No criminal could come to Gotham without knowing it was Batman’s home, and no criminal could come planning to ply his trade without imagining an encounter. François de Poulignac was no different. He had envisioned what would happen if he found himself face to face with the man who was not deputized or part of any official organization, who had taken it upon himself to put on a mask and venture out into the night—just as François had himself. He knew he had envisioned this—but now that the moment was here, whatever he had imagined was gone. Washed into oblivion by the waves of menace coming from that dark figure draped in shadow.
He glanced to the window like a frightened rat, but before a thought could form, before he could realize that Batman would easily intercept him and he had a much better chance trying for the doo—a black blur knocked the half-formed thought from his head as his jaw exploded in pain and his body went sprawling into Charlotte Mandell’s ivory and pine boudoir chair. In the interests of dignity and self-preservation, François pushed against the armrest to sit himself up before his vision had fully cleared. Pushing his back into the corner of the chair wasn’t actually much of a defense, but it did maximize the distance between his face and the masked man’s fist, which was a psychological boost if not a strategic one.
“That was pre-emptive,” Batman said. “Don’t try to run and you won’t get hit again. For now.”
“This is an offer you could have made before,” said François, feeling his mouth and jaw in an unusual way that Batman had never seen before: thumb on his bleeding lip and the fingers cupping his chin.
“You don’t get into a lot of fist fights with the French police,” Batman guessed.
“I have never met a policeman,” François said coolly. “Apart from the Deputy Minister of the Interior who oversees the Police Nationale. He is a charming fellow but a bridge player most appalling…”
He trailed off, the force of Batman’s stare seeming to stifle the words in his throat. For all the intensity, something had changed. There was less malevolence coming from the Dark Knight, and more detached and calculated appraisal.
“Perhaps we can come to an arrangement,” François suggested.
“Ironic, isn’t it,” Batman graveled, that soul-searing voice conveying just as much malevolence as before, no matter how detached the eyes appeared to be. “That’s why you’re here: Violence. Violence that won’t bend to your glib man of the world performance. Violence that won’t ‘come to an arrangement.’”
François swallowed, and again his eyes darted to the window and then to the door—now equally, hopelessly out of reach.
“Villon,” Batman spat, abandoning the throaty gravel for a hoarse whisper like the hiss of a snake.
And, as one cornered by a hissing snake, François squelched the impulse to react and remained absolutely still.
“What do you know of that word?” he asked finally.
“Until recently, it was only the name of a poet. Who was also a thief. And your namesake,” Batman said, offering a few words at a time like a thief testing pressure sensors. When François didn’t react, Batman grunted and segued into a crisp, rapid delivery, like one reciting a resume: “François Villon, born 1431 near Paris, an orphan rescued from the streets by a wealthy clerk. Rejected the education and promising career thus offered and became a member of a famous thieving organization called the Gang des Coquillards, which robbed monasteries and public offices. Arrested many times and ultimately sentenced to death, but saved from the gallows by some powerful and eminent members of the nobility who appreciated his talents as a poet. He was banished after that, and nobody knows what became of him.”
“You know far more than I,” François sniffed. “The study of history, it has never been, how do you say, ‘to my taste.’”
Batman stared silently, unimpressed with this casual aside, and François answered with a defiant silence of his own.
It became a contest of wills.
Silent Stare versus Regard Fixe Silencieux.
Someone had to speak.
Something had to give.
As if Nature realized the stalemate might continue for hours and wanted to rush things along, a pigeon landed on the window sill. It was just enough of a sound in dangerously close proximity to force both men to look in its direction. The deadlock broken, conversation continued:
“Until recently, oui,” François said, his eyes remaining fixed on the pigeon. “It was ‘only the name of a poet’ until recently. When it is found scrawled on the wall of a beautiful townhouse off the Parc Monceau. This word: Villon. Written in the blood of the woman who lived there, who they stab in the throat because she has the misfortune to be at home when they come to take her jewels. Who does not want to part with the wedding ring of her dead husband so they cut it off her finger. You call this ‘violence’? I say that is a sad commentary on you. This punch in the mouth you give me, that is ‘violence.’ What this Crew Villon did to that woman, I call that a sauvagerie grotesque.”
“I agree,” Batman said. “A gentleman thief like yourself wouldn’t want to run into a crew like that. Oh I know it happens, thieves hitting the same target at the same time. It happens more often than laymen would think. Usually ‘some arrangement’ can be reached, n'est-ce pas?”
The pigeon flew off, and François turned his attention back to the masked manhunter, his eyes betraying a grudging admiration.
“You know the secrets of our world. It’s true, someone like me coming into a place like this, after dark when no one is home, might run into someone else who is there for the same purpose. It’s true when that happens, we would come to an arrangement. But this is not the kind of thing we ever speak of with outsiders. It begs the question how someone like you, someone who is, how do you say ‘the masked cop’ would come to know about such things, eh? I won’t pretend I cannot guess. She is well, my petit chat?”
