my saying so, you could use it."

It is a servant's duty to make his master comfortable. Of course I told the Master that the children's deaths weren't his fault. That the Mad Clown was entirely to blame. I told him this over and over again. I told it to myself over and over again.

Each time it rang more hollow.

I helped to raise the Master from a child. I would sooner die myself a thousand times over than do him harm. But the Creature's thirst for justice has become a thirst for blood. Today it claimed forty bright young lives. Tomorrow? God alone knows.

Through study and training, the Master has developed a resistance to thirty-seven sorts of poison. I know precisely which ones. The substance in the glass, an incredibly powerful, undetectable toxin with which the Plant Woman had once tried to kill the police commissioner, is not one of them.

The Master is the greatest detective the world has ever known, and he is always tensed against threats, but he barely glances at the glass before draining it. He doesn't look at me at all.

Some think that those of high station don't really see their servants. That we are like furniture to them. But this is not the case with the Master and I. With he and I it is a matter of trust. The Master, who trusts no one, trusts me. As with his father before him, I am humbled to have been judged worthy by such a great man. I've little doubt I will answer to God for my treachery.

The hard lines of the Master's mouth soften slightly and I can almost see the warmth of the liqueur fill him. Then he looks at me, and I know that he knows I have betrayed him.

Fear seizes me, but it pales beside the shame. Something plummets within me, and I realize that my heart is breaking.

The Master convulses once. The toxin is supposed to be painless, but looking at him now I am not convinced. For a moment his eyes become the Creature's. They flash at me, full of murderous rage. But the Creature is dying now, too weak to harm anyone.

The Master's body slumps, but I am there to hold him. I help him to his chair and turn off the monitors. He struggles to speak. I expect him to curse me for my treachery. To ask why I have betrayed him.

He grips my arm, but there is none of his fabled strength in it. "You're a good man. Better than me," the Master says. His voice is failing.

"Sir, I--"

"Justice. Had to do it. Had to," he says, his breath rattling, and it doesn't matter what he is speaking of.

I take his hand in mine "I know, Master."

Then I lean in close, straining to hear the final words of the greatest man I have ever known. And I pray that I will be forgiven the pride I feel when I hear that those words are Thank you, old friend.