Nothing turns a bunch of hardened criminals
into drama queens like the subject of Hell Month. “The savage
brutality of Genghis Kahn, the cunning cruelty of Torquemada, the sadistic
torments of the Marquis de Sade, the terrible wrath of Attila the Hun, the
searing pain of—” I dunno, Amazon menstrual cramps.
Hard to believe, isn’t it. I mean,
they’re talking about Bruce! Contrary to what some people say,
I do have a healthy respect for the Bat’s dark side. But he is not
mentioned in the Book of Revelations. He’s a crimefighter and a damn
good one, but even at his worst, he is not a horseman of the apocalypse.
If you want to talk sadistic wrath of vengeful torment, consider the hangover. Try pouring five martinis on top of jetlag, then sharing a cab uptown with Pamela Isley. Okay, first: her skin is green; not alabaster, and a henna rinse does not make you a natural redhead. And when you share a cab, it is customary to drop the person who lives closest FIRST, let them pay their share and go on their way. Particularly when they’re nursing a hangover and want nothing more than to go home, swallow five or ten aspirin, and die in their own bed. But no, Queen Chlorophyll has had some kind of falling out with the oak trees in Riverside Park, so she has to go back to her old digs in Robinson Park. And Robinson Park has been re-landscaped, so it might take a few tries to find the right path. And she can’t leave the cab waiting if she’s all alone. Don’t ask me why. I’m still working on ‘tall’ and ‘blue’ as her chief objections to Nightwing’s romantic appeal.
I finally did get rid of her, got home, and
got some shuteye. Next day, the headache was less pronounced, but
still present. I had an invitation to Wayne Manor. Leg of Lamb a la Pennyworth
was promised, a welcome home dinner. In my hungover condition, I
wasn’t in the mood for a big meal, but clearly Alfred had gone to a lot of
trouble. Of all the laws, natural and manmade, that govern the
universe, there are one or two even Catwoman holds sacred. Of those,
“Don’t Cross Alfred Pennyworth” ranks very close to the top of the list.
So I downed a few more aspirin and trudged out to the manor. Imagine my surprise when I learned that Alfred didn’t just leave the message on my machine, it was he who extended the invitation. Bruce didn’t know anything about it. Bruce was holed up in the cave. He’d been down there for a day and a half and wasn’t expected to surface for dinner or anything else for another thirty-six hours at least. Alfred took down a tray, he said, at hour four, then returned at hour six to find the soup and sandwich untouched. He replaced the tray with a fresh one and repeated this procedure at two-hour intervals, except for the period when Batman was on patrol.
I said cautiously, mindful of the universal law against crossing Batman’s
butler, “this might be my hangover talking, but in my opinion, the
behavior you’re describing is simply fucked in the head.”
Batman has a subtle way of smiling; it’s
best described as a quick, slight twitch at the corner of his mouth.
You have to know what to see. Alfred is much the same but more so.
Between English, a servant, and the product of an older generation, there’s
a reserved dignity that goes beyond mere ‘battitude.’
A twitch would be far too demonstrative. Instead, there’s this odd
glint in the eyes, just a flicker of recognition. I understood
what it meant: “‘Fucked in
the head,’ Miss? Right ho!”
I took the grandfather clock passage down
to the cave. The stairs weren’t ideal, but the thought of Alfred’s
elevator with my head still throbbing was—ulgh.
The text swam. Bruce sat at his Workstation, eyes fixed on the Log Entries for April 1997: Matches Malone infiltrating Penguin’s gang, planting the seeds that would unravel his alliance with Mr. Freeze. He was beyond the point of reading; he just stared at the words… the shape of the letters… Cobblepot… suspicion… distrust…
How many hours now… and he still couldn’t meditate… The Logs were part of the Ritual, as a record of all Batman had accomplished and all there still was to do…but now they were more than that, they were his only hope of focusing on The Mission… Penguin… criminal … apprehend… focusing to the point of exhaustion… Frieze… distrust… avenge… becoming one with it…. avenge… criminal… apprehend…
“Why?” Until he heard the word, he didn’t realize he was speaking. “Why isn’t it working? Why can’t I focus?”
Suddenly, the sound of his voice was joined by a new noise—Clip. ClipClip…. Clip… echoed… ClipClip… Clip… High heels on rock… Selina… Less clippy than usual.
“Something wrong?” he asked quietly, eyes never leaving the monitor.
“Oh… don’t shout. Hangover. Iceberg. Don’t ask.”
