Chapter 1: The Museum of Antiquities
The needle punctured the jet black fabric. With a fluid motion and nimble hands, the tailor pulled the dark thread taut at the suit's cuff. His turquoise eyes surveyed the stitching, before diligently repeating the process. Rays of aurelian sunlight trickled through the tiny shop's storefront windows and pooled on the floor beneath his feet. The sweet, nutty fragrance of brewed coffee permeated the air. An unexpected shift tampered with his concentration.
"Mia, please be still." The squat, silver-haired man chided gently. The young woman sighed impatiently, arms uncomfortably outstretched. For nearly an hour, Mia struggled to keep motionless, but now her muscles resisted against the exercise. "And keep straight! Do you want uneven sleeves?"
"I'm going to be late, Pops." Mia directed her gaze toward the ceiling and listened to the rhythm of the grandfather clock. Nothing can go wrong. Not today. An amused chuckle nearby caused Mia to smirk. "Am I missing something funny?"
"I've just never seen you in a pants suit before." A woman's voice replied humorously, her thick Irish accent underscoring the bemused words.
The old tailor smiled, pulled a pair of scissors from his pocket, and snipped the final strand."Next time, try not wait until last minute to prepare. Now, turn around and let us see."
His daughter obeyed and casually spun around. The tapered suit fit her every curve flawlessly; a handcrafted masterpiece with two pockets and full Bemberg lining.
"What do you think, Erin?" Mia asked turning to the woman observing from the sofa.
Her friend stood up and inspected the outfit's finer details. Wisps of cinnamon colored bangs masked Erin's calculating green eyes. "It's perfect. I can't say the same about your hair though."
"My hair is fine. Now can we go? I can't be late. Punctuality is everything." Instinctively, Mia's hands flattened any rebellious strands that threatened the pristine condition of her copper hair.
"I can navigate these streets better than any taxi driver. I'll get you there on time." Earnestly, Erin reached out to straighten Mia's crisp lapels. She examined the ensemble's white trim. Stop stalling. I'm not going to change my mind.
"Somehow, that doesn't ease my anxiety." Mia wrinkled her nose and grabbed her leather bag from behind the register. "We have to leave now, alright?" Her father flipped a sign on the front door from closed to open. As Mia approached the exit, the humble tailor opened the door for her. The brass bell hanging from the entrance chimed. Swiftly, Mia pecked her father on the cheek and hurried to the street.
"Good luck with the interview!" He called after her.
Erin quickly poured a cup of coffee into a travel mug. "For the record, Avidan, the suit looks great. I am sure she will impress someone today." As she moved toward the exit, Avidan breathed a heavy laugh and pointed his index finger toward the sky.
"Be careful, Erin. If you don't hurry, she may just take your car and leave without you!"
"You shouldn't have taken twelfth street." Mia groaned. The blazing red stoplight burned her retinas the longer she stared. "There are so many traffic lights on twelfth."
Gotham's drab streets bustled with the typical morning flow of pedestrians and vehicles. The sun peeked curiously from behind the towering buildings, yet the city remained remarkably dark. Groups of strangers strolled passed the car, their faces plastered with angry, frustrated looks. Two food vendors bickered at the corner. Whose turn was it to occupy the prime spot today? A siren wailed in the distance. At this rate it would be easier to walk. The light flickered to green and the BMW rolled back into motion.
Erin's faraway voice tickled Mia's ear. "Have you been listening to me?"
Mia nodded quietly, but remained silent. I know you think this is a bad idea.
"This plan is crazy."
"It's the only way." Mia stared at her reflection in the car window.
"As your therapist-"
"Former therapist." Mia corrected.
"As your friend, I am telling you that this is insane. And I know insanity. I work at Arkham for Christ's sake." Erin gripped the steering wheel, staring ahead was easier than looking directly at her passenger.
Another red light brought the conversation to an awkward pause. I can handle it. To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe. Isn't that what they say?
"What if he doesn't show up?" Erin asked incredulously.
