To a cat person, there could be no better omen for a new project than Whiskers and Nutmeg appearing in the opening stages and installing themselves in the middle of everything, even if they did make it impossible to do anything.
Selina had cleared all her art catalogs, knick-knacks, and Gotham Magazines off the big coffee table in her suite. She laid out a number of blueprints and floorplans—when Whiskers appeared, hopped into her lap, crawled up her chest, and bedded down on her shoulder. He was a bit heavy, he forced her to tilt her head back at an odd angle, his tail thwapped her arm in an uneven rhythm, and his position made it difficult to see or page through the paperwork she still held in her lap. Nevertheless, it was a good omen. So she put the plans aside and petted him. He purred in her ear and made cat-fists in her blouse. When she decided she’d indulged him enough, she sat him on the back of the sofa, picked one of the floorplans at random and began to study it—when Nutmeg started pawing at the corner.
“Look guys, this isn’t exactly like the old days,” she said sweetly, rubbing Nutmeg’s chin before removing her to the closest catsize surface, which happened to be a shelf on the étagère. Nutmeg skewed the top half of her tail in protest. It was exactly like the old days: Selina-Cat had cleared off the round cool table and set out crunchy papers all over it, then she laid sideways on the sofa against the round hard pillow with her feet up by the soft, square one. She was plotting something for the soft leather suit kept under the bed, and plotting meant a plate of treats somewhere. Nutmeg just wanted to make sure she got her share. The cat explained her position very thoroughly, the top inch of her tail shifting back and forth like a slow metronome until it just grazed the obelisk next to her on the étagère. She was disappointed when, having made her point so beautifully, she saw that Selina-Cat wasn’t even listening. She had returned all her attention to the papers. Nutmeg sat and waited. She knew Selina-Cat would never plot for long without a plate of treats.
A catnap later, Standing Softpaws came into the suite. Nutmeg heard the word “tea,” which meant little plates of bread and butter, or sometimes clotted cream or sandwiches or cake, but Selina-Cat waved him away. This was only proper, any cat knew the importance of appearing disinterested in anything the two-foots offered. Standing Softpaws would bring the teacakes anyway, and Selina-Cat would deign to eat them as if she was simply being polite to Standing Softpaws—just as Nutmeg would then be polite to Selina-Cat when she offered Nutmeg a taste.
Nutmeg waited… and waited… She was about to venture herself into the Land of the Can Opener to see what was taking so long, when she heard footsteps in the hall. It was Bat-Bruce, of course, for Standing Softpaws made little sound when he walked. Nutmeg watched curiously, for it was unusual for Bat-Bruce to bring treats. She watched thoughtfully, that top inch of her tail moving ever so slowly. She saw a pot and cups, but no plates with butter or clotted cream or cake. She heard words like “How’s it going,” “So far so good,” and “Just getting started,” but none of that meant food or play or grooming or nap.
Suddenly, Bat-Bruce did something very strange. He spilled his cup full of dark, inky liquid all over one of the papers. It seemed very clumsy. Bat-Bruce was not clumsy for a two-foot. He wiped and wiped the one corner. Nutmeg hopped down to take a closer look—but then she thought the better of it as soon as she got close enough and her nose detected a sharp acidic smell. She scrunched up her nose in disgust and backed away. She hated sharp smells. Giving up on the whole situation in the suite, Nutmeg trotted off to find Standing Softpaws and get a proper treat.
Matt Hagen might not have a human body anymore, but he still thought of himself as human. He was still a human being emotionally. If he explained something in terms so simple that even Oswald Cobblepot could understand and then Oswald DIDN’T understand, he felt frustrated! That emotion could no longer produce a surge in his blood pressure, because he had no blood pressure. He had no blood and he had no veins, but he still felt frustrated. He produced a vein on his neck anyway and made it throb; it was almost like accessing a sense memory to give a performance.
Oswald went on, nattering away.
Matt thought he’d been perfectly clear and perfectly polite: He was not interested in becoming an “operative” of the Iceberg Lounge. He was not interested in having Oswald Cobblepot as his director. He was not interested in a more -kwak- “favorable distribution of the proceeds” now that “the lovely but somewhat -kwak- extraneous Ms. Quinn was out of the picture.”
