Chapter 10: Showdown in FloMa
The wholesale flower market, or FloMa as it's come to be known in trendy GothamSpeak, has been a beloved pocket of pure Gotham quirkiness since it moved from the ferry landing in the 1890s and reconvened on Sixth Avenue between 26th and 28th Streets. Every weekday, more than two hundred growers brought fragrant wares from their farms and greenhouses, some coming from as far as eighty miles outside the city. They brought potted plants to the stalls in the old Giordano Market Building. They brought cut flowers to the original Exchange on Conway and its younger, more affluent rival in the Novick-Mitchell Building. But FloMa's heyday was over. Ordinary Gothamites didn't buy flowers anymore, even at Easter. The buyers now were all "in trade," hotels, restaurants, florists and decorators. As the private customers disappeared, the markets became all but invisible. Developers bought the building that housed the original Exchange and forced it to move to a loft in Novick-Mitchell just one floor above its rival; the open air stalls all but vanished; the auxiliary flea market moved to Hell's Kitchen. But for those who knew it was there, FloMa still stretched down Sixth Avenue from 26th to 28th, dotted with hidden pockets of green.
One such pocket was a garden supply store behind the 28th Street Greenhouse, the roof of which Batman noted in his final log entry as a prime observation point and a useful staging area "for either covert penetration of the greenhouse or full-out assault." Catwoman found the spot easily enough and felt a pang as she looked down on the telltale bites of a bat-grapnel in the ceiling grate, and beyond that into Ivy's lair in the greenhouse itself. It was a perfect vantage point, just as advertised. Bruce was so good at what he did. Catwoman, on the other hand, gagged on the very thought of "crimefighting" and had developed few skills related to it. She could adapt many of the skills she did have, but when it came to coordinating a joint assault on a criminal lair, she had no clue how to proceed. So when Clayface wanted to begin on his own, she agreed. As he said, he'd earned it.
She had called an hour before nightfall, just as always. She could tell by the speed of the pickup that he'd been waiting and not very patiently. Once Matt learned that tonight was finally the night and he could drop the bat-charade whenever he was ready, he'd said "Thank god, C.W. I swear if I had to get through one more round of 'Blodeuwedd is the Celtic goddess of Earth in bloom' without reacting, it was gonna be a 'Kill Bill meets the Texas Chainsaw Massacre' situation." Selina had laughed, and that brought on a bat-scowl seldom seen outside of Hell Month. Bruce could only hear her side of the conversation, of course. He heard her say tonight was the night, he heard garbled squawking from the phone, and he saw a naughty grin flash behind her eyes, dance across her lips, and then erupt into that wickedly merry laugh.
"This has disaster written all over it," he said scornfully.
Selina dismissed his concern. She'd managed this far without Bat-help after all. But now, now that she'd reached this spot, hand-picked by the master crimefighter as the perfect entry point, she was having doubts. He was the expert, the professional, and he thought she was being foolishly naïve in partnering with Clayface. What if he was right?
Jean Paul's speakers chirped and a small private message window appeared beneath his full house.
Hey buddy, just noticed you've been playing a lot for the past few days. You practicing for a tournament or you blowing off steam?
Jean Paul doubled his bet and closed the window without answering. He'd had a bad day, yes. Maybe not life-changingly bad, but bad. First that searing look at what his life might have been sans Azrael, then that kick in the teeth from Catwoman, then the inevitable result of a bad Cat-encounter (as if there was any other kind) Azrael starts tweaking the armor. He'd had to get up early and take those stupid sketches for "spiky boots" to Kittlemeier, who said Jean Paul could pick them up day after tomorrow. Why so soon? Because Kittlemeier knew just how to produce this effect; he'd put raised studs like that on a gold belt for Catwoman way back when. That was one nice belt, superior workmanship, one of his best efforts. Pity she didn't stick with it but the rest of the outfit was just for this one job and… Jean Paul heard no more, because Azrael began this "Meditation" on the Most Glorious St. Dumas that made it hard to concentrate, seeing as it resembled sticking his fingers in his ears and humming real loud more than meditating. In Jean Paul's book, that was a bad day. He'd had a few days to get over it, sure, and he had spent them playing internet poker, so what? He was up 11,000; so what?
That seemed the final kick in the teeth actually. "Lucky at cards" and all that.
Nicely played, buddy, the private messenge box returned.
Thanks, Jean Paul typed.
Didn't mean to wreck your concentration before. You a pro? Practicing for a tournament?
No, just blowing off steam, Jean Paul admitted.
And he was up 11,000 in 3 days. Lucky at cards and unlucky in love…
There was Helena. Maybe. He wasn't sure what was going on there. He was such a mess with women, he really wasn't sure. "Friends with benefits" did they call it? A lot of guys would call that a dream come true, right? The ultimate in low maintenance companionship… If that's what it was. Without knowing for sure, it was just another chance to humiliate himself with a woman. Plus, if that is all they were, it was subject to her (well technically either of them, but realistically just her) finding someone she felt serious about. And that would be all kinds of awkward.
He wished there was someone he could talk to guy-to-guy, but his only real confidant was Azrael. Grayson was out of the question. Tim Drake was way too young – plus word on the OraCom was that he couldn't beat Batgirl at a video game, so what could he know. Neither Alfred nor Bruce seemed like "guy talk" guys, and even if they were, they were both out at Wayne Manor and that meant running the Cat gauntlet and that was not going to happen any time soon!
Jean Paul sighed. He had trip sevens, the fourth was still out there, the four of a kind was possible, he was up 11,000 – and he was utterly miserable.
