The Journal of Alfred Pennyworth
Peace at last. If there has been a more trying night since the advent of Miss Selina in the master’s life, one would be hard pressed to say when it was. If one were sensible, one would collapse into bed rather than spend further time dwelling on the events of the day. And yet, in these weeks since Master Bruce’s injury, I have so often consulted that earlier journal, the one I kept at the time of the Bane calamity. The value of keeping such a record is plain. Revisiting those vivid accounts of my own turmoil has placed so much of the present circumstance into perspective.
Case in point: Guilt is not a logical emotion. It was not I who drove Master Bruce to the brink of exhaustion all those years ago, where judgment was impaired and the physical body pushed past its limits, nor did I subject him to a “back breaker” maneuver which fractured his vertebrae and threatened to end his career as Batman. I merely held a private hope that Master Bruce might one day willingly abandon his crimefighting vocation and the nightly peril in which it placed him. It was never my wish to see that end forced upon him, and when it seemed that might be the case, the guilt I felt was profound.
Enlightened by that experience, I can weigh the guilt I feel tonight by its proper measure. It was not I who ran Miss Selina through with a saber, nor did I stab her with a poison-tipped dagger. Nor was it I, for that matter, who imposed on her to take up a crimefighting mission to which she is not perhaps inclined. My culpability is confined to an oversight, which admittedly contributed to her ordeal. But it would be folly, self-indulgent folly, to blow my error out of all proportion and indulge in histrionics of self-importance and self-pity as a result. I can serve the master and the mistress best if I examine my guilt briefly, that I be able to master it and put it aside. Enlightened by the exercise, I might then use this fresh understanding to help them both through their own turmoil.
Let me therefore inspect my role in tonight’s events.
Master Bruce I knew as “Master Bruce” from literally the day his name was chosen and inscribed in the family bible. Miss Selina, by contrast, was Catwoman long before I came to know her as “Miss Selina.” It might be said she was a mythic figure from an oral legend, since I came to know her only as the maddening but beguiling antagonist in Master Bruce’s accounts of their encounters as Master Bruce himself chose to relate them. If one eventually came to realize he was in no great danger from the adversary he found so compelling, one certainly came away feeling she was a considerable threat to anyone she wished to threaten.
When she became a woman of flesh and blood, a keenly awaited guest invited to the manor for whom one was called upon to prepare Leg of Lamb a la Pennyworth and open a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it was Catwoman who acquired a name by which one could address her as one took her coat. But Catwoman she has always remained, in that she has always been a fixture of that nocturnal world, evolved in the night as Batman was and at one with its dangers.
In short, one has been blind to the peril in which that young woman places herself, simply because it did not constitute a change as it did when Master Bruce began his activities as Batman. And yet, these past weeks did constitute a change, and one is at a loss to explain one’s failure to anticipate this eventuality.
Since coming to live at the manor, Miss Selina has only once sought out my medical services, and that was a day later and at Master Bruce’s insistence. She had treated her own wounds and her efforts would have been adequate were it not for the possibility of encountering sharks in her next adventure. There was an understandable concern about antagonizing them if trace amounts of blood were exposed to the open air. In other words, apart from this one extraordinary episode, one has been left with the impression that Catwoman had worked out all she needed to in order to conduct her nocturnal affairs in a way that worked for her. She had done this long before she entered the household, and one has been inclined to let her be.
Nevertheless, these past weeks she has not been conducting “her own affairs;” she has been conducting Batman’s. Acting on intelligence Catwoman herself obtained, Batman had quickly established a “shipping firm” which was, in effect, a broker of cargo space on existing shipping lines. This brilliant maneuver gave the impression of a huge, multi-national undertaking with dozens of ships in its registry that had long been a fixture in foreign ports. An operation of such breadth and depth, it could not possibly have been brought into being overnight, even with the vast Wayne fortune at its command.
Batman then exploited an ersatz alliance between Ra’s al Ghul and elements within the Russian mob. One gathers that the Russians want no part of the arrangement and it is only Ra’s al Ghul who fancies they are working together. This one-sided arrangement was easy to manipulate. Nightwing conducted a few carefully scripted “interrogations” with key Russian thugs which succeeded in placing the name of NMK Shipping before Ra’s al Ghul as the desired operation to smuggle his minions into Gotham.
