Chapter 4: Last Nerve
It is five days since my last entry. The reader will surely appreciate, once I have related the events, why I felt it prudent to spend these past evenings in the cave, monitoring the C-channel in case my assistance would be required, rather than in my room maintaining this journal.
It is five days since the memorial service, four since the developments on “the Brown case,” and three since Miss Selina departed. Now that I am at leisure to record the episodes of these past days and nights, I have resolved to do so even if it takes me until dawn to accomplish the task. I have therefore brewed a pot of strong tea in lieu of my usual hot milk. Miss Nutmeg sits upon my lap as I write. She followed me from the pantry and mewed so plaintively at the door to my room that I felt compelled to admit her. One suspects she is upset at the many recent departures from the established routine of the house: the strangers who attended the memorial, the suspension of our nightly meetings in the pantry, and, of course, Miss Selina’s absence.
This last is the only remaining anomaly and one hopes, fervently hopes, it will be of short duration. She has gone to her preserve, the Catitat, located about an hour’s drive upstate. This property, I am informed, includes a small rustic cabin where one might accommodate oneself for a night or two. But one cannot imagine such a refined being as Miss Selina forgoing the comforts of civilized life for very long. She will surely have her fill of ocelots and leopards and return to the manor tomorrow morning, if not tonight.
If she does not, I fear I must set prudence aside and take some definite action. One would not dream of asserting that Master Bruce is “on his last nerve” since her departure, but his behavior these last days is such that I freely admit I am on mine.
It all began, evidently, while the last guests still lingered after the memorial. Mr. Valley and Miss Cassie were having their talk in the kitchen. I was fetching an aspirin for Ms. Lance. And it seems that two of the younger gentlemen—Mr. Conner Kent and Mr. Bart Allen—approached Master Tim to inquire, quite simply, “When and where?” It seems a given among these young men that Master Tim would be dealing out a very personal vengeance for this crime. Their assistance, one gathers, was also to be taken for granted.
The question of “when and where,” however, was not one Master Tim could answer. It presupposed certain knowledge of Miss Stephanie’s killer and where he could be found.
One is pained to recount this story. It echoes the earliest days of Master Bruce’s endeavors. He was about 12, still so young, a child, and he thought as a child. His earliest efforts had focused almost entirely on the physical: building his muscles and stamina. He wished to punish criminals; he wished, to be blunt, to batter criminals. He only expanded the scope of his labors to include more intellectual pursuits when he realized that in order to hit the criminals, he must first be able to find the criminals.
He became proficient at this, as all the world knows. He is perhaps the most skilled and capable detective in the world—a fact that did not escape Master Tim.
What evidently happened was this: The day after the memorial, Master Tim approached Master Bruce in his study, asking quite openly what progress Batman had made on the case and expecting a blunt rebuff. Instead, Master Bruce consented instantly; as he had plainly thought out the matter beforehand and already reached a decision. He said he had a name but had not yet located the perpetrator’s current alias or location, but he was confident that information would soon be known. Indeed, if he had not had to interrupt his investigation for the memorial, he might already—
It was there he broke off mid-sentence, for he had begun moving with Master Tim towards the Batcave. On reaching the landing, he saw Master Dick already in the cave, accompanied by Mr. Conner Kent. They were at one of the tables where the forensic evidence on the Brown case was assembled, and the younger Mr. Kent appeared to be scanning an object in some extrasensory manner.
Master Bruce deduced, quite rightly, that Master Tim’s civil and respectful inquiry was nothing but a diversion. It was expected that he would obstruct and argue with Master Tim, and that this would so occupy his attention that the other young gentlemen would have ample time to enter the cave and sift through the evidence.
The reader may well guess the master’s anger at this development. The young gentlemen could guess it as well, no doubt, although Master Bruce refrained from expressing it by any overt word or action. It was only later that he told me—but I am getting ahead of myself.
Master Bruce restrained his anger with the young gentlemen and briefed them on his investigation thus far: He produced casefiles on two unsolved murders in Phoenix, one in Las Vegas, three in Central City and two in Richmond. The FBI had detected a commonality in these homicides but had declined to share that intelligence with local law enforcement.
