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Chapter 2: The Classic Error

An ER nurse at Gotham General Hospital cannot be flustered.  The night shift can’t even be surprised, but the daytime staff are at least capable of registering that which is out of the ordinary.  Batman coming through the doors in broad daylight was sufficiently unusual to register, and Nurse Mead waited for him to approach the desk rather than reaching automatically for a clipboard to hand him when he got there.  When he started to speak, she didn’t even cut him off as she would a policeman making the same type of inquiry.  Although the answer she gave was the same:

“If you’ll follow the orange line to Hallway B, let the Duty Nurse know the name of the patient you’re interested in and the pertinent doctor will be with you as soon as he or she is available.”

“Let’s try this again,” Batman said in a dangerously low gravel.  “The Madington Street explosion—”

“Follow the orange line to Hallway B,” Madeline repeated.

“Can’t you at least—”

“Listen, those are glass doors you just walked through, in case you didn’t notice.  I’ve got banged up people coming in here, and some won’t come in if they see a lot of uniforms waiting around the lobby.  That’s why Hallway B exists.  And that get up you’re in is worse than a hundred police in… uniform.”

She wasn’t aware she actually spoke the final word.  When Madeline Mead was growing up in rural Pennsylvania, she had been in the truck with her father when he’d hit a deer.  She never forgot the frozen look in the animal’s eyes in that moment before impact.  She had nightmares about it for weeks, but even in her dream, she’d never been on the deer’s side of the experience until now. 

“No, you listen,” Batman said in a still whisper which, like the look in his eyes, conveyed the blinding force of those headlights and the potentially lethal impact to follow.  “A Vietnamese restaurant called Jinatra’s was bombed and the victims were brought here.  One of those victims is Selina Kyle.  Kyle is living with Bruce Wayne, as in Wayne Tower, Wayne Foundation, and the Wayne Trauma ward of this hospital.  That sort just love to use their money to stay out of anything official.  If I don’t get to see this woman before her boyfriend finds out she’s here, ten kinds of well-financed blockades are going to descend on this place to stop the police or anyone else from talking to her.  If you think my standing here in a cape is interfering with the normal running of your emergency room, you have no idea how your life is about to be turned upside down once someone like Wayne pushes his way in.”

It happened to be a valid argument, but complete nonsense would have worked just as well, because Nurse Mead couldn’t really process the thoughts behind Batman’s words.  She was only aware of tension stretching from her right ear to her left, the sound of her heartbeat pulsing uncomfortably in both, and the pull from that tension extending halfway down her throat in a V.  She knew the source of the tension was the masked man in front of her and the willful intensity pulsing off him in waves.  The only way to make the whole thing go away before that pounding in her ears turned to ringing was to give him what he wanted.

“Follow me, I’ll take you back,” she said crisply.  It violated hospital policy to leave the desk unattended, but she wasn’t about to wait for to Pat or Rosita to answer a page. 

Eddie once speculated that Wayne had Selina bugged fourteen different ways, ten that she knew about and four that she didn’t.  In fact, Bruce had made only one Bat-modification to Selina’s Wayne Tech phone: the encryption unit in all devices the Bat-Family used to secure the line for identity-sensitive conversations.  That unit had a failsafe, lest the ability to decrypt those private communications fall into the wrong hands.  When the explosion at Jinatra’s blew Selina’s phone to bits, the Wayne Tech satellite became aware that two microscopic receptors in the casing were no longer in contact.  It interpreted this as the back of the phone being opened, and it sent an alert to Bruce.  Patterson, Greenwich and Beame thought nothing of the CEO checking an incoming text during a meeting and then excusing himself.  Lucius Fox was annoyed but he was used to it.  He hid his annoyance, like always, took over the meeting, like always, and vowed, like always, that one day—one day—he would have it out with Bruce about those damn disappearing acts.

The split-bank elevators in the Wayne Tower required three trips for Bruce to get to the cave: one from the executive suite down to the 40th floor, which took no time at all at this time of day, one from the 40th to the ground level, which had an aggravating number of intermediate stops, and from there, Bruce could access the private elevator which connected only to his penthouse, as far as the world was concerned.  The result of all this vertical backtracking was that, by the time he reached the cave, the Fire & Rescue call on the explosion was lighting up the system.  Batman knew his city like ordinary people know the layout of their own house, and his mind connected facts quickly and continuously, almost as an unconscious background routine.  So the string of deductions connected in an instantaneous body blow as soon as he stepped into the cave and saw the alerts on the viewscreen: the explosion was near the restaurant Dent was so fond of, Selina was having lunch with Harvey, Selina’s phone registered a breech—

In the seconds it took him to dress, Psychobat tried to force an idea through a wall of focused calm: perhaps he shouldn’t be changing into costume.  Selina’s ICE contact would be Bruce Wayne, and if he needed to be showing up at a hospital as Wayne but was already on the scene as Batman… 

The Bruce part of his psyche tuned it out, an unthinking-unfeeling void shutting out everything that wasn’t Batman’s determined focus.  The issue Psychobat raised was technically a Batman concern: it was an identity issue.  But nothing—nothing—tied to the prospect of Selina being hurt could be processed as anything but a Bruce Wayne matter which Batman had to set aside.  Blocking out Bruce’s feelings in the face of Batman’s priorities was a learned instinct.  It was ingrained as deeply as any martial arts maneuver.  Psychobat had drilled it into him until it became muscle memory: Bruce would feel things later.  Right now, Batman had to act.