"He will." Mia muttered.
A green light flickered into life. Erin's foot gingerly pressed the gas pedal, enough to speed passed the public transit. The car rolled over a deep pothole, jostling the vehicle's cargo. "You sound awfully sure."
"He always stops by the museum on Wednesday around ten. He must have a contact there."
"If he is there so often, won't he know you aren't an employee? What if he sees through your act?" Erin chewed on her tongue thoughtfully. She reached for her cup of coffee, lifted it to her mouth, and took a sip.
"Then I suppose I will have to reassess my situation, won't I?" Mia tapped the armrest. It doesn't help when you try to make me anxious like that.
"I am just trying to help you see that there are things that can go wrong. These people can be unreliable... dangerous even. You of all people should know that." Erin rested the traveler's mug in her lap. The Museum of Antiquities loomed ever closer. The building's white marbled columns towered over the oblivious passersby. Erin boldly pulled into the fire lane. Mia moved to open the door, but Erin grabbed her shoulder. "You could just skip this part and apply for a job the normal way. Or, better yet, let go of the things you can't control and move on with your life."
"The club isn't taking on any more staff. I need an in. It's all about networking, right?"
The disapproving frown on her face was evident, but Erin remained silent.
"I'll be fine." Mia opened the car door and stepped out onto the sidewalk. "I'll give you a ring later, alright?" Before Erin could reply, a harsh thud brought their conversation to a sudden end. Without looking back, Mia rushed up the whitewashed steps toward the grand entrance.
The atrium of the museum was brightly lit with vibrant posters illustrating the newest temporary exhibits.
CREATED FROM A DREAM:
THIS MONTH ONLY
EXPERIENCE THE SECRET LIFE OF SALVADOR DALI
A new exhibit. Perfect bait. Mia approached the ticket counter and paid the standard twenty dollars for admission. The haggard old woman barely looked at her as she ripped the ticket in half and returned the stub. Anxiety melded into excitement. Mia's heels clicked musically against the polished stone floor. She pulled a name tag from the pocket of her jacket and inconspicuously fastened it to her lapel. Priceless artifacts decorated the walls and packed velvet lined display cases. Ancient golden relics from Egypt glittered under the artificial light. Maybe, after all this is over, I will settle down and actually apply for a job here. I might enjoy it.
Discreetly, Mia settled down on a bench situated in a dim corner. Before she stealthily tucked her purse between the furniture and a display case, Mia retrieved a golden pen from her bag. She slipped the writing instrument into her pocket. With the entrance in sight, all Mia had to do was wait. Not many guests visited the museum so early on a weekday. A few octogenarians, withered by time, shuffled through the halls. Mia stared at the massive, silver plated clock hovering above the atrium. Half past nine. From the corner of her eye, Mia detected her mark. A thin, pale faced man with dark hair limped up to the ticket counter, pretended to pay for admission, and wandered into the exhibits.
He's early today. No matter. I don't want to let him get too far away. The man strolled through the museum, using a black umbrella to guide his stride. With curiosity, he gazed at a display of masks from ancient China. A cleverly worded plaque brought a twisted smile to his face. She followed his course through the expositions, but at a safe distance. The man disappeared into the temporary exhibit wing, where he paused to admire a painting. Perfect. I know this one.
"The Persistence of Memory." Mia explained confidently, walking up beside him.
"Excuse me?" Startled, the man looked at her. His bright blue eyes scanned her face for sincerity.
"The painting. It's called The Persistence of Memory. It's one of Salvador Dali's best known works. The museum has it on loan from New York."
"It is a spectacular piece." He commented quietly.
"The creature in the center is supposedly a self portrait of himself." Mia continued, internally hoping her general artistic knowledge intrigued him. "It represents the fading nature of dreams. A dreamer can't understand or pinpoint their exact form, place of time, or composition. So, essentially, everything is nothing and nothing is something."
"Do you work here? You seem to know an awful lot." Careful, Mia.
