Batman 1939: Three's Company

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Stewart M
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Posts: 179
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-04-17 07:45pm

Author's Note

Dear Readers,

When I finished the most recent story in this series, Batman 1939: Swimming in the Styx, I promised that it would be my last, and that I would turn my efforts to write original fiction instead. I meant to keep that promise, and my novel is still in-progress (I think it's shaping up nicely). However, it won't be finished anytime soon, and we find ourselves in a global pandemic. I don't have many talents that are socially useful in a pandemic, but I thought I could at least share a distraction (and indulge in an old pastime). As such, I've decided to write another short story set in the Batman 1939 setting. And if anyone wants an excuse to chat about something trivial for a change, consider this thread as good a clubhouse as any.

I believe that historical fiction is an inherently optimistic genre. No matter how grim the subject or miserable the plot, we modern readers know that at least we survive as a species. After all, we're still here to read about it.

With that said, stay safe, and I hope you enjoy.

Stewart M
Padawan Learner
Posts: 179
Joined: 2016-08-22 06:09pm

Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-04-17 07:48pm

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 1: A Night At The Casino



October, 1941.

On Friday nights, the Arabia Casino was the biggest party in Bludhaven. Floor action was always brisk at the Arabia, but the joint really came alive once the fight card finished. All fights in Bludhaven were fixed, but the Arabia paid extra for boxers to finish early. Tonight’s main event was a middleweight scrap won by knockout in the third round, leaving the audience plenty of time to try their luck in the casino. It was hardly nine o’clock when hundreds of big spenders spilled out of the auditorium. Soon, every table and slot machine was making dough.

That’s when Miss Josie Kipling walked through the door. If the architect of the Arabia Casino had left three notes for its decorators, they would have read “gold”, “rhinestones”, and “golden rhinestones”, and Miss Kipling could have stepped out of the same blueprint. Her hair was as yellow as her dress which was so bedecked in sequins and fake gems it nearly stood unsupported. She left her coat at reception and sauntered idly around the floor, watching roulette wheels spin and dealers show off fancy shuffles. Through her orbits, she kept an eye on the private poker tables at the end of the room where, behind a velvet rope, prideful men competed to lose the largest bankroll and the cigarette haze was top shelf.

Soon, a gentleman at one of these private poker games stood and collected his chips. He declared that he was long on rum and short on luck, burped, then added that he heard there was a magician booked after the fights who might be worth a look. As he stumbled toward a restroom, Miss Kipling approached the attendant guarding the velvet rope. She paid him a wink and a sawbuck and was shown to the vacant seat. She put down her clutch and introduced herself. Her fellow players grumbled; one had been telling a dirty joke but saw her and ended prematurely. The dealer welcomed her and explained the table rules. The minimum bet was one hundred dollars. She ponied up.

Josie Kipling played slowly and poorly for several hands. This confirmed the table’s suspicion that she was some dilettante here to spoil their fun. Meanwhile, Miss Kipling was busy glancing over the dealer’s shoulder. In the corner behind him was a swinging door under a huge “Employees Only” sign. There were no tables near the door; one had to cross thirty feet of empty floor to reach it, all while watched by two confrontational-looking men in green security blazers who flanked the door. Sometimes staff would pass through carrying bags of chips or cash. Later, they would return empty-handed.

After watching foot traffic for an hour, Miss Kipling decided to change her strategy. Namely, she began to cheat. There are ways to cheat at poker while avoiding notice, building a subtle advantage over hours of play. Miss Kipling used none of these. She won three of the next five pots shamelessly, winning the final two hands with two royal flushes in a row. Then two hands grabbed her arms and yanked her to her feet.

There are few situations where hospitality and pacifism vanish as quickly as when a casino patron is found cheating. Being a lady, Miss Kipling was spared a degree of manhandling; one guard even passed over her clutch, but there was nothing gentle in the way the three mooks in green blazers marched her from the table. In her wake, a pit boss hurried to calm onlookers with vouchers for a steak dinner.

Many in Miss Kipling’s predicament would protest, some might throw a tantrum, but she kept her composure. There was even a hint of a grin at the corner of her lips, as if the hand on her elbow was her dance partner and not, in all likelihood, an ex-con whose job performance was measured in limb fractures. Her escorts didn’t seem concerned with her lack of concern, and they failed to notice how her little smirk grew as they led her through the door under the huge “Employees Only” sign.

The hallway beyond looked the same as all drab staff areas in big service establishments. Chefs, dealers, janitors, and valets gave them space as they passed. Miss Kipling knew that all cheats caught at the Arabia Casino were taken immediately to the security office for an interview. She knew that the security office was located just beyond a right turn at the next hallway crossing. She knew that if one went straight instead of turning right, the wall nearby had a laundry chute. Miss Kipling did not know whether she would find anything to serve as a distraction before she reached that crossing or whether she would need to introduce manhandling.

Luckily for all of them, when they reached the turn, a maid crossed their path pushing a rolling garment rack full of uniforms. It was not easy to jump in heels and a dress, but Miss Kipling took two steps and vaulted the rack, catching the top pole and kicking her legs over. When she landed on the far side, Miss Kipling rushed to the laundry chute and tried to work the handle. By the time the three security guards pushed their way through the garment rack, they saw the chute open and Miss Kipling’s legs kicking in the air as she dived in head-first.

It was a two-story drop to the bottom of the laundry chute. The tight passage sheared half the sequins and gems off Miss Kipling’s yellow dress. This was thoroughly unpleasant, but she landed unharmed in a cart full of linens while curses echoed down the chute above. She was alone in a dim room packed with laundry carts and commercial-sized washing machines. Miss Kipling closed its lone door and rolled a heavy cart in front of it, then she tipped another cart against the first, pinning it in place.

Her blonde hair had shaken sideways, so she tore it off. She then slipped out of her dress and removed her shoes. What remained was Selina Kyle: smiling and sequin-free. Under her dress she wore a chic violet bodysuit. Its sleeves and leggings were rolled artery-pressingly high up her biceps and thighs, so she quickly pulled them down. Her short dark hair was messy from its confinement, and she covered it with a tight hood that had been tucked under the dress back. Selina opened her clutch, removed two ballet slippers, brushed the lint from her feet, and put the slippers on. Her golden evening gloves turned inside-out to become black.

Selina took the discarded wig, dress, shoes, and handbag and stuffed them in an active washing machine. About this time, she heard running footsteps outside. Voices starting yelling rude promises through the door. Someone tried the handle. Someone else tried a kick. The frame shuddered, but her barricade held. Twisting and stretching to look herself over, Selina - now Catwoman - decided her transformation was complete.

On the sixth impact, the door knocked the protective carts askew. Casino security crashed into the room, but the woman was nowhere to be seen. The five guards shared a look; there was only one way to hide here. They spread out and started turning over laundry carts. Besides hosting a world-class gaming floor and a performance hall that booked the hottest acts in town, the Arabia Casino was home to five hundred and eighty-six hotel rooms. This required many laundry carts.

Catwoman crept up the laundry chute as quietly as she could. Returning to the casino level meant a twenty foot ascent using a technique rock climbers called chimney climbing. The move wasn’t dangerous or complicated, pressing against one wall with her hands and feet and against the other with her back, but it took incredible finesse to perform quietly, especially in a metal chute and especially in gloves and shoes that weren’t designed for the job. The move required further finesse when Catwoman heard a dull noise falling towards her, looked up, and was struck in the face by a ball of moist towels.

Catwoman had researched the model of laundry chutes installed in the Arabia Casino before arriving. The confused salesman had demonstrated that it was technically possible to open chute doors from the inside since the latch mechanism was exposed. But neither he nor anyone could guarantee that the hallway would be empty when Catwoman opened one and shimmied out. She made it to her feet when a janitor came whistling around the corner with a mop. They looked at each other. He stopped whistling.

“Hi,” she said.

“Dancer?” he asked.

She paused. “Sure.”

He pointed over his shoulder. “Down ‘da hall. Upstairs. Take a left. ‘Nother hall. Tru ‘da blue door says ‘Dressing Rooms’. Can’t miss it, toots.”

“Thanks.”

The janitor nodded and whistled past. Catwoman peeked into the hallway crossing and checked both ways. There were a few staff in the distance but no green blazers. The security office was around the corner. Its door was open. The room was quiet. She slipped inside.

Security was scarce in these back offices. She hoped her brazen escape would send every guard in shouting distance to chase her downstairs, since there wasn’t much to protect up here. After all, the security office wasn’t a treasure chest, unless one treasured stale coffee or failed crossword puzzles. But there was one secret exception.

The Arabia Casino had the unusual policy of taking collateral. Gamblers could exchange, say, a pocket watch or wedding band for a stack of chips. However, this was technically a loan, and a gambler might win back their collateral (rare, but possible), so the casino was obligated to keep it handy. The Arabia’s vault wasn’t an option. Opening it was a slow process by design; they couldn’t use it ten times a night for individual trinkets. Instead, Catwoman had learned that the casino kept the daily collateral hidden in the security office for easy access.

Catwoman soon found that her source had a charitable definition of ‘hidden’. When she walked in the room, she instantly noticed that a big pinup calendar on the wall was crooked and covered in food fingerprints. She lifted this calendar and found a wall safe. A younger, less shrewd Catwoman would get straight to business cracking the safe, and she would do it well. But the wise Catwoman working tonight knew that some safes didn’t lock automatically, and some owners were too stupid to re-spin the lock.

She pulled the handle. The safe clicked open.

Typically, only a few gamblers used collateral, so hiding it in what amounted to a break room must have seemed a small risk. However, a big Friday tended to bring out the compulsives and binge gamblers, and four to eight times more collateral was offered than usual. Inspecting the contents of the safe, Catwoman suspected tonight’s multiple was on the upper end of that scale.

The security office had a stack of canvas bags which the casino used to haul chips and money. Catwoman grabbed one and swept a pile of jewelry and other valuables into the bag. She closed the clasp, pulled the strap across her shoulder, and walked out of the room.

Outside was a passing security guard.

Over the past week, Catwoman had tried to commit a map of the Arabia Casino to memory, but it was difficult to recall that map while sprinting. Her original escape plan involved rappelling off the roof with a stashed rope, but that required traveling to the roof which she doubted her pursuers would allow.

As for a new escape plan, security was concentrated on the game floor, which obliged her to stick to these service corridors, and on the entrances, which meant she needed to get creative. As she dodged flying tackles and vaulted food trolleys, she found her creativity wasn’t keeping pace. She didn’t want to panic, but she also didn’t want to be caught stealing in a Bludhaven casino, so her composure was starting to slip.

Then Catwoman noticed a certain stairwell and was struck with the memory of that janitor’s directions: one hall, upstairs, left, another hall, blue door, dressing rooms, toots. Her foggy mental map suddenly gleamed with certainty that her wild turns had brought her to the spoken path. And a dressing room sounded like a great spot for some creativity. Catwoman had a nose for that sort of thing.

---​

Earlier.

On Friday nights, the Arabia Casino was the biggest party in Bludhaven. When the guests tired of gaming, they could seek entertainment at its two performance halls. Hall A was the boxing ring. Hall B housed all the other shows. One side of Hall B’s backstage was a suite of private dressing rooms for its stars. Like everything in show business, the biggest stars had the best rooms, and tonight’s dimmest stars were a two-person magic act called the Magnificent Zataras.

This misfortune would surprise the magic world. Giovanni Zatara had been a touring magician since the turn of the century, topping marquees from Savannah to Singapore. And he had even once been a local. Interrupting a career of otherwise nonstop travel, Giovanni had settled in neighboring Gotham City for half the Roaring Twenties, the peak of his fame, and played the Arabia many times on the Gotham circuit.

But times changed. Today, Giovanni was nearing the end of a decade-long glide into retirement. The wild stunts of his early days were shelved, and he hadn’t debuted a new trick in years. The few shows he still performed were masterful, but the spark was gone. They were effortless in every sense. Giovonni Zatara behaved like he had nothing to prove.

The same could not be said of his daughter. Zatanna Zatara had performed at her father’s side since she could walk. She started solo performances at fifteen and solo tours at twenty. Since then Zatanna had been climbing the ladder: fifty weeks a year on the road, booking every gig she could land, testing fresh material on little crowds, polishing old favorites for big ones. She was hungry, often literally, stuck in bus stations and rough motels with nothing to offer a picky eater. For all this, Zatanna believed she was finally close to the big leagues. Granted, she had believed that several times before, only to discover yet another league of mediocrities in between. But she had a good feeling this time.

For all her budding celebrity, Zatanna’s time on the road had kept her away from the Bludhaven crowd, and her reputation did not precede her. So tonight’s rare reunion performance of the Magnificent Zataras - the tired old legend and the minor leaguer home from the boonies - wasn’t the casino’s idea of a must-see act. That’s why they were provided with Hall B’s two worst dressing rooms. And Zatanna, the junior partner of the act, was in the worst private dressing room of all.

Zatanna leaned toward her vanity mirror until her nose almost touched. She lifted a metal eyelash curler toward her trembling eye, trying desperately not to blink.

A grouchy voice called behind her. “Hey, Miss Zatara! Excuse me!”

Zatanna poked herself in the eye.

“Ow!”

She cupped a hand over the smarting eye and turned around. “What do you want, Sid? I’m busy.”

Sid, a dumpy man in a frumpy suit, stood in her doorway. Sid was the Arabia Casino’s stage manager, Sid was a pest.

He took a congested breath. “Got some news. The fights ended early. You and your pops can start your razzle-dazzle early if you like.” He coughed. “Or not. Either way.”

Zatanna turned back with a huff and blinked experimentally. “Ask my dad, Sid.”

“Ah, I tried that. His door’s locked, and he won’t answer. Figgered he was taking a nap or, well,” he shrugged. “I dunno. Figgered I’d ask you.”

Zatanna gestured at herself. She wore a dressing gown and curlers in her black hair. “Do I look like I’m ready to go on?”

He scratched himself. “Uhh, I dunno. Didn’t want to assume. So do you wanna start early?”

“No, we don’t want to start early.” Zatanna waved him away. ”Now shoo.”

“Oh. Okay.” He awkwardly left the room.

Zatanna called after him. “And knock next time!”

The worst dressing room in Hall B had a broken door latch and a slight incline. Sometimes this caused the door to swing open on its own. Some people thought this was permission to step inside without asking. Those people were terrible. Zatanna wished she could place a piece of luggage to keep the door closed, but Bludhaven had the most extortionary fire department in America, and if she was caught engaging in any violation of the fire code - even blocking a door - it was grounds for an enormous fine from the casino for "preemptive legal coverage".

But that was show business. At least her dressing room came with a folding screen when she needed to dress. Zatanna had endured worse. As she made another attempt with the eyelash curler, she wondered about her father. He wasn’t the type to nap. And a professional like Giovanni Zatara wouldn’t just ignore a stage manager, no matter how rude. But Zatanna put these concerns out of her mind and completed her grooming ritual. Then she changed into her stage costume: white shirt, white bowtie, white gloves, yellow vest, black tuxedo jacket, stockings, and the all-important tophat.

Zatanna was dressed and well into her warmups when there was a knock at the door. She was busy working a deck of cards with one hand, shuffling in an accelerating pattern. When she heard the knock, she flicked the deck on her vanity top. The cards landed in a neat semi-circle, ordered by rank and suit. She inspected the deck then responded, “Yeah?”

Sid called through the door. “Hey, Miss Zatara, show’s on in ten! Got it?”

“I got it, Sid.”

“And the old man’s still ain’t answering. I’m a little worried.”

“Calm down. I’ll check on him.”

Zatanna palmed the cards off the table and slipped the deck in her tuxedo jacket. She tweaked the angle of her tophat just so, tightened her bowtie, and opened the door. Sid followed her three doors down to Giovanni Zatara’s dressing room.

Zatanna knocked on the door. “Daddy?” she called.

There was no response. She could see light through the crack. She waited a moment then knocked again, louder. “Daddy?” Still no response. She tried the knob without success.

Sid shrugged. “Maybe nerves?”

Zatanna shook her head. “He hasn’t missed a show in twenty years.” She pulled a bit of metal out of her sleeve and crouched near the knob.

Sid looked over her shoulder. “What’re you doing?”

Zatanna’s face was furrowed in concentration. “Magic.” They heard a click.

Sid protested, “Hey!”, but Zatanna was already through the door. She gasped. The room was ransacked. His mirror was cracked. Drawers were pulled out of cabinets. Broken props littered the floor. Colored scarves covered the wall lamp, casting a dark rainbow tint on the disorder. And Giovanni Zatara was nowhere to be seen.

Sid coughed and pulled the scarves off the lamp. “Jeez Louise. What a mess.”

Zatanna walked circles around the room, muttering, “Oh, God. Oh, God.” Then she made for the door. “We need to call the police.”

Sid ran a hand through his thinning hair and blew out a breath. “Right, but first I gotta cancel the show. This is a punch in the gut, I tell ya.”

She grabbed his tie. “I’ll give you a punch in the gut! We need to call the cops first, got it? My dad’s been kidnapped! Or something.” She gestured around. “Something!”

“Sheesh!” Sid pulled away and straightened his tie. “Miss, I get it. We’re all kidnapped from time to time. But I got three hundred paying customers out there who expect to see magic tricks in nine minutes. If they don’t see magic tricks in nine minutes, they’ll kick a hole in the wall on their way out of the theater. They call that a ‘Bludhaven goodbye’. And that’s the sober ones.”

“Sid!”

“Fine, hold on a moment.” Sid looked behind the vanity where an old desk phone had fallen. He put it back on top then lifted the handset.

“Operator, Sid Doyle. Connect me to Security please. I’ll hold.” He hummed and idly wrapped the cord around his finger. “Max? Hey, it’s Sid. Spare a second? What, why? Ooo, a runaway cheat, huh? That does sound exciting.” Zatanna glared at him. Sid flinched. “But mine’s kinda important too, yeah. Thanks, Max. Look, we have a magic act that’s supposed to open in a few minutes, but our magician’s missing. Ha, good one! But no, not a joke.” Zatanna glared harder at him. Sid held up his hands in apology and added, “Max, we’re thinking it’s a kidnapping. Uh-huh. No, just a kidnapping. Just one. I know, but the family’s getting hysterical. Would you call the Department and ask them to send some detectives over quick? I don’t know, make’em think it’s a murder. I’ll leave that to you, but the sooner the better. Pretend it’s top priority. Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Dressing room seven. Thanks a million, pal.” He gave Zatanna a thumbs-up. “Oh, and Max, send some of our boys to Hall B, m‘kay? I’m ‘bout to cancel a show. Might get nasty. You take care now.”

Sid put down the handset. Zatanna crossed her arms expectantly. “Well?”

Sid gave her a satisfied smile. “Miss Zatara, the Bludhaven Police Department will be on its way momentarily.”

Zatanna grit her teeth and growled, “How long?”

“Thirty to fifty minutes.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, but that reminds me. I’ll let the comedians know they can start early.”

“Please, Sid, are you absolutely sure there’s nothing else the casino can do to look for my dad?”

“Oh, Max will put the word out pretty soon. Mr. Zatara’s face is on them posters, so he’ll get it squared away.”

“Aren’t you worried that whatever happened destroyed the room?”

Sid gave her a patient look. “Miss Zatara, I’m guessing you’re a little fresh to show business, so believe me: dressing rooms get torn up weekly.”

“No they don’t.”

“They do here.”

“Okay, don’t you find it crazy that this empty room that only locks from the inside was locked?”

“I assumed it was magician stuff.”

“What?”

“You know, when magicians go after their rivals, they have to do it with crafty magician tricks. Smoke and spells.” Sid wheezed. “Your pops must have some wizard feud.”

“That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Nah, I read it in a magazine. Now excuse me. I’d love to answer you questions, but I’m on a tight deadline.”

Ignoring Zatanna’s dissatisfied glare, Sid turned away and picked up the handset again. “Operator. Get me the shift director, then look up the line for the box office, I’ll be asking after them in a minute. Thank you.” Sid lowered the handset to his shoulder and rubbed his eyes, muttering. “Need to set up refunds, free drinks, ask the lawyers to get the performance clause ready, then-”

Zatanna’s eyebrows shot up. “Wait!” She took two quick steps, grabbed the handset out of Sid’s hands, and smacked it down on the receiver. “What was that?”

Sid was annoyed. “Miss, I can’t help you right now. Please leave me alone to work.”

He reached for the phone again but she held the handset down. “What do you mean about the performance clause?”

“Oh, the performance clause? Sid coughed. “Yep. Since your old man ain’t showing, you’re both responsible for, mhmm, ‘bout one hundred percent of resulting losses plus punitive fees equaling the greater of ten percent of said losses or fifty dollars.”

“Losses? You mean all ticket sales?”

“Plus lost concessions and any repairs from new holes in the wall.”

Zatanna was already frightened and outraged for her father’s safety, but it would be naive to assume there wasn’t room in her emotional bowl for more pragmatic fears to trickle in. She took some shallow breaths. “But, but my dad obviously didn’t leave on purpose. Look around.”

Sid nodded sympathetically. “I agree, but the contract don’t much care. I mean, you could take this to court. Not my problem and no hard feelings. But you signed the thing.”

Giovanni had never discussed finances with Zatanna. She assumed he had comfortable savings after his long career, but who could say? They never missed shows, so she had never encountered this sort of emergency before. What if this cost him dearly? He was about to retire!

And Zatanna was at the start of her own career: her budget couldn’t carry this kind of penalty without some big loans and a lottery ticket. She certainly didn’t have a lawyer.

“Stop, stop,” Zatanna rubbed her temples. “Hold on. I’ll do it.”

“Miss, I have to make these calls.”

“No, Sid, I’ll do the show.”

“Miss Zatara, not to suggest your lady tricks aren’t something special, but this audience bought their tickets to see a real pro. Ol’ Johnny Zatara used to mean something in this town.”

“Hey,” she wagged a finger at him, “Zatanna Zatara means something in a lot of towns too. Last month I brought the house down in Tulsa.”

“They only have one house in Tulsa.”

“I’m telling you, I’m good!”

“And I’m telling you-” He wheezed into his sleeve. “Your contract stipulates the people see two magicians. We printed it on all the posters. Maybe if it was just him, we could compromise. But you? No dice. Now kindly get out of the way.”

