Children Stories,  Short Stories

Penguin Center Stage: A Bird Of 80

Today is my birthday, and I wanted to share a little bit of whimsy with everyone. It’s my 45th, and the 80th anniversary of a funny little character called The Penguin. Here is my version of a Penguin story highlighting that all birds can change colors.

Oswald sat in his dressing room, his Tony and his Oscar on the shelf behind him. “You’ve come along way from Meredith Avenue Oswald. Congratulations.” “Bruce Wayne said as he knocked on the door.

“Thank you my friend, and I truly mean that.” The two truly believed each other, even if they couldn’t believe the events of the last two years. Both had seen a metamorphosis which led to a friendship neither expected.

Now Oswald was set to play Gotham’s greatest theater, The Burgess, in the hit play 80. He had first opened it to rave reviews on Broadway, and now returned for a two night performance in his home town.

Oswald had seen every inch of Gotham City now, including Blackgate Penitentiary. The former criminal hadn’t expected his new career. He also hadn’t expected that the man who placed him in prison, would open a door to a new life for him.

“Mother would have been pleased, at least with the last two years.” Bruce tried to keep any regret from ruining his big night. “My Mom would have had a few issues with my other career too.” The shared laugh broke the tension.

“They’ll all be here I suppose, either to see if it’s real, or to perform their own scene stealer.” Oswald alluding to the rogues of Gotham. “My team is prepared Os, it’ll be okay. I got him a special box seat, with a couple of guests. He won’t be a problem. I’m worried more about Luthor.”

Oswald laughed. “I’ve got him wrapped up. As long as he needs me for his new streaming venture, he’ll behave. He wants the prestige of a Hollywood mogul, and for once, he needs help.”

The duo knew how unpredictable their mutual acquaintances could be. The injuries list each man could match with the other one. Each man even had a bullet in the same shoulder from their last encounter with Metropolis’ other famous citizen.

Oswald put Luthor aside for a moment, and stood to make sure his wardrobe was right. He hadn’t wore his trademarked outfit since leaving Gotham, though his full pardon allowed him to keep one of his umbrellas for protection. One would be hidden on stage as well, at Bruce’s suggestion.

Tonight Oswald was dressed as his Tony award winning character William Knight. The successful publisher, and main character in the play, in a dinner jacket, cravat, and black trousers. His monocle was the only resemblance to the previous persona his fellow Gothamites were familiar with.

As expected, the more infamous acquaintances we’re watching. Luthor, had the best seats in the house, along with his Fiancé Mercy Graves. The Joker was in a somewhat uncomfortable but secured seat beside of Commissioner Gordon and Mr Freeze. Another reformed character that no one ever expected to experience.

The Riddler had hacked the private feed Luthor was paying to record for the streaming version. Catwoman was in a seat near the exit, in case someone saw through her disguise. Two Face was watching from Arkham, along with the other incarcerated rogues, courtesy of the Riddler’s tactics.

The only villain who didn’t seem interested was Scarecrow, and that was because he was busy plotting for next week’s planned escapades. Some didn’t believe it, others were happy for him, and one just thought it hilariously funny. You can guess which one that was.

Oswald couldn’t help but relive it in his mind, while waiting for the curtain to go up. His childhood, his Dad’s pneumonia after his business partner tossed him out in the rain without his umbrella. Mother trying to make a go of a little pet shop afterwards to make ends meet.

The birds who became his friends in the process. Her sickness, the closing of the shop, and all of the bills when she was gone. The bullies in school, laughing at the umbrella she insisted he keep with him. The fencing lessons Coach Finger insisted on to build his confidence.

His slow metabolism, coupled with surprising agility made him a champion. He remembered the bullies different attitude after one rainy day. Martial Arts classes in Community College, and the scholarship he turned down to take care of his Mom. The years of self learning, everything from ornithology to fine literature.

When Mother was gone, the desperate choices, the excitement, and the lack of bills. The running from police, hiding in plain sight, working as a janitor in the police department to gain access to records. His first encounter with the Batman.

It was his second month as The Penguin, there was a set of gold bird statues at Gotham’s Museum, and the need to pay his henchmen. Birds worked cheap, people didn’t. The Penguin would touch down on the roof, use one of his umbrellas to short circuit the security system, and allow the crew to plunder the riches.

Before he saw him, he knew he was there. There was something about the fog that was different, thicker. It was subtle but it was manufactured somewhat. Instead of touching down, he used his Umbrella captor to relocate across the rooftop of the building beside it.

The Batman knew he had picked up on something, and a batarang shot out towards Penguin’s leg. Penguin used his other umbrella to cut the cord, and then return fire. Before Penguin knew it, the Batman was in front of him, and they were fighting, his umbrella against the Batman’s arms.