Why couldn’t he make the stupid little bird understand? He wasn’t interested in something more –kwak– sophisticated than bank vaults, like trading on insider information obtained through a little creative imposture or setting up some type of blackmail to influence a government contract. It was nothing more than money, money for Oswald, using his abilities to make money for Oswald at Oswald’s behest, EXACTLY what he’d just said he wouldn’t do. And then, not ten minutes later, “Listen, Matthew my friend, I’ve got a pigeon ripe for the plucking.”
So he took refuge in making his non-functioning neck-vein throb and waited for Ozzy to finish his pitch.
His pitch. Hm, yes, that’s just what this was, wasn’t it. When a director or a screenwriter—or more often a director and screenwriter working together—wanted his talent for a project, they’d arrange a meeting through the studio if they had the clout, or waylay him at Spago if they didn’t. They’d sit themselves down at his table, whether he asked them or not, and proceed to lay out their idea for a movie. The pitch was always crafted to appeal to him—what they thought would appeal to him—“Why, it’s Die Hard meets Space Tempest, the perfect Matt Hagen vehicle.”
Yes, suddenly it all made sense. This was a pitch. Oswald was pitching him. Like that bit about big business as “a chicken ripe for the plucking.” He was thinking of pharmaceutical companies. He thought Matt would be keen to strike at big business, any big business, because he knew only the urban legend of how Clayface came to be.
This time, Selina did not welcome Whiskers’s intrusion as any kind of omen. She gave him a perfunctory pat on the head, deposited him on the floor, and returned her attention to the soiled blueprints.
There was one indisputable advantage to having Batman as an adversary all those years: she knew when he was up to something. The loving intimacy they shared today did not cancel out the knowing awareness from yesterday. The way he’d given her the job, fine, that she could write off as a fluke. People aren’t robots; everybody has a day here and there where they might seem a bit off. It’s no reason to alert the media. It’s no reason to declare DEFCON-4. Gotham was quiet and Bruce didn’t like quiet, he was a bit off, it wasn’t a big deal. But now…
He’d spilled tea on that floorplan like a foppish klutz and then smeared the corner even more as he mopped it with his napkin. Selina scrutinized the stain, trying to make out some feature in the smudgy blurs. It was the ground floor, the smudge was Detail D-D, a detailed blow up from a small circle marked D near the southwest corner of the Great Hall. Bruce said it was “nothing.” He knew the house better than the blueprints, she was sure. He said it was “nothing.”
All the large floorplan said was “paneling” 11 feet, and this D pointing her to the detailed sketch in the corner.
“Nothing,” he’d said.
Verbal minimalism, that was Batman, not Bruce. Bruce might have said “Oh, it’s nothing much, don’t worry about it.” But “Nothing,” that was Batman talking.
And she could always tell when Batman was up to something.
So what was on these plans that he didn’t want her to see? She looked over other details on the same page, hoping for some hint. There was A-A and B-B, details of other paneling and “fretwork” on the far wall. C-C was the arched doorway to the hall that led to the library. Selina folded up the plans and went downstairs to take a look in person.
She saw nothing more than what she already knew from living in the house all this time: the “paneling” consisted of rectangles of curved molding surrounding rich silk panels. She went around to the library and crawled into the vent, then worked her way back to the Great Hall for what Catwoman considered “a better view.” In her mind’s eye she determined that she was in the lower Detail B looking through the grate directly at mystery smudge D. It still looked like nothing. Which is, of course, what Bruce had said, and was, of course, a big fat lie.
She squiggled further. Progress was slow. She had to stop every eight feet, disarm an independent sensor and remove a mesh screen that blocked every vent in the manor big enough for a person to crawl through. It took her an hour to get there, but she finally determined she was inside smudge D. She examined every inch of the ventwall and found absolutely nothing of interest. There was no grate to allow her to see into the room from here. She made her way back out, mechanically restoring each of the screens and reactivating the alarms as she went. It was busywork that her hands could do automatically while her mind raced ahead. Without a utility belt full of specialized gear, it was unlikely she was going to solve this with just a visual inspection. Catwoman had her own bag of tech tricks, to be sure, but for very specific tasks: to jam or counterfeit a wireless signal, to record a tapeloop and play it back as realtime, to insert a microscopic camera into a safe and view the tumblers as she cracked the combination. Everything she did was centered around getting in, getting the goods, and getting out. The more nebulous “looking” without knowing what she was looking for, that was more in his line than hers. That was a job for the—YES!
