“Are you all right?” asked the Huntress as soon as she could speak to her father without others overhearing.
“Think I pulled a muscle or two in my back, and my left knee is sore. The cat left a few scratches on my back, too.” Batman smiled and said, “All things considered, not bad for an old has-been.”
“‘Has-been’?” the Huntress laughed as she waved off a pair of reporters. “Ha! You handled that like you never hung up that cape!”
“Let’s get out of here. There’s more to be done tonight.” Batman started off at a trot toward the Batmobile. “This time you can drive.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?” asked the Huntress as she caught up with him.
“Commissioner Wayne needs to check in on the situation,” said Batman, easing into the passenger side seat and reaching for the mobile phone. He placed a call to Police Headquarters, which was routed through the department’s communications system to Battalion Chief Gilbert.
“We have everyone out, Commissioner, thanks to Batman and the Huntress,” said Gilbert when asked for a situation report. “Building is a total loss. It’s going to take a couple hours to get it completely under control.”
“Wait a minute, Chief,” said Bruce Wayne. “Did you just say Batman?”
The Huntress placed a hand over her mouth to stifle a most undignified snort.
“Yeah! Nobody knows how that happened, and he’s already gone. But it was him, I’m sure of it.”
“I’ll take your word for it. What about the occupants?”
“I’ve been trying to reach the Red Cross, see if they can take care of them.”
“Let the good folks of the Red Cross enjoy their Christmas, Larry. Bring them out to my house. I can put them up here for the night.” Batman glanced over at his daughter to gauge her reaction. The smile on her face reassured him. “If you need help with transportation, notify Ninth and Tenth Precincts; they should have transport vans available.”
“If you say so, Commissioner.”
“I do, Chief. I’ll let you get back to work.”
Batman hung up the phone and looked at his daughter. “I know it’s a crazy idea, but I really don’t want those kids to remember this Christmas as the one that was ruined by a fire.”
“I understand Dad, and I like the idea. I just hope you know what we’re getting into.”
“You have no idea, Helena,” replied Batman as he let his head fall back against the headrest and closed his eyes. “You have no idea.”
As soon as the Batmobile came to a stop, Bruce Wayne was out of the car and running to a desk. He thumbed through a rolodex file, then dialed a number on the phone and waited for an answer.
“Liz? It’s Bruce Wayne. Could I speak to Charlie, please?”
“Charlie’s still at the store, Bruce. You know him; he’s got to make sure everything is ready for the day after Christmas sale.” Miles away, Liz Wainwright was sitting before a roaring fireplace. “You sound worried, Bruce. What’s wrong?”
“I need his help, Liz. I have twenty-five people who’ve just lost everything in a fire. Is there a number where you can reach him at the store?”
“Oh, my word, Bruce! Of course — he has a private number for when the store is closed. Here,” she said, and rattled off the number.
“Thank you, Liz, and Merry Christmas!”
Bruce pressed the hook on the phone, then dialed the new number. After several rings, Charlie Wainwright answered from somewhere within the Wainwright Department Store.
“Charlie, it’s Bruce. I’m sorry to be calling on Christmas Eve, but I need some help here.”
“What is it, Bruce?”
“There was a fire at the Brooklawn apartments, and I’ve got twenty-five displaced residents coming out to Wayne Manor. First thing I’ll need is sleepwear and clothes for them to wear in the morning.”
“That’s no problem; give me rough sizes, and I’ll bring them out there myself.”
“Thanks, Charlie, but I’m thinking bigger. There’s a bunch of kids here, and I feel like playing Santa. Can we do a midnight run on your store once I get an idea what they want?”
There was a pause while the store owner thought it over. “Let me call Kenny Mercer; he’s got a bigger toy department over there, and we can split things up.”
“That would be great, Charlie. Just give me a bill, and we’ll settle up by the end of the week.”
“The hell I will, Bruce! You think I’ve forgotten how you pulled strings at Gotham General to get Liz’s surgery moved up? You think Lenny forgot how you loaned him the money to rebuild his store after that fire twenty years ago? This one’s on us! I’ve just got one question — how are you going to know what to get these kids?”
“I told you,” said Bruce, glancing over at one of the display cases in the Batcave. “I feel like playing Santa Claus.”
It was shortly after eight o’clock when a former school bus painted in the blue and gray of the Gotham Police Youth League pulled up in front of Wayne Manor. The front door of the grand old house opened, spilling light on the snowy driveway. Bruce Wayne stepped out, followed by his daughter Helena.
“Come on, now, let’s get you all inside where it’s warm. We have a fire lit in the den to your right as you go in,” he said to the folks coming off the bus. “We’ve got rooms ready for all of you, or nearly ready, but first, let’s get you all something to eat.”
