Batman and Catwoman in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 54: War of the Poses

War of the Poses
by Chris Dee

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“In conclusion, Helen, while the Wayne Foundation does give more to cultural and arts organizations than any other category of nonprofits, that is largely because there is considerable overlap in the other categories.  Between education and youth programs, health and human services, environment and conservation, and civic and public programs, I assure you that the Foundation is giving amply to improve all—underline ‘all’—facets of life in Gotham.  Sincerely, BW, etc, and be sure to include last year’s annual report with the list of grants and recipients.  Blind copy Lucius and Cynthia, and set up a lunch next week for Cynthia and Helen to make sure it’s all smoothed over.”

Bruce was about to add that whoever denied the grant for Helen Cabot’s clinic was to be in his office by five o’clock to explain themselves, along with whoever should have corrected the situation once the disastrous nature of the decision became clear… when he felt a gentle vibration in his breast pocket.  So he told his secretary to track down the responsible parties and send them to Lucius Fox instead.  Then he hurried her out of his office and answered the Justice League communicator concealed in his cell phone.

“It’s starting,” Superman reported.  “A subsonic message, a human voice on a subsonic frequency, that is.”

“Luthor,” Bruce graveled.  “The diversion.”

“Yes and no.  It’s certainly the diversion, but the voice isn’t Luthor.  It’s Selina.”

“What?!”

“Selina—or Catwoman, rather—purring up a storm.  She has met with him twice, and he records everything.  I’m sure he’s got enough for a voiceprint.  With that, he can synthesize any message he wants.  I mean, if she’d made a tape for him, she would have mentioned it, right?”

“No.  We agreed to tell each other as little as possible once the decoys were in place.  It’s safer for everyone.”

“It sounds awful.”

“Apart from the purring,” Bruce said, curtly changing the subject, “what does this message say?”

“She’s bored with Gotham.  Going for something bigger.  ‘The world, purr-haps,’ and she’s banking we can’t stop her.”

“Typical Luthor.  Trying to mimic Rogue behavior as he sees it, and getting it all wrong.  For a Gothamite like Selina, there is nothing ‘bigger’ than Gotham.  The idea of being bored here and going elsewhere to find a challenge—If he’s going to say something like that, he may as well use his own voice.”

Superman laughed.  Bruce and “his city.”  Clark had assumed it would be the Riddleresque nature of the taunt that would raise his friend’s hackles, not the slight to Gotham.

“Well, it’s the bank he’s going for, obviously,” Superman said dryly. 

“Obviously,” Bruce agreed.  “I wondered how long it would take him to remember it.”

This bad.
This bad. 
This bad.

Father would give twenty lashes and lock in dark closet for day.  Maybe two day.

Was first principle of sustained surveillance: mind clock.  Surveillance is dead time.  Must mind clock else lose track of time.

Practicing stealth in museum not like sustained surveillance. Not dead time.  But still lose track of time.

This bad.

Was exciting.  Lose track of time.

This bad.
Lights come on.
Guard in uniform gone.  New guard in blue blazer jacket take place.

This bad.
New noise.
Shoes that not quiet on stone floor.
People in shoes that no need be quiet.
People that work in museum.

This bad.
Museum open.  Soon be people everywhere.

This bad.
Will be seen.
This bad.

Bruce pushed a thousand nagging thoughts from his mind as he took the elevator from the executive offices down to the lobby, then a dozen more as he took his private elevator “up to the penthouse.”  Except, instead of going up, he touched his finger to a hidden button to go down to the satellite cave.  He didn’t bother changing into costume, only powered up the Batcomputer to review the history of the Federal Reserve Bank in Metropolis. 

When LexCorp was a financial power, Luthor had considerable influence over it.  He insisted it adopt “extraordinary” measures to secure itself against “extraordinary” incursions.  Everyone knew he meant extraterrestrial incursions, one extraterrestrial in particular.  He didn’t care about Sinestro, Martian Manhunter, or that fin-head alien with the third eye.  He cared only that outside the Metropolis Fed’s walls or (even better) locked within its vault, Superman would be just like everyone else. 

