The area around St. Winifred’s was not the type of neighborhood that would ever appear in a novel. What writer could make anything of it? Gotham was the largest, most diverse, most exciting city in America, so it was natural that so many books were set there. But the area around St. Winifred was neither affluent or rundown, it was not riddled by crime nor was it a shining beacon of urban safety. Its streets weren’t empty after dark, but neither were they teaming with activity from dusk to dawn. The residents were not predominantly black or white, Asian or Hispanic. They were not a tight-knit community where everyone knew everyone else, nor did they live in that state of urban apartheid where no living soul will nod at a stranger on the street. It was, in short, so typical of the real Gotham City, no writer would touch it. It lacked the extremes that were the chief attraction of setting a story there.
Consider the church itself: it wasn’t the oldest Catholic church in Gotham. It didn’t date back to a time when Catholic meant “undesirable immigrant” to an established WASP population. There was nothing particularly interesting in its stone walls or half-heartedly gothic design. It wasn’t ignored by a jaded irreligious population, nor were its services full of rapt and devout believers. Thus, when Amanda Caston didn’t feel like cooking and left her townhouse to pick up a sandwich at the bodega, she thought nothing of it as she passed a nun heading towards the church. Miguel Ortiz passed two sisters on their way to the church, he thought nothing of it. When Mr. and Mrs. Blagrove passed by and heard the sounds of choir practice inside…
♫-Our life, our sweetness, here below; O Ma-ri-a
…they thought nothing of it.
♫-Our hope in sorrow and in woe; O Ma-ri-a
Sister Mary Pamela gave a volume dial a final touch before turning from the boom box and rejoining the others.
“If this isn’t the absolute lowest moment in Gotham Roguery, I’d like to know what is,” she hissed, tearing off her veil and slapping it into the chest of a much taller and broader nun the way a quarterback hands off a football.
“Petal, you’re green,” Harvey said, pulling off his veil in the same way he used to loosen his tie after a grueling day in court with hours of late-night work still ahead in his office. “You’re green, Joker’s white, half our face is missing, and Victor walks around in a cold suit. How else are we all supposed to get together without attracting attention, hm? Couple nuns arriving at a church after dark, nobody even notices.”
“And if anyone did and got to wondering, we’re having choir practice.” Clayface added, pointing towards the boom box. ♫-Mater ad mater inter marata, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus, the cast of Sister Act sang to prove his point.
Unable to choose between Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s and Meryl Streep in Doubt, he opted for both. They’d walked into the church together, Ingrid went down to the basement to meet the others while Meryl walked the perimeter to spot the latecomers and provide an escort for any not coming in pairs.
“Well, I think it’s a good idea,” Harley said, holding the ends of her cord belt up to her guimpe to represent her missing tassels.
“Nobody asked you,” Ivy spat, as Hagen smiled at Harley’s performance.
“But she’s right,” Jonathan said, “The Iceberg is a bad idea until we know what’s going on. The known hideouts are getting bombed. I don’t want all of you coming to my place and leaving a trail of breadcrumbs for the mad lair bomber.”
Two-Face looked at him, took out his coin, flipped it and said “Admit it, you just like dressing up.”
There was a gargoyle Catwoman liked down the street from the Wayne Tower. She mentioned it in the Cat-Tales stage show. “My favorite perch,” she called it. Bruce remembered feeling oddly pleased as he sat in the audience. Before the Wayne building had any meaning for her, before she knew he was Bruce Wayne… It seemed the best place to have the conversation. On a gargoyle fifty stories above street level, they would be Batman and Catwoman, unquestionably… but the Tower would be there in easy view. A tie to their life together, to Bruce and Selina.
“What a manipulative bastard you can be?” he imagined her saying. He envisioned her as she’d been on the stage of the Hijinx Playhouse: her stance, her tone, savagely witty, unnervingly on target with her critiques, and blunting it all with the naughty grin and a turn of that curvy hip. “A protocol, Bruce? Don’t you think I deserve better after all this time?”
