Post by Admin on Jun 22, 2017 14:55:18 GMT -5
Issue #22: “Walking and Weaving”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie and PJ
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #22: “Walking and Weaving”
Story by Ellen Fleischer
Beta Read by Kathy, Debbie and PJ
Edited by Mark Bowers
I'm still breathing and my heart's still beating
I might as well start living again
And so I threw on a shirt
Put on a jacket went out to meet some friends
And now I'm acting like I couldn't be better
Like I've always got this smile on my face
Walking around weaving through the crowd
And trying not to look out of place
—Jim Beaver, Chris Dubois, Brad Paisley, “Everybody’s Here”
“No chauffeur?” Jim asked, as he slid into the passenger seat of the Town Car. “For that matter, you aren’t taking the limo, I notice.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “You hired the staff. Is this the first time you’re noticing that you didn’t include a driver?” He turned his key in the ignition. “Frankly, I prefer doing my own driving at night, so I’m just as glad you didn’t. As far as a limo? It would have almost demanded a chauffeur. I don’t see how it matters how we get there,” he added abruptly, as he put the car into drive.
“They won’t be watching for you to pull up? The media, I mean.”
Bruce hit the remote to open the gates. “I’m sure they will. In the old days, Alfred would have let me out in front of the main doors and I would have put on the fop act and smiled my way past. I’m not playing the fop tonight. Most of the non-socialite guests at these affairs bypass the red carpet and just drive into the underground garage.”
“Yeah,” Jim nodded. “That’s what I normally used to do.” He chuckled. “Trying to play the working stiff in your off hours too, now?”
Bruce smiled. “If I use the west entrance, I’ll even be able to avoid the valet parking.” He gave Jim a quick look. “Unless you want me to park a couple of blocks away and we’ll just walk into the crowd of reporters and stage an impromptu press conference.” His lips twitched. “You might find it hard to get through the mob until they’re done with me, but if you’d prefer…”
“The parking garage will be fine,” Jim said tartly. “I guess it’s as good a way as any to avoid the media frenzy until we’re indoors.”
Bruce smiled. “Exactly.” He shook his head. “I’m not looking forward to this either. I’ve pretty much managed to avoid the media spotlight for the last few months. I knew that by making a public appearance, I’d be leaving myself open to this sort of attention, but I don’t mean to actively pursue it.”
“Ah,” Jim nodded. “But if they approach you…”
“I’m not going to hide.”
“They’ll probably let you get past them, though.”
Jim gave him a hard look. “You didn’t seriously suggest I leave one of my best friends to the wolves and run away to save my own neck, did you?”
Bruce’s lips twitched. “I appreciate the sentiment, but don’t you think you’re going a little bit overboard?”
“No,” Jim shot back. “Not in the least.”
Bruce sighed. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
In the coat check room of Gotham’s Ritz-Marlton Convention Center, connected to the historic Ritz-Marlton hotel across the street by an award-winning sky bridge, a curiously blank-faced attendant accepted the attendees’ outerwear in silence, placing each coat on a wooden hanger with the Ritz-Marlton logo emblazoned in gold. Before shelving each hat, however, the attendant reached under his counter and removed a small flat transmitter from a ready basket. He attached the transmitter to the inside lining of each hat, where it would go virtually undetected…
“We don’t really need to wear our coats inside, do we?” Jim asked, as Bruce pulled into an empty parking bay. At Bruce’s puzzled look, he sighed. “Call it paranoia, but I’m always worried there’ll be a mix-up and I’ll end up with someone else’s. Probably,” he added wryly, “one with nuclear launch codes tucked into an inside pocket. If keeping my coat in the car will help me avoid becoming an international target, I’m all for it.” He started to smile, but stopped when he saw that Bruce seemed to be taking him seriously.
Finally, the younger man shed his own coat and hat and folded it neatly on the driver’s seat. “Better safe than sorry,” he muttered.
“I was joking,” Jim said, reaching for his cane.
“This is Gotham.”
