Bruce managed to hold Psychobat in check—barely—until Gladys Ashton-Larraby left the manor. He walked her to the door himself and tactfully laid the foundations for the next step in Operation STOP THIS. He returned to the drawing room where Lucius had remained, apparently for the sole purpose of stating the obvious: that a “Gotham After Dark” fundraiser was an unspeakably awful idea, and having lunch. Tibetan mental disciplines combined with telepathic blocking techniques learned from Martian Manhunter were just sufficient to get Bruce through lunch, to get Lucius escorted out to his car in a polite, civilized manner, and to get Bruce back to the house—where Selina and Alfred stood waiting in the foyer.
“This is not going to happen,” he declared the way Batman commanded armed goons to put down the gun NOW!
Selina, long familiar with the tone, looked casually at Alfred then back at Bruce. She mimed a quick wave of a magic wand and said “Okay—Poof. Well, that’s done. What’s next?”
Bruce reflexively made a fist and growled that he would be in the cave.
An hour later, he returned to the manor and found Selina in her suite, sketching something.
“Hit me,” he announced abruptly.
She looked around, picked up a framed photograph from the table—one of her lynx at the Catitat affectionately rubbing against her leg—and wordlessly threw it at him. He caught it with a quick, economical movement, then grunted.
“Not like that,” he growled. “Suit up, come downstairs. I need to focus on this and I can’t clear my head.”
“I thought that’s what your Zogger-death-machine worse-than-anything-Joker-can-come-up-with is for,” she said absently, returning to her sketching.
“It’s not working. I need a real workout, a real opponent. I need- some kind of- Only Gladys Ashton-Larraby could possibly-”
“Bruce, you’re developing this bizarre habit of not finishing sentences,” she noted with a grin.
He shook his head in frustrated bewilderment.
“Only Gladys Ashton-Larraby,” he repeated, while Selina carefully closed her sketchpad and set it aside. Noting her movements, the care she took that he couldn’t glimpse what she had drawn, Bruce assumed it was a new costume design. Unconsciously, he glanced at her legs, which she noticed. Their eyes met in silent, mutual recognition, as if he had asked openly about the new costume, as if she answered that yes, she was trying a skirt again but short this time so it wouldn’t be in the way… then, from long habit, they both swept the subject aside and let the unspoken simmer under another topic entirely.
“I knew leaving town was a mistake,” he grumbled. “Something was bound to get missed. Dick did fine with the team, Alfred runs the house better when I’m gone than when I’m here, but Lucius… Lucius letting that woman throw a party under the Wayne name—what was he thinking?”
“If you’re going to try and pin this on having left town,” Selina growled, “then I will suit up and kick your ass.”
Bruce suppressed a lip-twitch. For years, she had delighted in baiting him every time she found an angle that had an effect. For once, he had the chance to retaliate.
“Look at the facts, Kitten. I turn my attention from Gotham for just a few days and the wrong decision gets made. No,” he shook his head. “No, never again. If it’s something important, like a League matter, that’s one thing. But a few days of fun with you? Never ageagh—”
Another man would have actively cried out as the wrist torque twisted the parallel bones of his forearm into contact. But Bruce was expecting the attack, and he was so accustomed to the Nikkyo maneuver by now that the intense pain of the torque was only a sharp sting he could suppress long enough to lead the attacker into a pin.
“Something I should have mentioned a long time ago,” he graveled while sweeping Selina around on her own momentum, “A Nikkyo is such a common defense against a wrist grab, I worked up a tolerance for the twinge in six months. Without the instinctive pain response, all you have to do is loosen the elbow and…”
He yanked, and she was spun into his favorite torso-pin, her back to his chest. It was a strength-based hold, and usually she changed strategies at that point, opting to distract or misdirect him rather than pitting her strength against his. But today she thrashed and snarled like a wildcat, her heel somehow reaching high enough to drive into his knee and pushing off from there to launch herself upward. He bucked backward and his arms popped open, releasing her just as she thrust upward, so that they tangled and landed in an unseemly heap, Selina on top. She spied the previously-thrown picture frame, picked it up and smacked him with it.
“Something I should have mentioned a long time ago,” she said tersely, “you’re a jackass. Oh wait, I did mention that, didn’t I.”
