Batman and Catwoman in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 50: Casefile 00000-001

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by Chris Dee and MyklarCure

Connections


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I began studying organized crime more than seven years before becoming Batman.  One of the first observations I made then is still true today: the Italian Mafia in Gotham are the most famous gangsters in the world.  There’s a romanticized history in movies like the Godfather and Goodfellas.  There’s the real history of thuggery and blackmail called mano nero forming within the first waves of Sicilian immigrants; the Castellamarese War for domination, Luciano Lansky and Seigel, Murder Incorporated, and the rise of the Five Families… And there is a very murky present which often can’t distinguish between the reality and fables of its own past.

Nowhere is that murky confusion more evident than in Carmine “The Roman” Falcone.

To hear Falcone tell it, he became capo di tutti capi, the ‘boss of bosses,’ by ending a bloody gang war: first helping his predecessor assassinate the previous don and then killing him before he could move into the vacated position.  No one seems to notice that’s pretty much the Lucky Luciano story, setting up Joe Masseria for Sal Maranzano, then killing Maranzano almost immediately afterwards.  What makes the boast particularly suspect in Falcone’s case is that ‘Roman’ in his name.  He touts it now like a badge of honor, but back then it was anything but.  He had no personal ties to Sicily, Calabria, or even Naples.  He was a nobody.  And at that time, an unconnected nobody couldn’t hope to grab for power by killing a boss without support in Palermo. 

So how did Falcone really come to power?  Slowly.  That’s the best answer I or the FBI have ever been able to come up with.  There was no single, startling act.  Just years of work, decades of it, running the toughest crew on the South Side and leveraging a bloody reputation to consolidate power.  As he took over the gambling, he let the money flow freely to his men, ensuring loyalty.  When he moved into prostitution, he did the same.  Drugs, he did the same.  He chose which capos, soldiers, and associates were worth buying and he bought them, it was that simple. 

Edward Vaniel was not worth buying.  At best, he was dumb muscle, hired help Falcone used from time to time while he was building his empire.  But what, if anything, determined when he’d use an outsider like Vaniel?  That’s what was unclear.  There was a connection, certainly, but it was vague.  Maddeningly vague. 

There was nothing flashy in Carmine Falcone.  Hollywood could never make anything of him and neither would Mafia legend, so at some point he started writing his own.  That’s when he became “The Roman,” like he was a Caesar.  Even he’s begun to believe his fable, but before he was The Roman, he was an ambitious nobody scheming to become the strongest capo in Gotham.  That’s when this strange undefined connection formed with Edward Vaniel… and that’s why it was worth looking into.

“Infrared disengage,” Batman said sharply. 

There was a click as the voice-responsive lenses snapped into the off-position within the cowl, and a sigh as Nightwing achieved the same effect by pulling his night vision binoculars away from his face.

“We are screwed,” he announced flatly.

The Falcone compound in Massapequa was a fortress.  Blockbuster’s headquarters in Bludhaven, even Ra’s al Ghul’s castle in Istanbul had nothing on it—and that had a moat!  This was a well-designed mixture of classic proactive defenses and high-tech gadgetry: patrolling guards and sophisticated cameras, massive stone walls concealing intricate sensors with unknown capabilities.  The old world style of the mansion and wooded grounds belied the most advanced modern defenses, which Batman and Nightwing supposed was the point.  The same dichotomy had appeared in The Roman’s Gotham City townhouse, but at least there they’d known what they were up against.

After they’d met on the Moxton Building and confirmed that “The Roman” was the one name that kept coming up in relation to Vaniel in both their investigations, they both knew talking to Falcone was the next step.  So they’d proceeded to the townhouse.

One of the reasons The Roman had become so successful in building and maintaining his criminal empire was his tendency to do things differently than others in the business of organized crime.  His outsider status for so many years had given him an outsider’s perspective.  This allowed him to ignore the traditional ways of the old world dons—at least in certain areas where it didn’t damage his prestige (although he did have a tendency to overdo it in other areas to compensate).  Most bosses in Gotham and elsewhere still operated out of small rooms in the backs of restaurants, “social clubs,” and other businesses.  Carmine understood that these were glaring beacons for law enforcement, so he moved his operations into a remarkably ordinary townhouse in a small residential neighborhood in the heart of the city.  Over the years, he’d muscled out several other residents and filled much of the block with his own people; not lieutenants or soldiers, no one directly involved in criminal enterprises, but workers from his warehouses, business owners and shop keepers under his protection, anyone who would blend in and make the neighborhood appear normal to the outside but still remain loyal to him. 

