Chapter 1: Patrol
Batman stood on the roof of Wayne Enterprises, just…standing. He hadn't fired the grappling hook, and he wasn't even seeing the magnificent cityscape before him. He was off his game tonight. And it was dangerous to proceed until he could nail down the reason.
"Off his game…" It's the kind of thing she would say. There was a time he would've been the first to object, "This isn't a game."
"It's a figure of speech, Stud," she answered in his mind's ear.
He tuned her out. Didn't need that voice in his head right now, not tonight when everything felt so strange.
It had been like this all night.
He'd gotten up at four, having decided last night this wasn't a day he would be making an appearance at Wayne Enterprises. Even if there was no Batman in the picture, he doubted he would return to WE this week for any reason. Not after that finance meeting. Talk about torture: six hours on arbitrage opportunities in the new millennium. He'd rather do six hours in that Hugo Strange contraption with the electrodes than ever see another arbitrager.
To keep up appearances, however, Bruce had rigged his laptop to send two e-mails, one at 10:30 and another at 2:15, to give the illusion that he was awake and active, somewhere, on company business. He checked to see that the e-mails went off as planned, then went down to the cave.
"Good afternoon, sir."
It would appear to anyone that Alfred just happened to be in the cave, having just finished cleaning… But Bruce knew his butler long ago devised a routine that placed him wherever he needed to be. There were no coincidences. In this case, Alfred had expected Bruce to be awake and coming into the cave about now, and so presented himself for this casual, "accidental" meeting. Now, Bruce wondered, is this for my convenience or his? Is he here in case I need to ask him something, or does he have an agenda of his own?
"Afternoon, Alfred. Any news?"
"Mrs. Ashton-Larraby called, sir. She hoped you would reconsider making an appearance at her benefit."
"No way. I sent a check."
"And she thanked you very much, sir, for your generosity. But she did mention that, while your monetary contributions are always welcome, your actual presence at these affairs can contribute a great deal more by attracting other donors not inclined to be so generous."
"Alfred, I can't stand that woman. I sent a big enough check so I don't have to go in person."
"As you say, sir. Would you care for a sandwich before you depart?"
Alfred knew perfectly well, Bruce reflected, jumping to the parallel bars, that he did not eat before a workout.
Alfred had also, Bruce surmised, done a bit of tactful paraphrasing of Mrs. Ashton-Larraby's invitation. "Attracting other donors not inclined to be so generous…" Yeah, right. It would have been more like "Can't you get him to come, Pennyworth, use your influence - and get him to bring that Darling Selina. They're such an adorable couple, we were all saying so at the wedding…"
Bruce could read people, and he knew since the wedding that his role in Gotham Society had been recast. To hostesses like Mrs. Ashton-Larraby he was no longer bait for the social climbers. He was to be entertainment, grist for the rumor mill.
Well—he dismounted the parallel bars in an effortless flip in which he grabbed a jumprope hanging loose from a suspension hook. He jumped rope rigorously until his heartrate doubled, then began a complex pattern of twists and spins—it wasn't as though there was anything new in Bruce Wayne being gossiped about. But talk about him now meant talk about her as well, and Selina's reaction to being talked about could be… extreme. And unpredictable. No one who saw Cat-Tales (least of all Bruce) could deny it, Selina Kyle's reaction to being gossiped about, pigeon-holed, slandered, or labeled was bound to be an event.
He threw the jumprope back onto its hook and began an adapted Tai Chi form, an exercise that encompassed meditation and mental discipline as much as physical precision and martial art… Cat-Tales, what an idea. What a woman. A newspaper prints some lies about her so she goes onstage and says Look, I'm not in jail, I wear purple, and I'm a 38-D. Unbelievable. The chuckle disrupted the slow extended exhale and Bruce had to start again.
The newspaper said she'd shot Gordon – so she made famous an obscure quote of Lex Luthor's calling him the most inept peace officer in the Western Hemisphere. "I'm smart enough to come up with more creative and less lethal ways to strike at an enemy than shooting them." …Ain't that the truth. I could've told them that, Bruce thought, reflexively shifting his weight as he would to defend against her favorite attack, again interrupting the Tai Chi cycle and again having to start over.
Of course she'd said other things on that stage, things she didn't have to, that invited as much gossip as the rest of her act dismissed– "If I came up to you and said Hey, wild night of passion, no names and no strings, and I'll even bring the whip if you want – you'd say, what?"
