A Mask for all Seasons
It is often quoted that, when a child is born to a well-to-do family that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. If that is indeed the case, then Roman Sionis was born with a full service for twelve. His father, the sole controlling force behind Janus Cosmetics, was one of the country's wealthiest men, but that somehow didn't help Roman all that much.
You see, when he was born, he was dropped by the delivering doctor and they say something happened then, something horrible, for his eyes were never quite right after that. There was a masked aspect hidden behind the pastel green eyes, a force rigidness to his features that never let a person know his true feelings.
It wasn't until after the death of his parents by suspicious circumstances and his assuming command of Janus Cosmetics that the masked part of Roman Sionis started to lose face and the true Roman Sionis crept out - a twisted, ugly, crazed man.
His newest creation, a permanent make-up line, went bad, his long-time girlfriend and top-paid model walked out on him, forcing to succumb to a bail-out offer by Wayne Foundation, all within two days of each other and experts would agree that it could take less to drive a man mad, but not the way Roman Sionis went.
He became Black Mask, a scourge of Gotham and a thorn in the side of its protector, The Batman. However, as always, Batman won out and Roman Sionis was placed in a nice quiet cell in Arkham Asylum - a sanitarium for the criminally insane - to remain forever...
Bruce Wayne didn't bother to respond to his butler's exclamation, but continued to work out on the punching bag, slamming fist after purposeful fist into the weighted canvas until it felt as if the bones in his hands would implode from the abuse. He instinctively knew the butler wasn't amazed at his performance and hadn't directed the comment towards him. Bruce Wayne also knew that if it was something he was intended to know, Alfred would tell him.
Bruce stepped back from the swaying bag and felt a soft towel immediately draped over his shoulders. He used one corner to wipe the sweat from his face and took a moment to catch his breath. People didn't know how hard Bruce Wayne had to work to keep The Batman in shape and he hoped they never did.
"There's an article in the paper that might appeal to you, sir," Alfred said, pouring a glass of mineral water and offering it to his employer. "Apparently, someone is renovating the Sionis Mansion."
"What on earth for? Roman had that place shut up when he lost the Janus Empire. No one in their right mind would want to live there," Bruce said, sipping the water. "Then and again, for someone to have the money to sink into the place would have to be a millionaire and no one ever said we millionaires were particularly sane." He grinned at his butler and handed the empty glass back. "I'm going to take a few laps around the field."
"Very good, sir. I shall alert the lawn service." There had been a messy little incident with the watering system and one of Master Wayne's past runs that was to be avoided in the future.
Each step pounded against the dirt track, but Bruce was no more conscious of them than of the birds that sang in nearby trees, or the beauty of those trees as they exchanged their uniform green summer coats for a more exciting splash of fall color. No, his mind kept creeping back to his comment, no one in their right mind would want to live there. So why was someone? And why had Roman sold his last remaining piece of real estate? Not that it would be him any good in Arkham.
It was something that kept his mind preoccupied through twenty laps around his private track and the walk back up to the Manor. He collapsed upon an over-padded chaise lounge and contemplated the thought.
For something to bedevil his mind like that spelled trouble and trouble was something Bruce Wayne knew very well.
A whisper of noise caught his attention and out of the corner of his eye, he saw Alfred approaching, bearing a tray with his usual morning array of vitamins and juice upon it.
"Alfred, I want you to make some inquiries for me, very discreet inquiries. I want to know who's opening the Sionis mansion and why."
"Yes, sir. I anticipated such a request and have already set the wheels into motion," Alfred acknowledged, neither surprised nor impressed that his master had heard his approach.
"Thank you." Bruce didn't move from his position, despite a driving thirst.
The slender butler settled the tray onto a glass-topped table and began to pour the juice while Bruce leaned back in the chair and enjoyed the last few opportunities to capture a bit of Gotham's Indian summer. "Is something wrong, Master Bruce?" the manservant finally asked.
"I don't know yet." The question broke his concentration and Bruce Wayne smiled at his butler and reached for the one of the numerous morning papers he received. "But I'm sure you'll let me know if there is."
Even with having been abandoned for nearly twenty years, the old house had a stateliness to it that managed to penetrate the plethora of cob webs and dust. There were no pleasant memories here, no echoes of happy voices, just the bitter, stale bile of reality that settled in his mouth.
Carefully, he climbed the stairs, testing the wood before putting his full weight upon it. It wouldn't do now to find a weak spot and end up in the basement. The building was still strong, still intact, just like its lord and master.
As he passed one of the few remaining windows, he caught the reflection of himself and paused, lifting an unsteady hand to caress his cheek. All the time in Arkham hadn't dulled the charcoal hue of his flesh or the rigidness of his features. Damn Batman for that. Damn him and Bruce Wayne. The hand clenched into a fist and pounded the glass, ragged edges etching shallow valleys in the flesh. The pain cleared his head and he resumed his climb up the stairs ignorant of the blood trail he left behind.
The distant sound of construction reminded him to be wary, to stay out of sight. Not even the contractor knew who was behind the work orders. He just knew that he'd been paid in advance and in cash to renovate the mansion. At this time of high unemployment in construction, the chance for his company to find work was enough incentive to keep him from asking questions.
Slowly, he walked down the hall, finding his way in the waning light to his room. Behind the locked door, he could breathe easier and momentarily shake the fear and paranoia that trailed behind him like an invisible tail.
