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

Vault
by Chris Dee

Queen of the Underworld


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Buying a diamond in Gotham’s diamond district has been likened to buying a prostitute in Hanoi: supply far exceeds demand.  You can spend a day moving from one dingy stall to another, staring at merchandise which looks exactly the same yet differs dramatically in price.  Sellers—many of whom have a thuggish aura about them—can be aggressive.  Some will even stand on the street and openly solicit you if you so much as slow down near their door.  And then there’s the haggling…  It is not an activity for the naïve, the ill-informed, or for any lacking the confidence of a bullfighter. 

Sly moved along the stalls of 47th street with the assured gait of a native Gothamite, a quality the savviest dealers could recognize.  The less experienced, and those simply blinded by greed, saw only the farmboy good looks and the butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth smile.  They moved in too quickly, and with the wrong assumption.  “Here to buy an engagement ring?  I can spot’em a mile away.”

Sly looked around in exaggerated bewilderment. 

“If you mean me, that’s a lot closer than a mile you’re standing.”

Then came the oily salesman laugh. 

“Such a clever boy, I like you.  And I’m right about the ring, right?  Getting ready to poppa the question?”

“Not even close, dude.” 

And he walked on—except once.  One time, when Sly shut down the pushy huckster, he heard a loud slap behind him and a deep roaring laugh that almost sounded like Joker.  Sly turned in alarm and saw a short man, about sixty, in Hassidic dress.  He had a salt and pepper beard, a rosy flush that suggested Santa Claus as he laughed, and sharp, shrewd eyes that danced with amusement.

“You told him, Sonnyboy,” the man said, slapping his thigh once more. 

He introduced himself as Shlomo Feinberg, and told Sly to follow.  They went into one of the bigger diamond exchanges, up several floors, beyond all the shiny, well-kept showrooms, to a simple door labeled Mishaan & Feinberg. 

Bruce was beginning to worry.  Twice Selina had opened her mouth as if about to speak, and twice she seemed to reconsider, closing it again without saying a word.  Twice she looked over at the crumpled mass of cape and costumes on the floor where they had made love.  It was as if she feared some vital part of her intellect had been jostled loose, something necessary for higher reasoning that she needed in order to deal with him.  It was lost in there amidst the gauntlets and batarangs, and she couldn’t figure out how to get it back without arousing his suspicions. 

“If I wasn’t jetlagged, would this be making sense?” she asked suddenly.

Bruce shook his head, relieved that she had at least recovered the power of speech, and mentally warned Psychobat to stay silent, stay put, and stay out of it.

“Not a bit, don’t even hope,” he said reassuringly.

“Okay then,” she said thoughtfully.  She sipped her coffee as if the conversation was over.  After a minute of this, she looked up at him with a bright smile as if they were in bed at home and she was just waking up.  But instead of the usual “Good morning, Handsome” she said “Okay, hit me.”

“Is there,” Cassie said, grabbing the remote from Tim and pointing to the screen.  “Indiana Jones go meet bad man, have monkey on shoulder.  See?”

“Yeah Cass, I know.  He thinks he just got Marion killed.  I told you, I’ve seen this movie a dozen times.”

“Forget sap love story, watch monkey.  Monkey look off that way.”  She turned behind her and pointed to a lamp on the end table.  “Something stand right there.  Monkey watch.  5 feet 8 inch high.  Monkey watch all time.  Is very important whatever stand there.”

“Probably his trainer.  His trainer would be on the set giving signals and—”

“There!  Bad man walk in front.  You not pay attention!  Look now!  Bad man walk, monkey lose sight of thing in back.  Freak out.  Is very funny.”

Tim stared at the screen in wonder, then at Cassie in awe.

“I’ve seen this movie a hundred times and I never saw that,” he laughed.

Cassie smiled, although she didn’t get the joke.

“Miss best part if not watch monkey.”

Tim was starting to agree. 

“Okay then, let’s go back to the beginning and watch the monkey.”

