With great care, Jason Blood set the photograph of Claire on an honored spot
on his bookshelf. The little
box cut from green amber, he moved from the 16th century mahogany desk
to a more prominent position on the Spanish carved entry table. The move into this new flat made a welcome diversion, and he
found himself in no rush to complete the decorating. Indeed, one of the more pleasant aspects of being back in
Gotham City was the plethora of galleries, antique shops and auction houses.
He wondered, as the doorbell rang, if Selina might like to accompany him to a
few auctions. She was certainly
knowledgeable about art, and he felt he should make some gesture to thank her
for signing over her beautiful flat to him…
He opened the door—and sucked in his breath sharply.
The man before him looked no less surprised than Jason himself.
“Łąqųęųş vęŋęƒĭċįųm,” Blood ordered, “Øßŧįςęřę.” Instantly, the visitor was struck immobile and mute, and Jason regarded his prisoner coldly. He had had many dealings with Ra’s al Ghul, the faux immortal that had to dunk himself in a toxic pit to buy another handful of years. And Jason recognized instantly the dress of a Demon’s Head messenger. That Ra’s would dare approach him this way—any way in fact…
he said, encasing the messenger in a magical bubble, “Mąġưş
You may speak now. Do so.
What is your message?”
The messenger was silent, reluctant to deliver his missive to any but the
“łmþęŗĭųm ċǿŋłǿqųǿŗ,” Blood ordered.
“A Missive,” the messenger recited, “from the great and powerful Ra’s
Al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the West, Apex of the age of Oneness
through One Rule by the most worthy Demon’s Head, Anointed of Anubis and Osiris, Chosen of
Ra, whose greatness is not desecrated nor destroyed by death or grave, he who
dies not but arises phoenix-like from ashes to rule again, whose dominion is Yea
the entirety of the world of Man. To the Catwoman, Gotham City, North
Jason Blood laughed heartily.
Defcon 4. Was there ever such a
“No unnecessary traffic between the house and
the cave. Any time spent in the
cave is in costume, no exceptions…”
He’s adorable when he goes all batty like this.
“All secondary access points, like the elevator
in Alfred’s pantry, are deactivated.”
I realize that’s a minority opinion, but it’s how I feel.
“Alfred won’t be going into the cave anyway—or the clock passageway.”
See, that’s the guy I fell for.
“Satellite cave is shut down.”
Segue into the bad-ass technophile coming up fast.
“JLA transporter is shut down.”
It’s not that I was panicky about moving in.
“OraCom is restricted to VH priority
transmissions only, of no longer than 15 seconds, anything that goes into the
buffer will be random-scrambled to mimic alpha hiss.”
I’ll admit it was an adjustment. How
could it not be?
“Non-resident operatives—Robin, ‘Wing, and
Batgirl—may enter the cave only through exterior entrance B…”
But Whiskers and Nutmeg settled in so easily, I must admit that shamed me
into pulling myself together.
“Final laser disable must be keyed from their
transponders 30 to 60 seconds before the vehicle crosses electric eye omega.”
I was uneasy that first day once the furniture got here. I’ve been sleeping in his bed, most nights, for months. And
Alfred has been setting the day’s menus next to my morning coffee for almost a
“Digital signatures on the transponders will be
recoded every 12 hours.”
But technically, I wasn’t LIVING here.
“Workstations 3 and 4 are dedicated to
analyzing the feeds from the high-def digital cameras monitoring known Demon
agents, and scanning the closed captioning on all television & satellite
broadcasts for the keyword matrix, respectively.”
Living in HIS HOUSE.
“Those high-def cameras have a 36 hour backup,
although we’re downloading every hour…”
A reaction was natural, I said. Cats
are fiercely independent creatures.
“Jet fuel and other W-tagged supplies won’t be
restocked, so usage is strictly as-needed.”
But the one fiercely independent creature was sitting in his lap licking a
paw while the other snuck off with one of his socks.
“Now, security on the manor grounds…”
So much for it being a cat thing.
“…surveillance cameras, and, of course, the
alarms on the windows…”
I did pull myself together. I’m
living here now. This is my home. His house is my home. And
But it’s awfully good to see that other guy.
Get grounded again in where we began.
“…no reason to expect visitors, but if
someone did arrive…”
Defcon 4. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying.
The Royal Suite of the Gotham Imperial Hotel had one feature Ra’s Al Ghul found particularly gratifying. The 6,000 square feet meant nothing to him; the five bedrooms, five and half baths, and two livingrooms were of little interest, nor was the wine cellar. But the “jacuzzi,” situated like a Roman bath with its cupola and tromp loi frescoes, bespoke of an ancient empire when royalty meant power. Not like these modern kings that might stay in this suite who were mere figureheads for elected governments. No, this was the room of a Caesar!
