Chapter 5: The Second Half
After a typical Date Night, Bruce and Selina slept in the penthouse rather than returning to the manor. It was easier to sort out the cars the next day, and he knew she liked going home to a highrise terrace now and then. A taste of her old life to balance the crimefighting.
Tonight, he would have preferred to return to the manor, get up early and finish recalibrating the hologram generators. He could have the alcove hidden and triple-checked from multiple angles before breakfast… But they parted ways when he stayed behind to guard Malenkovik, and he assumed she'd be headed for the penthouse. He could always call her on the OraCom, of course, but after that strange tension before she left, he didn't think the OraCom or Batman calling with a change of plan would be well-received. So he reached for the grapnel launcher, thinking back to a simpler time when he didn't care how his orders were received. When he teamed up with Catwoman in the early days, it was a given that she would chafe at the judgmental jackass telling her what to do, and he didn't ca…
He felt an echo of that strained awkwardness as his hand brushed against something extra behind the grapnel. His fingers curled around it and he pulled out a slip of paper. It read simply: Lair tonight. His lip twitched involuntarily, wondering if she'd been thinking of those old team-ups too. He set off for the Cat's Cosmetics Warehouse, thinking how the new location was preferable to the penthouse. They were always up early after a night at the lair, and he'd be back at the manor in time to get the holo-gens triple-checked by ten.
Whatever nostalgic whim prompted the invitation to the lair, it seemed to have passed by the time Batman arrived. She'd opened a bottle of wine and had two glasses out with a wedge of brie. She looked up into his eyes as she handed him the glass and thanked him as if he'd brought her a Christmas present. It took a moment to realize she meant for pummeling the animal smugglers, which of course he'd done because they were criminals. It had nothing at all to do with her… It took him another moment to realize maybe this was nostalgia after all. Some feline logic version: the way those early team-ups could have ended, if only… It took him several moments and a sip of wine to realize that his hesitation with the OraCom—and all it implied, giving a damn how his orders were received and bending a little to avoid ruffling kitty's fur, there was a definite upside.
"The penny," he graveled. "You were going to tell me how you knew it wasn't from Two-Face."
She curled up on her sofa with a purr, smiling at the abruptness as if it was exactly what she wanted from him.
"It was very soon after Harvey and I broke the ice. Oswald was just getting the Iceberg up and running, and Harvey… well, he wasn't exactly crying in his beer, but he was feeling sorry for himself. Hugo and Jervis were betting on, I don't know, whether or not they could hypnotize a waitress with the glint off the gold foil on a beer bottle, or something equally asinine. And I guess Harv was missing the Harvard club. Having one of those moments when you look around and say 'This cannot possibly be my life.' I heard him say something like 'hang out with the vilest scum Gotham has to offer or die of loneliness like a heroine in some eighteenth century poem. And we sure ain't the fucking Lady of Shalott.'
"I laughed. And he turned and looked at me. He looked like he hadn't heard a woman's laugh in quite a long time. We talked for an hour or so. Somehow or other he'd got the idea that I was afraid of him, I'm pretty sure that was Jonathan's doing. Once we cleared that up, he'd invite me to his hideout now and then, just, you know, Chinese takeout and a movie…"
"I brought Ginger Prawns, Orange Chicken and Sichuan Beef," Selina said, unpacking each carton.
"Sichuan again," Two-Face said, a lecherous glint in his eye for just a second before he redirected it towards the food. "You really like it hot."
"Gotham-Sichuan, yes," Selina laughed, ignoring the innuendo and taking a large spoonful onto her plate. "Sichuan-Sichuan, not so much. Leaves me curled up in a ball, whimpering like a kitten."
"You've had the real thing?" Harvey asked. "What were you doing in Sichuan Province?"
"Sanxingdui Museum, what else? A Han Dynasty bronze, circa 200 B.C. Very meow."
"Ah. Of course. We keep forgetting all our new friends are in the same line of work."
"You know another cat burglar?" Selina asked innocently.
"We meant you're all criminals."
Selina's eyes narrowed.
"When you were D.A. you considered yourself in the same line of work as a shoe salesman because neither of you break the law until you fudge your taxes?"
"No, we did not consider all law-abiding citizens to be in the same line of work," Harvey said bravely, although a single year of married life was enough to recognize the tone Selina had used and to know there was more to come no matter what he said.
"All lawyers then? You consider yourself in the same line of work as some whiplash shyster that advertises at 3 o'clock in the morning between Bonanza reruns?"
"We recognize the error of our ways," Harvey said, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "We were completely ignorant of the distinctions between criminal persons and we deeply regret any offense we have given…" Then his lip left eye opened a bit wider and he added in a coarse, husky voice "Unless you'd like to get out that whip and teach us some manners. In that case, we don't regret a thing and you'll just have to punish us."
"Behave," Selina said, poking a chopstick at him.
