Tom Blake detested what he was about to do. He detested the way he must look in the ludicrous costume that replaced his own, his own fabled costume fashioned from the mystic fabric of Ka that imbued its wearer with the nine lives of a cat! In place of that worthy garment, he wore this horrid mockery of a batsuit. The Catman masquerading as a bat, what degradation! And yet he felt compelled to continue. He owed Hugo Strange a debt he could never properly repay; he had no right to refuse any simple request.
Not that putting on this absurd mockery of his own splendid costume was in any way simple. The base jumpsuit was clearly meant for a different bodytype, one wider in the waist and belly and smaller in the arms and chest. The thick lycra pulled and tugged in all the wrong places. Then began the humiliating tying on of rubber chaps and a latex chestpiece—the latter also too small, which led to further humiliation with Hugo taping it into place behind his back so the bat-emblem wouldn’t “ruffle up” when he moved. Hugo swore the cape hid the embarrassing duct tape crisscrossed all over his back, but Blake found it difficult to trust a man that could offer him his choice of black rubber or yellow canvas utility belt.
Yes, Tom Blake found it difficult to trust Hugo Strange, and yet he found himself going along with the whole ridiculous plan in so far as Strange bothered to explain it to him.
He checked his watch. Soon it would be time to begin phase 2: Now that so many criminals escaped Batman with ease, his standing with the police must suffer. The general public would not know of his failures, they still held him in esteem. Tonight, that would change. Tonight, “Batman” would begin committing crimes himself, and it would all become clear to them: how his crimefighting of the past was merely a ruse, a way to ingratiate himself with the police and, at the same time, eliminate the competition. Now that Batman’s true nature was exposed, he would have no recourse. His denials that the criminal Bat was an imposter would ring hollow indeed. With any criminal able to escape him with a word—how would he explain that to the police? They would know a payoff when they saw it…
It did not sit right with Tom Blake. Catman’s battles with the Batman were always that of hunter and prey, the natural contest between predators. This whole scheme seemed vaguely… deviant to him. But he could not bring himself to refuse Hugo; he owed the good doctor too much.
Catwoman waited impatiently on the roof of the Gotham Museum of Modern Art. She hadn’t been idle. She had painstakingly mapped out the museum’s new security layout, tested out two routes into the building, and thought through various possibilities for reaching the gallery that held the coveted Van Gogh. She was just considering if Victor Frieze might equip her with a better means for evading the heat sensors than the cooling suits that were commercially available, when she heard the telltale whuish-p of cape in the high winds above the city.
“Evening, Handsome,” she purred without turning towards the noise.
“What was so urgent that it couldn’t wait ‘til I got home?” Batman graveled.
“It’s not urgent that way; I just didn’t want to have this conversation in our bedroom.”
He didn’t like the sound of that. Subconsciously, he scanned the roof for any clues as to what might be coming.
“So did you have a good pummel?” Catwoman asked, her voice rich with amusement.
“I raided the spa. Hugo and his… women are out of circulation for a while.”
“Hugo Strange with henchwenches, that is just so wrong.”
“Most of them were unwitting dupes,” Batman growled, “but the one they called Mau, that tried to drug Bruce Wayne, was an active accomplice.”
Catwoman hissed quietly, but then broke into a naughty grin as Batman continued:
“After the spa, I went to the Iceberg next,” he said. “And Penguin—”
“Had a near-death experience?” she interrupted, more amused than before.
Batman answered with the briefest lip-twitch, then concluded the rundown with the words: “Caught up with three of the seven I let escape earlier to maintain the charade. Robin and Batgirl already found a fourth. It’s too late to go on with it tonight; I’ll collect the others tomorrow.”
Catwoman nodded and emitted a second quietly menacing hiss. Then her features underwent one of those startling shifts that indicate a cat is ready for an abrupt change of subject.
“Do you know what it is, a Flehmen Reaction?” she asked casually.
“Animal research term, psycho-physiology. What cats do when they catch a scent: head goes back, nostrils flare, mouth opens to expose as many olfactory sensors as possible to the odor… Your point?”
