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Chapter 3: Ease the Tension

 

Before the masks came off, before we really got involved as a man and a woman, one of the first real conversations Bruce and I had outside of those bat and cat roles, we acknowledged that our lives would never be normal.  There is no such thing as a “normal” day at Wayne Manor, so when today started off with Dick and Tim turning my morning yoga into a sitcom farce, it didn’t really seem like an omen.  Superman swooping down from the sky five minutes later to offer me tigers, that might strike some as the event of a lifetime, but around here he’s Clark and it’s been a few weeks since he’s had an excuse to drop in and remind us that, in God-on-Earth’s opinion, Bruce and I should take some vows, exchange some rings, and make our friends buy us flatware.  The only notable thing about his visit—other than the tigers—was that Bruce must have known he was coming and didn’t mention it.  So I went down to the cave to paw around and see what was going on.  I found him in the chem lab playing with fire, literally.  He’s got this new alloy and it looked like he was melting down a few pellets to coat a Batarang.  But I knew better.

“Meow,” I began.

“Good morning,” he said, lowering the flame under his little science project.

“I know perfectly well that you just lit that thirty seconds ago,” I teased.  “I will bet you a ten minute headstart next time we play at the museum, against the location of a secret backdoor into the Cipriani vault, that you were monitoring the upstairs cameras up until thirty seconds ago when you saw me coming down here.”

He turned to me and asked what I was talking about, completely convincing.  He’s a wonderful actor and a brilliant liar, goes with having a secret identity.  But of course I wasn’t fooled, and he probably knew I wouldn’t be.  That’s when his lip twitched. 

“Three minutes is all the headstart you would ever need.  And it’s at least a ninety second walk from the last camera in the study to where you’re standing right now.”

“Do we have a bet or not?” I said.

“More like a hundred twenty seconds actually, maybe one-thirty in those shoes of yours.”

“Granted.  Bet?”

He grunted, and I served up a naughty grin.

“Item,” I began crisply.  “Alfred did not just spontaneously decide to use those coffee mugs.”

Then he smiled, a real one.  That’s a rarity in the cave, but now and then, as long as he’s not in costume, he’ll let his lips curl upwards into something besides a grimace.

“I thought deduction wasn’t your kink,” he said.

“Doesn’t need to be, I share a bed with the best there is.”

He grunted again, and we relocated to the med lab because he wanted to change the bandage on his leg.  That’s what Rogues call creative stage management.  He was spraying disinfectant on the tiger bites by the time I began making my case:

“Spitcurl was here,” I began again.  “As if you didn’t know,” I added—with a wink that he didn’t see because he was inspecting the wound like he’d never seen one before.  I knew the move well, denying me his full attention (or at least pretending to), and I knew how to short-circuit it.  I took the disinfectant from his fingers, which did bring his focus back to me, first to the spark of warmth where our hands touched, and from there… well…

“He offered me tigers,” I said, touching lightly around the edge of the wound.  “These tigers… from those Dhumavati lunatics… for the Catitat…  You must’ve known he was going to.  You must’ve known he was coming today…  You were watching me upstairs…  You saw him arrive.  You saw him floundering… And you had Alfred bring him a life preserver in the form of a Catitat mug to introduce the subject…”

He grabbed my wrist, exactly where he used to when Psychobat had enough of my refocusing his attention.  But it’s a lot different without masks or gloves.  I think we both lost our train of thought for a second. 

Then Bruce cleared his throat, grunted, and admitted that Clark had mentioned, in passing, that he might stop by today.  But (he continued as he plucked the disinfectant from my fingers and applied a new bandage to his thigh) he had “more pressing matters” to think about just then. 

I smiled.  I really love him.  When he’s devious and stubborn, when he’s controlling and manipulative, when he’s Psychobat infuriating, and when he’s just plain screwy. 

“Okay, forget about Spitcurl,” I said gently.  “Why not ask me yourself?”

He glanced through the door into the main chamber of the cave, and then turned back and focused all his attention on the bandage again. 

