DISCLAIMER: Birds of Prey and its characters are the property of Miller/Tobin Productions, Warner Brothers, DC comics etc. no infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
BOOK TWO: BAD GRAMMAR
CHAPTER 19: HELENA
Two days after mom died I read the packet she had put together for me. It answered a lot of questions in my life even as it destroyed any illusion I had that my life was mine. I was screaming betrayal in my head from the lies mom told me, from the lies Barbara had been telling me; but there was a small part of me that sighed in relief. Here were two people who understood the world the way I did.
I don't know if I'm going to say this right. I don't know how to explain that feeling.
Imagine that you speak a language. Only you speak it. Out there in the world you know that there're others who understand it but you've never met anyone who speaks the same language. Only the language isn't words. It's things like the wind in your hair, like the happiness of sinking your teeth into something and tearing it like a tiger, like your fist against a jaw, or knowing the air is going to hold you up because you can make it, like knowing you can hide in the dark but nothing in the dark can hide from you, like that restless thing in the centre of your chest that beats in a never ending drumbeat that makes you want to scream until the whole world cracks down the middle, or like the voice in your head that keeps asking you 'what rules? Why do they apply to you?' Do you know what I mean? It's that thing you can't explain but makes you look at the world a little off. Not too much but enough that the world you're looking at isn't the same as everyone else's; that the life you're living isn't the same as everyone else's. And all the time you know there are other people who feel exactly the same because you've heard stories about them. You've just never met them and you've never shared that feeling, the restlessness.
But the second I knew that my mother was Catwoman and Barbara was Batgirl I knew it was okay. It was fine someone knew how I felt. I mean they had done the things I had only dreamed about. So even though my life was wrecked, a small part of me was okay.
I know I said that it was probably the sexiness that attracted me to Barbara, but I was fifteen. What in hell did I know about sex? No it was that shock of seeing her no, her body doing those impossible eloquent things and knowing that my body spoke those same things.
How did you meet your best friend, your lover, or your spouse? Wasn't it a moment of knowing? An instant where you said to yourself, "Oh you. I know you." Wasn't it a second of, "Hey, you speak my language!"
That's how it was for me. Even though I was sixteen and she was twenty-three, and I was in high school and she was my teacher, we became friends, because she spoke my language.
The five years that I lived with her was the biggest damn crash course immersion learning experience in a language. For five years, Barbara was my language. I learned her her moods, her expressions, her gestures.
The same language? I wrote her into my body. Hell, I became her impulse. She was the brain and I was her body in the world. She thought and I did. Oracle, the brain. Huntress, the finely tuned body.
But the sad part is, she can talk to me but I can't talk to her. Whatever language it is we share, she speaks it better; even paralysed and in a wheelchair she speaks it better. I think the way it's written into me is wrong. But it's the only language I know. So what can I do? I just keep going, and hope that someday we'll be on the same page. I stumble about the night, going in the directions she points to, and I muddle along. I do something wrong and she corrects me. Or as Barbara would say, while we share the same OS, my software is corrupt.
I have bad grammar.
CHAPTER 20: BARBARA
I have finally managed to send Alfred away he is not bearing well under the guilt of Wade's death. Of course, neither am I.
It's funny. I had almost two years to get used to living by myself. Two years that Helena moved out and I never saw a single person. But the second that I acquired my new troublesome teenager, I started seeing Wade. As if I were incapable of any real emotional interaction with the world unless there was an emotional storm going on at home. It's funny how things happen. If I didn't have people reminding me that I have a heart, I would forget.
If only I could tell Alfred how easily Wade could have lived. I could have told him to leave. I could have said 'Wade, you're sweet but this is never going to work out between us.' But he was so sweet and so unassuming, always trying so hard to please. It seemed like a particularly cruel thing to cut him off at the knees. Get it? It's a joke.
So I went out with him a few times, and few more times and every time I wanted to tell him to leave I'd find another reason not to tell him. The temptation was just too much it's like visiting a high-end model home, even though you're not going to buy it, it's nice to look around and appreciate the fixtures. I had enjoyed the feeling of being the centre of someone's world, of feeling vaguely normal; of knowing that I was capable of doing something so innocuous as dating; of feeling uncomplicatedly adult and sexual about someone. After all, it had been a year and a half that I'd had the clock tower to myself.
Helena had, after years of threatening, finally moved out. The bar she worked in had an apartment above it. It was noisy at night but dead quiet in the day exactly what she wanted. Close enough to the pulsing thrum of the nightlife, it was the perfect place for her. Or so she said.
"It's a dive, Barbara," she said. "All sorts of people hang out there. I could get a great feel of what's happening in the city."
I had lost that battle a long time ago. When she said she did not want to go to college, I had thought to myself, she'll take some time and then decide. But she didn't. She was happier outside of it. She spent a year and a half running around the city and through her bank account. An entire year and a half that I spent carelessly leaving college brochures around the house, 'accidentally' leaving the page open at an article about art or art history. I would return to find the brochures most lovingly arranged in the recycle bin and the articles spattered with mustard or soup stains.
Then one day she walked in very amused. It was a few hours before I tore myself away from the monitors to wonder about her apparent good humour. But how could I not? She was right there watching TV with the sound on low but laughing uproariously. Her long coat was draped over one arm of the sofa and she was draped over the sofa. She had dragged that monstrosity with us when we moved from my old apartment to the clock tower. She cradled a bag of chips possessively near her chest as she laughed at some insane man attacking an animated evil hand.
It was not unusual to find her that way. Only the clothes, food and television content ever changed. But it was always her, draped in the nestle of the cushions she had so long ago pronounced perfectly broken in and with which she had refused to part. She never lay, she never slumped, she never sat; she was always draped. I was very conscious of it that day as I watched her slowly twitch her feet from the joint of her ankle in a lazy oscillation as she watched with a smug expression that had nothing to do the movie. I knew something was going on in her head.
"Hey," I said. "You're home early." And she was. For her to be home on any but a Tuesday or Wednesday night was unheard of. And before midnight? A miracle. She had sauntered in at around ten and taken her usual spot on the sofa. She was like a cat or a dog settling in a favoured spot no matter what.
Once, I re-arranged the furniture and the TV so that her sofa was at an awkward angle to the TV, and she simply rearranged the cushions on the sofa so that she had a better angle at the TV. No matter how emotionally volatile or unpredictable she was, she was still a creature of habit. It was actually comforting, knowing that she would be there in that familiar repose.
She measured me before shrugging an, "Hmhh."
"You look amused."
"It's funny." She pointed to the screen with a half-eaten chip.
She laughed a few more times before she slithered up the sofa, absently removing a back cushion and tucking it under her knee before draping her arm over the back. All the while she never took her eyes off the TV. The squeak of her pants on leather cushion was loud enough to make me wince. I could never appreciate her penchant for wearing leather in all kinds of weather, but I did appreciate the smooth skill with which she had cleared a space for me on the sofa. The soft, sagging back cushions didn't allow me to settle in comfortably when I transferred from wheel chair to furniture. I tried to follow the adventures of the amputee with his boom stick but obviously the intelligent cells in my brain were impeding my comprehension of it, because Helena certainly seemed to take great relish in it. So I transferred myself on to the sofa. I was grateful for its softness. Had I any real feeling in my lower body I would have probably made a comment about how numb my ass was from sitting in a chair all day long. As it was, the point was redundant. Much gratuitous gore and inanity later, she turned the sound off and turned to me.
"You're up and about."
"So are you," I countered.
"Not unusual for me," she said with a smile.
"Well, in that case," I challenged her. "You're in a good mood."
She leaned back and stretched before turning back with a mischievous smile. "I got a job today." Her mouth twitched with the pressure of some personal secret.
"A job. W-4's and everything. I even wrote down my SSN."
A job, I thought? "A job?" I asked again. "Where? Doing what?"
"Not far from here. Over by The Hill."
The Hill? What sort of job could she possibly find at The Hill, it was a frontline neighbourhood. A veritable no man's land between old Gotham's besieged bourgeoisie and the violent ghetto. There was no way to tell who would win yet. "The Hill?"
"Yep. The Dark Horse. You're looking at their new bartender."
A bartender! I wanted to shout, 'You're going to be a fucking bartender? You're going to take that mind of yours and drown in it in a sea of drunken assholes?' What I said was, "Is the neighbourhood safe?" Not a dumb question in context of geography, but in relation to her it was the stupidest thing I could have said. She raised her eyebrows at me in ridicule. "Do you know anything about bartending?"
"Sure, I pour the beer."
"Helena, it's not all the bartender does, there's a lot more to "
"Are you giving me a responsibility and skill lecture? No, because if you are I don't want to hear it. It's a dive Barbara. The poshest beer they have there is Sam Adams, if you're lucky. I'll be popping tabs of PBR most of the time. The most sophisticated thing I'll pour there is a shot of Jack on the rocks."
"They don't have a kitchen. Besides," she smiled conspiratorially, "it's The Dark Horse. I just couldn't resist."
Helena had an eccentric sense of humour. And was infuriating. The entire world lay at her feet and she wanted to play wait staff at what was undoubtedly the most disreputable of dives because the thought of being a dark horse gave her a giggle.
Oh yes, I had lost that battle years ago.
But the final skirmish happened one night that Dick was visiting from Blüdhaven. Helena was, in one of those increasingly rare occurrences, puttering about in the tower. Alfred had made a large pan of the lasagne that she liked so much and she was in the process of releasing it from the oven. That meant she would be home all night, draped over the sofa swilling caffeine and alcohol, and watching ear-splitting, neurotoxic TV.
I felt exasperated. The unusual lull in an otherwise hectic and draining year had allowed me to take the night off. I had been counting on her being gone. After all it was Friday night, and I had been hoping to spend some quiet time with Dick in the apartment. But having Helena's glowering presence would certainly put the damper on any sense of relaxation. She and Dick had a wary relationship at best. Even were she to sequester herself in her room and be as quiet as a mouse, I would be very aware of the painful courtesy being extended to me. As I had discovered over the years, having Helena in the house was not a quiet proposition. But maybe, I thought, she was just preparing to stuff herself before a night of all out partying.
As I changed my clothes, I could hear her knocking about in the kitchen, banging the dishes and swearing at defenceless implements. She had sounded positively sullen, and despite my annoyance there was something satisfying about hearing the very creative and original imprecations in those familiar tones.
I exited my room with the intent of interrogating Helena about her plans for the night. But she must have been waiting for me to open my door, because no sooner had my wheels peeked out over the threshold than I was interrupted by her voice, "D'you want some dinner, Alfred made lasagne. I ma " She stopped when she saw me. "You're going out."
I nodded. "Yes."
"Guess you don't want any lasagne, then."
"I can have it later, when I maybe Dick would like to..."
"I was going to invite him over for "
" A night cap?" she cocked her eyebrows sardonically.
If that was the attitude she was going to take. "Are you planning on being in?"
"Why?" she asked challengingly, goadingly, as she leaned against the archway of the kitchen.
I was not going to give her the satisfaction. "Well, I'll know if I should avoid the rooms or not."
"Well," she drawled, "I was planning to stay in and sleep, but " she stretched the word out, "I think Alfred's lasagne might be just the thing to stoke an all-nighter. So, no, I won't be here." With that she turned around to retrieve her dinner. As she scooped her serving onto a plate and covered up the pan frankly it would have made more sense for her to cut out a small portion from the pan onto a plate and take the pan for herself she spoke. "Actually, I was hoping to speak to you about that."
"My being here." I waited until she emerged. I followed her into the living room where she sat down in front of the TV. She responded to my quizzical expression. "You won't have to worry about that."
"I'm sure I don't have any idea what you mean."
"I'm moving out," she said as she stuffed a neatly cut section of the pasta into her mouth.
"Barbara, you're not deaf," she mumbled around her food.
"Apparently the guy above the bar doesn't want to renew his lease, place is popular now trendy. It's gotten too noisy for him. I told Leonard I'd take it."
"It's too much, you know. I'm here all the time." She ducked her head and chased a morsel of mince around her plate. "If I know what's going on all the time, I'm working all the time. It's been a rough year, and I need a little time to myself."
Needed more time to herself? "What are you talking about? You're by yourself all the time. Any time I turn around you're gone. Sometimes I have to wait a half hour for you to respond to a comm. signal."
"I'm at work!"
"You do not work that many shifts at the bar."
"Then I'm working for you all the time."
"When I can't raise you on the comm. for half an hour?"
"Damn it!" she clattered her fork against the plate.
"Hel, what is going on?"
"Nothing, I'm just " She was interrupted by the buzzing of the intercom.
"Damn it!" I rolled over to answer it.
"Hey!" Dick's voice came over the speaker.
"Dick, I'll be down in a bit. I'm in the elevator, but I've got a little glitch in my chair. It'll take me a minute or two." All the while I could see Helena's eyebrow rise higher and higher as I spoke. Thankfully she didn't say anything until I hung up the intercom.
"Sure, Babs. Truth, justice and the American Way."
My glasses were starting to get very heavy, so I took them off and massaged my eyes and nose. "Helena, is there a reason you're bringing this up now?"
"I'm not bringing this up now. You're the one who brought it up. 'Are you planning on being in?' Planning on being in? I live here! Well, not for much longer, so I wanted to let you know that you could stow any future snide questions about my being 'round here, 'cause I won't."
"Helena. It was a reasonable question." I said, trying to inject some sense into the conversation. "I didn't mean to imply that you shouldn't be here. I was merely trying to formulate plans for the evening."
"And I," she retorted, mocking my tone of voice, "was merely informing you of my intent to not be here. So you can bring Wonder Boy back here and play twister for the rest of your life."
"I don't think that's quite warranted. I am not sleeping with Dick. And considering the slew of slags you've paraded through this place I think you're a bit unqualified to start being snippy about it even if I were"
"Barbara," she said snapping her full attention to me. "I don't care, all right?" She stopped to take a deep breath. "This is what I'm talking about. We've been at each other for months now. We're crowding ourselves. You should be able to have a guest," I couldn't help but notice how she stumbled over the word, "without worrying about me. And I should be able to date," this time she smiled wryly over the word, "without offending you with my choices or "
"Hel, I didn't mean to imply that you were a "
"It doesn't matter, Barbara. It's obvious that's how you feel."
"I " I stared at my fingers and at the way the nail polish glittered in the light. She was right.
"Barbara don't you think we're both a little too old to be sneaking around?" She stood up with her plate and her bottle of beer and turned to her room. "Look, you're going to be late," she said motioning to the intercom. "We'll talk later."
"But this is your home."
"That's exactly my point," she said as if she were very tired. "I'm 22 for god's sake and I've never left home. Think about it," she said with a small smile. "You still won't know where I am, you'll still have to wait for a half hour before I respond. I'll still bitch at you about the refrigerator being empty. You'll still see me every night. You'll still talk to me all the time. It'll be like I'm here. Except you won't have to clean up after me or put up with my loud music and bad TV shows; and you can have anyone over you like. All the advantages and none of the annoyances. Now go on. You don't want to have him break in here trying to rescue you or something." The click of her door shutting was followed by the loud wailing of her stereo.