Here, he was safe with only his masks for company, and for now, that was enough. Soon the house would be full of people again and vengeance would be his.
The call came, silent against the low clouds that were as much a part of the Gotham skyline as were the massive skyscrapers themselves. And like the clouds, he silently prepared himself to do battle with whatever filth and scum threatened the life of his city, for he was The Batman and this was his sacred oath.
Leaving The Batmobile partially hidden in an alley, parked away from prying eyes and hands, Batman unlooped a length of cord from his utility belt and tossed The Batarang skyward, finding his mark with the first attempt. He looped the reinforced nylon around his gauntlet and started to climb. As he expected, Gordon and his men were staring at the sky as if he would drop from heaven to help them. Batman wasn't sure about many things, but he was pretty confident that angels didn't come wearing a cowl and a cape.
He walked easily across the tar paper, the rubber soles of his boots silent in the dark. When he was beside Gordon, he murmured, "What do you have for me, Jim?"
Gordon let out a gasp and one of the two cops accompanying him, went instinctively for his gun, checking the movement only when he realized who the speaker was. The other cop was too awe-struck to move and Batman wondered if the man was even remembering to breath.
"Do you have to sneak up on me?" Gordon sputtered as he attempted to recover both his composure and self-assuredness. The man behind the mask smiled slightly at the chastising commissioner, both men knowing it was just part of the game they had played for years. Gordon lit his pipe and walked closer to the edge of the roof, slightly away from the two uniforms. Silently, The Batman joined him.
"What is it, Jim?"
"We lost one out at Arkham."
"The ambiguity of the English language will one day be its demise. Define lost, Jim."
"Dead, old friend, stone cold, will never bother us again, dead," Gordon explained, trying to keep from smiling. "Roman Sionis."
"Black Mask?" The question was tinged with both amazement and disbelief. "Are you sure?"
"There was a positive identification, although there wasn't much left of the body. Apparently he had a little ta-do with one of the other inmates and the inmate set fire to him with rubbing alcohol."
"No one would help him? Even for hardboiled criminals, you would think someone would help."
Gordon shook his head slowly. "Black Mask didn't have many friends and the guard didn't realize anything was wrong until it was too late. It was a horrible way to go."
"No more so than could be said for his victims, both living and dead."
If Gordon recognized the reference to Circe, the once- model girl friend of Roman Sionis, now a disfigured woman turned practicing witch, he ignored it. Instead, he puffed on his pipe and watched the clouds run past the moon.
"Is there anything else?"
"Then I'll be going," Batman murmured, turning back towards the night. "You know how to reach me." He didn't wait for Gordon's answer, but melted into the shadows, heading for the waiting Batrope and the criminals that were as much a part of the night as he was.
Yet, even as he thwarted a mugging, easily dodging the knife-wielding punk and dropping him with a powerhouse right that lifting the jerk a good foot off the pavement, even as he effortlessly pursued an escaping would-be jewelry thief, pouncing upon him as he headed down an alley, Batman could not put his mind to rest.
That inattention cost him a knife graze to his left forearm during a scuffle with a drug dealer and a headache from a crack to his head from a brick-armed rapist.
This job was difficult enough without having a problem focusing his attention and finally Batman surrendered to the suspicions that had been nagging at him all day. If Sionis was really dead, the witch would know. There was only one place to look for her at this time of night and Batman headed for a strip joint at the East end of Gotham.
He entered through the stage doors, easily losing himself in the shadows that seemed to encase the place, hiding the patrons from the staring eyes of each other and possibly of themselves. All attention was focused upon the stage, upon the masked redhead as she slowly and seductively removed each piece of clothing, save her mask, to its inevitable outcome.
Batman ignored the performance, just as he ignored the catcalls, whistles and less-than-subtle appreciation of the crowd. Instead, he bade his time watching the people, mostly men, as they watched the stripper and wondered just how many had abandoned a patient understanding woman to hide here among the shadows to stare at the unobtainable.
The stripper finished and walked from the stage, in obvious distaste of the applause and shouts from her audience. At a paced distance, Batman followed her back to her dressing room. He didn't bother to knock, he knew Circe would be aware he was there.
He opened the door and said, "Witch."
"You've come at last. The cards said you would, but not when." Circe sat with her back to him, facing a large, bulb-lined dressing table, her scarred and mutilated face hidden from view behind a mask.
"Then they also told you why," Batman murmured as he approached her dressing table, keeping his cape close as he swept by various costumes.
Emerald eyes studied him in the mirror's reflection for a moment, then she shook her head gently. "The cards only say so much, my masked brother. The trick is knowing how to interpret them. That's also the case with people. You are not here to watch my show or to wax poetic at my feet."
"Roman is dead." Batman didn't mince the words, there was no need. Circe's hatred for Black Mask hadn't waned over the years; there would be no tears for the fallen cosmetic king.
"Roman died years ago. He died when he became Black Mask." The words were spoken softly, without sympathy. "How did he die?"
"Burned to death. Someone set him on fire." Batman halted his approach a few feet from her.
"It seems appropriate. I hope he suffered just as I have." The mask was removed and Circe turned to face the crime fighter. Unlike most of the men she faced, Batman neither flinched at the sight nor pitied her for what had happened. She had made a wrong decision and she had to live with that, just as he had to live with the decisions he made. Somehow, although invisible to the naked eye, the scars he carried were just as hideous and mutilating.
