Post by Admin on Mar 30, 2017 23:34:36 GMT -5
Issue #21: “Standout”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie and PJ
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #21: “Standout”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie and PJ
Edited by Mark Bowers
Standing out in the crowd,
Where the spotlight finds you and singles you out.
What are they whisperin' about?
You're thinkin' up ways to take up less space...
Instead of embracing it...
—Sarah Majors, Maia Sharp, “Standing Out In the Crowd”
The academy day finally ended and Bruce took a moment to lean back in the driver’s seat and close his eyes before turning on the engine. It was hard to believe that barely nine hours had elapsed since he’d arrived this morning. It felt like a lifetime since he’d made that twenty-minute drive.
When he got home, he knew that the others would be asking him for details. They wouldn’t really care much about the classes, though. They’d want to know how he felt about it.
He would have rolled his eyes if it hadn’t meant opening them. He still wasn’t sure. He hated the power hierarchy and the military-style discipline; ironic, since he liked it just fine when he wasn’t on the receiving end. His classmates were a mixed bunch, from Sanders and Ortega—who had asked for tips on fieldwork, to Norton—who seemed to be making every mistake in the book… but so far, not making the same one twice. Then there was Kotsopoulos. Bruce had hit it off with him almost immediately, but time would tell if anything would come of it.
His lips twitched. He probably owed Jandt a favor. Jim and Dick had both warned him that the administration would be ready to pounce on him at the first hint that he thought he might be above any other cadet in the program, only too happy to take the ‘billionaire vigilante’ down a peg or two. The top brass might have expected him to act like the entire exercise was some sort of joke, but Jandt had actually done it. It occurred to him to wonder whether the other cadet had some reason why he’d seemed to think that he’d be allowed to act as he had. Was he really that clueless or did he have some hold over administration? He could always ask Barbara to do some digging, but it was probably a bit premature. If it did become necessary to delve, he could do his own legwork, assuming he had time.
He pulled out of the parking lot and headed for home.
He found two unstarted one-quart freshpacks of jamocha almond fudge ice cream in the freezer behind the one he’d half finished. Once again, he found himself ruing the night he’d let Jim pry his favorite flavor out of him. With a sigh, he turned toward the surveillance camera. “It wasn’t that bad,” he announced.
“I’m glad,” Selina said, entering the kitchen. “I thought I heard you come in.” She crossed the distance between them swiftly and brought her arms to his shoulders, clasping her hands behind his neck.
After a moment’s hesitation, he brought his hands to her waist.
“When you say it wasn’t that bad...” she began.
Bruce tensed. “I’m not in the mood for a debriefing right now,” he cautioned.
Selina tilted her head to one side. “There’s more than one way to debrief a man,” she said wickedly, bringing one hand down toward his belt buckle.
That got her a startled laugh, covered almost instantly by a coughing fit.
“Sorry,” she said, eyes dancing. “It just—”
Bruce shook his head, but he was smiling, too. “You have nothing to apologize for. However, I think we might want to delay these activities,” he brought his lips swiftly to hers, “for a time when I’m in a frame of mind to more fully appreciate them.”
Selina regarded him for one long moment. Then she returned the gesture with considerably more passion. “I think that’s the gentlest rejection you’ve ever handed me.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “I consider it more a postponement.”
“I consider it progress.” She eyed the still-open freezer behind him. “Your ice cream’s melting.”
“Not yet,” Bruce countered. Still, he took the started ice cream tub out of the freezer quickly and shut the door. “I’ve been taking notes and running around in circles,” he said, sinking into a chair. “Literally. How about you?”
“I think I could use some of that,” Selina said, gesturing toward the tub. “Should I grab another container or is there enough in there for both of us?”
Bruce held the tub up experimentally, mentally subtracting the weight of the packaging from the weight of the ice cream and dividing it by two. “We can split this,” he said. “To start.”
“Good enough.” Selina smiled. Then she turned on the hot water tap in the sink, letting the water run as she took two bowls out of the cabinet and set them on the table. “Helena dropped my cell phone in the toilet,” she remarked over the water. She had the scoop in her hand now and set it under the stream. “I’m going to have to get it replaced tomorrow.”
Bruce winced and nodded. “Where is she now?”
“Napping. I’ll get her up in about a half hour,” she said, returning to the table with the scoop in one hand and two spoons in the other. “So, is this going to be a thing now?” she asked. “I mean, you getting up before the crack of dawn and coming back exhausted. Are you going in for the whole shebang?”
Bruce considered. Long though the day had been, it hadn’t been boring and it hadn’t felt like a waste of his time. Knowing that he didn’t need to be tested again on the material meant that he could absorb the intricacies under less-stressful conditions. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I believe I am.”
Lester Paxton turned the white card over again absently. He wove it between his fingers, under the middle, over the ring, under the pinky. He pressed a corner between thumb and forefinger, absently grinding it between them.
“Who is he, Thackeray?” Paxton asked softly. “What does he want?”
The butler shook his head. “I don’t know, Sir,” he said again.
Paxton rolled his eyes. “Facespace turns up over 27 possible candidates in Gotham alone, and that’s if we assume that ‘Elliot’ is a surname. If it’s a middle name, the field widens to 61. PluggedIn gave me a surgeon, a radiologist, five teachers, a plumber, a dozen telephone representatives and a welterweight boxer.”
