Instinctively, Bruce knew the words lied. It wasn’t the end at all; it was the beginning.
He stood from his seat and somehow saw his own heel step on a torn ticket stub as he walked out of the theater. The foot seemed strange, too small…He should not be able to see that. Some deep recess of his consciousness realized this was a dream.
Outside the theatre, as he stepped onto the sidewalk, his instincts took over. Someone was behind him, following, tracking him. He listened intently to the footsteps, trying to single them out amidst all the other sounds on the busy sidewalk. He continued walking, taking care to give no sign that he knew he was being followed, but at the same time, increasing his speed very subtly. The footsteps grew faster as well, matching his speed. He now noticed not one, but two distinct sets of footsteps in synch with his own. He spotted an alley up ahead: a relatively safe place to make a stand. He quickened his pace again, his pursuers matching suit, and rounded the corner of the building, spinning quickly to face his would-be assailants. He was frozen, staring up at two towering figures looming over him and casting large shadows caused by the streetlamp behind them. He heard the distant sound of a child crying out in joy. “Mommy! Daddy!” Against his will, his hands lifted in the direction of the two figures. Each of them reached out with a giant hand and grasped his. Suddenly, all anxiety was gone. All the anger, all the tension, all the fear washed away. Bruce was… happy. They walked hand in hand down the alley, the small boy and his two giant—There was a scream, a muffled, distant scream. Someone, somewhere was in trouble, and from the sound of the shriek, that someone was female. Bruce tried to pinpoint the location of the scream, wanting desperately to find that screaming woman and help her in this time of need, but—Something was wrong.
It was too soon. The scream wasn’t supposed to come yet.
A third giant was supposed to enter the alley, then there should be a flash and a strange, muffled pop. One of the large hands would spasm and slip away.
But this scream was too early. It was a harmonic step lower than his mother’s—and it was shorter.
He should turn first, after the flash and the pop, the one giant would fall away and he would turn to the other as the ground trembled ever so slightly under his feet, and little smooth spheres of ivory white would dance before his eyes.
With a detached clarity, he noted that his eardrums were ringing, which was an actual physical response, which meant there had been a real, audible sound—
It was supposed to be later. After the pearls fell, he would—
Bruce shot up in bed, panic gripping his chest. He gasped for air, finally gaining his bearings: bedroom-bed-Selina-window-sunlight-table-tray-newspaper. Selina clutching the newspaper like a baton of death.
“What’s wrong?” he asked in an unexpectedly deep bat-voice.
She opened her mouth to speak, then reconsidered and closed it. She repeated the move, gesturing with the newspaper death-baton but again reconsidered.
Bruce gestured for her to hand him the paper, although he was beginning to guess what new disaster it might announce. Rather than handing it over, Selina found her tongue.
“Tell me again why we don’t kill people,” she said tersely. “And it has to be something better than ‘against the law.’”
“Because it’s wrong to take life if you can’t create it,” Bruce said sincerely—and then realized if the headline under her fist said what he feared, that was exactly the wrong thing to say.
“Pffft, my lucky day,” she announced, tossing him the paper. “Seeing as I’m about to start spitting out new people like a PEZ dispenser, I get to take a few out. Needless to say, I’ll be starting with that guy,” she added, pointing to the byline.
By now, Bruce had skimmed the headline and the first paragraph of the story. He grunted, more at it than Selina’s statement. It was just as he feared. The dictaphone mishap with Mrs. Ashton-Larraby certainly hadn’t gone unnoticed, but he’d hoped—against Batman’s better judgment—that Hermione’s coy hints about impending nuptials did not proceed from a conversation with her. Batman’s strategic mind berated him for failing to face up to a truth he just didn’t want to acknowledge. Of course Gladys would be talking to “Hermoine” about the party, she would be courting the columnist every way she could think of to get optimal coverage in his prestigious column. And of course, Gladys being who she was, she would “let it slip” about that snatch of conversation she’d heard on the dictaphone.
“Then again, if I kill that one,” Selina was saying, “there’ll just be a new one replacing him and we’ll have to start all over again. This lot, we’ve done whore and mother, we’re running out of complexes where women are concerned—not that I’d put it past that bunch to break new ground. How does idiocy like this even get started?”
Bruce averted his eyes, pretending to read the article. It was just as he feared. He knew she would relent once her anger had spiked. She wasn’t a killer after all. And now, mere seconds after the initial claw-sharpening outburst, she was wondering aloud “how it started.” Bruce decided the best course of action was to divert her attention entirely.