Rather than answer—or rise—he massaged a sore spot on top of his knee where her heel had dug in. She remained on the floor next to him, looking at the photograph.
“I did get my hopes up,” she said quietly. “With the Post. You said not to and you were right but… how I could I not. I was right there, all purple and… looking like me again. Things were going to change and instead… Catwoman is still a cheap, ignorant, goggled, crimefighting, whore.”
“But it’s not you,” he put in, trying for a silver lining.
“Wouldn’t know the difference between a lynx and a leopard,” Selina insisted, indignant. “Wouldn’t know the difference between a Monet and a Manet, wouldn’t know the difference between… between… Batman and a pheromonally-challenged imposter with Ego Deficit Disorder.”
“It’s just the Post,” Bruce said mildly.
“It’s just blasphemy is what it is, against cats, women, and Selina Kyle. Catwoman is the sum total of the choices I’ve made in my life. And I hold onto those choices in the face of public—There comes a point where—”
“You’re developing this bizarre habit of not finishing sentences,” Bruce noted with a grin.
She chuckled reluctantly.
“Selina,” he said seriously. “This isn’t really the Post we’re talking about, is it? This is Xanadu, and… what happened before?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said with the exaggerated innocence of a cat burglar caught with a handful of Winthrop rubies.
“The idea of alternate realities has brought sane, scientific men to the brink of madness,” Bruce said gravely. “It’s provoked crises of faith, of identity—and that’s just theorists performing calculations. They didn’t travel into one. You did. You stepped right into the shoes of several different Catwomans-that-might-have-been-if. I know it has to have been… unsettling. We’re all the sum total of our choices, Selina. To actually see—not wonder but see first hand what your life might be if you’d… or if you hadn’t, if… ”
He trailed off. Selina smiled.
“Bizarre habit. Not finishing,” she said sweetly.
“God knows I’ve wondered,” he murmured.
“Bruce, in every world I saw, you were still you. I don’t think Batman is a ‘choice’ for you, certainly not like becoming an architect or taking a vacation in Hawaii; Batman is who you are.”
“Just like you’re Catwoman,” he said warmly. “But I didn’t mean Batman; that isn’t the choice I wonder about.”
She met his eyes and, for a long moment, the words hung unspoken in the air. Until, at last…
“You mean us,” she said quietly.
“There’s a curio full of cat figurines in the corner of my bedroom, Selina. Some mornings I wake up and see that, and I just can’t wrap my brain around it… I think one of your cats steals my socks.”
“That’s Nutmeg,” she said wryly.
“Not the point,” he pronounced in Batman’s most exasperated rooftop gravel.
Selina rolled onto her back, laughing as a month’s worth of unfocused tension gurgled to the surface.
“And tell me,” she managed through spurting giggles, “Bat-o-my-heart, what exactly in that hero-addled brain of yours is the point?”
He waited until her laughter subsided, then indulged in the briefest lip twitch before answering.
“I’m glad you’re here, Selina, in this house, in my life. That’s the point. You’re good for me. That’s what the gift was for, arranging the sale of the Post. That’s the point. That… and the fact that Gladys Ashton-Larraby wants to throw a ‘Gotham Post Party,’ God help us all.”
“Whoa, whoa, back up,” Selina cried, crawling onto him with a seductive purr. “You raced right over the good part. Go back and say that again.”
He stroked her hair, once, then picked her up only to stand himself and set her back down on the floor.
“Thank you, Kitten. I needed to focus, and that’s what you helped me do.”
“Woof,” she grumbled as he left.
Mozart. Poison Ivy was so sick of Mozart.
She’d had a very bad year. Catfight. Gargoyles. Harley defecting—which was how she viewed her friend not flying to her side the instant she broke up with Joker. Two-Face deserting her—which was how she viewed Harvey’s face being healed. Selina… well, Ivy didn’t have a word for what Selina did, but her cozy little arrangement with Bruce Wayne was annoying. And Wayne! Failing to come up with anything better than a Whitman Sampler to express his devotion to Ivy when he’d given Selina diamond cat pins! It was a bad year. A very bad year. And Ivy had taken what comfort she could in her parks. Her larger lair in Robinson Park, her smaller one in Riverside for when she wanted to be completely alone.