As he gunned the Batmobile’s engines, the squelched idea roamed around his psyche until it found an obvious home: the part of Bruce who feared loss was a young boy who naturally turned to—

“Alfred,” Batman said, ordering the Batmobile’s VOX controls to open a line to the manor. 

It was unusual for the Batmobile to be sending messages at this time of day, and Alfred took more than a minute to answer the call. 

“I’m activating the Iris Protocol,” Batman announced when Alfred finally got there.  “Bruce Wayne’s cell, office, and any calls to the penthouse will redirect to you at the manor.  A call will be coming in that Selina was in an explosion.  When it does—No, I don’t have any details.  When it does, go to the hospital yourself; you’re trying to reach Wayne but—What?  No, I’ll probably be there already.  I’m already in the city, but—No, I don’t know what hospi—I don’t know anything yet, I’m on my way to the scene—Alfred, wait for the call, find out what hospital and act accordingly… Yes, I do too.”

He cut the line (over Psychobat’s acidic observation that Alfred should be more detached and disciplined by now.  You’d think a member of the household had never been blown up before).  When he reached the site of the explosion, the police were already on the scene but the fire chief was not yet giving clearance for anyone to examine anything.  They were still hosing down the building, and dangerous levels of smoke remained in the area that had been the restaurant’s kitchen.  The ambulances had just left…  (That news prompted Batman to swear obscenely under his breath, which prompted another acidic observation from Psychobat.) 

Eight injured altogether, the fire chief said.  No DOA but two of them, a man and a woman, looked pretty bad. 

Batman wasn’t pleased to leave the crime scene in the hands of ordinary police, but since no one could inspect the scene immediately, there was no point in his waiting around.  They would secure it, harvest the evidence, and he would pull their findings before returning after dark to check things out for himself.  He learned the injured were taken to Gotham General, and Psychobat clamped down with renewed calls for discipline in the minutes it took him to reach the ER… 

And renewed calls for focus now that he was following a nurse down that orange line to Hallway B. 

There was no question that his manner at the front desk had been a bit… atypical.  Simply showing up in daylight was atypical for Batman, and subjecting a civilian—a nurse, for God’s sake—to the interrogative manner usually reserved for criminal lowlifes.  He was betraying feelings for Selina Kyle, Batman was betraying feelings that—ENOUGH!

Bruce had become increasingly impatient with that part of his mind that had denied his feelings for Selina for so many years, which denied him the Life and the Happiness that went with it.  Now his anger cut off his inner monologue with the same finality he’d use at a League meeting when the nonsense had gone on long enough.  He reminded “Psychobat” that Batman and Catwoman were on the current cover of the Gotham Post having graphic sex.  If the nurse drew any conclusions about his behavior, so what?  If he appeared to care more about this one woman’s welfare than a random victim of an explosion, what had he really done but add credence to the already widely-held belief that the Selina Kyle of the Cat-Tales stage show was the real…

“Catwoman,” he breathed as they turned into a triage unit and he saw Selina on an examination table between two privacy screens at the far end of the room.  She was sitting upright and breathing into an oxygen mask.  Her face had a few burns and smudges, her blouse was scorched and her skirt torn.  There were some nasty cuts and bruises down her right leg.  In short: minor injuries for Gotham night people. 

Only after he took that in did he allow himself to look at her eyes.  She hadn’t seen him yet.

“That’s her,” he told the nurse.  “Is there somewhere more private where I can question her?”

No idea had ever gone from so very good to so very bad in so very little time.

Going after Joker in the dentist’s chair.  It seemed like the most inspired hit ever.  There he’d be: helpless.  That’s how you get the dangerous guys.  When their guard’s down.  When they’re helpless.  Lying back, mouth open, he’d never see it coming.  It seemed like the best idea Sal and Rudy ever had—until the blood started spraying.  Sal didn’t even know where it was coming from at first. 

“PSYCH!” Joker laughed—and all of a sudden blood was spurting.  Rudy grabbed his neck and something really hard—which turned out to be Joker’s head—rammed itself into Sal’s forehead.  Then something else hard—which turned out to be a metal tray, came crashing down on the top of his head three or four times.

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?  What the hell were they thinking going after The Joker where there was a tray full of sharp pointy things sitting right next to him?!

“HAHAHAHAHA!  Made you look!” Joker cried. 