“It’s your place,” he said gruffly.  “Your Catitat; your decision.  I wasn’t about to interfere.  Especially—But Clark wouldn’t listen.  So I let him go to you directly.”

Our eyes met. 

Especially.

“I figured you’d strike a better deal on your own,” he said suddenly, an abrupt change of tone just touching on rooftop Bat-mode.  “What did you get?”

I laughed, but he went on.

“You tried to get a three minute headstart out of me and all I’d done was say good morning.  Clark wanted to use Catwoman’s preserve to solve a League problem.  If you came away with anything less than the deed to the Watchtower, I’ll be vastly disappointed.”

I was still laughing.  It used to really piss me off that he knew me so well, and it drove me crazy when he’d predict where Catwoman would strike.  But somewhere along the line I got used to the idea… and I’m still not sure how I feel about that. 

“I got three days of Super-Landscaping,” I admitted, “to make room for the new arrivals, and four of those fist diamonds he makes, to cover expenses.”

He grunted.  Then he said I should let him supply the graphite for the fist diamonds because Clark will often use a random rock or lump of coal, and impurities in the sample would create a cloudy gem that was only good for industrial use.

“It doesn’t matter,” I grinned.  “I was prepared to settle for one diamond and one day of landscaping, but he didn’t make a counter offer.  Just agreed straight away.”

“Clark isn’t much of a negotiator,” Bruce noted.  “That landscaping idea is very creative.”

“It is,” I said,  “but I can’t claim credit for it.  I got the idea from one of those dimension hops.”

He seemed to close up then and I was sorry I’d mentioned it.  There’s a lot I haven’t told him about those alternate dimensions.  And he knows it. 

It was my turn to change the subject.

“We’re on our own for lunch,” I said cheerfully.  “Spitcurl had to fly, a launch pad fire in Florida.  Dick and Tim went along.  Officially for experience, but unofficially I think they wanted to put a few states between them and my claws.”

“What was that about, anyway?” Bruce asked.

“A-Ha!” I pointed.  “You were watching, I knew it.”

“Yes,” he said.  Then the lip twitch.  “I was keeping an eye on the terrace, waiting for Clark to arrive.  Detective ‘kink’ not withstanding, you were right about that.  You get three minutes next time at the museum.”

“Meow.” 

And again the lip twitched.  It used to piss me off that he knew me so well, but I got used to it.  Maybe he feels the same way. 

“I was watching for Clark,” he repeated, “And I saw Dick and Tim go out there instead.  Tim said something to you using air quotes and you knocked him flat on his back.  So… What did they want?”  When he got to the actual question, he dipped into the deep, ominous bat-gravel.  I just love that voice, reowrl.  And he knows it, damnit.  Thinks he can get anything out of me that way.  He’s usually right, too. 

But not today.

“Oh, it was nothing much,” I said carelessly, heading back to the stairs. 

“Nothing?” Bruce responded skeptically.  “You knocked Tim over with a stunning high-kick over ‘nothing?’”

“Yup,” I replied sweetly. 

He eyed me curiously for a moment and then shook his head.  “Okay.”

Yeah, he’s definitely gotten used to me knowing him so well, too. 

“Anyway,” I resumed, “Since the boys were here and then they left, Alfred has a kitchen full of untouched goodies.  So don’t be too long.  I’m not eating that much high-carb by myself, I’ll never make it into the catsuit.”

There was a gravelly grumble that I took to be acknowledgement, and I headed upstairs.  I could have offered more detail on Dick and Tim, but anything I said would have only played into their hands.  I would be bringing their complaint to Psychobat’s attention, and as I told the little pests at the time, I am not the Union Rep for the Junior Bats’ Local.  Besides, considering how quickly he accepted my ‘nothing’ explanation, I’m willing to bet he already knows exactly what their complaints were about.  In any case, for all the grousing the Bat-Team has been doing, none of it has affected me.  Bruce has been downright sweet around the house, thoughtful, attentive, almost like when we began dating.  And Batman is pretty much like he’s always been: brooding, intense, and sexy as hell. 