Zatanna fumed. But then she noticed a shape in the corner. The mannequin with her father’s tuxedo and hat had been knocked over. “What if the people still see two magicians?”

“Huh?” Sid had reached again for the handset but stopped to watch her with disbelief.

Zatanna lifted the mannequin - a wooden torso and head on a metal stand - and returned the hat to the wooden head. She took a deck of cards from her pocket. “Watch.” She slipped her other arm inside the mannequin’s tuxedo jacket and pushed her hand out of a sleeve. Then she squeezed the deck so the cards shot rapid-fire into her pretend mannequin-hand. Zatanna dropped her voice into a masculine whisper, “Sir, pick a card.” The mannequin tipped forward suggestively and fanned the cards.

“What is this now, a puppet act?”

Zatanna put the cards away. “I hate puppets. Let’s call this an illusion.”

“Miss-”

“Listen,” she said, her voice edging between creative mania and panic, “A lot of team routines use one-magician tricks. The partner either plays the distraction or the victim. A block of wood could do it.”

“Miss!-”

“I’ll dress up this mannequin. You turn the stage lights down a few notches. When it starts, I’ll need to cut the Siamese Curtain of Death, the arrow catch will have a new surprise ending, and heck, he can hide in the water tank the whole second act, that’ll set a record, then I just switch a twin horseshoe escape for a regular horseshoe escape.” She bowed with the mannequin. “And that’s that.”

Sid snorted, then coughed, then judged her. “You’re actually serious?”

“I’m serious about saving the show.”

“I think they’ll notice the dummy. And I mean the wooden one.”

“I’ll make sure the attention stays on me.” Drawing on her years in the role of Beautiful Assistant, Zatanna struck a pose. “If we magicians know one thing, it’s how distractible folks are.”

“No offense to your stagecraft, but someone’ll still see pop’s face is made from a tree.”

“Hmm.” Zatanna tapped her chin then saw a decorative pair of comedy and tragedy masks hanging on the wall. She took the tragedy mask and slipped it over the mannequin’s head, then slipped the comedy mask over her own. “There.”

“Miss Zatara, you look like a fool.”

“Just up close. On stage we look mysterious. People like a magician with affectations.”

“It doesn’t even have legs!” Sid stomped out of the room, pushing past dancers and jugglers from the night’s other shows.

Zatanna took off her mask. “Wait, even better.” She went into a box and pulled out two handfuls of fat silver pellets, chasing after him.

Sid rolled his eyes as he struggled to keep ahead of her. “And what, pray tell, are those?”

“Flash bombs. We blow a few when we release the doves. But what if we set some off at the start? You know, blind’em a bit.”

---​

Meanwhile.

After another frantic minute’s sprint, Catwoman saw the promised blue door. There were three guards in hot pursuit, the nearest twelve paces behind her. She caught the handle mid-stride and nimbly slipped inside.

The room was spacious: four rows of vanities, an area for props and costume racks, and a hallway beyond. Three dozen performers in a carnival of outfits gossiped and smoked as they bartered cosmetics. A few looked at her with mild interest. Catwoman dashed into the crowd. Cries of “Hey!” and “My corsage!” followed as she pushed her way through.

The doors flew open again and three guards raced in. “Hey! Anyone see a lady in some weird-looking,” the guard hesitated when he saw the performers. “Uh.”

Before he was forced to finish his thought, the performers pointed as one to Catwoman who was halfway across the room. Catwoman cursed and pushed harder.

Then she overheard a discussion from the hallway ahead: “-Flash bombs. We blow a few when we release the doves. But what if we set some off at the start? You know, blind’em a bit.”

Catwoman entered the hallway and spied a young woman in half a tuxedo carrying a pile of what Catwoman, in her professional expertise, recognized as flash bombs. Without stopping, Catwoman snatched the bombs out of her hands and brushed past her. The surprised woman stuttered, but before she could finish a word, three burly guards pressed past her as well, shoving her to the wall and knocking her hat off.

Catwoman could hear her pursuers closing in. Between the heavy bag over her shoulder and the lack of traction in ballet slippers, it had been a great athletic feat to keep ahead so far. Now her calves were shaking and her ribs hurt with each deep breath. She couldn’t sprint much longer. But then Catwoman heard a vast mummering ahead, like a lake of whispers. She knew that noise.

Cradling the pile of flash bombs with one arm, Catwoman plucked two out and tossed them behind her. Even facing away and three steps ahead, the glare blurred Catwoman’s vision. Anyone seeing the flash directly wouldn’t see anything soon. The thuds of bodies running into doorframes and each other confirmed this.

At the end of the hallway and a turn were the cavernous scaffolding and setpieces of a large backstage. A red velvet stage curtain the size of a tennis court hung before her. The mummering rose in her ears.

Catwoman slowed to a jog and slipped under the curtain. There were no stage lights on, so although the theater was dim, she could faintly see hundreds of figures in the audience. She was about to run off the stage when a loud drum roll began and a spotlight lit in her eyes. Catwoman winced and stumbled.

The crowd grew confused. Someone heckled her, though she couldn’t hear the words. Catwoman struggled to blink away the glaze on her vision. But then, very clearly, she heard footsteps and shouts behind the curtain. Forcing herself ahead, she grabbed a handful of flash bombs and made it to the edge of the stage.

“Sorry, folks,” she yelled, “Show’s over.”

With a leap, Catwoman tossed her flash bombs at the audience. Her bombardment lit up the theater. She landed roughly but jogged up the aisle, throwing bombs left and right until her hands were empty. The audience was in pandamonium. Adults screamed like children. The trampling started in seconds, the middle seats shoving to escape. The big crushed the small, the fit smashed the frail, all to make it to the doors. Catwoman was almost trampled a few times, but managed to weave through the worst of the tide.

When the theater doors cracked open, Catwoman spotted a thin line of security in green blazers waiting outside like riot police. But they weren’t ready for this riot. At least thirty frightened casino patrons raced out the doors before Catwoman reached the doors, overwhelming the guards and starting a stampede across the gaming floor itself. She saw fancy men and women hiding under tables. Fist fights broke out. Most fleeing theatergoers paused to kick holes in the wall.

In all her time brainstorming escape plans for tonight, Catwoman had never considered leaving by the front doors. And at a brisk walk no less. It was a welcome change of plans.

---​

Later.

Zatanna Zatara nursed a bruised shoulder for the rest of the night. She didn’t much mind the pain. That wild lady indirectly responsible for her bruise ended up doing Zatanna two big favors.

First, Bludhaven’s police arrived in mere minutes to quell her riot. Once peace was restored, the cops immediately got to work investigating the theft and public disturbance, and Zatanna was able to convince them that her father’s disappearance was a strange-enough coincidence that it warranted inspection as well.

Second, the lady scared off her audience, rendering the Magnificent Zataras' obligations to the casino moot. As Sid explained to her with weary amusement, they couldn’t violate their performance clause for a show that didn’t exist, so neither she nor her father were liable to pay a cent. In fact, the casino would still pay part of their fee just for showing up.

Zatanna found her rapid swings of fortunes tonight exhausting. Her shoulder didn’t hurt nearly as much as waiting for the police detectives to finish their inspection. They found her in her dressing room, still in costume, and told her the news. There was evidence of a struggle, and the police would open a missing person case, but they didn’t have any leads to a guilty party or her father’s current whereabouts. They tried to reassure her that an investigation was just getting started. New leads could easily appear the coming days. She wasn’t reassured.

The lead detective asked where they could contact her, and she shared her room number for the weekend. As the detectives were leaving, Zatanna asked how the door had been locked, since it only locked from the inside, and there was no one inside. They glanced at each other and shrugged.

Since her father’s room wasn’t a crime scene, Zatanna was free to look around. She only saw her father a few times a year lately, and their schedules almost never allowed them to perform together. She had really looked forward to tonight. Zatanna slouched in her father’s chair and sulked.

Idly, she pulled out a deck of cards and started shuffling. Eyes half-closed, she put the deck through its paces: waterfalls, aerials, fans, every sort of cut and flourish - a routine that put most dealers in the building to shame, Zatanna used to calm her nerves. Then her gaze happened to fall across a corner of the room, and the cards scattered to the floor.

Trapped under an overturned cabinet was an old red chest. The angle of the cabinet hid it from sight anywhere else in the room. Leaving her cards on the floor, Zatanna sprung to her feet and lifted the cabinet away. The chest’s red paint had faded nearly maroon and much of it was chipped at the corners, exposing mottled brown oak. The sturdy bronze metalwork was in dire need of a polish, but the latch was as tight and solid as ever. Yet Zatanna was fixated on the one new feature of the chest: the lock was missing.

Giovanni Zatara had traveled with that red chest for as long as she could remember. As he raised Zatanna in the ways of the magician, she had been free to dig through his traveling gear and test whatever tools of the trade looked interesting. Indeed, he encouraged it. Zatanna spent countless hours as a little girl playing with trick wands and finding trap doors in iron maidens. The only exception was the red chest. Her father refused to discuss it and forbade her from looking inside.

Of course, when Zatanna learned lockpicking, she tried to open the red chest. She failed, so she practiced harder and tried again and failed. The process repeated until her teenage years when she lost interest. It was the one lock she could never solve. And in her whole childhood, she never once caught her father opening it. Privately, she assumed the lock was broken or he didn’t have the key. He probably kept it because it was some heirloom. It probably just held socks.

And now the lock was gone. Zatanna realized her hands were trembling. She stepped away, shutting and locking the dressing room door, then she pulled the red chest under the lamp. The oak was still dense, but the chest seemed much lighter than she remembered.

Finally, Zatanna got on her knees and felt the corners of the lid. She opened the chest.

It was nearly empty. Besides dust and lint, there were a few folded papers scattered on the bottom. All were creased and torn: the chest clearly once carried other contents that sat on these papers for years. Zatanna steadied herself and picked up a paper. It was cheap and yellowed like a telegram. She unfolded the sheet and held it under the light. There was writing from top to bottom in pen, no indents or line breaks, just a big block of words. It wasn’t her father’s handwriting, and it was in Latin.

Zatanna didn’t think her father knew Latin. She certainly didn’t. She folded the sheet and put it back, then picked up the next one. This was a page ripped out of a textbook, perhaps on anthropology. Its three paragraphs explained the wedding rituals of a remote tribe in Mexico. It was difficult to read because someone had sketched geometric shapes across the page, mostly random-seeming combinations of circles and triangles. They had used a pencil, and the lead had smeared.

The next sheet was the least damaged. It was creamy to the touch, the kind of parchment used for fancy invitations. It was blank except for a deep red stain in the center. She flinched and quickly put it back.

When Zatanna unfolded the final paper, a business card fell out. It was for a lawyer she didn’t recognize with an address in Gotham City. She put the card aside and studied the paper. It was a typed letter on common stock you could buy at the post office. The ink was faded with age. She read it slowly.

---​

Dear Mr. Zatara,​

Sir, I write to apologize for interrupting you at the train station last week. You've made it clear that you aren't interested in meeting me further, and I was rude to impose. I am very sorry. Rest assured that if you don’t wish to see me again, you never will. ​

With that said, I do dearly wish to learn from you, and I feel compelled to make a final attempt to change your mind. When you declined my monetary offer, I could tell it was a matter of principle, so I won’t insult you with another sum. Instead, I offer a gift. If you choose to use it, you owe me nothing. Consider it restitution for my rude behavior.​

Before I describe the gift, please do not be alarmed. I mean your family no harm.​

Sir, I have discovered that you are in a legal contest with several relatives over custody of your daughter. This contest is going poorly, and you will likely lose. The enclosed business card is for the country’s most successful attorney in custody disputes. He will do anything, legal and illegal, to win. He only markets his services to a small circle of wealthy clientele, but if you choose to hire him, I have ensured he will take your case and represent you pro bono.​

Again, this is a gift. But if you change your mind about taking a student for the summer, the attorney knows how to contact me.​

Sincerely,​
John​

P.S. Fair warning, he may require you and your daughter to settle in Gotham for several years to take advantage of state custody laws, though I suspect your professional prospects will diminish little if you do. The region has a lively entertainment industry.​


---​

After reading the letter several times, Zatanna sat motionless on her knees, the paper limp in her hand.

She hadn’t thought of John in years. Her father never offered much explanation why he let a stranger apprentice with her that summer. She was too young to question it.

She never knew relatives had tried to take custody of her.

She never knew she had relatives.

---​

Meanwhile.

Selina Kyle didn’t begin to relax until she crossed the Conrad Bridge into Gotham City.

Her outfit and loot were in a hidden compartment under the trunk of her car. She had changed into casual clothes in the backseat after parking in an alley a few blocks from the Arabia Casino. She had even changed her license plate. From a practical standpoint she was already in the clear. It didn’t matter. Like all true Gothamites, Bludhaven made Selina a little sick. She obeyed the speed limit on the drive out, but that decision was a close-run thing.

Once she was breathing Gotham' City's nice, clean (or at least differently-polluted) air, Selina cracked a wide grin. Tonight had been a very good night. She had always wanted to rob a casino. Admittedly, she had always wanted to rob a casino vault, but there was always next time.

Selina was a savvy thief. She understood that her haul wasn’t impressive at face value. Once you accounted for the insider payoffs, the disposable disguise, parking, tips, and blowing hundreds of dollars at poker, the costs started to add up. Not to mention the planning time and the burden of working in Bludhaven. All for a random assortment of mid-market gems and accessories she could find anywhere. Selina wouldn’t know the actual numbers until her fence had a look, but her educated guess was that tonight’s profit was marginal. She might not break even.

But that wasn’t the point.

The point was that the chairman of the Platinum Casino, the second most popular casino in Bludhaven, was paying her considerably more to make the Arabia Casino look bad. She was free to keep whatever she stole, but the value of the loot was immaterial. If the Arabia couldn’t return collateral when the original owner won it back, that put the Arabia’s management in a legal quagmire. Worse, it cast doubt on the casino’s reputation to cover deals, and that was almost as damaging as if she had robbed the vault.

Selina suspected she could pry out a bonus for causing a stampede as well. That wasn’t in the plan, but she certainly earned it.

Selina left the loot and her outfit at one of her East End safehouses. She considered going home, but she had too much energy to sleep. She considered getting something to eat, but she wasn’t hungry. She considered another robbery, but she was trying to break the habit of committing spontaneous robberies to let off steam from her regular robberies, only because they often backfired.

After some aimless cruising, Selina found herself driving towards Maven’s apartment. Maven Lewis was Selina’s best friend. They spent more time together than either did with anyone else by a long shot. Maven wasn’t quite a night owl like Selina, but she’d patiently entertained her friend’s nocturnal habits for years, and Selina knew she would again tonight. They had more than enough to chat about; they hadn’t met in three whole days.

As Selina turned into Maven’s neighborhood, she heard the sirens before she smelled the smoke. Whatever false hopes that it was some other building died in her mind before she was halfway there. Maven’s apartment tower was on fire. When Selina arrived, she could tell the event was nearly over. The upper floors were already a husk. Flames guttered in the lower windows as a ring of fire trucks sprayed them down.

Selina parked and ran faster than she had all night. She saw a makeshift camp near some ambulances: scores of residents wandered in states of undress, many dusted with ash. Firefighters and medics gave aid to the needy. A policeman tried to keep Selina back, but she dodged him and entered the camp. Between the dying fire and the headlights of the emergency vehicles, it was easy to see the faces of the victims. She rushed from family to family, trying to spot Maven in the crowd.

Selina finally found her as she was being loaded in an ambulance. Maven was covered in a blanket up to her chin. She was very pale. A firefighter tried to comfort Selina as the door shut. He said it was just a little smoke inhalation. Her friend would be fine. Then the police caught up and escorted her out. She didn’t resist.

The noise of the firetrucks went mute in her mind. She couldn’t smell the smoke. It was a chilly October, but Selina was suddenly numb.

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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar » 2020-04-19 05:50pm

That is a VERY nice start to something new. I'm going to love seeing "John" juggle Catwoman and Zantanna.

As for "Making the Arabia Look Bad", I'd call that 100% perfectly done. Selena should get extra for that bit. And if word got out about how Sid was going to handle Mr Zatara's kidnapping by charging them for missing the show? hehehehehehe. There's another black eye.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by madd0ct0r » 2020-04-20 06:35am

Zantanna will eventually be a 'real' magic user? I wonder if this challenge s the premise of the setting?
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-04-20 12:35pm

LadyTevar wrote:
2020-04-19 05:50pm
That is a VERY nice start to something new. I'm going to love seeing "John" juggle Catwoman and Zantanna.

As for "Making the Arabia Look Bad", I'd call that 100% perfectly done. Selena should get extra for that bit. And if word got out about how Sid was going to handle Mr Zatara's kidnapping by charging them for missing the show? hehehehehehe. There's another black eye.
I'm glad you enjoyed it. I think it's one of my better opening chapters, which has been a weak point for me.

Believe it or not, the Arabia wouldn't face any blowback if they punished the Zataras for non-performance. That's show business in Bludhaven, and even Giovanni Zatara doesn't have the celebrity to get a public outcry going.
madd0ct0r wrote:
2020-04-20 06:35am
Zantanna will eventually be a 'real' magic user? I wonder if this challenge s the premise of the setting?
Stay tuned.

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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-04-23 05:43pm

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 2: Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot​


On Saturday morning, just before dawn, Alfred Pennyworth was startled out of bed by a loud crack of shattering wood. His mind already flitted on the hazy edge of sleep since the screams started minutes ago, so he was primed to react when a new clamor upstairs sounded like furniture hit with a bat. Alfred pulled on his slippers and raced from his room, navigating by touch in the dark October twilight as miserable echoes haunted the old house. As he climbed the grand staircase, the screams grew bracingly clear, and he pulled at the railing to climb faster, holding his nightgown above his ankles.

Alfred knew these were fear screams, not pain screams nor grief screams: he was an expert, though the distinction mattered little. He entered the master bedroom and stopped to catch his breath. A window cast a square of dim blue light across the bed at the end of the room. In this dim, Alfred saw a writhing form. Strong limbs beat the mattress and hugged themselves like an infant’s. The screams paused only for gasps of air.

Alfred hurried to the bedside and turned on the lamp. “Bruce! Wake up, lad. It’s just a dream.” On the bed, Bruce Wayne continued to flail his arms. He had torn a flap of fabric out of his own pajama shirt, ripping off buttons. Worse, there was a chunk missing from the wooden headboard. Alfred eyed this damage with mild shock, but he continued his soothing mantra. “Bruce, it’s just a dream. Just a dream, Bruce.”

Alfred dared not step closer, but his voice and the bright lamp soon took effect. Bruce’s wild flailing settled to fidgets as his eyes blinked open. For just a moment, Alfred saw nothing but misery and confusion in those eyes. Then, like a hypnotist’s trick, the look vanished. Bruce faced him with an expression of calm control. “Good morning, Alfred.” He sat up and looked around at the scattered sheets. “I’m sorry for disturbing you.”

Alfred sighed and rested his hand on the wall. “That’s no trouble, Master Bruce. No trouble at all.”

Bruce noticed half his bare chest was visible through the torn pajama shirt and grunted. While he inspected the shirt, Alfred nodded slightly towards the headboard. Bruce turned to follow his gaze and saw a hole the size of the saucer near the top of the sturdy wood, with cracks bending outward around the hole. He looked at his fists and saw wood chips sticking to his left hand.

“That bad?”

Alfred offered a little shrug. “Not your best.”

Bruce brushed off the wood chips and saw his knuckles were unharmed. He rose from the bed. “Sorry.”

“Think nothing of it.”

Bruce stripped off his ruined shirt and pulled a new shirt out of a dresser. “You go back to sleep, Alfred. I’ll be fine.”

“Thank you, sir, but we might as well make an early start of it. Daybreak’s just arriving.”

“Mmm.” Bruce pulled on the shirt. “Please make a note to replace the headboard. But see if rubber is an option.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Otherwise, let’s remove the headboard entirely, and I’ll pull the bed further from the wall.” Bruce went to a small desk and began writing on a memo pad. “Since we’re both up, do you mind starting breakfast?”

“Not at all.” Alfred headed for the door, but he stopped at the threshold as he watched Bruce writing. “Do you need me to take dictation first, sir?”

Bruce glanced up but didn’t stop writing. “No, that’s fine. I decided recently that I should put my nightmares to good use.”

Alfred pursed his lips and pondered this. Finally, he asked, “May I ask how, sir?”

“Thought experiments. Threat scenarios. Contingency planning. Most are too illogical to be much use, I’m afraid, but this one tonight shows promise. If you care to listen, I’ll tell you about it.”

Alfred recalled the misery in Bruce’s dreaming eyes and shuddered at the thought, but he steeled himself with a stiff nod. Perhaps discussion would be therapeutic for the boy. “Certainly, Master Bruce. I’m eager to hear it.”

Bruce gave Alfred a hint of a grin and followed him out of the room, still writing as he walked. “The dream didn’t have much narrative, but it was a world where everyone had one eye.”

“One eye?”

“But not like a cyclops. Every face still had two sockets, see, but one was empty.”

Alfred suppressed a wince. “That sounds very frightening.”

“I saw many strangers but also many familiar faces. Sometimes they talked to me. I remember that was disquieting.”

“Surely.”

As the pair descended the grand staircase, the gray light of a cloudy morning crept into the windows and colored the main hall of stately Wayne Manor. Bruce flipped a page on the memo pad and continued writing.

“But here’s the interesting detail. Soon, I saw people fighting, and the winner of a struggle would pluck out the eye of the loser and add it to their own face.” Alfred’s stomach flipped, but he remained silent. Bruce didn’t notice. “This was happening everywhere. The victors with new binocular vision lived comfortably. Their blind victims fell to squalor, becoming slaves or outcasts. And the shrinking group of the one-eyed fought more and more desperately to join the former class and avoid the latter. Usually they fought each other; sometimes they ganged-up and fought the two-eyed. Now obviously, eyes can’t be socketed like this in real life, but I remember the victims still seemed to react with as much pain as you might expect.”

They entered the kitchen. Alfred pulled ingredients from the Frigidaire and ignited the oven. “Forgive me, Bruce, but how is this of practical use?”

“Well, take the premise at face value. What are the realistic consequences on such a world? If we inhabited that world, what must we do to survive? What might we do to improve the general condition? I doubt this particular tragedy will ever happen, but it keeps the mind nimble in case of other surprises.” Bruce let out a grim chuckle. “I’ve been surprised far too often this year.”

