Women. If there was anything Ivy hated – truly hated with burning fury, hated with a fiery molten abhorrence that churned inside her like a volcanic whirlpool – it was women. Worse than men, worse than lumberjacks, worse than Batman. What were men after all but rutting stupid animals doing what rutting stupid animals did? You couldn’t expect better from a man. You could not expect better from any given penis-bearer than being less objectionable than Batman, less hateful than Joker, less odious than a lumberjack. Women on the other hand had the capacity to bond with Nature, connect to the very essence of the God Force and bring forth life—and they did nothing with it. Even in her mind’s ear, the last words seethed with contempt, the inner voice that had soared with godly grandeur shriveling into the venomous croak of a cartoon witch.
Her head tipped back and she sucked air as deeply as she could, that burning whirlpool inside her craving coolness. Again. And again. And again.
Claire Sabana had been chosen. She was chosen! It couldn’t be by chance that Ivy happened to meet a woman so wholly in tune with the animal kingdom on the very eve of this transformation. Gaia herself had brought them together, the plant woman and the horse woman, so Claire could advise her on the animal side of the new world order, and the stupid horse lover refused her. More than refused, she’d been repulsed. More than repulsed, she’d come at her with a knife. More than a knife, a knife the sick lunatic had been using to chop vegetables.
Again the head tipped back. Again Ivy breathed in as deeply as she could. Her lips were sour with the taste of adrenaline and fury. It mingled with the air she sucked in, which now seemed to feed rather than quell the fire burning down her sternum.
How could it happen? How could it all go so wrong? They met on the very eve of this transformation. She liked being with horses more than people. She found people exhausting. Horses were herbivores. It was Fate. It was Destiny. They’d found each other, they were meant to work together, and that wretched woman who had been chosen had just, just, just messed it all up!
Bruce was a detective and a scientist. That meant maintaining a rational and objective view of the world and not indulging in fanciful ideas about the Universe having a laugh at his expense. Yes, the driver was an ex-con Batman recognized. Bruce reminded himself that he’d chosen a not-wholly-reputable car service with this goal in mind: he wanted to insure this final appearance as the playboy wasn’t wasted, he wanted to insure it would be well-photographed, and when you set out to get a driver who lines his pockets tipping off the tabloids, Vinnie Lappet is who you expect rolling up in an ostentatious white stretch limo. As a young punk, he’d dealt for The Roman, very small time, supplying a few clubs in North Little Italy before anybody even considered calling it NoLIta. Two minor busts that didn’t result in much jail time, then his one attempt henching for a theme rogue—strike three—sent him to Blackgate for a lengthy stretch. But he’d still have the contacts which would make him desirable as a limo driver.
It was a short drive from Wayne Plaza where Bruce met the car to the Roff Paramount where they’d pick up the girls. He wouldn’t waste time being subtle:
“If my friends and I want to have a party, you can hook us up?” he asked with a debauched grin.
“Oh yeah, I’ve got all the fashionable party supplies on me,” Vinnie said. “O, C, X, R, K, MM, MDMA. Anything unusual can be arranged too, but I’ll have to make a stop.”
“Quite the alphabet,” Bruce said, leaning towards the partition with several large bills folded between his fingers. “That won’t be your answer if the ladies ask,” he ordered, handing over the tip.
Vinnie nodded his agreement and that was that. It was the one aspect of the Fop’s snobbery that Bruce approved of: he didn’t owe you an explanation. The payoff was your explanation, the payoff put you in a category. He understood your reasons—the money—and part of what that bought him was that you did not have to understand his. So the rest of the ride to the Paramount was spent in silent contemplation of the back of Lappet’s head.
Once the Lund sisters arrived, the ride to Wine Riot was spent in a bubbly two-part narrative of their flight to Gotham on a Lufthansa Airbus A340-300. Bruce would have liked to hear a little more about the aircraft, one of his favorites that wasn’t manufactured by Wayne Aerospace. Instead he heard about the oxtail soup and roast goose, the dessert wines, and the other first class passenger who they thought was Samuel L. Jackson even though he denied it. To appear interested, Bruce mentally recited what he knew of the Airbus A340-300 with its four engines that could easily exceed 800 KPH, achieve an altitude over 12,000 meters, and with a full tank could travel over 12,000 kilometers without refueling. Aloud he said only that Lufthansa had the friendliest and loveliest stewardesses. Then he thought of Selina—damn her—and one of those first visits to d’Annunzio’s when they first began dating. He got a bit carried away talking about the Airbus A380 and she… was smiling. She was smiling like it was the finest moment of her life and looking at him like he was wonderful. When all he’d done was talk too much and in far too much detail about an airplane with remarkable lift for its size.
He squelched the memory and with steely Bat-focus replaced it with another. On his earliest fop dates, he came up with an exercise: he would take some hypothesis and, as a detective, devise up to five questions appropriate to the shallow, superficial character he was creating. Up to five questions appropriate to Bruce Wayne the playboy idiot that would get the information he needed to confirm or disprove the hypothesis.
“So then we see in the in-flight magazine there is article on Monaco, and we look, and there we are! Outside the Chanel boutique. And we are holding hands and posing…”
So, a hypothesis.
“We are in the short white dress, you know the one, and we each wear the solbriller, the how you say sun-glass, and we each have the black Chanel bag on our arm with the black Chanel shopping bag under that. Oh it is a wonderful picture.”
Bruce considered that first class passenger. He wondered if it could have been Phillip Storr, CEO of a prestigious European olive oil concern who was sometimes mistaken for Samuel L. Jackson when he traveled.
