People dying in the snow. Everest or something. Should have been funny. Brains soft. Taking their clothes off when the shivering stopped. Laying there freezing, knowing they were going to die if they didn’t move but their soft serve brains didn’t care. Winding up all stiff and blue. Should be hilarious. Lips blue. Blue under the eyes. Heh.
Couldn’t see the funny though. For days, Joker couldn’t see the funny. For days, he couldn’t see anything but dead teeth. People that… were people. Human beings like him. They breathed and moved and laughed and ate pizza, they had birthdays and got annoyed at blonde dimwits who read romance into a cartoon about alien invasion and filled the fridge with SlimFast. Now they were dead teeth. They had breathed and moved and laughed and they didn’t do any of those things now because he’d killed them. How many? So many years it all blurred. All that smiling death.
He lay there, knowing he was going to die if he didn’t move but his soft serve brain didn’t care. It was so… he was so… paralyzed with horror. So many death smiles. The part of Joker’s mind that pulled towards madness strained for relief. People like him—living, breathing people, gasping and twitching until they were nothing but dead teeth. Because of him. The reality like a razor. There had to be a way to make it stop, to make it into something else. Make those people into something else. Not human beings who ate pizza and had birthdays. There had to be a way, but the part of his noggin that pulled towards madness like a bad shopping cart couldn’t find the way.
Day 2... Bodies convulsing, foam oozing from their mouths in disgusting spurts while the lips stretched into those frozen smiles. Those awful frozen smiles. People who watched football and complained about Campbell. They were all dead teeth now. They watched football and took the subway and complained about the smell—and about Campbell. It wasn’t even a third or fourth down; it was the first down and he could’ve had a 1-yard TD but opted to throw a dangerous pass into coverage and was intercepted. And now they’d never eat wings again or complain about Campbell’s back-foot throw, the kind of footwork even a rookie’s been broken of, and they wouldn’t say a word about it because now they were all... There had to be a way to make it stop—grinning—there had to. All of those awful grinning bodies. Smiling at their lives being snuffed out as if it was some sick joke, as if they were echoing the laughter—his laugher—the memories of his own wild laughter, his sadistic glee while they twitched and convulsed. There had to be an escape from this torment, but the part of his brain that pulled towards madness couldn’t find the switch.
Day 3… He might have killed himself if he could move, but he couldn’t. People who had birthdays. All those loved ones wouldn’t be buying cakes anymore. Probably thought about them though, on their birthdays. Looked at photos, told stories, remembered the good times. Once you’re gone, they remember the good times. Birthdays, graduations, family vacations. And the anniversary of the day they died, that’d wind up the ol’ memory machine every year. And any time Joker’s name appeared in the news, that would bring a fresh wave of memories of their loved one and renewed the hatred towards the clown who killed them. The clown. How many must hate him. Figure two or three on average, for each death smile… Two or three left behind. If only his brain could find the latch.
By the end of Day 4, dehydration and hunger brought salvation. He started hallucinating. Delusion nibbled at the edges of reality. And the part of his mind that pulled towards madness lunged—lunged like a starved dragon breaking its chains and obliterating every obstacle in an inferno of fiery wrath as it raced to freedom, its talons ripping the meat from any unfortunate thought that didn’t have the good sense to burn.
Selina Wayne. She suddenly understood why honeymoons were still important in an age when husbands and wives were used to sleeping together long before the vows. Because this was… this was… What was this?
She was giddy. She was lightheaded with a kind of euphoric drunken giddiness, and trying to function in her normal life as her normal self in this condition would be a ludicrously doomed exercise. Much better to putter around the Amalfi Coast or Paris or Hawaii, worship bodies and indulge themselves until this crazy giddiness passed. Get a feel for the man-and-wife of it before having to do it in your normal life. And that was for people who had a normal life that didn’t include secret identities, lunatics wanting to kill them, the intrigue of billion dollar foundations, feuds between multinational corporations, the occasional interdimensional crisis, and oh yes, wizards. Much better to have some time settling into themselves before she woke up to “Today is the first day of the rest of your life as Mrs. Bruce Wayne.”
Fortunately they fell in love behind masks. She loved a man in a mask long before she knew his name or saw his face, so it didn’t spoil things if they were playing house as Tommy and Colette for these few weeks while “Bruce and Selina” were off honeymooning in a remote Scottish castle with the kind of privacy only Wayne clout could obtain. It allowed Batman to remain in Gotham while they enjoyed a different kind of privacy. At night she did have to forego Catwoman, but that was no different than laying low after a heist. She’d done it a dozen times: a blonde wig, some beach reading, usually a research project in case the beach read didn’t grab her. She’d done it a dozen times. With the crucial difference that this time she wasn’t alone. Tommy was a thief like herself. If you turned your head and squinted, you could imagine they were laying low together after a good heist. Anyone could honeymoon in Maui or Venice. Only they could find a honeymoon getaway as exotic as Thomas Pearl.
