Chapter 1: NASDAQ
The Maya Calendar includes five unnamed days at the end of the cycle thought to bring bad luck. The barriers to the Underworld are said to dissolve, allowing any malicious god or mischievous spirits to enter the mortal realm and cause whatever havoc strikes their fancy. The name if this period is Wayeb', a mere one letter shy of being an anagram for B. Wayne. That one letter happens to be an "N," as in Nigma, Edward R., aka The Riddler, Arkham Patient File #66-N341. If Riddler considered bad luck at all in relation to his Mayan puzzle box, it would have been in those terms. He would not consider the possibility that the heat from the Batsignal might crack the clay, causing the box to crumble and allowing the police to read the clue themselves…
Wayne One reached a new cruising altitude, and Captain Leffinger opened the intercom and announced the revised ETA. Bruce checked his watch and grunted; Selina adjusted her pillow and ignored him. Nearly three hours 'til they touched down in Gotham… She yawned and pretended to sleep.
Few things got under Bruce's skin like otherwise informed, rational people saying nice things about Lex Luthor. His administration and his company were acknowledged as failures, since to deny such realities would be like denying the existence of the sun. But the catastrophic mess was attributed to Luthor's followers, not to the man himself, his core principles and his vision. It was the misguided nobodies who were to blame, those who misunderstood what Luthor was really about and mimicked his early success from that place of incomplete understanding.
It annoyed Selina too, of course. She was no fan of Luthor's. But she was also no fan of long plane rides with Bruce when he'd had to suffer several days of those dipshits.
"Look at his track record: the things he's said, the things he's done, the reasons he's given for doing them. That anyone can look at something so wholly bad and not recognize it as such is unfathomable."
"Yes, Bruce, I agree, but—"
"That they can even be persuaded it has some merit because they read it somewhere twenty years ago—half the time it's Luthor's own spin doctors they're quoting, too."
"I know," Selina breathed. "And they're allowed to vote and drive cars and get jobs at the Gotham Post. It pisses me off t—"
"And buy stock," Bruce added in PsychoBat's darkest gravel. "Let's not forget that one."
"Yes," Selina nodded. That was the crux of it. They bought Wayne Enterprises stock, among others. Since the stockholders' meeting was always held in Gotham, Bruce had implemented a series of town hall meetings in major cities.
Selina got up from her chair as she spoke… "You told me you like meeting the shareholders at these things," she said, relocating behind his chair and giving his shoulders a gentle rub.
"Usually. Most of them," he admitted.
"But it only takes one nimrod from Alabama, two in Houston and that guy in Seattle to put your nose out of joint?"
"The suggestion that Wayne Tech would be more profitable if we abandoned any notion of social responsibility and adopted the petty, hare-brained, vindictive, short-sighted practices of Lex Luthor, practices that alienated once-loyal customers, destroyed market share, gave the entire industry a deplorable reputation it still hasn't recovered… Never mind, you don't want to hear this again."
She laughed. "I thought you were going to punch the guy in Pittsburgh that suggested the Foundation should give up 'all the charity stuff' and stick with political donations."
"Now that the government can't put any limits on corporate political spending, there's no need for the philanthropic smokescreen," Bruce quoted. "You can go straight to the source and purchase power."
Selina stared. The words were the stockholder from Pittsburgh's, but the voice and intonation were unmistakably that of Ra's al Ghul.
"Was that a Ra's voice?" she asked, pointing in mock-horror.
"Not intentionally," Bruce shrugged.
"Just comes out that way when you want to convey ambition, cynicism, and guile devoid of empathy or conscience?"
Bruce's lip twitched… twitched again… and then gave way into a restrained smile as he closed his eyes and surrendered to a soft chuckle.
"That's why I brought you on this trip," he said emphatically.
"No, it's not," Selina said knowingly. "But I'm glad if my being here makes you laugh." She had settled in the chair across from his, and now she stretched her foot forward to rub against his ankle. "Now tell me the real reason," she purred.
Oakland or LA, I'm inspired.
A tale of survivors who are mired
Is not what it seems
When you wait for the beams
To reflect upon what is desired.
There was a particular quality Catwoman had when she asked Batman—just this once—to look the other way and let her leave with a diamond tiara. Bruce had conjured the image on many lonely nights, lingering on the details, studying the nuances… The way her breath parted her lips on the word "please." The way her eyelids dipped as she blinked. The way her head tilted back and to the side, almost imperceptibly, hinting ever so subtly at the kisses that could be his.
