The moment the door opened, I knew something was wrong.
The office did not smell of old coffee filters, which meant by some miracle Wanda had taken out the trash, or that something was amiss. Considering Wanda, bless her soul, was fairly absent-minded about anything that wasn’t the filing (which is why she was still employed; her abilities at organizing information were sublime) and I could smell rain instead of stale java, I knew a window must be open somewhere in the office.
I always shut and lock the windows. Always. You don’t live in Gotham City and not know that an unbarred window is practically an invitation to all manner of troublesome nocturnal fauna: bats and cats, with the occasional rat looking to do some harm.
Selina wouldn’t bother being spooky; she wouldn’t wait for me to hang my hat and shake the rain off my coat. She’d slink her way into the doorway, relax against the doorframe and keep one hand on her hip so I could see her diamond-tipped claws. Selina was less than subtle about her ‘look but don’t touch’ routine. Since I had about as much interest in her as I had in tapioca pudding, she did her ritual display with decreasing frequency. Honestly, I think that’s why she started coming by in plain clothes when she needed to hire me these days: when one of her favorite weapons is rendered useless by complete lack of libidinous interest, Selina starts treating you like a person instead of a dumb animal.
I hate being considered a dumb animal.
Selina was crossed off the list in an eye blink; that left bats and rats. I crossed the small reception area before my office, and unholstered my gun. I chambered a round, letting the slick snick-clack of the action sound off in the quiet office space…
“Put it away,” said a male voice low and deep.
That? Was the Bat. A rat would have scurried off at the first sign of a fight, or made a move to get the upper hand—but the Bat? No, he gave orders. I put the safety back on and put the gun back in its shoulder holster, and strode into my office without bothering to turn on the lights. The streetlight beyond my office window provided enough illumination – and shaped the silhouette of the Batman, Gotham City’s Dark Knight, blah blah blah, perched in it.
“Do you have any idea how to call ahead? Make an appointment? Selina makes appointments, so I’m sure you can.” It was useless arguing with a man sitting in your window, letting the Jersey rain blow in over his back. He did as he pleased, and we were all damned if we wanted to say something about it.
“You’re going to get a visitor tomorrow. You’re going to take his case. You are not going to tell him that I’m watching over your shoulder. Do you understand?”
“I understand he better have my emolument, for starters,” I began to tick off my fingers, “and that I do not work for anyone without it.”
“Tell that to the Palmer sisters.”
I didn’t flinch or wince. The Palmer sisters—there’s a case I’d rather forget some nights, and cling to like a security blanket on other ones. He invoked it like a portent – like it meant something. That didn’t bode well.
“The occasional pro-bono case is good for both my tax write offs, and my bottom line. That’s all,” I told him, walking over to my desk. “Now, pick in the office, or out of the office, because you’re letting in the…” lightening flashed bright and clear through the open window, “Rain?”
He was already gone. Dammit all to hell.
I came back to my office after a night of poor sleep, running mostly on coffee and irritability. I told Wanda to hold all calls and for God’s sake, take out the trash. Then, I vanished into my office, shut the door, and pretended not to doze at my desk. Last night had been rough and today wasn’t looking any better. No idea when the Batman’s case was going to walk through the door, but I planned on being there all day to wait it out. If it was important enough to demand I take, it was important enough to at least meet with this person.
The intercom buzzer roused me at about 1:15, pm. I jerked back to wakeful cognizance. I straightened my shirt and vest, and adjusted my glasses, trying to shake the sleep off me. Tapping the button, I asked Wanda what she needed.
“Mr. Wayne to see you, sir,” she replied.
No wonder the Bat was adamant I take the case. Bruce Wayne had recently come out as the man’s secret backer, and the Batman Incorporated initiative was daring, brilliant, and extremely dangerous. Made me very glad I was on the right side of the law at its inception. The very idea of every major city, every nation big and small, having a Batman-trained and Wayne funded defender was enough to make one’s nightmares that much fiercer.
“Send him in,” I told her, and flicked my eyes to the door. Wanda opened the door for him. Bruce Wayne was six foot two, about seven years my senior at fifty-one, though he was aging obscenely well. Gray was only starting to appear at his temples, telling me the playboy was going to gracefully slide from dashing rake to silver fox without any fuss. He had a briefcase in one hand.
In my tiny lobby stood his ten year old son, the scandalous product of some past liaison with a foreign beauty, and his aging manservant Alfred Pennyworth. They were speaking with Wanda as she shut the door behind him. I caught only a bit of their conversation; boy was asking for coffee and Mr. Pennyworth was quietly nixing that request.
“Mr. Wayne,” I said, rising from my seat. He’d hired me before – corporate fraud and theft cases. I’d nearly got eaten by a monster-woman in the name of reclaiming some goods for WayneTech while at one of the women’s shelters that Wonder Woman had set up across the country. The risks were large but the payouts more than adequate.
He was usually the picture of professional etiquette, with his genial good nature and easy smile that turned the heads of men and women alike, but today… He was not. He shook my hand with a quick, perfunctory feel to it and quickly took the seat I offered to him before I returned to my seat.
“Mr. Nygma, I have a—case for you, but it’s one that requires the utmost discretion,” he said. I didn’t realize discretion was even in his vocabulary before now. I mean, the man’s bastard was in my lobby right now. Wayne wasn’t known for being discrete. He was known for wooing anything who the right amount of décolletage – and if rumor was correct, he wasn’t above dallying with men, either. He threw money at problems to solve them. It wasn’t like he was known for his subtle intellect here. He was known for being rich and handsome, and he leveraged both at every opportunity.
“I’m at your service,” I told him. Between Wayne’s presence in my office – he hired me by proxy as often as not – and Batman’s insistence, I was certain this case was going to be quite exceptional.
Wayne set his briefcase on the corner of my desk and opened it. Inside was a few folders, a tablet, a couple of Mont Blanc pens (pricy and shiny, two of my favorite things) and a thumb drive, all secured.
He pulled out the top folder and extended it across my desk. I took and opened it without hesitation.
When I saw Gilda Dent’s face staring back at me, I immediately regretted it.
The wife of former Gotham County District Attorney Harvey Dent, Gilda Dent had been what one calls collateral damage – an innocent victim of what Gotham can do to people. In her case, what the mob did to her husband.
Harvey was a man I knew better as Two-Face, one of Gotham’s super criminals; a group I used to belong to myself. I didn’t have any particular personal or deep history with Harvey – we didn’t like each other much, but that didn't make me special. Normally that would be a source of aggravation, but in this case, I didn’t mind. Harvey didn’t like any of his fellow criminals, super or otherwise, and was something of a lone wolf. Unpredictable, unable to be reasoned with, and at the mercy of his double-headed coin that impartially decided deadlocks between his two personalities, Harvey was a force to be reckoned with and served justice as often as he meted out criminal cruelty. Brilliant in his field and renowned for his skill in the court room, he had reformed some years ago only languish in Gotham, unable to ply his trade. Eventually, he fall off the wagon and give into his returning madness. A fate worse than death, as far as I was concerned. I considered him a personal fable, a warning to myself: that could be you. Watch yourself.
Besides the old publicity shot were a few more recent photos, showing the decline of the years and the toll they’d taken on her. Once Gilda had been a beauty straight from some sort of Noir thriller with her dark hair in a smart little bob, but the photos told me another story. I flipped through the pictures and watched the years and poor care take their toll on the smoothness of her face, the color of her hair. In several of them she wore an institutional jumper; apparently the madness that had consumed her husband had sent Gilda into her own dark spiral of guilt and depression.
“She went missing last week,” Wayne said, eyes hooded and gaze on mine only for a moment before he found a desk bauble to look at. “Her husband is—was –a friend of mine. I can’t go to Batman over this. He and Harvey have history as well.”
That told me why the Bat had been in my window, at least. He knew already. Maybe he was respecting his backer’s feelings. Or maybe there was something deeper to this than either of us yet knew.
“I understand your request for discretion. A Gotham rogue’s ex-wife going missing is certainly cause for alarm. If my sources are correct, Harvey Dent went missing after an FBI sting went wrong--?”
Wayne gave me a sharp and sudden look. “How did you--?”
“Mr. Wayne, I make it a point to keep tabs on all the major Gotham powers as best I am able,” I said, arching one brow. As if the former Riddler wouldn’t want to be informed as to when someone might come looking for payback. I might’ve put the life behind me, but I knew it could snap at my heels at any moment.
“I’ll pay double your usual retainer,” he began, but a hand up stopped him.
“Triple retainer and full expenses paid, nothing out of pocket,” I corrected him. No way in hell was I not going to get everything I could for a case this ugly. This is the sort of case that made you or ate you alive. Even with Batman looking over my shoulder, I was putting my life on the line. “I’ll be glad to find Mrs. Dent for you, Mr. Wayne, but this is a case that will lead into… unpleasant places. Institutions. Criminal hideaways.”
Places I had once shut the door on, and had no desire to reopen.
“Agreed,” he said, but this time he held up his hand to stop me from speaking, “with one condition. I want to accompany you. I’m a personal friend of the Dent family, and… Gilda knows me. Trusts me. I want to be able to help her, if something’s happened to her.”
Oh, hell. I took my glasses off, palmed my face. This case was going to be the death of me, I could sense it.
“This isn’t a game, Mr. Wayne,” I told him, putting on my firmest tone, hoping I rang true with authority as opposed to aggravation. “Do you even know how to use a gun?”
Wayne’s couldn’t keep his face from puckering in pure distaste, before he looked away. “I know—a little bit. Couple of self-defense courses. That’s all. It’s all but required, when you’re in my position.”
“Rich and a target, I can imagine,” I replied, trying to sound reasonable. Listen to me, you rich moron, I know what I'm talking about! “But your voting and donation record are very public, Mr. Wayne. You support candidates strong on gun control lobbies. You don’t hunt and you don’t shoot. But we’re going into a place where it could save your life.”
“I won’t be dead weight to you,” he said, digging his heels in; he was becoming an implacable wall of man in one of my guest chairs. His arms folded over his chest, stubborn to the last. “You want me to pay expenses on all this, I will – but out of my own pocket. Directly.”
Goddamn it. Well, he wasn’t known for being the brightest of bulbs; I’d be able to shake him no problem if I needed to go stick my nose into somebody else’s business that he didn’t need to come along for.
“Fine,” I told him. “But I am in charge. You want my expertise, and in my expert opinion, it’d be best to for you to stay home and wait for me to call once I’ve found Mrs. Dent. But if you’re determined to come along, I can’t really gainsay you. You are footing the bill.”
