Book One: First Person
COPYRIGHT DISCLAIMER: "BIRDS OF PREY" and other related entities are owned, ™ and © by Warner Bros., Tollin-Robbins Productions, and DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.
“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.
SEX AND VIOLENCE DISCLAIMERS: This literary work contains violence, and profuse usage of profanity not appropriate for readers under the age 13. This work also describes same-gender, homoerotic relationships and graphic depictions of sexuality – if you are considered a minor, or if representations of homosexuality are considered illegal in your particular geo-political location this is not suitable reading material for you.
OTHER DISCLAIMERS: This is an unedited first draft. If you feel moved to tell me where the errors are, I will move off my ass and make the changes.
ARCHIVING: Ask the author’s permission: Phryne at email@example.com
My body is to me a thing alive. Not because of me, but by itself, its individual parts. It is a thing that fairly sings with life; it tingles with electric abandon; blood rushes through it in a heady surge; muscles flex and bend, reaching and pulling; tendons bind my body to my body. It is a thing so alive that I am always aware of it, aware of its position - in space, in place. Sounds, images, motions they are carried to me every second of every hour of every day. I can't stop it. I see things I don't want to see; hear things others can't hear; do things others will not do. All because of my body.
See me run, hear my feet strike the ground on which I run. Feel the shockwave of the air as my muscles compress in readiness for a jump. See me fly. Isn't it glorious? Am I not free as I glide through the air? You would think so wouldn't you? But I am not. I am bound to this body. Others live in this world, but I live in my body. I cannot leave it, nor am I ever out of it. Even in my dreams I am aware of my body, so that even then, I am never really asleep but connected to the things around me in way that does not allow for perfect rest. Even in my sleep I can feel the sheets wrinkle under my skin, the pillow compress under my head, the air change with every change of temperature and movement. I am aware of the rise and fall of my stomach. When I'm dreaming, it's worse - then, along with my dream body, I am still aware of my real body - like being in two places at once. I can't stand it. You can't imagine what it's like - having no escape from your body, not even sleep. You could say I haven't had a good night's sleep in eleven years. Because even when I'm sleeping, I'm not really asleep. Drugs don't work. They just leave my body, the surge of my blood evaporating them from my system like fog under a hot sun. And other drugs simply wake my body up so that I am hyper aware.
My mother told me when I was twelve years old that my body would start to change, that things would feel different. She explained to me the differences between men and women; the way hormones would affect my girl's body and change it into something else. I was so frightened. I didn't want to change. I liked my whippet-thin girl body. It cut the air I walked through. It let me jump from parallel bars in a straight line. I didn't want the curves. I didn't want to flow. Cut - I liked cutting through the world. Mother was the one who flowed. Sometimes she could cut - her curves like a scimitar. But that was something I didn't learn until after she was gone. To me she just flowed - like a ribbon, a snake, a river, all liquid. How could I ever be like her? But the changes would come no matter what I wished. So, I prepared myself. But I had no idea. Mother had no idea.
The first thing that changed was the air - rather the way in which I perceived the air. I could smell things. I've always known exactly goes in my food to make it taste the way it does. But this... I was aware of the passage of individuals through a room. I could taste the changes in my mother's mood. At night, when she tucked me into bed, she was a warm cloud around my skin, every pore of my self infused with her - she tasted of warm cake, flavoured with exotic spices from the east, rich and satisfying. When I was sick with fever, her worry smelled like banks of leaves under the tree after a rainy day - the heavy, humid veil mouldering through me. That night when she returned from the museum benefit, she smelled sharp - like liver hitting the frying pan. Later, the next morning, when I saw the papers, saw her looking at a photo of the rich philanthropist and his latest 'friend', her bitterness was a thing I could taste all day even through the smiles and caresses - a dry, powdery, and acrid taste of rubber balloons fresh out of their plastic bags. For all that she was inscrutable to me, I could see through her.
School became a revelation. Fear, hunger, wanting, desperation, jubilation - the air was saturated with it; the smells and tastes, I was drowning. My mind was drowning and I struggled to keep up.
Suddenly, my friendship with Bobby Grene was a thing like a snake stirring in its sleep. His body was changing too, only he couldn't see it the way I could; couldn't tell why his thoughts wandered and mutated the way they did.
And then my eyes. Oh the colours, flaring around me like an aurora, a corona of burning sensation. I had to shade my eyes all the time. The sun became an enemy. But in the night, the corona was a soothing field of neon silver. Every shadow highlighted, every highlight outlined for me to see. From our balcony I took to looking out over the city. There in the darkness overlooking this sprawling urban mess, I could make out the outlines and life of a world that was hidden to all else. Sometimes, just sometimes, I would see a figure all cloaked in darkness looking over the city on a distant perch. And sometimes, as I pushed myself farther back into the shadows, I could see my mother looking outward into the night with an indecipherable look on her face, stripped completely nude of all defence or pretence, searching the night with a searing intensity, and yet inscrutable. But I could taste the smell of her mood as I licked my nervous lips - rust, dust, a hot aura like a pulsing cloud waiting to give up its electricity.
My mother was perplexed, to say the least. Her sweet child was gone and in her place was this surly beast that stalked about in corners with her sunglasses on. My teachers were annoyed at my apparent distraction in class. My friends were scared - they didn't know what it was but they sensed whatever was different about me and they were uneasy. So I took to being alone - alone where I didn't have to taste people and their moods. Alone in quiet alleys where no one went. Alone on ledges and balconies where no one could see me. Alone in the night where whatever it was that had taken residence under my skin could just be. Of course, I wasn't left alone.
Hormones are a marvellous thing. I wasn't the only one changing. If I was turning into a some kind of feral thing, I was in a world full of adolescent hunting packs, all very territorial - and as if these gangs of tough boys and hard girls could sense danger they started to circle me. I needed no more than four good fights. Just four. They left me alone after that. But the exhilaration of the fight! The tang of fear and aggression, no finer than a spray in the air, the buttery smell of blood from broken skin. The freedom of the body to stretch to its limits. The glory of exerting the full force of my muscles without holding back. The relief of the painful punishment of bruises so I could just stop being aware of everything, except the hurting. It was wonderful. No heightened senses, no unwanted insights into my hormone addled peers. Nothing - just the sensation of me in my body, feeling the pain, and only wanting mommy.
Oh that last fight was a revelation and a blessing. I hurt him so badly that Michael Latimore would spend four days in a bed and all of the year on the bench. I would spend four weeks on suspension and the rest of my school years under a cloud of suspicion and fear. But the overgrown, over-privileged bastard would forever think twice about using his body to intimidate anyone smaller or seemingly weaker than he. Alone in the nurse's office, I revelled in the tingling sensation that ran over my skin - residue of my freeing aggression. Every sensation that came through was suddenly not painful, but a thing of wonderful excitement. I was alive and quickened in a way I hadn't been for a long time. My head hurt, my side hurt, my knuckles hurt - but I had faced a wall of muscle and won. I had used every distracting signal that my body sent me, used it and won. Not just against my opponent, but against myself. That was the first revelation. As I sat on the bed and hugged the pain to myself, I swelled with a strange happiness.
Of course, my mother's face when she came to pick me up was a study in anger and disappointment. Through the glass window I could see her talking with the principal and vice principal, their concerned glances sliding past my face in a flurry of embarrassment as they caught my eyes. I couldn't see my mother's eyes, her back was turned to me the whole time. The vice principal opened the door to come get me after mother walked away to the principal's office. And walking to the car, she glowered all the way but she wouldn't talk to me. I tried to explain to her but the only words she said were, "Just. Not. Now."
I sat forty minutes in that dark red Jaguar with its wine red seats and it's glinting chrome, breathing in the smell of polished leather and the hot smell of anger, like blood, suffocating me. Upstairs in the shadowed well by the elevator, she snapped away from my side, flipping on lights as she walked through the apartment. Each room she entered punctuated by an angry burst of light. Foyer. Kitchen. Hallway. Bedroom. After a long pause, she stood in front of me. Her features stood out in stark relief under the light of the lamp. She had changed out of her sharply intimidating business suit into one of her soft silk robes, the green of the rippling fabric like a cool pool of comfort. But her face... I could not meet her eyes.
My name on her lips was like a pronounced doom. My skin prickled. All the disappointment she felt, all the bewilderment, all the sadness, all the anger, all the - fear - was that fear? - she felt poured out into her words, echoing my own feeling. "What is wrong with you?"
Yes, what was wrong with me? "I don't know."
I suppose the distance between my thought and my words was so great that my intention wasn't quite clear. "What?" came the sharp exclamation.
"It wasn't my fault."
"It wasn't your fault?"
"It wasn't. He st..."
"I don't care what he did. This isn't about him, this is about you." All my happiness from the end of the fight had drained away. All that was left was the growing awareness of the light stabbing through every room of the house, my mother's anger, my anger, and the angry meaningless words about my behaviour that had been "deteriorating" for months. I was a disappointment, a surly, stubborn, disengaged child who had finally crossed into delinquency. She was right. I had no defence.
"What did he do that made it all right for you beat him so badly he needs to have an MRI? What could he possibly have done?"
Nothing, I wanted to say. Everything. He's a bastard who picks on people around him. Someone who flaunts his money as a way to humiliate those around him. He's a sadistic freak. He taunts me, he taunts my friends. He wants me. I can feel him want me with a sick hunger that I can taste a mile away. He assaults me with his every gaze. He doesn't know how to take no for an answer; and the way he likes to back girls up into tight corners, he's a step away from being a rapist. He's a bully and I hate him. But the words were a stone in my throat, they were a dry mesh across my soft palate that sucked the air from my lungs and made it hard to breathe. And my anger instead of defending me, as it had against Michael Latimore, burned my eyes and betrayed me. I don't know how I managed it, but a dike-wall of sheer will held back the tide of tears that threatened me. But when she pulled me toward her into the light, and her hand came to rest against my cheek, the gentleness of that gesture broke me and the tears flowed in a torrent that I could not hold back. Hot tears of pain; bitter ones of anger, salty ones of sorrow. As she tilted my eyes to hers she gasped. Her face was frozen in a mask of surprise. Reflexively my hand reached to a bruise I knew marred my face in a particularly spectacular fashion. It really wasn't that bad.
"Oh my God!" The words were a whispered exclamation of shock and recognition at the same time.
"It's not that bad, mom," I managed to husk out. But her fingers kept moving, sweeping across the bruise, wiping away the tears and outlining my eyes. Then after a very long time, slowly, very softly - like she would lift up a bowl filled to the brim with water - she led me to the bathroom in the hallway. I moved to retrieve the first -aid kit I knew was in the top drawer. But she stopped me and made look up into the mirror. What looked back wasn't me but some strange chimaera with glinting, slitted eyes. I knew at that very moment that I was scared - there was an actual physical manifestation of all that was different and wrong with me. That it wasn't some imagined hormonal malaise but an aberration, and I was marked with it. Once again, as if to emphasise how much I was a prisoner in my own body, completely against my will I found myself darting to the doorway when my mother's very firm grasp held me fast - fast and close, so close that I imagine she would have taken me into her skin if she could have. In that second, all my anger, all my fear, all my restlessness fell away.
The strength of her grip shattered the stone that stuck in my throat and all my words that had been tears a moment ago were words again. Months of confusion, discomfort, and hiding all fought to make their way out in my words. But more than anything, here was my mother holding me close to her and telling me that everything was going to be okay, that she would make it all better. She cradled me and kissed my forehead. And because that was something she had not said to me since I had been a very small child, and it was all I had desperately wanted to hear for long months, I believed her. When she put me to bed, it wasn't the sheets, or the pillow, or my tears, or my pain that I was conscious of. I was just a little girl who hurt terribly and was being comforted by her mother. That was my second revelation. That there were two places in the world I was free of my taunting body - in it doing whatever it wanted, or here enveloped in the warmth and in the protective circle of love.
When my mother died, I thought my world had ended. But then I remembered Barbara... Barbara would take care of me. And even though I had never articulated it to myself, somewhere in my animal body, I knew that she could make everything close to okay if not actually okay. But then I saw her brought into the hospital, and there was so much blood. The doctors thought she might die. If that happened, I thought I would die. There were only two people in the whole world who made the world safe for me - if both were gone, I was gone too.
Barbara lived. But for a long time, she was gone. I know I shouldn't have blamed her, her burden was too great to carry alone. But I was seventeen; more protected and sheltered from the world than anyone could ever realise, and my entire world had come to a shatter-stop. Not only that, I learned who my father was. I learned what my father was. And my mother... whatever illusions I had concocted about her 'adventurous' former life dissipated. My entire life so far had been lived under so large a shadow of secrecy, violence and danger that I didn't even realise that it was there. One thing I asked of my bastard father and he couldn't - no! - wouldn't do it.
Every question - of condolence from friends; of concern from 'family'; of intrusion by the media - was a stinging pain. I got so tired of being spoken to in hushed tones and being herded around by 'adults' I wished that the Joker had waited one more year until I was a legal adult to destroy my life. She needs a stable home. Her guardian isn't fit. She's too traumatised to make good decisions. The Wayne foundation will take care of her. Fucking Wayne foundation... I wanted nothing of it. Only I was wrong - turned out I needed its influence to continue to be Barbara's ward. Thank god for Jim Gordon and Alfred.
Six months. Six months of waiting, and waiting. Waiting for her to come back, waiting for her to come home, waiting for her to go away, waiting for her to return. And all the while struggling with the appearance of normalcy at school - the endless psychological evaluations, the hushed whispers in the hallways, the hurried glances. I lived for the day some asshole would hunker around a bend and call me freak again. I was suspended from classes and invited back; I was suspended from school and then re-instated; I was detained after classes and given talks; I was almost arrested and I was grounded. Every action of mine was a scream, "See Me!" All anyone ever saw was the attitude.
By the time Barbara returned from her mountain retreat where she had gone to rebuild part of herself, I was so thankful to have her back I wanted to fall to my knees and weep. Instead I stared at her across her coffee table, shrugged and grunted, "You're back. That's good."
That should have been the worst year of my life. The year my life shattered to sharp, cutting crystalline shards. The year I went from being the darling of my mother's eye to being a small lump on a splat of some cosmic windshield. The year one of my best friends was crippled by a madman. The year I went from not having a father and not missing him to having a father and hating him. I must have had dreams then - normal, childish dreams that young girls have. I must have wanted to do things, travel the world, find a profession, something. I have dim flashes of memory sometimes, but I don't remember. It should have been the worst year that my life would ever see. I was so wrong. That year was just the stone that put a hole in my life, it took seven years for the spreading cracks to truly shatter it.
It's not as if I had been leading a dismal life. It had been... okay. I had my own apartment. I had friends, after a fashion. I had a job. I had a vocation. I had a place to call home, however painful that was. I had a family of sorts... not quite related but, still, family. In fact, I thought my life was fairly normal and boring for someone who led a double life as a vigilante. In the day, and in the evenings, when I was scheduled, I worked my shifts at the bar - made my 40 dollars a shift, plus tips. And at night I trolled the city kicking scummy ass. If I had a free moment, or Barbara took a night off (I don't think she really did, I think she would just tell me that so that I could enjoy some 'downtime') I went out clubbing, cruising, chilling. I suppose I should have been doing responsible adult things but, what the hell, I'm young. I can't stress strongly enough, apart from the very technical details of the scummy ass I kicked, how utterly mundane and boring my life really was. Yes, I was lonely and fucked up. But give me a break, and consider my adolescence. The fact that I only tended towards psychotic behaviour instead of being a total raving certifiable psycho, I thought, was an achievement.
It all started so ridiculously. A ticket for trashing city property and a citation for resisting arrest while in pursuit of one of the city's many scum. Community service and court mandated counselling. Psychological counselling for anger management issues. What a crock.
Everything else this last year would have been insignificant. That damn, brat kid. Stupid Reese. Fucking Wade. They're all really mere blips. It's not like there haven't been other Wades. No, there haven't been other Wades. Nobody's ever entered the Clocktower before. Son of a bitch Wade. I wish he were dead. Oh, wait...
And Reese. What a sap.
None of that should have made a difference... except that for the first time in my life a stranger asked me to examine my life.
Harleen Quinzel was almost bearable for a shrink. Actually she was terrible. But she didn't speak to me in a sympathetic tone of voice or speak understandingly to me about all my problems. No, she made fun of my neuroses and kept poking at me with sarcasm. I suppose it's my own measure of fucked up-ness that I thought she was cool for doing that. It shouldn't have made a difference to my life that someone inherently intelligent and shrewd was asking tough and uncomfortable questions about the mess that was my life.
But I had been tired for so long. I had long days to earn a living, long nights to fight crime. And in the spaces of day and night all my strength went into fighting myself - wanting things I didn't have, having things I didn't want, convincing myself that some day, one day I would feel I like I fit in. I had spent so long not asking questions, not thinking, simply flinging myself across rooftops, punching whatever convenient idiot Barbara said was okay to beat on, polishing glasses at the bar, doing anything but examine my life that once she started asking questions about what I did, and why I did them, all the tiredness came crashing down on me. I had to talk to someone, anyone. Maybe if I let out some of the poison in my system, I would feel better. Even Barbara thought so. So for the same reason I never take her advice, I decided I would take her advice. What an idiot.
I was fifteen when I met Barbara Gordon. She was completing her degree in Modern English Literature. And Information systems. And Mathematics. Her advanced degree. "Just a few credits till completion" she said. "Just have to defend my thesis." And she was teaching at Martha Wayne High School.
But when I met her she wasn't actually working on her studies, she was in the gymnasium working on the uneven bars. Martha Wayne High School for Senior Secondary Education had the winningest junior gymnastic team in the history of the junior Olympics. I was distantly aware of this fact simply because Wayne High had possibly one of the most finely equipped gymnasiums anyone had ever seen. With all the money that went into building the gym they'd better be the best, I had thought. But watching this finely sculpted figure, who was too tall for a gymnast, grip and abandon the flexible bars with all the seeming casualness of twirling keys around her finger, was a shock of pleasure. I could do some of the things she could do but not with the same fluid grace she possessed. When she landed on the mat, her feet together, arms outstretched in a perfectly placed Y-shape - in that second of stillness, where she tweaked the presentation of her landing just that little more for a panel of judges that wasn't there - I had the chance to study her.
She was pale. That wasn't the first about her that noticed, though. I could only tell how pale she was because of the shock of flame that clung to her head. Her jaw was soft yet strong. That is, the curve of bone was oval but she held her muscles with strong determination. Her body was rock solid, curves cut from stone and utterly stupefying. And deadly. When she walked... she... there really wasn't anything that I... Mind freeze. I stood rooted to the ground - no sound, no movement, no thought, or sensation other than taking in the impeccable precision of her motion. The moment was awesome - I was actually filled with awe. Suddenly, every screaming, idiot teenage behaviour directed toward rock stars came illuminated for me. I wanted to be her, be in her, be near her, touch her, have her talk to me, see me - anything. I just wanted to move in the orbit of her regard.
When Mr. Polichnowski, our gym coach came in, he said he had a special treat for us. The best gymnast to not compete in the Olympics was going to be with us for a few weeks coaching us for the regional meet. I knew right away to whom he was referring. As she strutted up to our group my breath started to catch. My experience of time faded away. I had the queerest feeling of being in a vacuum. All the sensations that bombarded me everyday disappeared. It was like standing in the middle of a large city in the first second of a power outage and having every piece of humming machinery stop. The loss of sensation was disembodying, I felt nauseated. And then I passed out.
I waited in my usual spot for Nibs to come pick me up. I didn't mind going home by myself but mother was paranoid about my safety and had delegated an old-time work associate of hers to pick me up from school when she wasn't around to do it herself. Whenever I sulked, Nibs would remind me that there were a lot of shady characters in the antique business, and with the kind of money mother made there was no harm in taking precautions. I made a lot of fuss about being a socially arrested 14 year old who had to endure coddling from her mother, but I actually enjoyed the time spent driving to and from school, both with Nibs and with mother. Mother was simply one of the most incredible people I knew. She was funny, witty, silly, smart and intelligent. And most of all she had a real knack for pulling me out of the many and frequent broods to which I was prone. And I really enjoyed telling her about my day and my impressions of all the people I knew. And she always listened to me with the respect that one equal accords another. Of course if I went off the deep end she knew how to keep me in line. She had this very dark look like she was somehow transforming into someone else, and whenever that happened I knew to be very scared. Sometimes during these drives, mother would let slip some impression or story of her childhood, or her sister that she no longer had any contact with and I was fascinated. She rarely spoke of the things she did when she was younger. Whatever it was it wasn't completely legal, but the absence of details of her own life coupled with the depth of her knowledge was something that made mother a very exotic creature indeed. This was why I loved Nibs.
Nibs, with his obviously adopted name, his nose-broken face, east side accent and very obvious lump under the coat, was a fence, who after one last very physical debate (which he lost) over the disposal of some hot property, decided he wanted out of the biz. Mother, of course, made that possible. It wasn't a common thing, but every couple of years, someone with a less than exemplary past would show up with an appointment to mother's office and mother would somehow manage to find some use for him or her. They were often women, but sometimes they were old weather-beaten, tough talking guys like Nibs. And Nibs with his softness for pretty broads was a push over for me. Without his realising it he would find himself telling me about the kind of balls my mother had and how she nailed that bastard creep who worked for the Santini family. He would always look shame-faced when he did something like that, I would smile at him and let him know it was our secret.
And as I waited in my usual spot that afternoon waiting to be picked up, as I knew I would be, by Nibs because mother was busy, I amused myself by coveting the rather brilliant BMW parked in the lot. I wondered whom it might belong to, as I had never seen it there before. Could it be one of my over-privileged peers whose birthday had yielded this fine present? Naah! It was just too butch. Could it be a visitor? Who would ride a motorcycle like that? 1200cc motor, floating dual and single disc brakes front and back, about 130 hp and weighing in at half a ton. Not your usual slim little Suzuki deal. Not as lightweight as an equivalent Yamaha, but boy could she pull. You could drive that through a wall and keep going. It would have to be someone ballsy, some one with muscle and finesse... .Someone with red hair and a perfect body and who thinks I'm the biggest dork ever, and who is - Oh God! - heading right this way because I'm staring right at her and I won't stop staring. Fuck.
