I can’t sleep. I am curled into the nook under Bruce’s arm. As he breathes, a scar on his chest rises and falls under my fingertips. Four parallel scratches. Mine. In Italy, I had said I would never mix work and play. Heh.
I think about slipping downstairs for some warm milk, trying to decide if it’s worth the effort. I can get out when he coils around me this way, but it takes some doing. He must have had a bad night. It happens this way sometimes. He’ll be especially late so I won’t wait up, and then I’ll wake up like this. He’ll have pulled me into his arms like he’s protecting me from something, like all that matters is keeping me safe and comfortable. Almost always there will be fresh bruises on his knuckles… and usually a story in the Times the next day about some incident: a shooting involving a child or a body found in an alley. It isn’t always obvious what set him off. And if it isn’t, forget getting him to talk about it.
Sometimes I think it’s just fear of losing the battle. He cares so much; he feels every setback. Anyone else would shrug it off: one step forward, two steps back, get ‘em tomorrow night. But Bruce, no. If tonight went wrong, that’s all he sees. Absolutely blind to how much better Gotham is now than when he started.
I came home to Gotham City. After Italy, it all seemed strangely… overcast. I had forgotten how tall buildings block the sun—and I’d forgotten that consequent thrill, after walking through blocks of dense skyscrapers, of coming to a patch of brownstones or a parklet and feeling those glorious rays of golden glow warm your skin. All cities move in their own rhythm. Gotham’s is a sexy, angsty staccato compared to Florence, Paris, or even Rome. I found I had adapted my step, falling into the city’s tempo, within a half hour of hitting midtown.
I was home.
I checked into a residential hotel in the Village, just off Washington Square, for the few weeks until I found a proper apartment. Now, I am in no way a “downtown” girl. Of all the bizarre ideas those trashy tabloids have come up with, this lower eastside business might just be the most nonsensical. There are upscale condos, galleries and nightclubs below the fifties, lord knows, and I’ve kept a lair or two nestled amidst the lofts of SoHo and TriBeCa. But the museums, the jewelry stores, the best galleries, the social register crowd, the new money, and their stationers—so useful for dropping in after hours and to lift an invitation proof for any event I wished to attend—were all uptown. I planned to move (and prowl) in the same circles I had in Europe, and I planned to be situated somewhere convenient to my prey. There was never any question of settling anywhere but uptown.
There was one useful, if disgusting, benefit to those few weeks spent in the Village. At that time, Washington Square, despite being the heart of a bohemian-trendy neighborhood, was the crack and cocaine capital of the U.S. The simple day-to-day business of living there, from buying an umbrella from a street vendor to picking up ice at the convenience store, gave one a tentative access to the criminal grapevine without having to have any contact with the street scum themselves.
I was a loner and not interested in making friends, but if I had been, it certainly wouldn’t have been with riffraff off the street. But certain aspects of the riffraff’s rumormill did warrant attention: There were whispers… about a Bat-Man. The upstanding citizens in more insulated parts of town would have heard nothing at all back then. And to the more marginal elements in places like the Village, it was all urban legend: a half-man half-bat that flew about the city attacking the night people, feeding on their blood. A vigilante-vampire. Or a ghost. Or a demon. Ha-ha. But amidst the scum, the stories were more insistent—and more consistent. They weren’t quite so fantastic. And they had a strange ring of truth—not the words themselves but the manner in which they were repeated—a touch of dread hanging low and heavy in the air, a residue of the panic this thing had pulled from them.
The warm milk is good. It should be after all I had to go through to get it. Bruce asleep can be almost as difficult to escape from as Bruce awake. I tried simply easing out from the heavy, muscular arm wrapped around my body… It clamped down harder, and the other arm came over to join it. I whispered towards his ear, “Bruce, I’m getting up for a bit, let go” …His jaw stiffened, right in his sleep, and the arms tightened around me just that much more.
I didn’t want to wake him, at first, out of kindness. He’d obviously had a very rough night; he was exhausted and needed the crash. But now he was just being stubborn. Now it wasn’t kindness, it was a dare: I had to get out of the bed without waking him because he was being a willful, inflexible BAT and a girl does not let a willful, inflexible bat keep her from her dish of cream.