"Dear Penthouse" Bruce murmured the punchline aloud - instead of inhaling in a slow steady five count while he extended his left arm…
This was ridiculous. She'd done it again!
Another workout shot to hell. Thanks, Kitten, Bruce thought, not even bothering to start on the weights.
He decided to forego his ritual post-workout meditation at the stalactite and went instead to his workstation - to find the sandwich he'd refused, but that Alfred brought anyway. He pulled the status reports from the Batcomputer. At large: Crane, Dent, Nigma, Tetch
Scarecrow, Bruce thought, Possible, he's been quiet. Harvey… Doubt it. Something else on his mind lately. Eddie? Yeah, right. If he's got the energy after 'Aunt Maud.' Mad Hatter… Ditto.
Bruce punched up a new screen, events that were potential targets. Mrs. Ashton-Larraby's benefit was not listed. She'd be crushed. But it really wasn't much of a target. Maybe in Selina's day, for the diamonds some of those bluehairs might get out of the vault, but other than that… Selina. Yeah. Well anyway, better get out there…
He suited up, checked and double-checked his gear. This was the first time he experienced the strangely "off" feeling that had haunted him all night.
On the rooftop, thinking back, Batman realized it was a kind of déjà vu that had struck him in the costume vault – he was doublechecking the gear. It was the one thing he didn't have to teach Dick. Circus performers, he'd learned that night Dick first prepared to join him in the field as Robin, always, always, ALWAYS check their gear themselves. And Dick, Bruce knew, always checked a second and then a third time when he thought Batman wasn't looking. Always. And Bruce wouldn't have been much of a detective if he couldn't deduce what the boy thought each time: that last night with his parents - checking the gear - and not seeing it.
Dick! Of course, that was it! Batman couldn't pinpoint it before, but now he could see clearly: Dick and Barbara's wedding! Dick and Barbara's honeymoon! The OraCom was silent tonight for the first time in… god, how long? No open channel with an instant connection to Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl. It felt like it used to be, Batman alone in the night. Alone with his mission,… and alone with his thoughts. No wonder he was thinking about her. She was the only one around in those days.
"Oh, is that it?" he imagined the amused purr, velvety like her skin, soft and round like the rest of her. Whether it was sinful promises if only he'd let her leave with that diamond, or "Morning, handsome, cream and sugar?" her voice still affected him like she'd "accidentally" pressed against him after a warm shower, wanting him to rub lotion on the places she couldn't reach--with that damned sly smile that said "Fine, cuff me, if it makes you feel like a man; is that a Stein lock? Gee, that'll take a whole forty seconds to pick. Forty seconds I'll never get back, what a triumph for crimefighting."
It was just Oracle being away.
That's what was behind this.
He fired the grappling line and traveled east towards the diamond district. He stopped for a mugger one side street off of Gotham Plaza. Gotham Plaza that was "now safe for tourists to walk through even after 10PM." The Mayor's much ballyhooed partnership with key family-friendly corporations that were pouring a bundle into renewing the city's theatre district. 99-percent of Gotham was exactly as it had always been, but there were these strange pockets of sanitized unreality, like an alternate universe. Gotham Plaza was one such pocket. Once overrun with porn theatres and street hustlers, it was now an open-air mall. Middle of the night and there were eleven year olds running around that weren't hookers.
This wasn't a bad thing, obviously, no one could say it wasn't an improvement, least of all Batman. But for any native Gothamite it was… peculiar.
It would have felt good to punch something, but the mugger, who'd found his victim a mere half-block from the plaza, was no hardened criminal. He was a disgusting weak-willed non-entity of a first-timer who was so petrified at having encountered Batman in his first attempt at a crime, that he swooned, pissed himself, cried, and then ran into the plaza and smack into Officer Ralph – whose nametag read: "Hi, My name is Officer Ralph, Welcome to Gotham City."
Batman just blinked, looking into the plaza, to see Officer Ralph arrest the mugger to the positive delight of onlookers, all elated to have seen an actual street crime in their visit to the big city.
"Are you hurt?" Batman asked the victim, perfunctorily, without turning to look at her.
"No," came the answer, and that would have ended the encounter, except the reply was interesting enough to warrant a look. It was so brief and to the point. Not tearful, not shaken, not rambling. Just "No."
