THE BOOK OF FIRE
This book is about fighting. The spirit of fire is fierce, whether the fire be small or big; and so it is with battles… It is difficult for large numbers of men to change position. An individual can easily change his mind, so his movements are difficult to predict…
“100.7, miss. I do wish you would let me call Dr. Thompkins.”
“No way, Alfred. I can get plenty of rest and drink lots of liquids on my own.”
Alfred pursed his lips and glared in stern disapproval. Selina didn’t appear to notice and Alfred recalled, with new sympathy, the many years Master Bruce had returned to the cave speechless with frustration because of an unrepentant cat burglar.
“Very well, miss,” he sighed, in the manner of a family servant used to picking his battles, “I will acquiesce to your wishes for now. But if your fever reaches 101, I shall call Dr. Thompkins, with your permission or without it.”
Selina attempted a hiss, which disintegrated into a series of weak coughs, followed by a wince.
“Not fair,” she grimaced, rearranging her aching legs under sheets that felt clammy with sweat, “No fair taking advantage, just because I’m too achy to banter back.”
“On the contrary, Miss Selina,” Alfred replied coolly, “If I were in any way inclined to ‘banter,’ I would have mentioned that you picked a most unfortunate time to forego Western medicine and become a Christian Scientist.”
Not wanting to repeat the hiss-coughing fit, Selina could only manage the hostile scowl of a cat cornered in an art gallery with a sack full of Miros. Alfred ignored her glare as deftly as she had ignored his and continued collecting the empty glasses from the bedside table.
Bruce returned home from the airport with a new sense of urgency. The Mission. The Mission was all. The Mission came first. The only way to save the life he had built with Selina was to make sure it would never interfere with what really mattered. In reestablishing his priorities, in reestablishing Batman at the heart and soul of all he did, he could rest easy, knowing the light Selina brought into his life in no way jeopardized the Mission that was his life.
He bypassed the manor entirely and went straight to the cave. After a short workout, he logged into his workstation and began setting up patrol routes for the next few nights, plotting out stopping points based on recent activity and potential targets tied to the At-large list. He transferred these new routes to the Batmobile and OraCom, then went to the costume vault to change.
When he reemerged, he noticed it—or the lack of it. Alfred hadn’t left the inevitable sandwich at his workstation. No ham and turkey staring up at him like an accusation. Was it possible his butler finally understood? Perhaps progress was being made after all. Since Selina moved in, Bruce did take his meals in the manor more often. Maybe that was all it took to make Alfred see that if he was hungry, he would sit down to dinner like anyone else.
It was about time.
He grunted at the empty space where no ham and turkey on asiago loaf with lettuce and Dijon that he didn’t ask for and didn’t want sat waiting for him to eat it anyway.
Patrol was invigorating. First the mugger outside Robinson Park turned out to be a junkie more than willing to point him to a dealer in order to avoid a prolonged beating. The dealer was just as eager to point him to a crack lab, although in his case Batman curtailed the beating with a brutal roundhouse that probably dislocated the dealer’s jaw and definitely rendered him unconscious. The scum in the crack lab were not given the option to escape any part of the beating. Batman knew he could analyze the coca paste to determine their supplier—or rather, to confirm their supplier. He was already certain what he would find, and that could wait until after patrol.
The last hours before returning to the cave he spent hunting Garfield Lynns, the pyromaniac known as Firefly. It was 14 days since Lynns was released from prison in Keystone City. And Lynns rarely went more than 9 days without torching something. 16 days was the record. Batman was not certain if Lynns had returned to Gotham, but if he had, he would not be allowed to use any part of Batman’s City to fuel his sick lust to make things burn. At least Firefly’s pathology made him predictable: he favored buildings that would burn a certain way, level by level. Parking garages were his favorite, the Guggenheim Museum was a likely target for its spiral structure, and there were certain office complexes with the right configuration. A quick survey of these turned up nothing suspicious… until he reached the I-Mark Plaza. And there he was: Firefly, attaching thermal detonators on the roof… something new. Batman felt a nauseous rage building as he worked it out: remote detonators on the roof to set off… What? Explosives obviously, but where? Down on the base columns. Damnably clever. Once the fire reached the detonators and hit a certain temperature, the bombs would detonate, blowing out the main supports, causing the building to collapse in on itself. The predictable foe had become just that much less predictable. And Batman expressed his dissatisfaction vehemently on Garfield Lynns’s jaw, ribs, throat, and solar plexus.
He returned to the cave and quickly typed up the log entries. Then he took the coca paste from the crack den into the lab. As expected, the paste had been made dissolving the leaves of the South American shrub Erythroxylon coca, not in a mixture of baking soda and kerosene like most suppliers used, but in a unique mixture of bromide and petroleum solvent—The Miami Turk’s signature. Up until now, the Turk was smart enough to avoid Gotham City. But crackdowns in Bludhaven, Philadelphia, Buffalo and Hartford had been cutting into his cash flow. Batman had wondered if desperation might lead the Turk to this fatal mistake: moving his filthy business into Gotham.