She crawled out of the vent and dropped back down to the hallway with renewed vigor. It was more in his line; it was detective work. And that thought of him and his bat-ways suggested an obvious solution: he was sure to have digital copies of the blueprints scanned into the computer. She could view the original file as it appeared before tea splotching by a klutzy fop.
In his days riding high as Box Office Golden Boy, Matt Hagen would sometimes amuse himself, somewhat cruelly, at the expense of those overeager screenwriters that came to pitch their stories—particularly if they came up to him at Spago and put him off his dinner. “Funny you mention Mykonos,” he’d say with a wistful look at a very pretty waitress, letting the screenwriters think he was considering their script rather than the waitresses lovely figure. Then later he’d murmur, “I always wanted to shoot in Greece.” And they’d be off on a flight of cinematic fancy, he’d see it glistening in their eyes as their pitch became extravagant and unguarded: this was it, their three picture deal, come Christmas they’d be skiing Aspen with Nicholson, come Oscar night they’d blow off the awards and jam with Woody at Elaine’s…
Matt baited Oswald now in just this way. A single nod of agreement, the profits some of these companies made -kwak- when their products weren’t luxuries like those gold watches in the safe deposit box but necessities for people in need. Yes, Ozzy, there you go. We’re talking about the drug companies. Take a nibble, you think you know the Clayface story don’t you?
“The worst of it is those executive salaries,” Matt offered, a touch of indignation in his voice that distinguished Grant Gifford’s summation in Advocate for Love (“A moving portrayal completely out of place in this dismal summer sleeper.”—Gotham Daily News).
That’s all it took, “those executive salaries,” that’s all Oswald needed to see his three picture deal, skiing Aspen with Jack Nicholson—that image was so funny Matt had to exaggerate his glorpy Clayface expression or risk a laugh that would wreck Oswald’s lecture.
“Pharmaceuticals are a billion dollar industry,” Ozzy explained, as if this wasn’t perfectly obvious or perhaps assuming that a body of shapeshifting clay made Matt Hagen stupid. “Any of them would pay millions in bribes to expedite approval on a drug. You could accept multiple bribes as different members of the committee while I film the payoffs, and then we may proceed to blackmail at our leisure.”
Matt allowed the amused smile to come through. It was still the thought of Oswald Cobblepot on skis that inspired it, but the fat little bird would take it as approval for his brilliant-kwak-plan. Posing as a member of the FDA to take bribes from drug companies and then blackmailing the execs, it was exactly the Agent-of-the-Penguin role Matt said he didn’t want, but now Ozzy thought he’d go along because he’d appealed to Matt’s special desire to screw the drug companies. Why it’s Die Hard meets Space Tempest, a sure-fire Matt Hagen vehicle…
Selina was just suspicious enough of whatever was going on with Bruce that she wanted to make sure the Batcave was empty before going near the computers. So she dressed for her prowl and set off as usual, then hid near the turnoff to Country Club Lane until the Batmobile passed. She watched it disappear on its way into the city, and then she turned and headed back to the manor. She had just powered up her workstation when that old instinct that saw Batman as a foe tapped her on the shoulder: Wouldn’t he have some kind of lockout on the file? Of course he would, he’s Batman. He’s always three steps ahead of everybody.
She shutdown her own workstation and sat down at his. It had been several years since she’d done this. He had a second login not even Tim or Alfred knew about, triple password encryption:
At least he hadn’t changed them.
She did a quick search for blueprints and
began scrolling through the filenames.
She tapped the menu to open the highlighted file, but another password screen appeared instead.
>>AUTHORIZATION: the prompt blinked at her.
She tried Thomas, like before. She tried Martha. She tried ThomasMartha. She tried ThomasMarthaJustice. She tried MarthaThomasJustice. She tried every variation she could come up with on the holy trinity of Bat-passwords, but always that damn authorization prompt went on blinking.
She went back to the search results and tried opening a different file. She instantly found herself looking at the decorative molding on the manor side entrance. She tried another file and the kitchen floorplan opened just as easily. She tried another, and wound up viewing detailed schematics for the Batmobile.
She hissed at the screen.
It was only that one file?
