Home   | Book 3 

Chapter  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
   9   10

Chapter 7: Unanswered Questions

 

Batman extracted himself completely from the service duct above the elevator before disconnecting the overrides and recoiling the tungsten cord.  Then he swapped out the tungsten cartridge for his regular silk batline.  The switch accomplished, he closed the inner chamber of the grapnel launcher with a frustrated snap and looked out at the city with a grimace. 

Nothing about this was proceeding satisfactorily.

Talia having dinner with Greg Brady.  An assassin loose in his city chasing Riddler for god only knew what reason.  And to make matters worse, Selina tailing him.  For the fifth time tonight, he pushed that last thought aside.  It was personal.  Personal was automatically relegated to later.  Even his anger at the time he lost earlier losing her tail he would assign the lowest possible priority.  After everything else was dealt with, there would be plenty of time to work out…

“What’s going on?”

The Selina in his mind was usually more accommodating than the real thing.  He could tell her “Not now, Kitten” and she’d go away.  

“Bruce, please.”

Usually..

“Tell me what’s happening, Bruce, please.”” 

But not tonight.  Tonight, the thought of her was stubbornly resilient.  

“Can’t you see it’s got me so worked up I’m chasing you around Gotham like—”

“Like a clinging, irrational demonspawn?” he spat..

“…”  She looked hurt.  “…That wasn’t exactly kind, Bruce.”

“How would you characterize it?”

The imaginary Catwoman sauntered up to him as seductively as the real one would any time he challenged her behavior.  She rested her claws delicately on the emblem on his chest and looked up at him with daring, unapologetic eyes..

“I would say that I’ve followed you just as persistently as your own thoughts have been pursuing me all night.”

“No.”

“Not just a river in Egypt, Bruce.”

“What?””

“Denial.  Bad joke, I know.  But come on, you have work to do. You know you’ll be able to find me in bed tonight and we can settle all this then.  How do you explain my being here at all right now? How can you justify wasting this time thinking about it when you should be out there—”

“Then let me,” he graveled dangerously.  “Go away and let me be.  You already cost me time tonight, the real you.  I could have met Brady in Chinatown but for the time I lost losing your taill.  I can’t get the job done if the thought of you keeps working its way back into—DAMNIT Catwoman, you haven’t been this much of a damnable distraction sincee

He was alone.  The chimera had, in the way of cats, vanished when she was offended.  

Fine.  Let her.  It was true whether she wanted to hear it or not.  He hadn’t found it so difficult to shut her out since the old days.  This new image of her tonight was disturbingly like that felonious Catwoman of the rooftops, the one he had to resist for the sake of the mission, the one who took her revenge by implanting herself in his imagination… All those nights as he lay in bed, all those hours trying to write out the log entries of an encounter that should haveeDamn.  He was doing it again..

By now, he had reached the Batmobile.  A part of him ached to go home to her and talk it out.  It was the part of him that had ached to hold her on all those rooftops in the past, the part of him that wanted to be tender, to meet her halfway, to believe it was all possible for them… The rest of him squelched the impulse as it always had.  Back then, it was because he was a crimefighter and she a thief.  Now it was because he was a crimefighter and there was work to do..

“Hatch open,” he barked into the tiny communicator.  He would start at the Icebergg

The hatch opened and Catwoman—the real Catwoman—regarded him stiffly from the passenger seat.  She spoke the same words with the same intonation as her imaginary doppelganger had only moments before..

“What’s going on?”

 

Freeze was telling the igloo story again and Jonathan Crane knew he could let his mind wander.  He kept a discreet eye on Raven, and when the pretty little thing moved from her podium and disappeared towards the backroom, Crane began counting silently to himself:  One-Ablutophobia. Two-Achluophobia. Three-Agateophobia.  Four-Ailurophobia… all the way up to Sixty-Graphophobia, the fear of handwriting, when he was sure a full minute had passed. 