"I think it's coincidental that someone is opening up the Sionis Mansion at the same time," he said conversationally, lifting up a porcelain mask to study it for a moment before setting it carefully aside. He, if anyone, knew the value of a good mask.
"Are you suggesting that his death was engineered and that he still lives?" Nothing could hide the disappointment in her face as she turned back to the mirror and began brushing her wavy red hair.
"I don't know, Circe," Batman admitted slowly, hesitantly. But I wanted to see you again and tell you in person. I wish you no ill will. If Roman is indeed alive and free, he may come to you and I wanted you to be prepared."
"If he does, will you call me? He has to be put back where he belongs."
"Where he belongs is Hell, Crimefighter, but neither you nor I shall put him there. This I know as fact. Good bye, Batman, we shall not see each other again."
Somehow, Batman doubted that, but wasn't up to debate it. His head ached and his arm was throbbing in rhythm with his heart. "Good bye, Witch."
He turned to leave, only to be stopped by a soft voice. "Do you know how long it's been since a man has said he wanted to see me and really meant it?"
Batman looked over his shoulder and smiled gently at her. "Good night, Circe," he murmured and he disappeared back into the night.
As the house below him began to take shape, so did his plan. Although he basically knew what he wanted, achieving it was a little harder. It meant that he now had to contact Gotham's rich and elite, to lure them into his trap.
For most, that was simply a case of sending a carefully-worded invitation, offering both temptation and excitement. For some, it would take more than that. Bruce Wayne wasn't a man who randomly chose events to attend. He judiciously picked out a few, those that would offer the women and the wine he preferred, and whose purpose was deliberate.
It would have to involve charity, Wayne's dedication to charities would bring him to his fate and the death he deserved. Of course, Roman Sionis thought as he studied his ever-black, permanent features of his face, sometimes death was preferred over living. There were moments when he envied his last victim. There were moments when being burned alive seemed preferred to existing.
Reaching out with a purposeful hand, he selected a mask and tried it over his own scarred features. It worked well enough to hide what The Batman had done to him, but would it be enough for him to face the workers or the crowd that would come for his party? No, it wasn't and he discarded it for another. It would have to be perfect, just as everything else had to be.
Thankfully, he had the money for perfection, money that no one knew about, money that had accrued interest until the amount nearly tripled. Money that had allowed him to come back to his ancestral home and effect repairs upon the time-worn structure, and the very special seven rooms that would insure for a night of merriment and death.
There, that was the mask he wanted. He slipped it on and regarded his reflection. It was just what he needed for this job. With a nod of resolve to his reflection, he squared his shoulders and walked from his sanctuary out to meet with his workers.
"Hey, I didn't know Nixon was in charge of this job." He rounded a corner and came face-to-face with the job foreman.
"Your humor doesn't appeal to me, Mr. Thompson." From behind the latex mask, Sionis's voice was muffled. "What would appeal to me would be an update of your work."
"Oh, sure thing, Mr. Cimmerian, I didn't know it was you," Thompson murmured apologetically.
"I'll take you on a tour of what we've gotten done." The man scooped up a handful of blueprints and led the way through a maze of lumber, sawhorses, trash and tools to the newly-rebuilt suite of rooms.
"Just like you asked, Mr. Cimmerian, a series of seven rooms, all connected with a common hallway, but arranged in such a style that you can only see one at a time. There is only one door in or out." He indicated a hallway with a wave of his hand. "That takes you to the corridor behind the windows and the fireplaces. Since you said that there would be a fire behind each of the windows, we put extra fireproofing around so you wouldn't burn down the house."
Roman Sionis regarded the work solemnly, nodding as the foreman went on explaining where they'd gotten the different color panes for each room's windows.
"The only ones that were really tough were the red ones."
"Scarlet, Mr. Thompson," he murmured as he reached out to caress the blood-red panes of glass. "They needed to be scarlet."
"Right. Anyhow, we should be finished by the 14th unless you have any changes that you want made."
"None, Mr. Thompson, one does not change a classic work," Roman said, still regarding the window. "There will be no last minute changes, not sudden impulses. You have your orders."
"Yes, sir." But the man with the Richard Nixon mask had already started away, disappearing back into the unlit portion of the house.
Everything would be perfect.
Bruce Wayne woke when he rolled over onto his bandaged forearm. The resulting pain licked at his unconsciousness until it could no longer be ignored and Bruce released his last tenacious hold on sleep for the day.
He opened bleary eyes to stare at the pattern of light as the sun struggled against the heavy curtains of his floor-to-ceiling windows, trying to decide whether he really wanted to get up or not. Some days, four hours of sleep just didn't suffice. Absently, he rubbed the bandaged forearm as he laid there and listened to the sound of his own breathing.
"Good morning, sir," Alfred murmured as he entered the bedroom, a covered tray balanced in one hand. "Or should I preface that with, good afternoon, instead?" He set the tray and approached the bed. "How are your arm and head?"
"Fine," Bruce said, sitting up to stretch and blink painfully as Alfred pulled back the curtains to reveal a waning October afternoon. "Looks like it was a nice day."
"One of the few left us this fall, I suspect," Alfred said as he offered a dressing robe to his employer and waited for the man to rise and shoulder into it before returning to the covered tray. "The usual mail is upon your desk, however I thought you might like to deal with the top one immediately."
Bruce cocked an eyebrow in curiosity and walked over to the table, rubbing his eyes and yawning in the process. What he saw washed the last bits of sleep from him.
