Hell Month 1, Batman took me to Crime Alley. Hell Month 2, I went with Bruce to the gravesite. Hell Month 3… I was at the Fortress of Solitude.
This was a great honor. I’m told that only nineteen people have been there in person, and I tried to feel honored. What I really felt was cold. It had nothing to do with being on some ledge in the Andean ice fields either; the environmental controls, like everything else in that place, like everything connected to Superman, was perfect. I didn’t want perfect. I didn’t want super. I wanted to be with Bruce.
I should never have agreed to go in the first place. But sometimes… There’s a terrified little boy still inside Bruce, and when I glimpse him, it’s hard to hiss and scratch.
Lois Lane had received a death threat. “I KNOW WHO YOUR HUSBAND IS. YOU’RE NEXT.” The S in husband was the Superman emblem.
They all came completely unhinged, the heroes. Secret identities were no protection now. Anybody’s family was at risk.
Bruce wanted me at the Fortress “to keep Lois company.” He said it wasn’t exactly “homey” up there (Understatement of the year, Stud), and she’d be all alone. It was so nice of Clark to suggest it (Yeah, Bruce, like I really believe Clark is the one who came up with this idea), and such an honor to be asked (Asked, right, same way I was asked to join the Justice League reserves: because I couldn’t just stand there watching Prometheus beat Batman to a pulp and, when it was over Superman, had the courtesy to say thank you).
I started to remind him that I wasn’t any Jean Loring or Lois Lane. I am not a civilian, I don’t need rescuing or protecting, and if he ever forgets that Catwoman can protect herself just finethankyouverymuch, he need look no further than those scratches on his chest—or better still, he need look no farther than that scar Prometheus left on his thigh right before I kicked his ass…
I didn’t get that far, though. Bruce wasn’t even trying to interrupt and I sort of wound down after “look no further”… He didn’t argue, he just took my hand without a word and led me over to his workstation.
the screen, the window heading read Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and
underneath the box said:
“You don’t fight fair,” I told him.
“It’s about the dog, isn’t it?” Lois asked.
“Hm?” I started, pulled from the memory, and looked up at Lois.
“The dog. They didn’t tell you Krypto was kept here? That’s why you look like the Sir Walter Raleigh imprisoned in the Tower of London for 13 years?”
Lois was reading EUROPE FOR VISITORS, and her conversation had been peppered with remarks like that. It’s how I found her when I got to the Fortress, her feet propped up on a blue crystal and chrome something, with a stack of travel books beside her and six bottles of nail polish on the table.
“Not the first one of these, dear,” she had smiled. Then she offered me VILLAS OF POSITANO and CRUISING ALASKA.
“Hi Lois,” was as far as I’d gotten before “Krypto” made his appearance. I’ve often said of cats that they already know everyone they want to know. Dogs are quite ridiculously eager to meet new people, and this one evidently missed the memo on feline/canine relations. He jumps, he licks, he pants, he slobbers—and what’s worse, he flies! In a little under two days, I’d worked out six different ways to beat the best security system in the universe, but I couldn’t keep this goddamn dog from hovering around my face and pawing at my hair.
“There aren’t enough diamonds in Cartier’s to make up for this,” I growled—which Flyboy evidently overheard six rooms away on the other side of the damned fortress, because he then makes a point of showing me this “Eye of Krypton” he’s got among his trophies. It’s an egg-shaped jewel the size of a shoebox. He said it wasn’t Cartier’s, but he hoped that knowing about it would “keep me busy” while I was there.
What a fool Hugo had been! The answer was not in the notes written when his mind was fevered, the answer would lie in those documents of the time before he had become deranged!
He had to go into the sideboard cabinet to find them, the old papers he hadn’t touched since the last move, or was it the one before? He sneezed a great deal, taking out the stack of papers. There was a history of Gotham City and some maps… lots of notes on the Wayne Building… a book on sushi… a comic book about a swordfighter—Hugo vaguely remembered that he had a theory about this time… Yes, about Batman studying martial arts in Japan and choosing costume elements from comic books… There were many files he’d assembled on fellow Arkham inmates as well… He remembered those too, for if he were destined to one day transcend to become Batman himself… No, that wasn’t quite right. Not transcend, impersonate! He had an idea that if he learned enough about Batman, he could take the vigilante’s place in order to… to… oh, so many years had passed, so many schemes, it was so difficult to recall the details of a single one… but he wanted to take Batman’s place—to ruin his good name! That was it, of course—he would impersonate Batman in order to ruin him, and to that end, he would obviously want to learn all he could about Batman’s enemies…
He sneezed again, put back the useless files, and searched deeper…
Lois Lane is a remarkable woman; I’ll give her that.