“And that’s assuming that ‘Thomas Elliot’ isn’t an alias, Sir,” Thackeray ventured.
Paxton snorted and rolled his eyes once more. “Hell, for all we know, it’s a scheme cooked up by Batman to discredit me further.”
“I’m not sure that’s possible, Sir,” Thackeray mused aloud.
Paxton’s eyes narrowed. “That will be all, Thackeray,” he said, dismissing the butler with a wave of his hand.
Alone in his study, Paxton examined the card once more. Then, he picked up the phone and swiftly punched in the number provided. When the voice message recording played, he took a deep breath. “This is Lester Paxton,” he said in a low tone, cupping his hand around the receiver. “I’m interested.”
The rest of the week passed in a blur of assignments, callisthenics, biting sarcasm, screams, and laps. He no longer walked the halls of the academy; he ran them. They all did. They ran from building to building, they ran the parade grounds quadrangle, and they ran the track. Complaints and protests only incurred additional penalties. Bruce remembered the resigned stoicism he’d perfected in Arkham and did his best to maintain a poker face and keep his head down.
It didn’t always help. Push-ups, laps, and essays continued to be assigned for any reason—and sometimes, it seemed, for no reason at all. Bruce had earned the class twenty push-ups on Wednesday when his watch alarm had inadvertently gone off. A loose thread on his uniform had garnered fifty. Unfortunately, he hadn’t been the only one violating the dress code that day. When Norton later asked if they could meet a half hour before class on Thursday to inspect each other’s uniform before classes began, he’d been only too happy to agree. When he’d arrived at the pre-arranged spot at 6:25 the next morning, Kotsopoulos, Ortega, and Laramie had already been there waiting.
As much as Bruce resented the communal penalties, he understood the logic behind them. Calhoun had stated it at the start. One way—whether it was the best way was open to debate—to get the class to look out for each other was to make it clear that the consequences of their actions extended far beyond the individual. It wasn’t enough for them to focus on getting themselves through the training; they had to be aware of each other, too. He’d also noticed that those who tried to stay apart from the others might—depending on the instructor—receive an individual penalty, but it was usually considerably heavier. Jandt had not turned in the punctuality essay. When pressed for his reason, he had reported that, as he hadn’t been present when the essay had been assigned, he hadn’t believed that it applied to him.
Calhoun hadn’t bought it. “Drill Sergeant Severin not only apprised you of the assignment, he added to it, Cadet! You will complete a 1600-word essay on the subject tonight. For now? Out in the hall, drop and give me seventy-five.” She turned to Bruce. “Cadet Wayne, supervise.”
Jandt had flinched. “Why him?”
“You are in no position to question me, Cadet. For the record? Neither is your brother.” She took a step forward. “You aren’t in kindergarten, Cadet. If you don’t like the way things are run here, don’t go whining to the big scary city councillor,” she glowered up at him, dropped the sing-song voice, and snapped, “because I’m not about to quiver in my boots and roll over. I gave you an order. You can carry it out or you can carry yourself out. At this point, I don’t care which. Eighty-five push-ups. Cadet Wayne, watch him.” And with that, she’d proceeded with the lesson as the two of them headed into the hallway.
Bruce realized that she hadn’t penalized the class that time. She hadn’t really penalized him, either. It wasn’t as though he was missing out on vital information that he didn’t already know. Assigning him to monitor Jandt wasn’t an attempt to single him out, so much as it was taking the person who could best afford to miss the class and placing him where she needed him most.
Jandt hadn’t seen it that way, of course. He’d done his eighty-five and gone back inside mumbling under his breath about how he’d never heard of a “brown-nosed bat” before. Bruce let it slide. He’d still been smarting over the fact that Calhoun wasn’t going to be reading the essays, stating by way of explanation that she’d punished them, not herself! He knew it wasn’t supposed to be fair, but that didn’t make it an easier pill to swallow.
Firearms training, at least thus far, hadn’t been a problem, but that was only because they were still working on gun safety, cleaning, and maintenance. According to the syllabus, they were due to begin target practice next week.
He was not looking forward to it.
Selina didn’t have time to replace her cell phone until Saturday. The sales clerk at the kiosk was sympathetic and happy to show her a selection of models. Selina checked them over rapidly before making her decision.
“Good choice, Ma’am,” the clerk enthused. “We have a choice of three covers currently in stock: hot pink, electric violet, or ultramarine blue. Of course, if you have another color preference, we’ll be happy to order it for you and we do offer custom covers as well.”
Selina smiled, privately thinking that, had it been up to her, she would have called the blue one ‘lapis lazuli’. “No, I think one of these will do fine.” She lifted Helena out of the stroller and held her up to the counter. “Let’s see if we have the same favorite color,” she murmured. Aloud, she said, “Which one should Mommy get, Helena? Pink, purple,” she continued with emphasis, “or blue?” In a stage whisper, she added, “Pur-ple! Purrrr-ple!”
Gleefully Helena leaned forward and seized hold of the pink cover with one hand. A quick swipe with her other hand sent the lapis-ultramarine cover sliding across the glass countertop and onto the floor at the clerk’s feet. The electric violet followed an instant later.