"An invitation to the Sionis Mansion?" Bruce asked as he slit the envelope open with the letter opener Alfred had provided upon the tray. He scanned the engraved invitation carefully reading, comprehending and then abandoningeach word for the next. "It would appear that there will be a masked Halloween ball at Roman's place. At midnight, a Best of the
Ball will be announced and a prize of $100,000 will be awarded to the winner's favorite charity."
"Very generous," Alfred said as he poured coffee carefully into a porcelain cup.
"And also a clear trap for Bruce Wayne." Bruce dropped the invitation back onto the tray and took the cup and saucer that his butler offered. "Alfred, I'm convinced that Roman is alive and still trying to kill me for what I did to him."
"But that wasn't you, sir. That was The Batman. Surely he hadn't made the connection."
"But it was Bruce Wayne who made the bail-out offer and banned Roman from any involvement in the restructured Janus Cosmetics. He could accept what the fire and Batman did to him, but his ego never recovered from the blow that bail out dealt him. No, he's definitely after Bruce Wayne."
"Then you'll decline the invitation?" Alfred asked, slightly relieved, hands checking the items upon the tray, making sure that everything was in order before offering it to his employer.
"To the contrary, Alfred, I intend to accept. It might the only chance I have to get Roman back to Arkham where he belongs without endangering anyone."
"Possibly, but it's not like I'm rushing into this blindly. In spite of what other people think, Bruce Wayne isn't exactly defenseless... or an idiot."
"Yes, sir," Alfred murmured as he set the plate of toast in front of his employer. "After you've finished, I'll change your bandage."
Bruce kept a smile from his lips as the butler walked stiff-backed from the room. It was obvious that Alfred wasn't pleased with Bruce's decision, but Bruce Wayne had long since given up trying to make people happy with his decisions. No matter how hard he tried, someone, somewhere would be angry or hurt. It sounded egotistical and selfish, but he didn't care anymore.
He picked up a thin, carefully-buttered triangle of toast and thoughtfully chewed on it as he re-read the invitation, running his fingers over the raised letters as if they would offer additional information.
It intrigued him that masked was spelt masqued, not an over-looked typo, but deliberate. And the name of the host was Mr. Cimmerian. Homer had described Cimmerians as inhabitants of a land masked with perpetual darkness. As far as Bruce was concerned, that explained Roman to a 'T'.
Bruce poured himself a second cup of coffee and started to spread boysenberry jam on another piece of toast. It was funny how things turned out between Roman and himself. Bruce could remember accompanying his parents out to the Sionis Mansion to meet with young Roman. It had been hoped that the two boys would strike up a friendship, but Bruce had found Roman stand-offish and distant, even to his own parents, something Bruce couldn't understand.
Of course, he had an abnormal fondness for his parents, preferring their company and conversation over that of children his own age. Too soon after that visit, Fate stepped in and Bruce suddenly didn't have time for childhood activities things like friendship and frivolously youth.
Bruce ruefully shook his head and began to pick at the white adhesive tape that held the bandage in place on his arm, peeling it off. He made a face as the tape took the hair on his forearm with it. With the amount of times he'd been bandaged up, it was a miracle he had any bodily hair left at all.
The knife graze didn't look as bad as it had last night and Bruce dismissed it as a mere scratch as he reached for a pen. The phone rang and he reached for it, cradling it between his shoulder and ear.
"Bruce Wayne," he murmured as he continued to write. The loud harsh voice that responded made him wince and snatch the phone from his ear. It was Mrs. Crawlily, editor of the Society Page. Would he be attending the charity costume ball at the recently-refurbished Sionis Mansion? Yes, he would. Would he be bringing a date? Bruce made a face at the question. Yes, he supposed he would. Because if he wasn't, Mrs. Crawlily would be there with her still- available, too-good-to-be-true unmarried daughter, Claudia.
Bruce thanked her for the call and quickly made an excuse to hang up. That was the one problem with being one of Gotham's most eligible bachelors, too many Mrs. Crawlilysthought it was their job to 'fix' the problem.
He finished his response and slid the RSVP card into the envelope provided for that purpose. He licked the glue, making a face at the taste, and sealed the envelope.
If Roman wanted Bruce Wayne, then he would have him. Bruce just wondered if Roman was up to the task.
The Sionis Mansion was lit up from the exterior with carefully-placed luminaries, each single candle struggling against the dark as they lit the path up to the front door of the mansion. The over-growth of the front lawn had been permitted to stand, the twisted and gnarled trees and bushes hunching together like witches bent over a cauldron, creating an atmosphere suitable for All Hallows Eve.
Yet the stream of arriving people paid them as little attention as they did the concrete beneath their feet and the chilly October night against their painted and decorated cheeks. Rich people loved to dress up for Halloween as much as anyone else and their money permitted them the flights of fantasy that often eluded the general public. There were feathery, poufy headdresses, carefully sculptured hairdos, miles of colorful fabric and many, many masks.
From his vantage point in one of the upper floors, he watched the lambs mass to the slaughter. Many of people's real identities would remain a mystery to him and that was fine. There was only one man he was really interested in and the rest were simply window dressing for what was to follow. They were Gotham's elite, the idle rich and the richly idle.
A classic Grey Ghost limo pulled up to the front door and Roman leaned forward for a better look. Yes, finally, Wayne had arrived, fashionably late as usual. There was a beautiful red-head on his arm and Roman felt himself start. Of all the women in Gotham, why did he have to bring her? This wasn't fair.