Victor was up to the part of the story where the ice-sculpture of Nora was melting.  Crane excused himself and headed for the hallway to the men’s room, but instead of turning at the door, he continued on into the backroom.  Raven was waiting, hugged him briefly, and pulled him towards the basement, murmuring about prying eyes and more privacy downstairs.  

He followed the gentle tug on his arm, letting her guide him down the dark stairs, although he wondered, not for the first time, how this situation had come about and how far he would let it continue.  He certainly never set out to get a girlfriend.  He started paying attention to Raven get her alone.  He’d only wanted a guinea pig—or a guinea fowl, in this caseeto test his new gender-based fear toxin.  He needed a female, a fragile, fearful female, and Oswald’s comely little hostess seemed like the ideal candidate..

He didn’t plant the lizard on her podium.  It was one of those things.  He was pondering the need for a test subject, and a lizard snuck into the Iceberg and took up residence on her reservation book.  She had such a divine scream when she discovered it, how could a man not notice such wild abandon in expressing her terror.  He continued to watch her as the rest of the Iceberg went on about its business.  He noticed that for the rest of the night she wouldn’t touch the podium.  For the next three, she tensed whenever she was around it.  It was hypnotic to watch.  The lizard was long gone, but because it had been on that spot and had frightened her, she continued to eye the book suspiciously, a primitive cringing in fear of a long-dead volcano.  He had to have herrfor his test subject..

So he approached and they talked.  They talked for hours.  While his object remained to isolate her for capture, he had to admit he enjoyed their conversation.  He did finally get her alone, but when the moment came for him to strike, it… it didn’t exactly turn out as he planned.  Then she kissed him and he really couldn’t help recalling the ‘78 Berkeley study on the correlation between fear and other states of heightened arousal.  

It was a week later, he still hadn’t found a test subject, and he was following Raven into the basement.  Fear was the last thing on his mind—until that lovely scream of Raven’s sounded again and the wire cut into his neck.

 

Batman did not explain himself.  Every fiber in his being screamed that he did not and would not explain himself.  He worked in his own way and that did not include Catwoman following him around, letting herself into the Batmobile, and demanding explanations.  The JLA, GCPD, Alfred, Robin, Oracle and Nightwing, everybody knew:  his way was the way, period.

“I had to meet someone,” he heard himself explain quietly.

“Someone,” she repeated.  It didn’t sound like a question, but it was.

He sighed.  Was it only this morning she was so unnervingly cheerful? Laughing about the Post, singing and smiling in the morning room? Where was all that self assurance? 

“Next stop is the Iceberg,” he said, revving the engine.  “Come or stay.”

“You know I can’t be seen getting out of the Batmobile at the Iceberg,” she answered quietly.

He touched a button and the hatch on her side eased open with a soft pneumatic hiss.  She started to get out… In a flash, Bruce saw their whole relationship unraveling just as quickly as her confidence had done.  He saw himself graveling a curt “See you at home” before driving off, saw her going back to the manor hurt and confused, or else following him again and his having to lose her. He saw himself getting home angry and frustrated, saw her waiting there alone and baffled, his lashing out, her lashing back.  Then an awful tension in the bedroom, her turned away, her back to him as she lay on the farthest edge of the bed.  One night, two, three, and then finally—

Bruce’s arm shot out to grab her wrist before she left the car.

“Hey!” she hissed in surprise more than anger.

He looked up, their eyes meeting, and he tugged the arm back into the car. 

“I’ll drop you a few blocks shy of the ‘Berg,” he said simply.  “No one will see.”

She settled back into her seat and fastened the safety harness as the hatch quietly closed again.  She said nothing, nor did he until the car was in motion.

“I was meeting Brady,” he explained calmly.  “I wanted to intercept him before he left Chinatown, but I missed him.”  He decided not to mention the reason he missed that connection was because she was tailing him.  He thought back to that image of Selina in the bed, curled up, turned away, pulling as far away from him as she could physically get.  It was an outcome he desperately wanted to avoid, and making her defensive was not the way to go about it.