“It’s a response to prey—to other scents too, but mostly to prey—and it’s savoring…” She closed her eyes on the word and pronounced it like the sweetest of sins, “nostrils flaring, deep inhalation, mouth tips open… tasting it, letting the full scent fill your palate…” She breathed in, her eyes still closed dreamily, and she purred on the luxurious exhale. Then her eyes popped open and met Batman’s with sad defiance. “It’s what I’ve been doing since Oswald told me… I held the scent, let it fill my nostrils, and savored the idea, the possibilities…”
“Possibilities?” Batman growled, and Selina wondered if he really didn’t know what she meant or if he was pressing to make her say it.
“Well there is that Van Gogh downstairs,” she obliged. “A twelve-carat ruby scheduled to make an appearance at the party. And Cartier has a rather stunning pink sapphire.” She paused, but he said nothing so she continued. “So I held the scent, tasted it, maximum exposure on the palate… Part of me… really wanted it to work.”
In place of the indignant outrage any crimefighter should feel at such a statement, Batman felt only disbelief.
“Why? So you could steal a painting that doesn’t belong to you?”
“I wanted to have the option, yes.”
“You miss it that much?”
“What do you think? It was fun and exciting and I was good at it. And it was against all the rules and that made me feel wild and free and alive. You want me to say I don’t miss that?”
“What I want doesn’t seem to be the point,” he graveled.
“Why should it be, you got everything you wanted,” she spat bitterly. “I’m like a master violinist in a room of pianos. I can make music now and then, but… it’s not my music. It’s not me.”
“And the only way to be ‘you’ is to go back to stealing? What is this, Selina? What’s really going on here, because it isn’t that. What are you looking for? What is it that you really want?”
“I don’t know.”
Batman stiffened. The instinct of a thousand confrontations snapped into place. He didn’t believe a word of what he was hearing. She wasn’t lying, not exactly, but whatever it was she was after, it wasn’t the Van Gogh. He would bear down as he always had until he found out what it was, answering evasion with insistence, and silent stare with silent stare…
“Yes, you do,” he insisted.
“No point in wanting that,” she murmured softly. “It’s not going to happen, right? That’s for other people.”
The Planet Gotham Restaurant in the heart of Times Square was a perfect target to launch the faux Batman’s crime spree. As a tourist trap, it was sure to be filled with diners toting camcorders, and there was a resident photographer snapping pictures of families at their tables. Tom Blake could be certain the crime would be well documented. He need only wave his grapnel gun sufficiently to terrify the sniveling tourists, and then collect enough of their valuables for the robbery to constitute a felony. It was a very simple plan.
The Living Hell began when he tried entering through a third story window above the main dining room, and his wretched cape (so inferior to the fabled fabric of Ka) became caught on a splintered piece of cornice. As he tried to disentangle himself—without risking any move that might dislodge the cape and reveal the duct tape holding his batsuit together—his antics were noticed by the crowd below. There was a good deal of pointing and laughter, and there were many cameras pointed in his direction. Unfortunately, while the photos might well be as damaging to Batman’s reputation as those Blake had intended to be taken, no one in the crowd seemed to believe the figure on the third floor of the Planet Gotham building (with his cape snagged on the second floor cornice) was the real Batman.
It worked. Catwoman had caved. Finally, the truth was coming out:
“No point wanting that; it’s not going
to happen. That’s… for other
Finally the truth was coming out, but (“for other people?” What was she saying?) it wasn’t a truth Batman was expecting.
It seemed, on the contrary, to be a truth he hadn’t even been considering.
And it was entirely possible that she had misread his bat-stare.
It seemed increasingly probable that she had misread the bat-stare.
Completely misread it.
A stare he directed at her to make her speak, to get her to realize and admit—to herself as much as to him—that whatever was missing from her life, whatever need she was trying to fill, it had nothing to do with those swirls of paint inside the museum.
