BOOK OF AIR
The air was still heavy and damp from the rain. It made the traffic louder. The most scientific corner of Batman’s mind supplied the reason reflexively, although the rest of him didn’t really care: sound waves travel more efficiently through solids. Air molecules weighed down by high humidity, like now, are thicker. Ergo, the traffic noise, rising off the street with the heat of the day and the exhaust of the evening rush hour, was louder… So what?
He cast a line, snaring a gargoyle on the face of a West Side apartment building, and leapt into a rush of that damp rain-laden air. His body slashed through the wind, perfectly balanced, perfectly controlled, until an effortless shake freed the line from the gargoyle as he dropped to a two-foot perch overlooking Riverside Drive.
He quickly identified the apartment that was the object of tonight’s surveillance and trained infrared lenses on Ruth Levy’s window. Because of a universal law that plagued him whenever he wanted to dismiss thoughts of Selina, Ruth Levy had a cat. The scruffy-looking black Persian sat just inside the window, watching pigeons, while her mistress watched TV in bed. Batman grumbled that a dog would at least offer her some protection, but then he reminded himself that Ruth Levy had no idea she was in danger. How could she know that a carved tablet unearthed on the other side of the world made her the target of religious extremists?
The so-called Vayu Tablet was found by an archaeological dig at Belur. It was thought to be a fragment of a four part treatise on health by ancient Hindu holy men. If authenticated, it would be a find of enormous significance to archaeology, but of even greater import to India’s Hindus. The region’s Muslim population found that upsetting enough. Extremists had already made the tablet the object of a holy war within India’s borders. Thinking to protect the priceless relic, the scientists had shipped the Vayu Tablet to America for authentication. A blue-ribbon panel had been assembled, including prominent experts from Gotham’s museums and universities. One of these was Dr. Mark Levy, Professor Emeritus of Archaeology, Hudson University; Curator of Asian Antiquities, Gotham Museum of Art; loving father of Ruth Ann Levy, 710 Riverside Drive Apt 6B… and oh yes, a member of Temple Beth El. That an American Jew was involved in the authentication of a relic that would galvanize their Hindu enemies ignited a new, unprecedented hatred within a particular sect of extremists.
Oracle had picked up CIA and Interpol speculation that the terrorists were planning an assassination. Batman knew better. If the blow had already fallen, if the tablet was proven authentic and they were powerless to do anything but watch their enemies’ triumph, then these sick, thwarted men might seek to punish what they were powerless to prevent. But they weren’t that powerless—not yet. By kidnapping Levy’s daughter, they could force him to sabotage the findings, perhaps even destroy the tablet.
So Ruth Levy was under bat-surveillance until the authentication was completed and the tablet safely out of Gotham. Unfortunately, that surveillance now included a cat that noticed a more interesting sight outside its window than pigeons. It seemed to be staring directly at Batman.
What was it about cats? Why did they always have to insert themselves into your field of vision when you needed to focus elsewhere? Not that the little nuisance was interfering with his stakeout. He could see the apartment, the front and rear entrances, the fire escape, street out front and the alley behind. The problem with any surveillance job like this wasn’t staying focused; it was boredom. Hours and hours alone in his head instead of patrolling. Impossible for the mind not to wander to… topics… that were on his mind during the day. And now when his mind did start to wander, there was going to be a little feline face looking up at him with that curious intensity they all seemed to have.
Like Whiskers and Nutmeg, when he moved the bed from the Blue Room into Selina’s suite.
Quite unnecessary, Alfred had said, and the cats had stared at him like an intruder.
But Selina? Selina’s reaction surprised him: She gave a weak little smile and put her arms around his neck, rested her head against his chest, and let him carry her back to her own rooms without a word of complaint. On the contrary, “happy purr” and “my dark knight” were her only comments.
He’d been expecting to put his foot down, as he did with everybody once they started challenging his judgment on something. “Quite unnecessary, sir” from Alfred—who was perfectly aware why the Rose Room had connotations that made it inappropriate for Selina’s sickroom. And angry glares from her cats. But from Selina herself: “Happy purr.” It made him wonder what she was up to. Easy acceptance of what he wanted? Impossible woman.