“’We always wondered what would happen if someone used to costumed adventure found herself pregnant!’” Selina quoted from the page just as Bruce happened to skim the words. “Now if that isn’t the stupidest sentence printed since the advent of written language, I’d like to know what is. First, while I’ve never had the dubious pleasure, I’m pretty sure the whole process starts with peeing on a stick, not second-coming type in some trashy tabloid. ONLY the Gotham Post could come up with something less dignified than peeing on a stick. But there it is. A bunch of men sitting around wondering ‘what would happen if someone used to costumed adventure found herself pregnant.’ You know I’m not a doctor or anything, but I’m going to guess nausea, cravings, hormones, swollen feet, backaches, then at some point, a whole lot of pushing. What the hell is there to ‘wonder’ about?”
Just how he could divert her attention from a paper she despised declaring her pregnant “in second coming type,” that was a riddle he doubted even Nigma could solve.
“Oh, and get this” she fumed, “did you see that cutesy part implying you might not be the father, right after they say they’re going to treat this seriously ‘and not as some cheap stunt.’ Explain that one!”
A riddle. Nigma. That might be the way to do it.
“Can I talk now?” Bruce interjected, timing the question perfectly to complete just as she was pausing for breath, so he could take her momentary silence as consent.
“Remember those phone calls from Nigma and Joker?” Bruce went on calmly. “It had to lead to something like this eventually.”
“Screw Eddie, I’m pregnant in the Gotham Post,” she hissed.
“How many Rogues have made quick, much-needed seed money for a caper by selling a juicy tidbit to the Post? Not Riddler or Joker, certainly, but if they thought it, the whole ‘Berg must have the story by now.”
“I think it’s more the groupies and waitresses than real players that sell to the Post,” she pointed out.
That was progress, Bruce thought. It was responsive, it was rational and, most importantly, it had nothing to do with him, the fundraiser, or the dictaphone.
“Point is, it’s the Gotham Post, Selina. Hopes for the new ownership aside, this kind of inanity is exactly what the Gotham Post does.”
“No, Bruce, they do Lex Luthor resigning the presidency by flying around in a Mardi Gras Tylenol capsule and Black Canary having a thing for Ra’s al Ghul. This is different. This takes it to a whole new level.” she paused and her legs pressed together in a shuddering spasm of disgust. “This is just ew.”
“Selina, according to the Post, Spoiler had a child, Ivy’s had a child, Lois has had several. Hell, as far as the tabloids are concerned, I’ve fathered at least half a dozen, most of them with women I have never met. This is nothing new.”
She picked the newspaper up from the bedspread and held it up.
“Did any of yours get a headline this big?” she asked, the white-hot anger giving way to numb resignation.
“At least three,” he grunted.
Reluctantly, she smiled at that.
“The others weren’t as photogenic,” Bruce added, pushing his advantage.
Her smile widened.
“Clark never made it higher than page 9,” he said.
This brought on a mild giggle— which then snapped back into simmering fury.
“If I find out he had anything to do with this,” she began heatedly.
Bruce laughed, flat out laughed. Another time, Selina may have noted the incongruity and guessed something was amiss. But for now she felt it necessary to complete her threat:
“I’m not kidding, I have a little bead of kryptonite, you know. It’s… well, it’s buried in one of the hell-mouth closets, but I have it.”
Bruce continued to smirk.
“You’re adorable when you get all worked up like this, you know that?” he concluded, kissing her cheek.
“It was a gift, from Felix Faust, during that whole ‘my wife doesn’t understand me’ era.”
“C’mon. I need a shower and something tells me you’ll want one now too,” Bruce declared—knowing ‘come and play’ was the ultimate kitten-protocol.
She smiled, intrigued.
“Well aren’t you frisky today. Lucky your shower is big enough to host a cocktail party…”
Dick stepped out of the shower—only to be hit in the face by a wet washcloth.
“Is there anyone, anywhere that doesn’t know about your thing for redheads?” Barbara asked angrily.
Dick blinked away shock and the droplets of water clinging to his eyelashes, and he focused on the newspaper in Barbara’s lap.
“Catwoman’s pregnant,” he chortled. “God, she’ll kill them. She’ll flat out kill them. She’s got it in her, you know. That thing with the whip is vicious and—”
“DICKIE!” Barbara cut in sharply. “It’s not that. Turn the page.”
And with that, she threw the paper at him and wheeled out of the bathroom.
Dick juggled the newspaper and towel, hoping to dry off at least his hands before handling the newsprint. He only succeeded in smudging his fingers, wrists, forearms—and a monogrammed hand towel—with streaked blotches of blackish gray. Accepting defeat, he turned the page and skimmed quickly… He was… allegedly photographed (if you could call those grainy smudges photographs) with a very hot, unknown redhead. He followed Barbara, more confused than ever.