One thing she’d learned about Bruce when they were building the Pearl identity was that he had a connection to his time in Japan that was unlike other places he’d lived in his years of travel, and she was embracing that with the enthusiasm of a young wife setting up housekeeping. There were two Japanese department stores in Gotham, and she’d visited both while he slept. Returning, she’d unpacked some beautiful new bowls, carved chopsticks, and specialty food as if each was a priceless bit of loot after a heist. Then she refreshed herself on how to make sencha and woke him with a cup of the standard green tea “just like I remembered from Tokyo.”
“Good morning, husband,” she purred, which brought a guttural rumbling when he’d patrolled almost to dawn, but this morning brought only a low moan since he’d returned before four. “Get up, sleepy,” she coaxed. “Drink your tea.”
An eye opened and attempted, all by itself, to convey the stern unyielding judgment of the Avenging Angel of Justice. It wasn’t terribly effective without the cape and cowl, the night sky brightened by an imposing moon behind him, the evidence of a crime in the fleeing thief’s loot sack, or even his left eye, but it did move the criminal to set aside the tea and straddle his naked body.
“Let’s try this again,” she said, the purr taking on an edge of menace as she raked the scar of an ancient cat scratch. “Good morning, husband.”
“Good morning, my impossibly beautiful wife,” he said, grabbing, twisting, jutting out his hip and trapping her legs in a ferocious pin and then spinning them so he was perched on top of her. “Did you say something about tea?”
“Mhm, I brought you tea,” she said, accepting the pin as if it’s what she wanted all along, and letting her arms come to rest around his neck. “Real sencha from Shiuoka province ‘just like you remembered from Tokyo.’”
“You’re perfect,” he said, and kissed her.
Much of the day was spent in the way that’s typical of newlyweds, with breaks of Bruce making lunch (the toasted turkey sandwiches that were his chief culinary achievement—with the modification of the special French mustard Selina preferred), discussing what she’d be doing if she was laying low alone and what they might be doing if they really were in that Scottish castle. There was speculation if the castle was haunted and if anyone they knew like Hella might be dropping in. There was a lightness to it all, even with this talk of the underworld. Two people who had passed through the storm and won their well-earned happy ending, giddy with the knowledge that it wasn’t an ending at all but a beginning sizzling with possibilities… Which led to more love making, and finally dinner.
This time Selina cooked, one of the delicate noodle dishes she’d bought the stuff for that morning, while Bruce set the table. She pointed him to the new chopsticks. Meant for her place, obviously, was an elegant lacquered pair in Catwoman purple, with a thin band of flowers near the top. Leaving him the pair with the carved black handle that looked fit for a shogun.
He beamed and his cheeks warmed, then he turned and snuck a glance at her. The cat burglar from the train station… Sometimes it was hard to get his head around it: Catwoman was now his wife.
She’d replenished his incense too—the sandalwood he liked, the brand he favored, of course. She had an eye for detail that would do Sherlock proud. There were three new bowls in the room too, each more exquisite than the last. Two were decorative, the third was filled with Japanese matcha chocolates—because they’d made foreign candy Thomas Pearl’s signature to discretely advertise the cities of his showpiece heists.
After the noodles came traditional red bean mochi for dessert and matcha (which she’d learned to make that morning while he slept) from the Uji district in Kyoto, the most famous tea growing region in Japan.
“I don’t deserve you,” he said, looking at her in wonder.
“Boy, you really liked those chopsticks,” she smiled. “I know this was all a bit much. I’m just… giddy. We got through it. And we’ve put up with so much of that normal people stuff to get here. Now as far as everybody but the family knows, we’re out of the country. It’s finally just you and me and I guess I just—” she laughed “—I don’t know.” She took a deep breath, looked into his eyes and declared “I don’t know, but I know this. Thomas Pearl is the best gift you could have given me.”
“I thought he was your gift to me,” Bruce teased.
“Tom Coronet started out that way, but by the time he became Tommy Pearl there was definitely more in it for me than… Bruce, what’s wrong?”
His eyes had narrowed, and the atmosphere of playful intimacy seemed to have evaporated from the air. The muscles around his mouth had slackened, and at first he stared to the side just past Selina. Then his eyes flicked to one of the new bowls with a Daruma design. For just a fraction of a second there was a sense of Batman at a crime scene where he wasn’t welcome, moving silently around the police who didn’t want him there and discreetly tagging a piece evidence they didn’t recognize for what it was. Then he looked back at Selina and smiled.
“Nothing,” he said. “And you’re right. By the end Pearl was a gift we gave each other.” His eyes were carefree and full of love again as if nothing had happened.