“Catwoman knows what you obviously don’t: that what works with the police does not work with me. If I decide to hunt you, I hunt you until I end you. All the power and position of a Bruce Wayne—or a French aristocrat—can’t stop me. She wanted her pretty little life with Wayne, I needed to be satisfied.”
“Then you are a cad,” François announced, the admiration giving way to disgust. “If the lady makes her choice and it is not to commit the new thefts but to settle down with this man who has an old name and a fine house, a pleasing smile and the eyes that are not too bright, who are you to say she may not?”
Batman’s lip twitched.
“I’m Batman,” he said.
“J’appelle un chat un chat,” François said. “You said this before, this ‘I’m Batman,’ and I do not know what it means. You have the good fortune to have known a woman most excellent. When she finds a man to be making the ‘pretty little life,’ as you say, you demand secrets to let her be?! This is the act of a cad. You are not a Bat-Man; you are a Cad-Man.”
Again, Batman’s lip twitched.
“There were only two reasons you could be in Gotham, Poulignac, he said. “Committing these crimes in Gotham. Either you were running from the Villon crew: laying low in France, unable to perform your usual type of jobs for fear of running into them, and getting desperate for cash when you got a very attractive offer to come to America. Or else, the only other possibility is that you were here on your own. To hurt Selina. To make trouble for her and Wayne, or to drive a wedge between them and win her back yourself.”
It was François’s turn to lip-twitch.
“Monsieur,” he said. “You must know as well as I, Selina would never be winned in this fashion. She would be closer to Wayne than ever before, and she would make an enemy for life of the one who tries to take from her the man she chooses for herself.”
Behind the mask, Bruce liked the sound of that.
“And then where are you?” François went on. “When she is married and bored and ready to take a lover, you have made yourself the ‘enemy for life.’ She will pick someone like this Ned.” He gestured to a yellowed photograph of Ned Mendell playing polo, and Batman went back to massaging his knuckles.
“But yes, you are right with the first reason,” François went on, unaware he had momentarily scored a point and then lost it. “This Crew Villon with their needless brutality made my usual hunting grounds an unhappy place to be. This is not the kind of people I would be wishing to run into. So I am already thinking of other options, when I get offer: Three cities in five months. Gotham is to be the first, the petit chat’s stomping ground. I am thinking it will be fun. A little friendly rivalry, mais oui?”
“And you didn’t think it was suspicious when you found out all the targets were to be guests of the Wayne Foundation?”
“I actually had a little idea about that,” François said thoughtfully. “When I get here and hear the targets, at first, I think perhaps it is Bruce Wayne who hires me. Or else Selina, or else the two of them together. And if it is any of those, then this is a fine game. Either Monsieur Wayne with the eyes not too bright, he is more interesting than I thought, or else Selina is already bored and wanting some amusement. Either way, it could be the most enjoyable trip for me.”
“But now you know better,” Batman said grimly.
“Now I know better,” François admitted. “I know when the poncey Monsieur Falstaff gives the press conference that he cannot be working for Wayne or Selina.”
“And you didn’t think to make contact at that point? To warn them?” Batman demanded.
“And say what?” François laughed. “You do not know so much about thieves, after all. Good. I am glad the petit chat has not told you all the secrets about how things are done.”
Batman glowered and François grinned.
“It would not be possible for me to go to Selina and say ‘Here I am in Gotham’ after I have already pulled a job,” he explained patiently. “Gotham is, how do you say… The Catwoman’s City. If I am to say ‘Hello, I am here,’ it must be before I have done any heist, or else not at all. Do you understand?”
“No. Ah well.”
“You have committed three counts of felony burglary, with a fourth attempted tonight,” Batman said evenly. “The value is far in excess of $5,000, which makes it federal. That means I would not have to deal with you being incarcerated in Gotham. And, if I want you out of the country altogether—which I do—I could provide the Paris Judicial Police, Monaco Police, Interpol and Scotland Yard with evidence to keep you entangled in the law courts and prisons of five countries for the next twenty years. If that fate is not appealing, this is what you’re going to do…”
In another city, Selina’s performance in the receiving line might have earned her some kudos. It was, after all, the last ball of the Wayne Foundation Elemental Fete and Bruce Wayne was a no-show. She was left to welcome his guests alone, and she was doing it with the poise and grace of a duchess.
In another city, it would have been magnificent: explaining his absence as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a host to be detained by a masked vigilante—the same masked vigilante rumored to have both an adversarial and a romantic history with his live-in girlfriend—the same live-in girlfriend who may or may not be the international jewel thief he is investigating but who is definitely the woman shaking your hand while you’re wearing that big diamond rock from Tiffany’s. In any other city, it would have been the epitome of sophisticated elegance and the embodiment of savoir faire. In Gotham, where a party might be interrupted by anything from an indoor blizzard to the mind-controlled string section of the Gotham Philharmonic, anything less than Selina’s relaxed nonchalance would be gauche.
