Alfred hadn’t planned to talk to Bruce that afternoon, and he hadn’t considered how he would raise the delicate subject. But it was impossible to ignore the opportunity before him as the WE helicopter landed on the South Lawn and he saw Bruce getting out and heading for the french doors on the terrace. He was home hours ahead of schedule, and alone; it was simply too perfect an opening to ignore.
Alfred intercepted him on the way to the study.
“You’re home quite early, sir,” he began.
Bruce didn’t slow his pace, but he gave that abrupt sideways nod as he said “Research and Development called,” which Alfred knew meant to follow him to the cave.
“Breakthrough on the work they’re doing with robotics and telecomm,” he said. “I just got back from looking it over. It’s all related to Sub Diego, so I want to get a briefing from Arthur before I talk to Lucius again or see anyone else from Wayne Tech.”
“It’s lucky that the CEO of Wayne Enterprises has a direct line to the King of Atlantis, sir. I shudder to think what an executive who wasn’t in the Justice League would do to stay informed of the happenings underwater.”
Bruce ignored the sarcasm and stepped into the costume vault.
“You can joke all you want, Alfred. Sub Diego is the most important responsibility the Wayne Foundation has outside of Gotham. Giving those people the means to sustain a decent standard of living, in and of itself, is a worthy goal. And then there’s Arthur. He’s never come to terms with being the one who found them or with the knowledge that Geist used his DNA to engineer the mutation.”
Bruce came out in costume, although he hadn’t bothered with the utility belt for a simple ‘phone call’ to Atlantis. Alfred waited. He listened to the general tone and timbre of the conversation, and when he heard that shift that indicates ‘wrapping up,’ he began to move toward the main cavern so he was arriving just as the call had ended.
“Not much you’d call news,” Bruce said, removing his cowl. “Each city has set up an embassy and sent an ambassador to the other. Arthur seems to view it as a great milestone for Sub Diego, but it’s irrelevant in terms of what Wayne Tech is doing down there. Now… what’s on your mind, Alfred?”
Alfred glanced at Workstation 3 and then up at Bruce. He really wished he’d had time to think this through and make a conversational plan of attack. The only idea he had to introduce the subject seemed quite artless:
“I’ve been thinking of a night that I found you here, sir. It was an hour when Batman is usually patrolling, so I was quite surprised. I had expected to collect your clothes from the costume vault, as usual, and leave the kimono for you to change into when you returned. Instead, I found your clothes weren’t there. You hadn’t gone out. And you were watching two videos, right here.” He pointed. “The left screen had surveillance footage of Catwoman breaking into the Gotham Museum. And the center showed the feed from the morning room only a few days prior: Miss Selina, sitting at the desk, sipping coffee.”
“I remember,” Bruce said quietly.
“Looking very ‘mistress of the manor,’ if I might so phrase it, sir.”
“I remember,” Bruce repeated.
He remembered the reason he hadn’t gone out that night, too. He was so agitated, he’d worked out until he reached muscle failure. He wasn’t capable of swinging on a batline, and he wouldn’t be for another twelve hours. That reminder of his physical limitations—of his mortality—gave weight and substance to an idea he had not been able to put into words, an idea that had been fluttering around at the corners of his consciousness, vaguely unnerving him from the shadows.
Maybe for me marriage will always mean ‘dead in an alley.’
He had been sickened and shocked by it, by the idea itself but even more by the savagery of the words he heard himself using to express it. A savagery that had a name.
“Would it surprise you if I said I’ve been thinking about it too?” he asked.
“No, Master Bruce, it wouldn’t. The way you’ve been acting with Miss Selina these past few days, I would have been astonished if you claimed that you hadn’t.”
Bruce felt his hand tighten reflexively into a fist, and to combat it, he crossed his arms and brought the hand to his mouth where two fingers extended thoughtfully to settle against his lip. He wasn’t sure he wanted to talk about this, with anyone, but The Savagery had a name. The Savagery was a part of him. And if The Savagery had chosen those words in order to shock and horrify, to beat and hammer the unacceptable thought into unexistence, if it… if ‘Batman’ was the one thing keeping him from taking that step with Selina, then maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to let someone else into the conversation. Particularly since Alfred was pushing his way in whether Bruce invited him or not.