Batman turned to look. It was a girl in perhaps her mid-twenties, nice-looking in an obvious, cocktail-waitress sort of way. She wore a tight T-shirt: Kit-Kats. It was a chain of perfectly ordinary restaurants that featured buxom waitresses in these tight shirts. There was one in Gotham Plaza. This girl was obviously the late shift, walking home after closing.
"Wouldn't you know it, I've worked there for years," she remarked. "Always walk home through the Plaza. It's supposed to be so scary, and I never once had a problem. The one night I take a side street, I get mugged."
Batman never indulged in crisis counseling. His mission was to bring justice to the scum that thought they could get away with it. But, just this once, something about the girl's self-deprecating humor - he offered to get her an escort home if she wished. She made a sound, expelling air through the side of her mouth, that apparently meant she didn't think that was necessary.
These guys were hopeless. The diamond district had always been a part of his regular patrol: it contained a large concentration of valuable jewels in a few short blocks. But other than the times Catwoman took an interest in some particular gem, this area was a chore. The criminals - well, just look at this lot, fussing with that alarm panel for half an hour! Selina would have been inside twenty minutes ago.
Not that he was proud of her criminal abilities or anything. It was just that: it's a short night and a big city – his time was valuable. It would be nice if these morons finished their breaking and entering so we could proceed from trespass with intent to felony burglary.
Ten minutes later – still with no end in sight – Batman ran out of patience. He placed a homing device in their van and another actually on their "lookout," and then moved on to another location, only a few blocks away, that warranted a check-in since he was in the neighborhood.
Poison Ivy's Greenhouse – Should have been empty since she was in Arkham, but there was a light on inside. Observing as best he could through the skylight, Batman deduced it was a sunlamp of some kind, probably on a timer, something for the plants. False alarm, the place was deserted.
He continued south, into Chinatown. Those DEMON agents had set up a front in a curio shop: soapstone, cloisonné, erotic netsuke. As a cover operation, this place wouldn't fool a child. It obviously wasn't the kind of place that would be open at this time of night, and it obviously wasn't the kind of place that needed six employees. But there were always six. There was a new one tonight, and the short one that smoked was gone. This was the second change in personnel since Batman discovered this cell, but always, there were six.
Well, it might mean nothing. Even Ra's al Ghul had turnover. There was that messenger earlier this year… Omar. That was a thought. Omar now worked for the Daily Planet, but his girlfriend, Moira, was an employee of Wayne Enterprises Metropolis office. If Bruce Wayne had Moira transferred to Gotham City, Omar would surely follow. That could stir the waters. Would this group make contact with Omar? Would…
This was disgusting. How could he even think – it was the sort of thing Ra's might do – playing with people's lives. Batman did not use such methods. What was he thinking?
He decided to simply keep an eye on this operation and watch for future developments. It was possible they were simply to be Ra's Al Ghul's eyes and ears in Gotham. Batman moved on.
He was on his way to the Park – muggers within and flanked by museum row and scores of luxury condos on each side - when he saw the Redbird below. Robin and Spoiler. Batman had not realized the extent to which "Robin's" patrol had become "Robin and Spoiler's" patrol. They were together all the time now, by the look of things…. Not that there was anything wrong with that, Batman thought, it's simply not how he himself would ever choose to proceed.
"No," Selina's voice stirred again in his imagination, "you'd prefer to go it alone, night after night, year after year, caught up in your obsessive-compulsive funk of justice and gloom."
She lived on the park.
It was a little early to drop in, but, it was a quiet night.
If he told her he was thinking of old times, she would oblige readily enough. He could imagine the way the tips of her lips would tickle his ear, sending that familiar electric zing that felt like nervousness, excitement and needful all at once. It made his jaw automatically clamp shut…
No, damnit. He was not going to cut a patrol short for her. It hadn't come to that.
What was really eating him? Was it "Mrs. Wayne?"
There was a type of man, insecure and petty, that might have been offended. But Bruce was not insecure. He had been truly charmed by her meltdown at the sequence of events at the wedding that led to her being addressed as Mrs. Wayne. He'd seen her go off the deep end before, god knew, with far more provocation and to far deadlier effect. He hadn't been the least offended or insulted; he thought she was adorable. He reined her in as gently and lovingly as he could: "Mrs. Wayne isn't that terrible a concept, is it?" It took a little handling, but he finally got an admission that it was not. Well and good.