The only one to be impressed by her performance was Dick. He saw her first while he was waiting outside the ballroom. Barbara hated the red carpet; she always had. She would have much preferred to come into the hotel by a side door, but Bruce always reminded Madison to see that there was a ramp on the red carpet entrance and to double check herself that it was set up just so. Barbara knew he did it, and she couldn’t bring herself to tell him not to bother. So they had come in the front, as always, and as soon as they were inside the hotel, Barbara went off to the powder room to collect herself before entering the ballroom. While Dick waited, he glanced inside at the receiving line and there was Selina on the very end, a relaxed smile as she waited for Andrew Wolford to finish chatting with Lucius Fox.
Then they entered the ballroom and started down the receiving line themselves. As Madison bent down to kiss Barbara, Dick heard Selina cooing at Seth Kenworth. When he was shaking hands with Lucius, he heard her laughing with Vienna Brentwood. Finally, Dick reached her himself. She turned from Vienna with that party smile in place, but in the instant she recognized who this new guest was before her, her eyes locked onto his—LOCKED onto the eyes of the only other person who knew WHAT BRUCE DID.
A jolt of hostility sizzled through him, producing the kind of warm, quivering paralysis that results from an electric shock. Fortunately, Dick had been raised at Wayne Manor and Alfred had installed certain core principles that operated on an almost unconscious level. As Dick’s higher thought processes recovered from the shock, he found he was having the polite conversation that good manners (aka his inner Alfred) dictated. Superficially, it was the same conversation Selina had with everyone else: You look wonderful, the ballroom is a dream, yes they really did go all out with the decorations for this final night. Fog machines and those all those cottony billows, it will be just like dancing in the clouds. Yes, Bruce is late, there was a bit of drama at the penthouse, but I won’t take the fun from the other dinner guests and tell you myself. You simply must hear Justine Gardner tell it… But underneath, Dick saw Catwoman. The Catwoman they prevented from reaching the Katz Collection, the Catwoman who slashed her whip across Batman’s legs, warning him to keep his distance.
The Catwoman who was royally pissed at the man she was making such pretty excuses for.
The Catwoman who was welcoming his guests to his foundation’s gala, while they all huddled in thrilled groups, repeating the tale of His Caped Appearance.
“Look at her,” Dick said, mesmerized. “The whole room’s buzzing about what happened at the penthouse, it’s the only thing anybody will be talking about all night—and there she is, laughing and smiling, not a care in the world to look at her.”
“Dickie, you’re smitten,” Barbara teased.
“I’m impressed,” he said simply. “I’ve seen a lot of absurdities forced on a lot of good people for the sake of protecting, you know, identities.” He mouthed the last word silently, although there was nobody in earshot. “But nothing quite like that.”
His admiration grew as the evening progressed, as the receiving line broke up and Selina moved through the party without betraying a hint of what she must be feeling. He heard nine different variations of the scene at the penthouse, one of which had Batman grabbing Selina’s arm and yanking her out of her chair and Bruce brandishing a steak knife when he told the Dark Knight to back off. Barbara, Tim and Cassie all seemed to look on it as just another twist in the road, and at first, Dick felt himself profoundly disappointed in them. Nobody else seemed to realize what Selina must be feeling, what it must be like for her—and then he realized the reason he saw it differently was because he was the only other person who’d been there. Bruce calling you a partner, but holding back when he knew something like this was coming. Not trusting you, shutting you out, flat out lying to you about what he was really planning, and then—
“Oh my God, plot twist!” Barbara said excitedly. “It’s François de Something. Look, look, look,” she chanted, her head tilting to the right.
Dick looked in that direction, and felt his mouth drop open.
“It’s François de Something,” he echoed dully.
He strode into the ballroom like a French James Bond—or even a French Bruce Wayne—sporting what was surely one world’s six most expensive tuxedoes and the bruise of a recent altercation darkening half his jaw. He looked over the crowd with the pleased satisfaction of a host, as if he had invited all these people who were enjoying themselves so thoroughly, until he saw the one he was looking for. He approached her with the easy assurance of a man who is always sure of his welcome.
“Selina, mon plus beau petit chat, it has been too long. How can it be that you grow more beautiful with each passing year?”
Selina was an experienced night person, accustomed to all the shocks and reversals that may come your way, particularly when your way involves robbing a museum in Batman’s city. It took only a second to blink away the stunned shock, during which time François intercepted her raised hand and spirited her onto the dance floor.
“You must forgive me, Petite Chat, that I do not get in touch before now. Since I have been back in this Gotham of yours, I think of nothing but you.”