“But then Lise remembers, we hadn’t been inside the store yet when we pose for this. The shopping bags we had were from Herve Leger. They change the name on the bags with eh, oh, what is it called, they use it to remove flab and cellulite on all the tykk models—den Photoshop.”
So, three to five questions… Bruce opened the bar, just to “see what their options were” for the return trip, since they wouldn’t want to spoil their palates before Wine Riot. As expected, there was a Johnny Walker Black Label and he bemoaned that it wasn’t the far costlier Blue. He indulged in a brief reminiscence of the excellence of the Blue Label, squelched the trivia he knew about why it didn’t indicate how old it was on the bottle (though it was more interesting, and said a lot about scotch snobs like the one he was pretending to be), and how popular the Blue Label was with connoisseurs like himself and the nouveau riche—like all those Hollywood celebs. He asked about “their friend” on the plane.
They squealed with delight. Though at first the man who looked like Samuel Jackson said that he didn’t drink when he traveled and seldom drank at all, he did have two glasses of Johnny Walker Blue Label before dinner!
The inner Bruce grunted in satisfaction. If he was with Selina, he might have indulged in a genuine lip-twitch, but instead, he produced a showy laugh for the twins. Like Bruce, Phillip wasn’t much of a drinker, but when he did indulge, it was generally Johnny Walker Blue Label on long, transatlantic flights. Though it had nothing to do with the hypothesis, Bruce also noted that Lise and Lili displayed none of the usual, coded disdain for someone saying they didn’t drink. He was not proclaimed a buzzkill, a wet blanket or even a vått teppe. Presumably because they thought he was a movie star, they found all he said and did charming. From the little vial of home-made hot sauce he emptied on his lamb roast to his gourmet’s assessment of the ice cream served with his crumble to his pet peeve about the grapes sitting next to the stinky cheese on the cheese tray… Inner Bruce’s brow knit in consternation.
Well, it was Phillip Storr. But in only one question? It used to be an achievement when he could do it in three. Was he that much better a detective now, or was it luck?
In the fourteen centuries since Jason Blood became immortal, medicine had changed in many ways, but not in the way doctors behaved when they had no idea what was going on. Jason didn’t know either: what happened to Claire, what caused that bizarre disintegration of her clothing, or whether a doctor was better equipped than a wizard to figure it out. The hospital was better equipped to make her comfortable, however. They could identify and treat symptoms, get her stable and then Jason could…
His lip curled. He was resigned to waiting. Immortality had taught him patience, and indeed taught him to use the drawing out of time in the same way Batman drew on darkness. Sentient foes nearly always became impatient, even immortal ones like himself would often become unnerved either by the empty time itself or by Jason’s indifference to it. On those occasions when there was no sentient adversary, when there was only the realities of the Universe to contend with, there seemed to be a grudging respect for the man who did not rush things. He who accepted that things took a natural amount of time to play out and did not seek to bend nature to his will.
The only thing Jason didn’t like about waiting, particularly today, was Etrigan. The prospect of sitting alone on that too-comfortable visitors’ couch, so clearly designed for relatives that would be waiting hours upon hours for news... He didn’t mind the waiting itself, but the prospect waiting with that crowing demon in his head might have tempted him to place a magic finger into the clockwork. It really might have, until he saw the figure down the hall seated on a similarly too-comfortable couch. He hurried to greet her, noting the trench coat covering most of her costume.
“Selina?” he asked, guessing that it was permissible to call her by name since she was unmasked and the tell-tale gloves were removed.
She nodded and he sat beside her. He asked gently if Bruce was the patient she was waiting for, and learning he wasn’t, Jason pointed two fingers discreetly at her broken boot heel.
“In that case, what he doesn’t know cannot upset him,” Jason decreed.
Selina glanced down to see her boot repaired and thanked him dryly. Then she returned to the pertinent topic:
“I’m here with Ed Nigma and a henchman. They had some trouble with Poison Ivy.”
“Curious,” Jason said. “She was in such good spirits at the polo grounds, comparatively speaking. As amicably disposed as I’d ever seen her.”
“Well she’s not now. Attack plants bigger than Etrigan and not nearly as friendly.”
“Selina, I will never understand you!” Jason snapped. “You’ve taken my hand in a Seeing ritual, you’ve felt Etrigan’s malice and you still speak of him like he’s one of your amusing friends from the Iceberg. Sure, they may menace the city now and then, but what are a few lives lost with such a ripping bridge partner!”
“Jason, who are you here for and how bad is it?” she asked gently.
“I apologize,” he said.
“Not necessary. Who is it and how serious?” she asked again.
“I’ll wager you’ve never said ‘ripping’ in your life and you don’t play bridge,” he grumbled. It got no response other than an I’ll-wait expression that Jason sensed she used with her cats. “I’m here for Claire. Dr. Sabana. I’ve no idea how serious, no idea what’s wrong.”
“I’m sorry,” Selina said.
“I should have asked about your friend Nigma. How serious are his injuries at the hands of these attack plants?”
He didn’t hear much of her answer. She said something about strangulation marks, but then Etrigan made himself conspicuous, filling Jason’s nostrils with the smell of smoking sulfur when Selina mentioned burns from steam. A flash of memory transported him to 1919, the furnaces on the Mauretania, and then to that sweltering summer in Istanbul. Both were gone in an instant, but the flashes were enough to keep him from making the connection that mustn’t come a moment too soon.
Bruce knew there were people who called him paranoid. Without exception, they were people who did not have criminals and psychopaths plotting to kill them on a regular basis, or else they had superpowers to fall back on when they flew into unknown situations without a plan. Bruce didn’t consider it paranoia to be alert and observant, and he didn’t think it paranoid to distrust coincidence. Too often there was a hidden cause and effect that you would only find if you looked. As a detective, a scientist, and a man who’d been besieged by magic, he would only accept a coincidence after he ‘looked.’