“Picking a time and place you’d be most receptive, what’s wrong with that?” he asked, in Bruce’s voice, while Psychobat scowled. Batman did not discuss his methods, Batman did not explain or excuse, Batman did not—
“Lie to yourself if you want, Bruce, but don’t lie to me. It’s a protocol. It’s the Catwoman-Cat-Tales Protocol 1a, the very first one you made that night sitting in that theatre when you saw it really was me on that stage. ‘New information I can use against her.’ You sat there through Act I with your protocol-writing wheels turning. Don’t think I’m unaware you were mining Cat-Tales for material all this time. If I didn’t love you, it might piss me off, but since—”
“1a was your name in the program. 1b, you said in your bio you were born on the Upper West Side. 1c was your living near the park—the mock interview where said you’d get morning coffee from Raoul’s cart. 1d was—”
“Fine, it wasn’t the first. Point is, it’s a protocol. And you shouldn’t be playing those games with me on this.”
“It’s not exactly mind control, Selina, it’s—
“—using every advantage available to me. Setting the stage isn’t manipulation or psychological warfare, it’s just choosing the time and place to talk in an atmosphere that’s most conducive to the message. I wanted to do it someplace you’ll be comfortable and receptive, since it’s a proposal you’re not going to like.”
“No,” the imaginary Catwoman said, hands on her hips and a foreboding scowl that rivaled his own. “I’m really not.”
Ivy failed to stifle a laugh, and Jonathan Crane shot them both a look. It was true that many survivors of Catholic schools retained a certain dread of women in habit, as he was reminded riding the subway in his present disguise. That didn’t mean he “liked dressing up” or would do it for fun—although he might explore some nun-centric fear toxins at a later date. (Sphenisciphobia? Or was that the fear of penguins? He couldn’t remember.) At the moment, though, his priority was reaching that later date in one piece, so he’d let Dent’s revolting ‘high school jock mocking the nerd to impress the cheerleader’ performance slide (for now).
“Maybe we should get started,” he grumbled.
“No, too many are still missing,” said Victor Frieze, surveying the room. “Joker, Nigma, Jervis, Oswald, Blake, Selina…”
“Puddin’s coming?” Harley asked—drawing simultaneous eye rolls from Ivy and Clayface, and another coin flip from Two-Face. This time the coin must have decreed silence, because he kept his wisecrack to himself and simply cleared his throat:
“Not everyone is coming. Circumstances forced us to rely on Roxy to get the word out.”
“She’s the only one who doesn’t mind going around to all the hideouts that may already be rigged to explode,” Hagen interjected before Harvey concluded:
“And she wasn’t able to reach everybody. We don’t even know where the Riddler’s current lair is, for example.”
“Yeah, but c’mon, Selina, Oswald…” Firefly squeaked.
“Selina is not answering her phone for the same reason, we imagine, we are not answering ours. They were BLOWN UP!” Two-Face thundered. Then he looked guiltily at his coin, flipped, and appeared chastened. “We’ll give Oswald and Joker five more minutes,” he grumbled. “In the meantime, our better half would like to talk to Harley and Ivy privately...” Assorted chortling at that, which Two-Face silenced by stretching out his arm, holding his coin sideways like a rapper pointing a handgun, and panning it across the room. “…and take their statements,” he concluded.
Since the real Catwoman took up space her imaginary twin did not, and it wasn’t ‘a gargoyle built for two,’ she and Batman settled on the ledge it supported as he laid out his findings from the Jinatra’s explosion. All the forensic evidence confirmed Selina’s eyewitness testimony: a molotov cocktail igniting a volatile supply of fuel left at the scene. The molotov is not a precise or efficient tool for a professional hit. It’s typically used to send a warning or to point the finger at an amateur group without expertise or resources.
“Like those protestors in Egypt last year,” Catwoman noted. “Best weapon they could put together on the spur of the moment.”
“Correct. So for a better financed operation, it’s a way to incriminate them. Luthor once took out a rival research lab that way, using a poorly-made molotov to put the blame on a student group that had been protesting animal testing.”