“I knew Brady was going to that hotel tonight, I was able to intercept him in the elevator.”

“How, How did you know that?  And what does any of it—”

“He’s having dinner with Talia,” Batman answered.  The disapproval in his voice was palpable, and Selina picked up on it immediately.

“Why do you care?” she asked softly.

There was silence for a half-minute until the car pulled into an alley.  Then Bruce cut the engine abruptly and turned to her.  He stared for another half minute, her question hanging in the air.  Then he pulled back the cowl.

“Selina.”

More silence.  He was hoping for some kind of response, although he couldn’t say what.  She might have at least followed his lead and removed her mask.

“Selina, you shouldn’t need to ask a question like that.”

“Well I do, whether you think I should or not.  Because there’s only one possible reason I can think of and it just can’t be that.”

His lip twitched as an ironic parallel occurred to him, and then dissolved into a grim scowl when he realized the implication.

“I can understand what you’re saying.  Last year, when Talia arranged for that cat’s eye crown to be taken from the history museum, I felt exactly the same way.  There was one explanation that simply couldn’t be.  I knew you weren’t the one responsible.  I didn’t know who did take it or why, but I knew you could not be involved.”

Bruce paused, considering whether to go on.  The fact was that when he caught himself trusting that way, he reacted badly.  Trust meant vulnerability, and that was not what he bargained for when he first reached out for Selina.  He didn’t know how the situation ever got that far, and at the time, he wasn’t at all happy about it.  Most of his subsequent behavior was chalked up to “Hell Month” and he’d let that impression stand.  But the truth was the realization that he now trusted her had knocked him back.  Since that night, he’d grown used to the idea.  They’d grown closer and closer as a result of that mutual faith and comfort with one another…  or what he had assumed was mutual faith and comfort.

“I knew what was and wasn’t possible, regardless of how it looked, because of what I know of you, Selina.  And it’s a little painful to realize that more than a year later, you’re still not that sure of me?”

Selina turned away and looked out the window, then back at him.

“Okay,” she said finally, “fair point.  You’re not… jealous… of Brady and Talia, and I should know that without having to ask.  You’ll tell me the rest when you’re ready, and in the meantime…”  She looked again out the window and then turned back, this time with a naughty grin, “…meantime, I’ll go have a drink at the Iceberg and see what the grapevine has to say.”

He offered a warm smile, fleeting but more than a lip twitch, then he replaced the cowl.  The worst was over.  Things might not be “settled,” exactly, but they were clear of the whirlpool that threatened to suck them under.  Bruce watched as she exited the car and disappeared at the end of the alley, heading towards the Iceberg.  He didn’t need, or especially want, the kind of intelligence-gathering she had in mind.  He hadn’t said why he was going to the Iceberg.  It wasn’t something “the grapevine” would have any knowledge of.  But her offer was a way of moving on, and he wasn’t about to refuse.  He would give her some time to have a drink and hear the latest, then he would proceed in his own way.

While he waited, the Selina of his imagination returned, plucked a set of batcuffs from his utility belt and immediately set to work trying to pick them. 

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” she said.  “It’s not a big trust thing like the cat’s eye crown.  It’s you and Eddie.  It’s your not telling me about that riddle.  You know perfectly well I wouldn’t be working with Eddie.  You know perfectly well I’m not going back to that life.  You knowperfectly well that there is nothing to worry about.  But you still don’t like it.  Right?”

He said nothing. 

“Well?”

Batman snapped to attention, all personal thoughts swept aside by the instant priority as a figure ran into the alley and up to the Batmobile—it was Catwoman—Selina—back already?—and knocking on the window.

“You better get down there,” she panted the moment the hatch started to open.  “You’re not going to believe this one.”