Dick and Barbara were waiting in the foyer when Bruce and Jim emerged from the convention elevator. Their approach was blocked as a sharp-eyed reporter raced forward with a cry of, “Mr. Wayne!”
Eyes turned and feet stampeded as a mob of reporters converged in their direction. Dick glanced up and caught Bruce’s eye, mutely questioning whether to interfere. A slight head-shake on Bruce’s part checked him. “You sure?” he mouthed.
That garnered an even slighter nod. Then Bruce pasted on a bland society smile, spread his hands wide at chest height, and began fielding questions.
Dick waited, feigning patience as his jaw set. Barbara took hold of his sleeve. “Think he can handle it?” she asked.
Dick considered. “Probably. But I’m hanging around, just in case. You can go in.”
“It’s not like they’re going to give away our table, FBW,” Barbara grinned. “Besides, they’ve got my dad cornered too. We’ll wait.” She held up her smart phone. “Of course, if you think they need a quick escape…” Her tone altered to brisk professionalism. “Say the word and the sprinkler system has a freak malfunction, drenching everyone in the area. Once we’re safely inside the main hall, of course.”
Dick sighed. “It’s a nice idea. Don’t.”
“I knew I wouldn’t get to have fun tonight,” Barbara said as she slid the phone back into her beaded evening bag with a pout. When she looked up, she saw Bruce and her father making their way slowly toward them. “Oh good,” she said brightly. “I was wondering if you’d be able to tear yourselves away from your adoring public.”
Bruce shot her a look that could have withered trees.
Barbara grinned back.
Inside the main hall, Bruce took a moment to catch his breath and request a club soda when an attentive server appeared at his elbow.
“I’m so sorry,” the young man responded, while Jim helped himself to a glass of red wine with a polite thank you. “I’ll be back with that in a moment.”
“You’d be excused if you wanted something stronger,” Jim rumbled after the server left. “Especially under the circumstances.”
Bruce shook his head. “I doubt I have much tolerance for the stuff,” he admitted. “Somehow, I don’t see a benefit to ingesting anything that might cloud my judgment tonight—Careful!” He reached out and caught hold of a woman as she stumbled forward. Her glass tilted and the drink spilled to the floor, narrowly missing her gown.
The flustered woman gasped. “Thank you,” she said, her words tumbling over each other. Her face relaxed in a rueful smile. “I knew I shouldn’t have worn these heels. I’m lucky I just turned my ankle instead of breaking it. Did I spill anything on you? I’m so sorry.”
“No harm done,” Bruce replied graciously. She looked familiar, though he was finding it difficult to place her at the moment. “Ms…”
“Van Carten,” she replied. “Isabella Van Carten.”
He recognized her now. Back when he’d first returned to Gotham, before the Mission had taken over his life, her brother had been one of his infrequent squash partners at the club and she’d often been one of a small group of spectators sitting at a shaded table, sipping tea and chatting with friends, while looking up every now and again to applaud a play. While he still knew Sidney Van Carten socially, he wasn’t sure he’d ever exchanged more than polite greetings with Isabella before. From what he could recall, she’d taken some time off after completing her undergraduate studies to find herself in the Far East, before settling down to pursue post-graduate work in Switzerland. He did some rapid calculations. She was probably in her early thirties by now, even if she did look about ten years younger.
“Bruce Wayne,” he smiled.
Isabella blinked. Then her face settled into a smile of its own. “Oh, of course. I’m so sorry. I should have recognized you. It’s just been… how many years?”
“Too many,” Bruce smiled. “And again, no harm done.” He glanced toward the small puddle on the floor and gently pulled her away as another tuxedo-clad server approached with a cloth napkin to mop up the spill. He turned to her. “Um… may I refill your glass?” he asked, looking about for a server. The room was growing more crowded by the second and the black and white uniforms of the attendants blended in far too easily with the formalwear of the patrons.
“Please.” She took a step and smiled self-consciously. “Er… I think I need to sit down.”
