Sunday, June 26, 2005

171. The omniscient narrator (flashback: February 2003)

Bruce had only met the man once, but the encounter had left an indelible mark.

It was at a cocktail party in the early months of 2003 when a mutual friend introduced the wealthy socialite to a well-built, eerily self-confident individual with close-cropped hair and piercing eyes. At the time, Bruce did not and could not admit to himself how attractive he found the man; he simply thought of him as "intriguing."

Their conversation began with an exchange of shallow repartee. Bruce was playing his carefully cultivated role of jaded playboy to the hilt, and years of experience had taught him the art of evasion. But after a few moments of idle chatter, his sparring partner changed tone abruptly.

"Let's cut the bullshit, Mr. Wayne. Life is too short to fuck around. You're a man with secrets. You're haunted by them. I could tell that the minute you shook my hand. The way you avoid eye contact, the little linguistic games you want to play--you're hiding something. Not just from me and everybody else here, but from yourself.

"I don't expect you to tell me what it is. For christ's sake, I'm a total stranger. But I think you want something you're not letting yourself have, and sooner or later that can get very, very frustrating. Frustration has a way of building up inside a man. If he's not careful, it can tear him apart."

The man stared straight at Bruce, who suddenly found himself on the receiving end of a treatment he'd often dished out as Batman. Under the circumstances--locked, for the moment, into the public role of Bruce Wayne--he did not have the option of fighting fire with fire. He decided to take a different tack. It felt odd, though not entirely unpleasant, to be caught off guard. There was something about this stranger he found ... intimidating? Tantalizing? Intoxicating? Bruce realized his breath was growing shallow, his throat a little dry.

He tried to lighten the mood by changing the subject. "And what is it you do for a living, Mister... uh..."

"Gustavus. Carl Gustavus," the man replied. "I work with men. I shape them. I train them. I give them..."

"--what they want?" Bruce added, mocking the gravity of his new acquaintance's tone.

"What they need," Gustavus corrected.

Wayne had no idea what any of this meant, but he was fascinated all the same.

Gustavus continued. "You look like the kind of man who needs what I have to offer," he said, handing Bruce a business card.

Master detective though he might be, Wayne did not sense the clear flirtation in the man's tone. Lacking any frame of reference for seduction of this sort, he simply accepted the card and tucked it in a pocket of his dinner jacket without looking at it, then glanced at his watch.

"I'm sorry, I have to go..." he said.

"It's okay, little man," Gustavus replied in a way that made it difficult to tell whether he was merely teasing or genuinely hostile. "Run away if you must. When you're ready, you'll give me a call. You know how to reach me. And we both know you want to."