Alfred was cracking eggs over a pan. “And how might that nightmare keep you nimble?”

“In this case, I’ve thought about what sort of equilibrium humanity would quickly reach. Contrary to the dream, I strongly doubt there would be such widespread violence to steal a second eye. People are risk-averse, and total blindness is far more consequential than any advantage of having two eyes. Now, you might think there would still be bandits trying to ambush for a second eye, or even a free market to purchase one fairly. But once society came to its senses, I suspect its first act would be to outlaw having two eyes like any other contraband. It would be the easiest crime to detect.

“But from a tactical standpoint, there may be serious threats from even small gangs of the two-eyed. With their huge advantage in depth perception, they would be much more proficient with firearms, plus most other weapons for that matter. I anticipate the necessity of legally-regulated two-eyed for law enforcement, not to mention critical sight-reliant roles like pilots and surveyors. Some spare eyes could be recovered from two-eyed criminals and perhaps corpses, but any further demand poses a great dilemma. Would we provide them by lottery? A single-buyer market? It wouldn’t be pleasant, which leads us to broader speculation in how to organize an economy in this situation. For instance, how common must automotive accidents become before modern America stops using cars? Tenfold? Thirtyfold-”

Alfred dropped a plate under Bruce. “I implore you, sir, have mercy and eat something.”

Bruce paused mid-thought. He closed his mouth, sat, and picked up a fork.

---​

Miles from Wayne Manor, the Gordon household began to wake. The man of the house Sergeant James Gordon felt the gentle tickle of dawn’s early light across his face and promptly pulled a pillow over it. He was too sleepy to realize this was Mrs. Gordon’s pillow. She promptly kicked him and pulled it back. Sergeant Gordon groveled for forgiveness with a noise that started in his stomach and ended in his sinuses. She responded with a ladylike grunt and turned away.

Gordon blinked at the ceiling. It was Saturday. He wasn’t on call today. He smiled.

Then he heard a faint scratching from the bathroom across the hall. Gordon’s smile fell to a puzzled line. He would have heard footsteps if his kids were awake. The Gordons’ apartment was on the twelfth floor, so an intruder seemed unlikely. Maybe it was a bird?

Gordon slipped out of bed. His wife immediately stole his pillow and the rest of their blanket. He lifted his glasses from the nightstand and pulled a revolver out of the holster hanging from his coat rack. He checked the drum: six rounds. He cocked the hammer. Clad in old briefs and not a stitch more, Gordon eased open his bedroom door.

Across the hall, the bathroom door was open. He saw a young woman halfway through his bathroom window. As they made eye contact, she held up her hands with an embarrassed smile. She urgently raised a finger to her lips, pleading with him. Meanwhile, and without looking, she smoothly lifted her back leg through the window and closed the frame with her elbow.

Gordon was just tired enough that he didn’t shout at this surprise. Instead he dumbly watched the stranger enter with his weapon trained on her heart. She kept her hands raised and stayed by the window. Gordon spared a glance at his wife, then took two steps to enter the bathroom and closed the door behind him.

He faced the woman, gun arm steady. She looked rough. He sensed this was a rare state of affairs. She wore her pants and wool jacket like she stepped out of a fashion catalog, but the knees were scuffed with brick dust. She had an obnoxious glow of health like a tennis star, but her eyes were redder than most drunks he booked: she hadn’t slept all night. Her hair was coiffed yet matted with sweat. She smelled like smoke.

If she had any misgivings about being alone in a room with a man in his underwear pointing a gun at her, she seemed nonchalant about it.

Mightily annoyed, Gordon whispered, “Can I help you?”

She whispered back in a hoarse voice, “Are you Detective Gordon?”

He lifted an eyebrow. “Sergeant.”

“I need to call Batman.”

Gordon was only modestly surprised. “What makes you think I can do that?”

“Come on,“ she hissed, “I’m a friend.”

“A friend.”

“Yes.”

“Of Batman.”

“Yes!”

“Jim!” Gordon’s wife called from the bedroom. “Are you talking to yourself?”

Gordon gave the stranger a warning glare and called back, “Yes, dear. Sorry.”

“And close the window. I feel a draft.”

Sergeant Gordon answered, “Okay.”

His wife made no response. He heard her roll over in bed.

The stranger had kept perfectly still, but when she had his full attention again, she slowly mouthed the words, “Fort Morrison.”

Sergeant Gordon squinted at her. Slightly lowering the revolver, he walked over and whispered in her ear, “Across the street. Five minutes.” He nodded at the window. The young woman silently exited the way she came, closing the window behind her.

Gordon watched her leave. He considered that, for the first time, Batman seemed like the sensible one. At least when the Dark Knight appeared outside his twelfth-floor apartment, he used the wall with a fire escape.

---​

Meanwhile at stately Wayne Manor.

After breakfast on the second Saturday of every month, Batman retired to his Cave's library to read trade and academic journals. His loyal butler Alfred fetched the publications a few days earlier from the post office and brought them straight downstairs (nothing intellectual was allowed in the Manor proper). Once Batman started this ritual, he finished the entire pile in one long sitting. It was efficient, but he also looked forward to a few hours of peaceful contemplation; it was one of his favorite responsibilities.

Batman liked to study at 700 words per minute. This was hardly his top speed, but technical lessons were easier to remember at a relaxed pace, and some journals weren't written in English.

Batman subscribed to all nine major journals of crime research. These journals averaged 28,000 words per issue, and Batman read each of them cover to cover without pause. He waited seventy seconds between journals to rest his eyes and reflect. Batman corresponded under an alias with many of the criminologists, penologists, and police instructors who submitted to these journals, and he mentally drafted letters to them as he read. He had even co-authored a few papers.

Batman also subscribed to 57 non-crimefighting journals. These rarely featured useful articles: a review of forensic reagents in a chemistry journal or new rules for prosecutors in a legal journal. Most were duds. These journals averaged 250 words of worthy content per issue, and Batman could determine an issue’s worth in about five seconds.

Nearly half of Batman's subscriptions were published monthly. The other half published quarterly: different schedules ensured about one third of the quarterlies delivered every month.

Considering these factors, Batman expected his monthly reading to last four hours and twenty-six minutes, just in time for a late lunch. He kept to this plan with excellent regularity: last year's margin of error was five minutes. This was crucial to ensure a productive afternoon and evening.

He was three pages into his first journal when the phone rang.

The most recent upgrade to the Cave was a connection to the red phone, Batman’s secret line of contact to his crime-fighting collaborator Sergeant James Gordon. The original red phone was in the Manor’s study, activated by a button hidden inside a bust of Shakespeare. However, there had been too many occasions where poor Alfred was obliged to mimic the Caped Crusader when the genuine article was merely downstairs.

Batman put down his journal and sped to the phone. “Sergeant Gordon?

Miles away, Sergeant Gordon stood at a phone booth near his apartment building. He wore boots and an overcoat and little else. The young woman stood behind him, rubbing her arms.

Gordon took a final look around then muttered into the receiver, “Batman, listen, some lady just woke me up asking to talk to you.”

Hhm?” Batman’s thoughts raced with troubling possibilities. “Who?

“Hold on,” Gordon turned around, “What’s your name, anyway?”

The woman hesitated, keenly aware that she was talking to a cop. “Tell him it’s … Cat.”

“Fine.” Gordon spoke into the receiver, “She says her name’s Catherine.”

Did-

The young woman huffed and grabbed the handset out of Gordon’s hands. “Batman, it’s me.”

You-” Batman knew the voice: Selina Kyle. Dammed memories spilled over and flooded his mind. “... Catwoman.”

“Yeah, it’s been a while.”

Batman was quiet for a moment. “Why do you want to talk to me?”

Selina let out an empty laugh. “Wow, warm welcome. Glad to hear from you, too.”

Batman said nothing.

Selina cleared her throat. “I’m not calling because of … this isn’t about us, okay?”

Behind her, Gordon’s eyes widened. Batman remained silent.

Selina’s voice grew more hoarse. “I have a close friend. She’s in trouble. There was a fire, and she just got out of the hospital, and I was just so,” she took a deep breath, “She needs your help, Batman. That’s what I’m calling about. A good, decent person needs your help. Please.”

More silence. Finally Batman said, “What do you expect me to do?”

Selina glanced over her shoulder. “Can we just meet? I’d rather explain in person. If you have any trust in me at all, trust me that you’d be doing a good thing. You’d be saving someone. In fact, you’d be helping a lot of people.”

More silence.

Selina hunched forward as her tone grew adamant. “Just tell me what you want. Money? Favors? Just tell me what it’s-.”

Batman cut in, “I don’t want anything from you.” Her heart sank, but he continued, “I’ll be there in an hour. Tell me where you need me.”

Selina sagged against the phone booth in relief. She brought the handset back to her ear and shared an address. Batman grunted and hung up.

As Selina stepped out of the booth, Gordon pointed at her. “You owe me a nickel.”

She gave him a tired smile and shook his hand with both of hers. “Thanks, Sergeant Gordon.”

When Selina let go, Gordon felt something in his hand. It was a twenty dollar bill. As she walked away, he called after her, “Catherine! Whatever’s going on, you should tell the police about this. We can help you.”

Selina looked over her shoulder. Her puffy eyes sparkled in sincere amusement. She snorted. “No.”

---​

An hour later.

Selina Kyle sat on a bench outside a line of storefronts in a quiet neighborhood of the East End. Most shops were closed for the weekend, and the narrow lane was blocked to vehicle traffic.

Despite the circumstances, she idly wondered whether Batman would come in his usual attire, cape and all. She had never heard of him appearing in daylight. Did he have a day-suit? Maybe a different color scheme?

“Catwoman.”

Selina stood and turned. Batman stood on the sidewalk with his arms crossed, same gray and blue suit, blank white eyes, cape and all. A man walked out of a store nearby, saw them, and went back in.

“Hi,” she said.

He nodded slightly.

She nodded back. “Thanks. I didn’t have the chance to say that on the phone. So thanks.”

“Where’s your friend in need?”

“Inside. Come with me.”

She led him down an alley to the side entrance of the nearest building. The sign read “Nine Lives Cat Sanctuary.” Selina opened the door, ringing a little bell. The room inside had hundreds of cages and pens filled with cats. At the sound of the bell, scores of cats starting mewing and meowing: a deafening wave of cat noises.

As the noise died down, a teenage girl in gloves and an apron appeared from behind a pillar. She waved. “Howdy Selina. Who’s your pal?”

Batman looked at her. Selina patted him on the shoulder. “Hi Holly, this is Batman.”

Holly rolled her eyes. “Uh-huh. Lil’ early for Halloween, Mister.”

Batman said nothing.

Selina said, “We’re here to check on Maven, Holly.”

“She was sleeping last I looked.”

“Thanks. I’ll be busy for a few days. Can you hold down the fort?”

“Don’t I always?”

“Attagirl.”

“Bye Selina. Bye Mister.” Holly lifted a striped tabby cat out of a cage and carried it down a line of crates. “Is Timmy Tompkins going to be a good boy and let Mommy give him a bath? Cause if he doesn’t, Mommy will be very upset!”

Batman picked up a clipboard near the front desk. “You fund a shelter for two hundred and nineteen cats?”

Selina smiled proudly. “And another across town. Strays are a serious problem, and the city isn’t doing anything about it.”

“Okay.”

“Do you have any idea how many cats are out on the streets in Gotham?”

“Haven’t given it much thought.”

“Well I have.”

“Clearly.”

"Don’t give me that look. Fine, yes, I like cats. Don't you like bats?"

"Bats terrify me."

She shook her head. "It's always something else with you."

Selina and Batman entered a staircase at the rear of the room. At the top of the stars was a door. Selina knocked. “Mave? Are you up? I brought a guest.”

A raspy woman’s voice responded from inside, “Sure, sure. Come on in.”

Selina gestured for Batman to stay back then opened the door. Inside was a cozy attic apartment. A woman around Selina’s age with a red ponytail and glasses sat in a rocking chair with a quilt on her lap. She was reading a paperback with a brawny cowboy on the cover.

Selina walked over and gave her a hug. “Maven, how are you feeling?”

Maven coughed at the hug. When she finally spoke, her voice was very soft. “Geez, probably better than you, ‘Lina. You need some sleep.”

“I’ll sleep when we get to the bottom of this.”

“Where’s your guest? Don’t tell me it’s another doctor.”

“For all I know, he is a doctor, but that’s not why we’re here. Batman?”

“Did you just s-ooooohhhhhhh.” Maven stared glassy-eyed as Batman walked into the room.

Selina gestured to both of them in turn. “Batman, this is my friend Maven Lewis. Maven, this is my,” Selina paused as they looked at each other, “this is Batman.”

Maven whispered, “He’s so tall.

Batman said nothing.

Selina continued, “Batman, thanks again for coming. I’m sure you were terribly busy with, uh, some important life-and-death thing.”

Batman remembered his stack of unread trade journals with a pang of regret. “Yes. It was critically important.”

“And we also have something important. Maven, feel free to interrupt if I miss anything.”

Maven was busy staring at Batman. “Huh?”

“Maven lived at the Lisbon Building on Adams Street. I use the past-tense because it burned down last night. Nine of her neighbors died, but Maven was rescued by firefighters in the nick of time. She still had some smoke inhalation though. I went to visit her apartment last night and saw her leaving in an ambulance. I stayed with her at the hospital where they kept her for observation until early this morning. When they released her, I brought her here then went to find you.”

Batman asked, “Why?”

“We think it’s arson. Someone burned down the Lisbon."

“Why do you think that?”

Selina glanced at Maven who nodded. Selina said, “Maven is an accountant.”

Maven softly added, “I do her taxes.”

“She does a lot of people’s taxes. Some are bad people.”

Batman asked, “Such as?”

“Such as Hector, Vincenzo, and Paulie Bertinelli.”

Maven shrugged. “I started with Hector before he made it big with that racket at the dog tracks. Right after he drowned Jimmy Nails. He liked my work and recommended me to his brothers. And seven of their friends.”

Batman glared at her. “And you took their business?”

Maven shrunk lower and stared at the floor. “I needed the money. My biggest customer used to be Jimmy Nails.”

Selina gave a Batman a sharp look. “Batman, we’re here to help Maven. Right?”

Batman reduced his glare. “You file taxes for three soldiers and probably several associates of the Bertinelli crime family. You believe that’s related to the fire at your building?”

Selina and Maven shared a look. Maven looked away with a guilty expression. “Well…”

Selina interrupted, “That’s one possibility. She also does taxes for Garfield Lynns.”

Batman was rarely at a loss for words, but he paused before reacting in as calm a voice as he could manage. “Garfield Lynns, the Firefly? The most prolific arsonist of the 20th century? That Garfield Lynns?”

Maven answered even more softly, “Yes.”

Frustration began to leak into Batman’s tone. “He’s been in prison for four years. Why does he need a tax preparer? He doesn’t have an income.”

Maven tilted her head. “You’d be surprised.”

“Is there a reason you mentioned him second?”

“He is in prison.”

“How did you meet him?”

“He did some insurance fraud for the Maronis. The typical grapevine.”

“Do you have any clients who aren’t felons?”

Maven shrugged defensively. “Hey, you know how it is. Once you stumble into a professional niche, it’s hard to start from scratch again.”

Selina cut in. “Batman, Maven’s not doing anything illegal. It’s really just taxes. You wouldn’t yell at her if she cut their hair, would you?”

“So you suspect Maven’s connection to these criminals caused someone to burn down her building?”

Selina nodded. “Mm-hmm.”

“Has any of them criticized your job performance or accused you of foul play?”

Maven shook her head firmly. “Not at all. Hector sent me a ham last year.”

“Did you keep any paperwork at your apartment?”

“No, I rent an office the next street over. I do all my business there.”

“Do you know whether any of your clients have conflicts with other criminals who might target you?”

“I really don’t know. It’s not something they’d tell me about.”

Selina stepped in. “Batman, you and I have a closer ear to this world than she does. You know the Families have been on edge ever since Falcone disappeared a couple months ago and the cops plugged what's-his-name Bertinelli near the border.”

“Arturo.”

“Right. The bosses are putting on a good show, but something ugly is brewing behind the scenes. Especially with the Bertinellis.”

“I know,” conceded Batman.

“Well, I don’t believe in coincidences. Last night, before I followed Maven to the hospital, I asked the fire captain whether they thought it was arson. He said they’d do a regular inspection once the fire was out, but it would be hard to judge given the size of the place.”

Batman made a reluctant noise. “He’s right. Arson is difficult to prove, let alone trace. Isolated cases are rarely prosecuted without a witness or a confession.”

“And that’s why I went straight to the World’s Greatest Detective.”

“I didn’t pick that label.”

She leaned toward him knowingly. “But it fits, doesn’t it?”

Batman grunted.

Selina continued, “After I asked my question to the fire captain, he asked me if I had any reason to believe it was arson. I played dumb and told him I was just curious, but it made me realize another reason to come to you.” She looked down at Maven. “Her tax work is a matter of public record, but no investigator is going to make that connection unless we point it out to them. If we do, even though it’s just a theory, word will get out and soon she’ll be in the papers. I really don’t want that. Her clients expect a certain anonymity, know what I mean? The last thing Maven needs is to draw attention to herself, especially if she was being targeted. You,” she poked Batman in the arm, “know how to keep quiet.”

Batman stared at Maven in silence. After several seconds, she started to tremble. Finally, he looked back to Selina. “Fire crews will be covering the ruins for the rest of the day. I’ll inspect the property tonight. By tomorrow I’ll need a list of all her neighbors as well as all tax returns she filed in the last two years for criminals. Minus yourself.”

Selina didn’t hesitate. “Fine, and I’m coming with you tonight.”

“Fine, but your friend’s right. First you need sleep.”

---​

Earlier.

First thing Saturday morning, Zatanna Zatara took a bus into Gotham City. It was a brisk October in Gotham, and Zatanna kept her hands in her coat. One hand permanently held the business card she found in her father’s red chest. The card’s contents were also copied on a scrap of paper in her purse, and they were etched in her memory regardless, but she felt compelled to clutch the card like a life preserver.

Before she left her hotel, Zatanna had asked the concierge for a Gotham City phone book. She pulled the card from her pocket just long enough to confirm what she already knew. The card was for Franklin Wash, Esq., of the law firm of Harry, Hound & Wash. Their offices were located at 311 Monroe Avenue, Deck 5, Gotham City, GO, 10004. Zatanna flipped through the huge book until she found a listing for Harry Hound Wash. The address was correct: they were still in business. She gave a little cheer, then pulled the card out again and kissed it.

Travel in Gotham was as Byzantine as ever, but Zantanna had lived there as a teenager and knew her way around. She stepped off the bus at Old South Station and entered a bakery for a light breakfast. Still wiping pastry crumbs from her chin, Zatanna took the station’s famous 9-story escalator to the upper mezzanine and boarded an elevated streetcar heading downtown. Gotham wasn’t the only city with building entrances at multiple levels, but it certainly had the most of them. Some neighborhoods were so tall and dense that every building had several entrances, and spidery layers of roads, tracks, and footpaths knitted them together. Thus the unique deck number in Gotham City postal addresses. Harry, Hound & Wash was on Deck 5 on the nice end of Monroe Avenue. Lots of fancy law firms. Not her stomping grounds, but it would be easy to get around. Deck 5 meant a good view with plenty of natural light. That prime real estate would be served by conspicuous elevators and lots of signs. In less-nice parts of Gotham City, the elevators were obscure and unlabeled. Then there were streets with only staircases, and Zatanna had heard tales of rough neighborhoods connected exclusively by rope ladders, and if the locals needed to drop one or two decks in a hurry, they jumped.

The streetcar raced downtown in twenty minutes. It descended to Deck 3 for its Monroe Avenue stop, only a few blocks from her destination. Zatanna stepped off the streetcar onto an enormous metal deck that hung between four skyscrapers. There were benches and potted trees around. It was nearly empty on a Saturday, but there was still a thin crowd of professionals looking busy. Zatanna started walking. Suddenly the entire deck was covered in a deep shadow. Startled, Zatanna looked up to see a low-flying blimp cross overhead. A sign on its flank advertised, “Sure Shoe Polish - Look Sure-Footed!™“

Zatanna shook her head; Gotham’s obsession with airships had developed long after she left. By chance, she hadn’t experienced a close encounter with one on her few visits since then, though she had heard the jokes. Indeed, the locals nearby rolled their eyes and chucked as they passed. Zatanna grumbled. She wondered what else was new.

Fortunately, there were no other surprises in the rest of her path. It was a simple walk and an elevator ride to 311 Monroe Avenue, Deck 5. She entered the fine doors into an elegant wood-paneled lobby. A sign over the reception desk read, “HARRY HOUND WASH”. The receptionist was a bored matron smoking a cigarette. She looked Zatanna up and down doubtfully and asked, “May we help you?”

Zatanna walked to the desk and took out the old business card. “Hi! Yes. Wow, I’m so glad you’re open on Saturday. I really should’ve called ahead to make sure, but you wouldn’t believe what happened to me last night. I hardly have my head on straight.” She laughed nervously.

The receptionist tapped her cigarette over an ashtray. “Mm. Glad to be of service, young lady. Now where is your-”

Zatanna nodded bashfully. “Right, sorry. I don’t have an appointment. Is that a problem? I’m trying to find Franklin Wash.” Zatanna held out her business card. “It’s old, but your sign makes me think he’s still a partner here.”

The receptionist peered at the card. “As a matter of fact-”

“See, my father used to be a client of Mr. Wash.”

“But-”

“Or at least I think he was.”

“I don’t think-”

“I found this odd letter in my father’s, uh, records. The letter said Mr. Wash was a real sharp attorney who could help him keep custody of me.”

The receptionist gave up. “Hm.”

“This was back when I was just a girl, of course. But do you know the crazy part?”

“No.”

“I didn’t know anyone had ever sued for custody. I wasn’t taken to any lawyers or courtrooms, nothing like that. But the crazy part is I didn’t know I had any family! Daddy raised me on his own, see. He never mentioned anyone. Not on his side, certainly not on my mother’s. Never knew her. And now? Well, now, I don’t know what to think. The world’s topsy-turvy. Have you ever felt that way?”

“I doubt it.”