“Yes, I’m sure you have, considering what you’ve been doing here,” Selina said pointedly.
“Certainement. Consider: It is my first day here. I am just unpacking in the hotel, and I turn on the television. What do I see? It is show with a cat burglar American. I am thinking this is a sign most fortunate, no? This show is called, eh, Leverage, I think, and this burglar, she looks like your Harley Quinn: very pretty and blonde, with the derrière magnifique. But I am confused when this pretty little thief, she says the job they do is ‘like taking diamonds from the French National Bank.’ Her companion, he is as confused as I, and she says this is expression that means ‘like taking the candy from a baby.’ And I do not understand this. The French National Bank, it has no diamonds in its vault. The only place to find diamonds might be if a private person were to keep their jewelry in, how you say, the safe deposit box. And the safe deposit boxes at the French National Bank, they are premiere. On par with any in the world. So I think of you often, because I know you can explain. Ca va?”
“That’s why you were thinking of me?” Selina hissed. “François, you are going to hurt in places you didn’t know you had. If you were looking for an omen when you hit town, you should have looked out the window at the Bat-Signal.”
“Ah yes, the famous Dark Knight. I have met him at last. A foe most formidable, is he not?”
The only person in the room more undone than Selina was Gregorian Falstaff. He huffed and puffed on seeing the suave Frenchman enter the ballroom, puffed and huffed as he approached Selina, huffed and puffed again as the pair started dancing—François de Poulignac and Selina Kyle—this simply couldn’t be happening—Selina Kyle and François de Poulignac—it simply could not be happening. He turned away, positioning himself behind a column. At first, it might have seemed like he was hiding, until he turned further to lean his back against the support and then let his head follow, closing his eyes against the panic pulsing through his lids—François de Poulignac and Selina Kyle, Selina Kyle and François de Poulignac—He took a final, raspy breath to collect himself, and set off to intercept them—by a route too direct and at a pace too purposeful for the elegant insouciance of the ballroom.
“I know you ‘met’ him,” said Selina. “I recognize the cut lip. But you’re still able to walk. Even more impressive, you’re able to dance, which is why we’re still talking. You must have had one hell of a satisfying explanation for what’s been going on—what it was I can’t imagine—and I’m waiting to hear it.”
“I—” François began, but Selina cut him off by pressing back against his lead. When she continued, she mimicked his accent with a mocking grin.
“For the record, the, how do you say, Chevalier Noir is not what I was referring to when I said you’ll hurt in places you never knew you—really must brave the tourists and see the view from the observation deck,” she said, segueing to safer topics as she saw Gregorian Falstaff approach.
He stood as if wanting to cut in, but his lip trembling with some forceful emotion that rendered him unable to speak.
“Too charmed,” François said smoothly, disengaging from Selina and taking Falstaff’s hand in her place. His other slid to Falstaff’s side, and the two danced off—although Falstaff seemed impelled into motion by the same shock as Selina had been earlier.
François waited a beat for that shock to wear off, for he wanted to make sure he had Falstaff’s full attention. He locked eyes with the pompous little man, his own losing their carefree playfulness and his voice taking on a dark and willful quality as he said:
“Your role in this affair is concluded, Monsieur. You thought I was your pawn, but you were mistaken. It is you who are mine. Run along now and tell your master that his scheme has misfired. I have my own plans for Selina which supersede his for Wayne.”
He paused for a half beat before adding “Now this is where you would make to me the threats, mais oui? You would speak of the assassins most accomplished and the pieces of me they will cut into with their blades. My friend, we will consider these threats to have been made. Because in this brief time we have been talking, you have turned a shade of pink most alarming. I fear if you do not go attend to yourself, the blood pressure will build and your blood vessels they will go pop...”
Falstaff sputtered but couldn’t quite form words.
“Like the steam radiator,” François said helpfully.
“…” Falstaff answered.
“Pop!” François said, halting the dance and removing his hand from Falstaff’s to illustrate with an open-fingered ‘bursting fireworks’ gesture.
Falstaff didn’t think he was in any danger of having a heart attack, but his face was hot, his brow puddled in sweat, and he didn’t see how anything would be accomplished by remaining in the ballroom tongue-tied and propelled into a backwards foxtrot by a rebellious employee. He fled as far as the backseat of his limo, where the sight of his driver in the rearview mirror made him reconsider his flight.
Failure in DEMON was another word for death. The fact that The Great One, Ra’s al Ghul, was not aware of the operation would not be likely to spare him if the other minions realized what was happening. The Gang of Six, as they called themselves, were risking everything with this operation. Spending enormous sums without authorization, diverting funds in Istanbul, draining resources in Budapest, reallocating personnel from Jharkhand—shutting down the Bangkok compound entirely to buy the Knickerbocker Tower and dissolving the Moldovan cartel to finance the construction. If it didn’t succeed, someone would have to pay. If it didn’t succeed, his was the name and face of the operation. If it didn’t succeed, they would be quick to slice him and throw him to the sharks. So far, only his driver had seen his hurried exit from the hotel and perhaps noted the agitation in his voice as he ordered himself driven home. If he could silence the driver, there would be containment. Containment would give him time to save his life.
