Chapter 1: L4 Revisited
"On a catwalk? My haven't we changed."
"And you. From mere theft to terrorist blackmail…"
If it wasn't the worst moment of my life, I'd be hard-pressed to say what was. That mechanized monstrosity of a costume, everyone assumed he was just overcompensating after the Bane injury. There was no reason to think it wasn't still Batman under the mask. Not until that moment. Not until he accused me of stealing nerve gas for terrorists.
At first, I only knew it was wrong, that he was wrong, but I couldn't grasp the totality of it, not in those first seconds. Then, a few words later, a few steps closer, and…
"That's close enough."
"You're right. Close enough to realize you're not him."
The real Batman would never fear my approach. But in retrospect, I guess Azrael was right to. Because as soon as I got close, I could feel it. Batman is warm and alive, raging with desire and purpose. This thing was sterile. The waves of intensity that pulse and pound off the real Batman were gone, and in their place, there was only a hollow, nervous dumb-show. If it wasn't the worst moment of my life… And now I was living it again, over and over, like some poetic Twilight Zone hell where you're trapped in the worst night of your life for all eternity.
Okay, technically, it was seventeen minutes, but it felt like an eternity and then some. The Batmobile can make it from midtown to Wayne Manor in fourteen minutes flat, but the Lamborghini isn't the Batmobile, and I was further downtown and six blocks from the car when the call came in…
I had resisted the OraCom for the longest time. It seemed so "Team Batman." But then, on my birthday, Dick and Barbara gave me this little, purple velvet box. They couldn't seem to control their smiling; it was like Joker had just passed through with a SmileX sampler platter. I opened the box, and these three silver cats looked up at me: earrings and a necklace. Dick was Mr. Technical, explaining that the earrings held the earpiece (no kidding) and the necklace had a powerful directional microphone (which could also be removed and clipped to the side of my mask, if I preferred). Barbara just said that "Girls need some style," and even if it wasn't dangerous for Catwoman to be running around with an obvious bat-device, it would still be ludicrous to expect me to use a com-link shaped like a bat. I was too stunned to even speak, at first, which Barbara might have taken as disapproval, because she hastily added that my link was just like Batman's in one very important respect: she wouldn't be able to track it. And then Dick came over and kissed my cheek, said "welcome to the family" and, well, that's how Team Batman finally got a collar around my neck.
So now I have an OraCom, and that night I was satisfying a cat's professional curiosity about the security for a silk Tabriz rug the Saudi royal family is selling at Sotheby's, when the unit went off.
..:Catwoman, you're going to want to proceed home, ASAP:.. came this eerily detached voice that I wouldn't even have recognized as Barbara's if I didn't already know.
..:B is down. I'm sorry I don't have any details, other than he's in the Batmobile and it's operating on autopilot.:..
I'm sure I said something, but I have absolutely no memory of it. All I know is that the cool monotone of calm, super-human professionalism answered ..:ETA at the cave in 4.2 minutes. We'll know more then.:..
I had just made it back to the car when the line crackled to life again:
..:Breathe, Selina. He's alive and he's going to stay that way. Alfred says it's his back.:..
It was meant as a comfort, and I suppose it was. "He's alive and he's going to stay that way." But I didn't feel relief. I couldn't seem to feel anything. Just those words "it's his back" hanging in the air like plague in some sweltering Karachi port of a hundred years ago.
I couldn't breathe. I couldn't think. I couldn't feel. I'm not completely sure how I managed to drive. All I know is that, somewhere in my head, the part of my brain that once struggled to process Batman being Bruce Wayne was only now making the acquaintance of another part of my psyche, the part of me that encountered "AzBat" that night.
"From mere theft to terrorist blackmail…"
The Batman I knew would never have thought such a thing. The Batman I knew was not in that costume. The Batman I knew must have badly hurt by Bane. The Batman I knew… was Bruce.
It was incredible. After all this time, there was still one small piece of my past with Batman that hadn't made the adjustment now that "Batman" had a name and a face. But there it was: the man I thought I'd lost that night, the man who—let's get real—who I loved whether I'd admit it to myself or not, the man who Bane had hurt or even killed for all I knew at that moment, was Bruce.
Officially, the Lamborghini has a maximum speed of 350 kilometers or 217.5 miles per hour, just 4.5 short of the Batmobile. After the last turn off Country Club Drive onto the Wayne property, I discovered it can actually go 218.3.
I did something I've never done before. I bypassed the turn towards the garage and went straight into the Batcave. The bats in the hangar had a hissy fit, but they stayed out of my way as I ran to the med lab.