I placed a hand on the first arm, stroking down the tight, defined braid of muscle, all the way down the forearm to the hand. I tried lifting it gently off me… when it turned so that his fingers now had my wrist. I resisted the urge to hiss, I slipped out of it easily enough, and sighed…. … … … …After a minute of reflection, I saw the solution. With my toes, I grabbed onto the bottom of the bed sheet and slowly pulled upwards until it snaked around the back of his leg. I tried easing out from under the arm again, but this time when he adjusted, I tugged the sheet behind him. As I expected, it must have felt like the cape was being troublesome, for instinctively he shrugged his shoulder to tame it. That gave me the opening I needed to slide out and slip a pillow into my place under his arm. He settled and gave a soft grunting sigh.
And I came down to the kitchen to heat my milk.
As I sit, sipping, I notice the black and white geometric tile pattern of the kitchen floor. It is similar to the entranceway at the Charles Mann Penthouse.
Charles Mann was said to be the savviest art collector in Gotham, that’s why I was interested. I didn’t care that his money came from a chain of health clubs that used Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man as their logo. I didn’t care that Man is the answer to the riddle of the sphinx or that his name and logo made him an appealing target for an emerging “theme criminal” called The Riddler. I cared that he owned a Miro, a Chagall, a Picasso and two John Sloans.
Mann’s apartment building was on the riverfront; it looked out on the harbor—which reminded me of the spectacular views of those villas in Italy. There was a hotel down the block that was easy to enter inconspicuously. Once inside, I had no trouble gaining access to their roof. I found traveling even that short distance over rooftops to be exhilarating, but I saw at once I’d have to find a better way to swing from one roof to the next if I wanted to make a habit of it.
I used the window-washing gear to get down to Mann’s penthouse, but when I went to disconnect the window alarm, I found the whole system was already offline. I slipped inside and clung to the darkness behind the curtains… and watched.
There was movement. A figure, confident and cocky, walked back and forth before a long wall, looking at the artwork. He wore a sweater over some kind of greenish leotard, and the sweater had a large question mark in bright yellow on the front and back. Then he clasped his hands together, rubbing the palms, and laughed.
It wasn’t a discreet laugh. It wasn’t a necessary laugh. I figured if this guy would traipse around in eye-catching yellow making that kind of noise, the penthouse must be empty. So I stepped forward and spoke at what I assumed was a safe volume.
“And what are you supposed to be?”
He turned and looked me up and down.
“You’re cute,” he said. “Beginning with a question, that’s very good. I am The Riddler.”
What impressed me was how he said it, like it meant something, like I am the King of Belgium.
“Ah,” I said with a nod, because it was a reasonable answer in its way. Then I introduced myself, in the same rhythm that he had, if not with the same bluster, “I am the burglar. And you’re sort of in the way. So kindly go riddle somewhere else.”
“Cute. You’re the burglar. But where’s your style? Your panache?” And then—this stranger in a question mark sweater & leotard looked right at my tits. “Ah, er, scratch that,” he stuttered without moving his gaze, “You… ehm… have panache.”
I said thank you—there was no point in being rude when he meant it as a compliment. But I did consider that to be the end of the conversation. I started taking the Miro off the wall.
“Uhm… toots, I appreciate you removing that for me but… isn’t it kinda heavy?”
“Not removing it for you…” I grunted, leaning it against the wall and starting on the Picasso. “…not heavy…” I leaned the Picasso into the Miro and started on the Chagall. “…Call me toots again and I’ll break your arm,” I concluded.
“I like your spunk, kid. Riddle me this: What did the prospector say when he struck gold?”
I brushed past him, hauling the paintings toward the window.
“He said: Oh look, there’s a lunatic in a green leotard in my goldmine getting in my way—”
“He said: IT’S MINE!” and with that, this crazy man yanked the paintings from my hand and pulled a gun on me. I was starting to get annoyed.
“Now look, Riddleman, I don’t know how you’re accustomed to settling these things—”
“Oh, right, RiddlER.” I treated him to a dazzling smile. “You can call me Macavity.”