He thought back to de Poulignac’s parting words… Remember to tell him: I have my own plan for Selina which supersedes his for Wayne… No, not those, the other ones… Now run along and attend to yourself, before your heart blows up and you die.
Yes, that was it. That would explain his pallor, his agitation and his hurried departure from the hotel without raising doubts about the operation.
“Pi’lee, I don’t wish to alarm you,” Falstaff said evenly. “But I will not be dismissing you for the night when we get home. The fact is, I don’t feel right, there is a tightness in my chest. I’m sure it’s only indigestion. If it clears up in twenty minutes or so, I may return to the party. But if it gets worse—I’m sure it will not. I’m sure it is only indigestion from all this decadent Western food—but if it gets worse, you will take me to the hospital. Do you understand?”
Pi’lee said he understood and made a few sympathetic rumblings when he held the door open for Falstaff to get out. To keep up appearances, Falstaff felt his chest and belly as he walked into the building and only relaxed once the elevator doors closed behind him.
He had containment, for a few hours at least, which should be sufficient to save his life. After all, Ra’s al Ghul knew nothing of the operation, so Falstaff could present him with the 2/3 success as if it were the whole. The Gang of Six would keep silent once they saw the Demon’s Head was pleased.
And why wouldn’t he be? Why wouldn’t Ra’s al Ghul be pleased? Expecting nothing at all, he would have contact with the surface again. He would be able to direct operations as smoothly as if he were in the palace. That alone would mean apostrophes and concubines for everyone involved, but that was not to be the extent of their tribute. They would also be presenting the Demon’s Head with free access to his enemy’s base: the Falstaff Fund was now headquartered within the Wayne Tower. They were linked to the Wayne Foundation office in Sub Diego, and through Sub Diego to the corporate intranet and more importantly, to the land-doubles that could access the most restricted parts of the Wayne Tower. In time, Bruce Wayne’s own penthouse might be breached, and with it, who knows? It was a great gift! Why wouldn’t Ra’s al Ghul be pleased?
Falstaff paused in his satisfied recitations, for his communication center was not connecting as it should. He rebooted twice, then checked the cables, and rebooted again. Everything in his system seemed to be working fine, except for outgoing communication.
It could be a coincidence, he told himself. The gnawing in his gut said otherwise: the one time he most needed to make contact, there was a problem? If it was a coincidence, it seemed to have an intent that mere bad luck should not. Maybe he was just anxious—yes, that was far more likely—he was agitated and unnerved about de Poulignac and he screwed something up. He had a horrid scare in the ballroom—and how—he was panicking and he’d done something wrong. That was MUCH easier to believe than coincidence. He tried the backup system—which also failed to connect, completely discounting the coincidence idea but making the Panicky Screwup theory more likely than ever.
Then he saw a black mark the size of a pinhead on the electrical outlet. He squinted at it and turned his head, unable to decide if it was shaped like a bat or not. He picked at it with his fingernail, which delivered a nasty shock—and made him pull his finger away from the outlet, which flicked the dot-possibly-bat-shaped-pinhead-thing onto the carpet.
He got on his hands and knees to search for it and discovered that it had splintered into a number of smaller flakes of which he found four. It was now completely impossible to determine if the smaller-than-pinhead flakes were ever part of a bat-shaped whole, and it was no easier to see if they contained microelectronics.
He couldn’t risk a transmission like the one before him to a potentially compromised system in Batman’s city, so he had no choice. He simply had no choice. He would have to use the secure linkup in the Falstaff Fund office.
He cursed himself for having been so clever with Pi’lee. If he hadn’t gone into all that detail about returning to the ball, he could have Pi’lee take him straight to the Wayne Tower now. Instead, he had to go back to the Plaza to avoid rousing his driver’s suspicions. He grumbled about Western food the whole way there and cursed ‘The Detective’ for being a creature of the depraved and decadent West. He barely managed to mask his sour expression in time when they reached the hotel, for in his mind, he was already abandoning the role of Gregorian Falstaff. The smile he wore entering the hotel this time was not as convincing as its predecessors, but it didn’t need to be. There would be no one of importance to see it. He bypassed the party and went straight through the lobby to the public telephones. There he placed two calls to put the refém al ghul on standby. By now, his feigned indigestion had become real, and again he cursed the Detective. He left by a side door, whistled for a taxi, and barked “Wayne Plaza!” at the cabman before he’d even got the door open. The theatres were letting out and midtown traffic was considerable. He cursed the Detective, the Detective’s city, the Detective’s cars, the Detective’s concubine, the Detect…
With the mental repetition of the word, another detective sprung to mind. He recalled—he couldn’t think why—but he recalled Sherlock Holmes’s instructions to Watson in the midst of some pressing crisis: Don’t take the first cab, nor the second. The third MAY be safe…
Falstaff scrutinized the back of the cabbie’s neck.