“I mean how,” Zatanna’s voice hitched, but she swallowed fast, “How could he do that to me? And why?”

“Have you asked him?”

“No!” Zatanna paced to one of the lobby’s seats where she deposited herself. “He disappeared last night. I was hoping Mr. Wash can - well - I’m not sure what I hoped, to be perfectly honest.” Zatanna looked at the ceiling and rubbed her eyes. “I feel silly just saying that. I guess I’m hoping Daddy’s disappearance has something to do with this mystery family I apparently have, though I can’t even convince myself there’s a connection. But I have to do something! And logic or not, this seems as good a clue as any. And even if it doesn’t help find him, family is important for its own sake, right? Imagine if I had some aunts and uncles. Oo, and cousins. That’d be nice. I always wanted cousins. So I thought maybe Mr. Wash knows where to find them, since they apparently tried to find me. Do you think he’d still have records like that? Lawyers keep records like that, right?”

“I’m afraid you’ve-”

“Come at the wrong time. Sure. I understand. Mr. Wash is busy. If it’s no bother to you, I’ll wait here to see if he can spare a minute today. I’ve got nothing else to do.”

“I suppose-”

“And thank you so much, by the way. I’m Zatanna. What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Doris.”

“Doris. Nice to meet you. Gosh, nice to meet anyone. It’s so good to talk about this; I felt like I was about to burst. I travel a lot, you see. I guess I don’t have a lot of close friends, if we’re being honest. Just no time. But it’s so important to have someone you can share with, don’t you think? I miss that.”

“Mm-hmm.” Below the reception counter, Doris was reading a paperback with a brawny cowboy on the cover.

“Not that I’ve ever had many people to confide in. Occasionally we’d hire on to do a run of shows with a circus. I’m a magician, by the way.”

“Mm.”

“And I was always jealous of the circus kids. At least they had big groups they traveled with. Sure, I made friends in school, but I was only in school a few years. Not until I settled here. Actually … huh.” Zatanna blinked in realization. “He might have been my first.”

The phrasing caught Doris’ attention. She glanced up from her book. “Mm?”

“Wow, what a sad irony. That letter I mentioned? Convincing my father to meet Mr. Wash? It was written by a boy who wanted to learn magic from my father.”

“He was your first?”

“He was my first friend.”

“Hm.”

“One day, out of nowhere, my father tells me we’re moving to Gotham City permanently. I had never lived in one place longer than three months. Then this boy shows up to my afternoon lessons. His name was John. I was twelve then. He was a little older, I’d say fourteen or fifteen, though I never knew for sure.” Zatanna chuckled. “He really scared me at first. He always looked like he had been fighting: bandaged fingers, bruised lips and eyes. Once he showed up with a wad of gauze in his mouth. Couldn’t talk at all that day. Not that he ever talked much. He was so serious. Early on he barely said a word to me. Maybe that’s why he was scary. But in time we-”

The lobby door opened. Doris ground her cigarette and held up a finger for Zatanna to pause. A finely-dressed woman walking a poodle entered. “Doris, dear! Appointment for Frankie-poo.”

Doris stood and smiled. “Welcome, Mrs. Sanders. Go right on through.”
“Oh, lovely. Come along, Frankie.” The woman guided the poddle across the lobby to the concealed hallway behind.

Zatanna watched them curiously. When they were gone, she asked, “Does one of the partners do, um, pet law? Is that a kind of law?”

Doris was already sitting and lighting another cigarette. “Young lady, I’m sure I don’t know.”

Zatanna was taken back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I just assumed since you see lawyers every day-”

“I don’t see lawyers every day.”

“You don’t?”

Doris took a drag on her new cigarette. “Zatanna, right?”

“Yes.”

“Zatanna, this isn’t a law firm.”

“It looks like a law firm.”

“And you look well-adjusted.”

“Excuse me?”

“Harry Hound Wash is a pet salon. We bathe and groom animals. Mostly dogs. Get it?”

Zatanna stared at Doris, then stood and looked toward the concealed hallway, then at the sign above the reception desk. She blushed. “But my card said there’s a lawyer at this address.”

“Oh, it’s true this property used to be a law firm. They sold out eight or ten years ago, well before my time. The story I heard was the buyers were looking to open a pet salon in the area and made an offer when they realized they could save on sign renovations by removing the commas and ampersands.”

“You didn’t say anything!”

“You didn’t let me.”

“But ‘Harry Hound Wash’ is spelled wrong. ‘Hairy’ has an ‘i’.”

“Customers don’t seem to mind.”

“Isn’t this location a bit upscale for a pet salon?”

Doris sighed. “Zatanna, the pets of the rich live more pampered lives than you or I ever will. The people walking through this door would sell an orphanage to a coal mine before they let their schnauzer chip a nail.” She took a drag on her cigarette. “But I digress. You were saying something? Some rough, mysterious older boy you fancied?”

Zatanna’s blush deepened. “I didn’t say I fancied him. Who calls it ‘fancied’, anyway?”

“Mm. Well, you’re welcome to keep waiting if you wish, but there’s no Mr. Wash here, so you might be waiting for quite a spell.”

Zatanna rubbed her forehead. “Can you tell me anything about the law firm that was here? Maybe a forwarding address?”

“Sorry, I simply don’t know. If you come back Monday, our office manager might have that written down somewhere.”

“I see. Thanks anyway.” Head bent low, Zatanna headed for the exit.

Doris called after her. “Best of luck with your father and all that.”

---​

One advantage of being a traveling performer was a knack for finding strangers with bad information. Zatanna couldn’t count the number of times she’d shown up in a new town with half a day to track down a theater owner she’d never met. It just took pluck, tenacity, and a good grounding in who to ask for directions.

Gotham City was a far bigger town than most, but this was more than offset by Zatanna having actually lived there.

In order to find Franklin Wash, Zatanna first tried another phone book at a nearby phone booth. It listed eleven residents by the name. Instead of bothering them all, Zatanna visited an office of the Gotham City Visitor Bureau. These were commonplace and famously helpful: city leaders believed tourists in Gotham needed all the help they could get. Zatanna asked an aide if they had any sort of registry of the city’s lawyers. She figured Wash no longer worked at his old firm; it wouldn’t show up in the phone books if the remaining partners changed the name. The aide confessed that the Visitor Bureau wouldn’t have a registry like that, but he upheld the Bureau’s reputation when he remembered they had a number for the bar association.

Exactly one employee in the whole Gotham Bar Association was working on Saturday, but he was willing to check their records on the Visitor Bureau's behalf. They said Franklin Wash retired from the legal profession three years ago. They still had his mailing address. Zatanna didn't recognize the street. After the call ended, the Bureau aide remarked that the GBA wasn’t supposed to share contact information, especially for a retired attorney, but the staff was lazy about those rules. As a former Gothamite, Zatanna wasn’t surprised.

Eighty minutes later, Zatanna reached the illicitly-obtained address. It was nine blocks from the nearest bus stop, and Gotham loved bus stops. Zatanna walked past manicured emerald lawns as far as the eye could see. The house of Franklin Wash was a small mansion, one of the nicest residences in a suburb of very nice residences in the fields on the edge of city limits. These were the homes of peak professionals, the very best lawyers and surgeons. A few might be millionaires. Zatanna had never met a millionaire before. Looking at these houses, she found the idea intimidating.

Nonetheless, Zatanna walked up the fieldstone path to Wash’s door and knocked three times. After a minute, the door opened and a handsome older man leaned out.

“Hello?” he asked.

“Hello,” Zatanna said, trying to keep her nerves out of her voice “I’m looking for Franklin Wash.”

“You’re looking at him.”

“Mr. Wash, my name is Zatanna Zatara. I believe you helped my father Giovanni Zatara with my custody case a long time ago. I know this is abrupt, but if it’s not too much trouble, I was hoping you would answer a few questions.”

Franklin Wash let out a long sigh. One thought occupied his mind.

Bruce Wayne is going to kill me.

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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by madd0ct0r » 2020-04-23 06:26pm

I was good to make a really really pedantic quibble but "With their huge advantage in depth perception, they would be much more proficient with firearms, plus most other weapons for that matter."

At long distance, the difference between eyes is negligible. Humans rely on context (this in front of that) to judge distance.
But I checked quickly and first paper I found was a Japanese one looking at basketball shots and eyepatches which found binocular vision very helpful...

Meh.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar » 2020-04-23 10:55pm

Another interesting chapter. I'm looking forward to seeing where this all ties together.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by The Romulan Republic » 2020-04-26 11:38am

Liking it so far. I'm curious as to what exactly Zatana's connection with Bruce is.

Maven meeting Batman was funny.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar » 2020-04-26 03:07pm

The Romulan Republic wrote:
2020-04-26 11:38am
Liking it so far. I'm curious as to what exactly Zatana's connection with Bruce is.

Maven meeting Batman was funny.
Bruce was "John".
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Nitram: You -are- beautiful. Anyone tries to tell you otherwise kill them.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-05-14 03:14pm

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 3: A Magician Never Reveals His Secrets

Zatanna Zatara waited uneasily on Franklin Wash’s porch while the man himself ran a hand through his thinning hair and sighed. It was a sigh of resignation and dread, like he had bet the rent on a losing horse or spilled ink on the boss’ pants. He was retired and standing in a fancy lounge suit in the doorway of his fancy house, so Zatanna felt that dread was a dramatic reaction to being reminded of an old client.

Zatanna folded her arms against the October chill. She felt terribly unwelcome, and she was suddenly embarrassed at her patchy coat and the loose threads on her skirt hem. Sensing he wasn’t about to volunteer more information, she gently asked, “So, you did know my father?”

Franklin finally looked at her again. He made a short follow-up sigh. “Yes, I represented Giovanni for several years. I suppose he was bound to tell you eventually.”

“He didn’t tell me.”

“Hm? What do you mean?”

“I was searching his old things last night and found your business card.”

“Oh! Oh. Damn. Hmm.” Franklin frowned. “Well, you should talk to your father before-”

“He’s missing, Mr. Wash.”

Franklin gaped at her. “Pardon?”

“He disappeared last night.” Zatanna grimanced. “Right before a show. The police are searching, but,” she made a frustrated noise, tucking her hands in her armpits, “I’m so sorry.”

“The old boy just up and split?”

“Not like that!”

“Where were you?”

“Sorry. I thought you might know something about it. That was stupid of me. I shouldn’t have come. I’m sorry. I’ll just go.”

She turned away but Franklin reached out. “What? No! Holy Christmas, miss. Didn’t mean to upset you. Here, come in.” He shuffled aside and waved her into the house. “Where are my manners? Letting in the draft anyway. Of course we can talk. Let me take your hat and coat.”

Franklin Wash had practiced law for thirty-two years, earning a reputation as the champion of custody litigation. His work made him a rich man, and he made sure every dollar was on display in his lovely home. Zatanna was captivated. She had never lived in a house, let alone a mansion, and while she frequented glamorous theaters and hotels, the sort of splendor that decorated stately private homes was a spectacle she only knew from movies. Zatanna looked back and forth from the rugs and paintings to the statues and chandeliers. The first thing she saw that couldn’t be bought at auction was Franklin’s wife.

When Franklin led Zatanna through the foyer to his sunny conservatory, they found a willowy woman with long white hair reading on a divan. The woman looked up at the newcomer and arched an eyebrow with the confidence of one who hadn’t faced bad news in decades. Franklin stepped between them and smiled uncomfortably at his wife. “Darling, we have a visitor. This is Zatanna. She is, um,” he coughed, “A former case.” He faced his guest, “Zatanna, this is my wife, Marjorie.”

Marjorie Wash put down her book, a paperback with a brawny cowboy on the cover. She languidly stood and made a pawing gesture at her guest. “Charmed, I’m sure.”

Zatanna caught the hand and shook it. “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Mm.” Marjorie offered a thin smile and glanced at her husband.

Franklin rubbed his hands. “Swimming. Well, I must have a chat with Zatanna to close some old business. My love, be a lamb and ask Claudette to bring us some drinks. Not sure where the silly girl is off to.”

Zatanna said, “Oh, that’s too kind. I’m really not thirsty.”

Marjorie ignored her. “Iced tea, then?”

Franklin said, “Unless we’re out of the good gin.”

“Mm,” Marjorie agreed as she left the room.

“Well then.” Franklin led Zatanna through a door into his study. It was another impressive room featuring brass and fine wood in abundance. He offered her a high-backed chair with the plumpest upholstery her butt had ever compressed. Franklin settled into a similar chair and patted his knees with insincere enthusiasm. “Where were we?”

The excellent chair didn’t steady Zatanna’s nerves. She wrung her hands, scared of the truth and desperate for it. “You knew my father. I had relatives who tried to adopt me but you stopped them.”

“Yes, many times. Until you reached the age of majority.”

“Tell me everything. Who are my relatives? Why didn’t I ever meet them?”

Franklin sighed once again and looked out the window. “Custody battles are deeply personal. People will do anything for a child, and they often share a bitter history with the other contestants. I had many odd, delicate cases in my career. But yours might have been the strangest. If I answer your questions, you may not like what you hear.”

Zatanna begged, “Mr. Wash, please.”

He nodded and steepled his fingers. “There’s much to the story that I don’t know. I’ll tell you what I can.”

“Thank you.”

“I understand that your mother passed when you were very young, and your father led you to believe that he knew no family on her side”

“Yes.”

“He lied. During my involvement, individuals claiming to be your maternal grandparents and about five aunts and uncles were party to suits seeking your custody or visitation. Giovanni certainly knew about them, and if he had evidence to prove they weren’t related to your mother, he never shared it with me.”

“What were their names?”

“I sincerely don’t remember. I recall very little about them. This was many years ago. I’d need a week to pull the records from my old office. I do recall they had strange names. Lots of rare consonants, X’s and Z’s and whatnot.”

“Well, I mean,” said Zatanna Zatara, gesturing at herself.

“Stranger than yours, trust me.”

“Where are they now?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. I barely knew back then. Understand, they acted as often as possible through their own lawyers. But based on what little I could tell, they were quite nomadic, changing addresses all the time. It was my occasional impression they were keeping a distance from you.”

“They were avoiding me?”

“Avoiding your father, more likely. Or maybe it was a sheer coincidence. All I can say is that they never seemed to be in the same town your father was visiting, and there were a few close calls.”

“You’re not implying my father was chasing them? He traveled for his job. He was touring before I was born.”

Franklin shrugged. “As I said, it was an occasional impression, a few instances across many years. Forgive an old attorney's habit for inventing trends. This was all before I was involved anyway.” He leaned forward and took a serious tone. “Your father loved you more than life itself, but I will say this: most widowers would make an effort to settle down if they had to raise a young daughter. I’m sure his lifestyle wasn’t a casual decision.”

Zatanna bit back a response. Instead she asked, “How close were my mother’s family to winning their case?”

“They got pretty close, but here’s the funny thing,” Franklin leaned back in his chair, “their first custody suits were filed when you were about ten. If your father had fought them directly then, I’m confident he would’ve won. He didn’t do that.”

“Why?”

“Because that would necessarily involve you. He didn’t want you going to hearings and depositions where these strangers could talk to you. He didn’t want you to think you had family at all.”

“And you don’t know why he wanted that so badly?”

“I truly don’t.”

She scratched her head. “How does a guy choose to ignore a court case anyway?”

“Well,” Franklin giggled, “I’m glad you asked. At first you two outran the courts.”

“Huh?”

“Custody cases are a state matter. You’d be surprised what legal problems you can dodge when you live in twelve different states in a year. And I’ll admit Giovanni’s first lawyers weren’t terrible: they found excuses to block the subpoenas for a little while.”

“That simple?”

“Simple? No. And the law caught up with your father eventually. When I entered the picture, he was wanted for kidnapping in eight jurisdictions.”

“How on earth did you fix that?”

“I was very good at my job. The first step was convincing your father to settle here in Gotham. Among its other advantages, I knew that judges like guardians who put down roots. It demonstrates stability. I wagered that your relatives wouldn’t follow suit, and I was right. Now, instead of two packs of squabbling gypsies, you had the spooky gypsies on one side and the honest local family man on the other.”

“Hey!”

“Your mother was a foreigner, yes?”

The question caught Zatanna by surprise. “I think so. Daddy just said they met in Turkey.”

“Well, I can guarantee she wasn’t a citizen. My investigators were never sure about the credibility of these so-called relatives of hers. Their paper trails hit dead-ends overseas. But that’s common for immigrant clans; family trees get obscured. Unfortunately, that sort of problem muddied both sides of the case.”

“What do you mean.”

“For starters, your father was born Italian.”

“He was born in America.”

“That’s what he told people. He moved here as a young child.”

“Fine, but how would that muddy the case?”

“On its own, not at all, but he often traveled out of the country.”

“Sure, to perform.”

“And other activities.”

“What do you mean?”

“Zatanna, where do you think you were born?”

“Massachusetts. I’ve seen my birth certificate.”

“I hired the man who printed that certificate. You were thirteen at the time.”

“What! Then where was I born?”

“Your father wouldn’t tell me. The earliest public record of you is for a smallpox immunization you received in London when you were six.”

Zatanna spread her arms in disbelief. “Are you sure I was six?”

Franklin smiled. “If your father didn’t want me to know something, he simply said so, and he had no reason to lie about your age.”

“How much of my life did you invent?”

“Very little. Just the beginning.”

"And once we were in Gotham? If you starting fighting these suits directly, why didn't I go to any hearings then?"

"As I said, I was very good at my job."

“What’s this mean, Mr. Wash?” Zatanna laid her head on her palm. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“I’m afraid I can’t help much on that account. I’d say you deserve a long conversation with your father, but,” he gestured helplessly.

“I know.” Zatanna looked away, then squinted at a sudden thought and stared back at him. “Hey, how did John know you?”

“Sorry, John?”

“John. Tall? Black hair? I never learned his last name. The one who introduced my father to you. He said he would take care of your fees. He was just a boy then.”

“Oh, you mean - Oh! Yes. Certainly. John. I forget that his name was, um, his name. Forgive me, Zatanna, I must first ask: if you’ve just discovered me, then how do you know John?”

“My father trained him when I was young.”

“Your father trained him?” Franklin said, astonished.

“For a whole summer.”

“And you didn’t see John after that?”

“No.”

“That’s it? You mean he just wanted to learn magic tricks?”

“Yes,” Zatanna answered, plainly annoyed, “He wanted to learn magic. He learned it from the best. Do you have a problem with that?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to denigrate your father’s profession. You can’t mean that John mentioned me when you were children, can you?”

“No. I found your business card last night inside a letter. It seems my daddy didn’t want to train John at first, so John wrote him begging to be his student. He offered your legal help to sweeten the pot.”

“So you learned all this last night.”

“Mr. Wash, don’t leave a gal in suspense. How do you know John?”

Franklin sighed again. “John was another case of mine. His guardian sought my help to maintain custody of the boy in a divorce. We became acquainted.”

“Okay.”

“Much later, John convinced his guardian to pay me to represent your father. I never knew why.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.”

She mulled over this. “Do you know where he is now? John, I mean.”

“I do. I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to share.”

“Did he ever become a magician?”

Franklin chuckled. “I don’t believe so.”

“Is- is he doing okay?” Zatanna fidgeted, searching for words. “Is he happy?”

“Dear, I can promise you this: by all accounts he’s living the happiest life a man could wish.”

They were interrupted by the door opening. Marjorie Wash pushed through with a tray of drinks, drinking one of her own as she entered. “Young lady, I’ve come to rescue you from the foul monster Legalese.” She trotted across the study and handed Zatanna and her husband tall glasses of iced tea. “Claudette is all thumbs this morning so I poured them myself.”

Zatanna thanked Margorie and took a sip. She immediately dry-coughed: the concoction was half gin. Zatanna thumped her chest and wheezed, “Refreshing.”

Franklin took a long sip and hummed approvingly. “Delectable! Love, God only knows what I’d be without you.”

Marjorie finished her glass in a gulp. “Sober?”

The couple laughed like rich people laugh. Zatanna tried to join but had another coughing fit.

Marjorie patted Zatanna on the back. “It goes down easier the second try.”

Zatanna waved her away as she caught her breath. “Just savoring it. Don’t want it gone too fast.”

Franklin asked, “You don’t need to drive, do you?”

Zatanna tested another sip and puckered. “No, but I need to walk.”

Majorie laughed again and elbowed her husband. “Franklin, don’t bore the poor thing too long.”

Franklin held his hand to his heart. “Perish the thought!”

“You old shyster. Zatanna, what do you call ten lawyers buried up to their necks in sand?”

Zatanna shrugged. “I dunno.”

“Not enough sand!” Marjorie left her tray on a sideboard and swept from the room.

Franklin took another long sip of his tea. The conversation could have progressed much worse. He could talk all day about Giovanni Zatara’s mystery feuds, but if she had pressed him harder on the holes in Bruce Wayne’s involvement, he would’ve needed to tap dance through some careful lies, and he was out of practice. A decent trial attorney would’ve torn him apart.

Already, he saw her put her drink back on the tray and make apologies to leave. He offered her lunch, which he knew she would decline. Soon he was escorting her out the front door, promising to pluck names from dusty archives. He waved after her as she reached the road, mentally occupied with how he would word his call to stately Wayne Manor.

Franklin Wash was not concerned that he’d openly admitted to fraud in their short conversation. This was not the first time a grown child of an old client had sought him out for answers - the rich and powerful had some impressively broken families, which was why he lived in a mansion. He knew from experience that these grown children tended not to resent him, even if they hated the parent he helped win. Still, if Zatanna decided to press some change against him, Franklin was an exceptional lawyer. She had no proof, and he’d ensured that no one ever would.

With one exception.

---​

Like every Gothamate of a certain age, Franklin Wash remembered the Wayne murders. Unlike most, he had reacted by inquiring into who was set to adopt little Bruce and whether anyone intended to contest that arrangement. Sadly, Bruce Wayne was adopted by his uncle Philip with no disputes. Franklin was very surprised when, two years later, Bruce Wayne approached him to procure his services. Bruce said he was unsatisfied with his uncle’s guardianship, and his uncle was tepid about being a guardian. They’d happily part ways. Unfortunately, Bruce was no regular orphan: his parents’ will had established a large, conservative, and humorless committee to ensure Bruce’s well-being until he was ready to inherit the earth. They would pressure Uncle Philip to fulfill his promise, and if that failed, they would place Bruce with another stuffy guardian he might find even less agreeable.