When Luthor became President, one of his first acts was redefining the role of the twelve regional Feds.  Gotham City was called the world capital of finance, and its Federal Reserve, a mere three blocks from Wall Street, had always been the largest and most important.  That had to be changed at once.  Were the walls of its subterranean vault laced with kryptonite?  Were the vital conversations taking place in its offices encased in a sonic mesh impenetrable to alien ears?  Was access to its telephone lines and data center secured by k-metal lasers simulating the erythro-radiation of a red sun? 

Since only the Metropolis Fed was equipped with such state of the art defenses—thanks to the President’s own foresight—it became, by Presidential order, the repository for all foreign gold deposits.  It was also made the primary data center where multi-million dollar transactions between banks, governments, and corporations were processed.  The facility was expanded to match Gotham’s in every particular, and its already excessive defenses redoubled and fortified.  The colorful moniker “World’s Bank” was bandied about in pro-Luthor circles, and “World Bank of Lex” in others.

After Luthor’s downfall, the status quo was restored, leaving Metropolis with an absurdly over-secured fortress.  Batman foresaw its deadly potential even as Bruce Wayne was salvaging as many jobs as he could from the LexCorp ruins.  Luthor would be back; it was a certainty.  But without the resources of the White House or his corporate empire behind him, he would have to make due as he never had before.  He would have to exploit what was already available.  A building with a titanium-kryptonite alloy coating its vault was available.  A building with lasers that mimicked a red sun was available…

And a woman who once had Batman and Superman running in circles on Superman’s home turf was also available.

“Heya, Doc,” Harley Quinn chirped as she entered the office for her session.

“Good morning, Harleen,” Dr. Bartholomew answered patiently.  “Right on time, I see.”

He couldn’t believe how well Harley was responding.  He now allowed her to come to his office on her own, rather than under escort.  She hadn’t missed one appointment.  She hadn’t been late once.  She hadn’t abused the privilege by stopping off to visit Patients Isley or Cobblepot.  Most importantly, she had not made any reference to Patient J’s extended stay in isolation.  It was the most encouraging development thus far in her therapy.

“Whatcha doin’?” Harley asked, peering at the papers on his desk rather than taking her place on the couch.

Bartholomew coughed.

“I am waiting to begin our session, Harleen.”

She looked back at him, then back at the desk.

“I can see that, Silly.  I meant before I came in.  Oh jeez, you’re not planning on wasting more money on them safety smocks, are ya?”

She had taken a sales brochure from his desk and was fanning herself with it.

“Hot in here, ain’t it?”

“The temperature seems normal to me, Harleen.  Please take your seat.”

She did, bringing the brochure with her.

“Suicidal patients need to wear something,” Bartholomew continued, “in the interests of dignity and modesty as well as warmth.  And there is a limit to how long we can keep an individual in a straitjacket without adversely impacting circulation and his or her ability to sleep comfortably.”

Harley rolled her eyes and made a “speed it up/get to the point” motion.

“Yeah, fine.  But aren’t they, like, foam, nylon, and Velcro?  You could put this thing together for about 39 cents.”

“Hardly.  It says right there that they are more durable than cheap imitations.”

Harley gave him a pitying gaze.

“Well yeah, Doc.  They’re SELLING them.  Naturally they’re gonna say that kind of thing.  Sheesh, you been talking to the loonies too long.”

The nagging thoughts were becoming harder to banish. 

Luthor had been there, he’d seen it with his own eyes.  The LexCorp building was equipped with the same kind of anti-Superman security as the Metropolis Fed, and Luthor had seen the way Catwoman exploited those features to perfection.  She eluded both heroes, she escaped with the X-27 plans… and she did it right in front of Luthor.

She also did it with an ease no high-powered adversary of Superman’s had ever managed.

In front of Luthor. 

And, he wouldn’t want to tip his hand yet.  He would want to keep Batman and Superman from learning who they were really up against.  Why else use something like a Morrow robot for that last diversion? 

Bruce shook his head, trying to physically force the thoughts from his mind.  They had agreed to tell each other as little as possible.  They agreed.

Even a feline human like Selina received no special privileges when it came to reading.  Curling up with her book… stretching out with her book…  lying back on the sofa with her feet up and the book in her lap…  sitting up in the chair and leaning forward with the book on the table and her elbows positioned around it…  all had met with pretty much the same response: Whiskers pawed while Nutmeg burrowed underneath, Nutmeg pawed while Whiskers sniffed the pages, Whiskers pawed while Nutmeg crawled on top, or both cats pawed until Selina decided they would make a movie of the damn thing sooner or later, and set the unapproved book aside to play with them until dinner. 

