Part I. III – The woman who had never been there
It's the same dream every night, in every sleep, him lost in the darkness, lying on his mattress, legs hanging over the side of the bed, bare feet chilled on the cold tiles, eyes fixed above, waiting. And every night she comes, smiling, and each time light follows her; she pulls the sheet over them, the dark sheets turn to white and there is light, more light. "I love you," he whispers as her fingertips run along his features, her touch even colder against his cold skin. When she cries her tears freeze.
He misses her every day, every night, every hour, every second, every instant…
It was the deep clank from his phone that had pulled him out of the land of dreams. Bruce straightened in his seat, his hands gripping the rests of his chair in the bunker. He rubbed a hand over his tired eyes, chasing the remnants of the ominous dream away; even the whiteness of the bunker was gloomy after the brightness in his dream. It was the same dream whenever his overridden mind let his battered body to close itself even for a moment, but there was no reprise for him anymore, not even in his sleep. Though, he wasn't complaining, no, he could at least see Rachel...
Chasing the last thought, he reached out to the phone, a frown appearing above his eyebrows. There had been only one person who ever sent him messages through this line, and Gordon wasn't doing that anymore. Though, apparently, this time the commissioner had made an exception. "We need to talk," Bruce read the message, "There's an emergency."
He read the message again, a feeling of anticipating started running wild in his blood. All he needed was a reason, and Gordon had just given it to him.
The days now were always the same, going on forever in an endless repetitive routine; working out to get back into the shape, controlling his wounds, fixing the brace on his leg; preparing his body for Batman's eventual reappearance, all while having discussions with Alfred how dangerous it was to return to where he belonged the most. Two weeks had passed since he had left the clown hanging out in the air upside down, but sometimes it felt like an eon had passed, and sometimes it felt like just a second had passed, and there was little difference between them.
Plus ça change, Bruce thought, how much things change, they become the same. In a manner of speaking, nothing had changed; he was still at the beginning, that little child in that alley whose world had just ended.
Grimacing, he put the phone on the counter, and went to prepare to go out. The bracelet was the hardest part. As long as he was tied to it, there was no hope for him doing what he needed to do. The Dent Act was still intact, but Gordon would still need help. He tightened the leg bracelet, biting his lips against pain as the metal cage surrounded his bones with a crack. He knew his body needed rest, two weeks weren't enough to heal a gunshot wound and a deadly fall, but even though his world was in statis, the world outside was going on. So he should too, that was the only reason he would keep fighting anymore; if he had stopped now, he knew he might never have started again.
Alfred walked in the bunker a few moments later, a dinner plate in his head. He stopped in tracks, looking at his armored figure. "Master Bruce," Alfred said wearily, setting the tray over a counter, "Master Bruce," he repeated, walking to him, "You can't. It's still too early. You must rest."
Bruce shook his head. He would rest when he was dead. "Gordon sent me a message," he said aloud, as he had a feeling if he had voiced his last thought out, Alfred might have locked him in the bunker, "He says there's an emergency, I need to see him."
The news of course made Alfred even more worried. "Master Bruce, meeting with the Commissioner is reckless under these conditions," he objected, "If the police see you—"
Shaking his head again, Bruce interrupted the rest of the words, "They won't—" He twisted aside and entered a few commands into his computer station, and a digital Gotham map appeared on the divided screens, a cluster of green dots moving over it, as a red dot stayed stationed above at the north.
"What's this?" Alfred asked, squinting at the screens.
"Every police officer in the city," he said simply, "I built a software from the sonar technology to trace their cell phones. It transfers the real time data to the map." He pointed at the map at the screen.
"That's why Wayne Foundation made that donation to the force last week?" Alfred questioned, his eyes growing heavier. He had had Fox to donate some money for technologic equipment to track the cell phones, Wayne Foundation stepping forth to get his city better. The Commissioner and the Mayor had accepted. They were all aiming the same thing; getting Gotham better.
It wouldn't mean though they weren't going to be other much needed benefits. "I need to keep track of them," he said with a shrug.
Alfred shook his head in weariness. "Master Bruce, you possibly couldn't think of going out regularly before all things settle down, could you?"
Alfred had asked the question, but Bruce knew the older man already was aware of his answer, in his weariness there was also the answer. He took the cowl from the fiber-glass cabin. "What else do I have to do, Alfred?" Alfred opened his mouth, but he cut him off, raising his arms to put the cowl on, "Monitor the trackers, Alfred, I need to know where they're when I'm out."
In the whiteness of the bunker, Alfred gave him a defeated look, and he wished the gloom of the cave, where most things would hide in the shadows. He had missed his home. "Alfred," he called, halting on his steps before he reached to the Batpod, "Double up the construction of the manor," he ordered, "We need to return to home."