Satisfied, Wayne relaxed in inches, shoulders sloping; he seemed to accept my proposal. It calmed him to know he was going to have some part in it; the lines at the corners of his eyes , and his mouth was less a sour press of his lips and instead relaxed into something far more neutral.
“What’s our first step?”
“Research, which we can do on the move. We also need to make sure you won’t stick out like a sore thumb,” I said, looking over his high power Italian suit.
“I’m sure I can manage something more suitable. I mean, I’ve totally gone slumming it before.”
I bit back a groan. Was he really this dense?
“If I have to take you to the Good Will to find you some proper undercover clothes, Mr. Wayne, don’t think I won’t.” He put his hands up, nodding quickly. Slumming it was one thing, but apparently he knew when to give.
“Be back here tomorrow morning. I need to do some groundwork, and you need to ‘slum it up’,” I said, getting the words out of my mouth with less disgust than I felt. I loved working for rich pricks like this – taking their money legitimately was almost better than ripping it from their safes or security boxes. Morons like Wayne didn’t work for what they had, didn’t appreciate what it was like to actually earn your way to anything.
“Of course, Mr. Nygma,” he said. If he rankled at being bossed around, he kept it off his face. That was a talent that must serve him well in the boardroom. “What time?”
“Eight in the morning. Don’t be late. Bring an overnight bag, a few change of appropriate clothes,” I said, stressing what I could about that wardrobe issue. If Gilda had been taken by people who didn’t like rogues, or their rich friends, he’d tip them off just by being there. Then we'd have a case gone so cold that I could use it to chill my scotch.
He touched the briefcase, and said, “This is all the data I’ve collected. I hope this’ll help you out. If there’s anything else…”
I shook my head and rose from my seat. Time to see Wayne out, so I could get to real work.
“Eight,” I reminded him. “Earlier if you can manage it.”
“Of course,” Wayne said.
I ushered him and his entourage to the door myself; the boy glared daggers at me for reasons I did not know, and Pennyworth was coolly polite, as always. All three left.
“Wanda,” I said, once the door was shut and locked behind him, “get ready to get down and dirty. We just got a make us or break us case…”
Gilda Dent was a beautiful tragedy.
The afternoon and evening I spent poring over the facts had given me this: Gilda Dent had moved out of Gotham swiftly after her husband’s incarceration for the murder of Carmine ‘The Roman’ Falcone. She had gone upstate into New York, changed her name to Grace Lamont, and tried to vanish. She’d done so with some success until a breakdown within her first year – she was institutionalized for the first time then, for a year, and then three years later, and again... and again. She set a pattern of depression, break down, recovery, and more depression.
Originally a sculptor, she couldn’t bring herself to get back into the public eye or the art world with the scandal of her husband behind her, and I couldn’t really blame her. You either embrace the scandal, make it a part of you, or you let it run you underground. I’ve done the former – in the end, it’d done the latter to Mrs. Dent. Unable to make her way and with funds dwindling, Bruce Wayne had become her benefactor and was fronting a great deal of the costs for both home and care.
She’d made a game attempt at re-educating herself, struggling for change. She’d enrolled in continuing adult education, trying to put her artist’s sense to use in marketing and graphical design, but had dropped out with another break down. She never completed her second degree.
No known contact between her and her ex-husband over his now-sixteen year criminal career. She and Harvey were about three years younger than Wayne, both of them in their late forties. Harvey had gone missing two years ago, at the age of forty-six – prime age for some young up-and-comer to get a shot at taking down a Gotham power if they played their cards right. But a coup like that, and nobody talking about it? Either Harvey was alive and laying low, or he was dead and the shooter was afraid of what would happen if a relative nobody toppled one of Gotham’s Kingpins of Crime. Could go either way.
Finding out what happened to Harvey Dent didn’t yet relate to this case, however, so I pushed that aside. Finding out where Gilda Dent had gone, that was the meat of it.
Police interviews were turning up nothing; mentally damaged middle-aged woman goes missing? Just another day in the life, and nobody cared. The way the state cared for the mentally ill never failed to get my blood boiling – once you spent some time in the system, knowing how shamefully it treats those who need it to work the very most… Well, you take things like what happened to Gilda Dent very personally. She’d nearly succeeded in suicide twice while institutionalized, and there had been allegations of abuse. Sure, it wasn’t the old days of Arkham where people were put to electro-shock therapy for everything… I remember Harvey getting beaten till he was black and blue for making a phone call, but they could have taken much better care of her. Paid attention. Listened! But that was asking too much for minimum-wage thugs in orderly uniforms, wasn’t it?
By nightfall, after reading through her records of treatment, the in and out, it had become personal for me. Someone had done this woman wrong; whether it was an uncaring system or someone who preyed on people like her (someone who was like I had been, who needed help even more than I ever had) they’d harmed her. It wouldn’t be a Jarrod Buttery, though—
The thought of my old ‘mentor’, the man who’d brought me out of homelessness and had pushed me until I broke, was too close to this case for comfort. He had molded me at my lowest point to suit his needs to keep himself in work, using me at my worst for his own personal gain while calling it compassion. A snap jarred me back to the now; I’d broken the pencil in my hand, and some flickering thought—some buried memory better left undisturbed from years I wanted to forget, these days—forced its way unbidden to the forefront of my brain.
I’d killed him, with pencils. Everything I could find in his desk. He’d wooed me with baited crosswords, leaving them out for me – knowing I couldn’t resist, that I was still…. Deranged, unable to control myself. Unable to resist a puzzle. What couldn’t Gilda resist? She wasn’t compulsive, but everyone has their tipping point. Everyone has something they can’t give up. I just needed to know what hers was.
Her records indicated suicidal thoughts, and at least one attempt via drugs that had been thwarted by a room-aid. She was on the money, statistically. Women were more rarely successful at suicide for a variety of factors. Men choose more brutal forms of death, so are often more successful when they try. But women worry about what people will think. Women worry about leaving a messy corpse, about being someone’s problem to clean up.
Did she finally come up with a solution, and end her life in some remote place?
“Do me a favor,” I told her photo, as the night got darker, the stars shone through my window, “be alive for me, okay?”
Harvey Dent was a loose end that made me uncomfortable, but it was a road I couldn't travel at the moment. Arkham’s records were closed to me as a past patient, and frankly, Harvey wasn’t there right now. There wasn’t anything they could tell me now that I couldn’t find out from other sources, anyway. I put a few feelers, leaving a couple of voicemails to my FBI contact and the few friends I had on the GCPD payroll, and hoped a clue would materialize by morning.
Morning! Jesus, the clock was reading three in the morning. I’d be half an hour getting home, another half an hour getting packed, and probably four-thirty before I got to bed. I’d be lucky to get three hours tonight.
“Triple retainer,” I told the files as I put them away. “Just think: triple retainer.” That was the mantra that kept the ghost of Gilda Dent from my dreams. Just had to see her as a paycheck, not a person.
Seeing them as people made the work that much harder.
Wayne was early; Alfred dropped him off in an unmarked and remarkably sensible, mid-range sedan. It was a Honda, for Christ’s sake. Guess he did know how to blend. His clothes were equally drab – not poor, but boringly middle class. Even I was better appareled in name brand chinos and a plaid button down.
I’d ditched the derby and suit – though they were packed, with an assortment of Riddler gear that might come in handy – for my undercover clothes. A button-down, a brown leather belt, a watch that had no question marks on the band, and tan chinos. Nothing exciting – that was the point. Out of my gear, I was completely normal. Scarred up in a few places, but beyond that, average height, average build, and brown hair that was thinning despite my best efforts to will it not to. I passed for joe average pretty easily once I was out of costume.
Wayne was six-two and probably in the area of two hundred pounds of what was some seriously beautiful manflesh. I preferred the company of women, and had enjoyed a turn or two with some men in the past, but Wayne was well beyond anything I’d had the pleasure of bedding. If he weren’t as dumb as a brick, I might’ve given a thought to a round of light flirtation to see just how bicurious he supposedly was at another time. After all, he was damn easy on the eyes. Muss the hair up, slouch a bit, and put some sunglasses on him and he was a hint more average, but only just. If you squinted he looked like hired muscle trying to downplay his physical presence. I could work with that. Hopefully it wouldn’t put him in harm’s way.
We took one of my cars; forest green, it was a battered shell of an aging sedan over a killer engine and excellent handling. If I needed to tear out of somewhere fast, and then vanish into the high way and blend in with a thousand other cars, this was the vehicle to do it in.
I drove, and Wayne surfed the internet on his phone. Our first stop was the Vernon Township in Sussex County. At the north end of Jersey, it was one hour out of New York City proper but considered part of the ‘New York metropolitan area’. There was great skiing to be had there, and a very quiet mental health institution that Gilda Dent had spent some time going in and out of. She’d been commuting into New York for her schooling, and from my records, indulging in a couple of very brief affairs that went nowhere with men who didn’t know who ‘Grace Lamont’ really was. I half-expected her to have gone further away. More than a few hours drive from Gotham, at least. But even I knew Gotham had its ways of keeping its hooks in you.
“You ever been up here for skiing?” I asked Wayne, as we headed through the green mountain roads.
“Couple of times,” he said with a nonchalant shrug of one shoulder, eyes still on his phone. “I prefer more exotic locations.”
“Something more than a four hour drive away?”
“Yeah, something like that,” he said. He looked out the window, observing the scenery briefly, before he asked, “do you ski?”
“Not as such, no. I don’t—really pursue athletics.”
“The whole Riddler thing, right?”
Muscles jumped in my throat as I swallowed down the retort. He was the client. He was paying. I couldn’t yell at him. Much.
“Please don’t use that name with me. It’s retired.”
“Sorry,” he said, though I couldn’t detect anything like real remorse in his voice. “I just—that’s what you do, isn’t it? Riddles. Like this case is a riddle.”
“This isn’t a riddle,” I began to deny, but… if I were honest (and I am) I knew that it was true. He had it on the nose. Maybe he wasn’t as dumb as he acted. “Not as such, anyway. But regardless, I will get it solved.”
He smiled now, as if he believed everything I’d said; with a few words I’d given him some sort of gift. If he was that easily emotionally swayed, I wondered how he made himself the head of such a powerful company. Must have some excellent people working beneath him making up for what a twit he was.
“So what’s the plan?”
