Batman returned early from patrol. He’d gone out early, in case the scum were emboldened by the media circus of Sue Dibny’s funeral. They weren’t. Gotham was Hell Month quiet. Most years, an uneventful patrol in January left him irate and frustrated. Tonight, he welcomed it. It meant he could return home sooner to check on Selina…
Except she wasn’t where he’d left her working on the Justice League security system… He checked the gymnasium (in case she got stiff sitting at the worktable and decided to take a break)… He checked the chem lab (because she sometimes used the Bunsen burner to make cocoa)… He checked the med facility (because it’s certainly possible to get a headache working late into the night that way and she could have gone looking for an aspirin)… He checked the costume vault and the Batwing hanger, even though he couldn’t imagine any possible reason for her to be there (because feline logic is an enigma)…
Then he punched the intercom.
“Alfred,” he barked, not waiting for any acknowledgement, “Where the hell has Selina gone to? I left her working on the—”
..::Good evening, Master
Bruce,::.. a sleepy but smooth voice cut in calmly, ..::Do you require
“I’d hardly have buzzed you if I didn’t, Alfred,” was the curt but typical-for-Hell-Month reply.
..::Very good, sir, I
shall be down presently. ::..
“NO—Alfred, damnit,” Bruce muttered, equally frustrated by the miscommunication and by his momentary loss of control. “I don’t need medical attention, I just want to know where Selina is. She’s not in the cave.”
There was a pause.
..::At this time of night,
sir, surely bed would be the most likely—::..
“I left her working on the Justice League security system in the cave.”
There was another pause.
..::I fear, sir, that I can offer you no additional information. I will certainly check your bedroom if you wish. ::..
Alfred being Alfred, there was nothing about his words or tone to hint that he was himself already in bed, had been asleep, and viewed this whole proposal as a massive inconvenience. But to Bruce, who knew Alfred so well, those final three words “if you wish” spoke volumes.
“That’s alright, Alfred,” Bruce said mildly, “I’m going up myself. I’m… sorry to have disturbed you, old friend.”
..::Not at all, Master Bruce. Good night, sir. ::..
Guilt, one of several emotions that came so readily to Bruce in January, spiked. He removed the cowl and pinched the skin between his eyes. With all Alfred did for him, day after day, year after year—weathering more Hell Months than any of them—you’d think he could be a little more considerate. Those thoughts of his own selfishness and ingratitude followed him as he changed clothes and walked through the manor. The clothes he wore that day as Bruce Wayne were gone, spirited away to be laundered, the silk kimono left in their place. Tonight, the kimono didn’t remind him of Selina, though it had been her gift. Tonight, Bruce thought only of how he wore it up to bed each night, and the next evening it would be back in its place in the costume vault, waiting for him. Alfred did so much for him, and what did he ever get in return…
The guilt washed away and anger spiked anew when Bruce reached the bedroom. Selina was asleep, Whiskers and Nutmeg curled at her back—taking up more than a little (or at least a little) of his space on the bed.
“Out, both of you. Furballs, out,” he growled softly, swatting at the space he wished to occupy.
Selina, recognizing his voice, murmured something completely unintelligible that, to Bruce’s ears, sounded like “Jackass.” He removed the kimono, crawled into the bed, and stared at her for several minutes.
“Kitten,” he said finally, giving her hip a less-than-gentle nudge.
There was another quiet mumble that didn’t sound at all like “Jackass,” no matter how much Bruce’s irritation tried to hear it that way.
“Kitten,” he repeated, reiterating the nudge as well.
“Selina.” Nudge. Nothing.
“Not this time, Catwoman, put it back,” he growled in Batman’s deepest gravel.
Selina inhaled slowly and rolled over to face him.
“Hey sexy, you’re home early,” she purred sleepily.
Bruce rolled his eyes to the heavens that had blessed and cursed the world with cats.
“Why aren’t you in the cave?” he asked flatly.
Selina’s brow furrowed as if she knew she wasn’t quite awake, but it still seemed (in her admittedly wonky state) that his question made no sense.
