Chapter 1: Dateline Washington
Washington D.C. —Alexander Luthor, 43rd President of the United States, resigned his office effective 12:00 noon today amidst mounting evidence in the ongoing KentGate controversy. The President continues to deny any involvement or prior knowledge of the attempted assassination of Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent. Kent's bestseller Strange Bedfellows has been creating headaches for the White House…
Bruce had read The Gotham Times account twice. He skimmed the headline and opening paragraph one final time before setting down the newspaper with a grunt of satisfaction. The Times was more restrained in its account than the Daily Planet, but that was understandable. The Planet's feud with Luthor was well known, even before his election. They had plagued him when he was a corrupt business tycoon, they continued to plague him when he became President, and now he was implicated in the attempted murder of one of their star reporters.
Bruce shook his head at Luthor's insane miscalculation. Other newspapers, like the Gotham Times, maintained a detached tone. They were going out of their way to preserve the appearance of neutral dispassionate reporting. But the fact was that the most conservative media, the ones that had always been most supportive of Luthor, could not be unaffected by the nature of the scandal: it was one of their own, a journalist, that Luthor tried to have killed.
"You can't possibly drink hot coffee with your mouth twitching that way, Bruce. Why don't you just have your laugh and get it over with."
Bruce glanced up across the breakfast table at a pair of amused green eyes scanning him while a slow finger stroked seductively around the rim of her coffee cup.
"Nothing about Luthor is funny," he pronounced.
"Oh come on, even you can't pretend The Post's version wasn't funny. I mean, they got that Superman and Batman were involved taking him down, but other than that… Pffft, Lex flying around Metropolis hopped up on Venom in a dayglow spacesuit?"
Bruce glared. He refused to acknowledge tabloids like The Post on principle and he wasn't about to start now.
"He looked like a Tylenol capsule decked out for Mardi Gras."
Bruce refused to acknowledge the Post, and he certainly wasn't going to admit to…
"Don't strain yourself holding back the twitch, Bruce. I've seen the new wallpaper on your desktop."
"Scanned from page six, I believe."
"Supes looks quite pissed."
"You look quite sexy."
"Admit it. You liked that story. The pair of you enjoyed that win a lot more than beating back a parkful of berserkers and gargoyles, that's for damn sure. And you kind of like the Post reflecting it all in their crazy funhouse mirror."
"We did what needed to be done. Neither of us enjoyed it."
Selina shook her head with an expression at once affectionate, amused, and sad. "You really do believe that, don't you. And I'll bet you don't have a thing for bad girls in purple either."
"Impossible woman," Bruce growled, tossing down his napkin. Then he walked across to her side of the table and kissed her cheek. "Are you going into town today? I could meet you after work, quick drink and a bite at d'Annunzio's?"
"Sure," she purred. "Now go run off with your newspaper so I won't see you chortling all over that headline."
"Nothing about Luthor is funny," he repeated over his shoulder as he left the room.
It wasn't. As much as he was happier waking up in a world where Lex Luthor was not President, as much as he could take satisfaction from his role in making that a reality, he could not honestly say he felt anything like the enjoyment or amusement Selina attributed to him.
For one thing, there was the ease with which it all played out. Batman was never entirely comfortable when he could capitalize on an enemy's mistakes. The stupider the mistake, the greater likelihood that it was a trap. Even if, as in this case, there was no reason to think the mistake suspicious. Luthor's hubris was legendary. That he would try to kill Clark was perfectly in character. That he wouldn't really try to hide it was also, shockingly, in character. Batman could easily trace out Luthor's reasoning. He would have been convinced his position made him untouchable. There could be no proof tying him absolutely to Kent's death, and it would be useful to have a few whispers – like there were about Diana and Prince Charles. It would be known that he was dangerous, that he was capable of it. That, Luthor would reason, would deter other reporters from digging where they shouldn't. With all the resources at his disposal as President, with Black Ops Special Forces that would have been untraceable (although no more successful considering the target's Kryptonian biology), Luthor hired a sniper with ties to DEMON. With Talia Head, the Demon Head's daughter, running his company (into the ground) while he was president.
Only he didn't figure on Kent surviving, or of the uncannily knowing detective work bringing one fact to light after another. There would never be enough proof to impeach and indict him. Batman knew it even though Clark's optimism insisted to the last that it might be possible. But there was enough. Batman knew, from the moment Luthor took the oath of office, that this day would come. They couldn't rightly move against a democratically elected President. They couldn't. It crossed an uncrossable line and both heroes knew it. They couldn't act until Luthor himself crossed a line. Once he took that step, once he became a criminal, then it all became possible. Every protocol Bruce had in place for the President's removal had Luthor's own misconduct as a necessary first step. Then it was crimefighting. And crimefighting was what Batman did better than anybody in the world. By the fourth day after the shooting, Luthor found himself under such a cloud it was impossible for him to continue as President. He resigned "for the good of the office," knowing it was the only way to salvage even a fraction of his reputation. This way there would be some, however few, that still saw him as a good man and a good president who was smeared.