After dinner they’d curl on the sofa with two glasses of Chateauneuf du Pape, and Bruce would declare this really was the last night. He’d been taking alcohol inhibitors since the engagement party and now that the wedding was over, he really had to resume normal habits. Selina purred and ran her finger around the edge of his glass, reminding him of all those times she had tempted him: how he always refused wanting so desperately to agree. There was quite a backlog of indulgences owed to balance the scales…
After a pleasant hour he left on patrol, and after kissing him good-bye, she looked at the window where he’d left into the after dark Gotham that was for now off limits. It couldn’t be helped. Selina Kyle was on her honeymoon and too many people knew Selina was Catwoman. It wasn’t forever, just these few weeks. She returned to the sofa, poured another glass of wine and broke out her beach read... Bradford Dormont’s An Appreciable Sum wasn’t any better than she remembered and was quickly cast aside. She’d also picked up his friend Torrick’s first novel Impasto and Pentimento, and while the writing was superb, it was a heavy read and not the kind of thing a woman wants to get into on her honeymoon. That left “the project.”
She retrieved a purple leather messenger bag from her luggage and began unpacking its contents: catalogs of the Hope Collection and the Angerstein Collection, biographies of Lord Byron and William Buchanan, a photo essay on the Chinese drawing room at Temple Newsam, and the volume that started it all: Carlton House Under the Prince Regent. It was “a daring new history” when she bought it just to have a bag from the museum gift shop while she was casing the place. She might have pitched it when she returned to Gotham, but for a chance remark of Oswald’s. Oswald Cobblepot, who she would have guessed didn’t know who Byron was, mentioned all the jokes about birds he’d put into Don Juan. It was something she’d just seen referenced, somewhere. It took the second half of a Grey Goose martini to remember it was on a book jacket. When she got home, she found the book in question was the one she picked up trying to figure out that weight-gait authenticator at the Hockney exhibit, the only publicly accessible example of the system used in Stefanyk’s private vault. Carlton House Under the Prince Regent… The index had cryptic references to a rare Audubon volume in France, though what that had to do with anything she couldn’t guess. She was curious, but she’d only got a day into the research when Len Stefanyk fired his decorator. Number 16 on the list of world’s Top 200 art collectors had fired the decorator for the mansion he’d purchased on Gotham’s Upper East Side and there was suddenly a much cleaner path opening to his private vault with the weight authenticator used by Interpol and the Pentagon. By the time that job was finished, the Justice League had announced a press event giving 100 reporters a tour of their new Watchtower (aka an unprecedented opportunity to get to the Storm Opals) and she was packing again. The Byron research went into the pending file known as the Hell Mouth closet.
Selina stroked the leather of the messenger bag, remembering the adventure that followed, and then shook it off and began paging through Carlton House. Four hours later, open books lay everywhere and Tommy’s wall-length monitor was wallpapered with open windows on Thomas Hope, Lucien Bonaparte, the bankruptcy and suicide of the prince’s art dealer, the Elgin marbles, the Spanish Gift and a spate of hasty donations to museums in the early 19th Century. In the midst of it all, Selina was transfixed, a detective instinct she hadn’t possessed back then completely enthralled by the mystery: A painting Ponzi scheme that went all the way to the Prince Regent? Jewels and artworks appearing out of nowhere in London as soon as the statute of limitations ran out in France? Titians and Murillos copied by students at the Royal Academy while the originals wound up at Carlton House? And the Audubon that started it all looted from Napoleon’s brother and given to the Regent’s mistress?!
And Byron knew. A keen detective’s eye hiding behind a dilettante fop, he knew everything. And he hinted. He taunted them in his writing, provoking a slew of now famous donations that were—Selina couldn’t hold back the belly laugh—that were nothing but traffickers in stolen art dumping the objects of their shady deals before they could be exposed! Byron, not smart enough to do his crimefighting without a mask, got himself exiled and…
There was a creak at the window, followed by light rapping. Selina looked up and saw Batman on the fire escape, an unhealthily red blotch where he leaned against the glass. She hurriedly went to open it.
“Glad you’re awake,” he groaned, followed immediately by “Why are you awake?” while Selina helped him inside.
“Catching up on something,” she said, noting the red smear he’d left on the window. “Oh boy, you’re going to need a patch up. Where is it?” Then she saw the hole just under the left pectoral of his body armor—another halfway between his right shoulder and neck, and what appeared to be a bite taken out of the utility belt. “Scratch that. What is it?”
“Cassowaries,” he graveled.
“Cobblepot got himself a pair of cassowaries. It’s a six foot bird—with five inch claws. It’s ridiculously fast; it can kick up to here.” He indicated his pectoral. “It’s got this helmet crest on its head that it rams with, and I think it can swim.”
“And he has two?!” Selina asked as he carefully removed the body armor.
“For now he has one and a half. I think I broke one of their legs.”
“Doesn’t look too bad; I’ll get the kit,” she said.
“At first he was controlling them with adapted Hatter tech. (I have one of the devices for further study.) But you know, he shouldn’t have bothered. Once I’d knocked the controllers off, they were just as mean. This is a vicious bird. It likes to fight.”
