Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle in Cat-Tales by Chris DeeCat-Tales 68: NMK Inc.

NMK Inc.
by Chris Dee

NMK Inc: Chapter 2 Positive Carry Positive Carry


Share

The Wayne W350 Metro from Wayne Aeronautics was impressive straight off the assembly line.  It was the preferred helicopter for corporate fleets because of its imposing appearance.  It could be customized, naturally, but the four used by Wayne Enterprises were tricked out with special features at assembly to make them a bit showier than those available to others at any price.  The only 350 Metro more impressive was Bruce Wayne’s personal helicopter, and it was that which flew swiftly over the midtown traffic snarl now, as if mocking those who couldn’t make a plan at 7:30 in their manor in Bristol requiring them to meet someone in the Financial District at 8:45…

10 Hours Earlier

The Bat-Signal looked exactly like it always had to most of the city, to all but the two men it most concerned.  To Gordon who activated it, it meant a homecoming.  It had been years since he saw it from that angle on the top of One Police Plaza, years since he was the commissioner Batman was coming to meet.  To the Dark Knight who answered it, tonight’s signal meant continuity.  Muskelli was a good man, but Gordon was his first ally in law enforcement, an ally who came to be a trusted friend.  Seeing that familiar silhouette on the roof as he approached gave him a pang.  So much had changed.

“Good evening, Jim,” he said, the Bat-voice failing him unexpectedly on the second word, which he covered with a cough.  “It’s been a long time.”

“It has,” he nodded.  “This was my first real day back.  Yesterday was a lot of theatre, that’s why I didn’t light it up.  Lot of nonsense, chest beating and marking territory, but it had to be done.”

While Gordon spoke, Batman had reached into his belt and extracted a long, thin box tied with a black bow, which he handed over without comment and which his friend accepted without a thank you.  There was an exchange of grunts, and then a down-to-business shift in tone.

“Only a couple items tonight,” Gordon began.  “Chinatown is still hot.  Day Three.  The situation with the triads is deescalating, but it’s not over yet.  The gang units are keeping a strong presence.  If we can get through the next 48 hours without another outbreak, it should blow over.  Until then, it’s a powder keg.”

Batman nodded curtly and filled in what details he knew.  The trouble had started, as Gordon’s partial intel surmised, with a rumor about a small piece of carved jade that had allegedly been smuggled into Gotham.  The High Elder of the Red Lotus was said to have a signet ring of the Qing Dynasty, a ring with a missing seal.  There was a piece of jade, a piece of coral, a piece of ivory and a piece of amber that had been carved to fit the empty cavity.  Whoever produced one of the missing seals could demand any favor of the triad.

“Sounds like a subplot in a bad novel,” Gordon noted. 

“It does,” Batman scowled.  “Most of the triads would agree with you.  It’s an excuse to hit their rivals.  I don’t think any of them are expecting to find this thing.”

“More like buying a lottery ticket,” Gordon said.  “Ransack an enemy’s place, settle an old score.  If the seal does exist and you actually find it, bonus.  Do you have any idea how the rumor started?”

Batman shook his head, saying only that he’d eliminated King Snake and the remnants of the Demon cell Ra’s al Ghul had in Chinatown.  Gordon nodded and proceeded to the next item of business: If you counted every arrowhead, glass bead and pottery shard, the Gotham Museum of Art had over two million pieces in its permanent collection.  Only a fraction were on display, and a few minor works were being taken from storage and added to the public exhibits, works that might pique the interest of certain theme criminals.

“A Persian armlet, solid gold with a head of a lion on both ends.  A renaissance helmet, copper covered in gold, also a lion.  Then there’s a broach with this silver tiger curled around a big blue opal and holding up an emerald.  And some kind of a covered dish made to hold something ridiculous, imitation gallstone of an animal or something, but it’s once again solid gold, decorated with ‘mythical beasts’ and has a small lion on the top.”

He was reading from a handheld device that looked like a smart phone, but which Batman recognized as a prototype dockable mini tablet WayneTech was developing to bring data with you from a desktop or mainframe terminal.

“Gift from my son-in-law,” Gordon said casually as he handed it over, enabling Batman to see thumbnails of the artworks in question.  “Any of those four would tempt the Catman,” he concluded.  

“If he finds out about it,” Batman agreed, handing back the device.  Their eyes met, silently acknowledging that all the previous times they met on this roof, there would have been another theme criminal to discuss in relation to gold lion heads in the museum.  As it was, Gordon merely cleared his throat and they went on to the final item on the agenda:

“Luthor is coming to Gotham,” he said sourly. 

I know.”

“Unspecified length of stay.”

Ten days,” Batman graveled.  “Masayoshi Son was booked into the Presidential Suite at the St. Regis beginning on the 23rd, and they informed him it was no longer available for the first four days of his stay.  He could have the Tiffany Suite and then move.”

Gordon grunted.

“Any idea why he’s coming?” he asked.

“Could be simple financing.  He’s trying to remake LexCorp.”

“Financing,” Gordon sniffed.  “You don’t really believe that.”

No.

As the helicopter with the giant W on the bottom sped south into the Finance District, the party Bruce Wayne was going to meet was already waiting at 2 Broad Street just outside the VIP entrance to the Gotham Stock Exchange.  Drake Spiner and Calvin Elliot had used the one means of beating FiDi traffic more efficient than Wayne’s.  Like Bruce they’d flown in, minus the helicopter.  For Calvin Elliot minus the touch of gray at the temples, the crow’s feet and frown lines, sunken eyes and sagging cheeks, bore a certain resemblance to Superman. 