Selina’s eyebrows shot up. “Looks like she’s got a mind of her own,” she said. “Sorry about the mess.”
“No harm done,” the clerk said. “I couldn’t help noticing that you were interested in a different color. Did you want to take the purple after all?”
Selina looked at her daughter, who was now happily gnawing on a corner of the pink cover. She tugged it away. “No,” she said ruefully, “I think I’d better pay for this one…”
That afternoon, the staff of the Gotham City Police Academy convened their first meeting of the term. There were several items on the agenda to deal with, before the topic shifted to the new troop of cadets.
“Commish is aware of the Jandt situation,” MacInnes said shortly. “Unfortunately, politics are in play. Literally. So, for right now, the word is ‘document’. And I mean everything. Because when Councillor Neal Jandt tries to raise a stink about how we kicked out his brother because we were afraid that he’d find out ‘the truth’—”
“What truth?” Severin demanded. “That we don’t kiss ass just because some cadet has a sibling in municipal politics?”
There was a general murmur of agreement.
MacInnes held up a hand for silence and got it. “Rumor has it Councillor Jandt is jockeying for the Commish’s job. As you’re all aware, that’s one police posting that doesn’t have to go to someone from the ranks. Most cities, it goes to a career bureaucrat. We’re usually luckier than that. Anyway, it appears that Neal is siccing his kid brother on us in order to get the insider’s view on what it’s like to be a cop, from the ground up. And if he finds some sort of corruption going on, it gives big brother more leverage to agitate for the top spot. At least, that’s how some people I know are seeing it.” His upper lip curled scornfully. “It’s also possible that Neal thinks his kid brother is a pain in the butt just like we do, and since the kid’s too old for military school, he’s hoping we’ll shape him up. Either way, we’re stuck with him for now.”
“Oh, for…” Craigie rolled his eyes in disgust. “And just how did Alvin Jandt get through our vetting procedures? Kid’s got a rotten attitude and not much else going for him.”
MacInnes sighed. “He passed the polygraph, background check was clean, and he squeaked by on the physical. Panel split, but the hearing went in his favor.”
“How many politicians sat on it?” Farnham asked sotto voce.
“Not important. He’s ours for now. If he can’t cut it, he’ll be gone, but in case his brother tries to raise hell about it, we’ll need that paper trail to document his shortcomings.” He waited for further comments. When he didn’t receive any, he nodded and went on.
“Next order of business: while we’re not making a decision until next week, anyone got a suggestion for squad leaders?” He held up his hand again as Calhoun opened her mouth. “Before I hear them, I’m just going to state for the record that we have no plans to change to a rotation on this one.” Calhoun closed her mouth again and MacInnes nodded his satisfaction. She raised the same issue every year. “We settle on two for the duration, business as usual.” He smiled. “So, who’re you thinking of?”
Calhoun smiled brightly. “Why not Jandt?” She waited for the laughter to die down. “I’m serious. There’s a metric ton of paperwork involved with the post. Extra duties. A lot of responsibility. Tedious responsibility. Very little credit. We all know the regular program is hard enough without adding to it.”
“Give him enough rope and see if he hangs himself?” Fochs asked.
“I was thinking Ortega, myself,” Fochs admitted. “She’s not afraid to ask questions, she knows the right time to ask them, and she doesn’t rattle easily.”
“She’s taught women’s self-defense classes,” Severin rumbled. “If she needs to miss out on some of the physical training, she won’t be behind. Plus, she’s authoritative, takes control... I hear you about timing her questions. Wednesday she waited until after class to ask me for advice with one of the parade drills.”
“How badly do we want to bore Wayne?” Craigie asked. “He already knows most of what we’re teaching. Maybe we ought to give him more of a challenge.”
Calhoun rolled her eyes. “Another political appointment.”
There was general laughter.
“Hang on,” Uminga said, motioning for quiet. The Emergency Response Driving instructor rarely spoke up at these meetings—she wouldn’t be teaching her module for several weeks and rarely met the cadets this early in the program— but she had a way of drawing everyone’s focus when she did. “Have you read his file? He does have the skills.”
“Yeah,” Severin snorted. “To lead half the class onto the range while the other half is setting up for target practice.”
“Which wouldn’t say much,” Farnham commented drily, “for the judgment of the cadets holding the shotguns.”
“He’s been going to every class,” Fochs pointed out, “including the ones he doesn’t have to.”
“He gets the work done and he hasn’t been asking for special treatment,” Calhoun admitted grudgingly. “And he knows the material. All of it,” she added. “I made sure that the subject matter on the first assignments and pop quiz didn’t overlap with the questions I included on Wayne’s preliminary exam.”
“I set him to drilling the weaker cadets,” Craigie said. “Morale decision. I was worried about him making the others look sick in comparison if I kept him to the standard drills. Figured I’d let him work with the ones who couldn’t keep up.” He smiled. “He knew how to get higher performances out of them and he didn’t have to scare ’em to do it.”
“Kotsopoulos can handle the extra workload,” Calhoun said slowly. “The other cadets seem to respect him. Given an opportunity to lead, he might rise to the occasion.”