Humoring the boy, Franklin asked Bruce what guardian he would prefer. He was too young for legal emancipation, and the committee would never allow such a scandal anyway. Bruce said that he wanted Alfred Pennyworth, the late Waynes’ butler. Franklin laughed in his face. Alfred was indeed mentioned in the will. He had a sinecure as live-in manager at vacant Wayne Manor. He even held a consulting position on Bruce’s committee. But Franklin explained that the committee - a gaggle of old aristocrats - would not tolerate Bruce Wayne living under some servant.

Bruce responded that it would be the great Franklin Wash’s job to make them tolerate it. Furthermore, Bruce expected him to find a way to separate Bruce from his uncle’s care without causing his uncle undue repercussions. Also, Bruce needed help convincing Alfred Pennyworth to be his replacement guardian in the first place, as Alfred felt unworthy of the task. Bruce made it clear that Franklin was welcome to use every trick in the book to accomplish this; he didn’t care how it happened, but he needed it done.

Still more amused than anything, Franklin acknowledged that maybe, with all his talent and connections, he might be able to make that happen. He asked how Bruce expected to pay. This question was intended to end the conversation. Franklin was an expert on what funds rich children could access. Most didn’t control their purse strings, not enough to afford his eye-watering fees. Technically, he would be Alfred Pennyworth’s attorney. Supposing they managed to rope the butler into the scheme, there was no way a servant could afford his hourly rate, even adding the value of whatever baseball cards Bruce could sell.

Bruce Wayne, a child, seemed unconcerned. He took two five-dollar bills out of his pocket and dropped them on Franklin’s desk. He called them legal fees. Then he explained that he had enough blackmail on Franklin Wash to see him disbarred and probably arrested. The blackmail could cause prior winning cases to be appealed, and those powerful clients might hold him responsible. Bruce shared a sample of this blackmail. Franklin instantly knew that Bruce had him dead to rights. He announced that he had a new client. Bruce, unsmiling, shook his hand and walked away.

Franklin Wash felt a rush of shock and disbelief, then outrage, then fear, then annoyance and spite. But eventually he felt curiosity, then admiration. He was an exceedingly clever and ruthless man, and it took one to know one. How many rival attorneys with their educations and their private eyes had failed to trap him when he broke the rules? And this boy cut through him like butter. He didn’t have a safe way to counter Bruce’s threat, but he decided that even if he could, he might let the kid get away with it out of sheer respect.

And so Franklin had every motivation to win Bruce’s case. It was the most challenging case he had ever faced. And he won. When the ruling was announced, Bruce, unsmiling, shook his hand and walked away.

Franklin expected that to be the end of it, but a few years later, Bruce approached him again. He shared the story of Giovanni Zatara. The man was about to lose his daughter, and Bruce wanted Franklin to prevent that. This time Bruce offered to pay the regular fee. His inheritance was still off-limits, but now he had money from other ventures. Bruce insisted on a few conditions: Franklin wouldn’t question his interest in the Zataras, Franklin would refer to him as John, Franklin would share nothing about John, and Franklin would obey Giovanni’s rules about hiding the case from his daughter. The original blackmail went unspoken, but Franklin begrudgingly took the case. Ironically, it was very profitable, lasting years as more relatives crawled out of the woodwork. Bruce indeed paid the bill, though Franklin changed him the most minimal version.

It was the strangest case of his career, but amid all the mysteries of the Zataras and their possible kinfolk, the biggest mystery was always why Bruce Wayne cared. Franklin knew better than to investigate Bruce directly, but he kept an eye on every new development to find a justification. In the end, he failed. Bruce couldn’t be some distant relation; he had researched the Zatara family better than anyone. His best guess was that Giovanni had done Bruce some grand but unreported favor in the past, saving him from a car wreck perhaps.

And now the mystery was solved. Bruce just wanted a few magic lessons. That was it. Grim, calculating Bruce Wayne had paid thousands of dollars to pull a rabbit out of a hat. The kid had fooled him again.

---​

It was shortly after lunch in the happy Gordon household, and Sergeant James Gordon could be found reclining on a big sag-cushioned armchair in his living room. He was whittling a rooster out of wood, whistling along as the Dorsey Brothers played on the Victrola.

He heard the wall phone ring in the other room. Grumbling, Sergeant Gordon reached over and lifted the needle off the record. The Dorsey Brothers’ horn section faded to silence.

“Barbara,” he called, “be a dear and get the phone.”

Barbara, Sergeant Gordon’s daughter, was scrapbooking on the kitchen table. “Just a minute,” she said, cutting an article from a newspaper. With a final snip, she rose and went to the phone. She lifted the handset. “Gordon residence.”

From the speaker, a chipper man said, “Lord bless me, is that little Barbara? This is Officer Malone.”

Barbara smiled. “Hi, Officer Malone.”

“Good afternoon, lass.”

“Want to speak to my dad?”

“Indeed, if you’d be so kind.”

“It’s Officer Malone,” Barbara said to her father, who was entering the kitchen after overhearing the name.

“Thanks, Barbara,” he said as he took the handset. “Do you mind giving us a minute?”

“Oh. Sure.” Barbara skipped out of the room. She was no stranger to her father’s secrecy. Cop families learned cop habits.

Sergeant Gordon tapped the handset against his chin with a foul expression before lifting it to his ear.

“What?”

Officer Malone’s gentle brogue was gone. In his place, Batman said, “Sergeant Gordon.

“Yeah? I’m listening.” Gordon hated when Batman called his home unannounced. He knew Batman went to enormous lengths to avoid it when possible, but Gordon hated it all the same.

Batman was brief. “I have a favor to ask.

Gordon said, “This about your girl this morning?”

The line was silent for a moment. “Yes.” There was a longer pause. “She won’t contact you again.

“At least she tips well. What’s her story?”

I hired her once. The mission went bad-

“This the Fort Morrison girl, then?”

She is.

“She said so.”

Batman grunted. “She nearly died that night. That … soured our arrangement. We parted ways. I had assumed permanently. My mistake.

“What’s she need now? Looked all shook up this morning.”

She has a friend whose apartment building burned down last night.

“Damn. Where?”

The Lisbon Building. East End.

“Heard of it. So why does she need you so badly?”

To investigate. She thinks the fire was arson.

“Why?”

This friend of hers runs a business, and all her customers happen to be high-profile criminals.

Gordon scoffed. “Who? What business? Hey, and for that matter, who is this girl of yours really?”

The line was silent again. Finally, Batman said, “Jim, if you want to know, I’ll tell you. But I’d be betraying a trust. My instincts say she’s not our problem.

Gordon pulled at his mustache in annoyance. Batman was a paranoid nut, but he was more candid than any cop Gordon had ever met. And his instincts were second to none. It wouldn’t be the first time Batman kept an informant confidential.

After chewing his misgivings, Gordon said, “Fine. Forget it. So she thinks it’s arson. What do you think?”

I think she’s wrong. They don’t have evidence or a motive. I think she’s scared and fishing for threats because her friend was hurt. The Lisbon was old; a fire was inevitable.

“Then what the hell are you doing?”

Wrong or not,” said Batman, “I owe her.

Batman usually spoke with perfect conviction, but this answer sounded meek. Gordon believed what he said was true; it was also an excuse.

Gordon weighed this insight. “And what do you want from me?”

I’d like you to ask the fire department’s arson unit whether they inspected the Lisbon today. If so, ask where they looked and what they found. My contact doesn’t want to draw attention to her friend, so she won’t tip them off to her suspicions, but it would save me time if they’ve already looked.

Gordon blew air through his teeth. He knew the arson unit. A solid group, but not friends. He would look suspicious if he started asking detailed questions about a random fire. He would need to invent an excuse. That meant one more lie to carry. All for some twisted apology, if that was even the real reason.

“I’ll reach out to the arson boys and call you this evening.”

Thank you.” Batman hung up.

Sergeant Gordon sighed. He and Batman didn’t keep score in their partnership. They helped when they could. At his request, Batman had disarmed bombs, spied on mob bosses, and saved hostages from gunmen. Gordon could carry another lie.

---​

Later.

In the main workshop of the Cave, Batman used a small pair of pliers to bend a wire on a printed circuit. Scattered across his workbench were two dozen small devices in different states of assembly. Drawers and shelves with hundreds of tools were positioned within reach. There was a binder propped open in the middle of the devices. The title of the binder was: Field Equipment Modification Plan #7: CATproofing.

After eighty minutes of modifications and testing, Batman put away his tools and returned his field gear to their storage racks. Stretching his neck, he went to the Cave’s library where a fat stack of trade and academic journals waited. The morning was lost, but if he read at an accelerated pace, he could finish the pile in three and a half hours. It would hurt his eyes, but he could then enjoy a productive evening and salvage most of the week’s priority projects. Then if he finished his inspection of the Lisbon before eleven, he could resume his ongoing cases until dawn. By his return Sunday morning, it would be like his Saturday hadn’t been interrupted at all.

Content, Batman sat and picked up the stack's top journal. It was the only one he had previously opened and only to page three. He skipped to page four and proceeded to read.

He was two new pages into the journal when the phone rang.

Batman suppressed a shudder and laid the journal aside with more force than necessary.

As he stood, he assumed it was Sergeant Gordon calling. That would be an unusually fast report. Then he heard the second ring and realized that it was the tone for the rarely-used house line. The main use for the house line was when someone called Wayne Manor’s regular line, but Alfred judged it critical enough to interrupt Batman in the Cave.

Batman lifted the phone. “Alfred?”

With restrained surprise, Alfred said, “Mr. Franklin Wash is on the line for you.” He paused a moment. “Were you expecting him, sir?”

With equal surprise, Batman answered, “Not at all.”

“Shall I put him through?”

“Please.”

“Very good, sir.”

There was a set of clicks, then Franklin Wash’s voice came through the line. “Hello? Hello?”

Bruce Wayne’s voice answered, “This is Bruce speaking. How are you, Mr. Wash?”

“Oh, Bruce, hello. I’m doing fine, thank you.”

There was silence between them. The two men hadn’t spoken in nearly a decade. Finally, Bruce asked, “How can I help you?”

“Bruce, I received a visitor today, and I feel obliged to share it with you.”

Still baffled, Bruce said, “Okay.”

“Late this morning, Zatanna Zatara knocked on my door.”

Bruce stared at the wall in mute surprise. “... Okay.”

“Do you remember Zatanna? Her-”

“Yes, Mr. Wash. I remember.” Bruce’s genial voice took on an edge. “What did she want?”

“She wanted to talk to me.”

“And you talked to her?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Why? Decency.”

“That’s new.”

“She was in distress.”

Bruce hesitated. “Just tell me what happened.”

“Last night, Giovanni Zatara disappeared.”

“Disappeared?”

“Right before a show. She didn’t share the details. Then, while searching through his effects, she found a letter with my business card. She said you wrote it to him.”

Bruce remembered that letter. He frowned. “Yes.”

“Well, ‘John’, she wanted to know about her family, and about her father, and about me, and about you.”

Bruce’s voice grew sharper. “And what did you say?”

“About her family and her father and me, I told the truth. Not much for her to go on after all this time, especially if her dad is gone.”

“We’ll see. What else.”

“I slipped by you easy. I told her you were an earlier case, that I helped one of your parents keep you in a divorce. Later, you got your parent to pay me to help her dad. That’s all I said. A decent story, right?”

“Are you sure that’s all you said, Mr. Wash?”

“I’m sure. She asked where you were. I wouldn’t tell her.”

“And?”

“And just a few other silly questions. She asked if you became a magician.”

Bruce raised his eyebrows wryly. “And?”

“I said I didn’t think so. That’s really it.”

Bruce took a long, silent breath. “Fine. Remember that I value my privacy, Mr. Wash.”

“I won’t forget. You can count on me.”

“Good.”

“Hey, one other thing, Bruce. I just gotta know: did you really hire me to get some magic lessons?”

There was silence on the line.

“Enjoy retirement, Franklin. I hear Florida is nice this year. Think about it.

Batman hung up.

He returned to the Cave’s library, but as he stared at the journal’s open page, he found he couldn’t summon the effort to read. He heard footsteps on the staircase.

“Master Bruce.”

Batman stood and turned. “Alfred.”

Alfred crossed to the library, uncharacteristically empty-handed. “Might I ask what Mr. Wash wished to discuss?”

Batman nodded. “You remember Giovanni Zatara?”

“Why yes, that stage illuisionist. He tutored you one summer, didn’t he?”

“He did. He was one of my most valuable teachers.”

“I always thought that was a lovely pastime for you, so much friendlier than all your fisticuffs. What does he have to do with Mr. Wash?”

“I kept a secret from you then, Alfred. Mr. Zatara didn’t want to train me at first. Then I learned he was about to lose custody of his daughter.”

“Oh no, Bruce.”

“I hired Franklin Wash for the job. He won.”

“Hm. Well, thank you for admitting it. Putting aside my mixed feelings for the man, what’s the issue now?”

“Apparently, last night Giovanni disappeared.”

“Not in a stage act, I presume?”

“More like a missing person. His daughter’s name is Zatanna. I’ve met her. She helped me train when I was learning from Giovanni. She discovered he was missing last night. It’s a long story, but she came to Mr. Wash this morning because she thought Wash might know about it.”

“Might he?”

“No. But she’s been kept in the dark about,” Batman stopped and considered, “a lot.”

“I see.”

“Wash called to admit he let dangerous information slip.”

“Dangerous?”

“About me.”

“Like what?”

“He confirmed I helped her father.”

“We can’t have nice girls thinking you compassionate.”

“From what I remember, Giovanni’s custody fights were incredibly acrimonious. Both sides fought dirty. Violence stemming from family disputes are common, especially after court decisions. It’s been a decade since it all ended, but I can’t help but worry that Giovanni’s the victim of some revenge plot.”

“It’s no surprise you’re worried. You care about the man.”

“I do. But I can’t investigate such a farfetched concern right now. I don’t even have time to check that he’s actually missing.” Batman grunted. “I’m already committed to investigating another farfetched concern.”

“It’s nice to be wanted.”

“Every hour a missing person stays missing, the odds of finding them diminish. The same is true for evidence of arsonry. Catwoman and Zatanna both need help, but I don’t have time to pursue both of them.”

“Perhaps if you’re lucky, sir, the two cases will prove to be two incidents of the same larger case. By investigating either one, instead of splitting your attention, you’ll reach the center of the combined case in half the time.”

“Alfred, that sounds extremely unlikely.”

---​

On Saturday evening, the Arabia Casino was largely empty. It was nearly sunset, which was usually a lively time for casinos in Bludhaven, but half of the Arabia’s gaming floor was closed for repairs, and the bustle of carpenters killed the mood for the other half.

Zatanna Zatara’s hotel room was eight stories above the casino where the noise didn’t reach, but she wouldn’t have noticed. Zatanna sat on the floor, her head resting on the corner of her bed. Life didn’t make sense this morning, so she had left on a big journey to find answers, and now life made even less sense. Her hands idly shuffled a deck of cards, but the rest of her was as limp as a rug.

This was until the blinding tangerine sun crossed her window. Zatanna liked west-facing hotel rooms because her usual nemesis was the rising sun, but the world no longer made sense. She moaned and crawled over the bed to avoid the light.

Zatanna lay in self-pity until the room grew dim. Eventually, she decided she had to do something normal or she would lie there forever. She stood up. It took a minute of blank staring to remember the normal things she used to do.

On a regular night, if she was trying to get over a bad show or feeling down in the dumps, she would go out and do some street magic. She would dress up, find a nice park or shopping center, somewhere well-lit, and entertain the crowds. Street work kept her sharp. Misdirection was about the small details, and if you wanted to fool them on a stage, you had to practice up close. Plus, it was a chance to workshop new tricks and try new outfits.

Tonight she wore her regular outfit: white shirt, white bowtie, white gloves, yellow vest, black tuxedo jacket, stockings, and the all-important tophat. It was a cold night. That limited her choice of performance space. If the casino wasn’t so empty, she would get permission to work the lobby. She could try other casinos, but that was a gamble. Train stations were a safe way to go. Libraries were worth checking out, though they liked advance notice. Monuments and city halls were decent, but many closed at night. She would ask the front desk for advice. And if she struck out, at least it was a chance to stretch her legs.

Zatanna was about to leave when the phone rang.

She picked up the phone. “Hello?”

A gruff man answered, “Am I speaking with Zatanna Zatara?”

“Yes you are.”

“Ma’am, this is Officer Edmond Kravitz with the Bludhaven Police Depart-”

“Oh! Wow, hi.”

“Hi. I’m calling because I wanted to let you know-”

“Did you find my father?”

“No, but-”

“Frick!” Zatanna pounded the wall. “Fudge!”

“Ma’am, we found something unusual at your father’s apartment in Gotham City.”

“What did you find?” Zatanna asked, rubbing her sore fist.

“It would be easier to explain in person. We’d like to take you there this evening. The detectives think you might be able to help us find your father in a big way, but they say time is critical.”

“Okay, yes, of course. Where should I meet you?”

“We’re in the parking lot of the Arabia now. We’ll meet you as soon as you’re ready to come down.”

“I’ll be right down.” Zatanna slapped the handset onto the hook and rushed out the door.

---​

In the parking lot of the Arabia Casino, a fat man in a police uniform leaned against an old green sedan. A lean man in a police uniform jogged over from a pay phone outside the building.

“She’s coming,” he said as he approached.

“Swell,” said the fat man.

“Hey, what’s with the car?”

“What?”

“What’s the matter with you, asking ‘what’, look at the car!”

The fat man stepped away and turned around. “Huh? Dang! I see. Sorry.”

The lean man smacked his shoulder. “Come on, lunkhead, we don’t got a minute.”

The fat man squinted in concentration. “Just hold your horses.”

“Unbelievable. You’re a disgrace to the uniform, you know that?”

“Very funny. Watch for rubberneckers, Fatty Arbuckle.”

“How am I Fatty Arbuckle? You look like you ate Fatty Arbuckle.”

The fat man stared intently at the green sedan. Whispering under his breath, he moved his hands in small, rigid motions like a priestly blessing.

The lean man stood watch nearby muttering, “Unbelievable.”

As the fat man whispered, a miraculous thing happened. Nearly too faintly for the eye to see, a wave of sparks oscillated across the car. Where the sparks passed, the car’s appearance gradually changed. Dents disappeared. The green paint turned to black with white trim. A red beacon light appeared on top. A crest appeared on the doors: a gold badge with the city flag in miniature surrounded by the words, “Bludhaven Police Department”.

Finally, the fat man wiped his brow. “Whew! We’re good.”

The lean man turned around. “Not bad, but you got the logo wrong, genius!”

“No I didn’t.”

“Haven’t you seen a police car around here? There’s an anchor in the middle of the flag part.”

“Oh, dang! You’re right.” The fat man made a few gestures, and an anchor appeared on the crest of the car.

The lean man shook his head. “It’s crooked.”

“Close enough.”

“And the lettering is supposed to be sans-serif.”

“What?”

“Sans-serif, it’s Greek for ‘don’t use a serif’.”

“What’s a serif?”

“You know, those twig bits on the corner of the letters. You need to take off the serifs.”

“She won’t notice.”

“But what if she does?”

“Officers?”

The two men turned around. They found a young woman in a tophat and tuxedo, sans-pants.

“Is one of you Officer Kravitz?” she asked.

The lean man tipped his hat. “I’m Officer Kravitz. This here’s my partner, Officer Arbuckle.”

“I’m-” The fat man turned to glare at his partner, but he caught himself and faked a smile at the woman. “I’m Officer Arbuckle, at your service.”

She smiled back. “I’m Zatanna. Sorry for the look.” She shrugged and gestured at her tophat. “I was about to do a show.”

Officer Kravitz said, “Not a problem. We appreciate you taking the time.”

“Sure, I’m eager to help. You have no idea how worried I’ve been, and I’ve had a real doozy of a day, believe me.”

As she spoke, Officer Kravitz held his hands behind his back. His left hand made a twisting motion, like he was screwing in a lightbulb. On the car’s logo, the anchor slightly rotated.

Officer Arbuckle rubbed his hands. “Whelp, time’s a’wasteing, and we don’t want you getting cold out here. We’d best be off." He elbowed his partner. "Don’t you think so, Officer Kravitz?”

Officer Kravitz flinched, and the logo anchor flipped upside down. He forced a chuckle. “Yep, time’s a’wasteing.”

Zatanna smiled at them both. “Well, I’m ready to go.”

Officer Arbuckle opened the rear door of the sedan. “Ma’am.”

“Thank you, sir.” Zatanna stepped inside, and he closed the door behind her.

Officers Kravitz and Arbuckle looked at each other, grinned, and entered the front of the car.

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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar » 2020-05-14 07:22pm

And the plot thickens, with her unknown relatives entering the picture.

So... I don't know comic-wise who Zantanna's mother was. Fae? Rival Magicians?
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by madd0ct0r » 2020-05-15 03:54am

Loving the quiet foreshadowing for Babs.
"Aid, trade, green technology and peace." - Hans Rosling.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-05-19 10:58am

madd0ct0r wrote:
2020-05-15 03:54am
Loving the quiet foreshadowing for Babs.
Yeah, it's a shame I won't get around to writing her story.

Stewart M
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-06-03 11:30pm

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 4: The Lisbon Building


Zatanna Zatara rarely thought about her ancestry.

This morning she knew she was born in America. Her father Giovanni had Italian roots. Her mother was long deceased and rarely discussed. Her father once said they met in Turkey, but Zatanna believed her mother was Italian as well: culture pairing was a given in their day, and her father dropped hints over the years to support the theory. There was no one else to ask since her mother had no family.

Now it was evening and Zatanna didn’t know where she was born. Her mother probably had a family, a large, scattered, and mobile one. Her father was an extraordinary liar, an occasional outlaw, and a traveler on secret agendas. And these revelations made her uncertain whether her mother had been Italian, Turkish, Siamese, or Maritan.

Zatanna Zatara rarely thought about her ancestry, and now she understood that this was exactly how her father raised her to think.