Or at least to a significantly older and infinitely more prosperous Clark Kent, judging by the suit.  It was apropos for the private corridors above the stock exchange, bespeaking a senior executive of a thriving multi-national.  Indeed he might have been CEO if you went by the Anderson & Sheppard suit alone, the inner pocket specially sewn to fit the exact dimensions of his WayneTech phone and three-sided hen’s foot stitch anchoring the buttons on his Kiton shirt.  It was only his deferential manner with Drake that marked him as a second-in-command… 

4 Hours Earlier

Selina was already asleep by the time Bruce got home.  He nudged her, and when that failed to wake her (as it usually did), he informed her in Batman’s most menacing whisper that the Saigo Scrolls were fake, that she’d stepped into a trap going after them, and that now at last he was going to take her down for her crimes.  Her nose twitched (as it usually did) and she made a slight pawing move with her one hand.  That turned into a full two-armed stretch, by the end of which she was awake.

“Hey there,” she said, smiling.  “How was the night?”

“Uneventful.  Some trouble on the South Side, and I made a few extra passes through Chinatown.  It was good seeing Jim on that roof again.”

“I’ll bet, but that’s not why you woke me.”

“No, I wanted to give you a heads up.  Clark’s coming to breakfast.”

“Oh no.  No.  Bruce, no.”

She fell back on the bed and pulled the extra pillows down over her head.

“It won’t be that bad.”

“Like hell,” she said through layers of goose down and embroidered linen.

“I’m sure he’s gotten over it by now.”

“Imurglee hazmet” said the pillow fort.

“Repeat?” said Bruce.

“I’m sure he hasn’t,” Selina said, extracting herself from the Porthault prison.  “He keeps going up to the Catitat, playing with the tiger cubs.”

“I didn’t know that.  Still?”

“I didn’t want to tell you, but yeah.  He calls too.”

“He’s calling you?”

“Four, five times now.  And he showed up in person the night you had monitor duty.  Middle of my prowl, there he is hovering off the edge like he did that other time at the Four Seasons, when he wanted to talk after the mindwipe.”

“Is it just that movie?”

“It’s the movie; there’s no ‘just’ about it.  He’s hurting.”

“The one they made based on you was far from accurate, you didn’t blink.”

“That’s why he keeps talking my ear off.  He thinks I understand because it ‘happened to me.’  I do understand, actually.  I understand that what happened to me is in no way comparable.  All they did with Catwoman was get it wrong, but with him… Remember what I told you about Watermill Lodge?”

“When you were investigating the Lyon murder?  He was supposed to bring Cassie back to Gotham to save time, and she was afraid to fly with him because of some training from David Cain.”

“Those are the broad brushstrokes.  But you weren’t there, you didn’t see his eyes, you didn’t hear his voice.  Bruce, it’s like she hurt his soul.  That ‘little girl’ was afraid of him.  At first he couldn’t process it.  It took three or four tries to make him hear that she wasn’t afraid of heights or flying, she was afraid of flying with him.  Once he got that, it was like… I just wanted to hug him.  Instead I made it worse; I quoted her.  I was just trying to explain.  I wanted him to understand what was going on in that screwed up little head.  ‘Superman kill easier than I swat fly.’”

“And all he heard was ‘Superman kills,’” Bruce said.

“Yep.  You obviously would have anticipated the problem.  I didn’t.  I’m new at this.  I stepped in it.  I said Cassie leaves out little words sometimes.  ‘Superman can kill’ or ‘could kill,’ it just comes out ‘kill.’”

“And he said the difference between what he can do and would do is not a ‘little’ word.”

“Right.  I was caught between the professional writer and Cassie, it was a fun day.  Point is, you didn’t see him.  You’re filling in enough of the blanks that you must have had conversations like this with him, but… I don’t know, Bruce.  I don’t know what you’re missing.  That difference between what he is physically capable of and what he would actually do, that’s where he lives.  It’s who he is.  He said that he knew his powers could be frightening to people, and it was like hearing you talk about the alley.  It’s the great pain of his life, that separation from the rest of us.  He just wants to help, and people are afraid.”

“Very few.  The vast majority know the hero he is.  How can a few fools who don’t and something as utterly meaningless as a movie getting it wrong—”

“My movie got it wrong. That’s all it did.  They put a version of Selina Kyle before the world that is nothing like the real me.  That’s it, big deal.  But with him, they put a vision of Superman before the world that is the essence of what he doesn’t want to be.  What he dreads being or being seen as, what to him is the worst thing possible to be seen as.  And there it was in IMAX proportions.  What his whole identity is tied up with not being.  He told me every time he touches a human, it’s with him, how he—”

“I know, he’s told me too.”

“It’s not that I’m unsympathetic.  I like Clark.  And even if I didn’t, he’s your friend.  And even if he wasn’t, he gave me tigers.  And even if he hadn’t, he’s saved the world five or six-thousand times.  He’s entitled to the data-dump, as often as he wants.”

“But?”

“But all I can think of when he’s opening up to me like a pal is how it’s Mr. Krypton the walking lie detector sitting there.  And we’re keeping one hell of a secret.  Who knows what he’s picking up from my blinking or my heart rate that sooner or later he’s going to put together.”

“Do you want to tell him?”

“No.  I mean, yes-but-hell-no.  He’s the loosest cannon of the bunch.  He’s wanted to see us married for a while now, there’s no telling how he might react.  And it’s really not fair to Alfred and Dick.  We have to tell them first.”

“He would agree with that last part if he knew.  Can you get through breakfast?”

“Do I have a choice?  What’s it about anyway?”

“Lex Luthor is coming to Gotham.”