Sal tripped over the dentist’s body as he tried to ‘step back’ without realizing that ‘crawl away’ would have been more viable movement with a wild man swinging—OUCH!—some big fucking gray thing around at face-height.  The fall onto his back left him flailing like a turtle, but it gave him the first clear view of what was happening with Rudy.  His partner was holding his neck like he was trying to hold back the blood from a throat-puncture, but there wasn’t any blood coming from underneath his hand.  All the blood was coming out the back of his wrist, where two silver dental picks still protruded.  His hand still held his gun, which was hanging a little too loosely from his one finger and was pointing aimlessly at the back window—at least it had been until Joker leapt out of the chair and swung Rudy around to take his place there and it went off, blowing a hole in the filing cabinet.

“HAHAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!  Now, what’s that expression?  ‘Is it safe?’”

Privacy was relative in the Gotham General ER (at least it would be until Bruce Wayne arrived and started throwing his money around), so Batman had to make do with a side room that had more screens but no door.  Everyone in the busy emergency room had their own business to attend to, business that was too important to gawk at the spectacle of Batman talking to a patient who might or might not be Catwoman.  But they could still be seen and, if anyone was close enough, overheard.  That dictated the tone of the conversation:

“Miss Kyle,” he began—and then regretted it as her eyes flashed with surprise, and then warmed with the baseline amusement she always had dealing with Batman.

“Such formality,” she said in as close to Catwoman’s voice as she could manage, given the amount of smoke she’d breathed.  “You can call me Selina, you know.”

“Selina, we’re all running about ten minutes ahead of your boyfriend right now.  I have no doubt once Wayne knows you’re here, you’ll be shut away where no press or police can get at you.  This is the only chance law enforcement will get to hear what you have to say, so if we could dispense with the nonsense, what happened at the restaurant?”

“I was having lunch with Harvey Dent,” she said mildly, then amended the name given her listener.  “With Two-Face.”

Behind the mask, Bruce’s eyes flickered at the name, silently questioning if there was a reason for the distinction other than the fact that Selina was talking to ‘Batman.’  She replied with an eye-flick at his chest-emblem, which certainly seemed like an answer to his question, but he wasn’t sure what it meant.

“Jinatra’s is a family place,” Selina continued.  “She cooks in the back, and her teenage son Tuan takes the orders and works the register whenever he’s not in school.  He’d just given us our menus when he spotted this backpack that somebody must have left behind.  It was sitting in an empty booth right inside the window.  He asked if it belonged to anybody.  No one claimed it.  He picked it up and was carrying it towards the counter when there was this loud crash, breaking glass—pretty much what it sounds like when a vigilante comes in through the skylight.  And Harvey was on top of me.  I mean he absolutely hurled himself over the top of the table and twisted his body between me and the glass coming from the window.  I’ve seen my share of hero moves, and even by that standard, it was impressive.”

Once again, Selina’s eyes flicked to the emblem and this time Batman understood.  Harvey Dent—the old Harvey Dent, Gotham’s White Knight—had asserted himself. 

“It must have been a molotov cocktail that came in through the window, because for a split second, there was just a little puddle of fire right inside the window.  Then Tuan was screaming and the backpack in his hand was… a fireball.  He must have tossed it away, or tried to, and hit the worst possible spot.  There was this… this flame-puddle right inside the window, and it almost seemed to leap up towards the backpack when the thing got near enough to the flames.  In a flash the whole room was on fire and so was he.  Flames just licking up his arm.  Harvey had his jacket off and was thrashing his way through the flames to get to Tuan.  I called out that I would get Jinatra.  There were three other customers, all closer to the door without any flames between them and the exit.  It didn’t seem like they’d have any problems getting out, so I made my way to the kitchen.  No flames back there, but crippling heat and smoke.  Jinatra isn’t exactly young, and it was slow going getting her out the back.”

“The police said there were two serious injuries.  A man and a woman.”  His eyes added, I thought you and Harvey.

Hers answered I figured when you showed up in that costume, but her words were more circumspect. 

“The paramedics didn’t realize Harvey is Two-Face.  If you don’t know what he looked like before the fire… The woman is Jinatra.  She’s not at death’s door or anything, but even a little smoke in the lungs gets you some time in the ICU for observation.”

“I see.  Where is Dent now?”

“I don’t know.  Last I saw, there was still a glass shard sticking out the back of his shoulder, but he was too worked up about Tuan to let the paramedic take a look at it.”

“I see,” Batman said grimly.

“I would check the Burn Unit.  I would guess he’ll be wherever Tuan is being treated.”

Batman’s eyes bored into hers with a ferocity seldom seen since their rooftop confrontations.

“I hope so,” he said darkly.  “Considering where we are.” 

It took her a minute, then her eyes flared with angry recognition. 

Dr. Parks’s receptionist Abigail returned to the office wondering if she had just fallen for some identity theft snare and should call her bank and cancel her credit cards. 

She’d been distressed all morning, that was the problem.  It was hard to pay attention when you’re running back and forth to the toilet two or three times in an hour.  It always happened the day Joker was scheduled to come in for an appointment.  The dread would start at breakfast, spike when she got to her desk and opened the calendar, she’d leave the phone on overnight pickup and pay her first visit to the john.  When she got back to her desk, she’d remind herself of all the times Joker had come in, just like anybody else, said he had an 11 o’clock and she’d shown the grinning psycho into the office.  She’d rehearse what she would say, “Right on time” or “My you’re early…” and then she’d pay another visit to the john. 

