Batman and Catwoman in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 52: Vault

Vault
by Chris Dee

Vault


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Tim Drake Dating Plan: Phase 1

It was kind of funny that Phase 1 was complete before he’d even asked for the date.  Just deciding to put all Grayson-Gordon advice aside had liberated him like nothing else.  Sure Dick and Barbara meant well, but much as Tim had in common with Dick, Barbara had nothing in common with Cassie.  Daughter of a police commissioner; daughter of a professional assassin.  Grew up doing the usual girly stuff; grew up field stripping an AK47 before she’d be given dinner each night.  Master’s degree in library science; used laminated library card as a throwing star. 

So it was better to just put Dick and Barbara’s advice aside and proceed on his own, which he had, and so far it was really working.  He had suggested “meeting a little earlier than they needed to” before patrol so they could “spend some extra time together.”  That was better than asking her on a “DATE” when all her ideas about dating probably came from television sitcoms.  He said he’d pick her up at 7:30, and that she should wear something “comfortable.”  That took care of the costume-or-civvies question.  He himself had a new t-shirt, that was a nice enough gesture for a first date while still ensuring he could change quickly into Robin when the time came…

It was a long time since Matt Hagen attended an opening, let alone an opening in an old movie house.  He wanted to go as himself, his old self.  He had stood before the mirror, morphing through his old headshots, and finally settling on the one night he looked the most glamorous: the London premiere of Space Tempest.  But then he remembered that Cluemaster said that Roxy said that Scarecrow said that Hatter said to keep a low profile.  There wasn’t going to be a red carpet or any paparazzi covering the opening anyway.  It was just a bar, and a Rogue bar at that.  His status among the rogues was as Clayface, not space bounder Lance Starfire played to galactic perfection by Hollywood heartthrob Matt Hagen.  And Clayface, well, there wasn’t anything low profile in that form. 

He decided to put on his latest body.  His neighbor ordered a lot of pizza, and he had been experimenting with the delivery boy.  He just about had it: a little shorter than the original… thinner… and with darker hair… better skin… and, an actor’s touch, a faint scar just over the right eye that Matt decided came from a beating in his late teens when his character was on the high school wrestling team.  He’d dated his best friend’s sister, who cheated on him so he dumped her.  She told her brother some sob story, and the brother beat the crap out of him.  Yeah, that was good.  He thought about that as he tightened the flesh around the scar, getting into character, letting the distrust of that early betrayal sour him on both friendship and romance…  He tightened up the frown lines around the mouth in response and inspected the final result. 

Now a name.  Such an unfulfilled nobody deserved an appropriate name… He thought of those rivals for starring roles who were particularly deserving of the honor… Norris… Seagal.  Yeah.  Norris Seagal, now that was an unhappy nobody.

Matt-Norris nodded at the mirror in satisfaction, and left for the opening of Vault.

AIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-UNGH!

You never get used to those abrupt landings on the hood of a moving car, and a little European mini is no exception.  I felt the impact throb outward from my knee and made a mental note to be nice to it for a while, and the ankle too. 

I slid off the hood, gave the driver a friendly half-wave with the whip handle so maybe he’d consider the whole event as mundane as I did… and went back to the Widder to see about getting another room. 

I have the worst luck with hotel rooms in Europe!  At least this one wasn’t actually blown up; it was just a little fire.  But I doubted the management would see it that way, especially since I’d set it.  But really, what else are you supposed to do when you realize you’re being followed when you haven’t been in town long enough to raise any hackles?  I did what any savvy cat would do: I laid a little trap.  I went out for a walk through the neighborhood, lost him/her/them long enough to change into the catsuit, and circled back to see what would happen…

Eurothug was ransacking my room, that’s what was happening. 

And since I hadn’t even unpacked yet, it was damn unlikely he was really searching for anything in the drawers and closets.  I crept in closer… the room had a little entrance hall that let me get in close without being seen… My uninvited guest was busy stripping pillowcases off the bed—for effect, one presumes, there was no practical reason for it—and while he was busy with that, I got my hands on this black bag on the floor that wasn’t mine and certainly didn’t come from the hotel.  Sure enough, I found a little bottle of chloroform inside and a slightly larger bottle of kerosene, enough to start a blaze but not an inferno. 