I suppose she has a point, I thought. I noticed that she had left the bottle opener and the bottle cap on the coffee table. I picked them up and took them into the kitchen where I had to put away another plate and set of cutlery, and the sweating six-pack of beer. God knows Helena has always liked her beers one degree up from frozen. In the fridge I noticed there was a small glass tray. Out of sheer curiosity I peeled away a corner of the foil. Inside were layers of preserved peach slices arranged in cream and brown sugar. Helena had made my favourite peach parfait. Further examination of the refrigerator revealed some rather expert choices of wine stashed underneath the lettuce. Then it struck me a second plate and set of cutlery. She had been hoping to sit down to dinner with me. Torn as I was between my good manners and reaching out to Helena, I had no choice. She would not answer my knocks. The music was probably too loud for her too hear. And opening the door was out of the question. She was touchy about her privacy. So very reluctantly I made my way to the elevator.
Two days later, she was all moved out. Well, not all. She still left a significant portion of her wardrobe behind. But she was right it was all the same. Except that there were no more questionable bands blaring their existentialist angst and ennui from her room. No more clothes to pick up. No more dishes abandoned where she had demolished a helpless meal. No more surprise meals. No more late night conversations. But the last two had been on the wane for a while.
And Helena had been right. It had been too long since I had lived alone. I was taken back to my first heady days of having moved out of dad's into my own place. Once I got used the quietness, I felt surprisingly free. I was free to stay up as late as I pleased without being nagged. I could stay in as long as I wanted without being cajoled into the outside world. I could tinker around without having my concentration disturbed by a moping or manic Helena. And even though I never brought anyone over, I felt free to think about it. Felt free to maybe see other people. So I did. I saw Wade. And once Alfred brought him upstairs, it was too late I had backed myself into a corner. Such a simple thing stubborn pride and a weak will that led to the death of someone who was innocent of our world in the worst way possible.
No, as much as I regretted Alfred's hasty attempt to salvage a relationship that was doomed from the start, it wasn't his fault, it was mine. I didn't ask Wade to leave. He's dead, and for better or for worse, it's my fault.
I've never been analytical about people. Pathological behaviour, maybe. But people? Who can figure them out? It's why I love information systems and crime-fighting. Give me order to restore, point me to a law-breaker and I'm happy. It's all very simple. Not necessarily clean and easy, but once you've the hang of it, it's simple.
Maybe that's why I'm so good at teaching English. I can explain nuances, in terms that are understandable, to kids who don't necessarily see them. I know there are places that the mind falters and things get complicated, so, I can point them out and say, see? But if I were to try teaching math, everything is so obvious to me I go running along at the speed of light and I forget that there are kids who don't know what I'm talking about.
So finding four boxes marked 'Medical' in the wreckage of the storage space allocated to Helena's effects was a bit of a bafflement. I know that Helena has had her encounters with the medical profession but what was ever wrong with Helena that would require four large file boxes? I'm the warden of all her medical files. In fact, because of her unique physiology, it's been long since that she's signed medical power of attorney over to me.
The boxes had been lying behind the new stack of CPU's from Wayne foundation. First, I thought they were parts. But later in the frantic rush to jam my waking hours with any thought but why I was rebuilding my home I forgot about them. But when I was putting away boxes to be broken down, I rolled to a sudden stop as my wheels hit the solid boxes. They were certainly packed. A quick flash of the box cutter and I had the contents open to inspection. Volume after volume of books Physical Examination of the Spine and Extremities, Orthopaedic Neurology: A Diagnostic Guide to Neurologic Levels, Sexuality After Spinal Cord Injury, Spinal Cord Injury: Functional Rehabilitation, Learning to Live after Spinal Cord Injury, Management of Spinal Cord Injury, The Ostomy Book
Article after article Neural Regeneration: An Exploration of Bio-electric Potential Across Membranes, Neuroprotectants, The effect of bFGF on axonal outgrowth following spinal cord injury in the adult rat, Functional Electrical Stimulation: An Outlook, Electrical Propagation Along Ramified Pathways.
Stacks and Stacks of CD-ROM's, all neatly marked up in small, active, looping text. Photocopied texts and diagrams marked up with marginal notes, exclamations and imperatives like, 'find out', 'expense?', '? damage', 'future potential'. The other box was filled with same, along with copies of my medical records copies of CAT scans, MRI's, hospital charts confidential records.
Every single piece of medical indignity that I suffered the first three months is here the inconvenience of my colostomy, my struggles with regaining conscious control of previously involuntary muscular contractions, the psychological evaluations, the bad dreams. Everything. When I lay in my hospital bed waiting to get out, Helena had been reading every scrap of information that she could lay her hands on.
I can't resist popping the discs into my newly rebuilt machine. They are more of the same journal articles, internet articles, entire text books on disc. If she has actually read all this material and retained it, Helena Kyle can pass as a minor expert in the field of Spinal Neural Regeneration: she'd be a powerhouse of information regarding the nervous system.
I can barely the fathom the depth of what this means. I can tell from the dates on the books and articles her interest had extended well past my return from Dragon's mountain retreat. I can barely imagine it. The girl who had in three short months decimated her grade point average to a tithal amount, broken more underage laws and narcotics possessions laws, and made her way through her last year of school with a belligerent stare, poring over these books, marking and underlining passages and reading more material than even medical students are expected to. Just that image of a Helena tired from school and her extra-curricular activities, reading all this material diligently is overwhelming. Something in my chest catches against the flow of air at this very unexpected image.
She had been so impossible to deal with at the time. I was back at home only seven weeks after the shooting. Once the doctors had determined I was in no more danger from infection or rupturing any organs, there was nothing more that they could do for me in the hospital beyond hovering over my physiotherapy and I preferred not to have them do that. It was bad enough at home with the one professional, an entire team would have undone me. I was relentlessly obsessive in my quest for independence. It was my way of denying the injury, of denying the pain I felt, of denying the depression and anger that I felt. If I was working hard at rebuilding my body, then I couldn't be in funk could I?
The fait accompli had occurred one night that I could not sleep and rolled my chair out into my weight room, strapped my thighs together and hauled myself up the newly installed, waist-high to bi-pedal folks, parallel bars. The strain had been immense. As much as I strained my shoulders and back gone soft from weeks of disuse, I couldn't help but pull through my stomach, straining muscles still sore from trauma and surgery, and not quite responsive to injured neurons. I sweated and strained through the entire set I assigned myself. Even though the pain was excruciating I held on to the finish. 15 pull-ups. Fifteen measly pull-ups and I was panting and screaming like I had been on a death march for fifteen days. I was so tired I could barely make it back to my chair. Hugging the bars with my armpits, brushing my dead toes against the floor, I dragged my self. Barely a foot away from the chair, I felt the unmistakable prickling of focused observation. Sitting there in the urban glow of the darkness of the clock tower was Helena. Her eyes glittered with the same far away flicker as the distant city lights.
"Couldn't sleep?" she asked. I thought the answer was rather obvious. "Me neither. It's difficult. Every noise I hear, I keep thinking it's her walking around. And then a lot of the times it's some crazy woman working out like a contestant for Mr. Universe."
The only response I made to that was a grunt of effort, I had managed to move six inches closer to my goal.
"So is that the new exercise Mark taught you today?" Mark was my physiotherapist.
She waited for an answer she knew would not be forthcoming and then she said, "Yeah, I bet all that range of motion stuff gets real boring real fast. God knows I'd be bored."
Two more inches. "By the way, are you sure that strap around your thigh is tight enough? It's probably a bad idea to knock your legs about." I wasn't going to make it. "You look flushed, Barbara." Her voice was as flat as my energy. "Want me to turn up the air? Get you some water?" I wanted to snap at her to shut up but all my focus and strength was centred on the wheelchair.
Just as I prepared to twist myself into the chair, I misjudged the distance and half pushed the chair away from me as I let my weight down. Both, the chair and I fell in an ungraceful heap on the floor, with the armrest digging into my side and I took a look my thigh. There really was no dignified way out of that mess. I twisted and turned with no effect except to make me look stupendously foolish. And still she went on in the same bland voice, " By the way, your Dad called. I left you a note on the coffee table, I forgot. I got a B on my chem paper. That was shocking. But it was inorganic chemistry explosives! The kids keep asking about you. Jason was wondering if he could visit or something, I think he has a crush on you. So I told him not to. Wouldn't want to disappoint or frighten him," she said casually as she relaxed her head onto her in-curled fist and leaned forward as I panted on the floor.
I knew that I was in a fix. If I lay there with the armrest compressing my veins and arteries, I would lose circulation and that was not a good thing. And the strain on my back from the contortion my body had adopted was definitely not a good thing. Perhaps I had been overdoing my own informal exercise routine and had exhausted all my strength. I gritted my teeth and called to Helena with the little air that was left in my lungs.
"Hunh? I'm sorry Barbara, I can't hear you. I think the reason your dad called was because he's being interviewed for Face to Face. Crime rates in the city are falling and everyone wants to know how he did it." Was the girl insane, I asked myself? There I was flopping around like a fish out of water and she was lazily recounting the most mundane details of her day.
"Helena!" I said.
"Right here, Barbara," she replied. There was a pause as she studied me. "You know, if you relaxed into your side and then stretched that shoulder sideways and outwards while pushing on the opposite armrest you could slide out of the chair. She was right. I lay panting on the floor but free of the chair and laid out straight, staring at the ceiling. I heard her feet come nearer. "Amazing what little cat stretches can do, hanh?"
"Damn you," I hissed.
"Oh no! Don't you dare damn me," she said as she squatted next to me. "You want to be independent and strong, you get to be independent and strong on your own. I'm not about to give you free rides." She loosened the strap around my thighs, righted the chair and turned it my direction. Once she did that she started to walk back to her room.
I banged my fists on the floor and shouted, "God damn it, I can't live like this. I cannot live like this."
She turned around and stared at me through her golden eyes. And then very clearly she said, "Well figure it out Barbara, neither can I." Then she turned away again. "Also I've got a permission slip you need to sign. Field trip to the cloisters. I promise I won't steal anything."
Two days later I decided that I needed real training to cope with my new body. Not physiotherapy, but something else a way I could be in the chair and still feel whole a warrior's way. I called Richard Dragon and asked him if his monastery could accommodate a wheel chair.
The girl had been impossible to live with. She was seemingly oblivious to everything about her, moving through her life like everything was okay. She didn't leave me alone, or give me space, and she deliberately ignored me when I was in obvious trouble. Consequently, she saved me from descending into a morass of self-pity. How she managed to do that when she was solidly in the grip of her own mourning is something that I still marvel at.
I know Dinah thinks that I'm too easy on Helena when she gets in a mood, or that I let Helena walk all over my feelings. But what she doesn't know that anytime Helena walks all over my feelings, at least she reminds me I have some. I can see by the look in Dinah's eyes that this explanation is a little too Jerry Springer for her, but there's no other way I know to explain Helena's sensitivity.
Helena's been wonderful these last few weeks. She's helped me move out the old, ruined equipment and put in the new stuff. She's been here almost every day to work out with Dinah. She's reported for sweeps every night, even on days I have told her it was okay to take off. She's been more efficient than ever in the apprehending of criminals. Even in the first two weeks after Wade's funeral when I suspended all activity to rebuild my systems, I know that she was out there. There was simply no way to miss the reports in the police blotter. And she was a wonderful support at Wade's funeral.
I felt terrible lying to the Brixton's. But Helena convinced me that it would be easier for the Brixton's to believe that their son was a victim of a random act of violence than to know that he was simply a whimsical pawn in a madwoman's conspiracy. Besides, there really was no way to explain the truth behind Wade's death without breaking our cover. Reese put in a convincing report about the circumstances of his death.
Reese has been a great help too. "There's no way I could explain my part in it to my bosses," he said. "So it's better this way." I know that he's uncomfortable with all the things that we've asked him to do, but he's been very understanding about the need to do it.
Helena's been very circumspect about her relationship with Reese as well. She hasn't once mentioned him unless it's been absolutely necessary. I feel terrible about it. I know that she deserves to be happy with someone without walking around with guilt. I know that she should feel free to talk about Reese if she wants to. But there's a look in her eyes when she watches me. I think she doesn't want to remind me of Wade by talking about Reese. I'm actually ashamed by the comfort this one little piece of tact brings me. Sometimes I forget that she can be an incredibly sensitive person.
I start out of my reverie when the Delphi beeps. Coincidentally, the throbbing beacon belongs to Reese. I activate Helena's receiver.
"I'm getting a signal from Reese"
<"Is there a problem?">
"I was hoping you could find out."
<"I'm in the middle of something here. I need to back the kid on this one."> Sure enough I can hear the sounds of a scuffle coming across the speakers. <"Can you let me know if it's an emergency?">
The exchange makes me feel awkward, but I can't say exactly why that is.
I activate the positioning software and determine that Reese is standing on Crofton between Boat Street and Cornelia lane. I lay my composited map of the current state of the city on the address. It's a 24-hour diner three blocks away from police HQ. A quick search of the city's telecommunication database and I find the payphone inside the diner. A very baffled diner employee goes off to find the policeman I've directed him to find.
"This is Reese," comes the puzzled voice.
"Oracle," he says.
"What can I do for you today?"
"I " he hesitates. "How did you know where I was?" he asks. I know that it's not a real question and that he's just stalling for time. My pointed silence highlights this fact. "I'm sorry, of course. It's just that I was expecting He..Huntress."
"She's working right now. Anything I can help you with?"
"Yeah..No No. I was just." He sighs. "The arsons that you gave me a couple of pointers on, thank you. We got the guy and it's an open and shut case. We got him dead to rights."
"You're welcome. We're happy to give the law a hand."
"Yeah. That's all."
"That's all? Well, in that case, Reese, have a good night. I'll let her know that it worked out just fine."
"Okay." And he hangs up.
I'm thinking about the discomfort that I feel from this conversation as well when I hear Dinah's voice.
"Uhh, Oracle we've got a couple of armed robbers all handcuffed and ready to be arrested."
Absently, I log a call for available units to respond to the scene when Reese's icon glows on the screen. I call the payphone again. "Reese," I say, "is there something else?"
"Uhh yeah." He sounds very uncomfortable. "I know that I'm not supposed to ask and that she needs some time and everything. But how is she?"
"How is she?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I haven't seen her in a month and she hasn't been returning my phone calls. I just want to know how she's doing. I know she was pretty shaken up over the whole thing and that you "
I cut him off before he can say more. "What do you mean you haven't seen her? How long has it been seen you've seen her?"
"Err since the funeral. I mean, I saw her that night but she said that she needed some time and that you needed someone and "
"Since the funeral?"
"You haven't seen her since the funeral?" Reese obviously recognises the rhetorical nature of my last question and says nothing. In the silence I realise that I may have stumbled in protecting Helena's privacy. But the hurt and concern in his voice are too obvious to miss. "I'm sorry, Reese. She's doing fine. She's a little quiet but we've all been a little out of sorts." An understatement
"Yeah. Just I Okay," he sighs resignedly. "Will you "
I nod even though he cannot see it. "I'll let her know you called Reese. Goodnight."