When I passed out in gym I didn't recover very gracefully. I awoke to an overwhelming nearness of someone's personal odour - the subtle aura of cosmetics and pheromones that surrounds everyone but only very few people can consciously detect. Hers was having a powerful effect on me. Everyone, when sexually excited, gets this very strange spicy, tangy smell around them. It's a combination of adrenaline, arousal, and pheromones. It carries on a person's skin long after it has been generated. It's like sweat, it can smell healthy or rancid. When that combination of arousal and excitement is not followed by the chemicals produced by release, the smell starts to get rancid. One of the other reasons I hated going to school - I was surrounded by the stench of unrequited, undirected and bewildered lust. But some people carry the smell of this excitement like a warm cloud. To me it smelled like fresh baked bread, or the smell of the earth after the first rain, or the intoxicating smell of dark fungus and wet earth. I could tell when mother's business meetings were more than business, she would carry that smell into the house with her. This red head carried just that smell. Her hair was suffused in it, her skin emitted it. She had just been sweating from exertion a few minutes ago, so she was a walking waft of sexual incitement. And I was breathing with my mouth open - taking her in great gasping lungfuls. Having made out with Bobby Grene not even two hours ago my hormones were still running rampant. By then whatever senses had deserted me had returned. After their sudden loss, even for those few minutes, I was now overwhelmed. Every perception returned in a resonating loop of delayed feedback. I could feel my eyes start to burn in that familiar way that signalled the onset of my particular metahuman affliction. Oh yes, mother had identified my particular problem and named it for me. I now knew enough about reining in some of the effects but I was still learning, and it was still so difficult. I couldn't help the groan that escaped my lips. I curled myself into a ball and sprang away from the concerned crowd bent over me. I reeled away exclaiming, "I'm all right, I'm all right."
Mr. Polichnowski stared at me, wondering if I had finally lost it. The red head looked on in worry. But a few minutes later, after having made some noises about lunch and blood sugar, I gulped down a power bar and a bottle of water. I tried to be an attentive student, a well-collected student but I was a mess. It took me a good forty minutes to gain a semblance of control of my limbs before I declared myself a dead loss for the evening and made my excuses to Mr. Polichnowski. He looked at me with a furrowed brow, grasped me firmly by my left shoulder and spoke in a very kindly tone.
"Kyle," he said. "I know you gymnasts feel all kinds of pressure about your height and weight. But I don't want anyone of my kids starving themselves, okay?" I nodded dumbly. "Good. If you really want to work, you're going to do this work no matter what you weigh, right? So take care of yourself." I nodded again.
"It's not that, I guess I just forgot to eat today," I tried to defend myself as he let go of my shoulder. A lie. I had hogged like a pig in swill. It was more likely that I would pass out form an overdose of sugar than a lack of it.
He nodded sagely. Then he lowered his voice and walked me toward the locker rooms. "You know, kid, maybe it's nothing. I seen a lot o' girls grow up. Sometimes stuff like that just happens you know. Hormones, blood pressure and stuff." Boy he had no idea. "So just watch out for your health. And if ya don't feel well tomorrow, for God's sake don't come in." Now he smiled. "It looks bad for the other kids."
I returned his smile tentatively and tried to look as if I felt comforted by his fatherly talk and were amused by his attempt at humour. Then I ran off to go wait for Nibs and sulk over the lapse in my cool image. I thought I had time to get my thoughts in order about this brand new occurrence, except I got distracted by the day, and the bike, and the next thing I knew the red head was coming my way. Fuck.
I guess there was really no way she could have ignored me. After all, not only did I have the ill grace to faint - swoon, if you want to be nasty - at the start of her class, I was also staring at her like she had just stepped off a space ship. She approached me hesitantly. "Hello," she said.
"Hi," I replied.
She smiled at me as she reached into the front pocket of her very snug jeans. Stop it. "I didn't see you in there, so I didn't get a chance to ask. Are you feeling okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine. It was just a... thing..." I said throwing my hands in the air.
"You're sure you're okay? Because you looked a little green around the edges for a second," she said, as she came closer to me.
Very consciously and with great discipline I stood my ground and did my best not to kick at the dust between my feet. I nodded.
Having released the keys from their prison, she jangled them and looked back at me. "Okay then," she said, and walked away to unhook her helmet.
Feeling mortified but still wanting to retain some sort of contact with her I blurted out, "Nice beemer. Very classy."
The smile that radiated my way was as blinding as the sun at noon. "Thank you."
"Bet that thing just kills the curves. I can't believe you get any fun out of it in the city."
She turned around and cocked an eyebrow at me this time the smile was one I'd seen many times before. It was my mother's smile - mischievous and superior. "Oh I get plenty of fun out of it in the city. You'd be surprised."
I laughed as I imagined her racing past every single traffic stop in the city with a stream of toupees of scarves and hats in her wake. "Break the law a lot?" I asked.
"The best kept secret from the Olympics and a delinquent politician! However is Wayne High to survive this? O woe is us poor impressionable children."
She leaned back on her bike and hooked one sturdy booted foot over the other to study me. By then I had regained my equilibrium and didn't mind. I could sense something in the scrutiny - it wasn't inimical to me - and when the wheels in her head stopped turning she said, "Hi, I'm Barbara."
"I know," I said waving towards the building. "Mr. Polichnowski introduced you."
"Well, I imagine that you might not have heard. What with your illness and all."
"No, no I heard." Pause. "I'm Helena," I said, as I reached my hand out to her. "I saw you warming up on the bars before class today. It was quite something else. Thank you for coming to... umm." I was starting to sound like a crushing teen.
She ducked her head at my words. Probably more embarrassed by the naked adoration in my voice than by the compliment. "Thank you. And you're welcome. I'm happy to help out."
I was so involved in my particular embarrassment that we both noticed the rumble of the Bentley at the same time. Nibs honked and waved at me. Again I was embarrassed - here I was being chauffeured around like a spoiled kid. I quickly shrugged and was on my way. "Well, that's me," I said as I hefted my backpack. "I'll see you in class tomorrow."
"Sure," she replied and threw her leg over the seat.
With one final wave I leaped into the car and asked Nibs to get me the hell out of there.
That's how I met Barbara Gordon. Except for the fainting part, there couldn't have been a more boring way to meet someone. She was the gym teacher for god's sake and I was some dumb schoolgirl with a crush.
I really don't know how to explain it, except that I felt like a chick that had imprinted on Barbara Gordon. The first time I met her, I had been making out with Bobby Grene under the bleachers that afternoon. But when she showed up smelling the way she did, some combination of her pheromones and my hormones conspired to lock the image and sense of her into my brain.
When the next year it turned out she was my homeroom teacher, I was thrilled. I followed her around like a little lamb. Maybe more of a black sheep than a lamb, but what can I say? There had to be some payoff for the misery that was high school. And if mine happened to be a smart sexy teacher - baby, bring it on! And if she also happened to be my occasional gym instructor, dude, bring it on two times.
I have to say, I probably owed my presence in high school largely to her. If I were in training for a gym meet, she would somehow find time to wrap a limb, and talk to me about the weirdest things. Once, she accompanied us to the All States - all the way there, there, and all the way back she kept talking to me about the changing foreign policy of the United States from isolationism to internationalism in the 1940's and 50's. I blinked at her blankly but she never seemed to get the damn point. But lo and behold, the next week in History when I happened to stumble into a surprise test, guess what the topic was? It wasn't that I didn't care about school, but frankly, I didn't give a damn. Classes were boring and patronising and utterly inane. I would rather have been working as a gofer in mother's office than be at school.
The only bright spot in my days was Barbara Gordon - English teacher, homeroom teacher and gymnast extraordinaire. Although why she was an English teacher was beyond me. She was a waaayy better math teacher. Not that I wasn't glad to have her. Between my gym schedule, my hormones and my increasing apathy for school, I needed all the defenders I could get. I was turning into a problem pupil.
"You really need to make more of an effort to reach out to your team mates," she said as she unwrapped the ace bandages around my wrists. Mr. Polichnowski was off attending the birth of his first grandbrat and poor Barbara Gordon got stuck with the lot of us.
"Why?" I sulked.
"You're one of the technical leaders in the group. You should try to be the group leader too."
Hah! I was getting the talk for having told Bob Smith off about his parallel bar routine. The dumb oaf fell off twice. "My being nice to them isn't going to make them any better." I hissed back.
"Whaat?" She just shook her head at me. "Ms. Gordon, this isn't exactly a team sport. The only time my performance reflects on the team is when I suck. Because that means we're not making the points. So if Bob wants better team play, he should perform better. Stupid f..." Her impatient glare cut me right off. "Did you ever give a f.." she glared at me again, "fig about reaching out to your," here I made the dreaded air quotes she abhorred, "team mates when you competed?" I took her silence as an admission. "So there."
She simply smiled at my rant and went off to soothe egos I had managed to bruise during my little rant after the scores had been announced. Oh well, I suppose announcing that I would prefer to compete with a paraplegic team from Doglick Nebraska rather than ever work with the loser fuck heads who let Kansas City get the lead on us had been a bad idea. But I had an emotional moment. Maybe an apology was in order.
Right at the moment I was contemplating the apology, the oaf's twin, Cindy, flounced up to me - all four feet eight inches of her. "Kyle, you freak, that's it. I am having Mr. Polichnowski drop you from the team. You have just humiliated us in front of the entire state committee. We've put up with your bitchy behaviour for long enough. But this is the final straw."
"I think that's up to coach," I said mildly, not wanting to step on any more toes that day.
"And me. I'm the captain of this team and what I say goes. And you're going." She took a step right into my personal space and stuck her finger into my shoulder. "First thing I do when I get off the bus is I call Mr. Polichnowski and make sure he gets a full report."
"I'm sure Ms. Gordon can fill him in just fine, and back off." I was starting to get a little annoyed.
"Oh sure! Ms. Gordon. Just little teacher's pet, aren't you? What're you going to do, pant out 'your side of the story' as you drool all over her the whole way back?"
Apology! What apology? The bitch was really on my last nerve. "Listen Captain Sister Cindy," I hissed as I grabbed hold of her wrist, "why don't you leave me alone and go hold Bob's hand?" I started to push her wrist back in a direction it was not supposed to go. The fear and panic in her eyes was very satisfying. "He looks like he wants to ask you out to prom. I hear he's got the motel room all booked and everything." Whatever she wanted to say, she didn't say it. She was cut off by Barbara's very stern voice asking for me to accompany her.
Because I was the last person on the bus, there was only one logical place for me to sit. There was no way I was going to sit in the back seat right over the lousy suspension and between my precious team-mates. So I sat next to Barbara Gordon. I made sure I smiled beatifically at Cindy Smith before I sat down. It may have been the explosion of air from my dramatic seat taking, but for some reason she looked up from her copy of - I bent my head to make out the title but contorted my brain to comprehend it - Computers and Intractability--A Guide to the Theory of NP-Completeness.
"Whoa!" I said. "I can carry nearly eighty gigs of data in my head." I did my damnedest to sound vapid and masculine but I just ended up sounding stupid.
"Actually, in absolute terms," she said, "I can probably carry a lot more than 80 gigs of data in my head. If you count all the pre-verbal conditioning and learning that occurs in infancy as discrete packets of computational software, even without adding any information you've already exceeded 80 gigabytes. We're probably capable of carrying millions of gigabytes of data."
"That was meant to be a joke." She looked blankly at me. "Keanu Reeves? Johnny Mnemonic?" Nope. No response. "Do you watch movies?" She shook her head. Oh my God, she was a nerd, a geek. And I was a jock, a freak. There was a certain beautiful balance to that, I thought and smiled. But she didn't.
"You're in a better mood." I frowned in response, remembering what had got me all sour a half hour ago. That seemed to make her smile. "What did you say to Cindy? She's seething."
"Nothing. I told her to fuck off." A lie of sorts, but the sentiment was the same. Besides she was sitting nowhere near her brother as she usually liked to do, and that made me smile, again.
Barbara shook her head. "Helena, have you ever thought of growing up?"
I was very offended. Just because I didn't step around the sensitive puppy feelings of my stupid peers, or care for the inane protocols of adults didn't mean I was immature. But I could see she wasn't really serious so I let it go. "I'm a teenager Ms. Gordon. I'm supposed to be hell to live with. It's a scientific fact. I'll even bring you the copy of Scientific American that says so, if you want. Mother keeps a copy of it by her bed, and another by her desk at work. The real question is you."
I pointed to her book. "You're obviously brilliant. Why are you here chasing after all us hormonal freaks? Did you get knocked about head once too often as a kid, or what?"
She didn't take well to that at all. "My career choices really are none of your business, Helena. I rather enjoy teaching." With that she was back to her intense inspection of her computational theory. And I was back to my brooding. I, obviously, had managed to have a sterling day - I had pissed off the one person apart from my mother still talking to me.
I may have been a rather sheltered kid. But I wasn't stupid. Part of it was that mother had a rather unique idea of how children ought to be raised. I think that was because mother never had much of a childhood herself. She ran away from an abusive father and then from an abusive juvenile detention system, and spent a lot of time on the streets. I was distantly aware of what that might have meant for her, but I could never quite make the connection between the sophistication she now represented and the desperation that must have been her youth.
Since she had never been much of a kid, she didn't know how to raise one. So she raised a little person. And even at my worst hormonally addled behaviour, she never patronised me. But there was one thing she did do. She hid details. Details of her childhood, of her friendships with the many and dubious characters she collected, of her business. I was quite sure that whatever it was that mother had done to pull herself out of the gutter, it had been illegal. She knew far too much about the ins and outs of the 'antiques business'. She was a veritable font of information about the use of age appropriate inks, aging techniques for paper, forgery, and duplication. She took an inordinate amount of interest in mechanical and electronic security systems. Over time, I came to gather information about some of the things she did - providing papers and documentation for objects of questionable provenance, finding buyers for things that shouldn't have been sold. Sometimes she was a consultant for private collectors wanting to confirm the authenticity of their acquisitions. She had an eye for art. I never knew why but sometimes the intensity with which she would stare at objects and their surroundings in museums would make me twitchy. Oh sure, she paid her taxes and was a 'respectable member of the business community'. But for a respectable business woman, she knew far too many wise guys from Gotham's east end. And considering where some of her objets d'art came from, I had started to get a little nervous of, but fascinated by her business dealings.
I had also, as it turns out, inherited her love for fine art. So when I discovered that William Revell, billionaire collector and long time tweaker of customs laws had been making ebullient appearances in town, I was immediately fascinated. Revell had the single largest collection of ancient Egyptian and Greek artefacts held in a private collection. It was rumoured that that the true extent of the collection could never be made publicly known as it had been acquired by illegal, sometimes violent, means. I had been by mother's side long enough to know that the rumours were true. And now Revell was having a showing of his collection at the art and history museum. Word was he wanted to sell some pieces to raise some cash. I knew that the showing would be packed with every single law enforcement agency and freelance "procurer" hoping to make a big haul. It was bound to be some kind of fiasco where anyone who attended would go down on some big brother investigative list. Mother was skirting the edges of the law already and would probably decline any invitation, no matter how socially prestigious the occasion might be. But I, I wanted to go. I desperately wanted to see.
Revell had these awesome carvings of the lion gods of Old Khem, and Meroë, where the queens ruled - not as the pawns for the pharaoh, but in their own right - and I wanted to see. They were some of the most beautiful sculptures and panels I had seen from Old Egypt. Those graceful cat figures and proud warrior paintings touched something mystical inside me.
When I had first expressed interest in the art, mother had been somewhat taken aback by my interest in this ancient period but in the chaos that my mind and body turned into, in the hormonal madness that was my genetic expression, she had eventually taken it stride. And while she was happy to encourage me in my learning, I rather doubted she would go all fired out of her way to indulge me in my little obsession by wandering into the very public and scrutinised media circus that the showing was sure to be.
No, I had to finesse it. I had to subtly work my way into her psyche and coax her into going, and then somehow contrive to go with her. Difficult, but I had lived with the woman for 16 and odd years and was no slouch at reading her moods. After all, knowing what the opponent is thinking is half the battle won.
I cleaned my room. Hung my dresses. Did not get into any trouble at school. Did not question my mother about her past. I even spent an extra 40 minutes a day in lessons with mother, getting thrown around the rec-room, and learning how to harness my many skills. It was all very subtle; I started by doing only one considerate thing a day, and over two weeks I became the very picture of temperance and control. By the fourth week I was a paragon. Perhaps if I behaved like an adult I would be allowed into parts of mother's adult world.
Mother was always up early. And most days when I dragged my ass out of bed she could be found in the living room, with her laptop running news streams, the cats swarming all over her and surrounded by files and newspapers. So, very smoothly this Tuesday morning, I placed her preferred Continental breakfast in front of her, unceremoniously brushed Bagheera out of my chair where he lazed, and nonchalantly snagged the metro section of the Gotham Gazette. Pretending not to see her upraised eyebrow, I folded open the broadsheet to the city events page and dug into my lumberjack grand slam mega meal.
Having let the quiet clicking of the keyboard, the admonishing yowls of the black tom, and soft rustling of paper ruffle me not one little bit I launched my opening salvo. "So..." The very picture of urbane sophistication and wit. I cleared my throat.
"Yes?" she said in her voice that had not yet found its full range from the quietness of a night of unuse.
"Umm... any interesting stuff at work?"
"No more so than usual." She compared a piece of hard copy to something on her screen as she stroked Bast's sleek black coat.
"Ah. Cool." Pause. Pause. Chew. "Do you think you'll be going on any acquisitions soon?"
"No. Not that I've planned."
"Oh! It's been kinda quiet for you at work, hanh?"
"No more so than usual."
Piece of pancake. Dollop of eggs. Crunch the bacon. Roll my eyes at Bagheera who covets my bacon. "So you didn't have any trouble with the papers on the Monet?"
"The Monet?" she said sharply, pulling back from Bast who mewled her disapproving protest and moved away to the kitchen. She finally looked up and met my eyes over the screen. Her green eyes held me very steadily in their regard before she spoke. "Helena, are you feeling well?"
"What?" I shrugged. "Yeah! I'm fine. Why?"
She shut the laptop and folded her hands over it. "You've been behaving very strangely Hel Cat." Mother had resurrected my old nickname for me. She said that it was ironically apropos. "I'm wondering if you're okay. Not that I'm not thankful for the reprieve, but this really isn't like you."
"What!" I snapped. "I'm trying to take an interest in your work, mom. Or is that so wrong?"
"Helena, what is this about? It's not about my work. Or at least it isn't all about my work, so just spit it out. Are you in trouble with Mrs. Hendricks again? Don't tell me you're going to be held back this year."
"No! Nothing. I'm just, you know, trying to make a change. Maybe not be a pain in the ass. You've been worried a lot lately over your paper work and stuff, so I thought maybe you'd like to talk. Christ! Can I catch a break 'round here? What is with everyone and the are you feeling well routine, even Ms. Gordon's been all over me." So much for behaving like an adult. "And no! No trouble with Hendricks. Fuck!"
Mother was very quick to chastise me. "Mrs. Hendricks."
I hated being corrected. So I sulked and worked on my breakfast. I even let Bagheera poke holes in my jeans. Luckily mother didn't seem to be angry, merely curious. She just stared at me. Thirty seconds and I caved like a house of cards.
"I want to go to the Revell showing."
She put down the coffee mug and stared at me. "Excuse me?"
"I know it's all cloak and dagger, but I'd like to go to the showing with you." There was no response from her.
"You are going aren't you?" By now I was starting to feel more than a little flustered.
Mother narrowed her eyes as she considered my words. Then muttering under her breath she started to gather her papers and her laptop. "I'm going to kill him, that lousy big-mouth..."
I had managed to land my source of information, Nibs, into hot water. I stood up. "No, mom. It's not Nibs' fault. I can put two and two together you know."
As she looked at me from the doorway to her study I could sense something shifting in her. She nodded almost imperceptibly and then said to me, "Fine! But you and I need to have a little chat about how to behave in public."
Inside, I rejoiced with pumping fists and flips. Outside, I was very solemn. "Yes ma'am," I said and sat down to finish my very satisfying breakfast.
When a woman as sneaky as my mother agrees to do something for you with a minimum of fuss, be sure that's she's pulling a fast one. That's the lesson I learned from the William Revell incident.
I really don't know what I had been thinking. But something about that statue was just ultimo fascinating. I stared at it all night. In between the schmoozing, the vapid smiling, the being leered at, eating stupid hors d'oeuvre and sneaking champagne, I was endlessly drawn to the statue. There was something regal in the arrogant repose about that face. The cat face was not the domesticated sleek cat of later times but the feral desert cat that Bast had originally been - a huntress goddess, wild and untameable. It was something so completely different from all the other relics of Bast that I had ever seen. Just the stone itself - highly polished bloodstone, the flecks of iron oxide showing like sprays of blood in the green chalcedony. The statue was very cunningly carved so that her head was bisected at the forehead by a baptismal streak of bright red. And on her chest, the iron oxide scattered through the matrix and shone like lava bubbling through as if the heated core of her heart were bursting through her skin. She stood proud and wild in her glass cage. I don't know if it was a trick of the light but she glowed with an inner power. It felt obscene to see her there so openly displayed for all to see. She should have been hidden in a temple somewhere and revealed only to the most worthy, the most devoted. I didn't normally go in for religion, but sometimes I had to acknowledge that there were things beyond what I could touch with my hands.
"Beautiful, isn't she?" the voice rumbled by my ear.