For all the so-called heroes hitting the panic button, she was the one who had actually received the death threat, and she was perfectly calm, cool and collected.
“I’ve been through it before, dozens of times,” she said. “I’ve been targeted to get to Superman, I’ve been targeted because I’m a reporter, I’ve been targeted because I’m a woman, I’ve been targeted because I’m an American—it goes with being Lois Lane. If I hid under the bed every time a Luthor or Brainiac said ‘Boo,’ I’d never get out of the house.”
We were in what I guess I have to call the Fortress of Solitude’s “kitchen,” eating what I guess I have to call Lois’s “tuna salad.” (Lois is only a slightly better cook than Bruce, so for the rest of my stay at the Fortress, I made us pasta, and on day two, when Ma Kent found out what was going on, she sent cornbread.) But what Lois lacked in culinary skill, she made up for in perspective:
“…like that business chasing around the Suicide Squad. After Sue and then Jean, they’re all hurt, they’re scared, they’re worried and confused, and they’re having their typical reaction: give me something to hit to fix this.”
Her words made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
“Give me something to hit,” I repeated, “My god, you’d think one of us actually living in Gotham during Hell Month would have recognized that one.”
“Well, I am a trained observer,” Lois smiled happily. “Does it seem like I put too much pepper in this?”
“Maybe a little,” I admitted.
“Anyway, these guys have a highly developed sense of the way the world is supposed to be. And a very powerful need to do whatever is necessary to make it that way. Nobody is supposed to be hurt or in danger, especially not the ones they care most about. The people they love are being threatened, they have to DO something about it.”
“And what they want to do is what they do best,” I noted, “Up-up-and-away?”
“Exactly. Factor in that ‘Up-up-and-away’ is why the nearest-and-dearest are being targeted in the first place, I’d say we’ve got us the makin’s… Too much mayonnaise too, I think?”
“Um, yeah, and maybe drain the celery next time. So what do we do about it?”
“Do? What’s to do but wait it out and wisely use our time to research how they’re going to make it up to us when it’s over.”
“They’re going to make it up to us?” I sputtered.
“Of course! Once it’s over and they all calm down, everybody’s safe and they realize how completely they’ve overreacted—but only because they love us so and were so scared of losing us—then comes the counter-reaction, the ‘oh honeys.’”
The travel books suddenly made sense. I raised an eyebrow.
“Europe for visitors,” I said.
“Yep. Clark is bound to want some quality time after something like this. I’m sure Bruce will too.”
“Bruce doesn’t like leaving Gotham,” I explained simply. I didn’t add that he wouldn’t have that kind of ‘counter-reaction.’ It would imply something was amiss in the way he’d behaved, and Batman simply does not acknowledge that kind of thing.
“Well in that case, there’s an Escada Sport catalog in the bedroom. You really should make a gameplan,” Lois said with a wink.
I shook my head no. I didn’t want to explain about the shopping spree last year. But Lois went plowing right ahead.
“Look Selina, the fact is that the wife of a hero was just killed. And that means the families of all the other heroes are suddenly… appreciated a lot more. You know rumor has it Ray and Jean are actually getting back together after he rescued her. I guess it was just a little too close for a ‘close call,’ even for a guy who can shrink down to Atom-size. Right now, they’re all too caught up in the furor to catch this guy to really feel it. But very soon, a reaction will set in.”
“Lois, they’ve got us holed up in a…” the role of polite guest forbade my calling it a cage “…a literal fortress in the remotest freezing corner of the Andes. You’re telling me this isn’t it, this isn’t the reaction, you’re telling me it’s gonna get worse?!?”
“Not a bit, it’ll be much better. Selina, don’t you understand, he’ll want to spend time together. He’ll take a night off or two—or six.”
“Not Bruce,” I said simply.