He hasn't seen her since Wade's funeral. That was four weeks ago. He hasn't seen her in a month.
I wonder how many times my mind will re-formulate that little tidbit. Now I'm really worried. So this is why she hasn't mentioned Reese, she simply hasn't been seeing him. I feel an empty clenching in my chest that makes me feel light headed. Guilt comes pouring down on me in sheeting streams as I consider the reasons why she might have pulled away from Reese. I replay his words, 'you needed someone.' Oh God! She's been avoiding him because she doesn't want me to feel hurt. Helena has always been transparent that way. When she is happy there is no missing it it's like the sun rising. And she has been holding back on her own happiness to make sure that she can be there for me. We are really going to have to talk about how to cope with this. I'll probably need to talk to Dinah, as well. It suddenly occurs to me why she's been tiptoeing around the house all month. I'm sure the heavy silence around the tower's been taking a toll on her.
I cannot help but smile when Dinah comes bounding out of the elevator. It's good to see someone in high spirits round here.
"Jesus, are you sure you need to put more sugar in your system?" Helena grouses behind her.
I turn around and approach them. "Good work, you guys," I say, congratulating Dinah on the sterling job she has done tonight. Helena scowls. "What?" I ask her.
"She's cuckoo from cocoa puffs. Look at her. Who the hell bounces around like that? Maybe she's discovering a new meta ability, the power to bounce off walls."
Dinah emerges from the kitchen with a bagful of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of warm milk. She extends the bag in invitation, I shake my head, and she sits down on the sofa to enjoy her after-sweeps snack.
"What about me, blondie, your partner? Do I rate an offer or what?"
"Get your own cookies. Besides are you sure you want to eat all the hydrogenated vegetable oil that's in these? It's so bad for your health."
"Ha ha. I've been eating hydrogenated vegetable fat since before you were born. You'll die from it before I will, kiddo." Helena makes her way to the refrigerator and emerges with her own stash of two-bite chocolate brownies."
Dinah's eyes go wide when she sees the tub in Helena's hand. "Hey where've you been hiding those?"
"Hiding? I haven't been hiding them. Just 'cause you can't see past your nose psychic girl Besides, are you sure you want to put all that pure butter in your system. You go to bed now, and it goes straight to your hips." That little taunt makes Dinah re-evaluate the snacks in her hand. Her brows furrow and her face falls in a pathetic moue of concern.
"Don't listen to her, Dinah," I assure her. "That's only true if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. For the very athletic and active that's simply not true. In fact for you it's probably beneficial."
Dinah throws a dirty little glare at Helena. "You are so mean to me."
"And you are so gullible," retorts Helena.
"You're just pissed off that I dealt with the whole thing by myself. And I stopped you from getting your ass kicked."
"I did not almost have my ass kicked, so shut it."
I blink at the very puerile discussion taking place in my presence and decide to break it up with my very best teacher voice. "Girls!" They both turn to stare at me. "Dinah, you did a excellent job today, very efficient on the first count. And the second time you diffused a situation before it could occur. I am very proud of you."
"Hey! That's not fair. The kid can read minds. It's not like I can tell what's going on inside a perp's head."
I continue as if Helena has not interrupted me. "And Helena is actually very proud of you as well, aren't you Helena?"
She puts out the little pout that threatens to overtake her face and relents. "Yeah. She did fine. Very kick ass."
"See?" I say to the girl.
She doesn't look convinced. "She's only saying that because you told her to. Anyway, I know I did a good job," she huffs and flounces her way to her room with her cookies and jug of milk.
Helena yells after her, "You sure you did all your homework, 'cause it's pretty late."
Dinah turns around with a tsk, rolls her eyes and huffs in exasperation before going on her way.
It isn't until she has disappeared that Helena allows herself a small smile. The glint has not quite disappeared from her eyes when I catch her gaze. I realise that I too am smiling.
"What?" she asks.
"That was nice of you."
"Well, I was just checking to make sure that she's staying up on her homework. She needs to keep her points up if she's applying to all those schools."
"As heartening as your interest in Dinah's academic future is, Hel, you know that's not what I meant. I meant that it was nice of you to sit this one out and let Dinah take the lead." She ducks her head in response as if to shrug off the praise. After a moment of silence I speak again. "You could have let her know that it was the plan all along "
"Yeah, but it's more fun this way. She gets a real kick out of knowing that she could have done it without me. And the damnedest thing is, she really could have. I could have been having a little catnap for all that,"
"Still, it's nice."
"Yeah. Maybe we could even give her her own beat. You know, that she could cover on her own."
"You're probably right. But you've got to stop needling her, she's sensitive enough as it is."
She looks chastened by my gentle remark and nods. "Okay."
The silence stretches between us like a strip of melting rubber. After a few minutes of not looking at me she stands up, rubbing her palms on her thighs. I can't imagine that the slick leather surface is soaking up any sweat from her palms. "So, it was a good night. Slow but good."
"So it was," I agree.
"You got anything else for me to do? CPU's to move, tables to push?" I shake my head. "Well, I guess I'm out then."
Actually," I stop her determined march toward the elevator, "I need to talk to you about something."
I pat the sofa. "Here sit down." Very gingerly she sits down where I have indicated. "About what Dinah said "
"You almost got shot tonight, Hel."
She tosses her head back and closes her eyes. "Look, it was just a moment of distraction. The kid was there and this is not the first time I've almost gotten shot."
"I know that, Hel. But this distraction of yours, it's not like you. I'm worried."
"Sorry," she says, but still will not meet my eyes. Squirming around on the sofa, she looks very young. Younger than I can ever remember seeing her. I imagine Selina trying to have a sensitive chat with a much younger Helena. It occurs to me that Selina would have been a lot more direct than I'm being.
"So, how's Reese?'
The question takes her by surprise. "Uhh fine."
"How're the two of you doing?"
The lack of expression is a thing of beauty to see. Without flinching she comes back with a, "Fine, fine. Things are fine."
"So maybe the two of you will celebrate tonight."
"Yes, I spoke to him tonight. He's very happy with the way the arson case worked out."
"Oh yeah. Good. Maybe we will."
It's amazing how nonchalant she can be. "Helena " I warn her.
"What?" she says defensively
"He told me he hasn't seen you in a month and that you haven't been returning his calls."
"Well, why are you asking me then?" she snaps.
"I'm worried about you."
She sighs deeply. "There's really no need."
"Hel, please call him. Don't let go of a chance for happiness because you think it's going to hurt me. You owe yourself that."
"I know you blame yourself for Wade's death but don't let go of a chance for happiness because you feel guilty. Talk to him about it. Work through it. It'll be worth it in the end."
"Like it was worth it for you and Wade?"
The hurt I feel from that statement is more than I could have imagined. I can see that she realises how badly she has erred when I see the penitence on her face. "I'm sorry. I "
"No it's okay. I'm sorry I tried to interfere. But Helena, not every relationship is the same. And not every relationship has to end the same way. So don't let something get away because you're scared."
She nods quietly a few times and then looks up to meet my gaze for the first time in weeks. "Barbara it's not like that. I just need a little time to think about stuff. I don't think things are going to work out for us." She turns to leave and then changes her mind. "I'll tell him not to use the ring for non-official purposes, okay?"
"That's not why I "
"I know," she re-assures me. She smiles a small tentative smile. "Thanks for asking." And with that, she's gone.
CHAPTER 21: HELENA
Winter is coming. I can feel it in my fingers. The glass in the window is cold and my palm leaves a moist imprint of hot vapour when I remove my hand.
I hate fall. It brings up too many painful memories. And now I have one more. I try to think of one simple happy memory that fall brings for me and I can't.
Wait there's one. The weekend of my first weekly pay cheque.
It was stupid taking Barbara out for ice-cream on a rainy October evening. But she always gets a little depressed around September, and she misses at least three therapy appointments in September and October. I wonder how many she's missed this year and how many more she's going to miss. But I dragged her out for ice-cream. I bought a tub of mint chocolate chip her favourite, vanilla and some fudge and drove over to Jim Gordon's place. He had been kind enough to keep the bowls and roasted nuts ready and waiting. We sat around Jim's table, ate ice-cream, moaned about the Gotham Knights' lousy performance, and bitched about the new mayor. After we were all sick from the sugar I talked them into going to see L.A Confidential. She said she didn't want anything to drink, but was so grateful when I magically produced a straw and a bottle of Diet Pepsi after she ate half of my popcorn, which she didn't want in the first place. And on the ride back home she fell asleep in the van. She actually let me push her chair up to the elevator.
When I rub my face and put my hand back on the glass I leave a wet handprint of silent tears. I wonder if Leonard will notice if I kill another two bottles of Jack from his inventory. I really have to pull myself together. It's not fair to have Barbara worrying about me when she hasn't taken the time to mourn for herself. I've got to stop avoiding her or she's going to think something's wrong. I need to go on like before. Exactly like before pretend to blow off sweeps, show up for sessions with the kid, drop by for the occasional dinner. I'm not the one who's lost someone here, I'm simply the one who got stupid. And I really need to have a talk with Jesse.
Below me the thumping bass of the Dark Horse's jukebox shakes the boards under my feet. Maybe tomorrow I'll strip the floor and put in a new coat of polish. The parquet is starting to look a little dingy. I can hear the filtered voices of the customers coming through the window. I can't make out individual voices but I can sense the revelry and celebration in the tones. It seems like the entire city is celebrating its reprieve from the wave of crime and violence that engulfed it a month ago everyone except the actual people who bought the city that reprieve.
And now, there's someone breaking into my apartment. How dumb does this bastard have to be if he's breaking into my apartment? I hear the muttering when the torsion wrench doesn't quite move the cylinder. And I have my answer pretty damn dumb.
I wait for him to enter fully into the apartment before I talk. "Jesse."
He's so surprised he almost drops his picks. "Hey."
He does a good impression of cool collectedness but he's not fooling me. "They teach you that in police academy?" I ask, pointing to his lock picks.
"They teach you that at home?"
"What? No." A pause. "What?"
"At home your old man, he teach you that?"
"No, of course. He'd prefer to blow the lock off wouldn't he?"
"What?" He suddenly looks nervous and confused.
Dense. He's dense. Does he really think he can keep secrets from someone who's been lying all her life. "So you want to tell me why you're breaking into my apartment, detective?"
"I was just worried. You haven't "
"Been answering your calls. I know. I thought you'd be able to take a subtle little hint.
The muscles on his nose and cheek twitch just the tiniest little bit. "Fuck you," he says and leaves. But I know he's not really gone. That's one thing I've learned after all these years of leaving and being asked to leave. Wait for it, wait for it and here come the storming steps to the door again. And the door swings open. See, if he really wanted to leave it at that, he would have slammed the door shut when he left. "What is your issue?"
That makes me laugh. Who talks like that? " 'What is your issue?' What is your time frame for this conversation? 1984?"
"So I'm just supposed to magically infer that you don't want to see me anymore."
"It's not magic. A girl you sleep with doesn't return your calls, what're you supposed to think?"
He ducks his head. He knows exactly what it means. "Is this something you do on a regular basis? Do you just sleep with someone and then let it go? Didn't it mean anything to you?"
"It was just "
"What, a fling?"
"So when you "
"Commitment shy, remember."
"And this," he rips the ring off his finger and holds it up. "What was this for? Why did you give it to me."
"I didn't give it to you, Oracle did. I just delivered it."
He holds his hands out and steps closer to me. "Look, I know this has been a rough time but let me help you. Let me be there for you. I know you feel bad. I know you feel guilty for things that have happened."
"You know? What do you know? You don't know anything. You know nothing about me."
"No, I don't because you won't tell me anything. You can't just throw that at me and "
"Look, just LET IT GO," I shout, "all right?" And then calmly, "Just let it go."
"So that's it? It's all over."
"Halleluiah Jesus Lord. YES! It's all over. That's exactly it."
"I don't believe this," he says and steps even closer into my personal space. His fingers close around my wrist. He's starting to annoy me and I'm not doing anything to stop it. This is dangerous. And he doesn't know how dangerous. "So when you said that I meant something, that when I said 'good job' it meant something, what was that, a load of bullshit?"
Sometimes having your own words thrown back in your face is a total bitch. Why did I say that? I shake my hand loose from his grip and turn toward the window. "Jesus. So I sweet-talked you a little." Outside the window, couples are arriving at the bar. There's a blonde girl leaning on her boyfriend's arm; when she turns her face to his chin and kisses him he looks a little stunned like it's the most surprising and wonderful thing in the world and he stands a little taller. "What's the matter you've never turned the charm on for a girl before, turned it up a little to turn her on? Got in her head to get in her pants? What is wrong with you? You're such a sap."
"I guess I am," he says through clenched teeth. "The biggest sap of them all. So what was this, an elaborate ruse to keep the cop in line? Use him to clean up your mess, plant a little evidence, get a little inside line on investigations so that you and Oracle can play an end run around the law?"
"Don't you fucking drag her into this. She's got nothing to do with this."
"Oh yeah? She's the one you work for I'm sorry, with. Isn't that why you've been avoiding me," he grabs me by the shoulder and turns me around to face him, "to go be with her? You disappear when she calls, you go where she sends you, you give me a communicator when she asks you, you call me for evidence when she needs it?" The window frame is a rigid pressure against the bones of my back, and the pressure of his fingers in my shoulders is exactly the excuse I need to escalate this little confrontation.
I hold my palm against the straining muscles of his shoulders and feel the anger building. He follows the direction of my gaze as it rests on his hand on my arm. "I've been avoiding you Jesse, because I don't want to see you anymore. It was a fuck for god's sake, not a proposal. I was horny, not in love." He pushes me back into the window roughly and the sharp angle of my shoulder cracks the glass. I hear the shards tinkling all the way to the ground, and the commotion of voices when the glass falls to the ground. The stinging crack of my palm against his cheek is a reflexive reaction to the stinging cut on my shoulder.
The slap rocks him back on his feet. His breath is a sharp hiss when he sees my hand come away red from my shoulder. He looks shocked surprised that I'm bleeding. His voice sticks in his throat. "Oh God, Helena, I'm sorry I " He reaches his arm out to me. What an idiot, my cut'll be healed tomorrow but he's going to be walking around with a hand shaped bruise on his face for days
I stop him with the smallest pressure of my fingers against his chest and warn him. "One shot, detective." The rumbling in my chest and the changing of my eyes makes him step back. "That's all you get. After that all bets are off."
His expression falls in disappointment and hurt. "It doesn't have to be this way," he whispers.
I straighten his tie and gently touch the bruise on his cheek. "But that's how it is." He closes his eyes to absorb the blow of those words and turns away to the door. I see him uncurl the fingers of one hand and look at the ring I gave him. "Don't," I say firmly. "That's between you and Oracle. If you want to return it you return it to her. We still owe you one."