She tried another and saw elevation maps of the area surrounding the pond, greenhouse, and garden.
It was only that one file. Damn him. The love-hate that seasoned their Bat/Cat duels began to sizzle inside her. It was only that one file, only the file he’d spilled tea on. It was only that one, which meant this extra password was just here to stop her. Damn him!
She looked up to see if that arrogant bully bat was looming overhead like before. He was and Selina called him a jackass. Look at him, him and the other one, sitting up there just like they were that day in exactly the same spot over the work… stations…
Selina’s lips curled into a knowing smile as she remembered that afternoon working with Bruce in the cave. She was a brilliant thief. There were few safes, if any, that she couldn’t crack given time. But part of being a brilliant thief was not wasting time beating a safe if you could simply guess the combination.
She went back to the search menu and again clicked on that Holy Grail file, W Manor Interior: Ground Floor.
>>AUTHORIZATION: the access screen blinked once again, challenging her to supply the proper password.
She looked up at the bat, the bat that would have been hanging right there when he set this up, when he set up this password that was only here for her.
>>AUTHORIZATION: Walapang, she typed.
The access screen disappeared and a new
window opened—but it wasn’t the blueprints for the ground floor. It was a
window topped with the inevitable bat emblem and the heading Project
Walapang. Underneath, there was a single entry field and the words
Selina stared unbelievingly.
Then she swiveled the chair sharply and looked around suspiciously.
Something like this happened before when she was working. Not often, but from time to time she’d open a safe expecting bearer bonds and a ruby necklace, and instead find a computer disk and an electronic chip. The next thing that would always happen was a garrote around her throat, a clonk on the head, or a spray of gas in her face.
Her heart was racing as she scanned the empty cave, reliving each and every one of those dreadful surprises. The bat above her made a noise—or maybe she just thought it did—and she swung back and pointed at it fiercely, daring it to move. As she attempted to stare down the creature, her heartbeat eventually slowed and a new thought suggested itself.
The password screen blocking that file was only there for her, but it wasn’t protecting the blueprints. The password screen blocking that file was there for her but not to protect the file… It was there to show her this? What the hell was this? Project Walapang?
It’s The Sting meets the Count of Monte Cristo, a perfect Matt Hagen vehicle—NOT!
So far, Matt’s trip to the Iceberg was not going well. He had amused himself at Oswald’s expense, but he was no closer to accomplishing what he’d come for: telling Ozzy no. Oswald Cobblepot wasn’t some day-player, he deserved a straight answer. Matt wanted to stay in Gotham; he wanted to run his own affairs devised by Clayface for Clayface, period; and he wanted to hang out at the Iceberg like any other Rogue. He wanted to be part of the community. He did not want to be staff.
But then Ozzy was so stubborn and argumentative about the whole thing, and Matt let himself be pulled into this stupid game. Now it really was time to end it. It was fun while it lasted, but now Oswald was crossing a line Matt could not permit him to cross.
“It’s easy enough to hurt a person if you can transform your hand into a club and smash him black and blue,” he declared—as if Matthew Christopher Hagen needed this pompous, self-important little shit to tell him the simplest goddamn things. “But to take Revenge,” Oswald declaimed, pronouncing the word as if reciting Shakespeare, “you must take away that which he holds dear, as dear as that which your victim took from you. For men such as these that is money, and the prestige and power that only money can buy.”
“Enough,” Matt said flatly. It was the “Thank You” after an audition when you weren’t getting the part, and anybody except Oswald would have recognized the intonation. Instead, the little bird puffed up belligerently.
“It can never be enough. Billions these soulless charlatans use to feather their nests, and billions we shall have when—”
“Nooo,” Matt said, letting his voice linger and trill on the word the way Cameron’s did with the make-up girl when he didn’t like her work. “We won’t be taking anything Oswald. I’ve listened to your proposal and it doesn’t suit me.”
Oswald blinked as if he didn’t quite understand.
“To take Revenge,” he began again, “money and a disguise are precisely what you need.”
“Nooo,” Matt repeated, as Cameron again, but the whinier “we talked about this” delivery he reserved for the art director.