“It was that comedy of errors we went through with the Pelacci/Marcuso wedding,” he said finally. “The Rogues thinking it was Selina and I getting married, Poison Ivy coming to me with a warning. It looked so much like an orchestrated attack. Batman’s deadliest enemies wouldn’t just spontaneously take an interest in Bruce Wayne’s private life. It had to be a deliberate, orchestrated event, a diversion of some kind. So I went to check on the enemies who know my identity. I went to see Ra’s—”
He tilted his head towards the viewscreen where he’d been talking to Aquaman a moment before, and Alfred nodded, knowing that Ra’s al Ghul was currently in a prison cell in Atlantis.
Bruce’s scowl deepened, and even though he was unmasked, a dark shadow seemed to settle over his features. He said nothing for a long minute, and Alfred supposed Bruce was reliving the conversation. When he thought the silence had gone on long enough, he started to speak, but before he could actually form the words “What did he say, sir?” Bruce answered the unspoken question.
“He didn’t say anything. He has no contact with the surface, no news from the outside world. He didn’t know a damn thing.”
“It was just the act of going to see him. Do you remember when Ra’s kidnapped Selina? We hadn’t been together long, and I was still coming to terms with having her in my life, having a little… normalcy… happiness… We’d gone to the opera. I don’t really care for Aida, and my mind wandered a lot. I remember thinking of the night things started to change with Catwoman. I let myself smile at her, and… and the gaping void of nothingness didn’t rise up like a serpent and swallow me whole.” He said the last with a wry smirk to emphasize the absurd melodrama of the words. The smirk almost looked like a masculine echo of Selina’s playful grin—until it disappeared into Batman’s gravest scowl, and Bruce’s eyes turned dark and menacing. “Thirteen days and ten hours later, I was flying to Mongolia, knowing that Ra’s had her, that she could be dead already. That I had allowed myself a happiness I didn’t deserve and the cosmos was rising like a serpent to swa—”
“A happiness you didn’t deserve, sir?”
“No one ever said feelings are logical, Alfred. If they were, Batman and Catwoman never would have… That’s how I felt.”
“I see, sir. And then?”
“And then, nothing. Ra’s only took Selina to force a meeting. As usual, he was smaller than I gave him credit for. Life went on. Until one night, in this cave, I said something vile. I said that I couldn’t marry her. I said maybe to me, marriage would always mean…” He stopped, unwilling to repeat the phrase. Then he moistened his lips and continued. “And then going to Atlantis—going to see Ra’s again because of Selina, this notion of our getting married so much at the heart of the matter and going to see that ridiculous hairdo again, I just… I, I realized the whole ‘marriage equals death,’ the fear of losing her being tied up with… it didn’t come from my parents… It came from Ra’s. It wasn’t born in Crime Alley, Alfred, it was born on that fucking flight to Mongolia. And I cannot—I will not—allow Ra’s al Ghul to have that kind of impact on my life. It’s not going to happen.”
Alfred’s reply was cut off by a chirp on the panel in front of him, indicating that Bruce Wayne’s cell phone was receiving a call. Rather than sprinting to the costume vault to retrieve the phone from his jacket, Bruce merely punched a few keys to receive the call over the cave system. A tiny phonesize icon of Selina appeared, wildly distorted on the large monitor in front of him and the larger one that loomed over the cave.
“Hey, Kitten,” Bruce answered, a foppish lightness in his tone that belied the seriousness of the previous conversation, and Alfred performed a silent backstep to reduce his perceived presence without actually leaving. “No, I don't,” Bruce went on. “No, I— There was a development at the R&D camp—not an emergency, just a breakthr—No, a real one… I had no idea Lucius was going to speak to you… I didn’t think the project was that far along—I was going to tell you myself when we were ready for you, but I thought it would be a few weeks ye—Selina—Selina—I… agree… I agree… Yes, he is… Yes… Well, that’s a matter of opinion, I—Mhm… Mhm… Alright, well, do you want to bring the Porsche home or stay in town and we’ll rendezvous tonight? … Dick and Barbara’s? … Okay sure. Yes, I’ll tell him.”
Alfred guessed he was to be the recipient of the final message from Miss Selina by the way Bruce looked his way on the final ‘I’ll tell him.’ In a rare lapse, Alfred had failed to be looking blankly at a random stalactite when Bruce glanced his way, and in fact, the world’s greatest detective had noted all the signs that his butler was following the conversation with rapt interest. He acknowledged it with a playfully disapproving scowl.
“You’ve probably guessed this much: Selina won’t be coming home for dinner. She’s staying in town, something about a voicemail from Barbara. She’ll eat with them, prowl from there and bring the Porsche home after.”
“I see, sir,” Alfred said without a hint of subtext.