"I know something happened Thursday," she pressed.
"Sort of—no, not really. Nothing… Nothing important enough to bother you with."
So much had changed between them, but the essence of the woman behind the mask had not.
"Just important enough to have me cancel my plans and come along on the Wayne Tech Magical Mystery Tour. I'd just like to know why."
The softness of that lower lip as her breath parted it, the way her eyelids dipped as she blinked… and the way it all affected him. The way Batman's instinctual hold on the situation seemed to blur and shift. Deep down, he knew the right thing to do, the words he had to say, the action he had to take.
But somehow, gazing into those impossibly green eyes, the knowledge was… lost.
"You caused a dip in the NASDAQ," he said, releasing his tenuous grip on his own will and giving her what she wanted.
"I what?" she sputtered—but before either could say more, the intercom switched on and Captain Leffinger suggested they fasten their seatbelts for another patch of turbulence.
"Why Batman, how hard do you want it to get?"
Rattle. Falter. Mental sweat drop.
Grand Central Station, a lifetime before, their first rooftop. He'd said "Alright, Catwoman, we can do this the easy way or the hard way" and she said "Why Batman, how hard do you want it to get?" What did he, Gotham's Dark Knight, the Scourge of the Underworld, the Avenging Angel of Justice say in reply? Nothing. Rattle. Falter. Mental sweat drop. Agonizing moments of mute futility as his mind strained to free itself from whatever just happened to him, and then coming up with a maddeningly inadequate "This isn't a game."
It was the first of many such episodes. Moments where she somehow stripped his mind and body of their ability to do what Batman required. After each occurrence, he berated himself. After each occurrence, he conjured the details, analyzed the nuances: the purr in her voice, the green of her eyes, the way her breath parted her lips…
Batman knew what had to be done, always. It was a part of him, an instinct, a reflex, as natural and effortless as blinking. Yet somehow that woman dismantled it, time after time. She snipped the connections the way she snipped wires in an alarm. Over here there was the rational man's knowledge of what he had to do—in this case, executing the NASDAQ protocol to address the stock fluctuation without Selina ever finding out what had happened. Over there was the muscle movement required to do it. And in between, a flicker of claws, snip-snip-snip, and the connection was severed.
After their first few encounters, PsychoBat had come to the conclusion that the mysterious woman in purple must be physically manipulating him: psychotropic drugs, hypnotism, telepathic influence, possibly even magic. Somehow, she was altering his brain chemistry to befuddle him or cloud his judgment… Shortly thereafter, he'd had his first run-in with Poison Ivy and her pheromone-induced euphoria, giving him first-hand experience with that type of manipulation. In the years that followed, Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and Hugo Strange, along with one-shot telepaths, hypnotists, aliens, scientists and sorcerers had given him more experience with mind control and mental manipulation than he ever cared to know. None of it ever felt like what he experienced with Catwoman. PsychoBat eventually had to admit that whatever it was that Catwoman did to him, it had nothing to do with altering his brain chemistry.
Bruce eventually forced the knowledge into PsychoBat's corner of his psyche: it was chemistry, of course it was chemistry, anyone past the age of puberty could see it was chemistry. Just not the scientific variety.
"You caused a dip in the NASDAQ," he'd said. Like a puppet whose strings were cut. Snip-snip with her claws, without even knowing she was doing it apparently. She asked what happened and he told her: "You caused a dip in the NASDAQ."
"Bruce, there is a little WE stock in my portfolio, but I haven't bought or sold anything in almost a year. How could I possibly—"
"It's nothing like that," he murmured… This was really happening. He told her—came right out and told her simply because she asked, and now he was going to have to explain the whole miserable business. "You were, um… shopping last week… on Fifth Avenue."
"You stopped in at Cartier."
"Yes, I did. I was a very good girl, too. I walked in through the front door, while they were open for business…"
"Yes, well, unfortunately, Saul Drescher of the Financial Times saw you. Can I ask why you went?"
"A cat's curiosity. I did hit them last month during my staged crimewave and I wanted to see if they were going to go on high alert when I walked in as Selina—"
"Or go on sucking up as if you were Mrs. Bruce Wayne," Bruce concluded. "I thought as much."