I nodded dumbly. "It's just..." The trembling almost touch I placed on the glass plate of her display case finished my sentence for me.
"Almost obscene to put her out here, isn't it?" he continued, echoing my very thoughts on the subject.
"How old is it?"
"Who knows, she's been around for a very long time. Maybe she's been around for longer than men have known her name."
"She doesn't belong in a cage."
"And yet she is."
I turned to face him. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure," he said, holding out his hand with a twinkle in his eye. "And I do mean pleasure."
I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes. I guess I didn't scream jailbait in my new clothes. Or maybe I did and that's why he stood that close. "William Revell, at your service," he said, faintly bringing his heels together.
"Helena Kyle," I said offering my hand.
"Helena Kyle! Any relation to Selina?"
"I should never have guessed. Such a striking young lady. I see you've found our enigmatic piece of the evening. She's quite enchanting, is she not?"
"So taciturn! So you have an interest in Egyptian artefacts?"
I shrugged. "Greek, Egyptian. Bronze age civilisations. They had a certain gift for finding the essence of their subjects, even though their techniques weren't always sophisticated."
That raised his eyebrows. He smiled his much-photographed, lopsided smile. "And so astute. So this one is especially fascinating to you, then? Are you looking to buy?"
I laughed. "Yeah right. It's just that... it's almost as if it isn't just a statue. It's almost as if it has its own life."
"If I had it I wouldn't sell it for all the money in the world."
"A young lady after my heart, then." When I turned to him he read the question on my face. "Oh, I don't plan to sell it at all. It's more of a..." he pursed his lips and cocked his head, "an alluring display, shall we say? A conversation piece. An ice-breaker. And look, it's working. We've effortlessly found something to talk about."
"Yeah, well. All the other stuff..." was being mobbed over, "is being kinda closely appraised by everyone."
"You mean, drooled over like gulls after chum." He laughed at my surprise. And the genuine pleasure of his smile made him extremely handsome. "You don't think that I'm selling anything that I really value, do you? This lot wouldn't know art if it was stolen from them. Oh no, I save my treasure for the connoisseurs." He turned his body to me and ramped up the full force of his charm. It was the first time I had seen a man do it so blatantly. I had seen my mother do it. It had seemed like magic when I was a child, but now I understood what it was - it was sex. And apparently you could turn it on and off, and apparently there were men who could do it that effortlessly as well. The languid air around him began to transform into something lascivious. And as he started to bleed sensuality, I could feel it prickling the hairs on my skin. "Such as yourself." I could feel his eyes measuring me. "Are you sure you're not interested? Perhaps I could arrange for a special tour... your mother has always appreciated what I've had to offer. Perhaps..." Uh, oh. If the man was making the insinuations I thought he was making, maybe that tingly sex thing over my skin was really a crawly, slime thing. And maybe I was starting to feel a little crowded. And as much as I didn't want to think about it, it made a perverse kind of sense that he and mother might have...
Thankfully, I didn't get to finish that thought. I was interrupted by the very concerned contralto of Barbara Gordon. "Helena?"
I gasped, "Ms.Gordon." Barbara. Barbara Gordon in a very simply cut, spare, bare shouldered cocktail dress that clung to her torso and flared playfully about her waist and thighs. 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. It was a very humbling thing to realise that even a year and half later she could stupid-brain me.
"I thought it was you," she said with a warm smile. When she turned to him, her eyes narrowed a bit. "I'm sorry, I'm not interrupting anything, am I?"
Whatever Revell had been doing he turned it down. He was still as suave as ever but I didn't feel quite so... out of my league. "No, no, not at all. I was simply wondering if the young Ms. Kyle would like to accompany her mother on a tour of my personal collection. It's so gratifying to see young people with such an interest in history."
"Maybe young people would take more of an interest in history if the history were displayed for them to see and not locked away in someone's personal collection."
"Oh touché! However, I would like to remind you that it's not history I possess but art. That *I* have rescued from the ravages of time, nature and clumsy, thieving bandits." He turned briefly to the display case. "Such beauty would not be possible if it were not for people like me." There was a brief lull where it seemed to me as if they sized each other up. Then in the same practiced move with which he had introduced himself to me, he said, "Allow me to introduce myself. I am William Revell." The last he said with a faint upward intonation and quirk of his eyebrows as if asking who she might be.
Barbara took his hand. "Barbara Gordon."
"Of course. Commissioner Gordon's... daughter? Yes."
"Yes," she nodded.
"I take it you don't approve of my extra-curricular activities?"
"I don't approve of your methods," she said steadily.
"You don't approve of rescuing art from being destroyed?"
"I don't approve of art being stolen from their rightful owners and squirreled away in private collections."
"What if their rightful owners have given up all rights by fault of neglect?"
"It's our heritage as a race. It belongs to the world."
"Do you really believe that Miss Gordon? That all great things belong to the world? I happen to believe that some things are reserved only for those who truly value them. The world is a large place and full of people who would just as soon destroy beauty than cherish it. You think of me as nothing more than a glorified looter. But look around you. Tomorrow some of these pieces will be in museums and galleries. Were it not for me that chance might never have come."
"What gives you the right to make that decision?"
"Because I have the capacity to, Miss Gordon, and I see what is right in front of me. But look, we're ignoring our young friend. Perhaps a more youthful view is warranted."
He returned his full attention to me. "Tell us Ms. Kyle." He gently laid a hand on my shoulder and drew my attention to the statue of Bast. "Tell us what you see when you look at it." His low voice was like a song in my blood. And all the while, standing between Barbara and his sexual aura, I could feel the charge around me grow to an uncomfortable swelling. "This beautiful icon, left... buried! In a mouldering ruin for years. Pawed by the ignorant hands of common peasants who do not comprehend its value beyond the few shekels they can obtain for it. Ignored by men, reviled by modern priests, she has lost all her adorers, her worshippers long gone... She would have been a paper weight somewhere - no, less - she would have been a piece of stone in some forgotten warehouse, maybe. But I, I have rescued her. Fished her from the dusty gutters of archaeological oblivion, and academic obscurity. See how she shines, glows, radiates in the regard of your adulation. Tell me Helena, have I done wrong? I recognised her power. I saw her beauty, and where no one else would have seen, I perceived it. At least now she has one devoted subject." And then his arm came around my shoulder to engulf me in his murmuring voice. "Look at her. You perceive her power." I was starting to get giddy. "Would you have her exposed to the unworthy eyes of any stray, plebeian mind who can afford the price of admission, every bored schoolboy on tour, every snot-nosed brat accompanied by her poseur parents, every self-righteous religionist who would dismiss her power."
I stepped away and to the side. The things going on in my head were dangerous. My eyes were starting to burn. The air was getting hotter. Close to me Barbara was starting to bristle, and somewhere in my head a small voice was saying, 'You know, if he's good enough for your mother... ' I shook myself as unobtrusively as possible. "I don't know," I said. "All I know is that no one has the right to own her."
"And, again, I am undone by the wisdom of youth. It's remarkable. If this is what schools are doing to our youngsters these days, perhaps there is hope after all."
"Thank you," Barbara smiled, standing very protectively by my side. "I do like to think of Helena as one of our more remarkable students." Then quite pointedly, yet very smoothly, she turned to me. "Your mother's letting you stay out late on a school night."
"Uhh..." I said, "yeah. It's not that late."
"Doesn't Ms. Hendricks have an algebra test set for you guys tomorrow?"
Barbara took deep and sadistic pleasure in reminding me of that fact, I thought. "Yes, well... it's not like I can develop logic skills overnight."
Revell's eyes travelled between us and then twinkled. He didn't say the words but his expression was an eloquent concession of 'Touché.' "Ah, you're a teacher, Ms. Gordon! An entire family in the public service, how old fashioned and noble." His eyes drifted away for a second. "But you must forgive me. I'm afraid I see a dreary business associate approaching. And as loathe as I am to interrupt this very pleasant idyll, I am even more loathe to inflict him on you." He faintly clicked his heels and bowed. "If I may..." and withdrew.
I couldn't help the shiver that ran through me as he walked away. Neither could I help the shiver that ran through me when she laid her hand on my arm. "Are you okay?"
"He wasn't crowding you or anything? You looked uncomfortable."
"You're sure? Because you're being very monosyllabic." Oh look, a theme for the night.
"No, I'm fine. He's just a little intense."
"I'll say, an intense creep."
I couldn't help laughing. For a second I felt like a normal girly kid bitching about some letch who'd perved me. And my laughter prompted a smile from her as well. "Apparently, he's a business associate of my mother's." She stayed diplomatically silent to that observation. "So, what are you doing here?"
"Making an appearance with Dad. He needed a date."
"Kinky!" I responded. She simply cocked an acerbic brow at me. "Mom thought I could handle the public appearance. She's letting me case the joint."
The look of befuddlement and discomfort that crossed her face before she quickly hid it was priceless. "Ca... case the joint?"
"Oh my God! Barbara I was kidding. I'm being given sales training, for God's sake. I have to pick the spenders from the lookers. Then I match the spenders to the lots. And the end of the auction whoever matches the most items wins." I let her guide me away from the Bast statue, and was very happy to let her walk ahead of me where I could observe the play of muscles on her back and in her calves. I had to catch myself before I got too lost in the flex and twitch of those muscles. It was quite a treat for me to see Barbara. Miss Gordon was a bluestocking who dressed far too conservatively for my taste.
"So your mother's training you?"
"Yeah. It's amazing. Look at all this art. I mean, look at that tablet right there. That's a piece of the Rosetta, Barbara. And that - in the case there - the death mask of Pharaoh Amun-Hotep, the Boy King. Take away the gold and jewels and the historical value is still worth a fortune. It's like a little playground. A Toys 'R Us for art collectors. Some of these artefacts haven't been seen since the day they were discovered."
Barbara smiled indulgently at me. "You're right, it is pretty amazing. I just wish more of it could stay in the public eye."
"Well," I countered, "maybe he's right, in a way." I saw her take a breath of protest but stopped her. "No, no look. It takes money to run museums. And it takes money to acquire the art, maintain it, protect it. I ought to know, look what my mother does for a living." Barbara's nexpression turned dark and she muttered something under her breath about danger that I didn't quite catch. "Hey, it's okay. She can handle herself. And I'm not exactly a pushover. Guys like him; they're the ones making the initial investment in acquiring the stuff. They may keep the looters in business, but if nobody were buying, all of this could have been turned into trash. Recycled as bricks and clay for new houses. Melted down for new jewellery. I mean, look at that cat statue. Isn't it amazing?" I was gushing and I didn't care. "The colour of the stone, the red on green. And the way she looks right through you. It's so powerful. I can get why someone would want to steal it. It calls to you and you just want stay with it whatever it takes."
When I came to the end of my gush, I noticed that Barbara had started to get a tense. "So, is your mother here tonight?"
"Yeah, she's out there working her charm. Practically stealing things away from unsuspecting folks." I saw her slight wince when I said that. "Oh come on! I've seen how mother operates. It's a crime. She completely overwhelms people. She shouldn't be let out without a warning."
"So is there someone or something special she's interested in today?" she asked as she looked at her watch. "She must be if she's working the room."
"Are you kidding? She's working the room 'cause she's bored. No. She wasn't even going to come tonight. Can you believe that? I had to beg my way in here." But the watch reminded me. "Anyway, I should go before she comes looking for me and embarrasses me." That seemed to relieve Barbara a little.
"Yes, you should be getting on home." I wondered what was bugging her.
"Lighten up. It's just one night, Barbara. And it's not even 11. I'll be well rested for school, I promise. I won't embarrass you by providing fodder for the faculty room."
That got me a playful slap to my shoulder. "Don't be a wise guy."
As I left, I asked her, "What about you?"
"Oh," she mock moaned, "the burdens of a dutiful daughter! I'll have to stay till the bitter end - till dad leaves."
"Okay, bye!" I said hastily as I noticed mother catch my eye. She had seen me talking to Barbara and looked like she was headed my way. That was the last thing I wanted at that moment. Mother had started to get a glazed look whenever I happened to mention my occasional gym instructor and English teacher. I think I had been talking far too enthusiastically about the very hormone inducing Miss Gordon. And mother, I thought, was of the opinion that I might be hot for teacher. Not that she'd be wildly off the mark. But two seconds and she'd know exactly how hot I was for teacher, and considering some of the experiences I suspect she had had as a teenager I didn't think she would have approved of the rather easy rapport between the two of us. Oh no. If mother were to see me speaking to Barbara as I struggled to suppress my symptoms, she would feel obliged to interview her and that was the last thing I wanted.
Since she had been helping me with controlling my symptoms, mother had been very good at reading my expressions. I was still reeling under the barrage of hormones and feelings that had been induced in me not a minute ago. Plus, Barbara had been acting quite twitchy. Thank God. Had she been feeling relaxed, she would probably have smelled the way she normally did. And I would have been tempted to open up to it. I didn't know what she did, or whom she had been seeing but she always smelled of excitement and arousal. Forget mother, it was a crime to let Barbara out without a warning.
The ride home was also very strange, on two accounts. Mother was uncharacteristically quiet. When I started remembering all the things I had seen and done that night, I realised that although I had been eyeing my favourite Egyptian themed artefacts all night, mother had not wandered near the statue of Bastet at all except for one cursory glance. That was strange because really she was the one with the interest in cat figures. Hell, her oldest cat was called Bast. It was from reading her books on art and archaeology that I picked up my current little obsession. And when I asked her about it she said, "Seen one cat statue, you've seen them all." What? Very unlike her. And the next was that she didn't play any of the usual games she played with me. She stayed quiet most of the ride home. The only thing that she did say was that I should go to bed because I needed my sleep for school the next day. What? Especially for my test. Double what!
"Mom, are you okay? You're acting really weird," I said.
She smiled back at me and said, "I just need to clear my head for a bit. I think I overdid the champagne."
Well, that made sense. She really wasn't a big drinker, and I had seen her put down a flute on a passing waiter's tray when I had walked up to her right before we left. "Okay, goodnight." I said and went to my room.
11:42pm. I could get a good five hours sleep before the morning. Having woken up by 6 am the previous weeks, I had gotten used to making breakfast and talking to mother. Our relationship, I had noticed, was undergoing a transformation. She was becoming less and less inscrutable to me. I was hearing more and more stories about her youth. They were horrifying, to say the least. When I compared myself to her at that age, I felt hopelessly small and inadequate. I was starting to realise exactly how steely my mother's will really was. And for the first time in my life, I found myself scared of her. Suddenly I realised how my mother - not the tallest, biggest built most intimidating looking woman in the world could live and thrive in what was essentially a man's world. Selina Kyle was a hard woman, who had done hard things. The fact that she was also the most tender parent a child could wish for made some of the things she had done that much harder to swallow. And for the first time in my life, I started wondering about my father. Who was he? Was he one of mother's 'business' associates. Was he a 'procurer of rare goods and antiquities'? Was he someone like William Revell? God forbid, was he William Revell? What kind of man was he? Was I anything like him? All these thoughts ran through my head as I lay in bed. Each thought built on the other, intensifying and magnifying right up until I hit the thought of William Revell. And that thought was a little nauseating. Mother had not at all been pleased that I had been speaking to him. As if she had somehow sensed my perverse attraction to him, she had pursed her lips and told me never to associate with him if I could help it. Why was it that everybody seemed to despise him? Why did mother react so...violently to him. Her reaction had been violent. Well suppressed and covered over, but violent.
12:53pm. I wasn't sleeping. In fact, I was quite wide-awake and frozen in my never ending thought loop about Revell and my parentage. So I closed my eyes and thought about the statue of Bast to distract myself. I pictured it in my head, slowly building the outline. Filling in details of colour and shade I remembered. The green, the red, the way the light seemed to make it glow. I remembered the way the wide-open unseeing eyes seemed to call out to me in languages I didn't understand. How it seemed to awaken something in me - a slumbering lion yawning itself awake and stretching its claws, testing its muscles, preparing itself for the taste of blood on its tongue, the feel of flesh between its jaws.
I jumped out of bed. I hadn't felt any of those things at the party. I hadn't thought up those things at all. But the thoughts were just there in my head. The light from the clock blazed the time into my retina. 1:39. That couldn't be right. It was 12:53 a minute ago. And I was awake - my eyes were blazing with heat, I was in full on meta mode. I was panting, my heart raced - I was almost in a panic. I felt clammy and my throat was dry.
At the refrigerator, I kept my finger on the little button that kept the light tuned off and snagged a bottle of water. As I walked back to my room, the cats were all upset at having their slumber disturbed and curling up between my ankles. My mind kept returning to the statue. Finally, as if I were under a spell, I walked to my wardrobe and picked out a pair of stretchy black cotton pants, black turtle neck and pulled them on. Then I grabbed the black balaclava that Niko, the fish boat captain, from our last Greek holiday, had given me. As an after thought, I fished out the boot polish from under my bed and blacked my face.
I really don't know what prompted me to do that, but at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. Just as taking a run across the roofs of Gotham to the Museum seemed like a perfectly sanguine thing to do. Obviously I had spent too much time reading mother's manuals and brochures on alarms and security systems, and obviously I had paid too much attention to all her snide commentaries about the supposed impenetrability of our urban cultural institutions. Because without quite thinking about it, I had apparently decided that I wanted to go back to Fischer Hall for a second look at the statue.
Now before you go thinking about how insane I must have been at that point, let me remind you that I hadn't spent the year and a half since the Michael Latimore incident moaning about puberty and twiddling my thumbs. No. The second mom recognised what was going on with me she sat me down and had the talk. No not the talk talk but the you're-different-from-other-people talk. And this time she really meant it. She sat me down and laid down a training schedule. "It'll teach you control,' she had said. I think she was more interested in tiring me out to a limp rag. Who knew my mother could kick major ass in the martial arts? I certainly hadn't until that point. Between the gymnastics and the martial arts, I was too tired to pick fights. But what I wasn't too tired for was exploring the fine city I lived in. I had taken to sneaking out my window. First I hung around the buildings in our neighbourhood. Then little by little I ranged out - just a little farther each night. Turned out that rooftop routes were faster than anything on the streets. For one, I didn't have to obey traffic laws. Oh sure, I interrupted the odd trysting couple or illicit deal, but it was a problem only if I stayed or they came after me.
Gotham City, I quickly realised, was a crime-ridden piss hole. But I learned to stick to the shadows and stay out of sight, which was easy with built in night vision. It really was little things at first. A chain link fence with a great view of the train yards, so I scaled it. Then it was a private garden with the most intriguing and aromatic flowers, so I managed to jiggle the hasp. After that, it was the garage with the antique cars so I figured out how to jimmy the lock so I could get in. Then it was the dumb deli clerk who made a fuss about thuggish kids. Asshole wouldn't know leather from PVC if you gagged him with it so I shorted his pathetic contact alarm system and left him some remnants from the school biology lab. Nothing really to get in a snit over, but it just seemed to me as if the whole world lived in a state of careless grace, and it astounded me how easy it was to enter spaces people supposedly didn't want you to enter. I suppose it's because, really, we live in an unspoken contract of trust with everyone else. But the irony of trust under the ward of lock and key was too delicious for me ignore. No wonder we needed vigilantes. Really amazing ones. I accidentally came upon Batman and Robin once. I was so surprised I backed right into a vent. They looked but I high tailed it the hell out of there. If they were around there was probably too much real action for me to handle.
So it wasn't really that strange that I wanted to be out that night.
The museum was only about 3.5 miles from the apartment. At a steady lope and leap it took me about 30 minutes to get there. I circled the museum slowly. Fischer Hall, where the display was set up, was by the central atrium of the museum. Normally a central atrium in the city would have been accessible - a wind up and jump and I would have been on the roof I wanted to access. Only in this case, the streets around the museum were too wide for anyone without real superpowers, or a jet pack. "Oh well." I thought. "Jungle gym." But as I started my way across the street, I spied a manhole. Seventeen very dank minutes, and three very stubborn, iron mesh grids later I was inside the compound of the museum. Maybe having tangled with those huge rusted monsters had been a good thing. I had neglected to wear gloves and had skinned my hands. I would be leaving very blurred fingerprints.
From my spy hole under the heavy weight of the manhole cover I could hear footsteps. That meant maintenance or security, either meant a point of access. As soon as the footsteps moved away from me I slunk out in their direction. It was maintenance, and he was... heading to leave the compound. Damn it! Anyway I didn't really need a point of access, I just wanted to get to the roof so that I could get to the skylight, which I remembered had an excellent view of the statue's display case. Scaling the wall was a cinch. All these old gothic buildings with their large stones and decorations: footholds galore. Dodging the lights took a little more work. But before you could say huff and puff and blow the house down, there I was - on the roof and only a little winded. Keeping a very careful eye out for trip wires and motion sensors, not to mention beer bottles and condom wrappers - great, just great. On top of the museum? - I crept along the roof.
Now here's the dilemma with motion sensors in the open air. They have to ignore random motion like flying garbage, rats, pigeons but trigger themselves over creeping humans. A machine is just a machine. Fool it into thinking you're something else, and as far as the damn thing is concerned, you might as well not be there. Now for these particular sensors, the particular dilemma was time versus mass. If I presented a large enough mass slowly enough they would go off. But a large mass moving extremely quickly would confound them. Funny how I remembered that but couldn't tell you the economic-political ramifications of the Treaty of Versailles.
Erratically bouncing my quiet way across the roof took up all my focus, so I didn't really have time to think about how god forsakenly easy it had been to get in unnoticed. Closer and closer, I got to the glass of the skylight. I could even see an upturned pane of glass in its metal frame, reflecting back the moonlight. As the wind picked up a little, I observed that it was actually a very lovely night. Which then led me to realise that as lovely as the night was, the museum was hardly likely to be opening a window to let the breeze in. Which observation then led me to look around and notice the unconscious guard trussed up very neatly by the skylight. I did want to panic. But you know how teenagers are - so curious, especially about things that are none of their business. So instead of getting out, I unrolled the balaclava over my face and kept going.