“I’m not Alfred,” she said, returning with the first aid kit. “I can clean it and use the skin bonder, but if you need stitches—”
“I don’t. I would’ve gone straight to the manor if I did.”
“I doubt that. Telling Alfred you were attacked by a cassowary or telling me?”
“Two,” he reminded her.
“Now one and a half,” she said, pausing before she dabbed and looking into his eyes. “Bat-badass.” His lip twitched, and she added “This is going to sting.”
Death smiles! Of course they were SMILING, they were DEAD! This reality was the worst drug trip ever and these bastards lived it 24/7.
Now they were free of it. Of course they were smiling! Who wouldn’t be?
Chicken helped. Joker had no idea how he wound up in a Ha-Hacienda without a fridge full of Harley’s SlimFast, but there was an old bag of Snickers that gave him enough energy to get out the door.
Out the door was a world with chicken—of crossing the road fame—and popcorn shrimp and a shitload of Mountain Dew. Just what every clown needs to start feeling like himself again.
Reality was a bitch. He’d heard the expression but never took it seriously. Taking anything seriously was a sucker bet, but avoiding the practice had prevented him from realizing what a wet nosed, butthole-licking, rabid pitbull bitch this “Reality” really was. That thing was a menace! Way worse than Batman and who knew THAT was even possible?! It was the worst drug trip ever. Reality. Seeing things AS THEY ARE, it’s sick! Like five or six kidney stones at the time coming out your eyes! That kind of sick.
His traumatized mind sank into the cocoon of fresh delusion spinning around it, while that residue of empathy whispered that there were millions of people out there still living the nightmare. People like him. The whole of Gotham, practically. Trapped there. Trapped. Trapped, trapped, trapped in rabid, wet nosed, butthole-licking bitch, seeing everything as it really is. The poor bastards.
When the patch-up was complete, Selina yawned and Bruce presented the un-masked version of the head-tilt meant to convey a skeptical crimefighter’s raised eyebrow.
“Let me guess,” he graveled in a parody of his museum-rooftop tone, “there isn’t time for a full patrol, so why don’t I take a painkiller and get a few extra hours rest.”
“You make it sound like I’d be suggesting we clean out the MoMA and run off to Europe with the Van Goghs,” she laughed.
“You weren’t going to suggest it?”
“The burglary or taking a Tylenol after a six foot bird pokes a hole in your chest, because I don’t think those are comparable.”
Bruce’s lip twitched.
“I do want to go back out, but not for an abbreviated patrol,” he said gently. “I started the investigation on the Times earlier.”
“Ah,” she said.
“How much do you know about what’s been happening since that headline hit the stands?”
“Let’s just say I’ve embraced the cover story: I’m in a Scottish castle without Wi-Fi and a sexy new husband that keeps me from even wondering what might be going on in Gotham since we left. I remain blissfully unaware that the city’s most prestigious newspaper said the wedding never happened.”
“I see. Well, when ‘you and Bruce’ are ready to crack open the bedroom door, I’ll email Lucius to issue a statement, but the investigation wasn’t something that could be postponed. If you’re um—”
“Yes, okay, hit me,” she smirked. “What did you find? How did my war with the Post jump species to infect a legit paper like the Times?”
“Funny you put it that way,” he said with that glint he had whenever her words betrayed a detective spirit. “I did check HR first thing. Occam’s razor. The simplest explanation is certainly… but no. Records indicate only two employees from the Gotham Post got work at the Times in the past year: one in marketing, one works on their app. No connection to the newsroom, no way for either of them to affect content.
“The story was filed from Martin’s home computer. It’s his usual practice. He doesn’t cover ‘news’; his beat is events with engraved invitations, planned months in advance. His editor has a calendar spelling out the parties he’s attending for the next six weeks. He often gets home around two or three in the morning, and it’s not the sort of material that needs fact-checked... I examined their network, the physical servers and wiring, office terminals, and the digital files he submitted. Everything checks out on their end. The next step is his apartment, and I just have time to get over there and investigate before dawn.”
“Okay,” Selina breathed. “With a mission like that, I can hardly give you a hard time. Just remember if you use the batline…” she pointed to her own breast to indicate the injury. “Hole from a six foot bird. Swing easy.”
“I love you too,” he said, kissing her cheek, then he restored the cowl and was gone.
There was nothing but laughter in the dining room of a posh UWS duplex, the laughter of camaraderie enhanced by good wine and the digestion of a fine meal. Ash Torrick might be famous for a schlocky TV show, but he entertained like the Upper West Side intellectual he might have been if he kept writing books like his early ones.
“What is a 4-syllable synonym for incredible,” Eddie said, finishing his tiramisu with relish. “I had a hideout in this neighborhood for a year and half, how did I not know you could get this delivered?”