“Even Bruce. Don’t you see, the way they think, we always come in second to the rest of the world. Because they love us, we come in second. Because being with us is their ‘at home’ time, where they can relax and kick their shoes off, scratch where they itch, we come in last. The demands of the job are always the priority; they always outweigh the family stuff. Now, that’s turned completely inside out. We are the job this time around. We’re not supposed to be, we’re supposed to be what they come home to at the end of the day. It’s like when the reporter becomes the story—we try to pretend we’re just as objective as always, but we can’t be. We’re too close to it.”
“Not Bruce,” I repeated. I understood what she was saying, but she simply didn’t understand. Maybe for some of them, if the hero thing was just something they did because they were born with certain abilities. But for Bruce, Bruce is Batman because of what happened to his family. He could never set it aside for something as trivial as “quality time” with his girlfriend.
“Even Bruce,” Lois said again. “Trust me, I got a nose for these things.”
It was psychological warfare, plain and simple.
First, Batman somehow contaminated all Hugo’s early files with massive amounts of dust, so that Hugo could not look through them without violent sneezing fits.
Then, when he wisely went out to get some antihistamine, he encountered more of those silent, black cars constantly coming and going from that new restaurant. Obviously arranged by Batman, obviously meant to unnerve him.
Somehow, he had to find a way to counter this sinister mind game.
I didn’t hear about the second threat until it was all over.
Lois’s cooking is notorious, and when Clark Kent’s mother found out we were holed up together, she sent cornbread on day two, a greenbean casserole on day three, apple fritters on day four. Superman brought them each day, but he never told us a thing about what was happening out in the world. The fortress isn’t cut off by any means, on the contrary, it dwarfs the Batcave for tech toys. But CNN would never know the details of this story.
Tim’s father received a note almost identical to Lois’s in its menacing allusion to the secret: “JACK DRAKE”—the R was in red with a circle around it, the Robin emblem. That’s all it said. It was laying on top of a box. Inside the box was a gun, and another note: “PROTECT YOURSELF.” He barely had a chance to pick it up before he heard the intruder. He called Oracle, Tim must have left him a communicator.
She had him on the ‘Com, she heard the whole thing—Dick hadn’t sent Barbara away. He’d come back from Bludhaven, but that was all. I think there was a half-hearted suggestion about her relocating to the Watchtower, but she vetoed it and that was that… I could have vetoed too instead of letting myself be carted out to the fortress. I would have been there with them if I had.
Tim had left his father a communicator, Jack Drake hit the button as soon as he found the note, and Barbara heard the whole thing play out. An intruder on the roof. Oracle notified Robin, they were patrolling together, Batman and Robin, my brilliant idea. The Batmobile can do something like 260 mph. Bruce got them there just in time to see Jack Drake take a boomerang to the pericardium, that’s the double-layered membrane the heart rests in. You rupture it, it puts out an awful lot of blood.
I don’t want to think what seeing that did to Tim.
I don’t want to think what seeing Tim see that did to Bruce.
I really don’t want to think about that. Tim finding his father in a pool of blood—what did that do to Bruce? Was Tim even the target? If somebody who knew all secrets wanted to strike at a hero by striking at those he loved, what better way to torture Bruce than to kill someone’s parent right in front of him… And I was stuck in some fucking super-fortress in the middle of a goddamn ice flow where I couldn’t touch either of them. My arms ached to, and instead I was hearing it all thirdhand from Superman.
The bastard who did it was Digger Harkness, a has-been Flash villain called “Captain Boomerang”—couldn’t you just vomit. He was dead at least, not that it was any consolation, but Jack Drake is evidently a decent shot. Give him a loaded gun and a cause to defend himself… The news called it a failed home invasion.
Jack Drake’s left lung had collapsed by the time they reached the hospital. The surgery went fourteen hours. It was hour ten before anybody thought to tell me. I was too numb to feel it, but Lois was outraged on my behalf.
It was in the files somewhere. If Batman went to such lengths to contaminate them, they must hold the answer.
Hugo sat with a clothespin fastened over his nose and a mug of steaming chicken broth. He would read a page, remove the clip, sneeze perfunctorily, and take a sip of broth, then replace the clip.