The first coincidence of Wine Riot he was prepared to dismiss after the briefest moment of consideration: Lise and Lili were snobs. They relied on labels and brand names to avoid exercising their own judgment and potentially making a mistake, and they were here with him now because he’d made Bruce the Playboy into just such a brand. Being snobs, though every significant wine-growing region was represented, they wanted to start with France. It was the obvious and the least imaginative choice, and it meant walking right past a booth that included Château de Poulignac. As in Count de Poulignac, Selina’s first boyfriend, the cat burglar. Coincidence could mean magic was afoot, but like Vinnie Lappet, this wasn’t much of a coincidence. France was the most important wine region in the world, de Poulignac was a French wine, Lise and Lili were too insecure to start anywhere other than the place said to be the best. Tres Bien.
The second development wasn’t a coincidence at all. More of a needling irony that revived the idea of the Universe pranking him. Despite the DJ, the photo booths, a temporary tattoo station and carnival atmosphere, Wine Riot was a wine tasting. It looked like a street party, felt like the early hours of Mardi Gras, but every few steps he passed a discreet station to spit or pour out his glass. To have discovered such a happening on his very last appearance as the playboy. He could be seen drinking to excess without consuming a mouthful of alcohol, which was like most of his Fop appearances, except that here it was completely effortless. If only such events were available when he got started.
At the same time, Lise and Lili were well-lubricated. They weren’t drunk or even buzzed, but the natural snobbery that brought them to the Bordeaux booth had relaxed into easygoing smiles when he suggested they investigate Chilean reds. Batman placed a satisfied checkmark next to both of their names as he steered them out of Bordeaux. He had no desire to see his dates drunk, but he preferred their perceptions slightly dulled, just enough that they would fail to notice any little slip—like his knowing a bit too much about genetic mapping of pre-phylloxera vines from Haut-Bailly.
It wasn’t exactly a slip, it was more of a… failure to fop. He knew what he should say, he just couldn’t do it. Like having his will short circuited by a Mad Hatter mind control chip, he could not look into the eyes of that earnest young woman pouring in the Bordeaux booth and blither something idiotic about Monsanto.
The Great Wine Blight began with an aphid called phylloxera—in the mid 19th century. It was not something you made light of with the French, it was not something you confused with the GMOs those funny protestors got so worked up about. To survive, most of the delicate French vines had been grafted onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. Knowing that much, while not taking full advantage of the opportunity to appear as stupid as possible, was forgivable. Pre-phylloxera wines were, after all, a delicacy of delicacies. Supremely rare, supremely expensive, the sort of thing Bruce Wayne would have known, coveted and occasionally bought the way Lise and Lili collected designer handbags.
But that Bruce Wayne’s eyes should have glazed over at the mention of Alcide Bellot Des Minieres as a man who believed in using scientific methods to improve viticulture and bought the Haut-Bailly vineyard in 1872. He should have tuned out the earnest young woman and her sales talk, sipped his wine and thought ahead to the debauchery ahead at Queen of the Night. He shouldn’t have even heard how Des Minieres believed the graft of American rootstocks would result in wines of lesser quality and refused to use them. He shouldn’t have heard how American rootstocks were planted later but that, even today, Haut-Bailly still had fifteen percent of its old vines dating from the pre-phylloxera period. Not having heard either piece of crucial information, he should never have been able to connect them into the earth-shaking implication. His first thought was the immediate and greedy one: pre-phylloxera wines were still being produced, and he couldn’t wait to tell Selina. The second thought hit as the woman began to say it:
“If you have grafted and ungrafted vines that have been growing in exactly the same soil and the same micro-climate for a hundred years,” he said, quietly but with a Christmas-morning-toy-truck glint in his eye, “you can compare the DNA. You can isolate the genomes from the American rootstocks.”
“And theoretically remove it,” the woman concluded, excited to have such a receptive listener.
“Not just from the Haut-Bailly stocks,” Bruce told her. “Theoretically, once you’ve got the complete map of the contamination, any French vineyard could roll back their vines to a pre-phylloxera state.”
“Oh no, Brucie elskling, look. That awful Filippa has passed me again with the Instagram followers, and Sigrid has past Lili.”
“Yes, right,” Bruce said, kicking himself for the lapse and looking at her phone with concern.
“Models,” Lili explained. “Filippa from Paris. Lots of pictures of her in bikinis by ocean. Couple fashion spreads. Then lots more pictures in bikini by ocean.”
“Sigrid is from Martinique,” Lisa added, taking over the sitrep. “Selfies in bed. Selfies by pool. One with some paint poured down on her face. Then back to selfies.”
“Don’t worry, darlings,” Bruce fopped. “Once we’ve made our entrance at Queen of the Night, you’ll surpass Laura Sfez herself. In the meantime, let’s take a few shots here to tide them over. One with that giant glass—there we go—then head over to the Queensland booth and see what our friends down under are pouring.”
Selina Kyle had a scrumptiously vengeful spirit. Another time, Etrigan would have spent this time seasoning it like a rare delicacy. Her friend had been hurt, but she wasn’t thinking about retribution, not yet. The demon could easily fix that, a crash call would get her mind moving in the right direction, but this was no time for tawdry pleasures. Not with the key to his cage all but slid into the lock.
Edward Nigma was awake and the doctor permitted a visitor. Etrigan wished him to have two, so he clouded the nurse’s perception enough to exclude Jason accompanying Selina into his room. Jason would need no prompting; gallantry and boredom would keep him at her side. The rest came down to a roll of the dice… Like the old Roman Emperors playing Tesserae while the blood was flowing in the arena, Etrigan liked gambling.