"I feel out of place here," the woman admitted as Bruce helped her out of the limousine. For his part, Wayne turned on the charm and beamed at the woman. Somehow, no one found his Zorro outfit terribly out of line for him and there was no denying that the woman walking beside him had a body worth fighting the El Calde for. It would also be the one night of the year the party goers wouldn't stare or scream at chemical-scarred face that hid behind the carefully-sculptured porcelain mask.
"Don't worry about it, Circe," he murmured as they walked up the path. "The Batman thinks it would be a good idea if you were here. If Roman is alive, this might keep him from injuring innocent people."
"Do you really think that would honestly stop him?" Circe asked, holding back, pushing against her escort, unwilling to enter the house. "You wouldn't feel that way if you could see behind my mask."
"Don't dismiss him so quickly. Roman loved you."
"The only emotion stronger than love is hate, Mr. Wayne." Circe pulled her cloak closer around her as they neared the blacken front door. "I'm afraid that's all Roman and I had left for each other. However, I have made peace with my anger; Roman never did."
"Are you ready to go in?" Bruce asked as he reached for the door knocker.
"Not yet," the redhead confessed and walked over to the railing, holding onto the rough, weathered wood as if it was her only real support in the world. "Do you know what that means, Mr. Wayne? To lose everything you treasured and have to start again with nothing but the leftover shards?"
"More than you realize, Circe." He came to stand beside her, offering his presence, but nothing more. To their right, people arrived, laughing, already intoxicated on both the excitement and the gaiety of the evening to come. "You may not believe this, Circe, but we are kindred souls."
"I do believe you,=. The cards always tell me true," she said simply and turned back to the house. "I am ready."
"Then let's not keep Roman waiting," Bruce offered his arm and his best smile.
There were seven rooms,each situated so that only one could be viewed at a time and each room had an establishing color. Walls were decorated with richly-hued tapestries and matching thickly-woven carpet covered the floors. One room was a warm orange, another a cool white. There was a rich violet room and another an inviting blue. The fifth, a relaxing forest green and next a royal purple. The last room was black and it was here that the only variation in theme took place. Instead of black windows, the panes were stained a vivid scarlet.
The only illumination in the rooms were the exterior-lit corresponding-colored, stained glass windows. Huge tripods behind each window held crackling fires and the light streamed through the pane helped to color the room even further, painting the faces of the revelers with their pigments. Each room was crowded with the exception of the last room. Here only a few brave souls ventured into red-washed light, to stare at the heavy midnight-black tapestries or examining the black eloquently carved grandfather clock before abandoning it for one of the other more cheerful rooms.
Strangely enough, while the other guests avoided the seventh room, it was here that Bruce Wayne felt the most comfortable. It also afforded him a little more privacy from the prying eyes and minds of the others, giving him a chance to study the crowd and formulate a plan. Somewhere among the happy thong, Roman was standing and watching him back.
"Somehow, it doesn't surprise me to find Zorro hiding in the dark," came a voice close behind him and Wayne turned, unsurprised. The person walked like a Clydesdale horse. "Locating your next victim to plunder of their gold and distribute to the poor undeserving peasants?" Bruce immediately recognized Thurman Crawlily, somewhat appropriate bedecked as Henry the Eighth. At least he didn't need any padding.
"Your wife, I think. You certainly have enough of them go around," Bruce said with a half-smile and a wink. He patted the man's shoulder and twisted the tip of his mustache. "Excuse me." Easily, he escaped into the milling crowd just outside the black room, not pausing to look back over his shoulder at the disappointed Henry. The last thing Bruce needed now was a fatherly lecture on the joys of wedded bliss.
He walked through the crowd, dodging feathers, swords, walking sticks and other obstacles as he made his way to Circe's side. She had been backed into a corner by a determined pirate when Wayne appeared.
"Mind if I play through here?" he asked the pirate who seemed both mildly annoyed and amused.
"Aye, I ain't having any luck, matie. She's keel-hauled my poop deck." The plastic parrot on the man's shoulder drooped dejectedly.
"I should hope so," Bruce put his arm around the slender shoulders of the redhead and smiled. "After all, she came with me. Didn't you see the 'Z' on her forehead?" Quickly he steered her away to a temporarily deserted corner. "Have you spotted Roman yet?"
"No, he is not here. Not with us." She spoke with a conviction that left Bruce wondering how she could be so certain, yet he knew she wouldn't tell him even if he asked. Instead, he reached up behind his mask and wiped away a trickle of sweat. He was stifling within the outfit, possibly because he wore his Batman disguise beneath it, his cape and cowl tucked into pouches that he wore on the wide belt which, in turn, hid his utility belt. With Sionis in the area, he wasn't taking any chances and had come prepared to fight a war - a war he hoped would not claim too many casualties when it erupted.
It was time, Roman decided as he arranged his robe on his board shoulders and checked his appearance in the mirror. Over his own fire-marred features, he wore a specially carved masked, one that depicted a plague victim, a plague that would soon infect every reveler in the chambers below.
At the stroke of midnight, the only door to the suite would close, sealing the rooms off from the rest of the house, then a deadly dose of plague virus would be released from the belly of the giant, loudly ticking grandfather clock that stood in the Black Room.