Drake Spiner got more than a few looks from the brokers and traders who passed.  A generation before, they would have sniffed.  His indisputably CEO-quality “suit” didn’t fit, and it was only the jacket worn over a college kid’s casual shirt and slacks.  Clearly the young punk thought he could flout the stock exchange rule requiring a suit, and his colleague, anticipating the problem, brought an extra Rubinacci jacket from his own closet to make do.  A generation ago, they would have dismissed Drake as the older man’s son, and a disappointing one at that.  Now they straightened their shoulders but averted their eyes as they passed.  Another Zuckerberg.  Another Gates.  Another kid from nowhere who looked like he was blowing off his 8:00 PoliSci lecture, but could buy and sell them all with a phone call.

1 Hour Earlier

“I’m really sorry for the inconvenience,” Clark said, taking a large helping of eggs onto his plate.  “It’s going to be a crazy one in Metropolis.  Tech expo, economics summit, a press conference at Star Labs, the mayor’s going to be guest of honor at a luncheon at the science museum with all that kryptonite.  This is the only time I could get away.”  Bruce said it was nothing, Selina sipped her coffee, and after an exchange of looks, Clark decided to get things started.  “So, Luthor,” he began.

“Before we start speculating, I was hoping you could give us a sitrep,” Bruce said.  “What’s going on in Metropolis that I haven’t gleaned from the Planet’s business pages?”

“Well, there are offices, warehouses and other buildings from years ago that use lead-based paint.  There are a fair number wired for sonic disruption, or containing other anti-Superman measures.”

“The facilities he used while he was building up LexCorp,” Bruce said, and Clark nodded.

“Right.  He sold off most of the office buildings when he built the LexCorp Towers, and I guess Talia Head sold most of the rest when the company was going under.”

“And anything she didn’t was lost when it dissolved,” Bruce said. 

“Lost to him,” Selina added.  “Ownership changed hands, but they still exist.  There’s nothing to stop him renting what he needs or even buying back.  See what happens when you don’t eat what you kill?”

She was thinking of her NMK projects, what they’d done with Falcone and Demon to prevent this kind of aftermath.  She hadn’t considered the actual words until she saw Clark looking at the end of his fork like he’d lost his appetite.

“Oops.  Sorry,” she said miserably.

“Forget it,” he said, making her feel worse.

“No, in a way we did,” Bruce said suddenly.  “I did, buying up those tech divisions.  It wasn’t my intention to ‘eat the kill.’  My only goal was to save jobs.”

“But it did remove them from the pool,” Selina said. 

“Right, if he is trying to recreate LexCorp, he can’t easily buy them back,” Bruce volleyed.

“You’re certainly not going to sell them—ooh, unless he had something you really wanted in exchange,” Selina said.

“Like a monster holding of Wayne stock,” Bruce said.

“And the one item we know on his agenda—”

“Is ringing the bell at the stock exchange—”

“Subtext of importance and authority—”

“And on your home turf—”

“Ear of the financial press—”

“To start rumors—”

“And a short sell would carry more weight.”

“Wait a minute,” Clark exclaimed.  He spoke louder than would have been permitted at the breakfast table on the Kent Farm, but he felt he really had to break into the conversational tennis match before it went any farther.  “Are we saying he’s coming to Gotham to launch a raid on Wayne Enterprises?”

“Not a raid,” Bruce said swiftly.  “He’s not strong enough.  At the height of LexCorp’s power he couldn’t have managed a flat out assault without backing.  With what he has now—”

“But he can make trouble,” Selina said, a hint of the cat’s love of yarn in her tone.  “Create enough chaos, you never know what might fall out.”

“How can I help?” Clark asked, seeing just from the shift in Bruce’s posture that a plan was forming.

“You’re on your way back to Metropolis,” Bruce said dismissively.  “Selina and I will go to the stock exchange, keep an eye on him, and if he tries anything, I can quash it right there, instantly.”

“Won’t that inflate his importance even more?” Clark said.  “If his being in Gotham and ringing the bell to open the exchange is something worth going to see.”

“Or worse, something to keep an eye on,” Selina added.  “He’s right, Bruce.”

“Luthor is aware that I’m aware that he’s trouble,” Bruce said flatly.  “It would be preferable if I had a better cover for being there today, but—”

“I can use the disguise from the Wingate case,” Clark suggested.  “J’onn or Diana can watch Metropolis for a day.  I’ll just need to borrow one of your suits again.”

“You said your day was packed,” Bruce reminded him.  “The tech expo, economic summit—”

“This is more important.  I’d rather help you and Selina.”

“It’s—” not important at all, Bruce started to say.  It was a marginally better detail for a cover that was itself not critical.  He was only going to the exchange to be there in case Luthor tried something with respect to Wayne stock, which was not at all likely…  But Clark hadn’t even mentioned Luthor.  He said I’d rather help you and Selina.  

Selina who wasn’t even involved. 

Selina who he’d been calling because he thought she’d understand.  

Selina who said He just wants to help.

Bruce grunted.

“Hello,” she waved from her end of the table.  “Little back story for those of us who were presumably stealing Goyas in Barcelona at the time?  Wingate case?”

“Clark has the muscle control to drastically change his appearance without make-up,” Bruce explained.  “I pass him off as another CEO of a large conglomerate with whom I’m closing an important deal.  I can walk him into the most exclusive enclosures where reporters wouldn’t be welcome.”

As Bruce spoke, Clark removed his glasses revealing a pattern of crow’s feet that hadn’t been there a moment before.  He ran his fingers through his hair, straight back, obliterating the part.  Selina laughed.

“Well that’s great for the Butterfield or the Bristol Club,” she said, “but what kind of grown up CEO wants a tour of the stock exchange?”

“Good point,” Bruce said.  He thought for a minute, took a sip of coffee, and his lip twitched.