The master spoke most bitterly of this practice. It is easy enough to see why: If these federal investigators had been more forthcoming with their supposed allies in the police, then perhaps this individual would have been found and apprehended before he ever came into Gotham. It is my belief that this consideration weighed heavily in Master Bruce’s decision to share his findings with Master Tim—in spite of the terrible anguish those findings were bound to provoke.
The individual responsible for the heinous string of murders is, Master Bruce is quite certain, a mugger that Robin and Spoiler apprehended earlier in the week. He had been released from custody under suspicious circumstances when the evidence against him was somehow mislaid. Master Bruce surmised that Miss Stephanie may have pilfered this evidence herself—a suggestion which brought the most heated rebuttal from Master Tim.
Master Bruce sent Master Dick and Mr. Conner from the cave at this point.
They came upstairs and Master Dick informed me of the proceedings as I have related them. I did not feel it appropriate to comment on the matter, so I asked the present whereabouts of Mr. Conner.
“I left him out in the rose garden with Selina,” he told me. “I figure if anybody can keep a guy distracted, she can. I don’t think Conner could—or would—eavesdrop, but I didn’t want to chance it considering what’s probably going on down there. Christ. I’m turning into Bruce.”
I did not press the matter. It is true that Master Dick is not as generally mistrustful of teammates with enhanced listening abilities as is Master Bruce, but the present circumstances were unusual and, in my opinion, his caution was most prudent. I told him so, and then asked another question that had puzzled me.
“Master Dick, you had said it was Mr. Conner and Mr. Bart who approached Master Tim about this—undertaking. Might one ask—”
“Why it was me in the cave instead of Bart? C’mon, Alfred, two outsiders in the cave alone behind Bruce’s back, Tim wouldn’t go that far, even today.”
“I see, sir. Very good, sir.”
“You don’t think I should have gone along with it, do you. You think I should have told them no way: it’s Bruce’s house, Bruce’s cave, Bruce’s evidence, and you’ve got no business sneaking in there if he doesn’t want you in the investigation.”
“That alternative course does seem to have occurred to you, Master Dick.”
“Yeah… well. I couldn’t do it. I looked in Tim’s eyes—I know that look, Alfred. It’s just how I felt when Jason died. Like it could’ve been me, but it wasn’t. Was it luck or did I do something right that he did wrong? God as my witness, I don’t know which is worse. Did Jason just… screw up?… Is it that simple? One mistake and—bang—game over. … So I went along. I took Conner down to the cave. And I spent five minutes just looking at Jason’s costume hanging there.”
I cannot describe the expression with which Master Dick now looked at me, except to say it was hauntingly similar to Master Bruce.
“I was so angry at Bruce, Alfred. He benched me, plain and simple, when I got shot by the Joker. He decided a trained, capable, mature partner is too much of a liability, and then turned right around and took on that green, reckless kid. I was so fucking angry, I turned my back on the both of them. And I will never, ‘til my dying day, know what that did to Jason Todd. If I hadn’t… If I had been there…”
He twisted his head and bit his lip in a manner I well remember from his youth, when tears threatened that he wished to choke back.
“I SWORE,” he said loudly, as if he could turn back those tears with sheer volume, “when Tim put on that costume, I swore he would NEVER be alone like that. I swore I would always be there for him, Alfred, no matter what. I’m sorry if it looks like I betrayed Bruce some way, but… Fcklugh.”
This last was in response to the tear that had welled, despite his efforts, and now dripped down his cheek.
There are no words of comfort one can fairly offer at such moments, so I merely placed a hand on his shoulder and gave him a few moments to collect himself as he might wish.
“Master Dick,” I said at last, “Questions that begin ‘If I had/if I had not’ have no true answers. You can never know how your actions may have impacted Master Jason’s fate. And if you could know, that knowledge would not change the past. The only good that can come of these musings is that which you have already found: in taking the lessons of the past, such as they may be, to guide your choices in the present. Your resolve and commitment to Master Tim is admirable. Master Bruce would be the last to condemn you for it.”
“I hope so, Alfred.” He sighed. “I really hope so.”
Batman surprised many within the “bat family” and the larger hero community in allowing Robin to pursue the case as he did with Superboy and Kid Flash. In my opinion, this merely shows how little they truly understand him.