Catwoman already had her whip lashed to the ceiling grate for one of those loud and violent glass-shattering entrances, but as her doubts grew, she decided to lower herself in quietly. There were two advantages. First, by sneaking in, she could see and hear more of what was actually happening inside the lair. The observation point on the garden shop roof revealed the kind of information Batman would want to know: he could see light (someone is home), he could see movement (two figures, one standing near the door, eight creepervines overhead, one giant flytrap). But it didn't reveal much about what was actually going on – at least it didn't to her. There was no telling what Batman might deduce from the way the shorter figure was moving or the taller one's proximity to the flytrap. Catwoman decided she needed to see more. The second advantage of this approach was stealth itself. All her natural confidence returned as soon as she abandoned the posture of a "crimefighter" and returned to what she did best. She removed the ventilation panel over the greenhouse with greater care than she did Tiffany's, and she crept through the beds of infant daffodils more silently than she navigated the museum's detection net. As she approached the doorway to the lair proper, she inhaled for a silent beat of five, then exhaled just as slowly, priming her body so that no gasp or sound would escape her when she saw whatever she was about to see. Breathlessly, she looked in…
Ivy was encased in what could best be described as a slime hammock. A stylized Joker sat next to her on what could best be described as a throne of potpourri. He pointed excitedly at a portable DVD player on the table and seemed to be commenting at length on the movie it was showing. Catwoman crept closer, straining to hear.
"Few more explosions yet, Pammy, boys will be boys you know, ha-HA-haha, then we'll get to the part I know you're waiting for, the LUV-scene."
There was a duet of muffled female expression in response: Ivy's wail was muted by a thin veil of slime across her mouth and Catwoman's snarf was muffled in her own glove as she realized "Joker" was hosting a Matt Hagen movie marathon. On the screen, the door of an Asian nightclub exploded into a fireball, and a strappingly macho Hagen strode out of the fiery chaos to pose dramatically with an M-16 in one hand and a beautiful katana in the other.
"That's what they call a hero shot," Clay-Joker observed – then he saw that Ivy had her eyes clenched tight. "Ah ah ah," he chided. "Remember, every time a goddess closes her eyes, a plant loses its wings."
He reached out until his Joker-arm stretched to a grotesquely unnatural length, plucked a rose off a bush in the corner and retracted the arm swiftly. He delivered a supremely menacing Joker-grin, then popped the rosehead into his mouth and swallowed it whole. Ivy struggled with renewed vigor, straining against her bonds and shrieking into the cocoon around her mouth, but she quickly calmed back down as she realized (yet again) the futility of her struggle.
"Here it comes, here it comes," Clay-Joker said suddenly. He pointed eagerly at the screen where Hagen's character was sneaking through a hotel suite. "I know you'll like this part."
On the tiny screen, Hagen's character had made his way to the bathroom and watched as a shapely brunette stepped out of the tub and wrapped herself in a towel. He stepped up boldly, grabbed her and kissed her passionately. She slapped him, and he said he couldn't help himself, he was overcome by her beauty.
Clay-Joker morphed quickly into Clay-Batman and regarded Ivy with amused irony.
"I couldn't help myself," he said reproducing both the line and the precise delivery from the love scene in Batman's dry gravel. "No man could. You're the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." Then he morphed back into Joker and laughed his head off.
Well… kwak… it was one worry disposed of and a new one cropping up to take its place.
Judge Bungaree had disposed of Oswald's arrest and vanished all traces of the paperwork, just as he would have for any of Oswald's operatives. The man, like most corrupt officials who had settled into their corruption, lacked the imagination to recognize a real opportunity when it dropped into his nest. He saw only another 10G from the Iceberg, just like any other. It didn't even occur to the small, stupid man that Cobblepot being personally involved might be worth more. Forget the power it gave him over Oswald in the greater scheme of things, the idiot slug didn't even think to squeeze him for another 5 grand. A lucky break for Oswald, but then fortune favored the elite, which he certainly was-kwak.
But if Bungaree was too stupid to see the opportunity, Raven was not. Raven had been Oswald's go-between, and she had answered all of his questions after the fact about the judge's words and behavior. She answered in such a way that she obviously grasped what he was getting at. She knew what Oswald was really asking – and why. She understood that Oswald was worried about Bungaree, that Bungaree had power over him because of this arrest cleanup (or he would have if he had been bright enough to realize it). And in knowing that, Raven could very well conclude that she had power too.
Oswald was not prepared to eliminate Raven. She was a lovely bird and she knew how to handle the Iceberg clientele. Besides which, at one time Jonathan Crane was interested in her. All in all, that is not a lady you want to see in a freak accident with an Early Bird Delivery van.
But Oswald did want to get rid of her, not permanently, just until the dust settled. A vacation perhaps. A paid vacation and a small bonus. Nothing too lavish, nothing she might perceive a payoff. Just a small gesture, a 'thanks for all your help-kwakwak,' 'something to make your getaway a little more pleasurable-kwak.' Yes that would do very nicely. A three-kwak bonus. Now where to send her, and for how long?
While Catwoman had every intention of bursting onto the scene herself by now, ripping Ivan to shreds and stuffing each and every piece of shredded flytrap up Ivy's nose, she refrained. Clayface's revenge was just too damned poetic to interrupt.
A half hour earlier, sensing that a saturation point had been reached on his movies, Matt remembered he was dealing with a colleague. No, no, he didn't mean a fellow Batman rogue, he meant another film star! Wasn't Pammy herself featured in a famous actionfest blockbuster? It would be too selfish of him to spend all this time screening his movies and not give equal time to her record-breaking appearance in Catfight at the Iceberg. Granted, there wasn't much dialogue after Roxy called her a three-dollar whore, but hey, all those thousands and thousands of strapping young men who downloaded this video didn't do it for the snappy dialogue, now did they? Check it out, Pammy, look at that slow motion jiggle when the fireball knocks you back and the leaves go flying off that bustier. Makes you proud to be an American, don't it? Sweet Spielberg, that's what they mean when they say everybody loves a goddess! A'Course, Roxy does have a better figure for the camera; that's only to be expected, she was a stuntwoman after all. Camera adds ten pounds and if you don't train for it, well, a few of those angles, Ivy looked a little chunky – like this part where Roxy is pulling her hair – and there when Roxy has Ivy's arm twisted behind her back – and yeah, see right there, where Roxy is swinging her into the jukebox… chunky.
