Book One: First Person
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“Bad Grammar” is a fan fiction based on, and derivative of these copyrighted and trademarked properties i.e. the work exists in violation of copyright. However the author would like to acknowledge that no commercial profit is being made from the distribution of this work and the author is in no way a serious challenge to the commercial dominion of the copyright holders.
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There was a time that there was no one who knew her body better than I did. No one. I knew every secret her body had to offer. Every subtle shift of breath, every twitch of muscle, every shade of temperature, every tremble of her pulse. I knew how much she weighed. I had an account of every ounce, every centilitre of fluid that entered and left her body. Every rise and fall of her chest was the beating of my heart. My very breath was tied into the jagged rhythm on a glowing monitor.
I sat there with my head bowed down. The droning blip of the heart monitor was like a rosary in my mind, like a prayer in my heart. As long as it kept droning, stopping me from going to sleep, I would live. Because as soon as it stopped I suspected I would too. Depression. No, shock. I'm in shock I thought. That's what this is. I'm in shock. My next thought was very practical. I need sleep. I need food. But my body would not move. And I would not allow anyone else to move her. Mr. Gordon had tried. He'd tried very hard. But he couldn't move me. He himself had a hard time leaving the room. Every time somebody tried to move me, my body fought back - a low rumble like a growl rose from my chest, a burning heat suffused my blood, an itch consumed my teeth like I wanted to tear into something and feel blood filling my mouth dripping down my chin. Something feral clawed at my chest and peeked out at the world. It frightened people. It frightened me. Mother had taught her better. What would mother say if she saw me behaving like this?
Nothing my mind supplied, because she's dead. Grief welled up inside me, poured over my skin; I was drowning in it. And under my skin something was moving - pacing, loping; stalking me in the shadows. If I closed my eyes it came after me, and I didn't want it to come after me. So I sat up eyes open, still as a statue. Timing each breath to the blip-blip of the monitors. And I waited for Barbara to hear me and come back from wherever she had gone.
I've never prayed as hard as I did then, I've never made more promises to a god I didn't quite believe in, I've never been more desperate. My entire world receded into the body in suspension in that hospital room. Being there was the strongest I have ever been. There was no law that stood in my way, no rule that was able to bar me, no good sense that deterred me. I stood my ground and stayed by her side. I had no choice, it was also the weakest I have ever been. Without the promise of her life, I would have crumbled away like so much raw clay in that torrent of grief and anger. Sometimes I wondered if that was why I turned out the way I did. Having faced the worst of all my fears imagined and undreamed all on the same day, I felt later that nothing worse could happen to me, if only she would just live. Whatever strange animal lived under my skin that looked like me was what kept me tied to her. I joined all my senses to hers, I willed her to live, and I dreamed her into existing again. What I could not do for my mother I did for her. So when Mr. Gordon convinced me to go wash up and eat, after three days of sitting by her side in bloodstained clothes, I left willingly. Because I knew she had heard me.
I should have stayed. Or maybe I should have stayed gone for longer. Because then when I regained consciousness after the shock of my first meal in over three days I wouldn't have had to see her holding on to him and crying. She was sobbing into his shoulder. She held on to him like a drowning woman to a life preserver. I didn't understand. Who was Bruce Wayne? He was good friends with Mr. Gordon, but I never knew that he loved Barbara Gordon. I could tell that he did. I couldn't blame him for loving her. But why was she holding on to him? I was the one who had been there for her. I was the one who knew her. I prepared myself to walk into the room but her words stopped me short. She had discovered what I already knew.
"Oh God, Bruce! My legs...I can't feel my legs."
I knew, but I had hoped...Her legs. Barbara the gymnast, Barbara the motorcycle rider, Barbara the runner. I had seen Barbara at work. She took such deep pleasure in the discipline of her body. I imagined myself without my legs. I could not do it. So I told myself that she should hold on to whatever helped her live through this. I walked away and sat down in the hallway.
He saw me as he left. I could see that there was something he wanted to say to me, something he wanted. But he looked almost scared, and with the instinct of two wild animals in each other's territory we stared at each other with barely disguised hostility. I hated him in that moment but was grateful to him. It was his money after all that was taking care of her.
The signs whizzed by in a blur. I didn't even try to play my old game of see how fast you can get dizzy. The entire world was a blur. What I couldn't figure out was why any of this was happening. In the hospital, Mr. Gordon had tried to soothe me.
"She knew the dangers," he had said. She knew the dangers? He was angry and he was heartbroken, but he didn't seem confused. A madman in the custody of his policemen had escaped to shoot his daughter and all he had to say was she knew the dangers? And mother - how was she involved in all this? I knew that she had been getting a lot of feelers from the really creepy characters lately. Every time she did, she would come home in a foul or tense mood; and Nibs had been gone a lot more. I had wondered if she was in some kind of legal trouble, but she just laughed and assured me that it she who was in trouble. She was busier and busier - meetings with lawyers and private investigators. She had even tried to get me to go on holiday without her.
"Don't you want to cut loose from your mama's apron strings?" she had asked me. I simply reminded her that she never wore aprons so there was nothing to cut loose from. She laughed but there had been something behind it. I didn't go on holiday and she started to spend more time with me, but she was always pre-occupied.
So when I did recognise the streets we were passing by on our way down town, I sat up. "Mr. Gordon, I know you're tired but could we please go by mother's office."
He looked at me before returning his attention to the road. "Now?"
"Please Mr. Gordon, I have my backpack there, and mom left her bag. We were going to pick it up after the show and I've got to get mom's bag. There's stuff in there she..." needs, I was going to say. But she wouldn't be needing anything anymore. I pulled back into the seat. "I should get her lawyer's number from the office too. She can't stay in the morgue..."
"Helena," he said. "Helena, stop. Look at me. I'll take care of that. I'll take care of all that. It's okay. Let's just get you some rest."
I absolutely did not want to be treated like a child. "I've had a day and a half of fucking rest goddammit!" I exploded as I slapped the dashboard. "I just need to get my stuff from mom's office. Please."
I suppose he thought that an extra half hour of was worth it as long as I didn't go postal on him so he turned and headed to the East side.
"Thanks." He just nodded.
Inside the office, I was aware of just how normal everything seemed. There were papers on the desk, a post-it with a reminder on the telephone, unopened mail. The screen saver bounced around the glowing monitor. The place seemed like it was simply waiting. I sat down in the chair behind the desk and placed my arms on the rests. I could still feel the pattern of her body imprinted into the leather and foam. I thought of the many times I would come in and find her here, how she would smile at me and either wink at me to let me know she would be out in a minute, or wave me over into the other seat to say that I would be waiting a while. There would be no more of that. Before I got too carried away in the memories, I got up and turned the monitor and CPU off. I grabbed my backpack and started to head back out where Mr. Gordon was waiting for me. On second thought, I went back to the bureau and picked up mom's briefcase, which lay there open. I went to the file cabinet and pulled out all the red files on top. Red was mother's way of indicating current files. And I picked up all the papers on her desk and stuffed them all into the briefcase.
At Mr. Gordon's home, I hovered uncertainly in the living room as he puttered around the house, straightening things up and finding clean sheets for me. Once I knew that Barbara was conscious, I realised I didn't need to keep a vigil. I needed to sleep, but I couldn't bring myself to go home; and the social worker involved in the case had asked about family. I had no family. There was a father somewhere, but I had no idea who he was. Did he know who I was? He couldn't have missed the news that Selina Kyle had been stabbed to death, in public, in the theatre district. Did he even live in the country? James Gordon, stepped in, he said that his daughter was my legal guardian and during her incapacity he would be willing to act in loco parentis - as the Commissioner I guess it was in bad taste to doubt his word but boy was he a fast talker. I guess it was the Irish in him with that little touch of blarney. But if I had been the social worker I would have asked myself if I really wanted to place a kid whose mother had just been stabbed to death with someone who got shot at on a semi-regular basis, and whose legal guardian daughter had just been shot and left for dead.
Jim Gordon came out into the living room and sat down on the sofa to look up at me. He looked tired. His daughter had just been shot and he had a media and law enforcement crisis on his hands with the escape of the Joker, but he found time to take in some kid he barely even knew. He pulled off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose before putting them back on again. It was a gesture that I had seen Barbara do so many times that I was filed with a sudden rush of affection for the man.
"I didn't mean to...in the car..."
"It's okay," he stopped me mid-sentence. "When Barbara died...my wife," he clarified when he saw my wince. "I was pretty out of control there. It's okay, you're entitled." I nodded dumbly at him. "Well, I've got your room all set up. If you need anything you can call me at the office. I'll be there."
Before I could say anything, the bell rang. It was a policeman with a package. The address slip on the front had a familiar logo on it. It was the same law firm that mom used.
"It was delivered by courier at Ms. Gordon's house, sir. I was going off shift so I thought I'd bring it by to you."
Jim Gordon nodded his thanks at the man and took the large padded envelope from him. He put it down on a table near the door. After the man left he looked at a loss. So I picked up my bags and said, "I'm just going to go sleep. Thanks." It was only after I had settled into the room and turned the lights off that I heard him close the door behind him.
I wasn't really going to sleep. But Jim Gordon had looked uncomfortable and I had wanted to do something to re-assure him. Even though I had noticed it before, in the dark I became aware of the fact that I was in Barbara's old room, in her bed. The shelves glinted with old trophies and citations. The shelves were filled with books. I turned the light on and got up to examine the room. Running trophies, gym trophies, math geek awards, citations for academic excellence, law books. The room was a snap shot of Barbara Gordon's life. The thought was overwhelming. So I picked up mom's briefcase and went out into the living room.
I think it was my way of feeling close to her, or maybe it was my way of keeping my mind busy. I spread all the files and papers on the coffee table. Instead of the usual pictures and reference of paintings or sculptures, the red folders were filled with reports of high-art sales in Gotham for the last year tracked by seller and dealer. There were reports of property sales. Accounting reports from certain companies in the city, which I was sure, were illegally obtained because they were all stamped 'confidential'. There were photocopied police incident reports from robberies. A whole file on William Revell and his donations to museums and his sales to private clients. The Revell file was marked in places with a red pen. Mom's handwriting made notes in the margins by certain photos, 'not known to be part of his collection', 'lost Cairo1992.' And finally the last photo of a certain Cat statue that I had almost gotten in trouble over. It was circled in red but there were no notes. Going by the delivery receipts, all the reports were being delivered to a certain address here in downtown. Mother was tracking something in the city, and it had nothing to with art.
I scrambled through her briefcase, there was a sealed envelope with a filled in air bill but not yet sent out. I tore it open. There were two lists. One was a list of names and mug shots of criminals who were no longer in prison. The other was a list of policemen, and next to each was a date. Attached to it was a note from mom. 'Tell him to watch his back. And tell Jim to watch out too.' Jim?
On impulse I found the phone and asked the operator to give me a telephone number for the address on the air bill. 516-7856. I hung up and then dialed the number. It rang five times before the answering machine connected. "Hey, this is Barbara. I'm either in the shower or being held hostage by hordes of dissatisfied adolescents, or saving the known world. Leave a message and I'll call you. But for god's sake dad, leave a message."
Barbara Gordon. I stood there with my jaw hanging open until the insistent beep-beep-beep in my ear got my attention. My mother was passing information to Barbara Gordon, warning her to tell her father to watch his back. I jumped to the large envelope that had been delivered to Jim Gordon and ripped it open. Two envelopes fell out. One addressed to Barbara and another sealed bulky one. The envelope addressed to Barbara was unsealed so I read it first.
"If it does go all to hell give the large envelope to her. Try to make her understand. If it does work out, I'll tell her myself."
Mom and Barbara. Exchanging notes. Like best friends. My mind was running so fast, it stopped. I carried the sealed envelope to the coffee table and lay it down over the papers scattered all over it. I rubbed my palms against my thighs to dry the sweat. Very slowly and carefully, I removed the tape and loosened the clasp. I removed the plastic folder and letter from the inside. The letter was from mom. Written on her custom stationery it still smelled like her as I held it up to my nose.
I'm sorry. I want to tell you this myself. I'd like to imagine that I give this to you after I've told you the truth. But if I haven't, then here is the truth. I love you. I may be wrong to hide all this from you. But I love you. And I never want you to walk down the same path that I have. You are the most brilliant, miraculous thing that ever happened to me. Everything wrong that I have ever done is redeemed by you. I would not change you even one bit. Well, maybe I wish you'd listen to me a little more. But you are the most perfect child I could have wished for.
Remember I told you that if you ever needed him, your father would be there for you? Here is what you need to find him. Don't be angry with him. We would never have been happy for too long. He was too caught up with justice and I was too often on the wrong side of the law...
There was more. But I didn't care. I checked the date on the envelope. It was dated for seven weeks earlier. Almost two months. Whatever she had been doing, she had known it for long enough to change her will and put this package together. I unwound the string from the clasp on the plastic folder. I tipped it and a pile of glossy photos slipped out. I spread the sheets of paper out. In absolute shock I read. The feeling was overwhelming. The feeling that had begun from the second I heard Barbara's voice on the answering machine had grown into a Godzilla sized monster. It met the other fluttering, swooping emotion that beat inside my chest since that wet street corner with a spreading pool of blood; and they fought until there was nothing left inside for me to feel. There in front of me was the evidence of every lie that had ever been told me all my life. My mother, my friend...
"Helena, you would tell me if anything was going on with you right?"
As I turned underneath Catwoman, all the while keeping a solid grip on the bag and keeping it away from her, her hand reached up to press my head to the concrete and keep me subdued. As I violently twisted my head away, her tight grip on the balaclava ripped it away from my face. As the mask fell away from her hand we both froze in surprise.
My friend, my teacher...
"She knew the dangers,"
"Yes you do," I said. "Right now your head hurts. You've had your head run into sheet metal, been head butted twice - you've probably got a concussion. You're barely standing. And your stomach and chest - how hard did I hit you? How're you going to get out of your...uniform?"
I rolled my eyes. "Miss Gordon's sick. She missed two days of class too."
Mother looked up. "Did she?"
"Yeah, she was in an accident or something..."
...Her hair was a baptismal streak of untrammelled passion...
The shot green and black of the silk flickered in the gallery lit hall, making it appear as if she were wearing one dress one second and in the next moment another. And the blazing red of her hair was a flame...
And my father...
Who was Bruce Wayne?
He saw me as he left. I could see that there was something he wanted to say to me, something he wanted. But he looked almost scared...
The thing about finding him was that even though his number wasn't listed, and nobody could get near him, he was perversely enough the easiest man to find. All I had to do was look out of the window on any day and there he would be; all a person needed was access to the roof of NGPD HQ. And the thing about me was I had all the access I needed simply by being who I was.
That's where I found him. On the roof, talking to Jim Gordon. I waited till he was ready to leave and as he reached the peak of his swing I jumped straight at him carrying him onto a lower balcony slamming into the side of the building. Lets just say that he was surprised to see me there - without jump lines, without belts, without years of training. His reflexes were faster than his eyes, and he had me by the throat and slammed up against the wall in a chokehold.
"That's it." I said. "Kill me. Kill me like you killed her."
He dropped me like I was radioactive. "I'm sorry."
We stood there staring at each other. Even standing still, we were still circling each other like wary animals. "Did you know?" I asked him. "Did you know about me?"
"Did you think to ask her?"
"No...she told me no."
"Well," I laughed, "she lied. She was good at that. But you knew that. Didn't you?"
He didn't say a word. But staring at this man - who I noticed had the same eyes as me and whom mother loved more than me - all the feeling in me that had died came back. I struggled not to cry. "She loved you." I weighed those words in my mind and they were too heavy. I put my head in my hands and tried to hold back the tears. "She loved you more than she loved me," I sobbed.
"No! That's not true..." he reached out.
"Don't touch me!" I yelled at him. "She let herself be killed for you," I cried as I ripped my backpack off my shoulders and hurled mom's files at him one by one. "Look at them, Dad!" I spat. "She tried to help you, and got herself killed." I saved her letter to me for last. "Look at it!" I shouted. "She knew. She knew and she wouldn't stop. She knew I would be all alone and still she tried...for you." The tears streamed down my face like there was nothing inside me but salt water; they would not stop. This time when he reached out and touched me I was too tired to respond. His gloved fingers curled around my shoulder and pulled me close. His chest was warm and soft, despite the layers of armour. He hugged me as I stood in the dark with him and cried. I cried so hard I shook. And I shook so hard that sometimes when I think of that moment I wonder if I was the only one shaking. But he stood in the dark with me and shushed me and told me he loved her too.
"I'll find him," he said. "I promise. He can't hide forever. I'll find him, and he'll pay."
I pulled away from him and wiped away the tears and swallowed. "No. I want him dead."
"No," he said.
"We don't kill."
"Then take me with you. I'll kill him."
He measured me with his eyes, trying to find the depth of my pain. He thought he could see. "I know that's how you feel now, but you'll..." But he had no idea.
"If you loved her you'll kill him."
"Helena, that's not how it..."
"She'd do it for you. You know she would. What about Barbara, your friend?"
"Helena..." he tried to argue with me.
"Then I'll kill you." That froze him. "If you bring him back alive; if you let him live, I'll kill you. You're an easy man to find, Bruce Wayne. You can live in a tower or wear a mask. I know where to find you. How will you stop me? Because I promise you, if that man comes back alive, I will find you and I will kill you."
On a night like that there should have been thunder, there should have been rain. But there was only the soft sticky breeze of a summer not yet gone that caught my hair and made the scattered white sheets from all the folders flop around like dead fish. He slowly gathered them into a pile and stuck them in his belt. "We don't kill," he said and disappeared into the night.
I wondered how I could love her. All that time, she had known who I was, she had known what I was and she never let on. I wondered how I could hate her as much as I did. I wanted to kill her. When Barbara awoke I was sitting by her side. She smiled a sad groggy smile at me that I couldn't help respond to. She lifted her hand feebly so I came closer to her bed and knelt down next to it. Fat tears rolled down her cheek. Her fingers searched my face. I wanted to hide my face in her shoulder and cry. Cry with her. Cry for her.
"I'm so sorry, Helena," she whispered.
"I'm sorry too," I said.
"It's not your fault, hon."
"No," I said as I lay the headline open for her. JOKER APPREHENDED. REMANDED TO ARKHAM. "I told him that I would kill him. If he brought that thing back alive, I would kill him."
Her fingers were like a whisper on my hand, she barely had the strength to clasp them. "Oh no, Helena" she croaked.
I pulled my hand away from hers and bowed my head on the mattress and felt my tears pool on the sheet below my cheek. "I'm sorry."
When I woke up I was in a panic. I couldn't move. I was tied down and I couldn't move. But as I wrestled the sheets away from my arms I breathed a little lighter. Just a dream. Then I tried to sit up. Not a dream.
The anger and despair arrived in a white hot flash. The impulse to hurl myself at something till it shattered or begged for mercy, ripped through my body like a bullet. But when the impulse stopped at my lower body, the supernova of feeling collapsed in on itself, leaving a black hole of...something - angersadnessgriefearhatepainfearapathyrage. Whatever the feeling was - in the second that it came to birth and bloom - it died, leaving me exhausted.
I knew that I couldn't return to sleep. With a deep sigh I looked out the window - the night glowed and shimmered in apology for blocking out the stars from the sky. The silvery wash from the thousand lights of the city fell into the room like moonlight. The clock tower apartment was high enough to look over the roofs of the city. How many nights had I looked out over these roofs and sighed with exasperation and disgust? Disgust over the vermin and insects that crawled out of the shadows every night to prey on the weak and helpless. Not to mention the rats and roaches that infested the city. How many nights had I looked out over these roofs with fear and trepidation, wondering if today would be the day I made a bad decision; if today would be the day I lost my nerve. How many nights had I leapt over those crevasses between buildings, cutting through the darkness to bring some measure of order and peace to this swarming chaotic city? How many nights had I grinned with joy as I thumbed my nose at danger and death as I pushed my body to the edge in all those great darknesses? How many nights exactly like this? I had been out there every night. If things were different, I would be out there tonight.
Don't do it, Gordon. Don't go there - it's a world of grief, I told myself as my gaze came to rest on my wheelchair. With another deep sigh I clumsily manoeuvred myself to the edge of the bed. In the daytime, for some reason, I was much better about transferring in and out of the chair. But at night the frustration lurked right underneath my skin, and I flailed about. I was getting better about it, but on this night my body was still trembling from the dream and my imploding feelings. Maybe a change of scenery would do me good, I thought.