"It would seem that way." Mia smiled politely and gestured to her attire. "But I definitely don't know a lot. If only they knew how much I didn't know, they'd probably throw me out on the street."
The man chuckled. "I am sure you know more than you let on. Here, I'll test you." Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. "Tell me about this exhibit."
Positioned on a short marbled column rested a white lobster on an old fashioned telephone. Completely confused by the display, Mia stammered.
"Well, it's a lobster on a t-telephone, which was crafted by... Dali to represent... the harsh sounds of modern c-communication?" Well you gave it the old college try.
The man's smile broadened. He leaned over the plaque and read aloud, "The Aphrodisiac Telephone. The lobster appears in many of Dali's drawings and designs, usually associated with… erotic pleasure and pain." His face blushed unexpectedly red, he tried to continue. "The crustacean's tail, where its s-sexual parts are located, is placed... directly over the mouthpiece." Before he could completely finish reading the material, he shook his head and turned his back to the surrealistic portrayal. "Well, it doesn't matter."
"Right. See? I don't think I am cut out for museum work."
"I can tell you are new, so no worries. Your lack of knowledge on… this… does not wholly define you. From what I can tell, you are a wonderfully cultured individual and that is a breath of fresh air." With a startling realization, the man turned toward her. "Oh how terribly rude of me! I have failed to properly introduced myself. I am Oswald Cobblepot." He extended his hand, which Mia shook firmly.
"It's very nice to meet you Mr. Cobblepot. I'm Mia Mimidae."
"Mimidae. That sounds familiar. Have we met before?" Oswald cocked his head to the side.
"I don't recall." Mia lied. She had recognized him instantly the first time she saw him walking into that nightclub downtown. If he remembered for himself, she could use it to her advantage. If he forgot her, it made no difference. He did, however, remember a younger Mia Mimidae.
"We went to the same high school and took the same route home. I think we even walked together a few times." Oswald pursed his lips and suddenly seemed distracted.
"Right! I remember now." Mia feigned immediate recognition. "It's been so long. I hardly recognized you."
"Growing up. You know how it is."Oswald shrugged. "People change, they grow."
Mia nodded in agreement. "I hardly ever see anyone from back then."
Unexpectedly, Oswald looked at his watch and assumed a haughtier demeanor. "I hate to have to leave after such a long time, but I have a meeting upstairs and I would hate to be late."
"Of course." Mia nodded. "Enjoy the rest of your afternoon." Without another word, Oswald walked away; the formidable echo of his umbrella tapping the floor faded into the depths of the museum. I hope I didn't just blow it.
Why are you walking like that? Christ, you are so fucking weird. Did your mommy fuck something at the zoo for you to turn out like that? Why don't you ever dress like a normal kid? The taunts blurred in a single mass of animosity. Oswald felt his blood boil with the heat of resentment. Those vulgar, dim-witted cretins were so quick to underestimate him. But who were they? Scraping by with their meager lives, content only to breath and take up space. C'mon waddler! Get up and show us how you dance.
Themis, leave him alone.
Oswald banged on the mahogany carved door, provoked by the jeering voices resounding in his mind.
"Who does she think she is? I can defend myself." Oswald mumbled under his breath. The door creaked open, revealing a thin sheepish woman with horn-rimmed glasses. "I'm here to discuss business with Dr. Howard Carter."
"Of course, Mr. Cobblepot. Right this way." The secretary led Oswald beyond the door and through a private gallery of sarcophagi. Don't touch him, Mia. That smell is sure to stick to you.
"Dr. Howard is expecting you in his office." Without a second glance, Oswald walked into the adjacent room. Sitting pensively at his desk, the young Dr. Carter looked up from the rare text he was examining.
The curator's silver glasses slipped down the bridge of his nose as a smiled skirted across his face. "Mr. Cobblepot! A pleasure as always." Oswald remained tensely quiet. How could he do business with his mind so distracted? Dr. Carter observed his guest's agitated disposition, but elected not to comment on it. "Had you any luck procuring the artifact?"