He had quietly taught that history shackled you to a place. He had always been dismissive of townies and bumpkins, families living four generations to a house who never saw the next county. No, he was a modern man, a globetrotter. Ancestry was nothing but a prop. If the money was right or he owed the showrunners a favor, he’d play Abdul, the Sufi mystic or Aapo, the mad Mayan. He was Chief Brave Horse when he played Hamburg and Istavan of Transylvania when he played Chicago. Scores of performers played a stock ethnic; some made a career of it, but few had the versatility of the Mighty Zatara. Occasionally he was even Luigi Manchini, Italian mesmerist. When Zatanna asked her father why he needed a stage name to play an Italian, he answered that mesmerism was a third-rate art for hack magicians, and he had a reputation to keep.

Giovanni was blessed with a complexion well-suited to mimicking most of humanity. That, along with makeup, stage lighting, and unsophisticated audiences delivered the illusion. His daughter’s features were similarly open to interpretation, and if managers enjoyed when Giovanni tried some far-flung accent, they just loved it when Zatanna did one. At first she was eager to please. If her father did it, then that’s what magicians did. He was right as usual: audiences adored her. Everyone was having fun.

Then, when she was seventeen, Zatanna played a show in Gotham as Esther, the beguiling Jew. In hindsight, this was even worse than it seemed as the theater was near a large Jewish neighborhood. She would come to suspect years later that her promoter had used her to take a swipe out of petty hate. At the show, a patron went out to smoke during intermission and met a party of Orthodox Jews at a park across the street. He mentioned that there was “some Jew girl dressed like them” performing that night. After Zatanna finished her set, the Jewish party found her in the lobby and invited her to dinner. She accepted, whereupon she ordered a meal that broke most rules of kosher, removed her headscarf, rolled up her sleeves, and attempted to flirt with men who weren’t her husband. She would never forget the betrayal in their eyes when they realized “Esther” was a mockery from some little shiksa. Zatanna’s shame was one of the reasons she left Gotham a few years later.

That night her father hugged her and listened gently when she shared her guilt. But then he told her with unsentimental honesty that starting a solo career was a difficult thing. Every show she refused made her road that much steeper. Giovanni never once forced her onto a stage, but he never made excuses for her, not when it came to magic. He was right as usual: managers who wanted a shtick weren’t concerned with her misgivings. It wasn’t some lowbrow minstrel show, they said. It’s how the vaudeville greats got their start, they said. And soon Zatanna didn’t say a word. She wanted more than anything to see her name in lights, but as a newcomer and a woman, she had to fight for every audience, so she put on the wig.

The gigs were never exactly common, and audiences adored her, but every walkout stuck in her mind like no standing ovation ever could. She thought that was the worst of it. Then, at twenty-two. She played Farah, the Haitian priestess at a show in Mississippi. She was so convincing that she was arrested. Deputies explained that it was unlawful for a Negro or mulatto to ride in a first-class train car, use the main entrance of a performance hall, or drink from a white water fountain, all crimes Zatanna had commited that evening. Despite her protests, the sheriff was certain she had at least one-eighth Negro blood, making her non-white in the eyes of Mississippi law. Her father took an express train from Boston to bail her out. When that failed, they staged a jailbreak. They made it to Louisiana before the sheriff realized she was gone. The local paper reported that the gang responsible must have employed the world’s greatest magician, a headline Giovanni kept framed in his bedroom.

The grand irony of these mishaps was that she had always believed she was playing a role, that Esther and Farah and the rest were costumes. Now her own heritage was such a mystery that any of those identities might be true. Zatanna wouldn’t call herself a priestess or, indeed, beguiling, but she could well be Haitian or Jewish or both. Her whole life was a costume.

Zatanna had all this weighing on her mind as she sat in the back of a Bludhaven police car and watched the yellow streetlights go by. Officers Kravitz and Arbuckle, the men in the front seats, were increasingly unnerved as the miles passed. They expected a chatterbox, but the girl was silent. Zatanna was lost in thought, and thinking people were clever, and clever people were scary.

Officer Arbuckle, the driver, decided it was best to interrupt her thoughts. “So!” He paused, wishing he had thought of a sentence ahead of time. ”Roads.”

Zatanna peered at the back of his head. “Pardon?”

Officer Kravitz gave him a side-eye of contempt.

Officer Arbuckle tried again. “If traffic keeps up, we’ll be out of Bludhaven in ten minutes. You’ll see the bridge on the left side.”

Zatanna said, “Thanks. I actually used to live in Gotham.”

“Not any longer?”

“No, I’ve moved around. I have a place in California now, but I probably only sleep there ten nights a year.”

“Do a lot of travel?”

“And then some.”

Kravitz asked, “Have you seen your father’s apartment before?”

“No. He moved across town when I left home. East End, right?”

“That’s right. Did you hear what happened to it?”

“No. What do you mean?”

“Bit of rough luck. There was a fire in the building.”

“What?”

“I don’t mean to alarm you.”

“What fire?” she asked, alarmed.

“Just don’t want you to be surprised when we turn up. Last night, your father’s apartment building had a bad fire.”

Arbuckle added, “All things considered, he’s lucky he wasn’t home.”

Kravitz blanched at this comment and quickly said, “ Anyway, total coincidence. His room skipped the worst of it.”

“Oh.” Zatanna said.

“See, that’s why we were so late in calling you. Busy with the firefighters and all.”

“Right.”

“Lots of fallen beams to move and whatnot.”

“Sure.”

“Detectives couldn’t get to the room with all the, uh, evidence.”

“What evidence do they want me to review, anyway?” Zatanna asked. “We don’t see each other too often. I truly hope I can help.”

Arbuckle turned and looked back reassuringly. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll be fine help, miss. Don’t you worry.”

Kravitz grabbed the steering wheel to avoid a mailbox. “I’m afraid we don’t have an answer for you. We’re just lowly beat officers. The detectives make us fetch folks, but they don’t tell us anything.”

“Well, I’ll certainly do what I can.”

“We know you will.”

---​

Meanwhile.

Some streets in Gotham City were dark at night. These were the predictable grim neighborhoods where rows of buildings were condemned or abandoned or hadn’t paid their electric bill or hadn’t paid off the roving bulb hustlers who could strip an office of copper and light fixtures in minutes flat. What was rare in Gotham was a dark building on a bright street. The intense demand for housing and commercial space ensured that even if a building in a nice location shouldn’t have been lit, it usually was. An apartment that was closed for renovations or frozen in a ownership dispute was quickly occupied by old residents and other squatters who then set up illegal grocers and subdivided rooms for more families. If anything, the squatters produced more light with the utilities shut off as they pirated electricity from neighbors and installed cheap extra lights from the bulb hustlers.

The Lisbon Building was the rare dark building on a bright street, a gray giant as ominous as a Stonehenge monolith. Even Gotham’s squatters and looters were hesitant to try a ruin less than a day after a fire: building collapse caused as many deaths in Gotham as measles. But just to be sure, when the firefighters packed up that afternoon, two police officers stayed behind to patrol the site. Their idea of patrol was to circle the property every half hour then spend the rest of their time hiding from the wind in the charred entrance hall.

Catwoman had watched this pattern twice when Batman arrived. They were on the roof of an apartment tower across the street. Through the window below the roof edge, she heard a radio ad for cigarettes and the bubbling pot of a late supper. She didn’t know if Batman somehow waited for the loud ad to approach, or if he just got lucky, but she didn’t notice him until she heard that deep voice above her.

“Catwoman.”

She suppressed a flinch. She was lying on folded arms to spy over the edge. Instead of standing, she rolled over and clasped her hands behind her head like a sunbather. “Hi there.”

He looked down at her impassively, then walked three steps around her and crouched at the roof edge. She rose to her knees and saw he had a leather satchel over his shoulder.

She pointed at it. “What’s that.”

He answered without looking. “Arson investigation kit.”

“Great.” She cracked her knuckles. “That’s what I like to see. I can’t wait to get to the bottom of this.”

“I’m glad you’re enthusiastic.”

She raised an eyebrow. That didn’t sound like a Batman comment. “Really?”

He nodded. “If we don’t delay, I suspect we can settle your theory in under two hours. I have other responsibilities tonight.”

“So you can leave.” She looked back at the Lisbon, suddenly concerned. She turned back to him. “You’re not saying you aren’t-”

“I never shortchange a case.” Batman still didn’t look at her, but he spoke with a dignity that was almost annoyed. “I’ll solve it if it can be solved. If I need to stop, you’ll know.”

“Never mind, then. Anyway, I’ve been watching those cops down there. The two of them hide in that entrance most of the time, and they aren’t fond of looking too hard when they walk around. No other security.”

“Good. Then we-”

“-Cross the walkway,” they said simultaneously.

Most large buildings in Gotham could be entered at several levels. The Lisbon had walkways connecting it to adjacent buildings at the fourth and ninth floors. These bridges were wood over old iron frames. Both fell apart in the fire, but while the fourth floor walkway collapsed entirely, the ninth floor walkway was only skeletonized. Its wooden deck had burned away and most of the frame had fallen, but one cantilevered truss still spanned the gap like an iron hill the width of a train rail. They weren’t surprised the authorities neglected to guard this entrance.

The two infiltrators crossed rooftops and descended to the balcony that anchored one end of the ninth floor walkway. It was a weak, waning moon tonight. When a fat cloud drifted past, they began to cross.

The wind misbehaves in dense cities, racing down skyscraper canyons and sheering into alleys. This is especially true a hundred feet in the air. Not for the first time, Catwoman wondered how Batman’s cape didn’t carry him off like a sail. Considering the slopes of the truss, it was forty paces from one end of the gap to the other. She went first.

Once they found their footing, Batman shared more of his plan. “I have a report from the fire department’s investigators. Their report was inconclusive, but it should save us time.”

“Lovely.” Catwoman snickered. “Your cop buddy pass that along?”

Batman stopped. Catwoman sensed the temperature plummet before she noticed he had fallen behind. She looked over her shoulder, then turned fully when she saw his frosty glare.

Batman spoke in a tone like a stamping bull. “You didn’t know better. You were in distress. I won’t hold it against you.

“Excuse me?”

But I need to make something clear.

Catwoman grabbed the truss as a gust blew through. “Can it wait?”

Never contact James Gordon or his family again. Understand?

Catwoman had forgotten how deep that growl could be, but she recovered with a smile. “But what if I need to report a crime?”

Catwoman-

“That’s all I did this morning, if you think about it.”

Stay away from Gordon.

“Or else what?”

I’m coming after you.

“Promises, promises.”

Don’t push me.

“Don’t tempt me.”

Batman stared at her a moment longer, then turned and walked away.

It took two steps for Catwoman to realize he wasn’t turning back. Eyes wide, she leapt over his head, landing on the truss beyond with balletic poise. She caught his arm. “Hey! I was kidding. I’ll leave your buddy alone.”

Kidding?” Batman tugged his arm free. “Were you kidding about your friend visiting the hospital last night?

Catwoman looked like he had slapped her. “No! How could you say that?”

Then why are you like this?

“Like what?”

You constantly-” Another gust cut through. They instantly clasped forearms and dipped, leaning into the wind until it relented. Batman lowered his voice. “Never mind. That was crass of me to say. I apologize.”

“It was,” Catwoman said, more confused than indignant. “What’s your problem?”

Batman tensed his jaw. “The cloud’s nearly passed.” He turned and continued toward the Lisbon. Catwoman mouthed some silent insults as she followed.

---​

A hundred feet below, two Gotham City police officers watched the pair of dancing silhouettes cross the spiderweb beam connecting the buildings.

“Are you sure that’s Batman?”

“You can tell by the cape.”

“I thought it was an extra arm.”

“It’s a cape.”

“Like, you sneak up behind him, right, but it grabs your head off.”

“It isn’t an arm.”

“How do you know?”

“Getty told me.”

“How’s he know?”

“Batman saved Getty from drowning one time.”

“No way.”

“It’s true. I helped dredge up the boat. Getty was alone, and Lord knows he can’t swim. Batman saved him. Brought him to shore.”

“Cripes. No fooling?”

“Nope. He told the whole squad, in front of God and everyone. Said he had a cape.”

“Who’s the skinny one up there then?”

“No idea.”

“What do you suppose they want?”

“Beats me.”

“Okay. Do we go arrest them?”

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously.”

“That’s what your thinking meat is telling you to do right now?”

“That’s what I’m asking. Do we arrest them?”

“No. We do not.”

“We just stand here while they creep around inside?”

“I sure do. Do you want to arrest him alone?”

“No.”

“There you have it.”

---​

Batman and Catwoman reached the stone platform on the far end of the truss and dismounted. The Lisbon’s walkway doors had burned to cinders last night, so they strode straight into the exposed corridor. Eddies of windswept dust brushed their ankles until they turned a corner. Catwoman avoided burned buildings for all the obvious reasons: they were unsafe, dirty, depressing, and there was nothing to steal. Patches of floor here were buckled or missing, and the pair moved thoughtfully to secure their footing. In some spots their flashlight beams were so diminished by the haze that the light hardly crossed a living room. Sometimes they found a piece of furniture only half-burnt, buried in its own ash, but most possessions more fragile than a lead tub were incinerated.

Catwoman remembered that nine people had died here. For every barren white-ashed room they passed, she wondered whether a body had been removed. All the more reason to find those murderous wastes of oxygen and tear their lungs out.

Batman led her through rooms and down staircases as he inspected bits of debris. Occasionally, he scraped a chip out of the wall and dropped it in a vial of liquid from his satchel, then watched it changed color.

After minutes of scientific silence, she asked, “Find anything?”

He looked at her. “How much fire chemistry have you studied?”

“I dabble.”

He stared at her another moment then returned to his search. “Almost all fires start somewhere.”

“That’s helpful, thanks.”

Batman said nothing.

Catwoman prodded, “Are you implying some don’t?”

“A few start in several places.”

“Which means arson, right? Two fires wouldn’t start at once by accident.”

“Accidental fires can start separately. For example, certain electrical shorts or broken steam fittings can ignite at multiple points almost instantly.”

“Fine. Are you saying this fire started in several places?”

“I’m saying, almost all fires start somewhere.”

Catwoman took a deep breath as she glared at the back of his head.

Batman lectured, “The fire department is certain the blaze began on the third floor based on eyewitness accounts and the general spread pattern of the damage. So far, I haven’t found any reason to disagree.”

“Aren’t we wandering around the seventh floor right now?”

“It’s crucial that we make an independent confirmation. We can’t let their findings bias us. And our best hope is that they missed something.”

“Why?”

“They reported that the fire seemed to come from a certain apartment, but it didn’t seem to start there.”

“Come again?”

“Ideally, an investigation finds the exact cause of an ignition: spent matches, fuel residue, faulty wiring.”

“Okay.”

“But even if that source is missing, the area immediately around the ignition should exhibit special burn patterns. This could be from longer exposure to low heat, gas pressure changes, certain flash point events.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you love lists? Because you love lists.”

“As a fire grows, the burn and smoke patterns change. Investigators can often track this growth and follow it backwards to the origin.”

“And they didn’t find the origin.”

“That’s right. There’s abundant evidence that a mature fire left this apartment but no evidence of a small fire igniting inside. It’s as if a strong flame, maybe six feet tall, appeared instantaneously.”

“And the fire department doesn’t have any clue how? What did the tenants say?”

“The tenants are out of town. As far as anyone knows, the apartment was empty. And the investigators essentially admitted defeat. They said their techniques are insufficient and this fire is a mystery.”

“They can do that?”

“Arson is very difficult to investigate.”

“Yeah, you’ve mentioned. Do you have any ideas?”

Batman seemed reluctant to answer. “I’d like to see the room first, but no. I know a few industrial methods to start a fire somewhat like the report describes, but even then I’d expect more collateral damage. There’s simply nothing in a typical home, or used by a typical arsonist, that could make a large steady flame out of nothing.”

---​

Outside, two Gotham City police officers were almost finished trudging a lap around the property. The first had a mustache. The second was balding.

“-So, he was eating from this bag of pistachios-”

“How big a bag of pistachios?”

“As big as your mom’s bunions, shut up.”

“You shut up.”

“So he’s eating from this bag, see, and the phone rings. Then …”

“Then what?”

But the first officer, the mustachioed one, had suddenly forgotten his story. He saw an unusual police car parking on the street.

He nudged his balding partner, and pointed. “Who’s this? We expecting somebody?”

“No.”

“Strange, in’it?”

“Wait, wait, wait. I know those colors. That’s a Bludhaven cruiser.”

“No it ain’t.”

“It is. That’s Bludhaven P.D. Did you know about this?”

“It isn’t a Bludhaven cruiser.”

“See the logo?”

“Oh, I see it now. But it looks funny. Check out the logo.”

“Yeah.”

“They got-”

“The anchor’s upside down.”

“The anchor upside down. I was just about to say that. You always interrupt me.”

“And the text is seriffed.”

“Dang, it is. Good spot.”

“And that kerning is way off.”

“Way off.”

“Woo.”

“Embarrassing.”

“You think it’s a hoax? Are these really cops?”

“Nothing like that. Bludhaven's a bunch of clowns. Probably gave the paintshop a bad template.”

“Who fouls up their own kerning?”

“It’s a sign of fundamental laziness.”

“A gob of spit in the face of typography is what it is.”

“Bludhaven.”

“Pff. Bludhaven.”

“Oh! And here they come.”

“This ought to be good.”

“Pot of coffee says they need directions.”

“Deal.”

The Gotham officers watched as two Bludhaven policemen exited the vehicle. The driver, who was so fat they were professionally embarrassed, saw them and waved. They waved back sarcastically. The other Bludhaven cop, who could do a sit-up, helped a young woman out of the backseat. She wore a tuxedo jacket and held her tophat tight against the wind. The visiting cops led her toward the entrance.

The balding Gotham officer called out, “Can we help you?”

The fat guest saluted. “Evening, gentlemen. Good night for police work, huh?”

The Gotham officers looked at each other. The balding officer repeated, “Uh-huh. Can we help you?”

The skinny Bludhaven cop said, “Hello, I’m Officer Kravitz, Bludhaven Police. This is my partner, Officer Arbuckle.”

Officer Arbuckle slapped his partner on the back. “Yup.”

Officer Kravitz kept a straight face through obvious pain.

The young woman asked, “Are these the detectives?” but Kravitz shushed her.

“We just need to get inside,” he said to the Gotham cops.

The mustachioed cop said, “I don’t think so.”

Kravitz waved this away. “Uh, we’re cops though. We’ll just be in and out.”

The balding cop said, “Uh, no you won’t.

Arbuckle pointed at the building. “No, but we have a case in there though.”

The balding cop smacked his forehead like he remembered something important. “Right, so obviously your lead detective filed a request for jurisdictional privileges with our captain who told our sergeant who briefed us today to expect you.”

The mustachioed cop shook his head at his partner. “Wait, that didn’t happen.”

“Didn’t it?”

“It didn’t.”

The balding cop shrugged. “Never mind then.”

The young woman, now shivering and agitated, elbowed past her Bludhaven escorts. “Hey! Sorry, excuse me, I don’t know what’s going on here. Are you the ones who searched Giovanni Zatara’s apartment?”

The Gotham officers looked at each other. The balding one crossed his arms. “Lady, I have no idea who that is.”

But his mustachioed partner stepped closer and peered at her. “Hold on. I know that name.”

Arbuckle tried to step ahead of her again, but both Gotham cops straight-armed him back. The mustachioed one tapped his chin and pointed at the woman’s face. “You. I do know you. You’re that, uh, Zatina.”

“Zatanna.”

“Right. Zatanna Zatanna, magic lady.” The mustachioed cop snapped his fingers. “You did a show in Tulsa last month.”

“That’s right.” She smiled despite herself. “Did you see it?”

“Did I ever.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “How’d you make that old lady float? Mirrors?”

“LIsten, sir, I’d love to chat. Any other time. But I need some help.” She looked between the four cops. “Obviously, some paperwork got lost somewhere. Would someone please tell me where the detectives who-”

She was interrupted by a great hum like a hundred violins harmonizing. Before any of them could act, green lights shone forth from the eyes of the Gotham City cops. They clutched their faces, mouths contorted, but the green passed ever brighter between their fingers. The hum rose. The lights danced like lanterns in their skulls. There was a blinding flash.

There was silence in front of the Lisbon Building. The Gotham cops had vanished: not a hint of them remained. Zatanna screamed.

---​

Batman and Catwoman had just arrived on the fifth floor when they heard an echo of a distant scream. In a blink, they were crouched against the wall, flashlights off. Catwoman had her whip in hand, Batman a batarang.

Even inches away, the pair could hardly see each other in the dark. Still, faint gestures spoke a quiet language of the night.

Batman’s nostrils flared.

Female. Ground level. Front doors.

Catwoman’s eyes narrowed in satisfaction.

I knew I heard voices.

Batman turned his chin, then he frowned.

Coincidence?

Catwoman sniffed.

Please. This neighborhood isn’t that bad.

She nodded at the floor.

What are we waiting for?

Batman laid down his satchel. They crept toward the front of the building and found a window.

---​

Officer Arbuckle held Zatanna by the arms while Officer Kravitz covered her mouth.

Kravitz flinched and switched hands. “Ow! She bit me! Cut that out.”

Zatanna glared at him and muttered a string of grunts while she tried to swing her fists.

As they struggled, a voice bellowed from the entrance hall. “Are you hydrocephalic addlepates done yet?”

The three stopped. A fuming man limped out of the shadows. He had a long, lean face and sunken cheeks. He wore a silk indigo suit with lavish gold accessories and a blue keffiyeh headdress like an Arab traveller. His gold tie-pin and the agal cord holding his keffiyeh were decorated with crescent moons. He breathed heavily, like he had sprinted too many stairs.

Zatanna could feel her captors tremble as he approached. She muscled out of their grasp and marched toward the newcomer. “I don’t-”

The stranger flicked a hand at her. The band on her tophat slipped off like a leaf caught in the wind. The bright fabric looped through the air then covered Zatanna’s mouth, gagging her. The ends neatly knotted behind her head. The stranger rubbed his eyes as the Bludhaven officers caught her again. Kravitz handcuffed her, though he needed a few tries.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle stuttered, “Lord Faust. Thank you for the help. We were-”

“Useless,” said Faust. “You were useless. Not surprising, but paradoxically still disappointing. Shame on me for believing you could handle a few lubberwort constables on your own. Now bring the slattern if you remember how your hands work and let’s be on with it.”