Alfred didn't. He intercepted me a few feet from the door, and frankly, I consider it a triumph of self-control that I didn't flatten him where he stood and keep right on going. I had to see Bruce, and I couldn't seem to make him understand that. He just kept going on and on about how unfortunate it was that Miss Oracle had contacted me when and how she did. He would have much preferred to inform me himself, and had intended to as soon as he had a free moment to do so. He was, naturally, occupied with his patient in those first minutes after the Batmobile arrived in the cave, and by the time he was at liberty to speak to me himself, it was, of course, too late. He apologized that Miss Oracle's incomplete information had so needlessly exacerbated my fears.
There's nothing like Alfred Pennyworth's scrupulous formality to make you feel like a hysterical drama queen making a crisis out of a cat's-paw. I would have given just about anything to be able to toss my hair and answer flawless formality with careless felinity… but I couldn't. It was the Batcave, his Batcave. I didn't even know existed back then, and now I was standing in it. I couldn't manage carefree felinity. All I could do was ask if I could see him, and hope I didn't sound as meek and needy to Alfred's ear as I did in mine.
Oliver Lyon glanced over the dismal sales reports for Organic Life, Natural Living, and Herbal Monthly, and the equally dismal projections based on quarterly sales. Then he turned his attention to the sales figures for Supple, Fashionista, and Gotham Swank… always the stars. Thirty-five magazines made up his publishing empire, and every month it was the same three at the top and the same three on the bottom. The media kept talking about these new social trends: environmental awareness and economic downturns moving Americans away from the old bling towards a healthier, more modest, and eco-friendly lifestyle… If it was true, you certainly couldn't prove it by their reading habits. He could cancel Organic Life and those other losers and never see so much as a blip on the summary income statement.
But in Gotham there were considerations beyond the bottom line. Years ago he was advised that, given the amount of paper Lyon Publishing consumed, he would be wise to keep a few "green power" titles going, no matter what. It was the best insurance against Poison Ivy singling him out to be made an example.
Oliver gathered up his reports, but then paused before sliding them into his briefcase. Was there any point in his bringing work home? Tomorrow morning, they'd be packing up their things and driving out to the vacation house. He was used to it being a big three-day ordeal when they were moving out to Watermill Lodge for the summer. It was like packing up an army, especially when the kids were young. But this was a simple house party: a day or two to set up, a long weekend with their guests, and leave the staff to close the place up. It really shouldn't be a big deal. But it was going to be. With Noel, there was no such thing as a "simple" house party. He was sure she'd be packing enough clothes for a month. "Have to have options!" she'd say.
Well, what did he expect? She had been the fashion editor for Gotham Swank when he met her, and before that, she was a model. Three outfits per day (and three "options" for each) went with the territory.
He paused again, looking down at the papers. There was no way he'd have a chance to get any work done, not until the whole thing was over, but it might be worthwhile to bring the paperwork anyway, just to have it handy as a prop. With Noel, Fiona, and Gracie all under one roof, he might need an escape.
"Have to have options!" as Noel would say.
Alfred said that Bruce had regained consciousness shortly after the Batmobile returned to the cave, but that he'd administered a painkiller and he doubted Bruce would still be awake. I didn't care. I still had visions of AzBat dancing in my head. I needed to see Bruce. I needed to touch his cheek and hold his hand and send Azrael the Imposter back to the shadows, a sickening memory of what never should have been.
I entered the med lab flanked by ghosts: the Catwoman of that other lifetime on my right, the Batman she once fought on my left, and the armored monster that took his place trailing a few steps behind.
"There you are," a groggy voice murmured—and just like that, the ghosts were gone. All he had to do was speak.
"I thought I heard voices out there," Bruce said weakly. "Then thought maybe imagined it. The shot… tend to imagine…"
I walked over to the bed and stroked his hair a few times.
"I like to think when your imagination conjures me, it can do better than this," I purred.
For just a second, one of the ghosts returned, but he wasn't standing beside me. The Ghost of Batman Past flickered ever so briefly in Bruce's eyes—crystal clear, dark and penetrating, sexy as hell—some sort of deep-seeded reaction to the suggestive taunt, I suppose. That hypnotic intensity blazed for a second, then glazed over again.
"Well, you are a bit overdressed," he murmured.
I bent over and kissed him. I whispered a few of the old promises in his ear as he drifted off, hoping to seed the right sort of dreams, and then I turned towards the door.
It's a kind of natural arch that separates the med lab from the main cavern, and I turned knowing that, as sure as the sun rises in the east and as sure as there will always be an England, there was going to be a pot of tea waiting for me on the other side.