Ra’s had ordered the jacuzzi covered with planking and Persian carpets.
This lush area would be the throne room in which he would receive his
guests. As the hour grew near for
the first summoned criminal to appear, Ra’s became impatient.
He wanted to meet these paragons of the Gotham City X-factor.
Every moment he spent in this wretched city made him more eager to learn
its secret. In particular,
every moment he spent with devoted but ineffectual minions like Ulstarn and Ubu
made him more ready to welcome a different type of follower.
Consider his new Ubu:
“It would be the greatest honor to give my life protecting yours, My Liege.
But if we are in the company of three different individuals who might
pose a threat, my sacrifice may not be enough.
If it is your Imperial wish to test the three Gothamites Ulstarn has
summoned, it is prudent we have two additional guards accompany us.”
Ra’s grimaced. It was true
there were times when the intrigues and stratagems of the Demon’s Head were
too cunning for mere mortal understanding.
But THIS was not one of those times.
His plan was simple enough: Gothamites
had something, he knew not what, that set them apart.
He wanted to employ one to bring that quality into his operation.
There were three candidates; he would interview each, just as he had
questioned the prospective Ubus, and then he would choose one.
That one, and only that one, would then be tested. Nothing about
it was difficult to understand.
Yet Ulstarn, Talia and now even Ubu seemed to misconstrue his intentions.
First Ulstarn came to him inquiring if he might have the honor of
indoctrinating the new recruits. Ra’s
explained (with a patience that proved the Demon’s Head could be as benevolent as
he was mighty) that not all but only one candidate was to be brought into
the fold and that the traditional indoctrination should be postponed, as
brainwashing might interfere with the Gotham X-factor he sought in this person.
Then Talia called with a list of housing and diet requirements for her
explained (with a patience that proved the Demon’s Head could be merciful as he
was great) that he did not need her physical presence as a faux captive, only
the photographs. He would, as he
had in the past, tell the chosen individual that his daughter had been
kidnapped, show them the photographs, and offer them a great bounty to recover
her. He and Ubu would then
accompany them on their search and observe how they progressed through a series
of trials. Once he saw how the
candidate reasoned and fought, he would know if they were worthy to serve him—and in this case, he would begin to know what it was that made the
Gothamites so special… There was
a curious hacking sound when he said this.
(With a patience that proved the Demon’s Head could be as lenient as he was
fierce,) Ra’s chose to believe that noise was, as his daughter claimed, static
interference caused by thunderstorms over Metropolis.
First Ulstarn, then Talia. And
now it was Ubu. Ra’s explained
(with a grimace that proved however benevolent, merciful, and lenient the Demon’s
Head could be in the normal course of events, his patience was not, in fact, as
limitless as his might and was, in fact, fraying fast, and if his minions did
not cease riling him with their willful misconstructions, blood would be spilt
and heads would roll!) that they would be putting one and only one Gothamite
through the trial.
And thus it was an uncharacteristically flushed and exasperated Ra’s Al
Ghul who sat in the Roman bath/jacuzzi/throne room of the Gotham Imperial’s
Royal Suite, waiting for his 12:00 appointment with the first of three Gothamites
that might save him from his devoted minions.
Alfred Pennyworth was from a country that kept their theatres open during the
London Blitz, so breakfast at Wayne Manor that first morning of Defcon 4 was laid
out as usual: baskets of bagels,
muffins and fresh fruit, a toast rack, pastry, juice, tea, coffee, and a covered
dish warming eggs, bacon and kippers over a tiny flame. Next to Bruce’s place at the table lay a sheet from a loose-leaf
dayrunner, listing any appointments for the day. Next to Selina’s lay a similar sheet with the day’s
As was customary, they served themselves at breakfast. This was fortunate, for it meant Alfred did not have to watch as Selina drew floor plans and schematics all over his menus, proving conclusively that there were seven routes into the Gotham Imperial’s Royal Suite and not four as Bruce stubbornly insisted.
Finally, Alfred was forced to interrupt to announce they had a visitor.
The butler noted only that Master Bruce was too engrossed in the argument
to question why a visitor was admitted when Bruce Wayne was “not at home.”
That reason became clear enough when they reached the drawing room and
saw who the visitor was.
“Jason Blood,” Selina cooed, “the man, the myth, the legend.”
“What the hell have you brought into my house?” was Bruce’s greeting.
“Selina, I have some of your mail,” Blood said politely, ignoring
and pointing to the DEMON messenger floating beside him in a 5 foot pulsing orb
“Jason, things like this come to the cave, not the front door.