“Babs, what gives?” he cried catching up to her in the kitchen. “I mean, okay, this part about going into hotels is kinda smarmy, but it’s not like we haven’t seen crap like this before.”
“With Nightwing, yes. Nightwing, they just love pairing up with anything that breathes. But this is different. It’s Dick Grayson and—”
“With ‘Catwoman pregnant’ on the cover, Babs, I doubt anybody will even see this story.”
“Guess again,” his wife announced, snapping into the crisp detachment of the OraCom voice. “Four redheaded golddiggers have already contacted the Post saying they’re the woman in the photos.”
“Do you know how embarrassing this is for me?”
“For me too, Barbara. With the party tonight, Bruce’ll be in Fop-mode and everyone will say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
“Or the condom wrapper doesn’t fall far from the bed.”
“What?!” Dick exclaimed.
“What do you want, Dickie, I haven’t got the rapier wit right now. I haven’t had juice and coffee yet and I got hit with ‘the Wayne heir spotted going into the Hudson at a late hour with a stunning redhead not his wife.’ And what’s worse, that redhead they can’t identify is Poison Ivy.”
“No, it can’t be,” Dick said, looking at the paper again.
“It is. I pulled the originals from the Post mainframe and ran it through a dozen graphic enhancement filters. It’s Ivy.”
“That’s a lot of trouble to go through ‘before juice and coffee,’” Dick noted shrewdly. “Were you trying to clarify the details on her—or me? The not-me-blur, that is.”
Barbara took off her glasses and polished them with the injured dignity of a prim librarian asked to find a racy bodice-ripper. Realizing that was the only response he was going to get, Dick cleared his throat.
“Well, then” he said, resignedly. “If it were any other Wayne event, I’d blow off the party tonight. But you know I can’t. With that Gotham After Dark theme, it’s sure to be a target. Bruce and the others will need all the help they can get. You could give it a miss if you wanted.”
“Dick, if you go, I have to go. Otherwise, it will look like we fought over this.”
“We DID fight over this,” he pointed out.
“This isn’t a fight,” Barbara maintained.
“You hit me with a towel.”
“It was wet,” Dick complained.
“You were wet yourself, you just stepped out of the shower.”
“Exactly, and you ambushed me with a wet towel.”
They both stopped, locked eyes, and as if by mutual agreement, laughed in sync.
“I love you, Dickie,” Barbara smiled.
“And I’m making breakfast,” Dick said, correctly decoding her statement.
“French toast, please,” she said sweetly. “But maybe splash off first, inky-face. You look like you just wrestled an octopus.”
Bruce watched transfixed as Selina primped in the mirror. As a world-class playboy, he knew that any woman dressed for a black-tie event should be complimented on her appearance. Yet as Selina came out of the little dressing room off the master bedroom, he couldn’t quite find the words. It wasn’t simply that she looked stunning in the red Dior, or that he hadn’t seen the dress since her tussle with Catman sliced up the skirt at the MoMA opening. It was the contrast. That night, they couldn’t dress in the same room. Batman and Catwoman had such a history at that museum. There was too much baggage, too many associations. But now, she slipped past him on her way to her vanity as if it were nothing. The ease and familiarity of it was… refreshing.
“I thought I’d wear the pink sapphire tonight,” she said casually.
“I figured,” he answered, the subtlest tickle at the corner of his lip.
In the mirror, Selina’s eyes danced as her lips curled into a naughty grin.
“You changed the combination?” she asked playfully.
“Meow,” she said, heading for the safe.
Bruce tied his tie, fastened his cufflinks, and waited. It wouldn’t take her long to crack—or possibly guess—the new combination. He allowed his lip to twitch unrestrainedly when he heard a light, musical laugh sound from the outer room. She’d cracked it, as expected, and now she glided up to him, Catwoman’s most seductive sway tilting her hips this way and that, and the sapphire glittering on her finger.
“Our anniversary,” she said, beaming. “The new combination is our anniversary, that was a very nice touch.”
“You consider it our anniversary,” he graveled. For reasons he could never fathom, she didn’t acknowledge anything that happened before Cartier’s rooftop, even though it was 10 weeks and 7 encounters after their first meeting on top of the train station.
Bruce watched her now, thinking of that night fighting the mysterious new cat burglar, thinking of how much had changed… Through the mirror, Selina saw his expression as he watched her, although she misinterpreted it.