He doesn't quite fully turn back, and all I see is the crescent of his face highlighted in the light of the hallway. "Lady, you owe me a lot more than that." This time he slams the door shut when he leaves.
Absently I reach my hand out to rest against the window but the breeze stops me before I can tear my palm on the jagged spike of glass. It's been a dry November, but somewhere out there it's snowing. The whistling wind that soaks into my skin carries whispers of polar breezes and arctic tundras and the frost settling on my heart answers back with a sigh.
Winter is coming.
CHAPTER 22: BARBARA
Two hours ago, a sweaty Helena trotted out of the gym, spent about 15 minutes gathering every piece of left over packing crate, my stack of old newspapers and magazines, stole the packing tape, flashed a quick smile at me, and went back upstairs. Fifteen minutes after she re-entered the gym the noise started sounds of objects impacting the walls and floors, the sound of things being flung about, of flesh impacting something solid, and occasionally the high pitched squeal of a teenager. Over the two hours, the time between the bangs and thuds has decreased. It sounds like a wrecking crew in there. It's a good thing we don't have neighbours or else I'd be answering the door for the police right about now. And while the sounds aren't really loud, it's starting to annoy me. I cannot concentrate on cleaning up, rebuilding and re-organising my databases if all I keep hearing is the arrhythmic percussion coming from the gym.
Actually, If I'm going to be honest, I know that my annoyance has less to with whatever the hell Helena's doing up there and more to do with the fact that apart from sweeps and helping me move equipment, this weekend is the first time I have had Helena under my roof and she has spent the entire time with Dinah. I think she's avoiding me not avoiding the clock tower, just me. Every time she's here, she spends all her time with Dinah. When we talk it's always about sweeps or the new hardware I'm installing and the newer holographic display I've had put in and she always makes sure that Dinah is in the room with us. Every time I try to sit down alone with her or get her to talk to me she has managed to avoid me. She's been pulling an awful lot of shifts at the bar. Or always found something else to be doing. Even during sweeps, just when I think things are calming down and I can use the opportunity to talk to her when I'm not looking at her and she's not feeling exposed, she miraculously finds a mugger or thief. I'm actually starting to wonder if she isn't making up some of these suspects. Of course, that would mean that Dinah is in on the entire ruse and that's carrying my paranoid fantasy just a little too far. Although considering how well they've been getting along lately maybe I should wonder about that too.
When the incessant banging and thumping becomes too much, I wrench myself from my workstation and make my way to the gym.
The first thing I hear apart from the sounds is Helena's voice. "What the hell was that?"
"It's too light," comes the teenage whine.
"Oh yeah?" Helena taunts.
"Ow! That hurt."
"Light enough for ya?" That particularly juvenile tone is followed by a series of thumping and slapping noises.
"Try this Ms. Hotshot."
The gym is a mess. There's paper everywhere and there are plastic boxes and lids strewn all over the mats. I hold my hand up in reflex to deflect a plastic projectile coming my way at the same time that Helena warns me.
"Oh shit! Barb look out." She reaches out for the square Glad storage box just as a square pile of magazines hits her in the back of the head. Distracted as I am by the sight of Helena getting clobbered I lose track of the box, which clips my temple and bounces to the floor.
Dinah's flustered paralysis lasts exactly as long as it takes for Helena to make glaring eye contact with her. Like a shot Dinah takes off but there really is nowhere to go, Helena is standing by the exit. Helena allows her to make half a shrieking circuit around the room before catching up with her. They end up in a pile on the floor Dinah face down and Helena on top with her knee on Dinah's back. Just as Helena gathers both of Dinah's arms behind her and grips them she starts to writhe convulsively. I start reflexively in my chair wanting to leap to her protection but stop the impulse when I hear the indignant laughter in her voice. "I'm going to kill you."
"Get off me."
"Hell, no! Not until you stop that."
"No, you stop it"
I wonder what Helena is talking about when I notice that every couple of seconds she jerks to one side as if someone were poking her. "You first."
The sight brings a smile to my lips. This kind of horseplay isn't something I've observed in Helena for a very long time. It makes her very young and gives me a flash of who she might have been if circumstances had been different for her. And in light of recent events it's very relieving to see that she hasn't lost her capacity for happiness. I don't know how things between her and Jesse stand but I haven't dared bring up the topic again given her defensiveness about the topic from the last time. A squeal from Dinah shakes me out of my thoughts. Helena is ticking her mercilessly, and her face is turning red from the strain of laughing on her stomach while having the air squeezed out of her. Well, it's not quite the same as needling her, I suppose. But I decide that she could probably use a little help.
"You know, Dinah, Helena's always been ticklish "
This time it's Helena who lets out a high-pitched shout I hesitate to call it a squeal. "NO."
I continue. " So if you poked a her a little less and just "
Dinah gets the idea and soon enough Helena's rolling on the floor, but she manages to retain her hold on Dinah. "Dammit! Barbara " she whines. "I can't believe you told the kid that," she yells over Dinah's gleeful laughter. I know she's not really angry when she looks at me and shakes her head at me. And once again I am suddenly aware of this charming part of her where she allows Dinah to see this more playful side of her. Suddenly she stops laughing and gives Dinah a little glare over her head. "Dinah, you idiot, look at what you've done,' she says, tossing her shaggy head in my direction.
Dinah's face falls the second she looks up and then her eyes widen. "I'm so sorry." If her hands were free she'd probably be holding them up to her open mouth. And when Helena lets her go, she does exactly that.
I quickly suppress the smile that starts to sneak across my face and give Helena a firm look. As Dinah comes bounding toward me, her eyes fixed on my head, I move my hand reflexively to the bump that the box has left on my forehead. "Hel," I tsk at her. "It's nothing."
She shrugs. "Got her to stop, didn't it?"
I shake my head at her and try to will her into making eye contact through her bangs when my entire visual field is overwhelmed by frantic teenager. "Oh my god! You're bleeding," she says while furiously marshalling her hair behind a red ear. The alarm in her voice makes me wonder if the bump is actually worse than it seems.
I pat my head a little more extensively and my middle finger comes away with the faintest hint of ruddiness from roughened skin. "Dinah," I chide her with a smile. "I wouldn't go that far, it's barely a scrape."
"But it's all red and "
Behind her, Helena rolls her eyes. I'm only half in agreement with Hel. While Dinah's concern is a little over the top, I also know that this is a symptom of her stress. She's been overly solicitous of me since the three days I spent in bed recovering from the neural trauma of using the coupler. There's another thing Helena and I haven't talked about but the look in her eyes as she slammed the lid on the coupler's storage box had been eloquent enough.
"Jeez, kid! For a girl, you sure are upset by the sight of a little blood," says Helena wryly as she comes up to her feet and walks up to Dinah. She claps a hand on Dinah's shoulder and extends an open palm to my forehead. "That's nothing, you should have seen the bump she gave herself when she hit her head under desk the first time she installed the Delphi." Dinah starts to look a little mollified but not completely convinced. "Jeez, get a grip, you're hyperventilating," she says a little softly. Whatever Helena manages to convey through her tone, or maybe it's through her touch, Dinah nods and manages to calm her expression into some semblance of normalcy. "Anyway, that's it for the lesson." Dinah nods and breaks off to start picking up the mess they've left behind. "Aw shit," Helena exclaims, "leave it, get outta here."
Sheepishly Dinah leaves the room. And now, for the first time in weeks Helena and I are in a room together, alone. I know that she has realised the same thing when a look of slight alarm crosses her face as she looks around the room and notices that I am parked right in front of the exit. Not wanting to make her more uncomfortable than she already is in my presence these days, I wheel further into the interior of the gym and pick up the bale of tape-wrapped journals that dropped on her head old issues of Computing Week. As she is picking up boxes and the odd loose leaf of paper, she notices my scrutiny of the pile and says, "Sorry, didn't think you wanted those."
"It's okay. I don't." She inspects a cracked lid on one of the boxes and then completes the task already begun on it and rips the plastic in half." I don't think that's the one that hit me,' I say as I hand her the offending box.
She starts a little at my proximity. "Sorry," she says, "I didn't mean to miss."
"I think I know that." She nods and resumes neatening the room. That's when I realise that Helena is cleaning up of her own accord without being subject to nagging and complaining. I blink at this realisation but say nothing about it. Instead I take in the carnage and ask, "So what went on in here?"
"Practice," comes the terse reply.
"Yes?" I encourage her. I am struck by a sense of déjà vu. Our exchanges these days have come to remind me of our first days of living together.
"Well, like you said, she needs to exercise her new powers." She continues to range through the gym and gather plastic and paper.
"Well, I'm trying to get her to see which things she can move with her mind without trying too hard. How many she can keep going at one time. How many she can stop from hitting her, and all that stuff." I nod in approval of this new practice regimen that Helena has outlined for Dinah. It's funny, I could never get her to stick to a routine when I was training her. "'Cause she has a real issue with getting down with the physical stuff."
"I wouldn't say that." I'm thinking of the time they were both opponents in Malcolm Lagg's death match.
Somehow she reads my thoughts and I wonder if my two meta-human wards aren't rubbing off on each other. "Oh that doesn't count. She had help from the drug, she was pissed off about Carolyn," the name is tinged with tiniest hint of disgust, "aaannnd you were coaching her to get me where it hurts." Then she looks up at me. "Why is it you're always telling her how to get me?"
"You know she's intimidated by you. If she can feel comfortable about being aggressive with you, she'll feel more confident about what she's doing out there," I say reasonably.
She touches the back of her head. "I don't think you should worry about that. Every time I turn around she's throwing something at me. First the nunchuks now the mags " I start to point out that my head has suffered damage too but she beats me to it. "Hell, now she's started beaning you in the head too. Maybe there's some deep Freudian implication about hidden hostility and authority figures going on with her," she says as she finally comes to rest while leaning over a stack of more of my old programming journals. Seeing the piles and the loose leafs strewn across the mats I wonder why I, who have built my life around electronic components, still can't give up the smell of printing ink and the feel of glossy paper between my fingers.
"And what would you suggest I do about her latent hostility issues, Hel?"
"I don't know," she replies while straightening up the piles of magazines so that the edges match, "maybe she ought to talk to " Even as she's saying it I wonder if she'll catch herself before she completes that thought and with a cough she does. " You about it. You know, maybe you could talk to her, draw her out or something. She's been on edge a little, don't you think?"
"Yeah, she has. But I think you should talk to her and see if you can draw her out."
From her place on the floor where he face is half obscured by her shaggy bangs she looks up a little and places a finger on her chest. "Me?" I nod. "You want me to talk to her?"
She taps herself on the chest again. "You want me to have a sensitive chat with her." I nod again. "Are feeling okay?"
"I think it'll be good for her. You're closer to her in age than I am. It won't seem so much like being called to the principal's office if you spoke to her."
"Barbara," she snorts, "kids would love going to the principal's office if you were the principal." She stands up. "Can you just see it? I pull the kid aside for a quiet little chat one of these days and she'll freak out. Forget the principal's office it'll be like being singled out by the school bully."
When she starts hefting pieces of the mess onto her shoulder and making her way to the elevator I get confused. "Helena, what are you doing?"
"Um taking out the trash?"
"Alfred can do that."
"Really?" she says wistfully as she looks about the room. "Can I ask him to clean up as well?"
"I'm sure he'll be happy to." After all, no matter what you like to pretend, you're still paying him his salary.
"Cool," she says and drops the load she's carrying with a resounding thump. "I'm sorry about the mess. I know you guys've been doing a lot down here and "
There's something very strange and bizarre about Helena apologising for making a mess but also something endearing about it. When I don't answer right away, she starts to look a little concerned. "Helena," I say. "Just go."
Right before the elevator doors close, she leaps back out while fishing in her pocket. "Oh here's your equipment list distribution and inventory and all that," she says and hands me a bunch of notes and receipts. "Just like you asked. There's invoices in there somewhere."
I take a look at the neat check-marked grid of the notes, and as I recognise the neat loops of her hand, I wonder how someone who rarely writes manages to have such neat writing. "Thanks."
"Okay." The hum of the open elevator door distracts her head for a second and then she looks back toward me. I want to extend this light interlude that we've managed to create but I can't think of a single thing to say to make her stay. And the longer I sit around staring at her the more she starts to twitch. "Iiii I'll be late for my shift. Leonard only wants go-getters working for him. Sooo I gotta go."
And once again she's gone without us having talked about anything I want to talk to her about.
Helena is playing scrabble with Dinah. She called after her shift, said she was bringing pizza and then she would stay to work out. With the pizza, she also brought a length of cord. When I asked her what the rope was for all she said was, "You'll see."
The pizza, like the afternoon, is gone, as are the gallons of soda. And now, here she is playing scrabble. At least I assume they're still paying scrabble, I haven't taken a look in a while. If one has killed the other I would have heard the noise by now. Anyway, I don't think they want to kill each other these days they simply have sneer fests. Intrigued and unsettled by the silence I put down my endlessly repetitive and pathetically plagiarised Julius Caesar papers. I push away from the table and quietly weave my way to where they are sitting.
"It doesn't have two 'L's."
"Yes it does."
"No, it's a common error "
"That's not an error. It's a perfectly acceptable variation."
"Alfred!" Dinah yells, but he's not home. "Anyway, we're not English."
"It's in Webster's, geek brain. Look it up."
"You want me to look it up?" Dinah's voice is filled with incredulous disbelief.
"Is it too difficult to look it up? Are you going to cry now?"
"Are you done yet?"
"Does it look I'm done, genius?"
"You're taking too long."
"You try it then." Long pause. "Then shut up. You're making me lose focus." Whistling and deliberately off-key singing. "Shut up you stupid bi aahhh! I can't concentrate when you do that!" she snaps.
And even though the needling is very obvious in Helena's voice I can't see why Dinah should be so upset about looking up a word in the dictionary. When I round the table I see, both, why Helena brought the rope with her and why Dinah's so stressed about looking up the word she is sitting with her hands bound behind her, and the pages in the book in front of her seem to be flipping by themselves.
"Hey Barbara!" she says. "Want a chip?"
Dinah stops psychically riffling through the dictionary and glares at Helena. "Isn't that 'crisp'?"
"It sure is," she says as she crunches into the deep fried potato snack. "Crunchy too."
"Dinah," I ask, "are you quite comfortable like that?"
She twists backwards and tries to bring her bound wrists into view. Cotton wrapped wrists are finished by a neatly tied Hercules knot in the rope. "Yeah, she put wristbands on and she didn't really tie them that tight."
"C'mon, kid. Quit stalling."
When Dinah is finally able to make the pages fall to the one she wants, Helena bangs her finger down on the entry. "Ha! One 'L' or two 'L's. Read 'em and weep. That's my triple word score."
"That's so not fair!" The dictionary goes flying straight into Helena's hand.
"No it isn't fair," she says tossing the hair back from her face in an exaggerated motion. "So beautiful, and so well intelligent it's just not fair."
"Just 'cause you were born and grew up different places "
"How many places do you think I was born in? And how many times?" I can't help but laugh as Helena mocks the girl's ungrammatical utterance. "How does Barbara let you out in public? Kids today, can't beat it into them, can't just leave them tied up."