So kitty has no complaints.  If the Junior Bats feels they’ve been over-Zoggered, my response to them would be exactly the same as it was to the Iceberg crowd back in the day: your problem; you deal with it.  Now keep your straw/vines/hat/coin/flipper off my catnip.

 

At the time, Roxy thought nothing of it.  Dr.  Bartholomew was going to see Raven at the Iceberg.  The gnawing tedium of an evening alone in her cell was interrupted by a few minutes conversation, that was it.  As soon as he’d gone, the tedium returned and she had nothing else to do but consider that conversation. 

Dr.  Bartholomew was going to the Iceberg.
Dr.  Bartholomew was going to the Iceberg to see Raven.

She.  Had.  Dish.

It wasn’t the best dish in the history of gossip, but it was an exclusive.  And Roxy never had an exclusive before.  This was going to be good.  Of course it wasn’t the fiery rush you got from cheating death, but it was a tingle.  Tomorrow morning when the common room opened, she would be the center of everything.  This must be what Jervis Tetch enjoyed, although it couldn’t mean nearly as much to him.  He was already a first tier Rogue.  But for Roxy, being the center of attention in the Arkham common room meant she’d finally arrived.  Having the ear of all the bigs, Hatter, Scarecrow, maybe even Joker. 

It could happen.  Any news had a higher premium in Arkham than it did at the Iceberg.  Especially news from the “outside,” it was a rare commodity…

Roxy had spent the night considering all the angles of Dr.  Bart and Raven, the different ways to approach the story, and the different conclusions that could be drawn.  She decided they met through Oswald, Oswald sent Raven to seduce Bartholomew, a power play to gain control over Arkham, directing who was freed and when, that kind of thing.  But Raven must’ve fallen for Bartholomew, that was the usual shtick in the movies.  Unfortunately, those movies always ended with the failed seductress getting shot, which didn’t make for much of a stunt.  Bang and fall down or bang and fall through the window—a first floor window and freakin’ candy glass too, not a thrill to be had.  (Why couldn’t pseudo noir crap ever be in a highrise, anyway?  They had tall buildings back then.)  Once!  Once she was shot while driving a car, which then crashed and burst into flames.  But other than that one good stunt, those flicks were a big yawn. 

Anyway, Raven fell for Bart and then… hm, maybe Oswald intervened.  Yeah, that sounded good.  Oswald got wind of it and ordered Bart killed, so Raven ended the affair in order to save his life.  Yeah, that seemed plausible.  And now Bart was going down there, right into the lion’s den, to win her back.  Yeah, that sounded good.  Roxy was a stuntwoman, not a screenwriter, but it sounded good to her. 

The common room would come up with its own theories, of course.  Harley was particularly imaginative when it came to romantic reconstruction.  But Roxy would be the source of the news, the font of everyone’s fun.  The common room opened at ten.  It was going to be a great day.

 

It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes after I’d left the Batcave that Alfred came up to my suite.  He said I had “yet another unexpected visitor” waiting to see me in the Morning Room.  Although detective work still isn’t my kink, I correctly deduced that the visitor must be Eddie.  It was the way Alfred said it, this little sniff that meant this surprise caller wasn’t up to the standard of the previous three.  So I suggested he send the unnamed visitor up to the suite, and that confirmed it.  Alfred “didn’t think Master Bruce would care to have this particular gentleman admitted to the upper floor of the manor.”

“Sure, I’ll be right down,” I said. 

Silly me, I was trying to be considerate.  When I moved into the manor, we all agreed that the suite is my sovereign territory, like an embassy is foreign soil.  So I thought of it as kindness, meeting Eddie here rather than in the morning room or one of the drawing rooms that are all part of Bruce’s house.  But if the suite is my sovereign territory, it is also across the hall from the master bedroom.  An embassy may be foreign soil, but when it’s directly across the street from the capital, the locals get nervous.  So much for that.  Woof. 

