Chapter 5: Deep into That Darkness Peering
I had a dream once. I was in a beautiful ballroom, floors polished beyond belief, like dancing on a marble mirror. The walls and columns, even the doors and the underside of the balconies were covered with symbols and glyphs. Some peculiar stairs on the far end led up to those balconies that circled the room, so the whole thing looked like a gothic Escher painting… the kind full of optical illusions where there isn’t really a way out. It was a masked ball. And I was dancing with a tall and rather mysterious figure who, judging by the mouth and chin, was quite handsome. His mask was white, and came all the way down to the tip of his nose and then followed the cheekbones out to the side. It reminded me of something but I couldn’t think what it was. And he had a title. I don’t remember what it was, but I recall not being surprised because he had this long stringy hair that could do with a wash and a faint odor that said ‘not a daily bather.’ At an event like that, outdated notions of hygiene generally mean some sort of minor royalty—not that any of us knew what “an event like that” was.
My dance partner noted that none of the guests seemed to know each other, and there were weird notations, a number and a line of verse, on each of our invitations. He was sure they would add up to a riddle of some kind, a typical party game except… except there was this feeling hanging over the place. We were obviously expected to compare notes, work together to assemble this little ditty, but something made you not want to work with anybody, not trust anybody, not give up the one thing you had that they didn’t know. My partner and I decided that, since we agreed on that much, we would share our clues only with each other and we agreed on a lie to tell everyone else. I told him the number and line of verse on my clue, hoping I wasn’t making a terrible mistake. He told me his, or at least he started to. “Seek for the Sign of the Bat” was as far as he got when this foamy spittle whiter than his mask started oozing out of his mouth. The hand he was leading with clutched my back tighter. His eyes were staring, and there was this tiny, tiny dot of blood coming out of the one corner. Another, slightly larger drop dripped from his nostril causing the white foam on his lips to fizzle into pink froth as it hit. The arm around my waist was now stiff and the other hand that held mine began to crush my fingers. I started to scream when the lights went out and his convulsion pulled me down to the floor on top of him—
I woke up in a cold sweat.
Not the end of the world.
Kind of thing you have to expect when you’ve stolen a silver box with a carved carnelian elephant on it that turned out not to be an elephant but some chap with an unpronounceable name that translates into “Lord of Nightmares.” It didn’t even mean the absurd Mr. Blood was telling the truth about there being mystical objects in the Xing collection; it might only mean I was suggestible. In any case, I was not about to tuck in my tail and give him the box. Just because I had a nightmare? Pfft. No, if Blood wanted that box now, he’d have to pay. I was perfectly willing to conduct myself like a civilized thief when I ran into him in the Xing penthouse and we could have come to an arrangement. I’d only come for a porcelain cat and a dragon vase I had a buyer for. There was some old silver and a few other pieces that looked worthwhile, now that I was there, but I had absolutely no interest in the elephant box and I would have negotiated anything except the cat. There was no reason for him to be such a prick. We could have come to an arrangement. Instead he read my mind (which is rude) and made an insinuation about Batman (also rude) and… and just generally pissed me off. So I took the box he had broken into the penthouse for, and now he’d have to pay to get it back.
At least that was the plan. Until my prowl that night when I saw, running through the sky like Santa’s reindeer—dogs! Freaking flying dogs! Glowing red eyes, black as panthers and nearly as large, but flying in a pack any cat would consider beneath its dignity. Dignity wasn’t really a thing though: snarling was a thing. Fangs and barking too, but mostly the snarl. This noise inside it that vibrated through you, it said: Be afraid. Fear is what makes you taste so good. We like to bathe our prey in fear before we feed. When we crunch your bones and slurp your blood, it is fear that makes it sweet.
They had chased me for nearly an hour and I was getting tired—not just the running, but the barking, the literally infernal barking—when I noticed that part was softer. I hadn’t dared to look back in a while and when I did, I saw I had widened my lead. They were still coming though, too black for a bright city sky. There it was, the myth of “cat burglar camouflage” coming at me on sixteen legs. I took off again, but I’d just tasted my first moment of hope in what seemed like a month. I started thinking as I ran: it didn’t seem like I was running faster. Hell, the way my legs were tiring, I had probably slowed down. So how the hell did I gain that lead? I couldn’t think of anything special in the patch before I noticed the barking fall away, and it was possible—not likely, but possible—that with all the adrenaline pumping, I didn’t notice the drop-off until a minute or two after it happened. I couldn’t think of any way to figure it out but to double back and cover the same territory again, but this time, to pay attention…
It took some circling back combined with dropping down to street level be able to turn a full 180 without running at the demon pups, but I eventually managed. When I saw it on the horizon, I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid not to realize at once. I’d taken my usual rooftop path up Fifth Avenue, turning at Saks, and the dogs—the Hell Hounds—turned to go around St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Holy ground. They couldn’t cross the airspace over a church. Yippie! I made for the spires, and the devil mongrels stopped at the perimeter, making that pitiful ‘gotta pee’ whimper as I made my way down. They followed me down to street level, but they never came any closer. That “bathe in your fear” vibe had changed too. They still snarled between whimpers, but that message underneath had changed. Now it was more “this sidewalk is really hot and burning our paws, why are you making us hang out here?” I would have liked to send a message of my own the same way, but lacking the demon dog psychic uplink, all I could think to do was the unblinking stare of infinite calm and patience when a wildcat stalks its prey. You look at the beast, look him straight in the eyes, and then after a beat of five, you do finally blink slowly and very deliberately. Scares the living hell out of birds.