He cocked his head to the side like a dog hearing an unfamiliar noise. Then he smiled and pointed at me. “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Macavity is the master criminal, ‘the hidden paw,’ the cat thief. You’re a cat burglar, so you call yourself Macavity. Ha ha! Yes, I like you, Cat. You have a puzzler’s brain.”
Whatever he might have been expecting, I guess he didn’t expect to be meowed at, because he sort of jostled the gun and it started spurting this pinkish gas. He waved his hands to try and clear it, and pointed, coughing, towards the window. We relocated quickly to the ledge outside the penthouse. I was livid.
“Well that’s just great! It was a day and a night’s work getting in there and what do I get for it—nothing!”
He coughed, dusted himself off, and produced a small box from under the sweater.
“At least the night wasn’t a total loss,” he said.
“Mr. Riddler, What do you call a poker player that raises his bet with a two, three, five, seven, and ten?”
“Someone who’s bluffing… oh.”
I started to leave, climbing back up to the roof, but when I glanced back, he looked so disappointed. I hopped back down.
“Since you’ve gone and ruined my evening’s work,” I said, “can I ask a blunt question?” He looked up, and I could just tell, you can always ask this guy. As long as it ends in question mark, he’ll play. “What’s with the weird getup? I mean, for sneak thieving, it seems a little… green.”
“I want to be known, to be recognized.”
“You want to be famous? You want to be a famous criminal? How does that work?”
“Everyone wants to be known for something. For me, it’s my brains.”
“And… calling yourself Riddler and wearing a green leotard with question marks… shows off your brain?”
“No, my RIDDLES show off my brain … the clothes identify me.” I could tell he was getting frustrated. I was trying, but it seemed like utter nonsense. He was looking me over again.
“What’s your story with that get up?”
“It’s black,” I told him, “it’s hard to see in the dark. This is traditionally considered a good thing for cat burglars.”
“Tch, tch,” he clicked, “Overrated.”
“You’re thinking inside the box.”
“Have you ever considered wearing something in green?”
I laughed at him, I admit it.
“I was thinking… something that showed some leg… cleavage… you know kinda like a swimsuit…”
“I know what you were thinking,” I told him. “I’m not a team player. Goodnight, Mr. Riddler.”
“Eh,” he called as I started to leave again. “You can call me… Edward.”
“Purrrrrhaps,” I answered. I’m not sure why I said it that way, it was an impulse. He swallowed—hard. So I figured I had a bargaining chip. “But I want something in exchange. If I were to want… an outfit of some kind—not green, sorry, it’s not my style—where would I go?”
We were twenty stories above street level on a window ledge, but he looked around like he was afraid of being overheard, then he whispered a name.
I quietly unlocked my flyline so I could swing down to the fire escape instead of having to climb up to the roof.
“Kittlemeier,” I repeated the name, “Thanks. You can call me ‘Lina… Goodnight, Eddie.”
I leapt down, blew him a kiss, and swung away into the night.
After the milk, I’m not quite ready to go back to bed, so I wander the house for a bit. It is, after all, a grand house full of the richest prizes, the kind I could easily have decided to visit one dark night on a prowl.
I bypass the portrait gallery above the Great Hall, the Impressionists in the dining room, the Faberge in the morning room, the engravings by the four great masters of the art hung one on each wall of the study. These are the rooms in daily use, the most lived in parts of the house—Bruce’s house. These are the rooms where he’s letting me into his life, where we’re living together, where we’re trying to…
I want to wander somewhere… impersonal. I want to prowl.
What was once the east drawing room became a movie and game room back when Dick lived here. Beyond it, there’s a dim, murky corridor right out of a gothic novel, and at the end of that—a room with a very special collection—the armory. There may have been one or two suits of armor in the house originally; that might be how Bruce got the idea. But he’s collected most of it himself. Armor from… everywhere. Chain mail, mesh, plate… Celtic, Roman, Viking. Chest plates of Norman crusaders and Japanese samurai, gauntlets from the followers of Charlemagne and Attila, helmets of Mohawk warriors and Highland chieftains.
It’s exactly where I want to be, more like roaming an empty museum than a private home…
For a while.