In Finance, as in most things, the home field advantage should not be discounted.  Lex Luthor had arranged to arrive at the Gotham Stock Exchange in a Hummer limo with a cycle escort.  It was not meant to evoke a presidential motorcade, since he wanted to do everything possible to make people forget that disastrous episode.  It was meant to be a Luthor motorcade, a LexCorp motorcade, for if there was one thing his stint in the White House taught him it was that political power was for suckers.  Having to play up to ‘the people’ and their irritating delusion that they were anything more than sheep.  Corporate power was infinitely better.  You could control the politicos almost as easily as doing the job yourself, and you didn’t have to ruin your days hiding your contempt.  To wield such power effectively, a man had to display his power.  That is something Luthor had a natural instinct for.  Now that he could do it freely without fear of opinion polls, making an entrance at the stock exchange was the perfect place to begin.

And it was impressive.  Parting traffic without so much as a uniform on the cycle or a flag on the car, coming to a stop before the barricades, Mercy getting out—not a phalanx of secret service, just Mercy alone, and opening the door for him.  Entering past the peasants—a young kid and an old chap Lex felt he should recognize but couldn’t place—and into the reception area where the sucking up from Gotham’s financial elite could begin.  It was impressive—for nearly forty-five seconds until the helicopter flew overhead with that giant W on its underside, making its approach to the Wall Street heliport.  Like Lex, Bruce got out alone, but then he turned back to help Selina from the cabin. 

“Tell me again why I’m here?” she asked, taking the proffered hand.  “You don’t need me to run your performance with Mr. Elliot.”

“Theatre,” he said.  “They’d notice me alone, but you take it to the next level.”

“You mean I’m eye candy,” she said with a teasing grin.

“In a way.  The right sort of eye candy.  Plus, your being here might discomfit Lex, considering the last time you saw each other.”

“Pfft, by the standards of villain team ups that was a very amicable parting of the ways,” she said.

“I suppose,” Bruce admitted.  “On the other side of the equation, Mr. Elliot seemed to want you included.”

“Yeah, don’t remind me.  He cornered me while you made your phone calls.  Wanted me to help him pick out one of your ties for this puppet show.”

“And he really wanted to talk about the tigers?” Bruce guessed.

“Much worse.”

“In that case, I’m glad he’s here.  Maybe it’s good therapy for him.  You ready?”

She nodded and he kissed her cheek, then snapped off the sonic mesh he used to keep private conversations private from Kryptonian ears, which had the added benefit of letting them speak in a normal tone and still be heard over the roar of the helicopter.

The short walk from the heliport to the VIP entrance had the aura of a royal procession.  Nobody knew who Bruce was meeting or why, and he enjoyed the mounting anticipation as he walked down the street with Selina.

“There they are; looks like they beat us,” he said, pointing with a golden boy smile towards the waiting Drake and Elliot—until the smile abruptly faded. 

“Cassie?” Selina said, speaking the thought aloud that had knocked the assurance out of Bruce’s stride as Cassandra Cain came up to Drake and Elliot with a trio of Starbucks cups.

“Good morning,” Bruce said with a foppish voice he never used on Wall Street.  He caught it and fixed the overcorrection on his next words.  “I see we’re all here on time,” was the phrase on his lips, though his eyes said REPORT, NOW.

“My girl, C.C.,” Drake said like a thoughtless young prick used to changing plans on a whim without considering other people.

Calvin Elliot cleared his throat and introduced “C.C.” to Bruce and Selina like a man used to smoothing over Drake’s latest stunt.  They all went inside where Luthor, though formally waved through security as far as his own person, was still stuck waiting for Mercy and the rest of his entourage while his host, Exchange CEO Duncan Pynchon, showed him the 19th century stock tickers displayed in a clear Lucite case.

He heard the newcomers enter before he saw them, and turned just enough to display his profile for them, as if he were on a coin.  His peripheral vision picked up the color of Selina’s suit first, though he didn’t register the identity of the woman herself.  Then the two men he’d seen standing outside, and then—he inhaled sharply—Wayne.

Pamela’s finger barely grazed the button on her phone and she held her breath as if she was placing the last card on a perilously high and delicate house of cards…  She breathed.  The second playthrough was identical to the first. 

Well now, an invitation to watch him play polo. 

Polo.  How absurdly, appallingly, yet somewhat adorably “Bruce Wayne.” 

The charm thing actually worked.  Pheromones only got a Whitman Sampler from the man and now a simple afternoon letting him talk about himself brought this invitation to a high society tailgate.  It was almost unbelievable. 

She had an itch to try it again, though after the maddening patience she’d shown with Bruce, there was no question of risking things there.  Harvey came to mind.  There was a question she’d been meaning to ask him and now she had a few more.  He was an early riser.  She could start there, and by the time she was finished with him, Oswald would be up and then…

“Bruce!” Lex called brightly across the lobby, though inwardly he snarled the name.  He had seen the calculation in Pynchon’s eye while Wayne’s party moved through security.  There was more profit in finding out what Wayne Tech was doing with that Internet whiz kid than anything Luthor might have brewing with LCII.  He was getting ready to hand Lex off to a flunky while he went to greet Wayne personally.  Luthor pride could not permit that, so he was forced to acknowledge the trust fund.

“Hello, Lex,” Bruce said with an equally bright wave.  He crossed the lobby to join them, preempting Pynchon’s defection, but the victory did not come without a price.  “Here to raise some cash with a big short sell?” Bruce joked—clearly a joke, clearly in bad taste, but a damnably shrewd preemptive defense.  If Luthor had come in intending to offer large blocks of Wayne stock for sale, the Street would have seen it as an attack: an effort to drive the price down as the first assault on the company.  Now, with those ten words seemingly spoken in jest, that show of strength could be seen as weakness.  He might be selling to raise cash, Pynchon had heard it.  Not to attack Wayne, not to declare war because he was strong but to raise cash because he was weak. 

Fortunately, shorting Wayne stock was not a part of Luthor’s plan, but he flashed his teeth as he laughed all the same.