Hell Hounds don’t scare, of course, but they’re still dogs and they respond to an alpha. I was still the enemy and if I took a step off consecrated ground, they were going to come at my throat—but there wasn’t going to be any more of that “Fear is why you’re tasty” nonsense they do for the tourists.
“Good,” I said quietly, turned and went inside.
I didn’t have a plan. I figured I wouldn’t need one. I could rest, which was what I most cared about, and my tush hit the back pew with a thud. At some point either a priest would come along and we’d talk bell, book and candle stuff—I didn’t anticipate skepticism when the beasties were snarling outside his door—or else the man himself would arrive. And that’s what actually did occur. After about fifteen minute the big doors swung open and Jason Blood strolled in like a man window-shopping on a fine spring day. He dipped his fingers in the holy water—which, knowing what I know now, I assume was to piss off Etrigan (which also explains the impish little smile as he crossed himself.)
This time, that wasn’t going to happen.
It was a nightmare Dick had, on and off, since his first year operating solo as Nightwing: He was Robin again. He’d asked Batman, since the city was so big, how he decided where to patrol each night. No matter where they went, they’d miss something. And if they played by the numbers and stayed in the high-crime areas, wouldn’t that be, like, stupid predictable?
“Like stupid predictable?” Batman repeated sourly. “Ask properly and I’ll tell you.”
At the cusp of his most rebellious teen years, Dick had refused to do so: Batman knew damn well what he meant, communication had occurred, why be such an ass? He spend the rest of patrol in a grumbling funk. The next couple nights he didn’t patrol (AP Geometry was kicking his butt and he was down to two Robin-nights a week until he got that C+ up to at least a B.) The next time Batman and Robin patrolled together, Batman did answer his question. Without preamble, he explained exactly how to do it, the magic formula distilled from the expertise and experience of Gotham’s Dark Knight… and Dick wasn’t listening. It wasn’t even that he actively tuned it out; he just didn’t bother paying attention. It didn’t interest him anymore, it was boring. Now people were going to die.
People were going to die because he wasn’t paying attention. The batline he swung on became a trapeze and his mother was tumbling towards him for the catch. He didn’t remember the routine because he couldn’t be bothered paying attention and now—and now—
Usually the dream ended with his fingers just sliding against his mother’s wrist, just a split second too late to grasp the forearm properly for the catch. There was a lurch in his gut plunging like a dagger into his bowels and a matching thrust of recognition shooting up his throat into his skull. That’s when he woke up, all but two times. Once there was an extra second when he actually heard her scream; that was about a week after Jason died. And once, after Bane broke Bruce, the failed catch somehow propelled him backwards and the sick lurch in his gut was because he was falling too.
It was quite a while since Dick had that dream, with any of its variations, but the call from Jim Gordon brought a disquieting echo. Nobody was falling at least. Nobody was going to die because he screwed up. It wasn’t the subconscious fear behind his dream but the narrative trappings it came out in. He knew Commissioner Gordon wanted him available—wanted Dick Grayson available—when the two units involved in the pilot program used the first wave of improvised Bat-tech for the first time. He’d considered himself on call and was basically neglecting Bludhaven while the 29th Precinct got on its feet. Now that they had their sea legs, it was Major Case’s turn and he knew—he just knew—if he decided to sneak in one night’s patrol in Bludhaven, just to look in on the place to assuage his guilt, he just knew he’d get a call to come speeding back to Gotham.
He knew the minute he heard her voice on the comm. ..::Dickie?::.. she said, and it wasn’t the kitchen table form of address, but that note in her voice. ..::My dad called. Can you call him at the office asap? Asap meaning in the next five minutes, not thirty.::..
I’d made it to the nearest church—with an idiot yuppie called Brian in tow, because the moron figured out I knew what the demon mutt was. He did not figure out that I was the one it was here to mess with. He wanted to stick with me because I would “know what to do.” (I didn’t.)
At least, I didn’t know what to do about the devil-woof. Yuppie-Brian on the other hand...
“Look,” I said, “Etrigan summoned that thing because I was following him. If you just get away from me, I’m sure it—”
“Jesus, you know its name?” he squawked.
“Don’t blaspheme in a church when you’re claiming sanctuary,” I told him as if it should be perfectly obvious even to a halfwit that reads the Gotham Post. “Now, the rhyming demon’s—”
“Name is Etrigan, I got that,” he said eagerly, as if he’d finally clued in that it was life-or-death stuff going down and he should try to keep up.
“I have been following him since the hospital—”
“Where he told you to go back to,” he said with a proud nod. “What do you think he meant by that?”
“I think he was trying to unnerve me,” I lied. “Get me to leave him alone, stop following so he could go have his fun.”
“How could you possibly stop him?” he asked (a very good question and, frankly, his least idiotic move to date).
“I have no idea,” I admitted.
“Why were you going after him then?”
“I don’t know… It’s what you do,” I said.
“That’s very brave or very dumb,” he said in wonder.
“They’re not mutually exclusive,” I told him.
It was twelve blocks from the Roff Paramount to the south entrance of Robinson Park, not a challenge for any healthy Gothamite to walk—or in Ivy’s case, run. She was not panicked; goddesses didn’t. She wasn’t sure how long her babies would last against that great hulking monstrosity, but it was all the time she’d have to reach the haven of the park. The way her chest was burning, she wanted two things: to lie face down in the grass and let the cool dew of untrampled grass sooth her, or a bubble bath. It was something Harley mentioned once, and even then she couldn’t think when she’d last indulged that way. An actual bubble bath and some music, or even a bubble bath for two, which is what Ha—well, it didn’t matter. She didn’t even have a tub at the greenhouse; only a shower. She was minutes from the park and it was anybody’s guess if she’d live long enough to make it to a Hacienda.
