Batman 1939: The Dangers of Being Cold
Chapter 4: Small Talk
Bruce Wayne hated sleep. Sleep was when the demons came. For eighteen years it was the same montage: the metal click of the hammer; the bulb-flash of the muzzle turning off the night; two CRACKs of thunder; the airy musk of burnt saltpeter; a pause; then her string of weightless pearls in free fall; a strong grip fading off his shoulder; his own shaking hands, too pitiful to intervene; and finally, inevitably, his reflection in the wet cement.
And the pain didn't dull with repetition. His unconscious was Hell's own jazz band - it had a knack for inventing fresh twists on the classics. Maybe one night the assailant turned the gun on him too. Maybe the moon fell out of the sky and crushed the city. Maybe tiny worms crawled out of everyone's skin. His mind brewed misery with a variety that had not run stale in eighteen years. He passed his waking hours knowing torture hid behind his eyelids.
But even that wasn't always so simple. A few visions were far stranger than mere nightmare: abstract pastiches and alien notions, rhymes, tessellations, sense memories warped to the fringe of the inscrutable, sound and fury signifying nothing. It was the boiling opiate intersection of Picasso and Bosch. He was a man having a stroke in a carnival, a drowning kaleidoscope. These rare dreams were cold and meaningless. Though painless they unsettled him, made him question reality when he awoke. Bruce wasn't sure what brought on these psychedelic visions. It wasn't toxin exposure or heat stroke; he knew both. Bruce resented having some loose part of his psyche mocking his quest for self-knowledge.
In either case, whether violently coherent or unnervingly surreal, Bruce tried to avoid his dreams. This he mostly did by staying awake as long as possible, a harsh limit discovered through a lifetime of trial and error. Bruce occasionally wondered what this lean cycle would do to his longevity. He doubted he would reach an age to find out.
Still, all men must sleep. When forced to rest, Bruce had other ways to keep the ghosts at bay. The most common was exercise. As a child, he discovered by happy accident that if he wore himself out swimming or playing in the schoolyard, he would sometimes fail to dream. Once he recognized this, it became his drug. And like all drugs, he had to push his limits as his tolerance grew. Bruce wasn't born an athlete; he was compelled to it.
With his superlative fitness, this trick hadn't been reliable for years. He could earn a peaceful night's rest by running a mile when he was twelve, but today he could run a marathon and his odds of peace wouldn't break fifty-fifty. So, he pursued other methods. In his traveling days, Bruce sought out the distant masters of the contemplative arts. In studying meditation, he steadily cracked the common limits of the mind. Most revolutionary of all these techniques was the art of clearing the subconscious before slumber. Yet even this was a salve, not a cure. To meditate, Bruce needed to empty his thoughts, a task which demanded patience and calm. By the time he got home he was often too tired to bother.
However burdensome meditation was, at least it was safe. The real dilemma was medicine. Sleep research was an infant field, but there were plenty of drugs that shut off dreams entirely, if only for a night. For obvious reasons, these were among the first he studied. He knew the recipes by heart. And in the bad days, the days when waking and sleeping competed in the hurt they could bring, it was a seductive option indeed. There had been evenings as a young man when he sat on the cold tile of his bathroom floor with a tiny cup of pharmaceuticals in hand. He would sit and ponder, watching the swirls of the liquid inside. But in the end he always poured it down the drain. Bruce knew far too many addicts to solve his problems with a chemical. It didn't matter how often his own screaming woke him up.
Finally, and on very seldom occasions, Bruce slept without dreaming for no reason at all. Such was the case last night: he simply fell into bed at four in the morning, brain boiling with plans and worries, then nothing. Now it was half past ten. He didn't feel anxious or bleak, just rested.
Pleasantly half-awake, he enjoyed the serenity of the moment, the texture of fine cotton sheets and the scent of the mint plant on the windowsill. In some tiny back office of his perception, Bruce heard the wall clock's minute hand click smoothly over the six.
A moment later, heavy curtains were pulled back and a regiment of sunlight pillaged every nerve endings on Bruce's face.
He blinked and saw a thin figure silhouetted in the light. The towering figure leaned over him and spoke.
"Rise and shine, Master Bruce."
Bruce Wayne was not a child. He didn't try petty tricks, pleading or turning over. They wouldn't have worked. Instead, he frowned and sat up.
"Good morning, Alfred."
"Good morning, sir. You didn't ring the trauma bell when you got in. No injuries I presume?"
"Good. Legal status?"
"A refreshing change. And I must say you seem in high spirits this morning."
"I slept well."
Bruce wasn't smiling but did seem uncharacteristically relaxed, a nuance which spoke volumes for a practiced eye like Pennyworth's. The younger man pushed stiffly out of bed and accepted the offered glass of water. He took a sip and said no more, but Alfred wasn't fooled, having been awakened by the boy's screaming more often than the boy woke himself. But a gentleman was tactful. He let the miracle slide.
"Very good, sir. Your four newspapers are on the dresser. Breakfast is cooling downstairs." Alfred headed for the door. "Do hurry, I expect full details of last night's events when you're finished."
Bruce fought an old instinct to roll his eyes. Alfred Pennyworth had very few priorities in life that outranked knowledge of Batman's operations. Ensuring that Bruce Wayne got enough to eat was one of them.