As a sidenote: one was appalled to learn these “minions,” enemies though they may be, were being transported as cargo. One has naturally heard horrific accounts of Chinese dissidents packing themselves into crates and arriving on our shores in conditions that must tear at the heart of any compassionate being. One expressed one’s horror that even a fiend of Ra’s al Ghul’s amoral nature could subject his own followers to such conditions. Master Bruce assured me that it is the numbers and illicit nature of the departure which makes the dissidents’ plight so dire. When it is ten or twelve men only, rather than forty or sixty inhabiting a container, and when the container is actually made for the purpose of covert human transport and is thus equipped with a degree of sanitary facilities, they can apparently travel quite comfortably. The conditions are spartan, to be sure, but well within that level of privation a fanatic will happily endure for his cause.
Once the cargo containers are entrusted to NMK, the DEMON agents within are, in effect, Batman’s prisoners. They are loaded onto a ship bound for Gotham, just as their masters intended. Paperwork is issued to specify the unloading to a bonded holding area to await customs inspection. Such holding areas and the bureaucracy which governs the movement of parcels through inspection are not easily compromised, but the checks and double checks are no match for the combined efforts of Oracle altering the computer records while Catwoman gains entry to swap the physical paperwork. Once a cargo container is unloaded, it sits idle until the next shift of workers arrives. It is then moved to a third location where it is picked up by another NMK crew and loaded onto another ship to be returned to the port from whence it came. At this writing, two crates of minions have been thusly “returned to sender,” while a third, due to a scheduling necessity, is en route to Bolivia. Master Bruce calculates that it will be four days before Ra’s al Ghul can learn how his plan has miscarried, by which time another nine crates of minions will be in transit.
If he were active, Batman would naturally monitor the unloading and reloading of the cargo containers from an unobtrusive distance. Since he cannot do it himself, he imposed on Catwoman to keep watch. Tonight she did just that, watching over the civilian dockworkers as they unknowingly transport a crate of assassins, and then keeping an eye on said crate until it is picked up again. Shortly after she began her watch, it seems that a trio of minions from the established Chinatown cell arrived on the scene.
One should explain that DEMON is not an organization where information flows freely in the normal course of events. As a rule, the left hand does not know what the right is doing. If the Chinatown operation knew a dozen minions were expected and those minions then failed to arrive, the expected conclusion is that it was a decision of their glorious master, whose ways are inscrutable and whose wisdom is not open to question. Batman did not, therefore, anticipate this kind of interference. Nevertheless, Catwoman was there to handle whatever unexpected development might occur.
She swooped in to protect the dockworkers. One of the minions tried to open the cargo container, to increase their odds with the addition of a dozen ready assassins. Catwoman prevented him, but in so doing, she opened herself up to the saber strike. Fortunately, no internal organs were pierced, but the physical trauma to a body being run through in such a fashion is not slight. She fought on, nevertheless, and in the course of the ensuing struggle, she sustained two minor cuts from a dagger. One should note that this term does not indicate the street usage but an actual ceremonial weapon such as the master has encountered many times on the servants of Ra’s al Ghul. They are habitually dipped in a poison which is, fortunately, meant to slow a combatant’s responses rather than directly bring about their demise by swiftly shutting down vital processes. Catwoman was able to hold her own until the minions were forced to retreat, for the dockworkers had sounded every possible alarm and sirens were soon to be heard closing in on the facility.
How exactly Catwoman extracted herself from the scene, I could not say, but one is given to understand from the “pffting” sound in which she dismisses the episode, that it is a skill she has perfected in her years operating on the wrong side of the law.
Here, however, one must abandon the detached nature of the narrative and admit one’s fault, for it is here my oversights come into play.
In the earliest days of Master Bruce’s mission, I remained awake throughout the night and took pains to remain in those parts of the house where I would hear his early return. In short, I took it upon myself to be alert and aware if he came home in need of medical attention. As his mission progressed, mechanisms were put into place, such as the relay which sounds in my room should the Batmobile return to the cave on autopilot. It was foolish of me not to realize these failsafes are all built around Master Bruce’s crimefighting arsenal and habits, and that a return to the old ways was called for if Miss Selina was to benefit while she is acting in Batman’s stead.
Master Bruce would have summoned the car via voice command and had it transport him home without further effort. Miss Selina made her way to her own car and (with difficulty one imagines, given the cumulative effects of the blood loss and poison, not to mention the pain) drove herself home. With the goal of reaching the cave paramount in her mind, she appears to have suffered a collapse once that goal was achieved. If she had been in the Batmobile, I would have known her plight and been waiting on the spot to assist her. Indeed, I would have been in communication with her as the car neared the manor, assuming she was conscious, and so briefed on her condition, I would have had my supplies at the ready and the antidote ready to administer the moment the car door was opened.
