I woke up stiff and it was all Bruce’s fault. My body hadn’t felt this way since I’d spent six damn hours in a cramped ventilation duct at the Riverside Museum, which was—surprise!—also all Bruce’s fault.
That was the thought grinding away at my too-tight calf muscles while I stood there watching him sleep. He was asleep. I was so stiff and achy after just a few hours on that awful cot in that damp cave that even a hot shower didn’t do any good, and he was laying there in his soft comfortable bed, with a real mattress and down pillows, wrapped in 1200 threadcount cotton sateen. It didn’t seem at all fair, and I thought about pouncing on him and adding a fresh set of cat-scratches to that muscular chest before he even knew what was happening—until I saw that fist clench.
The Hell Month nightmares. He spends the better part of January clenching and unclenching that fist.
So instead of pouncing, I crawled back into the bed beside him and snuggled a bit. I massaged his hand and whispered soothing nothings in his ear, sobbed a little, and wondered how this ever happened… I kissed a man in a mask because he turned me on, and I flirted with him night after night because he thrilled me—the way he’d react and yet not react, how I would get to him, I could feel it, but he’d never let on—it was so hot… How from where we started did we ever wind up here? Sobbing on his shoulder because it’s Hell Month and tension takes its toll, because I’ve got this crick in my neck from that damn cot in the cave—and because he’s hurting in there and there isn’t a damn thing I can do to make it better. He hurts and I feel it just as strong and sharp as I used to feel his wanting on those rooftops, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it.
All I did was kiss a man in a mask.
“off him now”
He was muttering in his sleep in that deep Bat-gravel. It sounded like the nightmare was getting violent, so I figured I better wake him. It took him a second, once his eyes were open, it was like he didn’t recognize me at first.
“The logs are wrong,” he said.
“Good morning,” I answered with a tender smile.
He smiled back, got up to splash his face with water, and returned to the bedroom a second later looking his usual self—for January, at least. I asked about his patrol and he grunted, he asked about my progress on the security system and I purred.
“All finished,” I announced happily.
“You know how the killer defeated the system?” he said, pausing midway through picking out a shirt.
“I know the killer didn’t beat the system. Nobody has beaten that system.”
He spun around angrily and flung a folded sweater onto the bed like a batarang.
“Kitten, that wasn’t the assignment. Just because you couldn’t figure out a way to get around it doesn’t mean—”
“I found a way to get around it, Stud. I found SIX ways to get around it—and that’s only because I didn’t bother looking for a seventh.”
The look on his face was… priceless.
“You want more,” I told him sweetly, “I can probably come up with another twenty by dinner time. All through the same flaw—that’s how I know nobody has gotten past this system. There are a dozen ways—hell, there are a hundred—all stemming from this one defect. If nobody has gotten past this thing through that chink, then nobody has gotten past it at all.”
“What is it?” he asked with an especially low growl.
“Not to worry, Bruce,” I assured him with a laugh, “It’s not in your stuff. Your touches are inspired. I particularly like that little box on the power cable that lines up the electrons in the current so you can tell if the electricity has been interrupted or altered in any way.” I didn’t add that I was so tickled when I found that and figured out what it did, I would have jumped him right then and there if he’d been around. In fact, just thinking about it now… Me-ow.
“Selina. What is the flaw?”
“Overkill,” I told him simply. “You said it yourself, first day, that thing has got Thanagarian, Martian, Apokoliptian and Kryptonian technology—in one box. You’ve got what I assume is a Kryptonian motherboard acting as a hub—it and your stuff are the only parts operating in binary. The Martians have got—what is it, Base 16 or something filtered through that glob of green jello–”
“It functions just like a panja router,” Bruce interrupted.
“Fine, but it’s also a big green glob of goo, and every time Krypton interfaces with it, it slows the system down—not all that much on its own, but then you’ve got Apokolips up in the corner. That seems to have tossed out numbers altogether and is communicating in pulses somehow, which is clever and confusing as hell, but it slows the Krypto-translator down even more. Have both systems hit it at once, you can sneak in any override you want in that lag. It’s like you and Eddie playing chess through Killer Croc. I could have the whole portrait gallery cleaned out by the time you move a pawn.”
I was expecting a grunt. It didn’t seem too much to hope for. I had trounced the Justice League’s idea of perfect security. And I didn’t want storm opals or cat pins for my trouble, or even an awed “Wow, Kitten, you’re amazing!” I just wanted one, simple, sexy bat-grunt.
“So we’re back to the superpowers,” Bruce graveled, sitting on the edge of the bed. “If nobody got past the security, then we’re back to those who can teleport and rearrange matter, magically or otherwise.”
