Image source: TheoFayde (https://www.deviantart.com/theofayde)
Fur whispers on silk. Saucers and cream. The screams.
A gunshot outside.
Meow-meow. Gunshot outside.
“Hush, darling,” she coos.
A soft drub up above. She sighs. Leather creaks.
“Nevermind,” she says. “Nevermind. Welcome home.”
* * *
“My word!” Alfred says. “Not a single blemish?”
I nod and pull back the cowl, still in my full grey bodysuit; slump down into the chair by the Bat-computer. Jason’s already in bed (At least, he should be…), but Alfred always waits for me to come home.
There seem more shadows in this cave tonight…
Harvey Dent – Two-Face (he is Two-Face, I have to keep reminding myself) – dead. I look up. That giant penny sits, heavy brass, propped in a natural weave amongst the stalactites like it, too, had merely just grown there over time.
An antique, now? I think, and then I wonder why I think that thought with such sincere remorse. The man was a criminal. Cowardly. Superstitious. The city is likely far better off without him, but then I think worse of myself for that thought than the prior.
How did we get that thing in here in the first place…?
I hang my head.
“I thought I could save him, Alfred,” I say. “Dammit. Harvey…he was one of the ones I—”
As I was in the midst of a fear-induced tangle with Scarecrow, Harvey had been running away from something (or someone), when he fell and fractured his skull on the side of a brick wall. Cerebral hemorrhage. He saw the whole end come. The officer who trailed him – Diaz, new to the downtown beat – said the former D.A. looked…afraid.
At the scene, Commissioner Gordon seemed rattled. I soon found out why. When he pulled back the flap of the body bag, Harvey’s face – half of which had, before, lain harbor to crags and boils, purple and green, puss and sinew and tufts of wispy white hair – the face not of his own making (itself, a product of acid and a criminal with his own stark intentions), which had driven him to a life of mad, duplicitous chance and villainy…his face was wholly pure and smooth.
The scars were gone.
His hair was mildly unkempt, but it was all there – all in place.
He was Harvey Dent, again.
“If I may, sir.” Alfred is checking my neck, where Scarecrow’s needle took my resolve. His voice startles me back into the dank air. He applies a swatch of cloth which sticks to me by some sort of ointment – tapes down the edges with the precision of practice. It barely tugs as I move my neck side to side. “The last time we ran across Two-Face? I want to say, was it—?”
I pull up the case file on the screen. “—last month. The opening of the Gotham Zoo’s ‘Diprosopus Creatures’ area.”
“The animals with two faces, yes?” he says. I nod. “How criminally…lucrative.”
I’m scrolling the details like I haven’t been scrolling them all the way home – like I’m not just checking the date over and over again. Alfred knows this – walks over to the tray with a steaming teapot and the fine china cups resting upon their fragile saucers.
I wave him off when he offers me a bag out of the corner of my eye.
It’s going to be a long night, old friend.
He knows this, too.
“He was still Two-Face then, Alfred,” I say, scrolling faster. “A month isn’t close to long enough for one to fully recover from even the most minimal of plastic surgeries. That kind of skin grafting would be…it’s unheard of.”
Alfred scoffs into the cup of tea he has, instead, poured for himself, now; blows out the white, billowing wisps.
“Unheard of, sir?” He takes a long sip. “Do you know where we live?”
“Lazarus Pit?” he suggests.
“Not Harvey’s M.O.” I say.
“Not even with its duality of life and death?”
I hadn’t considered this. The more I do, though, the less sense it makes.
“Harvey hated Two-Face,” I say. “And Two-Face hated Harvey. While a pit would account for the erratic behavior Officer Diaz noticed of him in the streets, there would have been no way of accounting for whether or not one side of his split personality would have been healed or freed from the other by said means. Even if one side had taken full grasp, that’s a huge chance, Alfred – and not his preferred version.” I shake my head. “Clone?”
“Maybe, sir” he says. “But why?”
“So he could use the Lazarus Pit.”
“Sir, he was there, wasn’t he?” Alfred looks at me carefully. “You didn’t just imagine it was Harvey like you were telling me you did Master Jason earlier?”
“Side effects of the fear toxin?” I’d considered it. The injected dose hit me harder than expected. “Gordon was pretty dead set on it, too, and he came nowhere near the museum scene.”
My head is throbbing. I massage my temples. The light off the screen is painfully bright, now.
“He missed you tonight, sir,” Alfred says, softly. I know he means Jason, which is an uncomfortable thought. I know what it feels like to miss someone in my position. “Perhaps it’s time for a rest day?”
