Disclaimer: Gotham City, Batman and Robin belong to DC comics. Everything else in the story belongs to me. This is not for money.

Rating: R- violence, language, adult content

Email me - I love comments, good or bad. Ekelly1701@aol.com


Living in the Red Light
By E Kelly


If hooking is the world's oldest profession, why am I the oldest whore around? Heh. I'm still waiting for someone to give me a good answer to that one.

Forty years is a long time - and it's much, much longer when you spend it working the streets of Gotham City. I should write a book about the things I've seen - pretty little career girls could read it sitting on their soft sofas in uptown apartments and tell themselves that they can see the dignity and strength of the women who walk the streets at night. I'd probably make a million bucks.

Too bad I'm so lazy. I'd tell myself I'm just tired at my age - but I've always been lazy. That's how I started hooking in the first place.

Forty years ago - god, everything was so different - and everything was so very much the same. Those kids in '67 thought they invented counter-culture. They didn't know much. My mother used to tell stories from the Jazz Age that would have curled their ironed hair. And I've got a few of my own from the Beat days that Woodstock couldn't hope to stack up against.

In the midst of underground hash clubs, bongo drums and Ginsberg's Howl - ing, picking up cash for a bang seemed just too quick and easy to pass up. A couple of years went by - and then I realized I was a hooker. It came to me pretty clearly one night. Jack the Blade (I know - clear rip-off of Mack the Knife, but Jack wasn't exactly known for his originality) explained it to me. I still have the scar. That's probably why I became a madam. The only thing wrong with being a hooker - is men. Not all of them, not even most of them really. But it's just all set up to make it so easy for the predators.

About fifteen years ago this pair of college girls came down from Gotham U., said they were doing a project on "urban anthropology". They interviewed lots of girls, they even tried to talk to some of the johns and pimps. That of course was when they had to call it quits before they got killed. One of them had a daddy in the Department - thought that'd be enough to keep her safe. Cops keeping you safe - that's a good one. Most of them just shake you down for a bj and are on their way. I would just sit there listening to those two middle class girls tell me about the history of prostitution (this is what you learn in college?) - the days when women were temple priestesses who had sex with men to reaffirm the generative energy of the world for offerings to the sacred goddesses of sex.

I didn't make that up - that was really how they talked. It was all good for a laugh. They didn't seem to get that those priestess chicks were still around - the Thous, we call them, as that's what they charge for a night. Which makes me think if we've still got high-class hookers these days then ancient Sumeria probably had its share of streetwalkers too.

I take another long slow drink of bourbon and enjoy the burn warming me from the inside out against the bitter wind. I'm going to have to give it up soon and go in. Up here on the roof it's much worse than down on the street. Exhaust may smell like shit and it may clog your lungs - but it's heat.

"Tess."

I jump and close my eyes for a second. Thank god. That sandpaper on steel voice is the best sound in the world.

I turn, "Hey, big guy - I need a favor." I can barely see him, black in black, shrouded by his cape.

"Name it."

"I've lost track of one of my girls," I tell him. "It's just been a few hours and it may be nothing, but I don't like it, and if you have the time I'd appreciate you checking on it."

"Details."

Short and to the point - the best kind of man in my business. "Danitra Jones. She's pretty new, nineteen, about five foot six, dark-skinned black girl, real curvy and tight, Weighs about a buck-ten and she's got one of those long braid weaves. We had a carry-out order tonight - four girls and I sent TZ along with them for protection. It was a big party though, and Danitra got away from him. Took off with a couple of guys. She just doesn't know any better - doesn't realize what can happen."

I see a bit of movement under his cape, then a massive arm emerges from the shadows.

"Give me your wrist. The one with your watch."

I hold out my arm. Gently he turns it over and I hear a minute click. He releases me and I see a tiny black disk attached to my metal wristband.

"Go to TZ. Make him go over every detail of the evening. Every name, every description - of the people, the place - everything. Move naturally - the microphone can pick up all the sounds in the room without you having to do anything."

I nod and go in to do as he says. In my room I question TZ for every last thing he saw tonight, starting with the location. If this little dot can pick up everything, then I figure he can go ahead and move and still hear us. T's really upset, he wants to go out looking for her. I tell him no and keep him on track - just the facts, you know, like Dragnet. (T's twenty-five - he's probably never even heard of Dragnet.) This kid is a jewel - not only is he over six feet and about 250 pounds, but with his shaved head and a neck so thick it's take three of my hands to go around it, he's intimidating as hell. Plus, after seeing his step-daddy beat his momma to death when he was ten he has a special kind of fury for men who hurt women. When we're done I send him down to the street to watch over the girls working the block - it's Saturday night and there are always a couple of freejohns. He can take his anger out on them. Some guys think they shouldn't have to pay a hooker when they can just smack her around. But my girls don't have to put up with that.

Alone in my room, I pour another glass of bourbon and wait.

Forty years on the streets of Gotham, but the last five have changed everything. Ever since he came.