Sly wasn’t worried about the actual bargaining.  He had locked eyes with Two-Face to enforce the Iceberg’s happy hour policy.  He’d stood toe to toe with Joker to enforce an ad hoc “no beating Catman with a crowbar in front of TV cameras” policy.  He wasn’t going to be intimidated by a little diamond dealer.

His only real worry was time.  The beer distributor was taken care of before he left, but there were other deliveries coming after one.  He checked his watch and ground his teeth.  Raven was there to sign for any deliveries, but she didn’t always check what she was signing for, didn’t count up the boxes or make sure the packing slips matched the purchase order…  He really couldn’t afford this time away from a fledgling business.  But he also couldn’t afford to stash any more payoffs in the money bundles behind the bar.

The first time it happened, Sly had no idea how much of a problem money could be.  Firefly’s cute little henchwench Char came down from the VIP room and slipped him an envelope.  It was “the house cut” she said.  Cut of what, he had no idea.  Some deal closed on the premises, he guessed.  Sly never had anything to do with whatever arrangements Oswald made with the criminal clientele.  Any payoffs like this must have been made in the office, behind closed doors.  Whatever was done with the money, Sly had no clue.  He knew you couldn’t just take something like that to the bank, so he stuffed the envelope in the box of cocktail napkins under the bar and waited until closing.  Then he counted it: $5,500.  It occurred to him that was very nearly a nice round number.  He swapped $5,000 for one of the prop bundles of cash behind the bar, took the $500 that was left, and applied all but twenty to Firefly’s tab, leaving him with a nice $140 credit.  The twenty he deposited in his tip jar.  It was high time somebody put something larger than a one in there.

The system worked for the first few nights, but before long Vince Onetti, the Petrof Brothers, and Maxie Zeus’s gal Aphrodite were all slipping him envelopes before the bell even rang on happy hour.  All the money bundles had been replaced, and the box under the bar was overflowing with bulging envelopes, with only a thin layer of cocktail napkins spread on top in a hopeful but ineffective attempt at camouflage.  He simply had to exchange the cash for something smaller, something he could set behind the bar as just another bit of Vault treasure.  Two of Shlomo’s $60,000 diamonds should do the trick nicely.

“Say that again?” I asked, trying to wrap my brain around the news.

“Queen of the underworld,” he repeated distinctly. 

When I got back from Zurich the first time, Bruce asked if I was hoping to provoke a confrontation in the lair with Batman.  The truth was, I hadn’t known what I was shooting for, I just knew I had to do something.  Now, returned from the second trip, it seemed I was actually getting one of those old-style Bat drop-ins.  Granted, it was a little different when he was unmasked, naked to the waist, and sipping coffee from a Cat-Tales mug, but it was still… he was still…

“Queen of the underworld?”

“For the third time, yes.”

“Queen like in ‘God save our gracious,’ chess piece that can move in any direction, the lady giving all the orders; underworld as in criminal element, all the bad guys, organized and the other sort, object of your nightly pummels?”

He grunted.

“And how did I manage this?”

“That’s what we’ve spent days trying to piece together.  You built a new club to replace the Iceberg, retaining Oswald’s entire staff.  That masterstroke made the transfer utterly seamless, invisible to the outside world and nearly invisible to law enforcement.  The underground operatives went on doing exactly what they always have and reporting to the middlemen they always have.  The quickest and least violent coup d’etat in the city’s history.”

“Okay.  And what was Gotham’s protector from all things criminal doing while I pulled this off?”

Apparently having phone sex,” Bruce graveled.

I stared.  I felt I was missing something.  What did this mean?  It had been a while since I worked this end of the conversation, but even so, even if Batman was unmasked, half-naked and sipping coffee from a Cat-Tales mug, he was in my lair.  He just told me I had somehow become queen of the underworld.  That’s something I should be able to instantly digest, dissect for possible advantages and respond to without a moment’s hesit—wait a minute. 

“Why am I only hearing about this now?  You could have told me first thing.”