So she was more distracted than on days when no homicidal clowns were coming to have their teeth cleaned.  She didn’t remember exactly what she said when the call came in from the fire department.  They asked if she was Abigail Bowing, she was certain about that.  She couldn’t quite remember if they gave her address or just said her apartment building was on fire.  She KNEW they said the blaze started when candles were left unattended on the ground floor—and that would be just like Mrs. Baker’s daughter or else that flaky couple in 1c.  She’d gone rushing out—told Dr. Parks she had to rush home and gone running out—she was in such a panic, she just couldn’t remember if she’d given them any information over the phone—she didn’t think so, but she couldn’t think of any other reason for anyone to play such a stupid prank.  She’d gone racing home to find no fire trucks, no fire, not even the smell of pot and patchouli coming from 1c.  Most of the tenants weren’t even home, but Mrs. Baker was and she confirmed that absolutely nothing had happened.

So Abigail went back to work, realizing with a start as she pulled into the parking lot that she would have missed Joker’s arrival.  Her mood improved tremendously as she glanced at her watch and saw she’d been gone long enough that she probably missed him entirely!

“The crowd sees me out dancing, Carefree and romancing, Happy with my someone new…”

At least that was her thought until she heard the singing.

“I'm laughing on the outside, Crying on the inside—no make that DYING on the inside…”

Coming from the examination room.

“You’re laughing on the outside, dying on the inside…”

A sensible woman who was thinking clearly would have run.  Abigail was not thinking clearly and she opened the door—

’Cause I’m still in love with—Ooh, staff!” Joker said with a joyous glint in his eye as he turned to see who had opened the door.

A sensible woman who was thinking clearly would have run.  Abigail was not thinking clearly and froze.

“Bring us a coffee, love.  Three sugars.  This drilling is hard work.  I’m sure there’s a nerve ending in here somewhere that’ll make ‘em laugh.  Like a funny bone only with teeth, HAHAHAHAAAAAA!”

The last time Batman, Catwoman and Two-Face were in Gotham General Hospital, Two-Face was there to murder Vernon Fields and stabbed Catwoman when she tried to stop him. 

Downstairs, Selina dismissed the idea that he would be moved to try again, but Batman couldn’t be so sure.  Selina was too impressed with the heroics she’d seen at the restaurant: Harvey didn’t flinch before putting his body between her and danger.  That’s exactly what worried Batman.  Once upon a time, he had rigged Two-Face’s coin so it always came up on the good side.  When Two-Face realized, he retaliated with a dozen crimes without a coin toss, in order to restore the balance.  Might Harvey’s heroism during the explosion be another ‘imbalance’ that had to be corrected?  If it was, Dent’s obsession with Fate would not ignore the fact that he was in the very hospital where Vernon Fields still lay in a coma. 

The trip to the Eighth Floor Neurology Center was uneventful.  Batman checked all access points to the dispensary, nurse’s station, the room Fields originally occupied and the ward where he’d been moved once the coma was declared persistent.  Satisfied that Two-Face wasn’t lurking, he placed monitoring devices to keep an eye on the situation and headed to the burn ward.  It was just possible that Selina was right and Harvey’s sole concern, at the moment, was for Tuan and Jinatra.  If so, it still wouldn’t be long before the vengeance angle had to be dealt with.  That prosecutorial mind would turn its attention to the explosion itself, who caused it and why—an angle that would have Batman’s attention already if Selina wasn’t involved, Psychobat noted sourly as he passed a door labeled CAT and MRI Scan Room.

If the door hadn’t been so thick, Batman might have heard a distant “Ow-ow-ow-ow-ow” in precisely the same tempo and cadence as the “No-no-no-no-no” he always heard as he broke out of a Mad Hatter trance.  As it was, he continued to the elevator while the radiology tech warned Jervis Tetch that if he couldn’t keep still this time, he’d have to be sedated.

It had finally happened.  When Joker crashed the Pelacci-Marcuso wedding in the mistaken belief it was the Kyle-Wayne wedding, he said he meant to give the bride away because Catty marrying Bruce Wayne was “as close to a royal wedding as we’ll ever get in Rogue society.”  And it finally happened.  The idea finally penetrated Harley’s brain: Mistah J had no intention of making her Mrs J, Puddin’ had no thought of making her Mrs. Puddin’. 