She shook her head. “My heel. I think I snapped it off.” She smiled wickedly. “Do you think I can get by if I slip off the other shoe and walk about in my stocking feet all night? Or would it be… scandalous?”
“Well,” Bruce pretended to consider the matter as he might have done in days past while he was waiting for the opportunity to don a different suit entirely, “I’m sure that this evening will be exciting enough that people will have other things to occupy themselves with than who wore what shoes… or any shoes at all. On the other hand, it might depend on whether you trust your dance partners not to step on your toes, mightn’t it?”
Isabella laughed. “Oh, Bruce, I didn’t realize how much I missed you,” she said, twining her arm with his. “But you must remember,” she added as they hobbled off, “that no matter how exciting the evening is, there’s always going to be some empty-headed little twit with nothing better to do than remember who wore what and whether they’d worn it before, and whether the shoes and bag matched, and…”
The others looked on as Bruce and Isabella drifted out of earshot. “That didn’t take him long,” Barbara remarked.
“At least he’s found someone he can talk to,” Jim said. “I always felt so out of place at these things. I was actually thinking that not having to attend anymore was one of the upsides of retirement.”
“Jim!” a warm voice exclaimed. “How wonderful to see you here! And is this your daughter?”
Jim turned. “Evening, Councillor,” he returned, his voice carefully neutral. “Dick, Barbara… I’m not sure if you know Councillor Jandt…”
The cream-upholstered sofa lounge seat was tucked away in a corner near several large potted ferns. It wasn’t precisely secluded, but it was somewhat semi-private.
“I heard about your…” Isabella looked away. “…illness,” she concluded in an undertone. “It’s good to see you’re okay now.” She shook her head. “I couldn’t believe it,” she continued at a normal volume. “I mean…” she dropped her voice to a whisper. “…Arkham? When I was in my junior year at Berkeley,” now her words seemed to tumble out over each other, “my room-mate needed to leave in the middle of the semester for a rest. Overwork and stress, you know. Her parents found her a lovely retreat near Palm Beach. Sunshine, near the beach… a garden… I don’t see why you couldn’t have had the same. I mean, how could anyone have thought that Arkham was the right place for a person like you?”
“I had a private room,” Bruce said lightly, hoping she’d change the subject. “It wasn’t so bad.”
“But weren’t you nervous about being locked up with all those dangerous criminals?”
Bruce sighed. “At first, I was on too much medication to be nervous about anything,” he said. “By the time they reduced the dosage, I’d already been there for a few months without incident, so it didn’t worry me as much as it might have.” He coughed. “Anyway, that’s in the past.”
Isabella nodded. “And I think I heard something about you joining the police department?”
“That’s right,” Bruce smiled.
Isabella’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s a little bit daring, isn’t it?”
“Daring?” Bruce wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“Well, yes. I mean, I know you’ve always been friendly with Mr. Gordon, but I didn’t think you’d carry it so far that you’d want to follow in his footsteps. It’s… not something one often hears of in our circles.”
Bruce suppressed a twinge of irritation. “I guess we don’t always move in the same circles,” he said blandly.
“Oh, please don’t misunderstand, Bruce. Of course, I have the utmost respect for Gotham’s finest. But if you want to make a dent in criminal activity, couldn’t you simply swing some financing for prison reform? You don’t need to get so hands-on.”
He sighed inwardly. He hadn’t wanted to talk about Batman more than he had to tonight—and given the amount of media representatives currently paying attention to him, he’d accepted that he was going to have to. On the other hand, Isabella Van Carten didn’t need to act as though she were this oblivious. Pretending he had no idea about Batman was one of his talents. “If you think back,” he said, still keeping his tone light, “I think you’ll find I’ve been hands-on for some time now. I’m just not wearing a costume anymore.”
Isabella frowned. “Pardon?”