It was a plague that would claim everyone as its victim, including Wayne and that traitorous witch. It was obvious now to Roman know that she had always been in cahoots with the millionaire and had probably even set up housekeeping with him, just to spurn Roman further. No matter, soon they would both be dead and he would once again rule the Janus Empire. At that point he would deal with The Batman and not before.
The part that amused him most of all is that every person who partied below him had probably read the source of his trap, had shoved it aside, just as he had been pushed from the main flow of society. The irony of the whole situation gave him the strength he needed to square his shoulders and go down to meet the people below.
"Something strange is going on here, Circe," Bruce Wayne said as he sat in a corner of the abandoned Black Room and toyed with the glass of soda water he'd been nursing for the past half hour. "There is something that keeps nagging at me. I feel like I've been here before."
"Agreed." Circe pulled her cloak about her, obviously more ill-at-ease in the room than her date. "I feel as if I'm a heroine in the middle of a horror story and that's not an entirely good place for the heroine to be."
"Horror story," Bruce repeated softly, then again, "Horror story... of course. Circe, that's it." The glass was dropped from his grasp and Circe stared at him confused. "Right now, however, we have to get these people out of here."
"How do you propose to do that, Mr. Wayne? Half of them are drunk and they aren't about to leave until the liquor runs out." She couldn't understand Bruce's reaction as she set her own glass aside.
"Did you ever read Edgar Allen Poe?" Bruce was up and walking towards the only exit from the suite. "Did you ever read Masque of the Red Death?"
"I suppose so, but it was a long time ago, back in high school." She practically had to run to keep up with the man's long strides. "I don't remember it very well."
"The Red Death had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal. There were sharp pains and sudden dizziness and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution," Bruce quoted as he pushed past a couple who glared at him in his wake. "The Prince Prospero invited several of his knights and ladies to seek refuge in his castle and therein threw a party in a suite of seven rooms. Each room was a corresponding color, orange, purple, blue, green, violet..."
"And black. At the stroke of midnight, the Red Death himself appeared and the party-goers were struck down by the plague that they'd been hiding from," Circe finished. "Now I remember it. My gods, is that what Roman is planning?" They arrived at the only exit of the suite and Bruce pushed her out, into the main hallway and towards the door.
"It has to be. Go to my car and call Gordon. Roman is alive and well and planning the murder of a lifetime."
"But Gordon won't believe me."
"Make him believe you, Circe. Tell him The Batman told you to call if you have to. Anything to make him come, Circe."
"What about you?"
Yes, what about me? Bruce thought as he looked back over his shoulder. "I've got to try and get those people to leave. Do it now, Circe, and hurry. We don't have much time." Bruce shoved her on and disappeared around a corner.
Once free from the woman, Bruce found himself a quiet corner and quickly stripped out of his Zorro outfit. It wouldn't be out of character for Bruce Wayne to disappear in the middle of a party, in fact, it was almost expected. Exit Bruce Wayne and enter The Batman.
The only real problem was going to be convincing these people that he was in fact The Batman and not one of the numerous Batman party-goers that were currently circulating.
His costume change completed, he charged back into the room and began to 'convince' the attendees by bodily picking up a few and depositing them outside the door to the royal suite, telling them to run for their lives. Some believed him and left, others tried to pick fights, wanting to know where he got off. After all, they were tax payers, they protested. He had no right treating them like that.
The ebony clock in the Black Room chimed the quarter hour and Batman knew he didn't have time to debate the question.
What little tact he might have employed prior was thrown to the wind and he began an earnest fight to save people who didn't really know why they had to be saved. He shouted, he pleaded, he physically moved people, but nothing seemed to work.
If he only knew where Sionis had hidden the plague, he might have a chance, but it was too late. In the doorway of the Violet Room stood a tall figure cloaked in a black ulster and hood. Some women screamed, a few visibly paled as the figure walked slowly into the room. Behind him, a wake of trembling, silent people stared, too fixed to move, to use the moment to escape with their lives.
Slowly, without looking left or right, the figure moved on in a silence that grown so loud the rustle of his robe was the only sound besides the ticking of the clock.
From the end of the Violet Room, Batman watched, unsure whether he should attack Roman or let him reveal the hiding place of the plague. There were so many places with the rooms that could house the virus, hiding it until Roman so chose to release it.
Batman pulled back from the doorway and headed for the Black Room, instinctively knowing that the confrontation would be there and nowhere else. The crowd was now more of a problem as they pushed forward, fighting their way towards the exit, surging against The Batman. It slowed his progress more than he'd like, but eventually he reached the abandoned Black Room. Inside, the tall grandfather clock ticked on relentlessly towards midnight and Batman stopped.
The clock had been the center point of Poe's story, the plague descending upon the populace at the party as it stroked midnight. Batman was to the clock in five mighty strides, studying the face for some hint, some clue. All the clock offered was a muffled 'tick-tock' as though someone's heart was being smothered by a pillow, plucking at The Batman's patience until he could stand it no more.
With a bellowing "ROMAN!", a powerhouse right lashed out, smashing in the face of the clock. Bits of glass and gears cut through the material of his glove and a shot of agony laced up his arm to his shoulder and down his side. The pain cleared his mind just as the force of his attack had ceased the ticking of the clock and he cradled the injured appendage to his chest as he continued to study the clock, damning his own impulsiveness. Suddenly, realization began to dawn upon him. That had to be it.