I did not turn the lights on as I rolled into the living room. The light pouring through the windows was enough to go by, and my eyes had been getting used to the dark. Somehow it seemed easier for me not to use any light when I was up here. Unless there were people around, I preferred to manoeuvre by the wash from the city light and my computer screen with its bright screensaver. Maybe a game of solitaire, or chess, or even an online round of Scotland Yard would cheer me up, I thought as I moved toward the computer. Or maybe I'll just sit here and read.
By what, the damn moonlight? I came to stop in the middle of the room, halfway to the computer. Intellectually, I understood that I was depressed, that if I let my
chemical state of mind control me at that moment, I would fall into a pattern of apathy and neglect that would be very difficult to break out of. But I could not make my body move. I realised that the situation was quite untenable - if it continued, there would be a good chance that the good doctors would start prescribing all sorts of pretty neurochemicals for me. And the last thing I wanted was even less control of my body - even as I felt that had I little control of it. That makes no sense.
Blankly I contemplated my ceilings. I had lived there for three months but could not picture them. My eidetic memory had ceased to function - at that very moment when a gun had been fired at my doorstep. At that precise second that I felt the thick liquid gushing under my hands. In that eternity when all I heard was maniacal laughter over the still playing TV news, my mind had stopped. After that I could remember nothing new. Oh it wasn't amnesia. I remembered coming to consciousness in the hospital - my entire body in a brace. I remembered the cloying nausea when I realised that I could not feel my feet, or my legs or my thighs. I remembered Helena's tear stained face. I remembered Bruce's face as he came to tell me what happened to the Joker. Oh I remembered all that - just the way that normal people would. But I had stopped looking at things. And because I had stopped looking at things, I couldn't remember them. I couldn't remember the last time I had looked up at my ceiling. I couldn't remember the last time I had looked up when I wasn't lying down. Maybe that was my problem, I thought. I was too scared to take my eye off the ground. Funny, I had never much cared for the ground before. Poor Lucifer, that's how he must have felt when he lost his wings. No wonder he raged against God - to fall that far when he had soared above everything else. His anger and his grief must have been a terrible thing for him to bear. Suddenly I was very afraid. And he was purely of the light. I'm just Babs who hides in the dark.
Just then the phone rang. I was so distracted by my thoughts of doom and gloom that it was an anomaly that I considered only vaguely. I wondered why a telemarketing agency would call my number at that hour. The answering machine clicked on and Alfred's measured tones crackled on the speaker.
"Ms Barbara I understand it's late and I do apologise for the late hour. But it's Ms Helena. I did not wish to worry you but it seems that she has been missing from school for two days now and today she has not returned to the Manor. Mr. Gordon does have men looking out for her but he thought it would be best if you knew."
Frantically, I tried to make my way to the nearest handset as I cursed - I'd have to do something about attaching a handset to my chair - when I was brought up short by a shifting shadow on the sofa. A half turn, to glance, before I kept moving, was enough to confirm my instant suspicion. I reached the phone in the living room and called the manor. There was no mistaking the cultured tones that answered the phone. Besides, who else would be there, stupid? "Alfred," I said wearily, "she's here." The sigh of relief that came down the line masked my weary response. "Will you tell my father to call off his men?"
"At once, Miss."
I looked over at the sofa once more. "And..." I rubbed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, "do you think...if it's not too much, do you think you could bring some groceries down here some time tomorrow. I'm afraid my stores are somewhat lacking."
"Very good Miss Barbara."
Just before I hung up, I caught myself and rescued my manners, "And Alfred...thank you for calling me."
A few moments later, I found myself staring at the large and - if the sprawled body on it was anything to go by - comfortable sofa. There in the silvery light, quite asleep, was the recalcitrant Miss Helena, who had skipped school for two days and had not returned to the manor that night. She had over the last few week displayed a distinct antipathy to reside in her family home. According to her, Selina Kyle had had no home but what she'd made with her daughter, and she was not about to stay in the home of a man she despised above all other things.
Helena lay curled up against the cushions. And where, in the past, she had looked completely serene in her sleep, I saw shadows and tension. Automatically, I reached out to touch her face. The slight touch was enough to jerk the sleeping adolescent awake.
"Barbara!" she husked.
Helena blinked around before arriving at sleepy comprehension. "Shit!" Her voice was raspy with sleep. I merely raised an eyebrow at the exclamation. "What time is it?"
I didn't really need to look to know the answer. "1:28."
"What're you doing up?" asked Helena as she pulled herself upright.
Amazing! I thought, She sneaks into my apartment and she's asking me questions. "What're you doing here?"
"Sleeping," she said merrily. Her look asked, 'Isn't it obvious?' But I wasn't amused. "How come you're up?" she plowed on blithely. "You're usually not up until an hour later. Did something happen?"
I had been ready to lecture the girl about her irresponsible behaviour; ready to read her a riot act of her infractions before chastising her. But the innocent concern for my well being, especially coming from that still sleepy and quicksilver young woman continued to undo the tight coil of control that my dream had already started to unravel.
Suddenly I found myself in the same position of raging helplessness and blessed gratefulness I was in at the age of 13 and adopted into Jim Gordon's household - very young and so completely withdrawn into myself and distrustful of any act of kindness extended specifically to me that uncle Jim's (I hadn't yet started calling him daddy) very off-hand act of walking into my room at night when I had woken, whimpering from a nightmare, sent me reeling into a vortex of tears and grief.
Helena stopped her questioning to peer at my pained expression. The change in the register of her voice was a thing of a marvel. From a light youthful alto, it fell into a chesty rumble - a vision of flexing muscles, a sound of rolling earth, and the electrifying taste of the air before a thunderstorm. "Barbara? Are you hurt?" I shook my head. Helena laid one gentle hand on mine as it rested on the arm of the wheelchair. "Is it the dreams?" No it wasn't the dreams. I shook my head. "Oh. Okay." She withdrew her hand and ducked her head; her face fell in a bewildered frown. "I'm sorry." Her voice was young again.
"Why?" I croaked out.
"Oh God Helena, don't be. How long have you been sleeping here?"
"Uh...I don't really..."
"It's just that I feel better when I'm here. And you get a little antsy when you're sleeping. It makes me feel better to be..."
"How long?" I asked again firmly.
It was one of the few times that I ever saw truly bad posture on the girl - Helena seemed to curl into herself as her shoulders sank and her eyebrows came together in a rictus of worry and resentment. "All the time."
I cleared my voice and repeated, "All the time." All the time.
In the silence that the last thought took up, we sat in the not quite darkness of the clock tower not saying a word. Outside, the blinking red and blue lights of planes passed overhead; the thrum of police helicopters, called out to some distant duty, rose and fell; an ambulance wailed as it tore through the streets. I could see Helena furtively trying to steal glances at me in the silence, hoping that some clue would escape the veil of hair behind which I hid. She was scared. Every time I met her now she was more and more scared. Before she had been an open book, but now there was a gradual closing of her features, a sliding inscrutability that she interposed between us. Her wit and humour had been a palpable thing. Sure there had been a certain melancholia and the occasional sad weariness but this implacable blankness was new. She was scared of me, I realised. No she was scared for me. Finally, I pushed back the hair from my face and looked up. "What time do I usually wake up?"
Helena looked up with her eyes wide, not knowing if she should take the question at face value. I guess she decided she would. "Depends..., she said quietly, "on what time you go to sleep. If you go to sleep at 8, you wake up around midnight. If you go to sleep at 10, you wake up a little after 2, maybe 2:30."
I nodded in confirmation. That was indeed my schedule of broken sleep. "What do you do?"
"Untangle your sheets." Helena moved her head away to look at the computer. "Sometimes I talk to you."
This was all very new and unsettling information. How could she have been in my apartment for weeks and I have not realised it. I swallowed. "Does it help?"
Helena turned back to meet my eyes. "I don't know," she said, as her voice started to give. "Sometimes."
"How come I never see you?"
"I go sit outside."
I turned my chair to stare intently at the wide glass doors leading to the balcony. Slowly I propelled the chair to the doors. They unlatched with a click as I pushed them aside. Once outside, I studied the shadows as they covered the corners, studied the stripes and patterns they made. I stared at the deep black hole of a shadow under the gargoyle and at all the perches and crannies. Helena cautiously trailed behind, watching me study my own balcony with feral intensity, wondering what I was doing. I was seeing the balcony, learning it, now nothing could hide there anymore. Helena walked over to the railing and leaned against it.
"And what about when I come out here?"
Helena's eyes quickly flicked downward. She bit her lip trying to suppress a small smile of embarrassment. "Ledge."
"Ledge," I repeated dumbly as I sucked in a loud breath and wheeled back into the apartment. Behind me, Helena lingered in the doorway. "The ledge. Of course," I sighed. "Where else."
In the ensuing silence, I picked up the sound of fingers nervously scratching a metal frame. She was waiting for me to say something. She wanted something from me. She wanted me to fulfil the half-baked promise I had made to her mother and that Selina in her covetous, presumptuous way had turned into a writ of guardianship. I tried to dissuade her. "I've never lived with anyone before. Except my parents." Oh yes, I made an excellent argument
"I've never lived with anyone except my mom," she came back.
"I don't know how to take care of you. I barely know how to take care of myself."
"That's okay. Eighteen, right? Only 'til I'm eighteen. It's pretty much just a year more of school"
"And that's another thing - you've got to go to school."
"Helena. You've got to go to school."
Once we had extracted our promises from each other she turned to step onto the balcony.
"Where're you going?" I wanted to know.
Helena pointed half-heartedly in a general direction. "Back to the manor. Usually when you're up, I just..."
"Oh, for...Helena!" I shook my head in disbelieving exasperation. "Come inside and go to sleep." Quickly, Helena slid the doors shut and moved to the sofa. "No," I said. "With me. I know the sofa's comfortable but I think you'll feel better in a bed." Helena did not move. I took her hand and started wheeling to the bedroom. "Come on."
She had no choice but to follow. Inside, she watched from the foot of the bed as I climbed into it. She stood there looking like there was something in there that would bite her. Only when I patted the expanse of mattress at my side did she gingerly climb in. I felt the mattress resettle itself as she settled in for the night and turned onto her side to look at me. She looked like such a waif in my oversized bed under the fluffy comforter. Her urchin hair fell in shaggy bangs over her eyes. I had to smile at her. "Go on. Go to sleep," I whispered.
Helena smiled back, and closed her eyes.
"You're crazy, if you think I'm going to fall for this." The only response was a blazing expanse of teeth. "This is a very obvious and transparent ploy."
"C'mon, Barbara. Give an old friend a hand." The figure on the screen pixelated for a moment before solidifying. "It's a couple of hours out of your life. You got some hot party to go to?"
"Dick..." my voice pitched low.
"Damn right he is," came the voice from the sofa.
I ignored my peanut gallery and continued the conversation. "I've already given you all the information you need. You have movements, schedules, shipments...the damn fool was online playing RPGs on his machine; I even hacked his email for you. There's nothing else I can do."
"Just back me up. Keep track of the scanners, talk to me about vehicular movement, let me know what the cops are up to."
I cradled my shaking in head in two hands. "Dick, it's nice of you to try and jostle me out of my mood, but seriously, I'm over it. Frankly, I'm insulted."
"What!" Dick looked genuinely stricken.
"Wouldn't you find it insulting if people thought up projects for you to fill your time?"
"It's not..." his shoulders slumped. "Barbara, I'm not asking for anything that..." Again he seemed at a loss for words. "If I were working with Bruce..." he stopped when he heard the clatter of a remote control against the coffee table and the lounging figure on the sofa stalked off. "Problem?"
"No," I assured him as I turned to watch the sullen girl walk away. "She's just been in a mood for a couple of days. It'll pass." But just in case, I turned the volume down anyway. Actually, she had been in a bad mood for months. The months since Dick and I had rekindled our professional relationship. More than her jealousy of Dick was her jealousy of my work. She was far too intelligent to continue believing that I was writing code for American Express' web site. Not that I hadn't been contracted to do that.
"It's just that, if I had needed anything when Bruce was around, I'd contact Alfred at the 'Cave. But now..." he shrugged to convey his helplessness. "It's not a ploy, Babs. I honestly would appreciate someone looking out for me." I was not convinced. "It'll make me feel less alone."
I considered his request as my eyes flicked across his electronic image. "All right," I nodded.
Dick took a deep breath. It had been a while since we had worked together, really worked together. "Oh man, Barbara! Thank you."
We stared at each other before I ended the conversation. "Well all right then...later."
As that screen went to black, and I switched my attention to another one, I shook my head and wondered if it wasn't I who was crazy.
It really wasn't a big deal, if you considered it. It was nothing I hadn't asked Bruce or Dick for a dozen times. In fact, as much as Bruce liked to work by himself, there were still all those times he'd call Alfred at the cave - for an extra piece of information, for maps to be transmitted to the car, something. That's all Dick was asking for - a friendly eye in the sky. I'd done it myself: supply information to the dynamic duo as they raced to some mission or the other. No big deal. Nothing to get excited about. It was less annoying than a stakeout. At least I could get a snack and a drink whenever I felt like it.
Considering how I'd been spending a lot of my nights those days, the hours in front of the computer wouldn't be any trouble at all. That's where I would have been anyway. Yup. No trouble at all. Nope. 'So what's the problem?' I asked myself.
The question was, of course, rhetorical. The problem was that I couldn't go racing out into the night if I decided that things were going wrong. I couldn't just hand the console over to good ol' Alfred and go in - fists flying, bat-a-rangs blazing. In fact, the problem was that I hated my friend and lover Dick Grayson's guts for reminding me that I couldn't do that anymore. I hated him for reminding me that there was no more Batman; and most of all for reminding her that there was no more Batgirl. It made me want to cry. And I had done enough crying, God damn it!
Oh well. What was that charming phrase that coach had used? Oh yes, 'Suck it up, Gordon. They're not paying me to feel sorry for you.'
No question about it. It was bad enough I had lost track of one of my transmitters, but not to have foreseen...? God damn it!
Oh God! What am I doing?
"Nightwing, do you have a read on all your marks."
"No chance you're using any of the markers I gave you yesterday?
"And you're sure all the vehicles from yesterday were confiscated?"
<"B...Oracle, you're not helping!">
"I'm sorry! But, I thought we'd cov..."
"Okay...okay. I'm sorry. I'm just nervous."
The pressure behind my forehead was strong enough to push the glasses off my nose. "I'm going to one-way. But keep me updated, if there're a problem I'll cut in."
With that, I switched to the other line. All I heard was the sound of air rushing by like water and...chuckling?
I looked to my tracking screen and there, of course, was the source of our conundrum - GPS markers 7 and 13. Their signal coded bright pink, blinking steadily at me from the Navy Yards, not 30 blocks from Police HQ, 25 blocks from my window. In my own damn backyard. Tricky bastards.
I didn't really think much of it. 'They're inspecting the vehicle', I thought.
'It's in the NGPD compound,' I said. 'No problem. They're just moving it to the impound lot by the water.' Except that same van had been sitting at Tricorner yards for over an hour and the only things that were out there were privately docked vessels.
And Dick was up at Port Adams working on a clean up the smuggling he had tracked down. And if an ostensibly confiscated vanful of weapons was sitting on a dockyard somewhere, it stood to reason we had a NGPD cop on the take - surprise! - and evidence that was about to go bye-bye. Unless we could get some real cops in on the action again.
And I had not spent thirty-six hours and twenty seven minutes deconstructing encrypted and concealed data just to have the whole thing come to naught.
So, of course, there was only one thing to do. Send Helena out there.
"You want me to stall them?" The question was so nonchalant - almost a throw away - she might as well have asked me if I wanted a cup of coffee. "I could do it, you know."
The most sophisticated response I could come up with was, "Huh?"
I know, I know. It's not unreasonable to react that way, you would say. Conflict often has that effect on the speech centres. There's your duty as a parental figure and here's your duty to the cause. They're both very important to you, so of course you froze for a moment. Except, of course, that wasn't the reason I froze. I think it was more a case of instinctive, utter and immediate jealousy. I didn't ask why she was paying more attention to my life than to hers. And with her black pants and black pullover, I didn't even ask why she was dressed up like she was about to rob a bank. Nope. I didn't ask her why she thought she could help. Did she think she could do a better job than I did? I didn't snap at her for showing off her adolescent athletic mobility - whether she meant to or not. I didn't say, Fuck! Why didn't I think of that before? I didn't shout out, No, you overly talented, moody, broody, meta, bitch, freak, you can't just horn in on my territory. I thought it, though. Faster than HAL could say, I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that - my mind went through every jealous, envious, base unbecoming thought I could think. And rather than make an absolute, utter, complete and idiotic fool of myself by saying any of those things, I just said, "Huh?"
Helena just stared at me in that implacable, blank way when she thought I was being a dork. I used to get that look from her a lot. I got that look from her when I had that slight Physio avoidance problem. And that not sleeping problem. And the not eating problem. And the not leaving the clock tower for days on end problem. I'd see it when I brought up school and her future. Especially when I reminded her that there was no college in the country that wouldn't have her (no matter her grades - but I never said that) when she had the Wayne name behind her.
"Well, you need to make sure they don't get away with the guns, right? So you need a stall. A little trouble here, that'll cause more trouble across town; slow them down enough for Dick," and there she emphasised his name in a most unflattering way, "to make a clean sweep. That way you can bag both operations. Right?"
A very concise assessment. But...
But just as easily as HAL could say, This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardise it, I found myself saying, "Right."
And then I found myself talking Helena through a mission while I tried to divert police traffic away from Port Adams, on the eastside where Dick was, toward Tricorner Yards in the south, before they started to move the contraband out.
There was no question about it. I was crazy. Bat shit crazy - no, please don't pardon the pun. Crazy as a clown - Oohhh, that hurt! Crazy as a cow in a cornfield, mad as a hatter, a March hare, a jaybird, an elephant on hooch, a chimp on acid. Pick your animal and your poison.
You know what was really loony? She actually followed instructions. Got there faster than a blink, and sat there, as quiet as you please - just waiting to hear from me. It's not like she was incapable of it. She had been training with me - it was the only thing that kept her home and out of trouble. Of course, she thought she was doing me a favour; keeping in me in line to stop me sliding into depression. She had the skills. Certainly more skills than I had when I started out. With her damn genes, she was miles ahead. I never had to teach her to be aware of things in the dark. It was as if the dark didn't exist for her, not as darkness anyway. But if she decided to hide in a dark corner in a room, I swear, you couldn't see her unless she wanted you to see her.
But...I didn't want her to get hurt. I didn't want her to hurt people. And I didn't want her to do this for the wrong reasons.
'I must be crazy.' The thought was a loop that played through my head.
Whatever I did - every systems check, every status check, every re-check, each time I kept an ear out for the police scanners, every burst of static on the shortwave - the thought popped up. Checking my screens. Tracking the red dot on the GPS. Hacking the telephone company to get access to private nets.
Was this how Bruce had felt every time some crazy kid had showed up on the scene insisting that he or she was going to fight crime? Was this how scared and hopeful he had felt?
The scanner squawked and sputtered some static about units converging on Tricorner. It was up to her. All we needed was a little scare, some confusion, foul up a little equipment before they could scramble - five minutes, that's all. I check backed in with Dick. He had it all covered. Seems NGPD had a hot tip on criminal activity at the Port.
Gee! How nice for them.
"We're going to have to work as a team," I had told Helena. Teamwork! That was a gas - Batgirl talking about teamwork. If Dick had been around to hear me, he would have laughed his ass off. But no matter how I felt about it, I was right. We would have to work as a team. I had hard won experience on her side. Helena may have had the talent but she was a bit...reckless. Reckless was all right for a regular kid, but out there on the rooftops...
<"I'm in position." >
"Tell me what you see."
<"Just like you said - five storey building, eight windows across. Water to the right, trucks in front, moving bodies.">
"I want you to stay in position until I give you the go. All you have to do is cause a little confusion. Maybe a small bust up. Take out a few cars. Don't engage any one."
"I mean it. Just stall them till the cops get there."
<"Cool..."> she whispered. But I might have been hallucinating that. Her unit was a little staticy
"Robin!" My voice rose in a spiralling soprano. "If you have a chance I need you to divert to Tricorner." How many bricks short of a load was I if I was asking him to ditch a mission?