An eyebrow shot up. Could it be that she really didn’t know? That made no sense. The same news reports that had talked of his application to the GCPA had also mentioned Batman. But if she really didn’t, he wasn’t sure that he wanted to set her straight. “Never mind,” he said. “Say, is that ‘Did You Ever’? Would you care to dance?” He smiled graciously. “I promise to do my best not to step on your feet.”
Isabella was still frowning. “Wait. You mean… you still think…?” She got up hastily. “I’m sorry. I… I’d better go mingle. Lovely to see you again, Bruce.”
She was already weaving her way through the crowd. Bruce shook his head and carried his empty club soda glass toward the bar, hoping for a refill. As he crossed the hall, he heard Isabella’s voice again.
“…And he still thinks he’s Batman. It’s so true what they say about how those places release their patients as soon as they’re no longer dangerous, even if they haven’t been cured yet!”
“Fried calamari, sir?” a server approached with a silver tray of hors d’oeuvres.
Bruce shook his head. “Sorry. I haven’t got much of an appetite right now,” he mumbled, as he took off in search of his family.
“…And if I were heading up law enforcement,” Councillor Jandt was warming to his topic. The problem, Jim thought acidly, was that he’d been warming to his topic for a good twenty minutes and hadn’t yet hit it. Worse, the man seemed to be more confused than he had any business being on where police powers ended and the courts took over. To say nothing of correctional services—he’d already stated that he’d ensure that criminals put behind bars stayed there. It was a fair thing to say—and almost certain to make good copy for tomorrow’s headlines and current events blogs—but again, it didn’t fall under the GCPD’s bailiwick. He looked around and saw Bruce scanning the crowd.
“Excuse me, Councillor,” he interrupted. “Bruce, over here!”
“Ah,” Jandt smiled benignly, “the richest police cadet in the world.” His tone was good-humored, with none of the mockery or sarcasm that would have made his listeners bristle. “Mr. Wayne,” he continued, extending his hand for a hearty shake. “It’s a pleasure to meet someone who’s truly seen the seamy underbelly of this city.”
“Like none of us have,” Barbara muttered angrily.
“Not worth it,” Jim said softly. “Let the blowhard blow.”
“I believe you know my younger brother, Alvin,” Jandt continued, gesturing vaguely toward the bar, where Cadet Jandt, who had exchanged his Class A uniform for a three-button single-breasted tuxedo for the evening, was handing a drink to a dark-haired woman whose smooth chignon was graced by a white hothouse bloom. Alfred, Bruce recalled, had often said that the three-button tuxedo was an affront to fine formalwear. Bruce hadn’t been able to understand why, but then, Alfred’s fashion sense had always been far better than his.
“Yes, we’re both at the Academy this term,” Bruce said easily. “Though I’m trying not to dwell on the GCPA this evening. You understand, of course, Councillor.”
“Call me Neal. Please,” he returned jovially. “So, what was it about this event that finally coaxed you out of that stately manor in Crest Hill?”
Bruce smiled. “Well, Neal, I suppose I thought it was time.”
“Ah. Well, to hear Alvin tell of it,” he draped an arm around Bruce’s shoulders and began to steer him toward a small knot of men, some of whom Bruce recognized as other municipal politicians, “I can understand why you might not want to discuss the Academy during your off-time. Still, are you familiar with the plans I have to revolutionize the GCPD…?”
Dick glanced at Barbara. “Want to go outside for a bit?”
“I did a few minutes ago,” Barbara admitted. “It was getting a bit warm in here. But now, it’s like this mass of hot air just… moved right on past.”
Jim held up a warning finger, but couldn’t quite hide a smile as he did so.
It was nearly a full half hour before Bruce was able to get clear of Jandt and his cronies. Any longer and he might have told the councillor what he could do with his half-baked ideas. Or started snoring. One of the two. He’d no sooner rejoined the others when Lucius stormed up, looking grim.
“I’ve just had a look at the seating arrangements for the meal,” he said tersely. “We may have a problem.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “Define ‘problem’.”