“But that’s not the case here,” Catwoman prompted.
“No, because of the backpack. A professional would anticipate all that’s happened since the explosion: a surviving witness and/or the forensic evidence revealing the scene was preset with fuel and explosives. There is a professional out of Philadelphia who’s known to employ those methods. A freelancer who works mostly for the Bigliotti Family. And the Bigliottis have close ties to the Pelaccis…”
He left the sentence unfinished, for Selina to connect the final dots herself. Pelaccis as in Keystone City Pelaccis. Pellaci as in ‘Joey the Bull’ Pelacci.
“Pelacci as in ’The Pelacci-Marcuso Wedding’ Pelaccis,” she said softly.
“Which you and Harvey trashed.”
“Hey, I was trying to put out fires, remember?”
“I doubt Joey the Bull is making those distinctions. Although given the location, it’s likely that Harvey was the target and your being with him was an unexpected bonus.”
“Catwoman, please. We need to stay focused on the issues,” Batman graveled.
“Then don’t make light of Kitty getting blown up. I’ve only got nine, you know.”
“That’s what I want to talk about.”
“Oh, I knew this was coming. On the off chance that whoever blew up Jinatra’s was really gunning for me, you want me to blow off the opera. Let Eddie go ahead with whatever he’s planning, cut me out of the fun, you take him on solo while I’m stuck at home watching Fawlty Towers with Alfred.”
Batman’s mouth dropped open. It was very slight, and it only lasted for a moment… The opera? She was still thinking about Riddler and the opera? …but on a Gotham rooftop, it was still an all but unprecedented occurrence. Impossible woman.
“Not exactly. I had forgotten all about the opera,” he lied. “There’s more evidence than the police are aware of. Oracle was going over the social network chatter about your explosion—”
“Yes, please don’t interrupt. In looking for any details ‘tweeted’ by bystanders who didn’t come forward, she found what looks like another occurrence: motorcycle driving erratically, passenger had an ‘open container’…a bottle. They were thinking ‘drunk driver,’ not molotov cocktail. And since this one doesn’t appear to have triggered the desired explosion, there was no 9-11 call, no incident report. The police aren’t aware anything’s happened.”
“But you think something did, and it’s connected.”
Batman gave a slight, barely perceptible nod.
“The location. The person who tweeted about the drunks joyriding on a motorcycle was about two blocks from Ivy’s greenhouse.”
Before the acid, Harvey Dent was a master at handling women. Not just socially as the womanizing “Dentmeister,” but in situations like this:
“And I thought ‘Hey, that’s the pushy gal from the greenhouse riding bitch on that rice rocket.”
It was his special gift as a prosecutor. Not questioning the witnesses formally in front of a jury, but this: deposing them beforehand. In open court, you only asked a question when you knew the answer. But this process, the pre-interviews in his office (or in this case, in the remotest corner of the St. Winifred’s basement), you had no idea what you were going to get. You didn’t get to pick what kind of people witnessed a crime. Some were observant and articulate…
…some were Harley. Whoever they were, you had to be able to read them. Listen to what they said, of course, but hear what they weren’t saying underneath. Sometimes they lied: a wife doesn’t want to admit a husband’s infidelity so she insists the panties in the love nest were hers. Sometimes they were mistaken: a shop owner doesn’t want to believe her employees are stealing, so it has to have been an outside job. The lock has to have been forced by someone who didn’t have a key, so she doesn’t recall ever seeing those scratches on the door… Whether they were honest and observant, had an agenda, or were blinded by bias, you had to be able to evaluate the person you were talking to. And for some reason, Harvey always found the fairer sex remarkably easy to read.
“And Red was standin’ in the middle a the street shaking her fist at ‘em.”