I had turned knowing I was going to see Alfred coming at me with the inevitable tray, pot and cups, milk and sugar. And they were there, all right, but in between, my eye caught something else. Something wrong. It took a second to register anything more, but then it came in a flash: color—green—green color!
The wastebasket just inside the med lab arch was heaped with little bits of vine and leaves.
"Oh no, my dear, no, no, no," Richard Flay cried.
He clicked his tongue and waved his fingertips in a seizure of disapproval as he walked out of the antique shop. Nicola Dulch smiled apologetically at the owner as she raced after him. She caught up with him at the corner, but only because he'd stopped at a newsstand to pick up the new Art and Antiques.
"Richard, that was terribly rude," she scolded. "How am I to show my face in there again, when they know I brought you expressly to—"
"You shouldn't go back. Ever. The painting's a fake, and not a very good one. Catherine de Medici died in 1589. Yet the buttons on her dress are cerulean blue, which has only been around since 1805. The beads in her hair are lemon yellow,1809, and the dress itself is chrome yellow, 1818."
"Well, that is disappointing, but it's no reason to insult them. They didn't paint it."
"Nicola, my dear, you asked for my opinion, and I agreed to come down here and give it—in exchange for lunch at 21. If you want me to be polite as well (and to the would-be peddlers of a mediocre forgery, no less), then the price would be dinner at Maison de Pierre with at least two bottles of my choosing from the premium wine list."
"I'm not made of money, Richard. If I agreed to that, I'd have nothing left to buy the painting!"
"Then I'm afraid you shall have to take me as I am, or find another expert to save you from ruin."
It took the entire walk to the 21 Club and a half bottle of '96 Latour to get Richard Flay past the affront of a poorly executed forgery and back to the charming lunch companion he usually was.
"So, my dear, sex and violence" he said at last, eyes gleaming with the promise of gossip and scandal. "We meet this weekend at the Watermill Lodge, don't we, for the big house party?"
"Oh yes," Nicola said. "I think I was the first one outside the family to be invited."
"You are family," Richard insisted, consulting his infallible memory of who in Old Gotham society was related to whom, and beginning to arrange the facts as he often did after a few glasses of Chateau Latour. "You and Elizabeth were second cousins on your mother's side, but you couldn't be a bridesmaid when she married Oliver because you had, um… Was it chicken pox? Or was it the semester abroad, Paris or somewhere? Well anyway, you weren't there. Then, when Fiona was born, you were her godmother, and when Elizabeth died, you were appointed co-trustee for Fiona's trust fund, along with Oliver, of course. Let me see, what else? Oh yes, once he married Noel, you sponsored her for the Junior League and the Garden Club, which was generally accepted as the first family's stamp of approval on the second wife. Did I leave anything out?"
Nicola picked up the wine bottle and checked the label.
"What's in this stuff? You seem to know my life story better than I do. Quick, what's my favorite color?"
"Turquoise," Richard Flay said sagely. "I've been meaning to speak to you about those atrocious pillows you bought at the Snavely auction. But seriously, I can't take much credit. I was over at Oliver's townhouse just last week and your name came up. What with Fiona's birthday in a few months and turning over the trust."
"Ah, that's why my ears were burning. So what were you doing at Oliver's talking about Fiona's trust fund?"
"Oh, that had nothing to do with my visit. Oliver only wanted my opinion on those Miros they have on the stairs. He was wondering if they should be reappraised. It has been twenty years."
"Reappraised?" Nicola asked sharply.
"Yes," Richard said, surprised by the vehemence in her tone.
"Why would he want to do that? Why would someone reappraise artworks they've had for twenty years?"
"Oh… Well, there are many possible reasons," Richard stalled. He was uncomfortable with the shift in the conversation. What had begun as light gossip about a mutual friend seemed to be drifting into pointed and indelicate probing.
Richard Flay hardly saw his position giving art advice to his friends as a sacred trust conferring priest/penitent confidentiality, but he was aware that a collection is an extremely personal undertaking. He didn't like speculating what a purchase or sale might mean about a collector's private life. He only considered the artwork itself: its technical merits and provenance, whether it was representative of the artist or period, and its function in the greater context of a collection.