"So… wait a minute… a couple salesmen wait on me in front of this Saul Drescher and Wayne stock drops?"
"Three-eighths of a point."
"Three-eighths of a… because I walked into a store?"
"A jewelry store where they engrave invitations and sell diamond rings and—"
"And their logo is a panther! They've got gold and diamond and platinum cats everywhere you turn around! I could have been casing the place—"
"But you weren't."
"But I could have been!"
"But you weren't."
"I wasn't looking at diamond solitaires either, so why is this Saul idiot jumping to conclusions?"
Why Batman, how hard do you want it to get?
Rattle. Falter. Mental sweat drop.
"Listen, Selina, I've told you what we know. Anything else would be speculation."
The plane dropped suddenly with a nauseating jolt, and Captain Leffinger quickly opened the intercom to apologize. He assured them he was taking the safest route around the storm system they were avoiding, and the turbulence they were experiencing was a necessary tradeoff.
Selina dug her nails into the armrest, like a cat sinking in her claws for balance, and directed Catwoman's angriest glare at Bruce.
"From anyone else, 'speculation' might be code for a half-assed guess. From you, it's what happened even though you can't prove it in court. So spill: I've been in Cartier a dozen times since we got together. The salesmen get dollar signs in their eyes and fawn all over me. Why was Thursday different?"
Bruce took a deep breath. It was no use; the proverbial feline had sauntered defiantly out of the sack.
"Every two weeks, Lucius has a very small press briefing for the niche publications: aeronautic, medical, research and tech publications with very small, profession-based circulations. It's not like a White House press conference or anything. I dropped in on the last one because we were outlining our plans for the Tech Expo next month. WayneTech's presence is going to be bigger than ever before since we're rolling out some very important new—"
"Bruce, I've sat through nine town hall meetings in the past five days. I know as much about that expo as you do."
"Right. Well… Webster from Geo-Imaging Monthly just got engaged. He announced it to the others right before I walked into the room. I asked what all the laughter and backslapping was about, they told me, and I congratulated him. We had the presentation, gave them their press kits, and as we were walking out, Lucius said something like 'it was nice of me to be so gracious about Webster' since I look on marriage as 'worse than death.' I said that I certainly did not, and he said 'Well, as something other people do, then.' I said 'Oh, I don't know about that,' and the next thing I know, Saul Drescher is jumping to wild conclusions when he sees you in Cartier's."
Selina's mouth had dropped open slightly and her eyes widened to a confused stare. She started to speak, her head tilting back and her lips shaping themselves to pronounce some word that began with 'w,' but she thought the better of it. She just shook her head briefly as if evading an insect, and then primly crossed her legs.
"One or more of the reporters obviously heard the exchange," Bruce explained unnecessarily. "Passed it along to a colleague from a financial publication." The intercom switched on and Captain Leffinger announced that they had passed through the last of the turbulence. Selina found the announcement revoltingly ill-timed as the pilot went on to say they should consider themselves free to release their seat belts and move freely through the plane.
"Look, the price corrected by 9:45 Friday morning," Bruce said reassuringly. "Still, given the market's hysterical reaction, I felt a p—" (he stopped himself from saying protocol, since Selina often reacted to the term) "program of public appearances was in order. Let them get used to seeing Wayne the CEO in the context of being CEO with Selina Kyle at his side."
"So they build up a tolerance," Selina said archly. "Like I'm arsenic."
"If you want to put it that way, yes."
"That doesn't even work with Pammy," she grumbled under her breath.
Bruce suppressed a lip twitch, and since he suspected he wasn't supposed to have heard the reference to Poison Ivy, he went on as if he hadn't: "This way, should we ever decide to pursue a change in our personal circumstances, they won't be inclined to overreact. I'm getting a bottle of water, would you like something?"
"N-no," Selina managed, and as he walked back towards the plane's small kitchen, she was grateful Bruce preferred to wait on himself when he flew rather than have his privacy compromised by an attendant.
What did he mean by…
Layers of realization burned through the mental fog in a matter of seconds, and she got up to follow Bruce to the kitchen.
"Change your mind? Fruit juice?" he offered.
She simply stared.