“Nothing like that,” he said, stifling another inner snarl.  “I’m just here to ring the bell, officially, and unofficially see old friends.”

“What about you, Bruce?” Pynchon jumped in with all the subtlety of a weak-bladdered pup.  “Are you and your guests going up to the observation deck to watch the trading after, say, a big announcement coming out of Wayne Tech?”

“Not today,” Bruce said with a grin.  “Just giving the tour.”

The tour before the opening bell was exactly the same for official guests like Lex and unofficial ones like Selina, Drake, Elliot and C.C.  It consisted of a brief presentation on the history of the Exchange, followed by a walk around the trading floor explaining the mechanics of a sale.  The unofficial tour led by Bruce trailed slightly behind the official one led by Pynchon, and each step of the way, Lex could see the traders’ interest wandering.  Even those who sincerely revered him for his wealth-building accomplishments were more interested in the Wayne party.  Luthor had made a fortune, and it was a thrill to meet their hero.  But Bruce’s presence could make their fortunes, and Lex had to admit, that would be his priority too.  It wasn’t what he’d come for, but it would be worth his time to find out what deal Wayne was pursuing with the scruffy kid.  Stealing it would be profitable; wrecking it would be an effective show of power. 

At 9:20 the two groups parted ways: Lex and Pynchon to the podium for the bell ringing ceremony, Bruce’s group to the observation deck.  He took advantage of this one window when Luthor and all eyes attached to him were absolutely accounted for, and pulled Selina aside to ride with him in a separate elevator.  As soon as the doors were closed he declared Plan B.

“I don’t want you to worry any more about the business side of the day.  Drake, Elliot, Luthor, leave all that to me.  I want you to put your efforts into ‘C.C.’  Find out what she’s doing here, and what the hell’s going on.”

“Oh way ahead of you on that, darling,” Selina said tersely.  “You think I was waiting for you to put me on that one?”

“Ah.  I thought you looked distracted on the trading floor,” he said. “Find anything?”

She shook her head.

“No, that had nothing to do with ‘Drake and C.C.’  I heard a couple of the traders laughing about the Gotham Post.  Seems like my favorite newspaper’s been PMSing for the last week or so.  Parent company might be off a quarter point.”

“What did they do?” Bruce asked.

“Well I came in late, but from what little I heard, it sounds like the same things they’ve always done.  All of a sudden out of nowhere last week people started noticing.  Couple bloggers bit into it and would not let go.  Then last night some senior editor broke under the strain and went on a 40-tweet lecture/screed instructing the internet at large how to read a newspaper and what they should think about it.”

“Amusing, but not relevant,” Bruce said with a lip-twitch, and Selina shrugged.

“Some of my least favorite people in the world are having a really bad day.  Might not be relevant, but if Luthor trips over his shoe lace, falls off the podium and lands on his butt, don’t tell me you won’t take ten seconds from the mission to laugh about it.”

He grunted.

Luthor did not trip over his shoe lace, fall off the podium or land on his butt.  But he did skip out on the lengthy after-ceremony tour: the archive, the board room, the art that adorned the halls of the executive floor, the Card Room, the Luncheon Club and the rest.  He fobbed Mercy off on Pynchon to see these empty trappings, freeing himself to find Bruce’s acne-ridden chew toy Drake Spiner.  Predictably, Bruce had gone off with the three-button babysitter, no doubt to talk the dollars and cents of the deal, leaving young Mr. Spiner unattended.

“Derreck, isn’t it?” Lex said with a ravenous grin. 

“Drake,” the boy corrected—and now they were on a first name basis.  From there, it was a simple matter to get him talking about his invention.  It was horribly depressing:

“I call it Squeeter.  It uses a worldwide network of client apps to track pop stars with pinpoint accuracy. Tells you what they’re wearing, who they're with, if they looked like they were dating, all that stuff.  Updates in real time.  Look, Justin Bieber is heading towards Malibu, he appears to be alone and a little sad like he's thinking about someone special.  We've been downloaded by more than 200 million teenage girls worldwide.”

“Wonderful,” Lex said as if privileged to look on a holy relic.  Whether the appalling figure was hyperbole or not—and what passed for Lex Luthor’s soul prayed that it was—it was the underlying network of client apps and global data coordination matrix Wayne would be after.  In a fury, he wondered two things:  How he could move Wayne out of the deal, and how he could lay his hands on the cash to do it?  If it was the three-button that accompanied Drake who was the company—as he would be in any civilized world—then a seat on the LC board would do the trick, along with a larger down payment in cash.  But a kid like this?  There was no telling what he’d want.  There was no guessing what—

*bzzz*

Drake excused himself and checked his phone.  “Squee Update,” he announced in the same tone Wayne had joked downstairs.  “Drake Spiner spotted on Wall Street talking to some old guy. Hair adorably tussled.  Not old guy. Drake. LOL.”  He winked and said ‘Gotta go,’ leaving Lex open-mouthed.

For a Gothamite, even one who preferred grass and trees to pavement, the distance from the Flick Theatre to the Iceberg was short enough to walk, and Pamela spent that walk rearranging the facts of the Harvey visit.  Every flower is unique, after all.  Two blossoms of the same species growing side by side from the same batch of seeds in the same plot of earth will have their own distinctive natures.  Harvey didn’t bloom in quite the same way as Bruce.  His colors were not as vibrant and his petals didn’t open so wide.  It didn’t mean that he didn’t like her as much as Bruce.  It didn’t mean the charm initiative failed.  She got what she wanted from him, that’s what mattered with any man.