What is this—”
“Relax, Bruce. He is in a ßųŁŁą rħðmbå; he cannot see or hear anything but what I will him to.”
Jason’s voice shifted to
channel even the minute amount of magic necessary for the spell:
Herald of Ra’s Al Ghul. This is Catwoman.
Deliver your message.”
Bruce Wayne’s eyes grew dark and foreboding as the messenger in the bubble
recited his speech. First, there was
Ra’s daring to come to town—No, FIRST, there was Ra’s having agents in his
city—No, FIRST BEFORE THAT, there was Ra’s Al Ghul’s existence! But once you accepted that this sociopathic megalomaniac
existed at all, that he had agents in Gotham City, and that he kept sending
agents into Gotham no matter how many Batman ferreted out and sent packing,
that he would dare—DARE!—come here in person—AND THIS WAS TWICE NOW!
“…summoned to the Imperial Presence at twelve o’clock precisely.”
And NOW on top of THAT, he was sending come hither candygrams
“Well now,” she purred when the message concluded.
And she wore that damn little catsmile that was so inappropriately amused
by all the wrong things, “Now there are eight ways into the royal
“Don’t even joke about it,” he warned in the Batman’s deep gravel.
Then he turned to Jason and spoke with a focused intensity that was not
quite human. “Tell me everything you know and I don’t about Ra’s al Ghul.
history, his allies, his strategies, victories and setbacks—”
“Bruce,” Jason answered, “You’re talking about 800 years of material. You sure you have that kind of time?”
Ubu could not understand what was happening. The Master’s 12:00 appointment seemed to be… late. It was unthinkable. How could anyone summoned to the Demon’s presence be late? The idea of a no-show was even more unimaginable; so when a woman appeared for the one o’clock audience, Ubu figured it must all be a misunderstanding. Gotham City was six or seven hours behind Romania depending on something called Daylight Savings Time. Ubu decided that, in his inexperience, he must be misreading the clocks. It was not actually 1:00 but 12—and this good woman was, of course, on time for her appointment with Ra’s al Ghul, for who would ever flout the power of the Demon’s Head?
Her appearance did not quite tally with the description he was given:
she was blonde, not brunette.
She looked about 5’ 3,” not 5’ 7.” And
her outfit was red and black, not purple. But
she was here for an audience with Ra’s al Ghul, and if she wasn’t the
12:00 appointment then she must be the 1:00, and she clearly was not a 6’ 180
lb man with two faces. So Ubu
opened the door for her and intoned:
“The great and powerful Ra’s Al Ghul, Light of the East, Terror of the
West, Apex of the age of Oneness through One Rule by the most worthy Demon’s Head,
anointed of Anubis and Osiris welcomes The Catwoman of Gotham City, North
America into his most Imperial Presence.”
Harley Quinn and Ra’s al Ghul simultaneously freaked out—or to be more
precise, Harley freaked out while, at the same moment, Ra’s underwent a
transformation that, for one not imbued with the timeless dignity of the Demon’s
Head, might be called freaking out. This
transformation involved a rapid reddening of the face, a bulging of the veins in
the neck, and a kind of gurgling sound kept at the back of the throat to
minimize the volume. It was this
last that fascinated Harley Quinn, and she complimented it. It was very close, she said, to what Mistah J called a dry spittake. Why, her Puddin’ used to sit for hours watching Whose Line is it
Anyway with a glass a Gatorade and… *sniff* Her Puddin’…
*sob* Her Mistah J!
While Harley wept all over the fine furnishings of the Royal Suite, Ra’s
tried to fathom why Ulstarn and Ubu had, between them, delivered him the
laughing man’s concubine in the mistaken belief that she was the Detective’s
concubine… and also he left orders to have his suit dry cleaned since the mad
clown’s mistress was blowing her nose on his lapel.
“Well that was a waste of time,” Bruce grumbled once the door closed behind Jason Blood.
“I thought the Renaissance years were entertaining,” Selina demurred,
“and even if you didn’t, it wouldn’t have killed you to offer him a
“He can sit down without being asked,”
Bruce spat, heading for the cave.
“It’s called being polite,” she countered, following him.
“Selina,” he stopped and turned at the clock entrance, “Kitten. Love of my life. I
don’t think you appreciate how serious this is.”
She seemed to consider that for a moment and then touched his cheek.
“Bruce, my dark knight, my dearest love. I don’t think you
appreciate how serious this ISN’T.”
“He’s here in Gotham.”
“Yes,” she agreed, pausing to let the admission sink in before adding,
“and he’s a hairdo.”
“The same hotel as before. Sending
out invitations! He’s not even trying to hide that he’s here.”