For a moment, Two-Face glared at it with a low, menacing growl, like a guard dog who had identified an intruder but whose owner called him off before he could attack. Then his eyebrow raised as if a new thought had just occurred to him.
"Granted, we are not a cat burglar, but we are both theme criminals," he said finally. "Perhaps we should ask your opinion on a professional matter..." He told her he had information that the Gotham Opera was building a giant penny, and he was torn: "On the one hand, it is a giant coin. But it is a penny. One cent. That is only half of two."
"Y-yeah, thanks for clearing that up, Harv," Selina said slowly.
"But doesn't that ruin the whole thing? Would it really be a pleasure to see that enormous coin toppling over and crushing Batman flat when the words ONE CENT would be staring up at us from the lid of his copper tomb?"
Selina set down her chopsticks and touched her napkin to her lips as if thinking it over. This was her first exposure to just how crazy Two-Face could be, and she hid her surprise in a delicate sip of sake.
"Why not flip for it?" she asked finally. "That is how you decide this stuff, isn't it?"
"NO!" Two-Face roared, slamming his fist down on the table. "That is NOT how it works, you half-wit alley cat!" He stopped, closed his eyes and swallowed. When his eyes opened again, he seemed calmer. He offered the apologetic smile meant to charm the female jurors after he'd been severe with a difficult witness. And his tone, when he spoke, was civility itself. "Forgive us. We… He is apt to lose his temper when someone else suggests flipping the coin. We've noticed those who make the suggestion are almost always trying to stop us from doing whatever we came for.
"The fact is, Selina, the coin does make the decision for us, but that's only when we're of two minds. 'I' never want to break the law. I believe in the law. It's only time to toss the coin when he decides we should do something abhorrent. In this case, he isn't sure. The one cent angle is bothering him. I'm dead set against taking that penny on principle, can you understand that? I believe in what Batman is doing, and I object to the idea of luring him into a deathtrap and squashing him flat with a giant penny because it's wrong… Two-Face isn't sure because the one messes up the theme… That's why I need your input. This isn't about right and wrong, it's about the theme. I can't help him—you probably can. Let's say the 2000 year old Chinese bronze was a dog instead of a cat, do you still go for it?"
"I'm leaving," Selina said crisply. "Enjoy your Body Double/Double Indemnity double feature."
"He struck a nerve," Batman noted.
"Maybe," Selina shrugged. "'Against taking it on principle, if you can understand that,' who did he think he was talking to? I'm a thief, I make no apologies for that, I am completely unconflicted, and it would never once occur to me to squash you flat under a giant Bast."
"You were an atypical foe in many ways," Bruce said, hiding his lip twitch in a sip of wine.
"Meow. Anyway, that's the story. 'Scarred side' couldn't go all in, so there was no coin flip. Harvey didn't particularly like watching movies alone, so he knocked on my door a few weeks later with some kung pao, Cat People and The Theft of the Royal Ruby."
It was the first time Edward Nigma returned to the East End since abandoning his old lair there. He set up the place with the best of intentions: Because of the Gotham Post's lies about Catwoman having ties to the area, Selina wouldn't go near it. If she was going to dabble in crimefighting, however rarely, a hideout on the East End was one way to guarantee that no matter what vigilantes came knocking on his door, Catwoman would never be among them. It would have worked too. She obviously appreciated the gesture, because when she noticed what he was doing, she sent him a riddle. A slight Asian girl began appearing every morning at his favorite breakfast place wearing a Cat-Tales show jacket and ball cap. The girl never spoke to him. Never looked at him. And if there was a message in what she ordered each day, Eddie could never figure it out. Feline subtlety. She was such a class act.
Unfortunately, while Catwoman never had a reason to visit him as a crimefighter, Selina had plenty of occasions to drop in as a friend—and dragging his friend into a sewer that she hated was really asking too much. So he moved. But the old location was still unoccupied and could easily be converted to a new lair for a new occupant.
Speaking of which, a taxi pulled up and Eddie saw a familiar chiseled profile and the top of a revoltingly expensive and well-tailored suit riding in the back. The figure leaned forward to pay the fare, then the door opened.
"Looking good, Harv," Eddie said brightly.
As Harvey Dent turned to get out of the cab, he revealed the acid-scarring on the far side of his face and the hideous burlap that made up the left side of his suit.
"Half," he said simply. "This the place?"
He looked at the sign above the door skeptically, and Eddie happily explained that Akros Stitchery was a take on the "ákros" the greek word for top and "stíchos" meaning verse. The two together akros-stichos were the root terms for "Acrostic" a poem where the first letter, syllable or word of each line spelled out a hidden message. He was about to give an example when he noticed the coin had come out, which meant Harvey's dark side was losing patience.
"Sounds like a sweatshop," Harvey said irritably. "Not much good having a secret hideout that Batman doesn't know about if the INS is going to burst in looking for Mexicans handcuffed to sewing machines."