 

Roxy expected the Bartholomew story to add a little excitement to her dreary life at Arkham.  She figured she’d be the center of attention for a few hours.  She did not expect the heady, heart-pounding thrills she was accustomed to on the outside! 

For the first hour and a half, it all went as expected.  Hatter, Scarecrow, even Mr.  Freeze, top tier Rogues hanging on her every word.  Second tier too: Ventriloquist, Croc, Hugo Strange.  LISTENING, listening to her, transfixed, and then breaking up into little groups and dissecting every syllable, nuance, and variation.  News, it was the great leveler.  Everyone was bored, after all…

But then Joker came in.  Joker, King of the Rogues, King of Arkham Asylum.  He saw everyone huddled together and was eager to join in the fun.  He was always HAHAHA-happy to hear what his subjects had to say.  It might be praise for his latest crime spree.  It might be a new almost got’im story.  Or maybe someone came up with a 57th nickname for him HAHAHAHAHA!!!!!  Whatever it was, he was eager to hear it. 

So Harley told him what was going on, and Joker was… unhappy.  Inside his inflated permanent smile, his mouth seemed to deflate into a thoughtful frown and then widen into a grimacing scowl.  He jumped up and down and said they’d got it all wrong.  He KNEW about Bart and Raven, that wasn’t news at all!  Which was impossible and Roxy was outraged.  Joker couldn’t know! How could he know?  He was the biggest Rogue there ever was, why did he have to steal her little moment in the sun!  But that wasn’t all, oh no.  Not only did Joker say he knew about Raven and Bart, he’d denied his consent.  He’d declared them null and void.  She was all wrong for him.  A terrible influence.  No good for him at all.  Bart knew that, he knew Joker didn’t approve.  He would never go against Joker’s wishes.  He would never go traipsing off with some Iceberg trollop without Unky J’s blessing!

“I HAVE NO SON!” Joker shrieked, tearing his hair—and when the orderlies tried to restrain him, he knocked their heads together. 

Then he looked malevolently around the room. 

“Who dared?” Joker demanded.  “Who dared spread these wicked stories?  Dr.  Bart is as faithful a psychotherapist as there ever was.  Who dared besmirch his good name?”

Another woman would have resented Jervis pointing to her that way.  A notorious killer asks “Who” with a crazed glint in his eye, what kind of coward starts pointing at a petite little brunette?  But after all, Jervis was known to be the biggest gossip in the county, name any given rumor and it probably started with him.  It would be a shame to die for the one that he really had nothing to do with (other than tearing up at the part where Bart risked life and limb to go find Raven at the Iceberg).  Not to mention that the crazed clown, obviously aware of Jervis’s rumor-mill stature, was staring directly at him with a pointed glare.  So Jervis had spinelessly pointed at Roxy…

Joker charged and, after clunking the orderlies heads together once more to make sure they stayed out of the way, he did a very good job strangling her… it was a rush!  The actual not-breathing wasn’t the greatest, but when he looked at you with that homicidal gleam in his eye, what a pulse-pounder! What a shivering, shuddering, heart-pounding buzz!  It wasn’t the closest Roxy had come to dying, but it was a more intense near-death thrill than she’d ever experienced before.  Those wild eyes, the maniacal laugh, the sheer speed with which he moved.  “SIC SEMPER TYRANUS HAHAHAHAHA!!!!”

What a mind-blowing rush.

 

Much as I love Bruce and Alfred, they will never understand why I adore Eddie.  I hadn’t taken four steps into the morning room when he greeted me with this priceless bit of news: He’d wanted to thank me for inviting him to the opera, so he’d checked 496 languages in an online database looking for a clever way to express his gratitude.  He found, to his dismay, that not a single one had the letters c-a-t in their word for thank you.

“So I brought truffles instead,” he announced, handing over a small foil box of sinful chocolaty pleasure. 

I smiled and opened it, took one and offered him another.