You only have an advantage in a physical fight with Batman once, and Penguin waited til the right moment to use it. He dropped the umbrella, did a somersault kick, and dived off the roof. Using a hidden umbrella he was able to grapple on to a fire escape and land inside a building.

The crew would by now have been picked up by Gotham Police, he heard the sirens on the fire escape. Batman wasn’t the only one to have hidden headquarters throughout the city. The Penguin placed a few in proximity of his planned jobs, months and later years in advance. When he exited the building, it was as an old man dressed for a day in the park, complete with bread crumbs.

Only he didn’t go to the park, he went to the finest jewelry store in Gotham and robbed them blind. He fenced most of it, except a Faberge egg, and a Rolex. He sent the Rolex to Batman, care of Gotham Police. Oswald knew he wouldn’t keep it, but he would get the message.

Their escapades continued for longer than either man enjoyed it. The excitement of of it all soon left Oswald, and he transitioned to a power broker with the Iceberg Lounge. One of the secrets of the Gotham underworld no one outside of the city knows, is the relocation program.

Gotham is viewed as a killing field outside of Gotham, but even Gothamites would not tolerate it if all the stories were true. Most “victims” of Gotham’s murders are very much alive. Either they are people portraying a fake role, or those willing to relocate for the right price.

Most take a night train ride to Metropolis and live out their lives in a much better lifestyle. The Penguin had never killed anyone, too messy, though his reputation said differently. He was still paying on two relocations his first six months in prison.

Beyond the Joker and Scarecrow, most of the villain’s reputations were highly exaggerated. No one was as crazy as those two. Two Face came close but his coin kept turning up on the wrong side. Oswald couldn’t prove it, but he suspected Batman had swapped it for a rigged coin.

The relocation plan came to mind because that’s what had changed everything for The Penguin, or rather Oswald Cobblepot. It was a late night, the Iceberg Lounge had closed, and Penguin was ready to go to bed. He was heading for his private elevator when he felt the wind change. The skylight was open, a non paying customer had arrived.

“You’re the only one who uses the skylight. You know I could rig it one of these days and you may not get to use it again.” The Penguin expected their standard repartee, but he didn’t expect kindness. “Penguin, Oswald, Kaja Dini called me. She asked me to talk to you.”

He stood there for at least a minute before moving. Then in a loud voice, for the benefit of the crew, in a rough voice he said, “In the office Bats now.” It was an odd sight when the caped crusader complied, quietly joining Penguin in the elevator.

Neither spoke until they were safely in the sound proof office. “What do you know Batman?” “I know Kaja didn’t die in that fire, I know the real reason you helped her, and not just the Gotham Metropolis connection.”

“He would have killed her, and there was no other way out, not in Gotham. So I made it look like I killed her first. I did her a favor, is she okay?”

“Physically yes, emotionally no. You didn’t just ship her off on the Metropolis Metro. You were in Metropolis yourself, for six months under an assumed name, watching over her. People started to think you died in the fire too.”

“The rest was good for me. I was Chester Cobble. I worked in a pet store again, near her place. I even acted in a community theater there, Richard III appropriately enough. Eventually I had to get back, to keep the jackals at bay.”

The Batman sat down, and did something Penguin never expected him to do. He took off his mask. “You’re a genius Oswald, we figured out who each other was a long time ago. In Gotham, identities are less important than personas. What too many of us don’t realize is that there is life outside of Gotham.”

“You experienced it for six months. Truth to be told, you didn’t come back because of your crew. You came back because Joker made a visit to Metropolis to see Luthor. You didn’t want to risk Kaja.”

“She’s been miserable ever since you left. Kaja is in love with you, and I think you love her. She reached out to me because, well she thought I was the only one who could reach you.”

Oswald was a mixture of emotions. Regret, hope, despair, and anger. “It’s a hollow offer Bruce. If I wanted to, if I tried it, she’d be endangered. Also, my record doesn’t allow a lot of room for restarts.”

Bruce spoke, but Batman answered. The voice and tone weren’t different physically, but you could tell a change was evident. “If you’ll let me, I have a plan. Oswald, you made some wrong choices, you had some hard knocks, are you ready for a change?”

The Penguin didn’t look around the room at his trappings, his money, or his reputation. He looked at two photos on his desk. One was a picture of his parents. The other was a photo of a crowd, Kaja was barely visible, it was the only safe way to have her picture, but he knew every line of her face. “What do I have to do?”

The Batman outlined a plan, six months to a year of state’s evidence, relocation, and a new life. “I don’t know how much jail time will be involved, but I’ll ask for any leniency they can give.” The Batman put out his hand to shake the Penguins, but Oswald shook it.