His voice communicated the subtext - are you crazy? - perfectly. <"No can do Oracle, I've got my hands full.">
I knew it was an outrageous question, but the stuttering gunfire on Helena's end had me nervous. She had engaged the warm bodies exactly like I'd told her not to do. She said she was surprised by him. While I was perfectly willing to believe in the element of surprise, I found it hard to believe that some one could surprise Helena in the dark. But I really couldn't be too upset. She was exactly the diversion we needed.
I was giving Dick an update on police movements and harbour traffic when the sound of an explosion on my alternate line set my speakers ringing. <"What was that?"> Dick asked through his panting.
"An explosion," I said calmly. An explosion? I screamed in my head. There aren't supposed to be explosions! "Robin, give me second I need a status report on my other line."
"He..." I started and then sopped myself. I hadn't even given her a codename. "Please respond. What is your status? Sound-off please."
Silence. I turned up the gain on the receiver. The blatting of the speakers' diaphragms was a monstrosity but I could make out more sounds now. Boots running. Coughing. Deep, harsh breaths. The sound of a body hitting the floor. Breaking glass. Fists meeting bone and muscle. Screaming - not a girl's. "Damn it, Hel. I need to you to respond."
The raspy voice when it came over the speakers was delirious and filled with an obscene pleasure. <"It's all right. I'm just going hunting.">
Hunting? Whatever. "In that case, Huntress, what just happened?"
<"Small explosion."> Well at least she had a firm grasp in the obvious. No damage there. <"There's a lab in here. Huge lab.">
"A lab? What does it smell like?"
<"I don't know," >she said with the strain of lifting something heavy. The next sound was the sound of a sack hitting concrete. <"Cat piss,"> she sniffed.
"Really acrid? Like rotten eggs? Burns the back of your throat?"
<"Yes."> In the background I heard the staccato of gunfire, some it of it too close to her.
"Get out of there as fast as you can. It's a meth lab."
"Big deal." The sound of a splintering door came through very clearly, even though I had turned the volume on my receiver down. There were men in the room who scrambled. One of them tackled Helena. Her 'oof' was followed by the low purring, growl of her anger, but the rumble was not enough to mask the sound of choking pleas.
"Let him go. Helena, I need you to let him go and get out of there. It's not safe for you." No response. I could hear the choking but no more pleading. I pressed the sides of my temples as if that would keep my head from exploding. "Helena! Get out of there. That stuff will kill you, or it'll explode and it will kill you. Right now!" I heard the sound of a body hit the ground, a small thump and the rushing of air punctuated by the sound of boots hitting the ground.
<"Okay, I'm out."> I saw the moving yellow dot that verified her claim.
"The police are on their way. Stay away from the building and keep watch."
<"What about the vehicles?">
"Thought you fixed those?"
<"Couldn't get to all of them.">
I sighed. She had done better than I thought she would. "It doesn't matter. You've done your job."
<"Right."> I might have been mistaken but I thought I heard her tone lighten with a smile. And I smiled in response, safe in the privacy of my microphone. I checked the other line. Dick was still inspecting the cargo holds. Everything seemed to be under control.
I switched back to Helena's line. I could hear her breathing. Even her breath seemed to be alert - she was taking short shallow breaths that were tense with anticipation. This was the most dangerous part of the mission, when the rush of satisfaction was likely to dull her senses to any other danger. So I did what I had been taught, I talked to her. "Huntress, talk to me. What do you see?"
<"There's smoke coming out of the building. They're really scrambling fast."> I heard her shift restlessly. <"Are you sure you don't want me to go after them?">
I could hear the whine of police sirens over the speakers and I heard the chatter over the scanners. "No. Boys in blue are on their way. You just stay put."
The tempo of her breathing changed. The shuffle of fabric let me know that she was walking. <"Oracle,"> she said as she sniffed at the air. <"Something's burning.">
Considering that she had just run roughshod over a meth lab that was rigged to blow and did, it didn't surprise me. I wondered if she had knocked her head in the explosion. "Explosions, remember. There're plenty of things burning."
<"No,"> she said as the vibrations of her unvoiced growl carried over the airwaves. <"Something's about to blow."> The simultaneity of her last words with the explosions was a thing too perfect to ever have been deliberately choreographed. It cut off my radio contact with her.
The minute blip of the yellow dot on the screen told me that she had been thrown a distance by the explosion. But I heard nothing from her. I could only pray that she was okay.
I felt nothing at that point. Nothing. I knew that if she truly were hurt, there would be time enough for guilt later. The chaos of the scene was communicated to me perfectly by the hysterical chatter over the scanners. The airwaves crackled with the high-pitched voices of fire and police personnel. Outside my window, the world exploded in a cacophony speeding engines and sirens. When the sound of sirens outside the clock tower echoed on my speaker, I leaped for joy - well as much as I could in my chair. "Huntress!"
<"Whoo....oooh!"> she whooped. <"Now that's what I call a FIRE!"> I was ashamed, but that was the exactly the same reaction I had had on my first big explosion that I walked away from.
"Huntress, any people in the building?"
<"I'm sure there are.">
"You're going to have to get them out."
"Because we don't...." but she cut me off with a growl.
<"Don't say it,"> she snapped. After a pause I heard her run and then come to a pause. <"There's something funny going on here.">
"What do you mean?"
<"They're going into the fire.">
<"No, these four guys. They're going into the fire. But it doesn't look like a mission of mercy.">
I put my hands on my face and rubbed hard, hoping that rubbing the skin off my face would rub out some of the confusion. On the one hand I had to keep an eye on Dick on the other line. On the other hand were inexperienced Helena and a burning building. But, alternatively, the police and EMS were on the way. I had to make a call quickly. "Forget it. Come home. There's nothing more you can do."
"No, you're done."
"He...Huntress, You've done enough."
I heard a sound like the beating of wings - beating very fast. <"Oracle, listen. There's a helicopter. They're getting away.">
Fuck! I tossed my glasses onto the desk and contemplated their clatter as they came to rest at the base of the CRT. I considered that I would need new molars if I kept grinding them at the rate I was. I was gripped by a real need to leap out of my chair and go after them. Nothing about the very simple back up job was going well. "Forget it. Just come in. You've done your job."
The silence over the transceiver was filled with the sounds of shifting shoes and the breeze. <"Okay. Coming in.">
I sighed in relief. As much as her help was appreciated, it was one less thing to think about. One less thing that could go wrong. One less thing to feel guilty about. I had heard the acceptance in her voice. But I left the line open just in case she needed anything. Or just in case she decided to hare off on her own. I switched my concentration to Dick's line. Up at Port Arthur, he was trying to gather some evidence that the Marcone shipping lines were actually smuggling guns that were being shipped to a militia group in Pennsylvania. How the mafia and the right wing militia ever got into bed with each other god alone knew but since Batman had disappeared controlling crime had been an inflationary prospect that was spiralling out of control with geometrical urgency. The guns themselves would never have come to the attention of the police except that in three separate shooting across the city patrolmen and undercovers had been shot by exactly the same type of gun. Leaks in the shipments were leaking into the hands of the gangs in the city. If enough guns leaked on to the streets: chaos.
"I have a problem."
I heard the lapping of the water as he swam in the harbour. "I've got a related situation on the west side. Remember the explosions? Most of the support's been diverted that way."
<"So you're saying I'm on my own."> I heard the ripple of water dripping onto a deck.
<"Mostly...what you're saying, or mostly...I'm on my own?"> A hand chopped onto a neck and then the sound of a body softly being laid to rest.
<"No problem. I'm almost through. I've got a nice bunch of photos here. And enough violations to warrant a harbour masters inspection."> He went silent and all I heard was the hiss of electricity over the air. Suddenly, there was a sound like an empty pot being struck and a small aborted clatter of metal on metal, which faded into a dragging hiss. A few panted breaths later he spoke again. <"Which should get us a coast guard inspection, which should get us a police investigation. You were right on. The containers on Valentine James are packed with guns. And explosives. I did a swab on the deck, the place is glowing pink and blue on every reagent test. I think I need to check out Ferruccio. There're a couple of really shady characters on board here.">
"Watch out though. You'll need to get out as cleanly as you can."
<"It's cool Oracle. This is a slack operation. These guys are asleep on the job. I've already taken out two of the watch.">
"Actually, we've cooked the operation on the other side, they'll be on the look out soon enough."
<"I'll be fine, I hear the police arriving.">
I had no units reaching the docks as of yet. From the scanner chatter I knew that all units were supposed to maintain silence on approach. So Dick really shouldn't have heard anything. "What do you mean?"
<"I hear the sirens. And there's a chopper here. Pretty much right over the ship from what I can hear.">
Chopper. "Dick. That's not the police. I need you to get out."
<"But I'm almost at the engine room...">
"No. You need to get out, now. Swim. Don't talk to the cops. Don't step on the docks. The chopper took off from Tricorner where they just lost the operation. Anyone on that boat is now warned and probably armed." Not to mention the fact that any cop on the scene was probably dirty, and not a friend.
<"No problem, Oracle, I've got it under control.">
"Robin. No! These are not the good guys. I need you to cut out now with the evidence you have." In the background I heard a shout followed by the sound of running footsteps and then fists striking flesh. Gunfire. More shouts.
Too late. I massaged my forehead. Very slowly, as if the air were as thick as molasses I saw my hand move to the switch as I toggled to the other line. My voice was preternaturally calm as I spoke. "Huntress...?"
Helena did not like Dick. She hated him because he knew her father. He hated her because she chased away his mentor and best friend. Because it meant that he had to leave Gotham. They should have liked each other. They were both orphans who knew all about loss and revenge. But they couldn't stand each other. They circled each other like snarling hounds. Around me they were practically rabid. Maybe they thought I'd hold them back if their sniping got out of hand. But after years of trying to get them to be civil to each other I knew there was no hope.
"Are you crazy?" he asked as he stormed about the room without his shirt. The bandages glinted white and then grey as he moved in and out of the shaft of lamplight by the bed. He really shouldn't have been moving around that much. Couldn't have been good for his headache. "Are you fucking insane?" he hissed. "Are you out of your mind?" All very good questions and very in tune with what I had asked myself not three hours prior. But also redundant: the answer was clearly, 'yes.'
"I had no choice, Dick," I said to him reasonably. "It was that or lose the game."
"She's not trained for this."
"Be that as it may, she has the skill for it."
"Actually," I continued as I rubbed my forehead, "she's uniquely equipped for it."
"Wait a minute, Babs...?"
"And, really, even though it's not much to speak of, she does have some sort of experience with this sort of thing."
"She is quite formidable. Packs a punch like a load of cordite. And with her meta-human assets, she's well protected. I mean she's taken me without even trying."
"Barbara?" he looked confused.
"And it's not to say she hasn't had any training. She's an excellent gymnast. You know it's not as if you or I were brilliant at it when we first started out either."
"Barbara!" he shouted. And the reason his voice was so loud was because he was right in front of me shaking me by the shoulders.
"You're babbling. Are you okay, you look flushed?"
My hands were sweaty and clammy, my heart rate was up and I was having difficulty breathing. And my hands were shaking. He knelt in front of me. "No, I'm fine, " I protested as I looked steadily at him. What I really wanted to do was bury my head in my hands but I couldn't, he was holding my hands.
"I'm sorry," he said.
I didn't know why he was apologising but I accepted. "It's okay."
"I know," he whispered as he leaned in. "I know. But Babs, who're you trying to convince?"
It was a good question. Like all good questions it had no easy answer, so I simply buried my face in his shoulders. As his arms came around by back I held on to him tightly. It had been a close call. Too close. I had almost lost them both. My lover and my friend. The latter because I didn't know how to do my job and the former because I just didn't know her. I didn't know what it was that scared me more about that night. The fact that I had lost so much control of the situation that I had had to send in an inexperienced 19 year old to help out man who had more field experience than I did, or that the 19 year old had almost killed two people in the process. Dick returned the tight hug and I relaxed into his embrace. However the night had gone I was relieved to have them both back safe and sound. I felt the light kisses on the side of my head travel down my jaw to my neck to find the still too fast pulse. His lips were obscenely hot against me. And the soft words he whispered were a welcome reassurance of his presence. He was safe. Whatever I had done, Helena had undone it, had helped me undo it. And she was sitting quietly in the dark somewhere with her bloodied knuckles and her eyes filled with rage. I needed to talk to her.
I could feel the resistance of frustration, and something else, in his shoulders as I pushed away. "Dick, stop," I whispered. "I need to go talk to her."
Reluctantly he nodded. As I gathered the remains of the bandage wrapper from the edge of the bed, he sat on the bed started to remove his shoes. He looked sad and pouty, like a little boy. Then I remembered he was a little boy. He was younger than I was, at any rate. I couldn't help but smile and put a hand on his cheek. And that made him smile. He was always mischievous when he smiled. The knock on the door startled both of us. Simultaneously we spoke.
"Come in," I said
"Yes!?" he barked.
I looked at him while we waited. There was no answer. More loudly I said, "Come in." This time the handle moved and slowly the light from the hallway spilled around a slender form. "Helena. What is it, hon?"
"Uhh..." she said from the hallway as she held out a box. "Suture kit."
I smiled at her thoughtfulness. "That's okay Hel, that won't be necessary."
And even silhouetted, with the light behind her, I could see her eyes glowing amber and gold. Her eyes tracked Dick's form. It was as if she were memorising him. Then her eyes came to rest on my hand on his leg and then she traced me. There was something unsettling about her regard. But before I was able to remove my hand, Dick stood up.
"Thanks. Anything else?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I guess it wasn't that bad, hanh?"
"She's got another suture kit in here." The muscles in his back quivered and jumped with tension.
"Oh," she replied. "So you're all patched up then?"
"How's the head? Can you see straight now?"
The pause that followed got a little uncomfortable. But I managed to break the tableau by wheeling up to the doorway. "Hey," I said. She smiled back at me. "Let's talk for a bit."
As I left the room I tossed my head at Dick to tell him to relax. He was acting like she were about to bite him. Outside Helena had disappeared somewhere. I found her lying on her back, on the mat in the training room. She turned her head to follow me as I approached her.
"Are you doing okay?" I asked her. She simply nodded and then turned her head to look at the ceiling. "I'm sorry," I said.
"Why?" she asked not looking at me.
"I didn't mean to send you out there...like that."
"Without training, without back up. Without any idea of what kind of situation it was. I know how much you don't like that I'm still in the biz." I air quoted the last word. I didn't stop to ask myself what feeling in me was soothed by the nervous use of that gesture I really hated. "I know that you did it to help me out of a jam."
"You did fine."
"That's not my point."
"Yeah what is?"
"I'm talking about you."
"If you're giving me the 'you're not allowed to go postal ape shit on the bad guys' speech, the wunderkind gave it to me already."
"Look at me." She did. "I'm trying to apologise for dropping you into a situation that you had no wish to be in and was way above your head. I'm not blaming you. I know you may have reacted rather strongly to the stress."
She turned back to the ceiling. "Barbara, for God's sake!" she sounded exactly like Selina when she said that. "Stop apologising to me for my behaviour. It's not your fault."
"Well, that's one thing we agree on." Dick's voice said from behind me.
"Yeah must have taken that blow to the head to get us in line. Next thing we know we'll all be PMSing in synch. And picking out lipstick shades together."
"Oh you're so funny. Not."
"And you're a fucking genius I suppose, Robin? Flapping around like a little bird waiting to be rescued by the Bat. It's like a fucking family concern. How does it feel Wonder boy, to have to accept help from Catwoman and then 20 years later from her no good daughter? Look at me in my fay little pixie boots and my red undies. I'm going to kick your ass. Maybe next time all you frat boys go on a panty raid, you can pick up some purple underwear. That should shock the bad guys into surrendering."
"Will it shock you into surrendering if I have to take you in for murder?'
"Will it stop you from getting your ass shot in the head."
They were worse than four year olds. I rolled out my best teacher voice. "All right, the two of you. Stop it! Dick, go to the room..." he opened his mouth to protest but I staved him off. "..and you shut it." Her droopy expression was eloquent beyond words. She looked sad and ashamed tearful all at once. Quite dramatically she threw her hand over her face. But as she did that she let out a little groan that didn't sound like it had anything to with mortification or frustration. I waited to see if she would expand on it but she just lay there breathing shallowly. That was strange. "Helena, are you okay?"
"Yeah," she said as she squirmed and made a face underneath her arm. "It's just...he's heavy you know."
"What do you feed him? He weighs a tonne," she said petulantly. It was amazing how she bounced between dark and brooding a being a complete kid. She removed her hand to put it on her side. "I think I may have pulled something."
I pulled up close to her till my wheels were almost touching her jacket. I leaned over and gave her side a ginger prod.
"Ow!" she jumped.
"Did that hurt?"
"No, I was just psyching you out. What do you think?" she pouted.
I laid the full pressure of my palm on her side, she gasped but didn't flinch. "I think you might have pulled something."
"Wow! You got all that just from poking me in the side, doc?"
"Yes, I'm a brilliant diagnostician."
Her other hand came to rest on top of mine. "It's not terrible or anything." I saw the state of her hand, her knuckles were torn and bleeding. And she was splashed with blood. It occurred to me that Dick might not be the only one in need of patching up.
I tugged at her hand. "C'mon. Can you get up?"
"Yeah," she whined, "but I don't wanna."
"Don't be a baby. Let's get you cleaned up." With a suffering sigh, she led the way into the hallway bath. I ran the water as she hung her jacket and unzipped and toed off her boots. I patted the edge of the tub and motioned to her to sit. She continued to stand. When I raised my eyebrows at her she turned around and mooned me. It was rather a huge plum coloured bruise on her left butt cheek. Remarkably enough it already had a greenish corona and was yellowing at the very outer edges, but from her shrug I gathered it was still somewhat painful.
"Ah!" I said and turned up the water. "Maybe you should just get in the tub then." The pullover went on top of the jacket followed by the singlet. She stopped and raised her eyebrow at me when her hands came to rest on the bra snaps. The thought that she was trying to protect her modesty was bit amusing. I simply raised a brow in answer.
Having had her bluff called, she laughed and merrily ripped her clothes off before splashing into the tub of hot water. I noticed the assortment of scrapes and bruises she had collected from the night and tried not too wince too hard. But I imagined that's what I might have looked like if I hadn't been wearing my specially designed bat suit all those years. As she settled in to soak, I found the first aid kit. When I returned to the tub, the water around her was turning murky and rusty. Very obediently she held her hands out for me to swab and disinfect, she didn't even hiss on the application of peroxide and stinging disinfectant. "How did you manage to get this much blood on you?"
"Second guy I hit was a gusher. Nose wouldn't stop bleeding. Lets not forget boy wonder. He's a bleeder."
Ah yes. Dick. "Thank you," I said. "For saving him." Just in case she didn't know why." She shrugged. "No really. Thank you. I don't know what..."
"Hey, hey. This is too heavy for me. I'm just happy I'm home in one piece, right? Anyway, he's..." The water around her floating hand sloshed around. She stopped and sighed. "There's no need to thank me. And I'm sorry about the two guys. I don't know what happened. But they pulled their guns on him and he went down and...." Whatever it was she was trying to tell me was very difficult for her. She swallowed and then licked her lips. "If I came back without...I didn't want anything to..." she snapped her face to me with an intense expression. "He's your...friend, right?" I nodded, she mirrored me. "It just went red, and I couldn't stop. It..." her voice trailed off into a whisper, "...felt so good. I'm sorry." With that she ducked under the water. That was her way of saying that the conversation was over. But the conversation would keep for the next day I thought and pulled out of the bathroom. When I told her that I had left her an Ace bandage, she just nodded under the water. Leaving her to work things out in her own head I made my way back to my room.
For a second there I had imagined that she was going to confess to actually liking Dick. The feeling that choked her words was so deep and real. I had forgotten that underneath that faade of insouciance was the sensitive girl.
Before I could enter the room, Dick's voice stopped me from below. "Down here."
Someday, I thought, I wouldn't mind that I had to take the elevator to get down to the lower level. The TV strobed its light across the sofa on which Dick sat. MTV really had changed since its inception. I watched Alanis Morisette fade out into a blisteringly flashy ad. "Where's the music?" I asked as I moved onto the sofa.