"It was easier than expected. The black market is rife with precious treasures."
Oswald approached a bookshelf, trailed his index finger along the books' spines, and squinted at the titles. He retracted his finger upon touching an anthropodermic binding of De Humani Corporis Fabrica.
"Splendid! When can I expect to-"
"I am raising my rates." Oswald stated flatly.
"Whatever for?" Although Dr. Carter controlled the tone of his voice, violent thoughts dilated his pupils. Stop being cruel, Themis. He doesn't deserve this sort of treatment from you.
"I have grown bored. Your requests are becoming more and more of a chore." A air of amusement coated Oswald's explanation. After all, he could be cruel too. Dr. Carter, his business and fancies, meant nothing to him.
"Bored? You are raising your rates, because you are bored?"
Oswald pointed his umbrella to the ceiling and turned toward the curator. "Did I stutter? I find this whole business dreadfully droll. If you expect to keep me as your supplier, I demand a twenty percent increase."
"Twenty percent! Are you mad?!"
"You are right. Twenty-five is much more appropriate." Oswald corrected.
Dr. Carter rose from his chair and slammed his fists on the table. "Get out! You pathetic, greedy little freak! Did you hear me? Get out!" The curator seized a sharpened letter-opener from his drawer and threw it at his contemptuous visitor. The projectile narrowly missed Oswald, striking instead a priceless vase which shattered to pieces. Oswald suppressed a laugh and moved toward the exit.
"Thank you for your time, Dr. Carter. If you ever decide that you need my services again, you have my contact."
Turning his back to his former client, Oswald heard the curator smash some other valuable object in a rage. The secretary obliviously typed away at her keyboard, allowing Oswald to leave undisturbed. The interaction spurred him into a delight. Power was an intoxicatingly, marvelous feeling!
Are you okay? Mia's voice rattled restlessly in his skull. I'll walk you home. The fleeting gratification Oswald felt dissolved into annoyance. Mia aggravated him. Not for her compassion, but because she served as a reminder of his past weakness. The girl provoked memories. Reminiscence of vulnerability. Weakness was not what he would be remembered for. But was that fair? To hold her accountable for his own insecurities? Oswald rolled his shoulders and pushed the harrowing thoughts to the side. There were more pressing matters to consider.
Don't miss the opportunity. Mia twirled the gilded pen between her fingers, allowing it to roll smoothly from digit to digit. The embossed script shimmered in the museum's artificial light: Oswald's. The final key. It had taken only a moment to acquire. When Oswald pulled it from his breast pocket last week to sign a paper at the ticket counter, he neglectfully forgot to reclaim it on his way out. Mia did not hesitate to take it. The pen etched the plan in her mind from the moment she touched it. Oswald emerged from the dark halls and neared the atrium of the museum. This is your chance. Don't waste it. Mia moved forward, eyes averted to the floor, pen concealed in her palm. Make it believable. Picking up her pace, Mia crashed into him head first and dropped the pen. The two bodies tumbled to the floor in a tangled mess. Shocked, Oswald cursed.
Mia scrambled to her feet. "I am so sorry, Mr. Cobblepot. This is all my fault."
Tempted by urge to acknowledge her error, Oswald bit his tongue. Mia extended her hand to help him up. Oh he looks mad. Maybe Erin was right. When he took her hand, his blatant irritation faded away. Mia picked up his umbrella and the pen.
"No worries. Accidents happen." Oswald forced a smile. As Mia returned the umbrella to its master, she examined the pen one last time.
"You seem to have dropped this as well. I am so very sorry." Oswald stared at the fountain pen. Had he forgotten it in his jacket all this time? Odd. He plucked the pen from her hand.
"Thanks." Oswald furrowed his brow in thought.
"Do you label all your pens or is that one special?" Mia asked timidly. Her heartbeat quickened. Take the bait. Please. Take the bait.
"This was actually a gift to myself when I opened the nightclub downtown. It seemed professional." Oswald explained.
