Batman nightwalker, p.16
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       Batman: Nightwalker, p.16

           Marie Lu
 
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  The balcony overlooking the living room. The weak railing. Bruce turned to the staircase leading up to the second floor, waiting to see if the path was clear.

  Taking a deep breath, Bruce darted out of the kitchen and up the staircase, avoiding the squeaky spots.

  A stranger’s deep voice, amused and taunting, called out from downstairs. “Bruce.”

  Every hair on Bruce’s neck rose at the sound. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Don’t panic, he reminded himself grimly. Think. He tucked himself into the shadows cast by a series of marble busts and waited.

  Sure enough, the sound of footsteps echoed from the stairs as someone followed him up. The steps were heavy, distinctly a stranger’s, and Bruce could hear the faint breathing of someone unfamiliar creeping up the stairs.

  Bruce tensed in the darkness, gripping his knife so hard that his hand hurt. His knuckles had turned white against the hilt. He could strike out with it right now, surprise the person—but the thought of stabbing someone, even someone who’d broken into his home, made his chest tighten. In the darkness, Bruce could make out part of the stranger’s silhouette—large, his shoulders hunched—and hear the slight mismatch of his footsteps’ timing, a slight limp in his gait. His balance was poor.

  He passed near the balcony’s weak railing, scanning ahead, searching. Now. Bruce lunged out of the darkness. The man’s head snapped toward him. For an instant, Bruce caught sight of his face: lined, menacing, shocked.

  Bruce barreled into him. For a second, it didn’t feel like enough—but the intruder stepped back to brace against the railing. It trembled, then gave way with a crack as it buckled from the man’s weight. He tried in vain to stop his fall, but it was too late, and with a hoarse yell, he fell from the second story. His head hit the side of the couch below.

  He twitched, moaning, on the floor.

  Move, Bruce told himself. He’d given away his location with his attack, and if others were in the house, they’d know where he was now. His knife had dropped somewhere in the hall behind him, but he had no time to turn around and find it. He darted back down the stairs. Footsteps and a dragging sound came from the kitchen. A muffled voice. He curled deeper into the shadows of the dining room. Beside him, the white drapes fluttered. He looked at them, then pulled one over a chair.

  “We know you’re in here, Bruce Wayne,” a different voice now called out, this time much closer. “That cop car out by the gates is awfully empty.”

  How many Nightwalkers had invaded the manor?

  Bruce saw dark silhouettes outlined in the kitchen. Two men, with a third dragging between them. His eyes settled on the third person, who had a white cloth shoved into his mouth. Alfred.

  He looked alert enough, but a bloody gash was on his forehead, and most of his weight seemed supported by the two men, both of them with masks pulled over their heads.

  Every muscle in Bruce’s body tightened with rage. Alfred, his guardian, who had never looked weak in his life—now at the mercy of these monsters.

  “What if he already escaped?” one of the men muttered. They were drawing closer.

  “No,” the other replied. “House’s rigged for that. We’ll know if he tries to make a run for it.”

  “Are you sure?”

  “Mads laid out the details of this house’s security system herself. I’m sure.”

  Mads? Madeleine.

  The name lodged in Bruce’s thoughts, turning his stomach. How strange to hear her nickname. Maybe it fit her better, revealed her true side. Madeleine had genuinely seemed to like him—she had even warned him to get out of Gotham City. But what if she had targeted him this entire time?

  Draccon was right about everything.

  Bruce’s anger burned, and it fueled him. Her other three victims had died because they’d been trying to escape the house. That was their first mistake, acting like the prey before they were even caught. But this was Bruce’s home—his parents’ home. They were on his turf now.

  And on his turf, he was the predator.

  Bruce crept soundlessly from his hiding place, then made his way around the kitchen counter. There was a remote trigger for the kitchen sink’s grinder on this side of the island, and he inched toward it now. On the island’s other side, the men were looking down, focused on dragging Alfred between them.

  Bruce reached the island, held his breath, and flipped the switch.

  The grinder burst to life, deafening in the silence. The two men jumped, swearing, and in the darkness, Bruce saw the outline of their guns as they whirled to look at the sink. Only Alfred looked the other way—toward the other side of the island, where Bruce crouched.

