Batman nightwalker, p.5
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       Batman: Nightwalker, p.5

           Marie Lu
 
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  Bruce instinctively fell into his fighter stance. But James was already there, grabbing the prisoner’s right arm, twisting him around, and pinning him against the wall hard enough to make his cheeks turn bright pink.

  “Nice reflexes,” Draccon commented in mild surprise at Bruce.

  Bruce’s heart pounded furiously in his chest. “Guess the gym’s good for something,” he managed to reply.

  “Another display like that,” James warned the prisoner, “and I’ll add years to your sentence. I know how much you enjoy our time together.” She gave him a bitter smile, and the prisoner snarled back at her. His eyes settled on Bruce again, and when they did, he allowed himself a grim little grin.

  “Skin’s too soft and clean for this place, pretty boy,” he spat out. “If you need some scars, you come find me.”

  Bruce looked away, his heart still hammering, as the guards continued dragging the man down the hall. He tried to imagine the man as a child, as himself, a boy sitting on the front lawn with his father and watching the bats stream out into the evening. Maybe some people were never young.

  At his side, James watched him with her arms crossed. “What are you thinking, Wayne?”

  “I’m wondering at what point someone makes the flip from a child into a killer.”

  “Ah. Interested in criminal psychology, are you?” James replied. “Well, you’re in the right place. Our inmates would make you tremble in your boots. That man you just saw? He killed four people in a café.”

  A chill swept through Bruce. “Yeah, he seemed pleasant,” he muttered.

  “Dr. James has been the head warden here for a decade,” Draccon added. “As you can see, it takes a certain level of steel to manage a place like this.”

  They left the small corridor, and suddenly the space opened into a huge, vaulted ceiling where they could see floors and floors of jail cells. Bruce froze in place at the sight of Arkham’s entire expanse. This was a gateway to hell.

  “What’s the matter?” Draccon said dryly. “Finally regretting your joy ride?”

  “This is the female east wing,” James called out as they walked to the right. “Men are kept in the west wing. Medical facilities are in the center halls connecting the two.” That explains the U shape, Bruce thought. “There is an additional level below our feet that houses our intensive-treatment inmates. You are going to sweep and then mop the halls in the female wing, as well as scrub the toilets the guards use. Tomorrow you’ll clean the basement level. We’ll work around the remainder of your school year, but once your summer starts, I expect to see you in here every morning. Our janitors have no trouble keeping this place spotless, so I think a billionaire should easily be able to do the same. I suggest you learn quickly.”

  Bruce looked inside one of the cells. A female inmate in an orange uniform leaned against its bars, and when she caught his gaze, she sneered at him.

  “Hey, ladies!” she shouted as they passed. “Looks like they upgraded our guards!”

  The others took up the cry, yelling vulgar suggestions at him. Bruce gritted his teeth and kept his gaze firmly on the hall. He’d seen guys catcall Dianne, had even gotten into fistfights with a few of them over it. But this was the first time he’d ever experienced it directly. Why don’t you smile, Bruce? It reminded him of the way the paparazzi swarmed around him like flies, peppering him relentlessly, punishing him when he didn’t respond accordingly. He caught a glimpse of Draccon’s face; despite the detective’s desire to punish him, even she seemed to sympathize a little.

  They finally, mercifully, reached the end of the wing. James led them through the medical halls and past workers fixing the doors, through more of the fluorescent, cold green corridors.

  They used an elevator to reach the basement level. It was dark, dank, and moist, an air of permanent staleness permeating the space. A sign hung over the entrance: ARKHAM ASYLUM INTENSIVE TREATMENT.

  “The worst of the worst stay down here, Wayne,” James said over her shoulder. “I’d try to do my work quickly in this hall, if I were you.”

  Two workers were reprogramming the door’s security lock. Bruce noted the security cameras regularly dotting the ceiling. The cell doors were solid metal down here, smaller versions of the heavy sliding doors at the asylum’s main entrance and noticeably more fortified than those along the upper corridors of Arkham. Each cell door had a window of what must be bulletproof glass, through which Bruce could occasionally see a prisoner sitting inside a stark room. The uniforms they wore down here differed from the orange ones of the other inmates. They were white, as if to mark them as a special breed of dangerous.