“We could always stay home,” she suggested. It was that sultry Catwoman voice she always used to tempt him, and her fingertip danced lightly along his shirt studs, as if she were tracing the non-existent bat symbol.
“No,” he answered—another eerie echo of that earlier time. “We needn’t stay long, but we do have to go and go early. It’s an old tactic of mine. If you arrive late, there’s chatter all night: ‘When will Bruce Wayne arrive?’ All people remember the next day is the impression that I wasn’t there. Go early, however briefly, then the opposite occurs. Hostesses like Gladys hate latecomers. She’ll use it as a pickling rod. ‘Oh what a shame you didn’t get here sooner, Bruce was just here and now you’ve missed him,’ etc. It cements in their minds that I was there, rather than emphasizing the opposite.”
She paused, staring at him curiously for a moment. “You have a Gladys protocol,” she smiled adoringly.
You have no idea, Bruce thought, his mind running through a catalogue of options to cover his own culpability in the Post-pregnancy matter.
Selina expected at least a lip-twitch, but there was something strangely familiar about that flash in his eye; something unbelievably Bat-ish in his expression. What was he…
But before she could explore it any further, he finished adjusting his cufflinks, turned to her, looked her up and down once and took a deep breath.
“Exquisite,” he rumbled, his eyes meeting hers.
Claudia Reislweller-Muffington did not watch television, so she could never understand the snobbery (that was really the only word for it) she heard from people discussing “reality TV.” She asked Bob Wright one evening at an AIDS benefit, Ted Turner at a dinner for Muscular Dystrophy, and Michael Eisner at a fundraiser to battle Childhood Lymphoma. The heads of most major networks had tried to explain it at galas for most major diseases, but to Claudia it simply made no sense. Surely if you watched television, you watched television. What possible difference could it make if it was the show with the E.R. doctors and that funny Mr. Clooney who went to all the political fundraisers, or the one where they voted each other off the island?
Claudia was born and raised among snobs. She was one herself by the standards of all these people who thought watching Mr. Clooney made them better than people watching the island. It really made no sense at all. Claudia mentioned this to Michael Kors, her favorite designer, as he adapted the signature black-georgette halter from his 2005 collection to accommodate her new boob job. She liked Michael simply because with him you could call it a boob job and didn’t have speak in code about “vacationing in Thailand,” as if the very act of sightseeing in Bangkok changed the way your clothes fit. So she was unusually relaxed that day, chattering away about her new pet puzzle: reality television. She was astonished to learn that Michael himself was a judge for one of these shows. He told her it was a fashion competition that gave aspiring designers the most outrageous challenges. They might have to make an outfit from materials bought in a convenience store or, in one case, at the flower market!
Claudia was struck, for only that morning she’d received an invitation to this Gotham After Dark costume party, and here was Michael telling her of a brilliant young designer from this television show who could make a dress from flowers and leaves. While Claudia had no chemical abilities like the famed Poison Ivy, she put her considerable human charms to work to persuade Michael to tell no one else about this fabulous resource. She had called the designer that very afternoon. And now, a scant three hours before the party, she received her dress as promised in a special refrigerated case.
Bruce and Selina reached the Robinson Plaza Hotel before the red carpet was rolled into place and long before any other guests had arrived or any paparazzi swarmed at the entrance to snap pictures of the arrivals. It was all just as Bruce had planned—until they stepped into the grand ballroom and heard the distinctive jangling of Harley Quinn tassels. Selina stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the incongruous image: the Harlequin-from-hell pointing this way and that, directing the hotel staff through the final stages of the setup. Selina’s grip tightened reflexively on Bruce’s arm.
“Easy,” he whispered reassuringly. “We knew it was going to be like this.”
“Yes, but knowing it and seeing it are two entirely different things,” she replied.
He grunted. The fact was he agreed. The image of Harley Ashton-Larraby wasn’t something you could really prepare for until you saw it with your own eyes.
“Brucie! You’re early,” she cried out joyously. “Too good of you to come so early. One less thing for me to worry about; you’re such a considerate boy.”
Bruce smiled automatically, the same glib smile with which he’d answered that kind of greeting since he was 17, but it had never produced the strain it did now, stretching around his jaw, down his neck and into his spine. That Ashton every-vowel-a-diphthong society drawl coming from under Harley Quinn’s jester hat, mask and make-up—much as Bruce had thought himself prepared, he began to think he’d underestimated the mind-bending challenges of the evening to come.