His lip twitched, and he bent down to pick his tunic and cape from the floor.

“The mood you were in?  It could wait.”

“Bruce!”

Selina.  I did exactly what you urged me to for years: put the thought of your criminal status aside for the night and gave in to what we both wanted.  In retrospect, it was a very good idea.”

“You picked one hell of a time to evolve a sense of humor,” I grumbled.

“I’m enjoying the irony… and wondering how long it may take you to start pawing at the possibilities.”

He had picked a clawed glove off the floor, and now he tossed it to me with what I would almost call… a naughty grin.

Tim hunched forward, resembling Rodin’s Thinker as he leaned towards the television, stroking his chin and completely absorbed in the behavior of several extras in the background of Beverly Hills Cop.  Cassie’s analysis of the background action had become so engrossing, they now turned off the sound to avoid any distractions.

“You really think they’re having an affair?” he asked, studying the man in the ballcap and the blonde in a scarf.  “I agree something’s going on, but I don’t know if it’s that.”

“Might not be.  Probably is.  See girl in stripe shirt?  She is friend of big hair blonde.  Blonde tell her about ballcap man before shoot scene, and now she keep looking at him.  Later, he in background at racetrack and she have tight mouth, press knees together and won’t look his way.  Think she went out with him after blonde told her about him.”

Tim chuckled.

“You mean like the blonde gave him a really good review?  You’ve got to try this guy, he’s great in the sack?”

“No.  She make in sack with him because blonde friend make in sack with him.  They very competitive.”

Tim bit his lip, reluctant to correct the unusual phrase.  He was usually happy to help Cassie with her English, but suggesting ways to talk about sex?  No way.  Instead he eyed the remote, wondering if he dared the reach-stretch-drop the arm over her shoulder maneuver. 

“Here.  Good part to see how competitive they are.  Can tell by way they stand.  See elbow?  Girl in stripe shirt must hold drink higher than friend.  And friend, she always stand a little sideways, so more of her face camera than friend.”

While she was talking about the extras, Cassie nudged the remote an inch closer and leaned forward ever so slightly.  Tim realized he must have telegraphed his thought about the remote.  He was unsure if this was encouragement or the opposite…

Possibilities, he said. 

I was ridiculously slow to realize what he meant, but then my toes were still curled from the first true Catwoman adventure I’d had in years capped with a night in the lair with Batman that exceeded my headiest fantasies.  I couldn’t feel my fingers yet when he hit me with that queen of the underworld business.  So yes, it took my inner cat an inexcusably long time to notice the catnip and cream that had just been laid at my feet.

Gatta Corleone.  Catwoman was queen of the Gotham underworld. 

When that poor little girl in New Zealand donned a Catwoman mask to rob a Taranaki bank, every newspaper in Gotham ran the story except one.  Everybody but the Post, everybody but the purveyors of the East End goggle whore.  I had wondered what might happen if there was a real cat crime, something closer to home, something too big to ignore, something that could never be reconciled with their trashy East End crimefighter.  Now, suddenly, here it was.  I didn’t have to lift a finger, it had all happened without my picking a single lock.  Catwoman was queen of the underworld.

“Judging by that Mona Lisa curl on your lip, I take it the full implication of the news has now occurred to you?”

“I certainly envision a great deal of digestive upset at the Gotham Post,” I said.  “Maybe I should send them a fruit basket, lots of oranges and grapefruit, very high fiber.”

“Cute.  In addition to your vendetta against that tabloid, any other possibilities spring to mind?”

Bruce has this wonderful smile—this wonderfully evil smile—it’s a shame he doesn’t do it more often in the cowl, because it out-menaces the biggest names in roguedom.  When Superman saw it, he says he had nightmares for a week.

“The devil you know,” I whispered.  “Since I’m the new Oswald and I’m not some bloody-minded mobster, you’re free to dismantle the operation.  Oh woof, before I’ve had any fun at all, you want to take it apart.”