Not surprisingly, the muted howls and outraged thrashing in the slime hammock intensified, but before it got really good, Catwoman was forced to break off her surveillance. Most thieves were used to hours of quiet waiting, often in cramped hidden locations. Sometimes it was easier to sneak into a gallery or museum during the day when it was open to the public, hide yourself away and wait until dark. More often it was necessary once the burglary was underway, if you'd emptied out the night vault and only then realized the new guard was a Bat-pest in disguise. So you hid, but you had to keep your body primed, ready to fight or run on a moment's notice. There were a number of ways to do it, tensing and releasing isolated muscle groups one at a time. Selina had done this unconsciously while her attention was focused on Clayface, but now she had to stretch more overtly, arching her back and stretching her arms behind her— until she felt leaves. Shit!
The viney mass behind her that had seemed so ordinary when she first arrived was apparently not so ordinary after all. It was one of Ivy's "babies" (read: leafy attack dogs) and Catwoman had apparently woken it. It sprung to life, looked her up and down, leaned in and almost seemed to "sniff" her, and then slithered into the lair. Catwoman heard voices. Ivy's was garbled, Matt's was distinct and audible "I take it we have company, We'll have to—"
Suddenly, there was an ear-splitting shriek and before Selina could make a move, Ivy came running at her from the inner lair.
"Catty!" she cried the moment she saw her. And then began the kind of circular walk-around Selina often engaged in with Whiskers when the cat was playful and determined to attack her feet. Ivy was apparently trying to hide behind her –AND to get out the door but –KEEPING Catwoman between her and Clayface –But Catty kept moving – Ivy kept adjusting, Catty kept turning to face her –And so they were circling round and round instead of getting closer to the door–––After several revolutions, a slightly dizzy Catwoman managed to steer an equally dizzy and semi-hysterical Ivy back into the lair…
…where Clayface had resumed his Batman appearance.
"NO!" Ivy shrieked, clutching Catwoman's arm and pointing franticly at the faux crimefighter. "That's not Batman! That's not Batman!" she chanted, wrenching Selina's arm like a hunchback trying to ring a cathedral bell. "Catty, Catty," she panted miserably, "He's been coming here all week, ALL WEEK, DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND! HE'S NOT BATMAN! HE'S NOT BATMAN!!'
"Of course not, his jaw's too square," Catwoman said dryly.
ClayBat crossed his arms dramatically, the caped crimefighter posing for a "hero shot." His eyes met Catwoman's, and for just a split second she saw nothing so clearly as the impish satisfaction of an actor who'd done it 'his way.' And then, without his moving a muscle, the effect faded and she saw only a pugnacious crimefighter in the typical pose.
"Ladies," he said severely, as edges of his cape lifted on their own and flapped slowly outward, following the walls of the lair until they came together behind the women.
"Catty I can explain about that baby story in the Post," Ivy stammered desperately. "I can explain, I can explain. It wasn't my fault, I didn't mean it. Just get me out of here, Catty. I'll find a way to fix it. Just GET ME OUT OF HERE!"
Batman grinned wickedly, and the cape which now encircled both women pushed and pulled at them until they found themselves in the center of the lair. Ivy whimpered miserably as the left side of the cape splashed suddenly like black water and she again found herself cocooned in a hammock of Clayface slime. In the same instant, the half of the cape which extended around Catwoman condensed and contorted into a handsome chair with carved lion heads in the arms and feet. The now-capeless Batman morphed back into Matt Hagen.
"Just in time, Cat my dear. There's only so much you can do without a real audience. Now, where were we? Oh yes, it was time for an E! True Gotham Story: Poison Ivy, and her mad obsession for the one man she can never have."
For the next half-hour, Matt told the story of Ivy's life and loves as he saw them, morphing into Joker, Harley, Two-Face, a giant eggplant, Roxy Rocket, Sly the Bartender, and Ivy herself as the story required. It was "Joker" who made the devastating observation that Ivy had Batman in her clutches (or so she thought) and could think of nothing better to do with him than sic him on Clayface! Talk about obsession. Why Matt Hagen had become more important to her than killing Joker, or even Batman himself. Just think of it, her every waking thought for how many nights now was Matt Matt Matt Matt Matt. She was obsessed – beyond obsessed, she was fanatically gripped, fixated and infatuated with him. Bewitched, bothered and besotted. Why it was almost like she was greened. Ha HA-Yes that was it, Ha ha Haha Ha. It was like greening without the infatuation. Poetic. That's what it was. Ha HA hahaha. Poetry in green.
Bartholomew spent the last three days finalizing the paperwork: a three month leave of absence, approved by Dr. Arkham and the board despite the critical understaffing, because he made it clear that if it wasn't approved, he would simply quit. One way or the other, he would not be in his office at one o'clock on Monday, Wednesday or Friday listening to Patient J besmirch the good name of Ina Garten. One way or the other, he would spend the next two weeks bicycling through French wine country, ten vineyards in fourteen days, and after that, he would see where life would take him.
There was even the possibility it would not bring him back to Gotham, not ever. He had kept this possibility from the Arkham administrators. It was simpler that way. If he told them now, they would make it very unpleasant. Let them fill his position on staff, however temporarily, and then in a month or two, a registered letter from a man they'd already replaced wouldn't come as such a blow.