Ford offered him seconds which he refused, though Ash accepted “just a dollop” and told the story of how he discovered the neighborhood gem that catered the meal. Then conversation returned to the issue of G-Trends that profiled Ford’s return to Gotham, which they’d been roasting through dessert.
Eddie was having a wonderful time. He and Doris may have befriended the writers as a favor to Selina, keeping them occupied and out of trouble at the wedding, but the two couples had discovered common interests, shared gripes, and a synchronicity of spirit that prompted further outings, including this dinner.
They were a curious couple. The Gotham townhouse belonged to Ash. Ford’s house was in California and he was staying here while in Gotham, but he obviously wasn’t a guest. He was the one offering seconds on dessert, and when they left the table it was Ford who pressed the button closing the pocket door that separated living and dining room. And it was Ford who invited Eddie into the library to see the books on codes and ciphers. Certainly seemed cozily domestic, but the age gap—Ford must be thirty years older if he was a day—argued against a romantic tie, as did the fact that, up until a month ago, Ford lived over 3,000 miles away.
Still, if the writers were a riddle, they weren’t half as interesting as the treasure trove of riddles they unlocked. Torrick’s library was a wonderland for a puzzling brain: the cypher employed by George Washington’s spies, an authentic World War II Enigma box, an Alberti disk, a Vigenère square, even an ancient goat skin alleged to be military orders in an original Caesar shift code.
While Edward explored the library, Ash took Doris upstairs to view his “Gallery of Curiosities” where the intros to his TV show were filmed.
“Consider the emerald, objects of fascination since antiquity,” he said, paused before a pedestal as he would introducing that week’s mystery. Displayed under a Lucite shield was a beautiful, high relief emerald cameo depicting a female bust. “The ancient Roman nobleman Pliny the Elder declared there was ‘no gem in existence more intense,’” he said in his television voice, “while the queen Cleopatra was so enthralled by the gem she had her own mines in Egypt, filled with men whose lives—”
“Were dedicated to finding her jewels,” Doris interrupted. “Crispin’s auction house, they have a Collecting Guide on Emeralds.”
“And you have an eidetic memory,” Ash noted quietly, though he seemed pleased rather than put out at having been caught. “The show does tend to pull from sources like that without bothering to rephrase. Salesmen use such evocative language, and unlike other writers, they don’t really mind if you bring their words to a larger audience.”
“No, I guess not,” Doris laughed.
“So, since you’ve read the guide, you know few remnants of Cleopatra’s mines survive, but the two largest—”
“Sikait and Subara.”
“Quite. Can still be found on different slopes of Mount Smaragdus or…?”
“Emerald Mountain,” Doris grinned. “You’re not claiming this gem is one of Cleopatra’s?”
“The way the show is structured, I claim very little. I just present certain information while standing in front of certain things. For most people, the thought that this gem came out of Cleopatra’s mine would be the perfect hook. And a story might follow about the ancient magic Egyptian priests had mastered, how it was used for cursing tombs or compelling love. But you…” He eyed her critically. “You would be much more interested in the truth. This jewel was the property of Princess Vera Nikolaievna Lobanov Rostovsky—”
“You also have an eidetic memory,” Doris noted.
“I need one. At the age of 16, she married Prince Yakov, younger brother to the Russian foreign minister. They were the first Russian aristocrats to take up residence in France on a more-or-less permanent basis. Widowed early and left exceedingly rich, she bought jewels. A lot of jewels.”
Doris laughed. Then looked at him shrewdly.
“How did you know? About my penchant for objets russes?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he paused for a split second, as if rapid-searching a database, then changed the subject.
“Of course that’s not to say the stone couldn’t have been Cleopatra’s before it found its way to some 19th Century Parisian stone cutter. That’s the delight of these things…” he moved eagerly to another case with gold artefacts. “…Precious objects of a certain age were nearly always something else, something we can only guess at. That’s very convenient for a writer. Take this amphora: the original was part of a ceremonial set used by a Thracian king in the third or fourth century B.C., maybe I can spin something out of it, maybe I can’t. But this copy was made for a Spanish nobleman in the mid or late fifteenth century, which means it’s almost certainly gold taken from the Americas. Some magnificent war shield perhaps, carved in the image of the fiercest Aztec god, looted and melted down. Such a deity would be pissed, who’s to say what kind of curse may be hanging over it…”
He can certainly spin a story, Doris thought—which is how she summed up the tour later for Eddie.
“I liked him too, once I saw his library,” Eddie remarked. He went on to some of the cryptographic wonders, then concluded “Certainly more to Mr. Torrick than meets the eye. Funny his books aren’t better. Why does a mind like that cash out to push conspiracy theories on mouth-breathing dullards who can barely follow the plot?”