“We’re going to break into her apartment, rifle through her things and see what we can find,” I told him, ignoring how his brows crept up his forehead, “and then I’m going to conduct some interviews while you stay in the hotel room I’ve booked for our stay.”
Wayne seemed briefly crestfallen at the idea of being stuck somewhere while I did leg work, but he wisely chose not to argue. He’d be nothing but dead weight there, anyway. He had no idea of the questions to ask, or how to gain information from a mark… excuse me, a concerned citizen or relative.
We stopped at a motel I'd booked the night before. I'd arranged for early check in so we'd have a place to ditch our things, and places we could conceivably talk privately. I was able to check my messages once I was there – a bureaucratic run around on an attempt to pull some of Gilda’s phone cellphone records, my FBI informant gave me a terse ‘got nothing for you’, and even Wanda had come up dry on the research I left her with back in Gotham. Well, this case was starting out swell.
We didn't want to waste too much time there; messages were all I bothered with, unpacking was for another time. By one o'clock we were back on the road and driving to the condominium complex that Gilda had been living in.
Wayne provided the security codes -- he apparently owned this through a subsidiary. We checked the parking garage – sure enough, Gilda’s car was still in its assigned parking space and showed no evidence of recent use or break in. From there, we went into the building proper. Wayne passed over a master key as we headed to Gilda's second-floor condo. Well, at least he wasn't entirely dead weight. Not that I couldn’t have bypassed all of the security in the building in my sleep, possibly with a blindfold on – but sometimes easy is better than hard.
"What are we going to look for?" he asked, as I ushered him through the door and shut it behind us.
"Missing medication. Calendar or datebook. Her computer, cellphone, anything we can find that might help us find her," I said, trying not to lose my temper. He asked the most inane questions. What did he think we'd be doing here, rummaging in her underwear drawer? I mean, we would -- women hid things of value with their intimates with alarming frequency, but still. We weren’t here to be creeping perverts. We were going to have to look at everything.
Wayne nodded his big, blocky head. I pointed him at the kitchen to keep him out of my hair, and I set about going room to room. Bathroom first; the medication check. From what I got from the psyche reports she’d still be on some heavy drugs for depression, and they were all missing – every last one. Nothing she’d be able to able to kill herself with readily – there were no narcotics in the bunch -- but if you mixed enough drugs and alcohol you could off yourself fairly easily.
I was still holding out hope that she was alive somewhere, but as we picked over her apartment it had the sterile feel of a woman’s suicide: everything put away nice and neat, so no one would be all that put out picking up after her. The laundry was done, the condo was clean, the dishwasher was empty; everything was in order. It was a parody of a home, meant to resemble it but lacking its soul. Something you’d bring tenants by to see what sort of place they could have here in this lovely Wayne Corp subsidiary building.
I hit the bedroom last. Bed was made, no sign of rushed packing. Couldn’t tell if clothing was missing. Everything was neat and orderly, and I had no idea what sort of clothing she was keeping here. Wayne, empty handed, followed me in from the kitchen. He’d found a notepad for phone messages, but it was fresh and had never been used. Not even an indentation from previous notes and messages to give us a clue as to who she might be seeing or conversing with.
“You knew the Dents before Harvey went over the edge,” I said, as I did in fact have to rifle through her underwear drawer. If the state of her undergarments were any hint, she wasn’t seeing anyone – comfortable cotton panties, nothing at all racy. All of her clothing was made for comfort and utility. She didn’t seem to have much bother for dress up. No longer a Gotham socialite, no need for pretty gowns and jewelry. She had a couple of small items, and everything but one ring box had everything apparently in its place; I assumed she might be wearing it when she vanished. There was no evidence robbery had occurred with everything else of value in its proper place. “Did she always keep so neat a home?”
“Harvey hated disorganization,” Wayne answered, peeking out her drapes; her view of the town was a good one. “He worked long hours – Gilda was a devoted wife, and she did everything she could to make his life and work easier. Her studio was something like contained clutter – it’s where she allowed herself freedom from Harvey’s house rules.”
“Was he strict? Keeping his wife in a certain place?” I asked, then shook my head. No, wrong tactic. Harvey’s out of the picture. Has been a long time. Wayne laughed at the question, all the same.
“I don’t think you know much about the Dents, Mr. Nygma,” Wayne told me, giving a soft chuckle – it rang more with a sad nostalgia than any real humor. “Harvey and Gilda were partners. I’ve never seen a couple who were better matched. When Harvey needed tempering, it was Gilda that could bring him down the earth. When his idealistic fires burned low, she could say a few words and it’d be like a splash of kerosene on the embers. He was the same for her – her work was beginning to boom, right before…”
I stopped listening; I knew the story, didn’t care about the frustration that seeped into his voice, though he was remarkably eloquent for a man who played Flappy Bird all the way here. I cared about the important case detail:
Gilda didn’t keep an organized house.
This was not Gilda’s work.
“Thank you, Mr. Wayne,” I said, stopping him short as he grumbled about that bastard Maroni. “You’ve given me the first piece. I believe we can safely rule out suicide. Gilda doesn’t keep the place this nicely – this is someone’s idea of what a formerly well to do woman like Gilda Dent keeps her house like. I think we can now escalate this from her own mental issues to foul play.”
The kid gloves came off – I went back to Gilda’s closet, began to rummage in earnest. Someone had taken her, and covered it up. Left her house as neatly as they suspected she might leave it, and tried to cover potential evidence of what they might want her for. Still, nothing. I went back over her personal effects. Whoever did this had to have screwed up somewhere; it was basic human nature.
Wayne just watched me, brows furrowed over his ridiculously aristocratic nose.
“Who’d want Gilda?” he asked.
“That’s what you hired me to find out. I just need more pieces of the puzzle. Who’d go to this length to make her home so boringly neat and tidy? Who’d forget they’re dealing with an artist, someone with mental illness, with a certain style of living?
They weren’t pros. They were doing what they thought pros would do. But they’d done it with care. They didn’t want to hurt her. They’d even taken her medication. They wanted her alive. They cared about her mental well-being. I ruled out any real, immediate threat. Wherever she was, Gilda Dent was probably safe from harm, quite possibly expected to return here.
“Mr. Nygma? You’re talking to yourself.”
I snapped back to the now, standing there in Gilda’s bedroom.
“He did it out of love.”
Wayne’s brows went up. “Come again?”
I went back to her jewelry box, and took up the one ring box. It was older, well worn. Heirloom? No, not quite that old.
“When did they marry?”
“Harvey and Gilda Dent married on your property,” I reminded him. “There were wedding photos in the file. The grounds of the Wayne estate. What year?”
“Uh—1989?” Wayne stared at me in befuddlement.
“Same year as our Batman appearing on the scene. A fortuitous year!” Connecting facts, I paced her house, now looking at it with new eyes. Something would be out of place. Something would give me a hint, a clue. “Harvey Dent would be maimed just before their six year wedding anniversary. This year they would have spent twenty-two years together, if the mob hadn’t had their way with him. You said it yourself: they were perfectly matched. Sometimes even madness cannot snuff love. It even fans the flames to new height, makes us better – or worse – than we could ever hope to be alone. This box housed her wedding ring, I’m sure of it – but it’s the only piece of jewelry that’s missing. Either she put it back on, or someone wanted to make sure she had it… but for what purpose?”
Wayne was frowning deeply now; even a bumbler like him could catch the potential implications here. Had someone had spirited Gilda away, but had done it gently, with some strange kindness? There was no way to rule out entirely that Gilda wasn’t a suicide, or that she hadn’t run off… but something was off. I just hoped it wasn’t that I didn’t want her to be dead. I hated connecting to cases – it made the work that much harder.
“Right, we’ve got what we came for here. I need to go make some calls,” I told him, reaching out to grab his arm; he proved as solid a brick outhouse and twice as hard to move, staring down at me with that frown still on his face.
“What? Don’t you want to get moving?”
He just looked at me for another long moment, expression unreadable, before he finally began to walk. I pocketed the ring box, and headed out behind him.
Two hours later I had bupkis.
I’d done my best to get my GCPD contacts to sing. I’d made calls to people I’d rather not. I’d called the guard at Arkham I had on my payroll and asked a few discrete questions… and what did I have to show for it?
Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Jack squat.
I had a fat lot of not a damn thing to show hours of calling and wheedling, all while Wayne played Flappy Bird on his cell phone and occasionally exchanged texts with his son and butler. He also took a call from what sounded like a woman, apologizing for breaking a date. With this private moment I realized the life of the world’s richest, hottest bachelor was drearily boring. Even for a billionaire, he was downright pedestrian. I hated him just a little for having so much with so little effort applied. At least hating him a little killed the reminders that my libido was sending me: you haven’t been laid in a while, Eddie, and he’d do in a pinch!
I made a mental note to pencil in some time with Lilah at the Iceberg, maybe, and go to Pandora’s after this case. Once intellectually inferior but shamefully handsome older men started looking good, I knew I’d gone too long without proper company. Just needed to let some steam off, that’s all. Get my ashes hauled and all that.
Trying to shelve my libido for the time being, I went back over other options. Gilda’s cellphone, purse and other basic items had been missing. My request for records was still being cockblocked by phone company rigmarole, but accessing a local celltower with a few programs I wasn’t supposed to have on my laptop might do what I needed to. But I couldn’t do it with Wayne following me about. What I was going to do was straight up illegal, and I preferred not to let anything criminal leak into my legitimate business. I was trying to stay on the straight and narrow, and I wasn’t about to tell Wayne I’d be willing to break the law to solve a case. He’d let it slip to someone, and then it’d be straitjackets and anti-psychotic cocktails and no more Edward, just people calling me The Riddler. No thank you.
“I need you to run an errand for me,” I told him.
He looked up from his phone, before he glanced down, finished his text and then put it away.
“Sure thing, Mr. Nygma. What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to go handle some purchases. We’re going to need a few things, mostly from a sporting good’s store. Thankfully, there’s skiing, hiking and camping as big business in this area, so it shouldn’t be too difficult,” I told him, writing down a list of items. Of course, all of those things I listed were also used for breaking and entering, the occasional death trap, and jury-rigged security, but how would he know?
“Meet me back here in a couple of hours,” I added, shutting down my laptop. “I’ve got to go follow another lead, but those items are very necessary to the next leg of our investigation.”
“What do you expect us to be doing?” he asked looking at the list.