  Before the two men could turn back around, Bruce wrenched Alfred out of their grasps. One man turned and Bruce’s fist connected with his jaw, then with his stomach. The man hunched over with a wheezing gasp. Alfred kicked out, catching the second man off balance. Bruce wasted no time. In the blink of an eye, he brought his fist up and hit him squarely in the chin. Throwing himself at the second man, Bruce knocked him to the ground.

  “Duck!” he shouted, and Alfred dropped to the floor.

  “You little f—” the second man growled. His hand shot out, and his gun glinted in the darkness.

  Bruce’s eyes darted toward the dining room. “Detective!” he called out.

  The second man instinctively glanced over his shoulder and mistook the white sheet that Bruce had draped against the back of a chair as Draccon’s long tan coat. He startled, swinging his body and gun toward what he thought was the detective.

  It was all the distraction Bruce needed. He aimed a punch straight at the man’s neck. Sparring lessons from his coach flew through his mind.

  Before he could land a second hit, though, a rough hand yanked Bruce backward. The first Nightwalker had staggered back to his feet and thrown his arm around Bruce’s neck. The blow to his jaw had unsteadied him enough to make him sway on his feet, but he was heavy, far heavier than Bruce. Bruce twisted in vain, trying to reach his attacker, but his angle was wrong, and the man only held on tighter. Bruce choked as air lodged in his throat, blocked. He stumbled.

  “Boss gonna be happy to see you, rich boy,” the second man spat.

  Someone barreled into Bruce’s captor. It was Alfred—he kicked the man hard in the side, right in the liver, and the man keeled over with a yell of agony. Bruce dragged in a breath, hit the man squarely in the jaw, and watched him go limp.

  “Bruce Wayne.”

  Bruce spun around to see a tall figure standing in the kitchen entrance. A pair of goggles shone silver in the night. Metal glinted on his arms and legs, like armor, and his face was concealed behind a mask, leaving only his mouth exposed. He broke into a grin that sent a chill down Bruce’s spine.

  The leader of the Nightwalkers.

  “Well, well,” he said. “All grown up and newly rich.” He pointed a gun at Bruce.

  The words echoed in Bruce’s mind. Something seemed familiar about him, as if Bruce had once met him in another life. But he had no time to dwell on this now.

  The man took aim. Bruce dropped. The bullet shattered the kitchen window behind him into a million pieces. An alarm screamed.

  Bruce popped back up, yanked one of the knives off the metal bar, and flung it straight at the man.

  The boss had underestimated Bruce. He made a small noise of surprise, twisting to one side, his hand flying up to his face. Got him, Bruce thought. He grabbed Alfred’s arm and tried to drag Alfred out of the room—out of the gunfire.

  Sirens blared from outside. Everyone froze. The flashing of red and blue lights could be seen through some of the windows. Draccon’s security detail had finally arrived.

  The boss glanced back at Bruce. Then he made up his mind—he barked out an order to his two Nightwalkers and threw something to the floor. It exploded, making the ground tremble, and a wave of black smoke rolled across them all, engulfing the room and plunging them in complete darkness. Bruce hunched over, coughing.
>
  The boss called out a final farewell to Bruce. “See you soon.”

  A huge crash came from the garage where Draccon was trapped. Bruce tried to reach the other men—but they had already fled into the haze of smoke. As Draccon and the police came rushing into the house, the Nightwalkers vanished as quickly as they had come.

  The next few hours passed in a blur. Bruce remembered it as a nonstop stream of time in an ambulance, at the hospital, in the waiting room…doctors and nurses and police officers, all mixed together until he could scarcely tell where one ended and another began. His hand was bandaged, his knuckles bloodied from the fight, one palm cut by a knife without his having noticed, but otherwise, he’d escaped remarkably unscathed. Physically, at least. His hands were still trembling, and even though he sat in what seemed like a safe place, he half expected a Nightwalker to come lunging around every corner.

  The important thing was that Alfred was alive. He’d suffered a concussion from the blow to his head—but he was going to be okay.

  “Bruce!”

  Bruce looked up from holding his head in his hands to see Dianne and Harvey hurrying over to him in the hospital’s waiting room. When they reached him, Dianne flung her arms around Bruce and gave him a tight hug, while Harvey put a hand on his shoulder, his eyes dark with worry.