“And Selina, my dear one!” Harley/Gladys went on. “I see you had the Dior let out. So seamless, why you can barely tell. Of course, I see now why Brucie was so reluctant to come in costume…”
A hot flush of nauseous disbelief heaved in Bruce’s insides. It was like he’d gone into a criminal lair expecting to confront Hugo Strange and found Darkseid waiting instead.
“…I simply couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t agree to come as Batman when it was such an obvious choice for you both. But now, of course, it’s all clear. You’ve begun to show, haven’t you dear; that catsuit, such a lovely shade of purple, must be very unforgiving. And I, of all people, should have realized…”
Darkseid and Joker. It was like he’d gone in expecting Hugo Strange and found Darkseid and Joker.
“…Heavens, it was weeks ago that Bruce let it slip about your little secret. Remember, Brucie darling, your clumsy little oops with that little recorder thingy?”
Darkseid, Joker, and Mxyzptlk.
Selina turned, and Bruce saw that Darkseid, Joker, and Mxyzptlk currently had astonishingly green eyes. Astonishingly pissed green eyes—whose angry glare, combined with an indescribable series of pokes, tugs, and yanks, brought them to the relative privacy of a side alcove.
“Clumsy little oops with the ‘little recorder thingy?’” Selina hissed. “I should have pushed you off that Anderson balcony when I had the chance. And you tried to blame Joker and Eddie and Iceberg groupies for this mess when all the time you’re the one that started it with some ‘clumsy little oops’ with the dictaphone? How the hell did you—never mind, you can tell me on the way home. We’re getting changed and we’re coming back IN COSTUME.”
“No,” he snapped savagely. “Absolutely not.”
He had been wrong that morning. It was worse than he’d feared—much worse. He’d been done in by Gladys Quinn, and she had him in a snare worse than anything Darkseid, Joker and Mxyzptlk could have come up with. Nevertheless, he was not, under any circumstances, going to appear at this party in a batsuit of any kind.
“This is not a conversation, Bruce. The only way I can keep that ridiculous woman from going around all night saying I’m in the Dior because I’m showing too much for the catsuit is to be STANDING 10 feet away IN the catsuit.”
“No,” Bruce repeated. “You want to go home and change, that’s fine. But I am not… I repeat, NOT… going to show up in anything that resembles the suit in any way shape or form.”
“Weren’t you listening back there: Now she understands why you wouldn’t come as Batman. You-not-Batman equals me-knocked-up. And we are not—I repeat, NOT—going to give her an opening to talk all night about how you were so reluctant to come in costume because you figured I’d be showing by now.”
“Not a chance. Look, I’ll fix this. I’ll talk her out of this crazy—”
“That’s what got us into this in the first place. Bruce, look, you did this. I don’t know how and I can’t imagine why, but YOU DID THIS. Talking to her is the one thing you’re absolutely not going to try again…”
It occurred to Bruce that she was right about one thing—he really couldn’t talk to Gladys again. He couldn’t afford to split his focus, for one thing. Riddler, Ivy, Hatter and Scarecrow were all free. The party (quite apart from being a high society function crammed to the rafters with big money and bigger jewels) was an event one didn’t have to squint hard to see as a bunch of overfed, overprivileged assholes poking fun at the rogues of Gotham. That at least one of them would strike back was a foregone conclusion. Complicating that already impossible situation, Bruce strongly suspected that half of those ‘normal’ guests who were coming hoped something would happen and so add a little excitement to their lives.
Before the first bottle of champagne was opened—hell, before the first invitation had been printed—Bruce knew this night would demand his full concentration. He’d have to play the foppish dilettante while constantly having eyes in the back of his head, maintain a conspicuously loutish exterior while keeping Batman’s acutest senses on high alert. Even on his best nights, that balancing act took a superhuman focus. It required his full concentration—and he simply couldn’t do that if Selina was going to be this pissed at him all night long. He knew telling her to go home was pointless. She wouldn’t, for one thing, and merely suggesting it would stir her up more…
Plus… the harsh reality was… she wasn’t Darkseid, Joker or Mxyzptlk the way a man might, figuratively, in a moment of wild unimaginable disaster, imagine his inconveniently-mad-at-him girlfriend as Darkseid, Joker, or Mxyzptlk. She was Catwoman. She was really Catwoman. She was literally Catwoman. And she had a look in her eye he had seen before. The truth was, deep down, as much as he knew her and knew about her, he honestly didn’t know what she might be capable of in her current state.