  “More than usual down here, James,” Draccon said as they went.

  James shrugged. “More crimes than usual,” she replied. “We had three Nightwalkers moved here just yesterday from Gotham City Penitentiary.”

  At that, Draccon shook her head in frustration.

  “Still no luck figuring out what the hell they were up to that night, huh?” James asked.

  “I’m afraid not.”

  “The Nightwalkers?” Bruce asked, grateful for something to think about other than his sentence. “Just how many of them are out there?”

  “Don’t worry about it, Wayne,” came Draccon’s stern reply. “Be grateful that this isn’t your business.”

  Several voices came from one of the cells near the end of the hall. As they approached it, James nodded toward the cell door. “That’s one of the new transfers I was talking about,” she said. “Trickiest Nightwalker we’ve ever gotten.”

  Through the window, Bruce caught a glimpse of the scene. Three men—one dressed like a detective, the other two in police uniforms—were crowded around someone, interrogating the inmate. The frustrated voices were coming from the police.

  “You think this is funny, don’t you?” Bruce heard one officer snap. “Cutting an old man’s throat, watching him bleed out? How did you get into his accounts? What’s your team doing with all those millions? No answer, huh? You better wipe that smirk off your little face.”

  “Before we do it for you,” the other officer added.

  “Who else was with you?” the first growled. He said it as if he’d asked the question repeatedly.

  Bruce tried to see who the inmate was, but then they passed the window, and his chance was gone. The shouts turned muffled and faded away.

  James shook her head. “She still hasn’t talked.”

  “I ordered that one transferred myself,” Draccon said, glancing coolly at Bruce. “Don’t worry. They always crack.”

  As they left the hall, the angry questions continued to drift after them. Bruce found himself dwelling on what the police were trying to get out of the inmate. He would be down here often—he’d probably see this same scene play over and over again. Maybe by the time he came through once more, the police would have gotten the inmate to talk.

  And maybe Bruce would catch a glimpse of who the inmate was. Who she was.

  “What’s the matter, handsome? Never dirtied those clean hands before?”

  Arkham, day one. Inmates leered at Bruce through the bars as he cleaned, their grins fixated on him and their taunts echoing down the halls. Boots and toothbrushes clanked against cell bars.

  His appearance today was a stark contrast from the way he’d shown up at the benefit on his birthday, clad in his tailored suit and standing beside his custom Aston Martin. Now he wore a blue worker’s uniform from head to toe, his hands hidden underneath a pair of yellow cleaning gloves.

  Ignore them. Just concentrate, Bruce reminded himself as he made his way steadily along the corridor. They wanted to see his expression change, get a rise out of him.

  “Girls, we got a billionaire mopping up our mess.” Another catcall.

  “Damn! Guess money don’t buy what it used to.”

  “He’s cute, though, isn’t he?”

  “I’d go to jail just for a piece of that. Come on, Bruce Wayne. Give us a smile.”

  “Tell yo
u what—we’ll stop giving you such a hard time if you take your shirt off and use it to scrub the floor.”

  Snickers rippled down the hall.

  They continued throughout the day, one hall after another, until they all melded together into a single train of sound. Bruce kept his head down. James checked on him three times—and even though she never gave Bruce so much as a sidelong glance and a sniff, he still found himself looking forward to her presence. The inmates quieted whenever she appeared, and stayed taunt-free for a good few minutes after she left, giving him moments of reprieve.

  Finally, at the end of the day, James came up to him. “Get out of here, Wayne.” She nodded for him to follow her down the hall. “You’re so tired that you’re just smearing dirt around on the floors.”

  It wasn’t exactly pity, but Bruce decided it was close enough. He barely remembered signing out. He couldn’t even recall climbing into Alfred’s car. All he could register was being grateful to sink onto the cool leather seats, and waking up the following morning in his own bed.

  —

  “How is it so far?” Dianne asked him the next day as they headed to their English class together.