“I guess,” I sighed, reminded that a grim reality lurked behind my bit of fun with the security console. There was still a killer on the loose, and we were no closer to knowing who it was.
Hugo Strange stared at the writing in his old notebooks. He had LOST HIS MIND!
WHITE MARTIANS!?! He had 34 pages of notes outlining a cover up by the Gotham Post to whitewash Bruce Wayne’s losing control of one of his clones. The renegade Bat-double was found in Monte Carlo playing Baccarat, so Wayne dispatched a squad of JLA supergoons to bring him back?!? And the Gotham Post covered it up with a preposterous story about SHAPE-SHIFTING WHITE MARTIANS brainwashed to think they were human?!?!?
This was INSANE! Somewhere along the line, he, Hugo Strange, had COMPLETELY lost touch with reality!
There were fevered rantings about WayneTech ties to the Vatican and the Kremlin… A picture of Bruce Wayne meeting with Desmond TuTu at a Foundation gala…
How could this have happened? He was Hugo Strange, the only criminal mastermind of sufficient genius to learn the Batman’s secret identity! How could he be reduced to sticking color-coded thumbtacks into a map to chart UFO and Batman sightings!
Compared to crime, crimefighting sucks. Bruce was out, so I was stuck in the cave again. Having polished off the part of the case I was good at—the security system—I was now stuck going through the case files of villains that didn’t eliminate, the ones Bruce had called “teleporters.”
The case files read like a Microsoft manual: Mirror Master technology and something to do with reflective surfaces, Phasers that ride radio waves, Mother Boxes…
All I did was kiss a guy in a mask one night on Cartier’s rooftop. Phasers and Mother Boxes, this wasn’t my thing. It might be Oracle’s thing, but she was occupied with some JSA character called Dr. Mid-Nite doing the autopsy.
I would have done just about anything to go out and prowl. Bruce had asked Jason Blood to check the crime scenes for traces of magic use. I thought about tagging along. Even Bruce couldn’t complain if I was with Jason: You thought a tiger would make a good bodyguard, Handsome? Well, check out my very own immortal, supernatural badass.
I knew I was being childish and petulant. I was bored and weary and alone. And to add insult to injury, Alfred had brought me dinner in the cave: a ham and turkey with dijon and a cup of crab bisque. It was Batman’s dinner sitting next to me… next to Batman’s computer screen scrolling through Batman’s case files… in Batman’s cave… underneath Batman’s bats. The only problem was it wasn’t Batman sitting there in front of that screen; it was me. It was me scouring the logs to work out if Heat Wave used the same kind of thermal generators as Dr. Light. And I… just don’t do this shit.
All I did was fall in love with a man in a mask.
I never signed on for any of this.
How could it have happened? He was Hugo Strange; he was a brilliant psychiatrist.
He had become obsessed with a subject of study, with Batman, that was not so very unusual in brilliant minds—particular if they had one parent or caregiver with workaholic tendencies and another with a Jungian fixation on the role of breadwinner as compensating transference for displaced affection.
But somehow that obsession with Batman had blinded him to this emergence of paranoid personality disorder and delusional (paranoid) disorder—which, if not for this lucky episode of the White Martian thinking he was Bruce Wayne going to Monte Carlo to play Baccarat and meet women, might have developed into a full-blown paranoid schizophrenia…
This time, I was still awake when Bruce got back from patrol. Something was definitely under his skin. It was like the old rooftop intensity, pouring off him in waves, but there was something different about it—besides the fact that it was the cave and not a rooftop, and he doesn’t do bat-intensity in the cave after patrol, there was still something else… something “off” …about him.
He didn’t even glance in my direction, just sat right down at his workstation and started on the logs.
I didn’t know if this was a Hell Month thing (in which case I was going to regret asking about it), or if it might involve Tim (which is why I was going to risk it and ask).
“How are the patrols going with Robin?” (I said Robin instead of Tim, concession to Hell Month).
He typed a bit, then looked at the screen like he was scrutinizing what he just typed. More waves of that weird intensity poured off of him.
“About the teleporters,” I mentioned, changing the subject just to see if it would get a reaction. “I did have this idea about magic—”
“What?” he asked dully, like he hadn’t even been listening.
“This idea that it has to have been some magic or super-meta-alien teleporter because the security system wasn’t tampered with. It occurred to me that we’re overlooking something: the simple, obvious, non-super-power way around any lock… is the key.”
“What do you mean?”
I could tell I didn’t have his full attention. It was like he was listening to me and, at the same time, mapping out a roadtrip to Florida.