At the circus, there was an act called the Fabvlvs III, Roman-themed. Jack, Jackie and Len, did a lot of balancing and contortions on a chariot. They had a picture book with Roman soldiers in colorful red and gold armor, with flowing capes, that was one of Dick’s earliest memories. And he remembered Jackie showing him the chariot and telling him about a Roman Triumph that they based their act around. How the victorious general would wear laurels and ride through the streets with all the crowds cheering, and to keep it from going to his head so he didn’t start thinking he was a god, a slave would ride in the chariot with him and whisper “Memento mori” Remember thou art mortal.
Then came the accident that was no accident, and Dick went to live at Wayne Manor. He’d been there about three months before he found the painting. It was huge, by some French guy. The colors were more muted than the Fabvlvs III costumes, but Dick still recognized them. It was a real Roman triumph. The guy on the chariot wearing laurels, the guy behind him whispering at regular intervals to remind him he wasn’t a god. And on a worn little plate on the bottom of the frame, the words of that whisper and he guessed the name of the painting: Memento Mori. It wasn’t until that night Dick had the nightmare. Climbing the ladder, hearing something he couldn’t make out over the crowd. Taking his place on the platform over the center ring, and then hearing it clearly once he was above the noise of the crowd. A disembodied whisper: Memento Mori.
He never told Bruce or Alfred; he just never went back to that particular room. Even today, Dick couldn’t say he’d been in that room more than four times. And it wasn’t a recurring nightmare. He only had it, in the original form, that one time. He needed no reminder of mortality, his own or anyone else’s. Instead, the ominous whisper had changed into something more deeply personal: Memento stulti. Remember thou art careless.
Bruce doesn’t believe in coincidence and neither does Jason. As different as their views are on most subjects, that’s one thing they agree on. They’re also not keen on luck. I find it hard to be so sure. Sometimes it seems like if you’re in the right groove—the way cats are inclined to be—the Universe has a way of helping you along. Case in point: Father Benjamin.
It was Father Benjamin who found Brian and I in the little brick church we’d run to. Father Benjamin was a lifelong Gothamite who grew up in Brooklyn and was assigned to a Sugar Hill parish before this one, both neighborhoods with plenty of voodoo, juju, and less “hybrid” beliefs. He didn’t blink at the talk of a hell hound outside his church, nor did he become skeptical when we opened the door and didn’t see it. He said to wait here, went off and came back with a couple of candles, a cross, a bible and a bell. We sent Brian on his way first, as I was sure the hound wasn’t interested in him. When he’d made it all the way across the street, he waved and ran off—home or to the nearest open bar if he had any sense, but I’m betting it was back to his torched Lexus and a call to his insurance.
I went next and, sure enough, the demon mutt came snarling into view as soon as my boot hit the second step outside the door. He ran into position to intercept me as soon as I reached the sidewalk. Having smoked him out, I took a step to the side without stepping off the church property, giving Father Benjamin a clear shot. He pointed the cross at demon pup’s nose and ordered him away. Just like that. No Latin, no chanting, no arm waving, nothing elaborate you could call an exorcism. Just that very firm tone you use with a dog to tell it you are not kidding—backed up by a silver cross in the hands of a man of faith. It was really impressive: another of those little hurt-puppy yelps as it turned away and then “running off” that vanished into absolute nothingness in a few trotting steps. I wondered if the Wayne Foundation could do something for this struggling little parish… when I heard the sirens. Not an unusual sound in the city, but I heard it the moment I thought the name Wayne. Etrigan’s words came back to me: Go back to the hospital. Deduce that rhymed with Bruce.
He was just trying to unnerve me. He was. But I took off in the direction of the sirens anyway.
He felt like an ass. He knew deep down in his gut that if he went to Bludhaven tonight, that call would come from Gordon: Major Case opening an investigation at a complex crime scene and expecting to roll out the new gear. Nightwing was kicking himself and thinking ahead to the return to Gotham, the quickest way to get there and where to change into Dick Grayson’s civilian attire. Occupied with these thoughts, he asked Babs to just patch the call through over the Oracom and he barely noticed when she said no. It was nearly a minute before that sunk in.
“Um, why do I have to call again?”
..::He didn’t say.::..
“No, I mean why can’t we use the com?”
..::Don’t be an idiot, Dickie. If Dad knows it’s possible to patch a phone call into the OraCom, then one day he’s going to ask me to put him through to Batman, and that will be the end of life as we know it.::..
She was right and Dick closed the comm, called Gordon the regular way and told himself to get his head out of his ass before he screwed up something important.
The notice from Gordon was exactly what he thought: Major Case was investigating a 3-alarm, high-profile, high-casualty incident at the Diamond Horseshoe, details TBD, Dick should report to Detective Rowanski at the scene. Having his hunch confirmed didn’t feel like rain as soon as he washed his car or the cable man coming to the door as soon as he gave up waiting and stepped into the john. It felt like that old nightmare, like Batman taught him better than this—how to manage his time, how balance the obligation of competing cities and identities—and he would be doing it better if he’d been paying attention.
That was better. The feel of the grass soothed the burning in her sternum, though she wasn’t exactly feeling better. She felt different, but not better. Now her chest felt congested, like she wanted to cough but couldn’t. It was probably just the exertion, running all those blocks.