  Bruce tried to tune out the whispers and glances from classmates passing them in the hall. He could hear his name on their breath, along with snatches of rumors about why he’d crashed his car. Drunk. Cocky. Temper problems. The light coming in from the academy’s windows stretched everyone’s shadows out into long stripes down the hall, encasing the school behind bars. Bruce sighed, forcing himself to stare straight ahead. Yesterday had seemed to go on forever—and he would have to go back to that real prison over and over again for weeks.

  “Could’ve been worse,” he replied, then launched into the details as they reached their English room and settled into their seats.

  Dianne gave him a pitying shake of her head. “Ugh. Sounds awful. Five more weeks of that?”

  “It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for all the catcalls.” Bruce texted a few of the more memorable taunts he’d gotten to her, so he wouldn’t have to say them out loud.

  She grimaced. “Yeah, well, I know what that’s like. And it’s not right.”

  Bruce shook his head. “I’m sorry, Di. I hate that you’ve had to deal with that.”

  Dianne put a reassuring hand on his arm. “You’ll make it. We’re all getting out of here in a few weeks, and—” She cut off as the bell rang, then went on in a lower voice. “And your time at Arkham will be over before you know it.”

  Her words brought some small measure of comfort. Bruce took a deep breath and tried to take them to heart. “Before I know it,” he echoed.

  —

  After all the jeers yesterday, the intensive-treatment basement of Arkham Asylum seemed eerily quiet by contrast when Bruce arrived after school.

  The silence raised the hairs on the back of his neck. If he didn’t know better, he could swear that this was a hall straight out of a horror film—the pale green cast of light, the bare walls, the faint echo of his boots. If ghosts were real, they would live here, whispering in the air.

  As he started down the hall, he listened for the voices of detectives coming from the last cell. Maybe they were interrogating the prisoner again today.

  Bruce had just made his way toward the first cell window when a loud slam echoed from it. Instantly, he jumped back a step—and saw an inmate staring at him through the window. “Well, well, well,” the man said. “It’s the new boy. You look good enough to carve.”

  He practically spat out the words, and as he did, he stirred the rest of the hall to life, until other shouts echoed along the corridor. Bruce looked away and concentrated on the floor before him instead.

  “What’s the matter, boy?” the inmate said. “What got you into this slum in the first place, eh, cleaning up our sh—hey, hey! Where the hell you think you’re going?” He rapped madly on the glass when Bruce took a step away. “You know what I did to get into this place? I carve. I carve real good.” He made a cutting gesture along his neck and down his arms.

  Bruce sped up, trying to purge the haunting sound of the man’s voice from his mind.

  The next cell was no better—it held an enormous man, who looked even bigger in his jumpsuit, with every inch of his exposed olive skin tattooed, including his face. He let out a laugh as Bruce went by, and didn’t break his stare until he was completely out of sight. Then he rammed his giant shoulder against the glass, making the entire pane shiver.

  A third inmate was tall and eerily handsome, his veins visibly blue against his skin. Bruce recognized him from the news, a serial killer convicted of at least two dozen murders carried out in gruesome fashion. The fourth inmate was bald and thick-necked, with eyes as pale and clear as water, pacing from one end of his cell to the other, until his shoes bumped against the walls.

  These were murderers who had terrorized Gotham City when they roamed free, who had dominated the news cycles. Now the only thing separating Bruce from each of them was a layer of metal and glass.

  Finally, he reached the end of the hall. He slowed, then stepped closer to the last cell, where the officers had been interrogating the prisoner several days before, their voices raised and frustrated. His thoughts lingered on the inmates he had just passed, their twisted smiles and stares, their unspeakable crimes. If they were the sort who stayed down here, then what did it take to command the police’s undivided attention? Who sat in that last cell?

  The window on the cell’s door stretched about half his body length, enough for him to see most of the inner room. It was plain, like the others, with nothing but a mattress and a toilet and sink. His eyes went to the lone figure sitting inside, pressed against one corner, legs stretched out, dressed in a long-sleeved white uniform.

  It was the woman. No, that wasn’t right—the girl.