“I expect that if Gilda’s in the area – possibly to be easily returned home, as the condition of her condo suggested, she’s nearby. This area is littered with resorts, tucked away cabins, and one closed brat camp for children whose parents think incarceration is going to fix their child not liking the new stepmommy. We may end up going hiking or camping, depending on the information I dig up,” I told him. “Hope you don’t mind roughing it.”
“Anything to get this wrapped up,” Wayne said, and I believed him. He would do anything to see Gilda Dent safe. What is it like, to have friends like that? Questions for another time. I put my laptop in its case, gave Wayne a copy of the room key and headed out into the Vernon Township evening.
Like any resort town, Vernon existed in two places at once; the affluent resorts, skiing and vacationing, all at one end, with the barely-minimum wage working poor at the other end. The working class mostly commuted in, but there were a few places where things were a little more run down, a little grungier. There were the rich and the poor here, but it had nowhere near the disparity that existed in Gotham.
But it was easy to find things like cell towers tucked among the buildings on the poorer end of town. They’d be eyesores among the resorts, hidden by trees – but nobody gave a damn if they were sitting between some mid-scale office building and a Starbucks on the working end of town. Easier to access but there would be more eyes about. I’d have to be careful, or I’d get caught accessing the cell tower.
Thankfully, the best way to not get caught in some place you weren’t supposed to be was to look like you were supposed to be there. Which is why I carried a standard construction worker’s orange best and a hard hat in the trunk. I’d dropped Wayne off with instructions to cab it back with the goods I needed, and went my way, a Joe Average Telecom Repairman on the Job. A turn down a side street, a lock picked, a little creative tethering and some encryption keys I wasn’t supposed to have and I was inside the cell tower.
After that, it was a few minutes of poking around into the network, querying for Gilda’s cell number. With some time I had her daily routine – her cellphone pinging the tower over and over again for access, recorded in various logs. Calls going in and out, but none of the numbers were suspicious and her contacts were rare. I downloaded them anyway; never knew when seemingly useless information was going to have a clue if you looked at it from another angle.
I got the map of her tower pings – they were in a nice cluster that covered her day to day business – mostly centered on her apartment and the places she frequented. A grocery store, a coffee shop, the bookstore, a gym.
And then there was one lone, red dot heading into resort country. I pulled out my search further – trying to reach the other tower through my connection to this one before my intrusion was detected. Another couple of little red dots tracked a path. Bingo! Someone had Gilda – or her cellphone – and had gone out of town. I marked a paper map of the area and took a photo of the screen, just to be safe, before I downloaded a log file from the tower. You can never have enough backups of critical data. Every second I lingered was a second that anti-intrusion software could notice me, though.
I was waiting for the download to finish when I heard footsteps in the alleyway; the soft crackle hiss of a patrolman’s shoulder radio alerted me to the nearby presence of what passed for Vernon’s law enforcement. I froze. Fuck me sideways, I didn’t want to get caught.
He was in the alleyway. The mouth of it, from the sound of it him. Shit, think Nygma, think. Could I outrun the average patrol man? Probably. Did I want to risk it? Not particularly. No further footsteps. Not yet. Another voice joined him, chipper and bright, making for pleasant chatter. Then they began to walk. It suddenly began time to bail out. My generic look would suit for most passersby, but a cop might ask too many questions I couldn’t give good answers to.
Shutting down the laptop was quick, sliding it into the bag quicker. I shouldered it, closed up the tower’s paneling, and headed for the gate out. Time to beat feet.
“Afternoon,” said the officer. So much for getting out of here without being seen. I needed to get to my car without a tail or having the license ID’d. If I didn’t, I knew what the headlines would be! Riddler accesses Cellphone Tower Illegally! What nefarious crime is he planning? They’d be howling for my incarceration and they’d haul me back to Arkham in an eyeblink. Gotham was notoriously allergic to due process.
I touched the brim of my hard had, and gave a polite nod. A quick glance to his badge told me he was D. Bradley, and he was a rank and file local patrolman. Nothing important.
“Officer,” I said, and then looked at his friend. The friend wearing a hard hat and an orange vest. Great, a real tech was with him and looking at me. The tech was my fault, probably – lingered too long digging for data. The patrolman was just bad, bad luck.
“Where’s your badge, technician?” The tech asked. The badge proclaimed him to be N. Senapati.
Misdirecting people is very difficult when they ask you direct questions and you’re unable to lie. The last shred of my madness that I couldn’t completely shake, I couldn’t tell him that the badge was in my car, or that I’d forgotten it at home, or any such nonsense. Instead, I prevaricate and not answer his question directly.
“Oh, my badge? Must’ve slipped my mind when I headed down here.”
“You’re breaking protocol. Who’s your manager? What company are you from?”
“I’m working for WayneTech directly,” I said, because I was. That was the truth – that, and they owned a chunk of the Telecom towers along the east coast. Call it Rogue’s Luck, because this was one of the towers they owned. “I’m down here working on a log pull, that’s all.”
“I wasn’t informed there’d be any sort of access down here,” the tech told me. I swallowed the urge to get snippy. That’s because my request hadn’t gone through the channels in a timely manner, and I had to do it myself.
The officer tilted his head as he listened, beginning to grow suspicious. He widened his stance, thumbs hooking in his gunbelt. Typical body language for intimidation, preparing for conflict. He didn’t say anything, but he was quietly lending his solidarity and weight to the other tech. He thought I was trouble.
“What division are you with?”
“I came down out of Gotham City today, sir,” I told him. The key was to stay calm and friendly. Don’t let them think you have any reason to be aggressive.
“Can I see what’s in your bag?”
Disagree and there’d be a fight; civil rights over search and seizure meant jack with a cop in play and when suspicion was high. Give it up and they’d see your laptop and a few tools. Weighing opens, I chose to comply.
The tech was unconvinced.
“That’s not one of our laptops,” he said.
“That’s because I’m with WayneTech,” I said. He had the name of one of the local Telcoms on his badge.
“Equipment should be standardized,” he started, but I interrupted him with a laugh.
“Yeah, and we should all be driving beamers for the work we put in while fatcats make money off us, but we don’t get that, either!”
The cop laughed; yes, play to the working man’s plight and empathize with being outfitted poorly. Yes, laugh it up you yokels, so I can get out of here!
The tech’s laugh was less enthused. “Hey, David, why don’t you wait here with our friend while I call this in and doublecheck with WayneTech that they got a guy out here?”
Fuck. He’s going to ring home and he was on a first name basis with the local PD. Of course, this was the one tech I had to run into.
I began to gauge the likelihood of taking out both tech and cop and escaping with my life. I mean, I had my sunglasses on and so they didn’t have a complete picture of me – so hopefully they wouldn’t be able to pick me out of a line up. I just needed to drop the cop before he could get his gun drawn. It was doable. They hadn’t seen my gun and I didn’t want to use it if at all possible, but I did need to get out of here.
That’s when there was another step of footsteps coming down the alleyway. Oh, what was it now?
The tech had recognized him – and really, in his suit and tie (the clothes I’d not told him to leave behind but had explicitly told him not to wear) few in Jersey wouldn’t recognize the Prince of Gotham.
“Afternoon, gentleman. I was in town and heard one of our techs was late to check in. Everything okay, Eddie?” He smiled genially, positively angelic in is dim-witted innocence.
The dim-witted that was entirely an act. I realized as he began to make conversation, taking all focus off me, that he was not, in fact, stupid. He just played it very, very well. He used his fame and good nature like a rapier, slaying any doubts of my realism with pinpoint commentary about the WayneTech cell towers.
That man was smart. And dangerous. That was bad for me all around – I’d underestimated him. He’d known exactly what I was doing and he’d ignored my explicit order and now I was in his debt for it. Son of a bitch was going to have me over a barrel for this.
He dazzled them with bullshit. I had never quite heard as many lies in the span of their fifteen minute chat as I had then, and I used to work in carnivals and pulled plenty of cons in my time. He spun a hopeful tale of just happening to be in town, and how I was in work rehab through WayneTech, giving me a new lease on life, and he feels so strongly about the community of Gotham and the state of New Jersey. WayneTech’s core values were invoked and handshakes were given.I hovered at his side while he worked his magic, and then with a little wave, headed back to the car.
“That was very stupid of you,” he said, and now I was certain he’d calculated the weight of that word to do maximum damage to my ego. “Why didn’t you keep me informed? Did you not think I didn’t understand what you were doing? I listened to you talk to your contacts, I know you were having difficulty. Why didn’t you ask me for help?”
“You’re a client, Mr. Wayne. I don’t normally take clients on cases,” I pointed out, trying to keep my seething to a minimum. Edward Nygma, ask some dim-witted—no, no some lying asshole for help? Never! “Did you get what we need? We’re going to be going out of town, up the mountains, if these logs are correct in tracking her cellphone movement.”
“It’s being delivered to the hotel room,” Wayne said.
Well, he thought of everything, at least. Yes, he was smart—and he’d hidden it from me. I didn’t like that, not one bit. Now I had two riddles to solve: where was Gilda Dent, and just how much did Batman’s backer know?
We drove back to the hotel in silence from that point on – both of us aggravated with the other, we existed in tense quiet as we unloaded, went inside, picked up the gear Wayne had bought to cover us for a couple of nights in the mountains.
No expense had been spared; he’d paid top dollar for the best items. At least we’d be comfortable and well-appointed hoofing it in the mountains looking for Gilda.
I ordered room service, and we ate. Using what passed as the hotel’s ‘business office’, I printed off some maps and made notes for our journey as I compared them to the logs I’d pulled tracking Gilda’s cellphone. I’d checked her data as we ate. She had an iPhone – terrible battery life on those, especially if you weren’t tech savvy on keeping certain operations to a minimum. That’s possibly why its signal died sometime on the afternoon of the day she’d reportedly disappeared. Either she hadn’t charged it or she’d turned it off as she was headed up into the mountains.
I mapped us a course, chewing the inside of my cheek. I wanted to ask how much Wayne knew, how competent he was, how much of dead weight he was going to be when we were headed into the green. But then, Wayne was a fairly well known climber, something of an extreme sports enthusiast. He played polo, swam, went boating, did some crazy things and gotten himself injured more than once in his youth. He spent a good chunk of his teens and early twenties roaming Europe doing just that, eschewing a college education for world experience.
Something we had in common, that. But I’d been a high school dropout and he’d left a prestigious prep school with good marks. He’d had the freedom to pursue anything he wanted, while I literally ran to the carnie circuit to get out of a house where I was getting my teeth rattled by my father on a nightly basis. I turned to crime by the time I was twenty, he didn’t even come home from Europe until he was twenty-six. We couldn’t be more different, no matter what one educational footnote might suggest.