Queen of the Night was called “a dark debutante ball” and guests were told to dress to impress the queen. It wasn’t the kind of suggestion the Lund sisters took lightly, and their emergence from the long, white limousine lit up the curb in front of the Paramount Hotel in a lightshow of flashes. The tabloid photographers behind a rope had to compete with a dozen amateurs with cell phones who were closer and more creative with eclectic angles that conveyed the glamour of the scene. Queen of the Night had seen its share of flamboyant celebrity entrances, but nothing quite like the Jetset Twins in their identical ivory mini-dresses with their identical crystal halos and identical ivory clutches, oozing from the stretch limo whose color had seemingly been chosen to match their couture. The doorman, who was supposed to tell the crowd that the three people who came up and described the best sexual fantasy would be let in first, was working on ways to vary the line.
He opted for the usual wording, but then with a significant glance at the twins added: “In the interests of a level playing field, I’m going to add one stipulation tonight, that it be a fantasy that you’ve had since at least noon today.”
There was appreciative tittering, and the tabloid guy who was close enough to Bruce whispered “Dude, you’re my hero.”
A peripheral glance told him the guy was from the Post, and Bruce had an impulse to turn away as if from an unpleasant smell. The impulse was borne of loyalty to Selina, but ironically, the thought that stopped him was that much of his present and impending happiness was owed to their piss poor journalism. If they hadn’t offended her so badly, pushed her to a reaction mounting Cat-Tales… Bruce turned to the guy and said “The Post, right? Your coverage of the Torpman trial was very good.”
With that, he turned back to the twins. Lise was still beside him, but Lili had gone to whisper her deepest desires to the doorman. “I think we can handle that for you,” he told her with a knowing wink.
“’Lina,” Eddie said with a pained grin as she walked into the room, adding a less enthused “and friend” when Jason followed. “Things were a little hazy towards the end there, but did you put me in a closet with some kind of a giant tree monster and then blow it up? And if so why?”
“Botched rescue. Sorry,” she said.
“Buy me dinner like the old days, we’ll call it even,” he said amiably, then his eyes shifted to Jason. “Your friend’s Justice League,” he said disapprovingly.
“Charming. Having failed to disabuse the heroes themselves of that idea, I must now contend with an equally misinformed criminal element,” Jason said testily.
Selina made a show of concealing her smile, then said “He’s really not, Eddie” and proceeded with the formal introduction. “Jason Blood, Edward Nigma, though you seem to know each other by rep. Jason’s in the same boat I am, actually. Do them a favor once because you happen to be there and the world’s caving in, Superman says ‘thank you’ and they automatically put you on a list as their cat thief on call.”
“Whatever,” Eddie said in a tired voice that could have been either boredom with the subject or painkillers. “Look, salient point is that between the two of you, somebody can get a message to Batman. Let me give you the bullet points on Darth Ivy, the crazed psycho we all used to call Poison. ‘Poison’ was the good old days, doesn’t that just say it all. She’s split down the center now, half green—and I mean really green—and half regular skin. Like Two-Face without the endearing coin flip.”
He paused, noting identically raised eyebrows on both his listeners, and he reiterated:
“Yes, I said endearing. Fifty-fifty chance it could go your way. A fifty-fifty chance would not be amiss when you’re looking at the business end of a snapping flytrap. Don’t believe me, just ask Zed or the corpse in that cocoon hanging from the ceiling.” He huffed belligerently, glanced at the heart monitors and continued more calmly. “Anyway, it’s not just cosmetic. The attack plants have gotten smarter somehow; it’s like they get infused with more of her when she animates them. ’Lina, y’remember how they used to just go to pieces and flop around ten, fifteen minutes after she’d left? Not anymore. They keep going for hours. It’s like creepy independent thinking. Smarter than a Robin.”
Preserving Nigma’s assumption that all three of them didn’t know Batman’s identity, Jason said he would forward the message.
“Tell him to drop-kick her ass back into Arkham,” Eddie said bitterly. “Tell him to be quick about it. If she’s still out there when I get out there, I won’t be so cordial about it. Did I tell you the clothes thing?”
“What… clothes thing?” Jason said with an edge that reminded Riddler of the Dark Knight.
Eddie recognized a dangerous man when he saw one. He looked at Jason with new eyes and spoke with subtle emphasis, as if he knew he was loading a gun.
“What she did to Zed. What she did to the cop in that cocoon. She can control cloth now. Fibers in cotton, hemp, flax. They just spring to life and start burrowing. It looks real painful, going by the screaming.”
“That is enlightening,” Jason said formally. “Thank you, Mr. Nigma. You are an able man, intelligent and observant, and I grieve at the ordeal you have suffered. When we next meet, I will see that you prosper. Selina, you have chosen your friends well. A pleasure as always.”
With that, he practically clicked his heel as he turned and left the room.
It wasn’t unusual for audience members to be separated from their party as they were led down the derelict but once grand staircase to the supper club beneath the Paramount. Lili had, of course, been admitted first with the other adventurous souls who impressed the doorman. As the rest of them made their way down the winding staircase decorated by antique piles of champagne flutes, Bruce noted attendants lurking—with surprising stealth given the eye-catching nature of their white-and-black halters and short-shorts—to attach themselves to an arm here, or to clasp a hand there, and lead the chosen one off to who-knows-where. The art on the walls was exotic, leaving no doubt that one was entering a nocturnal playground, and there was a whiff of burnt sage that hinted at ritual.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs where a Phantom of the Opera-sized chandelier had seemingly crashed into even more ancient champagne glasses, they were offered drinks. Not far away, a topless woman stood behind a glass wall, writing cryptic messages on the glass in red lipstick—the implication was if you viewed this with anything but suave Gotham urbanity, you’d better have a drink.