As near as I can figure, he meant for me to return and see the room ransacked before he jumped me, then he’d knock me out, set the room on fire, and I’d wake up (we hope) in the middle of the burning room.  So probably not trying to actually kill me, just scare me off the case and out of town.  Not that I cared what the point was, Kitty doesn’t let things like that pass.  I snuck back out—with his gear—blocked the door, and set a little blaze of my own.  Turnabout is fair play.  Meow. 

He had to jump through the window to escape the fire, and of course I was waiting right there to punch his lights out when he did.  Tapped him on the shoulder, just like a Bat with an axe to grind. 

Unfortunately, he had a better block than I expected and a decent swing of his own.  I don’t like the sound of sirens any more than he did, and the whole punching-running-jumping chase through Rennweg and Unaniastrasse just landed me on the hood of a mini coop while Eurothug got away.  Woof!

Twenty minutes later, I was re-settled in a new room and took stock of what I knew:

I hadn’t been in Zurich two hours before this guy came after me.  There’s absolutely no reason to think a random brunette checking into the Wittmer is bad news, so my nemesis had to be watching Bernard.  If he was keeping an eye on the senior partners and Bernard suddenly left the country, came back a day later with a strange American, then okay.  Check her out/scare her off…

But there was no reason to be watching anybody AFTER the heist.  Before, yes, you watch.  You watch to work out a victim’s routine: when they come home and when they go out if it’s a residence, when guards patrol a museum, when the salesman empties out the display cases for the night and stores the gems in the safe.  But then you go in, get the sparkly, get out, and treat yourself to a bowl of cream for a job well done.  If this guy was still watching the partners, that could only mean he wasn’t done with the vault.  He’d already breached it, Bernard said so.  But he hadn’t made the big score?  What the fuck was he doing, taking little things that wouldn’t be missed like some pilfering accountant? 

I was disgusted.  Absolutely disgusted.  This Mousy Maurice wasn’t worthy of a vault out of legend. 

Tim Drake Dating Plan: Phase 2

“Movie good.”

So far so good.  Cassie liked the idea of seeing a movie.  She even liked the idea of seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark instead of some chick flick with Hugh Grant carrying on the way no man with an actual spine, penis, or an iota of self-respect would dream of carrying on.  She liked Harrison Ford—or rather “Like Han Solo.   Funny.  Scoundrel.  Have big hamster for copilot.”

That was the first snag, really.  “Know from Stephanie.”  She knew Harrison Ford was Han Solo because she’d seen Star Wars with Stephanie.  It seemed like everything she knew from the real world she’d learned of through Steph.  Tim spent the first half of the movie trying not to think about it, and then getting mad when he couldn’t think of anything else.  Then he got mad at Cassie for being so insulated and limited, and then felt bad for getting mad when it wasn’t her fault.  Finally he got mad at himself again for being such an insane jerk trying to date his dead girlfriend’s best friend and…

Oh shit.  That’s when it really got ugly.  Oh shit.  Oh shit.  Oh shit.

…He just thought how lucky it was they were watching an old movie that he’d seen a hundred times before.  He hadn’t been paying a bit of attention, but since he already knew what happened, he could talk about it afterwards and Cassie would never know… And there it was… Oh shit.  Oh shit.  Oh shit.

Indy was in a dingy bar, hunched over a glass of expensive bourbon because he thought Marion was dead.  Belloq was doing the whole “not my fault, I didn’t bring her into this” and in a few minutes…

“I uh, I gotta, bathroom or, I’ll be back in a bit,” Tim whispered and worked his way through the narrow row of seats.  Then he sprinted up the stairs three at a time.  He exited out the back of the lecture hall and doubled over, feeling he might throw up, while at the same time clenching his eyes tight against threatening tears.

Indy thought Marion was dead, but in a few minutes, he was going to walk into a tent and see her gagged and tied to a chair—but very much alive—and Tim couldn’t quite take seeing that with thoughts of Stephanie so fresh his mind.

He would just wait.  He knew the movie well enough, he could judge when it was safe to go back in.  God he was so stupid.  How could he be so stupid as to— the thought was cut short as the door started to swing open and Tim just knew Cassie had followed him.  Couldn’t she even understand going to take a leak?

“I said I’d be right back,” he told her irritably.

“Body language say sad,” she answered.

“…”

“Say mad all time before.  Then sad.”

“No, no it was just a little hot in there.  I needed some air, that’s all.”

“Tim lie.”

