Forty squirming, squealing kids threw popcorn and chattered at each other in the rows below Bruce Wayne at Gotham City’s Circus Charity Night. Charity Night at the Circus had become a tradition in the Wayne household over the last few years. Shortly after adopting Dick Grayson, the young man had requested these circus outings for the children at his old orphanage. Bruce had readily agreed.
He always turned it into an event—playing at an exclusive park, followed by dinner, then the show under the Big Top. Curiously, Dick never attended. Bruce didn’t press him. He knew all too well the pain childhood memories could bring.
Bruce and his date sat wisely out of range of the concessions-turned-missiles. She turned to him, the elegance of her black velvet dress belying her giddy excitement.
“What’s your favorite part of the circus?” Tatiana asked him, tossing her lustrous dark hair over one shoulder.
“The big cats,” Bruce replied. “They’re so gorgeous and powerful.”
“Oooh, must be something of a kinship, I suppose,” she teased, batting her eyes flirtatiously.
Bruce tried not to roll his as he focused his attention back on the three rings below. Tatiana was an extraordinary beauty, just the kind of woman Bruce Wayne should be seen with around Gotham. Unfortunately, she was also an utter bore.
Music swelled and the children quieted as a spotlight focused on the Ringmaster in the center of the tent.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is our privilege to bring some of the finest creatures in nature to you. Watch carefully, and don’t be fooled! Our trainer would have you believe these lions and tigers are tame as house cats, but they are not to be trusted! Remark the ferocious gleam of their fangs and the sharpness of their claws. Please do not tempt their murderous appetites with a stray finger or hand! And now… on with the show!”
The crowd jumped to their feet to get a closer look at the cats, applauding the Ringmaster’s speech. All eyes were on the thick red curtains that led backstage, but minutes went by and no cats of any kind paraded forth. The pregnant silence was interrupted by shouts behind the curtains.
Bruce casually pressed a button on the side of his cell phone and it rapped forth an irritating, high-powered ringtone. He gave an exaggerated sigh for Tatiana’s benefit.
“Hang on, it’s the Board. I’ll be back in a minute. Hello…?” he said, affecting frustration as he pressed the phone to his ear.
Bruce stepped into the aisle, pretending to converse as he quickly made his way out of the stands. He stuck to the shadows, slipping around to the back of the big top. Outside the main tent, dancers, acrobats, and clowns walked to and fro, prepping for their acts or chatting with each other.
The argument had crescendoed; Bruce could hear the Ringmaster desperately shushing whomever was shouting. Bruce hid himself in the darkness between two tall wooden crates. He discovered he was fortuitously close to a seam in the main tent’s canvas. He put his eye to the opening and caught a glimpse of Commissioner Gordon’s familiar face. Commissioner Gordon stood straight as an arrow and looked down his nose at a rather unkempt man in suspenders and a stained undershirt.
“We’ll find your cats,” the Commissioner assured him. “There aren’t that many places in Gotham to hide lions and tigers. Or that many places to sell them. My men are on it already.”
“They better be! Those animals are expensive. If my cats aren’t back by tomorrow, I could lose my job!” the unpleasant man screeched.
The Ringmaster put a placating hand on the man’s arm, but he shrugged it off. Bruce watched as the Commissioner cast an observant eye over his surroundings.
“Now, just to be sure I have everything down correctly, these are the cages for the big cats?”
He indicated four or five surprisingly small wheeled trailers arranged in a semicircle. They looked like old fashioned animal cracker boxes, although they did have the addition of thick rolled draperies that could be let down over the iron bars to fully enclose their tiny spaces. Bruce could see, and even smell, that they hadn’t been cleaned in a while.
“Yes, yes,” the trainer replied impatiently.
“And you did not take them out prior to their performance?” The Commissioner frowned under his moustache as he looked at his notepad.
“No! I already told you that!”
“And you do not have any kind of yard or pen for them to stay in—other than the cages?”
The man didn’t notice the steely glint in Commissioner Gordon’s eye as he shook his head. “They stay in the cages if we aren’t training or performing. Seriously, are you even taking notes?”
“I have to ask to be sure, Sir. Police procedure.”
Bruce grinned as the Commissioner turned away from the man and focused on the Ringmaster, completely dismissing the trainer from the rest of the conversation. The man’s mouth opened and closed a few times and his eyes bulged. But the Commissioner resolutely refused to meet his eye. With an exasperated sigh and a few muttered curses, the trainer walked away to go scold his assistants at the cages.
“As I said,” Commissioner Gordon continued, still standing tall in his most imposing posture, “I already have people looking into all possible locations that can hold big cats. We’re checking all cargo transports out of the city and taking every precaution to find your animals. In the meantime, detectives will be interviewing your employees—to see if anyone saw anything.”
Bruce heard the unspoken notion that the detectives would also be interviewing the employees as potential suspects. The Ringmaster picked up on it too, but nodded frantically.
“Whatever it takes to get George his cats back. He’s difficult at the best of times, but he knows how to train the big cats. We simply don’t have a show without them!”
As the Commissioner made his exit, Bruce leaned back from the circus tent canvas. George might be good at training, but it seemed that he and his staff were terrible at caring for their precious animals. Dirty cages and no room to run or play? He’d had no idea the Gotham City Circus kept their animals in such squalid conditions. Maybe there was a way to put in an anonymous tip… but there was no guarantee an honest city worker would look into the case. Issuing citations wasn’t likely to fix the problem. There had to be a solution, though. He’d think on it.