The CEO pursed his lips. “Picture a grid of nine tables; three by three. Our table is in the middle of the second row… let’s call it ‘Table 5’. The tables making up the corners of this grid—those would be Tables 1, 3, 7, and 9—are comprised of members of the media. Some are with mainstream news and society outlets; some are bloggers and other social media types.”
Jim let out a low whistle. “At eight people per table… you’re saying that there are 32 reporters?”
Lucius shook his head. “Some are reporters. Some are photographers. Some are guests; spouses, significant others, dates and the like. I’d actually be a bit more concerned about Tables 2, 4, 6, and 8, though.”
There was a moment’s silence. Dick broke it. “Fine. If someone has to ask it, I will: Why? Who’s sitting at those tables?”
Lucius sighed. “Some of them are also members of the media. I recognized the names Vicki Vale and Charlotte Rivers. Some of the other names include Veronica Vreeland, Portia Storme—”
“Lucius,” Bruce interrupted, “Are you saying that…?”
“If your surname were ‘Banner’, I’d say someone was betting on your making a fashion statement with green skin and purple pants tonight.” His expression darkened. “I will get to the bottom of this, and someone’s head will roll later, but for right now…”
Bruce nodded. “I’m about to eat dinner surrounded by an equal mix of the media and my ex-girlfriends.”
Jim took a deep breath. “You sure you don’t want something stronger than club soda?”
Thanks to Lucius’s warning, Bruce was able to prepare himself mentally for the ordeal ahead. During his two years in Arkham, he had been forced to get used to being under constant observation. He hadn’t enjoyed it—and he was out of practice, to boot—but he was fairly sure he could withstand an hour or two of close scrutiny. That didn’t mean he had to like it.
Dick found him standing on the terrace outside the banquet hall, oblivious to the chilly night air. “Want me to see if we can get our table changed?”
Bruce frowned at the question. “Stop treating me like I’m made of glass,” he snapped in a voice that carried no farther than his son’s ears.
Dick raised his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Bruce, just because you can handle the situation doesn’t mean you have to.”
Bruce sighed. “I know. However, I think we can both recognize the purpose of this ploy.” His expression darkened as he saw Jim walking toward them. At least Barbara seemed to have enough sense to stay out of the cold.
“Yeah,” Dick retorted. “To rattle you and catch you messing up in public in a way that’s going to get your face plastered on every front page in the country, to say nothing of the social media.”
“And when it doesn’t happen—” He stepped aside when Jim would have put a hand on his shoulder. To a casual observer, it would have appeared that he’d been intending to move even before Jim’s approach. From the look on the former commissioner’s face, however, he wasn’t fooled.
“If it does—” Dick continued.
“It won’t,” Bruce said with finality. “It won’t because I know what they’re doing; I know why they’re doing it, and I’m not going to let them win.” He glowered. “And I’m not about to go running scared either. Let them watch. Why should I care?”
“Except you do care,” Jim pointed out.
Bruce gave him a hard look. “That’s hardly relevant. If the purpose of this exercise is to attempt to demonstrate that I can’t handle a stressful dinner and that I’m probably not able to handle the stress of running the company, I doubt that running away is going to help my case.”
Jim shook his head. “You know the difference between a clever person and a wise one? A clever person can work his way out of a problem that a wise person would never get himself into in the first place. Bruce, maybe taking the easy way out is the smartest thing to do.”
“Is that how you think the media will spin it?”
Jim looked away.
“That’s what I thought.” He forced a smile. “Come on. Let’s get this over with. And…” He was about to tell them to let him know if they thought his control was slipping after all, but then he thought better of it. He didn’t need them hovering any more than they already had been. “…And I appreciate your having my back,” he finished. “But I need to know I can handle this. It’s not about proving it to them. It’s about proving it to me.” He tried for a lighter tone. “Try not to interfere?”
The other two men nodded reluctantly.
Maybe he only imagined the conversations trailing off and the faces turning in his direction as he strode casually to his table. And when he sat down, it was just barely possible that it was paranoia that made him think that every eye in the vicinity was still trained on him. He doubted it, though. Particularly since, as the conversation started up again, words and phrases like “Arkham… Think it’s safe? Police academy… Are you serious?” reached his ears.