Again Oswald started to speak, and Clayface morphed half his body into a chalkboard and his finger into chalk. I HAVE NO NEED OF MONEY, he wrote in large block letters as he spoke the words distinctly. Then he let the whole thing—chalk, chalkboard, and clayman in between—collapse into the normal-looking body of Matt Hagen. “And you have no idea who I would take revenge on and why.”
Then Oswald spoke a name—and Matthew shook his head. This is why you didn’t let people like Oswald Cobblepot—or anyone else for that matter—cross those lines even once.
He named a man Matt Hagen met once, in Vegas, with Rebecca. They’d had one drink at the Breeze Bar before Matt took Rebecca to see Cirque du Soleil for her birthday. That was it. Rebecca introduced them. Matt barely remembered the guy. He drank Campari Orange, he talked about the weather, he asked for an autograph for his kid or nephew or something. Yet all the world thought Matt had a hate-on for Roland Daggett. All the world thought this dullard that wore a shirt and tie in the Breeze Bar at four in the afternoon had made Clayface.
Meanwhile, Oswald was having a nutty. Matt had seen plenty of outraged egos flip out in his day. He’d even thrown a tantrum himself once, when the studio saddled him with a diva for a co-star. His agent said he had to prove he was just as big a star as Princess PrettyAss (as he was calling her by the second day), and since she went and locked herself in her trailer every third scene… So yeah, Matt could trash a hotel room or punch a photographer with the best of them. But never had he seen anything like this in Hollywood: Oswald poking an umbrella in his face, jumping up and down like a stunt man warming up for a freefall, turning the most godawful shade of plum, and yet through the whole thing he never raised his voice. Matt was ready to repeat the sound-baffling trick from Arkham, but it wasn’t necessary. It was as if Oswald’s dignity would not allow the riffraff in the lounge to overhear his business, or to know that something going on in the office had the power to upset him.
Matt began to regret raising Oswald’s hopes the way he had. He didn’t come to the Iceberg to make an enemy, he just wanted to do his own thing and he thought Oswald deserved to know. He came to give Ozzy a straight answer, man to man, but then he got carried away and the whole thing spun out of control… story of his life.
He sighed. There was still an umbrella tip pressed into his nose, and Ozzy was still cursing him out. Matt morphed back into his clay state in order to get Oswald’s attention. It worked. There was some sputtering, but Ozzy did calm down when he realized how empty and pointless his threats had become.
“I tell you what,” Matt offered reasonably. “I’m not interested in the bribes, the insider trading or the blackmail. But I will give you the exclusive contact rights for anybody in Gotham that wants to contact Clayface. I’ll get a cell phone this afternoon, only you get the number, and if Catwoman wants me to impersonate a museum guard or Freeze needs a look-alike to infiltrate an ice cream factory, they can contact you and you set up the meeting. You get 15 percent of anything that happens as a result.”
Oswald considered this… He asked for 25 percent… then 20… then 17… then 15.5… and finally he accepted Hagen’s terms as originally laid out. It didn’t matter to Matthew, he had no intention of taking any jobs these setups might pitch him. But Oswald wouldn’t know that, the arrangement would make him happy and secure Matt the favored position he’d enjoyed in the Lounge as the Monarch of Menace.
Selina studied the screen carefully. There
wasn’t much to go on. A Bat-emblem—which she’d traced over enough times on
enough rooftops to know that there was nothing unusual about this one. The
words “Project Walapang” which must allude to their conversation that day
about the gemprints. And this field
“Okay, let’s think about this,” she said to the larger bat, now named Walapang in her mind. Bruce spilled the tea on purpose; she knew that. What if he’d done it not to hide something on the blueprints, but just to make her suspicious so she’d go looking for the backups and find this?
That’s the part that really made no sense. This entire system was set up by Batman for Batman. He wouldn’t need to give himself an example of a file number, he—
“Oh that’s good,” Selina told the bat, her lips curling into an approving grin.
A good thief never wasted time cracking a safe without first checking if the dimwit owner wrote the combination somewhere so he wouldn’t forget.
39115-HK999.9 Selina typed, copying the “example” file number into the entry field.
She gasped. A window opened with the heading for an annotated FBI profile on Garfield Lynns from the criminal database, but replacing the contents underneath that heading—just like a substitute gemprint inserted into an existing entry, just like she told him the day of the ‘Walapang’ conversation—were the blueprints for Wayne Manor Interior: Ground Floor.