That crisis seemed to have passed; they were no longer talking about Catwoman resuming her criminal activities.
What they were talking about—and here, Bruce had to caution himself, because he could not be certain what that was, exactly. The evidence was sketchy at best. A single reference to the “that” which Selina wanted being “for other people” did not conclusively prove that they were talking about…
“No point wanting that; it’s not going
to happen. That’s for other
No point wanting that.
“But you still want it,” he said carefully.
The pause that followed seemed to go on for minutes, but lasted, at most, a few seconds… It was a strangely nostalgic pause, filled with desires that couldn’t be spoken. Desire that was sensed anyway, whether spoken aloud or not. Desire that was sensed but denied and ignored, because to admit it revealed vulnerability. It invited rejection and gave the other power.
“No,” Catwoman said lightly, “Not really. It’s like the Van Gogh. I don’t want it exactly, I just wanted to…”
“To get the scent in your nostrils,” he prompted hurriedly.
“Yes, yes exactly. Just get a good whiff, see what it would… feel like.”
The brave effort on both their parts sank back into strained silence.
Tom Blake freed himself, at last, from the façade of the Planet Gotham restaurant. He could master the bat-grapnel sufficiently to swing himself to the alley behind the building where he hid behind a dumpster until the crowd out front dissipated. Then he renewed his assault on the Planet Gotham building by entering the usual way, through the street level front door.
The lobby was filled with video and novelty games, and a jet of air from one of these blew up his cape, momentarily flashing his back full of duct tape to anyone that happened to be walking behind him. He ignored the guffaws and found his way to the escalator leading to the main dining room.
“Oh, wow. Look at you,” a lusty voice croaked behind him.
Blake turned to see a strangely costumed “shooter girl” eying him the way a hungry lion eyes gazelle. She wore a bikini top, miniskirt, and cowboy hat, all in hot pink leather. Twin holsters of what appeared to be vodka lime and vodka cherry were strapped to each hip. And crisscrossed over her chest, like bandoliers in the old Westerns, she had two straps of shot glasses instead of bullets. Although he had never seen such a specimen before, Blake recognized this creature as a “shooter girl” because the words were emblazoned in red across the band of her cowboy hat. Blake smiled weakly, forgetting in the face of such a rapacious predator that he was, himself, there as a hunter.
“How about a shot before you head in to work, ‘Batman,’” his tormentor cooed, whipping out a glass with one hand and a bottle in the other. Then she arched her back, slid the glass into place in the latch of her bikini top, and deftly filled it with vodka lime.
“I, um,” Blake faltered, taking an involuntary step backwards—smack into another woman who didn’t seem quite so predatory, if only because she was wearing a yellow sundress instead of a hot pink bikini.
“Would you take our picture,” the new girl asked sweetly, waving her camera at him.
An elaborate, multi-layered assault on everything Batman AND Bruce Wayne held dear, stripping him of his stature, his sanity, his livelihood, and finally, his life. It was a plan truly worthy of Dr. Hugo Strange, and the first phase was proceeding without a hitch—until this unfortunate setback with the password malfunctioning, which landed him in bed number four of the Arkham infirmary.
Through a haze of Haloperidol and Vicodin, Hugo outlined for himself how he could direct phases two through seventeen of his great plan from bed number four. Phase six would be especially difficult, since Dr. Bartholomew was unlikely to sanction a fieldtrip to the Bristol Polo Club and Bruce Wayne was unlikely to attend a tailgate at the Arkham parking lot.
If he did somehow make it to phase nine, faking his own death, there were certain advantages to his present location. He could be murdered by Batman’s greatest foe, the Joker, forcing the Bat on a vengeance rampage…
Although the clarity that comes of a Haloperidol-Vicodin injection on top of a concussion did enable him to foresee a likely response: “HAHAHAHAHAAAA! Yeah right, Hugly. I’ve got a better plan, how about I just kill you for real, right here, right now!”
Better surely to stage his murder at the hands of Batman’s greatest foe, Killer Croc…
“You want Croc hit Hugo in head with big rock? Okay.”