"It was either that, ARCTIC SO, which Bats might well think is a Freeze hideout, or COCA STIR, which sounds like I'm making coke spoons," Eddie said testily. "The Z can always change the name to something twoier while they're re-theming the inside. They might even cut you a deal since everything is already set up in there. All you need is new window dressing."
"The Z, you mentioned them on the phone. How does it work exactly?"
"Start with a call to Zach's Diner. The number changes, but Sly always knows and so does Saul Vicks up at Arkham. Say you want a Blue Plate special. I already called to have one delivered here. So if we go inside, one of the Z should be coming by any time now."
Once again, Selina had secured her leg to the dinosaur and hung upside down in the middle of the trophy room.
"It looks perfect," she declared, swinging a bit. "We've checked it from every angle possible. If you don't know, there's no way to tell that's not a solid wall."
Bruce grunted and touched a button on his belt, deactivating the DefCon lockouts. Rather than dismount normally, Selina accelerated her swing and pitched her legs to land atop the Joker card. It was thicker than it appeared from the ground, allowing the full width of her foot to rest on the flat surface-top. She was pleased she didn't have to 'balance' in anyway, but revolted by the layers of guano encrusted on it.
"Your furry friends have taken their revenge, I see," she said, scraping her boot off after she landed.
"It is their cave. He's the intruder." Bruce noted, and Selina laughed.
"So what about this one?" she asked, pointing to an item in the case.
"Feadag," Bruce answered. "A Gaelic demi-god I fought with Hal. Wind and whistles were his most dangerous weapons. He was very creative with sound, movement, vibrations. Jordan couldn't get the upper hand."
"He needed you to out-think him," Selina whispered. Bruce said nothing, and Selina blew him a kiss. "And that one?"
"Chess crimes. In London. Scotland Yard asked Commissioner Gordon if they could 'borrow' me."
"Aren't cops cute when they're confused," she giggled. "And this sphinx head? It's certainly not as old as it looks."
"Good eye. The glaze is so smooth and perfect on the bottom, it was obviously fired in a modern furnace and the wear marks created artificially with sandpaper."
"What were they smuggling inside it? Jewels? Drugs?"
"Ouch. So… have we been through all the Rogue stuff?"
"All but the Joker card," Bruce said modestly.
"I don't have to ask about that," Selina grinned. "God, the headlines."
"He was in the habit of sending joker cards to his intended victims," Bruce said grimly. "At the time I thought it was calculated: people who are terrified will do very stupid things, make all kinds of mistakes they never would when they're thinking clearly. As the years passed, I came to realize Joker's not that calculating. He didn't see it as a warning or a challenge; it was more like he was… opening up a dialogue. 'Do you want to play? I want to play.'"
He said the last with a malignant smile, and Selina felt a shiver.
"PLEASE!" she exclaimed in a sudden, shrill voice, "Don't channel Joker. If you're going to tell the story, just… stick with your point of view." She swallowed and collected herself. "Now then. He sent joker cards, I remember. The regular, playing card-size ones. He liked bicycle decks as I remember."
"Not really. The Times reported that detail after the first few cards and it stuck, but he had no real pattern. But you're correct. They were always regular playing cards. Until that one. Until Leonard Roff."
"Roff Place, Roff Tower, The Roff World Towers, The Roff Palace, Roff Park Avenue. Before Trump came along, Leonard Roff was the Big-Bigger-Biggest of Gotham real estate."
"Yes, and the man who had to build demonstrably bigger, taller and grander than the last guy—even in cases when he was the last guy—he had to receive something more than the ordinary playing card."
"A preemptive f-you, delivered in language Leonard Roff would understand," Selina noted. "Any idea what set it off?"
"You grew up in Gotham. Do you remember Riverdale Confectioners?"
"Oh," Selina said, surprised. "Yeah, we had a school fieldtrip to the factory."
"So did I. It was a landmark. And because it was a protected historical building, Roff was able to buy it very cheaply. Since the land couldn't be developed, the lot had no commercial potential even when the whole area around it was exploding in value. The owners were glad to get what little they could, never guessing that the strategic application of money and power could easily get a historical building de-listed so it could be torn down. Particularly when it was nothing but an old confectioner that nobody really cared about."
"Except somebody did care," Selina guessed. "Their logo was a… silly looking squirrel or something, right? Big smile, one missing tooth."
"Correct. Joker took offense when the building went down. Then the signs went up: Coming soon Roff Towers. That night, Mr. and Mrs. Roff were at a cancer benefit. A couple protesters got in disguised as waiters. Made a little scene, ruined her dress, got his hairpiece wet. It was over very fast. Embarrassing for a minute, forgotten in ten. 'Some neighborhood group, someone is always upset about any construction or change…' No one thought anything of it."
"Except you," Selina said pointedly.
"I wasn't there," Bruce said guiltily. "I had been; I left early. Didn't see it happen. But the accounts I heard later sounded suspiciously like Mrs. Roff was sprayed with seltzer, and whatever they threw at Len's hairpiece was whipped cream."