Dr. Leland Bartholomew had become seriously worried about his mental health. Insanity was not contagious; as a mental health professional, he knew that better than anyone. But exhaustion and sustained stress took an undeniable toll. Roxy, Harley, Frieze, Tetch, and Joker all before lunch. He couldn’t imagine how he was going to continue if that miserable Batman deposited one more costumed psychopath into his care. The only way he could think to cope with this mounting workload was to manufacture a coping mechanism, some sort of ritualized outlet through which he could channel his anxiety until repetitious habituation association produced a healthy alleviation transference.
Dr. Bartholomew knew that too many Americans engaged in this process unknowingly using television. He did not approve of it, it was such a mindless pastime. But he was so tired when he got home, he could think of no other activity he was fit for. By sheer luck, he found something called the Barefoot Contessa as he flipped the channels, and in only one viewing he became quite enamored of this Ina Garten. He watched in fascination as she cooked a chicken with 40 cloves of garlic and made an ice cream bombe. At the end of the half hour, he felt so invigorated that he got up and made an abbreviated version of the bombe, substituting the store-bought sherbet in his freezer for her homemade sorbets. The next night, he stopped at the supermarket on the way home to buy garlic and chicken, then at the liquor store for the wine and cognac he would need for the recipe. He couldn’t believe it. Every night for a month, he had dragged himself home exhausted; tonight he was making two stops he didn’t even need to. He did try making the chicken but he couldn’t remember the details very well. He also missed that night’s show because of the stops.
By the fourth night, he had his ritual all worked out. He started the day logging into the show’s website and printed out the recipes from the previous episode. He labeled a fresh videotape and set up his VCR. He went into work, and for five minutes or so while Roxy Rocket extolled the joys of X-treme rock climbing, he made up his shopping list. He stopped on the way home for the ingredients, put in the previous night’s tape, and he and Ina embarked together on another culinary adventure…
Catwoman did not want to linger at Batman’s computer any longer than necessary, so she closed the Project Walapang window as soon as she found the blueprints. She shut down the workstation completely and retreated to the gymnasium to think. There was a cat’s cradle of wire and cable erected overhead for grapnel exercises, and she twisted and contorted through these like a gymnast would parallel bars. She’d swing from her whip-hand and pull her legs up close to her body to clear a cable she decided was a motion sensor, then she would lower to a seated position to balance on another she imagined as a window ledge…
Okay, so he spilled the tea on purpose to bring her to the computer and introduce her to “Project Walapang.” Walapang had been swapped, just like a gemprint, for the file with the blueprints. When she entered file number he’d “given her,” it brought up the file she was looking for, completing the circuit so to speak. That confirmed she was in the right place, doing the right thing. It was his way of letting her know she had the right idea.
…Her body slid back along the wire as she dropped in a swift controlled fall, her hand shooting up quickly to catch the cable again. She swung up and over, twisting her back and hips forcefully for momentum, powerful legs launching her at last into a handstand…
So she had the right idea, but what was it exactly? Find the file numbers, somewhere, somehow, go back to that screen, plug them in, and get…
…She caught a loose rope and opened her knees, releasing the stabilizing cable she held there. Rebalancing as she swung, she lowered herself to a medium-thin wire…
And get what???
…She bent her body at the pelvis and spun until she lay flat at the hips against the thickest nest of cable…
Assuming she found the file numbers, she’d plug them in and get something. But what?
…She stopped her forward movement by flinging her arms wide until her body was at a sharp angle to the heavy wire mesh, then adjusted her arms fluidly to keep from sliding forward or back…
And why spill tea on the blueprints in the first place?
…She slid her thigh slowly and evenly against a cable until she caught it with the back of her knees, then arched her back, creating enough momentum to soar clear of the “motion sensors” and somersault to the mats.
Why spill the tea? Why this convoluted game—Walapang for godsake—instead of just telling her?
The door to Cobblepot’s office opened and Clayface walked into the lounge, noting the whispers and covert pointing as he made his way to the bar. Even though technically he’d been a regular for months, this was his first appearance in his natural muddy state. He sat at the bar and considered the implications of everyone’s surprise: Raven and the waitresses who had been so attentive the night before were merely responding to his handsome face. They did not recognize him as Matt Hagen the movie star. Had it been that long? They weren’t that young, were they?