I have responsibilities.
He is one of those responsibilities, Bruce.
This is one of those responsibilities.
I change the subject. “So we’re just as stuck as before,” I think aloud.
Alfred sighs. “Like a cat in a tree, I’m afraid,” he says.
“At least they can…jump…”
But something comes to mind from that. I vocally instruct the computer to create a listing of all live creatures present in the zoo’s new display – the one Harvey (No. Two-Face.) had tried to sabotage – to throw the list up in a mapped 3D projection on the island in the cave’s open alcove.
It’s less bright – a dulled display, which doesn’t burn so much off my retinas. The pain is still there, but marginalized enough that my thoughts come more clearly. I tower over the replica park as though Godzilla, in frame.
A new perspective.
I circle to the opposite end of the map, stroking my chin. “Just as I thought…”
Alfred makes his way around to see, same as I. He hasn’t put down the teacup – is floating it across the crag and laid tile, as an ever-silent wave. When the saucer reaches my elbow, I point to the holographic entryway, where the sidewalks fork off, and where the special fees were collected for admittance into the zoo’s new exhibit.
“Two-Face’s attack focused here,” I say. “Entry was gained during a shift change – through that staff door, there – just before the split in the walk.” I move my finger along the path. “He and his cohorts attempted a stealth grab on the moneybox. Or, at least, that’s what I initially thought…”
With a twitch of my wrist, I flip the screen to the opposite end of the exhibit.
“…but what you just said reminded me of something I noticed in the casefile on my way back to the Batcave tonight.” I look over my shoulder at him. “You’ll remember, Alfred: Two-Face’s plan failed.” Alfred nods. “He didn’t get the box, because the guard on duty,” my finger is on his station, “fought back, giving Robin and me enough time to arrive on-scene, which caused them to flee.”
“I remember wondering why they left so quickly – why they had abandoned their mission on the fly like they did. Sure, it was broad daylight, but Two-Face has struck during the day before, and still put up a fight. He didn’t get the box, Alfred…but something did go missing that day. Or, rather, somethings…”
I pinch my fingers to zoom in on the area in question.
“…They’re rare, but the most well-known two-faced creatures in the modern climate are named after the Ancient Roman god of beginnings and endings…and of doorways.”
“That would be…Janus, sir?” Alfred says.
“Exactly.” I’m smiling again. A new lead.
I point out the glowing names “Frank” and “Louie” above the habitat on the far end of the exhibit, opposite Two-Face’s failed heist position. “And I would bet the east wing of this house that Two-Face’s ploy was a decoy for the real theft that day—”
* * *
I’m standing before her on the rooftop.
“—a Janus cat thought to have escaped Gotham Zoo in the chaos of the attack.”
Selina shines – another shadow, outlined in the waxing white eyes of our moon. The Gotham moon. It’s bigger here, even being the worst part of crime alley. Always behind you, and always bigger – even when you don’t think it can be any moreso – like we toss it up in tiny bits, fill it more and more, with light from each individual window that blinks out in the city’s sleep. We always see it largest, she and I, in this place.
“Is that fact, or accusation, darling?” she says, with a grin. “Because last I checked, you need proof before you can cuff me.” She extends a clawed finger; raises an eyebrow as she plays it down the bright insignia on my chest. “Well…you don’t, but—”
I grab her hand. She turns so her curves meld into me in the dark. Her leather suit groans on my Kevlar. “The press release said the cat must have jumped the gate and run out with the crowd, but that’s not quite right. Those walls are far too tall for a cat to scale.” She shakes off my hand and pushes us apart. “When I show them your picture, I’ll be able to confirm you were at the zoo that day, won’t I, Selina?” Through the goggles, I see her eyes narrow. “That you just walked right into the zoo, gained entry into Frank and Louie’s exhibit, and stashed the feline in something like your purse or your coat before walking right back out the door with the other panicked patrons?”
Her posture softens. “Frank and Louie?” she says, feigns a yawn, stretching her arms above her and behind her. “And I’ve been calling him Wayne this whole time…”
“You have to return them, Selina.”
“Or was it Alfred?”
“Could have been both, I suppose.”
“You stole the cat. Cats. A rare…cats.”
“My love, are you accusing me of cat burglary, then?” she quips. But when I don’t laugh, her mood is short-lived. She tenses, nails brushing the hilt of her whip. “I rescued that cat.”
“From the zoo? Come on, Selina. You—”
“I did right!” she says. The cord unfurls to her side. “You know I’ve turned a new leaf this time; and yet, you still come to my home…” It is suddenly snapping over my head in hunger, but I don’t reach for the batarangs – not on her, “…call me a criminal,” punctuating each word: “And. For. Once. I. Did. Right.”