They hadn’t reached the goal yet, but they could tell the moment was near… when the distant click of a door and the faint smell of outside air told them another kind of excitement was afoot.  Both cats flicked their ears towards the hallway, straining to hear the footsteps. 

It was Bat-Bruce.  Not in boots.  Other shoes.  Shoes that meant there would be city smells instead of cave smells.  Both cats went to investigate.  They liked city smells, it reminded them of their old territory, when Selina-cat lived in the highrise place.  There was a terrace where Whiskers would be the stalking jungle cat of death.  Bat-Bruce would land on the terrace as Two-Foot-in-Boots, and his cape would brush the planter.  Then all the leaves had to be adjusted before the jungle cat of death could stalk his prey again. 

So the cats went to investigate whatever city smells Bat-Bruce had brought them, even though it meant Selina-cat would be able read her book in peace.  But just as they were heading out the door, Bat-Bruce came in through it.

The cats checked his feet, sniffing them just to make sure.  There weren’t any boots.  There wasn’t any cave smell.  But he seemed more like Two-Foot-in-Boots, who landed on the terrace and messed up Whiskers’s planter…

“It’s starting,” Bruce announced, echoing Superman’s words.

“That was fast,” Selina grinned, setting her book aside.  “Lexy must be chomping at the bit.  I mean, it was only last night you said your decoys were in place, and I just called him this morning to—”

“You called him?”

“Yes.  He was waiting for me to do my preliminary research on the targets, rememb—”

“I know that.”

“Did you used to interrupt this much?  I could’ve sworn I remember being able to finish a sentence in the old days.”

“I am aware of the plan,” Bruce said through clenched teeth.  “I know that Luthor was waiting for word from you, from… Catwoman, that she was ready to proceed, before he started the diversion.  I know that those ‘preparations’ were really just waiting for me to finish with the decoys.  And I am aware of what I told you last night about the decoys being ready.  I surmised that you would be contacting him, I just didn’t think that… A phone call, it seems so… I thought it would be something more covert.  You didn’t use the house phone, did you?”

“My cell,” she smiled.

“Because the LUDs, if it’s a local number, or the—”

“Bruce, I know how to do this.  So does Luthor.”

“Sorry,” he shook his head wearily.  “I told you this could get rough.”

“Yeah, but I thought you meant on me.  Arm-twisting and a right cross, or maybe some batarang dings in the Catmobile.  Not flipping out over a phone bill.  You okay, Stud?”

“…”

“I didn’t think so.  Because this is exactly the sort of thing we said we wouldn’t talk about.  You grunted, I meowed, we had an agreement.  Not like you to go back on a deal after the grunt-meow.”

You said that you called him,” Bruce noted.

You started it.  You came in here and said—”

“Yeah.  I did.  Because I’m going out of town, and that’s what people do before they leave town on business.  They come home and tell their significant other, kiss her on the cheek, and say ‘I’ll miss you.’” 

“It didn’t sound that way,” Selina said softly.  “It sounded like Batman bursting into a lair and saying the Sultan of Juanpur wanted his ruby back.”

A tense, brooding silence congealed.  Even the air seemed heavier, and the sunlight streaming through the windows seemed just a little greyer.

“And that feels a little like the ‘I want you but I can never have you because you’re a thief’ brooding stare,” Selina whispered.  “Come on, Bruce, we got past this years ago.”

He stood and walked to the door, paused in the doorway, fist clenched, and slammed the doorjamb brutally.  The nearest picture frames rattled against the wall, and the cats scurried under the sofa.  In the recesses of his memory, the echoes of a careless, heedless Catwoman mocked him: “Congratulations, Dark Knight.  You just jostled Rembrandt’s Old Man in Fur Cap and frightened my cats.  There’s a victory for crimefighting.”

He turned to face the real Catwoman, but saw no trace of that playful flippancy.  She was much closer than he expected.  She’d risen from her chair and come up behind him, so that when he turned, he found himself looking straight into her eyes.  He was struck by the eloquent pain they revealed. 

“The deal is off,” he graveled, hating himself and his weakness.  “There are things I have to know.  Things I have to ask.”