Harvey heard the intake of breath behind him and held up his hand to forestall Ivy’s interruption. It was obvious that Harley had perceived something in the woman’s manner towards Ivy, and it was equally obvious that she was jealous. It was clear that Ivy was oblivious on both counts. Whether the woman was actually flirting was up for grabs: Pammy could be spectacularly dense if she hadn’t deliberately set out to seduce someone. Harvey sometimes wondered if she didn’t fall back on those pheromones just to be sure. If the poor bastard wasn’t throwing himself at her feet, she really couldn’t tell if he was interested… Harley was the opposite. She imagined signals that weren’t really there…
Harvey asked a few more questions, mostly related to the discovery of the backpack, made a final note on his legal pad, and then looked up over his shoulder at Ivy. Normally, his good side would have said “Now then, you wish to rebut?” (with a smirk that conveyed the enormity of the understatement without overtly saying anything rude.) His bad side would push for something more: call her a controlling bitch who should be marching around in thigh boots, cracking a whip at every man she saw—and would be if only it wouldn’t lead to all those men comparing her to Catwoman—reowl!
But today, even his good-side response wasn’t quite good enough. Charm was called for, the pre-acid Dentmeister charm which had never failed with female jurors, with witnesses, or with Pamela Isley herself.
“Okay, Petal,” he smiled. “You’ve been very patient. Now let’s hear your version from the beginning.”
Ivy had got as far as clipping the forsythia after the mysterious customer’s visit and departure—apparently you have to cut back the forsythia immediately after it flowers, and even though it had nothing to do with the attempt to murder her, she felt it was important they all know—when her story was interrupted by the first late arrival.
“Outrageous, kwak, kwak-kwak,” Oswald began. At first everyone thought he meant the indignity of dressing like a nun, but by the third ‘kwak’ it was clear he was angrier than the rest of them—or at the very least, his anger had more focus. “Phone calls to my private office demanding I ‘declare my intentions’ as either a Rogue or a mobster—KWAK! As if nameless cranks may simply call up Oswald Cobblepot making demands. And no sooner do I hang up from what I thought was a mere insolent crank, the front entrance to the Iceberg is torn up by gunfire—positively torn up. That is gold leaf in the front arch—gold leaf! It is outrageous—KWAK! Simply outrageous. We must take a stand—take a stand I tell you!” He paused here to lift his umbrella like a sword, a warlord rallying his troops for battle. “We must establish through acts that cannot be misunderstood, one does NOT threaten the likes of Oswald Cobblepot nor commit vandalism upon his property—KWAK-kwakwakwak.”
“Now we know who menaces us,” Victor Frieze said evenly. “A hot-headed move, singularly stupid as hot heads always are. In attempting to force your hand, they revealed their own.”
“These mob bullies!” Jonathan cried. “Thinking they can strike fear into us? Us?! We will show them terror.”
Victor turned in the manner that, in anyone else, is called a slow burn.
“Hotheads,” he said frostily. He didn’t like this kind of passionate call to action. He didn’t trust it. “Vengeance is a hard, cold business,” he declared. “It should be embarked on with icy patience and resolve.”
Passion was nothing but heat, and heat was not to be trusted… But if he didn’t like these heated calls to action, he also didn’t like the Iceberg being shot up. He wanted quiet. The serene stillness of a frozen landscape. The city in turmoil, his fellow Rogues up in arms, it was not acceptable. It had to be stopped.
“You really think Joe Pelacci is gunning for all the Rogues who were at that wedding?” Selina asked, looking out over the city as her mind flipped through the possibilities.
“Ruining his little girl’s wedding and a hoped-for alliance with Carmine, vendettas have begun with much less,” Batman replied.
“Oh boy,” Selina said, running her hand over the top of her cowl and down the back of her hair. “This is going to escalate fast. I mean, we were all there: Jonathan, Hagen, Joker… not like it’s a peace-love-and-sunshine crowd to begin with.”
For the first time since he’d known her, it was Psychobat who produced the lip-twitch in response to something she said. He never thought she realized how viciously dangerous her fellow Rogues were. Now it seems she did know… Why she befriended them anyway, that was a new mystery.