As he himself put it to me “I wanted to spare him pain, Alfred. Not inflict more. Because I know it doesn’t help. I know having the fiend there, right under your fist, knowing what he did… it doesn’t help. It’s just one more moment to relive over and over. It only makes it worse and I didn’t want that for Tim… But Clark was right; he was going to get involved no matter what. Having to go around me to do it would have just shut me off from him at a time he most needed a friend. So of course I relented. What do they take me for, some kind of monster?”
This last question was directed, not to me, but to a small communicator that lay at his workstation. He had, as I said, made a full disclosure of his findings and given his blessing to Robin’s pursuing the case on his own. But he had no intention of letting that trio proceed unsupervised. He himself was already “suited up” and preparing to set out in the Batmobile. And, because of Superboy’s involvement, the master had enlisted Superman. If intervention became necessary, he could certainly not risk being hindered by ‘Tim’s well-meaning friend,’ even if that friend could hurl Batman into orbit.
Superman was already monitoring the situation and had relayed certain comments from the young heroes’ “com-chatter.” It was these remarks that caused Master Bruce to regard the communicator with such contempt and ask if his associates thought him a monster.
“Nope,” a chipper voice announced before us. “Just a stubborn jackass.”
“Good evening, Miss Selina,” I greeted her. “I see that you have already changed for your nightly… excursion.”
She winked at me in that impishly playful manner; I nodded and withdrew a few steps, that my presence might not hinder their conversation.
Miss Selina is no stranger to the cave, but she rarely comes down at that time of night. She keeps her costume under the bed, changes in her room, and, so far as I know, comes and goes as Catwoman almost exclusively through the upstairs windows. Her purpose in coming down at this hour could only be to catch the master before he left on patrol.
One did not, of course, strain to overhear their conversation, but one could not help but note certain phrases when a voice rose in agitation.
“I really hope you mean that,” Miss Selina was saying, “because I’ve got news that’s going to test the theory.”
“Nigma!” the master exclaimed a moment later, followed by Miss Selina, “So this is not rigid knee-jerk psychobat?” A few moments after that, she looked aggrieved as I heard her say “He didn’t word it as a question, if that’s what you mean.”
After perhaps a minute of inaudible murmurings, the master slammed his fist on the console and shouted “Because you don’t take what the enemy gives you!”
“That’s Ra’s, not Eddie,” Miss Selina declared firmly.
The master uttered something in reply that I did not hear—in response to which Miss Selina slapped him. I naturally thought it best to busy myself in another part of the cave entirely. I withdrew to the trophy room, always in need of a dusting, and only returned to the main chamber after the display cases rattled from the roar of the Batmobile’s departure.
I spent the remainder of the evening, as I have said, monitoring the C-channel and, through it, following Master Robin’s progress in pursuing Miss Stephanie’s killer. The young gentlemen broke off their activities that first night at 4:23. Superman, satisfied at the result, appears to have departed Gotham skies at 4:30, while Batman remained a further hour for “a quick patrol.”
This is not atypical behavior for him: whenever some undertaking, such as the clandestine watch over Master Robin, forces him to abandon his regular patrol schedule, he always manages to work in at least one make-up patrol—usually on the same night. It is not my habit to wait up for him until dawn on these occasions, but I did in this instance in case Master Bruce might wish to consult me after the somewhat fevered events of the day.
It quickly became apparent that he wished precisely that, for he scanned the cavern immediately on his return and, on seeing my person, he nodded and removed his cowl. He settled at the workstation, as always, and opened his log. The routine in times past has been that he types for a time, then unburdens himself on some matter, then types some more, talks some more, until the matter is resolved to his satisfaction.
Except on this occasion, he did not type but merely stared at the open log.
“Is she home?” he asked after a moment.
“I couldn’t say for certain, sir, but would imagine so,” I told him. “It is nearly dawn.”
The master responded with one of those low guttural utterances. After a short pause, in which again no typing occurred, he said:
“She talked to Nigma this afternoon. Did she tell you about that?”
“The Riddler, sir? Miss Selina informed me she was going out, sir, at about three o’clock. She did not reveal the purpose of the expedition and I saw so need to inquire.”