"As in 'hit in the face with a cream pie.'"
"I couldn't be sure until the following week when the crew and equipment arrived on the construction site: cement mixers, girders, Porta-Potties, playing card."
"Yes. There were a few Maroni boys there to fill out W-2s for no-show jobs. One look at that card and they decided even a weekly appearance to pick up a pay check was more than they bargained for. They left, leaving the others to decide whether to call their bosses or the police. They foolishly decided on the former, and the 'suits' were reluctant to involve the authorities."
"Of course. Those construction projects wind up budgeting things pretty tight. They don't have the money to pay for the piping that's net/30. They're counting on Roff paying them before the 30 days for reaching certain benchmarks. With Gordon's boys running around the site for a couple days, they're not going to get the foundation poured in time. No money coming in, obligations due, credit drying up, workers getting paid top dollar to stand around explaining to yet another Detective Monotya that they didn't notice anything unusual about the driver who delivered the joker card…"
"Did you spend some time moonlighting as a general contractor that I'm unaware of?" he graveled after an awkward moment.
"I spent some time that week doing exactly what I always do…"
Catwoman didn't like the lower floors of Roff Park Avenue. Glass boxes were boring. She didn't mind the absence of ledges from a burglary perspective. The window washing gear was always first rate. If she couldn't get in through a service entrance or the roof, she could always go that route. But aesthetically, they were just… dull. At least Roff Park Avenue gave up on shiny boxiness after ten stories. The top was crowned with a neo-deco tower with a half dozen free-standing units on its base. The effect was almost like a modest condominium with a small village on its roof.
The tower units were considered the most desirable, but rather than set himself up in the penthouse, Leonard Roff had taken the largest of the free-standing units: 5400 square feet, 6 bedrooms, dining room and library, family room, 8 baths, powder room, and of course, a large terrace with an unobstructed Park Avenue view.
It was the last which interested Catwoman, naturally. Roff had provided her with a floor plan and details of his security, assuming she'd come in that way. She had no reason to distrust the information: men who wanted you to steal from them so they could collect the insurance were, as a rule, very accommodating. They wanted you to get away with it, not get caught. However, Roff had supplied her contact with detailed information about his wife's jewelry. That was the usual bait dangled by men who wanted to lure her into their homes, imagining they would catch her red-handed and blackmail her into their beds. Those brainless wonders had never gone so far as to commission a theft the way Roff had. In all likelihood his offer was exactly what it seemed: he was over-leveraged and needed the cash. Nevertheless, a smart kitty was a cautious kitty. She would case the place herself and make her own determinations about the security and how to defeat it.
So far, all of her paper-chasing confirmed Roff's intel. Roff Management staffed its own security force for all its residential buildings, hotels, and business offices, but the actual design and equipment they staffed out to Foster and Forsythe. He had a Bennet-Parke safe in each of his homes. Whenever he bought or built a new one, he got a new safe for it. The size and model varied, but it was always Bennet-Parke. So far, so good—on paper, but there was only so much you could learn that way. Tonight she was going in to case the unit with her own eyes.
She knew from the society page that Mrs. Roff would be attending the benefit at the museum, while a peek at the doorman's schedule that afternoon had told her Mr. Roff was hosting a cocktail party at the same time in their suite. He'd got rid of the last straggler over an hour ago, then sent home the staff. It was as good a time as any to go in and see what the night held in store…
The terrace itself was easy: one camera to evade then disarm, one simple lock on each of the sliding glass doors. She had a choice of those doors, one leading to each of two guest rooms. Roff said it didn't matter which she used, since both bedrooms opened out onto the same hall. Since her mission tonight was checking on Roff's story, she decided to try both. She would also pick the lock the regular way rather than cut a hole in the glass with her claws. That might do when she returned, but tonight's mission was intel, not a signature Catwoman theft.
It was an easy lock to pick. The bedroom on the right was apparently used as a TV room. A bit small, bathroom attached, no motion detectors, electric eyes or security or any kind. And yes, it opened onto a hallway where she saw another bedroom door. Rather than open it, Catwoman retreated noiselessly into the first bedroom and shut the door. She would return to the terrace and go into the other bedroom that way as if she was just coming in—
Her heart raced.
As she'd approached that glass door to the terrace, she could have sworn she saw the edge of a bat cape disappearing inside the other door.
She closed her eyes, and in her mind, she stepped through another room the size of this one… Silently, as any cat burglar would… And as she reached the hallway door in her mind, she heard the near silent brush of that other bedroom's door opening onto the hall.