He knew he had to calm her enough for her to accept his doing whatever he needed to without any kind of interruption, no matter how small or insignificant an interruption she might think it is. He desperately wanted to do that without having to wear a batsuit. But then–
He nodded. It wasn’t anything Selina was saying, it was what he saw behind her in the main ballroom that made him agree. He saw Harley Quinn talking to a tall, thin waiter. The waiter wasn’t especially pale, nor did he have green hair or wear purple pinstripe. But he was pointing something out to “Harley” and, for just a fraction of an instant, the spatial relationships were such that something in Bruce’s perception saw Joker. That’s all it took. That’s all it would take…
Bruce thought hard on the implications: It wasn’t seeing Gladys dressed up as Harley that made him flash on Joker; it was seeing the way Gladys and the waiter were interacting that cued his brain. That is all it would take, a split-second’s association to start someone thinking.
Selina was going to change into Catwoman—literally, not merely change her outfit for a party, he knew that now. She would be at a full cat burglar, four-months-of-prep-just-went-down-the-tubes-thanks-to-the-jackass-in-a-cape level of annoyance. It was a mood he’d seen many times on many rooftops. And worse, a mood many Rogues had seen her in. And they all knew the cause was Batman. He began to see that the danger of attending the party in a batsuit paled in comparison to getting through the party with Catwoman in that particular frame of mind. Catwoman mad at him in a room full of rogue set dressing, it was enough to set anyone’s mind down the wrong path. Whereas if he agreed, not only would her anger be tempered, he would have the camouflage of being ridiculous. As was so often the case in his particular ‘line of work,’ it all came down to hedging his bets: The image of Bruce Wayne wearing a laughable parody of a batsuit was far safer than the image of Catwoman glaring at Bruce Wayne in the dullest dinner jacket if she was glaring like he was a judgmental jackass she should have pushed off the Anderson balcony when she had the chance…
If she was glaring at him like Catwoman glared at Batman.
“It’ll take some time to put something workable together,” he murmured, more to himself than to her.
In reply, she took his hand and lifted it to show him the face of his own wristwatch.
“You’ve got two hours.”
He grunted, then lifted his wrist further to speak into the hidden microphone in the cufflink.
“Alfred, bring the car around.”
It had been horribly uncomfortable getting into the icy mesh bustier, but Claudia Reislweller-Muffington felt her efforts well rewarded as every head turned when she entered the ballroom. The whispers about her fern and orchid evening gown built as she moved through the receiving line, and finally crescendoed when a Joker, a Riddler, and a Penguin all collided with each other at the edge of the dance floor in their haste to ask her to dance.
She smiled regally. Perhaps whatever jungle spirits empowered the real Poison Ivy approved of costumed dress up and had favored Claudia with a touch of their magic. Or perhaps her “Thailand tuck,” as it was called by those in the know, was worth every penny she’d paid. In any case, she smiled and considered her options. She recognized Joker by his leer…
“Randolph darling, don’t you look frightening. Do give Gladys my best and tell her I’ll be over to chat just as soon as I’m free.”
Randolph Larraby slunk away and Claudia/Ivy turned her attention to the Riddler and Penguin… Julian Fitzwallace, a nice enough man but not a joy to dance with unless you enjoyed the smell of Montecristo cigars… and Martin Stanwick, a nice enough man as long as you didn’t ask how his novel was coming along. She opted to dance with Martin.
As the couple moved to the dance floor, Edward Nigma, the one true Riddler, had never felt such a glow of triumph as that of entering the Robinson Plaza ballroom. He had remained undetected in Gotham City for a full month to reach this night. He had remained free to dust off his bowler hat, his favorite cane, and break in the new pair of fuchsia kid gloves which Kittlemeier sent over just before Eddie was obliged to disappear. The color made him think of Selina… She would enjoy his triumph, Eddie was certain. Wayne would be furious, and she was sure to find that entertaining. The idea of parading his victory over Batman in front of Selina was strangely exhilarating, it would sweeten an already sweet—the thought froze as Nigma realized he’d just smiled and nodded his way to the end of the receiving line and no Bruce Wayne or Selina had met his gaze.
“Is something wrong?” the woman behind him asked. Eddie turned back to see who had spoken. It was the woman at the end of the line, the last one he’d shaken hands with… the plump, middle-aged Harley Quinn.
“Wayne, Bruce Wayne,” he answered without realizing. “Isn’t he here? Surely he must be here, for what is a Wayne fundraiser without Bruce Wayne?”
“Yes I agree,” the woman muttered under her breath. Then she put on one of those forced party smiles—which seemed strangely appropriate on Harley’s face. “Brucie had to step out,” she explained graciously. “I am assured that he and that darling Selina will be back just as soon as they can.”
“What did you call him?” Eddie asked, amazed.
