From his position atop the corner of East and Worth, Batman could survey the eight city blocks that were the core of Gotham’s Chinatown. It was never as dark as other parts of town. Canal Street especially—awash in neon and brightly colored banners -remained bright and busy long into the night. More and more shops stayed open late, many setting up sidewalk displays to attract passersby. Many items for sale were mundane, knockoff watches and handbags, but there were plenty of other stalls, especially on the south side, offering unique Chinese items: curious fruits, roots and herbal remedies; authentic rice bowls, tea services, and chopsticks. And of course there were the restaurants, hundreds of them, filling the air with thick tangy odors that made the mouth water.
Behind him, Catwoman lay stretched out, flexing her leg slowly in a half-speed version of her warm-up exercise. Then she lifted the leg entirely and swung it over her body.
“Do you have to do that; it’s distracting,” he remarked, adjusting the amplification on his night vision lenses.
She stuck out her tongue but said nothing.“That’s distracting, too.”
“What do you care,” she laughed, “you’re facing the other way.”
“I know you’re there; I know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t believe you’re still upset about it, that’s all.”
“I am not upset.”
“Just because it worked—”
“I am not upset about it.”
“—and you didn’t think of it first.”
He grunted. He couldn’t deny that it appeared to have worked, that the conditions necessary to make it work had been in place for over a year, and that technically he had the key item in his possession since that very first encounter with Ra’s Al Ghul—if only he’d thought to use it as Selina had.
She was on her stomach now, arching to grab hold of her ankles behind her back.
And he realized his self-recrimination was pointless. Nobody—NOBODY but she would ever have thought to do such a thing, and it was pointless pretending otherwise. “I’m the strategist,” he had told her, “I don’t have a meta gene or a power ring. I’m the thinker.” Which was true. He wasn’t the only thinker, that was all.
Activity in the storefront drew his attention back to the surveillance.
“There he is,” Batman murmured, watching the new man in this DEMON cell, the one who was clearly in charge now, the one who replaced that paranoid psycho Ulstarn. Batman remembered him. He was a Joker henchman, a bruiser.
This is why Ra’s was in town, the sick bastard. He was recruiting.
It was hard to think of a Joker henchman as “an innocent,” but at the moment Batman could not think of him as anything else: a Gothamite, one of those he was sworn to protect, drawn into Ra’s al Ghul’s perverse clutches. Joker henchman or not, that man was a victim who must be freed.
Recruiting. Ra’s al Ghul coming to Gotham City to recruit men. It was obscene. But the evidence was undeniable. Batman thought back to the night of the discovery…
Shortly after Jason had left the manor, he and Catwoman had gone into town. When the time came, he would assemble the full team for an assault on Ra’s Gotham headquarters, but for the preliminary fact-finding, the two of them were more than sufficient. It was a rooftop much like this one, opposite the hotel. Catwoman had stretched out behind him and yawned while he refocused the night vision lenses.
“Any change?” she had asked.
“Only eight men?”
“Yes. Last time, he had fifty with him. This is wrong. No sign of Ra’s himself. No Ubu. Only eight men left. And it looks like they’re… packing up.”
His earpiece chirped. ..:: Boss? ::..
“Go ahead, O.”
..:: You’re won’t like this. ::..
..:: Gotham Imperial has Sheik Ziad Bin Manakh booked into the Royal Suite starting tomorrow. ::..
“Noted. Batman out.”
He looked again towards the listless activity of the eight DEMON flunkies that remained in the royal suite. But he saw only the nothingness of night air between him and that building across the street. “He’s gone,” Batman said softly. “He came into my city, did exactly what he wanted, and left almost before I knew he was here. I don’t even know what it was about.”
“Then let’s find out,” a seductive voice purred while a clawed finger crept into his peripheral vision pointing towards the hotel, “Eight droogies; no waiting.”
Two-Face read over the blueprints for a second time. An armored car made a pickup from Fleurey’s every second Thursday. This month that would be the 22nd. That gave him exactly two days to finalize his plans—which was exactly how he liked it. This particular model had A2 double thick armoring with double-bonded windows, icing on the cake. The only disappointment was that it would enter through the 25th Street Parking Garage and not an even number.
Harvey the goody-good proposed a coin toss because of that little wrinkle, anything to try and derail his crime. But Two-Face was not about to risk a tailor-made heist like this. He reminded Harvey that there had already been one coin toss in relation to this robbery, in deciding to commit it or not, and the bad side won. If Harvey insisted on a second toss because of this 25th Street business, that would be two. Two coin tosses. That meant when they hit the car and the time came to kill the guards inside or not, there could be no third. No coin toss for the guards: Bang. Bang.