Batman smiled down at the mortar and pestle, Petrie dish, and microscope slides on the worktable. It was not an amused twitch-smile or a warm playboy grin; it was a long, slow smile of deep and quiet menace. There was a principle, long-remembered from his studies. The Book of Five Rings, the chapter on battle tactics, called the Book of Fire: To hit the enemy “In One Timing” means when you have closed with the enemy to hit him as quickly and directly as possible without moving your body or unsettling your spirit… That is exactly what Batman had planned for The Miami Turk if he dared enter Gotham.
He opened a secured landline to Keystone City. In the 17 rings it took a sleepy voice to answer, Batman reconsidered and re-rejected the JLA Comlink. Those channels were too often monitored, and if he wanted to put up with questions, he could ask Clark or J’onn. Clark would want to investigate the Turk himself before acting, unless Batman submitted to the 2,000 questions necessary to reassure The Boy Scout he was doing the right thing. J’onn would at least postpone the questions until after the job was done—once Bruce explained the time factor. A time factor that shouldn’t need explaining, a factor that should be perfectly obvious to anybody that knew him. Batman hated “farming out” a job like this. He preferred handling such matters personally—as witnessed by the discreet alert beeping in the corner of the computer screen indicating a new inmate (one Lynns, Garfield) admitted to the Arkham infirmary. But in a case like The Miami Turk, it was more important that the response be immediate. The Turk brought his filth into Gotham City and BAM, the steel jaws clamped shut on his ass. Now, not three months from now when he made another run, and not letting him back into the city, even to get his ass kicked.
No, Batman needed it to happen now, with lightening speed. Someone with ties enough to law enforcement to be familiar with the Turk. Someone who could handle the situation quickly and discreetly, but still publicly enough for word to get around. And most of all, someone who would answer Batman’s summons with little more than a “Sir, yes, sir.”
:: H-Hello? :: a groggy voice warbled on the other end of the phone.
Police ties, willingness to help out and speed…
“Flash,” Batman growled, “Got a job for you.”
Feeling a warm and intense satisfaction at a job well done, Batman entered the costume vault. As expected, the mere fact that Batman called him to collaborate on a case perked up Wally West’s ears. He had read enough Fed bulletins on the Turk to need no more info than the scumbag’s last known coordinates. And, just so the Turk was absolutely aware which was the fatal mistake that led to his downfall, Flash was quite clear about the message he was to deliver before ending The Miami Turk for good: “Batman sends his regards.” Just as the Book of Fire instructed, it was quick, it was direct, and he didn’t even have to stir from his chair.
Yes, a job well done. Batman removed the cowl, cape, utility belt, chest plate and leggings, and then reached for the kimono.
This was just as it should be. No thought of her all night. Just him, alone with his Mission. And now, after patrol and a job well done, the kimono—Selina’s gift—so he didn’t have to change back into Bruce Wayne’s shirt and slacks just to go up to bed. Purrfect.
At the end of the clock passageway, he considered a stop in the kitchen. But he was too tired. Morning would come soon enough and he’d grab a bite. He climbed the stairs wearily, running an absent finger over the kimono, black and slate gray woven in a tight herringbone pattern with black piping. His mind wandered back to another climb up these stairs after a late patrol.
It was early in their relationship, not long after he’d revealed his identity. They’d slept together, of course, most often at her place, but occasionally at his. But that night was very different. It wasn’t bedding down for the night after sex. He was coming home from patrol, as he had so often, to a dark, still house. He had hired her to help improve Wayne Enterprises security. She’d been working mostly from a laptop in his study. It got late, it was a long drive back to her place in the city, and he did have those 25 spare bedrooms. Alfred set her up in the Chinese Room, and Bruce had gone out on patrol. When he returned, just as he climbed these stairs, he’d had the oddest feeling at the sudden realization: She was there… Selina… Catwoman… was sleeping under his roof. She was in the Chinese room, right across the hall from his bedroom, at that very moment. He didn’t have to retire to a lonely cold bed and conjure memories of a fantasy cat. She was right there. He could knock on the door, he could go inside, he could touch. It was early enough in their relationship that that part was still new. He was allowed to touch. Catwoman—Selina—was right there for him to touch.
At that moment, the Bruce of the present had reached his own bedroom and realized with a start that right there Selina was not.
He stared stupidly at the empty bed for a moment, and then turned, looking around the room as if trying to confirm that he was still in the present. His fingers touched the silk of the kimono again. Yes, the present. Selina’s gift. From Tokyo. So where was she?