She rolled onto her back with a sigh, the grass felt just as soothing on the divide up the center of her back as it did on her chest, and she sent out what felt like a general call. No pheromones this time, just plants. The park flora weren’t as mobile as her specially grown babies, but they were loyal. They would uproot themselves when she called and try to sustain themselves as they went, take root again when they were able. If they failed, they would be dead by morning, but that wouldn’t prevent them. Not like that stupid Zed breaking out of the green when he saw what she looked like, and then Bruce with that demon. Self-preservation. The flaw of pheromones. Control based on desire would only go so far, and she’d never found a way to get the loyalty from a person that she had from a plant.
Well, until now, she thought with a smile. A leafy shrub had answered her call, and she ordered its large cool leaves to find a spot on the green side and wrap tightly around her arm and leg. Now she finally had self-preservation on her side. They would do what she wanted or their clothes would tear them to pieces. Pheromones never really suited her anyway. The way they looked when they wanted her, it was disgusting.
High above, on a gleaming art deco falcon’s head that was sleeker and more streamlined than any medieval gargoyle, Etrigan looked down on the park and scratched himself. The thickening circle of greenery in the Sheep Meadow would be her. An interesting problem, that one.
He could just burn her, of course, but it wouldn’t be any fun. Burning the plants she rallied around her for protection. The “goddess” was no such thing. The mortal witch would die in the smoke; there was no sport in it. He didn’t want coughing, he wanted shrieks and wails and the smell of her blood as he slashed. A cry of terror ending in a gurgle, and a salty stickiness under his claws to make up for that putrid sap. Oh she had a lot to answer for, the druid cunny.
She would pay a little now. It was he twisting the loyalty of plants into the fickleness of men in her mind—men who were unreliable, even when enslaved. He blew on the ember of her disgust and breathed it in like incense, no Gaia-stink there. A small down payment on her debt.
Now, how to draw her out?
Before even setting foot in the Diamond Horseshoe, Dick was uncomfortable with Detective Rowanski. He was open and welcoming, just as the men of the 29th had been. An ordinary consultant brought in from on high would have been met with suspicion, but Dick was Bludhaven PD. Retired or not he was a brother in blue, and that was good enough for them. But Dick had sensed something more in the guy from that opening handshake. It was a type he’d come to know well as Bruce Wayne’s son, a type that wasn’t intimidated by wealth and power but who still respected it—in the way a man respects fire, knowing it can burn you if you’re not careful. The analogy seemed apt when Rowanski said he’d recently been transferred from Arson. And Dick could see why: that perspective and manner that came down to diplomacy. He’d be able to conduct himself with the press and with the high profile individuals involved in the crimes Major Case dealt with.
That was the part that made Dick uncomfortable.
“I understand we owe all this Wayne Tech to you. You’re Bruce Wayne’s son, isn’t that right? Very fortunate connection. I met him a few months ago. Difficult circumstances, when Miss Kyle was in that explosion. Good to know he’s not holding a grudge. Then of course I met her again at the Foundation offices when that cat burglar was going after the fundraisers.”
It was exactly the right thing to say. It established the prior relationship, making full disclosure, but did not take a position on Selina, leaving it for Dick to indicate whether or not he approved of her. It was exactly the right thing to say, and it revealed a sharp awareness of relationships. The last thing Dick wanted was a smart man with a deductive mind to sense a connection between Wayne Tech and Bat-Tech.
Memento stulti. Again, that old nightmare sense returned that Batman had taught him better than this, but he just wasn’t paying attention.
The siren didn’t lead anywhere, like I knew—should have known—it wouldn’t. All I had done was waste time. Back to hospital you should go… Because I didn’t want to acknowledge that. I still didn’t, so I tried Oracle. Told her about Etrigan. Asked if there were emergency calls or sightings that fit the bill. She said…
I felt my eyes close and had to ask her to repeat it.
She said there had been a string of 911 calls and internet chatter leading Midtown and then a second string originating in a path around the Roff Paramount. Ten minutes later there was a fire alarm at the Diamond Horseshoe and it’s been Code 0A3 after that—all available ambulance report to the location.
By dawn you’ll see it my way, that’s easy to deduce.
Poor Ed and Zed, that’s not enough to want her dead.
‘Twill be different…
I found out the closest ER was Gotham Presbyterian and cut the line. I could have told her more, I could have had her try his cell or something, but anything like that would mean an explanation. I’d have to say the words. I’d have to make it real. Barbara wasn’t an idiot; she was Oracle. She’d work it out. By the time she did, I could be halfway to the ER. By the time she did, I would have sifted through the jumble of insanity and shock and got it down to three relevant moments since coming into the Bat Family.
The night the boiler blew at the Wedgewood. Ivy’s fault. She’s hurt your Eddie, hurt your Bruce. He made it to the Batmobile and had the autopilot bring him home. That’s how we like to handle these things. Unless you’re bleeding out on 46th Street, we want to handle these things at home.
The day Jinatra’s blew while Harvey and I were having lunch. Batman finding me in the ER: “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.” If the Batmobile fails to get you home, there’s Wayne clout to wrap around you as long as you’re in the system, protect you and whisk you out as quickly as possible.
The night Boomerang attacked Tim’s father. He’d been in surgery ten hours by the time any of them thought to tell me. Then Superman flew me in from the Fortress and when we reached the hospital, Tim was all alone. “Dick, Barbara, and Bruce are kind of busy ‘taking care of business.’ I’d do it myself, but I can’t because I have to be here. So I told B that he had to do this for me. And I told Dick too. Nightwing has to watch Gotham so Batman can go take care of business.” Quite.