Harvey couldn’t argue with that. He had to allow those future guards the 50-50 chance of keeping their lives. He retreated to the back of Two-Face’s mind while the other resumed studying the plans.
Or he tried to.
A low hum from the Phoenix console told him his perimeter defenses had been breached. Glancing up to the monitor he saw the intruder blithely traipsing into the theatre lobby—just as she had before—heading straight for the lasers and the gas. He cursed and rushed off to intercept her.
Batman knew she was holding back. There were eight DEMON agents remaining in the hotel, and Catwoman took out two, obviously leaving six for him to work out his frustrations. It was… satisfying… for exactly 1 and ¾ minutes.
Catwoman had left her two goons incapacitated but conscious, so he questioned them. Like all Ra’s flunkies, they were useless as informants. Either because they were brainwashed zealots that would die before they betrayed their master, or else, more likely, because they didn’t know anything, they remained steadfast and silent through threats and thrashing.
“Useless,” Batman growled as the last man fell insensible. “We could wait until one of the others wakes up and try again, but it’ll just be more of the same.”
There was no answer, so he turned. Nothing. She had left.
He found her in one of the living rooms… and for the first time since DefCon 4 was declared, he felt that pleasant tug at the corner of his mouth.
Catwoman stood at the far end of the room before a Louis XVI desk. True to form, she’d found the suite’s safe—behind a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte, now removed from the wall and leaned against the desk. She’d opened the safe and spread the contents out on the desk. Whatever they were, she was looking down on them with a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin.
“Bad kitty,” he chided, crossing the room and smacking her bottom as he reached the desk. Then he sucked in his breath when he saw what she was looking at.
“Well somebody has certainly been bad,” was Selina’s amused murmur, before breaking into a full laugh.
Batman looked down at the photos, fully aware why Selina found them so entertaining, but unable to share her enjoyment. They showed Talia, bound and gagged. He’d seen images like this before. It was his first encounter with Ra’s al Ghul: Dick had been kidnapped. Within hours, he received photographs of his son tied up in just this way. Then Ra’s showed up with similar pictures of Talia—kidnapped by the same people, he claimed. The “loving father” proposed they work together. It was a test. Four countries, nine booby traps and sixty assassins later, the truth was revealed. Batman was Talia’s first pick for a husband and this was all Daddy’s way to decide if he was worthy.
Several years later, he used the same test, minus the second kidnapping, to test Azrael for the League of Assassins.
And here once more were photos of Talia, “kidnapped” yet again. Ra’s was testing someone. Someone in Gotham had been shown these photos and was even now stepping into that first booby trap. The sickly certainty that Ra’s was here recruiting was mixed with a gnawing uncertainty: Was Ra’s al Ghul a hairdo? He was using the kidnapping bit again. His last visit, he stole his master plan from General Hospital, and before that, the actions he took against the JLA were taken from Batman’s own protocols. Even the blackmail scheme he launched last year bore a striking resemblance to the intrigues Jason related from the Renaissance court of Lorenzo di Medici.
Just when was the last time the Demon’s Head had a new idea?
“Quinn!” Two-Face roared after he rescued her, a second time, from his lobby lasers, “We told you already: you don’t need a lawyer, you need a leash. In fact, you need two. One for your hyenas and one for your asinine self.”
“Oh Twofers, it’s not the hyenas this time, I wanna sue somebody. See, I wentta see the Cadaver afta you said you weren’t intarested an—oooooh, big gun.”
“The correct word is ‘double-barreled.’ Much like the correct pronunciation is ‘I want to sue somebody… I went to see the Cadaver…’ See how that works? If we cannot prevent you finishing that story, we will insist you do so without further assaulting our ears and the English language. Understood?”
“Good. Then proceed:
‘after we said we weren’t interested…’”
The Batmobile was equipped with a bulletproof windshield, infrared/thermal imaging, ejector seats, and an autopilot that freed the driver to give his full attention to an arsenal of defensive weaponry. And for all that, Batman felt he had no protective shielding for what he faced on that drive home from the Gotham Imperial Hotel. The waves of unease coming from the passenger seat were a palpable force, capable, he felt sure, of jamming the OraCom, melting the windshield, frying the autopilot, and firing off the ejectors. He decided the only defense was a strong offense:
“Selina, what did you make of those photos you saw?”
She paused. It was a pause he knew, a rooftop pause. She was formulating a bit of felinity.
“Kinkier than I would have expected,” she pronounced finally, “from someone who talks like Theodoric of York.”
Bulletproof windshield, thermal imaging, ejector seat—nothing to deal with felinity.