And in that time she had neglected the greenhouse. It was a painful admission, but it was the truth. She had retreated into the parks and virtually forgotten about the rarest, most exotic breeds she kept in the remote greenhouse near the flower market on 26th Street. So now she was making amends, like any good mother, spending as much time there as she could with her precious babies, lavishing attention on them and indulging them. She played them music. They liked music, and most of all they liked Mozart. So Mozart was played: Piano sonata in B flat major, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A major, Overture to The Magic Flute, it all sounded alike to her. And it was all starting to sound… well “annoying” wasn’t the word, not annoying like Selina’s happy little lovefest with the richest man in Gotham (who gave her diamond cat pins of his own free will when all he brought Poison Ivy was a box of chocolate creams), but the music was bothersome all the same.
She was trying to concentrate, trying to work out the proper way to approach the makers of this throat lozenge, with their “natural soothing herbal extracts” wrenched essence from the flourishing bodies of elderberry, horehound, hyssop, lemons, linden flowers, peppermint, sage and thyme! It was a massacre, an absolute massacre. And her research into the murdering fiends responsible got no further than the manufacturer’s website when she discovered the lozenge was only one of sixty products they made, all herbal-based “remedies” and “treatments,” butchering Gaia-only-knew how many helpless, innocent plants to cosset revolting human hypochondriacs!
She had to do something, certainly, but she could barely think with that perky flute, or maybe it was a clarinet trilling up and down, up and down. It was enough to give a goddess a headache.
So Ivy put her plans aside for the moment and searched her desk for an aspirin. She didn’t find any, but she came across the previous day’s Gotham Post, still folded open to the page with the retraction about her alleged death. It was small, as such admissions always are, but supported on the following page by a proper picture and a respectful (for the Post) if not quite accurate account of her attack on the Vanguard Building.
Good coverage. It wasn’t much, but it was virtually the only good thing that had happened to her in a year. She searched the desk again, not even caring when she found the aspirin she’d wanted a moment before. She rummaged for scissors, and stroked the edge of the paper before cutting it. She neatly clipped out both columns, blew a kiss to her babies enjoying their (still annoying) Mozart and told them she’d be back shortly. She was going out to buy a scrapbook.
Jervis Tetch could not keep a secret. Everyone in the Gotham Underworld knew it. To the police, he was the Mad Hatter. To the Gotham Post, he was “the wily and elusive madman who uses his knowledge of computers and technology to satisfy his criminal desires…” But in the Iceberg Lounge, he was more often referred to as Gossip Gertie.
Yet for weeks he’d kept to himself the strange misadventure of Edward Nigma’s love letter, sent by mistake to police headquarters while the riddle-clue meant for Batman went to Kittlemeier’s and his order for exploding question marks was delivered to his delectable (ex)puzzlemuffin, Doris.
Jervis wasn’t especially loyal to Nigma, he just didn’t think it was very good dish. Everyone knew Eddie had been completely infatuated with Doris. And if they didn’t know during the affair, they certainly knew after the breakup when he dug in at the Iceberg wallowing in the most atonally self-pitying country music on the jukebox for hours at a time. And now he’d written a love letter. It was hardly juicy gossip. It hadn’t occurred to Jervis to mention it until Jonathan Crane asked why he hadn’t.
Crane happened to be at Kittlemeier’s when Eddie had burst in, with Jervis in tow, to retrieve his letter. Crane didn’t know as much as Jervis, but he knew that there was something to know. Eddie had burst in, there was talk of a letter delivered by mistake, frantic demands for its return, and when the further mixup was revealed, Eddie had fainted. Crane knew, certainly, that there was a story there, there was a tale to be told. He knew Jervis was a gossip. And yet Jervis hadn’t said a word. What, he demanded to know, did Nigma have on him? By what frightful application of terror and dread was he able to silence Jervis’s clattering tongue?
Jervis had assured him there was no fear anywhere in the equation, no threats, no blackmail, no off with his head. He would be the first to spread the word if the knave of hearts brought him tarts worthy of his attention, but Eddie writing a gin-soaked letter to his ex wasn’t a heart-tart. It wasn’t a tart of any kind.