Helena marveled as her father took charge of the situation, guiding over two dozen people into the house, making each of them feel as if he was doing this just for them. She helped a woman bring her four children into the house, the same woman whom she had led up to the roof of the burning building less than two hours earlier. Patty Ingram carried her youngest girl and guided another by the hand. Her husband was helping their neighbors, the Dillons, off the bus as Helena took the hands of the two oldest Ingram children, Laurie and James, and led them into the house.
“Is this a hotel?” asked Laurie, looking up at the large, Tudor-style home.
“No, this is my dad’s house. His family built it a long, long time ago, when this was all a big farm around here.”
“Do you have horses?” asked Laurie.
“She said it used to be a farm; it isn’t anymore,” said James.
“Actually, we do have a couple of horses for riding,” replied Helena. “Maybe you can meet them tomorrow.”
Ed Swanson, with a bandage wrapped around the back and left side of his head, walked slowly up the steps with a heavyset young man standing by his side. “Thank you, Greg,” said Ed when he reached the top. “Where are the kids?”
“They’re already inside, Ed. Just be careful; the doctor said you very nearly got a concussion.”
“Commissioner, do you want us to stay here?” asked one of the police officers who had accompanied the victims of the fire on the Police Department bus.
“No, Lieutenant Jenkins, I think we’ll make out all right,” replied Bruce. “But before you go, there’s a couple of trays of food in the kitchen that I want you to take down to the precinct house when you return. Something for the on-duty officers tonight.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Jenkins, waving two other officers over.
Moments later, in the den, Bruce stood by the door looking over the assembled group. “What do you think, Hel? Have we got enough beds?”
“Depends on if you want the kids in the rooms with their parents. Not enough bedrooms to split up the boys and girls in each family, unless some of the kids want to bunk together.” Helena tilted her head for a few seconds, lost in thought. “Say, Dad, did you ever get around to converting the loft into a train room like you talked about?”
“No, I didn’t. Haven’t been up there since you went off to college, actually.”
Helena grinned. “I know how to make this work.” She stepped into the room and spoke up. “OK, girls, here’s the deal. You can sleep in sleeping bags in the rooms with your parents, or… you can sleep up in the loft with me, and we’ll make it a slumber party.”
Five of the eight girls in the room jumped up at the idea, the other three being too young to be interested in a slumber party.
“Boys, we have a room for you, bunk beds, and we’ll bring another bed in there. And folks, that leaves rooms for each couple or single for the night.”
“Mr. Wayne, I — that is, we — don’t know how to thank you,” said Mark Ingram, speaking for the group.
“Don’t worry about it. For now, let’s see about getting some food in you, those who want it, and we should have some sleepwear arriving shortly.” Bruce waved everyone toward the adjacent dining room. “We’ve put things out in there. But if you’ll excuse me for a moment, I, um, I have a phone call I need to make.” With that, Bruce walked out of the room.
Kevin Swanson was in the dining room with a plate holding a sandwich, some carrot sticks, and a couple of Christmas cookies, looking for his sister. He looked back into the den and saw someone stepping in through a door leading outside that made him shout out loud, “It’s Santa Claus!”
There was a commotion of shouts and cries from the assembled children as they rushed back to the den.
“Hello, hello, my friends. I heard you had trouble tonight, and I thought I should stop by here before I begin my rounds. Come on, come on over, let me see that you’re all right.” Santa Claus sat down in a well-worn rocker by the fireplace and waved over the closest child. She scrambled up on his lap, a big grin on her little face. He ran a gloved hand through her curly blonde hair. “So, Trista, you and Kevin and your dad are here. But where’s Lucky?”
Her eyes grew wider as she answered, “He’s in the kitchen, sleeping.”
“I guess it was a pretty rough night for him, too.”
“Uh-huh,” said the girl, nodding. “But Santa, I know a secret.”
“You do? Well, you know, you’re not supposed to tell secrets.”
She stretched up so she was whispering in his ear. “Oh, I think it’s OK to tell you, Mr. Wayne. But not right now.”
One by one, the children walked over to where Santa sat in a well-worn wooden rocker. He talked to each of them in a quiet voice, so nobody else would hear. And with each child, he asked what they wanted for Christmas now.
The visit was over in fifteen minutes, then Santa stepped out through the door onto the balcony overlooking the back yard of Wayne Manor. Then he took off in a spring, down the steps and around the corner of the house. He stepped into a basement door and made his way to an old coal-burning furnace, one showing the signs of long disuse. He reached up and turned a lever, and one side of the furnace opened up revealing a stairway. Down went Santa into a cavern below the house. As he walked, he pulled off first his hat, then his beard. Bruce Wayne’s face was revealed, a look of concentration on his aged features. He made his way to a desk and picked up pen and paper, and started writing from memory the list of items for each child.
He came to the end of the list — Martin Evans. “That’s a pretty tall order for Santa, Martin, but let’s see what we can do about that.”