"Oh, and is that how your mother used to deal with you?" I ask her.
A small twitch of her head gives away her ever-present pain at talking about Selina. But instead of stonewalling she joins the game. "Oh yeah. She'd string me up outside the window 30 storeys high so I couldn't get into trouble. This one time I made a tower of all her file folders while her papers were in them, she went into her closet, pulled out the wire hangers from her fresh dry-cleaning and beat me across the calves. You can still see the scars." Dinah's eyes grow wider. "Jeez, I'm joking. Mom never laid a hand on me. She was too afraid of what I'd do if she did." Dinah's eyes grow even wider. "Oh for like run away. You know if I ever run into the Redmonds it'll be when I'm driving Barbara's tank."
The grousing vow of protection makes Dinah blush and stutter. Helena notices and suppresses her reaction to it but the twitch of her lip gives away her own tender feelings regarding Dinah. I smile at her and she bites her lip.
Maybe I should change the subject. "I don't mean to be a nagging old fogy with prudish opinions but I thought you were working out and is there a reason Dinah is trussed up like "
"A turkey?" Helena offers.
"We are working out. That's why she's all tied up." I watch as Dinah's tiles move across the board and sidle up to the grid of letters already resting on the board. "Watch-es? That's your word?" Dinah does not deign to reply, she simply totals up her points. "E, S? That's it? I can't work with this."
"You're so smart, find something."
"We're working on her fine co-ordination. Isn't this fun? Much better than all those forms you made me repeat over and over again."
"Those forms I made you run are the reflexes that save your life everyday."
"But I didn't have any fun. I was bored out of my mind, and too tired to do anything after."
"You see how smart she is Dinah? She finally figured it out."
"Funnyy not. Anyway my training schedules are a lot more fun. Isn't it fun Dinah?"
Dinah doesn't say anything for a while. Then she jumps like she's been kicked under the table and then she nods furiously. "Yeah sure, fun - so much fun. Have you noticed how your ideea of fun always involves rope, cuffs or beatings?"
"You noticed!" she mocks breathily. "I didn't know you cared." Dinah moves more tiles onto the board, getting a triple word score and a 50-point bonus for using all 7 of her letters. Helena throws her hands up in the air and gives up. "That's it. I can't play with you anymore. How do I know you don't 'select'," she makes air quotes, "your letters, it's not fair."
Dinah just smiles gleefully for winning the game. "It's not. So smart, so gorgeous It's not fair at all."
I laugh at how easily Dinah has turned the tables on Helena. Helena pouts. "She's got you there." I turn on my wise professor voice. "I'm impressed Helena, I think your training program is increasing her mental acuity."
"Fine," Helena huffs and lays her arm on my chair, "how about you and I go work on our training program." I really should get back to grading my papers before we get to sweeps tonight, but Helena has just offered to spend time alone with me.
But before Helena can sprint off to the gym, Dinah pipes up. "Uhh you guys, speaking of turkey I was thinking "
"Yes, Dinah?" I encourage her gently.
"I don't want to be a pain in the ass or anything but I was kinda wondering " her arm twitches reflexively; if it were free she would be tucking her hair behind her ear. Helena and I discreetly roll our eyes. "It's just that the holidays are coming up "
"Spit it out kid, I haven't got all day," Helena interrupts her.
She blushes red and stammers a little. "Aaa mmm " Helena's indrawn growl of exasperation hurries her along. "I was wondering what you guys are doing for thanksgiving. I know it's only a couple of days away and I know that it's kind of a bad time and all but it would be kind of nice if we could all have dinner together."
Thanksgiving? I think to myself, I've completely forgotten about it. Helena voices my thought out loud for me. "Thanksgiving?" her voice pitches upward.
Dinah turns her too-stupid-to-live expression on Helena. "Yeah, you know holiday with the turkey and family and giving thanks." But because she stole it from Helena in the first place it has no effect.
Thanksgiving? I think again. We haven't really celebrated thanksgiving in about two years. "That sounds great, actually," I find myself saying. "What do you think Hel?"
Her expression is only mildly shell shocked. "Uhh sure, sounds good. Alfred will be thrilled. He loves to cook up a storm for the holidays. In fact," she grins as she turns to me and nudges my chair along, "we won't even need a turkey, there's this great big bird all tied up right here in our living room."
"Hey!" Dinah protests
"...Nice and plump, probably won't even need to baste it."
Helena walks me to the elevator so we can go to the gym.
"HEY! I'm still tied-up here," comes the plaintive whine.
Helena ignores Dinah and says to me quite seriously, "Maybe we should work on my kicks and defending from below. And defensive manoeuvres for you. There's been too much slacking off going on here lately."
It's remarkable how she knows exactly what I'm thinking but says without any hesitation. "What about Dinah?" I ask as the elevator door closes.
"We'll work on her defensives tomorrow."
"No I meant that she's tied up."
"Oh, that's part of the lesson, too. Little miss gorgeous and smart-ass can figure it out for herself." Then pretending to push imaginary glasses up her nose in an exact imitation of my own gesture she mimics the tone of my voice perfectly. "She'll thank me later, when it saves her life."
She doesn't retaliate when I whack her in the stomach with the back of my hand.
Something in Helena has changed. For several weeks now, she's been different. But I noticed only two days ago, the night of our thanksgiving dinner, which Dinah insisted she cook. Alfred fussed and hovered over her like the old mother hen he is. He insisted that it was to assist young Miss Dinah. But I'm convinced it was because he was worried she would char his pots and burn his pans and make no mistake they are his. Not one single piece of culinary equipment in this apartment was bought by the women.
But on Thursday evening Helena arrived with the groceries that Alfred and Dinah listed out the day before. She stayed in, helping with the preparation serving up snacks and beverages. She insisted she was simply playing bartender but it was more like she was playing hostess. Her manners were so impeccable that I wished we had invited more people to our dinner. But Dad is in Chicago on a lecture series, and just having this celebration is difficult for us every time I make a list of what I'm thankful for, I keep thinking about To be honest what hurts is how easy it is for me to put aside the memories of Wade. In my head, I was breaking up with him for longer than we were actually together. I wonder if I'm holding on to the sadness just so that I won't feel like a bad person for not having been in love with him.
After the bird was ready she insisted that Alfred sit down and join us while she carved and served. He was indignant about the gross violation of protocol that Helena was suggesting but when Dinah jumped in with her desperate pleading, the man who could stare down Batman caved-in and gave up the fight graciously. I think he was the happiest one of us all that night. He sat there puffing his chest and staring around the table proudly at the three of us. He regaled us with his memories of Christmas goose, which got Helena reminiscing about her two years in London. Dinah now wants to do a Christmas dinner as well.
I should have known she'd be handy with the carving knife. I've seen her eat her food it's as if the food is so thoroughly seduced by her, it just falls apart under her knife and fork while the rest of us mere mortals have to saw away at it.
Dinner was perfect. The conversation was lovely just the perfect mixture of heady, light, intellectual and goofy. Her wine selection was wonderful, and after lecturing Dinah about underage drinking as I hid my smirk from her she let the kid get good and ploughed on the buzzy vintage. She packed Alfred off early and cleared the table herself. She didn't even blink when Dinah begged off dishes to go spend time with her friend Gabby.
She must have felt my eyes on her as she rinsed the plates and loaded the dishwasher. "I have dishes at my apartment. And I don't have a dishwasher. So you can stop wondering if it's Armageddon."
"Sorry." The sound of running water made me nervous. How was I to start a conversation with her? We weren't working out, Dinah wasn't around to chaperone us, we weren't working it was just the two of us. She had made it very clear in her tacit way that she didn't want to talk about any sensitive issues. She refused to talk about Harley, she refused to talk about Reese, she refused to talk about Wade, she refused to talk about Sandy, she refused to talk about her murderous rage over the spinal neural coupler, she refused to talk about her disaffection with the direction of her life for the last couple of years. But she was happy to talk about Dinah, my teaching, school, the municipal elections, the new commissioner, dad's new job as a consultant, the revamped Delphi, the new security features for the clock tower. She was happy to sit and listen to me pour my heart out and I wanted to return the favour.
As she put the last of the dishes away, I went around the table picking up our glasses. "Come sit outside with me," I said as I snagged the remaining wine.
"Okay," she said, wiping her hands.
On the balcony, she leaped up to take her usual position on the balustrade and held out her hand as she waited for me to pull up with her glass. As I lifted the glasses up I realised an embarrassing fact. "Which one is yours? I don't remember which had more."
"You don't remember?" she asked incredulously.
"Shut up and drink," I said as I thrust the glass with the greater volume into her hand.
"What's this? How come I get more? You trying to take advantage of me Miss Gordon?"
"I I " I stuttered.
" Get me drunk and get me talking?" For some reason I was incredibly relieved by the way she completed the sentence. "I know all your subtle and sly ways to trick me into a sensitive chat," she teased.
"I don't think there's anything subtle about getting you drunk. I'd have to get a whole case of this stuff out here for that."
"No, I never was a cheap date."
"I can't imagine you're a cheap anything."
"Hhmhh," she grunted noncommittally.
For the next few minutes we sat there. She stared at the sky and I stared at the snaking trickle of traffic on the distant streets below. I watched the anaemic headlights moving in one direction and was entranced by the corpuscles of red moving in the other and considered the appropriateness of referring to the large roads and avenues as the arteries of the city. The wind picking up sent a chilly shiver through me. Without a word, she shrugged off her jacket and handed it to me. Instead of wearing it I slipped it on it back to front the back of the chair protected my back well enough. It was cold outside but her jacket was warm, toasty even. I don't even know why she needed to wear jackets since she never seemed to feel the cold anymore since the winter of Freeze. And really she had been having her issues with body and atmospheric temperature since the summer of Ivy.
I snorted quietly to myself. These were the ways in which I knew time now by the injuries and traumas that we she encountered. What would this year be? The fall of Hawke? The Hell of Harley? She cut her eyes at me when I snorted but didn't move her head. I pulled the warm jacket tighter around myself and inhaled the smell of wool and leather and smoke and Helena. I took a gulp out of my glass and hugged myself when another blast of wind kicked up. Helena's hand whipped out into the air and then extended toward me. It was a single brown leaf, ragged and curling at the edges, and peppered with tiny holes. I took the brittle leaf from her and felt the rough texture of the veins as they rasped through the ridges of my callused fingers. I smiled at it. The south side of Gotham was a long way for a leaf to travel in the wind. As it crackled through my fingers, the dehydrated membranes crumbled apart and floated onto my lap. I held the remaining pieces up, above the level of my shoulder, and felt the wind tug at them I let them go and they drifted away on the current of air into the blackness.
The wind rose and fell in waves. When I was hyper-aware of the sound of our breaths and the echo of our breathing in the wind, I asked, "Do you think about Selina a lot?"
"Do you miss her?"
The laughter burst out of her mouth like a bullet. "All the time. Really a lot this year."
"I don't miss my mother. She was very beautiful with blonde hair. I got my hair from my father. He was funny. He'd show me how the insides of things worked. Sometimes he'd let me sit on his lap and handle the steering when he drove. He used to drink a lot."
"Cheers," she said holding up her glass.
"He beat her. He used to hit me too."
"I miss him."
"Well, we're all fucked up." It was very quiet. Not even one siren. "I don't remember mom's face any more. I try, but I can't."
"Do you think we're doomed to be perennially unhappy?"
"I don't know maybe it's more that we can't touch happiness when it's in front of us. Like when I was a kid."
"Were you happy? When you were a kid?"
"God yeah! I was so happy like my heart would burst."
"Are you unhappy now?"
"Are you happy?"
She laughed, once. "No."
"Me too." It was getting colder. It felt like the air was condensing on my face.
Helena sat up swung her legs to hang down over the balustrade. The glass made a chinking sound on the flagstone. She leaned over towards me. "Don't cry, Barbara. It'll get better."
"I'm not crying." But the glinting drop of moisture on her thumb as it came away from my face made me a liar. I bent my head and brushed the back of my free hand against my cheeks. When I looked up, I was staring into unwavering yellow eyes that took the glass of wine from my hands.
"I think you've had too much too drink. You should go to bed," she all but whispered.
"It's early, there'll be "
"Go to bed."
"I can't sleep there."
"Then sleep on the sofa. It's very comfortable."
She removed the back cushions from the sofa and made a high rest for my legs. When she had me tucked in with a blanket from my room, she knelt by the sofa. "They're just bad dreams. They'll go away. Try to think about something " she smiled but the smile didn't reach her eyes, " happy."
I pulled the blanket under my chin and considered the sadness in her blue eyes. "You should be happy too."
"Mom always used to say, happiness is what you least it expect it to be."
"Your mom was crazy and dangerous."
"I liked her."
"Me too. Now go to sleep."
The next morning I found the tea already brewing when I woke up.
I know Helena is sensitive. I know that she is perceptive. But this gentle Helena is new. It's as if all the anger has drained out of her. But it's also as if the fire inside her has faded too. Almost as if the anger was the fuel that fired an engine inside of her, and the loss of that spark has killed whatever drives her. It's nothing specific, just a feeling, like she's not quite here. Even Dinah has noticed.
"What's up with Helena?" she asked me this morning before going to school.
"Why?" I asked.
"She's been so weird lately."
"Like, she's nice all the time now. She's being nice to me."
"I thought you'd like that?"
"Yes but its weird. Like she's a pod person or something."
Whatever it is, I'm caught between worrying about her and being completely fascinated by this side of her. She's responsible. She's efficient. She's parental when it comes to Dinah. Something about her is softer now slower. Before I always felt like she was waiting to be somewhere else, but now I can't feel the restlessness anymore. She's still as evasive as ever to me but now the feeling is in me like I'm the one not seeing her instead of her hiding. Perhaps the gentleness isn't new. I've seen flashes of it before, but it was just that flashes. It's never been this close to the surface before; and I'm fascinated by it it makes me feel like she's right within my reach.
CHAPTER 23: HELENA
<"Huntress, are you available? I need you right now."> Barbara's voice in my ear jolts me out of sleep and dumps my ass on the hard floor. Fuck!
I wipe the sleep from my eyes scramble up to sit. My voice when I talk is about as rusty as a heap sitting in the front yard of some hick in the boonies of Alabama. "What, what? What's wrong? Are you okay?"
<"I'm fine. Were you sleeping?"> she asks in a voice laced with worry but otherwise un-alarmed.
Then why are you calling me? I look for the time and there it is, glowing right in front of me four something, I can't focus on it. "Do you know what time it is?" I ask.
"Uhhm yes," she says in a puzzled voice. "It's "
"It's ass o'clock in the morning, Barbara." I stand up and massage the bruise on my ass. "It's half past the crack of my ass that's the time. What do you want?"
"I have a situation developing "
"Noooo " I groan. "There is no situation. It's after three. There's never anything after three in the morning." I know I'm whining. I may not sleep all that much, and I may not sleep at conventional hours, but I do need sleep and the little sleep I was about to get has just been interrupted. I need whatever sleep I get.