No more Patient J. Of all the delights he expected from these next weeks abroad, the lack of Patient J anywhere in his experience was possibly the best.
Now, he had to pack. What did one wear bicycling through the French countryside?
All that remained after Clayface finished his E! True Gotham Story were the threats. He'd been blackballed once because of Poison Ivy. The Rogues didn't want to put up with the psychotic ravings of a queen bitch, so they'd shut him out over a stupid box of potpourri. Not again. He was back and he would not be ostracized again. He would make this very simple for Ivy: She couldn't kill him, harm him, or control him, and her attempts to change that had FAILED. He, on the other hand, could snuff her out like that:
He snapped his fingers, transforming his thumb into a doll-size representation of Ivy and his index into a glorpy miniature of himself. The Clay-finger then enveloped the Ivy-thumb which appeared to struggle briefly, then suffocate.
Or that: He snapped again, and this time Clay-finger snapped the Ivy-finger's neck.
Or that: Snap. And Clay-finger punctured Ivy-finger's heart with a shaft of clay.
Not being a naturally vindictive and bloody-minded killer, Matt said kindly, he would certainly exhaust ALL the less-drastic options available before resorting to cold-blooded murder. Options such as recreating his E! True Gotham Story at the Iceberg for the enjoyment of all the rogues. And certainly the gang up at Arkham would enjoy seeing how Ivy had conducted herself with Greened Batman. He morphed into Ivy's own form and delivered a few of her more laughable bon mots about nature's chosen vessel, then morphed into Joker, pointed at Ivy and cackled, repeating each word through helpless giggle-fits.
Finally, he resumed his Hagen form, but with slicked black hair, a Clark Gable moustache, dandified hat and white suit that were pure Rhett Butler.
"Now, if you ladies will excuse me," he said with a cocky Southern twang, "The city is full of many things and many people. And I shan't be lonely."
Catwoman stifled her laughter as Matt-Rhett strode out the door, although she didn't hide that she was stifling laughter - which clearly made it worse for ol'Pammy – which is exactly what Selina intended. After Matt-Rhett's magnificent exit, little globules began collecting themselves from around the greenhouse. A bit of goo holding a creepervine over here joined with a drop of green from the "snap you like a twig" demonstration over there. It all gurgled towards the door and both women watched in silence, Ivy because she still wore a slime-gag and Selina because, really, what was there to say? Finally, as the clayblob passed Ivy, the slimy cocoon that surrounded her slid off her body and joined with the rest of the splotchy mass oozing towards the door… Just at the door, it paused. A patch solidified and gave the rosebush a final kick. Then it was gone.
Catwoman looked wonderingly at Ivy.
"What the fuck did you do?" she asked, clearly in awe.
Pamela Isley, for once, had no words.
"Word of advice, Pammy," Catwoman said amiably. "Whatever you did to invite that, don't ever do it again."
Alfred was not superstitious. Apart from never whistling backstage or saying "Good Luck" on opening night, he was not a superstitious man.
He was a realist.
Before it was just the challenges presented by the regular Wayne Manor timetable in the normal course of batlife. Alfred no sooner chose to put that consideration aside and make an overture with Edith Mason anyway, when Master Bruce became embroiled in this frightful Poison Ivy situation and was laid up for three days. And nights. If Alfred were a superstitious man that would constitute a very bad omen indeed.
So he had postponed the whole idea of… well, a life, the very night Master Bruce took to his bed. The next day, he'd gone to Harriman's Gourmet Pantry as usual, planning only to pop into Perdita's Florals on his way out to relay Miss Selina's compliments on the new arrangement. With this topic foremost in his mind, Alfred mentioned Miss Selina in passing to Mr. Harriman, and the latter was quick to praise her with a vehemence Alfred found curious seeing that they had never met, as far as Alfred knew. The source of Mr. Harriman's good opinion quickly became apparent: Miss Selina was unique among the hostesses of Bristol in that she was not following Mrs. Finn's lead (which was actually Monsieur Anatole's lead) wanting him to procure these bizarre chocolate-covered lavender, fennel, and whatnots from Chocolatière du Panier in Marseilles. Mr. Harriman was at his wits end with this wretched French phrasebook. He couldn't guess how many long distance calls he had made, all to no avail, trying to locate this wretched chocolate shop and place an order.
Knowing that Miss Selina spoke fluent French, and also that she was spending an inordinate amount of time at Master Bruce's bedside and was, in Alfred's opinion, well in need of a diversion, he volunteered her linguistic assistance. Within a few hours she had found the shop, obtained a price list and relayed the pertinent information to Mr. Harriman. An hour after that, Mr. Harriman placed his order, again with Miss Selina's gracious assistance, and that, as far as Alfred was concerned, was that.
But now, Mr. Harriman was so grateful that he'd presented Alfred with a gift basket brimming with gourmet delectables: there was roast quail stuffed with wild rice risotto, double cream brie with baked apples and grapes, smoked salmon with a caper dill aioli, and Mr. Harriman's own house specialty: lemon almond shortbread. Alfred also could not help but notice that there were two portions of each delicacy, and that the basket was tied with a delicate pink bow of the shade Miss Mason wore almost daily.
Alfred coughed his thanks, took the basket, and headed across the street to Perdita's Florals.
It is not in the nature of cats to worry about a mouse that had it coming. Poison Ivy was no exception.