He hadn't seen Gordon after that night. The Commissioner had prepared a wake for Dent but Bruce hadn't gone to the memorial. He hadn't gone to Rachel's grave, either. Basically, he hadn't gone to anywhere other than his bunker in the last two weeks, only one objection in his mind; to get back out of his city, in whatever capacity.
The late summer heat was suffocating in the armored suit, but Bruce realized he had missed the heat, and he had missed the feel of the breeze at the rooftops, too. As he stood still on a metal flag landing, listening to his city, he understood he had missed the most the tranquility up above here, where everything was in silence under a modicum of peace, the filth of the grounds miles away. It was a false pretense, of course, the filth and conflict was still there, but from here, it was easier to pretend.
His head lifted and his eyes automatically searched for the Bat Signal, but of course, it wasn't there, not anymore. Bowing his head, he jumped from the landing, and dived into the dark sky.
Gordon was already waiting for him at the rooftop of Cabbies in down town; a pub usually retired police officers frequented. He knew Gordon drunk together with his former co-workers there every Monday, so the alibi was good enough not to draw some unwanted attention.
He approached him from behind, and called the commissioner like in old times, "Gordon."
The older man turned around, his legs steady. He had gotten accustomed to Batman's gig even with two weeks interlude. Gordon gave him a look, eyes measuring, clearly checking him out. "How are you?" he then asked, question sounding strange coming from him.
Bruce didn't answer because he didn't know how to answer, especially to Gordon. "What's the emergency?" he instead asked back.
Gordon had been always quick to understand. Giving him another measuring look, he didn't press further. "Something happened last night," he said, "And you need to know it."
"What happened?" Bruce whispered out roughly, his voice lowering in Batman's distinctive rasp on its own account.
"Cameron Reese," Gordon answered, letting out a sigh, "She—she escaped from the safe house we put her last night."
It took a second to digest the news, as in his mind an image of her flashed suddenly, as she looked at him, almost bewildered, battered in her distraught suit, barefoot, her shoulder bleeding slowly. He wanted to shake his head in frustration. The woman had been nothing but a pain in the ass since the day she had started working for Wayne Enterprises. At first, she had been nagging Fox nonstop about the deal with LSI Holdings, consequently making Fox nag him, then she had managed to find the drawings of the Tumbler. How, he had no idea. He had stored away the drawings pretty good, so she must have been looking for a specific thing, but what he had no idea, too. Even that fact alone was troublesome, but what she had done afterward had been even worse. "How," he rasped out, his voice dropping even further as his anger raised more.
Gordon let out another sigh, almost baffled. "She—uh—knocked out the police officer we set to monitor her," he explained. Under his cowl, Bruce's eyebrow raised. Gordon shook his head, almost at himself, then pulled out a flash drive of his jacket's pocket. The recording from the security camera," he said, handing him the drive, "Look at it yourself." He paused for a second, his eyes turning away, "There—there is something with this woman."
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know," Gordon replied, "It's just—" He shook his head again. "The way she acted in the GNN building," he started again, "She secured herself in the toilet, while spotting the back exits of the building over a fire escape plan."
"Fire escape plan?" Bruce couldn't help but ask.
"Yeah," Gordon asserted, "She took it from a fire deposit." He understood what Gordon was trying to say. People reacted differently under duress, but a regular person usually did what his first impulse told him to do, whether it was flight or fight; but calculative moves took experience and training more than basic instincts. The commissioner continued, "When we found her, she took her heels out, that's logical, given the situation, but the way she held onto them in the car, just before Berg shot at her...Her fingers were tightened around the heel like she was holding a weapon." He paused for a second. "If I didn't make a move at Berg, she was going to do herself, I'm sure of it." He looked at him again. "There is something with her," Gordon repeated, his voice turning a notch deeper, "I'll put the search for her at minimum, but you need to do something about it yourself."
"I'll look into her," he affirmed, then asked, "Did she say anything different after her first interrogation?"
"No," Gordon answered, "At every interrogation she claimed the same. That she lied for the spotlights," Halting, Gordon gave him a look, as if he was trying to gauge Batman's reaction. After the brief pause, he continued, "She also refused to give away whose name she was going to give away if the Joker hadn't interrupted her show." He looked at him again, his eyes still searching his behind the cowl. "Is it true?" Gordon then finally asked, "Does she really know?"
He looked at Gordon, her image appearing in his mind again, as Gordon tugged her in another van after the crash, her eyes still couldn't leave him, her neck craned aside to look at him. "Leave her to me," he told to Gordon, "I'll deal with her."
He spent the rest of the week looking after her trail. He had printed a shot of her from the GCC stream and plastered it over a glass board close to his work station in the bunker, each day adding another tidbit around the photo. Most of them were irrelevant, his research not shedding any light over the mystery. But Gordon was right; there was something with her.