He tried to concentrate on eating the first course, focusing on the plate before him, knowing that if he looked up, it would be to see his family—or worse, Lucius and his family—checking to see how well he was coping. When he heard Lucius ask Dick about his current work for Sal Fiorini, he began to relax. If they were talking among themselves, then they weren’t paying as much attention to him. And as for the other tables… He did his best not to think about them and kept his attention on his appetizer. When he set down his fork, he had no recollection of what he’d eaten or how it had tasted, but he still smiled and thanked the server who appeared at his elbow to whisk it away.
The band struck up a waltz and several couples drifted toward the empty floorspace between the tables and the podium, but many more remained seated, Bruce among them. If the plan had been to prevent him from finding a dancing partner, he had to admit that it was a success. He was hardly about to approach the surrounding tables and he realized that he no longer had any idea which women were single and available. Alfred would have briefed him ahead of time on which women were newly married… or newly separated or divorced. He wasn’t about to approach one of the other tables and try to look surreptitiously for a wedding ring. He wished Selina were here. He wished that she’d been in the country when he’d made up his mind to attend this event, or that he’d known she’d be back for it.
On the other hand, he thought, as Jim excused himself to get up from the table, he was also relieved that she wasn’t with him tonight. With the scrutiny that he was under tonight, having her here would have been the equivalent of painting a target on her back.
“Mr. Wayne?” A pudgy man in his late thirties slid into the seat that Jim had vacated. “I’m Simon Lippman with the Gotham Gazette. I was wondering whether I could ask you some questions?”
Bruce smiled, even as he sighed inwardly. “Simon,” he said, “Um… can I call you ‘Simon’? Look around. I’m here with family and friends, looking to enjoy myself and do a bit of good for Somerset General—not necessarily in that order. Suffice to say I’m not about to hold a press conference tonight. But if you’d care to contact PMWE’s media relations office,” he glanced over toward Lucius and smiled more broadly, “I’m sure we can set up an appointment at a later date.”
“So you’re returning to PMWE?” Lippman persisted.
Bruce raised his eyebrows. “I’ve been president emeritus for quite a few months, Simon. Granted, I haven’t had much reason to go into the office, but I’m not sure it’s accurate to call this a ‘return’ when my association with the company never ended. And that’s all I care to comment on this evening.”
“Mr. Lippman,” Lucius interrupted. “I believe Mr. Wayne has made his position clear. If you contact our media relations office in the morning, we’ll do our best to accommodate you. For now,” his tone hardened, “enjoy the gala.”
At a different table, Councillor Jandt observed his younger brother with growing annoyance. “Making up for lost time?” he asked acidly as he watched Alvin down his fourth shot of the evening—that he knew about.
He caught his sister-in-law’s frown, but ignored it. He knew that she was right: the more he bothered Alvin about his drinking, the more Alvin drank. However, ignoring the problem wasn’t making it go away, either. He was fairly sure that Alvin had been sober since starting the Academy—more than could be said for the night before he’d started. But tonight, in a social setting, Alvin was still acting like this was a university pub crawl.
“I can handle it,” Alvin snapped.
“So you say.” When his younger brother rolled his eyes, Neal felt his temper rise. “Look, there’s an election coming up and I don’t need your behavior embarrassing me. If you can stop when you want to, stop now. If you can’t, get help.”
“I don’t need anyone’s help,” Alvin insisted.
“Hey. Lower your voice. People are watching.”
“Yeah,” Alvin sneered. “Yeah, they are. But are they watching me relax or are they watching you lose control? See, Neal… nobody really cares what I do. Sure, I’m the stupid kid brother screw-up, but they already figured that out last election. You’re the one who pretends everything’s under control. So if I make an ass of myself tonight or if you lose your cool and storm out of here… who do you think is going to make the headlines tomorrow?” He laughed. “You know what your problem is, Neal? You just can’t accept that the world doesn’t revolve around you. You act like you’re so worried about what everyone’s going to think about you… when the real truth is, you’re terrified that they’re not thinking about you at all.”