"Oh! You- I mean you are the owner of Oswald's?"
He looked at her as if the question answered itself.
"Right, I just mean. I didn't put two and two together." She lied casually. Stroke his ego a bit. "You really turned out to be successful then. That must feel great."
Oswald puffed up, flattered by the praise. "There is no substitute for hard work."
Now. Do it now. "I agree. I thought about pursuing my own passions recently. Perhaps, if it wouldn't be too much trouble, you could help me get an audition at your club-"
"We actually aren't hiring at the moment." Oswald interjected. Mia did not seem like stage material. Yet, a small part of him was entertained by her curious request. Unbenounced to Oswald, Mia was not going to take no for an answer.
"Please, Mr. Cobblepot. Just five minutes of your time. This museum just isn't the place for me."
Oswald snorted. "No offense, but are you sure you are cut out to be on stage?"
Mia knew that she was overplaying the submissive, incompetent card, but it was all part of the hustle. She had to make the man think he was in control. He had to discover her talents and make the choices. If her acting worked, though, the job would be hers.
"I am willing to try anything if it means getting out of this place."
"Alright, alright." Oswald sized her up before continuing. "Drop by the nightclub tomorrow around three. I'll grant you an audition."
"Thank you, Mr. Cobblepot. You won't regret it."
With a final nod, Oswald proceeded to the museum's exit and disappeared from her view. Mia found it difficult to contain her enthusiasm. One step closer, Delilah. Mia collected her purse and lingered nearly an hour before leaving the museum. She did not want to risk Oswald seeing her leave her supposed place of employment so early. Filling her lungs with Gotham's musty air, Mia stepped out to the street and dialed Erin's number.
"You have reached Erin Collins. Please leave a message after the tone." The low, automated noise signaled Mia's turn to speak.
"Hey Erin. I got an audition. I told you everything would work out. I am going to drop by Themis's studio to tell him the good news. Give me a call later and I will tell you all the details."
"Jervis. Give me the hat." Erin demanded firmly. The tone of her voice wavered between anger and frustration. The patients were always difficult; a fact she accepted many months ago, when she applied for a position at Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane. On most days, her nerves could handle the pressure. Today, however, Erin's patience was fragile. Much of her energy went towards gently coaxing her friend away from the morning's dangerous activities. When will Mia learn to let go?
"You say hat funny. Jervezzz. Give meh tha hawt! Hawt! Hawt!" A patient with a shock of kinky, orange hair clutched a disheveled chef's hat to his chest. The grin on his face stretched from ear to ear.
"Yes. I have an accent-"
"Would you like some wine?" Jervis asked.
"Cookie needs his hat back, so he can get started on the biscuits for today's snack, Mr. Tetch." Erin struggled to reason with him.
"We haven't any and you're too young!" Jervis cackled and put his left hand in his pants.
"Enough! If you do not return the hat this instant, I will cancel tea time."
Jervis's brown eyes narrowed at the therapist. "It's always tea time."
"Not. Today." Erin held out her hand.
Annoyed, Jervis threw the crumpled hat on the ground and stomped away muttering profanities under his breath. A shudder of anger rattled Erin's body. She closed her eyes, mentally counting to ten. You are doing good. Remember your promise. Erin stooped, swiped the hat from the floor, and continued silently down the ward. The hallway resounded with nonsensical shouts and the jeers of lunatics. The scent of urine saturated the air like a heavy musk. Erin was cautious. She made a point never to touch anything, having learned quickly that the patients enjoyed leaving their body fluids on all types of surfaces.
The kitchen door squeaked as Erin pushed it open with her foot. A dim light flickered above, threatening to send the windowless room into darkness. When is management going to get this place together? A tiny, bright-eyed man hobbled excitedly over to the doctor. The left side of his wrinkled face, withered by time, sagged heavily. He extended his palms and clapped. The mute was sweet enough to soothe Erin's exasperation. Plagued by creatures no one else could see, the elderly man often kept to himself. He may have passed for eccentric, had he not pushed his caretaker out a window three years ago. Despite the risks, Erin knew he was the perfect candidate. When she first met the mute, his miserable state of care touched her heart. The deluge of medication they had given him had numbed his brain and coated his eyes in a light blue film. Erin had petitioned on his behalf, enrolling him on a more holistic path toward recovery.