I had actually laughed when word first went around. A creature - half-man, half-bat - roaming the night, preying on the predators - like alligators in the sewers but with a John Wayne complex. That's what a lot of people thought. Within a month or two the stories got more detailed - and much, much scarier. He flew, he maimed, he was unstoppable. Bullets passed right through him, he could read minds, see through walls. Bats and other animals did his bidding. The crimelords wanted him dead, the police wanted him caught. Everyone was afraid of him - even the people he saved.

Then I saw him. I'd known by that time that something was really out there, but knowing and seeing are two very different things. All I was aware of at first that night was - screaming, crashing, the deafening roar of an automatic spewing bullets. Running towards the sounds, I was grabbed by El, my head bouncer, and pulled aside.

"Tess, don't!" he hissed in his thick Iranian accent. "All the girls are fine -"

He broke off as a body exploded through a door and rolled heavily out into the hallway. El raised his gun, then jerked back as the great black shape moved forward from the room, stepping over chunks of wood and plaster.

It said what I guess was the downed guy's name, but I don't remember the word, just the sound - glass being ground on iron. The man on the floor whimpered. In a single swift movement, he pounced, hauled the guy up and back through the splintered door. I shook El's hands off me and moved to peek into the room. I caught a glimpse of him disappearing out the window - a flutter of black cape and his captive's bare feet. The room looked like a minor war had occurred in it - every piece of furniture scarred with bullet holes, the dresser smashed, it's mirror glittering across the floor, a chair in about fifteen pieces strewn about.

I turned to look at El - and the seven or eight girls now emerging into the hall, all of them wide-eyed and flushed. Every one of the girls' tricks had fled instantly (more than one not even stopping to pull on their pants) at the mere mention of his name.

"So that was the Batman," I said and turned again to shake my head at the devastated room. "I guess psychotic vigilantes don't clean up after themselves."

How wrong I was. It was close to the same time the very next night when I turned around from pouring a drink - and saw a plain white envelope taped to the inside of my bedroom window. I had just come from the window, which looked down over the corner where I could see my girls working - so I knew it hadn't been there before.

Slowly, I walked over, took it down and opened it. Inside were two one thousand dollar bills and a note that said, "Sorry about the damage." And it was signed with a small outline of the bat emblem he wore on his chest.

I must have stood there for a half-hour just looking at the note and the money. I'm not sure if I was more stunned by the fact that this was on my window, which meant he knew I was the owner, and even in which room I slept - or if it was the sheer care it meant he took with all things, even a whorehouse. What I did next I'll never be able to explain. There was no thought or reason behind it - I just did it.

I put one of the bills back in the envelope and went for a piece of paper. On it I wrote, "This is plenty. Drug warehouse - pier 36-A, Miller Harbor, number 1217, owned by Petey Z, works for the Roman." And I taped it to the outside of the window.

I knew I had selfish reasons for fingering Petey - his little punks had hooked
dozens of girls on smack in the neighborhood - and he was a filthy, murderous shitbag besides. I couldn't prove it, but I knew he'd killed Tenay, a sweet twenty year old kid who'd refused to work for Petey. But beyond that - I knew there was something else happening - something else in me. I simply wasn't the same as I'd been before I laid eyes on him.

He doesn't look like you'd expect. That is mostly because how he looks is a minor part of being near him. I've done well in this business because of one simple thing - I know how to judge men. And he is a man - at least he is flesh and blood, and a man is the closest word I have for what he is. And yet he is something purer, darker and fiercer than a man.

Two days after I'd left him the information (the envelope was gone by dawn), I found a new one - with five hundred dollars in it. "There's more if you know anything else." the note said.

I remember sighing, but whether it was at myself or him I don't know, as I replaced his note with one of my own naming a mob-run club several blocks away. I included the location of their illegal gun stash (I had a girl who was a regular with one of the club owners.) I didn't touch the money.

Three weeks passed this time before an envelope reappeared. It was a day after the cops found every one of those wiseguys strung up by their ankles outside the club. There was no money in it this time and I was glad. First time in my life I'd ever been glad *not* to see money. The note said, "Who are your connected clients?"

That's when I really started to get the picture. He wasn't looking to randomly pick off criminals. This was a man with a plan. And I had just become a part of it.

I took my time and prepared a list, noting what alliances I knew of, and running down not just my clients but most of the neighborhood. I employed thirty to forty girls at any one time, plus nine bouncers. A woman in my position comes by a lot of information. I spent two days on it and it ran sixteen pages by the time I was done. I can't even describe the feeling I had when I saw that the big manila envelope I'd put it in was gone. But it washed through me like a fountain of youth, filling me with more strength than I ever knew I had. I think it might have been pride, that feeling.

Only a day went by. The next night I turned from my bottle and he was standing before the window I had once again left only a moment before.

My hand dropped the glass heavily to the table beside me, splashing dark brown liquid across the wood.

"Tess."

Hearing him say my name from the shadows - it was all I could do not to run
screaming from the room. Not running, I could only stand there, my legs frozen to the floor.