“That is enough!” Neal hissed.
“Yeah, you’re damned right it is.” He turned to his wife. “Get your coat, Michelle. We’re leaving.” He looked across the table. “Try to get your husband to loosen up, Trisha.”
Trisha Jandt ignored him.
“Alvin,” Michelle ventured, “I was hoping for at least one dance this evening. Could we?”
Alvin considered. “Sure, why not? C’mon, babe.”
Once they were out of earshot, Trisha looked at her husband. “I told you not to antagonize him,” she murmured.
“Did you tell him not to antagonize me?” Neal replied in an equally soft undertone.
“No. If I had, he would have been worse.” She let out a long breath. “At least he always lets Michelle drive when he’s like this.”
Neal nodded. “At least.”
The music finally stopped and the diners moved back to their tables in preparation for the soup course. Barbara leaned across Dick to say in an undertone, “It’s kind of nice to see I wasn’t missing much.”
Bruce tilted his head, questioning.
“I used to wonder about some of these society affairs,” Barbara admitted. “What it was like attending them. Okay,” she grinned, “I admit it. I was jealous that you got to go to all of them and sorry you never got to stay.”
“If you’d said something,” Bruce said, “I could have made some arrangements. Particularly on nights when Dick had to study and I needed another set of eyes.”
“And once the tongues started wagging about Bruce Wayne and the commissioner’s daughter,” Jim broke in, “I might have had to step in. And, in retrospect,” he added, “it’s probably a good thing I didn’t. Can you imagine how the tabloids would have reacted to your dating the father and the son, Barbara?”
His eyes narrowed, as he saw one of the servers ladle soup into a bowl belonging to one of the reporters at a nearby table.
Barbara made a disgusted sound. “I don’t know what’s worse; hearing you say it or knowing you’re right. Anyway, if most of those affairs were like this one, I think I liked the daydreams more than the reality.”
Dick had caught a change in Gordon’s expression. “What?”
Feeling the other eyes at the table turn to him, he hesitated. “Maybe nothing. Maybe not. But I thought I saw…”
“Get your coat, Michelle.” Jandt stormed past their table, his wife a few steps behind.
“Alvin, we don’t have to…”
Bruce assessed the situation. Jandt was angry and he’d probably had too much to drink, but it didn’t look like a situation requiring intervention. Nor did it look like a good time to walk over to say ‘Hello’.
“Shrimp bisque, sir?” A server interrupted his calculations.
Bruce drew his thoughts back to the dinner, nodded and smiled. “Please.”
As he was setting the bowl before him, the server suddenly pitched forward, spilling the soup onto the tablecloth and into Bruce’s lap.
Cameras clicked and flashbulbs exploded from the surrounding tables, as a chorus of laughter swelled up. Bruce fought his instinctive urge to leap up in response to a perceived attack, willed his fingers to unclench, and focused on remaining calm. There was no threat. There was no danger. There was only a clumsy server. He relaxed.
“Oh, my gosh!” a voice he hadn’t heard in years exclaimed. “Bruce, are you all right?”
Bruce took mental inventory. The soup had been hot, but not hot enough to scald. “I’m fine, Vicki,” he said, pasting on a smile that he hoped was reassuring. “Accidents happen.”
“I’m so sorry, sir!” the server exclaimed, trying sop up the mess on Bruce’s lap with a linen dinner napkin. “This has never happened before.”
A woman wearing a black swallowtail jacket with a matching skirt and conservative white blouse came rushing up. “Mr. Wayne! Are you injured? I’m so sorry that this has happened and of course we’ll have your tuxedo cleaned at our expense. If there’s any way we can make this up to you—”
“No harm done,” Bruce shook his head. “Accidents happen.”
