The bats always grew still when the roar of the great engine echoed through the cave. Then the dark man emerged from the black car. He emitted an intensity some of the bats could sense and others could not. Those that did became agitated; it felt like a storm brewing.
It had not felt like this for some time.
The dark man was still for a long time, seated amidst the flashing boxes and lights.
Then he rose and moved into the room with the towering perches…
Batman moved like a ghost among the trophies in his trophy room, his cape brushing the bases supporting the largest objects: the dinosaur from Dinosaur Island and the giant penny of Joseph Coyne, the Penny Plunderer. Batman’s mouth twitched as he regarded an oversized playing card. Joker assumed his was the largest of Batman’s trophies. One day he would have to tell the psychotic clown his contribution fell short by a full four meters.
Batman spent more time studying the smaller items in glass cases: a freeze ray, an exploding question mark, several hats tricked out with microelectronics, a handle of braided leather…
“Meow,” he whispered, running a gloved finger over the case. He would miss her. But it was for the best…
He moved beyond these cases to the newest acquisition, propped on a small Lucite stand, Houdini’s Tome of Secrets.
“Just you and me, Harry,” he remarked, picking up the book and bringing it with him to the costume vault. While he changed into Bruce Wayne’s street clothes, he laid the book on the little shelf meant for Catwoman’s costume. Hanging it on the peg, she complained, would pull the leather out of shape.
Now the shelf was bare.
He would miss her, certainly. But this was for the best. Hell Month nearly finished them last time.
A few minutes later, he ascended to the manor, Houdini Tome in hand. Alfred greeted him cautiously. It was starting already. January 5th, and already everyone on eggshells, like he was a monster.
“Did Wayne-One call?” Bruce asked curtly.
“Yes, sir, about thirty minutes ago. Your private plane landed in Paris at seven a.m. local time. It will refuel and be back at Gotham Executive Airport by three p.m. tomorrow. The pilot reported that Ms. Kyle had a most comfortable flight and, by way of thanks, sent a message which he was reluctant to relay. When I assured him the lady often indulged in a kind of banter which expressed affection no matter how insulting it might appear, he relayed it to me to pass on to you.”
“Well?” Bruce asked, annoyed. Hell Month or not, this beating around the bush was trying his patience.
“Are you quite sure it was wise to send Miss Selina to Paris for Hell Mon- for these three weeks, sir? It isn’t my place to say, of course, but it seems you would both be happier if-”
“It isn’t your place, Alfred. The message?”
“You are a rigid, humorless, paranoid, obsessive, smug, melodramatic, and pompous jackass, sir.”
Bruce glared, then to show he understood this to be the message rather than an egregious impertinence on Alfred’s part, he noted:
“Cat Tales, Act I. I’ll be in my room, reading.”
He gestured with the book and turned to go.
Last night, he’d tried reading in the cave. He preferred the cave this time of year, preferred staying in costume. But there are physical laws that refuse to accommodate the Batman’s mood: the book was old and irreplaceable, the cave was damp. So he retired to his bedroom, set a match to the fire laid in the outer room, and opened a small leather box on the sidetable. He selected a CD and heard the opening strains of Schubert’s Impromptu #90. He sat and read the notes of the great escape artist, and thought back over how this object came into his possession.
The Robinson Plaza Hotel, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Robinson Park, always went the extra mile for a Wayne Foundation event. Their Grand Ballroom was not the largest in Gotham, but it was the most sought after in the busy holiday season. When it opened in 1907, the rich entertained in their homes. With the building of the Plaza, they began giving up their city mansions in favor of suites of rooms. The Plaza was built to offer “all the pomp, glory, and opulence of a French château,” and this it did. The largest single order in history for gold-encrusted china was placed with L. Straus & Sons, and no less than 1,650 crystal chandeliers were purchased. In giving up their townhouses, however, the great hostesses had also given up their ballrooms, and the Plaza became the first establishment to offer, for a price, such facilities that had previously been a function of private entertaining.
With such a history, it was not surprising that everyone with an event in December wanted to book the Plaza’s ballroom. That the Wayne Foundation could always secure it for whatever night it pleased was a function not only of Bruce Wayne’s standing, but of Alfred’s expert management of any event Mr. Wayne booked.
The official reason for Alfred’s involvement was snobbery: the waitstaff of a commercial hotel were respectful, if not actually intimidated by, their counterparts in private service. And Alfred Pennyworth was everyone’s idea of a British butler: authoritative, witty, snobbish, discreet and intelligent, both respected and feared for his masterful knowledge of etiquette, food, drink, sterling silver and glassware.
The unofficial reason for Alfred’s presence was insurance, in case Bruce needed to make a Bat-exit. One couldn’t always rely on Lucius, after all. In fact, Bruce reflected sourly that night at the gala, one usually couldn’t rely on Lucius.
Another burst of merry laughter from Table 2 punctuated the thought. Lucius’s table was having a wonderful time. His own gathering at Table 1 was far from cheery.