"That was too much," he said. I found my eyes could still move, and my wondering gaze tried to take him in - but the sense of him was too overpowering. I felt it in a flash - the demon was not the mask he wore on the outside, it was the raging power within him. The mask was merely a channel, a reflection.

"Don't take unnecessary risks. Do not endanger yourself. Do you understand?"

I felt my head move slowly up and down in a nod.

"I..." I had to stop and clear my whiskey-rough voice, "I just want to help."

"You have."

And he was gone.

So started the strangest relationship I've ever experienced. Over the last four years I've seen him maybe two dozen times - but I feel his presence everywhere. He started looking out for me and my girls. I put it together from street talk, but he also stepped up watching other working girls all over the city. I figure that was cover so it wouldn't be obvious that I was feeding him information - or maybe I just gave him the idea and he worked something out with a few of my counterparts around town. Still, he let it be known in no uncertain terms that as long as a girl's only illegal activity was hooking, she was under his protection. Not that he ignored the addicts - looking after prostitutes would be ridiculous if you left out the girls who deadened themselves with drugs. If they're selling - all bets are off. But if they're just using, he'll destroy any stuff they have with them - and then he has a little talk with them. I know at least twenty girls who've cleaned up after one of those encounters. He really knows how to put the fear of god in a person. He's even gotten onto me about my drinking. But then I just get on him for never getting laid. I may not know one thing about the man under the mask - but I can tell *that*. The man's worse than a priest (especially since they're not nearly as celibate as you might think - trust me.)

I'm pretty damn good at distracting myself, I realize.

Danitra, please be okay. I've just - lost too many of my girls to Gotham.

* * * * *


I'd known - that was why I stood on that freezing cold roof for three hours hoping he'd see me. So, I'm as prepared as it's possible to be when he appears, crouching, in the window. I rush over and push it up.

"She's alive," he tells me curtly. "I took her to Dr. Thompkins clinic in Crime Alley - do you know it?"

I nod, already moving to go to her, "How bad?"

"She'll recover," and he's gone before I can say thank you.

I hurry down the stairs, catching Moira and sending her to get TZ. I find Shanta, tell her what's happened and that she's in charge for the rest of the night. T bursts into the kitchen as I finish up my instructions and we head out together to get a cab. He won't talk and keeps his big, dark hands clenched on the edge of the seat the whole drive.

I pay the cabbie and we get out in front of the clinic. Since it's the middle of the night the place looks deserted as I knock on the locked door. A moment later it is opened by a tiny gray-haired woman with paper-thin skin and a brow deeply furrowed by years of worry.

"You must be Tess," she says with a warm smile beneath her pinched eyes. She steps aside to let us in. The room is warm but filled with the stale medicinal scent doctor's offices always have.

"Yes, Dr. Thompkins - and this is TZ. How is Danitra?"

She leads us back to a hallway lined with doors. "She has a broken arm and two fractured ribs." She stops in front of one of the doors. "They beat her about the face a good deal. She looks worse than she is. She's going to be fine." Reaching down, she turns the knob and lets us in.

Holy mother of god. Danitra lies on a bed, her face swollen to such a degree I wouldn't know it was her if I hadn't been told. There's a cast on her left arm. I know more wounds are hidden beneath the sheet covering her body.

"I've given her some painkillers," Dr. Thompkins says softly. "So don't expect a lot of response right now."

I can only nod, and TZ and I go over to her.

Lightly, I put my hand on hers, "Danitra? Danitra, baby, can you hear me?"

It takes a moment, but she slits the one eye not swollen shut.

"Tess," she whispers, "... sorry..."

"Hush, honey. I'm just glad you're all right."

She shakes her head weakly and tears squeeze out, "...stupid... didn't do... like you said..."

I hold her hand between both of mine, "Just be glad you lived to call yourself stupid for this mistake. You won't make it again."

TZ steps up, "'Cause I'm not gonna let you. I'd whup your ass right now if it wasn't already whupped." He's trying so hard to be light, but it's taking everything he has not to cry. I don't care how big he is - all I see when I look at him is a little boy. He can't stand thinking he didn't do enough - just like with his momma.

"...Z..." she almost smiles, "...whup *your* ass..."

Kid's got guts. She's going to be fine. After she falls asleep I send TZ back to the house and I go to find Dr. Thompkins. She is in a cramped little office, almost hidden behind stacks of papers and files on the overflowing desk. She looks up at me standing in her doorway.

"Got any coffee around here?" I ask, feeling awkward all of a sudden.

She smiles, rising, "Sure. This way."

I follow her back to a kitchenette and watch as she opens a cabinet and pulls down a can of coffee and a package of filters.

"Here," I say, moving to take them from her, "I can do it."

She lets me take them, maybe seeing that I need something to do. Stepping back, she leans against the wall beside me and yawns.

"You don't have to stay with us," I tell her. "You've done plenty already. I won't steal anything - he knows where I live."

She smiles at my weak joke and replies, "It's okay - I have a cot. I spend a lot of nights here."

I scoop the coffee up and dump it in the brewer, after dropping in the filter. "You probably don't remember me, but you treated me a few times - maybe twenty years ago. Just like Danitra - I'd got beat up real bad. Then it turned out I had the clap too. But you fixed me right up."