Once she admitted what she was after as far as the odious hitwoman Mollatova, Harvey was more than sympathetic.  He took her straight to his computer, where he had backdoors to access most law enforcement databases.  He showed her exactly where to go to find out what had become of the Philadelphia hitter Falcone imported to blow both of them up.  Happily, there were outstanding warrants in Pennsylvania, Nevada, Kansas, Massachusetts and California, so she hadn’t spent more than a night in Blackgate.  She’d been extradited to Pennsylvania to start with and would be in penitentiaries far from Gotham for the rest of her natural life.  Gaia be praised. 

Harvey also filled her in on how to dress for a polo match, so really, as far as information gathering, the visit was a complete success.  A little shopping was now in order.  That was always less of a chore with a friend, and it was the perfect excuse to check in on Harley.  Unlike virtually the entire Rogues Gallery, Harley hadn’t wound up in Arkham as the war drew to a close.  She wasn’t at the FloMa greenhouse, and, well, she never visited.  The last time she’d been left on her own too long, she’d moved back into a Ha-Hacienda and taken up with Hagen!  Finding out what had become of her and reestablishing contact was a priority.  The best way to go about that was through the Iceberg. 

She’d been avoiding other people, was out of the loop on all the news, and a night at the ‘Berg might be just the thing—but a one on one with Oswald would be quicker.  If she came up empty, she would hit the club proper tonight.  But if Oswald knew where Harley could be found, she could get in touch directly and they could be off shopping together this afternoon, which is why she bypassed the main entrance and went around to the stairs to reach his flat above the nightclub.

She rang the bell.  Rang again, longer and more forcefully, and plastered on her Six Ways to Make People Like You (Paperless E-Edition) smile while the rude command to “Hold on, hold on, I’m coming—kwak!” sounded from behind the door.

It was Bruce who texted “Drake,” thinking to get the team together now that Luthor’s presence had been dealt with.  Delaying the group’s departure would only raise doubts about their reason for being there.  Drake was the first to arrive at the meeting point, and when C.C. didn’t walk through the door with him, Bruce naturally assumed that Selina must have pulled her aside to pursue that other investigation.  Elliot arrived next, and Bruce could see that beneath the disguise, Clark had had enough.  Enough seeing Luthor strut while a lot of self-serving toadies sucked up to him, or more likely, enough of not being a reporter.  At least three, probably four, possibly as many as eight things he’d seen in the course of the morning would have piqued Clark Kent’s interest, yet he couldn’t ask the questions he wanted to pursue the story because he was stuck being Calvin Elliot.  That would be frustrating, and Bruce realized it was time he gave Clark and not Lois one of those five minutes on the record about WE’s latest...

Cassie walked in.  Alone.

Bruce’s brow knit.  He asked about Selina.

“Go with Lex,” Cassie answered. 

He stared. 

“Six floor.  See art.  Three Warhol,” she offered. 

“Oh, well I guess we should wait,” Bruce muttered. 

Minutes passed in perfectly credible smalltalk that did credit to everyone’s cover, until Calvin Elliot glanced at the ceiling.  Then he took a handkerchief from his pocket, removed his glasses and looked very pointedly upward as he cleaned them.  He put them back on and shook his head subtly.

“She’s not there,” he said quietly.  “Neither of them are on six, or any other floor that I can see.  Looks like they’ve left the building entirely.”

“Yes, go with Lex,” Cassie repeated.

Bruce thought about asking further.  He considered that, to the inhabitants of the Gotham Stock Exchange, a young Asian with excessively limited language skills hanging out with a presumed Internet whiz kid would be assumed to be a programmer who thought in compiler code.  If her odd speech was overheard, it wouldn’t pose a threat to her identity or anyone else’s.  His own reaction, on the other hand, might be better kept private.  So he herded the group out and, when they reached the heliport, left Clark to return Tim to his dorm the way they’d come.  It clearly wasn’t open for discussion, nor was his offer to take Cassie home himself. 

Nothing more was said until they were seated in the helicopter with the sonic mesh activated.  Then Bruce prompted her for details.

“Selina take me to sixth floor.  See art.  Say they have three Warhols.  Only see one.  Say is detail from Birth of Venus.  That is famous work of other artist, no know name.  Lex come up behind us.  Put hand on Selina hip.  Say have two more Warhols hanging down hall.  Say have urn too that is gift from Char.”

“Tsar,” Bruce corrected a little testily.  “There’s an urn in the board room that was a gift from the Tsar.”

“Yes, Lex say that.  In board room.  Gift from Char in 1904.  Say if he would like, Selina could get.”

“He asked Selina to steal the urn from the board room?  And what do you mean he put his hand on her hip?”

Cassie demonstrated putting her own hand over her right buttock, I’m-a-little-teapot style, and then put on an appallingly broad smile that was not at all evocative of Luthor.

“It’s a Warhol.  They have two others down the hall,” she quoted in a bizarrely charming voice.  “Then about urn say ‘If I wanted it, you could get it for me, right?’  Say like is joke.  Selina smile and say no, Lex no pay last time.”

“The X-27 plans,” Bruce said, rubbing his left eye to stave off a headache.

“Then Lex invite to go see urn and Selina say no thank.  Then Lex say something funny about Gotham Post and Cat-Tales show…

“Your friends at that execrable tabloid are having a terrible week,” Luthor said jovially.

“Yes, I heard that downstairs,” Selina admitted.  “Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys.”

“I don’t think I ever told you how flattered I was that you used that quote of mine in the Times in counterpoint to their calumnies.  That speech I gave to the Japanese delegation, the bit about that bumbling fool Gordon—”

“Well, it fit the point I was trying to make,” Selina demurred.

“I wish you would have accepted my invitation to perform it at the White House.”

“That was a long time ago, Lex.”

“We still see eye to eye on newspapers and the pestilence that write for them.  That’s why I arranged for the tabloid that offends you to suffer the Plague of the Indignant Populists.”