Harley felt she really couldn’t stand to be in a Ha-Hacienda, and Red had been so nice letting her hang out at the greenhouse as much as she wanted.  Harley liked the greenhouse, but she couldn’t quite adjust to the routine there.  With Puddin’, routines changed all the time.  They’d live on White Castles for a couple days while Puddin’ was cooking up vats of bubbly pink explodey stuff on the stove, but then it’d be time to fill the SmileX tanks and… *sniff*  Well, what was the point in even thinking about it.  There was never going to be a picnic at a pretty lake, with little Jokers and Harleys running around playing catch with a Robin-head, or a Christmas Eve putting together a Bat Dunking Booth for “Santa” to bring for the kids.  *sniff, sniff*

It was nice of Red to let her stay here, anyway.  It’s just the routine that was so hard to adjust to.  They had a little excitement when Red remembered that Dean Sasha guy, an interior decorator who came into the greenhouse to buy flowers, like Red was some kinda slave trader.  But after they taught him a lesson, things sank into this dreary routine.  Get up and water the plants.  Have breakfast and talk to the plants.  Have lunch and talk about the plants. 

Harley was excited when the new customer came in.  She hoped if this new lady was another decorator wanting to buy a bunch of cut flowers, Red would decide to teach her a lesson like the last one.  Except this one was looking for potted plants, and Red didn’t have any problem with that.  She wasn’t going to part with any of her babies, but she had no problem with the woman asking.  She didn’t seem to have any problem with her—none at all.  She said it showed good taste, realizing that a home is improved with the addition of living plants.  That showed a fine and noble spirit…

She sounded sincere.  Harley was fairly sure Ivy meant nothing more than she was actually saying: Yay, plants.  Having plants around the house, good idea.  Kudos to you for appreciating plants.  The would-be customer, however, was flirting.  Harley was sure of it.  She was pretty sure the woman had been checking out Ivy’s body before they started talking, and that she was looking at her skin not in that “Hey it’s really green” way but in a sort of thoughtful way as if she was wondering what it felt like. 

Ivy didn’t seem aware (Red could be kinda dense about that stuff) and now that the bitch was gone, Harley wasn’t going to tell her.  

It’s the classic Rogue error and I made it.  I underestimated Batman. 

Feline pride says chalk it up to the explosion, but whatever the reason, I underestimated him as badly as any Gotham baddie ever has.

I hadn’t read anything into Batman’s words about “your boyfriend” when he found me at the hospital.  I just figured it was: he was masked and I wasn’t.  A Batman-who-isn’t-Bruce-Wayne talking to Selina-who-is-Catwoman-and-living-with-Wayne, in case anyone happened to be listening.  I didn’t think he meant it.

It began with my being spirited off to a private room for the rest of my stay: that’d be the whole fifteen minutes it took for a doctor to come in and check me out.  She looked at my chart, asked a few questions, felt up my throat as I answered, did the stethoscope bit, and pronounced me free of internal smoke-damage.  Then she checked the burns, wrote me a prescription and pronounced me free to go.  So far so good, until I started to get up from the bed and she yelled “NO!” like it was a pressure panel liable to set off another explosion.  She told me to “wait right there” with only slightly less life-or-death intensity than Batman in a DEMON compound. 

What happened next was also reminiscent of DEMON.  Ra’s just loves the “Aren’t we civilized” routine.  He’ll plop you in a dungeon if you absolutely insist, but he really prefers to give you a nice bedroom in the north tower overlooking the courtyard, invite you down to eat dinner with him, and generally carry on as if you’re a guest and not a prisoner—unless you try to leave.  That’s pretty much what it felt like at Gotham General.  A nurse came in looking like a minion working secretly and against her will for Batman.  Her eyes, her voice, her posture, everything about her said that Batman had allowed himself to be captured as a means of getting into the castle, had just escaped from the dungeon and was forcing this poor peon to deliver a message.

In this case, there was no ‘get yourself free and meet in the throne room at 0800 hours.’  She just had paperwork.  Patients normally check out at a specific desk in the lobby, but since my ID and insurance cards were blown to kingdom come, we were “doing it this way.”  It sounded like she was doing me a favor, but the way she said it made it seem like I had a gun to her head.  I couldn’t figure out what was going on, until I made it out of the room and into the hallway.  I hadn’t even turned, I just glanced towards the elevator when she grabbed my arm and said “No, that way.” 

I explained that I needed to go out the front entrance and get a cab, and she said no I didn’t.  HE was ‘that way.’ 

He who, you might ask.  I did, but she just pointed with that look that says ‘The sooner you are out of my life, the happier I will be.’  Cats don’t normally put up with that kind of thing, but I was too curious to take offense.  I went ‘that way’ to see what could possibly provoke the look and manner I associate with DEMONs in the midst of a Bat-attack…  It was Alfred!  ‘That way’ was down some steps to the underground parking reserved for VIP staff, and Alfred was waiting for me in the Bentley.

On the way home, Alfred told me about Batman’s threat to the admitting nurse and Bruce’s intention to make good on it: using the Wayne name to create a protective shield around me as long as I was a patient at Gotham General.  And that’s when I committed the classic Rogue error underestimating him.  I foolishly thought since I was on my way home, we’d be finished with the Shield Kitty Protocol. 

Heh.