The discussion continued as more names were tossed out, bandied about, supported, and shot down. Finally MacInnes broke in. “Sounds like we have a number of viable choices. As always. Get a slate to me by Friday at oh-eight-hundred hours. I’ll make my decision by the end of the day.”
He consulted the agenda. “Next order of business…”
Paxton’s cell phone rang at precisely 2:00, as promised. He picked it up. “Have you decided?” a voice whispered into his ear.
Paxton had been going back and forth on this since his initial conversation. He had to admit that, at the back of his mind, he was tempted. But, this wasn’t his style. Particularly not with a court date dangling over his head. He was already in too deep. “I’m flattered you considered me,” he said, using the genial tones he normally reserved for when he had to dismiss an employee or ten. “But no… I think I’ll sit this one out.”
There was a laugh on the other end. Then the whisper became a harsh hiss. “I… think otherwise,” he rasped. “I think that you are going to do precisely as we discussed.”
“Or what?” Paxton demanded. “Are you threatening me?”
There came a slow, mocking laugh. “As the old cliché has it, Mr. Paxton, this isn’t a threat. It’s a promise.” The voice on the other end went silent for a moment. Then, there was a faint, slightly staticky noise, and a new, strangely-familiar voice emanated from the receiver. It took a moment for Paxton to realize that it was his own.
“It's simple,” his voice said. “At some point prior to the court date, you and Sharon will meet to discuss strategy. At a prearranged time, during your little tête-à-tête, there will be a noise from outside. You'll both look up and see Bruce Wayne glaring at you through the window—so make sure the blinds, curtains, or what-have-you are open. Fortunately, you'll have your cell-phone with you and you'll have the presence of mind to snap a photo or two. Make sure you have the time and date stamp. Maybe get some shots of Sharon posing by the window either before or after Mister... heh-heh… Mister... er... Face shows up, to establish that Wayne was at her house and she didn't just hire a photographer to snap a candid shot of him somewhere else and later claim it was at her house."
Paxton’s mouth went dry.
The other voice came back on the line. “I think the DA’s office might be very interested in hearing this recording,” it said smoothly. “Don’t you?”
“What do you want? Money? How much?”
Laughter. “Lester, Lester. If I wanted money, I’d siphon it out of your Cayman Islands account. No, it’s not about money. It’s about power.”
Now it was Paxton’s turn to laugh. “Power? I’m in disgrace, on indefinite leave of absence from my company, practically under house arrest, and facing a court battle. You should have come to me weeks ago.”
“Would you have given me the time of day, then?”
Before Paxton could answer, the voice continued. “I’ll be in touch.”
The line went dead.
Paxton spent a long moment staring at the receiver in horror before his trembling hand returned it to its cradle.
“Having fun?” Hush asked. “By the way, you didn’t get my voice right. Close, though.”
False Face turned around. “As a matter of fact, I am. I might not be on your level, Doctor, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that crossing me is a good idea. Oh, and since Paxton’s never heard you speak, I can’t see how it matters for him, though I assure you, I’ll improve before you need me to fill in for you.”
Hush smiled. “Fair enough. But you don’t really think this guy’s going to be able to do anything to Wayne, do you?”
“Please,” False Face said, rolling his eyes. “I’m not an idiot. This contest you have going seems like a good deal, but I think we both know that the one who punches the Bat’s ticket is probably going to be Hatter, or Penguin, or Ivy… or, if we’re going for irony, some punk who squeezes off a lucky shot with a zip gun.” He frowned. “Do gangs still use zip guns, or am I dating myself?”
“I don’t deal with gangs,” Hush replied. “Not directly, at least.”
“Same.” False Face nodded. He put his cell phone into his pocket and sat down on one of the padded leather chairs. “Comfy,” he said, smiling.
“Salvaged from my last practice.” Hush bent down to the small bar fridge and pulled out a single-serve bottle of orange juice. “Want?”
“Not without vodka and I think I need my wits about me in present company,” False Face returned. “You understand, of course.”
Hush shrugged and closed the fridge. “Of course,” he said, not sounding in the least offended. “So, if you’re not trying for the grand prize, what was that phone call? Chain-rattling?”
“He reneged on an agreement,” False Face said, a note of anger stealing into his measured tones. “From the way he’s acted, I’m fairly sure that he would have thrown me to the wolves, once he had what he wanted from me.” He glanced at his companion. “Thanks for posting my bail.”
Hush made a deprecating gesture. “You’ve got your uses and you aren’t dangerously ambitious. I admire that in a subordinate. So, what about Paxton?”
“I never liked torturing innocents,” False Face said blandly. “With him around, it’s moot.” Under Hush’s steady stare, he wilted. “Fine. I’ve lasted as long as I have in this city by knowing the best allegiances and by not sticking my neck out any farther than I need to. It keeps me relatively healthy, but it also, of necessity, puts me out of the running for schemes like your current plan to take out the Bat. On the other hand, I’m human and sometimes,” his voice turned wistful, “I dream. And sometimes, the stars align and things work out. So, I suppose this is what it looks like when I dabble,” he continued. “Use Paxton as my muscle, flabby though he may be, and… in all likelihood, he ends up in the same hole where he meant to stick me—and probably without bail, this time. Really,” he smiled, “I think that’s enough, both to satisfy me and to safeguard my reputation.” There was a moment’s silence. Then False Face gave a small sigh of resignation. “Don’t think I didn’t see you roll your eyes, Hush. I don’t particularly care if my reputation is for being a small-time,” he coughed, “businessman who usually gets nailed as soon as the police start reacting to the situation.” His voice took on a darker note. “However, I don’t want to be known as some schlepper who can be pushed around with impunity. Making an example of Paxton ensures that won’t happen. And,” he smiled again, “you never know. He might just get lucky and solve your Bat problem after all…”
He’d had to rearrange his sessions with Alex, thanks to the Academy. Since physical training was held in the afternoon, and since he would have had those classes on his schedule, even had he not opted to attend the full program, he’d had few qualms about explaining the situation to his psychiatrist.