He stared at me aghast. "There's supposed to be music?" I smacked him on the stomach without regard for his injury. He intercepted my hand and pulled it to his chest. "Aww, Barbara. Nobody watches MTV for the music anymore. Just look at the pretty pictures." I snorted and snuggled up to him. "So...how's our hero of the hour?"
"Fine. Couple of big bruises. Some scrapes. She's okay."
"Did the two of you talk?" I nodded. "And...? Did you tell her that she's a psychopath and that you're admitting her in Arkham first chance you get?"
The huge nudge I gave him only elicited an evil laugh. "She is not a psychopath."
"She's a maniac then."
"Seriously, you should have seen her face. Remember the Grinch when he gets his big Christmas stealing idea? Now picture the evil twin version of that smile. Yow! I was scared just to be near her."
"The Grinch was evil. The evil twin of an evil person would by definition be good."
"Simplifier." Hmm...Boyz II Men. What hope was there for the kids? It was everywhere.
"She is unstable, you know that?"
"She's a little intense. And she has a few issues to work out. Think about it Dick, she thought you were shot. Her mother was stabbed right in front of her." I paused to think about her reaction in the tub. "You know, I think she likes you, but can't say it."
"I don't think so, Babs. She really doesn't like me."
"But you should have seen her face. It crumpled when she talked about you getting shot. She almost cried."
"I think she cried because I lived."
"Damn it, Dick! So, she over reacted a little. It's not her fault. It's mine for sending her out there."
"Why did you?"
Sigh. "Remember the bugs you planted yesterday?" He nodded. "They should have all been in the impound lot. Static. But tonight they were all across the grid. Those vans are state's evidence."
"Yeah. Dad's going to have a cow when he finds out."
"You going to tell him?"
"No. I'm out, remember? You're going to tell him."
"So anyway, whatever was going on at Port Adams, I surmised the real deal was going down at Tricorner. Which is right in my backyard."
"So how'd she get over to the port that quickly?"
"I don't get it. Why her? I mean you could have had any number of us capes back you up. Why her?"
"Are you complaining? Did you want to get shot?" I was starting to get a little annoyed with the conversation. All that ever seemed to happen when I was around Dick and Helena was that each would question me incessantly about the other while putting the other down.
"I don't care that she didn't follow my instructions. She saved your life. You on the other hand almost got yourself killed from not following orders. So stop ragging on her. She's fine. She's not a psychopath. She's not a maniac. She's not insane. She's just a girl." I didn't have to look up at him to see his skeptical face. "...with a talent for chaos." That got a laugh out of him.
"So you two get it all sorted out?"
"No...but we will. She just needs to get her head around tonight."
"Her? What about me."
"What about you?" On the screen Madonna was dancing on a ray of light.
"How do you think I feel? Having to be rescued by some green kid? Couldn't you at least have warned me that you had an emergency back up?"
"Dick, the whole point of an emergency back up, is that you don't think about it until the situation emerges. You see, it's an emergent situation."
"Oh My God!" he grabbed my hand tackled me down onto the sofa. "You didn't plan on using her at all did you? You just sent her out there."
"I don't believe it," he said incredulously as he pinned my hands to the sofa with a big smile. "You..."
The sound of a falling bottle from the kitchen alerted us to another presence. Looking over Dick's shoulder I saw Helena's sheepish expression, which turned cold as soon he turned around. Her hair curled damply around her ears.
"Sorry," she said, "Just getting some water. Didn't mean to...get in the way." And as quietly as she came she went. I was going to have to teach her to make some noise when she walked.
"Spy, don't you mean?" muttered Dick under his breath. Sometimes he forgot that his adoptive sister was a meta-human
"Like I'd want to spy on you, twinkle boots," she retorted disdainfully from the stairs.
"My what big ears you have, grandma."
"My what nice pants you have, little red riding pants."
They were worse than teenagers. If I didn't know better I'd say it was something sexual between them.
Helena's list of top 10 people to kill, 1998
1.) Mom's stabber
3.) Dick Grayson
4.) Guy who pulled a gun on me 1
5.) Guy who pulled a gun on me 2
6.) Guy who pulled a gun on me 3
7.) Dick fucking Grayson
9.) fucking Dick Grayson
10) fucking Dick fucking Grayson
Is like the sound of your own heart; like the sound of blood rushing in your ears; like the sound of your own breathing. When you live with it for so long, when it becomes a fact of life, you forget about it. You become aware of it at odd times - when you wake up, right before you fall asleep, when you've been running, when you're tired - but most of the times you don't even think about it. I mean, why should you? It's there. It's always been there. It's not like you can stop it - it's the sound of your own heart. How do you change something as fundamental as that?
So don't think about it. Just be. Some days you'll hear it very loudly, and some days you'll forget there is such a thing as a heart that beats to keep you alive. You know why? It's because you'll be too busy thinking about everything else - your knees that ache, your stomach that growls, your head that splits, your shoulders that tense. That's how we work. We don't think about the things that are just there. We think about the things that change and prod us with the changing. It's like wrecking your knee. After a while you forget that you don't like to take the stairs, or that you can't jog as much as you like, or that kneeling is painful. All the adjustments you make are just the things you do to live. You stop thinking of them as adjustments because it's your life. To me this is what loving Barbara means. It's just the thing that exists, as part of me. It doesn't have to mean anything.
Once mom talked to me about her feelings. She was very sad and, I thought, a little angry and she had been sitting out on the porch of our old house, before we moved to the apartment in the city. I guess there's a certain foolhardy courage that comes with being thirteen. You just rush in where any other sensitive person would tread lightly. I asked her if I could do anything to change how she felt. She laughed at me and ruffled my hair. And she said, "They're just feelings, Hel. You can't always change them. But you can change how you feel about the way you feel." It was all very confusing. I thought she was making fun of me. But later, I understood.
But before I understood, I made sure that I made everybody else around felt as confused and angry as I did. I knew that Dick and Barbara weren't dating anymore. Maybe I even knew that it wouldn't have lasted, in the long run. But I sure didn't help, did I? Sitting around glaring at him. Snapping at her. Being a sullen little freak. I was thrilled when he decided he was moving out to Bldhaven. I couldn't have been a happier camper.
But I couldn't exactly jump up and ask Barbara out either. I was still a little fucked up. Still learning not to be killed on the streets. And she was, well, all broken up. He was her last link to the old life - you know the one where she could just go for a run early in the morning when she felt too antsy? It would have been kind of creepy of me to ask her out the second his ass exited the door. I was just, you know, waiting for the right time. I thought if I could just prove that I wasn't about to disappear she'd start to see me in an adult light. But she never did. And then I asked myself, how much of it was some kind of unrequited teenage crush that would have long ago disappeared if I still had Mom and had gone off to college or Art School like I had planned and how much of it was real? After all, if you asked me what she did with her day, I really couldn't tell you. There were so few questions about Barbara that I could really answer. And when you can't tell what a girl is feeling when you live with her, maybe you ought to re-assess your relationship. And then there was the fact that she never quite gave up our student-teacher relationship. It didn't matter what I did, or what happened to me, or how equal she said we were there was always a distance between us. I was still not allowed to mess with her chair. I wasn't allowed to go with her to physiotherapy. I was not allowed to help her with her exercises. Nobody was allowed to push her chair. She never let herself go to bed before I did. God forbid that I even moved one her CPU's one inch out of the way. Or even ask what she did to do the things she did. She'd start off with algorithms and imaginary numbers and carrier frequencies and then trail off, saying, "It's complicated." Wasn't it just? Behold the genius.
But as they say. Love is patient. Love is kind. And sometimes love is re-making yourself in someone else's image. And not noticing it.
Was it upsetting to me? Maybe it was. But time had congealed around us like a glacier. I really had no sense of it. The only time I noticed that time was marching by us was if Barbara ever mentioned mom in a conversation, or if she asked me if I had changed my mind about being her operative in Gotham. But more than that, time might as well not have existed. If I bled, or slept, or was shot at, kidnapped, stabbed...anything. It was just the way things were. Life was in a rhythm. I woke up. I brooded around the table. Made coffee. Ate pop tarts. Read the paper. Watched TV. Went to work. Came back from work. Ate hot pockets, or Alfred's left over dinner. Went on sweeps. Came home. And did it all over again. Sometimes, in between I would go to the movies - with Barbara - or maybe to the park and we'd talk about inconsequential things. How about them Knights? Shit it's raining a lot this year. No, I'm not going to go to the Van Gogh exhibit. Do you think we should get a dog? No, I don't want to do anything for my birthday. Wow, that girl's really pretty. No, I'm not seeing anyone. Things like that.
Life was as good as it was going to get. And if sometimes before I went to sleep, or as I woke up, I remembered that there was something that lived under my skin that wanted something else - someone else - it was okay, because I had work, and pop tarts, and the bar, and sweeps, and workouts, and injuries to take care of and topics to avoid.
This is the face of longing. It has no size, no shape, no form. It has no weight or substance. And most of all, it has no meaning.
Boy was that ever the wrong thing to say at that moment. I saw it happen in slow motion. He turned around, put down the canvas sack of cash he was carrying and in a very polite fuck you tone of voice said, "I'm happy to oblige, officer." Then he reached out and touched the baby faced cop. I heard the hum of the battery on his back and saw his faceplate dim just a little as the cop went blue in the face and dropped in a rigor. Freeze laughed his tinny electronic laugh, and turned around. Then as if the tape sped up he hurriedly piled his ass into his stolen armoured truck and left. He was a quarter mile down the avenue before I hit tar near the blockading squad car.
"Holy fuck!" I breathed out softly. "It's a frozen copsicle." If I booked it, chances were good I could still intercept the truck. With two tonnes of plate metal armour, and Freeze's bulk, I knew that thing wasn't traveling very fast. But all the time Barbara...oops, sorry...Oracle was yelling in my ear to giver her more details on the situation.
"No," she barked. "You need to make sure that man gets medical attention. Do you see any medical personnel?"
"No," I replied, "They've got their hands full at the bank." I knelt by his side and checked his pulse. It was just barely there. He was in hypothermic shock. I laid my palm against his wrist, where Freeze had gripped him. It was frozen solid. I hoped his union had cut him good deal on insurance because he would probably never fire a gun again. I swapped jackets with him and took his hat.
After I wrapped him in my leather duster I carried him to the bank where ambulances were gathering around the squad cars and the fire truck. Shouldering my way through to the triage centre with my shouts of 'officer down' in the middle of the street, I laid him next to a doctor who seemed to be in charge. The second I saw a superior officer start to notice me I slipped into the crowd and lost the jacket and hat. All that running around in the broad daylight was freaking me out. Too many people in the bank had already seen me when I had chipped them out of the sludge of ice that Freeze had created.
There were so many TV helicopters everywhere, Oracle actually had to find me an underground escape route before I could get to a quiet spot from where I could get back on the roofs. Good thing all that time in the cold had chilled my nose hairs. The smell down there was bad enough as it was. If had actually been able to smell everything in the pipes I'd have probably passed out from the fumes and have to have Barbara or, worse, Alfred come rescue me. And as bad as I felt about giving up my leather coat, I would have felt worse dragging it through the filth I was wading in. As I tried my best to ignore the squelching sensation of disgust emanating from my toes, I knew I was going to have to ditch the boots as well. Hell! I was going to have to ditch the whole outfit and sit in the tub for hours before I could get that smell out my skin and nose. Daytime missions were the worst.
I had steeped in so many chemicals I felt like a sheep. All I needed was someone to take a strip of flesh off my ass. And Barbara was already doing such an excellent job of it.
"...to re-organise your priorities. The perpetrator is not always the object of the mission. We are not vigilantes, we are protectors. You need to be more considerate..."
I smelled my hands. I was quite sure they smelled of underground sewer slime. I had fallen right into a wall when I stepped on a rat and slipped. The damn thing was so overgrown it looked like a lump of...lump - not alive. I kid you not. There were things scarier than me down there.
"...our job to alleviate the consequences of..."
I sniffed again and then licked the back of my hand. Nope, nothing there except soap and moisturiser. Not exactly the most palatable flavour in the whole world but better than toxic sludge. I kept expecting a lame humanoid rat and four wisecracking turtles to come breaking into the tower any second. I sniffed out rapidly in panting breaths through my nose and then took a breath.
"...aim is not just to prevent or stop crime but to arrest the effects of crime on the innocent..."
That actually smelled better so I did it again. This time harder.
"...mission is to protect the citizens. And that is a greater charge than hunting down criminals."
The sound of a hand smashing down on the table jolted me. "What the hell are you doing? Stop it!"
I sniffed. "I can't get the smell out of my head. It's awful."
She slipped pincered fingers under the frame of her glasses and massaged her eyes. When she moved her hand away the glasses fell back a little way down her nose and she looked up at me, over the rims of her lenses. The lines of mandibular muscles were highlighted by the determined set of her jaw. One red eyebrow rose flatly and her eyes were wide but her pupils were starting to contract. Only Barbara could make the pince-nez look feel sexy and the idea of a school-marm unbearably erotic. That was when I discovered holding my breath and then breathing through my mouth made the smell go away.
She stared at my slack-jawed expression and asked me with infinite patience, "Have you listened to a word I've said?"
I didn't know there was going to be a test. I suck at those. She should have known that. She had coached me through enough preparations. "Yes," I said slowly. "Beating on bad guys - good. Taking care of the good guys - even better. Even if the bad guy gets away. Right?"
Barbara gritted her incisors in a grimaced smile. "Essentially," she agreed. She closed her eyes and pushed the glasses up her nose and then shouldered her wheelchair away from the table headed up to the platform. "I don't know why I bother," she sighed. "Honestly, Helena. Can you at least pretend that I'm having an effect on you?"
I blinked. If she only knew the effect she had on me. Still, she was right. I was always doing something else when she talked to me. But it was better than sitting frozen - I groaned with that mental reminder of my day - and open-mouthed, staring at her all the time. I had really enjoyed the last two years of living with her. No more lily dick Grayson cluttering the scenery. The clock tower was a dick free zone. A panoramic vista of blazing redheaded beauty. I could look at her whenever I wanted. Only problem was whenever I stared at her too long, she sensed it in that super-hero vigilante way of hers and stared right back. After dodging the seven hundredth 'What're you looking at?' I decided that constant activity and involvement was the way to go. Okayy, so I could be a little more attentive to the people around me when I was out there. But I considered chasing Freeze down for only a second.
I followed her up the ramp. "You do have an effect on me. I mean, I didn't leave him there, did I?" I asked.
"No, you didn't. But it bothers me that I have to remind you about these things all the time."
"Not all the time."
She gave a short nod of concession. "Sorry, you're right."
"It's cool," I shrugged as I leaned on the table. "Sometimes I need reminding." Again she looked up at me over her glasses with a slightly exasperated expression. I liked it when she looked at me. "Look," I said. "Did I or did I not stop to chip people out of the ice in the bank when his goons were bagging the cash?" She nodded yes. "Right. And did I or didn't I clear a way so that the ambulances could drive right up to the bank entrance?"
"So after he ices this one cop - who really looked to be in pretty bad shape by the way - I just want to know if letting him get away is such a good thing." She didn't say anything, but went about her work on the computer. The soft rapid clicking of keys beat out like an entrancing drum beat. "So," I said. "What's the status with the rookie cop? They thaw him out yet?"
"No." She looked away from me and stilled her hand on the mouse. "He didn't make it. He'd lost too much circulation."
I closed my eyes. Wonderful. That made me feel just great. The guy dies and I still don't have the bad guy. Just snazzy. Not unsympathetically - I knew that Barbara took this sort of thing seriously - but really wanting to know how she felt about it, I asked quietly, "Is it worth it?" She looked up at me. "I mean...he's going to do it again. More people are going to get hurt. I could have just ignored that cop and gone after Freeze. We'd have probably had him by now. Now, we're going to wait till he thinks up some new stunt, and more people are going to be in danger."
The look on her face shifted from alarmed to horrified and back to neutral. "Helena!"
"Whaat? I'm just asking. I never know when is the right thing to do. Everything's such a fucking song and dance with you. I just want to know." I heard the rising tone of desperation in my voice, but couldn't quite place where it was coming from.
"Helena, I just want you to know this." She pulled back from the table and turned her chair to face me directly. "In any crime that's committed, your first job is to stop the crime. Stopping the criminal is something that comes later. And it never comes at the expense of the victims."
"Okaaayy." I said, holding up my hands. I really didn't need her to go all freak show on me. She turned back to her screen, ignoring me entirely. I knew what she was doing. She was giving me a little time to let the lessons sink in. That was my Barbara, the scientific teacher. The next thing to confirm the lesson would be a field test. "So, you figure out where he's stashing himself yet?"
She sighed. "I have a vague idea."
With a flick of the mouse and a few clicks, she brought up a map of the city. Red dots marked the locations of where Freeze had struck. Red dots marked the known trails of his escape routes. "Great, he's up north somewhere."
"Actually," she said ignoring my petulance, "I suspect he's in this part of town." She circled the pointer around a northwest section of town. It was at the centre of a point right between Arkham and Crime Alley. A nice deserted expanse of warehouses and barely surviving parks.
"Aww...Fuck!" I whined as she wheeled away from the table manoeuvring around me. "Of course he is. In the goddamn boonie, sticks. Do you know how many warehouses there are out there?" I tapped the screen with a fingernail just to hear the hollow click of the glass. "And I bet you want me to canvass each one." She always did. Most of my job consisted of sitting around waiting to see something or waiting for something to happen. "There aren't even any decent delis open after 9 in that neighbourhood." I heard a sigh in the background. She could scoff all she wanted, there really weren't. "The place is a fuckin'..." My rant was interrupted by a discreet tug on my track pants. "What?" I asked her. She held out a printed sheet with names and addresses. "What's this?"
"A list of warehouses which have refrigeration facilities. The ones in red are the newest ones." She rolled down the ramp and headed to the lab.
"Oh." I took the sheet of paper from her and scanned it. "Eleven's not bad," I admitted sullenly. "So do I get like a super thermoware suit or something?" I called out.
"Well," I was confused, since when did she leave me unsupervised, around buttons that I could push? "What if I run into Freeze? Don't I get any protection?"
I heard a tinkle of crashing glass and mumbled swearing before she looked up at me incredulously. "Protection?"
"Yeah protection. You know, safety first. What you were going on and on at me about, at the table over there." I pointed just in case she was unsure where the table was. "Protect myself. Protect others. Rah, rah. Remember that whole spiel?"
The stirring rod clinked against the side of the beaker as she stirred. "You're asking for extra protection?"
"Sure," I said as I walked over to where she was. "I saw what he did to that cop. I'm not interested in being a frozen TV dinner. Besides a girl always needs a little protection."
She snorted. "Especially if she's you..." she mumbled. At least I think that's what she said. I was a little distracted by the smell of her latest chemistry project. And I wondered what she meant by her last statement.
"What does that mean?"
"Nothing," she demurred as she returned to her chemicals. "You've got 11 messages. You've got one from Dr. Reade, she needs you to go in for a few more scans."
"Something she saw in your old scans isn't quite normal. And your blood work is showing abnormalities."
"Uhhhm...I'm a meta, Babs. Everything about my scans is all wrong."
"Don't be disingenuous, Helena. Laura knows that you're meta-human. I'd like you to...."
"Laura?" I interrupted her. She was on first name basis with my doctor? "What, you guys are best friends, now?" Her fingers rose up to her eyes - but she had forgotten she was wearing safety goggles - and she crashed into the plastic. Her look of bafflement was quite funny.
"Just please make an appointment to see her, Hel. It's important." Aww, hell. I never could resist it when her voice dipped all low and intimate.
"And eight of them are from someone called Sam." Oh shit! I thought I had given her my work number. "Why don't you return her calls? She was getting quite agitated."
"You were listening?"
"No, I heard the pitch of her voice rising with each message she left."
"I don't know why you can't rig a better phone system for this place. You're the damn electronic genius."
"I don't have time."
I turned to look at her one more time before I went off to retrieve messages and something to eat. "You never do."
"What?" she called back
Autumn in Gotham. Nothing poetic about it. There's rain and there's fog. There's rain and there's more fog. And then just to break the monotony there's sleet. Just a little preview of the ass chapping winter weather to follow. If I ever started to bitch about how uncomfortable sweeps in August were, I would just tell myself, 'At least it isn't November.' Of course, since it was November I had no cause for consolation.