It wasn't until I put my fingers on the strong monofilament line reaching all the way to the floor did I start to become aware of how much deep shit I might be in. I was right in the middle of what could only be a robbery at only one of the biggest collections of expensive art ever assembled. I closed my eyes and took a breath. "Back off," I thought to myself. "Just leave and read about it in the papers." But despite what my rational brain was saying, I found my body stretching into the open pane to peer inside. Drawing myself up I tucked and jumped. The idea was to land as quietly as possible but my sneakers made quite the racket as I landed... not to mention my butt. And I was reminded of the scrapes on my palms as I held them against the floor to steady myself. Even from my crouching position on the floor I could see that somebody else had been as attracted to the statue as I had been, because it was gone. I couldn't believe my feral eyes. Gone! The display case was intact but the statue was gone. In amazement I scrambled up to the display. My disbelief was a fog of breath against the glass. There was a small white folded card where the statue had been. It said, "Meow." Then I noticed the neat little hole on the top of the display case.
Meow? "Holy shit!" I said and touched the display case. Big mistake.
It was like being trapped in a disco ball. The second the lights and alarms went off, I jumped back started to make for the skylight. From somewhere above me, came a muffled feminine curse. My mind boggled: I was in the same building as once of the most infamous criminals in modern history. I looked up just in time to see a black shadow slip through the opening and out taking the monofilament with it. And here I was in a large hall with guards streaming in from all sides with the only quiet means of escape about 60 feet above me. "Maybe now," I thought, "is a good time to panic." So I did. Like turning on a switch, everything came alive. My heart was pounding, not racing, you understand, but pounding. Air came into my lungs by slow deliberate mouthfuls and I could hear the torrent of blood in my ear. If I didn't get out, I would be in so much trouble; getting arrested and sent to jail would be reprieve from what mother would do to me.
Very quickly I assessed the fixtures and structure of the room. I had been there a couple of times before so I knew that the wall to the right of me had been installed to separate the large open space for the exhibition. Ignoring the raised voices behind me, I ran straight for the wall and punched it as hard as I could. The lightweight composite board gave way to a fist size hole: a foothold. Then a foot size hole and then a fist size hole and on and on till the ceiling was only 20 feet above me. Springing up, my fingers just barely made contact with the criss-crossing bars on the ceiling. Hand over hand, hanging and scooching, just like on the playground, I made my way closer to the skylight. Praying that what I done a hundred times in the gym would work, I swung myself toward the glass panes and prayed I had enough momentum and direction to get through. The relief and excitement of having made it exploded in a giddy liquid explosion in the pit of my stomach. I didn't even mind the throbbing in my shoulder as I rolled to my knees and dusted off. I started to scamper to the side of the building, but was distracted by a voice.
"... Couldn't resist it." I knew that voice. It had been whispering to me this night. "I knew I could convince you to resurface, my dear," he said. "Now if you would care to hand that back and join me for a drive."
Who was he talking to? Cursing the impulse that made me want to look, I turned in the direction of that voice. And there they were. A lithe slim figure in a cat suit facing off against tall William Revell who looked oddly elegant in his black BDU's. "Too late, Revell, she's mine now."
Catwoman. I studied her as she faced off with Billionaire playboy, William Revell. Catwoman. Oh wow! Real live, in the flesh and perpetrating a crime.
"I don't think so my feline felon. A little easy for you to get in and out, wasn't it? Did you think it was a careless oversight on my part? Did you think I would let museum- security guard my precious ones?" Revell responded. In the half-moon's light, his blonde hair glowed. And I could see him quite clearly. He spoke into a receiver on his collar, and all at once the other voices started to fade away.
"Well then," said Catwoman's smooth voice as she unfurled her whip, "I'll have to thank you for that little blessing. And for taking care of my precious one for all this time." And with a flick of her wrist, the curled leather flew through the air and lashed around Revell's neck bringing him to the ground. He was up in a smooth rolling motion and countered with an elbow to Catwoman's back. Even though she was already moving, the 'umphh' of pain reflected how solidly he connected. He was on her back, but with a snake like motion she twisted out of his grip and delivered a kick to his head, which he blocked with crossed wrists. With a vicious twist he sent her spinning, but as she twisted she kicked him in the jaw. In the moment he took to clear his head, Catwoman rolled to a crouch and curled her whip around her forearm. Revell swayed on his knees with a little trickle of blood rolling down his chin. I saw that he tried to speak, but couldn't. "What's the matter, Willy?" she asked with cruel humour, "Cat got your tongue?"
Revell wiped at his chin and rose unsteadily. The words were thick and slurred. "'Twould seem so." Then with a slurch of pain he spit on the roof. He had bitten his tongue. I noticed, that frozen as I was in my uncomfortable hunch, I couldn't help smiling at the odd banter. There was something so familiar about her slow sarcasm. When Revell stood he was smiling as well. Why was he smiling?
I soon had my answer. I felt the air thicken with the smell of more bodies. I strained to hear booted footsteps coming up the stairs. But there was something else about Revell as well. With a bright laugh, Catwoman pulled spring-loaded gun from her belt and shot out a line to the building across the street. Revell stood still and kept smiling. There was something else. I saw a miniscule movement of his head and a sliding of his eyes. Behind him, he was planning to move out of the way of something behind him. I followed his impulse, and saw what he knew was there. Across the street was a sniper. In the frantic slow motion of panic that hit me when I realised I was about to be witness to a murder, I shouted out.
Both of them turned to look in my direction, Revell looked even more surprised than she did. "An accomplice, my dear?" came his slurred voice. "I'm shocked." His hand came up with a gun pointing at me; I dove right to dodge the bullet. Catwoman dove forward. With a hair-raising snarl she was on him with her whip wrapped around his neck and slowly applying pressure. As they scuffled, he kept trying to spin her around towards his sniper. Slowly... slowly he was succeeding.
I shouted out, "Behind him, a sniper!" The quick jerk of her head said that she had heard me. But that little moment of distraction was enough for her to slacken her hold and Revell responded with an elbow to her head and reached to her waist and snatched loose a bulging pouch. Catwoman's countering chop to his arm sent the bag flying. He turned to look where the bag went, and in that second she delivered a clothesline that dropped him in his tracks. I was staring in awe; Revell was not a small man.
But with her attention back on the pouch, she had momentarily forgotten the sniper, as she rose to move it, I saw the moment of the sniper, I dove at her. But the shooter had gotten off his shot; I felt something sting my shoulder. Just a graze, no big deal. We landed on the roof with her on top of me, me on top of the statue, right as the roof burst into a flurry of excitement. The guards had arrived, guns flashing and machismo bristling. In the distance the wail of police cars and the rhythmic slap of chopper blades sounded.
Digging the bag out from the small of my back I scrambled to the edge of the roof. I had a tight white knuckled grip on the bag. Blinded by the flashlights, I was stunned. All I felt was a hearty slap on my back that accompanied the words, "Good luck with that kid." And with that, she was gone - speeding along the length of cable stretched from roof to roof. And I was a sitting duck in the headlights. So following her example, I made for the edge of the roof and scrambled over.
The speed of my escape was so fast, I think all the guards thought I had jumped to my doom, plus I think they were a little distracted by the unconscious owner of the valuables on the roof. Faster than I could have ever imagined I found the manhole and ducked in. Underground, I was stricken with indecision. Should I backtrack or should I go in a different direction? The first way, I knew where I was going; the second way was more likely to throw them off my track. The excitement was starting to get to me. I was feeling a little dizzy, my breathing was up again and my hands were shaking. I decided to go with I knew and found myself across the street from the museum. I circled around the building and made my careful way to the roof. Once I got there, I hunched in a corner to look into the bag. I loosened the pouch-strings. Yep, no question about it - bloodstone statue of Bast. Stolen property. In my possession. Fuck.
I spared a look over my shoulder to see if the guards had figured out where I was. No, they were still combing the grounds or going off in the direction of Catwoman. It was turning out to be a rather vigorous and noisy pursuit, but moving nicely away from me. Still huffing like a girl in a bad horror movie I stood up. This time I was really woozy. My eyes were doing funny things - my vision shifted in and out of normal and night vision. My senses bounced from sharp to fuzzy. I cradled the back of my head. As my hand moved down my neck it ran into a dart. I pulled it out. Oh shit! A dart. Not a bullet but a dart. With drugs in it. I had to get home now.
And as if this French farce of a night hadn't had enough surprises, I was once again surprised by a voice. "That was pretty impressive. Very clever with the manhole. Almost overlooked that." The voice was furred with menace and seduction. Catwoman. No, someone else. Someone harder. This voice wasn't so familiar - no sense of languid sarcasm or comfort. This was more no-nonsense... .more, more exciting.
I turned around to see a masked and caped figure standing about 8 feet to my right. I stared at her with a mixture of relief and fear. Batgirl. Not exactly the law. Maybe I could explain what had happened and return the statue. She would let me go - didn't the Bat crew specialise in extra-judicial justice? Oh yes! I was thinking very clearly indeed. "Gee Batgirl, I was just taken with the notion that I could get a peek of the museum late at night and I walked into a robbery when I got left holding the bag. Shucks would you return the statue for me, please?" That would go over real well. No. She had no clue who I was. I decided to make a run for it. Pulling on my tumbling lessons, I vaulted over her head.
The plan was I'd land behind her and keep going as fast as I could and lose her in the chase. No way she could run as fast as I could. No way. But she could apparently react faster than I could. She grabbed me by my pullover and slammed me to the ground. My poor abused body, it had finally had enough and lashed out in a flail of fury. My tucked legs sent her flying through the air to slam into the chimney. My skin was tingling now with the feeling of something moving underneath it. My teeth were itching and I recognised the feeling of rage creeping up my spine. I struggled to stand. I heard the air wheezing with the effort of carrying something through the air. I snatched the pouch from my waist and batted the projectile out of the air.
"Stop it," I said desperately. But it came out as an angry snarl.
"Hand it over," she said as she circled closer to me. Her body was tense, prepared for a fight. Without meaning to I mirrored her.
"I don't want trouble." "You've already got it," she replied.
I held out the bag very slowly, so that she didn't think I was threatening her. "Here," I said, "You can have this. Just let me go."
"Thanks for the co-op but I'm going to have to take you in." She kept moving closer.
"Why?" I asked.
She laughed. "Breaking and entering. Robbery. Assaulting an employee of the state. Ring a bell?" What was with all the voices in my ear? Hers was having a very powerful effect on me. I wanted her to keep speaking.
Somewhere in my head, a fantasy was reeling itself off. Me in a bed, snug in cool velvet sheets and this same voice whispering in my ear as I sleep. I feel like one of mom's cats. A hand strokes my hair, my skin, my chest, my stomach, lower. "Oh my god," I breathed as I shook my head.
"That's right," she said triumphantly as she came even closer.
"No!" I said and held the bag away from me. "Don't come any closer, please. Just take it. Take the statue." I could see the hesitation in her body. Suddenly she jerked back. Why?
I felt the vibrations of someone landing next to me. "Thank you, I will," she said. It was Catwoman. I groaned. "Good getaway kid. Great potential." She addressed Batgirl. "Don't you think she's got great potential? Too bad she set off the alarms. I could've made a clean get away."
"Catwoman!" Batgirl exclaimed. She looked genuinely surprised.
"Bat brat," Catwoman taunted, "long time no see. Did you miss me?"
"I Th... thought you'd retired."
"Well... que sera and all that jazz. Nice seeing you again kid. But I'll be going now." She reached out lazily for my outstretched hand.
Both Batgirl and I shouted, No! at the same time. I struck out wildly to keep the bag away from the cat burglar. Both of them converged on me at once. Fuck this shit, I thought and grabbed a hold of the first body that came within my reach. I gave Catwoman a swift knee in the ribs and threw her into Batgirl. "Sorry," I winced. That couldn't have been fun. Not about to miss the gift that had landed in her lap, Batgirl pinned Catwoman against her. She got head-butted for her pains and slammed back against the roof while nursing her nose. She was bleeding, I could smell it. And as if that opened a door, the breaking of skin opened a torrent of sensation. I became aware of the blood, the excitement, the arousal from all this exertion. I clenched my teeth. Nothing I did was helping.
Before I could shake the feeling loose, Catwoman tackled me and held me close to her. "Easy kid. Easy. I think you got dosed. Just give me the bag and let the Bat hero take care of you." She had noticed. She had noticed that I was drugged. She bounced away from me when she noticed that Batgirl was up and moving towards her.
Batgirl's fist came flying at her head only to be brushed aside in a very efficient move that mom had shown me many times. Deflect the blow, don't resist it. But Batgirl used the opening that created to circle into Catwoman's guard. Catwoman used the momentum to spin away and turn the blow away from her again. Use your opponent's momentum against him, don't use your own energy. For some reason mother's voice was talking in my head. Only this time the momentum sent Batgirl spinning through me, head first into side of an aluminium vent. I dropped the bag to try and brace her. Catwoman dove right for the bag, and I leapt to tackle her. She tried to bat me aside but I already had the bag. She held on to me with a vengeance. I bucked to shake her off, but she kept holding on to me, her grip moving from my waist to my shoulder doing her best not to hurt me but keep me down.
There was something about the way she did it that made me stop struggling. I was just tired now. And I hurt. I just wanted my bed, my cats, my mom. Mom. Again my mind reeled off another fantasy. Mom was here now, she would make everything okay. Okay, now I knew I was completely fucked up. 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. Her quick blink broke the freeze frame instant, but that little blink of hesitation was enough for me, I cocked my fist connected solidly with the side of her head and sent her reeling away from my body. She was out cold. I quickly pulled the mask back over my face, but before I could get to my feet I found myself solidly gripped by the front of my shirt and thrown several feet away.
When I rolled to a stand, by the wall of the stairway landing, Batgirl and I faced off warily. The drug must have really started to affect me, because Batgirl was glowing. Her outline flashed in and out of negative space. One second all I could see was her, the next all I could see was the sky surrounding her, outlining her shape. I wasn't going to hit her. "I'm not going to hit her. I'm not going to hit her," I chanted, "she's only doing her job." None of her business what we do in the night another part of me replied. Make her make the first move. I waited and waited. But she was doing the same thing, she was waiting for me to make the first move. Maybe I could lull her into inaction and then run. But when I did run for it, she was right there with a chop to my neck, which I barely dodged - it landed where the dart had lodged. The impact was unexpected. I let out a grunt. The pain washed over my head in a wave. My fist drove right into her breastbone - it was an uncontrolled blow not unlike the one I had landed on Latimore. Had she been unarmoured by her suit I would have cracked her rib cage right down the centre. I hung back, watching her come back to her feet. She was fast and resilient. No matter how fast I thought I was, she was right there. Unless, I could shake off the effects of the drug, I would be there till the sum came up.
Once again I watched her against the sky, and again my eyes played tricks on me. All the colours were supersaturated and bizarre. The moonlight was a lurid red-pink. Her hair was a baptismal streak of untrammelled passion. The yellow highlights on her costume shone orange, the bat logo on her chest glowed as if the heated core of her heart were bursting through the green of her skin.
"All right kid!" she said spitting blood out of her mouth. "I'm real tired of this."
Why wouldn't she just listen to me? I just knocked out one of her bad guys for her. My eyes were burning, I was coming alive again. I could feel her the excitement thrumming on her nerves. I could smell it. I want it. 'Want what?' I asked myself. What do you want?
"I want you to come quietly with me," she said. I had said that aloud.
"I can't let you do that."
"And I can't let you go"
"Why not? I just knocked out Catwoman for you. Can't we just call it a trade? Me for her?"
"Actually I'm not allowed to bargain with criminals," she said as she slowly crept closer to me with each word. "It's against union rules."
Why couldn't she cut me some slack? "I swear, I didn't steal it," I croaked out.
"Did the dog eat your homework too?" she snapped back.
"No really. Look!" I said throwing the bag with the statue away from me and throwing my free hands up in the air. "Don't want it. You can take it back." She didn't even look at the cushioned leather pouch as it flew through the air.
She just smiled, and took advantage of my submissive pose. I saw her hand move up to my wrist. She had a handcuff ready to snap close. I was not ready to be chained, ever, to anything. I reached for the front of her costume as her hand slipped past my defences and knocked my head back into the wall. It was the second blow to my head in less than a minute and it really knocked something loose. I had always hated to be on the losing end of anything, ever. Losing made me angry. And angry was not good. Not good at all. Not when my mind was on slippery ground already. But it was too late, the shock of the punch, the anger and the drugs loosened the sleeping thing inside me. In animal instinct I exploded. I saw her pupils widen in alarm. My hands came up to grab the front of her cloak. I batted her hand as it came up in defence. I caught her wrist and moved it behind her back. The other I kept pinned to her side in a tight hug. "Stop it," I growled. She used her feet to kick mine out from under me, but we only ended up with our feet intertwined, even closer now than we were a second ago. Our breaths mingled. "I can hurt you ways you haven't imagined. What would you do if I..." 'Yes, yes, what would she do?' voices in my head asked. Find out.
She struggled. "You arrogant little shit!" Her eyes were blue, and regarded me with regal wildness and I could hear her calling to me in languages I didn't know.
Dammit, why wouldn't she just give up, just for a second? I pushed into her. The muscles of her leg twitched against mine. Her heart was a fluttering bird in her stomach. Her breath lapped against my face. Our lips were so close. This was what I wanted. An equal. This was why I didn't fit in. This was why mother was always so worried about me - because I could chew up anyone who couldn't stand up to me. But here was someone who I couldn't chew. She would fight me to the last. Mother would be so proud if I came home with someone like her.
By now Batgirl had stopped struggling. But there was anger in the set of her jaw, fury in the glint of her eye. Rage was building in her muscles, getting ready to explode. "But you want to hurt me," I said as I breathed deeply of her neck. There was that smell that could undo me - wildness and arousal. "You would enjoy it, too, wouldn't you?"
I could feel the slumbering lion awake, stretching it's jaws, hungering for the taste of blood, fear, subjugation. How dare she, how dare she oppose you? I am not a mere cat, I am Bast, wild, feral, you are a lioness. Feel her fear. Feel it. I eat her fear, you thrive on it. We must not be denied. We are untameable.
'No dammit! This isn't me,' I screamed in my head. I had to talk to this woman. Make her understand. She wasn't looking at me, I wanted her to look at me. I reached my hand up to her face. "Listen... please." I said. I slackened my hold a little and with a violent wrench she broke free of me.
I moved just a far away from her and giggled hysterically. "Look I'm going to hurt you." Part of me revelled in that thought. 'Yes! Yes, hurt her!' It said. "I don't want to hurt you."
"I don't hurt so easily," she replied.
"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?"
Her eyes widened - unevenly. I was right. "Thank you for the first aid lesson. But you're barely standing. Hurt me? You're swaying in the breeze."
"There's no breeze," I scoffed.
"Exactly!" she said.
Was I swaying? Yes I was. Damn her. And just before I was sure I was going to pass out, we both turned our heads to the sound of a sharp whistle.
"Hey Batbrat!" It was Catwoman, looking all conscious and feisty as she leaned against the short parapet wall of the roof. Batgirl turned to give the burglar her full attention. Languidly, Catwoman held up the pouch and jiggled it. "Look what the cat's dragging away."
The distraction was enough. I ran for it. Without looking I scrambled down the building and ran like a bat out of hell, with no regard for safety. Once I was far away enough from that roof, I pulled off the balaclava, and used it to scrub my face clean. Then I counted my cash and hailed a cab. That was it, there weren't going to be any more nightly tours for me. The city was too dangerous. Besides, I had an algebra test in the morning.
Needless to say, there were no algebra tests for me in the morning. I was too sore to move. I simply huddled under the blanket.
Mother knocked on my door. "Hel?" I heard her say through the door, "You awake?" She must have missed me at breakfast.
"No, mom." I croaked out unsteadily. My head was throbbing. It felt like someone had hammered my head. Oh wait...
She pushed the door open and came in. "Hel Cat," she said, in a soothing voice. "You sound awful."
"Mom?" I said almost tearfully. "I feel terrible." She came to sit on the edge of the bed and ran her fingers through my hair. "I told you not to drink all that champagne. Do you have a headache?"
I nudged her half-heartedly with my blanket-covered elbow. "Yes," I said. "But it's not the champagne." I protested. "I..."
"Shshhh..." she whispered to me. Her knuckles were cool and feather light against my cheek. "I know, I know," she soothed. "You're burning up. Can you feel it?" I nodded pathetically. "It's okay. Stay in bed." She continued to stroke my cheek and stare at me very intently. I was thankful that only the one side of my face was bruised and easily hidden, as I lay curled up on my side.
"You don't have to stay in with me," I said hesitantly. She wasn't making a move to leave at all.
"You sure?" I nodded.
"I'll be okay," I said.
She laid the flat of her palm against my cheek smiled back gently at me. "My poor sweetie," she whispered. "I'm going to be home late, okay? Call me if you need anything." I nodded back at her.
I stayed home for two days. The first day, I slept until my mother got home and fed me some soup and then I went back to sleep. It was such a dreamless sleep that when I woke up with the sun, for a minute, I thought it was still the previous day. Again mother left without bothering me too much or making a head to toe inspection. Whatever had her distracted, I was pleased for it. As soon as I felt well enough to stumble around, I went to my mirror. For whatever reason, the bruise on my face wasn't as big as thought it would be considering how it throbbed. And by evening the colour had improved a lot. There was a big knot at the back of my head though, and a hole in my neck, courtesy the dart. But whatever had been on it, either wasn't strong enough for my system or didn't get a chance to get through because all I had was a big headache that didn't bother me so much if I moved very slowly. Or if I didn't read the newspapers with their screaming headlines about the mysterious return of Catwoman after her absence of over 15 years. The sandpaper and carpet feeling on my tongue kept getting better with every chug of chocolate milk that I had, and by night I was well enough to have snorted through my usual obscenely big dinner that always made mother glad she hadn't had a boy.