Er, the Batman’s greatest foe, The Riddler…
“I’m sorry, Hugo, were you speaking to me?!”
Struck down on the very brink of his rehabilitation by Batman’s greatest foe, Mad Hatter…
“Uh, sure Hugo… as long as you can do for me what you did for Blake! I wanna be a studly hunka-hunka too!”
It only got worse when Bat-Blake made his way into the dining room, where adults and children alike assumed he was a hired entertainer working for the restaurant. One woman would take his picture while her children pawed his utility belt. Her husband asked if he could get a baked potato instead of fries with that cheeseburger. And every time Blake spied the shooter girl, she made eye contact, licked her lips, ran a fingertip over the lip of the vodka bottle, and blew him a kiss.
Outside the restaurant, he mopped the sweat from his brow. It involved stuffing the end of the cape underneath the cowl, again revealing the duct tape, but he was past caring about that.
He decided it would be enough for Batman to rob a taxicab at gunpoint. It was Times Square. There would be plenty of witnesses, a sufficiently public disgrace for the great crimefighter. He would hail a cab, threaten the driver with the grapnel gun and take his cash, then he would pull the man from the car, take the wheel himself, and drive himself home—never to set foot in Times Square again if he lived the rest of his days in Gotham City.
Catwoman left the Jaguar she’d driven into the city in the little car park near her old apartment. She rode home in the Batmobile with Batman. Not a word was spoken until they passed the “Catworthy” billboard, then the tense silence seemed to crescendo, and the mood in the car shifted.
“There was a time,” Bruce graveled quietly, “Dick and Barbara’s wedding, you couldn’t stand the thought of it.”
Selina chuckled, remembering. “Yeah, well, there was a time I’d have my claws on that Van Gogh by now, too. Can’t go home again.”
“Two full bottles of Tattinger ‘96, Kitten.”
“I was thinking a little cat-scratch on the nameplate during the gala, just to remind you in case you’d forgotten.”
“You, Lois, Dinah, and Quinn empty six bottles of champagne between you, because of Gladys Ashton-Larraby.”
“Even back then, I knew you’d be there, somewhere, at the gala. We might run into each other at the buffet, reaching for the same crab puff.”
“Two little words from a society gossip and you’re off binge-drinking with Harley Quinn!”
“The real party wouldn’t start until after the guests left. Gallery goes dark, little green light of the security system flicks on, then it’d be just you and me, Stud.”
“Selina… what are you doing? What are you talking about? I’m talking about two years ago when you had a meltdown because the words ‘Mrs. Wayne’ were uttered and they meant you. Two minutes ago, you said that’s what you wanted. You wouldn’t use the word, but you got the message through. Now you’re back on that Van Gogh? Selina, what’s going on with you? And leave the museums and jewelry stores out of it, they have been for two years, four months and eleven days.”
“No, that’s not true, not really. It was never about the paintings or the jewels. It wasn’t just the prize and it wasn’t just the thrills. It was… I don’t even know how to put this. It was getting back a little piece of what I’d lost. The luxuries somehow touched that old feeling of safety and love and home.”
“There’s nothing like that I can’t give you,” Bruce pointed out. “For that matter, Selina, you were set after the first Monet. Why keep going if it was just the money?”
“It was never enough.”
He grunted lightly, eyes glued to the road, as if looking at her would cause his entire universe to collapse.
“It didn’t matter how much you stole, you would never bring them back.”
“Something like that,” Selina whispered, uncomfortable with the words he chose even more than the conversation itself and the reality it suggested. She took a deep breath, then spoke the thought. “Bruce, you’re not going like this observation, but we’re not that different. Why do you go back out each night, hm? Life stole what I had, so I steal back. ‘Criminals’ violently ripped your life away, so you violently rip back. If it really filled the void, couldn’t you have walked away even about two thousand alleys ago?”
“Walked… away… even?”
“Impossible concept, right? That’s all I’m saying.”