“You’re angry with me,” he finally said, as I chewed on the cap of my pen.
“No, I’m not,” I told him. I wasn’t, really. I was angry with myself. Can’t con a con man, they say. Well, they are full of shit. You can, and he did.
Wayne’s lips quirked in a brief smile – and then his phone chimed in his pocket. He checked his message while I went back to our mapwork. I had a decent trail and a couple of alternates plotted out, found some coordinates to add to our GPS, and gave a silent prayer that this was all to find Gilda had snuck off with a lovebird or something and we were just huge party crashers. But the last pinpoint for her phone had been closest to a fairly remote brat camp.
That was another thing that made my skin crawl about this case. First, Gilda Dent’ s emotional baggage rang true to my own past incarceration, and now we had a juvie rehab for unruly teens in play. The camps were a popular alternative with teenage and youth issues on the rise – rather than sending Jack and Jane to juvenile detention centers and giving them juvenile criminal record, some judges sent them places like this.
Some were “wilderness treks” in the desert, forcing children to man up and handle their issues with barely-trained volunteers and employees, and others were prison camps in secluded places. They were rife with abuse – a favorite for pedophiles, and people with authoritarian kinks to take out their sick urges on the helpless. Kids could be sent there for things from \ ‘oppositional defiance disorder’ to teen pregnancy. It was a bandaid on a problem that could be solved in most cases with more parental involvement and having more sense than money, but that was wishful thinking.
This one had been shut down for abuse allegations, years ago. That was very common – they’d shut down, flush the staff, change the name and start over. The parent company – usually The World Wide Association of Schools and Specialty Programs – would reopen it once the furor had died down and start churning kiddies through the grinder for a profit. Thankfully, due to litigation across the globe and some high profile youth deaths and abuse cases, they were falling out of favor, though some still managed to thrive in red states where regulation was low and inspection was infrequent at best. Montana and Utah were well-known hotbeds for these sorts of programs, but that didn’t mean the east coast didn’t have them.
Just thinking about going to what essentially was Kiddie Arkham made me want to call the whole thing off, but I pushed it back down. It was remote, the facilities would likely have on-site generators to be able to be run off the grid, and it was a good choice of hide out. That’s all it was, right? It wasn’t a specific choice to put me out personally. It was the logical choice for someone who was digging in for a long term stay.
I pulled myself out of my work, snapping my fingers to get Wayne’s attention away from his phone. He came over to the desk as I laid out the map and explained to him what I knew about the camp, and what might be up there. Things we might deal with on the way. There was a road going up to a certain point, but after that it went to gravel, probably to make things more difficult for kids trying to escape through the woods with stolen staff vehicles. We’d be able to drive up to a certain point, but after that, we’d have to hoof it, and it’d be almost a day’s hike to get up there. If we went up early in the morning, we’d be able to complete the drive and part of the hike, but we’d need to have a rest-stop before we got there.
“What are we going to do if we find Gilda up there?” he finally asked.
“We’re going to radio police, and let them handle it,” I told him. “We’re not equipped to take on kidnappers, or to escape them on foot, Mr. Wayne. Neither of us is Batman.”
He sighed, and nodded. The answer didn’t satisfy him, but it was the best we could do.
“Get some rest. We’ll need to get started early in the morning.”
I hit the bathroom, handled my evening toiletry, stripped down to my shorts and dropped into bed. Wayne echoed my routine, killed the lights, and did the same.
I drifted in and out of sleep; at some point in the night, Wayne rose and went to the bathroom again – rummaging in one of his bags. Sleeping aid? Maybe. Didn’t matter. He wasn’t my case. Gilda was, and she was leading me up a mountain into an echo of Arkham for young offenders. No wonder my sleep was poor.
When the alarm went off at six arm, I hit the shower as Wayne grumbled in his sleep and muttered something about his butler Alfred. I emerged not entirely refreshed but ready to hit the road. Our hotel room would remain paid for through the week, so we could store things we couldn’t lug through the woods here, but I made sure to include some of my old Riddler gear in my bag, and Wayne had apparently packed his like an expert. Guess his years of backpacking through Europe and Asia as a youth had left an impression.
We put both bags in my car, said farewell to civilization for a few days, and headed deeper into the mountains around the Vernon Township.
The drive was short but the hike before us was not. We hid my car as deep off the road as I could get it, before yanking branches down to cover it among the brush. I marked it on my GPS so we could find our way back and began our initial push up the mountain toward what had once been called One Peak Youth Rehabilitation Center. It had some horribly trite catch line back in the day; Help your child reach the top with One Peak! Yeah, right.
Wayne didn’t talk much – the occasional bit of ‘watch your step’ and ‘there’s a bit of a path here’, but I was still upset with him for duping me and he was concentrating on getting through the woods. He was doing a damn good pace, too – despite being a good seven years my senior, he was fit as the proverbial fiddle and I let him lead the way. I was, despite a long ago dunk in a Lazarus Pit to clear up some nasty cancer and reboot myself to my hale and hearty youth, not anywhere as fit as him.
We worked this way till we had to stop for rest and eating, handling the pissing on trees and all that camping misery. We dined on Clif bars and he grumbled about not being able to get texts this far up the mountain, wishing he’d brought his satellite phone. I just shrugged, not concerned. I didn’t tell him I had a sat booster in my bag, and that’s exactly how we were going to contact the police if we had to.
“You communicate a great deal with your son,” I noted. “Are you two very close?”
He looked up at me for a moment, as if the question was completely unexpected. He gauged his answers, no longer bothering to hide behind the witless act anymore, and finally said, “He’s very important to me.”
“I suppose it’s invasive to ask where his mother is.”
“I’m asking anyway.”
He huffed out a breath, and looked away, “Currently out of the picture. We’re keeping our custody problems private, for his sake.”
He was lying. But I was intruding on something completely unrelated to the case, so I kept a leash on my temper and changed the subject.
“He seems like a handful,” I said, choosing my words carefully. “Very willful.”
“You have no idea,” and this time his laugh was rueful, full of frustration that he covered with a wry smile and a shake of his head. “You’re not a parent yourself, are you Mr. Nygma?”
“I have a daughter. I’ve – only recently reconnected with her. She’s working at the Iceberg now, and we’re trying to – figure things out,” I told him. Ellen Nygma, former Enigma of the Teen Titans, had returned to my life one merry Christmas, and we were working things out. We’d never have family memories or bond over shared life experiences, but we were something like a family now.
“That’s good,” Wayne said, and this time the warmth to him was real. He was… genuinely happy for me. This felt strange, though I couldn’t say why. Shouldn’t anyone by happy for a father and a daughter to reconnect? It was practically begging for a Hallmark Movie. “Family’s very important. I struggle with mine sometimes, but everything I do, I do for them.”
One simple statement rubbed me all wrong. Family is important, yet, there was something missing. Something wrong about those words!
“Your adoption of several wards and now a child by an unknown mistress speaks of your near pathological need to build a family, Mr. Wayne,” I told him, thought I suppose I could have been gentler about it. “As is your difficulty in connecting. Dick Grayson, Cassandra Cain, Tim Drake…. You’ve adopted several young people over time, made them a part of your family. Yet you never have long term lovers and never been married. You’ve just people in your care—in your control. I’m not sure that’s a family, Mr. Wayne.”
Something in my piecemeal brain was telling me there was a name missing. A son missing. A fallen son? An estranged son? I couldn’t be sure. My memory from before the ‘accident’ could still be hit and miss… and this felt like a very solid miss. I was missing something. A clue. A clue to Wayne? I stopped to think for a moment, but the noisy crinkling of Wayne’s water bottle brought me back to the now. He was crumpling it into a wad, empty now, and jamming it into his pack.
“We should get moving.”
Yes, he definitely didn’t want to talk about his kids anymore. That was alright. I’d been a crap father, so I could hardly throw stones at Wayne for screwing up there, either.
“Right,” I said, and we continued onward.
This time Wayne was far less quick to warn me of lose rocks; apparently this business of family had definitely rattled him and he was not above being petty. That was fine – I was still getting paid. Petty was the least of what I’d dealt with in the past. This was a cakewalk compared to dealing with the Joker’s caprice or Hush’s need to control every facet of a plan, or even daily living.
We marched on again for another two hours, as the sun passed overhead. There was little of note at first; the most disturbing thing we found was the body of a fawn, half-hidden among the brush. She was half-eaten, probably stored by some woodland predator for later dining. Best not to linger or disturb her, we pushed on. I tried not to see Gilda in her empty eyes.
We trekked on until it grew dark; only once the sun was down did we stop. We still had easily another half a mile or more of uphill trek, and opted not to try and stumble around in the dark. We did not make a proper fire, instead relying on chemical heat-cans to warm some food. I ran some rope between some trees, hung a hunter’s tarp over it, and created where we’d sleep for the nighy. It was low, small and not very cozy, but it’d be endurable for a single night.
Wayne and I ate in silence once the tarp was hung. He seemed to be still put off by the earlier discussion, and I didn’t feel like trying to make casual conversation. Instead, I settled in with a note pad and a small lantern tucked under the tarp, writing case notes. Wayne sat outside and watched as the last rays of sunlight faded between the trees.
I chanced a look at him and found him dappled in shadow, gold where the light touched, gray where leaves blocked it. Honestly, men that good looking should be illegal. It was simply unfair to the rest of us. Money, beauty, brains. Nobody should get all three, honestly.
Eventually, he crawled under the tarp and dropped onto his sleeping bag.
“What were you writing? Not riddles, right?”
“I don’t riddle anymore, Mr. Wayne,” I told him. God, must everyone always ask that? “I’m perfectly free of my compulsion to taunt the police with crimes and clues. Batman even comes to ask for help, now and again.”
Wayne’s lips tugged upward –smirking, almost snide.
“What’s that look for?”
“I just can’t picture you two as bosom buddies, that’s all.”
“Well, you’d know him better than anyone, except maybe the line of kids he shoved into tights.” And there was that niggling feeling again. That missing piece that kept bothering me. “You know, for a guy that’s financing his operations, and now with a son of your own, don’t you have any qualms about how he handles things?”
“I trust him,” Wayne said, not looking at me.
I wondered if anyone had seriously asked him this question. With the way he fixed me with a look, I don’t think he’d honestly actually considered that what he did might be questioned outside the media circus he wielded money and clout within.