Selina had been torn as to what exactly she would do with Ivy at the end of the evening. Handing her over to the police in batcuffs was certainly out of the question. Even if there had been hard evidence of kidnapping or conspiracy to commit murder, Catwoman didn't care about such things. She didn't care about laws being broken and – the angle Bruce kept harping on – she certainly shouldn't care about Batman being greened. But Arkham, Arkham was another matter. Since Ivy had very conveniently sunk into a state of shell-shocked catatonia, Arkham was the natural place to bring her. Have her committed for her own safety, seeing as she couldn't function. Selina guessed it was some kind of shock reaction: the power trip she'd been on with Batman, then having it all pulled out from under her (Meow). Plunging into the depth of humiliation, hours of Hagen with no ability to respond (Meow). And then a nice little epilogue of threats, again with no chance to respond. Something in Pammy's high-strung psyche must've just snapped, and that was very, very meow.
She did pull it together for a few minutes in the car, not enough to really notice she was in Catwoman's Jaguar but enough express a few thoughts on the night's events so far. She seemed almost grateful to Selina, which was pretty damned disturbing. While Catwoman never got around to shredding Ivan and introducing him, piece by piece, to Ivy's nasal cavity, she had gone into the evening prepared for Pammy to realize they weren't pals. She was prepared for Ivy to realize that Clayface and Catwoman were working together. Instead, Ivy had been hysterical when Catwoman showed up and she'd run to her without thinking. Now that it was over and she did have time to think clearly (comparatively speaking), she still seemed to see Catty's arrival as a completely separate event. She just assumed that Catwoman came to her about something unconnected to Clayface or Batman – and that it was very big of Catty to put those issues aside in light of the greater calamity with "the Walking Dung Heap."
As for the dung heap, Ivy had a tendency to blame everything wrong in her life and in the world on the one thing or the one person she hated most at that moment. Often it was men, sometimes the whole human race or the whole animal kingdom, sometimes just logging companies. Occasionally Batman was the source of all ills, more often it was Joker, but tonight it was, without question, Matt Hagen. The happy result of that little blindspot was that Ivy no longer seemed to think she ever had Batman in her thrall. She knew Bats had turned into Clayface tonight, she knew (probably from the lines he'd quoted) that it had been him and not Batman on previous nights, and so she somehow, in her all-clay-is-evil/all-evil-is-clay mindset, assumed it had been Clayface deceiving her the entire time. That was a lucky break; it eliminated the possibility of awkward or dangerous questions down the line when Pammy became lucid.
Not that Pammy becoming lucid was much of a concern, not any time soon.
With no questions hanging over them about how Batman got free from Ivy's influence and no suspicions about Catwoman's involvement, Selina felt free to probe about that one chance sentence which had nothing to do with Batman, greened or otherwise.
"You said something about a story in the Post… about a baby?"
There was a gurgling whimper, a hoarse throaty rattle, and that was the last sound Ivy made until they reached Arkham.
The fact that Ivy was unable to speak and, indeed, seemed barely aware of her surroundings, made the check-in process fairly simple. Catwoman brought her to the front desk and gave a reasonably truthful account of having gone to see Ivy at her greenhouse, being met with hysterical ravings and terrified cries for protection which had now settled into this catatonic daze, and then, once the nightclerk was past the point of no return copying information from Ivy's existing file onto a new admission form, Catwoman left.
Returning to the parking lot, she saw a row of orange cones beside her car, sectioning off a patch of fresh asphalt.
"Hi Matt," she said with a smile.
He glurped into his human form and grinned.
"Was it that obvious?" he asked with a blush.
Selina pointed out that the asphalt was not wet when she pulled up, and they seldom did work like that in the middle of the night. Matt laughed and invited her out for a drink. He didn't really eat and drink, of course, but it was the usual way to celebrate after a performance. If they'd missed last call at the Iceberg, there were enough all night diners in the city… Selina agreed – but vetoed the diner. Instead she wanted him to meet someone. She said there was plenty to drink "at the penthouse."
The Dvorak Cello Concerto played on the sleek Bang & Olufsen while Bruce poured a drink that looked like vintage cognac but contained no alcohol. He took his glass to the window, fingered the control to remotely activate the sprinklers throughout the penthouse, stared out at the twinkling Gotham nightscape…and worried.
It was taking too long. Catwoman and Clayface were hardly experienced in takedown efforts of this kind, but even so, it should not be taking this long. Catwoman was in no way prepared to handle Clayface if he turned on her. It was an unsound plan from start to finish and he never should have allowed it. What was worse, Bruce Wayne had committed to being at home in the penthouse tonight. That meant Batman couldn't go out himself to check on the situation or monitor developments from the satellite cave beneath the Wayne Tower. Theoretically, he could access the Batcomputer from his PC in the study, but he didn't want to risk it. Clayface was due to "pay a visit," and you could never be completely sure Clayface hadn't already arrived. Bruce felt he should maintain the charade of "Bruce Wayne enjoying a leisurely evening in his penthouse," no matter how empty the penthouse seemed to be.
At last the phone rang and Barbara, forbidden to contact him via OraCom or to say anything compromising, said only that "Jerry A's just logged that delivery you asked me to check on." Bruce permitted himself a half-twitch of relief. Ivy was in Arkham, even if he didn't have the satisfaction of putting her there himself. It was better than nothing. He wanted to press for details: if Ivy was admitted alone, if Catwoman brought her in, if Clayface was with her, if there were criminal charges or if it was a civil commitment, if anyone was injured, on and on. There was no end to his questions, but he didn't dare prolong the call. Oracle could only know Ivy was admitted once someone at Arkham entered it into their computer system, as in after all the paperwork was completed. Catwoman and Clayface could have left long before that; they could be arriving at any time. So he waited, sipped his drink, and pretended to listen to the music as his eyes riveted on the window.
Before long, there was movement on the horizon. Distinct, graceful, darkly purple movement Bruce had seen so many times, rhythmically breaking the lights behind it, becoming rounder and more enticing as it came closer… Catwoman.
Catwoman and friend in this case, which wasn't nearly as enticing. Bruce waited as the figures grew larger, landed on the terrace, and laughed at some remark he couldn't hear. As the glass doors slid open, it became apparent they were laughing at a potted plum tree on the edge of the balcony.