As for personal matters, well… one could glean a great deal, he supposed, if one had a sordid mind. There were pieces a collector would never part with unless he was in dire financial need. There were pieces that had to be valued for a divorce settlement or liquidated to settle an estate. And of course, for some, there were shadow collections. He himself owned six pieces which were, technically, not the lawful property of those he bought them from. Those who owned stolen artworks enjoyed them privately. They didn't show them even to a fine art consigliere like Richard Flay. But owning stolen art had given him a kind of sixth sense about others who did. He could guess with a fair degree of certainty who had a hidden room in their manor with a guilty secret or three hanging on their walls.
"It was predictable."
That was Bruce's summary the next morning. I made Alfred wake me early so I could be the one to bring Bruce his breakfast. In between bites of a lemon poppyseed scone, he explained how he's used to working through events as he writes them up in his logs. Since he wasn't going to be able to do that any time soon, he'd accomplish the same thing by telling me.
Honest to God, that's how he put it. 20 mg of Oxycontin in his system, unable to walk fifteen feet to his workstation, but he'd worked out a way to get "all the psycho-analytical benefits of making a log entry, if not the archival ones".
Upside, I got to hear the whole story.
Downside, I got to hear the whole story:
"After all Ivy did to help get Harvey back, she felt entitled to have whatever happened next to go exactly the way she wanted. She expected to be made happy."
"Ivy is never happy," I pointed out, and Bruce grimaced.
"It's not a strong predilection in her nature, I agree. Nevertheless, she expected it. And evidently, sending Harvey away for treatment, far, far from Gotham…"
"And far, far from her…"
"Exactly. The goddess is displeased, and rather than simply adapt: get on a plane and go visit him, she has to assign blame and take it out on whoever she deems responsible."
"Me. When rogues don't get what they want, it's usually me. Like I said, it was thoroughly predictable."
"If it was so predictable, why didn't you predict it?" I asked.
I have to admit, it was an effort. The teasing and sass usually come so naturally, but the scare of the night before was still too vivid. I would have been happy to give Catwoman the day off, to just crawl into the medi-bed beside him and spend the day purring in his ear. But he didn't need a purring kitten. He needed Catwoman pawing at the bat toy, just like always. So, paw I did:
"So tell me, oh Great Detective who understands the minds of his enemies so completely, if this one was so easy to see coming, why didn't you—"
"I did," he graveled. "I was prepared for an attack. I've been dosing with anti-tox, I've kept the utility belt stocked with a variety of fast-acting herbicides, I went into the Wedgewood knowing it was almost certainly a trap and that Ivy was probably the one behind it."
I felt this warm, wonderful tingle the moment he said "I did". Just like all those years ago when he showed up on that rooftop to take down the imposter and reclaim his mantle. This was the first gravel I'd heard since he was hurt, and it meant the same thing as that wonderful old costume on that long ago rooftop: Batman was back.
"The only thing I couldn't foresee was that damned flytrap getting around my belt the way it did, and those vines coiling around my leg in that exact way at that exact moment, so when the boiler blew…" He closed his eyes and shook his head.
"Your body went one way while your legs went the other," I said softly.
"Yes… Goddamn it, yes… After Bane, I modified the batsuit, added support and padding on the lower back. But no amount of reinforcement, no design, can anticipate every possible angle of every possible—DAMNIT!"
He slammed his fist down on the bed, and then winced at the effort. The move had jostled his plate and a little bite of scone had fallen to the ground. Now, one of the bats—as heedless of his tempers as any cat would be—was venturing into the med lab to eat it.
A few hours later, the bat would be back for a ham sandwich. By then, Alfred had taken an x-ray and sent it to Dr. Thompkins. She confirmed his diagnosis: Bruce's injury was "just a bad wrench", but it was a bad wrench near the L4 vertebrae. That's when the plate with the ham sandwich flew, when he heard the wrench was just below the disc that had swollen so badly after Bane's "back breaker" maneuver.
No one outside the Bat-Family, including me, had ever heard what really happened back then. Alfred told me now that Bruce had suffered a minor fracture to his L3 vertebrae and a massive herniation to the L3-L4 disc, none of which is good but none of it is crippling. Except the latter released "inflammatory chemical mediators" that caused the disc to swell until it pressed into the spinal column, causing temporary paralysis from the waist down.
With a history like that, Bruce wasn't going to take chances. It's probably the one injury he won't shrug off and work through. Alfred said he had to rest it completely for four to five weeks, Dr. Thompkins said he had to rest it completely for five to seven weeks, and (after the obligatory "DAMNIT" that sent the ham sandwich to the floor), he agreed to five weeks in the easy chair.
Fredrick Donohue, Jr. walked hurriedly through d'Annunzio's dining room, embarrassment tinting his cheeks until he reached Fiona's table.