Cities the size and age of Gotham had an almost recursive depth. Outsiders may stereotype, but Gothamites knew that each of the seven districts had its own story, and every community in those districts carried a certain attitude found nowhere else. Sometimes a single block could be its own little country.
A classic example was the Newmar-Harlow Building.
The East End was the second or third ugliest district in the city (depending on who you asked and whether it had rained that day). The general standard of living rivaled Dickensian Manchester, except the East End dealt with industrial chemicals that the Victorians hadn't invented yet. An East Ender possessed a vocabulary half the breadth of the average American but knew fourfold the obscenities. It was the only place in North America where the muskrat was both a staple food and a leading cause of death.
Yet East Enders weren't all the same. The old jokes claimed they were all Scots-Irish bachelors, but a solid third of the district was taken by the Tricolour: a residential community of poor Greeks and very poor Hungarians, all married with children. One of the worst-kept secrets of Gotham politics was that, due to a quirk in the migraine-inducing shapes of city voting precincts, the Alderman's Seat always went to whichever candidate could win both sides of the Tricolour. Thus, a savvy Alderman aimed to unite the Greeks and Hungarians long enough to get elected and then sow discord between them to ruin future contenders. That second step was the easy one; Gotham's Greeks and Hungarians hated each other with a barely-contained passion no one else understood.
But even this wasn't the whole story. In the very center of the Tricolour was the Red Hill neighborhood, a ribbon of townhouses that ran between the Greek and Hungarian halves. Red Hill was almost exclusively a Negro area - families with deep roots and a few new faces up from Charleston. Relations with the bordering whites were cordial, but neither side passed though if they could help it, so Tricolour's two big rivals were effectively quarantined. All parties tacitly agreed this was probably for the best. City leaders prayed nightly that it stayed that way. Besides its strange role as a demographic no-man's land, Red Hill was also famous for its sandstone brick facades and Prohibition jazz clubs.
On the east side of Red Hill was Kitt Street, named for its founding resident, Benedict Kitt: 19th century German-Jamaican textile magnate, abolitionist, and attempted revolutionary. In 1863, Kitt witnessed the Draft Riots when over a hundred minority locals were killed out of racial spite. It was a solitary tragedy, but Kitt mistook it as the first tremors of a national pogrom.
Surveying Gotham, he purchased all the colored slums within three blocks of his home and bought the rights to rename the land after himself (his altruism never tempered his ego). Kitt then spent his fortune building a nation-in-miniature: a hotel, a civic center, a school, a post office, a stable, a newspaper, a public green, and even a hospital. Finally in 1865, on New Year's Day, he lit several hundred fireworks and declared independence from the Union, confidently ignoring the well-known anti-independence-from-the-Union policy the Union held at the time. Kitt's dream was that his neighbors would realize the inevitable race war and move to his glorious new country.
Kitt and six friends were arrested in minutes. It took an hour for the authorities to realize that the idiot setting off illegal fireworks was committing treason.
This weird episode would have concluded with Red Hill getting a fine set of new public buildings, but unfortunately a stray firework landed in a pile of trash, eventually burning down all of Kitt's empire save for the hotel and hospital. The charred land eventually filled back in as before, leaving the cutting-edge medical center and the four-story luxury palace out of place among the shanties and flophouses. The plumbing alone would have been a zoning nightmare had Gotham possessed a functional zoning board.
The hotel passed through many hands as such white elephants are wont to until it became a set of apartments catering to the doctors who worked in the hospital next door. The hospital, eventually called East End General, soon became famous for its local pro bono work. It was out of respect for these doctors alone that the apartments hadn't been vandalized to destruction decades ago.
Under the most recent management since 1929, Kitt's dream hotel was now called the Newmar-Harlow Building.
Selina Kyle lived on the third floor of the Newmar-Harlow Building. Its apartments were far nicer than the price implied, a real four-star treatment at a two-star cost. After all, the market for upscale housing tended to be weak on streets where the garbage cans smelled like muskrat. This lean price tag suited Selina just fine. Her personal assets were decidedly not liquid at the moment: you couldn't pay rent with a Nubian relic.
Furthermore, the East End in general and Red Hill in particular were very unfriendly to cops (to put it lightly). On the very slim chance the fuzz managed to catch a whiff of her less licit activities and came knocking, her neighbors would sooner lick a dumpster than snitch on a friendly local. A lady in her line of work found this trait useful.
It had been a strange night for Selina. She finally fell asleep by two-twenty and was up by six, much earlier than Bruce Wayne on both counts. Whereas his sleep was remarkably peaceful, her mind was churning the whole time; she told herself it was just the coffee. And while Bruce was met upon waking by an old friend, Selina was alone. She had to call one.
Pfeiffer's Wharf was a mere twelve blocks from the Newmar-Harlow Building. Unlike most of Gotham's beaches, it was pleasantly devoid of broken bottles or dead fish. Gulls squawked lazily overhead. A line of massive cargo ships puttered along the horizon. Here, Selina Kyle and Maven Lewis jogged along the cold sand in jackets and winter trousers, their scarves trailing behind them. The two were friends and occasional business partners. Selina ran fresh as a daisy with long, even strides. Maven didn't.
"Huuu, huuu, huu. Ste- Stop! Stop. Need to catch my bre-huuu-breath."
Maven hunched over and panted her lungs out. Selina, a few yards ahead of her, begrudgingly stopped and jogged in place.