“Same reason you’re not,” she hazarded with the endearing air of a confused cat, “cause it’s something-o’clock in the morning and the pillows are all up here.”
Then she ran her fingers through her hair, rolled over mumbling something like “Night, Knight,” and then said no more.
Bruce brooded for an hour before falling asleep himself.
Hugo Strange looked out his window for the 9th (or maybe it was the 10th) time since returning from the Iceberg Lounge. Then he went back to his desk and resumed sorting all his clippings.
There was no mention of Batman or Bat-anything in the Times, Gazette, Daily Mail, or Post coverage of Sue Dibny’s funeral, so he set all those articles aside in the “Miscellaneous” stack…
He checked the window one more time. There was no sign of the sleek, black car he thought he’d glimpsed on his way home from the ‘Berg.
He returned to his stack of papers—the clipping from the Post was sliding off, so he rummaged in the bottom of the pile for a slim book to use as a paperweight. “How to be a Superhero” by Doctor Metropolis, the cover read… Hugo laid it on the top to keep the lighter articles in place, now at least it was good for something. He had found the paperback in the coffee shop at Barnes and Noble and picked it up by mistake, thinking it would treat its weighty subject with the seriousness it deserved.
He checked the window again. And there it was! The black car—long, sleek, quiet—he could see now that it was a limousine. Another limo, of course, pulling up at that new Japanese place across the street.
Just his luck, a hot new restaurant opening across from him right in the middle of Hell Month. Nothing but long black cars dropping off and picking up at all hours of the night. He was going to have to move if this kept up.
In the morning, Bruce awoke in an empty bed.
Well, at least she was up early. Now at last he would get some answers… Then he heard the music—Vivaldi, the Four Seasons—coming from her suite. She was exercising?
Bruce stormed across the hall, fitfully tying the belt of his bathrobe into a knot as he entered Selina’s suite.
“What do you think you’re doing,” he growled in the same tones he once would have accosted her at a crimescene.
She finished executing a long, slow twist, evidently meant to stretch the muscles in her back one at a time. Then she inhaled deliberately and breathed out her next words before starting another purposeful, twisting stretch.
“I said what do you think you’re doing up here?” Bruce repeated, still very much in Batman-challenging-the-criminal mode—a tone Selina didn’t notice or else chose to ignore. “You’re supposed to be working on the Justice League’s security system for the Dibny case,” he pronounced, although it wasn’t supposed to be necessary to tell the criminal what they were doing wrong.
“Yep, going pretty well,” she breathed when the twist completed itself.
“I thought you understood this was important,” Bruce growled quietly.
Selina stopped mid-bend and gave him a look.
“Ex-cuse me? Are you not getting enough fiber or something? What makes you think—”
“You’re supposed to be working on the security system.”
“I AM working on the security system.”
“You’re not in the cave.”
There was a pause, and then…
“I salute you, World’s Greatest Detective.”
“Impossible—the system is set up in the cave,” Bruce insisted.
“Yeah,” Selina said slowly, “I took it apart last night. Bruce, did you think I would be in the cave the entire time I’m working on this?”
He said nothing, and Selina realized that was exactly what he’d thought—and she didn’t like the implication… She took a deep breath. The breath might have looked like just another yoga-inhale to the casual observer, but Bruce recognized it from a thousand rooftops and vaults. It said “Oh good god, now what perfectly simple thing do I have to stop and explain to the hero-addled intellect?”
“Okay,” she said carefully, “Let me explain. Beating a system like this isn’t trial and error or I’d likely wind up squashed flat on the cave floor by 10 G’s of Thanagarian gravity. A job like this is thinking more than anything else, once I know how the bugger works. That’s where we are now: I’m thinking. I do it in the shower, and while I’m doing my nails, and while I’m working out, and on the roof of Cartier’s.”
“You’re NOT going to go out prowling!” Bruce cut in angrily.
Selina’s eyes narrowed.
“That’s what this is really about, isn’t it. The cage! You thought I’d be in the cave. You concocted this thing with the security to keep me in the cave?!?”