A recce of the eleven warehouses was a complete bust. Nothing in those warehouses but fish and meat. A canvass of the entire neighbourhood came with one smuggling ring - fake 'Authentic, Signed' Wonder Woman dollies. You call 'em action figures, I call 'em dollies. I really made the world safe for franchising and intellectual property rights that day.
Not only had we not managed to nip Freeze in the bud of his next crime, we failed to predict the next one. While I was keeping an eye on the banks, he broke into George McCullough Memorial Hospital and wrecked the Emergency and east wings while taking out the main power lines for the hospitals and short-circuiting the UPS systems. Not only was there no place for the casualties in the hospital, the previous patients had to be airlifted to other hospitals. When I was cleaning up that mess, he hit another bank. I had frostbite on my fingers from all the ice I cleared. And I managed to trash Barbara's tank, again, for the second time in six months, because I couldn't hold on to the steering wheel. And to top it all off, I had a cold. A real cold. Viral infection, watery eyes, running nose, stuffed sinuses - the full deal.
As I sipped at Alfred's piping hot chicken soup, I was very thankful that I got sick very few times. Like maybe once in three years. Except for that year, I had already caught two colds and had three fevers. And my energy hadn't quite come back from the effects of the last big job.
Barbara was sitting at the table talking out the problem. "I'm missing something. I know I am. There's a pattern in this. I can see there's a pattern. I just don't know what it relates to."
"It relates to the fact that he's crazy," I sniffed.
"No, there's more. He may seem crazy to us. But in his head there's a motivation for all of this. We just have to find out."
I smiled blandly at Barbara. "Well. If you find out where he started from, you can predict where he's going."
She looked at me like I was the blessed virgin. The slack jawed look on her face was goofy and eminently unbecoming to someone as intelligent as Barbara. "You're absolutely right. I've been so focused on stopping the chaos, I haven't tried to track down precipitating event."
I looked out the window at the sheeting rain as I reached once more for the box of Kleenex. They really had to think about treating the tissues with some kind of moisturiser or something. The friction was killing my nose. "Precipitating is right."
"No, no. You're asking exactly the right question. Where did he come from?"
"Oh gosh Babs, you should know - you gave me the talk about the birds and bees." She looked up at me exasperatedly. I shrugged. "From Blackgate."
"Yes, Blackgate. Why? Why did break out?"
"Because he could."
"No, he should've been in Arkham all this time, with extra security. But everyone's so afraid that he'll help the other's escape if he busts out of there by freezing the walls, they send him to Blackgate. So he broke out the first chance he got."
"Yes, but when he went in, he was a broken man. I was there. He didn't look like a man with plans on his mind. Something changed. Something big."
"Yeah, he flipped out."
She ignored me. "What was the first thing that he did? He robbed a bank. He robbed a bank because he needed money. He's hit three more banks after that. And he's disrupted money transfers four times."
"Don't forget the phone company downtown which took out the ATM's all across town."
"But he's robbed only one. Why?"
"I don't know," I shrugged. "Maybe he's just freezing the accounts."
I felt really lame just saying it. I scratched my head. "You know, freezing the..." But there was no point saying it, she wasn't listening to me anymore. When I looked up she was back at her computer pulling maps of the city.
"Oh my god!" That was a good sign as far as I was concerned. That meant she'd had an idea. Not a vague one, but a real one. "Look at this." I knew it was rhetorical so I just sat at the table and drank my soup. "First he disrupts the cash flow of the city. Then he blocks Broadway, 'freezing' the main artery of the city. Then he's systematically cut or tried to cut access to four different places - the Finger river, Kane head, Aparo park, Dixon dock - he's cutting up the city; and putting it on ice."
Go, Barbara! I thought. Mathematical genius with a flair for language. Give her a metaphor and watch her run. The polished wood surface of the table was very cool against my forehead. I slid my head across to lay my cheek down on it - it felt very good. The apartment still smelled funny. I remembered Barbara's chemistry experiment. We need a better ventilation unit, I thought as I wondered what it was about the smell that made me so uneasy. In the background, I heard the rise and fall of Barbara's voice, punctuated by the plastic clicks of the mouse and keyboard. Her voice flowed across me like a warm blanket. I heard the sound of water pelting against the windows, and saw the steam rising from my cup of soup, which was very warm against my fingers. I had a sudden sense of being home. Do you know the feeling, the sense that you're exactly where you're supposed to be, no matter how lousy you feel? I heard Barbara ask me something as I closed my eyes and hummed in agreement.
One of the first instincts that is bred out of us as humans is the instinct to bite. It is the one of the things that ostensibly separates us from other animals. We do not bite. Usually.
Sometimes when we are in trouble we bite. Sensei Richard Wang, in high school told us a very interesting fact, that even when faced with deadly danger in close quarters, most people never even consider biting as an effective reaction or means of escape. Any other animal, on the other hand will bite first, and run later.
Dogs bite, cats bite, monkeys bite, horses, mules, lions, tigers, cheetahs, birds of all kinds, even fish, which is why biting someone is always so shocking. Animals don't always bite when they are threatened; they also bite when they are happy, when they are playful. Sure enough there is a difference between a playful nip and a real, discouraging bite. But in the case of our sharp toothed and furry companions there is always danger in their bites. That's why we are wary of wild pets. Their biting instinct isn't something that hasn't been suppressed over generations of breeding. Wild animals know the instinctive connection between hunting, biting and power. That's another reason, hickeys and 'love-bites' are so titillating to us - we suddenly see the real animal instinct and hunger that lurks behind the millions of years of civilising evolution. A human who bites is frightening because it is a human who acknowledges beast within.
Born Free, for some reason was always one of my favourite books. I think it was because I identified with little Elsa, the orphaned lion cub. I loved the movie, too. Watching the little lion cub paw around the Adamson's ranch in Kenya remains one of the most heart-warming media constructs that I have ever seen. Above all, I loved the book, because of its sub title. A Lioness of Two Worlds. Of Two Worlds.
I'm sure you see where I'm going with this. It wasn't until a certain hellcat of my own came to live with me did I realise how much and how little I learned from that book. What I forgot was that a wild thing is always a wild thing. But what I hoped was that even a wild thing could learn to live in two worlds.
Dad and Helena have always had a curious relationship. They like each other but they always end up arguing. Early on, when Helena first came to live with me, Dad was a little...confused, shall we say. First he was flabbergasted that his little girl could be anyone's guardian. Next he was wary of my ward. Then he was jealous of her, because she saw a lot more of me than he did during my convalescence. Finally, he was bemused by her - because his policeman's instincts told him to be wary of her but his father's instincts admired her. I don't think he ever imagined that we would end up living together...for as long as we did.
The three months that I spent in Richard Dragon's retreat learning how to be competent out of a wheelchair taxed poor Dad a lot. While I was learning to be a crime fighter on wheels, he was trying to put Helena on a leash. And Alfred - bless his loyalty to the Wayne family - tried, once again to deal with an angry young orphan. Except this time, the orphan refused to live in the Wayne Manor. Every week when I spoke to Dad or Alfred, I could just picture the strain in their voices, the tightness around their eyes. They were killing themselves with worry. Dad couldn't understand what she did when she sneaked out of the house, and Alfred worried that she would come to harm while she was prowling the streets. The world was a dangerous place, they said, and no place for a wounded youngster by herself. They did their best to keep things from me so that I wouldn't worry about her. What they didn't know was that it wasn't the girl in the world I was worried about. I was more worried about the world around the girl. With as much anger as she was carrying around her, all it would take would be one wrong word on someone's part and she could explode. She was a wild thing with the memory of the forest in her blood. She was like a tame lion. Yes, she could be a great big cuddly cat. But you could never forget that she carried with her the potential for great violence. That was why I had to leave. I had to learn to deal with my own anger and despair. Every day that I failed myself, I failed her. And if I failed her I would be failing more than just a promise to her mother, I would be unleashing a whirlwind on an unprepared world.
It's funny how the Catwoman had a child who carried meta-genes for feline expression. Having Helena in the house was exactly like have a tiger or a cheetah in the house for a pet. As languorous as she might appear in her sloth and indifference, as playful as she might be, there was a killer instinct hiding behind those eyes. I could only hope to blunt the sharpness of that instinct, or channel the aggression in ways that didn't cause too much damage to her or to others. Only problem was, unlike Elsa the lioness, my orphaned big cat refused to leave home. You could say I refused to let her go. From the first time she jumped in to help me in my role as armchair crime fighter, she has just always been there.
This is how we began. Picture me sitting in my chair in from of my many and varied displays, rubbing my temples because there's a code that I can't crack or a building I can't hack, or some physical access point that I need. Then hear Helena softly pad up to the base of the platform and say, "What're you thinking about? Do you need something?"
Then imagine me saying something like, "If I could just get a tap on their line..." or "I wish I could get a sample of that, I could do my own tests..." Now hear her say, "I could do that."
A smuggling ring. A corrupt city official. Cops on the take. Evil super villains on the loose. I'd play the game one more time. And she'd offer to help just this once. Before we knew it we were a full-fledged partnership with radio transceivers and code-names.
Each time she offered herself to me, I could not say no. How could I? She was giving me a chance to keep my dream alive. If I couldn't be out in the world taking names and kicking ass, I could do it through her. Oh don't think I didn't know that's what I was doing. It's not something I would ever acknowledge to my waking self, but I knew it. She was the spark that kept my dreams and hopes alive. It became the thing we did not talk about. It became the question no one asked. What are you doing here? Why are you doing this? Very soon we didn't need to ask those questions. What we did, and who we were just became that way. We wrote ourselves into our roles, and there we were, with no way to break out if we needed to.
So imagine how my heart sank when on one day as I manned the computers on my side of the transceiver, her voice fell away and I heard her choking and spluttering over the cold soft laughter of Poison Ivy. Imagine how my heart clenched when I realised what the silence and soft murmuring sigh that preceded the choking had meant. Death had kissed her. Helena had gone out into the world to fight my battles and one of my enemies, had reached out and snatched her from me. My infallible memory filled in the visual details of what I could not see. Pamela's soft green skin glowing with the health of vital ecosystems, radiant with the promise of death. The touch of her lips as she kissed Helena. The pallor of Helena's skin as the insidious toxins flowed through her, seizing her blood, her lungs, her heart. When I arrived - rubber burning and engine torquing - at the scene of the crime, I found Helena ensconced in the leafy bower of a horticultural warehouse, barely breathing, barely alive, covered in blood, and bound by a bristling vine to her noxious quarry. The vegetable life of Pamela Isley had finally met its wretched match in the animal unconcern of the Huntress. Pamela Isley lay dying; bleeding her life-blood from a hole in her throat. If it hadn't been for my friends in the Justice League, I would have lost them both that day.
Luckily for Helena, her meta-human metabolism broke down the poisons before they could kill her, and luckily for Poison Ivy, Helena was too weak to really kill her. Once I recovered form the shock of Helena's almost death, I was taken aback by the way in which she chose to stop Pamela. It was one more illusion stripped away that day. Whatever Helena or the Huntress was, she was not tame; faced with imminent death she had done the first thing that her instincts had demanded of her. At her own peril, she went for the jugular - literally.
Four days of watching over her in a coma had given a whole new meaning to waiting. Watching her walk about as she recovered from the poison's effects was wracking. Clearly, the fact that she was even alive was a miracle. But for days she was off her game. Her energy took a dive, she was sick all the time. She was having trouble sleeping. She did her best to hide that fact from me but I knew. I didn't have to activate the override on her transceiver unit to know that - she started shutting her room door quite solidly so that no sound would escape it. It was a courtesy she had never shown me even during her punk or thrash metal days.
"No!" I said emphatically. She turned her head away from me and moved resolutely to her workstation. What a bitch, she was completely ignoring me. I leaped to the platform and stood in front of the keyboard. "I said, no!"
"Helena, I don't think you have a choice."
"Yes, I do," I said, not moving as she tried to shove me aside.
"Hel, you're in my way," she said as she grabbed my hips and tried to get me to move. Hah. Fat chance of that. "Helena..."
We were at an impasse. She stared at me implacably and I stared back stubbornly. But there was no god damn way I was about to let her do what she had just proposed.
"Fine!" she said. "Be that way." For a second I did want to giggle. She was acting very childish. 'Be that way'? That was something I would say. I really did have to get her out of the house and talking to other people. And not the damn science geeks she was always chatting with online either. As I watched her roll back down the ramp, I wondered where she was going. I followed the hiss of the new wheels on the floor to the cordless phone. "I'm just going to call him," she said as she jabbed a speed dial button. She had him on speed dial? I scrambled for the phone jack which was hidden somewhere behind the Delphi. Before she could draw a breath to start speaking I pulled the cord out of the wall. Her irritated exclamation was followed by the sound of a hand striking a padded armrest.
I emerged from the tangle of cables and wires to confront her. "You have him on speed dial?" Yes my incredulity was a little dramatic, but for god's sake they'd been broken up for about two years now. Sure they still spoke on the phone occasionally and he still called when he needed help on a case, but was that any reason to have him on speed dial. Him having her on speed dial I could understand, but her him. Fuck that. He was a dick to her. Oh wait...scratch that, I'm not allowed to make dick jokes about him. "You have that fucker on speed dial? Do you have an open connection to his little computer in Bludhaven, too? I mean what is this, some kind of permanent back up plan you have in place just in case the kid fucks up? I don't want him here. It's not his place. It's not his case."
"Helena, don't you think you might be over-reacting just a little bit?" she asked as she put the hand set carefully back in its cradle.
Okay maybe I was. "I am not over-reacting. You are. One little thing and you're...off...and calling in the favours from daddy...and all, 'Dick come and help me.' What happened to i.i..i..independence and ..and self...uh reliance." And I had a headache that radiated a foot outside my head. "Y...you..wouldn't even let me pick up the..the...the newspaper when...when you were in...in. And you don't even let me help you up...up...up uhhh up a ramp if it's too steep. So I think it's really hypocritical of you to, to, to...oh god...to try to...fuck!" I had to sit down for a bit, my head felt really woolly and fuzzy. I had no idea where the words were going, but they wouldn't come. I put my head in my hands and felt the coolness of my palm. I was just so hot. But my hands were so cold. I needed sleep, but without the pills. I sat at the base of the ramp, gasping lightly and looking anywhere but at Barbara. The next thing I knew the hot impression of her hand was on my shoulder. "Why can't you trust me, Barbara? Why don't you ask me if I can do it before you run for help?"
"I do trust you. I trust you the most."
I shook my head. "No you don't. You're always looking over my shoulder."
"I'm just trying to care for you."
"I don't want him here. He wouldn't want to be here." I glanced up at her pained expression. "Do you want him here?" She opened her mouth and took a breath and then stopped before shaking her head. I raised my head from my hands to meet her even gaze. In one of the rare moments away from the dinner table, we were at eye level. "Why won't you let me handle this? Do you think I'm incapable?"
Her hand as it rested on my cheek was so hot; I became aware of how cool my face was. "I don't think you're incapable. But you're..." her head bobbed in the direction of my hands and her gaze came top rest on the band on my wrist. Her hand shot out to stop me as I wrenched the strip of plastic from my body. The violent friction left a thin red weal.
"Hel..." she sighed deeply as she grabbed both my hands. "That doesn't change things. You're still not well. I'm just asking for a little help."
"I don't need it." She narrowed her eyes at me. "I don't. Have I messed up on the job even once?"
"And have I hurt anyone, even myself in the last few weeks?"
"I'm fine. It's just a little cold..." That got me a raised eyebrow and a look of long suffering exasperation. "...That got out of hand."
"But we can't take that risk, Hel. What if some thing happens during sweeps?"
"Nothing is going to happen during sweeps." She looked at me disbelievingly. "I was just tired. Who knows what kind of mutated bugs I picked up from the sewer the other day? So, I fell asleep on the table, it's not a crime."
"You did not fall asleep, Helena! You were comatose."
"...For two hours. It was a nap!"
The lines of her jaw hardened and I became aware of the smell of anger hovering like a cloud around her. It was sharp like crushed nasturtiums in the fall rain. The rush of her wheels against the floor was a shushing remonstration as she sped to the coffee table and picked up the large manila envelope that held scans of my brain. It was only years of training and my reflexes that managed to snatch the spinning envelope out of the air. From her spot by the sofa she held her arm out and snapped her forefinger in my direction. "Open it," she commanded. I did. It was a colour enhanced MRI of my brain. "Do you see where she's circled it with a sharpie?" I saw the red loop circling a part of the hypothalamus, and nodded. "Now compare it to the other pictures on the same sheet." So I did. Each shot was different - minutely, but different enough to be noticed. Some were lit up like fireflies; some were just a plain dull colour.
"So it turns on and off."
"Hel, both, your hypothalamus and your medulla, are behaving abnormally. That's not good. Those are the two parts of your brain responsible respectively for..."
"Yes, my body temperature and my breathing and heart-rate. I know that, I'm not stupid. I don't need a lecture."
"Your hypothalamus is firing like crazy at random intervals. Do you know what that means?" I said nothing. I had a vague idea. I mean I was feeling the effects for sure. "Your base body temperature is fluctuating like a circuit that's about to short out. And whatever poison Ivy managed to get in your blood is still there. It's in your brain, and it's affecting your breathing and your sleep."
"That's right. I've been working on the drug for weeks now. And I haven't been able to figure out why it affects you like this." I studied the films as she sat across the room from me and chewed the inside of her lower lip. The she spoke again. "You want trust? All right, lets start with you. How long has it been since you've slept properly?"
I started to say that I had never needed much sleep anyway, but the look on her face was all business. "A couple of months."
"And what about the fever and hot flashes?"
I laughed - 'hot flashes.' "I don't know." She shot me a glare. I shrugged. "I...I don't know. Honestly. I just thought it was from being out in the rain all the time. It's been a windy, sleety fall. I swear, I never noticed."
"So you'd say this thing has been going on since September, maybe?"
"Mid to late August," I corrected her. She closed her eyes and sighed. "It's not your fault." I stood up and walked toward her. I knew exactly what was going through her head. She would take it on, and blame herself.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
I didn't want her to worry. I didn't want her to feel guilty. I thought I was okay. I didn't know it was a big deal. "I didn't want to worry you."
She shouted. "You didn't want to worry me?"
"I'm sorry! I didn't know. I just thought I was scared. And you were so upset. I didn't want you freaking out. You were so fucking freaked out. I didn't know how to deal with that."
"'Freaked out'?" She threw her hands up. "Helena, I heard you dying! You have no idea what went through my head, when I heard you choking over the comms; when I heard her laughing as you lay dying. If Alfred hadn't been at the clock tower, you might have died. How many people do you know have survived a kiss from Poison Ivy?"
I didn't know of any. "I don't know."
"None!" Hooray for me! Her voice dropped low. "I told you not to let her touch you, and what do I hear? Her breathing - so close to your microphone that I could hear her kiss you. Do you know how many traffic laws I broke to find you?"
"Seventeen?" I replied.
My answer to her rhetorical question took her by surprise. She was used to my letting her go through her rants without interruption. She tilted her head to consider my answer. An exquisitely befuddled expression crept over her face and I had to control my smile. "Yes," she looked up at me suspiciously. "How did you know?"
"Barbara," I laughed. "There're only that many you can break." She thought about it for a second and then nodded acceptingly. "Oh my god," it dawned on me as I flopped on to the couch. "You actually counted them off as you broke them, didn't you?" The blush on her face was eloquent in its own way. "Barbara Gordon. You're a geek, you know that?"
"Is there something wrong with that?"
"No, no. My best friend's a geek. Hell, I even live with one."
"Shut up," she said.
"You shut up," I retorted. "I can't believe it. You were so worried about me you actually counted each violation. Sure! That's how concerned you were. I wouldn't have counted."
"Pfft! You never do."
"Eennh," I shrugged as I reached for the TV remote. I dropped the remote when a bat-a-rang gently nudged my wrist. I was shocked, she used her bat-a-rang on me.
"Hey. Don't change the subject."
"I wish you had told me how much trouble you were having."
I shrugged again. "You and Doc Reade talk so much, I just figured you knew."
"She is not going to violate doctor-patient confidentiality." Now she sat up in her chair, her back was all up. "And neither am I going to ask her to."
"All right." I reached for the remote control.