Of all the Western literature Falstaff had studied in preparing for this mission, he had paid the most attention to Sherlock Holmes, deducing with an insight Holmes himself would approve of that it must be a favorite of Gotham’s great detective.
He scrutinized the back of the cabbie’s neck.
Here he was, a prisoner of this man. Here he was, in a mad dash for the finish line in a battle of wits and wills against the Great Detective of Gotham—who was undoubtedly a student and follower of literature’s great detective—and he had barreled into the first cab that presented itself!
He scrutinized the back of the cabbie’s neck.
Could be the boy sidekick.
“Pull over here!” Falstaff squealed excitedly. “I’ve changed my mind, I would rather walk!”
Without waiting for the cab to reach a full stop, he opened the door with his one hand and threw a wad of cash at the cabbie’s head with the other.
“What are you doing?! Man, what the hell are you doing?!” the cabbie called as Falstaff sprinted from the barely stopped car—though all but the first words were lost in the cacophony of horns and cattle calls as Falstaff darted around other cars in the slow-moving traffic.
It was only four blocks to cover on foot, which was sufficient for Falstaff to give himself another pep talk. The “reversal” with de Poulignac, he decided, was no such thing. Losing the—BUS! Almost got clipped by a bus—Losing the cat burglar was not even a setback. The man had served his purpose. Now he would be dealt with like any other loose end, which was not Falstaff’s responsibility. That meant—BIKE! What were those wretched bike messengers doing on the street at this time of night?—that meant the only aspect of his operation that could be seen as falling short was the absence of willing minions among the Sub Diegans. They were still relying on hostages—Cab! Good lord, wasn’t that the very one he got out of? So the driver wasn’t the boy sidekick after all—they were still relying on the air-breathing, land-based relatives of key Sub Diegans taken as hostages. Looking back, it was unrealistic to expect more when they could not experience the power and grandeur of Ra’s al Ghul himself. But now, once contact was established, once they could see him with their own eyes, hear his voice and feel his charismatic presence with them under the sea, there would be a fully functioning Demon cell in Sub Diego and in their Atlantis embassy within months!
Once contact was established.
Once contact was established, once contact was established, once contact was established…
Now all he had to do was let himself into the Wayne building with his keycard, a confident stride across the lobby and a nod to the security guard, another cardswipe at the elevator, and he was on his way to the Foundation office annexed by the Falstaff Fund. Not ten minutes later, he had Alan on the screen from Sub Diego, clutching a picture of his mother and sister as he patched Falstaff through to their embassy in Atlantis. There, young Miss Keene appeared. Falstaff didn’t share the blanket distrust of females espoused by most Demon operatives, but he did wish this one didn’t look quite so much like she’d been crying. He appreciated that she loved her brother and didn’t want to see his throat cut—that was the whole point in threatening to do so—but she couldn’t very well go trotting through the royal palace of Atlantis looking like she’d been weeping. It was apt to attract attention.
Rather than threaten further, Falstaff decided the quickest solution was to cheer her up. He broke out the same pleasant smile which had charmed all the ladies in the ballroom, and confided that he himself had begun with Demon in similar circumstances. His loved one was returned unharmed, and he was given a substantial reward for his service beyond that. Indeed, in all the years he had been serving the Demon’s Head, he had never seen a hostage come to any harm. (Which was strictly true; he had never personally seen a hostage at all.)
Keene Kincade began to look a little less like a weepy and witless teenager leaving a tear-jerking movie, but she did not yet resemble a woman privileged to receive an audience with Ra’s al Ghul. Falstaff pressed his advantage by having her tell him a little about her brother Ken. They were twins, which is how she got saddled with such a peculiar name as Keene… A few minutes of “Keene and Ken” stories and the girl was actually smiling. Fit to be seen and ready to blend in, Falstaff sent her off to deliver the tablet into the hands of The Demon’s Head.
He drew himself up before the camera, patted down his hair nervously and straightened his jacket and tie… then his cuffs, then patted his hair again, and waited breathlessly until the screen before him flickered and he beheld the visage of Ra’s al Ghul.
Or rather, he beheld the thumbprint of Ra’s al Ghul as Keene showed him where the camera was on the bottom of the tablet’s frame… Falstaff drew himself up again—and then he beheld the WayneTech logo as he heard Keene’s voice explaining to Ra’s al Ghul that he had “closed the app.”