Bruce noted audience members being pulled aside, seemingly at random, and marked for different experiences. One might be given a paste-on rhinestone teardrop, one a gnomic necklace, one might return with a ribbon tied around their wrist or a letter written on their skin. What it meant nobody knew, except for one man—a hedge fund manager who clearly recognized Bruce and was angling to strike up an acquaintance—who was told that his mark entitled him to a free drink. His partner, more well-versed in the show’s reviews than anyone else in the crowd, thought there was probably more to it. The drinks were to loosen everyone up, and a free one certainly meant that his partner would be approached for something shocking before the night was out.
“Like what?” Lise asked excitedly.
“Oh, asked to perform. Taken up on stage with a total stranger to feed each other saffron flowers, or off to the Queen’s private boudoir to bathe the princess in coconut milk…”
Bruce was no longer listening; the mention of the flower had reminded him of Ivy. The ambulance had come and gone by the time he reached the greenhouse, but the wreckage that remained told the tale. Whatever had happened there had been… extreme. Obviously it was nothing Catwoman couldn’t handle, but he was impatient for a full debriefing. He was also impatient to go back and investigate the basement, but the herbicide pellets he’d tossed down the stairs would need another six hours to complete their work. He could always…
Instinct shut down his internal monologue. Something was happening. Without appearing to turn, he shifted his balance, eyes, and awareness until he could pinpoint what it was… He was being watched, sized up… He sipped his drink and, in the course of that move, noticed Lise’s bracelet. Turning a little more as he complimented it, he was able to scan the perimeter of dim and irregular lighting that surrounded them… Ideal concealment from the other guests, but Bruce was so used to discerning pattern and movement in darkness, he spotted the stalker without effort. A man. 5’8 or 5’9. With a whip or a rope… a rope. With that angle of approach, preparing to lasso him, literally, as the group made their way to the marble bar topped with tubes and oversized bubbling beakers that resembled Dr. Ivo’s lab—or even Dr. Frankenstein’s.
A night of interactive theatre meant he would have to endure some encounter, and the public Bruce Wayne was far too worldly to react with anything but enthusiasm. He’d have to play along with something, but it wasn’t going to be that. Without changing his position or his focus, he simply… thought of Joker. He aimed a spike of revulsion at the shadow where the attendant with the lasso thought he was concealed, and then… felt the shift. Like a would-be mugger seeing their prey walk with the forceful gait, the young man was switching targets. Without knowing why, he was now searching the crowd for someone who seemed like more fun.
“Brucie elskling, you must try this. Infused with rosemary. What did you say it is called?”
“The Queen’s Bush,” the leather-clad bartender told her, though he sensed her English wasn’t good enough to get the joke. “We have also A Willing Gentleman and The Marchesa’s Caprese,” he added, noting that Bruce did no more than wet his lips from the glass Lise was holding to his mouth. Sensing one who didn’t want alcohol of any sort, rather than alcohol that didn’t taste like insalata caprese, he discreetly provided a tinted beaker of Perrier and was rewarded with the largest tip he would ever receive.
They wandered. The preshow was a positive labyrinth of secret nests and forbidden encounters. There was a room with walls covered in dripped candle wax where one of the guests Bruce saw marked at the door held a shard of mirror while a performer danced for her in the reflection. There was a fur- and mirror-lined boudoir where a man sat barefoot while a woman studied him adoringly and stroked his face with a feather. It brought a revolting Talia flashback, and merely to chase the thought from his mind, Bruce investigated a curtain of tinkly shells—only to find a knife-throwing act in progress, which brought an even more revolting flashback. Bruce did notice that the woman acting as the target was another of those he saw marked at the door, and he considered solving the guest-selection and symbol-marking matrix as a new problem to keep his mind occupied for the night. He got no farther than that when he heard the duet of girlish squeals that meant Lise and Lili were reunited. He scurried back the way he came—there was the sound of a whip cracking somewhere which he chose not to investigate, even though it hinted at a more appealing flashback than the previous one—and found his dates comparing notes in a magician’s office brimming with curios.
“I got to meet the queen! There was serious eye contact and light petting,” one reported.
“I read erotica to the Princess while she had her bath and this cute man in a perfect beard and awful bangs shaved her legs.”
The room was full of trick drawers, and Bruce pretended to explore them rather than intrude on the sisters’ giggling disclosures. Some drawers opened, some didn’t, some had surprises, some held nothing. The playboy pose disappeared into a scowl as he looked down into one such empty drawer. The room was too like a Riddler puzzle, and it reminded him Nigma was at the hospital. He considered ditching Lise and Lili to visit the men’s room in order to call Selina for an update.
He took no more than a step into the dimly lit hall when the women were back at his side. Lili had been told “a secret” in the course of her adventure. The labyrinth was filled with secrets, she confided, which the attendants would tell if you played along and they liked the look of you. There was something about the wallpaper in the bathrooms, the pattern would change if you looked long enough. It had nothing to do with the drinks (pause for more giggling tittlers) but had something to do with the lighting.
Bruce did his best to fake as much interest in the optical illusion as he had genuinely felt about the genetic mapping at Wine Riot, but the effort was cut short. Once again instinct said he was being watched, this time a mere moment before he felt his hand taken—which was lucky because it would have been awkward if Batman’s reflexes had backhanded the young woman into the wall. Very awkward considering she was now, uh, fondling his hand like a rare and mysterious bauble—sparking another unwelcome flashback.
“Charming,” Bruce said as one well-versed in the etiquette of such encounters, and noting in his peripheral vision that Lise had been similarly accosted. Pushed gently against the wall by another curious attendant, she was now being intensely sniffed.