"Come on Maven, if you fall over, you'll get sand in your glasses. We've gone two measly miles."
Maven lacked the strength to lift her head but raised a finger in objection, "Huuuu, huuu, huuu - Two miles - huuu, huuu - over sand dunes - huuuu huuu - in December - huuuu, huuu, huuuu - you lunatic."
"I wouldn't call these little bumps 'sand dunes'. Let's make it to the dock and then we can get breakfast. You know I can't think straight before my run."
"Do you think straight, phuuuuu, ever?" Maven brushed her sweat-frazzled ponytail off her shoulder and achingly stood up. "Fine, but your news had better be dynamite."
"Like you wouldn't believe, Mave."
"And you're paying."
Beside the pool in the Manor's sun parlor was a small exercise corner. It was mostly for show - Bruce hadn't used dumbbells that small since he started shaving - but he did take advantage of the corner for short warmups; it was a lot closer to the rest of the home than his main gym. The gear was of the finest brands, of course, York Barbell and Z. Ogger Athletics, but today he only needed his cheap jump-rope: four minutes, five hundred turns. Then a shower. Then breakfast.
Most mornings, Bruce Wayne ate at a small table adjacent to the kitchen in the back of the East Wing. It used to be where the Manor's retinue of servants ate, in the days when that number was much larger than one. Bruce knew from old family stories that certain ancestors of his might take offense at their scion eating in a dim corner like a scullery maid, but if the house had any indignant ghosts around, he didn't care. He refused to let Alfred go through the burden of setting up the great dining hall every day for only one diner. And eating alone in that massive room was terribly depressing. Those priggish Waynes were never the heroes in his family stories anyhow.
"Your breakfast, sir." Alfred carried over a pewter tray with a two cranberry muffins, diced pears, seven poached eggs, and hot tea, all on fine china. Bruce nodded and began to consume with the indifferent efficiency he gave most domestic tasks.
Alfred virtually never ate with Bruce despite a lifetime of offers; the manservant had an ironclad sense of propriety about that sort of thing. Instead, he stood nearby and started the Morning Report.
The Report evolved out his breakfast reminders when Bruce was a teenager, mentioning the day's appointments and other news. When Bruce returned to the Manor as a young man, he requested that Alfred restart the tradition with a bit of an expanded scope. After all, Mr. Bruce Anthony Wayne wore many hats: business executive, philanthropist, host, travel enthusiast, real estate tycoon, serial romantic, and member of seven civic groups and three social clubs. Bruce found that keeping track of even three or four of these roles fiercely taxed his attention. Having a comprehensive four minute life summary to start the day was invaluable.
"-And at five past three, I'll supervise the weekly dusting of the fourth floor. The chaps from Wriggly Janitorial have proven through and discreet; if they do well this time, I'll offer them the full winter contract. The usual rates. Oh, and Mr. Fox called earlier this morning. He requested you in the office by ten. If you're willing to run the abbreviated variation of you mid-day exercise, we can easily get into the city by a quarter to one."
Bruce never stopped eating to nod or respond, but Alfred knew he was listening. Their bond was deep and needed few pleasantries. With familiar synchronicity, Bruce finished his last bite seconds after Alfred's talk concluded. Bruce dabbed his mouth with a napkin. "No need to delay, Alfred. I'm skipping exercise today."
Alfred Pennyworth nearly coughed in surprise. Unless he was in traction, Bruce loathed missing a training session. "Is that so, sir?"
"Yes, if we head to the office early then we can return early. I have a few loose ends to wrap up tonight, the sooner the better. I'll also be cutting patrol much shorter. I intend to be in by eleven."
"Careful, Master Bruce, that timetable almost sounds civilized."
Bruce gave him a look. "Risible. I'm trying to save my energy."
Alfred put the dirty plates back on the tray. "I don't suppose this rest is merely a well-deserved gift to yourself."
"My birthday was last week."
"A delayed gift, then. I seem to recall you celebrated your birthday by attending your own party for a single hour-"
"And a half."
"-before slinking off to watch fungus samples under a microscope until morning."
"That fungus proved to be the lynchpin of a vital investigation."
"Besides, I knew the guests had your charm and wit to entertain them, Alfred."
"Save the flattery, Master Wayne, I already made you breakfast."
"Regardless, it was a worthwhile endeavor"
Alfred gave the young man a calculating look. "And was last evening a worthwhile endeavor?"
Bruce sighed. "I suppose now I tell you how my night went?"
"Yes, Master Bruce, I suppose you do."
Selina and Maven conspired over pancakes in a corner booth at Granny Pickens, the only breakfast diner in the East End with a live fireplace during winter. They both loved pancakes, and Selina found it convenient that Granny Pickens was both religiously opposed to gossip and nearly deaf.
"-and he says that's where the truck ended up. So evidently they've transported these bodies to an Army base upstate. He needs me to crack some locks so he can get proof that Uncle Sam is in cahoots with the thieves and blow the gig wide open."
"Can you tell it again? Slowly?"
"Maven, that's the third time. It's not that difficult."
"No, not all this cloak-and-dagger hooey. I mean," she looked around to ensure they were still alone and whispered, "you actually talked to The Batman!"
Selina couldn't help but chuckle. Maven was usually the level-headed one. Plus, if she played it cool, it was easier to pretend that a tiny, irritating corner of her mind hadn't been playing the exact same tune since she woke up.