"Glad I could help," she says, her eyes steady on me. She's not put off by my lifestyle - but I guess she sees a lot of my kind. "You must do all right these days if you haven't had to come by in twenty years."

I laugh a little, "Oh, I do all right now - but most of that time in between I didn't. I just worked in different parts of the city. Done 'em all you know - from Old Gotham to the Bowery." I go ahead and ask, since she's so nicely trying to get down to business. "How much do I owe you for all this?"

"Nothing."

I'm thrown by that - she wasn't going where I thought she was, then. Hey, Tess, maybe she was just being nice - showing an interest in your life, strange an idea as that may seem.

"This is a pay as you can clinic. I can pay. I want to pay," I pour water into the coffee maker and flip it on, before turning to face her.

"It's taken care of," she says with a tiny smile.

Quietly, I tell her, "I don't want him to pay for it."

Her smile gets a little wider, "I'm afraid he would insist," she says mildly. "And he can be very ... difficult to argue with. But if you want to try, go ahead."

I look a little harder at her, "You know him well, don't you?"

"Don't you?" she counters.

"I -" I pause, and think about that for a minute, "I have no idea."

She gives me a full-out grin, "Neither do I really."

I chuckle at that, and so does she.

How bizarre it feels to share a moment of kinship with this woman. I wonder for a second, what she thinks of me with my thinning brassy blonde hair and thick makeup. A whore and a doctor - how many worlds apart is that? But we are also sisters in arms, a spy and a medic in his shadow army.

"Thank you, Dr. Thompkins," I say and I can feel my bleary old eyes gleam, "Not many people would get up at four in the morning to look after a streetwalker. Thank you for taking care of her."

"My pleasure, Tess - and please, call me Leslie."

* * * * *


It was the same old story, what happened to her. Met a couple of guys at the party. They seemed real nice, clean-cut, had some money - had some drugs. So she went off alone with them, thinking she'd judged them right, and it was safe. The first time it happens changes you. You realize how little other people think you are worth. Those boys whaled on her purely for a thrill, purely because they could - she was just a hooker after all. Who would care about her?

I hope he put every last one of them in the hospital, I think grimly. I hope he broke a bone for every fist mark on her body. Danitra doesn't really remember much of it, and they'd dumped her by the time he found her. But the fact that he never came back for more information - that lets me know he got them.

Danitra can't work for a month - Dr. Leslie was adamant about that and I stick to it like glue. Danitra seems glad - it's terrifying to think of making yourself as vulnerable as you must to hook after a beating. Even if you only turn tricks in the house with the bouncers right outside the door, it is still mind-numbingly frightening. After awhile though, I figure out that it's not fear she's feeling. She's angry - at herself for being naive, at the world for being brutal. And she's frustrated. This is the worst. I know what's going on in her head. She's thinking - it's going to happen again. Sooner or later some punk is going to want to hurt me - and what can I do? There's nothing I can tell her that will help. Every hooker has to find a way to deal with this. Violence is a fact of our lives.

It's two days before she gets her cast off that she comes to me, her face set and determined. Danitra is not a terribly pretty girl, but her figure is great and she's strong, solid, and she moves with that fierce energy of youth, except right now it's all coiled up.

"Tess," she opens my door with a small knock.

I gesture her in, "What is it, baby?"

"I got a favor to ask," she says, coming over to my desk and standing kind of all stiff.
"Go ahead," I close the ledger where I was recording last night's receipts.

"I need to talk to..." her rushing words stop dead for a second, then she goes on, " him. To Batman. Can you... you know, set it up?"

"What makes you think I can do that?" No, not even my girls know about our friendship. Can't have word getting around that you can't say anything to Tess' girls because it gets back to the Bat. That'd get me killed right quick.

"He said you sent him, that night, to save my life," she's looking at me, her big dark eyes right on me.

"Yes - but, honey, I just saw him that evening is all..."

"Then 'just see' him again," I see her fists are clenched at her sides. "Please. I need to talk to him."

Her strained voice and tense body make my face tighten with worry, "What's so important? Do you know something? Danitra - you tell me right now, I can..." shouldn't tell her, but she's smart and she can keep quiet, "If there's something he needs to know about, tell me. I can make sure he finds out."

She shakes her head hard, "I need to talk to *him*."

I'm frowning so hard it's giving me a headache (or is that the bourbon?). "All right. I'll see what I can do," she's scaring me - so wound up she's about to burst. "Danitra - tell no one, do you understand me? If I can work this out - no one is to know. Not one living soul."

"Thank you," she says softly. "I'd never tell," and she turns and runs out of the room.

I know it's not smart. I know he may not like it. But I'll do it. The look in her eyes - I don't have any right to keep her from the man who saved her life.

* * * * *


When Tess appears at my shoulder around midnight and whispers, "Go up to the roof," I just freeze for a full minute, feeling only my pounding heart. Numbly I get up from the sofa and head for the elevator.