From the entrance to the Blue room, Roman heard the cry of rage from within the Black Room and smiled. He had realized part of his dream at least. That worm Wayne had escaped him, as did the witch, but The Batman didn't. Within two minutes, Gordon and his men were going to have more than enough to keep them occupied, especially if they arrived too soon.
The plague virus he'd cultivate only lived for half an hour and, if contained within these rooms with its carefully-fitted door, was of no threat to Gotham. Should Gotham's finest break that door down before that half hour was up, they could release the plague to feed upon the entire populace of Gotham.
Behind his mask, Roman Sionis began to smile, a self-contented, self-achieving smile that warmed him as he passed through the Blue Room and onto the Green. The air filter he wore behind his mask dug into his nose and he sobered. Only two rooms stood between him and the Black Room. With careful, measured steps, he made his way through the crowd, many of whom dropped to their knees.
He approached the entrance to the Black Room and turned back to address the remaining party-goers. He pulled back his hood, revealing his plague-reddened continuance as he scanned the mute crowd, further terrorizing them. However, when he turned to focus his attention upon the clock, his rage was immediate, an explosion of fury.
The Batman stood beside it, holding a glass vial casually in his left hand.
"Looking for this, Black Mask?" he asked, his voice, muffled by the gas mask he wore over his mouth and nose, was grim and soft.
"NO," Black Mask shrieked, ripping off the mask and air filter, revealing his true face to all. "I won't have you stop this! You will die! All of you!" From the pockets of his robe, he pulled a gun and aimed it at the crime fighter. The reaction from his potential target was immediate as The Batman charged straight at Black Mask, a growl deep in his throat, cape flying behind him.
For a moment, Black Mask was stunned by this, and by the time he recovered, it was too late to take aim. He pulled the trigger, hoping for the best. The shot went wild and Black Mask felt himself being hauled up, one-handed by The Batman and suspended several inches off the floor, while Batman snarled,
"Never pull a gun on me! Never!" He threw Black Mask against a far wall and began to approach a second time. The fury Roman saw in that face made him cringe back against the wall, his hand automatically searching the immediate area for a weapon now that the gun had been knocked from his hand.
He fumbled upon the highball glass Bruce had dropped earlier and snatched it up, rapping the tip of it against an eloquently-carved, black-lacquered chair leg. It splintered and Roman held it up, welding it in an arc. If it had been possible, his charred, permanently-fixed features would have paled at the answering smile, at the grim amusement that he saw in those hooded eyes.
Black Mask was, by no means, a small man. He was the same height and build as The Batman and could probably put up a considerable fight, except that he was intimidated by sheer presence of The Batman. That intimidation had often saved Batman's life before and he was banking on it heavily now. He couldn't really afford a fist fight right now. His left wasn't his strongest and there was no denying that he'd hurt his right hand, possibly even having broken a couple of knuckles. He kept his hand clenched in a fist, since trying to straighten out to of his fingers caused him even more pain than it was now.
Before him, the madman he knew as Black Mask, cringed behind the protection of a sixth-nine cent glass. Perhaps Sir Maxwell Floppy was right after all. Batman lashed out with a leg, kicking the glass away and sending Black Mask back against the wall again. Criminals were a cowardly lot, hiding in the shadows cast by their weapons. When you stripped the weapons away, they were pathetic little bugs ready to be stepped on.
Batman approached the slumped villain carefully, wary of any movement that might indicate an attack. Sure enough, he could see a muscle twitching, a leg bracing itself to launch an attack, so he was prepared when Black Mask suddenly sprang up. Unfortunately, he did not get his injured hand out of the way fast enough and Black Mask's attack sent it cracking back against a table.
Pinwheels exploded behind his eyes and for a moment he teetered on the edge of unconsciousness. That was enough for Black Mask, he took advantage of Batman's lapse and put all he had into a right to Batman's unprotected stomach.
His wind momentarily knocked from him, Batman dropped to his knees only to be rewarded by receiving Black Mask's two clenched fist down on the back of his head, then the criminal delivered a knee to his mouth. Batman's neck gave a protesting pop and he could taste the metallic flavor of his blood as it started to drip from his nose and mouth, clogging the air filter he wore.
"NO, Crimefighter, you won't stop me this time!" Black Mask had snatched up the vial of virus and held it up triumphantly before sending it smashing to the floor. "A half an hour, Crimefighter, and you'll all be dead!"
Somehow, Batman managed to climb to his feet, his injured hand clenched to his chest, the other hand had something found upon the floor and he held onto it. He staggered a few steps from the Black Room into the Green Room. To his amazement, it was empty, then he looked down at what he was holding and he turned back towards Black Mask, who was laughing in victory.
"That was stupid, Roman," Batman said softly. "You and I are the only ones left here and I'm still wearing my mask. You, on the other hand, are without one for the first time in your life.
Realization suddenly struck the criminal and his hands began to shake. "I'll kill you for this, I swear it!"
"The only one who's going to die in here is you, Black Mask." Batman turned and limped from the room. Behind him, Black Mask was busy scrabbling for his mask, searching for it among the heavy folds of the tapestry, unaware that The Batman still held it in his hand. Slowly, Batman made his way out to the first room and slumping back against the sealed doors. In a few minutes, he'd have to set his fingers, but for now, he just leaned back and breathed slowly, content to wait for a moment or two.
Outside, he could hear the sirens getting closer and smiled. Obviously Circe had been able to convince the Commissioner. From the Black Room, there were curses, then only silence.