Faust led them into the building. Arbuckle pulled Zatanna by the elbow while Kravitz lit the way with a flashlight.

Kravitz said, “Lord Faust, forgive my, uh, impertinent curiosity.”

“What, churl?”

“Where did you send those policemen?”

“The ocean.”

“In the ocean?”

“In, under, between, whichever. One of the oceans. Why?”

“No reason, Lord. I only seek to learn from your genius.”

“Likelier you than the corpulent one.”

---​

Batman and Catwoman waited until they heard the four figures enter the stairwell of the entrance hall. They had tied a rope at the fifth floor window and now quietly descended, ignoring the pedestrians watching from the sidewalk. When they reached the ground, they slipped inside the entrance hall and pursued the climbing footsteps.

Catwoman brushed Batman’s arm.

Recognize any of them?

Batman shook his head.

No.

She pulled at her sleeve.

Did you see that cloth fly around her mouth? How’d they do that? They didn’t touch her.

He shook his head.

I don’t know.

Then Batman lowered his shoulders.

That wasn’t a Bludhaven police car.

Catwoman frowned.

I noticed. The anchor’s wrong. And the text is seriffed.

He nodded, then tensed his neck.

Go slow. If we spook them, they might hurt themselves with the building like this.

She nodded back.

Only one exit. They have to go through us.

---​

Zatanna, Officers Kravitz and Arbuckle, and Faust ascended several flights of stairs. Climbing a burned husk of a building in the dark was miserable for everyone, except perhaps Faust who seemed equally grumpy in all situations, but it was a nightmare for Zatanna.

She certainly hadn’t come to terms with two Gotham City police officers vanishing in a green flash in front of her. Traumatic, impossible-seeming experiences often cause victims to feel alienated from their surroundings. This form of shock, this unreality added a dreamlike quality to her other problems, but it didn’t make them any more pleasant.

For instance, she had never been gagged before. Deafened? Yes. Handcuffed? Yes. Blindfolded? Hundreds of times. But never gagged. She didn’t understand where the gag had come from, but that barely registered. Even accounting for her fear and horror at more serious threats, being gagged was humiliating.

This wasn’t to discount her fear and horror. She had been arrested before, but she had never been kidnapped. Zatanna was terrified. Her skin was clammy and her heart was beating a tattoo in her chest. She was worried she would faint. She couldn’t imagine a more intimidating place to bring her than a burned-up old building in the dark. Officer Arbuckle had to half-carry her whenever she slipped a step. In fairness, the steps were missing, it was dark, and her shoes weren’t made to tread piles of ash.

When they reached the landing of the fourth floor, Faust suddenly stopped and Officer Arbuckle bumped into him and slipped. He pulled Zatanna’s arm as he stumbled, and she hit the railing. Stuck in handcuffs, Zatanna was helpless as the wood snapped like matchsticks under her and she began to fall. Suddenly, Officer Kravitz caught her around the waist and hauled her back onto the stairs. They all rested a moment from the excitement, all except Faust who hadn’t exerted himself and snapped at them to keep moving.

Zatanna eventually stood again. The others thought she was shaking from her brush with death. That was true, but also felt like she had seen a ghost. When Kravitz grabbed her, the beam of his flashlight swept the stairwell. For just an instant, Zatanna had glimpsed a haunting face in the shadows far below, its white eyes gleaming at her.

For a logical mind, it was unclear how the addition of a stranger could make her situation worse, but Zatanna’s heartbeat reached to a new stage of panic. She desperately tried to warn her kidnappers, but without a voice to speak or hands to point, she couldn’t get their attention. The dark crumbling building seemed such a secondary concern as she slowly walked the fourth floor hallway while waiting for an ambush.

The men brought her to an apartment that seemed as ruined as all the rest. The pushed through the fragments of the door and through what may have been a living room into the remains of a bedroom. Moonlight gave a blue outline of the room, but it wasn’t until the flashlight beam reached the alcove of a former closet that Zatanna saw why they had come.

There was a door in the back of the alcove. It was entirely intact, not chipped or burned or caked in soot. The teak wood was a rich brown carved with an ivy design, and the brass knob was polished to a shine.

Faust pointed at the officers. “Deal with her. I will see it secure.” He closed his eyes and began to hum. Zatanna didn’t know what to make of this command, but Arbuckle and Kravitz quickly pulled her to the door and lifted her cuffed hands to the knob.

“Open it,” said Kravitz.

Zatanna looked between them and hesitated. Kravitz unholstered his revolver and pressed it against her cheek. “Open it!”

Zatanna, painfully aware of the cold metal on her face, turned the knob. It opened like any other door, but Kravitz and Arbuckle half-hugged in relief and Faust cackled. He shoved her away and looked inside. Beyond the open door was the start of a stone path. They felt a gentle breeze. At first the air seemed even more dusty, but they realized it was actually mist. The path disappeared in mist and shadows only a yard out, impervious to light.

As the men studied the doorway, Zatanna glanced behind her. A room away, she saw a slender figure at the edge of the moonlight. As she watched, the figure leaned into the light. It was a woman in a half-mask. The woman lifted a finger to her lips and gave Zatanna a wink.

Zatanna nodded. She took a deep breath through her nose, sputtering on the dust. Then, with a flourish, the handcuffs fell from her wrists. Zatanna ripped the hatband from her mouth and shouted, “Help!” as she ran from the bedroom. Arbuckle reached and caught her arm. She turned and tossed a flash bomb at him. Incredibly, the fat man ducked, and the bomb struck the frame of the open door.

“Arg!” cried Faust as the blinding light flashed in front of his face. He stumbled through the doorway and disappeared. Kravitz, covering his burning eyes, fired around the room. Two deafening gunshots echoed before the gun was snapped out of his hand by the crack of a whip. Arbuckle threw Zatanna toward the alcove. A moment later, two metal blades landed in his arm and he howled. Zatanna nearly topped Kravitz when she landed. He seized her around the neck with his good hand and stumbled through the doorway. Arbuckle, the least blinded of the kidnappers, sensed a fearsome shape rush into the room toward him. He raced for the doorway as well, diving through as strong hands ripped the hem of his coat.

Batman stopped himself from a full sprint by clutching the doorframe. Catwoman was a step behind and rammed into his back. She stumbled sideways.

“Come on!” she yelled, trying to push past him.

“No.” Batman turned and blocked her. “Look.”

“What?” Catwoman saw a chance to slip around, but she grit her teeth and stepped back from the door.

“This,” he pointed at the mist through the doorway, “isn’t possible.”

When she stopped to look, Catwoman instantly grasped what he meant, and her urge to rush through slightly diminished. Behind this alcove had to be the walls and floors of another apartment. There was no space to fit a misty void. Catwoman stepped around him, and he didn’t try to stop her. She stood near the doorframe and kicked the wall next to it, easily making a hole. She put her flashlight through the hole and peeked around. It looked like another burned apartment. She stuck her arm through and tried to feel the back of the doorway. Where her eyes saw misty void, her hand felt solid plaster.

“Okay.” She stepped back. “That’s not right.”

Batman was adjusting a small tool that looked like a gray pool ball. He pressed a switch on his belt and the ball started beeping rapidly. Batman tossed it through the doorway. It disappeared in the mist and the beeping stopped. He grunted.

Catwoman asked, “What was that?”

He answered, “A radio. It receives a signal from a small transponder on my belt and uses that to calculate its distance from me. The frequency of the beep tells the distance.”

“How far until it stops beeping?”

“Normally, around thirty yards.”

“And you tossed it, say, eight feet?”

“Yes.”

“Hm.”

“Catwoman.” He looked her in the eye and spoke with his soft, serious voice. She had forgotten about that voice. “I’ve found inexplicable things before.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

“Every encounter hurt me. Every one. In ways I didn’t know a person could be hurt. I don’t know what this door is, but I’m confident it’s dangerous.”

“They were abducting that poor girl.”

“I know.”

“You know what happens to abducted girls. They get hurt too. All sorts of ways.”

“I know.”

“Those Bludhaven cops and that other crackpot knew this door was here. They were about to step inside, even before things went wild. I doubt they’d do that if they didn’t think it was safe.”

“That’s one theory.”

“I’m going.”

Batman stared at her. She stared at him. He nodded. “Me too.”

They faced the doorway together, feeling the breeze. She glanced at him for just a moment and said, “Thanks.”

They stepped through.

The mist surrounded them. Three steps inside and they couldn’t see the doorway. Another two steps and the mist receded. They heard a rapid beeping. Batman reached down and found his thrown radio. He switched it off.

He looked up and found they were outside. The stone path ended at marble stairs leading to the porch of an enormous Victorian mansion. The main body of the building was six stories tall, all dark slate, then it rose further by four towers of lofty and varying heights. Dozens of steep gabled windows stood out from the many asymmetrical slopes of the roof. The rooms inside were obscured by curtains, but all were lit. It was impossible to know how far the building extended, or what extra wings or other structures were tucked out of sight.

Catwoman whistled. “Now that’s a house.”

Batman head-shrugged. “Eh.”

Catwoman looked slowly around. The mansion was built at the top of a gently-sloping hill. Besides their stone path, the rest of the hill was a manicured lawn. She saw a garden and hedgerows and a few tall trees. Circling the base of the hill was an iron fence. Beyond the fence was mist.

She looked back and saw Batman was staring at the sky.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Full moon,” he said.

“So?”

“It was a waning gibbous tonight.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I have three ideas.”

“Do tell.”

“Either the moon radically changed its own speed and direction, which has never happened and refutes physics.”

“Or?”

“That isn’t our moon because we’re no longer on Earth.”

“Or?”

“We’ve time traveled.”

“I like the first option.”

“A shift in the lunar orbit would cause planetwide tidal waves.”

“Then I like the third option.”

“If it’s any comfort, I ruled out two ideas that were more troubling.”

“Which were?”

“The moon moved because a giant gravitational body crossed the solar system.”

“Or?”

“The Earth radically changed its own speed and direction, which has never happened and refutes physics.”

“Why’d you rule them out?”

“We’re alive.”

“Thank you, that is comforting.”

He nodded.

“Welp.” She pointed toward the marble stairs. “Shall we?”

As they climbed toward the mansion, Catwoman made a thoughtful expression. “That girl used a flash bomb, didn’t she?”

“Yes.” Batman didn’t mention that the flash surprised him as much as the kidnappers.

Catwoman purred. “I knew she looked familiar. I think I saw her last night.”

Batman glanced down. “You know her?”

“No. I saw her in passing.”

“Where?”

“I was at a casino in Bludhaven. Doubt you’ve been there.”

“Why were you at a casino?”

“To have fun, make money. Same as everybody. But she was performing last night. I didn’t go to the show, but I did run into her. Had the outfit and everything. I must have seen her face on ten posters, but what was her name? I just can’t remember!”

---​

Meanwhile.

The front hall of the mansion was a cavernous place. A dark red carpet stretched the length of the hall, covering a checkerboard marble floor. The walls were lined with portraits, suits of armor, and man-sized candelabras that rose to full flame when the front door boomed shut. More doors and staircases promised unseen paths in all directions.

Zatanna, Officer Arbuckle, Officer Kravitz, and Faust stood still at the front of the hall. They didn’t bother to gag or cuff her here. There was a gloom to this place that made running off alone unthinkable. Not to mention Officer Arbuckle still had his revolver, and Faust was far more threatening than any gun. He stood there in a seeming trance, muttering quietly and gesturing in random directions. The others were content to watch this and wait.

Soon, Faust fell silent. His gestures became more sudden, until he finally pointed both palms down the length of the hall with straining effort. The candles guttered, then settled at a new dim. With much of the room now in shadow, they all saw the figure appear at the top of the grand staircase, the brightest point remaining in the hall. The figure was an older man in a fine old suit with a white bowtie. His neatly-combed hair was streaked with silver, and his small mustache was impeccable.

The man descended the stairs. The candlelight made him fade and shimmer as he neared. Faust began to sweat, pushing his palms towards the man with all his strength. The man was unconcerned. Mere paces away, he stopped and surveyed the group. Faust lowered his arms, still wary.

The man looked over them once more, then his gaze stopped on Zatanna. With a solemn countenance, he said, “In time, you will know the tragic extent of my failings.”

Zatanna's eyes were wet. Her voice nearly caught in her throat.

“Daddy?”

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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by The Romulan Republic » 2020-06-04 03:31am

The Batman/Catwoman dialogue is a lot of fun.

Batman takes the supernatural in stride at this point, I guess.
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar » 2020-06-04 08:55pm

The Romulan Republic wrote:
2020-06-04 03:31am
The Batman/Catwoman dialogue is a lot of fun.

Batman takes the supernatural in stride at this point, I guess.
Diana did rather throw him, and the Werewolf was totally out of left field.

Is this The House Of Mystery?
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar » 2020-06-04 08:58pm

Oh... fuck.. this ain't good... if it IS the House of Mystery (or its companion the House of Secrets)

"Any uninvited visitors that unwittingly goes inside the house is stricken with psychological attacks. They are cursed, and are forced to relive their worst nightmares. Worst of all, they become slaves of the owner of the House"
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by The Romulan Republic » 2020-06-04 09:27pm

Yeah, that's... not good.

I wonder if Catwoman is going to find out more about Batman's origin story. As well as what Catwoman's greatest fear is.
"I know its easy to be defeatist here because nothing has seemingly reigned Trump in so far. But I will say this: every asshole succeeds until finally, they don't. Again, 18 months before he resigned, Nixon had a sky-high approval rating of 67%. Harvey Weinstein was winning Oscars until one day, he definitely wasn't."-John Oliver

"The greatest enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan."-General Von Clauswitz, describing my opinion of Bernie or Busters and third partiers in a nutshell.

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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Tribble » 2020-06-05 10:43am

LadyTevar wrote:
2020-06-04 08:58pm
Oh... fuck.. this ain't good... if it IS the House of Mystery (or its companion the House of Secrets)

"Any uninvited visitors that unwittingly goes inside the house is stricken with psychological attacks. They are cursed, and are forced to relive their worst nightmares. Worst of all, they become slaves of the owner of the House"
Ya, I guess that could be a problem for Catwoman, though I doubt Batman would even notice the difference. :P
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-07-07 01:33pm

The Romulan Republic wrote:
2020-06-04 03:31am
The Batman/Catwoman dialogue is a lot of fun.

Batman takes the supernatural in stride at this point, I guess.
Pretty much. At least at the level he's seen so far.
LadyTevar wrote:
2020-06-04 08:58pm
Oh... fuck.. this ain't good... if it IS the House of Mystery (or its companion the House of Secrets)

"Any uninvited visitors that unwittingly goes inside the house is stricken with psychological attacks. They are cursed, and are forced to relive their worst nightmares. Worst of all, they become slaves of the owner of the House"
Spoiler, I guess: I'm embarrassed to say I had to look those up. In hindsight they might have been cool, but this is a different house. Thanks for the education, though.
The Romulan Republic wrote:
2020-06-04 09:27pm
Yeah, that's... not good.

I wonder if Catwoman is going to find out more about Batman's origin story. As well as what Catwoman's greatest fear is.
There's at least one canon where her greatest fear is water, due to nearly being drowning by a psychopathic guardian as a child (Get it? Because cats hate water?). I'm not sure I'd use that for this series, but it is humanizing.
Tribble wrote:
2020-06-05 10:43am
Ya, I guess that could be a problem for Catwoman, though I doubt Batman would even notice the difference. :P
Yeah, trying to traumatize Batman is a little like trying to ignite ash or drown seaweed. Maybe not impossible, but it'd be a project.

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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by Stewart M » 2020-07-07 01:41pm

Batman 1939: Three's Company

Chapter 5: Strangers in a Strange Land​



The mansion’s front hall was lit by four hundred and three candles set in eighteen candelabras, twenty-seven sconces, and seven crystal chandeliers. This flickering polyphony drowned the room in dreamlike unreality. Zatanna could hardly believe her eyes, even face-to-face with such a plain and familiar slight as her own father. She took two steps and hopped forward, throwing her arms around him and feeling nothing. Giovanni stepped back, passing through her cheated hands with the immaterial ease of dust in a sunbeam.

“Daddy!” she cried, but even in that moment she knew he wasn’t there. The form of her father watched her with a sad kindness, then Zatanna flew backwards and bounced off the carpet like she had been charged by a moose.

“Weeping milksop,” muttered Faust as he lowered his hand.

It is easy to lose perspective of human frailty if one often follows the exploits of great athletes. For a regular human, flying eight feet through the air and landing with enough momentum to tumble heels-over-head is an extraordinarily painful experience. A seasoned fighter might jump to his feet, but Zatanna had never been in a fight and lay flat on her stomach dry heaving. When the room slowed its spinning, her first thought wasn’t revenge, it was discovering which limbs were still attached.

The form of Giovanni looked at Faust with distaste. “Ill-advised.” The candles burned high and bright around them. “I know you, Felix, Lord of Faust, sunderer of Babylon and the Elemental Court, outcast of the Heralds of Trigon, renegade librarian of the Infinite Catalogue and,” he gazed at Officers Arbuckle and Kravitz hiding behind a suit of armor, “now a common mercenary, it seems.”

Faust didn’t sound bothered. “You know me, spirit. You would do well to bow before the power of Faust, master of all he surveys.”

“Vulgar strength does not crown you master in this hall.”

“Better vulgar strength than pitiable decrepitude, whelp. Your sentries failed outside the portal. You will not stop me here.”

“My … indeed.”

“Interfere, and I shall dismantle this hall until no brick stands upon another.”

“You shall try.”

Despite the gravity of the conversation, Zatanna was only half-listening. She was busy seeing three of everything, and the twelve hundred and nine candles were giving her a headache. She was sitting on the floor, trying to push the dent out of her crushed tophat, and one of her shoes was missing.

However, impaired or not, Zatanna was confident that it wasn’t her imagination when the floor started oscillating. Circles of steep, knee-high waves rose and fell in the checkerboard marble like the surf before a storm, sweeping inward towards Faust to crash under his feet. The wine red carpet bounced and flew aside, popping Faust in the air. Then the marble rose up as a giant hand and snatched him.

The marble fist held Faust eight feet above the floor. It was so large that he was cocooned in its fingers with room to spare. Giovanni watched with mild interest. Then the fist began to shake. Dust puffed from inside and green lights slipped through the crevices. The fist tightened, but its fingers snapped off at the knuckles with a mighty crack. It fell away piece by piece, shattering on the floor. Faust remained levitating in its place, a green nimbus shining around him. His face was stretched into an evil smirk.

“Mooncalf!” he cried as peals of thunder rent the air. “Pillock! Boob!”

Giving up on her shoe, Zatanna scuttled backwards on hands and feet until she found a wall. She curled up and tried to look as small as possible.

---​

Meanwhile.

Outside the front of the mansion, Catwoman was balanced ever so carefully on the little rounded sill of a third floor window. With one hand holding the lintel above, she gently felt around the seams of the window. Or rather, she felt where seams ought to have been. This window, like the two below it, felt seamless. Catwoman had felt many ways to seal a window seam: glue, grease, caulk, rust, paint, even spiderwebs, but those windows still had seams. With this window, she felt no tactile difference as wood became glass. The gap in the frame had to be microscopic. It was incredible.

Without a seam, her tools couldn’t pry the window open. And the glass had to be very thick, because her claws weren’t cutting it either.

A pebble hit her back. Catwoman looked down under her arm. In the light of the full moon, she saw Batman staring at her from the ground below.

She tucked her chin at him. What?

Batman, bless his heart, had been trying to disassemble the front door once she discovered it was barred from the inside and declared it hopeless. Now he was standing well back from the entrance in a wary crouch.

He chinned at her. Down.

Catwoman let go of the lintel and dropped. She kept a hand and foot against the wall, catching the window frame below, then hopped lightly to the lawn. She joined Batman on the stone path. Before she could ask a question, she froze.

Beyond the heavy door, they heard faint peals of thunder.

Catwoman thought for a moment, then elbowed Batman’s arm and flicked a pouch on his utility belt.

You know I usually wouldn’t suggest this, but do you have anything to blow up the door? Or melt it? Anything like that?

In response, Batman opened a pouch on his utility belt and pulled out what appeared to be a short stick of dynamite. He unwound a fuse from the top and raked his forearms together. The short blades along one gauntlet struck the blades on the other, casting a flash of sparks which lit the fuse. Catwoman tried to look unimpressed.

Batman and Catwoman paced back as he prepared to throw the stick. Then they heard a deep labored groan of shifting rock. They looked up. Above the doorway was a stone pediment decorated with a massive raven’s head. The intimidating sculpture stared down at the yard, its beck wider than the door. That stone beak was opening. A stone tongue rolled out. On the tongue was a bronze plaque.

It read, “PLEASE WAIT.”

The raven’s dead eyes rotated to look at them. Catwoman reached over and pinched the flaming end of the fuse.

---​

Inside the mansion’s front hall, Zatanna had no idea what she was seeing.

She had been raised by one one of the greatest magicians in history. She had worked with living legends of set design. She was, in short, an authority on illusions. She knew what sights were possible to see, yet she had no idea what she was seeing. That was horrifying.

Five suits of armor had jumped off their plinths and flown towards Faust with their halberds set to run him through. Purple light flashed, and three of them turned to dust. The two survivors caught Faust in a tussle. They swooped and pivoted around the ceiling like fighting hummingbirds.

Faust passed under a chandelier which fired a blast of crystals at him like grapeshot. He raised an iridescent dome that deflected the blast, but by then a suit of armor ambushed from below. Its halberd whistled through the air, and an arc of red trailed its path. Faust screamed as his left arm fell to earth, cleaved off at the shoulder. The suits of armor turned to pin him from both sides in a final charge, but as their paths crossed, Faust disappeared in a green flash.

He reappeared at the top of the grand staircase, eyes lidded, gasping for air like a failed marathoner. His already lean face seemed feverish and gray. Ink-black strands of thick web were weaving across his shoulder, clotting the wound, but puddles of blood already stained his indigo suit.

The suits of armor found him again and dive-bombed, but Faust growled let out a hyena’s growl and uttered a bitter curse in a long-dead tongue. A red haze surrounded the nearest suit. It spun and drove the spike of its halberd through the breastplate of its partner. The suits of armor fought, tearing each other to pieces on the stairs.