I'm going to see Batman. This is crazy - why would he...? I'm nobody. He's Batman. He can't have time for... Stop it! I'm going to do this. I have to do it.

I walk slowly up the steps to the roof door and pause for a second. I can feel the cold wind coming in from under the door. If Tess hadn't caught me and pushed this coat into my hands, I wouldn't have even thought about it being January.

Do it.

I push the door open and walk out onto the roof. My nose instantly stings in the frigid air. Damn - it's freezing up here. I look around. He's not...

"Danitra."

I gasp and spin around. Oh... words and everything just leave me. I think my mouth is open.

He doesn't move. I can't even barely seen him, just the mask - everything else is in shadow. As my eyes begin to adjust a little, I can make out his arms crossed over his chest.

He's so ... big.

He doesn't have time for you to sit here and stare - get on with it, girl.

"Th... thank you for..."

He nods once.

I - I can't get it out. I just forgot how to make my lips and tongue move to make words.

"I'm glad you're okay," he says, in his gravelly voice.

And that makes everything come rushing up.

"I... I want to learn how to defend myself. Will you teach me?"

I did it. I bite my lip and wait for his answer. But he doesn't say anything.

"Please, I don't know who else to ask." My voice drops to a whisper and I fight back the tears that threaten - I'm not going to cry in front of him. "I don't ever want to be hurt like that again. I have to know how to fight back. Please."

Still - nothing. No, not nothing. I feel - I almost see - it's like a black forcefield stretching out from him, or a massive thundercloud spreading above him. I'm an instant from running, fleeing before that darkness swallows me up...

"There are rules," he says.

I force myself to stay put, but I'm almost swaying with the effort. Swallowing hard, I get a word out, "Anything."

"No drugs."

I go a little ashen at the steel in his voice. What... what am I doing? I can't start this, I realize with stunning force, and not finish it. I have to really mean it. Really, really mean it. Once it begins, I can't cross - him.

I feel myself nod. "Done," my voice is shaky. "Right now."

"Dedication," he says. "Discipline."

Just the way he says the words - I can feel that I don't know what he means. I've heard the words before - I know what they sort of mean, but there's no 'sort of' here. My brow tightens. I want to understand what he's talking about.

"I'll learn." I will. Whatever it takes.

He doesn't move at all, but I get some sense that he's sizing me up, deciding what I might be able to do.

"Two days from now. Eleven o'clock. Meet me here. We'll go for two hours and you'll practice for two more. To start."

And he's gone. Just gone like he vanished into thin air.

I'm trembling, I realize. I've never been so scared in my life.

* * * * *


I can't work in a coat he tells me, so we start by me going back into the stairwell to change into the bodysuit of weird heavy material that he brought. When I come out on the roof again - wow - I'm warmer than I was in the coat.

He says that I have to learn how to stand. I think that's kind of crazy since I've been standing for a lot of years. I keep my questions to myself though.

And then he reaches to put his hands on me. I flinch back violently and he freezes instantly.

"First," he says, his voice hard and unyielding, "before anything else - you have to control your fear. Close your eyes."

I hesitate, but then obey.

"Remember what it was like - when they were beating you."

My eyes snap open, wide with shock.

"Do it," he orders.

I can feel my body starting to shake and I try to close my eyes, try to do as he says - but I've been pushing those memories away so hard, fighting all the time to keep them out of my mind. I don't ever want to remember that - how it felt, so helpless. I'd thought I was going to die that night.

My voice is choked, "I ... I can't. It's too much. It's too hard." Tears are freezing on my cheeks and they sting.

"If you can't do this - you can't learn what you want to know."

I close my eyes again. My face twists. I see their faces, hear them laughing, yelling when I tell them what I won't do. I see the first fist coming at me, feel my terror as it all goes out of control. I tried to get away, tried to claw and fight them off and they just went - mad. Then there is only pain, I'm down on the ground and they are stomping on my chest and stomach, kicking me, screaming Whore, Slut, Bitch. They spit on me before they leave me there, bleeding. I am nothing. Worthless.

"Now," his deep black voice spears right through me - gives me something to grab onto, "take hold of it, pull it in, to your core. You need it. It is yours. It is you. It can be your weakness, or it can be your strength. Choose. Right now."

My breathing goes from ragged and harsh, to deep and even. My jaw is clenched so tight my teeth hurt.

My fear. My strength. I understand.

My eyes open. He nods, his mouth set in a grim line.

"Show me how to stand," I say.

He puts his hands on me, pulling my shoulders up, straightening my spine, lifting my head, changing the angle of my hips. He instructs me to keep my weight evenly on both legs. Feels weird with all my weight on my thigh muscles instead of my bones - but I can already sense how much fluidly I'm going to be able to move. I'm aware of the middle of my feet for the first time in my life.

Then he shows me how to breathe. It takes me a little while to get it right. He finally has to put his huge hand on my belly.

"From here. Don't hold your stomach in."

I draw in a breath - and it is amazing. I go a little light-headed from an oxygen rush. He explains how breathing is supposed to work, the big muscle, the dia-fram, that pulls down and fills the lungs up. This is so strange - I thought he was just going to like show me how to throw punches or something. The really weird thing is though, I already feel stronger.