“Yes, they are all extremely ruthless,” he agreed. “Well-armed, and dangerously smart. This will escalate fast. But there is an opportunity and I want you to consider it very seriously. Selina, look at me, I want you to consider this very seriously…”
She looked curiously, a hint of a smile dancing on the corner of her lips.
“Melodramatic as always, even for a man in a cape.”
“Selina Kyle was attacked this afternoon, and as you explained so painstakingly to those detectives, Bruce Wayne wants to protect her. If you let him—if ‘Bruce and Selina’ leave Gotham, go to Monaco or St. Thomas until this all blows over—then the Cat-Tales genie is back in the bottle. Selina Kyle was just an actress playing a role. No more ‘Is she or isn’t she?’ If Selina’s left Gotham and Catwoman is still here, you have your anonymity back.”
This time it was Catwoman’s mouth that dropped open.
Harvey fiddled with his shirt collar. He was starting to feel… warm. Very… very… warm. Ivy was… magnificent.
“Mobsters? Fucking mobsters did this? Some Pacino-wannabe tried to BLOW ME UP?!” she shrieked. “Blow up MY BABIES?! Blow up HARLEY?! Forget the ‘terror’ crap, Jonathan. You can make them piss themselves if and when I decide I’m finished, but FIRST they’ll wash my feet with their tears. THEN they’ll lay on their faces and make a full confession of their crimes, they will BEG Harley AND my orchids for forgiveness, and then… then I’ll think of something. And until I do, they will go out and empty every bank account, bring me every dirty dollar they’ve got, and send every last fucking one of their ‘button men’ or whatever they’re called out to plant a tree!”
It was the hottest thing Harvey Dent had ever seen. First she got pretty loud, but then she got really quiet and that… that was… damn, that was… she was… damn, Petal…
“THEY WILL PAY! Those lowdown men will suffer as no one has ever suffered. They will pray for death, but the goddess will not be answering their prayers. They are just going to go on suffering and suffering unless and until I get bored. Then Jonathan can have them.”
Out came the coin. Flip. Catch. Look. And then…
“Damn, Petal, we think we just had one.”
“Just tell me you’ll think about it,” Batman said, pleased that the idea didn’t get the kneejerk ‘no’ he was expecting. She could take the night to mull it over, ‘Bruce and Selina’ could leave in the morning and he would reactivate the old protocols to establish that Bruce Wayne was in hiding at the Hôtel de Paris. J’onn could arrange for Selina to be photographed at the casino just as easily as he did Bruce, and—
“I said congratulations. You know how I always used to say that you don’t scare me. Every other crook who’s knocked over a liquor store in this town is just terrified of The Bat-Man but not me? Well, that’s done now. Congratulations, you’ve managed to make me that Halloween cat with the arched back and the standing up fur.”
“I assume this is a no,” Batman growled. “Could we have less cutesy and more specifics as to why?”
“Look, I get that you’re upset about what happened to me this afternoon, but you’ve got to stop trying to ‘fix it’ retroactively, because you’re obviously not thinking clearly. And you really shouldn’t be out in this condition. Not if, you know, the Bat-brain is out of commission.”
This was answered by what Rogues and members of the Justice League refer to as the ‘glare of death.’ As always, it had no effect whatsoever on Selina.
“Look, Bruce and Selina leave town, Catwoman is still here, ergo Selina can’t be Catwoman. That’s the plan, right? Well think about it, that’s fine for Richard Flay and Gladys Ashton-Larraby, but the people who knew me before will still know Selina is Catwoman/Catwoman is Selina.”
“Of course,” he said wearily. “It’s not meant to be a 100% reset, it can only close that one vulnerability opened up by Cat-Tales. The people who knew you before will still—”
“Right! Now think about who those people are.”
“Harvey, Oswald, Pammy…”
“Yes, Rogues. I don’t see what you’re getting at.”
“Bruce and Selina leave. Catwoman is still here. Ergo Selina can’t be Catwoman—but she is. Now, I assume Batman is still going to be in town too, while Bruce is off with Selina who can’t be Catwoman but is. Think about it! Do you really want to leave that kind of parallel just laying out there for any of them to trip over?”
