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Batman 1939: The Dangers of Being Cold
Chapter 1: Ships That Pass in a Corner Diner
Cities had homeless communities. This was a universal fact, and its recognition was a fine sign of the century's progressive spirit. But what precious few cared to learn was that every homeless community was just that - a community. These weren't the warm and stable communities most citizens knew, but transients were still people; they had rules and rituals, bazaars and town halls, friends and loved ones. In the barest, skeletal sense they got by. On the thicket streets of Gotham City, the homeless were espcially well-organized. Unfortunately, winter had arrived. Winter for the homeless was something between a bombing siren and a slow-motion riot. Every tiny choice might be life or death, and their meek community could fray very quickly. Compromise and civility were not common strengths in the cold and hungry.
If any pair among them was ready for the season, it was Wendell and Alice Dupree. Most people on the street were alone; couples were very rare indeed. And they were well-off by local standards. They both had their health and a pack of warm clothes. They had an understanding with the neighbors to respect each others' territory (strife over real estate was always the worst between those who didn't own real estate). And their territory was quite nice, a little nook in the rear wall of the 8th Street train station. It had an overhang to keep off rain, and they were too far from the road for beat cops to kick down their shanty. This is where they called home.
When the station clock chimed eleven they were already fast asleep. A car rolled to a stop nearby. It was far too clean for the neighborhood; in Gotham a car like that drew young hustlers like gnats to a lamp. But then three big men got out, harsh shapes in the dark, and any greedy eyes nearby slunk back into their shadows. The burly men wore gloves and low caps, the timeless uniform of professional muscle. They strode up quietly and spied the sleeping couple with a dying flashlight.
Unsmiling, two of the men bent down, each holding a thick cotton rag. Only heavy sleepers could live next to a train station, but at the last moment Alice's eyes fluttered open. Half-awake, she witnessed a large form nearing her face. She tried to scream. It came out a weak hiss.
The third man stood and watched as the two finished. They left the bodies. He found a pay phone a few streets over.
"Ma'am, it's Lieutenant Wilson. We're done. No, no interruptions. You're welcome, ma'am."
Three nights later.
Bruce Wayne stood beside the window in a dark sewing room. No one would bother him here. In fact, no one had been home in days; the owners were staying with relatives. He knew this and a hundred other details from a glace around the room.
Bruce was content to be alone. The task at hand was uncomfortable enough; he had no patience tonight for interruptions. There were two manila folders open on the table in front of him. In one folder was a thin pile of photographs and papers stamped with various city seals. The papers were bureaucracy, and the photos were of the dead.
The other folder was substantially thicker and older. It had no photos inside, but there were quite a few sketches. Some were pencil, some ink. All were clean, workmanlike efforts of a particular lady: young, medium height, slender build, dark hair styled to various lengths. A note on one picture claimed green eyes. The artist made no effort towards any sort of life or expression in the sketches, treating its subject as clinically as a zoology text, but the lady in the drawings still seemed to possess a certain energy. Each stance of hers was coiled enthusiasm.
Bruce didn't look at the folders. He knew them by heart. Instead he stared out the window, watching the building across the street below. It was a small corner diner, still open despite the hour. Through the bright window, he watched the lady from the folder sit down.
The Hughes Diner and Café was one of the city's hidden gems, the kind only neighbors and high-brow food critics knew about. It took a simple service – hot coffee – and made it perfect through a loving attention that kept the regulars coming back year after year. Like most corner diners, the Hughes was unpretentious and cozy. New faces were greeted as "Buddy" or "Mack" or "Ma'am". The air smelled like bacon grease and lemon meringue. When a tired soul sat down at the Hughes Diner and Café the future just seemed a little brighter, and in Gotham that was saying something.
Tonight that soul was Selina Kyle, sitting alone on the middlemost stool. She wore a green sweater with a reindeer on it, and there was a bandage across her nose. Selina gazed wistfully at the bric-a-brac behind the counter and her own reflection in the shiny soda spigot. On the scratchy radio, a brassy blues trumpeter played "Dream a Little Dream of Me". The neon sign in the window behind her flickered. She sighed and laid her chin in her hand, absentmindedly stirring two creams into her cup of Joe.
"You're not your usual lively self this evening, 'Lina."
The proprietor, Mister John Quigley walked over while wiping a tall glass. He was a portly man with ruddy cheeks and big jowls. In his apron and white paper hat he looked quite dapper, like Santa Claus' younger brother. He leaned his elbow on the counter and offered a disarming grin. Selina shrugged and tasted some coffee off her spoon. "You know how it is: some days you're walking on clouds and other days you're just caught in the storm."
John whistled. "That's awfully poetic. Did you think of that?"
She grinned and pointed her spoon at him. "Now Johnny, are you saying all ladies are too empty-headed to be clever or just us pretty ones?"
He held up his hands in surrender. "Geez, Selina. You know I got the utmost respect for the mind of any classy dame like you."
"You mean a paying customer like me."
"Hey, my daughters are twice as smart as me and the oldest ain't yet fourteen. And my mother's always been smarter than me. And Lily ... well, she married me so the jury's out on that one."
"She's not a fool either Johnny. She just pitied you."
"Ha. Then what a lucky schlub I am. Still, I still hate to see you down in the dumps, so whats'a matter?"
"Just a boring evening, nothing worth writing home about."
"Yeah? Nobody looks as distracted and lonesome as you cause of a 'boring evening'. Nobody comes here after dark in winter cause of a 'boring evening'. Nobody with a big bandage on their face had a 'boring evening'. What's the story?"
She shrugged bashfully and scratched the bandage on her nose. "Maybe I just wanted some of your charming company."
"Sure, cause I'm Clark Gable."
"Better than Shirley Temple."
"Well as charming as I am, Green Eyes, you ain't off the hook with that fish tale."