Here was an interesting episode where he’d managed to abduct Bruce Wayne and stash him in an insane asylum under the name Farthington… Hm, now how had he come up with the name Farthington again? –kachoo– There was no telling what details might be important.
Superman took me straight to the hospital, which I guess made up a little for the lag in bringing me into the loop. Tim was alone in the waiting room when we got there. I couldn’t understand it. He said Cassie had gone to the cafeteria to bring him a sandwich, but where were the others?
“Dick, Barbara, and Bruce are kind of busy ‘taking care of business,’ if you know what I mean,” Tim said. There was a weird passion under the words. It made me uncomfortable. “Can’t leave the whole city unattended. Dick didn’t want to go, but if he didn’t agree to watch Gotham, Bruce wouldn’t follow up on this other lead O had until—”
“Wait a minute, Bruce left town?” I blurted.
“Boomerang didn’t send that warning, Selina, he didn’t send the gun that killed him. This isn’t completely over. There’s another player. Barbara thinks she knows who sent Boomerang. But Batman wasn’t going to follow up, he didn’t want to leave me alone like this—”
“Of course not, Tim, this is nuts,” I interrupted, but he rolled right over me.
“—I had to beg him, Selina. We haven’t got time to waste here, I don’t want that filth to slip away. I’d do it myself, I want to so bad I could scream, my fist is aching to take the bastards down. But I can’t because I have to be here. So I told B, just like I’m telling you, that he had to do this for me. And I told Dick he has to do this too. Nightwing has to watch over Gotham so Batman can go take care of business.”
It was the creepiest damn thing I’d ever seen. In the course thirty seconds, he was turning into Batman. That Psychobat intensity was building inside his voice.
“Tim, how is your father?” I asked, hoping to refocus him a little.
“They came in with the last update about an hour ago,” he said, the Psychobat flickered out in a nanosecond. “Hour seven is the really scary one, now the next hurdle is going to be when they take him off the heart-lung machine and his… his heart has to take over again… Shit, I wish I could be out there, going after someone.”
I don’t think he knew it, but he was making a fist, Bruce’s Hell Month fist.
“I guess that answers my next question, ‘How are you doing?’”
Two words, one syllable each. Any second now, he might grunt.
A sneeze, Hugo Strange knew from medical school, was –kachoo– a spasmodic, involuntary expulsion of air from the nose, triggered by an irritant. In this case, dust which –kachoo– had been placed there by Batman to keep him from rediscovering the Bat’s secrets, all once so clear to him, before his mind became clouded with this obsession about Bruce Wayne and White Martians… Somehow –kachoo– he had it and then…
–kachoo– lost it.
Life went on. By the time Jack Drake was wheeled out of the operating room, Barbara had determined that the hit came through a Noah Cutler, used to call himself the Calculator, ran around with giant numbered buttons on his chest. Not even a has-been like Boomerang, more like a never-was.
This Noah Cutler/Calculator rube finally gave up the costume, set himself up as a kind of anti-Oracle, in his mind anyway. He calls himself an information broker, but he’s really more of a glorified dispatcher. On a good day, he might pass for a market maker. In this case, that’s what he’d done: he put together a buyer and a seller, someone wanted a hit on Jack Drake, on the cheap, and Cutler set him up with Boomerang.
By the time Jack Drake was coming out from the anesthesia, Oracle had a suspected location on Calculator, and Batman was on his way.
By the time Drake was transferred out of the ICU, Batman was reading a taunting note from Calculator, who’d fled the site at least five hours before.
By the time I got home, Batman was back in the cave.
“J’onn, GET OUT of my head!” he was yelling, “Just find him now!”
“Honey, I’m home,” I murmured softly, not expecting to be heard or noticed. But he turned right around to face me.
“You were right,” he announced, as if I’d been standing there the whole time. “Nobody breached the security, not at the Dibnys’ and especially not at Jean Loring’s place… There’s always the same flaw—everybody has to go home at night. You nailed that one, Selina.”
“Why do I think we’re not talking about the best way to open a locked door?”
“Captain Boomerang was a hired thug, a burned out nobody from nowhere. There’s no way he killed Sue, there’s no way he attacked Jean, there is no way he got past that security system. He was set up to take the fall. That note was sent to Lois to set everybody on edge—”
“Well it worked,” I put in.