“Alfred!” Bruce called, stepping out into the hall, heedless of the hour.
Fortunately the manservant was already up, albeit dressed informally in a bathrobe, and hastened from a doorway at the far end of the hall near his own room.
“Oh good evening, sir,” Alfred began in a hushed tone as soon as he was close enough, “I see that you are back. I trust you had a satisfactory evening, sir.”
“Alfred, what’s going on? Where’s Selina?”
“I regret, sir, that Miss Selina is unwell. She is experiencing a fever. A touch of the flu, perhaps, or a mild virus. We thought it best for her comfort and your own well-being, seeing that she might be contagious, if we moved her out of your bedroom.”
Bruce gave a mild sigh of relief, and mentally kicked Batman for not remembering the first rule of detection: the simplest explanations are always the most likely.
“So she’s in her own suite for the duration?” he asked.
“No, sir. There is no longer a bed in those rooms since she moved in her own furniture. I have put her in the Rose Room.”
“The Rose Room!” Bruce hissed in an indignant whisper, “You put her in the Rose Bedroom. Alfred, that’s the Bimbo Room, what are you thinking?”
Alfred raised a disapproving eyebrow. And Bruce glared a hostile bat-glare.
At 4:15 a.m., Bruce stormed into the kitchen gripped in a complex jumble of emotions he would be hard-pressed to describe. He opened the refrigerator door as if to surprise a criminal cabal planning some kind of uprising. He took out the ham, turkey, lettuce and mustard as if he was rousting suspects. He laid out the asiago loaf and paused before slicing, as if the bread knife were a threat meant to terrify a reluctant stoolie into talking.
Then he massaged his brow, feeling like a man utterly out of control, and calmly finished making himself the sandwich he should have eaten nine hours earlier.
He turned back to the refrigerator suddenly, as if remembering something, opened it again and took out a half-bottle of dry white Bordeaux. He poured, sipped, and looked thoughtfully at the glass, remembering:
“Once I took a girl to Maison de Pierre, world-famous for their wine cellar…”
The roof of the opera house, at the very beginning… His ‘first date’ with Selina… a picnic basket and a bottle of Bordeaux it took him forever to open. Catwoman was not like other women. Catwoman he could talk to about the way things were.
“Once I took a girl to Maison de Pierre, world-famous for their wine cellar. I was patrolling later, so I didn’t drink. She noticed, didn’t say anything, just filed it away. When she got around to breaking up with me, she included in the laundry list of my faults my dishonesty in never telling her I was a recovering alcoholic.”
She laughed. She saw it at once, the ironic absurdity of it all. She was like him, she knew what it was to have a part of you they can never see. She understood. For the first time in his life, he found himself able to speak honestly, as he was, on a date with a woman. And she laughed, and she smiled, and she kissed him. She smiled at him, at the man he really was.
How could Alfred put her in the Bimbo Room like it was nothing, like it was a mere household expedient?
Bruce Wayne rarely had sex with the bimbos. In the early days, the occasional torn muscle or random bruise was easily explained: “That new ADA Harvey Dent plays a mean game of squash.” But Bruce was no fool. He knew he had only a limited time in which to establish the playboy persona before his body amassed too many scars to pass as a mere “rabid sports nut.”
There are other arts besides karate and meditation taught in the Far East. A few tricks from here and there made Bruce seem an inventive and far more experienced lover than he truly was, and soon there was tittering at all the debutante balls about Bruce Wayne’s “skills.” That was really all it took. After that, no self-respecting debutante, divorcee or actress/model/whatever was going to admit going on a date with THE Bruce Wayne and not getting “the W treatment.” He became a legend with astonishingly little effort on his part.
Maintaining the reputation couldn’t have been simpler. A little too much champagne in front of a warm fire or in a steamy hot tub resulted in a very sleepy date, one that could be carried upstairs, placed in the bed and left for morning. The Rose Room was chosen because it was closest to Alfred’s own room, where he would notice if any sleeping beauty woke in the night and wandered. It was also farthest from Bruce’s room, where they would be least likely to hear anything when he returned from patrol. In the morning, Bambi, Greta or Daphne would be greeted by a rather distinguished butler. He would apologize that Mr. Wayne had to run off on business, give her a full breakfast, and call her a taxi—or if she were a socialite of sufficient standing, Alfred would chauffeur her home in one of Mr. Wayne’s many fine automobiles. Again, the Fop’s reputation took care of the rest.
And that was the bedroom where Alfred installed Selina. Where he put Selina! It was outrageous. How could Alfred, of all people, be so callous and thoughtless? Selina had changed everything. She changed his life. She made him happy. How could he toss her into the Rose Room like some bimbo? Like she was a prop only here for him to manipulate for the sake of a smokescreen?
To be continued...