Very often in Gotham, events occur that change, or accelerate plans. Sometimes, though rare, the unexpected makes things better. The next night, The Penguin was hosting at the Iceberg Lounge, keeping everything as normal as possible while waiting on news from Batman, when two unexpected guests showed up.

One was Governor Cassidy, there by special invitation for a benefit and fundraiser. The only problem was, it wasn’t on the books. The Governor’s Chief of Staff barely finished explaining before the Penguin smelled a rat. “Hit the deck! Everybody run for cover!”

He didn’t yet know which one was up to something, but it didn’t take much to figure out both their target, and their plan. If they had wanted to kill the Governor, they could have gotten him anywhere. Their plan was either kidnapping, or a hostage event, neither of which fit in with Penguin’s plans.

A car with a special paint job burst through the front window, black on one side, white on the other. So Two Face was behind the plot, that told Oswald it was a combination plan, depending on the flip of a coin. “Not today Harvey, not today.”

The Penguin jumped on to the hood of the vehicle, spraying a smokescreen at the windows. Two face shot, but by then Penguin had somersaulted to the top of the car and was working his way inside. “Harvey, you come into my place without an invitation, that’s not very good manners.”

“Since when do you care Penguin, I can give you a split if you’ll just play along.” Two Face was puzzled at the Penguin’s anger, not understanding it was about more than another day in Gotham. Oswald ripped the gun out of his hand and knocked him out cold.

This was no small feat, Two Face had a reputation for being physically hard to beat, having spent years fighting Batman and turf wars with the other infamous Gothamites. In a few minutes, the Penguin’s crew had rounded up the men who had followed Two Face in.

The Penguin, Oswald Cobblepot, stood over Two Face, top hat abandoned, with the umbrella at his side, asking for something to tie Harvey Dent up with. Gotham news went crazy, the Governor personally walked over to shake the Penguin’s hand. A lady in Metropolis had tears in her eyes, and a smile on her face when she saw the photo.

Batman reached out almost immediately, so did Bruce Wayne. The Governor was open to a full pardon. Things were in motion. Oswald began returning everything that he had stolen that hadn’t yet been recovered. Within a few days, he was a happily broke, and finally free man mostly.

Oswald was a guest at Wayne Manor, until Batman could tie up a loose end or two. Two Face, cuffed, took a ride in the Batmobile. He and Batman had a conversation on the docks. “How do you feel about the Penguin Harvey?”

With a little dry humor, the gangster responded, “I’m torn about the matter. Which is the way I intend to leave him when I’m through with him. The question is, will there be anything left to waddle.”

Batman looked at his friend and foe of many years. Did he approach the threat with a threat, or did he appeal to Harvey’s better nature? With Two Face, it wasn’t 50/50, more like 60/40. Threats worked most of the time, except in rare occasions, this was one of them. He signaled, and Oswald walked out of the shadows. “To be fair, you didn’t pay the cover charge Harvey.”

Two Face growled, “I offered to cut you in. I thought about notifying you first, but I actually thought I was doing you a favor, deniability. I won’t make that mistake again.”

“I’m getting out Harvey. I was waiting on a deal to turn myself in. I was prepared to go back to prison to get free of all of this.”

“Free of what? Another Penguin goes clean scheme. You’ve played that role before Pengy, what’s the angle this time?”

“No angle, no role, not this time. I’m tired of playing The Penguin, tired of Gotham, tired of sleeping with one eye opened. I want out Harvey, but I can’t do that if I have to worry about you in the shadows the rest of my life.”

Batman stepped in. “Harvey, you may or may not want what he’s wanting, you may or may not like it either. Still, you understand it, both as a former DA, and someone who lives in the fishbowl that is Gotham. He’s asking, I’m asking, what has to happen for you to stand down?”

Two Face looked at them both. “You’re both serious. No threats, no bribes, no promises, you’re serious. You still will have that nose, you know, and that laugh. You’ll still look like a Penguin. What are you going to do when they laugh at you again?”

Oswald looked, “It was never about the laughter Harvey, I’ve been laughed at all my life. I made the wrong choices, but I never intended to end up here. Now that I’ve got a chance to get out, I’m going to take it. Who knows what will happen, but it will be on terms that for a change, I can live with, not just exist in.”

”Now flip your coin, whatever you have to do, but know that I’m serious. No threats, but know that I’m not going to change my mind. I’m done, I’m tired Harvey, very tired.”

Two Face looked at Oswald. “It’s not like I could reach my coin anyway, with these on. All right, I’ll take the hit to my reputation, make it work to my advantage. I’ll use it as an excuse to grab for your territory. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t but I’ll leave you alone.”

Oswald thanked him, and so did Batman. “Let’s go Harvey. I’ve got to get you back.” They turned to leave, Oswald just stood there for a moment.