“You arranged?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“A man displays his power, Selina.  That’s why I made arrangements for Commissioner Gordon’s return, we see eye to eye on him as well.  Where might law enforcement be in this country if that idiot hadn’t fostered this city’s dependence on masked vigilantism?”

“What do you mean you ‘made arrangements,’ Lex?”

“Come back to my hotel and you will know all,” he said teasingly. 

…That is whole story,” Cassie concluded.

“I doubt that very much,” Bruce said darkly.

Pamela blinked rapidly as if blinded by a strobe.  Oswald had gone, Gaia be praised, to make some tea, leaving her alone to catch her breath.  She blinked a little more.  She was seated in his horribly ostentatious living room, surrounded by far too much furniture.  There was too much gold leaf and gilding, too many marble tops, too many bird statues (though that was to be expected) and not nearly enough plants (also, sadly, to be expected.)  It might not have been overwhelming on its own, but coupled with Oswald himself… All she did was ask how he was, just as she had with Bruce and Harvey.  He said “kwak-fine-kwak” and she said “no really, what have you been up to; I haven’t seen you since the war.”  And then… blur.

The party celebrating the end of the war and his own return to the Iceberg, repairs to the front entrance not completed by then but he let it pass in the spirit of occasion.  Come morning though—kwak—he would put his foot down, and he had done just that.  Did Pamela see the new entrance when she came up, by the way?  They did such a splendid job, though ruinously overpriced.  Technically paid for by a Falcone ransom, but it was Oswald’s money all the same when he paid the contractors and just as painful to part with.  Terrible how so many of their friends were still in Arkham, the Friday night crowd is certainly not what it used to be—kwak.  The last time it happened with everyone being sent up the river, he’d had rather a bad time of it, but this time Raven and Sly were keeping an eye on things, and they even got Ms. Quinn to act as his concierge physician/psychiatrist.  Though one really had to question the validity of her credentials.  So far all she’d done was give him quizzes from Cosmopolitan Magazine.  Though to be honest, Oswald was coping so much better this time, her services were not at all needed so it didn’t really matter if her methods were more motley than medical.  The difference, he thought, was the positive carry, that’s—kwak— ‘profit’ essentially to the uninitiated like you Pamela, the incoming cashflow from one investment offseting the cost of another—kwak—positive carry from the Iceberg’s vast underground operations was up considerably since the war.  That wasn’t the case the last time the nightclub lost so much of the clientele he cared about and it really was quite the consolation—kwakwakwakwakwak!

Become genuinely interested in other people, the book said.  How?  How could anybody possibly…?  Be a good listener.  How?  Encourage others to talk about themselves.  Why?

“Here we are.  A nice spot of tea.  Iceberg brand, kwak.  Sly’s idea.”

“How nice…” Pam managed.  Wanting to put your own name on the shriveled little corpses of once live and fragrant tea leaves, the thought continued, but before any of it could leak out her mouth she flashed back Remember that a person's name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.  “…Oswald.” 

Talk in terms of the other person's interest.

“What a treasure you have in Sly.  I don’t know how the bar would function without him.”

Make the other person feel important – and do it sincerely.

“Such a wonderful nightclub you’ve built…” 

Remember that a person's name is, to that person… “…Oswald.  A Gotham institution, the hub of everything that matters.  Where would we be without it?”

“Pamela, are you quite alright?”

Talk in terms of the other person's interest.

“Birds.”

“Beg pardon?”

“Uh… Birds.  That’s a nice print.  On the wall.”

“Ah yes, kwak.  Audubon.  One of my treasures.  But, I was just wondering if, kwak-wak, when you were released from Arkham if they didn’t perhaps give you some medication to go on taking, and if you have perhaps, kwak-wak, not been following the dosage instructions as scrupulously as might be wished.”

Even in a city that catered to the elite, Alexander Luthor was considered someone to impress.  Every luxury hotel coveted his patronage, but he always chose the St. Regis.  It suited him.  Built in 1901 by John Jacob Astor IV whose family fortune, though not as old as the Waynes’, was of respectable 19th century origins, it had none of the quiet confidence that pedigree implied.  It displayed itself with all the aggressive opulence of a nouveau riche with something to prove.  Lex liked it.

After more than a hundred years, the staff was unaware the hotel had ever been considered showier than it ought to be.  The French Beaux-Arts building was one of the most prestigious landmarks on the Upper East Side, and the name was a byword for elegance and service known throughout the world.  Yet, something about Lex Luthor worked on the place, awakening the vulgarity buried deep in its genetic code.  All guests who stayed in the Presidential suite received some gift from the General Manager, but in Luthor’s case, it was nothing less than a balthazar of Château Ferrière.  It was that which greeted Lex now as he stepped into the Presidential Suite.

“That’s a bit much,” he remarked, handing off the card to Selina as if he’d mistaken her for Mercy.  He covered quickly, shifting to a conversational tone and spinning the remark into a joke.  “Literally.  Fifteen liters, isn’t it?”

“Twelve,” she said.  “A jeroboam is five liters.  Imperiale, six; salmanazar, nine; balthazar, twelve; nebuchadnezzar, fifteen.”  Noting his raised eyebrow she added, “I spent some time in wine country.”

“So when should I drink it?” he asked with a twinkle, an adult quizzing a child showing off some mastery of algebra.

“2004,” she noted glancing at the label.  “You shouldn’t.  If Bruce is right about your liquidity, that is, you should sell it.  A balthazar of ’04 Château Margaux just went on sale in Dubai for $195,000.  They’re not going to get it, but for the moment it’s making news in certain circles as the most expensive bottle of red in the world.  This Ferrière is no Château Margaux, but it is a Bordeaux from the same year, same size bottle, and from the cellar of Lex Luthor.  Somebody will snap at it.”