<" On the west side,"> she says. The words are vague but by her inflection I'm supposed to understand her meaning and maybe I do.
The west side. "The north west side?" my voice spirals up into a squeak. "North of the Trigate bridge, on an island, in the armpit of town, that west side?"
Fuck! "I'm on my way."
<"I need you to drop by the tower first.">
"I'm right there."
<"I'm right there,"> she says, and I go off air to give her a little privacy. She was asleep fast asleep from the sounds of it. It's rare for her to be asleep on a Friday night Saturday morning. We had an early end to sweeps and, by the hurry in which she left the tower after dropping off Dinah I just assumed that she was on her way to one of her disreputable jaunts of the city. Instead she was asleep and is now crabby for being startled out of it.
I turn to Dinah who is hovering right behind me and shrug at her. Dinah is bleary from sleep too, but the expression of fright she had on when the alarms went off earlier has receded to one of comical puzzlement. She can't believe that Helena's asleep either. Before I can return Dinah's shrug, we hear a clattering at the door of the balcony followed by the successive beeps of the security alarm being disabled. The door crashes open and the bleary and rumpled figure of Helena half stumbles into the room. The door slams shut behind her and she does a quick turn to wince at the loud noise it makes.
"Sorry," she mumbles. "All right, I'm here. Have you shut the loony bin down yet?' Both Dinah and I develop identical expressions of shock and surprise, with our brows climbing up into our hairlines. "What?" she responds, "It's an emergency, I got here as fast as I could."
"Where were you?" Dinah asks.
"Yeah, I can see that, hot shot. Where were you?"
"None of your business. Why don't you go brush your hair or something? It looks like a bunch of angry weasels've been screwing in it."
I sigh in exasperation as the goading remark shifts Dinah's face into hurt and then anger and then irritation, and then neutrality before she leaves the room. "And you look like you were screwing an angry weasel."
Helena follows Dinah out with her eyes and then turns to me with a long whistle. "Woo! Did you hear that? She's getting feisty, Barbara, you'd better watch out." She pauses and then stammers. "What, do I have bed hair?"
"That was pretty quick."
"Well, shit, Barbara. It's an emergency. Why'd you make me come here first?"
I hold the box of specially treated contacts out to her. Just in case," I say to her as she inspects the contents of the box. If Quinn's involved "
"Yeah. No problem," she mutters as she slips them on.
"Also, I think you should have back up on this."
"I think Dinah should go with you."
"You know "
"No, Helena. Dinah and I have spoken about this and we can't shield her like this. If she's going to learn how to handle more dangerous situations, we can't protect her like this. She'll hang back and can use her powers from a distance."
"What I was going to say was, you know that's probably not a bad idea."
Oh. "Oh." Now I feel stupid.
"Bet you feel stupid now. Hey, Dinah! You changed yet? Lets go!"
"She asleep yet?" Helena asks me a little sulkily as she leans over the sink and nurses the steam burns on her arm and on one side of her face. They're minor burns but bound to be painful.
"I just sent her to her room."
She gives me a peevish look when I hold the tube of salve out to her. Of course, both her hands are a little occupied right now. I apologise and retreat after leaving the tube by the sink.
"'She okay?" Helena asks.
"Yes. She says she feels tired but that she's okay."
"Good. I was worried about the knock on the head I gave her when we rolled out of the hummer."
"She's fine," I find myself saying a little heatedly. It was my decision to have them stay and investigate I can't help defend my decision. Of course, I can't help feeling a little guilty as well Dinah looked shaken. I think strung out is the better word her expression was a cross between elation and fear. Either way, she collapsed from the exhaustion and I finally had to send her to bed. But who wouldn't feel shaken after telekinetically driving a hummer off a bridge I imagine the strain from the effort and from the close call was immense. But she's safe right now.
I leave the kitchen to go to the Delphi and try to go over the sequence of events hoping I will see something that makes sense. Of course, it has nothing to do with the fact that I can't bring myself to look Helena in the face. I don't know what to say to her. I feel responsible for this morning's events. I'm completely at a loss to explain why Helena and Dinah should have ended up on the wrong end of a police action.
When they reached the asylum, Helena remarked that they had arrived at a siege situation. Arkham staff had closed off bridge access to the island and was refusing entrance to NGPD vehicles. The director of the asylum refused to release any information about any security lapses. But my sensors indicated that there was a Level 9 security breach there were only nine levels in Arkham and nine was the highest. If Arkham staff was trying to cover its ass at the expense of public safety there was going to be a disaster of staggering proportions it would be a catastrophe.
At least that's what I told myself when I directed Helena into the steam tunnels that ran under the facility and opened into heating vents inside the holding cells that I was doing to make sure that the citizens of New Gotham were safe from marauding maniacs; that it had nothing to do with the fact that Joker was one of the Level 9 inmates and the fear and hate that spiked through me at the thought of him on the loose had nothing to do with it. Despite the fact that Helena reported to me that the inmates seemed to be penned in and sedated, I made her inspect each level even after I learned that the PD was standing down from the asylum and there seemed to be no security breach.
I was so engrossed in the argument we were having as she made her way back outside that I failed to keep an eye on my controls of all the steam vents and almost lost Helena to a spume of scalding steam that came down from the turbines at the Water District tunnels. Luckily I was able to initiate a valve closing and direct Helena out of harm's way but not before she was a little singed. I still haven't told her that my quick patch in almost set off the overload alarms and initiated another emergency.
And as they attempted to drive off the island they were spotted leaving by an enthusiastic patrolman taking one last circuit of the island before he reported off duty, leading to a five-mile chase where Helena led the cars and helicopters to the far north side of the city, leaped out of the running vehicle with Dinah in tow and then had Dinah 'drive' the car across the bridge making all the proper turns and evasions before having her crash into and through the rails. As relieved as I was to know that there would be no more cars following them, even I had to wince at the destruction of property. Oh I didn't have a visual clue but I can always tell by the depth of Helena's chuckles how big the blow up is I think there's a little pyromaniac tucked away in there somewhere.
I'm examining the network that runs Arkham. There's got to be an explanation for what happened. According to the press conference that Jeremiah Arkham is giving right now, it was a drill to determine police response time to emergencies at the facility, which is a lie because not only is Arkham outside the jurisdiction of NGPD, Commissioner Kelly had no idea what was coming. But they're nodding at the cameras right now smiling and assuring the viewing public that it's all okay. I love politics.
"What a joke." Helena comes up behind me, brushing breadcrumbs off her shirt. "Kelly was about ready to blow a gasket today. He was standing there in his jammies and fluffy bunny slippers calling Arkham a motherless psycho son of bitch. For a second I thought he was one of the escapees."
I don't look away from the monitors. "Well, he was dragged from bed at an unusual hour I can't imagine he was very happy about that."
She takes another bite of her PBJ sandwich. "Tell me about it. I know exactly how he feels." That catches my attention. Helena left in a hurry this morning a justifiable hurry but still without answering our questions about exactly how it was that she managed to be right on hand when I called her. I turn my chair around and almost run over her feet. "Hey, watch it!" she says and jumps away from me.
"'Sokay. So you figure it out yet?" I shake my head. "I'm sure you can figure it out."
"I don't know. I can't find anything wrong. Maybe it was a hardware failure that set it off. Maybe Jeremiah Arkham was conducting a test he does seem a little imperious. I'm just glad it was a false alarm."
"Still it won't hurt to keep an eye out for a few days." I nod in agreement. "Okay. I'll be sure to swing by during sweeps."
As I fish about in my head for ways to start this conversation she stands there looking at me before stuffing the remainder of the sandwich into her mouth. She looks like a draggled chipmunk with her hair standing up in places, and the lump in her mouth. I take in the ruddy swelling on the far section of her face and notice how it already looks less vicious. She brushes more crumbs from her shirt and a couple of them float to my lap, driven by her vigorous hand motions. She gives me a silent 'yikes' by frogging the corded muscles of her throat, and continues grooming herself.
I smile at her and say, "Your hair's a mess."
"Fuck," she murmurs and runs her hand through her hair. "Fucking bed head, and wind hair aaannnd pulling my hair out from the way the kid drives."
"Bed head, mmnh?"
"Yeah. Well, speaking of bed head I'd better get back to bed. So much for the rest of my day."
"You never answered my question."
"From before, about where you were?"
Her head jerks spasmodically to the side in a miniscule motion to the balcony, almost as if she has just suppressed the urge to escape. She runs both her hands through her hair and presses it down, leaving her hands cradled behind her head. "I was out."
"I thought you were asleep."
"But you were out?"
"Yup." I raise my eyebrow, asking her to elaborate. After a moment's chagrined silence she grimaces and says, "I was out and then I was on my way to the apartment and then the stars came out and the moon had sort of a umm moonbow around it and I kinda sat down to take a look and I was just wool gathering and then I guess I kinda ll..sl..p," she ended with a hissing slurp.
"I'm sorry what?"
"I fell asleep."
"On the balcony."
"The balcony?" I challenge her. I know she wasn't there. The motion sensors would have picked her up well before she fell asleep.
"The ledge ?" she corrects herself hastily.
"The ledge?" I ask incredulously. "The ledge," I repeat. "Of course. Where else?" I take in the smudges under her eyes and am once more aware of the brittle feeling she has induced in me for days now despite her outwardly normal behaviour it's almost as if she is carrying some deep sadness inside her. Not the old sadness but something new that even I don't know about. I'm suddenly filled with a feeling like panic there's something about her I don't know. I've always known everything about her. Maybe not the little details but the big things I've always known. She's always been transparent to me. But lately and especially after Quinn, there's been a curtain between her feelings and my awareness of them. I ask the next question automatically without knowing where the impulse comes form. "How long?"
"Uh...I don't really..."
"It's just not a "
"How long?" I put my foot down. As she answers, I'm consumed by a strange sense of déjà vu like we've had this conversation before and the outcome is already pre-destined.
"A few weeks."
"My apartment's like a fucking revolving door. It's on top of a bar, there's people breaking in all the time "
"Wait, wait a minute. Who broke in to your apartment?"
"Why did he break into your apartment?"
"Because he doesn't have a key," she says factually, her voice indicating that I'm being stupid for not being able to logically deduce that. She's silent for a while and decides to help me out by answering my unspoken question. "I broke up with him. He was being an ass."
I don't know how to respond to this piece of information, but however I should react, I know that smiling is the wrong response. I know that consolation, or encouragement to pursue the relationship will not be well taken. I redirect the conversation to its earlier track. "No I meant why outside? You can sleep in here."
She shrugs in response. She looks up to the rooms where Dinah is hopefully fast asleep. "Kid's got my room, anyway."
"There are other rooms."
"Yeah, I know that. It's comfortable outside. Cool breeze, nice view."
"Helena it's 36 degrees out there," I remind her.
"Don't really feel it, remember?" she reminds me. And now I remember when and where we've had this conversation. It was in this very room, seven years ago, before she came to live with me. She was watching over me then.
"Are you watching over me, Helena?" I ask, and I'm not sure why my heart starts to speed up at this thought. She dips her head in response and hides her expression from me. But I can see the tightening of her jaw that means I'm asking too many questions and that she's about to get defensive. I realise that I've been a little caught up with my own pre-occupations in the aftermath of Quinn's little number on us. I take in the milky light of day as it pours through the glass clock face and decide it's time to change the subject.
"So what were you going to do today?"
"Huh?" she looks confused.
"You said, "So much for the rest of my day." What were you going to do?"
She twitches her eyebrows at me suspiciously but answers me quite clearly. "I was going to go to the museum the Van Gogh sketch exhibit. It's around only for three more weeks. I wanted to see it before it's gone. I thought it'll be nice haven't been to the museum in a long time."
The museum. My god! How long has it been since I've been to a museum? I think that the last museum, or rather art collection, I was in was Selina's gallery. I don't think that the fundraisers I've attended with daddy count as real visits. I think that visiting the museum sounds like a fine idea. It's a clear day outside bright and crisp probably one of the last clear days before winter sets in, and the fresh air and sunlight will do me good.
"Good. What time are you going?" Her look of alarm makes me feel less sure about my sure of my plan of action.
You'd think that I just asked her to inject poison into herself, which is funny because I have and she didn't look this alarmed then. "You you want to " she points at me, "you want to go to the museum." She turns the finger on herself. "With me?"
"I'd like to join you, if you don't mind."
"Sure " she says, not at all sure. In a daze she adds, "I was thinking around noon?"
"Okay." She looks confused now. "I guess I'll go " She heads to the balcony.
"Where are you going?"
She points half-heartedly in a general direction. "Back to my apartment. I need to shower, change "
"Oh, for Helena!" I shake my head in disbelieving exasperation. "Surely you can sleep here. You're here all the time anyway. God knows Alfred's done enough of your laundry here that you have clothes here too." She looks up at her old room. "You can sleep in my room if you want."
"Uh No, here is fine!"
"Fine then sleep on the sofa, it's very comfortable." We share a smile she knows how comfortable the sofa is. She's the one who convince me to keep it. "Alfred will be by to make brunch later."
She nods and obediently sits down on the sofa before remembering she still has her boots on. She slips them off and gathers my blanket, still sitting there since thanksgiving, around herself she likes to feel wrapped up even when she doesn't need the covers.
When she lies down her hair sticks up again. I start to smooth it down but when she closes her eyes I decide to leave it alone. She can fix it when she has a shower.
She's quiet at the museum but not a bad quiet. It's the quiet of someone appreciating something beautiful. So as I observe her gliding though the galleries, I am quiet as well. We share our quiet opinions of the canvases my reduced stature giving me a slightly different perspective than hers. I have taken to using the manual chair once again, the 'advanced' version not being available to my use until the insult from the coupler has subsided. It's actually quite amusing how incongruous her clothes are in this milieu she had only sweeps wear at the tower. I don't know if she's noticed the double takes and the surprised looks whenever she rounds a corner or strolls through the vaulted rooms.
At one point, I am struck by a sketch that Helena has lingered over with exceptional concentration and feeling. It is of a path through some trees. There is a man, walking through these woods, with a pack slung over his shoulder. And even though it is a simple, tonal pen and ink sketch, I know that is an autumn evening and the twilight is starting to fog over with the mist drawn from the earth in the distant fields it's in the shading of a soft pencil over the entire paper that obfuscates the image so slightly that you might think you're imagining it. I know that the man is headed home and that he is tired from a long day's work it's in the slight stoop of the figure and the awkward angle of his arms as he carries his burden. I can see why Helena was so taken by this one drawing. Lost in my appreciation of the subtle skill behind this sketch, I lose track of Helena. I don't mind I know that she'll find me when she's done.