“It’s personal,” he said, and rolled over, giving me a cold shoulder. Fine. I didn’t want to care about his reasons. His fat wallet was reason enough to be out here for him, and if it was costing him financing a bat-massager or a bat-barca lounger or a bat-anything else, I could be satisfied.
I set my phone’s alarm for pre-dawn, tucked my notebook away, and rolled over. Curled in my sleeping bag, I tried to sleep again but the stress of the past few days was still high. I never slept well – anxiety was still a persistent problem of mine. I hadn’t touched meds in years, but laying there in the dark listening to the cicadas chirp all night long I might’ve caused a man grievous harm in the name of some valium. I returned to the meditation that I’d been taught in therapy – thinking of uninterrupted blackness, calm that kept my mind from latching to pieces, and that, least gave me restful calm if not sleep.
Wayne laid next to me, still as he could be. I tried to ignore him, only slipping into a light doze as the cicadas thrumming tuned out. I heard him move, and that roused me back to wakefulness after scant sleep. He should have taken a leak before dark, stupid twit.
My irritation broke the calm, and I exhaled sharply, rolling over and trying to get comfortable again, hoping Wayne wouldn’t trip and injure himself in the dark. The moon was full and the light of it shone through the foliage, and as my eyes adjusted to the light, I realized Wayne had not only absconded into the night, his pack was gone. The hell was he doing?
I got up, and dug into my pack – a lot of my gear was useful for breaking and entering, but it could double for search and rescue out here. Penlights, a set of night vision goggles after that near-botched Dancer job that Selina had saved my bacon on, and a few odds and ends. The goggles I put on first, and the rest of the items I pocketed. Picking up Wayne’s trail wasn’t difficult – he wasn’t making an effort to hide his foot prints or travel in the dark – but why go? Why go with his pack? If he felt the need to manage some biological business, wouldn’t a shovel and some toilet paper manage?
This reeked of wrongness. Something was up with Wayne. Was this a trap? Was he in cahoots with the kidnappers? Was he after Gilda for some other reason? Why had the Bat asked me to get involved? Questions that drove me to take step after step, pursuing Wayne’s trail until it vanished into nothingness.
Humans don’t normally look up. We’re trained to look for predators on a ground level. We’re not targets for aerial attack most of the time. But in Gotham, that’s not so true. We have one flying predator, and if you were a rogue, you learned to check the skies, ceilings and branches. The trail goes cold? Thought you had the Bat or Robin cornered and they vanish? Look up!
I looked up.
Bruce Wayne looked down.
“Fuck,” was all I said, and then he was on top of me.
This raised a flock of memories, noisy as magpies and twice as wild, banging against the walls of my brain. Was this a flashback? No, no, this was really happening. I swallowed a scream, but only because a heavy gloved hand closed over my mouth and forced me to. My night vision goggles lit up the curve of his jaw, the shape of his mouth, as he said one word: “Quiet.”
I did no such thing. Panic had me trembling, but my mind was racing, watching the lips form those words—I’d been with that mouth for two days, watched it frown and smirk and try and hide a man’s wit for three days now.
I knew that mouth. I knew that jaw. I knew a man that gives orders in that voice.
I knew Bruce Wayne was Batman.
The sound I made upon the realization was undignified and unmanly and I wish to never repeat it. It still came from me, as he pressed me into the cool earth. For a moment, I don’t think he realized what was going on. Hell, I didn’t know what was going on. I just know I knew that face, I knew that face and it had been lying to me for so long…
“Stop struggling,” he said. There was no false promise of I won’t hurt you, because that’s what he did to people like me, people who didn’t measure up to society’s standards. No lies here, not right now. But eventually I found the wherewithal to give him what he asked for, every muscle tense, as I tried to curl into a ball beneath him, ready to lash out at the first opportunity.
He began to get up, and I kicked out to try and get myself space. He caught it in the thigh, just short of a groin shot, and clamped a hand down on my shoulder and drove his knee into my abdomen.
“Nygma!” he hissed, “don’t fight me. You’ll lose.”
“Liar,” I growled at him when I could manage words. “Lying, cheating, deceitful piece of shit!” Apparently I was more wound up about this than even I’d realized— the rage bubbled over until I stopped putting my amazing vocabulary to work. I chewed through intellectual insults and got to the gristle of the gutter trash teenager I’d been twenty years ago – hissing out every bit of invective that bubbled up. A dam had burst inside me, and the hate came out my mouth in a torrent.
I ended my short tirade with, “…fuck you and fuck the corpse of your society whore mother too!” That, he hit me for. The impact of his knuckles to my cheekbone rang my bell alright, turned my head with the force of his back-hand blow. Martha Wayne was apparently the line you couldn’t cross. Couldn’t blame him, really.
I was still a moment, as he ground his knee into my gut. I lay there, still and dazed, and let my thoughts fall into something like order. I’m not sure how long it took, but it was unpleasant all the same.
“It’s passed,” I finally said. “I… I’m back in my own head. Got a grip.”
“You sure?” he snarled, digging his fingers into the flesh above my collarbone.
“I’m sure! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I’m sure!”
He rolled off me and dragged me upright. I curled my fingers into his arms, leaning into him for support. There was blood in my mouth; I considered spitting on him. Instead, I chose the wiser option: turning my head and clearing my mouth without hitting him anywhere at all.
“You played me,” I said; my shoulder ached, my gut was bruised – but none of that compared to the damage to my pride. “You used me, and for what?”
Wayne – Batman, whoever he actually was – gripped my shoulder and shoved me back toward the campsite. I stumbled along; he had no problems in the dark, but I was aching from the abuse he’d dished out. He marched me back to camp, shoved me under the tarp, and pushed me down. My body ached, but my libido got the entirely wrong idea about my blood being up and some pushy treatment. Not now, dammit, this is definitely not Lilah! That was added humiliation I didn’t really need right now.
“How much do you remember?” he asked; even keeping his voice low, his words rang with the authority of the Bat.
“Enough that I know an elephant’s going to sit on my fence if I don’t keep my mouth shut,” I replied, trying not to sound snippy and failing. My face surged with pain with every word.
“Bits and pieces. It’s a puzzle I don’t waste too much time on.”
“You, turning down a puzzle?”
“Yeah, I know. It’s like I’m not ruled by a damaging compulsion anymore!” I snapped. He always got my temper to rise – like a dumb animal, snapping at bait.
I hate feeling like a dumb animal.
“You didn’t need me for this,” I said when he didn’t reply. “You used me. For what? You play me as Batman, you come with a case as Bruce Wayne, and why? To get to a case that you could have solved in your sleep, with your resources? Why couldn’t Batman come, but Bruce Wayne had to?”
I flicked on the lamp when he didn’t answer; his eyes narrowed at the sudden light, but he did not move from his crouch just outside the tarp.
“Was this a test? Were they all tests? Keeping me occupied with the occasional Wayne case, so I’m not underfoot? Trying to make sure I’m not doing anything illegal, falling back to criminal activity?” He didn’t move. Man had a poker face, but I could catch the facial microtells as he made them. Those were the things no one can hide, especially not when I was watching for them. There was no contempt, no anger. He wasn’t judging me at all. This was not, in fact, about me.
This was about something else. Something bigger than a reformed rogue that one might worry could fall off the wagon.
This was about the Dents.
“You were his friend,” I said, as it fell into place. The rush of epiphany, riding high on adrenalie, loosed my tongue further. “You want to help her. But you can’t get close to it as Batman because it might flush Harvey out of his hole, wouldn’t it? If Harvey’s not our kidnapper, if he catches wind of you going to where his wife was… but you still…”
He cared; no, he loved them. After all these years, all the wrongs done, after everything. Bruce Wayne couldn’t let it go. He had to help them. Despite everything, he couldn’t put aside a friendship of decades. No matter the rivers of blood between them, there was still a bridge, and he was still willing to cross it.
“Son of a bitch,” I said, indulging myself in a strange sort of awe. “You’re a marshmallow under all that Dark Knight bullshit, aren’t you?”
“Don’t push it, Nygma.”
The understanding of the Dark Knight – that this boundless love, of all things, kept him up nights – was worth the aching face and the throb in my shoulder. I sat back, and then gave up and sprawled.
“Were you really going to go up there alone after all this?”
“I would have been able to go up, scout, and get back before dawn.”
“And operate to full capacity on no sleep the next day,” I said, and it wasn’t a question. “Are you packing your batsuit?”
“Would you tell me if you were?”
His silence was another ‘no’, so I left it alone.
“Right. So what do you know about this case that you didn’t see fit to tell me?”
“Harvey Dent isn’t dead,” he said with such conviction I could believe it as fact. “We’ve had no body. But a double-headed silver-dollar, scarred on one side, turned up in a convenience store’s cash register. Cashier called the cops in a panic, though he was being marked for something. Cops wrote it off as a prank.”
“But you didn’t.”
“The coin made its way into my possession,” he said, pulling it out of his pocket. As talismans go, it wasn’t the first I’d seen and God willing, it won’t be the last. Liberty’s maimed cheek presented to me, I offered my hand, palm up, for it. Wayne hesitated briefly, but then passed it over. I ran my fingers along its jagged edges, the wear on both sides. To think this has decided the life and death of hundreds, possibly thousands, in Gotham City. A man’s fate was in the face of a coin.
I repressed the sudden urge to give the thing a flip. Despite being a rational man, even I could find myself with my own odd feelings, superstitions, and all I could think was flipping that coin would be very bad luck indeed. Instead, I passed it back to Wayne. He could carry it around like Frodo did the One Ring for all I care. It was nothing I wanted any part of.
“It’s the real deal,” I said. “Weight’s right, year’s right, wear pattern from repeatedly motion… You think he’s given up the coin? Given up… Two-Face?”
“No,” he said, and I knew his hope died with that word. “No, I don’t. He’s reformed before and it didn’t... The problems ran deeper than plastic surgery and some hopeful well-wishing could fix.” His eyes dropped, for the barest fraction of a second. Guilt. He looked away from me, stone-face. He did not like being unmasked near me. The furrow of a brow, the tight line of his mouth, these minisculegave me his secrets. He knew I was no fool – that every nuance and detail could give me more than it would ever give the average man.
I killed the lantern; it stripped me of part of my ability to read him, but… I would have to endure it if I was going to keep him talking. Gilda was the riddle – the Batman was a puzzle solved, even if it hit like his fist. I needed to focus. Gilda Dent was my problem. The Batman was a client. I could deal with the fallout later. Now was the time for work.