Batman and Nightwing knew that in order to talk to Falcone, they’d have to infiltrate the townhouse, and do so without alerting any of the Falcone-friendly residents to their presence.  Not an impossible job, but not exactly an easy one either.  Once they’d made the decision to go after Falcone, they’d gone straight to his townhouse and given it a quick once-over with the infrareds, just like they were doing now at his out-of-town compound.  It had been too close to dawn to do more, so they’d retired to the satellite cave under the Wayne Tower (since it was closer, Bruce said, although Dick suspected that he simply didn’t want to go back to the manor) and spent the day pulling blueprints, studying floor plans, investigating all that was known of the layout, design, and defensive capabilities of Falcone’s Gotham City townhouse and the surrounding neighborhood.  When night fell, they waited one hour and then executed their plan with flawless precision—only to find the place empty, apart from a sixty-three year old housekeeper. 

They quickly and silently searched the house, ultimately finding a datebook with the notation that Falcone had gone to his “country estate” (as the arrogant poser, still trying to come off as a Caesar, referred to the out-of-town compound).

So now, with a day lost, here they were back at square one.  Worse than square one, actually.  They were supposed to be talking to Falcone by now.  Instead, they were in the middle of the woods, looking over a walled installation that made Fort Knox look like a convenience store.  Ten minutes after they’d arrived on-scene they realized why Falcone wasn’t at the townhouse as expected: a phalanx of cars arrived at the compound, delivering many of the Roman’s lieutenants and their personal guards.  A gathering of that size would attract too much attention in a residential midtown neighborhood. 

“I don’t know how we’re gonna get in,” Nightwing murmured.  “It’ll take all night, maybe even days, just figuring out what we’re up against.”

Batman’s eyes shifted within the mask to glare at him without turning.

“Six armed guards patrol the perimeter inside the wall,” he graveled.  “Two outside.  There are a number of cameras, either standard or heat-detecting, around the grounds.  Presumably more cameras of either type within the house.  Motion detectors aren’t likely as it’s an occupied residence.  More guns inside are a certainty.  Dogs are a possibility…”

“Will you listen to yourself?  ‘A number of cameras,’ ‘either’ this kind or that, ‘presumably,’ ‘unlikely,’ ‘a possibility.’  Batman, we don’t know what we’re up against.”

Batman merely swallowed.

“It’s going to take time to get the intel we need to pull this off,” Nightwing continued.  “We could wait until tomorrow night, wait for him to go back to the city and hit him at the townhouse like we originally planned—that’s assuming he’s going right back, of course.”

“No,” Batman growled with finality.  “We’ve wasted enough time already.  We go in tonight.”

Dick knew he was beyond frustrated.  Spending the whole day plotting out their invasion of the townhouse had been torturous.  Batman had identified the next link in the chain that led to the answers he needed, and anything that delayed him only made it more maddening. 

If the plan had been to take down Falcone and his crew, Nightwing would have been right on board with going in immediately.  But all they wanted was to talk to Falcone, which meant they needed to sneak in, catch him off-guard, and alone.  That required finesse, and Dick was pretty certain that finesse wasn’t on Batman’s radar at the moment. 

“Okay.  If we don’t have the time to prepare,” Nightwing said slowly, thinking out loud, “if we have to go in tonight…  then it’s gonna take time we don’t have to work out what we’re up against…  then more time we don’t have to figure a way around it all…  Unless—”

“No.”

“C’mon, Batman, it’s the obvious way.”

“No.”

“You know she can do it.  You know she will; you only have to ask.”

“I don’t want her involved in this.”

“Bruce, we need her.”

“What did you say?”

“With her help, we can talk to Falcone before dawn.  Without her…”

Dick’s words faded into muffled cotton, sound without meaning.  The only words that mattered were echoing in my brain: Want.  Need.

“You wanted to but you didn’t need to,” Selina had said.  “Wanting to means that you had a choice.” 

And needing meant that I didn’t. 

If I wanted to talk to Falcone any time soon, I needed Catwoman’s expertise.  I did not have a choice.

I knew if I called her, she would be with us outside the compound in minutes.  She could get there faster than we had; she was at the manor.  We’d come from the city…

But I hesitated, pointlessly thinking through the comparative drive times from Bristol and midtown, and all the while Dick droned on about… something.  Loose connections.  He said it was a lot to go through for some loose connections.

I still wasn’t hearing him.  All I could think of was how I didn’t want either of them working on this.  Wanting meant I was supposed to have a choice.  And yet…

Catwoman arrived at the Falcone compound eleven minutes later than Batman predicted.  As the minutes ticked by, he assumed he’d either misjudged the speed of her Jaguar or she was deliberately driving slower than she was capable of.  Her engine was sufficiently quiet, there would be no tactical reason to do so.  The only reason would be spite.

..::I thought Dick was going to partner you,::..  she’d said when he called.

“He is.  But we need your expertise,” he’d explained, feeling strangely detached from the conversation.  It was the crimefighter answering automatically, while the greater part of his brain kept cycling through other thoughts: the hospital, the alley, the cave.

A long, uncomfortable pause answered whatever it was he’d just said… Yes, of course, he said he needed her expertise to break into the Falcone compound—after he’d shut her out of the case with studied cruelty and avoided her for a day.  Thinking to deflect the coming attack by meeting the issue head on, he cleared his throat and said what he needed was “that same expertise that got you John Klondeff’s jade collection.  That same expertise.  It will save us hours.  Selina, please.”