Whether that would be enough to ever rebuild his legacy remained to be seen.
"Rise and shine!" Barbara sang as she accosted her sleeping husband with a breakfast tray and morning newspaper. "Breakfast in bed, for my sexy bird."
The tantalizing aromas of cinnamon, coffee, and bacon penetrated Dick's sleepy fog a few seconds before conscious thought. He smiled down at the tray before him and blinked, connecting the happy aromas with the sight of French toast, a "Love the librarian" coffee mug, and –PANIC! Conscious thought had shrugged off the last of the groggies and caught up with the rest of his brain, and that first conscious thought of the day was one of alarm.
"What's the occasion?" he asked, hoping his voice didn't reveal the wild acrobatics his mind was engaged in as he frantically tried to recall if he'd missed the anniversary of a first date, first kiss, first team-up against a costumed villain…
"No occasion," Barbara answered happily.
Dick eyed her warily. He picked up a fork warily, and he gave the French toast a suspicious poke. "French toast stuffed with –is that custard? –sprinkled with cinnamon and powder sugar. Bacon extra crispy. 'Love the librarian' mug. Babs, c'mon."
"Do I need a reason to show my sexy bird how much I love him?"
Dick performed his best recreation of Bruce scrutinizing Zogger logs.
Barbara grimaced. "Party poop," she said. "I just wanted you to get up so I could tell you the news. And since you didn't get back from Bludhaven until after five, I figured if I was going to wake you up this early, the least I could do was make your favorite—"
"How early is it?" Dick asked, looking around for the clock. "8:30!" he gulped when he saw it. "You woke me at 8:30 when you knew I only got in at – Babs, that's like less than three hours sleep."
"Don't be such a wuss, Dickie; it's not like we've got anything doing today. So you've got all day long to rest up."
"I was resting up," he complained.
Barbara took the fork deliberately from his fingers, cut off a bite of French toast, and dangled it enticingly before his mouth. He resisted for about ten seconds before snapping at it in an aggressive, but vanquished, gesture of surrender.
"Okay okay," he said, waving the white flag energetically as he chewed, "you win, you're my gazette. Tell me, my all-seeing Oracle, all the news I missed while I was in Bludhaven for nine whole hours last night. Long as I can eat while you do it."
"Azrael is back," Barbara began, wasting no time getting to the headline.
"Back from the dead?" Dick asked acidly. "Neat trick."
"He wasn't dead; you know that perfectly well. That's just the Post being the Post."
"Darn." Dick sighed melodramatically. "Even the Gotham Post could get one right occasionally. Don't you think? Just to keep us off-balance…. Oh well, since he's not dead, where has Captain Lugnut been?"
"Undercover. You've heard about the Kishley-Krull divorce, right?"
"Margo Kishley and Ted Krull, sure who hasn't? Both movie stars, both famous, both rich, both hot tempers—"
"Exactly. Well couple months back before it all went public, Az stumbled onto some information that looked a lot like Ted Krull was considering the quicker, less expensive, less-damaging-to-his-reputation divorce alternative."
"Having his wife killed."
"Yep. 'Accident' while she was shooting on location in Rumania. So Azrael infiltrated the film shoot to protect her and in the course of it, he found a lot more going on with that film crew: espionage and drug smuggling. He followed the trail through the circuit of film festivals, that's what wound up taking so long."
"And you knew all about this the whole time?"
"No, I just got the story once he got back to town, showed up on my radar again last—"
"And you've been bursting to tell someone since last night."
Barbara bit her lip in a guilty manner.
"Ah, I see. You told Bruce. But Bruce already knew. He's annoying that way, isn't he."
"He's insufferable. 'Toronto Film Festival ended Thursday. Two days to make sure the locals didn't mess up the paperwork. One day R&R. One day travel time. He's back right on schedule. Grunt.'"
"My poor Barbara."
The most distressing thing about Bruce's decision to forego the Idiot Fop routine was the revelation of how ingrained his antics had become. Bruce knew he was an intelligent man. He had assumed the role of a shallow airhead as camouflage. He never dreamed, never dreamed for one moment, that it would become a habit he couldn't break any time he chose. Yet here he was at the entrance to the executive elevator, swiping his access card two –three –four times until he lined up the magnetic strip properly with the scanner.