Until I begin to notice…
I knew of course; I knew why Bruce assembled this collection. When he was preparing to become Batman, this was his research. I knew that, but it was still startling, noticing the similarities, the little details taken from here and there for Batman’s costume.
It wasn’t an impersonal room at all.
It was his mind at work.
Bruce’s mind becoming Batman.
Kittlemeier understood me from the very first interview. I went to his little shop wearing the mask from Venetian Carnival. He was a little irate about that, like it was an insult, not letting him see my face. I explained what the Sensei had taught me: the mask wasn’t to conceal, the mask brought out what I wished to be—or rather what I was—the mask freed that part of me, and I wanted a complete costume that would do the same.
He nodded. Made a few suggestions. We settled quite quickly on a catsuit. A leather catsuit.
“Very goods,” he said, scribbling on his little pad, “Now den, leather comes in four basic varieties: cowhide, often used for belts and handbags…”
“Kidskin,” I cut him off, “it’s soft and thin enough to be flexible, but still strong. You can reinforce it with cowhide at the seam if you need to, but only if you need to. It might be enough to just triple-stitch it. Bit of lambskin will be okay at low-stress points. And use full-grain only, so it feels warm and soft to the touch, with a little grain like skin, none of that cold film over it like split leather. And vegetable tanning, not chrome. I wouldn’t want to plug all the pores so it can’t breathe. I think a napa finish will be just purrrrfect.”
He stared, openmouthed.
“Dat is lots you know about leather for lady thief in mask,” he said.
I winked. “I spent a bit of time in Florence. Gucci, Ferragamo, Testoni… took the tour at the leather school a few times.”
“So thenz, vhatz color you be wanting?”
I didn’t have to think about it. It was the mask, just like Sensei said, it made it automatic, instinctual. All I had to do was trust the impulse. Open my mouth and let the answer come out.
Kittlemeier nodded approvingly, like that was just the answer he expected.
I’ve never stopped to wonder where the impulses come from. Karma. The Universe has a plan. Purple—the color of royalty—for a new Queen of the Night…
Maybe the color of an amethyst teardrop, the color of grace and loveliness personified.
There must be some point to all of this.
I was kidding myself. There can be no “impersonal” places to wander here. It is Bruce’s house. Batman’s house.
You can’t fight against fate. Just ask Harvey.
So I’ve accepted the situation and come to sit in the library. It is a lovely room, even if it is so entirely his. I sit at his desk, looking out those monstrously oversized windows, out at that spectacular city across the river, lights twinkling off the water like a jewel. His city. His conceit to call it that, but there is an element of truth in it if you look on it a certain way.
I glance away from the windows to the portrait over the fireplace.
The shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne in a fatal alley off Park Row did not make Gotham City into what it became. Let’s not kid ourselves; it was not the Fall of Man, although Bruce and others have been known to speak of it that way. The truth is, it was always there: the guns, the poverty, the drugs, the envy, the despair, the gangs, the desperation, the greed, the violence, the decay, the corruption, the festering hopelessness… all those intangible grays he tries to reduce to a simple five letter word:
Preferably written in bold black type on virgin white paper.
It was all there long before it killed Thomas and Martha Wayne. But their deaths brought it into sharp focus. It was the first obvious indication how bad things were; it aimed a spotlight on the extent to which the shining city was changing.
It only got worse in the coming years while Bruce prepared for his mission. By the time he emerged as Batman, and I returned from Europe, the ugliness had taken hold. You didn’t venture into the parks in daylight much, let alone at night. You could be mugged on a main thoroughfare as likely as a side street. And the subways were Drogheda.
It wasn’t Hell; only fools and drama queens throw that word around about a place like Gotham. It was worse, in a way, because it was manmade. There wasn’t any timeless malevolence behind it all, it was just… what human beings can descend to when they let themselves forget they can be heroes.
The enigmatic Mr. Nigma found me through Kittlemeier, and we met a few times for drinks. It always began the same way:
“Reconsider my offer?”
“I work alone.”
“OK, A LIER WON.”
Or sometimes it was “WEAK LION OR” or “LAKE I NO ROW” or “OW LINEAR OK”… always an anagram for “I work alone.” Then he’d flag a waiter and we’d order a few drinks.