"Yes Mave, I talked to The Batman."
"The Real McCoy?"
"And naturally, he was a pompous killjoy, but less so than usual. It was a nice chat," Selina gave a cavalier shrug, as if such things were weekly parlor games.
Maven whistled. "Alright, paint the scene for me. What was he like?"
"Don't you want to talk about the job I accepted? The one where I commit espionage on the federal government? Or about the cabal of Army-sponsored body snatchers roaming the streets? Or how I'm set to jump two tax brackets if this goes through?"
"Ha. As if you reported all your income."
"Hey, you know I'm careful. That's how they got Capone."
"I was kidding, honey. I used to file your taxes. And no, I don't want to talk about any of that. Or, more accurately, I know better."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"How long have we known each other, Selina?"
"Are we counting Monaco?"
Maven hissed, "Ottawa never happened."
"Geesh, you'll never let that go, will you? The boxcar wasn't even that bad."
"Ottawa ... Never ... Happened."
"Fine. Ignoring Ottawa, we've known each other about six years."
"And in those six years, how many times have you done something reckless?"
Selina pursed her lips like a scholar struggling for an obscure bit of trivia. "Several ... dozen?"
"Several dozen a year, at least. If I got worked up every time you were in way over your head, I'd have a conniption. However you do it, by now I'm sure you know what you're doing," Maven nodded emphatically, "And I'm double sure I couldn't change your mind anyway."
Selina let out a dramatic sigh. "Fine. What do you want to know about Batman?"
"Is he really seven feet tall?"
"Off by about a foot."
Maven gasped. "He's eight feet tall?"
"Did he appear in a gust of wind?"
Maven readjusted her glasses and leaned forward. "Were there little bats following him around in the rafters?"
"Did you smell brimstone? Did his shadow move on its own accord?"
"No and no."
"Did his eyes look into your soul?'
"You actually can't see his eyes, there's some sort of frosted glass in the way."
"Did he fly in?"
"He walked in."
"Does he grow bigger when he gets angry?"
"He's an experiment gone horribly wrong!"
"Maybe he seems immortal because he's a clone. He dies and they send another."
"Well, I can't disprove that, but he sounded like the same guy. Moved like him too."
"A commie agent!"
"No, better, a team of disgruntled cops that take matters into their own hands."
"I've already said it's one guy."
"Maybe there is a group of Bat-men but you happen to meet the same one each time."
"Oh! Maybe it's always the same one because he's assigned to you!"
"Honestly, Maven. Where do you hear these things?"
Maven shrugged sheepishly. "Here and there. Don't pretend this isn't fascinating! He's a living legend! I mean, golly, you practically just had tea with Santa Claus. Or Dracula."
"You and everybody else in the city, huh? I've told you a thousand times; he's not a demon or a ghost or whatever else you think he is. And I admit he may be fascinating-"
"-but so is a car wreck. That genius who went over Niagara in a barrel was fascinating. I wouldn't exactly invite him to lunch."
Maven knew Selina better than that. "Are you sure you're not downplaying this just a tiny bit?"
"Cross my heart. He's a big lug with a balled up code of morality and a poor sense of self-preservation, nothing more."
"Said the pot to the kettle."
"Hey!" Selina gave an offended pout and crossed her arms. Her companion took the opportunity to steal half her pancake.
Maven had the patience and goodwill found in the best diplomats and kindergarten teachers, so she never bothered to match Selina quip for quip. It was easy to forget she had a wit of her own, making her rare bon mots all the sharper.
Maven talked as she chewed. "Look - Mmm - I'm tired of living vicariously through you." She stifled a burp, "I'm coming to see him."
"Maven dear, trust my voice of experience. Things around Batman tend to be very ... active."
"You couldn't run three miles."
"I could if I had a good reason. Just bring me along and see what he says."
"Look, I'm sure Batman, well, actually I'm not sure how he'd react." Selina pondered at the ceiling. "That's an interesting question. He'd probably grunt and ignore you. Then he'd yell at me for bringing a guest."
"Shoot." Maven slumped onto the table.
Selina shrugged apologetically and took a gulp of orange juice. "Any other questions?"
"Fine. If you thought he was so unexceptional, how would you describe him?"
Selina tried to speak but paused. Her habit would naturally be to fire off a nice zinger at Sir Frowny-face's expense. It was fun and easy. But some answers weren't supposed to be fun and easy. Batman was a lot of things, but she suddenly wasn't in the mood to make him a punchline.
How would she describe him?
Big. Intense. Powerful. Sure.
Clever. Stupid. Both true.
Deceptively quiet. Yeah.
Focused. Cold. Fair enough.
But those missed the heart of it. Of him. There was something about talking to the Dark Knight when they weren't trying to eviscerate each other. Some nuance rose to the surface, underpinning all he said and did. She realized that now. But what was it exactly?
"Hello! Earth to Selina?"
"It's your turn. How would you describe Batman?"
Selina looked down and fidgeted with her glass. Finally, the nuance coalesced.
Maven waved dismissively. "Everybody knows he's angry. That's his-"
Selina looked up. "No. Not angry, unhappy."
"You've just heard the stories. Batman gets in fights, so of course they say he's vicious and crazy."
"It's a biased survey. They didn't stop and listen to him. I did."
"So, he's not angry."
