Chapter 1: Cat-Tale: Bruce
A bright full moon illuminated the rooftops of the L & L Lofts in the heart of the once seedy, now ultra-fashionable Meatpacking District. Batman retrieved his grappling hook and reloaded the ascender, then he removed his gloves and massaged the knuckles.
It wasn't the three hours of Zogger, he told himself, it was the JLA meeting. Sitting there for an hour and a half of interminable nonsense, he'd expressed his disgust the only way possible, by clenching and unclenching his fist.
A burst of hoarse laughter came from below. Batman turned to see a trio of drag queens leaving a nightclub, one pointing in his direction. The moon, he was perfectly silhouetted by the full moon. He muttered an obscenity, firing a line to a more discreet location and swinging out of the moonlight.
The Meatpacking District. In the 60s, it was SoHo; in the 80s, TriBeCa. Struggling artists find a rundown area where rents are cheap. They improvise studios and performances spaces however they can from old warehouses, factories or, in this case, meat lockers. Then someone becomes a success, and the beautiful people find them. Pretty soon, restaurants, boutiques, galleries and super hot nightspots are popping up in the rawest of raw industrial spaces. The Meatpacking District was still in the early stages of transition, but before long, it would be saturated in chic, the remaining spaces would be converted to apartments, the rents would skyrocket, and the artists who started it all would move on.
Batman scowled. It wasn't like him to look on any corner of his city with contempt. Hell Month. It was just Hell Month.
A tone sounded in his utility belt. It was the alarm he'd been waiting for. Six hours ahead in Paris. She'd just be waking up. He muted the OraCom and took out Bruce Wayne's cel phone.
"Good morning, Kitten," he began, with a cheer he didn't feel, "how was the opera?"
:Morning, Handsome. Little known fact: today, it's mostly ballet that's performed at the Paris Opera House.:
"Just a minute."
:Just a minute: the deep voice graveled. Then there was a clunk, a swilsh, and silence. In her lush suite at the Ritz, Selina sipped her café. After a few minutes, the voice returned.
:Still there?: he asked.
"Mugger, dealer, or pimp?"
"You put down the phone, swoosh, and you come back out of breath. You just pummeled somebody." There was a pause, and she bit into her croissant. "Pummel opportunities are few and far between this time of year, n'est pas?"
:Pummel opportunities are few and far between this time of year, n'est pas?:
Batman's lip twitched. Nobody teased him during Hell Month. Never. Not even Dick the wiseass. Not even Plastic Man. Nobody. Only the Cat would dare.
"If you want to play detective, I do have a puzzle I wanted to ask you about."
"A package arrived at the manor. Gift basket. Box of cigars, lime scented candles, bodywash and shampoo, big natural sponge, and a card with a cat on one side and a riddle on the back."
He heard a happy laugh on the other end of the receiver. He growled. It was encouragement to continue, but merriment annoyed him during Hell Month. A lighthearted outlook on crime always irked him, but during Hell Month… He glared at the cityscape before him, then sighed, looked back at the phone and read the riddle:
"My first is half that to which a baker adds one,
"My second sounds the fate of a broken down car,
"My third is inspiration to you, dear friend,
"And my whole lived with poets and pirates on an island by the sea.
"I return on the 17th."
:Well?: Selina prompted.
Batman liked that. She knew he had the answer. She was giving him the opening to show off.
"A baker's dozen is thirteen, or twelve plus one. Half twelve is six. The first syllable is six. A broken down car is towed; the sound alike is -toed. Six-toed something. Third syllable is inspiration to you, his dear friend. Six-toed cats, or polydactyl cats are indigenous to Key West, an island off the coast of Florida where Hemingway, Tennessee Williams and many other writers lived, and was historically a base for numerous pirates and wrecking crews."
:Meow: was all she said, but he could hear the smile in her voice. He felt a pang. Sending her away seemed the best course at the time—it was for the best—he wasn't about to second-guess his decisions. He did miss her though. He expressed this with an angry snort.
"Meow, nothing," he spat, "it's not an answer. It answers the riddle but not the puzzle of the card and the clues: cigars, candles, soap, sponge - And what's this 'I return on the 17th' bullshit?"