“No,” Bruce lied—then thought the better of it. “Not completely. I do need to find out how that system was defeated.” He swallowed hard before admitting the rest. “And I would also feel better if you were safe in the cave for the duration.”
“You controlling sonofa—” Selina muttered darkly to herself before exploding, “Bruce, for pity sake, I thought we settled this a long time ago. I will NOT bring Shimbala down from the Catitat to be my 900-pound bodyguard, I will not stay in the Batcave 24/7 like one of your goddamn trophies, and I will not—”
“Not all the time, Selina, just—for now—when I’m not at home, I’d prefer it if—”
“If I was tucked away under lock and key like something that belongs to you.”
“If I could know that you’re safe,” he pronounced with a quiet intensity.
“Bruce. I love you, and I’m sorry that every January you relive that alley, and I’m sorry that Sue Dibny is dead. But I will not step into a cage. I will not compromise who and what I am to make you or anybody else more comfortable.”
“Why not?” Bruce said wearily. “What would it hurt? For me, Selina, couldn’t you compromise it just a little?”
“Would you?” she shot back. “If I didn’t want you going after Joker next time, and I said ‘Please for me.’”
“That’s different. Joker is a killer.”
He said no more because he saw Selina had mouthed his exact words along with him. Then she added at a normal volume:
“It’s only different if you want it to be, Bruce. You have your priorities and I have mine.”
“Yours are wrong.”
“Pulling out the greatest hits now, are we? Has it actually escaped your attention that that little ditty has never once worked?”
Bruce grunted, turned, and left.
“And neither has that one,” Selina muttered to her exercise mat.
Titans, Titans of the Nightwing era, Outsiders, Catwoman… Ra’s al Ghul… Huntress… For the life of him, Hugo could not understand how his files had come to be so disorganized. Perhaps it was Batman’s doing? Could Batman have recognized the threat presented by Hugo’s special understanding? Might he have located Hugo’s new hideout, caused that new restaurant to open as a diversion, and snuck in amidst the parade of long, sleek black cars? Why it made sense! If Batman had infiltrated Hugo’s lair and messed up his clippings, that meant he was getting close. Finally, at last, Hugo Strange was getting close.
The clone theory, that must be it. The Batman clone was the key to it all!
“An Identity Element is something that acts on a set of numbers but leaves them unchanged…”
This was Tim, reading out loud from a math textbook.
“Like for addition, a + 0 is still a…”
Studying for the SATs, or so he claimed.
“Multiplication, it’d be 1: a x 1 is a…”
And if you believe that, I’ll tell you another one.
“It’s also called a unity.”
“Timothy,” I said sharply, “How is it that you can maintain a secret identity when you’re such a rotten liar?”
He looked all innocent and pointed to his textbook.
“No, really, that’s what an identity element is. Acts on something without changing its essence and—”
“Not that,” I cut him off with a hiss. “You’re not over here studying for the SATs, Tim. You’re cat-sitting.”
“Selina, honest,” he burbled miserably.
“And the nominees for worst Hell Month performance by a crimefighter in a supporting role,” I pronounced. “Tim, I know he sent you over here to keep an eye on me. I know he wants me to stay in the cave whenever he’s not at home, and since he can’t have that he’s sent you in to either a) keep me from going out, b) play bodyguard even though you’re 750 pounds shy of his first choice, or c—”
“It’s not any of those, Selina, it’s… dumb, maybe, but… yeah, Bruce did say how he’d feel better if you weren’t alone in the house.”
“Alone? What’s Alfred now, a shadow?”
“C’mon, you know what I mean,” Tim sighed, “one of us, somebody a little more battle-ready.”
“Tim, don’t make me punch you flat on your ass just to prove a point here.”
“Selina, please, that’s what he wants, it’s not why I went along with it.”
I could have kicked myself as the reason Tim went along jumped out at me right before he said it out loud.
“I’m kinda here for Steph,” he said simply—and I could have sunk through the floor without any help from the 10Gs of Thanagarian gravity. “Y’know, Bruce was—both of you, really—were so good to me when it all happened and—”
“It’s okay, Tim.”