Etrigan ran an edge of a claw absently against the edge of his tooth, savoring the physical form. Even the lingering scent of plant gore around the claw was satisfying. He hadn’t eaten the last time he had corporal form, though there were other physical sensations. Hella’s body was all he remembered. Hella’s heat was all he remembered too, and a forked tongue shot between his lips.
Before that wretched “Crisis” brought Hella and Jason to Wayne Manor at the same time, it was the faux goddess below who had summoned her, in that very park where she hid now.
His tail beat a slow, thoughtful rhythm against the edge of his perch as he pondered a dozen cruel ways to remind her of that episode…
Major Case didn’t deal exclusively with crimes involving high profile individuals (aka rich people) but those crimes were included in their mandate for two very important reasons. Such crimes were more likely to interest the press and you did not want to drop any officer who drew the short straw into that tank of piranha. More importantly, crimes against rich people were often committed by other rich people, and they hired very good lawyers. Dick had therefore focused on those technologies that would help secure convictions rather than just helping with investigations in more generic ways. It was that aspect that he stressed as he briefed Rowanski, knowing it was the side of police work that created the most frustration for the working detective and which they associated the least with vigilantes.
“This is basically an app on a smart phone,” he said, holding up a small black device the size of a credit card. “You touch it to every wall…” He demonstrated this on two walls, and handed it over to Rowanski to continue. “And it will create a scalable floor plan, to the millimeter.”
Rowanski’s eyes gleamed.
“Something those high priced lawyers love is sicking a dozen associates on the minutia of a case, and then asking a lot of preposterous questions that makes it seem like we missed something,” he said with a bitter smirk.
“They will not be able to create that impression when you’re sporting this instead of a plain black and white drawing on an easel.”
“Man, I hate those things. Happened at least once a year in Arson. Wizards had these Computer-Generated 3D simulations to show how the flames moved through the building. Jury’s dazzled, guy walks cause they can afford to produce some Michael Bay film and we look like we’re in the stone age drawing stick figures on a white board.”
“You can export this to get a 3D model,” Dick said with a grin. “But that’s only half the story. You’ve also got this.” He produced a ball slightly larger than a baseball, clear plastic covering a black foam center broken up by small round holes. Inside each hole was a circular lens. “A camera, or technically thirty-six synced super-cameras.” He tossed it carefully into the air before continuing. “At the highest point, they fire at once, capturing a fully spherical panoramic image. 72 megapixels. You have any idea what that means?”
“Means you can zoom in, right?” Rowanski said.
“More than that,” Dick said. “Look at the other app on that card I gave you. This part will also work on any smart phone or tablet. I’d go with the latter for a bigger screen, but tonight, use that.”
Rowanski took out the card and launched the second app. A progress bar appeared saying it was receiving data from PanCam-01:Grayson, then it showed the staircase behind him.
“Turn it,” Dick said, and as Rowanski did, the image on the screen turned in the opposite direction. Rowanski saw himself and Dick looking up at the thrown camera a moment earlier. He turned the other way, he tilted it down, then up. Further up. Up until the image showed the ceiling above them, and back down the other side. Dick could see Rowanski’s mind racing, but he provided the words anyway. “Back in the squad room two weeks from now, it’s like you’re standing right here. Six months from now in court, too.”
“No more questions about sight lines,” Rowanski grinned.
“No more questions about many things. And you win the cool tech wars when you’ve got a Google map/street view of the crime scene marked up any way you need: blood spatter, shell casings. Perfect digital reconstruction.”
“This is one hell of a tool, Mr. Grayson. This is a game-changer.”
“In the right hands, I believe it is,” Dick said proudly.
He finished the tutorial, all the questions were the expected ones until the very end.
“One last thing,” Rowanski said. “I’ve been waiting for you to mention what this flashing icon down here means. Too small to be another app, isn’t it?”
“Oh,” Dick said, peering at it. “That just, um, bit of old code from the prototype. Indicates a specific type of wifi hot spot. Not something you’d ever use. Given the condition of this room, it’s probably not real. Just a phantom signal from the fire and all the radio chatter confusing the receptor.”
Rowanski accepted the explanation, and Dick didn’t want to do anything to make him doubt it. He said only that he wanted to take a look around and make his own floor plan and picture sets to document the first crime scene, for the paperwork writing up the program. There were sympathetic murmurs from all the officers at the mention of paperwork, and he was left to wander without prying eyes.
The icon did basically mean a wifi hotspot, that much was true, but not the kind you’d find in coffee shops. Dick made his way across the ballroom, knowing the radius wasn’t that wide… He looked at the ground, spotted something shiny, and bent as if to rub soot off his shoe to pick it up.
It was a cufflink—half a cufflink. Bruce’s cufflink. What appeared to be silver but was in fact rhodium-plated base metal that created a WA-4 pinpoint hot spot for his personal uplinks to the Bat and Justice League partitions on the Wayne satellite. The other half was a USB drive with the digital signatures needed to connect and, if necessary, store up to 2 gig of data.
What the hell was it doing in the charred rubble? Was Bruce here? How? Why?
One thing about downtown hospitals, they’re on the front lines and they don’t have time for nonsense. Costumes, masks, it’s like they don’t notice. You can ask a question and get an answer without a lot of bullshit. And if the answer is that the man who loved you in spite of being enemies was tagged L1-critical, they get you to a quiet corner to let that sink in.