It was riskier, for both of them.  It wasn’t the smart move.  It wasn’t the right move, from a strategic, crimefighting position.  And it wasn’t what he’d planned.  But he had to know.  He couldn’t go to Metropolis not knowing.

“Then ask,” Selina said gently.

“Did you make a recording for Luthor?”

“No.”

“Did you let him take any measurements, scan you, or take photographs from multiple angles?”

“No.”

Bruce shut his eyes, relieved at the answers so far, but dreading the third.

“Are you going to be in Gotham tonight… or Metropolis?”

“Gotham.  I’ve got a date with Holce Concepts, Allman-Freely, and WraitheMatCo while you’re ‘out of town on business,’ remember?”

Relief pushed up Bruce’s body like a physical force, starting mid-thigh and forcing air upward until a ragged exhale expelled a thousand undefined fears.

“Thank God,” he murmured.

“My turn to ask one,” Selina said, stroking the side of his face.  “What the hell?”

“The diversion.  Whatever Luthor has planned, it’s going to be very different from what we were expecting.  The Federal Reserve in Metropolis, unofficially called the World’s Bank since his fiddling as President.”

“That sure sounds like Luthor,” Selina said wryly.

“It does.  Except the taunt Clark received this morning didn’t sound like Luthor, it sounded like you.  Literally, sounded like you.  Your voice.  It’s Catwoman who’s going to rob the World Bank.”

Selina giggled.

“Seriously?”

“Yes!” Bruce spat angrily.  “And I don’t—”  Again, a fist had formed with a will of its own, and he turned to the doorjamb in a fit of frustration… only to see Nutmeg’s back legs as she trotted hurriedly behind the sofa.  Feeling a fool, he relaxed the fist and sighed.

“I don’t want to have to fight you,” he pronounced with eerie intensity.  “I don’t want to face some T. O. Morrow replicant that looks like you, either.  Luthor has thrown us curves before, but I wasn’t ready for this one, and I—mm-mph.”

He got no further. The next several minutes were spent in a warm, searching kiss that he couldn’t bring himself to end.  When their lips finally did separate, it took Bruce a second to reclaim his thought.

“He’s throwing me a curve too,” Selina said, regaining the power of speech first.  “This is the first I’ve heard that ‘I’ would play any part in the diversion.  And since I’m not likely to be in Batman and Superman’s confidence, I would guess that I’m not meant to find out until you two get back from whatever grisly party he’s got planned and show up at my door for the payback.”

“Luthor isn’t anyone’s idea of a trustworthy ally,” Bruce noted.

“Yeah, I guess my point is just…  ‘So what?’  He’s Luthor, he brings plot twists, big deal.  He can’t touch ‘us,’ right?”

Bruce stroked her hair thoughtfully. 

She didn’t understand.  She was right that Luthor couldn’t touch what they had as Bruce and Selina.  But ‘Bruce and Selina’ should play no part in Batman and Superman’s battle with Lex Luthor.  They should exist in a vacuum, far from this part of his life, far from the work.  Even if Catwoman was involved, what he shared with her, the part of him that loved her, the part of him that made love to her, should not be. 

And yet, this entire conversation had just taken place. 

What’s more, he initiated it.

And worst of all, he felt better because of it.

This simply was not acceptable.

Batgirl hid in the crevice of the Roman temple, behind the ropes where visitors couldn’t see.  She heard the first tour groups approach, heard how young some of the voices sounded, and remembered all of the school groups she’d seen the day before when she visited with Selina.

She sat very still, thinking through her options…

“There she is,” Superman said as soon as Batman arrived. 

They stood across the street from the Metropolis Fed, Superman pointing to an upper floor. The building, like it’s Gotham counterpart, was fashioned after an Italian palazzo.  The ledges were ample, and the façade was rich with columns, colonnades, arches, and pilasters that could camouflage a figure crouching near its windows.

“Lenses engage, full spectrum, magnify,” Batman graveled.

“28th floor,” Superman prompted.

Batman was able to make out a curve of purple just visible behind a column. 

“She could be working on a window behind that thing,” Superman noted.  “The 14th, 21st and 28th floors are the ones without reinforced windows.  She must be crouched down to get to the alarm.  I can’t see through that column, though.  Can’t even make out a heartbeat.”

“It’s close enough to the building that its ‘heartbeat,’ if it has one, would be masked by the sonic mesh.”