“Yes, okay, ‘Tim lie.’  Lotta that goes on during a date, Cassie.  If you ask what I’m thinking, and I’m waiting for Marion to show up on deck in the white nightie that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination, I’m going to lie and you should pretend to believe me!”

“We on date?”

“Eh…”

“That why sad? Think of Stephanie?”

“Yeah.  Yeah something like that.”

“I think of her too.  Because of Han Solo.”

Tim couldn’t hold back the laugh.  God, she could cut through the melodrama like no one else.

“He’s not Han Solo in this.  He’s Indy.”

“I know.  Indiana Jones.  Know from Stephanie.  Named for dog.”

“Rrrright.  Tell you what, why don’t we go back inside, see the end of this, and maybe during patrol you can tell me all the movies Steph told you about.”

“Catwoman gave me the combination,” Norris Seagal confided to the doorman. 

Mark scowled at the nondescript stranger.  Sly said anyone who gave a legitimate password could enter, but that Mark should give them a bit of a show before letting them in.  Really look them over like he was sizing them up, add a little note of suspense and excitement to the whole proceeding.

“Okay,” Mark nodded finally.  He pushed a button which once operated Two-Face’s perimeter defenses, meant to call down an array of bi-fractal lasers on vigilante intruders.  Now it activated a motor from an ordinary garage door opener.  Behind him, a false “wall” that was really an ordinary sliding door with a paint job was pulled along its track, and Mark stepped aside to allow the newcomer to enter “the vault.”

“Thanks” Norris said, stretching out into his natural Clayface form as soon as he was inside.

Although he didn’t breathe in the conventional sense, Matt sucked in extra air for the sole purpose of letting out a low, impressed whistle.  What had once been the lobby of the Flick Theatre was transformed into a gleaming, multi-level wonderland of theme-chic.  Waitresses marched around like security guards—if security guards wore their uniform shirts three sizes too small, unbuttoned past their cleavage, and short shorts.  On each side of the bar, a costumed “guard” stood at the base of a winding staircase.  The stairs once led movie-goers to the balcony.  Now, judging by the velvet ropes they “guarded,” they led to a VIP room. 

The bar itself was the centerpiece of the main level.  Everything led the eye back to it, its natural art deco features augmented with lighting, gears, steel bars and the rest of Two-Face’s laser defense grid to suggest a fortress of steel and technology protecting a sultan’s ransom of treasure.  Glittering samples of that treasure were interspersed among the liquor bottles behind Sly.  Little stacks of jewels peaked out from between bottles of Grey Goose and Absolut, while gold bars and bundled cash were wedged between Johnny Walker and Glenundrom.  Clayface peered closely at the money bundles, extended a hand like a long crane, and picked one up for closer inspection.  Sly didn’t seem to care as the clay hand passed overhead.  He merely looked up at it, followed it back to its source, and waved cheerily.

“Hey there, Mr.  Hagen!” he yelled over the crowd.  “One mudslide, coming up!”

Clayface nodded and examined the money bundle—then laughed uproariously.  The band around the center read $5000 National Bank of Gotham.  On the top, a convincing $50 bill; on the bottom, a convincing looking backside of a $50 bill; and in between, blank paper cut to the appropriate size. 

“Where did you get all these movie props?” he asked as soon as he reached the bar to claim his mudslide.

“We lucked out,” Sly winked.  “It all happened cause we hit a snag with the girls’ costumes.  I had gone to a, well, I guess you’d call it a lingerie store.  They had some ‘dress up’ outfits for security guards and stuff, but as soon as the girls saw them, they started complaining that they wouldn’t be durable enough to get through a single night.  Sparrow is friendly with a lot of the groupies.  She made a few calls and found out about this costumer a lot of the B-listers use for henchmen and wenches if they can’t afford Kittlemeier.  Turns out, this guy works at the Hijinx Playhouse, you know, where Miss Catwoman did that show.  And they still had all this stuff from her set in storage.  He said nobody’d miss it and we could help ourselves.  Really adds to the atmosphere, doesn’t it?”

“Very impressive,”  Clayface nodded as one of the “guards” came up to the bar and slipped Sly a note. 

“Would you say nine out of ten?” he asked.

“More like forty-nine out of fifty,” the waitress answered.

Sly’s brow knit in confusion.

“Okay, well, it is what it is.  Thanks.”

Tim Drake Dating Plan: Phase 3

It was the oddest patrol since AzBat.  That night he’d hacked into the unstable, heavily armored, borderline-homicidal vigilante’s patrol route and tried to stay one step ahead all night, clearing street gangs and drug dealers out of his path before he could slice any throats open with those deadly shuriken. 