The reason he gave was plausible enough: she would be more comfortable in her own room, surrounded by her own things. Selina seemed to sense too that moving the bed gave him something physical to do, which was his preferred method of dealing with anything.
“Better than the get-well bouquet you sent Harvey, anyway,” she teased when he set her down in the bed. How she loved teasing him. Even from a sickbed, while she arranged her tissues, aspirin and water glass on the bedside table, she managed to take a little swipe with a free claw. If she ever found out about the Bimbo Room, he shuddered to think what her reaction might be. From an ordinary woman, there might be retroactive jealousy, disapproval, or bizarrely irrational hurt feelings. But with Selina, that all seemed too pat. Her response would be more feline, surely, strangely amused, a new world opening up of ways to needle him. Impossible woman.
Was he ever a crimefighter to her, he wondered suddenly? A dangerous threat to her freedom and criminal activities? Or had he always been kitty’s yarn toy? He looked involuntarily to the cat in the window for an answer. Still amber eyes studied him curiously.
Dissatisfied with this wordless tête-à-tête, he fired a line to make a quick pass through the two-block area surrounding Ruth Levy’s building. Checking the line with a reflexive tug, he swung effortlessly into the abyss, defying the weight and pull of gravity, his mass cutting the air like a blade. Muscle memory and unthinking reflexes parted his knees, tipped his head back and pulled his legs open for speed. It was what circus acrobats called ‘Cowboying,’ according to Dick, because cowboys rode with their legs apart. At the two-block mark, Batman paused on the post office roof to survey the neighborhood from the new vantage point. Satisfied, he returned to his original position opposite the apartment, opposite the window… and opposite the cat.
The little creature stared, just as before, as if this return was wholly expected.
“So how was Florida,” Selina asked finally, once she had settled herself in the new bed. “Did the Fop buy himself something suitably tacky?”
She was mocking him. They all had their opinions about his habit of referring to Bruce Wayne in the third person when he meant the role of Bruce Wayne rather than his true self. He considered it a useful discipline, but everyone else chose to look at it as a peculiar quirk. But only Selina dared make fun of it to his face.
“You’re feeling better,” he noted.
“Evading the question? Whatever you bought must be an absolute horror.”
He explained about the Dahlia’s master suite: the walk-in closet, the Baccarat sconces and the onyx fireplace. Selina listened with an odd expression, like she was trying to tune in a different frequency. When he finished, she didn’t speak and her expression never wavered. It was like she was waiting for something.
“What about the other one,” she said at last.
“What other one?”
Her face shifted into a look he recognized, the look that always followed “You’re a thief.”
“The other boat.”
“I never said anything about another—”
“Look, I’m way too achy, sweating, chills, sore throat, feverish for the rooftop denial routine right now. Just tell me about the other one that you want and don’t want to admit to wanting.”
She reached for her water glass.
She took an aspirin.
He shifted his weight, telegraphing the ‘this ends now’ rooftop ultimatum.
She coughed feebly.
He told her about the Gatta. “Salon on the upper deck, teak floors, cherry wood bar and cabinets, complete dinette, a barbecue, large sun pad fore of the hangar. Oh, and the state rooms, upholstered leather mostly. Big galley, of course. An entertainment system with all the bells and whistles…”
He didn’t believe what he was hearing himself say. He was gushing about the Gatta like one of those eager young management trainees, so thrilled to be meeting the head of the company. It was suddenly quite glaringly obvious: he not only wanted the Gatta, he had already decided to buy her.
“We could take real trip. Up to the Vineyard maybe. Just you, me, and a picnic basket—on the fastest yacht in the fleet.”
She laughed at that. Then coughed and shooed him from her room, saying her fever must be higher than she thought, she was delirious, she thought she heard him use the word “fun.”
:: Boss? ::
The incongruous voice from the OraCom pulled Batman from the memory.
“Go ahead, O.”