..::I’ll be right there,::..  she said.  Even in his detached condition, he noted the tone.  There was something strange in her voice that he’d never heard before.  And now, she was taking nine minutes more than he’d predicted…

Ten minutes…

While he waited, Batman studied the guards’ movements, plotting out their routes and patterns.  It was necessary, but it still felt like pointlessly wasting time.  Again. 

He kept hearing that strange inflection in Selina’s voice on the phone, something hollow, distant.

Eleven…

When she finally did arrive, she had two backpacks full of specialized gear.  She brought them to a different vantage point overlooking the compound—a strategically inferior one as far as Batman was concerned, but she insisted.  She borrowed Nightwing’s binoculars and muttered something he couldn’t hear.  Something about the trees being thinner, or maybe it was the woods, how something had changed or hadn’t been changed.  Then she bit her lip, thinking.  She hadn’t looked at him once.

She switched the binoculars to thermal view and commented on the number of people in Falcone’s office.  Batman confirmed it, and told her what they knew about the arrivals and what they surmised about a meeting taking place inside.  Since they didn’t know how many people could be coming in or out of the house (and, more importantly, when), they would have to cover their tracks both going in and coming out of the compound. 

The high concrete wall was decorated at intervals with inset metal squares depicting scenes of ancient Rome: the profile of an emperor, a centurion, a frieze of the Roman senate…  Catwoman pointed to one of these, the one with a portrait of Seneca, and said it hid the controls for the front gate and the outdoor cameras.  She mapped out the best route to get to the second story window, pointing out camera angles, cover spots, and areas to avoid.  Batman started to outline what he’d noted of the guards’ patrol routes, but she waved him off as if she already knew and was trying to concentrate.

He hated the loss of control, but reminded himself it was the expertise that they needed—the time her expertise bought them that he needed—and needing meant there was no choice.

Catwoman was mapping out a plan where Nightwing would take out a specific guard when he entered the blind spot of that camera, opening a path for her to reach the control panel and disconnect that camera, so Batman could get that guard, redirect this camera so Nightwing could get that one, and then she would advance to here and get to work on the second floor window, while they picked off the remaining guards as they came around…

Batman couldn’t see anything special about the metal frieze with the profile of Seneca that differentiated it from all the others, and a strange unease settled over him.  Had he missed something, some little indicator that she could see and he couldn’t?  He asked how she knew that particular panel hid the controls. 

For the first time since she arrived, Catwoman looked at him—and for the first time since leaving the hospital, Bruce saw something beyond his own rage and pain.

“I just know,” she said simply. 

The words were simple.  The voice was professional, confident, and detached.  But the eyes, there was no hint of the woman he knew in those eyes.  No Selina, and no Catwoman either…

“Will take maybe twenty minutes to reach Falcone himself,” she concluded.

…There was only heart-wrenching bewilderment and eloquent pain.

14½ minutes later, Carmine Falcone glanced at the clock on his desk while Fat Stefano’s boy Anthony gave his report.  Like all new lieutenants, he spoke last, and like all new lieutenants, he hogged the spotlight when his turn finally came.  Like all new lieutenants, he was caught up in the glamour of being called out to the Don’s country compound to give his report among all these senior capo regimes, just like in the movies.  Like all new lieutenants, he didn’t realize that his Don (and all the other capos) would have rather wrapped it up an hour ago, had a glass of sambuca, and said goodnight.

“So it looks like we’re looking at about a ten percent bump in profits from the West Side this month.” Antony Crispi concluded boldly.

“That’s wonderful news.”  Falcone smirked at the young man, getting up from the desk and gently patting his shoulder.  “But don’t get too excited yet.  There’s an ebb and flow to these things.  When the bump is continuous for six months, then we get excited.  Okay?”

“Yes sir,” Antony replied, glancing around the room timidly as the other capos chuckled lightly.  The boy was new.  He was bound to be a little eager to please.  They’d all been there. 

“Alright, boys.  Good work.  I’ll see all of you at your regular times at the townhouse next week.” Carmine shooed them away, each man making sure he said ‘Good Night’ to the boss. 

Once the room was empty, Carmine strolled confidently over to the wet bar to pour himself a brandy, not really caring for the anise sting of sambuca when he wasn’t playing The Godfather Don Falcone with his capos.  He’d give those West Side profits six months to show what they were really doing, but this new kid he gave a month, tops.  Either Antony learned to settle down, or Carmine was going to have to reconsider his promotion practices—and the boy’s future… employment.

He picked a cube from the ice bucket and a shiver ran down his spine, followed by a low, rumbling voice behind him. 

“Falcone.”

Carmine froze for a split second, then casually dropped the cube into his glass. 

“Ah.  Batman.  What a pleasant surprise,” he intoned, over-cheerful as he picked up a crystal decanter and poured several fingers of brandy into his glass.  “To what do I owe this honor?”