"Helena, look at me. This is serious. Your job is physically dangerous enough without having your health endangered. I need you to tell me these things"
"Okay, I will."
"Because if you can't trust me with something so basic, how do you expect me to be able to trust you? It's disingenuous of you to hide important things from me and then behave like a territorial child when I look outside for a little help."
"So what do you want me to do?"
"I want you to keep me abreast of even the smallest headache or fever you get. If you get dizzy I'd like you to tell me so that we can get you in for more scans. Laura, said that she could sneak us in for..."
"No," I interrupted her. "I meant about Freeze. You said you were going to have to get someone in to talk to the warden."
Barbara took a deep breath and let it out. She recognised the change of subject exactly for what it was but she let it go. She knew she could get me another time - tactical genius, that woman.
"I already did."
"When you were in hospital."
"Helena, don't start. I don't think you would have been very convincing as a reporter for the Chronicle."
"That rag? They'll hire anyone. Even their proof checkers are high school dropouts. Did you see the article they ran about the CHUD's last week...?" The blank look on her face was very schooled, to convey her disapproval of my reading habits by the very lack of its expression.
I knew how to take a hint so I shut up. Since I was doing my best to claw my way out of the dog house I suddenly found myself in, I didn't say anything as she rolled back up the ramp to the to her work station and fiddled around. Instead I peeled myself off the couch and followed like the good little lamb that I was trying to be. I had to jump to get out of the way of her reversing wheels, and then spent the next ten seconds apologising for startling her. What she handed me after she cussed me out under her breath was a Ziploc evidence bag with a ripped envelope in it - Smith, Dean and Meyer LLC.
I crinkled the plastic between my fingers, because I could. The envelope had already been dusted for prints and, from the pink stains on the flap, I could tell, had already been swabbed for genetic samples. It was still in its official NGPD baggy, which meant that if Barbara had it, it was a dead lead. I looked at her. "It's a very nice envelope Barbara."
"It was one of the last pieces of mail he received. It was privileged mail, so we really have no idea what was in it, but according to the warden, he started behaving erratically after receiving this letter. All his mail after this was unopened. Six weeks after he opened it, he broke out."
"That's nice. But it's no help without the letter now, is it?" I knew I was missing something; she had her teacher face on. I hated teacher face. It meant either that I had done something stupid, or she was about to ask me do something I wouldn't like at all.
She looked up to meet my eyes. "You want me to break into the law offices of Smith and gang? Get you a tap on their secure LAN?" That was hardly a reason for the big build up. That's what I'd do, anyway.
This time she looked away from me. "Smith Dean is a subsidiary of the Wayne Foundation. Several steps removed of course." Her fingers bounced in the air thrice to indicate the number of steps. "As the sole heir, you'd have access to all records and..."
"No," I said emphatically. "I'm not doing it."
"Helena, it'd be so much easier..."
"...If the Oracle broke into their systems." Suddenly, my headache was back. And I trotted off to my room. "Don't be disingenuous, Barbara. I'm not going to take my seat on the board just to get you a little information."
"Helena, where do you think you're going?"
"To bed, I have a headache. I think I may be coming down with a fever, too. You should call Doc Reade, tell her I don't feel well again." I slammed the door behind me, shutting out her voice.
<"....."> Whatever Oracle said, I missed. I was too busy sneezing and dusting the dirt from the acoustical tile off my boot. The building seriously needed a new HVAC contract. My throat was clogged with dirt. "Sorry. Missed that," I whispered.
<"I said, you should be in the reception area.">
I ducked my head through the space I had created. Sure enough, it was the reception area. "That's an affirmative," I said as I dropped down to the carpeted floor. Somewhere in there, a cleaning crew was vacuuming away. The offices of Smith, Dean and Meyer were posh - very posh, indeed. The receptionist's desk was a monolith of solid oak floating in a plush pile of creamy beige. The wide, transparent doors, which separated the firm from the elevator lobby had handles moulded into the thick glass. Not that the handles would ever be needed, the portal was clearly an automatic sliding door. The stylised embryo etched into the glass was split in half by the seam of the two door flanges. A stylised embryo?
"All right, you need to head to the right and follow the corridor all the way to the end until you get to the server rooms."
"What sort of a law firm is this, anyway?"
<"Probate law, inheritance, estate...Why?">
"What's with the creepy logo?
"They also specialise in Estate Preservation, lobby for biostasis rights."
"Like I'm really dumb..."
<"The ethics of cryonics, and the legal rights of possible future resurrectees.">
"They're protecting the rights of the dead?" I passed by their coffeeroom, which I noticed had as many buttons and screens as the Delphi.
<"It's a new and exciting field of law.">
"I just bet. So do they collect their fees when the client is revived successfully or before they go in the box?" The silence that followed was - I was convinced - even static free. "That's what I thought." Soon enough I was surrounded by the hum of stacks of tiny fans whirring away in unison and blowing hot air through the room.
<"When you get to the server room, walk through it. You should get to two doors, take the one on the left. It's the active file room.">
The active file room was huge. If there were ever an argument for computerising records that room was it. Row upon row, shelf on shelf; file folders in accordion boxes all tabbed to indicate relevance and reference. An acre of rainforest died to create that room. Like a mausoleum of tree corpses, the boxes reached all the way to the ceiling.
"Uhh...Oracle? Are you sure you can't just hack the electronic records?"
<"No. I need you to go to the F's.">
"...Go F...how appropriate." I muttered.
"Nothing," I said as I took in the immensity of the boredom that would ensue from this hunt. I swear, I think that she sometimes made me do things the hard way because she got bored of staring at her damn screens. "Just searching for the Fs."
86 minutes of scanning for files, reading headers, restoring the slips and memos in the exact order in which I had found them, and kicking dodgy photocopiers later I emerged from the ducting of Dean Smith and Meyer with half a ream of documentation. We finally had a bead on what it was that snapped our villains frozen brain.
Yeesh! Victor Fries. Mr. Freeze, he sure was inventive with the criminal pseudonyms. Not. God damn crazy kooks, for some reason Gotham just seemed to breed them. All in all the little B&E had gone well. For the first time in a long time, Barbara hadn't hovered in my ear over every little thing. In the long breaks that she had taken to do her own research, I photocopied whatever she told me to. I popped by the coffee room to drink the coffee and eat the doughnuts. The coffee really was superior. These lawyers sure did well. Maybe mom had been on to something when she had suggested that law school was a good idea. In the distance I heard the falling sirens and racing streaks of police cars. Sounded like something was up.
"Oracle?" There was no response. That was odd. After a few seconds, I asked again. "Oracle?"
<"Yes?"> She sounded a little distracted or out of breath, which was strange.
"I'm hearing sirens."
<"It's under control.">
Really? Well, if she said so. "Okay I'm coming in."
"I thought we just had this conversation."
"About trust, dammit!"
The typing stopped and she cocked her head as she looked away from her screens. "What?"
I closed my eyes and let out a breath as I counted to five. "This!" I practically yelled, as I waved the head line around.
"Oh?" I asked as I stalked up to the platform. " 'I trust you. I trust you the most.' Fat fucking chance you do. You said everything was under control last night."
The whole conversation was really special. She wasn't even looking at me. "So why didn't you tell me about it."
"There wouldn't have been any point."
"No point? Five people are dead."
"It was Freeze. He attacked Gotham General. Not five minutes from where I was."
"It was too late for you to do anything."
"But I could have tried."
"What you were doing was more important."
"Copying legal documents is more important than capturing a crazy criminal?"
"It was, yesterday." Beautiful! Strong, silent Barbara.
"Fine," I said. "I'm outta here." Whoo! That got her attention.
"Where are you going; and why are you dressed like that?"
"To the crime scene. And I'm always dressed like this."
"No," she protested violently as she wheeled down the ramp. "Laura wants you to go in for another scan.
I wondered if she were feeling okay. "Barbara. I'm joking. I have to go to work, remember? I have the day shift. 12 to 8?"
I noticed the circles under her eyes. And the tight set of her shoulders. She was still wearing the same sweater she had been wearing the previous night. And the small piece of burnt orange lint from her sweater was still stuck in her hair. I reached over and picked it out. "Go to sleep."
"Are you deaf? Go to sleep. You're forgetting things. You need sleep."
"Just a little coffee..."
"Will not solve the problem. You're worn out." I knew what would send her into her room. "I mean, I hate to say this, but you were off last night as well. I had to backtrack two duct turn-offs to get to the right place. And you said that Jackson Street was south east of my position. It was north east of me. You're going to get me killed, Barbara. Only one of us can afford to be off our game like this." She went so still, it was almost like she had stopped breathing.
I was very un-cool.
She took a deep breath and pushed a small card into my hand. And without a word she went to the elevator. She didn't turn her chair around. I saw only the red of her head when the sliding doors hissed close behind her.
Strangely enough I found myself falling asleep. Not that falling asleep is strange, but I have always been a little claustrophobic and an MRI machine isn't exactly the open range. But the humming and the vibration of the machine was massaging me and I was starting to doze. It was this beautiful floaty feeling. In my head I was flying above Gotham city. Not leaping across the buildings like I usually did but really flying. There was the Finger River. The Sprang. City Hall. Wayne Tower. I flew South over the docks, and Mr. Gordon's house. Back to the Wayne tower. And there was the clock tower. Glowing like a beacon on the south side of the city. The light as it filtered through the glass face of the clock was warm and fuzzy. Outside there was rain and wind. If only I could get inside there, everything would be okay. A soft grey shadow glided across the face of the clock - Barbara. I reached my hand out to touch the shadow of her. But I was too far. Closer, I needed to get closer. Slowly the currents of air I was floating on let me down, inch by inch, foot by foot. Too fast, I was going too fast. I was falling. Next thing I knew Doc Reade was tugging on my foot. I looked up at her from the bench and blinked.
"Fell asleep, eh?"
I cleared my throat, "Yeah, I guess." And I shook my head to clear the cobwebs.
"Don't worry about it. Happens a lot," she said as she walked to a blonde technician holding out a clipboard and a pen. She signed off a form and collected something from the tech. "Something about the humming, I think. One of my friends is actually doing research on it. You know how kids find the hum of the washing machine or vacuum soothing? Or how they'll fall asleep once you get them inside a running car? There's a certain frequency that's very comforting to human babies and even adults. I can't wait to read the conclusions."
"Yeah." My voice was very gravelly. I felt like I had been asleep for days. I felt like I had been drugged. As I sat up I took a moment to notice the special gowns in the hospital. They had a split seam in the front and back held together by Velcro.
She must have seen me fingering the Velcro seam. "Nice gown, yeah?" I nodded. "Patient designed it. Got sick of having his ass on display all the time and tired of wearing two gowns at a time. We're giving it a try."
"I hope it catches on. Though I don't plan on modelling it any time again." I rubbed my eyes and sampled the grody feeling on my tongue. Before I could say anything else again, another tech walked into the room.
"Err....Dr. Reade? Dr. Chan wants to know when the room is going to be free. He has two patients on the line."
"Well, he's not scheduled for another thirteen minutes yet," she said. "So tell him to stuff it and wait his turn." The bewildered tech just nodded her head and left. "I swear," she said as she turned to me. "I picked this hospital to work in because it's the least taxed ER in the whole city. But what can you do? It's Gotham. Radiology needs the machines every fucking second. Get dressed, we'll go to my office."
Doctor Reade's office, like her, was very re-assuring. Actually it was a cubicle. A good sized one, but still a cubicle. But she had covered the desk in a leather sheath and laid a sheet of thick glass over it. The chair she used and the visitors' chairs were classically designed, stuffed lounge chairs, which gave an air of comfort and competence. Instead of medical references, the shelves were stocked with general reading - humorous novels, philosophy, fashion, art. Her desk had two photographs - one of a smiling old man in a fishing vest sitting on the back of a jeep with a small dark haired girl on his lap. The other was of a younger Laura Reade on Christmas vacation with an older version of her - probably her mother - both wore matching Santa hats, and similar red and green themed sweaters. Whoever the good Doctor Reade was, she was money.
I was distracted by the photos. I realised that I had no pictures of mom and me in the tower. In fact, it had been a long time I had seen a picture of my mom. I tried to picture her in my head and found that I couldn't.
I ran through all my memories of her. The last time I saw her, the official identification - her skin was so pale and her hands so still. The last time I saw her alive on that street - I was crying, I couldn't see her face. I tried to remember all those times in the office with her at the gallery, she at the computer and me talking. I could hear the clicking of the keys, her fingers flying across them like magic; the sound of the scanner as she copied photos of lots; the rise and fall of her voice as she asked my about my day. But I couldn't see her face. I remembered the shock when I ran into Mom and Barbara at the faculty lounge having a leisurely chat about my academic progress. I remembered the bright red of Barbara's hair; I remembered the hot flush of my skin; Barbara's green-eyed smile of re-assurance. "I've got your back kid' her smile said to me, and I knew she would never do anything to rat me out to Mom. I thought back to our romps in the park; all the times she came to se me perform at a gymnastics meet when I searched for her proud head in the bleachers, with Nibs' ugly mug next to hers, Nibs with his broken nose and square jaw right out of a noir novel. I could see Nibs' face but I couldn't see hers. I was shocked and scared by this discovery. I didn't remember what mom looked like. I couldn't even catch a sidelong glimpse of her in my memory. I couldn't see her at all. Involuntarily, I turned to look at the photos on Doc Reade's desk. I didn't have a single picture of Mom with me. What sort of a kid was I? My mother died in my arms and I didn't have anything to remember her by. A chill ran through me that took my breath away. How could I have allowed this to happen? It was worse than shocking. It was a disgrace. Fuck!
Somewhere in the distance I heard a voice. 'No,' I wanted to shout back at it. 'Nothing's okay!' I couldn't remember Mom's face. 'How can I not remember Mom's face?'
"Ms. Kyle?" the same voice asked as it placed a warm grasp around my wrist. Only the strange thing was that both the voice and warm grasp were very close to my ear. I opened my eyes - I hadn't even realised that I closed them - and noticed that I had my head in my hands and was breathing very fast. I was hyperventilating. "...Are you dizzy?" I absently shook my head. "Well, just put your hands over your face then and try to take shallower breaths. You're hyperventilating."
No kidding Sherlock!
"Okay then, I guess you know that."
Uh oh. I had said that aloud. "Sorry..."
"No problem. Just, you know, sit back. Breathe shallowly. You'll be fine a minute. You'll be just fine."
"It was just the..." I half-heartedly pointed at the pictures on her desk.
"It's okay, Ms. Kyle," she interrupted me. "I don't need to know." I nodded gratefully. She stared at me across the table. Even though she wasn't smiling, I got the feeling that a smile wasn't very far off from her face. After I got it together, she tossed her head at me in question. "That been happening a lot?"
"Not really. Just sometimes."
She brushed the skin on her nose in front of her spectacle frames in a version of Barbara's favourite gesture. "When you're under stress, I bet. And I don't mean," she interrupted my unsaid speech with an accusing index finger, "when you're working hard, either." I said nothing.
"So what's my diagnosis?"
"The same as it was last week. Don't look at me that way. I know I'm a genius but even I don't know everything. Plant toxicology isn't my thing. Neurology is. But from what I can tell, you've got a bioactive toxin that's disrupting your autonomic functions. The effects have been minor so far - small thermal fluctuations, disrupted sleep patterns, tachycardia but you seem to be degenerating," she said pulling a pen from her pocket and starting to write a note. "In terms of medication, the best I can do is prescribe a mild sedative for bed time. Don't take more than one in a day, but I suspect you need the rest. Frankly, I'm going to recommend that you lay off the job for a while."
The inflection she gave the word 'job' was very suspicious. "Lay off the job?"
She looked up from her notepad and stared significantly at me. "Ms. Kyle," she put her pen down and gestured outwardly with open palms. "Barbara's told me that you work in law enforcement in the capacity of an independent consultant - very confidential and often dangerous work. She hasn't violated any confidences if that's what you're worried about, simply tried to impress on me the importance of your neurological fitness."
"Well, that's not going to be an option."
"Do you often use or encounter the use of weapons in your line of work?" she cocked her head at me quizzically. "Are your interviews and your...," she cleared her throat, "personnel interactions...of a physical nature?" I didn't reply. She shook her head minutely. All the time, I still had the feeling that she wanted to smile really badly. "Whatever the chemicals are doing in your nerves they're wreaking havoc on you. I suspect that it's not the chemicals themselves but the breakdown products that are proving so toxic to you. You walk out on to the field in this state and there's no telling what could happen. Don't take this the wrong way, but you're barely able to remain coherent as it is."
"I'm fine Doc."
"I'm sure you are Ms. Kyle, but you had a similar episode a few days ago. I'm not saying you're in danger but, if what I gather about your line of work is correct, you won't be able to afford a lapse in coherence or ability."
"Look, Doc. I know I'm in trouble, all right? But the only reason I'm here is 'cause Barbara will get on my case if I don't. Maybe I can't afford to be off my game but I can't afford to take a holiday either. So why don't you give me my damn prescription, send Barbara my scans and we'll keep it nice and clean."
"Whatever you say, Ms Kyle." She brushed her nose and pushed her glasses up her nose and turned to her computer screen. Typical. My life was filled with spectacle wearing computer geeks who were always telling me what to do.
As she played around with her computer and talked to the lab on her phone I kept staring at the photo on her desk. It was funny, I had practically nothing to remind me of Mom in my room. First it was too painful and after that I had been too pre-occupied with other things - rebellion, Dick, Oracle, my new career as some sort of goody two shoes. I had plenty of things to remind me about Barbara though - and I already lived with her. I decided I really had to do something to change that.
The simple fact of the matter is I had cold feet. And calves, and knees, and thighs but let's not get nitpicky. Well, lets. It was more like frozen. Frozen to my waist in the water.
He was watching me. Watching me try to break out of the floes and the slush. He dipped the contacts of his machine into the water and crystals congealed around it. The bridge of ice brought him to me. I wondered if his skin was blue from the cold or if it was headlamp in his helmet. Did he select the lamp to be blue because it was the closest LED at hand or did he do it because it was more theatrical that way? How thick was the ice anyway? Because he wasn't falling through. And he held his hand out to me.
Nice try Popsicle head. Like I was going to let him touch me. In my ear, Oracle was going nuts. "Can you just please shut up for a moment?" I requested.
"You are in my way," came the oddly electronic voice.
"Me?" I gasped through the cold as I paddled away from him. "You're the one," I said spitting out water, "surrounding me with ice."
<"Huntress, submerge and swim out."> Shut up.
"You cannot stop me." Oh great! Cue megalomaniacal monologue.
<"The water underneath won't be as cold..."> I know that <"...swim out while you have the chance."> Shut up!
The ice closed in as I got colder and colder.
"I will torment you like you have tormented me. What you have done to us, I will do to you." Us? Wonderful, bring on the egotistical third person pronouns. "You will learn what it is to have your heart frozen and in pain. I will punish you as I have been punished." He reached into the water and grabbed me by the arm and lifted.
My heart frozen? "Mister," I sputtered as I curled my other hand into a fist, "you have noooo...idea."
<"Huntress, there's no point to this confrontation.">
Guess he didn't have really great treads on his shoes because he went over like so much lumber when my fist went into his faceplate.
<"Huntress, give me an update here."> Shut up.
"Listen ice boy!" Bam! The ice around his head flew in chips as I brought it down again and again. "I am sick and tired of you" Bam! "Fucking around with my city." I saw the webbed cracks on the faceplate start to expand and I made sure to keep punching the same spot over and over and over again. Punishment, the guy was talking to me about punishment? I was going to show him exactly what punishing meant. I was going to rip the pipes from his suit, smash his helmet, put him in a sauna, and eat Haagen Dasz while I watched him sweat.
Of course my hands were pretty cold by that point so I really didn't feel him gloved hand around my wrist until he squeezed. I saw the surge of power running through his suit as he powered up the pack on his back. Uh oh. Behind him on the shore, the machine powered up as well. Frost rose around us in an impenetrable fog of chilled water vapour and the swelling ice grew around us. The cracking and tearing of frozen water snapping the bones of its liquid spine broke the quietness. And then the concrete gave way, crumbling like dust under the assault of the ice. The surface underneath us bucked. Free of his freezing grip I hurled myself across the ice and went sliding across the smooth plane. When reached the slushy edge of the frozen lake I looked back. He was laughing his deranged laugh and bellowing out his words.