Another man would have left it at that, but Bruce wasn’t fooled.
“Something you wish to add?” he said with the slightest hint of Bat-gravel.
“On which subject, sir? The ease with which this minor logistical problem with the car has been resolved, or your prior observation that you cannot allow the influence of Ra’s al Ghul to prevent your coming to a comfortable domestic arrangement with Miss Selina?”
“That will be all, Alfred,” Bruce said curtly.
The Elemental Fete was to be a revolution on the Gotham social scene. It began with Frank Endicott’s perfectly valid observation that in Gotham City, people expect something exceptional when the Wayne name is involved. Bunny Wigglesworth agreed. The Wayne Foundation simply had to do better than the run of the mill black tie benefits that everyone else did. Mrs. Ashton-Larraby, eager to redeem herself after the disastrous “Gotham Post” party, had come up with the novel idea of an Elements Ball, taking all four ballrooms at the Robinson Plaza and decking each out in its own theme to represent water, earth, air and fire. Mrs. Layne half-listened to the Event Committee’s excited brainstorming on the subject while she mentally began sorting through her closet, then the Bergdorf’s windows of the past few months, and finally the Monique Lhuillier runway and that strapless chiffon which would be just perfect for her since she lost the weight from the twins but still had the benefits of an ample bosom to show off—if she went with the red, of course. Red for fire. There was a blue Oscar de la Renta she had her eye on that would be just perfect for water. However would she choose? It’s not like the ideal ballgown body she had now was going to last. Perhaps she should decide if she wanted to wear the rubies or the sapphires first, and let that determine which dress… “Oh my!” she gasped as the idea presented itself whole and fully formed. Not four ballrooms but four balls. On four consecutive nights: A Fire Ball, a Water Ball, an Earth Ball and an Air Ball. Four ballrooms on one ticket helped no one but the hotel. But four events gave everyone four chances to dress up. It would mean four times the ticket sales, four auctions and it would let them spotlight a different area of Foundation programs on each night.
It was the last consideration that sold Bruce on the idea. He normally rejected the Event Committee’s first blue-sky proposals out of habit, but this year he was still seething from Gregorian Falstaff’s remarks at the Empire Club. The idea that the Foundation might be perceived as not doing as much as it claimed for Gotham made his blood boil. The idea of four separate events to each benefit and showcase a different type of outreach, that would be a very effective and very public way to demonstrate how diverse and extensive the Foundation’s projects were. To attempt it on four consecutive nights was utterly insane, but one a week would keep the Foundation front and center, raising awareness of their philanthropic efforts for an entire month. So there. (Grunt)
The first event was to have been the Air Ball to benefit Art & Cultural Organizations, but Selina put a stop to that when she spotted the proposal on his desk. She’d come up to the office for their regular lunch date, and Bruce told her to wait while he checked on something with Lucius. When he walked back in the door, he saw she was standing over his desk with the proposal in her hand, reading it with the condescending smile that followed some rooftop zinger (“Why Batman, how hard do you want it to get?”) when he was unable to answer in kind.
“Something in there you don’t approve of?” he asked, a hint of Bat-gravel creeping into his voice without his realizing.
“It’s just cute. Frank Endicott. Lucius. You. You’re all such men sometimes. I don’t mean that in the judgmental Ivy way. I mean that you just… don’t get it sometimes. You don’t know how to look at certain things: what means what, what’s significant and what ultimately doesn’t matter. And so you get it wrong.”
“Okay, I can see the wheels turning here. A string of gala fundraisers, and it’s a progression. Air is your first theme and fire is last. That’s because air is light and wimpy but fire is powerful and destructive, right?”
“It’s last because it’s the most colorful and dramatic, yes,” Bruce admitted.
“But see, fire is red. A lot of the guests will be wearing rubies. It’s a flashy gem, bumps into garish when there’s too many of them. So a lot of the time, you don’t want to wear the spectacular ruby necklace, especially to the old money foundation stuff like a Wayne fundraiser; it looks nouveau. But a Fire Ball, that’s the one event where you can absolutely get those rubies out of the vault and wear them to a Wayne affair without giving it a second thought. Water is sapphire and maybe some blue topaz, aquamarine and even turquoise. Less valuable pieces, farther down the food chain, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a water ball; you want the blue. Earth could go in a lot of different directions, but Air, air is clear. My darlin’, air is when the diamonds come out, in this series of balls where they’re mostly wearing other things. Air will be the night the diamonds come out. Air is the night they’re feeling the richest and most elegant—and have the most to live up to. The silent auction will do twice as well that night as at any of the other events, and if it’s also the last ball of the four, if it’s your big finale, it will probably do better than the other three combined.”