I’d gone down to the kitchen for an ice pack, when I heard Alfred talking to someone at the front gate over the intercom—and giving them the real Masterpiece Theatre treatment from the sound of it.  Apparently it’s a good idea to call ahead for an appointment, seeing that Mr. Wayne has six residences around the world, two in Gotham alone not counting the yacht.  Simply showing up at the front gates and assuming anyone in the household will be available to see you is not at all realistic. 

That much is perfectly true, but the gate is usually left open this time of year.  I had to assume if we weren’t letting people drive up to the house, it was specifically so Alfred could subject them to that pretty speech over the intercom.  I figured Bruce would be in the cave, and I’d just as soon get the straight story from him rather than the polite version from Alfred—also, I could see what he had uncovered so far on the explosion.

Except I didn’t make it to the cave.  I got as far as the study when I once again heard half a conversation in progress.

“Thank you, Jordon, I appreciate it.  I’m sure a call to their captain will be enough.  Well, if you think the Mayor and DA should get a reminder too, I’m sure you know best.”  Bruce’s back was to me, but I could tell he was in that Gala Fundraiser mode: rich and worldly, definitely a snob, but still smart and responsible.  No hint of the playboy fop.  You can write a six figure check to this guy’s foundation and know he’s not going to be blowing it on dancing girls in Rio.  “Just to let them know that of course we’ll help in any way we can, but people in my position want to have counsel present as a matter of course, and it’s a simple courtesy to the lawyers to give them more than a few hours notice…  I’m sure it will, coming from you….  Yes, it was.  We’ll do it again—before the correspondents dinner next time…  My best to Julie and the kids.  Goodbye.”

He turned as he hung up the phone, came up to me and looked like he wanted to put a hand on my arm but wasn’t sure where the burn was under my blouse, so he settled for an uncharacteristically boyish smile.

“Don’t worry about anything.  You’re not going to be bothered while I’m investigating this, you won’t have to see anyone or talk to anybody.”

I saw through the smile of course.  Underneath was the sternest Bat-scowl in the history of Gotham.  He was dug in.  Before I could begin to deal with that, Alfred had come up behind me and said Detectives Rowanski and Reed were here, from the Arson/Explosions Squad.  He had shown them into the south drawing room and had been ‘not at all encouraging’ about their prospects for seeing a member of the household today. 

It felt horribly like those old heists that were interrupted not by Batman alone, which I always enjoyed, but by Batman and sidekick.  The real problem with Robin, any Robin, or Batgirl or even Superman, is less their individual abilities than the fact that they split your focus.  Handling Batman demands 100% of your attention, and the merest distraction—like the current “Good, give them fifteen minutes do you think?” “One believes ten will be quite sufficient, sir” exchange is enough to keep you from ever getting past the laser array to the Katz collection.

I had to contend with Alfred while Bruce made his escape.  He said Bruce had Oracle monitoring the GPD internals to see if the explosion would be assigned to Arson/Explosions or Major Case.  It was the former, and these Detectives Reed and Rowanski had drawn the short straw (poor bastards). 

As soon as Bruce was informed, he estimated the time it would take them to drive from One-PP to Gotham General, interview those still at the hospital, learn that Selina Kyle had already been discharged and complete the drive out to Bristol.  So when he graciously condescended to see them, he could honestly begin by saying…

“So sorry to have kept you waiting, Detectives.  I was just on the phone with Governor Bourne, and of course you can’t exactly hurry the governor of the state or tell him it’s not a good time, now can you?  No matter how good a friend he is.  I believe he knows your commanding officer.  Captain O’Donnell isn’t it?  Probably giving him a call right now.  Anyway, Detectives, as I say, I’m terribly sorry you drove all the way out here for nothing, but Ms. Kyle won’t be able to talk to you today.  She’s far too shaken to see anyone after her ordeal.  The doctors prescribed rest, I’m sure you’ll understand.”

It went downhill from there.  Detective Reed hadn’t thought the voice on the intercom was even real, he figured it was a recording on a preprogrammed toy until the butler the opened the door with the same snooty accent.  He’d worked himself into a state by the time Alfred left them alone:

“This woman’s been in an explosion,” he said unbelievingly.  “She’s a material witness, not to mention a victim.  Dumbledore makes it seem like we’re out of line coming to get a statement.”

By the time Wayne came in with that airily aristocratic song and dance routine, Reed was practically foaming at the mouth—making it easy for a master tactician like Bruce to maneuver him.  Rowanski unfortunately had a cooler head.  He had more years and more experience with a variety of crimes, a variety of witnesses, and most unfortunately of all, with Bruce himself.

“There was an incident a few years back, when I was in uniform.  Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn and Joker trashed some big party you were giving out here.  Short while later, there was an out of town bandit held everybody up at gunpoint.”

“Oh, yes, that robber without any kind of theme,” Bruce said foppishly.  “Looked so much like a potato.”

“Yes,” Rowanski chuckled, although the laugh seemed put on and not at all amused… an impression that was confirmed by the speed with which it vanished.  “Thing is, on both those occasions, I seem to remember you and your guests being very forthcoming.  Everyone gave their statement.  Even you.  ‘The guy looked like a potato.’  I don’t remember anyone putting us off or waiting for a lawyer.”