Alex had simply rescheduled their appointment for Sunday this week, and promised to try to free up a block of time one evening per week, going forward. “Or would you prefer to keep two sessions for the next little while, as we have been?”
Bruce considered. It was pushing it to say that he enjoyed their meetings, or even looked forward to them. Nonetheless, they had come to serve as a safety valve for him. He could put up with a good deal of frustration and general idiocy, knowing that he had a pre-allotted time each week where he could vent about it, get everything out of his system, and keep going. He’d needed it during the vetting.
Now, though, under the Academy drill sergeants, he was doing his venting on the track and on the parade grounds. True, he’d been working on his own to get back in shape for months, but that hadn’t compared to having someone push him to find another reserve of strength when he was sure he’d exhausted them all.
Dick had done a great deal to help him get back to his previous fitness levels. But, when he said that it was time to call it a day, Dick nearly always took him at his word. Severin and Craigie didn’t. And for all that he cursed them in his thoughts, he couldn’t help but notice that, because they kept pushing him, he kept pushing himself, in turn.
He hadn’t felt this tired in a long time… but he hadn’t felt this calm either. “I’m comfortable with going back to weekly sessions,” he said firmly. “I don’t think it’ll pose any problems.”
“They’re cotton fibers,” Dick said. He was sitting at a console in one of the satellite Bat-caves. Selina hovered nearby. “There’s some of it in the vacuum cleaner bag as well, but just particles, not threads. It’s the same fabric, though.”
Selina frowned. “I don’t mean to be ghoulish, but considering that there are dead skin cells and hair particles in dust, is there any chance of DNA analysis?”
“Sorry,” Dick said with a reluctant shake of his head. “It’s a good thought, but the problem is that dust is everywhere, indoors and out. The particles show up any time someone opens a window, or doesn’t wipe their shoes before coming indoors. And this dust in particular seems to have originated in a public space, like a mall or an office building.” He made a face. “Or maybe a hair salon. Those strands are from about fifty different people, and only one of them had a criminal record—for DUI. So, to sum up: yes, there’s some human DNA in the dust, but there are too many overlapping signals. Until the technology improves, that’s not going to help.”
Selina sighed. “Figures. Just thought I’d ask.”
“No problem,” Dick grinned. “Our tech is pretty good. It’s just not there yet. Give it a couple of years. On the other hand…” He lifted a pair of tweezers up, “this is a different story.” His smile grew serious. “What do loose-weave cotton fibers mean to you?”
“What is this, a pop quiz?” She leaned in closer. “Wait. Is that another hair?”
“Stuck in the cotton fibers, yes. I’ll get to that in a second, I was just wondering if anything’s springing to mind, yet?”
“I don’t know.” Selina frowned after pausing a moment to consider. “I don’t do that much stitch-work, unless leather’s involved. Loose-weave… you mean like a mesh?” She didn’t wait for an answer, but continued to muse aloud. “Well, it’s not strong enough for netting, unless we’re talking about butterfly nets. Do they use cotton for those, or is it more a nylon mesh like what Bruce uses for the aquarium?”
“Not sure. But I can tell you two interesting things about those fibers. One, another name for them would be gauze. And two, this hair probably comes from a redhead.”
Selina took a step forward with an angry hiss. “Gauze?” she demanded with a frown. “As in bandages?”
“You got it. The hair comes from the base of a finger knuckle, unless I miss my guess. Well, possibly an arm, though knowing who it is, I doubt it. He likes trench coats. Anyway, even though this is brown, you know body hair is generally a few shades darker than whatever’s on the person’s head. Where’d you find the threads?”
“Snagged around a drawer handle,” Selina said angrily. “Red hair. Gauze bandages. Argh!”
“Yep,” Dick nodded. “I can’t do a DNA trace on dust motes. Hair’s a different story. Hush was in your apartment.”
Selina’s expression grew murderous. “Hush had better start running now. My whip has a very long reach.”
“There are eight fundamentals of handgun shooting,” Farnham barked. They were sitting in a windowless classroom adjacent to the simulator where Bruce had been tested two weeks ago. Instead of regular desks, they sat at long tables, facing the whiteboard.
“First: stance. Know that this is for optimal conditions. When you’re in the field—assuming you get that far—you’ll find yourself forced to fire from a prone or kneeling position. You’ll be behind cover. You’ll be wounded and unable to stand. In these situations, you will not be able to maintain optimal stance. For now…” He surveyed the class, his face expressionless. Then he turned to the white board and hastily drew three concentric circles for a crude bulls-eye. “This is your target,” he stated. Then, louder, “On your feet. Face square to the target, feet about shoulder distance apart. Put your stronger leg slightly back.”