He ordered a mudslide, and Sly—who was a pal whenever he came in as the Monarch—stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Oh my god, you’re Clayface,” the bartender said at last.
“Yes,” Matt said gruffly.
This was humiliating. Sly served assassins, freaks, and Joker without batting an eye, but he was gawking at Clayface like Frankenstein’s monster.
“Th- That means you’re Matt Hagen,” Sly declared in a hoarse whisper.
“Oh my god, you’re Matt Hagen,” Sly enthused.
Matt obligingly morphed into Captain Lance Starfire, and Sly’s mouth dropped open.
“Get outta here,” Sly exclaimed. “I have seen Space Tempest like 60 times!”
Matt segued automatically into the gracious celeb meeting adoring fan, then he remembered this was SLY with whom he’d been talking sports and movies for weeks, who downloaded soundbytes for Harley’s iPod to play a prank on Scarecrow, who…
Matt gently reminded him about the mudslide, and watched while Sly-the-unflappable couldn’t pour the Kahlua, his hand was shaking so bad. Matt thought it over for about 30 seconds before reaching his decision. He didn’t want the drink as much has he wanted a pal. So he asked Sly to step into the backroom for a second and morphed (for the last time, he swore) into the Monarch of Menace. He started to explain about the history with Ivy and needing a disguise to— he got no further.
Sly’s fanboy devotion to Lance Starfire was replaced by an entirely different kind of admiration as the bartender’s quick mind connected all the dots to conclude, “You did Harley! Oh man.”
Matt/Monarch produced a hint of a blush to soften his proud smirk. A few between-men comments were exchanged regarding blondes, breasts, buttocks, starlets, tassels, and handlebars. Matt resumed his previous guise, returned to the bar, and Sly (still blushing and stifling a guffaw about the handlebars) made his mudslide.
After her workout, Catwoman returned to the manor by way of Alfred’s elevator. She stopped in the kitchen and took a pint of Haagen Daaz, then headed up to her suite… she stopped in her tracks as she passed the tall windows and saw the Bat-Signal shining dramatically over “his city.”
She remembered the day she’d found him in the south drawing room looking at this view—which was damn unusual, now that she thought of it. Bruce was seldom in the drawing room except when they entertained formally. He liked staying where he could keep an eye on the city, yes, in case the Bat-Signal was lit, but he did it from the study and not at eleven o’clock in the morning. The weird behavior didn’t begin with spilling the tea, it began that morning, when he got back from patrol, must have walked right by her sleeping in the cave, and just left her there. Weird-even-for-Bruce #1.
Now that she thought of it, they’d only spoken (hell, she’d only seen him awake) three times since the weirdness began: that morning when she sought him out, then when he’d come to her suite apparently for the express purpose of spilling tea on the blueprints, and in between—when he’d given her the job to revamp the manor security. THAT’S where it started, not the tea, the whole idea of her overhauling manor security. The whole thing was part of his … “Project Walapang.”
She thought back to that conversation in the garden. Weird-even-for-Bruce #2: He had wanted her to be in costume. He emphasized that it was Bruce Wayne that wanted a meeting with Catwoman. Even for him, that was a little much with the line between identities.
Weird-even-for-Bruce #3: her
“compensation.” He didn’t pay her for stuff like this anymore. When
she’d done the WE job, sure, they’d just started dating. Hell, for all
intents and purposes, they’d just “met” as Bruce and Selina. But by the
time she’d moved into the manor, they were past that kind of thing. It
wasn’t even discussed when she tweaked the ground security, or worked on the
JLA system for the Dibny case, or when they talked about diamonds or art
theft. Now, all of a sudden there’s four gold bars hidden around the house
and cave and… She inhaled sharply as the thought clicked into focus: Selina had seen gold bars often enough in the course of Catwoman’s career.
Whether Credit Suisse, Swiss Pamp or Bank of England, they were embossed
with serial numbers of 5 or 6 digits and a designation of their purity. The
best were 99.9-percent pure gold, represented on the bar’s surface as 999.9
Nutmeg wasn’t sure what to make of it. Selina-Cat finally had a treat. Cold, sweet, vanilla, so rich and creamy. But she didn’t seem happy at all. She was thoughtful and distracted. How could anybody not be happy with sweet and rich and creamy?