My first call would be Tim. I was with him when the rest of them were “taking care of business;” I owned his ass. And I had the opportunity he craved that night. To act, to act now as he couldn’t then, to act for me as they had for him. And Cassie was his girl. Cassandra Cain who knew a hundred ways to kill and thought of me as her sensei after Bruce. There would be no bullshit from the others once I had them on my side. Not that I’d have to worry about Dick, he had blood in his eyes when we found out about the mindwipe. He would have liked nothing better than to chain Dinah to an anthill covered in honey, to bury her to her neck at low tide, to…
I felt this pulsing in my head. At the thought of the mindwipe, I felt this pulsing that started in my… fingers. “That’s Etrigan,” Jason said. When I took his hands for the seeing, I felt a whirl of red, fiery malice, and Jason said “That’s Etrigan.”
Etrigan was messing with me. The shit.
I thought of another seeing, right before the crisis erupted. I had just taken Jason’s hands, I felt Etrigan, I thought of the last time we’d done that, watching Zatanna…
“That may have been Etrigan’s suggestion,” Jason said when I told him. “You hate Zatanna, it would be like Etrigan to remind you of that day in order to awaken thoughts of hate and vengeance which he… well… he finds quite attractive in a female in ways it would be difficult to describe.”
No, not that part.
But that same day, as soon as we began… I looked into the water, and I saw… something, something we eventually called a cosmic spark. A spark ignited by the vibration of the Strings. Etrigan called it foulness, reeking, and vile.
Which made sense if the Strings really were made of Love.
I thought of that spark, the vibrations of those most elemental building blocks of the universe, made of Love, reacting like white blood cells to wipe out an infection called magic that got too close to the Love I share with Bruce. I let the thought build: the Love I share with Bruce. And then I just… poured it into that pulsing in my head. Behind my eyes and down my neck, through my body and out my fingertips…
I felt my lips curl into a smile as I whispered “Good bye, Etrigan.”
And I realized my comm was beeping.
“Yes?” I said—a little testy, perhaps, figuring Barbara had caught up with me and bracing for drama.
..::Selina, I need your help.::..
..::I’m at Gotham Presbyterian. I need you to get me out and then…::..
A little groggy but Bruce’s voice.
“I know, I’m already here,” I told him, clamping down on my relief. There was no time for it, no matter how good it might feel. “They said you were critical.”
..::I’m sure they did. I’ll explain later. F-fighting morphine now. Just get me out. We’ve got multiple fires to put out.::..
“I’m on it,” I said, not because I had a plan but because I could hear the strain in his voice. The way he’s got his phone rigged, there are a dozen hoops to jump through to get to the Bat or Justice League comm systems. It’s nothing when he’s in the office, but the situation he’s in now, the concentration must’ve taken all he had. “Just put the phone away, Bruce. Don’t take any chances. I’ll find you. Kitty will take care of everything.”
Etrigan snorted as he sensed the seed planted in Selina come to nothing, but it was only an instinctual reaction to a matter that didn’t merit his attention. The whole of his demonic consciousness was focused on Ivy, tired but not yet dozing in the Sheep’s Meadow below. He inhaled her essence, not for enjoyment now but to judge it as a connoisseur does a vintage wine.
He had allowed her contempt for human allies—most particularly the human males she could control with her pheromones—to subside after the peak. It was still there, quietly simmering, but though her disgust was truly delicious, he had turned down the heat that had it bubbling so passionately earlier. Now it was only a vaguely defined dissatisfaction. It made her unhappy but, as misery went, it wasn’t much to write home about.
But it was enough to make her console herself with plants, take solace in the superiority of their devotion. The loyalty that could not be corrupted or turned, no matter what. To wrap herself in a cocoon of well-being and contentment, not unlike the noisome good spirits that set Jason up for that precipitous fall…
Every few years someone asks about the most valuable thing Catwoman stole. If I’m in the mood to answer, I’ll say something about a Han Dynasty bronze or the Swedish crown jewels, or maybe an important Rembrandt or Picasso. It’s what they want to hear, something that fits the glamorous image of a world-class cat burglar. The truth is, the value of those things is subjective. Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee necklace is ultimately worth only what a buyer and seller agree on, whereas a certain file on a forty-cent disk inside the Sinister Citadel could compromise the computer systems of nations, take over the World Bank, divert billions, deflate currencies and crash economies. You can’t put a price on Lex Luthor not having the power to create that kind of chaos. You can’t appraise being able to sleep at night because you personally made sure it wound up in Batman’s hands and not whatever random member of the Justice League happened to be the first one through the door that day. So the relative worth of the things I’ve taken is largely a matter of opinion—until the night I stole Bruce Wayne from Gotham Presbyterian.
Despite the lack of traditional security around him, it was a very difficult job. I mean, you can’t go knocking out emergency room staff like you would a security guard; they’ve got things to do. And you can’t go playing with the electricity either. So I had to improvise. I started at the door to the staff parking lot, holes on the wall where old-fashioned timecards used to be for the hourlies, and beneath it, a regulation card-swipe key-reader. God bless technology. Kittlemeier’s mc-box snagged the vitals from the last swipe as easily as it would in an office building and programmed me a card of my own. The locker room was next door. Nothing easier to pick up the scrubs of someone who was leaving—wrinkled scrubs to which I added a splash from the water fountain. Wrinkled and wet scrubs actually get you a lot farther around a hospital ER than the clichéd white coat and laminated name tag.