They hastened to obey.
As Farnham continued to walk them through the positioning, Bruce was horrified to find that his hands were sweating. This was ridiculous. They weren’t even holding the guns, yet. There was absolutely no reason why this should be getting to him, not when he was still making slow but steady improvement in his drills in the cave. He could do this—in controlled conditions, with no audience but the cave bats. But the easier it became, the less he wanted to.
“Cadet Wayne! This is a fight. Assume an aggressive posture!”
Bruce forced himself out of his reverie. “Sir, yes, Sir!”
Maybe he only imagined the collective sigh of relief, when Farnham went on with the lesson instead of assigning more push-ups.
He spent an extra hour in the cave that night, practicing with the handgun. His showing in the classroom was no better the next day. If anything, it was worse. Farnham’s exasperation seemed to be increasing.
“I guess we all know now why you’ve never carried a gun in your previous… um… vocation,” he drawled.
Nobody laughed. Extra push-ups and laps had been handed out too many times over the past week-and-a-half to cadets who reacted in any way when another of their number was singled out for any reason. Bruce still felt his cheeks burning.
On Farnham’s command, the class rose as one and followed him into the simulator room. The simulation wasn’t running; there were only blank screens and a small stand on which a mock revolver rested. “Cadet Wayne,” Farnham snapped, “step forward, pick up the weapon and aim at the screen directly in front of you.”
Bruce complied, struggling to maintain his composure.
“Hold that position, Cadet.” Farnham drew closer until he stood next to him. “The object of this drill is to keep your aim steady.” He held up a dime. “I’m placing this on your barrel,” he said. “When I say go, I want you to carefully pull the trigger. If you fail to hold the weapon absolutely still, the coin will fall. Take as long as you need.”
“Yes, Sir,” Bruce replied, getting the response out without gulping. A small voice at the back of his head demanded to know who he thought he was fooling. By now, everyone knew that he…
“Correct your stance, Cadet. Elbows bent slightly.”
Bruce acknowledged the instruction and made the adjustment.
“Better.” Farnham slowly laid the dime on the barrel and stepped back. “When you’re ready, Cadet.”
Bruce swallowed. He gripped the gun firmly, knowing that if he held it too tightly, his hands would tremble. Gripping too loosely—if this weren’t a simulation—would mean that he wouldn’t be able to control his aim. He concentrated on holding the gun steady, on breathing, on maintaining his stance, and on not losing the coin. He could feel the sweat beading on his forehead. It was warm inside the simulator. He wondered absently whether the air was circulating properly. His shirt felt like it was stuck to his back. The last time his heart had pounded like this, he’d been undercover at a heavy metal concert during a drum solo. He closed his eyes and tried a meditation technique.
Farnham had told him to take as long as he needed. How long had he been standing here now? Three minutes? Five? Hard to know when every second felt like an hour. The gun was like lead in his two-handed grip. He forced himself to keep it steady. He took several long, deep breaths. Then, carefully and with agonizing slowness, he began to press the trigger. At least, he thought he was pressing it. He could feel it start to move backwards, feel the resistance, both internal and external. An irritated voice inside him told him to just pull the damned thing so he could drop the gun and end this torture—but if he dropped the dime, would Farnham make him repeat the exercise until he succeeded?
Make you? The inner voice seemed to scoff at him. You’re Batman. Nobody can make you do anything against your will. Who cares what he expects of you? Walk away.
All true, and yet… If I’m Batman, and nobody can make me do anything against my will… then it’s my will… my choice… to succeed. It’s my will to face my fears and not allow them to rule me. I can do this… and… I have to… have to…
…There was a click—impossibly loud—as he pulled the trigger past the point of resistance. His eyes flew open. The dime was still on the gun barrel. He exhaled with a rush and relaxed and the coin slid off the barrel to fall to the floor with a series of clinks.
“Not bad, Cadet,” Farnham rumbled. “Pick it up.” He held out his left hand for the coin. “Back in line. Cadet Kotsopoulos. Your turn.”
Bruce obeyed, still trying to process what had just happened. He caught Peter Norton’s quick grin as he passed by, but he was too stunned to acknowledge it.
“You okay?” Selina asked as Bruce gingerly sat down at the breakfast table on Friday morning.
“A bit stiff,” he admitted, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “You know, you didn’t have to get up this early.”
Selina laughed. “Ask me if I’ve been to sleep yet, darling,” she said. “I was working last night, just got in about an hour ago. Figured I’d make breakfast and see you off before I turned in. I can collect Helena in the afternoon.”
“It’s good that Jim doesn’t mind babysitting,” Bruce said, as he buttered a slice of toast. “If it gets to be too much for him…”
“Then I can ask Cass or Tim. I’d ask Dick, but I know he’s been busy lately, and having seen Barbara’s defenses, let’s just say I’m a bit concerned that Helena might go poking around and trip something before Barbara realizes she’s mobile.”
Bruce’s mouth was full, but he nodded emphatically.
“Sorry you’re working so hard,” Selina mused, “but maybe there’s a bright side. I mean,” she grinned, “what with the gala tomorrow and all. It’ll give you an excuse not to dance with every starlet and socialite clamoring for your undivided attention.”