The more conspicuous aspects of the Fop act had been easy enough to jettison: Selina was his escort now wherever he went. He was no longer photographed with an ever-changing string of bimbos. And he no longer had those women's inane blather to repeat about the books, current events, and conversations they missed the point of so consistently.
It was things like this, the unconscious mannerisms, that he was finding hard to shrug off. He had always tempered the act at Wayne Enterprises. The company's welfare was too important to too many people. He couldn't allow himself to seem truly stupid, so he opted instead for more subtle hints about his intellect. Hints that were open to interpretation. He knew he didn't appear clever, here in the building that bore his name, bungling with his keycard each and every time he made for the executive suite. But he didn't look like an absolute idiot unless the viewer was already disposed to see him as such.
That had been his theory every time he deliberately screwed up scanning the card. But he was having a hard time seeing it that way when he caught himself doing it unconsciously.
It was that thought which accounted for his sour expression exiting the elevator into the Executive Suite on the very morning he should have been beaming with pleasure.
"Good morning, Mr. Wayne," Lily greeted him at the reception desk.
"Good morning, Mr. Wayne," Moira Selmon echoed from her new office.
"Good morning, Bruce," Lucius beamed, happily snapping into step beside him as he walked to his office door. "And 'Hail to the chief who in triumph advances.'"
"Morning, Lucius." Bruce acknowledged the greeting before chastising, "It's fine to be happy about it, okay. But let's not strut. It's tacky."
"Bruce, Come on, it's payday. LexCorp is finished. They're in default on all their loans, it's all ours now. Just like you predicted all those months ago."
"It was there for anybody to see that knew what they were looking for, Lucius. That woman had no business running a company; we all knew that. They've been hemorrhaging cash for years now. She could keep the losses off the income statements for a while by selling assets. But she couldn't hide it on the flow of funds. It's all there: Cash going out and not coming in, so she sells a plane. When those reserves dry up, she leverages a couple patents. Then a radio station, then the building."
"And now that they're in default, all those assets go to whoever's holding the paper. Which is you, because you've been buying up the LexCorp debts for months now. Bruce, this is a huge victory. And you say 'don't strut'?"
"LexCorp is the biggest employer in Metropolis, Lucius. Close to a million people woke up this morning not knowing if they still have jobs because Talia Head is— in my office." Bruce concluded the sentence in a very different way than he planned to when he opened his office door and saw the visitor seated primly before his desk.
"We're not officially open to the public for hours yet," Sly called to the visitor spreading his paperwork over several tables in the Iceberg dining room. "But if you want a cup of coffee or something, you just give a holler, okay Mr. Nigma?"
Edward Nigma gave Sly a thumbs up, then he cracked his knuckles and stretched out his arms before he resumed organizing his papers. From the office doorway, Oswald Cobblepot watched the exchange and returned to his desk with a disgusted kwak. Nigma heard the noise but ignored it. He had too much to do to waste time on whatever mini-dramas were going on between Penguin and his bartender.
"A WIT MEETS TOON," he murmured, subconsciously making an anagram for 'no time to waste.' "No time to waste, no time to waste, no time to waste."
It would be his best crime spree ever. He could operate in the style of his fellow rogues. Taking inspiration from the very pages of the Gotham Post, he could torment the Dark Knight with the most tantalizing clues all tied to the distortions that ridiculous tabloid offered the public as Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Catwoman, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Mad Hatter… He had ranked them all, assigning a mathematical value to the degree the Gotham Post distorted their appearance, personality and methodology. He could now proceed through the list, one by one, devising clues drawn from—
"Can I help you?" Eddie muttered, noting the presence that appeared over his shoulder.
"Just curious what you're doing over here, Mr. Nigma," Sly said amiably, as he stood there looking over the tabloids, sipping coffee.
"I needed space to spread out these newspapers and organize my clippings."
"Don't you have a hideout?"
Eddie's face transformed, expressing the most violent revulsion. "What comes of the untended hideout when the Prince of Puzzlers is incarcerated, Sly? As you know, since the defection of my darling Doris," he pronounced these syllables with controlled disgust, "I have been without a henchwench. There was no one to tend to the hideout while I was in Arkham. In my absence, something crawled into the air conditioner and died."
"Quite. The air is unbreathable. I'm airing it out. With luck, maybe I can go back by July."
"Hm. So that's why you're working here?"
Nigma nodded slowly, as if to say he was trying to, barring interruptions. Sly took the hint.
"I'm going to be down in the basement checking the inventory. Let me know if you need anything."