“It?  Batman, it might not be her, but that curve is definitely female.”

Batman looked at his colleague contemptuously.

“You want me to call that thing a she, she’s not moving.”

“That’s the most secure building in the city,” Superman countered.  “You don’t just slide open a window.  Even if she was the real thing, it would take her a while.”

“I won’t tell her you said that,” Batman noted.  “You’ll have your jackass status revoked and go back to being another hopeless cape.”

“She moved!  Did you see that?” Superman pointed eagerly.

“No.  The light changed, cloud over the moon.  ‘She’ hasn’t moved.”  Batman withdrew his grapnel launcher.  “And she’s not going to until she gets what she’s after.  May as well get this over with.” 

“Wait a minute, you’re going to confront her?  This is my city, remember?” Superman grinned with an always-wanted-to-say-that twinkle in his eye.

“And she is my foe.  That’s why he’s staged it this way.  There will be something for you soon enough.”  He fired a line and added “Don’t be late” before he swung away.

Batman landed on the roof and approached the Catwoman figure.  As he got closer, he could see it was more than a protruding curve in the right shade of purple.  The shape was certainly that of a woman of Selina’s proportions, crouched as if working on the window.  The texture of the costume was leather.  Everything about the look was right, but the figure itself was unnaturally still and stiff. 

“Catwoman?” he said in the clear, challenging tones used to accost criminals on the ledges of banks.

…astree…astree…astreee…beeeeeeeeeep…

The voice-activated detonator locked into the trigger sound, trilled through its detonation sequence and…

BOOM!

…detonated.  The Catwoman-explosive burst into a concussive fireball, and Batman was falling.  The thought that he had suspected trouble and braced himself as well as he could on a 3-inch ledge was a small consolation as the pavement sped closer.  He twisted to a better angle to fire a line, when the lurch of a half-expected Superman catch abruptly ended his fall. 

“I’m never late,” Superman said, returning Batman to the street.

Both heroes looked up at the window blown open by the blast.

“Now we have a way in.  How considerate,” Batman graveled.

“If you are dissatisfied, simply return for a full refund.  That’s like, if you use the safety smock on somebody and they manage to off themselves anyway, like using the sleeve as a noose or something, you can get your money back?”

“I assume so, Harleen,” Bartholomew sighed, rubbing his forehead wearily.

“Doesn’t sound like a very good sales pitch, does it?”

“Harleen, could we possibly talk about you instead of the sales brochure?  That is what these sessions are for.  Now, how have you been sleeping?”

“Oh, fine, fine,” Harley said, waving her hand airily.  “They shouldn’t have you botherin’ with this stuff, Doc.  Not your job.  You’re the Doc, after all.”

“Purchasing merely asked my opinion, Harleen.  It goes with the territory.  I’m sure you remember what that’s like.”

He said it without thinking.  It was a casual remark; he hadn’t meant to allude to her past as an Arkham staffer as any kind of probing mechanism.  And yet…

Sniff.

Harley seemed to be…

Sniff sniff.

Crying.

“Yeah.  I sure do, Doc.  They were good days, weren’t they?”

“Uhm, yes, of course.  They certainly were, Harleen.”

“Your three o’clock is here, Dr. Quinn.” 

“Harleen?”

“Bunch of us are going for a couple brews after work, Dr. Quinn.  Want to come along?”

“Harleen?”

“That certainly was a close call with Killer Croc, wasn’t it, Dr. Quinn?  We’re lucky Batman just happened to be in the neighborhood…”

A set of sprinklers had gone off on the 28th floor in response to the explosion, but there didn’t seem to be any other alarms or response systems activated. 

Batman and Superman looked around.  Like the LexCorp Towers, every wall within the Metropolis Fed was covered in lead-based paint.  Unlike LexCorp, the floors and ceilings were not. Superman couldn’t see around corners, but he could look down through any number of floors until he reached the lobby.  Whatever was underneath, like the vault known to be five floors below street level, was beyond another barrier of lead, titanium, and who knew what else. 

“Something moving around on the 5th floor,” Superman reported.  “Walking slowly, like sentries.  Not human though.  Mechanical.  Some kind of heat blooms in their centers.”

“Number?” Batman asked.

“Three… No, four… five.  Five total.  Three on the fifth floor, and two more a couple floors down.”