“You just said it: ‘cash out.’ If you can take one dollar from every stupid person who would rather believe it’s a secret society pulling strings for one of their own that separates them from a superstar rather than years of hard work, determination and raw talent, you’re going to make roughly 12.4 million more than you would getting $29.95 from literati that want to curl up with a modern Tom Wolfe before bed.”
“I guess,” Eddie shrugged. “New riddle then: Why are they so hospitable? Why do a pair of loaded civilians invite people like us to dinner and, knowing who we are, knowing what we do, show us their very rare and valuable possessions that are right up our alley?”
“Obviously, because they know we’ll appreciate them,” Doris said evenly.
“But they’re not afraid we’ll consider them targets? They’re not afraid we’ll go back as soon as I’ve popped off a riddle for Batman, attack them while they sleep and take the goods?”
“We’re not going to do anything like that,” Doris pointed out.
“I know, but how do they know?” Eddie said, scrunching the side of his mouth as if the question was a sour lozenge he couldn’t help sucking on.
“Because…” Doris said thoughtfully, drawing out the word as if starting the sentence would cause the answer to appear, taking a breath to help it along, and then her pupils dilating a bit as the solution presented itself. “…because novelists are very perceptive.”
By morning, the dirty laundry of 19th Century art collections was again relegated to the rainy day file. Selina spent the night catching up on what the rest of Gotham knew: The Times had been pilloried. Within minutes of tweeting the headline, their social media accounts were bombed with pictures and video of the wedding they claimed never took place, along with gleeful tweets from opponents of the news desk’s editorial politics. After several hours, a retraction was released and the article pulled from the website, hastily rewritten and reposted with an apology, but by then it was too late to be distinguished from the hundreds of memes circulating. “Sorry, Bruce” headlines abounded, consoling him on such improbable misfortunes as a meteor destroying all life on Earth the night he had tickets to Hamilton and his new Lamborghini being squashed by the dark lord Cthulhu. Photoshoppers were not idle either, incorporating the Joker, Bane, Neil Armstrong, Seabiscuit, Mr. Miracle, Poison Ivy, the Titanic, Ghengis Khan, Lucille Ball, and 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team into visuals of important stories the paper got wrong.
The Post, clearly put out that someone scooped them inventing outrageous libels of their favorite target, came up with their own version of the wedding not happening. It involved Bane and PsychoPirate and didn’t make a lot of sense, so Selina put it aside. It was the work of the same minds who came up with all the rest of their rubbish with no actual knowledge of what was really going on, so she went back to the Times. By the end of the day, there had been a second apology and the evening edition ran the corrected story without Martin’s byline. The next day, the Gotham Observer, the Daily News and the Ledger all had lengthy articles on the Times calamity, and multiple clickbait sites ran features on the public reaction and memes.
Caught up on the fallout, Selina went back to the original article. “Sorry, Bruce, It Wasn’t Meant to Be” by Martin Stanwick. She tried to think… She had no memory of Martin in the receiving line, or at any of the tables when she and Bruce made their rounds at the reception. He wasn’t in any of the photos or videos that she could recall. Did he just not come? Clark was supposed to be on alert once Martin arrived, but that plan was made when they thought the Times warned of a serious threat. He probably relaxed and forgot about it once they made it to the “I dos;” Selina had done the same. But if Martin wasn’t there then… then why wasn’t he there? That was the next question. Did something happen to him? Did he just decide not to come? Could he have received a message that the wedding was cancelled?
No, if something had happened to him, he’d be missed. There wouldn’t have been a headline, there would have been an irate editor whose calls and texts had gone unanswered until he went pounding on Martin’s door and found him lying at the foot of the stairs or something equally grisly. And any message about a cancellation would be confirmed. Even if it wasn’t the wedding of the decade, Martin Stanwick would not take a message like that on faith. He’d call. So what did that leave? Deciding not to come? What possible reason—
And then there was all that detail. Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs 2004, the Clair de Lune and the Stradivarius, the dress from Marie Wayne St. John’s portrait, all the details set out as bait. Even the gifts they’d exchanged as bride and groom made it into the article. If Martin never showed, how did it get there? It was late, but Eddie was a night owl and he knew she wasn’t in Scotland. She reached for her phone…
…and hung up ten minutes later, troubled. Eddie confirmed that Martin was a no-show, but added that Ford Dormont appropriated his seat for the ceremony and every blue blood in the room had their own take on what it meant. He had written two pieces on Bruce and Selina already, and throughout the reception, guests that Eddie presumed to be Agents of the Cat had come to the table and discharged their duties: bringing Ford those tidbits meant for Martin.