"There you are Cookie." The doctor handed him the rumbled hat.
Noiselessly, he snatched it and twisted it gleefully in his hands. To show his affection, he bowed. Cookie shuffled away and returned to kneading a sticky pile of dough. The unofficial baking program helped to stimulate his troubled mind. Drugs weren't always the answer. How many of these people needed only compassion? A kind confidant to-
A looming presence triggered an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"My my my! What astonishing headway you are making with your patients Ms. Collins." A lanky man with a clean shaven head and amber-shaded glasses rubbed his chin in mock contemplation. "Your program is so... popular."
"We are only testing it out, Hugo." Erin spat. Hugo Strange was brilliant. Almost certainly, he was Gotham's leading psychiatrist. Despite his achievements, Erin could barely stand to look upon him. His arrogance and ruthlessness irked her to all ends. "Forgive me for not relying on pharmaceuticals to treat my patients."
"This," Hugo gestured to the kitchen, "is all temporary, my dear. Your patients are cold-blooded killers. Deranged butchers subdued only by tiny little pills. Have you put any thought into this at all?" The man leaned in slightly, observing the room's arrangement. "Look at all the objects that could be used against you! A rolling pin to knock you unconscious... an oven large enough to stuff you in."
"Just because you think like the mentally insane, doesn't mean that you are qualified to treat them." Erin clenched her fists, when Hugo laughed. "Why are you here, Professor? Shouldn't you be drinking brandy with your mates up the college? Or, perhaps, you have grown tired of the university's luxurious benefits already?"
"Goodness. You haven't heard?" Hugo entered the kitchen and stepped over to the preparation counter where Cookie silently worked. "I will be conducting a study here for next few months. Fully funded." Hugo tapped the table as Cookie rolled the dough into palm sized globs.
"A study pertaining to...?" Erin forced herself to ask.
"Obedience. Authority. You could say that I am taking a page out of Milgram's book."
"That experiment was highly unethical!"Erin could not suppress her temper. As the words left her mouth, she instantly regretted her show of emotion. Like a leech to blood, Hugo fed on her resentment.
"Indeed, Ms. Collins. Very unethical. Unfortunately for you, I have it on good authority to be here. You will do well to remember that my sweet Irish clover."
Erin remained silent. Violent images flashed through her mind. I could kill you. You have no idea what I am capable of, Strange. As if Hugo read her mind, he pulled off his glasses and shined them gently on his dark gray uniform.
"I suppose I will get to my final point then. Patient 188 is now my responsibility, which ought to give you plenty of free time to devote to your other patients." You wicked man. I won't let you get away with this. Hugo returned the spectacles to his face and clapped Cookie on the back. "Have Ms. Collins wash you up. I'll expect him in my office before you take lunch."
Pleased by the interaction, Hugo exited the kitchen smugly. Uncontrollable rage engulfed Erin. With all her power, she turned and hit the wall with her fist. The force cracked the skin on her knuckles; warm blood trickled from her hand to the dirty floor. Cookie hobbled over to Erin and patted her shoulder with his doughy hand. His smile slightly alleviated the pain spreading up her forearm. Dough smeared across her pristine uniform, but Erin excused it.
Thank you, Cookie.
Click. The shutter snapped at a speed of approximately one one-thousandth of a second. A blaring, artificial light illuminated the model's vermillion red lips and high cheek bones. Click. Click. Blonde curls cascaded down to the woman's bare shoulders. Poised and elegant, she lounged comfortably in a burgundy, wingback chair. The photographer squinted through the lens finder, adjusting the camera angle to suit his artistic whims. Click.