Bruce grunted. Then he asked if there was a reason none of the women on the sub-committee shared these insights, and the playful cat-smile softened into a very different one.
“Because they don’t know what you’re up to,” she said with a purr of forbidden knowledge in her voice that sent a sizzle up his spine, around his neck, across his shoulder and straight down his chest into his core. Their eyes met, and the admiration Bruce saw there was not the tender affection of a lover but the frank appraisal of a worthy foe. They have no idea what a conniving bastard you are, she seemed to be saying. But I see your real agenda.
“That being the case, you won’t want to waste the grand finale of an Air Ball on ‘Arts and Cultural Organizations.’ As it is, your committee members think this order is random. A for Air, A for Art; not like it matters. But it matters to you.” She stopped and pointed to the line reading ‘Health and Human Services’ in such a way that her finger touched the name Thomas at the top of the letterhead. “You want the medical projects to get the most money and attention, you take it off the Fire Gala but leave it right here on Night Four to be the showpiece at the Air Ball… and even though Falstaff’s logo is red and has a big ‘F’ and he’ll want to make his big showing at the Fire Ball, we’ll figure out some way to rub his nose in it.”
“I love you,” Bruce said sincerely, kissing her cheek.
“Say it with sushi, handsome. I’m starving,” she answered, grabbing her purse.
And that was how it was determined that the first night of the Thomas and Martha Wayne Memorial Foundation Elemental Fete would be the Earth Ball, benefiting Education & Youth Programs.
A Foundation fundraiser was never a night of frivolity for Bruce Wayne. After the receiving line, there were informal chats with individual board members about all the people they’d just shaken hands with, duty dances and extended stops at the tables of all the big donors, and special attention to those who had been friends with his parents—and that was just at events that were exactly what they seemed and not camouflage for some bait Batman was dangling in front of the villain du jour.
Tonight at least there were no covert sitreps at the buffet, no clandestine chats with Dick and Barbara about rogue infiltration or Tim and Cassie briefing him on the security around a 220-pound gold coin. That’s not to say the conversation at the pastry table wasn’t trying:
“I don’t believe you didn’t tell me,” Dick was laughing.
“Stop it,” Bruce hissed.
“A little warning next time, that’s all I’m saying.”
“Dick, I brought you up better than this. Be polite.”
“He can’t hear.”
“Alfred brought you up better. You two have been laughing like when you were kids.”
“It’s a party, Bruce,” Barbara said, poking at him with a crab puff on the end of a toothpick. “A little laughter isn’t all that suspect, and like Dick said, it’s not like he can hear what we’re laughing about.”
Bruce silenced her with the death glare he used to direct at Batgirl when she encouraged Robin this way: You’re older, act it, it said.
“Dick’s right, you know, you could have warned us,” she demurred. “You’ve talked about this Gregorian Falstaff a couple times now. You didn’t think to mention he’s a dead ringer for Oswald Cobblepot?”
“Well, not ‘a dead ringer,’” Dick corrected. “A 15-years younger, redheaded, goateed, slightly taller and considerably more pear-shaped Oswald Cobblepot.”
“Kwak,” Barbara said, meaning ‘yes’.
“I mentioned what was relevant,” Bruce said evenly. “He’s made a lot of waves since he hit town; he bought three tables for each ball, so you were sure to be meeting him; he’s been critical of the Foundation and—”
“And he looks like a younger-redhead-goateed-Oswald,” Barbara murmured as if it was one long word.
Bruce shook his head and left them, heading towards the bar where Selina was waiting. He’d sent her on a similar mission to chastise Tim and Cassie… who were now a picture of youthful decorum as they headed together towards the dance floor.
“It seems you were more successful than I was,” he noted, picking up a glass of mineral water the bartender knew to have waiting for him.
“Benefit of a notorious past like mine, threats are taken very seriously. ‘Drake generations yet unborn’ have no desire to see a return of ‘the whip thing,’” she declared, taking the glass from his hand and placing it back on the bar with a smile. “Dance with me,” she ordered in a low, insistent tone, like a cornered spy looking for cover to pass on stolen microfilm.
After a few turns, she got down to business:
“Your sidekick is in need of a little training, Bruce—no, not that kind. You’ve got a ‘notorious past’ of your own: Playboy of the Western World. And that boy needs some coaching. Look at what Cassie is wearing tonight, and he hasn’t even told her how pretty she looks. ‘Is it Falstaff’s eyes or is it his nose that makes him look so much like Oswald,’ that’s his ballroom chitchat.”