On the final syllable, the whip screams toward me, and I see her move to the right, prepositioning for a pounce I’ve seen a million times. I take the snap across my armoured wrist, and let the elastic band twist ‘round, a boa come to feed. I prepare to use her momentum to fall her –jujitsu – but the move I expect of her does not come. Instead, she lets the handle fly from her fingers, and now, I am the one toppling back.
Should have known.
“Old dog!” she says.
Choreographed too well. Still sluggish.
I attempt to right myself, and my boot catches a whirling rooftop air duct, which careens me face-first into her heel, suddenly run up on me. Before I can hit the ground, the other caves my chest where, moments earlier, she had been caressing. I can’t breathe.
The tarred roof rubber bounces me once, twice, three times; and my cowl connects solid on two of those.
I reach for the smoke pellets in my belt to bide some time, but she’s too quick. Claws extended – like a mist that wasn’t, then became – she’s overhead me, then on her knees, straddling my stomach. I don’t even feel her land.
She reaches her nails through my eyeholes, and I only just manage to mumble out some form of the word, “L—…Lysander?”
Owner of the “Diprosopus Creatures” exhibit.
I checked before I came.
Because Selina is right: Her methods may lean more toward the rogue than my own, but she has been better. I’ve been watching her. Trust is a hard thing for me to come by, you see, but I’m almost there with her – even to my own detriment, I’m almost there. That “new leaf?” I don’t distrust it. Which is why this revelation – of her actions at the zoo that day – made me check…
She said she rescued the cat. Specifically that word: rescued. What I know of Trillian Lysander is sparse, but this is most important: He is a very…hands-on…exhibition operator. Frank and Louie have only ever seen him and the public during the repetitious hours of their very odd lifestyle. Only one of those is ever actually allowed inside of the cage with the cats. Not even zoo staff is permitted to tend to them.
So, could Lysander have been the one from whom Selina had done her…rescuing?
My question is answered for me, as the Catwoman’s claws recede from my sockets, and, instead, cup around my face; and then she is kissing me – that passionate kiss we so rarely share, and my mask falls away for the longest I’ll allow it, even in daily life. Her piece fills in my void for just the span of time when those soft lips come crawling over mine. I lean my head in to the right, and I kiss her back – pushing, searching (What am I looking for?) – and she pushes back, strong, enough that I lose that thought, too. Our costumes sing as violins when they collide again – the mist and the shadow – beneath our big Gotham moon. I realize I’m struggling to breathe, and it’s only partially due to the fall…
Every time, I think. Every…time…
She sits up, still straddling me, still holding my face in those perfect hands.
“Darling, he’s trying to kill off Frankenlouie,” she says.
“Frank—,” I say, “—and Louie.”
“I still prefer ‘Alfred,’ too, dear,” she says. “But Lysander’s shows have been doing worse and worse of late. Fewer people line up to see weird things if they can just go down to the library and look at them – fewer people, fewer payments – and you were right; oh, darling, you were right—”
“—about the cat—”
“—being so rare. They’re so rare, in fact, that he has a hefty insurance policy placed on their lives, in case anything were to happen to them. They, and several others, which have mysteriously – and quite steadily – died off over the past few years…”
I sit up. Selina doesn’t move.
“He’s trying to cash out before his business goes belly-up, too!”
She slaps my chest.
“Not really the puuuuurfect time for a pun, when we’re figuring out my innocence, darling.”
I look at her. “When lives are on the line, you mean?”
She blushes. It’s dark, but I can tell the shade of rose.
“Then you were working with Two-Face?” I say, beginning to rise. She tries to stand with me, but suddenly, there’s a hitch in her motion. She looks down. Looped about her ankle is the whip she let go of earlier. It’s secured to the exoskeleton of the whirling rooftop air duct, where I’ve been tying her this whole time.
“Guess you got your proof,” she says.
“You said I didn’t need it.” I chuckle, and I wrap the cape about my whole body, again closing off, as the shadow.
“Fair enough, my love,” she says. “More like he was working for me. Made a wonderful distraction, didn’t he?”
“A dangerous one, is more like it. I would have helped you, Selina.”
“Oh, but you did,” she says, “by merely showing up. You and the new under-roo. He’s a cutie, by the way…”
“—I get Harv to help rescue a cat? Nine lives isn’t enough?”
“I took his coin from him.”
Interesting play. “You…what?”
“I told him I’d give him that nasty coin of his back if he helped me do a job.”