Carmine turned slowly, a broad smile on his face, to see Batman standing across the room with his arms crossed over his chest.  Standing next to him was the younger hero called Nightwing who, it was rumored, was actually Batman’s former sidekick, Robin, all grown up—but not that grown up, from the looks of him. 

“And the Junior Bat!” Falcone added, tipping his glass at both of them.  “Must be my lucky night.  I win the lottery or something?”

“We need to talk about one of your associates,” the Dark Knight growled. 

“I’ve got a lot of ‘associates,’ Bats.  What kind of associate?”

“Former.”

“Ah!  Well, I’ve got a lot more of that kind.  Care to narrow it down a little?  This ‘former associate’ got a name?”

“Edward Vaniel.”

For only an instant, Carmine’s sarcastic smile faltered, replaced with a flash of irritated anger.  Almost as suddenly, the smile reappeared.  “Vaniel?  And just how is ol’ Easy Eddie these days?”

Batman and Nightwing glanced at each other.  They’d both expected the standard denials (“Never heard of the guy”), but not only did Falcone admit to hearing of Edward Vaniel, he used his old nickname with careless familiarity. 

Batman returned his attention to Falcone and answered his question matter-of-factly. 

“Dying.”

Carmine’s smile widened.  “Oh, now ain’t that a shame.”  He glanced down into his glass, the smile never leaving his face.  “Gunshot wound?”

“Cancer.”

“I used to tell him all that living would catch up to him one day.”  Carmine shrugged, taking a sip of the drink.  “Too bad for him.  But I’m afraid I’m not going to be too much help in that arena.  Haven’t spoken to the guy in… well, a long, long time.  Last I’d heard, he was up the river.”

“Thirteen years.  Attempted murder.”

“Like I said, a long time,” Carmine smirked, setting his glass on the edge of a small desk. 

Nightwing, who had been standing quietly off to the side, finally chimed in. 

“The way we hear it, he’s done some work for you since then.  Since he’d gotten out.”

Falcone shot Nightwing the same look he’d give one of his junior lieutenants who spoke out of turn, then he turned a questioning eye toward Batman, it being his prerogative to reprimand a subordinate or not.  When the Dark Knight’s face remained as impassive as ever, Carmine glanced back at Nightwing. 

“You know, Junior, I’ve got a lot of people working for me.  Many of them indirectly, so I don’t even know about them.  Hell, half the time I only hear about it through the grapevine a year later.  Even heard a rumor that you worked for me, indirectly, for a short while.  That can’t be true, can it?”

Nightwing said nothing, and Carmine smirked again. 

“It’s called ‘delegating authority,’ Son.  Comes with being the boss.  Maybe you’ll learn about that one day.”

Falcone could have gone round-and-round all night with the pompous upstart, but Batman stepped back in. 

“Vaniel’s recent activities are irrelevant.  My questions involve a much older case.  Around the time when you and he were working together, back when you were both two-bit thugs.”

Carmine shot Batman a disgusted look at this reminder he wasn’t always “The Roman Don Falcone,” but then he replanted the broad smile across his face.  “I’m still not sure how much help I can be, Bats Old Man.  The old memory ain’t what it used to be.  What kind of case are we talking about here?”

“Double homicide.”

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t have been involved with anything like that.”

“What about Vaniel?”

“Gee, Bats, I couldn’t say.  Easy Eddie was into a lot of different things.”

“Did he ever talk about those ‘different things?’”

Carmine chuckled.  “When did he not?  The guy liked to talk.  A lot.  If Easy Eddie did even half the things he bragged about back then, well, he’d probably be standing here now, having his home invaded by the likes of you, instead of rotting away in a hospital bed.”

“I never said he was in a hospital bed.”

“Quite right,” Falcone agreed, smirking again as he picked up his glass and took another sip.  “In any event, Vaniel has a bit of a history when it comes to… flapping his gums.”  His face darkened slightly.  “Why, is he picking that habit up again? Talking about things he shouldn’t be?”

“That’s what I’m trying to determine.”

There was a tense beat of silence as the two men stared at each other. 

“Did he ever happen to mention the Wayne murders?”

Carmine stared for a moment, then rocked his head back and laughed heartily.  After a few seconds, he wiped a non-existent tear from the corner of his eye and tried to suppress the chuckle still rumbling in his chest.  “Th-the Wayne murders?!”

Batman stepped forward, narrowing the gap between himself and Falcone, and growled in a sinister tone, “Something funny?”

Carmine ignored the threat, still laughing to himself. 

“I’d say so.  Are you telling me that on his deathbed, Eddie Vaniel is confessing to the Wayne murders?  He drop any other bombshells?  Was he the one on the Grassy Knoll?  He give you directions to Jimmy Hoffa’s grave?”

Batman grunted his distain. 

“Are you saying you never heard him mention it?” 

“I’m not saying that at all, Bats.  In fact, he didn’t just mention it, he bragged about it—on several occasions!” 