"You cannot stop me."
Wet. Wet. Wet. And it was raining. Thank God for the rain, at least it was warm. Or at least not as cold as the water I was wading in. But it was hell on electronic communications.
"What?" I yelled as loud as I could. My voice scared someone and he started to cry. Well that was good, at least I could tell where he was. A little boy tried to clamber up on the roof of a car in the flooded street. His pants were wet all the way up to this thighs and he clutched a GI Joe doll in his right hand. He had tried to brave the water but it was flowing pretty fast on that particular street and was probably over his head too.
"Hey kid!" I yelled. "Stay there. I'm coming for you." Well, I really needed to tell him to stay there, didn't I? He was doing a pretty good job of it on his own. But as I got closer I realised why he was getting desperate. The water was starting to cover the hood of the car where he climbed up. 'Jesus,' I thought. 'How much water is in this damn thing anyway?' I'd always thought the reservoir was some kind of expensive showpiece, not the real deal. But no, that thing really stored millions of gallons of water. If the Water District decided to close up the pipes for maintenance, it turned out that the reservoir could provide drinking water for the entire city for two whole damn days. Over-efficient damn bastards. What sort of security did they have at the place anyway when practically anyone could walk in and breach the reservoir's walls?
"Yeah. Loud and staticy."
"I don't know Oracle, you tell me. I lost him ten minutes ago."
"You tell me, I lost him ten minutes ago."
Fuuuck! "I LOST HIM TEN MINUTES AGO." I yelled as I pulled the transmitter up to my mouth. 'Forty thousand dollar piece of shit,' I thought as I let it drop against me. 'A little cold water and it craps out.'
I had lost Freeze. Ten minutes ago, I had seen his demented glowing head on a rise somewhere by the reservoir, but he was probably nowhere near the place anymore, because I had heard a helicopter not too long ago. There was another thing - how does a man just recently escaped from prison acquire a god damned chopper? Did he buy it? Did he steal it? Didn't anyone see his overly armoured ass coming? Couldn't they shoot at him? One little hole in that suit of his and it was all over for him. And where did he pick up that suit anyway? Were the cops at Blackgate just keeping one handy in case he got out on parole and had nothing to wear?
Son of a bitch! That kid really needed to stop crying, I was on my last nerve. I was coming to rescue him not drown him. I climbed up on the hood of the car.
"What's up kid, you lost?" I asked as I blew on my fingers for a little warmth.
"Yeah," he said holding on to his doll even harder.
"So, you live around here?" He shook his tousled little head. Wonderful! "Do you know where you live?"
He nodded. "Fawty seven, Sawlins stwreet on the thord floor."
"Sahlins street?" That was two long blocks over. "What're you doing here?"
"I was playing."
"Alone? At night?" Some parents'll let their kids do anything. I should know, mine did.
He seemed to shrink a little into himself. "I was with my big brother. We got..."
"...Separated," I sighed. "Sure. All right, hang on to me. I'll get you home, okay?"
I stepped down onto the street and was almost knocked over by the flow. I grabbed the kid by the middle and settled him onto my shoulders. As I started to walk around the corner I noticed that he was a little off-balance. He wasn't holding on because he had his GI Joe doll clutched in both hands. I reached up with my cold hands and felt him convulse.
"Look, I'll put your doll in my pocket, okay? That way you can hold on to me you don't have to worry about losing it." I tilted my head back to look at him. He peered back at me through drippy bangs. He seemed reluctant to let go but I smiled at him. "Really, kid. I promise not to lose it." Grudgingly he handed his doll over to me. I made a big show of putting it in my inside pocket and patting it to show him how safe it was. As I waded on, I felt his little hand come around my head and tug up. "What?" I asked.
"It's an action figaw."
"What?" I laughed.
"It's not a doll. It's an action figaw."
I snorted at that. "Sure kid, whatever."
The kid's parents and hysterical old brother were more than thrilled to see him. But before they could ask me too many questions I dodged the hell out.
Since I sort of agreed with Barbara about the whole 'arrest the effects of crime on the innocent' and the whole 'protect the citizens' spiel, I spent the next two hours collecting strays, getting people to dry land and resuscitating drowned individuals. Either I had to stop doing the EMS thing or carry around one of those inflatable bellows-baggy things for CPR. Because some of the citizens ate garlic and onions for dinner, and did I really need to know that about them just because I was saving their lives. Blechh!
I made sure to stay the hell away from the reservoir. The cops, firemen and engineers were all over the place and I didn't need to tangle with them.
Clearly, Freeze was nowhere to be seen.
I was starting to feel a little inadequate as a crime fighter. I had spent more time cleaning up after this guy and rescuing people than doing any real ass-kicking. Maybe the dead copsicle's cooties had rubbed off on me - like the boys in blue, I was starting to show up after everything had gone down, and was no use at all. This was the third time the bastard had gotten away from me. I could just picture Righteous Richard Grayson watching all this on the news and tsking over my inefficiency and inexperience.
Barbara had gotten my scans two days ago, before I returned from Doc Reade's office. She didn't look happy. She looked all worried and concerned. She had cut down on sweeps time. And she wasn't sending me out to a lot of crime scenes that she might have sent me to on a normal day. Her argument was that I needed to be on call for a Freeze emergency. But I knew that was a crock because the last time I was out at the lawyers' offices and there had been a Freeze emergency she let the cops handle it. She was treating me like I needed to be wrapped in cotton wool and fussed over. Suddenly I had an excellent insight into why she was snappish the whole first year she had been released from the hospital. If the way she looked at me was the look Alfred, Mr. Gordon and I had been throwing her way she must have wanted to kill every single one of us. God alone knew I was ready to some major damage myself.
When I stepped on to the balcony, it was slick with rain. No surprise there. But it was just really annoying having had spent the last few hours up to my waist in water. I had started to prune. Worse, having pruned I was now probably bloating. Plus I was cold but I couldn't feel it, and like the doctor said I was starting to feel a little incoherent. 'Weird,' I thought. 'So this is what being normal feels like. You get tired after only a few hours of exertion.' Not wanting to slip despite normally impeccable balance I walked in carefully.
I guess Barbara hadn't heard me come in because I heard her saying things that would shock most people. Hell, even I was shocked. I didn't know she knew how to swear like that.
"Damn over priced piece of crap!" she said finally as she hurled her ear-piece across the room.
Barbara jumped and turned around in her chair to glare at me. "Damn it Helena, how many times have I told you not to sneak up on me like that? And where the hell were you anyway. I've been trying to contact you for hours. You could have tried to tell me what you were doing and where you were. You knew that I was getting most of your transmissions." I wondered how long she could go without taking a breath. Not very long, at that volume, apparently because she stopped yelling and glared at me.
"Well, I was rescuing this scared little kid and he looked freaked enough without having his rescuer talking into the air And after that I figured you could track me so what was the point having to repeat everything I said. I couldn't hear you, so I turned the thing off."
Getting out of my clothes was a major hassle. Leather: once it's wet you realise that it is someone's skin - namely yours, because you can't taking off without some pain.
Barbara sighed behind me and I heard the clatter of her glasses against the desk. I laid even odds that she was rubbing her eyes.
The bathroom was a bit of a surprise. There were towels laid on the floor, and space heaters to make the room nice and toasty. It must have taken her a while to do all of that because I knew Alfred wasn't around that day. I considered taking a hot shower but the thought of more water falling on my head made me want to puke. I picked up a toasty white towel from the ledge by the sink and dried my hair. I sat down on the lip of the tub and struggled with my pants. In the middle of a particularly loud grunt, I heard a knock on the door.
"Come in," I called out. The door swung back and it was a few seconds before I saw the edge of the front wheels of her chair.
"Do you need a hand?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Sure, why not?"
Manoeuvring her way in, she turned to face me. The corner of her lips twitched in a suppressed smile as she shook her head at me. "You might try taking your boots off first."
I looked down at my feet and noticed that the shit kickers were still on my feet. Dammit. I let out a sign and slumped. I didn't think I had the strength to bend over and struggle with the damn buckles which were sure to be wet and sure to be a pain in my ass. "Yeah, I suppose I might."
Barbara pushed a little closer to me and bent over. She picked up one of my booted feet and placed it on the chair between the V of her thighs. She pulled a thin pen from her shirt pocket and inserted in the loop of the lowest buckle and pried it under the leather to make a small space for her fingers to get a grip. And here was one of the other great ironies of life. I was routinely undressed by one of the most beautiful women I knew. Hell she'd even take my shoes off for me. And yet nothing. That's all she did. I let out a sigh as I reined in the fantasy my mind was about to spin off. Barbara looked up from her work and stilled her hands. "Or I could cut them off if this is taking too long."
That made me sit up. NO! "No. That's okay. Take your time. I was just thinking how tired I am." She smiled and went back to her work. The silence was taking up too much space so I spoke. "Soo..."
"I lost him."
"Yes, you told me that."
"What about you?"
"I lost him too."
"Any idea where he went?"
She grunted as she struggled with the last buckle. "Nope. Flew out on to the water. Could have gone anywhere from there."
I gripped the edge of the tub as she yanked on the boot. It came free in her hand with a squelching, popping sound. Gratefully, I removed the divested foot from between her thighs and placed it on the ground. I lifted my other foot with a groan - it felt really heavy - and placed it between her thighs.
"Sorry about the transmitter thing." She didn't say anything. She was having a hard time inserting the tip of the pen under the loop of leather. Of course, it was my left boot, the one that I always strapped a little tighter because for some reason - even when I had my boots custom ordered - the left boot was a little larger than the right boot. It was weird how my left foot felt looser in the boots than my right one - so I always strapped that one in a little harder. "I mean, it was really annoying not being able to make out what you were saying and having to shout or repeat things all the time."
"It's okay," she said as the strap came free of the buckle. "But in the future just keep the damn thing on anyway. You never know."
She had a point, I suppose, so I agreed with a nod. She continued to pick away at the boots. Despite her earlier outburst she looked calm. She didn't look like she was ready to ream me a new one. "You're not freaked out."
"You're not freaked out. You're not reading me the riot act. There's no lecture." I'm sure she noticed how it all came out as a statement.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean."
"You know something."
"I know a lot of things Helena."
"I mean you know something about the Freeze case. You're in a good mood."
With another massive tug the second boot came off and she removed my foot from between her thighs and put it on the ground. I really had to stop thinking the phrase 'between her thighs' no matter how warm the idea was making me.
"Yes," she said, triumphantly. "Why don't you clean up and I'll show you." With a big smile she turned her chair around and left the bath.
Once again I sat by the Delphi all wrapped up in fluffy white terry cloth robe sipping hot chicken soup. Only this time Barbara had given me a couple of anti-viral drugs. Prophylactic measure, she said. She had to go and mention prophylactics.
Once I had settled myself on a desk next to the current display, she gave me a dirty glare that I ignored, and looked at the picture on the screen. It was a tall statuesque blonde -close to six feet tall. Talk about your Nordic beauty, I let out an involuntary whistle.
"Damn!" I said. The glare that came my way was filthier than the last one and I felt honour bound to defend myself. "What?" I shrugged? "She's hot looking."
"Quite," she said acerbically, turning back to the screen.
"No, look. She's like a model or something."
"Yes, thank you Helena. I am quite aware of her aesthetic attractions."
"So do you think they're real?"
"Excuse me?" came the disbelieving voice.
"Her aesthetic attractions," I said with a straight face. "Do you think they've been augmented?" But halfway through that sentence the uptight expression on Barbara's face me had me rolling with laughter.
This time she was the one ignoring me. In her best teacher voice she announced the name of the subject as she held her hand out to the screen. "Nora Fries. Born January 8 1961."
Nora Fries? Wait a minute. Hadn't I just copied a whole bunch of papers about this woman a few days ago? "This is Freeze's wife?" Barbara nodded. "So?" I asked.
"In 1993," she continued, "Victor Fries was charged with - among other things - the murder of his wife Nora."
"Okay. Crazy guy, offs his wife," I hoped she noticed how I didn't say 'iced', "goes to jail. What's the story?"
"I'm getting to it if you'll just stop asking me questions."
With a couple of clicks she brought up a copy of Nora Fries' death certificate. It was dated July 27, 1999. I blinked. There was something very wrong here. I turned my head to look at Barbara.
"He was never really sentenced on that charge."
"What did he get put away for then?"
"He robbed three federal banks, caused the deaths of thirty-six people and caused millions of dollars of damage to the infrastructure of the city. There was plenty to put him away for. But his wife's murder charge is the only one he had his lawyers challenge."
I knew that this was going to be one hell of a story, so I settled in. "Nora Fries was diagnosed with McGregor's syndrome in 1991. It's a degenerative disease of the nerves. No cure." I nodded. "Fries, used up all his technical contacts in the biomedical world trying to stall the progress of the disease. Apparently low temperatures inhibited the degeneration. He had her cryogenically frozen to maintain her until a cure could be found." Here she clicked to a picture of the same woman in an icy tube glowing blue with the light form the lamps. Exactly the same blue lamps that Freeze had on his headpiece.
Wow! Talk about your ice-queen. "But?" I asked.
"Experimental research on humans."
"Ah." With federal money funding his lab I was sure that didn't go over well.
"So the head of his program, Luke Reynolds, tried to shut him down when he found out that Nora Fries was taking up a few million dollars worth of space in his project. He and Victor got in a fight. Reynolds ended up dead, but not before Victor had been exposed to the chemicals in his lab."
So that's how he got that way. I had always just assumed he was a meta like the rest of this city's trouble makers. "Hence the popsicle brain."
"He went on a rampage to fund his research for a cure. But Bruce, Dick and I were able to bring him in." I rolled my eyes at her easy reference to two men I despised. "All the other stuff was an easy indict, but he fought the murder charge tooth and nail. He claimed that all he did was expose his wife to the same chemicals he had been exposed to. If he was alive, it stood to reason, she was too. Only problem was as far as anyone could tell she was dead."
"No readings from the body?"
"None. It is possible that he was right; that their equipment wasn't sensitive enough to take readings at the level of cryo-suspension she was in. But until a finding could be made, she couldn't be declared dead and he couldn't be charged with her murder."
"So what happened?"
"Once experimental drugs for the disease became available, it looks like her family went to court over this. They claimed that the trajectory of the disease would have taken a fatal turn eventually and they had a right to verify Victor's claims. They brought an injunction to release her from cryonic suspension and apply the drugs to her if she really were alive as he claimed..."
"Let me guess...she didn't wake up." She nodded back at me. I continued, "But..."
Barbara cut me off. "They used the same lawyers, Victor and Nora. But she never changed her will." I cocked my head in anticipation of the revelation to come. "She was a bio-chemist herself. No real ties to church, not religious at all." Here she took a significant pause. She could be such a drama queen at times. "She willed her physical remains to medical research. The letter informed him of the outcome of her last will and testament."
I took a deep breath. Suddenly it all made sense. George McCullough, Gotham General, St. Vincent's - they were all teaching hospitals. He wasn't just trying to cripple the city, he was trying to get his wife back.
Barbara leaned over and handed me a printout. "I've tracked her. She's in four different places." Four places? I gulped. This is going to be ugly. I looked down at the list. "There's only one on the list he hasn't hit yet." Atlantic Medical.
"It's a private hospital." I said.
"That's probably why he hasn't thought to hit it yet. I've also been tracking a couple of warehouse robberies."
"Three different companies have reported thefts and loss of goods. The same thing was missing each time. Ammonium Nitrate."
"No, just the nitrate." She paused and licked her lips. "Helena, the offices at the reservoir kept records and plans of the Gotham county dam. I think that today was just practice."
The snow was already falling when I left the bar that night. The wind was picking up and the temperature was falling. Barely the end of November and winter was already here. If you believed in signs and omens you'd say that even the weather was on Freeze's side. We were getting a preview of January from the spillover of a little Canadian snowstorm. Everything was cold and slippery. Tiny little ice crystals still hung around in cool corners where the sleet had deposited them. Not my favourite weather. Everything becomes dangerous. It doesn't matter how good your balance is, when you slip on a pool of sludge, you slip and fall. Once second of distraction and you fall badly. Not that I ever fall badly. But you've got to watch out for these things.
Actually I was the one who needed to watch out. Working out with Barbara in the last week I had beaned myself a couple of times with my own stunts. And Barbara managed to nail me as well. There was still a teeny tiny bump on the side of my head from her escrima stick. Good thing I'm good at hiding the pain. All this accident shit was really starting to annoy me. Fucking Poison Ivy. In her padded cell and her damn plants. I should have drained her dry when I had the chance. I couldn't believe she was still alive with no problems and I was the one worrying like a grandmother about cold weather.
Barbara had contacted me an hour before I got off shift. She wanted me to come home before I went to Atlantic that night. Wonderful. It didn't seem to matter how many times I did something like this, I always had to go in for a damn class before the mission. She'd quiz me about entry points and exits, procedures and intents. I'd answer all her questions correctly; have all the information at hand. She'd look at me slightly suspiciously then agree that we were ready to move on and off I'd go.
Looking up from where I was, the clock tower with its large lit up face glowed like a fireplace in the night. Behind it, like a shadow was the Wayne tower.
When I see metaphors everywhere, I start to get worried. It means I'm in my head. Suddenly I didn't want to run across the roofs anymore. I wanted the snow to stop falling on my damn head and I wanted to be warm. Well that's what having a job was for - cash. I jumped down to the street and hopped a cab. It wouldn't kill me to use the door in the apartment this one time. It'd be fun, I could use my extra special elevator code and pretend I was a super secret agent going into my super secret hide-out. Oh wait...
The entire apartment stank. It was this really strong spicy stinging smell that made my teeth itch. Barbara was working on her little chemistry project again.
"Hi honey! I'm ho..oome," I called out. Not that she didn't know I was here already. That's what all the damn cameras and security systems were for.
"Over here," came the answer. She was sitting at the dining table with her hands folded in front of her and a little box to her right.
"What's up Justice League?" she rolled her eyes at that.
I thought it was pretty exciting that Barbara was an original member of the Justice League. Well. Not Barbara, Batgirl really, but I wasn't about to split hairs. After grabbing a soda and sandwich from the refrigerator - mmm roast beef and horseradish - I joined Barbara. Her eyes tracked me as I sat down. "What, no test tonight?" she shook her head.
"Hel..." she started as I popped the tab on the can. The hiss from the escaping gas coincided with her sigh.
She fidgeted and then removed her glasses to look at me. Uh oh. She had teacher face on again. "Helena, as you know, I've been working with Laura, Dr. Reade, on your condition. And I've been doing some of my own research..." Here she paused to look me in the eye. Both her hands came up on to the table and she leaned toward me. Oh no. She had her sympathy face on. This was bad. I was going to die. I had fifteen days to live and Barbara didn't know how to tell me. Teacher face and sympathy face were a bad combination. I knew that look from my own school days. That was the look she gave Terri Wentworth before telling her she was being expelled from school.
"What? What's wrong? Am I dying?"
That made her jump. "No! Why did you think that?"
"Well, your face..."
"Have you been feeling really worse?"
"No! I'm not feeling worse..."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"There's nothing to say..."
"I told you to tell me if..."
"There's nothing to say..."
"Because you have that face on!" I slammed the coke can on to the table.
"Really, Hel, there's no need to shout."
"And there's no need for you to beat around the bush. Just spit it out."
"Okay," she sighed. "Remember the patrolman you tried to save?"
She had to remind me. "Yeah."
"I've been doing some research about providing some kind of protection to anyone in the line of Freeze's fire." God I loved my job. Where else could you hear a phrase like "Freeze's fire" and have it be said seriously?
"Well, we can't buy thermal suits for the whole world, Barbara."
"No, I know that Helena, thank you." She was clearly not grateful. "If you'll just let me finish." She moved the little zippered cooler pack into her hands. "I've been tinkering around with this since August while you were..." She flapped her hand.
"I thought I could find something to counteract the effects; something that would revive you. But you recovered on your own and I slacked off." I was having a hard time understanding why we were talking about Ivy when Freeze was the guy we were trying to bag. "But when you started to get uncharacteristically ill I started working on it again."