But Faust had no time to rest. There was an enormous oil painting behind him of a fruit basket. The scene was unnervingly lifelike. In the foreground was a bitten peach resting on a tablecloth. As Faust watched the suits of armor fight, a praying mantis crawled over the top of the peach. As it raced down the table toward the painting’s edge, nineteen more mantises followed over the peach. Faust turned just in time to see the leader jump out of the painting. It had the same eerie unblinking eyes and twitchy swaying of an insect, but it was also the size of a horse.

Faust ran backwards, nearly falling over the stairs. The mantis watched a moment, then pounced thirty feet at him. It was incinerated by a gout of green flame mid-leap, leaving only bits of charred cartilage. The other mantises were bounding out of the painting in a skittering mob, rubbing forelegs the size of broadswords. They were met with more gouts of flame. A few fell, but most hopped past, crowding the mezzanine.

There was another flash, and Faust appeared at the front of the stairs near the other intruders. He fell to his knees. The mantises took flight. The sawlike buzzing of their wings filled the hall as they sped near. The silhouettes of the merciless squadron blocked the chandeliers, casting new shadows over the floor. A volley of fireworks knocked several of the sky, but ten of them landed on Faust. The others heard shrieks under the swarm of giant insects. There were more flashes of light, then an agonized scream, “Parley!”

Giovanni, who had watched the whole ordeal with a detached expression, folded his arms. All mantises but one flew off, returning to their painting. Already, the room was repairing itself: the carpet slid back into place, cracks filled in, burn marks disappeared, crystals floated back into their chandelier, and new suits of armor marched out from concealed doorways to take their stations.

Lord Faust was a cracked shell of a man. He lay on the floor, caked in blood from head to foot. Ink-black webbing now covered the right side of his face, and patches of web were busy stitching cuts visible through the many rips in his suit. The remaining mantis knelt and lifted Faust by the neck with its mandibles. It dropped him on his feet. Faust stood, taking shuddering breaths, and watched Giovanni approach with his single eye.

Giovanni stood before him and asked, “You swear to submit to parley, Felix, Lord of Faust? Your offense will cost you dearly.”

Faust coughed. “I swear to,” his breath hitched, “submit to parley.”

“State your offer.”

“Merely this.”

Faust ripped off the tatters of his jacket and shirt with uncanny strength. His pale skin seemed stretched too tightly over his ribs, but his unfed frame was easy to miss, for there was a chain sticking out of his chest. Its last metal link was half-sunk into his flesh without sign of a scar or any other mark. The short chain hung halfway to his navel and ended in a silver locket. Faust held the locket close and whispered to it.

In a moment, the locket began to expand. The chain lengthened to match, and by the time the locket was the size of a baseball, Faust was able to hold it at arm’s length. When it reached the size of a shoebox, he placed it on the ground and stepped back. The mantis clicked its mandibles in suspicion as the locket grew ever taller. Finally, it was the size of a large wardrobe. Faust tapped the side with his only hand, and the door sprung open.

Zatanna gasped. The Officers Kravitz and Arbuckle gaped. Faust sneered.

Inside was Giovanni Zatara, eyes closed and arms folded, leaning against quilted cushions like the inside of a casket.

Zatanna tried to stand, but a small marble hand rose out of the floor and held her shoulder. Another covered her mouth.

The spirit with the form of Giovanni faced his corporeal twin. It seemed slightly annoyed. “A hidden hostage? The code of parley has delicate rules here, Lord Faust. Tread carefully.”

“I will tread how, where, and upon whom I like, spectral goose. Observe the cardial chain.”

Faust gestured to the slender chain sticking out of his chest (he gestured with his right arm, although the black sealant on the stub of his left arm had sprouted the first inches of a bony replacement). Faust’s chest chain was now several yards long, feeding through a loop at the top of the expanded locket and descending to its interior. The chain disappeared between two buttons of Giovanni’s starched white shirt.

“Behold! I present the seneschal of this ancient house, and its rightful regent since the death of the lady. Do I speak falsehoods?”

The form of Giovanni answered, “You speak the truth.”

“Now, you counterfeit of a charlatan, perhaps it would be an inconvenience for me to unmake these walls by force, we may never know, but you are ordained to preserve this dynasty in all aspects, are you not?”

“I am. And you have brought me the heir.”

“Aha!” Faust waved dismissively at Zatanna. “A rheum-eyed hatchling. You have not the wisdom to foster her. No, the charlatan knew his own indispensability. With this chain, I am likewise indispensable. Go and test me.”

The form of Giovanni closed his eyes. A eddy whispered through the hall, and all but the nearest candles were extinguished. In moments, vaporous figures like long-limbed children wearing veils crept out of the dark. Faust watched them stiffly as they approached.

The ghostly figures circled the locket. When they touched its silver walls, it rang like church bells heard from afar. They hissed to each other in the language of wasps. Two crawled inside, caressing Giovanni and sniffing the air. Two others inspected the chain, running their long fingers up and down its length.

When their fingers reached Faust, he looked away trembling. They hissed under their veils as they tapped across his torso, passing through him as needed. After a minute, the full group was inspecting Faust. More candles extinguished until he was the only spot illuminated in the hall. As one, the figures grabbed the chain. A stronger wind circled the hall as the hissing grew. The chain turned a dull red where their translucent hands gripped as if the metal was molten hot. Faust bit back a howl as the metal glowed brighter. The locket shock, threatening to topple.

Then it was over. The wind died. The veiled beings fled, disappearing into the shadows. The only noise was Faust’s agonized panting. Wall-by-wall, candles gradually re-lit. Faust slammed shut the door of the locket. It began to shrink, halving in size every second under it swung under his chest again. He snapped his fingers, and his indigo shirt and jacket flew back to him, buttoning themselves as he stood. Finally, he faced the form of Giovanni with a smug look.

“We cannot be separated. Your charlatan master’s paltry life persists at my whim.”

“So it would seem.”

“Here is my offer of parley.” He looked at Kravitz and Arbuckle. “These mewling children wish to see this house undone. We will proceed to the keystone, and you will not obstruct us. Once I upstage the fall of Jericho, I vow to release your master then he and his daughter may leave in peace. I trust you value life over property, so this should be an adequate trade.”

The form of Giovanni began to slowly pace with his hands clasped behind his back. “I do not command every power in this place. Some may yet challenge you.”

“This is no obstacle. My vow stands.”

“Very well. One last condition. Do not go with the girl. She stays here.”

“She is critical.”

“She was critical for the portal. You can reach the keystone without her. Were she to venture with you, I would fear for her safety. That is unacceptable.”

“How can I be sure you and she will not conspire? She is willful, and perhaps your oaths to an heir may challenge even a vow of parley.”

“Leave one of your pawns to watch her then. Or leave both. Provided she remains unhurt, they may detain and censor her as they wish. I will not obstruct with any force under my control.”

“Hmm. Agreed.”

“So mote it be.”

“So mote it be.”

The last mantis flew off to its painting. The form of Giovanni disappeared.

Now Faust’s left arm was nearly as long as his right and looked like a black stick with two twigs at the end like stunted fingers. He pointed this stick at Officers Kravitz and Arbuckle. “Indigents! Here.”

The two men stepped out of hiding behind a suit of armor and hurried over. “Yes, Lord Faust?” they said in unison.

“Heed this. I am off to conclude our agreement. Watch the sow until I return. And do not let her talk.”

Officer Kravitz said, “Lord, please let me join you. I’d be wasted here.”

Faust slapped Kravitz with his stick arm. “Questions?”

“No, Lord Faust.” they said in unison.

“Strive to disappoint me less.” With that, Lord Faust turned on his heel and left the front hall down one of its branching corridors.

The officers walked over to Zatanna. She was standing now, having been released from the floor, and she was shaking and holding herself like she was worried something would fall off. They knew shell shock when they saw it.

Officer Arbuckle approached slowly, like one might a skittish colt. “Okay, miss. No trouble. Easy now. Nice and quiet.”

He tried to reach for her arm, but she rushed sideways to stay out of reach. “No! Get away.”

Officer Arbuckle sighed and drew his revolver at her. “Quiet.”

She dived to the floor and covered her head with a shriek. He sighed louder.

Officer Kravitz rushed to push the gun barrel down. “Woah, buddy, didn’t you just hear them? No shooting her.”

Officer Arbuckle rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t shooting, I was threatening to shoot.”

“None of that either. We don’t know if that counts.”

“Well, I sure can’t threaten to shoot now that she knows I won’t shoot. Thanks a lot.”

“No shooting and no threatening to shoot.”

“Then what’s the point of having a gun?”

Zatanna watched this banter back and forth then interrupted. “Can I get my shoe, at least?”

Officer Kravitz rubbed his eyes. “Sorry. Get up. Go get your shoe. Let’s make this simple, Zatanna: don’t talk, don’t say things, don’t flap your lips, don’t hum, don’t whistle, don’t sing the national anthem. In return, we won’t do you any harm. Let’s try to get along and we’ll all be out of here lickety-split.”

Zatanna nodded as Arbuckle put away his revolver. She found her shoe. They stood awkwardly for a minute.

Arbuckle wiped his forehead and squatted down. “I was worried there a bit.”

Kravitz shrugged. “This is Faust we're talking about. He had it under control.”

“I’m not going to lie. I was pretty scared.”

“That was some high-octane business, no doubt about it.”

Arbuckle rubbed his fat hands together. “Were you scared?”

Kravitz shrugged. “Maybe just a little.”

“Oh, because I was very scared. I’m not too proud to admit that. As a matter of fact, I wet myself.”

Kravitz sighed. “Me too, buddy.”

“And not briefly either. See, I thought I was done, then those bugs came out, and it turns out I still had some left in the tank.”

“Just means you’re hydrated. Wear it proud.”

Zatanna looked between them with mute disgust.

---​

Meanwhile.

Batman and Catwoman were sitting on patio chairs under the all-seeing eyes of a giant stone raven’s head. The cider beside them was untouched.

When the message to “PLEASE WAIT.” was first delivered via tongue, the intrepid pair engaged the ornamental bird in a staring contest, wary for more surprises. But even the Dark Knight couldn’t defeat a block of stone in a staring contest, and eventually he and Catwoman quietly discussed how to proceed. They immediately agreed that it was unwise to force their way through the door now that a mystic door guardian was watching their every move. They decided to retreat and seek another entrance.

Batman and Catwoman began to pace backward. They made it three paces when they heard a pair of patio chairs fall out of the sky behind them. It was followed a moment later by a small table, a pitcher of apple cider, and two tall glasses.

They turned around and contemplated the new furniture. There was no aircraft or other platform overhead from which the goods might have been dropped, nor were they fixed to a parachute. Even if the chairs had been thrown by someone hiding on the roof, they would have snapped on impact. Batman considered these details until Catwoman tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at the raven. He looked back.

The raven’s tongue was rolling into its beak again, but only for a moment. It soon rolled out with a new message, “JUST A FEW MINUTES.”

The stone eyes still followed them wherever they moved. Batman took several steps sideways to confirm this. Catwoman made the observation that if the bird could drop patio furniture beside them out of nowhere, it could probably drop an anvil. She sat down. Batman glared at the raven again, but then he joined her.

Several minutes of one-sided conversation later, the stone tongue rolled away again. The eyes pivoted up to their original lifeless direction. They heard the door click.

When they rose, Batman questioned the wisdom of entering the residence of known hostiles at the time and entrance dictated by the residence. Catwoman responded: anvil.

---​

Inside the hall, Officer Kravitz, Officer Arbuckle, and Zatanna were sitting on the steps of the grand staircase.

Officer Kravitz pointed to Officer Arbuckle’s arm. “Don’t you want to take those knives out?”

Arbuckle inspected the two batarangs sunk into his forearm and shook his head. “They got these little barbs on the end.”

“What, like fishhooks?”

“Yeah, but tiny.”

“Pull ‘em out.”

“I tried to pull’em out, but it hurts.”

“You big baby. You want me to yank’em out?”

“No.” Arbuckle hid his arm away. “No, no I don’t.”

“Pff.”

As they argued, Zatanna thought she saw the bar across the front door slide away; it was difficult to be sure in the hazy candlelight. But it was easy to be sure when she saw the door open and two shapes slip inside. Obviously, Zatanna wasn’t allowed to speak, so she was unable to report her sightings.

Kravitz was busy trying to reach across Arbuckle’s body to pull the batarangs out of his arm. Arbuckle was trying to shove him away. There was a whistle and two batarangs landed in Arbuckle’s other arm. At the same moment, a whip snapped across Kravitz’s nose, opening a red cut. Both men howled and stumbled off the stairs.

Out of the shadows dashed Batman and Catwoman. Catwoman reached Kravitz first. As he covered his watering eyes, she clawed down his arms and clocked him in the chin. Batman threw a haymaker at Arbuckle but missed as the big man disappeared in a puff of smoke. Meanwhile, Catwoman was planting boots in Kravitz’s ribs. The young lady in the top hat tried to join her but missed and hit his face.

“Who are you two?” she asked.

“Friends,” said Catwoman.

Then they heard a hasty clatter of footsteps in the rear of the hall. Through the dim, they saw a fat silhouette throw open a pair of doors and slip away.

Batman turned back to check their rescuee’s welfare, but she was already running after the big man. “Get him!” she yelled.

Batman and Catwoman shared a look and followed.

The trio sped through the doors and found themselves in a dining room. There were two long tables with fourteen seats each. Three fireplaces lit the room with a cheerful golden glow. Officer Arbuckle waited at the end of the room like a cornered animal. He struggled to grab his revolver and yelled, “You broke parley! I’ll shoot!”

As his hand found his holster, Batman, Catwoman, and Zatanna all independently grabbed flash bombs and tossed them across the room. “Gack,” Arbuckle sputtered as he stumbled into the end of the table. There was a gunshot and a liquor cabinet shattered.

Watch her.” ordered Batman as he raced ahead. Catwoman’s ears were ringing and couldn’t hear him, but she decided someone needed to watch the girl.

Zatanna, flinching, seemed to have lost her appetite for vengeance. Catwoman guided her behind a column.

“Did they hurt you, dear?” Catwoman asked as she swiftly inspected Zatanna.

“What?” asked Zatanna, rubbing her ears.

“I said-” They heard another gunshot and the loud scraping of wood. “Are you okay?”

“No, I’m peachy.” yelled Zatanna. Catwoman decided that the girl wasn’t injured, though her skin was flushed, her eyes were frantic, and her clothes looked like she had been charged by a moose.

As a matter of fact, Zatanna was considerably more stressed than she looked. If she wasn’t so exhausted and desensitized to weirdness, then being poked and pinched by a masked stranger in a violent bodysuit during a gunfight would give her a conniption. Instead, Zatanna pointed her thumb behind her and asked, “Does he need help?”

Catwoman rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry.” They heard more scraping wood and some grunts. “Although he is taking his time.”

They peered around the column and found that Batman was surrounded by a dozen of what used to be chairs. These former chairs had stretched and bent into humanlike shapes, hunched wooden mannequins with no heads and clubs for arms. The tables had formed a barricade around Officer Arbuckle, whose gesticulating hands were haloed in yellow sparks.

Zatanna frowned. “I always thought Moby-Dick was dumb, but I owe Meville an apology.”

“Why?” asked Catwoman.

“Because I would do anything to kill that whale.”

The mannequins lacked teamwork, but by their weight in numbers they forced Batman back, attacking him relentlessly with their clubs. Batman blocked two blows and ducked another, but then he caught a fourth hit on his shoulder and had to retreat further towards a wall.

Zatanna winced. “Is he going to be okay?”

Catwoman snorted. “If you hit him with a truck, you’d just dent the truck.”

Just then, as Batman was grappling with two mannequins, another tottered behind him and clubbed Batman on the back of the neck. Batman’s knees went soft and he toppled sideways.

Catwoman was already slipping past the column before he hit the floor. “Stay here!”

Zatanna watched, biting her hand.

The back row of mannequins didn’t notice Catwoman approaching. She floored one with a flying kick, but then four others turned and attacked. She tried to jump over the line but two of them slapped her out of the air and she tumbled to the floor.

As she scrambled to stand, she saw through the mass of wooden legs that they had Batman surrounded. He was on a knee. One of the things stood over his head. It raised its club arm and swung down.

---​

Okinawa Island, Japan. Six years ago.

Bruce Wayne, shirtless and shoeless, maintained a wide crouch - horse stance - in front of a tree. Yoru-sensi, a stout old man in a white gi uniform, stood beside Bruce with a stick.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s head with the stick and shouted, “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree.

The martial arts masters in these hills were some of the fiercest in the world. Most of them only taught their own clan or village. All of them distrusted Americans.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s knuckles with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree.

Bruce had visited several masters and discovered that Yoru-sensi hated Americans the most. Bruce had convinced Yoru-sensi that if he took Bruce on as a student, he could hit an American every day. This had seemed like a good idea at the time.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s ribs with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree.

Bruce didn’t oppose Yoru-sensei’s training in theory. He knew Wolff’s Law: bone tissue adapted to stress by growing stronger over time. That was science.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s thighs with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree.

However, Bruce was beginning to doubt whether the venerable master was letting him recover long enough for the law to take effect.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s ear with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree.

The “over time” clause of Wolff’s Law wasn’t optional. Otherwise, bone stress was called injury.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s spine with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree.

Bruce’s knuckles were a mass of puffy blisters. Some were fractured, but he didn’t know which.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s shins with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree.

Bruce had practically grown up in a boxing gym. His hands were objectively strong. If he stopped now, that would demonstrate that the exercise was at fault, not a lack of student commitment. Sensi would listen to reason.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s head with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree. Blood dripped down the dent in the wood.

Bruce had no sensation in his hands, and he wished the rest of him was that numb: he had maintained horse stance for an hour. Muscles burned from his neck to his ankles.

Yoru-sensi struck Bruce’s hip with the stick. “Futatabi!

Bruce punched the tree. His fist shot through the trunk in a spray of splinters. The tree fell.

Surprised, Bruce bent over and took a shuddering breath. He would eat today after all.

---​

The present.

The mannequin’s wooden arm swung down, hammering Batman on the top of the cowl so hard that the arm snapped off.

Batman, still on his knee, lunged forward. Like a gator he caught both its legs and rolled over, slapping the clumsy figure to the ground. The knees and hips of the mannequins were stiff, so they all struggled when attacking near the ground, though several tried. Batman’s back and legs were slapped ineffectually as he rolled. Soon he was lying on the floor, clinching the dismembered mannequin above him. It suffered a few hits on his behalf. Then he shifted his grip and snapped its other arm off. Batman shuffled on his back, using the disarmed mannequin as a shield until he reached the wall. He stood, holding the snapped arm.

Now armed and with his back to a wall, Batman began knocking down all comers. Soon the weapon shattered, but the mob’s formation was broken. Dancing along the battle line, one by one the Dark Knight isolated an assailant then chopped off their arm or punched open their chest with a mighty strike. He seized wounded mannequins and threw them at others of their kind or or into a fireplace, quickly discovering that this last option stopped them permanently.

Catwoman performed similar work from the rear, with fewer missteps but less kinetic results. Together they thinned the group until it was more a hunt then a fight. While Batman incinerated the last two mangled foes, Catwoman vaulted the barricade and found Officer Arbuckle unconscious on the floor.

“Huh,” she muttered. “That’s convenient.”

Moments later, Batman joined her. He looked at the senseless cop. “He’s out?

“Yeah.”

You okay?

“I’m fine. Why is your voice like that?

Batman ignored the question and checked the man’s pulse and breathing. “Looks like he fainted from fatigue.

“Did he try to tie his shoes?”

Batman restrained the man. This meant a blindfold and leg bindings to start. His handcuffs wouldn’t fit the man’s large wrists, so he improvised with some rope. Batman was very experienced at securing a prisoner, but he was even more thorough than usual as most prisoners couldn’t teleport. He privately debated administering a sedative, but those were fickle in the best circumstances, and these were perhaps the worst. He refrained.

They heard someone attempt to climb the barricade, their shoes scraping wildly at the face while they struggled to pull themself up. Catwoman dragged Zatanna over the top. Once she made it over, Zatanna looked at Officer Arbuckle and asked, “Can I kick him too?”

I don-

“Sure,” said Catwoman.

Zatanna nodded and gave Officer Arbuckle a good kick. She let out a deep breath. Zatanna felt like she hadn’t had a chance to rest all day. “Thanks. Now who are you folks?” She pointed at Catwoman. “Didn’t you rob the casino last night?”

Batman looked slowly at Cawoman.

Catwoman smiled uncomfortably. “I just have one of those faces.” She held out her hand. “Call me Catwoman.”

Zatanna shook her hand. “Zatanna Zatara.”

Batman’s neck twitched. It was subtle, but Catwoman noticed. “Zatanna, lovely to meet you. This is Batman.”

“Wow. I thought the papers said you were a cannibal."

"He's not."

"Wouldn't make tonight any worse. Put ’er there.” She reached out to shake but Batman just nodded. Zatanna lowered her hand. “Right, um, charmed.”

Batman said, “We’re here to bring you to safety. I’m sure tonight has been disorienting, but we don’t have time for questions. Are you hurt?

“Isn’t that a question?”

Catwoman snickered. Zatanna gestured at herself, “Your gal already took the nickel tour. Clean bill of health.”

Good.” Batman leaned against the barricade and pushed it over. “We need to secure the other officer then find a way out of here.

“I’m afraid that’s impossible.”

Batman, Catwoman and Zatanna turned to the side of the room and saw an older man in a fine old suit standing beside a fireplace.

He continued, “The other gentleman is long gone, and you will never leave this place on your own.”

Catwoman saw Batman’s neck twitch again, harder, but Zatanna flew into a rage. She shook her fists and shouted at the man, “What are you?” Her voice cracked with hysterics. “What happened to my dad?”

The man seemed unmoved by her fury until his head bent with a mild melancholy. He waited until she said all she could then answered, “Mistress, I am and shall ever be your servant.” Three surviving chairs flew to circle the fireplace. “Sit if you wish. You are in no danger here.”

Catwoman nudged Batman and whispered, “Looks like we have time for questions.”

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LadyTevar
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Re: Batman 1939: Three's Company

Post by LadyTevar » 2020-07-08 02:38pm

Doesn't want recognized as "john" so he's changed his voice.
Yeah Bruce, that'll work....
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