She was a born and bred New Yorker, a corporate lawyer still registered to New York State Bar Assoc. even after she had moved to Gotham six months ago after the stock market crisis. She had graduated from Harvard in 2002 then returned to her home town two years after her graduation, approximately four years ago, and had been working there since then as freelancer before she lost all of her biggest clients in the wake of the fall of Wall Street. Hence, her move to Gotham, looking greener pastures. There was nothing incriminating in her resume, but he still felt like something was amiss with all of it. It seemed like her life had started after she had returned to New York from Boston four years ago, all of her existence until then was only a birth certificate, like she hadn't ever been there.
Her life in Gotham was the same, too. He had gotten Fox gather information through her co-workers in the Wayne Tower, but no one seemed to know her besides being diligent, precise, but always reserved. She had never shared any drink with any of her colleagues after long hours of work, neither any office romance that everyone knew but pretended not to. She had only done what she was asked, behaving always professional, brought little problem, no juice for the grapevines; that was it of course until one day she showed up in the GNN live coverage, claiming she knew who Batman was. Most of her co-workers didn't even believe that it had been her, the others claimed she had lost her mind under the pressure, but the point was until that point it was like she hadn't been there, either.
The last thought suddenly had his back straighten rigidly, as he stood still in the bunker, looking at her photo over glass board. His eyes narrowing, he quickly marched to the computer hub and played again the feed Gordon had given to him. He fast forwarded the video then stopped at the moment she had taken the young officer out.
Bruce had also seen the young officer's deposition. The young man was claiming she had seemed like any other perturbed honest woman who had made a grievous mistake, worried and scared but Bruce had heard the stupefied tone in his voice and had seen the faint blush over his cheeks as he had talked about her being lovely.
The fact was clear, the officer had been comprised. She had coaxed him, knocked him out then escaped. That seemed like a thing a woman who had thought about fire escape plans while surrounded by a mob that was out to lynch her would think, but the way she did it was even more troubling.
He restarted the video, and played the scene. On the screen, she followed the officer Jones, a reassuring smile over her lips as the other went to the kitchen. Bruce couldn't make out the words, as there wasn't sound in the feed, and he couldn't read lips, yet, but their body language was clear. She was flirting with him, not too exaggeratedly, but the subtle moves were enough to get the young officer to look at her with that stupefied expression. He wasn't very surprised of that part; she was an attractive woman, and the officer was a young boy who was probably just out of the Academy. Three different officers had been assigned to her position, and of course she had chosen the young Jones.
On the screen, she drew to Jones, still smiling. The man turned aside, pulling a cup from the drawer and stated preparing the coffee. Then suddenly her expression...altered. The smile dropped off her lips then with a deft move she was on Jones from the rear, the crook of her right arm on his shoulder, the rest of it coiled around his neck, as her other arm secured the office over his left shoulder.
The officer made an attempt to clear off, but she quickly overpowered him, squeezing her arm around his carotid artery further, cutting off the blood supply. The officer tried to resist but his resistance was futile. A few seconds later, he was out. Shaking his head, he rewound and watched the moment again.
Gordon was right; the way she acted... Her moves weren't precise, but he must be blind not to recognize the Rear Naked Choke from Krav Maga. She had training; her technique wasn't first-rate, but it was effective enough. But that even wasn't what was troubling him, not really. Most women in Gotham had already started taking self-defense classes, adapting into the cruelty of Gotham's daily life, but what was troubling was that how she had done it, without blinking an eye.
On the screen, she bent over the officer that she had choked out and coolly checked his pockets. She found his wallet, and pocketed the money inside, her eyes tossing a side-glance at the security cameras. Then she stood up, and left the safe door, her pace steady, almost stalking.
Bruce hadn't any idea about who she was, but he knew who she wasn't; she wasn't just a lawyer.
Sometimes Alfred felt like Bruce Wayne was now living with the ghosts of two women; one who wasn't here anymore, and another who had never been here before.
Though, the woman's presence was everywhere, in every inch of the bunker, a whole board specifically designed for her highness, little notes, photos, the documents Bruce had gathered, all pinned to each other, in the hopes that he would figure it out.
Alfred knew what the younger man was doing, he had done it before, he had done it before for ten years; going after something that he had convinced himself he needed to, just because he didn't want to accept the truth that he had lost the woman he had loved, much like how he could have never truly accepted his parent's death. Alfred hadn't still managed to get him to the Rachel's grave, and he was losing his hopes if he would ever, too.