“Two areas requiring extra security,” Batman nodded.  “The data center is on five, and on the second floor, a special elevator that leads to the underground vault.”

“Two areas and two of us, imagine that.”

Superman elected to search the data center.  At first, it was nearly silent.  Banks of computers that were once manned 24/7 now reduced to two servers softly humming in the darkness.  Then, a strange, vaguely metallic padding noise approached.  It approached and then faded, the pace consistent with the movement he’d seen watching above.  Superman followed the noise and glimpsed the something making it as it crossed a hallway.  Whatever it was, it was about as tall as a small car. 

Batman started in the lobby, like an ordinary visitor would who had come in through the front doors.  He examined the security checks and metal detectors, strategically positioned to the side so they wouldn’t detract from the jaw-dropping first impression: the stone, the marble, the cast iron, the bronze statues, the high ceilings, all of it calculated to humble and impress the mere mortals walking through its doors.  An ordinary visitor clearing the security check could then proceed to the elevators… and get a second dose of the marble, stone, and bronze treatment… but as the elevators were turned off this time of night, Batman took the stairs. 

The second floor reception had a second security area cordoned off, and then a trio of wide, deep stalls for receiving deposits of gold bars meant for the vault.  Beyond that was another elevator, the elevator, the only means by which men and gold could access the vault five stories beneath Metropolis.  Examining the controls and the chamber, Batman saw that it resembled the pressure doors on the old JLA satellite.  This “elevator” was really a pressurized lifepod that moved through an airtight, watertight shaft.  It was impressive, but even the man who kept his most private possessions triple-locked behind a hologram wall inside the Batcave considered it overkill.

“Batman?” the comlink squawked just as a rhytmic, metallic padding noise sounded in the distance.

“Go ahead?”

“I’ve spotted one of the robot sentries.  Looks a little like ‘The Terminator’ after the skin was burned away, right down to the red eyes.  Except it’s not a human form, it’s—”

Batman looked towards the metallic padding and saw the exact thing Clark was describing.

“A tiger,” he graveled.

There was no answer from Superman, only a high-pitched whine over the comlink, followed by a sickly crackle. 

The same whine was now emanating from the robo-tiger before Batman, and he dove to evade the thick beams of red now pulsing from the creature’s eyes.  He rolled to ease the impact, only to hear the same whine coming from the space ahead of him, the space he was rolling towards.  He changed course, but not before a palpable wave of heat coursed through the back of his cowl at the neck.  A hit.  A hit of… something.

He cried out, in surprise more than pain, but he did regain his feet.  Both robo-tigers were now closing in, and Batman slid two disks from his utility belt, and fastened each to a batarang.  He moved quickly and erratically, evading the slow-moving creatures until he had the angle he wanted on each.  It took time, almost a minute, and he suffered several more hits from the red beams.  They did little damage to the body armor other than creating uncomfortable hotspots, but Bruce had a sick suspicion that Superman wasn’t finding the effects so trivial.

Finally, the robo-tigers were in position, and Batman fired the batarangs simultaneously at each.  Both weapons hit their marks, and Batman quickly activated the magnetized disks.  Each robot registered a new presence, one with the harmonics and heat signature of the being hardwired into their system as the primary target: Superman.  Two sets of red eyes locked onto the batarang embedded in the other cat, and fired thick, sustained beams. 

Batman ran to the stairwell, leaping three and four steps at a time.  He had reached the fifth floor landing when a duet of sizzling thumps from below indicated the robo-cats had been destroyed.

In one sense, it was egregiously unprofessional.  It could actually be said that Dr. Bartholomew was foisting dreary unwanted work off on one of his patients.

But in another, very real sense, it was a daring experimental treatment.  It’s not like Purchasing actually cared what he thought of Ferguson safety smocks.  It’s doubtful they even read his opinion cards.  They just needed a piece of paper on file.  It was the same with the other 30-odd products he was asked to evaluate.  The evaluations were just going to be three-hole punched and set in a binder.  What difference did it make if he wrote them himself or merely signed his name?

And it would do Harley a world of good.  A world of good.  Actual work of the type she was originally hired for.  It was yet another step in restoring the woman she had once been.

Batman knew what he would see reaching the fifth floor, but the sight was still a shock.  Superman was lying in an unconscious heap, awash in a dim, red glow.  Three robotic tigers circled, slowly and methodically, their glowing eyes projecting thick, sustained beams over the fallen hero’s body in measured, emotionless sweeps from his neck to his ankles. 