:: I’ve been analyzing the security tapes from Gotham International Airport like you asked. I might have something for you. 4 PM this afternoon, there was a group of four men getting the courtesy shuttle to Biffy’s Car Rental. One is a 7-point match on a suspected terrorist from the FBI database. So I went into the Biffy system and checked the credit cards used between 4 and 6 o’clock. One is stolen; one is suspiciously new, issued only last week. ::
::The stolen number has been used four times already. DVD Player, a guitar, car stereo, hubcaps. Not our guys.::
“And the other card?”
:: Paydirt. It’s been used twice. A Pakistani restaurant and a fleabag motel, both by the interstate. ::
“Good work, O. Address?”
:: Transmitting it now. But I’ve already sent BC to cover that end; she was in the neighborhood. What you want to know is they rented a green Chevy Lumina from Biffy. GS License plate Z41C-245. ::
:: You’re welcome. Oracle out. ::
Batman stretched his legs with another pass around the neighborhood before returning to his post. The cat had repositioned on a chest of drawers. It was reclined comfortably, but still focused on his position outside the window.
So… the decision was made. He was buying the Gatta. Bruce Wayne was no more a shallow, womanizing Fop than he had been before, and now he’d bought a boat for little trips up the coast with his girlfriend. None of which made it any less likely that Bruce Wayne was Batman. It didn’t make it any more likely, but that wasn’t the point. The whole exercise was for naught. He hadn’t made an inch of headway on regaining control of Bruce Wayne’s image. He just had a new boat.
For a split second, the thought of buying both boats flickered in his mind… only to be canceled out by the emergence of a new consideration: PsychoBruce. The man who ran a billion dollar global corporation was putting his foot down. He was not going to waste any more time on this. The decision was made. He was buying the Gatta. Second-guessing, third-guessing, and fiftieth-guessing a fait accompli was a misuse of time, effort, and brainpower. He was a busy man not about to squander those resources. What’s next?
Next… unless the Chevy Lumina appeared, there was really nothing to do at the moment but work out if the Gatta could be parlayed into a public exhibition of Foppism. He would reactivate his membership at the Yacht Club, certainly… Then he could throw a big party to celebrate the new boat… Get drunk and make a spectacle of himself. Maybe he couldn’t arrive with twin bimbos in sailor suits and then depart with two different women. Maybe he couldn’t chase the waitresses around, making them call him “Commodore Wayne.” But he could certainly confuse starboard and port, trip over a dock line, and fall on his face.
He noticed the little cat across the way seemed more hostile than it had a minute before. It was not difficult to read the word “Jackass” in its stare.
Okay, so Selina didn’t like the Fop act. Neither did Alfred. Neither did Tim. Nobody actually liked the Fop. Even Bruce himself occasionally felt like punching him in the mouth—
Where was that van? Batman looked to the apartment building with a sneer of absolute hatred, a taste of adrenaline and coiled tension filling his mouth. He tugged the bottom of his glove absently, flexing his fingers into a fist. He fired a line to the arm of a streetlight and plunged into the empty air once more. He twisted his body at the bottom of the swing to reset his trajectory, eye-marking his next target, and pulled up to land atop a dry cleaner’s billboard.
He regarded Ruth Levy’s window from this new angle and waited impatiently for any sign of the Lumina.
Maybe it was time to readdress the Fop.
The public persona was crucial for keeping the secret. Bruce Wayne and Batman had to be established as two radically distinct beings that could not possibly share any common ground. Batman was smart. Bruce was an imbecile—except when he needed not to be for the sake of Wayne Enterprises. Batman was selfless and courageous, devoting himself to protecting his city. Bruce was superficial, spoiled, shallow and selfish—except when he needed not to be for the sake of the Wayne Foundation.
Perhaps that was the answer. He certainly had to compensate for Selina in some way. Bruce Wayne in a lasting, stable relationship? There had to be an offset. The Foundation might just be the key.
A hint of green appeared six streets away. Batman trained his digital scope on it and adjusted the magnification, confirming the license plate of a green Chevy Lumina.