Tonight wasn’t anything like that; Batgirl didn’t have murder on her mind.  She’d just flit from talk of Star Wars and Phoenix Ninja to “yakuza six o’clock.” Then she’d jump down and have a dainty bat-boot on one’s throat and another in a choke hold before Robin had fired a line.  So he was straining to keep one step ahead, spot any perps before she did, but still follow her conversation like a good date should.  It’s just that Cassie’s conversation took a little more concentration than most, and he only had two eyes and two ears.

“New trilogy no have Han Solo.  Have big hamsters though.  Lots of hamsters in third movie.  No Han Solo though.  Don’t like new trilogy.”

And in the split second it took him to remember big hamsters were wookies, wonder where she picked up the word “trilogy,” and agree about the new movies, she spotted a kid in a red bandana breaking into a Lexus.  Robin had no sooner cuffed the creep and called it in to Oracle, when Batgirl performed the pirouette air spike Phoenix Ninja had awarded her avatar when she won her 500th game.

“You probably shouldn’t do that,” Tim grumbled when they returned to the rooftop.  “Phoenix Ninja isn’t sold here.  It’s just available in Japan.  You don’t want to do anything in public that could tie us to Bruce.”

“You think glass jaw car thief recognize special win dance from game no can get here?”

“N-not necessarily, but there’s no point taking chances.”

“Even if play game, would have to win 500 times like SilentShogee to see special win dance.”

“Yes, that’s true but…”

“You play game.  You not win 500 times.”

“I know.  Forget it.  I was saying, it can’t hurt to be careful, but never mind.  Forget I spoke.”

“Dick say win thousand game, get easy egg.”

“Easter egg, the little extras they hide in games are called Easter eggs.  But that one is just an internet rumor.  It is not going to turn your avatar into the actual Phoenix Ninja if you win a thousand games.”

“That what you say about SilentShogee special win dance.”

She repeated the move, and Robin looked down into the alley, praying a mugger would show himself.

Vault had no equivalent of the Iceberg dining room, so Sly had sectioned off the balcony floor as a VIP level to give high-ticket customers a private place to congregate.  He pointed Clayface to the velvet ropes with assurances that Raven would be at the top of the stairs, managing “the list” just as efficiently as she did her reservation book at the Iceberg and generally keeping the crowd grouped in ways that would not lead to gunfire.  Before he left, Sly asked ever so casually how Clayface heard about the club, its new location and password.  Hagen said he’d got it from Cluemaster, who got it straight from Roxy Rocket, who…

Sly didn’t listen beyond that.  If Hagen heard from Cluemaster, he should have given “Cluemaster gave me the combination” as a password.  Sly was very proud of that idea.  It would give them a nightly overview of where their customers were coming from.  Except it wasn’t working.  Apart from four people Sly told, six that Raven told, Feather’s roommate, and two each from Dove and Peahen, everyone else was naming the same person: “Catwoman gave me the combination.”

It had to be Mad Hatter’s doing.  The complexities of the “so-and-so sent me” formula were too much for him, so he fell back on the example: “Catwoman gave me the combination.”  Well… it was a shame from a market research perspective, but for better or worse, it looked like that was their password now.  Sly couldn’t worry about it.  He had a much more serious problem: he’d just opened his last bottle of Wild Turkey.  A bar couldn’t run out of bourbon, it just couldn’t.  Mr.  Hagen said that all opening nights are plagued by some kind of disaster, but as disasters went, if Sly had to choose between Batman crashing through the ceiling and challenging Joker to a bartender-throwing contest or running out of the Ghost Dragons’ most requested brand of whiskey, he’d have to think about it.

He sent Sparrow to the nearest liquor store, but he didn’t know the neighborhood well enough to know where it was or how long she might be.  And he just saw Dove unhooking the velvet ropes to admit a party of Ghost Dragons to the VIP room…  It was one of those moments, time for a command decision.  Sly checked the bottles behind him, confirming what he already knew: plenty of Stoli.

“Catwoman gave me the combination,” they all said to get in.  Well, so be it.  He signaled to Feather and told her that Catwoman’s martini was now the house drink.  Tonight only, it would be half price.  Be sure to tell the Ghost Dragons when she went up to take their orders.

AIIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE-SPLASH!