 

Nightwing stood on the ledge outside the window, watching the scene within before deciding to go inside.  Jean Paul Valley—Azrael—sat talking to Barbara.  He had brought one of the chairs from the kitchen and positioned it alongside her computer desk.  He had it turned the wrong way and was straddling it.  Barbara had brought them tea.  At least she was the one drinking from the ‘Love the Librarian’ mug, Dick thought sourly. 

Still.  It was petty and stupid to be lurking outside his own home this way.  He opened the window with a brisk twap to announce his presence to those inside.  Then he slipped in and strode indifferently to the couch.  “Honey, I’m home,” he declared, flopping onto the soft cushion so that his legs landed well apart.  He removed the mask and tossed it to the side table, then turned to acknowledge their guest.  “Jean Paul,” he said simply.  It was all very casual, all very free and informal, but the undercurrent was subtly aggressive, the alpha male announcing his dominance. 

The alpha female was less than amused.  Barbara had never known Dick to lounge around that way in costume.  It was a ludicrous performance, and she was just about to call him on it—when the OraCom went wild as multiple channels began pinging simultaneously.

Dick and Jean Paul transformed instantly.  Personal differences swept aside, they moved behind her, one looking over each shoulder at the flickering screens.

“What is it?” Dick asked.

“Ambulance, fire, police dispatch—and Batman’s channel, but… What the hell?” 

Oracle held her hand over the earpiece trying to concentrate.

“It’s Selina… She’s on B’s channel… from the Batmobile, and… I guess he’s on the same line from the cowl system…  They’re talking over each other a bit—oh, man, that freaks me out when they talk in sync that way.  Don’t you just hate that?”

“Yes,” Dick and Jean Paul answered in unison. 

They glared at each other—then both began to speak at once:

“So what—”

They stopped, like two drivers at an intersection, and Dick mimed taking his hands off the wheel, yielding the right of way.

“So what are they saying?” Jean Paul asked, “What is going on?”

“I can’t tell.  Too much chatter, too much going on still… but it sounds like all hell is breaking loose at the Iceberg.”

 

It wasn’t the first time Bruce considered installing a regular bed in the Batcave.  The slim cots in the med lab were adequate for their purpose, but they couldn’t be called comfortable.  And there were times, like now—in fact, after every go-round with Killer Croc—that the stairs up to the manor, and from there up to the bedrooms, seemed an insurmountable obstacle.  It would be so nice to just lie back once Alfred finished stitching up his shoulder and not have to move his battered limbs until morning.

He mentioned this, knowing the reply would be what it had always been.

“Absolutely not, sir.  If you had the means to sleep comfortably down here, I fear we would not see you for weeks at a time.”

Alfred emphasized his veto with a slightly more vehement tug than was necessary as he pulled the thread taut on the last suture.  Then he gave the shoulder a final pat and said goodnight.  Bruce heard a quiet “Go right in, miss” just beyond the doorway, and then Selina appeared. 

“All patched up?” she asked lightly, inspecting the wound.

He grunted.

“Croc did this?”

“Yes.”

“Because you kept him and the rest of them at the Iceberg from killing that DEMON guy?”

“Yes.”

“And he’s in the hospital now.”

“Yes.”

“And so is Scarecrow?”

Bruce nodded. 

“I am so confused.  The only thing that’s made any sense today is Talia running around town in a catsuit.  And if that’s not a sorry state of—”

“I can explain.”

COULD YOU?!  Could you, really?  That’d be nice.  I would appreciate that.  Should we break out the PowerPoint and hand puppets, or do you think you can do this without visual aids?”

Bruce took a deep breath and ran his fingers through his hair.  He understood her agitation, but it wasn’t helping matters.