There was a pounding on the door an indeterminable time later and Batman recognized the voice of his old friend, ordering the door opened in the name of the law.
Rising to his feet, Batman smiled to himself, feeling the policeman's fist through the heavy wood.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you, Jim," Batman said as loudly as he could.
"Wha...? Batman? How did you get in there? What's going on?" Gordon's voice was muffled by the door.
"Black Mask has released a plague virus in here. It should run its course in about half an hour, then I'll let you in."
"Plague, then the caller was right. Are you... I mean... have you…?
"I'm fine, Jim, for the moment. Just keep this door closed, not matter what. I will let you know when it's safe."
That accomplished, Batman wearily started back into the suite, looking for what little privacy the Orange Room afforded to set his fingers. It was painful, but the relief he felt when he was finished was worth it. Lacking any other option, he used swizzle sticks as braces and pieces of his cape to secure them in place and replaced his glove to hide them from view.
A noise brought his attention away from his work and he saw Black Mask staggering towards him, deep in the throes of the plague he had released within the rooms. It was impossible to see the effect of the plague's wrath upon his face, but it was obvious upon other parts of his exposed skin.
Black Mask collapsed at the far entrance to the Orange Room and Batman left him there, not bothering to check to see if he was still alive or not. It was too late to save him, and for all he knew, it was a clever trick on Black Mask's part to get Batman's own air filter from him.
When nearly an hour had passed, Batman again returned to the door of the suite.
"Jim, are you still there?"
"Thank God you're all right," came Gordon's relieved voice. "When we didn't hear, we feared the worst."
"I'm fine, Jim. Make sure your men are wearing gas masks when they come in. I'm not sure how much of the virus is still left." Then, Batman opened the door, permitting the men in blue to enter. "He's in the Orange Room," he said, gesturing with his left hand. His right, he kept hidden within the folds of his cape. As he turned back to assist them, he was interrupted.
"Let them clean up," Gordon urged, a hand on The Batman's shoulder. "You look like you've already seen your share of action tonight."
For a moment, he hesitated, then nodded, following Gordon out into the empty hall and removed his breathing apparatus carefully, lest he start his split lip bleeding again. He brushed away the blood from his mouth with Gordon's pre-offered handkerchief and watched two paramedics hurry past with a stretcher.
"This time he is dead, Jim," Batman muttered, suddenly tired. "He tried to kill a hundred people tonight and ended up the only one dying. Perhaps there is justice in the world after all."
He waited until the stretcher bearing Black Mask's body out before turning to leave.
"Rest in peace, Black Mask," he heard Gordon say and over his shoulder, The Batman muttered, sotto voce,
"If there's any God in heaven, he won't."
Bruce Wayne dropped the book he was reading to his lap and looked out the massive bay windows as the first flakes of Gotham's winter filtered down from the heavy gray clouds, resting upon the fallen autumn leaves.
Despite the warmer weather of just two days ago, winter was right on time. An icy rain mixed with snow had been falling since noon and the weather report said it would continue through Sunday. It was going to be tricky driving tonight if he indeed went out at all.
Bruce sighed and rose to poke at the glowing log before reaching for another piece of wood. It was hard to get it placed just right with one hand in a cast, but he managed and settled back into his father's chair to study the flames as the log began to catch.
There was a soft knock at the door and Bruce's head, his neck still stiff, slowly swiveled in that direction as Alfred entered.
"Master Bruce, there is someone here to see you," he began even as Bruce was shaking his head in declination.
"No visitors, Alfred, I'm just not up to role-playing today." It hurt his swollen split lip to talk too much.
"Yes, sir, but I thought you'd make an exception in this case," Alfred said as he stepped aside to permit a cloaked figure to brush past him and approached the millionaire. Silently, Alfred withdrew, closing the door behind him.
Automatically, Bruce started to rise as the hood of the cloak was pushed back to reveal a mass of red-hair and two iridescent eyes stared out from behind a ceramic mask, regarding him seriously.
"Roman is truly dead this time, isn't he?" She walked directly to the fireplace to warm her hands.
"Yes, he is, Circe. From his own hand as surely as if he committed suicide." Bruce moved to her side.
"Perhaps this was exactly what he wanted," she murmured before reaching out an inquiring hand to Bruce's cast. "And you, Crimefighter, are you also intent upon suicide?"
Bruce carefully smiled at her, opening his mouth for a denial of understanding, but Circe shook her head slowly. "I know you deny it, Crimefighter, but the cards tell me many things."
"The trick is knowing how to interpret them, Circe," Bruce sobered, then continued. "Perhaps suicidal best describes me, but I prefer the word dedicated. And really what is it, but another mask to hide behind?" He reached out with his good hand and removed her mask, being careful not to flinch at the sight of the scarred features that had once been America's most photographed face. With equal care, he tilted her face up towards his and gently kissed her lips. "Thank you for your help, Circe. If you need my help, you know where to find me."
For a moment, contentment flitted across that face, then Circe replaced her mask. "Before I was wrong, this time I am not. We shall never meet again. However, I shall look to the sky, Crimefighter. I will celebrate your successes and lament your defeats. When your time has come, I shall mourn at your grave and pray that you find the peace that eluded you in life."
She turned and left, her cape swirling in her aftermath. For his part, Bruce Wayne re-settled himself in the chair and returned to studying the fire, Circe's words still ringing in his head. Somehow, knowing that he had someone rooting for him made all the difference.