When I got back to school, I found out that Barbara had been in an accident and Hendricks was subbing homeroom - more proof that the universe was conspiring against me - and she thought I had faked illness to avoid her test. Megalomaniacal bitch. But she was glad that Barbara was away because it gave a chance to talk to about my performance in math class. This woman was more insensitive than I was, she pretty much came right out and said that she was glad Barbara Gordon had been in an accident right in front of the whole class. If she alone weren't enough to make me sick I didn't know what was. I also found out that because I had missed two practices before the grand night, as I was referring to it in my head, and I had missed two more, Mr. Polichnowski was starting to worry about my place on the team.
It also turned out that Bobby Grene, the great idiot had broken up with Carla Rivera after three moths of dating and had been asking about me. Well, because I needed to stop sulking because my favourite teacher wasn't around and because I needed something simple to keep my mind off things, I went off to find Bobby Grene. Nothing got any simpler than Bobby Grene, not even play dough.
I was pacing the gallery nervously because there were two policemen in mother's office. The door opened, and for a second my heart started to race but they just nodded at me as they walked out of the office. I slunk over to mom's desk and flopped into the visitor's chair. There were a couple of photos of the statue on her side of the desk. I turned them around to look at them. I didn't hear the door close. I didn't even realise that mom had been standing right behind me watching me stare at the photo until she put her hand on my shoulder.
"It's the Bast that Catwoman stole." I said.
"Yes," she said.
I fingered the grainy matte print. "Why are they talking to you about it?"
She turned around to lean on edge of the desk. "Because I stole it," she said flatly.
I jerked up to glare at her. "You did not!"
"Okay," she said easily, "I'm fencing it, then." I rolled my eyes at her. She was making fun of my nervousness of some of her business deals. "It was routine. They always question all the major art and antiquities dealers when something like this happens."
I heard the door behind me open. It was Nibs handing some envelopes and files off to mother. "Hey, Nibs," I said to him, holding up one of the photos, "Mom stole this katrillion dollar statue, you think I should turn her in?"
Nibs stared at me expressionlessly. "Sho'r. 'Fyou wanna turn y'self in, too," he mumbled around his cigarette.
"Yer mother tol' me you were starin' after it like y'were hypnotised, or something." Great, everyone's a comedian - and bad at it too.
"Mom! I just thought it was fascinating, all right?" I was feeling quite touchy about the effect the statue had on me. "There was just something... n... ch... ted 'b..t 't," I mumbled.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Enchanted. About it," I said reluctantly. Mother thanked Nibs and he left. I could feel the weight of their amusement over my reluctance to talk about magic. "And there was just the way Revell talked about it. He knew exactly how I felt about it, y'know? It was just weird." And even though I knew mother had some kind of belief in the mystical and would not make fun of me, I whispered this last part. "It was like I could hear it calling me. I kept wanting to take one last look at it."
"Well, I hope you won't be pursuing your fascination over this little carving with Revell?" she asked severely, and sat down in her chair with her files.
"Mom, why don't you like William Revell?"
"William Revell," she said through a tense jaw, "is an unscrupulous bastard who cares more about the pretty and expensive toys he can collect and has no regard for people or lives. It's unfortunate he has good taste in art. Because without that he is simply a greedy boy who has too much money." She cocked her eyebrow.
"He said... I think he meant... Did you and Revell, ever...? How do you ask your mother about sex? "... you know." I think between all the face twisting and hand flapping she got the idea.
I think the complete stillness and the face not moving thing was supposed to be its own answer. NO.
There were times mother could make me very nervous. "It's just that..." Since I had thought about recently for the first time, I thought I'd just ask. "My father... how come you never told me anything about him?"
"What do you want to know?"
The way her voice went flat suddenly seemed very dangerous to me. It was time to change the subject. "Nothing! I don't need to know. It was just something he said, that got me thinking. I don't need to know anything."
"Well, Helena. The thing is, if you ever really needed him. If something happened to me. All you need to know is that he would be there for you." I don't know if she ever realised it, but her face became very sad when she said that. Sad like I had never seen her. No one should ever be that sad. When she blinked it was gone. Was it something he did to her? Another thing she hid from me. Well, damn him, anyway.
"I guess I won't be needing anything from him then, will I?" I said with an exaggerated shrug.
"Helena, you would tell me if anything was going on with you right?"
"Yes, mother." It was time for the bi-monthly check-in.
"Because I'd listen."
"Are you sure?"
"It's just stuff, in my head you know. I'm all messed with the hormones and the glands."
"You're not getting in fights again are you?" That, I thought was very presumptuous of her.
"NO!" I said clearly. "Don't you think you'd have heard about them by now?"
She nodded her head but kept going. "Because, with your gifts it would be easy for you to do things others couldn't. For you to start thinking that you could do anything you wanted because you were stronger than everyone else around you. And you cannot hurt people who are weaker than you are."
Wonderful, I was getting the talk part two. "With these super powers I could rule the world," I kidded. She wasn't kidding. "Yes mom, I know. Be kind to the dumb animals."
"Hel, your full attention for just one more minute. I know things are confusing for you right now. But don't get carried away. You have this one chance at your childhood. Don't be in a rush to leave it behind." I had no idea where all the heaviness was coming from but her voice was a lead weight. But...when in doubt with mom, say yes. So I nodded.
When I looked up, mom was still staring at me. "So, you feeling okay today?" I nodded. "How's your neck?" she asked.
Uh, oh. "Umm... what?" I said cautiously.
She pointed at me with her pen. "Your neck, it... you were really hoarse and had some swelling?" Oh yeah, she thought I had some kind of glandular thing.
She was still staring. "So what did you do at school today?"
"Nothing?" she challenged
"Mtch... mom!" I protested. "I went to class. I went to lab. I went to library. I hung around in the quad and made extremely astute but cruel comments about the 'uncool' kids so that everybody around me would think I was funny. I skipped English to go smoke cigarettes in the toilets, and made out with Cindy Smith under the high trampoline. I did normal school things, okay?"
"Cindy Smith?" she said with her amused smirk. She knew how much I despised I'm-Captain-of-the-team Cindy. "Whatever happened to Bobby Grene? Are you still dating him?"
"Kind of?" Her voice rose and then fell, like a ball in the air, in that really annoying way when people think they know something you don't. And then I figured out how mothers ask their daughters about sex. "Are you sleeping with him?" They just ask.
"What? I'm not... No!"
"Are you going to?"
"No!! Motheeerrr!! Stop it."
"Why not? He's quite handsome. And thoughtful. He seems quite stable, too. For his age."
"Hyeah!" I snorted. "Stable's the word. As a horse's ass."
She quirked her eyebrow. "Not to your liking?" I had just stepped into some alternate dimension with this conversation.
"He's just a big pushover."
"I would imagine that most girls would like that sort of thing. All that deliciously taut muscle, at your disposal." Oh gross, my mom was perving my... not exactly boyfriend, more like my big dummy. Yeah, a blown up doll - a blow up doll! I snickered at the thought.
"Like you just said, I'm not exactly most girls, mom."
Somewhat sadly she smiled at me. "No you're not, are you?" She opened a file folder and got to work reading it. "So why did you skip English, I thought that was your favourite class?"
"It's not my favourite class, it's all right," I said as I settled into the very comfortable visitor's chair. This was something mom and I hadn't done in a while. Just talk about nothing while she signed customs papers and releases or went over the numbers for the business.
"Yes, Hel Cat, that's what I said - your favourite class."
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. Can you believe that Hendricks said that she was glad that Mrs. Gordon was 'unexpectedly ill'? Right in front of the class and everything. What a bitch. I can't believe they let Hendricks..."
"Mrs. Hendricks." She corrected me, but at least agreed Hendricks was a bitch.
"I can't believe they let the old coot run around impressionable adolescents with that twisted brain of hers. She's subbing homeroom." Here I puffed myself up into an excellent impression of righteous indignation, complete with gestures and slapping the table. "I mean, how am I supposed to learn anything when my teachers are insensitive tw.." Out of the corner of my eye I saw the warning eyebrow rise. "... twits?" I finished.
"I'm sure you'll muddle along like the rest of us, sweetie," she said without the smallest bit of sympathy. "So what sort of accident?" Hunh?
"Oh Miss Gordon? Probably her bike. She has this really tricked out BMW."
"She rides a BMW? On her salary?"
"I think she re-built that thing. It's got parts that I haven't seen before"
"Oh, of course. If you haven't seen it before..."
"No really, mom. You should see that thing and the way she handles it. It's a really cool bike, heavy though. I had to adjust to holding it up. If it fell on me, ouch!"
That got her attention. "You've driven it?"
"No. She wouldn't let me drive it. My license doesn't include motorcycles." I scowled. I hated being deprived because of stupid technicalities. According to Barbara 'even the Commissioner's daughter isn't above the law.' Like the cops were really going to ask her any questions. "But I did ride..." behind her, very, very close. Very, very nice. And mother was reading my mind so I stopped.
"So you really get along with Ms. Gordon?"
Deflect, Helena, deflect, I thought. "Yeah, she's cool. She's kinda like you."
"Is that right?"
"Yeah, she thinks that despite all their faults teenagers can be treated like people. She's really smart that way, you know." Mother may have been a tough woman, but she was not immune to flattery. She smiled a knowing half-smile. Another hot spot quickly dodged. I congratulated myself.
But it was an evil smile she had when she said, "Well, in that case I should probably come meet her at the next parent-teacher meeting. If she's so smart, I might enjoy talking to her."
An evil, evil smile.
You know what they say about a blow to the head - it re-arranges things. And two blows to the head re-arrange a lot of things. Once I decided to stop playing Danger Mouse and pay attention to school, life got very easy. There was something very comforting about knowing that no matter what went on in the real world or in the world of vigilantes and cat burglars, the world I lived in was safe. Maybe, I thought to myself, the reason I felt so out of place was because I hadn't made any kind of effort to fit in. After all, I was smart. I was great at sports. And, as mother often pointed out, as did the boys at school and some of the girls, I was hot. I didn't need to fit in. The world could just learn to fit itself around me. Yes, I watched Oprah the day I stayed home from school. Armed with this awesome piece of wisdom, I gave myself a good shake and tried to be normal.
The plan worked perfectly. The very next day the newspapers were filled with reports of the return of the Statue from the Revell collection. When I got to school, Hendricks asked me with only a sneer if I would like to make up the test I missed. Mr. Polichnowski apologised for blowing his top the previous day. Barbara Gordon was back at work. And mother showed up in the convertible to pick me up from school. The 1969 Mercedes convertible. Yow! I didn't think mother would let me put my sweaty butt in that car. As I arranged my bags in the back seat, I saw the other car pull up. It was flashy in that understated way that means really expensive. It didn't scream, 'Hey look at me!' No. It said, 'Yes, look at me, I'm rich.' The pretty frat boy I had seen around a couple of times stepped out to lean against the hood. Barbara came out of the gym, walked up to frat boy and kissed him on the lips before getting into the car. That was the end of my good day.
Mother had turned around to see what I was looking at. "That Ms. Gordon's boyfriend?" she asked.
I shrugged, "I guess."
"He's cute," mother said and turned the ignition.
"He is not," I said as I jumped into the front.
I pushed myself down into the seat and snapped the belt buckle shut and scowled. "I said it's hot. So can we please go?"
My body used to be a thing alive. It fairly sang with life. The rush of blood, the flexing of muscles, the vital electricity that connects brain to limb - each intention terminating in action, precisely measured, controlled to the exactly the thing willed of it - it was a miracle to me. I was never so free as I was in my body. When I leaped into the abyss, no net below me but the air, I sailed through it. Buildings alleys, rooftops, I was an animal returned to the primal. Like a hunter I was. Trained to decipher things others could not hear, to track things others could not see. I cultivated my body's awareness until little could get by me - in the day or in the darkness. You can't imagine what it's like to build your body grain by grain, fibre by fibre, stria by stria, breath by breath to be an instrument of such precision that you can control every second that it is motion. Even in my dreams, I revelled in my body. Others dream of flying, I dreamed of the earth under my feet, of the pull and flex of sinews and tendons; of the precise bending of joints. While others sought freedom from themselves in alcohol or drugs, I guarded my body jealously, refusing to lose one single message sent from it to my mind.
My mind was a cripple - broken by Father's cruelties, his mercurial moods; by mother's inability to protect me, or even herself. Under the blankets late at night, with my ears muffled by the layers of bedclothes I strained to hear the sounds around me, to hear the sounds of night and listen to them. Sitting, with my knees pressed together, my feet not swinging, on the chair by Father's office, not making a sound, not a peep out of me, I learned to be still. So still that eyes would pass over my flame hair. And in the stillness that I learned in early childhood, I learned to move. By the time I lost one family and found another, my mind had become my prison. But my body, oh my body exploded in surge of movement. All the stillness, all the quietness had been a nurse to this gloriously physicality. The more my body changed, the more alive I became. My bones grew longer and thicker, muscles draped over my scrawny skeleton, the rail thin waif that I had been filled out into a redoubtable warrior. You cannot imagine the freedom I found in my body. You could bully me into submission, make me doubt myself, make me wonder what it was that I done so wrong that my Father wouldn't love me and my mother couldn't protect me. But when I stretched my body to its limits on a thin beam of leather stretched wood, when I pushed myself into a tumbling dervish on a sprung floor, when I knifed my body through the air to land precisely on my feet, all the while with my eyes closed, I was stronger and freer than I had ever imagined.
I was only eleven when, my father having driven himself to death - literally - and taken mother with him, I came to live with a formidable and taciturn man called Jim Gordon. I put to practice everything Father had taught me - be small and quiet, blend into the background, be aware of every change in the air and mood so that I would never be caught unawares by a blow to my head. After all, I had only just started to keep Father from beating me whenever the mood took him. But in this house, they looked for me. The more I tried to hide, the more Dad tried to find me. And because I had been invisible all this time, I could not bear to be seen by anyone. So, one day I imagined that I would run away. Close my eyes and keep running, never look back; run till the earth underneath my feet gave way to nothing and then I would stop. Only, the earth didn't give way, I did. After having run and run until the buildings around me were a blur and I was a dripping rag, my screaming lungs finally gave way and I collapsed on the cinder track with a gasp. Mr.Polichnowski, the track coach came to kneel by my side. Once I had assured him I was okay, he told me he had never seen anyone run like their life depended on it. He had no idea. Eight months later when track and field was not enough, I found gymnastics.
There was nothing that I was afraid of. Beams, bars, rings - they were nothing to me. When I stepped on to that sprung floor, there was nothing but my body and the precision and control that I imposed on it. Control and power: to know that you can do no better and somehow find a way to be better. Faster, higher, stronger: I took those words to heart. There was nothing that I would not try. I pushed myself a little harder, swung a further, jumped a little higher each time I performed. When I was bored with competing against myself, I started to compete against others. Martial arts classes moved from the being a hobby to being an obsession. Again, I pushed just a little harder, came in just a little closer, took one more blow than was strictly prudent. Had my fingers faltered even one little bit on any of my grips, had my body ever been even one degree off on a landing, had I misjudged an opponent's intent even in the slightest, I'm sure I would have hurt myself terribly. But I didn't care. From the moment that I was the only one to leave the flaming wreck of my parents' lives, I knew that I was invincible. When even death will not have you, you have no choice but to live.
People think of me as quiet Barbara Gordon, with her books and her computers. Shy little Barbara. People think of me as the great Brain, what with my eidetic memory and all. Eidetic memory - who cares! I've always had a freakishly good memory. I remember everything. Even things I don't want to. I remember the pattern and count of flowers of wallpaper in the first house I lived in. I remember the names of everyone on the block. I remember the shape and colour of every bruise on my mother's face. I remember the order and weight of each hand that clapped me on the back the first time I won the 1500 metre race. I remember the colour of the moon, the direction of the breeze, the names of each one of the EMT's, and the smell of the burned paint and charred metal on the embankment of Trigate Bridge where Roger Gordon drove his car over the rails. You cannot imagine how much I remember. Even if I think I've forgotten, I haven't. Ask me a question and there it'll be - every detail just waiting to be seen and acknowledged.
Say to me, " Hey Barbara, what was the weather like on the night of September 2, 1995?" And I can tell you. It was 92 degrees with 38% humidity. The wind was a light 2 to three miles an hour from the southeast. The moon was waning and three days away from new. The little bar of information on the TV that told me this news was blue but the lettering was gold. And the news at 11 was droning on about two unidentified law- enforcement agents responsible for bringing The Joker into police custody. The volume level on the TV was 26. The story scheduled after the special news report was Jan Petersen reporting on the most violent and crime ridden cities in the United States. I left 8 dark wet footprints on the floor when I rushed to the phone when I heard the breaking story about Helena. I dialled the first four digits of Selina's phone number before the electricity went out.
Oh yes. I remember the weather really well from that night. I had a very long time to contemplate it that night. The heat of summer had been so oppressive that the wood floor of my apartment was almost the same temperature as my blood. Until I moved my left hand just one little bit and felt the viscous texture of the fluid I didn't realise how much of it there was. It wasn't thick like corn syrup at all. It was slippery like transmission fluid and it was sluggishly pouring out of me. I could feel the skin around my stomach getting cooler in an ever-widening circle as the blood seeped through the bath-robe. I remember thinking that I had never been that helpless before. I couldn't move. I couldn't even make myself want to move. Somehow that one bullet was a weight larger than anything I had ever experienced. But I also remember thinking that the silence was restful; certainly better than the Joker's cackling braying laughter, and his really bad jokes. I remember thinking that I really needed to dust the corners of my ceilings one of these days. I remember thinking about a production of Tosca that I saw in Rome. I wondered if this was what Tosca had felt like when she fell from the tower. Was there this interminable waiting to die as she felt the blood drain away from her. See, I remember everything, even the things I don't want to.
And because I remembered everything, all the time, everyone just assumed that's all I was. But they didn't know that I had a secret. That really I lived in my body. That my body used to be a thing alive.
I wasn't looking to be a vigilante. I just became one. Having graduated college, I was tired of studying all the time. Dad was always telling me to go out and do things, get out a little more. So I was a little surprised at the big sulk he threw when I told him that I wanted to join the police force and then the FBI. No, no, no! I will absolutely not allow you to throw your life away like that. He was very supportive, and condoling of my disappointment when the FBI said that I was too small for fieldwork, but I suspect he was secretly thrilled. So at twenty, I was well on my way to being just another overly educated defaulter of student loans.
I knew how frustrated it made Dad to have to admit that his beloved Force alone couldn't keep the peace in his precious city. I knew how he steamed over Batman. So I went as a female version of Batman to the Policeman's ball. Of course, I never quite got to unmask and thumb my nose at him at the end of the night. I got something better. I got to keep my mask on and really thumb my nose at him. Of course, Batman wasn't thrilled. Bruce wasn't happy at all. But I was joyous. It was a chance to do something real; to really test my body. So it took me a few months. But Robin had the right idea. Once I had access to the same equipment that Batman had, there really was no saying that I was bad at what I did. Personally, I think the little boys club was happy to have anyone give them a hand, but were too macho to admit it. Poor Dick, I think he was a little jealous that Bruce allowed me run around in the Bat outfit.
But regardless of whether I had the Wayne billions funding my life as a vigilante of the night, I had bills to pay in the day. Living with Dad when I was leading a double life was just not such a good idea. So I got a job as a teacher in the public school system. They didn't care that I didn't have a degree in education, they were so desperate for teachers they would have had Bozo the clown. The city even gave me a sizeable signing bonus, just like the army. And Dad was quite happy to think that I moved out to spend more time with Dick Grayson.
Martha Wayne High School for Senior Secondary Education, or New Gotham High as it was now commonly known, wasn't exactly what I had envisioned as a public school teacher. But somewhere in the bowels of administration, someone decided that Police Commissioner James W. Gordon's overly qualified and far too young daughter could not be allowed to sully her high and politically sensitive self by being assigned to a "rough" neighbourhood. So I got one of the most exclusive and tarted up of public schools. But considering how little time I was going to have left over to make lesson plans and correct papers, I was glad for the cushy job. So I just shrugged and went with it.
Three days after I had been at school, I was bowled over in the faculty lounge by a bear of a man. The loss of hair and expansion of girth could not hide the identity of one of my childhood friends and teachers, Mr. Polichnowski, my track coach. Knowing I could not really turn this man down, I smiled like an idiot and agreed to join his team as a part-time instructor for the gym team. Little did I know why he was so anxious to have some help for what everyone knew was one of the better competing teams in the region.
Kyle. Helena. The name was a red flag in my brain the second I connected the two words. The diffident young woman whose absence from any room lightened the atmosphere in some inexplicable way, but whose presence enriched it immeasurably was Helena Kyle. I wasn't the name itself that set off the alarm, it was the tough guy driving her around. I wondered if she might be Selina Kyle's daughter and she was. For whatever reason, I informed neither Dick nor Bruce of this interesting fact. But I had been far enough in Bruce's database to know who Selina Kyle really was. It had been shocking enough when I discovered that Batman and Daddy's slightly dissolute Billionaire philanthropist friend were the same person. But then to find out that Bruce's once upon a time romance and Batman's once upon a time rival were the same was a little goggling. What was even more mind-boggling was the fact that Catwoman had lived in Gotham for ten years and had not been active at all.
Helena was a strange phenomenon. I cannot think of any other way to characterise her. Calling her simply a person seemed an injustice, and the girl could not tolerate injustice. When I first met her she seemed to me like any other spoiled and over- privileged child. She was volatile and full of disregard for the rules of common civility. She was often rude to her teachers, occasionally disruptive in class, and hinted at an exceptional potential for violence. She had once been suspended from school for weeks over an incident in the previous grade. There had been no repeats, but whatever she had done to the young man, her peers gave her a clear berth if she so much as glared at them. She was obsessively attentive to her physique in the gym but hid it under a cloak of nonchalance outside of it. But no one who had ever seen her perform could deny that despite the soft layer of indolence that covered her, there was a steely strength.