“And I was such a—”
“It’s okay. Tim, really, stop. I suck at this stuff more than you will ever know. Let’s just drop it and go down to the cave for a bit, you and me together, and I’ll show you how to outsmart a Martian heat trigger. You might need it for the SATs.”
I’d said it mostly because we were on a runaway train speeding towards a Lifetime Movie Channel hugfest. But the way it turned out, spending the afternoon talking through the details of the Justice League security system, was extremely helpful. There had been something bothering me about it since Bruce first brought me in on this. Even as I was reading the specs and taking the thing apart, even as I was trying to ferret out some way to beat it, something nagged and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Now, suddenly, the solution twinkled before me.
“Tim, it’s been real,” I blurted, waving him towards the costume vault. “Now go bother other criminals. Kitty is busy.”
“It’s January, Selina, there are no other criminals.”
“SATs then,” I reminded him, “Analogies, very important.”
Yes, I wanted to be rid of him at that point. It’s always like this: once I have a theory about the flaw in a system, I can’t wait to test it. Usually I have to wait until dark. Right now, I only had to shoo away one pesky crimefighter who wasn’t going to get his verbals up to Hudson U’s standard with construction like:
“Analogies, Tim, go and study. Crimefighter is to pest as Batarang is to…?”
“ERRKH! Wrong. State college for you, young man.”
“You’re down here, good,” a new voice, the deep graveling voice of the Hell Month control freak, cut in before Tim could reply.
“Look who’s home,” I noted. “Yes, Bruce, you’ve got your way for now. I am a cave bunny. But only because I’m onto something with this security system, so shove off and give me room to—”
“Selina, Tim,” he began—and my stomach lurched. I knew suddenly that I’d misread him. It wasn’t the usual Hell Month do-it-my-way voice at all.
“It’s happened again,” Bruce was saying. “Jean Loring was attacked in her home. Hanged.”
I thought the words “Oh god” but I hadn’t said them out loud, and yet I heard them in my ears, “Oh god.” Eventually, about six interminable seconds later, I realized it had been Tim who spoke, and I felt stupid.
“No, she’s alive,” Bruce went on, answering a question I hadn’t heard in my fog, “Atom got to her just in time. They were talking, Ray and Jean, they were talking on the phone at the moment she was attacked.”
Another wife—technically an ex-wife in this case, but there aren’t that many heroes whose identities are known, so I guessed our serial killer would take what they could get—another wife, another loved one, attacked…
Bruce paused in his story, turned to me and added, “Ray can travel across phonelines when he goes molecular,” and then he turned back to Tim and said, “He was able to shred the rope, cut her down before…”
“I see,” Tim murmured.
Two words and it was like the life had been sucked out him. Atom had saved his ex. He had these superpowers. He “went molecular” and rode a phoneline, and the woman he loved was still alive.
But Stephanie was dead.
My heart went out to the kid so much it hurt. I knew I should have allowed that Lifetime hugfest earlier, but that ship had sailed… I wanted to do something, though. I had one other idea, one that might be more productive.
“Tim,” I asked casually, “This may sound odd, but would you go upstairs and ask Alfred to make me some tea?”
I saw Bruce’s eyes flicker to the intercom like he was telegraphing a batarang throw, and I shot back my best rooftop “try it and taste whip” glare.
Tim said “sure” and left; Bruce looked at me.
“You could have buzzed Alfred,” he noted, with yet more disapproving battitude.
“Of course I could’ve,” I said simply. “I wanted to talk to you alone. I have a proposition.”
He looked like he was bracing himself for Joker to toss a SmileX grenade in his face.
“I’ll stay in the cave,” I offered, “until you solve this case or the end of the month, whichever comes first. In return, I want you to toss this solo-patrol thing you’ve been doing and patrol with Tim instead.”
He started to object, which I expected, and I ran right over him before he could cut me off.