Batman charged the robots, but with their prime target in such proximity, they refused to engage him.  It made it easy to attach the batarangs, which he essentially “stabbed” into each cat’s torso.  This time, there was no chance of fooling the program with a faux Superman signal, not when they had the real thing lying in such proximity.  So Batman had to use a different approach: there were no transmitters in those batarangs, but an explosive charge.  He could only hope that Clark’s body was still invulnerable enough to withstand the explosions.

Batman shielded himself behind a computer panel and hit the detonator.

BOOM!

Cassie shed her mask, cape, gloves and belt, and then folded the cape into thirds.  She wrapped it around her waist like a skirt, so it just covered the tops of her boots.  It looked stupid, but just stupid enough to be a fashion statement.

She left the mask, gloves, and belt in her hiding place in the temple, and ventured out until she was spotted by a harried tour guide.  “Here now!  You can’t go back there, little girl!” and she had the cover she needed to leave the temple area and join one of the tours.  She crossed her arms over her chest like she was bored, obscuring much of the bat emblem, and then hid behind other students for the rest of the tour. 

When that group returned to the lobby, she could have left the building easily enough, but that would mean leaving half her costume behind.  “Unacceptable residual presence” her father would have said.  Batman would use different words, but he would be just as disapproving.

So, instead of disappearing out the door, she slipped into the checkroom.  There were any number of book bags and knapsacks she could have used, but she went for a shopping bag from the big t-shirt store in Times Square.  She took the bag into the washroom and changed into the t-shirt.  It was too big for her and it had a strange picture on the front of Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn, arm in arm.  But it would do the job.  She folded up the empty bag and hid it in the top of her boot, then returned to the busy museum lobby.  She attached herself to another tour of schoolchildren and stayed with them as far as the Roman temple.  Then she slipped away at the same point she was discovered before. 

No one noticed.  Before, she had wanted to be seen.  She projected the loud, sloppy aura of the careless people around her.  Now, she wanted to be invisible, and she projected… void.  The silent, shadowy void, surrounding and concealing her.  There was nothing at all to see.  Nothing at all slipped into the Roman Temple.  Nothing at all retrieved her cowl and gloves and belt.  Nothing at all stowed them safely in the shopping bag.  And nothing at all edged back into the public area outside the temple.  The group she had been with was gone, and Cassie looked around for some new camouflage. 

“You’ll have to check that,” the guard in the blue blazer jacket called out.

He pointed to her shopping bag. 

Cassie looked down at it, then up at him. 

Luck.  Father said never depend on luck.  But there was no dishonor in taking advantage of it if it happened.

“Where go to check?” she asked meekly.

The guard pointed again, giving her detailed directions back to the lobby.

Reducing the menacing robo-tigers into sizzling heaps of electronic giblets was surprisingly easy compared to the next challenge: lifting Superman to his feet and hoisting that dense, Kryptonian bulk into a fireman’s carry.  But Batman managed it.  The priority now was getting his friend outside.

They had both gone into this knowing it was a trap, knowing they were to be “kept occupied” while Catwoman burgled the Gotham targets.  Well, fine.  They had been “occupied.”  But now, Clark was unconscious.  He wasn’t going to recover until he had a good few hours of sunlight in him, but until then, he least Batman could do was get him away from this damnable building with its lead walls and red lasers and rumors of kryptonite lining its vault.

He staggered into the stairwell, now lit with the yellow flicker of emergency lights.  The last trio of explosions had finally set off a real alarm, Batman was glad to see. 

For ten steps, he was glad… Then he saw the foam pouring in from the ventilation ducts.  Firefighting foam—foam that sucked the oxygen out of the air to suffocate a flame—foam meant for INSIDE a computer station, not a stairwell where human beings were trying to escape the blaze.  Already Batman was exerting himself, Superman was not light—his breathing was already labored—air that was growing thinner—exponentially thinner every second—was not helping.

His mind was already sluggish.  It took him too long to remember the rebreather in his utility belt.  By the time he fumbled for it, his fingers were clumsy and uncoordinated.  He dropped Clark.  He…

Floor. 

His knees hit the floor.

No air.

No…

To be continued…


 

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