“Brucie,” Harley answered warmly. “To those of us who consider him among our dearest friends, it’s always been Brucie.”
Nigma blinked, his face frozen into a mask of shock as Joker’s mad nattering about his ‘good pal Brucie’ echoed in his memory. “Yes quite,” Eddie said at last, producing his own version of the forced party smile.
He left this Harley—who he decided was quite as crazy as the original, if not as perky—and began a slow, satisfied amble around the ballroom. Halfway to the bar, he slowed as he spotted a Mad Hatter—or the back of one—getting in line for a drink. Instinct jabbed him to turn on his heel and walk ever so quickly (but casually) in the other direction, for he had to avoid Jervis Tetch at all costs if he was to remain free. He squelched this impulse, recognizing it for what it was, an empty echo. He had made it to the party, and Jervis—wherever he was and whatever he was up to—was no longer a threat. Batman had failed to find Nigma before the party, and now that he was here, Jervis could call as much attention as he wanted to Riddler’s presence—
“Edward!” this same Mad Hatter called out, in perfect sync with Eddie’s private thought as he reached the bar. “Why I haven’t seen you since the opening at the MoMA—such a shame that uncouth ruffian The Catman making such a shambles of the party, but so good to see you again.”
“Um,” Eddie mumbled, his mind racing for some kind of response. He delighted in posing questions as a rule, and he had plenty of questions to ask: “Who are you?” and “What the hell are you talking about?” to name just a few. Unfortunately, while damn good questions (and questions for which he would sincerely like to know the answers), they were pretty rude as party patter while you waited in line for a drink.
“Catman,” Eddie said at last, latching onto the one word that posed no riddle at all. “Uncouth. Yes indeed, terribly uncouth chap. Scratches the furniture, you know. Can’t take him anywhere.”
“Ha-ha, yes,” Hatter laughed as if this was a very funny joke. “Quite in character, Edward old man. Good show. I suppose I should say, eh, something about Alice and the March Hare in return—Oh, or I could invite you to a mad tea party. You never did come out to my house in the Hamptons.”
Mad Hatter shook his finger in a naughty-naughty gesture, and Eddie nodded. Now he remembered. MoMA opening. House in the Hamptons. Richard Flay. Just a few minutes before all hell broke loose and Eddie received the worst bat-thrashing of his life, this Richard Flay had asked him out to the Hamptons to ‘see his art collection.’
Eddie looked around for a way to escape… And found it as a too-tall-for-the-role Penguin concluded his dance with a—whoa—a drop-dead gorgeous Poison Ivy. The faux Oswald left this stunning creature (although one couldn’t imagine WHY) with the crazier-than-she-knew Harley Quinn, and then waddled up to join the men at the bar.
“Evening, Richard,” he quacked—too late for the name to do Eddie any good so far as recognizing the Mad Hamptons Hatter, but perfectly timed as an opening for him to pick up his drink and escape.
“Magnificent,” Martin/Penguin gasped appreciatively to his companion as Ivy shrugged an impressive flutter of petals and leaves around her chest.
“Certainly should be, considering what those titties cost,” Hatter/Flay answered in the campy tone gay men use to praise flamboyant divas. “But I don’t know if the garden dress will make it through the night…” Eddie heard the conversation blur into the dull hum of a dozen others as he continued his amble through the room.
“Clayface imitating Dick Grayson” reached his ears—and in his peripheral vision he realized who they must be talking about: Dick Grayson in the least imaginative “costume” of all time, Dick Grayson in a white dinner jacket with brass buttons.
Eddie felt a tap on his shoulder and he winced, fearing that Richard Flay had followed with more invitations to a Lewis Carroll Clambake—so he was delighted when he turned to see the face of a friend instead, albeit a friend in the garb of an enemy:
“Evening, Harv, don’t you look spiff?” he said brightly. “Nightwing, eh? You always were a ladies’ man.”
“Er, thanks,” Harvey Dent murmured. But before they could begin to catch up, a paunchy Joker walked up like he and Harvey were old roommates.
“Dent. Good to see you,” he began. “Gladys was so pleased you accepted, lends just the right touch, she says. So, why aren’t you dressed as you-know-who?”
“Claudia Reislweller-Muffington?” Barbara Gordon exclaimed, a bit louder than the more refined ladies of the party would have permitted themselves. “Dickie, you made that up,” she added, modulating her tone.
“Nobody could make that up,” Dick objected.
“Somebody had to,” Barbara laughed, “even if it was only Mr. And Mrs. Rays-wemmermuff-whatever.”