Bruce took another sip of coffee. “Selina… I know that when the gala’s over and I go home, you’re going to be here. What other excuse would I need?”
“Flatterer,” she laughed. “Go on. Drag your tired old bones to the academy and I’ll haul mine upstairs.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “I’ll order dim sum for supper.”
By the time that Craigie’s class was nearing its end, Bruce felt like he was ready to collapse. The truth was, until now, he hadn’t been running nearly as much as he had in the last two weeks. Callisthenics were one thing. Sustained distance running was something else again. And Craigie didn’t always announce the number of laps he expected, making it all the harder for Bruce to pace himself.
“Sir!” An officer Bruce didn’t know approached the drill instructor and saluted smartly. “Message from the captain, Sir.” He held out a folded piece of paper.
Craigie took it, opened it, read it and looked out again on the two rows of cadets. His face betrayed nothing.
“Cadet Wayne, Cadet Ortega. Report to Captain MacInnes at sixteen hundred forty-five hours. In uniform. Dismissed.” He raised his voice. “That goes for all of you.”
Heading for the showers, Bruce glanced at his watch. He had precisely forty-three minutes. He quickened his pace.
Bruce glanced over his shoulder. Ortega trotted up, her dark bangs, plastered with perspiration, lay flat on her forehead. Bruce knew his had to be the same. “Cadet Ortega.”
“Do you know what this is about?”
Bruce frowned. “No.”
“Neither do I. I don’t think it’s disciplinary. If we… if I’d done something big enough to get…” she rolled her eyes. “I know this isn’t like being sent to the principal’s office. It just feels like it.”
Bruce nodded. “To me, as well. I agree,” he added. “If this were a disciplinary matter, I think we’d both have some awareness of the reason.”
“Detective skills aren’t helping?” she asked with a forced smile.
Bruce let out a breath. “There needs to be something to detect first.”
She squared her shoulders. “We… we’ll check each other over before we go in? If this is disciplinary, I’ll be damned if I go in there with my shirt buttoned wrong.”
Bruce’s lips twitched. “I think I could handle being damned,” he admitted, “if it meant no more push-ups.”
Ortega laughed. “We’d better move.”
“Sir,” Bruce announced, after knocking and being granted permission to enter, “Cadets Wayne and Ortega reporting as ordered, Sir.”
MacInnes nodded curtly. “At ease, Cadets. Here,” he said, as he handed each of them a slightly-bulging long white envelope. “Go ahead. Open them.”
They obeyed. Bruce blinked in surprise as he pulled out a thin, navy-blue armband and a small silver-plated pin. The armband bore the letters “SL” embroidered in white thread.
“As you’ll recall, I mentioned at orientation that we would appoint two squad leaders at the end of the second week of classes. Congratulations,” he smiled. He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a pair of spiral-bound manuals. “When you report back to class on Monday,” he said, handing one to each of them, “I expect you to understand your new duties thoroughly. If you have any questions or problems, refer them to Sergeant Fochs. If you have an issue that falls outside your authority, refer it to Sergeant Fochs. Do not bother Sergeant Fochs with any issues that fall within your authority. Questions?”
Bruce was dying to ask how he’d been chosen. Maybe he shouldn’t have been surprised. As much as some of his instructors seemed to take special pleasure in telling him that he shouldn’t expect preferential treatment, he’d noticed that they were quick to single him out for extra duties—like coaching the slower cadets in physical training, or supervising disciplinary action. He’d assumed that they’d been either trying to challenge him or pressure him to quit. Probably, that had been part of it. But maybe, they’d been testing him as well. Still, ‘Why me?’ wasn’t the kind of question to ask the head of the academy. “No, Sir.”
No need to wonder how she’d been picked, Bruce thought. The second day of class, he’d observed her showing Norton how she’d mapped out the quickest route to get from one part of campus to another the night before. When they were ordered to line up, she was always at the head of the line, or close to it. If she knew an answer, she volunteered it. If she didn’t, she admitted it. She seemed to be plugged in to whatever was happening on campus on any given day. And his wrist was still smarting from the chin na hold she’d applied on Wednesday in Defensive Tactics.
“Thank you, Sir,” Bruce said firmly. Ortega followed suit.
This time, the captain’s smile was slightly warmer. “You’re welcome,” he replied. “Dismissed.”
“I really do have a few questions,” Ortega admitted, once they were in the hallway. “But I figured I should read the manual first and see if the answers are there. If they aren’t…” she paused, “well, I’ll have to bring them up with Sergeant Fochs anyway.”
Bruce’s lips twitched. “True.”
“Um… did you want to go over this together? I mean over the weekend?”
“I don’t know if…” Bruce started to refuse. He was managing fine on his own. Something about Ortega’s body language checked him. “We need to learn this in addition to our other assignments,” he stated flatly.
Ortega nodded. “Just when I think I’ve got everything under control… I mean, don’t misunderstand. This is an honor and I’m sure I’ll do fine, once I get the hang of it. But right now?” She sighed. “All I can think is that I promised my five-year-old that we were going to do something special this weekend, and she’s too little to understand that sometimes promises get broken and…” her voice took on a fierce note. “…and I don’t want her to!” She let out a breath. “Sorry to dump this on you, Wayne. It’s not your fault. It’s just… after four on a Friday and you’re here and my husband isn’t. Anyway, I was hoping that maybe if we worked on the stuff together we’d get through it faster and maybe I’d still have time.”