“It’s one thing to be at a public event, a party with a hundred other people and the criminals just left…” Bruce began hotly.  As he spoke, it was as though the lighting changed behind a two-way mirror: the façade of a vapid socialite remained, but the ferocious will behind it began to show through, a powerful man who would not shrink from using that power, a dangerous man who would not be crossed.

“Bruce,” a soft voice said from the doorway.

The eyes that could blaze from behind a Bat-mask, reducing the most powerful beings in galaxy to mute acquiescence, warned the detectives to read nothing—nothing at all—into the fact that Bruce was turning away from them for a minute to talk to the woman in the doorway.

Rowanski couldn’t read lips like Batman, but he could put the murmur and the body language together to read “Don’t be silly, Bruce, of course I have to…” …talk to them, probably, but Wayne maneuvered at that moment to block his view, so he didn’t get the rest of it.  Wayne’s grumbles were harder to make out, but just as easy to guess.  He didn’t like the idea, not at all. 

Detective Rowanski was not among those who believed the Selina Kyle of Cat-Tales was Catwoman the cat burglar.  If she was, Catwoman was a thief, not a lion tamer.  The way Wayne stalked off now, there was no question who the lion tamer was in Gotham City.

“Detectives,” she said, entering the room alone with a quiet confidence.  “I’m Selina Kyle.”

They took her statement.  The fact that she was having lunch with Two-Face dealt a blow to Rowanski’s ‘not Catwoman’ idea, but it turned out they met through Bruce.  Dent and Wayne were known to be cohorts in his pre-Two-Face days, and apparently Dent had been going to all the Wayne shindigs after his face was healed.  That left the Catwoman question as nebulous as it was before, which wasn’t the best way to begin the investigation.

“Miss Kyle, I have to be blunt.  We’re not Major Case.  We don’t investigate art thefts or burglaries involving safes and vaults.  This is an explosion, it was intended to kill somebody in that restaurant.  There are people who think you’re Catwoman—and Catwoman must have her share of enemies.  I need to know if it’s possible you were the target.”

Selina tilted her head slightly as if sorting through layers of possibilities, then spoke with that same calm assurance.

“As you say, there are people who believe it, so it doesn’t really matter if I’m Catwoman or not.  If someone was going after her, they could have come after me either way.  You’re obviously an intelligent man, so you obviously know that.  Your question is meant to give me an opening to tell you something in code, without admitting to anything illegal.”

“You’re obviously quite intelligent yourself,” Rowanski interjected quietly, but Selina went on without acknowledging it.

“I don’t wish to speak in code,” she said with a startling clarity in her voice.  “I am not Catwoman, and I have no idea who could have done this.”

“Do you ‘have an idea’ why your boyfriend was such a horse’s ass when we came in?” Reed asked pointedly.

“Of course.  He wants to protect me,” came the instant and honest reply.  “I was nearly blown up.  He couldn’t do anything then.  He’s trying, irrationally and retroactively, to do it now.”

The two men looked at each other, and Selina noted their reaction.  It wasn’t the type of answer they were expecting, and surprise was always useful. 

“Forgive me but that doesn’t sound like Bruce Wayne,” said Reed.

“A gentleman, you mean?”

“Yes,” both said together.  Selina looked from one to the other.  Not only was this unexpected twist in the conversation steering their attention away from Catwoman, it was giving her an opening to address a particular injustice—the one that the caped avenger himself never seemed to bother with.

“You mustn’t judge him by what you see in the newspapers.  That guy on Page Six, that’s a… a character they’ve created, based mostly on things Bruce did before he was twenty-three.” She didn’t say anything crass, she didn’t use the popular phrase to describe young men incapable of higher brain functions in the throes of surging hormones, but she made eye contact with both detectives, one at a time, as if she could guess exactly what dribbling idiots they had been at that age—without the Wayne billions at their disposal.  “It works for them, they sell newspapers,” she concluded.  “But let’s not pretend any of us would fare well locked into the impression we made at that age—if we did, that’d be a pretty sad commentary.”

Detective Reed folded at once.  Rowanski asked a few more questions about Jinatra’s and concluded the interview as quickly as he could. 

In the Batcave, Bruce watched on a bank of monitors as Selina walked them to the door, then monitored the conversation as they passed through a gauntlet of triangulated microphones on the way to their car.   When they reached the front gate, his finger hovered over a button that would shoot a tracker into their rear tire... 