“Yeah, well,” Dick hedged rather than correcting the name. “She was in this dance class Alfred made me take when I first went to live at the manor. We called her Muffy, she went to Vassar, I think she married some guy in oil.”
“Hm, well you better steer clear of her all the same. That costume is really good, and if anybody sees you together the penny might drop. We definitely don’t want anybody to realize those pictures in the Post are Poison Ivy.”
“Nobody in this room reads the Post, Babs,” Dick said absently—then his eyes narrowed as he determined the orange and yellow blur at the buffet was exactly what he thought it was.
“You’re supposed to be in hiding with BG,” he whispered angrily. “Monitoring the situation and waiting to swing in as the first response if something goes down.”
Robin turned with a grin and slathered a spoonful of mustard onto his sandwich.
“Yeah, but it’s a costume party, Bro, no reason I can’t sneak down for just a minute and get a sandwich is there? Besides, Cass said to bring her a cookie.”
“If he saw you, Psychobat would go—well—psycho,” Dick hissed.
“Yeah he would,” Robin agreed. “If he was here, but he’s not. Why isn’t he, anyway?”
At the bar, two Scarecrows clinked glasses and sang how they’d while away the hours conferrin’ with the flowers if they only had a brain.
“Late or… late?” Tim asked carefully.
Dick turned in a slow, even burn.
“Don’t even go there,” he pronounced firmly.
Some distance away, just above the alcove where Selina had dragged Bruce for that fevered tête-à-tête hours before, Batgirl monitored the comings and goings from the ballroom. Naturally she paid close attention to those not using the main entrance. There had been a parade of waiters, bartenders, and bus boys at the service doors. They’d all carried themselves as they should given the trays they held or the carts they pushed. The arrival of the musicians had been problematic. Batgirl really had no idea of the relative weights of a trumpet, trombone or saxophone, so she could tell nothing from the way these men and women carried their music cases. So she had squirmed through the vent and relocated to an observation point to watch them set up. Certainly the musical instruments looked all right, but her training taught her that meant nothing. The way these musicians handled their instruments, on the other hand, was enough to convince her they were legitimate. They took them from their cases the way the way sharpshooters assembled their guns, the way samurai unsheathed their swords. These musicians didn’t merely earn their living with those instruments, they cherished them.
Although her initial suspicions were allayed, Batgirl had still returned to the observation point twice since the music started, just to make sure everyone was playing. She found their choice of music dull—but on the second trip, she did spot the cookies on the buffet and insisted that Tim bring her one.
She saw Bruce and Selina’s return. They had avoided the photographers at the hotel’s front entrance and come in through a service door disguised as housekeeping employees. Cassie spotted them at once and saw from their movements where their costumes must be concealed. They disappeared in the direction of the rooms and returned a few minutes later in… costume… kind of. Catwoman was in costume but Bruce was… in a very strange outfit. With no mask. And a shiny blue cape.
Under her own mask, Cassie bit her lip. Something must be very wrong with Bruce for him to wear a shiny cape, no mask and a bright yellow belt. She wasn’t sure what to do about it. There was no OraCom tonight. There was no one to report this to or even anyone to ask. She decided to squirm through the vents one last time and watch…
Just outside the ballroom door, Catwoman slid her arm around Bruce’s—or, er, Batman’s or, well, BatFop’s—and then hurriedly looked away.
“Don’t say it,” he warned in a low growl.
She hadn’t. She hadn’t said anything at the house when he attacked her beautiful Porthault bedsheets with a glue gun and fishing line. She hadn’t said anything in the cave when he opened some ancient display case, or in the car when he tossed this bizarre utility belt in her lap and told her to “shine it” on the drive over. She hadn’t said anything in the hotel room while he tugged and pulled his way into a leotard that was clearly the first he’d ever worn—when his thigh muscles and upper body weren’t nearly as developed as they were now. And she hadn’t said a word—not one word—when, having completed this preposterous ensemble, he stood bareheaded in front of the mirror and proceeded to comb complimentary hotel hair mousse through his hair as if the fate of the world hung in the balance.
She had not said one word.
Now, at the door to the ballroom, her inner cat casually scratched an ear, waiting for her to express herself.
“I wouldn’t know where-” Selina began—when the chance to speak was lost forever. Bruce had pushed the door open with his free hand and performed some magical tilting lead with the arm over which she was draped, forcing her into step beside him.
“Brucie, darling!” Selina heard—the Ashton-Larrabys’ unmistakable battlecry—and in a nanosecond they were engulfed in a sea of tassels, leaves, umbrellas, champagne, and Shalimar.
To be continued…