“Not quite.  There’s more to ‘dismantling’ Cobblepot’s empire than punching out Joker or slapping the batcuffs on Scarecrow.  There’s a lot I still need to learn about his activities, and that’s where your ‘fun’ comes in.”

“Meow.”

“Yes, you’ll have ample opportunities to ‘meow.’”

“Ooooh, come to good part,” Cassie smiled.  “Stuntman double from car chase just break up with bellboy.”

That did it.  Tim reached forward and, rather than grabbing the remote, he grabbed Cassie and kissed her full on the lips.

“I want to re-watch every movie I’ve ever seen in my life!  Again!  With you!”

Cassie, astonished, just tilted her head, almost twitching it to the side, and said nothing.

Tim stared, wondering if he had possibly activated some ancient failsafe implanted by David Cain to bring about the swift and violent death of anyone who kissed his daughter.

Cassie did the confused tilt-twitch again…

And Tim swallowed, thinking of all Robin’s triumphs as a crimefighter, all the heroic brushes with death in the righteous cause of saving innocents.  He thought of training with Batman, training with Shiva, working with the Titans.  After all he had achieved as the Boy Wonder, this would be a really stupid way to die.

Bruce preferred to keep crimefighting out of the manor whenever possible.  Making up as Matches Malone was a crimefighting activity and he would have preferred to do it in the Batcave.  But the lighting was better in the Wayne bedroom, and given that he had never been to this Vault and didn’t know what to expect there in terms of lighting, it was far more prudent to make up in the bedroom and make sure the disguise could withstand the closest inspection.  He leaned towards the mirror, directed a second light at his upper lip, and scrutinized the moustache.  Satisfied, he grunted.

It had been some time since Matches Malone made an appearance among the denizens of the Iceberg.  Bruce knew men like that were always dropping off the radar.  They got pinched.  Or they tried their luck in Star City or Metropolis.  Showed up a few years later: a few years older, a few years angrier, and not a day wiser.  He might look vaguely familiar to some—a dumb thug with wire-rim glasses and a scraggly mustache, perpetually chewing on a matchstick—but he would not be remembered in any detail.  If asked, he had a nice racket going down in Miami, but when his Cuban connection got whacked, it started gettin’ a little heavy, so he decided it was time to come home.

“No.  Absolutely not, the jacket’s got to go.”

Bruce wheeled around, incensed.

“Kitten, I put up with enough suggestions from Alfred every time I make up as Matches.  He has the excuse of training as a professional actor.  What he doesn’t seem to understand is I know this man.  I don’t approach it as simply putting on a disguise so I don’t look like Bruce Wayne.  I approach it as keeping my hair and moustache the way Matches would, buying the clothes he would and—”

“And taking the jobs he would.  Working for me is the best gig this loser ever had, so when I tell him to lose the jacket—”

“Lady, this is a classic!” Matches objected in an uncouth wail nothing like Bruce’s natural patrician tones.

“Shut up, Malone!  Now, I don’t mind hiring you for ‘atmosphere,’ keeping with my new position and all that.  A bodyguard has caché.  But I am NOT going to stare at five inch lapels all night.”

“Gotta be outta my mind, working for a broad,” Matches grumbled at the mirror as he removed the offending jacket, then Bruce segued back into his own voice.  “I will need a replacement.  Matches can change the jacket to suit his new boss, but he can’t go without one.”

He pointed to his lower back, and Selina peered at a tumor-lump of something under his shirt.  Bruce lifted the fabric to reveal a mesh pouch.

“Microfiber-mesh versions of the boots and gloves,” he explained.  “Cape and cowl are in the front.  The real Matches had a bit of a paunch anyway, I took advantage of it.”

“Very slick,” Selina admitted.

“The places he goes and the company he keeps, I need the protection of the costume underneath at all times, and I have to be able to change into the rest quickly.  The jacket is good camouflage.  Not just the line, but the pattern…” 

“Oh, if you want a loud pattern, Malone, no problem.  I’ll get you tiger stripes,” Selina grinned wickedly.