“It’s fine,” Bruce said, thinking. His playboy reputation plus a married woman… right when the press was sharpening its knives. There was some justification in gently refusing her, except that putting himself in physical danger to save Jim from Flass and shying away from a hit to his reputation really was hypocritical. Public opinion mattered, but it felt insensitive to walk away from someone asking for his help. Besides… this was an area he needed to study, as well.
Ortega shook her head. “I was going to take her to one of those indoor playgrounds. One of those places with ball pits and thousands of shrieking kids running through a three-story maze.”
Bruce nodded, mentally filing the idea away for Helena. “Hopefully, you’ll be able to. All right. Come over on Sunday. Bring your daughter if you like; I have a well-appointed nursery. A friend of mine and her twenty-month-old daughter are staying with me for the time being.”
He considered. “As far as the propriety of the two of us being alone… we won’t be. I’ll make sure of that. Besides…” He tried to remember the staff schedule. Jim had hired the cleaning and maintenance crews through an agency when Bruce had been readjusting to life outside of Arkham. Until now, Bruce hadn’t really concerned himself with their hours, but he believed… “The gardener comes on Sundays, as well as a couple of cleaners. They’re usually done by early afternoon. Still, Jim—um… Commissioner Gordon will be around.” He sighed. “Former Commissioner Gordon, I mean.”
Ortega nodded, smiling. “Yeah, I was a bit worried. I guess you’re used to having the paparazzi hiding in your rose bushes?”
“Too thorny,” Bruce deadpanned. “Now, if you’d said the boxwood, you would have had a point—at least, before I improved security. Don’t worry. In a worst-case scenario, I do have security cameras in nearly all interior and exterior locations. If there is gossip, that should take care of it.”
“Thorough,” Ortega said approvingly. “Not that I really think we need to worry, but better safe than sorry.”
“Agreed. We’ll… see what we can accomplish in the afternoon and,” he smiled, “I suppose if we needed to continue into the evening, I know of a few child-friendly restaurants in the area.” He’d need to make a few phone calls and find out how many of them were still in business; he’d stopped going when Dick outgrew them. “You could take a supper break and come back; she can play some more, or if she gets tired, she can sleep and…”
Ortega was smiling. “That sounds great. It’s been hard for her. Hard for both of us, but really for her. My husband’s deployed overseas right now. NATO. Naval Operations. We expect he’ll be home in time to see me graduate, but I’m just taking this as it comes. Anyway…”
As an officer approached, they both snapped to attention and saluted. The officer returned the salute and went on her way.
“Anyway, I’d better get home. See you Sunday, Wayne.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Selina asked the following evening, as her fingers moved to straighten his bowtie. “I mean, if you backed out now, you could claim that they were working you too hard at the Academy and…”
“And it would be recognized for the excuse it is,” Bruce said. “Besides, I was expecting media attention when I made my plans to attend known. If I’m encountering more members of the press than usual, I’ll deal.” He sighed. “I appreciate Lois taking the time to warn me. I’ll be careful. I’m used to that.”
Selina nodded slowly. “I don’t like it, but I understand. Just be careful out there. Cornelius Stirk does his victims the courtesy of killing them first. The press could eat you alive.”
Bruce’s lips twitched.
“I have to say, that tux looks great on you. Looks like the Academy’s finally taught you how to dress yourself properly.”
“It’s a custom tux, Selina. It’s not that hard.” He did have a certain amount of pride in the shine on his shoes, however.
“But you still can’t tie a bowtie.”
Bruce sighed. “It’s not part of a Class A uniform.”
Selina frowned. “That’s something I’m not clear on. You wear a Class A uniform in the classroom, a Class C for physical training… I think you said a Class D for the firing range? What happened to Class B?”
“Class A is the formal dress uniform,” Bruce explained. “We’re required to wear that to all academic classes unless and until instructed otherwise. So far, nobody has instructed otherwise. The Class B uniform doesn’t involve a tie and the shirt is short-sleeved. Supposedly, I’ll need it later in the program, but I haven’t been told when. And yes, Class C is for physical training and Class D for the range. Except for when Severin had us doing calisthenics on Day One, he remembered. He brushed at his tux absently, checking for stray hairs.
Selina looked on, amused. “You’ve never been this fastidious before.”
“I’ve never had to do fifty push-ups if my hair wasn’t properly parted before.”
She laughed. “You’ve got to be exaggerating.”
“Not really,” Bruce replied. “Not by very much.”
“Yeesh,” Selina shook her head. “Okay. There’s the door. I guess Jim’s champing at the bit. I’ll let you go.” She kissed him and gave him a little push toward the door. “Oh, and what time is this Cadet Ortega coming over tomorrow?”
“Um… “ Bruce grabbed his car keys off the night-table. “I think thirteen hundred hours.”
“One, it is. Have fun.”
As he exited the bedroom, Bruce’s smile faded. Despite his assurances to Selina, tonight was likely to be anything but fun…
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