But now… Now…
It was not unlike the time he'd said "Let's accept our relationship for what it is." He'd said it and he'd meant it. It was only the next day he realized the words could well be taken to mean it was okay for her to be a criminal – and that was certainly not what he'd intended.
"Mrs. Wayne isn't that terrible a concept, is it?" He said it, and he meant it. He wanted her to acknowledge that being his wife was hardly a fate worse than death and that her kneejerk panic attack – while adorable, and entertaining as hell - was perhaps out of place when it was, in fact, something they were moving towards… or had been moving towards… or might possibly be moving towards… that is why people date. And when it goes on as long this certainly had and starts developing into something deeper and warmer than…
He stopped and thought back, trying to replay his thoughts…
… and she was certainly becoming part of the family and… and…
… "his wife" …it was when he thought to himself that he "wanted her to acknowledge that being his wife…"
This… might… be… what Selina had experienced at the words "Mrs. Wayne"…
Was he engaged?
Could she have taken that to mean…
"Let's accept our relationship for what it is." It didn't mean go right ahead and ransack Tiffany's. "Mrs. Wayne isn't that terrible…" Could she have possibly thought? - No, of course not. She was drunk. She was a cute drunk too.
"Mrs. Wayne isn't that terrible a concept, is it?"
She couldn't have possibly thought that meant "Let's set the date." Could she?
He fired a line and descended near the Redbird.
"Robin, Spoiler, There are a trio of pathetic burglars in the diamond district. This is the frequency of the homing beacon. Pick them up if and when they ever finish the job."
The Selina-avoidance that plagued him all night led Batman to forego Museum Row and the condos and check, instead, on this warehouse. It wasn't a regular part of his patrol, but he liked to look in on it every few months. He always thought it would be a perfect rogue hideout, but it never once occurred to any of them.
This warehouse was not "abandoned" but the goods stored there were used only one day a year, so activity was minimal. And any number of rogues would find something of interest for their themed décor. This warehouse was where the balloons were stored for the Thanksgiving Day parade.
A quick run-through confirmed that the building was, as always, unoccupied. No imagination at all. You'd think-
Batman's musings were cut short by the appearance of the Batsignal cutting through the night sky.
In the fifteen minutes it took to reach police headquarters, Batman reflected that he was going to meet the fourth new commissioner since Jim Gordon's retirement.
He hadn't understood the reference when Selina referred to "Murphy Brown's Secretary" and Tim had to explain--he was doing it again. Kitten, get out of my head, he ordered. I'm trying to work.
"I'm not stopping you, Babe," she said in his mind. "Go meet Commissioner Flavor of the Month. You know I'll still be here when you're done."
He remembered telling her about the appearance of the first new commissioner when he'd started dropping by her apartment after patrol. She'd rubbed his neck that night. It felt wonderful. And he found himself relaxing, telling her about his day:
"Answered the signal, and there's a new one."
"A new signal?"
"A new commissioner."
"Not Gordon's replacement."
"Replacing Gordon's replacement. Oh… Ooohh, that feels good."
"I'll bet. You're tense."
"This new one: He was wearing a nametag, can you believe it. It's like he knows he won't be around long enough for anyone to bother learning his name."
Landing on the roof, Batman returned himself to the present. Commissioner #4 – Muskelli – might have some staying power. No nametag. And he had something to prove. Giacomo Muskelli had run the docks in the late 20s and built the smalltime operations into a formidable crime syndicate. It was not the largest operation of its kind, but it was the bloodiest. His great grand-nephew, Lawrence Muskelli, who now switched off the Batsignal, wanted to erase that blot on the family name. He was determined that the Muskelli name would again be famous in Gotham, for service and civic contribution.
The news he had for Batman tonight, however, was not likely to achieve that noble goal. There was a "suspicious occurrence" (an unusual expression, Batman thought) at a cheap motel by the expressway, something that would embarrass an important city councilman. They wanted him to look into it, intervene if necessary, but quietly–
Batman noted the pronoun: They. Whatever this was, it wasn't Muskelli's idea to call in Batman. He was embarrassed to be doing so.