"Honey, I'm home," Selina purred, casually peeling off her gloves as she sashayed up to him and imparted a kiss on his cheek. "Bruce, Matt; Matt, Bruce," she added casually. Then she flitted off to the bar, pulled off her mask, and started fussing with glasses, bottles and ice.
"What's your poison, Matthew?" she asked with a naughty grin.
"Ehh," he managed, stalling verbally as his brain tried to process the layers of feline logic inside the question/joke. "Whatever you're having," he said at last. Then he confided quietly to Bruce "I don't actually drink. Guess she doesn't realize…"
Bruce had recognized the look: man-befuddled-by-felinity. The whole situation was intensely awkward and intensely bizarre, even by Gotham standards. But Selina was so completely oblivious to the mind-warping strangeness, it created a bond of sorts between Bruce and Matt.
"Nice view," the latter said, taking a shot at normalcy through small talk, "My place in Malibu had a nice view like that." Of course his view was the ocean. The cityscape was more like the view Luthor had from his penthouse and offices. The parallel made Matt uncomfortable, but he hid his suspicions in a worldly meeting-the-backers smile.
Selina brought his drink. He took it and they sat. Matt made a polite pretense of drinking the martini, just as he had with groupies at the Iceberg, and they retold and relived the night's triumphs. Selina was a good costar, free with praise for Matt's performance – but also a bit miffed that he'd done the job too well. He left her so little to play with. There was no Day of the Locusts, no Flytrap Clawing, no Weedkiller in the SuperSoaker (which he had to admit sounded entertaining). Bruce said little during all of this, of course, but for a civilian he seemed to enjoy the stories. Matt recalled that Wayne had been greened himself way back when, so his appreciation was understandable. Plus, of course, Selina's enthusiasm was contagious.
After an hour or so of this easy reminiscing, something changed. Matt had that "size-up" feeling again, like he was in the presence of a studio suit. He looked curiously at Selina, but then realized the feeling was coming from Bruce.
"So, cut to the chase" Matt said abruptly. "What do you want?"
Rather than the usual denials, Bruce asked Selina to leave them alone. He then described a research initiative the Wayne Foundation funded at Hudson University several years before. He rattled off the credentials of the scientists involved, exactly like a suit describing the director, screenwriters, and f/x wizards they were lining up for a new film. The only thing Wayne was vague about was the why. He said the Foundation was asked to fund the project, asked "by the city." Matt asked for clarification on that – twice. The City could mean anything: the Mayor, the cops, the cops fronting for the Bat… Each time he asked for details, that studio size-up feeling returned. And each time the size-up feeling returned, Matt looked back at the window, that breathtaking view of Gotham that was so much like Luthor's view of Metropolis.
"Look, you want me to star as a lab rat in your science project," he said incredulously, "and you're not even telling me who's producing?"
"All the funding is from the Wayne Foundation," Bruce repeated.
"Yeah, I get that," Matt answered. "You're signing the check. You're 'the money.' But that's finance. That's not being the Producer. Producer is the guy who really started this, puts everything together, including you and your money. Who in 'the city' wants to—"
"Hagen," Bruce interrupted sharply. "Forget what everyone else wants, what you assume everyone wants and they're not saying. What do you want? Selina tells me you went to Luthor. You wanted research like this. You wanted an alternative to what your life has become."
"That was a long time ago," Matt answered, looking down at the drink in his hand like he wished it was more than a prop.
"So was this," Bruce replied. "Dr. Coi is at Star Labs now. Bryce is at Princeton. Phipps went to Johnson and Johnson. But the research still exists, and we can get the panel back together or assemble a new one. If you want it. If you're willing to cooperate."
"You want me to 'cooperate' just for my own satisfaction, huh? Just for the one in a million shot they maybe can find a way to make this…" He paused, staring at the back of his hand and as he turned it, let it morph into a gray glorpy mass. "…make this into a regular body again? I go along with this for nothing, just like that?"
"No, not 'just like that,'" Bruce said, a cold directness in his eye. "There's a price. In the morning a Foundation lawyer will go with you to the District Attorney. You'll make a full confession of all the crimes you committed as Clayface and accept a negotiated sentence of community service bound to this research. Your participation will be monitored and reported to their office. If you up and disappear in six months, it's no different than a jailbreak. Understood?"
"Are you SERIOUS?" Matt sputtered, losing the definition on his hair and fingers in his shock.
Then, after a hard silent glare which seemed to be the only reply he was going to get, Matt Hagen grinned.
"Well, Selina was right about one thing, you're nothing like Luthor."
The glare softened a touch.
"Do we have a deal?" Bruce asked.
Matt's grin widened.
"I take it back. You're a little like Luthor."
Glad to help, buddy. We've got stick together where the ladies are concerned. Lovely to look at, delightful to hold, but make the wrong move and you're out in the cold.
Jean Paul chuckled. It felt good to get an objective opinion. And it was good advice too. The very fact that he didn't know where things stood with Helena was a pretty good sign that there was no relationship to be wondering about. He should go forth and find himself a lovely lady he didn't have to wonder about. And lovely ladies were everywhere. Sure, he had an obligation to Azrael, but Az could battle evil anywhere. There were lots of cities out there. Take Metropolis: Superman seemed nice, and no Catwoman. Keystone was cool: lots of history, great cheesesteaks, no Catwoman. Seattle: Promised Land of gourmet coffee and software development, no Catwoman. Or even, as his new on-line poker buddy suggested, Star City: beautiful scenery, even more beautiful women… and, Jean Paul added in his own mind, no Catwoman.
Very, very good advice.
Thanks again, Jean Paul typed. And good luck at that Five Diamonds tournament next month.