Falstaff fidgeted nervously as the radio play continued. Keene, like all the residents of Sub Diego, was a water breather who could only tolerate open air rooms like The Demon Head’s cell for a few minutes at a time. In her haste to finish with this business, she was more impatient with Ra’s al Ghul than any loyal minion could fathom, but Ra’s—with the greatness of mind that was truly a wonder to witness—was mercifully forgiving when she told him to just put the blasted thing down and let her do it for him. The Wayne logo flickered into a clear picture of the luxurious apartment the Atlanteans called a jail cell, Keene holding her breath, and Ra’s al Ghul peering curiously over her shoulder. Finally she ran from the room, cheeks puffed out, chest heaving, and without even pausing to acknowledge Ra’s al Ghul’s final words of thanks.
“My lord,” Falstaff began, snapping his head down until his chin met his chest.
“Speak,” said The Demon.
The wisdom of Ra’s al Ghul expanded to include mastery of the tablet’s controls faster than Falstaff dared to hope, and within the hour, His Eminence was fully briefed on the Gotham operation. He who had been born Thandiso Boer, then the minion Thabid and finally Gregorian Falstaff, was henceforth to be known as Tha’stalfa. Promoted to the first tier. When Ra’s al Ghul returned to land, he was to receive a private suite of rooms in whatever castle The Demon’s Head resided—or, when in the compound, Tha’stalfa would have a tent to himself neither larger nor smaller than a captain of the Ajax class—and within that suite of rooms or tent, a daily bowl of fruit.
Speechless with gratitude and joy, Tha’stalfa nee Falstaff hastily shut down the system and hurried from the office—so excited that he didn’t even see the dark shape in the doorway until he careened into it.
“Thank you, that’s all I needed,” it graveled, before its gauntleted fist knocked him out cold.
You didn’t see as many summers as Ra’s al Ghul without learning that today’s technological wonder is tomorrow’s outmoded antique. From sails to siege engines, muskets to marconigrams, someone was always working on a better way. You could drive yourself mad trying to master the new horseless carriages—turn the crank, pull the choke, spark down, gas up—or you could wait a few years and find the whole process reduced to the simple turn of a key. Ra’s was glad he hadn’t wasted effort learning the intricacies of faxes and emails and messaging systems that his minions had busied themselves with over the years. He would have a mind cluttered with the refuse of so many outmoded methods. Instead, now that he was reduced to doing things for himself, his head was clear to learn this one system alone, made so elegantly simple by none other than Wayne Tech.
He was torn, at first, about that logo on the corner of the tablet. Whether it pleased or irked him to have this precious link with the outside world being of the Detective’s own making. He scowled suspiciously at the name, at first, as though it mocked him. But as he realized the extent of Tha’stalfa’s gift, he liked it more and more. The irony that Bruce Wayne’s Foundation was the key to ending this exile was really quite amusing, but it was nothing—nothing at all—compared to the access Ra’s now had to the secret places within the Wayne citadel.
With a hungry smile, Ra’s touched the runic symbol on the tablet’s screen which launched the “app” that gave him corporeal form in Gotham City. He knew it was only another computer screen like the one he held, propped up on a mechanized stick and maneuvered around by wheels, but he liked to imagine it as the 18th century chess-playing automaton called “The Turk.”
Thousands of miles away, in the Sub Diego Meta-Comm Facility that was formerly a handicapped washroom on the Wayne Tech R&D floor, one of the land-doubles sprang to life. Its start-up screen flashed the Wayne Tech logo, flickered through a series of system-loading and sync screens. A black disc at the bottom of the unit erupted into a star pattern of red lasers fanning out in all directions, raising and lowering along the shaft until it had mapped out its surroundings. These were translated into a simple map in the corner of Ra’s screen, while the top of the image displayed a camera shot of the dark narrow room before it. There, Ra’s realized, he was looking out his land-double’s “eyes.”
Touching the arrows on the map, he moved the double forward, right, and forward again, and was gratified to see the dark camera view above the map growing lighter as it reached the hallway. Left arrow to turn again, down that hall and left again to the elevator bay. Blue button to call the elevator, and then forward… it was really quite a wonder. When the day finally came to reveal to the Detective how Ra’s had bested him, he really must remember to compliment this new technology.
Now then, his cursory examination of the restricted floors which required that coveted “Keycard B” status were 17-Wayne Tech Polymers and Nanotech, 18-Wayne Tech Diagnostic and Biomedical, 26-Wayne Industries R&D, 54 through 64 which had quite a wide variety of intriguing designations, and of course the three floors of executive suites occupied by senior management, including the Detective himself. Ra’s al Ghul had always been a patient man, and it only made sense to tackle the problem methodically. He should investigate all of these divisions and only then might he determine which areas of the Detective’s vast operations offered the best opportunity.