“It’s not… you… to miss something like that,” she said gently. “I know you’re upset; I saw it at the hospital. And I’m sure going back to the crime scene didn’t help matters, seeing the charred tables and everything, but… please. Protect me later, at home, when it’s just us.” She whispered the last words as if it alluded to a sex game, and then continued in a normal voice. “Because out here, I don’t need ‘protecting,’ I need ‘Batman.’ Gotham needs Batman—really needs you if we’re seconds away from a full-bore Rogues versus Mobs war.”
As she spoke, all emotion had drained from Batman’s eyes, leaving only a gaze of focused control and icy detachment. It held for a heartbeat, then the ice melted and emotion slowly returned… and with it, a long, slow smile of deep and quiet menace.
“Not green for the opera,” he said in a poisonous voice that was barely human. “That purple and black thing you’ve got, the strapless that’s almost the same shade as your costume. Hair up, nothing to pull focus from your neck. We might have to improvise the jewelry…”
A limousine with tinted windows slid soundlessly around the corner a few blocks from Edward Nigma’s last known lair. It was the kind of car you saw in movies just before the window rolled down and the black menacing barrel appeared from the dark to give silent death to the unfortunate target, but tonight, a different peril lay in wait. Inside, wide knees spread between two of the back seats. Fist to his masked mouth in an unconscious Rodan’s The Thinker pose, Bane contemplated his next move.
It was a long shot. But he had to try it. Tetch would have squealed, long and loud, he knew. He had chosen his target carefully; not a Rogue of high threat level. Not yet. But one who would make noise; one who was, as their “Gossip Gertie,” positioned to make a lot of noise in a lot of ears.
It was only a matter of time before it was noticed.
Bane drummed his big fingers on his chin. But it hadn’t been. And that meant something was wrong. He’d calculated the little wretch’s injuries would not inhibit his ability to talk. He had been most patient in that regard. Holding back so much of his strength to avoid cracking the insipid creature like an egg was not satisfying in the slightest to a warrior of his caliber, but it was necessary.
Perhaps the others had considered Tetch to be ‘crying wolf’ and ignored him thusly. That could be capitalized upon, then. It would create a greater shock to their complacency if he next selected a much more dangerous target; an A-list Rogue.
The first time he had appeared, he had beaten down Killer Croc to prove his physical superiority. That was the strategy, honed in his prison upbringing; find the meanest, biggest, strongest dog on the block and knock him off his perch to shake the status quo and establish your power. But he had been foolish to assume that size and strength were the basis of power in this world outside the prison walls. For all the menacing stature and fortitude that would have made him an ideal baron-behind-bars in Bane’s hellish birthplace, on the streets of Gotham City, Croc was not feared one tenth as much as the Joker.
Bane knew that now, and was smart enough to know why; he knew Joker’s type, the flamboyant serial killer, always one step ahead of the authorities, seemingly harmless or entertaining but a cold-blooded monster underneath. There were plenty of those at Peña Dura, though he could safely say he had never met one on quite the level of Gotham’s “Clown Prince of Crime.” Even Bane had to admit the Joker occupied his own special niche in the pecking order, and that ironically made him quite unsuitable as the next hit.
No, the Joker must be left for last. He stood too separate from their society; to destroy him too early would leave half of his targets terrified but half of them relieved or even rejoicing. He needed their fear and uncertainty. He needed to hit someone they would see as untouchable because of some quality that raised them above lesser men. And to strike at an enemy renowned only for physical strength, like Croc, would only reinforce their foolish idea of Bane as nothing more than a steroid-case bruiser. No, he needed to find an enemy famed for his mind, his unparalleled genius, and leave him shattered beyond repair in his own innermost sanctum.
He needed to destroy the Riddler.