As I make my way through the museum I spot her in the Impressionists gallery. Knowing that she will be moving on soon enough I keep going and hope that she will catch up with me at the Cubists. Thirty-nine minutes later there is still no sign of her. We have now been in the museum for about three hours and I'm starting to feel a little dizzy from all the art surrounding me. Before I can come down with a serious case of Stendhal Syndrome, I duck my head and poll the galleries and rooms for any sign of my slightly reluctant companion. As I make my systematic way through the hallways, I come to a stop by the Impressionists again. Helena is still standing in font of the same painting. Intrigued, I roll up to her and look at the painting that has her so enthralled. It is a Pissarro. In a wooded field a young man gathers kindling; further away, two women talk as they travel the village road; and in the distance is the profile of a high building probably the church steeple or the bell tower of whichever town they are outside of. The quick smudged brush strokes, the contrast between the dark cool colours under the trees and the light warm colours on the exposed fields manages to convey the impression of a perfect summer afternoon.
I'm a little confused sylvan surroundings aren't exactly Helena's style. It's not that she isn't a romantic, there's just too much movement, darkness, and city in her for her too be too attracted to rustic themes. She does not notice when I stop next to her. The gentle touch on her hand jerks her out of her trance. When she meets my eyes, abruptly she says, "Is it okay if we get out of here, I think I've had enough culture for one day."
I nod and move out of her way as she cuts through the air. Puzzled by this shift in her mood, I study the painting to see what it is that's got her so frazzled. It isn't until I find the plain white label with its Times-New Roman font that I understand.
Les chataigniers a Osny
(The Chestnut Trees at Osny)
Oil on canvas
Formerly collection Selina Kyle,
I find her sitting outside on the steps at the bottom of the chair ramp, drinking out of a bottle of water. "I keep forgetting that it's there and then when I see it, it's a shock to my system. I tell myself to avoid the gallery, to avoid the museum and I don't come back for a really long time. Then I forget that I told myself all those things, and I come back, and it's a shock all over again."
I nod in understanding. "We won't come back for a really long time, then," I say with a bright smile, hoping to offset her funk.
She shakes her head and continues talking. "It didn't bother me today," she says, capping the empty bottle and throwing it very accurately into a trashcan about six feet from her. "It's just some damn painting that used to hang in our hallway. I don't even like it." She shrugs and pushes her sun glasses back up her nose.
I put my glasses on as well but pull them down just a little bit as I look over the top and ask, "Want a hot dog? I'm buying."
She accepts my hand and pulls her self up. "Just one? You have to buy me at least four."
"Four? I saw you eat brunch, you're not going to eat four."
"That's what you think. I can eat eight, no problem twelve if I don't get soda."
"Prove it. If you can eat a dozen hot dogs I'll buy you hot dogs forever."
"Hah, sucker! I hope you know that forever is very long time."
I see the gleam in her eye as she directs to me her preferred vendor in the park. And I start to wonder exactly how efficient her metabolism is actually.
I'm starting to wonder if all these years of PT haven't made me more flexible than I can imagine because, right now as Helena would say I have my head up my ass.
The sound of a body crashing through a glass window followed by the sound of a bullet as it rings over the speakers and distracts me from me ruminations of my physical entanglements.
<"Son of a bitch!"> The sound of running boots halts; there is a scuffle and then I hear the sound of boots hurriedly sneaking into position before silence.
"Huntress, status!" I bark out.
<"Shhh "> The next sound I hear is that of heavy running boots being lifted off their feet, and then I hear the sound of an open palm striking a face. <"You don't fire a gun into a crowd of civilians you dumb fuck."> Then the sound of a fist striking flesh. <"You could hurt the wrong person."> The sound of a body hitting the ground none too gently lets me know that Helena has relinquished her hold on her quarry.
"Huntress, what's going on? Do you have Marks?"
<"You tell me, Oracle. I've just crashed a party with the FBI and the PD.">
<"Oracle what the fuck! Why am I picking up a cop?">
"What are you talking about?" I ask as I nudge my glasses firmly up my nose.
<"This Marks guy is a Feeb.">
<"That's what I said. I drop him and the next thing I know I have 10 Feebs pointing guns at me.">
"Maybe they just want him in one piece." As I speak I try to find out more about Leo Marks our gunrunner. Every search I run comes up against a dead end and my queries of the FBI database time out. If he's undercover, he's so deep undercover even his own agency doesn't know about it.
<"No, they were covering him he's undercover."> The sound of police sirens and SWAT helicopters fills the background. The noise of commanding voices generated over loudspeakers filters through her receiver as well. The woop woop of a siren followed by the thwapping of rotor blades dopplers in and out of range of her receivers. <"Mother f Give me five, Oracle. I gotta deal with this.">
I follow the sound of her body as it makes her way through tight spaces and leaps. She sounds pushed for space but otherwise okay. I switch my attention to my other protégé who, for the second time in five days, finds herself in the middle of what is without a doubt as big a mess as I have ever created. Out of the blue, Oliver Hardy's voice pops into my head. 'Another fine mess you've gotten us into.' I pause before I use the codename she has adopted. "Canary, what is your status?"
<"Umm fine. I think Huntress is distracting them. I'm just sitting here making sure I stay out of sight."> There is a pause <"Ow! That's got to hurt. Huntress just straight legged someone in the umm crotch.">
"You can say 'balls' Canary, I've heard worse from Huntress."
<"Fucker!"> And right on cue, comes Helena's voice.
<"Canary, what's your position?"> she asks.
<"I'm in the park across the street.">
<"Shake a leg, I see uniforms coming your way.">
<"I'll say,"> Helena retorts dryly.
I take a look their signals and calculate their position relative to the layout of the streets. "Once you hit the street, there's a subway maintenance-tunnel a block to your north same side of the street as Dinah."
<"Are you sure? I don't want to land in the middle of a fucking sewer.">
<"Huntress!"> Dinah squeals in protest, to defend my role as information provider.
"It's all right," I say meaning both, Dinah and Helena. "This is old information. I doubt that the subway system has mysteriously re-arranged itself just to give me a headache."
<"Kid, circle the block and come 'round from the other side.">
I hear the sound of Helena touching ground and then a chuckle as a high-pitched squeal breaks the night.
<"That is not funny!"> Dinah says as she slaps Helena.
<"'Course it was, did you see their faces when you ran into them. I didn't know skulls with brains could make those hollow pwocking sounds.">
I bring the focus back onto their clean getaway "Are you at the entrance?"
<"Almost there,"> Helena responds through measured breaths.
The clanging sound of metal grates being moved lets me know that Helena has found the entrance.
<"We're in,"> Canary lets me know.
Once I know they're safe in the tunnels, I return to my screen that is connected to the dispatcher's board at the transit authority. "You need to drop one level down. About thirty yards to your north there's a catwalk that'll bring you right over the tracks.
The sound of running feet and then, <"I see it. C'mon k..Canary, down the hatch.">
I hear the rumbling coincide with the movement of the lights on my screen.
<"Whoa!"> Helena's voice comes over the roaring sound of the express train rushing by. <"That's a little breezy. I hope that's not the train you want us to catch, 'cause it's gone.">
"Just wait," I say as I wait for the local train to pull out of its station and run red lights down the downtown track, and hope it works. Using a vocal distorter I patch into the drivers' radios and inform them of congestion on the line and explain the run of red lights. "All right, in two minutes a train is going to slow down, get on it."
<"Cool,"> Helena says, <"Is this the C train? We can take it all the way to Wayne Tower.">
Simultaneously, Dinah chimes in. <"This is awesome. Did you just stop the trains? Can you do that to all the trains. Oh my god! Can you like stop all the trains if you want to, you could ">
I can just imagine the eye roll when Helena interrupts her. <"She sure could if she can ever get her computers to work right. Now can it, Canary. Our ride's here.">
All three of us are gathered around the Delphi in a team meeting, of sorts. Dinah is leaning over my shoulder, peering keenly at the monitor, in studious imitation of my own gaze. Helena is lounging on a rolling chair few feet behind us with a bag of tortilla chips. The rumbling thunder of plastic casters as she pushes off with her foot is followed by a spinning lull of crunching chips. She has been doing this incessantly for 11 minutes and 23 seconds, which is only three minutes less than I have been at the console. Every time I turn over my shoulder to peer at her, she gives me an understanding smile and continues to scarf her snacks. In the meanwhile, Dinah keeps twitching every time Helena pushes off extra vigorously, and blows a very annoying stream of warm breath onto my hair with each exasperated huff.
When Helena pushes off for the thirty-sixth time yes, I'm counting I cannot help the sharp hiss of air that enters my lungs.
"Helena, do you mind?" I ask, not a little sharply. I sound like a school-marm. I probably look like one as well, peering over the rims of my glasses. It's an unfortunate fact that I am actually a schoolteacher. Dinah turns around and joins my glare with a righteous one of her own, pleased that someone else in the room is joining her bandwagon of indignation.
Helena tip toes the spinning chair to a halt and faces me with an aggrieved shrug. "They're tortilla chips they crunch."
I press my fingers to the bridge of my nose to push back the headache that is threatening to pour out of my throbbing eyes. I punctuate the air with a calming gesture of my open palm and say as politely as I can through my clenched jaw, "The chair, Hel. Can you please stop rolling the chair."
Dinah, and I return to our examination of the monitor.
"But how did you catch it? Were you actively looking for it?"
"No it came across the scanners well, actually my voice-capture recognised a few key words as they were being recorded on a 911 line. See this," I bring up another window and scroll down a list of common references, "this address shows up on a previous 911 call."
I ignore the quiet and subdued crunching of a tortilla chip being eaten very slowly.
"But there's no record of any action.'
"So how did you know there was going to be a raid there tonight?"
"I've simply been following the personnel movement and requisitions on the police nets."
"Umm so if the police were already handling it, why were we there?"
I hear the quiet pad of a foot contact the ground and tense in preparation of more chair rolling there is nothing but the sound of air.
"The algorithm spotted a pattern." I pull up the cluster diagram that graphically represents the chain of logic that led the Delphi to flag the address. Central to the whole picture is the name Falcone.
Again I hear the shuffle of a sole make contact with the ground there is no rumble of wheels. But I hear the air shifting.
I give Dinah a short history lesson. "Carmine Falcone was the head of the biggest crime family on the east coast he was based out of Gotham. There was nothing he wasn't into drugs, guns, grand larceny, extortion, gambling, smuggling, prostitution, pirating If there was a tax-free profit to be made from it, Carmine Falcone had a cut of it in this city. He practically owned the police too. One of the first things that Helena's fa Batman did was destroy the Carmine cartel. After Carmine Falcone's death in prison, the family moved out west to Chicago before making inroads in New York and Newark. They steered clear of Gotham. But if this pattern of activity in the city is what I think it is, they're back, probably to take advantage of the vacuum of power left behind by Hawke's downfall and Quinn's absence. The title of the property is listed as being formerly registered to Carmine Falcone. I tracked the address of the shipping company's offices that have showed up in a number of police raids their offices are registered to the same address. And yesterday, the tip line recorded a call of suspicious activity at this same address."
There it is again a foot makes contact with the ground with a soft thump. I whip around to see Helena spinning 'round and round while staring at the ceiling. "Helena, will you please stop it!"
"Stop spinning, the sound is driving me crazy." As I say the words, I know I'm being too harsh, but my nerves are frazzled. Helena stares back incredulously. Even Dinah thinks I'm being flaky. "I mean if you want to play spinny-chair, can you do it somewhere else please. It's a little distracting."
"I'll just go watch TV," she says, crinkling up the plastic bag of chips, "On really low volume, okay?" and slinks off.
Dinah gives me nervous look and moves back from the desk to hover an inch further away from me. She probably doesn't want to be singed by the fire breathing dragon lady. "If the Falcone family is thinking of reclaiming old territory I want to know about it. I thought that Huntress could ask Marks a few questions."
Dinah scrunches her face. "Too bad he was an undercover FBI agent." Too bad? That was an understatement. Her next question contains nothing but honest curiosity but it stabs at me like a barbed blade. "How come you didn't know he was working for the FBI?"
Instead of throwing my glasses at the screen like I want to, I hold them the loose clasp of my hand. "I don't know."
I just don't know why my research on Leo Marks didn't tell me he was a law enforcement agent. And I don't know why I didn't know that the FBI was planning a raid at the same time. And I don't know why I still don't know all these things. Maybe I'm slipping. Maybe I'm not doing my job right. Maybe, I should spend more time at the Delphi cut down on the teaching load, take a sabbatical. This half life can't go on forever. Hell, maybe I should give up the Delphi and take up more teaching. I certainly haven't been any great shakes at protecting this city in the last year it's been a series of one bad judgement after the other. Maybe that's it maybe I should retire and take up flower arranging
" The new network servers?" Dinah is asking me as return from my little trip to Guiltland. "Maybe there's a bug somewhere in the new set up."
My first impulse is to snap at Dinah for suggesting something so ridiculous I built this machine and put it together. I ran test after test before integrating with the older, surviving components of the original Delphi. There is no way that there's a bug in the system. But that's exactly the sort of lazy complacence that allows me to have free run of networks all over the world.
"Maybe," I sigh, and prepare to run a diagnostic on the entire system. This should keep me awake all night. My glasses bounce off the keyboard where I throw them in frustration. I struggle to suppress the urge to throw my head into my hands and scream until the sound has knocked loose whatever is messing up my life. Thank god for Christmas break. I'm ready for it I'm afraid that I'll snap at school and have to be carted away by the men in white.
A night of peace and quiet with no alarms and emergencies is what I want. Just like the one on Thanksgiving I could do without the angst, though. Perhaps we could have a fire, and Helena's old velveteen blanket, and Helena, just like the old days, and peace and quiet. Empirically speaking, peace and quiet would be very useful.
"Holy fuck!" Helena's high soprano somehow manages to boom through the space. I jerk awake as she comes skittering into the room, throws herself into a chair and comes rolling to a stop next to me. "You need to turn on the news right now. Right now," she insists as she nudges my arm and tries to take over control of my keyboard. "C'mon, c'mon it's on Channel four. You've got to see this." I slap her hands away and push her away from the desk. I switch windows to the TV captures and break into a morning press conference at the mayor's office. "No, go back a couple of minutes." The images run in reverse as talking heads flap their jaws. "Back, back. Okay right there."
"And the NGPD and the FBI hold a joint press-conference to talk tonight about the ill-fated raid that resulted in the death of one FBI agent and one NGPD detective. News Four is here live at the special conference.
There is a lull as a man in a suit, clearly representing the FBI steps up to the microphone with a prepared statement.
"The FBI and the NGPD were both conducting independent investigations in relation to a cartel of drug and gun runners. Both FBI and NGPD personnel at the risk of their own lives had infiltrated the gang. Since both the FBI and the NGPD were acting on the same inside information our respective analysts came up with similar courses of action. It is unfortunate that in the interests of protecting the confidentiality of our investigations, we were unable to share this information with local law enforcement agencies. While these are tragic events we ask you to remember that these two brave and courageous men gave their lives in the line of duty to protect innocent citizens. We also ask that you remember that this is an ongoing investigation and while we pursue our crusade to bring these criminals to justice, we are limited in our ability to comment on aspects of this unfortunate incident. Please remember that at this time we must think of the families of Detective Jerome and Agent Gianetti the two heroes who gave their lives so valiantly. Thank you"
"Thank you Agent Smith. The thoughts of the NGPD are also with the families of these two brave men. As Agent Smith has said we cannot comment on aspects of this case that are under investigation, but we will try to answer as many questions as we can."