“I didn’t dare send flowers,” he joked as he chewed.  “When does a friendly social gesture turn into a fat lip?  When it’s misconstrued as a declaration that you’re teaming up with Poison Ivy for an assault on the homestead and the lord of the manor goes STAB HIT batshit.”

I laughed and we sat.

“Fine.  Now why are you really here?” I asked. 

“Do I have to have a reason?” he replied.

“Are you going to keep answering questions with questions?”

“Why can’t I have simply come over to deliver my thank you?”

“Why couldn’t you simply have the chocolates sent from the store?”

“Because he would think I was ‘sending clues to the house’ and rip out my spleen.”

“Ha, that wasn’t a question,” I pointed triumphantly.

“I don’t care,” he said emphatically.  “I want to keep my spleen.”

I laughed again.  Eddie is such fun.  The perfect antidote to the parade of puffed up crimefighters I’d had marching through my day so far. 

“Take two,” I announced.  “Hi, Eddie.  It’s sweet of you to come over, but doing me a favor by coming to the opera really didn’t require a special thank you.  So why are you here?”

“I slept with Muffy.”

“Wh- What?” I stammered, hoping I wasn’t jumpstarting the question game.

“Muffy.  Me.   Sex,” he said, which at least meant no question game.  Thank Bast for small favors.

“Okay I’m confused,” I said, taking a deep breath.  “Muffy is from Muffington—as in Claudia Muffington—who was with Harvey.”

“I know, I know,” he said, rubbing his forehead.  “I’m not even sure how it happened.  Something with the cabs.”

“Cabs?”

“The taxis, going home after the Iceberg.  It all happened fast.”

“Eddie, you’re telling me that you and Harvey, who have orchestrated brilliant theme crimes, devised elaborate deathtraps, and concocted flawless clockwork diversions to keep batpests occupied over here while you separate Normals from their possessions over there, you two got outmaneuvered by a couple society girls sorting out the cab rides home?”

He sighed and nodded.

“They’re very good at it,” he said feebly.  “‘Lina, what can I say?  She was hot.  She was interested.  It’s been a while.  What happens when a guy has had a 20-month drought and this really stacked—did you see her in those leaves at the Post party?  And alabaster skin, the real thing not a euphemism for green—comes on to you, or him, or…?”  He sighed again.  “I think I just nested riddles.  Haven’t had that happen in a while.  I gotta clear my head.”

But before he could say anything more, there was a heavy footstep in the hallway and Bruce walked in.

“Ah Selina, there you are!” he said, “I was just coming to—Oh.” He paused, as if noticing my guest for the first time.  “Edward.”

“Bruce,” Eddie answered flatly.

Bruce looked at me and then at Eddie.  Eddie looked at Bruce and then at me.  And I… I noticed that my new nail polish, that seemed like frosted lavender in the bottle, is really much closer to pink once it dries…

“To what do we owe this unexpected surprise?” Bruce intoned lightly.

“I just came to speak with Selina on a… personal matter.  I’m not intruding, I hope.”

“No.  Of course not.  Old friends should try to catch each other, now and then.”

“Yes, lest one let the friendship escape.”

…Yep, pink.  Matched my sapphire ring almost perfectly…

“I trust you enjoyed the opera,” Bruce said perfunctorily.

“Yes,” Eddie replied smoothly.  “An unquestionably remarkable production.  The lead soprano wasn’t in the best voice, but the masked ball in Act II was quite the spectacle.”

“Well, the ball is one of the embellishments added especially for the stage,” Bruce remarked.  “The original Pushkin story is a masterwork of mood and suspense, but somewhat lacking in visuals.  On paper, it comes off as an amazingly intelligent display, but once it sees the light of day, it’s strangely inept.”

“Yes, nothing like a Russian for creating an aura of impending doom.”

…It occurred to me that Tim’s “you could y’know ease the tension was the high point of my day…

“I think the love story was also tacked on, wasn’t it?  Pushkin’s novella is just about Hermann killing the old lady?”

“Yes, his crime is the same, but there’s no woman involved.  His motivation was pure greed.”