“So you…stole from Har— Two-Face…so you could steal from a zoo?” The wind knocks her hair about her forehead and those ears atop her head. She flips it back.
“Who said anything about stealing?” she says. Brushes her fingernails off on her shoulder. “I won it.”
A pause. “Won…it?”
“Playing our monthly poker game with the boys,” she says. “Penguin’s surprisingly good. But Riddler and Harv have such terrible tells…”
A grin. Of course she did.
“Ed says ‘hi,’ by the way.” She rolls her eyes. “Told me to give you this.”
She reaches into her own leather utility belt, and tosses me a note on folded card-stock. I pick it up. A thick green question mark is shaded on one side in what appears to be magic marker.
On-the-fly. Curious for Nygma…
The paper feels as though it has seen some water. Is a bit crumbly about the edges. Flakes of white fall from it, and they stick to my glove like dander.
I hold the note up to my face like I’m investigating it, but I don’t read.
No scent. Rain.
The kind that soaks through a leather pouch.
The kind like we got…
“You said the card night is monthly?” I say.
She nods, tepidly. “Don’t expect me to tell you where at. I make a killing off those chumps, especially when Croc wants to deal a ha—”
I cut her short. “When was the last one?”
She’s going to say ‘Last Friday.’
“Last Friday,” she says.
Four days ago. I have a timeframe.
“Was Har—…was Two-Face there?”
She nods again, but this time, her face is worried.
“Darling, what’s the matter? Why are you so interested in Harvey all the sudden?”
Do I tell her?
“One last thing…”
Do I tell her?
“Al-…-right?” she says.
“What did his—?”
Selina hesitates. It’s a split second – not a question of trust from her. It’s a question of intrigue.
Her tell: Curiosity.
“Same ugly mug as always,” she says.
“I mean, he could have gotten a haircut,” she continues. “It’s hard to tell, when the white stuff gets thin.”
I walk over to the ledge. Stare out at my city. Gunshots. A scream.
Harvey…what happened to you…?
“—and, you know, he could have a beard, and nobody would even—”
I turn back to her, and fire out my line for the nearest rooftop.
“You can keep the cat.”
Her face peels back in shock, then; out of the corners of her mask, I see her muscle back tears.
She really is the best owner for it, now, anyway. She’ll take care of it.
She’ll protect it.
But just like that, she’s gone from clay back to stone. Brushes her nails off again on the leather suit and admires them in the gleam.
“Was going to, anyway, love,” she says. “You’ll have to come visit sometime.”
“Lysander – he won’t succeed, Selina,” I say. “Not this time. Not ever again. I’m taking him down.”
“You mean we’re taking him down?” she says.
“I don’t see why not.”
She blows me a kiss as I hit the button – launch up from the rooftop, a piece for our Gotham moon, and she becomes so very small so very quickly; shrinking, shrinking, until she fades from me again – the mist from the shadow – and the only sound is the line retracting, and it sings like violins too.
I do not catch her flick the whip and easily stand from the duct, walking back toward the fire escape.
Never caught at all.
I can never catch her…
* * *
I only unfold the paper once I’m safely perched atop the gargoyle – Gotham Cathedral, down the way. His beak is outstretched, roaring, and his concrete wings fold back, splayed by the rainbow shimmer of stained glass.
I run my gloved fingers over the scribbled question mark.
Ed says, “hi.”
Such an odd thing to say. Such an odd thing to do…
Do you know where we live, sir?
Alfred’s right. I need to spend more time with Jason – at least show him that he is a part of this odd world of mine, now. That stakeout I promised him, sure. But maybe lunch in the park tomorrow. I’ll make sandwiches for him and Alfred. Check out the museum, or go see a movie…
Ed says, “hi.”
The cardstock is only folded in four, and I delicately peel back the first crease. Turn it over. Unfold the next.
It’s a simple message inside – again, scrawled in thick green pen. Eight words. A riddle, of course. Or maybe…
“Keep a lookout,” it reads, “in homes of rife Boogeymen.”
TO BE CONTINUED…
Issue 3 – Understudy, Part 1
C.D. DyVanc currently lives in the Midwestern United States. He is an award-winning journalist, and, in his free time, enjoys jumping out of airplanes, reading comic books, and being the epitome of the living dad joke with his wife and stepson. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Rue Scribe, Dream Pop Press, and Five:2:One’s #thesideshow. His chapbook, rhi(n.)oceros, won the 2017 Midwest Chapbook Contest, and is currently available through Greentower Press. You can find his horrible use of GIFs on Twitter (@CDDyVanc), if you’d like.