The master sighed heavily, then turned from the screen to face me directly.
“Well that’s where she went. He called her. He called her because… because… He hates Cluemaster, Arthur Brown, always has. Considers him a second-rate thug ripping off his ‘theme.’ Couple months ago it seems, he planted a spy among Brown’s henchmen.”
“I see, sir. And this agent of the Riddler unearthed some information that Mr. Nigma wished to relate to Miss Selina?”
“Something like that. Brown is gunning for Robin. Tim isn’t the only one blaming himself for what happened to Stephanie. Cluemaster has also decided that Robin is responsible for Spoiler’s death. Years of neglect and abuse, having her kidnapped, once nearly getting her killed, and now that she’s dead, he decides he’s the loving father.”
“Let me understand clearly what you’re saying, sir: Edward Nigma learned that the Cluemaster is mounting some sort of vendetta against Master Robin and… he warned you of this, sir? By way of Miss Selina?”
The master glared in a most disquieting manner before confirming that this was essentially the case.
“I confirmed it. It all checks out, exactly like she said.”
“A curious development, sir.”
“It makes some sense, Alfred. Nigma does hate Cluemaster. To his mind, this would be a rewarding puzzle: In going after Robin, Brown would be setting himself up for a load of ‘bat trouble’—if I found out first.”
“A certain irony, sir. Miss Stephanie took up the mantle of Spoiler in just this way, did she not?”
“What?” he asked absently.
“Miss Stephanie became the Spoiler to alert the police to her father’s activities in advance.”
“Yes, I suppose.”
Again, his voice was absent of any mark of comprehension, and I suspected he was not listening.
“Something more is troubling you, sir?”
“I said something I shouldn’t have, Alfred, when she told me about this.”
“Miss Selina, sir?”
He closed his eyes and wrinkled his brow, an expression of deep regret or deep fatigue. When, after a full minute’s silence, it became clear he intended to say no more, I pronounced it fatigue (although, in truth, I have my doubts) and sent him up to bed.
The next day, he informed me Miss Selina had gone to the Catitat. “She doesn’t want anybody with less than four feet to talk to her for a while,” is the way he phrased it.
The days that followed left little time for conversation on personal topics, the hunt for Miss Stephanie’s killer taking precedence. Master Robin’s team performed with exceptional skill, maturity, and dedication. The second night of their investigation, they obtained a most promising lead. The suspect had, when Robin and Spoiler first apprehended him, worn a T-shirt with a lewd expression and an obscene image. These have since been identified as the name and logo of a band that regularly perform at a Greenwich Village nightclub called Ernie’s. A waitress at this club remembered the suspect. She was able to supply the first name of his current alias and a guess as to the neighborhood where he might reside. Master Robin split his team, sending Kid Flash to check out that neighborhood while he and Superboy remained to stake out this nightclub.
Master Bruce was also obliged to alter his strategy. He had wanted, I need hardly say, to maintain the watch on Master Robin personally. If a confrontation with Miss Stephanie’s killer occurred, he was surely the best qualified to intercede with Master Robin should the situation require it.
It was not to be. The underworld, by now, was aflutter with the news that a bat operative had been killed. The stories were murky, contradictory, and uniformly inaccurate, but they served to excite this treacherous sub-section of the population. There were those, to be sure, who recognized bad news when they saw it: a crimefighter fallen would only spur those remaining to unprecedented fervor. Others, regrettably, saw it as a victory for all those who flouted the law. The master dispatched Azrael, Nightwing, and Huntress to establish a presence near the various dens of criminal activity. This kept matters well in hand so far as the general criminal population, but there was one nemesis, as always, who failed to conform to any predictable models.
The Joker saw the tales of a Bat-slaying in terms all his own. It was not a sign that crimefighters would be active, neither was it cause to rejoice. He saw it, evidently, as someone usurping his position. It was his prerogative to kill any “Bat-Sidekicks” that needed killing, and he vowed all manner of gruesome reprisals once he found the villain who violated that dictum.