Batman and Nightwing exchanged glances, then both returned their attention to Falcone.  The mob boss looked at both of them staring at him and chuckled even more.  “Of course he admitted to it.  Half the guys I hung around with back then admitted to it.  Hell, I think I even confessed to it once or twice.  It was a high-profile crime, little real evidence and no one was ever caught.  Dream situation for anyone looking to make a name for himself.  If you could convince people that you were the one who got away with one of the biggest crimes in this city’s history, it was an instant credibility chip.  Back then, half the players in Gotham said they’d killed Dr.  Wayne and his wife.  The truth is no one knows who did it and anyone saying different is flat-out lying.”

In the vent above the study, Catwoman listened while Falcone went round and round with Batman and Nightwing.  She couldn’t quite believe she was inside that house, the mansion at the very center of the Falcone compound.  The one she’d looked into when she snuck away from Miss Corinne’s.  That house that seemed to have everything she’d lost when her parents died.  Of all the places she never wanted to come back to, let alone break into as Catwoman…

“So where is Easy Eddie holed up these days?” Carmine Falcone’s voice drifted up from the room below.  “I’d like to send him a get well card.”

…but what could she do?  Batman needed her.  Bruce needed her.  Bruce, who really had given her everything that she’d lost back then.  It was the most important case of his…  He’d given her a home ten times more luxurious than this one that she’d coveted.  And he’d given her the love and the family it had come to represent in a lonely little girl’s mind…  It was his parents.  The son of a bitch called him to the hospital and said that he’d…  She was in that home that she shared with Bruce when he called and asked her to come out to Massapequa and break him into Carmine Falcone’s compound.  It was the most important case—the most important event—in his life that he was investigating.  It was…  He needed her criminal talents in conjunction with…  He was Batman.  Before he was ever Bruce to her, he was Batman.  She really had, in a roundabout way, found love and a home and a family again, through crime.  Just like this house she once coveted came from crime.  The ironies were suffocating if you thought about them, and she kept telling herself not to.  They didn’t mean anything, they were just… crime in Gotham was a small world and it all interconnected.

“Hey, if you won’t tell me, maybe Eddie’s kid would know,” Falcone’s voice said smugly.

Catwoman started at a violent slamming below, punctuated by the piercing crinkle of broken glass. 

“Vaniel’s son is off-limits,” Batman’s voice growled hatefully, a softer glass-crunching hinting that he’d slammed Falcone against a wall where a mirror hung and was now pressing him against the broken shards.  “If you want to punish the son for the sins of the father, that’s a two-way street,” Batman hissed.  “Anything happens to Edward Vaniel’s son, I will hold you personally responsible.  Anything happens to Edward Vaniel’s son, and I’m taking it out on yours.  How are the twins nowadays, Carmine?  I hear Metropolis is nice this time of year.”

There were a few more jabs and threats that Catwoman didn’t follow as she prepared to withdraw from the vent and the house.  She was to reset the cameras and jam the front gate once Batman and Nightwing had gone, then rendezvous with them at the Batmobile. 

Down below, Batman had let Falcone go.  Carmine lunged to the desk, pulled a gun and turned to shoot—but found only an empty room and an open window to shoot at.

For all its proximity to Gotham, the sky above Massapequa is darker than most city-dwellers ever see.  The roads are even darker.  Batman had told Nightwing to drive the Jaguar back to the house.  Catwoman would be riding with him in the Batmobile.  They had something to discuss.

But then in the car, racing down that black road under that black sky, he didn’t say anything.  The same unease that had hit him outside the compound tickled up his spine.  Selina waited… waited… and finally, giving up, she started to ask about Falcone.  She’d only opened her mouth, when at last Batman spoke.

“Unless you have x-ray vision or some extra sensory ability I’m unaware of, it’s not possible to ‘just know’ the controls were behind that particular panel.”

“I salute you, World’s Greatest Detective,” she said softly.  They drove in silence for a minute.  Then:

“How did you know that Seneca panel opened up, and what the controls behind it were for?”

“Why does it matter so much?” she asked gently.

“It doesn’t, in and of itself,” he graveled. 

It didn’t… It shouldn’t.  But somehow it did matter. 

It was instinct, initially.  Catwoman knew something that he didn’t; she could see something looking into the compound that he couldn’t.  It made him question if he was missing details he should be seeing, if his mind was misfiring somehow.  If not, then it was an opportunity to learn.  Batman wasn’t so arrogant as to think he knew all things, and when he did bring in an expert for some specialized task, he always remained open to… She saw something he didn’t, and the crimefighter core of his mind—the only part functioning on full capacity at the moment—had snatched instinctively for the new information.  He asked the question, “How do you know?” but when she wouldn’t answer… it awakened something.  And now, it was strangely important to know why. 

“You’ve never held back before,” he said, more to himself than her.  “You’re usually more than eager to share any burglary tips.”

“It’s the safe,” she said quietly.  “Like the safe… Do you think you’re the only one with a childhood, Bruce?” 