One particular evening, in the Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel, I waited impatiently for those drinks to come and the waiter to scoot so I could hear the news. I was quite sure there was news because—apart from the murmurings of the rumor mill, which were far from reliable—Eddie was sporting a spectacular black eye.
“Well???” I asked, the moment the waiter left.
“I hate how you do that. Well, what?”
“Don’t be such a tease, Eddie. Is it true? You had an encounter with the mythical bat?”
“He’s no myth, that much I know.”
I pouted. It was starting to sound like the rumor mill had, yet again, got it all wrong. “No myth, that much I know” didn’t sound like much of an encounter, it sounded like there was a funny-looking shadow and something went bump in the night. I had been strangely excited when I heard Riddler had met up with this Bat-Man. Riddler I knew—I knew personally—I could get a firsthand account from someone who had seen this thing in the flesh. But now… I really was disappointed—very disappointed. I was disappointed out of all proportion to the importance of this silly nonsense in my life.
I finished that first drink quickly and ordered another. After a bit, I pressed again:
“So the stories aren’t true. You didn’t see him firsthand?”
He looked at me with something like anger, and pointed to his eye.
“No, not in time, anyway. What are you grinning at, Cheshire cat?”
“You did see him.”
“This guy is good, ‘Lina. A worthy foe… maybe too worthy. He GOT my riddle. And he moves fast. God, is he quick.”
He looked really offended at that. So I played up to him. “Poor guy, have another drink to console yourself. My treat.” That kind of thing. Before long he was seeing it differently.
“Yes, a worthy foe. A challenge, I can see that now. He will make a most exhilarating challenge. I made those first riddles too easy; that was all. But this, this new development will press me onward to devise new and better puzzles! I shall achieve conundrums never dreamed of in the mind of man!”
“That’s wonderful, Eddie. Now tell me… everything.”
“It was going like clockwork: I left my clue, gave them the standard twelve hour minimum…”
I nodded, and his eyes flickered around the room, just checking, I think, that we weren’t being overheard.
“It was a cannery, not my usual taste, but their payroll spends like anyone else’s, and naturally who would suspect it?”
“Good theory—but then?” I wanted to encourage him but at the same time move him along to the good part with the bat.
“But then! And how. I didn’t hear him. I swear he’s like a shadow. One minute, this corner is dark; the next, he’s standing there—watching me.”
“They say he’s a vampire—or a ghost.”
“He doesn’t hit like an apparition. He just stood there at first, like some kind of animal stalking prey. He said the answer to my riddle. He asked why I was doing this. Like people don’t know? Doesn’t everyone get it?”
It wasn’t what you’d call a pleasant story. Losing was a new experience for Eddie, the fist hadn’t been pleasant, and I think he resented the solving of his riddle even more than the black eye.
“He trussed me up with this rope… and hung me out to dry. I only managed to get loose once I picked a lock in the GCPD hoosegow…”
But through all of this, I couldn’t help notice that underneath all of the bruised ego, he was exhilarated by it. There was certainly something exciting about it: Who was this guy that wasn’t a ghost but could come and go like a shadow?
And how good was he really? How fast? How strong? Was he really everything Eddie was saying or was that a sop to his ego? Sort of: If this Bat-Man beat him so thoroughly, he must be all that…
Whatever he was, the cat in me wanted to find out. I had to meet this guy.
“Sorry to hear that, Eddie. Chalk it up to a bad night. You’ll rally. You’ll get ‘em next time.”
“Of course I will. Don’t you think I know that?… That smile is back. ‘Lina, you’re intrigued or… curious?”
“Cats are that, Eddie.”
His eyes gleamed with understanding.
“You’ve been to Kittlemeier.”
“Well???” It was the same Well??? I’d given him earlier. It meant spill—all the details—now.
“A catsuit. Leather.”
“Is it getting warm in here? …Black?”
“No. As you said, no panache. If I’m going to go black, what’s the point in a costume at all? Any old catburgler getup would do.”
“It’s something uniquely me.”
“When will you break it in?”
I paused, feeling that Cheshire grin creeping over my lips…
To be continued…