It was pointless to pretend the situation wasn’t what it was. Ra’s al Ghul was in his city recruiting. In Gotham City. Like it was Bulgaria or Kurdistan. Talia was involved, or at very least knew something. It was clear what he had to do. Selina knew that as well as he did. Hence the brave show of heedless felinity—followed by a deafening silence. It was clear what he had to do. Still, he said nothing until they reached the cave.
“I’ve got to go to Metropolis,” he said, unable to face her as he spoke.
“Sure.” It was a flat voice, her best bluff: ‘You should have waited until I’d opened the vault and had the goods on me’ when she’d already been inside and had the Hapsburg Ruby tucked neatly into her cleavage.
“You have to go to Metropolis,” she repeated his words, “That’s where they keep her, isn’t it.” It was so matter-of-fact. The whip had never stung half as much as that flat, controlled tone. She was being so careful not to give anything away. It hurt like hell. They were lovers, they were living together, it was more than a year since the masks had come off. And now she was shutting herself off from him, being guarded and careful.
Then came worst blow of all; she let him off the hook.
“Oh, by the way, if you’re going in Wayne One instead of the Batwing, I left a jazz CD and a Paris Vogue in the cabin, maybe you could bring them home.”
“Sure,” he said, carefully lifting his voice out of Batman’s octave into Bruce’s more casual tone, “I love you, Kitten. I won’t be long.”
Harvey Dent took two aspirin, and then Two-Face took two more. The latter was all in favor of ditzy blondes in red and black leather hanging around. But the former couldn’t help but notice that Harley Quinn had an awful lot of energy, and all of it dedicated to being annoying. She wanted a lawyer. Again. She was here on his doorstep with her tassels bent out of shape (literally), wanting to sue Ra’s al Ghul. While Harvey’s first impulse was to rip open his shirt revealing a blue vest with the letters DA in gold type, his second impulse was to smack her upside the head for being such an idiot. She went to the Cadaver in his place!! She thought it would be FUN?? And now she wanted to sue for damages because his goons roughed her up a little?!?! “Tassel Twit” is what Selina called her, and never had the label seemed so apt.
He was about to return the aspirin bottle to the medicine chest, when he decided instead to keep it with him for the duration of her visit. It was just a hunch, but he felt having 200 painkillers in his breast pocket would be a wise precaution. When he rejoined Harley at his desk, she was looking over the armored car specs.
“This is a Chevrolet Suburban,” she said with uncharacteristic savvy and proper diction, “the Ford E-350s are more common. And the new Navistars would give you a lot more bang for the buck.”
“This one suits our needs,” he assured her. “It matches the vehicle we will be replacing. Besides, we prefer to buy items like these second-hand, so newer models are not an option. Also, this is the only vehicle which comes in black and white.”
Harley shook her head sadly. “Or. Black or white. See, right here.” She pointed to the printout. “But that’s okay, Twofers, I can run down to the 7-Eleven and getcha some spray paint.”
He frowned, not because he would have to buy a black or white van and do the detailing himself, but because clearly Harley meant to stay. The whole need-a-lawyer routine, he realized, was a ruse, maybe a conscious deception or maybe not, but a ruse nonetheless. Because she was lonely and aimless without Joker or Ivy to guide her, she was attaching herself to him.
He had to find something constructive for her to do—not going to the 7-Eleven certainly. Besides being two odd numbers, Two-Face was pretty certain the 7-Eleven did not sell spray paint. But something, something to keep her occupied—either that or get her and Joker back together… which would cause Ivy to kill him…
In his mind, he again ripped open his shirt, this time revealing a new t-shirt with the words “Just because I look at you when you speak, you shouldn’t assume that means I’m listening to or care about what you say…” He pictured himself pulling off the remains of the dress shirt and twirling it in the air like a Chippendale’s dancer before tossing it across the room and turning to reveal the words on the back “…that’s just something I do to be polite.”
What did he care what Poison Ivy thought! He would do as he damn well pleased, and if that meant getting Joker and Harley back together so he could plan his robbery in peace, then that is what he would do.
::Good Evening, Mr. Wayne,:: the assured voice of Captain Leffinger greeted him over the intercom after takeoff, ::I hope your business in Metropolis was concluded successfully. We’re looking at clear skies all the way back to Gotham. You can expect a very smooth flight, sir. And we’ll be touching down at the Executive Airport at 8:13 local time.::
Bruce set his watch back to Gotham time rather than grunting at the intercom. Captain Leffinger was a superb pilot, but Bruce hated not being in control. He would have much preferred flying to Metropolis himself in the Batwing, but he really had no choice after Selina concocted that story to ease the tension about his going. He’d even picked up a Paris Vogue and a jazz CD to extend the charade. It would be an in-joke between them, to show he understood and appreciated what she’d done.