  “We came as soon as we heard,” he said. “God, Bruce.” He let out a long breath. “How are you?”

  Bruce shrugged as they sat down beside him. “Okay enough,” he replied, glancing down the hall toward Alfred’s room.

  “And Alfred?” Dianne asked, following Bruce’s line of sight.

  “He’s still resting,” he replied, swallowing the guilt that kept rising in him. “I’m waiting for them to let me see him.”

  Harvey leaned forward in his chair and lowered his voice. “Sorry,” he said, patting Bruce again on his shoulder. “They’re going to catch them. I’m willing to bet on it. They won’t get away with this. Watch—by nightfall, the boss will be on the news, behind bars.”

  Dianne shook her head. “Did you really fend off three Nightwalkers on your own, and keep them from hurting Alfred?”

  “It all happened so fast,” Bruce replied. Even if it was true, he didn’t feel much like a hero. “The Nightwalkers have a hit list, apparently, and I’m on it.”

  “What?” Dianne and Harvey replied in unison.

  “Bruce.”

  The conversation paused as they all looked up to see Lucius hurrying into the waiting room. He clasped Bruce’s hand in a firm shake and pulled him up for a quick hug. “You’re safe, thank everything above. And Alfred?”

  “Is going to make a full recovery,” Bruce replied.

  Lucius shook his head at Bruce in awe. “Heard you were quite a force against the Nightwalkers,” he said, “but it’d be nice if we could keep you out of any more dangerous situations in the near future. You don’t have to attend the gala tonight—you don’t have to do anything. Just rest. Trust me, no one will be shocked if you decide it’s safer to stay away. Your life was—”

  “I’ll be fine, Lucius, thank you.” Bruce gave him a firm nod. “I’ll be as safe at the gala as I will be anywhere else, and it’ll be a good distraction. Our drones will all be there, won’t they?”

  Lucius managed a smile. “Yes, they will,” he replied.

  A doctor approached and interrupted their conversation. “Mr. Pennyworth is awake now,” she said. “His vital signs are all good, and you can take him home tonight.”

  All other thoughts flew from Bruce’s mind. He jumped to his feet. “Can I see him now?”

  The doctor nodded. “For a bit, Mr. Wayne. But don’t overdo it. He should rest some more later.”

  Bruce excused himself and followed the doctor down the hall, then stepped through the door that she held open for him. Inside, Alfred sat up straighter in his bed. Bruce had always considered him to be strong and invincible, kind and fair—but now, for the first time, he also seemed old, his gray hairs more noticeable than ever. Mortal. Bruce didn’t like the thought.

  “Master Wayne,” Alfred said, his usually strong, deep voice now somewhat hoarse. A large bandage covered the top of his head.

  Bruce hurried to Alfred’s side, took the man’s hand, and squeezed it. “How are you feeling?” he said. “They told me they stitched the cut on your forehead.”

  Alfred waved a nonchalant hand in the air. “Oh, I’ll be better than fine,” he replied. “This is merely a scratch compared with what I put up with in the military. The Nightwalkers will have to do better than that—although not before the police catch up with them.”

  Bruce felt an enormous weight lift from his chest at Alfred’s upbeat words. His shoulders relaxed, and he dropped into the chair at Alfred’s bedside, letting his head sink into his hands. “I’m sorry, Alfred,” he said. “I’m so sorry. I thought I’d lost you.” All those times Bruce had let Alfred worry about him—driving too fast, chasing after a criminal on a whim, putting his life on the line over and over—and yet, none of that had frightened him as much as the realization that Alfred could have died today. How many times had Bruce inflicted the same fear on his guardian?

  Alfred’s eyes softened at Bruce’s bowed head. “Steady chin, Master Wayne,” he replied. “I’m right here, and aside from a bump on the head, I’m feeling rather fine. You are a man now, albeit a young one who somehow manages to find trouble…but you’ll always be my ward, and I will always look out for you. Just as you’ll do for me.”

  Bruce met his eyes. He remembered this look, and even though ten years had passed since the night in the alley, it was still the look that could calm Bruce in the darkest moments. Bruce nodded, trying not to imagine life without him.