Now if only he could find him…
Casing the Riddler’s former lairs, he’d found no clever clues or encoded puzzles; only empty warehouse after empty loft after empty basement. Bane felt the frustration knotting at the base of his skull but refused to let it infect him. He was challenging a man of vast intellect, he could not expect it to be easy. The easiest – and most satisfying – part would come at the last moment, when Edward Nigma was within pummeling range and at Bane’s mercy. But as he consoled himself with this pleasurable image, muffled shouting drifted into his thoughts.
Bane glanced out the window to see a blonde man of considerable – by most standards, not his own – musculature hammering on the door to Nigma’s lair. He noted the swell and definition of the calves, pecs and biceps – earned through gym work, not through hard labor. This was a man focused on appearance, then… but unshaven, his hair untidy and not recently cut – fallen on hard times... A clash of differing levels of self-respect, one desired and one actual. Caucasian, possibly Nordic or Gallic descent, but with a deep bronzed tan, not faked, an outdoorsman, but fading slightly from gloomy Gotham weather – a man accustomed to a much sunnier clime who has lived for some time in the city. That and the alert, cagey way the man paced, the self-absorbed indignant tone as he hammered on Nigma’s door, shouting his name – “Nigma,” not “Riddler” – someone familiar with the notorious criminal personally, outside his tabloid persona, and considering himself close enough to go banging on the fellow’s door in the middle of the night – punctuated by the almost-feline pause and poised tension as he spotted the black limo gliding into view at the end of the street.
Thomas Blake, then. Big game hunter turned themed criminal. C-list, barely worth his time. But the way he looked at Bane’s limousine, hired with money drawn from the hidden accounts he had stowed away from his time as Gotham’s sole kingpin (which the real Batman would have found and shut down, and the amateur Azrael had failed to…) gave clear indication to Bane that Blake thought the limousine was there for him.
And that piqued Bane’s interest. “Here, Manuel,” he whispered to the driver, and got out of the car.
Tom Blake’s eyes immediately widened in shock, “You!”
“You were expecting someone else?”
Blake scowled, “Those goons you had tailing me were sloppy enough, no match for a hunter’s senses. I was expecting a fight, but you’re a surprise. What do you want?”
Bane paused a moment. Interesting. So someone else had been following him, and – bravado aside – put the fear into him. He’d come running to Nigma, and that meant his lair was simply the closest, as from what Bane knew of Blake there was little love lost between him and his criminal peers. It was time for a test.
Bane rolled a shrug, “Very good, Señor Blake. I should not have underestimated your ability to track man or beast, even in this urban jungle. Do me at least the courtesy of telling me how you spotted my men?”
Blake snorted, “Cheap suits, the kind you wouldn’t mind getting blood on. Cheap cologne. The way the tall one was loitering around gnawing on a street stall pizza slice. Scuffed shoes and loud ties… and I could pick their guns from the way they were standing. And not just the obvious guns. Your goons need lessons in subtlety.”
“So it seems,” said Bane, and you need lessons in Gotham City, hunter, he thought, those aren’t hired henches. They’re Mafia footmen.
“If you were hoping to follow me to Nigma,” Blake said, shifting from foot to foot in that antsy way Bane knew well from a hundred toughs fixing to start a brawl in the prison yard, “You’re out of luck. He’s gone. They’re all gone, gone to ground somewhere.”
“Except you, señor,” Bane observed, casually, “Did you perhaps not get the memo?”
He was unprepared for the response. Blake tensed, stomped his foot like a child, then started ranting.
“Oh, yeah, because I don’t count, do I? I, the Catman, possessed of the cloak made from the fabric of the fabled Nephren-Ka, granting me the nine lives of a cat – yes, that doesn’t count at all, does it? Because they’re all busy licking the boots of that purple-clad bitch, and she doesn’t like me, so who gets ostracized? And why do you think that is?”
“I cannot imagine.”
“I’ll give you a clue!” Blake spat angrily, cupped his hands over his chest and jiggled an imaginary bosom.