…It also occurred to me that Tim missed out on most of the Catwoman-the-Villainess years, and maybe it was time to remedy that… 

“Greed?  I would have said it was obsession.”

…I had six tigers now.  You could make one hell of a deathtrap with six tigers…

“The obsession starts later, after he hears the legend about the Countess winning at cards and fixates on learning her secret.  But the corruption in his nature was there from the beginning.”

…Of course, that’s what the Dhumavati had done, using the tigers for a deathtrap.  Catwoman doesn’t go ripping off sorry-ass third world nihilists.  Plus, at my worst, I never would have put the boys into something they couldn’t get out of.  Tim can’t maneuver around one cat in a leotard; I wouldn’t want to see him tackle a half dozen Bengals that missed breakfast. 

“You know, Bruce, it really is a shame that you missed the opera, since you’ve made such a study of it.  Spot of business overseas, was it?”

…I figured this must be what it’s like dealing baccarat when James Bond strolls into the casino and sits down with the villain du jour.  They sip cognac and chat about Ferraris, you sit there in a cloud of subtext and testosterone waiting for somebody to take a card…

“Yes.  Business.  In London.”

“All done with now?”

“For the moment.”

…There isn’t a normal day at Wayne Manor, but nevertheless: Dick and Tim, ease the tension, Superman, tigers, and now I’m a Bond girl baccarat dealer.  Really not my style.  So I decided to get in the game. 

“Oh, speaking of last night, we ran into Harvey,” I said brightly—and then realized that didn’t exactly ease the situation.  I meant well, he is a common acquaintance.  Unfortunately, he was also a crime-busting district attorney and Batman’s ally before he became Two-Face the master criminal and Riddler’s cohort before he became—the one that really ratcheted up the tension—Claudia Muffington’s date.  In all the 007 subtext, I’d forgotten about Eddie’s little bombshell.  But there was no going back at this point, so I pushed forward: I said how Eddie had gone to the Iceberg after the show with Harvey and Claudia and some woman he’d met at intermission. 

“Penny,” Eddie said, supplying the name just as Bruce said “Vraag.” And then they went back to glaring at each other over the invisible baccarat table.

 

He’d gone on vacation.  That was all Leland Bartholomew had done.  He was overworked, he took a vacation, he’d met a wonderful girl.  And now… sigh.

Patient J was back in solitary.  Patient Quinn was in tears.  Roxy was in the infirmary, and even though Nurse Chin assured him that she would be out in less than an hour, her injuries limited to a sprained wrist and a headache brought on by hyperventilating, Bartholomew still felt woefully responsible. 

And, of course, there was the fact that four out of four sessions since the incident had all alluded to his relationship with Raven.  From Arnold Wesker’s shy congratulations to his Scarface doll’s artless “Hey Doc, I heared you were knockin’ goots with Ozzy’s hostess,” the comments had run the gambit.  Patient Frieze was at least circumspect, speaking only of the contentment a good woman can bring to a lonely life (until the inevitable chill of loss and then you’re consumed by icy regret and cold, empty longing for the rest of time).  Whereas Patient Strange said Raven was a conspicuously pretty girl who ran the Iceberg with cool efficiency and did Bartholomew know she had a past with Jonathan Crane?  Patient Crane himself volunteered that she was afraid of spiders and had a delightfully uninhibited scream (“Or maybe you already knew that”).

Bartholomew managed to gain control of each of those individual dialogues, but he felt any attempt at a group session was futile.  He had Dr.  Matkins take his 4:30 Anger Management, but even at that Patient Jones stopped in his office afterwards with the strangely touching (albeit threatening) announcement that “Raven always good to Croc.  Doctor treat Raven right, doctor go on breathing.”

 

Somebody had to say something.  They were glaring again.  I was starting to worry I might turn complex from all the testosterone in the air.  So I got up and said I would see about lunch.  They both sprang to their feet and yelled “No!” in unison—a performance that couldn’t entirely be acquitted of the word ‘panic’—and now they were back to staring.  But at least now we were all on our feet.