Then Batman realized why as Muskelli explained further: If they sent in regular cops, then whatever it was (and it seemed like it was blackmail), those cops would learn about it and be in a position to… Plus, of course, there was the paper trail of their reports…
Batman squelched his impulse to smash the signal and curtly tell this political toady masquerading as a policeman not to fix it until he'd learned how to use it.
But he didn't. This was a first offense. Muskelli was new. It wasn't his fault he was the fourth commissioner Batman had had to break in.
"We don't do 'I was only following orders' here, Commissioner," Batman said tersely. "Not in my city, not on this roof. We don't do 'they' and 'following orders' and we don't do politics. This is politics."
Before Muskelli could respond, there was only empty night to respond to.
Batman had no intention of officially looking into this unsavory business, nor intervening at the behest of politicians. But he did intend to find out what was going on. Batman needed to know things. It was an integral part of his mission. And if what he found out was that a blackmailer was conducting his unspeakable business in Batman's city, there would be Justice. Not a political cover-up. Justice. There would consequences and retribution for any doing wrong, and it would be delivered impartially regardless of any wrongdoer's seat of power. That's why Justice was always shown blindfolded.
The internal monologue stopped cold when Batman arrived at the LazySue Motel and saw Slam Bradley hiding out (if you could call that hiding)… in the stairwell, with a camera. Slam Bradley! That meant this was not "blackmail," this was, at worst, nothing more criminal than a philandering husband. For pitysake, Muskelli wanted to send him after a bottomfeeder like Slam Bradley? Nobody Batman knew would associate with the likes of Slam Bradley! Nobody Batman beat up would associate with the likes of Slam Bradley! Matches Malone wouldn't bother giving his guy the finger on the expressway! This was beyond pathetic. Batman had a good mind to go back to the rooftop and smash that signal after all.
There was a night, Batman remembered, shortly after Bruce and Selina starting "slumming" at the Iceberg Lounge, when Bradley's name came up. Scarecrow – who seemed to have a deathwish where Selina was concerned – made some silly joke implying she was friendly with this guy, and she'd answered:
"Let's revisit the hierarchy of Gotham After Dark, shall we?"
Then she'd signed to him ˜˜Batman – Top, Sidekicks and Junior Bats along with…˜˜
Then she resumed aloud, "Senior rogues: Joker, Riddler, Two-Face, Moi and so on. Secondary Rogues: Roxy, Catman, along with senior sidekicks like Harley Quinn and… and Harley Quinn! Third rate rogues: ClueMaster, Mime, etc. Henchmen, Scum, Iceberg Lounge washroom attendant, the guy who runs into the 7-Eleven to buy Hugo Strange cigarettes, Slam Bradley."
Nothing ever rattled her. Make a joke, or claw its throat out. Or occasionally both.
By the time Batman returned to the city-proper, it was after 4:30 and the streets were deserted. There would be no more scum on which to take out his frustrations…. It hadn't been a satisfying night. A sympathetic ear and a good massage would have been welcome but, maybe it was the nostalgia, he bypassed Selina's terrace and returned home. Alone. As he would in the old days. Alone to his empty cave and the empty house above.
It wasn't late enough to go to bed. He needed to decompress, he told himself, after patrol. The truth was, he'd been thinking too much about it –her- it all night long, and if he wasn't utterly exhausted before trying to sleep, if there were any synapses still firing by the time his head hit that pillow, it wouldn't end.
He made the log entry for the night's patrol, read over the previous week's entries… He failed to note when he typed sleep instead of steep. He did notice when he typed "the waarehousse was closed closed."
He saved the file but didn't shut down. He skimmed the 1 a.m. auto-downloads. When the text started to swim, he increased the font size. When the monitor actually blurred, he knew he was finally ready.
He dragged himself to his bedroom and tossed his shirt onto a chair. He was so consumed with sleep, he didn't see that it landed on a mass of purple leather—a color and texture he was particularly alert to most of the time, even (especially) in a darkened room.
He pulled back the coverlet, sunk into the soft sheets, and adjusted his pillow. There was a soft, sleepy "Heeey" and the pillow was pulled from under him.
"Mmm …'bouttime… late tonight…got tired waiting… 'nd'ts cold…"
She pulled his arm around her like a blanket. Bruce hesitated a half-beat before letting his arm go limp around her, pressing his nose into the back of her neck - thereby reclaiming a third of the disputed pillow.
"G'night, kitten," he murmured before drifting off.
"Night, knight," she answered.
...to be continued...