These denials were taken proof, positive proof, of Scarecrow’s theory. He was now convinced that Riddler had Jervis completely under his thumb and nothing Jervis said could persuade him otherwise. It was rather embarrassing, the fuss Jonathan was making about his “poor friend” being “bullied and manhandled.” The pitying tone, the condescending smile…
It was embarrassing, but Jervis began to wonder if it might be an opportunity as well. If Jonathan was so determined to see him as a bullied victim, was there some way he could turn this to his advantage?
Now that was a riddle worth solving.
Bruce called Mrs. Ashton-Larraby to another meeting, this time at the Wayne offices, one-on-one. No Lucius being tactful, no Selina being appeased because there wouldn’t be faux Catwomen involved. Just Gladys Ashton-Larraby and the man who stood toe-to-toe with Ra’s al Ghul, with Darkseid, with Joker. He went into that meeting as he would into battle.
Unfortunately, before he could launch his prepared attack, he was blindsided with a new assault entirely: as head of the Wayne Foundation, Gladys expected Bruce to attend the party dressed as Batman. Having to counter THAT godawful idea, Bruce heard himself proposing modifications for the very theme he had called the meeting to veto.
“Well, we all know it’s the villains that are more interesting,” he enthused, trying to sound convincing though the idea that made him physically ill. “That’s what everyone will talk about the next day, right? So how about a supervillain theme, rather than a generic ‘Gotham After Dark.’”
“Oh Brucie, you’re a genius!” came the rapturous reply, and Bruce assumed that was the end of the Bat costume. They went on to discuss hotels, catering and decorators, while Bruce tried to reconstruct his arguments against having a Gotham party at all…
Until Gladys bit her lip thoughtfully, and Bruce sensed a new danger.
“Of course, it still wouldn’t be a Gotham nightlife party without Batman,” she announced. “And you’re just perfect for the role! Who else should escort Catwoman, after all! Oh, and that darling Selina can certainly let you in on all the secrets for getting a really authentic costume made.”
Feeling the earth crumbling under his feet, Bruce spent the remainder of the meeting trying to keep himself out of a batsuit rather than pursuing his original objective: shutting down the party.
While he continued to argue with Gladys, his mind sifted through contingencies… Bruce Wayne’s costume—any costume—could not be cheap, third-rate, or improvised. Whatever he did as Bruce Wayne, the head of the Wayne Foundation, had to be in keeping with his wealth and position. A bad costume would be suspicious on the one night he could not afford any flaw in his public persona.
He also could not risk, under any circumstances, appearing as Batman at a gathering where so many had seen Batman first hand. Gotham’s elite were frequent crime victims; it went with having money and position, and many attending a Wayne gala would have seen Batman in person—as had the rogues who were certain to crash…
Which led to a third consideration: whatever Bruce’s costume, it had to be such that he could easily change into Batman when the inevitable criminal incident inevitably occurred.
As these Bat-thoughts consumed more and more of his attention, Bruce’s outward behavior became more and more foppish to compensate—until he “accidentally” flipped on the dictaphone, expecting to broadcast Selina’s lustful “Take off that belt, I’m gonna do you right here.” It was a premium bit of foppery worthy of the worst excesses of the playboy rake. Instead, the digitized voice declared, “This isn’t going to go away, Bruce. I haven’t been able to keep breakfast down for three days because of this, and it’s all your doing. Hope you’re pleased with yourself and your big romantic gesture.”
Ivy was surprised she didn’t feel more satisfaction as she closed the cover on her new scrapbook. It was such a magnificent victory. She felt some sort of glowing celebration was in order, if only…
She had her plants to share it with. What more could anyone want?
Harley certainly wasn’t one for sharing a friend’s good fortune, not one to be happy simply because her friend was happy. No, she was far too busy amusing herself with Hagen (of all the repulsive flower-murdering fiends) to even notice Ivy’s good fortune.
And Harvey, Harvey wasn’t a candidate to share confidences anymore, to celebrate together, to… well anyway, he wasn’t available.
Selina, while hardly a friend, could still be a good listener and good company. But on this particular subject, no. She could hardly go to Catwoman to celebrate the Gotham Post admitting their errors and restoring Poison Ivy to her proper appearance and place in the world.