“I’ll speak to him,” Bruce said, then he glanced a second time at Tim and Cassie. “What is she wearing? That… that looks like one of the dresses you bought in Paris.”
“It is. I had it altered for her. It’s a long story.”
“We have time,” Bruce said, pressing tighter into the small of her back and turning her unexpectedly.
“Yes, we do,” Selina laughed. Then she assumed a lightly foreboding tone as if beginning a ghost story as she said “It’s actually kind of creepy. A couple weeks ago, Barbara called me to come over and see her. Turns out—”
“Excuse me, may I cut in?” a smooth, oddly-accented voice interrupted. Bruce and Selina paused their dance and parted slightly to face the speaker, both hiding their disgust in a pair of perfectly matched party smiles as they turned to regard a younger, redheaded, goateed, taller and pear-shaped facsimile of Oswald Cobblepot. “Disgraceful of you to monopolize such a ravishing creature, Wayne. You get to look at her every day, after all. The rest of us only have these rare opportunities.”
“I apologize for my bad manners,” Bruce said, stepping aside with that glint in his eye that the deadliest thugs in Gotham associate with pain.
As Falstaff foxtrotted off with Selina, Bruce saw Lucius was waiting at the edge of the dance floor, and since Tim and Cassie were still fully occupied with their dance, Bruce went over to join to him.
“He really does look a little bit like that Penguin fellow in the ads for that Iceberg Lounge,” Lucius offered, guessing Bruce’s mood and opting for a light-hearted shot at Falstaff that didn’t actually criticize a major donor in a meaningful way.
“He’s chest-thumping,” Bruce said dismissively, turning away from the dance floor and leading Lucius back towards the bar as if eager to introduce him to someone. “And I’m not going to give him the satisfaction of watching while he dances with Selina. I’m sure that’s what he wanted—Richard! You remember Lucius Fox, of course.”
Unfortunately, Richard Flay had been following Falstaff’s movements through the room and, having witnessed the cut-in, he was eager to introduce the very subject Bruce wanted to change.
“Blasted fellow, that Falstaff,” he huffed. “Do you know he bought that Goldscheider Aphrodite I had my heart set on at the Crispin auction, and then the Edgar Brandt mirror and the fire screen. All three, can you believe it? To come away from the auction without a single one of the pieces I had my eye on, well, some years that’s just how it goes—but to lose them all to the same man! You’d think the upstart had peeked in my catalogue and identified the very pieces I meant to have.”
They chatted for a few minutes. Mrs. Ashton-Larraby joined them, seeing Richard Flay’s indignant manner and guessing the subject under discussion.
“Horrible man,” she fumed. “So fitting that he looks so much like that Penguin character, because he is nothing but a gangster. Both of you, come look at this!”
She marched them to a line of table displays spotlighting the various educational programs sponsored by the Wayne Foundation. She pointed with an air of dramatic foreboding, like the herald in a Greek tragedy. Bruce, Lucius and Richard Flay all looked at the arrangement of enlarged photographs, the central one depicting the Hudson University campus: the oldest part, where the only two original buildings flanked a tree-lined mall leading up to the newer Wayne Library. The low wooden signs reading Ashton Hall and Flay Hall as well as the stone attribution plate on the front of the library had been covered in decals advertising a campus event sponsored by Falstaff Inc. The details of the event weren’t visible, but the distinctive red hexagon and white F of the Falstaff logo was instantly recognizable.
“Well, the picture is just to represent Hudson,” Bruce said, making the best of it. “It’s the scholarships and research grants from the past year that we’re trumpeting.”
“And the new chemistry chair,” Lucius added. “It’s not actually about the library. Which, of course, was a very old project.”
“It’s an old campus,” Mrs. Ashton-Larraby said archly. “Founded in 1754 as King’s College by royal charter…”
Always aware of his surroundings, Bruce noted when the music stopped, and while Gladys Ashton-Larraby lectured Lucius about George II, he subconsciously began expecting a hint of Selina’s perfume as she arrived at his side. It was only when it didn’t happen that he found himself glancing towards the dance floor… and saw she was leaving the ballroom with Falstaff. He didn’t spot her again for over an hour, and since she seemed quite engrossed in her chat with Madison Hargrove, he decided to let her be. The rest of the night whenever they were together, there were always other people around, so he didn’t get to speak freely until the ride home.