She opened her door and saw the back of that cape moving down the four short stairs at the end of the hall. She knew from the blueprints that the master bedroom (her destination) was on the left, and another hallway the floorplans euphemistically labeled a "Gallery" was on the right. That led to the rest of the condo, and Batman—obviously as familiar with the layout as she was—went right… past two more guest room doors towards the living room, dining room, and library. She followed, breathless, and then heard that delicious Bat-gravel:
"A Joker-threat is not something to be ignored, Mr. Roff." That was met with a yelp, a quiet curse and a tinkle of glass, providing a vivid sound-picture of the scene: Roff started at Batman's sudden appearance and spilled a glass of whiskey into his lap. Whiny denials must have followed, because Batman then said "I'm talking about a ten-foot playing card hidden under a tarp on your Water Street lot." The whiny denials become huffy ones, followed by the unmistakable sound of a bat-fist thumping a table for emphasis. "A madman doesn't need a reason," Batman said… and it occurred to Selina that, interesting though this radio drama was, she would be wasting a priceless opportunity if she went on listening to it. Batman was right here in Leonard Roff's condo. And so was she. She'd come to steal—Well, technically she was here for intel and was planning to come back for the actual theft, but you don't pass up the opportunity to steal a thirty-five-emerald necklace right out from under Batman's nose.
"You can't be serious," Bruce snarled.
"Do I look like I'm joking?" Selina grinned.
"You were THERE, you were IN THE ROOM, you HEARD THAT, you STOLE—"
"Not in the room, but yes there, yes heard, yes stole. Beautiful piece, really. Seventy emeralds as it turned out. Thirty-five small and thirty-five… smaller underneath them, and each one surrounded by these tiny diamonds. It was really—"
"Present. Right here. No need to bellow, darling."
"This is completely unacceptable."
"That I did it or that you didn't know about it?"
"You helped Leonard Roff defraud an insurance company."
"I also kept him alive, same as you did. The Masuccis might not have been as creative as Joker in their reprisals, but I think we both know what'd happen if that cement wasn't paid for on time."
"Bruce, you know perfectly well what I did back then. Why do you always have to go all batty when you find out the particulars?"
He glanced at the case with her old costume, and then looked back at her. She was looking at the new diamond trophy, and then looked back at him. Neither actually spoke the word 'sorry' but the silence became more comfortable.
"You must have convinced Roff," Selina said finally, "because the tarp came off and the papers got the story right after that."
"I made him understand that Joker wouldn't simply go away if he was ignored, and to sit and wait, letting Joker decide where and when to act was suicide. The only hope for survival was to be proactive. Go to the papers, control the story—and lead Joker into acting at a time and place of our choosing. We gave the press a story that made it seem like the card had only just been discovered at the construction site and that Roff had been out of town, supervising another project in Metropolis. That he was only now returning to Gotham in response to the threat, he would be at the construction site at one o'clock the next day to inspect the joker card, and then—in consultation with Batman and the police who would also be present at the site—he would make the decision how to proceed."
Selina shook her head slowly, as if anticipating the slow, inevitable descent to disaster in a favorite opera as Bruce continued:
"I took Roff's place, disguised of course: on his plane flying in from Metropolis, in the limo from the airport to the construction site. Roff was already there with Gordon. We debated what sort of disguise would be the safest: one of the construction workers or a uniformed patrolman, even the limo driver. The problem with Joker is that he doesn't distinguish between victims. He'd just as soon kill a civilian as a cop. The more innocent the bystander, the better. In the end, we decided the safest disguise was the one most people would assume was the most dangerous."
"You dressed him as you," Selina murmured. "As Batman, I mean."
"Roff and the police were convinced it was a perfect disguise, but I knew better. Look at that thing," Bruce pointed at the giant card, since they were standing right in front of it. "You don't send your victim a ten-foot warning and then pretend they don't know you're coming. Joker knew we would try something, he was prepared for trickery. The card had been rigged with confetti canons. As soon as Joker saw fake-Roff had arrived, he took his cue. The barrels popped out the sides and along the top, shooting squares of brightly-colored tissue paper over the crowd.
"There was a slight… tingly sensation when they touched the skin," Bruce said, moving his fingers slowly over the back of his hand and wrist. "But while everyone in the crowd came into contact with one of those squares and was exposed to whatever they were treated with, only the man in the Batman costume began to convulse."
"The second half of a chemical cocktail," Selina guessed.
"Correct. Part two is a harmless catalyst."
"Only somebody exposed to part one goes off like a cackling hyena," Selina nodded. "Breaking out the greatest hits."
Batman grunted. While it was true Joker had used the primer/catalyst method before to isolate a specific victim, Batman would hardly have described the SmileXing of an innocent in those terms.
"Fortunately, I was also prepared for our deception to fail," he said, ignoring the 'greatest hits' remark. "I had an antidote ready, an ambulance disguised among the construction vehicles, and a lightweight costume on under my Roff disguise."
"Like you do with Matches Malone," Selina grinned, taking a step closer. "Always prepared, always thinking three moves ahead."
"Six with Joker. His rage was predictable."
"Of course, he doesn't like having his plans wrecked, particularly by Batman. Meow. So he goes charging in."
"Dressed as Willy Wonka for the occasion. That was the only real hint that it was demolishing the old confectioners that drew his ire."