“I won’t,” he grumbled softly.
Technically, he’d acknowledged my existence. But just barely. I knew better than to treat this antisocial behavior as if it was anything out of the ordinary, so I peered past the back of his head to the file he was reading, some ancient history with Oswald and Freeze. Yawn. Then I saw the Batcuffs. I picked them up, made myself comfy and started to fiddle.
These were the new modified cuffs Eddie had mentioned. New locks, hard to quick pick. I told Eddie I’d take a look when the opportunity presented itself, since I was the one who figured out how to pick the old cuffs. What Eddie didn’t know, of course, was that I had suggested the modification: a little flap in front of the Grazour mechanism blocked a standard retractable pick. But Bruce had added something else, something of his own, and I had been meaning to figure out what.
“Don’t break those,” he snapped.
Don’t break those. Unbelievable. The very suggestion of my ‘breaking’ handcuffs set up, I was sure, a dozen wonderful zingers. But damnit, my head hurt and I couldn’t quite work out a punch line. So I had to settle for:
“If I can break them, Stud, then they’re not up to the job, now are they.”
I decided if my head wasn’t up to talking about the Batcuffs, it certainly wasn’t up to picking the Batcuffs. So I set them down and noticed the infamous lunch tray.
“Are you going to eat that sandwich?”
Bruce glowered. Impossible woman. Everyone else got it. Everyone else knew—Even Dick in his most ornery teen years knew: It’s all about The Mission. If you can’t be focused on that, get the hell out.
Even he couldn’t focus on The Mission.
And why did she have to sit there demonstrating her maddening criminal expertise picking his Batcuffs? It was like she was flaunting her illegal activities right in front of him—in defiance—in The Cave, no less. Inserting herself into his life—again.
“No,” he said, ignoring the cuffs and returning to the sandwich question, “I’m not hungry.” Hungry. It was a broad word. What did it mean? More than wanting food. Wanting. Will. Will to do things. Will to participate, to partake of the world, taking part in the life experience… No. It meant food. In this case, ham and turkey with mayo and a cup of lobster bisque.
“I’ll assume that’s why you didn’t invite me to dinner,” Selina was saying, “Alfred did, by the way. We’re having his famous Leg of Lamb Pennyworth. Sure I can’t tempt you?”
She was behind this.
“Sure I can’t tempt you?” This was why he couldn’t focus. The Mission. The Mission was all. “Sure I can’t tempt you?” To become one with The Mission meant blotting out everything else. Bruce Wayne was a Mask. A Tool. Another Weapon used to advance The Mission. He existed to serve the Bat. “Sure I can’t tempt you?” Bruce Wayne carving out a bit of life for himself was never part of The Plan. Thus far, it had not interfered with The Mission, so Psychobat let it be. But now he couldn’t meditate. He could not shut out the man Bruce Wayne had become. The man beyond the Bat was refusing to be silent… “Sure I can’t tempt you?” It was all her fault.
“No,” he pronounced finally. He meant it to sound firm, but even to his own ears it sounded stubborn instead. He tried to soften it. “No thank you.” Silence. “I’m not hungry,” he added, not realizing he’d said this before.
“Suit yourself.” She shrugged as if it was of no importance, picked up her bag and headed towards the Costume Vault.
Putting away the catsuit.
He swiveled his chair back, meaning to return his attention to the computer, but instead a thought struck him and continued his momentum all the way around until he faced the Vault again.
Putting away the catsuit, Catwoman’s catsuit! Defiling his Vault with a criminal’s costume!
“I can handle putting a costume away,” he called, stalling for time chasing after her. He caught up with her at the door. She looked amused—like she always looked before a Vault.
“So can I,” she answered lightly.
Typical. Defiant—like she always was before a vault. Impossible woman.
turned back towards his Workstation, took a single step, then paused with a
slight stumble when, as before, a thought hit him: If she goes in the Costume Vault she’ll see…
“WHAT THE HELL DID YOU Dooooh damnit, mustn’t shout.”
…she’ll see that her shelf was smashed to
In a heartbeat, she stood before him in the Vault doorway, holding two splintered pieces of wood the size of popsicle sticks.
She repeated her query silently, with only a questioning raise of an eyebrow.
“Oh, that,” he said gruffly, “I needed some space.”
“Needed space for what?” she asked finally.
“There’s still a hanging peg in there for you.”
“The peg pulls the leather. Needed the space for what?”
“What does it matter, I needed the space. I’ll get you a hanger for the suit.”