“You smell like desire,” Bruce heard her new friend murmur, when a delicate kiss on the tip of his fingers drew his attention back to his own new acquaintance. His hand was guided to rest on her naked hip.
“This way,” she tugged. “And I’ll tell you a secret.”
The hallways were dimly lit and smelled of frankincense, which like the incense on the stairs, created a sense of ritual. The theme of the evening might be a party, but it was one where the pursuit of pleasure was practically a sacrament.
“Say ‘yes’ to everything,” she whispered before handing him off at the entrance to an antechamber where a stuffed and bejeweled leopard stood sentinel.
A stunned Selina looked to an equally stunned Eddie, then hurriedly followed Jason from the room. He wasn’t in the hall but the nurse was, looking a bit stunned herself. She pointed to an orange line on the floor and said he went that way, though Selina hadn’t asked. She said Patient Sabana was in room 861, though again, Selina hadn’t asked. She said to follow the orange line to room 861, and after Selina thanked her, she said it again and walked away blinking.
Selina hurried down the hall, following the orange line, mind racing through the options. She wasn’t inexperienced with magicians on a tear, but everything she knew of Jason Blood said he was more problematic than a lecherous Felix Faust. A suspicion that was confirmed as she caught up with him and he wheeled around to face her with a stare that could silence a banshee.
“I will thank you to not interfere,” he said with the intensity she associated with the phrase “Catwoman, put it back.” It produced a gesture somewhere between surrender and jazz hands.
“No interfering,” she said reassuringly. “Standing beside you as a friend, just like you did me; helping if I can. Extra set of hands if you need them. Extra pair of eyes. That’s all.”
Selina told herself she meant it, for now. She wasn’t going to interfere in the next two minutes, at least, so if Jason could detect a lie as easily as Superman, there should be nothing to set off the magical polygraph. She hoped.
Jason looked skeptical for a moment, and then nodded.
“Not eyes or hands,” he said piercingly, “but you could lend me your voice.”
Selina blinked. “Uhm,” she began.
“Lend Claire your voice,” he explained. “I am loathe to sift through her unconscious mind, but I feel I can no longer sit idly by. Before, I was prepared to do just that, but with what your friend Nigma just told us, I feel if I must sit here doing nothing—knowing nothing—until she wakes, I shall run mad.”
Etrigan helpfully reminded him that if Claire were to die, Jason could easily raise her ghost for a chat. Jason called him the son of a jackal by a hell-spawn whore, and Etrigan said thank you. Jason made a fist and returned his attention to Selina.
“When I found Claire, her clothing was all but reduced to powder. I couldn’t guess what kind of radiation or other modern abomination might be responsible, but my mind was running along those lines. I did not conceive of an attack. Now I can’t conceive of anything else. But I cannot act without being sure. I must confirm the suspicion.
“If you would permit, a simple spell will allow Claire to speak through you, so I can talk with her. Ask her about what happened without intruding into her mind. It would be as though she and I were talking in the usual way. You would remain completely aware, you must simply… refrain from speaking so that Claire may have your voice.”
“Uh-huh,” Selina said as a horserace of thoughts jockeyed for position. She didn’t like it. She owed him. And there was that part about being aware. Either she was going to take on this Darth Ivy or Batman would. Either way, an eyewitness account of what they were up against would not be amiss.
Bruce was a better actor than anyone associated Queen of the Night, and he appeared to enjoy his individual pre-show experience like a man who hadn’t done this a few hundred times before: a dark and mysterious labyrinth leading to a bizarrely themed and insanely elaborate room (this one had walls covered in pearlescent shells), going one on one with a bizarrely intense and potentially insane inhabitant playing some game only they understood, nothing explained, having to figure it out as he went...
“Have you ever been in love?”
At least in those situations, he didn’t have to pretend he wasn’t annoyed.
“You’re very direct,” he told his interrogator.
“I’m not direct. I’m deliberate,” she replied.
Eye contact. There were four natural types: confident, intimate, liar and psychopath. Then there was this: the gaze cultivated by the professional dominatrix. This was the last but in the eyes of someone who couldn’t hide that she just learned it. Part of the show-training, no doubt. Bruce decided he’d had enough.
“I’m direct,” he said, stopping short of Batman but adopting the manner he’d use with another CEO. “I’m here for the photo op, not the show. I’ve been frisked. I’ve been blindfolded. I’m ready for dinner.” With that, the CEO vanished and the devastating charm of the playboy took his place. “What do you say?”
“I’ll get in trouble,” she mouthed.
“You really won’t,” he promised with the smiling assurance that left the most sought-after debs and divorcees weak in the knees.
“Okay, come on,” she whispered. “I can’t take you straight in, but we’ll pretend you’re one of the art types that’s more interested in the design and the restoration.”
He was escorted—with just as much stroking and sniffing but without the blindfold—to what seemed like an ornate back hallway with brass wall decor and stair rails, lit by multicolored lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling fixtures. The attendant said despite the appearance of an elaborate restoration, all of it was completely new. Reaching what looked like a service-elevator bay, they came to a well-known Hollywood director enjoying foie gras gougères and a private performance of a pas de deux.
“Elevator door also fake,” his guide confided.
Bruce was tempted to say the same of the director’s hair, but since it was the Fop’s final appearance and the guy wasn’t actually wearing a hairpiece, he let the opportunity pass.
“And this is where I leave you,” she said as they entered the foyer outside the ballroom. “Once there are 200 people passing through, you won’t be able to smell it, but the incense here is amber. That’s the butterfly wall,” she said, pointing to the mandella pattern made up of thousands of butterfly wings. “It’s meant to introduce themes of metamorphosis that you’ll see throughout the show.”