The car screeched to a stop, slamming her into the seatbelt then back against the seat with equal force.  Behind them, the Jaguar swerved and drove around to avoid crashing into them.

Batman turned to the passenger seat, staring blankly without seeing.  The frank mention of the safe had torn into his gut like a knife. 

“Do you?  Do you think you’re the only one that gets to put up a ‘no trespassing’ sign?  It took a lot for me to come out here tonight.  But I did it, and I did it for you.  Let that be enough, okay?”

There was a distant rapping.  Like a man waking from the deepest sleep, Batman vaguely realized it was Nightwing knocking on the window.  He opened it, growled that there was no problem, and then drove off without saying more. 

The farther they got from the compound, the more Selina felt like herself again—her real self, her present self, not the ghost of a lonely twelve-year-old lost in the psyche of a grown catburglar with a job to do.  The more she settled the disquiet in her own head, the more she became aware of Bruce again.  Of Bruce not talking, and that pulse of dark intensity streaming off him in waves. 

It was only once they’d reached the cave, when she’d exited the Batmobile and headed for the stairs, that he spoke again.

“This mystery reason you won’t tell me, is that why it took you an extra eleven minutes to meet us at the compound?”

She stopped and gave a sad smile.

“You really are the best.  No joke.”

“Is that why?”

“Yes,” she said, turning to face him.  “I knew enough about the grounds out there that I wanted to bring some special equipment that I haven’t used in a long time, so I had to dig it out of the closet.  I didn’t time it, but if you say it was eleven minutes, there it is.”

He grunted… and she looked at him shrewdly.

“You thought it was personal.  You thought I was punishing you because you’d told me to stay, like a cocker spaniel, and then told me to come, like a cocker spaniel?”

He grunted noncommittally, then after a moment, he nodded slowly, once. 

“Something like that.”

She turned away and took a step towards the stairs, saying she thought Alfred was still up and she’d have him bring Bruce and Dick coffee. 

“Selina, wait!”

The words had sprung out of his mouth again—Selina, wait!—an instinct, like countering a gust of wind mid-swing on the Batline. 

But she was going—that’s what he wanted, wasn’t it? 

She obviously didn’t consider herself invited to join the investigation just because they’d needed her at Falcone’s.  So she was going.  It would have been one less to get rid of if he’d let her go, but he stopped her.

“Yes?”

Bruce froze for a moment, unable to come up with a response or even wrap his head around why he’d asked her to stop in the first place.  Before he could formulate an answer, Nightwing returned, extolling the virtues of the Jaguar as a truly superior driving machine.  Then he kissed Selina on the cheek and thanked her for helping out.  It was an obvious effort to lighten the mood at the end of a long, grueling episode, an effort that made Selina smile and Bruce’s brow crease slightly.  Dick seemed to take her continued involvement as a given.

Bruce glanced at him for a second, then looked back at Selina, the crimefighter core of his mind taking hold. 

“As someone who’s been there, professionally, did anything strike you about Falcone’s behavior with Batman and Nightwing?”

“Well,” Selina bit her lip, thinking, “since you asked, and now that I think about it… Yeah.  I thought he was uncharacteristically loose-lipped about the whole thing.”

Dick nodded, adding “Just like the guys we talked to last night.  Falcone seemed almost eager to give us information.”

“I noticed the same thing,” Batman graveled with a knowing glint.  “He was fishing.  He wants Vaniel and was hoping to use the situation to find him.”

“So there is a real connection between them,” Selina purred, a cat contemplating cream. 

They had new information, and that propelled everyone back to Workstation One and the stacks of evidence they’d sifted through before.

Over the next half-hour, Bruce became increasingly frustrated as folders were stacked on top of floppy disks, boxes of cassettes blocked the primary CD tray, and finally, he knocked an evidence bag off the edge of the console as he reached for Dick’s notes on the FBI surveillance photos. 

He cursed, stood, and stalked off towards the chem lab. 

“Dick, get in here,” he called a moment later, and the two of them maneuvered a large round worktable into the main chamber of the Batcave.  Chairs followed, commandeered from Alfred’s pantry, and the evidence was shuttled over in armfuls.  Finally, the three reconvened around the ad hoc conference table just as Alfred arrived with coffee. 

Dick kept circling back to Falcone’s credibility.  Bruce repeated what he’d said earlier: Falcone was fishing.  What information he gave them was dangled in the hopes of learning more.  He wanted Vaniel himself and was hoping to leverage the vigilantes’ interest in order to find him.  But why would he be looking?

“Waaaait-a-minute,” Dick murmured, looking vacantly at a stack of federal wiretaps.  Then he dove into a bundle of files and began sifting through papers.  “Remember Detective Porpora,” he said as he searched, “from that multi-jurisdictional task force on organized crime, the ones that helped clean Blockbuster’s dirty cops out of Bludhaven a few years back?  I thought I remembered—Yeah, here it is.  Hey, nice picture—I thought I remembered him telling me the CIA was putting a case together about that time, to take down the Falcones.