I could hear his weight shift – he was more comfortable under the cover of night; it was where he felt powerful, strong, capable. I needed him to feel that way. I needed the Batman, now that I had an idea of just what we were getting into.
“So let me put this together. You get evidence Harvey Dent’s not dead, but he’s not himself. Then Gilda Dent goes missing. You have reason to suspect Harvey is involved,” I said, ticking off each point on my fingers in the dark. “If you come up here as Batman, after what happened the last time with Harvey, you’ll spook him and you might lose them both. Has there been any activity with his old gang? After the FBI mole botch, I doubt they’re hanging out being chummy now.”
“Most of the Two Ton gang went underground, fled the city. Things were just too hot, after that FBI cockup,” Wayne said. “I’ve seen no evidence he’s attempted to recreate the gang or attempted to contact them.”
“So… the million dollar question is: What if he’s just a man who has finally reached the end of his criminal rope, misses his wife, and wants to say good bye to her? What if this is – reconciliation?” The person who had taken Gilda away had cleaned her home. Made it neat and tidy – as Harvey had a wont to do – in her absence. So that she wouldn’t have a mess upon return. “What if this is just a man and a woman who don’t want to be bothered by the world, or their pasts?”
Wayne had no answer.
“Alright,” I said a moment later. “I’ve got an idea. Hear me out, because it’s going to require some—compromise, but… this can’t be us-or-them. If this is what I think it is, with this evidence, and what I know of Harvey… You’re going to have to make a choice on who goes up the mountain tomorrow: Bruce Wayne, or Batman. But you can’t carry both up there with you. If this is what you suspect, you can’t go up there as Bruce Wayne carrying Batman’s agenda. You have to leave one of them at camp, and the other has to go up the mountain: Harvey Dent’s friend, or Harvey Dent’s enemy. Tomorrow, you can’t be both.”
He settled on his sleeping bag in the dark, and I began to lay out the potentials for each scenario to him. Attentive, he absorbed every word I gave him – even in the dark, I could feel his attention on me, the sharp mind beneath the handsome brow deliberating over each point I laid out.
I cannot overstate how it pleased me that he did exactly as I asked, and listened.
Dawn came and we were both tired, but oddly hopeful. Sleep had been sparse, after hours of discussion, but he’d be fine and I’d manage if I had to. Wayne said nothing once breakfast was past, though he did some basic first aid over the cut he gave me with that backhand I’d earned the night previous. I tried to be as gracious as possible, considering that he probably wouldn’t have done that for just anyone.
Neither of us spoke about the previous night: not the reveal, not the discussion, not the planning. The less we spoke, the more comfortable we both were with how strange this was. He had to put the Bruce Wayne face back on, get back into that role, and he had to do so knowing that I knew that was all Bruce Wayne was: a mask worn to protect himself and those he loved.
We had three hours before we hit the perimeter. Like most prisons, the camp used multiple fence lines to wall off the area. We found the first fence was broken down, but there had been some attempts to patch it recently – zip ties had been used to secure the chain link to the poles. But we still found a corner of chain link to duck under, working through the thinning trees toward the small inner ‘yard’ behind the kiddie prison.
This interior fence was in better repair – it had definitely recently seen maintenance. We cleared the fence no problem – Wayne probably could have jumped it, and I could still manage to climb a fence without too much difficulty. Inside the main fence line there were three buildings and another fenced off area that was the ‘recess yard’ It was about the size of a basketball court. I tried to keep the shudder to a minimum; Arkham’s idea of ‘recreation’ had used yards like this in the day – I can’t imagine putting a child through that sort of forced activity. My dad was no prize winner, but I’d take being popped in the face on a regular basis to being locked up before the tender age of thirteen because he didn’t know what to do with me.
“You keeping it together?” Wayne’s question brought me back to the now, and I shook off the nightmares of the past.
“Yeah, just peachy.” Nothing like a heaping help of trauma to make a case interesting. Or aggravating. “Let’s keep going.”
We slunk around the buildings; two dormitories, presumably for separating the sexes of the inmates, an admin building, and what passed for a school. There was a small chapel tucked against the admin building. Beyond that, from our vantage we could see a parking lot, I could make out two vehicles. Both older and quite battered – a flatbed Ford truck and an old VW Van that probably should have died somewhere in the seventies. They probably ran, but that was about it. Whoever it was up here, they were either using beaters for stealth or they were poor. Two cars meant two drivers, though, and the van might’ve been used to transport extra personnel. If this were a criminal operation, we were definitely dealing with more than one or two people
“That complicates things,” I muttered.
“We’ll manage,” he said, giving me a look that indicated this was, entirely my fault. Which it was. If he’d scouted a head, we’d know this. Dammit all, I hated when he was right.
“Yeah, yeah, the Riddler foils Batman by accident, I’m so thrilled! It’s just what I wanted to do,” I said to myself as we crept along the edge of the dormitories. Having Wayne at my back kept me on edge. Attempting to anticipate his moves as well as any other potential hostile persons we might encounter. I strained to put it out of mind, but now every step I barely heard set off Batman alarms in my mind.
I needed focus.
We stopped in the narrow space between the dormitories. While we couldn’t see anyone in the dormitory buildings, we’d risk being seen if we crossed the quad between the buildings to reach the admin center.
That’s when the blonde walked out of. She was thin and dirty, rubbing her arms to warm herself. Talking to herself, she walked right past us without even noticing we were clinging to the edge of the building.
She walked, shaking her head and rubbing her arms, muttering denials as she went. Shortly after a priest of all people came out of the building. He was an older man, wearing a Catholic collar and calling out, “Bonnie! Now, Bonnie that was uncalled for!”
Wayne and I exchanged a look. The hell was going on up here? Maybe we’re been so far off the mark that it was going to be physically painful when this case went tits up. At least I’d be in good company; the headlines could read Batman and Edward Nygma bungle case, completely miss obvious clue!
The blonde woman let out a shuddery keen, letting her head fall back as she voiced her pain.
“It’s not f-f-f-fair! He’s not right, he’s not right! She’s so pretty and she’s with him! It’s so gross!”
The priest reached out, putting his hands on the woman’s shoulders, before pulling her to him in embrace as she wept at the unfairness of some thing or another. Bruce and I watched from our vantage point, wary of anyone else following, but no one else emerged from the admin building. The priest spoke in soft, soothing tones, but I could neither hear him nor read his lips or expression with his back to me and this ‘Bonnie’ woman held to his chest crying. Their conversation remained lamentably private.
This was an unexpected dynamic, and we slunk back to the shadows. The doors opened again; though we could not see them, we certainly heard them. The strides were long, heavy – a man, probably, and then another set of steps; quicker, lighter. A youth, or another woman, maybe?
We held our position and waited for them to come into view -- I don’t know if Wayne was holding his breath, but I was, waiting to see who would round the corner.
The first man I didn’t recognize – he was small, skinny, his pace quick. Former addict, maybe? Either way, he was the ‘woman’ of our equation. I amended my thoughts on the pace accordingly. The man, though—his bad side to us, was clearly Harvey Dent. He approached the priest and ‘Bonnie’ with the smaller man at his side, dwarfing all three with his bulk.
Harvey was a big man – big as Wayne and as strongly built. Harvey was a few years younger, though he’d lived a rougher life than most believed Wayne to engage in. Less extreme sports, more criminal than crime fighter. But then, the coin in Wayne’s pocket allowed Harvey to exert his will against his other half, and do good acts as often as he did evil. It was their damned dichotomy that made Harvey “Two-Face” Dent such a huge pain to deal with, either as a rogue or as law enforcement. There was no way to predict which way he’d turn. The coin split all deadlocks between his personalities, and it was not something that could be reasoned with or gainsaid.
That’s not to say Harvey Dent was wholly good or Two-Face was wholly evil. Harvey could be cruel, even when he won a toss, and Two-Face was fully capable of love and empathy of a sort. If you asked his last ‘paramour’, Renee Montoya, what it was like to have the weight of their ‘affection’ given to you it probably would have gotten you an ugly answer.
They joined the pair in the quad, and all spoke quietly for a moment. The skinny little man took ‘Bonnie’ back to the building, and Harvey briefly spoke to the priest; there was no reading those maimed lips no matter which direction he turned. They spoke quietly, and the priest returned to the building alone.
Harvey tapped out a cigarette, lit up and then growled, loud enough for all to hear: “I know you’re there. Come on out.”
I glanced back to Wayne, and he gave me a nod. It was now or never. Make or break. We peeled ourselves from the building and stepped out slowly. Harvey watched us as we did – apparently he hadn’t expected Bruce, as the eyebrows shot up his forehead. He stared for a moment, dismissing me completely to focus his attention on Bruce.
“Jesus. I half expected you to the Bat,” he said. I managed not to snigger.
“No, just me, Harvey. Gilda went missing, and you were missing and… I got worried.”
“So you hired this worm?” Like I said: There was no love for rogues in Harvey Dent. This time it wasn’t sniggering I was trying to repress, it was snarling.
“Edward Nygma’s the best short of Batman,” Wayne said, which went a long way to pacify me.
“And I did find you,” I added. “And knew Gilda was in no danger, to boot.”
“So now what?” he asked, before he brought his cigarette to his lips. “Here I am, escaped convict, with a pack of junkies and a priest, and you’ve found with an ex-rogue wannabe detective. Good job, Bruce. God, couldn’t you leave well enough alone?”
“No—I was worried about Gilda,” Wayne said, putting up his hands as if to placate Dent. “She went missing, Harv. Is she here with you? Is she safe?”
“What kind of fucking question is that? Of course she’s safe!” Dent growled, taking his cigarette from his lips. Wrong question to ask, Batman. I hoped that was a calculated misstep, but watching him as he warred between being friend or foe to Harvey Dent, I could see that it had been a real mistake. They didn’t know how to talk to one another anymore. “You know I’d never hurt her!”
“Of course not, Harvey.” He was still placating. Still looking for an opening. “But you know she can’t go on the run with you. What kind of life would she be living?”
“Why don’t you tell me, Bruce?” Dent asked, maimed mouth curling in the most grotesque of sneers. “You’ve been the one paying for everything. Guess you think that entitles you to yanking her leash?”
“That’s not it at all, I’m just trying to think of her well-being, Harvey.”