Selina’s magical escapades with Jason had included a break in via futhark rune, getting trapped in a pentagon of mirrors and bitch-slapping a Lady of the Lake, pouring Water of Avalon into a Vessel of Antioch in order to spy on the Justice League, distributing jade chopstick wands to the Batmen of different dimension, and traipsing through a Zurich Farmer’s Market to find six leaves of sage fresh and fragrant and a hand-dipped taper of purest white. So it was a relief when all he wanted for this voice-lending spell was a trip to the candy machine.
“Very important to have sugar in the blood stream,” he reminded her, handing her a Twix bar while he bought three for himself.
“Yeah but I’m not channeling any magic,” she pointed out, chasing after him as he continued to Claire’s room.
“That’s why you only need to eat one,” he said. “You must eat a sweet taken from my hand.”
“Bloody magicians have more rules than Batman,” she muttered. “You know how I hate rules.”
The next minutes were spent munching, after which Jason rubbed his hands together with a chipper “Now then” that sounded unnervingly like Selina’s own voice getting Whiskers and Nutmeg into the carrier for a trip to the vet. Jason stood before her, placing a hand on each of her upper arms and ‘adjusting’ her position so their torsos were perfectly parallel. Then he rapidly touched the center of her forehead, the center of her lips and the center of her throat—though the last was more of a poke that elicited an angry “Hey.”
He turned away from her and regarded Claire.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“That’s it,” he intoned, touching Claire’s throat first, then her lips, and finally her forehead.
“Claire, it’s Jason,” he announced. “Selina Kyle is here also; you’ve met her, I think.”
“Yes, of course, at the polo match,” Selina said—though her eyes widened in surprise.
“Good,” Jason said. “Introductions would be peculiar under the circumstances. You’re using her voice, you see. Claire, I need you to tell me what happened.”
Selina thought Jason might have given her a little more information about where she was and what was happening, but she couldn’t say so. She couldn’t seem to say anything. It was as if her brain had forgotten how to make her thoughts into spoken words. Her voice was doing fine on its own, however:
“Jason, I’m sorry about dinner. Was planning such a nice evening for us,” it was saying in an unfocused, dreamy tone while Jason looked impatient. He was apparently resigning himself to a few minutes chit-chat before he could steer her back to the subject they cared about, and Selina could only do likewise.
“Claire, what happened?” he asked finally, doing his best to punch through the haze of painkillers and trauma while keeping the frustration out of his tone.
“I was in the kitchen, radio was on,” she said in that eerily distant voice, then sang softly, “Not crazy, I’m just a little unwell… Stay a while and maybe then you’ll see, I’m chopping broccoli.” Jason looked apologetically at Selina, who managed to convey without words that she didn’t visit her friends when they were in Arkham and this was why.
Claire sang her improvised ditty over the radio version while she prepped the dinner, but stopped when she heard a knock at the door.
~Stay a while and maybe then you’ll see, a different side of me~ the song continued without her until she turned it down. She hadn’t realized she brought the knife with her until she opened the door and saw her visitor staring at it.
“Oh. Wow. Hi,” she managed, trying to process what she was seeing without making too much of a fool of herself—but glad she had the knife. “From the polo match… Pamela,” she said weakly.
“Actually I prefer Poison Ivy. May I came in?” came the soft, breathy reply from the woman who looked nothing like she had at the polo grounds.
Claire swallowed. She tried not to be too obvious as she clutched the knife tighter.
“Um,” she said. She didn’t want to let the psycho-plantlady-monster-criminal into her house, even though monsters and criminals don’t generally ask. Still. “I have somebody coming over,” she managed. “Not a great time. Maybe you could uh, you know, call tomorrow and we could meet. Somewhere. Else.”
“I won’t stay long,” Ivy said, brushing past Claire and walking to the center of her living room. “This is nice. A little on the small side. You expect that in the city, but out here, I would have thought you’d have more space. Don’t worry, we’ll fix that.”
“You’ll probably think I’m very stupid,” Claire said tactfully. “You introduced yourself as Pamela when we met, and I wasn’t completely sure you were… I mean you did talk about plants and your skin is on the green side.”
“It is not; it’s alabaster. Was anyway,” Ivy said, fluctuating between kneejerk anger and embarrassed acceptance. Then she broke into a too-wide smile. “Well anyway, I understand. You weren’t sure who you were talking to and because you’re a nice, polite sort of woman, you didn’t want to make any assumptions. But now you see there’s no room for doubt.”
“That is some serious green,” Claire said. “What happened. I mean, down the center like that. Did Two-Face do something to you?”
“Let’s leave him out of it,” Ivy said tersely. “I want you to tell me more about horses, why you like them and… well.. why you don’t go after the people that hurt them.”
“I’m a veterinarian,” Claire said.
“Yes, I know that,” Ivy said through clenched teeth. “So, what, you’ll help some poor creature that’s been abused, but you don’t go after the ones who did it. Why not? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to see them stopped?”
“Very much,” Claire said sincerely.
“So why don’t you stop them?! They’re just going to keep on doing it. They’re depraved monsters who can’t cut it among their own kind, so rather than slink off and die like the failures that they are, they take it out on whoever they can.” As she spoke, a hairline strip down the center of her breastbone grew a bit darker where the green skin met the pink. As her words became more venomous, her breathing became more labored and the dark strip seemed to widen, just a little.
“I suppose because there are other people who do that. People better suited to that kind of work. Police and government agencies. I treat the wounds, ease an animal’s pain. They wouldn’t know how to do that, probably wouldn’t enjoy it. And I wouldn’t enjoy ‘bashing the bad guys.’ They do their thing and I do mine.”