Thanks again. And good luck at that Five Diamonds tournament next month. the nameless poker player answered.
Roy Harper smiled. Seemed like a nice guy, just way too passive where the ladies are concerned. If there's one thing Roy knew, it was how to set a guy straight on the lovely ladies. After all, Cheshire hadn't killed him yet.
After saying goodnight and escorting Hagen to the elevator, Bruce watched on a hidden camera as the Matt Hagen-shaped body left the elevator. Whether that was all of him or if he'd left some part of himself behind remained to be seen. Bruce waited, then conducted a visual inspection of the elevator, foyer, living room and terrace. Nothing seemed amiss, which cleared the way for a thorough spectral sweep in the morning. Bruce himself would not be present; Tim and Cassie would conduct the sweep, wearing the uniform of a cleaning service, just in case. Until that scan came back clean, no one would be permitted to speak freely in the penthouse, and access to the satellite cave through the elevator would remain disabled.
Satisfied, Bruce went to find Selina. He knew she'd gone into the bedroom earlier, and he opened the door with his finger to his lips, intending to preempt any careless chitchat. Unfortunately, she was in no position to see this silent signal. She was down on all fours, head vanished under the bed, presumably cracking the ancient floorsafe under there. Suppressing a lip-twitch, he tapped her on the back. She started and banged her head on the bed, then called him a jackass.
"I was looking for the fourth bar," she began, rubbing the back of her head.
"It's not there. And I don't want to talk here. Let's go home," he said flatly. She glanced back at the safe and back at him. "I haven't used that safe in years," he added. "Let's go."
"What about Matt, did he go for it?"
Bruce sighed, wondering what it was about that woman's mind that didn't process anything he said in front of a locked safe. 'I don't want to talk here' was a clear enough phrase, wasn't it? Rather like Felony burglary occurs when a person "knowingly enters or remains unlawfully in a building with intent to commit a crime therein."
"Hagen agreed in principle," Bruce said curtly. "I have my doubts as to whether he'll go through with it."
Selina sighed and shook her head. He hurried her out, and down to the private garage below the tower, where Alfred was waiting with the Bentley. As they pulled out of the garage, Bruce quickly ran down the topics he hadn't wanted to discuss in the unsecured penthouse: He used the floorsafe years ago to store a spare costume when he lived in the tower. The fourth gold bar was at home in the manor, in the bottom of the safe in the bedroom, because they'd mentioned that safe during the Walapang conversation; he expected that to be the first one she found. Not that it mattered now, but the fourth clue was Alfred's housekeeping records. For some reason the weekly bill for a local florist just jumped, although it's been constant for years.
"That would be a new flower arrangement in the dining room," Selina mentioned, glancing up to the front of the car and catching Alfred's eye in the rearview mirror. As usual, Selina couldn't tell if he could hear them from the driver's seat or not, or if he was simply playing the discreet chauffeur, so she had answered for him. Then she added, "And the fourth bar might not matter to you but it matters to me. Property taxes on the Catitat next month."
Bruce gave her a strange sideways glance as the downtown buildings flashed by outside the window. To him, the gold as her 'compensation' 'for the Catitat' was part of the cover story to set Project Walapang in motion. Surely if she needed anything for the Cat…
Walapang. The word stuck in Bruce's mind like one of Ivy's thorns. He turned back to the window, watching the buildings whizzing past his eyes, the streets, the people who were still out, all going about their nightly routines… even this close to dawn there were people on the street… The city. His city. For over a week now, he hadn't been out there, protecting these people, protecting their way of life. For over a week, he hadn't been able to… All because of Ivy and her ridiculous…
Walapang. Selina had come through beautifully, following the clues, freeing him from Ivy's grip. That first conversation, that day in the cave, when she first noticed the two bats, he'd made such an effort to include Catwoman in his work. Because of the crisis, because of that dimension hopping nonsense. She'd been in danger and all he could do was watch. Now here they were again. She'd gone after Ivy, she had, with Clayface. In danger again with uncontrollable superpowers and, and he had done nothing but stay behind and… wait. He knew he could have gone with her… should have gone with her. Sure, he was still struggling with the aftereffects of Ivy's control, his mind still somewhat cloudy, his body unsure. But he would have worked past it; he would have pushed all of that aside in order to do what he had to do. He would have persevered. He always did. But she'd convinced him…
Then there was the Hagen irony. For nearly a week he'd resisted Ivy and what she wanted him to do to Clayface. With Selina, he'd agreed in less than an hour. No air freshener required. Just "Special Foundation Initiative 4; why is it here if not for this?" …Of course it wasn't the same thing, but still, in a way…
In one motion, he clicked a switch on the door's armrest and spun in his seat to face Selina. The opaque privacy shield that separated the driver's seat from the back of the car slid silently into place as he stared into her deep green eyes.
"Something wrong?" she asked.
He couldn't say what but something was wrong. Everything was wrong.
"What?" she asked.
As they crossed the Kane Memorial Bridge out of town, the faintest hint of orange crested on the horizon. It was almost dawn. It would be full light by the time they reached the manor. There was no possibility of getting changed and working in a quick patrol. Another night lost before he could do anything.
"Bruce, what's wrong?"
"If you need anything for the Catitat, there's a checkbook in the desk in the study," he muttered.
Damn her. What was wrong with him? 'Throw money at it' never solved a single problem, he'd learned that those first disastrous months at the Foundation. What was wrong with him? What was really wrong? He turned back to the window, staring out into the predawn air. They continued home in what promised to be excruciatingly strained silence…
…except Selina's playful felinity had a way of shrugging off his foreboding silences, and as they passed the final turn-off for the Bristol Country Club, she declared that if he was sufficiently recovered to resume "brooding Battitude" then he was sufficiently recovered for "a little Walapang Q & A." Impossible woman.