“The man in the hospital is called Il’Nar,” he began calmly. “He’s one of Ra’s al Ghul’s assassins. He attacked Scarecrow and Raven in the Iceberg basement.  It went badly.  He was expecting one person, not two.  He jumped Crane, Raven screamed and fought back, the others heard the commotion.  The League of Assassins aren’t amateurs. If it was just Oswald’s muscle or a couple of Frieze’s henchmen, or even a half-dozen Ghost Dragons, he’d be on a plane home right now instead of a respirator in the ICU.” 

“But once Killer Croc got into it…”

“Exactly.  That must be the point where you came in, after they’d just captured Il’Nar, and Croc was holding him down.”

“That would explain the lynch mob vibe I was getting. I couldn’t get the details, but I knew somebody was hurt.  And they wouldn’t call an ambulance, because paramedics beget cops and anything official would interfere with their vi… handling of the situation.”

“You were about to say ‘vigilante justice,’” Bruce noted.

Selina shrugged a non-denial, and for a long minute, neither spoke.  She had moved behind him, and he felt her finger trace from the fresh stitches down to the older scars on his back.  Then he felt her lips on the back of his neck, kissing softly out to the shoulder.  This, he knew, was her way of smoothing over ‘vigilante justice.’ 

“So why does Ra’s want to off Jonathan?” she asked suddenly.

“He doesn’t.  Riddler was the target.”

Selina’s mouth dropped open. 

“Eddie?  But that’s nuts!  Why?  Why on earth.”

“I don’t know,” Bruce admitted.  “I just don’t know,” he repeated under his breath.

“You know an awful lot though.  How?”

The corner of his lip twitched.

“Think about it, Kitten.  How do I know?  Why was I at the hotel if not to see Talia?”

“You said you went to intercept… Brady.”  Selina’s brow had wrinkled.  Now, her eyes gleamed, and an uncontrollable smile spread across her lips as she spoke the name and the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.  “The message before was from Greg Brady.”

Bruce nodded.

“Maybe that ‘you can do so much better than this life of crime’ speech of mine, as you so sweetly referred to it, is a bit more convincing than you care to admit.”

“He’s been working for you since then, since that fight?  Greg Brady has been working for you all this time?”

“In a way.  He’s been… ‘planting some seeds’ inside the DEMON organization for me, but he hasn’t been actively working against them or passing me information.  We agreed that would be too dangerous for him.  But when it came to actually ordering someone killed…”

“THAT’S why you looked so put out at the thought of him and Talia!” Selina blurted, and Bruce couldn’t help but chuckle at her priorities.

“Yes, Kitten, that’s the reason.  It wasn’t him being close to her.  I was—and still am—concerned about her being in a position to influence him.  Anyway, for now, I’m confident Brady is reliable.  He’s playing along, but he drew the line at sending this Il’Nar to kill Nigma.  When Talia ordered the hit (and the order did come from her, it seems, not from Ra’s), she told him that Riddler was now staying at her hotel.  He couldn’t flat out refuse the sanction, but he bought some time by sending Il’Nar to Nigma’s last known location, the Iceberg, and telling him to wait there for his chance.  Then he got word to me; that was the message this morning.  After I met him, I went to the hotel to collect Nigma, and that, I assume, is when you and Azrael spotted me.”

Selina nodded.  Then she bit her lip thoughtfully.  Bruce had an impulse to kiss it…

“So where is Eddie now?”

The impulse faded.

“No idea.  He’d vanished from the hotel by the time I got there.”

“Does he know they’re out to kill him?”

“I don’t know.”

“And we don’t know why?”

“No.”

“Whew.  Okay.  Lot of question marks left then.  Heh, he’d like that.”

Bruce glared.

“I don’t.”

“So then you went back to see Brady tonight—and when I screwed up your rendezvous in Chinatown, you went back to the hotel because he’d told you he would be there meeting Talia?”

“Right.”

“What a mess.”

“It’s not exactly the most satisfying night of crimefighting I’ve ever experienced.”

“So what happens now?”

“That’s a very good question.” 

To be continued...

Home   | Book 3 

Chapter  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8
   9   10

Share |