The laughter that had been merry now became downright delighted.
:You're too adorable: she gasped at last, :They're not clues, you obsessed jackass. They're souvenirs. Eddie's gone to Key West, he's coming back on the 17th.:
Batman stared into the phone… It was all too familiar. That voice, mocking him. Meow. So light, so carefree, so sexy. Meow. He wanted her back home, wanted her to cut the trip short and come home and be with him, wanted that voice as hot breath in his ear, "Meow," not the cold treble of a telephone. He wanted… just like he used to, he wanted and he couldn't admit it. She knew too, like she'd always known, and she wouldn't help him. Vicious cat.
Like now. Laughing. He was trying to think over these clues and this riddle in light of new information and all she could do was laugh at him.
:Eddie is always like that: she was saying.
"Fine," he snorted, "but if I find out he's been up to something all this time–"
:Yeah, yeah, yeah, you'll take it out of my tail. Whatever. Oh wait, you can't, can you, 'cause you sent my tail 3,000 miles across the Atlantic.:
Turning the screw. Vicious cat. He did it for both their sakes, why couldn't she see that?
"So…" was all he could manage, then after a pause, "…How's Paris?"
It matched his "So…"
Maybe she felt the same way—
:Not at all crowded this time of year.:
"So it's mostly ballet at the Opera House now?" he heard himself ask, while fingering a Batarang absently. PsychoBat was starting to stir. What the hell was he doing talking about the ballet…
:Yes. Giselle. Quite a production.:
There were crimes being committed in his city.
"Sounds wonderful," he grunted.
Why was he standing here talking about the ballet at the Paris Opera House…
"The weather ok?"
The weather! Ultimate sign of a doomed conversation.
:Well, it is winter. And the House of Chanel has never embraced central heating, so the fittings have been an arctic experience. Rather like Kittlemeier's backroom.:
Kittlemeier's. It brought his thoughts back to Gotham. To Selina being back in Gotham. To Selina, scantily clad, in that cold little room… The grumbling that followed concealed a knowing chuckle.
"Yes, it's quite cold here as well…"
What the hell am I talking about?!
:I'm sure it is, being January and all. How many flights up right now?:
:Wind is pretty harsh up there.:
"Not too bad. It's when I'm mid-swing that I feel it the most…"
and in bed… It's been so cold without you.
Reflexively, PsychoBat clenched, unclenched, and reclenched his fist. It was time to check the docks. Then last call at the Iceberg, see who's closing the place and who heads out where. Then a quick pass through the diamond district. Then museum row and the park front condos.
On the phone, the silence had become conspicuous.
:Well, button up then: she said finally.
He nearly remarked that there were no buttons on the Batsuit, but that would only rile the cat. Instead he grunted "I will."
There was another painful pause while PsychoBat railed in his brain: This was all wrong, the conversation was wrong, the words were wrong. Why was he thinking like this? Why was he TALKING like this? He had WORK to do.
"I should go, I'm on patrol," he said finally, just as she said, :I should let you go then. You're mid-patrol.:
: … Well, good night then. :
"G'night… … I—"
You what? PsychoBat interrupted, You love her? You miss her? You want her here with you?! We've got to get to work!
"—I'll talk to you tomorrow."
:Yeah… Tomorrow… Bonsoir.:
There was a click. Batman stared into the phone, the instinctive What the hell was that? response cut off by a commotion below. At last, PsychoBat had the action he craved, but the wind cut a little colder than it had before.
Selina sat on the roof of 13 Rue de la Paix, otherwise known as Cartier Paris. She'd forgotten what it was like, the awkwardness, the unspoken questions, the unspeakable wanting, and then, the curt slap of the bat-rejection.
Was this all it took to set them back? A few days apart and they were back to square one. Worse. Worse than square one.