“Don’t bother, I never asked for the shelf. I can go back to keeping it under the bed. Needed the space for what?”
He snorted contemptuously. “Under MY bed, you mean.”
“Bruce,” she looked him in the eye, refusing to be baited, “Needed the space for what?”
“You needed the space for your fist, didn’t you?”
The look was a new one. Not a deathscowl, to be sure. Not a glare, nor a glower. Whatever it was, it was followed by a soft grunt. To the untrained ear, a grunt like any other. But to Selina, well versed in the nuances of BatSpeak, it was an answer, as much of an answer as she was going to get.
A look and a grunt. He didn’t want to open this up for discussion, but it was hard to turn his back on genuine concern. Particularly when he knew if he did turn away, the concern would follow him, stubborn, defiant and ferociously feline.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said finally, “I was having trouble meditating. Got frustrated.”
“Ah,” she said. It wasn’t disapproving, nor was it sympathetic. Just “Ah.”
Bruce’s blood began to boil, and he heard the explanation tumbling from his lips—in Batman’s voice—with a hateful bitterness he’d directed at many criminals over the years but never at Selina: This was HER FAULT, he couldn’t FOCUS ON THE MISSION. THE MISSION WAS ALL THAT MATTERED and he COULDN’T SHUT HER OUT! Damn her to hell! She and all she brought with her! Damn the joy she found in living. Damn her loving him for who he was. Damn her for opening his mind and his heart to things in this world besides hate, anger and rage. How in the HELL was he supposed to turn all that off!
When he finished, he was breathing hard.
Selina said nothing. She was silent for a long, long minute.
I almost turned away and left. Not for good, just to give him some time until he was rational. Obviously he wasn’t right now. When someone lays into you for making them happy, that’s going straight through irrational into the land beyond, where Jack kills his henchmen because it’s Thursday and Ivy is a natural redhead because henna is a plant.
I stayed—not because of anything he said, but the way he said it. The pain in his voice was palpable. I took me right back to the beginning—to Xanadu—it reminded me why I’m here.
“When I was ten my parents were shot to death in a smalltime mugging. Happened right in front of me.”
What he needs from me, what he somehow sensed Catwoman would give him that no one else did or could: I’ll never make light of his tragedy, but I will not be another acolyte at his Temple of Loss. Leaving him alone until he’s rational, that’s what they all do. And that’s exactly why I stayed.
He’d gone back to his workstation. I followed and read over his shoulder. Ignoring the more personal aspects of his rant against me, I went straight to his favorite topic: The Mission.
“So… April 1997. Quite the pressing emergency you’ve got there.”
“Is there a point to this?” he spat. And I could hear it in his voice: “You still here? Impossible woman. I thought you were smarter than that—can’t you take a hint?” The message was clear enough. He just pronounced it: “Is there a point to this?”
“You tell me. What is the point of this? Tell me how justice is served by you being hungry, tired and alone.”
He got up in a huff—again—and poured himself some water from a pitcher on the tray. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.
“Justice is served when I have all of the tools and information necessary to complete my task.”
“Nice try, but not even close,” I pointed to his monitor of 1997 crime fighting issues, “Tiffany’s is building a replica of the 240 carat blue diamond from Titanic for Celine Dion to wear at the Oscars, think Catwoman will make a play for it before it’s sent to Hollywood? I’m guessing not, ‘cause I was in Martha’s Vineyard at the time. So let’s try again. You, hungry tired and alone: what’s the payoff?”
“I’m eating and sleeping all that I need to. I can handle the physical pressure—HEY, WHATTHE—BITCH!”
That last outburst because I swept his leg and he landed ducking into a backward roll, hit the railing and wound up in an undignified sprawl. Nothing more needed to be said. On his worst day, he should have seen a move like that coming. He was not handling the physical strain. Justice was not served by his being depleted. There was something else going on here with this “ritual,” something that had nothing to do with the Mission. Sequestering himself in his cave, starving himself, exhausting himself. It wouldn’t protect his city, save innocents or frighten criminals. What was it supposed to do?
“Is there a reason you’re punishing yourself?” I asked, sitting on the floor next to him and leaning back against the railing. He stood and began to walk off towards the workout mats.
“No pain, no gain.” Then an exasperated grunt. I knew why: if that was the best answer he could think of.
“That’s exercise,” I insisted, “This is not productive pain. This is not a burn that makes muscles stronger; this is taking a kitchen knife and carving up your arm for no reason. This accomplishes nothing for Batman. So, Bruce, I’m asking again, why are you doing this to yourself?”