"Well, no. Listen. I've seen him get vicious, sure, but only when he has to be violent. Or when his, I don't know, values are insulted."
She got a dry look in response.
Selina's pitch turned adamant. "I get this is hard to believe, but the rest of the time he's-"
"He's what, Selina? Pleasant?"
"Very calm. Even civil. But he's not happy. He's ... miserable."
"Did he mention this?"
"How could he be miserable? No one's forcing him to do this. He must get a kick out of it."
"Hey, I can tell. I've watched him and I could tell."
"Alright, then why is he miserable?"
"I ... I don't know," It hurt to admit a plain truth, "I have no idea. Who knows why the Hell he does anything? But he's not a raving psychopath."
The two ladies sat in melancholy silence. Selina regretted sucking the fun out of the room.
Fortunately, Maven was never one to brood for long. "Well, at least we learned one interesting thing from last night."
Maven pointed with her fork and winked. "Psycho or not, when Batman really needed help, you were the first on his list."
"Master Bruce, pray tell again why you choose the candidate who was ninth on your list."
Bruce Wayne stood tall in front of his wardrobe mirror, applying a dab of cosmetic concealer to a small bruise on his neck. Alfred attended nearby, a selection of bold neckties draped over his arm. Alfred was giving Bruce a keenly skeptical look, his way of muttering '... you raving psychopath.'
It was a show of sublime respect that Bruce chose to ignore it.
"We discussed this. The first eight choices had insurmountable personal or operational shortcomings. She was the best, or if you prefer," Bruce rubbed the dab invisible, "the most tolerable."
Bruce put on a crisp white shirt and began to button. Alfred wasn't so easily assured.
"Forgive me for acting the broken record, but are you quite sure? Perhaps one more review of your options wouldn't be remiss."
After breakfast, Bruce began last night's tale: breaking up a fight in the Min Lee Marketplace, aiding an elderly couple whose car collided with a lamppost, saving the USS Gotham Bay, and so on. Bruce saved the meeting the elusive Catwoman for last. He stubbornly pretended all Bat-missions were equally worthwhile lest he cast doubt on his scrupulous prioritizing. Alfred tolerated the charade with typical patience.
When it was finally time to tell the story of the classroom encounter, Bruce kept the description brief. Just the facts. He downplayed her ... less professional remarks.
He also omitted their strange meta-conversation of body language entirely. To be fair, he was still trying to translate it.
Bruce finished the last button and straightened his cuffs. "I'm not pleased with this either, but as I said last night, at least she's not actively hostile-"
"My missing yards of suture thread say differently."
"-and she's proven amiable to reason, two very rare traits in my circle of contacts."
"If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas, Master Bruce. One can only presume cats - as the less trustworthy of the two beasts - promise even nastier consequences."
Bruce studied the part of his hairline and adjusted a follicle. "Poetic."
"Every time you've mentioned this Miss Kyle in the past, you harp on her as capricious, flippant, and mercenary."
"And I'm confident that third trait will keep the first two in line."
Alfred chuckled darkly. "Oh-ho. I have a few words for your brazen show of money later, but for now I'm merely baffled and concerned that your opinion of her has improved so drastically. I fear this situation is impairing your judgment."
"Isn't it possible I've thought too little of her in the past?"
"Would 'perhaps' be an acceptable standard if you hadn't imminent desire of her services?"
"No. But that doesn't make the situation any less dire. She gives this mission marginally better odds than if I acted alone. I can't say that for the rest of the list."
Seeing an impasse, the two men retreated into a heavy silence.
Alfred had his own history of military intrigue (a gripping tale for another day), and had involved himself in this operation at every step. Their "list" was a rough sketch of possible accomplices hashed out after Bruce returned from Fort Morrison a failure. The list's only criterion was that the accomplice be an expert lockbreaker. The rest was up for debate.
So they debated.
The first on the list was Hugh Gilbert: a police technician Batman once aided who was also a trusted friend of Detective Gordon, meaning he was both competent and honest. Bruce eventually nixed the idea. Hugh was indeed a master locksmith, but even if he was willing to help (a big if), they admitted he had no practice in infiltration. Plus, jeopardizing an honest cop in Gotham was like using a unicorn to check for landmines.
The second choice was Morton Brackenburger, the city's least scrupulous private investigator. He was the sort of PI with a revoked license in five states and seventeen restraining orders. Brackenburger was one the few men on the planet who trespassed on more properties in a week than the Caped Crusader. He had a reputation for taking on any target for any customer. Unfortunately, Brackenburger was booked solid for a month and he never dropped a client.
So they continued, proposing shadier and shadier characters in growing desperation until Bruce suggested the intractable Catwoman. Alfred thought it was a joke. Bruce, sour to the notion as soon as he brought it up, skipped to the next idea. But hours passed and the prospects grew thin. Bruce, in a moment of frustrated indifference, once again nominated Catwoman and, to their astonishment, neither man was able to find anything disqualifying. The decision was made: Bruce, a resigned yes; Alfred, a begrudging no contest.
Though he still couldn't conceive of anyone better, Alfred was now having second thoughts. As Bruce turned and examined the ties, they entered a tepid stalemate. Bruce usually had an enormous tolerance for uncomfortable silences, but the tactician in him realized he needed Alfred's input now more than ever. This was no time for a grudge. He tried to recall all his recently-proven apology skills.
Bruce cleared his throat awkwardly, "You know, I succeeded last night thanks to you."