“Now that rumor comes out every few years, but that time, it seemed like something else.  Wasn’t forgotten a week later, I remember that; it stayed around for quite some time.  The talk was…” He paused and looked from Bruce to Selina and back to Bruce before continuing, “the Agency had an informant ready to name names.  Eventually, nothing came of it but…”

“But if Vaniel was the informant,” Bruce said ominously.

The Oracle avatar had now symbolically joined Bruce, Dick, and Selina at the conference table, even though she technically appeared only on a sidescreen adjacent to the table.  It was forty minutes since the avatar had sprung from its flat, dormant gray to the lively, animated green that meant Barbara was online and actively working behind it; however she hadn’t participated in the meeting for more than half an hour.  There was only faint clicking coming over her channel, an occasional whispered curse, and the one time Dick asked how it was going, a furious “Not now, not now, don’t break my rhythm-oh DAMNIT, Dickey!”

“Oops,” Dick mouthed and returned his attention to the photographs he was viewing. 

Bruce pored over the resumes and personal histories of CIA employees working at the Gotham Division Office at the time of the Falcone rumor—but he found himself glancing up every few sentences and looking around the table.  Selina was clicking through a slideshow of old FBI surveillance photos, while Dick sifted through Porpora’s notes on them…  Bruce returned his attention to the resume of one Allan Dickinson from Grosse Pointe… but found it increasingly difficult to focus on anything.  His mind kept wandering and he looked up again, seeing all of them working together this way.  It’s not what he’d ever envisioned when he began his mission as Batman, this collection of people around him, all working toward the same goals.  He certainly never imagined that work on this case—this case that was so personal for him—would have included so many others…

“The whole family’s here.”

“What?” Bruce asked, the statement jarring him from his own mind.

“The whole family’s there,” Dick repeated, pointing to the screen.  “Porpora’s notes on the Falcones.  There’s some big meeting going on.  The Feds thought it was a war council, but when Porpora saw these shots, he realized…”

“That it was a family thing,” Selina finished, noting the undeniable resemblance among the people in the photos. 

Bruce grunted, nodding.  He tried to return his attention to the file in his hands: Allan Dickinson.  Midwest, Norwegian-Irish ancestry, recruited out of the University of Michigan.  Nothing in the personal history that would make him a candidate for undercover work with the urban mobs.  Grew up in an idyllic lake town, not ethnically diverse… The psych profile was even less promising: broken home, bad relationship with the father…

“It’s the son.”

Selina’s voice tore him away this time.  He looked up directly at her, but her eyes were locked on a file in her hand.

“What?”  Dick asked the question before Bruce could verbalize it. 

“It’s this one,” Selina reiterated.  “This FBI schmuck who based their entire case on getting Migliosi to turn state’s evidence.”

“Jesus,” Dick stared aghast at the file as Selina offered it to him.  “One guy? No wonder they could never make it stick.”

“That may be why Porpora had a hard time convincing the Agency to open their own investigation,” Bruce offered grimly.  “With such flimsy evidence to start with, they’d basically be starting from scratch.”

“Which it looks like they did,” Dick confirmed, passing a stack of notes to Bruce. 

Dick continued to explain what he’d read so far while Bruce glanced through the notes.  He heard Dick talking but his mind focused in on the paperwork in his hands.  All the CIA inherited from the bureau was hearsay and conjecture, an entire file of little more than street rumors, what the Falcone family might have been involved with… and nothing at all about a snitch.  Bruce kept looking, his eyes poring through the file looking for anything.  He found himself getting more and more frustrated, like it was right there, hiding in plain sight, if only he could see it…

“You’re losing your mind.”

Bruce’s eyes jumped up at Selina, realizing it had been her voice again.  For some reason, he expected to see her looking back at him, but she was looking at Dick instead. 

“Oh please,” Dick smirked.  “I lost that years ago.”

They both chuckled lightly, but Bruce just stared back and forth between them as Dick rifled through what looked like a stack of criminal records. 

“But that doesn’t mean I don’t remember correctly.  Aha!  Bingo!  The timing fits—Porpora told me about the CIA’s investigation right around the same time that Vaniel would have gotten out of jail…”

Bruce shook his head and refocused on the notes in front of him, but wondered absently if he shouldn’t return to the agency bios, work out who in the Gotham division office would be assigned to a Falcone task force if one had existed… That boy from the circus and the catburglar that meowed and grinned her way past all of Batman’s defenses… sitting there, despite his best efforts, working together sifting through the minutia of federal mob surveillance, and all because he—

“Got it!” Oracle’s hologram shouted suddenly, pulling all of their attention to the screen.  “Bruce, I got it.  Bits of a file hidden under three reformats on an agency hard drive.  There was definitely someone named Vaniel who’d had two meetings with a SAC at the Gotham office at the time this memo was written, and was scheduled for a third.  The fragment of the subject line I recovered has a code that means they’re creating a social security number, and that means witness protection.”