Okay, now I was pissed.  I’ve given up trying to explain that cats don’t hate water.  What they hate is having to re-groom wet fur that they had just perfect before the damn water came along and ruined the whole night’s work.  That’s why I was pissed.  It wasn’t being WET, it was being swept into an underground RIVER by a sprung booby trap that I HAD ALREADY BYPASSED!!!  The whole night’s work wrecked! I had spent—  I had just— I had made it!  I was there!  I was right there at the business entrance of the vault out of legend and now— now I was DRIPPING WET hauling my furry ass out of Lake Zurich!!! 

My boots actually made a wet squishy sound as I trudged back to Paradeplatz.

I had squishy boots. 

Bernard had told me only that the vault entrance was under the DAZ building.  Even that was more than I wanted to know.  A case like this, I don’t want any help from the people I’d be planning to rob.   I want to approach it like the thief did, face every problem he did, answer every question for myself.  Still, since the damage was done, I let Bernard take me down to the basement level in this old-fashioned handcrank elevator.  It looked like a lot of basements in small office buildings.  There were boxes of old file folders, antiquated adding machines, and an office chair with a broken armrest.  There was an “old paper” smell.  And in the very back, behind archival boxes of (Bernard assured me) non-sensitive paperwork, there was a simple door with chipped paint and a not so simple timelock. 

“LeFebure,” I noted.  “Same kind as your vault upstairs.”

“Why am I not surprised you’ve inspected our locks upstairs,” Bernard smiled.

It would be a foolish thief that didn’t, given what I kept there.  I had gone so far as to buy a LeFebure myself and take it apart.  They’re a beautiful collection of intricate gears, just like you’d expect from any Swiss timepiece, and they’re incredibly hard to beat.  But for my purposes I seldom had to.  They’re meant to stop embezzlers.  All a timelock really ensures is that someone who legitimately has the combination can only use it during business hours.  When you’re cracking a safe my way…  Of course, this wasn’t a safe.  It was an ordinary door.

I had to wait until midnight to see what the ordinary door opened, and to say it was an anti-climax would be an understatement.  At first it just looked like more basement.  Metal steps and railings, and a raised walkway around a very damp, open space in the center, layers of eroding brick and stone… until my eyes adjusted to the dim light and I started to see patterns in the shapes of weathered stones. 

“Looks like Roman ruins,” I whispered to nobody.

I had no reason to think that was the timeframe.  It’s just the only reference I had for blocks of stone that had once been the foundations for something.  I’ve never been one who can look at a pile of rocks grown over with moss and say “those were supports for towering columns, those were the arches of an ancient temple, that was a bathhouse.”  But I could see that it had been something.  That was the though as I followed the ruins through a series of increasingly damp and rancid-smelling passages.  Whatever it was, it was something manmade, something planned, and something… 

The thought trailed off when I came to the first skull. 

Now, a human skull really isn’t something you run into much breaking into jewelry stores, and I felt I should, um, pay respect in a way.  I didn’t want to just step over the thing like a loose chunk of Roman road.  I also wondered what happened to the rest of the guy.  So I squatted down with those twin thoughts vying for dominance: pay respect to the dead, and, if I could, figure out how he got that way (for the admittedly selfish reason of knowing if there was a head-lobbing booby trap nearby).  That’s when I saw a weird little glyph etched into the bone.  I had to scrape off a fair amount of crusted rock-slime before I could make out what it actually… was…  Two stick men riding a horse.  A symbol of the Knights Templar.

I took a deep breath, still finding it hard to believe this was happening.  A vault out of legend, Bernard had said.  I thought I believed him, but I guess I didn’t completely.  It wasn’t real until that moment, holding someone’s former head in my glove with the rock-slime still clinging to my claws that had been in the crevices of this symbol for who knows how long.

Well, okay, I thought, good news.   Nobody is born with a symbol like that naturally carved in their skull, so this guy didn’t just rot where he fell.  Somebody put him there, and I had to assume it was done as a warning.  I proceeded with caution…

…and right into trap number 1.  A stone tunnel that was just a little too narrow, unnecessarily narrow.  That usually meant some kind of motion sensor.  Now what would the 14th century equivalent of a motion sensor be?  Something would have to “trigger” it and without modern technology…

It was dark down there, and the passage ahead became absolutely black as it narrowed.  It occurred to me that while I had infrared lenses in my cowl and a battery-powered flashlight, the assumption of the time would be light means fire.  I forged ahead, inspecting the walls on both sides of the passage at what I assumed to be “torch height.”  And sure enough, I found a block of wax, not that well camouflaged, with some kind of weighted gizmo and a gear inside.  If that wax melted, I didn’t know what was going to be set in motion, but I’d bet it would be bad for kitty.