"May I suggest the gold and blue Brooks Brothers? And how so?"
Bruce selected the offered tie. "The encounter had ... emergent rhetorical challenges. I would have failed without your tactical analysis."
"Tactical analysis? I don't recall-"
"Your negotiation techniques."
"Oh." Alfred nearly rolled his eyes, "I wouldn't call my advice last night 'negotiation techniques', Master Bruce. I believe a more suitable phrase would be 'simple courtesies' or 'basic etiquette'."
Frankly, Bruce didn't care what they were called. Alfred's ideas were superb.
It was Alfred who suggested psychological judo kata like "please" and "thank you", two pleasantries Batman suppressed out of habit.
It was Alfred who implored that he hold his temper and find emotional commonalities.
And it was Alfred who insisted he invite Catwoman to neutral territory instead of his usual opening move: breaking into her home.
Batman was skeptical at first, but he trusted Alfred so he tried the ideas. He couldn't argue with success.
For his part, Alfred was perennially bothered by how easily Bruce could view social customs as weapons, but he knew to pick his battles and let it slide.
"Well, forgetting my own qualms about the young lady, you are very welcome. And I am proud at what you managed to accomplish. With all my help it sounds like you managed to gravely insult her twice."
Bruce frowned. "In other words, better than expected?"
Alfred allowed himself a fatherly grin, "You know me too well."
Bruce slid into a pinstriped charcoal suit. A side compartment in his mind began to warm up procedures for Wayne the Company Man, Standard Edition.
"I admit her reactions were at times less than optimal-"
"What delicate, sensitive phrasing."
"But the bottom line is I've secured her assistance. We can proceed tomorrow evening."
"So you're just going to go through with this tomorrow evening?"
Selina rolled her eyes. "Whatever happened to being sure you couldn't change my mind?"
The two friends were strolling down Merriweather Street, famous for its line of stunted cherry trees along the median. They enjoyed the sharp December air.
"Maybe I'm more worried than usual. Sue me."
"Ha. Like I'll ever see a courtroom."
"Pride cometh before a fall."
"Alright, Sister Maven."
"Maybe you're heading into this a little rashly cause you want to beat that rough streak you're on."
"Excuse me? What rough streak?"
"You know exactly what I mean. Four of your last five jobs have gone sideways. I think you're looking for a novel challenge to break out of this rut."
"Rut? You're way off-base, Maven."
"And golly, lo and behold, a challenge just falls into your lap! You've told me a thousand times, 'never let the size of the score make you dumb'."
"Shut it Maven."
Maven threw up her hands in surrender. "Fine, I kept my mouth shut this long, I can keep it shut a little longer. But we're talking about it sooner or later"
"Good," Selina sighed, "Thank you."
"But you have to admit, most days you'd be tearing up the walls worried about some sort of double-cross. Forget the Army, Batman's been chasing you for a year! Suddenly he has a change of heart? I think he's neat, but he's so sneaky! How is this not bothering you?"
Selina had obviously debated that very concern since she woke up, but she had too much chutzpah to admit it now.
"Batman never sneaks up on people verbally, Maven. Breaking promises has never been his trick. He said we were in a truce. He seemed sincere. If he turns on me, I'll deal with it."
Selina neglected to mention the strange meta-conversation of body language they had last night. To be fair, she was still trying to translate it.
Maven huffed. "Money or not, I know how you think. You have this wacky over-the-moon gut feeling that a reckless stunt will get you back in gear. And if it means riding around with old Dracula-Claus, all the better! You're that sour at being off your game."
"You think I'm off my game? Watch this."
Selina nodded down the sidewalk. Ambling towards them was a ruddy-faced policeman with the bleary eyes of an all-night shift behind him. As they crossed paths at the corner, Selina 'stumbled' into the man, giggling mindlessly.
"Oh, I'm, *HIC*, sorry occifer, och, ox, op, um, officer."
The bemused policeman helped her stand with some stern words about temperance.
Maven gripped Selina by the shoulders and helped march her off, apologizing to the cop over her shoulder. He nodded and continued on his way. Selina dropped the act and looked back at him.
Maven glared with her hands on her hips, "And what was that supposed to prove?"
Selina held up a wallet and a class ring. Maven rolled her eyes, "Big deal. He was practically asleep."
"Wait for it."
"Wait for it ..."
Selina gestured for them to hide behind a cherry tree. They watched the retreating officer in observant silence. "Wait for it ..."
Near the end of the block, the man stopped and shifted strangely. A moment later, his trousers fell.
Maven gaped at her friend, "How did you-"
Selina grinned cat-like and held up a belt.
It was a known fact among Gotham's tiny circle of auto enthusiast socialites that Bruce Wayne preferred his burgundy 1938 Cadillac for the daily commute. Most of the models inside the famous Wayne garage bore paint jobs in more stunning blacks, blues, and silvers, but they said Bruce tried for that extra touch of modesty around the office. Naturally, the contradiction of a modest Cadillac was lost on that crowd.
"Do kindly recall again what happened next, sir?"
Bruce quietly sighed from the backseat. He looked out the window at the skyscrapers passing by.
"And then she asked for a fraction of the pay in advance. She was joking, but I recognized it as another opportunity to seal our agreement. Negligible respect for property rights aside, Catwoman does seem to take formal contracts seriously. A useful quirk in this context."