Bane cleared his throat. “You paint a clear picture, señor,” and he did indeed. A man apart from a crowd, shunned and disrespected – Tom Blake was a distorted mirror, and it put Bane’s teeth on edge. This ‘Catman’ could be a potential ally, he realized, but something held him back from offering. Perhaps it was the whiny, self-pitying subtext lurking under the anger. Perhaps it was the insult to Catwoman – the only one of the “Rogues Gallery” who’d come to him personally to offer her allegiance during his reign of crime. She alone had respected him. Had seen what he had done in reducing their alpha crimefighter to a ruin, a cripple… he would not brook a dishonor to her name.
“Lesson one,” Bane said quietly when Blake started to continue, “Respect starts within. You cannot demand the respect of others if you have none for yourself.”
“What is that supposed to—”
“Do you know who I am?”
“You’re Bane. The bruiser with the Venom steroids who broke Batman a few years back.”
“Do you see a Venom tank on my back now?”
Blake admitted he did not. Bane continued, “Then you can see that I have no unfair advantage over yourself.” Then he pulled on a pair of fingerless gloves. Catman stared incredulously. “Stand up, Thomas Blake,” said Bane, “Show me fists instead of words. If you can conquer the man who broke the Batman, you will have proven yourself well worthy of their respect… and mine.”
“I’m… I’m not going to fight you—”
“If you face defeat with courage, I may even respect you a little. But if you shrink from the challenge,” Bane added, dropping his voice to a metal whisper, “You’ll just be another smear of shit on my shoe. To be wiped off and forgotten. Are you ready to be forgotten, Mr. Blake?”
Tom Blake gritted his teeth and clenched his fists, falling into a combat stance.
“Begin lesson,” Bane said with a smile.
♫-Triumph all ye Cherubim;
“We need a base,” Jonathan declared. “No offense, Oswald, but the Iceberg isn’t exactly a stronghold.”
Neck. A hard forearm to the neck wasn't cinematic, but it had a way of chopping up the breathing. Like any man who felt the slap of hard flesh across his windpipe, the sensation took over his thinking, it blocked every other thought for seconds after the blow dissipated. As long as the sting remained, there was no torque on the end of Tom Blake's blows, no leveraging of weight behind his blocks, and opening after opening in his jostling, nervy battle stance. With that, it would be open season on his ribs.
♫-Sing with us, sweet Seraphim
“Anything is a stronghold sitting on a mountain of ice,” Victor pointed out, shooting a blast of freeze ray to prove his point.
Ear. One hard blow to the ear, with the base of the right hand. Bane twisted his hand backward to make contact where the lower outside edge of the palm met his wrist, which despite the amount of flesh and muscle created a pointier edge than an ordinary flathand slap. Aiming that point for the center of Blake’s ear would drive the blow in just a little farther. The goal was disrupting his balance, but often as not it produced ear-ringing a well, which threw the strongest opponents off their game.
♫-Heaven and earth resound the hymn…
“You know what’s an absolute fortress,” Hugo Strange said with a whimsical smile, “Arkham.”
“Except for being controlled by people with whistles and keys,” Crane said peevishly.
Eyes. If you hit them right, they swelled and closed. Pain a warrior would ignore; being unable to see was not a matter of will.
Sitting together a short distance away, Ivy’s eyes met Harvey’s.
“They’re all idiots,” she whispered.
“You know what I noticed?” she asked in the old pillow-talk tone. “You haven’t taken the coin out for anything but a few wisecracks. Not feeling at all conflicted, I presume?”
“Not a bit.”
“That’s what I figured. Both of you hate the mobs.”
Wall. It wasn’t a vulnerability. It wasn’t a part of Tom Blake’s body. But the parts of his body that weren’t particularly vulnerable like his shoulders, hips, and the back of his skull reacted poorly to being hurled into it by the force of Bane’s ferocious backhand. There was no climactic crack as there had been with Batman, but the grim crunch of compacting cartilage as bone met brick was just as definitive: the fight was over.
Bane turned his back on the scene as serenely as a man strolling through a park. This time, his message would be heard.
To be continued…