Next is how to move, how to pour my weight from one leg into the other so that I stay rooted. He makes me follow him in these real slow, controlled movements that are all about balance. They all have these tongue-twisting like Chinese names and I have to say them back to him. This is what I am to practice - two hours a day until he comes back next week.

"We are gonna get to the fighting part, right?" I ask, going through the movements as he crouches on the ledge, about to leave.

"When you're ready."

I know he's gone. I have the sudden urge to get high, just to relax and shake off the intensity of all of this. I keep practicing instead.


* * * * *


It's a pretty quiet mid-afternoon and I'm in the TV room with four of the girls watching soaps when Danitra comes in. She sits in an empty chair and waits for a commercial.

Judy gets up, asking if anyone wants anything from the kitchen. Kimi, Moira and Beth all wave her off - they're seeing who can find the most raunchy thing to say about the soap stars. Danitra looks at me.

"Tess - how do you get a library card?" she asks.

The other girls stop dead and turn to her.

"Oooo, somebody want to get their learn on," Kimi crows, laughing derisively.

Danitra ignores her, staying focused on me. She's gotten so intense over the last few weeks. She was always kind of quiet, and usually high, her eyes glazy and dull. Not now.

"Baby, I have no idea," I tell her. "Never had one."

"You gotta have a driver's license, or like a utility bill - something official that shows your address, I think, " Beth says.

I can see the wheels turning in Danitra's head, "I don't have anything like that."

"Then I guess you're shit out of luck," Kimi chortles.

"Call 'em and ask 'em," Moira says, crushing out her cigarette and lighting another.

"Let me bum one of those," Kimi says. Moira frowns but gives her a smoke.

"Call them?" Danitra says.

"Sure," Moira shrugs, "It's the library, right. The *public* library. You're the public. You can call them."

Danitra gets right up, "Where are the phone books?"

They're in the closet. She pulls out the right volume and comes to sit back down, opening it on her lap.

Judy comes in and flops back down with her microwave dinner. The soap comes on again, and Danitra flips pages.

"There's like fifteen numbers here," she says. "Which one do I call?"

"Let me see," I say and she hands the open book over. I look down the list.

"Oh, honey, I don't know," I tell her finally. "Just call the main information number."

"No," Beth says, "That'll be an recording. It's, um," she leans over my shoulder to look, "this one. Circulation."

"Circulation?" Kimi scoffs. "That's like - has to do with blood."

"No," Beth gives her a black look and says, "That's where they *circulate* the books." She takes the phone book and hands it back to Danitra, then glances back at Kimi, muttering, "Boy, are you a dumbass."

"Bitch! Don't you talk to me like that," Kimi jerks a hand up and smacks Beth across the face.

"Kimi!" I yell, grabbing her and warning Beth off with a stare. "You want to find your ass on the street?! You know I don't put up with that shit!"

"But, Tess -"

"Shut up. Go upstairs." I glare at her as she stomps off. Then I turn back to Danitra - but she's gone. I didn't even hear her leave.

I know she's been meeting with him up on the roof. Three times they've had their sessions. She told me she'd asked him to teach her to defend herself. But something else is going on. That's not all he's teaching her. I know that has something to do with this. Getting up, I wince a little at the pain in my knees - arthritis - and go look for her.

She's in the kitchen, just hanging up the phone. Acknowledging me with a small nod and a kind of secret smile, she heads for the door.

"Where are you going?" I ask.

"To get a fake ID," and she exits.

I stare at the empty doorway. That's a first in my experience - a streetwalker picking up a fake ID - so she can get a library card.

For some reason, I smile.

* * * * *


Kimi leans over the back of my chair and flips the book on my lap closed over my fingers. "Tay - chy - chew - an," she says, "what the fuck is that?"

"T'ai Ch'i Ch'uan. It's Chinese. It means Supreme Ultimate Fist," I tell her. "It's a martial art."

"Who are you - Jackie Chan?" she says sarcastically.

"No, I'm Danitra Jones."

She makes a 'you're so funny' face and comes around to sit on the couch, reaching for my stack of books. I open the one on my lap and go back to reading. I have to stop for a second and reach for the dictionary at my feet to look up a word I don't know. I'd had to buy the dictionary - there wasn't one in the house.

"Ay - kie - doo," she reads a title.

"Aikido," I say, scanning the definitions.

"Jeet - kyun - doo."

"Jeet Kun Do."

"Well, I know how the hell to say karate," she snaps, dropping the other two books on the last one she'd uncovered. "Why are you reading this shit?"

I close the dictionary, set it down and start reading again, "To learn."

"You think you're so fucking smart," she says, affecting a bored tone. "Why do you want to learn this?"

Without looking up from the book, I say mildly, "You are such a stupid bitch, Kimi."

She swells up instantly, and in my peripheral vision I see her raise her arm and swing her open palm at my head - I see it like it's in slow motion, and know exactly what to do.