I found two skulls next, and the trap they announced was trickier.  There was a niche in the wall with six notches and bin of at least thirty stones carved with all kinds of symbols.  Some look Arabic, some Greek, some I couldn’t make any sense out of at all.  I assumed it was a “combination” thing in that the right symbols had to be placed in the correct notches in a certain sequence.  I knew there were going to be puzzle-combinations like this, I just knew it.  Every damn movie you see that has anything to do with Templar knights… but then every movie you see with Swiss banks gets something wrong too, so maybe I had entertained a faint hope that I wouldn’t have to be deciphering bible verses in Latin, Greek, and Aramaic.  Still, there it was.  Sooner or later, there was going to be a lightning round of Crusader trivia to get to the prize—but maybe not just yet. 

There’s a simple rule in safecracking, you do it the easiest way you can.  You look to see if Bunny Wigglesworth keeps the combination written down in the righthand drawer of her makeup table before you spend three hours trying to cold crack it.  In this case, I didn’t expect to see the combination etched into the stone wall so the knights wouldn’t forget, that would certainly defeat the purpose.  But there could still be an easier way than solving multicultural word scrambles in dead languages.  Most locks can be defeated by understanding how they work…  Problem here was I had no CLUE how this medieval monstrosity worked, or what it was meant to do.  But I did know one thing, these people were short. 

It first dawned on me when the wax panel for the torch trap was lower than I had guessed, and as I continued on, ducking and hunching my way through the catacombs, I was becoming more and more aware that this whole setup was built by engineers with a 5’4” view of the world.  This particular passage cut through a relatively cavernous opening, I could just about climb over it—as long as I didn’t mind risking the fall.  If I fell and hit their pathway, it would undoubtedly trigger the whatever.  If I fell and missed their path, it would be one ugly trip down a deep and spiky-looking crevice of black.  But then, I didn’t intend to fall…

…Five.  I had got past FIVE of the rockslide, waterwheel, steam valve, swing blade, poison dart, sandpit, steel spike deathtraps.  I had finally made it to an opening ahead that would make Bruce positively giddy as a secret underground of cavernous wonders, when SOMEONE behind me reset the damn five-skull pressure chamber and this rocky clicking sound was followed by rocky grinding noise, a wooden clacking and then the unmistakable roar of rushing water—right before a wash of VERY cold, VERY smelly underground river swept through.  Before I could even breathe, let alone process that it wasn’t the entrance to secret cave of Bruce-giddy wonders whipping off in the other direction, but me that was in motion, with the river rapids knocking my feet out from under me and sweeping me off who knows where... 

Tim Drake Dating Plan: Phase 4

Those who appreciate the charm of an all-night trough like Big Nick’s call it a Gotham City institution.  Those who don’t call it a greasy spoon.  The tables need a wash.  The waitstaff needs a wash.  But the burgers are big and juicy, the pizza comes fast (and with a strange metallic flavor that somehow adds to the appeal rather than detracting), and the night people who drift in between two and four bring an atmosphere of pure, undiluted Gotham.  It was the ideal spot for a post-patrol bite, and Robin was patting himself on the back for the impeccable timing as they reached the upper westside.  Another fifteen minutes of patrol would land them right in front of Big Nick’s just as he was signing out of the OraCom for the night.  He was already salivating for a sumo burger, and figuring that since Cassie was a first-timer, he’d recommend one of those sticky grilled cheese sandwiches made with that thick Texas toast… when he heard the soft click of the OraCom mic being switched on.

“Close by close by close by,” he chanted mentally.

“Getting some weird chatter on the south side,” the cool Oracle voice announced as an invisible hand whisked the sumo burger away from Robin’s grimacing lips.  “Croc, Cluemaster, a couple Ghost Dragons, and a possible Joker henchman all sighted within a few blocks of each other.  The sightings were hours apart; could be a coincidence.  But still, you two better check it out.  Just do a quick swing through the neighborhood before you call it a night.”

The south side. 

The south side.

Where the heck did you go on the south side for a late night burger???