“Tiger… Let me just see what I have in the closet,” Bruce said hurriedly. 

“Heard the crazy bitch classifies a whole category of henchmen as ‘decorative,’” he muttered as he went.

Selina bit her lip, guessing correctly that this was an internal monologue she was not meant to hear, but Bruce-Matches saw her reaction in the corner of the mirror and he broke character long enough to wink.

“Better?” he asked, emerging in a sports coat that had once been the softest Argentine suede, but was now undeniably worn and borderline ratty around the edges.

Selina studied it for a minute, and then nodded decisively.

“My glasses okay?” Matches asked sarcastically.

Catwoman examined them critically.

“Meow,” she decided.

“That a yes?” Matches asked.

“Is he really that dumb?” Selina asked.

“He’s making sure,” Bruce explained.  “He got his ass chewed on the jacket, and he’s freelanced for enough ‘theme’ bosses to know you don’t risk misunderstanding the jargon.  It’s too dangerous.”

“Freelancing for theme bosses?” Catwoman arched an eyebrow.  “People I know let you wear that jacket?”

“Freelancing generally means you don’t have to trade in the plaid wool for a two-tone windbreaker or an overcoat with a punctuation mark.  But this money’s too good to pass up, even if it means slapping on a pair of fuzzy cat ears.”

“…”

“Don’t even think it.”

“Okay, where were we?  Meow means yes, better wardrobe.  Let’s see, what else…  Oh yes, does he really smoke or just chew on that matchstick?”

“He smoked two packs a day, quit, that’s when he started chewing on the match, and he got used to it.”

“Oral fixation on line two, paging Dr.  Freud.”

“We’re not through yet.  He enjoys the occasional cigar, and since he’s just back from Miami, he’s undoubtedly got a stash of illegal Cubans that he’s going through much faster than he should.  But you can order him not to smoke in your presence.  I would prefer you also forbid him to drink on duty.  He drinks Tesco and Coke, it’s… revolting.”

“Consider it done.  No smoking, no drinking on duty—oh, as long as you still use Johnny Walker to cover the smell of the spirit gum, since the alternative seems to be Old Spice.”

“I see Alfred briefed you.  Kitten, tell me the truth, did he tell you to get rid of the jacket?”

“Not exactly.  He did mention that it was green, that it was plaid, and that it was a horror.  He may also have mentioned, just as a casual observation, that a bodyguard is one of those positions where the protectee winds up looking at them a great deal.”

Bruce shook his head and closed his eyes, acknowledging defeat with a sad chuckle.

“Must be out of my mind, working for a broad,” he repeated in his own voice.

“Oh, don’t be that way,” Selina soothed, taking off the glasses and coaxing a twitch from the corner of his lip with her finger.  “I like looking at you, after all.  And I like this mustache,” she added, fingering it softly.

“I don’t,” Bruce said, grabbing her hand and pulling it roughly from his face.  Then he glanced at the mirror and instantly turned away, took the glasses from her other hand and quickly put them on again.  “With the moustache, and especially with the moustache and without glasses, I look too much like my father.”

“Tim?”

Tim Drake’s life flashed before his eyes. 

“Yeah, Cass?”

There wouldn’t be a memorial of his costume in the Batcave. 

“You kiss me.”

Killed by Joker, memorial.  Killed by Batgirl because even a soulless assassin without an iota of decency or conscience wouldn’t want some guy’s lips on his daughter, you don’t get your costume preserved in the Batcave.  You get some generic twenty word obituary, and forever after when the Bat-clan speaks of you, it’s as “Ah yes, poor Tim.”

“Y-yeah, I guess I kind of sorta did, Cass, I…”

“Wasn’t good?”

“Huh?”

Three syllables, and a voice crack.  Oh God, this was going to be a bad death.  A very bad death.

“Kiss wasn’t good?”

“No!  I mean YES!  I mean, it was good, it was good.  It was very, very good, Cass.”