It was his last chance to do it.  He could have planted a tracker or a mic in the car already, but it was risky considering where they were and who they were investigating.  No civilian had ever found one of his tracking devices, but that was no reason to take the negligible risk.  These detectives had been to Wayne Manor and questioned Selina Kyle.  Why would Batman care?  So he opted not to plant any trackers on them or their vehicle—unless they said something troubling on their way out… 

His finger remained poised on the button as the car drove out of range.  There was no cause for concern in their conversation after leaving Selina: They were in agreement that she wasn’t Catwoman.  Rowanski had come in with a kneejerk assumption that whatever most people believe must be wrong, and he’d found no reason to revise that opinion: The public thought Selina was Catwoman because she did that Cat-Tales show; that wasn’t evidence, ergo she was just actress playing a role.  Reed thought Selina’s tits were smaller than the sex pictures of Catwoman in The Post.  Both thought that someone gunning for Catwoman would know if Kyle wasn’t the real thing, but Reed said they might kill her anyway to send a message.  Rowanski didn’t think it was likely, but he said Selina might be a target on her own—just living with a guy like Wayne, there was no telling what he might be into.  But at the end of the day, they both thought she was less likely than Two-Face or “that cheating banker” as the intended target of the bombing.  They were also considering the restaurant itself as the target: if Jinatra owed money, if her son was into drugs, or if there was any protection racket operating in the neighborhood.

All in all, there was no cause for concern, the whole conversation after Reed and Rowanski left the manor was completely benign. 

Except for the very first thing they said as soon as Selina was out of earshot.

..::You think it’s true that he’s not a complete idiot? ::..

Bruce snapped off the recording the moment he heard the clip-clip of Selina’s heels crossing the cave floor.

“See, I told you I could handle them,” she beamed.

He scowled.

“What?  I was fantastic.  After you roughed them up, I was a breath of fresh air.  I was gentle and reasonable, polite and forthcoming.  As the stand-up guys say: I killed.”

He scowled.

“I know that look, that’s the ‘put the rubies back in the vault’ look.  What’s your problem, I was great!”

“Do you remember the conversation we had that day at the penthouse?”

“We’ve had a lot of conversations, Bruce.”

“The DefCon-1 conversation, the day Ivy came to the office.  The day you asked ‘How does this keep happening?’”

Selina’s smile faded as Bruce reached over and clicked the digital playback of the departing detectives’ conversation.

..::You think it’s true that he’s not a complete idiot?::..

..::I don’t know, I can’t make up my mind about him.  But I’ll tell you one thing, if he’s not a total moron, he should marry that woman. ::..

A-HA!  

Now Harley was certain that “customer” was not only flirting with Red, it’s why she’d come into the greenhouse in the first place.  The whole thing about buying live plants instead of cut flowers was a sham, it was nothing but an excuse to meet her.  

The pushy cow left her backpack behind, and Harley just knew it was deliberate.  As an excuse to come back later when Harley wasn’t around.  Or maybe figuring Red would rummage through it to see who it belonged to, find a phone number and give her a call.  That way she could arrange to come by and pick it up “at a convenient time” after closing, or better still they could meet someplace nearby.  Red could bring it to the wine bar down the street.  Couple glasses of chardonnay looking at that green skin and wondering how it tasted, who knows where it goes from there. 

It was lucky Harley found that backpack before Red did.  Now she could chuck it in the dumpster—or better still, march it down to the police station Lost & Found.  There was one right down the street from the greenhouse, and that would really show the flirty whore what Ivy thought of her.  Poison Ivy the super-criminal handed your smelly backpack over to the cops because she couldn’t be bothered to even—Brrrrrrrrllllllllllllllrrrrrrrlllllllll 

Somebody’s motorcycle sure needed a new muffler.  Harley had a special fondness for motorcycles since that place in Bludhaven started making “Harley Quinn Harleys in authentic Harley Quinn red.”  She didn’t know a lot about them, but she could tell one that that purred from one that wheezed and hissed like Frieze’s cold suit, and the one rolling past her as she rounded the corner was definitely in the Victor having an emotional spasm catego…  

That was the flirty bitch! That was the pushy cow riding on the back of the Victor-wheezing motorcycle that wasn’t a Harley Quinn Harley!

Harley turned around and ran back towards the greenhouse, and although she could occasionally outrun Batman on foot, she couldn’t outrun a motorcycle—even a crappy Mr. Freeze coldsuit-wheezing cycle.

There was a distant crack-a-bomp-bomp-boom-crackle-ba-bomp, a sound Harley remembered from the week Puddin’ tried to perfect a Happy Face molotov cocktail.   They found through trial and ha-ha-hilarious error that glass is sturdier than you think and it takes practice to get that flaming bottle to shatter on impact.   When it does, SmileX burns fast.  It always burned up before anybody could breathe it, and Mistah J figured he’d have to pump the place full of laughing gas before throwing the bottle.  That kinda defeated the purpose, since everybody had already laughed themselves stiff.

But that’s just what it sounded like when the Happy Face molotovs shattered and burned out: crack-a-bomp-bomp-boom-crackle-ba-bomp.

Harley slowed down as she got close enough to see: Flirty Bitch Cow and her motorcycle was disappearing down the street.  The greenhouse had a broken window.  Red had come running out into the street, shaking her fist at the receding motorcycle and screaming about cold air and dying orchids.

Whew!  That was a close one.  Now Red would never meet her at a wine bar to return her backpack.

To be continued…
 

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