"How perfectly Jack."
"His fallback also centered on the playing card. It emitted an ear-splitting tone, worse than Canary Cry. The whole crowd was incapacitated, enabling Joker to pull a cabby out of his car and try to run me down with it. I fired off two batarangs, one into the taxi's front tire and one into the card's main speaker, then grapneled to the top of the card and leapt down onto the car and through the windshield."
"Face pound. Game over," Selina purred.
"Two pounds," Bruce said with a lip-twitch.
"We like him," Harvey declared as he and Eddie left the hideout.
"Zoiks?" Eddie asked, looking behind him at the door. "He's okay. They're all okay until you get their bill. Find out your new lair comes equipped with a snowcone machine, tiki bar, and $1400 in pay-per-view charges for boxing and zombie porn."
"Our better half doesn't like 'liking' henchmen," Two-Face explained. "When they screw up—and they always screw up—we want to punish them. If we win the toss, it's easier for our better half to stomach if they're more like the crass ignorant low-lifes he used to prosecute."
"Well the Z aren't henchmen, not anymore anyway. They're independent contractors. So it shouldn't be a… problem."
Eddie faltered midsentence because he saw Two-Face wasn't paying attention. He was leering with a lustful grin towards—oh hell, at Selina. At Selina's playful, teasing eyes from the Cat-Tales logo, seemingly staring at them on the back of the Asian girl's show jacket.
"That's a good sign," Harvey noted. "What better omen could we hope for to welcome us to the neighborhood," he said happily.
"Big whoop, somebody that worked on Cat-Tales," Eddie said, trying to pass it off. "But that place she came out of, great breakfasts. Waffles to die for."
"Let's follow her," Harvey said impishly.
"What? Why? Some techie from Selina's old show—"
"No, we want to do this. We're out of practice," Two-Face said earnestly. "We can't tail someone inconspicuously anymore. With the scars, we don't exactly blend in. The only way to hide is the walk, the attitude. We can't hide that we're Two-Face. The trick is to give the impression that our walking up the street behind you is just a coincidence."
"Count me out," Eddie said firmly.
He didn't know who the girl was, but he knew she was a message from Selina. If she was still in the neighborhood after he left, that meant that either she didn't know he'd moved, or she just liked the waffles at Petite Abeille. But either way, she had some tie to Selina, and trying to follow her could bring some epoch-making payback. He tried once more to divert Harvey's attention, but when he refused to be dissuaded, Eddie said he'd see him later at the Iceberg.
The first thing Dick heard crossing the Great Hall was Selina's musical laugh coming from the long hallway leading to Bruce's study. A moment later, she and Bruce came out of the study, arms around each other's waists. She was still laughing, Bruce was smiling, and for that fraction of a second, the image was so idyllic and intimate that Dick began to rethink his doubts about the proposal theory.
"Hey, guys," he said brightly, just to let them know he was there.
That cheerful greeting was met by a double volley of startled glares. Selina's morphed almost instantly into a playful smile and Bruce's into a tight-lipped scowl. Dick felt like he'd returned too soon after being sent to "find some evidence" while Batman accosted Catwoman. The feeling crept into his body, and he knew he looked and sounded all of ten years old as he gestured feebly to the door behind him, saying that he didn't want to bother Alfred so he'd let himself in with his key.
Then the time warp closed just as abruptly as it had opened: Bruce said Dick should at least stop in the pantry and visit with Alfred before he left. Selina said pffft, he should stay for lunch. He would, wouldn't he?
Dick smiled and nodded, short pants and confusing rooftop Bat-orders forgotten. Selina said she'd go tell Alfred they'd be three for lunch, and Dick watched her walk off and disappear into the morning room before turning to Bruce with a 'down to business' air. He asked if they could talk in private, and Bruce said sure. He turned back towards the study, and Dick practically held his breath as he followed. If Bruce was interpreting 'in private' as 'in the Batcave' and leading him there without a fuss, that put a definite end to Cass and Barbara's theory.
"Sorry for interrupting before," Dick said casually, just for something to say to cover his suspense as they walked into the study.
"You didn't. We had finished," Bruce said, opening the glass cover of the grandfather clock and setting the hands to 10:47.
"Looked like you and Selina were having a good time."
"Let's just say Poison Ivy's version of that orchid caper has some astonishing embellishments, and Selina really enjoyed hearing the true facts of the case."
"Ah," said Dick.
On the one hand, they were going down to the Batcave. On the other, if Dick was already suspicious, if he thought Bruce was covering some secret about his relationship with Selina, the suggestion that the moment of perfect, delighted synchronicity he'd witnessed was the result of a story about Poison Ivy's orchid would seem like the biggest whopper …
Reaching the cave, Dick looked down the ramp towards the trophy room, as if mention of the orchid had reminded him. He saw that the flower—and several other things—had been moved to make room for a new object.