Like many private planes, Wayne One was tastefully appointed in burl wood and white leather. A center aisle divided the cabin in two, an overstuffed sofa on the left, two equally deep chairs on the right facing a small table, this inlaid in lighter wood with the WE logo. At the rear, a tiny but efficient kitchenette enabled travelers to help themselves to espresso, cappuccino, spring water, or several bottles of properly chilled champagne, the former to be drunk from WE-embossed Lenox china and the latter from WE-etched Steuben crystal.
A covered hutch beside the sofa concealed controls for the media center. A 2 x 2 video grid mounted in the front wall served up movies and satellite programming, high-speed internet, video conferencing, or the feed from a camera mounted in the nose of the plane. Bruce had watched the takeoff this way, but switched it off now that the landing gear was raised. He took a few grapes from a bowl of fruit on the table. Then, on an impulse, he popped the new CD into the media center.
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong…
I thought I’d found the man of my dreams.
Bruce shuddered and looked at the CD sleeve in distaste.
Never again. Through with
love, through with men.
If there was anything Bruce hated more than not being in control, it was not understanding what was going on. And he definitely did not understand what was going on with Talia.
♫ I acted like a kid outta school, what a fool… ♫
It was not his past behavior with her clouding his perceptions, of that he
was certain. She was acting odd. She
had been… helpful. No evasions
about Ra’s being in Gotham. No
transparent lies about what he was up to. No
thin excuses for her own involvement as far as supplying those photos.
Bonus information he hadn’t asked for that the former Gotham ops
leader, Ulstarn, had been transferred to Metropolis.
I should have seen the signal to stop ♫
♫ April in Paris…♫ a sultry piano tinkled and teased before an aching, wise and lustrous voice soothed from the speakers …♫ April in Paris… this is a feeling… no one can ever reprise… ♫…
Bruce sat back on the sofa, letting the music pour over him. Maybe what he needed was to step back from it for a few hours. He’d been consumed with thoughts of Ra’s al Ghul since the moment that alert flashed.
I never knew the charm of spring, never met it face to face
It was a two-hour flight back to Gotham. If he could put it all out of his mind until he got home, then approached the problem with a clear head, the answer would probably jump out at him.
I never knew my heart could sing
…♫ never missed a warm embrace ♫…
Now that Metropolis was over with, that strain would be gone. It might be helpful talking it through with someone.
…♫ Til April in Paris
A fresh perspective.
Whom can I run to
He checked his watch—still an hour and a half until they touched down.
What have you done to
And even if they didn’t brainstorm the Ra’s question together, he would think better at home.
…♫ my heart .
“The problem,” Harley Quinn declared, “with trying to conduct a relationship with someone like Puddin’ or Pammy is that they’re what we in the psychology game call ‘high maintenance personalities.’”
“Damn straight,” Harvey agreed, flipping his coin. Checking it, Two-Face added “She’s not a natural redhead, you know.”
“It’s natural,” Harley recited loyally, “it’s a henna rinse.” Then she burst into one of those Jokeresque cackles to show she didn’t believe it.
Harvey considered her carefully. His first attempts to learn what happened to bring about ‘Splitzville’ between Harley and Joker were not successful. Any question, comment, or overly wide grin led to tears. But he could sneak up on the subject, he found, by discussing his own romantic woes. Harley would listen attentively, and often as not, make an empathetic nod or ask a leading question that showed she really was interested.
His feelings could not be called romantic; she was far too flaky for that. But she was good to talk too. She had a therapist’s training, but she was too loony to be seen as detached or judgmental like Dr. Bartholomew.
It was certainly nice to have someone to talk to and maybe even unburden himself of a few conflicts. Two-Face didn’t seem to mind, though his dark side normally kicked whenever Harvey had such thoughts at Arkham. Bartholomew would not look nearly so fetching in red and black leather, even if he were inclined to wear it to sessions.
When I got home, Alfred said Selina was taking a walk. Nine o’clock at night with DefCon 4 measures in place on the grounds, and she went out for a walk. Not that the grounds security was much of a deterrent with her. On the way to the cave, I wondered if I should hire her to revamp it like she did Wayne Enterprises. Or maybe ‘hire her’ wasn’t the proper word, now that she was living here. I should just ask. Casually.