I’ll talk to Alfred about lunch,” Bruce stated, finally breaking the deadlock.  Then he stalked off, leaving Eddie and I alone.

“Well, at least that wasn’t awkward,” Eddie intoned sarcastically once Bruce was gone.  “We were having a nice, cordial conversation, then suddenly everyone’s wearing masks.”

“What did you expect,” I wheeled on him.  “What were you thinking coming here like that?”

“I was thinking a woman I just met took her panties off on the cab ride home!  You have to TELL somebody when shit like that happens!”

I said nothing.  I wet my lips.  I looked at the inkwell on the desk with a large, flowing W etched into its base, and then at a vase of peonies that wanted their water changed—and then I sat down again.  The flowers had reminded me of something:

“Eddie, is this one of those weird déjà vu things or do I remember you having a one-nighter with Ivy too when she and Harvey were together?”

“No.  No, that was after they’d split and it wasn’t a one-nighter.  It was a green one-nighter, as in not my idea and not my fault…  But since you brought up old Harv, uh, you wouldn’t happen to know how tight he and Muffington are, would you?”

I shook my head slowly.  I realized that Harvey and I aren’t in very close touch anymore. 

“No idea,” I said.  “But if I had to guess, the fact that she’s sneaking off with you and taking off her underwear argues that they’re not that close.”

He made a face just like he had at the opera.

“Aren’t we turning into the little detec…” he began coolly.  But before I could cut him off with a hiss, he trailed off and fixed his gaze on the inkwell just as I had done.  That big flowing W.  Then he turned his head suddenly towards the door.

“You don’t suppose he knows anything?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

“Bruce?  C’mon.”

“He and Harv are buds, right?”

“I’m not having this conversation,” I announced.

“Guys do talk, you know.”

“Alright,” I smiled.  “You’re a guy.  Go talk to him.”

“Hello?  My spleen!” he wailed.

“Congratulations, Eddie, you seem to have worked yourself into the center of a perfect unsolvable riddle.  Mazel Tov.”

“‘Lina, please, listen.  I know this is one of those areas where you can’t really be ‘one of the guys,’ but I need you to pretend.  You know who else is free right now?  Nobody.  There’s you, there’s me, and there’s Harvey—who I can’t exactly go to for fairly obvious reasons.”

“No argument there,” I said sweetly, crossing my legs and taking a chocolate.

“But you see, that’s just the thing, it is just me and Harv that are free right now.”

“There’s Oswald,” I pointed out.

“Oswald Cobblepot?  Um, no.”

“He’s a rogue and a man, you don’t need me.”

“‘Lina… Look, forget being one of the guys, just be a woman.  As a beautiful, sophisticated woman of breeding and refinement, have you ever seen Jonathan Crane eat?”

“Is that a riddle or are you really asking?”

“It’s rhetorical.  I’m saying this fad is only going to last so long.  As soon as the Arkham revolving door revolves again, or someone like Oswald gets wind of it, it’s gonna burn fast and end ugly.  Let’s face it, those women take one look at Jonathan, Jervis, or Hugo up close, the ‘Berg will look like Karaoke Night when Croc shows up.”

“Again, no argument.  But I don’t see what I can do for you, Eddie?”

“I have a very narrow window of opportunity if I’m going to take advantage of this.”

“Which you seem to have started just fine—”

That wasn’t planned!  ‘Lina, listen, please, why didn’t I start the California earthquake?”

“No, I haven’t seen Jonathan eat.  Look Eddie—”

“She took her panties off in the cab!  ‘Lina, I know you’re not a guy, but try to understand.  Why didn’t I start the California earthquake?  Because it’s not my fault!  She took off her panties right there in the cab.  Ivory lace with little yellow rosebuds.  That’s not something you can just ignore—”

“Better men than Edward Nigma have tried to ignore Claudia’s… charms,” Bruce announced from the doorway, “and failed just as miserably.  He’s not planning to stay for lunch, is he?”

Without turning to look, Eddie pointed over his shoulder at the doorway.