And Nigma, well, she’d already called him twice today. The last time, he said something about squeezing orange juice and grinding coffee beans—extra fine. She asked if he was making breakfast and he said: “No, for fun.”
Jervis Tetch rearranged the chessmen for the fourth time, then he picked up the black knight, removed his hat, and scratched his head with it. Chessmen were an integral part of the Mad Hatter’s theme, but the game of chess really wasn’t. Not played fairly. Not without live chessmen, appropriately hatted, so you could simply order the rook to stand aside and let your pawn pass. Or failing a lifesize hatted rook, there were times if the queen checked your king, you had to declare her a “fruminous bandersnatch,” take out a croquet mallet, and smash her to bits.
Jervis knew he had a strategically valuable whatsit in Scarecrow’s idea that he was somehow being bullied or blackmailed by the Riddler. A strategic frolimawuggit, that’s what it was. But he didn’t have any idea how to use it. He wasn’t a mastermind, that was the problem. His was a criminal mind that could pose and puzzle, permutate and perambulate, gyre and gimble like the maddest of hatters, the reddest of queens, and the jabbiest of Jaberwocks. He could chortle in his joy, chortle all the frabjous day, Callooh! Callay, he could—what was he saying? Yes, he was not a mastermind.
You had to stay focused for that, focused on the big picture, and Jervis didn’t have the gift.
Nigma most certainly did.
How wonderfully circular that would be: to have the Riddler advise him on manipulating Scarecrow’s idea that Riddler was manipulating him—THAT was the kind of thing the Mad Hatter excelled at, wheels within wheels, it all made perfect sense if you looked at it with a kind of mental squint. He would go see Eddie at once, and together, they would—teatime! It was teatime. He would go see Eddie after tea, for now it was time for bread and butter.
Gladys Ashton-Larraby might have been a social gorgon, but she was also a lady. It would have been grossly ill bred to make a fuss over what she’d heard on that dictaphone. It would embarrass poor Bruce to even acknowledge it. Her surprise showed for only a split second before she hid it in a rapt “listening to music” face as she studied a painting on his office wall.
Bruce cursed good manners. He recognized Gladys’s pretense, for he was raised to the same standard himself. In her place, he would have done exactly the same thing (assuming he wasn’t playing the loutish fop): pretend not to hear. Unfortunately, her polite pretense demanded he do the same. It made it impossible for him to explain or deny anything. He could only carry on with the meeting as if nothing had happened. Then he could only walk her to the elevator chattering about the weather—while Batman began constructing a new protocol.
There would be no third attempt to derail Gladys’s plans for “Gotham After Dark,” that much was certain. After this second try had escalated from a generic Gotham theme to “Supervillains” and the suggestion that Bruce go as Batman, he knew better than to risk another direct assault on the event itself. He would have to finesse it in other ways, although he hated “finessing” something which, by all rights, should be pummeled into unconsciousness and deposited at the Arkham admissions desk. Still, as much as it sickened him, the situation could not be hit, hunted, punched, slapped, or intimidated. It had to be finessed.
Both he and Selina would make the briefest possible appearance at the fundraiser—in regular evening dress, no costumes. It might come off a bit rude and superior, blatantly eschewing the party’s theme, almost snubbing the guests who would attend in costume. Bruce didn’t mind being rude and superior, although he wouldn’t normally do so at a Foundation event. But it was better to take the hit than run a needless security risk.
And he would spend each night until the party rounding up every rogue he possibly could on any pretext he could think of. Jaywalking, downloading movies from the Internet, ripping the labels off a mattress if necessary, he would find some way to get them out of circulation on the critical night. He would draw up a detailed At Large List as soon as he got home, and prioritize it accordingly—although the prime threats were obvious: Joker for his fixation on Batman, Riddler and Hugo Strange because they knew the secret…
“And of course Catwoman.”
“Hm, what?” Bruce grunted foppishly.
“Brucie, you dear man, like all dear men, you simply don’t listen,” Gladys drawled. “’Gotham’ in strong angular lettering, deep blue like everyone associates with Batman, and then ‘after dark’ in a lush flowing script in purple—like Catwoman!”
Bruce stared blankly.
“For the invitations!” Gladys beamed.
“Oh yes, of course,” he growled.
“Never mind, I’ll call her myself. Men!”
To be continued…