  She didn’t look a day older than Bruce himself, sitting languidly with her head leaning back against the wall, her expression empty like a doll’s, her eyes staring out at nothing in particular. They were very, very dark eyes. Her hair was long and straight and so black that its highlights appeared blue, and her skin was so pale under the light that it looked dusted with flour. Her mouth was small and rosy, her face heart-shaped, her neck arched and slender.

  Bruce blinked. This was the inmate the Gotham City police were interrogating? He didn’t know what he’d expected to see, but she didn’t look anything like what he’d imagined. She looked like she belonged in his class at the academy, a girl far too young to be in a place like Arkham. In this fortress of the violent and broken, she seemed calm as death and starkly out of place.

  And yet. There was something off about her gaze…something that sent a shiver down his spine.

  The girl’s slender eyes shifted. She looked at him without moving her head.

  Bruce startled, taking a step back from the window. Those eyes. They didn’t just appear dark—there was something more in those depths, something lurking and guarded, calculating. They were windows into an intelligent mind, and right now they were analyzing Bruce. He had the strange sensation that she was memorizing everything about him, that she could read his thoughts.

  When he glanced down at her hands, he noticed that she had folded a napkin into the intricate shape of a flower…but whenever she twisted her wrists, the flower unfurled into the shape of a scorpion. Back and forth it transformed. Impossible, he wanted to think, to fold something that intricate with just a napkin. It reminded him of the precise way his mother used to fold letters before sending them, carefully sharpening the creases of the paper with her nail so that each segment of the paper lined up perfectly.

  They stared at each other for a moment longer. Then Bruce stepped out of her line of sight and let out his breath. His mind spun.

  Maybe the staff had moved the original inmate somewhere else and put this girl here instead. That would make more sense. Bruce frowned as he returned to work. What had she done to end up at the intensive-treatment section of Gotham C
ity’s most notorious prison?

  He thought of his system of categorizing people. Where did she fit?

  When he couldn’t linger anymore, he packed up his supplies and turned to the exit. As he went, he got one more glimpse into the cell. He half expected the girl to still have her eyes turned to him, dark and depthless, searing straight through his bones.

  But she had returned to staring off into space. She didn’t stir. The origami in her hands was back in the shape of a flower. Bruce thought about it for a moment, then shook his head as he stepped through the exit door. Perhaps she hadn’t noticed him at all, and he had imagined the whole thing.

  Bruce was still thinking about the girl as the evening drew to a close and he headed out of Arkham’s doors to get into Alfred’s waiting car.

  “How was it today?” Alfred asked.

  Bruce cast his guardian a dry look through the rearview mirror. “Had the best time,” he replied. “I highly recommend it.”

  Alfred frowned at him. “Where do you inherit all this sarcasm from, Master Wayne?”

  “I don’t know.” Bruce leaned forward and hung an arm over the side of Alfred’s seat. “Maybe it’s from you.”

  “Me? Sarcastic?” Alfred sniffed, the barest hint of a smile appearing on his lips. “It’s as if you think I’m British.”

  Despite the long day, Bruce couldn’t help but grin at the retort. He watched the dead limbs of trees blur past the window. The girl’s face lingered in his thoughts, and when he let himself dwell too long, he could see her eyes flashing by in rhythmic intervals between the trunks, darker than night.

  A few minutes later, they pulled up to the training gym where Bruce spent many of his evenings. Bruce took a deep breath as he got out of the car, pulled open the gym door, and stepped inside. He needed a good, clean workout to clear his head, to shake the girl from his thoughts.

  The gym was an exclusive club where the coach—Edward Chang, an Olympic gold medalist in boxing and wrestling—only accepted students to train on a case-by-case basis. Bruce’s gaze swept across the massive unbroken space, ending at the ceiling, which yawned a good two stories over his head. Blue mats were set up in various configurations all around the floor, and an octagon ring lay in the center, where official spars happened between Bruce’s coach and his students. There were dozens of stations with weights and jump ropes, punching bags and padded gear, multiple rock-climbing walls. At one far corner, there was even a swimming pool with eight lanes.

 
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