“Especially when someone takes a five hundred dollar bribe to ensure they do,” Jim drawled. “Mind you, I’m not sure it still counts as an accident in that circumstance.”
“What?” The maitre d’ turned aghast toward the server.
“I didn’t!” he gasped. “I would never!”
Jim shook his head. “Come on, son. I saw you take the money. I even saw Ted Caddlecott count it out. Ten fifty dollar bills, right?”
“They were hundreds.” A hand flew to his mouth. “I mean…”
The maitre d’ looked from the server to Jim and then back to the server. “My office. Now.” She turned to Bruce. “I am ashamed that this has happened, Mr. Wayne. The Ritz-Marlton will cover your dry cleaning bill, and your next visit to either this convention center or the hotel will be free of charge. Again, you have my sincere apologies.”
“Quite all right,” Bruce said, conscious of the number of people watching the drama.
Vicki cast a furious glance toward the offending table, and the Gotham Post’s society columnist. “I don’t believe this,” she muttered. “You’re a pig, Ted.” She turned back to Bruce. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Bruce nodded. “Hi, Vicki. It’s been a while.”
“Yeah. I-I was going to try to chat you up later in the evening, but I think we should maybe postpone it for a better time. You look good,” she smiled. “Really good. Or at least you did before you started… er dripping.”
Bruce smiled. “Another time, then.”
“You are o—”
Bruce cut her off. “I’m fine. Really. But call me later in the week, if you’d like.”
“Okay.” She retreated to her seat. Bruce noted that she pointedly sent another nasty look toward Caddlecott’s table, as she sat down again.
“I don’t know about you,” Dick said, “but this whole thing is leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Babs had the right idea. Let’s go.”
“Dick, it’s fine.”
“Right this second? Yes. You’re right. They wanted a reaction from you and they didn’t get one—at least nothing out of the ordinary for the situation. If you stick around for the rest of the night with a lap,” he looked Bruce up and down for a moment, “and shirt full of shrimp bisque, it’s going to be out of the ordinary, and not in a good way. Come on. ‘Wayne leaves gala early after waiter paid to spill soup on his tux’ isn’t good copy for the morning news. Pics of you walking around in a soiled tux like you couldn’t care less, on the other hand? No point in you being a laughingstock. Let’s just go.”
Bruce glanced around the rest of the table, not missing Lucius’s short approving nod.
“It’s up to you,” Jim said. “But are you really enjoying yourself too much to cut the evening short?”
“No,” Bruce admitted. “Let’s just go out to the front plaza for a few minutes and give the tux a chance to dry.” Afterwards, he could take the elevator from the foyer down to the parking garage without having to re-enter the banquet hall—something which would have been unavoidable, had he opted for the terrace garden behind the convention center.
“I get enough idiots digging into me every day at the Academy,” Jandt exclaimed as he made his way outside, ignoring the small knot of people in one corner of the plaza. His coat hung open unbuttoned and he tried to do it up without relinquishing the cap he had tucked under his arm.
“The valet parking is this way,” Michelle said, steering him in the opposite direction.
Jandt spun about angrily. “I knew that. I said, ‘I knew that,’” he repeated, when she didn’t answer. He was still trying to button the coat. “Oh, the hell with it,” he said finally, placing his cap on his head and fumbling with the buttons as Michelle handed the car keys to a waiting attendant.
As they waited for the valet to return with the car, Jandt continued to rant under his breath.
“Finally,” Michelle said when the car pulled up.
The valet exited and held out the keys.
Michelle started to reach for them and started in surprise as Jandt snatched them away, his eyes strangely flat.
“Alvin!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing? You know you can’t drive now.”
Jandt ignored her. He shouldered past the valet, got into the car, and shut the door.
Michelle looked about helplessly. “I’m not getting in unless I’m dri—” she started to say. She broke off abruptly when she realized that her husband had no intention of opening the passenger door for her.
Sitting on a bench in the plaza, Bruce and the others had a full view when Alvin Jandt’s BMW crashed head-on into a storefront across the street…
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