Luthor laughed for exactly one breath, then stopped as if a pause button was hit when he saw Mercy approaching.  Selina became engrossed in a painting, ignoring the proceedings while Mercy reported the lack of anti-cape precautions in the garage where she’d parked the limo.  Luthor handed off the gift card and told her to thank the hotel GM.  When Mercy was gone, he ushered Selina into the suite’s living room and then resumed his laugh as if he’d never been interrupted.

“Not the first time I’ve underestimated you,” he said.  “Positive carry from a brown-nosing hotel’s gift of inferior wine, quite remarkable.  Though nothing compared to surprises past.  You guessed I might decline to pay you for the X-27 job and you preempted me, transferring the funds from my account while you had access to my computer.  Then there was your campaign against my assets and operations in Gotham after the quake.  I put my best people on your case.  They couldn’t anticipate you, couldn’t stop you, couldn’t kill you.  Finally I was forced to take matters into my own hands, contact you myself and arrange a face to face meeting.  And what did it take to make you stop?  I had to ask nicely.”

He bit off the final words in uniquely Lexian italics of mortified contempt, just as he had that night.  His “Please” had wrung with exactly the same note of coiled derision—but his eyes, which then matched it, now shone with something quite different.

“At the time I thought it a typical example of ‘Gotham Crazy,’ of ‘Costume Crazy,’ but you are anything but that, Selina.  I can only assume what happened that night was a demonstration for some third party: you can make Lex Luthor jump.”

“Something like that,” Selina admitted.  The point had not been to show anyone she could make Luthor jump but to show Luthor how simply and easily her costly assaults could be handled.  It was not to make him say please, but to make him say what came next.  After he turned away, fists clenched, to storm back into his limo.  ‘I’m very disappointed, Mercy.’  That was the blow she’d meant to strike, one that hurt far more than physical payback or public humiliation ever would. 

“And then there was our last team up,” Lex was saying, gesturing for Selina to take a seat.  “I saw only a convenient partner who had both the resources and the sanity to assist me against Batman and Superman.  I did not stop to consider the significance of your being so.  You ate Cobblepot.”

“Excuse me?”

“You ate Cobblepot.  His club burned down and you displaced him, taking over his whole operation.  Then you ate Carmine Falcone.”

“Excuse me?” she repeated, a bit more emphatically.

“I am reluctant to give credence to underworld tittle-tattle, Selina.  Particularly Gotham tittle-tattle, and most particularly costumed Gotham freak tittle-tattle.”

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Selina said dryly.

“But there is consistent information that it was really you behind Batman behind the Fed takedown of Falcone’s empire.  And then the philanthropy began.  I know that trick, Selina; I invented it.  Using charitable giving to build a conduit between the riches derived from the rail economiks the plebs call criminal enterprise and recognized power in the legitimate world.  The timing is too coincidental to have any other explanation, and I do not believe in coincidence.  Falcone goes down, allegedly by your hand, and the giving begins—financed, I will wager my teeth, on the riches amassed by Falcone.  I cannot fathom how you did it, but if you tell me I am wrong, I shall use it only to gauge how well you lie.”

“Lex—”

“And now there’s Demon,” he cut her off with a dip into a theatrical storyteller-in-front-of-the-campfire voice never before heard from Lex Luthor.  “Oh, Selina, do not forget I am no mere ‘businessman.’  The whole of the Secret Society’s intelligence has been at my fingertips, and I employed none other than the Demon Head’s daughter to run LexCorp when I took office.”

“That was nothing to brag about,” Selina pointed out, and Luthor smiled wide enough to reveal his canines.

“The point is, I have more credible knowledge of Ra’s al Ghul’s operation than any outsider except Batman,” he continued.  “I know the organization has been fracturing and fraying, and I’ve seen the pieces getting picked off, shut down, and otherwise fucked with.  But I never thought to connect it with you—until Beverly.”

“Hills?” Selina said hopefully.

“Stendal, that absurd woman in Argentina.  I was recently there making a few purchases, and as she deals in ‘our’ kind of acquisitions, I naturally thought of you.  I had already noticed what you’d done with Falcone, which naturally led me to see the Cobblepot affair in another light.”

“Please don’t use that word in connection with Oswald,” Selina said miserably, grasping at anything that might function as a brake and stop this runaway train.

Lex didn’t hear.

“Not wishing to boast, my purchases were on a scale never seen before in that part of the world, and among other thank yous, she presented me with a box of chocolates.  I suspect you know the ones.”

A kind of paralyzing frost crept over Selina’s brain and, not able to come up with a single word in reply, she nodded.  She figured at the very least it would encourage him to continue and buy her time to think.

“I couldn't help but recall a Demon base in the Marañón Canyon,” Lex said expansively, “where the microclimate exists to grow pure Nacional cacao.  A Demon base which I suspect is now a farm.

“There had been a compound a few hours away that recently incorporated as a town and where the drying, fermenting and roasting of cacao would not be beyond the population and equipment.  And there was an infrastructure between the two: roads and trucks and even drivers.  They had connections in Lima which were never used much, but which now seem to do nothing but organize shipments and payments with Switzerland.  Switzerland!  International center of fine chocolate and illicit banking!

“Here it was, here in this chocolate I held between my fingers was another pair of Demon outposts dismantled—and there I was sitting on a runway with my plane being loaded with stolen art.  I thought of you naturally, and the enchanting prospect flashed before me: She ate Cobblepot, she ate Falcone, and now she’s nibbling Ra’s al Ghul. 

“Oh, Selina!”

Before she could react, he had lunged onto the sofa beside her, took her right hand in his left and placed his other on her knee.

“A woman like you, an acquisitive villain like you MUST NOT throw yourself away on the last scion of a failed aristocracy.  You were made to live in the present—to conquer it—with me!”

To be continued…


 

Share

Copyright | Privacy Policy | Cat-Tales by