Selina, sitting next to him, was becoming far too interested in the Riddler-Zatanna duel for the Tome. Yes, Eddie was her friend. But it seemed, somehow, Eddie had also become her horse, and Zatanna his, in one of her twisted games with Batman, and just what the rules of this particular game were he was at a loss to say. He wanted Eddie taken down for the attempted robbery at the Civic Center, but beyond that he had no interest in who wound up buying a book that was, at best, a curious artifact of interest to a few dozen people worldwide.
Next to Selina was Edward Nigma, alternately eying the book and Zatanna seated seven places away. Bruce’s own fault: He’d taken pains to put Nigma at his table so he could keep an eye on him, forgetting that, since Zatanna would be performing, she too would be at the head table.
For her part, Zatanna was ignoring Nigma’s existence. When she first sat down, she had made a few remarks about all the plainclothes police on hand to protect the auction treasures. If this was meant to rattle Nigma, Bruce could have told her she was wasting her time. Riddler was one of his smartest foes. He wasn’t at the gala to commit a crime but to bid legitimately on an item for sale. And he knew he was in no danger after the incident at the Civic Center. It wasn’t common knowledge that Edward Nigma was the Riddler, but even among those who knew, the fact that a person wearing a leotard with a question mark was seen near an alleged robbery attempt was not conclusive proof that this man sitting at Table 1 had done anything for which he could be arrested.
Next to Nigma sat Barbara and Dick. Barbara looking none too pleased to be seated next to Riddler; Dick looking none to pleased to see Lori Elton three chairs away. Bruce remembered that Dick and Lori had been a couple for a time in college, but as far as he knew, it was an amicable parting. Why there should be any tension he couldn’t imagine.
Between Dick and Lori sat Dinah Lance and Martin Stanwick. Martin was the only one to respond to Zatanna about the security. He said he didn’t know why the police even bothered with plainclothes officers. They were so painfully obvious. When Barbara bristled at this, Martin proceeded to point out each and every one of the undercover officers. “Cheap shoes,” he pronounced, “off the rack tuxes, and polyblend evening frocks. NOKD GCPD.”
Finally, between Lori Elton and Zatanna, sat Dr. Leland Bartholomew. Bartholomew seemed more put out than any at this none-too-cheery gathering. At first, Bruce thought it might be Nigma’s presence. Bartholomew was, after all, a doctor at Arkham and had the unfortunate duty of treating the incarcerated rogues as patients. But if Nigma was too anxious about the Tome to care about Bartholomew, Bartholomew too seemed preoccupied, too preoccupied with… something?… to worry about Nigma. After a few minutes observing, Bruce deduced the something: Leslie Thompkins. Bartholomew kept glancing to Leslie at Table 2, then to Zatanna sitting next to him.
Leslie was head of the Thomas Wayne Clinic, the institution this event was to benefit. She would, logically, be at the head table. Bruce had only moved her to Table 2 to make room for Eddie. He made a mental note to confirm later with Lucius, but he was certain what he would find: Dr. Bartholomew had made a large donation to the Foundation and pulled strings to secure a place at this table, assuming he’d be seated with Leslie Thompkins.
Well, well. Bruce determined to make amends.
“Dr. Bartholomew,” he began with only a touch of the Fop in his voice, “after dinner, you simply must let me introduce you to your colleague, Dr. Thompkins, who runs the clinic.”
If there was any doubt of Bartholomew’s infatuation with Leslie, his reaction to these words dispelled it. He beamed as he informed Bruce that, while he would be delighted to talk with Dr. Thompkins again, no introductions were necessary for, indeed, they had been at med school together. He then proceeded to list every class they’d had in common, from gross anatomy to abnormal psychology.
“Oh dear,” Lori Elton laughed sweetly, “Abnormal psychology, that’s rather a delicate subject with someone at this table, isn’t it Grayson.”
It seemed like polite smalltalk, just something to keep the conversation going. But Dick’s eyes bulged slightly and he bit his lip.
“Tell, tell,” Barbara asked eagerly, a fact-finder hot on the scent.
“When we were in college,” Lori answered readily, “I remember Dick was flunking abnormal psych—”
“He what?” Bruce interjected, transformed in an instant from fop to father.
“—ology,” Lori continued.
“Ix-nay, ix-nay,” Dick pleaded too late.
“Failing abnormal psychology?” Bruce asked flatly.
“I can explain,” Dick insisted, no longer a grown man but a college freshman with some explaining to do to the man paying his tuition.
“And it was the biggest secret because there were some classes - I remember chemistry was another one - he was simply NOT ALLOWED to not ace.”
Bruce stood up. As head of the Wayne Foundation, he had a few remarks to formally open the event. As he passed behind Dick’s chair on his way to the podium he graveled “We’ll talk later,” and Dick seemed to slump slightly in his chair.
Eddie turned to Dick with concern, “A big secret, eh. Hey Grayson, you didn’t touch that Houdini book up for sale in the auction, did you?”
Dick said nothing. He certainly didn’t mind Selina, nor the changes in Bruce since she’d come into his life, but the increased social contact with other rogues that she brought in her wake, that he could most definitely do without.