Ford again. Ford who she told about the dress the night Bruce met Anna at Mise en Abyme. It was exactly the sort of place Martin frequented, and the kind of place filled with his eyes and ears. If he’d seen the meeting or heard about it and misinterpreted… After Ford’s energetic defense of her in Mayfair, it wouldn’t be hard to misinterpret. After he called out that stupid woman at the Post as ‘a creature of Bludhaven outlet malls,’ it wouldn’t be an outrageous jump to think Selina had switched confidants. But Martin wasn’t crazy. If he did think Selina was rewarding Ford by using him as her mouthpiece in Martin’s place, this would be an insane overreaction. Making an enemy Selina and endangering his job, any sentient adult would see the consequences…
Her head was swimming. It was too late to be wandering the unfathomable depths of stupid people. She stumbled to bed just as Bruce got home and they slept. When they stirred, sex came first, then changing the dressing on his cassowary wound, and then tea. Only then did they compare notes.
“I went in prepared to tranq Stanwick and inspect the apartment before questioning him,” Bruce began in a tone Selina recognized: semi-conversational but still organizing his thoughts, the way he talked before he’d written up the log. He wouldn’t welcome interruptions. “I wanted to search his computer first, so I’d know immediately if he was lying. It turned out I had the place to myself. There was no sign of him. The computer checked out. The article was written on it and transmitted from it. And by ‘written’ I mean completely: file created, worked on for 38 minutes, four saves, two revisions. It was also deleted, but in the usual way: dragged to the trash can; trash emptied. Easy restore. I got 93% of the fragments on the first run without going into the physical hard drive.”
“So we’re not looking at a sophisticated hacker,” Selina said, risking the glare for interrupting, but earning only a grunt.
“Transmitting is another story. His login at the Times requires two-step authentication: an app on his phone generates a new six digit code every thirty seconds. If someone broke into his apartment the way I did and wrote on his computer, there is no way they could log in and send it to be published without having that phone.”
“Well how hard is that? You were prepared to tranq him,” Selina said, a thief seeing the obvious key to the lock and forgetting this was the second interruption in a span of twenty seconds. “When you put him out, just get the phone from the nightstand.”
“That’s exactly what was done,” he declared in Batman’s reserved-for-criminal-disapproval gravel. “Oracle found Martin at Gotham General Hospital. He checked himself in around one o’clock Sunday afternoon having slept through the entire day of the wedding. He assumed some kind of narcoleptic fit, while the hospital—given what was happening with his column on social media—assumed it was a suicide attempt. That he had second thoughts and won’t admit it. The tox screen showed trace elements, something that breaks down when it’s been metabolized, but there was something.”
“Okay, wait a minute,” Selina said, then paused for a sip of tea. “Somebody. Went to Martin’s apartment and drugged him. Came to the wedding and mined the guests for every fuck-you-Gotham-Post detail that I slaved over. Went back to Martin’s, wrote the article saying none of it happened and sent it in to the Times. And then they waited ‘til morning, bought a newspaper, stole a Tardis, and brought it to our front door to wreck my morning-of-the-wedding?”
“All but the last. It’s an assumption that the paper was left by the same person who manufactured the headline. But everything before bringing the newspaper to the manor, that is a logical supposition supported by the evidence.”
“You’re very detached,” Selina noted. “It’s a lot of trouble for someone to go through just because they hate me.”
Bruce’s lip twitched. “Consider the time and energy the people who hate me put into it. And you’re assuming a motive. We don’t know any of the whys yet. We’re just starting to map out the what.”
“Well, talking to Martin is next,” Selina grimaced. “I wish I could put on my fur and do it myself, but I am in Scotland.”
“Batman will get over there tonight between patrols,” Bruce said, stroking the back of her hand. “I know it’s hard. But as far as the world’s concerned, we’re on a honeymoon worthy of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce Wayne and it’s a small price to pay for that, isn’t it? When we get back…God, when we get back, Mrs. Wayne.” He looked at her in wonder, still trying to get his head around those final words. He leaned in and lips touched, tongues swirled and teased and then parted. He continued as if nothing had happened. “Batman will get over there tonight,” he repeated like a crimefighter who never lost focus on the task at hand.
Psychotic Breakfast, HAHAHAHAHAAAA! That’s what Gotham needed! How they all got hooked on the stuff was a question for another day. The monsters responsible WOULD be hunted down eventually. Probably Batsy could do it. He’d like that; he’d be good at it. Punching them very hard over and over. Let them take two tablets of their precious sanity and see if it takes down the swelling, HAHAHAHAHAAA! See if it makes the bleeding stop, HAHAHA! Too funny. Yeah, Batsy will finally be good for something. When we get there.
But first things first: SAVE GOTHAM! Before the pushers of the odious horror called Reality could be hunted down and dealt with, he had to wipe out sanity on a massive scale and lead them all to the switch. A psychotic breakfast for all of Gotham, that’s what the doctor ordered! HAHAHAHAHAAAA!