I reach up, grab her wrist and turn, going under it, twisting her arm and moving in an easy jump. I hold her for one second, pinned over the arm of the couch, then I release and step back. I didn't hurt her - just surprised her.

She looks at me, wide-eyed with shock.

"That's why," I say to her. Then I go sit back down and pick up my book where it'd fallen to the floor.

Kimi's still staring at me.

"Damn, girl," she says softly. "Can you teach *me* that?"

* * * * *


He didn't come back last week, and he may not come tonight. One of those true freak jobs we have in Gotham busted out of the Asylum about ten days ago. Two-Face. They splatter his splattered face all over the news -it's just gross.

Funny, I think, carefully running through my warm-up exercises, on the TV it's like everybody just goes bonkers when one of the psychos is on the loose. But down here in the bowels of the city we barely notice. In fact, you'd almost rather go out in one of those big extravaganzas of death under the hands of one of the famous ones. It's a hell of a lot more glamorous than getting knifed in an alley by a faceless crack addict for the thirty bucks in your purse.

I smile tightly - but no one's ever going to get me without a fight.

Than he does show up. Till the day I die I know I'm going to remember this - just moving with him, circling slowly on the loose gravel of the rooftop, concentrating, feeling the energy and strength coursing through my body. It's unbelievable. Like flying or something.

The whole world has changed - especially since I got the books. The library was - terrifying, like again and again. First the sheer size of it, and the quiet with so many people around. The main room was two stories tall and it went on forever and ever - and all of it filled with books.

They were really - nice. It was so weird, the fast-talking serious Puerto Rican girl who showed me how to use the computer and match the numbers to the shelves - I kept expecting her, or somebody, to ... just look at me like I didn't belong there. But no one did.

There's books on everything - just everything in the world. I guess I always knew that, but somehow it never registered until now - what that means. I can find out about anything I want to find out about. There are millions of books - I got tired looking at that room full of books. Because all of a sudden I wanted to read all of them, and that was going to take a *really* long time.

He was the one who told me. I kept asking more and more questions about the things he was showing me - and I knew we were getting to the end of the time he could spend with me and there was so much more to know. I could always sense that - he was only showing me the bare bones of this stuff. I wanted more.

"Can you read?" he asked.

"Of course I can read," I said stiffly - I didn't graduate high school, but I went - he could give me a little credit. Then I think - it was a fair question. Lots of people I know have trouble reading. TZ, much as I love him, can't even get through a magazine article.

He'd listed several books. I tell him that I got them all. He seems - pleased? Who can tell?

Suddenly, in the middle of showing me a new defensive move, he goes still as a statue. I turn to follow his gaze and catch a glimpse of movement on the roof across the street.

"I have to go," he says.

"O - " I'm already talking to empty air, " - kay."

Damn. I wish he could teach me *that*.

Even though I'd put my two hours in earlier today, I go on practicing. This is just my favorite thing to do now. It's getting so I barely even miss getting high anymore. I'm at it barely a minute when a voice sends me jumping two feet in the air.

"Hey."

I spin around - and ... Robin's standing there on the ledge.

"Uh," I stare and him stupidly - talk, girl, find some words! "What are you doing here?"

He jerks his head towards the building across the street, "He said I should run you through the rest of the Jeet Kun Do exercises."

I'm really confused, "But ... you're a kid."

He springs right up into the air, somersaulting and kicking out at my head. I jerk away, but he still sideswipes me and I go down, rolling with the fall, but Robin's all over me and in a second I'm pinned.

"Whoa," I breathe, looking up into his grinning face. He hops up and gives me a hand. As I reach my feet I'm caught by the fact that he barely reaches my chin - but he'd taken me down with almost no effort.

"That wasn't what I meant," I tell him.

The grin drops off instantly and he pulls back a little, frowning. "What did you mean?"

"I just thought, you know - he wouldn't want his kid hanging out with a hooker."

He gives me a disbelieving look, "Why would that matter?" I'm a little stunned. It's so strange to be taken as a person - and nothing else.

"Besides," the grin is back with a flash, "I don't have any money."

I laugh, surprised. Then I give him a narrowed stare, trying to look stern but I'm still smiling, "Where I come from we call that acting too big for your britches."

"Yeah - well, with these britches it wouldn't take much, would it?" He claps his hands as I laugh again. "Let's get down to business. He said one hour, and - man, does he get a bug up his butt when I'm late."

"Cut it out!" I say. "I can't concentrate if you're making me laugh," but hearing him talk about Batman like that is too much and I can't stop giggling.

"Sorry," he says. Then he starts the lesson, picking up right where Batman had left off.

I thought I was getting good - but this little fourteen year old tosses me around as much as Batman usually does. I guess what he keeps telling me is true - size doesn't matter if you know what you're doing.

I'm out of breath and aching when I pick myself up yet again an hour later.

Robin grins at me, "He's right. You're a natural."

"Are you kidding?" I ask, disgusted with myself. I reach up to feel along my tricep, which I just pulled pretty good. "He's never said that to me. And I suck at this."