  Alfred smiled. “We make a good team, Master Wayne,” he said. “Especially with those punches you throw.”

  Alfred’s familiar humor loosened the knot in Bruce’s stomach. He reached over to clap his guardian once on his shoulder. “Not too shabby yourself, Alfred.”

  Alfred gave him a wink. Then his expression turned serious. “The Nightwalkers pegged you as one of their targets. You are similar to Madeleine’s former targets, too, aren’t you?”

  “How did you know that?”

  “You don’t think I researched this girl you keep mentioning?” He leaned forward with a grimace. “She’s dangerous.”

  Bruce nodded, then frowned. “I know. And I can’t understand any of it.” He lowered his voice. “Alfred—she warned me. That last conversation I had with her? She spent it telling me to get out of Gotham City, that I might be next on the Nightwalkers’ list. She knew this was going to happen, and she wanted me to know.”

  Alfred narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps she set it all up as a trap.”

  The door behind Bruce opened then, and Draccon stepped into the room. The detective sported a nasty bruised eye, and one of her arms was in a sling. A wave of relief washed over Bruce at the sight of her, and he half rose from his chair to greet her. “Detective,” he said. “You’re—”

  She smiled warily at him, but she didn’t move from the door, and Bruce’s reply faded on his tongue. “Detective?” Bruce said again, hesitant this time.

  “What is it?” Alfred added.

  Draccon took a deep breath before she nodded at Bruce. “It’s Madeleine.”

  The happiness at seeing Alfred recovering, at knowing Draccon was well—all made way in an instant for a cold blanket of dread. Bruce eyed the detective. “What about her?”

  “She escaped.”

  Escaped.

  Bruce sat there for a while longer, unable to comprehend the thought. Escaped. No. How? She hadn’t run during the jailbreak—why would she make her move now? “She…she couldn’t have…,” he managed to say.

  Draccon held a hand up at the TV in Alfred’s room, which had rotated onto the news. “See for yourself.”

  Bruce found himself staring at a news crew’s footage of the empty interior of Madeleine’s former cell.

 
A searing jolt of nausea hit Bruce. He flashed back to Madeleine first staring up at the cams—then to her casually mentioning how they could be scrambled—then to her acting vulnerable in her cell—then to her telling him again how he could talk to her without letting anyone know. He didn’t know how she did it, but somehow, Madeleine must have taken advantage of Bruce’s resetting of the security cams.

  Of course. It made so much sense now; why would she try to escape during the jailbreak, when the asylum was on high alert and all the guards were looking for the inmates? The place would have been swarming with guards. Instead, she chose to use that time to set things up for her real escape. It had all been a part of her grand con against him.

  Now she was loose, somewhere in the city, outside Arkham Asylum. She may even have escaped at around the same time as Bruce’s ordeal. He shook his head, numb. “Where—how?” he managed to croak out. “Any leads?”

  “Yes. One.” Draccon pushed the door open wider, and Bruce saw that she had several other police officers with her. One of them was holding a set of handcuffs. Behind them stood Harvey, Dianne, and Lucius, who cast confused looks his way. “You.”

  Bruce’s vision swam in a sudden wave of dizziness. “Me?”

  “We have footage showing you as the last person to enter the intensive-treatment ward, right before the cams reset. Madeleine left behind a note to you in her cell, thanking you for helping her.”

  “What?” Bruce exclaimed. “You can’t possibly think that—especially after this morning—”

  “I have no choice but to consider you a suspect. I’m sorry.” Draccon sighed deeply, then motioned an officer forward.

  He held up a pair of cuffs. “Bruce Wayne, you’re under arrest.”

  The interrogation room at the GCPD precinct was cold and spare, equipped only with several chairs and a table separating Bruce from Detective Draccon and another police officer. Draccon slid a single paper toward him, then sat back with crossed arms and scrutinized his face.

  “She left you this,” she said. “Security told us that, because of the camera malfunction playing the wrong footage in Madeleine’s cell, she was able to attack two workers we’d sent to check on her. She knocked them out and swiped one of their IDs before any alarms were triggered, because no cams recorded her doing it.”

 
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