At least, the woman had managed to keep his mind off the idea of going outside, busying him with her rather mysterious personality. Alfred knew it was just an interim. Soon his wounds were going to heal then nothing, no one, even the woman herself would keep him inside. Judging by these days, Alfred had an inkling how those days were going to, when Batman finally got free...his unhinged anger and grief unleashed... He pressed down a shudder, feeling quite content for the distraction. That inevitable moment would wait for a little while.
He approached the computer hub as Bruce hunched over his work station, looking clues. "Any progress, sir?" Alfred asked, eyeing the New York Public Health Service official web-site.
"I think I'm getting to something, Alfred," his former foster son answered, lifting his head to him, "I copied her hard drive at Wayne Tower. She had been looking into LSI Holdings...more closely than necessary."
"Hmm," Alfred said in response, "That doesn't explain how she found about you, Master Bruce."
The younger man frowned. "I'll ask her that when I get her, Alfred."
Alfred raised an eyebrow, then his eyes skipped toward the computer screens again, "PHS?" he asked.
Bruce's eyes followed his too, as he shook his head, in thoughts. "The facts aren't adding up, Alfred," he commented sotto voice, "I'm...certain she's a con-artist, but she has no criminal record, which can't be true in her line of work."
Alfred gave him a look. "Perhaps she isn't one, sir," he pointed out.
Bruce shook his head in objection. "Do you think a regular lawyer would pull off what she has done so far?" he asked, but went on before Alfred even could open his mouth, "There is literally no trace of her, Alfred. No bills, no credit cards, no digital imprint, not even an e-mail account. Do you know how hard that's in this age? It's like virtually she doesn't live," he continued, "and it isn't even the first time. Look at these," he pulled out some files on the screen, "These are from her times in New York before she moved to Gotham but they only go back four years...before that, there was nothing, nothing that would suggest of her existence, other than some basic registrations." He pointed at the Harvard's alumni, "She was there, but she wasn't there, either."
"Do you think she's a fraud, too?" Alfred asked, finally getting to the younger man's point, "All of them are fabricated."
"No," he objected, shaking his head again, "No, you can't fabricate someone from nothing," he said, pulling a birth certificate. Leaning down, Alfred read the name over it. "Cameron Reese existed in some point."
Alfred pointed at the certificate, "But you're not sure if it's the same Cameron we have." Bruce gave him a silent look, affirming his suspicion. Alfred let out a sigh. "An identity thief," he announced, his eyes skidding toward the PHS's database, "you think she's stolen the real Cameron Reese."
Bruce nodded. Alfred sighed again, just when he had thought their life couldn't get any more complicated. "Master Wayne, how do you think you'll find her?" he asked.
This time it was him letting out a sigh. "I gathered fingerprints from her former office, but the prints had already mixed with other hundreds. I'm looking in NYPD and FBI's databases, too, but nothing so far," the younger man explained then pausing, he shook his head. "There must be something I'm missing, Alfred," he went on, "No one could vanish off from the face of earth with no trace behind." His head turned and his eyes bore through her photo, "I just need to look harder." Looking at the photo, he heaved out a sigh, and muttered slowly, "I should feel a bit relieved she at least felt this time enough gratitude to keep away who I'm from the police."
Alfred frowned, his eyes turning stern. "Gratitude?"
Bruce turned to him, but the look the younger man gave him didn't make Alfred relieved, not a bit. "She didn't give away my secret, Alfred," he whispered, "She told Gordon she'd lied. Without that deposition, Gordon would have never backed off the investigation on her."
Alfred shook his head. "Don't mistake survival instincts for genuine gratitude, Master Bruce," he warned, "She did that for her own benefit, just like how she tried to blackmail you or tried to expose you on live TV," he pressed further mercilessly, "She did all of those because they suit her interest better. And what would happen if she decides it suits her interests better to sell you out?"
A frown pulled up his handsome features, his jaw clenching, and he gave him a look, heated enough to melt the stone, "It won't come to that," he rasped out, his voice low, edged, "I'll find her before she does something stupid again."
But he couldn't, Bruce Wayne couldn't find her in the next five months. He had found the real Cameron Reese, born in New York in 1979 and died three days after her birth because of eclampsia. He had found out her registration to the court had been done four years ago in the means of hacking into federal databases, in the same way her entry to the Harvard Almanac and NYSBA. All those scopes had led to a dead end, leaving him empty-handed, because Alfred understood you couldn't find a woman who had never been there. No, because, that woman only could find you.
The dawn had just broken when the phone rang, a voice ominous, a fair warning for the shape of the things to come. "Hello?" Alfred opened it.
"Mr. Pennyworth," a female voice said, trembling slightly. Alfred closed his eyes. He had never heard her voice, not really, but he still recognized it. Parent intuition perhaps. "I need to talk with Mr. Wayne."
For a while, there was no sound from him then he asked, because it seemed somehow appropriate, "Who is calling?"
And she answered, "Cameron Reese."