As it was, Miss Selina was forced to drag herself from the car to the master’s workstation, and from there, to the chair to activate the intercom. One found her there, conscious but on her last fibers of endurance, a condition in which one has discovered Master Bruce on no fewer than twenty occasions. One allows that, disquieting though it is to find a dearly loved charge in such a condition, one has at least grown used to it from repetition. Seeing Miss Selina in that state was unnerving beyond my power to express.
One has seen her weak with fever, and one has seen her bruised but stubbornly untroubled by it. One has never seen her brutally skewered and one hopes never to behold such a spectre again.
My first priority, of course, was to stop the bleeding and ascertain if any internal organs had been punctured. It was not apparent at that moment that the wound was inflicted by a saber, and my patient was no longer conscious to inform me how her condition came about. Hence, the blood loss and possibility of internal injuries were the most immediate points of concern. I was midway through that examination when I noted my patient’s pulse was elevated, and her breathing unnaturally shallow. Knowing there were DEMON operations in progress, I hastily administered an antidote for the poison we know their daggers often contain. I resumed the examination and stitched up the large wound. When Miss Selina regained consciousness, she confirmed the dagger and directed my attention to the cuts it inflicted. No stitches were required there, but I administered an antiseptic salve.
Thus far, Miss Selina is a far more biddable patient than Master Bruce. She has expressed more gratitude since waking than all the rest of my patients in the long course of my caring for them. I confess I was almost put off by it, at first. It reminded one of the less worldly young ladies Master Bruce sometimes brought to the house in the days of the playboy pose, who went into such litanies of thanksgiving if one so much as held their chair or refilled their water glass. I mean really, what did she expect me to do, leave her lying on the floor to perish from her injuries?
Then I realized that, in that lengthy period already described, when she was Catwoman long before I came to know her as Miss Selina, she would not have had any such help awaiting her once she made it home. Her little feline companions are affectionate, to be sure, but they could not stitch up a knife wound. It is a certainty that, living as she did, she must have had occasion to drag herself home in similarly battered condition, only to face the disheartening task of patching herself up alone. It is certainly understandable that, given that history, she would have a heightened appreciation for the services one can provide. One is still somewhat embarrassed by her warm expressions of gratitude, but one is learning to live with it.
There is one aspect of Miss Selina’s behavior as a patient in which I must regrettably declare her quite as infuriating as Master Bruce: she has already begun to berate herself for what she should have done differently. The Batmobile has not occurred to her, but she has realized that she possesses an OraCom and could have “had Barbara call the house” rather than suffer that final death crawl to the intercom. One did not think it prudent to suggest alternative points at which Miss Barbara might have been contacted to relay information. One simply prescribed rest, tidied one’s workspace, and stopped at workstation 3 to log the medical supplies used and update the inventory. That task complete, I turned, intending to return to the med lab and check on Miss Selina one last time before retiring for the night.
I turned—and there stood Master Bruce, beads of sweat upon his brow, his lips distorted in a grimace of pain, but his body locked into that posture of immovable resolve with which it is quite pointless to argue.
“How is she?” he rasped.
I told him. There was no point in attempting any other topic of conversation until that question was answered. He interrupted no fewer than six times once he heard DEMON was involved. His principle concern was the poison, and at his insistence, I have taken a sample of Miss Selina’s blood “for further analysis.” His fear, evidently, is that Ra’s al Ghul might have modified the poison he has used for 800 years, rendering our antidote ineffective. I find this unlikely from an organization still using sabers and daggers, but there are times it is prudent to simply give Master Bruce what he wants and move on.
Once he was fully briefed on Miss Selina’s condition, I was able to learn how he came to be standing there, endangering his own recovery with this ill-conceived effort getting out of bed and making his way to the cave.
Apparently, Master Bruce has been monitoring the Batcomputer’s log entry interface every night when Miss Selina goes out to patrol. Tonight, when the hour came and went and no log entry was begun, he assumed she had finally adopted the behavior he expected from the beginning, a mindset he describes as “Kitty’s not gonna follow your rules.” As more time passed and she didn’t join him in bed, he surmised that she might be “stuck out somewhere on the case. Some surveillance, tracking down a clue, following a suspect, et cetera.”