“Hmph,” was all Ivy could think to say. Then she sat down and asked for some water. Claire went into the kitchen, but as it connected to the living room, Ivy continued the conversation as she went. “You may all need to double up on some jobs. Take on additional tasks. We’ll see how it goes. Of course there will be some jobs going away altogether.”
“Oh, and why is that?” Claire asked, returning with a glass but still holding the knife behind her back.
“Fewer people. Humans are very bad animals, they take far more than their share. We have to cut down their numbers, drastically. Plants should be the dominant species on the planet. People will be staff. The privilege of eating plant life will be confined to those animals that know their place, and the remaining people can subsist on those animals, which they may kill. Although the whole idea of cultivating livestock has to go. They’ll feed the cattle too much, greedy pigs. The natural herbivores can eat their fill naturally, and these reduced-number humans may live on them.”
“I see,” Claire said, approaching Ivy careful step by careful step, and desperately trying to hide the fact that the hand holding the knife—and hence the knife itself—now shook.
“You will be a great help to me there,” Ivy declared. “Persephone to my Demeter. You can advise me on the animals, and I shan’t be at all cross if you play favorites. Horses are your babies, I understand that and I respect it. I expect you to put their interests above that of lesser beasts, like say cats. Yes, you’re a much better choice. Horses are herbivores. Cats are… well the point is, I would much rather deal with you. Approved agriculture will continue, of course. Approved plant products, such as cotton sheets. Cotton will be vital in many ways…”
Selina was poking Jason’s arm repeatedly while her mouth chattered on outlining Ivy’s Utopia as she’d explained it to Claire. Unable to even mouth the words she wished to convey, she could only improvise an ad hoc sign language—the repeated scratching motion hinting that she wanted him to ask Claire what she meant about the cats.
“Selina, please, that is hardly the most pressing issue,” Jason said, while she responded “The chains of the slave race homo sapien sapien.”
Selina’s furious gestures responded, pointing to herself then indicating cat whiskers, cat ears, shaking her head no, the spot on her thigh where the whip was holstered, a curtsy and giving the bird. Her voice said “She actually said that. I mean those actual words, ‘slave race homo sapien sapien’.”
“Yes, I think it’s possible she meant that if she didn’t have Claire to turn to then you would be her ‘spokeswoman’ for the animal kingdom,” Jason said irritably. “But it’s not like Claire can ask now. She’s only telling us what Ivy said.”
“Like the idea isn’t bad enough on its own, she’s got to be a total drama queen on top of that,” Selina-Claire replied.
“And if we could get clarification, Selina, what then? What could Claire or Ivy say that you might believe? What reassurance could you possibly have?”
Selina kicked him in the shin, and Etrigan laughed in delight.
“I felt sick,” Claire-Selina continued. “I was trying to tell myself I wasn’t understanding her. Ever since ‘drastically reduce their numbers,’ I told myself I wasn’t understanding, it had to mean something other than what it sounded like. I was listening but at the same time, I was jumping all kinds of hurdles inside trying to think what else those words could mean. But now ‘cotton is the going to be the chains of the slave race,’ there’s no way you can spin that away from bonkers. The only hope left was that the whole thing could be some kind of crazy prank. A green person knocks on your door and starts telling you they want to take over the world with cotton... But I don’t know anybody who would play a joke like that, and it couldn’t be one of those reality shows, not inside my home. I just… I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t believe what was happening and I didn’t know what to do.”
She sounded pitiful. Selina was horrified at the bewildered pain in her own voice—and more horrified at Jason’s seeming indifference. Her eyes mirrored the confused anguish in her tone and she shoved him, meaning that he should go to the bed, hug the poor woman or squeeze her hand, and offer some kind of love and assurance. All he did was produce a glare that said ‘stop hitting me’ with the same silent eloquence as all of her previous outbursts.
“I had the knife. I tried to make her leave,” Selina said with a heartbreaking sob. “I did it wrong. I made everything worse. The next thing I knew, I was being torn up inside. Like, under my clothes, all over my skin, trying to get underneath my skin. It hurt. Jason, it hurt so m—”
The sound cut off as Jason abruptly closed his fist, and Selina’s head snapped back with a gasp as if the breath had been violently yanked from her throat.
“My apologies,” he said dryly. “I fear she was about to get loud as she relived the attack.”
“No she wasn’t,” Selina said hoarsely.
“I couldn’t risk her raising her voice.”
“She wasn’t reliving it, she was remembering. She wasn’t going to scream. And if she did, you’ve already bewitched the nurse. You just weren’t up to hearing it.”
Jason turned from Selina and looked at Claire. “I heard enough,” he said. It wasn’t the voice she knew—or rather, it wasn’t a Jason Blood voice she knew. It was more like a Bat-gravel when he wasn’t Batman anymore, when it was the mountain creaking before an earthquake. Her heart stopped as Jason—her friend Jason—turned back, his eyes glowing red with demonic fury. “Haven’t you?” he asked, freezing her in that stare. “You who can take my hand and feel Etrigan’s malice coursing through it, tilt your head and make a joke in the presence of pure Evil. Haven’t you heard enough?”
“Jason, don’t,” she whispered before it hit, then a dizzying spell gripped her mind like the flash of a distant explosion reaching her before the sound of the blast. The first waves of fear and dread, moving at the speed of light, reaching her before anything else, then the concussive blast of betrayal, the pain and cruelty, treachery and lies. Finally, the sound of the explosion:
“Change, change the form of man; free the prince forever damned. Free the might from fleshy mire; boil the blood in heart of fire. Gone, gone the form of man, and rise the demon Etrigan.”
To be continued...