“Every lock and every door ultimately has the same ‘design flaw’: they’re meant to be opened. The people that live there have to go home at night. They have friends over. Sue Dibny was getting ready for a party, wasn’t she?”
Razor,” he said suddenly.
wasn’t sure if it was in response to me or something on the screen—or even
something from half an hour ago. Ockham’s
Razor. It was like he was starting
some strange codeword game I’d never been privy to.
I thought about tossing out “Picasso’s Paintbrush” just to test the
theory, when he continued.
of Ockham, 14th Century philosopher, logician and Franciscan friar
who believed in methodological reductionism. He advocated using the simplest
explanation for a phenomenon, ‘shaving off’ the superfluous and assumptive
information and focusing solely on the facts.”
eyes never left the computer screen as he spoke, and I was really starting to
think he was talking about something else entirely when he added :
lock was not circumvented, therefore the lock was not engaged. You mean Sue and
Jean might have let the killer in?”
“I have no idea,” I said, “I’m just tossing out a possibility that hasn’t been talked about.”
“Okay.” His whole posture had changed. He was still riveted to that monitor, but his interest in it seemed more… proactive, suddenly. “Strip away the unnecessary,” he muttered.
“Bruce, what’s going on, you’re not even listening to me.”
“I’m listening: You have no idea, you’re just tossing out a possibility we haven’t talked about.”
“Now you’re just repeating what I said.”
He sighed and kept on staring at the computer screen like he was trying to visualize what it would look like painted yellow.
“Something’s wrong,” he said finally. “Something with the logs, something just doesn’t—fit.”
“You said that this morning,” I reminded him. “When you first woke up, you said the logs were wrong. I chalked it up to January nightmares but—”
My tongue stopped, my heart stopped, and my stomach lurched into my throat—I had just alluded to his Hell Month nightmares, a mistake I’d made once before that brought out an ugly, vicious rebuke. But he didn’t turn on me this time; he just shook his head slowly.
“No,” he said finally, “Not the usual nightmare anyway.”
“What then?” I asked, “Do you remember any of it?”
He put his fingertips together, resting the elbows on the desk, and leaned forward, touching the tip of the mask-nose to the very top of the fingers. If you didn’t know Bruce and his rabid hatred of magic, you’d think it was some wonderfully mystical ritual involving triangles.
“Bruce,” I asked again softly, trying not to break his concentration, “Do you remember any of it?”
“A few days ago, one of the League teams went after Dr. Light,” he said slowly. “He’d joined up with Deathstroke and the Leaguers were beaten back pretty thoroughly.”
I shrugged. I know zilch about Dr. Light or Deathstroke, but in my opinion, anybody who can deal out a little humility to the Justice League should get a parade.
“And that figured into your dream somehow?” I asked, rather than sharing my Yay, Deathstroke thought.
“Somehow,” Bruce murmured.
“And that somehow connects to the logs being wrong?”
“How?” I asked, beginning to feel like Eddie playing Twenty Questions.
“I don’t know,” Bruce grunted.
“Think it connects to the murder?”
“I don’t know,” he repeated.
“Well, I have an idea,” I purred. “One of those ideas that never would have occurred to you, pre-cat. You ready? Here it comes… Walk away from it for a while. Leave the log, take off the cape, and come upstairs. Have a warm cuddle, a good night’s sleep, maybe a massage in the morning if you ask me nicely. Come at it fresh tomorrow. Answer will pop right out at you.”
For the first time since he got back from patrol, I had his full attention.
The rogues were responsible somehow. Hugo couldn’t fathom how; insanity was not contagious. You couldn’t just catch it sitting there in the Iceberg, minding your own business, wondering if Roxy Rocket mightn’t be the type to enjoy a bondage scenario… where was he? Oh yes, sitting there at the Iceberg, minding his own business. Sure, Nigma spouted anagrams, and Dent referred to himself in the plural, but you couldn’t catch that kind of thing!
Perhaps Arkham could be to blame? Might they have unbalanced his brain chemistry at a point where, trapped as he was in an asylum of lunatics, he had somehow cross-transferred his Batman obsession into a Pfith-Meridian fantasoid state where he came to resemble Batman’s enemies?
Let it never be said that Catwoman has lost her touch.
He’d never admit it, but Bruce likes it when I tempt him. He grumbled a bit, but he took me up on the cuddle and the good night’s sleep, and in the morning, he even remembered the offer of a massage. While I had him all relaxed and softened up, I asked about going with Jason Blood to check the crime scenes.