Nutmeg flared her nose, wondering if whatever made Selina-Cat so thoughtful had a smell. All she detected besides leather was the wet-damp-rock that smelled like Bat-Bruce when he was Twofoot-in-Boots. That meant Selina-Cat visited the caveplace behind the ticktock. The only other smell was the creamy vanilla treat. Nutmeg tilted her head to the perfect “aren’t I precious” angle, and Selina-Cat dipped her claw into the creamy and gave her a taste. Nutmeg licked it carefully, for Selina-Cat’s claws were very sharp.
When she had her fill, she let Selina-Cat know by making catfists in the soft leather, and Selina-Cat picked her up—along with a crunchy paper that took up too much space in Selina-Cat’s hand, and they went across the hall to the soft, warm nap place.
This was bad. Selina awoke in a cold sweat. She couldn’t remember her dream, but she knew it involved Batman and it was bad. She rolled onto her side and watched Bruce sleeping. The sight did nothing to ease the sick anxiety lingering from her nightmare. This is how she fell asleep in the first place, watching him… and she had no doubt that this sight is what led to the dream, whatever it was. Batman and bad, very bad.
She was downright pissed when he got home. Cats don’t compromise. They just don’t. Catwoman didn’t steal anymore because it suited her, not as any sort of concession to him or his judgmental jackass attitudes. As far as she’d come with Bruce, she’d done it without betraying herself or her principles—until tonight. She’d been lying in bed with a floorplan folded between the mattress and box spring instead of looking for the gold bars, and if that wasn’t betraying her principles… She was desperate to find the first gold bar, get a serial number, and see if she was right about that Walapang screen in the Batcomputer. But it was late, and she knew Batman could be back from patrol at any time. Until she knew more about what was going on with him, she just… she just didn’t… she didn’t trust him somehow, not in this situation, she had to keep her activities hidden.
That was unsettling enough, not knowing if she could trust Bruce. It probably shouldn’t have bothered her so much, given the way they started, claws and batarangs. But it did bother her and maybe that’s why she was so damn pissed about waiting. She had to wait until he’d be out of the house again for a good stretch of time, and that was the compromise Catwoman couldn’t quite stomach.
Other criminals, even some big name rogues, would change their plans because of Batman. They would postpone the next stage of a crimespree, or sometimes speed one up, to avoid or provoke (mostly avoid) a confrontation with the formidable Bat. Catwoman never did, not once. If he didn’t show up when expected, that was fine with her, she would make her own fun. If he did show, that was fine too, she could handle him. But now there she was, avoiding Batman. She wasn’t prepared to risk his interrupting this particular job. If it came to a, a “confrontation,” she’d have no idea how to deal with him or how to approach it. So she brought a floorplan with her, got undressed and slipped into bed. The most she could accomplish tonight was to study a few of the rooms and think through the possibilities, come up with some ideas to investigate tomorrow night. Whiskers and Nutmeg were with her, and as soon as their ears flickered, she stashed the floorplan where he wouldn’t see… and the nettling thought settled in: It had finally happened, Catwoman had compromised. She was putting off something she wanted to go for tonight, and she did it because of him. She didn’t do what she was aching to do, because of him. She couldn’t even try for it until tomorrow, because of him.
And suddenly there he was, not wearing a mask and cape, standing by the bed in the kimono she’d given him, and she was thoroughly pissed. She had to do something, a pissed cat won’t sleep.
With all the uncertainty, she didn’t want to do much, nothing too suspicious. So she fell back on the old standard. When he ruffled her fur in the old days, when he kept her from the Katz Collection or recovered the Rosenthal Rubies, she came on to him. She’d tease and taunt until he could barely function, she’d press against him as they fought and whisper sinful temptations that would send most men into cataleptic shock… Tonight, she crawled across the bed at her most seductively feline, her throat vibrating with a feral purr as she crawled up his chest like a wildcat. Then she stretched up a little farther and whispered, her moist lips at his ear and no cowl to keep her hot breath from tickling that sensitive flesh as she reiterated one of those sinful enticements from the past…
Not a grunt. She didn’t get so much as a grunt in response. He barely acknowledged her at all. He said he was tired and climbed into bed. She stared, not quite believing as he turned out the light without another word, rolled over, and went right to sleep.
To be continued…