What the hell was that?  Was that begging?  Not only was it going to be a bad death, it was going to be a spineless, ignoble, cowardly death.

“Why stop?”

“Huh?”

“If kiss good, why stop?”

“Uh, I uh, uh,” he swallowed.  “I didn’t know if you liked it.”

In a move too swift to defend against, Tim found his legs yanked out from under him and hoisted to the side, leaving him flat on his back on the sofa, with Cassie poised on top of him to deliver the coup de grace.

“Wait a MMMFwinaminawom” were the last words he uttered as she planted her delicate mouth over his and proceeded to…

Matches entered Vault ahead of Catwoman.  He blatantly checked the sightlines and exits, although there was little to note in the small entranceway.  Then he ushered Catwoman in with the awkward deference of a trained Neanderthal holding a chair for a lady.  Matches approached Mark, the bouncer/doorman, a halfstep ahead of his charge, keeping his body resolutely between Catwoman and the doorman’s.  He advanced a fraction of an inch too far, into Mark’s personal space, before pausing ever so slightly and making hostile eye contact, as if assuring himself that he could take the younger man in a fight if he had to.  Then he uttered the magic formula “Catwoman gave me the combination.” 

Mark shrugged and thumbed the control, activating the sliding door and admitting the newcomers to the club.  He knew he was supposed to give them more of a show, sizing them up suspiciously and only letting them in after a minute of suspenseful scrutiny.  But it seemed absurd to go through all that when the very same Catwoman of the password was standing right in front of him.  On the playacting side, what was he supposed to be suspicious about?  On the reality side, the dumb brute with her didn’t look like he’d react well to suspenseful scrutiny.  So he let them in, and would make up for the lapse on the next dozen customers.

Entering the barroom itself, Matches began the same elaborate routine checking the exits and sightlines… until the other sights in the room registered and he stopped dead in his tracks.  He recognized the bits of the Cat-Tales set behind the bar… and the laser grid from Two-Face’s perimeter… Those identified, he began scrutinizing other details, wondering what else might be familiar.  Too late, he remembered he wasn’t meant to be an ordinary customer or a slack-jawed tourist; he was meant to be Catwoman’s bodyguard.  He turned swiftly to find her, and saw that—without being preoccupied as he was analyzing the space strategically—she had been struck by the scene much sooner, rooted to the spot only a few steps inside the door.  He hurriedly rejoined her.

“Oh my dear lord,” she murmured, wide-eyed.

“Play it cool,” he whispered.

“It’s my set.  It’s like Fellini saw my show, ate anchovies before bed, possibly with a fear gas chaser, and dreamt up this.”

“Not the most outrageous explanation that’s been suggested this week.  Now play it cool, and let’s get you to a table.”

“Fuck that, I’m going to the bar.  Sly’s going to make my special martini, and then he’s going to explain to why every third table in this place is drinking my special martini, and then he’s going to explain what my set is doing up there, and then—”

“Queen of the Underworld.”

“Excuse me?”

“However this happened, your majesty, it’s not what we’re here to find out.  It IS the reason for your new reputation, and you’ve got to live up to it if we’re going to get the intel we came for.”

He led her determinedly to the best table, told the party sitting there to “take a hike,” and snapped his fingers for a waitress—whom he addressed as “trixiecakes”—to clean it off and bring some fresh ashtrays.

“No smoking, Matches,” Catwoman reminded him coolly.

“Yeah.  Right,” he grunted.  “No ashtrays,” he told the waitress gruffly. 