“Did he just support me and in the same breath talk about me like I’m not here?”

“If either of you keep this up,” I announced, “I’m going up to my suite and you’re going to be stuck with each other.”

“What’s actually sad,” Bruce said with an eerily light detachment in his tone, “is that Muffy’s been using that underwear trick since her junior year at Barnard.  And worse, Penny Vraag is the one that taught it to her.”

Eddie looked freaked-but-intrigued by that little declaration.  Bruce clearly had an insider’s slant on society women, more than anyone else in this miserable little tale.  And as for me, I was a little freaked myself.  Because that wasn’t the Fop who had spoken.  Not that there was any reason it should be, there was no one in the room for him to pretend for.  Nevertheless, I didn’t want to hear whatever Bruce knew about Claudia Muffington’s underwear.  And since I’d already threatened to leave if the two of them didn’t behave, I stood—ignoring a new duet of protests—and headed up to my room. 

 

Only Superman.  He extinguished the launch pad fire with a few blasts of cold breath and pulled the astronauts from the shuttle.  Less than three minutes had passed since they’d reached Kennedy Space Center when he returned to the spot where he’d left Nightwing and Robin.  He left his armful of awe-struck astronauts with them and went back to retrieve the cargo.  Oh sure, an explosion or collapse was unlikely now that he’d put out the fire, but it was better to be safe.  The lab module in the cargo bay was costly and it contained live animals.  No reason to risk it when he could pull it out safely.  Up, up, and away…

“Hey look at that,” Robin pointed. 

Across a small lake, they could see a series of bleachers and beyond that, acres of grass crammed with onlookers on blankets.  All had come to see the launch, all had brought cameras, binoculars, telescopes, and camcorders, and all were getting the show of a lifetime.  There was a constant flutter of camera flashes, useless at this distance and unnecessary in the light of day, but it did convey the crowd’s excitement as Superman pulled a huge metal pod from the shuttle, then flew off with it in the direction of the Vertical Assembly Building.

He returned to Robin and Nightwing a few minutes later.  Neither really meant it when they said they were going along “for the experience,” but what Superman did next was an education.  He flew the astronauts over to their families in the VIP bleachers and stayed there for an hour signing autographs, posing for pictures, and meeting everyone connected to the mission crew.  He spoke with each astronaut and found out if it was their first shuttle mission and what their previous flight experience had been.  He chatted with the civilian payload specialists and heard all about the research they were conducting with the birds and ferrets in the lab.  On the way back to Gotham, Robin asked why.  Was Clark Kent maybe investigating negligence that led to the fire?  Or some kind of exposé on animal cruelty with that research?  Nah, Superman scoffed.  He was just hoping to relieve the disappointment for the families.  Those folks had come a long way to see their son or daughter, uncle or cousin, mom or dad blast off on that mission.  It might still happen, NASA would reschedule the launch.  But you never know, something could happen in the meantime.  Even if the same crew did go up next time, the families might not be able to come out again to watch the launch.

“So at least they got to meet Superman,” Nightwing said, a trace of Bat-disapproval in his tone.

“Not quite,” the Man of Steel smiled.  “At least they got to see their son, daughter, cousin, mom, or dad telling Superman about their work.  They should be the heroes today, not me.”

“Cool,” Robin observed.

“Yeah, it is,” Nightwing agreed.

 

Eddie watched Selina leave the room, sensing that as she walked out the door so did any pretense of civility.  Bruce watched her go also, and then listened quietly as the click of her shoes on the parquet floor faded into silence.  After a tense beat of three, he turned to Eddie.

“So…” Eddie started weakly, stopping instantly when he saw the look on Bruce’s face. 

There was a strange finality in the air.  It wasn’t Bat-menace, which somehow made it all the more unnerving.  Bat-menace was at least familiar.  This was more like the grim resolve of a party host asking the last straggler to leave at 3 in the morning, mixed with the vague sympathy of an undertaker. 

“It appears your business here is concluded,” he said emphatically. 

To be continued...

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