As hostess of the Iceberg Lounge, Raven could peg any rogue’s importance in the Gotham underworld.  She could do it instantly and with greater accuracy than any Bat-operative, police, federal agent, or academic criminologists.  She brought that same savvy to Vault’s VIP room and had spaced Ventriloquist, Double Dare, Cluemaster, and Roxy Rocket at relatively equal intervals, their modest stature raising the hip quotient of only a few surrounding tables.  She was reserving two big clusters of tables for the heavy hitters, if any showed.  Joker, Riddler, Ivy and Scarecrow were all at Arkham, but you never knew when there might be a mass escape…

When Clayface showed up, she decided he was the star of the night and showed him to the central table.  It would fall on him alone to raise the stature of Ghost Dragons slurping down half-price lucky cat martinis, DEMON minions wolfing down fire wings, and Maxie Zeus trying to pick up Magpie. 

In their relatively remote booth, Akiki and Margot Marceau, known to circus audiences and police as Double Dare, were telling the story again to a new group of admirers.  How, once upon a time, when this was a Two-Face hideout, they had been lured to this very theatre, to that stage right down there, by rumors of a fabulous set of twin jewels Face had acquired.  At least, Margot was telling the story again.  Akiki’s attention was now drifting, more and more, in Matt Hagen’s direction.  She didn’t seem to be looking with admiration, however.  She was staring. 

Matt obligingly let his right arm fall limp, glurp down into a separate entity, roll across the room to Double Dare’s table, and then morph into his pre-clay appearance, sporting Grant Gifford’s haircut and costume from the nightclub scene in Advocate for Love. 

“Never seen a shapeshifter before?” he asked smoothly.

“Oh sure, we had one at the circus,” Akiki answered.  “Never seen a mud man though.”

“Ah.”

There was a strained silence.  Then Matt tried once more.

“I’m still better looking than Blockbuster, right?”

“Well, he was no charmer,” Akiki admitted, “but...  you’re gooey.”

“How rude.”

Grant Gifford and Clayface’s heads whipped around as if operated by the same set of muscles.  The voice had come from his table, where—hello—where a much more attractive figure was seating herself beside his body.  “Grant” glorped down to a puddle and inched inconspicuously back to rejoin the rest of his body, which now had his full attention.

“It’s Roxy, isn’t it?” he said with a twinkle.

“Yep.  Mind if I sit?  Don’t know why those Double Troubles have such a high opinion of themselves.  I was with Harv for a while, y’know.  He was a kick.  Stuck up bitches.  Anyway, don’t know if you know this, but we did a movie together once.  That Stargate ripoff, Curse of the Mafdet.  We never saw each other, natch.  I was on the second unit.  Stunt double for that lion chick that ran up the pole and executed the guy with the razor claw and fought snakes…”

She chattered on.  She seemed to have an amazing talent for chattering on without encouragement, so Matt let her talk.  He remembered the picture.  It was true he didn’t work with second units.  On Mafdet, he didn’t work with anyone, really.  He was an egyptologist for one scene, then got transformed into a CGI creature with a falcon head.  He did all his lines in a recording studio with a soundman from Canada, who’d spent all his time on the phone because he was buying a house, selling a house, getting a divorce, or some combination of those, some rat’s nest of a personal nightmare that Matt didn’t want to know about.  It was a crap job, and Matt wouldn’t have taken it a year later once he hit it big.

“…and that’s when I said ‘Look, you can spend all that money on computer animation, or you can just put the snake on my head and I’ll dive into the lava pool right now…’”

She was still talking. 

Well, she was no Catwoman (even if she had doubled the lion chick with the razor claw, and even if she was drinking Selina’s martini) but she did have a nice voice.  Even without that purr that made his mud ripple, it was awfully nice to spend an evening listening to a woman’s voice (as long as she wasn’t calling him “gooey” or delivering a lecture on plants and the goddesses who love them).  To amuse his new friend, Clayface morphed into the falcon-headed servant of Mafdet, no CGI required.

She was tickled—and her laugh was very, very nice. 

The DEMON minions in the corner were a little freaked out by the sudden appearance of a birdhead with the body of a man in an Egyptian toga, but you never knew what set those guys off.

Tim Drake Dating Plan: Revised

“Okay, we throw our com units in the river so they can’t track us.  Go to the Batcave, use the Justice League transporter to get to the Watchtower.  Then I call Conner from there and he takes us to Seattle, so there’s no more transport trail to follow.  You ever been to Seattle?  It’s a nice town, lotsa bookstores, internet cafes ‘n stuff.  From there, I use a public computer to reactivate the Alvin Draper identity as Alva Draper.  That’ll be you.  Like it was a typo, you get it?”