“Falstaff must employ some kind of zero-sum principle when it comes to charm,” he said dryly. “Goes around town being as obnoxious as possible, offends just about everyone he’s come in contact with, then turns into an enchanting dance partner.”
“I thought I felt the beady eyes of a crimefighter watching us,” Selina said with a teasing smile—which produced a hint of a scowl—which produced a hint of a purr before the tone changed. “Stand down, Dark Knight. Falstaff’s ‘charm’ gets as far as ‘My dear, you really must call me Gregor’ and then makes a sharp right turn into referencing stuff that happened years ago, like it marks him out as some great aficionado of Gotham history. I mean: you read some old newspapers. What am I supposed to say to that, ‘Yay, literacy’? Most people use those things to wrap fish.”
“So, if he didn’t impress you, why did you go off with him?” Bruce asked.
“To empty his wallet,” Selina smirked.
“Been a long time since I had the fun of stealing right under Batman’s nose. Let’s face it, most of what I’ve done since we got together was with your blessing. This was—”
“You better be joking.”
“Not completely. See, he spent most of our dance pumping me for details about the silent auctions. He heard a rumor that Atlantis donated something for the Water Ball. Said he didn’t want to ‘blow his lunch money’ on tonight’s offerings if you were ‘following the ways of tradesmen.’ Holding the good stuff in reserve until you’d unloaded the rest ‘on the gullible who are forever incapable of distinguishing quality from cost.’”
“Insulting me, the item donors, and the other guests in one line, that’s impressive,” Bruce noted.
“So I made him pay for it. Took him down to tonight’s auctions and made him place a big fat bid for every hint I gave him about what was coming up.”
“After he wrote down his bids, a few of his 1s may have become 4s.”
Catwoman hadn’t planned on prowling after the Wayne gala, but after Bruce did nothing but chuckle at her ‘prank’ changing Falstaff’s bids—adding that “Whatshername Gretta” had done the same thing to him once at an Aids Benefit—Kitty felt the need to assert herself. She was trying to beat her old record at the Sterling Trust when she noticed the Bat-Signal. Another night, it might have been fun. She’d go to her favorite gargoyle near One Police Plaza, watch and wait, and as soon as Batman was finished, she’d break in on the OraCom and ask about it without preliminaries. But tonight she really wasn’t in the mood for *cough*fighting, so she went back to finessing the Sterling locks when her own OraCom buzzed.
“Catwoman’s House of Pain,” she answered.
There was a pause. Then:
..:: Not all jewel thieves share your verdict on that movie,::.. came a familiar gravel. ..:: The Beauforts’ townhouse was broken into while they were at the Wayne Ball. I’m going to the crime scene now, if you want to come have a look.::..
In the years he fought Catwoman, a seldom acknowledged wish-dream formed that one day they could be something more than adversaries. The dream took various forms, the most wildly improbable being the partnership they now enjoyed. Unlike the more personal and intimate variations, ‘crimefighting’ was never a clearly defined dream. Just a vague notion of her standing at his side before swinging into battle together, or perhaps sifting through data in the cave, tackling the finer points of some baffling mystery with their combined areas of expertise. He never considered that she’d be bringing the most frustrating aspects of Catwoman-the-criminal’s behavior into the mission with her. He never figured on the same blinders and rationalizations that let her blithely pretend stealing wasn’t wrong. He never figured on feline logic—or feline stubbornness, digging in like a wildcat and refusing to admit she was wrong.
Maybe—just maybe—Selina in the car driving into the city would be more reasonable than Catwoman at the crime scene had been.
“About that—” “No.” he began and she answered.
A half mile later, he tried again.
“They got away with—” “Doesn’t matter.”
And once more turning onto the bridge.
“Even though she was wearing th—” “Still morons.”
“But you said—” “Not the point.”
“But y—” “I stand by it.”
“B—” “Because I’m right.”
“Why can’t you just admit that despite not doing it your way, they made it work.”
“Because it didn’t work.”
“Okay, this is an aspect of the criminal mind I don’t understand. Explain it to me, please: They go into the house, nobody is home, they open the safe, they take out all the jewelry Sophia didn’t wear to the party, they leave. How is that not making it work?”