“Gentlemen, I think—“
“Shut up, Nygma!” This time I had both men demanding my silence. Well, fine. I leaned against the dormitory wall, and watched them begin to circle and snarl – recrimination was coming hot and fast from both of them. Dent’s resentment was clear and Wayne was more Bat than Bruce at the moment. This was going to end poorly.
All of us went silent as Gilda Dent strode out into the quad. The woman in the photos – from the bob-haired beauty to the declining mental patient—was here, but changed. Her eyes were bright, her back straight, and she strode quickly toward us like a warrior-queen. She was there to break up a fight – jaw set, locked on target, and ready to take both man to task.
Cases didn’t always involve dinner and a show, but I didn’t mind it one bit.
“Bruce… thank you for worrying. As soon as things had settled, I was going to write you,” she said, even as she took Harvey’s arm and made it clear just whose side she was taking in the dispute over her well-being.
“Before you ask – I’m not being coerced, and I came up here of my own free will,” Gilda said. Dent tried to speak but she reached up, cupped his face and said, “I can handle this.”
Dent nodded once, stepping back behind her. He didn’t put his hands on her, but instead let her stand for herself, speak for herself. He didn’t attempt to coerce or move her—simply gave silent support.
“Harvey didn’t kidnap me,” she told Wayne. “He didn’t even mean for me to see him. It—was accidental. He was checking up on me, before he left with his friends. They’re heading north to Canada, and I’m going to go with them. I would like you to trust me, to know myself and what I want. I need you to let us go, Bruce.”
“Gilda, I…” Wayne struggled with the concept of simply letting it go. Harvey Dent was a criminal who had caused him much pain. But he was also a friend. The two men both had their problems with duality, and the conflict it brings to have one nature war against the other. The Bat would want justice, I knew that much.
“She’s telling the truth. She caught sight of me—I almost ran from her, Bruce. But I didn’t want to lie to her, or leave her wondering. I told her what’d happened, with Father McGoohan and the others, and… she wanted to see them, meet them. She’s been up here almost all week, getting to know everyone.”
I kept my mouth shut, though it pained me to do so. I hate not being able to do anything. But I was the facilitator of this little reunion, and hopefully my words to Wayne the night before would have some weight with the man. But he was Batman, so in all likelihood it was a complete wash. Who influenced Batman? Nobody. Not even renowned genius, Edward Nygma.
“Please, Bruce,” Gilda said, reaching out to place her hand on his arm. “Please.”
“Harvey, this isn’t the first time…”
“That I’ve reformed? No, it isn’t,” Dent admitted and it sent a frisson of fear down my spine. There but for the grace of God go I, and all that. “But this time we’re getting out of Gotham. Getting away from what we knew. A whole clean start. Not pretending to do anything for that damned city, and not sitting around with Batman over my shoulders, reminding me of everything I’d failed to do.”
I watched Wayne look to Gilda, and then Harvey, and back again. Gilda stepped back, putting her arm around her husband.
“I’m tired of living with loss,” she said. “This is what I want, Bruce. To not have to pretend I’m anyone else to get away from it. He promised me, once, that he’d do his best for me, and me for him. This is it. We’re going. Please don’t stop us.”
A muscle in Wayne’s jaw jumped; he was swallowing down a most bitter pll. But he nodded, reaching out to take them in hand. That must’ve cost him – to let them go. That, or he was planning on destroying their happiness as Batman even as Bruce Wayne left them in the clear. You never could tell with men like that – Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent were a matched set in that regard.
They spoke quietly briefly, and I wasn’t privy to their murmured conversation. That was all well and good – I’d found out enough this week, and didn’t relish digging deeper. The riddle of Gilda Dent was solved: she’d seen an opportunity, went after it, and attained what she wanted. It was only a chance, but it was a chance she was willing to risk her safety and sanity to make. I envied her a little.
At least now, I finally had the answer for that question I’d asked myself days ago: just what compelled Gilda Dent. The answer to that riddle had been simple; love.
They unfolded from each other— Dent putting a hand to Wayne’s arm, leading him toward the admin building. Gilda caught my eye, and came toward me.
“Let them have a moment. Then we’ll get you to a car, and drive you down to town,” she said. She looked at me for a moment, before she said, “I’m Gilda Dent. Thank you for being—so patient with them.”
“I’m just glad that this case had a happy ending,” I told her, straightening up from my slouch against the wall. “They don’t often get that.”
She watched me for a moment, her smile easy. She believed me. That was good. I was, after all, not lying. I was glad, and I don’t often get to see something end if not neatly but good for all involved. Well, all but Wayne. Batman got plenty of victories, though, so I’m fairly sure he could endure to lose here.
“Is your work hard, Mr. Nygma?” she asked. “My husband’s… consumed him, in the end. But maybe now he can finally walk out the end of the fire he stepped into.”
“I wouldn’t call it hard,” I said, keeping my eyes on the grass. “I’m not the Batman, or even like Harvey. I’m not… consumed by some inner need for justice. I can’t even say I took this case because I wanted someone to pay for what they did.”
“Why did you, then?”
“Because I didn’t want you to be dead.” She laughed at that, nodding. Yes, she understood that. It made it easier to laugh with her and share. “There are cases I take simply because… Look, there were these two young women, the Palmer Sisters. Came down from Ohio. Got a troubled brother. Real smart, real clever, but a lot of problems at home. They got out together, but he was younger, they couldn’t take care of him and get him out of the bad house they were in. They didn’t take him with them when they ran, right? Well, he got his own idea about making it in Gotham… and it was a lot like the one I got, when I was his age. So I helped them find him before he did something really stupid… like taunt the cops with a crime and a few clues. I saw some of me in him. Same for you.”
Empathy is a sticky thing. I can’t say I like that being in control of my life has allowed this latent ability to relate to people grow, over time… but at the same time, I can’t be sad about the work it brought me, or the things I did because of it. Empathy has yet to bring me any real regrets, only complications. I can deal with complications.
“Can I ask something?” It was out of my mouth, before I could take it back. “Harvey’s reformed before. I’m a reformed rogue. This isn’t an easy life. Are you really sure this is what you want?”
She looked at me steadily, and then glanced away toward the admin building.
“More than anything,” she said, looking back to me. She found my gaze and held it, made to see her fearlessness in the face of my question. “I don’t know if you’ve ever loved someone very deeply, Mr. Nygma, but Harvey is… he’s the only person I’ve ever felt complete with. Maybe that’s foolish, considering he’s so broken himself, or maybe... that’s just how we work. But I think he’ll have a better chance with me, and it’ll give me something to look forward to instead of pretending to be anyone but Gilda Dent. I’m tired of denying who I am, and what I’ve endured, and what it’s done to me, too. I want to take back our years and live out the rest of my life with my husband.”
“Then, I wish you and Harvey the best of luck,” I said, hoping my words sounded as sincere as they felt. “I really do.”
“Good luck to you too, Mr. Nygma,” she said, and then stepped away. She gestured for me to follow, and we joined the others inside the building, already planning the next move for the future.
Several hours later, Wayne and I were pulling up to the motel where we’d spent the last few days; he’d called for a pick up even before we’d gotten into my car and headed back into the Vernon Township, so I knew he was simply going to pick up his things and leave me to my four hour drive back to Gotham. Busy guy and all that.
Inside the hotel room I asked the question that had been bothering me on the trek back to town as he packed his things.
“Are you really going to just let them go?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Really. No tabs or anything.”
His fixed his gaze on mine; unlike Gilda’s, his was not warm or friendly.
“That’s no,” I said when he did not give me a verbal answer. “Can I ask which is more important? Harvey Dent’s friendship to Bruce Wayne, or Two-Face’s betrayal of Batman’s mission?”
The muscle in his jaw jumped again. I held my breath.
“You need to stop asking personal questions,” he finally said.
“Think of who you’re talking to.”
“I am. I thought you weren’t ruled by compulsion, Nygma.”
I managed not to flinch. He had me there.
“One last question: Why did you bring up the Palmer Sisters, in my office? You could have brought up a hundred other cases that I did pro-bono. Why that particular bit of business?”
That made him stop. He put the shirt he’d been folding up down, and he stood there for a moment.
“Because you did it for the right reasons,” he said, voice steady, but not flat. “You knew that they had some money, but you didn’t fleece them for what you could get. You knew that they were in trouble, but had nowhere else to go. This wasn’t a high-profile case – it wasn’t going to buy you a car or pay your dues at Pandora’s. It wasn’t even get you a bit of spotlight. It was a couple of young women who wanted to find their brother. It took you to ugly places, just like this one, but you did it anyway. It’s how I knew I could trust you to look at Gilda Dent. You’d empathize with her. You’d care. I needed someone whowould care about Gilda Dent.”
He packed the last of his things as I sat there, mulling it over.
“So what you’re saying is I was a decent human being for a change, so you felt you could trust me.”
“Yes to the first, not quite on the second.” His smirk returned. Son of a bitch, I wanted to hit him sometimes. But I suppose that’d never go away.
“And what about what I remembered?”
He looked at me again, but this time it was a little more than ‘steady’ and a more cool.
“You remembered the important part. About elephants and fences.”
“And I’m sure you’ll be keeping an eye on me.”
“I never stopped.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said.
His phone chirped in his pocket. He didn’t check it. Instead he finished zipping up his bag.
“Alfred’s here,” he said, heading to the door as I sat at the edge of the hotel room bed. “I’d cut you a check for your fee, but—I’ll just wire the funds directly once I’m in Gotham.”
“Of course,” I said. There was no rush – this case and it’s costs would keep me fed and clothed for a year. He was good for it.
He left me alone in the hotel room after that, and I did not pursue him or try and keep him from leaving. To be honest, I wanted some space from him after everything that had transpired. Revelations, rescues, reform… it was enough to make a man question things. As if God was giving you a nod, reminding you of your many foibles and failings. Reminding you that you could rise as easily as you fell, once.
And that was the question, wasn’t it? Which would I do, as the years went on? Did I have Harvey’s odds, 50/50 to the end – as equally likely to fall on my face as I was to climb to greatness? Or had I tilted things in my favor?
Sitting in a hotel room, looking out over the resort town as Wayne’s limo sped away, I thought of Gilda Dent’s hand on my arm. There had been strength of her smile. That was a good enough answer to me.
I reached out, and picked up my cellphone and dialed Wanda. She picked up, and I gave her the good news. Case was wrapped, but it was going off the books. I was going to spend another day in Vernon on Wayne’s dime, and then head home tomorrow. Oh, and could she maybe write an email to the Palmer sisters, see how they were doing? It never hurt to make sure people were okay.