"Your eyes are breathtaking, but try not to stare at the camera." The model pouted, but obeyed.
Careful not to interrupt her brother's creative process, Mia entered the flat and discreetly moved to the plush couch. Themis strongly disapproved of family and friends knocking at his front door. Just come in and relax. Whenever. Both Mia and her father had keys to his studio. Family is not an important thing, it's everything. An expression her brother quoted whenever they erupted into a seemingly impassable feud. In Mia's opinion, Themis's trust was considerably reckless. All of his associates and neighbors also had keys. He even neglected to recover old keys from past girlfriends. Why bother locking your door at all?
"Mia!" Themis exclaimed cheerfully. Five o'clock shadow shaded his jaw and a crop of dark disheveled hair just barely sheltered the tips of his ears. When was the last time you showered, Themis? Her brother turned to address the model. "Cynthia, darling, how about you go out and grab us some lunch? My wallet is on the nightstand."
The model, completely nude, rose from her chair and disappeared into the bedroom.
Without further hesitation, Themis rushed over to his sister, pounced on the sofa, and wrapped an arm around her shoulder."It's been so long!"
"It's only been a week." Mia laughed. His lighthearted attitude was contagious.
"I can't be excited to see my sister? A week is a long time when you are used to seeing someone everyday." Themis scooted away to study her with his cognac brown eyes.
"You got me there." Mia replied. Sporting the latest Burberry trenchcoat, Cynthia emerged from the bedroom. She coyly brandished a leather wallet at the photographer, before leaving the apartment altogether. "Doing well for yourself, huh?"
Themis rolled his eyes. "I sense a bit of judgement, but I'm going to overlook that. All of my models, clothed or nude, are professionals." Professional call girls maybe. "But my guess is that you aren't here to discuss my work. What's up?"
"Well today-" Mia began, but Themis interrupted.
"Oh right! Today! Pops called and told me all about your job interview with the museum! How did it go?"
"Honestly, Themis, there was never any interview with the museum." Mia confessed.
"I don't understand. Why did you lie?" Her brother seemed disappointed.
"Pops has been through a lot and I just didn't want him to worry. You see, I went to the museum to hustle out an audition. That nightclub downtown, the one from the report, turned into a place called Oswald's-"
"An audition? There? Oh no! Absolutely not. My sister is not going to perform at a criminal den! I know the types who frequent that place. I don't want to think of you half-naked up on stage, men clamoring to grope you." Themis stood up and crossed his arms.
"It's a nightclub, not a stripclub!" Mia protested. "Let me get this straight, though. Your profession allows you to objectify women, but the moment your sister has to get up on a stage you turn into a self-righteous twat?"
"That is not the same and you know it."
"Besides, the owner, Oswald Cobblepot, is a nice enough guy. We went to school together and the two of us got along just fine."
"Cobblepot?" Themis repeated inquisitively, searching the fathoms of his consciousness.
"You and your friends called him Penguin, remember?" Mia sighed. The memory of her brother bullying the awkward boy at school was not her favorite recollection.
"The waddler? That bird-looking kid?" Themis covered his face and sighed. "I practically tortured that guy. He'll hate you by proxy if he finds out that you are my sister."
Exasperated, Mia threw her hands up in the air and rose from the sofa to confront Themis. "Don't you get it? This job is one step closer to finding out what happened to Delilah. The cops have stopped looking. They don't care! They never did."
"Am I supposed to let you end up like Delilah? Stand idly by while you surround yourself with thugs and crooks?" Themis frowned, but he knew his influence only stretched so far.
"I can handle it." Famous last words. I almost didn't believe myself that time. Without warning, Themis reached out and pulled her into a tight hug. The conversation had rattled him more than she had expected. "I can handle it." Mia repeated firmly.
"I know. Just- If you need anything, anything at all, you call me. Family is not just an important thing, it's everything." Right on cue. "And stop lying to Pops. You get him so excited, only to bring him down when you aren't actually trying."