Even her performance in the classroom was disconcerting. All her teachers complained of her lack of academic progress, but with the exception of her math scores she had average grades. But it was the lazy way in which she evaluated things, in her absolute and unshakeable opinions - you knew she knew a lot more than she was willing to reveal. The sense you got from her was that she was unwilling to reveal her intelligence to the unworthy. How she determined worthiness was a mystery lost to her impenetrable adolescent mind, but her opinions were unshakeable. Once judgment was rendered it was intractable. For someone who didn't believe in rules, she had a rock-solid sense of absolutes - not of behaviour but of consequence. She did not respect the law but valued personal codes.
And for someone who claimed to simply tolerate school, she ruled it like her own personal fiefdom. Whatever it was that was dangerous about her attracted her classmates to her. She was the safest bad-girl of them all. Filled with the potential for explosion but perfectly reined-in. If she had not possessed a packed workout schedule and a surprising softness for pretty boys I suspect she might have terrorised the school. She may not have had much use for school, but she loved to learn. It was just unfortunate that the way things were taught in school was boring to her. Her mind was actually quite brilliant, it could slip into the cracks of arguments and postulations like water and render them useless.
She was a corruptive influence in the truest sense. Gifted with immense personal charm, she could make the forbidden seem perfectly sane and licit. It wasn't that she liked to break rules, but she did like to make others defend the rules by pointedly questioning their rationale and purpose. In that way she was the pragmatic idealist. She was the student who stood in her Civics class argued for tyrannical monarchy based on a culture of elitism. Her argument was 'Let those who are strong lead. Most people are incapable of choosing what is good. Let those who know better choose for them, so that they can live their lives.' Her argument was so succinctly worded, so incisively analysed, and so lazily stated that it seemed to be a distillation of her very self. In another place, in another country she might have been the fledgling revolutionary inciting people to civil unrest. It was that assumption of her own superiority that made her so unsettling and attractive at the same time.
This is a good time to mention that the Helena Kyle might justifiably have been described as nubile. But I don't think she realised quite the effect she had on those around her. Leaving the gym in her one piece, she had caused more than one collision in the hallway. And more than her physical looks it was her presence. It was in the way she seemed to assess other couples and courtships around her - something in the way her eyes almost glittered, and her gaze seemed to peer at something that wasn't visible to those around her. But those eyes seemed to be filled with knowledge. If she wasn't unmoved by the effect her looks had on others, I don't think she was quite convinced that she wanted to have that effect. But an effect she had. And once she thought that the reason someone was trying to get her attention was her looks, it was all over. She would treat them as you or I night treat the neighbour's over-friendly dog - with affection and humour but complete condescending indulgence. I think that she reminded me of myself at that age. The only difference was that Helena Kyle had never for one moment believed she was less than any one or anything else. It was a good thing that her mother was Selina Kyle, or I would never have been able to justify my intense interest in her.
For all that Selina Kyle in her other identity had once been a deadly criminal, I could not fault her parenting skills. I certainly wanted to.
What sort of mother, I had wanted to know, would leaver her child in the care of a criminal with a rap sheet as long as my arm. Walter Krasdale, a.k.a Nibs had been arrested countless times and detained for questioning even more times on counts of forgery, fraud, grand theft, aggravated assault, and receiving stolen property. He had started his career at age 14 and had spent about 17 years in prison on one count or the other. And despite his record of conviction for violent felony, he clearly carried a gun. Yes, I checked.
A mother who exercised exceptional judgment as it turned out. Helena Kyle seemed to be the one of the few teenagers who was not perpetually dissatisfied with her mother. In fact she was someone who would have rather spent an entire evening in her mother's presence than amongst her friends. Her child's obvious inability to fit in with her peers not withstanding, the Catwoman had managed to raise a remarkably well-adjusted child.
In fact, the more time I spent with her in the gym or in the bus travelling to and from meets, the more I liked Helena Kyle. My initial overtures to her were out of prodding curiosity. Selina Kyle's daughter, was an excellent way to keep tabs on her. It seemed that every third reference Helena made was to her mother. All my knowledge of Selina came from news reports, criminal investigations and Bruce's database. In her time Catwoman had been a very tricky operator indeed. She had combined a certain reckless abandon with uncanny precision and shrewdness in committing her burglaries. She had ostensibly seduced or plotted her way into some of the most secure facilities in the world. The appraised value of the goods wasn't what always drew her. She had the impeccable eye of the art collector; and some of her crimes were of a very flamboyant nature, committed almost to twit law enforcement. Once, she stole a page of a rare 10th century illuminated manuscript and replaced it with a fake; the expertly forged writing on the parchment contained the text of Three Little Kittens. Helena had inherited the same sense of humour. But where Selina's was wry and ironic, Helena's was sly and mischievous.
Co-ordinating a herd run in urban concrete jungle is no small feat. In the forest it's really simple - you lay the bait, stretch out a perimeter of drummers and beaters, when you see your quarry, you startle it and send it running, the drummers and beaters will herd the beast in exactly the direction you want because they're carrying torches and weapons, and finally you corner the animal. In the city, it's marginally more complicated than that. For one, vigilantes don't generally have large hunting bands, nor do they have torches and drummers. And then, there's the problem with civilians in the way, one-way streets, alleyways, tunnels, hidey-holes. And lastly there's the minor problem of firearms. It doesn't matter how dangerous an animal in the forest is, it's just not likely to be carrying an Uzi or an M14 or RPG's. But the guys we're chasing? All bets are off. So there we were, Dick and I - him on a rooftop, me on the ground trailing a car to a warehouse on the Southside. Simple surveillance job, Bruce needed us to hear as much as we can before we smash and grab a few bad guys. When suddenly, we're stuck in a firestorm of bullets. There had been a lot of suspicious activity with the shipping lanes and trucking routes. It could have been a simple union versus independents thing but the goods coming in weren't being dispersed along any known market routes. Bruce was convinced that it had to do with the Joker. But having both Dick and me trail a consignment of counterfeit Nintendoes seemed like overkill. But imagine my surprise when everyone in the warehouse let loose with automatic weapons at the first sight of Dick swooping down through a skylight. I had no choice but to gun my motorcycle through the door of the warehouse and lasso down a few criminals. After we rounded up most of our perps, Dick radioed me to say that there were a couple on the loose. He was going to go after the one's on the roof.
So I sped down the cobble stone pathways, trying to dodge bullets coming at me. It was one of those days I would gladly have given up visibility for a shielded helmet.
"You mean the shiny black job sitting in the Batcave?" came the voice in my ear.
Wonderful, I was talking out loud again. "Dick," I said. "Mind your own business and talk back to the voices in your head."
"Well, that's great, Red. Just wanted to let you know looks like they're headed to some kind of back-up rendezvous."
"The fewer I have to deal with, the better."
"So you're saying," I said while dodging a cat, a trash can and a bullet, "you'd like me to intercept my marks before they reach their destination." "That's an affirmative."
The turns were getting tighter and tighter, but they were head for the Sprang. I didn't want to lose them in the old section of the city. "You mean just like I was doing before you started distracting me?" The screeching of my brakes and the whine of metal pipe on pavement made a good counterpoint to my remarks, I thought. I just knew that I was going to have to tape my ankle for the next day.
Yes I was. I may have been riding the lighter modified Ducati because I was on the job, but trying to handle it while taking the sharp corners was no easy feat; and keeping up with the car in front of me was killing my thighs and calves. Finally we were on a straight stretch of road. Trusting the 'cycle to keep a straight line with one hand I pulled out my bolt gun and aimed for the rear right tyre. Got it in one.
The car lurched drunkenly to the right and started to slow down. Sensing an easy kill I moved in closer. I should have waited to take out the other as well, because as soon as I pulled up closer to the car the driver rammed me sideways. In a desperate manoeuvre I fired the next bolt with a cable lead on it into the body of the car. As he saw me shoot the bolt, the driver rammed into me again and I went careening to the edge of the bridge. The front wheel caught the edge of the curb and the momentum of the bike sent it spinning over the rail. I abandoned the bolt gun and sent a bat-a-rang flying in the general direction of the car and hoped it hit another tyre like I wanted it to. As I jumped clear of the 'cycle and aimed to grasp the rim of the rails, I absently noticed that the wire lead from the bolt gun had looped itself around the handles of the bike. Jack-knifing in the air to get my bearings, I turned my back to river. Falling into the water from that immense height would have been like slamming into concrete, which actually might have been better than what happened.
Even though I saw the lead wire wrap around the handle bars I was too busy trying to save my skin to notice what that might mean when the bolt was still embedded in the car. As soon as the wire reached its full stretch and pulled taut, the velocity of the car gave the Ducati a forward impulse. Like a yo-yo bouncing back at the flick of a wrist, the 'cycle came flying back in my direction to demonstrate Newton's First Law in a very intimate and immediate way. The spinning and turgid tube of the front wheel nudged the back of my head - it was no more than a whisper of a touch compared to the full impact if it; but for 520 pounds of weight moving at 30 miles per hour even a whisper of a touch on the back of your head is like being struck by a sledge hammer. The world exploded in a burst of white and blue fireworks inside my head. My fingers let go of their hold on the bridge as I blacked out for a second and went plunging straight for the river.
It served me right for grandstanding. I could have just let them go. I could have tried to take out a second tyre from behind, but no - I had get up close and personal just let them know that I was not to be messed with. There were a million other things I could have done, but I chose the most drastic and dramatic tactic of trying to bring them all in; and now I was going to pay in broken bones and pain. Bruce and Dick were going to be on my case forever. Bruce would look at me in that disappointed and disapproving way of his. I would never work as a cape again.
Free fall is a liberating experience. The air, as it rushes past your ears and pushes against your face, is thick like soup, like feathers, like sponge. Trying to move your hand is a great effort. Even as you fall you feel as if you the air could cradle you forever. You feel like you're flying, like you could float. Only it's a lie. The air isn't holding you up at all; it's letting you down. You're crashing to the earth with a terminal velocity of 9.8 metres per second per second. It doesn't matter if you're a beetle or a Batgirl, when you hit the surface you leave a splat.
The wailing horn of the garbage trawler as it made its way down the river was like a siren of relief. I plunged through a mountain of household garbage. It took me a minute to sit up. But mind ever on my mission, I fumbled for the binoculars on my belt and looked back to the bridge as I scraped something slimy and noxious out of my hair. And mercy me! The most fortuitous sight greeted my artificially enhanced vision - the Ducati was wedged in the triangular gaps of the cross bars of the bridge rails, and still attached to it, ostensibly by gloriously unbreakable guy wire, was the car. It stood in a crumpled heap, steam rising from the hood and - a quick flick of a button on the binoculars to switch viewing modes - no moving bodies.
With a sigh I threw myself back onto my beautifully cushiony and unpleasantly aromatic bed and stared at the stars. Orion wheeled above me and behind it was Gemini, glinting but not flickering in the unusually clear night sky. The scene on the bridge was so petty and incongruous when compared to the swirling stars and the immensity of the universe that I wanted to laugh. Instead I cried and immediately caught myself. Hysteria was not good. But I did wonder if I weren't crazy. When the smell became more unbearable than the thought of moving, I rolled down the mountain of garbage and swam back to shore. I radioed Robin my status and limped back to the bridge. The men, and - God bless my male chauvinistic little heart - one woman, were stirring, but were too knocked about to give me any trouble as I cuffed them.
Dick and the Batmobile came screeching to a stop by my side as I petted my Ducati goodbye. Another one had bitten the dust. Good thing my mentor and ally was rich beyond all belief from his day job, because at the rate I was trashing those things, they were going to have to put in a new workshop just for me. Wrapped in a foil blanket I shivered all the way back to the Batcave.
The next morning at school did not start out well.
First I was late.
Second, I forgot to ask for an assignment due that day. I didn't remember until half way into class when Helena Kyle insouciantly plopped her paper on my desk as she moved up to the front to read the last paper I had graded and returned to them. That set off a chain reaction of name-calling and paper throwing which I subdued by giving everyone an extra day to finish. That resulted in my being the target of Helena's dirty glares through the remainder of the period.
Third, in the 10th grade class, the examination of moral exigencies and existential conflicts in Shakespeare's writing degenerated into a bitch-fest about what a pussy faggot Hamlet was. That entire class was consequently dedicated to explaining to a bunch of sexually confused and immature adolescents exactly how offensive and wrong the use of both those terms was.
Fourth, Mr. Polichnowski asked me to handle the weekend at the regional gymnastics meet because he was to be attending his daughter's first delivery.
Fifth, I was receiving spitting letters of protest from outraged parents, because I off- handedly suggested reading Soul on Ice as a companion to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to some of my students.
Sixth, the faculty lounge was all abuzz at the latest piece of - and I quote Principal Bartlett's words - 'vile obscenity' circulating the hallway. It was a photo of Jonathan Rush the quarterback, with a victorious, almost ecstatic expression on his face, and his centre man, with the rather indelicate caption, "Who's pet?" As I studied the picture I noticed that it was an expertly Photoshopped offspring of two other innocent and ubiquitous photographs of the team at play. But whoever had papered the hallway with the new version, had painstakingly married the two images, removed a portion of the field and the audience, and reconstructed the shadows on the ground and even the colour gradation of the grass to produce this clever chimaera. I couldn't help but stifle a chuckle of amusement at the result. The entire crowd of spectators seemed to be cheering on the rather the seemingly amorous horseplay of the two young men. There was nothing offensive in and of itself, but the insinuation was quite clear, and enough to ruffle a few conservative feathers; especially in a high school.
Seventh and finally, was homeroom period. Nothing happened, except for the fact that Helena Kyle was summoned to the principal's office, and then fifteen minutes later I was.
"Two of her classmates have accused Ms. Kyle of generating this... this... vile obscenity," Principal Bartlett fumed at me as he waved the picture. "She denies it. I'd like to ask you what you think."
I glanced at Helena who stood very still and entirely expressionless at the table. "If I might ask, sir," I temporised. "What leads you to believe that her classmates are correct in their supposition?"
"Well..." he blustered. "Why would the two of them just make up something like that?"
"Helena," I nudged her verbally, "any reason?"
"They're b..." I suspect that it was my glare that resulted in the word that actually followed, "... basically not my friends. We don't get along."
"Ms. Kyle, do you expect me to believe that two of your classmates would create frivolous allegations just because they do not like you?" asked Mr. Bartlett.
"Yes," she said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"And would you like to explain this?" he said as he tossed a copy of Fun With Photoshop on his desk.
"Sir?" she said.
"Is that or is that not your book?"
"It's not my book," she replied.
"Excuse me?" Bartlett was starting to get belligerent. "I thought this was in your locker."
"Well, it belongs to the library."
"Ms. Kyle, I am losing patience."
"Mr. Bartlett," she said in a sincere voice, "would you like to come home and check my computer as well? I opened my locker voluntarily because I have nothing to hide. Why don't you go to the library and find everyone who's ever borrowed that book? In fact, why don't you start with the school paper, they actually have a copy of the program." Her voice only sounded sincere, but I had now known her long enough to realise that she was starting to get an adversarial gleam in her eye that would result either in an expulsion or a lawsuit - with no guarantee for who the plaintiff would be.
"Respectfully, sir," I intervened, "she does have a point."
Bartlett sighed and rubbed his temple. "Kyle, go sit outside." With a sidelong glance at me she left. After the door was securely shut behind her Bartlett spoke. "What do you think Ms. Gordon?"
"Are you asking me if she did it?"
"What does she say?"
"Nothing. She says I'm a fool to listen to rumours."
"Perhaps she's right."
"Barbara, the girl's a disruption. She's cocky and disrespectful and gets away with murder round here. I know she's charming but she's also a bad influence. I don't want to pass up a chance to discipline her if I can."
"Have you considered, Mr. Bartlett, that might be a reason why her classmates suppose she's the one behind the... ah, campaign?" Bartlett's face was a question. So I drew it out for him. "The two girls, whoever they are," I said pointedly, "don't like her. They also know that this is the kind of thing she might do so they may have been... erm, overenthusiastic in their assertions, shall we say?"
"You're convinced she didn't do it then?"
"If she says she didn't, then I am. She's very straightforward that way," I reassured him.
"All right, Barbara. I'll go with you. You seem to have a handle on all the kids," he said as he stood up. "But mark my words, this is just the sort of thing that puts ideas in their heads if they can get away with it."
"She's all right Mr. Bartlett, just a little high spirited."
"Pain in my ass is what she is. If Selina Kyle weren't a trustee on the council I'd probably ask the kid to leave and never come back," he retorted. "She is smart though, and funny." I had to agree with that last assessment. He opened the door to his office and addressed Helena. "Ms. Kyle, my apologies. You're free to go."
"Yessir," she said and started to leave with me, but stopped. "Umm...Mr. Bartlett?"
"You have my book."
She spread her palms outwards and shrugged. "It's due back in two days? It's a library book."
He sighed. "Ms. Kyle, I'm sure I can explain to the librarian when I return it."
"YES? Ms. Kyle."
"I'm not done reading it," she said quite pitifully.
Bartlett rubbed his face and stormed into his office. "Here," he said. He practically threw the book at her and rushed back into his office - probably to pour himself a shot from the flask he kept in the bottom right hand drawer.
Once she had the book in her hands she smiled at it as one might smile at a long lost puppy and lovingly smoothed down the edges of the cover. Looking at the smile I worried just a little bit as I realised that she hadn't actually denied anything. "Helena," I asked, "did you do it?"
"Why Ms. Gordon, surely you don't believe a couple of hysterical bimboes?"
"Helena, it's not a kind thing to do, and Jonathan is sure to take it in ill humour."
She simply smiled at me impishly and said, "Don't worry about it Ms. Gordon. Rush's brother is a friend of Mike Latimore. He's not going to try a damn thing."
As I took my seat behind the desk in the classroom and threw my head back to stare at the ceiling and thought about what I had asked myself the previous night, I realised I could stop wondering if I were crazy. I gave up a perfectly good opportunity at the City Library to teach high school. No question about it - I was looney toons, screwy, nuts, batty, if you will. Perfectly insane.
When I was younger and more naïve, and imagined the lairs and domiciles of superheroes and caped crime-fighters, I had an image of vast spacious houses and lofts; books and electronics all neatly stacked in shelves or displayed in well constructed displays; they had computers built into the walls - row upon row of parallel processing units to provide unprecedented computing capacity; I saw their clothes hanging neatly from hangers in clean closets which had secret compartments for their uniforms. All was neat and ordered and everything had its place. Of course when I was younger I had never dreamed I would ever be a 'superhero', caped vigilante, so what did I know? But as I jerked awake in front of the glowing computer screen and knocked my cup of coffee onto my keyboard and shorted it and ended up mopping up the spill with a sweaty T-shirt that I grabbed from the laundry pile that still hadn't been done after eight days of having been sorted, I knew that my younger self had been even more naïve than I gave her credit for.
Stuffing the keyboard in the trash can next to my desk, I wandered into my closet to search for the older keyboard that I had stopped using because the keys stuck. I found what I was looking for but not before knocking over a shelving unit I had installed to house my shoes and then tripping over the spilled shoes. Sure, hunting criminals was a rough sport, but as I nursed my right butt cheek I considered that I probably injured myself more in my own apartment.
Bruce had named a few companies that he was having investigated in relationship to the Joker's operations in Gotham and I was doing some research on them. After I graded all the papers from my tenth graders, I had settled into a comfortable night of research and tracking. While my internet search hadn't shown anything really relevant regarding the companies, I had in a tangential search come across something interesting in regards to missing art pieces. As profitable as drug running was in terms of financing illicit operations in the city, reports were turning up in other cities of shady real estate deals and art heists that seemed to precede spikes of crime and violence. Somewhere along the night, I had fallen asleep as the computer kept running its searches. As I plugged the old keyboard back to the CPU, I noticed that some of the searches had now produced results relating to my new parameters. The diligent little bots fueled by my intricate programming had even managed to snag some news reports for me. Flicking through the results some of which came for as far afield as Cambodia, I noticed a name that was incredibly familiar. William Revell.
William Revell was a billionaire in the same vein as Bruce Wayne - high profile playboy and art collector. Not that Bruce was an art collector, but they had the same kind of money. And he was in Gotham. Revell was displaying a part of his private collection to raise funds for his pet charities and had announced that he would even be donating some pieces to the City museum. I remembered daddy talking about it in passing. He had mentioned what a pain the whole event was going to be. I could understand his concern. If the artefacts were as rare and exquisite as rumour had them, every thief was going to be 'trolling the night for them. This would be exactly the kind of party that the Joker would want to crash. Not only would the event provide him with important hostages and money, he would be able to make a media splash while he was at it. And with both Bruce and Dick out of the country, it was my job to make sure that no one got away with anything at that exhibition.
Unmitigated disaster. Yes that was what it had been. The gala night, like I had predicted, was long and boring. But was punctuated by the shock of seeing Helena Kyle looking very stunning and grown up, and practically seducing a grown man where he stood. She wasn't aware of it, but at that age very few young girls are. As Revell and I sparred over her - I think that is what we did - I became highly cognizant of exactly why it was that so many members of the faculty found Helena so intimidating. The girl reeked the promise of very sinful things. And added to that particular shock was the fact that there were not one but two attempts - successful ones, I might add - to break into the museum. On top of that, the private security arrangements at the museum were rather... unorthodox. They weren't guards they were mercenaries. And the dénouement - Catwoman in full costumed and unfettered glory. And boy, could she kick. I couldn't believe my eyes. It hadn't been a copycat at all it was Selina. But as hard as I had fought her for whatever it was she had stolen, it was the other one that bothered me. She was clearly a talented thief and she was strong. Nobody had kicked me like that since I had sparred with Bruce. She was so good she even managed to give Catwoman a run for her money. And she was also clearly unhinged.