He shook his head, finding it impossible to reconcile the differences between their choices with the same root cause: the life of protecting the innocent versus the life of preying on them.
Once she realized he wasn’t going to respond any time soon, she continued.
“You asked why I kept at it, that’s why. It was never enough… Then you came along and… and it was the real thing. A real home, a real family, real love, not a cheap substitute that could never…”
“So what changed? Is it just the MoMA opening reminding you or…”
“No. And yes, in a way. The opening sort of opened my eyes to it. It’s happened again. I had a home and family once. I felt safe and I felt loved, and then it was gone. Forever, never to return. So I had stealing to fill that void, however imperfectly. It’s what I did, and it worked for a while… Now that’s gone too, just as permanently. I mean, even if I did go back, it wouldn’t be the same.”
“You said you had the real thing now. So why care about that? You admit it’s no substitute, you admit it won’t ever fill the void, you said what we had—”
“IS TOO FRAGILE!” she screeched. “It was good for a while, but now, all of a sudden, it seems so… fragile.”
She whispered the last word quietly, and neither spoke as the car crossed the borders of the Wayne property and raced through the alpha-delta sensors.
“I know a ring or a piece of paper won’t make it any less fragile,” Selina said finally, “no more than a painting would.”
“And no more than pummeling your ten-thousandth thug will, so don’t be so smug, Jackass.”
Bruce said nothing as the Batmobile crossed the last omega sensor and pulled to a stop in the cave. He was still in a fog. Comparing her impulse to steal with the necessity of his mission was, was, beyond anything he could… anything he could begin to…
But at the same time, she was hurting so badly. He couldn’t just dismiss it. He turned, slowly, without releasing the doors.
“We’re home,” he graveled.
The theatres let out. Tom Blake, a.k.a. would-be-fake-criminal-Batman, found that he could not get a cab. He walked… disheartened… back to his lair. He first noted the telltale marks of Batmobile tread on the street about a block from the day spa, and, like any experienced tracker, he proceeded with caution.
He satisfied himself that there was no residual bat-presence. He checked that there were no police, which trailed behind the true bat-predator like scavengers. There was nothing left but the yellow tape that sealed the doors to the day spa, but that was small consolation. The lair was raided; Hugo and the cat-nymphs were captured or in hiding; the operation was a failure. Blake sank down onto the step at the front door to the spa. The too-long and spiky ears of the cowl felt wrong as he let his weary head flop into his hands.
This is what came of giving up his magic cape.
“BELOVED! At last, I’ve found you!” a joyous voice cried across the street. Blake looked up to see a trim figure in white racing up to him, her arms outstretched. “Beloved!” she gushed anew as soon as she reached him, “Fear not, I have returned in this, your darkest hour. You will be again the man that you were!”
Blake felt his head rise a touch at these encouraging words.
“It is not your fault, my Beloved, you fell in with inferior beings and they pulled you down to their level. They contaminated you with their low ways and low standards. But you will be great again, Beloved, for I am here now to pull you up once more, as only I can, to save you from the degradation of those who were never worthy to bask in your light.”
“You have a very interesting way of talking,” Bat-Blake started to say, but he got no further than “Y-” when Talia flung herself down in front of him and began weeping on his knee.
“Um-r-uh,” he said, tentatively.
She looked up in response to these tender entreaties, through a blur of tears, into that masked face she loved so dearly, and she explained—now that, at last, he was ready to understand—she would explain how it was the witchery of that disgusting cat that brought him to such ruin.
“Cats are such vile, despicable creatures, it is no wonder anyone so low as to choose one for their avatar must be depraved beyond reason—”
“CATS!” Tom Blake roared in righteous rage, “ARE THE FINEST AND NOBLEST CREATURES ON EARTH!”
“You are not my Beloved,” Talia declared indignantly.
“Never speak ill of cats again,” Blake growled with a menace truly worthy of the costume he wore.
“If there is one thing I know,” Talia affirmed with dramatic flare, “it is my Beloved. And you, sir, are not he!”
To be continued…