“Why are you here again?” Jason asked, in that cynically-amused tone of his.
“Officially?” I told him, “I’m observing how you check for supernatural residue to see if anybody could’ve used magic to fool the foolproof security system. Unofficially, I wanted to get out of the house.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“And you got Bruce to go along with this,” he noted dryly. “Perhaps I should give Wayne Manor a once-over for signs of magickal residue as well.”
“Well, he didn’t like the idea,” I admitted, “but he knew how hard it was for me being cooped up. And… he likes it when I tempt him.”
“Do tell,” Jason remarked, dry-cynical smile morphing into a roguish one.
“I poured it on pretty thick,” I teased. “Like the old days—like it was Cartier’s and I really wanted to leave with that diamond.”
“Of course,” Jason laughed. “He could never really say yes back then, although he doubtless wanted to more than once. Now that you ask something he can agree to… You truly are a wicked creature, Selina.”
“Pfffffffft, for scoring an afternoon out, yeah, chain me to the wall.”
He smiled one last time, then became serious as he turned to the window. He seemed to scan the wall up and down, then turned his foot to the left and did it again… step, turn, and scan… step, turn, and scan…
“Would it wreck your concentration to tell me what it is you’re doing?” I asked finally.
“Not at all,” he murmured. “Have you ever seen the effects of magnets up close, through an electron microscope, perhaps?”
“Sure,” I told him. There are several digital safecracking tools that are magnet-based, so I had a working knowledge of what he was getting at.
“The atoms in non-magnetized metal are in asymmetric ‘patterns,’” he said with another slow step-turn-scan. “Just random clumps, really. Once a magnet is moved over them, they align in the direction the magnet is drawn, making symmetrical patterns.”
“And magic does something similar?”
“For those with the eyes to see, yes. To teleport distorts space-time in a localized area. Some power of a specific type is dragged over the fabric of our space, realigning the natural order of the objects… none of which has happened here,” he declared, with a final step-turn that brought him full-circle to the spot where he’d begun.
He answered with a chilling glare that would have unnerved anyone not accustomed to the bat-variety.
“Boo,” I shot back at him, and he smiled.
“I’m sure,” he said. “But there is a kind of double-check I should perform all the same, although in this case it is a formality and a waste of time. This was a murder. There is no white magick at work here.”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.
“In scanning for magickal disruption,” Jason explained, “I turned counter-clockwise around the room: the path opposite that of a sundial, the path that goes against nature. This is the signature of black magic, of curses and evil intent. A white magician—Zatanna, for instance—would leave a signature in the clockwise direction, a positive force that enhances nature rather than opposing it.”
“O-kay,” I said, feeling I was back in the cave slogging through that criminal database that read like a Microsoft manual.
Jason repeated the step-turn-scan cycle anyway, this time turning clockwise around the room. He was nearing the end, and I was wondering if I should ask him back to the manor for dinner when we were finished here, when my cell phone rang.
..:: Selina, secure the line—no, don’t even bother. Get home now. ::..
..:: Now. Immediately. ::..
No, it couldn’t have been Arkham. Looking over his notebooks, it was clear that Hugo’s wildest leaps from rationality all occurred when he was free.
He scoured them, though it was painful to read and reread the evidence of a once-great brain coming unhinged. He scoured them for some sign, for some common thread… alas, the only real common thread was Batman himself.
After Bruce’s ‘get home now’ call, we took the JLA transporter (which the Dibnys kept in their shower) to the Watchtower, and from there, I would return to the cave. That intermediary step is always necessary because Bruce won’t allow the cave to connect to any other locations directly. And because a transport is physically taxing on a normal human body, I’m always supposed to wait a few minutes in between. That’s a few minutes at the JLA Watchtower—killing time, making chitchat with Whatever-Man that happens to be on the console that day. Not my idea of fun.
This was the fourth time I’d done the moonbase layover. The first two were going to meet Aquaman at Atlantis and coming back. It was only J’onn in the Watchtower both times, who I know slightly, enough to make small talk anyway. The third time was going to the Dibny’s place. Green Arrow and Flash were in the Watchtower, but I had Jason to talk to so I didn’t have to deal with them—which was lucky because they seemed pretty tense.