“Yes. It worked. Then the hit is put on Jack, and he gets a warning and a weapon. We’re left with a body we’ll all assume is Sue’s killer.”
I didn’t want to say it to his face—if he didn’t have the mask on, I don’t know if I could have said it to Bruce’s face—but to Batman, in the cave, in Hell Month, I found the words came quite easily:
“And if Jack missed, and Boomerang escaped… You know the thought crossed my mind, when Superman told me what had happened, I had the thought that you might be the target here, not Tim. They probably figured you’d hunt down anybody who attacked Robin’s father, so same result. We’d have a body we thought was our killer.”
“You know I’d never do that,” he said quietly.
I searched his eyes for a moment.
“Yes, I do. I know that’s a line you would never cross, no matter what. But your killer doesn’t know that, do they?”
“No. For this individual, snuffing out a life is nothing but a means to an end. They murdered Sue Dibny only to establish that there was a killer striking at the wives of crimefighters.”
“Cui Bono, Selina? Who benefits when the wife of a hero is killed? The wives and loved ones of all the other heroes.”
That certainly didn’t hold in my case: I’d been locked away, first in the Batcave, and then in the damn Fortress of Solitude… but that thought of the Fortress reminded me what Lois had said: the ‘oh honeys’… because they love us so and were so scared of losing us… the families of all the other heroes are suddenly appreciated a lot more… he’ll want to spend some quality time… even Bruce… we always come in second to the job, this time we are the job…
“Nobody would do something like this just to move up the chain of priorities,” I breathed.
“Three attacks,” Batman said simply. “Dibny establishes there’s a killer, Drake provides us with the culprit. Which does that leave? Which attack serves no other purpose except achieving the result the killer intended?”
Of course it was about control, all of Hugo’s battles with Batman –kachoo– were about control one way or another.
In engaging Hugo’s own sneeze centers with this dust, Batman –kachoo– had achieved a momentary control over the muscles of Hugo’s own abdomen, chest, diaphragm and vocal chords. And since the contaminated files all concerned Batman –kachoo–, the effect was almost as if the very act of reading about Bat –kachoo– would trigger a sneeze.
That’s what he was up to! He was attempting to engineer an artificial allergy! How diabolical! Like photic sneezers that react to sunlight, Batman… –kachoo– was trying to make Hugo allergic to –kachoo–
It was what scientists call simultaneous discovery: Ray Palmer, The Atom, realized his ex-wife had staged her attack just as the JSA autopsy team found microscopic footprints in Sue Dibny’s brain and Batman reasoned it out from the detective’s triangle of motive, means, and opportunity.
Officially, Dr. Palmer checked Jean Loring into Arkham that night and disappeared. Unofficially, he met with Bruce for about three hours in the cave afterwards. Loring would remain an Arkham inmate on paper, but there was no way she could be kept there long-term, not with all that she knew about the League. Medication, segregation… nobody trusts Arkham that much. She was quietly transferred to a similar facility in Ellesmere, Canada. Ray Palmer did disappear then. Who can blame him; he needed time.
So did Tim. It wasn’t what nearly happened to his father, he’d bounced back from that surprisingly quickly once Jack Drake was discharged from the hospital.
It was the revelation about Jean Loring being the killer.
Stephanie got herself killed right after Tim dumped her. We don’t say so out loud, but everybody knows there was an “I’ll show you” aspect to her final, fatal act of defiance, getting that mugger released and going after him alone. Her death came out of her reaction to the breakup, that’s how it is. It was her own deluded foolishness and she paid the price, but Tim is the one who has to live with it.
Now there was another ex, Jean Loring, just as deluded, reacting badly to a breakup, with deadly results. Sue and Ralph Dibny were one of those couples that Tim looked up to—hell, from the sounds of it, they were one of those couples all the heroes looked up to: two people with a relationship that worked for all those years, and now it was gone. Sue was dead because of another woman reacting poorly to a breakup.
So the poor kid needed some time. He wasn’t turning his back on Gotham or on Bruce, he just needed some space. Dick took him to Bludhaven for a while. That “quality time” Lois talked about, it’s not just for couples.
We thought it was over. Hell Month was over. The murder was solved. The culprit was found. We thought it was all over.
It had only begun.
To be continued…