"Button up," she had said. Catwoman, mistress of innuendo. Button up now, sweetie, it's cold out there. Drink plenty of liquids, have some chicken soup…
"…Well, good night then." How suburban. Mary Lou Lipschitz leaning in after the movie. Well g'night, Bobby, I had a wonderful time…
:I'll talk to you tomorrow: he had said. That's the one that hurt. Why? Why did it feel so much like—like the Watchtower. She'd saved them, the whole goddamn JLA was taken out by that blowhard Prometheus with his gadget and his tinpot Renfaire-reject armor. Superman thanked her. Steel thanked her. Flash said "not a moment too soon." Green Lantern, in no shape to talk, nodded. Huntress admired her whip. Aquaman held her chair. And Batman? Batman said "Put the storm opals from Rann back on your way out."
:I'll talk to you tomorrow.:
100 journalists were at the Watchtower that day. It was how Selina had snuck onboard, disguised as one of them. When the crisis was passed, they all had to be shuttled home. No one thought Catwoman, Catwoman who had saved their sorry hero asses, should have to suffer a ride back with Katie Couric, Mary Hart, Matt Lauer and Barbara Walters. So she waited in their conference room. And waited. And waited. Plastic Man brought her coffee, and then she waited some more. Finally Martian Manhunter came in; the coast was clear. She came out to find only a few heroes remained. Batman was one of them. Batman who was, presumably, going back to Gotham just as she was.
Thanks again, from Flash. A smile from Green Lantern who still hadn't entirely recovered from the neural chaff and gunshot wound. …PAUSE… … … … … … And finally… a grunt. Then Martian Manhunter looked at Batman, Batman looked at Manhunter, more pausing… She could just tell they were talking mentally to one another, having an argument from the looks of it. And then Batman walked off without a word. "Well," Martian Manhunter said with an air of covering for a missed cue, "I guess I'll shuttle you back."
:I'll talk to you tomorrow.:
Bruce knelt beneath the stalactite where he always meditated after a workout. He sat up straight, but found it difficult to relax his shoulders for the breathing exercises. They were stiff. They ached. He inhaled through his nose, slowly, steadily, feeling the air fill his lungs, taking care not to lean forward, expanding his stomach area as he inhaled…
What did he expect? No sleep, so his shoulders ached.
He felt the air moving into the top of his lungs—maximum capacity. He held the breath for a second, then exhaled slowly through his mouth.
The tension twisted down his back.
:Yeah… Tomorrow… Bonsoir.:
She sounded so—off.
Four regular breaths, then inhale again.
What the hell did she want from him? He was on patrol. What did she expect, a sonnet?
Inhale—deep—don't lean—DAMNIT! WHAT THE FUCK DID SHE WANT FROM HIM?? He sent her to Paris! Wouldn't any woman—wouldn't Catwoman especially—He FLEW HER to PARIS in his PRIVATE PLANE—he said GO TO CARTIER, BUY YOURSELF SOMETHING NICE! Wouldn't any woman flip? Wouldn't Catwoman of all women wrap her arms around him and kiss him? What the hell did she expect, he was on patrol!
:Yeah… Tomorrow… Bonsoir.:
There were criminals loose in his city. Dick once said a crime was committed every eightteen minutes in Gotham. He was wrong. It's every sixteen minutes. What the hell did she… -the aching shoulders crumpled- …want?
He wanted her home. If she was here, she would have soothed him and he would have slept. She would have massaged his aching muscles. She would have noticed him clenching his fist and taken his hand, opened the fingers, kissed the tender flesh inside the palm…
Zogger. He'd been meaning to make some modifications, version five was past due. He could insert heat coils into the steel arm to prevent the user from grabbing onto it, that would also open up the possibility of steam. Intense shots of heat, highly pressurized…
Heat. Pressure. Intense. Who the hell was he kidding…
: Yes? :
"I know it's late there—"
: S'okay, I wasn't sleeping. :
"So, I'll send the plane to pick you up in the morning?"
: No, I'll get the concierge to get me on the next Concorde out. Be home by lunchtime. :
Oswald Cobblepot reread the offending document in disbelief. He flipped it over and checked the postmark: Key West, Florida. With a hostile agility not seen he'd retired from fieldwork, he grabbed the nearest umbrella, charged from his office, and angrily rang the brass bell over the bar.
"Your attention please, Iceberg patrons!" he began with an icy hauteur, "Be it known that from this day forth, the person of Edward Nigma is persona non grata in this establishment. The Riddler is BANNED from the Iceberg Lounge!"
...to be continued...