"A trustworthy thief. Superb."
Alfred Pennyworth drove the Cadillac. One of Alfred's few demands when Bruce started his secret crusade was that they would be full partners. He could tolerate the boy he raised living an unhappy sham of a life and throwing himself into danger night after night - no matter how many white hairs it earned him - but he bloody well refused to be kept in the dark about it.
Bruce, in a rare show of trust, had agreed. It was a wise move. You couldn't replace fifty-seven years of savvy. Suffice it to say, the man wasn't born a butler. He knew what kings and ministers said behind closed doors. He could spot cheats, cowards, and liars from a mile away. He knew how men thought, even better than Bruce. And he knew how women thought, much better than Bruce.
"Bravo, sir. But as I mentioned before we left, I'm concerned about the bribery involved."
"Call it what you will, it's the magnitude that worries me. Who carries around a billfold one could purchase a house with?"
"I'll say this Maven, there was one strange thing about the whole ordeal."
"Oh? Just one strange thing?" her friend opined sarcastically.
Selina wasn't amused, "Well, the whole situation was sort of, uh ..."
Selina stopped. "We're no longer friends."
"That one's free. You should use it on him. Maybe he'd smile."
Selina resumed walking and casually flipped her hair over her shoulder. "Please. If he doesn't smile at me already-"
"Feeling pretty today?"
"-he'd jump into a volcano before he'd smile at that."
"Okay, what was the one strange thing? Let me guess, he wasn't gentlemanly enough to ask about that big bandage on your nose?"
"He didn't ask, but no, that's not it."
"How'd you get that, anyway?"
"Flying hotel cart."
"Another job gone south?"
"No! The strange thing last night was all the money he had. I ask for three grand and he doesn't bat an eye."
"Bat an eye?"
Selina turned and swung a haymaker at her friend's chin. Maven laughed and ducked. Selina took the opportunity to shove Maven into traffic. Maven tumbled over and landed on her rear, fortunately cushioned by thick winter pants and two inches of snow.
Feeling they were even, Selina helped her up and continued. "Three grand! What do you think of that?"
Maven swiped packed snow off her clothes. "I think it backs up my theory."
"Which theory? You had a dozen theories."
"If he's got money then he's got backers. An organization. Maybe the Feds. Maybe he's a new kind of G-man, keeping the streets safe."
"Batman doesn't strike me as a team-player."
"He teamed up with you."
"Grudgingly, trust me. Watching him ask for help was like watching a man pull out his own teeth."
"But he did it."
"Okay, let's say he works for the Feds. Then why deal with me? I'm not exactly the most law-abiding citizen. And more importantly, why would he sneak into a military base?"
"He would if his agency thinks the Army has gone rogue. He needs outside help because he can't trust anyone in the establishment. It's a secret assignment after all. Maybe from the President!"
"No offense Maven, but I'll shelve that 'part of a group' one for now. Any other ideas?"
"Maybe he likes brunettes."
Selina laughed. "I mean any other ideas on how he's rich."
"You were probably right the first time. If he isn't some kind of ghost - which I doubt - he's a bitter recluse with a few screws loose who steals from gangsters."
"And then just lets the money pile up?"
"You said he didn't have any hobbies," Maven paused to step gingerly over a wino sleeping on a pile of doormats, "I bet he sits alone all day in a crummy basement. If he steals from wise guys and never buys anything, I'm sure he has a little left over to bribe some help from you."
"Pay for help."
"Pay! And look, I'm not saying he isn't dysfunctional, but I doubt he's some bum living in a cave."
"He's not just anger and muscles. He's smart. He's ... educated."
"Smart enough to find you," Maven took a prim sip of juice from her bottle, "again."
"Hey! That's doesn't make him smart; that makes him an overgrown bloodhound. A very lucky, overgrown bloodhound."
"This is Gotham. If he were so smart, he'd buy a gun."
"Hey, smart people can rob wise guys ... although I guess wise people wouldn't."
"I'm serious. I really believe he doesn't steal."
"Even from crooks? Do you know how silly that sounds?"
"Can you think of a single story when Batman actually took anything?"
"Oh ... I'm sure there's one ..." Maven scratched her forehead and tried to mumble an example.
"See? I've heard them all, Mave. Nada. None. Doesn't that seem strange? People out there think he can walk through walls and shoot fire out his ears, but not one anecdote mentions him taking anything from a crime scene. And he's always moralizing: 'Robbery is wrong', 'Put down the emeralds', 'No, I don't want to split it with you'. At first I though he was full of hot air like everyone else who comes out at night. But the more I see him, the more I'm convinced he's sincere. I wouldn't claim that lightly."
"How else would he get that much green, Selina? You think he's secretly a millionaire?"
"So you're worried she thinks I'm a millionaire?"
"I'm just saying your cavalier show of large-denomination bills might beg questions about your financial resources."
"Are you speculating that she might try to rob me, Alfred?"
"I'm speculating she might conclude that a man with a great deal of wealth might be wealthy. Hardly a leap of logic."
"It was a calculated risk to earn her cooperation. And I'm confident she could only conclude the opposite."
"You know I'm not prideful Alfred-"
Decades of practice in fine decorum enabled Alfred Pennyworth to stifle a snort.
"-but I'm a Wayne, and that name carries certain assumptions."
"Does it now?"