"Well, I just made a total ass of myself. I thought the reservation would be in your name. I asked for Lyon, and Giovanni says 'Like-a your sister? There must be a mistake again taking the reservation. Here I thought she was eating with you, and I already sit her at your table.' He was going nuts rearranging his reservations before I could settle him down."
"Half-sister," Fiona said archly. "And I don't like using my name here because the last time I did, Giovanni thought I was Noel. 'Mrs. Lyon,' I could just vomit."
"You know, she is my mother, Fiona. I know you hate her, it isn't necessary to remind me every single time an opportunity presents itself."
"It was my dad's birthday, Rick. Our special lunch, just the two of us. I called ahead and made sure there was a cake. And what do I get? 'Mrs. Lyon.' I can't wait 'til I turn twenty-one. Get my trust fund and get away from all of you."
"I always thought we got along okay," Rick grinned.
"We did until you went and proposed to Gracie the gorgon. This weekend is going to be hell, Rick, and it's all your fault."
"I don't get it. 'Gracie the gorgon.' Why does everybody hate her, Fiona?"
"You know, in all the time I've been coming here, I never tried the shrimp arrabbiata."
"Only thing you and mom have ever agreed on."
"I'm pretty sure 'arrabbiata' means angry. Angry shrimp."
"You don't know how lucky you are, Fiona. The trust fund from your mother is untouchable. You can say anything you want, do anything you want, marry anyone you want. You turn twenty-one and it's yours, whether Oliver likes it or not. I'm completely at my mother's mercy. And she does not like Gracie. Neither do you, and I'd just like to know why."
"Must be from the chili peppers. Such a good bite, I'll bet it's great with shrimp."
"Fiona, come on! I just don't see why you're all so down on her. My whole family and half my friends, nobody likes her but me. Why is that?"
"I'm not going to answer that, Rick. Because despite what you might think, a couple million nailed down tight in a trust fund does not mean that I can say anything to anybody without consequences. But I'm sure if you think about it for a while, you'll figure it out all by yourself."
Will Foley was not the only six-foot white man to know his way around Chinatown. He wasn't the only blonde-haired, blue-eyed twenty-something to find his way past the tourist herb shops with romantic names like "Eastern Spring Elixirs" to the authentic ones like Ho Shou Wu.
He was only unique in what he bought there. He didn't want xiong huang cream like most of the athletic white men who somehow got the idea that the salve contained steroids that wouldn't be detected in drug tests. He didn't want yin yang huo, the horny goat weed, or dong chong xia cao. He didn't want any of the aphrodisiacs. Instead he bought red panaax araliaceae, ma huang, wu wei zi, an mian pian, and suan zao ren. Every week.
Today, he added chang bai ciwuja to the order.
"You sure?" Mr. Wo asked. "The extract is very strong. Give you quite a headache if you're not used to it."
"I'm sure," came the stoic reply.
"Yes, I know, you'd be so much happier chasing Ratcatcher through a stinking sewer, but instead you have to endure your favorite Schubert, fig and sandalwood incense, and a full body massage from a topless slave girl. I'm really not sure how you'll be able to bear it."
"I'll manage," he graveled. "But it will have to wait until you get back. In case you've forgotten, we're expected at Watermill Lodge this weekend."
"I assumed we'd be cancelling," I told him.
"I'm cancelling, I can't move. 'Freak accident on the racquetball court.' You're fine. You still need to go."
"I 'need' to go? C'mon, Bruce, 'fess up. This isn't social obligation talking; no amount of painkiller and anti-inflamatories is going to turn you into Mrs. Ashton-Larraby. What's really going on?"
There was the same flash in his eyes that I saw the night before: crystal clear, dark and penetrating, sexy as hell. It was Batman sitting there, Batman wearing a Bruce Wayne suit… Batman sitting there lying to me:
"It is a social obligation. I only know Oliver and Noel slightly, but this party is announcing and celebrating an engagement. It's a very special event. We said we'd be there, and one of us still can be."
I crossed my legs, licked my lips, and felt a warm, delicious tingle. He was lying all right, and maybe another woman would be offended by that. But I am not another woman.
Batman and I have played games before. He wanted me at that party, but instead of coming out and saying so, he was pretending it was Bruce Wayne who wanted me to go. Instead of just coming out and telling me why Batman needed me to be there, he was pretending it was some social duty I had to perform as the acting Mrs. Wayne.
I like playing games with Batman. Right now he was lying and I knew he was lying. But did he know that I knew he was lying?
I couldn't tell, so I meowed.
"Then I guess I better go upstairs and pack."
…to be continued…