The Joker is the one villain Master Bruce would never dream of “staffing out” to another operative. He took the matter in hand himself, and chose Black Canary to take his place watching Master Robin. You may at first wonder, as I did, why he would not turn to Nightwing for this task, Master Dick’s relationship with Master Tim being a close and brotherly one. The reason, regrettably, is that episode in the cave. Master Dick had shown himself ready to side with Master Tim, to conspire with him in effect to circumvent Master Bruce. One fears that Batman was simply not confident that Nightwing could be relied upon to step in as he should if the situation with Master Robin became volatile.
The task of watching Cluemaster he consigned to Batgirl. This may not have been the wisest assignment. Miss Stephanie and Miss Cassie were, after all, close friends. They would have talked, as all girls do, of likes and dislikes, common joys and common pain. Both had criminal fathers whose methods of upbringing gave each cause to complain. There is no way Master Bruce could have anticipated it, but in retrospect, it is easy to see how it all came about. Miss Cassie had every reason to view Arthur Brown as a vile beast that caused her friend pain. She was herself grieving that friend’s loss, when the beast attacked Robin, another friend and ally stricken by the same loss.
Batgirl did not deliberately overstep the bounds of physical force, of that we are all quite certain. What Master Bruce believes to have occurred is this: The Cluemaster held Robin responsible for his daughter’s demise, just as we were told. But he had blame enough to spare for anyone associated with Batman. When he closed in on Robin, preparing to make his move, Batgirl intervened. Cluemaster was enraged by the challenge—a crimefighter, a Gotham crimefigher, one of those who took his daughter from him—he attacked her, evidently, with a violence far beyond what she expected. A creature such as Arthur Brown could not hope to pose a threat to one of Miss Cassie’s abilities, but his vehemence provoked her to counter-attack in kind. The fight escalated sufficiently to tap into the anger and resentment of Miss Cassie’s own grief, as well as certain issues, one imagines, related to her own father.
Arthur Brown is expected to survive his injuries, indeed he was released from intensive care in less than six hours, and was transferred from Gotham General to the Arkham infirmary this morning.
The most serious ramification of the episode between Batgirl and Cluemaster was its pulling away all the carefully constructed supports around Master Tim. Superman first heard the disruption taking place a few blocks from Master Robin’s stake out. He informed Black Canary, who went at once to intercede. Superboy was the next to detect the commotion and, thinking it a diversion, went to investigate himself. Superman followed, his primary role in this mission being as a kind of check on Superboy.
This left Master Robin on his own when, as fate would have it, the suspect believed to be Miss Stephanie’s killer was sighted leaving the nightclub. Master Robin followed, in what state of mind one can only guess. I cannot bring myself to believe Master Tim would truly seek to bring about another’s death, even in circumstances such as these. I believe in my heart he would have apprehended the man and brought him to justice, if only the confrontation had remained between the two of them alone. But that conclusion was not meant to be.
The killer returned to his home, and Master Robin closed in, surveying the building, its windows, sightlines, entrances and exits, as he had been taught. In this brief time of preparation, he observed the Joker making for the entrance. A moment later, he saw Batman trailing the Joker.
It is not so very difficult to understand why Master Robin chose to act as he did. It is easy, in fact, to see how—having never set out intending the suspect’s death—one could not help but consider the possibility on seeing a known killer of the Joker’s famed brutality entering the man’s domicile. It is easy to see that, with the very real possibility being suggested to one’s mind, one could not help but feel a certain satisfaction from the thought.
It is easy, therefore, to see why Master Robin might have swung down to intercept Batman and delay his pursuit of the Joker.
The conversation was brief, as Master Bruce related it to me. It was heated and not without recrimination; one is pained to report that the participants did come to blows. But when the sounds of frenzied laughter were heard within the dwelling, Master Robin relented. Indeed, it appears it was he and not Batman who transported the individual for further medical attention after an antidote was administered.
Master Bruce’s injuries are not severe compared to those he has suffered in past battles with the Joker, although there is a marked stiffening around his lips. This has, of course, occurred before. It is not that frightful aftereffect of SmileX exposure that accounts for the Master’s foul temper this morning. It is, most certainly, the bruise on his jaw resulting from the altercation with Master Robin, coupled with Miss Selina’s ongoing absence.
To be continued...