"Whoa, that is one big diamond," he said, KICKING himself for having the right answer from the beginning but allowing himself to doubt it.
"Cassie told you?" Bruce said instantly, detective's instinct rejecting coincidence and searching for a cause and effect. While Dick could have innocently looked into the trophy room and remarked on the very item he and Selina had just finished installing, it was far more likely he'd been pre-informed.
"She told Barbara," Dick explained. "She doesn't believe you, Bruce. Falconi Jewelers. She thinks it's a story you made up on the spot to cover… giving Selina a different kind of diamond."
"Ah." Bruce didn't exactly chuckle, his lip didn't even twitch, but Dick could sense that of the two possible reactions: patient amusement or Psychobat monsoon, they'd lucked out with the former.
At least… so far. But Dick had something more to say, and unleashing the Four Psychobats of the Apocalypse was still a distinct possibility.
"She pulled in Babs, Babs got to Tim, Tim came to me," Dick went on. "It'd be a zombie movie if I played my part: I go to Wally, he tells Kyle, Kyle spreads it throughout the galaxy. Martian Manhunter's broadcasting it telepathically, Garth and Aquaman telling all the fish… Classic comedy of errors stuff.
"I guess it's lucky for me you didn't 'play your part,'" Bruce said with a belated lip-twitch.
"To be fair, Tim didn't either. He's not thinking marriage, he's thinking DefCon: covert operations in the Batcave for reason or reasons unknown… But I'm thinking something else."
The sudden emergence of the Bat-gravel was not encouraging. It harkened back to those old rides home in the Batmobile: "Gee, Batman, it sure is funny how Catwoman keeps getting away every time you send me off to find evidence, even when you had her pinned." "Maybe you should concern yourself with that unit on codes and code-breaking you've been working on for more than a week."
"Such as…" Dick repeated—relieved that this time his voice didn't betray his mental flashback. "That's two. See, the girls are so dazzled by the romantic aspects of Paris, they seem to have forgotten why you went there in the first place."
"The town halls—"
"Yes, the town hall meetings for Wayne Enterprises. But that's not why you brought Selina along. You took her as damage control after that rumor at the Financial Times. Saul Drescher sees Selina in Cartier's and all of a sudden Wayne stock is down half a point."
"It was three-eighths of a point and the price corrected by 9:45 the next morning. It's a non-issue, Dick."
"Bruce, you started that rumor. Not intentionally, I know, but I've heard the story a couple times now: from you, from Alfred, from Babs and from Lucius Fox. They all agree it was you saying something to Lucius in front of a reporter that started the dominos falling. That's one. Now there's this thing with Cassie… getting the wrong idea… after she talks to you."
"You think I'm, what, testing the waters?"
"Maybe subconsciously, yeah."
"Thank you for the observation," Bruce said, moving to the nearest work station and fiddling with the settings on the auto-downloads.
Dick couldn't contain the old 'Gee, Batman, it sure is funny how Catwoman keeps getting away' smirk. He turned so Bruce wouldn't see it, and looking around the cave, he marveled at how little had actually changed—particularly the man at the heart of it.
Fine. If he wanted to be all-Batman, Dick could oblige. It was Catwoman they were talking about, after all, not some civilian.
"I have a request," Dick said with an air of formality.
Bruce didn't speak, grunt, or look up from his Bat-busywork, but Dick knew from the shift in the silence that he was invited to continue.
"Zogger Summer," he declared with the slightly stilted delivery of a public speaker opening an official ceremony. "That's when I learned what it really meant to be a detective. You taught me to notice everything. Detail. Nuance. To distinguish between those things that could be placed deliberately in order to mislead and those that couldn't be staged because the parties involved weren't even aware of them. You taught me to weigh evidence objectively and to draw studied, rational conclusions."
Dick then swaggered over to Bruce, like a drunk picking a fight in a bar, and stepped into his personal space, forcing Bruce to look up from his work and give Dick his full attention.
"But there were observations and conclusions you didn't want to hear," Dick said with an edge that was challenging without quite crossing the line into belligerence. "That summer was all about the sight of her legs in that skirt, whether you want to admit it or not. You sent me to 'find some evidence.' Well, I found it, Bruce. You told me a detective notices everything—but what I learned that summer was that means noticing a lot of stuff they don't want you to. And you can either get in their face with it, or you go through life with a head full of other people's secrets."
"Don't bash Tim… or Cassie… for doing exactly what you taught them."
"Have I done anything that would lead you to believe I would 'bash' Tim or Cassie for a simple misunderstanding?"
"No," Dick said, a smile breaking through his confrontational demeanor as he was caught out.
"Then what's this about, Richard?"
Dick wanted to remain grim. He imagined himself in costume, staring down the vilest scum in Bludhaven in an effort to keep the untamable grin from growing wider and wider across his face.
"It's about those tiger scrolls at the Japanese gallery. Wearing the new cape and buffing scratches off the armor before we set out that night. Being sent to find some evidence in an empty parking lot."