While I had almost been killed or severely injured on more than one occasion, when I fought this very young thief who claimed not to be one - clearly crazy - was the first time I felt unsafe. Don't be fooled, I was always unsafe; but in my head when I went into a situation I had usually analysed it from many angles and prepared myself for most consequences, including death. But preparation can only be as good as my assessment of my opponent. Having gone up against men who were real sleaze buckets, I knew what my chances were of getting shot or raped. Trust me, there are enough women in capes and tights in the biz who have not only faced the possibility but lived through it. But when I went up against women, usually I just had to worry about getting my head handed to me on a plate. And cat burglars as a rule tend to be focused people. All they're interested in is the loot. But this one had no focus, it was almost as if she wasn't really there and whatever was there had no interest in anything except what it wanted at that moment. I must say, no matter how much I hated being bested by Catwoman, I was never gladder to see a super villain.
People will tell you they remember the exact moment that they heard that JFK had been killed or when they heard that Challenger had exploded. I remember the exact moment I met Selina Kyle. It was Thursday night. The big clock over my head showed 6:23 in loud red LEDs. I was standing in the organic grocery aisle at D'Aiuto's supermarket on John Street trying to decide between two squashes when I heard someone call my name.
"Ms. Gordon?" the voice slithered across my spine in a chill. I had heard that voice only once, but I would not forget it. It was Selina Kyle. Selina Kyle in my grocery store speaking to me. I did my best not to jump like a frightened rabbit and turned to face the voice. "Barbara Gordon, isn't it?" she said. "I'm Selina Kyle. I'm..."
"Helena's mother," I finished for her.
"Yes, indeed I am."
I really had no idea what I was supposed to say next. If you were faced with a recently out of retirement arch villain and super thief who also happened to be the mother of one your favourite pupils while you were shopping for vegetables what would you say? Precisely.
"I'm so sorry to intrude on you like this," she said, "but when I saw you, I wanted to say hello. Helena always speaks so highly of you."
"Oh... she's actually a pleasure to have in class." That made her smile knowingly.
"Are you sure, Ms. Gordon? As much as I love my own daughter I must say she is a bit wilful."
Well, there was no denying that and Selina Kyle was so remarkably alive when she spoke about Helena, I joined in her laughter. "Well, she's a little intense at times." Bizarro world. I had read about it. But this was the first time I was in it. I was standing in a grocery aisle joking with Catwoman in an entirely jovial way. And she was laughing along with me. At a glance you would never know that she had perpetrated one of the more daring criminal acts of the year. I took a look at the two squashes still in my hand to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
"Oh please don't let me keep you from your groceries," she apologised, when she saw me glance at the squashes.
"Oh... no, no it's not a problem. I'm done," I said as I waved off her apology.
She nodded gratefully at me and took her groceries - why was she shopping in my neighbourhood - to the check out counter. I put the squash in my left hand back in the pile and put the other one in my basket. As I passed the ice cream freezer I grabbed a small tub of mint chocolate chip and made my stunned and unseeing way to the express check out. As luck had it she was having her groceries bagged as I placed my items on the counter. It was too much of coincidence having her in my neighbourhood two days after she delivered me a kind but humiliating pummelling on the roofs of the city. I had to prolong contact but could not think of any way to do it.
As if she were reading my mind, she spoke up as we exited the store. "Ms. Gordon, I know this is unusual, but I was wondering if I might invite you to join me for a cup of coffee." She ducked her head charmingly, acknowledging the awkwardness of the situation. In that moment she seemed so shy, I had no choice but to smile and agree. Suddenly it was quite clear where Helena got her charm. "Oh good." She pointed to the diner across the street and raised her eyebrows. I nodded to let her know that it was okay.
As I walked, I shifted the bag from one hand to the other as I adjusted the helmet on my arm. My stomach was still a little sore from the beating I had taken two nights ago and even that movement made me wince as the muscles pulled against the strain.
Immediately she grabbed the bag from my hands. "Oh let me carry those for you." Before I could protest, the groceries were out of my hands. She held the door to the diner open for me. "Helena tells me you were in a motor accident. Were you badly injured?"
"No, no. Just a few scrapes."
"Can't be very safe, your motorcycle."
"Actually it is quite safe, with the right equipment."
She raised her eyebrows at me as we sat down at the booth. Manny, the manager saw me sit down and waved to let me know he would be right over. "Really," she retorted. "You do seem a little worse for the wear." The admonishment was clear in her voice. I was being reproved by a mother. Wonderful! She and dad would get on just fine. She held her hands up palms facing me as she stopped herself. "But it really is none of my business, I'm sorry."
"No, my father feels the same way. He's always on my case about getting a car, preferably a Volvo."
"Oh please not a Volvo, for God's sake. The things are box ugly."
I grinned back at her. "That's exactly what I told dad."
"I'm sure he took it well." We stared at each other after we ordered coffee. Selina's ability to remain preternaturally still was very unnerving. In the long pause, I unfolded the napkin over my thigh, re-arranged my cutlery, and took a sip of my water. "I'm sorry, I know this is a bit awkward, but you've been so kind to Helena and we've never had the chance to meet, I had to uh..." she waved her hand vaguely, indicating our present circumstance. "And when Helena told me about your accident I was very concerned as well. You know she's very fond of you?"
"I think she just appreciates the fact that I don't talk down to her." I replied. "Most people her age respond to that."
"That's quite right. I think that's why she and I have always gotten along so well."
The depth of the understatement was quite funny. Helena adored her mother no end. "You know she's quite fond of you."
"Yes, but I'm her mother. She has no choice."
"To be honest," I said, "I feel quite honoured, then. She's very intelligent and despite her bravado, a very open and sensitive child. She's very astute. I'd be proud to be her friend in the future."
"Would you?" she whispered. "Actually, that is what I wanted to talk to you about."
"I beg your pardon?"
"She is a very open and sensitive child. Unusually untouched by prejudice and wariness. And you're quite right in assuming that the bravado is a front. So I worry about her. I know she has had some trouble adjusting to her peers in the past. With the one exception, all her friends have always been older than her. I suppose in some way that's my fault; I've never kept her out of the circle of my business acquaintances. And the antiques business is filled with more than one kind of antique. So you see I have been somewhat concerned about her social development. And lately she has been rather attached to you..." Here she trailed off.
I wasn't what she said, but rather the way in which she said it - so full of concern and solicitousness and the insinuating way in which she tapered off her monologue. "I'm sorry Ms. Kyle. What is it exactly you're trying to say?"
Her yes were wide. Her hand drew to her breast and then opened outward in a gesture of sincerity. "Now don't get me wrong. She's shown more interest in school since you've been her homeroom teacher and she's really focused on her gymnastics as well. From what I understand her performance has improved since you've been giving her coaching advice... but lately she's been spending more time away from home. And just yesterday, she let slip that you've been..."
Unbelievable. She was sitting there implying that I might be encouraging inappropriate behaviour in her child. She was out breaking into museums and stealing priceless works of art and giving me lectures about appropriate behaviour. "Ms. Kyle, I don't know where you're going with this but I find it very offensive that you think I might be..."
"It's just that from what I understand the children look up to you. And I don't think it's advisable that you should be allowing your students to ride your motorcycle. I of all people understand the thrill of fast vehicles, but don't you think for you to be riding a potentially dangerous conveyance to work is somewhat of an endorsement to young people not old enough to make those decisions." She was lecturing me about my motorcycle. My motorcycle.
"Ms Kyle, are you asking me not to ride my motorcycle to school?" "Oh no, Ms. Gordon, I would never dream of telling you what to do. I was merely asking that you consider... after all I'm sure my daughter isn't the only one who looks up to you. As a mother, I hope you can imagine I'm always very worried about Helena's safety. And when I heard that you'd had a motor accident, I was... concerned. Why?" she asked solicitously, "What did you think I was referring to?"
Well, if that didn't just burn my shorts. I took a beating from some unhinged kid and then from her and I was the one getting lectured about safe travel because she was concerned I might be a bad influence on her stubborn daughter. And if she didn't stop I was going to haul her in on general principles. "Ms. Kyle, I am a very responsible rider, as am I a responsible teacher. And when it comes to Helena, I find it very difficult to believe that anyone, including you, would be able to change her mind once she's attached to an idea. So I seriously doubt I could add or remove an idea from her head. As for my accident you can be quite sure it had nothing to do with my riding. Maybe I was in a car when it happened."
And while I blew my top like some foot stomping child she sat back in her seat with the tip of her middle finger resting quite delicately against her bottom lip as she smirked. "Ms. Gordon, you were at the Revell exhibit, was Bruce Wayne there?"
"No? Really. Is he a friend of yours?" she smiled. Fast as whiplash I was quite suddenly on very thin ice.
"... Uh, Mr. Wayne is a friend of daddy's, I occasionally see him at these things."
"And..." she said as she picked a fleck out of a fingernail, "do you often attend these functions with the commissioner?"
"Hmmm. It was a shame what happened that night though wasn't it? It's a pity the Batman wasn't around, he might have stopped her."
"Excuse me?" I really didn't understand what was going on. She couldn't be playing a game, I thought. Because that was dangerous. And the whole thing now was too far gone to be coincidence.
"Catwoman. Quite the remarkable getaway she made." Definitely not a coincidence. But I was also out of my league. I knew Selina Kyle only from old reports and accounts. I had no idea what kind of woman she was. The Catwoman certainly had been dangerous quarry. It was best to play dumb and call Bruce in on this.
"I'm sure the police can handle it."
"Hmm, spoken like a true daughter. But really Ms. Gordon... you're a terrible liar, and very young. It's a good thing you wear a mask on the job. Because your face is a dead give away."
"I don't understand," I protested.
"Don't play dumb Ms. Gordon," she said. "You know exactly who I am. You knew the second you saw me in the organic aisle. In fact you knew on the rooftop, didn't you? That wasn't shock, it was recognition that froze you, wasn't it?"
The coffee arrived with a large slice of apple pie. Manny winked at me and said I was to make sure I let my guest try some as well. The pie was warm and flaky; a warm waft of cinnamony vapour rose from it. Selina picked up her fork and sliced into it. I followed the portion on the tip of her fork as it disappeared into her mouth.
"Mmm... It's really quite good." As she put her fork down she cocked her head at me. "You're staring Ms. Gordon. It's really not polite."
"How did you know?"
"Well... have you ever considered wearing a wig?" Of course, it would have been my hair. I closed my eyes and shook my head. "You're not the only detective in town, you know. Some of us have been doing this longer than you have." I was so ashamed. If she can tell, how many others? "If it's any consolation, Ms. Gordon, I didn't seriously consider it until Helena told me you'd been... indisposed during the same two days she was ill."
"Oh. How is she? I... I saw her at school today, she looked a little peaky but she was very quiet."
"Actually, I'm not quite sure how she is. But I suspect she'll be fine."
That actually sounded very cryptic and serious. "Is something wrong?" I asked.
"I don't know. Ms. Gordon, answer me honestly. Have you ever had to take days off work before?"
Not because I was too beaten to walk about. "No."
"And would you say that it was because of damage I did you?"
"No," I replied. That was the truth. It hadn't been her slamming my head into the duct that had gotten me. I had protection enough from the woven fibre and graphite of the mask. It was the two punches from the kid that had ruined me. She had actually cracked my rib through the armoured suit.
"That was some punch. Dropped me in one."
"Is that why you're here? To find out if I know who it is. I don't."
"Tch... so suspicious." She shook her head. "Tell me Ms. Gordon, does the name Michael Latimore ring a bell?" That was the young man Helena had almost gotten expelled over. I was surprised no criminal charges had ever been filed. I nodded. "I had to use a lot of markers to pull that one. She could have killed him." I really didn't understand what a two-year old incident had to do with anything. "She was only fourteen. But I think I know how he felt that day," she said significantly.
No, it couldn't be, I thought. "Are you saying...?"
"That it was Helena up there? Yes. That was quite a beating you gave her. If I were her, I'd be a little peaky and quiet too."
I couldn't believe that she was calmly telling me that her daughter was her accomplice in crime. "How could you?" I asked her with clenched teeth. I was very aware of the public nature of our talk. It had been a masterpiece of manipulation. "She's just a child, how could you lead her into a life of crime?"
"Oh, for God's sake!" she said disdainfully. "Are you always this dramatic? Did she sound like she was stealing the damn thing? She was practically trying to give it back to you."
"Then why was she out there?"
Selina hung her head and sighed deeply. "Would you believe simple curiosity? She's too much like me, Ms Gordon. She has no fear and she is endlessly curious. And she's not normal." I took a hissing breath. "That's right," she responded. "She is a meta. And even though I know it gives her the strength to protect herself, it leads her into trouble."
"What do you want from me, Ms. Kyle?"
"Call me Selina, Barbara. I want you to look out for my daughter the same way you've been doing at school."
"I can't promise that. If she does anything illegal I'll have to..."
"Please don't be depressingly narrow-minded. How legal is much of what you do? No, Barbara, your city is under siege and you're fighting for your life. That's why you were there on that rooftop. Because you know the same things about Revell as I do. Helena was an accident. Like you said, she's headstrong and I know she likes to play in dangerous places. I want you to make sure she doesn't get hurt if you run across her again."
"Okay," I replied.
"Thank you. In return I will help you bring down Revell."
"The whole exhibition was a set up. Revell wanted me. He stole that statue from me 18 years ago. He put that thing on display knowing it would draw me out. He had the whole thing staged to drug and capture me. Only they ended up dosing Helena. Somebody's messing with my toys in my town. And they hurt my daughter." The glint in her eyes was deadly. "They're going to pay."
"I knew it!" I exclaimed. "He is fronting something."
Selina stood to leave but before she leaving she placed a shoebox on the table. "Oh by the way, you might want this back." I popped the lid on the box and took a peek. It was the statue she had stolen. "I find that my daughter's life is more important to me than an 18 year old vendetta. In any case, I've disabled the transmitter in the base of the statue. So you can take it where you like." And just like that I was in Nick's diner with approximately 2.2 million dollars worth of stolen property sitting on my table. I stuck the box with my vegetables and finished my apple pie and coffee. So began the most desperate struggle for the city that I had ever been involved with.
Standing around in Selina's gallery, I felt rather conspicuous. The few patrons with their hautest of couture and the deepest of pockets were giving me sidelong looks. The security guards were eyeing me with suspicion, and in the distance where I knew was Selina's office door, Nibs stared after me balefully. A few minutes later, Selina exited her office with two very happy looking suits. She shook hands firmly with them and laughed softly as they looked in my direction. After their goodbyes, she had Nibs escort them out of the gallery. They both stared at me as they walked by. The man in the blue suit tipped his hat to me with a broad smile as he walked past. I had to tamp down the urge to memorise their faces and find out who they were. I really didn't need to know how un-retired from the business she really was. The second I had that thought I had to scold myself for thinking that everyone of Selina's clients was shady.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her stalk down the long corridor towards me as I stared furiously at the painting in front of me. I didn't have to look at her directly to know that she was wearing an evil little smirk as she slinked and looped her way to me. For some inexplicable reason she took great pleasure in treating me as I were one of her many sexual thralls. I was doing my best to ignore the discomfort engendered by her very steadfast gaze.
"Well, you've got expensive taste in art," she purred into my ear as she sidled up next to me. I had to fight not to squirm away from her. Any sign of weakness and she'd rag on me endlessly.
"How much is it worth?"
"You know, if you have to ask..." she shrugged as she turned to face me. "Twenty nine thousand five hundred dollars"
Holy wow! I cleared my throat. "That's it?"
"Well," she said as she turned back to contemplate the canvas, "it is a steal at the price. But he is new. And he's still young. He'll be rich... eventually."
I contemplated the subtle, hesitant brush strokes and the layered hues of monochromatic chaos, which coalesced into the portrait of a melancholy girl. Sometimes she stared with a ghostly intensity and sometimes she looked sad. It was all in the trick of the eye. When my concentration broke I found Selina staring at me with a quirk of her lips. "It's a bit dark."
"Is it?" she said, with no change in expression. "I would say it's simple. Very primitive."
"That's very unlike you. All this impressionism. I thought you had a taste for the cubists and the Baroque."
"Mmm, doing your homework."
"So how did you find this one?"
"When you've been in the business as long as I have, Barbara, you learn to develop an eye for art. Or you learn to trust someone who has an equally good eye for art but a completely foreign temperament." She pointed at an entire batch of paintings and sculptures. They were colour coded by the blue velvet ropes that kept visitors at a minimum distance. And while there was no concrete, specific theme, they all had a very similar feel. As diverse as the selection was you could see that it was the same eye that had chosen them "See those. That's what I call an equally good eye. She'll be making quite a bundle in commissions."
I didn't know that Selina had a buyer in her employ. I was falling down on my research. "Really? Erm... who is it?"
Helena? I looked around the gallery as unobtrusively as I could. Helena? My surprise must have shown, because she smirked some more. She started to say something but we were interrupted by the return of the blue suit she had just seen off.
"Jeffrey," she greeted him, "did I forget something?"
"No, no. I just spoke to my wife, and she reminded me that I haven't invited you to our son's engagement next month." He reached into his jacket and pulled out an ivory envelope embossed in pearl print and fawned over her as he handed it over. "It's an invitation for two of course," he said as he nodded his head at me. "Don't tell my wife I said so, but I'd be delighted if your lovely friend...?"
"Of course," she said smoothly as she rested her hand on my shoulder, "how clumsy of me. My friend," and the emphasis she laid on the word friend was positively obscene and dripping with innuendo, "Barbara."
"Your friend Barbara would honour us with her beautiful presence."
"Thank you Jeffrey, You're so sweet. I'm just going to have to steal you away from Carla one of these days," Selina said with a girlish giggle as she ran her hand along my arm and leaned forward from beside me to kiss him on the cheek. She really was shameless. "And I'll do my best to convince Barbara to come too." And did I say she was shameless.
Once Jeffrey left, she turned to me with a Cheshire grin. "So tell me Barbara, what brings you by."
"What?" She was the one who had called me and asked me to show up. "You're the one who asked me to come."
"And so you came. Who knew you were so easy?" I rolled my eyes. If there were a day she did not make an innuendo at me I'd be shocked. "Okay you're not amused. Let's go." Outside the door she called out, "Nibs, I'm gone." He nodded back. I hung back on the stairs and waited for him to bring up the car when I found my self with a face full of Selina. "What're we waiting for, darling?" she asked while waving a helmet in my face.
"You did bring your bike, didn't you? I was so looking forward to it."
I knew this part of the game. "A potentially dangerous conveyance such as a motorcycle?"
"Dangerous? No, darling, you're perfectly safe from me."
Oh, ha! "Not your type?" I asked as I inserted the keys in the bike.
"No," she said as she pulled her helmet on, "just too young." She snapped the visor shut and slid right up behind me. I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath. She smelled very nice, a fact that I really didn't need to know. Sensing my hesitation she patted my thigh. "Come on Dangergirl things to see people to do. Take me to your diner."
"... You're not even going to have sic the Bat on him."
"And you're sure this is related to the Joker's organisation?" I asked as I took a sip of my chocolate malted.
She sighed exasperatedly and slapped her hand on the file in front of her. "There is no organisation, Barbara. It's all conjecture. If you stopped slurping your shake like you were 12 years old, and paid attention... I'm cursed by slurpers." I hastily put my empty glass down and took a closer look at the numbers she showed me. The income from Revell's big art auction was funnelled to three large charitable institutions. Two large payments here in the United States and one smaller payment overseas. There was a breakdown of fund allocations to actual organisations on the ground. "If you'll notice, a significant number of those aren't showing the same cash outlay as their purported income."
I nodded. But... "What about administrative costs? They're legitimately allowed to appropriate a certain amount of the cash to secure the proper handling." I said absently as I ran down the columns. She simply tapped her nail rhythmically on the formica tabletop. When I came to the end of the neat columns and looked at the number comparison I understood. "Oh. That's a..."
"... Scam," she finished for me.
"... significant discrepancy of resources." I corrected.
In her bored tone she replied, "You say tomayto, I say stinking rat."
The difference in spending didn't amount to much individually, but spread over the administration of hundreds of individual charities layered hierarchically the shortfall in funds came to the millions. "But..."
"Keep reading, kid."
For it to tie up across states, it would take a massive chain of operatives collecting money and cooking books across the board. If there was one thing the Joker didn't do was organised crime, he was more of a maverick with a core of havoc-wreakers. This kind of corporate fraud would take... "The same accounting firm?" Incredible.
"Bingo! Give the kid a cigar." Once I gathered the import of what Selina had been trying to tell me, she took the papers out of my hand and closed them up in her file.
"But about three quarters of these charities are under federal oversight."
"Yes, but the accounting is contracted out. On a federal level."
"One company with hundreds of branch offices using the same computers. If you want to hide something in that mess, there's only one company that can do it for you. They've got a read on the state of affairs of every agency across the country..."
"A little here, a little there..."
"And a couple of million disappear each month." I shook my head at the enormity of the crime. It certainly answered the question of where the Joker was able to get his spending money. No wonder the drug routes hadn't shown any change in the city. He hadn't interfered at all. "This is a grand conspiracy, stretched out over years. They'd have had to know who would get the bid in the first place."
"No, I think, Revell got blackmailed into this somehow. He isn't the type to go for crazy psychos like Joker. No, I think Joker's got something on him and this is his way of buying his way out of it."