She bit her bottom lip and looked up before talking. "But it was from a conversation with Lau...Dr. Reade that I got this idea. So I went back to some of the other...aghrm...samples that we recovered from her lab..." Whose lab? "It was a veritable encyclopaedia of botano-toxins and sera." She was very excited to share that little piece of information. But then again Barbara has a thing for new information. Once she met my un-amused glance she continued rapidly, "You see the fact is, even though plants don't do well in the cold, there are species that survive harsh, freezing temperatures that kill other plants and animals. Like I said, I got the idea from Laura's research into homoeostatic regulation in humans. And her tests on you and the effects you've been experiencing. So I put together a few compounds and had her test them. We did a few simulations on the Delphi and I think..." she paused. "Umm, you yourself," she said looking up at me but not quite meeting my eyes, "mentioned the other week that perhaps a higher degree of protection for you might be warranted. And I think - considering your particularly unique metabolism - we've found a compound that will not only mitigate the effects of the toxic residue in your brain but will also protect you from physiological damage in case of a close encounter with Freeze."
Now this wasn't an overly long speech for Barbara to make. She didn't often say much but when she got on a roll, she could keep going. I mean she was a well-trained athlete - her lungs functioned at top capacity. She could go very far on one breath. But what was kinda strange about this speech was that she looked everywhere but at me. And she was fidgeting. Barbara rarely fidgeted. See, calm, in control Barbara didn't fidget. But today she was fidgeting. So I turned my brain on for just a second and paid attention to everything she had said and tried to get some real meaning from the Discovery Channel lecture that she had just subjected me to.
"So, let me get this straight. Your chemistry experiment that you've been working on. That you've been stinking the house up with for weeks now - it's some sort of serum to protect me from freezing cold?" She nodded. "Doc Reade's been helping you out with research?" She nodded again. "And this magic potion, you got it out of Ivy's play chest?" Again, she nodded. "And you want me to put it into my body, after the first time almost got me killed?"
"I know it sounds a little alarming..."
"Screw alarming, Barbara. It's a poison."
"No, no. It's not a poison. It's only structurally related to..."
"It's a fucking poison! From someone who wanted to kill me, and you if she could get to you, and you want me to volunteer to what, inject into myself?"
You know...there are days when a night out as Huntress is just the dullest damn thing in the world. I walk through the city looking out for crimes and when I see one in progress, I jump in to stop it. On the other side of my earpiece, Oracles looks for bad things that are about to happen, or are happening and then I jump in and stop them. If it isn't this, it's that. But that's not the dull thing. The dull part is that it happens everyday - tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow in this petty pace, from day to day.
It never stops. Patch a hole here and there's a tear opening there. And it's all just this really petty shit - robberies, muggings, heists, smuggling, drugs. Just the most stupid, stupid, petty, mean, pathetic and...petty shit. Really venal bullshit that means nothing. But because it's always about money and the abuse of power I need to keep stepping in. It's like being on the longest road-trip with the meanest bullies and sorriest suckers ever, and I'm one of the parents. I'm constantly having to step in and separate the kids.
Which is why I like the super villains. They're crazy mother-fuckers and I don't need to hold back when I'm going after them. Yeah, yeah...I've heard all the lectures that Barbara gave me; and I've heard the "we don't kill" line too. I mean I got it straight it from the horse's ass. But c'mon, think about it for a second. I beat Poison Ivy to within an inch of her life - I got dirty looks and lectures. But if I had done the same thing to Boris Gventszadze the Ukrainian drug baron operating out of the docks on the east side, she'd take me out back and shoot me. Well, maybe not shoot me. She'd turn me in for sure. She'd personally make sure that I got my own secure cell in the ninth circle of Arkham.
So on days like the one I'm talking about - where I got to break into the Hospital that'd been treating me and steal their research; when I got to tail a psychotic genius who was off his rocker because of his wife's death and was hell bent on freezing the city under six feet of water; and I got to go hand to hand with other violent former inmates of one of the "securest" prisons in the world; and I got knocked about the head with a tire iron before throwing the dipwad who knocked me on the head into the river while protectively cradling, the whole time, the perfectly preserved and flash frozen head of a dead woman that...what the hell was it for anyway - I loved my job.
And you know what made the whole thing even more fun? It was the part where my friend, my mentor, my protector, my teacher, my former guardian, my handler, my partner in anti-crime came up with this totally awesome plan to save me from the effects of a really nasty poison by pumping even more of it into me! And I let her do it because she looked straight at me, right in the eye, and asked me to trust her; because she loved me; because she said she would die first before letting anything bad happen to me; because I believed her when she said all those things; because in my head I thought I was invincible and would live forever; because there's no limit to my stupidity. We were really going to have to talk about that sometime.
And that was how I came to be hanging - by one hand - off the landing gear of a speeding helicopter flying across Gotham city as fat snowflakes stung my face. I mean how did the police not notice three - count 'em - three choppers flying so low over the city that they almost knocked down a TV transponder.
<"Huntress, my initial thought seems to bear out, you're headed in a generally north east vector. Your current trajectory will cross with the Gotham County Dam in about 7 minutes.">
"I really need to make a pit stop."
<"H..Huntress. While I do appreciate the humour, it's a little out of place, don't you think?"> It was a good thing my hearing was pretty sensitive because the roar of wind in my ears was so loud I could barely hear myself talk.
"I'd say so." But I had to do something to distract myself from the fact that I was high above the ground and flying very fast and had a big fat headache. Cat like instincts or not, hitting the ground from here would be a bad thing.
"But then so am I right now, so..."
<"You're not funny.">
"Everybody's a critic. Do I tell you how to do your job?"
"Oh ha. Ha." Thank god for gymnastics and excellent genetics - chinning up to the bar and then pulling myself on to the bar was a cinch. If only I could have stopped the wind blowing...
<"In a very subtly passive-aggressive way.">
"So you'd say I'm smooth?" I asked as I inched my way to the open hatch of the cabin. Luckily for me I had managed to hitch a ride on the least manned of the choppers.
<"As a six day old Tennessee sour mash.">
<"You have no idea.">
"For a house bound geek, you know a lot about liquor."
<"Two words - math conference.">
A sudden change in air pressure and the chopper bucked, almost knocking me off my precarious perch. "Whoa!" I yelped as I flailed with one arm before throwing myself against the fuselage. I wasn't sure what the ringing sound was, the body of the helicopter or my head.
<"Are you okay, what happened?"> Her voice was thick with worry and high with alarm.
"Mary Lou, Mary Lou. I'm fine. Just a little bump in the air." I shook my head and let the wind push the hair out of my eyes. As my fingers rested on the very warm, snow soaked metal skin a thought occurred to me. "Oracle, how cold is it?"
"The temperature. How cold is it?"
<"About 38 degrees. We'll probably get an inch of snow.">
38 degrees? No way. "Whatever. What about up here what would the temperature be up here?"
<"That's hard to say, the temperature always drops a few degrees in the open sky and with the wind speeds and your velocity, there are a lot of variations...">
I cut her off. "Just guess."
<"About three...four degrees?">
I looked at my hand, which was red and healthy with the easy pressure of blood underneath my skin. Huh! Sure doesn't feel like three degrees I thought.
"Oh, nothing. Just wondering how well that stuff is working."
<"How well is it working?">
I inched closer to the open hatch. When I was right at the opening, I tucked into the curve of the bird and slapped fuselage a few times. No response. I made a fist and banged hard. A black-capped head ducked out of the hatch. I caught the puzzled look on his face when he saw nothing. Tilting his head as if to hear something he leaned out further and stretched a muscular hand along the body of the machine. I reached into the soft spaces around the bones of his neck and jerked downwards, enjoying the hollow sound of his face meeting the dome of my head. The sound was immediately followed by the smell of blood, and the feel of his cold slumping body in my hand. I curled my fingers into the fabric around his neck and felt the welcome flexing of tense muscles as I readied to pull his weight downwards the receiver crackled.
"Be careful, don't let him fall off." Spoilsport. I forgot that Barbara was very good at being able to decipher the sounds that arrived on her side of the speakers.
"No problem," I replied, with a fake smile addressed to no one in particular. I reversed the action of my arm and sent him back into the cabin.
The long arc of my boots made unerring contact with the jaw of his surprised associate as I flipped over into a reverse pull up.
I ran my fingers along the plastic sacks stacked evenly in the passenger cabin - the green lettering shining grey in the absence of light, 'ammonium nitrate' - and stalked over to the cockpit. While the cold made not a bit of difference to me, I was glad for the metal frame curving above my head - I was getting a little tired of the sound of the wind and having to shout above it. Reaching the cockpit I placed one hand on the pilot's shoulders as he started, and slid a hand between his face and the microphone to stop him from speaking. "Anh, anh ah. Just keep flying this thing on target and no tricky moves. Ground's a long fucking way down." And just to make conversation, I asked him, "A bit rough to be flyin' out. Just what are you scumbags up to?"
I must have been a little distracted by the glowing lights and the view of the river because the next thing I knew the asshole was pulling a gun on me. But fast reflexes are a wonderful thing - I socked him one and ducked as the bullet rang loudly in the interior of the cockpit before stopping in a flash of sparks and wire.
The scuffle jerked his hand on the joystick tipped it to one side and we went into an alarming dip and turn. I hauled the unconscious pilot off his seat and threw him into the back of the cabin. In the corner of my vision I noticed one body slip through the open hatch and fall out. Oops! Good job we were flying over the river. He was going to have a hell of a headache when he came to - if he didn't drown first.
The actual voice of my conscience crackled in my ear right on the heels of that last thought. <"Huntress, status! I heard a shot fired.">
"Nothing, no problem," I assured her as I scrambled into the pilot's seat and levelled us off. "Pilot got a little excited." With one hand I scrambled around for his radio set. I didn't want to miss any communications between the aircraft.
<"And..."> Oracle prompted me.
"I subdued him."
There was a beat of silence before the comprehending voice came back on line. <"Who's flying the helicopter?">
"I am?" I offered helpfully.
<"Huntress, is that a question or a statement?">
Oh well, I suppose my tone hadn't been re-assuring enough. "It's a statement," I said. I could just see hear her eyebrow rising in question over the hiss of the transceiver. I really couldn't blame her. She'd never seen me fly anything before. "Flight simulator, baby! It's awesome."
<"Tell me you haven't been using my sophisticated and sensitive equipment to play videogames.">
"Oracle, where's the police in all this?"
<"On their way.">
"You helping them along?"
<"They're scrambling. They were waiting for confirmation from the state government.">
"Governor's office came through, did it?"
<"Somehow it did.">
The sight that greeted me on the gantry of the dam was mite puzzling. Not much, just a little. Being overseen by a seething Freeze, were a couple of heavies over each sluice pouring bags of powder into the gateways.
"Oracle, I'm confused."
It took me a second to realise that the evenness of her tone hid a spurt of sarcasm. "No seriously. Why are they dumping the explosive chemicals?"
"They're pouring the nitrate into the sluice channels. Does it still blow up if it's wet? Doesn't it sort of just wash away in the water?"
The brief moment of hesitation gave her puzzlement. <"How much of it is there?">
"Three truckloads. I'm guessing here."
<"There's not enough.">
Slowly, slowly, I crept to along the wall, low to the surface hugging the floor. "Yeah?"
<"If your estimate is correct, that makes about four tonnes at most. That's not enough to put a hole in the damn. You'd crack it but you'd...Oh my God!"> Her voice broke away from me as I heard the rapid morse of the keyboard. She was mumbling about cubic tonnage and caloric joules of energy. I'd lost her. <"Mother of...God Fuck!">
Oh really? "Oracle, status."
<"I can't open the sluice gates.">
"I thought the plan was to keep them closed."
<"Well, this is Plan B.">
Great! Plan B. everybody loves a Plan B. "May I ask why?"
<"It's ammonium nitrate. There's not enough of it to put a hole in the dam but there's enough to freeze water."> I guess she anticipated my duhh because she popped right in with an explanation. <"The reaction will be extremely endothermic. And the channel between the outlet gate and the emergency gate has residual water.">
"Which will expand and crack the gates and then the..." My eyes went to the helicopter on the dam that was now glowing blue. Motherfuck! "He's got a refrigerating machine in the air."
<"We've got to open those gates. Disperse those chemicals.">
I wondered how in the hell we were supposed to be able to move gates that weighed more than god and his fat momma. Figured that we had helped our psychotic perp along on this one. Then I remembered the lumpy weight on my back. "How 'bout I buy you some time." It was time to step up the action.
My condensed breath dispersed in the snow of the frozen air as I ran over the gantry of the dam wall. "Victor! Victor." The glowing head turned in my direction. I held out the jar with Nora's perfectly preserved head. "Don't you want to know where she is? Don't you want to know what she looks like now that she's dead? Don't you want to know what time has done to her beautiful face?"
<"He...Huntress, I know we talked this through, but be very careful how you play this thing.">
"You just concentrate on bypassing those sluice controls," I whispered. I turned the jar around to look at the face in it. "She looks so regal in repose." I called out. "Don't you want to see her face one last time," I asked as I held the jar out over the edge of the dam, "...before she drowns?"
It took a second for my action to register - it must have been the cold, it slows everything down - but when it did, his eyes widened in anger. His bellow echoed and rebounded in the cavernous expanse of the dam's reservoir until it was the only sound left. I prayed that he wouldn't hurt me as long I was holding Nora's head and moved closer to the edge of the dam.
The crosswinds on the waters began to pick up, and the flurries of snow fell faster and heavier as Freeze lumbered toward me. Through my soles, I picked up the vibrations of his heavy treaded boot thumping on the concrete. I shuddered - winter was coming.
"You!" he rumbled. "Give me that."
"What's the magic word big boy?" I asked as I stalked closer to him.
"Now!" he roared, as a completely unnatural blast of cold swept through me. I heard the very air crack as every last droplet of moisture was trapped in a crystal prison of ice. It seemed to take the very air away from my lungs.
"Nope," I croaked as I leaped over him. "That's not it." When he turned around I was standing between him and his men. But this time I was ready for him. I strained my ear for the magnetic hum that signified his freeze gun powering up. I ducked and the blast of cold hit the men behind me freezing them into inaction. "Oops!" I taunted, as I backed away, moving closer to the other men.
With a thump-thump of armoured boots he advanced. He knew what I was trying to do and aimed his gun to the surface we were both walking on. Concrete's a bitch like that, no friction when it's frozen over and it freezes fast. And my balance is good, but not all that good. This is why I hate the fucking cold. My back pedalling steps got smaller and smaller, his got larger and larger.
Oh man, I was in so much trouble. The glint in his eye looked deadly. I decided to take my chances with the frozen surface and ran - more like skated - right into a pile of paper sacks full of nitrate. The impact was less than forgiving to my head. I looked up to see two Freezes advancing on me. Nervousness overtook me like a herd of wild horses on an open field. My heart raced, sweat beaded my upper lip, a trail of liquid salt dripped off my nose and onto my panting tongue. I shook my head to clear the double vision.
That must have been the signal the rest of Freeze's men had needed. I found myself fending off a bunch of goons all with their little Popsicle guns. Another great thing about megalomaniacs - they insist on using their signature weapons. Two guys with bullets and it would have all been over for me.
I was very thankful for all the time Barbara had spent in the training room. Quite without looking at anyone I fought them off. It was the sounds that let me know that I was doing okay - the pop of a slipped jaw, the crack of bone, the limp exhales of breath that signified unconsciousness. It felt like months before my earpiece crackled to life again. I felt the rumbling of moving gears and the trembling rush of water beneath my feet, as I backed into the body of the helicopter.
I didn't let her finish. "Saved my life, oh thank you!"
But my luck ran out when some wise guy finally decided that he was done with the madman's toy guns. A loud shot pinged in the winter air, bounced off the helicopter behind and ricocheted right into the jar I was holding.
The roar of anger and anguish that Freeze let loose was louder than sound of 36,000 cubic tonnes of water, but not louder than the hiss of frozen gases escaping from the cracked glass of the preserving jar. Oh fuck! Nobody had to tell me to duck. Saying a quick thank you to the boys and girls at Microsoft and to Flight Simulator for my flying skills, I scrambled into the cockpit as Freeze decimated his own crew.
The blades of the rotor fought to catch the air. Glacially the machine started to lift away from the concrete surface of the dam. In the distance, the beat of approaching State choppers searched through the murky air with their searchlights. I was done. I had the freeze machine, Freeze had his head to deal with and I could let someone else take care of the situation. It was time the boys in blue did their damn jobs. Heh...damn jobs. And Fucking Freeze could just have his ass hauled off to the cooler. Maybe he could learn to chill out for a bit. I was really pissing Barbara off with my dismal jokes. Using the memory of his dead lover that way - that was cold. So uncool.
Right in the middle of my recitation of really bad puns, I felt an icy grip around my throat that pulled me right out of the chair.
"You. Where is she?" His eyes followed my pointing finger until they came to rest on the perforated jar. "Nora" he sighed. Kneeling by her, he sealed the leak with a touch of an icy touch before he turned to me. "As cold as your heart is, then be cold."
It was a tingling in my blood; a warmth that radiated from his frozen glove. The air in my lungs turned to water, the blood in my veins turned to sluggish slush. My eyes grew heavy with the weight of the ice. But damned if I was going to let someone else's grief kill me. If Freeze wanted to die then he could. I had things to live for. There was a long talk Barbara and I needed to have. There was a question of trust that needed to be resolved. Maybe she would finally tell me why she seemed sure that I would do anything she asked of me. And no damn thing was going to keep me from doing all those things.
Freeze really should have paid attention the last time he suspended me mid-air, it hadn't ended well for him then, it didn't this time. The pilotless chopper rotated slowly on its axis, carrying us both into the humming engine of his machine, the imbalanced weight lurched the chopper. The back of Freeze's helmet was a screeching shower of sparks all along the floor of the helicopter. Whoosh thump crack - that was the first rotor blade meeting the wall of the dam. Whoosh thump crack - the second blade. Crunch - that would have been the fuselage making full contact. And the exploding orange ball - that would have been the leaking fuel tank disintegrating in a hungry explosion. And in the heart of that cloud of flame that carried me out the open hatch was Freeze, clutching the last remaining piece of his love to his heart. The shrieking glass cut through the air, each jagged shard refracting the world into a rainbow of colour. Blood dripped into my eyes. And there was that smell again.
I had smelled it when Barbara had drawn the dose into the syringe. A smell like the moist spice of rain sodden woods. It was then I recognised the smell for what it was, the scent of Poison Ivy. That was why my nerves had been on edge for all the weeks that Barbara had been experimenting on the serum. It was in my blood now.
Such a simple thing - don't go near her, Barbara had said. But somehow I had found myself drifting closer and closer to her. The air was rich with the smell of grass and flowers and her hair was so red. The closer I got to her, the more clearly I could see her eyes - green. She smiled; it was a gentle smile that she radiated as her slender fingers fell gently on the fuzzy white tip of a plant. The tight bud opened to a bloom under her directed regard. In that second, amidst all that chaos, I wondered, 'What must it be like, to have the full regard of the creature that has made you, moulded you, raised you from a young graft to a young sapling? 'What is it like,' I wondered, 'to know that the person who has made you sees you?' Then she looked up. And suddenly that same smile was directed at me. She spoke in a whisper that grew around my spine and held me by my eyes. I found myself smiling back. How obvious was it, her seduction of me? And how lucky that she shared two features with the only one who could seduce me? Her red hair, her green eyes. And just for one moment I fell into them, losing myself.
I was floating. There was the Finger River. The Sprang. City Hall. Wayne Tower. The docks, and Mr. Gordon's house. And there was the clock tower. Glowing like a beacon on the south side of the city. The light, as it filtered through the glass face of the clock was warm and fuzzy. Here, there was ice and water. If only I could get inside there, everything would be okay. A soft grey shadow glided across the face of the clock - Barbara. I reached my hand out to touch the shadow of her. But I was too far. I was falling, I was falling very far away.
It's like the air you breathe. It surrounds you. But sometimes it is like water, if you let it get above your head, you can't breathe - you drown. Just breathe through the pain. Let it flow through you. Don't resist it. The pain comes and it passes through you - open up to it. Let go - let it pour into your lungs. Maybe you can be a fish
I stopped falling.
Helena's list of top 10 people to kill, 2000
1.) Mom's stabber
3.) Mr. Freeze
4.) Dick Grayson
5.) Poison Ivy
6.) Guy who tried to spray me with poison
7.) Dick Grayson
8.) Guy who hit me over the head
10.) The motherfucker at the pizza counter
continued in Present Continuous