Meanwhile, Eddie took the brooding silence for confirmation: Grayson had touched the book and Grayson’s secret was exposed. Hmm. The curse was very real and it had a pretty strict interpretation of its mandate. That is, an item up for sale at an auction, potential buyers might want to examine it. A broadminded curse would make allowances, a grace period. So Grayson touched it. It could wait a few hours and see if perhaps he wound up buying it, thereby becoming the rightful owner. But no, it acted at once. This was a rigid and brutal curse, the Batman of curses. He would have to be careful.
Up on the podium, Bruce was welcoming everyone, thanking them for showing up to support the Thomas Wayne Clinic, yadda yadda yadda, and finally explaining the rules of the silent auction: The items for sale were situated around the room. Before each item was a clipboard. Anyone wanting to make a bid should sign their name, their table number, and specify the amount of their bid. One could bid on as many items as they wished as often as they wished. At midnight, the auction was closed and the high bidders would all receive their items.
then went on to name some of the items of particular interest included in the
sale: Houdini’s Tome of
Riddler became nervous. The Batman of curses was on his tail, anything could happen.
…a pair of cufflinks that once belonged to Rudolph Valentino…
Cufflinks come in pairs, Eddie thought. Two-Face. What if Two-Face showed up to steal the cufflinks, disrupting the sale and upsetting the curse. The rightful owner, who knew how the Batman of curses would interpret “the rightful owner” of the book if some costumed psycho interrupted the sale!
Eddie shared his concern with Selina.
“Edward,” she chided, “Didn’t we decide you should stop taking those herbs.”
…an Easter egg made for the Grand Duchess Olga by the legendary Carl Fabergé, opened to reveal a miniature sculpture of a carriage in 14-karat gold…
Eddie furrowed his brow. An egg. Penguin loved anything with a bird tie-in. Of course, Oswald claims to be retired from field work, but that egg would be just the kind of thing to draw him back.
Again, he shared his thought with Selina.
“Eddie, you’re paranoid.”
“Especially with that thing in the center, it looks like an umbrella!”
“It’s a carriage.”
“It looks like an umbrella if you squint. Turn your head a little, see it now?”
“Eddie, I really don’t think you want to be having this conversation within earshot of your psychiatrist.”
…and an exquisite etching by the Master of Cologne entitled ‘Dreams of Darkness’ after his own oil painting by the same name…
“Look at that thing!” Eddie exclaimed, “It’s got bats and cats in it!”
Selina ignored the implication and answered with an art expert’s pedantry, “It’s an allegory. The sleeping figure is having a nightmare in which evil is represented by night creatures: bats, owls, an armadillo, a raccoon, and yes, a cat.”
“Screwed,” Eddie grimaced, “so screwed.”
From his position along the back wall, Alfred gave a signal and teams of waiters entered with great covered platters. As they began serving, Bruce returned to the table. He was pleased to see Edward Nigma looking dejected.
“What’d I miss?” asked the Fop.
“Doomed. We’re all doomed,” Nigma answered.
“Ah,” Bruce looked a question at Selina, then at Barbara, then Dick, then Zatanna. Getting no answers, he decided a little more probing was in order. “Well if we’re doomed, we may as well go down happy. More champagne all around, my good man.”
“Kroc duol,” Zatanna coughed into her napkin, and an exploding POP shot from the waiter uncorking a bottle directly behind Nigma, making him jump.
“Doomed,” Eddie began generating anagrams while the waiter poured the bubbly, “Ed Doom… DoDo Me… Odd Moe.”
“Why are we doomed anyway?” Bruce asked with far more Fop in his manner than he would normally allow himself at a Foundation event. “Whatever it is, we should drink a toast to it.”
Zatanna was pleased to catalog Nigma’s fears with a saccharine smile.
“The concern seems to be that every item in the sale except the Tome of Secrets will attract the attention of some costumed criminal.”
Bruce smiled at Dick.
“Sounds like someone’s been sharing his theory about a curse.”
“Curse, what?” Nigma sputtered. “Hell no, no curses here. Just because you got cufflinks for Two-Face and eggs for Penguin and Catwoman won’t be able to keep her claws off that etching.”
“Eddie, I’m sitting right here,” Selina hissed.
Before he could answer, there was an earsplitting squeal from the sound system and everybody looked to the podium to see Harley Quinn staring into the microphone like a telescope.
“Is this thing on?” she squeaked. And Nigma pounded his head rhythmically into the table.
“Good evening, ladies and germs,” Harley continued, “to avoid inadvertently causing one of my colleagues with the gas canisters letting rip with a cloud of SmileX that will lead to a gruesome and horrible death for all concerned, please remain seated and keep your arms and legs inside the ride vehicle at all times. Very good. Now, if the tall gentleman that looks like Gandalf,” she pointed to Alfred, “Yes, you, since you’re already standing, if you would just pick up the Punch and Judy puppets and hand them over to Ha-Ha-Harry, then we can all be on our way.”
Eddie continued smacking his head into the table, now muttering “Punch and Judy, Punch and Judy.”
stop that, you’re embarrassing me,” Selina whispered.
To be continued…