Now I needed a triage remote. Those babies work like the ordering system in a fast food restaurant. The patient is examined at the disaster site, in the ambulance, or in the receiving area in the ER, and the level of care needed is sent like an order for a cheeseburger back to the kitchen. I didn’t want to just take one from an ambulance and risk them driving off again without noticing. Then I got the idea to make them hand one over voluntarily, which in turn suggested the rest of the plan.
I returned to the ER entrance and came running out towards the first incoming ambulance. The moment the doors opened, I yelled that their information was corrupted coming in, and when they pulled out the unit to check, I surreptitiously zapped it as if it was a thermal camera.
I said it was probably the battery, took it from them and told them to get another before taking off again. Returned inside with one fried and totally useless triage remote in my hand—which is exactly what I needed. On my way back to the ICU, I called Eddie. Told him to get around the nurse anyway he had to and call Gotham Presbyterian from the phone at her station. He had a giggle fit until I told him why. Then I had to make a promise I hope I won’t regret.
There was a house phone outside the ICU in the little alcove where the nurse had broken the news about Bruce’s condition. I went back there and fastened a clip on it that’s meant to divert the automated calls to police from certain types of alarm units, but it could also let the call through and allow me to monitor.
I went inside and scanned the room… Felt him before I saw him. That sixth sense, the tingle that used to warn me when the Dark Knight was near. He was here, he was awake, he was in Bat-mode—vehemently in Bat-mode—grabbing hold of it and hanging on like his life depended on it—and pointing it at the back of my neck.
The penetrating intensity of Batman on the job was burrowing into the back of me from… five-o’clock. I turned… and saw him, second bed from the wall. I went to it and, ignoring him, consulted the chart. Dr. Montrose.
I mouthed the name and risked a glance at Bruce. His eyes flickered at one of the two people in the room who seemed to be doctors: a strawberry blonde with tight curls pulled back in a tight ponytail. I had a feeling I’d seen her at one of the fundraisers. I texted Eddie the name and then looked over the others in the room. Nurse or orderly wouldn’t make a difference, as long as…
::Dr. Montrose, Line Five. Dr. Montrose, a White Call on Line Five.::
There it was. I didn’t react, but I felt the Bat-surge and then—I could have imagined it, but I thought I saw a lip-twitch. Montrose didn’t hesitate. She went straight out to the house phone, and I heard Eddie masquerading as his own doctor at Gotham General, briefing her on two patients that presented the same injuries as the victims flooding Gotham Presbyterian from the Diamond Horseshoe.
I didn’t have much time, so I tapped the remote furiously.
“You there,” I called to the target orderly. “This thing is on the blink.” I flashed the dead screen at him and pushed a button a few times. “Put this guy down as level one when he’s five, perfectly stable. Change it back in the system; I’ll get the chart fixed once we get him into a room. Certainly doesn’t need to be taking up a bed here.”
He took my unit, tried pushing the same buttons I had, got the same lack of result, and then produced a scan-gun like they use in supermarkets. He zapped a barcode on the chart, zapped a barcode on the plastic band around Bruce’s wrist, pushed a couple buttons and then said “314.”
I guessed that meant Room 314, and I wheeled him out myself while my earpiece continued to chatter in Eddie’s voice about shock and secondary complications resulting from trogofibrosis.
As expected, Bruce had the IV out of his arm as soon as we were out of the orderly’s line of sight and he started talking as soon as we were out of earshot.
“It’s the scars,” he said through clenched teeth. “When you were in the explosion with Harvey.”
Of course. Not realizing he was Two-Face, the paramedics thought all the damage to his face was from the explosion and assumed his injuries were much more severe. All the ravaged tissue from Bruce’s scars under whatever happened at the nightclub…
“No wonder they thought you were critical,” I breathed.
“And I need to be out of here before anyone finds out otherwise,” he said, climbing off the gurney.
“Don’t worry, you’re in the system as a minor injury now; nobody’s going to bother you. Private room, let me just dump you there while I get us some proper transportation. You’re not ready for rooftops. I’ll just get the car, won’t take me an hour to get back, then we’ll get you checked out and—”
“Kitten,” he said as if he was disappointed in me, and he held up his phone. Behind him, through a glass door at the end of the hall, I saw one of the old Batmobiles pull into view. “Auto-pilot.”
The smug bastard. The nearest Batmobile was the one in the satellite cave under the Wayne Tower. He had me support him, hand around his waist, just in case anyone was paying attention as we left. He had a charming way of steering with his hip, even though I was supposed to be guiding him. The reverse lead made it clear I was to plop him in the passenger side, then go around to the driver’s seat.
Heh, right. The control freak letting anyone else drive.
“Tower,” he graveled as soon as the hatches closed, and the car took off.
“Someday you’ll have to tell me how I persuaded Batman to let me use his car for this escapade.”
“You stole it,” he said, closing his eyes. The gravel gave out half-way through, and I decided to forego further teasing.
“Can you listen?” I asked.
“In a minute,” he said. Took a few deep breaths, then opened a channel to Oracle and had her purge the hospital records of Bruce Wayne’s admittance, then create a record where he was checked by paramedics at the site, given oxygen for mild smoke inhalation and sent home with a few minor abrasions.
Then he looked at me and once again closed his eyes.
“It can wait until morning,” I said softly.
“We’ve got a lot to do before morning.”
“You really are quite magnificent in a way,” Jason Blood observed, sipping his coffee. “I don’t think I’ve ever met such a wholly selfish and self-absorbed creature in all of my travels, and that includes an impressive string of candidates.”