“Not only was Sophia Beaufort wearing the to-die-for necklace, earrings and bracelet you save for a Wayne-worthy occasion, she got home and went to put them back in the safe not two hours after your burglar had left. ‘Hey look, honey, we’ve been robbed.’ Your burglar had Batman standing there making pensive faces over his handiwork less than ninety minutes after he’d gone. That is not ‘making it work.’ You do it my way, the Beauforts don’t find out they’ve been hit for hours yet. The Gotham Times will have the story before you hear about it, and by the time you get there tonight, the GPD, a couple insurance buffoons and, knowing Dwight Beaufort, the FBI will have had a pissing contest all over your crime scene.
“Bruce, unless I want you involved, unless I want my monster sapphire with a Bat-fun chaser, my plane is touching down in Zurich right now, while you’re sitting here in your day face driving into work. I’m ready to pop that thing into my safe deposit box, and you don’t even know there’s been a crime yet. And that’s why I’m a free kitty when everybody else that tries something like that in this town is singing the Blackgate Blues. This moron? He is only running two hours ahead of you. At a time when the Rogues Gallery is all up the river and Batman is bored. Yeah, that’s really ‘making it work,’ McCavity. Good luck with that.”
On the one hand, she was stubbornly refusing to admit she was wrong. She was rigidly insisting her way was the only way—but it was hard to find that infuriating when her reason was that she saw the criminals’ failure as a foregone conclusion. The fact that they had the gems was irrelevant. The fact that he didn’t know who they were was irrelevant. They had not delayed Batman’s involvement sufficiently, so now they were doomed to fail. Not only did Selina—not only did Catwoman—believe that, she was argumentative about it. She was mad at him for not seeing it. She was irate, impatient and exasperated, as if he didn’t understand something as basic as gravity.
She was truly an impossible woman, but today, it was hard to find that infuriating.
Despite Selina’s confidence, neither the police nor Batman had any suspects on the Beaufort robbery by the night of the Fire Ball. While the Times had mentioned the incident in its police blotter, a lone burglary without any theme criminal overtones was not particularly newsworthy. Gotham, as a whole, hadn’t noticed, but those who knew the Beauforts personally were aware. It was discussed lightly in the first hour of the ball; Sophia Beaufort usually brought it up herself. It was something interesting to talk about, it made her the center of a drama, and of course, everything was insured. In fact, it was the quick payout that allowed her to buy the magnificent fire opal she wore tonight.
Gregorian Falstaff took a particular interest in the gem, praising its color. He was a great connoisseur of reds, he said, having made of a study of it in order to select the perfect shade for his logo. You didn’t want something that looked orange in a certain light, or that would bleach into an insipid pink. Since Falstaff Inc. was a sponsor of the event, his logo was included on the sign just outside the ballroom entrance. He escorted Sophia there to see what he meant, and compare the color to that of her opal, and the photographer stationed there was quick to snap their picture: Gregorian Falstaff, the Falstaff logo, the sign reading Fire Ball, and his arm stretched out to Mrs. Beaufort to conveniently block the words “Thomas and Martha Wayne Foundation” above. Sophia, oblivious to the photo being staged, naturally complimented Falstaff’s generosity as a sponsor and asked what aspects of the event his company had paid for.
A few minutes later, Bruce stalked through the ballroom with the slow, quietly menacing gait of a hungry lion. He spotted Selina chatting with Ted Layne and Bunny Wigglesworth, touched her elbow without acknowledging them, and when she turned, he graveled “Dance with me” in the same this-is-not-a-request tone she had used the week before.
After sixteen bars of punctilious Miss Townsend’s Dancing School turns around the dance floor in absolute silence, he pulled her in much closer and whispered “I may need you to slip out of here, get into costume and meet me on the roof for a few.”
“Got a lead on our cat burglar?” she asked.
“No. But if I don’t get to take a few swings at someone who can block, it’s entirely possible I’m going to put my fist right through Falstaff’s skull.”
Selina pulled back just far enough to look into his eyes, then settled back into the dancing embrace and whispered “You’re serious. Bruce, get a hold of yourself. Whatever he’s done now, he’s baiting you, and it’s not supposed to be this easy. Much uglier men than Gregorian Falstaff have tried and failed.”
“I know, but it keeps getting worse. ‘Whatever he’s done now?’ Do you want to know?”
“Probably not, unless you want to risk both of us going after him.”
Another sixteen bars of silent and assiduous dancing followed, and Bruce decided to tell her anyway. Sophia Beaufort had just come up to him. They had dated for a brief time before her marriage, and she’d enjoyed the benefits of the fop’s extravagance as much as any of the bimbos. Maybe that’s why she was so outraged on his behalf. Apparently Falstaff Inc. was ‘happy to do their bit’ paying for all the printing and promotional costs of tonight’s gala, because you couldn’t expect a foppish dilettante to grasp that all those press kits sent out—‘Look what we’re doing; aren’t we grand!’—cost money.