She was right. Also it was too organised for the Joker. His specialty was chaos. But it didn't matter. The point was we had the chance to put a crimp in the Joker's cash flow. His 'pranks' were starting to get more and more daring. Only two days ago he had succeeded in flooding a whole western section of Gotham by blocking off certain streets and disrupting the water mains. No one noticed until the news 'copters started reporting, but the flooded section clearly spelled out the word 'smile'. Thousands of people had been left homeless and about thirty people had been killed in the explosions and sudden flooding.
I was thrilled with Selina's help. With the documentation, the police could start an investigation into all of Revell's holdings and subsidiaries. At the least they could freeze his accounts. I started to draw the file towards me when they slid out of my reach almost magically, and disappeared into the soft leather of Selina's briefcase. It, only then, occurred to me to ask. "Selina, how did you... where did all the..."
"Stole it," she said with happy and carefree grin.
"We're not going to be able to use it to prosecute. If it's illegally obtained."
"Why don't you leave that to me, and just keep a look out for our boy if he tries to run."
"You'll get your police investigation, sweetie. Don't worry about it," she said and folded her hands primly on the table. "Now how about some pie?"
Selina cut me off with a hand to my wrist. "Some things you need to leave to your elders. Trust me on this."
And since it's always a bad idea to disregard a woman who has more secrets than you, I did.
I was trying to teach. Or was it teaching was trying? Either way I was distracted. For weeks after Selina showed up at my neighbourhood grocery I found that I could not help but goggle at Helena whenever she was around. A gangling 5' 7", barely more than a hundred and twenty pounds and a kick like a mule. I had never considered her in that light. In an all out scuffle, she had had the better of me while - if her mother spoke the truth - she was drugged. It was an unsettling feeling. I was as if I had woken up one morning to find that the kitten I had been playing with in my backyard was really a man-eating, sabre-toothed, mammoth cat. I had been made aware of her potential and I was worried. She wasn't just a girl anymore. She was the potential for danger, for violence, for anarchy. I kept an eye on her as I would Two-Face, or Penguin or any one of the thousands of meta-human criminals in Gotham. I told myself not to. After all, what had she done? Nothing. According to Selina, she had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oddly enough, she seemed to be settling down a lot more. Weeks passed without complaints about 'that Kyle girl'. Her grades were up. And she seemed to be fitting in with her classmates a lot more.
As I contemplated Helena's bent head I wondered about my moral fitness to be a superhero. For Bruce and Dick, it was all very easy. Right and wrong; black and white; criminal and innocent. I had trouble with that. Obviously I did. I enjoyed being a vigilante because I didn't have to play by the rules. But the very bad thing was I didn't play even by my own rules. I was probably going to hell. For six months, I had been meeting with Selina Kyle and accepting information that she was routing my way. Sometime it would be just a name. Sometimes it would be a phone number that she would ask me to call. And sometime it would be entire files from companies.
"Are you sure this information reliable?"
"And you dug all this up from... Internet?"
"Most of it"
"I have a contact."
"You have an informant? You got some stoolies on the payroll, Babs? Got a budget from the department and everything?"
"All right, all right!"
"It's just that you don't know who's feeding you this information and you're putting a great deal of faith in it. We can't just spy on the offices of one of the biggest defence contractors in the country simply because you think there's something funny going on. They're defence contractors; the government pays them to be spooky."
"Dick, I'm pretty sure that this information is one hundred percent reliable."
"So you do know who this information is coming from?"
"Barbara?" Bruce's voice startled me out of our little spat. It surprised me sometimes how easy it was to forget that Bruce was in a room. Very useful, when you can blend into the background like that. I looked up toward the computer platform where he stood with his cloak falling around him and his mask pulled back.
"Yes," I replied.
"Somebody's in tro... uble," Dick sing-songed under his breath as he moved away from the table.
"I know I've left this to you so far, but where are you getting this information from?" Bruce was staring at me in that very intent way that's been known to make grown men cry. But without his bat mask the total effect was mitigated. But it still made me nervous.
"I've got an independent agent."
"A new cape?"
Oh not a new cape, God knew that would be impinging on his territory. "Bruce, I've verified this information. There're other hackers out there on the 'net who can confirm this. Dynamic Electrical Systems is working on a big black bag project entirely out of official oversight."
"R&D is independent of contractual obligations. They're exploring future implementations. Wayne Corp has secret projects."
"Yes, but Wayne Corp doesn't recruit human trial subjects off the streets."
"Hey, you didn't say that!" Dick protested from his armchair.
Bruce merely stared even more intently at me. "That's the word on the street," I muttered.
"Alley rats, back in Old town." That was giving away lot. Alley who were the orphaned and unsupervised children functioning as pick-pockets and petty thieves in a modern day network of Fagins talked to no one. Not cops, not Bats, none but their own. And even then they were a bunch of tight-lipped little rascals. But they got around - no one paid attention to children - and they heard a lot. "There's talk of disappearing kids."
"But..." stammered Dick, "Where're the reports?"
Bruce answered for me. "If they're on the streets they're already missing." Then he turned to me. "But Dick is right. Before we go breaking into their electronics systems we need some more proof. I'll talk to a few people"
"But..." I protested
"No," he replied implacably. "We are not going to violate their privacy without proof of wrong doing. We don't do that. Canvass the street, follow their project heads, but we're not breaking into governmental projects because of conspiracy theories. There's plenty of real crime on the streets."
For Bruce, it was a very long speech, and I even understood what he was trying to tell me. But I couldn't help feeling that if we could access DES's networked computers we could get an insight into what it was that I was being warned about.
My insight came from a rather unlikely source.
"Actually I had some trouble getting through their firewall." She just stared at me. "They've got some really nasty routines in there." Selina did not look impressed, she continued to flick the condensation off her glass with one silver tine of her fork. "Their security was on me as soon as I shot off some packets into the system. Makes sense though, with all the sensitive material they've got in there. But I've got some sniffers in there and once I have all their passwords, snap!" As I continued my monologue on the impending windfall of information from DES, Selina opened her brief case and slid a manila folder over the table. "What's this?"
"Why don't you take a look?"
I did. It was all the information I hoped to hand over to Bruce. In addition there were also copies of magnetic ID cards and a list of access codes. This time I stared at Selina. Only I was impressed. "How did you... ?
"Electrical engineer with a coke habit and a mistress, needed a little cash. I needed a little information."
I gaped at her. She had nonchalantly achieved what had taken me hours of work with just a little smooth talking.
"Like I said, kid. You're not the only detective in town. You may know information systems but I know people. It'll free up your time to do some real crime fighting, right?"
I continued to gape at her. "You stole this information?" I asked stupidly.
"Yes, Barbara, I did. I stole it."
"But you could've..."
"Gotten caught?" I nodded. "Are you telling me some dumb geek head capitalist is able to do something that no police force has been able to do?" When I thought about it she had a point. I ducked my head. She smiled back compassionately at me. "Not to worry, I paid someone else to steal it for me." Unaccountably, that made me feel a lot better. For whatever reason I had grown inordinately fond of the former cat burglar. The thought of her in trouble, or under arrest made me feel uneasy even after she revealed to me the full extent of her illegal activities in the past. Which left me feeling even more queasy. After all, why should the thought of a law-breaker in prison have made me feel uneasy? But the thought of Selina in prison seemed fundamentally wrong. It was an alarming thought to be sure. I replaced Selina with any number of faces and persons, and my only response was 'arrest and incarcerate', but when it came to Selina my mind somehow managed to de-rail.
Part of it may have been that until I met her I had been surrounded by father figures. First, my own less than desirable accident of a father. Then dad. And, finally, Bruce. But I had not had a strong female figure in my life. Sure I had heard all the stories about Wonder Woman and Supergirl, and even worked briefly with Black Canary but to be exposed almost daily to the workings of a mind like Selina's was a treat. And stupid as it may have been, I admired her. She was strong and independent and without any insecurities that I could see. Where I was cautious and circumspect she was without hesitation. And despite the large streak - no, swathe. No, trench - of amorality that ran through her, she had a code of honour and loyalty that she would defend to the death. And a little part of me wanted to be just like her. Every day that I spoke to her was like an education. And despite her obviously unorthodox methods she was clearly invested in protecting Gotham in much the same way as I was. And even though I bristled at the slightly mocking tone she took with me every time we spoke, I got the feeling she regarded all of us 'justice leaguers', as she sneeringly like to refer to us, with the same mocking disdain.
"Besides, she continued, as she disrupted my reverie, "I had to make sure that all you defenders of the justice and the peace weren't breaking any little laws."
She may have said it teasingly, but it gave me a real pang. A lot of what we did was on the borders of legal and definitely pushed the definition of citizen's arrests to the limit. And certainly some of what we did was not strictly legal, but what I had been contemplating with DES was simple hacking nothing less - the cyber equivalent of breaking and entering.
And thus my moral quandary - was information gained from illegal sources proper to use when the end purpose was beneficial to the greater good? All the information and conjecture that Selina had been feeding me had made my life easier. With the escalation of violence in the older parts of the city by the Joker's goons, nightly sweeps had gotten more and more strenuous. The city was slowly stretching itself at the seams and would soon rip apart. Drug sales had increased astronomically, thievery was on the rise, car-jackings were rife. In general Gotham seemed to be operating under a cloud of chaos. Added to all the crime was the public's loss of trust in the efficacy of the police and the fact that private citizens were going out of their way to protect themselves with guns and you had a recipe for disaster. But what Bruce, Dick and I were doing - with a little help from Selina - was mitigating the effects of Joker's wave of crime. Certainly it allowed me to at least half-concentrate on my job as a teacher even as I nursed my second broken rib in three months. In fact, it allowed me to notice that Jack Barrett was moving his paper around a little too much to stare at his desk. Naturally his desk was a little more scarred than usual. I didn't need to inspect the squiggles to know that the scarring was not from simple graffiti. The look as I offered him another desk that was easier to write on was priceless.
All the signs that I could see pointed to a full blown tantrum - the protruding lower lip, the adamant set of jaw, the bunched up fist, the slumped shoulders. The Motorola looked to be in imminent danger of destruction. As she pulled the cell phone away from her ear, and tightened her fist around the plastic body, I was sure she was going to crush the machine. But she simply unzipped her backpack and flung it into the depths before kicking the bag as hard as she could. And proceeded to swear up a storm.
I approached her as softly as I could. "Helena?"
She spun around in surprise. "Ms. Gordon... !"
"Are you having some trouble?"
Her eyes widened as she realised that I had overheard her entire tirade about the ill qualities of unreliable mothers and fucking divas. "Uuhh... sorry. No." when I gave her the look, she laughed. "Okay...yeah. Mom's cutting out on me again. That's the fifth time she's cancelled stuff we'd planned."
"She is a busy woman."
"I know," she said with a repentant look. "But, it's still disappointing, you know?"
"Aaahh!" I sighed. "Yes, I know." Dad and I had our own schedule of missed appointments and disappointments. "So, what's the big deal?"
I had to laugh. Selina Kyle and her impatient daughter going shopping together was sure to lead to some exciting times for the sales persons. "I'm sorry, I must have you confused with someone else. I thought you said you were having a conniption because your mother can't take you shopping." She pouted some more. "I thought you were above such petty vanity."
Through her sulk, she said, "It's not vanity. It's style. And, besides," she said as she kicked the dirt, " she promised. And now she's not here."
I could well understand her upset. From my interaction with Selina, I knew that she was a woman of her word. And if Helena was used to that kind of reliability, she would not take disappointment well. "I'm sure she had a really good reason, Helena."
"Yeah, she always has good reasons. That's why I'm mad."
"You're mad because she has a good reason?"
"Yeah, that means I really can't be mad at her. And it makes me mad that I can't be mad at her. Fuck!" Well, she certainly had a handle on her feelings. "Anyway, gotta go."
She dusted off her abused backpack and settled it on her shoulders. Since I didn't see the ubiquitous Nibs, I asked, "How're you getting home."
"I'm going to fly,' she said blandly. "Why?"
It was probably the strength of the banter we had shared over many bus rides to games, and my new friendship with Selina that carried my next impulse, "Oh, so you're not going to want a ride from me then?" Because there really was no reason for me to constantly break the distance that I had created between me and my students.
The look of delight that crossed her face was priceless. "Hoh, yeah! Sure I want a ride," she said as she trotted behind me. The look of disappointment that crossed her face when she saw the Honda was priceless also. "Where's your bike?"
"I had a word with a couple of concerned parents who thought I might be sending the wrong signal to the students."
"What!? Wrong signal, my ass," she said as she slammed the door and pushed herself into the seat. "What a bunch of conservative weenies."
I stifled a snicker. "I wouldn't exactly call them that."
I'd have to tell Selina that, I thought. "So you're on the west side, right? By the bridge."
"Yeah just take Broadway up to City Hall. Then get to the Riverside Highway and go all the way up to exit 32. From the exit when you get to Crescent take a left. From Crescent go ten blocks east and turn left again on Maiden. Third building in on the block." She rattled it off with the speed of someone who knew exactly where she was going. And of course she did.
"What?" she said. "You can remember that, right? You're supposed to be some kind of genius aren't you?"
"Put your seat belt on" I said as I pulled out of my spot. " And I'm not a genius. I just have a good memory."
"Good enough to remember that it was your handwriting on the note that was being passed to Jack in the exam today."
"Okay. I'll just shut up now."
"Oh for God's sake, don't be a baby!" Selina said in response to my slurch of pain. I've seen worse sunburns.
"Oh... my... God!" I gasped out as she smoothed the cool salve over my stomach. "Why don't you try being electrocuted," I bit out through clenched teeth, "and see how much you enjoy it."
"Actually, you'd be surprised," she said archly and retreated into the bathroom.
After a few minutes of listening to the tap run as Selina ostensibly washed her hands, the anaesthetic cream started to kick in. and I fell well enough to sit up. But it was still an effort. I glared at the calendar that proudly proclaimed the day to be Friday. I wasn't impressed - there would be no 'thank god' for me this weekend. Experimentally, I stood and twisted my trunk from side to side. It didn't feel so bad. But I was still shaky.
Hanging by my fingertips from the lab window at Dynamic Electrical Systems as I watched the Joker get away in his ridiculous clown 'copter had been an experience I didn't care to repeat or recollect. But having been blown out the 18th floor window by the effects of DES's latest crowd control application, I had been ready to take my chances with the ground. The strong grip, that latched on to my wrist, had almost reduced me to tears when it came. But I certainly hadn't been in the mood for the chastisement that followed. Luckily, I managed to deliver myself from Selina's shrewish and maternal imprecations by promptly fainting the second my feet found steady ground.
When I came to, in Selina's car, she was diligently cutting off sections of my costume with a pair of blunt edged scissors. "I thought I told you to leave it to me."
It took me a couple of seconds to remember what it was she was referring to. "Just a stake out..." I ground out through clenched teeth.
"Just?" she asked with a moue.
"Almost had him." I groaned as I reached up to try and pull my mask off. Selina stopped my hand and shook her head as she pointed to Nibs who was quietly driving the car. I was surprised by her actions. I never stopped to consider that her right hand man might not be privy to all her secrets. I fell back on to the seat with an exhalation.
"What happened?" she asked.
"He's got some sort of neural cattle prod. Got electrocuted." I inspected my suit. The patch where he had pointed the electrical device had scorched right through.
"Doesn't look good for you."
"I'll be fine."
"Sure you will," she said and mumbled something about stubborn idiots that I missed when the car ran over a particularly big pothole and jolted my pained mid-section. I knew those roads. We were by the gallery.
It wasn't as if I didn't appreciate her skills at swearing, but once again she had turned up completely unexpectedly. "What were you doing there?"
"Saving your skin. Literally, by the looks of it." She fended off my steady stare as long as she could. "I had Nibs keeping an eye on my cokehead on the inside. He called me when the alarms went off."
"And you just happened to be standing by?"
"Yes, in fact I did."
Inside the gallery, Selina hustled me into the suite adjoining her office and set about applying some first class first-aid to my scorched stomach. I couldn't explain it but I was glad for her help.
As I walked about the room, I came to a row of photographs on the wall. One of the photos the figure of a small girl not more than six or seven years old standing on the bar of a jungle gym. From the branches in the background I could tell that she was standing at quite a height. But the remarkable thing about the photo was the girl's lack of expression - there was no look of wonder or triumph at having surmounted a high obstacle. No, this girl looked as if balancing on a single thin steel bar was an everyday thing. Of course considering that this was Selina's daughter, it probably was a normal thing for her. The wall was filled with other photos of Selina and Helena - the love and affection evidenced in these photos was a palpable thing that made me smile wistfully. I wished dad and I had a similar collection. Eidetic memory not withstanding, it was a little difficult sharing mental pictures with others.
Selina popped out of the bathroom in her civilian clothes. "Feeling better, I see." I nodded. "Well, your suit is 86ed. But I've got some clothes here. Something should fit you. And then I'll drive you home."
As I contemplated the photos and studied the similarities and differences between Helena and her mother, my eyes wandered back to the picture that had first drawn my attention. "Why?" I asked.
"Because you can't drive like this."
"No, I mean why are you doing all this? Why are you helping me? Why not just go to Bruce with all this?"
She narrowed her eyes. "We don't have that kind of a relationship."
"But you have one?"
She sighed deeply as she dug into a closet to pull out a pair of loose drawstring pants and a cotton shirt. "Bruce isn't likely to listen to anything I have to say at this point."
"But I am?"
The soft fabric of the cotton was cool and painful against the salve on my stomach as Selina pushed the clothes at me. She looked up at me sadly from where she was slumped against the sofa. "How old are you?" she asked. Another characteristic of Selina's -whiplash changes in topic. She waited patiently during my dumbfounded silence. "Come on. I know a lady never tells... so tell."
That drew an unwilling laugh from me. "Twenty four."
"I'm forty three. Imagine that..." she trailed off. Looking away into the distance in her head, seeing only something she could see, she spoke, "I was twenty seven when I 'retired'. My career lasted eight years."
"That's about four years longer than most."
"Yes," she laughed. "You wouldn't believe the nights I limped home just happy I was alive." She looked meaningfully at me. "I've never killed anyone." I ducked my head at that revelation. I had. "That is, not by direct action. I'm not saying it to make you feel bad. I could have. It's plain dumb luck I haven't killed anyone. But I haven't saved anyone either. It's a rough business. And a woman has to fight twice as hard to keep her place." I struggled with getting my boots off my feet but bending over when my side hurt was a problem. "Sit down," she ordered. I looked up uncomprehendingly. "Just sit down, damn it. She scolded me as I limped laggardly back to the sofa. Roughly, she yanked my boots off and helped me loosen the catches on the lower half of my suit. "Honestly," she tasked at me, "I don't know why it's so hard for you ask for a little help."
"Same reason as it's difficult for you to offer any."
She beamed brilliantly up at me. "You're exactly right. We're practically the same person. So when you showed up on the scene all bright eyed and bushy tailed - and tell me why you haven't done anything about your hair - did Batman welcome you with open arms? Or did the little boys club run you through the wringer?" Quietly I pulled on the drawstrings and the shirt. "Don't answer. It was rhetorical." She flopped back on the sofa next to me. "That's why I came to you. It really means something to you. You're not here to avenge your dead parents." I sucked in an audible breath. "Oh yes, he told me. And he'll tell you that's not the case anymore. But I don't know... he's too caught up in the whole thing to have any real feelings anymore." The sadness that imbued her voice was too much to bear.
I didn't want to hear it. I didn't need to know more about my mentor's pathologies than what I already suspected. I didn't need to know. "That's not true."
"You don't have to defend him. I know him, remember? But you. You don't know why you're doing this. You're not always sure. You have a more intuitive reason for fighting crime." She was giving me entirely too much credit. In fact she was wrong, I wasn't intuitive at all. I may not have been avenging my dead parents, but I was avenging myself. I was justifying my continued existence in the world. After all, why would anyone think that a girl whose own parents couldn't love her was worth anything? "That's why I think you'll listen. You're not so lost in the pain of past death that you're oblivious to the pain of being alive." What was I supposed to say to that? I was in no position to take it in. I didn't even agree with her assessment of me. She looked at me askance. "So damn young. What was I thinking?" Her gaze moved up to look at the photographs on the wall. I wondered who she was talking about, me or her? "I thought we could..." I followed her eyes to the photo of Helena on the bars. "It's ridiculous, this adolescent behaviour." I shifted my head to look at Selina, then moved back to look at the picture. There was something about the picture. It was in the posture, the way she stood... When I looked back at the green of Selina's eyes I was aware of how close they were to being a reflection of my own eyes. Her fingers as they came to flick gently at a scabbing scratch on my temple were more shocking than the Joker's newly stolen device. I almost jumped off the sofa. "Do you think if I had loving parents I would have been like you?"
"No," I said. I didn't know what I was protesting but I had to deny it. "No. No, no."
Selina's lips quirked in amusement, and something else. "No?"
"It's not like that. Bruce is... I mean he isn't... we're not..." I couldn't fathom for the world of me why she always made me so inarticulate.
She quirked one eyebrow at me. "Get your mind out of the gutter. It was just a question. I know that he isn't. And that you're not."
I only barely stopped myself from saying 'whew!' Staring at the wall seemed safer. But there was something about the picture. Something scratched at the back of my mind... it was the way she leaned forward just a little, her jaws tensed only slightly. Consumed by a sense of danger just dodged, my relieved mind started leaping desultorily, first removing the silhouette of the girl from the picture to see only the background, and then removing the background to see only the figure of the girl. There was still too much detail for me to find the pattern that was struggling to break out, so I concentrated on the blue shard that made up her eye and removed all detail from the face. The shadows in the background filled in and suddenly in a gestalt of AHA! I saw it. It was in the posture, the way he stood with his back straight, his shoulders leaning forward, his jaw tensed only slightly, the blue glean of his eye barely visible under the mask. I gasped.
Selina continued to speak as if the silence and my realisation hadn't occurred. "I told you it was ridiculous." She shook her head as if to shed her melancholy mood. "But I can't abandon him. It's my city too."
continued in Past Continuous