He tugged the edge of the glove once more, this time in anticipation, and thoughtfully massaged the right knuckles with the left fingertips.
On 64th street, leading away from Gotham General Hospital, there is a uniform line of buildings approximately the same height: a parking garage, a convent, an annex of the University Medical Center, and a beauty salon. It made a perfect avenue for Batman to “pace” …back and forth… the upper deck of the garage to the convent to the roof of the annex to the salon… back to the annex, back to the convent, back to the garage to glare again at the hospital where Yawar Kashani would be taken into custody as soon as he was out of surgery.
The place was swarming with pencil pushers by now. The Feds had beaten the GCPD by almost twenty minutes, which disappointed Batman more than a little. They did have the advantage over the local police: the Feds had suspected these terrorists were active in Gotham, even if they were mistaken about their intent. So they’d been watching, apparently, just like Oracle had been, for any kind of official blip: and when the two terrorists Batman apprehended, Raqim Bandari and Yaquin Ali, were booked at the 12th precinct, federal agents stepped in at once, taking the case out of local hands. The third man, now in surgery, would disappear just as swiftly into the bureaucratic vacuum. Leaving only the unknown fourth still out there, the only hope of any more leads.
Batman swung again out as far as the convent but came to a halt on the roof of the annex to greet a waiting visitor.
“Something wrong?” he graveled, annoyed at the interruption.
“Do you have any idea how silly this looks on a GPS grid? This little blip pacing back and forth over a quarter block.”
Batman’s eyes darkened into savage, narrow slits.
“I don’t allow Oracle to track me.”
“Busted, eh. Well it would look silly on Oracle’s grid, but actually I just saw from the roof of the Kinko’s over there. It looks silly from there, too.”
“You think this is funny? This thing was bungled, ‘Wing. One of them is still out there and we’ve lost him. One is in emergency—”
“You didn’t put him there, Bruce. He ran straight into an oncoming car.”
Again Batman flexed his fingers into a fist, this time grinding it into his open hand. So that’s what ‘Wing was doing here. A suspect brought in by Batman was undergoing emergency surgery, so Oracle dispatched Nightwing to ‘humor and handle him’ through the guilts. He wasn’t even hiding it. He gave no feeble excuse about being in the area anyway or following a perp. He was watching from the Kinko’s.
Nightwing went on. “Remember what you used to say every night before we pulled out of the cave: ‘Expect the unexpected.’ The guy ran in front of a car. There was no way you could plan for that. It’s one of those things.”
Batman looked at him levelly. “This isn’t about guilt. So the next time your wife gets it into her head to check up on me and sends you in to—”
“Yeah. Fine. We were concerned; we’re terrible people.”
“Bruce! We were concerned. Deal with it! You were gruntier than usual. It wasn’t normal gruntiness, it wasn’t trouble-with-Selina gruntiness, it was something new. Then this guy shows up in the ER, and we were concerned!”
Batman gave a curt grunt, which made Nightwing chuckle. Caught being ‘gruntier than usual’ and unable to dismiss the issue effectively without grunting even more, Batman returned to an earlier part of the conversation:
“I did say ‘Expect the unexpected.’ I also taught you ‘your strategy is of no account if when called on to fight—”
“—in a confined space you want to use the long sword. Yeah, I know, the Book of the Rings. Bruce, that’s sword-fighting from like 500 years ago!”
“The principles are sound. If you rely so much on one weapon, one way of doing things, then what happens when the circumstances change? When conditions no longer favor doing it the way you always have… you’re screwed.”
Nightwing said nothing at first. He looked at the batline his mentor had used to swing from the convent.
“If you can’t adapt, then yeah, I guess you’re screwed. I should be getting home. Babs will be waiting up.”
Batman watched his former partner swing off the roof, cutting the damp rain-laden air, balanced and controlled, just as he himself had done. The pointed mention of going home to Barbara hung in the air while the figure swung roof to roof, smaller and smaller, to finally disappear into the cityscape.
“If you can’t adapt, then yeah, I guess you’re screwed.”
To be continued…