He had stood right in front of a photographer from the Daily News, turned to the display table with a ‘let’s see what we have here among the beneficiaries’ routine and picked out the Gotham Dance Ensemble. The Foundation had sponsored a guest artist for two productions and provided salary for a director’s assistant for one season. Falstaff had pointed his chubby finger at the director’s assistant and said that was the cost of the postage right there. The postage Wayne spent sending out press kits for this shindig tonight, that would have eaten up that girl’s salary if Falstaff hadn’t stepped in.
“That’s why events like this have corporate sponsors,” Bruce said through clenched teeth. “It’s all underwritten, discounted and donated so the funds raised go to the beneficiary organizations. Everybody knows that, that’s why you’ve got a dozen logos behind you on the red carpet. And I don’t even take up space crediting Wayne Enterprises or Wayne Tech on that stuff, because his name is already all over—their name—names, my par—the parent company is all…”
He drifted into silence, and Selina didn’t speak.
“Thank you for not saying it,” he murmured.
It was one thing to allow himself to be seen as a foppish playboy, but he had always, always kept those antics far from the Foundation for this very reason. Yet the thought haunted him: had he done enough? Was this somehow his fault? The good works done in his parents’ name, the good works that were his parents’ legacy, for them to be sullied that way. It made him ill just thinking about it. The Thomas and Martha Wayne Foundation. He had done all a man could to make their names mean something good and positive and… and he failed them. This idea was out there now. For anyone to stumble across and maybe believe. He had failed them. And he had a responsibility to make it right.
“Hey,” Selina whispered, nudging the tight embrace of their dance open a little and pressing gently against his lead to make him turn to the right. “Looks like Tim got the message.”
On the edge of the dance floor, Cassie Cain stood with Tim Drake. Her hair was up, parted in the center, with a single tendril hanging loose in the front, framing her face on each side. The slightest hint of light gray eye shadow, the slightest hint of pale peach lipstick... She would have looked as young and pretty as she had ever been—except that whatever Tim just said had produced a shy, blushing smile that catapulted ‘pretty’ to breathtaking.
“I guess he did,” Bruce admitted. He watched for minute, the pair of them looking so young and awkward and innocent—the shy smile had erupted into an embarrassed laugh—which in turn produced a dazzled blushing smile from Tim—it was hard to reconcile it with their nighttime personas. Then detective’s instinct engaged and Batman remembered an open question that had not been answered.
“You never told me why Cassie was wearing your dress last week at the Earth Ball.”
“Oh, that’s right,” Selina breathed. She was glad for the change of subject. The Falstaff storm had passed, for now, and Bruce seemed his old self again. But the new topic wasn’t one she relished going into.
“You said it had something to do with Barbara,” Bruce prompted. “The day I’d flown out to the R&D campus, you went to see her.”
“Yeah, there was kind of a weird thing going on with people poking around for information about me. Some of it pretty close to home, literally in one case, like the pensione where I lived in Florence that one summer. And the same IP that was looking around that street on Google Earth then started searching near this spot outside Cahors where I used to go with Francois, Mas-de-Poitard. Which will get them nowhere, by the way. Google, maps, sign posts—just try to finding the turn to Mas-de-Poitard without a native driving, you won’t do it.”
Bruce’s lip twitched, which Selina attributed to the new song the band was playing, not the creepy cyber-stalking of her past in Europe.
“It seems like they were poking at everything from Junior High up through next Friday. Again, I’m being quite literal. Barbara says they were looking through the collections from the runways I attended at last year’s Fashion Week and the couture houses I went to when we were in Paris, and judging by the pages they spent the most time on and the pictures they downloaded, they had correctly ID’d the Elle Saab you saw Cassie wearing last week and the Valentino I was going to wear tonight.”
“I see,” Bruce smiled. “So you changed your plans. Gave the one dress to Cassie and tonight’s Valentino—?”
“Why do you think Dick and Barbara were late. Red on a redhead, I’m surprised she got him out of the house at all.”
Bruce smiled again, which Selina enjoyed for a minute. He had such a handsome smile, and the genuine ones were a rarity—which is what made this one so peculiar.
“I don’t get it, you’re the biggest control freak ever. Why aren’t you having seizures about this?”
“Because I’ve been expecting it. I’m actually surprised it took so long to happen.”
“Wh…?” was all Selina could manage.
To be continued…