“No get.”

“Doesn’t matter.  We’re going to be Alvin and Alva Draper when we fly to Honolulu, enroll at Kapiolani Community College and… and take classes in whatever the hell they teach at Kapiolani Community College until this all blows over.”

“No get.”

Tim sank down onto the fire escape outside Cassie’s apartment, the spot for which he had such high hopes when the evening began.  He worked his fingers underneath his mask and rubbed his temples.  Cassie, clueless as ever, held out her OraCom.

“You tell.”

“I don’t want to tell them, Cass.  And I want to be several thousand miles away when they find out.  Bruce is going to, to… I can’t even imagine what Bruce is going to do.  I just think I’d like to be at a nice tropical island safety school when it happens.”

“Because Catwoman new queen of underworld?”

“I’m… sure there must be something wrong with that information.”

“Three sources confirm.  Build new Iceberg.  Use name get in.  Use things from cat-tale show.  Special martini is house drink—but no get what that means.”

“There has to be a mistake.  Cass, there is just no way Selina would do this.”

“Three sources confirm.  Tambov and Deadshot and dealer from Triad.  All say Catwoman is new Penguin.” 

“I know.  Cass, I know.  I was there, I heard them.  And I don’t want to be the one calling in that report.”

“Batman not blame you.”

“Oh no?  You never heard the one about killing the messenger?”

“Batman not kill.”

“That’s the theory, but I’d still rather not test it.”

“Get up.”

Robin felt an insistent tug on his cape, pulling him to his feet.

“You need go home now.  Make report.”

“I know.  I know.  We who are about to die…”

“Tim?”

“Yeah.”

Thin, strangely strong arms sprung into motion, wrapping around his arms and back, squeezing him into a tight hug.

“Know what you try do tonight.  Was sweet.  Had good time.”

Manly instinct started to protest, but Tim wisely envisioned SilentShogee’s vicious high kick-neck chop combination flattening manly instinct to a twitching heap.  He very carefully shifted his left shoulder, then his right, just like he would loosening up before escaping Joker’s straitjacket, until he had enough freedom of motion to wrap his arms around Cassie’s back and return the hug.

No evening at a pseudo-Iceberg would be complete without some skirmish, and no minion initiated into the cult of Ra’s al Ghul could ignore the sudden appearance of Qebsenneuf, fourth son of Horus, in their midst.  They approached with sabers drawn, and before long all four weapons were plunged into Clayface’s chest.  He allowed each to run him through, then clamped around it so it couldn’t be withdrawn.  No follower of Ra’s al Ghul would allow his weapon to be lost in a filthy tavern brawl, so they charged him over and over, each pulling on their saber as if it were Excalibur… and having about as much success getting it out. 

Matt bore it patiently until Fi’nul used his foot for leverage, placing it high on what would be Clayface’s thigh if he was bothering with a body below the waist right now.  That was getting a little too forward, and he sprouted into a 10-foot falcon—the whole bird, not just the head—and gave an indignant get-the-fuck-away-from-me squawk to emphasize the point.

The minions fled, leaving their sabers behind, and Sly came up from the bar to survey the damage.  A few overturned tables, a few broken glasses, a few spilled drinks.  A worthy christening for a new Iceberg. 

A new round of drinks was ordered for everybody, on Matt’s tab as was the custom after a brawl.  He and Roxy sat again at their table, which now had four DEMON sabers lying across the center.  Roxy made a very dirty and very funny joke about the mud dripping off them— gooey” indeed—and as the ranking rogue in the room, Matt Hagen was ready to pronounce Vault a success.

AAAAAAARGGGHHHH-fuckfuckfuck!

Something else you never get used to: getting shot!  I don’t especially care that the bullet barely grazed my arm and the glorified scratch didn’t even bleed (much).  The point was it HURT!  A LOT!  And with the day I was having, I was way past looking on the bright side.

After being washed out to sea, it was too damn late to start all over again at the DAZ entrance.  I could beat that timelock but it would take (duh) time, and in the basement of an office building that would be quickly filling up with people, it just wasn’t worth it.  So the return trip into the vault itself would have to wait, but that didn’t mean my day would be wasted… 

To be continued…


 

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