Ivy was outraged. That horrible man who was somehow immune to her pheromones and positively mocked her attempts to control him, had now shown up on the fringe of her park with the monstrous idea that he was allowed to buy coffee there like anyone else. And spotting her, he had somehow followed her all the way through the Ramble to the hidden glade he never should have been able to find, and now… and now…
“So your friend Harley finally split away from the Joker, just like you’d always dreamed, and instead of coming straight to you and the two of you embarking on wondrous adventures together, she’s set out on her own, living her own life, pursuing her own interests and—”
HOW DARE HE! Rubbing salt because Harley would rather rot away in those stupid, nauseating fantasies about that loathsome clown.
“She is hopelessly obsessed and always will be. It is her fate.”
HOW DARE HE! And then, and then
“Harley and Harvey both abandoned you—Oh, do go away.”
AND THEY DID! A casual aside to the plants she had ordered into position to cleave to his throat, and they, her most devoted babies, just, just DID IT!
Her babies, her babies who she gave up everything for. For whom she would have severed every tie with Harvey and Harley, with humanity, with her own body from the look of things—AND THEY JUST TURNED AWAY AND SNAPPED TO ATTENTION FOR THAT HORRIBLE JASON BLOOD!!!!!
Ivy bolted up screaming, one hand over each of her breasts where—where—a fucking shrub was curled like it was nursing. She screamed and screamed, tore at every patch of leaf and vine that touched her body, and ran hysterically into the park.
High above, Etrigan laughed heartily.
By the time we reached the cave, I had brought Bruce up to speed: what Eddie said at the hospital, what Claire said, and what happened with Jason and Etrigan. He filled me in on The Queen of the Night up through finding Ivy and feeling the effects of her pheromones. By then, the car had pulled into the satellite cave and, maybe it was just the history because I confronted him in the Batmobile the other time he was greened, but he made no move to get out of the car until he had finished the story.
“It’s my fault,” he concluded and opened the hatch. “I knew she was up to something, and then when Luthor showed up, he took priority. I should have followed up as soon as we got that Luthor mess under control, instead—”
“Bruce, what could you have done?” I said, following him to the cavern. At first, I was afraid he was heading for the costume vault, but he turned into the med lab. “Jason says she was ‘trying to make friends.’ I know it’s weird, but it’s not criminal. It’s sort of the polar opposite of criminal, and if you had followed up, she would have been perfectly within her rights to tell you to shove off and mind your own caped do-gooder business.”
“We knew magic was circulating, Selina. We knew—Jason told us—that she was among those whom cosmic forces were manipulating to provide us each with a rival. And we know that with magic there’s a price.”
“For what? Bruce, we didn’t cast a spell and neither did she, this time. That craziness just happened, it was more of a misunderstanding than anything.”
“There’s still a price. Or in this situation, maybe a counterbalance is a better term. An offset. Even magic is ultimately subject to natural law, Selina. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Jason said that magic is Power driven by Will. Maybe without deliberate intent driving the spell, things went off at an angle. A random angle, and because of her mental state, fueled by alcohol and valium…”
“Her mental state,” I repeated. “Power driven by will. And she wakes up looking like Two-Face?”
“Yes, Harvey is very much at the heart of what’s driving her. She said she hit Queen of the Night because of the twins. That she had a point to make about that. And that she wasn’t expecting him to be there.”
“Why would he be? The scars are back but Two-Face is gone. I mean, he stood with the Rogues during the war, but that was survival. Harv’s been fine since he got back from the Meadowlark Institute.”
“We think. Selina, I know you consider Harvey a friend; so do I. But Ivy knows him better than either of us. And she is the one who talked him down when he lost it over that Fields business. Here.”
He handed me a hypo, and was holding out his bare arm.
“Antibiotics for the fiber inflammation, and stims to counteract the morphine,” he said though I hadn’t asked.
“That’d be the morphine they gave you for the pain?”
“I can work with pain, pain keeps me going,” he grunted.
“What kind of work do you figure you’re going to do tonight, Bruce? You should rest.”
“No time. Etrigan’s free, Ivy is twice the threat she was yesterday and … she’s dying.”
Ivy’s hysterics lasted only as long as it took her to wake up. Once the dream receded, she couldn’t even remember what she was running from—though that probably had more to do with the taiko drums pounding in her chest than the depth of her sleep or the demonic influence of her dream. It felt like a full percussion section in there, complete with a gong and a couple of those cannons they use for the 1812 Overture.
Gaia, it hurt just trying to breathe. That couldn’t possibly be her heart in there. Only four chambers? It felt like at least sixty… things… thumping away in there. Her head tilted back and she breathed. Breathed. Nice cool air. Damn. Gaia be praised. Air. Nice cool air.
The thumping subsided and the pressure behind her eyes that had blurred her vision eased. She looked around, a warm nausea rising as her vision cleared and she realized where she was. The clearing. The bust of Janus. The memory of a lightning bolt striking a circle around her feet and a smoking fog thickening to envelop her park in a black, sulfurous brick.
Her legs buckled at the memory, and she landed hard and defeated on her butt. The clearing, still perfect and green as if mocking the foreboding blackness of her memory, became blurry again, but this time not with pressure but with tears.
So many mistakes. So much disappointment. So much unfulfilled promise.
She was Poison Ivy, chosen of Gaia, gifted by the goddess with the power to control plants and men.
HOW did this keep happening?
To be continued…