Even from the cave monitors, it took a few minutes to locate her. She was on a footpath near the stables, walking back towards the house. I went out to meet her, and for the hundredth time had to wonder if maybe she does have some special cat-way of seeing in the dark, because she spotted me immediately, almost like she had a sense I was nearby…
“You’re back,” she said. Simple enough thing to say, but she sounded so… pleased. It was understated, but it was there and it threw me. I’m still not used to this. Having someone waiting, having someone so genuinely pleased to see me come home.
“Yes.” It was Batman’s voice. I don’t know why.
We started walking back towards the house. It was quiet except for the crickets, a comfortable quiet. When we passed the alpha zone motion sensors, it reminded me to ask her about revamping the manor security. The words weren’t out of my mouth when she stopped walking. I turned to see why and, even in the dark, could feel those green eyes boring into me. Suddenly, the cricket quiet was a lot less comfortable.
“Did I say something wrong?” I asked, “I figured you’d like the idea. I thought you’d feel appreciated.”
“Last time you wanted me to tighten your security, it was because the demonspawn was sniffing around Wayne Enterprises. Just what the hell happened in Metropolis, Bruce?”
Master Strategist, I.
“Not a lot,” I answered, truthfully. “She admitted Ra’s was here, confirmed that he was testing someone. He’s decided there is an X-factor Gothamites have that his minions lack and he wants it on the payroll.”
Her eyes gleamed for a second.
“DEMON. Ask about our superior med/dental, 401k, and vacation packages,” she joked.
Impossible woman. Still, I felt my lip twitch. But it wasn’t funny and I felt I should put my foot down: Nothing about Ra’s al Ghul is funny.
“He should know that someone born and raised—or at least who lives—in this city is not going to be easily swayed to the DEMON method and—”
“The presumption that he can just waltz into Gotham and start having his ‘pick of the litter’—”
“Yes, dear. Anything more?”
“A bit,” I sighed, “Talia admitted her own complicity as far as sending the photos. That seems to be as far as her involvement went, unless it’s all a ploy and all the information she gave me is part of the scheme. He could be toying with me; that’s always a possibility.”
“No, not this time. I think you can assume what she told you is accurate, for once. Anything else?”
I couldn’t see what she was basing that on, or what she was pushing for. But I knew the best way to find out was to answer her question.
“Ulstarn is transferred.”
“The raving paranoid? That’s overdue.”
“I agree. But he was useful. Better ‘the devil you know.’ There’s no telling who or what might replace him.”
“She didn’t mention that?”
“Hm. I guess maybe she doesn’t know. Oh, well. Anything else?”
“No. Selina, what the hell are you driving at and… wait a minute, actually…” I heard my mouth stumbling while my brain struggled to nail down the thought. Yes. There was one other thing. I didn’t even realize it until that moment: Beloved. I don’t hear it anymore, it’s like Alfred’s ‘sir’… I looked at Selina and, mask or no mask, that was Catwoman looking back, an exceptionally pleased Catwoman, a curiously and unnervingly triumphant Catwoman.
“…She only said it once,” I finished my thought out loud, “Only one ‘Beloved’ in a ten minute conversation. And that almost seemed like a slip, because she sort of bit her lip after.”
I suppose any man should be glad to see his girlfriend happy, it means life will be easier for a while. But if the better part of your relationship with a woman was adversarial, you never entirely shake those old associations. At that moment, it was impossible for Bruce Wayne to see a happy girlfriend because all Batman could see was a hungry cat. Scratch that—all Batman could see was a fed cat. A happily well-fed cat.
“Selina, what have you done?”
“Shh,” she held up her finger like she does at the opera for her favorite aria, “Some moments must be savored.”
“Like a fine merlot.”
Ah, my mistake, not the opera savor, merlot.
“Selina. What did you do?”
I gave her my best glare. It is less potent without the cowl, but being outside and in the dark did seem to boost its effectiveness. It produced a naughty grin, which meant she was finally ready to tell me:
“Remember that fascinating little concept you stumbled onto last Halloween? What was it called: Talia Wolfsbane? Well… I found it.”
“I found it. And I faxed it to her.”
I cursed myself for wasting the glare prematurely. But she continued without further prodding:
“I faxed a little note with it, explaining that you were coming and that I was sure you would be given her total cooperation—without all the nauseating badinage. And if not, then the wolfsbane would be forwarded to the appropriate parties, leading to such epoch-making bylines as: Wallstreet is buzzing today about those illicit bondage photos of LexCorp CEO Talia Head. No comment from the White House.”
In the years since I dedicated myself to avenging my parents’ murder, I
have seldom been left speechless.
Ra’s thinks there’s an X-factor that sets Gothamites apart.
For once, the hairdo might be onto something.
To be continued…