The interview with Martin turned up little worth discussing the next day at breakfast. He’d stayed in Friday night to be well-rested for the big day. He read a few articles he described as “chit chat fodder” which he remembered quite clearly. There was one on golf and antiquing in Palm Beach, a wine auction in Napa and a few related anecdotes: French President Macron’s drop-in at the wine pavilion at the Paris Ag show and the old Queen Mother’s penchant for smuggling champagne into the hospital to make her stays more comfortable. Also “Bread is back,” artisanal bakers have fought and won the easiest revanchist battle in history, reminding us all why we fell in love with bread in the first place...
Selina couldn’t suppress the chuckle. “That’s so Martin,” she said, while Bruce contemplated his fork with the stoic disapproval of a crimefighter waiting out a criminal informant’s mirth. “Can you imagine if you weren’t you, if Batman went into the interrogation without any Bruce Wayne experience of Martin’s peculiar… way of seeing things?”
He grunted and continued: Primed with small talk to cover any momentary awkwardness (except perhaps with anti-gluten extremists), Martin turned out the light and went to bed. He awoke late Sunday morning with the kind of hangover that’s more lethargy than headache. Took a cab to the ER imagining some sort of late-onset narcolepsy, and concern for his health pushing out any other thoughts. He didn’t realize the significance of the day he’d lost until hours later. Hadn’t looked at his phone until he was settled in his room. Blood pressure hit 206 over 93 when he found out about the article and the fallout on social media.
“So he knows nothing more than we do,” Selina remarked.
“Neither does his phone. GPS says it never left the apartment until he did, and the only fingerprint other than his is a nurse who handled it after the blood pressure spike.”
“Now I feel bad,” Selina said. “We have to do something for him when we get back. A big gesture, no hard feelings kind of thing.”
“I’ll leave that to you,” Bruce said, and then “Oh I like the sound of that. The most annoying part of managing Bruce Wayne’s social life is now my wife’s responsibility.”
“World’s Greatest Detective, I’ve been doing that for two years,” Selina said with an eye roll.
“Two years, four months, and eleven days,” he grinned. “The Newcombs’ party at the River Club. That’s when Alfred and Lucius appointed you ‘Designated Wayne Wrangler,’ that was the phrase, wasn’t it?”
“You did notice?”
“Of course,” he graveled. Then…
“So Martin is a dead end.”
The Grand Concourse in Gotham Central Station has seen its share of flash mobs, from Bruno Mars to Queen, a Hawaiian soccer team’s hula to a ballet school’s hip hop dance off. One was to raise awareness of MetroCards for low-income Gothamites, one to mark the anniversary of an Israeli military action in 1976 and five to set the stage for marriage proposals, but most were just for fun. And most tempted only a fraction of passersby. Every mob managed some kind of audience thanks to the tourists, but only the most daring—like the arrest of Princess Leia on the Lexington Avenue Express that culminated in her being marched into the Concourse by an escort of storm troopers for a confrontation with Darth Vader—scored the rapt attention of everyone present.
It wasn’t that shocking to real Gothamites when the famous clock over the information booth reached 2:28 exactly and 200 people around the Concourse froze in place: A young man tying his shoe, a woman on her phone, a couple holding hands as they walked, the girl putting on lip balm…
Gothamites are not nearly as hostile to strangers as outsiders like to believe. “How long’s this been going on?” a businessman asked a father of two. “I just walked in, has it been going on for a while?”
“No, this guy just dropped the papers a couple minutes ago. Less than that, maybe a minute,” came the answer while his son yelped “It’s like EVERYBODY,” and his sister rolled her eyes and said “Obviously not everybody.”
…a pair of tourists consulting a map, frozen. A woman eating yogurt, frozen. A couple with coffee cups, a guy with a bottle of water, the man who’d dropped papers and another with a magazine whose path he blocked, watching him pick them up…
Many commuters only slowed as they walked around the living tableaus, looking curiously but not stopping. Others would study a frozen subject, a few would daringly touch an arm. Several pulled out phones and recorded video. “Some kind of protest,” one onlooker guessed. “Or an acting class,” said another.
After four minutes a staffer rode in on a maintenance vehicle and came to a stop at the first cluster. “They're blocking my cart,” he said into his radio, “There's like hundreds of people frozen everywhere.” The exaggerated Brooklyn accent almost went unnoticed, but the guy who guessed it was an acting class broke into a smile, rolled his head and turned away. “This is wild. They're not moving. I can't move my cart; I need some help...” the worker continued, but at the next instant as if on cue, all 200 started moving again as if nothing had happened. “Eh, never mind. They're moving,” he reported, and his vehicle moved on as well.
There had been fourteen tweets in total, none of which sparked any interest. It was nothing but an odd story for the people who’d been there. Life went on.
Except for the man on the 7 Express platform below who the conductor had seen as a blur falling into the path of the R62A subway car just as he was completing the spiel about transfers on the upper level and of limited uptown service on the 4, 5, and 6 lines. The blur that had been a man wasn’t much more than a splotch on the front of the train, on the rails, across the yellow line at the edge of the platform and the graffiti’d letters beyond: CHARAH.
To be continued...