Now, one is well acquainted with the particular marks of denial Master Bruce has always exhibited where Miss Selina is concerned. The fact that he enumerates the specific crimefighting activities with which she might be occupied hints that he was in no way convinced that was the case. He had been lying there for an hour or more, mapping out crimefighting scenarios and trying to convince himself that’s what was going on, his unconscious fears multiplying as the minutes passed. When an alert finally did sound that a log had been accessed, his relief would be great indeed. When he snatched up his device to read along and saw it was I accessing the medical inventory… well, what more is there to be said?
What Miss Selina describes as “the hero-addled mindset” is fairly easy to anticipate: Catwoman was hurt. He was going to rush to her side to help her in any way that he could, and any risk to himself was irrelevant. That he might be setting his own recovery back three or four weeks would never have entered his head. If it did, he wouldn’t care. He risks life and limb for strangers, what is a little physical pain for the sake of the woman he loves? The fact that he couldn’t actually do anything for her, that is a triviality he will face when he gets there—once the damage is done, in so far as straining his back. It is not logical, but love is not logical, nor is guilt, and I have no doubt Master Bruce grappled with both in his painstaking journey down the stairs.
I have assured him twice now that I have everything under control, and if he would only return to bed, I will update him as soon as I know anything more. I have told him that there is nothing he can do. I have told him Miss Selina will be fine and that she only needs rest.
His maddening response?
“So I'm just supposed to sit up there and worry?”
One could not refrain from telling him that it might do him some good.
It was a lapse to be sure, but one has long thought it would benefit Master Bruce to know what it is like to remain behind when he roars out of the cave in that monstrosity of a vehicle to pursue his Mission.
The momentary ire passed, however, when one saw his eyes darting around the cave—to the med lab, to the chemistry lab, to the gymnasium, and once again to the med lab.
“I’m down here now,” he declared firmly. “And it’s pointless to aggravate my back further going back upstairs. I can stay down here with Selina, sleep in the med lab, and do my physical therapy in the gymnasium. I couldn’t before because Bruce Wayne was known to be injured, but enough time has passed now that he’s better. Wayne One will fly to Barbados in the morning, and that’s that.”
“Master Bruce,” I began, only to be cut off by that tone I have come to know as “the lord of the manor has spaketh and the law of the land is decreed.”
“That’s that,” he repeated. “Unless you want to go to Barbados. Do you want to go to Barbados, Alfred? I think the cricket World Cup is starting about now.”
I politely declined, and suggested, as he was determined to remain in the cave, that he at least lie down and recover from his exertions. He picked up the blood sample and said he wanted to analyze it for toxins before he went to sleep.
I followed, as I was quite sure he would be up until noon if unprodded, and once again I was offered a paid holiday in Barbados. I waited impassively as he prepared a slide, and waited again while he scrutinized it under a microscope. I waited while he punched up a file from the database and compared the image in the microscope with the image on the viewscreen. When he spoke, however, his words had nothing to do with the sample.
“Least I could have done was upgrade her suit,” he said bitterly. “I mean, there are reasons the Batsuit has undergone 247 changes over the years.”
“Indeed,” I concurred. “I remember every modification, Master Bruce, and the incidents which led to each. The suit has indeed come to resemble a suit of armor more than a costume.”
“What was I thinking, Alfred? She’s not… She’s not used to crap like this. Ra’s al Ghul and poisoned… I told myself she knew what she was getting into. I told myself if she wasn't ready for this type of confrontation, she shouldn't have gone along with it. What the hell was I… Blaming the victim now? Is that what Batman’s come to? She didn’t know what she was agreeing to. I did. I had no business letting her…”
I was at a loss, at that moment, so I merely placed a hand upon his shoulder and assured him that Miss Selina would be fine. I retired to my room with a cup of hot milk, and have spent this last hour trying to settle my own thoughts on the matter.
It is a paradox of Master Bruce’s life that he fears another loss like the one which made him Batman, and yet the very act of being Batman endangers those he loves.
Such an observation is not likely to bring comfort.
And yet, what further comfort can he have tonight? Miss Selina is alive and safe. Whatever might have happened, it did not. She is in the cave with him, and as he plans to stay there for the remainder of his convalescence, one can expect their working relationship can only deepen in rapport and understanding in the coming weeks.
As the upper floor of the manor is now unoccupied by any but myself and the cats, I have left my door open and allowed Miss Nutmeg to enter and finish my hot milk.
To be continued...