"No - you've just only been doing it a little while. You've got it. Just keep working - you could get really good," his face has gone all earnest, then he smiles at me again sympathetically. "And don't expect him to tell you that you're doing well. If he's not telling you that you're screwing up - that means he thinks you're doing well."

I shake my head at this extraordinary kid with the wide-open face, "You're nothing like I thought you'd be."

His brow crinkles, "What do you mean?"

"You're just... and he's so..."

"Yeah, yeah," he waves a hand, "Mr. Grim and Dreary. It works for him though." And there's that hundred-watt grin, "Plus, it makes him a great straight man for me. Ba-da-bum---tzchiss," he gestures like he's striking drums.

"Geez," I laugh warmly and shake my head at him.

"Gotta go," he says - and he bounces off with a wave.

I just stand there a minute. Wow. What a kid. Then I turn to head in. But I stop for a second at the door.

You know - if he could teach me, and he's just a kid - maybe I *could* teach some of the other girls. If I learn enough, maybe...

I'm beginning to think anything is possible.

* * * * *

Danitra's meetings with Batman went on for about three months. Then she took the money she used to spend on drugs and started taking classes at a do-jo (that's Korean, or is it Japanese - hell if I can remember) over in the Bowery. After about six months of that, she began holding classes of her own up on the roof. Several of the girls, starting with Kimi of all people, had taken to watching her practice from time to time (always on the roof, and usually in the middle of the night - I think he still stops by to check on her every now and then). She'd shown them a couple of things, but when she settled down to really teach - it was something.

To start, she got El to attack her. El's not huge, but he's thick and hard as an oak tree. He was dubious and threw a slow, weak punch at her. She blocked his arm and smacked his breastbone with the flat of her hand - and he went back about three feet and landed on his butt. The girls hooted and laughed. I smiled too, but for a much different reason - Danitra. She just stood there, loose and ready, waiting for him to pick himself up.

"You want to get serious now?" she asked him.

"Okay, okay," he came to his feet slowly, then moved like a striking snake, going to grab her with his thick arms and immobilize her. She sidestepped neatly and - well, it looked like she just tapped him between the shoulder blades. But he went stumbling down, landing hard on his knees.

The girls had gasped at El's lightning move - and gone silent for a second when he went down. Then they hollered and clapped, even stomped their feet.

This time when El got up - he was looking at her with a whole new appreciation. Narrowing his eyes, his teeth flashing in his swarthy face, he approached her and stood, arms loose at his sides.

"Bring it on, baby," Danitra said with the best grin I've ever seen.

He considered her a moment more - then struck. El had done some street boxing before working for me - in a quick flurry he punched and swung - at first kind of experimentally, circling slowly. But when she blocked them all, he set to really testing her - fist cutting up, coming around, weaving quickly, trying to find an opening. He couldn't. The girls laughed and cheered, winced and yelled. Finally Danitra blocked a punch, turned his arm, dropped low and swept his feet right out from under him.

So even the bouncers started coming to her classes. After I watched her drop TZ - twice her height and fast besides - I pulled her over and told her that her job description had just changed.

And that's how Danitra Jones became the first - and as far as I know the only - female bouncer in a Gotham whorehouse. I'll never forget the first john I saw her toss. He turned on her when she punched him right below the shoulder blade, howling and holding the arm that had just been viciously twisting Tina's tiny wrist. Seeing Danitra, who barely reached his shoulder, his face reddened and his massive arm swung - and she had him on his knees, screeching like a cat with its tail caught in a door. She twisted his arm so far up behind his back I don't know how it didn't break. With a tug she got him to his feet.

"You little bitch!" he screamed as she pushed him toward the door.

"Little?" she said. "What's little got to do with it? We women try and try to tell you guys - when are you going to get it?" She paused as El swung the front door open. Looking back over her shoulder while still holding the guy, who was now wheezing in pain. "Ladies?" she said.

And half of the girls in the room yelled out in unison, "Size doesn't matter!"

Daitra sent him rolling down the steps to the sidewalk and El slammed the door shut.

The girls broke out into cheers.

Daintra's always willing to teach anyone anything she knows (that little girl hounded TZ until he finally gave in and let her teach him how read), but after the novelty wore off - not many were motivated enough to stick with it. Like I said, people in this business are lazy. You just don't find many like her - and the funny things is, if she hadn't gotten beaten up - she'd have gone on wasting her brain and her body, being lazy just like the rest of them. It was really just an accident that she found something more in herself.

One thing you miss, living our kind of lives, is people who stick around. Most die young, a very few escape, and the rest just fade away. But Danitra's been with me for seven years now - and I know she's not planning on going anywhere. Now that I've truly gotten feeble (no one in this business has any right to live to be seventy) she takes care of me - and someone to look after me in my old age is so much more than I ever expected to have. She's taken over most of the business, and she keeps the information flowing to Batman. I'm glad to know she's here to carry on - being one of his soldiers always meant more to me than the rest of my life put together.

It's a tiny bit of hope in a sea of death, I know - but in our part of Gotham, no triumph is ever small.


finis