As soon as Sly had gone, Nigma went back to work. He didn't get far before another presence waddled into his field of vision and then moved behind him, hovering over his shoulder just as Sly had done. Penguin was a fellow-rogue, one of Riddler's own stature, and he was letting Eddie use the nightclub to work on his project. Eddie knew he couldn't ignore Oswald or brush him off as he had Sly.
"Which of these pictures do you think is further off on Selina?" Eddie asked, looking down on two different artist renderings clipped from the Gotham Post.
"The goggles," Oswald said instantly.
"But the ears on this new one, and the whiskers on the mask, isn't that kind of – weird?"
"It isn't good, I'll grant you" Oswald agreed, "But it's not as bad as the goggles. And at least the whisker one has her hair right."
"Okay, goggles it is."
"You want the one that is worse? You looking to give blood the hard way?"
"A DEED MYTH MOMS SNOT, Oswald old man, A DEED MYTH MOMS SNOT… Method to my madness, that is."
Oswald quacked and waddled off. Eddie watched him go, his wheels turning as he mentally deconstructed the Penguin's return to the helm of his Iceberg empire. Nigma was fairly certain the original "mutiny" was exactly what Sly and Greg claimed. Oswald had gone to pieces after that "Lark" affair, and his bartender and former bouncer took over the business, Sly running the legitimate nightclub and Greg managing the criminal concerns, to keep both operations afloat. When Oswald pulled himself together, they were more than willing to hand back control.
Oswald pretended to go along, but Eddie knew he was far too paranoid to really believe them. That would explain why he kept Sly on: Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
That being the case, he was probably worried about Greg more than Sly. Greg who returned to whatever he was doing for DEMON in Chinatown once he was no longer needed at the Iceberg. That would be a worry for Oswald. Eddie was sure of it…
The only thing he didn't know, Nigma reflected as he looked down onto the tables full of Post clippings, was if this curious Iceberg tango could be of any use in his upcoming scheme.
The office door closed behind Lucius, leaving Bruce alone with Talia. He checked his watch theatrically.
"Well let's see, it's all of 45 minutes since your mismanagement of LexCorp made those kidnapping photos irrelevant. What kept you, Talia?"
"You mock me, Beloved. You allowed that horrible woman to blackmail me with photographs you know existed only because of my father's need to test worthy lieutenants…"
Bruce sighed. There it was, only four words in, "Beloved."
Selina had shut it off for a while. She had kept Talia out of their lives with the threat to make those photos public. Ra's had done it before, many times, shown pictures of Talia, bound and gagged, allegedly kidnapped, to some individual in whom he'd taken an interest. He did it to test their resourcefulness in "rescuing" her. While Talia was running Luthor's company, she couldn't afford to have those pictures in print as "illicit bondage photos of the LexCorp CEO." Now that she had no more reputation to protect, she wasted no time. Here she was, in his office, making up for lost chances to address him as—
"Beloved, surely you must realize, I have done this all for you. I broke your enemy's power for you. I delivered up the whole of his empire to your hand. Could that filthy slut serve you half so well?"
"Talia, you didn't understand the first thing about your own product line or why it was successful. You poured massive sums into R&D 'reinventing' products until nobody would buy them anymore. Then you poured more massive sums into marketing to convince your ex-customers that all your mistakes and bad decisions were really a great improvement. You can't insist things into being what they're not, Talia. It didn't work with corporate buyers any better than it did with… with me. You never turned those sales around, despite all those ads and all those press releases. And you are never going to become dear to me by calling me beloved. Can you understand that, Talia? Or is it too adult a concept for you?"
"Your mind is so quick, My Beloved, your understanding so penetrating. I knew you would see at once what I was doing. Our minds share such splendid synchronicity."
"So that's it. You've given reality a paintjob again and decided your epic incompetence was really a brilliant plan and you did it for me. Fine. Now that you're warmed up, let's see how long it takes you to rearrange this reality: Talia, I don't love you. I never did, I never will. You are not welcome in my office, in my home, or in my city. I am happy with Selina. If you want to be happy, move on."
Bruce knew it was a futile exercise. It would take her less than five minutes to transmogrify his words into an idea she found more palatable. He tried anyway, knowing it to be a lost battle, because that is what heroes do.
He also used that five minute window to eject her from his office. She was in the express elevator before she could complete her rewrite of his thoughts and feelings. She was being escorted down to the street before she could enlighten him about what he really felt and how he should have expressed it. That might not be what 'heroes' do, Bruce told himself, but if he was a hero, he was also a man. And a man had his limits.
…to be continued…
The hidden truth about Luthor's resignation will be revealed in JLAin't: I, Superhero.