"Commissioner! Is it true that Detective Jerome may have been killed by FBI fire?"
"I'm sorry, as I have said this is a matter that is still under investigation by both the FBI and the NGPD, and until the ballistics reports come in form the forensics lab I can make no comment on this matter."
"Commissioner Kelly, do you think that the deaths of these two men could have been avoided if each of the undercover officers had been aware that there was another undercover officer present?"
"There's no way of knowing that. Yes, next question."
"Sir, what about reports that the only reason there were so few casualties was the presence of a vigilante who aided law the police and FBI?"
"Commissioner is it true that the train disruption last night was related to the raid, that there was also an attempt last night to disable the city's underground transit system?"
"We're still investigating a glitch in the signalling systems. The NGTA thinks it was a hardware failure."
"But isn't it true that the FBI is now involved?"
"In light of recent security concerns, we have requested assistance from the cyber-crime division of the local FBI office yes, but it is not their investigation."
"Can you confirm that the reason you asked the FBI to help is because the mafia has been using hackers to disable police communication?"
"No comment "
"Commissioner, sir, can you confirm reports "
"I don't have any comment at this time This is an ongoing investigation as soon as we have any information that we can release we'll let you know. Thank you."
It's at times like this that I really miss the use of my legs. All I want to do is push away with my feet so that I can slump back in my chair and stare at the ceiling. Instead I am locked in this eternal pose of good posture. I remove my hands to my lap and close my eyes. Slowly I fold over from my waist so that my head comes to a rest against the table, and then let out a sigh. I'm feeling a just a little tired. This is just not a good year for me in terms of maintaining a low profile. Perhaps a small vacation might be in order. Somewhere without computers, or somewhere with lots of computers but not mine. Or perhaps some sleep. But if I do that now, I'll be late for school.
I feel the hand on my shoulder at the same time I am aware of her speaking. "Are you okay?"
I turn my head to see Helena's face. She is kneeling by my chair, with one hand on the desk right at my eye-level. I nod without losing contact with the surface of the table.
"Are you sure?"
I give her a re-assuring pat on the hand and nod again. The computer beeps and I look up to see the results of the last executed diagnostic. No problems found. I'm not sure if I should be happy or afraid. If it's not the machine, then clearly there's something the matter with me.
"That's good right," she asks me, "that the Delphi is running fine?" I turn to look at her. "So it isn't good, that there're no problems that you can find." Her eyebrows twitch comically in a parody of unsureness. "So it's a bad thing " I can picture the wheels spinning in her mind as she scrunches her face. " because you still don't know what's wrong. Okay, that's not good."
And that's when it occurs to me that I am watching a morning news conference on TV. "What time is it?"
"8:30," she replies nonchalantly.
"8:30? Helena, I'm so late for school, where's Dinah, she's going to be late."
"Hey, hey, hey! It's cool. She's gone, I sent her to school. And I called you in late, because you're coming down with the flu."
"What are you still doing here?" I ask once I calm down.
"What are you still doing here? She asks pointing to the table.
"Yeah me too," she cuts in without letting me finish. "Look, go get dressed. And then go rag on your kids about moral exigencies and existential conflicts. The Delphi's still going to be here when you get back from school. You'll have the entire holidays to think about it."
I feel like a 12 year old. No, I take that back I feel like a ten year old. Helena has taken over driving the van for me after buckling me in on the passenger side. I inspect the brown bag she has packed for my lunch. An apple, my yoghurt, a granola bar and, what's this - a sandwich. I don't pack sandwiches
"I don't eat sandwiches for lunch."
"You should," comes the no nonsense voice as she veers into traffic with formula one flair.
I ignore her driving and remind myself that she's driven me before and I'm not dead yet. "Hel I don't eat ham," I remind her as I pick apart the contents of my sandwich.
"Why is it pink?"
"Because it's rare."
Rare turkey? I ask myself. Who eats rare turkey? Of course, the answer is sitting right next to me flipping off another driver. "I like my meat to be dead, before I eat it, thanks."
"Well then don't eat it," she says as she swerves around the unexpectedly slowing car in the left lane and zips into the turn. Out of the corner of my eye I see her reach for the window controls and put my hand on her arm to stop her from saying anything untoward.
She shrugs and keeps driving. At least she's keeping her eye on the road. "He wasn't dead."
The non-sequitur confuses me. "Excuse me?"
"The Feeb. He was fine when Dinah and I took off."
"It was very confusing in there, anything could have happened."
"Unh unh he was wearing a jacket and shouting orders. Everybody knew who he was by the time we left."
I stop to think about that. Of course, there's no saying someone couldn't have gotten a lucky shot in between the plates of his bullet proof jacket. I leave my lunch alone and look up to say as much to her when I notice that we are far over on the east side driving along the docks.
"Helena, why are we on the east side."
"Nonetheless, it's not a reason to be driving in the opposite direction of our destination."
"Oh, I don't think so," she replies cryptically.
I notice that we are no longer on a regular road but on a service road. The sight of the mica flecked tarmac rushing by brings back a memory of a lightweight Ducati that could fly like the wind and rode over the service rails, dodging the cargo trains, and taking it's rider anywhere it wanted to go. I feel the van shift gear and look up to see the graceful swan loops of the Gotham cargo rail. They've been closed for years since the quake and even though they've never been proven to be structurally unsound, they have not been pressed back into service because of the damage. My heart starts to pound with the thought of all the things that could wrong if Helena actually does what I think she's planning to do.
Quite instinctively I press back into the seat as the van picks up speed. "Helena ?"
"What are you doing?"
"Taking a short cut." With a bump and jostle we're on the flat rails and I can feel the distance between each sleeper.
"I don't think that's safe."
"It's perfectly safe. I've done it a hundred times." And with a soft lurch we're on the rising tracks flying above the docks.
It's a sight I haven't seen since my own days on the street. It's a sight I had never hoped to see again. When I feel the stinging in my eyes I realise that my traitor hand has rolled down the window just to feel the wind in my hair once more. Even so, I cannot help but notice the sections of missing side rail where a speeding van can go hurtling through. But Helena keeps the vehicle bang between the rails, not accelerating or decelerating. I look over the windshield, down through the slats of the sleepers and see the cars below us fall away as we move into the heart of the old city. Suddenly I wish we were in a convertible where we could roll down the top. I take a deep breath which sticks somewhere in the top of my chest, but then trickles down in liquid warmth to my stomach. I turn my head to look at Helena's profile she is looking at the road ahead, her eyebrows are slightly furrowed in concentration, her body rocking softly to some phantom beat as her fingers on the steering delicately adjust the bearing of the van. I wonder if this is how she would have driven over the rails if she were me in a bat suit and had her own Ducati. I try to imagine her gloved hands on the throttle of a bike but the picture is all wrong her fingers are smaller than mine, her wrist more slender. For a few moments I contemplate the apartment windows zipping by us and catch the odd startled gaze from a person looking out from a window onto abandoned tracks only to see a black van rolling merrily along.
I did this a hundred times when I was by myself usually when I was exuberant from a mission successfully concluded, but sometimes when I was moping. For whatever reason, the sadness, that I expect to come dogging on the heels of the initial elation, doesn't arrive. I raise my hand to touch the side of her thigh, just to let her know that I was wrong to doubt her; that I am enjoying this; that I am thankful for her impetuousness, which draws me out of my shell but I never quite make it.
"I know they're reporters and they're supposed to be annoying, but they didn't pull 'friendly fire' out of their ass. Something weird happened there and I'm going to find out."
"You sound like Reese."
The muscles in her jaw jump before she opens her mouth. "Yeah, maybe I need to go talk to him about what's going on with his department. See what we can find out about Mr. Grey suit from the FBI. Maybe I should go talk to Jim, he still has connections in the force."
We start descending the tracks and the van slows down. "Helena, I'm sure it's not terribly important. I'm sure I can find out what Agent Smith is up to."
"Like you knew Marks was really Agent Gianetti working undercover?" My headache from last night is coming back. "I'm sorry, but I'm not saying you don't know how to do your job. I'm saying there's something uncool going on and I want to back up your info. You should be able to get with that. I want to cross verify the sources."
"Now you sound like me."
"I should, all this time we've been together."
"All I'm saying is don't worry about it. It's my job to worry about things like this."
"Barbara, I know I look like a bimbo sometimes, but I'm not a complete flake."
"I never said you..."
"They're talking hackers. You're a hacker. They didn't pull that one out of their ass, either. I don't like the way it sounds."
This time my hand makes contact with her. "Hel it's okay. It'll be fine."
She turns to look at me. "You're just saying that so that I'll stop bitching you out and stay away from your computer."
"No, I'm saying that because I know I have you and Dinah to protect me."
"We can't protect you," she bangs the steering wheel, "if we don't know what the danger is," she looks back at the road. "Hell, I can't even protect you when I know who the danger is. Worse," she says softy, shifting down, as we move off the rails, "I can't even see what the danger is when it's right before my eyes."
I tighten my grip on her leg. "Hel stop. It's over."
She shakes her head tightly. "It's never over."
"No, it never is. Which is why we deal with each thing as it happens. Whatever's going on, we'll deal with it."
Slowly the van crawls through an open-air parking lot before we come to a crunching stop by a barred gate. Helena rolls down the window and, putting her fingers to her lips, lets out a piercing whistle. A large brown skinned man with a broad belly and a bald head comes shuffling out of the booth by the gate. The rasp in his voice betrays years and years of smoking, "Hey, hey baby boots. How you doin'?" he says as he leans into the window and stretches his hand out. "How you doin'?" I'm speechless. I cannot fathom Helena letting anyone call her by as unlikely an appellation as 'baby boots'.
Helena slides her palm along his callused one and pulls it back to meet the back of his hand with hers and then clasps his hand before meeting fisted knuckles. "Chico!" she says with evident pleasure, "My man."
"It's been a long time girl. Wachew been doin?"
"You know," she ducks her head. "This and that."
He leans further into the car and catches my eye before turning back to Helena. "You be impressin' the girls wicho' fancy drivin' skills again?"
The girls? I think, as I see her face drain of colour before flushing. Again? Well, that's another 'phase' she never grew out of I suppose I'll just have to owe daddy another bottle of Ardbeg for that. Her jaw drops just a little not anything someone who hasn't known her for a very long time would see. My eyebrow jumps in surprise she's embarrassed. Not to mention there's someone who seems to know more about her amorous pursuits than anyone else I know.
My humour like my eyebrow decides to take a decidedly arch bent in the face of this new information. I decide to see what else this unlikely friend of hers can tell me about my former ward and friend. "Actually I was a little disappointed," I respond. "She kept it under 80 the whole time. I've done 115 up here."
"Aw hell man! She really be tryin' to impress you with responsibility and shit."
"Chico, man," she cuts in. "This aint no girl, shut up."
Chico looks back in my direction. "Damn she aint! Some kids have all the luck."
"I'm not here to make small talk old man, you gonna open the gate for me, or what?"
"Sure sweet thing," he says as he shuffles back his booth, "only for you."
Helena deliberately does not meet my eyes as I mouth 'sweet thing' in amusement.
The gate rumbles on its half rusty wheels and slides open as Chico comes lumbering back towards us as the van inches forward on the gravel. Helena holds her arm out of the window and clasps his hand. "I still got that pack of cards for you, chica."
"Why" she asks, "you got money to burn these days?"
He throws his head back and guffaws. "I been learnin' a thing or two."
"I'll just have to see about that," she replies, and with a salute she drives off the gravel and onto the avenue that gets us back on the west side and moving uptown to the school.
Silence fills the van as I try very hard not to smile at the interlude just past. But years of being an intimidating caped crusader come in handy and I manage to retain a neutral expression. I return my attention to the huge brown bag that contains my partially very strange lunch and roll the top of the bag down tightly to make sure that the bag doesn't pop open.
"Chico runs the parking lot. He's in charge of the train yards, too." I nod silently at this unsolicited information. "He gets pretty lonely there by himself."
"It's nice of you to spend time with him like that."
"I guess," she shrugs. "It's useful. He likes me, lets me use the gate. I get around faster when I'm driving."
"Of course," I agree very carefully. "Very useful."
I must give something away with my tone because she jerks her head around to glare at me. "Are you mocking me?"
"No, no. I'm just saying that it's very considerate of you to be so subtle about using him." Her expression narrows to one of slight suspicion before settling on acceptance.
"Anyway," she says as she turns onto the road of exiting yellow buses, "I'm going to ask a few questions and see if anyone on the street's heard anything about the raid."
"Okay," I say as I unbuckle myself and swivel my seat around to transfer to the wheelchair.
"Hey, I'm still driving here," she grouses at me.
"That's right, I wouldn't want to crack my spine in an accident, would I?" I arrange my legs into a comfortable position, for all the difference the sensation makes to me, as Helena parks the van. When I look up at the open side door, she is wearing a very unamused expression as she ducks her head inside to hit the switch on the hydraulic lift.
As the lift lowers me to the ground she loads my lap with my books, my bag, my corrected papers, and my files. On the ground, as I struggle to arrange the mound into an orderly pile, she snags my lunch bag, pulls out the sandwich and throws it onto the front seat. "There's a salad in the cooler bag," she says as lands the cooler bag on my lap. "And two boiled eggs. Make sure you eat them." She tosses me the keys to the van.
"You need to eat more protein," she huffs.
"Stop fussing," I re-iterate and toss the keys back at her. "Come pick us up at 4:30. We can talk on the way home."
She shakes her head and holds the keys out to me, "I have " then stops. She draws the keys back towards herself. "Okay. Four thirty," she says and leans against the van.
I corral the mess on my lap and check for my cell phone before placing my hands on the wheel rims. As I make a half-turn backwards, another memory strikes me. "Remember this place?"
"What about it."
"This is where we first talked to each other."
"Yes," I point to a spot on the parapet wall 15 feet to my right and slightly behind me. "You were sitting right over there kicking the dirt."
"I was not." I turn my sceptical expression on her and point to her foot where tiny clouds of dust are dulling the shine on her boots. She immediately pushes off the van and stands straight.
"You jumped up when you saw me walking towards you." I could say that the clarity of the memory of speaking to Helena Kyle for the first time is shocking but the image of it is no more or no less than anything else that I remember. What is amazing, however, as she smiles sheepishly, is the is the I really should sleep more Is the fact that I can draw a straight line from that girl to the woman standing in front of me; that the responses I could fathom then are the ones that give her away today. "You looked a little pale and green, and then you turned red with embarrassment, just like " Just like she did today when Chico teased her. I stop my nostalgic monologue mid-sentence to analyse the last observation. There is something in it that should strike me as significant, my mind tells me, but the beep from my wristwatch reminds me that I have other responsibilities.
Very tactfully, she remains standing by the car and simply follows me to the entrance of the building with her eyes instead of physically, as I know she wants to.
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