"If you get near a point, make it."
"Bruce, she's upstairs right now telling Alfred we'll be three for lunch. I want you to admit I was right."
The atmosphere at the Iceberg was tense. The place always saw a brawl or two each week, but this was different. Clayface had become a regular, since he was practically Catwoman's bodyguard at Vault when she reigned as queen of the underworld. When the social center of Roguedom transferred back to the Iceberg, he came with it. He and Poison Ivy gave each other a wide berth, but everyone still felt the barbs of hostility flying back and forth when they noticed each other. Now, rumor had it, Two-Face was coming back. Eddie confirmed that he was actually back in Gotham and should be dropping by the 'Berg some time tonight.
Ivy in a room with her Ex and Clayface? Powder keg. Green, leafy, lemon-scented powder keg.
Eddie didn't feel like being a big shot in the dining room tonight, so he'd made his way to the bar, nodded at Hagen—who was wearing his old Monarch of Menace face to tell some story that Sly and Jervis found hysterical—and hunched over his glass of Glenundrom, which Sly had poured and set out for him without ever turning his attention from Hagen.
"…told Harley that I'm only going to say this one more time: that's not a scepter; it's a golf club. I don't need either, because I'm a shape shifter. And if I did want to use a club for this, it'd be a putter and not a ladies' nine iron."
Everyone laughed, and Hagen morphed back into his usual clay form. Sly came over to Nigma and set the bottle of Glenundrom down in front of him, asking if Eddie's meeting with the Z came off okay. Eddie was non-committal. He didn't think it was his place to go spreading the word that he was acting as a go-between for Two-Face, but once Harvey arrived, he patted Eddie on the back and thanked him for making the introductions. He declared the Z to be the finest innovation in Gotham Roguery in the time he was out of the game.
The announcement was met with a communal cheer—which was less for the Z themselves and more a celebration of Harvey's return (as well as a certain anticipation of what crazy new things they'd find to spend his money on in the course of setting up his lair, and how much their fun would cost him). Even before the cheering began, Harvey was in a good mood. Now the party atmosphere made him downright euphoric.
"Followed that cute Cat-Tales kitten for almost thirty blocks," he told Nigma. "More than an hour. Guess where she went. Scully and Scully. We always liked them, for obvious reasons with a name like that, so we watched through the window. She was looking at the bridal registry. She pointed to something in the book, salesman showed her this cutesy bit of painted porcelain, looked like a pink goat. She made a face, said something, and they showed her a cat in the same style. How about that?"
"How about what?" Eddie said, looking as if, for once, the thought of an unanswered question made him positively ill.
"Wouldn't it be something if Catty was getting married?"
"I hardly think—" was as far as Eddie got when Jervis piped up. "What's that? Catty getting married?"
"C.W.'s getting hitched?" Hagen said.
"That's what Mr. Tetch just said," Sly reported.
"No, no he didn't," Eddie said—though nobody listened because Two-Face was standing between him and everyone else, saying "Yes, we saw one of her friends picking out a gift."
"No!" Eddie cried—but unfortunately his No, meaning literally "No," was said simultaneously with Jervis and Sly's, meaning "News!" The trio of excited Nos brought a flutter of excited chattering from everyone within earshot—which brought everyone who had been out of earshot into the vicinity. Ivy arrived from the dining room at the same time Oswald came out of his office. Both asked what was going on, and the thrilled "Selina's getting married" shouted at the one crossed with the equally agitated "Catty's getting hitched" aimed at the other.
"Oh," Oswald said, not entirely pleased at the prospect. Even though he himself was never in the running, the idea of a bird like that flying about freely, "available" if only in theory, made a man… happy.
"Oh!" Ivy said, cheered at the removal of a rival and hoping Wayne might take her to Bermuda or someplace for a long honeymoon, buy a second home there, and stay forever.
"We'll have to do something for her," Clayface said. "Unless we could put a stop to it," Penguin murmured. "Yes, we really must do something," Hatter echoed. "I'll see to her bouquet," Ivy said firmly. "Selina's looks would certainly be improved by the addition of a few flowers, but none of my babies are going to die to make that alley cat look good…"
© 2011, Chris Dee
More Cat-Tales adventures in store.
Next: Comedy of Errors
Currently on the Cat-Tales websites (see my bio) and to be archived here... eh, eventually. See below.
Author's Note: My deepest apologies to loyal FFnet readers for first, forgetting to remove the "To be continued" from the end of this story, which is now complete, and second for failing to get the word out that I will only be archiving tales here once or twice a year. That's no reflection on FFnet or its readers, Cat-Tales has simply grown into something larger and more unwieldy than just the stories themselves. The other parts work together quite well, with FFnet being a time-consuming and labor-intensive outlier. So, to follow stories chapter by chapter, as they are released, please visit the websites listed on my bio page. I do apologize for the inconvenience and the frustration, and I will be posting something there soon to make it up to you.