But he didn’t want to. All these months of inactivity had rendered him impatient. He didn’t want to start on 17 with “Polymers” and work his way up sensibly and methodically when he knew Aeronautics & Aviation Systems were waiting for him on the 56th floor, Pulsar Concepting on the 57th, and Fractal Engineering on the 58th. So he had made a prioritized list as he sipped his morning tea, beginning with those divisions that seemed most likely to produce a Demon-worthy operation and omitting those that, despite the high security access, did not seem very interesting.
Discipline fought with Daring for a final second—and he decisively pushed the button for the 56th Floor. Caution be damned, Fortune favored the brave. He might well have the key to Gotham’s destruction by nightfall.
The elevator doors opened and he saw the sign announcing Wayne Industries: Aeronautics & Aviation Systems as his land-double rolled past it. He saw the impressive array of models and renderings lining the hallway, and even more impressive spectacles in the laboratories behind clear glass walls. In the rear of one of these labs, he could see a doorway leading to a white corridor with a particularly interesting raised platform, with a single chair in front of a single work station, a single keyboard and cluster of monitors. It looked extremely interesting. Now, let’s see, how to get there. Forward, left arrow, no door though… a little farther forward and to the left past the lab, and yes, there it was, a sign leading to the “White Room” Authorized Personnel Only… These land-doubles that were parked in the most restricted high-security zone when they weren’t in use had the clearance to access anything, so—where was that button—ah, yes, there it was, now the door opens and we go forward again…
Except the image on the screen was not the white room. It wasn’t that fascinating white corridor his land-double was rolling into, it wasn’t that isolated platform with the single chair and keyboard he was rolling towards. It was—Bruce Wayne’s desk?
Ra’s knew it was Bruce Wayne’s desk because Bruce Wayne was sitting behind it. The opulence of the office could belong to any top tier executive, and the view, to a non-Gothamite, was nondescript. All he could really tell was that the window faced east and it was just before sunrise. The man behind the desk, however, could not be mistaken for any other—though Ra’s found his annoyingly relaxed posture uncharacteristic. At first he attributed it to the business suit, but looking beyond the coat and tie, Ra’s was forced to conclude that it was not the unfamiliar clothes or surroundings, it was the man himself. He had never seen the Detective quite so… obnoxiously content as he was now, leaning back in that chair, smiling down at a tablet similar to the one Ra’s held himself.
“That’s my girl,” he said, looking down at the tablet with a pleased smile, then he looked up. “Ah, Ra’s, there you are,” he said as if welcoming a colleague. “I could have just severed the Atlantis connection or locked out that tablet without your getting to take the land-double for a spin, but it seemed so anti-climactic. And I was curious to see where you’d go. Aeronautics, that’s a nice choice. Maybe a little 20th Century. I would have started with Aero-Thermal Systems myself, but then it is my company and I know what’s down there.”
On the land-double’s screen, the face of Ra’s al Ghul scowled.
“You have changed, Detective. In our many encounters, I have never known you to strut,” he said with a hint of paternal correction.
“I’ve usually had to travel several thousand miles and escape from a dungeon,” Bruce pointed out. “For all you know, this is my usual manner when I’ve slept in my own bed, had a good breakfast and woken to the news that, while I slept, the San Diego police, FBI and Superman rescued all the hostages your people took to force certain residents of Sub Diego to do things they’d rather not.”
“I see,” Ra’s sighed. “You employed some trickery, no doubt, that led Tha’stalfa—Falstaff as you knew him—to give up the location of his agents.”
“Not all of them, not yet,” Bruce said—and for the first time, Ra’s saw the steely determination of the Batman in this grinning figure before him. “The ones in California we have. But there are others. There were atrocities committed in Europe to set Falstaff’s plan here in motion, and the men who did it will not escape Justice.”
“You bore me, Detective. If there is to be no more to this discussion than renewed declarations of your obsession with that subjective concept called justice, we may as well terminate the connection.”
He tapped the button on his tablet to close the app and sever the connection. Then he tapped it again. And again. If he wasn’t so engrossed, he would have heard the clip-clip of heels as Selina came into the office. As it was, he barely noticed when a corner of her face appeared in the top corner of his screen and several strands of hair dropped down to obscure half his view of the office.
For her part, Selina saw the top of his forehead at an extreme angle as he looked down at his tablet, brow knit in confusion as he hit the same button over and over again to no effect. She looked up at Bruce and their eyes locked in shared amusement: he still didn’t realize that he wasn’t controlling the land-double. The moment he selected the 56th Floor, Bruce’s tablet took over control of his avatar, while Selina had walked a similar camera through Aeronautics and Aviation to provide the video feed he would see until he arrived in the office.
Bruce thought about explaining, but decided against it. Ra’s continued to press the tablet screen furiously. Selina mouthed “At least this time, there’s no fencing.” And Bruce let his hand drop inconspicuously to the desk, tapped the control tablet, and the Ra’s screen went dark.
To be continued…