Later that evening, Bruce cruised the streets of Gotham after dropping off Tatiana at her penthouse. The woman is part octopus, he thought sourly as he recalled his struggle to extricate himself from her amorous embrace at her door. He’d pleaded an emergency board meeting and made tracks, leaving her beautiful pouting lips and sultry eyes behind.
Bruce stopped at a familiar intersection to wait out the red light. He looked up at the building on his left and noticed Commissioner Gordon’s light still on in his office.
Five minutes later, the Batman tapped softly at the Commissioner’s window. The silver-haired man looked up, startled, then smiled. He slid open the window and moved aside to allow Batman to descend on silent feet. The line of his grappling hook whizzed quietly as it retracted into his utility belt.
“You’re up late, Commissioner. Everything okay?” Batman asked as the two shook hands.
Gordon ran a hand through his wavy hair, sighing. “Just working on a weird one, Batman. Cats. Missing cats. With all the missing people in this town, you’d think that would take priority, but here I am, trying to track down animals like a dog catcher. Or a cat catcher, as the case may be.”
“I heard about the no-shows at the Circus. Are you saying there are more missing?”
Commissioner Gordon laughed without humor. “That’s exactly what I’m saying. A lot more, in fact. We’ve gone past ‘hundreds’ and are closing in on a thousand or more. I don’t know if we’re looking at some kind of predator or—”
“Are there signs of predation? Claw marks or other clues of struggle? Any blood, bones?”
The Commissioner shook his head. “No, thank heavens. God knows I’ve got my cat Ruffy secured at home, though. I was letting him out to roam every once in a while, but now I keep him indoors. I’m a little spooked about him getting grabbed.”
Batman nodded, thinking. “That’s a good idea, Jim. If you aren’t seeing any signs of violence, it seems more likely this is theft.”
“That’s where I was leaning too, Batman. I just got a call from the Southminster Cat show; one of the show cats has been taken. The night watchman didn’t see a thing. I’m going to follow up in the morning and talk to the owner. You want to join me?”
“I’ll bring the coffee, Jim. See you there.” With that, Batman stepped onto the ledge of the open window and disappeared into the night.
Commissioner Gordon couldn’t help it; he leaned out to see which way Batman had gone. But just like every other time, he never caught a glimpse of the Batman after his dramatic exit. He sighed. There was nothing more he could do for the case tonight. He closed the window, packed up his briefcase, and headed home, where he hoped Ruffy would still be waiting.
Dick was laid out on a comfortable Italian leather couch, flipping idly through a magazine when Bruce came through the den.
“And how was the lovely Ms. Aurbach?” he asked, lifting his eyes only marginally from the page.
“Grabby,” Bruce replied.
He loosened his tie and removed his cufflinks, dropping them into the pocket of his slacks. Alfred never failed to check his pockets before washing.
Dick closed the magazine and leapt to vertical, an effortless motion his acrobatic background afforded him. “Oh, really? That doesn’t usually vex you.”
“Who says I’m vexed?” Bruce retorted, just as Alfred entered with a tray.
The nascent argument was forestalled by a late night snack the butler had prepared. The trio settled in around a deeply stained and well-polished coffee table. Alfred poured tea from a silver service and passed the cups around.
“I trust Ms. Tatiana is well,” the butler began, “and that the Circus was a delight.”
“Actually, Alfred, someone stole the lions and tigers. But yes, the rest of the night was fine.”
Dick nearly spat out his tea and eyed Bruce incredulously. “The lions and tigers? Seriously? That’s kind of... specific. And heavy. It would be heavy.”
Bruce sipped his tea with perfect form, ignoring Alfred’s approving glance at his lack of slurp. “That’s not all. Tomorrow I’m meeting Jim Gordon to interview the owner of a missing show cat at the Southminster Cat Show.”
“Stolen as well?” Dick raised an eyebrow.
“I hate to make assumptions…”
“I know you do. I’ll wait for your conclusions upon examination of the evidence,” Dick replied, rolling his eyes. “Anything I can do to help?”
“Just be on call. You have anything else going on this week?”
Dick shrugged. “It’s summer break, Bruce. Other than a couple hot dates, I’m free.”
“Not too hot, I hope.”
“Alfred’s run background checks on them already. Well-bred young ladies from Gotham Academy, not a rebel among them. I’m just trying to be a normal teenager, Bruce. Promise.”
Bruce popped a water cracker topped with gruyere cheese into his mouth and leaned back, chewing. He swallowed. “I know, Dick. I’m glad. It’s not always easy with me, I’m aware.”
Dick grinned. “Easy is boring, anyway. I’m here if you need me.”
“Thanks,” Bruce replied.
He stifled the urge to ruffle his ward’s hair. Dick wasn’t a child anymore; he was a young man of sixteen. He was often impulsive, but he had matured greatly over the six years he’d been Bruce’s ward, both as Dick Grayson and as Robin. Bruce was grateful for their friendship and partnership, though he couldn’t deny Dick kept him on his toes. Thank goodness for Alfred’s impeccable timing and mitigating influence.
“Well,” said the butler, breaking the silence as he gathered the tea service and stood, “I’m off to bed. And you should consider the same, Master Bruce. You have an early morning in the office—”
“And an even earlier meeting with Jim Gordon,” Bruce finished, standing and dusting off his knees. “Thanks, Alfred. Good night.”
“Good night, you two.” Dick settled back onto the couch with his magazine as the older men left the room.