"Look, Selina, the market's response is assuming a marriage is mercenary and would be followed by a divorce that could impact the company. I find that galling and offensive. I don't allow Superman to second guess my judgment in that fashion. I certainly won't stand for it from presumptuous hedge fund managers. So you'll attend a few events like these town halls every year, they'll get used to seeing us together in those settings and get it out of their system."
"I see," Selina said, hoping she wasn't breathing hard, but because of the way her heart was pounding, she couldn't be completely sure. "So, it's just a control freak thing."
"It is a proactive, measured response to an unacceptable—"
"Yes, yes, whatever BatSpeak bullshit label you want to put on it. It's a control thing. It's not… Your actual views on... 'personal circumstances' haven't changed."
"Ah, I see. No. No, they haven't."
"Bruce, if your views change on that subject, I expect to hear about it before Webster from Geo-Imaging Monthly."
It was usual for Catwoman to get home from her prowl a few hours before Batman. Often as not, she was fast asleep by the time he finished the logs and went up to bed. So Bruce was surprised to see a light as he reached the top of the stairs. It shone under the door across the hall from their bedroom, Selina's suite, so he knocked and looked in. He saw her on the sofa, still in costume with newspapers and magazines lying open all around her. Her laptop sat directly ahead on the coffee table, so the setting might have resembled a low tech version of Workstation 1 in the Batcave, except for the defeated slump of her shoulders. Rather than typing up a log with a brisk, determined air or consulting one of the publications to find a reference or check a fact, Selina stared listlessly at the screen.
"You're up late," he noted. "Anything I can do?"
She chuckled sadly at that. "No."
"You can't help, Bruce. Let's leave it at that."
"You sure? I'm pretty resourceful," he said, a note of levity tempering Batman's gravel. The sound made Selina look up sharply. That odd mix of the Batman voice and Bruce's low-key humor was a rarity, even with her. "C'mon, Kitten. With all the town halls you've sat through this week, I owe you. Tell me what's wrong."
"I don't' want to. You'll make fun."
"I'll make fun? You can't be serious."
"You didn't want to tell me about the NASDAQ, remember? Well, I don't want to tell you this. Go away. Bother other criminals."
Bruce closed his eyes and shook his head, summoning patience. Bother other criminals. Impossible woman.
Her mention of the NASDAQ discussion sparked those thoughts again: Chemistry. How she could always get to him in ways no one else could. Even now when it had evolved so far beyond those early rooftop games, she still had that uncanny ability to get inside him, into his heart or into his head, and extract whatever she wanted. But he also understood that chemistry worked in both directions. She might try to wave him off, but until the claws came out and drew blood, it was all just words.
And the words were telling. "Bother other criminals" meant it was Batman she didn't want to talk to. "Bother other criminals" meant whatever the problem was, it was from the felonious part of her life. It meant…
"What's Nigma done now?" he asked—this time without a hint of levity lightening the deep Bat-gravel. Selina merely glared—or rather, Catwoman did. "Does it have anything to do with the copycat? There have been two incidents this week. Doesn't look like Cluemaster."
"It's not Cluemaster and it's not a copycat. Eddie left a message for me to come see him tonight. I went and I got the whole story. If I tell you—Bruce, so help me, if I tell you this in confidence, you can't make fun."
"Selina, these were not Riddler clues. An Officer Bailk solved the first one and—"
"And Robin solved the second, I know!"
"Robin was at the scene. Batgirl solved the riddle that led them there."
"Batg… Cassie? Oh, poor… We are never going to tell him that."
"You're not saying it was Nigma."
"Bruce, I mean it, you can't poke fun. No 'criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot,' no twitchy lip or that puffy grunt that we all know is a laugh."
"Eddie's lost his mojo."
"It's the Grifter's Curse, Lina. If a mob boss or a long con player or a name Rogue like you or me gets stung in a small time scam, Under Weer—no, wait. Nuder… Nude weer, WE'RE RUINED, DAMNIT! Look at me, I can't even anagram a simple two word phrase with three Es."
Selina frowned, first at Eddie and then at a crack in the ceiling which periodically dripped a blob of water onto the floor between them.
"Eddie, we went over this with Houdini's notebook. Curses like that aren't real, they're just self-fulfilling prophesy."
"You sure? Zatanna's nasty little secret came out with a vengeance after she touched it, didn't it?"