Dick let out a low whistle. 

The Oracle head flickered out and Barbara’s face appeared on the screen.

“Look, Boss, I’ll keep looking.  But given how deep this was buried, I don’t know if there’s anything more to be found electronically.  Now that you know where to look, you’d probably have more luck checking the paper files.”

“She’s right, Bruce,” Dick said definitely.  “If there’s anything about Vaniel in their records, it’ll be there.”

Selina turned to Bruce, and despite the cold void in his eyes, she offered a shy, affectionate smile.

“Breaking into a high-security CIA division office in the heart of downtown Gotham,” Dick prompted.  “Selina, I don’t suppose we could impose on you again to…”

“I wouldn’t mind another outing before sunrise,” she said, still looking at Bruce.  “If I’m wanted.”

For a brief moment their eyes met, and somewhere beneath the vacant expression, she caught the faintest glimmer.  His jaw suddenly set with a new resolve. 

“Let’s go.”

Inside the CIA office, Batman was rifling through a filing cabinet, while Catwoman read through the folders he was stacking for her on the desk after he gave them a quick skim.  Nightwing leaned against a bank of similar cabinets, watching.  He’d already finished his share of the search and found nothing. 

“Is it just me, or was Falcone’s place a lot harder to get into than here?”

Batman grunted noncommittally around the flashlight in his teeth and kept searching through the files.

“Meow,” Catwoman answered without looking up.

“I mean, seriously, it’s the Central Intelligence Agency.  You’d think these guys knew more about security than, well, anyone—eh, I mean, other than Catwoman, obviously.  Maybe they should pick up Falcone just to get some tips on how to secure a base…”

Batman suddenly yanked a file out of the drawer and opened it, his eyes quickly scanning the pages. 

“You find something?” Nightwing swung around so he was peering over Batman’s shoulder at the file.

“Yes.”  Batman dropped the file folder on top of the open drawer and pulled the flashlight out of his mouth, holding it in his hand instead, while Catwoman got up from the desk and peered over his other shoulder.

“A dead end,” Batman grunted disgustedly.  “It says that Vaniel was the informant they were working with to take down Falcone several years ago.  But they eventually had to drop it.”

“Why?”

Lack of credibility in the witness,” Batman read from the file. 

Nobody spoke. 

The words hung in the air, the implication clear: Edward Vaniel was too much of a liar for the CIA to use him.

Batman grunted, then suddenly turned away and harshly whispered a “Dammit!” under his breath.  Catwoman had to step back to avoid his running into her, but she softly moved up behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder.  Nightwing kept scanning the file, pulling out his own flashlight to continue reading.  Not seeming to notice the hand on his shoulder, Batman stood in the center of the room, clenching and unclenching his fists.  He felt like he was so close… so damn close… he just couldn’t fit all the pieces together.

“Oh crap,” Nightwing muttered, “it gets worse.”

Batman and Catwoman both spun back around, eying him curiously. 

“Easy Eddie wanted to make sure that he wasn’t going to get double-crossed by the Agency, so he brought a lawyer with him to all of his conversations with the agents.”

“Not unheard of,” Batman remarked.  “What’s the prob—”

He froze, the wheels turning in his head. 

“It’s not that he had a lawyer with him,” Nightwing continued.  “It’s who the lawyer was…”

Batman guessed the name just as Nightwing read it off the page:

“David Vaniel.”

Batman moved over to join Nightwing back at the cabinet.  There were mentions of David’s assistance in bringing his father in, getting him to work with the Agency on the case against Falcone. 

“He lied to me,” Batman grunted harshly.  “He told me he had nothing to do with his father until he showed up sick.”

“In all fairness,” Selina countered, “he probably didn’t think it was relevant.  If he didn’t know why his dad was asking for you, why toss something like this out there unless he had to.”

“It still begs the question: What else did he lie about?” Batman stared off into nothingness as his mind calculated the possibilities.  Nightwing kept paging through the file.  As she had earlier with Batman, Catwoman picked up the sheets Nightwing wasn’t reading, scanning for details missed on a quick skim. 

“Huh.  It looks like the talks just stopped,” Nightwing was saying.  “They had a meeting on the 15th, everything was proceeding as planned, then the Vaniels suddenly stopped showing up… Wait, here it is… Something came up—threatened the immunity package they were putting toget—”

He froze mid-sentence, stopped by the gentle pressure of a clawed cat hand pressing lightly into his. 

“Br—Batman,” a shaken female voice said weakly. 

Batman returned his attention to the file and felt a lump like a boulder drop into his stomach.  Catwoman was holding a tabbed subfolder marked “Informant Bkgnd and Vetting.” In the file was a newspaper clipping—one he knew well.  It was a Gotham Times cover story about a tragedy in an alley in downtown Gotham—the brutal slaying of Thomas and Martha Wayne.  Next to the headline, handwritten in red ink, were the words:

“Possible Connection?”

To be continued…


 

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