“I’m going to meditate. Somehow now, I think I’ll be able to block out you and everything you stand for.”
It was meant to hurt, meant to drive me away—like everybody else during Hell Month. Which is why I didn’t let it. Besides, I finally realized what had been bothering me:
“Bruce?” I had followed him to a dark area beyond the mats, his special place to reflect.
“Selina, it’s easier to block out the thought of you if you’re not actually here.”
“The way I was taught to meditate, you don’t block out extraneous thoughts, you let them have their moment, run their course, then you can move on. You must know that.”
He stood and looked down at me, stirring a powerful surge of déjà vu: We’d done this before, and so many times. All those galleries, all those rooftops, all those vaults. We both knew what we felt back then; it was palpable. But he wouldn’t say it aloud. If he said it, he’d have to face it. Then, as now, he resented me for pushing the issue. Well… fine then… let him.
“So,” I said frankly, “we’re back to pink elephants?”
“What?” he looked incredulous, sounded incredulous — like the first time he saw I’d changed to purple. It was an improvement over sulky-hostile at least.
“’Don’t think about pink elephants.’ It’s worked so well up to now.”
Déjà vu all over again. If he didn’t speak back then, he was also stubborn, tenacious even, when he was the one who wanted an answer to something. I’d learned to be the same.
“The question, in case you forgot, is WHY?”
“You know why,” he growled, irritated that the question wasn’t going away. “To instill fear. They DO fear me. It will never happen again—not in my City, not in Crime Alley, not while I draw breath.”
“This isn’t about what you do out there. You want to turn up the heat every January, give them Hell, nobody is questioning that. This is about what you’re doing in here, these last few days: not eating, not sleeping, burying yourself in a hole in the ground…”
“THE GRAVE IS NOT A HOLE IN THE GROUND!”
The shout echoed through the cavern. It was only after the last reverberation had stopped that he looked at me. I said nothing. No need. He’d heard it. Slip of the tongue. Paging Dr. Freud.
“The Cave is not a hole in the ground,” he said softly, correcting the slip. Then he said nothing, just looked up at a stalactite for a moment, then back at me. His eyes were searching, naked, pained, like that night in the vault a lifetime ago when he kissed me. “I let them die,” he whispered. “I let them die. I couldn’t save them. I wasn’t strong enough, or fast enough or… good enough to save them. I couldn’t save them that night, so why should I get to enjoy a normal life now? I… I don’t deserve a life.”
There it was: The Why. He was punishing himself because he lived and they died. He was starving himself, exhausting himself, refusing to dwell even momentarily on any part of his life that made him happy, because his guilt said he deserved to suffer.
Fortunately, Bruce is not a stupid man. He could deceive himself for so long by dressing this ritual up in a Batsuit, convincing himself it was part of the Mission. But now that his true motive was spoken, I had an ally, an unexpected ally, in Batman. The most rigid, domineering, autocratic, ruthless aspects of Batman, the Psychobat that’s been my adversary from the beginning, was suddenly my ace in the hole.
Batman was about intellect and discipline. He overruled his feelings, Bruce’s feelings, often enough when they conflicted with the almighty Mission. Now his intellect was confronted with an undeniable fallacy in those feelings:
“Of course you couldn’t save them, you were a child.”
And not just a fallacy, a fallacy that caused an injustice, the worst kind of injustice—a fallacy that harmed an innocent:
“You were ten years old, Bruce, there was nothing you could have done. You’re punishing yourself for something that isn’t your fault.”
The searching, vulnerable look was gone. Batman was in charge. He wasn’t going to stand by and see an innocent blamed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But for all the determined gleam in his eyes, he still didn’t speak. He wanted to right the wrong, that was his function, but he seemed at a loss on how to proceed.
“Come upstairs,” I offered, “it’s where the food is, and the sunshine, and the people who care about you.”
“All but one,” he said, slipping an arm around my waist. I felt a hand stroke my hair, and his lips grazed my forehead, just at the hairline. We went up to the manor. I was still hung over and he was exhausted, so Alfred took pity on us, served the dinner on a tray in front of the fireplace. We curled up on the big sofa and crashed for the night.
I know what you’re thinking: Batman taking a night off during Hell Month? Blasphemy! He said he wasn’t up to it, that his depleted physical condition made patrolling an unjustified risk. Personally, I think the Bat felt he owed the Man. This wasn’t over, far from it. But it was a beginning.
To be continued…