"So why me?" she began crisply. "All the 'detective' stuff… it's so—"
"Not your kink," he finished for her. "I know. But I didn't have a lot of options. You were the best choice."
"How was I…?"
He paused for a moment, the pain and frustration of being under Ivy's spell still fresh in his mind.
"Remember your shock sensors on the painting at the museum? You had to ease the frame off the hanger, starting small, then gradually building until you couldn't go any farther, but by then you had enough give to work with. Same thing with Ivy's commands. I couldn't say or do anything actively against her. And Batman was specifically ordered not to give any sort of hints or signals to Robin or other crimefighting 'associates.' Not that I would have, Ivy's instructions or not - there were too many variables. I didn't know how far she'd gone; it was unlikely from her behavior, but she could have already had Robin in her thrall. Or any of the other males. So Tim was out, Dick was out. Jean Paul, Clark, even Alfred. I couldn't be sure of any of them. And worse, I couldn't trust myself. So I needed a female and with Ivy's instructions, I couldn't go to any of Batman's female 'associates.' But you're a thief, and that was wiggle room. But I was also ordered not to speak or hint to the people I was close to in my private life…"
He stopped and sighed, reliving layers of frustration while the car continued on to where the public road met the edge of the Wayne property.
"There are times, Kitten, I wish you were a little more 'divided' than you are. Talking to Catwoman is still talking to Selina. There's no real division. When you came into the garden out of costume, I didn't know if I could go through with it."
"Gee, so sorry my lack of multiple personality disorder made things tricky for you," she grumbled.
Bruce's lip twitched.
"It really did. But in costume or out, you're still a thief. That meant I could lock everything away, make every effort to keep each clue hidden and secured where you couldn't possibly get at it, and still know that somehow, you would get your hands on it."
"Paws," she corrected.
Bruce shook his head with a disbelieving smirk.
"Impossible woman," he murmured.
"And that's what I needed," he continued, a small twitch tugging at the corner of his mouth as he glanced directly at her," An 'impossible woman.' I needed someone I knew, when it all came to a head, wouldn't follow any orders I gave."
Epilogue: The Final Blueprint
Bruce couldn't sleep. He told himself it was the inevitable result of sedation and detox, but he also knew he was lying to himself. He rolled over, stroked Selina's hair once, and crawled out of bed. He reached for the kimono he normally wore up from the cave when he changed after patrol. He put it on, padded silently down the stairs, and made his way to the study. He passed the desk in the lefthand drawer of which lay the checkbook he'd told Selina to use for Catitat expenses. He set the time on the clock to 10:47, opening the passageway to the cave. He made his way slowly down the stone stairs, across the main chamber and into the trophy room, past the giant penny and the dinosaur, past the case with a freeze ray, question marks, and whip handle… and into the hidden alcove. Not even Alfred knew the alcove existed.
Bruce's fingers punched the keypad and turned the dial automatically…
It was necessary. The safe was his and his alone; not Dick, not Tim, not Clark, not even Alfred knew about it. It was the only place he could hide something in the cave where Alfred couldn't accidentally find it, and with that sudden jump in the florist bill, that was a risk Bruce couldn't afford to take. But now, now it was out there. Selina knew about it and that was just… a little too personal. Even after all they'd shared, all they'd been through, this was…
He removed the gold bar and set it aside, an object of no importance that had no place among these other items. He opened the jewelry box, touched the broken string of pearls and the bloodstained wallet. He withdrew the stack of folders and paperwork and checked each item, handling each with special care:
A sealed Mylar evidence bag containing both a birth certificate and death certificate for Jason Todd.
A similar sealed bag containing a vial of poison and fibers from the costume of a villain called "Obeah Man," both tagged to the kidnapping of Jack and Janet Drake, as a result of which Tim's mother died and Jack Drake was left in a coma.
Beneath these, a small stack of file folders and manila envelopes stacked together: The original police report and complete police files on his parents' murders, the original police reports and files on Barbara Gordon's shooting by the Joker, official documents setting Bruce Wayne as the legal guardian of Richard Grayson and the later, newer paperwork making Dick his adopted son.
Official documentation and results of a psychological review for one Jean Paul Valley and a lengthy, chronological history of the Order of St. Dumas.
Not in a folder or envelope, but lying in the pile by itself, was an official adoption application for Timothy Drake, half completed, attached to a medical report on Jack Drake's waking from a coma several months following his kidnapping.
And finally, on the very bottom… he paused, his heartbeat pounding in his ears as his eyes scanned the official document in his hand.
The original police report on the car accident that killed Selina Kyle's parents. Attached to it, a page of handwritten notes, Bruce's notes, the results of his own investigation confirming that it had, indeed, been no more than a tragic accident.
Bruce checked the paperwork a second time, then a third. He was reasonably certain the files and folders had not been touched. He replaced each individually, then returned them to the safe and set the wooden jewelry box reverently on top. He closed the door, depressed the pressure switch, and reset the combination.
Not that it mattered. She knew about the safe now. She'd cracked it once; she could crack it again. Of course he could always add a fingerprint or a retinal scan – but what was the point? They had biometric locks all over the diamond district and Catwoman could get around all of them. That ability to penetrate the most carefully guarded perimeter, to slip past the most rigorous defenses and sidestep the most sensitive triggers, to let no nuisance of a lock…or a law… or a crimefighter… come between her and her prize, it was all a part of Catwoman. And now she'd been in this most private and personal…
© 2006, Chris Dee
Only time will tell what's been set in motion by "Project Walapang."
In the meantime, it seems quite a lot of Gothamites are leaving town.
Who will come back and with whom? And what could that mean for Joker and Harley?
-- — -- — -- -- — -- — --