"Mine didn't and neither did Bruce's." Eddie crossed his hands in front of his chest, thumbs touching, and made a fluttery bat-wing motion. Selina felt the blood draining from her face as she realized that, in relation to Eddie, they had. "Let's say you've convinced me," she said tersely. "How did this happen?"
"I bought a smart phone. Since I want it to make calls, I couldn't go with Apple, and since I didn't want anything with your boyfriend's name on it, I had to scratch the top thirty-six alternatives. That led me to DreamFixer."
"It's a website. They sell stuff. In this case, a smart phone with built in satellite, eighty-four applications and wireless internet. Except it turns out the instructions are in Japanese, the satellite only covers Tokyo, the thing won't charge in a 110 volt/60 hertz outlet without a special adapter—which is no longer for sale. And the apps…"
"Are in Japanese."
"Most involve nauseatingly cute cartoon kittens, rabbits, penguins or geese, cross-dressing Japanese pop stars in 18th century naval uniforms singing show tunes, or a collection of fetishy animations, the tamest of which what I can only describe as 'naughty tentacles.'"
"Moving right along," Selina said… and once again, the ceiling dripped. As Eddie replaced the sauce pan beneath it with a towel, he explained that he hadn't tried to get a refund immediately since he had a time-critical riddle that had to be delivered to the Batsignal. It was one of his best. Encased in a Maya puzzle box, which was the cleverest piece of misdirection he'd ever come up with. Setting up Batman to fail, setting him up to miss the real clue and chase the red herring:
"Oakland or LA, 'Lina. Any normal man will think Oakland Raiders and once that word's in their head: Raiders of the Lost Ark. You're predisposed to see it, so 'a tale of survivors' is a story arc on Lost, and so on. I had a map room all set up, 'Lina. Jigsaw and Tangram hit every hobby shop in the tri-state area to get me the miniatures. Whole miniature Gotham laid out for him, sweet little trail of clues to lead him to it. Batman should have been standing right there with the Headpiece of Hairdo waiting for the sun to come up, while I was at the Algonquin making off with the goods from the Breathing Hope into Haiti fundraiser."
Bruce was delighted to explain how Riddler's plan had gone awry.
"The S.O.P. when the signal is lit without authorization is to dispatch a patrolman to the roof to see what if anything has been left, and then to notify the Commissioner who turns the box/envelope/whatever over to me when I get there. In this case, the officer found a slip of paper lying in the middle of broken pottery, so he read it.
"Officer Bailk is taking night classes at Brooklyn Law and there's more Latin than he expected. So he looked straight past the obvious and focused the real clue: the word 'inspired.' From the Latin inspirate, which means 'to breathe.' The Breathing Hope into Haiti fundraiser was on the morning blotter because of all the valuables in the silent auction. And once Commissioner Muskelli was on the scent, they checked the details and saw the keynote speaker was a Dr. Inez Oakland, author of Solving the Conundrum of Disaster Relief in Louisiana."
"Oakland to LA," Selina laughed. "Damn, that is slick. Oh, poor Eddie!"
Eddie scowled. And the ceiling dripped a particularly large drop onto his head.
"You should have seen it, 'Lina. Uniforms everywhere, the place looked like a donut shop. I barely got out at all, and I left my cane behind."
"You said there was a sequel. What happened with your next crime?" Selina asked.
"Niobium. Chemical element with the symbol Nb. Also a critical element of my clue. Its atomic number is 41, as in 41 Park Avenue, where a Mrs. Caron lives. Mrs. Caron is the descendent of Felice Augustine, who corresponded for twenty years with Pierre Charles L'Enfant. Pierre Charles L'Enfant was the architect and planner who laid out Washington D.C. and is thought to have embedded any number of Masonic codes and puzzles into the city structure. He is also thought to have confided in Felice Augustine. Do you see?"
"Right! And neither should anyone else. Nobody should be walking around with the atomic number of niobium in their head. Except sent an email that morning. Subject line: the atomic number of niobium! They're having a 41% off sale. What kind of sick joke is that? They could have used Mozart's last symphony or Montana's number in the union or the year Caligula was assassinated, but nooo. Atomic number of niobium."
"Eddie, calm down."
"That's how I know it's a curse, 'Lina. That kind of bad luck doesn't just happen on its own. What do you call a five letter word for a four letter word?"
There was a small whistling noise as the crack in the ceiling widened ever so slightly and the intermittent drops started falling in a drizzling trickle.
To be continued…