“I’m not worried. Bruce,
you’re ten times the man he is. You’ll
They walked silently to the cave… to the costume vault… and wordlessly
began changing into costume. He had
gotten as far as the leggings, chest plate, boots and belt when he started
speaking, quietly, as if to himself, but still loud enough to be heard.
“There are three unbreakable rules for dealing with an enemy like Ra’s: Never let them know where your buttons are.
Never let them know your real objectives or what you value.
Never take what the enemy gives you.
With Ra’s, I’ve broken all three.”
He turned, completely in costume but for the cape and cowl, and those he
held in his hand. And yet the man
standing before her wasn’t Batman. This
was that searching vulnerable soul she first recognized in that other vault.
He stepped towards her, just as he did that night before he kissed her. Their eyes locked, and when he spoke, it was that same strangely intense whisper.
“Selina. The JLA mission went to
hell because they wouldn’t use my tactics.
I’m the strategist. I
don’t have a meta gene or a power ring. I’m
the thinker. Ra’s came close to
taking out the JLA—Ra’s ‘the hairdo’ came close to taking out the JLA
using my protocols. Do you
understand? I’m that good,
Selina. I am, as you said, twice
the man he is.”
“Ten times,” she corrected.
“And still, I’ve broken all three rules with him.
He knows where my buttons are. When
he attacked the JLA, he got me out of the way by…” he shuddered, unable to
continue. When he did speak again,
his voice quivered on the words, “he dug up my parents and hung their coffins
over the Lazarus Pit. He knows how
to push my buttons. He knows what I
value: justice, this city (he’s here, in my city, WHY?), my family.
He took you last time to get me to come to him.
Now he’s sending you invitations and—”
“Three rules, you said,” she interrupted, “never take what he gives
Bruce paused and turned away.
“It was necessary,” he said softly. It was a long time ago, and they had
talked about it. But he could see
even that distant allusion to his past with Talia hit a nerve.
He wondered if the Defcon 4 protocols needed to be revised now that
Selina was in his life (“Examine
thoughts for demonspawn subtext before opening your mouth”).
“I know it hurts you to hear about it, and I’m sorry for that.
I encouraged her; I admit it. I
never trusted her and I never loved her. But
I let it play out because she was the only way inside what he was doing, and
this is life and death.”
She said nothing, but her fingertips traced the insignia on his chest.
He inhaled sharply, that one simple action reawakening the bat, banishing
the doubts and ambiguities for a time.
“So you broke a few rules,” she said finally, looking up at him with
daring eyes, “that’s what they’re for.”
Naughty grin. “You’re
still ten times the man he is. He’s
still a hairdo. And you’re still
going to kick his sorry ass all the way back to Nepal.”
Ra’s was fuming as he went back to the bedroom to change his shirt and tie. He was at a loss to rate the exact degree of his outrage. Not just any of these criminal vermin’s concubines did they send him, but the mad clown’s! That that lunatic called Joker was allowed to live was testament to the failure of the Detective’s methods and the need for global order Demon rule would bring. Indeed, when the Detective finally came to his senses, embracing his destiny and agreeing to wed his beloved Talia and become his heir, Ra’s fully intended to present him with the laughing man’s head as a wedding gift, on a platter, with an apple stuffed in the mouth. He already had the platter, made especially by the monks of the Tharlam Monastery in Tibet.
By the time Ra’s returned to the throne room, Harley Quinn had been
removed, and Ulstarn and Ubu quaked in fear—as well they should. Ra’s
was seriously considering if that Tibetan platter might not be put to better and
more immediate use to present himself with the gift of Ulstarn’s head.
Were it not for the difficulty of disposing of bodies in the
“My Master,” the excrescence groveled, “mere words cannot begin to
express my mortification at this unfortunate series of misunderstandings—”
“SILENCE,” Ra’s ordered. He
had listened to enough oaths of loyalty—in the long form—from this
repellent toady, that he was not about to sit and listen to an equally prolonged
apology. “There can be no excuse
for this appalling incompetence. Ulstarn,
if there were any man readily available who could take over this important
Gotham City operation, you would be, at this moment, on a boat back home.”
But no, that would never do. For
Ra’s remembered he had placed Ulstarn in Gotham to keep him on the far side of
There would be no cushy exile to the compound in Nepal or Romania for him.
“…he has excellent credentials…”
No, he would have to be sent somewhere equally remote from the heart of
He would be sent to… to…
By chance, Ra’s eyes fell on the photographs acquired to
test the chosen candidate, photographs of his daughter…
That was it!
His daughter! METROPOLIS. He
could transfer Ulstarn to Metropolis and let him annoy Talia for a while!
Yes, he would exile Ulstarn at once.
If only there was someone fit to replace him.
To be continued…