Two Face called back to him. “Oswald, make it work. For your sake, make it work. Once you’re free, resist any temptation to come back. Most of us would give anything for the opportunity you have now.”

Oswald never looked back. The only reason he was back in Gotham, was as a favor to Bruce. The performance tonight would raise money for the new Children’s Hospital complex. His wife Kaja, and their not yet born little one, were safely tucked away in the most secure safe house Gotham had, the caverns under Wayne Manor. Alfred watched with her on the private feed that Batman, not the Riddler had set up.

When the curtain went up, William Knight, the brave, reckless publisher, and unexpected defender of the innocent captivated the audience until the middle of the first act. That’s when the green smoke started filling the room. A chilling laugh was heard from the box, but Mr Freeze still had Joker in check, bound to his chair.

Oswald mentally searched his mind’s database, what type of gas was it? For his own reasons he knew it wasn’t Joker toxin, even though the color was meant to trigger Joker’s laugh.

He found out more than what he needed to know about Joker toxin when he had saved the Joker’s life. A well kept secret being the clown’s diabetes, and the time he mistakenly injected himself with his own fear toxin instead of insulin. Penguin was on hand,a joint venture, and having a secret stash of anti venom in case his partner went rogue, administered it. The Joker, in his own way, promised to never interfere directly with Penguin’s plans after that.

Whoever was behind it knew the Joker couldn’t resist laughing at the irony, before being filled with anger that someone else was playing in his playground. It wasn’t fear toxin, the smoke was different, but it looked close. It had to be Scarecrow, but if it wasn’t his fear toxins, what was it. Paralytic gas, he was paralyzing the audience. Oswald grabbed the hidden umbrella and fired a flame at the ceiling, just enough to set off the sprinklers.

It might not stop the effects of the gas completely, but any help was useful. The Scarecrow hit the stage from a hole in the rafters. “Sorry to mess up your performance Oswald, but I need you for next week. Shall we fly, for old time’s sake?”

“I think not Jonathan, I have a play to do. If you got out of your lab more, you might learn something. Or are you afraid to try something new?”

Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, was not known for his fighting prowess. His main weapon was intimidation, and a big scythe. Cool and calculating Crane was dangerous, angry, he was reckless. Oswald wanted to better the chances of taking him down.

Batman and Nightwing came out of nowhere, dealing with the swarm of men that followed Scarecrow from the rafters. Scarecrow had planned on his numbers overwhelming Batman and company while he grabbed Oswald. Crane never thought that Oswald was still a formidable fighter himself.

Scarecrow was swinging violently. “What happened to birds of a feather Cobblepot? I can make it worth your while. Play nice and you’ll be back in front of the camera, don’t you know that Scarecrows and birds go together?”

Oswald had experienced enough, even back in the day, he didn’t care for Crane. “Jonathan, crows, penguins, pigeons, or people, none of us really care for you.” This was right before a swinging kick to the face.

The sprinklers had worked better than Oswald expected, and as Scarecrow fell, the soaked crowd gave him, Batman, and Nightwing a standing ovation. Oswald bowed as an actor does, while his friends disappeared from view.

At the after party which followed, reporters not criminals swarmed one of the heroes of the night. “Mr. Cobblepot, are you sorry you returned to Gotham? Did it feel good taking down another famous villain of Gotham? What did he say to you on stage, we couldn’t hear it all?”

These and other questions blanketed the air. Oswald glanced over at a discrete Bruce Wayne slipping into the room in a tuxedo out of the corner of his eye. One cufflink was slightly at a different angle, a hurried change of costume no doubt.

Facing the group of reporters he gave his best actor’s smile. “Ladies and gentleman, as you know my first role in a movie, a Wayne Industries Film production, was The Life Of Mickey Stamford. Besides the kindness the academy gave me with my first Oscar, playing a washed up actor taught me something.”

As only an actor can, he paused, a smile on his lips, and a twinkle in his eye. It only lasted for thirty seconds, but the timing was right. “When you have the opportunity to be the only one standing on stage, take it. The Scarecrow was stealing my scene, what was I to do?”

Everyone laughed, it was the answer that Gotham Media would use for clips the next few days. Now he addressed the people in the room, the citizens of Gotham. “Friends, I returned to Gotham glad to help in some way, but also reluctantly. You see, there have been Cobblepot’s in Gotham for at least 80 years.”

Another pause, this time not cinematic. “We haven’t always given our best to the city, but I’m hoping to change that. Like me, our city isn’t perfect, but there are some good people here. There are even a few who don’t seem to have any options, but given the right opportunities, all of us can change.”

“To some I’ll always be the Penguin. To others, perhaps this story will give a little bit of hope. They will know that given the opportunity, any bird, no matter how dirty, can find both cleansing, and fly to freedom.”

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