Only a few more lies. She promised silently.
The tiny bell chimed as Mia unlocked the door. Locking the entryway behind her, she walked into the store. The intimate, little shop was already neatly organized for tomorrow. Sew Perfect: Custom Suits and Alterations was a thriving business. Professionals from across Gotham underwent a pilgrimage in order to obtain one of Avidan's pristine masterpieces. Although the store ran by appointment only, Avidan was hard-pressed to turn away a potential client. Honestly, Mia was not altogether sure how her father managed the business all on his own.
Mia wandered to the rear room and climbed up a secluded flight of stairs. A radio hummed from somewhere deep within the apartment's interior. For generations, their family had lived above the storefront. Three cramped bedrooms. A single bathroom. A kitchen that transformed into a dining area where communal meals were served. A small living room comfortable enough to seat everyone at one time. Somehow, the family of five had made the arrangements work. Now, however, it was only the two of them.
At the kitchen table, Avidan flipped through a stack of papers. He looked up as his daughter entered and pulled out a chair.
"How did it go?" Avidan asked excitedly, foregoing the usual small talk.
"The museum interview was a bust." Mia lied casually. His face fell for a moment, but Avidan recovered quickly. Her father stood up and rushed to the kitchen counter.
"Maybe next time then." Avidan picked up a bright pink box, embossed with a lustrous lavender print. "Still, you deserve a little something for your hard work. I picked this up for you. Your favorite."
Gently, Avidan placed the box in her hands. LiLu's Cupcakes. With a smile, Mia peeked into the box. A single cupcake rested neatly amidst a nest of periwinkle tissue paper. The Godfather: A miniature tiramisu sponge cake layered with mascarpone cheese frosting, espresso, and cocoa powder garnish.
"Thank you, Pops. You are too good to me." Avidan rejoined her at the table. Delicately, Mia unwrapped the base of the cupcake from its floral paper cover and took a bite. "There is a little bit of reason to celebrate." Mia explained after she swallowed. "On my way out of the museum, I ran into an old friend who runs a snazzy little place downtown. I was invited to audition for a stage job there." Mia tried not to view his reaction directly, but instead tried to gauge his it through a side-glance.
"An audition?" Avidan seemed confused at first, and then all at once he clapped his hands together. "You'll be singing again?!"
"If everything goes right, I suppose so."
"The world works in such mysterious ways! You going to that museum today must have been fate stringing you along." Avidan's eyes sparkled with the tint of hopeful dreams. Fate? Not quite- "Your mother would be so proud of you."
The final note melted Mia's heart. Music was the talent they had shared. Her mother, her teacher, her biggest fan. Indeed, she would have been pleased to know Mia was putting her talents to good use. Her mother would also understand and appreciate Mia's determination to locate her sister.
"I know, Pops." Mia finally managed to form the words. "I really wouldn't know what to do without you." Avidan reached out and took her hand, which he squeezed tenderly.
The pair sat in a peaceful silence for nearly an hour, before Mia chose to retire for the evening. She bid her father a goodnight, tottered to an adjacent room, and flipped the light switch on. For nearly eighteen years, Mia had shared this space with her sister. When Mia had moved out five years ago, Delilah remained behind to assist their widowed father with the business. Three years later Delilah vanished. Despite the police's efforts, the girl was never located. To console her father, Mia chose to return to the family home. The temporary arrangement matured into two years, leading her into the present. Mia slipped off the suit jacket and shoes. All remaining energy evaporated from her body. Laying back in the feathered pillows of her bed, she heaved a heavy sigh. Blindly, she reached toward her nightstand and pulled out a photograph. The last picture Themis ever took of his sisters. Mid-laugh, Delilah smiled sweetly up from the image. Sandy blonde hair sprayed wildly about, wind produced from Themis's background fan. In the photograph, Mia's nose crinkled in happiness, her head rested on Delilah's shoulder.
"This is going to work. It has to work." Mia stared at the smiling faces, allowing hours to slip by unhindered.