I know certain corners of the League are still iffy about that Gotham catburglar padding around their lunar clubhouse, but as far as I knew these two weren’t among them. Flash is one of those who’d be a notch on Prometheus’s helmet if it wasn’t for me. Plus, he and Dick are tight. Hell, we danced at Dick and Barbara’s wedding…
I’d pretended not to know stuff like that at first. In the weeks leading up to the wedding, there were little references, here and there, to who was who and what was what, and I’d made it my business not to notice. But they all take their cue from Bruce: Once he mentioned Clark and Lois in front of me, Dick and Barbara stopped being cautious about secret identities. Wally was Wally, Dinah was Dinah… “Are Roy and Garth both coming to the bachelor party?” “Don’t know, Tim, I’ll ask Eel to take a headcount when I get the chance.” …Nobody cared anymore what I might hear or what connections I might make… “Put Diana at Table 3. After that picture of her and Superman in the Tattler, I don’t want her and Lois in each other’s line of sight.” …And then one night, Barbara flat out asked me to help Dinah send shower invitations using the JLA distribution channel. Turned out I was on the reserves list—which was news to me.
It would’ve happened right after the Prometheus thing, of course. Superman had said something complimentary—I don’t recall what exactly, something that amounted to “Thanks, Catwoman. Lucky you snuck in here armed only with your bullwhip and engaging smile, because we seem to have gotten all of our flying, shape-shifting, super-stretching, super-sonic, immortal, invisible, telekinetic wonderfulness all tangled up in our hubris, and we were slightly screwed.” Superman being Superman, the rest of them took it as an invitation. And the Justice League of Arrogance being what it is, I was assumed to have said yes.
So I went on the rolls, I had a userID and a password I knew nothing about—and probably still wouldn’t if Barbara didn’t want to be seen inviting people to her own bridal shower. There’s also a file listing my “special abilities”—with a ridiculous number of annotations and footnotes that I will take up with Bruce as soon as I’m able to prove he’s responsible.
Anyway, after all this, Jason and I got to the Watchtower on the way to the Dibnys, and Green Arrow and Flash started behaving like Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts in Conspiracy Theory—and eyeing me like I’m Patrick Stewart. I could understand everybody being on edge, but I found it hard to be sympathetic. I had my hands full with Bruce, which doesn’t leave much patience and understanding for the rest of them. So Jason and I went all Gothamy and started talking about the campaign to save the Plaza and the new restaurants in the Time Warner building. When the ten minutes had passed, we went on our way.
I was expecting more of the same on the trip back, but when we reached the Watchtower that second time, everything had changed. It looked like Spandex Day at O’Hare Terminal 1. Heroes I’d never seen before racing around like mad, everybody had a phone in their ear, line at the transporters like it was Disneyworld… and a sense in the air—coiled, jittery, furious, fright—the Iceberg that night a DEMON assassin attacked Scarecrow—it felt like a mob was forming.
“Jason,” I said softly, nodding towards the line at the transporters without overtly pointing. “If we put Bruce’s principles aside for a moment, would you be able to get me home quicker than, y’know, their way?”
“Fond as I am of you, Selina” he said very quietly, barely moving his lips, “I am always reluctant to use magick at another’s behest without fully knowing their reasons. Teleporting is a serious expense of magickal currency. Do you simply want to get home in a hurry or—”
I shook my head, silently and slowly.
“I thought not. You sense it too, then?”
“The villagers gathering with power rings and pitchforks, yeah.”
“I agree,” he said.
I started to answer, but my mouth wouldn’t cooperate. There was a rushing sound, a wave of black, and I was suddenly doubled over with violent nausea.
I was back in the cave. Jason had his arm around my shoulder.
“My apologies,” he murmured, “The options for a rapid departure in such circumstances—
“What the hell are you doing!” Bruce roared.
I was still coughing a bit, and my throat burned. But looking around now, I could see Jason had deposited us in front of the cave transporter, where Bruce had been waiting at the console to “accept delivery” the usual way. There was a red light flashing and the words “Temporal Distortion” flashed on the screen.
“Do you mind, Bruce,” Jason managed. “Teleporting is really a very onerous undertaking. I’m a little drained. Could we possibly postpone your thoughts on magick until—”
“Jason, shut up, will you,” Bruce spat. “Selina, I said get home, I didn’t say ride a broomstick to do it.”
“What’s happened,” I asked—because there was really no point in mentioning his unconscionable rudeness. “Get home now” and then mob-vibe at the Watchtower, now “shut up, Jason”—something big had obviously happened.
“Go upstairs and pack a bag,” he said.
“Bruce, what’s happened?” I asked again, just as Jason turned as if he heard a strange sound.
Bruce paused, as if he was waiting to see if Jason was going to talk about whatever he’d sensed. When he didn’t, Bruce turned back to me and said slowly, “Someone sent Lois Lane a death threat—one that made it painfully clear they knew Clark Kent’s secret identity.”
To be continued…