Selina took a sip of her coffee and stared at the ceiling.
"Fair enough. This evening, I went to the Thames Street Hotel to visit a friend. When I got to her suite, a bellhop said she had gone to the opera."
"Tell me about it. She had borrowed a few possessions of mine last week and I came to pick them up. So, not wanting to waste the trip, I went in to have a look around. But while I'm busy inside, a repairman came in to fix a lamp. I politely tried to stay out of his way, but he sees me and gets angry. We start to have a ... misunderstanding."
"How could any dummy say a bad thing 'bout you, 'Lina?"
"Ha. Thanks, Johnny. I guess from his point of view, I looked like some kind of trespasser."
"Ooch. Sounds like rotten luck."
"So, thinking discretion is the better part of valor, I decided to just turn tail and leave." She sighed dramatically and took another sip of coffee.
"Then you came here?"
"Well ... not quite. This blockhead was all wet. He chased me into the lobby where the hotel was setting up some policeman's retirement ball. About twenty coppers saw us having a tussle. I almost managed to slip into a receptions office when-"
Before she could finish, the bell on the door interrupted her.
A large man in a hat and frayed trench coat entered the diner, his collar turned up and his shoulders hunched against the bitter December wind. The man shivered and took in his surroundings. He had pale skin and a hangdog look about him.
John turned to the newcomer and smiled. "Hi there! What can I get you?"
The man paused a moment before responding. His voice was soft and raspy despite his size.
John nodded jovially. "Sure thing, Mack. How's about I fix you with a bite to eat?"
The man paused again, staring at the ground.
"I have some jelly danishes here. Raspberry, a real treat."
John nodded and turned to prepare the order. The man ambled over to a stool and sat down. There was stillness in the diner save for the wistful jazz of the scratchy radio. It occasionally cut in with Edward R. Morrow at Trafalgar Square: broadcasts about Luftwaffe firebombs over London. The stranger sat three stools away from Selina. He didn't eye her up or address her or even turn her way, but something about him made her uneasy. She tried to look him in the eye but his hat was pulled down low. In fact, the bulky man was so bent and motionless he almost looked asleep. She frowned and sipped her coffee, stealing discreet glances when she could.
A moment passed. There was a smoky scent in air.
Selina perked up. "Something's burning."
John sniffed the air and his eyes bulged. "Yeah, it's from the backroom!"
He hustled through the door behind the counter. As soon as the daring owner had left the room, the large man swiftly stood up and threw a few coins on the counter. Selina watched him suspiciously as he strode to the entrance and opened the front door. The bell chimed. As he walked out, the man tossed a tiny ball the size of a marble over his shoulder. It arced across the room and landed in Selina's empty cup. She glanced down and by the time she looked back up the front door had slammed shut in the wind.
Something was up.
Selina jumped to her feet and barreled out into the winter night. She looked left and right, but the dim street was empty. The man had already disappeared. She exhaled in frustration. Seeing her own breath, Selina recognized she lacked a coat and decided to head back inside.
She wasn't sure what just happened, but her heart had jumped tempo in a way no coffee could match. Her fingers started tapping a rhythm against her side. Her skin was electric.
Gotham had a nightlife you couldn't find anywhere else. It was lurid and random and sometimes grotesque, but for the big shots that owned the night there was nothing quite like it. A girl could get addicted.
Now Selina's own nightlife had broken into her ... civilian life, for lack of a better term. That wasn't supposed to happen; it was time to find out why. She allowed herself a brief half-smile. This evening might be interesting after all.
Back inside, John was standing arms akimbo with a look of utter confusion. "I guess that guy left?"
Selina knew not mention the thing in the cup. Whatever it was, it was her business, and she didn't involve normal folk like Johnny in her business.
"Yeah. He just up and left. I tried to see where he was going but he disappeared."
John shrugged. "Gosh, some people, huh?"
"You said it. What was the smell in the back?"
"This." John reached into the pocket of his apron and pulled out a partially-melted candle. "Somebody lit this in the backroom. Didn't hurt anything either. It was just burning on the floor. Made a lot of smoke though; you wouldn't think so since it's so small."
Selina scrutinized the candle. Gears began to click in her mind. "Yeah, wouldn't think so."
"And it looks like our friend even paid 'fore he left. Didn't get his coffee or his danish. Wonder where he had to get to."
Selina stared into her cup. "Yeah, what a mystery. Say Johnny, I better get going myself." She covertly turned the cup so the small ball rolled into her purse. "Big day tomorrow, need some rest."
"So you drink coffee before bed? You didn't finish your story."
She put on her gloves and smiled an apology. "Next time, I promise."
"Aw, fine. Go get your beauty sleep. And come see me again sometime. Ain't nobody entertains like you do. You know how lonely it gets 'round here."
Selina Kyle retrieved her coat and cap and from the rack. "You're a good man, John Quigley, go home and kiss that beautiful wife of yours."
"Sure thing. Goodnight Selina."
With that, Selina walked out into the first flakes of snow.
Four blocks later, she finally found a lamp bright enough to inspect her new possession. Heedless of the wind that blew her hair into a loose halo below her knit cap, she held the tiny ball up to her eye.
With the acuity of a jeweler, Selina realized she was holding a sphere of tightly-wrapped paper. She carefully unfolded it into a delicate sheet the size of a chewing gum foil. It read:
Meet Midnight, Site of 2nd Encounter
Puzzled, Selina flipped the paper over.
She almost dropped it.
In hindsight, Selina realized she shouldn't have been surprised. There were plenty of shady characters who might want to pass her a cryptic message, and maybe, maybe a handful could find her in her off-hours, but no one else could be so annoyingly subtle and yet so smugly theatrical in the process.
On the back of the paper was the simple outline of a bat.