“I know. NOBODY but NOBODY tells BATMAN what to do, ever, on a Bat-related issue, any Bat-related issue, especially one as sacred as Hell Month Patrol, genuflect when you say that, Lady. But Bruce, he needs this. Christ, even you need this. You’ve both got… issues that this whole Dibny-Loring thing is making so much worse. Bruce, please, I’m begging you. Put the Psychobat in a drawer this year and be Tim’s partner for a while.”
He stared at me as if, instead of tossing that SmileX grenade, Joker had walked right up to him and pinned a VOTE LUTHOR: 4 MORE YEARS button on his cape—he was just as revolted, but it wasn’t the assault he was expecting.
“Okay,” I said when it became obvious the deathglare was the only answer I was going to get, “If you won’t do it out of compassion or common sense, there is this: You want me in the cave for the duration, and this is a way to get it. This is my price.”
Another deathglare and more silence, but then, without a word, he stuck his hand out.
We shook on it, and, a few minutes later, Alfred brought me tea.
Hugo Strange dismissed the idea of subjecting Batman to low levels of radiation to isolate areas of genetic degradation to identify the clone. Irradiating Batman at this juncture would tip his hand too soon. His personal history with Batman had shown that it was best to have more information before attempting a direct confrontation. But he could attempt a few tests if he could get a small sample of “Batman’s” DNA. He immediately began scrambling through his old notes… he knew there had to be something here that would allow him to get close enough to get a sample without being detected…
A half hour after he brought Selina’s tea to the Batcave, Alfred returned to collect her empty cup. He found the episode vaguely disquieting, although he couldn’t say why. Selina had never asked for anything to be brought to her in the cave before, perhaps that was it? Or perhaps it was a subconscious echo: he had brought Selina to the kitchen and made her tea the day the terrible news came about Miss Stephanie. He had promised her that tea would hold comforting associations for her—and now that the wives and loved ones of heroes were being murdered, she asked for tea. Perhaps… Perhaps and perhaps. Whatever it was that unnerved him, Alfred would set it aside and offer whatever assistance he could.
Several hours later, he returned to the cave with another steaming cup of tea. This time it was for Master Bruce, back early again from patrol to work on the Dibny and Loring cases. Alfred noted that he still wore his full costume—even the mask, which was somewhat unusual for late night work in the cave, but not unprecedented in Hell Month.
Unlike Miss Selina, Batman did not look up from his work or acknowledge Alfred’s arrival in any way, so Alfred coughed softly before relaying his message from Mr. Kent:
“He said they were turning their attention to members of the Suicide Squad.”
“It’s not the Squad, Alfred,” Batman answered. “The squad doesn’t benefit, there’s no gain.”
“Indeed, sir,” Alfred agreed readily. “Cui Bono, then?”
Batman froze, his gloved hand poised over a collection of mugshots. He turned away from the photos of criminals and analyzed instead the face of a friend. Alfred had said it in Latin “Cui Bono” just as Bruce himself thought the words in English “Who benefits?”
“It’s the first rule of solving a crime,” Bruce recited, removing the cowl and then the gloves before he sipped the tea. “If you want to know who did it, you need to find out who benefits.”
“Indeed, sir,” Alfred said, remembering the same conversation, so many years before, when Bruce was perhaps twelve years old, enthusing over his first book on criminology. “Asking ‘From whom is it good,’ a question first posed by a Roman magistrate in the earliest days of the Republic, to determine who stood to gain from a crime.”
Bruce set down his cup and sighed.
“A Roman magistrate in the earliest days of the Republic thought to ask Cui Bono. But Superman and company are chasing around the Suicide Squad. Some days, Alfred… we’re nowhere.”
Alfred said nothing. Bruce said nothing. Then there was a flutter of bats as Selina emerged from the med-facility. She was wearing his kimono and holding a pillow under her arm.
“Good, you’re home,” she observed dully. “I’m going up to real bed then.” She performed a strange little neck roll/shoulder shake that caused the whole top of the kimono to jiggle. “Hurry up and solve this thing, will ya, that cot sucks.”
Then she padded off to the clock passage, leaving Alfred to look at Bruce and Bruce to look at Alfred.
“Very good, sir. I shall leave you to your investigations,” Alfred pronounced at last.
To be continued…