"I paid in cash. No one on the social register carries money like that. We make purchases by check or through our assistants." It occurred to Bruce that Alfred was keenly aware of this, but he was in a foul mood and didn't care, "Some of the guys at Princeton - guys whose dads could buy Greek islands - never held thirty dollars in paper currency. Only the crudest parvenu carries rolls of hundreds on their person: nightclub owners, loan sharks, and the like. I made an excellent disguise."
Alfred chuckled. "Oh, I'm well aware how little foresight you and your gilded ilk give to personal funds. And I know how the petit bourgeoisie love to christen their wallets. The question is: does Miss Kyle? Imagine if, despite your deceptions, she was unfamiliar with the nuances of class and defaulted to the commoner's assumption that the very rich carry grand sacks of money."
Bruce rubbed his eyes. "She seems ... adequately sophisticated."
"Or Heavens, even worse: what if she is stricken with the fancy that a man dressed as a bat may have habits that don't match his social circle?"
Bruce opened his mouth but then frowned. He had no response to that. He silently damned this case for forcing him to act rashly. Then he damned himself for making excuses.
"What's done is done Alfred."
"A rare attitude for you, sir. May I proffer a suggestion?"
When you pick the lady up, don't take the Bentley."
"Well, maybe he is a millionaire. Or friends with one. He had to get the money somehow."
"Wouldn't that be swell. He could bribe you to go home every time you meet. Save you both a scrap."
Maven snickered as she waited for a fat muskrat and her line of babies to pass into an alley.
"I know rich people have some funny habits, but let's face it: any silk-pantsed old fart with enough cheddar to bankroll the Red Sox isn't spending his nights lassoing pickpockets. I'm telling you Selina, he got that cash by pillaging punks. Why do you think the cops hate him? They aren't used to a penniless crime scene. He's competition."
Selina sighed and watched her breath in the frigid air. "Maybe."
Neither spoke for a minute.
"Selina, I can't talk you out of anything, but be careful. I shouldn't have to tell you he's dangerous."
"And if he didn't set this up to catch you ... maybe that's even worse."
Selina lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. "How so?"
Maven looked away meekly, having used up her bravado for the day. "I mean, it's Batman."
"If Batman, The Batman, needs help with something ... well ..."
Maven finished the sentence with a meaningful look. Selina knew that look. It was full of trepidation and wonder, the look Gothamites used when they wanted to imply something about the Bat, as if mentioning him too loudly might make him appear.
Selina laughed until she half-swallowed a loose scarf thread. Spitting out a thread, she rolled her eyes.
"I'm not worried, Maven. I've handled worse blindfolded. Heck, it might even be fun."
Much later that evening.
Detective James Gordon grimaced and checked his watch. His mood was the polar opposite of fun.
He lounged on the twelfth floor fire escape outside his family's chilly apartment, idly smoking his second cigarette.
He came here most evenings to clear his head. He liked to tell himself it was the stress of the damn job, but frankly he just had to get away from the old ball and chain every so often (more often every week, it seemed). Admitting this made Gordon feel like dirt. He had so little time at home and little Barbara was growing up so fast. But no, he was spending it up here, alone, hiding from the woman he married just to duck an argument. Hiding like a punk.
He glanced at the moon, or rather, at glow in the dense foundry smoke where the moon ought to be. Gordon added a wisp of his own with a cheap Chesterfield.
To be fair, coming up here also enabled covert meetings with a certain-
He put out the cigarette in a blue ceramic pot and turned. Batman perched soundlessly and with perfect balance on the handrail. With no lit windows nearby he was nearly invisible: a shadow's shadow. No one would see them tonight.
"Batman. Care for a smoke?"
Detective Gordon shrugged, then he coughed roughly and thumped his chest. He hated living downwind of that foundry. Batman watched impassively. After a moment, he found his breath and shivered.
"Right. Any luck?"
It was Gordon who alerted Batman to the corpse thieves a month ago. Gordon revealed how other cops sticking their noses in the mystery soon had those noses cut off. Gordon was responsible for alerting Batman about the recent double murder. And it was through his sources in the Turnpike Commission that Batman found where the thieves' truck had been headed.
For a litany of reasons, Batman hadn't mentioned any of this to Catwoman last night.
"We were right about the truck. It was the Fort.
Detective Gordon was suddenly all business. "And?"
Batman leaned a hairsbreadth lower, which Gordon knew by now meant frustration in Bat-gesture.
"Security was tight. I left empty-handed.
Gordon took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He wasn't disappointed per se
. Batman wouldn't retreat from anything unless retreat was overwhelmingly necessary, but that still left them at square one.
Like any cop in Gotham, Gordon had a keen sense of when to call quits on a case. He glumly put his glasses back and tapped another cigarette from its pack. "Alright. I guess we're going to the press empty-handed. I'll take the fall for it, if it comes to that."
Batman nodded in respect. "I know, but not yet.
"Then what? Morrison was our last gambit."
"I'm making one more attempt on the base. With help this time.
Gordon coughed and nearly dropped his cigarette. He lifted a skeptical eyebrow. "Help? You?"
"Care to share his name?"
"It's better you don't know.
Jim gave a harsh chuckle. "Of course, since I'm always on the straight and narrow towards unofficial consultation."
"Give me seventy-two hours. If I'm not back, go public.
There was nothing left to say. Gordon looked up at the clouds.
Batman was already gone.