Catwoman sat, and Matches stalked to the bar.  Inwardly, Bruce kicked himself for calling the waitress that way.  Technically, Selina could have given her order right there.  There would be no need for Malone to go to the bar himself.  As a bodyguard, it was downright stupid for him to leave her alone that way… Then again, Matches was stupid.  Working for Catwoman was the best job he ever had and he was trying too hard.  Plus, the rationalization shifted from Bruce’s POV to Malone’s, he wasn’t really a “bodyguard” exactly; he wasn’t gonna take a bullet for her or anything.  He was hired muscle, and the bigshots like Catwoman expect muscle to wait on ’em some.  Yeah, that’s right.  After all, a big deal like Catwoman could take care of herself.  She didn’t bring him along for protection; she brought him for effect.  And parta the effect was holding her chair and getting her a drink—and if he was lucky, pushing around some small fry that don’t show proper respect.  That’s what he was there for, and damn he was doin’ it well.  All the bigshots like that stuck up King Snake would see how they shoulda hired old Matches years ago.

“Tesco and Coke, sir?”

Matches’ eyes shot up and locked onto the bartender’s, a spark of hyper-reactive hyper-intelligence flashing in his eye before Bruce could slam down the shield of Matches’ dull-witted surprise at being remembered.

“You’re Tesco and Coke, right?” Sly repeated innocently.

“Yeah… uh, no.  Boss lady won’t let me drink on da job.  Gimme one a those hoity toity French waters that bubbles, and a ‘special’ martini fer the boss.  She says you knows it.”

Sly looked up, almost as startled as Matches had been, and looked over the crowd with a series of birdlike twitches.

“You’re here with Catwoman?” he asked finally.

“Yeah.  She’s da boss,” Matches nodded gravely.

“Oh wow, that’s good,” Sly smiled, as if some hidden burden was lifted.  “She’s the biggest name we’ve had.”

“Yeah.  She’s da boss,” Matches repeated.

While Sly made the drinks, Matches reached for a book of—what else—matches.  Bruce scrutinized the cover and the printing, guessing it was the same printer as the Iceberg’s but reserving judgment until he could do a side-by-side comparison.  Matches, meanwhile, had taken out a match.  He placed it absently between his lips and gave it a thoughtful chew, then took it out and tossed it on the bar.  He reached in his pocket and pulled out a box of wooden matches, selected one, and placed it at the same spot. 

Happy with the texture, he turned his attention to the setup behind the bar.  Viewed close-up, several of the chintzy stage props looked remarkably real.  The money bundles in particular… Bruce was no stranger to the National Bank of Gotham’s $5000 and $10,000 wrappers.  The ones he glimpsed peeking out from behind Riddler’s favorite scotch looked suspiciously authentic.  A few of the gold bars looked strangely genuine as well, so much so, that even some of the gems were beginning to gleam with suspicious brilliance.

Matches was ready to compliment the “nice set up” when the drinks came, and with that opening, probe for details if not angle to handle a few items and figure out— when it was too late.  The moment was gone, come and gone before he could open his mouth.  Sly had brought the drinks and said that Catwoman’s credit balance from the Iceberg was still in effect at Vault, and since Matches was with her, his drinks were covered.  “So no hassles opening a tab like last time.” Then he winked and turned his back, leaving Matches-Bruce too stunned to say a word.

He stumbled back to the table in silence and stared wordlessly at a bottle of Perrier while Catwoman sipped her martini.

“Counting the bubbles?” she asked at last.

Matches leaned in and spoke very quietly.

“Sly remembered me.  Remembered the drink order and that there was a problem setting up a tab.”

“Sly’s a good bartender,” Selina noted.

“Yes.  But he never knew my name.  He did it just on physical features.  I wish I knew how he did it.  If it’s a natural gift or if he has some trick.  Training the boys, it was always an uphill battle teaching them to recognize and remember that kind of physical characteristic, let alone cross-referencing with other data and…”

“Matches, why don’t you get me a refill,” Catwoman said coolly. 

At first, Bruce thought she was shutting down the crimefighting talk that bored her.  Then he saw she still had two inches of liquid in her glass, which meant she had no need for another drink.  He met her eye quizzically.

“And see if they have a bar menu while you’re up there.  I’m a bit peckish.”

His lip twitched.  Now he could spend as much time at the bar as he wished, investigating.

“Will do, Catwoman.”

To be continued…


 

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